– – –
Kursk, Russia. +2 Hours.
The Brutalist architecture stood tall – monolithic – and for a city of almost 600,000, totally and completely silent. Cars were abandoned on the highway, trains stopped running, and if it wasn’t for the electrical hum of wiring and the flickering of lights, the errant open door wafting the scent of now-burning food into the street, or the still-babbling televisions and radios it would seem that the city itself was abandoned.
It would seem.
Russia was no stranger to battle, and to fighting on their own territory – from the wars brought to it’s borders from Sweden and France to their own incursions into Europe, the land and the people had a long memory of bitter fighting. Kursk was, of course, no stranger to this grim task; It was sieged by the Vikings and the Nords in winters beyond memory, it had shuddered at the touch of the Mongol horde – this was, of course, not counting the dozens if not hundreds of times it had traded hands among the Rus themselves in the time before writing. Much blood had watered it’s soil, for it sits in a strategic position; take Kursk, and you have a foothold into Moscow, or to cutting Russia off from the Black and Caspian Seas. Most recently, Germany tried to take it.
Qro’roi looked up at the tall, looming and somewhat decrepit building, searching the windows and open balconies for the movement indicator his HUD pinged him with. He cycled through multiple spectrums of light, and even attempted to penetrate the building with a form of sonar, peeling away the outer layer to give him a hint of what lay within.
Qro’roi shuddered, and continued down the broad road before him. He had landed much like his brothers and sisters, and much like them there was the general panic of the local populace. Some reported terrifying the populace into fleeing – which was understandable, as their equipment wasn’t exactly designed to look friendly – whereas others were reporting disinterest, and in some cases even gifts and welcoming. Qro’roi wished he was in any of those other categories because then things would make sense. His AI notified him during planetfall that he was landing in a populated area. He hit a park – or at least, an empty field of some sort – and by the time he emerged
But it was the obvious wrongness of the Nothing that got him. It’s as if the entire population looked up and made the same conclusion, and then vanished into thin air. There were no stragglers, no attacks – some of his unit in other cities not 40 leagues from him reported locals ramming them with vehicles or pelting them with improvised missiles, or even engaging with their military – which again, made sense. But in this city he and his squad were unmolested. Granted, they were dispersed, as changing trajectory means also making sure that an accidental detonation of munitions doesn’t daisy-chain and become a conflagration, but closing that gap between battle brothers is what PT in full gear was for. Qro’roi paused at an intersection and leaned out carefully, letting his HUD scan for any signs of the locals, or of military machinery moving in, or of anything that would make it seem like the population was real and that this wasn’t some purpose-built fake city – which apparently these aliens had, oddly enough.
Qro’roi sighed, his suit beginning to up the dose of anti-anxiety and paranoia medications, helping him keep a cool head as he fully turned the corner and began to run down the center of the road, weaving in and out of abandoned land vehicles – still on, still running, still blaring music or language or static. There was nothing living, however, and a-
Qro’roi quickly – so quickly his boot dug a furrow into the paved road, lowering his body to reduce his overall surface area and tensing the springs of his legs to dodge the upcoming assault-
“?Давай, давай. У бабушки есть еда для тебя, малышки.?”
“?Come, Come. Grandma has food for you, little ones.?”
-of a lone local, hunched over, wrapped tightly in cloth and scattering food for the indigenous winged animal population. Qro’roi stood silent, still, as he watched the local reach into a crinkling bag, crumbling up something inside and pulling it out, scattering the broken crumbs in a semicircle around it’s feet. It’s movements were slow and halting, and with dawning realization Qro’roi realized this being was old for it’s species. Really, really old. The overall scene of this creature sitting nonchalantly in the central gathering area inside the U of a giant, monolithic, seemingly abandoned building performing a ritual that he himself had seen on countless other worlds was absolutely absurd.
“|Qro’roi? Noticed you stopped and your heart rate spiked. Everything ok?|” Squad leader Oi’’iie chirped in his ear almost immediately.
“|Yeah. Elder, just…feeding the wildlife.|”
“|Hah!|” Rag’re’a coughed, clearing his throat. “|Really now.|”
“|I’m going to check it out.|”
“|You realize this is a trap, right?|” Tt’kir’a interjected, laughter bubbling in his voice.
“|Of course.|” Qro’roi clicked his tongue in irritation. “|I’m not an idiot. I just don’t want us ending up like SOOTHSAYER companyu and having to take shelter in the underground from the locals.|”
“|Ok, granted, but being underground isn’t that bad – especially in a regional capital, eh?|” Rag’re’a questioned, audibly cycling through contextual menus. “|Also, update incoming.|”
“|Mmmm. Say that after spending 2 weeks in a sewer to wait for a guard shift change and then we’ll talk.|”
“|Yeesh~. Now I know why you have such a sour disposition!|”
“|I hate you so much, Tt’kir’a.|”
“|Aww, that’s what keeps the relationship special~! So what’s your goal?|” Rag’re’a said, half-paying attention.
Qro’roi stood back up and gave a whole-body shrug – not that the local could understand his body language, or even paid attention. “|Get close, stand nearby. Don’t harm her, hopefully the others who are in hiding see that and come out. If I can figure out how to ‘surrender’ then I’ll do that too. Maybe word will spread?|”
“|It’s a traaaa~aaaap|” Tt’kir’a sang, and then grunted as he… well, probably fell from a decent height.
“|Probably. But this looks like a residential building – if my update is correct-|” Qro’roi tapped his helmet as it began it’s first major update, buildings around him being broadly IFF-categorized as ‘residential(?)’ or ‘industrial(?)’ or the ever helpful ‘flammable(?)’. “|So that’s fortuitous. Probably a cross-fire killzone with soldier-arms weaponry – which is why I’ll be staying a decent way away from the local, let them get it out of their system, and then we start negotiations.|”
“|That’s really dumb. Walking into an ambush, letting it trigger, and then hoping to negotiate afterwards? That’s dumb. You’re dumb.|” Tt’kir’a helpfully pointed out.
“|And that’s also why I’m not squad leader. Thoughts?|”
“|…small-arms fire only, but they start throwing grenades or bring anything substantial out and you run.|” Oi’’iie begrudgingly said, her breath coming out ragged as she began running once more.
Qro’roi moved slowly – for his species, at least – making sure to scan the street for snipers, tagging various roadblocks and marking escape routes – before crossing the street fully to stand at the edge of the extremely obvious ambush. Qro’roi smiled to himself and rolled his shoulders, making sure to give himself a good stretch. With an obvious nod to the right, left, and front he walked confidently, if slowly, forward.
This made sense.
“?Да да Так жадно! Для всех вас достаточно, мы не убежим.?”
“?Yes, yes. So greedy! There’s plenty for all of you, we won’t run out.?”
The elder fussed and clicked her tongue, the patterned birds before her fussing over the offered food. They would jostle and fight for the scraps, and again the hand would go into the bag, and again it would provide more bread. Qro’roi let his HUD scan and record everything – both for his after-action report, and because he was honestly curious as to where the first shot would come from. The local remained seated in the middle of the decrepit, but sturdy bench, and the scattered crumbs flung out around her feet. A few brave pigeons jumped on the bench with her, trying to curry some favor or to somehow get more food.
“?Всегда такой жадный. Так предсказуемо. Мы должны быть простыми, думают они. Но я не против.?”
“?Always so greedy. So predictable. We must be simple, they think. But I do not mind.?”
Qro’roi stopped about halfway towards the elder and stood still, keeping his arms and legs spread slightly so his limbs were very visible – and so it was very visible that he was doing nothing.
“Что я против, так это плохие манеры! Пшли вон, кыш!?”
“What I mind is poor manners! Go, go – shoo!?” The elder made a waving motion with their upper limbs, scaring away a couple of the birds that had gone too close to her body. They fluttered, but not too far, bravely coming back to get more handouts. The elder reached into her bag and pulled out an entire slice of hardened bread – and, like a frisbee, flung it halfway between her and Qro’roi. A few of the birds chased after it before noticing something was off, and landed in a scattered semicircle around the discarded food, their primitive minds fighting between free sustenance and something…off. Qro’roi looked at the offered food then back up at the local, and did not move.
“?Бах, смотри! Вы приходите ко мне домой, вы не называете меня бабушкой, вы не позволяете мне кормить вас … но, может быть, вы хотите съесть что-нибудь еще??”
“Bah, see! You come into my home, you do not call me granny, you do not let me feed you… but maybe, you want to eat something else??”
The two locked eyes for the first time, one soldier to another.
The elder simply rested her hands on her lap.
The confiscated and half-assembled Panzerabwehrkanone 12.8cm “Pak” 44 L/55 that Babuskha had ripped from the Nazi army’s cold, dead hands had lain dormant within the boiler room of the soviet-bloc era apartment building before being hastily reassembled in a forcibly-abandoned room. At the signal given by the old lady, it fired a single 28kg round from deep within the apartment complex, the blast utterly destroying the walls around it and the shockwave killing Dimitri (who was a good grandson but a bit of a hooligan) as it pushed effortlessly through the window, crossed the scrub-grass “greenspace” of the inner courtyard and slammed into Qro’roi’s torso, his microdrone shield lattice shielding him from the kinetic shrapnel but not from the shockwave – the force spinning him off the ground like a top. Babushka smiled for a brief moment before the blast took her too.
It was a necessary sacrifice.
Qro’roi’s suit screamed in it’s internal telemetry, feeding data about the direction of the attack, it’s force, potential other attackers, pilot health, shield recharge rate-
“|I told you~|” Tt’kir’a sang out over Qro’roi’s grunt of pain as he landed on his feet, spinning on his heels to run out.
“?Ах вы исчадья птицефабрики!?”
“?Oh, you fowl poultry!?” yelled another bent-over elder from a balcony, and she let out a yelp as the RPG-2 fired, the backblast blowing out her sitting room.
Again, another necessary sacrifice.
The 80+ year old munition surprisingly fired true, striking Qro’rois’ back and causing him to stumble. From almost every window emerged various models of AKs, Mosins, Makarovs and PP-90s, and fire poured down upon him.
“|You are exceedingly stupid, Qro’roi.|”
“|I AM RETREATING-|”
“|Ok, not that stupid after all-|”
“|OI’’IIE I AM GOING TO KILL HIM-|”
“|Yeah, well we all kn-|” Oi’’iie suddenly grunted, and there was a small burst of static. “|Shit, I guess that was the signal.|”
Qro’roi skidded behind a vehicle, the sound of weapons fire almost drowning out the protest of the makeshift barricade he was behind. “|Well shit. Do we have a working translator yet? I’d like to yell that I come in peace or something.|”
“|Not yet – though we should very soon-|”
“|And we’ll be home for shrine season, right?|” Qro’roi growled sarcastically, instinctively flinching as another explosive round destroyed his cover – forcing him to move behind another, sturdier vehicle that was slowly chipped away behind him again. “|And what of regional?|”
“|Those unfortunate bastards who landed in the regional capital? Last I heard, they were lacing EMP worms to give themselves a breather-|”
– – –
After the fifth or sixth update to the universal translators, Humanity found out that “worm” was a terrible mistranslation for the type of creature that was native to the Karnakian homeworlds, and to the device that the special operations team was referring to. If anything, “scarab-centipede-carpenter bee” would do more justice, as it had wings … though it also had a multi-segmented body and tended to burrow into most anything – dirt, mud, clay, plants, wood, etc. Regardless, the ‘worm’s that SOOTHSAYER platoon were scattering as they regrouped did the same job as their organic counterparts; they flew and burrowed into dark nooks and crannies behind gutters, in building alcoves, under tree roots, in gutters and drains and wheel wells and air conditioning units, in concrete walls and subway floors.
All in all, the ones that weren’t shot down or otherwise destroyed were relatively safe – forgotten, for the bigger fish in font of the defenders. Maybe 3, 4 dozen survived, and when they activated the EMP was still blocked by natural shielding, by dirt and earth and metal and water. Considering each drop pod by itself was seeded with hundreds of these things, the fact that so few were activated was considered a remarkable act of constraint.
It was a localized EMP blast, no more than one or two KM in radius. The electrical grid overloaded, certainly, but Hospital generators kicked on, the Kremlin only had a temporary blackout, and deep within Moscow’s abandoned-and-unmapped subway system, electronic locks disengaged long enough for the Karnakians to force open a few Soviet-era doors.
The second, localized EMP blast was to knock out the emergency lighting, and to allow the combat-suited invaders the ability to swing open and shut the heavy steel vault doors on their own, allowing them the territory control they needed to establish a safe perimeter.
Hospitals were on their own grid at this point, so they remained powered.
The Kremlin, however, did not.
And the man who sat behind the mahogany desk in Langley prepared, for he knew what it meant for the phone to go dead. He knew before the submarine crews lost contact, he knew before the rest of the Five Eyes could blink, he knew before those scientists and radar technicians and astronomers who would stare at their instruments and begin to weep.
He knew, and shuddered, as a Dead Hand Fell.
– – – –
High Lord Inquisitor-Commander Tr’’’’r’’ of the Eternal Holy Karnakian Crusade And It’s Infinite Legions aggressively scratched his neck, the sharp pricks of pain and the sudden cool rush against agitated scales giving him the subconscious queues that he too was molting. Maybe not as bad as the now almost-bald Matriarch Tr’Nkwi – who had hurridly abdicated her status as the Diarch’s representative, gave a full debriefing, and then immediately passed out due to stress – but he was going to get there, if things kept on going as they were.
“|By all eight souls.|” High Lord Inquisitor-Commander Tr’’’’r’’ groaned as he split his gaze between his personal status screens, the shared conference bridge of his advisers and the planet hanging before them in silent judgment. The headache was back, and he could feel his back soul-eye doing the…twitching thing again as he mentally reviewed his plan:
Wait until a language was translated – which he was assured was any moment now – and then broadcast it over their planet, asking for a cease fire.
Negotiate with the locals for the return of all his soldiers and their equipment.
Negotiate reparations with the locals and an official apology.
Negotiate future peaceful visits over the coming centuries to check in on progress and cultural development
Negotiate benchmarks to join the overall Galactic Community.
Go get stationed on a garden world.
“|High Lord?|” EM Lord Uri’krei called out, snapping High Lord Inquisitor-Commander Tr’’’’r’’ from his internal checklist. “|We’re noticing a significant amount of long-range missile launches…|”
“|Well. Prepare shields, have our cutters move to intercept.|”
“|That’s the thing-|” EM Lord Uri’krei physically turned from his console to half-face the High Lord, tilting his head at the screen. “|Trajectory data says they’re aiming at their own territories.|”
“|Yeah…that’s… that’s a lot of missiles… aimed at a lot of population centers. And…yeah, it looks like the phenomenon is spreading-|” EM Lord Uri’krei murmured, overlaying the planet with various indicators of launches, of missiles starting to arc into the blue planet’s atmosphere – some seeming to be on intercept courses, others literally slated to pass by each other entirely. “|I understand the concept of denying the enemy materiel, but, this looks to be a staggering blow aimed at their own neck.|”
High Lord Inquisitor-Commander Tr’’’’r’’ of the Eternal Holy Karnakian Crusade And It’s Infinite Legions stared for the briefest of moments before a very very dark thought passed his mind. He raied a clawed hand – his implant silently sending a message to a cutter-class ship, The Butcher, to fire a kinetic slug at one of the missiles. High Lord Inquisitor-Commander Tr’’’’r’’’s silent, almost zen-like body language caught the eye of his advisors, and wordlessly they turned to the main screen, whereupon various indicators were superimposed over the planet – a ship, a fired round, the closing distance and the connection with the primitives’ missile and the
And the subsequent flash of a star being born for just the briefest of seconds.
High Lord Inquisitor-Commander Tr’’’’r’’ jaw moved, but no coherent sound was made – there was just a gutteral and primal groan as the terrible weight settled upon his shoulders, as these innocent creatures committed suicide out of spite to his hostile invasion force.
As in a dream, someone, somewhere, ordered everyone to fire everything.
And a few seconds later, for the first time in Earth’s geological history – and in recorded Human history – the Aurora Summa Terrae flashed brilliantly in the sky, as the lights below it winked out.