“They’re all around us.” Rock, Jan “Red” Havel, whispered while wiping the remains of what was once a human being from her hand. We had stopped thinking about what these things used to be. We had to. Otherwise we’d lose our minds. The alien stink mixed with the scent of human offal caused even professional soldiers used to the horror of war to take pause.
Blade-shaped shards of ice forming in his hands, Kane used them as swords cleaving through the former humans with a manic abandon. His dispassionate face of stone was gone, this was the face of man driven mad by the horror of his work. He pulled out in front of us, pushing the enemy back with the sheer ferocity of his sword work.
His body glowed blue with the frozen energy of his transformed state. Creatures touching him recoiled as their limbs froze and broke away from their bodies. He was the icebreaker making a trough through the horrific waves of the enemy. We followed as best we could.
Spinning, her machetes whirling, Scissors, Sean Harper, made short work of the hybrid beasts trying to grab her with their partially transformed hands-cum-tentacles. Four dropped and she watched their bodies hit the ground while she prepared for the next wave.
We continued our plunge into this heart of darkness. Scissors stayed close to Fisher whose eyes were open wide, seeing the horror now with his waking eyes. His whimpers were the only sound we heard whenever we weren’t wading through what used to be people.
Another incursion of the creatures, part human, part alien detected our movement and ran toward our position from a tunnel we passed behind us. The five soldiers we found were doing their part to keep the enemy at a distance, aiming for their heads, the only part of them vulnerable to small arms fire. Seeing the number of enemy, each conserved ammunition dreading the moment when their clips ran dry.
Paper, Acedia Bela, readied another of her magical paper-bombs and whirled the glowing shapes toward the approaching enemy. Everyone took cover, having learned how powerful Paper’s alchemical magic could be. Paper continued to draw new shapes in the air and placed them, glowing, on each of us. We had no idea what they would do but were forced to depend on each without question.
Rock stood protectively in front of Fisher and I, as the explosion shook the tunnel. Before the smoke could clear, new beasts were swarming through the smoke and we were once again fighting to gain ground toward our enemy from the stars.
The tunnel seemed to tighten around us. Kane was pressed by a new crush of the creatures and his blue glow was swallowed up replaced by an oppressive darkness. Then the howls began as Fisher’s terror reached its crescendo and the Barghest sprang from his chest, a liquid shadow in the shape of a great wolf, and into battle.
The power of its howl drove us all to our knees, a soul-crushing force and our enemy, all around us, for the first time, stopped advancing.
For a second…
* * *
Dawn came, a riot of early morning color, belying the unfortunate circumstances we headed toward. We arrived by seven thirty and our police scanner reported the activity we knew would be going on when we arrived. The local military was already assisting in the evacuation of the area. It would take twelve hours to clear this area. We had six.
For some, it would already be too late. They were taken in the early morning on their way to work. When four trains failed to arrive in station, our suspicions were confirmed. We had roiled the nest and it had reacted. Five thousand people or more may had already been converted. The Dust would be ramping up its production of servants for a last gasp growth spurt. Paper turned toward the metro station set up as the command post.
“Is anyone going to tell me what the hell is going on?” Fisher looked at our faces and even in his state knew there were things we weren’t telling him.
I looked at the others and they shook their heads. I had the dirty task. “The Agency and the Dust were bitter enemies, who had been fighting for nearly one hundred years. They were one of the first and most dangerous threats we had ever faced, bar none.”
The Daughters of the Dust, which was what they called themselves, was an interstellar threat and fell under our jurisdiction because of their unpredictable nature. A communal intelligence with the ability to inherit memory of previous generations, they were an enemy who grew more dangerous with each confrontation. No two incursions were the same, each learning, sharing and knowing what they all have experienced.
“They are from deep interstellar space, arriving as spores during meteor showers. We monitor such showers because they can appear and take root if the conditions are right. The Daughters of the Dust need to feed on protein molecules, the fresher the better. Their diet on their homeworld would have been the equivalent of dinosaurs here, one creature feeding a cluster and keeping them slumbering. On Earth, we’re more mobile, they had to adapt, grow smarter to catch us. We helped them evolve.”
“So they’re some kind of plant?” He was a quick study. If we live, he might make a decent agent.
“Something like that. They always take root near underground water, electrical power and ample supplies of food when they land in cities. Electricity metabolizes their growth allowing them to reach incredible sizes.”
Rock turned and picked up before I could continue. “However, landing in the country can be just as advantageous because they get to grow slowly and co-opt all of the plants and animals in a region. They can spread over a wide population, destroying every plant and animal until the region has been reduced to an energy-free, organic dust. When they land in the country they have time to develop their mental abilities and can even learn from their host creatures.”
“City dwellers don’t tend to get as intelligent, but spread faster by using its spores in the open air gathering thousands of new minds all at once. This collective intelligence may not be as smart as its country cousin, it will add minds to itself claiming an entire city in a few months. But because it is less intelligent, it acts on instinct, keeping a low profile until it reaches critical mass.” Scissors was honing one of her many knives while she shared with the group.
Paper drove us into the command area and we were recognized and directed through the ersatz base. The Agency first became aware of this complex when we noticed a series of missing person reports, fast growing, very close together, no apparent connection except for a geographic similarity.
The number grew faster than any other kind of normal human crime and thus the Agency was alerted. We placed the area under psychic watch. After predictions led to confirmations, ground agents were sent in. Three groups never returned. That’s how I ended up here. Senior agents investigated when regular agents didn’t report back.
When no one volunteered to continue, I took the cue, “What we didn’t know then was the Dust was a learning creature, as well. Our every encounter taught us something about them. But they were able to share each encounter with their descendants growing more formidable each time. This information transfer happened in real time, so if there were two of them, they shared data and tactics. In the late fifties we were in a pitched battle against multiple outbreaks. The Agency lost two thirds of its best agents at the time.”
The battle went poorly until we realized they were intelligent. Our attempts to destroy them continued to fail until we captured one. The loss of life was catastrophic but the information gathered was worth every life lost in 1960. The threat of the Daughters of the Dust had been resolved after that conflict when we captured one of the Daughters and it told us how they came to be here. They were travelers who moved from world to world via spores. They claimed they didn’t want to kill us, it was just their nature. They claimed they were a reflection of us. We were violent and they took their genetic cues from us after absorbing us.
“The last major outbreak in the United States occurred in a small city in Kansas in 1967. The outbreak was stopped. Fuel-air weapons combined with alchemical Greek Fire, leveled the entire area, destroyed all the spores and all of the remaining townspeople. There were no survivors. Over two hundred thousand people perished. Similar weapons were used in Korea to destroy an infestation there hidden under the conflict of the Korean War.” Red spit out the window after her mention of the Korean War. She and her sisters were much older than they appeared and probably had friends and loved ones who died there.
Neighboring towns were told of a contagious infection which swept through the town and a brave sheriff sacrificed himself to destroy the fuel facility there in order to stop the infection. Most of that fabrication was actually true. A sheriff did try to bring the creatures to the center of the refinery there and destroy them. The military destroyed the town even though the threat had been ended. The sheriff was the legendary and retired agent, Zebidiah Kane.
Though he had been successful, the Agency burned the town to the ground, as a part of standard procedure. Kane had lived in that town, as a retired Agency operative for five years working local cases until the threat of the Dust appeared there. He never forgave the Agency even as he went back to work in a senior leadership position.
And as I expected, he would be here.
Kane stood in the midst of this crazed nest of activity as calm as a mountain. People moved around him, he spoke, they left often running with renewed urgency. When he turned toward our vehicle, Paper, gasped looking into his icy eyes. His eyes spoke of the depth of his rage against this particular threat.
He was a man who had been fighting it for over a hundred years losing more often than winning. It was only his now inhuman nature which allowed him to continue his struggle into another century. So many of the operatives of the Agency were conscripted, forced to work with them or be destroyed by them. This made for tense relationships.
I concluded with the most important information Fisher would need to understand this threat. “The last Dust complex we captured said we were stronger than their Sisters understood. They had underestimated humanity all those centuries ago when they first saw our planet. With their first attempt at conquest defeated, they would just go to sleep and wait until a time came when no one alive would remember them. She entered a cocoon-like state and we were unable to penetrate its natural armor. So we locked it up in a vault under surveillance for thirty years. She was counting on humans to have short memories being made of meat.
The Agency wouldn’t forget. Kane wouldn’t let them.
We got out of our vehicle and technicians drove it away like a well oiled machine. Kane was a giant, easily six feet five and his tailored suit did nothing to hid his incredible physique. Even Rock, who was used to being the tallest person in the room, felt cowed by his physical presence. He seemed to cause the very air to tingle with electricity. Not the good kind either. The feeling you get when you are standing outside in a thunderstorm with a long metal pole pointing into the sky, waiting to be struck dead.
In the days before the Agency in the 1930s, incursions of the Dust were devastating. Swallowing up whole towns, the development of the pretense of the American Dustbowl became necessary to explain the catastrophic losses of life and the destruction of the ecosystems of the America West. By the 1950s, the Agency had established a protocol and reduced casualties to twenty percent of a local population. He wrote those protocols.
“You look like hell, Engram. Are you sure you’re up for this?” This was as close as Zebadiah Kane, scary immortal, with elemental ice powers ever came to a hello. He nodded to the ladies and I had the impression he knew them better than I did. He dismissed Fisher with less than a glance.
I looked behind him and saw the police and Agency personnel moving people away, some being scanned before put on double-deckers conscripted for the purpose of moving as many people as possible. Attack helicopters hovered in the sky already in an attack posture to begin firing their specialized munitions on this site at a moment’s notice. Soldiers stood nearby, armed with flamethrowers and other less savory incendiary weapons at every potential exit from the underground including manholes and sewer exits.
The police seemed casual as if they thought this was just another emergency drill. It was only the faces of the older Agency agents which revealed the true nature of the danger. Beyond the perimeter of Agency personnel, military staff with more conventional weapons stood as a third line of defense. Professional. Faces grim and tight. These were men who were truly willing to die in battle. There was no point in telling them, if the first two lines of defense failed, the third would only serve as an aperitif for a monster set on and completely capable of consuming the world.
“Are we the first team?” The cup of coffee handed to me by a faceless technician went a long way to soothing my nerves. Rock stood behind me with her hand on my shoulder. Our previous dalliances, while considered unprofessional, were overlooked due to our collective win-lose ratio.
Paper and Scissors flanked Ben Fisher who looked completely out of place among soldiers. Two other technicians were measuring him on the spot and fitting him with our standard armor. Once a new uniform was ready, Scissors raked her hands across his clothes and they fell away like leaves in the wind.
Fisher’s face flushed and the technicians proceeded with their work. Within six minutes he was ready to go. One tried to hand him a pistol, but he waved it away like it was a venomous snake. Since he had no weapons training, he would be depending on us to keep him alive long enough to bring the Barghest into play.
“No, we sent reconnaissance teams in, sixteen teams of six men apiece. None reported back after an hour. We don’t suspect they will. We went to condition one and are standing by with Greekfire missiles and a fuel air strike on this site. Her majesty and the British Parliament would like this to not happen. Tell me you are up for this?”
“Yes. We won’t let you down.” The others stood and looked at him, their faces as intent as my own. They were not much for talk. They believed in letting their actions speak for them. It was their most endearing feature.
“Listen to me Engram, you do whatever it takes. If you have to burn this section of London to the ground, you do it. There are two other outbreaks happening right now. One in the Midwestern US, and one in Central Africa. This one is in the most densely populated area, so all eyes are on you.” He reached toward my neck and pulled out my necklace. His hands were fully gloved and they still froze the flesh he touched just for a second. He leaned in and whispered to me. No one could have heard what he said and just stood there. Even I didn’t believe it.
Then he looked at all of us and said plainly. ” I have seen what the Dust can do when it breaks free. Don’t let that happen. You have six hours. The people who were on the trains who have not come back numbered about ten thousand, we estimate it may have another five thousand people who were snatched between when we became aware of it and now. In six hours, their metamorphosis will be complete. And then they will come boiling out of this place like army ants. Bulletproof, superhuman, army ants, each with the strength of ten men. I have been authorized to nuke this site. And I will.”
Then he dropped the necklace and put his hand over it causing a layer of frost to freeze it to my armor. We went into the underground and the thought crossed my mind this might be the last sunrise I might ever see.
As we went into the underground, explosions were heard all over the city, closing the entrances into the underground with rubble. This would force the creatures into chokepoints giving the defenders a chance. Machine gun pickets were setup around all of those exits. As we turned to walk into the darkness, we heard a crunching sound behind us coming from the entrance that was just closed. We prepared ourselves to meet the enemy.
It was Kane. He was without his hat or gloves. “I have a personal stake in this. Everything I said still stands. They will nuke this site if we don’t call back in six hours. Now keep up.”
He strode off into the darkness, his naked hands and face glowing a silver blue and an icy breath rose up into the tunnel.
Now it was just the six of us against a creature that had killed entire worlds.
Anger Without Enthusiasm © Thaddeus Howze 2013, All Rights Reserved