Wind Is Picking Up

It doesn’t matter that it’s been nearly three years since they were both – officially – killed in combat over in Afghanistan, along with the rest of their squad. They’ve spent that time flying below everyone’s radar, and it’s kept their paranoia sharp. A career in the military lends itself to developing a certain kind of alertness, especially when you’re Spec Ops. They haven’t even come close to losing that.

That, and the guy following them isn’t exactly being subtle. These roads are all but deserted most days – with a hurricane blowing in, the faded red truck clanking down the dirt track behind their car stands out just a little bit.

Aaron glances as Cesar, whose eyes flick once again to the rear view mirror, then back to the road ahead of them. “I’ll give it another mile,” Cesar says. “Just to be sure.”

Aaron doesn’t bother replying, just opens the glove compartment and lifts the pieces of the highly-illegal H&K MP5 out of it, snaps them quickly together, and grabs the extra magazine that goes with the assembled gun. He sets both in the console between their seats where Cesar can reach them easily, leans forward a bit and pulls the unregistered Beretta M9A1 out of the concealed carry holster clipped inside the waistband of his jeans. He checks the magazine out of habit. It’s fully loaded, of course. The spares are in the left pocket of his denim jacket.

They give it two and a half miles. The truck is still behind them, rattling along, and Cesar doesn’t bother pulling over – the opposite, in fact. He spins the wheel, stops the car in the middle of the road so it completely blocks the dirt track, and puts it into park. He picks up the MP5 as Aaron gets out, keeping the body of the car between himself and the approaching truck.

There’s wind now, picking up slowly, but it’s not touching the humidity. A smattering of water hits his face, not even enough to be called rain.

The truck slows, comes to a stop perhaps thirty yards from them, and the man gets out of the cab. He’s smiling, but something about it is off. It’s like looking at someone who’s seen a diagram of what a smile should look like and is trying to copy it. All of Aaron’s instincts are screaming at him to get the hell out of here. Cesar has wiggled over into the passenger seat from the driver’s side and is climbing out next to him. No point in trying to be circumspect – Aaron raises the Beretta, levels it across the roof of the beaten old Chevy.

The man doesn’t slow down. Doesn’t even appear to recognize the gun as a weapon.

Aaron can hear another car engine approaching in the distance, the sound carried to them by the wind. If this comes down to a fight, it needs to happen now, before any civilians arrive – they don’t want anyone getting hurt. He narrows his eyes, focuses on the man’s face.

Something is…moving…under his skin. Little bulges and ripples are rising and falling on his cheeks, around the orbits of his eyes, sliding about just beneath the surface.

head of Devil's Flower praying mantis
head of Devil's Flower praying mantis

“Bug,” he says calmly, and squeezes off a shot. The bullet takes the thing in the right eye socket, knocks it back a few steps. It doesn’t go down, though, and whatever the liquid is that sprays out of the back of its head, it’s not red. It…screams, or screeches, or something. Mandibles push out of its gaping human mouth, tearing the lips at the corners, widening the opening. Antennae erupt from its forehead.

Cesar swears as it comes at them fast and squeezes the trigger on the MP5, strafing the area on the other side of the car.

The spray of bullets barely slows it down, and its enraged retaliation – a long hinged thing like an arm, its end a jagged curve of ridged chitin, a vicious length that rips out of its side and darts out at them, grating on the metal top of the car – nearly beheads them both.

Aaron hits the dirt hard, Cesar next to him, and they roll under the Chevy. Aaron shoves his gun back into the holster – Cesar’s eyes widen and he tries to grab the other man, misses – and keeps rolling, emerges from beneath the undercarriage of the car right between the thing’s feet. He doesn’t slow down as he comes up inside its guard. It snaps at him, mandibles trying to close on his face, but he’s just that little bit faster and manages to get a grip on its mouthparts, one in each hand. The edges are like saws, slip a little in his hold and rip jagged gashes in the bases of his fingers before the tendons and muscles in his hands harden in response, become chitinous in turn.

He feels his arms aching, itching, feels things moving under the skin in his forearms, the muscles shifting, and he grits his teeth and refuses to let go. He pulls.

The mandibles give way, tearing loose with a terrible crunching sound. The thing’s human hands are scrabbling ineffectually at Aaron’s torso, its longer multi-jointed bug legs trying to fold in and reach him, hampered by the bulk of the car behind him.

While it’s distracted with Aaron, Cesar puts the muzzle of the MP5 against its side and squeezes. The gun’s rate of fire can cut a door in half, as long as the person wielding it doesn’t swing too fast. When he finally lets up, Aaron and the side of the car are covered in ichor and the bug is dying in the dirt. Its limbs are still draped around him, twitching spasmodically. They’re no longer connected to the body.

Aaron pushes the legs off of himself, stumbles forward, and ends up down on his hands and knees in the dirt. He’s panting, big gulps of air, feeling things move around inside his ribcage, the skin of his arms on fire, his forehead itching, his ears buzzing. The Hive is a hum in the back of his mind, trying to gain his attention, usually so distant but closer now, closer, noticing him, turning to look at him, trying to pull him into obedience. He grunts, biting down on his lip as a curl of flesh peels away from the inside of his cheek, turns hard and rough, then melts and fades again. Blood in his mouth, dripping into the dirt beneath his face.

Cesar is watching him, silent. The MP5 dangles from his right hand, ignored now, but not abandoned. He waits.

Aaron forces the Bug back down slowly, laboriously, and grips the dirt with his fingernails.

The car he heard comes around the bend in the road and stops, idling, on the far side of the pickup. Aaron turns his head, sees that the pale ginger-haired woman driving is staring at them both, at the scattered bug parts on the ground. It looks like she has passengers in the back seat – one of them has dark skin, is leaning forward, craning his neck to get a better look at the scene in front of him.

“So much for being discreet,” Aaron says hoarsely. He hears the doors of the new car opening. It’s a shame. He liked this place, and now they’re going to have to leave it. The Hive seems to have found them.

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