After a short nap, Leopold’s first order of business was to visit the mess hall. He couldn’t remember the last time he had gone so long without eating, but his stomach complained pitifully.
“Good, the salad bar’s still open!” he said to himself as he entered the room.
Leopold piled his tray with generous helpings of leaves, grass, and a few flower petals for extra flavor then found an empty table and sat down to refuel. Either the food was exceptionally delicious today, or he was just too hungry to care. He shoveled another handful of greens into his mouth and glanced around.
The mess hall was mostly empty, except for a group of new recruits huddled together a few tables away.
“How ya been, Leo?”
Leopold looked around to see Sam Ladybug approaching. “Hey, Sam! I’m alright. The flight over really worked up my appetite though.”
Sam giggled and fluttered her black silk wings. “Well,” she taunted, “you should grow your own wings. Then you wouldn’t have to worry about falling, wouldja?” She sat at the table with her own tray of food.
Leopold shrugged. “Yeah, guess so. How about you? What’ve you been up to?”
“Same old, same old,” Sam replied as she nibbled at a blade of grass. “Just finished my assignment up at the lake.”
“That’s right! You were on West Nile duty, weren’t you?”
“Yep.” Sam rubbed her forehead and groaned. “It was a nightmare! You know how annoying mosquitoes are, even at their best.”
“Oh yeah,” Leopold nodded. “They’re worse than Frank!”
Sam laughed and wiped a tear from her eye. “Definitely. Anyway, after we finally rounded them all up, it took three days of continuous arguing to convince them they were the cause of all the sick humans. And when we tried to treat the little buggers, we had to chase ’em all down again–who new flying needles would be so terrified of getting pricked themselves? Really.”
“Sounds exhausting,” Leopold chuckled.
“You got that right,” Sam sighed. “Well, it’s over now. And good riddance! At least this new assignment should be much more interesting!” She leaned forward and whispered so only Leopold could hear. “I for one am incredibly excited to study the subjects in more detail.”
Leopold grunted his agreement, since his mouth was too full at the moment to speak. He had guessed when he saw Sam at the meeting that she must be heading the research team for the operation. Sam was a scientist after all–a real smart one at that–rather than a field agent. She spent most of her time in the Research and Development Labs (or R&D as it was most often called). Occasionally, however, her expertise would be required in the field.
“So…” Leopold mused once he swallowed his food, “are you coming with us to the crash site?”
“Yep!” Sam replied, beaming. “Gotta collect some samples. Plus, on the off chance that we do run into a Morph, I might be able to offer some assistance.”
“I see,” said Leopold. “Do you already have some information on them, then?”
Sam shrugged. “Nothing definitive, just theories. Hopefully we will be able to learn more about their behavior if we succeed in capturing a live one.”
Leopold eyed her suspiciously. “Do we have dead Morphs hidden away somewhere? You know, bodies left behind from the first invasion?”
Sam pursed her lips. “That’s classified information. Level 2 clearance and above only.”
“That’s what I thought.”
“Oh my!” Sam started suddenly and leapt to her feet. “Look at the time! We’re supposed to be at the training room!”
Leopold turned around and peered at the clock on the wall–humans called it a “watch,” but it was the perfect sized clock for insects. Sure enough, Sam was right. Training started in fifteen minutes.
“Oops. We should get going,” said Leopold, standing and pushing his mostly empty tray away.
Sam nodded and scampered off without another word. Leopold waited until she was out the door, then snatched up the remaining greens from his tray and stuffed them in the pouch tied around his midsection for later. One never knew when food might become scarce.
* * *
They rushed down several twisting hallways until at last they skidded to a halt in front of a door. The sign above it read, “Training Room #3.” Sam pushed the door open and they entered together.
“Leo!” Henry called as the door swung shut. “Sam! There you two are. We’ll be starting special weapons training in a few minutes. Feel free to warm up with the others if you want.”
“Sure thing, boss!” Leopold saluted, then scanned the room to see what the other agents were doing.
Brax Wasp was flying through an aerial obstacle course with impressive dexterity, while shooting cardboard enemies with a dart gun. Timothy Ant was bench pressing weights in the corner of the room. With careful, steady breathing he pushed up on the bar laden on each end with discarded copper discs–what the humans called “pennies.” The stick bug (whose name Leopold didn’t know) practiced his camouflage techniques among an elaborate setting of twigs and branches while Diana Spider tried to catch him with her thread.
In the roped-off ring in the center of the room, Frank Grasshopper faced a wooden dummy in the form of a rather realistic tarantula. A master of martial arts, Frank struck his opponent over and over with deft blows. The contradiction between the grasshopper’s loud, boisterous personality and his skills in the fine art of self discipline and patience made for an interesting combination. Leopold could just picture Frank as a young grasshopper in Japan studying under some serious, ancient sensei, and hollering “Yee-haw!” as he hopped from end to end of the dojo.
Sam walked off to speak to Henry, while Leopold thought he might join Timothy Ant over at the weight area.
“Howdy, Leo!” Frank shouted, leaning over the rope of the ring.
Leopold considered pretending he hadn’t heard him, but Frank was rather difficult to ignore.
“Leo!” he shouted again even louder. “Le-o! Leo-Leo-Leo!”
“What, Frank?” Leopold snapped.
Frank lowered his voice (which in his case meant he spoke at a normal level of volume). “Feelin’ up to a little one-on-one, ol’ boy?” He bounded back to the center of the ring and gave the dummy a hard kick. “I could use the challenge, now I’m warmed up and ready ta spit fire!”
He made a loud, nasty hawking sound and spit on the dummy. “Tsss!” Frank added for effect, mimicking the sound of steam while wiggling his hands in what Leopold supposed was meant to be “flame-like” movement.
“Really, I don’t think I’d be much of a challenge for you,” replied Leopold, whose sarcasm went unnoticed. “Besides, I haven’t even warmed up yet.”
“Well, warm up then, pardner!” Frank yelled, returning to his usual volume level. “Whatcha waitin’ fer?”
Leopold started some stretches while Frank pelted his dummy with a few more kicks.
“I’m tellin’ ya,” the grasshopper gloated, “I think I got them there Morphs in the bag. Juss wait ’til they get a load o’ me!” He beat his chest and growled.
“Yeah,” Leopold said. He added under his breath, “Maybe if we’re lucky you’ll annoy them all to death.”
“I wouldn’t be too cocky if I were you, Frank. Morphs are physically superior in most every way,” said a female voice behind Leopold. He turned and saw Evelyn Butterfly, head of Tactical Training. Her gorgeous, silky yellow wings hypnotized Leopold. He felt his face flush as she turned and smiled at him. “Hello, Leo.”
“Har!” Leopold clamped his mouth shut, horrified by the stupid sound that had just escaped it. Why did he always lose basic communication skills and motor function around her? Evelyn gave him a puzzled look, but before he could redeem himself Frank cut in.
“What didja mean, Evie?” His arm was now wrapped around the dummy’s head in a choke hold. “You think I’m not up ta takin’ on the Morphs?”
“Oh, I don’t doubt your own skills,” said Evelyn. “It’s just a matter of natural, physical advantage.”
Frank considered her warily. “What sort of avantages?”
“For starters, Morphs are easily twice your size in their natural state. And, of course, they can change their size when they shape-shift.”
“Psh!” Frank scoffed. “I’ve taken on plenty bullies bigger than me!”
“How many of those bullies had pincers for mouths, with vice-like grips capable of snapping you in half as easily as a dry leaf?” Evelyn narrowed her eyes.
Frank gulped. “P-pincers?”
“Yep. Then there’s their stingers, of course.”
“Stingers too?” Frank’s face paled.
“Mm-hmm. They have long tails with stingers on the end, like scorpions. Only we’re pretty sure their poison is deadlier. And don’t forget about their exoskeletons as tough as rocks.”
“Oh.” Frank scratched his chin and his eyes crossed in concentration. For one glorious moment, he was actually at a loss for words. Evelyn had never been so attractive to Leopold.
“Look ‘ere!” Frank said finally, regaining some of his vivacity. “They may be deadly, but they still gotta catch me first! Yai-yai-yai!!“
He bounded around the ring in a frenzy, whooping and shouting war cries. Evelyn rolled her eyes and walked away, much to Leopold’s relief.
“Can’t get me! Can’t get me! Oops! Missed me again!” Frank stopped long enough to turn and see if Evelyn was still watching. “Where’d she go?”
Leopold shrugged and turned to leave as well, but Frank hopped over the rope and landed right beside him.
“Ya know,” Frank murmured conspiratorially, “Ya get awf’lly googly-eyed around Ms. Evie. If I didn’t know no better, I’d say yer sweet on ‘er.”
“What?” Leopold cried a little too defensively. He shot an alarmed glance in her direction to make sure she hadn’t heard. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Oh-ho! Ya don’t, doncha?” Frank jabbed, brimming with glee. Then, to Leopold’s utter dismay, Frank started hopping around him in a circle, singing loudly. “Leo loves Evie! Leo loves Evie! Leo loves Evie!”
“Shut up, Frank!” Leopold hissed. “She’ll hear you!”
Frank giggled and continued hopping in a circle.
“For crying out loud, stop acting like a nymph! You’re a fully-grown grasshopper after all,” Leopold begged.
Luckily, Evelyn was by then out of ear shot of Frank’s embarrassing display. She looked over a table of weapons, straightened a few of the items, then pressed a big red button on the wall. At once, a loud buzzer rang. The others stopped their activities.
“Everyone gather over here, please!” called Evelyn.
“Oh, sweet honey!” said Frank. “Shiny new weapons!” He reached the table in three long bounds.
Leopold pulled out a leaf from his pouch and munched on it to calm his nerves. He had never been so thankful for Frank’s short attention span.
To be continued…