Story Summary: We remember Thermopylae; we remember the Alamo, and now: we remember Reach. But before Reach was Arcadia, and before Arcadia was Harvest, and that's where I first encountered the Covenant ... and 'my' Spartan.
Chapter Summary: Our first contact with an alien civilization. We are not alone in the Universe! How exciting! Finally something to take our minds off ourselves and our civil wars. Unfortunately, that's exactly what it did.
Setting: Outer Worlds. Harvest. April 26, 2525
My name is Ellen Anders. I'm a professor of Xenobiology, but I've found that I have a talent for linguistics and epistemology that has been put into service in the face of the siege we are under.
But I'm getting ahead of myself, and I never do that: I'm a very organized person, and my organization, too, has been pressed into service, and to good effect, I might add.
Where to begin? I suppose I'll begin at the beginning, at our first contact ... our first contact with the Covenant, and my first contact with them and with the Spartans ... or with a Spartan.
My father had Manifest Destiny in his blood, and my mom followed right along with him and just a few thousand others to Arcadia to terraform that world, to make it habitable for human occupation. As planets went, Arcadia was ideal: it had a nitrogen/oxygen atmosphere with native flora and fauna. This posed its own set of problems and many people died acclimatizing to the preexisting environment. Xeno-disease? Horrible, but human being have a long history of being introduced to foreign-bourne viral and bacterial elements and adapting and surviving. After surviving came the impossibly hard work of carving out a place for humanity in the lush and rich wilds of that planet, and it took decades to make even basic necessities such as edible food, pure water and primitive shelters so that my dad and my mom could embark from the base camps into the wilderness to carve out their own place in this new world, so that others could build a civilization, a paradise world within the confines of the boundaries that families like mine established.
And then, years later, I came along, and I was Daddy's little girl, the light of his eye, and he read me bedtime stories by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and I felt quite the frontier's girl in the New undiscovered wilderness, and Mom tended to my education, teaching me not only reading and writing and mathematics but survival, first aid, and the essential domestic duties to help around the house.
But my parents saw that me, a frail, little runt of a girl was not suited to survive and to thrive in the Outer Colonies. That, and pulling me away from the reader to tend to my duties? There was many a time I was in hot water with one or both parents for neglecting my domestic duties for my studies.
So with a heavy heart my father turned away from his vocation, his passion, and relocated us off-world to the more central, and civilized, colony of Reach. It broke my heart to see him so out of place to be going to be among people, but he would not hear my pleas to stay on Arcadia so I could study at the community college at the base camp that had now grown into a ... 'city'? ... or, more accurately, 'township.' No, once his mind was made up, it was set, and all we could do was to follow the plan.
The people who know me accuse me of being headstrong, and I know where I inherited that trait.
But Daddy was right. We Anders are quiet people, yes, but also hardy, and very, very smart. I thrived at Harvest University, despite the initial teasing that primary school was further down the road, me, looking so out of place in a collegiate setting because of my youthful appearance. The teasing stopped and didn't matter after I started publishing my research papers on the unitive adaptive nature of diverse xenobiology in various habitats.
It helped, a lot, to grow up right among the biodiversity I was researching, and have a keen and interested eye for what I saw around me. Nothing excites post-docs like on-the-field experience catalogued by a precise and inquisitive mind.
So I sailed through school. Compared to life on the frontier, my studies were easy — trivially so, even — so I made them challenging by taking on more and more, graduating magna cum laude and valedictorian, of course.
This raised interest in more than a few quarters, some of which I was not aware of until later, but I immediately went into teaching as I pursued post-doctoral work.
And then it happened.
When the air strike alarms sounded throughout the city I thought it was another drill, as we were always having. A pirate attack (or 'insurgents,' as they called themselves) on Harvest? Ridiculous! On Arcadia, yes. I had seen with my own eyes the results of pirate raids, and believe me when I tell you there is nothing dashing nor romantic about piracy. Twice our family was headed into the base camp when Dad stopped the transport. The first time I didn't know why until I saw a thin ribbon of smoke rising on the horizon.
Dad had alighted from the transport and disappeared over the crest of the hill in the road. He came back an hour later, looking very grim. We didn't go back to the base camp for months. At the time, I didn't know there wasn't a base camp to go back to to get resupplied. Good thing we settlers were self-reliant, but that was a very hard Summer.
The next time we saw the ribbon of smoke on the horizon, it was years later. Dad just turned the transport right around, and we headed back home. I was much older and my inquisitive nature directed one of my gathering missions by way of a line of sight to the base camp.
I wish it hadn't.
I looked through the scope of my hunting rifle. What I saw there ...
Where there had been shelters and structures there were now heaps of rubble, some of the sturdier, more permanent structures had blast markings in crumbling walls.
Insurgents. Rebels. Pirates.
Apparently they were not too happy with what they could find from our dirt-poor outpost. Or maybe they were, and this was the result of their celebratory revelry.
Then I saw that there were piles ... heaps on the road and in and around the crumbling buildings. With shaking fingers I increased the magnification to maximum.
And that's when I saw the charred remains. Of men. And women. And children.
I spent a long, long time there, rooted to the spot, not being able to process what my eyes saw. I felt numb, then I felt a rage so powerful. Why would people visit such violence on people, and not just any people, but people who I knew and played with, who were out to do something in life for themselves, and in so doing, giving all humanity more opportunities, more benefits, more room, more space, more freedom, but now?
I tried to swallow but my mouth was dry, and I was shaking with fury — or was it fear? — at what these pirates, these monsters, did to people who I hardly knew, yes, but whom I had seen in passing, and who were doing the things my family was doing to survive and to carve out our place on this planet. What if we had been at the base camp when the pirates had raided it?
I looked at those charred remains, and saw my neighbors, and then I imagined myself, my dad and my mom among those piles of remains.
I didn't have much sympathy for the separatist cause after that, no matter how eloquent the speaker railed against constrained transportation routes and taxation. In my young mind then, the separatists became nothing other than murdering thugs, and I became a loyalist that very day.
And to this day, I still am.
And so when I heard the air raid alarm I had thought it was merely another drill. So boring! No: so annoying!
After all, a pirate attack on the base camp on Arcadia was one thing, but a fully colonized and defended world like Harvest? If an undeclared ship entered orbit, it would know that it was in the crosshairs of not one but three frigates in orbit carrying mac guns powerful enough to punch a hole through any ship ever made by man, ... in fact, powerful enough to leave a crater on the planet clearly visible from orbit.
And that doesn't even include the surface defenses bristling outward into space.
Any ship looking toward Harvest in a disorderly way? Years of civil war had taught the UNSC ("United Nations Space Command") to shoot first and ask questions later. That ship would be dust before they could even think about powering up weapons. And a pirate "fleet"? Decimation was a certainty with annihilation almost guaranteed.
So when I heard the air alarms sound, I ignored them. Another drill! I thought with annoyance, promptly dismissing it, and returned to overseeing the editorial duties of the Xenophysiology Review.
But then my attention was immediately arrested when the lights and the power went out in the building. The emergency lights immediately kicked in, so there was nothing terrifying in that, but it was very unsettling when coupled with a heavy vibration causing the entire building to groan like a monolithic tuning fork.
'Please proceed to the nearest exit,' a calm, detached voice began to repeat in what was meant to be soothing tones, but was none-the-less penetrating and strident. Obviously an AI construct. The voice added in a singing, cheering voice: 'Thank you for your cooperation!'
I looked down at my work, wondering what I should bring when a percussive blast that seemed to shake to world to its roots made the decision for me. I grabbed my overcoat and ran to the exit wondering what the hell could possibly be the source of the emergency.
I emerged from the building and left the campus grounds that I thought to be filled with frenetic activity ... frenetic, I thought, until we exited en masse to the pandemonium on the city streets. Marines were very visible, heavily armed, in tight groups, and very, very tense, advising us to move along, to evacuate the city, and to stay calm.
The look on the marines faces did not lend to a calm atmosphere.
And then, the emergency broadcast screens illuminated the sides of the sky-scraping buildings in the financial district. Instead of the face of the Prime Minister explaining what was happening, a face, an alien face peered out at us all.
I quickly quelled my shock and began dictating my observations into my chatter, recording what I could for posterity.
"Leathery skin," I whispered soto voce, "bulbous eyes, thin, elongated and bent neck, pair-shaped body, resting on a unit hovering a half-a-meter above the ground, wearing an elaborate golden head-dress. Creature appears to have difficulty moving unaided, perhaps world of origin light gravity well, perhaps generations disassociated from terrestrial habitation."
The creature began to speak, and it spoke in a language, to be sure, but none that my chatter could translate. It seemed to be regarding us, the mass of humanity, as ... vile, and it seemed to speak disinterestedly and with a note of finality.
The pandemonium in the streets a moment ago was replaced by a stark silence during the alien's announcement, and then a debate arose in the streets like a tide swell: slow at first, but then growing in strength and in stridency.
Me, did I join in the debate?
No. Xenobiology requires quite a bit of physiology but there's an element of anthropology to it as well. This debate was one where people talking about nothing they knew in the context of only what they knew: nothing would be learned here, only opinions voiced and fought over.
I had my own, certain, opinion. If anthropology taught us anything, it taught us this: when two cultures meet, one utterly destroys the other.
The only way I could be of service was to record my observations so that those who survived this encounter could profit from it.
Being out on the frontier had taught me the lesson of trust, and that is: trust no one. And the message from the being may have been 'We come in peace,' but how many cultures made their entrance with that very line? And how many civilizations survived such an encounter?
I made to leave the city.
I was not alone in this sentiment. The streets were clogged and at a standstill with vehicles, and the marines tried to enforce — no, demand — order, but they ended up further slowing the traffic they tried to direct.
I faced away from the sun and started walking westward toward the city outskirts and the wilderness beyond.
Order was not to be found in the city today, no matter how much discipline the marines demanded from the skittish throng, for coming from the east was the sound of the roar of jet engines intermingled with an electric and steady thrum. All heads, the people in the crowd, the marines, and even me as I continued my westward march, turned to look what this sound heralded.
We didn't see anything for a moment, but then, rising over the horizon were multiple tiny specs that grew as they vectored in toward the city.
"Magenta," I dictated, "teardrop-shaped and bulbous tapering off to a duck-shaped tail, aerodynamically designed but does not appear to rely on hull-shape for lift, cyan light limns the bottom of these ships flying in a loose formation ..."
As the ships came closer, I observed something in more detail.
"It seems the front of the underside of these ships have an appendage, like a stalk, with free motion along all 360º of the horizontal plane."
I wondered what purpose these stalks served.
I didn't have to wonder for any length of time.
The stalk spit some high-energy balls that when they hit their targets caused the ground to shake with the concussive force. And the targets — marines and civilians — were thrown about like rag dolls and splattered against buildings and transports.
It was time for me to go. I saw the panicked crowds running from these alien vehicles in fear. I chose a direction away from the mass of people and took off at a quick trot.
As I ran, I saw one of the vehicles hover approximately twenty meters above the ground and from its underbelly discharge two groups of five beings each. They looked very different from the being that made the proclamation to Harvest. There were four beings in each group that were squat, barely reaching a meter and a half in height. At first I thought their heads tapered to a point, but then I saw it was a form of a tank harnessed to their backs. They wore masks that covered their entire faces, and I saw a tube attach the mask to their tanks. They weren't oxygen-breathers.
The other being in the group towered over its companions, easily three meters in height. And if the group was a squat set around this being, this one was long and lean, ... and dangerous looking. It appeared to be the leader of the squad, an elite being.
I recorded all that I saw into my chatter as I fled.
And I ran, I saw the Elite being point imperiously toward a fleeing crowd, and the other members of the group began firing burst of green energy toward the crowd. It appeared to be high-energy beams of plasma, because each burst of fire took down a civilian, who screamed in agony as they died.
The marines reacted. The rained a hail of assault rifle fire toward the alien groups ... to little effect. The smaller, squat-like beings, who seemed to fill the role of grunt foot-soldiers, a couple of them fell under the fire, splattering a cyan-colored liquid from the wounds they received from the assault rounds.
But the Elites?
Absolutely nothing happened to them, they didn't even react as round after round of assault fire hit them. And, eventually, I saw why. A marine, at close range, emptied a whole clip into the Elite, every round hitting the being. The Elite grew slightly indistinct, and then the area of fire, perhaps a centimeter away from the Elite sparkled and glowed white.
It was wearing some kind of repulsive energy shield.
And as the marine was reloading, the Elite howled, it's jaw splitting into four mandibles. I saw each mandible had in it incisor teeth of a carnivore. It strode, reptilian-like, right up to the marine, grabbed her by the neck, slammed her against a wall and pulled back its arm and then I saw a meter-long beam of light come from its fist, and it punched the marine right through the chest with the energy beam.
She reacted with a shocked look of surprise, and then she went limp.
The Elite withdrew its fist, and the gaping hole in the marine's chest didn't even bleed. The cauterizing wound was instantly fatal. The Elite then turned to the rest of the marine squat and made short work of the other four marines with swift, efficient, deadly strokes with its energy sword, eviscerating them and quartering them.
Fire from other marine squads continued to pelt the alien groups with assault fire and one marine threw a fragmentation grenade. Another grunt fell. The Elite leader glowed a brighter white and threw back its head and snarled a blood-curling howl. It said something like "All-leh shooder" to one of its grunts and pointed at the closest squad of marines. The smaller creature wound up and pitched a bright blue ball that attached itself to one of the marines.
The marine shouted, "Ay! the burn! Get it off me!" and ran toward his squad mates in a panic.
This was a mistake, for the ball erupted in a huge explosion whiting out area of a three-meter radius around the stuck marine. When my vision cleared, I saw the entire marine squad on the ground, still and lifeless.
That was the last thing I saw as I fled from the city, but I continued to hear the sound of the alien drop-ships coming into the city, and the sounds of gun fire and explosions throughout the rest of the day and into the night.
I withdrew into the deep forest, avoiding the smaller towns, even. That proved to be a wise choice, as I saw alien ships pushing out from the capital city and target the settled outskirts. From my frontier life in Arcadia I sought shelter and used a rock to dig myself a pit, filling it with dried vegetation, making myself a survival bed, isolating myself from the cold, even in April. I gathered more rocks and risked a fire. I didn't know into what light frequencies these aliens could see into, but I'm sure even if they could see infrared unaided, their tech surely could detect heat.
Which means that they could locate me: my body gave off a lot more heat than the surrounding vegetation. But this was a gamble I was willing to take. Both my body and a fire were pin-point light sources, but I was far enough away from any inhabited areas that the aliens would really have to be looking for sole survivors to find me, and if they were doing that, they would locate me regardless, fire or no.
And without the fire, there would be little chance of me surviving the night, even as it was 20°C. I knew, all too well, that hypothermia can steal away the body's heat, even with only a few degrees of difference. They told us in survival training that we took every few years on Arcadia that the old mariner's tale was that a sailor had a 50% chance of survival for 50 minutes in 50°F weather. 20°C wasn't much warmer than 50°F.
I build and started the fire.
Now I had another tough decision to make: my chatter.
The chatter was implanted into every infant at or just after birth, all humanity was connected to the grid, and we all had our privacy, but we also had access to whatever knowledge we wished, and communication with anybody else was simply a matter of thinking of that person and then establishing, or accepting, a connection.
Chatter was a perfect recorder; whatever I saw or heard, it recorded.
And a perfect locator. If somebody needed to get in touch with me, all they had to do was a lookup, and they would know, with my authorization, exactly where I was.
But I wasn't naïve. I knew that there were levels of authorization, and if somebody with the proper authority wanted to find me, I could be found.
The insurgents routinely turned their chatter off. The successful ones, at any rate. The not-so-smart ones, who foolishly or forgetfully left their chatter on, were rounded up by the UNSC. This correlation wasn't widely known nor publicized, but I had done research on Government contracts. I was exposed to some facts that the general public wasn't.
So if members of the Government could locate me if they needed to ... and these aliens obviously had superior tech ...
I thought to myself the silent command: off, and I felt my chatter go into a quiescent state.
And suddenly felt, alone in this wilderness, really alone, off the grid. Isolated.
I hunkered down for the long haul.
A few fitful and restless nights later, I heard a low and pervasive rumble. I looked up to see half the sky covered by an enormous alien ship, indigo in color, comprised of two saucer-like structures attached by an elegant neck.
The underside of the larger saucer — that is, the side facing toward the planet, toward us — glowed an angry, hot red, and then a beam connected the ship to Harvest for one, two, three seconds.
Silence. I counted the seconds, remembering the kilometers to the capital city.
Precisely seventeen seconds later, a thunder-crack followed by an electric hum filled my ears as the force of the sound knocked me to the ground. I saw stars, then I saw black.
I woke, hours later I could tell by the morning light, and looked upward. The alien ship no longer blotted out the sky, but I did see a purplish morning star on the horizon. I looked toward the capital city. There was a tell-tale plume of smoke hovering heavily over the city. I set out for the nearest township.
It was abandoned. So I 'acquired' as many supplies I could find and carry.
Yes, Dr. Ellen Anders, professor of Xenobiology at Harvest University, had stooped to looting. I'm not proud of this, and I also realized that I had to do what I had to do to survive on my own. There would be nobody that could help me against this onslaught.
One of the items I 'acquired' was a high-powered hunting rifle. It was back to the 'good old' frontier days of my youth on Arcadia. I didn't think I'd ever revisit that life.
I took myself to a raised knoll and looked through the rifle's sight toward the capital city.
I didn't see the city; I saw a crater where the city had been. It was perfectly shaped in a bowl, and the light shooting through the smoke reflected off the mirror-like curvature of the surface.
The aliens had glassed the capital city.
I was truly on my own now. You can build a civilization up from a band of colonists, but if you disintegrate an established one, it descends into lawlessness and anarchy. I knew any other survivors, if there were more than handfuls here and there, would be just as bad as the aliens, killing me for my supplies, that I had illegally obtained, or seeing me as an enemy ... or seeing me, a small, soft, defenseless-looking woman, as a target to take their frustrations and fear out on.
I reactivated my chatter, got no response at all from the central server, recorded what I had observed, then just as quickly deactivated it, and headed out of town, furtively, in a different direction than from where I entered it.
I held out no hope, only for making it to the end of the day, and succeeding on a hunt. So I recorded what I saw: alien drop-ships or the large cruiser appearing on the sky, the types of aliens that would descend from them or that would just drop out of the sky in teardrop-shaped pods, surrounding a band of people and eliminating them with vicious efficiency. I would also record the alien's other activities — they seemed to be surveying areas and exploring more than just the terrain — and just surviving, just living.
I didn't expect ever to be rescued, so imagine my surprise ...
... that didn't come for another five years.
Well, 'better late than never,' I suppose.
And what a rescue it was.