War Beetles
by J. M. McDermott
Illustration by Linda Saboe
Desdemona by Linda Saboe

War beetles left wreckage like hurricanes across the plains. The battle still raged on at some far distant place over the horizon. Along the ground, in their wake, acid pooled. Smoke from the fires of war left a gunpowder stink hanging in the air, and all the fresh meat of the dead made it smell worse.

Meridian Smith, a survivor of the battle, walked cautiously over the devastation with a girl he had found in a village. He had solid boots that rode high up his legs, near to his hips, and a long duster jacket. Meridian had lost his helmet in the fight. His forehead and ears were deep red, now. He didn't think about the sunburn, though. He was too busy watching out for the ground, and for the little girl that held his hand. He had to lead her carefully, because the earth was full of holes and sinkholes and smashed bushes and the remains of animals.

Desdemona was her name, she had said. She walked beside Meridian, clinging to his hands. She wasn't brave enough to walk by herself. She was too small to traverse the fields without his strong arm lifting her over the worst of the destruction. Her shoes were not built for long travel. Meridian was surprised she hadn't complained about her feet, yet.

Desdemona's little mouth opened. She sighed, theatrically. Meridian had a vision of his own daughter, in her teens, sighing all the time over nothing. Desdemona spoke over another sigh "Daddy?" she said.

"Don't call me that," said Meridian. "My name is Meridian Smith. Stop calling me your father. Call me Mr. Smith if you can't say Meridian. It's what my daughter always called me."

He lifted Desdemona over the top of a dead war fly, bloated with pus and sparking where the wires were exposed in the carapace.

Desdemona had only a white lace dress on, like a landlord's daughter. It wasn't white, anymore, exactly, but it used to be white. She had pink, canvas shoes. In the few hours that Meridian had pulled her out of a supply depot's tornado shelter, Desdemona's shoes had gone from pink to mud as if they had never been anything but dirty.

"I can't remember your name," said Desdemona. "It's too long."

"Call me Mr. Smith if you can't say Meridian. You can say that, right?"

"Mr. Smith. Okay. Got it. Mr. Smith, I have to tell you something."


"I have to pee."

"Then find somewhere to pee. I'll wait." Meridian tried to let go of her hand.

She clung to it. She grabbed Meridian's hand in both of hers, and pulled on him. "No!" she shouted. "Don't let go!"

"Can you pee if you're holding my hand?"

"No," she said. "Not with people looking. Not with people around."

"Then you have to let go."

"Okay," she said. "Mr. Smith, I'm hungry, too." She still hadn't let go of Meridian's hand.

"We don't have anything to eat right now," said Meridian. "Sorry."

It took Desdemona a long time to let go of his hand. When she did, at last, she carefully picked her way to the back of a hunk of broken off war beetle, the size of a dead buffalo. It was the only privacy apparent, here. When she finished, she cried out and held up a hand. Meridian walked back to her. He picked her up and over the bleeding wreckage.

"I didn't wash my hands," she said.

"That's okay, just this once," he said. Meridian scanned the horizon. If the war beetles turned back this way, with the fight, Meridian and Desdemona would be crushed. The beetles were moving fast, though, and they were being chased all the way by the other army's air force of automata and chimaeras.

Meridian touched Desdemona's arm, above her wrist. It felt cold. He wondered if she might die in the night of hypothermia. It got windy on the plains. He would have to give her his duster after dark. He started walking. She laughed, and said he was her pet beetle, not the other way around.

"What do you know about beetles, Desdemona?" said Meridian. "I'm not a beetle."

"We have toy beetles," she said. "And little beetle riders. They grow war beetles from eggs as big as grapefruits. Some of them fly. War beetles are the biggest of the biggest. They're mean and want to eat your face."

"They are big," said Meridian. "They get giant fast, too. They only live about forty years, and they just keep growing."

"Beetles make the best pets. My sister had a pet beetle that looked like a girl except when she was naked. She had to go away, though."

Meridian was only half-listening. He was just glad the kid wasn't crying or throwing fits. He'd agree with anything she said. "The wonders never cease," said Meridian. "I've only seen the big ones. I'm not from around here. We have different kinds of beetles."

"Like what kind?"

"Well, like little ones that get really, really big, until they're so big they want to eat you."

Meridian couldn't tell if the spurt of cloud in the distance was acid smoke or something worse.

"Why do they want to eat you?"

"They're hungry. They aren't smart, either."

"But why?"

"Don't start that."

Perhaps it was smoke, and a war beetle had been gutted open by its enemy, roasted by its own burst acid sacs, spilling toxic fumes into the clouds that would poison anyone caught in the breeze of it.

"Start what?"

"Be quiet a while, Desdemona. I have to think."


He tried to move faster away from the suspicious clouds.

They reached a new town by late afternoon. It had been flattened and burned just like Desdemona's. Meridian had never seen so much wasted chitin. It took forever to grow in a mold, and there it all was, lying in the street in strips and fragments. At least this town didn't have much acid scarring. The war beetles had slowed down long enough to level the town, then moved on. That meant there might be food, and new clothes. Meridian needed to change if he wanted to get all the way west. He was wearing the wrong uniform.

Meridian stopped at some mostly smooth chitin that had been knocked into the middle of the main street. He pulled Desdemona down off his back onto the plank. The chitin was a beautiful black pearl that must have cost someone a fortune to import. It was mostly flat, with a very subtle curve that made an adequate, clean spot for a little girl to sit and rest.

"You stay here," said Meridian.

"I don't want to," she replied. She folded her arms and pouted.

"I mean it," said Meridian. "If you move from this spot before I get back, I will not come and get you. You will be on your own. You stay right here, until I get back. Got it?"

Her eyes opened up. "Don't leave me," she said.

Meridian felt terrible because of the lie. She had believed him, and it was for her own good that he had done it. If she survived long enough, she'd grow to hate him like his own daughter had. It was better to lie. The last thing he needed was a little girl with lockjaw or cuttle fever from all this jagged metal and chitin.

He still felt bad for lying. It reminded him of home. He tried to smile encouragingly. "Why don't you sing a song to pass the time?"

"I don't know any songs," she said.

"Make one up if you have to. I bet you have a pretty voice."

She scrunched her face into a mean glare. There would be no singing this day.

Meridian Smith unsheathed an electric knife from his left boot. He went to work on the side of the depot. The building had been leveled like a smashed potato, but there was probably a basement storage intact with dry goods. Too many tornadoes roamed the plains, so everyone had a basement. That's how Meridian had found Desdemona, while he was scrounging for food one town back.

Meridian looked at the mess everywhere, for anything that looked like it was still sealed and safe to eat. He didn't see any canned goods or boxes. He saw lots of fresh vegetables that had been left in the wreckage. It would be too risky to eat with any biological warfare from the breathing ventricles of the war beetles. If this town had been flattened by cavalry beetles, the vegetables were probably safe. If the town had been flattened by the really big, horned beetles, nothing was safe.

"Hello!" he shouted, into the black void. "Anyone down there?"

The room echoed back Meridian's own voice. At least that meant there was a large room down there, like a cavern, probably with shelves that probably had dry goods that hadn't been crushed under a two-story chitin building. If the building had caved, there'd be no echo.

Meridian turned around to check on Desdemona. She sat with her hands around her ankles and her head pressed into her knees. She was exactly where he had left her, in the exact posture. She stared at him from between her knees.

"Hey, Mr. Smith, did you find anything good?" she said. "More war beetles?" Her face lit up with fear.

"No, of course not!" said Meridian. He pointed up at the sky. "I'm worried about thunderstorms. We don't have hats or umbrellas. You keep an eye out for any clouds you see, okay? Especially purple clouds. Those are the worst storms. If you see one, you shout about it, okay?" He still felt awful for lying to a child

She didn't stand up. But she nodded, and bit her lip like she was looking very hard. She shielded her eyes with one hand, and scanned the skyline. "I don't see any storm clouds," she said.

"You just keep looking for me, okay?"

"Okay, Mr. Smith."

Meridian cut around the hole he had made in the chitin floor tiles. He could fit an arm through now, if he tried. He didn't have a flashlight. He had kept most of his supplies in his rucksack, which hadn't survived the flying moth's acid bombs. He was lucky he had an electric knife with a fresh charge.

When he thought he had a big enough hole, he turned off his knife and sheathed it back into the top of his boot. He stripped off his filthy duster, and slithered his lanky body down into the gap in the chitin.

When he landed, he heard a splash at his feet, and a hiss like two snakes. His boots didn't feel steady. The smell in the air was frightening and familiar.

He jumped up fast and tugged himself out of the hole he had cut as quickly as he could. He ripped his boots off, without touching the bottoms, and buried them in dust.

The heavy boot soles simmered like strips of bacon.

A war beetle had shoved a trunk into the basement and dropped an acid bomb, to kill anyone that had been hiding. Some beetle rider was probably feeling proud of himself for thinking of that trick.

Beetle acid was engineered to be a trap. You could only smell it if you broke the surface tension. Even then, you had to know the smell to get out in time. Puddles of acid could lie simmering slowly in a hole for a decade, eating the insects that thought to lay eggs there. During the trek overland from Desdemona's destroyed town, they had to walk around whole ponds of acid, and watch for the spurts of it that had pooled in the low places in the grass, dripping off the backs of enemy beetles.

Meridian looked over at the girl, unmoved on the broken roof of chitin.

"I can't go anywhere until my boots stop cooking," said Meridian. "Mind if I join you?"

Desdemona shrugged.

Meridian sat down on the far side of the chitin wall, right on the edge. He stretched his feet out in front of him. "I never wear socks," he said. "I've got big, stinky feet." He wiggled his grubby toes.

Meridian pulled his left leg up to his nose. He gave his toes a big whiff and gasped at the stench. He rolled his eyes like marbles and sputtered for air, flailing one arm around while clutching at his throat with the other.

Desdemona smirked, but only a little.

That was something, at least.

"You know, I didn't find anyone down there," said Meridian.

Desdemona pointed. "What happened to your boots?"

Meridian turned around and looked at the footwear, lying in a pile of dust, still smoldering a little. He had only been in the acid a moment, and he hadn't lingered long. The stitching was thick. The soles were made of rubber and chitin. The steel toes and the thick, cow leather should survive a quick splash.

Meridian smiled. "My toes are too stinky," he said. "My boots needed a break from the smell. Otherwise, the stink starts to wear down the boots. Terrible, really. My daughter... I have a daughter who's all grown up, now... Well, she said she could smell my feet even if I was wearing socks and sitting on the other side of the room. I'm giving my boots a break to recover."

He rubbed the back of his head.

"Where are we going to go next?" said Desdemona. She let go of her own legs. She straightened her knees, and leaned backwards. She adjusted herself with her hands from side to side as if her legs had fallen asleep holding so still on the hard chitin.

Meridian scanned the horizon for signs of trouble.

"We'll go on to the next town. We have to be careful, though. Tornadoes and thunderstorms will be looking for us."

"I wish I had an umbrella," she said. "A really big one. Yellow."

"Is that your favorite color?"

"No way. That's a boy's color. My favorite color is pink."

"Why not have a pink umbrella?"

"You're taller than me. You have to carry the umbrella, or you'll get wet. The umbrella should be yellow."

"You know what, Desdemona? I think you're right. A big, yellow umbrella would be just the thing for us."

Meridian rubbed his forehead, then winced and pulled his hand away. He had forgotten he was sunburned. He looked at the sky, where the sun was hanging about at 16:30, late afternoon.

Desdemona pulled her knees back to her face, and hugged her shins. "I'm really hungry," she said. "How come I can't call you daddy, Mr. Smith?"

"You already have one of those, don't you?"

"I thought every grown-up was a daddy."

"I'm not your daddy, though. Don't you have your own parents?"

"I've had a few. The first ones were nice, but then I didn't like them very much. The second ones were mean and always took me to church. I had another mommy. She was okay, but she didn't like me. I ran away. Now I have you."

Meridian pondered her words carefully. "I see," he said, slowly, though he did not understand her. "I'm not your daddy. I'm only a daddy to one person, and she never calls me that."

"Why not?"

He thought for a moment about telling her the truth. Instead, he said, "You know, my daughter only calls me Meridian Smith, or Mr. Smith. Sometimes she calls me other things, but she never calls me 'Daddy'."

"Why not?"

"That's a good question. I guess you'll have to ask her if you meet her."

"When will I meet her?"

"Never, if you're lucky."

"Why can't I meet her?"

Meridian looked over at his shoes. They were still smoldering a little, but they could use some more dust to take the worst of the acid.

"Let me get back to you on that one," he said.

He hopped off the broken wall, and walked to his boots. He pounded them around in the dust. He kept at it until the burning rubber smell dissipated. He pulled them on carefully, ready to yank his foot out if he felt even the slightest touch of acid. The boots were fine. He walked back to Desdemona, and couldn't help but feel like there were rocks stuck to the bottom of his boots. His hips had the awkward feeling of unevenness. He needed new boots, now, among everything else.

There wasn't anything he could do about his broken boots now, and he was still better off with the boots on than walking over the wreckage all around with nothing but bare feet.

"Listen, Desdemona, we're going to look around town and see if we can find something good to eat. It has to be something in a box or a can. It has to be sealed up tight before we open it. We can't eat anything that was left lying around, like those vegetables at the depot, okay?"

She made a gagging sound in her throat.  "I don't like vegetables."

"Good, because I forbid you to eat them. Fruits are right out of the question, too. No vegetables, and no fruit. We will only eat our favorite things, in boxes and cans."

Meridian scanned the horizon again, always watching out for signs of beetles in the distance, those war machines racing furiously across the chessboard, to flank and kill other beetles, other moths, other cities.

He and Desdemona were going to have to spend the night where they were, no matter what. They were safer in a town — even a ruined one — than they would be out on the plains. There were fewer wild scavengers, and they could pick through the domiciles for better clothes for Desdemona. She wasn't dressed for traveling. Meridian needed boots, a change out of his soldier's clothes. They'd have to find somewhere low in case the war came back. Harder to get tramped if they were already underground.

If they were lucky, they'd find a house with a basement that hadn't gotten an acid bath when the beetles destroyed everything, and wouldn't need an electric knife to open up. They could hide in deep shelter until morning.

The road curved through the ruined city. Puddles of acid had accumulated in ditches and gutters. Meridian was careful to hold Desdemona's hand, and lead her as far away from any suspicious puddles as he could.

The domiciles this close to the main road were small, cheap things. Laborers and field hands lived in these houses in handfuls and bunches, piled up in bunk beds. If these buildings had had basements, they probably hadn't had big ones, and they probably hadn't kept anything there but heaps of their vile hemp-soma.

The piles of wreckage were slightly more substantial a few roads over, which indicated wealthier domiciles. Meridian led Desdemona between two large piles carefully, always watching where she stepped for anything that might cut through her shoes. Kids never had decent shoes. They outgrew them too quickly. Her shoes already looked like they wouldn't last another day of hard travel.

Meridian stopped suddenly. He heard the familiar clicking and sliding sound of a shotgun swallowing shells, getting ready to spit them out with a bang. Meridian spun fast towards the sound of the gun, but too late to do anything. He yanked Desdemona behind him, clinging to her hard with one hand so she didn't fall into anything, and didn't sneak out from behind his body.

A middle-aged man in overalls had been hiding in the shadows of wreckage. He slowly lifted his shotgun. The tip of his shotgun was just past Meridian's arm length. The man had been very good to get so close to Meridian, while Meridian was distracted by Desdemona.

Meridian yanked hard on Desdemona's hand. She was off-balance, and it hurt her to be tossed around and held like that, flailed like a fish on a line. She made pathetic whimpering noises, oblivious to the danger of the gun.

"Howdy," said the man with the shotgun. "You lost your helmet, huh? Wonder what kind of head-piece you had. Was it a big helmet, like the moth scouts, or was it one of them brain-implanting numbers the war beetles use?"

Meridian was used to lying to grown men, but he knew he couldn't lie to this man. This man was clean among the ruins, with white skin as pure as milk. He was hiding among larger, wealthier domiciles. He was a quiet stalker, accustomed to hunting trophy animals. He was a landowner. He was not some numb laborer blissing on hemp-soma. This man had even recognized Meridian Smith's uniform.

"I lost my beetle in the first assault," said Meridian, telling the truth. "I was out on the open plains when I lost my beetle. I think I was the first casualty, too. I didn't do this to your city, or to anyone's. I barely ejected with my life. I'm just a deserter, walking west." Meridian felt strange, lying to a child all day, then telling the truth to an adult.

"You've got a toy there, too," he said.

"I found Desdemona in a basement when I was looking for food. I couldn't leave her there. Look, don't shoot me, okay? I'm not looking for trouble."

Desdemona was sobbing now, screaming with her pain and fear.

The man with the shotgun spoke over her wails. "If you think I'm going to let you live just because I might accidentally hit your little toy..."

"I've been looking for survivors. The plains aren't safe. We can make it to the west border, cross into the swamps. We'll all be refugees together there, and there won't be any difference between us. We'll be safer there than here."

He spit. "Safe until the war beetles turn that way."

"You've got a steady hand with that boomstick," said Meridian. "You ever killed a man?"

"You have," he said. He leveled his gun. He was steeling his will to pull the trigger on his first human being and his hands weren't even trembling.

Meridian's first battle, years ago, he was sweating so hard he lost control of the beetle where it interfaced at his temples. Commanders shouted angrily for seven long minutes in the middle of close combat, while nothing was wrong on the dials, but nothing was working. Meridian took his helmet off to check the interface, and saw all that damp sweat gumming up the fungal inserts. He had dropped his helmet from trembling hands three times before he had cleared the sweat.

This man with the overalls and the shotgun was probably a good, brave man. If Meridian moved fast, he'd be shot. If it was a rifle or a handgun, Meridian stood a chance, but a spray of pellets meant he'd be cut down like ground beef before he'd even have his knife unsheathed.

He clutched Desdemona's hand hard. She whimpered. "Wait," said Meridian. "Just take Desdemona. I don't want her to get hurt."

The man cocked his head. "You crazy? I've got children to bury!"

"Just wait one minute!" Meridian said. "Take Desdemona, and hide her eyes. She's been through enough. She's seen enough. Please?"

He smiled with his mouth. His eyes never lost their deadly focus. "Fine," he said. "You send her on over, then."

Meridian let go of Desdemona's hand. She held onto his, hard. He lifted her up like a doll. She was so light. He held her up in the air. She was smiling at him, as if he really was her daddy.

"Desdemona, you have to go with this man."

"I don't want to, Mr. Smith."

"Do what I say," he said. "Go."

"Is he going to be my new daddy?"

"I don't know, Desdemona. Just go to him, for now, okay?"

Her hands let go. She wasn't strong at all. She was light, too, and not hard to hold. Meridian pulled his hand in close and shoved into a jacket pocket. His other hand, he placed on the pommel of his electric knife at the top of his boot. It was out in the open. The landowner could see it.

Desdemona reached up for Meridian. He lifted a boot and pushed her with his foot, gently, towards the man with the shotgun. She stood just under the barrel of the gun, looking at Meridian with those sad eyes that all children seemed to have mastered the moment they were born.

Meridian felt a lump in his throat. He choked it down. He didn't want to cry in front of her. He wanted her not to see what was going to happen. "Desdemona, why don't you go look around the corner, see if you can find a storm."

The landowner spit out of the side of his mouth. It was blood, from somewhere inside. "Go on, and get out of here. Don't look back."

"You go over to that man, and you listen to him," said Meridian. "He's going to take good care of you."

"Is not," she said. "He's mean." She took a step back towards Meridian.

"You're better off with him than you are with me right now."

"Why?" She reached out to Meridian with tiny, beautiful hands.

"Because I'll be too dead to help you."

"Why?" She took another step. Her eyes clouded with tears,

"Because he's going to kill me."

"But why?!" Her voice cracked with her wails.

The man with the shotgun lowered his weapon to Desdemona.

Meridian breathed in. He raised a hand. He couldn't imagine such an act fast enough to try and stop it in time.

The man in overalls pulled a trigger. Desdemona took one barrel in the back of the head, point blank.

Desdemona's head opened up like fireworks. She had been part beetle, part machine. None of her was really a girl. Bits of chitin and plastic and metal bounced like shrapnel off Meridian's tall boots. Some of the shot busted through the plastic brainpan, gears and pumps inside Desdemona's head. The shot peppered Meridian's thighs like strong insects, but they didn't draw much blood after busting through so much hard chitin.

Desdemona's joints spasmed, and then stiffened. She fell like a tree trunk. Golden lubricants from the pneumatic tubes in her neck spurted on the grass as if to a heartbeat pulsing in her chest — a mechanical heart, in a mechanical chest.

"Dumb toys," said the man with the gun. "My daughter had one. Drove me nuts." He lifted the weapon up again, to Meridian's chest.

Meridian's knife was in his hand the moment of the blast. His face was pale and shocked and his lips trembled with the beginning of tears, but he was still a soldier. He had driven the mighty war beetles, had merged with their primitive minds, to tear down enemy cities, and he had poured death upon the enemy where his commanders had aimed the herd. Meridian's face was shocked, but his knife was out and on. It hummed in his palm like a ritual chant.

Meridian feinted left. The man with the shotgun took the bait, fired into air, hitting only the long duster coat, a small bit of shoulder, and the space where Meridian Smith was mostly not. Meridian whipped around to the right, knocked the shotgun up, and stepped behind the man's back. Meridian's electric knife hummed in the air next to the man's throat. Meridian pulled the spent double-barrel shotgun out of the man's hands. The gun clattered somewhere behind them.

Meridian stood there, holding the humming knife at the terrified man's throat. Meridian stared at Desdemona's flickering wires and churning gears. They slowly wound down in the grass between the wrecked domiciles. Desdemona's interior plastics and casements reminded Meridian Smith of his war beetle's chitin and steel, when it had been sliced open by lucky moth bombers. The beetle was the first casualty in the first assault of this young war. The primitive mind of the beetle, connected directly into Meridian's brain, screamed in agony until Meridian turned off the creature's pain receptors. If Meridian had ejected instead of easing the beetle's pain, Meridian would have been able to save his rucksack, with all his survival gear. Before he unplugged his helmet and ejected, he even took a long moment to read the beetle's mind, as clear without pain as if everything was fine. The creature felt gaps in its body that didn't hurt anymore, as if such things were perfectly natural. All things are perfectly natural to war beetles as long as those things didn't cause them pain. The beetle prodded the burning breeches with its own weakening limbs and trunks. It wondered how such a change had happened so suddenly, and wondered what kind of creature it would become next, as if it was to molt its shell as it had when it was young, growing to this enormous size. Was it to become smaller, this time?

The way Desdemona's gears and wires rolled down to stillness was like the way the beetle had died, slowly winding down. She probably wondered what had happened, and what was going to happen. Yet, she was stuck inside the shell of innocence that had been designed for her by the people that had engineered the girl out of the carapace.

Meridian Smith hadn't known the truth about Desdemona. He would never truly know.


War Beetles © 2012 J. M. McDermott
Desdemona © Linda Saboe