“Of course,” was all Sandra Abreu said. They stood outside secured gates. On the other side of them were blasted-out buildings, vehicles, missile batteries, and downed Ehvow starships. They’d traveled so far. Burning through a few cars, then a military transport when they met some soldiers until they ran out of usable road. They finished on foot for two days through the New Mexico desert. Thankfully it wasn’t the middle of summer, the heat merely hovering between intolerable and unbearable. The moisture-leeching Hydralator bottles and other survival gear the soldiers had with them were the only reason they’d survived.
“Welcome to Colin Powell Proving Ground, everybody,” Sandra said. She opened the gate, the secured fence nearly falling apart from the force of her hand. An aerial drone had crashed into a portion of it about ten meters from where they were standing.
“This place is supposed to be a sanctuary?” was all Julia could say. She was too tired to be angry. “This is what my lost-ass parents have been trying to drive to the whole time?”
“It was,” Sandra said. “I didn’t know much about it except they were supposed to be a shelter of some kind. I saw lots of redacted reports. Senator Alvez was opposed to the project.” She let out a sad, single chuckle thinking of the debates over it.
“But isn’t that Tarrare colony underground? Like in the mountains or something? Maybe this is too,” Julia said. She pawed at her interface, trying hard to access something. Sandra imagined she was trying to contact her parents.
“It’s worth a look, isn’t it?” Lieutenant-Colonel McCorvey said. He was average height but muscular, his dark skin glistening with sweat. His voice was low but soothing. “We came all this way. Might as well check it out. Even if there’s no sanctuary maybe we can salvage some supplies.”
“You’re right,” Sandra replied. They walked inside, weaving around the road barricades. Lieutenant Rivers marched beside Sandra. She was an imposing young woman at two meters tall. She’d been really quiet so far but Sandra had heard her crying last night in her tent in a covert display of emotion. Sandra couldn’t imagine what all of this would’ve been like if she’d still been in the military. It was bad enough being a civilian. Being told to abandon your post while watching your friends and fellow soldiers fight for their lives and lose had to hurt. She understood the logic, the futility of making a big stand right now when they were still understanding the threat. Logic never soothed raw trauma, though.
They walked past a burned-out Ehvow starship, keeping their distance. It was one of the smaller cone-shaped ones ones, a dropship that Thornseeds would jump out of. Julia using her interface to take pictures of it. “Rivers, give me an SAA, overlays with the Proving Ground Map.”
“Yes, sir,” Rivers answered, thumbing at the sensor-laden goggles over her eyes to bring up her advanced interfaces. Wires followed down her neck and into the electronics situated in her field pack. “About a klick ahead we should take a left. There’s activity.”
“Hostiles?” Sergeant Kekes asked, his scrawny body charging forward. He scanned the horizon for any fight he could find. Like most short men given an assault rifle, he had a real inferiority complex and the violent impulses to make it sing. She’d known a lot of men like that during her tours of duty, but not many of them kept it all the way to middle-age like Kekes had.
“No hostiles,” Rivers answered. “It’s some kind of active power source. Giving off a faint thermal signature and I’m seeing what might be encrypted comm signals coming from it. I can’t make out any more than that. Partial ID that it’s Tarrare, but not certain. Maybe when we get closer.”
Julia gave a sigh of relief, digging through her interface more. “My dad,” she said, to no one in particular. “He and my mom are still alive, but they just had a really close call and are back headed this way.”
“That’s great,” Sandra said, forcing a smile. “First good news we’ve had in a long time.”
They passed the husk of a burned personnel carrier. “I should be used to it now,” Julia said, choking on the smell of burning bodies inside. “But I don’t think I’ll ever be.”
“Neither will I, if it’s any consolation,” McCorvey replied. They prodded forward to the site Rivers had identified. It was a small out-building, like a pump station or storage shed. Even from a distance Sandra could see reinforced blast doors on its front.
“Dead Weeds,” Sergeant Kekes said, their feet squishing in a brown trail.
“They sure are,” Rivers answered. A sizable pile of dead Thornseeds were clustered around the entrance to the building.
“There have to be almost a hundred of them,” Julia said, counting the burned piles. It almost looked like they’d cooked from the inside out. Sandra tied to imagine what sort of weapon would do that to Thornseeds.
“They’re all in a single spread pattern,” McCorvey said, finishing Sandra’s thought. “Something took them all out at once.”
With a roll of clicks, camouflaged plates in the ground around the entrance opened. Six rod-like arrays with spinning appendages emerged. The arrays bathed them in flashes of light. Sandra winced, expecting something terrible was either happening or about to happen to her body.
“This can’t be good,” Kekes added. They all had their weapons pointed at where the arrays were, but they were gone. Too fast. Sandra realized that, miraculously, she was intact. The blast doors made a series of zipping noises, hissing open.
“Subjects identified as human, standard,” a synthesized voice announced. It sounded close to the “voices” the Tarrare used to speak when they interacted with humans. “Welcome to Sanctuary B. Others await you inside.”
“Oh my God!” Julia said, almost hopping up and down. “It’s real!”
“I’ll drink to that shit,” Rivers answered.
“Entrants, please note that this facility is only 70% complete,” the synthesized voice continued. “In case of full-scale assault, safety not guaranteed.”
“I’ll take that over the outside,” McCorvey answered. “What does that 70% mean, Ms. Abreu?”
“Tough to say. I couldn’t glean much with all the redaction on the status reports. Last progress report I saw, there were mentions of supplies, sensors, an arms cache, and communication systems,” Sandra answered. “I assumed it was the post itself, not something like this.”
“What’s it supposed to have at 100%?” Rivers asked.
“Way above my security clearance,” Sandra answered. “The Senator was allowed to see complete schematics only once. The project charter promised self-sustaining algae and micro-farming techniques that could deliver a food supply that would last decades, a power source based on Tarrare tech, even manufacturing.”
“Sounds like a doomsday prepper’s wet dream,” Kekes muttered. “Wonder why they didn’t finish it.”
“Alvez said they were money pits,” Sandra said. The group of five crossed the threshold and followed the steps down, the doors sealing themselves behind them. Lights swelled as they approached and faded as they passed to guide them down the tunnel’s steps. “He insinuated that it was a Tarrare plot to build something we wouldn’t understand the purpose of until it was too late. He noted that they were strategically placed, maybe secret Tarrare command centers for an invasion.”
“Or as muster points to defend against one,” Rivers whispered. “I’m willing to bet these stairs are loaded with more hidden defenses.”
“Yeah, seems obvious now,” Sandra said.
“I can’t believe I volunteered for that dick’s campaign,” Julia said. “Both of my parents wanted him to be President.”
“I told myself he was a good leader with one weak point,” Sandra said. “He became obsessed with whatever hidden agenda he thought the Tarrare had. That obsession cost us all. Wiped out all the good he did in his career.”
“Politicians for you,” Kekes said. “They have a gift for making the worst call at the worst time.”
They came to another secured door, a yellow grid of energy passing across them before more blast doors hissed open. A wary bunch of soldiers stood on the other side with Thunderbolt assault rifles trained on all of them.
“Easy, brothers,” McCorvey said. “It’s been a little while since I’ve showered but last I checked we don’t look much like Ehvow.”
“The Alien system told us you weren’t hostiles, but you can never be too safe, sir,” the ring-leader said. He was auburn-skinned and muscular. He saluted McCorvey, noticing the LTC’s dust-covered rank insignia. “I’m Major Ralston. You’re welcome to come in. This place is really impressive and there’s lots of room to spare. Too bad we didn’t find out about it until after nearly the entire post was lost in the attack. The Post Commander sent it out over the comms right before he and all the MPs were KIA. I was the highest-ranking officer in here until you walked through the door.”
“At the moment I’m not so concerned about rank and more concerned with shelter,” McCorvey answered. He stepped through the inner doors, the rest following. The inner blast doors obediently shut and sealed. The rest of the soldiers dispersed and setting down their weapons on an improvised rack to return to whatever they’d been doing
“It’s good to see some friendly faces, “ Ralston said. “The comms and feed access we have here are telling us we’re not alone, but it’s hard to see it that way. Some of us managed to get our families down here during the attack. Others weren’t so lucky. Anything we can get you?” Ralston said.
“Right now, I think we all want some rest,” Sandra answered. “We might have more survivors coming soon, though.” Relief crossed the teenager’s face. “Looks like you can finally point your parents at something real.”