He stood tall on a steep hill overlooking the factory. The new moon casting a barely visible glow upon his face; one set with impassive determination. The clanging of steel on steel echoed through the darkness, muffling the sounds of managers barking orders to their peons. Their servants. Their slaves.
He closed his eyes, reaching out with his senses. He could hear the screeching of metal tearing apart the earth, feel the shattering of stone in the artificial flames. The scent of smog filled his nose and the taste of tar and oil stained his tongue. It was filth. Decay. Rot. He gazed again at those workers below. How could they stand it? Could they not feel the pain they caused? Could they not see that they sowed the seeds of their own destruction?
He turned round to see Kaleb, the young man’s eyes betraying his outward confidence. “Yes, what is it?”
“The shipment is ready sir. We’re just awaiting your word for deployment.”
“How many did we lose?”
The boy nervously bit his lower lip. “Uh, three this time sir, I’m sorry.” He bowed his head quickly, trembling slightly.
He took a few steps forward and placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Don’t worry boy. I’m sure you did everything you could. Go and tell Sara that we’ll make our move in half and hour.”
Kaleb bowed stiffly and ran down the hill towards the camp, nearly running into a heavyset man on the way. He dodged, apologized, and continued franticly.
The man, Cal, continued up the hill towards him. “Damn Jason, if you keep scaring off the newbies, they’ll start to spread word that we’re terrorists!” He let out a raucous laughter at his own joke.
Jason smiled. “Says the man with a scar that makes him look like a super villain.” He nudged him in the ribs. “There’s a reason we don’t put your face on movie posters. It’s good you’re here. I have orders before the operation starts.”
Cal moved to stand beside him, glancing towards their target. “We’re gonna need to move fast on this one Jay. Police are everywhere tonight, and they got a particular set of orders for our guys, if you get my drift.”
“Relax Cal, we’ll be in and out before they know what hit them. The fact that this place is filled with fires will only speed up the operation.”
“It also means a stronger chance that ours will get caught in it. We can’t afford to lose too much more right now.”
He solemnly bowed his head. “Those that give themselves to the cause will find themselves wrapped in the Mother’s embrace.”
Cal’s body tensed as he nodded down the hill. “Like the poor sods down there? You know what that looks like. I’m all for Mum’s lullaby and all that but the more that go, the fewer our numbers, and the greater chance we have at others finding out about them.”
For a few moments, there was silence. Nothing but the humming of machinery below them to break the quiet of night. He crossed his arms and spoke, “You know as well as I that we do only what is necessary. Perhaps I was foolish to give a task such as I did to a boy like Kaleb, but I believed him ready for the challenge. I was wrong. It won’t happen again.” He pointed towards the far section of the factory area. “When the planters go in, make sure the boy goes over there. Have Ian go with him to plant one in that sector. Let him know that I only expect one of them to come out. Understand?”
Cal’s jaw dropped momentarily, before he recovered and answered. “Understood.”
“Come. Let’s go see the damage.”
The two of them walked down the hill, ground slick with mud from the day’s rain. Normally they wouldn’t work in these conditions; too easy to leave footprint trails. There was no lake nearby however, so in this case, the excess ground water would work to their advantage.
As they reached the bottom of the hill, the sounds of other people became more prominent, until the thick forest finally gave way to a tightly packed clearing. Masked people ran back and forth, unloading crates from wagons and packing the contents into backpacks and satchels. He walked up to one of the larger unloaded box and peered inside. Sitting at the bottom was a plant. It’s dark brown base ballooned outwards, almost filling the width of the crate, with thick vines wrapped around it like a rope. He looked over at the wagon and saw more of his crew with similar plants, though some were barely larger than a fist. He marveled at the amount they had been given this time. The Mother provides when there are those that have need of her. That need would come very soon.
“Jason. Over here.” Cal waved him over to a spot behind one of the wagons. When he rounded the corner, he saw them. Three bodies, covered in dirty white tarps to mask their appearances. He knelt beside the smallest, caring not for the dirt staining his legs, and pulled back the sheet.
Beneath was a girl, maybe 20 years of age, but that was about all he could tell. The rest of her body was near indistinguishable. Her hair, whatever color it had been before, was now dirty green with the texture of seaweed. Her clothes were ripped and torn, and below the fabric he could see that her skin had turned rough and bark-like, and vines similar to the plants wrapped around her body from head to toe. A deep jagged hole in her abdomen, with an empty space in the center where something had seemingly been pulled out. He reverently placed the sheet back over her body and turned to Cal.
“The other two?” Already knowing the answer.
“The same. Kaleb came running into the camp, the three chasing after him. Looks like he tried to cut one of their throats. Not that it did him any good.”
He let out a long sigh. Idiot boy. Not only did he get three of their people killed, he could have lead to the camp being discovered. All his work for nothing. He would need to be more careful. Better screening. Better testing. As for the boy…
He stood abruptly. “Let me know when everything is packed. We start in ten.”
His group stood in the shadows, easily concealed by the dense foliage and dark of night. The only light came from the great forges filling their vision, flames leaping into the air, filling the sky with oil colored smog that obscured the moon from his sight. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted the first wave approaching the fenced in site. He saw the leader wave back the others, pulling on a pair of thick leather gloves. The man pulled out a fleshy pink bulb and pointed it towards the fence, squeezing the base. A thick, viscous liquid squirted out and dripped onto the chain metal, sizzling on contact. Where it touched the fence began to melt, dripping down and burning the metal below. He continued to melt it until a large human sized hole was created, and then he disappeared inside, beckoning the others to follow.
Jason and his group waited several minutes, then he nodded to Sara’s planters. She led her group to the previously created entrance, each one of her group with a bag slung over their shoulder or on their back. He spotted the boy, Kaleb, close behind her, followed by Ian and several others. They ducked into the hole, Ian turning back to Jason and lifting up five fingers.
Cal moved close to him. “You think we’re in the clear? I know the policy on timing, but this is our biggest target yet. What if the silencers aren’t done?” He said with some trepidation.
“You said it yourself. Lots of police out tonight. We have to be quick.”
He peered over at dirt path leading up to the factory. It was far enough from the road that fighting wouldn’t be heard, but a call out could still get the police here in 10 to 15 minutes. There was no more time for planning, and no room for mistakes.
After five minutes had passed, Jason lifted his arm, his gloved hand motioning everyone forward. Ducking into the fenced area, they came up behind a large silo, the smell of metal and smoke filling his lungs. Refraining from showing his disgust, he pulled out a rolled up paper, spread it out and turned to those following him.
“This is it. We’ve done well so far. No alarms, no shouting. If everything has gone to plan, we should be clear up until this point here-” He pointed to a wide open area on the map. “Once we get there, we wait for the signal. All clear? Then let’s go.”
Putting the rolled up map back in his pack, him and his crew made their way closer to the center of the site. On the way, he heard someone gasp, and as he turned to silence them, he noticed what they had seen.
The body of what had clearly been a security guard lay motionless on the ground. There were no visible injuries on him, save for the thick, branch like vines protruding from his mouth, the length of which had extended to wrap around his neck and strangle him to death. Looking at the man’s chest, Jason noticed a slight throbbing where his heart would have been beating if he were still alive.
Ignoring the spectacle, Jason hit the startled man on the shoulder, motioning him forward again. Shocking as it looked, especially seeing it for the first time, it just meant that the silencers had done their job. Now they just had to hope the planters had too.
They continued ahead, coming across more corpses as they neared their goal. Finally, the core was in site, and they took cover behind one of the forge buildings, the sound of melting stone shrieking in his ears. The core, as they called it, was a name they had given to the contraption at the center of each facility. A massive elevator that went deep into the earth, through which the workers could search for ever more valuable minerals to steal for their projects. From the center protruded over a dozen conveyors and pipes, extending to each section of the factory. Every machine, forge, and shipping area received their materials directly from this spot. The silencers, the planters, they were all for one goal; the destruction of the core.
Jason looked at the large crate the others had carried beside him. The large bulb inside responded to metal, so it wasn’t dangerous until then. Still, if they didn’t get away quickly enough, they too would be victims of the resulting chaos. He strained his senses, waiting for the tell tale sign that they were clear to move. He could hear the heavy breathing of those with him, a familiar sound by this point. He didn’t blame them; this was what it all came down to. If they succeeded here, they would have done the world a service, even if it cost them their lives. That didn’t make the risk any less nerve-wracking. They were, after all, only human.
Suddenly a scream split broke up the monotony of the forging sounds. The guards protecting the core did not respond immediately; they likely had orders to not leave their post. Regardless, as they did every time, about half the guards argued with their commander before eventually running off in the direction of the screams. That was their cue. He motioned them forward and they ran towards the core, pulling purple bulbs out of their satchels. They tossed them towards the remaining guards, then made a hasty retreat to cover, just as the commander called out for them to fire at will. Before they got the chance though, the bulbs exploded in a cloud of noxious smoke, masking their vision and causing them to begin coughing viciously. Jason waves the two men hauling the crate to follow him around the smoke. Beside the core, they placed it on the ground, opening up the box and pulling out the large plant. As Jason and the other two were about to heave it into the hole in the ground, he heard a bang and one of the men cried out and dropped it as the commander, now with some sort of air tight mask on, came out of the smoke and began firing with his pistol. Jason and the remaining hauler ran, though the hauler was shot in the leg and fell. Jason managed to throw himself over on of the belts and take shelter behind it. Catching his breath, he heard the painful cries of the hauler before another shot rang out and he was silent.
With everyone else having fled, the only noise the break up the silence was the creaking of the nearby pipes and the labored breathing of the commander into his respirator mask as he took slow steps towards him.
“What the hell do you actually hope to accomplish with all this death and destruction?” The man cried out. “How do you possibly justify to yourself all of the innocents you’ve killed? Do you know how many families have lost loved ones because of you? Do you even care?” His voice was frantic, filled with fury.
Jason paused. Of course he’d thought about it. He thought about it every day. But if they weren’t working to save the earth, then the were working to destroy it. The man wouldn’t understand. They never did.
Jason shouted out. “Who did you lose?”
The man shot two bullets at his cover, screaming with rage. “My daughter! She died because of you! Because she was in your way! But it wasn’t enough that you kill her, no, you had to turn her into one of those…one of those…”
Silenced. That was what his people called them. Hive mind creatures intimately connected to the Earth Mother via spores. It had the unhealthy side effect of turning their physical body into what was essentially a humanoid plant. They had only a single goal- defend the earth no matter the cost.
Jason’s voice went quiet. “She wasn’t alone you know. She was connected to dozens of others in a way we will never feel. You should envy her.”
“How dare you! Envy her?! I was forced to shoot her down because she tried to kill me! The only thing that comforts me is that she doesn’t have to be a pawn in your terrorist games!” His voice, still teeming with hatred, lowered slightly. “You won’t be envying her for very long, monster!”
He heard the man running towards him as he frantically looked for somewhere to get away to. The closest cover was about 20 feet away. He had no choice. He made a break for it, and the moment he did he felt a burning pain shoot through his upper right shoulder as he tripped and fell. His hand instinctively reached for the wound, feeling the blood slip through his fingers. The man continued towards him and he turned around, reeling with pain, to face him.
“The earth always wins you know. It’s just a matter of how long you postpone the inevitable.”
The man smiled in a bitter grin. “I’ll be satisfied so long as you don’t get to see it.”
Jason closed his eyes, and waited for death. A shot rang out. Several seconds later, he opened his eyes. The man lay sideways on the ground, a blood pooling from the side of his head down his lifeless face. Above him stood a young man, gun still raised.
“Kaleb?” The boy looked towards him.
“Sorry I was late sir. There was issues with the planting in my section. Ian didn’t make it.”
Jason frowned. “That’s too bad, but I’m just glad you got back in time. Come, we can still salvage this mission.”
The pair of them made their way over to the large plant, each grabbing a side.
“Ready?” Jason asked.
Kaleb nodded his head. “Ready.”
With a wide swing, the two of the threw the large bulb into the deep pit. Within moments, of it hitting the bottom, large, thick vines began to crawl quickly up the sides of the gap, crushing any machinery along the way. The two looked at each other.
The pair moved at a sprint towards their entrance point, dodging falling metal as the vines destroyed all in their paths. Tanks of water and oil spilled their contents onto the ground, scaffolding supports broke, causing them to swing precariously. Explosions rocked the facility, ringing in their ears as fire met oil and combusted. The vines slid their way across the ground, soaking up the water from the damp soil, growing thicker with every drop. They just made it outside the fence as the tendrils swallowed up the ringed barrier, creating a plant like wall that Jason knew would be impossible to get either in or out of without some heavy ordinance. They were safe. Kaleb turned to him.
“Sir, we should go back to the camp and see how many made it out.”
“If any did.” Jason thought.
“Alright, let’s go take a look.”
Jason and Kaleb returned to the camp, and as he feared, there was not nearly as many there as he had hoped. Everyone congratulated each other, but the mood was somber, most beginning to realize that they had come moments away from failing. He looked worriedly around, realizing for the first time that Cal wasn’t anywhere to be seen. He asked some of the others, but nobody had seen him.
Kaleb spoke up. “Sir, I’m sure he made it, probably just got held up before making it to camp. Why don’t I go look for him while you check out our work on the hill?”
Jason agreed without argument, making his way up the hill as the rest of his people packed up and rested for the moment. After a short time, he found himself at the top, once again overlooking the factory, or what was left of it. Where machines had once stood, vines now curled around them, the metal now warped and crushed from the pressure. He spotted some of the silenced roaming aimlessly, wondering how many were theirs and how many were his own. This mission had nearly ended in disaster. All because of a damn mask.
No, not the mask. There were many others who didn’t come back as well. Did they face the same issue? Did they not get away from the plantings in time? The gas bulbs were new, the guards shouldn’t have had any protection against them. As for Cal…he was one of the smokers, he should have been out long before Jason and Kaleb. Something wasn’t right about this one. He would need to double check their sources, triple check his people. He would have to-
A shot rang out, and everything went black.
He placed his gun back inside his jacket, kicking Jason’s body over the edge of the cliff, watching it fall limp to the bottom where it then lay broken, bloody, and still.
Stepping away from the edge, Kaleb pulled out his phone, which he used to send a message.
“Facility lost. Cell leader eliminated. Orders?”
As he sent the text, he watched Cal come out from the trees.
“Well? You promised.”
Kaleb smiled and looked at his phone again. “Clean up.”
He raised his head and looked to Cal. “Don’t worry, your family has already been relocated, and you’ll be joining them shortly. There’s just one more thing we need from you…