Laurel and Hardy
By Judy Upton
I NEVER IMAGINED MY LIFE would revolve around two tiny black beetles. Laurel and Hardy, as the institute director named them, are no bigger than ladybirds and never do anything but crawl about on a lump of rock. Yet I know I should feel privileged to be one of the select view chosen to observe these creatures in their protective bio-dome.
On the fourth day after the meteorite plunged down into the Australian outback; it became the cause of great excitement in the scientific community. That was the moment when Laurel was spotted, waving his antennae out of a hole in the rock. At first it was assumed he was an Earth species that had crawled onto the rock from the flattened debris of its surrounding crater. Tests soon proved, however, that the meteorite was riddled with tiny beetle burrows; when Laurel could not be identified as any known Earth species of beetle, media excitement grew to fever pitch. This small creature had survived the temperature extremes on the rock’s journey from another universe by burying itself deep inside it. What is more, he wasn’t alone. A second beetle, Hardy, was detected deep in another burrow. Immediately Laurel was released from the laboratory where he was being examined, back into the rock. An exclusion zone was set up and a bio-dome with an observation corridor around it was quickly constructed in the crater. While our first alien visitors were headline news worldwide, Laurel and Hardy were hermetically sealed into an area of no more than a kilometre square.
My college tutor was one of those involved in the project and I was among the select few chosen to observe the beetles. This we were told was of vital importance, as the human race needed to know every minute detail of these beetles’ lives, without being exposed to any risks from parasites or microbes they might be harbouring.
So it’s ten o’clock on a summer evening and I’m here alone in the air-conditioned observational corridor. It’s a circular structure with viewing windows all the way around the dome. Swivelling cameras with macro lenses, movement sensors, and infrared lights are all wired up to a computer that relays our findings back to the university. Nobody will actually be in the college lab at this time of night, however. They have the luxury of fast-forwarding through the recorded footage in the morning. Me, I have to work the graveyard shift just in case a computer crashes, a camera battery or light bulb needs replacing. I’ve never been so bored in my life.
Here at last comes Laurel, crawling from his burrow out onto the rock surface. Hardy is on the other side of the rock, partly obscured by shadow and scrubby grass. It seems to me that both beetles are moving slower than previously. Laurel starts to crawl across the meteorite, but every step by each of his six legs seems an effort. When I first observed the beetles, they were scurrying around. Hardy is lying at the mouth of his burrow. I can barely see his shiny wing case. I’ve yet to see either of them try to fly. I wonder if it’s the lack of food that’s making them lethargic. We’ve no idea what beetles from space eat, nor do we have permission to introduce anything into the bio-dome. They’re slowly starving in there. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they both don’t die by the end of this week. Then I guess they’ll become someone else’s problem. Off they’ll go to the lab to be dissected. I wonder, if we landed on another planet and the inhabitants imprisoned and starved us, what we’d think of them. Civilised wouldn’t be a word I’d use. That’s for sure.
I could murder a bacon sandwich. The observational corridor has a kitchenette and if I don’t eat, I’m likely to doze off. Above the cooker, a monitor ensures I won’t miss anything. As I fry my bacon, I can’t help feeling sorry for the two hungry little beetles. Fancy travelling all this way and not get a decent meal at the end of it.
As the bacon sizzles, I’m tempted to have a second rasher. Laurel is waving his feelers again. I wonder if he can actually smell the bacon through the supposedly air-tight walls of the bio-dome. If so, then I’m unintentionally torturing this starving insect. Judge me if you will, but, for me, being a scientist doesn’t mean being inhuman. I open the airlock between the corridor and the dome, break a tiny piece of off the second, still raw, rasher and throw it in onto the rock. Closing the door, I add the contents of a sauce sachet to my sandwich and go back to my observing.
After a moment, Laurel’s antennae wave more quickly, then he moves forward, slowly towards the tiny piece of meat. It’s hard to see if he’s actually eating it because the bit of bacon has not changed in size. Then I notice it’s become paler and as I watch, it changes to a ghostly white. Laurel has sucked out all of the blood. This is fascinating behaviour, so I start to take notes, wondering if there are larger blood-filled creatures on Laurel’s home world. As I watch though, I hear a tearing sound through one of the many microphones in the dome. A long, jagged crack appears along the beetle’s wing case. Then he’s on his back struggling. If the bacon’s killed him, I’m in real trouble. Or rather I will be if the evidence is there. I stop the cameras and guiltily enter the bio-dome to retrieve the tiny piece of meat. I check if Hardy is still in the grass at the entrance of his burrow. Treading on the second research subject could hardly make things much worse for me ... but even so.
Laurel’s whole exoskeleton is ripping into shreds, thin and papery white, as his body contorts. Poor thing, it’s a nasty way to go. On closer inspection though, he’s not dying, but sloughing his old skin. His head emerges, then his thorax and amazingly he’s at least twice the size he was before he ate! Back in the corridor, I use the computer to compare before and after photos. It’s true; Laurel has more than doubled his size. This is unheard of in an insect. I take back everything I said about this project being dull. I’ve made a major discovery.
I can’t resist trying another small piece of bacon and treat Laurel to seconds.
Again his exoskeleton crumbles to reveal a new one that stretches and hardens in minutes. His accelerated growth rate upon drinking blood is phenomenal. I wonder what he eats at home and how big he grows? Theoretically, the sky’s the limit. Maybe they are the largest predators on their planet. It might, though, be realistic to guess that food is scarce there, given how long our subjects have survived without eating. Perhaps, at home, that restricts their size.
On a planet like Earth, densely packed with blood-filled organisms, how long before a beetle like Laurel could become the size of the planet itself? It’s only a theory of course, but, inspired, I start tapping data into the computer. To thank Laurel for providing the breakthrough that will make my name, I throw him one last tiny piece of bacon. Again his growth process happens, making him the size of one of our stag beetles, at over eight centimetres long.
As I move to shut the door, Laurel suddenly dashes towards it. I’d no idea he could move so fast. He must be digesting all that protein. I only just close the door in time. Looking through the observation window, I see him clinging to the inside of the door. Behind him, at the place where I’d been feeding him, a pile of white stuff like mash potato has appeared and is moving slightly.
The macro zoom lens reveals the white stuff to be hundreds of tiny larvae. So Laurel is a she and she gives birth to live young, not eggs. That’s when I notice something else. I can’t see Hardy. He’s not visible on any of the cameras, even those in the rock. I check and recheck with every piece of equipment. Hardy is definitely no longer in the bio-dome. He must’ve crept out the last time I opened the door to feed Laurel. I start to search for the tiny beetle, but there’re many open windows and air vents leading from the observational corridor to the outside world and he’s nowhere to be found. A blood-drinking beetle with the potential to grow to the size of the planet is loose. I realise it’s time to quit this job and leave Australia—quickly.
Judy Upton usually works in the U.K. as a playwright, where she has had plays produced by the Royal Court, National Theatre, and BBC Radio 4, among others. She is also an award-winning screenwriter and has a passion for photography.