Chapter Four – Western Kentucky University, Bowling Green, Ky, USA
"I don’t want pizza again!" Jacob folded his arm in a childish display of anger. "We’ve had pizza three times this week and I’m up to here with pizza." He held his hand in front of his forehead to emphasize his point. Almost ten, Jacob Schmitt was usually a calm and polite boy, but his mother clearly noticed that he was developing a streak of rebellion.
"Your call," Tapitha replied. "But, I have to go by the University and check on a package that Doctor Gallagher sent. He’s a friend of mine who lives in Ireland. He said it was very important."
Tapitha Schmitt was due to turn forty in a few months, although she didn’t look a day over thirty. She was petite, with lustrous auburn hair that she kept almost at shoulder length, and a small pointy noise that gave her the look of a pixie, and she weighed in around a hundred-ten pounds. Her ex-husband often referred to her as Tinker Bell, a name she did not appreciate. Naturally, he only used it out of spite. She had once tried to die her hair blond to please him, but she thought she looked more like a baby chicken than the adorable Peter Pan sidekick.
She finally managed to divorce the drunken pretend cowboy after offering him ten grand in settlement to sign the papers. She could never understand what had drawn her to him in the first place. All he ever wanted was to party, play, drink, and have sex, with whoever came along at the moment. The only good thing to come out of the marriage was Jacob, and even then the poor boy got stuck with the crazy cowboy middle name of, Rhory.
"There’s a Taco Bell near the University," Jacob cut into her thoughts. "I want tacos for lunch."
Tapitha nodded her head in agreement and turned in at the taco stand. They ate out more often than at home because of her teaching schedule. Although she had degrees in entomology and myrmecology, she taught biology at Western Kentucky University to pay the bills. Her first name always became a conversation piece with the new students until she cut them off with a nasty look. Her French mother, unaccustomed to English names, had used the Tap instead of Tabitha. Of course, she was accustomed to being called Tap or Tappy.
Sunday was the only day she could count on to spend time with Jacob. Today was Sunday and they planned a short trip to Mammoth Cave, just north of town. They had visited the cave at least three times already, but something about the vast caverns fascinated Jacob. Lately, they had visited just about every cave system within a hundred miles of Bowling Green.
The package from Doctor Gallagher had arrived late yesterday and she wanted to at least take a cursory glance at it before they headed for the caves. Eoin noted over the phone that he had classified the eggs as insect, but was unable to determine the species. She was surprised to see the size of the eggs when she opened the crate. At first she thought he had made a mistake. No insect eggs she knew of, prehistoric or otherwise, ever came near the size of the ones in the crate. She had taken one out and left it in the refrigerator to slowly thaw over night.
Prehistoric eggs, Tappy thought, biting into the delicious smelling chalupa. Insect eggs at that. Her curiosity was starting to boil over and she found herself devouring the meal faster than normal. The place was packed. It seemed like every family in the area had decided to eat Mexican food today. She planned to have a home cooked meal for dinner, one of the few she managed to get around too with her busy schedule. Jacob deserved at least one home cooked meal instead of the fast food fiesta she brought home every night.
Fifteen minutes later they were in her lab at the University. Tappy removed the thawed egg and took it to her dissection table.
"Wow!" Jacob blurted as he saw the huge egg. "Is that a dinosaur egg?"
"It’s prehistoric," Tappy answered. "Doctor Gallagher said it came from a friend of his who found it in Antarctica. He said it had to be at least thirty-four million years old."
"I’ll bet it’s a T-Rex."
"Gallagher thinks it is an insect."
"No way!" Jacob stated in an awed voice.
"I’m thinking it may be Meganeuropsis permiana," Tappy smiled. "Or, perhaps Mageneuridae. They’re prehistoric members of the dragonfly family. They lived back in the Late Permian and had a thirty-inch wing span and eighteen-inch body. As big as they were, I still can’t account for the size of these eggs."
Tappy removed a sample of the yolk and took it her electron microscope. The characteristics looked familiar but she could not define it.
"We’re going to have to do a DNA test." She looked at Jacob. "It could take a while."
Jacob’s resigned look made her feel bad.
"Tell you what, we’ll go do the cave thingy and come back afterwards and do the test. It’ll only take me a few minutes to get the prep work started and then we’ll hit the road."
By six that evening, Tappy was tired of wandering about another cave. She almost felt like a cave woman having been in so many of them. She was not claustrophobic, but the damp smell and dark corners gave her the ibby-jeebies.
Back at the lab, she settled Jacob at her computer desk and let him explore the internet while she went back to determining what the egg was. Several hours later, she had her answer, but couldn’t believe it. After several more tries, she had no recourse but to settle for the answer.
"I have it." Tappy walked over to Jacob. By this time it was almost midnight.
"Was it your dragonfly?"
"No! It’s incredible but the egg belongs to the paleolythic Solenopsis invicta, or fire ants. But it is also mixed with Polyergus Rufescens, what we call the Slave-Maker ants."
"You mean like the fire ants we have out back in the farmer’s field? They hurt when they sting."
"The very same. Only these eggs are so large, an adult would have to weigh in around three or four hundred pounds and would be about the size of a black bear."
"An ant as big as a bear!"
"Frightening isn’t it. Did you know that some ants can lift or pull objects fifty times their own body weight? One the size of a bear could probably pick up a car and walk off with it."
"Wouldn’t want to run into any ant that size!" Jacob’s eyes lit up.
Tappy shuddered. "I’ll contact Eoin Gallagher later. We need to get home to bed now, school tomorrow for both of us."
Despite her best intentions, it was three weeks before she remembered that Eoin was waiting for his answer. She had been tied up with finals and administrative matters, and her ex-husband was back in town demanding to see Jacob more often. It wasn’t her fault that he lived on the road following the rodeo circuit and pretending to be something he wasn’t. She was sure it was more money he was after and not more time with Jacob. A week after he showed up, he disappeared again. She figured he either gave up on trying to squeeze her for money, or the local law enforcement advised him to hit the road.
"Sorry I didn’t get back to you sooner," Tappy said to Eoin while cradling the cell phone on her shoulder. "Got busy, finals, end of semester, all that stuff."
"Remember it well," Eoin chuckled.
"The results came as a surprise," Tappy continued. "They belong to the paleolythic Solenopsis invicta, or fire ants family. But there are also genes from the Polyergus Rufescens, what we call the Slave-Maker Ants."
Eoin whistled over the phone. "Are you sure? Fire ants?"
"I didn’t believe it myself until I ran it several times. I’m certain that’s the answer, although I will admit, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. There is no scientific record of ants ever reaching the size these would if they were left to develop into adults. No fossils, pieces, imprints or anything."
"Talk about developing," Eoin replied. "I placed my final egg in the incubator in my lab and you’re not going to believe it, but it is developing. I think it’s viable and could hatch into a larva."
"Destroy it!" Tappy blurted. "Believe me, you don’t want to allow something like that to hatch and grow. At least, destroy it during the pupal stage before it grows into an adult."
"That bad?" Eoin questioned. "What about the six other eggs I sent to you? Have you destroyed them?"
"I only received two eggs Eoin. The box had room for four but I assume you had the other two."
"But I sent you two boxes. One box with two eggs and another with four eggs."
"I received only one." Tappy was getting worried. "I better put a trace on the second box. It could be anywhere by now."
"Do you think there’s any chance it was placed outside cold storage?" Eoin was starting to sound worried also.
"I don’t know! I’ll call the carrier now. I’ll let you know what I discover. And Eoin, please destroy the one you have. If one of those things ever got loose, especially if it was a queen, we’d be in a world of hurt, and I mean a serious world of hurt."
Tappy disconnected and immediately called the FedEx office.