The red barn stood against a horizon of dead corn and half-tilled earth. Percy checked his Rolex. Nearly 5 AM. According to the dossier he had lifted from his father’s office it was only a matter of moments before the experiment began. That would mean more blood, more life wasted in the pursuit of the unnatural. It was something Percy could not abide.
Bolt cutters snapped the padlock off of the double wide doors and Percy walked in. The scent of sheep seeped into his nose. They were spread all along the barn floor, some sleeping, and some meandering around.
One of the sheep walked up to Percy, curiously sniffing. “Come on little guy,” Percy said, nudging the sheep out the door. After loading it into the trailer behind his truck, he pounded on the barn’s walls, waking the sleeping animals.
Outside in the dark, a small silver drone floated into the flatbed of the truck. It jostled around, before shooting out small legs that locked it into place. A small red light pulsed on the device, then turned green.
The sheep reacted uncomfortably to a noise that was far too high pitched for Percy to hear. When the dozen sheep were loaded into the trailer he hopped in the cab and smiled at himself in the mirror. He felt positively giddy with himself, and couldn’t wait to write the blog post behind this heist. He’d finally be a full-fledged member of the liberation front.
A small droning sound drifted on the wind. Percy felt a slight sense of dread at the noise, but turned the ignition.
The light buzzing took on a deeper groaning noise.
Percy looked up, and watched as the moon was swallowed by the swarm.
In the road behind him was a single sheep, outside of the trailer. He looked to the sky, looked at the truck. He felt a pang of guilt for even considering leaving the sheep behind. He jumped out, grabbed the animal, and forced the rather large sheep into the passenger’s seat.
Gas to the floor, Percy felt the tires spin in the loose gravel. The sound of small rocks being kicked up by the wheels was replaced by the slapping sounds of black bugs plopping on his windshield. One. Two. Ten. The black insects rained down faster and faster. The swarm piled on the truck and the farm like some ancient pestilence.
He tried to roll the window up, but gangs of the bugs climbed into the cab. Percy could hear the clicks and chattering of the bugs as they crawled down his arm. Percy didn’t breath. He didn’t move a muscle or flinch. The double mandibles bit down and Percy jerked in pain, smashing the bugs against the interior windshield.
The clicking turned to screeching and thousands of bugs took flight and bared down on the car.
The truck lurched ahead, flattening clusters of bugs below its new tires. The stench of bug death wafted in like wet cardboard and spoiled shrimp.
Flying down the road, the bugs lost their grip on the truck and the trailer. The swarm still followed, but couldn’t match his speed.
With a balled fist, Percy crushed the creatures in the cab. Their yellowish guts seeped from the bludgeoned bugs and stuck to every surface.
The sheep rolled around the interior cab uncomfortably, bleating its discontent.
Percy drove toward the now rising sun, tears in his eyes, bug goop everywhere else.
Every summer Neil faced the same struggle. He had come to know it as the Corn Epoch, and it was the time that his parents dumped him off on the family farm while they went to some exotic place. They wanted him to know where he came from. The answer was always corn. The farm sat in an endless sea of corn, and it was connected to dozens of other properties with the same set of barns, Ford trucks, and unwashed denim overalls.
For some reason Neil’s father never needed reminding of the corn, only Neil himself. Neil supposed the rest of the family had had the brutal misfortune of growing up in the fields, of one stoplight towns and the smells of animal dung. But his servitude was just beginning.
His laptop displayed the slowly loading tabs of a throng of social media sites. He stared at screenshots for games he couldn’t play online and prayed to the gods of the internet to just let him game for a few minutes after chores.
There was a knock at his door. It slid open as a tall young blonde walked in. Her legs were tan and long under her sundress. Lynda smiled at Neil, and told him to come down for breakfast.
His 13 year old mind didn’t care that she was his cousin. She was the only perk he saw in this bleak wasteland of plenty.
He stepped away from his laptop and followed her down the stairs.
“And that’s how you know the moon is a hologram,” Buck said, shoving another heap of eggs in his mouth.
“Sure it is Daddy. Just like how the president is a lizard,” Lynda said. She winked at Neil, whose eyes had glazed over.
“Well he certainly isn’t a black dude. We might have seen some real change if that were the case. Better or worse mind you.”
Outside the kitchen window, a massive dust trail came into view.
“I think I played that game once.” Neil said.
Buck slammed his hand on the table. “This ain’t a game anymore, Neil. You and your generation gotta be prepared for what’s coming. The internet is full of the truth on these guys and it’s only a matter of time before they try to silence us all.”
This was the third day of Neil’s stay, and he’d lost track of all the conspiracies that were confirmed fact by his uncle.
“You can laugh all you want at me now, but when the shit goes down you’ll be crawling back to Uncle Buck asking for guns and real food. You just wait.”
The sound of a diesel truck hummed closer, the dust cloud rising higher.
Desperate to change the subject, Neil asked, “What’s the plan today?”
“Today, Lynda’s gonna show you how to reap. You’re getting your first taste of the tractor.”
Neil’s eyes widened. He was terrified of that tractor. The most he had ever driven was a go-kart. At the same time, he’d never been more excited to be on the farm. Especially since the old John Deere only had one seat he would have to share. He’d seen Lynda driving it the day before, effortlessly, Coors can in one hand and the enormous fields in front of her.
“Dad, who is that?” Lynda asked. The truck was weaving back and forth on the dirt road. It swerved too far and started clipping corn stalks, lurching as it passed over the furrowed rows in the field.
Buck turned to the window, then shot out of his seat. “I don’t know,” Buck said. He ran to the front of the house, stopping at his gun cabinet and pulling out a double barreled shotgun. It was already loaded.
The truck swerved onto the long driveway, fishtailing around the corner. The trailer came loose and rolled onto its side, sliding into the corn. A single sheep went flying from the now open door. The truck barreled down the road until it slammed into a power pole near the house. A man stumbled out, followed by a very confused sheep.
The clock on the microwave turned off, as did the blaring TV in the living room.
Neil followed Buck and Lynda outside.
The young man limped toward Buck, who had the shotgun leveled at his head.
“You’ve gotta help me,” Percy said, blood running down his face. He pulled off his shirt, and dozens of cockroach like bugs stuck to his body.
BOOM! The shotgun sound rattled Neil’s teeth. A cloud of dust erupted on the ground a few feet in front of the injured man. “Not another step closer, asshole,” Buck said, his voice calm and deep. “Now I don’t know what you’re on, and I don’t care. There’s gonna be some recompense for the damage. Now I can take your plate and insurance before you get the hell out, or we can find a nice plot in the corn for you to fertilize.”
The man ripped the bugs off of his body, squeezing hard with each pull. A new trickle of blood formed with every roach. “I was trying to help some animals, man. Some experiment down the road. They wanted to kill these sheep.”
Something in Buck was triggered by the word experiment. He grew even angrier. “Boy, you gone and done it now. Bringing THEM here.” He walked up to Percy and slammed the butt of his shotgun into his belly.
Lynda raised her shotgun toward the stranger on his knees, the look in her eyes a mix of worry and anger. “Daddy, bring him in. He’s not armed, he’s just stupid and on something.”
“You don’t understand,” the man said, trying to catch his breath. “We have to go now.”
“No, you have to go. That heap will get you out of here. Leave that fancy watch and we’ll call this even.” Buck said. He grabbed the man’s wrist and unsnapped the Rolex.
Percy pointed to the horizon, his jaw falling open. In the distance, a swarm of black ebbed and flowed like starlings in formation. It was liquid motion, following currents in the air, but definitely moving toward them.
A small buzz settled on them.
Buck grabbed the man by the collar, fuming and unable to speak. He threw Percy toward the house and walked him in.
Lynda slammed the door behind them, “Neil, get all the windows. Lock them. I’ll get upstairs,” she said.
Neil did as he was told, slamming each shut as the buzzing grew more intense. On the counter, a glass of water faintly shook from the vibrations. He looked over and saw Buck duct taping Percy to a chair. The man didn’t fight, only drooped his head as the silver roll encircled his limbs.
There was a look he rarely saw on his uncle’s face. A sort of frenetic panic that made his eyes wide. Buck ran his hand through his thick beard repeatedly and stared at the taped man in front of him.
The light that came through the windows started to fade. The first sounds of fleshy hail hit the roof and sides of the house. Black insects rained down slowly at first and then washed over the house like a crushing avalanche.
Neil stared at the front bay window. It was pitch black, save for the few quick openings of lights between the piles of bugs. He put a shaking hand to the window, and the bugs screeched and shuddered. The pile shifted toward his hand and he could see huge pincers trying to make their way through the glass.
Each bug was at least three inches long, their hard black carapace spotted with deep red flakes. The underside was covered in armored ridges, and the legs poked out with bristly hairs. The sound of their legs scratching against the glass drove into his skull, but Neil felt like they wouldn’t be able to break through.
A steel colored bug, more than a foot in length slapped against the glass. A mound of black insects underneath it were crushed into puss yellow organs and carapace fragments. The dead legs twitched under the heavy metallic body. Small arms at the front of the metal bug angled up, and then slammed against the surface.
A crack formed in the window
Neil felt a hand grip his shoulder and he pulled away from the window. Buck had the young man over his shoulder and ran to the basement.
The glass pane shattered. The sound of wings and pincers flushed into the house. Neil could hear the disgusting creatures flittering over the walls, knocking framed pictures to the ground as they crawled and flew.
Buck tromped down the stairs, his massive arms holding Neil like he was a child. He slammed the door at the bottom, chest huffing from effort and he started piling bags of soil and fertilizer in front of the door.
In front of her bedroom window, about ten of the insects found their way through the cracks. Lynda stomped each one, her bare feet feeling every crackle and pop of their bodies. She felt the hot bile in her stomach threatening to burst out but suppressed it. She scraped her feet on the carpet and jammed her feet into her old work boots.
The sound of glass breaking downstairs crushed Lynda’s confidence dead in its tracks. The upstairs windows were holding, and she thought they might have some time to figure out an escape.
Then she heard the muffled screaming and ran down the stairs. A thick column of bugs flowed through the air toward the bound man. The column hit him hard enough to knock the chair onto the tile floor. Under the pile the man was barely visible, and only splotches of blood soaked skin showed through.
One of the bugs tracked across the floor carrying a thumb, held up high.
The large silver bug hovered in the air above the screaming man. It didn’t have wings, and it took a moment for Lynda to see that it wasn’t a bug at all, but a bug shaped drone.
The man under the pile stopped shaking. The muffled screams ceased and a pool of blood trickled out across the kitchen floor. One or several of the bugs had sliced through an artery, and Percy’s heart mercifully did the rest.
Lynda took the shotgun from over her shoulder and leveled it at the drone. The silver bug slowly turned around the room, its dual black eyes looking for a new target as the rest of the bugs dug deeper into their prey. It passed over Lynda, then immediately snapped back.
The sound of a thousand horrible insects taking flight ripped through the air.
Lynda pulled the trigger, blasting a cluster of birdshot.
The drone flew erratically, spinning out of control. Lynda pulled the trigger two more times, vaporizing a cloud of insects, then shredding the drone. Sparks flew out of the machine and its components fell to the ground.
The swarming insects changed their course and fell into erratic patterns. They spread to the walls, hiding in crevices, and their focused interest in Lynda was gone. Several landed on her, but did not attack.
She stepped across the kitchen floor to basement and walked down, crushing insects with each step. She brushed them off as they fell from the ceiling and into her hair, but they didn’t respond, not even in self-defense.
When she reached the door, she yelled and heard her father moving heavy bags.
At once, the insects stopped moving erratically and fell into straight lines pointing up the stairs. The sound of a whirring motor came to her ears.
At the top of the stairs a silver drone looked directly at her, and the doorway filled with now chattering insects. A green LED flashed on, and they swarmed.
The door opened, Buck grabbed Lynda, and slammed it. The bugs crushed themselves against the door, sounding like baseballs as they flung their bodies. Neil and Buck stacked the bags in front of the door again. The hinges rattled, dust fell from the ceilings.
Lynda reloaded the shotgun from a cache of 12 gauge rounds in the basement, and pulled viscera from her hair.
To Buck, the biggest problem with bugs was how they managed to get everywhere. He’d been stationed in the tropics and Alaska, and he thought the frozen north was preferable simply because he didn’t have to worry about malaria or those supposed parasites that swim up your pecker when you pee in the river.
Like so much of what he knew, he wasn’t sure if that last one was real or not.
What was real were the long roachlike bugs easing their way through the cracks of the door. When he saw their pincers peek through the gap he would take the wood handled hammer he found and smack it dead. For a few minutes, the crunch was satisfying, but they kept coming. The door to the basement wasn’t much more than cardboard. He’d cursed himself a few times for being such a cheap-ass during the renovation.
Deeper than that regret was the memory of something far worse. He felt his hands shaking, despite their white knuckle grip on the hammer. It was like the experiments they had run on him and so many others before. Like project Midnight Climax or the ideas behind Project Northwoods. It all had to be tested, and somehow he was the subject.
The bugs were inside of the door now, through the first layer and chewing into the second. It was only a matter of time before the thin door gave way.
“If they break through the door, “Lynda said, “We have to kill the drones. They’re being controlled by them.” She rummaged through the old shelves and tools, knowing shotgun shells wouldn’t be enough to stop the incoming wave of insectal destruction.
Then she noticed Neil, sitting on several bags of ammonium nitrate fertilizer. “Dad, how did the bomb at Oklahoma City work?” Lynda asked.
“Well honey, Timothy McVey is what they call a patsy,” Buck said, swinging the hammer.
“No, I mean how did it actually work? Not the conspiracy theory. The bomb in the rental truck.”
“Ammonium nitrate is pretty volatile. You just need something to get it going. Get enough of it and you can blow up pretty much anything.” He said, and looked at the bags.
Neil stood from the fertilizer, and cautiously stepped away and into a corner before cursing at his phone for a lack of signal. The drones must have been jamming his signal.
“I have an idea,” Lynda said.
The double doors to the basement’s outer entrance were crawling with bugs like the rest of the house, but were so covered in vines and refuse that the drones had not marked them. They would only have a moment after bursting through the door before they would be noticed and swarmed. All three of them carried loaded shotguns.
Neil whispered to himself. “Be cool. Be cool. Seven shots. You got this.”
Lynda lit the fuse.
Buck crossed himself, despite not being a Catholic, and ripped the doors open. Vines and debris slowed the door, but the massive man tore his way out. The others followed.
Outside, the world was a hurricane of black bugs and green plants. The swarm kicked the crop into the air as it swirled around the house, passing in and out through demolished glass.
A drone banked from near the barn and pathed itself toward them, the clicking bugs forming a twisting tentacle shape as they flew toward the family.
Buck took aim and blasted the drone from the sky. The swarm dissipated, falling to the ground and milling about. The sudden destruction of one drone brought the attention of several others, and the hovering silver bugs brought their swarms with them, chattering in wicked lust for flesh.
Neil fired, missing his first shot but taking a drone down on the second. They all ran toward the barn, which was barely visible through a wall of insects.
Errant bugs latched on as they passed, squeezing deep into the skin on Buck’s arms and legs. One grabbed his lip, first set of mandibles chattering as it tried to crawl into his mouth. Using the butt of his gun, Buck smashed the bug into his face. The taste reminded him of bad dares and tequila in South America.
Lynda set her shotgun forward toward the thick wall of bugs and blasted. Clouds of black and yellow blew into the air, but each shot barely cleared a hole before it was filled back in. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes, and charged through. Bugs hit her ribs, clenched to her exposed skin and bit deep with every bursting second. She rolled to the floor of the barn, crushing as many as she could, writhing next to her father and cousin.
Buck ran to his daughter, ripping bugs from her body as fast as he could, crushing them with his bare hands. Blood streamed from his face and bugs tore at his flesh but he paid them no mind.
A timer on Neil’s phone went off, and all three of them stared at each other before rising and sprinting to the barn door and sliding the giant red slab shut. Before the darkness fell in the barn, each of them saw that the swarm was changing, it was turning in the sky, and like a black tornado it turned for them.
Neil looked at the timer again. “Did it not igni-“
The world outside went from ceaseless buzzing to a thunderclap even gods would envy.
A shockwave blasted from the house, a fiery death that ignited the sky and sent pieces of home sailing into the calm Nebraska morning. The force ripped bugs and drones alike limb from limb.
Debris rained down on the barn, some pieces ripping through the roof of the old structure. The hay in the loft popped and crackled as it began to burn. The three people lay on the ground, Buck holding his ears and the others struggling to stand. A few bugs crawled absently around, no longer trying to attack.
When Lynda could stand, she walked outside, tears welling up in the corner of her eyes. The only home she had ever known lay as little more than a hole in the ground. The smell of sizzling bug flesh made the air acrid, and she stepped over the twitching carcasses by the thousands. Neil gave her hand a reassuring squeeze, wiping his own tears of relief away.
“I still haven’t gotten to drive that stupid tractor,” Neil said.
Lynda gave a half smile and turned to the droning noise behind her.
In the distance, a black van rolled down the highway, followed by a long line of military vehicles. Buck resisted the urge to run, but the corn was flattened by the blast for well over two-hundred yards and he didn’t think he could get away. As the trucks pulled up, men in lab coats jumped out with tools and soldiers went around with flamethrowers, charring the little bodies.
A thin man in a fancy suit walked up to the family. “Mister Buck Larson. On behalf of the US Government and our Lunar Division, I’d like to extend my apologies and our checkbook. Our scientists get a little excited about their new toys. I realize that this comes as a shock, but we’ve already signed the documents on your gag order. You won’t want to talk about this.”
“The hell I won’t,” Buck shouted. He yanked the papers out of the man’s hand and counted the zeroes. He ran his hand through his beard and thought. “Well, you folks should really be careful about the gas lines out this way. It’s not safe. This is tax free, right?”
“Very good, sir. Let’s get this cleaned up.” The man said.
“Hey Lynda, what do you say we move to Antarctica?” Buck said, waving the check. “I doubt they have bugs down there.”
Tony Southcotte hails from the Rocky Mountains somewhere around the state of Colorado. Possibly raised by grizzly bears, this gritty denizen of the arena now spends most of his time grappling with Java updates and dysfunctional RAM. With not much fiction under his belt, it might seem tempting to bet against Mister Southcotte, but an impressive knowledge of everything from PVC pipe to psychedelic drugs makes Tony a storehouse of fiction waiting to hit the paper. Plus, you know, there’s the possibility of him ripping you apart like a grizzly bear.