Shivam awoke to strange constellations. Red stars that didn’t glimmer, looking not so far above the tops of the Western white pines. Then he felt a tremble in the earth like an orchestral brass section playing dissonant chords in infrasound somewhere just out of sight within the dark forest.
There was a Behemoth ship overhead. Abductor class. Enormous and angular. City-sized, its boundaries lost in the smoke and haze from the fires. Seekers studded its hulking form like whale barnacles, traveling together toward separate ends, not quite symbiotic. Neither the Behemoths nor the Seekers meant anything good for Shivam.
He rolled onto his stomach, laying on rocks that dug into his ribs in order to avoid noisy twigs. The earth was fragrant and damp. A mountain pine beetle picked its way around him. He was careful not to hurt it as he worked his way to his knees and then to his feet.
He didn’t check his hand. It was still wrapped in the bloody gauze he’d made of his shirt. He didn’t want to confirm his fears. Instead, he walked down toward the creek bed, not putting his feet anywhere his eyes hadn’t already been. Somewhere behind him an owl hooted over its predawn meal. A fresh kill. It made him shiver, but also salivate, simultaneously ravenous and nauseated.
Shivam heard the creek before he saw it, babbling softly over rocks and around patches of earth and conifers that defied its course. He was overcome by thirst and desperation and moved more quickly, hoping the water would muffle his footsteps. But before he emerged from the tree line he heard a muffled sound that was not his own. A shivering rattle coupled with a periodic high-pitched hum. Seekers, at least two of them, talking to each other.
He froze. Their tungsten bodies floated effortlessly overhead. The Seekers’ fusion jets spit colorless flames behind them, and their manipulators were swept back and hugging their bodies. Forward-facing sensor arrays projected red spotlight beams that reached the ground.
Just then, the first ray of sun punctured the clouds and the haze and the pine needles and sent their billions of photons directly into Shivam’s eyes where his optic nerves converted them into electrical pulses to be interpreted by his occipital lobe. An inherited genetic abnormality intervened.
Shivam sneezed six times in a row.
The Seekers’ red beams were on him in an instant and their manipulators flared out like the tentacles of squid on the hunt. His heart hammered like he’d just sprinted half a mile and his throat clamped shut. He lifted his hands in front of his face in a futile, instinctual gesture.
But one hand was no longer a hand, and it reacted on its own accord. The grafted Behemoth wetware rumbled and droned, and his ragged shirt burst apart in a cloud of ash. His forearm bones rattled like they were passing 1,000 volts between them. One Seeker turned upward and flew straight into the air while the other unfurled its manipulators further, tripling its apparent size. The Behemoth device embedded in his arm didn’t care for either reaction and blasted them both to vapor in an instant. Then it quieted, and his arm fell slack.
For a moment it was as silent as death. Then the Behemoth Abductor turned its attention on Shivam.
Notes: I used an image as a writing prompt for this piece. You may be able to find the image on the artist’s ArtStation page. Image by Calder Moore, used with permission.