Studback stands where the sidewalk ends in Little Little Rock, staring into the everlasting fog. Ash-flakes seem to appear out of thin air and float down all around him, sliding over the slopes of his broad back and coating the faux concrete. There is a cold, noble air about him, but this is put on. Somewhere beneath his thick shell sneaks a suspicion that he isn’t the leader his people need. It never made any sense - of all the roaches in this tabletop scale-model town, why him?
Months have passed since the oathtaking. He would never have submitted his name if he didn’t honestly expect to be a force for good, but he’s no longer sure that’s what he is. During his months in power, he’s watched his kind suffer, dwindle, and most unfortunately, resort to cannibalism.
As a younger roach, he might have spread his wings, leapt out over the edge, and glided down into the fog by himself. This evening, the gray pebble lodged in his walnut carapace is especially uncomfortable, an itch he can’t scratch. It’s been there since before the firestorms wiped out Man - thus the earned name, Studback, and his constant stern frown. His primary duty is to command a rotation of scavenger crews, groups of young males who volunteer to run into the perilous fog in search of food and scraps.
They should have returned hours ago.
There is an overwhelming flowery pheromone just before a brown flash in Studback’s periphery. It’s Stas, Studback’s current mating partner and a veritable puzzle box of emotional volatility. She rears up and lets her solid thorax down upon the pebble. Studback sees a cluster of white spots as the itch becomes searing pain, then dulls into a throbbing ache which both parties know will linger for hours.
Stas scuttles away in a remorseless huff, muttering something like “we’ll never have any children at this rate.” Studback is in the mood to argue, but above all, he is desperate to see the safe return of his crew. He will not be coming home tonight.
Of course, neither will the crew.
Studback is alone when he hears a call from the hall: “Scab-buck?”
The voice is smooth and female, which startles Studback for several reasons.
For one, after weeks with Stas, he can hardly remember what constitutes a reasonable female tone. For two, he is about to doze off after staying up to wait for his crew. Lastly, he is not sure if there has ever been a woman in ‘the pit,’ a room at the back of the plastic grocery store which has been made over into the headquarters for Skav, the scavenger’s guild.
“It’s Studback. Watch your step coming in.”
The sight of her makes Studback’s antennae stand on end. Her flat body, leathery wings, and skittering legs are so deliciously creepy. Not to mention that smell, like the scalding brown liquid which Man used to spill everywhere. Studback’s mind wanders to unmentionable things in the awkward silence. With a curious twitch of the female’s antennae, Studback becomes self-conscious and lifts his mandible from the ground.
Oh my Man, Studback thinks.
“What can I do you for - er, what can I do for you, madame?”
His antennae sag. Man dammit.
“I’m Straya. I want to go out with the next Skav crew.”
Studback recognizes this name as the subject of a lot of petty gossip. Straya’s peers doubt her apparent mateship with the reclusive Shelldrake. She is the only roach in recent memory to make contact with him - or perhaps, the only roach to survive said contact. Rumor has it he’s lived four lifetimes, or possibly eight, and is at least three roaches long, or wide. All accounts suppose that Shelldrake is a monster corrupted by years of shameless cannibalism.
You’re with him?
“I assure you, miss, that’s not what you want.”
“For one, we lost an entire crew last night. Six of my strongest males, trained since they could walk. What do you reckon would happen to an untrained female? So you see, it’s not safe for you, but I appreciate the offer.”
Straya’s wings rattle. “What’s out there? Why do so many Skav disappear?”
“We don’t know.”
“You don’t know - okay. So, if you don’t know what they’re up against, their training is pretty much useless, isn’t it?”
The disrespect! She certainly doesn’t act… or look or smell… like the average Skav.
“So what is it, is there something you’re trying to get away from?”
“By Man, no. Look, this Little town is a cage, poison for the mind. I think we owe it to ourselves to see what’s out there. Even if it kills us. So what's it going to be? Can I join you, or should I venture out into the fog alone?”
“I don’t want you to get hurt.”
A pensive rubbing together of the antennae. “Then allow me to sit in on a meeting - see what the crew thinks.”
In the aftermath of the meeting, Studback feels a tinge of jealousy wash away in a wave of embarrassment. The week’s crew, gathered around a rug beneath a Man-made light, are stunned to silence. Straya stands near Studback, nervously twiddling her forelimbs. She hopes her suggestion has not been interpreted as criticism. She’s always had a way of mixing those signals.
It’s not our way, but our way isn’t working.
The idea is to pair up crew members and tie them together with long pieces of string. Then, the first rank will walk ahead, and if the line ever goes slack, the back rank will know to hurry back, dragging their partner’s corpse along with them. This way, the back rank will always return with their own lives and, Man forbid, produce concrete evidence of the nature of their partner's demise. For the first time since the establishment of Skav, there is real hope to understand and outsmart whatever it is that lurks in the fog.
Studback returns home for a restful day of immobility before the following night’s excursion. Stasia will not let him be, accusing him of being covered in the pheromones of another female. Indeed he is, but not for the reason she suspects. This seemingly pointless argument serves as an excuse for a de-mating long in the works. Stasia vows to make sure Studback never mates again, to which he simply says, “we’ll see.”
It’s almost time now.
Straya stands at Captain Studback’s side, using her forelimbs to help tie a length of string around one of the Skav runners. Remembering the meeting, a warm feeling blooms. When a moment of silence was held for the last run, only stern Studback used his antennae to wipe away tears. And when she shared her idea, it was Studback who endorsed it without trying to claim it as his own. Both uncommon moves in the company of young males; both indescribably attractive.
Perhaps he’s not the tyrant I expected. If the plan works, I think he’ll really let me join a run. Soon enough I’ll escape the fog - I’ll see the sun, and then maybe all these shadows will mean something.
But then the road rumbles, sending a tingling shock through all six of her legs. The crew halts their preparations.
It couldn’t be.
Shelldrake rounds the corner, standing everyone’s antennae on end. The stories are true, he is no normal roach. In fact, he isn't a roach at all. His massive ridged skeleton cuts through the fog, blacker than night. He spits out through his splaying mandible, “STRAYA. YOU SHALL RETURN TO THE NEST AT ONCE. THE REST OF YOU CAN JUMP TO YOUR DEATH IF YOU WISH, BUT STRAYA’S LIFE BELONGS TO ME. CLEAR?”
No one dares argue with the beast, who appears to have room enough in his stomach for the lot of them. Straya quietly apologizes to the crew and follows Shelldrake home like a disciplined nymph.
Watching Straya disappear back toward the center of town, Studback has a sinking feeling in his midgut. Straya’s motivation to leave Little Little Rock is now abundantly clear. He regrets not standing his ground - the crew all together at least stood a chance. Next time, perhaps. For now, he sends them into the fog.
The runners return an hour later with a few scraps. There has unfortunately been another casualty, but only one, and this time there's a corpse to examine. The brave sacrifice is flattened. Across his carapace is an unmistakable dust pattern, one which only Studback is old enough to recognize: the tread of a Man’s boot.
When day comes and all of Little Little Rock is at rest, Studback is tortured. The world died when Man did… but what if Man’s not dead?
He walks out to the edge of his Little world to think. He thinks about the last Men and the epic battle they waged against each other right up to the firestorms. He thinks about the aftermath of the blaze - the falling ash and the everlasting fog. Man’s power exceeded his fragility. It didn’t seem likely that even one among them survived.
And yet, the boot.
Studback’s thoughts turn to Straya as her pheromones pervade the air.
“What are you doing here?” she asks.
“Just thinking. I don’t know if you heard, your plan worked. The enemy was Man.”
“Every roach thinks the enemy is Man. I’m leaving. For good.”
“You can’t. Man is risen, and we’ve upset him, don’t you see? We are vermin. We stay in our Little world or we perish beneath his righteous heel.”
“Listen to yourself - the world is not little, it’s big. It’s your mind that’s little. I’m leaving, and if there really is a ‘Man,’ I can’t wait to see for myself.”
Studback entwines his antennae with Straya’s, releasing a week’s worth of tension. Her pheromones double with pleasure, and for one sweet moment everything else fades into the background.
But the moment is ruined by a brown flash. Stas launches herself onto Straya’s back, yanking antennae and spitting in eyes. Straya grimaces against the pain, twisting her body to send Stas tumbling to the ash.
Stas recovers. “I’ve been watching you two, and I am not pleased. Can't you see, Stud, that she'll be the death of you?”
Straya catches her breath. “You’re crazy!”
Studback puts his tarsal claw down. “Our home was wrecked a long time ago, Stas.”
Stas is furious, but knows this to be true. “This isn’t over,” she says, disappearing into a nearby alley.
And so, ignoring Stas’ warning, Studback leads Straya to the privacy of the Skav pit to finish their mating ritual. Bliss.
“Do you still intend to leave?”
“And you’re planning to go alone?” Studback asks, the itch around his pebble almost unbearable.
“Seeing as you can’t come with me, yes, I suppose I'll have to.”
“And you’re not afraid?”
“Do me a favor and sleep on it.”
But in the morning, Straya is gone.
She’s going out there to die. It’s sad, but who am I to get in her way? I’m just a bitter old roach, offering nothing, meaning nothing. A soul as beautiful as hers shouldn’t have to suffer among fools like me. May her death be painless. And I suppose, if she's right... may she catch a glimpse of the sun before she goes.
But this train of thought is derailed by the faintest trace of Straya's scent. The scent grows stronger and stronger as Studback follows it across town. Outside the doors of the Little police station, it's almost overwhelming. Shelldrake’s lair. Studback knows he should summon some Skav backup, but he barges in anyway. A male possessed, a male in love.
Straya whimpers in the corner, nursing a damaged antenna, keeping her distance from the monster at the center of the room. Shelldrake roars as he notices the intrusion.
Studback leaps up and wraps his limbs around one of Shelldrake’s splaying mandibles, twisting and yanking, trying with all his might to tug it loose. Shelldrake croaks and, rearing up on his hindlegs, casts Studback into the ceiling like nothing.
Via the impact, Studback's pebble is jarred loose. It rolls across the tiled floor as Studback comes crashing down. The pain blinds him completely and sends a stiffening shock through his legs. Thusly immobilized, Studback is at Shelldrake’s mercy.
Shelldrake hisses, and is soon looming above. His prickly forelimbs flip Studback face up as he leans in for the kill, mandibles splaying wide. Just before he can finish the job, Studback’s wings, freed by the dislodging of the pebble, fan out and flap to slide his body across the floor and out of the way.
Studback’s vision is barely restored, but he is sure of the brown flash in the corner of his eye. As Shelldrake roars again, Stas scoops up the loose pebble and launches it down the beast’s gullet. A choking Shelldrake slams Stas against the wall in retaliation, but it’s too late. The pebble is shredding his insides. He is dead within the minute.
Assured that Straya is okay, Studback runs over to Stas, whose cracked carapace is oozing clear blood. Despite this, she seems oddly relaxed.
“Oops,” she says.
“You’re crazy,” says Studback, for the first time admiringly.
“Duh. But now I know I can say the same about you, running into danger like this. She must mean an awful lot to you.”
“I know the feeling. It seems like… I’m not going to be around to break things up anymore. So I guess you have my blessing. Do right by her, okay?”
“I will. How are you feeling?”
“Calm,” she says, and this is her final word. As Stas’ consciousness fades, Studback says a little prayer that she’ll go to the dark dank buffet in the sky.
“Straya,” he says.
“I just got my wings back. What do you say we go test them out?”
Studback and Straya take a reminiscing stroll through Little Little Rock, soaking it in for the last time before leaving the crew instructions. At sidewalk’s end, their antennae lovingly entwine. They know this could be the last time, and are slow to release.
At last they spread their wings and jump, gliding side by side down into the unknown.
They make it a ways down the ash-blanketed street, a little farther than any Skav crew ever has, before happening upon a rusted metal plate. It rises an inch or so from the ground and scrapes sideways onto the concrete, revealing a deep black hole. A light rises from the black, so bright that Straya believes it to be the fabled sun. She is already in awe, but the light keeps rising. Studback is awed for another reason. The light itself is Man-made, and it's fixed atop the head of a masked Man.
Man crawls out of the hole.