Chasing Fireflies

Brenda finished her second glass of wine and asked, "So what's this big surprise you have for me?" They sat at opposite ends of the couch, the center cushion an ocean separating them. Despite the wine and Jeff's insistence that she come by, she wasn't about to close that gap.

"You'll see. Soon." Jeff glanced at the window. The blinds were shut, but it was easy to tell that it was finally dark outside. "I just can't believe I ran into you today. It's been, what, four years?"

"Since our divorce? Yeah. But I still have my friends up here, you know. I didn't come up here to stumble into you."

Outside were two hundred acres of California oak forest that Jeff called his own, butted up against the border of a national forest. During the drive up the dirt road to the property, Brenda had just stared out the window. The rains had been good for a change, and the ground was covered with lush green grass, blue lupin, and orange poppies. The giant red oaks stood guard over the road like gnarled ancient sentinels.

"Close your eyes," Jeff said, then opened the front door. He led her onto the porch, hands touching after all, then took a breath, and sighed. "Now open them."

She opened her eyes to the spectacle of thousands of bobbing, green glowing lights, slowly blinking on and off. She gasped. "Are you kidding? You brought fireflies to California?"

She could barely make out the roll of his shoulders in the darkness. "Sort of."

"Sort of what?"

"Fireflies never did well in California. When I was a kid, I tried to smuggle some in from Texas. They made it here alive, but when I let them out of the jars, they all just disappeared. The next year, nothing. Turns out that particular species needed moist soil for its eggs, and a good host of slugs for the larva to eat. This area just isn't very good for that. Too arid. Fireflies are kind of finicky about their environment."

"And then you got your job at GenMod."

He looked at her. That was one of the main reasons for the divorce. Her environmentalism versus his job. Love and mutual physical attraction just didn't cut it.

"You tweaked their genes so they could live here." She said it with a twist of accusation mixed with awe.

He shook his head. "That was the original idea. After losing most of the two thousand lightning bug species to extinction, that was our intent. Not so easy to do. Changing the genes so that the larva could eat something more local would have been a massive effort in gene manipulation. Too much functional overlap with their other genes. The company decided to move the blink instead of the bug, so to speak. The genes that produce the luciferase enzyme and blinking mechanism have been studied a lot. They're easy to splice in."

She watched the insects dance under the oak trees, their momentary green glow dimly illuminating the leaves. "This is a local species of beetle?"

He laughed. "Mosquito."

Brenda gasped. "Yellow-fever carrying, blood sucking mosquitos?"

"Dengue, yellow fever, malaria, Zika, West Nile virus. Yep. All those."

"Is GenMod freaking nuts? Glow-in-the-dark mosquitos? You turned fireflies into this monster?"

"Well, we don't actually call them fireflies anymore. We refer to them as death stars." He grinned at her.

She glared back at him, a silent reproach.

He looked away into the darkness and dancing lights and sighed. "Think about it. We tweaked it to be a dominant trait, added a gene drive. When this moves into a population of normal mosquitos, after a few generations they'll all glow. Humans will always see them coming. We'll be able to locate and wipe out population centers. Mosquito-borne diseases will be gone in a few years. Predators will be able to pick them off easily. We've had offers for this modification from every mosquito-infested country in the world, for hundreds of other mosquito species. We've even developed a motion tracking laser that can pick them off from two hundred yards away."

"And then they'll be extinct, too."

"Probably not. Mosquitoes are hardy little bastards. Not like the fireflies." The Extinction, at least, was something they agreed on. Earth's rapidly changing environment didn't allow the slow, natural migration of species into more hospitable environments, and eighty percent of Earth's species had disappeared in the last hundred years. But he thought science could design its way out of the devastation, while she thought science was part of the problem.

"But Jeff, people love fireflies. Kids catch them in jars. They never bite anybody. They're like little nighttime fairies you can chase in the field, blinking just often enough for you to catch them. They're like living toys designed for children. Kids love them!" Brenda sighed. "I love them. This," she waved her arm at the bobbing lights, "this is just about money."

"This," Jeff said, "is about making money and curing disease. This is about making money and preserving a childhood dream. And it's one of the things we need to learn to do well to survive through the Extinction."

In a tense moment of silence between them, a mosquito landed on Brenda's arm. She made a growling sound as she smacked it, smearing a soft green fluorescence along her forearm. Jeff smiled in the darkness and said, "Tell me kids aren't going to love that."

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