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)
“Are we far enough away?” President Yi Nuan Xun said, thinking about the days they’d spent retreating from Beijing. “Where are we on the Sanctuary?”
“We’re very close, but it’s only 40% complete,” Bu, her economic advisor, answered. “It won’t withstand an attack. They barely finished the outlines of the structure before this happened.”
“So we have a big hole in the ground, then,” she said. The flapping tent around her made her uneasy. The soldiers outside were shouting to one another, the ZTZ-199 tanks all had their engines revving. They were breaking the military camp already to move it again. They were attracting too many civilians looking for anywhere safe to hide. “I blame the Tarrare for this mess. They made all of these hints that we would need these, that we would need their damned meta-tools. It would’ve cost trillions to build the 12 Sanctuaries we recommended. They said it was important, but never this important.”
“Maybe they didn’t think we were ready,” General Zhang said. He was nominally in command of the camp and all the soldiers she had at her immediate disposal, but he hardly kept them in line. “Can you imagine the panic? I can. It would’ve been a disaster. Everyone who heard about the project assumed the Tarrare were going to lure us down into the Sanctuaries and process us for food. It would’ve been political suicide to support it.”
“The plan to extend the schedules and spread the costs out was a sound one,” Bu said. “We had no idea we were on a timetable this urgent. We did the sanctuary in Hong Kong, but the orbital strikes rendered it inaccessible until we can bring the right excavation equipment there to carve our way through the collapsed structures. I’m being assured by our people on the ground there that it’s possible.”
“Not in any timeframe that’s going to save us,” President Xun said.
“Last we heard, the Ehvow were landing in Hong Kong, same as New York. It’s going to take more than excavation equipment to remove them,” Zhang said. Zhang and Bu were not exactly her best people. Both were loyalty picks. Sons of rich families that supported the party. All of her good advisors had been killed off or went missing when Beijing, Hong Kong, and Shanghai fell. Bu had become her advisor on everything non-military since he was the only one around. Zhang was the highest-ranking military officer still alive in all of the Greater China Confederation that obeyed orders. His chief attributes were having a pulse and representing a disintegrating chain of command.
“General, President Xun,” her acting Chief of Staff said, another person who’d succeeded into his job via attrition. She didn’t even know his full name. “We’ve detected Ehvow craft inbound.” The three of them left their fruitless discussion and stuck their head out of the tent. The camp had grown during the night, more civilians gathered outside of it, trying to take refuge. The energy fields and fencing designed to hold the perimeter were overwhelmed with a ring of informal secondary camps around it. Tents were spread everywhere along with makeshift tarps and shelters. Buses and troop transports were dotted around. These people wanted protection, but they were only endangering themselves more.
“There it is,” General Zhang said, calling up his interface. pointing out the fast-moving shape on the horizon. “We’re completely exposed.” The ship was one of the rounded ones that faced forward with its dark green exhaust pouring poison out of the back, the “Doomblooms” as they were calling them in the feeds. Hundreds of strafing weapons jutted from the pulsing core of the ship like the points of a flower’s petals.
The ZTZ-199s angled their thermal cannons and missile batteries to the sky. The tanks had shot down the Ehvow ships before, but she could picture the soldiers on the inside. All the targeting software and sensors in the world couldn’t outweigh the panic in the gunner’s mind, especially when they hadn’t slept in over a week. The thermal cannons of the tanks fired, red pulsating beams and clouds of tiny missiles. President Xun allowed herself to feel relief for a moment as the Doombloom took a series of direct hits and began to fall, plumes of smoke and burning spitting out.
The breath was stolen from her again as the damaged craft righted itself. Its turrets boomed the crushing sounds of Ehvow guns as it worked over the camp. The strafing dug trenches through the ground as people were gunned down in a ruby mist. The Ehvow ship shelled two of the ZTZ-199 Tanks into explosive shreds. Cars, trucks, troop transports and buses were similarly snapped and broken like the toys they were.
President Xun grew lightheaded when she realized she was still alive and the strafing had missed her. The Doombloom kept going, the remaining ZTZ-199 firing haphazardly at it as it disappeared. Two more shapes appeared on the horizon. More Ehvow craft, this time to finish them off.
She’d seen the Doomblooms, she’d seen the cone-shaped dropships that the Thornseeds dropped out of when they attacked cities in her intelligence reports. These were different. Oval pods that were long with protrusions coming out of them and green and red trails burning out of the back of them. Their underbellies were open. “Bombers,” was all General Zhang said, before they dropped dimpled, egg-like scraps on the camp.
The round bombs rolled like miniature boulders, crushing people and crashing through tents and barriers. Xun left Bu and Zhang agape at the ruins and bodies around them, dashing through blasted out energy fields and puddles of dirt, trash, and blood. She didn’t see the Ehvow bombs open, revealing the spinning and glowing orbs inside. Heat and a flash came from them, the radiation dropping her as it swallowed them all.
“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.”
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
He paused in the stairwell to check the social feeds on his interface. All of his friends and coworkers from the city, their faces full of smiles from their avis, simply said “offline.” They’d said that for hours. Only one lone message, from Nika, had come across. Was that a bomb it had said, right before the second barrage had hit Moscow. None of his messages had been returned. He’d begun to accept that they weren’t going to get returned.
“Viktor, what the hell are you doing?” he heard as he stepped outside the apartment building. Viktor Pasternack couldn’t take it anymore. He’d been hiding in their apartment for a whole day since the Aliens had started to attack, and he wanted to see.
“Nothing,” he spat back at his aunt.
“Don’t go outside, Viktor,” Aunt Natasha yelled down the stairwell as he reached the ground level. “It’s not safe.”
“I want to see for myself,” Viktor said, walking outside. The site of Moscow loomed in the distance, a wall of fire pouring and smoke straight into the sky. Another series of energy bursts fell on it, shaking the structures around him and cracking windows even though they were kilometers away from the strike. His apartment building was on the edge of the city, such as it was after the Ehvow. It was on a high hill with a lot of other dilapidated high rises, so it offered a good view of everything going on in the streets below below and the ruins of Moscow. Distant columns of destruction and ash were all that remained of the city’s core.
Military vehicles rolled through nearby roads with the Russian Unity Federation symbol. He recognized them as the BTR-150. His father had worked in one of the factories that had built them. They were all going different directions, their all-terrain tires and axels crawling over sidewalks and even smashing over abandoned cars. “What’s going on out there?” Natasha said. She had come down to the ground floor, but was still too wary to come outside.
“First you don’t want me to come out here to find out what’s going on then you want to know what’s going on?” Viktor shouted back. “You’re sending mixed signals.”
“Since you’re already out there,” Natasha said.
“They’re abandoning it,” Viktor said, hoping it would coax his aunt outside. He’d gone to live with her after being laid off a month ago, both of his parents long dead. “The soldiers, everyone, they’re all leaving.” The traffic was only going one direction. Natasha finally ventured outside.
A few other people had collected outside of the apartment buildings. Many were getting in their own cars or even bikes and leaving. “Are they stealing a bus?” Natasha said, pointing to a gang of people down the block who were loading suitcases and bags onto a sizable piece of public transportation.
“Looks like it,” Viktor said. If they were the type to steal buses, he wondered how many of the suitcases and the bags were actually theirs. There seemed to be piles of belongings coming from the lobby of the building.
“I don’t think the powers coming back on, it’s been hours,” Natasha said. Victor nodded in agreement.
“What are those things in the sky?” Victor asked a young girl watching what appeared to be tiny flying specks in the distance chasing each other. Viktor thought her name was probably Mishka. He’d seen her standing around outside at night when she probably shouldn’t have been, sneaking stimsticks.
“They’re the bad aliens,” the girl said. She seemed to be around 12 or 13, but Viktor wasn’t sure.
“The drones are fighting them,” an older man, presumably her father, said. He seemed to come from nowhere, abruptly standing behind Viktor in a way that made him flinch. “Not very well either, by the looks of it. They’ve sent thousands of them at the alien ships and they just keep getting shot down. I think they’re trying to cover the retreat.”
“How do you know?” Viktor asked him.
“I used to be military,” he responded, his voice worried. “Or something like that.” Victor trembled with anxiety as he saw some of the specks getting larger, coming toward them. He could also see bursts in the sky as the smaller ones, likely the drones, were shot down by the round and spiky Alien ships. “This is a retreat. They’re abandoning the area. We probably should too.”
“And go where?” Natasha said.
“Away,” Viktor said. The ships zoomed ever closer, some looking like big round balls with spikes jutting out the side and front and other looking like a small, broken and thorny branch. They were strafing everything, ruins and roads. High-rise apartments that looked a lot like theirs collapsed on themselves after seconds. The Ehvow ships even caught some of the military vehicles, the tanks and crawling all-terrain trucks popping in clouds of fire on a faraway road.
“Do you know where our family in Crimea lives?” Viktor asked Natasha, his aunt stepping back at the suggestion.
“That’s a long way,” Natasha said. “Are you sure it won’t be the same there?”
“I don’t see another option,” Viktor responded. “It’s looking like, at best, we’re about to be homeless.”
“Crimea is good. Not so many cities. Less targets. Do you mind if we go with you?” the girl’s father said. “My name is Yegor Krupin. This is my daughter, Mikka. What was left of our family and everyone I knew was there.” He pointed in the general direction of Moscow. “Not so much reason to stay here anymore unless you feel like dying.”
“You said you were with the military?” Viktor asked.
“Or something like that,” Yegor corrected.
“What did you do?” Natasha asked. Mikka sighed, grinding her foot in the sidewalk and starting to wander away.
“Many things,” was Yegor’s answer. His face was set in a slight frown. He didn’t seem menacing, but Viktor wasn’t sure he could read the man. He did know that Yegor probably knew a hell of a lot more about surviving out there than he did.
“You can come if that’s what you want,” Viktor said. “I can’t promise you much. Aunt Natasha, let’s go get everything we can carry.” She spent a long time looking at the Aliens flying in the sky, watching them strafe more ruins, ever closer to them. “I have a car, but it’s small. Let’s meet back here soon, twenty minutes.”
Yegor nodded, then leaned in close to Viktor. “I recommend you bring any weapon you have,” Yegor whispered. “Knife, pepper spray, stun gun, regular gun, whatever, it could be quite useful.”
“Pepper spray, against them?” Viktor whispered back, rolling his eyes toward the Alien ships flying in the sky in the distance.
“They’re not what I’m worried about just yet,” Yegor said, swiping his eyes side to side at all the other people collecting on the sidewalk. Yegor collected his daughter and led her back into the building. Neither of them seemed too broken up about whoever they had known in Moscow. Viktor checked his social feeds again, the smiling faces of his friends and acquaintances and the offline statuses looking back at him. No messages, once again.
“Strange that I was depressed when I had to leave Moscow to move in with you,” Viktor said to his aunt. “It looks like I’d be dead if I hadn’t.” The woman smiled, a rarity.
“And to think this shitty apartment was just starting to feel like home,” Natasha said, following him as they went back inside.
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