“I always get the shakes before a drop,” explained Major Joseph Anniston. He fidgeted nervously at the ramp’s hinge point. The flight technician smiled at him and he thought he detected a hint of sadness in her eyes.
“Come back home,” said the flight technician.
“I’ll try,” he lied. It wasn’t likely and, in any case, he had no desire to make it back. That small fact made him perfect for the mission. Somewhere in the nightmare that was Florida, Amanda, his wife, waited for him. Maybe she was reduced to a drooling moaning horror or worse: a hyper-intelligent hybrid. Either way, if he found her he would do what needed to be done.
The cargo bay depressurized and his ears popped. The jump light turned amber casting a dreary pall through the bay. It was nearly time. Hydraulic servos whined and the ramp yawned like a toothless mouth to reveal abyssal darkness. His helmet’s night vision system activated and made the cloudscape look like a roiling green hell. The jump light turned green. He looked one last time at the last human he would ever see and let himself fall over the edge. The slipstream stripped him away from the aircraft and into dark green silence. He watched the silhouette of the big cargo jet bank away as he nosed over into the night at terminal velocity. Cold sank into his bones as he fell.
The only warm spot on his body was where the 100 kiloton demolition nuke nestled against his chest.
* * *
At 5,000 feet above the Gulf of Mexico smart fabric wings deployed and stiffened into rigid forward swept airfoils. Simultaneously, molecules aligned in his suit to turn his body into a rigid faceted fuselage. He dove through a thin stratus layer into clear air and tested his maneuverability with gentle banks. G-forces built up as leveled off at fifty feet above the water. He turned on course and followed a flight path plotted to keep him clear of brittlestar swarms.
The world screamed by in a synthetic hyper-spectral reality generated from his suit’s passive sensors and the satellite feed. He turned at a designated waypoint, east of Tampa, and his threat warning chimed. Hostile icons represented as red diamonds appeared in his field of view and his flight computer identified the fast moving targets as Florida Air National Guard F-16’s. The hostile fighters turned towards him and increased speed.
“Snapshot,” said Major Anniston and his onboard computer launched a barrage of micro-wasp missiles from his suit’s hardpoints. The missiles leapt forward in a burst of white flame that temporarily blinded him. He pitched up and climbed towards the F-16’s. The fighters split apart, putting on G’s faster than a normal human could tolerate. A micro-wasp found a target and a doomed brittlestar F-16 exploded in a bright splash of flame across the night sky.
The two remaining F-16’s crossed his flight path, rattling him with turbulence. He banked hard and his flight suit squeezed his legs and abdomen, forcing blood into his head so he wouldn’t black out from gravity induced loss of consciousness. One F-16 pulled into a knife edge turn to get its nose around and point its weapons at him. He saw the bright flash of rocket motors from the brittlestar aircraft. The missiles thundered past and he felt the heat of their exhaust but they failed to find his small radar and IR signature. He rippled two more micro-wasps. The brilliant-class missiles caught the attacking F-16 at a combined speed of 1400 KPH and it blossomed into an orange fireball. Anniston reversed towards the remaining F-16, straining the engine, burning too much fuel, and wasting time. The F-16 rolled away and then back even tighter trying to get inside the turn of his more maneuverable wing suit. Anniston fired his last barrage of micro-wasps. The doomed F-16 reversed and dove to escape. The missile flew directly into the engine, blowing the tail off the aircraft.
Anniston sighed in relief and turned back to course. His satellite feed indicated the airspace was clear. Fortunately, humans still owned the sky. On the ground it would be different. The brittlestars were alerted to the incursion. He imagined them tearing at his protective suit with ragged bloody fingernails and the burn of acid mucus as alien nerve fibers subverted his body. Once the horrors got under his skin they would breed rapaciously, fissioning and growing, and fissioning again, consuming nonessential fatty tissues until they filled all the in-between spaces. They would clog his digestive tract, leak from his sinus cavities, and devour his brain leaving nothing but the stem to keep the body alive for as long as it would last. He would be a moaning stumbling drooler, the horrid shock troops of the species.
Or perhaps he would be the other kind.
* * *
Anniston dropped the last chunk of concrete rubble to sink his parachute in the drainage ditch along eastern edge of the space shuttle runway. He considered his helmet for a moment and then tossed it in the water. The night vision system would be useful but the mask obstructed his field of vision and at best, it would only slow a brittlestar attack. He had more to gain by seeing clearly.
He wiped sweat from his face and scanned the runway’s debris strewn length for movement. As a child he watched gleaming white orbiters touchdown with little puffs of tire smoke. No more. The last space shuttle touched down over six years ago. Space was the domain of military robots and up until recently: wealthy tourists.
He extracted a foil pouch of water from a pocket, tore the corner, and drank the vitamin laced water down in two big gulps. He tossed the packet into the brush and then reconfigured his gear for easier carrying. He shouldered the heaviest load, the nuclear warhead and slipped it onto his back. He cinched down the straps and stowed his remaining gear, mostly ammunition, in his combat harness. He took the safety off his modified M-4 carbine, and walked to the space shuttle tow road. For the moment it was peaceful. Cicada trill and mosquito hum filled the air.
The broad tow road swept south through a feral landscape of wave-tossed debris subsumed in organic flowing humps of bramble and wild grape. The road ended at his destination, the vehicle assembly building. The massive building’s imposing flanks towered over the surroundings. Inside the vehicle assembly building, the brittlestar hybrids were building something and his mission was to find out what it was, relay the intelligence via satellite link, and if necessary destroy it with the nuke.
Anniston stopped and listened. His senses were far better than a drooler’s. He could smell the rich aroma of salt marsh, hear the croak of frog and taste the cloying humid decay of Florida air and it reminded him of Amanda and their cottage home in North Carolina.
They met the day he checked into Marine Corp Air Station New River as a fleet replacement pilot for the V-22 Osprey. She was a civil engineer building new support facilities for the new V-44 quad rotor the Marines had purchased. At first she wanted nothing to do with a Marine but with time and charm on his side he changed her mind. They married upon his return from his first deployment.
Upon completion of the New River project, she accepted a job at NASA as a facilities engineer. It involved a lot of travel, but no more than his career as a Marine Corp pilot. Every rendezvous was like a honeymoon. At Test Pilot school he was selected to evaluate the Nightwing Infiltration suit and she was put in charge of converting NASA facilities into national parks. She was at the cape when the western flank of the Azore’s Cumbre Vieja volcano collapsed into the Atlantic ocean creating the massive tsunamis that devastated the eastern seaboard of the United States. A Red Cross team sent him a message that she was alive and well, but the destructive waves washed up a completely new menace: a nightmare horde of bizarre creatures churned from the ocean’s ultra-deep hadalpelagic zone. Feathered worms, glassy manta’s, gulpers with teeth too long for their bodies, and needle walking urchins six feet across littered the Florida coast. All of the creatures died and rotted in the light and the heat of the surface world except for the hive-minded brittlestar. The strange creatures from the bottommost depths found a way to live.
First contact was made and the battle for the world began.
* * *
He heard the crunch of glass underfoot and held his breath to listen as blood roared in his ears. He crouched behind a pile of tsunami-tossed wreckage and saw the shambling black silhouettes of droolers. The creatures hunted in lurching stumbles and would continue to do so until they reached the end of their lifespan when the human component failed under the stress of occupation.
A metallic screech sounded behind him. He turned to see a drooler caught in a length of chain link fence. The drooler, a woman wearing the remnants of a sundress, dragged the fence behind her for two steps before breaking free. She renewed her awkward steps towards him stumbling over sheet metal and fragments of buildings. She craned her head and let out a low plaintive moan to alert the others. Anniston aimed his carbine at the lone female drooler and fired. The pyrotechnic chemical round exploded and engulfed the entire torso of the creature in greasy flame. She fell over, dropping first to her knees and then prone onto the broken pavement. Her body ruptured and hundreds of tiny black brittlestars escaped. The creatures desperately squirmed as the chemical fire spread over them. Anniston turned back to the alerted sentries. They focused on him and picked up speed. He stood and aimed carefully, firing in rapid succession. All four fell and writhed on the ground, moaning as their flesh burned. He swept up escaping brittlestars with the high-power laser bore sighted to the carbine. The sticky black creatures exploded in the collimated light beam.
Something slapped at his leg and he looked down. A half-burned brittlestar clung to his pant’s leg. Tentacles whipped and snapped against the impenetrable fabric searching for breaches in his uniform. He shook the thing off and crushed it under his boot.
A second wave of droolers staggered closer spreading out and encircling him. He moved from covered position to covered position looking for a way to advance or retreat. Satellite intel indicated that the area was empty of droolers but they kept coming. Hiding perhaps? Whatever the brittlestars were doing was worth protecting. He fired his remaining rounds in a steady rhythm dropping the creatures with deadly accuracy until the last magazine clattered to the road. He swept the surrounding area with the laser, boiling black brittlestars, until the laser guttered out in a pale flicker of pink light. He dropped the depleted weapon to the ground.
More droolers entered the ring of light from the scattered chemical fires.
He let the nuke slip from his shoulders and set it on the ground. He flipped open the guarded cover and the LCD display illuminated as he typed the arming code to begin the six hour countdown. His target was well within the blast radius. Accelerometers and pressure sensors guaranteed a detonation if the case was moved more than ten feet or opened. Only a remote command from the National Command Authority could turn it off.
Another blood-warm brittlestar reached his leg and he grabbed the squirming mass. It pulsed like a beating heart through his gloves. He crushed it and tossed the sticky remains to the ground. He unholstered his 45 and wracked the slide back to chamber a round. The swarm closed in on him. The muzzle felt cold under his chin.
“Stop,” said a female voice.
The brittlestar swarm stopped their advance. The loose creatures escaped from the hosts he had liberated milled over and under each other making wet sucking sounds.
Anniston eased the pressure on the trigger. A hybrid walked toward him out of the darkness. It was not the painful lurch and shuffle stride of a drooler but the walk of a hybrid, a fully functional being. The carpet of brittlestars parted for her like the Red sea before Moses. Droolers backed away as she made her way through the smoldering pyres.
“I knew it would be you,” said the hybrid.
“Amanda? Oh God.” He had fantasized about finding her and thought about what he would do. But now…
She walked closer to him. In the light of the fires he saw that her skin was absent the delicate black filigree of the common drooler. Adrenalin fear coursed through his body. He decided and pointed the 45 at his wife’s head, at the hybrid’s head. There was only one of the obscene creatures in her body rather than a gravid horde and the bullet would tear it out. It would have been easier to pull the trigger if she was a drooler, mindless and hostile.
“I’m still me, Joe,” said Amanda
“No, you’re not.”
“How can you be sure?” she asked as she walked towards him.
He imagined a liquid black starfish straddling her brain sinking its delicate tendrils into the fleshy folds of her mind, tugging on her nerve fibers to make her talk and walk like a puppet.
“Amanda, stop.” It looked like his wife and talked like her. Pulling the trigger wasn’t as easy as he thought.
“Joe, please. I need to show you something.” She looked at the nuclear weapon at his feet. “It will all be over in six hours anyway.” She turned and the wall of droolers parted for her.
He wondered how she knew. He aimed at the back of her head and began to squeeze the trigger. She stopped, but did not turn around.
“You can kill me later,” said Amanda. “If you still want too.”
He looked at the droolers and then down at the nuke and decided. He lowered his aim and followed, stepping over liberated bodies and cooked brittlestars. The droolers moved back just enough that he could smell their wet, salty breath. Black bile leaked from their noses and mouths and tiny black stars swam in their glistening empty eyes.
She walked to the driver’s side of a car.
“Get in,” she said as she opened the driver’s side door and slipped into the seat.
He surveyed the backseat, opened the door, and slid in, expecting a jack-in-the-box brittlestar to spring from the glove compartment into his face. She shifted the car into gear and drove towards the vehicle assembly building. He studied her face as they drove in silence past mindless droolers and tsunami wreckage. She looked the same as he remembered, maybe a little tired. Ahead the walls of the vehicle assembly building towered over wave-tossed landscape.
Her right hand slipped into his left. She smiled at him and for a moment he felt as if it was long ago before the waves. He pulled his gloved hand back as if he was burned.
At the building, she parked the car and got out. The bottom thirty feet of the historic building was stained with the tsunami’s high water mark. Panels had been torn away and debris was pushed up in twisted drifts along the base but it was still serviceable. Power cables snaked across the ground in haphazard tangles. He could hear the menacing growl of heavy machinery, the buzz of cutting tools, and electric hiss of welders. He followed her inside.
The ship rose to the highest reaches of the building and stretched to a depth of at least 300 feet in the excavated space beneath. Pods of engines and furled heat exchangers wrapped by translucent atmospheric fairings crowned the ship. Bright lights glinted off of a tapered fuselage that looked to be made of layers of translucent silver silk. Ovoid pods clustered at the bottom.
“It’s a compromise design. Fusion cycle engines will pull the ship into orbit and then we will deploy the living module into flight configuration. It would have been much more elegant if we could have built in orbit,” said Amanda.
She turned to look at him and pushed his gun down. His hands shook.
“Do you remember where we met?” asked Amanda
Her body pressed against him and he looked down into her face. He was completely vulnerable. If she wanted to she could turn him.
He wanted to kiss her, but he didn’t know if it was her. Then again, it didn’t really matter who he was or if he was. His mission, to collect intelligence and if necessary destroy the brittlestar project was over. Less than a mile away his demolition nuke would vaporize everything within five miles and signal the opening move in the end game. An international coalition of nuclear forces would incinerate the major Brittlestar swarms as a prelude to counter-invasion. Everything left alive after the strike would be nerve-gassed. He dropped the satellite camera and put both hands on the side of her face and pulled her close.
“Kiss me,” said Amanda.
“Will I still be me?”
“Yes,” said Amanda.
He wasn’t convinced even as he kissed her. She tasted just as he remembered and her sigh was exactly the same. Her arms pulled him closer and he waited for an electric sting, the shock of becoming less.
The pain was instantly overwhelming. Tendrils of fire wove amongst his neurons dropping him to his knees. She fell with him and held him as he surrendered to the inevitable. He took one, two, three deep breaths and the pain abated. Something squirmed in his skull, expanding and filling the ripples and folds that made him who he was. Adding, but not subtracting.
Her voice was far away and distant. “We’re leaving,” said Amanda. “Not all of us. Most want to stay and fight. They won’t go back to the mud and the dark. Will you come?”
The world swam in a chiaroscuro of brilliant blurry colors. He saw with a network of many eyes. Flashes of light from inside his head blinded him. He experienced the brittlestars before the Cumbre Vieja collapse. A lost species, conjoined, intelligent, and crippled by cold dark mud, a biological network spread out in the deepest reaches of the ocean and now with tenuous foothold on the surface they had no intention of giving up.
“Amanda.” He was surprised that he was himself…and more.
“I’m here Joe. I’m here.”
He felt her physical and mental touch. He felt himself expanding amongst bright points of light that he recognized as a brittlestar perfectly blended with a human. Darker confused blotches were the drooling insentient monsters.
“I am,” he said. “We are.”
“We are,” she repeated. “It’s okay Joe.”
Pain faded to a shallow buzz. With his eyes closed he saw her perfectly and she saw him. He stood back up and she helped steady him. His integration into the whole was consensual. He could shut them out like blinking an eye. There were thousands that had made the transition and there was no limit to what they could accomplish together in perfect cooperation. He could never go back. He turned to look at the starship.
“Yes,” he replied to her question.
* * *
The vehicle assembly building exploded apart as the ship rose on brilliant pillars of splayed photon beams. The ground beneath vaporized into a monstrous billowing cloud of steam as the fusion engines stepped up their power. The ship rose higher clearing the fire illuminated clouds.
Thunder, so long absent, returned to the cape.
The ship buffeted as his demolition nuke detonated. It steadied and accelerated, leaping to seven gravities and then twice that and then twice again escaping the atmosphere. The brittlestar fibers lacing his body cushioned the ferocious acceleration. Beyond geo-stationary orbits, safe from human weapons, the starship’s modules unfolded like an origami construct into flight configuration.
He was more than human in some ways and less than human in others. He held his wife’s hand in the adjacent acceleration couch. He was just as human in the ways that mattered.
In moments, the other engines, the ones that would leave Einstein confused, would activate.
Far below monsters battled each other for dominion of Earth with the power of the stars.
Mike Barretta is a husband, father and retired Naval Aviator. He now works for a major defense contractor as a helicopter pilot. His first sale was to Black Ink Horror and his first professional sale was to Jim Baen’s Universe. He was the 2009 winner of Jim Baen Memorial Writing contest and SFReader’s 9th annual short story contest. He has also managed to sneak his way into New Scientist magazine and a few anthologies when no one was looking. When he finds the time, he writes science fiction and fantasy stories and agonizes over a half completed novel.