This story is a bit of an anomaly for me. I saw this and intended it be a quick image flash story or a short snippet. Instead, after sitting down, the idea for almost the entire story came to me incredibly quickly. I had a loose idea of what I wanted, but it was much more free-form than I usually do things. I wrote the draft of this story in a single day. Trust your subconscious!
Samuel woke up drowning.
The weight of water pressed on him, pressure popped his ears, and it was cold. So cold. He thrashed. His body convulsed, trying to inhale, or maybe exhale. He couldn’t tell. His lungs just spasmed, wanting to do something, anything, to resolve their issue. He clutched his face and discovered a thick residue sealing his mouth and nose.
There was light beneath him. Above him? He kicked toward it. He’d never swum before, never actually been in water before, but he’d seen it done. Desperation provided enough incentive to make up for inexperience. The light got brighter and brighter, more intense than anything he’d ever seen. He felt like he was going to pass out. Waves of black pulsed in his vision, strobing the brightness with near unconsciousness. The water grew a touch warmer as he rose. His body tingled.
He burst the surface and clawed at his face. The residue scraped away and he inhaled deeply. Wiping his eyes he squinted into the light. The sky was crisp blue, too bright to look at, and the sun was brighter than any light he’d ever experienced. He looked away, across the water. There was a rocky shoal not far off, and beyond it shifting green shapes. Trees? Outdoors?
It couldn’t be.
He dogpaddled his best toward it. He was fortunate. There were no waves to speak of, no salt burning his eyes, and some thirty meteres out his feet scraped bottom. He managed a hopping walk in closer and was able to wade the majority of the distance. Even so, the water was chilling on his naked skin and he was exhausted and confused when he reached the beach. The shore was stony and hurt his feet. He clambered onto one of the bigger rocks and sat, panting.
What the hell was going on?
He kept his back to the trees and stared out over the grey water. It was a lake of some sort. In the distance he could see another shoreline. Above, in the sky, storm clouds were rolling in to intrude on the bright day. They carried a cool wind with them. He hugged his legs and tried to get warm. None of this was possible.
As memory returned to him, of those last terrifying moments, he realized that he must be dead. He was squinting up at the sun, rolling the idea around in his head, when he heard a woman speak from behind him.
“Sam! You’re here!”
Grant was the first one into the breach. He insisted on it. First Patriot Samuel Wabash was supposed to do it, he was their leader. It was his responsibility. But it was a fight he’d had with his second in command many times before and he’d never won it. Threats of court martial, dismissal, even dusting, had no effect. Even if he managed to get Grant to back down, one of the others would have replaced him. None of the men and women under his command were going to let him take point. Ever. It was their way of showing him they’d die for him. It was against the rules, and it chaffed his sense of duty, but he’d come to accept it.
He heard steady gunfire echoing in the cave. Not Grant, deeper. Somebody screamed.
His earbud whispered. “Looks like it’s stabilizing. I’ve got a three dozen Lumbies with their backs to us, holding position, dug in. Mons are across the drop, firing wild. I don’t know what they’re shooting at. Too far to see.”
Samuel motioned his squad to follow. He got low and crawled in after Grant. The cavern was immense, miles across. He could tell by the hexagonal basalt columns that it was one of the first pockets excavated by drones long before the colonization, centuries old. Trees and grass covered the floor and a network of lights hung from the high ceiling. They were currently in their night cycle and were dim brown spots in the darkness above, providing a half light, but no nutrition to the plants. He joined Grant and surveyed the Columbianac troops.
They’d taken cover behind some fallen ceiling rubble. Most of them were lying on the stones, weapons aimed down into the valley. A few others were relaxing behind the cover, and a couple were huddled over a computer. It looked like they were communicating with someone.
Samuel frowned. The situation was clear, but he wasn’t happy it had come to this. The United States of Tharsis were falling apart. While it was inevitable that the Mons Americana States and the Columbianac States were marching toward civil war, the Glacial States, New Ferguson in particular, wanted nothing to do with it. That didn’t matter to the bigger conglomerates though. New Ferguson was small, situated geographically between them, and it looked like the war was going to play out on their turf whether they liked it or not.
Unless they sent a clear message right from the start, to both parties.
Chief Patriot Wabash nodded. Grant and the others moved into position, marked their targets, and fired.
The Lumbies didn’t expect attack from that direction. Hell, they didn’t even know that there were access corridors in this part of the pocket. Less than a half dozen of them even got a shot off. They were dead in seconds. The team advanced and occupied their position.
“One down, one to go.” Muttered Grant.
The gunfire on the other side of the cavern had stopped. Samuel wasn’t sure what to make of that. They hadn’t been firing at the position they’d just taken. Whatever had been going on over there was finished.
Officer Hall called him. “Patriot, take a look at this.” She indicated the computer they’d set up.
It looked like they’d been monitoring a remote camera feed. Whatever it was had advanced night imaging and was darting through the trees, moving at an incredible speed. Ahead was a pile of rubble.
Samuel spun and raised his weapon. “Incoming!”
The Child didn’t slow as it mounted the stones. It collided with the speed of a transport into one of the men, driving a metallic arm through his chest armor, flesh, and bone.
Samuel couldn’t believe what he was seeing, but that didn’t stop him from firing his weapon.
The Children, Mars’ native inhabitants, had never, ever, acknowledged the presence of humans on the planet. They were reclusive, virtually indestructible creatures, that resembled a robotic child’s skeleton with oversized skulls. They’d been studied extensively, but no communication or viable relationship had ever resulted. They were too different. But they didn’t seem to mind colonization, and, after almost a thousand years, were considered a rare curiosity by everyone except xenobiologists. Samuel had seen a few before, over the years, wandering in the deeper caverns.
They were nothing like this.
Hundreds of bullets pinged off of its bronze toned exoskeleton as the troop fired. They were trained marksmen, good soldiers, every last one of them. They were not missing their target. That didn’t stop it from killing them one at a time. Speeding from person to person, simply dispatching them with red stained, inhuman, hands.
“B up! Cease fire, retreat, and blow the tunnel! Grant, get A to the trees and distract with prejudice!”
Samuel dropped his gun, grabbed the computer, and frantically scanned the screen. He watched from the Child’s perspective as they ran for the tunnel. It leapt onto one of their backs and twisted her head around. Gunfire from Grant’s group got its attention and it rushed them. Good, it looked like the bulk of the troops would make it out. Now, if he could just figure out how they were controlling it, Grant and the others might survive as well.
He flipped screens, trying to ignore the screams. He couldn’t find any command functions. He had no doubt the Lumbies had been using this thing on the Mons. But how? He couldn’t find any direct means of control. But there was a damage assessment. There, right there, if he was lucky. He bolted.
“Hold the tunnel detonation! Grant, bring it to the breach!”
Most of A was dead. As the remaining few emerged and ran for their destination, Samuel opened fire, hoping to lure it up to his spot by the wall, just past the tunnel. It didn’t really work. There were less than a handful to make it to his position. Grant was there, but he was missing his right arm from the elbow down. He slumped over and passed out. With no more victims in the woods, it came for them.
“When the charges blow, hold it down as best you can!”
The soldiers in the tunnel timed it well. When the thing passed the entrance, they blew it. The blast wave and massive chunks of rock engulfed the creature. Samuel and the others huddled during the explosion. As soon as it was finished they sprung into action.
It was digging itself out. His subordinates did what he asked and jumped on it, trying to pin it down. It was a death sentence, but it was what Samuel needed. He shoved a concussion grenade into the things right eye socket, where the report had shown him the surface aperture had been shot off, and rolled away. As he did, a metallic fist connected with his hip and he heard a crack to accompany the pain.
They held it in place, despite his order. When it went off, they went with it.
Through the dust he could see the Child. It sat up, smoke curling from the wound in its head. It looked at him, touched the back of its skull with a hand, and fell over.
The others would not abandon him. He was certain, even now, that they were excavating the tunnel to be ready the moment more troops arrived. Help would come, eventually.
For now, he rested with the dead, and waited.
Nora sat on the edge of the bed and watched Samuel put on his dress uniform. Like many things on Mars, the design was a relic from Earth. It seemed the longer the planet was dead the more nostalgic people got. Governments, in particular, dressed themselves in the ancient trappings of democracy. The tall, conical hat and buttoned jacket made Samuel look like he belonged in a marching band. It was ridiculous, but he pulled it off. Somehow it fit his serious personality. They were equally formal. Once again, she was glad they weren’t from Parthena Mons. Those poor fools dug even deeper into history and had to wear togas.
“How’s your leg feeling?” She asked.
“Good. When I run, I can feel a pop in my hip. That hurts a little. But it’s a small thing.”
Nora got up and straightened out a tangled epaulette on his shoulder. “I’m surprised the Congress is asking for you.”
Samuel tightened his waistcoat. “I killed it. They want me to present it.”
She sighed. “You’d think they have other things to worry about. War’s right on top of them.”
“If the Columbianac secessionists have managed to militarise the Children, there won’t be a war. It’ll be occupation for everyone. If we’re lucky.” He replied.
“And how will talking to you change that?”
“I don’t know.”
She went to the window and folded her arms. “I don’t like it.”
He joined her at the glass, looking out over the desolate, rust colored, surface-scape. “It’s not about like or not like. It’s my duty. I do what they ask.”
“I have a really bad feeling, Samuel. About what they’re going to ask.”
Samuel didn’t respond. He wasn’t sure how to offer his wife comfort. He had exactly the same fears. The techs had gone over the body. They’d studied the computer. His superiors had interviewed and interrogated the entire surviving team. Delegates had confronted both the Mons Americana and the Columbianac about the incursion. All the political channels that remained in the fragmenting U.S.T. were firing on all cylinders. Even so, there had already been more fighting. In the past, the only thing keeping one group or the other from wiping out New Ferguson was the worry about how such an act would drain resources and tip the advantage the wrong way. If the Columbianac States really had a weapon that altered that stalemate, everything changed.
Nora breathed out a small, sad laugh. “Look, there’s a verga.”
Samuel saw it. They’d seen one on their first date and, usually, considered them good luck. Rain on Mars wasn’t uncommon during the right time of the the year, but it never reached the ground. The phenomenon was called a verga. Dark streaks bled from high clouds, angling off beneath them. They faded halfway to the earth, evaporating into nothing. Rain, but not rain. Hope, but not hope.
It’s just like us, thought Samuel. Always trying to make something good happen. Never quite making it.
Today, the verga felt like a bookend and it made his stomach churn. He kissed Nora goodbye and headed to the Congress.
Men in lab coats were waiting just outside the door to the Congress with the dead Child on a gurney. Samuel hadn’t seen it since the incident and he winced at the sight of it.
“Chief Patriot Wabash?” Asked one of the men.
The other man picked up the corpse and offered it to Samuel. “They want you to bring this with you.”
Samuel flinched. He knew he was presenting it, but… Carefully, he took it. The damnable thing was lighter than he expected. Almost fragile feeling. He knew better. He held it at his side and turned away from it. The sooner he got this over with, the better. He went in.
Like most places on Mars, the Congress chamber was underground. It was circular and a long shaft in the ceiling led several hundred feet up to a skylight. A hazy crescent of natural light hit the floor. There were five members of Congress and they were all present. In the center of the room was a table with a large case on it.
“Ahhh, Chief Patriot. Thank you for coming.” Said the Head Chair.
He saluted and gave a curt nod.
“First of all let me thank you on behalf of this Congress for your excellent service to the State of New Ferguson and your exceptional response to an entirely unprecedented threat to our sovereignty. It is people like you, and your men, who protect the very foundations of our way of life. For that, you have our eternal gratitude.” All the members of Congress nodded their assent.
“Thank you, Head Chair, Congress. It is an honor to serve.”
“I am told that you have recovered from your injuries and you are aware of the current military situation?” He asked.
“This is true.”
The Head Chair nodded. “So, what do you make of that thing you are holding?”
Samuel looked down at it. Looked into it’s blasted out eye socket. “It’s the end of human life on Mars.”
The First Chair looked to the others. “See? I told you. It is evident!”
The others murmured. The First Chair pressed the issue. “Explain this conclusion.”
“Our ecosystem is fragile and relies on balance; solar balloons, the glacial oxygen electrolysis processing, the underground bio-preserves. Failure of any is devastating. A Columbianac invasion with such a decisive advantage would prompt Mons Americana to catastrophic retaliation. Both sides believe they can exist without the other. They are wrong.”
The First Chair nodded. “Exactly right. And here we sit in the middle. What course of action would you suggest?”
Samuel shook his head. “I see none. We haven’t the military force to capture the things we’d need to sustain the ecosystem and there there is no political recourse we can rely on to alter their direction. The Glacial States lack influence.”
The First Chair pointed to the table with the case on it. “Put that thing down, will you?”
“Yes, sir.” He put the corpse next to the case.
“We have a plan. Something that might be the solution to keeping humanity alive. From what we can tell, that creature is a prototype. They’ve not managed to weaponize more than a handful. By our estimations, they’d need hundreds for an invasion. There is only one place they could get that many.”
Samuel thought he knew where this was going. He’d heard rumors, everyone had, of a city of Children, deep beneath the surface of Mars. If it was real, it wasn’t something the United States had made public.
“Underground. Beneath the Vastitas Borealas cap. Not near any habitations. The Columbianac States know it exists, but not exactly where. They’ve been looking for it and now, thanks to you, we know why. We can never allow them to find it. Please, Chief Patriot, open the case.”
He unlatched the hinges, flipped the top, and revealed the bomb.
“This will work on them?”
“Enough of them, yes. It won’t stop the Columbianans from rounding up stragglers here and there, but building an army that way would take them decades. Mons Americana would develop a counter in that time. Balance will remain. Human life on Mars will remain.” His expression grew serious.
“We’re asking you to take your troop, detonate that bomb, and destroy the Creche.”
Samuel closed the case, re-attached the latches, and came to attention.
The Congress looked surprised. The First Chair frowned. “We assumed you’d be the right man for this, since you’d killed one and they’d slain your men. Apparently, we were wrong.”
“No, sir, you were not wrong. I only mean that I will not take my troops to destroy the Creche. I will go alone. There is no need for any more of New Ferguson’s soldiers to die.”
The First Chair considered his words. After a moment of silence he nodded. “Very well. I will allow fate to guide you Chief Patriot. You are dismissed with our deepest hopes.”
Chief Patriot Wabash picked up the case and left.
Samuel did not see Nora again before he left. He’d immediately entered a series of briefings and been given the specific details of his destination, transport, and equipment. The crew that was helping gear him up was surprised that it was only him. After expecting an entire troop, it took some re-jiggering to get all the necessary things into a single rover. In the end they settled on one of the larger, slower vehicles that was easier to manage solo and could hold more. It meant a slightly longer trip, but there was not much alternative. They compensated by altering the route closer to Mons Americana territory. It was a risk, but mitigated the vehicle failings. Samuel wasn’t worried. The Mons had no particular reason to stop him and they made sure the NF flag was prominent on the vehicle. It looked like a science vessel.
Without interruptions, it was a sixteen hour trip to the Vastitas Borealas icecap. Samuel did his best to sleep as much as possible, but it was difficult. As expected, there was no trouble from neighboring States. Anyone out on the surface was there for a reason and there was never a reason to linger. It wasn’t the fear of being caught that troubled his sleep. It was his mission.
Even more than the fact that he would not be coming back, it was the bomb. While they had never managed to understand the Children, they had not been poor co-habitants of the planet. Until the attack, Samuel had never thought of them with malice or ill intent. It had been a mild curiosity. The belief that out there, somewhere, there were scientists working on figuring them out. In the back of his mind he’d always assumed that someday they’d learn to communicate and that they’d play a part in humanities future. It certainly looked like they were, but not in the way he’d always hoped.
That they weren’t the threat, that they were a casualty, was clear. The real danger was human behavior. Destroying the Creche, killing so many of the Children, would stop the immediate problem, but it did nothing for the long term issue.
It was the verga all over again.
But this time, the cycle would kill him, and thousands of an alien species they’d barely begun to comprehend along side him. The viability of this plan solving the problems of the future seemed beyond dubious.
On top of this, he considered the past. It had been half a millenia since the Earth had been rendered uninhabitable. Centuries longer since the United States, the place the principles of Mars’ United States of Tharsis, had been founded on had perished. Though long dead, he knew some of the history. Everyone was taught in school about the race wars and knew that through much of mankind’s history on Earth that people killed each other because they were different. It didn’t happen due to race any more, but it didn’t stop people from killing. They’d just stuck with the other tried and true reasons like nationality, religion, or greed.
The reasons had been lost in time, but Samuel knew that his state, in particular, had been founded on the idea of tolerance. It was a big part of why they were neutral in the conflict. You only fought to defend an idea, never to enforce it. It was not their place to try and change the other States in the union. Their military sought only to ensure that they did them no harm. But if they went to such lengths to respect other warmongering states out of elevated ideals, how could they justify killing the peaceful Children?
Did it matter that they were different? Not human. Did it make it okay to wipe them out to preserve a way of life that was always going to result in more violence?
By the time Samuel got to the entrance to the underground system that led to the Creche, he’d made up his mind. He didn’t know specifically what efforts to communicate with the Children had been made in the past, but never before had there been such an imperative. There really was no other choice.
He left the bomb in the rover.
Even after living most of his life underground, the caverns he descended into were much different from anything he’d ever seen. They were as much ice as stone and filled with strange vapors. It was a silent crystalline maze of fragile ledges and unforgiving rock shrouded in a web of miasma.
He’d brought extra environmental canisters to resupply his suit, a compressed habitation unit, food and water, and some survival gear. They’d estimated it would take ten hours through the cave to reach the Creche carrying the bomb. He easily had twice as much stuff as that and it was slowing him down. At the rate he was going, he figured he had enough to keep him alive for almost two days before he’d have to go back to the rover. Of course, by then, it was likely the Congress would have sent another man to complete the mission he was abandoning.
One thing at a time, thought Samuel. Worry about that later.
His path was arduous. The only sounds were of his boots, clattering gear, and his hand grapple. Every drop he got to he had to send his gear down first, release it, and then follow. Every muscle in his body ached from the burden, but he pressed on as best he could. Over and over, he considered dropping something to make the trip easier. He’d go through a mental check list, realize that everything was vital, and resign himself to the task.
He was eight hours in when he heard someone behind him.
His first thought was that it was one of the Children. After all, he had to be getting close, it made sense that he’d come across a few. But then he thought about it and thought better of it. It might very well be one of them, but to assume so was dangerous. He’d left the rover under an ice shelf, but it was only hidden to the naked eye. A quick magnetic scan would have revealed it to anyone else. He couldn’t think of anyone good who could be following him. A Columbianan would be disastrous as it would mean he’d accidentally led them straight to the Creche. Another soldier from New Ferguson would mean they’d built redundancy into the plan. The best case was curious soldiers from Mons Americana coming to question what he was doing. None of it was good.
He picked up the pace and made special effort to obscure his passing. He decided against two trips the next time he came to a precipice. It added more weight than the grapple recommended, but he decided it was worth it. It was difficult to tell from the echoes, but it seemed whoever was behind him was getting closer, intent on catching up to him. One trip saved a good chunk of time.
He had barely started down when the line snapped, severed by the stone edge he’d gone over. His fingertips scoured the rock, looking for purchase, and found none. The weight of his pack pulled him away from the wall. He somersaulted backwards. His shoulder impacted an ice ridge and it shattered. He landed in a heap with the shards. His arm was numb and he knew he’d cracked some ribs. Turning his head he realized he wasn’t even at the bottom. He was on a small ledge.
He took a moment to catch his breath and let the world stop spinning. He had another grapple and a med-kit in the pack. He just needed to sort out how to get the grapple without falling again, use it to get down, and apply the kit.
He saw a silhouette peer over the ledge above him. “Patriot? Sam! Hold on! I’m comin’ down.”
He heard a grapple set, a whizzing sound, and Grant was there.
“Officer! What are you doing here?” Demanded Samuel.
Grant smiled from behind his mask. His new robotic arm kept hold of his line while his other hand set another and harnessed Samuel in.
“Saving your ass, Patriot. This is why I always go first, sir!”
He took him under the arm and they lowered down to the relative safety below.
“You all came?” Asked Samuel.
Grant nodded. “Yup, and more. Families too. Nora’s here.”
Nora was here? Samuel didn’t understand. “What? Why?”
“Columbianan troops pushed into New Ferguson hours after you left. We were ordered to surrender by the Congress. I told them we don’t surrender for anyone but you.”
“That’s invalid protocol, Grant.”
“Whatever. I demanded to see you. They refused. We were worried. We… ahh… pressed the issue.”
Samuel raised an eyebrow. “You what?”
“Look, don’t worry about it. Long story short, we found out what you were doing. We knew you’d never just nuke the shit out of anything and you had to be up to something else. We came to help. Besides, if the Columbianans are gonna kill us, we’d rather it be under your command.” Grant shrugged apologetically. “Sorry, Patriot.”
Samuel stood up, shook his head at Grant, and gave the big man a hug.
“You did right, Grant. Thank you.”
He looked surprised at his commanders affection.
“So, what now? What’s the plan?”
Samuel rolled his injured shoulder and took stock of his condition. He wasn’t banged up too badly.
“We’d best get everyone down here. We’re all going to make friends with the neighbors like our lives depend on it.”
The Creche was unlike anything they’d ever seen. They’d left their weapons at the edge of the city (if you could call it that) with a few lookouts and entered with only the gear they needed to survive. Samuel and Nora held hands and led the group of nearly two hundred humans into the alien homestead.
The buildings, like the Children themeselves, were metallic; dark nickel and bronze hues. Unlike earth structures they were built in diagonal layers, horizontally, with great glass bubbles incorporated into the designs. The closest approximation that Samuel could envision was a jumble of layered pastries, stuck together in clumps, run through with marbles. There were no doors or windows in anything, just cracks and missing walls to serve as entry and exit points as needed. There were no roads, but there were grooves in the stone, worn by time, to indicate the preferred paths of the inhabitants. They chose the largest of these and followed it.
As for the Children themselves, they’d never seen so many of them. But while there were a great many of them, they went about their odd business without acknowledging the parade of humans walking brazenly in their midst. They went in and out of buildings, stopped to interact with one another, and appeared to be busy. A couple of times Samuel tried to speak with them. As he expected, they ignored it. His efforts to touch them were rewarded with momentary success, but they’d slink out from under his fingers, avoiding him. That actually filled him with hope. It was, at least, an acknowledgement of his presence.
As they neared the center of the Creche the structures thinned out to make space for a central court that was dominated by a glowing sphere, several stories high. There were no Children here, or anywhere near it. Wide open space surrounded it. It was as good a place as any to set up their temporary home.
Samuel started to organize the people, assigning jobs and prioritizing the effort. Nora pulled him aside and stopped him.
“Sam, let Grant and I handle this. You focus on them.” She said, indicating the Children in the distance.
“I don’t even know where to begin.”
She gave his hand a squeeze through their gloves. “Relax. Follow your instincts.”
Reluctantly, he let the work happen without him. He spent the remainder of the first day alone as he wandered the Creche. Initially, he was drawn to the areas that seemed the most heavily populated. But several attempts to get groups of Children to acknowledge him failed and he stopped. He clambered into a gap in one of the buildings. The ceilings were low, he had to crouch, and the interior was not designed in a series of halls and rooms. It was more like random walls, varying floor heights, and dead ends. All of it was elaborately decorated with patterns and filigree. He had no more success inside than out. After almost getting lost on several occasions, he exited the building. Exhausted, he surrendered for the day. Lying next to Nora in the environmental tent, he felt like a failure.
Nora knew him well enough to see when he was lost in his thoughts. He didn’t want advice or platitudes. It was enough that she was there and she knew it. His curiosity kept coming back to the central sphere. All day he’d hesitated to approach it due to it’s obvious significance. He justified the avoidance with the possibility of radiation and the lack of Children near it. But that was exactly why he had to go there. He needed to rest though. He’d let sleep take him for a few hours and then go.
Grant shook him awake.
The words, “We’ve got a problem”, had barely escaped his lips when Samuel heard gunfire in the distance.
“Columbianans, we think. They’re running. I sent guys after them. If we’re lucky, we can kill them before they get far enough out to transmit.” Said Grant.
Samuel disagreed. “It doesn’t matter. One missing patrol is as good as a transmission. No, don’t bother. Get a perimeter set as best you can. We’ve got a position advantage and they won’t bomb us out. They want the Children alive. We’ll make it as hard for them as possible.”
Grant left to comply. Nora looked at him with concern. “Don’t worry.” He said. “It’ll take a while for a force to get here and the first attack will underestimate us. We have some time.”
He pulled on his environment suit. “We’ll see.”
There was no hesitation today as he headed for the sphere. One way or another, he was going to find his way inside it. After watching the Children he’d become more and more convinced that their name was more than coincidence. Something was controlling them. It made sense from what they’d seen the Columbianans do with their prototype. The Children were wired to receive. Dealing with them would get him nowhere. He needed to find what was transmitting. He needed to find Mama.
The sphere, beneath his glove, was soft. The glass-like appearance was a false assumption. The entire thing was permeable. He sunk his hand into it. He pulled it back out and inspected it. It had a slight glaze of liquid. It wasn’t anything the suit couldn’t handle. Clenching his fists, he walked into the sphere.
It was, indeed, filled with liquid. A thin, viscous, substance with a slight algae tinge. It had no buoyancy to speak off and offered little resistance as he walked. It did create a smoke-like effect that obscured his vision beyond a few meters. The ground was lumpy and rose up toward the center of the sphere. He found what he was looking for at the top.
She, if the term applied, resembled the Children in shape, but instead of having a metal exterior, she lacked any exoskeleton, or internal skeleton, at all.She was a body without solid structure, languishing in the fluid. Her large brain throbbed in the open. Her eyes were pools of milk and lidless. Her entire substance was a delicate network of free floating tubes, veins, and organs. These vessels extended up and away, toward the sides of the sphere. She was like a marionette with a hundred masters.
But that wasn’t right. Samuel knew it was the other way around.
He spread his arms, opened his hands. “I need to talk to you.”
Unlike the Children, he knew he had her absolute attention. What he didn’t know was if she understood him.
The liquid around him thickened. Systematically, his environmental suit and all his clothing was stripped from his body. He clutched at his helmet.
“No! Please! I can’t…” It was torn from him. He gasped, inhaled, and found he could breathe. He fell to all fours, shuddering.
“I need you to understand. They’re going to use your Children. We’re all going to die.”
Thin filaments, like long grass tendrils rose up from the ground and latched onto his skin. Twisting, they began to remove slivers of it. Samuel realized that she didn’t see the difference between his body and his suit.
She was taking away everything unnecessary so they could talk.
It was not exactly pain that Samuel felt as the sphere unravelled him. The sensation was a vast empty tugging, like exhaling forever and shrinking all the while. It took the skin first, then the muscle. It was careful to take only the parts of the cardiovascular system it deemed superfluous. His bones proved resolute and it twisted and cracked them, carrying away the shards. Eyes, suspended on stalks, watched in horror as his teeth floated away and dissolved.
There was little left of him when it was finished; a brain, lungs, heart, eyes, a bundle of veins. His hollow mind rolled the word ‘no’ over and over in a mental scream. After a while, he responded to himself; yes. This is real. This is happening.
The same vessels that held her in place, extending out to the sphere, reached down and lifted him. As they integrated with his system his consciousness expanded.
For each one that touched him, he saw through the eyes of a Child.
He could see that days had passed. Grant and the others were holding back the Columbianans. A good number of them had been killed, but they’d collapsed several of the tunnels in and were forcing a narrow fight. They were holding them back, but at a cost, and it wouldn’t last long.
He saw the surface. Mons Americana were launching remote strikes against the solar balloons, trying to undercut the lower states power supplies.
He saw fire. The underground forests of New Ferguson were burning.
He saw combat runners on the ice flows of the Glacial states, battling for the facilities.
It was over. The best they could hope for was that they’d kill each other off before they managed to destroy the Children too.
Samuel watched his soldiers, his family, fighting and he was glad for it. If this was the end of humanity, at least some of them were still fighting for the right things.
He watched Nora, as she huddled with the other non-combatants. She was holding his ridiculous hat and crying.
I’m sorry. He thought. I’m so sorry we brought this here.
Their Mother tilted her head and pointed a finger that was almost non-existent at him. The Children sprung to action. Like he’d seen before, they descended on his people with deadly accuracy. One by one they dragged them into the glass domes of the buildings, kicking and screaming. Once in the liquid they were dissected in the same way that Samuel had been. Only, with them, it didn’t stop at a few remaining organs. They were destroyed entirely.
No! God, please, no! His mind cried. We’re trying to save you!
His plea went unheeded. He watched in terror as Nora was dragged into an orb, peeled, and de-boned before his eyes. Grant followed, but they tore his mechanical arm off before processing him. In moments, both of them were gone. A faint red stain of blood lingering where they’d been. He wept as best he could.
Everywhere else on the planet the Children were not being so intricate with the humans. They rose from the core in numbers nobody had ever dreamed existed and massacred every living thing they found.
Samuel watched it all, over the course of days, as every single Earth creature was hunted down and eradicated; the humans, livestock, plants, and everything.
In the end, he knew he was the only one left. His mind kept asking why, but he already knew why. The only thing he didn’t know was why he was still alive. He looked at the Mother, begging for an answer.
The voice he heard was clear and spoke only one word.
Through the eyes of the Children he saw massive machines start to illuminate. A great circular storm began to form at the Martian pole. There was a distortion at the center, like the curve in a mirror. Everything began to vibrate.
He had no idea what was happening when his lungs evaporated. Evidently, she was done with him. Piece by piece, the little that was left of Samuel Wabash was taken away.
“Sam! You’re here!”
He turned at the sound of Nora’s voice.
She was running to him from the tree line where he could see Grant and several of the others. Grant’s arm was missing. Everyone was wearing rudimentary clothing made from leaves and bark. He rose to meet her and they embraced.
“We didn’t think you were coming! It’s been days. Where have you been? Do you know where we are?”
He looked at them, his tribe, and never felt more proud. Above him, the storm broke, and, this time, the rain fell.
He felt it on his skin and smiled at his wife.