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Odyssey of the Butterfly-Excerpt

BUTTERFLIES AND MOTHS

IS THERE ANY INSECT more pleasing to the eye than the butterfly or moth? They are the elusive, mysterious creatures flitting from flower to flower, weed to weed, giving life to many plants and destruction to others. They bring us joy and occasionally death. The Monarch butterfly is well known for being poisonous to some predators, but even it is a lightweight compared to the South American Silk moth. Bristles around its body carry one of the most potent defensive chemicals of any animal. The venom is an anticoagulant that can cause a human to hemorrhage to death. Caterpillars can devastate crops, creating enormous economic losses to farmers... and still, when this dangerous, destructive child of nature emerges from its cocoon... spreads its wings... and takes flight, all we see is beauty... and perhaps that is what makes them truly magical.

DAUGHTERS OF THE QUEEN

THEY ARE THE LEPIDOPTERA. Most people know them as butterflies and moths, at least in the English language. Easily recognized, they are found on all of the continents except Antarctica and can be traced as far back as the Cretaceous Period. Perhaps it was due to the appearance of the first flowering plants, perhaps merely coincidental circumstance. Then again, maybe they existed long before that time but their remains have yet to be discovered. Nature makes her own rules in the game of life, whether on this world — or another.

 

CHAPTER 1

SHE WAS SHENARA, Queen Mother, and challenged by none... for why would one challenge the weakest of the colony? Their survival depended on her ability to lead, not her strength. She kept the colony alive and ultimately the species. Physically, she was the largest of her kind. Her wings were almost twice the size of the others', making her inferior to the ones that reached maturity. Slower moving, her journey always began days in advance of the collective. Distance provided her the time and opportunity to mark safe routes with the irresistible scent of pheromones. They drifted with the winds, eventually settling on the plants and earth. The flights were arduous but necessary if the colony was to succeed in its yearly migrations.

Queens were the Mothers of their species, although they never mated nor bore young. They were chosen from amongst their sister siblings when the time was right. Always white with thin black swirls bordering semi-translucent wings, they were the most visible of their species... and the most vulnerable. Their eyes could be black, green or a deep purple, sometimes glowing in the early morning or late evening light.

Shenara was unusually large, making her a bigger target for predators. She had, however, three offsetting factors that gave her a greater advantage: superior intelligence, greater wisdom and, most important, the vast experience of all her predecessors. A Queen's memories were passed to her Chosen. Millions of miles and thousands of years of accumulated knowledge gave the monarch what no other in her colony possessed — the ability to recognize subtle changes in the world around them and understand the consequences of such changes. She could predict colder winters and warmer summers, extended droughts and torrential storms.

*  *  *

Shenara lived in a world of extremes — hot and humid in the summer, cold and brutal in the winter. To avoid each, she timed her colony's migration to take advantage of the lush plant growth in spring and fall. Winters were spent in the south, summers in the north.

Only a Queen survived the entire trip. Her colony would faithfully follow her to the first breeding ground, mate, reproduce and die. The offspring, after maturing, then followed the Queen's scent to the next nursery. The cycle was repeated once again before they arrived at their final destination, the cooler summer forests of the north. There the last generation was born, fed and grew strong for they alone could make the entire return trip to their winter home, always trailing behind their Queen. As with all life, there would come a time when she could no longer lead and a successor would have to be chosen. Fortunately, Queens lived a long time.

 

CHAPTER 2

THE AIR FELT STRANGE, warmer, hotter, thicker than normal. Each downward stroke of her wings pushed her higher and further away. Flying was becoming more difficult. She was old and tired and ready for her final destiny.

My time is near, Shenara thought, contemplating all the obstacles that lay ahead of her. I must choose my replacement soon. The Queen scanned the roiling mass of orange and black bodies feeding on the milk of the tall, thin-leafed weeds that flourished around them. But who? Nowhere could she see white wings until the sun glinted on a small speck laboriously climbing a spindly plant tucked amongst the massive growth surrounding it. Then another pair appeared, and another, followed by six more.

Nine! Nine white daughters struggled upward. Shenara watched intently as the first reached its goal and then dismissed it as unacceptable. She moved too quickly. The next six also were rejected as potential successors for the same reason. Speed was not an asset to be Queen. But the last two, they had potential. Every step took a toll on their strength. Neither gave up, a necessary quality to lead, but a certain amount of physical weakness was essential. Survival of the fittest was so ingrained in the genes of each butterfly that challenging the weakest made little sense, a waste of valuable energy, and thus Queens could move amongst their colonies with impunity.

Gliding down for a closer examination of the candidates, Shenara hovered next to one, much smaller than the other, and then moved to inspect her sister. Both had some growing to do but they had potential. That was the only requirement for now.

Come, daughters! she commanded and flew away without looking back. Sensitive to fluctuations in the air, she knew immediately when they left the security of the milkweed. This was their first flight away from the colony and the beginning of a training regimen that would prepare them for the final test.

Shenara hoped one proved worthy. Her strength was waning. If neither fledgling passed, the collective would be without a Queen, without her memories. The colony would be doomed to extinction, an unthinkable consequence. Shenara would bear the responsibility for such a tragedy, for she was Queen.

*  *  *

You move too fast, Rojani, Shenara gently reprimanded. Conserve your energy. Speed is your enemy, not distance. Rojani was smaller than her sister, Fenari. The strain of trying to keep up with Fenari and her Queen was exhausting.

How can I keep up with you if I don't fly faster? Rojani asked. 

Why do you want to keep up with us? Shenara countered. Did I command you to? Are we in a race?

Rojani took a deep breath and exhaled. 

No, Mother, but I can't keep up with you by flying slower. I don't understand what you want of me. 

I want nothing more than you can give.

Confused, Rojani slowed her beating wings.

I am giving you all that I can, Mother. Is that not enough?

Fenari, who had been keeping pace with the Queen, veered off and circled back to Rojani's side.

I think Mother wants us to fly at our own pace, sister. If we allow others to push us forward, we will fall behind.

Very good, Fenari, Shenara said, pleased at her daughter's early display of wisdom. Survival is about knowing your limitations. Use them to your advantage. You are the weakest of the weak. You must never compete against the others. Your strength will come from patience, endurance and wisdom.

I only state the obvious, Fenari said, humbly. Were I small like Rojani, I would have made the same mistake.

Perhaps, and perhaps if she were larger she would have made the one you have now made.

Before Fenari could respond, Rojani fluttered excitedly up and down, then dashed in front of her sister to make eye contact.

You cannot doubt yourself, Fenari. You must always believe you do what is best. Am I right, Mother? she asked, spinning around to look into Shenara's eyes.

Yes, daughter. I am pleased with both of you. Come! It is time we returned home. There is much work to be done and little time for preparation. A good night's rest will replenish your energy.

Slowing her speed so Rojani could keep up, Shenara led her two daughters back to the safety of the colony.

Go now. Hide deep amongst your brothers and sisters. Your color makes you vulnerable. I cannot afford to lose either of you.

Shenara watched Rojani and Fenari burrow deep amongst their siblings. When they were no longer visible she flew to her special tree and crawled into a crack between two thick pieces of bark. Circling several times, she nestled down, tucking her legs under her. The Queen closed her eyes. Her body ached, but for the first time in many cycles, sleep came easily.

 

CHAPTER 3

THE RAYS PEEKED into the dark crevice, warming the Queen and rousing her from her slumber. Stretching, she flexed each leg several times, testing for the stiffness that was coming more often from long periods of stillness. Once assured all were functioning properly, she stood and crept toward the narrow opening. Cautiously she surveyed the outside world, searching for potential threats. Today, there were none. Most of the swarm were asleep; the few that weren't moved sluggishly. Sunlight hadn't yet reached them so their bodies still suffered from the chill of the night. Shenara launched herself into the air. With the new day came the continued responsibilities of preparing her daughters for the final test; a journey from which only one would return.

Daughters! Shenara called out. From the heart of the swarming mass crawled two white butterflies. Each flexed its wings before springing upward.

Mother, Rojani and Fenari called out simultaneously. Without responding, the Queen turned and flew toward a clearing. Her daughters followed, each at her own pace. Once in the meadow, Shenara circled the clearing several times. Occasionally she landed on a brightly colored flower to rest or to sample the sweet pollen. Some plants she avoided. One, however, she approached cautiously.

You must never touch the blue ones, Shenara warned, diving into the shadows beneath several large blossoms. When Rojani and Fenari followed, they saw the decaying remains of butterflies scattered around the base of the plant. Many belonged to other colonies that shared their territory. A few the sisters recognized as being from their own.

What happened? Rojani asked, clearly terrified at the horrific sight.

The flower happened. This is the Deceiver. Stay away from it, no matter how much it tempts you. There are many flowers and plants to feed from, but none as sweet as this one.

How do you know this, Mother? Fenari asked, shuddering.

Look around you, daughters. This is but one plant and yet hundreds of bodies lie dead beneath its beauty. Fly closer and the scent becomes irresistible. Feed and you want nothing else. Death is slow and painful. The nectar feeds only the cravings. The body dies of starvation. Even ground feeders will not touch those who have died from the nectar of the Deceiver.

We will remember, Mother, Fenari and Rojani promised.

The lessons continued throughout the day and for many weeks afterward. Shenara taught each to recognize the dangers of their world and the secrets that could save them. They gained confidence in their strengths and appreciated their weaknesses. Aerial maneuvers were perfected, the best places to hide revealed, and they were constantly reminded to be vigilant. Danger came from every direction.

Trust what you feel and the memories of those who came before you, Shenara said.

Memories? I have no memories of anyone, Rojani said.

Neither do I, Fenari agreed.

One of you will, Shenara promised cryptically. 

The Queen continued her lessons. She taught them to sense danger before it appeared. The sisters were intelligent and learned quickly. Shenara was pleased. Either would make an excellent Queen.

 

CHAPTER 4

ROJANI AND FENARI were now fully grown, no longer able to hide amongst their siblings. Their white wings glistened in the light, making them highly visible even at nighttime if the moon's beams were bright enough. It didn't help that their brothers and sisters moved aside when they moved amongst them.

The late afternoon sun was still hours from settling when Shenara led them home.

Now you must seek a special place, she said. One that is safe and comfortable, but small enough to stay warm. The entrance must be narrow. Choose wisely. The air grows cooler on the journey to our summer home, and the predators more fierce. Every night, your life and those of the colony will depend on whether you have chosen wisely. If you die, they die.

Having sent the two butterflies on their way, Shenara returned to her own special place to rest. Tomorrow she would send her daughters on a mission; one that could end in their deaths and that of the collective. With luck and skill, a new Queen would return.

*  *  *

Fenari! Rojani! The sun was still well below the horizon when the Queen called to them. She hadn't seen her daughters since the evening before, although she knew exactly where each was sleeping. Both had chosen their safe places well.

Rojani appeared first but only seconds before Fenari.

Yes, Mother, they said in unison.

You have worked hard, daughters. Your knowledge and skills are complete. I can teach you nothing else. Now you will test all that you have learned. For three days, you must follow the sun as it travels across the sky, each of you flying a different path. On the third day you will search for something special, something unique. Remember it and bring that memory home.

I don't understand, Fenari said. How will we know what you want?

It is not what I want. It is what you find.

This seems too simple, Mother, Rojani said.

Staying alive is never simple. The journey will challenge your stamina, your sense of danger and your ability to find safe places. On your return trip, all that you see will appear different than all that you remember. The world changes around us as we change around it. Now go. The sun awakens.

Obeying their Queen, Rojani and Fenari flew away, afraid but confident Shenara would not send them into the wilderness if she didn't believe in them.

 

CHAPTER 5

Day 1

ROJANI FLEW FOR ALMOST a full day without stopping, knowing her progress was slow. Hungry and weak, she realized she had made a potentially fatal error but had also learned a valuable lesson. Distance meant nothing if she failed along the way. Although the sun was not yet setting, Rojani decided to stop. Her first priority was to find food. Fortunately, several flowers and milk plants flourished in the area. Darting from blossoms to milkweeds, she filled her belly and then set out to locate a safe place. A crevice between two thick, scaly plates of bark provided the perfect sanctuary. It was small and compact, but comfortable. Most important, it provided the security she needed for the night.

*  *  *

Fatigue weighed heavily on Fenari, but her energy level was still high enough to keep her safe if she needed to outmaneuver predators. She had stopped several times during the day to feed on the sweet juices of the abundant milkweeds, carefully avoiding the tantalizing smell of the Deceiver. The decaying bodies alone would have been warning enough, even if Mother hadn't told them about the addictiveness of the plant.

Today she was both lucky and diligent. The few predators that crossed her path were either already well-fed or she sensed them before they saw her. Mother had taught her well. Fenari's growing confidence didn't blind her to the realization that she needed to stay alert day and night. Stopping before the sun disappeared behind the horizon, she found her safe place. Nestled between the narrow fissures of the bark of a giant tree, she settled down for a good night's rest. Tomorrow was only the second day of her test.

Day 2

Darting between limbs, Rojani frantically dipped and turned in an effort to escape the long, snapping beak. She had allowed herself to be distracted by a rainbow above a pool at the base of a miniature waterfall. The dancing colors were like flowers swaying in a breeze. They reminded her of home. She missed her brothers and sisters. Had she not seen the reflection on the surface of the water, Rojani would be rotting in the belly of the bird now chasing her. That could still happen if she didn't escape its relentless pursuit.

Mother would be ashamed of me. Rojani quickly discarded the thought. Mother would simply tell her there was a lesson in the experience. That is if I live long enough to learn it.

Snap! Snap!

*  *  *

Petals shaped like wings, the flowers provided Fenari with the cover she needed. Frightened, she nestled amongst the blooms hoping she wouldn't be noticed by the flock of small birds frantically circling overhead. Their shrill screeches rang through the forest, blocking out the usual sounds.

Not every predator feasted on butterflies. Fenari wasn't taking any chances. Mother had taught her and Rojani many things; the flowers and plants that provided nourishment, the ones to avoid, enemies that came from the sky and those that slithered or scurried across the ground. Not everything was a threat.

But nothing must be taken for granted. Fenari remembered that day and its lesson well.

It was a day that had started like the others. Mother had summoned Fenari and Rojani from their safe places. Then a high-pitched wail broke the early morning silence. It was painfully loud and scary. Instead of flying away, Mother led them toward the sound. A large cat lay writhing on the forest floor. Huge paws slapped at its eyes as it shook its massive head. The ears were filled with small crawling creatures. The animal was covered in ants, millions of them.

Learn well, daughters, Mother said. Size does not determine the degree of danger. These animals are insignificant as individuals. One is only an irritant, but many become formidable. Nothing can withstand their ferocity.

How can I protect myself from such numbers? Rojani asked.

Be vigilante at all times. These are ants. They sleep at night like us and thus pose no immediate threat but there are things that move through the darkness. Rest with your eyes shut but your ears open... and remember, danger comes from all directions.

They are awful, Mother, Fenari said and shuddered.

They are what they are. We do not judge others, Fenari. We, too, feed off the living. Can we know for sure that we aren't causing pain when we sip the lifeblood of a flower or milk of the plant? Shenara asked. Do not assume they cannot feel. We may think we are different, but we are all the same.

I understand, Mother.

I also understand, Mother. Why cannot our family use our numbers to defend us? We have as many brothers and sisters as these ants.

Defend with what, Fenari? What weapon could we use? We are fragile, our wings and legs delicate. Only our numbers and a Queen's wisdom ensure that the colony will survive another season. That is all we have, all we need. The sun will be setting soon. We must return home. You have much to think about.

The three returned to the colony, each seeking out her safe place.

Shaking her head, Fenari returned to the present. Fortunately her temporary lapse had not endangered her. The normal sounds were comforting. Inhaling deeply to release some tension, Fenari scanned the area for predators. Seeing none, she crawled from her hiding place and tested her wings. All was well. Launching into the air she continued her journey. She still had several hours of flying time ahead of her.

Day 3

The sun was peeking over the horizon, spreading its pink rays across the meadow of wildflowers. As the safe place warmed, Rojani stirred, flexing each leg. One had been slightly injured the day before in her efforts to escape a predator but had healed overnight. Pressing her wings together over her body she squeezed through the narrow crack into the light. This was the last day of her forward journey. Tomorrow she would head back to the colony.

Mother said I would find something unique. Rojani scanned her surroundings. There was nothing that she would describe as unique. Some of the plants were unusual but the meadow was like many others she had seen. Large animals grazed on the lush grass. Smaller ones stood near the edge of the forest looking fearfully in one direction and then another. The meadow teemed with life, but nothing she could honestly say was unique. Have I failed her? The thought was depressing.

*  *  *

Fenari watched the grazers move around the clearing, cropping and tugging at the thick grass. Occasionally one would raise its head to check some unknown scent or sound. Once assured there were no threats it returned to its grazing. Other animals and insects scurried around intent on their own business.

Nothing! Fenari was disappointed. There is nothing here. I have failed Mother.

Reluctantly she raised her wings, lifting her body into the air. A gust of wind blew her sideways. Frantically she struggled to regain control. Twisting her body she grabbed at the limb of a nearby tree. Adrenalin gave her the strength to hold on. After the wind died she relaxed, feeling drained. Fenari knew she was now too weak to safely begin her journey home. She needed to rest. Shifting to a more comfortable position, she checked for predators and saw movement on the trunk of the tree she clung to. Could it be?

Rojani?

Fenari? Is that really you? her sister called out. How did you get here?

I flew! How did you?

I flew, Rojani said. 

How is this possible? Fenari asked. We travelled different paths. Is our world so small?

I don't know. We flew only three days. Mother says the journey north is long. She wouldn't lie to us. Could we have taken wrong paths?

We must have, Fenari said. Each sister felt the other's disappointment and was saddened. They had spent weeks training together, learning Mother's lessons and selflessly sharing their thoughts and ideas. Only one could be Queen but both wanted the same thing, to make Mother proud.

Rojani raised and lowered her wings before folding them above her head in a more relaxed position. Her eyes searched the horizon for anything that might be unique and again found nothing.

We need to feed and then find a safe place for the night, she finally said.

Perhaps we can find one big enough for the both of us, Fenari suggested shyly.

I would like that.

The sisters soared into the air, flapping their wings slowly, each to her own rhythm. An abundance of flowers and milkweed provided them with plenty of nourishment and a variety of sweet, tasty nectar and pollens. When their bellies were full, they searched the nearby trees for a safe place large enough to accommodate them. As the sun vanished beyond the tree line they settled comfortably near each other, wings and cheeks touching. For hours they talked about what they had seen on their journeys and the lessons they had learned.

I wish we had found something unique, Rojani said, feeling depressed.

Me too, Fenari agreed. Maybe Mother is wrong. Maybe neither of us is meant to be Queen.

Maybe.

Shifting slightly, the two butterflies closed their eyes and slept and dreamt of forests and meadows filled with lush plants. Colorful blooms and tall, thin-leafed plants covered the earth as far as the eye could see, and in the distance they watched an enormous white butterfly coming toward them.

Mother?

Mother!

No, I am Lenila, Mother of your Mother, Queen of your Queen, the butterfly said. You have done well, children. Your task is almost completed. In two days you will be home. Tell me, what have you learned?

I have learned to be vigilant. That danger comes from all directions, Rojani said.

And I that it comes in all sizes, Fenari added.

That is good. What else?

Fenari and Rojani continued to tell Lenila about their experiences and the lessons learned from each. The Queen nodded her head approvingly as she listened. 

You will make fine Queens, she said. There is but one more challenge left for you. Have you not found it yet?

No, Rojani said. I have seen many wonderful and frightening things — animals, plants — but nothing unique.

Nor I, Fenari added. Have we missed something?

Lenila nodded. Yes, the most important thing you will ever encounter.

How will we know what we are looking for if we do not know what it is? Fenari asked.

You will know. When you awaken, do not look so far ahead that you do not see what is beside you. Now, morning comes. I must leave.

Will we ever see you again? Rojani asked.

A Queen is never without her Queens, children, nor a daughter without her Mother. Raising her wings high, Lenila pushed downward, lifting her body into the air. Circling twice above the two sisters, she then flew away, disappearing into the pink rays of the rising sun.

*  *  *

Opening her eyes, Fenari felt Rojani stirring against her.

Good morning.

Good morning, Rojani said, shifting away so they could stretch their legs.

I dreamt about you... us... last night, Fenari said. We were in a beautiful place and Mother's Mother was there.

I dreamt the same thing. She asked about our journeys. Rojani rotated her body to get a better look at her sister.

And said we were not to look so far ahead... Fenari began.

...that we did not see what is beside us, Rojani finished.

Fenari and Rojani stared into the others' eyes, each widening in surprise.

We are what Mother was talking about, they said simultaneously. We are unique!

You have learned well, daughters. Come! a familiar voice commanded from outside the safe place. Peeking through the opening, Fenari and Rojani saw Mother hovering a short distance away. Today you are Queens, Shenara announced.

That can't be! The colony has only one Queen. That is you, Mother, Rojani said.

The colony has grown too large. It needs two Queens. Today we begin the journey north so you can learn the path. Your brothers and sisters will soon follow. Eventually one of you must take half of the colony and find a new home, but only when the time is right.

What about you, Mother? Fenari asked.

This is my last journey. Once you know the way, I will join my Mother and those before her. The sisters gasped. The thought of Mother not being with them was frightening and sad. Queens are never without their Queens, Shenara said. Come, your real journey begins today.

*  *  *

Before Shenara had left to find Fenari and Rojani, she called all of her children together.

Children, soon you travel north. As I have led the many generations before you, I will lead you, your children and your children's children to their final homes. This is your final journey. So will it be mine. None of us will return here. It is our way of life. Telling you this was not necessary. All of you will be gone before me. Shenara hesitated, looking at the thousands of butterflies that surrounded her. No wing moved, no eyes strayed from hers. I have loved each generation equally. Each child the same. Every death I mourned, every life I cherished. You are the first of my children to take this final journey with me even though you won't be the last. Know, though, your faces, these memories I will carry with me when I am with my Queens.

Mother? A small voice called out timidly.

Without hesitation Shenara turned to gaze at one butterfly amongst the mass surrounding her. Queens were able to identify all of their children by patterns and voices.

Yes, Sorilia.

Will we see you after we die?

I don't know. I have only been visited in my dreams by my Queen. Shenara's eyes swept over the colony. Have any of you been visited by a brother or sister?

Oroni came to me after he disappeared, Sorilia said.

And Pilara came to me after she was seduced by the Deceiver, another exclaimed. Soon other voices joined in until none were silent. 

Pleased, Shenara raised and lowered her wings several times.

That is your answer, then. We will see each other again beyond this life. It will be a joyous reunion. Come now. Let me touch each of you so I may take your essence with me.

One by one each butterfly moved forward and rubbed his or her forehead against Shenara's. Afterward it flew away, making room for the next. The ceremony lasted half the day. When the last flew off, the Queen gave their southern home one final glance. Then, lifting her body into the air, she started her own journey. There were two daughters who needed her.

Several grazers lifted their heads to watch a large white butterfly soar across the meadow toward the rising sun. As it disappeared into the growing light, the grazers lost interest and returned to their morning routine of feeding. They had just arrived from their northern migration. The lush growth would provide them with the nutrients necessary for the trip home in the fall.

 

CHAPTER 6

FIVE ROUND TRIPS were completed before the Queens felt confident they could each lead half the colony on their own. Four had been made without Mother. Their sisters and brothers knew it was unusual having more than one Queen. When born, they were taught the history of their species. Knowledge of the past was important if they were to understand the importance of their role in the future of the colony.

The time has come, hasn't it? Fenari asked, already knowing the answer. How will we do this?

Each brother and sister will make their own choice. It is beyond our control, Rojani said. When we leave, we will keep to the main routes but take different smaller paths as we move north. Those who follow yours will be yours.

What about the nurseries? They have become crowded. Who will look for new ones?

I will look for a new one for the first generation. You must look for one for the next. The third and final are still large enough to sustain two colonies. While our children feed and grow strong we will scout other places for next year.

Fenari circled the broad leaf they were resting on. Their family was prospering under their reign. The numbers had increased.

I will miss those who follow you, Rojani, but you are a great Queen. They are lucky.

As I will those who choose you, sister. They too are lucky. I think Mother would be proud of us.

I still miss her, Fenari said.

We will see her again. Until then, we have responsibilities. Shall we begin?

Rising slowly into the air, the Queens started their journey north, their iridescent white wings fluttering at their own pace.

*  *  *

Winter was still several cycles away. Millions of wings fluttered through the forests and across meadows. The young butterflies enjoyed playing together, forming strong bonds. Although now two colonies, they acted as one. Family was family. Only when they started the return journey to the south would they divide back into separate groups.

Fenari and Rojani had stayed with the arriving generation through their final life cycle. Butterflies sought partners, mated, laid their eggs and then flew away amongst the tall trees, disappearing into the dark forests. When the last were gone, the Queens felt the loneliness of the empty land. It quickly vanished once the eggs hatched. The plants covered with the ravenous caterpillars were quickly consumed until, fat and bloated, the larvae could eat no more. They then metamorphosed into pupae and eventually transformed into butterflies.

*  *  *

It was time for the Queens to begin their search for new nurseries. Their children were old enough to be left on their own for days at a time. Fenari and Rojani followed the southern route for half the morning, unaware they were being followed. 

Do you smell that? Rojani asked, catching a strange scent. 

It smells sweet, sweeter than normal, but not in the way of the Deceiver, Fenari said. Could it be another variety?

Maybe. We must be careful. Mother warned us about the addiction of excessive sweetness. If it smells too good —

— then it is probably bad, Fenari finished.

Yes, she also said there are plants that mimic the Deceiver but are harmless, Rojani said.

I remember. She told us we would know the difference. We must have faith in Mother's trust of us. We should investigate this smell. If it is another Deceiver, we can warn the colonies. If not, it may be another food source.

The sisters followed the scent trail through a dense forest, across several hills until they finally located the source, a large meadow filled with a thick carpet of grasses and wildflowers. Fenari and Rojani didn't recognize any of the floras. It was if they had flown into an entirely new world. Surveying the area, they found several more clearings. One, in particular, had an unusual rock in the middle. Its shape and color didn't blend with its surroundings. The object obviously didn't belong. Sunlight reflected off the smooth, shiny surface. Cautiously Fenari and Rojani approached it, staying far enough away that they could flee if they needed to. When a strange animal suddenly appeared, they realized there was a cave entrance on one side. Two similar creatures followed.

What are they? Fenari asked

I don't know.

Fenari and Rojani watched the things moving around the rock, picking up smaller ones and carrying them back into the cave. It was obvious they could communicate, which meant they were intelligent.

Mother would know what they are, Fenari said confidently.

Rojani agreed, but Mother was not there to tell them. I think we should leave now. It will take a half-day to get back to the colony. Come, sister. Turning, she caught a slight breeze and soared upward. Fenari followed. Neither looked back. If they had, they would have seen the creatures staring in their direction and a dozen small, curious butterflies flitting carelessly behind them toward the rock. Trailing behind the group was a tiny white one. Too young to be afraid and too hungry to resist the sweet smell coming from the cave, they disappeared into darkness. Neither creature seemed to notice the intruders as they too went inside. Moments later, the entrance sealed itself. The ground shook as the strangely shaped rock rose higher and higher into the air before finally vanishing into the clouds.

 

TOUCH OF THE BUTTERFLY

Prologue

SIP968X WAS DISCOVERED more than thirteen-thousand velyars ago. The life forms were now more diverse and evolved than many worlds presently under Lieran observation. Xplor Corporation had designated the planet a Category SIP, meaning of special interest. Three evolving species exhibited unusually high degrees of intelligence. One in particular was on the verge of space travel. They had primitive crafts with propulsion engines powerful enough to push them into orbit. Their progress was monitored every two hundred velyars by an unmanned research vessel. If the inhabitants perfected a drive efficient enough to carry them beyond their solar system, the Lieran would initiate contact. Until then, computers gathered valuable data and transmitted it to Xplor.

Planets approved for physical exploration were normally very primitive. They were EVWs, evolving worlds. Before receiving an assignment to one, Xplor researchers received extensive indoctrination in contact protocols with plant and animal life. Fear of cross-contamination between Lierans and indigenous species was a major concern. One planet had an entire eco-system destroyed because of the careless behavior of a research technician. Other worlds had suffered less severe damage but had been irreparably altered. The Lierans vowed to never repeat those mistakes.

Unfortunately, even the best of intentions is often sacrificed for profit. Screening and training didn't guarantee researchers would adhere to every regulation. Explorers were naturally curious, a strength that, occasionally, exposed weaknesses. Xplor chose their brightest people for their research teams. Sometimes they overlooked minor infractions if person showed exceptional potential. Progress always came with risk, and profits came from progress.

 

CHAPTER 1

EVW984L

THE LUMINESCENT WHITE butterfly was exquisite. Light reflected off the wings, creating a faint glowing halo around an elongated golden body. Louai watched it flutter aimlessly from flower to flower, settling on one and then moving to another. The size of a small plate, it was the largest Louai had ever seen on any of the EVWs she had explored. Without thinking, she held up her left hand, palm upward, wiggling her fingers in hopes of enticing the beautiful creature closer. It worked. As if drawn by an invisible string, the butterfly launched itself off a red-and-yellow blossom straight toward her, settling lightly on her fingertips. Louai shifted the animal to her right hand, barely able to contain her excitement. She could easily make out the intricate patterns on each wing.

"You're gorgeous," Louai whispered, not wanting to startle the insect. "I know touching you is forbidden but, technically, you came to me, didn't you?" Lifting her hand higher, she raised it to eye level for a closer inspection. The butterfly adjusted its position to face Louai. Glistening dark purple eyes stared at her. Louai felt herself being drawn into their depths. The world around her momentarily disappeared, replaced by swirling ghostly images from her past; memories she had long forgotten and wished had remained that way. Then scenes of lush, tranquil forests and flowers flashed by, bringing with them a sense of calm and wonder. Suddenly the vision vanished in an explosion of colors, bringing her back to reality.

What the helvin happened? she thought, shaking her head to clear the lingering memories and disorientation. Not wanting to risk a repeat of the experience, Louai tossed the butterfly into the air and watched it flap slowly away, unconsciously rubbing her hands together in an attempt to wipe all evidence of having handled the creature. A loud crack of thunder reminded her that a storm was moving in. From previous experiences, Louai didn't want to be caught outside when it arrived. They were usually short, but often violent.

"That wasn't very smart," she muttered, regretting her impulsive behavior, a character trait she had battled all of her life. Lylia wasn't going to be happy when she learned Louai had violated a critical Xplor regulation, especially since they had recently reinstated her after a similar infraction. Restricted to lab work for six velmons had felt like an eternity. Fortunately, Lylia, one of the top researchers in the company, agreed to team up with her if she promised to behave.

"Behave! It makes me sound like a child. What's the use of being a scientist if I can't examine specimens up close?" She sighed and then flinched as lightning flashed closer in the distance. If lucky, she had thirty velmins before the rain started, more than enough time to reach base camp. I'd better go and tell her what I've done. Dreading the impending lecture, Louai gathered her equipment and trudged quickly but reluctantly toward the ship. Hopefully Lylia wouldn't report her to Xplor. She doubted if they'd be so forgiving this time.

*  *  *

Crouching, Lylia studied the data scrolling across the datavid in her right hand. The soil contained interesting minerals and elements but nothing to get excited about, not that she usually got excited about anything anymore. Well, other than the thought of seeing Ariana soon. Velyars of exploration had a way of tempering youthful exuberance and Lylia felt she had seen just about everything there was to see. It was true every planet was unique. The chemical composition of life on habitable EVWs was less so. In the infinite worlds of possibilities, only a small window of variables existed that could sustain complex species. EVW984L was beautiful.

But boring, Lylia thought and then looked at the sky as thunder rolled ominously just beyond the tree line. Looks like a bad one coming in. I hope Louai gets back soon.

The sound of something thrashing through the underbrush snapped Lylia back to her surroundings. Slipping the datavid into her pocket she glanced around, attempting to locate the direction of the noise. To her right, the tops of bushes were being slammed aside. Whatever was moving toward her was big. Her hand moved to rest on the weapon strapped to her left hip. EVW984L wasn't a hostile world, but plenty of animals were capable of killing her or, at the very least, inflicting serious harm. Lylia had already destroyed a large-horned herbivore after it tried to gore Louai. They had inadvertently stumbled onto it while it was resting. Startled, the frightened animal attacked them, leaving Lylia no choice but to kill it. The researchers were saddened at the taking of a life.

*  *  *

A bush in front of Lylia shook violently. Gripping her plazgun tightly, she partially slid it from her belt but shoved it back in place when Louai's head and shoulders pushed through the thick foliage. Her left hand was cupped in her right. Both were clutched tightly against her chest. Whether the expression on her face was fear or pain, Lylia couldn't tell, not that it mattered. Louai was in serious trouble.

"What have you done?" Lylia shouted, racing forward but barely reaching Louai in time to cushion her assistant's fall as she collapsed to her knees.

"I'm sor —"

"It's alright. I've got you," Lylia said, lowering her to the ground. "Louai! Louai! What happened?" Receiving no response, Lylia checked for a pulse. She exhaled slowly when she felt the faint beat near the right ear. Her relief was short lived. Her assistant was clearly unresponsive but her eyes were wide open. Blue bruise-like blotches began appearing on her face, followed by webs of dark green streaks. Fearing Louai was infected with an unknown organism, Lylia jumped to her feet and backed away.

Felk! What happened? What do I do now? she thought, staring in horror at her companion. Her mind raced through all the possibilities and came up empty. Think! Antivere! Yanking open the small pouch on her right hip, she grabbed a small vial. The pink solution glowed under the red rays of the sun peeking between rapidly moving clouds. Lylia snapped the tip off. Cautiously she stepped forward. Although they had been on assignment less than six velmons, she and Louai had grown close, a necessity for the mental stability required to complete the long, isolated research assignments.

I can do this. I can do this. Lylia repeated the mantra over and over in a useless attempt to control the underlying fear that Louai had contracted a transmittable disease. I'm probably already infected. Unconsciously, she wiped her free hand on her pant leg then examined it for evidence of contamination. Maybe it's something she inhaled. No, the nasal screens would prevent that. Facemasks weren't practical for long-term explorations; all offworld researchers were implanted with micro-filters, preventing airborne contaminants from entering the lungs. Feeling panicky, she slowed her breathing. This is ridiculous. Whatever happened doesn't matter now. Kneeling, she reluctantly leaned forward and plunged the needle into Louai's neck. 

*  *  *

Louai's face was swelling. Her eyes appeared to be closing. Lylia felt nauseous when she realized the growing puffiness of the lids was forcing them together. How much more can skin stretch? she wondered in morbid fascination. Touching Louai was no longer a possibility. Whatever was causing the bizarre reaction had progressed beyond Lylia's capability to handle. The antivere proved useless. All that was left was to watch and hope she didn't suffer the same fate. I need to record this, Lylia thought and then grimaced. Scientist to the end.

Sliding the datavid from her pocket, she activated the vidcord and swept it along the length of Louai's body. Images streamed across the screen as the instrument transmitted the recorded data to the main computer in their spaceship. At least, Lylia hoped it was being transmitted. Something in the atmosphere of EVW984L had proven problematic for any transmission when storms were present or even nearby. Lylia wasn't sure if the approaching front would have the same effect.

Because Lylia had also pressed the emergency button, two events were automatically triggered. The information received by Comm, the onboard communication system, would be relayed to Xplor to be analyzed. What the corporation did after that was up to them. Then the research vessel's launch thrusters were locked down, preventing the ship from taking off. Xplor wasn't going to chance an epidemic outbreak on the home world. Vessel decontamination would be necessary before it could leave the planet. 

Right now, Lylia needed to identify the source of Louai's illness, or at least if it was contagious before any rescue mission received authorization to land. It will probably take a good velmon before they get here, she thought. And that's the least of my problems.

Turning her attention back to Louai, Lylia was horrified to see the body had swollen to more than twice its normal size. The gray one-piece uniform was stretched to its limit. The suit would probably withstand the stress of the bloating body awhile longer but Lylia knew the exposed skin around the hands, neck and head did not have the same strength or elasticity.

"I'm sorry," Lylia murmured, feeling guilty. As a friend she felt she had failed Louai. As a scientist, the rapidly developing symptoms were intriguing. Being so close, however, was a foolish risk. Lylia stood up and backed away, her eyes never leaving Louai's distorted face — that is, until a butterfly with white wings landed on the swollen, bulbous nose.

"What the..." Slowly the butterfly raised each wing, lowered them and repeated the movement four times. A golden halo surrounded the insect's body, causing it to glow. As gently as it had landed, it lifted into the air and flew away. Mesmerized, Lylia watched it disappear into the forest. Louai had mentioned the day before that she had seen one, but Lylia didn't really believe her. That species of insect was conspicuously absent on this particular world. She thought it was wishful thinking on her associate's part, perhaps mistaking a small bird for something she hoped to see. As a scientist, Lylia knew better than to assume anything. She should have asked more questions, not that it made any difference now. They wouldn't be sharing this experience. "A butterfly," Lylia murmured, looking down at Louai, hoping beyond reason she had seen it too.

What Lylia saw paralyzed her. Gasping, she gagged, trying to suppress the urge to vomit.

Eyeballs protruded, extending outward beyond horribly swollen cheeks. Instinctively, Lylia raised her hands up to block what she knew was about to happen. She was barely able to shield her eyes before the head exploded, spewing greenish-blue ooze over the surrounding area.

"Felk!"

Dropping the datavid, she frantically wiped at the thick, warm goo covering her face, inadvertently smearing some into her eyes. If she wasn't infected before, she had to be now. Going home was no longer a possibility. Considering the rapid advancement of Louai's symptoms, Lylia probably had velmins left before the same thing happened to her.

 

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