I was part of a military combat/science team being trained up to fight in the war against giant alien insects that were attacking the world. Our living and training facility was a giant hotel that was built as a single column, ring upon ring of rooms circling a central open atrium. On the top floor, a hive queen hung sleeping, her enormous body suspended in a mud and paper hammock. Every so often she would shudder in her slumber, vestigial wings and tentacles twitching lazily, and spurred by dream or biological imperative, her armored abdomen would spit forth a stream of the latest configuration of Seekers.
I thought, as the klaxon screamed and we all pelted hell-for-leather towards the nearest room that could still be barricaded, that we were fucking fools for staying in a building with a live infestation. But, I reminded myself, what could we really do? Outside was the exact same scenario, except without shelter and filled with queens who were awake and produced ten times as many Seekers in direct attack, not to mention the sleek, man-sized, dronelike Razors whose deadly efficiency made the fat, two-foot-long Seekers look like Pomeranians by comparison. We'd all be reduced to shredded pork within two hundred steps from the front doors, even if we COULD get the welded cafeteria tables off them at this point.
We were actually pretty damned lucky, although not nearly as much so as we'd thought at first. A building packed full of the best minds in the area, ready to be trained in combat, espionage, tactical planning, or any number of other talents that would aid our fight. We’d all assembled there after the government spotted the incoming ships and put out the call for volunteers. Little did we know then that the first world-scourging strike would happen less than 48 hours after Orientation.
There was enough food to last us all for years, a self-contained bank of generators sealed in an earthquake-proof subbasement and enough fuel to keep them going for over a year if anything happened to the solar panels that lined the vast hotel's roof. The outer doors and windows were sturdy and had been easy to block off and reinforce. We'd even been smug enough to think that the occasional swarm of Seekers were an ideal training exercise for the recruits. After all, they were slow and bumbling, and went down with little to no effort.
It wasn't until around the 200th iteration that someone noticed they were a little harder to kill.
We'd never been able to kill every member of any particular Seeker batch. Some motored around the central atrium, others bonked gently and repeatedly against the dusty skylights above their mother, until at some unknown signal they all turned as one and flew back into the opening in her carapace like some horrible reverse-birth.
I still felt like a fool about it. We'd gotten only images of the alien types faxed to us with the official names slapped on them by some higher-up with more bars than any of us could imagine, just before we lost contact with HQ. Razors and Queens were fairly obvious in their nomenclature; I'd just figured that the person who'd drawn the straw for naming the smallest aliens was a Harry Potter fan or something. I suppose this is what I get for being a smartass.
Seekers, of course, seek information. They observed the weaknesses of their brethren as they died, watched our fighting capabilities, recorded our tactics. Then they took them back to the womb for the next generation to learn and adapt.
As soon as we realized what was going on, we immediately launched a full-scale attack on the queen. Her only response was to heave violently and spew forth a tsunami of Seekers, more heavily armored and with sharpened stingers that dripped something yellow that melted the carpets where it fell. The only good thing about the experience was that after we fought the last few within reach and the dozens of hovering observers returned to the site of their birth, we finally noticed the queen had never stirred from her coma. Sleeping Beauty was in no danger of being accidentally roused by us if a couple of ground-to-air missiles to the swollen abdomen (which did nothing more than leave a couple of soot marks on the chitin) hadn’t done the trick.
After that, the Seekers' changes were no longer stealthy. Our tactics quickly changed from easily dispatching them while laughing, to struggling and cursing through bared teeth as sweat flew, to fighting desperately for our lives, and no longer everyone winning. A few months back we’d finally been ordered to no longer even attempt to engage the Seekers in battle, just lock ourselves in our rooms until we heard the all-clear. If we couldn’t wipe them out, at least we could starve them of any future information.
“After all,” The Captain’d quipped, “Not like those skinny-ass little bug legs can turn doorknobs!” He was right about that. But three generations later, slightly flattened barbs on the stingers did a damn fine job with small screws. Like the ones holding the air vent grilles in place. We lost thirteen recruits that day before Lt. Jacoby thought of stuffing a flaming pillow up the ceiling duct. The smoke and stench of burning feathers finally drove them out and back to the War Womb, as we’d taken to calling it.
No one spoke as we slowly filed out of the smoke-filled rooms that day. One platoon headed to the kitchen to start tearing down the vent hoods from over the industrial rangetops. The rest of us started carrying the bodies down to the boiler room.
These days, central air circulation was a thing of the past, and Seekers looked little like their original bumbling prototype. The size of bear cubs, they were covered in armadillo-like plates of grey-black armor that was resistant to everything we’d tried throwing at it (including water, thanks to Pvt. Herrick and his Wizard of Oz obsession). Their wings were long and jointed, pulsing with veins embedded in what looked like cracked and yellowed plastic, but was just as tough as the body armor. The stingers themselves were now longer than an entire old-school Seeker, serrated, detachable, and coated with something that could make your guts eat themselves into soup before your nerves could tell you to scream. Oh, and about a week ago they figured out thumbs. Grey, spongy, and double-jointed, but good enough for doorknobs. Wisely, nobody’d reiterated this point to the Captain. They probably would have found themselves shoved into the War Womb headfirst.
I skidded into the room, did a half-second check over my shoulder to make sure no one was straggling, and slammed the door, leaning my weight against it as I slid to the floor. None of the doors latched any more: when we’d started locking them and adding deadbolts, the Seekers decided rather than learn lockpicking to simply bulk up and start battering the doors out of their frames. While the cheap strike plates didn’t last long, the body weight of a person or two was usually sufficient to hold the door shut against as many Seekers hitting the other side. Any more than that and they started getting in each others’ way anyway, and couldn’t build up to ramming speed. I’m sure they’d figure a way around it within a few weeks, but hopefully we’d be ready for it by then.
As I caught my breath, I scanned the room. Recruits were broken up into platoons designated by color and number. It was originally supposed to have something to do with our specializations, but we were now such a hodepodge of cross-training no one could remember the original system, and it became nothing more than a glorified homeroom number used for handing out shift assignments. I didn’t see anyone in the room from my group, Blue Two, but I did spot Clarine, who I knew from before the war, standing under the ceiling vent and grinning.
Even though all the vent openings to the atrium were now sealed under a double layer of steel, not to mention that the current generation couldn’t have fit through the ductwork even greased and with a prybar, we were sure that the bugs would find a way through or around eventually, and we weren’t going to be caught off guard a second time. Clarine always grabbed ceiling duty whenever she got the chance. The pilot light on the homemade mini-flamethrower rig she held cast dancing light over her gleeful face, making her look like a kid before a Yule Log.
“Heeeeeeeere buggy buggy buggy,” she was singing softly. “It’s Thanksgiving, you waspy fucks! Come down here so Auntie Clarine can roast your fat ass!”
“I know the chow sucks,” I couldn’t help laughing, “But I don’t think I’m quite that desperate yet.”
“Feeds a family of twelve! The other white meat!” She punctuated her statements with a jolly little foop-foop of flame.
“I don’t care HOW much Stove Top you shove up its ass, there’s no way I’m eating JESUS CHRIST!” The sharpened proboscis withdrew from the hole punched through the door two inches left of my head, and I could hear the wood sizzle as something toxic began to eat away at the edges. I flung myself away from the door as the thing (new stinger? Beak? Tongue?) slammed through the wood at the precice level my mouth had been moments before. The appendage stuck in the wood briefly, and the Seeker’s struggles began to slowly bump the door open.
“fuckfuckfuckfuck GET OFF THE FUCKING DOOR! BRACE THE EDGES!” I yelled to the two recruits bracing the room’s other entrance around the corner as I slammed the door shut with my foot, jamming my other boot at the bottom. There was a tearing sound and a chorus of screams from the hidden door, but the shrieks sounded like startlement and revulsion instead of agony, so I assumed they’d listened to me in time.
Cursing, I danced a frantic jig around the edge of the door, moving one boot every half-second to keep them from being pierced as the Seeker homed in on the thumps of their landing. Clarine had the flamethrower at the ready, and yelled at me to let the door go and get out of the way.
“Are you fucking insane? We don’t know how many are out there!”
“They can only fit through two at a time! I can cook ‘em faster than that! LET IT GO!”
I opened my mouth to scream something about not trusting everyone's life to her metaphorical balls, when the hammering abruptly stopped. The helicopter hum of a thousand wings faded slowly back and then into nothing. A few seconds later there were three short blasts on the siren. All clear. I relaxed into a limp pile, my legs collapsing in a decidedly unladylike position, not that I gave a shit in the circumstances.
“Y’see?” Clarine lit a scavenged cigarette off the pilot light. “This is why you should transfer to Red Two. Then we could have slumber parties like this ALL the time!” I laughed and hauled myself off the floor. A quick glance around the room confirmed no injuries this time, which was becoming rarer and rarer good news.
The speakers out in the hall crackled with the Captain’s voice, ordering everyone to the briefing room in five minutes. I knew what he was going to say: we’d held them off this time, but they’d be heading back with the knowledge that it had almost worked. And we had no idea how much time we had to anticipate their next move, come up with a countermeasure, and implement it before they came back without the “almost”. If they did before we were ready, I didn’t think there’d be any hope left for anyone, anywhere.