The projector purred, as its fan pushed hot air through a small vent in the back. Quinn could feel the warmth against her hand as she turned toward the light. Meredith stood in front, with part of her lab coat illuminated by a corner of the projected rectangle. She pushed the button on her handheld clicker, and the slide carousel advanced with a clunk.
The first slide was updside-down and backwards. Its only contents were some handwritten scrawl in streaky black ink. Quinn tilted her head to decipher the characters: Curd, F — 09/03/74 — uncatalogued.
With a series of clicks, Meredith cycled through a collection of autopsy photos, rendered in harsh black and white. They were shots of Florence. Her face. Her eyelids. The corner of her mouth.
“Initial examination of the body revealed severe blunt trauma to the head,” she began. “Most likely the cause of death.”
The next few slides revealed photographs of strange black specks, stuck to her flesh.
“In addition, the subject’s skin was covered with small, bug-like organisms. Also, seemingly dead.”
Meredith paused on a slide that contained an extreme closeup of one of the black shapes, captured in perfect focus. It looked like a fly, with tiny, segmented legs and translucent wings. A short length of paper was nestled beside it with precise hash marks measured in millimeters.
The next slide showed two disembodied fly wings laying side by side, with a similar measuring strip below.
Meredith spoke in an even, measured tone. “The sample on the left is from Musca domestica, a common housefly. The one on the right was pulled from the subject’s flesh.”
She advanced to the next slide, which zoomed into a cropped section of the two wing samples.
Quinn recognized the familiar network of veined segments that criss-crossed along the surface of both. For all practical purposes, they looked identical.
Meredith pointed to a timestamp at the bottom of the slide. “Note the time,” she said. The shadow of her finger hovered over the number — 10:47:07pm.
Clunk. The slide carousel advanced. Quinn glanced at the new timestamp — 10:49:07pm. It looked like the same image, but different. The veins that filled the wing on the right had shifted. Rearranged.
Clunk. Another image. And another reconfiguration of shapes inside the wing on the right. 10:51:07pm.
“Note the morphology in the wing pulled from the subject’s flesh,” Meredith continued.
Like shifting bricks in a wall, thought Quinn.
The lattice-like arrangements were beautiful. Precise. It was as if they were being sorted and resorted according to an underlying code. Like prisms in a kaleidoscope.
“What is it?” asked Quinn.
The room was silent, except for the whirring motor of the projector. Meredith set the handheld clicker down on the small table.
“We don’t know,” she replied. “It’s constantly reshaping itself. Versioning — and re-versioning. Dialing into some sort of ideal.
“But one thing is for sure. This is something far more than a housefly.”
Quinn straightened. “A mimic,” she said.
“Apparently, yes,” Meredith nodded, flipping the switch on the projector. The wall behind her went dark.
Ricky was scribbling into his notepad, but took a moment to look up. “So, like a chameleon.”
“Not exactly,” Meredith replied. “A chameleon can change the color of its skin. But it isn’t a true mimicking behavior. They do it mostly to communicate with other chameleons — or to regulate their own body temperature.
“This is more like what we see in aggressive parasites, which use mimicry to mask their presence, or to help further their spread.”
Quinn stepped to the counter behind Meredith, where a flat metal sheet held a collection of clear specimen containers. Inside each was a single black fly. Quinn carefully lifted one to the light.
“A few things we’ve learned from the short time we’ve had with it,” Meredith continued, pulling a small glass dropper from her lab coat, “It’s bacterial in nature — which means it thrives on simple sugars for energy.”
She handed the dropper to Quinn, nodding at the specimen.
“And it hates this.”
Quinn moved the dropper over the top of the container, letting a single drop fall onto the fly.
Its legs and wings liquified upon contact. The rest of its body collapsed into a puddle of black, which pooled in the center of the glass. Within a few moments, it dissolved completely — cominglinig with the liquid from the dropper.
Quinn rolled the container around in her hand, watching the contents slide from one edge to the other. She sensed a familiar tickle along the back of her nostrils.
** bleach **
The lab door opened, as a female clerk wearing office attire peeked in. She quickly glanced across the room, settling on Ricky.
“Richard Matheny?” she asked. Ricky nodded.
“There’s a call for you at the front desk. It’s Mr. Hickman.”
Ricky shoved his notepad into his back pocket and stepped toward the door. Quinn followed, but was stopped when Meredith grabbed her elbow.
“We need to talk,” she whispered.