This story takes place in the Terracova timeline, roughly 1,600 years before the events of my first novel, TERRACOVA: ARCHON. I wrote this as background, exploring the storyworld of the novel to gain a better understanding of the events that shaped the protagonist's world.
A soft breeze chilled the sweat on Marcus Alonna’s forehead, the chaos settled, and a strange calm took hold of the crowd. People began pointing at the night sky, faces twisted in shock and disbelief. Marcus followed their gestures south and looked up in time to see the remnants of what must have been a brilliant flash kilometers above the surface of the planet. Before it could dissipate, a second flash peaked, masking its death with new light. A collective gasp rose from the crowd. Everyone knew what was happening in orbit. The Alliance had engaged the alien ships. My God, Laden. What have you done?
Marcus pushed through the crowd. “Excuse me. Excuse me…please. I must get through.” His pleas only drew attention to his presence, slowing his advance. Scared, curious voices called out from the shadows, and the crowd closed around him.
“Senator Alonna!” said a man from behind. “What’s happening?”
“I don’t know,” Marcus replied over his shoulder.
From his right. “Has the attack started Senator? Are we at war?”
Marcus’ eyes shifted around the crowd, from face to fearful face, as a flurry of questions assaulted him from multiple directions.
“Senator Alonna?” called a woman in front, while a boy to his right asked if the Alliance was sending more ships. “Is there going to be an evacuation?” continued the woman.
Marcus sighed with the force of his frustration. He didn’t have the answers and knew better than to speculate. Mass panic wouldn’t help the situation. He needed more information. He needed to get to the Hall of Council.
“I’m sorry,” he said, looking at the woman, but speaking to the crowd. “You all know as much as I do at the moment. Now please…step aside. I must get through.”
Marcus tried to push forward, but the wall of confusion refused to part. Tension grew, and the crowd closed in, pressing from all sides as the verbal barrage continued.
“Senator! Do you know who struck first?”
“Have we received any demands?”
“What does the Alliance say? Are they sending more help?”
Marcus raised his hands. “Please…everyone! Listen. I know you have questions. But I do not have the answers. Not yet.” He paused, making eye contact with as many as he could. He saw their fear, and felt his own. “If you let me through, I will return with more information. I promise you.”
The crowd stood in petrified silence, staring as if he spoke a foreign tongue. A few uncomfortable seconds passed before a voice sounded from within the horde. “Let him through. Make way.”
As if suddenly ashamed, the crowd began to part, and Marcus slowly resumed his course. “Thank you,” he said, nodding in gratitude as he shouldering his way through the narrow passage. Once free, he turned back to the crowd. “I will return. You have my word.” He frowned, realizing he was no longer the object of their attention. They were all looking up, beyond him, into the distance.
Marcus turned. A rush of adrenaline shot through his veins. Streaks of hot light rained from orbit, billowing smoke and flame, hurtling toward the surface. The din of voices grew restless behind him as fear once again stole the crowd. “Please… Try to remain calm,” He reminded them, speaking over his shoulder. “I will return soon.”
Damn you, Laden! Marcus broke into full sprint, racing across the courtyard, weaving through the throngs of people scattering about. A few stood frozen, rooted with fear as the flames grew in number, from four to six to seven to ten until the sky cried fire, scarring the night with tears of ruddy light. The smaller streaks of debris were short-lived; their light faded, never reaching the horizon. But the larger streams rained down on the western plains, striking with such force the muffled thuds of their impact traveled the distance to be felt as well as heard. Escape pods. Survivors from the battle in orbit. But from which side, Marcus wondered. An alien presence on Arcova would only exacerbate the rising tension among his people. He pressed on toward the Hall of Council. He needed answers. Things had obviously gone terribly wrong above the planet, and Marcus feared his people were to blame, or at least one person in particular.
The smart fabric of his long heavy shirt cooled against his skin, responding to the heat of his exertion. He ran a hand through his dark hair, wishing he’d dressed more appropriately, but the events unfolding around him were as strange as they were unforeseen. The entire colony had been taken by surprise.
Five days ago, history had been made, humanity’s first contact with an alien species. Their ships were detected as they emerged from the Cambrian Expanse, but all attempts at communication had gone unanswered. The Alliance government dispatched ships to Arcova—seven well-armed carriers—as a show of force. No one wanted a confrontation, but if it came to it, they hoped to be ready.
Marcus pushed his legs harder, faster, his heart drumming in his chest. Ahead, the Hall of Council stood proudly in the distance. It was the tallest structure on Arcova, eight stories high and visible from anywhere in the first settlement. Most of the other buildings had been assembled from the low-rise, prefabricated modules typical to most young colonies. They served their purpose, but gave the city a look of infancy. The Hall was one of the first, and few, original constructions on the planet. Marcus could still recall the groundbreaking ceremony, the pride he felt seeing Arcova’s first real building erected. The milestone signaled the start of great change for his people. They were creating a new world, building it to their own design. But now—only three years later—as he made his way across the open courtyard, Marcus wondered if they would ever have a chance to finish what they’d started.
He was out of breath when he reached his destination but refused to stop, bounding up the entrance stairs two at a time. The giant double doors gave against the force of his weight, and he burst into the foyer. Marcus slowed to a storming march. His anger hadn’t subsided, but dignity forbade him to run indoors like a sugar-dosed adolescent.
“Senator Alonna?” called a man he vaguely recognized as an aide to someone who couldn’t possibly help with the issue at hand. “Do you have a moment to-”
“No!” said Marcus, between breaths. He cut through the glass-domed foyer with blind focus, heading for the mag-lifts on the far side of the building. The carriage doors whisked open, and he stalked in, stopping only when he’d reached the back wall of the lift, finally restrained. “Eighth floor,” he commanded, still hungry for air. For the first time in years, he realized he’d grown older.
The doors closed behind him, and Marcus felt the inertial drag of his mass being pulled upward. The weight of tragedy fell upon him, and he dropped to his knees on the crimson carpet, spent. An eternity passed as he knelt motionless, waiting. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply. He’d needed to quell his anger before speaking with Chancellor Laden. Their relationship had always been a difficult one.
Boris Laden may have been the High Chancellor of Arcova—the legal authority of the land—but it was Marcus the people loved and respected. He was more than a favorite in the upcoming elections; he carried the overwhelming majority. Even his opponents—what few there were—knew the political battle was all but won. The events of the past five days had disrupted many truths for some, but of this there was little doubt. If their fledging colony survived the current crisis, Marcus Alonna would be the next High Chancellor of Arcova.
The lift finally slowed. Marcus stood, took another deep breath and tugged the hem of his shirt, resetting its drape. A soft bounce signaled the lift’s arrival, and he stepped forward as the doors parted.
“Kaiden?” Marcus bounded back to avoid a collision.
The young man standing before him stared, but gave no ground. His uniform and holstered weapon overstated his bearing—which alone clearly spoke to his profession—but his neatly cropped brown hair made him look younger than his thirty years and masked the training and experience of an elite soldier.
Marcus was glad to see the lieutenant but felt uneasy in the doorway of the lift. As a child, he’d heard too many stories of faulty proximity detectors and regarded them with a bit of cautious skepticism. He put his arm around Kaiden’s shoulders and moved into the hall. The lift doors snapped shut behind them, and Marcus winced at the severity of their force. “Have we been able to regain communication with the fleet?”
“No, sir. But we’ve already begun retrieving escape pods from the western plains.” The young lieutenant handed Marcus a small data-tab and directed his attention to the device with a pointed nod.
Marcus scanned the immediate details then scrolled back through recent events. “If we’re out of communication with the ships in orbit, what informs this report?”
“It was compiled from updates we’ve been receiving from our rescue teams. Every pod we retrieve adds another piece to the puzzle.” Kaiden shook his head. “Obviously we’re not finding them in order, so there are gaps.” He glanced about at the people moving through the halls. It wasn’t like him to be distracted. “I’ve got two shuttles working the plains. The rest are on standby for the evacuation.”
“This is excellent work,” said Marcus, truly astonished by the speed at which the lieutenant had taken control of the situation. His expression collapsed as he continued scrolling and came to what he’d hoped he would not find. “And Chancellor Laden? What does he say of this?”
Kaiden’s stance shifted, his full attention returning to Marcus. “I transmitted the report on my way to his office.” His jaw clenched. “He wouldn’t see me.”
“What? And he left no orders?”
Kaiden shook his head. “None for me, sir.”
“Then we should start the evacuation.”
Kaiden frowned. “Without the Chancellor’s permission?”
“Listen to me… If we delay any longer, it may be too late. We do not need permission to do what we both know is right and needs to be done.”
“He’s the Chancellor…Senator.”
“Exactly,” said Marcus. He shook the data-tab in the space between them, pointing upward as if the night sky could be seen indoors. “This… This is his doing, Kaiden. It didn’t have to be this way.”
“You don’t know that.”
Marcus snorted. “Oh, come now... You’re smarter than that. They’ve been in orbit for five days, not once showing any sign of hostile intent. Laden gave the order to fire first. He was wrong, and you know it. Now, I respect the chain of command, as do you, but I will not let it be my excuse for ignoring sound judgment and saving lives.”
“You speak of treason.”
“I speak of prudence, my friend.” Marcus took the young lieutenant by the shoulder, drew him near. “But call it what you will. Politics are no longer my concern. Getting as many of our people to safety as possible is the only thing that matters now. Do you understand?”
Kaiden stared for a contemplative moment then glanced both directions of the long hallway. Traffic was thinning, everyone seemed to have somewhere else to be. His head began to nod. “What would you have me do, sir?”
Marcus smiled and gave the lieutenant’s shoulder a firm shake. “Contact Mordon Remis at the main port. He’s ready to begin the evacuation—he just needs the word. Tell him we’ve spoken, and he is to begin immediately. Then, gather your family and head to the port. Take a few of your men to assist. There aren’t enough shuttles for everyone. Mordon may need help maintaining order once that reality sets in.”
“And what about you, sir? Are you not coming?”
“I’ll be there,” said Marcus, looking down the hall toward the Chancellor’s office. “But I need to see him.” He turned back to Kaiden, met his eye. “Can you handle things at the port?”
“Good,” said Marcus, offering his arm in gratitude. “Go. I’ll be there soon.”
Marcus resumed his angry march, leaving Kaiden with a small group of restive council staffers that had gathered near the lift. As he neared the end of the hall, he saw Laden’s assistant preparing to depart and quickened his pace. He was halfway to the door when she spotted him.
“Senator Alonna!” she called, moving to intercept. “I’m sorry, but Chancellor Laden left strict instruc-”
“I really don’t care, Tinelle.”
She rolled her eyes, but made no further effort to mind her instructions. She shook her head, snorted, and turned back to her desk. “Fine. But he’s not alone.” It sounded like a warning.
Marcus paid her no mind. He jerked the handle and followed the door into the room.
High Chancellor Boris Laden stood behind his desk on the far side of the corner office, gazing out the window into the courtyard below. “I must say, Marcus… You’re a surprisingly fast runner.” He didn’t bother to turn around.
A man stood off to the right of the room, eying Marcus with silent interest. He wore the same sandstone colored uniform as Kaiden, with matching side arm. The assault rifle slung over his shoulder was the only thing that set the two soldiers apart.
Marcus continued across the room, assessing the situation, cautious of the guard’s presence and his own combative relationship with the Chancellor. He’d spent the last six months exposing the failures of Laden’s administration. “Unfit to lead. A man who is consistent only in his disregard for the principles on which this colony was founded.” Marcus had said the words many times during his campaign, and it was more than rhetoric. He truly believed men like Laden were merely extensions of the world his people were trying to leave behind, too short-sighted to see Arcova through the eyes of the founders. They looked to the future through the lens of the past, blind to new opportunities and the need for change. Marcus never considered himself the political type, but found it impossible to sit idle while men of little conviction squandered the Arcovan dream on failing ideologies. Although, considering what had just happened in orbit, he feared his concern may have come too late.
The guard’s face betrayed no emotion. Marcus couldn’t tell where his loyalties lay, but quickly dismissed the thought. It was irrelevant. Politics were no longer the issue. If Arcova survived, he and the Chancellor could continue their struggle. For now, Marcus just wanted answers. Laden had disobeyed a direct order from the Council. Marcus wanted to know why.
He stopped in front of the Chancellor’s desk then turned and set a hard eye on the guard, looking him up and down, careful to hide his own apprehension. The guard held his gaze, but his eyes shifted slightly when the deep muffled thump of another escape pod impacting in the western plain seeped through the walls. He was as aware of the situation as everyone else, and no doubt had more important things to tend to, like family, friends, and whatever else people minded when they sensed the end was near.
“Leave us,” said Marcus, following his instincts.
The guard responded with a curt nod. He stepped toward the door then stopped, looking back at the Chancellor, uncertainty in his eyes.
“Go on,” Laden said, speaking to the guard’s reflection in the window. “But leave your sidearm.”
“Thank you, sir.” The guard placed his pistol on the desk then exited the room with haste. The office door closed behind him.
Marcus stepped forward, eying the weapon. “Is that for our visitors, or me?”
“I don’t need protection, Senator.” Laden turned from the window and glared across his desk before taking his seat. “I assume you’ve heard?”
“Indeed. And still find it difficult to believe. Do you realize what you’ve done?” Marcus paused, waiting for an answer, an admission of guilt, a sound justification, anything to help him make sense of the tragedy unfolding around him, but the chancellor only stared. Marcus lunged forward, bringing his fist down heavy upon the desk. “Why, Boris?”
Laden snapped back with a start, recoiling in his chair. “They were advancing on the planet, Marcus. I had no choice.”
“The choice was never yours to make. The Council had ruled; we were all in agreement.” Marcus flung himself from the desk and began pacing the room. “You were not to provoke them,” he said, running a hand through his dark hair. “You had no right!”
Laden sank into his chair, elbows resting on the arms. He stared into the desktop. The guard’s sidearm lay just outside his reach. “I told them to fire a warning shot. That’s all it was.”
“A warning?” Marcus sneered at the absurdity. “Are you serious?”
“Obviously. How was I to know they’d respond this way?”
Marcus lurched toward the desk. “That’s a human concept, you fool. Did it ever occur to you they might not understand?”
A tone from the chancellor’s desk, interrupted the conversation. Marcus rolled his eyes then waved his hand at the communications node embedded in the corner of the desk. Laden reached out to accept the comm. “Why thank you…Senator.”
The holo display flashed to life and Kaiden’s voice sounded through the speaker. “Chancellor, is Senator Alonna with you?”
Laden’s face flushed, and his jaw tightened. His fingers strummed the desk as he looked up over the screen at Marcus. “What do you want, Kaiden?”
“We just received a transmission from the eastern settlement. They’re under attack, sir.”
“What?” The chancellor’s face softened. His eyes returned to the display. “Are you sure?”
Kaiden sighed. “Chancellor…may I speak with Senator Alonna?”
“Damn it, Laden.” Marcus made his way around the desk, crowding into the display’s viewable range. “Of course he’s sure. Where did you think this was going?”
Kaiden nodded as Marcus came into view then continued. “Their last transmission was short, but it appears one of the smaller ships has descended on the planet.”
Marcus drew a deep breath and looked at Chancellor Laden who was no longer watching the screen. He sat quietly, staring at his desk, aloof in his denial. Marcus shook his head, then turned back to the display. “Do we have a visual on the settlement?”
“No, sir. But we received a partial transmission from a survey station just outside the perimeter.” Kaiden keyed his console. The display flickered then switched to an elevated, external view of the eastern settlement. It looked much like the central city with its modular symmetry. A few newly constructed buildings jutted up in various places, breaking the low-rise uniformity of the other structures.
Although viewing from a distance, Marcus could see panic ensuing in the streets. The people were scared, running, fleeing from something. The camera panned slowly, up and right, zooming out to present a wider view of the settlement.
“My god,” said Marcus, as the massive alien ship came into focus. The camera pulled back as far as it could, but the screen could not contain the ship’s mass. It was long, oval-shaped, cylindrical in width, with a thick horizontal break running along its midsection, separating the hull, revealing the inner workings of a more complex interior surface that contrasted the smooth, uninterrupted plating of the outer hull. The bow of the ship tapered abruptly, like a stumped, flat nose. There was no visible thrust coming from beneath the ship. Despite its monolithic size, it seemed to float effortlessly, defying gravity as it drifted across the plain, closing on the eastern settlement.
The ship’s engines droned in the distance, a lower-than-expected pulsating hum strumming at a discernible rhythm. The camera remained fixed on the ship, the streets of the settlement no longer visible. It was probably for the better. Marcus felt helpless enough as it was. He didn’t need to see the terror and chaos first hand. He watched in horror as the monstrous vessel crept slowly across the night sky, until it finally slowed to a stop, hovering above the settlement like an ominous dark cloud, threatening his people with its humbling presence.
A large circular portal beneath the forward section of the ship spun open like an iris and unleased a pulsating stream of cerulean light. It started at the southern end of the settlement, slowly washing over the small municipality, consuming it in its brilliance. Smaller arcs of the pale blue light shot out in sporadic intervals and seemingly random directions, striking outside the town’s perimeter.
“What is it?” asked Laden.
Marcus said nothing, eyes fixed on the screen.
“We don’t know,” answered Kaiden. “But it appears to be some kind of weapon—molecular. Keep an eye on the southern end as it passes. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The wave continued across the settlement. As the forward edge of the beam reached the central court, the southern end, where it started, crept back into view.
Marcus was surprised to see the buildings still standing, still surrounded by bushes and small trees set in parallel rows. The sidewalks, the hover cars, even a few shuttles sitting idle on small individual parking slips. It was all there, just as it had been, and for a second, Marcus felt a wave of relief wash over him. It was short-lived. “God no…” he said in horror. “Where are they—the people? They’re gone.”
And they were. The mysterious alien light continued across the settlement, leaving a grim loneliness in its wake. There were no bodies. No signs of the lives that had once colored the now empty streets.
“We’re being exterminated,” said Marcus, voice low, as if speaking only to himself.
Kaiden seemed a bit more optimistic. “The light’s blinding, Senator. We don’t actually know what’s happening inside it. The lack of bodies and any other visible residue makes me think it functions on a molecular level, targeting organic material—but only animal life. As you can see, the flora remains untouched.”
An arc of light snapped out toward the camera. The screen flashed, and the transmission ended. Kaiden’s image reappeared on the display. “I’m sorry, Senator. That’s all we got.”
“What happened to the camera?” asked Laden, looking back and forth between them. “I don’t understand… That weapon… How is that possible?”
“How?” asked Marcus. “You saw the reports, the wreckage falling in the western plains.” He pointed out the window toward the sky. “It took less than five minutes for three of those things to take out seven Alliance ships. Warships. And you’re asking how?” Marcus laughed. “They’re more advanced, Laden—far more. Something you should have considered before ordering our ships to fire on them.”
Marcus felt the tension building behind his eyes. He clenched his fist and took a deep breath before turning his attention back to Kaiden. “How’s the evacuation coming?”
“Most of the jump capable shuttles are boarding now, sir. But their capacity is small.” He looked back over his shoulder. “Many will remain.”
Marcus responded with a solemn nod. “We can do no more. Well done, Kaiden.” He hesitated. “And what of your family?”
“My sister and nephew have already boarded. Thank you, Senator.”
“Then your place is with them. I’m on my way now.”
A crippled smile tugged the corners of Kaiden’s mouth. “Thank you, sir, but I’ve already said my farewell. They’ll be safe and I am grateful.” He glanced over his shoulder. “Not all will be so fortunate, and I am sworn to protect them. My place is here.”
“This is your choice?”
“I could live with no other.”
Marcus nodded with a soft smile. He understood, completely. “Very well. See that the last shuttles launch as soon as possible. We’re closer than the western settlement. It’s likely they’ll come for us next.”
“Understood.” Kaiden reached out as if he were about to end the transmission.
“And Kaiden?” Marcus called. “Make sure the pilots pull out on the far side of the planet to avoid detection. That’s probably their best chance.”
The screen went black.
“Do you really think they’ll come here next?” asked Laden, doing his best to maintain an air of authority, failing. “The east settlement is bigger. Perhaps they-”
“Does it matter?” Marcus snapped. He wasn’t in the mood for sniveling and didn’t have to tolerate Laden’s cowardliness any longer. “Second or last, what can we possibly do to stop them?”
“Well, we have to do something, Marcus.”
“Wake up, Laden. We have no weapons to rival theirs. You know what they did to the Alliance fleet. What makes you think we’ll fare better on the ground with a handful of soldiers?”
Laden stared at the pistol on his desk, eyes wild and confused. “This…this wasn’t supposed to happen. How could I have known? There were seven ships… Seven, Marcus. How could they…it doesn’t make sense.”
“Sense?” Marcus laughed. It was far too late to be scrutinous. “Why search for it now? You thought little of it when you gave the order to fire.” He pinched the bridge of his nose, squeezed his eyes shut. Time was short, every second precious. “I have to go.” He turned and headed for the door, heard Laden rise from his chair as he crossed the floor.
“Where are you going?”
“Anywhere. But I will not cower in the corner like a scared dog.”
“Is that what you think I’m doing?”
Marcus stopped short of the door. There’s no time for this. He shook his head, looked down at the floor. “I’m going to the main port.”
“But you heard what Kaiden said—there aren’t any shuttles left. It’ll be chaos. There’s nothing you can do for them now.”
“I disagree.” Marcus turned to face him. “I have lived my entire life without fear of the future and I refuse to let my final hours betray me.” His anger was gone. A cold hard gaze was all he would afford the cowardly man. “As long as I am able, I will share in the strength of my people. If this is to be our end, then we will face it together…with honor. Like any true Arcovan would.”
Laden lowered himself into his seat and stared at his desk, allowing silence to claim the room.
Marcus sighed, disgusted. He turned and continued toward the door. “Goodbye, Laden.”
The halls outside the Chancellor’s office were vacant. Even his assistant had taken leave. Marcus smiled; she hadn’t bothered to say goodbye. Good for you, Tinelle. Perhaps he’d been wrong about her. If he saw her at the main port, he would apologize.
As Marcus made his way down the hall, back to the lift, his mind wandered. He had dedicated his entire life to the colony, to his people. Never had he thought the day possible, the end of everything that mattered. The dreams of three generations lost in a single night, forfeit by the actions of a fool. But why?
Marcus tried to make sense of the alien response. Yes—Laden was a fool. The Alliance should never have fired on the visitors. Their presence may have been alarming, but they had shown no signs of hostility. Quite the opposite. For five days they’d kept their distance. Had they been watching? Waiting? For what?
Even as Alliance forces gathered in strength around the planet, the aliens had received no reinforcements. Not that they needed them. But still, thought Marcus. How could a single shot justify extermination? No matter how hard he tried, he could make no sense of their actions. They aren’t human, old man. There was no point in speculating. They were alien to him, as were their ways.
The lift finally arrived, and the doors parted. Marcus took a mindless step forward then stopped mid-stride as a single gun shot echoed down the hall, snatching him from thought. Laden.
If it had been any other day, any other time, he would have bounded to the scene, ready to offer assistance to a fellow Arcovan. But this day was different, each moment precious, and other than himself, there were no Arcovans left in the Hall of Council. Coward.
Marcus stepped into the lift and ordered its descent.
By the time he emerged from the council building and stepped out onto the landing, Marcus found his mind free of the past. The night air was cool, the breeze soft. The courtyard was empty, save a few people scurrying toward the main port. He looked up at the dark cloudless sky and breathed deeply, taking in the present. He remained still in the moment, seeing everything as if for the first time.
Marble sculptures stood throughout the yard, portraitures of the founders and some of history’s greatest leaders, standing atop stone pedestals, gazing over the court, reminding all that passed of the principles and ideals on which Arcova was built. The tallest, greenest hemoglorias he’d ever seen lined the council yard. They scratched at the night sky, swaying to the kind-hearted breeze. At the center of the yard stood the three banners of Arcova, flapping strong and proud. The first settlement’s was the largest, its rich embroidered crimson honoring the founders who’d risked so much to start anew. Their sacrifice would never be forgotten.
“Yes,” said Marcus, speaking only to himself. Despite the current situation, there was much to be proud of.
He made his way across the courtyard, toward the main port, careful not to miss any of the details he’d ignored countless times before. There were tulips in the flower beds alongside the walk. The exo-botanists had been trying for years to the get the delicate flower to take in Arcovan soil. Marcus smiled. All they needed was time. He’d known that all along. It was all his people ever needed to realize their dreams. There had never been enough.
He’d lied to Laden; Marcus realized that now. He did fear the coming hours. He just wasn’t afraid to face them. If he were to end this night, only his life would he surrender. He would die as he had lived, with his people or for them. And like a true Arcovan, honor would remain his.
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