The Lonely Barricade at Dawn
By Jesse William Olson
Illustration by Linda Saboe
By waving her legs, Scutigera coleoptrata carried her body down the kitchen wall. She didn’t like the light which had just flickered on, as it obstructed her vision and was a mild discomfort. And, today at least, it was a convincing enough reason as any to leave the room. Besides which, she logicked, the eggs would bear mouthing — turning them over and making sure they were properly moistened.
As she continued down the wall, she thought of her eggs, hopefully safe in the gap between the bathroom cabinet and the floor. The location was good and out of the way, but it was also a little too damp, and as such promoted fungal life, which made it a constant war to keep the eggs nurtured and clean.
Scutigera, one foot away from transitioning planes to the kitchen’s smooth floor, hesitated. Her antennae worked the air alongside the black facets of her eyes, and she noticed that the smaller hominid had entered the room and had occupied itself with some tools on a counter at the opposite wall. Scutigera slowed. She’d seen the aversion the hominids demonstrated at the presence of her kind and she knew their eyes tended to track quick movements, even peripherally. This meant her best chance at safety, short of going back up and out of reach, was a slow crawl toward cover.
But luck, as it tends to, ran out. The child screamed and dropped her table knife, which revolved as gravity carried it to the floor, landing with a clang that sent globs of jelly across the linoleum. The girl didn’t notice the raspberry streak on her pant leg, but stared instead, drop-jawed, at the bug, which moved, as she interpreted it, toward her across the floor. The thing was almost two inches long, and its too-many legs were too long. Revulsion overpowered her hunger, and the girl abandoned her half-made sandwich, instead calling for her father and running out of the room.
Her slippers padded across the linoleum and onto the carpet. Dad there’s a bug! she cried, but received no response. She stood, disgusted panic still evident on her face, and listened. No sounds from the kitchen, none from the entryway or the living room or the basement. Besides the sound of the news running on a TV which was always on in her dad’s study, there was only the life of the house, creaking and hushing, holding back the outside winds and circulating its own air. Dad! she called again, and padded off toward the study.
He didn’t notice her until she ran into the room and grabbed his hand. Daddy, the girl said, drawing out the vowel, bouncing it slightly in her annoyance, there’s a bug! It’s—. He stretched out the fingers of the hand she’d grabbed, and she let go as he looked down at her. The emotions he’d been feeling toward the news broadcast were etched deeply enough that she thought, for an instant, they were aimed at her. It made her feel, fleetingly, like something grotesque and horrid, something that could not be suffered. But it passed, and the news reporter continued to reel out his shouted, breath-lacking commentary, underscored by the roaring wash of a crowd.
Her father’s face became tense again as he returned his attention to the TV. He sucked in a breath and held it deep in his lungs, willing it to reassure him. A crowd was in protest at the state capital. His stomach churned as the camera swung, wielded by a cameraman who was obviously struggling to keep the reporter in frame. The reporter, meanwhile, who could have conveyed everything all the more easily by shutting up, getting out of the frame, and letting the camera pan the crowd, was struggling to keep his position and yelling to be heard over the chanting and jeering of the protesters. With the winter weather coming on, his breath condensed in the air. Pray, he said, that the police can hold their barricade.
A nearby man in a winter hat noticed the reporter. He flexed his muscles against the cold air as he listened, half-wishing he’d unpacked his cold weather jacket in time for the rally, even if it was an obnoxious shade of red which he’d never have purchased in all his life, and which he only kept because it was a gift, and because it was warmer than any of the lighter jackets he preferred. The cold man who was not wearing that jacket cocked his head at something the reporter said and, realizing what side the reporter was on, perhaps, and also driven by mob impulses which would have been unthinkably foreign to his quotidian life, swung his elbow into the reporter’s face, meanwhile yelling something which was only half intelligible even to himself. The cold man in the hat looked the camera in its lens as the reporter fell, grabbed it, and struggled until the cameraman broke away and ran.
The cold man turned back and joined the crowd, fists pumping the air, lungs bursting with bold curses and a sense of both entitlement and power. “Fight the bugs! Fight the bugs! Fight the bugs!” the crowd chanted. The fever increased and the tempo of the chant overflowed into chaos. “Stop the infestation!” he yelled. Ahead of him, signs were being flung or dropped, and small projectiles, some of which looked like rocks, or shoes, or gravel, or all of those things, were being hurled — either at the police barricade, or, for those with stronger arms, at the building it encircled and had been placed to protect. The man pushed forward with the others, eyes darting from time to time to the top floor windows, behind the glass of which, he knew a woman waited.
The woman paced back and forth along the tinted glass, arms crossed, frowning. She flinched as the first gunshot sounded, the report cutting clear and high before it reached her ears. She watched the mob swarm the police with their tiny bodies propelled by tiny arms and legs, swinging, flailing, falling. More gunfire.
A shame, really, in all its futility. Within ten minutes, the foreigners would have landed on the building’s heliport and she would be in a room signing their paperwork. This rallying would have no effect. But then, she was somewhat glad for the noise and commotion. In a way, it gave her a certain hope knowing something this monumental wouldn’t come to pass in the abject silence of total submission. She paced.
And yet… she listened to the noise of the street: Not only was there not total submission, she was beginning to realize that in some people there wasn’t even a half-hearted or a begrudging submission. Gunfire rang out from the barricade and with each bullet, one of the mass was surely hit, was surely falling. Some people were still willing to die — or kill — before submitting at all. And she knew that such noise was surely ringing out across all the countries of the planet, in every metropolis, every village, every home. In her mind, she could see the bodies, broken in defeat in crimson pools. Outside the window, she could see sprawled bodies already, dead at her own guard’s guns. What good was surrendering to save lives if her own people were already giving their lives in protest against surrender? A thing in her mind clicked.
Eventually, she heard the heavy clank of machinery and, shortly thereafter, a bustle of voices and hurrying footsteps in the hallway. She waited. The knock sounded on her door. She got up, nodded at the aide whose head poked through, and left the room, letting the aide follow behind her.
The aide, a nervous young man who’d felt on the verge of emptying his stomach for the past week, and who only hadn’t because of how little he’d been able to eat in the first place, was stupefied by the calm grace with which the global matriarch walked down the hall. Ostensibly untouched by the rattle of gunfire, the knowledge that she was walking to her own surrender, or the more immediate prospect of facing the meeting room.
As the two of them approached, another aide held the door open, and they entered. All parties were then present, including the necessary body guards, advisors, aides, and translators. The aide glanced over the giant insectoid bodies of their new overlords with thinly veiled disgust.
The colonization officer looked at the assembly of humans before it. Their pale and pink softness disgusted it. No shell for decency, no strength. It wasn’t sure why control of this planet was deemed necessary, but orders were orders. It asked their first question, which was translated, and the human thing that it had been told was the leader answered. “Yes, I speak on behalf of all Earth.”
It asked its second question, in a tone that, to any race but the humans, would have betrayed its obvious boredom. The question was translated, and there was a gasp from the human side of the room as the human answered.
“What does the thing say?” the colonization officer demanded angrily. After a pause, the translation came: “No. I did indeed come here to surrender our homeworld, and for what little it matters, I do willingly surrender myself to your power. But as the voice of the Terran collective, I must echo that no, we do not, will not, and cannot submit. What we do at this point is up to you. My soul soars against the unknown.”