He survived. If only he knew what to do next, and how to keep that “alive” thing going.
The lorry and bus were filling up, as many assemblers and printers as they could salvage from this evacuated piece of Yorkshire loaded inside. “Are you sure about this?” Ros asked. She was loading the crates of metal and plastic feeder kits into the few empty spaces she could find. “We really need to get the bloody hell away from here.”
“You’re right, probably should,” Danny Gleeson said, looking into the graying skies. Yorkshire couldn’t be long for this world. He saw one more area of the lorry he was sure he could fill. “Let me go back for one more, yeah?” he said, pushing the cart back into the mini-factory. It was unwieldy, worn down from the many loads of industrial equipment it had carried out. Danny himself was worn down from the same.
“I’ll help you,” she said, guilted by his struggles.
“Hurry up, you two!” Aziz shouted over their interfaces. He started the lorry’s engines. The sound of Ehvow engines was audible from clicks away, but it was hard to tell from the abrasive noises if they were headed this way or circling. “We can’t have much more time.”
“I’m aware,” Danny said. “Raif, you’re filled up so why don’t you get going?”
“Don’t have to tell me twice,” Raif said, throwing the bus into gear and lumbering the vehicle from the factory space’s loading dock. Both Ros and Danny watched him go.
“And then there were two,” Ros said. Raif, Danny, and Ros had been the last three MI-5 agents in the area. Really, the last three they’d ever known or talked to, their handlers and organizational structure dead or scattered. Aziz was technically MI-6, but he’d surfaced to help when they all got that emergency communique about the printers and assemblers. It had been the only specific orders they’d received from any sort of command.
They heaved the cart as far and as fast as they could with what was left of their upper body strength. They passed emptied rows and severed power jacks from all the manufacturing equipment they’d already raided. The only ones left were toward the back. “Guess we should’ve gone from the back to the front,” Ros said.
“Probably,” Danny said. “This was a maker space, though. People rented out all these printers for small runs of stuff. All the best and most expensive manufacturing tech was in the front. All the low-scale, pre-Tarrare stuff was in the back.” They finally came to the closest remaining printer and a stack of material cartridges sitting for the taking, perfect for the last bit of space they had in the lorry. Ros set about unhooking them from the dead power supplies around them while Danny tried to see if he could heave it into the cart. A hum rattled all the machine racks and wires around them. It intensified into an impact that rippled the walls and ceiling above them, causing Danny to drop the small printer on the floor before he could get it on the cart. The machine smashed open, its components spilling on the floor.
“Shite, we’re out of time!” Ros said.
“I’ve got to fuck off, you two,” Aziz said through their interfaces. “Six doomblooms are overhead already and the territorials said three of those pod bombers were inbound before they went dark.”
Right as Danny and Ros’ feet began to move for the door, the floor cracked and split. A basement storage level opened up around them as they tumbled and fell below. The entire factory space came tumbling down after that, crushing as the sound of Doombloom strafing went from a roar to a screaming wreck.
Both of them landed badly, Danny’s legs twisting under him. When some emergency lights flicked on in the basement, he could see that Ros was crouched with her head bleeding. Piles of wood, plastics, and fibers tumbled into the storage, further showering them with filth and covering the hole they’d fallen through. Danny tried to move, but all he ended up doing was involuntary biting his lip and causing his legs to crack a few more times. By the pool of blood leaking from his pants, they were sliced, broken, or both. Ros tried to get back to her feet in the basement level, stumbling and unable to steady herself.
“Aziz,” Danny said through his interface. “We’re not going to make it.”
They only heard the sound of sighing on the other end. “Go with God, you two,” he said.
“I hope he makes it,” Ros said, leaning against a pile of crushed building components before she lost her footing and sat down, defeated.
“Well,” Danny said. “Are you going to tell me how stupid it was to go back one more time?”
“No,” Ros said, the frown on her face showing even in the dark. “I just hope maybe someone, somewhere can use what we pulled out of this place to make these bloody aliens pay.”
“That’s the general idea,” Danny said. It hurt his neck to look at her, but he did anyway. If he was going to die here, at least she would be the last thing he saw. The collapsed factory shook again, dust turning the emergency light into a fog. “We’re proper fucked now.”
Her frown lifted, the corners of her mouth turning upward. “You ever think about that night? When the MEF ambassador was in for the night and we switched off all the interfaces and comms and took that break?”
“It’s almost all I think about,” Danny said. The two shared a desperate laugh.
“I was wrong,” Ros said. “It wasn’t a mistake.” They felt heat, Danny’s interface filling his peripheral vision with radiation warnings as they both drifted away into darkness.
NASA, ESA, J. Walsh (ST-ECF) and ESO
Acknowledgment: Z. Levay (STScI)
As soon as his eyes opened, Omar jerked his arm. It wouldn’t move. A hard substance was plastered over it, dense and rough like coral. He looked down at himself. Alarmingly, he was naked. More alarmingly, his skin had become dark green. “What the …” he said, but the voice that came out of him was not his own. It was scratchy, a rattle.
“I know,” a woman next to him said. Her voice had the same menacing hiss. Their bodies were upright, cemented on planks with the same abrasive coral substance that restrained their arms.
Sunshine caressed them from an opening above, but Omar couldn’t see much of anything beyond a few meters in front of him. His hearing felt more sensitive than usual, detecting crunching and shuffling sounds from bulky figures crouched nearby. From the echoes he imagined a sizable chamber.
The sunshine felt good, better than it should’ve. It warmed him, not just on the skin but down to his muscle and bone. The light refreshed him like sipping coffee or having a bowl of warm oatmeal.
“Who are you?” Omar whispered to the woman. She was naked too, a fact Omar tried not to dwell on. Her body, skin, and hair had turned green like his. Their skin let off a barely noticeable glow in the sunlight, lightened veins moving below the surface.
“Lt. Alicia Kent,” she said. “Army, such as it is now. You were the guy on the bridge, weren’t you?”
“That’s right, the bridge,” Omar said. He remembered emptying his Thunderbolt into that last charging Thornseed after the snipers had gunned the others down. The particles had gone everywhere, burrowing into his skin. It’d easily been the most painful moment of his life. “Name’s Omar Bragg,” he answered. “Were you one of those snipers? If so, then I owe you a lot. If it wasn’t for you my brother and my daughter would’ve been dead.”
“Guilty as charged,” Alicia answered. “More Ehvow fell on us from those dropships of theirs right after they made it across. I opened one up and got hit with those spores they put out same as you. Glad your people made it out, though. It’s what you sign on for.”
“Yeah it is,” Omar said, suddenly feeling like shit for abandoning his post. Even if the Ambassador told him it’s what he had to do, even if it was a strategic retreat that made all the sense in the world, it hurt. If people like Alicia hadn’t guarded the rear, no one would’ve survived.
“A surprising development,” a voice said. It wasn’t human. The voice’s intonation slipped and slid as it talked. It resembled the cries of the Thornseeds, but quieter and more controlled.
Windows opened all around them, covering the inside of the chamber in bright sunlight. Omar squinted out of instinct, but his eyes immediately adjusted to the glare, the sudden brightness turning into rapturous satisfaction as the glowing trails under his skin grew brighter. Thornseeds were everywhere, exposed by the light. He saw what the crunching was. They were eating people. Dead people, but people nonetheless. He wanted to be sick. He probably would’ve, if not for the reassuring energy the sun gave him. Alicia retched.
The sunlight bathed a tall, lanky figure who stood in the center of the room. It approached, its skin a golden yellow with patches of red accent. When it got close, it blinked two rows of black-brown eyes at them through membranes. Trails of vine-like growths flowed from its head and back like hair. More followed from the bottom of its body where there were less an feet than a bunch of shuffling prehensile appendages. “Your language is crude, easy to master.” It added from its thin, toothless mouth. Omar thought he caught sharpened things ringing the inside.
“Exactly what are you?” Omar asked, after allowing around ten seconds for the reality of what he was seeing sink in.
“I am Ehvow,” it said. “I’m not like the others you’ve encountered, of course. They are our strength, our arms, our thorns. Those like me are their bloom, their leaves, their mindseed.” The slender Alien trailed back and forth as it studied them. “It appears some of your kind can survive our essence. Very unexpected. This has only once before with you younger races.”
“Before?” Alicia asked. “What do you mean you younger races?” Omar hadn’t caught it the first time, but as Alicia repeated the alien’s statement it chilled him.
“None of your concern,” the Ehvow said. “We came here with a very specific directive, but this changes things. Perhaps some of you can be allowed to live. You clearly photosynthesize,” it said, raising one of its arms and hands. The hand was composed of ten fingers that Omar could count, stubby thumb-like pieces on the ends with with either long, needle-like fingers between. “You have some of the thorns in you, as well.. Lighter, faster, more intelligent than them. Better laborers than our roots. Maybe even hunters. You could serve many purposes.”
“You think we’re going to help you?” Alicia said. “Whatever you are and whatever you’re doing on our planet, I’ll die before I let that happen.”
“I agree with her,” Omar said, feeling a slight headache as he looked across the Ehvow’s many eyes.
“What you will let me do does not enter into it,” the Ehvow said. The Ehvow stepped aside as two of the Thornseeds not eating thundered toward them with collars made from a band of the coral substance, refined into a more smooth surface with a few indicator lights on it. Omar and Alicia both struggled as the devices snapped into place around their necks.
“We’ve had to use this design in the past on our own thorns and roots who stray. I can use them to inject you with a toxin whenever I wish,” the slender Ehvow said, approaching them again. “It will cause you immense pain and, if I command it to do so, will deliver a fatal dose. Do you understand?”
Neither said anything. Omar wanted to believe the collars were a bluff, but he had no reason to doubt the threat. “I’m not used to this body chemistry of yours yet, but I believe this will help you adjust to your new situation,” it said. The Ehvow’s needle-fingers elongated into even sharper points. It plunged both sets of them into Alicia’s torso first, her body shaking and her mouth moaning in scratchy tones. Omar watched pulsing fluids enter, visible through her skin. She quickly stopped struggling, her eyes fluttering as spittle dripped from her mouth. Whatever wounds the needle-fingers left closed in seconds.
Omar struggled more, feeling his hands almost break through the coral restraint him as the Ehvow turned its hands toward him. “We can’t have that,” it said, plunging its needle-fingers into him.
After the initial seconds of shock, it didn’t hurt. If anything Omar surged with elation. All the rage and despair faded away. With it, so did any feeling he had toward doing harm to the Ehvow. “Accept me as your Mindseed,” he heard it say as the calmness and apathy flowed and grew, blossoming into a dull and simple happiness. “I will help you be better than you were. With me, you will become something higher than your species have ever been or will ever be. You will be Ehvow.”
The Mindseed Ehvow withdrew his fingers from Omar. “There’s much work that needs to be done,” he said to both of them. “We’re going to need to prepare in case the surviving members of your species decide to attack us. With the Tarrare aiding them, they will be a threat even in this weakened state. There are a few others like you, but I’m sure that soon there will be many more. I want you to work as hard as you can. Work until you can no longer move. We need to know everything your bodies are capable. Do you understand?” Omar and Alicia nodded, feeling connected to the Mindseed as if it was their father, mother, and lover rolled into one. The Thornseeds removed the hardened coral-tar from their arms and bodies. The Mindseed gestured for them to leave the chamber.
Omar and Alicia followed the Thornseeds outside, the crumbling skyline of New York greeting them. More Ehvow, like the Thornseeds but smaller and thinner, were toiling with transformed, green humans like Omar and Alicia. They were spraying and spreading the Ehvow coral all over the sides of nearby buildings from churning engines. The noisy machinery appeared to be coral generators, grinding up the street below and reprocessing it. Hoses extended from some of the generators like vacuums to suck up more bits of concrete, metal, even scraps of human bodies. More of the smaller Ehvow were operating other machines attached to the generators to process the coral and construct more complicated objects.
Teams of Thornseeds worked on toppling buildings by smashing into them with whirring hammers and drills. They also carved the streets up from pod-like vehicles that dug into the ground with massive mechanized limbs like metallic tree roots. Up close, Omar could see that everything the Ehvow used was made from the coral, just with different levels of refinement.
The toppled buildings and piles of debris had more coral sprayed on them to create barricades and the beginnings of structures. A perimeter was forming, with Thornseeds stacking cannons and other artillery weapons. New York was being transformed. Omar, even with his mind dulled under the influence of the Mindseed’s hormones, knew he was looking at a Forward Operating Base.
“Of course,” was all Sandra Abreu said. They stood outside secured gates. On the other side of them were blasted-out buildings, vehicles, missile batteries, and downed Ehvow starships. They’d traveled so far. Burning through a few cars, then a military transport when they met some soldiers until they ran out of usable road. They finished on foot for two days through the New Mexico desert. Thankfully it wasn’t the middle of summer, the heat merely hovering between intolerable and unbearable. The moisture-leeching Hydralator bottles and other survival gear the soldiers had with them were the only reason they’d survived.
“Welcome to Colin Powell Proving Ground, everybody,” Sandra said. She opened the gate, the secured fence nearly falling apart from the force of her hand. An aerial drone had crashed into a portion of it about ten meters from where they were standing.
“This place is supposed to be a sanctuary?” was all Julia could say. She was too tired to be angry. “This is what my lost-ass parents have been trying to drive to the whole time?”
“It was,” Sandra said. “I didn’t know much about it except they were supposed to be a shelter of some kind. I saw lots of redacted reports. Senator Alvez was opposed to the project.” She let out a sad, single chuckle thinking of the debates over it.
“But isn’t that Tarrare colony underground? Like in the mountains or something? Maybe this is too,” Julia said. She pawed at her interface, trying hard to access something. Sandra imagined she was trying to contact her parents.
“It’s worth a look, isn’t it?” Lieutenant-Colonel McCorvey said. He was average height but muscular, his dark skin glistening with sweat. His voice was low but soothing. “We came all this way. Might as well check it out. Even if there’s no sanctuary maybe we can salvage some supplies.”
“You’re right,” Sandra replied. They walked inside, weaving around the road barricades. Lieutenant Rivers marched beside Sandra. She was an imposing young woman at two meters tall. She’d been really quiet so far but Sandra had heard her crying last night in her tent in a covert display of emotion. Sandra couldn’t imagine what all of this would’ve been like if she’d still been in the military. It was bad enough being a civilian. Being told to abandon your post while watching your friends and fellow soldiers fight for their lives and lose had to hurt. She understood the logic, the futility of making a big stand right now when they were still understanding the threat. Logic never soothed raw trauma, though.
They walked past a burned-out Ehvow starship, keeping their distance. It was one of the smaller cone-shaped ones ones, a dropship that Thornseeds would jump out of. Julia using her interface to take pictures of it. “Rivers, give me an SAA, overlays with the Proving Ground Map.”
“Yes, sir,” Rivers answered, thumbing at the sensor-laden goggles over her eyes to bring up her advanced interfaces. Wires followed down her neck and into the electronics situated in her field pack. “About a klick ahead we should take a left. There’s activity.”
“Hostiles?” Sergeant Kekes asked, his scrawny body charging forward. He scanned the horizon for any fight he could find. Like most short men given an assault rifle, he had a real inferiority complex and the violent impulses to make it sing. She’d known a lot of men like that during her tours of duty, but not many of them kept it all the way to middle-age like Kekes had.
“No hostiles,” Rivers answered. “It’s some kind of active power source. Giving off a faint thermal signature and I’m seeing what might be encrypted comm signals coming from it. I can’t make out any more than that. Partial ID that it’s Tarrare, but not certain. Maybe when we get closer.”
Julia gave a sigh of relief, digging through her interface more. “My dad,” she said, to no one in particular. “He and my mom are still alive, but they just had a really close call and are back headed this way.”
“That’s great,” Sandra said, forcing a smile. “First good news we’ve had in a long time.”
They passed the husk of a burned personnel carrier. “I should be used to it now,” Julia said, choking on the smell of burning bodies inside. “But I don’t think I’ll ever be.”
“Neither will I, if it’s any consolation,” McCorvey replied. They prodded forward to the site Rivers had identified. It was a small out-building, like a pump station or storage shed. Even from a distance Sandra could see reinforced blast doors on its front.
“Dead Weeds,” Sergeant Kekes said, their feet squishing in a brown trail.
“They sure are,” Rivers answered. A sizable pile of dead Thornseeds were clustered around the entrance to the building.
“There have to be almost a hundred of them,” Julia said, counting the burned piles. It almost looked like they’d cooked from the inside out. Sandra tied to imagine what sort of weapon would do that to Thornseeds.
“They’re all in a single spread pattern,” McCorvey said, finishing Sandra’s thought. “Something took them all out at once.”
With a roll of clicks, camouflaged plates in the ground around the entrance opened. Six rod-like arrays with spinning appendages emerged. The arrays bathed them in flashes of light. Sandra winced, expecting something terrible was either happening or about to happen to her body.
“This can’t be good,” Kekes added. They all had their weapons pointed at where the arrays were, but they were gone. Too fast. Sandra realized that, miraculously, she was intact. The blast doors made a series of zipping noises, hissing open.
“Subjects identified as human, standard,” a synthesized voice announced. It sounded close to the “voices” the Tarrare used to speak when they interacted with humans. “Welcome to Sanctuary B. Others await you inside.”
“Oh my God!” Julia said, almost hopping up and down. “It’s real!”
“I’ll drink to that shit,” Rivers answered.
“Entrants, please note that this facility is only 70% complete,” the synthesized voice continued. “In case of full-scale assault, safety not guaranteed.”
“I’ll take that over the outside,” McCorvey answered. “What does that 70% mean, Ms. Abreu?”
“Tough to say. I couldn’t glean much with all the redaction on the status reports. Last progress report I saw, there were mentions of supplies, sensors, an arms cache, and communication systems,” Sandra answered. “I assumed it was the post itself, not something like this.”
“What’s it supposed to have at 100%?” Rivers asked.
“Way above my security clearance,” Sandra answered. “The Senator was allowed to see complete schematics only once. The project charter promised self-sustaining algae and micro-farming techniques that could deliver a food supply that would last decades, a power source based on Tarrare tech, even manufacturing.”
“Sounds like a doomsday prepper’s wet dream,” Kekes muttered. “Wonder why they didn’t finish it.”
“Alvez said they were money pits,” Sandra said. The group of five crossed the threshold and followed the steps down, the doors sealing themselves behind them. Lights swelled as they approached and faded as they passed to guide them down the tunnel’s steps. “He insinuated that it was a Tarrare plot to build something we wouldn’t understand the purpose of until it was too late. He noted that they were strategically placed, maybe secret Tarrare command centers for an invasion.”
“Or as muster points to defend against one,” Rivers whispered. “I’m willing to bet these stairs are loaded with more hidden defenses.”
“Yeah, seems obvious now,” Sandra said.
“I can’t believe I volunteered for that dick’s campaign,” Julia said. “Both of my parents wanted him to be President.”
“I told myself he was a good leader with one weak point,” Sandra said. “He became obsessed with whatever hidden agenda he thought the Tarrare had. That obsession cost us all. Wiped out all the good he did in his career.”
“Politicians for you,” Kekes said. “They have a gift for making the worst call at the worst time.”
They came to another secured door, a yellow grid of energy passing across them before more blast doors hissed open. A wary bunch of soldiers stood on the other side with Thunderbolt assault rifles trained on all of them.
“Easy, brothers,” McCorvey said. “It’s been a little while since I’ve showered but last I checked we don’t look much like Ehvow.”
“The Alien system told us you weren’t hostiles, but you can never be too safe, sir,” the ring-leader said. He was auburn-skinned and muscular. He saluted McCorvey, noticing the LTC’s dust-covered rank insignia. “I’m Major Ralston. You’re welcome to come in. This place is really impressive and there’s lots of room to spare. Too bad we didn’t find out about it until after nearly the entire post was lost in the attack. The Post Commander sent it out over the comms right before he and all the MPs were KIA. I was the highest-ranking officer in here until you walked through the door.”
“At the moment I’m not so concerned about rank and more concerned with shelter,” McCorvey answered. He stepped through the inner doors, the rest following. The inner blast doors obediently shut and sealed. The rest of the soldiers dispersed and setting down their weapons on an improvised rack to return to whatever they’d been doing
“It’s good to see some friendly faces, “ Ralston said. “The comms and feed access we have here are telling us we’re not alone, but it’s hard to see it that way. Some of us managed to get our families down here during the attack. Others weren’t so lucky. Anything we can get you?” Ralston said.
“Right now, I think we all want some rest,” Sandra answered. “We might have more survivors coming soon, though.” Relief crossed the teenager’s face. “Looks like you can finally point your parents at something real.”
“Riko, is everything okay? Are the children okay?”
“They’re scared. I’m scared. I’ve been checking the feeds. The Ehvow are still only around Quebec and Montreal, but what if they head this way? How much longer are you going to be gone, Hena? Half the staff left in the past few hours. I think they abandoned us to go find their families. I’ve been trying to hold everyone together, but I hardly know half of them.”
“I should be back soon. I found a bus and a bunch of cars parked near a hotel. I’m trying to get the bus to start, but the fuel cells are low and there’s some sort of password to unlock it. I’m reading the instructions on the feeds for doing the emergency override, but it’s not easy. I also need to drain all the fuel cells in the cars here to charge it back up. This isn’t exactly something I’ve done before. Once I get that I can load the supplies from my car and head back to the school. Don’t worry about the Ehvow yet. We’re in Seskatciwan, the middle of nowhere. All the Tarrare files say they’ll focus on major populations first.”
“There’s something else you should know. Some of the children’s abilities are manifesting stronger than we’ve seen before. I guess it’s the stress. It’s just small stuff now, knocking things over, moving chairs, rattling windows, but I’m worried it’ll get worse.”
“They’ve never dealt with anything like this before. Whatever they can do, this is definitely going to bring it out. All you can do is to try to keep them calm.”
“We’re almost out of meds. I know we’ve been trying to ration them, but should I just go ahead and give them all their normal doses? Just to help control it?”
“Riko, I have a confession to make.”
“I don’t like the sound of that.”
“The meds have been placebos for the past two month.”
“No, that can’t be right.”
“It’s right, Riko. I was only clued into it two weeks ago by IEI. The treatments we’ve been giving the children for the past two years were Phase I. Phase II they go to placebos and see if the results stick. At least with these kids, apparently. There’s some other school in Mexico where they were keeping the children on the meds, but our school was the control group.”
“And you didn’t tell me, Hena? I know you’re the school administrator, but I’m their doctor. I need to be in the loop. How can I care for them effectively if I don’t even know I’m giving them sugar pills?”
“I know, Riko, and I’m sorry. I was going to tell you even though IEI made it abundantly clear they’d sue me into oblivion if I did, then all of this happened. At least we know the children can survive without their meds. Whatever their abilities are, the neural regenerations have worked. Their conditions and neural damage are gone and then some. They’ve stabilized. Good thing, too, because I don’t know if there’s ever going to be meds again with the Ehvow out there.”
“Hena, this is a lot to absorb. It changes everything. I thought we were treating conditions and helping these kids learn like everyone else. I didn’t know this was all part of a sinister corporate plan with phases.”
“I hear what you’re saying and I’ve been thinking the same thing since they told me. It makes me wonder what the hell they had mind for Phase III. I was told there were five phases to the program.”
“That’s … unsettling.”
“I know. I took this job knowing that it was going to be a special needs school and that there were going to be some innovative treatment programs using Tarrare science against terminal diseases, debilitating injuries, and chronic conditions. We thought we were helping these kids. In reality we were accomplices in an illegal biotech project.”
“But I think of where these kids were and where they are now. Most of them couldn’t walk on their own, some of them couldn’t even form words.”
“That’s the only thing that helps me sleep at night.”
“Hena, there’re people pulling up outside. I’m going to see if I can get a look.”
“Be careful. I’ve seen a lot of stuff on the feeds about some violent people taking any shelter and supplies they can get. I’d like to believe they wouldn’t go after a special needs school, but you never know. Thank god, I finally got this bus unlocked. I just need to recharge it.”
“There’re vans and an armored carrier. Looks like one of those new tanks. They’re all armed, but they don’t look like military. There’s someone in a suit leading them. He looks familiar.”
“Riko, can you take a picture of him?”
“Not a good one, but I can try. Here, I’m sending it.”
“Not good. That’s Pheng, our IEI handler and the one who always comes once a month to tell me they’re not seeing enough progress. That’s why he looks familiar. He’s bad news. You can’t let him inside.”
“What am I supposed to do? They have assault rifles and a tank.”
“Listen, you can’t trust him. Hey? Are you there? Dammit, recharge! I’ve drained two cells into the bus, one more and I should be able to head back. You’re talking to him, aren’t you? I know you can hear me even if you’re on mute. All Pheng cares about is what IEI wants. If he came armed he must want to take the children. You can’t let him do that! Riko, come on, tell me what’s going on or switch to speaker or something. I can’t take this. I think I’ve got enough to come back, so I’m starting the bus.”
“Hena, I can’t stop him. They want the children. Wilson tried to stand up and they stunned him with one of those microwave guns. They said they’ll do the same or worse to any of us who try. They’re using sedatives on the kids to knock them out. They said they have to take them somewhere safe. Pheng is going on and on about IEI’s investment.”
“This can’t happen. They can’t take those kids and stick them in some dungeon somewhere while this war is going on. I’ve started the bus and I’m on my way back.”
“Hena, it’s too late. They locked me and the rest of the staff in one of the supply rooms. I can hear the kids crying and screaming out there. Nefertiti lashed out, knocked a few of these armed soldier-types down, but they sedated her before she could do more. There’s nothing we can do.”
“I’ll be there soon, Miko. Maybe we can catch up to them. Maybe we can find them.”
“We can’t hold it!” Sergeant Kilmedes bawled, tears streaming down his face. He was smeared with blood. His face and body with the red kind. His feet with the dark-green sludge from Ehvow.
“For fuck’s sake,” Chief Inspector Downes shouted back at him. He didn’t really have anything to follow that exclamation up with as his verbal and mental arsenals were very much out of ammunition, much like the single clip left in his gun.
“We’ve been fighting these damn Ehvow for almost a week,” Private Liz Jameson said. “We’ve lost every piece of ground we’ve stood on. Typical that we’d die here. Backed into godforsaken council flats that’re almost an exact replica of the building I grew up in.”
“South London isn’t exactly where I planned to end my days either,” Downes replied. They’d started out under command of some Captain in the SAS, pulling in territorial military, police, basically anyone he could into some impromptu militia. Of course as soon as they’d really engaged the Ehvow the dashing SAS officer’d been killed promptly. Their group of hundreds had fallen to 18.
“Trying to think of everyone else,” Jameson said. “Those civilians hiding a few floors up. There’re almost a hundred of them. We’re all that stands between them and those things out there.”
“No way in hell we can save them,” Private Roarke said. “Or ourselves.” Downes had thought Roark a psychopath when they’d first met. He still did, but psychopathy was starting to sound more and sensible.
“It’s all bollixed up,” Bob Finch, an MI-5 agent with them mumbled. “The chain of command’s become so diluted no one’s really in charge anymore. Take our merry little band. Highest up is technically the Sergeant over there, and he’s clearly broken. We can’t even follow the orders to evacuate and disband or rendezvous with other poor sods still in this city. Nowhere for us to go that doesn’t involve cutting our way through hundreds of those Aliens out there, and there’s no way the civilians left in this high rise can follow us through that even if we could make it out alive. We have no choice but to make a stand here.”
A chugging whir started outside. Eric Downes crumpled even further to the floor as the Ehvow guns pulverized the walls and windows near him, the Thornseeds firing into the building from the streets. “Christ,” Private Jameson said, trying to cover her ears even over her helmet. The sound was like hundreds of tiny jet engines coming at them. “If I survive this there’s no way I don’t go deaf from those guns.” It stopped after awhile, like it always did.
“Like I said, all bollixed up,” Bob Finch said. He was the only one who’d kept them alive this long. He really knew the city, leading them around passages and back-alleys not even Downes knew from all his years on the force.
“What are they doing?” Jameson asked.
Downes decided to be the brave one. He slid across the floor and peeped out a gaping hole in the exterior wall. “Nothing,” Downes said. “They look like they’re waiting for something. Maybe more so they can charge the building.” He counted around thirty outside, far more than their group could handle and certainly more than the unarmed civilians in the floors above them could face.
“Probably doing their equivalent of calling in an airstrike,” Private Jameson said.
“She’s probably right,” Finch said. “Last I checked the MI-5 feeds they were hitting military and civilian convoys trying to leave the city. Only remainders like us left now.”
“Wait,” Downes said, seeing two new Thornseeds arrive, each of them holding something. The other Thornseeds tried to take up a more defensive posture around them. “They’ve got boxes of some kind and they’re headed into the lobby.” There were two loud pops as the improvised bombs they’d placed in front of the lobby entrance went off, taking a few more Thornseeds down in a splash of sludge and glowing particles.
“They’re really coming in,” Roarke said. “I think this is it.”
“Whatever they’ve got must be explosives,” Finch grumbled, after thinking it over for a minute. “For all we know, they’ve got tactical nukes or worse.” Finch rose to his feet. Everyone did the same, following him instinctively at this point. The group gathered themselves, all of them smelling ripe from the blood and sweat they hadn’t had a chance to wash off for the past week. “Territorials, you’re the best armed so I’m going to need you to go first.” Kilmedes had gotten back to his feet, but looked shaky as he lurched toward the stairwell.
“Yes sir,” Private Jameson said, pushing ahead of her Sergeant. Downes followed them, marveling at the pyramid-shaped tunnels taken out of the walls and stairwell from the barrage of the Thornseeds’ guns. The cheap construction wouldn’t stand for much longer.
Downes thought he could almost taste his heart beating in his throat, his London police uniform and riot gear looking worse than the soldiers’ given all the filth he’d waded through. He heard the gunfire, remembering his tactical training as the territorials lit into the room. They were using old Thunderbolt caseless assault rifles. Eric himself just had one of those new SMGs they’d deployed a few months ago. He wasn’t up on gun manufacturers, but they seemed to be at least slightly effective.
The gunfire resumed, the Thornseeds doing the usual and barely taking defensive positions. Casualties didn’t seem to matter to the Aliens. As he fanned to the side and leveled his gun he saw Kilmedes take a direct hit from a Thornseed weapon. It took his body completely apart, some of it splashing off the wall and onto the side of Downes’ head. His interface on the right side was clouded with a red film. The combined fire from the soldiers was precise, drilling into the Thornseeds’ midsections in squeals and toppling bulks. They’d learned a lot from all the skirmishes they’d had with the Aliens, Downes himself cutting into the middle of one in a way that burst it open and painted the big windows at the front of the lobby a dark brown-green. As he found his way to a small hallway near the elevators. Cover was minimal, a few load-bearing columns and drywalls all that protected them in the lobby. His weapon stopped firing, the last of his ammunition gone as he ducked through a half-collapsed maintenance room.
The Thornseeds began to back away, retreating with shrill warcries. “Got them!” Private Jameson shouted. When Downes crawled from the maintenance room he saw everyone backed as far from the lobby entrance as they could, clouds of spectral yellow-green bits floating around. They settled to the ground after a few minutes, fading to a harmless dull. “I think we took down four of them,” Jameson said. The broken remains of three of the plant-based creatures were on the ground leaking everywhere.
“They got six of us,” Private Roarke said. Downes scanned with his interface, identifying Kilmedes among the loss, four others, and then a name in critical condition that made him stop.
“Fuck!” Downes shouted, seeing Bob Finch’s body on the ground trembling. Downes looked down at Finch’s body, watching blood leak from his eyes, nose, and mouth. The glowing spores pulsed under his skin as they filled his bloodstream. He was dying.
“He almost made it,” Private Jameson meditated. “It’s not enough that they shoot you, when you’re lucky enough to take them down that happens.”
“That may be the least of our worries,” Downes said, realizing that they’d overlooked the obvious. The two boxes the Thornseeds had dragged into the building were opened, a floating orb popping out of them. The orb was spinning faster and faster. “Anyone have a clue how we shut something like that down?”
Jameson went to his side, the other soldiers starting to back away. He searched through his police interface and found the the bomb disposal application. “Alien Object Detected” was all it said back. “Really now?” Downes said, pounding his fist into it. There were no buttons, no control panel.
“I’m out,” Private Roarke announced, sprinting out of the building as fast as his legs could carry him. Downes didn’t think as he watched the energy in the orbs grow brighter and their spinning orbit turn blindingly fast. Instinctively did the same as Roarke, scrambling out of the lobby. The Thornseeds were running in the opposite direction down the street, uninterested in taking any shots at them.
Downes ran a hundred meters or so in a blur before he stopped. No one was with them, the other soldiers and police officers all still in the building. Then he remembered the civilians. He’d just run, leaving all those families in there. He’d abandoned everyone. Roarke kept running, leaving Downes far behind.
A flash, brighter than any Downes had ever seen, rumbled the council estates building as it pulsed out of every one of its windows. It hurt Downes eyes even though he hadn’t been looking directly at it. Heat and wind flowed up the street. He had expected the whole building, maybe even the streets to be disintegrated or on fire or covered in spores or some other deadly scenario.
His interface began to flash warnings, everyone in the council estate’s life signs flickering out. His own body began to fail him, heart racing as his skin flared in itches and then burns. He turned back in the direction Roarke had run and saw that he’d slowed down. “Warning: Lethal Radiation Levels,” Downes’ interface told him, far too late for him to do anything about it. He fell to his knees as his legs ceased to work and all he could feel was fire, pain, and nausea. His eyes settled on the completely intact buildings around him as he started to go into spasms before they went blind.
ENCRYPTED DISCUSSION CHANNEL – AFRICAN UNION SECURITY COMMITTEE
TOPIC THREAD – EHVOW INVASION – WHAT SHOULD WE DO
SUBJECT: CAPE TOWN ATTACKS
SUBMITTED: YESTERDAY, 02:32 SAST
We have suffered devastating losses in the last few hours. I, for one, have lost nearly a third of my ground forces, the South African President and parliament, and half of my command’s air force drones in an attempt to save Cape Town. I was not successful. Please see attached images and casualty reports. I hear that conditions are similar for Cairo. The conditions for the UAS, EU, GCC, and RUF are severely worse, as it is for many other highly developed nations. It seems obvious to me that the Ehvow are focusing on destroying every strategically important city they can locate. I have read additional reports of them targeting concentrations of military activity. I’m only halfway through the intelligence packet provided by our allies the Tarrare. I have seen the cables from the UAS Secretary of State, now Acting President, suggesting disbanding of the militaries in order to avoid them becoming targets of the Ehvow. I wholeheartedly concur with this policy and have already given orders to my own officers to commence such a disbanding and to produce communication plans. I have identified areas of low population density in neighboring nations and areas of South Africa where I intend to send my troops and to encourage civilians to evacuate. I have given orders to my soldiers to fight defensively if attacked but not to seek out further engagement with the Ehvow at this time until we have a clear strategy in place. I encourage you all to do the same and to tell your own militaries to stand down from attacking soldiers from our friends and neighbors who are simply looking for safe haven. We must disperse as much as possible and avoid areas of concentrated populations to avoid making ourselves targets. I look forward to hearing your thoughts and concerns.
<attached files redacted>
General Mongane Tafari House
African Union Armed Forces
SAC (South African Command)
SUBJECT: RE: CAPE TOWN ATTACKS
SUBMITTED: YESTERDAY, 02:58 SAST
Thank Allah someone has addressed this madhouse of a situation. I have finished the entire Tarrare intel package provided and have demanded my top officers do the same, and given what I have learned from it I concur with your strategy. I have ordered my military and militias to behave as you have suggested. Tripoli has already received some minor strafing and bombardment, but the mass of this Ehvow fleet has not focused on Libya as of yet. We will be staging in neighboring Mali and several other countries, as well as in encampments near our smaller cities as an interim measure. I hope I will be accorded a similar latitude by our friends and neighbors in the other commands even though such actions step outside of our national charters and could provoke certain questions of sovereignty. We should share our tactical positions once a secure method of doing so can be found. If our forces all converge on similar locations the likelihood will increase that the Ehvow take notice and attack. The so-called round ‘Doombloom’ ships the Ehvow have sent, with their hundreds of strafing guns as points, can inflict mass casualties on encampments in mere seconds. They did so to a substantial camp of refugees and my own forces outside Tripoli. We must avoid giving them easy targets.
General Mahmmoud Karaman
African Union Armed Forces
LMC (Libya-Mali Command)
SUBJECT: COMMAND PROTOCOLS
SUBMITTED: YESTERDAY, 05:12 SAST
Generals House and Karaman (and other esteemed colleagues),
Need I remind you of the proper protocols in this situation? Your commands are not yours to do with as you please. The resources you have flow from the African Union’s Defense Committee, as do your command appointments. Both can be easily removed. Please consider the men and women who serve under you and refrain from implementing such a highly risky and dangerous strategy. We must come together and work through this crisis. We cannot have our commands dispersing and behaving on their own without regard for the orders and priorities of the African Union or its member countries’ national borders. This attack is just beginning and we must deliberate on what it means and what will occur before such drastic steps are taken. I urge calm on all sides and for us all to respect each other in such times as these. I am already drafting up a schedule for all of us to meet at a secured and undisclosed location to sort this situation out and come to a common understanding and agenda to avoid misunderstandings as we deal with the current situation.
African Union Defence Committee
SUBJECT: RE: CAPE TOWN ATTACKS
SUBMITTED: YESTERDAY, 05:15 SAST
Excellent point. We do not want all of our military, as it disbands, to gather in similar locations or locations of close proximity to one another. The Ehvow are likely to work their way to smaller and smaller population centers after they have finished eradicating the major cities. Moreso, I have deeply disturbing reports coming out of Paris, London, and New York about these Thornseeds, including that they consume the dead. Have you heard this? I’m unsure what is real intelligence and what’s rumor. I have heard rumors that they are attempting to establish a base of sorts and are making landfall in Cairo as they have in New York City of the UAS and in a few other places. I imagine our Egyptian colleagues would weigh in on this if they had been included on this discussion group, as I believe you and I both articulated the need for to our esteemed chair Mr. Zuma long ago. I will work on sending encrypted information regarding my troop positions as I receive them and transmit them securely upon request. Disseminating them through even a secured forum like this may be unsafe. As far as we know, these Ehvow have hacked our networks and could be reading these very conversations.
General Mongane Tafari House
African Union Armed Forces
SAC (South African Command)
SUBJECT: RE: COMMAND PROTOCOLS
SUBMITTED: YESTERDAY, 06:00 SAST
FOLLOW-UP TASK: DUE YESTERDAY, 09:30 SAST
General House (and esteemed colleagues),
Have you not received my previous posting on this secure thread? We must not continue with this very risky strategy you are proposing. And, as I explained to you at the time, our supposed colleagues in Egypt ARE NOT PART OF THE AFRICAN UNION. They joined the Arabian Union. We have not, as yet, finalized the memorandum of understanding with them, let alone the appropriate interdepartmental protocols for the sharing of intelligence of this magnitude. I will reiterate that it is key that we must have a strategic summit to focus on this problem and to articulate a unified strategy going forward. The Acting President of the AU has a great many ideas he has directed me to share with you all regarding this war effort.
African Union Defence Committee
SUBJECT: RE: COMMAND PROTOCOLS
SUBMITTED: YESTERDAY, 06:23 SAST
FOLLOW-UP TASK: DUE YESTERDAY, 09:30 SAST
What kind of drug do you think our friend Alphonse is on? The world is crumbling around us, and he wants to have a meeting? God help us all. What a prick. I’m with you and will direct my people to do as you suggest.
General Ali-Ben Grizard
African Union Armed Forces
ZC (Zimbabwe Command)
SUBJECT: RE: COMMAND PROTOCOLS
SUBMITTED: YESTERDAY, 06:27 SAST
FOLLOW-UP TASK: DUE YESTERDAY, 09:30 SAST
You have replied to the entire discussion group as opposed to General House individually via direct message, as I assumed you were planning to do. I believe my request is quite reasonable! Also, I do not appreciate the name-calling. If anyone is a prick, it is you.
African Union Defence Committee
SUBJECT: RE: CAPE TOWN ATTACKS
SUBMITTED: YESTERDAY, 06:47 SAST
I think this sounds like a good way forward. Let’s keep the communication flowing.
I don’t believe there’s a need for such meetings. If we can communicate directly with one another, I’m sure we can resolve this. If there are those who dissent with us other than yourself, I invite them to express their concerns. I also think the idea of a summit would be irresponsible at best. If the Ehvow have any strategic sense they would find a way to attack such a summit. I recommend you get the Acting President to a secure and isolated location and then you can find a way to communicate his vision to us all.
General Mahmmoud Karaman
African Union Armed Forces
LMC (Libya-Mali Command)
ESA/Hubble & NASA
Acknowledgements: R. Sahai (Jet Propulsion Laboratory), Serge Meunier
The displays and infographics had lots of nothing for everyone. Hours ago they’d been covered with status updates, formations, detected hostiles, and a feed from the Black Sphere. Only background data provided from Luna’s arrays and the Heimdallr program remained. Everything else only had “disconnected” or “offline” where a helpful widget had been. The one that used to provide data from the Black Sphere was the largest absence.
“General Crouse, I place responsibility for this catastrophe at your feet!” Admiral Jude Revard seethed. “You shaped and ran all of the programs that were supposed to give us an edge. Those upgrades were useless, just like the entirety of your Joint Research and Development Service. The entire USSF defensive fleet has been eliminated. All their crews, lost. Their blood is on your hands. The Ehvow are beyond anything we have and it was your job to keep that from happening.”
“That should hardly be a surprise when even the Tarrare couldn’t stand, either,” General Ian Crouse responded. “I’ll refrain from discussing how many times my budget was cut and my schedules delayed, because it pales in comparison to how badly the civilian Sanctuary program was eviscerated by the same people. I fast-tracked and rescoped every design I could, but we never even contemplated something of this magnitude. I wasn’t even given this position until a year ago and the re-org to move all of your RDT&E commands under me still wasn’t complete. You should know since you fought me at every turn. I did the best I could with what I had.”
“All I’m hearing are excuses, Crouse. I don’t know why I expected anything different from an engineer. We’ve lost almost an entire branch of the UAS military, my branch, and you’re complaining about budgets and designs. It was your job to find a way to get this done. We were powerless to stop this invasion,” Admiral Revard continued. The emergency session of the Joint Chiefs not going so well.
“That’s enough, Admiral,” Regina Fleck said from her chair. She’d watched the Joint Chiefs bicker with each other for the past two hours. “The President is missing, assumed killed in orbital bombardments that have all but wiped DC off the map, taking most of Congress with it. The Vice President is confirmed killed at a campaign event with Senator Alvez. Make no mistake, this is a disaster.” She was their acting President, as far as the succession could be determined. They were safe for now in their secured bunker deep in the Appalachian mountains from hundreds of miles away from DC, but no one believed that would last. “That said, General Crouse is right. Whatever we did or could have done would not have been enough to prepare for this. I’ve been listening to you all indict each other and I’m sick of it. We’ve got work to do. General Estes, can you give me an update on the status of our ground defenses?”
“We’ve lost a lot,” General Maria Estes said. “But we still have pockets of capability and some numbers. Some of our anti-air defenses can shoot down the smaller ships, that doesn’t save us from these orbital strikes on the cities. The division we sent to New York is fighting them in the streets, but losing ground rapidly. They can be killed, but not as easily as we can. I’ve also got reports they release some kind of bioweapon when you kill them. I’ve sent orders out for everyone to wear full bio-warfare gear, but there isn’t enough to go around.”
“Our ships are being annihilated,” Admiral Barton of the UASN said. He was resigned, despondent. His entire command was being erased and there was nothing he could do about it. At least he taking it better than Revard. “We’ve lost all of our drone carriers, which would’ve been incredible assets. Even the Aegis Next-Gen are gone. They’re being targeted directly and can’t seem to outmaneuver the orbital strikes. The Ehvow seem to know better than to try to engage them with their smaller ships, the kind of threat they’re designed to counter. Only our submarines are not suffering heavy losses. My staff is trying to figure out how we can use them.”
“General Crouse, your opinion on this?” Regina asked him.
“I’m just R&D, Madame President,” he responded, surprised he was anything other than a target. “Grand strategies are not really my expertise. That’s more Admiral Revard and General Estes’ department. For what it’s worth, I think we’re seeing Aliens with a truly, well, Alien way of thinking and an Alien physiology. We’re dealing with the same kind of thought exercises we went through when we used to prepare plans to fight off the Tarrare if they ever became hostiles. A lot of what-ifs. We only know a few things: the Ehvow obviously favor a more brute force and direct assault approach, which is predictable for the moment. They’ll focus on cities, concentrations of forces, and obvious threats. Our weapon systems don’t perform as well as we want, but they’re not wholly ineffective. I think our only hope is to work with Tarrare and find out as much as we can about the Ehvow. They’ve already dumped a lot of intelligence on us that we’re still sorting through. I think we also need to petition them for assistance with developing better weapons and building anything that could kill them more efficiently than we do now. In the meantime, we need to get everyone we can out of the cities and avoid large concentrations of people and forces. Once we have the right tools, we can adopt an insurgency strategy. I’m no expert on that, but those would seem to be the next steps.”
“What General Crouse says makes sense,” General Estes said. She started pulling things up in her interface. “I’d also recommend you exercise your powers under the Alvez-Bush Act. It only passed six months ago, but it made the Defense Priorities and Allocation System significantly more robust. Senator Alvez wanted it to be in place in case the Tarrare turned on us. You can waive testing and force all those contractors to show what cards they’re holding. They may be sitting on experimental tech that could help.”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” General Crouse said. “I know IEI must have something. I’ve been hearing rumors about it from my colleagues in the black world for ages.”
“I can’t believe you’re listening to him,” Admiral Revard said. “He doesn’t know anything about fighting wars and he’s dictating strategy.”
“I’m reminded of a lot of history at this moment,” Regina said, staring down Admiral Revard with an ego-melting glare she usually saved for petty dictators and corrupt foreign ministers. “For once, let’s teach the lesson to these new visitors instead of learning it ourselves. I want the map of so-called ‘low-risk’ areas disseminated in pieces to all of our ground forces, and I want them to disband and retreat immediately. General Estes, I’m leaving it up to you to come up with a way to contact and reactivate them once we have a more concrete plan. General Crouse, since you hatched this idea, I’m going to give you a lot of taskers. I want you to work with Tarrare to find out whatever is deadly to the Ehvow and find ways to manufacture and distribute it as quickly as possible. I’ll use my powers under Alvez-Bush to provide you with cover. I don’t care if it’s old technology, new technology, whatever. I want you and General Estes in communication on a daily basis to flesh out a more specific insurgency strategy once real options are identified.”
“Yes ma’am,” Estes said. Crouse nodded in agreement.
“Admiral Revard,” Regina said, turning her attention toward him. “You may have lost the fleet, but you still have the networks and Heimdallr arrays. Once, you made a very public point in front of the President by explaining to me that wars are won on ISR: Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance. The Heimdallr arrays are just that. I want reports on the Ehvow fleet’s status for as long as the arrays are operational. The networks are also under your command. I want you to work with the Tarrare to determine their capabilities of intercepting our intelligence. We need to know what they know or can find out, or if the Tarrare know ways of protecting our network. If they can hack in and find out the locations of the Sanctuaries or are forces, this is going to be a very short resistance,”
“With all due respect, ma’am, what if the Tarrare won’t work with us?” Revard said. “They’re already all going into that invincible hole in the ground they built for themselves. They can just sit back and use us as a distraction until reinforcements come.”
“I doubt that,” General Crouse said. “They’re trapped here too. Their ship was destroyed. I don’t pretend to know everything about the Tarrare, but a rescue fleet, whether it comes from or god-knows-who-else, will have to be sizable and will probably take a lot of time to get here. They’re in a bad situation just like us. Don’t get me wrong, I think there’s still plenty they’re hiding from us, but I don’t expect them to stand back and watch us die.”
“Agreed,” Regina said, cutting everyone off. “General Crouse, I think the best place for you to be right now is co-located with the Tarrare. Their embassy, or Sanctuary, has more than enough space and apparently substantial manufacturing and modeling facilities. They’ve already communicated an offer to house a select number of officials and I think you’re the best person for the job at the moment. Select a team to get you there. I’ll make sure JSOC has some people to make sure you get there safely. You all have your orders. I may not have been your President until today, but I’ve been working with all of you for the last three years and I’d like to hope we have enough mutual respect and will to live to work with each other on this. If you disagree, you can hand in your resignation, take your uniform off, walk outside, and see how you fare on your own against the Ehvow. I want all of you to remember that this is more than a war. This is going to be a hellish fight against extinction. There’s no victory, just survival. Dismissed.”
“Yes, ma’am,” was the unison response, though some were more enthusiastic than others.
Dust fell, the muffled noises of guns seeping through the cracking cement. Stumbling through the flickering lights and uneven ground, Lina decided not to tell Patrick that he was about to break her wrist. He gripped her arm too tightly and ran too fast.
The lit subway map activated her interface’s transit app. It told her that service had been shut down on all lines due to a police emergency. She gathered the app didn’t have a preset for Aliens.
They searched the subway platform for an exit. Patrick wanted to go underground, one of his only good ideas. Too bad he already wanted to reverse course. “How many of them do you think there are up there?” Lina said. Starships were landing on top of buildings, in the streets. Bulky greenish-brown Aliens plodded out of them guns blazing with their shrieks.
“I don’t want to find out,” Patrick said. They’d only hooked up a few times over the last month, which had somehow morphed into running for their lives together. All because they worked a couple of blocks away from each other and this had gone down in the middle of a weekday.
Collapsed concrete, plastics, and debris blocked the exits. Trails of blood were leaking out from under the piles. Broken pipes stuck out from the wall, gushing brown water. Patrick stopped, dumbfounded. “Where to now?” Lina asked, trying not to let her impatience show. She could tell that in his head Patrick saw himself as a hero rescuing her. It was getting tedious.
“Not the way we came,” Patrick said. “They were swarming that other entrance..”
“What about the tunnels?” Lina said. She pulled out her more powerful display interface, opening its projected screens. “I’ve got all the maps already downloaded so I don’t have to sync.”
“You do get lost all the time,” Patrick said.
“I’ve only lived here for a few months. It’s not exactly intuitive,” Lina replied with a sigh. “Service is out so we don’t have to worry about trains.”
“Okay, guess we don’t have much of a choice,” Patrick said. The two of them jumped down on the tracks, minding the flickering electrified rail. They heard footsteps coming from the tunnel nearby, a group approaching.
“Is that a Tarrare?” Patrick asked, seeing what was leading them. She’d only ever seen them on the feeds, never in real life. Next to the Tarrare was a disheveled woman in UAS armor. More followed behind, some dressed for office jobs, a few police officers with dirty and burned clothes, and a couple of people in maintenance jumpsuits. She counted thirteen of them following the Alien altogether.
“We should join them,” Lina said.
“How do we know that Tarrare isn’t leading them to the slaughter?” Patrick whispered.
“Really, Patrick?” Lina said. “We both saw the Black Sphere get destroyed. I doubt they blew up their own ship just to trick us.”
Lina approached them, Patrick lagging after her. The Tarrare paid them no mind, but the UAS soldier narrowed her eyes. “I’m Nitika, UAS Diplomatic Security,” she barked. “You can follow if you want, but stay quiet and keep up.”
“Where are we going?” Patrick whispered, speeding up to avoid being left behind.
“Away from fucking bad Aliens,” Nitika said. The Tarrare projected some sort of ambient light from the layers of material covering most of his body. It allowed them to see what was ahead but still dim enough not to draw too much attention. Lina tried not to gawk at the suit’s technology or the Alien himself.
“How far do we need to go?” Patrick whispered.
“Far,” was Lina’s only response.
“Can we trust it? The Alien?” Patrick tried to murmur at Nitika. He received no response, which was more than he deserved.
The Tarrare stopped, lights from the next station’s platform up ahead. “They are nearby,” the Tarrare said in his synthetic voice. “Remain here. I will eliminate them.”
“You got it, Ambassador,” Nitika replied. The Tarrare stalked forward, its stick legs silent and graceful. His ambient lights switched off, causing him to disappear completely.
“Is he going to be okay?” Lina whispered.
“Oh, he’s going to be fine,” one of the cops muttered. A construct of pure energy appeared, exposing the Tarrare as he closed in on the platform. His hands began blasting chunks of destruction at whatever he was targeting. Since the only source of light was the intermittent, damaged subway lighting from the platform ahead and the energy coming from the Tarrare’s armor, it was hard to see.
Shrill, inhuman noises followed. Then the noises of their guns. The hostile Aliens had guns that sounded like a chainsaw fighting a jackhammer. Lina’d never imagined something could be so loud. She saw the Tarrare dive to the side and stick on the ceiling as showers of glowing, bladed projectiles followed. The Tarrare’s lithe, insectoid form evaded it all as he projected blobs of explosive energy at whatever he was battling. She saw several green masses jump off the platform to try to get closer to their target.
Somehow, the Tarrare suddenly had a string of blades. He skittered in circular dash through and around the hostile Aliens, their bulky green bodies leaking fluids and howling. After a few more deft swipes from the Tarrare they collapsed onto the tracks and let out high-pitched hisses that faded to nothing.
The Tarrare paused, a field of energy around him as glowing green particles burst from the corpses of the Aliens. They seemed to actively try to dig through the field, but couldn’t make it through. The Tarrare stood stark still until the parasites or whatever they were faded and dropped.
“You may advance,” the Tarrare called from ahead. “It is safe now.”
The Tarrare walked over to a nearby light source in the subway tunnel, flipping it open and tearing the bulb out. Lina watched as the bladed weapon he had apparently created to gut the other Aliens shifted and morphed into a hooked clamp. The Tarrare plunged it into the light fixture. The few non-flickering lights dimmed for a short period. “He needs to recharge his stuff,” another one of the cops added helpfully. After he was finished, the Tarrare gathered it and placed it back onto its armor, the material dissolving into it.
“Unfuckingreal,” Patrick said. “Did it just make a weapon and then a tool out of its clothes? Then turn it back into clothes?”
“Yes,” Nitika said. “But HIS name is Sihs-Jin.”
“What are they?” Lina said, looking at the Aliens that the Tarrare Sihs-Jin had slain. She hadn’t gotten a good look at them, and now she had almost more than she could handle.
“Never thought I would see a bug save me from exterminators,” a woman in a torn and stained business suit mumbled nearby to the no one in particular.
Lina noticed that they were bigger this close, about 2-3 meters tall and at least 2 meters wide. Each one was slightly differently shaped, and they had anywhere from two to five arms. Their shoulders and stumpy outcropping of a head were ringed with spikes and had a maw full of hundreds of sharp, thorn-like objects that she took for teeth. Their skin was hard, greenish brown with a texture between a sea-shell and tree bark with a membrane or oil covering it. In some spots they had colorful outcroppings like flower buds. Their insides reminded Lina of the fluid in a cactus, but with chunky sets of organs. They smelled awful. She noticed their guns. Fat, multi-barreled pieces of hardware that looked way too heavy and unwieldy for any human to use.
“They are from a race called the Ehvow,” Sihs-Jin said softly, approaching Lina. She didn’t know if he read her mind or just noticed her curiosity. “As for what this variety is specifically, we do not have a direct analogue in your language. The most direct translation would be ‘seeds that become thorns.’ They are evolved from a carnivorous species of invasive plant. They devoured or crowded out nearly every other species on their homeworld.”
“Thornseeds,” Nitika dubbed them. “That’s what we’ve been calling them. You can kill them, it just takes a lot of bullets and you don’t want to be too close.”
“Those glowing green things?” Lina asked. They were dull and lifeless on the ground where Sihs-Jin had been standing like a bunch of squashed bugs.
“Everyone that gets hit by them starts bleeding and spasming,” Nitika said. “Most die. The others seem to go into a coma like they have a disease.”
“They are spores,” Sihs-Jin added. “My defensive fields can block them. You have no such countermeasure as they can pierce any exposed skin. We must move. Others nearby will detect what I have just done and come looking.”
“Let’s move out, then,” Nitika said. “You heard Ambassador Sihs-Jin. We’ve got a long way to go before we get out of the city.”
“That thing is a killing machine,” Patrick mumbled under his breath. Lina was inclined to agree.
“I am not without my skills,” Sihs-Jin quietly replied. “Before we leave, there were human soldiers and others killed here on the platform. I recommend you take their weaponry quickly. We may need it later.” Lina was the first to act, crawling up on the platform and seeing a dead police officer who’d dropped some sort of shotgun.
“Are you crazy?” Patrick asked. “Do you know how to use that?” The other people in the group were picking up assault rifles and pistols from dead police officers and other people in UAS uniforms like Nitika.
“I fired a gun,” Lina said. “Once.”
CHAT: JULES, ME
Jules, we saw the news. The Black Sphere, the Tarrare, they’re gone. They’re saying all the defense fleets are shot down and the Aliens are attacking. You’ve got to get home
Dad, I’m here. I’m alive. Are you okay?
Nothing’s happened out here in the suburbs. It’s safe here. What’s happening? Where are you?
I was at the Senator Alvez rally, the one at the old Houston space center museum. Right before the rally we heard the Black Sphere got blown up. There was an explosion. Those new Alien ships flew over us. They’re flying circles over the city dropping bombs and shooting everything. My friends, Senator Alvez, almost everyone died
Julia, are you safe? Who are you with? Where are you?!
Not sure. We’re in a car, some woman named Sandra found me and 2 other people and she’s driving. but we’re stuck. Planes keep flying by and there’s lots of noise. We can tell if what’s flying by us is us or those Aliens. There are blown out buildings and cars everywhere. The national guard is trying to evacuate the place and people are getting killed everywhere. I heard something about orbital strikes hitting everything around here
Julia, get back to the house. We’ve got a basement and some emergency supplies, we can take shelter, wait for this to pass
Dad, I’m getting texts from all over the place. Everyone I know. They’re taking out every city. Something crazy is happening in New York. The basement isn’t going to do it. Sandra says she knows a place
We’ll stay hidden. It’ll be fine. It’ll be over eventually, it has to, just get home.
Dad, I don’t think this is going to be over. This is, it could be the end. We live right outside of Houston, dad. Houston is on fire! Most of it’s gone. They’re saying to evacuate everything, even the suburbs near the city. You’re not going to be safe
Stay calm, Jules. Don’t talk that way
They blew up the Black Sphere! Nowhere is safe
Jules, please. Please come home. Do it whatever way you can. Use your interface. You should only be about 10 km away. You can walk it or run it. You don’t know what this Sandra person might be planning or where she might be going
We can’t get back to you, Dad. We’re on the other side of the city and we’re heading to New Mexico. We can’t drive back, it’s a war zone. Sandra said she knows something about some government place. I’ll send it to you. You need to get there. You need to join us there
Jules, there’s no way to know if that’s true or not. This Sandra person might be crazy. You can’t trust her.
Jules, are you there?
Jules, this place is hundreds of kilometers away, there’s no way any of us make it there.
Julia, we love you. Please be careful, text me as soon as you get this
The thumping music pulsing from inside plucked at Alex Vine’s impatience. Armond Ramirez was next to her, tinkering with his Pax microwave gun. Nikki Rune emerged from her patrol car to join them. All three were suited up in vests and helmets. “You ready?” Alex asked. More sirens, booms, and crackles were heard in the distance. The city was bursting with crazy after the news of what was happening in orbit hit. Traffic on most roads out was completely jammed.
“As long as you take point,” Armond said. Alex huffed, keeping her tactical pistol ready. Nikki had a Mendoza caseless SMG. Alex guessed she’d loaded it with null rounds like she had. They were “non-lethal” in the most generous sense of the word. They’d all been told to expect resistance and had prepared accordingly.
“Shame it’s come to this,” Nikki said, surveying the block. Most of the other bars were closed, barriers up. The one owner who’d cut out too fast hadn’t pulled the gate all the way down and “customers” had taken over.
“You weren’t on the force when we had those riots,” Armond said. “People lost it when the Tarrare first appeared. New Aliens, same shit. I have a feeling the Tarrare brought this on us, whatever it is.”
“There’s a time and a place and this isn’t it,” Alex said, tired of Armond’s copy-paste rants from the most paranoid parts of the feeds. “I’ve heard all of it too many times, especially the thing about harvesting people to make them into bio-weapons. Skip it, will you?” She was scanning the block with her interface. No other major disturbances other than the drunken-disorderly, breaking-and-entering, and theft combo platter happening in the bar. Her helmet’s sensor identified 23 people in the bar, only two of them armed with any sort of firearm. Both were low-powered handguns.
“So you’re saying the Tarrare have something to do with these other Aliens?” Nikki asked, committing the cardinal sin of wanting to know more.
“Has to be! They’re either friends coming to help the Tarrare finish the job on us or enemies coming to wipe both of us out,” Armond said. “The World United Council sold us all out, entangled us in all sorts of alliances with aliens against other aliens for scraps of their shiny new technology. We’re on all sorts of kill lists out there and never even know.”
“Let’s just get this done,” Alex said, shutting the conversation down and looking up at the sky. She couldn’t see anything with her naked eyes except a few streaks. Even those she could be imagining from the flickers in her immersive interface. “I want to get home.” She’d debated even responding to this call. She could’ve driven her patrol car home, grabbed her kids, and disappeared with the patrol car and all the supplies and weapons it had inside. More and more, she thought she’d made a mistake by not committing egregious theft of government property.
“Can’t argue with that,” Nikki said. The trio of cops approached the door of the bar, the hinges and lock on it broken along with a window. Suddenly, the thumping music stopped and they were hit with the sounds of a newscast blaring through all of the speakers.
“All right, people,” Alex said, entering with her gun raised. “Even when things are like this outside, you can’t just break into a closed bar and help yourself to the goods.” The first thing she noticed was that everyone was obviously wasted, people helping themselves to whole bottles of liquor from behind the bar and entire pitchers of beer. The second thing was that they were all transfixed. The place was a sports bar, as she could tell from all the vintage Bears, Blackhawks, and Cubs paraphernalia. Its displays were impressive, covering the walls and the center of the room in holographic projections and interactive graphics.
“The Tarrare spacecraft is about to engage the incoming fleet along with every military fleet that could be mustered at a time.” one announcer’s voice boomed. “We should be able to bring you direct image from the optics of nearby satellites soon.”
“This isn’t happening,” was all a woman at a table next to Alex said. Her eyes had gone to saucers, a drained bottle of red wine next to her. Another woman next to her was trying frantically to message someone in her interface. The others all looked like they’d wandered into the bar, people who’d just gotten off from office jobs or left the gym.
“What was that you were saying?” A broad-shouldered man behind the bar said with a distinctly european accent. He was dressed in a tracksuit and drinking whiskey straight out of the bottle. From the blood and bruises on his knuckles and the baseball bat he’d left sitting on the bar, he looked like the one who had the bright idea to break in. “Are you going to arrest us for helping ourselves to a drink when the world’s about to end? Seems like an awful waste of time to me, officer.”
“Something like that,” Alex said. From the information on the displays, she was rapidly losing concern over this bar situation. She tried to focus on what they were watching. The displays changed to a mix bag of shots from Earth and shots from space, supplied from satellite optics. Everything was distant, but there were lots of fiery shapes. “That’s more than I thought it would be,” Alex said. All of the intel the department had given them had suggested this would be an attack, but nothing on a scale like the satellite images pointed into space showed.
Both Armond and Nikki had fully lowered their weapons to gawk along with the rest. The space-battle the satellite optics could show them began, distant bursts of light and objects fragmenting into pieces. Swarms of minuscule objects were fighting and attacking one another. It was paired with heavy flares in the sky from the earth-stationary newscast cameras as the sides engaged.
One display shifted its image, a satellite’s optics getting a really close and detailed view of the Tarrare ship. The Black Sphere was taking a beating. “The Tarrare seem pretty advanced, but how much punishment do you think that thing can take?” Nikki asked.
“I’m starting to think not enough,” Alex said. All of her police feeds exploded. They began playing the same message, and Alex could scarcely believe it as she read it. She wondered if it was local, then she saw it wasn’t. It was coming through the federal, UAS-wide emergency feed. “Problem,” Alex said. “I just received a general evacuation order.”
“What, for where?” Armond asked, trying to pull up his own interface. “For all of Chicago?”
“For everywhere,” Nikki said, reviewing her own feds.
“A large number of small Alien warships seem to be breaking off,” another newscaster said. “We have no idea where they’re headed, but we’re getting word that there are evacuation orders.” His voice was rising in alarm. “People are being told to evacuate all major cities. No indication is being given of where people should go, but they’re being told to evacuate as soon as possible.”
“It’s over,” the broad-shouldered man behind the bar said, smashing the whiskey bottle on the ground. Alex thought about asking Nikki and Armond what they should do. She didn’t get a chance. The ground shook, followed by a wall of fire and flashes. Alex lost her hearing after some pitched screams and a loud boom that blew out her eardrums. She had the sensation of air under her, of being hurled and tossed in a sea of debris and wetness as heat and pain followed. Darkness and weight overtook her.
“Nikki, Armond?” Alex said, her own voice coming out muffled, barely audible. She shoved a a bunch of brick, fibers, and insulation off her body. She was outside, torn fragments of buildings all around her. The bar was gone, broken and scattered with the remains of all of the other nearby buildings. The street was even cracked, the road opened with vein-like tears.
She saw the source of the damage. It was about the size of a large plane, crashed face-down into the middle of an apartment building. It had an outer shell of charged and bumpy metal, dents, scrapes, and holes punched through it. It was like a tube with branches of what looked like weaponry jutting out of its sides and small wings that looked like rough fins. The color of it was blackened green, plume of foul smelling gas pouring out of it. It had crashed only around 50 yards away and had caused the explosion.
She looked around for any sign of Armond and Nikki. Hands and feet were sticking out from under debris, buried and still. One other person who seemed to be alive stumbled onto the scene. Alex had no idea where she’d come from, but she didn’t look too dirty so it must’ve been from a few blocks away.
“What the fuck,” she said, looking at Alex. Alex realized she was drenched, her body covered with a combination of beer, liquor, and blood.
“We have to get out of here,” Alex said. Her gun was gone, but she didn’t care anymore. With what he’d just seen she wondered if any gun would do her much good. The gas from the crashed Alien ship was causing him to tear up and choke, her insides spasming. The staggering stranger nodded her agreement as they fumbled away. Crackling booms all around them popped their ears as the sky filled with even more flashes and streaks. As Alex wandered away with the stranger, she heard a screech from the direction of the crashed Alien ship. From the way the pitch wavered, shrill and atonal, she knew it was not human. She also knew it wasn’t friendly.
NASA, ESA and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team
TRANSCRIPT – WORLD UNITED COUNCIL SECURITY COMMITTEE – DATE <REDACTED>
FINAL RECORDED MEETING OF WORLD UNITED COUNCIL SECURITY COMMITTEE
ARTHUR DEGLASS, UNITED AMERICAN STATES (UAS) - Ambassador, we’ve called this emergency meeting to order because we need answers. That’s why myself and all the key players who couldn’t attend in person are linked in remotely to hear what you have to say, as I imagine we’re going to need to coordinate at the highest level against this new threat. We’re hoping you can provide some additional information regarding what we’re facing here and next steps. What kind of casualties can we expect? What is the capability of this new enemy? What level of combat readiness will be necessary from our combined militaries?
AMBASSADOR SIHS-JIN (TARRARE) – We have reviewed the data provided from our starship’s long range scanners and the Heimdallr arrays. This is a matter of utmost urgency. You must mobilize a significant amount of military force to obtain additional time for civilian evacuations of all of your major cities. That is all your forces can hope to accomplish at this time. Objectives beyond that would be counter-productive to long-term survival.
AYOUB ABDULLAH, ARABIAN UNION (ARU) - Excuse me, Ambassador, did you just say evacuation of all major cities? Over what time period? Days? Weeks?
AMBASSADOR SIHS-JIN (TARRARE) - You have approximately six hours based on our analysis of all readily-discernable probable outcomes before large-scale casualties will be inflicted.
XIE INTAO, GREATER CHINA CONFEDERATION (GCC) - Excuse me, Ambassador, but when you say the most our combined militaries can do is obtain additional time, do you mean that our military resources will be insufficient to contain this threat?
AMBASSADOR SIHS-JIN (TARRARE) - Yes, Minister Intao. That is precisely what I mean. Have the emergency sites designated under the Sanctuary program been completed?
DEGLASS (UAS)– Hold on a minute, Ambassador. This is a lot to take in. From your response to Minister Intao’s question, it sounds to me like you’re talking about a defeat, maybe a massacre here. How is that even possible?
AMBASSADOR SIHS-JIN (TARRARE) - Yes, Secretary DeGlass, you are indeed headed for a military defeat. We all are, at least in the short-run. I would ask you to address my question regarding the Sanctuaries. Are they complete?
XIE INTAO, GREATER CHINA CONFEDERATION (GCC) – No, they are not. Many were started, but to my knowledge none have been completed unless my allies here want to correct me.
AMBASSADOR SIHS-JIN (TARRARE) – In that case, I request information regarding percentage completion on those sites as soon as possible. These were resource-intensive but simple engineering projects. We provided the appropriate schematics directly to your governments, as well as site surveys and recommendations. We indicated that the Sanctuary program should be a very high priority.
ARTHUR DEGLASS (UAS)– Ambassador, there were complications with that program. The political climate is very tricky. Many of our domestic constituencies view taxes as unacceptably high at the moment, and most of us are running significant budget deficits. Raising taxes or cutting spending on other areas to engage in a costly Alien project was not politically palatable. Many even attribute unfortunate motives to your people for wanting to construct them, that they might have a sinister purpose. We simply didn’t have and couldn’t obtain the resources to build the number of Sanctuaries you recommended, especially in the manner you specified them. We’re in a serious climate of fiscal austerity. There were also legal issues with the contracts to build them.
XIE INTAO (GCC) – That’s because the UAS wanted to ensure preferential treatment of their own domestic contractors, which violated a number of international trade agreements.
ARTHUR DEGLASS (UAS) – You and the GCC took the same tack. How dare you accuse us when you wouldn’t let our firms bid on your contracts either.
HANNELORE SCHUCHERT (EUROPEAN UNION) – Both of you did it, so did everyone else. That’s why our firms filed the appropriate bid protests at the Global Trade Organization. No one would provide a level playing field for anyone to bid on the Sanctuary program, so we all had no choice but to take it to the respective trade courts.
AMBASSADOR SIHS-JIN (TARRARE) – I am beginning to understand, though I am having difficulties expressing my level of disappointment with this situation. What of the emergency distributed production caches we recommended?
XIE INTAO (GCC) – Many of our domestic manufacturers raised concerns over the impact these “meta-tools” you proposed would cause in terms of unfair competition. We couldn’t proceed without covering their concerns.
HANNELORE SCHUCHERT (EU) – Building those facilities would’ve had dramatic impacts on all of our economies.
AMBASSADOR SIHS-JIN (TARRARE) - We recommended the introduction of those caches to only be used for emergency circumstances. I do not understand how their mere existence would have created economic impact.
ZHENYA PETROV, RUSSIAN UNITY FEDERATION (RUF) - I knew this meeting was a waste of my time. We are spending what few minutes we have left talking and arguing when death comes for us all. <Logging off>
AYOUB ABDULLAH (ARU) – The meta-tools were clearly too much of a temptation. No one would keep to using them just for emergencies. If just one nation broke ranks and began using those meta-tool factories on a regular basis it could have triggered global trade wars. We were conducting studies on how they could be gradually introduced so as to minimize this disruption pending the appropriate multi-lateral agreements and assurances to be codified in the GTO. Nevertheless, I’m sure at least some of you built them anyway.
AMBASSADOR SIHS-JIN (TARRARE) – This is not the scenario we had envisioned, but I accept there is little to be done at the present. To reiterate, I recommend that you commence evacuation of all of your major cities immediately.
HANNELORE SCHUCHERT (ARU) – Ambassador, that is not a satisfactory answer to our concerns and questions. Just what is this fleet or hostile starships coming toward Earth? Who are they? Speak plainly, Ambassador, so that we can clearly understand what it is we’re about to face.
AMBASSADOR SIHS-JIN (TARRARE) – We are preparing more complete data on this subject to distribute to your respective military and political leaderships, but I will provide you what brief information time will allow. These aggressors are a crude but brutal race known as the Ehvow. They will attack with no mercy. They will target every major city and political capital that they can identify and bombard them from orbit, possibly sending in drop ships full of ground forces that will exterminate all human life they encounter.
XIE INTAO (GCC)– Ambassador, your ship, the Black Sphere, is the most advanced piece of technology humanity has ever seen. Can you not defend us? What about the UAS Space Force? Our own GCC fleet? Are they truly helpless to stop this?
AMBASSADOR SIHS-JIN (TARRARE) – We may have superior technology, but even our ship cannot stand against a force of this size and scale for very long. Your own fleets may allow you additional time, as I have stated before, but victory against this Ehvow force at this time is nearly impossible. Humanity must retreat and regroup. That is the only chance you have for survival.
AYOUB ABDULLAH (ARU) – So that’s all you can do, buy us time? With all of your advanced science and weapons or whatever you have on that ship, you’re just as helpless as the rest of us?
ARTHUR DEGLASS (UAS) – Can’t you at least call for reinforcements? Send out a distress call or something like that? You must have more warships that can come stop this!
AMBASSADOR SIHS-JIN (TARRARE) – We have requested relief from those that may provide it, but so far none have agreed to accept our request within a timeframe that would make a difference. I must take my leave now as we attempt to devise a battle-plan to defend your planet.
HANNELORE SCHUCHERT (EU) – That’s it? That’s all you can do?
<ARU and GCC delegations logging off>
AMBASSADOR SIHS-JIN (TARRARE) – Most of my people that came as part of our delegation are on our starship. As we discuss this, they are preparing for battle. Nearly all of them will die defending your planet. Buying you time, as you put it. I deem this sacrifice sufficient. If you disagree, that is unfortunate.
<Unintelligible crosstalk as Ambassador Sihs-Jin departed the chamber>
NASA, ESA and W. Harris (McMaster University, Ontario, Canada)
Prepared by: SSgt. Zedekiah Hillam, USSF
Subject: Application of “Tarrare” Technology to Current United American States Military Acquisition Programs
Attendees: General Andre Dumand, UASA, Colonel Ian Crouse, UASA, General Jude Revard, USSF, Will Davidson (Advanced Dynamic Solutions, Inc.), Barry Farid (Total Integration, Inc.), Yuri Romanov (Intelligent Evolution, Inc.) <other participants redacted.>
Purpose: Assess impact of Technology Transfer program with the extraterrestrial race known as “Tarrare” and whether current Acquisition programs in the research and development phase or low-rate initial production (LRIP) related to sensors, ground infantry, space defense artillery, and starship platforms should be revised to reflect any technological advances and potential key performance parameters discovered during the first stage of analysis. Several ACAT Level I programs identified as potentially in need to major re-scoping or for reconsideration as evolutionary acquisition, including Masamune, Gates, Pylon, Nest, Heimdall, and Eminence.
- General Dumand initiated meeting, welcoming participants from the defense and intelligence communities, including Colonel Ian Crouse, UASA of UAS MRDA, as well as lead systems integrators from Advanced Dynamic Solutions, Total Integration, and Intelligent Evolution, Inc. Opening remarks focused on need for overall assessment of potential capability enhancements identified during the tech transfer by extraterrestrial race classified as “Tarrare.”
- Colonel Ian Crouse opened discussions, focusing on several different aspects of the technical data released by the Tarrare. Briefing focused on potential impacts in materials science, directed energy and ballistics weaponry, sensors, and propulsion. Key changes to Masamune and Gates programs identified. Potential changes in Pylon and Nest also discussed.
- Admiral Revard had questions regarding rapidly the technologies could be incorporated into existing UAS space fleets, specifically the Eminence II and III programs. Colonel Crouse answered that performance improvements and upgrades would be possible within a year based on the progress of existing research programs, but that realizing even a fraction of the capabilities possible with new data would mean replacing the existing fleet and systems, which could take up to ten years after prototyping and testing given current UAS Military Acquisition Regulations. Colonel Crouse did state that several breakthroughs in the area of energy management were at hand and would only require reactor retrofits.
- Will Davidson from ADS asked questions about net-centric warfare and sensors, wondering whether there would be new programs and contracts to explore the possibilities in the Heimdall System of Systems programs. Barry Farid also contributed to the conversation, discussing several promising sensor prototyping successes from TII recently, especially in the area of retrofitting Legacy space sensor platforms to bring them closer to Heimdall levels of capabilities. Colonel Crouse stated that he anticipated contracts and new programs would begin shortly, but that they were waiting for supplemental funding from the UAS Congress before they could really initiate them. Confirmed that market surveys and on-site demonstrations of prototypes would be welcome at UAS MRDA.
- Yuri Romanov of IEI speculated about what the next synthesis of these concepts could bring, and expressed concern that traditional military technological paradigms, policies, and doctrines would obscure the potential breakthroughs the information from the Tarrare could bring. He stated that IEI would be submitting a variety of unsolicited proposals based on its own research to the MRDA and Colonel Crouse for new directions. General Dumand agreed with Romanov in principle, but stated that getting the UAS Congress to sign on to unfamiliar development concepts is extraordinarily difficult. Colonel Crouse agreed, but stated that MRDA would welcome any proposals from IEI and any other contractors who had new ideas, agreeing with Mr. Romanov and stating that existing systems and legacy space fleets could only be upgraded marginally, and new platforms would be required to fully leverage the potential capabilities. All commented on the lack of budgetary resources to make such a wholesale replacement unlikely. Davidson and Farid expressed interest in joint ventures with IEI to pursue research in these areas.
- <redacted> expressed concern as to how these concepts could be weaponized by rogue states and terrorist networks. General Dumand stated that this was an important concern, but not for discussion in the R&D realm, and encouraged <redacted> to bring these concerns to the UAS Threat Reduction Council, as they would be having a similar meeting on <redacted>. Colonel Crouse added that such a scenario is unlikely in the near future because even highly funded research and development labs were struggling with the implications of the data and that rogue states and terrorist networks would likely take much longer to produce tangible applications or weaponize them. Yuri Romanov of IEI disagreed with Colonel Crouse, asserting that the transfer had many breakthroughs in nano-manufacturing and artificial intelligence that should allow for rapid prototyping, testing, and development of new technologies and that things like <redacted>, <redacted>, <redacted>, and <redacted> could be within easy reach. <Redacted> asked how Yuri Romanov knew this information and whether IEI had been involved in such activities, but General Dumand reiterated that this was something better discussed with the Threat Reduction Council.
- Colonel Crouse concluded the session, thanking everyone for their time and repeating his assertions that he welcomed any ideas from private industry on how military capabilities could be improved from this data source.
“I’m having a hard time understanding how we’re supposed to spin it that way,” Sandra Abreu said. “We’re about to argue that knowledge is a threat?” She was looking directly at Senator Alvez, whose weary eyes looked glazed over. The other six people at the conference table were immersed in their interfaces, complete with wandering eyes and the occasional finger presses and sliding stabs at the air. The others in the strategy session clearly did not share her viewpoint. “Because we fear change? How is that going to look to history? How is that going to look to the Aliens if we decline?”
“This is out of your lane, Sandra,” Brent said. He was the youngest person in the room, but he was supposed to be some kind of genius at building meta-narratives in all the feeds. He’d nearly cost Alvez his re-election several times already with his meta-bullshit. Shamefully, he was the campaign manager so the spew that came out of his mouth and passed for “opinions” had a lot of weight.
“Out of my lane?” Sandra said. “I’m the fucking foreign policy expert! I have a really hard time understanding what’s more foreign than dealing with representatives of an Alien species.”
“This goes beyond foreign policy,” Sheila said. Sandra gave Sheila a murderous stare. They’d been friends for years, and she couldn’t believe Sheila was out there stabbing her in the back at a crucial moment like this. “Everything is on the table here. The economy, health care, all of it. This could upend everything, cause mass hysteria. All of our donors are already scared shitless over what it will do to all of their R&D programs and their intellectual property. It could all become obsolete overnight. Entire industries could die, thousands of jobs lost. That’s even assuming these Aliens are telling the truth. They could be giving us power sources and medicines that turn out to be bombs and bio-weapons.”
“I would assume we let scientists figure that out,” Sandra said. “They’re not exactly handing out How to Serve Man booklets here, they’re giving us data, research, and knowledge. It’s up to us what we do with it.”
“I like that!” Brent said. Alvez nodded slightly. Sandra didn’t like that nod. It usually meant the Senator was falling for one of Brent’s insane schemes. “A bio-weapon! It could be anything! They could just be waiting to see how trusting we are before they harvest us or something. Maybe we synthesize this stuff and its a nanoplague, wipes us out. We could come up with plenty of scenarios. These Aliens are the ultimate ‘Other,’” Brent said. “Easy political points, there for the scoring. Beating up on them in the media will get us plenty of traction, lots of buzz. This transcends race and nationality, they’re not human, they’re not even of this world. I’m sure we can find some scientist to back us up on the dangers of this.”
“Hold up,” Davis interjected. He was looking at Sandra, and perhaps the only other voice of reason in the room. He was the economist, and he stroked his chin, thinking this over. “Look, there’s a lot of risk here. You come out too strident and what happens if they end up dropping miracle drugs and true game-changing technologies during this tech transfer they’re proposing? I somewhat agree with Sandra here. We don’t want to be on the wrong side of history. We could end up looking like we stood in the way of life-saving breakthroughs. I can already see the campaign commercials where whoever is running against us trots out all sorts of children and veterans that would be dead or worse if not for whatever Alien space-magic healed them and then they tactfully point out that we would’ve said no. The narrative writes itself.”
“Thank you, Davis,” Sandra said, relieved that he took something in the neighborhood of her side.
“However,” Davis added. “Just as bad if we have terrorists or criminals prowling around blowing everything up with some Alien space-magic weapon. I think we should express skepticism in our new ‘friends,’ whatever they may have to offer. Perhaps a middle-ground? We accept that this tech transfer is going to happen, but state that we’re going to do everything we can to minimize the risk and negative consequences. Legislation, regulation, all of it to control whatever might arise.”
“Not against, but guarded,” Vera, the official press wrangler, nodded and smiled. “I like it. We can say we’ll urge the President and Congress to put together a special inter-agency task force to look into strategic issues, that kind of thing.”
“I think this is a good approach,” Senator Alvez said. “I can state that given my experience, I will look out for our interests. I’ll trust, but verify. No free pass for these Aliens, however many shiny treats they might dangle in front of us. I’ll be a steady hand, ready to take action and keep this new Alien tech and whatever research and practical uses come out of it under control. We’ll look into heavily regulating whoever uses the information from this tech transfer.”
“I couldn’t have said it better myself, Senator,” Brent yes-manned. Sandra leaned back in her chair, defeated. “It will also do a lot to reassure our donors.”
“While we let a once in a lifetime opportunity get choked by croneyism and red tape,” Sandra murmured under her breath.
“Well, that’s it then,” Senator Alvez announced, everyone around the table bobbleheading except Sandra. “I want to see a full communications plan and talking points by the end of the day. Get to it.” People got up in a sea of murmurs, Sandra ready to go fume in her office.
“Sandra,” the Senator said. “A word please.”
“Yes, sir,” Sandra said, her military background winning out over however collegial the Senator tried to keep it. She stayed put until everyone left.
“Sandra, you know I value your experience. You served in the African Union wars and the GCF offensive, then you were a State department diplomatic officer for years. No one has your background and your perspective. That said, this is the greatest unknown any of us have ever faced. I need you to be a team player on this,” the Senator said. “I can see you have strongly held opinions on this, and I want you to express them, but in a more respectful way to the others. There are a lot of sides to this issue that don’t follow the ordinary rules. Things are happening very fast, as you well know. We can’t afford to pick unnecessary fights with each other.”
“Yes, sir,” Sandra grimaced. “I’ll try to be more collaborative with my colleagues. I just think it’s beneath you to make fear the centerpiece of this campaign.” She had plenty more to say, but she swallowed it. The combination of choked back spite and bitterness formed a potent cocktail in her mouth.
“I understand and appreciate your concern,” Senator Alvez said.
“Thank you, Senator,” Sandra said. “I have a lot of work to do. Every government on the map has a different opinion on all of this, and it’s a fluid situation keeping it all straight.” Alvez turned away as she left. She tried not to think of how small-minded political games were squandering potentially the greatest thing to happen to humanity in years. She should’ve known better. She should’ve known this would be business as usual.
NASA, ESA, E. Sabbi (STScI)
The last page of the structural engineering report appeared on her display. “Thank God, Buddha, Jesus, assorted other deities, and the Devil,” Danya whispered as she closed it. The floating diagrams around her apartment workstation mercifully faded. The results had been solid, only minor wear and tear. The hull had held up, a miracle considering how many new materials were at play.
“When is enough enough?” a voice echoed through another one of her many displays. He was an older man in an impeccable three piece suit with silver hair. “First there were the colonies, then this? It’s like we don’t even care. It’s like we’ve given up. Most of our arable farmland is gone thanks to climate change. We have regular food shortages in the poorest countries so bad that only the most unnatural GMOs can keep us all from starving. We’ve overfished most of the ocean to near extinction. We’ve clearly thrown in the towel on our own planet. So we go to another one? Rinse and repeat?”
“Isn’t that the point?” A second voice said, a younger woman in a pantsuit almost as expensive. “We’re doing this because we’re not exactly brimming with choices here. This mission is the only way we survive long term, period. I can’t believe anyone could see what happened today and not be excited for the possibilities. We are no longer bound by this planet or our past. And you’d have us abandon this because of naturalist fallacy? Maybe instead of finding new worlds and moving forward we stay here and make this planet our tomb. Sometimes I think that’s what it would take to appease people like you.” Danya Fund watched them argue for awhile, a panel of so-called “experts” on a news talk show skewering each other with stock arguments. Either today was the most momentous event in human history, ushering us into a new post-human future, or it was some weird admission of failure. She sipped the Malbec in her hand, its hints of spice, berry, and acidity a welcome distraction.
“You don’t think this is a bit problematic, at all?” a third voice said. He was more disheveled, a little overweight. His voice had slouched way past calm and gone into full on enraged. “So it’s possible for us to travel to other star systems now. Fantastic. Excuse me if I’m not filled with childlike wonder thinking about what might be out there waiting. Or, even worse, what might’ve noticed us leaving our bubble here.” Another tired meme she’d heard a hundred times in the past few days. She switched the newscast off. She’d hoped it would be entertaining, a blend of hysteria and excitement. Instead, it was like watching children fight over a new toy. The ones that didn’t get to play with it only wanted to talk about how stupid the toy was and how they didn’t need it anyway.
A new message arrived in her personal account. “Congratulations, Danya,” she read out loud, grimacing at the identity of the sender. “I always knew you could pull it off.” The rest of it went on and on about how remarkable it all was and how he’d always had faith in her. How everyone must now see what he always saw. Apparently he’d seen even more in his lab assistant. “Fuck you, asshole,” she verbally responded, summoning some fantastic memories of leaving all of his belonging in the hallway outside of their apartment. She didn’t bother writing him back, deleting the message.
Danya took a bigger glug of her Malbec, swirling it her mouth. As much as she’d labored to build humanity’s first successful manned Faster-Than-Light mission, she couldn’t help but get wrapped up in the same anxieties as everyone else. She wanted to believe she’d been above it all, but watching the test flight had filled her with dread. It had been a success, the small manned crew leaving and returning in only a matter of days. Sure, it had followed a series unmanned drone test flights launched over previous years, but to the media and everyone else those had been curiosities more than real events. Sending people was different. No one knew the next move, though. More colonies in other systems were on the table, and like the colonies elsewhere in the solar system they would likely be a wonderland for corporate exploitation and starry-eyed fantasies. So many had expected this day would never arrive, so the powers that be weren’t exactly well-prepared.
Where are you? Another message trickled in from Paige, one of the chief financial analysts on the project. You aren’t still working, are you?
She opened yet another message from her work account, the medical team. The crew was boringly normal. No indication that the FTL drive had taken them to Hell and they’d come back possessed by a malevolent supernatural force. No evidence that they were filled with inter-dimensional parasites that would spawn eldritch horrors once they matured and burst forth from their hosts. No evidence they had a mysterious plague or microbe that would wipe out the human race. Not even space madness. Some morbid bastards she’d heard about who’d started an office pool would be very, very disappointed.
Danya, or “Dr. Fund” as the team called her, rose to her feet and moved around her apartment as she finished her Malbec. She’d left the displays broadcasting headlines from the feeds, the quiet breathlessness of them much more revealing than listening to people talk or watching the same video footage of the crew returning she’d seen a dozen times. The headlines were entertaining enough. Source: Vanguard Astronauts Report Anomalies While in Faster Than Light Travel. Of course they did, considering no human had ever witnessed FTL travel. Reports that Vanguard Astronauts in Critical Condition. There was a difference between a precautionary quarantine and critical condition, not that the news media would care. Vanguard Astronauts Flee Hostile Anomalies, Barely Survive another one alerted. Previous FTL Drones Missing, Government Cover-up Suspected. Some of them were missing because their drives had failed to activate on the return trip, and it hadn’t exactly been covered up. Then there were the corporate press releases. First human colonies on nearby Earth-like world expected within ten years, says IEI CEO. ADS Unveils New Line of FTL Starships Ready in Six Months. One day she’d need to get one of her old artist friends to make some sort of collage out of this madness.
Her body was sore from the first intense and solid workout she’d had in weeks. They’d crashed hard on finishing the Vanguard XX and checking everything before launch. She was finally able to come up for air and restart her routine. She started to put on her dress. Judging by more messages, most of her coworkers were way ahead of her on drinks. She had a lot of catching up to do.
The last report she’d been waiting for arrived. She opened it. Danya, as the Deputy Program Manager in charge of Quality Assurance and Program Controls, basically had to read and summarize everything from all of the other engineers into words that politicals, public affairs flacks, and budget wizards could understand. She liked to joke that she was a translator more than a PM. In the coming days, all those people would be voracious consumers of whatever information she could give them. It was a hell of a position for someone who was only 34. Everyone would want to pick apart Vanguard to understand if this was what it appeared to be: real.
Sure she had her PhD in astroengineering, the sexy replacement for what had been aerospace engineering, but that didn’t mean even she understood everything on Vanguard. As much as being a Deputy PM on the Vanguard FTL program was her passion, the oversight role took her out of doing real engineering. She was starting to feel like she was losing her knowledge of what that even looked like. It didn’t help that they were working on the bleeding edge of technology with just about every work package.
The data from the propulsion team showed way below expectations. The stability of the engines had barely held together. The FTL drive had nearly burnt out in overload twice during the return trip. That would’ve been lovely, stranding a historic manned spaceflight with no way to return. They’d had similar problems with the earlier drones, but it was supposed to have been corrected. The Product Manager had an elegant list of excuses. “Shit,” Danya said, setting the wine down. She was in front of her bedroom mirror. Her slight frame reflected back to her, reminding her how little she’d eaten in the past few months. Danya had always been thin, but she was getting near-skeletal. Her fridge was a graveyard of heavily fortified yogurt and spicy kelp. Her pantry only had a nearly spent bulk bag of oatmeal. That was all she’d subsisted on for months. That and Malbec.
“Danya?” Paige said. Danya looked up, seeing a projection of Paige’s face. Danya silently cursed the day she’d given Danya rights to open video chat without permission when she was online. “You’re working aren’t you? You’re still reading reports? You really can’t help yourself, can you? You have a disease. Maybe more than one. You’re addicted to data and allergic to enjoying yourself.” There was a lot of noise in the background, things at the bar starting to get out of control.
“Tough talk coming from a spreadsheet engineer. Listen, I’m almost done,” Danya said. “Really. It’s not my fault the propulsion team waited until the last minute to get this to me.”
“Danya,” Paige said. “You’re missing the finest the Huntsville bar scene can possibly provide here. No one is going to notice if that waits until tomorrow morning. You can read reports when you’re hungover in your office with the blinds closed. There will be plenty of time to dissect every scrap of this thing. It’s months until our next launch. That’s if the higher-ups don’t delay it, which we all know we will. The Government is a substantial player in this, after all. You need to get here. General Diamond is having a pretty intense drinking contest with Mary Fillmore, that VP from ADS. I’m giving the edge to Mary right now. She’s drinking the old man under the table. You have to see it.”
“That would be worth seeing,” Danya admitted. Rubbing her eyes, she checked the time on her portable interface. More than work or play, she needed to go to sleep. That was defeatist thinking, though. “All right, I’m leaving.”
“Now?” Paige asked.
“Now,” Danya affirmed. “You can see me. You can see that I’m dressed. I just have to walk out.”
“Easier said than done for you. I’m sending a search party if you don’t show in like ten minutes,” Paige said.
“I’ll be there,” Danya said to her friend’s image. “You have my word, whatever that’s worth.”
“Danya?” Paige asked.
“Yeah?” Danya said.
“We broke the light barrier, bitch,” Paige said.
“Hell yeah we did,” Danya laughed in response. She closed the chat with Paige, then headed straight for the door of her Huntsville two-bedroom. Before she knew it, she was out of the apartment and in the elevator. She stopped thinking about propulsion, and starting thinking about how many bottles of wine she would kill tonight.
NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration. Acknowledgment: R. O’Connell (University of Virginia) and the WFC3 Scientific Oversight Committee with Photo Manipulation by J. Hamlet
NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration. Acknowledgment: R. O’Connell (University of Virginia) and the WFC3 Scientific Oversight Committee with Photo Manipulation by J. Hamlet