The Devil Star craft had a beautiful view over the night side of Earth. Continents were hardly distinguishable from oceans, save for a scatter of jewels; city lights seen from two thousand kilometres above Earth made a spectacular display.
Although he had, now and then, spent time gloating over the show and imagining the day when it would be his, this wasn't the moment for such time-wasting. Zoltar's entire attention was focused on the small ship which had been released from the Devil Star. The one containing Captain Morlock - and the seeds.
"Greetings, earth people. I am sending you flowers...from Spectra..."
The seed-blooms floated down, cottonball-white and light as dandelion clocks. All over Earth they drifted, only a little breeze enough to carry them. "Pretty little things," some said.
They fell for a few hours, garnering a couple of mentions on a couple of news services as the oddity of the day, and then were forgotten. They rooted themselves in whatever patch of earth they could find; nobody paid them any particular heed. They waited for rain.
Grey, rainy misery was the order of the night, and the few stores that were open were all but deserted.
That went for the J as well. There were only four people there beside Princess and, she reflected, none of her teammates counted as customers. Nor were they providing much in the way of conversation; Tiny's complaints about the lack of his favourite snack food on the menu weren't exactly fascinating, and Keyop's grumbling about the washing-up were even less so. Jason was deeply occupied in a newspaper at his own table, and Mark had settled himself at the end of the bar nearest the door. Boring, boring, boring night.
And the rainy weather was making her hair frizz.
"Giant flowers attacking people," Jason said from behind the tabloid he was reading. "Says so right here." A customer had left the paper behind early in the afternoon, and Jason had been amusing himself repeating some of the wilder stories in it.
"Some reporter's wild imagination," Princess said. Her elbows were resting on the counter, her chin resting on her hands. "Everyone knows flowers are harmless."
"Arr-rroot...washing dishes...really harmful," Keyop said. He was up to his elbows in suds, and it wasn't his first complaint of the night. Not that there was a huge amount to do; besides her teammates, the dinner rush had consisted of exactly no people.
"Keyop! You promised to take your turn," Princess said.
"By a whole apple pie!"
The dispute evidently roused Mark from whatever he was contemplating. "I'm going out for a little walk."
"Think I'll join you, Mark," Tiny said. "They don't serve spaceburgers here, and it's really dead." He didn't show any inclination to getting up from his chair however.
"I agree. Let's go." Mark headed for the door. "Bye."
Oh no, no way. If Mark left, they'd all go. Princess jumped the counter in one fluid motion. "Mark! Wait!"
"Ar-root toot...I'm going too." Keyop took the more expedient route of ducking under the counter. He didn't quite dare make a run for it, although he did start picking up glasses and coffee cups from Jason and Tiny's tables. A small act to buy him forgiveness for his imminent escape act, Princess guessed.
"You can't leave," she said to Mark.
"Watch," he said, and opened the door. He hesitated once outside, looking up at the sky, and then down. "Flowers are popping up everywhere." Then he made a run for it, dodging raindrops on his way to the nearest shop awning.
"Come back, Mark!" Princess called.
"Great bunch of friends," Princess said, swinging around to face the remaining trio. "You promised to keep me company."
"You coming, Tiny?" Jason asked, folding his newspaper and laying it down on the nearest table.
"Yeah. Come on, Keyop."
Safety in number, Princess presumed, because this time Keyop did head for the door, along with Jason and Tiny. "Right with you," he chirped.
"Don't wait for me," Princess huffed, folding her arms.
Keyop was the last one out. "Good night, Princess," he said, and pulled the door closed behind him.
"The only customers all night, and they're leaving." She sighed. If this were her own business, she'd close up for the night, but that wasn't an option. Coffee, she thought. And some music. That might liven things up a little.
But when her finger hovered over the selection keys of the jukebox, she couldn't find anything she really wanted to hear. She wasn't in the mood for anything lively; the rain did that to her sometimes. She picked a Massive Attack album and made herself a latte, sitting on the customers' side of the bar. Nobody would object to the staff sitting down on the job.
"I didn't mind taking Jill's job for a night," she said aloud. Talking to herself was a habit she'd taken some razzing about, but she still did it without realising. "But I didn't know I'd have to supply the customers too..."
A draft? Had the door opened?
Then she saw the reflection in her glass and spun around, back to the bar. She froze; partly in surprise, partly to take in what she saw before her. A huge - massive - flower; easily half again her own height. Round, with 'petals' opening and closing, revealing and then hiding a pulsing red centre; four tentacles, banded in green and white, nearly as thick as her own torso.
She and the obscene flower regarded one another for a moment, then the plant struck, whipping out a massive tentacle.
Her glass flew and shattered on the ground, but that was the only damage done; Princess had reacted as fast as the plant had moved, and had leapt for the ceiling. She kept herself there a moment, gripping the exposed metal rafters of the ceiling. What on earth - or off it - is that thing? I've never seen anything like it...
The flower displayed a new talent, using its four tentacles to push itself into the air. Princess catapulted herself towards the door with a quick backflip from the ceiling, evading the flower. But only just, she thought. It's fast.
She ran for the door, slamming it behind her, and pulled up short at the sight of six of the awful things waiting outside.
A frozen tableau for a long moment, she and the flowers regarding each other. The rain plastered her clothes and hair to her skin.
The nearest flower struck at her, and she leapt for the roof of the J, then the building next door. She could dodge all night and not accomplish a thing, but she should be out of range here. Time enough to get herself some firepower. If it'll do any good against plants, she thought, and stopped the thought cold.
Princess raised her arm, brought it down. "G Force - transmute!"
The familiar rush of light and power, and she knew that she was now better equipped to tolerate these latter-day triffids. She spread her wings and leapt back down to the ground, landing solidly and plucking her yoyo out of its holster. Moving fast, she ducked in close, casting the yoyo hard; as it planted itself firmly in the green flesh of the nearest plant, she jumped back out of range of its tentacles and touched the detonator ring around her finger. The charge travelled along the wire and the plant blew.
That's a start. The destruction gave her more confidence; they could be taken down. "Which one wants to be the next tossed salad?"
The projected image was a mass of pinkish cells. Probably efficient, Princess thought, but she wished they were a little less so, given the circumstances. The image was taken from a sample of one of the flowers she'd destroyed the previous night. Chief Anderson operated the projector; forward of the projector, Mark and Jason observed from one couch, Princess, Tiny and Keyop occupied the other.
"Magnified flower cells. Remarkable powers of regeneration," Chief Anderson said.
"Are you telling us those alien plants are indestructible, Chief?" Mark asked.
Not that indestructible, Princess thought.
Anderson changed the display from the cellular level to a diagram of a whole plant. "The secret of the plants' regeneration is locked inside those tiny nodules."
"They look like spores," Tiny said, leaning forward a little.
"They may be. So far we've been unable to determine just how they function. The plants thrive in water, and they are carnivorous in this environment."
"If our conventional weapons won't stop them, what will?" Mark hooked one arm around the back of the couch, half-turned to face Anderson.
"We don't know yet, but Zark is working on it, and he's come up with something to help us." Anderson walked to the rear of the room and touched a button; a metal wall slid upwards to reveal a dummy.
Princess stood and walked to Anderson's side to examine the dummy more closely. It was definitely female, of normal human proportions. Steel, perhaps?
"A protective shield. It seems to work particularly well on females. We tested it on this model."
Princess studied the metal figure; as she moved, the room lights - or the shield - lent the steel a pearlescent look. Apart from that slight sheen, nothing seemed unusual about the model. "Maybe on a steel dummy," she said. Not that I doubt Zark's skill, but.... She could guess where this conversation was leading.
"We believe it will work," Anderson said. He didn't look at her. "We need someone to get inside those flowers and stay alive."
She tilted her head to one side, watching how the light moved over the dummy's surface. Whatever the shield was made of, it was gossamer-thin; how much protection could something so fine offer?
"We'll fix you into a synthetic second skin," Anderson said.
The second worst thing is the way he assumes I'll do it, Princess thought.
The worst thing, of course, was that he was right.
The rains came again that night, drumming on rooftops and raising that ozone smell. Deaf and blind, she would still know when it was raining.
Princess raised the garage door and went back to her motorbike.
"Brr-arrip...always raining," Keyop said.
"That's when the flowers come out," Princess said. She got on the bike, kicked the starter and a muted growl filled the garage. A new smell to add to that of rain; motorbike exhaust.
"Arr-rrip-doot...coming with you."
She sighed. I already went through this with Mark. "Thanks, Keyop. But I'm a big girl, and I'm really capable of taking care of myself." Apart from which, she'd be better able to concentrate on her mission if she didn't have to watch out for Keyop as well.
"Yeah..." Keyop toed the dust on the garage floor.
"This," and Princess plucked the synthetic skin away from her own skin, "will protect me." I hope, she added silently. She'd been wearing the second skin for a few hours, getting used to the feel of it. It wasn't elastic, not exactly, but it didn't impede her movement. Something like wearing ultra-sheer stockings... Intellectually, she knew it would protect her, but it was difficult to really believe that; it seemed so fragile.
Thanks. I needed that. Irritating for two reasons; first, she was working hard to have any faith in the synthetic skin. Second, whether or not it worked, she had her own skills to rely on, and she'd already taken care of half a dozen of the flowers, the only person to take one on and win. Didn't that count for something? But it wouldn't do to say that to Keyop; his words had been well intended, if not particularly tactful. "Wait here for me," she said, and gunned the bike. "There's no sense in you coming along to risk being caught."
Princess released the clutch, revved the throttle and let the bike roll forward into the rain. She didn't look back.
Between the vile weather and stories of the giant flowers that came out with the rain, the streets were deserted. She patrolled randomly, with only one constant; she stayed near earth. The borders of parks, streets with gardens; anywhere the alien flowers could take root and grow. In a way, even with the rain, it was a good ride; conditions meant she had to ride carefully. Even though the bike was beautifully balanced, customised for her, it was still more than twice her own body weight. It demanded respect in good conditions, and riding on a night like this meant she was almost floating the big machine around corners, a careful balance of weight, brakes and momentum.
It was in the park that it finally happened. She'd already been through the park once and seen no sign, so when she used it as a shortcut to get to the garden district on the other side, she felt safe; she relaxed her guard somewhat. Maybe it's not the right sort of rain, she thought facetiously.
Then she saw the flowers ahead of her and started to counterswerve, shifting her weight to dodge around them. It would have worked but for the flower she didn't see until too late, the one lurking up a tree. A tentacle whipsawed out and grabbed her, lifting her carelessly off the bike. She had only a moment for kaleidoscopic impressions of the bike spraying water as it skidded on its side, rain-slick alien leaves and - headlights? She screamed; the flower dropped to the ground, holding her above its body. Its petals opened and closed and she wished, briefly, that the inside wasn't red, that it didn't look so much like a giant mutant mouth. Fight, goddamn it! You beat these things before!
No good. Suspended by her waist, bent backwards by gravity, she could get no leverage, no purchase.
Headlights. She screamed again. Maybe whoever it was would hear, see, get help.
The tentacle released her and she fell, landing squarely in the centre of the flower's petals. Up close they had scent - burnt cinnamon, and she coughed at the odour - and the texture was unpleasantly fleshy. Venus flytrap, she thought randomly and kicked out; the wall of the flower gave way but didn't tear. Like elastic, it forced her foot back. As the petals closed, she made one final attempt to escape; all she managed to do was get her left hand free. That was her only physical liberty; with the petals closed, she was packed into the foetal position. Her only awareness was sight - dim red - and the stink of burnt spice.