A plume of dust flared from the back of the carrier, large tires droning like bees. 112th Recon, routine patrol out of Austin, Texas. High noon sun baking cracked asphalt, nothing moving but the tumbleweeds, drifting across the faded double yellow line.

Maxx adjusted his goggles and chewed on a pep-stick, stimulants drying out the roof of his mouth. Had to stay alert, couldn’t have any slip-ups like the incident in Dallas. That was a nightmare. Maxx shook his head, as if to dislodge the screams of the damned.

Wavering thermals dancing with mercury slickness, hint of movement at an abandoned gas station.

“Hold. Have a bogie at 11 o’clock.”

The armored carrier pulled on to the side of the road, knobby tires sinking into the reddish dust. Nothing but the soft pinging of the engine block, throttle low and idling. The odd sweet smell of coolant in the overflow tank, dribbling on the compacted dirt below.

“Give me a sec, have to make a sweep.”, Maxx popped the hatch and dismounted, boots sinking into the windblown soil. The driver enabled targeting, servos slewing the .75 caliber top-mount into position. Maxx liked backup, but that wouldn’t mean jack if they were in enemy territory.

Maxx dusted off his gear, checking his automatic rifle and sidearms. Diagnostics completed, he switched on the filters to cut down the mid-day glare. Glancing back at the turret on the carrier, dark thoughts surging. Those fancy guns didn’t help the boys back in Dallas, did it.

Maxx shoved it back into his mind, scanning the area. No one should be out here, this was a restricted zone.

Unholstering his sidearm, Maxx crept up the incline towards a rusted “Last Gas” sign, twisting in the wind, shattered neon tubes dangling like bayou vines. Four rusting pumps lined up beneath a simple roof with two struts at either end. Pockmarked paint and rusted bolts, broken glass on the ground.

It reminded Maxx of the first wave, later renamed the “incursion” by miltary strategists. So tidy and safe-sounding. No problem ma’am, there’s just an incursion, our boys will take care of that. But it didn’t turn out to be so easy. Maxx recalled the chaos, stories of people being pulled into sewer grates, doorways becoming slobbering maws ringed with razor teeth.

The nightmare plague swept in from the East Coast down towards the South, until there was nothing but gleaming bones in piles at the tentacle-fringe. City outskirts circled by skulls and undigested watches and rings. The scientists were stumped. Some thought it was an alien invasion, others suspected colony-like behavior similar to insects.

But this wasn’t an insect taking over the cities. It had teeth and tentacles and who the hell knew what else. Each infection started near the center, down deep in the infrastructure. It then spread through the plumbing and conduits into buildings and houses. Taking root like weeds, except this weed could bite your head off.

The best the military could offer was containing the spread from the edges, while dark pulsing tentacles enrobed empty skyscrapers. Small tendrils would snare passing birds, opening razor petals at the tips. When it rained, questing threads would capture the water as it fell.

“Bogie on the scope.”, pulsed chirp of narrowband pulled Maxx back to the present.

Okay. Take it slow and easy.

Maxx edged around the pumps, disused nozzles fused to their receptacles under layers rust and grime.

“Bogie at your 2 o’clock.”, the driver was watching the sensors, sending updates.

“Copy that.”, Maxx turned down the volume on his earpiece, poking his head around for a quick look.

An old man with greying hair and frayed overalls shuffled around the far corner of the main building. It looked like he was carrying something, dragging it behind him in the dirt.

“Possible Civvy, cover my six”

“Roger that.”

Maxx straightened up and lowered his pistol to his side, standing clear of the pumps.

“Hey old-timer, support patrol. Need some help? Are you injured?”

The man stopped, looking at the ground.

Maxx inched closer, keeping his left free, just in case.

“Are you hurt?”

The old man’s head snapped up, eyes red and tearing. “ruuuNNNNN” he screamed.

A moment of confusion, then Maxx saw it. A long dark tube, pulsing and wriggling along the ground, attached to the wrinkled left hand. Maxx had never seen anything like that before. It was gripping his skin with four large claws, blood dripping at each puncture.

“We got something new here.”, Maxx switched to an enhanced display, highlighting the parasitic umbilical.

The old man screamed again, stumbling towards him with renewed intensity.

“Watch your six, got some signatures”, the large turret whined on its axis, acquiring new targets.

Maxx side-stepped the old man, running to the far side of the pumps. Two loops of what he thought were black hose unlatched from the nozzles, waving dark rows of teeth. A long crimson tongue snaking out, tasting the air.

Oh no. We’ve got to get out of here. The turret opened fire, dull staccatto punching Maxx’s eardrums. Dammit, if he’s laying down covering fire then that means there are more.

Maxx ran to the carrier, slamming and locking the door. “Shit man, we have got to go!”, Maxx shouted at the driver, wondering why they hadn’t started to move yet.

“Gotta… staaart”, the driver drawled his vowels, staring out into space. Maxx thought of the man outside, trying to wave him away from the infected pumps.

The driver turned, mouth parting to reveal a dark tube. It arced out and attached itself to Maxx’s hand, warm blood pattering on the seat.

“Gotta staaarGGHTSS”, the driver slumped over, bloody hole in his skull filled with dark filaments. Freshly chewed hole in the headrest, lined with razor teeth.

Maxx screamed as the tentacle pulsed, still attached to his left hand.

Smaller tendrils, coming through the floorboards and vents.

Maxx twitched, lips parted as if to smile.

“Arre you hurrrrt”.