Approaching the Pentagon on foot, we realized nothing was like it was supposed to be. None of the sentry positions were active. They had been overrun, large root structures ripping through the armored bunkers from beneath. No sign of the men or women who normally sat there watching for approaching Arrivals.
We found their weapons there, loaded, with only a couple of days of dust on them. A quick check with a UV detector-card revealed nothing spore-related killed these men. Whatever did them in was fast, efficient and killed them without a trace. I had an idea but I wanted to wait to be sure. If it was what I thought it was, we would need to be out of here as fast as possible. No sense panicking anyone until I was.
Having been a forest ranger for over thirty years all over the States, I was very experienced with nearly every form of plant or arboreal found in nearly every state. I had never seen the variety of plants I was experiencing right now. Having survived nearly twenty years of the Arrivals, it made my blood run cold to see so many new plant structures. Fortunately, nothing here seemed very interested in us and was far away enough to give me the semblance of safety.
The kids were focused and each covered a one hundred and twenty degree arc, just like we practiced. They didn’t speak, using hand signs to point out potential targets or threats. We had adapted American sign language and it stood us in good stead when many of the Arrivals were sensitive to vibration, which included most of the hunting varietals and the altered animals.
“Pop, I don’t recognize nearly half of these.” Lucas signed. “Do you think we should be heading deeper into an unknown grove?” The unknown grove was our code for a new population of creatures or plants we were unfamiliar with. The Arrivals were amazingly prolific and continued to create new plants and animals. Their process was unknown but we noticed strong infestations with dense tree growth was perfect for the development of the altered or even new animals to appear.
“Move slow, watch for movement.” My daughter signed back, letting me focus on the horizon. I could see the Pentagon building and I wanted to turn around right then. The entire structure was surrounded by very large trees whose nature was known to me.
Each stood at least sixty to eighty feet tall with a large core tree at least thirty feet across. Large barrel-like trunks with a number of nacreous bulbs filled with red and black fluids scattered across them.
They looked unhealthy, sickly twisted in on themselves with wide dark, blood-colored leaves. Inside the bulbs, a twirling oozing movement could be seen. I had seen them before and knew there was likely no one alive inside the Pentagon. These were fire ant trees.
We called them fire ants because they seemed as tenacious and angry as the Terran creatures of the same name with one vital exception. Each was the size of my thumb and could grab a chunk of flesh from you weighing one ounce with their razor-sharp jaws. They made army ants look like choir boys.
Large, fast and insatiable, they were designed to do one thing; cut their prey into pieces and bring it back to the tree for processing. The only thing redeeming about them was their short life span. Most died within forty-eight hours of their release from the host tree.
Common to warm climates, fire ant tree clusters grew quickly by consuming organic matter of all types and processing it with amazing speed. They were like bamboo, they could grow six inches a day when they started and as their metabolic rates improved, two to three feet per day was not unheard of. Each tree could have as few as two or as many as fifteen ant clusters, each held in a series of tunnels in the tree.
Each group was lead by a what was called a princess who held the swarm in tow as they moved toward their target. The princess was linked to the tree’s hive mind and controlled the local group of fire ants. This command and control structure meant each tree only had to control the princess, not her drone subjects.
One of the more terrifying of the Arrival infestations, you had one chance if they were coming your way, kill the princess. A flamethrower or other scatter weapon was your only chance to avoid certain death, and only fire gave you a better than a fifty-fifty chance. Once they reached you, nothing could protect you. Most would shoot you if they had the ammunition to spare.
I got ready to turn around when I heard my radio squelch. “Pop, I was scanning the local channels and I got a distress signal. I think it’s the President.” I could also hear some M16 fire in the background. My son-in-law sounded a bit stressed. He did not mention anything, so I assumed they had it under control. “Turn to channel 8, you can hear it yourself. Gotta go.”
Switching my radio, I heard the message. It was gritty and filled with static. It was also very brief. “This is Special Agent Davis, requesting, click, whirr, evac from safe room A, hisss, on the Gamma level of the Pentagon. We have the President, swoop, pop. There is an alien infestation sweeping the facility and recommend flamethrower support. We have been here for thirty-six hours. Will be broadcasting on the hour. Davis, out.”
Under any other circumstances, I would wish Special Agent Davis, Godspeed and turn around and go back to the Rhino. I would feel bad for a few days and then get over it. He was in the middle of the remains of the most secure building on Earth. Seeing the devastation, it is clear to me, no place was safe. Which means, we should be heading in the opposite direction as quickly as possible. My daughter looked at me and made it clear with the intensity of her gaze, I had better make up my mind before she decided for me. Indecision was not one of her weaknesses.
I could see the entrances we were used to using were over-run by the fire ant trees and their massive root structures blocked the exits and lifted the multi-megaton armored structure out of the ground, grinding through it. The fire ant tree is believed to be a symbiotic member to another underground dwelling plant creature called a borer, who provides the tunneling to the target while the fire ants are created and shuttled through the body of the boring plant. All of the Arrivals had deadly symbiosis among their member species.
The borer was a creature which grew with lightning speed and stored an amazing amount of energy within its carbon spring-like structures. It positioned itself beneath or alongside its target and unraveled itself much like a tree root except in active real time. Once a series of borers started tunneling into your facility they could do it in a matter of seconds. Their tactic was to quietly bore until they were at a breaching wall and then store energy until they were ready to attack.
The A wing of the Pentagon was about a quarter mile from where we approached and the quiet of the forest was both comforting and disturbing. No noise usually meant good news. But since the Pentagon was lying ripped open with its nearly impenetrable walls asunder, we were not comforted. Everyone loaded or readied an incendiary grenade, we only had one each, so we kept it handy since we had lost our last flamethrower. “I think the trees have spent their current store of ants and we need to work fast. They take two days or so to recharge so we are working on borrowed time.” I signed quickly, and everyone knew what they had to do.
We entered the Pentagon through the ruptured wall of the A Wing and saw the building had been compromised from all around it. Roots tore through the walls like paper and a network of root structures filled out the torn walls creating a web of rootlets capable of carrying the fire ants into the structure. There were supposed to be ten thousand people inside the building. Now there was nothing organic at all. Some grisly skeletal remnants considered too much trouble were left scattered along the broken walls and floors where the person fell and died. Once inside, we ducked under the lattice of roots or over it until we found the heavily walled stairwells, doors weighing tons, knocked right out of their braces.
Once past Alpha deck, we made it down to the Beta deck and found it pretty much the same. No movement, roots everywhere, quiescent menace all around us. We mapped our route with a luminescent paint and made sure we cleared as much of the building material out of the way for a fast access and exit. Getting in is never the problem, getting out was always the issue.
I was in the front, the kids in the middle and my daughter in the back. I could see they were completely uncomfortable with the enclosed nature of the environment. I wasn’t thrilled either but I thought it would be worth the effort to have the President of the United States in our debt. Less than a mile separated us, now. Utterly surrounded, the potential for death was significantly closer. Our only saving grace was borers and fire ants didn’t share well, so their relationship precluded too many other predators being around at the same time.
We scurried along and when two o’clock came, we were ready to answer their call for help. We had moved as far as we could into the Gamma section but there were three or four different areas which could meet the requirements. Without a complete address, all we could do was wait until their next broadcast.
As we waited and listened, we could hear a distant rumbling, punctuated with snapping and popping noises. The borers were moving again extending their root structures further into the building. This meant there were other survivors, or there was food they hadn’t eaten yet. I looked up and noticed the web work of roots near us were beginning to grow small red nodules which were filling with fluid.
We were running out of time.
* * *
Turning the radio on, we waited nervously while looking around the hallway. Lucas was reaching into his backpack and pulled out a Zippo and a pressurized bottle with some handy-crafted napalm we made the last time we were in Philly. We did not have a flame thrower any more, but we had learned a lot of other things could be used in a pinch. During the Spring and Fall, fire was an ally you didn’t turn away. During the Summer, that was a whole different issue.
“This is Special Agent Davis…” he began as before.
“Save your battery, Agent, my name is Elwood King and we are on our way to you. But we need your secure room. And all things being equal we would prefer you meet us halfway.”
“The trees have expended their supply of fire ants but if you have been there two days, they are about to be releasing a new set. I think there are other people still alive in here, but I am here for you and Madame President, nothing else.”
“Mister Elwood, that works for us. We are in Gamma quadrant 326 and are on our way to you. We have less than sixty seconds of hot wax remaining.”
“Move it, Agent, we are along the main vein of that corridor less than a quarter mile from your position. We have a path cleared to the exit, do we need to meet you?”
“On a good day, I would say no. The last week says, ‘Hell yes.'”
“How is your battery power?” I wasn’t worried about ours, we had just recharged on the Rhino.
“I would like to have more, but in light of how things are at the moment, would you be opposed to hearing our comms while we move?”
“Not at all, Agent Davis. We are on our way to you. Don’t know what you should expect when you open the door, but I would suggest a quick application of hot wax before you go to far. If it seems clear, run like hell. We will be coming as quickly as we can.”
“Clear. On our way.”
My daughter looked at me like I was crazy. “Are we really going to go deeper?”
“No. I am going deeper. You three are going to stay here and secure our exit. No arguing.”
Lucas walked over to me and handed me the Zippo and napalm. “I have another one in Sarah’s bag. We will set up a fire cordon if anything starts coming toward us.”
“No heroics, dad.”
“Me? You know I am too old to be heroic.” I hug my daughter briefly and she gently headbutts me. A private joke, from when she was a little girl who wanted to be tough like action heroes from television. In her way, she was tougher than anything old media could have imagined. They never had to contest with the likes of the Arrivals. “Same goes for you. If they get to be too much, get out of here and call for a pickup. You have a better chance of fighting your way out of here even if Tumblers are out there than you do staying in here without support. Back in a flash.”
And just like that we were separated. And to be honest, I preferred it that way. This was stupid and I let my pride get me in too deep. So if something was going to happen it was better if it just happened to me.
“–Whoosh, Whoosh.” I could hear the flamethrower over the radio. ” We are clear of the safe room and no Arrivals are visible. Proceeding. Stay close, Madam President.”
I turned the radio down to a bare whisper. I figured if they got in deep, their screams would soon be audible. I pass some skeletal remains and a few weapons but most were without straps so I was not going to be bothered unless it was something I couldn’t live without. The damn fire ants carry away anything organic, even the clothing. They do not seem to care for the hardest bone material so you will see the occasional skull or hip bone lying next to a weapon. I stop to check a clip or two hoping to find some incendiary rounds or something useful, but regular 5.56, rounds, common to the M16, we are not lacking at the moment.
It was hot, and I was nervously moving as quickly as I dared down the corridor. I was sweating and the zippo was slick in my hand. Which makes my next mistake expected and completely avoidable, but I was tired and wound tight. The corridor winds around in a circle and the corridor ahead of me was partially out of line of sight. It was also poorly lit and my shoulder lamp was a poor substitute in this darkened part of the building. I heard something but my mind wasn’t firing on all cylinders and by the time I realized what it was, I was too close to back away. I heard skitttering sounds and the ripping sounds of cloth being torn. As I panned my light over toward the noise I realized the area wasn’t quite empty.
A group of fire ants were tearing into what looked like someone who had made the poor decision to open a door without the benefit of a flamethrower. It was a pile of still quivering flesh, alive but without the means to speak. The poor bastard’s tongue was being carried away, while blood spewed from its moaning mouth. They were brutal, and terrifyingly fast. After two minutes, the person stopped twitching and they continued with their grisly task. Blind, they did not see my light. I tried to back up, slowly, carefully.
Skzzzz. “Mr. King, we are making good time, where are you?”
Damn. Forgot I left the radio on. “Busy, about to be eaten, call you back.” Or not. I sprayed our home-made napalm, a mixture of gasoline and laundry detergent out in front of me as the wave began to move away from their primary meal. A tiny contingent stayed to continue their work, but the bulk of them began turning their long and frilly antenna toward me.
Like radar dishes, they waved back and forth and I knew they could see my heat and hear my heartbeat. You don’t want to know how we learned this. When the napalm hit the ground, they stopped. The strong odor would give their extraordinary sense of smell a kick in the head, so I was quite liberal with it. I got a bit of distance and laid down a lighting path and as I stopped to use the Zippo, it slipped from my grip and vanished into the rubble beneath my feet.
I stooped and scrambled around trying to find it. Flicking my light from the ground to the fire ants, they had already reached the napalm and had hesitated for fifteen seconds. Then the first wave started across. They died when they touched it, their nervous systems overcome. But they kept coming using the bodies of the first ones as a bridge and they kept dying. And kept coming. This group appeared to have at least ten thousand members, plenty enough to cross that patch and have plenty to spare. They could eat me with less than five hundred.
Digging around in the pile of debris, I cut my hand on a sharp piece of debris, a deep cut, think I nicked a vein. I found the lighter but the blood stirred the fire ants to a greater effort. They were swarming over the napalm and I dropped the canister to hunt for the lighter. Striking the zippo I threw it into the napalm and ran for the remaining canister. A large number had already clear the napalm but at least half were still on the other side as the Zippo landed. It was the half on my side which were the problem.
The fire, and likely the smoke caused momentary disorientation and the swarm milled menacingly close, less than fifteen feet separated us. Much closer to dying than I was comfortable being. I grabbed the canister off the ground and arced a stream of napalm into the fire. The sound of the napalm spraying galvanized them into motion. I lit the stream of napalm and waved it like a wand of fire as the swarm began to leap toward me.
I wasn’t going to make it.
I kept spraying until the can was empty. The last thousand or so, who were not on fire or about to be, reoriented and swarmed toward me. Suddenly they stopped moving. Their antenna waved randomly and they began running in all directions. The princess! Someone must have gotten her. Then the distinctive sound of a flame thrower ripped through the air near me and I turned and ran as the area I was standing in was now completely aflame.
She came walking through the fire, a demon with fiery wings behind her, in a skintight, body armor, holding a flame-thrower like she was born to it. A Chinese face, with hard eyes, an uncompromising mouth and a look of fierce determination. “Mr. King, I presume?”
“Madam President? Where are your…”
“They didn’t make it. Now let’s get the hell out of here.” She helped me to my feet and applied a liberal doze of flamethrower behind her before she got out in front of me.
“Yes, ma’am.” She lead the way.
“Keep up. This thing’s empty.”
The Arrivals: Tales of a New Earth © Thaddeus Howze 2011. All Rights Reserved [@ebonstorm]