The coffee was vile. It wasn't even real coffee, just some kind of nutritionally useful gloop that claimed to have something resembling caffeine in it. Jack tried not to care about it. He had to stay awake, finish the damn research numbers.
The plate in front of him, on the cramped trailer table, contained something very much like the subject of his research. A pre-packaged protein glop the colour of beach sand, ration number eighteen.
He cut into the ration eighteen with the side of his spoon, levered out a chunk with a wet sucking noise. He gritted his teeth and lifted the spoon to his mouth. He tried to ignore the unappetising chill of the stuff, the way the ration eighteen seemed to dissolve into a thin paste in his mouth that coated his tongue with slime.
"Start dinner without me, honey?" Barbara smiled, leaning against the undersized trailer's doorframe, her rifle in one hand.
"Sorry. I haven't really been paying attention to table manners lately," Jack replied, taking a gulp of his 'coffee'. It washed the ration eighteen out of his mouth, but the coffee's taste wasn't much of an improvement.
"That's okay," she said, ducking her head as she climbed inside the cramped living trailer, looked around for a place to leave her rifle. Every surface was covered in printouts and research equipment, other than the small spot Jack had cleared for his lunch. Barbara settled for leaning her rifle against the water purifier.
As she sat at the other side of the table, the scent she'd brought in from outside with her began to make Jack gag. Dust, decay, something vaguely fungal. He froze, another spoonful of the ration eighteen hovering in front of his face.
Barbara frowned in concern. "You okay, Jack?"
He stared lamely at the quivering hunk of glop on the end of his spoon. It looked almost exactly like a sample he'd taken the day before from the Biomass. Vaguely fleshy, wet and coloured a horrible flat yellow-gray. At the first acid tinge of bile in his throat, he dropped the spoon back into the plate, clenched his teeth and tried to swallow it back.
"I'm, I'm just not very hungry." Jack pulled himself out of his seat and struggled through the trailer to the small sink. Cupping his hand under the water nozzle, he twisted the handle back and forth until water flowed. It tasted of too much chlorine.
When he looked back, Barbara had picked up his spoon and was calmly eating the gelatinous sludge of ration eighteen as though it was somehow normal. He stumbled for the trailer door.
Barbara looked up from what was now her meal. "Jack?"
"I need some fresh air," he answered, squeezing through outside.
"Jack, take a gun with you," Barbara pleaded.
"I don't want one of those things."
"What if there's a transgenant out there?"
"Then it'll bloody eat me, that's what!"
The field research base seemed desolate and vulnerable to Jack. Just a couple of trailers, an old truck and a jeep, out in the middle of nowhere. At least it was daylight. They didn't have any external lights for the night, and even if they did, the lights would just summon one of the transgenants, and then they'd be in deep trouble.
There were just four researchers out here. Eddie and Greg, the other two, were busy packing their old and busted-up jeep for a trip. One of the research team's two rifles was strapped to the jeep's dashboard, and both of the men had pistol holsters at their hips.
"You guys look like you're outfitted for war there," Jack said as he walked up to the two.
Eddie, typically silent, shrugged his shoulders. Eddie grunted vaguely, lifting a heavy canvas bag up into the Jeep.
"Boy I'd love to kick their butts," Greg said dreamily, a half-finished cigarette in his hand. "Phoenix company, that's where it's at. I heard they took out one of those reticulan ships on the ground last week? Hey, you think maybe they'd ask me to join if maybe I killed some transgenants or something?" Greg fingered the butt of his pistol. "You know, if I prove myself."
"We're just here to study the Biomass," Jack replied tiredly. "That's it."
Greg took a drag off his cigarette. "I've got ambitions, man. I didn't survive the twilight and fall just to rot away taking air samples and prepping lab samples."
"I'm happy with research. Just don't drag me along, will you?"
"Yeah, yeah. Sure thing Jack. hey, wife kick you out of the house?" Greg asked with a grin, glancing over at the trailers.
"She's not my wife," Jack replied tiredly.
Eddie grinned, leaning against the jeep's side. "Yeah? Fooled me."
Jack shook his head at the two of them, and picked up a loose pair of binoculars. "So what kind of trip are you two planning?"
"Transgenant count," Eddie explained. "Gotta make sure we don't get snuck up on."
Jack peered out to the horizon, binoculars to his face. To the east, just ocean. To the south, rolling hills that seemed almost untouched with man. Kilometres north, there was the yellow smear of the Biomass, vast tendrils curling like veins through the fleshy structure that had eaten through alpine forests, leaving a carpet over the ground.
"Wish we were gonna hunt them," Greg complained. "I want some kills under my belt."
The Biomass looked sickly, like someone who'd eaten too much ration eighteen had thrown up over the landscape. There were almost wet glimmers on the curls of the biomass nearest to them. Even as Jack watched, a tendril split open like an overripe banana, spewing a thin cloud of yellow-green dust into the air.
Eddie shook his head slowly. "Nah," he muttered, turning back to the jeep. "That's just crazy."
That was all wrong. There was an anti-Biomass base just thirty kilometres away, projecting the weird fields that gave everyone close to it a horrible migraine, and that made the biomass die out. Biomass didn't release spore clouds like that unless it was growing.
"Hey! It ain't crazy. I'm a good shot with a rifle. Phoenix company needs people like me," Greg protested.
Jack's lips moved as he tried to work out the math. At the natural rate of progression, factoring in the damp environment... the Biomass would be crawling over the field base within twelve hours. "Eddie? Greg? You might want to take a look at this."
The trailer felt cramped when there were all four field researchers crammed into it. The smell of nervous sweat pervaded the air.
"What in the hell did you just say?"
"Settle down Greg," Eddie held up his hands defensively.
Greg hardly seemed like he wanted to settle down He folded his arms and leaned against one thin wall, wearing a grimace.
Jack wasn't happy either. In fact, he felt sick to his stomach.
"They can't have just surrendered. They can't have," Greg protested. "Damn it! It's some kind of lie!"
"It's not a lie!" Jack shouted back. "Have you looked outside lately? The Biomass is growing again. That's proof they've already evacuated the blasted Anti-Biomass base!"
Eddie shook his head and sighed.
"It's a little hard to swallow. That's all," Barbara said smoothly. "I'm sure there must be some kind of mistake."
Jack pinched the bridge of his nose. "No mistake," he said, taking a deep breath. "You heard command. A transport helicopter's going to be here as soon as it's refuelled from the base evacuations."
Greg thumped his hand into the thin trailer walls. "No way. No way would we surrender. Phoenix company was kicking reticulan butt, man."
"It's not a even a surrender," Jack sighed. "It's a truce. The Council of Earth got a message from the reticulans, they didn't realize humanity was so advanced, they're willing to make a place for us..."
"Make a place for us?" Eddie asked levelly, forestalling Greg's fresh outburst. "We have a place. Earth."
"Oh come on Eddie! Have you seen the projections? The data indicates that the Biomass is going to make the planet unlivable. Even with the Anti-Biomass fields in place, even with the strikes on the nodes... more pop up every day. You can't fight something the size of a planet!"
"No freaking way, Jack. No freaking way! Phoenix company's going to take 'em all out, every last one, then we'll be able to rebuild the planet, and--"
"Shut up Greg! Phoenix company can't be everywhere and do anything! Besides, the data speaks for itself, it's only a matter of time. Barbara, you know I'm right, tell them," Jack pleaded, looking up to her.
Barbara didn't meet his gaze.
"Barbara! Tell them!"
"God." She wiped at her eyes. "I don't know Jack. Maybe we made a mistake somewhere. A lot of our projections are built on numbers that don't factor in biowarfare, or psionics. What if we made a mistake? What if command looked at the data and just gave up?"
Jack covered his eyes with his hands. "It doesn't matter anyway. We're evacuating."
"No freaking way! Screw you, Jack!" Greg shouted.
"Quieten down man," Eddie replied with a shake of his head. "We know how you feel."
"Look." Jack sighed and covered his eyes. "Let's just pack everything up and, and leave. I'm tired of all this."
"You're a freaking traitor man, a traitor!"
Barbara balled her hands into fists. "Shut up, just everybody bloody shut up!" she blurted, wiping tears out of her eyes.
Silence crept back over the group.
Greg looked miserable. He shook his head slowly. "We can't just give up. We can't."
Eddie sucked in a deep breath. "Maybe there's a way we could survive in the Biomass..."
Barbara stared up at Eddie for a long moment. "He's right you know," she said. "We probably could. We survived the twilight and fall in underground bunkers. We can survive the biomass so long as we manage to avoid being detected by it. It's not impossible."
"Yes it is," uttered Jack. "It's suicide." He stood up slowly, moving for the trailer's door. "I won't let you do it Barbara. We've got to pack up."
"I'd rather die out in the biomass than live with the freaking reticulans," Greg spat.
"Nobody asked you Greg!" Jack yelled back, his voice shaking. "We won't have to dodge transgenants every day, we'll be able to live like human beings instead of animals!"
Looking between the others for support, Greg shrugged his shoulders arrogantly. "Jesus Jack. You wanna go live in an alien pickle jar, fine, but leave me out of it."
"Me too," Eddie said. "I don't trust them. First they try and exterminate us, now they want to play tea parties? I don't buy it, Jack."
"Fine then. You go off and die in the " Jack looked desperately over to Barbara. "Then it'll just be you and me, right?"
She shook her head slowly. "I agree with Eddie, Jack. Besides. There are probably others like us. Maybe some of them will be military. We'll be able to band together, find a way of surviving maybe..."
"Damn it!" Jack hoarsely shouted. "Fine, run off into the wilderness," he wheezed, shoving past Eddie to get at the Trailer door. "I don't care."
Barbara watched him leave, her eyes welling up with tears.
"I don't care!" Jack screamed, slamming the trailer's door behind him.
Eddie shook his head sadly. "Poor guy."
"More like a freaking traitor," Greg snarled.
Jack sat on the ground, holding his head in his hands. The sky was slowly darkening. He was tired, fearful and alone. They'd taken the truck, the trailer, the jeep. They hadn't even left him a gun.
He could smell the dusty decay smell of the Biomass on the wind.
The thump of helicopter blades broke the silence, the rotor wash kicking up the sand around him and snatched the crumpled letter out of his hand.
He felt a little numb as the helicopter landed, the co-pilot leaping out.
"Where is everybody, man?" the co-pilot screamed over the helicopter's roar.
Jack pulled himself to his feet and staggered towards the Helicopter. "They're gone! They're all gone!"
"Jesus! Where'd they go? Do we need to send out a search party?"
"No, I... I guess not."
The helicopter's roar had long passed by. Eventually a wandering sickly yellow tendril slipped through what had been the field research base. It quested around for nutrition, somewhere to sink into the ground and sprout out another tendril, form the mesh of biomaterial that would slowly strengthen and form the Biomass.
Inadvertently, it flipped over a crumpled letter.
I have loved you since we first met in that god-awful air raid shelter, during the fall and twilight. You always lent me your strength, and I will always be grateful for that.
But our life took its toll on you, and I'm very sorry that I pressured you into volunteering for the Council of Earth's research projects.
I blame myself.
I wanted to wait until we'd finished the field research to tell you, but now there isn't any time left. I think I'm pregnant, Jack. I can't bear the thought of raising our child in a world where we gave up on our own planet.
I hope you'll be happy, without the struggle to survive you always hated.
I'll love you always, Jack. I'm so very, very sorry that things ended this way.
Maybe the future will be better.
Mark M. Cagnacci