Chapter Nineteen

Maria Johnson

One would’ve thought that the bomb in Israel, the destruction of the moon, and the onset of war with an alien species would’ve changed everything. In reality, it changed remarkably little.

That wasn’t to say that nothing was different, just that life was still just life, even after everything that had happened. Once the shock of it all wore off, there were still groceries to buy and bills to pay. Some people fell apart or skipped out on their jobs, but most people seemed to understand that the mundane details were still there to be managed regardless of global drama.

Maria Johnson gazed up at the orange glow in the midst of the clear blue sky in a rare moment of reflective relaxation. She had a meeting with Aarush later that evening, but she’d taken some time to bring Benjamin up to Madhugiri Fort and try to relax. Relaxing had always been hard for her, and was especially difficult now. But then, that just meant making the effort was even more important.

The moon’s surface had peeled back from the energy of the nameless bombs, and over the last day it had stretched out. The central mass of the moon was still there, at one end, with the still-molten spray of rock jetting up into a long arc. The dust cloud around the moon was still there, too, but it was only a vague aura during the daytime. Calderón had told her that because there was no air or anything in space to carry heat away from the lava, the spray would continue to glow until the very act of glowing cooled it down, which could take a very long time, considering it was also constantly heated by the sun.

“Mom, cmon, wanna see the fort!” said Benjamin, eagerly, pulling on her hand, urging her to get up.

She smiled and complied. Her feet were sore already, and she’d probably feel the impact on her muscles tomorrow, but it was probably also good for her. She spent far too much time sitting in front of her computer. It was part of why she tried so hard to get out and into the field. Staying active and meeting face-to-face with her brothers and sisters in the movement was what kept her going.

But that didn’t mean she didn’t wish for her exoskeleton.

As she watched Benjamin run up ahead, she fantasized about retiring. She was close. Aarush wanted to take over, and despite all her hesitation, she was inclined to let him. The mantle of Phoenix had been burning her up. It had been ever since she took it on. She’d never been meant to lead.

But changing leadership in the midst of all of this would be bad. Las Águilas Rojas needed her to be an anchor. Maybe in a month. But there was always one more thing… or ten more things, as was more typically the case. Her work was never done. Even as she walked along the dirt trail with her son, she was neglecting a dozen opportunities.

India desperately needed her help. Everything was unstable here. Jem needed more funds for a propaganda push to counteract the emergency powers that Gore was abusing in the States. She could imagine Divinity’s hand above the president, guiding his actions. At least WIRL had been crippled to the point of being a non-issue. Maria could only pray that the world governments could handle the nameless, militarily. Or at least, the governments besides India. She needed to focus on India.

And she would. She’d scheduled time to attend to India. It was why she was here. She’d been planning the trip for months, before Olympus, even. It had been disguised as a “family vacation”. In a sense that was true.

Maria was surprised that nobody seemed to find it strange that she’d be going on vacation with the threat of armageddon hanging overhead. In the airports, she’d seen many families doing similar things. Getting in a few good moments together, she suspected, before things really came loose.

Or perhaps they’d stay about the same. She didn’t know.

She could see the stress on people’s faces. She could see their fear and their doubt.

But life kept going. The price of groceries was a little higher. Everything seemed to be a little more expensive, actually. But people were still working.

Maria watched her son running up ahead. He, and Jamal, and other children she’d encountered seemed barely affected at all. Surely those who lost someone in the war would feel it. She hoped her children wouldn’t have to go through that. They seemed to find the prospect of war with the aliens exciting.

She envied them.

She looked behind her and signaled for Bea to come closer. Her flame never left her side, even when she was pretending to be a normal pleb.

Checking to make sure Benjamin was out of earshot, she asked “Everything’s still on for this evening? Anything new from Aarush?”

“Just relax. All’s quiet.”

Maria raised an eyebrow. “Liar. But I’ll take the suggestion. Just be sure to tell me if anything comes in.”

“Yes, Maria,” said Bea with a look of strain at not being able to call Phoenix by her title.

Maria looked towards her son and intentionally took a deep breath. The world was on fire, but in that moment she’d focus on simply enjoying life.


It was on their return trip, on their way back to Bangalore, when Benjamin spotted the cloud.

Henry and Jamal were, in all likelihood, back at the hotel by then. They’d gone to the technology museum while she and Benjamin had gone into the mountains. The plan was to drop Benjamin off at the hotel with his father and rotate directly to her meeting with Aarush to talk about the division of power in New India.

The people were starved for change. Even if Las Águilas Rojas hadn’t been pushing for revolution, the subcontinent was simply too diverse to hold under a single, centralized banner. It was remarkable that things had remained so stable for so many years. The fragmentation had been a long time coming.

New India would be different. It would be a confederacy with a greater emphasis on local government and people’s rights. There’d be a surge of jobs as part of the revolution, and this would make the people happy, wherever they were from. Aarush had vision, and Maria had the resources. India would fall apart and then come back together, stronger than before.

She’d been thinking, as they rode in the car, that there might be some benefit to having an explicitly joint-leadership arrangement with Aarush. If Maria handed off all her cells in Eurasia and Africa to the man, he might be able to manage those while she focused entirely on the Americas. That was where her expertise lay, anyway. There was a risk in putting him in charge of too much too fast, but the real question was whether he was as committed to the ideology as he seemed. Nothing would serve as more of a death sentence for Las Águilas than a leader who was more hungry for personal power than for global change.

“Hey Mom, wassat?” said Benjamin, breaking her out of her thoughts. His finger was extended towards the windshield.

Maria peered from the backseat between Bea and the driver she’d hired. There was a darkness hanging over the horizon at the end of the road.

“Smoke, maybe?” she guessed.

Their driver spoke up. (Maria would be damned if she ever got into an auto, and thankfully India had plenty of drivers for traditional cars willing to shuttle her around.) “Looks far away. Maybe a storm. Hard to be smoke that big.”

Maria didn’t wear a com when she wasn’t working, nor did she permit her children to use such devices. Maria turned towards her bodyguard, not that the motion was visible from the back seat. “Bea, can you be a doll and check the weather for me?”

Bea tilted her head, as if to respond, but was cut off by the noise of calls coming in on both her com and that of the driver’s. The discord of the different ringtones was a bit much, but then, as quickly as they’d come, they were gone.

Maria watched as Bea tapped at her arm. “Signal’s gone,” she grumbled, continuing to fiddle with the machine.

“Mine too,” said the driver.

Bea’s voice became more grave as she said “Says it was an ‘emergency call’, but there’s no info beyond that.”

Maria got a sick feeling in her gut. It was surely just a coincidence or maybe a storm warning, but her instincts told her it was worse. It was the same feeling she’d had when she’d heard the news about the moon. Things were falling apart. Was this The Plan?

Thoughts of Revelations came up, unbidden. {“But woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you! He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short.”}

She looked at Benjamin, who was more curious than anything. She suspected that he could tell she was remembering the verse. Perhaps she’d been muttering it to herself.

“Ugh! Damn it!” swore Bea.

“You watch yo’ mouth in front of my child, girl!” scolded Maria.

“Sorry, it’s just that there’s no reception at all. It makes no sense. We had good signal on the way out.”

“That ain’t no reason to swear. Just relax and wait for it to come back on its own. Sure it’ll be fine, call or no call.”

But she wasn’t sure. Her gut still told her that something was seriously wrong. She kept watching the cloud in front of them, hanging over the city center. It was growing at an ominous rate, and getting darker as it did.

They rode in silence for about another minute before the city’s sirens went off. Maria hoped they were tornado warnings. They started quiet, but within moments were a loud, uncompromising scream, as though the city was crying out in pain.

“What’s goin’ on?!” yelled Benjamin, over the wailing noise.

Nobody answered him. Bea continued pounding at her com, expecting the technology to save her, and the driver kept looking back at Maria expecting her to say or do something.

There was more traffic on the other side of the road than there had been.

A lot more.

She could see the density increase further forward.

“Stop the car!” commanded Maria. She needed to take charge. People needed leadership. She needed to trust her gut. This was no simple storm.

The driver complied, pulling the car to the side of the road. They were on a back-road on the outskirts of Bangalore. Even here the traffic was getting intense. There were cheap houses on the sides of the road. Faded pastels and poorly maintained patches of brown grass. February was supposed to be one of the driest months.

“Wait, no, up ahead. See?” asked Maria, pointing to a van down the road a ways with a few men standing around talking. “Maybe they know somethin’ about what’s goin’ on. Bea, you get the emergency radio from yo’ bag in the trunk while we do.”

As the car pulled forward, Bea asked “We breaking pattern? Should I issue a birdcall?”

The siren died off, then, and Maria felt the immediate release of tension. But that was bad too, in its way. The cloud was getting closer, blown by some unknown wind, and she still didn’t have a sense of what was going on.

“Be ready for that, but just see if you can find out what’s goin’ on for now. Driver, what’s yo’ name?”

The man parked the car, and Bea hopped out with a focused energy. “Nabh Tatpatti, ma’am.” He was young and had seemed to Maria to be exceptionally generic—the epitome of what she expected a good Indian driver in his twenties to be.

“Good, you can serve as my translator. I’ll pay you a hundred dollars for the trouble, on top of your normal fee.” She turned to Benjamin. “I’m goin’ to figure out what’s happenin’. Stay here, okay?”

With the obedient nod of her son, she and Nabh got out to talk to the men. Benjamin was such a good boy. He reminded her of his father.

She hoped Henry and Jamal weren’t in trouble.

The men around the van looked as confused as they were. Stressed, too.

“Ask ‘em if they know what all the fuss is about,” she instructed Nabh, and turned to look at the road as he spoke to the men in his language.

The traffic was starting to overflow into the oncoming lane. There was nobody heading into the city. Everyone was moving out. Now that the major siren was gone and they were out of the car she could hear the fainter sounds of the sirens of emergency vehicles in the distance.

Cars began to honk as the traffic built up.

“Phoenix?” called Bea, forgetting the need for secrecy. “Phoenix?!” she yelled again, more urgently. The fear on the voice of her bodyguard was intense.

Maria ran back towards their car towards where Bea was messing around in the trunk, forgetting Nabh and the other Indian men. “What?!”

“Calderón says we need to evac right now! Something bad is going on in the city center!”

{Henry. Jamal.}

Maria reached Bea, who had one ear pressed up to her headphones, focused on the radio in front of her. Amusingly, the old box was functioning while the high-tech computer on the woman’s arm was useless.

But she didn’t really care about the radio. “My family is—”

Maria was cut off by the roar of jets overhead. She looked up just in time to see a flight of fighter jets shoot overhead and towards the black cloud. In seconds they were swallowed by the mass and just a few seconds after that the roar of explosions rippled through the air around them.

But she couldn’t see anything relevant. No fireballs. Nothing destroyed. Just the cloud. The black cloud was oppressively close. It was like a smoke that got thicker as it moved, rather than dissipating. The ambient light was fading as it took up more of the sky.

The road beside them had clogged with cars as panic overtook people. With the explosion gone, the audiospace began to fill with the honking of horns and the yelling of various motorists. Bikes and scooters threaded their way through the jam. Maria could only guess at what the highways were like.

She turned back to Bea, who was still staring off towards the horizon, perhaps hoping to see what had happened to the aircraft. “We need to get my family!” she emphasized.

Bea shook her head, white as a sheet, no longer listening to the yelling on the headphones. “Can’t. This is a priority-one. Calderón is bringing the chopper in. He says the city is crawling with robots. They came out of nowhere. Says there’s talk on other bands about the nameless being behind it.”

“What about… what about…” Maria trailed off. {What about Aarush? What about the revolution…}

She sat down on the curb, hard. The cement under her butt was painful, but blessedly solid. She felt light-headed, and her body tingled. Things weren’t supposed to work out like this. It made no sense. It didn’t match her sense of The Plan. How had she not seen this? Nobody had seen this.

She put her hands together, first reflexively, then deliberately. She shifted to cross her legs. Bea yelled into the radio about their location as she closed her eyes. She could feel the sweat on her palms. She could feel the fear. She began to focus.

{Oh God, who sustains and guides…} she prayed. {I am lost and frightened. Please protect Henry. Please protect Jamal. I don’t know what you want from me. None of this makes any sense to me, and I-}

A large insect landed on her arm suddenly, pulling her out of her prayer. Jerking in surprise, she flailed at it, managing to grab it in her left hand. She yelped in pain as the bug stung her, and she threw it to the pavement.

It wasn’t an insect.

She could see it lying on the ground beside her, stunned by the impact, perhaps. It was black and grey, with glints of white and silver. It was about the size of a wasp, but its body structure was closer to that of a beetle. The metal glint was unmistakable. It was a machine.

Blood dripped off a snout-like appendage at the front of the robot. It took her a moment to realize it was hers. She looked to her hand and found that the little beast had given her quite the wound. It had ripped into the meat of her palm, and as she focused on it she could feel the sharp stinging pain coursing down her arm. The bleeding was severe enough that she wasn’t even sure how bad the injury actually was.

She looked back to the thing just in time to watch it buzz up and away on large transparent wings, apparently without serious damage from the incident.

“What in heaven’s name…” muttered Maria, still lost. The white cloth of her tank-top stained with red as she absentmindedly gripped it. Some stupid part of her chastised her for ruining a perfectly good shirt.

“Phoenix! You’re bleeding!” exclaimed Bea.

“I can see that. Was a…”

She trailed off.

“Phoenix?” asked Bea.

Maria was looking at the sky beyond her bodyguard. They were hard to see, but once she knew what she was looking for, they were everywhere. “We need to get in the car,” said Maria, pushing herself up from the ground.

“Evac will be here in just-”

“In the car! Now!” snapped Maria, continuing to keep her eyes on the sky. She could hear the buzzing descend on them as Bea obeyed, jerking her bag and radio along with her.

The black cloud was made of robots. They were on the leading edge of it. It was a swarm. The size of it was unfathomable. How many were there? Millions? Billions?

It felt like night was descending as she scrambled into the back of the car after Bea. The driver, whose name Maria had already forgotten, was still outside, talking to the men. Her hand throbbed, and she did her best to squeeze and put pressure on the wound.

“Mom! What’s goin’ on?!” asked Benjamin. He seemed shaken and scared, though perhaps that was just a reflection of her own feelings. He looked so very much like his father, right then.

She didn’t know what to say. She didn’t actually know what was happening. All she had were fears. She watched a motorcycle speed past them, recklessly threading between stalled vehicles.

It was Bea who answered him. “Sorry, kiddo, but the world just fell apart.” She pulled a pistol out of her bag and clicked a magazine into the handle. The radio headphones were now on her head, but only covering one ear. “We got a helicopter comin’ in to pick us up and take us out of this mess, but until we’re safe, the best thing you can do is be quiet and follow your mom, okay?”

Benjamin looked from Bea to Maria, then to the gun, then back to Maria. She nodded and smiled for him, reaching out to pull his head to her. She kissed his hair and looked him in the eyes. She knew what needed to be said. “Have faith in God. We’re in a mess right now, but he’ll guide us through. I’ll ‘splain it laytuh.”

The buzzing was intense now. The driver had returned to their car and climbed in right as Bea said into the radio. “What do you mean you can’t get close enough!?”

One of the insect-things landed on the window beside Maria. It clung to the glass like a real insect might, but the machinery was plainly visible up close. It had four legs, a limb at the top of its body between its wings, and a short arm at the front tipped with a hexagon-shaped gripper. The gripper had been what had cut her. She could see the tiny robot scratching deep grooves with it in the glass before it took off. To cut glass so easily the claw must be insanely sharp…

She was glad they’d gotten back into the car.

“What is happen-” started the driver. Nob? Was that his name?

Bea silenced him with gesture and continued to talk to Calderón (presumably). “Don’t give a damn about a perimeter or what the government says! Phoenix is injured and things are getting worse down here by the second! We need you!”

There was a pause, and then Bea said “Do you honestly think they’re going to shoot—”

She was silenced as another flight of jets shot overhead, faster than the last group had been. They were firing their guns into the cloud.

The four of them sat in the car, watching the airplanes rush forward and then bank sharply, avoiding flying too far into the swarm. Their bullets seemed completely ineffectual. In seconds they were gone, having flown off into the distance. The roar of their engines was replaced by the horrible drone of robotic wings.

“Son of a bitch!” yelled Bea. “Now the fucking radio is gone, too!”

Maria bit back another reprimand for the girl to watch her language. Now wasn’t the time.

Benjamin clung to her, reminding her of when he’d been just a little baby. The memory stung, and she tried to wipe it from her mind. She needed to forget about Jamal and Henry, too. She needed to focus. “How soon is our lift?” she asked.

Bea was frustrated, but holding together. Phoenix had picked her flame well. “Hell if I know. A couple minutes, maybe? Calderón said the Indians were telling him to avoid entering the airspace, but it looks to me like they have bigger things to worry about.”

The driver eyed Bea’s pistol uncomfortably. “Excuse me, but I am very confused. Who are you people? Who is Calderón?”

“Believe you me, I wish I knew what in heaven’s name is goin’ on. The city’s under attack by bots. Probably a secret weapon from the aliens. That cloud out there’s a swarm of ‘em, and I bet there’s plenty more on the ground too. Name’s Maria Johnson,” she held out her good hand to the driver, “secret ambassador from the USA. This here’s my son and my bodyguard. Was supposed to be on the down-low if you catch my drift, but given the present situation, I’ll be gettin’ an airlift out of here.”

“Speaking of…” said Bea.

She could hear the schwooping of the blades now, coming in through the buzzing. Calderón must have been closer than he indicated.

“Yes! I can hear you! Can you hear me?” shouted Bea into her headset. She paused and listened. “I don’t give a damn! Land on the cars if you have to! … Yes, we can manage! She’s not that badly injured!”

Maria had located the helicopter out the back window, coming in low and fast. The four of them watched it grow as Bea continued to direct Calderón towards them.

There really was no good place for it to land, but Calderón flew down to just outside their car and hovered. Maria could see the confused passengers of the cars beside them looking up.

“Okay! Out we go!” commanded Maria, mostly to Benjamin, who seemed to be in total shock at everything going on.

“What about my payment!?” asked the driver, as Maria followed her son out the door.

She could see Bea inside waving her pistol at the man. Maria guessed she was explaining that he had bigger things to worry about, but the roar of the helicopter’s blades made her words totally inaudible.

The swarm had grown thicker, and the sky was dark with buzzing robots. Clouds of them drifted here and there, along the ground. Mercifully, they seemed not to be hunting people. Maria’s first encounter had made her fear that they were designed as weapons, and while she didn’t doubt that a swarm of them could severely injure or even kill, that appeared not to be their purpose.

One of her flame, perhaps Juan, was hanging out of the side of the helicopter. Goggles and a black cloth obscured his face. Moments later he’d extended a ladder.

“We gotta move! The bots are gonna be here any second!” he yelled, waving for Benjamin to climb faster.

Maria took her hand out of her shirt and flexed it, feeling the ache of her wound. She’d be able to climb, though. Maria felt a sharp bite at her neck and swatted at with her free hand. Another bot. They might not be hunting her, but apparently they had no love for her either.

“The cloud is made o’ bots! What are you talkin’ about?” yelled Maria in reply as she gripped the plastic rungs of the rope ladder. Bea was right behind her.”

Maria winced as Juan took her hand and pulled her up and into the body of the helicopter.

“Killers incoming! Brace yourselves!” crackled the voice of Calderón over the speaker.

The helicopter jerked into motion, pulling back, up and away from the dirty road with Bea still clinging to the ladder, bag slung around her shoulders and pistol gripped in her right hand. Maria scrambled to grab onto the door of the helicopter. She could see Benjamin strapped into a seat.

“The bugs aren’t what I mean—” began Juan, but he was cut off by a sharp crack, and then another. Gunfire.

Maria leaned out of the door to look. A machine beyond her wildest dreams crawled down below. It must have been three times the size of a bus… but carried on a dozen piston-like legs. Many tendrils and arms rose from it, like serpents from medusa’s head. The whole thing was exposed machinery, and yet it moved with an organic flow that made it feel distinctly alive. The crack of gunfire was coming from it, and she could see three of the largest tendrils with huge guns mounted at the tips swinging this way and that.

Down below people were dying. The guns moved in a careful, efficient pattern that involved a single shot for each person. There was no wasted motion.

The helicopter began to fill with bug-bots as it took off. Perhaps whatever was piloting the sadistic things could tell they were escaping.

“Keep climbing!” yelled Juan.

But it was too late. A crack of one of the guns was all it took to rip Bea off the ladder and practically tear her body in half. The woman’s face seemed more confused than anything else.

Maria watched her bodyguard tumble away onto the road below as the helicopter surged up and away at maximum speed.

She could spare no thought for Bea. The bots in the helicopter had turned violent. In a heartbeat they were all over her, biting and cutting. She could hear Benjamin screaming.

There was a crack and the sound of metal on metal. Another.

The pain was overwhelming as the slapped and fought the metal horrors, trying desperately to keep them from her face.

She collapsed to the floor of the helicopter and did her best to crush the bots beneath her weight as she rolled around. The roar of the blades grew quieter as the door to the vehicle closed.

“We took a couple hits, but this baby’s still going! The killer’s focusing on ground-targets again! We’re out!” yelled Calderón.

Benjamin’s crying was all Maria could hear. She scrambled across the floor and pulled herself up next to him. There was blood everywhere. Her hands were beyond the point where she cared about them anymore. She grabbed the vicious things off her child and screamed as she crushed them and threw them down to stomp on.

There was blood coming down over her eyes. They’d gotten into her hair and had dug into her scalp. She continued to scream even as she smashed the last of the little robots.

She was thinking of William and Jamal. They were dead. She could feel it. Her child was dead. Her husband was dead.

Nothing made sense.

There was too much blood.

She screamed in anguish and grief and pain as they were carried away. They were safe for the moment, perhaps, and she used that moment to hold her remaining baby and to let the horror of the moment wash over her.