Leopold joined the other agents crowding around the table laden with the latest and best weapons.
“Now, we’re all aware that relatively little is known about the Morphs so far, given our brief contact with them,” said Evelyn Butterfly. “Unfortunately for us, that means we’re at the disadvantage because we don’t know how to defend ourselves against them or what their weaknesses are.”
“We’ll juss give ’em a good ol’ fashioned whoopin’!” exclaimed Frank Grasshopper, throwing his fists in all directions.
Evelyn fixed him with a steely glare. Frank froze in mid-strike, then slowly lowered his fists and mumbled to his feet.
“As I was saying,” Evelyn continued in a measured voice, “we don’t know how to fight these things yet. However, what little we do know about them–and what more our scientists have theorized–leads me to believe that a good ol’ fashioned whoopin’ won’t be enough in this case. So, we’ll simply have to be as prepared as we can and hope for the best.”
No one voiced their opinions this time, but Leopold guessed by the uncomfortable look on the others’ faces that there were all thinking the same thing as him–“hoping for the best” wasn’t exactly a reassuring plan.
“You will all need to be adaptable.” Evelyn enunciated each syllable clearly to emphasize her point. “With that said, we don’t plan on sending you out into the field unarmed.” She waved a hand over the table. “As you can see, I have a few old favorites for you as well as some new prototypes that have just been cleared for field testing. I have a feeling you’ll like them.” A sly grin graced her face.
The agents all muttered in excitement and gathered closer around the table. Frank stepped on one of Leopold’s feet, making his eyes water. Muttering under his breath, Leopold pushed his way through to see the new gear for himself.
A slew of contraptions were strewn across the table, most of which Leopold recognized. There were a few guns, new generation communication devices, as well as a slingshot, among other devices. The only thing on the table that completely baffled him was a small, unassuming wooden rod which looked quite out of place among the other fancy gadgets. Even the slingshot clearly had been fitted out with high-tech upgrades. Not so with the stick, as far as Leopold could tell. It was too small to even be useful as a bludgeoning tool, except against fleas, perhaps.
“First up,” announced Evelyn, picking up one of the guns, “we have the new and improved stunners, equipped with armor piercing, high strength stun darts.” She held up a single dart for inspection. Its sharp metal tip gleamed ominously in the low light. “Do not under any circumstances touch the tip when handling these bad boys, or you’ll be out for a long nap before you can say ‘bug spray.'” Leopold glanced up and noticed Sam Ladybug staring at the dart with eyes as wide as her face. “Each stunner also comes equipped with a focus and, when extreme accuracy is required–” she clicked a button on the side, “a laser point.”
Everyone turned in the direction Evelyn was aiming and saw a small red dot directly between Frank’s eyes. The grasshopper looked frantically at his fellow agents. “What?” he demanded. “What’re y’all lookin’ at me fer?”
Evelyn giggled and lowered the gun. “Next up, we have these leather harnesses. You have been ordered to attempt to bring at least one Morph back to HQ for study. For safety reasons, once you’re managed to stun one you should restrain it tightly in one of these to reduce the likelihood of it escaping. Even so, it should be kept under guard at all times. And here are your new communication and navigation devices.” She handed a wrist band to each agent and they secured them to their arms. “They’ve been redesigned for comfort and ease of access. There are already several preset locations, which you can scroll through by twisting the button on the right side. To select a location, simply press the button in. The face of the device will then show you your current location as well as the direction of your target. To communicate with each other, just hold in the button on the left side.”
“Psst. Psst! Leo!” Leopold’s wrist whispered to him. “Guess who?”
Leopold turned to Frank and gave him an impatient look. “I know it’s you, Frank.”
“Aw, come on!” Frank whined. “You’re supposed to say it with your wrist band.”
Evelyn cleared her throat loudly to get their attention, then picked up the slingshot. “Many of you will be happy to see that the highly-requested and anticipated slingshot is finally ready for your use.”
“Ooh!” Frank clapped with glee. Diana Spider and Brax Wasp gave each other a high five. Even Leopold couldn’t suppress a grin. He had heard about these.
“It is collapsible with a simple press of this button, for easy and compact storage. Not only that, but we have designed special ammo for the slingshot as well.” Evelyn pointed to a line of small, brightly-colored projectiles. “First is the Exploding Peas,” she pointed to a round, green ball that did in fact resemble a pea. “Once hurled through the air, they will explode upon contact with any solid surface. They have a blast radius of approximately two inches, so don’t get in the way. Next is the Pocket Web, for those of us not naturally gifted in the area of silk production.” This time she pointed at a blue pellet. “When this one strikes a target, a sticky web will burst out of it, covering about an inch of surface area. Perfect for capturing an escaping foe, or holding an object in place. There’s also the Trackers.” Evelyn touched the yellow ball, which stuck to her finger when she pulled away. “These pellets are made out of a special, highly adhesive substance. Just hurl these at a target, and they will latch on. Inside, they contain a tiny tracking device which will appear on your wrist band.”
She picked up the last of the ammo, a bright red sphere. “Finally, there’s my personal favorite: the Flame Thrower.”
There were several “oohs” and “ahs” from the agents. The name alone was impressive, even if they didn’t know exactly what it did yet.
“To use these babies, you need to aim them at the target then press the matching red target lock button on the back of the slingshot, here.” She held out the slingshot again, making sure everybody could see the button on the back of the stick, right under where the two arms joined together. “Once the target is locked, release the projectile and it will follow the target’s heat signature until contact, at which point it will burst into flame. You will each be armed with one slingshot and a personal supply of ammo, in addition to special holsters to hold it all.”
The agents all started talking at once, clambering over each other to get their new weapons.
“Hold it!” cried Evelyn. “Order, agents! Order!” Once everyone had settled down, she continued. “I don’t have your weapons now. They’ll be delivered to your bunks tonight.”
The agents all hung their heads.
“There is, however, one last weapon I have to show you. It is the least conspicuous of everything here, but it is no less deadly.” Everyone eyed the wooden rod curiously as Evelyn lifted it off the table. “By appearance, it is nothing but a blunt stick, yes?” The agents all nodded in agreement.
Evelyn pushed a small, brown button on the side that blended in so well with the wood that Leopold hadn’t even noticed it before. With a sharp twang! a long, silver blade sprang out of the end. The others gasped and jumped back.
Evelyn grinned. “We call this the Wasp. Light weight, hard steel that keeps its edge well, hidden inside an unassuming shaft for surprise attacks. This blade will slice through bone like butter.” She slashed it through the air for effect. “To hide it again, simply press the same button and–” the blade shot back inside. “You have a harmless stick again, until the next time you need to sting your enemy.”
Frank whistled. “That’s a purty piece, that is. But I vote we change its name to Sting.” He laughed at his own joke, but no one joined him. “Oh, come on!” Frank looked imploringly at the others. “You know, Sting. Like Bilbo’s sword! Bilbo Baggins? The Hobbit?”
“Frank,” Evelyn sighed, “we don’t have time for your human references that only you understand.”
“Yeah, but…but…Hobbits!” Frank appealed to the others, looking truly scandalized. “There’s a whole lot of them ‘movies’ about it. Saw ’em all at an outdoor thee-ater.”
“I think we’ll stick with Wasp,” said Evelyn.
Brax Wasp sniffed derisively. “I hardly zzee the zzimilarity. A real wazzp is far deadlier.”
“Of course,” Evelyn deferred. “But we do what we can. Anyway, the name’s not important. Any questions?”
Everyone shook their heads.
Henry Caterpillar–or rather, Henry Butterfly now–stepped forward. “Don’t forget you leave at first light tomorrow, so get your rest tonight. Your personal equipment will be delivered shortly to your bunks. Dismissed.”
* * *
As Leopold gathered his things and prepared to leave the following morning, there was a knock on his door. He opened it to see Sam Ladybug standing before him, shifting her weight nervously.
“Morning,” she said hoarsely.
“Morning,” replied Leopold.
“I’m sorry to bother you. I know you’re probably busy getting ready.”
“It’s alright,” said Leopold. “I’m basically ready to go now. My bunk mates are still at the mess hall, but I ate early.”
“Good, good.” Sam continued to look at her feet, embarrassed.
“Can I help you?” Leopold suggested.
Sam blushed. “I just wondered if…well…if maybe you could help me with this–if you don’t mind, that is.” Sam held out her stun gun, still avoiding Leopold’s eyes. “The ant who delivered it to me last night said something about a ‘safety’ that will keep it from firing accidentally, but I’m not sure where it is exactly.”
Leopold considered her incredulously. “Why didn’t you just ask the ant?”
Sam finally lifted her eyes and gave him an exasperated look. “Really, Leo? He was an ant. Their egos are already disproportionate to their physical size. I wasn’t about to give him the satisfaction.”
Leopold chuckled. “Alright, alright. Look,” he took her gun and pointed to the button on the side. “That is the safety. Push it this way, and the safety is on. Push it the other way, and now it’s ready to fire. That’s it.”
“Gee, thanks, Leo,” sighed Sam. “I didn’t know who else to go to. I’m so not up to scratch with the rest of you.”
“Nah, don’t beat yourself up like that,” Leopold patted her shoulder. “We may be field-tested, but you’re the brains of the operation.”
Sam smiled appreciatively. “Thanks, Leo. You’re the best.”
“Just saying the truth is all,” replied Leopold. “Besides, look on the bright side. Odds are you won’t even have to use any of your weapons. Your job is to investigate, study, and advise. The rest of us will do the dirty work. You’re well protected.”
“Yeah, I know,” said Sam, visibly relaxing. “Do you mind if I walk with you to departures?”
“Not at all. Just let me finish up.” Leopold donned his utility belt, holster, weapons and ammo (he already resupplied his snack pouch earlier at breakfast). “Alright, let’s go!”
Up at the departure deck, they found most of the other agents already gathered. Leopold noted the blanket of thin, whispy fog that reached far past the trees in the direction they would be flying. That was good; the fog would would provide them with some cover.
A few minutes later, Chief Mantis himself walked out onto the branch, accompanied by Henry.
“Good morning agents,” said Chief. “Thank you for your timely preparation. Are all agents present and accounted for?” He turned to Henry, who was silently counting them off and checking a list in his hand.
“Yes, sir. All agents present and accounted for. Operation Night Crawler is a go.”
“Very good,” said Chief. “Remember agents, your objective is to investigate the crash site and gather clues, if any, about the Morphs. In the unlikely event you do come across one, you are to attempt to capture it and bring it back alive to headquarters.”
“Yes, sir!” the agents cried in unison.
“Very well. Good luck, and be safe.” Chief turned on his heels and marched back inside. He was never one for long or dramatic goodbyes.
“The coordinates for the crash site have already been preset on your wrist bands,” Henry explained. “When you’re ready to return, just turn the button on the right side to select ‘HQ’ from a list of other preset coordinates. Ah, and here comes your transport now!”
A rush of wings announced the arrival of four birds, who landed on the far end of the branch, awaiting their passengers. Leopold groaned softly to himself.
“Everyone partner up!” shouted Henry over the commotion.
Leopold panicked when he saw Frank making his way over, and quickly turned to Sam. “Wanna be my riding partner?”
Sam smiled widely. “Yes, of course!”
They fell in line behind the others and approached the birds.
Those at the front of the line mounted their birds and took off, leaving just Leopold and Sam. They approached the remaining bird, a rather hyperactive blue jay.
“Hey, stranger! What are the odds that we’d be paired together again! Hop on board, and we’ll catch up with the others. I can’t believe where we get to go! Are you excited? I’m so excited I can barely fly straight!”
Leopold sighed. “Hi, Joy.” He climbed onto the bird’s back and resigned himself to the reality of another long, uncomfortably flight. Sam fluttered up behind him.
“All set?” Joy squeaked over her shoulder at them.
“Ten-four,” said Leopold. Then, under his breath he added, “Let’s get this over with.”
Joy spread her wings and sprang up into the air. “ooh-wee!” she shrieked with glee.
Leopold clutched handfuls of feathers and closed his eyes to the quickly-shrinking forest below. When he felt Joy level out, he opened his eyes again and saw three other birds in front of them, each carrying two fellow agents.
Joy laughed into the wind and shouted, “Let’s go kick some alien booty!”
To be continued…