Max Carver held up one fist to stop the group.
The storm was coming.
Aeon burned blood-red in the south, the supernova setting as the morning sun rose from the east. Auroral tendrils snaked above scudding rain-pregnant low on the wind over the tropical forest. The heat suffocating, each breath like being hit in the face with a burning pillow.
Maybe forty hours.
That’s how long they had before they would be killed out here in the open by the coming windstorm. If the heat didn’t boil them inside out first. Or the meat stripped from their bones by that Colony-built xenobot monster that had attacked them at the village the day before.
And if none of that finished his crew off, there were any of a dozen other ways they could suffer painful deaths by creatures lurking in the shadows of the rainforest. Or maybe tree falling on them. Or mercenary soldiers picking them off. Or simply drowning in the rising waters themselves.
The potential list of threats was long as the Amazon.
This place could kill you on even on a good day, and this wasn’t that. In Max’s experience, even when you thought things had gotten as bad as they could get, the universe found ways to make it even worse before it got better. Eventually, though, it always did get better if you could just hang on long enough. He liked to think of himself as an optimistic pessimist, and it had kept him alive this long.
He dropped both hands to his thighs and hung his head. Pulled down the bandana covering the lower half of his face so he could breathe easier. Sweat dripped from the tip of his nose onto wet-hot earth flecked with the charred remains of the forest burn. Blackened stumps of trees surrounded him, charred sentries standing at attention into the distance on the ridge going back to the east they had just come along. Six of his squad left alive, after starting out with twenty when they left the Colony a day before in sleepless stretch of hours that seemed more like a year.
A strong westerly wind sprang up, the rush of air wicking away dripping sweat. Cooled him down a bit. But that wind was a harbinger. A planet-spanning hurricane was coming that would rip the trees out by their roots in than two days. That’s what the pilot of the C-130 said, and that was the last bit of intel they would be getting from the outside world.
At least from the people who sent him into this inferno.
“A high dose of ionizing radiation doesn’t necessarily mean that all electronics are wrecked,” Fred Saberhager said from in front of him. The communications scientist stumbled forward. He hadn’t seen Max raise his hand to stop. “Research on electromagnetic pulse weap—”
“Everybody, come to me,” Max said hoarsely.
The Earth had just been irradiated in another burst of radiation from the expanding shell of the supernova detonation, deep frying electronics and power grids around the globe. That included their own electronic gear, which Fred had just dumped on top the ridge behind them after trying to unsuccessfully turn it on a few times. The less they had to carry the better. Their gear wasn’t hardened against electromagnetics, but Max knew a lot of military gear was.
Or anything shielded by metal.
That new dose of energy from the exploding star had also included them in its firing line. Max’s exposed forearms had a blister on one of them. He rolled his shirtsleeves down methodically while he tried to get his thoughts in order. As hot as it was, they needed to cover up.
“Everything ok, boss?” Ginvera Garza said from behind him.
“Yeah.” That wasn’t true. All Max wanted to do was get back to his wife and unborn child, but to get to them, he had to go through his old friend Ben Belloc first, return to the Colony compound they had only just escaped from.
He had to be careful in more ways than just avoiding death from the outside.
He had appointed himself leader, but this was a command as fragile as a stack of ants trying to stretch for a tree leaf. Half the five people around him thought he might have killed Armad Kruger, their previous commander. They weren’t following Max out of trust. Mostly out of fear. But Max was their best chance at staying alive. Dread was powerful, but he needed to trade on it for trust.
Being scared all the time had a habit of backfiring in unpredictable ways.
“Everybody, buddy up,” Max said. “Ms. Alcott, come on back, hand that weapon to Bull.”
He had sent Iona Alcott out front of the group on point, holding one of the Wolverine automatic rifles gamely in front of her, but she wasn’t a soldier. She barely knew how to use a rifle. Neither did Fred or Susanna Sorenson, two of the other Colonists who came with them. They were civilians, research scientists. He had to protect them, no matter if they were halfway responsible for the mess he found himself in.
This wasn’t the place to hold grudges that might get your killed. The truth was they needed each other to stay alive. How this mess started could be sorted out later.
If there was one.
Max said, “Garza, you buddy up with Iona. Fred and Susanna, you two stick together.” That hardly needed saying—the way two scientists argued quietly they had to be a couple. “Buddies check each other, get as much skin covered with clothing as possible, and anything exposed, we’re going to cover with mud.” The supernova was burning off the ozone layer, so UV rays from the sun were getting more intense. “Lots of mud out here, and it’s the best sunblock we have. Make sure you keep your caps on, and keep hydrated even if you don’t feel thirsty.”
“I’m out of water,” Fred said.
Iona held up an empty bottle. “Me too.”
Max acknowledged her with a nod. “We’re going to fix that.”
A plume of smoke marked the location where that C-130 went down just a few minutes before. Parachutes come out the rear just before it disappeared below the tree line. The pilot had said he was going to drop survival supplies and equipment for them. That had to include water. What else did it include? What else had made it out of the plane?
Bull took the Wolverine rifle from her and slung it around his shirtless torso. Max knelt and grabbed a handful of wet earth, stood and slapped it onto Bull’s neck, smeared it around before rubbing the same muddy hand onto his own neck.
“You buddy up with me,” Max said to the Nebraskan. “If you see any red on me, you stop and get me covered, you understand?”
“You’re red everywhere, boss.”
“I mean, more than usual.”
“Do I look burned anywhere?” Bull asked, holding his arms up.
His shoulders were already boiled angry pink. The young guy was built like a tank, but one without a reservoir of common sense. “Get that shirt back on. Your skin peels off, I’m not babysitting.” To the rest of the group he said, “Iona, Fred, Susanna, you three stay in the middle. Iona behind me.”
Ginvera Garza had taken up the rear. She had appointed herself into that position and Max wasn’t yet in control enough to tell her otherwise.
“We still heading for the plane?” Garza asked. Of the whole group, the Italian hadn’t moved from her position when they stopped. She kept her distance.
“We’re going to split up.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Iona said.
Her cheeks were mottled red, but not from the sun. From inside. Her core body temperature was rising, Max knew. Heatstroke would kill them faster than anything else. They needed shade, but they had to cross back over the burnt-out forest firebreak. In the distance, through the haze of humidity and smoke, hulked the outlines of the heavy earth moving equipment of the Stillwater contractors. He bet those back hoes and bulldozers would still turn on.
“Good ideas are not your job anymore,” Max replied to Iona. She gave him a sullen look. He added, “Explain how the Colony is attached to your secret NSA spying project?”
Iona now exchanged glances with Fred and Susanna.
When she didn’t reply, Max continued, “I know you’ve been monitoring me and Ben and my brother Charlie for years. My wife just told me.” Saying his brother’s name still choked his voice. Had his death had something to do with Iona Alcott? Were they doing something to Charlie? Like they had been with Ben? “My wife said it was something to do with AIs. Artificial intelligence?”
After a beat Iona replied, “The project was called Spectrum.”
“This was the NSA program?”
“It was a multi-national project, Chinese, Russians—”
“Russians?” It was still officially illegal to even trade a can of soup with the Muscovites. “So, your dad’s company, Stillwater, was running this Spectrum project? That’s what this was about?”
“He was a contractor.”
To Max’s left, Susanna said, “The acronym ‘AI’ in the context of Spectrum didn’t mean artificial intelligence.”
“We need to keep moving,” Garza said from behind them. She kept her distance from Max.
“Ms. Alcott,” Susanna said, “you need to tell him what we’re up against.”
“We don’t know, to be honest.” Iona stood straight and pulled her bandana down. “The Spectrum project was a global information security project tracking AIs, and the Colony was a remote testing ground for ones we captured.”
Max frowned. “Captured? From where?”
“Everywhere, from all around us. The name Spectrum refers to radio spectra, frequencies. In the relation to Spectrum, AI didn’t mean artificial intelligence, but alien intelligence.”
“Alien? Like outside of the United States?” A sinking feeling descended through Max’s gut. Even as he asked, he knew that wasn’t what she meant.
“Further than that.”
“Outside North America?”
“Outside of the planet.”
Mud, blood, spiders, Max felt like he was ready for anything, he was not ready for this. “Like alien, like up there?” He had picked up a charred stick from the mud. It levitated almost by itself in his hand to point at the sky.
Iona nodded and shrugged at the same time. “Everywhere. Nowhere. It’s hard to explain.”
“You’re going to have to try.”
Max wondered why Talisha was acting strange when he talked to her over the nexome interface. He had chalked it up to the general insanity of the situation, but he knew she wasn’t telling him something, that there an elephant in the room too big to even get the words around in the short time they were able to communicate. Finally, he was getting answers that made sense, even if they stretched believability.
Where was his wife right now? Time had been so short when they talked, he hadn’t even asked. He was just happy she was alive.
Max said to Iona—half question and half statement—“Aliens? Are you serious?”