Locust

The day has come. This is Locust. It’s a shorter story than those I’ve done recently (about 10,000 words). Let’s get to it.

N’yur is crouched low behind a barricade that cuts one of the last main avenues of what remains of the Praetor capital of Aesur off. Ahead of him there is only destruction. The buildings that use to tower high into the sky are now little more than rubble piles. The dust from their collapses having long since drifted off on the cool air that is always present at this time of year.

But N’yur doesn’t care about the piles of rubble. He knows that he should but he can’t because if he thinks about the remains of the city before him it will lead him to contemplating the mangled bodies below.

He doesn’t know if the bodies, or what remains of them more precisely, will ever be found and the proper services carried out to pay respects to the dead. Before that the Praetor will have to survive against the enemy that has declared war on them.

The Praetor know little of their enemy other than they attacked without warning or provocation. As well as the fact that they are skinned in metal and illuminate their path with glowing beams of white light.

N’yur knows of no reports that any of the Alloys, as the Praetor call their invaders, have been defeated. Not a single one. Sure their mechs have been battered and broken into non-function, but the masters, the Alloys themselves, have not. They are superior to the Praetor in every way. They came from the stars on a giant ship of which every description is wildly different.

N’yur doesn’t know what, if any, of the explanations that he has heard of the Alloy’s ships appearance have been true. And he doesn’t much care. That is beyond his scope of concern. He is what remains of the ground troops. The Alloys control the skies above. The Alloys invisible vessel having blasted and incinerated the small single occupant airbourne craft of the Praetor using weapons of heated plasma fired from the deep heavens. It was near incomprehensible to imagine, but N’yur knows it to be true. He saw some of the first attacks upon his world, but still it seemed like a dream. It wasn’t, but he wished more than anything that it was.

With the skies secured against the native Praetor the Alloys had descended on columns of blue light from their ship in the deep heavens. At first it was stunning but that lasted mere moments before the Alloys had opened fire with their energy weapons. The rounds from the weapons snuffed out every Praetor they touched. It didn’t matter whether they were civilian or military. The capabilities of the Alloys far outweighed the Praetors own.

The Praetor had been unprepared for the Alloy. They never imagined that other sentient life was so close by, and the discovery came at the worst of times. The Praetor were still rebuilding after a four hundred and nine year war that ended a little over three decades ago. The war had reduced their population to seven hundred and forty three million, but it is much, much smaller now. N’yur doesn’t know if the figures are still current, he severely doubts it, but the last count was that the Praetor numbered only eight hundred and one thousand.

N’yur wishes he could say that it has been a long and drawn out war, but that would be a lie. The Praetor are only a few short weeks into the conflict. The Alloys have made them suffer defeat and after demoralising defeat.

Much of Vello, the Praetor’s homeworld, has been burned to ash. The few scientists that remain assure that the damage is superficial. They hypothesise that the Alloys wish to claim and strip this world of its resources. That is why the destruction it not more substantial. N’yur doesn’t know. He isn’t a scientist. If he was then he’d be in the last secure bunker on Vello, deep under the Praetorian Chalice, the tallest building on Vello. It is referred to as the core, but it has no actual name.

The Chalice isn’t what it used to be. Once it had served as the communications hub for the Praetor from which all knowledge and data was shared. But now the tower is silent, it’s upper fifth a melted slab of steel glass. The runs of which have leaked down the side of the great tower like spilt paint down the edges of a can. The runs are rainbow coloured under the rays of the sun, but N’yur doesn’t dare look that way. He has to keep his focus.

N’yur checks over his ballistic firing bullpup rifle, the PPR-42B. He slides the magazine free of its polysynth housing to check the forty two rounds within its confines. They are ready; as they have been the other sixteen times he’s checked. It’s a nervous habit but one that benefits him. Not like other Praetor around him who run their four digited hands through the spines sprouting from their chins and above their upper lips.

N’yur’s chin spines are black, like most of his species, but he ignores them. Stroking at them instinctively will be nothing to aid what they all wait for. They know the Alloys will be coming soon. That is as sure as the sun rising to start the new day.

Thankfully none of those around him have removed their helmets, the straps of which run under their square lower jaws, to stroke at their head spines. That would spell almost certain suicide. The mechs, when they arrive, will fire at any such Praetor daring to remove their helmet first. N’yur doesn’t know how the mechs operate, but he knows they are not alive, at least not truly. From the intelligence he and the other grunts have been given they are advanced machines, similar to the Praetor’s own Virtual Intelligences, or VI’s. Except the mechs intelligences are housed in bi-pedal bodies.

Praetor VI’s are rare now. At one time they ran every system that existed on Vello, but with much of their planet in blackened ruins the VI’s too are gone. The few that remain have been repurposed for military needs. In fact, the only use for anything or anyone on Vello now is military. There are no civilians as such. Most children are dead, those old enough to fight do, and those too old had no hope of running from what came after them. If many of the young and mobile couldn’t flee the devastation that was wrought against them, then the elderly were never going to be able to. Worse still, the Alloy’s aimed for such groups once the defences were almost entirely expunged.

N’yur hates the Alloys, though he doesn’t know what they are. He, like all other Praetor’s, has never seen their true faces. He doesn’t believe the metal skins are their true forms, but he doesn’t know why he thinks that.

He takes several deep inhales and exhales. His heart is thundering loudly in his chest over which sits body armour. He has no clue why he and the others wear it; the Alloy’s weapons burn through it like it is little more than a thin piece of polysynth, similar to the kind used to construct bags for food transportation.

The world is quiet, too quiet for N’yur. He hates battle and knows that his survival thus far has been little more than luck. The same can be said for all Praetor. They are only living because the Alloy’s have not yet crushed them beneath their heavy boots.

N’yur can still remember the sight of a panicked civilian when an Alloy did just that. The Praetor are no small beings, at least by their own measures, but the Alloys tower over them by a foot.

However, no two of the Alloys appear to be the same. They are similar, sometimes even very closely so, but not identical. That had surprised N’yur when he’d seen them. He’d expected the Alloy’s themselves to be like their mechs, identical, but they weren’t. Their metal skins have variations of colour, markings and geometric shapes that make up their skins.

N’yur had tried to make the markings out once. He wondered if they held some clue, but they were too foreign, too alien, for him to comprehend. He still remembers how they look with the sudden stops and spaces seemingly running from one side to the other. He doesn’t know from which direction they are supposed to be followed however.

The scientists had tried to work out the meaning of these symbols and characters too, but alas had devised nothing. Instead, they concluded that there is no meaning to the scrawls and that they are in fact there simply to instil fear in the Praetor. N’yur has to admit they achieve such things, but he doesn’t know why as he dares to peak out over the upper edge of the barricade he is huddled low behind. The wide avenue before him is cratered and scorched. There had been a battle here before, in the early days of the war. Should he even call it a war? He doesn’t know. If he doesn’t call it a war then he has no other name for it. Slaughter! A voice in his head screams, but he quickly pushes it aside. He can’t afford to get himself into a panic. He’s here to do a job, even if it costs him his life, which it more than likely will.

“What’s taking so long?” A Praetor to the right of N’yur asks worried.

N’yur doesn’t answer. He doesn’t have an answer and has no clue if he is expected to. He doesn’t know the Praetor’s name. None of his fellow countrymen take note of names anymore. Most don’t live longer enough for introductions to be delivered, let alone remembered. That saddens N’yur. He can remember when Praetor called to each other in the streets as a greeting. Those days are long gone. All that’s left is death. N’yur hopes whatever the plan here is works. Their numbers are becoming too small for them to continue this fight for much longer and wonders if and when he’ll be told what the plan is. He doesn’t know if there is a plan, he just hopes there is.

“Hold your tongue.” Another voice roars. N’yur doesn’t know from where it has come. Not that it matters much as his black acute triangular eyes scan the rubble and debris that used to be downtown Aesur.

The city used to be a shining beacon of what the Praetor could achieve now that the long war had finally come to an end on their world. It had taken them decades to make the capital into such a beacon of hope and now all but the very centre of the city lay in ruins.

Had the Alloys known that the Praetor had only recently come out of war? N’yur doesn’t know, but the timing seems otherwise too coincidental.

“Movement.” A new third voice calls.

N’yur has already seen it. His eyes narrow as he braces for the worst. He shouldn’t really be peering over the upper edge of the barricade as he might get his head shot off, but he has to know what is coming. However, all he can see is a murky shadow. The shape looks wrong and he decides it can’t be an Alloy. Though, as soon as he decides this a beam of red energy flashes forward from the opposite side of the wide avenue. N’yur ducks instinctively back behind cover. The bolt of energy splashes against an emplacement, melting the surface of the steel shell barricade. The drips run for a few seconds before cooling and solidifying. The barricade continues to hold.

N’yur’s heart jumps into his mouth. His hearing is dulled by the deafening pump, pump, pump of his heart as he covers his mouth with his hand. He doesn’t know why he does it; it is simply an instinctive reaction.

“Drone.” Someone calls before daring to stick their head out and fire a single shot in the direction of the small floating machine, with a single red eye mounted into the centre of their otherwise hexagonal frame.

“No, don’t, they’ll…” A voice orders too late as the single shot is fired off.

The steel shell bullet slams into the centre of the red eye, which detonates as though it is made of steel glass. N’yur doesn’t know what it’s made of, but he doesn’t dare to look. This is what the Alloys want. Someone always loses their nerve and fires. He doubts they need the information, the Alloys know they are here, but it gives them a mark for their first target. Whoever fired will be the first to die, of that there can be no doubt.

“It’s down. I got it.” The young voice says with bravado. A wide smile plastered across the young Praetor’s otherwise long rectangular face as he dares to rise to his full height, so everyone can congratulate him on his achievement.

N’yur simply shakes his head. He’s survived this ‘war’ long enough to know the foolishness of the youths actions.

“Get down you fool!” An older sounding Praetor shouts from the far side of the defensive line.

“Why? There’s nothing else here.” The youth announces proudly in the moments before a single thin sliver of red energy burns through his left eye. The youth never makes a sound, but his body does as it flops to the floor with a low thud. There is a smile still carved across his face, which is forever frozen in the moment. N’yur shakes his head again, having dared to look at the still body of the youth. He would have thought his people would be wiser after what they have seen, but it strikes him that perhaps they simply cannot fathom the severity of what is happening until it is experienced. Is that a failing? He wonders. Is that why we are on the brink of utter defeat? He can’t say.

“Mechs!” A loud voice calls suddenly. The cry brings N’yur back to the present. He dares to peek over the barricade, but only for the briefest of moments before ducking low once more.

The caller is right; there are mechs, but no Alloys. N’yur doesn’t know what to make of that as he closes his eyes and listens for a moment. The mechs open fire, but the Praetor don’t. Instead, they stay nestled behind cover. The energy bolts of the mechs weapons splash harmlessly, burning the surface of the thick hardened metal. If only they could wear the steel shell, N’yur thinks as he tastes the carbon dioxide in the air. Three percent of the atmosphere, he recalls as he thinks back to his days at school. That had been so long ago, a little over a decade, but some of the data that had been drilled into him remains. It surprises him that such things bring him comfort now as a distinctive hum begins to ripple through his ears holes.

N’yur dares to take another look. This time round the edge of the barricade he is behind.

The Praetor defensive line isn’t solid or unbroken. The Praetor simply don’t have the resources for such things anymore. Instead, they are chunks of steel shell bolted to the avenue to keep them in place. This is, after all, one of five defensive lines around the base of the Chalice.

N’yur sees the blue column of light reaching from the deep heavens above that intersects with the wide avenue a little ahead of the mechs. His heart sinks at the sight of just the blue column of light, but when he sees the four Alloys and another dozen mechs he feels it shrink in his chest cavity. He knows that isn’t possible, but it’s the only way he can describe it.

“Hold the line!” The order goes out.

N’yur tightens his grip on his PPR-42B. Eleven magazines, he reminds himself. It isn’t much. Not when an Alloy can take all four hundred and sixty two of those rounds without suffering so much as a pause.

You also have your HHSA-4 handgun on your hip. That holds nine rounds per magazine and you have four of those. But N’yur doesn’t care about the number of bullets he has. It still won’t be enough to stop the Alloys. He wonders if this is the last stand. They certainly can’t beat the alien invaders, but can they slow them down? He doesn’t think so. He is only fighting because it’s better than hiding and waiting to die. The Alloys don’t care either way, but for N’yur, he thinks it is better he fight. At least in death he will be able to say he tried, even if he doesn’t believe there is a hope. At least not from what he’s seen and heard.

The call to open fire on the Alloys and mechs hasn’t come yet. The commander is waiting for them to get closer. The Alloys weapons have a greater effective range than those of the Praetor. But no one knows why they don’t simply incinerate what remains of Aesur like they have the rest of Vello.

“Ready.” The commander calls with his eyes unblinking as he prepares to give the order to fire. But the order never comes as a single lance of red energy takes off his head at the neck. The cauterized neck stump and the head attached topple to the ground, bounce twice and then spin in multiple circles while the body lies motionless next to it. There is no blood and there is no order to fire.

Several of the Praetor go into a panic. They had been sure that they were the ones with the advantage, but as has been proved each and every step of the way, they are not.

“Commander is down. Repeat commander is down. Medic!” A terrified voice calls.

N’yur has seen this before. The Alloys know who leads their detachments and defensive lines, so they target them early on. The commander should have given the order sooner, but it’s too late to tread the past now. What’s done is done. N’yur has to make a decision, but he doesn’t want to. Every fibre of his being is screaming at him to stay down, stay behind cover and beg for survival. But he can’t do that. If he does several hundred of his fellow Praetor will die. He can’t be an aid to his own people’s destruction, so he stands. There is a lump in his throat, but he swallows hard and summons the courage to speak.

“FIRE!” N’yur roars with authority.

The Praetor around him are too terrified to question the sudden order. Rationality is gone, as is the truth that their commander is dead. The chain of command, which barely exists at the best of times, has crumbled and that means that the Praetor simply comply with the order as they open fire.

N’yur drops back down, narrowly avoiding a lance of red energy meant for his torso. He whistles a sigh of relief as he peeks up and fires off bursts of his PPR-42B. The four round bursts explode from the wide muzzle of his weapon with yellow flashes. The bullets are on target, but do nothing to the Alloy that they slam into. In fact, it is almost as thought he never fired them at all. Any other target would have been felled, but not these. Even the mechs take only a half impact after a burst is delivered to their spindly bipedal forms.

The mechs resemble the Alloys closely. Both are bipedal with two arms and five digits on either hand. Except the mechs have much thinner and more skeletal forms than those of their masters, who are hulking giants with wide shoulders. Not as wide as Praetor, but wide enough. However, the Alloys heads, unlike the Praetor, are in perfect proportion to their bodies. The Praetor on the other hand are wide shouldered with incredible muscle mass around the upper torso, but with very small waists that widen once again around their upper legs. Plus, the Alloys walk on their entire foot, while the Praetor walk on the front section of their four toed feet. It gives the Praetor a boost in height, but still they fall short of the Alloys.

“Commander. Commander!” A voice calls, somehow audible over the cacophony of Praetor weapons fire.

The Alloys weapons make little sound apart from a low whoosh, almost like the bolts are being fired by gas. N’yur knows they are not and that the sound is simply the displacement of the air around the bolt as it is fired from the sleek looking weapons.

“Where is the commander?” The voice calls now that it is among the Praetor proper.

N’yur looks round to see the man issuing the question is a young Praetor. He has no rank. Technically none of them have a rank. Some are simply deemed commanders so that orders can be dictated. Not that such things help.

“He’d dead.” N’yur replies bluntly. The young Praetor, clearly a messenger of some form, having caught N’yur’s eyes. N’yur had wished he’d been able to rise back out of cover to fire, but several of the mechs are lacing his position with energy bolts. The Alloys have singled N’yur out as commander. They’re wrong, but he understands why they would have reached such a conclusion.

“Then who’s in command?” The messenger asks with wide eyes as he clings to his own HHSA-4.

By the looks of things the young Praetor has never fired a weapon in his life. He holds the grip of the weapon too tight in the lower sections and not tight enough around the trigger guard. It doesn’t surprise N’yur, but if the messenger fires off a shot he’ll be hit in the face by the weapon. The recoil on the HHSA-4 handguns is substantial.

The weapons had been in trials when the Alloys had descended upon Vello. The trials hadn’t been going well and the weapon was days away from being ejected as a candidate due in part to its substantial recoil. Recoil that is caused by the oversized calibre of the rounds it fires. But the decision was reversed when the war began. Larger calibre weapons, having previously been deemed pointless, were now the best chance the Praetor had at downing the mechs. Not the Alloys that led them though. Nothing seemed to down them.

N’yur wonders if the Alloys own weapons could stop them, but doubts anyone has gotten close enough to their enemy alive to find out. The invaders are certainly ruthless, he thinks as he stares at the messenger.

“No one.” N’yur offers honestly. He has no intention of revealing that he gave the order to open fire in the wake of the commanders’ death. He fears what such a revelation might land at his feet.

“Core needs all commanders off the battlefield.” The messenger advises as several more Praetor go down.

N’yur curses before looking around to find that nearly half of the Praetor here are dead or dying. At which point N’yur curses again, while what medics the defensive line does have try and patch the wounded up. He knows the wounded are already dead, going off the wounds he can see, but he understands why the medics are trying. They need as many to hold the line as they can, even if some of them won’t last more than a few moments more.

This isn’t the kind of war we’re used to; N’yur thinks as he sighs long and hard in the moments before he looks up to see the messenger still staring at him. The young Praetor clearly is expecting an answer, but N’yur hasn’t got one for him.

Then one of the barricades explodes into a fountain of energy. N’yur, the messenger and all the other Praetor’s around him drop so they are lying on their stomachs now. N’yur curses. He’d been expecting a heavy cannon, but had hoped it would not come. It had been a stupid hope, he knows, but a hope nonetheless. The muted noises of the defensive line flooding back in with a sudden rush to a near deafening volume.

Screams tear at N’yur from left and right. Appendages are missing; dark blue blood is strewn about the area. Weapons are melted and scorched. Some are even fused with the remains of their wielders.

N’yur casts his eyes around at the carnage. This position is lost. It is clear that the Alloys are mounting their final assault.

“Four more Alloys!” Someone screams moments before they are cut in half by a bolt of energy.

N’yur closes his eyes after catching sight of the two halves of the body, upper and lower, crash to the floor. There is no blood from this cauterised wound fired by one of the mechs. The masters’ weapons never cauterise, while the mechs that serve them do. It’s like the Alloys thirst for blood, revel in it. It sickens N’yur as one of his four digited hands covers his thin mouth. He swallows the vomit that threatens to eject so violently from his body. The smell is revolting. He still hasn’t gotten used to it even after all the bodies and death he has experienced in the last few weeks.

“Orders!” One of the medics cries while still trying to patch up a near dead colleague.

“We have to retreat.” Someone shouts loudly unwilling or unable to make the cry an order.

N’yur sighs as he opens his triangular eyes to let the light of his homeworld and its green sun back in. N’yur can still remember the fields of purple trees and golden flowers that he had walked among in his days as a child visiting his grandparents’ farm. They died before the Alloys arrived and for that he is relieved. His parents hadn’t been so lucky. Their bodies lay somewhere under the rubble of Aesur. In the mounds beyond the defensive line that rings the Chalice so haphazardly.

“You have to give the order.” Someone announces looking at N’yur who turns to find it was the Praetor that had been at his side. He’s missing an arm now and there is a gash in his neck as he stares at N’yur. Both wounds are cauterised. N’yur notes that his fellow Praetor is fortunate, in that respect only.

N’yur regrets giving the order to fire initially. It had not been his order to give, but he had seen no other choice at the time and then he remembers what the messenger said.

“Why does core need the commanders off the battlefield?” N’yur questions after having turned his attention to the messenger who gulps loudly in response to the question. He keeps his gaze diverted as he considers whether to inform this Praetor in front of him. Some of those nearby are still in cover as well and would also hear him, while others have returned to trying, hopelessly, to keep the advancing Alloys at bay.

The Alloys however advance with no hurry. They simply plod forward at a steady pace, their mechs around them to lend additional weapons fire. The mechs aren’t needed, but they help send a statement of superiority.

“Speak messenger. What is it that you know?” N’yur then snarls. He has no patience and time is short.

“Are you the commander?” The messenger asks purposefully. N’yur gets the intent of the question and nods slowly. The messenger casts his glance to the Praetor around them, who all nod in confirmation as well. N’yur doesn’t like the confirmation from himself or those around him, but there is no other option.

“Core wants commanders off the battlefield for a last ditch attempt. They intend to strike at the heart of the Alloys.” The messenger advises.

“Strike at the heart of the Alloys? They don’t have a heart. This is our world!” One of the Praetor roars between bursts of his weapon, which suddenly he finds is spent of ammunition.

N’yur tosses the Praetor his own PPR-42B which elicits a nod of thanks before the man leaps up from cover again to spray off several bursts. Many of those that do remain do much the same until they are claimed by a bolt of energy or forced back into cover.

“You mean their ship?” N’yur offers.

His question statement draws inward breathes of shock as all eyes, now back in cover, turn toward N’yur and the messenger. None of those still breathing can imagine N’yur is right, but the messenger nods in the affirmative.

“How?” N’yur growls.

“I don’t know.” The messenger replies honestly.

“I wish just sent to gather the commander of the East defensive line.” The young Praetor then adds looking nervous.

“And what about the rest of the Praetor on the line? What are their orders?” N’yur asks with a snarl.

“The orders are the same, to hold the line against the Alloys.” The messenger admits.

“That’s suicide. Everyone here will die.” N’yur spits in astonishment.

“Those are the orders from the core. Now we have to go. There isn’t much time.” The messenger announces.

“I’m not leaving these men and women to die.” N’yur assures.

“You have to. What other choice is there?” The messenger replies sounding colder than he expected as the energy bolts continue to lash the barricades they are hidden behind.

Several of the barricades are little more than molten slag and the Alloys and their mechs are close now. The messenger might know that this claimed commander is right, but there isn’t a choice. Orders are orders. Everyone cannot be saved. Sacrifices have to be made to keep the Alloys busy. From his understanding there is a window; a very narrow window that the scientists are sure won’t be open for long. The longer they delay here the less likely it is that the final shot the Praetor have at gaining a victory will be open.

“We fall back.” N’yur fires back. He’s seen too many Praetor lose their lives and as ‘commander’ it is his decision. The messenger can be nothing to stop him.

“That’ll leave the Chalice unguarded along the East flank.” The messenger remarks in surprise. His eyes are wide as another of his species is defeated by the superior weapons of the Alloys and their servants. He can barely stand the smell, but it is the sight of the carnage that gets him most. His normally dark brown skin is paler than it would normally be and the messenger is pleased that food is short. If he had a full stomach he would have lost it to the avenue surfacing below him.

“We could post up under cover of the Chalice. We can still hold the line from there.” A Praetor argues as he strokes his blonde chin spines. He has an eye missing, but is otherwise in good health. The wound isn’t fresh, but the Praetor, R’liss, still remembers the day it happened. Shrapnel from an explosion took it when he’d been sprinting for cover. He’d been sure he’d die out in the avenues of Epur, but somehow he had survived. Thousands of other Praetor had not been so lucky when the Alloys came.

“Name?” N’yur queries for no other reason than so he can give command to this still rationally thinking Praetor. N’yur guesses this male is of a similar age to himself.

“R’liss.” The Praetor responds.

“You’re in charge now R’liss. Do as you see fit.” N’yur orders with a curt nod. He doesn’t know why but he feels that if he doesn’t appoint the man with the blonde chin spines as his replacement then all hell will break loose and the defensive line will fold. The Praetor can’t afford for it to fold, at least not yet.

There is a good chance none of them will survive, N’yur knows that, but he sees no reason to leave them in the open to be slaughtered. The Chalice and its overhang will aid in defence and he hopes R’liss will prove a competent commander. He expects he will, but he’s been wrong many times during his life. He hopes this is not one of those times.

 “Messenger, take me to the core.” N’yur then orders.

At first the messenger hesitates. He simply blinks. He can barely believe that these Praetor are deciding their fates without consent of the core, but he understands it. Even if he didn’t, this is not his mission. He knows that and finally nods. It’s instinctive and N’yur wastes no time in ushering him to lead the way, while R’liss calls the remaining Praetor, all forty of the once seven hundred fifty, to rally around him as he relays his orders as quickly as possible. Their position continuing to be lashed with energy bolts and explosions that make them huddle even lower to the shattered surface of the once black avenue surface that surrounds them. There are bodies everywhere and R’liss calls for even the medics to take up arms. It isn’t the norm, but nothing about this time can be considered normal. He and the remaining Praetor will have to buy as much time as they can for the commanders and whatever plan they have for assaulting the Alloys ship that looms somewhere high above them in orbit.

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