Author: Sara Lynn Burnett

It wasn’t until the plane began its corkscrew landing into Kabul that the marine sitting next to Anne spoke; he offered her a ginger candy to help with nausea.

Aside from the pilots they were the only two aboard, strapped into a windowless cargo hold along with Anne’s equipment: vertical seismometers, paper drums, sensitive metal springs, computers—each protected in foam within sand-colored impact crates.

“First time?” she asked while unwrapping the candy.

He said no.

They’d briefed her on the marine—that he was there for her safety, would be wearing a parachute built for two, that if a midflight bail was necessary, she was to do exactly what he said. They’d also briefed her on how dust storms reduced visibility to an arm’s length and that she was to wear her respirator outdoors.

Anne guessed the plane was in its third spiral. “What’s it like down there?”

“Nightmarish, but the food is good.”

“Canteen food?”

The marine nodded. “The chef is Pashtun—makes lamb kabobs and Bolani. There’s the occasional hamburger to remind us of home, but we all love the Middle Eastern stuff.”

Anne didn’t follow politics; science was above that, but no one linked to America could miss endless reports of fighters pushing north, the justification for billions spent, lives lost. She wished she had listened more, analyzed. Perhaps then she would have seen the fissures in each story, perhaps then she wouldn’t have been so shocked.

In an earthquake P-waves came first, vertical wiggles warning of what was to come. S-waves collapsed buildings.

P-wave: She agreed to go. Anne had assumed a seismologist was needed to detect insurgent movements from Kandahar— heavily armored vehicles produced earthquake-like waves, even from a distance.

S-wave: There were no insurgents, no jihad, no East vs. West. They were all fighting on the same side against the same thing: an otherworldly infestation deep within the Earth’s mantle, a millennia-old parasitic dormancy left behind by some ancient intergalactic species that for whatever reason, had awakened.

The ginger candy soured in Anne’s mouth. She thought of lost Wi-fi signals, tectonic shifts, her new security clearances, conspiracy theories. The plane hitched and shuddered in an updraft. The marine grew tense. “Have you seen one?” Anne asked.

“They have no eyes,” he said and closed his own. “Their skin isn’t skin, and they morph—grow and shrink, divide and converge like a murmuration.”

During her briefing Anne saw classified videos and found the creatures beautiful. The media lies, the Generals said, were because people needed an enemy they understood. Bad things required a clear cause, humans couldn’t grapple with horror that happened for no reason. The other had to contain enough of the self to be understood.

The plane’s engines roared as it landed, and Anne’s breath hitched when the marine locked her respirator helmet into place. “Good luck,” he said, his voice muffled and hurried behind a clear face shield.

They stood, guns aimed at the bay door, waiting for it to open.