This is a further elaboration from the taster previously published here. More will come, as I get time. As I am inspired. As my imagination becomes more lurid B-)
The little bat fluttered awkwardly down into the dim alley, its fragile forearm broken by impact with the newly-placed clothesline, high above. Not that anyone would ever know, but it was a Geoffroy’s horseshoe bat, and it was so close to its roost in the disused storeroom ceiling just a little way down the road that it could smell it – but it would never get there.
It was a tiny thing, just 25 grams of reddish-yellow fur and dark wings spanning just 30 cm, with its stomach half-full of the moths it had been hunting so assiduously beneath the streetlight at the mouth of the alley. Bat lovers knew it as a public servant, and would know that piles of wings and carapaces under a temporary roost were a good marker of its presence – and there were thousands of them in Cape Town, more in the countryside, and they were completely harmless to humans and animals.
The bat landed roughly, scattering some of the lighter debris carpeting the alley. It flopped ineffectually, trying to get airborne enough to roost in safety, but all it did was disturb the papers and plastic bottles some more. Enough to attract the attention of an even more common city inhabitant: a brown rat; Rattus norvegicus, the legendary ship’s rat that had colonised the world, courtesy of seaborne traffic since the dawn of sailing craft, and had been breeding in Cape Town sewers and gutters for three hundred years.
It was big and well-fed specimen; 350 grams and 45 cm from nose to tail tip, darkish brown with a lighter belly. Like many of its Cape Town brethren, it was bold and adventurous – and aggressive. It and its kind had not met bats often before; aside from cleaning up dead remains fallen from roosts, the little fliers were generally too agile and too elusive to ever be caught live.
The rat cautiously explored the area near the now suddenly-immobile and sound-alarmed bat – which did its best to feign death, until the rat’s whiskers touched its flight sensory fur on one wing. Then it exploded into a flurry of movement, frightening the rat off to a meter or so away. There it sat, watching the bat flutter helplessly in circles on the ground, until it tired and was still again. So the dance of death began, with the rat venturing up, the bat frantically fluttering, the rat withdrawing – but less each time, until a quick dart had him at the bat’s shoulder, and sharp teeth clamped down to rip the thin wing.
Even though the bat’s wing covered the rat like a blanket, it was so outweighed that its struggles were futile, and quickly over. Even so, its tiny but sharp teeth caught the rat’s face, and their blood mixed in the rat’s fur as he finished the game. All that remained was to drag the little body away, to the hole in the crumbled masonry of the alley wall that led into the storeroom of the old antique shop next door, to feed the family.
* * *
It is interesting that it is in the unlikely intersections of unlike partners, that new virus diseases often originate. Humans, pigs and fruit bats in Malaysia for a virus called Nipah; humans, horses and fruit bats in Australia for a related virus called Hendra; humans and rodents in West Africa for Lassa virus; humans and deer mice in New Mexico for Sin Nombre virus – and humans and bats for the various types of Ebola. Then there are the various influenza A viruses, which jump from birds into animals and often people too – sometimes with devastating effects, such as the Spanish Flu pandemic that probably killed over 50 million people.
All of them serious killers of people; all of them viruses that infect rodents or bats or birds without causing symptoms; all of them a result of population pressures forcing animals and people together.
Then there are the much rarer incidences of genuinely new disease agents arising from accidental mixing of different viruses: very occasionally, two viruses that infect the same host can mix in unexpected ways, to produce something viable.
And a mix that came from the unlikely combination of freshly-eaten moth remains, the still-bleeding meat of an insect-eating bat, and the inside of a rat, was about to be tested.