Movement 1: Weeds and Thorns - #28

Ramon held the Loro, their best long range scanner, level as he panned it across the wall of Ehvow growth. The Ehvow coral had taken the remains of the Paco Imperial, the Candelaria Church, Cinelandia Square, really the entire Centro of Rio. He captured the walls of coral topping the ruins, barrels of constructed Ehvow ground artillery, and tall spires with Ehvow ships circling and landing.
The Loro could take clear images and videos from over thirty kilometers away. Thornseeds wandered the Ehvow building sites. There were smaller, darker Ehvow creatures there too. They didn’t have the bulk and defensive armor, so they must be a lesser variant of the Aliens. He took more images and video of the other beings that filled him with bile and unwholesome dreams: the greenskins. The former humans that  the Ehvow had turned. The Ehvow clearly wanted more. They’d begun collecting wounded survivors, dragging them away. They still indiscriminately slaughtered anyone who was armed and resisted them, but anyone unarmed or wounded that they could capture was taken to the Centro. Ramon focused particularly on their colors, some instrument to keep them under control.
“Ready to upload?” Paolo asked.
“Do it,” Ramon said, sending it to the Clandestine Awareness Sensor Suite, or the “Classy” as it was called. Ramon set the Loro down and rested on the roof of the battered and abandoned hotel they’d been camped out at the last few days. Sensor-dampening space blankets were draped around their bodies. So far they’d kept the Thornseed patrols from detecting them too easily.
“You know, when we first started out at this a few weeks ago, I just thought you were nothing but an overpaid office manager, Paolo,” Ramon said. “But you’re alright. You can handle yourself.”
“We can’t all be badass spies, not even in intelligence work,” Paolo said. Ramon could detect the resentment in Paolo’s voice. They hadn’t exactly been close. They’d worked the UAS Central Intelligence Department’s regional office together, and Ramon’d made Paolo the butt of his jokes to coworkers a lot. Most of the others were dead, charging off on a half-cocked suicide mission, and here he was fighting to survive with the man he’d mocked for years. “You think Narcisa will be back?”
“It’s been more than 24 hours,” Ramon said. “I want to hope, but it’s not looking good.”
“Tell me something,” Paolo said. “Is your lack of ability inspire morale why you never got promoted?” Ramon had been a handler for operatives his entire career after he’d joined the UAS CID, only making the mediocre post of Team Lead. Paolo knew his paints points.
“Maybe,” Ramon said. “I was all about work, not about people. Tell me something in return. Why did you join CID if you didn’t want field work?” Ramon asked. “You know tech support, budgeting, whatever it is the front office had you doing, but why not do that for a corporation? Make more money?”
“A question I’ve asked myself for sure,” Paolo said. The sound of Ehvow guns spun in the distance, audible from miles away. “One advantage we do have. The Ehvow don’t understand the concept of ‘covert’ operations very well, do they?”
“Nope,” Ramon said. “All the reports say they’ve got terrible senses. Maybe they think they’re quiet.”
“I read the same,” Paolo said. “Went through the highlights CID gave us on the Tarrare’s packet. They always overwhelm by brute force, attrition. They’re plants at the bottom of all of that, even if carnivorous, invasive ones. I guess no need to evolve complex sensory organs. But we got the footage of the mastermind, whatever it is.”
“One,” Ramon said. “I only got video of one of those so far, with the yellow-orange-red colorations strutting outside one of the spires.”
“Betting they’ve got all the senses and all the brains,” Paolo said. “They send those Thornseeds, their muscle, out to do their will without question. Sometimes I wonder if that’s what we are.”
“The brains or the muscle?” Ramon said. “It’s hard to say whether we’ve got either left in this war anymore.”
“Ramon,” Paolo said. “Why didn’t you follow Octavio when he went to attack the Ehvow the Centro?”
“Paolo, you’ve made it abundantly clear that you think I’m a thug,” Ramon said. “But I didn’t follow Octavio for two reasons. He didn’t have authorization to do what he did, even if he was the station chief. Our orders were to observe and report, exactly like we’re doing now. He also took the entire station on a clear suicide mission. Octavio was always one to delegate, one to call for executive summaries. He wasn’t a details man, he relied on others for that. Yuko and Jim convinced him they could take the base at the Centro. He didn’t bother checking their work. Almost none of them did. You and I, even if our pasts are different, are about the details. We want to know before we act. That’s why you, me, and Narcisa are still alive and the others aren’t.”
“So we watch,” Paolo said. “Until when? The Ehvow stronghold’s radius expands every day. The patrols increase.”
“We watch until we can’t or we get orders otherwise,” Ramon said. “Somebody has to.” The Classy’s proximity alert triggered. Ramon waited for Paolo, who already had his interface connected to it.
“Narcisa’s back, but not alone,” Paolo whispered. “Another bio signature following.”
“Human?” Ramon asked.
“Uncertain,” Paolo said. “Not Ehvow, this has the settings from the Tarrare patch a week back. It’s something different.”
“Greenskin,” Ramon said. He snatched the Thunderbolt rifle as he took a defensive position.
“What exactly are you doing?” Paolo said.
“You don’t know,” Ramon said. Paolo was too young. He didn’t remember the bad old days of terrorists and insurgents that had followed the UAS’ formation. Ramon did. He’d been a child himself, but he remembered the deaths. All through south, central, even north america were groups that had tried to fight it off. Sleeper cells and infiltrators from the extremist groups had been everywhere. People who would do anything to block the super-state’s formation. That wasn’t even a real war, not like this. “If she’s brought a greenskins back, it could be leading the Ehvow right to us. Or it could be infected, here to spread diseases to the rest of us. We don’t know anything about them yet but what we’ve seen from a distance.”
“So she’s a spy and a disease vector?” Paolo said.
“Could be anything,” Ramon said. He had his interface up, and had put his lenses in place to take direct tactical input from the Classy’s overlays. Narcisa and her guest were slowly making their way up the crumbling staircases of the old hotel. Still no signs of anything else, not even an Ehvow patrol.
“Listen to yourself, Ramon,” Paolo said. “We’re all on edge. It could be a survivor, it could want to help. Whatever a greenskin is, it was a person once. Hear it out.”
“I’ll listen,” Ramon said, not really comfortable with it but not willing to gun down Narcisa in the crossfire. “But the second I hear something I don’t like …”
“Maybe give it longer than a second,” Paolo said, picking up his M-Swell. They hadn’t scavenged many weapons from the station and then the city, but the M-Swell, with its focused microwaves, really hurt the Thornseeds. It was supposed to be a non-lethal weapon for crowd-control, a more powerful version of the Pax, but it had done wonders to help them survive when they’d had to fight. Ramon even had to admit that Paolo was skilled with the energy weapon. “I’ve got your back.”
Narcisa opened the door slowly, Ramon pointing the gun at her. “You’ve been gone awhile,” Ramon said.
“I had trouble,” Narcisa said. Her sensor-dampening blanket was wrapped around her like a poncho, too. She had a loaded up backpack. “But I’ve got supplies. I suppose a ‘nice to see you’ would be too much to ask.”
“You’re not alone,” Ramon said. His lenses displayed the thermal outline of the visitor in the stairwell behind her.
“A Thornseed patrol saw me, and they followed me for hours,” Narcisa said. “They almost trapped me but my new friend distracted them and got me out of there. She’s escaped from them. I only thought it was fair to lead her somewhere safe.”
“Or lead them here to kill us all,” Ramon said.
“Really?” Narcisa said. “Paolo, anything on the Classy? Do you detect any weapons of any kind on my friend here? Any patrols inbound?”
“Nothing on both counts,” Paolo said. “But you got to admit, Ramon’s not totally off-base having suspicions.”
“Lower your gun and I’ll come out,” a brittle voice hissed from behind Narcisa. “I’m unarmed, and I have no more love for the Ehvow than you do.” Ramon glared into the thermal outline in the darkness. Narcisa came onto the roof, dropping the heavy backpack with a clunk. A few Ehvow Doomblooms and Pod bombers started to zoom, coming away from the Centro but changing course before they came to the hotel. That did relax Ramon a little. If they were about to be attacked, the Ehvow could easily shred them from the sky.
Ramon lowered the Thunderbolt some, but not all the way. The greenskin stepped out, her body faintly shimmering in the dusk from the last remains of the sunlight. He’d seen so many of them through the Loro, but never one this close. She barely had any clothes on, the shredded remains of whatever she’d been wearing. “Ramon, this is a big win,” Narcisa said. “She’s been inside and she can give us more intel on their base than we’ve gotten in the last week from watching. She’s ready and willing to cooperate.”
“Whatever it takes,” she said to Ramon. She held out her collar, the same ones he’d seen the ones at the Centro wearing. It was broken, shattered. She dropped it to the ground with a clink. Her eyes were pure darkness, no whites or irises. “I’ve seen what they did to me, what they did to my family. They kill most, as you’ve probably seen. Those they don’t kill, they drag to the Centro. Those that don’t survive the spores in the Centro like I did, they eat them. They are filth.”
“You sound ready to fight,” Ramon said. “But how do I know you’re not telling me what I wanted to hear?” She seemed human enough, aside from the voice, the eyes, the skin, and that glow of photosynthesis on her skin. “But if I get any sense that you led Thornseeds here-“
“My name is Rafaela,” she interrupted. “And if the Thornseeds come here, I’ll fight them with you. I’ll kill them with my bare hands if I have to. I can do things, all of them like me can. The Ehvow didn’t expect that, and they still don’t know how to stop it.”
“She can,” Narcisa chimed in. “I’ve seen her do it to one of them.” Ramon sighed. She seemed fit and more nourished than most people he’d seen lately. Likely because she could feed off the sun like the rest of the Ehvow. He wasn’t about to give her a gun, but if she could fight and if she could tell them about what was happening on the inside of the Centro, it could be worth the risk.
“Alright then,” Ramon said. “We’ll need to interview you about what happened, send a recording to our superiors up the chain as soon as possible. If you’ve got half the information Narcisa said you do, then you can certainly help us. Let’s all get down to the penthouse room before those damn Ehvow ships see us.”

Movement 1: Weeds and Thorns - #24

<ENCRYPTED MESSAGE>

MEMORANDUM

FROM: GENERAL ADAM SLADE, ACTING SUPREME COMMANDER,  HER MAJESTY’S ARMED FORCES

TO: ALL STANDING ARMED FORCES FIELD COMMANDERS AND SURVIVING MEMBERS OF HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE

ATTACHED: 

TARRARE INTELLIGENCE PACKAGE 5EHVOWC

EHVOW CRAFT SURVEILLANCE DOCUMENTATION PACKAGE

EHVOW NEUTRON WEAPONRY SPECIFICATIONS PACKAGE

Friends, 

I speak to you no longer as a military commander, but as a fellow survivor. The situation is dire. As London and Liverpool have fallen, we fear that Yorkshire and Manchester are likely the next targets. Any recipients of this communique in those cities are to seize whatever printer, assemblers, and CBRN survival gear they can before evacuating. These will be crucial for keeping us all alive and for organizing any form of counter-offensive.

I acknowledge that the Ehvow have dealt us a blow that we will never fully recover from. It may feel like retreat or surrender, but I applaud your rapid disbanding of our larger forces into smaller companies and your diligence in avoiding conspicuous concentrations of military personnel and resources. Those of you who continue to spread the word to civilians to avoid such concentrations as well are doing a service to the entire human race. Soon, I promise, we will find ways to strike back. I have contacted my UAS, AU, and EU counterparts and the Tarrare as we all begin to envision what our counteroffensive will look like, but it will take much preparation and no doubt we will face many trials along the way.

For now, there are many key pieces of intelligence I must share with you accompanied by the relevant annotated selections of the Tarrare intelligence data on the Ehvow and more data we have collected over the past several days. 

First, we witness no end to the depravity of these Ehvow “Thornseed” soldiers. While they exhibit signs of fear, anger, and other emotional expressions when ambushed, wounded, and killed, do not mistake this for a shred of “humanity.” They will not hesitate, they will not show mercy, and they seldom retreat. Communicating with them, approaching them, even trying to surrender to them will end in disaster. Many of you have no doubt witnessed these Thornseeds eat our dead and our living. Whether they do this as a form of psychological warfare or out of biological necessity is uncertain, but understand that it is real and no rumor. 

Second, thermal directed-energy weapons are largely ineffective. It is especially dispiriting that this is the case given the recent deployment of the Sunfire as our standard assault rifle, but it is a reality with which we must live. The Ehvow’s home world, as far as the Tarrare have been able to locate it, is much hotter than this world and exposed to solar storms. As a result, they have evolved a bark and coral-like skin covered both inside and outside by multiple layers of membranes that dissipate thermal energy. They also secrete a resin that further aids in protecting them against heat-based weapons. Instead, use explosives and the older HK Thunderbolt assault rifles if you can locate them.  I’m told a weapon of joint human-Tarrare design that is even more effective will be incoming shortly. This is one reason among many that securing printers and assemblers for constructing these weapons should be considered mission-critical. 

Third, it should be noted that if attacked in broad sunlight, the Ehvow can regenerate from wounds using biological processes powered by their photosynthetic bodies. This recovery is not instantaneous, but prolonged battles in direct sunlight have proven very unfavorable. If combat cannot be avoided, it must be swift and focused.

Fourth, as most of you have reported back to me already, engage the Ehvow from as far a distance as possible. For the few of you out there who have not witnessed it, Thornseed soldiers often rupture when killed and deploy spores as a bioweapon of sorts. It seems that exposure to these spores results in death or some form of coma, though I’ve recently received reports that it changes the survivors into something we’re still trying to understand. We are still awaiting confirmation on this, so more data is appreciated if you have it. The living or dead bodies of individuals who are exposed to these spores should be considered biohazards and avoided for the time being.

Lastly, as we’re all aware, the Ehvow have begun deploying weapons that resemble neutron bombs. These explosives come in both man-portable forms carried by Thornseeds and also dropped from the oval, pod-shaped bomber craft we have seen deployed in the last several days. We have attached surveillance images of these bomber craft and the other types of Ehvow assault craft such as the “doombloom” strafers that have so far claimed total air superiority to aid in reconnaissance efforts.

These neutron weapons have been used numerous times on fortified positions, leaving infrastructure only slightly damaged and killing unshielded personnel in a very large area of effect. Most troublingly, the detonations of these weapons are often difficult to observe until fatal radiation spikes occur. Additional documentation detailing the range of these weapons is also provided with the attachments to this message. Effects on the Ehvow themselves caught in the kill zone of the weapon seem minimal due to the aforementioned thick membranes and bark/coral like skin that seems to protect them from the type of radiation the bombs emit as well. The bombs themselves resemble large rocks covered in lumps, which will open and reveal glowing spheroids when they near detonation. 

To protect against these nuclear-radiological weapons and the spores released by Ehvow Thornseeds, all personnel are advised to obtain any CBRN protection suits from whatever supply caches they may come across and keep them close at hand. Orders are still not to engage the enemy except as a last resort. This should change in the near future, but for now keep yourselves alive and gather what resources you can. We’re going to need everyone and everything we can get our hands on for this fight. 

Carry On,

General Adam Slade

Acting Supreme Commander

Image Credit:

ESA/Hubble & NASA

Acknowledgements: Luca Limatola, Budeanu Cosmin Mirel

Movement 1: Weeds and Thorns - #23

“Are we far enough away?” President Yi Nuan Xun said, thinking about the days they’d spent retreating from Beijing. “Where are we on the Sanctuary?”

“We’re very close, but it’s only 40% complete,” Bu, her economic advisor, answered. “It won’t withstand an attack. They barely finished the outlines of the structure before this happened.”

“So we have a big hole in the ground, then,” she said. The flapping tent around her made her uneasy. The soldiers outside were shouting to one another, the ZTZ-199 tanks all had their engines revving. They were breaking the military camp already to move it again. They were attracting too many civilians looking for anywhere safe to hide. “I blame the Tarrare for this mess. They made all of these hints that we would need these, that we would need their damned meta-tools. It would’ve cost trillions to build the 12 Sanctuaries we recommended. They said it was important, but never this important.”

“Maybe they didn’t think we were ready,” General Zhang said. He was nominally in command of the camp and all the soldiers she had at her immediate disposal, but he hardly kept them in line. “Can you imagine the panic? I can. It would’ve been a disaster. Everyone who heard about the project assumed the Tarrare were going to lure us down into the Sanctuaries and process us for food. It would’ve been political suicide to support it.”

“The plan to extend the schedules and spread the costs out was a sound one,” Bu said. “We had no idea we were on a timetable this urgent. We did the sanctuary in Hong Kong, but the orbital strikes rendered it inaccessible until we can bring the right excavation equipment there to carve our way through the collapsed structures. I’m being assured by our people on the ground there that it’s possible.” 

“Not in any timeframe that’s going to save us,” President Xun said. 

“Last we heard, the Ehvow were landing in Hong Kong, same as New York. It’s going to take more than excavation equipment to remove them,” Zhang said. Zhang and Bu were not exactly her best people. Both were loyalty picks. Sons of rich families that supported the party. All of her good advisors had been killed off or went missing when Beijing, Hong Kong, and Shanghai fell. Bu had become her advisor on everything non-military since he was the only one around. Zhang was the highest-ranking military officer still alive in all of the Greater China Confederation that obeyed orders. His chief attributes were having a pulse and representing a disintegrating chain of command. 

“General, President Xun,” her acting Chief of Staff said, another person who’d succeeded into his job via attrition. She didn’t even know his full name. “We’ve detected Ehvow craft inbound.” The three of them left their fruitless discussion and stuck their head out of the tent. The camp had grown during the night, more civilians gathered outside of it, trying to take refuge. The energy fields and fencing designed to hold the perimeter were overwhelmed with a ring of informal secondary camps around it. Tents were spread everywhere along with makeshift tarps and shelters. Buses and troop transports were dotted around. These people wanted protection, but they were only endangering themselves more.

“There it is,” General Zhang said, calling up his interface. pointing out the fast-moving shape on the horizon. “We’re completely exposed.” The ship was one of the rounded ones that faced forward with its dark green exhaust pouring poison out of the back, the “Doomblooms” as they were calling them in the feeds. Hundreds of strafing weapons jutted from the pulsing core of the ship like the points of a flower’s petals.

The ZTZ-199s angled their thermal cannons and missile batteries to the sky. The tanks had shot down the Ehvow ships before, but she could picture the soldiers on the inside. All the targeting software and sensors in the world couldn’t outweigh the panic in the gunner’s mind, especially when they hadn’t slept in over a week. The thermal cannons of the tanks fired, red pulsating beams and clouds of tiny missiles. President Xun allowed herself to feel relief for a moment as the Doombloom took a series of direct hits and began to fall, plumes of smoke and burning spitting out. 

The breath was stolen from her again as the damaged craft righted itself. Its turrets boomed the crushing sounds of Ehvow guns as it worked over the camp. The strafing dug trenches through the ground as people were gunned down in a ruby mist. The Ehvow ship shelled two of the ZTZ-199 Tanks into explosive shreds. Cars, trucks, troop transports and buses were similarly snapped and broken like the toys they were.

President Xun grew lightheaded when she realized she was still alive and the strafing had missed her. The Doombloom kept going, the remaining ZTZ-199 firing haphazardly at it as it disappeared.  Two more shapes appeared on the horizon. More Ehvow craft, this time to finish them off. 

She’d seen the Doomblooms, she’d seen the cone-shaped dropships that the Thornseeds dropped out of when they attacked cities in her intelligence reports. These were different. Oval pods that were long with protrusions coming out of them and green and red trails burning out of the back of them. Their underbellies were open. “Bombers,” was all General Zhang said, before they dropped dimpled, egg-like scraps on the camp. 

The round bombs rolled like miniature boulders, crushing people and crashing through tents and barriers. Xun left Bu and Zhang agape at the ruins and bodies around them, dashing through blasted out energy fields and puddles of dirt, trash, and blood.  She didn’t see the Ehvow bombs open, revealing the spinning and glowing orbs inside. Heat and a flash came from them, the radiation dropping her as it swallowed them all.

Image Credit:

Wolfgang Brandner (JPL/IPAC), Eva K. Grebel (Univ. Washington), You-Hua Chu (Univ. Illinois Urbana-Champaign), and NASA/ESA

Movement 1: Weeds and Thorns - #18

image

He paused in the stairwell to check the social feeds on his interface. All of his friends and coworkers from the city, their faces full of smiles from their avis, simply said “offline.” They’d said that for hours. Only one lone message, from Nika, had come across. Was that a bomb it had said, right before the second barrage had hit Moscow. None of his messages had been returned. He’d begun to accept that they weren’t going to get returned. 

“Viktor, what the hell are you doing?” he heard as he stepped outside the apartment building. Viktor Pasternack couldn’t take it anymore. He’d been hiding in their apartment for a whole day since the Aliens had started to attack, and he wanted to see. 

“Nothing,” he spat back at his aunt. 

“Don’t go outside, Viktor,” Aunt Natasha yelled down the stairwell as he reached the ground level. “It’s not safe.”

“I want to see for myself,” Viktor said, walking outside. The site of Moscow loomed in the distance, a wall of fire pouring and smoke straight into the sky. Another series of energy bursts fell on it, shaking the structures around him and cracking windows even though they were kilometers away from the strike. His apartment building was on the edge of the city, such as it was after the Ehvow. It was on a high hill with a lot of other dilapidated high rises, so it offered a good view of everything going on in the streets below below and the ruins of Moscow. Distant columns of destruction and ash were all that remained of the city’s core.

Military vehicles rolled through nearby roads with the Russian Unity Federation symbol. He recognized them as the BTR-150. His father had worked in one of the factories that had built them. They were all going different directions, their all-terrain tires and axels crawling over sidewalks and even smashing over abandoned cars. “What’s going on out there?” Natasha said. She had come down to the ground floor, but was still too wary to come outside.

“First you don’t want me to come out here to find out what’s going on then you want to know what’s going on?” Viktor shouted back. “You’re sending mixed signals.”

“Since you’re already out there,” Natasha said. 

“They’re abandoning it,” Viktor said, hoping it would coax his aunt outside. He’d gone to live with her after being laid off a month ago, both of his parents long dead. “The soldiers, everyone, they’re all leaving.” The traffic was only going one direction. Natasha finally ventured outside.  

A few other people had collected outside of the apartment buildings. Many were getting in their own cars or even bikes and leaving. “Are they stealing a bus?” Natasha said, pointing to a gang of people down the block who were loading suitcases and bags onto a sizable piece of public transportation. 

“Looks like it,” Viktor said. If they were the type to steal buses, he wondered how many of the suitcases and the bags were actually theirs. There seemed to be piles of belongings coming from the lobby of the building.

“I don’t think the powers coming back on, it’s been hours,” Natasha said. Victor nodded in agreement. 

“What are those things in the sky?” Victor asked a young girl watching what appeared to be tiny flying specks in the distance chasing each other. Viktor thought her name was probably Mishka. He’d seen her standing around outside at night when she probably shouldn’t have been, sneaking stimsticks. 

“They’re the bad aliens,” the girl said. She seemed to be around 12 or 13, but Viktor wasn’t sure. 

“The drones are fighting them,” an older man, presumably her father, said. He seemed to come from nowhere, abruptly standing behind Viktor in a way that made him flinch. “Not very well either, by the looks of it. They’ve sent thousands of them at the alien ships and they just keep getting shot down. I think they’re trying to cover the retreat.” 

“How do you know?” Viktor asked him. 

“I used to be military,” he responded, his voice worried. “Or something like that.” Victor trembled with anxiety as he saw some of the specks getting larger, coming toward them. He could also see bursts in the sky as the smaller ones, likely the drones, were shot down by the round and spiky Alien ships. “This is a retreat. They’re abandoning the area. We probably should too.”

“And go where?” Natasha said. 

“Away,” Viktor said. The ships zoomed ever closer, some looking like big round balls with spikes jutting out the side and front and other looking like a small, broken and thorny branch. They were strafing everything, ruins and roads. High-rise apartments that looked a lot like theirs collapsed on themselves after seconds. The Ehvow ships even caught some of the military vehicles, the tanks and crawling all-terrain trucks popping in clouds of fire on a faraway road.  

“Do you know where our family in Crimea lives?” Viktor asked Natasha, his aunt stepping back at the suggestion. 

“That’s a long way,” Natasha said. “Are you sure it won’t be the same there?”

“I don’t see another option,” Viktor responded. “It’s looking like, at best, we’re about to be homeless.”

“Crimea is good. Not so many cities. Less targets. Do you mind if we go with you?” the girl’s father said. “My name is Yegor Krupin. This is my daughter, Mikka. What was left of our family and everyone I knew was there.” He pointed in the general direction of Moscow. “Not so much reason to stay here anymore unless you feel like dying.”

“You said you were with the military?” Viktor asked. 

“Or something like that,” Yegor corrected.

“What did you do?” Natasha asked. Mikka sighed, grinding her foot in the sidewalk and starting to wander away.

“Many things,” was Yegor’s answer. His face was set in a slight frown. He didn’t seem menacing, but Viktor wasn’t sure he could read the man. He did know that Yegor probably knew a hell of a lot more about surviving out there than he did. 

“You can come if that’s what you want,” Viktor said. “I can’t promise you much. Aunt Natasha, let’s go get everything we can carry.” She spent a long time looking at the Aliens flying in the sky, watching them strafe more ruins, ever closer to them. “I have a car, but it’s small. Let’s meet back here soon, twenty minutes.” 

Yegor nodded, then leaned in close to Viktor. “I recommend you bring any weapon you have,” Yegor whispered. “Knife, pepper spray, stun gun, regular gun, whatever, it could be quite useful.”

“Pepper spray, against them?” Viktor whispered back, rolling his eyes toward the Alien ships flying in the sky in the distance.

“They’re not what I’m worried about just yet,” Yegor said, swiping his eyes side to side at all the other people collecting on the sidewalk. Yegor collected his daughter and led her back into the building. Neither of them seemed too broken up about whoever they had known in Moscow. Viktor checked his social feeds again, the smiling faces of his friends and acquaintances and the offline statuses looking back at him. No messages, once again. 

“Strange that I was depressed when I had to leave Moscow to move in with you,” Viktor said to his aunt. “It looks like I’d be dead if I hadn’t.” The woman smiled, a rarity. 

“And to think this shitty apartment was just starting to feel like home,” Natasha said, following him as they went back inside.

Image Credit:

Hubble Heritage Team (AURA/STScI/NASA/ESA)

Spacetelescope.org

Movement 1: Weeds and Thorns #17

“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. 

Image Credit:

ESA/Hubble & NASA

Acknowledgement: Kathy van Pelt

Movement 1: Weeds and Thorns - #12

He set his interface to keep the alarmed headlines off to the side. If they were to be believed secret armies of Tarrare were appearing and taking over cities as their secret invasion had finally begun. Or, worse, that orbital bombardments were already underway from these new hostile Aliens. It was the panic before the real panic. 

Omar dismissed it all. He only cared about the messages he’d been sending to his daughter’s school. None of them were receiving a response. The social media accounts of the school were swarmed with worried parents, all receiving worse than silence. Whoever was in charge was telling people they were assessing the situation and were waiting to hear back from state and local authorities. Not something that filled him with warm fuzzies. Omar was standing in a building full of the biggest and most powerful officials in the world, and they were all as dumbfounded as his daughter’s teachers and administrators. 

The chamber doors opened, Sihs-Jin ambling gracefully down the hallway on his thin legs. The Alien looked distracted, his many fingers from his four forearms up in the air and touching at unseen things. He was deep in whatever wild interface the lenses over his compound eyes told him. “Fuck it, I’m asking him,” Omar said to Nitika.

“Not a good idea,” Nitika murmured, trying to follow Omar as he went to catch up on Sihs-Jin. By all indication, the bug was headed to the exits.

“Maybe I should spend hours pondering what a good idea might look like and be like everyone else in this crazy-house,” Omar said. “End up dying in a hail of fire and dust or unknown Alien goop like they all probably will.” Sihs-Jin was the only one that had real answers. The bug turned around, stopping. He clearly sensed Omar coming and prepared to address him. “What just happened in there, Ambassador?” Omar squeezed his Sunfire thermal assault rifle. If anything, the Ambassador was honest. He’d learned that over time. He felt like he’d earned answers. “What are we dealing with here?”

“Over the last many years, you have both been very good at your assigned tasks as my security detail,” Sihs-Jin said. “Despite the fact that such a thing was completely unnecessary, I have enjoyed your company. I have learned so much about your culture and your civilization from our conversations.”

“I’m sensing a lot of past tense here,” Nitika said.

“Oh, it speaks now?” Omar asked her.

“Everything’s else is changing today, so why not?” Nitika seethed. 

“If you both want to live, I recommend that you follow me. I am prepared to offer sanctuary to both of you. If that option does not appeal to you, I suggest that you both abandon your posts immediately. Time is very short. This city will either be overrun or non-existent within a day,” Sihs-Jin said. 

“Anyone else I would ask them if they were serious,” Omar said. “But I know you well enough by now to know you don’t have any other setting. So these other Aliens, whoever they are, they’re going to break through everything and wipe us out?”

“They are called the Ehvow. They will breach all of our combined primary defenses,” Sihs-Jin said, starting to move. “The effort will probably reduce the size of their invasion force substantially, but they will have sufficient forces to begin an occupation of this planet. They will seek only to inflict as many casualties as possible. We may not be able to escape the city entirely before the attack begins. If you choose to follow me, be prepared to defend yourselves. If we see Ehvow soldiers, keep your distance. That is critical.” Sihs-Jin increased his speed, Omar and Nitika desperate to keep up. 

“Soldiers?” Omar asked. “They’re going to land ground forces? Dammit, I have to go find my daughter. Moment of truth, Nitika. What are you doing?”

“I’m following the ambassador is what I’m doing,” Nitika said. “He knows more about this than we do, and I intend to take him up on his offer. If this city is about to be leveled, I don’t want to be in it when it happens. Sounds like this is the only way we regroup and fight back. I don’t have any family here, just a job that looks like it’s about to obsolete.”

Omar wondered what he had to do. It was an impossible situation. There was his daughter. His brother. Both somewhere out there in the city. The feeds told him his daughter’s school was still in denial. Maybe his brother could meet him there and the three of them could try for it. “Ambassador, I appreciate your offer, but I have to go. My family …”

“I understand, Omar,” Sihs-Jin said. “Believe it or not, my own race has very strong social and familial bonds, different though they may be from yours. For this effort, I recommend that you abandon that weapon. Should you encounter Ehvow, it will be highly ineffective.”

“This?” Omar said. He held up his Sunfire. “This is supposed to be one of the best, most advanced guns we have out there, and you’re saying it’s going to be useless.”

“Advanced is not always a superior option,” Sihs-Jin said. “I detect an armory on your main floor five. Several of your outdated HK Thunderbolt models of caseless assault rifles are located in storage there with a variety of armor piercing ammunition. Those will be far more effective against the Ehvow than the Sunfire rifle. I would explain why this is so, but we do not have sufficient time. Just know that their weapons will penetrate structures, armor, and many forms of battlefield cover. You should only engage if you have no choice. And, I will re-emphasize, keep your distance. Even if you succeed in killing them. This is very important.”

“Advice is advice,” Omar said. “And considering the source, I won’t question it. No matter how goddamn unreal all of this is.”

“I wish you the best of luck, Omar,” Sihs-Jin flicked a few hand gestures. Omar received a series of messages in his inbox. “I just transmitted several sets of coordinates to you, as well as multiple routes to those locations. If you escape the city, I suggest you find your way to one of them. They are close and we have determined them to be low-risk. I have also sent to you both an early version of the intelligence materials on the Ehvow we’re preparing for your militaries. There is no time to review it now, but should you survive that knowledge will prove essential. Nitika, I recommend you go with Omar and retrieve an HK Thunderbolt rifle as well. I will wait in the loading dock area of the building for you.”

“Do you need any weapons from the armory?” Nitika asked. “Since we’re going there anyway, and all.”

“No, I am quite well-armed already,” Sihs-Jin said. Omar looked at the thin layer of material and blinking lights all over the Tarrare ambassador’s body, wondering what technological violence it could unleash. He’d always assumed it might be armor of some kind, but he clearly didn’t have enough imagination when it came to Alien tech. “As my size makes taking your elevator difficult, I will utilize the stairs.”

“Ambassador,” Omar said. “Thanks.” Sihs-Jin nodded his head with his flexible, segmented neck. It was the one human mannerism he’d picked up so far. Nitika and Omar stepped on the elevator and took it to the middle secure level to get to the armory.

“You think anyone’s going to be on duty there?” Omar asked.

“Nope,” Nitika said. “We’re the most hard-working motherfuckers in this place. If we’re abandoning ship, you can bet all the admin people and check out desk officers at the armory are long gone.”

“I hear that,” Omar said. He shifted in his boots. Advisory messages appeared in his interface about the subway experiencing delays from everyone crowding the platforms. That plans was gone, and he already knew the roads would be a disaster. His feet already hurt from standing all day, but he knew he was about to be doing a lot of walking. For once, he was glad he’d skipped his PT this morning. He’d need all the energy he could get. 

Image Credit:

Movement 1: Weeds and Thorns - #10

Digging through all the status indicators, all he saw were blues and greens. Some above and beyond the tolerance levels on the positive end. The connections to the new generators He minimized it all in his interface, stepping back from the maintenance node’s array of machines and displays around them as they fed the Tarrare “embassy.” Embassy was a misnomer to Luis. It had turned into more of a colony in terms of its size and scope. “Everything looks good with the new grid upgrades,” Luis marveled, finishing his checks. They were done, Luis checking the last work package to bring the project all the way to completion. 

Nico and Elara, the best new people in his crew, nodded their heads. They helped him staff the maintenance node and track all the various projects and operations indicators while the other crews crawled all over the rest of the tunnels, ducts, and passageways. They’d worked really hard to finish the power grid upgrade project, and it had worked out damn well. “Excellent work, everyone,” Luis said, sending an all-team communication through his interface to the other crews. “This is the first time the power levels have been above orange in awhile.” He was the on-site lead now, so he had to make sure everyone got their acknowledgement. Reuben liked the message, showing in his ever passive-aggressive way that he was still part of the crew and not so happy about his lack of recent promotions. Luis sent him a private DM to taunt him for screwing up less than usual. 

“Is all this just to power those supertools?” Nico asked. “I heard they’re increasing the size of the chambers down there. They’ve been really active lately.” 

“Metatools, Nico,” Luis corrected. Nico was a younger technician that had been brought on to the core level six months ago, but he was still mastering all the new terms. He was a hard worker, but he was scared of learning about the Tarrare. He didn’t read his briefings and manuals, all full of new definitions and words. Luis had trouble keeping up sometimes too, considering they were Alien terms that someone had invented awkward human words to describe. “They’re like our printers and assemblers but way better. They can assemble just about anything at an atomic level, given that you feed them the right raw materials. Problem is they consume a lot of energy. This upgrade is partially to cover them, but not entirely. They just wanted the extra capability, said something about potential expansions.”

“I heard the power surges today have been because they’ve been making these packages for the last few hours,” Elara added. She was quiet and Luis found her hard to read, but she was good with electronics and had a decent work ethic. For all their foibles, working with both of them was a blessing after Reuben’s baggage and bullshit. “Someone on lunch break said it was packages of other metatools for distribution. Using a factory to build factories is a strange thing in the first place, but to do it all at once? I wonder what’s up.”

Luis turned to look through one of the main observation windows into the sizable Tarrare living space below. They were moving around a lot, working at invisible displays his interface couldn’t access. Ordinarily they were quite mellow, moving very slowly and deliberately. They seemed agitated, but in their quiet and polite way. “They can move so fast,” Nico asked. “Has anyone ever clocked one of them?”

“When they use all those legs just to run it stands to reason,” Elara added. “Down close to the ground like that with all six legs they can get very agile.” Luis noticed his power levels change from the pleasant greens and blues back to yellow. An audible rumble moved the floor plates around them as the lighting dimmed and then changed color. Alien characters came up in the Tarrare language, displayed on a feed strip near the ceiling. Luis activated the translation app in his interface, trying to make sense of the messages.  

“I’ve never seen that before,” Nico commented. The tell-tale clicking sound of Tarrare legs moving down the oversized hallways came toward them, Administrator Krand-Vie entering one of the node’s side doors. She had two other males with her, both of whom had the thick layer of synthetic fibers projected over their body with ambient lights interspersed that the Tarrare sometimes had. 

“Nico, Luis, Elara,” Krand-Vie’s synthetic voice echoed. Luis could swear it had grown closer to a human woman over time, but it could be his mind adapting to talking with her so much. “Thank you for your recent success. Your timing for completion of this project is ideal. Whatever communications or guidance you may have received recently, we need all available power reserves directed to the communications arrays immediately and for the power distribution to remain at that setting for the next three hours. You are to disable all other facility sub-systems not essential to supporting the function of the communications arrays or simply movement throughout the facility, including security and life support. We anticipate no detrimental effects from this rerouting over such a narrow time horizon.”

“Will do, ma’am, I’m still logged into the OMI,” Luis said, pulling up his interface to make the changes through the maintenance node. He accessed the energy management admin panel and started to reallocate power within the facility’s Operations and Maintenance Interface. “What’s going on? Is there something we should be concerned about?”

Krand-Vie paused. She clicked all the sets of fingers on her front four arms together rhythmically. Luis knew that gesture. That was Krand-Vie being very concerned about something and wondering how to communicate it in a way humans would understand. “You should definitely be concerned,” Krand-Vie said. “Once the three hour window has expired, we will need another re-route of all power systems. The facility will activate full security protocols. We will provide detailed assignments to you at that point as to how we will sustain these protocols through the future. Due to the loyal service you have provided to us, I am prepared to authorize your family members and friends, should you be able to collect them before then, to join us here. You have been allocate a small amount of the communications arrays’ bandwidth to accomplish this. I recommend you contact them immediately and tell them to make their way to this site without delay.”

“Excuse me?” Nico asked. “This doesn’t sound like a drill. Why do the communication relays need so much power?”

“Don’t question the client, Nico,” Elara whispered under her breath.

“Your planet is about to come under attack,” Krand-Vie said. There it was. Suddenly a lot of things made sense to Luis, too much sense. “The attack will come from a race hostile to us. Hostile to almost every other known race, to be more precise. I will discuss the matter with all of you in greater detail later, but we have no time for such debriefings given these circumstances. Please contact your associates and have them join us as soon as possible.”

Krand-Vie didn’t give them time to answer more questions. She walked away, back the same way she came with her two escorts. Luis now saw them as guards, the fiber suits around them as combat armor and probably bearing all kinds of concealed weapons. He saw the Tarrare moving around in their living quarters working their displays differently, too. They were sending a distress call, giving military orders, or activating contingency plans. He understood very quickly the sort of machine the colony was becoming. He was a part of it now. 

“What did she just say?” Elara asked. Luis changed his interface, moving over to all of his personal contact accounts. He began pinging Daimon. Repeatedly, through every social media account he could. As Luis was rarely the kind of person to do that, he knew he’d get his husband’s attention. Then there was his sister. His mother had passed away, and Luis felt relieved about that for the first time in ages. Guilty, but also relieved that she wasn’t about to experience whatever it was they were all about to see. “Luis, what are you doing?” Elara said, her voice vacant.

“I’m doing what she said and telling people to get their asses here,” Luis said. When he turned to them, he could tell that Elara and Nico  still pale from the news they’d received. Listless and shocked, their eyes stared into the middle distance. “Listen, you heard the lady. We’ve all been in the inner guts of this underground compound/colony for years now. I have a feeling that if she’s right, this is going to be the safest place possible. I recommend you get anyone you care about here as quickly as possible.” Seeing Elara and Nico still lurching into action, he pointed and gestured at the Tarrare scrambling below in their work areas. “If something has THEM scared, it’s serious.”

Image Credit:

ESA/Hubble & NASA

Spacetelescope.org

Movement 1: Weeds and Thorns - #9

image

The displays from the newest belt of sensors near Mars flooded in to the lower left, the status indicators above and around it hovering in a greenish-yellow zone to indicate that nothing was out of the ordinary. The other data, from Saturn, did the same toward the bottom-middle of his vision. “The new apps are so much better,” Rand Wasolek said to the young woman barely paying attention to him. “They integrate with your interface so well that you know immediately when there’s a problem and you can zone out when there isn’t.”

“Leaves Rand plenty of free time to watch all of his ridiculous action operas while he waits for the software to do all the work for him,” Doug said. 

“So sweet, Doug. You didn’t even throw in a ‘shithead.’ Anyway, they haven’t declared us obsolete yet,” Rand said. “I-reupped my contract because I’m just enjoying it while it lasts. You’re lucky you got here when you did, Allie. We’ve got five years of guaranteed pay. I bet they don’t even actually need us that long if another upgrade passes through. Everything will just take care of itself.”  

“Yeah but you’re on the edge of what can only generously be called human civilization,” Doug remarked. “Enjoy being up to not much.”

“After doing this for a few days, I can’t imagine what you were dealing with before,” Allie said, reclining next to him on the chair full of supplementary interfaces they’d built out for the listening post operators when the new system had gone in. She turned her head toward Doug. “I feel like I’m inheriting a much easier job than you had.”

“There were some rough nights,” Doug nodded. “Harsh shifts.”

“You say that like you’re a grizzled war hero,” Rand said. “It’s just skimming data looking for the juicy bits. The biggest challenge is staying awake. That’s really what we’re paid for, to watch while everyone else sleeps and goes about their science and whatnot. Now we’ve got things that even do the skimming for us.” Allie seemed to be lost in the wash of data coming through her interfaces. She’d been on board for all of ten days. He started to think she was kind of cute, with hair tied back professionally and freckles, but he burned those thoughts as fast as he had them. He wasn’t about to get written up for creating a hostile work environment with a trainee. “You’re what, 22?” Rand asked.

“That’s right,” Allie said. “First job out of University. Decided to go to fucking Europa. Not exactly a normal career path. It seemed like such an adventure when I accepted the contract.”

“It’s the right age to do this,” Doug said. “You got the new, more immersive interface technology they built from the Tarrare data at just the right time when you’re brain was still flexible enough to take it. You’re used to all this. It’s still tough for old guys like Rand and me. There’s a new software interface and UI release everyday, a lot of adjustment all at once. I miss the brute simplicity of the old software and the shitty sensor arrays sometimes.”

“You’re not wrong,” Rand said. “Even with all these apps and filters providing assists, there’s so much more coming through. The Heimdallr program made the whole thing more powerful and more intricate.”

“Well, in whatever condition it was in I’m still impressed you were the first one to spot the Tarrare with this,” Allie added. She had a sheepish grin on her face. He could never tell if she was mocking him or not whenever she brought it up.

“Like I said before, that’s an urban legend,” Rand said. “I’m sure the surveillance satellites that the UAS DoD have saw them first. I just called more attention to it.”

“Sure you did,” Allie said. “You being the humble bastard you are.”

“That’s right,” Rand said. “You know, you’re lucky you’re getting posted to this colony when you are. It’s almost twice the size it was since the Tarrare made their appearance.” The view from the listening post’s tower was vastly different, Rand marveling at the colony’s structures in a serpentine layout. They broke up through and down under the ice layer in lineae of Europa’s surface like thorns on a bush of plastics and metal. 

“I’ve heard they’re planning on building some sort of military outpost,” Doug said. “That’s what all the air conversions, phytoplankton farms, solar panels, and generators are all about. It’s the infrastructure to support all that. It makes sense. Us being out here on the edge and all. Self-sufficiency. I hear they can grow lots of algae in these big sealed tanks they’ve got down even further under the surface. GMO stuff that can survive the temperatures.”

“New people are coming in every day,” Allie said. “Since colonies are exempt from the Alvez Act, all the corporations are doing their serious work out here. When I was applying on JupeJobs I saw listings for an IEI geothermal plant on Io that’s supposed to hire two hundred people.”

“Don’t forget ADS is almost done building a deep space drone factory and mines over on Ganymede,” Doug said. “IEI also supposedly has a blacksite over there. A lot is happening.”

“You sure you don’t want to stay, Doug?” Rand joked. “There’re always opportunities.” 

“I’ve thought about it,” Doug said. “But unlike you, Rand, I’ve lived out here on the Jupiter moons for like twenty years. Enough is enough. Even if this is supposed to turn into a Hub, like a mini-Mars or Luna, I can’t do it anymore. It’s going to be a harsh transition, though. My legs are going to be all fucked by the Earth’s gravity when I get back.”

“They have things to help with that now,” Allie says. “Braces and implants for the knees and back to help you step down and assist you when going back to the higher gravity. Mars and Luna settings. Luna would probably work best for you.” 

“Thanks for the tip,” Doug said. “I really need to look into it all. Haven’t been doing my research the way I should.”

“It’s funny talking about the future of this colony,” Rand commented, eager to get away from the subject of Doug’s departure. After all, it was highly likely Rand would never see him again. After Rand’s contract finally ran out, he wondered if he’d go back to Earth. Even if he did, he could foresee a lot of half-assed plans to get drinks that one or the both of them would cancel or reschedule a bunch of times. “I don’t think it’s entirely all science, research, and feel-good stuff they have planned. The Project Heimdallr scanners have a ton of classified modes I can’t unlock.”

“You’ve tried, though? Right?” Allie asked, tinkering with something on her interface. 

“Of course I have,” Rand said. “But the covert data feeds coming in here have scary encryption. It says a lot. Or doesn’t say a lot. Depends on your perspective, I guess.”

“Wait,” Allie said. She was working through something. “This can’t be right. I think I’ve found something.”

“What did you find?” Rand said. He asked for permission to share her interface. She granted it, data streams overlaying his. The indicators changed from green-yellow to orange-red. He watched the numbers add up. One anomaly. Five anomalies. Twenty anomalies. It continued to climb. 

“Something unknown detected. A lot of them,” Allie said. 

“Not again,” Rand whispered. He checked it. Lots of foreign bodies, moving in an organized fashion. “M.C.P., model please.” The master app did what it was told, pulling up displays in all their interfaces of what was coming. It was exactly like it had been back on the day with the Tarrare, but the rendering was so much faster.

“Are those more Tarrare ships?” Doug asked.

Rand knew the truth before he could say it. “No,” he said. “The mineral survey ships they’ve sent through occasionally are just like the main ship at Earth, spheres. Not to mention we were given warning they were coming from the Black Sphere by Earth.” The profile of the starships coming into the system was different. Not spherical. Not matching the composition or energy signatures of any Tarrare ships it had detected.

“Definitely not spheres,” Allie said, blowing up a huge projection in front of them. There were lots of them. Maybe a hundred. Ten or so large ships, all like long arms with claws coming out of them. Tiny ones swirled around them. They were menacing. Non-uniform, long segments pointing out of them and forward. . They were jagged, twisted, full of large knots of outward spires and protrusions. “The composition is metallic and biological. Actually a huge amount of biological matter hardened over a shell.”

“That’s a battle formation,” Rand said. “Those are warships. I’m goddamn sure of it. There’s no way they’d be moving like that, that they would look like that if they weren’t.”

“Should I …” Allie started.

“Definitely,” Rand said. “Administrator Cheung will want to know about this. Get her on as soon as you can.” Rand tried to imagine what this meant. The trajectory appeared. 

“They’re headed for Earth,” Doug said. “And very, very fast. They’ll be there in hours.”

“Unfortunately,” Rand said. “And I don’t think this group wants to make friends.”

“What are we about to watch here?” Doug said, lost in the moment. “I mean, what the fuck does this mean?” 

“The Tarrare are really advanced, though, right?” Allie said. “They should be able to do something?” Rand and Doug only answered her question with silence. The three of them thought the same, selfish thing. They were praying to unspecified deities and all cosmic forces that whatever this war fleet was would pass Europa by. 

Image Credit:

NASA, Holland Ford (JHU), the ACS Science Team and ESA

Spacetelescope.org

Overture: Broken Light - #8

“No thank you,” Danya said, pressing the reject button in her interface. Being Director of Interstellar Exploration and Research for the UAS’ Interstellar Administration had a lot of baggage, but every time she could kill idiotic designs meant to give someone with a military uniform a hard-on made it all worth it. 

“Five years, Eamonn,” Dr. Danya Fund moaned from her spot in the conference room. Spent water bottles, coffee cups, and a devoured lunch tray marked her territory. Visions of graphs and engineering drawings from her recently enhanced interface filled the room around her. It was a little too immersive sometimes. “Five years and the proposals are only now starting to get better. Too many of the same old starship designs with a few Tarrare tricks injected that barely make sense. We’ve done far too little in far too much time.”

“You’re right about that,” Dr. Eamonn Condon said next to her. “I would be demoralized about the pace of all this but I forgot what having morale felt like years ago.” 

They continued browsing drawings and theoretical, unrealistic performance specs in silence for awhile,  “I just don’t know what we’re even looking for anymore,” Danya said. “We were supposed to be commissioning fleets of civilian FTL ships. Now, after all the budget cuts, all we do is provide input into military starship procurements and provide oversight on commercial space projects. Not exactly what any of us in this agency signed up for. We’ve still only done even a few token missions since Project Vanguard. We should have colonies in other systems. All the funding goes into a defense fleet that’s obsolete the moment it rolls off the line because the designs are shit. Then there’s the Alvez Act. Everyone who actually tries to propose too many Tarrare elements gets bid-protested or sued into oblivion.”

“It’s sickening,” Eamonn said. “All these proposals want to do nothing but discuss their compliance with the damned Alvez Act. They all say something to the effect of ’90% human ingenuity and design with only a hint of Tarrare elements to enhance performance’ then demand their Alvez Act Price Preference because their design is the ‘most human.’ Couple that with the vague suggestion that they would see us in court if we decided anyone else deserved it. I hear there’s some huge project the UAS and GCC are trying to work with the Tarrare that Alvez Act litigation has blown all to kingdom come. Something called Sanctuary.”

“Typical,” Danya said. “Whatever his intention, Alvez successfully made progress a competitive disadvantage. No wonder he’s about to be elected President.”

“You know how it is, Danya,” Eamonn said. “Only so much change can be absorbed at any given time. The FTL flight blew people’s minds. Most of the human race wasn’t ready for it. Then you had the Tarrare show up. They’ve flipped everything over again. It’s going to be decades before the dust settles. I sometimes wonder if the bugs did it on purpose.”

“Something’s off, that’s for sure,” Danya said. “Some of their survey ships have shown up to look at the asteroid belts outside Mars for minerals and that’s it. They leave the system after a few months of poking around. There’s something the Aliens aren’t telling us.”

“Maybe this is all some social experiment to see how the backwards primitives can handle eating from the tree of knowledge,” Eamonn asked. “Maybe it’s all some big reality program. Back home they’re watching it all and laughing their instectoid abdomens off.”

“Funny,” Danya said. “But I’m being serious. I’ve heard that the Tarrare have cautioned all the world leaders against us using FTL for further exploration, giving a bunch of platitudes about how we aren’t ready. That’s why there’s no support at the top and the funding isn’t there.”

“Or the funding isn’t there because there’s nothing impressive to invest in,” Eamonn said. “Sounds like finger-pointing mixed with conspiracy theories to me.”

“Conspiracies are the only thing I can come up with to explain the total lack of forward momentum,” Danya said. 

“There’s progress in biology,” Eamonn countered. “Anti-agens, anti-virals, and next-gen synthetic organs better than the originals are flooding the market, legal or illegal. No one cares about the litigation there. Too much money to be made. I’ve heard rumors they’ve built completely artificial animals from the ground up with the AI and nanotechnology breakthroughs. Not just designer genetics and breeding, they’re creating whole new species.”

“It’s all about the fast money and gimmicks,” Danya said. “Scientists with decades of expertise wasted on making dragon-cats, hamster-cows, or who knows what terrifying hybrid in a lab with a bunch of private biotech research money and we’re trying to scratch together real science and research from whatever meager appropriations the UAS throws at us.”

“Don’t forget the constant threats of reprogramming to the UAS DoD,” Eamonn replied.

“This morning I read someone on the feeds who was actually arguing that the Black Sphere is a Dyson sphere,” Danya said, switching to a less depressing subject. Most people had taken to calling the Tarrare ship the Black Sphere. People had become less afraid of it over the years, mostly accepting that if the Tarrare had planned to kill them or enslave them they would’ve done it by now. It hung there, like an ominous new moon in the sky. Danya used to look at it all the time back when she had an office with real windows. Before she’d worked for the government.

“Impossible,” Eamonn said. “Well, I don’t know. Maybe. Not likely, at least. There are whole sections of the tech transfer that only a few people get, and plenty of pieces no one gets. They could be that advanced. They could have a mini-star or some plasma core in there. The generators people have built from based on some of the rudimentary Tarrare plasma physics are very efficient and stable and that’s just the basic level of what they must be capable of.”

“You have to wonder why they’re not helping more,” Danya replied. “The Tarrare basically handed us the biggest textbook in the history of mankind and told us to teach ourselves the course. Why not give us more practical designs? Schematics? There are hints of that, but nothing ready to use.”

“Maybe because that would be like handing a house cat a starship,” Eamonn responded. “We need to understand what we’re doing. If they handed us the toys right away we may kill ourselves and each other because we don’t understand the magnitude, the danger.”

“I hate you,” Danya leered.

“It’s not my fault I’m so damned right all the time,” Eamonn said. “God made me this way. Or … maybe the Tarrare. They’ve just come back to check on a research project they started MILLIONS OF YEARS AGO!”

“Don’t even joke about that. You sound like one of those Starchild cultists, Eamonn,” Danya said. “I have to walk through enough of those religious fanatics on the way into work every day. I won’t tolerate it inside my workplace, too.”

“You’re repressing my freedom to exercise or some such! Oh, forget it. I don’t even have the energy to make that into a bit,” Eamonn said, rising from the table. “I’m taking a break. Here,” he made a few targeted finger movements, manipulating his own interface to send files to Danya’s. “These are the proposals I think are promising. Solid ones. Small ships, agile. Limited range. Just what the doctor ordered. Low risk, low money, low profile. The manufacturer even says it can have a few weapons mounted to it and be flown unmanned.”

“The doctor?” Danya asked.

“The one that flies around in the magic call box. Just take a look,” Eamonn started out of the room.  

“Eamonn,” Danya said. “Thanks. I’d lose my mind without you here.”

“It’s how all the ladies feel,” Eamonn said. “When I’m not being so annoying that they’re ready to cave my skull in, that is.”  

“Eamonn, one more thing,” she said. “What do you think I should do about that job on Mars? It’s a step down, but …”

“I think you should take it,” Eamonn said. “An FTL-ready spaceport and that little test fleet they have there? It’s not the most groundbreaking of projects, but it’s different. You’re clearly not happy here. You should move on. Nothing will change your perspective like going to another planet.”

“And it doesn’t hurt that you get promoted into Acting Director if I leave,” Danya needled.

“There’s that, too,” Eamonn said, giving her a slight grin.

Image Credit: 

NASA/ESA, J. Bally (University of Colorado, Boulder, CO), H. Throop (Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, CO), C.R. O’Dell (Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN) with Photo-manipulation by J. Hamlet

spacetelescope.org

Overture: Broken Light - #7

Reuben zoned out. He was clearly in his interface checking the feeds and messages instead of monitoring how close they were to the schematic drawings displayed all around them. Luis Rodriguez tried to ignore it, operating the bots as they assembled and secured yet another pathway of ventilation ducts. Once the ventilation extension was done they’d be able to enclose this branch of the structure. The dirty, cavernous underground space with partially finished rock walls would soon become a hive of rooms. “Smoke break?” Reuben asked. 

“Out of stimsticks,” Luis said. The spider bots were crawling up and down the ducts, their welders sparking furiously. 

“Me too, but I have a pack of hashtags,” Reuben said, smiling devilishly. “It’s quitting time in two hours, I don’t think it’ll hurt …”

“Fuck it,” Luis said, putting the bots into pause mode. He took off his control gloves and optics. “Is this a special occasion?”

“Not really,” Reuben said, the two of them walked over to the tool and bot storage room in the corner of the vast open space, the only place they could have any privacy. Reuben pulled out the hashtags. The blend of genetically manipulated tobacco and marijuana was perfectly legal, but certainly not allowed on the job. Luis and Reuben activated the electronic cylinders and began inhaling. 

“We’re 65% done, according to this,” Luis said, checking the earned value estimator in his interface. “When I saw the drawings, at least the part I was allowed to see, I thought this project would never be done. But here we are, on time.”

“65% done building an underground mansion for Aliens,” Reuben said. “It still fucks me up thinking about it.”

“Not exactly what you imagined when you signed up for an illustrious career in facilities?” Luis asked.

“No, can’t say that it was,” Reuben replied. “And as for that 65%, that’s damn near all you. All those extra hours you worked off the clock, making us all look bad.”

“I’m a professional, Reuben,” Luis said, letting the soothing and focusing puffs of the hashtag hit him. “I take pride in my work. I want it to be right.”

“You know what the difference between a professional and an amateur is, Luis?” Reuben said. “Professionals get PAID for the work they do. You’re turning yourself into one with all those unbilled hours.”

“You get paid for work you don’t do. What do you call that?” Luis said. 

“A genius,” Reuben said. They both coughed out a few laughs. “What do you think is down there?” Reuben asked. “Those ventilation ducts go hundreds of meters down to that core, or hub, or whatever it’s called.” 

“No idea,” Luis said. “The whole six months of this project I’ve never been down there, I’ve never encountered anyone who’s been down there except for maybe the Tarrare. They’re not exactly forthcoming. It’s classified past our clearance level. That part of the building drawings was redacted except for the outline of the outer wall.”

“Whatever it is, it’s going to draw a lot of power,” Reuben speculated. “I know some people on one of the other work crews, and ALL they’re doing is installing generators. Apparently they even brought in a few of the Tarrare’s own generators in a few levels below us.”

“It’s not my place,” Luis said. “I just want to get this damn thing built and move on. The sooner I can move out of those barracks out there and back home, the better. I told Daimon it would only be another three months and I’m keeping my word. The back and forth to Pittsburgh on the weekends is killing my ass.” The hashtag was good. Reuben hadn’t bought the cheap shit. 

“I can see that,” Reuben answered. “But doesn’t it bother you? I mean, why are we doing all of this in the first place?”

“From what I understand, it was part of the deal,” Luis answered. “They’re helping us, technical assistance or something with that big data dump. This is sort of like their embassy or whatever. It’s all above my pay grade.”

“Why underground?” Reuben asked. “It seems unnatural.”

“I read that’s the way they live on whatever planet they’re from. They prefer it this way. You really should read the guidebooks, Reuben. We’re in the middle of goddamn nowhere,” Luis responded. 

“They’re like a million pages, though,” Reuben protested.

“Whatever, man. I’m sure you’re even getting bored of porn by now. You might as well learn yourself something.” They puffed out the last of their hashtags, the lights growing dim as the vapors coming out were thinner and thinner. “We should get back to it.”

“I suppose,” Reuben answered. “I’ll be there in a minute.” He pulled a second out. Luis shook his head, not really ready to do two hashtags. He certainly wouldn’t be productive after that. He walked out of the room, shutting the door behind him and leaving Reuben inside. 

He froze when he saw two of them had suddenly entered the worksite. Tarrare, both inspecting the ventilation ducts. “Oh, excuse me,” Luis blurted. “My … associate and I were just taking a quick break.”

They turned to look at him, those mantis heads with compound eyes and their height causing him to crumple defensively. “Don’t be concerned, Luis,” one of them said through its synthetic voice aide. She was a faint purple hue, indicating a female. He’d read his guidebooks enough to know that. “We were simply admiring your progress. You are a very diligent worker and everyone deserves a break from time to time. Productivity suffers otherwise.”

“Thank you,” Luis said, unsure what else to say. She strode toward him, getting uncomfortably close as the Tarrare tended to do, the compound eyes with the glowing displays and goggles over them scrutinizing him. 

“I am the Colony Administrator, Krand-Vie, this is our chief Science Officer Ophen Lon.” The pale green male turned his head to look over at him, then went back to examining the ventilation ducts. “We were just discussing your future.”

“My future?” Luis asked. 

“Yes,” Krand-Vie said, striding around on her flexible legs. “You have made better progress than any of the other teams or workers, despite the fact that your associate seems prone to lower levels of productivity. We would like to recommend you for a promotion if you’re interested.”

“Promotion,” Luis said. “My company would have to approve it …” His mind immediately raced to how pissed Daimon would be. Then again, Luis’ mom was sick. And on a project like this, it would be a huge pay bump to help with that sort of thing.

“Yes, Intelligent Evolution,” Krand-Vie said, fixating her eyes on the IEI logos affixed to Luis’ orange jumpsuit. “They have generally accepted our recommendations in the past, so we would be surprised if you did not receive it. Are you interested in taking on greater responsibilities in this project?”

“It’s a great opportunity …” Luis started.

“Excellent!” Krand-Vie interrupted him, signaling to her colleague. Luis didn’t get the chance to finish his “but that would depend on what you want me to do, I need to consult with my husband …” Not that it really mattered. “We will be seeing you on the lower levels tomorrow. I’m sure the appropriate clearances will be granted. There is much exciting work to be done in the core of this facility. Especially with the new expansions we will be negotiating tomorrow.” The Tarrare left, taking their time at it as their antenna twitched and heads looked over every part of the place.

A few minutes passed before the door to the storage room opened and Reuben stuck his head out, Luis slowly suiting back up to resume work. “What was that about? I thought I heard those simulated voices …”

“You did,” Luis said. “They were just in here.”

“Shit!” Reuben said. “Are we about to get fired?”

“No, as a matter of fact I’m about to get promoted,” Luis said, still awestruck. 

“Then why do you look like you just stepped in Alien shit?” Reuben said. “This is great news, man. Maybe you can put in a good word for me, too.”

“I’m supposed to go down there tomorrow,” Luis said. “Way down to the secret part.”

Reuben paused, before fully emerging from the closet and clapping his hand on Luis’ shoulder. “Well, it couldn’t’ve happened to a nicer guy,” Reuben said. “I just hope they use some quality seasoning on you before they dig in, though. Otherwise it would really be a waste.” Reuben kept a solemn look for around five seconds before cracking up.

“Fuck you, Rueben,” was all Luis could say for a comeback. 

“What is Daimon going to think?” Reuben asked. “I doubt he’s going to want to move from Pittsburgh to this place. It’s an hour from anything worthwhile. It’s like they looked at a map of the entire UAS and tried to find the most boring and vacant place they could.” 

“He’s not going to be happy, that’s for sure,” was all Reuben could manage. He was already thinking about how he would explain it. Daimon already hated that he only saw Luis on the weekends when he got back home. “I’ve got a lot of long commutes in my future.”

Image Credit:

NASA, ESA, Martin Kornmesser (ESA/Hubble)

Spacetelescope.org

Overture: Broken Light - #5

image

From: Dawes, Grayson (OCEO)

To: Spinoza, Lina (OCEO)

Subject: Re: Strategy Memo FINAL

Thx, Lina. Excellent work. Will make my tweaks and send in the AM.

From: Spinoza, Lina (OCEO)

To: Dawes, Grayson (OCEO)

Subject: Strategy Memo FINAL

Grayson,

I finished the memo you wanted to send out with the Yinger report. I think I got all the points you wanted from the meeting earlier today, but I can do another pass if I missed something important. 

MEMORANDUM

From: Grayson Dawes, PHarmax Chief Executive Officer

To: PHarmax Executive Leadership Committee

Subject: Extraterrestrial Tech Transfer

CONFIDENTIAL

Colleagues,

We have definitive confirmation that the UAS Government and the United World Council will not take action to prevent the so-called “Technology Transfer” that the Aliens are going to initiate at 12:00 PM ET tomorrow. The impacts of this complete disregard for current intellectual property law will be immediate and negative. I have included with this memo a report from our consultants at The Yinger Group, a top market intelligence firm, that provides some scenarios and details about what all of this means means. We are far from the only industry or the only corporation that will be affected by this, but the impact on us is likely to be severe. Breakthroughs we have spent sizable amounts of Research and Development funding on could be disclosed, potentially eliminating trade secrets and patents we have fought long and hard to protect. Worse, many may be invalidated or rendered obsolete by the data from the tech transfer. We have little notion of what useful information will be included in the tech transfer, whether it be new antivirals, antibiotics, life extension technologies, viral therapies, synthetic organs, nano-level cellular reconstruction technologies, or something that proves even more of a game-changer. I have seen several white papers circulating that argue differences in biology between us and the Aliens should limit pharmaceutical or biomedical applications in the near-term, but I remain unconvinced of this argument no matter how much we wish we could believe it. 

While we will take legal action against any who use data from the tech transfer to develop products similar to ours in order to delay and stop them from making it to market, that will do little to stop what will be an emerging black market for these technologies and medicines. We assume that this black market and underground economy may significantly affect existing profits as is already the case with illegal generic versions of our products. It is also likely that many scam artists will cut into our bottom line by promising miracle cures to diseases and other chronic health problems through these underground channels as well, likely claiming bogus Alien science supposedly obtained from the tech transfer. We are likely looking at several rough quarters or even years. As such, based upon the recommendations of the Yinger report, we should follow a two track strategy to ensure the survival of PHarmax in the face of these new challenges.

1. The first priority is to protect our product lines, be they in production or development stages. We have some initial confirmation that the data to be released through the feeds will be easily understood by individuals with some competence and knowledge of biomedical engineering and its related disciplines. This will likely mean that many startups will spring up virtually overnight.

1.a. As previously stated, we must take legal action when they infringe upon our existing intellectual property. We have a dedicated legal team in New York and DC from the law firm Knight, MacPherson, and Green on standby that have been briefed on the issue and are prepared to take appropriate action. We will continue the engagement with the Yinger Group to identify any products that sound similar to ours or produce similar effects. Cease and desist notices will go out early and often whenever we receive word that someone is developing something that could infringe. If they continue development, we will immediately file suit. This will jam up many of the startups and hopefully scare investors away from them as well. Most will likely be gone before they can launch products.

1.b. Media strategies will tag any startups in the industry as unreliable and inexperienced. Analysts friendly to PHarmax will make assertions in the feeds that such firms have connections to underground and black market sources and that their products cannot be trusted. PHarmax’s reputation and experience will be emphasized as a contrast.

2. Our next priority should be to take advantage of the opportunity to launch new product lines and exploit this unprecedented situation. Forecasters anticipate that demand for any Alien technology, including medical products, will be extremely high. Riots are anticipated as part of the distribution. PHarmax would forego significant profits to abstain from these business development opportunities. 

2.a. In cases where the tech transfer  discloses proprietary information not belonging to PHarmax but to PHarmax’s competitors, we should proceed immediately in testing, producing, and distributing products based upon this. Our legal will argue the unprecedented nature of this situation to proceed with infringement upon the intellectual property of our competitors. They will likely try the strategy outlined in 1.a. of cease and desist letters and suits against us, but we are not some startup that can be intimidated into bankruptcy by such actions. The reward outweighs the risk

2.b. Our legal team assures us that we can further utilize the unprecedented nature of this situation to explain why traditional testing and approval of all medical products should be expedited. Communications will stress the explosive growth of underground and black market distribution of these technologies and how dangerous they are as they have been subject to essentially no safety or testing. Correspondingly, it will be argued that it is irresponsible to constrain respectable and established companies with expertise with red tape while these unsafe drugs are being produced illegally with no regard for safety or testing. We already have several pieces of draft legislation that may gut the testing process for established firms who can obtain a waiver. Our lobbyists assure me that the waiver process will be constructed to benefit established companies with solid past performance and corporate experience over startups. 

Many will view these developments as a simple positive. It is our job to make sure the consumer understands the complexity and unprecedented nature of this situation. We must make all efforts to educate the consumer that many untrusted and inexperienced sources and, frankly, outright frauds will exploit this situation to make profits and that they should trust the same firms with their healthcare and medical products that they always have. Together, we can weather this storm and retain our dominance in the industry as this chaotic situation unfolds.

Sincerely Yours,

Grayson Dawes

Chief Executive Officer

PHarmax Biomedical Technologies, LLC

Image Credit:

NASAESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (AURA/STScI)

From: Spacetelescope.org

Overture: Broken Light - #3

Omar Bragg had held his mouth for exactly as long as was possible, his hands squeezing the thermal assault rifle in his hands so hard he was afraid he might actually rip the thing apart. Nitika Chowdury, his partner, didn’t move. Her serenity was maddening. “Can they understand us?” he whispered to her.

Nitika turned her head. The United American States emblem in the forehead region of the helmet was a fountain of emotion compared to her small face. Even her tactical helmet regularly had richer body language than she did. “Did you even read the briefing?” she monotoned.

“It was like a million pages,” Omar whispered. He had started it, but he’d only gotten about twenty pages and five charts in before he gave it up to make dinner for his daughter. “It’s not like we got a lot of advance notice about this assignment.”

“Yes, we can understand you,” a clipped, robotic voice said nearby. Omar felt a nervous rush of blood to his head and saw stars for a minute when he realized what “said” it.

They were very tall, almost touching the ceiling. Standing on two legs, their stick-like frame reached up and terminated in a tiny head with four sets of compound eyes. They had two sets of spindly arms that they were keeping patiently at their sides. Looking back and forth between each other, they had a thin layer of material like clothing covering their insect bodies that was clumped around the arm and leg joints, blinking lights strewn throughout. Their skin, or scales or whatever it was had a blueish hue to it. The fingers on the ends of their four arms were small and wormlike, but there were lots of them arranged in almost a complete circle. “I am Sihs-Jin,” the same voice emitted from one of them. “We have interfaces that are quite capable of understanding and translating your language, as well as applications that can simulate your speech in return.”

“Okay,” Omar answered. He got more of an answer than he really wanted. There were only two reasons he could think of for why he pulled this duty: either someone hadn’t thought at all about who would be best suited and most qualified to do it or he’d really pissed someone off somewhere up above and was receiving his punishment. 

“I am the ambassador of our people,” Sihs-Jin said, folding his two standing legs in on themselves and leaning his insectoid body forward so he was eye-level with Omar. Omar wondered whether this gesture was some sort of predatory crouch or a respectful bow. Maybe both. Their bodies seemed more flexible than he would’ve expected, like a bendy praying mantis. He didn’t understand how that worked, but as a diplomatic security officer he wasn’t exactly a biologist. A spindly set of organic and mechanical antenna rose out of the top of its head. Omar could make out that lenses of some kind were over the Alien’s compound eyes. They displayed thousands of bits of unrecognizable text and pictures. Omar half-expected target signs. “I am pleased to meet you.”

“Likewise,” Omar said, keeping his hands on his gun. The Alien didn’t seem to want any sort of hand contact, which he thanked God Almighty for. 

“Me too,” Nitika droned. Sihs-Jin retained his shortened height. He stalked over to a nearby window, looking out on the complex skycape New York City. Way down in the streets below there were all manner of protestors, cultists, street prophets, and other assorted mental deficients who knew the Aliens were in the building. 

“When are they going to be ready?” Omar muttered. They were standing in a waiting room outside of the World United Council Security Committee, ready to escort the Aliens inside to meet several world leaders. Only if the world leaders could actually all agree that they were ready to see them, though. It had been almost an hour wait already. Omar, Nitika, 100 more armed guards on the floors above and below them, and several varieties of automated security countermeasures were all that stood in the way of the Aliens wiping out all said leaders if this was some elaborate ambush.

“I like your city,” Ambassador Sihs-Jin said. “It is very colorful, very active. Very loud. Most enjoyable.” Omar refrained from asking why those qualities delighted the ambassador. Perhaps he thought it looked like a wonderful lunch buffet. “Your people have great potential.” Again, Omar tried not to mentally supply “as a snack food” to the ambassador’s statement. “It will take time. Our thoughts, our language, even our names are very different from yours. We are truncating them for your benefit.”

“Because we wouldn’t be able to understand?” Nitika chimed in, a rarity. Omar remembered the first day the Alien ship, that enormous black sphere, had appeared in the sky. It was small, but you could see it during the day. Almost the size of the moon because it was so much closer.  Everyone had been terrified. All the coverage on all the feeds and all the casts had focused on it. There had been a month of dangerous rumors and rampant speculation. Some super-rich nutjobs had tried to send a few spacecraft up to take a look or to even “dock” with and board the ship, but it had been unresponsive. 

Yesterdat the World United Council had admitted that the Aliens had begun contacting them a mere six hours after their arrival after all. It had just been a long time before they were ready to tell the public anything definitive. Don’t tell the truth until it takes a form you can control, something Omar was all too familiar with from guarding diplomats day in and day out. 

The ambassador swiveled his pointed head in their direction. They all seemed to be male. Omar at least remembered from the pages he’d skimmed that the males were all a pale blue, where the females were either a dull orange or a faint purple. “Linguistically, all of it would be difficult for you to grasp,” Sihs-Jin responded. His insectoid face coupled with the synthesized voice were inscrutable. Omar wondered if Nitika was in love. She and the Alien would have a great time being unreadable together. “That is always a problem for the Old Races.”

Omar shuffled, relaxing the grip on his gun some. He started to think that if the Aliens were going to kill him with anything, it would be words at this point. They didn’t seem armed in any conventional manner. Then again, they could always be martial arts experts. With all those fingers, all those long arms, they could be very lethal. 

The door to the chambers opened, a sweaty young man exiting into the hallway and eyeing the aliens nervously. “We’re, um, ready for you,” he said. 

“Excellent,” was all the Ambassador said, resuming his formerly intimidating height. Omar gestured the aliens to move in first. They respectfully shuffled forward, silent except for a few clacks. Omar let out an involuntary shudder just watching them moved. They were going purposefully slow, and considering how creepy that was he didn’t want to imagine them at top speed.

“How long do you think this is going to take?” he asked Nitika.

“Days,” Nitika said.

“Sounds optimistic to me,” Omar said, steeling himself for all the worthless haggling and posturing to come. Diplomats and politicians always found new ways to torture the human soul with hollow words and gestures. Still, it was better than the alternative: armed hostility with a race that had clear technological superiority. Omar just lamented he had to be in the room for all of it. He had to do everything in his power to prevent this from becoming a permanent assignment. This was a long shot from watching over thugs sent to represent some rogue state or shady NGO, and he could already feel the dread eating away at him.

“By the way, did you notice he said races, as in plural?” Nitika commented.

“Yeah, if there’s one set of aliens out there, there’s got to be more. As long as I don’t have to play escort duty for them, too,” was all Omar said.

Image Credit:

NASA/ESA and The Hubble Heritage Team STScI/AURA), George Herbig and Theodore Simon (University of Hawaii).

Overture: Broken Light - #2

image

Vacuous sameness trickled in, dust particles and the distant white noise of the great asteroid field between them and Mars the only distant sparkles of something interesting. The orbiting satellites from Jupiter, Saturn, and their moons were a web of optics and sensors, feeding zetabytes of data into his protective screen of applications. The apps digested it, giving yet more graphs and presentations of what was out there. What was out there was a whole lot of nothing. He was trapped in a chamber of floating renderings, numbers, planets, and even the satellites taking pictures of each other. 

Drumming his fingers as abrasive sounds pounded out an aggressive rhythm all around him, the listening post operator adjusted the sensor feeds again. He was only allowed one recreational feed and he’d chosen a violent mid-21st century action opera. The heroine was billowing out a wail to a 140 BPM drum shuffle as she fired a high-powered thermal rifle from out a building’s window at the charging any assassins. It took a real badass to sing and gunfight at the same time. 

“Rand, you settled in?” Doug, the only other sensor operator on shift asked. “I need a break.” 

“Take your break, dickbag,” Rand Wasolek yelled into his earpiece, turning down his action opera. His eardrums thanked him, the tightness and hiss in them starting to make him think he was giving himself a problem. He needed the loud music and films to stay awake. He’d long acquired immunity to the watery GMO coffee they got from earth long ago. It could grow in almost any climate, the only tradeoff had been actual flavor. The emptiness all of his apps and sensors broadcast to him was a blast of narcolepsy inducement. Even the network traffic coming into the post from Mars, Luna, and Earth was minimal. “Not like I need you. We’re on Europa, for shit’s sake. What’s going to happen?” 

“You got it, shithead,” Doug responded. “I’m going to eat something and be back.” Rand stretched, glaring out the window at the sprawling complex of the European colony. The listening post was in a tower that floated in the middle of the structure, gazing out on the frozen vista and lineae of Europa’s surface. The human structures protruded like fingers and hands sticking up out of it, penetrating into the warmer water underneath and stretching deeper down into the moon’s metallic core. It was an amazing view, but a shitty job. The apps did most of the work for him, interpreting the feeds and telling him when and where something might be wrong. Still, they wanted that human touch. Someone watching and ready, and he had enough basic competence to work as a communications office and fix connectivity issues with the intra-solar network. There were four of them in the colony, and Doug was his backup for the shift. 

One app began to detail anomalies. Then another started to detect movement outside the normal scale of space trash. The sensor array began to send him alerts. He reached for the haptic interface and enlarged the data related to whatever it was that spooked the systems so much. The anomaly was moving, too fast to get optics on. He pulled up another auxiliary sensor app and requested that it recreate whatever it was virtually for him. He switched off his action opera. For the first time since the last FTL test flight, he needed real concentration.  

“What the fuck …” Rand started to say. A sense of urgency was a foreign sensation at this point. “This is way too much excitement this early in the morning.”

On a separate holographic display, he watched the object come into focus, along with various apps that took guesses at what it was. It was an spherical. The composition told him it was metallic and appeared to be giving off significant heat and radiation that was suggestive of an incredible amount of energy in a single direction. Clearly. Rand blinked, watching the apps attempt to make further guesses about it. It looked like a tiny planet or moon, but it was moving. Moreso, it was moving and putting out energy and radiation that suggested propulsion. Rand got a horrible, horrible feeling and told the sensors to check its trajectory. More or less a straight-line. Not orbiting. Using a few things as a quick gravity slingshot, but moving with a purpose.

“Am I looking at a ship?” he said to no one but himself and the apps. They didn’t react, confused. “M.C.P.,” he asked the appropriate app. “Am I looking at a spacecraft of unknown origin?”

He paced nervously, during the delay it took the app to compile and use its crude artificial intelligence to judge. “Available data does not rule out that possibility,” the M.C.P. app responded. “It is a plausible supposition.”

“This is not happening,” Rand whispered. Then he full-on panicked. “I need the Colony Administrator NOW!” he punched into his colony communications protocol app. “Doug, also, get your ass back here for shit’s sake!”

“Administrator Cheung is currently out of the office and is in do not disturb mode,” a chipper synthetic voice belonging to the administrator’s virtual assistant responded. 

“Override, override, OVERRIDE! Priority one or whatever!” was all Rand could manage. 

“Hold please,” the virtual assistant responded. “Please note that the Administrator has been extraordinarily displeased when individuals have abused the override function previously. She asks that all personnel exercise discretion in doing so or severe administrative sanctions may be invoked.”

“I’ll take my chances,” Rand said, watching the path of this Hell-Orb hurtle toward Earth. “I think Administrator Cheung would want to know about this.”

“What’s going on up there?” Doug said, his voice clear and footsteps heavy as he raced back from wherever he was. 

“Rand?” Administrator Amy Cheung’s tired voice slurred. “What’s going on? Another meteor inbound?” Rand connected them all in a single channel, trying to figure out which apps told the story the best. 

“If only, Administrator,” Rand said. “M.C.P., please send Doug and Administrator a summary of what we have.” M.C.P. would have to figure out the best data for him since he clearly didn’t have time to put together a highlight reel.

“Well, this is different,” Doug said, bursting into the listening post. He began to directly work the apps. “I think I had a dream about this once.” His voice was detached, drifting into disbelief. 

“Guys, is this what I think it is?” Amy Cheung said as she tried to make sense of what she was seeing in her interface. Rand pictured her in her bedroom working through her interfaces. She was smart. She would see it. “Please tell me it’s anything other than what I think it is.” 

 “We’ve got aliens,” Rand answered. “And they appear to be headed right for Earth. I’m assuming we might want to give someone a head’s up?”

Image Credit:

Spacetelescope.org

NASA, Holland Ford (JHU), the ACS Science Team and ESA