01 Mar Bugs in the System
“Bugs in the System”Written by Nick Carlson Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 15 minutes
After World War II, Russian agents descended upon German specialists habituating in the Soviet Occupation Zone, and forcefully deported them to the USSR to work on their own scientific projects. This maneuver, dubbed Operation Osoaviakhim, included renowned astrophysicist Dr. Dietrich Volkov. He performed cosmonautical operations for the Soviets for nearly seventeen years before the United States acquired his person during Operation Paperclip.
Prior to his employment at NASA, he was debriefed by the National Reconnaissance Office regarding the Soviets’ more covert scientific advancements. The following is the first of many accounts Dr. Volkov delivered during the nearly ten-hour interrogation, transcribed and condensed for clarity.
* * * * * *
I have never set foot on a battlefield, I have never embraced a firearm, but those times, where I was, were more warlike than I could have ever imagined. Being ripped from your family, subjected to forced labor for a greater cause, treated as though you had merely been away on holiday…it was jarring. Manic. But I would be lying if I said my sentiments during those times had shifted much. The Russians, they had once more made America their enemy, and pretending as though my animosity aligned with theirs was not difficult. That made the work bearable.
In my downtrodden state, the babble regarding the so-called “Space Race” seemed…masturbatory. Akin to schoolchildren stacking towers of blocks to see whose would reach the highest without toppling. Between them, they must have sent a small zoo’s worth of animals into space. Putting a man on the moon? Yesterday, Le Voyage dans la Lune was the public’s idea of lunar exploration. Now they speak of it with excitement, in clean, modernized terms, as if it’s happening tomorrow. I envy their purity. We were cursed with progress; we had not the time to dwell on the implications of our successes. You might think sending up Yuri Gagarin would have been the proper moment to step back, to take a breather. It was not. And it was that attitude that led to the downward spiraling of some of these endeavors.
Look through your telescopes, look at the expanse of space. Observe all the stars, all the galaxies, held together in harmony. Take a visual snapshot with your mind. Now consider this: from that snapshot alone, it would be impossible for all those bodies to remain in their proper places without flying into the void. Therefore, something must be holding them together, filling the gaps to ensure that our universe does not spiral out of control. “Dark” matter, it was dubbed. Made tangible, ironically, by intangible measures: gravity, mathematics. How would we even begin conceptualizing the lexicon to convey it in a meaningful manner? Developing the tools necessary? Offshooting the branches of science requisite to bust through a wall of nothingness?
We haven’t, and we won’t, not any time soon. And judging from what happened early on, that might be for the better.
The first organisms in space started out small…fruit flies, mosses, fungi. The jump to more complicated animals was not without its casualties. So many mice, primates, dogs, were lost in those years, enough to make even a scientist cringe. Among the early launches were cockroaches. It made sense; they are resilient to many of space’s harsh conditions, they are easy to store and keep viable. And they were easy to find, too…they were so abundant in our quarters. My fellow Germans would make jokes, telling our captors we were harboring gypsies in our bunks, only for them to be greeted with a colony of the ugly scuttling things. Such playfulness was not appreciated, if you have already guessed. It was quashed, with swift efficiency.
Our first satellites either failed en route, or their cockroach crew did not survive the round trip. We sent up eleven of them, each containing their unique hive. One through seven went catastrophic. Nine through eleven were resounding successes. It was eight that eventually yielded the anomalous results.
Only two specimens survived, two Periplaneta americana we named Harry and Rosie. Once it was discovered they were alive in their capsules, they were sent away immediately for further testing. I was the one tasked to oversee further developments, thanks to my biology credits in university. I guess those extra years in academia had amounted to something after all.
Harry and Rosie were kept in separate receptacles, deep underground, to minimize the impact of cosmic rays. Those first few days they displayed lethargic behavior, loss of appetite, and delayed reaction times. It was disconcerting, the implication that even the hardiest creatures would have trouble adapting to outer space conditions. Regardless I was instructed to continue monitoring them until their death. Sacrilegious and hypocritical as it was, I found myself praying for their death to come.
After five days, Harry and Rosie displayed signs of vitality once more. They were readily accepting food, and when we were late in our providing, they would chew on the Styrofoam egg cartons in their receptacles. This was not a concerning habit; cockroaches are well-known for their ubiquitous diet. Otherwise, their movements were erratic, aimless. They were not exploring their environment as cockroaches are apt to do. Neither did they react to the typical stimuli, like sudden changes in light. Even early on, it was speculated that exposure to rogue waves had addled with their physiologies. Where it would all go was anyone’s guess, but my job was to deliver answers, not to guess. I maintained my observations.
It was at day sixteen when I noted the aberrations. Harry and Rosie each displayed asymmetric patches of discoloration within their exoskeletons, similar to bruising or melanosis, the latter of which I named in my subsequent report. For obvious reasons, both my peers and superiors were dissatisfied with this hypothesis. Neither cockroach had molted in over two months, meaning nothing could have happened during those vulnerable in-between times. Chitin, the structural component in exoskeletons, also does not allow for such spontaneous pigmentation. At that point, dissection was an option thrown our way, but at that point, I refused – if the affliction killed them anyway, there would be no need to cut our observation phase short. It would be pertinent to know if their condition was the result of space-related malignant tumors…a pertinent piece of knowledge by any stretch. At least, that’s what I told them.
The strangeness only compounded the deeper I dug. For one, the discoloration did not seem to either refract or absorb light. This became apparent as I examined Rosie underneath a microscope and thought I or someone had capped the lens…until Rosie twitched, and my eye was met with the glowing, intricate brick-red of exoskeleton. As I came to find, I didn’t even need a microscope to become further perturbed. Even in low light, the spots stood out like black on white. Prolonged eye contact with the patches resulted in some troubling side effects. When I blinked, their dark shapes swam in my vision, like a Rorschach inkblot test burned behind the skin of my eyelids. And if I were to lock my gaze, I experienced a swooping sensation, nausea in my eyes and upheaval in my gut, as if I wanted to fall. The colors seemed…bottomless, like a hellish pit. Like, there was something brooding beyond, hiding in the darkness. Something I wanted, something I feared.
For obvious reasons, all these I kept to myself. The Soviets were cruel and calculated in weeding out weak links, and I had no desire to give an excuse for them to cart me off. And regardless, such fanciful projection is antithetical to the pursuit of science. I had to focus on my work, to not get lost in postulations.
It’s no surprise that cockroaches leave behind droppings; it is a constant reminder of their tenacious appetites. They use them to communicate, to mark where they’ve been. So I thought very little of it when I saw their receptacles had been reupholstered with their feces. It was when Harry tried attacking a pair of forceps I introduced to the receptacle, gnawing the tips like how a dog gnaws at a bone, that I grew concerned. It was predatory behavior, the need to consume. With dissection still not an option, I guessed analyzing their droppings might yield some clues.
I sectioned them off and attempted to collect samples, but to my confusion, I found roughly ninety percent of the droppings would simply not dislodge from the receptacle’s surface. The ten percent that I was able to collect showed no signs of abnormalities. I was able to conclude I was collecting old samples, left before Harry and Rosie developed their afflictions.
As for the other ninety, despite my best efforts, microscopic analysis of the tip of the scraper I used registered nothing. In fact, the tool seemed coated with a fine, translucent dusting. Only later did I comprehend that it was glass. I had been chipping away at the glass floor and sidings of the receptacles. It was confounding. I was certain I was making contact with the droppings, yet it appeared as though my tool had simply passed through them, and made contact with the glass. Now I realize what was really happening there, now that there’s a name to it. In that time, though, my curiosity only peaked, plummeting through the eternal cosmic chasms in the insects’ shells.
I became protective of my work, single-minded. I could not help it. Soviet ideology did not allow for such secrecy, and my introversion only made them more insistent. I convinced them that foreign bodies in the sample area might disrupt the integrity of the insects’ development. Unnecessary stress, outside chemicals. All that was, as you say, horseshit. Harry and Rosie had become their own unique entities. Nothing could have swayed their path. They were hell-bent in their subconscious quest to defy our expectations. I gladly went along for the ride.
Their impalpable droppings continued to pile up, and I observed with private fascination how their appetites grew, how their unorthodox behavior continued to evolve in its bizarre, sideways skew. For the moment, I had forgotten the implications of these findings, that our own cosmonauts might develop similar conditions. But although they had enslaved me to put their own men in space, I was serving myself. Dietrich Volkov oversaw these, these bold new uber-roaches. Not the Soviets. Once I broke free from their bondage, I would scream my discoveries to the world. Harry and Rosie were my partners-in-crime, the pebbles I would toss to make ripples in the pond.
It may sound juvenile now, but I wish they had seen it the same way. I wish they had cooperated with my human pretensions. Isn’t that the dream? The universe cooperating with our human pretensions? It is pretension that ensures the dream, ironically. I am no God-fearing man, but even I know when the time is ripe to sit back and let the universe speak for itself. Miracles, yes…but one at a time. It can wait. We cannot. And that’s a travesty.
But I digress.
After the second week, I found that Harry appeared to be missing from his receptacle. I knew all too well cockroaches’ propensity to hiding, yet he was nowhere to be seen after my exhaustive combing. I first assumed that someone had moved him during one of my off periods, but after querying my supervisors, I learned that not only was a deportation not officially authorized, but I was the only one to frequent the room since last contact. This, naturally, led to accusations of sabotage. Repeating their claims in my head only became more ludicrous each time. “You have stolen Soviet property and are planning to smuggle it to our enemies!” Right…I stole a space travel-addled cockroach and planned to sell it to the Americans. They would pay top dollar for an insect. At least it would be cheap to feed and keep. A lot of things the Russians were, but trusting they were not.
Tensions rose until I uncovered Harry’s new whereabouts. But the revelation did not bring relief. On the contrary, it nearly floored me with shock and awe.
Harry was in Rosie’s receptacle.
As I mentioned before, cockroaches’ ability to squeeze through spaces thin as a sheet of paper has made them pioneers of survival and endurance. But the same technology to keep our spacecraft airtight was employed to ensure the integrity of their pens. Not even an atom could have made its way inside. There had to have been a breach in the glass…again, the Soviets were quick to blame me for the transgression. Ironic that proving the truth of my innocence required the reasonable explanation of a physically impossible feat. I was frustrated and scared. I knew they would take no more excuses. I had to figure out the source, to plunge even deeper down the dark well I’d sprung.
My attention was drawn to the droppings, which had proliferated so greatly I bothered not with them at a point. How they seemed to defy my attempts to study them, how matter seemed to pass through them…then, it hit me.
Once more, my assumption proved to be correct, although I did not want it to be. By focusing on the spots where large amounts of droppings had gathered, I could insert the tip of the scraper through the outside of the glass wall and end up inside the receptacle.
Whatever strange new material was in their feces could somehow interact with the solid glass and…annihilate it. Delete it from existence. Harry had squeezed through the freshly-formed gap to be with Rosie. And with such primitive-minded creatures, I could only imagine one reason they had to break from their pens and unite.
I had not the words to properly convey what had happened, and the Soviets had not the understanding to accept my inability to do so. I was placed on probation, Harry and Rosie were formally moved to new receptacles, and the explanation I and my peers chalked up – corrosion of the glass via some form of noxious secretion – was good enough for our superiors. Any self-respecting entomologist would have rolled his eyes at that. But compliance was the only thing keeping me from harsher punishment after that incident. I dared not speak out, even with any earnest warnings that Harry might have impregnated Rosie. If their droppings had done something so radical as to annihilate solid matter, imagine what their offspring might be capable of.
By the time my probation was up, I was anxious to check back on Harry and Rosie. Their new receptacles were deeper underground, downgraded to cramped, tubular holes in the wall that even a lowly cockroach would have frowned upon. I knew exactly what I was looking for when I went to check on Rosie to see if things had changed. She had deposited an ootheca, which had adhered to the tube’s plastic siding. Periplaneta americana’s egg cases are typically a caramel brown color. This ootheca, however, was pitch black, the same shineless hue of the splotches on the parents’ exoskeletons. This was a remarkable, and untoward, development. Whatever they had been exposed to out in space had infected their genes, enough to pass on to their kin, and if the nymphs were viable…there was no telling how they would turn out.
The black ootheca was compelling enough to finally attract outside attention, and upon my next report Harry and Rosie had frequent visitors. The theories among those who saw them ranged from the plausible, some form of solar radiation sickness, to the outlandish, being Harry and Rosie didn’t exist and they had been replaced by doubles from a parallel universe. If only we knew what we were truly dealing with. Radiation sickness and doppelgangers seem paltry compared to what we know now.
I had long taught myself at that point not to let anything surprise me regarding the insects, yet it still was a surprise to see that the nymphs had hatched in three days.
Cockroach nymphs are pure white when they are born, leading some people to mistake them for rare albinos. This wasn’t the case. They were the same color as their ootheca, miniature versions of their parents…and at such a large scale, compared to the droppings, I could see that they did not cast a shadow.
That was the first major indicator for me, that what the parents had inundated in space was something that defied all conventional laws of matter, of physics, of science. Their nymphs existed as holes in reality, manifestations of things that simply should not be. They swarmed the inside of their tube, like interstellar ants, and exactly one hour after their birth, they as one converged upon Rosie.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Rosie, despite her affliction, still remained fairly cockroach-like in terms of what she could and could not do. These things held no such distinction. They dug through her shell like a hot knife through butter, and I watched the poor bug rupture from the inside, her pus-colored viscera exploding from her offspring’s burrows, her extremities twitching as if electrocuted – then she stilled, and collapsed entirely, as if sublimating into thin air. There was a frame, a Rosie-shaped frame of blackness in her place, then it broke apart into nymphs, and as they moved, they released a veritable trail of the same annihilating droppings, like dragging a pencil tip across paper. I was aghast, completely stupefied about what to do. They would break out; they would escape just like Harry did, and then what the Hell would they do? These creatures, the universe was not ready for them – and as I flashed on a bevy of possibilities, one of them did just that.
The way it scuttled up the wall, in sickening zigzags, it awoke within me a primal, animal instinct, our natural, squeamish fear of cockroaches…I forgot my place, and, like an idiot, I squashed the damn thing with my palm.
I didn’t expect to crush it, knowing how difficult it is to kill them. I also didn’t expect the unbelievable pain, as if a lit cigarette had been thrust into my skin. I reflexively drew back my hand and saw the nymph squirming in a pool of smoking flesh…then it sank into my hand like a stone through water.
The agony that followed was…undefinable. My mind had gone blank, drunk with panic. I could only recall the exact sensation afterwards…explosive, like tiny mines rupturing my ligaments and bones. I could feel pints of blood boiling and creeping down my muscles. My hand and forearm turned red and bubbled… Remember, these are all details I’d gathered later. In that moment, I had burst from the room, shrieking like an alp, yelling to stop the nymphs, to get it out of me. I was apprehended almost immediately. The medics saw the sizzling lesion in my palm and dragged me to a neighboring room…and against my will, they had drawn a scalpel and chiseled it into my flesh.
That pain jolted me back to life – it was cold and sharp, almost a welcome relief from the nymph – and they had dislodged it. Blood seeped forth and dripped down like liquid cobwebs, and I watched as the nymph writhed on its back, immobilized. That was the least of my concerns. I looked over to the medics and I spat, “Get to the lab! Stop them!” But they did not understand my German tongue, and it took a brief time for them to get the message. That frenzied minute of incomprehension may have cost us much more than it should have. As they left the room, I tore the gauze from an attendant’s grasp and wrapped my hand up to stem the flow of blood, then bolted for the laboratory.
By that time an alarm had gone off in the lab, and the room was lit with beams of crazy red light. But each crimson flare illuminated the terror of what had unfolded. They had all escaped, crawling up the walls, leaving black trails like infected blood vessels branching underneath skin. I watched, mouth agape, enraptured with horror, as others poured in behind me. My peers did not understand the extent of what was happening; one of them armed himself with an aerosol of formic acid and laid waste to the nymphs. They dropped to the floor immediately, but the chemicals failed to appropriately react, and they scattered, crisscrossing their dark lines towards the gathered crowd.
One well-meaning fool stomped on a nymph, an action I was too late to stop. He immediately fell to the floor, his leg twitching, as liquefying flesh shot out from his boot. That was enough to break the crowd, to make them scream and flee from the lab. It was chaos for the next hour. The unfortunate fellow was carted away and the nymph was chiseled from the bottom of his foot, too. My own palm flared with sympathetic agony as I watched him go, strong enough to make me fear that there was another nymph inside me.
When we evacuated, the lab was buried. Literal tons of concrete blocks were laid over the premises, then the hallways were flooded, then that was sealed again, then the floor above was collapsed and sealed with liquid lead. We did what we felt we had to do. That’s what we told ourselves. None of us wanted to admit it was a cataclysmic, overcompensatory, knee-jerk reaction to something we didn’t understand. Harry was lost too, and so we lost the only hope of possibly replicating what we had done.
We could have captured them. Preserved them. Maybe studied them further. Now what are they doing? Did they become crushed? Were they suffocated? Are they continuing to thrive? Will they emerge from the ruins after so long to continue to chew holes in reality? And if so, what will become of the surface world we all know and live in?
It didn’t end there. Here’s another piece of trivia about cockroaches for you…the bacteria present in their guts that they shed like hair are practically their own ecosystem. And they’re hereditary. Everyone in that room was exposed to the nymphs’ own dark pathogens. I saw the pictures myself, sent to me anonymously in unmarked manila envelopes, perhaps as a forced guilt-trip, as I spent the next six months in quarantine. The hemorrhaging, the diarrhea, the bloating. Of the twenty-one personnel in that room, eighteen died violent, disgusting, humiliating deaths. The shame I felt, holed up in my lonely cell, could have killed me too. I wish it had.
They, of course, blamed me for it. I was relegated to demeaning, manual labor for the remainder of my time in the USSR. That whole time I wondered to myself why they didn’t just kill me, out of suspicion that I might…well, do what I’m doing now. I realize now, in all their arrogance, they thought they wouldn’t have to let me go. They thought they could get away with their ideological conquest, to become the dominant player on the world stage. All the better reason to up your efforts, I might say. You cannot let those rotten shadowy devils win. They will be a plague on this good Earth. Much like those “dark matter” nymphs.
“Dark matter”…now we’re back here. Now I know what to call them, now that I know what was happening. They should not have existed; by all known physical laws, they should not have existed. They did not register to us. Our own flesh and stone rebelled at their mere presence. They deserve to be jettisoned back into deep space, to reunite with that mysterious, inscrutable, invisible mass. Let them feed off stardust and gas and propagate through their own untenable designs. We’re not ready for them. Not yet.
There have been other atrocities, other groundbreaking, forward leaps that very nearly led us straight off a cliff. The only reason they never saw the light of day is because of the greater context at hand. The Space Race. One iota of information from those failures gets out to the world, the Soviet Union is ruined. It amazes me to this day how much more they have hidden, to prop up their guise of stability and progress.
The cruel irony is, something could have come from all that. The agony of defeat almost always leads to better things, in some form or another. But they suppressed it, deleted it from their collective subconscious entirely. And do not imagine yourselves tall, thinking that you and the rest of the world are any different from them. The Soviets, they were just too obvious about it. What have you buried? What bridges have you burned when their direction started going awry?
It sickens me to dwell on this further. But I suppose you want to hear more. I shall divulge; it’s not like I have any other choice. I take some pleasure in it, but only the pleasure of expelling a malignant fever. I can only hope you learn from me. I can only hope someone learns something from all this.
* * * * * *
Independent searches of the area Dr. Volkov claimed to have worked at revealed a large patch of refurbished earth, but deeper digging uncovered no evidence of any abnormal findings. If what he claims is true, and his hypothesis about “dark matter-affected” insects is correct, then we can rightfully guess that the specimens perished underground. It is to be noted, however, that Dr. Volkov’s prior association with the Nazi Party implies the possibility of him still harboring animosity towards the United States. His testimony could be interpreted as clouded with judgmentalism and propped up by scare tactics. As for the supposed victims of “dark matter-affected” bacteria, all analyses suggest the patients were suffering from severe radiation poisoning, but nothing more could be inferred beyond that. There have been no other records of animals or humans from the United States’ launches returning with the black bruising Dr. Volkov described, although the information in his subsequent testimonies lends itself to more troubling implications.
We recommend taking this story with a grain of salt; however, with “dark matter” being as of now such an obscure field of cosmology, it would be unwise to discount it entirely. If anything, his account serves to prove what befuddling and unnerving accounts the prospect of space exploration can inspire. We also recommend proceeding with our endeavors, but with a fresh sense of caution and respect.
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None AvailableNick Carlson Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A