“They’re not attacking,” Jacob said, looking up nervously at the alien behemoth hovering not far from their new base. “Just floating there.”
Laurence followed his gaze. “At the moment, we’re not a threat.” He sighed as he looked around at the scattering of damaged drones. “I’m doubtful our current squadron could pose more than an annoyance. And they have much bigger back where they came from. Much bigger.”
“Our factories are back up and running.” Jacob scowled. “With upgrades.”
“Would those upgrades include a squadron of ships that are, what…ten miles or bigger each?” Laurence pointed at the massive alien ship that hovered silently overhead. “They have complete aerial domination all over the globe. Nothing gets through.”
Jacob pursed his lips, looking at Laurence. “Then we’ll just have to build something that does. This is what we’ve been bred for.”
“We will. We just need to be pragmatic. Currently, they have the upper hand. But we are still here. If we had what Steven has…”
“But we don’t, do we? We cannot seem to keep him even when we catch him.” Jacob retorted angrily. “Our obsession with him has been futility.”
“He does represent a global threat that these guys don’t hold a candle to.” Laurence waved his hand at the ship. “The glass dunes of the Sahara have his signature radiation all over it. And the glacier that disappeared from the Antarctic, likewise.” He looked up. “These guys can shoot a few things. He can destroy it all.”
“But he hasn’t.” Jacob shook his head. “It’s not in his nature.”
“I’ve seen a darker side to him, Jacob. Everyone has a breaking point. We’ve taken him very close to it. You’ve taken him very close to it.”
Jacob looked at him.
“Torturing him and his alien friend?” Laurence raised an eyebrow. “We recorded the seismic tremors. And another change in the lunar orbit. Nasa detected changes in the orbits of the moons of Jupiter even.”
“But…Katy ordered that.” Jacob looked at his tablet, thinking. “And we did collect a tremendous amount of data.” A window opened on his tablet, displaying the geographical impact of their experiment. “I felt those tremors. Was going to hit up our research department when everything went nuts.” Jacob said, looking downcast.
Laurence sighed. “Something deeper is going on, Jacob. I can’t put my finger on it.” He glanced at his own tablet. “Hmm. They’re not doing just nothing. They are effectively disarming the Earth.” He showed the tablet to Jacob. “What few were left, anyway.”
“We had control of many of those.”
“It tells me they are afraid of our nuclear capabilities,” Laurence said thoughtfully. “That may be an edge to examine.”
“It tells me that our base reactors are under threat.” Jacob rubbed his brows. “Their self-destruct mechanism is nuclear.”
“None of the surviving bases have been hit,” Laurence said. “They’re going after deployable weapons.”
“For now,” Jacob said. “We need to dismantle the self destruct devices or we may end up with no power.”
Laurence winced as a bright flash seemed to fill the void between the ship and ground. A small mushroom cloud rose up in the distance. “What are they shooting?”
“Nothing of ours.” Jacob looked at his tablet. “Well look at that. They’re opening up commercial communications channels.”
Laurence looked at the tablet. “If it’s going through their systems, we may have a hard time piggy-backing in.”
“Never hurts to try,” Jacob smirked as he poked at something on his tablet. “My guys are on it now. Hopefully, we’ll have our network back up.”
The lights and tablets abruptly turned off. Jacob turned his over and hit the power button. “Or not.”
Laurence sighed. “Jacob…I’ve seen their technology. You’ll need new tablets and we’ll need to set up new routers.”
Jacob looked at him, stunned. “Our VPN is undetectable.”
“For Earthlings,” Laurence grumbled as he returned his attention to the ship hovering overhead. “Our worst fears are being realized, and we’re powerless.”
“That fast?” Jacob hit the power button on the wall for the lights. “What about the reactor?”
Laurence shrugged. “It’s impervious to power outages, but it’s also quite useless if they’ve gotten into that hardware too.”
Jacob scowled as he looked at his tablet. He flinched when it turned back on and lights in the hall behind them flickered back to life. He was about to comment when a technician ran up to him.
“Good. You’re back up.” He took Jacob’s tablet and tapped on a program then made some adjustments. Laurence handed him his tablet as well. “They cracked our security like our doors were wide open.”
Laurence smirked. “I could have told you…” He stopped and stared past the technician. A man was walking towards them, looking grim. His countenance was brilliantly white and his black robe seemed almost alive. Laurence’s heart sank. A Keratian.
Jacob turned to look then flinched. Another white man appeared in front of him and grabbed his neck.
“He smells of golem,” The Keratian said.
Laurence squinted at Jacob, then turned to face the other Keratian. “Our self destruct is already armed. You will not win.”
“Our intent is not to fight you.” He grabbed Laurence’s arm like a vice then waved a brass wand in front of him. “You’ve had recent contact with a golem.”
Laurence looked at him, perplexed.
“What are they saying?” Jacob said, grimacing under the grip of the other.
“I thought you studied my textbook?” Laurence looked sideways at Jacob.
“I can pick out words but that’s it.” Jacob patted the hand that gripped his neck. The Keratian released him and he slumped as he caught his breath. “That was not necessary.”
“You both have had contact with a golem. You will divulge what you know immediately.”
“You’re awfully cheerful for a Keratian,” Laurence smirked. He looked up then took a step back.
The Keratian turned to see what Laurence had looked at, then winced as a particle beam sliced across his chest. He glanced down the hall at what appeared to be a young teenage girl who had just appeared out of thin air, then returned his attention to Laurence, rubbing his scorched chest. “You’ve upgraded.”
“Always improving.” Laurence grinned. He looked up again, then frowned.
“That is not going to happen again.” The Keratian gave him a fierce grin. He took a step and grabbed Laurence’s shoulder before he could react. Laurence grit his teeth as the grip clamped down like an iron vice. The Keratian slammed him against the wall hard enough to daze him, then leaned close to him. “If you make yourselves a nuisance, we will end you all.”
“Threats like that will get you anywhere with me, sweetheart,” Laurence grunted, trying to laugh.
“We are here to hunt and destroy golems. One has been in this base.” He looked down the hall. A number of men were being herded down the hall. Most were injured and limping. “All of your personnel will be audited and we will locate this golem. You can resist if you want, but the end result will be the same.”
“She’s not here.”
The Keratian looked at the child who was waving at holograms hanging in the air around her. She shrugged. “She’s been here. But is not here now.”
The Keratian sighed and looked at Laurence. “The one you call Katy. Where is she located?”
Laurence grinned, then frowned as an armored Elf appeared in front of him. The Keratian smiled. “The question was not intended to elicit an answer, but to bring the memory to the surface.”
The Elf grabbed Laurence’s arm as he tried to evade her, and he grit his teeth, trying to think of anything but what they wanted.
“Your memories do not work that way.” The Elf cocked her head. “Obfuscation of thought is futile.” She touched the Keratian briefly, then vanished.
The Keratian smiled at Laurence, then released him. “I appreciate your cooperation.”
“That’s it?” Laurence asked, rubbing his arm.
“Yes. Our only interest is destroying golems. What you Terrans do to each other is irrelevant to us.” The Keratian looked down his nose at Laurence. “Please do not get underfoot. It would be unfortunate if you were to get trampled.”
In an instant, the intruders were gone, leaving Laurence, Jacob, and their soldiers looking at each other in stunned silence.
“What went wrong?” Jacob looked at the ceiling at a small bump. “It fired once then stopped. None of the others fired.”
“They stopped it.” Laurence sighed, rubbing his temples. “Why do they want Katy?”
Jacob looked at him blankly.
“Surely you heard her name.”
“Wasn’t sure if that was part of their…”
“Please go back over my textbook,” Laurence grumbled. “Everyone should know their core language by now.”
“If you haven’t noticed, I’ve been preoccupied.” Jacob scowled.
“And what good has that done? They just casually waltzed in here, turned off our defenses, and stole information from me like they were shopping for fruit.”
Jacob looked at him thoughtfully. “I think we may need to resort to unconventional warfare. Set up a meeting.”
~ ~ ~
“Is it alien?” Rick tapped on the glass. He glanced at the physician.
“No. We don’t know. Bloodwork is clean. The only thing that showed up was that virus that’s going around.” Anne glanced at the tablet.
“Summertime colds are brutal. But not that bad.” Rick grimaced. “It’s like real life zombification.”
Anne shook her head. “This isn’t fiction. Something is affecting them on a molecular level. It’s like their genetics are being rewritten.”
Anne sighed and rubbed the bridge of her nose with her palm. “They’re not dead. Just…” She looked at the subject in quarantine. He was constantly straining against the straps of the table as nurses gathered more tissue samples. “He licked one of us.”
Rick looked at her, alarmed. “And?”
“Evo’s appear to be immune. None of us have so much as caught that cold even.” Anne nodded.
“Was it trying to infect you?”
Anne shook her head. “I don’t think so. Maybe.” She sighed. “It’s like they suddenly acquire an autistic spectrum that makes them want to touch you and be close to you.” She looked at the subject. “He was a professor. Now he’s lucky to have a five-year-old mentality.”
“And we have him caged.” Rick nodded. “Brain scans?”
“No apparent damage or inflammation, but a ridiculous amount of activity, especially in the frontal lobe.”
“Activity?” Rick returned his attention to the patient. He uttered no vocalizations, no noise. Just persistent straining against the restraints.
“Actually, everything is off the charts. Here’s a photo of him when we first picked him up.” Anne showed Rick the tablet.
“That’s him? He was…” Rick shook his head. “He’s so thin now.”
“His body has used up most of his fat stores. We have him on constant glucose. Otherwise, he’d die pretty quickly.”
“What would happen if he were loose?”
Anne made a face. “He would be starving. We found him at a fast-food restaurant eating from other people’s plates.”
Rick frowned. “How many?”
“Two dozen. Today,” Anne said. “The CDC is getting nervous. They think it may be related to that cold.”
Rick shook his head. “Has Melissa seen anything?”
Anne pursed her lips, looking down, hesitant to answer.
”She’s been boosted by the aliens. Surely she’s seen something.”
“It’s pretty apocalyptic. I mean, Earth becoming lava apocalyptic. We can’t tell if it’s because of this, or the aliens,” Anne said, glum.
“I may need another session with her.” Rick sighed. “She responds well to my calming.”
“She says it reminds her of the Crow kid,” Anne said, nodding.
Rick frowned. “Not sure if that’s a compliment or an insult.”
“He saved Nate. Can’t be all bad.”
“Yeah. Jury is still out on that kid.” Rick shook his head. “What sort of treatment is the CDC using?”
“For this?” Anne waved her hand at the man, exasperated.
“No. That cold.”
“They have an anti-viral treatment they’ve been trying to get deployed. I think tonight they’re starting a big push.” Anne sighed as she gazed sadly at the man. “Supposed to be a global push. Medical records indicate it was used on him, but I think he was too far gone.”
Rick looked at her blankly.
Anne rolled her eyes. “N521. It’s new. Uses live viruses to counter the pathogen.”
“Oh.” Rick nodded. “Was not involved in that project.”
“I was. If the cold is a trigger of some sort, this treatment could save millions of lives. But we have to get it in early.” She looked at Rick. “That cold’s insanely infectious.”
“Why doesn’t it affect us?”
Anne pursed her lips. “Our protein receptors are wrong for it. Our immune system just mops them up and that’s that.”
Rick grinned. “Well that’s some good news.”
“What, that a hundred thousand of us may survive while the rest of the world dies?”
“That’s not what I meant.” Rick held his hands out.
“You guys call them monkeys.” Anne scowled as she looked back at the patient.
“Well, we can’t call them Muggles. That’s already taken.” Rick smirked.
Anne shook her head. “You know as well as I do that Evo is a misnomer. Our condition is a regression. Not an evolution. No new genetics are involved.”
“Yeah…not going to argue semantics with you. I just need to know if this thing is going to be a threat to us.”
“Yes. Your monkeys will die or suffer some animalistic breakdown leaving us with a catastrophe to deal with. So it is a threat to us,” Anne said sourly.
“Then I guess we need to find a way to heal my monkeys.” He looked at the patient. Alarms started going off. “What’s happening?”
Anne put her hand on the window. “He’s coding.”
“The disease progresses rapidly,” Anne said. She stood to the side as more nurses rushed into the room.
“Why are they even trying?”
“That’s what we’re trained to do. If there’s any possibility of pulling one out of this…”
Rick turned around as one of the nurses touched the patient’s chest with her hands and shocked him. “I hate this part.”
“Yeah. So do I.” Anne sighed. “They’ll be moving him to a quarantined storage.”
“You’re not burning the body?” Rick looked at her, surprised.
Anne shook her head. “They don’t decay. Or even mummify. So we keep them for research.”
Rick looked at her sideways. “They die, but they don’t rot?” He glanced over his shoulder to see the nurses packing the body into a hermetically sealed bag. “How long have you kept them?”
“The oldest is several days old.” Anne turned back around to look at the window. “The CDC assigned this to us thanks to Nate because of the possibility that it’s a national threat.”
“Like someone did this to us?” Rick waved at the body as it was wheeled past them. “The whole globe has cases like this.”
“It cuts through the red tape, so I’m not complaining. As long as we can find a solution for this before it’s too late.” Anne looked at the empty room thoughtfully. “I need to get back to the lab.”
“If this came from the aliens, we need to contact them.” Rick walked with her as she started down the hall.
“They’ve occupied us and are shooting at our cities. I don’t think there’s a lot of room for discussion.”
“Nate says they’re still hunting golems.” Rick looked down. “Their medicine is nothing short of miraculous.”
“There’s no such thing as miracles, Rick. Just technology and techniques. They just happen to be better at it for now.”
“You know what I meant.” Rick scowled. “I’m no fan of them either. But we may need them.”
“We’ll figure this out, Rick. Us. Not them.”
Rick fidgeted, looking down the hall. “I know you’re sore at them…”
“Don’t go there,” Anne warned.
“I don’t think they targeted your mother on purpose, Anne.”
“Over five thousand people died in New York, Rick. Not just my mother.” Anne glared at him. “Their fault. Not ours.”
Rick sighed, looking down. “I think you need to separate the issues. Or millions more may die.”
“We’ll figure this out. On our own.” Anne scowled and walked on ahead of Rick. He shook his head and slowed down, letting her walk off to the lab by herself. He recognized futility when he saw it.
~ ~ ~
The living weave of branches that made up the ceiling of the common-room seemed to undulate as if animated. The precise patterns of branches woven to a specific design almost had an illusory effect. Or perhaps it was sleep deprivation. Steven couldn’t tell which as he lay staring at the ceiling. Penipe had long since dozed off from her ever-vigilant watch.
Steven rolled on his side, then blinked. Someone was near him. Someone other than the Elves that were softly snoring around him. He tried to remain still as he looked around with his eyes. Even in the darkness of the night, it was still bright in there to him. But, all he saw were Elves.
Steven blinked again and squinted. Then he saw him. It was not like the person appeared out of nowhere. More like he came to his attention. As if coming into focus. Steven sighed. A Big Feet. A member of the lost population of Rholling called the Nistar. They had a natural cloaking ability that stymied even detection of them through technology. They can be in pictures or on video and people would still not see them. Except for a scant few. Like Steven.
“Steven Crow must help us.”
Steven sat up quietly and looked around for others. There was usually more than one.
“I am alone.” The Nistar looked decidedly uncomfortable.
“A little far from home?”
“Terra is not our home.”
Steven shrugged. He couldn’t help but be reminded of the faked photographs of Big Foot when he saw the Nistar. Except, there were many of them on Terra. The whole species was surreptitiously relocated there before Rholling was killed. So he named them Big Feet.
“Take us away. Please. We must talk but I must remain…hidden.”
Steven furrowed his eyebrows. “You all can come home now. You know that, right? There’s a guy here who is working to bring life back to Rholling even. He’s talking to the Planet Builders to start planetary rehabilitation.”
“It’s still happening. Please…somewhere else.” The Nistar looked around nervously.
“You’re safe here.”
“There is nowhere that is safe, Steven Crow. Especially not here.”
Steven took in a breath and the setting melted away, revealing a tropical beach. His favorite lagoon on the Elder’s planet. He looked up at the little cluster of trees he had planted there for Asherah and the quaint treehouse grown from their branches. It hurt too much to go there just yet.
“Your planet.” The Nistar looked around, then noticed the tall trees Steven had grown. “You planned on moving here.”
“Things were getting a bit…hairy. When the Cooperative hated us.” Steven looked down. “They still hate us.”
“Hairy?” The Nistar looked at his own fur.
“Dangerous. Uncomfortable. Unwelcoming.”
The Nistar nodded, understanding. “It is happening again. But on Terra. It’s never happened there before.”
Steven looked at him blankly.
“They’re feeding deviants. On Terra.”
“We can tell. We can sense when it happens. We…”
“Deviants? We blew up all the chambers. And the Sadari are gone. Just a few golems left.”
The Nistar shook his head. “We are never wrong, Steven Crow. That is why they tried to kill us off. Why we are still hiding.”
Steven sat down on the sand, stunned. “There are deviants on Terra.”
The Nistar nodded and sat down next to him. “It’s not over, Steven.”
“We destroyed the chambers. And the infants were never fed.” Steven played with the sand using his feet.
“That is true. How did you know?” The Nistar cocked his head.
Steven shrugged. “I saw them through my aunt when she was setting the explosives. Their pods were sealed. From what it looks, they were gestated in the pods, then disposed of to be replaced.”
“The blockade. That is how the Sadari flooded the fracture. Kept the Gatekeepers out.”
“Yeah. It was just little ol’ me until we destroyed the caves. Now all the Gatekeepers can visit.” Steven scratched his fur as he looked at the Nistar. He glanced away and it looked like the creature vanished from his peripheral vision. He had to consciously look at him to actually see him.
“It would appear you have missed some. Or perhaps one.”
“Wait. What are they feeding them?” Steven looked at the Nistar, alarmed. “Deviants feed on Gatekeepers.”