We continued to fly eastwards, buffeted by the gusting headwind. I’d already slipped my hand into Casey’s as she sat alongside me, her fingers firmly wrapped around mine. The network coverage was still atrocious and I was waiting for the message I’d just typed out to send.
The racket inside the passenger cabin of the helicopter had started to frustrate me, and I had to fight the urge to just pull my earbuds from my pocket to try to block it all out. I knew that I’d left them in one of my inside jacket pockets, but the harness was the only thing keeping me from bouncing around right now, given the turbulence.
As if to validate my concerns, my world suddenly tilted to my right, angling us forwards to a much sharper degree. Aircrew guy sitting opposite me held a hand to the side of his helmet to hear something that was being said in his earpieces a bit more clearly.
I guess something was going on. Maybe they’d found out about the stepped-up schedule?
Our sudden drop in altitude caused the pressure in the cabin to spike, making my ears feel like they were threatening to implode. Thankfully, Muse helped me with the pain while I swallowed to try to bring it all back to equilibrium.
‘I find the limitations caused by your physiology, despite technological advancements, of interest to me,’ she admitted, sounding guilty.
We carried on this way for another fifteen minutes. I only knew because I’d started a timer not long after Rish gave us his initial ETA. There was just around an hour before he expected the impacts to begin.
Beyond the window opposite, I could see the countryside giving way to civilization, with low houses and even some concrete buildings replacing the scenes of thick forest and farmland. The trees that I could see were going crazy, swaying back and forth as the gusts heaved them around.
There was a buzzing in my hands as another message came in. I’d asked Rishaan whether he had any new information on what we could expect coming our way and he’d sent me several image files.
The resolution wasn’t great and the pictures were grainy, but from what I could tell the incoming object had split into about two dozen smaller splinters, with a single larger mass behind them. From a different angle, the splinters looked like long, thin shards of metal – all aimed straight towards the glowing blue, green, and white mass of Earth. A sense of scale was difficult to really achieve from this distance, but some notes that had been scrawled on another of the images were telling me that each small shard was over fifty metres in length.
Finally, the last picture was focussed on the more spherical object at the back. It was suspended in the starless blackness of space, surrounded by what remained of the layer of regolith that had accumulated around it. The form of the object reminded me of a sleeping spider, with its appendages all held tight to a central body. Any more detail than that was impossible to make out.
Casey had leaned over as much as she could to study the images with me. We’d already discussed how neither of us felt particularly comfortable about facing down the threat that was coming – but I was feeling even less happy now I knew what it looked like.
Jacques was buckled in a bit further along from us, on the same bank of seats. He had his eyes closed, but I had no idea how he was managing to sleep at a time like this. Casey was closer to him, so I tapped her thigh, pointed, and then waggled my phone in the air.
He opened his eyes when she tapped him with the device, but he accepted it and tried to focus his eyes on the screen – that took him several moments. His attention lingered on each image for a good while, his fingers only touching the screen when he wanted to change the zoom level or move onto the next. I was straining forwards to catch sight of his expression, but all I could make out was his jaw hardening into determination.
We began to slow, the deceleration of our approach pulling us slightly to the left in our seats while the pilot lowered us even closer to the ground. We hovered there for a time, the frame of the aircraft rocking and bowing in the wind only a few meters from touching down. It must have taken the pilot nearly a minute to feel comfortable enough to land. We made contact with the ground with a firm thump.
The whine of the engine died immediately, and we all unclipped our harnesses. A figure outside approached the door of the helicopter, ducking low as they slid it open to avoid the rotors flexing in the wind. My ears were already much happier that their incessant thrumming was gone. Even though we’d landed, the whole vehicle was still swaying in the gale outside.
I managed to get my phone back from Jacques as we were disembarking, and I had to use my hand to keep my hair from whipping into my face.
Yep, this dumb girl had forgotten to put her hair up again after lunch.
It looked like we’d landed in the grounds of a hospital of some kind, with the dark grey buildings nearby whispering their promise of shelter from the elements.
The aircrew and the figure that had come to greet us were shouting things at each other, though I got the impression that it was so they could be heard over the blasting wind rather than from a disagreement. I wasn’t sure if they could really hear what the other was saying, but we were ultimately all led towards one of the nearby entrances.
Once we were finally inside, I was able to brush my hair out of the way of my eyes and released a sigh. We’d been taken to a large atrium of a reception area, but aside from a few other civilians, the members of our group were the only people present.
A nurse had been watching us as we arrived and she stepped over, smiling politely. When she spoke, it was with the sing-song of a local Swedish accent – or at least it sounded that way to me.
“Most other people have left,” the woman began to tell us, “but not all. We have tried to move them down to the basement, but we would be happy for your help.”
They had a basement here? That was a good sign.
“We need to get everyone down there to safety. There’s less than an hour until we really don’t want to be above ground,” I called out to her, but she simply nodded curtly.
“The news has been keeping us informed, but thank you, miss.”
We exchanged smiles, and then I turned to find Casey, flashing her a relieved smile and opening my arms up to her for a hug. She pulled me in close, although my rucksack was getting in the way of her completely enveloping me.
The nurse led us further inside the hospital building, into a corridor protected by a pair of swinging doors, and then down a dark, brick stairwell. The basement must have been two or three storeys underground, so I was starting to understand why they might be struggling to move people.
It looked like all of the cleaning and maintenance areas were down here, out of the way. We passed by several large bins filled with clothing, plus storage areas for unused equipment.
Casey and I glanced at each other as we followed behind our guide, the distinctive sound of an acoustic guitar carrying on the air.
“Well, at least there are others here,” she said, fixing me with one of her confident smiles.
We passed through a set of propped open doors, entering a more open space that looked like it had previously been used for storing medical equipment. Now, most of that had either been pushed outside or was ready to be used as a barricade for the doors. Groups of people were huddled together, with blankets and pillows strewn about the hard, concrete flooring as makeshift beds and seating.
There must have been thirty or forty people in a room about the size of a basketball court.
One corner of the room was being used to store food and water – they must have been raiding the kitchens from above and moving as much of it down as they could. Some hospital beds had been moved into alcoves along the edge, the spaces surrounded by plastic sheeting to give their occupants a little privacy and protection from the rest of the group.
It felt like there was some actual leadership keeping things calm and orderly. Considering where I came from, that was a novel concept.
In another corner, a blond-haired young man was sitting on a chair, strumming away at a guitar while it rested on his knee. A few hospital staff dressed in scrubs were watching him, entranced by his ability. Even I had to admit that he seemed incredibly skilled, especially once he started singing along in perfect pitch.
‘Hmmm,’ Muse uttered, agitated.
When I glanced at Casey to gauge her reaction, I noticed that she was squinting at him. What had Hunter told her? Nicole and Jacques came to stand alongside us, and they looked as taken in by his playing as everybody else did.
The sound of yelling pulled us from our silent worship of the guitar-playing Scandinavian, as more hospital staff burst into the room. They were pulling a hospital bed behind them, and calling for others to help clear space. Jacques and Nicole actually wandered over to assist, despite having just been through a serious car wreck about two hours ago.
Personally, I still felt light-headed enough that I wanted to sit down, but we needed to do whatever we could to make sure these people were safe. We left our bags behind and followed the medical staffers to offer our help, too.
When I checked, the clock on my phone told me that we still had around forty-five minutes before we were out of time. Casey and I spent half an hour of that making sure that all the patients had been moved carefully downstairs via the lifts.
As mentioned before by the nurse, these were the people that couldn’t be evacuated easily. Whether that was because the equipment they needed was too bulky for easy transportation, or they’d just been through major surgery.
In the meantime, the doors into our safe room below had been fortified with pieces of defunct heavy medical equipment, but with just enough space left to allow us to slip through with beds and life support machinery. The thought of doing what I could to heal these people had crossed my mind as we’d moved them, but it was far too draining and we didn’t have enough time right now.
As we finished with the last patient, the doors were closed, bolted, and fortified behind us and I took the opportunity to check my phone. It indicated that we still had ten minutes left but there would likely be a margin of error here. I tapped out a message to Rish, waiting to see that it was sent before releasing a pent up sigh.
Me: Wish us luck
Casey pulled me to her, wrapping me up in her arms and placing tender kisses on my forehead. I smiled, closing my eyes as I enjoyed her attention.
The pale white lights around us flickered and died, tipping us briefly into darkness. I was wondering if Rish had miscalculated how long we had, but the growl of distant thunder reached us several seconds later. The illumination returned with a whine, but now dimmer than it had been before.
“I guess we should get with the others,” she quietly growled, her fingers playing with the hair at the nape of my neck.
“Yeah…” I breathed back but made no attempt to move.
We stared into each other’s glowing eyes, and my heart surged with affection. I was moments away from leaning forwards for a passionate kiss when I heard someone clear their throat nearby.
Both of us grumbled quietly at the interruption, turning our heads in unison to look at who had disturbed our intimate moment.
The talented young guitar player that had left everyone enraptured was leaning against the wall about five meters away, watching us with an amused smile.
“Sorry to interrupt, ladies, but I think we need to talk,” he called out. That accent was undeniably Swedish.
I blinked, then narrowed my eyes at him. What was this guy’s deal?
“Yes?” I asked him impatiently, Casey’s arms still holding me firmly around the waist.
He broke into laughter, his eyes flickering between the two of us, “Well, you see, my friend was wondering when you would be finished with his sister.”
- Casey -
What did he mean? Whose sister?
Erin and I exchanged a glance, though her expression betrayed an emotion other than my confusion – she was intrigued.
There was another rumble of thunder in the distance – this one sounded like a much nearer lightning strike. Erin’s eyes glowed brightly as her symbiote fed from the energy the surge of electricity had created. When we both looked back at the musician, I noticed that he was doing the same – in the lightning’s wake, his eyes were also glowing a soft gold.
‘Apollo,’ Hunter told me, their voice in my head filled with rare emotion.
Did they know each other?
I gave Erin one last squeeze – my poor girl was looking so tired – and then gently released her from my arms.
“You can call me Sebastian, and my friend is Harper. But he tells me that he once went by a different name,” the guy replied, pushing away from the wall.
“Casey and Hunter,” I replied, folding my arms protectively across my chest. Something about all this was making me uncomfortable.
“A pleasure to meet you, though he tells me that Hunter also had a different name,” he continued on, stepping a little closer but still looking at me. “They were twins, or so the myths say.”
‘I was not expecting him to be here, Casey,’ Hunter whispered in my mind. They were suddenly much more meek-sounding than I’d ever known them to be. ‘Familial relationships are different for our species, but the closest term you may have for it is a twin. We came from the same seeding.’
My mind was reeling from this new information, but an understanding was also beginning to bloom in the deep recesses of my consciousness.
“Hunter tells me the same,” I replied back, my fingers flexing nervously.
Sebastian’s eyebrows lifted – he was curious to know more – but he’d also started to whisper a few words to himself. I couldn’t hear what they were, but I remembered talking to myself like that before Hunter and I had bonded fully.
Then his gaze spun to Erin, his head angling to one side out of piqued curiosity. Playfulness was pulling at the corners of his lips as he spoke, “He says that it has been a long time, but he is not surprised to see you here, o Goddess of War.”
- Erin -
I was about to say something to Sebastian when my phone started to buzz and beep in my pocket. The pockets on these jackets weren’t always terribly useful and there was a little fumbling as I extracted it, only to see that our timer had reached zero.
His eyes went wide, and he urgently beckoned for me to follow him back into the room with the others, “Come. Hephy sent us something to give to you.”
The atmosphere back in the safe room was one of fear and apprehension. Some people were trying to read the news on their phones, while others were giving soothing reassurances to the patients that were conscious. Sebastian tried to bring some cheerfulness to those he passed – giving them pats on the shoulder or sharing in a joke – but we gradually made our way to his corner where he’d left his guitar.
A duffel bag was tucked underneath an old ventilator, which Sebastian effortlessly pulled out onto the floor near us.
“He… she...? They both said that this would only work for you,” he said, pulling a metal case out of the bag and offering it over to me. The box was about the size of a basketball and was secured by a clasp, though it didn’t seem to be locked.
It was at that moment that everything changed. The first clue we had that a shard had impacted the ground was a jolting wave of rattling and clattering that reverberated through the floors and walls – exactly what I’d expect an earthquake to feel like. The others in the room started to raise their voices but Sebastian stepped forwards, calming them with both his presence and his words.
‘You may want to hurry here, Erin,’ Muse told me, her voice betraying a sense of urgency.
Right, I should keep going.
Blocking out what was happening around me, my fingers flicked the clasp up, allowing me to open the lid of the box and peer within. Nestled inside a recess of black foam was some kind of device made of greyish metal. At face value, it was just an oval plate, a few centimeters thick, and about the length of my forearm. Its edges had been rounded and smoothed, and I could make out some kind of strap attached to the bottom.
As I was reaching out to lift it free of the container, the deafening growl of an impact passed overhead, closely followed by the roaring howl of seething overpressure. I heard every window in the hospital above shatter in the same instant, accompanied by yet more vibrations in the ground around us.
Whatever that had been, it thankfully hadn’t landed on top of us, but likely a few tens of kilometres away at the very least. Still, from the images that I’d seen from Rish there could be a whole bunch more on their way. Nothing about what they were doing suggested to me what their goal was, except to cause a hell of a lot of damage.
‘Apollo’s presence here is giving me some possible insight into this attack,’ Muse told me. ‘That, combined with the closely timed arrival of our own landings, indicates that they may have detected his arrival.’
Which would make this some kind of attempt to kill him?
Oh, Goddess. Then what about the other impact zone?
The metallic plate was weighty and reassuringly sturdy when I picked it out of the box. Its twin straps dangled just beneath it, formed from interlocking plates of the same greyish metal. Some anxiety began to form in my stomach as I realised that I wasn’t sure what it was for or how to use it.
I knew that in retrospect if the situation hadn’t called for such drastic measures, I would have been a lot more cautious about touching an alien artifact. But everything had become... complicated.
‘Place it over your left forearm,’ Muse instructed.
The building around us shook again, although it wasn’t as violent as the first time. People around the room cowered and whined, and held onto each other, but we were getting a few inquisitive glances from the likes of Jacques and Nicole.
I pulled back the sleeve of my jacket, revealing my thin, pale forearm and gingerly pressed the cold metal against my bare skin.
The instant it made contact, I felt an immediate sense of inner connection with it. All at once it lit up with Muse’s characteristic golden glow and fastened itself securely to my arm. The strap links slid together, tightening their grip on me at the wrist and just before the elbow.
Casey was staring in amazement, while Sebastian’s mouth dropped open in awe. I guess he hadn’t known what would happen any more than I had.
I tried moving my arm around with the extra weight, finding that it threw me off a little, but it was tolerable. Now I just needed to know what the hell it does.
‘It is an ancient design, created by who you might call my father. Now, ready yourself because you are about to need it.’
More vibrations passed through the floor and ceiling, causing small flakes of dust to come free.