Summer is Coming
Waiting was always the hardest part. Marcus found a way to keep busy between shooting wayward tumblers and the occasional vampire-leaf fly by. He cleaned the solar cells on the side of the Rhino, maximizing the effective sunshine. Living on the road has given us an eye for the little things. I picked off two more tumblers wandering around with my rifle and he didn’t even look up. It took a long time to get that kind of trust.
I can smell the hot wind blowing down the freeway, and it tells me this summer is going to be a beast. The climate is getting worse and the seasons more pronounced and brutal. I wish we could blame this on the Arrivals too, but humans had already screwed up the planet’s weather before they got here. They only made it worse.
Woody said we should have gotten started earlier from Philly but the kids needed the downtime. I think he forgets we are all not ex-military trained and forest ranger hardened to the environment. He wants me to tell the kids to stay in one of the better protected cities but they are just like he is. Unable to sit still for more than a few days, maybe a week at the most. Then they get antsy and start wandering.
I checked the status display on the Rhino’s upper turret controls and the vehicle’s status was mostly in the green, except for two critical areas. Our water supply, while renewed in Philly was starting to get uncomfortably low. If we did not find water soon, we would soon have to start serious rationing.
From what we picked up on the radio, there was an incident and we would not be getting any serious supplies from the Pentagon without great risk. While water was critical, what worried me more was the satellite image data. It showed nothing but clear skies for the next two weeks. The temperature was going to be unbearable. We will start seeing days of 110 degrees starting by nine in the morning.
I laughed to myself. Woody hates computers and can tell the weather just by looking at the sky. That’s okay too, gives me something to do. Computers were once something I was very passionate about. Then they came. Computer are now almost an anachronism, something wonderful, if you can get them to work and someone who knows how to use them. There are still people out there using them too. Places with stable solar or wind power facilities still have something of a grid and we connect when we can to trade information, maps and news. But its nothing like before. I try not to think about it.
Marcus took his turn on the turret in the next hour so I could get out of the sun. Taking off my head wrap, I am grateful I keep my hair short. Just as well, it was coming out in greater quantities every day now. Taking an inventory of the gear we gathered from the military vehicles, it was mostly ammunition. And while that’s great, I would have preferred more food, or filter masks or higher-quality medical supplies. We will keep the best of these weapons and leave the rest. Ours is a juggling act between weight and mileage from our solar charged power plant.
When I was finished sorting and transporting the gear, I heard two clicks from Marcus. He could see them. Climbing back into the turret, I took the telescope and dialed its maximum settings. I could see Woody and the kids and they were plus one. A female from the look of her. Sarah was helping Woody, when he was not smacking her away for trying. I tried to hold down the urge to use the radio. We had learned the lesson of unnecessary radio use, and it would be meaningless at this point.
We gathered up our two short range sentry bots and slid them into the housing on the side of the Rhino. They maintain their charge, add a short range defense and double as external batteries when power gets low. I am happy to say they have spent most of their time lately as batteries and barely any time doing that. We have gotten our moving, charging and timetables down to a clean and effective schedule.
I tried not to worry and I took the turret, while Marcus made ready to move out. He activated only the electric engine which was very quiet, but very slow. We began to close the distance between us, shortening their walk. Other than the occasional tumbler, nothing seemed to be stirring. They looked terrible as they approached. I wanted to rush down and check on Woody and the kids but Marcus was the doctor.
Lucas took the wheel and eased us back on the road while Marcus checked everyone out. I kept an eye out but did not activate the .50 cal because we were running low on ammunition. My M16 would be enough for anything we could expect. We crept along at twelve to fifteen miles per hour and this was the ideal speed if we wanted to maintain this pace even through the night. There was a safe spot in Wilmington but it was over five hundred miles from here.
“Mama, I need your help.” Marcus was hunched over Woody’s reclined chair. The president and Sarah stood to one side watching.
“Sarah, honey, I need you to go up top. I will help your father. Talk to me, son.”
“He has a fever. Likely an infection. In the last hour, he fell asleep and I though it was exhaustion. He seemed okay other than a nasty cut on his hand, and I took care of that. During the VSE, I discovered he has two fire ant heads still embedded on his back leg.” After any time in the field, a visual study of the extremities is done for all members of the field team. Since Elwood was hurt, he was checked first. Once we stop somewhere, the others will also be checked, along with anything they brought back with them. All of that gear is stored in an outer compartment in case it was compromised.
Elwood was stripped down to his shorts and we could see the tiny flow of blood from his calf and the two ant heads tightly clenching his skin. The ants bodies were atrophied, likely from being burned and they reflexively locked their jaws. Nothing is going to be able to pry them open, so we are going to have to cut them out. “Okay, Lucas, can you find us someplace for us to settle down for the evening? We can give you an hour, and then we have got to start working.”
“Yes, Mama, there is a small town on the map and its marked as a low infestation spot. I can do an uplink and see if its status has changed.”
“Sarah, once he’s connected can you update the Pentagon on the map to…” I look at the president.
She gives me a look filled with the horror of her experience. I want to tell her it will be okay, but right now she needs her tension to keep it together. “Mark it a category five. No one is to approach it for any reason without superior technology and flamethrowers. Of which there is entirely too little of these days.”
“Have a seat madam President. You’re safe with us.” I tried to sound confident as I went over to her and took the flamethrower from her. It was empty but it was always better to stow equipment. She was reluctant to let go of it, as if it were a talisman. I did not rush her. We sat quietly and the hum of the electric engine, and the uplink connections were all we could hear for a few minutes.
Marcus busied himself prepping the cargo bay for surgery and had gather the supplies we were going to need. Woody’s breathing was shallow and he was sweating. Marcus fanned him once he was done and opened the vents to allow a breeze, such as it was, to pass through the vehicles interior.
This little town was going to be a quick respite for us to perform the surgery on Elwood and then we would have to get on the road and move as fast as we can. While I was trying to be upbeat, I knew unless we got someplace protected soon we would be caught outside during the worst of all seasons.
Summer was coming.
* * *
“I can’t see the road, Mama. We’re going to have to stop.” Lucas was driving into the early dawn. We had planned to find someplace to stop during the night but we were unsuccessful. We were trying to make it to Norfolk. There was a military base there and were hoping to drop the president there with a dedicated military contingent. She would safer there than with us.
We stopped on the side of the road, closed the vents and activated the filtration system. A layered scrubbing filter system, it has both mechanical and human cleared sectioned filtration systems, which could be maintained internally. Thus allowing us to clean the air, as well as the filters and not depend entirely upon a non-renewable filter resource. Only the final layer of the filtration system needed a material which required replacement. We had enough of the fiber foam to last six months with careful use. One more reason to get out of this weather.
The two defense robots were activated and their point defense systems would keep anything that could move in this weather, away. Despite the dangerous and inhospitable environment, dust storms were still a viable environment for the Arrivals. Those things seem to be able to live in just about any environment the Earth could throw at them. Some Arrivals traveled with the storms.
We turned off the solar array and activated the voltage induction units. The vehicle was capable of absorbing the electrical current that built up on its hull from the storm and but couldn’t move under the charge generated. Depending on how hard the wind was blowing, it could generate upwards of one thousand volts of electricity per second. Unfortunate the electricity was only usable for charging secondary power systems and the defense bots.
The sky was black with dust blowing in from the Midwest. A surprise storm, it did not show up on the satellite imaging. It covered the sky from edge to edge and darkened the day into night. Only a good watch could tell you the difference right now. But these were small dust storms compared to what we would see in a few weeks if we were still out here. The sky would blacken for days, maybe weeks. We could starve to death waiting for the weather to clear. The satellite images said this was a small storm, just a day or to long and we would be back on the road. As far as I was concerned this could not come soon enough.
During the two days we sat with Elwood after his surgery, but before we detected the approaching storms, we explored the small town, Herrington, whose population was once over two thousand. We found not a single soul in the town. The Arrivals were there in small numbers. They were subsisting off the local animals or had rooted in the rich dark soil. Those that were mobile had moved on when they could no longer find human prey.
We found a few starving vampire trees, whose leaves made a half-hearted attempt to chase us but could not move more than a few hundred feet before returning their host trees. They simply did not have the energy to follow us for long. This meant we would probably be able to scavenge the town, and see if anything was missed. Herrington was off the beaten path and might have been overlooked by large Mover bands who stuck to main roads. Our forays into basements and storm cellars netted some canned pickles, jellies and jams. Not much, but good for trade and it kept well.
Elwood slept most of the time. He could be given a bit of fluid and helped to the bathroom but as soon as he was lying down, he went back to sleep. He muttered incoherently and kept a low grade fever. Everyone looked at me once he was sleeping.
They did not realize how much I depended on his intuitive knowledge of road, weather and nature. His education on the Arrivals was positively encyclopedic and all first hand. I was a poor substitute. Yes, I was his wife and yes, I had been on the road for the same two decades he had, but I have to confess a certain reticence to learn as much about the Arrivals as he did. In those early years, all I wanted to do was burn every one of the damn things we came across.
I sat down with him, everyone doing what ever they could do within the tight quarters of the Rhino. That mostly consisted of sleeping or resting. Marcus was checking our firearms and inventory. Lucas was trying to reach an uplink connection for more information on the storm. Sarah and her mother, talked up in the covered turret, not able to see much, but keeping an eye out anyway. The president and I sat in the main compartment with Elwood, but she was fresh with the fatigue of her ordeal, so she spent as much of her time sleeping as possible, trying to heal and cope with her losses.
As I sat with Elwood, fanning him to keep him cool, I remembered the Awakening.
Everyone remembers their first day differently. The first time we became aware of the Arrivals and their simultaneous attack on humanity, world-wide. I remember mine because of him… I remembered the horror personally, the first day we discovered they had been living among us for decades, mimicking trees and plants, growing next to our homes, in our parks, taking residence in all of our cities, on our farms, sitting on our paths, waiting until the day the meteor storm came. Weeks before the storms, they had begun abducting people off the street, some to eat, others to implant with seeds they would use to control those humans.
There would be humans who would block roads, crash trains or otherwise make it impossible for people to escape cities. On the day of the Awakening, our cities were blockaded with wrecked vehicles, broken transit systems, burning hospitals, exploding gas mains, havoc on an epic scale. Under any other circumstance we might have been able to handle the catastrophe, but adding insult to injury were fast growing, hyper-aggressive plant attacking cities in waves. Some flew, some crawled, other rolled, some release gases. We died by the millions before we even knew what was happening. By the time we could coordinate anything, humanity was on the ropes.
They struck our power stations with meteor bombardments, they struck our military bases, they struck our dams, they damaged infrastructure systems all over the world. Systems stretched so tight, just a few well placed strikes caused everything to fall, like dominoes. It was so perfectly timed, we were certain at the end of that week we would see our new alien masters standing over our broken cities. But they never came. Only the horror that was the Arrivals.
On that last day of my real life, I was on the road coming from the office, after working a night shift installing the last parts of a new data system. It was five in the morning and I was just happy to be heading home. I had heard about the meteor shower, but we were nearly a quarter mile underground so I wasn’t going to take the time to stop and look at some meteors. I figured I would see them on the news. I called Ken, my husband at the time, and left him a message, that I would be there to make breakfast for him and the kids before going to bed. I would never make breakfast for them again.
As I drove into my neighborhood, I noticed the streetlights were out. If I had been really paying attention, I would have realized all of the local trees had shadows that moved. I would have seen houses which were covered in vines, that were not before. I would have driven faster. I might have gotten there in time, if I had been really paying attention to what was going on around me. The road grew bumpier as I approached my house and I could see large cracks in the ground and what looked like roots bursting through.
As I turned my high beams on, I noticed there was a tree in the road. A tree with moving roots! I assumed I was tired and hallucinating until I realized I was home and saw there were three or four of these trees surrounding my home. I got out of my car, in complete disbelief of what I was seeing. There was both silence and sound. As the trees moved, there was a strange stop action movement, flickering, sputtering, flashing movement. Both slow and fast, their roots moved with a slow and steady movement, while their leaves lashed about with whip-like speed. I don’t know what I was thinking, I just wanted to reach my family. I could hear the sounds of wood crackling like in a fire under the assault of plants crushing homes looking for the tender flesh within. I could hear the screams and the flash of the occasional shotgun or pistol. Then it was silent again.
I stopped for a moment and looked around at other houses and saw each one of them being covered in plants, some growing from within the houses themselves, spreading out of opened windows and doors. I was outside of myself at that moment. I experienced a clarity that probably saved my life. I could see my house collapsing inward under the weight of the deadly kudzu vines, whose tendrils are like corded steel and could cut cinder block apart in seconds. I hesitated.
Three of the largest predator trees were already reaching into the house and pulling out my daughters and ripping them apart before my eyes. My husband, dangled in the trees grip, struggled and saw me approaching the house. He screamed, Run! Then the creature tore him in half. In shock, on autopilot, I did what he told me, I ran back in the car as a deadly acid-like venom splashed my car and where I was standing seconds ago. The trees had crept up behind me and were trying to box my car in.
At that moment, I thought I had waited too long, the trees were already crushing down on the back wheels of my car. “Get out of that car, lady.” A face peered in my passenger window, lighting a rag dangling from a bottle. I got out of the car as he threw the bottle. The fluid splash and burned and for a moment the trees halted their advance as the more flammable members caught fire. It did not burn long as natural fire retardants were secreted from ducts and portals from the creatures. “We need to keep moving. Cars and loud noises attract them. Move quick and quiet, they notice us less.”
I couldn’t put the image of my house out of my mind. I went with him, unable to speak and barely able to breathe.
“Don’t worry miss, I’ll keep you safe. Name’s Elwood.” We ran off into the night; into a whole new world. He’s been keeping his word for me and his family for nearly twenty years.
Wake up, old man. I need you, now, just one more time.
The storm darkened the sky, reduced visibility and when night came, the stars were out. Along with the stars, came the predators.
A convoy of lights could be seen coming up the road. Slow moving, careful. Likely Movers who either got lost or are scavenging off the main road. Either way, company is the last thing we needed right now. Parked off the main road, we are mostly covered by the black blizzard, so it’s possible we could go unnoticed.
Marcus starts passing out gunbelts and ammo clips, just in case. Despite the heat, we get our bullet-proof vests and keep them handy. Sarah checks the loads on the .50 but does not raise it into the firing chamber.
“Lucas, turn off the drones, they should have some scouts coming along in a few minutes. Let’s see if we get lucky.”
“I put them in standby. At the first sound of gunfire, they will activate and shoot everything within range. Make sure you are wearing your ID badges.”
The president looks at me and I tap the badge on the outside of her jacket. I gave her one an hour after she got here.
“Mama, they are sweeping the area in a search pattern. They are looking for something.” Marcus starts passing out M16 after Lucas’s pronouncement.
He looks at the president. She smiles, “Marine. I’ll take one of those.”
We wait, hidden by the sand and passively scanning from a remote spy eye, released in the darkness. The convoy is a mix of civilian and lightly armed military. But the direction they came from indicated a northern route. No way they are from Norfolk. But they are looking for something. Eventually they find it. They slowly surround our vehicle despite being completely hidden.
“Ho, the vehicle. We know you are there, President Marva Chang. You are hereby placed under arrest, by the President of the Western United States. The charge is treason. Anyone in the vehicle with you, who does not force you to exit will be considered aiding and abetting a fugitive and will share your fate; death. You are completely surrounded.”
There was a pause. And a momentary static-filled whispering. Then a different voice came over the loudspeaker. “You have until sunrise.”
Tales of a New Earth © Thaddeus Howze 2011. All Rights Reserved [@ebonstorm]