“The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley.”
“What the hell you on about? And what does gang aft agley mean? Dammit, ouch, careful, it slips here. Anyway, as I was sayin’ why can’t you talk normal? It’s bad enough we gotta escort you in this miserable heat. What are we doing out here anyways? We should be fighting. Besides-hey, what are you laughing at?”
“Your dumb ass.”
Amari laughed even harder as Bryant took a threatening step towards her.
“What’s so damn funny?”
“You!” Amari replied, wiping tears away, “You’re asking the Doc a thousand questions. Which one is he supposed to answer first?” “It’s alright Amari, I don’t mind. Bryant ‘gang aft agley’ means to go off plan. It means no matter how well we plan, something always goes wrong. Also, I can speak ‘normally’, but that is how it was originally writ.”
“See, that’s what I’m talkin’ about. Originally writ! Why can’t you just say the first way they wrote it? Ah, never mind.”
He kicked a shard of glass, sending it skittering across the vitrified, jagged landscape, which now took the place of a white sandy beach. An intense heat had flashed across the surface, melting the sand into deadly glass. It had happened when they first came. They had destroyed so much, so quickly. It was towards the epicenter of this blast that they were heading. Aiden wandered along with his armed entourage, his mind trying to take in everything it could. He was always amazed at how beautiful destruction could be. The sand had been forever frozen in waves and delicate structures, showcasing the violence of their birth.
He wanted to take photos for research and for Trish, back at the bunker’s lab, but the heat was too intense for the equipment. The closer they got to the site of the probe, the more the heat wave, felt like a cool breeze. Since these probes crash landed, the entire planet had been locked in unbearable, heightened temperatures.
The sky held an eerie shade of gray, green, which cast an ominous glow across the devastated landscape. This scene was a perfect analog to how he felt. He didn’t want to be out here, he felt out of his depths, but Trish was needed back at the bunker. She could analyze data as quickly as they could get it to her. She was their top mind, their lynch pin in this global network of resistance. Still, she would have loved to see this.
His attention was brought back to present at a quick hiss and gesture from Cooper. The group paused, holding their breath as Copper listened intently.
“I thought I heard something moving. Probably just of these creepy glass things breaking.”
To emphasize his point, he struck one with the butt of his gun. It exploded into a million tiny pieces, which went cascading across the ground like diamonds.
“With their camouflage, even if we were right on top of one of the eerie bug bastards, it’s not like we would notice.”
Keira’s voice came from the rear of the group. “So, let’s not wait and find out if we are. Let’s move!”
Cooper nodded in agreement, looking in the direction they were headed.
“It shouldn’t be much further, right Doc?”
“I’m a scientist, not a doctor, but that’s correct.” Aiden replied, “We’re looking for a clean entry wound in the earth, probably smoking. Each probe pierced the earth like a needle before setting off a detonation. The explosion creates a large chamber around the probe.
The ground is sloping up as we walk because the blast caused a ripple in the earth’s crust. Judging by my calculations, we should be getting close to the center.”
“Great! The sooner we can get there and do whatever it is we’re doing, the sooner we can get back to killing these bastards.” As he spoke, Bryant walked over to Cooper and put a hand on his shoulder.
“Fearless Leader, if it’s alright with you and your second, I’m going to scout ahead.”
Cooper shot an annoyed glance at Keira, then looked at Bryant, knocking his hand away.
“Damnit Bryant, enough with the sarcastic bullshit. The only reason you and Amari are here is because we needed extra guns. I swear, ever since the military collapsed you mercs have gotten unbearable. If you want to lead the way, go ahead!”
“Alright then! Woohoo! Let’s go find us a smokin’ole!”
Bryant led the group deeper into the blasted zone, Copper followed with their charge, Aiden, sandwiched between Amari and Keira. The treacherous footing causing the group to slip and slide on broken shards of glass. Winding their way around a towering, jagged wave, they happened upon a welcomed sight.
The ground dipped and then rose to a mound; a great smoking hole in its center. This formation and the others like it, would be easy to spot from space, if they still had satellites. They had to use old fashioned methods, but they found it.
Bryant sprinted ahead to the lip of the opening while Cooper yelled not to break formation and Aiden screamed that the ground was unstable, but Bryant was fixated on the hole and only stopped when he reached the edge. He shone his light into the pit, the beam quickly swallowed by darkness, barely illuminating the probe. Disappointed, he began to walk back to where Cooper stopped the group, far back from the ledge.
Not paying attention, he stepped on a chunk of glass, creating a pressure point. A great rending SNAP filled the air as the entire lip shattered, sending glittering shards of glass and Bryant tumbling deep into the chamber below.
The group was knocked over as a blast of hot air erupted from the pit carrying with it Bryant’s terrified screams and the sickening thud of his demise. The air hit like a fist, while the sound of their compatriot’s death pierced like the shards of glass cutting into them as they lay stunned on the ground.
The moment of silence that followed, stretched on for an eternity until Cooper’s scream broke through.
Cooper scrambled forward on his hands and knees, slipping every which way, only stopping when Kiera placed her hand on his shoulder.
“Coop! Sarge! Calm down, you're going to shred your hands.”
“I don’t give a damn about my hands! I just lost a man!”
“No, you didn’t. He was a merc and acted like a merc. He ran ahead without direction. I’m sorry, but it was his own fault, not yours.”
Before Cooper could respond, Amari jumped to her feet, screaming at Kiera.
“How dare you say that? He just died and this is how you treat him?”
Aiden placed a placating hand on her arm. Her shocking response was to grab the hand and twist it painfully behind his back. His mind hadn’t fully registered what had happened until his neck was pressed against a sharp wave of glass.
“Amari! What are you doing? You can’t kill him, he a scientist, we need him!”
“No Cooper, you need him. He’s the reason we’re out here. All on some stupid hunch that probably won’t work and now Bryant is gone. It’s his fault!”
Aiden dared not breathe, nor swallow the lump nagging in his throat, one twitch and he’d die. He watched as Kiera moved away from Cooper, now getting to his feet, to move closer to Amari, hands open in front of her.
“Come on Amari, don’t do this. I didn’t mean to make it sound like he didn’t matter. All I meant is we need to stick to a plan. I know how mercs like to think on the fly.”
“Still, he’s the reason Bryant is dead. Bryant was right! We should be out fighting, not skulking around in the shadows.”
“But we are fighting, this is going to help us win.”
“You keep saying that, but you won’t explain. It’s CLASSIFIED!”
“Let Aiden go and Coop will explain it as we get ready for the descent.”
Aiden felt the pressure on his neck increase and then she suddenly let go of him, letting him drop to the ground. Keira rushed to his side as he sat up, rubbing his neck, wiping away a small trickle of blood.
Cooper gave Amari a deadly stare. He would have put her in cuffs, but he needed her, more so, now that he was down a body. Besides, there wasn’t a military court any longer, all that remained were small pockets of resistance around the globe.
“Listen, I’m only saying this once. All we have faced so far is their security forces, we need to disable all the pods before they send re-enforcements and their landing parties. We’re running out of time, our scouts tell us they are gearing up for something, so teams have been sent to each pod around the world. The hope is if we destroy them all at the same time, they won’t be able to repair each other.”
“That’s right. Twice we found and attacked pods. Each time the damaged pod emitted a tone which was answered by other pods. We think it’s an electrical healing protocol, the damaged pod’s workload is shared among the rest until it’s repaired. If we destroy them all at once, they can’t heal themselves.”
“Alright, but why are they here?”
“That’s clas- “
“See, that, that right there is why I didn’t join the military. Doc, do you know what’s up?”
Aiden glared at her as he donned his Freon-Cooling-Suit.
“This is their new home. They’re terraforming the planet.”
“We have to move, enough questions.”
Cooper secured a cable to a rock and tossed the rest over the ledge. The widened hole allowed in more light, showcasing more detail. Illuminating the twisted remains of Bryant was a large cylindrical probe. It appeared to be 40 feet long, lights flickering along it. What appeared to be smoke was being jettisoned at regular intervals from ports.
A low, steady rumble reverberated around the smooth curved walls of the chamber, accompanying the long steady hiss of venting gas. Cooper swung himself over the edge, leading the way. The cable didn’t reach the floor, forcing them to drop and slide down the last few feet.
Standing at the base, it appeared monolithic. A great heat rolled off it in pulses and the air was suffocating, immediately triggering their gas detectors. These pods struck the earth without warning. Their initial impact causing an intense blast wave, searing everything around it. The large-scale eradication of trees and life causing a spike in the planet’s CO2.
Climatologists around the world started sounding alarms as global temperatures rose. Each probe had struck large CO2 veins deep in the earth, throwing our planet into a persistent and dramatic heat wave; an unparalleled global warming event. Drought and wildfires destroyed most of the remaining native flora, as alien lichen started vigorously growing in all the newly barren real-estate. Amari’s light flashed along Bryant’s remains, and quickly moved away to the brilliantly colored lichen growing around the probe, then ran it up the side, stopping on a vent.
“These vents, what are they? Do they have anything to do with the lichen.”
“Yes, the lower vents continuously pour out CO2 as the planet is terraformed, keeping a consistent level. The upper vents release the lichen spores. The lichen, like the Jumpers, requires high levels of CO2 and heat to survive. That’s the ‘smoke’ you saw billowing out of the hole.”
“So, we’re a greenhouse now?”
“In a way, but more accurately, we’re their new home. They are merely redecorating, before moving in. They didn’t bother to attack us, worse, they didn’t even acknowledge us. They viewed us as we view ants. We always believed we’d be on equal footing with other intelligent life; how vain of us.”
“So, what’s the plan?”
“We need to trigger the EMP at 17:15. All probes have to be hit within seconds. We have a 2-minute window.”
“How does this help us win?”
Aiden approached the probe, the searing heat forcing him to squint his eyes, missing a brief flicker of movement. The alien’s camouflage seamlessly shifting to match its background. Aiden’s eyes scanned over it, as he turned to Amari.
“If we destroy the terraforming probes, the atmosphere will become hostile to them again, hopefully forcing them to abandon the planet, or at least buy us more time. Now keep watch, they could be anywhere.”
The trio took up positions, lights and eyes trying to see what could not be seen, as Aiden continued around the base of the impossible structure. For all its height, 3 men could grasp hands around it. It appeared like it should collapse under its own weight. Seeing the panel only he knew how to find, Aiden reached out expecting to feel hot metal, instead his hand touched rough skin. An undulating shriek pierced the air as an unseen figure grabbed Aiden, flinging him across the room, to slide down the chamber wall.
Cooper fired where Aiden once stood, but the creature had already moved to stand behind Keira. It dropped its camouflage, allowing them to see it clearly. Its skin was a slightly translucent, pinkish beige and tough as a rhino’s hide. The Jumper stood 7 feet, with saltatorial legs, leading to a muscular core covered in armored plating. Its humanoid face had too flat of a skull, slit nostrils, and mandibles dripping a deadly poison.
The creature grabbed Keira in its spindly arms and smashed her face into the ground, killing her instantly. Cooper ran towards Aiden, while Amari was shooting at the creature; the bullets not harming it, but causing hesitation and hisses of frustration. Cooper grabbed Aiden and shook him back to reality.
“You have to blow it now. We’ll cover you.”
“But, my watch. What time is it?”
“It doesn’t matter, we have no choice.”
Aiden ran for the probe and the creature backed away from Amari until it reached the curved chamber wall. Suddenly it sprang from the wall, over Amari and sprinted towards Aiden.
Cooper’s bullets ricocheted off the fast-moving creature. Amari yelled to him to face the wall, which he did, expecting another creature. Instead, he was knocked sideways as she shot his Freon tank. The pressurized gas spraying over the creature, halting it in its tracks, shrieking in agony.
Aiden placed the EMP as the others finished the creature. Once he triggered the pulse, the probe went dark, leaving only the unnatural daylight illuminating the chamber. Aiden ran to Cooper and Amari, now staring straight up.
“I don’t know if that was the right time, we’ll only know back at the bunker.”
His words faltered as he followed their eyes to the rim high above. Several dark shapes stood watching them. Shrieking, they started moving down the walls and disappeared. Amari looked at the group.