by Jens Alfke ⟿ February 10, 2015

They were easy enough to mistake for sheep at a distance — white, fluffy, contentedly grazing — especially in the pre-storm dimness. It was when he got closer to them and saw their body shapes and the way they were eating that Laurence began to regret coming to the farm. As he watched, the nearest animal sheared off a half-dozen dandelions with its mandibles, squirted some sort of digestive ichor on them, and began rhythmic movements of its mouthparts.

“Mouthparts”, he said to himself. There was something disturbing about the very word, but much less so than seeing them in action close-up. He could see the shiny black carapace beneath the white fur now, and the huge compound eyes reflecting the first lightning. He lost his nerve and ran back across the field before the thunder hit.

“Why not regular sheep?” he asked Mo as he approached. “They’re traditional. Bucolic. We’ve raised them for thousands of years, right?”

She shrugged. “They didn’t deal well with the climate change. Or the antibiotic-resistant anthrax. The last people to try raising them here had a pile of dead ewes in a month. I didn’t have much choice but to try these. It’s real wool, you know. They’ve had the actual sheep genes implanted. And they’re not venomous or anything; beetles are very placid.”

“You had a choice to stay in the city like a sane person.”

“It felt too sterile there! I wanted to get down and dirty with nature while I still can. I’ll grant you it’s less comfortable than it used to be” — at this the first drops of rain hit and they both hurriedly fastened their protective hoods — “but it’s still tolerable outdoors, and how much longer will that last?”

The giant beetles didn’t seem to mind the acid rain, even though it plastered down their wool and released a pungent wet-animal smell. Laurence was fairly certain that smell was supposed to be mammals-only: wet bugs probably didn’t smell like anything. He and Mo were trudging back toward the compound now, before the fumes of the rain could work their way through the hoods. “Square-cube law,” he muttered, dimly recalling. “Insects that big shouldn’t be possible; they don’t have proper lungs. How do they absorb enough oxygen?”

“I don’t understand all the modifications,” she replied airily. “Ask the folks from Monsanto; I’m just a humble lawyer-turned-farmer. I did see a dead one last month — fell off a ledge, they’re even dumber than regular sheep — and the insides were really weird. Maybe they gave them lungs too…”

It was a macabre image, and he decided this wasn’t the right moment to ask after Mo’s kids. He saw them up ahead, running around the compound yelling with glee at the storm, their bright red skins naked under the rain and lightning, their silver eye-shells gleaming.