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