The beetle moved, despite everything, stirring up the cloud of dust like a petri dish.
Jay and I met eyes as the beetle started to dig into the side of the building. “Status,” He barked.
“No visible damage from our side,” The firing team said. “Sorry Warden.”
Jay closed his eyes. I picked up the com. “What do you mean no damage? I heard a scream.”
“The shell is mostly unmarked,” The firing team said. “Uh, Warden, is that you? Can you get out of there?”
The beetle screamed again, and then the walls holding it gave way. It burrowed into the building proper, jaws flashing and gnashing.
“We’re on our way, moving position,” Jay cut in, flicking off the com. He hesitated. “It’s been a while since we’ve done this,” He said, holding out his hand.
I took it.
He tugged me through to the exit on the other side of the stairwell. Tattered pictures showing off employee of the monthshung from tarnished hooks, rife with age on the way to the break room and the bathrooms. We smashed by those on our way out. I could hear the com going off on Jay’s hip as the city awoke to the threat.
It was just one beetle. It just happened to be going right after us.
The Titan found a long run up and charged, bricks exploding from the impact and mortar crumbling to the ground. Part of the roof collapsed at the back of the hall (I caught it, hyper imposed and unwieldy off of the reflection of glass on the way down, with gnashing jaws pulling itself out of the rubble.) and then it was on our feet.
“What… are those even used for?” I hissed, trying to catch my breath.
“Barricade breaking and infantry destruction,” Jay said. The beetle screamed out a bloody war cry, gurgling. The exit door sat, perched, rusted but usable, at the end of the next hall. Halfway there, Jay turned and threw us down another door instead.
The beetle screeched as the mass and momentum sent it hurtling past us.
One eye was missing, popped like a grape, dark green fluid drooling onto the dark black shell. Well. I knew what’d hit it.
“It’s very good at those things,” Jay added. “It looks like we’re going to have to figure out a bombing corps again.”
“How…” I panted, trying to catch my breath, but all I could hear was the scrabbling of legs for purchase, and then the explosion as the cannonball bug slammed into another wall, sending dust dropping out of the ceiling. “Are you so calm about this?” I lost my bearing and fell, staring up at the war-bird.
Jay looked down in disgust at his side arm, then stole mine, comparing the two of them. He sighed, then tugged me back up. “I’m used to this. The memories never really faded.”
A moment of silence.
Another round of ricochets off the beetle. No scream this time, just the solid impacts of lead and metal into concrete and brick.
“Shall we move?” Jay asked, giving me his hand again.
“Are you going to keep doing this?” I asked. I threw my arm out and snagged it, and he plucked me back on my feet.
“I swore to keep you safe,” Jay reminded. The back wall hissed as the beetle ground against it. His eyes flicked in his head to look at wall, then back to her.
Then they both ran out of the front of the store, back through the hole the beetle had made. Downed trees littered the street, cutting holes in the canopy. Bullet holes had sawn through leaves and limbs alike, and trees bore ricochet marks through the heart wood. How long until this was obliterated by fresh growth?
The beetle didn’t care. The beetle slammed through the wall again, brittle plaster decorating the smooth front. I could just imagine what it’d do to a standing army; destroying buildings people sought for cover, or barricades.
Just one wasn’t that effective… but many? Many could take out just about anything.
My Omoi buzzed. Tane and Teri again. I snapped a picture of the beetle struggling to get out of the rubble and tagged it as busy.
“Ideas?” I asked, looking at the soldier.
The beetle vented noisily as it crawled out of the wreckage, sending plumes of dust off of its body.
Half remembered biology lessons from my college days. That would be a large set of spiracles dedicated to remediating the damn thing’s demand for oxygen. If those were shut off…
We had the same idea at the same moment. Jay, from experience. I, from half remembered lessons.
“That’s dumb,” I said.
“Do you have any better ideas?” Jay hissed. He still had my gun. He checked over both of them as the beetle pulled itself out of the wreckage.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Well?” Jay asked.
I didn’t say anything, because the best idea I had was hope Boss was coming up with a better idea, so I tugged him down the street instead of waiting for the beetle to bash a hole through the store front again.
“Are we clear to take another shot?” The firing team called from Jay’s come.
“No,” Jay said. “Do you have anything higher calibre up there?”
“Not that we can fly with,” The team leader reported. “Sorry Outcast.”
“Jay,” I hissed into the com.
Jay rolled his eyes at the same moment he threw a hand over them to squint against the sun pouring through the treetops.
“Of course they made the thing’s armor thicker… what did they have to cut down on?” Jay wondered.
“Did it used to be faster?” I asked.
“Maybe they cut down on acceleration,” Jay said.
A tree exploded as the beetle plowed through, ignoring it for the most part, if cutting into the speed.
“That doesn’t help us now,” I said. “Think of something that might help us!”
“Aren’t you the doctor!?” Jay hissed back.
Right, fine. Think of something to do about the giant beetle.
Another tree died, snapped in half before its bladed pincers. Sunlight poured through. Think, think. The shell probably had poor cooling, if we could cook it alive-
Somehow, burning down the entire forest didn’t seem like an option.
It had poor turning as well, so we could buy time by-”
I threw us down an alleyway, and the bug skittered past, clipping into a half dozen trees before it slowed down. The fence at the edge of the alley way had long since rotted from anything useful to a collection of rusted spikes.
Tane and Teri gave me a message in reply. It danced in front of my vision. OMW.
What the hell did they mean they were on their way?!
“How good are you at jumping?” Jay asked, curiously.
“I’m fucking awful,” I swore.
“Great.” Jay swept out my knees with a leg and caught me, bridal style again. I glared at him. He snorted, and then, with a movement that shook all of his muscles and feathers at once, he vaulted up the alley proper.
The Crows were watching us from the rooftops. I even heard one cheer.
Sometimes I hated birds.
Jay landed, and I nearly bounced out of his arms. I barely threw my legs down in time, but my feet still jarred from the impact, sending shivers crawling up my nerves. The beetle scraped at the edge of the alley way, too large to get down. Gnashing pincers clicked against bricks and rusted chain fence posts, sending them scattering and dancing in the wind.
I breathed out. Rubbed feeling into my legs and shoulders. “Now what?”
Jay stared at the beetle, then flicked his eyes up at the gunbirds and the alley.
“Well, we have it trapped, which means that it’ll…”
The beetle hissed like a tea kettle and spat toxic bile. It hissed at the bricks, but it couldn’t widen the alley that way.
I took a few steps back, and then hid behind Jay. He puffed his feathers up.
Then the entire head of the beetle opened up, the chitin unfolding like the petals on a flower, and I stared into the depths of the monster.
Written across it in smooth flowing gold ink was something I’d really not wanted to see today. The representation of the Command speech solidified into meaning rather than English, of course, and what it said was-
Jay grabbed me at the same moment I grabbed him, and between the two of us, we threw ourselves to the side. The blast hit like a stick of dynamite, shattering the relative stillness of the city air. Wild birds and creatures flew out from the urban jungle behind us, fleeing from ozone and sparkling death.
“Goddammit, not here!” I hissed, but the rest was obliterated as the building shifted next to us.
The gun birds scattered and flew off when the roof starting shaking, molten rock licking at the walls. Windows melted and dripping into the alley, splattering across the beetle as it started to walk through the burning glowing wreckage.
“That-” Jay said, tugging himself to his feet. “That’s a new trick.”
“Why is it always that line!?” I hissed. “Why can’t they make flowers?!”
“It makes lightning, not flowers,” Jay pointed out. “They’d have to use another Command Tongue to get the flowers.”
“Not the time!” I said.
He laughed, pressing himself closer against the building. “It’s just a titan beetle.”
“What now?!” I could hear it shuffling in the wreckage, looking for more prey.
But at this point, the only people who were left in the area were those who couldn’t fly away and find shelter.
Another message across my omoi. I spat on the ground, shaking the echoes of the crumbling building out of my head, and snapped a picture of where we were and smashed it to Teri so she might get the point.
The beetle finished crawling out of the wreckage. I could hear angry chittering clicking squealing from armored joints, and the hiss of air drawn in and out of its heavy lung analogues.
For once, I wished I’d stuck in biology. I probably wouldn’t’ve survived the apocalypse, but that was looking like it’d’ve been a better thing for just about everyone involved.
“Now, we run again,” Jay tugged himself off of the building. I leaned out of the way of his hand before he could snag me, and ran beside him instead. The titan beetle braced against a tree, and with a flick, knocked the entire damn thing over, bringing up the shattered wreckage of primordial roads and the underside of the dirt filled with the old rot of the living, if not the rot of the already dead.
Teri replied. OMW
What did that even mean!?
We streaked through the road, spinning across trees and trying to keep out of line of sight from the titan behind us.
My breath was already starting to hiss through my lungs, but I was used to ignoring it. Not really used to ignoring it, but I’d had to do worse when Boss was making the same run.
“You do this often?” Jay asked. “You’re putting up with this better than I thought.”
If there were any righteousness in the world, my glare would’ve melted steel just as well as the beetle had, but there wasn’t.
Up ahead, there was a roar of a car’s engine, and I about died from relief. “There!” I shouted.
Teri honked the horn on the truck, and then the rest of the scene crunched into my head. Tane lay across the back, a rifle as long as November cradled in her arms. Wide arms kept it balanced across the entirety of the truck. “Ready!” She shouted.
The gun, notable, was pointed at the both of us. Jay didn’t stop running, and neither did I. We slid on either half of the truck, and I slammed my side into it to try and catch my breath.
“What the fuck is that thing?!” I demanded, breathless. A long bead of sweat rolled down my neck and mixed with the rest of it dappled across my lab coat.
“Military prototype,” Teri said. “That I stole the designs from the military base we were at.”
“When did you do that?!”
“After Prince was dead,” Teri said. “Not everything was bolted down.”
“Bullets aren’t working here,” Jay reported. “You got anything else?
“Ready!” Tane shouted again.
“You weren’t using big enough bullets,” Teri said. She reached into a box and pulled out one to demonstrate. Tane picked it up between her talons.
Tane flicked a round the size of her hand into the gun. I stared at the damn thing. “The hell did we design these things for?”
“Neutralization,” Teri said. “AIM!” She said.
I slowly turned to look over the side of the truck at the Titan behind us. With the clearing in the road, it had stopped. It was sucking in air audibly. Did it feel pain, or had that been removed from it?
Half of its face had melted off from Command Tongue use. Large bleeding charred sections didn’t fit under the retracted chitin.
They still hadn’t managed to fix the small issue where their trump card melted their own flesh.
I hoped they didn’t, as cruel as it was to say.
The chitin hissed open. I stared at the Command Tongue scrawled there, written in every language simultaneously, but no language at all.
I’d spent a lot of my life trying to translate chunks of that, hadn’t I?
“FIRE!” I shouted.
Tane fired. It sounded less like a gun and more like the pinkie finger of god had descended from the heavens to obliterate, specifically, everything down wind. Hot steam smoke and fluid gushed out of the fluted velocity break on the end of the barrel.
The bullet caught the beast just next to the eyes, and shattered the softer chitin into pieces. Meat and viscera gushed out of the hole, and then a hollow whirring noise inside followed, and then several others. Dents formed on the exterior chitin.
The bullet had bounced around inside of the damn beast. A single impact into the chitin had robbed it of enough momentum that it couldn’t go through the other side.
But it had turned the monster’s organs into scrambled eggs. Chunks of the stuff dripped out of the beast’s body, oozing out in a flurry of soft shredded tissues.
Boss popped out of one of the nearby buildings, with her axe, and waited patiently next to the corpse.
“Don’t shoot her,” I said unnecessarily.
“It took us all day to get that bullet made,” Tane said. “I’m not wasting it on a dog.”
The corpse vibrated, and the chitin parted, no longer held in place by pseudo muscular action.
Then it parted enough for a greasy head to pop out. It made eye contact with Boss. Another one of those.
Boss tilted her head to the side. Their eyes met. Her jaw parted into a wide grin.
It launched forward and she cut it in half in mid air, laughing. The grub squirmed, cried out, and then was finally still, both pieces mutilated.
I managed to remember to breath again.
“Well,” Jay said, sweeping away from the big gun. It still smoked, trailing off into the sky before the wind caught it and destroyed it. “That changes things.”