The oar beetle is the efficient, repellant carrion eater that thrives in the vast battlefields of the planet Grigory IV. “Beetle” is a misnomer. The real creature is the oar, a pliant albino grub that hatches inside the beetle and devours it from within. The oar sinks neural filaments into the beetle’s brain and compels the beetle to grind its legs and wings on rock. It shapes the broken pieces into a sharp beak for its mouth. It wears the broken carapace as a glossy helmet for its body, and secretes glue to hold it in place.
By itself, the oar is little more than a pebble-sized head attached to a translucent stomach sack. It eventually splits the beetle’s carapace and pulses into the open. It steers its demolished victim like a grotesque carriage to the nearest corpse and prompts the beetle to drop its eggs.
Then the oar bites the corpse and spreads its stolen mouth-parts like arms. It bites deeper, and spreads wider, bites and spreads, bites and spreads. It enters the corpse, and leaves the violated beetle, broken and insane, circling in the mud.
When there is no carrion to be found, the beetles stumble to a halt and the oars die in the sun. Normally, this keeps their numbers down.
The war, with its close-packed dead, has created an endless feast.
Soldiers at the front will wake to feel these little nightmares crawling across their bodies in waves. This means that nearby corpses, perhaps buried during an artillery barrage, have grown pregnant with oar beetles. On suitably warm and moist nights, the bodies burst soundlessly apart, and the oar beetles stream into the moonlight like little armies.
Living soldiers had best keep very still during an oar beetle surge. The oar’s mouth is full of necrotizing bacteria that softens carrion. Oar bites fester for weeks and only heal after a month or more. They will reopen years later, should the soldier go malnourished.
When a soldier is old, or has recently been very lucky, an oar bite is considered an omen:
A living man is tasted by an oar,
And falls in death before the day is o’er.
Sethlan was an old man of twenty-eight when he felt his oar beetle bite.
He yanked his hand back from the trench wall and stared at the pulsing thing. It had latched on the fleshy part of his palm between the thumb and forefinger, and now it wriggled into his flesh with unsettling, macabre energy.
If the trench stories were true, this was Sethlan’s omen. The oar was a perfect creature in its way, and it had identified him as a corpse to enter and consume. It received its knowledge from the battlefield, from nature itself.
Not yet, Sethlan thought. Not today.
Before its peristaltic contractions pulsed it further into his hand, he ripped the oar off and threw it out of the trench.
Sethlan’s aide, Tejj, appeared around a turn in the trench and saw it all. He was young, but he knew what the oar bite meant, just like any other soldier.
The furious artillery barrage last night had blown dust into the atmosphere. Now, as the morning warmed, it settled through the air like dead smoke, coating everything. The barrage had been devastatingly precise, but little new with that—the South had grown increasingly precise over the last several months. Sethlan’s soldiers were scattered in pieces up and down the trench, and not the regular fillets and cross-sections. This bombardment had been whimsical with the dead.
It had contrived to split all the nearby legs open—lengthwise. It had sheared faces off skulls, and set them where the sun could glow through the eyelids. It created corpses that opened like travel trunks, hinged on one side and scraped clean. It flayed arms, pulling the skin off like a Haphan Overlord’s dress glove.
Old soldiers attributed these accidents to a minor trench god, Brutal Butcher. The butcher had been so busy last night, no wonder the oar beetles were out and active this morning before the sun burned away the fog.
“There’s a messenger in the trenches looking for you, sir,” Tejj finally said. “From Colonel Goldros.”
“I’m not found,” Sethlan said softly.
“Which I just found you, sir.” Tejj glanced over the bodies. “And pleased to see you’re still in active service, not like these lazy types.”
“I’m not found,” Sethlan repeated. “I haven’t been seen.”
That said, he adjusted a fragment of broken mirror to see himself. A dark thatch of straight hair, jutting brows, a wide jaw that he lathered with shaving cream.
He stropped his straight razor and held it against his throat. He didn’t want to shave, but it was what officers did. The Haphan Overlords watched their servitor officers for any hint of decline. Among his people, when discipline lapsed, it went quickly and with great peril.
After a moment, probably too long a moment, Sethlan moved the razor over his chin. He scraped over his sunken cheeks and around his mouth with its cracked lips.
Gaunt, so gaunt. The cleft chin, the angular jaw, and the penetrating, deep-set eyes may have been attractive, or at least reassuring, a month ago at the beginning of the rotation. Sethlan only noticed himself when he was thin and exhausted. The front was consuming him like it consumed his men, but slower. At length.
The razor and the cream also removed some of the grime. In general strokes, Sethlan looked like most of his people, the Tachba. He didn’t feel like one this morning, not after the artillery nightmare last night, and certainly not after the last three weeks of fighting in the trenches. Unit discipline required that Sethlan, as captain, be distinctly other from his soldiers, at least the living ones. But he’d felt distinctly other from fellow Tachba his entire life.
“I should’ve searched for you slower, sir, but it’s too late now.” Tejj knew Sethlan’s moods, and seemed to remember that the captain wouldn’t find the artillery barrage bracing and invigorating like everyone else. He changed tack. “Who is that, by the way?”
Tejj meant the hand holding Sethlan’s broken mirror.
Last night, a nearby detonation from a shell, one of the big bumper types, had split apart the interleaved sandbags in the trench wall. This old corpse had popped through like an unexpected guest, and its outflung arm was the perfect height.
“Not from our unit,” Sethlan said. “A sorry scrag from a few rotations back, still hoping to be useful.”
“Was that an oar that bit you, sir?” Tejj finally blurted.
Sethlan showed him the bite. It had already scabbed over, but his palm was angry red. The minor venom and bacteria in the oar’s mouth would keep the bite festering for days, but eventually succumb, leaving a scar. Quite an accomplishment for such a small creature, since the Tachba healed quickly from even the most terrible wounds.
Sethlan watched Tejj fight his superstitions and said, “The men can’t know.”
“Which they won’t think to ask,” Tejj said.
“There is no predicting when death will really come,” Sethlan added. “A few years in the trenches will show you that.”
“I’m not some credulous simpleton,” Tejj snapped, still staring at the wound.
Sethlan saw the quiet dread take hold of the boy.
He couldn’t help himself. He added, “Though obviously the oar beetle thought differently. Maybe I’m already dead?”
“Sir!” Tejj glanced around nervously.
“In which case, you’re speaking to a ghost,” Sethlan finished. He meant to add a grin, but it was too much effort.
Tejj went still.
A large and rational portion of Tejj’s intellect rebelled against all superstition. It was what made the boy so useful as an aide, and it distinguished him from other Tachba on the front. If Tejj survived his early years in the trench and retained that high functional level, he would eventually rise into view of the Haphan Overlords. He might be elevated to a commissioned officer like Sethlan, a leader of other Tachba.
Tejj was an anomaly, like Sethlan himself, but he was still fundamentally Tachba, with all the inheritance. They were all part of that ancient, horrid experiment in gene-twisting to make a race of the most capable human warriors possible.
The experiment had been abandoned thousands of years ago by whatever civilization had seeded them on this planet and left them to suffer. The genetic modifications passed from generation to generation without guidance, so some effects magnified over time while others shrank. There was no predicting the changes, and no way to control them. The Tachba called it the Pollution, and it emerged in unanticipated, conflicted ways. It was more than just the appalling birth rate, the unearthly reflexes, the fast recovery from wounds, and the tolerance for suffering. The Pollution affected the very minds of the Tachba; it changed their interior thoughts. In addition to the emotional dampeners and the in-born ability with weapons, there were the ancient servitor controls, buried deep in the mind with shoddy rigging. The instinct to give service, the willingness to follow any authoritative voice, the ease with which rumor became truth.
To Sethlan, the worst side-effect was that most Tachba simply didn’t notice it. Derangement if they struggled, low executive function if they didn’t. Very few, Tejj among them, navigated the distorted inner landscape with their wits intact.
Sethlan himself was immune, and he didn’t know why.
Tejj struggled with Sethlan’s test. First, he eyed the bodies spread across the landscape by the giant trowel of the barrage. Then he studied his captain, the only whole figure in sight. Sethlan was mysteriously complete among these scattered bodies, calmly shaving and speaking nonsense. A corpse had sprung from the wall to hold his shaving mirror.
Finally, the boy shook his head, rejecting it all. “There are no ghosts, but I think I understand. I’ll share my thoughts with the messenger.”
Sethlan watched him go, a little sad. That mind, if it stayed robust, would eventually unlock enough truths to bring the boy to despair.
More immediately, Tejj wouldn’t lie to the messenger. Another facet of the Pollution was the unwillingness to mislead others. Sethlan hadn’t escaped the messenger; he hadn’t even delayed the meeting.
Well, I’m as shaved and as officer-like as I’ll ever be. He climbed to his feet, gathered his scattered gear, and followed Tejj’s path down the trench.
* * *
Sethlan came upon the confrontation unseen. One of the unit veterans, Amphylon, had intercepted the messenger first. He was a reliable boot, almost as high-function as Tejj, but with battle-hardening and experience to match.
Amphylon was saying, “The captain is not found,” and his tone relayed that the captain was not even sought. Tejj nodded beside him.
“Then find him,” the messenger snapped. “Colonel Goldros wants Captain Sethlan Semelon, so he shall be found. Produce him for me.”
Amphylon shook his head. “We know the colonel’s brilliant plan. We’ve been sent out every night this month to fight the Southies. We’re being sent out again tonight. Repeat until we’re all dead. It’s madness.”
“You’re claiming the war is mad?” The messenger raised an eyebrow. “Must I return with the message that you are rejecting orders? That Captain Semelon has lost command of his men, and his soldiers are off the leash and pissing themselves and criticizing the war?”
There would be no dodging this messenger, Sethlan could see. He wasn’t one of those ten-year-olds who fanned through the trenches with minnow-like redundancy and the breathtaking mortality rate. This was one of the rare older runners, fourteen if he was a day, who could find a scattered unit regardless of the confusion in the trenches.
“Shut up, Amphy,” Tejj finally said. He turned to the messenger. “We’re receiving orders with open ears. Your question is whether the captain is available. We don’t even know if he’s alive.”
“If he’s dead, I want to talk to his body.”
Tejj spread his hands. “I can only say that his figure has been witnessed in the trenches this morning.”
Sethlan felt a brief spike of pride in the boy. That was so close to being untrue it was almost a lie.
The messenger took a moment to put it together. “You’re saying he’s a ghost.”
“There’s strong evidence he’s as good as dead.” Tejj’s voice cracked.
The messenger frowned. “You concede that an… apparition of the captain may be wafting nearby?”
Tejj gave a humiliated nod.
“In which direction is he wafting?” The messenger’s tone was sarcastic, but touched with apprehension.
Tejj expelled his breath explosively. “Well… none. None direction.”
Because they had all noticed Sethlan off to the side, watching silently in the falling dust.
Tejj, Amphylon, and the exasperated messenger turned his direction. Sethlan could guess what the messenger was thinking. If the captain was indeed dead, then the messenger couldn’t recognize his ghost without being one of those superstitious trench simpletons they all hoped they weren’t. The Haphan Overlords claimed it was childish to imagine real-life ghosts stalking the battlefields.
It was more likely that Sethlan had simply gone mad during the artillery barrage last night. After all, who but a questionable eccentric would just float quietly behind their discussion like a bad smell? The Tachba called their madness circling. The Haphan Overlords called it “out of sorts.”
Maybe I am mad, Sethlan thought. He really should have said something by now.
The messenger spoke first.
“I believe the captain is nearby,” he muttered. “I don’t think I’m going too far in saying it.”
“I’m here,” Sethlan conceded. “Moreover, I’m alive.”
Tejj and the messenger relaxed minutely. Amphylon simply shrugged, his thoughts clear on his face: so the war will continue today, and no peace for any of us.
Sethlan said, “Messenger, the colonel wants to see me, la?”
“Yes, sir.” He was too experienced to salute in the open. He merely indicated a direction, and with a final disgusted look at Tejj and Amphylon, set off.
“Captain,” Amphylon called after him. “I’ll give you one guess what Colonel Goldros will want us to do.”
”Sethlan, bring me their tongues,” Colonel Goldros said.
… continued in the book