Explosions above ground shook the cavernous space, throwing around beams of light from floating glowbulbs, illuminating the stark gray placrete walls and the crowd of soldiers shifting uneasily in the spotty darkness. At a stage at the center of the room, The Hammer paced back and forth. She’d been at the height of her rallying speech, but was cut off by the explosion. The eyes of the women and men in the crowd, the ones that had been filled with the fires of hope, stoked in the roaring flames of The Hammer’s faith, guttered out. That explosion was far too close for comfort. The Legion’s forces must be close, to trigger an explosion like that so near to the City’s heart.
The Hammer stopped mid-stride, and spun in a slow circle, surveying the gathered soldiers before her. She let out a single, barking laugh.
“That is supposed to frighten us? That is the bell tolling our deaths? That?” She shook her head and laughed, more softly this time. “That, is nothing.” She resumed her slow pacing. The trail of her gaze could be seen in the crowd, in backs straightening and eyes lifting. But the backs weren’t as straight as they’d been before the explosions, and though the eyes were lifted, no fires burned within them. The Hammer noticed the diminished effect of her words, but barreled on nonetheless.
“I know things seem hopeless right now. If I’d been up there,” she pointed at the cavern’s ceiling, “with you all, withstanding the Legion’s onslaught, my face might look like yours do now. Maybe.” She stopped again. “But I don’t think so. Because next to me, on either side, are the best damned soldiers in the system.” She put her hands on her hips and smiled. No cheers rose. Somber faces looked back at her, unaffected by the compliment.
The Hammer continued speaking. “And you’re too smart for platitudes, anyway. Let’s cut the crap and talk about the situation.” She gestured with two fingers, dimming the lights and calling down a projection of the city, its surroundings, and the sky above it. Her figure towered over the partial-color holographic replica of Sadan, Earth’s capital city.
Sadan had stood amicably under the Legion’s rule for almost eight hundred years, allowed to continue observing their traditions and religions freely under the Legion’s eye. While they knew they were annexed, the people of Earth hardly felt the yoke of their captors. They kept their Gods, they kept their language, and they kept their dignity. That is, until the death of Antiochus Servius, he who had overseen the quadrant that contained the Sol system—populated by some fifteen billion humans, including LEO settlement ships and colonies on Luna and Mars. Antiochus, like all Legion Naturals with their scarab-like husks molting every ten years, was a very long-lived being. He died at the ripe middle age of 1454, in Earth years. The carapaces themselves were of tremendous value; stronger than placrete, yet lightweight and pliable, they were used in virtually every facet of the modern military. Ship interiors were lined with them, as were outposts sprinkled around Earth, Luna, Mars, and Titan. The world’s top Thalasts had been working diligently for many decades, heads bent in prayer when they were not conducting experiments, on devising paramilitary uses for the material.
Under Antiochus, the carapace was freely given as a sign of goodwill. Human technology evolved with explosive speed because of the influx of raw materials and the limited support from Legion Unnaturals—non-Scarab members of the Legion, whose worlds had been colonized eons past.
For a time, it was good.
Antiochus passed amid controversy—rumors had it that he was murdered—and was succeeded by his daughter, Popillia Epiphanes. That was when everything changed.
The Hammer thought of Sadan, its history, and the drastic changes she had seen in her lifetime. The projection reflected off of her armor, crafted from one of Antiochus’s final moltings.
Popillia waited only one day after the required mourning period to launch her assault on Sadan, sending the Legion’s impressive battalions into the heart of the city, the seat of human civilization itself. There was no resistance—what could be done to resist hundreds of trained Naturals in their impervious husks, toting their mysterious weaponry?
During the first siege, before The Hammer had been given her new name, she was like the others. She thought that there was nothing to be done against the might of Popillia’s invasion force. And because of the fruitful and unaltered lives they’d led under Antiochus, most of the humans didn’t consider the invasion to be anything more than a display, a token of the Legion’s might. They had assumed that Popillia would follow in her father’s footsteps ideologically, and that they’d be permitted to carry on in much the same was as they had for hundreds of years. They were unprepared for the reality of Popillia’s reign.
It had all gone to hell quickly, once Popillia’s soldiers began tearing down the pillars of human civilization across Sadan, erecting Legion temples atop the ruins of human houses of worship, mandating that humanity convert or be killed.
A nervous shuffling in the crowd brought The Hammer back from her ruminations. That was almost twenty years ago, and she was a different woman now.
“We may be outgunned on the front lines, but our shield technologies remain our strongest asset.” She spread her hands at the projection, directing it to widen the field of view. It now showed Earth, Luna, and Sol. “This is us.” She pointed to a blinking red beacon that represented Sadan. “And this,” she swung her hand and an impressive array of green and blue dots appeared in the skies above the red light, “is what we’re up against.” She gestured once more, and a translucent field blossomed between Sadan and the Legion’s ships.
“Fortunately for us, our archaic shield technologies have proven to be an advantage.” She punctuated the word “archaic” with a sarcastic sneer. “I’ll let Thalaster MacCabe fill you in on the details.”
A short, thin man with synthetic eyes took the stage. Infinitesimally small diodes lit up across the smooth surface of his eyes as he took in the crowd. He coughed nervously, then spoke.
“Yes, well—” he rubbed his hands together, light dancing back and forth across the polished planes of his metallic eyes. “Our shields, like our weapons, cities, ships, and everything else in our lives, are powered by solar energy. While we do not understand how the Legion’s weaponry works—and I could discuss the finer points of some theories the Thalasts are currently pursuing, many of which—“ The Hammer coughed loudly, then smiled at MacCabe and nodded for him to continue. “Right. Apologies, Hammer. Whatever it is that the Legion’s weapons emit, with its incredible destructive power, is nullified completely by our shields.” At a wave of his hand, the projection displayed orbs flying from the Legion dots toward the translucent shields, which absorbed the attack and remained unchanged.
“The problem, however, is that the projectiles—whatever they are—drain the power of the shields at incredible rates.” The projection changed to a set of graphs. “The Legion attacks drain reserves faster than they can be replenished, even with our arrays working at ninety-nine-point-eight percent efficiency, which is an unprecedented achievement of Thalaster research as it is.”
The Hammer stood again and walked to the center of the stage. “Thank you, Thalaster. To simplify, here’s the situation: reinforcements from Mars and Titan are on their way, but it will take them around eight Earth days to arrive. Our shields can only take the battering for one more day, at a maximum. We can deal with the Legion ground troops, but we can not withstand an assault from the air if the shields fall.” Muttering broke out among the soldiers. “When the shields fall,” The Hammer added, quietly.
Several hours after the briefing, The Hammer and her squadron had taken up positions near the capitol building. MacCabe was monitoring the energy reserves from underground, maintaining a visual feed for her so that she could take part in what was to be the final battle in this already-lost war. It was about two hours after midnight, and the main body of the solar array was no longer facing the sun. The levels she read from MacCabe were discouraging at best. The shield reserves would not last the night.
The Hammer activated a channel to her soldiers, who were dispersed all over Sadan in tactical units, took in a deep breath, then closed the channel. There was nothing she could say to them that could help. They knew what they were fighting for. They knew it was worth the risks. They were willing to die for their freedom.
A Legion phalanx—three scarabs in a tight triangle—approached from the west. The Hammer signaled to her squadron to split up and attempt a flanking maneuver. Six soldiers split off from the group, leaving The Hammer and two others to lure the phalanx as bait. Three quietly rushed around the back side of the building, and the other three cut a wide path through the now-desiccated park that stood across the wide street from the capitol building.
Above The Hammer, the night sky was regularly illuminated by Legion projectiles colliding with the shield wall that floated about a mile-and-a-half above the Earth’s surface. The resulting explosions of energy—the ones that were powerful enough to shake the caverns beneath the capitol building—were beautiful, in a way. The deep purple of the Legion’s weaponry would explode in a ring of new hues when it collided with the invisible shields, like a circular aurora that dissipated into millions of subtle colors. Even now, at the end, The Hammer found it as mesmerizing as she had the first time she saw it. In its own way, it was beautiful.
A voice crackled in The Hammer’s headset. “In position now, commander. Waiting on your signal”
“Copy that, beta.” She watched the energy reserve levels decrease with each blow to the shields above. “Wait on gamma to get in position.”
“Gamma here, commander. In position now.”
The Legion phalanx was advancing slowly, evidently suspecting an ambush. The tips of each of their many-segmented legs were sensitive enough to feel submicro-vibrations nearby, and though the boots given to each infantry soldier masked vibration well, the scarabs were sometimes able to sense stock-still soldiers ducking nearby.
“No movement until my mark,” The Hammer whispered to the squadron. “They know we’re here.”
One member of the phalanx stopped, testing the air in front of it with its mandibles, which dangled with many highly-sensitive feelers. One of the feelers went rigid, pointing directly toward beta’s position.
“Dammit beta, they’ve got you! Move back now!”
But The Hammer’s warning came too late. As one, the phalanx opened fire on the marbled placrete pillar, blasting chunks away from it in tiny versions of the explosions that continued above—which were draining the reserves down to nearly nothing. She leapt from her covered position, shouting for her two companions and gamma to follow her lead and open fire on the phalanx’s exposed rear.
One of the scarabs turned and, with one shot from its strange weapon, obliterated gamma. Beta’s vital signs went dark less than one second after gamma’s, and as one, the phalanx trained their weapons on The Hammer and her comrades-in-arms.
Then they stopped and looked at the sky, where a large purple mass collided with the shield but did not form the telltale aurora ring from being deflected. Some of the projectile sloughed off into multi-hued vapor, but the majority of it pushed its way through the barrier, which crackled and sparked, then vanished.
The shields hadn’t even lasted the night. The Hammer threw down her weapon in anger, then dropped to her knees. She’d been fighting so long, and the exhaustion of it was only now beginning to catch up with her. In front of her and moving closer, clicking slowly on many legs, were her executioners.
“Hammer, the shields!” MacCabe’s voice whispered, horrified, in her ear.
“Yes, MacCabe,” she said back. “The shields have failed. We have lost.”
She could hear one of the soldiers beside her—Simeon, young and highly-skilled—weeping. She turned to him and put a hand on his shoulder, and his shuddering slowed. For some reason she couldn’t fathom, the scarabs were waiting to open fire. Part of her wished they would just get it over with.
The audio feed from MacCabe started sending over bursts of static. At first, The Hammer thought the Thalaster and his fellows were disabling the channels and taking their own lives rather than suffer at the hands of the Legion, but then a voice began to break through the noise.
“Com—der, s—ge r—dings… —et to sh—ter.” She tapped at the side of her helmet, but the stream of broken words continued, until one clear word came through: “hide.”
Without thinking, The Hammer grabbed Simeon and Mattis—the other soldier—by the arms and ran. She didn’t dare look back, and got confirmation of pursuit in the form of a nearby structure exploding in a shower of purple light. She ran back to the capitol building with its enormous placrete pillars, took cover behind one, and looked back toward the phalanx. Some new threat stopped them in their tracks, heads once again turned to face the sky. MacCabe’s voice cut through the silence, completely clear.
“Commander, we’re seeing some strange activity from Sol. The Legion must have, too, because they have temporarily stopped firi—“
Before MacCabe finished speaking, the sky exploded.
Veins of bright light, like bolts of lightening miles thick, cut a path through the dark sky, their flaming edges searing The Hammer’s eyes, but she could not look away. Her visor compensated for the increased UV exposure, and she was able to see what was happening in the sky. She heard Simeon pull Mattis—who was shrieking and pressing his hands to his eyes—behind a pillar, but she continued to stare upward. The tendrils of light undulated and grew and shrank, reaching out and touching some of the Legion ships, which were incinerated on contact. Once they realized what was happening, the other ships attempted evasive actions, but to no avail. How could anything escape that wrathful, awesome light?
The fingers of light crept throughout the night sky, illuminating the half-ruined city of Sadan all around her. Awash in the strange glow, the destruction seemed less total. The light gave her hope. The phalanx that had been bearing down on them moments before could barely be seen, making a hasty retreat down the street they’d come from. The Hammer fell back against the pillar and slid down it, coming to a stop with an undignified bump. All the while she stared up at the sky, with its strange alternating lines of light and dark. The bars in her visor that represented the energy reserves climbed higher and higher, sucking in their fill of light. They would be safe. They were protected. They had time to regroup.
In one ear, she heard MacCabe and his fellow Thalasters shouting and celebrating the victory. In the other, she heard Simeon whispering to Mattis over and over.
“Miracle. It was a miracle.”
By day, Elan Samuel is a writer and editor at a tech company in San Francisco. By night, he writes fiction and reviews books of all kinds on his blog, The Warbler. His wildest dreams include becoming a published author and building a career in which he can read all day, preferably near a body of water.