“Thornseed” was what was coming over her interface’s radio. She didn’t care for the name, but people were using it all over the comms. As dawn rose over the landscape of toppled buildings and fire, Sergeant Alicia Kent stared down the scope of her sniper rifle. It was anti-materiel grade, the Hecate IV. Affectionately known as The Witch, or the Motherfucking Witch if you were so inclined. More lances of light fell onto New York from the sky. She hardly noticed the bombardments since they’d been coming every few minutes for almost a full 24 hours.
There’d been 18 more snipers in the area with her until one of those orbital bombardments had fallen on them a few hours ago and an Ehvow starship had come by and strafed them to make sure. Even the small ships had guns so powerful they tore building supports apart. Only Corporal Danae Malvo and Alicia had survived. They had been assigned to watch and guard the George Washington Bridge after three national guard units had been wiped out. The bridge had almost collapsed but the Ehvow ships zipping by had left it standing so far. She wondered if it was just to lure as many people to it and kill them. If so, their strategy looked to be working. It had been hours since they’d seen anyone even try to cross it.
Alicia looked sickeningly at one of the dead, Lieutenant Keith Lin. He was still bleeding out and had exposed, broken bones from the triangular gouges in his body. That was the wound the Ehvow guns left. Over the comms they’d been saying that the Ehvow bullets expanded after firing into spinning, three point objects that were about 15 cm long. Made it hard not to miss your target, which the skyrocketing UAS military casualties in Alicia’s combat interface feeds told her. She hated to even think about the number of civilians. The Thornseeds killed everyone they saw, regardless of whether they were armed or unarmed, adults or children. Alicia had positioned herself behind a scorched series of drop barricades that normally stopped every small arms fire humans had designed but were more of a mild annoyance to the bigger Ehvow guns. They weren’t cover so much as a hiding place.
They came into view, four of the lumbering things. Their blocky bodies surged forward, squatty limbs holding their guns. “You ready, Danae?” Alicia said over her comm. “We’ve got some friendlies that need help.” They were chasing two men and a little girl. “Christ, a child.” One of the men was wearing the shambled remains of a UAS uniform. Her combat interface identified it as diplomatic security.
“Got them in my sights, ma’am,” Danae said. “Nothing’s happening to her on our watch.” She had a larger Steyr anti-materiel railgun that packed more of a punch than Alicia’s but it couldn’t fire as fast.
“Damn straight, soldier. I’m picking my target,” Alicia focused in on the closest one to the trio of survivors. Her combat interface showed their targeting choices, Danae aiming for the one behind Alicia selected. She knew it’s head with the dead colorless eyes and the toothy maw was far from the weak point. She aimed first at one of its legs, squeezing the trigger. She’d killed people with a Hecate before, turning them into a red mist with one shell. It was different with the Ehvow. The charged railgun shot burst from the sniper rifle across the bridge in a smoky trail, shearing off the thornseed alien’s leg off in gush of green fluid. The Thornseed took a knee, Alicia taking another shot that burst the Alien open as it squealed that horrible sound. Even almost a km away she could hear that ear-splitting cry. Green fluid leaked out of it and it began to fire indiscriminately at the survivors as they ran through a series of toppled and burned buses. Alicia took another shot, splurting more Ehvow fluids and finally the tell-tale glowing-green viral spores into the air. One down.
Danae got lucky. She fired one shot into her target’s gun arm, taking the limb and its intimidating weapon with it. A second hit from the Steyr blasted its center-mass clear off it’s legs in a shower of more death spores. Alicia took another one’s leg off, Danae backing her up with a shot that took half of the thornseed’s head off. Alicia used her last round from her clip to finish it off in another cloud of death spores. That left one more. Alicia reloaded. Fortunately she had lots of ammunition. Unfortunately it was all the unused from the rest of her dead squad mates. The last Ehvow was close to the survivors. “Dammit, dammit, dammit,” Alicia spat. Her interface told her Danae was reloading too.
She couldn’t panic, she finally finished reloading, chambering a round just in time to take a shot into its midsection, then it’s head. The first shot was a good one, but the second was hasty and only grazed the target. It barely slowed the creature down as it bounded forward and leaked slime over everything.
One of the survivors, the one in UAS uniform, turned. He had an old Thunderbolt assault rifle and he clearly planned on buying the other man and the girl a chance to make it. He backed away slowly as he sprayed random shots in the Thornseed’s direction. Alicia tried to help him, grazing the Alien’s leg as rounds from the Thunderbolt hit home. The Thornseed stumbled around as it took the hits, its insides rupturing.
“No, no, run you fucking idiot,” Alicia hissed under her breath. The guy with the Thunderbolt was still trying to shoot at the Thornseed, even as the Alien burst open in a cloud of sparkly parasites. The spores flew free, showering him and burrowing into his skin. He began crying out in pain, dropping his gun and falling to his hands and knees.
The other survivor and the girl stopped. Alicia watched the him shout and wave at them. The downed diplomatic security officer was telling them to leave him and run. Alicia, against her better judgment, zoomed into them as far as she could. The girl tried to run to him, the other man holding her back. Through her scope watched the girl mouth “daddy” and yet another piece of her died. There wasn’t much left in Alicia, but she let out a defeated exhale. They did leave him, right as his body flapped in spasms. The spores did whatever they did. He didn’t look like one of the lucky ones who died in seconds. The spores were doing something to his body, poisoning him slowly.
“We did what we could,” Alicia murmured into her interface, her voice scattered.
“They’re going to make it,” Danae said. Alicia knew they were. They were close. She became aware of them running through and around her and Danae’s barricades. They’d crossed the bridge finally. They weren’t stopping, running as far and fast as they could. Trying their best to leave the bloody spectacle behind them. Her combat interface lit up with worse news from the nearby scanner arrays. There were Ehvow drop ships coming, and they were slowing as they approached Danae and Alicia’s location. Finishing the job.
“We helped, what, two or three hundred people across that bridge?” Danae said. “Maybe more. There were a lot in the beginning. Maybe even a thousand.”
“Yeah, at least that much,” Alicia answered. More Ehvow ships were coming, the round strafing ships that had an energized, beaming core and dozens of gun barrels arranged around it.
Alicia reloaded the Witch, switching it to full auto mode and positioning several clips next to her ready to load in an instant as she changed her orientation to behind them. With her interface and relays nearby, she prepared herself to fire the Hecate’s railgun power through her own barricades. “They’re coming for us, Danae.” She loaded the SMG, watching the pods fall from the dropship through the tangles of her barricades. They were less than ten meters away. She hoped the two last survivors would escape in the mayhem, but she knew that she and Danae weren’t making it out.
“Ready to give them hell, ma’am,” Danae said. The Thornseeds climbed out of their pods, pointing their guns in Danae and Alicia’s general direction. Alicia took aim from the tangled barricades as their guns shredded everything around her, ready to take down as many as she could. Feeling the barricades and debris shredding around her, shrapnel digging into her arms and helmet, the sound of the Ehvow’s guns drowned out even her own gunfire as she aimed at the closest Thornseed and emptied her entire clip.
ESA/Hubble & NASA
Acknowledgement: Kathy van Pelt