Traw blinked himself awake. It was not yet morning. Louise was asleep beside him, facing away and wrapped up in a scratchy blanket. Knowing he had a long day of work ahead of him, Traw slumped himself out of bed, his feet thumping against the hardwood floor. He scratched his hair with short, stubby fingernails and walked over to his closet in the dark. After dressing himself in the same outfit he always wore, as he had not much of an option, he walked to the doorway of his daughter's room, just across the hallway.
There lay Luella, safer than any gold stash or security code. She was fairer than the greatest display of thriving wilderness or any majestic goddess. She was more serene than the furthest void of lifeless space or the deepest trench of an ocean. As it was in the eyes of her father. He gazed at her as any father would, his boots hardy and his rifle loaded. “Ain't nobody gonna hurt you, darlin',” Sebastian whispered before descending the stairs.
He rode his speeder along the twelve-mile stretch of the perimeter, making sure his fences were still intact. As he rode, a display flashed on the digital interior of his mask. A chirping noise rang in his earpiece. “Answer,” he commanded through the veil of his mask.
“Hey, Sebastian,” a raspy voice greeted.
“Hey, Carl,” Sebastian answered, his tone sore. “What are you callin' for? It ain't even six yet.”
“Well, you know that invasion thing everyone's been talking about?”
“Yeah, that paranoid fiasco. What of it?
“I'm in the city right now, and they've cut the supply cost in half. The GAM is practically giving this stuff away. You'd better come down this way soon, or they're gonna run out!”
“Carl, I ain't buyin' into that BS. They're just tryin' to scam y'all. Wait and see. In a few days, y'all are gonna be comin' outta your bunkers like idiots, wondering where all this invasion's goin' on.”
“Sebastian, I'm tryin' to help you out! You don't want to be caught off guard when the Nektro come, trust me. Some of these downtown officials are saying that they could be here by tonight. Isn't that a scary thought?”
Sebastian rarely heard Carl that stressed: he was generally a laid-back man. Determined in his position, he replied, “You know I couldn't care less what happens to the city. They're a bunch of prissed-up fools. Besides, what Nektro platoon's gonna come all the way out to my homestead? I'm just gonna wait it out here, if this whole thing even goes down.”
“Your loss, man. I'll try to come and get you some food and medicine, maybe some ammo...but no guarantees. But hey, there's a good part to all this: we don't have so many of those pirate bastards attacking us anymore. I was talking to a mountain ranger and he said those reptiles all scurried north toward the mountains until this whole invasion riff-raff blows over. Apparently a bunch in this region got blown to hell yesterday, too.”
“That was me.”
“I killed 'em all. Used one of them drone things you gave me. It stuck to the hull of one of their ships and blew 'em all to hell.”
“Why'd you do that? They weren't near your house, and I know, your family got attacked a little while ago, but still, that doesn't mean you should go after them and...and...kill them all like that!”
“I had to, Carl. You don't understand. 'Cause I killed a bunch of his men that one time, their leader threatened to kill me, take my cattle, rape my family, and...you know I couldn't let that happen. Given the choice between stepping aside and tearing apart every one of them, I'd choose the latter. And I say any man who doesn't should be branded a coward.”
“I still don't like the whole thing. The Sebastian Traw I once knew would at least hesitate before killing a man, let alone two dozen of them.”
“The Sebastian Traw you used to know didn't have a farm and family to defend.”
“Or he just had more of a heart inside that ribcage.”
Before Sebastian could retort, Carl severed the transmission.
After making his rounds on the land, Traw stepped through the back door to the homestead, welcomed by his daughter's cry of excitement, nearly spilling her glass of milk. “There's my prized piggy,” he exclaimed, crouching so he was level with his daughter as she embraced him. “How'd you sleep?”
“That's good to hear. You ready for a big day at school?”
“Yup. Mrs. Corgiton is bringing in a turtle today for science.”
“Wow. You ain't seen a turtle before, have you?”
“Nope. I heard they have wings.”
“Well that would be interesting, I suppose.”
Sebastian walked into the kitchen, where Louise was washing the dishes from breakfast. “Hey, hon,” he greeted, kissing her on the cheek. She made no reply.
“Somethin' wrong?” he asked, leaning against the opposite counter.
She paused, collecting her thoughts. “Sebastian...I don't think Luella should go to school today. I've been hearin' all that ruckus about the invasion. I wouldn't want to be separated from her if it does happen.”
Sebastian rolled his eyes, rubbing his hand along his brow. “She'll be fine, Louise,” he assured. “It seems everyone's so hyped up about the whole thing. I think it's a bunch of--”
Louise snapped her finger and pointed to Luella, cutting him off. “Sorry,” he murmured in apology. “I'll take Luella there in a few minutes, once I get somethin' in my stomach.”
“No use,” Louise corrected. They both heard the low rumbling of the school's transport vehicle, followed by an abrupt honk.
“Bye!” Luella shouted, running out the front door with her bag strapped to her back. The door slammed shut behind her, nearly rattling the whole house.
“Gotta fix up this place one of these days,” he grumbled, grabbing the leftover eggs and milk.
A hearty breakfast in his stomach, Sebastian set out to accomplish his daily tasks on the Traw estate: property he inherited at the age of seventeen and had been keeping up for the past fourteen years, twelve of which he spent with his wife helping him.
The orange sun burning dusk's light with every passing second, Traw made his final rounds at the perimeter, to ensure that his fences were secure. If the fences broke down, there was no telling what could enter his property.
A distinct tone rang in his earpiece. It was the homestead's phone. “Yeah, Louise?” he asked, answering the call.
“Get Luella,” she replied, somewhat out of breath.
“Just go get her from school as fast as you can. Can't explain.”
Without hesitation, Sebastian ended the call, turned his speeder around and punched the engines into full throttle. On the long road to the city, he had only one thing on his mind: getting Luella.
As he approached the city, the road became more and more blocked up with various freighters and cars, a few of which were running off the road and into the dirt. “What in the name of my great granddad?” Traw exclaimed. He parked his speeder in an open alley, not bothering to lock the ignition switch. He took off his mask and took a step onto the bustling sidewalk, entering the shadows of the skyscrapers looming overhead. All about him, townsfolk rushed about, most of them carrying bags of food or supply crates, all with the Galactic Armored Marines insignia branded into the cloth or metal.
Traw stood in the same spot a moment, looking about in confusion. Rarely did he enter the city, and the chaos certainly impeded his sense of direction. He stopped a man brusquely with the palm of his hand. “What's goin' on here?” he asked the man, over the general clamor and honking of car horns in the street.
“The Nektro, that's what's going on,” the man answered urgently, glancing to the sky. “They're supposed to be here in the next few hours, if not sooner.”
“Didn't the news say they wouldn't be here for at least another day?”
“Population control, I bet. They want us off guard so they don't have to keep shellin' out supplies and rations to all of us. Twenty-four million Sinoan citizens has to be a pain to take care of. I gotta get going.”
“Bullcrap,” Sebastian muttered. Budging impolitely through the panicking crowd, he made his way into the ground level lobby of one of the city's tallest skyscrapers, the butt of his rifle nudging against the turnstile door. He looked around, noting crimson carpet and brass luggage carts. It appeared to be a hotel. The lights were dimmed, a few of them flickering. The city received power transmissions from generators thirty miles in the vast desert beyond, making them easy targets. He suspected the city would soon lose power.
He shuffled up twenty-eight flights of stairs to the roof. He burst out the small door, exhausted, and the distant wind blowing against his face. He glanced about him and saw a gravel-covered rooftop with various communications poles and electrical boxes, each of them with a host of wires spreading out from their bases. He reluctantly took a moment to catch his breath.
Still panting a bit, he rushed to the ledge of the hotel roof, gazing out across the city. The schools were all packed into one division of the city, just as the legal buildings, hospitals and businesses were separated with their own. “Where are you, darlin'?” he asked out loud, anxiously scanning the cityscape for the school division. Suddenly he spied it, about two miles east of the hotel. “I'm comin'.”
Just as he was about to leave, something irked him: something he could not ignore for anything else in the world. Then, like the wind before a storm, Traw heard a great, low sound come from overhead. It was slow, like the muscles of some massive beast. Though under it there was the distinct sound of heavy engines rumbling.
Traw dared to look up. There, emerging through the clouds, was an immense Nektro warship, with four carriers accompanying it. The ships were sleek, with a greenish purple hue similar to that of a beetle's chitinous shell. Though Traw couldn't see it from his distance, on each side of the warship there were over two hundred turrets, each of them capable of turning a tank into flaming wreckage from two kilometers away. Twelve gargantuan engines roared as they blasted blue flame shortly in their wake. The carriers were smaller and smoother, with hatches running along the belly of the hull. They stuck alongside the warship not to protect it, but to be protected.
Once through the cloudline, the vessels halted. They hovered in the air ominously for what seemed like hours to Traw, as he watched anxiously. Never before had he seen ships of such magnitude. All too late, sirens blared from the emergency station halfway across the city, beneath which hundreds of citizens were gathered.
One of the carriers broke off from the group and slowly advanced toward the emergency station, its task plain as day to anyone observing. The other three began to break off from the group, spreading in different directions across the city. “Good god,” Traw exclaimed as he backed against the doorway. A shudder ran down his spine as the warship cast a deathly shadow over the city. He heard the clamor of moving vehicles sharply increase in volume and intensity upon the arrival of the Nektro.
The warship's position never changed. With the sounds of well-oiled mechanics, a long hatch opened along the hull of the warship, releasing scores of small, squat ships; or at least they looked small in comparison to their mothership. They dispersed into the city like an organized swarm, like an endless stream from the belly of the warship.
Realizing the smaller ships were landing in the streets, Traw hurried back down the stairs to take a position. There were still civilians in the city. Granted, he did not care for the city folk, but they were folk nonetheless. Overhearing Nektro cannon fire, he hustled down the stairs flight after flight, until finally he arrived at the 22nd floor, a place at which he was sure to be secure. Sebastian kicked open the door to the hallway, his rifle at the ready. There wasn't a soul in sight.
Picking a random suite, he kicked in the door to one of the rooms that faced the street. It was desolate, and the previous guests had evidently left in a rush. Traw unstrapped the rifle from across his back and cracked the window open. Nestling himself into the empty suite, he took aim toward the main street, where the dropships landed barely a minute before. Out of their back hatches poured Nektro soldiers, whose appearance was, for lack of a better term, alien.
They were roughly six feet tall, but they crouched shrewdly, lessening their height. Similar to the hulls of their ships, their armor was the strange hue of a beetle's shell, and it glinted in the sunlight. Their skin was oily and dark, from what Traw could see, and their guns were slim, copper rifles with a single, thin blue rod running down the middle. Their commanders stood erect, which made them easy to distinguish, and their helmets were ornate with tough horns. They bore in each hand a pistol, improving their combat ability and again distinguishing them from their lesser warriors.
“Come on, suckers,” Traw muttered, setting his sights on one of the three on-site commanders. With a pull of the trigger, he sent a lethal bolt of visibly green energy into the first commander's head. He slumped dead onto the pavement, confusing a number of the footsoldiers, who momentarily refrained from attacking civilians. It gave many of them enough time to flee. Not a fleck of remorse inside him, Traw aimed at the next commander, then the last, both of them falling dead, oblivious to their killer. He squinted as he set his sights on one of the footsoldiers spreading out across the street. Though the footsoldiers were armed and the civilians were not, it was soon apparent to Traw that the commanders were crucial to Nektro combat, and without them the ground offense would be crippled.
One by one he silently slew the footsoldiers, until at last they were all pillaging inside the buildings and out of his scope. He withdrew his rifle and, slinging it over his shoulder, rushed to the door. But something stopped him: a bang, then a thud, followed by a few Nektro squawks coming from the hallway. “Dammit,” he muttered, taking cover behind the bed. He could hear the Nektro searching throughout the hallway, banging door after door and searching every room for the sniper they knew had slain their commanders.
Traw held his rifle at the ready. He had no idea what weapons they carried, or more importantly, what they would do upon finding him. Then one of the soldiers burst into his room, aiming its slim copper rifle forward as it glanced around. After a brief, rushed scan, it turned round and began to exit. Traw silently rushed up from behind and snapped its neck. He covered its mouth to prevent it from crying out.
Lying the corpse onto the ground, he took its rifle and a strange rectangular device he figured to be a grenade. Traw ducked his head out of the doorway to scan the area. All the other Nektro on that floor were searching the individual suites. Traw sneaked out of his room and to the stairwell, where the door had been blasted open, hence the earlier explosive noise.
While shuffling down the stairs, he had nothing on his mind but Luella. He knew where to go, it was just getting there that would be a challenge. He gunned down two Nektro soldiers in the lobby, not bothering to scavenge their corpses. As he approached the front door, he stopped. God only knows how many of them are still out there, he thought, turning around for the back exit.
With a fired pulse of his rifle, the back door's lock shattered, and he shoved the steel door open. Thirty meters away he saw his speeder, sitting next to a pair of squalid garbage cans. Rifle strapped across his back, he ran over to his speeder and with a blast of blue engine flame, bolted off across the edge of the city.