As soon as his eyes opened, Omar jerked his arm. It wouldn’t move. A hard substance was plastered over it, dense and rough like coral. He looked down at himself. Alarmingly, he was naked. More alarmingly, his skin had become dark green. “What the …” he said, but the voice that came out of him was not his own. It was scratchy, a rattle.
“I know,” a woman next to him said. Her voice had the same menacing hiss. Their bodies were upright, cemented on planks with the same abrasive coral substance that restrained their arms.
Sunshine caressed them from an opening above, but Omar couldn’t see much of anything beyond a few meters in front of him. His hearing felt more sensitive than usual, detecting crunching and shuffling sounds from bulky figures crouched nearby. From the echoes he imagined a sizable chamber.
The sunshine felt good, better than it should’ve. It warmed him, not just on the skin but down to his muscle and bone. The light refreshed him like sipping coffee or having a bowl of warm oatmeal.
“Who are you?” Omar whispered to the woman. She was naked too, a fact Omar tried not to dwell on. Her body, skin, and hair had turned green like his. Their skin let off a barely noticeable glow in the sunlight, lightened veins moving below the surface.
“Lt. Alicia Kent,” she said. “Army, such as it is now. You were the guy on the bridge, weren’t you?”
“That’s right, the bridge,” Omar said. He remembered emptying his Thunderbolt into that last charging Thornseed after the snipers had gunned the others down. The particles had gone everywhere, burrowing into his skin. It’d easily been the most painful moment of his life. “Name’s Omar Bragg,” he answered. “Were you one of those snipers? If so, then I owe you a lot. If it wasn’t for you my brother and my daughter would’ve been dead.”
“Guilty as charged,” Alicia answered. “More Ehvow fell on us from those dropships of theirs right after they made it across. I opened one up and got hit with those spores they put out same as you. Glad your people made it out, though. It’s what you sign on for.”
“Yeah it is,” Omar said, suddenly feeling like shit for abandoning his post. Even if the Ambassador told him it’s what he had to do, even if it was a strategic retreat that made all the sense in the world, it hurt. If people like Alicia hadn’t guarded the rear, no one would’ve survived.
“A surprising development,” a voice said. It wasn’t human. The voice’s intonation slipped and slid as it talked. It resembled the cries of the Thornseeds, but quieter and more controlled.
Windows opened all around them, covering the inside of the chamber in bright sunlight. Omar squinted out of instinct, but his eyes immediately adjusted to the glare, the sudden brightness turning into rapturous satisfaction as the glowing trails under his skin grew brighter. Thornseeds were everywhere, exposed by the light. He saw what the crunching was. They were eating people. Dead people, but people nonetheless. He wanted to be sick. He probably would’ve, if not for the reassuring energy the sun gave him. Alicia retched.
The sunlight bathed a tall, lanky figure who stood in the center of the room. It approached, its skin a golden yellow with patches of red accent. When it got close, it blinked two rows of black-brown eyes at them through membranes. Trails of vine-like growths flowed from its head and back like hair. More followed from the bottom of its body where there were less an feet than a bunch of shuffling prehensile appendages. “Your language is crude, easy to master.” It added from its thin, toothless mouth. Omar thought he caught sharpened things ringing the inside.
“Exactly what are you?” Omar asked, after allowing around ten seconds for the reality of what he was seeing sink in.
“I am Ehvow,” it said. “I’m not like the others you’ve encountered, of course. They are our strength, our arms, our thorns. Those like me are their bloom, their leaves, their mindseed.” The slender Alien trailed back and forth as it studied them. “It appears some of your kind can survive our essence. Very unexpected. This has only once before with you younger races.”
“Before?” Alicia asked. “What do you mean you younger races?” Omar hadn’t caught it the first time, but as Alicia repeated the alien’s statement it chilled him.
“None of your concern,” the Ehvow said. “We came here with a very specific directive, but this changes things. Perhaps some of you can be allowed to live. You clearly photosynthesize,” it said, raising one of its arms and hands. The hand was composed of ten fingers that Omar could count, stubby thumb-like pieces on the ends with with either long, needle-like fingers between. “You have some of the thorns in you, as well.. Lighter, faster, more intelligent than them. Better laborers than our roots. Maybe even hunters. You could serve many purposes.”
“You think we’re going to help you?” Alicia said. “Whatever you are and whatever you’re doing on our planet, I’ll die before I let that happen.”
“I agree with her,” Omar said, feeling a slight headache as he looked across the Ehvow’s many eyes.
“What you will let me do does not enter into it,” the Ehvow said. The Ehvow stepped aside as two of the Thornseeds not eating thundered toward them with collars made from a band of the coral substance, refined into a more smooth surface with a few indicator lights on it. Omar and Alicia both struggled as the devices snapped into place around their necks.
“We’ve had to use this design in the past on our own thorns and roots who stray. I can use them to inject you with a toxin whenever I wish,” the slender Ehvow said, approaching them again. “It will cause you immense pain and, if I command it to do so, will deliver a fatal dose. Do you understand?”
Neither said anything. Omar wanted to believe the collars were a bluff, but he had no reason to doubt the threat. “I’m not used to this body chemistry of yours yet, but I believe this will help you adjust to your new situation,” it said. The Ehvow’s needle-fingers elongated into even sharper points. It plunged both sets of them into Alicia’s torso first, her body shaking and her mouth moaning in scratchy tones. Omar watched pulsing fluids enter, visible through her skin. She quickly stopped struggling, her eyes fluttering as spittle dripped from her mouth. Whatever wounds the needle-fingers left closed in seconds.
Omar struggled more, feeling his hands almost break through the coral restraint him as the Ehvow turned its hands toward him. “We can’t have that,” it said, plunging its needle-fingers into him.
After the initial seconds of shock, it didn’t hurt. If anything Omar surged with elation. All the rage and despair faded away. With it, so did any feeling he had toward doing harm to the Ehvow. “Accept me as your Mindseed,” he heard it say as the calmness and apathy flowed and grew, blossoming into a dull and simple happiness. “I will help you be better than you were. With me, you will become something higher than your species have ever been or will ever be. You will be Ehvow.”
The Mindseed Ehvow withdrew his fingers from Omar. “There’s much work that needs to be done,” he said to both of them. “We’re going to need to prepare in case the surviving members of your species decide to attack us. With the Tarrare aiding them, they will be a threat even in this weakened state. There are a few others like you, but I’m sure that soon there will be many more. I want you to work as hard as you can. Work until you can no longer move. We need to know everything your bodies are capable. Do you understand?” Omar and Alicia nodded, feeling connected to the Mindseed as if it was their father, mother, and lover rolled into one. The Thornseeds removed the hardened coral-tar from their arms and bodies. The Mindseed gestured for them to leave the chamber.
Omar and Alicia followed the Thornseeds outside, the crumbling skyline of New York greeting them. More Ehvow, like the Thornseeds but smaller and thinner, were toiling with transformed, green humans like Omar and Alicia. They were spraying and spreading the Ehvow coral all over the sides of nearby buildings from churning engines. The noisy machinery appeared to be coral generators, grinding up the street below and reprocessing it. Hoses extended from some of the generators like vacuums to suck up more bits of concrete, metal, even scraps of human bodies. More of the smaller Ehvow were operating other machines attached to the generators to process the coral and construct more complicated objects.
Teams of Thornseeds worked on toppling buildings by smashing into them with whirring hammers and drills. They also carved the streets up from pod-like vehicles that dug into the ground with massive mechanized limbs like metallic tree roots. Up close, Omar could see that everything the Ehvow used was made from the coral, just with different levels of refinement.
The toppled buildings and piles of debris had more coral sprayed on them to create barricades and the beginnings of structures. A perimeter was forming, with Thornseeds stacking cannons and other artillery weapons. New York was being transformed. Omar, even with his mind dulled under the influence of the Mindseed’s hormones, knew he was looking at a Forward Operating Base.