What a day!
And I thought everything seemed pretty normal in the morning—I left on my delivery rounds, and Dan set out in the opposite direction to go see a friend on another farm and have a look at their cider presses. I'd got into town and picked up my load, and I was getting close to my first stop, when I heard a low, loud drone coming up very quickly behind me.
Of course, it was a flying Myrmeoid, but the road was quiet today and the sudden sound startled me and I didn’t have time to think, just to react to what sounded like a giant bug flying at my head. I half turned, and threw my arm up protectively—and the flyer landed on my arm.
It was La’ne-ni, one of the La’heli flyers. I offered her my hand so she could talk to me, and she told me Dan had begun to molt, and had asked for me. Molting is a dramatic, dangerous process, something like human labor, except they give birth to themselves. They can die of it, and there's nothing you can do if it goes bad, but you can be there for them.
I didn't think I could make it in time, but La'ne-ni told me to drop my pack and she'd talk to the landowner about it. She also told me about a short cut through the woods. I ran most of the way, but she beat me back to the farm house and showed me which window to look in to see Dan.
He looked pretty normal, except he was standing stiffly, in an odd position, and not moving at all. There was an odd milkiness to his eyes. I could smell his fear, and I would have spoken so he could recognize my voice, but one of the others came over to tell me he couldn't sense anything at all--he had detached from his old exoskeleton just a few minutes earlier, and was now blind, deaf, and unable to smell.
“So he doesn’t know I’m here?” I asked.
“He knows; he knew you would come, therefor, he will assume that you have arrived,” the Myrmeoid at the window told me—I was just bowled over by that, I just didn't know what to say. So I just waited with the others.
Dan was standing on a stiff, woven mat that I could see was actually tacked to the floor, the claws of his feet dug in to the mat fibers. I knew the mat was important—when he got ready to pull out of the old exoskeleton he had to have something to pull against, some way to anchor the old exoskeleton. Otherwise he wouldn't be able to pull free and as his body tried to change shape his circulatory system would kink and he would die. The way you know you are going to molt is actually a sudden, irrational fear of being sucked up into the sky--it's the subjective experience of an instinct to get somewhere protected and to dig in with the feet. When the fear comes on, you've got about three or four hours to get ready--five at the outside.
So I watched, at it seemed for a while as though nothing was happening--and then a triangle of black appeared on the top of Dan's thorax. Then the point of the triangle elongated, shooting towards Dan's head, and a second triangle appeared, facing backwards from the first, and shot backwards. Dan's red-brown skin had split, and the split was growing as his body inflated itself with air.
It didn't take very long after that. The new, larger thorax domed up out of the old one, and as the cracks spread further the head and legs pulled free--I put all this in passive voice because Dan wasn't doing any of this deliberately. The progressive inflation of different parts of his body was causing him to bloom out of his old self like a flower. Finally, he stood for a moment entirely off the ground, his legs in the air, held almost vertically by his abdomen still caught in the old skin. Then two of the old legs buckled and he fell sideways. Two people caught him and laid him on the ground and he started to kick and struggle, pushing the old skin away from his abdomen as fast as he could. Then he lay for a moment, an odd, black, crumpled thing that looked nothing at all like my friend. The old exoskeleton lay beside him, and except for the two broken legs and the shredded abdomen, it looked like the Dan I knew--except the eyes. The eyes were clear shells.
Someone gave Dan water, and it was then I noticed the clumps of what looked like wet tissue on his back. They were growing, lengthening. I couldn't quite see the movement of growth itself, it was too slow, yet as I looked the filmy crumpled ovals grew, unfolded, filled out, till they became clear and shiny as soap bubbles and four wings, eighteen inches from tip to tip filled the room, reaching up and out as though ready to flap.
"Dan!" I shouted, though of course he wouldn't recognize it as his name. He recognized my voice, and held his antennae weakly out to me, listening, gathering scent. I smelled his greeting and reassurance, but no surprise. He had indeed assumed I was there.
He flapped his wings weakly, slowly, and folded them back down his back as they dried and lost that soap-bubble luster. Someone gave him more water. His body was changing, too, his legs and antenae shortening even as his thorax and abdomen continued to grow. He was becoming a creature of the air. Then, as the new exoskeleton began to harden it lost its wrinkled look and took on a glossy shine. I had been watching not much more than twenty minutes.
It will take him a day or so to grow into himself and lose the awkward weakness of molt. It will take him even longer to build up his flight muscles up enough so he can learn to fly. But he's through; he's a flyer, now. I left and went back to my house, to let him rest and to write this post.
But as I was walking, La'ne-ni again flew up to me. While Dan was molting, Kahe'ni completed a molt of her own; she is dead. The La'heli layer is free of her body completely. She doesn't have cancer anymore.