THE ARRIVALS: TALES OF A NEW EARTH
Part 3 - Creeping Doom
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.
© Thaddeus Howze 2011. All Rights Reserved [@ebonstorm]