The Phoenix Clan were somewhat dismayed, upon arriving in Columbia, to not immediately find any obvious places to find shelter. It was quickly decided that they would cross the Rio Atrato river, which resulted in a tense standoff between humans and roaches while engineers worked at bridging the gap. Thankfully the relatively low-land terrain allowed them to use one of their favored types of self-unfolding bridges, which they retrieved from the other side once they had crossed. It was a relief to see the small army of dozens, perhaps over a hundred black-colored roaches heading south along the river as they seemingly lost interest in the caravan.
While this felt like something to celebrate, none felt especially comfortable about the idea of staying there, considering the roaches knew where they were. Because of this, they continue east, spending the rest of the spring heading past the probably-buried ruins of Carepa and towards the Rio Cauca river that flowed through the mountains central to Antioquia, Colombia. Their goal was the old city of Medellin, which had an ideal altitude and protective mountainous terrain to provide the kind of protection the Council of Thirteen had been encouraged to find by the rest of the Elders. This did result in having to cross the Rio Cauca, but thankfully the northern parts of it did not have the tricky mountainous terrain around it that it did to the south. It was only after crossing that river and trying to find the path south to Medellin that things started seeming a little strange. People had started spotting greenery in the distance, but said greenery tended to vanish in the night before the caravan could approach it.
Looking at these lumps of plant life from a distance did not really allow anyone to identify them. Whatever they were, they had thick barky plant-flesh, were quite wide, and had formations of greenery around the tops. All that was left when they managed to close in on them were large holes in the ground up to a meter across, with signs of removed roots. More curious were the heavy footprints that seemed to leave these holes, which Thorne insisted looked like roach tracks. It wasn’t until they were closing in on Medellin that these retreating plants decided to stay put, and on the afternoon of June 1, 2518, AC 386, a wary and at this point battle-hardened group of scouts approached the leafy, barky protrusions.
There are roughly a dozen of them as Thorne and Vasille approach, followed by twenty other scouts. Six of them are following in three ATVs, with railguns hot and ready to fire. They arranged themselves in a formation to give the ATVs a clear line of fire in the event of an emergency. The one that Thorne and Vasille stepped near started lifting itself from the ground, moving slowly in an apparent effort to not alarm them. Its flesh appeared to be plated in bark while its back and head were decorated in green, lush-looking leaves. The familiar shape of a two-meter tall roach became clear as the large forelimbs lifted it upright, revealing a smaller set of delicate forelimbs that ended in soft-looking hands.
Atop its head were slowly shifting antennae which ‘looked’ in the direction of Thorne before moving towards Vasille. Large eyes seemed to peer in all directions, and pair of bark ‘eyelids’ opened to reveal human-shaped eyes in between the insectile ones that looked back and forth at the assembled scouts. The antennae lifted up, still arced forwards under their own weight, and the smaller of its arms reached out to hold out its hands, palms up, as if offering them to the two men. It crouched forwards, its seemingly wooden mandibles shifting and moving in a fashion that seemed almost nervous.
Vasille kept his weapon raised, breaking the silence first. “I thought we were going to shoot roaches on sight. What are we doing?” He glanced over at Thorne, who had lowered his own gun. Responding to his now long-time friend, he couldn’t help but let out a short laugh. “Hah, well, probably making a mistake, but taking a chance I suppose.” Thorne let his gun drop, hanging from the strap around his shoulders as he walked up to the plant-roach thing, and placed first one, then both of his hands atop the extended hands. “I should have brought dad out here.” His hands felt warm, moist plant-flesh against his skin. The fingers moved, shifting both of their sets of hands so that they could clasp Thornes between them, gently shaking them up and down.
The seemingly friendly roach tilted its head down, peering those strange human eyes down at Thorne. The human couldn’t do much but look right back, watching as its head leaned closer, only for the antenna to reach out and start brushing against the top of his head. He laughed a bit, feeling something like the branches of a plant touching his thick hair, only for the roach to pull back and lean away. Its head turned off to its right, and its hands let go of Thorne’s so it could point off to the east. It started turning its body with an intent to start walking in that direction. The remaining plant roaches stayed put, soaking in the delicious sunlight while Thorne and the lead roach started walking off a small path along the hills.
Vasille did not look pleased. “Keep an eye on them, I’ll watch Thorne.” He gestured at the other roaches while he followed Thorne at a respectable distance, his own weapon slung around his shoulders. He could be heard muttering something about bad ideas before he disappeared around a bend.
The roach led Thorne to a partially buried structure in the side of the hill, a reinforced concrete arch roughly three meters tall and five wide led into the hillside, though darkness kept him from making out any other details of the structure itself. Just outside of the structure, though, were the remains of a person, which the roach crouched down next to. Thorne watched as the roach gently touched the top of its skull and let out a rumbling sound that sounded like a mournful moan. It turned its head back to Thorne, its human-like eyes visibly moist as its other hand beckoned him closer. Thorne cleared his throat and nodded a bit, carefully stepping around the bulky creature and crouching down before the skeleton.
“You know, I’ve never actually seen a skeleton before… The recyclers usually have it processed before anyone decomposes enough… Was this someone you knew big guy? Was this a friend?” He looked up at the towering beast, very aware of how easily it could smash him right now if it wanted to. Still, the seemingly gentle thing merely nodded its head, that hand gently stroking the top of the skull. It then turned its gaze towards the archway, nodding again, and waiting. Thorne looked back over his shoulder at the arch, and then back to the roach. His expression seemed thoughtful as he spoke. “Sure, I’ll go take a look inside. Don’t let my friend behind you spook you, okay?” Standing up, he walked into the darkness of the archway, his footsteps audible as they echoed down the concrete tunnel.
As he walked, carefully keeping his feet close to the ground to avoid tripping over anything, he pulled some goggles from a pouch, and upon pulling them over his head and turning them on, he could see in shades of green what was around him. The tunnel went on for about fifteen meters before stopping at a large door. More skeletons lay to the sides of the tunnel, their clothes mostly intact unlike the one outside, and the door was ajar. Looking inside, he could only conclude that this was a failed bunker of some manner. It was small, cramped, and the concrete had cracked or split in several places. It gave him an appreciation for the construction of the bunker he was born and raised in. There was a lot of equipment that could probably be salvaged, but otherwise it did not look like somewhere he’d want to bring his people to live in its damaged state.
Returning outside, he took off his goggles and looked up at the roach who patiently waited for him. “So, can you actually understand me?” The roach stared at him, moving its mandibles but otherwise not reacting. He narrowed his eyes and nodded, leaning back down to the skeleton outside and pointing at it. “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah?” The roach nodded its head, closing its eyes for a moment. “Great. I think we need a translator. Alright big guy, let’s head back.” He stepped around the roach and led him back to its companions. Heavy steps behind indicated the tall roach was following as the human met up with Vasille.
“Alright, so, from what I can gather, these roaches were friendly with the people in the bunker back there. Place looks pretty wrecked, so as far as I can figure the black rain or some other kind of poison must have gotten them over time. Maybe disease got them and they didn’t have any medicine. Regardless, I think they want to be friends, but they don’t understand our language.” Hawthorne looked rather upbeat, the interesting situation giving him a lot to think about. Vasille hummed softly in response, considering what to say. “Well, if it does understand language, it’s probably whatever was spoken locally around here. Shouldn’t be too hard to look it up.” Both men nodded as they reconvened with the rest of their scouts, their roach friend returning to his hole and submerging itself back in the ground to enjoy the sun.
Thorne waved at the roaches. “We’ll be back, just gotta figure out how to talk to you.” The scouts turned around and went back to the caravan, where Jessica watched them with binoculars, at least until it seemed they were returning, causing her to gather the Council to receive the scouts.
It was a relatively quick conversation as everyone compared notes, Elena Price speaking up simply. “Spanish, they spoke Spanish here. I’m a few centuries rusty, but I could probably translate. Take me to them.” The oldest woman alive, if you didn’t count cryogenically suspended people, insisted upon walking with the scouts as they returned to the roaches, proving she was still as youthful as her thirty-something looking body indicated. It probably helped that her long strides made the climb a fair bit easier.
Communicating with the roaches proved somewhat tricky, as they could only answer yes or no questions, and their grasp of the language seemed to be about as rusty as Elena’s, but through a little trial and error they were able to learn quite a lot. The roaches had been looking over the people of this bunker for around two hundred years. They did know of the Iron Roaches, and they had been at odds in the past. They had even defended these people from them, essentially starving their iron cousins out and forcing them north. These roaches gained their nourishment from the sun and the earth, though they were sad to admit that they had eaten humans in the past. It seemed that once they had gained enough intelligence, they had become aware of the evil they were perpetuating and decided to protect the remaining people rather than eat them.
It was an easy conclusion at that point to determine that the Iron Roaches simply had to leave to find more people to eat and propagate themselves. They were not as lucky to gain plant-like mutations like these ones had in their early lives before all the plants had been smothered by the inky black clouds. Of course, they had to eat other things(humans) to survive before their mutations could prove useful, allowing them to gain intelligence from eating humans before the black rain cleared the skies and allowed them to subsist on sunlight instead.
There also turned out to be many more of these plant-like roaches, totalling eighty, and after some brief negotiations they requested permission to follow the clan. It took a few minutes to determine why, but in the end it seemed they felt it was their duty to protect those who gave them intelligence and free will. They seemed especially pleased that their new human friends went out of their ways to gather the remains of their old friends and see to it that they were buried. They didn’t really seem to understand the significance at first, but they did then plant a handful of seeds among the graves, thinking that the humans were planting their dead humans to grow new ones.
Elena, of course, felt like she had to explain to everyone that this was the old way of things, that humans traditionally buried their dead, rather than recycled them. It wasn’t as if the Phoenix Clan hadn’t seen such things in the various movies and television shows they’d watched, but it was entirely something else to take part in the mass burial, which Elena took the lead in speaking over.
“We are gathered here to mourn the lost, the departed. They had survived so much, only for the poisons of the old world to finally claim them. Their spirits, today, may rest, knowing that their old friends have looked after them and seen to it that they were protected. I invite you all to appreciate that we easily could have been them. We could have ended up falling prey to any number of circumstances that would have overwhelmed us, and it is by fortune, intellect, and grit that we have survived. It is now our duty to carry the memory of these people with us, to keep humanity alive at any cost. We must honor the memory of fallen survivors and see to it that we endeavor to continue on for them, as well as ourselves. They would certainly want us to.”
The Phoenix Clan and the Flora Roaches arrived in Medellin within the week, the sprawling ruins giving them plenty of opportunities to scavenge. They also got back into communication with T.I.A., while separating the Beta Facility car from the rest to get it onto higher ground. A combination of batteries and solar panels allowed the vehicle to keep the computers powered up, and it also operated as a fine wireless router to the rest of the vehicles in the caravan. The long train of vehicles had been split up into three parts, with the ‘engine’ powering one section and Alpha One and Alpha Two powering the other two. They arranged in something of an open-ended triangle, allowing them to more easily move from one side to the other if need be. It also gave them natural choke-points in the event of attack, something that the Flora Roaches seemed to believe was imminent.
T.I.A. provided them with new schematics for weapons, and by the end of June they had mounted several new railguns atop the cars of the caravan and had built some new structures around them. Arranged along the main entrances were five-meter tall towers, and kept at a respectable distance. The tops of them had thick rings of metals, and made up the very image of the classic tesla coil. It was a dangerous thing to use as a defensive weapon, necessitating people stay away from it while it was active, but the metal-laden carapaces of their enemies would surely attract the lethal shocks from the tall lightning rods. Additionally, three of a new type of weapon were mounted atop a trio of watch towers that appeared at first to be railguns, but were actually magnetic shell launchers. These allowed some artillery fire of high-speed explosive shells that should allow them to go easy on their limited amounts of explosive powders. All of the weapons had to be relatively near the caravan to allow cabling to power them, but it allowed them to keep a tight perimeter.
The ruins of the city provided materials for yet more defenses, primarily in the form of low concrete walls to fire from behind, and new foundations in the middle of the formation of cars to start building permanent structures. Clint seemed especially excited about starting to plant things in the soil, considering that the Flora Roaches seemed to have no issues with rooting themselves in the ground during the day. The roaches were really pulling their weight as well, helping move heavy objects and pound old concrete into rubble so that it could be ground up into new concrete. They seemed every bit as powerful and sturdy as their iron cousins, while not quite as heavy. This did mean that they could move slightly faster, but their plant-like nature caused them to tend to move rather slowly most of the time.
Jessica spent most of her time up on the hill overlooking the settlement they were forming, looking after the Beta Facility computers and keeping in touch with T.I.A. much of the day. She also exchanged messages with the other elders, debating various topics including trying to figure out what to do with their dead in the future. Most of them seemed preferential towards continuing to recycle them, though a handful had been moved by Elena’s ceremony over the graves of the Columbian bunker.
Those concerns would have to wait, however, as the scouts spotted the Iron Roaches again. The large group of man-eaters had found the tracks of their caravan, and were starting to follow them up towards their camp at Medellin. Dark clouds gathered to the north, an indication of one of the region’s frequent storms coming in, though from Jessica’s vantage, she expressed concerns over the severity. Satisfying clackity-clack sounds filled the car as she exchanged messages with the other Elders via the keyboard of the Beta Facility computers.
Jessica: I haven’t seen clouds that dark before.
Elena: From what I remember of my history, this region isn’t known for its hurricanes, we’ll be fine.
Clint: Your history doesn’t mean anything. There isn’t any forests or plant life to absorb the storm surges or slow their advance onto land.
Sherry: That’s one of the reasons we settled on high ground, we’ll be fine, especially if we can get more concrete foundations down under the cars.
Walter: If you want to worry about anything, worry about those roaches on the way. From what Elena found out, they’re here to eat us. Probably starving by this point. Running out of iron to eat. Hell, that’s probably why we didn’t find many ruins on the way here.
Jessica: Fine! Fine, but don’t get mad at me when our weapons don’t work from all the rain.
Sherry: We have plenty of weapons that will work in the rain. We only really have to worry about the Tesla Coils, and even then I bet those iron bastards will take whatever we throw at them.
Barnard: Just make sure that our friendlies don’t get anywhere near them, whatever else happens should be to our advantage.
All that followed after that point were a number of people typing some version of ‘agreed’, including Jessica, though she remained concerned about the storm. It was about that point that Teitara and Megan Clark showed up, with the latter carrying a complicated looking electronic rig. “Alright, so, what’s this about now?” Jessica looked a little surprised to see the two up here. Teitara spoke on Megan’s behalf. “Megan is concerned that the Iron Roaches might win, and would like to take the chance at uploading to the Ark. She may not get another chance.”
Megan nodded awkwardly, forcing body language where she otherwise wouldn’t. “This is so. It is not as though I am wanted here anyway. No one allows me to assist. It is logical that I take my chances where I can be useful, and safer.” Jessica let out a sigh, exasperated. “Alright, fine. You know this will kill you, right?” “Affirmative. I will, however, be backed up. You are welcome to salvage my remains.” Jessica raised an eyebrow at that, straightening up her back. She hadn’t really thought about it, but there was a lot of interesting and rare tech in Megan’s body that she’d love to have Sherry reverse engineer. “Alright, let’s get you set up. I’ll let Tia know you’re coming.”
After sending a quick signal to the Ark to let T.I.A. know to isolate the next broadcast and store it safely away, the two women and one cyborg got to hooking up the half-woman up to their systems. Jessica was impressed at how well Teitara seemed to know what she was doing. She’d obviously been putting a lot of work in on this. The very moment they started the data upload, Megan lost consciousness, and Teitara turned on the respirator she’d hooked up to her to make sure she kept breathing. In their research, it seemed common for autonomic functions to become irregular, so they had hooked her up with a backup ‘pump’ to help circulate her blood in case her heart stopped, and a respirator to handle her breathing.
This left the three stuck there for the remainder of the day as the massive data transfer occurred, the entire contents of a living mind being beamed over three light-days away to be stored away in a rack of newly-constructed hard drives made from the Lubar-Masis comet’s abundant metal supplies.
Meanwhile, the Phoenix Clan and the Flora Roaches prepared for battle. Thorne and Vasille drilled the scouts-turned-soldiers, while Elena took command of their roach allies. They had even managed to arm a number of the roaches with a handful of extra arc-throwers and slug rifles, though their delicate hands seemed ill suited for the latter. Injuries were anticipated, but the Flora Roaches seemed willing to risk the danger to help their new friends. Spotlights from the towers lit the night, and the dangerous hum of the forward tesla coils filled the air as their enemies approached. Tension filled the air, while overwhelming darkness approached the surrounding region due to thick, soupy cloud cover.
A bright flash lit the sky as lightning arced from cloud to cloud, followed shortly after by the bang of thunder rolling across the ruins of Medellin. Jessica was watching a progress meter tick closer and closer to 100% while clouds rolled in, threatening to smother the transmission. “Fuck, she had to do this when a goddamn hurricane was rolling in. The dumb bitch is going to get lobotomized by a fucking cloud!” Teitara glared at the other woman, then looked down at Megan’s prone body. “Come on, you’re almost there. One last little push.” Teitara seemed intent on seeing this through, but Jessica was looking frustrated. “Look, doc, you gotta get off this hill before the storm gets here. I’ll finish up, but you don’t need to be here anymore.”
The medical specialist appeared to be incensed, but she couldn’t find any flaw in Jessica’s logic. “Fine, but don’t you cut that stream before it finishes. I’ve been working on this with her for years.” Jessica practically pushed Teitara out of the car, intensely worried that her colleague would get caught out here at the worst possible timing. She was the former scout, she could handle some bad weather.
Back on the ground, spotlights swivelled to light up a line of Iron Roaches, their carapaces glittering black in the bright light. They seemed irritated, their mandibles chattering. One in the front smashed the ground with one of its forelimbs, letting out a rumbling shout which was answered by what had to be more than a hundred of its companions stretched back down the road in columns. Vasille took that as a signal and shouted out. “Light ‘em up!”
Nine railguns and 3 magnetic shell launchers fired off into the mass of bodies. The assembled humans watched in surprise as the front line shifted out of the way of the projectiles, only for roaches behind them to get pierced through. Three explosions sent iron and guts flying as the roaches realized they weren’t dealing with weaklings as they had in the past. With their casualties numbering over a dozen, and their opponents reloading, they charged. The ground thundered with the sound of their titanic weight smashing against the ground, and as they approached another series of rails and explosives fired off into the mass of incoming bodies.
Thorne held up his arm, readying the other scouts. “Prepare to fire! Wait for the tower!” The tesla coils sparked menacingly, only for the roaches to approach close enough for artificial lightning to shoot out into their bodies. Jerking and shuddering bodies were ploughed into from behind, sending electricity through three roaches at a time between the two towers, only to pile them up before the coils. As a fourth and a fifth smashed into the piles of bodies, they all stilled, with the coils preferentially continuing to strike the now-dead bodies. The remaining roaches were able to pass by the two piles of dead companions, only for Thorne to shout, joined by Vasille, “Fire!”
Arcs of electricity, slugs, rails, and explosive shells smashed into the advancing bodies below while Jessica on the hills above let out a ‘whoop!’ of celebration! The roaches didn’t seem to have a chance! A dinging sound in the car indicated a successful transfer, only for lightning to lance down from the all-too-nearby clouds, striking one of the tesla coils and blasting the area, shorting out the circuitry running the coil, which also ran back and took out one of the spotlight towers and its attached magnetic shell launcher. “Oh shit.” Jessica ran back into the car, shutting off the main computer and starting to rip open the guts of the systems. “Gotta get the hard drives out of here!” It wasn’t hard to recognize that the car she was in was the tallest metal object around!
Elena yelled out over the weapons fire, “¡Todos, ataquen!” The ground practically quaked as a second army of roaches rushed out from among their human allies, smashing into their Iron-plated foes, and forcing their allies to approach dangerously to avoid friendly fire. The remaining enemies turned the battle into a melee, enormous fists and huge bodies bashing into each other under the light of the remaining spotlights and tesla coils. Humans and roaches alike fell, bodies smashed into fortifications, and lightning both artificial and natural lit the area as a heavy downpour began.
The Flora Roaches armed with weapons oftentimes found them perfect to break a deadlock as they clashed with their iron-plated foes. Some of the Iron Roaches realized the danger of these armed enemies at melee range, and in a handful of cases they could be seen locked in stalemates as they wrestled for the firearms between them with their smaller, more delicate arms. Iron spikes proved effective weapons when charging at sufficient speed, splintering and breaking hard, wooden carapaces and eliciting bellows of pain. Humans ducked and dodged between the titanic combatants, breaking up stalemates and occasionally getting caught up in the struggles of multiple tons of roachmeat. Friendly fire was minimal, but with weapons using electricity proved unpredictable and dangerous in the falling rain. Thankfully, iron trumped all in attracting electricity, and wood seemed resistant to it, making these events minimally tragic.
Vasille and Thorne had gotten locked up in the combat, the ground getting muddy as they struggled to end the wrestling match. Occasional explosions went off, holes ripped through roaches as railguns lanced through the line, and in one horrible moment an Iron Roach pivoted and shoved a Flora Roach into the line of fire. Splinters and meat exploded as the railgun shattered its body, but the rail also continued through two more Iron Roaches before smashing into a distant hillside. The storm seemed to care not for their desperate battle as it thoroughly shrouded them in darkness, threatening to smother them all in its ominous presence. It was as if nature itself was feeling left out, and wanted to strike its own blow against those assembled.
Thorne watched in shock and alarm, though, as lightning struck the car containing the Beta Facility computers. A pair of explosions went off inside as the ground under the car started to give way due to the rain and explosions. “Mother!” Down the hill tumbled the car, throwing a pair of bodies down across the rocks while metal and plastic smashed and shattered between them. Thorne rushed towards the scene of the wreck, nearly getting smashed by an iron fist, only for Vasille and a Flora Roach to stun and smash the offending roach away. Battle and shouts raged around while the two men ran to check on the bodies.
Scattered around Jessica were several hard drives, most of them shattered and the rest hopelessly wet and fried, with her own body broken and twisted in an unnatural fashion. Thorne fell to her side and pulled her up against himself while Vasille investigated the broken form of Megan Clark, her body literally having burst open and exposing all manner of artificial parts. Vasille turned his back so he could defend his grieving friend, Thorne wailing out into the night as he cradled his mother against his body.
The night grew much more quiet as the battle ended, bodies both massive and small strewn about in the heavy rain while lightning persistently struck at the tesla coils arranged around the perimeter of the caravan. Spotlights remained on, thanks to the quick work of engineering crews cutting the lines to the tesla coils, and the remaining people took shelter under the sturdy steel cars that had once been their bunker of origin.
Come the morning, with the sun mostly blocked out by the thick clouds of what had merely been a horrible thunderstorm, not the hurricane they expected, the Phoenix Clan and Flora Roaches gathered their dead and assessed their damage, but it would be some time before the extent of their losses could be known, as Earth had once again lost contact with the Ark.
T.I.A. quietly stored away the data she had received, not even daring to peer at its contents for fear of being unable to control Megan Clark. The drives used to contain her mind and genome were left on standby and cut off from T.I.A.’s network. The only system she had contact with was the system that monitored the integrity of those drives, which otherwise will lay dormant until such time as Hawthorne wanted to do something with them. She spent the rest of the cycle mournfully sending signals back to Earth in hopes that someone might answer, but nothing ever came back, even when she signaled their location. For all she knew, humanity had been truly wiped out. She hoped against hope that the new friends Jessica had told her about had managed to protect them.