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Them
Live oak

The corpses we left hanging in trees along the coastline most likely have rotted by now, or winged carrion eaters obliterated the remains of lives perhaps otherwise forgotten.

We had tried to climb and cut them down, but the enemy’s weapon fire drove us away. I believed we were lucky to escape unscathed, if you call owning nothing more than the clothing you wore and a small backpack of supplies unscathed.

Personally, I did. However, I never was a man to own much in a time of overwhelming conspicuous consumption fed by digital obligations to obey every flash ad subliminal suggestion.

My companion complained of her fate since we fled into the marsh behind her creek-front home. We had been strangers before we met outside her house.

I asked her, “Why bother coming with me if it’s so terrible?” wanting to remind her of the hung bodies.
“What choice did they leave me?” was her tear choked reply.

What choice indeed.

Of course, we did not know who 'they' were. Nor have we discovered if ‘they’ invaded any other section of the country, or if their invasion spread in more countries than just our land. The windup radio I carried for several miles, when activated, reported only the white hiss of static, so I dropped its dead weight into a gutter. Comm units died within a day of the invasion. It had felt odd being without electronic communication, sliced off from humanity.

Those skull-plugged in, died from the initial surge.

She clutched my arm, nails biting into exposed flesh, her eyes wide in fire-red swollen rims. “Stop walking please.”
I did, more for a release from the pain she inflicted than out of obedience. I lifted my gaze to follow her extended finger as she pointed at something far in the distance.

“I don’t see anything.”

She squatted and pulled on my arm. I joined her and asked, “What did you see?”

“I’m not sure, but I think it was one of them.”

“Was he armed?” I could smell her fear as it seeped from her pores, etched her brow.

She shook her head. A brilliant flash about two kilometers down the highway turned the horizon a sickly shade of orange-green. Ribbons of light sprayed into the clouds, sparked off water particles collecting before a storm grew strong enough to cast them to earth. A sound of explosions rumbled along the road.

“The color’s not good,” I said softly.

“No kidding. Even I could have guessed that much. Do you think it’s them?”

“Them,” I repeated, nodded, and stood. “Let’s get into the forest just in case they travel this way.” They seemed to avoid forests, but we did not know why. Occasionally they went in.

She was on her feet and running as soon as her nails released my flesh. I followed, checked my arm, and was glad she had not drawn blood. If she had...I would have had to kill her.

The trees grew closer together the deeper into the forest we ran, which provided us with good screening, and also made it harder for us to see them if they came in after us. Of course, they do not fear us, so do not attempt to move with stealth, and do not try to hide their approach.

Instead, they seem to savor the sounds of their passing, the horror their appearance created in those who witnessed their arrival. Then without visible emotion, they killed every living creature in their path leaving carnage and blood behind.

The death they inflicted was a death, later transmitted by a simple scratch that draws a bead of blood, similar to what one might get from a brush against a rose bush. The infection is resistant to all know antibiotics, feverishly devours white blood cells, and feels like a forest fire contained within one’s body. Nasty way to die.

No matter, just the thought of confrontation made my skin crawl, so I kept plodding deeper into the forest.

“Do you know anything about where they came from?” the woman finally asked once we stopped to catch our breath, as if she thought I was someone other than who I am a homeless wanderer. Of course, she had no way of knowing my past. If she had, perhaps, I’d’ve gone through the coming ordeals alone.

“All I know is what I overheard the night they arrived.”

“Well? Can’t you tell me?”

I looked at her saw a penetrating beauty beneath the cringe marks of fear and grief, the grime and dirt. I listened carefully to the movement of some small animals rustling through leaves, and nodded.

“Their leader is called Lao-Diceab. The creature who spoke to him was called Le-Habimb La-Shab...he was the one who beheaded your town’s mayor.”

Her face, twisted by anguish, reddened, but she did not cry as she had constantly during the first hour of our escape.

“The mayor was an old family friend.” She did not seem interested in how I knew their names, which I knew since I had overheard them speaking through some kind of electronic translator to interrogate the mayor while I hid beneath the front porch of the town hall. They had smelled strange too, like rotting Rosemary and overcooked Rhubarb.

I could not think of words to comfort her under such circumstances, was certain we would need more than words before the invaders finished with us, and that creature comfort had quickly become part of our collective history.

So, I spent a few heartbeats examining the tangled wreckage of her straw colored hair. Her pale blue eyes had seemed to grow lighter as pain washed through them, so that they were more like faded gray than blue. She had a neat collection of lines at the corners of her eyes, but not enough for me to use them to judge her age. Her hands, the one part of a person that hides nothing from a serious observer, led me to believe that she was in her early thirties.

She talked busily about family and friends when I cleared my throat, and spoke into the gap of silence the sharp sound elicited.

“I don’t know your name,” I said.

“Kara.” Her hands went to her hair, as if speaking her name had released some inner desire to make herself look more presentable. She ran her fingers through the soiled strands, brought them down for inspection, and sighed.
“Suppose I’ll never be really clean again.”

“I’m Thomas,” I informed her. “We should move from here.”

Her face spread as her eyes widened in terror. She looked quickly over her shoulder. “You hear them coming?”
“No.” I pointed overhead. “Night’s setting in. I’d rather not be in a place where we can’t at least light a small fire for warmth if we need it.”

“Do you know these woods?”

I shook my head. “Wish I did.” I stood and extended my hand, and was mildly surprised when she took it and allowed me to help her to her feet.

\We walked another thirty or so minutes before spying a small clearing surrounded by trees. When we entered the woods, I glanced, skyward, saw clouds collecting to blacken under the weight of gathered rain, and knew we would be soaked through before morning if I could not erect some type of shelter.

“We’d better get to work,” I said.

Kara squinted. “What work?”

I guided her to a fallen pine tree and kicked a two-meter square spot clear of debris alongside the trunk. I pointed to some loose limbs and said, “Now, pile any of the longer limbs in a lean-to fashion using the trunk to keep one end elevated.”

“Okay,” she said. “I think I can do that.”

I went up the trunk of a Palmetto palm and peeled off as many fronds as possible and together we wove them into a roof for our lean-to, finishing just after the rain started to fall.

We needed to crawl into the shelter, but once safely entrenched we discovered that the rain stayed mostly outside, only leaking through several minor gaps that we could avoid by clinging to each other.

After a silence of uncountable minutes, Kara said, “Can you please tell me why you were in our town if you’re not from around here?”

“Passing through,” I said a bit more brusquely than I had intended, not wanting to share my history with her or anyone.

However, Kara seemed almost intuitive, or barring that, perceptive as hell.

“Did you fight them?” she asked, sounding as if she did not honestly intend to pry, but could not contain a spectator’s curiosity.

I shrugged without thinking, and then knew she felt the movement, that I betrayed my self-imposed need for privacy.

“Yes,” I admitted. “Fought with the Tenth Winged-Armor Division in the Keys, and then up the coastline until we stopped them just south of Jacksonville.”

“You’re a brave man.”

“Can’t say I feel any braver now than I did before I lifted a pulse-laser.”

We grew quiet again, but I knew she was thinking. A person with her intellect and curiosity cannot, or does not leave stones unturned.

“Why’d you leave?” she finally asked sounding like she was battling a choice between prying and curiosity.

“The Tenth?” I replied to buy myself some time, not at all certain how to answer her question without revealing a secret...the invaders decimated the Tenth. Only twenty-three of us survived...twenty-three out of almost twenty-four hundred.

“Yes."

So I answered, “We disbanded after the final battle...took some badly needed rest and relaxation before re-grouping with other units to the north.”

Kara moved for comfort, and ended up with her head on my upper arm, so I felt her nod.

“That’s where you were going when you enter our town?” She sounded like she knew her words were true without verification from me.

I did not answer. Truth was I had been searching for somewhere that the fighting might overlook. Lying there with Kara, knowing she believed I was some kind of fighting hero made me feel guilty and lower than a swamp rat.

The rain fell with vengeance. I knew our invaders did not find comfort in rain, as if they had evolved in an arid desert and would not left it except to conquer another world for its natural treasures. Of course, I did not think my recently invented history applied to them. No one knew where their point of origin, or if, and when they might return to their home world.

Kara lifted as if to resettle. I took advantage of the action by turning onto my back. I guided her onto her side, and felt her lightly settle her head against the center of my chest.

“So where do we go from here?” she asked.

I shook my head, inhaled a faint aroma of perfume that, surprisingly, rose from her hair. My arm was against her back. I lifted my hand and placed it on her shoulder.

Kara did not complain, but if she was expecting, or hoping for more than comfort, I would disappoint her. A Sieng is incapable of love, or the physical act brought on by the need to procreate.

I considered for a moment whether, or not Kara had even heard about us. The corp-government bred us for pre-prep off-world colonization, but conscripted us into the military right after the start of the invasion.

The invaders slaughtered Norms as quickly as the humans received the training to bear and use weapons.

A loud crackle drove my attention outward. I could feel my ear hairs prickle as I focused on the sound. If they happened onto our hideout, Kara and I would die without knowing who fired the stinging blast of a plasma disrupter.

My hands searched for a weapon, and came away empty. The place where I hung a holster felt like nothing more than a wore lip of leather.

Kara whispered, “What is it?”

“Don’t know,” I replied just as softly. “I’ve got to go out and have a look.”

I started to worm into the rain, but was stopped when she clutched onto my waistband. “Don’t go.”

I reached down and disentangled her fingers from my belt. “I’ll be right back,” I said, trying to keep my words at a level where I sounded like I was issuing a command, not comfort, and certainly not the fear I felt.

The rain fell in a hard screen that felt more like metal pellets than liquid. It soaked me to the skin before I was on my feet, and ran cool snake-like fingers down my spine.

Before I could be spotted by whoever entered the clearing, I stepped behind the trunk of the Palmetto I used for its fronds. Of course, that did nothing to make me invisible or improve my ability to see farther than two or three meters in front of my face, but did give me a reasonable sense of security.

I was also close enough to our lean-to to make out its shadowy form, and felt sure I would notice if anyone or anything attempted to enter. The fact that I was unarmed did not help how I felt about defending the two of us. If needed, I would fight hand to hand. The plus side of being a Sieng was strength and stamina. I am very wide in the shoulders, stand a healthy two meters plus and weigh in at one hundred fifteen kilos. Since I was born after the first year of enhancements, I was gen-altered for fast healing...ten times faster than a normal healthy human heals. I have also been told I am rather pleasant to look at. Although I only found, the idea amusing not fulfilling.
Rain-washed off the quick smile the thought created.

The sound of someone moving across the clearing like an animal wading through a flooded field pulled my thoughts back to the present. I squatted slowly and strained to see the invader. Whoever he was, the fool stayed close to the ground. When he neared the lean-to, I heard Kara scream, “Thomas! Help me!”

I jumped from my hiding place and landed heavily on the back of a large alligator. Before it could open its jaws, I clamped my hands around its snout. But was bucked off its spine as the creature flipped onto its back, tail thrashing the air where my head had been a moment before.

The ground churned into a thick puree of clinging mud like runny clay. Its slickness made it impossible for me to wrap my legs around the beast.

Then suddenly I was on my back, the alligator over me, hissing its anger, shaking its head, filling my mouth and nostrils with the stench of its last kill.

My hands slipped off its jaws. The animal’s freedom became a forewarning of death as it opened its mouth to expose a tooth-lined cavity stinking of rotted meat.

A spark of light caught my attention, and forced me to move my head reflexively to avoid its enraged bite. The creature’s eyes widened, and then dulled as if its life switched off.

Its head dropped heavily onto my chest. A knife like the one I kept in my pack protruded from the base of its skull where it joined the spine.

Kara stood, feet spread wide, hands still clasping the hilt of the knife, panting as if she’d run a marathon. Our eyes met. She grinned victoriously.

I had not thought she had that kind of fortitude, inner resolve, or determination, and I did not think she thought so either right up until the moment she plunged the blade into the creature.

“Well done,” I said, knowing the rain muffled my voice, and crawled free of the carcass.

“Thanks.”

She helped me to my feet. I took the knife from her. Kara looked surprised to see she still held it. I cleaned the blade and slipped it beneath my belt, and put an arm around her shoulders.

“Well, guess we’re soaked through anyway.”

She chuckled, sounded sincere, and tightened an arm around my waist. “So much for the invader.”

Yes, I thought. If only the true invaders might die so easily.

Copyright 2011 all rights reserved.