They burrow to escape the noon sun, mostly, scrabbling
through the desert-brown of the dead dirt around them. It is hot out there.
Maybe 40°C or so. The fully-grown, adult bodies channel the heat better, so
they’re able to move around more freely.
The largest feed on their smaller brothers and sisters, children and grandchildren. We’re not positive about what they do further out, although we’re slowly building a database, but the closer to the enclosures, the more you see them turning on each other for food. The adults scuttle along in search of entrance holes, then they dig in with their two front legs, using oversized mandibles as a shovel. If you watch them long enough, you start to think they’re kind of cute. They have this way of lifting their head out of the dirt now and then and shaking their heads. The movement reminds me of dogs, somehow. Then they root out a smaller Locust and it squeals and shrieks as the larger one eats it alive, starting with the thorax, meticulously devouring all the softer parts, and then onto many of the harder parts. Suddenly they’re no longer as cute. But it’s a survival adaptation. They’ve run out of other things to eat, so now the strongest eat each other.
We have the advantage of being able to manipulate the environment, and not simply devour all around us. That’s what I keep telling myself, anyway. If we can’t figure out a way to make more grow….
“I’m going down,” Henna says, nuzzled into my shoulder.
I tousle her hair and she grabs my hand with hers, still smaller.
“I have some more stuff to bring to Tal. You can take it along, right?”
“I’m only allowed one case,” I say. “You know that. That’s all they allow.”
My girl frowns. “It’s that piece of equipment I told you about. To monitor the Phenolic compounds.”
When I give her my best blank stare, she rolls her eyes.
“I told you already! The soil enrichment test!”
I hate it when Henna or Tal plays the scientist card on me. It pretty much trumps everything. Especially since it has to do with our futures. I tell her I’ll fit it in somewhere, or maybe I just growl it. Then I tell her to head down and remind her to do her chores. She leaves behind an exasperated sigh.
I turn back to the view outside. The swarm is small, relatively speaking. It’s been two days since any trucks went in or out. Most of the Locusts lose interest after half a day or so and head up the stream bed toward the mountains, or away along the culvert by the road.
The name Locust is only half correct. My conclusion is that it sounded better than “flesh-eating beetle,” to whatever marketing team was tasked with selling the concept. For tens of thousands of years, we used domesticated animals like pigs and goats to munch on our waste. We received milk and meat in return. But we outgrew our modest agricultural beginnings. As we grew in number, the problem of what to do with our garbage grew exponentially. Don’t even get me started on the great piles of radioactive material out there in the desert wilds, seeping into the ground. We have no way of checking them, or of doing something about it if we did find something wrong. That’s a scourge for another day. We’re still trying to figure out how to survive our infestation problem.
We’re pretty sure we know how it started. My grandmother used to tell me stories. Most were more fun than the story of the Locusts, but the ones about how this began were terrifying, and heartbreaking. Just after the first hatchlings started appearing in hundreds of sites across the world, news agencies talked about the rumors about the containment material, and how the insects might be able to penetrate it. Canada and the EU had barred the “Living Biodisposal” plants, but plenty of cities in plenty of countries were quite happy to be provided a one-step solution to their waste problems.
The first generations of insects were engineered to be sterile, but as demand grew, plants were provided pens and breeding stock to grow replacements. Official reports of accidents and loss always emphasized that the insects had all been destroyed, that there was a zero escape rate. Everything was fine. Aren’t official reports usually along those lines?
Three years after the devastating eruption of Mt. Yasur in Indonesia and the global temperature drop, out came the sun again, and along with it, they appeared, on four continents. The United States had invested very heavily in the plants at the federal level, so a lot of cities had the plants. We were the first to be entirely overwhelmed as a nation. The rest followed before too long.
Henna asked me once why the company that had engineered the Locusts in the first place hadn’t built in defense redundancies. She didn’t understand why I started to cry when she asked, and I didn’t volunteer an answer. How could I tell her no one had cared quite enough? We all have too many burdens right now as it is, and if my daughter loses hope, we’re all lost.
Are we dead and simply don’t know it yet? I sometimes wonder. There’s the end of the species, and then there’s the end of the last living member of that species, and one can be quite a distance from the other, though part of the same extinction. Have we lost already? For me, the answer to that question so far has been my daughter. Henna’s here, and as long as she’s around, I keep going.
That being said, it seems like every time we think things can’t get any worse, they do. Central Authority—what’s left of it—is always coming up with some new “Authorized” burdens to impose on everyone else. They don’t come around very often, but we seem to send a whole lot of valuable crops and materials their way anyway. Most of the remaining towns are already on minimum rations. The underground markets in each town keep the people a little better fed than they would be otherwise, but CA takes quite a lot. If the system functioned as efficiently as it could, we’d at least have access to some of the experts holed up there under the dark dome of Lynchburg in exchange for what we send to them. For now we do what we can between ourselves, and I try not to encourage people to expect too much from CA. Sometimes I’m not even sure we can trust them for anything. The news we get is typically more propaganda than information. They always have some initiative going on, and it’s usually successful, according to them. And our lives remain the same.
We don’t get many details on the things that aren’t going so well. I heard about a breach in a barrier a few hundred miles south of our town. Almost 300 people died, cause of breach unknown. Then there’s the Walker who disappeared. People are saying that his suit was bitten open by a swarm of Locusts and he was eaten alive. All anyone really knows is that he vanished between enclosures last month, and a disappearance with no information is the worst thing for the imagination to try and dispel. I’d like to think he simply fell into a crevasse along the way or left his vehicle, got disoriented and died of starvation. The alternative would be a huge problem. If our suits are no longer a guarantee of protection outside, much of the day-to-day communications and goods exchange will be shut down, and we can’t afford that. Few communities are anywhere near self-sufficient, because few are fortunate enough to be located in an area that can support that variety. We rely on Maverick for chemical produce, Dumont for wood products and building supplies, Truett for water. They need our steel mill and kilns. Each town/colony with its own specializations. And Lynchburg’s Central Authority is fed by all of us.
Folks in town tell me I complain too much. Sure, CA has coordinated some attacks that allowed some areas to be taken back, for what all that new, desiccated land is worth. It does give us some breathing room, once we can get some nutrients back in the soil and see what can still grow.
I am a farmer for most of the year, but all able-bodied men and women in each enclosure are required to do Walker duty as well. So here I sit on the top of my house dome, using my dad’s old, beat-up binoculars to watch the Locusts go about their existence. Everyone has a way of dealing with fear; this is mine. I had bad dreams about being eaten alive by those giant insects long before the disappearance. Many of us have. But I remind myself that these are not “evil,” as monsters are said to be. These creatures exist, alongside us. Watching them going about their daily activities is somehow reassuring. They’re trying to survive in a strange world, and, in the end, we’re as responsible for them being here as they are for keeping us here where we find ourselves.
Talicia is what always makes the prospect of the Walk a little less unpleasant. Aside from my own daughter Henna, there is no one dearer to my heart. I can see Tal’s freckled (and frequently sunburned) face beaming in a tangle of thick blonde hair. Henna’s mix of my Caribbean and his Latino genes contrasts with Tal’s light skin, but I swear they share the same soul. They’ve only met once, and the two stole my heart at one go when, after many whisperings throughout the day, they both declared they were going to be agricultural scientists just like me.
It’s funny, so much old terminology has fallen into disuse. I refer to myself as a farmer now, not an Ag Scientist. Is this what we’re destined for? A knowledge base that, when so diverse and so dependent upon a large number of specialists, falls apart when the majority of those specialists die without transferring their knowledge? We were able to save a great deal of information, from what I understand, but it seems that it’s difficult to access much at one time, due to energy restrictions and information demand. I’ve asked for research on Ag science and soil, but what they’ve sent has been limited and very slow in coming.
It’s been a pleasure to see both girls succeeding so well in applying the ideas and knowledge I’ve been giving them. Tal is working at one of the biggest farms in the Dumont enclosure, another reason why I’m looking forward to visiting. She finally got out of the foster home when Eni Clifford, the owner of the farm, gave Tal a room last spring. Every One Out Is a Victory! as the CA campaign went, back in the day. Some days I’m almost hopeful we can find a way to survive.
The next morning starts well. The loaders have packed the truck and checked it to make sure everything’s working, but I take the offered checklist anyway and look it over again. Everything in place. I settle into the driver’s seat, release the brakes, and head toward the inner door. Once through inner and outer doors, I check the outside seal and failsafes, and move the vehicle forward. I’m less than fifty meters out from the outer doors when the Locusts begin to leap into view. They’re desperate for food. They can smell it on the vehicle, and coming from the doors closing behind me. Jets of air blast away as much evidence as possible from the enclosure entrance, but a scent is a scent, and these creatures can detect a food source from miles away. The first thirty kilometers are usually the worst. Streamwater and short grass—on rare occasion—keep the bugs around, and the vehicles draw their attention too.
About an hour’s drive out of town, I decide it’s safe to step outside to clear the solar panels and windshield. The story of the disappeared Walker has me on edge, and I’m reluctant to get out, but I’m not happy driving blind, or driving a half-dead vehicle. I have to make sure the engine doesn’t stall from lack of power. There’s nothing between me and the destination but a way-station two days’ walk from either town, at the halfway point.
As I scrape the smashed bodies from the windshield and panels, a dead bug’s reflexive leg-jerk and snap of its jaws makes me jump. I hit it repeatedly, making very, very sure I’ve killed it, feeling sick to my stomach all the while. A few minutes later, after getting back into the truck, I notice I have a brownish-yellow smear across my waist where the creature slapped its leg across me. The haemolymph has an acrid odor. I use a cloth to wipe it off as much as I can, but the stink remains.
Only a few hours after the cleaning stop, I spot a large convoy of cargo trucks bearing the CA insignia headed my way. It’s customary for Walkers to stop on the road and trade information with other travelers about what lies ahead, and I pull over, but the trucks just use the extra space to speed up and take the rest of the road. I watch them pass with a frown. Like I said, I never expect much from CA.
The rest of my day is spent distracted by the passing of endless sparse landscape, rock and dirt. The sun shines down, a harsh, white glare that bleaches whatever it doesn’t burn. Without ground cover, there’s a lot of dust now and little else. The variation to the scene comes in the form of copses of Brittleberry bushes, inedible by insect or human. The bushes are adapters, thus survivors, and even if they don’t help us directly, they’re something that roots, which is a start, anyway. We can figure out why.
On occasion the peace ends as localized swarms sense the movement of the truck and launch themselves at it, at me. Then they tire, and I settle back into the usual pace for another few hours, until the next swarm.
I’m seeing more of the blue-green lichen than six months ago. Another organism surviving the plague of Locusts. The Brittleberries have resisted our attempts to adapt it to our needs, but my girls have been doing some growth experiments with the lichen. A food source that the Locusts don’t eat and that grows outside our enclosures would be invaluable to us.
I get to Dumont late that evening. The Locusts are gathered for tens of kilometers before the town enclosure. There are a few turnoffs on the highways, but judging by the size of this gathering, this must have been those CA trucks’ previous stop.
The sensor releases the outer then inner doors, and I pull the truck over to the charger near the inside doors of the enclosure, next to the truck of another Walker. The supply depot begins to unload my vehicle while I’m still connecting the charger. I sign the register and head into town.
The place is subdued and there’s a lot of whispering. The store has a few sundries that I need to pick up so I stop there before heading to the farm. It’s not hard to recognize the other Walker, since he’s suited up and all. I ask him where he’s from. I haven’t had the chance to visit Dumont in more than fifteen years. He’s had a long journey here. He tells me he’s a volunteer Walker, so I ask him if he’s noticed anything about the Locusts. Information about remote areas and insect activity isn’t readily attained. He tells me about a large gathering a small distance off the road not so far from Dumont as he rode in. He found it odd because it was just a little too far from town for them, in his experience.
“Whatever it was they happened upon, it looked like they’d hit the jackpot.”
He says something about the CA trucks leaving just as he arrived, but I don’t pay attention. When they’re ready to prove their worth, they’ll let us know, I’m sure. Not holding my breath. I don’t see anyone in town I recognize, so I head to the farm.
When Jules and Eni greet me at the front door, Eni’s face twists up. It’s clear she’s been crying, and it looks like she’s going to keep crying.
“Where’s Talicia?” I ask. It has to be about her. It shouldn’t be, I can’t stand the thought something has happened, but it has to be about her.
Jules shakes his head as he offers an arm to Eni. “Talicia is gone. Central Authority came. Food distribution problems, they say, so, another ETR. Those who they found who didn’t have immediate family in the town were all taken, with the exception of those who had CA authorization to be in the town. They said they were relocating her and the others nearer food supplies and where they were desperately needed for labor support.”
Emergency Temporary Relocation. They’d moved folks around before, but usually they gave some notice, rather than just swooping in. Jules sounds like he’s just repeating the information provided. Not always the same thing as the truth. I don’t think Jules believes what he’s telling me.
“They had a list, Jean. They told us the relocation was crucial for winning against the Locusts.” Emi’s red eyes tell me she needs hope. Absolution? I refuse to reassure her. Instead, I ask questions. Who, how many, when.
Seventeen people have been taken, that Jules and Eni know of. No immediate family.
“Well you must have met up with them on your way here, Jeanine,” Eni says. “There’s only one road between here and Oakville. They said that was their next stop. Oh,” she ends, the only reasonable finish to my reaction. A sense of things crawling up my body, entering my mind, eating it alive, overtakes me.
I leave without another word. There’s a long journey back and I have to leave. Now it’s already ten minutes later, and I’m reversing the trailer up to the loading ramp. I’ve seen the supplies in there, already packed on the palettes and ready to go, there’s no reason to stop me.
“I’m leaving now. Let’s push that last palette aboard.”
The foreman, a burly man I remember as Duke, scowls. “You haven’t rested for more than a few hours this past day and night, Honey; you have to sleep tonight, at least.” He leans closer. “And I hear the other Walker, the one that disappeared, was traveling at night. Maybe that’s how—”
“I’m leaving now. I have to get back.”
“The bugs are probably still swarming after CA’s departure and your arrival. It won’t be safe.”
“I’m leaving now. I think my girl is in danger of being taken.”
Duke stands and walks around the side of his desk. I follow him out the door to the loading area. He glances over at two workers, gestures his orders to load and they head over to the palette. He stares at them a moment, then steps closer. He seems satisfied at the distance between the workers and us.
“The trucks,” he says.
“One of the girls inside looked at me. I can’t stop seeing her face.”
The foreman’s dark green eyes are fixed on the steel grill of my truck’s tire protectors. I can’t help but glance over at it myself, almost prepared to see some poor girl’s tortured expression displayed on the protective metal grid. I shock myself with the visual, though I can’t even understand how it is I see what I see. I crush an urge to cry, seeing Talicia’s beautiful eyes, dark through the CA truck’s mirrored windows and steel shutters.
“The other thing is, they came in almost empty. Besides drivers and a couple of personnel, there were only three people.”
“Help me load my truck.”
I’m back outside within minutes, speeding through the swarm near the door. Perks of the Walk: I get to use Dumont’s transmitter to call back to Oakville. I’ve given Beetie directions to give to Tenner, and she says she’ll get right on it. Now all I have is distance to travel.
I push the truck like no one ever does. There’s an energy reserve, and I’m counting on using as much of it as there is. Next comes the way station; the halfway point where Walkers usually sleep. Like the journey in, I drive past it without stopping. On the way to Dumont I was excited and didn’t want to sleep; now I am beyond exhausted and past scared. There is nothing but Henna. I’m not sure what we can do about Talicia, but I’m going to see about that once I’ve made sure Henna is all right. Time merges in my mind. I’m thinking about stopping at the way station but dismiss it in my desperation to get home. I’m hours and hours away, driving on a black and tan road. I drive through a swarm. I drive through another swarm. I clean the windows and panel. I’m driving through an unexpected swarm a little too far out from town. I am crushing bugs.
I find myself back home. The crew note how close the transport’s charge is to zero, and how quickly I made the Walk from Dumont. I don’t care, the time distortion is of no consequence. All things are happening now. I’m talking to Duke. I’m driving the transport. I’m passing the way station. I’m driving over Locusts as I approach town. I’m standing in the doorway of my house.
Tenner and I had grown up together, and we’d counted on each other for a lot of things over the years. I had never counted on him for anything as important as Henna. And here we were.
“Tenner!” I shout, louder.
He won’t meet my eyes.
“Where is she?” I scream. “Where’s my daughter?”
“Centr—” is as much as I wait for.
“Don’t tell me Central Authority! I radioed Beetie! She told me she’d tell you to make sure she was all right!”
“She told me to come over here and wait for CA to confirm Henna was your daughter. I thought it was odd, since Henna was at school, but figured Beetie— well, by the time I found out they’d gone to the school for Henna and two others, CA had already left with them.”
I feel physically ill. Then comes the swarm in my mind again.
“If Beetie had done what you’d told her to, you know I would have made sure Henna was safe. You know that. Now she’s gone too.”
“Beetie. She left with the trucks.”
Beetie Beresford’s only child, Dane, died twelve years ago. Henna was three at the time. The Central Authority hadn’t sent us the medical supplies we were supposed to get—this was back when we were still supplied, rather than having to ask or barter—and he had died as a consequence. CA had come to “talk,” she’d gone to Lynchburg for a year, then returned to us with a monthly stipend and a job attached. The community had welcomed her back, despite the sense we all got that she now looked down on us. And now she was gone. Back to Lynchburg?
“How many left?”
“I don’t know exactly. From what I hear, the trucks left full.”
A smell rouses me from my thoughts. On my suit— the same brown splash where the Locust leg hit me. I’m wearing the environment suit I had on when I left Oakville more than two days ago. The day I left my little town, and all my friends, and—.
I’m shouting at Tenner, gesturing at him with the helmet. He’s telling me Beetie has left, and that the trucks were full. Now the helmet in my hand catches my attention. I laugh. I’ve been carrying it all this time. I think back to the moments it got in my way. Getting off the truck, pulling off one glove, opening a door after switching it to the other arm. And I carry it with me, all the way across town. We humans care so little about the details, sometimes.
I am headed toward the transport and the doors. The two men at the post outside Transport Access stop me to ask where I’m going, so I tell them a crate dropped about twenty clicks from the enclosure and I have to fetch it back. I’m suited up, and nobody volunteers to go out unless they need to, so they wave me through. I smell the haemolymph on the suit, a rank perfume. I’m suited up and driving out the door. I’m still putting the second sensor on the big transport sled underneath the chassis where it can’t be found, and setting it to Emergency Open. It triggers both sets of doors as I start the transport, but no one notices. I take the transport out at just the right angle, and the sled jams against both sets of doors.
A few Locusts are already jumping into the enclosure as I park the truck against the outer doors and smash the controls so no one can move it. More Locusts are already heading this way. No one will notice for another few minutes. They won’t have time. They don’t have the time.
There are three transport vehicles in a storage locker outside the enclosure. Maintenance can’t be counted on to get to the lower-priority jobs, but luckily for me, one of the vehicles is working.
It’s a slow journey this time. Not because of the bugs, though. They encircle me but move as I go, pacing me. I am sometimes a little out of kilter. I’m moving, but sometimes I’m back again. Sometimes I’m shouting at Tenner again. Sometimes I pass through that one swarm, just off to the side, just a little too far outside town, and there are tire tracks to the side, where it looked like a number of trucks had stopped.
I’m not making more than fifteen km/h on the transport, but somehow it seems the right speed. It’s a pace that thrums with inexorability. With fourteen hours between myself and my destination, I look out at the road in front, as the Locusts leap alongside, some jumping across my path, iridescent in the late afternoon sky, purple-black masses exploding from the ground, high into the air like a great, dark fireworks display. Some of the smaller ones have nestled into positions between my feet and the smooth plastic of the seat base. The slight scent of fresh food in proximity, maybe, despite my helmet and suit. Or maybe just a comfortable spot to rest a while.
Each one carries a memory. This one to the left, with the second eye pattern on its back, maybe it carries the time it barely escaped the clutches of a larger Locust. That big one up ahead on the hill, perched on a cloud-shaped boulder, the one with the luminous gunmetal-green dominating its wings. Maybe that one is the only creature alive that knows what happened to that Walker all the rumors are about. Maybe it was there at the feast, and carries the last of that man’s history along with me today. The only thing any creature really asks for is a chance to help life continue.
I hit a bump in the road, and I’m jumping in time again. I’m back in Dumont. Eni’s telling me there’s a list, and I have to go back to Oakville already. And then there’s a swarm, a little too far from town. Whatever it was that they’d found, they’d hit the jackpot, he’d said.
It occurs to me that where I once felt content to feed one, I can feed hundreds. And with a little effort, humans can feed billions.
After an endless road of slow twists and turns, interspersed with leaps forward in time as I fall asleep then jerk myself awake again, I shake off the bone-tiredness.
Through a veined haze of white and red—the blurred view through my eyes and the dust on the environmental suit’s helmet, after so much traveling and so little rest—I finally catch my first glimpse of the dark dome. Central Authority.
I gaze around at the gleaming crowd as we draw closer to the outer gates. A Locust climbs up onto my left shoulder.