The assembled members of the scientific staff each had a visible Strepsipterid protruding or pulsating beneath their clothing, and their faces all wore the same beatific expression. Motile scurrying larval planidia, each the size of silver dollars, crawled over the floor and the bodies of the people in their thrall, while butterfly-sized males flitted from perch to perch about the larviform female parasites.

“They are peaceful parasites, it is true, but that does not mean they do not know a modicum of defense.” Dr. Warren said, her voice a serene monotone. “The others are dead; having refused the gift, we were forced to act in the name of the greater good.”

It was only then that Gracie noticed the soldiers in the wings, their rifles limber and deadly, their own Streptisterid parasites alive with pulsations.

“Surely you must concede, Dr. Warren,” Gracie said, trying to appeal to what might be left of her colleague’s logic, “that one can refuse the gift but not wish those who have accepted it harm. Isn’t that the kind of ‘if you’re not with us, you’re against us’ thinking that your peace seeks to defeat?”

“You are proceeding from a false assumption,” Warren replied coldly. “Could the creatures of the Precambrian who could not to adapt to an oxygen-rich atmosphere from one that was purely nitrogen persist? Of course not. The gift is oxygen; to refuse is by definition to die.”

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They are the most enigmatic order of insects, and yet in many ways the most beautiful, the most devoted. It’s a measure of how little we know of them that they have only such cold and impersonal names as Strepsiptera or “twist-winged flies.” I have devoted my life to their study.

I am sure that at some stage in their evolution they were something else, but in our era they are parasites, living inside creatures as varied and pestilent as wasps, silverfish, cockroaches. The young are scuttling planidium, almost microscopic in the wild, that burrow into the larger insects they parasitize. Once inside, they undergo hypermetamorphosis, losing their legs and their eyes in favor of a wormlike form that has a variety of effects on its host in addition to living off it as a parasite. They can alter the host’s behavior in a much more complex way than Cordyceps fungi to suit their needs; causing it to go where they want and to congregate with more it its kind.

Females remain wormlike parasitic grubs their whole lives, but the males eventually metamorphose again into tiny fly-like organisms with beautiful gossamer wings. They have only a few hours to find and mate with a female before their energy reserves are exhausted, and cannot eat…what used to be their mouth has been modified into a sensory structure of unparallelled power for something so tiny. There’s a certain purity about Strepsiptera that’s not found in any other creature; they never eat when they are mobile, and they do not typically kill their hosts.

My sponsors in the military hoped to use Strepsiptera’s ability to alter the behavior of its hosts for strategic purposes, and that was the source of our experimental breeding program, trying to create a Strepsiptera large enough to affect a mammalian host and one that will alter behavior in the way that would be useful for killing and maiming, even though that is not at all in keeping with the nature of these gentle parasites. The largest males of our new strain were the size of butterflies, their wings a thousand times more delicate and beautiful, and their heads aquiver with complex sense organs and the most basal compound eyes in the insect world. The females were much larger, and gave birth to young who could secrete enzymes to break down not only skin but also clothing to enter.

They said that the experiments were ultimately a failure, that the behavior induced in the test animals was simply limited to congregating with other parasitized specimens and becoming deeply protective of the living monuments to maternity within and the fleeting, selfless masculine gossamer flutterlings without. They said that the funding was to be pulled before we could engage on field trials and human subjects. They are peaceful parasites, it is true, but that does not mean they do not know a modicum of defense.

We are all huddled together now in the laboratory on the base, deriving the most serene comfort from each others’ presence, the sort of feeling that would have precluded all human conflict had we but discovered it earlier. The ones outside are dead; having refused the gift, we were forced to act in the name of the greater good. They are peaceful parasites, it is true, but that does not mean they do not know a modicum of defense.

I can see them protruding from my abdomen now, a dozen or more gently quivering with peace and life. Some destined to reside in me forever, to bring forth brood upon brood of peace and brotherhood to release upon the world; some destined to soon burst forth in fleeting gossamer life to mate with others and bring still more broods about.

Strepsiptera. Twist-winged flies. Parasites. Love, in its purest and most selfless form. I cannot wait to see where they will take us in their purity.

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