Saturday, December 23, 2017

The Shadow of Earth (History of the Galaxy, book 2)

The History of the Galaxy, Book II
The Shadow of Earth
by Andrei Livadny

Release - March 22, 2018


Earth. Year 2606.

The short man stood in front of a panoramic window, listening to the report as he looked at the skyscrapers forming the famous Square of Five Corners, which was unfailingly repeated on the many levels of the urbanized anthill.
Earth was an eternal city. This was the name of a planet where the shell of the technosphere had completely enclosed it, uniting all the continents.
Ever since the problem of the industrial fog had been overcome using absorbents, transparent walls had again come into fashion. The megasuburbs soaring into the clouds looked like enormous terrariums, where millions of people hurried about their day.   
Looking at them, John Winston Hammer experienced intense and contradictory emotions.
"Everything could have turned out differently," he couldn't help thinking in moments like these.
Three hundred and fifty years ago, when the Great Exodus ended, humanity's fate seemed sealed. Thousands of colonial transports had vanished into the unknown. Hyperspace swallowed them up without a trace, and the rush to expand fizzled out, with even the most ardent optimists turning into sceptics, and the theory of the hypersphere thrown into doubt. Dozens of unfinished starships were left standing on the Moon's shipyards.

Back in that distant time, the Genesis Corporation was still trying to master the dust storms on Mars while Earth’s cities were completely enveloped in the toxic atmosphere. Humanity's last generation was living out its final days in the in-modes.
The inexorable end was drawing close. 
John Hammer had studied that period of time in detail, which had shown the great importance of specific people in history. Ulrich Fitzgerald, the founder of Genesis, a 120-year-old man who had never turned his dream of completely terraforming Mars into reality, prevented the utter collapse of civilization.
There were only a billion people left on Earth when ships from Genesis' Martian fleet appeared in orbit around the planet and dropped containers with a unique strain of genetically-constructed bacteria into the poisoned oceans.    
For a year, the microorganisms frenetically multiplied, consuming waste and creating oxygen. Then the absorbents, developed to fight the dust storms on Mars, were released into Earth's atmosphere, murky from the industrial fog.
Ulrich Fitzgerald lived for another thirty years. He left Mars alone but saved Earth. He resurrected the World Government and conducted radical reforms. He blocked the cyberspace Layer and forced people to leave the in-modes. Fitzgerald ruled the world with an iron fist, clamping down on any signs of dissent and laying the foundations for civilization's golden age.
It was also the time when the technosphere closed completely over the planet. The oceans, sealed in steel and reinforced concrete, now served as sources of oxygen and organic material for the primitive organisms that felt perfectly well in the dark and cold waters. Their genetic code was created in Genesis's off-world laboratories, based on the ancient forms of life discovered deep in the frozen seas of Europa, one of Jupiter's moons.     
New cities rose above the oceans, while the old, historical megacities underwent reconstruction.
Earth's atmosphere gradually became clean and all the dangerous manufacturing was taken off-planet, to technology parks on the Moon and Mars.
The technological Renaissance and the following Golden Age of civilization didn't last long, however. The harsh reality quickly reasserted itself. The planet's population began to grow again, while deliveries of resources decreased significantly. The inhabitants of the Moon, Mars, the Asteroid Belt, and then the mining colonies on Jupiter's moons declared their independence. By controlling the sources of raw materials, they thought that they could dictate their conditions to the ancestral homeland, and they were right. Their dominance over the metropolis lasted for almost three hundred years.
John Winston Hammer won the elections in 2561 and got the right to form the next World Government.
He had inherited a truly dire situation. In that time, the natives from off-world settlements would kick open any door - the little kings of small moons, the owners of mining asteroids, the industrial magnates from Mars and large space freighters felt that they were in control on Earth, and they exploited the resource shortage and the population's growing needs mercilessly.
None of them were concerned about the latest change in government, which turned out to be a mistake.
Long before he became the Head of Government, John Hammer began his career as a trade representative of Earth. He often visited Mars and the distant space settlements, making connections and drawing his own conclusions.
One day, while sitting in a bar on the Phobos Orbital Station, he met a pilot who had just arrived from the asteroid belt. Alexander Nagumo was killing time as he waited for his load to be accepted, a thousand-tonne block of ice. Hammer's flight was delayed and they started talking, just idle chatter, until a message arrived on the pilot's cyberstack.
"Frayg be damned!" the man swore, looking at the numbers. "The gall of these people!" 
"What, they're not giving you a decent price?" Hammer asked.
"No," Nagumo muttered darkly. "Have a look, a hundred credits per tonne. And that's considering the constant shortage of water on Mars. I'll barely have enough to pay for the fuel that I've spent!" he added grimly.
"The Martian mining company have a monopoly," Hammer noted for the sake of fairness. "It's hard to argue with them."
Nagumo waved him off in irritation.
"It’s certainly possible!" he answered hotly and then added unexpectedly: "You know, I would cast the whole Solar System down at the feet of the person who gave me a couple of military ships!"
Hammer noted more than just rage in the young pilot's eyes. That phrase was no accident, it looked like he knew what he was talking about.
"And what would you ask for as payment?"
"The title of admiral," grumbled the pilot, making it out like the conversation had been a joke. "Well, I better go. Be well."
For the first few years after being elected, John Hammer didn't conduct any reforms, and the resource magnates of the Far Outlands dictated their terms as usual, feeling like masters of the situation. That is, until March 2564, when a fleet of five military ships appeared in orbit around Mars. The half-erased logos of Genesis, Rimp Cybertronics, Megapool and Cryonics could be discerned on their darkened hulls – the names of corporations that ruled the world before the Great Exodus.
After shooting down the few defense satellites, the fleet rapidly attacked and destroyed a cruiser of the Martian Mining Company. While fragments of the most ferocious ship in the Solar System burned up in the atmosphere, the frigates crushed the anti-space defense of Phobos Station and landed an assault force on the orbital base.
The industrial empire of the Martian Mining Company fell in one day. The Moon settlements hurriedly capitulated next, as Earth's satellite was approached by another fleet, made up of the ancient military ships.
After the first victories, John Winston Hammer announced the creation of the Terran Alliance. From this moment on, all space settlements had to accept the rule of the metropolis and follow one set of laws. The Asteroid Belt became a problem, however, where every mine was well defended.
The ensuing war rapidly devoured the precious resources, with not many of them left on the Moon and Mars. But Hammer couldn't stop without finishing what he had started. He gave the order and the space shipyards began working again, now building the military cruisers of the Terran Alliance.

* * *

He won the intrasystemic war but this didn't solve the problems of a lack of resources and overpopulation. Mars was in ruins, the Moon had been hollowed out like a worm-ridden apple, and most of the deposits in the Asteroid Belt had been exhausted during the six centuries of the space era.
"A civilization trapped inside its own star system is doomed to disappear..." John Hammer had heard this phrase when he was a teenager and had remembered it his whole life. 
Looking at the human anthill encased in steel and glass, John Hammer didn't think of himself as a god, quite the opposite. He was a realist and understood that the power of the crowd should not be scorned.
He had come from the urbanized depths himself, and ever since then had felt the pulse of the life bustling around him, wanting it to succeed as much as himself.
To love and despise, to understand and beware – what could be more painful and yet sweeter than the narrow path of power? He was responsible for the humanity swarming around him, which had come so close to self-destruction and was now looking with unhealthy curiosity at the abyss that it faced.
He turned away from the window and pushed aside the memories, glancing at the gray-haired Admiral Alexander Nagumo. The old man was listening attentively to the speaker, while Tiberius Nadyrov and Max Gornev, the young shoots that had come up after the last victories, looked bored.
A quarter of a century ago, in the midst of the fighting for the Asteroid Belt, John Hammer had asked for the hypersphere theory to be tested again. A separate research division of the World Space Forces had to be created but specific results had only been obtained a few years ago.
The holographic monitors were showing equations, graphs and schematic diagrams of the propulsion units.
No wonder that the faces of Nadyrov and Gornev showed boredom.
"Make it shorter, more accessible and to the point," Hammer ordered, making the speaker fall silent mid-sentence.
"Put this away!" Hummer indicated the equations irritably. "Enlarge the star map!" He demanded. "And now, tell us the gist of it! The engineers and scientists can pore over the rest."
"May I, Mister President?" Edward Nechaev, Head of Earth's Intelligence Agency, stood up from his armchair. Seeing the nod, he changed the display image and pointed to a 3D map of space, where the stars were linked by thin lines. "The hypersphere theory has been confirmed," he began. "Hyperspace, as we understand it, is the carrier of all gravitational connections in the Universe, but from a strictly practical viewpoint, we are only interested in star-sized objects. By possessing enormous mass, they are the ones that form stable power threads in the hypersphere, which can be found by our instruments."   
"What does that give us?" Hammer asked.
"After activating the hyperdrive, a ship finds itself in alternative space. There are no stars but their gravitational connections still exist." A network of thin lines appeared on an additional screen. "This is our Sun." A bright spot appeared in the center of the image. "As you can see, sixty-four power lines lead away from it through hyperspace. All the stars that we can jump to are located between five and fifteen light years away."
"Have they been explored?" Nagumo asked.
"Certainly. Most of the systems have planets but they are unfit for life."
"Wait," Hummer interrupted. "If there are only 64 power lines running from the Solar System to the nearest stars, then where did the thousands of colonial transports go?"
"They became victims of the 'blind punch'," Nechaev explained. "Once we make a jump to any of the neighboring stars, we'll see new routes and a new region of hyperspace. If a ship doesn't surface in time at a node, indicating a solar system, the ship can float along this net until it runs out of energy. Hypersphere navigation had not been studied at all in the time of the Great Exodus, and as a result, most ships became victims of circumstance."
"So, they could have ended up hundreds of light years away from Earth?" Tiberius Nadyrov asked.
"What if the energy runs out while travelling between two nodes?" Gornev inquired.
"Then the ship leaves the hypersphere somewhere between two stars. It’s thus easy to see the importance of the power lines in hyperspace. They are the only reliable form of guidance."
"Fine." Hammer was impressed but now he had numerous questions. "Why didn't any of the colonial transports return after so many years?"
"As I said before, a new section of the hyperspace network opens up in a new star system.  The number of new routes can vary, depending on the star density, but they all look identical on the screen of the mass-detector – the only device that can note and display the power lines in the hypersphere. I'm sure that attempts were made to return to the Solar System, and more than one, but they were unsuccessful. We’ve needed a quarter of a century to add practical findings to the theory of Johann Ivanov-Schmidt. We lost two hundred and seventeen reconnaissance ships. I’m assuming that the colonists didn't have the capacity to conduct such experiments.
"I understand." Hammer sat down in his chair. "Now, explain to me why a jump is limited to fifteen light years? What do we do if we need to go further?"
"The ship's energy equipment is the deciding factor. If we had an unlimited source of power, we could float along the network from one star system to the next, without 'surfacing' in-between. Theoretically, we can reach any of the stars in our Galaxy this way..."
"But?" Hammer interrupted him.
"The accumulators lose charge quickly. We're currently working on a two-reactor model. One power source supplies the hyperdrive, while the second is meant for the other systems on the ship. One jump consumes almost all the energy..."
"Well then, make a ship with ten reactors," Tiberius Nadyrov butted in with his suggestion.   
Nagumo smiled crookedly.
"Better keep quiet and listen," he advised the young admiral.
"Why?" the man bristled.
"Because. Nechaev, tell him what will happen to a ship that has ten reactors."
"It'll become very large and incredibly vulnerable. It'll be about ten kilometers in length. All the usable space inside will be occupied by the energy accumulators and the control systems for the power units. Experience has shown that a two-reactor system is optimal. I'll say right now that the colonial transports of the Great Exodus only solved one task, and that is completing the jump. The had incredibly strong power units mounted on, which ensured the function of the cryogenic chambers. During our explorations, we found one such transport, which didn't leave the hypersphere at the first node. All the energy had been diverted to the hyperdrive. The result was the death of the crew and passengers. We have a different goal. Our construction anticipates a successful jump and stable function of the on-board systems after resurfacing in normal space.
 "So," John Hammer looked closely at the star map, "how can we go about settling the other planets?"
 "It has to be done in two stages, Mister President. First, we'll have to reach one of the sixty-four explored systems. Then the ship will need a day to recharge the hyperdrive accumulators, after which..." Nechaev looked uncomfortable, "we will have to select one of the navigational lines and perform a 'blind punch'."
"So, we don't know which star system the ship will end up in? Whether there are hospitable planets, and if they haven't been occupied during the Great Exodus?"
"That's right," replied Nechaev.
"How long do you need to explore the routes in detail?"
"At least ten years. And so far, there are no guarantees. We haven't yet learned how to 'label' navigational lines in the hypersphere."
"What about the systems accessible in one jump?" Nagumo asked. "Have you sorted them out, at least?"
"Yes," Nechaev nodded. "But the planets circling around the nearest stars are mostly unsuitable for colonization. We found only two planets with an oxygen-containing atmosphere. One is Yunona, where we found the wreckage of the colonial transport Yuna, which crashed during landing, and Dabog, a well-developed colony from the time of the Great Exodus."
John Hammer stared intently at the 3D star map and thought of the current problems.
Despite the success of the Alliance, the sixty billion people trapped within the Solar System could not be provided with enough resources, jobs and reasonable living conditions. The situation would begin to rapidly deteriorate in another few years. Eighty percent of the population was currently surviving on government subsidies – they were the 'extra people', who hadn't been taught to work and to strive to reach their goals.
"What did you find out about the colonies?" he asked drily.
"Dabog is an agrarian planet," Nechaev replied. "We positioned our spy satellites on distant orbits and are scanning their communication frequencies; we have also managed to infiltrate their information network."
"Are they exploring space?"
"Yes. Moreover, they are in contact with several more advanced colonies from the time of the Great Exodus. About once a week, passenger and freight ships from other worlds appear in Dabog's airspace. We have concluded that trade is only episodic at present. We have discovered from intercepted conversations that at least four planetary civilizations have managed to go into space and are actively exploring the hypersphere," Nechaev continued. "We're currently conducting reconnaissance, identifying their navigational methods and trying to determine the location of these worlds. For now, we only know their names: Elio, Kjuig, Rory and something called the Moon Stellar, presumably an airless satellite of one of the listed planets. Thanks to the combined efforts of several civilizations, a space shipyard has been built there."
"A shipyard?" Nagumo perked up. "Does that mean they're designing and building their own ships?! But the preliminary report stated that 'all settlements on other planets will inevitably go through centuries of regression', so how the frayg do they suddenly have high technologies?!"
"You are right, Admiral, most of the planetary civilizations founded during the Great Exodus either perished or are quite primitive at present." Nechaev responded. "But there are exceptions. We have discovered that Dabog – let's focus on this world as the one most studied – was settled by people from the Fugitive Colonial Transport, which carried the majority of staff from Rimp Cybertronics Corporation, including Catherine Rimp herself and her inner circle, which, by the way, included Hans Gervet, the most famous engineer of his time. It makes sense to assume that many technologies, now considered lost, have been preserved on this planet."
John Hammer paced the office.
"How does the population feel about Earth?" he asked, stopping in front of the window again. "Did our agents investigate this?"
"Yes, we managed to initiate a discussion on this topic using the computer networks."
"If there is contact with their ancestral homeland, they are willing to accept a small number of immigrants from Earth. But only through a competitive selection process." 
"They want to get our best people?" Nagumo smiled crookedly. "And leave us the scum?" 
"I can understand the inhabitants of the colonies. Their history consists of centuries of fighting for survival," Nechaev uttered incautiously. "I doubt that they would agree to accept just anyone, and turn their world into a dirty flophouse for layabouts." 
"So that's how you see Earth?!" Hammer glowered. "A dirty flophouse?" Touching a sensor, he brought up an image of the planet. It showed pulsing splotches of varying brightness, indicating the current population density. A number appeared at the bottom of the holographic screen, showing slightly over 60 billion. "These are all people, you know!" Hammer burst out, losing his cool for just a second. "Whose only fault was being born! The resources of the Solar System have been completely exhausted. So let's think about Humanity, but decide, first of all, where it is! Is it here or is it over there?!"
Nechaev wisely kept silent, while Max Gornev spoke, looking at the image of Dabog. "One terraformed planet would solve most of our problems. Dabog is within the reach of our fleet. I don't think we have anything to argue about."
"There is an important nuance that you need to understand," Nechaev had to join the conversation again. "None of the worlds that we've explored match Earth Standard. All the colonists on Yunona died from an epidemic caused by an unknown exovirus."
"But they survived on Dabog!" Tiberius Nadyrov noted.
"Yes, however, the planet is only partially terraformed. Due to the colonization, it now has a hybrid biosphere. I'll say this plainly: the least that a person from Earth can expect is a severe allergic reaction. I have to remind you that for the citizens of our modern cities, the Earth Standard is a controlled living environment."
John Hammer frowned.
"Can we at least protect our assault units?" he asked.
"Yes, of course. We have developed an external metabolic implant," Nechaev brought up an image of a small device. "It is strapped to the leg and connected to the femoral artery. It cleans the blood, conducts a heuristic biochemical analysis and synthesizes antibodies as required. This technology has been tested but it's only a temporary form of protection. We need serious studies..."
"That's enough," Hammer interrupted. "We possess military terraforming technology, which we inherited from Genesis." He switched to the star map again. "Gentlemen, I would like to hear your opinions."
"Dabog is the key to everything," Alexander Nagumo stated firmly. He enlarged Earth's neighboring star systems, which were within a radius of one 'jump'. The chain of dead planets formed a sphere. "We have no idea who we might meet as we travel along the energy lines of the hypersphere," the admiral continued. "How developed are the civilizations that we don't yet know about? That’s why we need an industrial base in another star system. Dabog is perfect for this purpose. Take the bunker zones, where the colonists lived for several centuries. If our intelligence is to be believed, the plants for manufacturing planetary technologies are located there. We would be able to modernize them to serve the needs of our fleet. I agree with Gornev. There should be no doubts." He snapped. "We're talking about the survival of billions."   
John Winston Hammer considered himself a deep and progressive thinker. He wasn't wrong in general but from the peak of absolute power, many problems appear simpler and smaller than they actually are. Just like human figures meld into a faceless, gray mass, so do separate fateful decisions lose their intense acuity when they have to be made daily.
He believed that the lives of billions of people, trapped in Earth's supermegacities, were more important that the fate of a handful of colonists, scattered throughout the Galaxy by the cruel whim of the hypersphere.
He knew that he would be cursed by some, and hardly win the love of those for whom he was opening the door into infinite space.
Now, after hearing Nagumo's words, the star map appeared differently before his gaze: in the pattern of the tiny silver specks, John Hammer saw the phantom of future events – new waves of expansion, a great movement of nations, which he was going to initiate by his personal decision...

Part 1.
Act of Intimidation.
Chapter 1.

October 9, 2607. Dabog. Early morning. 

The old road, laid down in the early days of colonization, led into a tunnel that ran through a low mountain range, and exiting, circled down to the base of a shallow crater.
The signs of the past were everywhere. The cliffs still bore signs of melting. Two ancient robotized complexes rose above the squat, single-level buildings.
This morning, a comfortable multiseat flycar stopped in the parking area, and a group of children got out, accompanied by a young teacher. The sky was cloudless and the autumn air was crisp and clear. A faint breeze stirred the leaves of the carelessla, the first hybrid plant created by the colonists as a mix between the Terran ivy and a local shrub.
Every detail in the surroundings captured the imagination, and the children fell quiet as they looked around them. The ancient reinforced concrete was cracked in places. A massive fragment of the ceramic plating, pitted by its contact with space, rose like a wall in front of them. Embossed letters could be still be seen on the armored plate: Fugitive Colonial Transport.
A sign hanging slightly higher stated:
Entrance to the Colonization History Museum of Dabog.
The high wall was pitted with holes. The frame of a planetary machine, crushed by an enormous force, rusted under an open sky. The guard turret was half buried under the dully glinting used shell casings, with the endoskeleton of an android lying nearby.
An alley of carelessla led to a ramp that sloped downwards, ending at the tightly shut armored gates.
"Daria Dmitrievna, what happened to it?" asked one of the students, a boy of about ten, as he stopped and stared at the android. "Why did it break down?"
"This robot, like many others, protected the humans," the teacher raised her arm to attract attention and continued. "Our ancestors came from deep space, but their ship crashed during landing. The planet was completely different back then, hostile and unfriendly. Now, we're going to descend into the colonial bunker and I will show you how Dabog looked four hundred years ago..."
With these words, the massive gates trembled and began to move apart with a vibrating hum. A small room was revealed, pierced with sterilizing radiation. The children were informed about this by the personal nanocomputers on their wrists.     
Daria Dmitrievna Kretchetova, a recent graduate from the State University of Dabog, tucked a lock of hair behind her ear, smiled reassuringly at the children and stepped forward as an example.
The children followed their teacher timidly, crowding around her as the gates shuddered and began to close again, cutting off the sunlight.
It looked fascinating and terrifying at the same time. One of the girls squealed...
"Right now, we are in the so-called airlock, a chamber located between the outside world and the interior of the bunker," Daria explained.
The children crowded together, curious, puzzled and a little frightened. Everything that they were seeing was so different to their familiar Dabog! Could it be that this warm and friendly planet had once been so hostile to humans that they had to hide underground in these gloomy bunkers?!
A long and dimly lit corridor with a low ceiling led from the airlock. Its walls seemed to emanate cold and damp.
One of children couldn't help but shiver.
"Yes, this is exactly how the history of Dabog began," said Daria. "The colonial transport crashed and many cryogenic halls and storage rooms were inaccessible due to the deformation of the ship. The specialists, who were supposed to be woken up right after landing, remained in cryogenic sleep, and the first people landing on the planet were the ones whose cryogenic chambers had failed during the accident."
With these words, she touched a sensor and doors opened into a huge hall, where modern devices recreated the atmosphere of those days, based on preserved archival records...
...It grew dark.
The first stars appeared in the sky. A full moon hung low above the horizon. Its cold light was reflected in the sparkle of small lakes scattered here and there, while the rest of the continent was hidden under a tangle of grass-like plants, vaguely reminiscent of horsetails and ferns, and reaching 5-6 meters in height.
 Humming, chirping, the rustle of wings and other sounds, unfamiliar to humans, came from the mysterious, shadowy, damp thicket. A warm wind brought sharp smells and someone's heavy tread was accompanied by sucking noises, as if a large animal waded through the swamp mud, beneath the spreading boughs.
Occasional weather-beaten cliffs rose above the waving ocean of plants. The greenery changed radically near them, with the appearance of tree-like vines, which clung to the rocks and climbed upwards, creating arches and hanging bridges, and connecting the edges of the cliffs.
The moisture evaporating from the water-logged soil formed a haze that drifted between the spreading leaves, condensing into streaks of night time fog.
The moon kept rising. Staccato sounds now came from the direction of the cliffs, as if hundreds of hammers were working in the depths of the forest.
From time to time, the flexible plant trunks began to shudder, their tops swaying from side to side, revealing the short but ferocious fight between some large creatures, then everything became still again. Only the persistent hum, too loud to be the usual insect drone, continued without pause.
 A new star appeared in the sky that night. It quickly grew in size until it became a bright pea, then it suddenly changed direction, crossing the face of the moon as it dropped a handful of fireballs, and disappeared over the horizon.
The light in the hall went out for a second.  There was movement as parts of the diorama shifted and changed, and new 3D images appeared. The children could now see the site of the Fugitive's crash.
A reddish sun peeked through the breaks in the purple clouds. The heat streamed upwards like a curtain. The blackened side of the colonial transport dropped sharply downwards.
The crater floor, formed by a solidified glass-like mass, was intersected by numerous cracks and breaks.  Some were so wide that the planetary vehicles leaving the access ramps had to move along the edges of the chasms, looking for places to install temporary bridges and keep going further.
People were climbing out individually and in small groups. Having just woken up from cryogenic sleep, they were disorientated and bewildered. Nobody was in charge of the situation.
A flock of large flying lizards swarmed over the horizon.
"I know, those are raptors!" one of the girls exclaimed.
"That's right," replied her teacher. "But it was the planet's microscopic inhabitants that were a much greater threat to humans. The bacteria and viruses caused new diseases in the very first days. Our ancestors simply could not survive on the surface, so they had to hurriedly build sealed shelters."
The teacher skipped over a lot of details. In reality, the first few years of colonization on Dabog were full of tragedies, since most of the colonists had come from the Layer, and had spent all their lives in the in-modes, among the illusions of cyberspace. They were utterly unprepared to face the reality of an alien world and to fight for their survival.
The children would learn about this later, in history lessons and exobiology classes, but now, another change in the decorations allowed them to skip over decades.
"After the first epidemics, the humans split up. Some developed immunity to the diseases and were able to live on the surface, and others were forced to spend precious resources on the creation of a controlled environment. Thus several colonization centers were formed, located quite far from each other. At the beginning, they developed separately, while the numerous fantastic specialists on board the Fugitive, who could have affected the situation, remained in their cryogenic chambers."
"Why weren't they woken up?"
"It wasn't possible. But when their stores became depleted, our ancestors had to look for new ways to survive. They had to conduct experiments and transform the planet. Now you will see how it happened. Please, don't get scared, just stand beside me and watch. We're not in any danger. Everything that you'll see are just copies, models and holograms controlled by the computer..."
* * *

Long-range orbit around Dabog. October 9, 2607. One hour before the invasion.

Three cruisers formed the head of the fleet's battle formation. They looked simply like bright lines at a distance, with a stream of harmless silver specks drifting behind them.
The ships had just changed formation and were on an approach course with the planet. The phantom generators that switched on a few minutes later hid them from any observers.
Now the invaders looked as black as the night, with only the occasional flash from the correction engines briefly illuminating the sinister outline of the many combat structures.
The fleet's flagship Endgrouse exhaled a dissipating atmospheric cloud – it was the opening of the electromagnetic catapults' diaphragms for the launch of the space fighters.  The armor plates of the ships moving alongside it also began to shift: Titan opened its vacuum docks in preparation for the launch of its assault modules, while rocket battery ports were revealed on the front of the Shadow of Earth.
It was a force that could crush a star system as easily as a tank tread crushes a children's toy lying in its path.   
Admiral Alexander Nagumo paced along the flagship's bridge, occasionally glancing at the screens and sensors of the tracking systems.
The star, shaded by the light filters, blazed on the left side. The planet slowly grew in size directly in front of them, splattered with gray streaks of cloud. The scanners recorded about ten civil satellites and one freight ship in low parking orbit.
It was nothing complicated. This world looked like an overripe apple ready to drop at their feet, but a different fate awaited Dabog. Its cities would be ground into dust and its biosphere would undergo combat terraforming. Only the bunker zones held any practical interest for the fleet, where the factories producing agricultural technology were located and where (it was highly likely) the lost technologies of the Rimp Cybertronics Corporation were hidden.
The strike on Dabog was to be quick and heartless. John Hammer planned to use this planet as an example to the other colonies, founded during the Great Exodus, of what would happen if they refused to accept the rule of the mother planet.
The admiral had never been a humanist. He didn't feel guilty. He was fully aware of what he was going to do. Nagumo believed that the future generations would figure out what's what and it would be up to them to decide whether to put up a monument to the admiral or to turn his name into a curse...
He touched a sensor and contacted Nadyrov.
"Go ahead, Tiberius," the phrase that began a new era sounded calm and ordinary.
The launch tubes of the Shadow of Earth cruiser were illuminated by dim splashes of static. The rounded contours of the space-to-surface missiles could be just barely seen in the depths of the massive tubes. Pilots called them 'megacity killers'.

* * *

Dabog. Colonization History Museum. 

A virtual rain was pelting down.
Low, heavy clouds sailed over the hushed children. Findings themselves in the depths of the primordial jungle, among the tall grasses, they timidly observed the huge insects that lived hundreds of years ago in the tropical forests of Dabog.
Their teacher smiled reassuringly and drew the children after her, and soon the path running through the holographic jungle brought them to the marshy flood plain of a wide river.
Through the yellow haze of vapor, they could see a stony ridge with dark openings of several caves, encased in steel and concrete. It appeared that humans had made their dwellings there, for why else would there be two soil spreaders on the shore?
A swarm of 'perforators', creatures that belonged to the insect kingdom, circled over the rocky outcrops, occasionally trying to break into them and producing a loud, staccato sound – the insects were trying to reach the tunnel worms, which lived in the cracks.  
The soil spreaders were sinking in the mud. Their wide caterpillar tracks were being sucked into the mire, and one of the robotized complexes titled over to one side, became stuck in a deep hollow and fell silent.
People in protective suits came out of the cave, accompanied by androids. Two rumbling all-terrain vehicles followed them out.  They attached cables to the soil spreader and attempted to pull it out onto a sloping hillock, but the sound of the motors attracted an unexpected and dangerous guest. A huge lizard suddenly appeared above the cliffs.
Its appearance was terrifying. The giant reptile watched the humans without fear, clearly seeing them as prey.
"Mommy..." one of the girls unwittingly took a few steps backwards.
"Don't worry, this is only a show, an imitation," Daria tried to calm them down. "We're surrounded by holograms. Who can tell me the name of this lizard?"
"Dicort," one of the boys said hollowly.
"That's right. It is one of the largest and most dangerous representatives of our planet's indigenous fauna," the teacher agreed.
Meanwhile, the events on the riverbank were unfolding rapidly and dramatically. The dicort paused, leaning on its powerful back legs and tail, covered in horny scales. It looked vaguely like a tyrannosaurus, but despite its impressive weight and size, it could climb cliffs, using the suctioned tendrils growing from its abdomen.
The lizard climbed up the rocky outcrop and looked down, belching out a wheezy and stinking breath, and nervously scratching its claws as it readied itself for a jump.
The people noticed the danger but it was too late, as the body weighing dozens of tonnes landed on the marshy shore, throwing up fountains of mud.  
The sinking soil spreader was swamped by a wave of silt and mud, one of the all-terrain vehicles flipped over, while the dicort, stung by the unexpectedly snapped cables, went mad and attacked the closest planetary vehicle, crushing its frame...
The androids opened fire while the humans hurriedly withdrew to the cave, but the shots from the ARG-8 did not cause much damage to the incredible beast, instead enraging it further. The lizard grabbed one of the robots with its tentacles, flung two more away with a swipe of its tail, and bit the last one in half, spitting it out with a growl when it realized that the android was inedible.
Soon, it was all over. The hungry lizard didn't find any food but had inflicted significant damage: one soil spreader had sunk and the second one was belching smoke. The all-terrain vehicles were seriously damaged and would take weeks to repair. The colonists had managed to make it to their shelter but the androids covering their exit had been destroyed, their broken bodies swallowed up by the marsh.
"So you see, guys." the teacher's voice interrupted the silence. "How could our ancestors fight the hostile environment, when even the most powerful planetary vehicles were helpless before the inhabitants of the jungle?"
None of the children answered. They were staring around them, clearly frightened of this version of Dabog.
"Now we'll move on to the next hall. There you'll see how the planet's flora and fauna changed, as well as people's technology, after several decades of colonization..."

* * *

The internal launching area of the Shadow of Earth cruiser. Ten minutes before the start of the invasion. 

The siren howled continuously.
The regular flashes of the warning lights outlined the launch beds with the affixed assault modules. Hundreds of fighters in armored camouflage suits went up the ramps and disappeared into the reddish glow of the landing force compartments.
"Quickly! Get a move on!" the officers' shouts flooded the communicators.
People's faces showed conflicting emotions. Some were angry, some were focused, others looked depressed and some were shaking. Beads of sweat, unnatural flushes or, on the contrary, a deathly paleness, revealed the emotional tension of these minutes.
"Quickly! Hurry up! Hurry up!"
The hangar gates hissed open along the perimeter of the internal launching area. The howling of the siren was drowned out by a low-pitched roar. A planetary combat vehicle with the number 1 on the contoured tower of the plasma generator appeared from the most distant compartment.
In the age of high-tech, engineers had turned away from the caterpillar track. The PCV moved on eight cast ribbed wheels, but thanks to the inbuilt anti-grav, possessed unique passability and manoeuvrability, since the weight of the combat vehicle changed depending on its surroundings.  The variable gravitation module could make it very lightweight, reducing its pressure on the ground, or could make it sink into the earth. Intrasystemic wars had convincingly shown that it was the most reliable and deadly planetary technology. It was believed that only another PCV could stand against a PCV.
The loading finished a few minutes later, and the launch beds with the affixed assault modules began to slowly turn around.
One of the walls of the internal launching area split into four wedge-shaped segments. It was the opening of the cruiser's vacuum dock.

* * *

Dabog. Colonization History Museum. The same time. 

A different era awaited the class in the next room.
The river still flowed in the center of the panorama, but now its shores were edged by thickets of carelessla, which leaned towards the water. The jungle on the left side of the river had retreated, and on the right side, greenhouse domes sparkled among the gray cliffs.
The children's eyes glowed in admiration.
Having felt timid before the wild and hostile nature of ancient Dabog, they welcomed the unimpressive but familiar trees with excited approval. The teacher looked pleased too, for the children had correctly absorbed the first lesson. Now they will undoubtedly learn to value everything created by their ancestors, to love and care for modern nature.
"And now, let's see how human technology changed over the decades of colonization," she uttered, inconspicuously touching a sensor on the hologram control panel.
A familiar rhythmical sound came from the depths of the jungle, and soon the wall of plants parted to reveal something huge, powerful, and looking completely different to the modern agricultural servomachines!
"I know! I know! It's a monument! We saw one in the park but it was a small one!"
The teacher smiled.
"No, you're mistaken, Sasha. It's not a monument but a real machine, preserved from that distant time. We'll be able to look at it a bit later, in a different room of the museum.
The cybermechanism kept moving, swaying slightly from side to side. Apart from the sound of the working servomotors, the ancient machine had nothing in common with the elegant modern agricultural robots. Powerful, tall and heavily armored, it would have looked ridiculous on the modern Bao tree plantations, but the children suddenly felt an earlier unknown pride. They had gotten over their fear and had lifted slightly the veil of history, seen the bravery of their ancestors... and now they were genuinely happy to see the giant that could conquer the marshy jungle!
"We are all very lucky. The first generation of colonists consisted of many clever, talented and brave people, like Max Bourne, Catherine Rimp, her daughter Chloe, who created the first hybrid plants, and of course, Hans Gervet, a real genius of engineering. He created a prototype of the universal servomachine, basing it on the giant loader, which was designed to remove the armored plates from the colonial transport and build shelters out of them. The universal servomachine was not only able to replace the soil spreaders but also resist the large lizards.
The children listened to her, watching in wonder as the powerful cybermechanism, whose cabin rose above the plant life, walked through the jungle as if it was nothing more than forest shrubbery. The two legs left deep pits in the boggy soil. It simply stepped over the small rocky ridges that frequently appeared in its path.
"Miss, it's not going to trip and fall, is it?" the children fretted.
"No, no, don't worry," Daria reassured them. "The construction has been carefully designed and tested over centuries. The science that allowed us to create a completely new type of machine is called bionics," she continued. "Hans Gervet and the exobiologists helping him researched the anatomy of the lizards, which weigh dozens of tonnes and yet walk easily through swamps and even climb cliffs that none of the all-terrain vehicles can cross."
Confirming her words, the ancient walking mechanism stopped by the edge of the river and then easily waded across.
"Who controls it? Is it a computer?" the children bombarded her with questions.
"No, a person controls it. Moreover, each ancient robot has a name. In the old days, when the planet was first colonized, each family on Dabog owned a cybermechanism like this. They were manufactured in underground factories, in deep bunkers."
"What's this one called?"
"Aquila. It is the family robot of the Rokotov family, one of the few remaining servomachines."
The holographic decorations changed again in the meantime. Now, three cybermechanisms similar to Aquila were clearing the ground on the left riverbank: one pulled out the plants, the second sprayed around a whitish substance, while the third dried the swamp – it turned out that the giants could use different agricultural implements as attachments.
Things moved quickly. The swamp became shallower, leaving behind silt drying in the sun, while the special reagents and bacteria spread by the robots prepared the obtained layer of soil for the Bao saplings, the main agricultural crop on Dabog.
Daria could have told the children a lot more but this lesson was meant to be an introduction and overview. Later on, when they would study separate subjects, they would discover that the Bao tree was the result of genetic engineering, a hybrid of a local plant and the breadfruit tree from distant Earth, and that modern nature on their planet was a synthesis of the two biospheres...
"Miss, does this mean that all the lizards died out?" the children watched as the reagents made the impassable jungle wither and disintegrate.
"No, they didn't all die out," the teacher reassured them. "To destroy the native wildlife would be cruel and wrong. That's why our ancestors left an enormous island untouched, far to the south, in the middle of the ocean. It's so huge that many people call it a continent. This is where all the native inhabitants of the planet live, while scientists care for them, study the evolution of Dabog and conduct different experiments."
Meanwhile, the attention of the students was drawn to another walking servomechanism, which appeared on the right riverbank. This robot was equipped with tunneling lasers. It projected a holographic layout onto the cliffs and began to cut the stone, making a tunnel through the mountain range.
"Oh, look, look!" the children became alarmed again, noticing how several huge lizards suddenly appeared from the jungle. There were three of them this time!
Nevertheless, only one servomachine stopped working as the pilot turned it around to face the threat.
The cybermechanism, which had just been spraying fertilizer, transformed as it moved. Additional plates of armor covered the sloping front of the control cabin. It dropped the agricultural attachments and weapon pylons extended on both sides, with electromagnetic weapons suspended from them.
Things were heading towards a fierce battle. The dicorts were rapidly approaching but the servomachine pilot kept his cool. Having assessed the situation, he made three single sniper shots, which penetrated the lizards' natural armor but would have hardly stopped them...
This only angered the dicorts further but after several seconds their movements suddenly became sluggish and hesitant. The special drug contained in the bullets had paralyzed the lizards.  
Soon came the hum of motors and a transport module appeared in the sky.
"It's going to take the lizards to the island?!" one of the children guessed.
"That's right," nodded their teacher. "But not all such meetings ended so quickly and without loss of life. Quite often, especially during the seasonal migrations, the lizards attacked in large groups and the humans were forced to have whole battles with them. That's why all the ancient servomachines were so well armored and armed. It was thanks to this dual purpose technology and the bravery of our ancestors, that you and I can live under the open skies. Now, let's move on to the next hall, where we will see the real Aquila, which..."
In the next moment, the walls of the ancient bunker suddenly shook. The holograms twisted and then went out.
Sparks flew from some of the wires, the red emergency light came on and went out, and everything was plunged into darkness.

Chapter 2.

Dabog. October 10, 2607. 

Igor Rokotov turned thirty-seven this year.
Leaving his flycar in the museum's parking lot, he made his familiar way to the service lift.
There were frequent excursions at the start of the school year. Children not only liked to look at Aquila but also see it in action.
For Rokotov, studying the history of his home planet and filling in the existing 'blanks' had become not only a beloved job but also his life purpose.
It sometimes happens that an unexpected meeting, a devoured book or sudden circumstances completely change a person’s life. This happened to Igor in his youth, when he first entered the control cabin of his family's Aquila.
The ancient agrobot was stored in one of the more distant hangars, together with the other relics. It stood silent and imposing, surrounded by service towers, having lost its former purpose and meaning, for modern Dabog was a peaceful planet where humanity was no longer in deadly danger and where the Bao tree plantations were serviced by a new generation of machines, very different from the relics of the past.
Igor remembered that day very clearly. It had been autumn back then as well, and heavy rain thrummed on the wet hump of the old hangar. Igor had been walking home and dashed into the hangar to wait out the downpour. The hangar roof had worn out in places and the water dripped from overhead, droplets spraying against the cover of the ancient robot and leaving an orange stain on its leg.
Igor didn't feel like running home in the cold rain, so he decided to look around. He'd been in here before, of course, but hadn't paid much attention to the outdated technology, seeing it as nothing more than a phantom of the past.
He came closer and the outline of the cybermechanism appeared in the gloom. He could see the numerous scarring and pitting on the giant's ceramic armor, and then... reacting to the human's approach, the system suddenly switched on: there was a squeak of the cyberstack signal and Igor's personal nanocomputer began to receive a fragmented report about the state of the system nodes.
"This can't be happening!" he thought. How was it possible that after so many years of disuse, the servomachine still had some power left?
Intrigued and puzzled, Igor clambered up the struts of a service tower and reached the emergency hatch located in Aquila's base.
Something screeched and the remains of the seal showered down like trash. One of the segments of the technical ‘corset’ that held the ancient robot in place turned around, forming a small platform and as if inviting Igor to step onto it and climb inside the cyber behemoth.
Igor couldn't resist. He was overcome with a burning sense of curiosity.
The light was dim inside Aquila's cabin.  The dark screens reflected the light from the indicators of reserve power. The base with the piloting chair on it looked worn, the paint peeling in places and the metal darkening with age.  
A tiny scanning screen glowed on the wide armrest, covered with sensors, and Igor's cyberstack began to receive further messages:
Connection with the colonial shelter is lost. Server not found to synchronize date and time.
Attention, to activate the Inheritance Protocol, a DNA sample is required.
Igor felt an inner tremor but overcame his trepidation and intuitively touched the scanner with his finger. He felt Aquila's system take a drop of his blood and then...
One of the screens began to glow and a message appeared on it.
Rokotov family genetic line has been confirmed.
Inheritance Protocol has been activated.
Welcome, pilot.
Reactor power at 3%.
Scanning the surrounding environment – exosystem not identified. Database update is required.
Subsystem status – urgent repair is required. 

* * *

That evening completely changed Igor's life.
The unexpected event made an incredible impression on the young man.
When Rokotov came home, he immediately began questioning his parents but they couldn't give him any clear answers. According to his father, Aquila had been put into storage back in his great-great-grandfather's time and had been standing in the hangar ever since.
Igor then decided to look for information online and discovered to his surprise that almost nothing was known about the early period of the planet's colonization. It was possible that the technological relic, which had belonged to his family for many generations and had been unfairly forgotten, was the last example of cybernetic mechanisms from a bygone era.
How could this have happened?!
The answer didn’t come straightaway. This evening became a catalyst for the start of a long and difficult yet fascinating search.
Apart from the history of his home planet, Igor Rokotov became very interested in technology, engineering and servomechanics.
Trying to repair Aquila and its transport module, which rose like a mound of dead armor behind the hangar, Igor read all the ancient technical manuals, but the majority had been written back on Earth and dealt with the construction of the colonial transport.  
Now, in his search for the necessary information and spare parts, he regularly went on risky forays. All up, Rokotov managed to find and explore nine ancient, semi-submerged colonial shelters.
A great discovery for Igor were the books by Hans Gervet, which he found in one of the bunkers, and the diaries of Max Bourne, who became the pilot of the very first servomachine on Dabog.
Nowadays, Igor’s personal collection contained over a hundred microchips with documentary recordings from those years.
The history of the desperate struggle with the planet's native biosphere, the mind-boggling experiments in biology, the conflicts between the different settlements – Rokotov gradually got a better glimpse into those distant and dramatic times.
Nobody had hidden the history of Dabog on purpose, but the link between generations was disrupted about two hundred years ago, when a series of controlled mutations allowed humans to leave the colonial shelters and live on the surface.
Far from everyone had agreed to the 'biological adaptation' and society had split in two, with conflicts and even some of the bunkers being destroyed. Then came a period of rapid change, the growth of cities and the exploration of endless territories, and the events of the past grew dim and lost their intensity, becoming forgotten.
Igor just smiled at his own thoughts. It was stupid to think that modern civilization had appeared in a day. The search for the grains of truth, lost among the centuries, was what he had dedicated his life to.

* * *

Entering the lift, Rokotov touched a sensor. The cabin moved gently down towards the underground hangar, where Igor kept the restored Aquila for demonstrations.
...The sudden strike, like the jolt of an earthquake, took him by surprise. The emergency brakes activated with a screech, the cabin stopped sharply and Igor was knocked off his feet, falling and hitting his shoulder.
In the next moment, a series of crushing vibrations shook the ancient bunker. The lights went out and pieces of broken constructions rained down, with several cables snapping. The lift cabin dropped several meters with a grating sound and then became stuck. Its internal lining burst, exposing the fine mesh of the protective net, and Rokotov was thrown painfully against it at the next jolt.
Everything went quiet for a minute, only a torn cable sparking in the dark, and the drumming of small cement pieces, falling onto the cabin roof. 
Grimacing with pain, Igor got up from the tilted floor. He could taste the salty tang of blood on his smashed lips. Darkness encased him. Turning on the cyberstack light, he looked at the tiny display. The wireless network was down. There was no connection. What happened?! An earthquake? But this area was always considered earthquake-resistant!
Several large shards fell from above. One of them burst through the roof of the lift and became wedged there. Now Igor couldn't use the emergency hatch!
What was he going to do?!
He turned on the cyberstack's torch. The dull light played over the plastic splinters that the cabin’s interior lining had turned into, the sharp edges of the torn metal mesh, the bent loadbearing beam and the cables snaking alongside it.
"If I try to squeeze through sideways, I'll probably fit," Igor thought. He was actually very frightened. Even during his expeditions to the ancient colonial shelters, he had never found himself in such dire circumstances. Right now, tonnes of cement shards were pushing down on the cabin from above. The bitter dust irritated his throat and made him feel like he was choking. He couldn’t tell where the accident had occurred.
The thunder of falling rocks came again and this spurred Igor into action. He pulled back the edge of the torn mesh. The lift's frame had become twisted. There was a gap between it and the wall, which could fit a person.
"Hey!" he hoped for a reply but heard only a distant echo. He was quite high up but he had to take the risk. There was no other way out. Good thing that the bunker's elevators hadn't been converted to modern ones. The light from the torch illuminated a bundle of cables, hanging from the bottom of the cabin. None of them was throwing out sparks, which meant that the automatic fault protection had kicked in.
Igor reached out, grabbed the cables and found himself hanging in total darkness. His legs automatically wrapped around the thick bundle of cables. He had descended to greater depths in the past, but now, without a belay or safety equipment, it wasn't as easy.
Fear flooded him when the lift's frame dropped again and he barely held on, swaying at an unknown height. His breathing caught and a cold sweat beaded his forehead. Small stones showered down. Judging by the sound of their falling, the shaft descended another thirty meters at least!
His arms soon began to tremble from fatigue. The ominous screeching frayed his nerves. The descent seemed endless... until a weak flash of light came from below!
The light of a pocket torch swept over the walls, illuminating the bottom of the shaft, strewn with fragments, and the electromagnetic damper built into its base.
"Igor Vladimirovich? Is that you? You're alive!"
The light shone in his face and blinded him.
"I'm fine. How... are the children?"
"They're OK. They're frightened but not a scratch on them. What happened?"
"Daria, can you put down the torch so that it's illuminating the bottom of the shaft, and step back? It's dangerous here."
"All right... But please come as fast as you can, the children are afraid of the dark."

* * *

A minute later, Igor Rokotov jumped onto the shaft floor, picked up the torch and tried to brush off his torn and dirty clothing. Then he shrugged, annoyed at his own habits.
The server room was located behind the technical hatch, and beyond it lay the main museum floor.
It was pitch black everywhere. The emergency generators hadn't turned on like they were supposed to. The children huddled together, whispering about something among themselves. The light from the tiny cyberstack screens made their frightened faces look unhealthily pale.
"Everyone in one piece?"
"Yes! It's just dark. And scary... Will someone come and get us out?"
"Of course. Here you go, Daria," he gave the torch back to the teacher. "We need to take the students to the technical boxes, they're better protected." 
"Igor Vladimirovich, what happened?
He could barely make out her features in the gloom. She was as scared as the children and trying hard not to cry. Rokotov's appearance had weakened her resolve, for here was a person, who was undoubtedly braver and more decisive, who knew exactly what needed to be done...
She had no idea that Igor felt equally confused and overwhelmed.
"I think there was an earthquake," he said. 
"But this has never happened before!" Daria whispered. "There's no connection to even the rescue services... What are we going to do? The exit's been buried under, right?"
"Don't forget that Aquila is here. Get the children and follow me. The most important thing is to calm the children down and try not to panic yourself, all right? We'll have to be strong for a little while, but we'll definitely get out of here." 
She didn't reply, only nodded and stared at him anxiously for several more seconds.

* * *

In orbit around Dabog.

"Phantom-1 reporting, enemy transport has been destroyed!"
The pilot of the lead fighter plane watched the remains of the freight ship as it burned up in the atmosphere and then assessed the overall situation. The assault modules were on an approach course with the planet. The communication satellites had been shot down and orbits were clear, but something was going wrong down below.
Two mushroom-shaped clouds, piercingly bright at their base and streaked with flames, tightly woven with plumes of black smoke, had already reached the edge of the stratosphere.
"What the frayg?" thought the pilot, "did they actually shoot a nuclear warhead?"
Admiral Alexander Nagumo was wondering the same question as he stood on the bridge of the flagship cruiser.
"Recordings from the reconnaissance probes!" he ordered, refusing to listen to anyone's bumbling explanations.
A holographic screen appeared before him. The operating windows showed images of two large cities. They still looked whole on the recording from five minutes ago.
The 'megacity killers' appeared in the morning sky as two rapidly glowing arcs and immediately splintered into a multitude of fiery parts. The rocket warheads had split and now thousands of flaming missiles were falling onto the cities of Dabog.
A crawling sensation swept over Nagumo's scalp. He had last seen this on Mars. The outlines of the buildings suddenly shook and became hazy: they fractured, the facades exploded in a sparkling shower of glass, and clouds of cement dust boiled up from the street – level after level, suburb after suburb, the residential areas turning into rubble.
The projectiles were the result of military high-tech and consisted of layers of a special alloy.  When they struck an object, the outer shell turned into plasma, burning a crater in the city's cover, while the missile kept moving deeper and deeper, creating further explosions, punching through residential levels and felling the load-bearing constructions through multiple strike waves...
A thick smoke rose from the burning plastic. The concrete turned into dust, which was immediately burned up. Innumerable columns of smoke rose into the azure sky, flakes of ash and soot were flung up to the stratosphere, plunging this part of the continent into darkness.
Suddenly, in the wake of the destruction, a series of particularly bright flashes appeared in the dust clouds that obscured the ruins – a powerful impediment of some sort stood in the way of the weakening missiles.
A dazzling blaze swept along the ground and the sensors on the reconnaissance probes recorded strong energy signatures. Ancient underground constructions, equipped with nuclear reactors, lay at the base of the cities!
Nagumo watched in helpless fury as the plan of invasion collapsed.
Underneath the ceramic cover (made from the dismantled armor plates of the colonial transport) lay well-protected and securely shielded energy stations. Unsurprisingly, orbital scanning hadn't picked them up but no amount of explanation would help now. The 'megacity killers' burned through this obstacle. The probe sensors were blinded by the nuclear explosions.
They could forget about the military terraforming of the continent now. The act of intimidation, designed to break the will of the inhabitants of other planets, had turned into a nuclear disaster. "At least Dabog's capital wasn't attacked and is quite far away from the epicenter of the two explosions," the admiral thought in annoyance. "Who would have thought that these idiots would build modern cities on top of ancient colonial shelters?!"
Nagumo didn't even briefly think about the people who had perished in that terrifying moment. He was more concerned about the underground factories, so necessary for the fleet.

* * *
The bunker of the Colonization History Museum of Dabog. An hour after the catastrophe. 

"Mr. Igor, what are you doing?" a child's breaking voice sounded behind him.
Rokotov stopped the hand winch and turned around.
He hadn't managed to start the emergency generators. The avalanches had blocked many of the rooms. The only source of power right now was Aquila's engine, which was being used to charge the batteries that Igor had found in one of the technical boxes.
The boy that had sneaked into the hangar was called Sasha.
"There's been some sort of accident up above, you see," Igor squatted down and patiently repeated himself. "I need to get to the surface and call for help.  That's why I'm setting up the lasers. They'll help clear the tunnel."
"Can he do it?" the boy glanced at the silhouette of the ancient cybermechanism.
"Aquila is very strong. He'll manage."
"Really? Can you ask them to rescue us quickly, then? It's cold and we're hungry already."
"Don't worry. Go back to the other students, I've still got a lot of work to do."
"OK." The boy looked at Aquila again, then smiled shyly and bounced away to the entrance of the lit room, where the voices of other children could be heard.
Rokotov felt a lump in his throat. He no longer believed that everything would end so simply. The communications were still down. Nobody had tried to come to their rescue although enough time had passed. The emergency services knew the timetable of the excursions and should have reacted immediately.
None of mechanisms worked. Igor's hands were covered in scratches and shook from fatigue. He picked up the hand winch again, lifting a massive piece to the required height.
Finally, the locking plates clicked into place. Now he just had to connect the control unit and everything would be ready.
The hollow echo of approaching steps sounded again.
"Igor Vladimirovich, how is it going?" Daria asked worriedly.
"I'm finishing up. I've installed the tunneling lasers. I was preparing them for a performance at the next anniversary celebrations of the Fugitive's landing. It's ironic that I removed Aquila's technical manipulators a few days ago..." he wiped his hands and climbed up, where he began connecting the cables.
"Will you really be able to climb out?" 
"There is a tunnel leading from the hangars, designed to fit servomachines. It has partially collapsed but I'll clear the way," Rokotov replied confidently. "The charged batteries will last you three or four hours," he connected the last socket and came back down. "Take the children deeper into the hall. I'll activate Aquila now."  
"All right," Daria caught his gaze and held it for a second.
Igor wanted to reassure and cheer her up but the words wouldn't come out.
"Go," he forced himself to say. "I'll send help soon. I'll have to seal the doors to this part of the shelter since the tunnel will fill up with smoke when I start cutting the rocks..."
Daria hugged him suddenly and whispered, "Be careful... and come back soon."
Their lives took place on different planes. They barely knew each other, with only a brief nod whenever they met. In these short moments, they had become so close to each other and so needed...
"Leave the communicator on. I'll get in touch as soon as I find anything out."

* * *

The drone of electromotors and the rustle of servodrivers broke the silence of the technical box. With a pneumatic hiss, Aquila's body became free of the station's equipment supports. Its legs straightened, testing the recently replaced parts.
Rokotov turned the servomachine towards the tightly closed control gates, beyond which lay the emergency tunnel, stretching through the mountain range.
He immediately noticed the cracks in the sturdy reinforced concrete vault. Water was already seeping through them in several places. Fragments of the shattered lighting panels crunched under Aquila's feet.
Igor piloted the ancient cybermechanism confidently. It must be said that Hans Gervet created a genius construction, which (with a certain level of skill) could even be operated by a teenager. Nevertheless, Aquila's system had plenty of secrets which had yet to be discovered. For example, it's neuronal component. The chips, obviously borrowed from the Hugo BD-12 series of androids, formed the neural system of the servomachine and were responsible for many of the important functions, such as maintaining balance. But did Aquila possess artificial intelligence?
The question so far remained unanswered. Many of the neural chips were damaged. Rokotov had recently replaced them but this didn't have an immediate effect. It took time for the artificial neural network to piece together the fragments of the past and show itself...
...The distance gauge beeped shrilly. The avalanche was blocking Igor’s way. The columns of light indicating the surrounding temperature and radiation levels suddenly leapt up into the yellow zone.
Igor was dumbfounded for the first few moments. The avalanche was to be expected but what about the increased temperature and radiation? Where did that come from?
The indicators didn't stop there – trembling, they slowly approached the red zone. The cabin sealed automatically as Aquila's system continued to process the obtained data.
Predicted surface temperature: 53 degrees Celsius.
Lethal radiation level!
Igor couldn't believe that this was truly happening. He manually reset the sensors but repeat scanning produced the same result.
Normal human fear now looked like a pale shadow compared to the sense of impending doom that flooded his brain. His heart beat like mad. His breathing sped up. His palms were sweaty.
No, this must be a mistake, a fault in the sensors...
Dust particles spun in the light of the projectors. The communication frequencies crackled. The uncertainty drove him mad and he reached for the control joysticks again. His trembling fingers touched the laser tunneling controls.
Two ruby red lines pierced the cement, cutting into it like a hot knife through butter.
There was thunder and fragments showered down. The way was soon clear but Igor hesitated. Through the opening in the rocks, he saw low-lying, crimson-colored roiling clouds.
The sensors went crazy.
Rokotov forced Aquila to take several steps. The tunnel opening flashed on the overview screens. The torn down gates lay on the black, and in some places, smoking hillside. A little further down the slope, he saw the burnt trunks of trees, flung to one side, and thickets of carelessla that had lost their leaves and looked like frayed rolls of burnt wire.       
Large flakes of ash spun through the air like snow.

* * *

Aquila froze on the blackened slope. The flattened cabin of the servomachine slowly turned around as it scanned the surroundings. The hot gloomy air shimmered and wavered, the large amount of ash obscured visibility and Rokotov had to release probes to obtain an image of the nearby city.
What he saw shocked him.
There was almost nothing left of the megacity: only mounds of wreckage, and the stunted, jagged ruins of the lower levels of buildings, which stretched along the edge of a huge, fire-breathing pit.
For a second, Igor thought that he had died and ended up in a mythical hell.
The low, crimson clouds pressed down like a stone slab over his head. Hundreds of smoke pillars reached up to meet them. There was no contact with the satellites and the automatic frequency search could not find a signal.
Igor's mind glitched. He was overcome with shock and terror. The absolute destruction spoke of hundreds of thousands of deaths. Nobody had survived – the radiation level left no space for hope.
Rokotov's gaze went blank while Aquila's scanners impassively picked up more and more details: a thermal map overlay the surroundings, letting him see the numerous glowing craters, which had already been covered by ash.
The earthquake theory clearly wasn’t right, but what had really happened?!
A strange flash appeared and then faded on the horizon. The wind grew stronger. A storm of ash danced around Aquila in a devilish frenzy.
"As long as Daria and the children stay inside the bunker and don't do anything silly..." Igor’s thoughts were disjointed and jumped around. He couldn't imagine what kind of disaster had befallen Dabog, that had turned the familiar area into a radioactive desert.
The craters didn't fit into the picture of an earthquake at all. His confusion and bewilderment grew, while the situation worsened with every passing second. A new series of jolts swept over the land, a distant blaze shone through the murk for a moment, but its origin remained mysterious and unknown...
"It's 300 kilometers from here to the capital as the crow flies. There are vehicle tunnels passing through the mountain range. If they haven't collapsed, I'll be able to contact someone on the other side and call for help," these thoughts helped Rokotov to shake off the daze.
The self-stabilization gyroscopes howled dully and the three-toed legs of the ancient servomachine pressed deeply into the glowing soil and scratched against the rock. Aquila turned around and headed towards the road that had melted into the soil.

* * *

The closest tunnel had indeed survived.
Rokotov passed through it without meeting anything alive. A wave of heat swept over him in the narrow space: the burned out flycars still smoked, piled up on top of each other. In some places, pools of oils burned, dispelling the darkness.
Several times, Igor had to force his way through piles of cars, crushing the smoking metal with Aquila's feet.
A plain opened up on the other side of the low mountain range. Igor thought that the cliffs had protected the agricultural farms from the catastrophe, but he had been wrong. The radiation level dropped only slightly and remained dangerous to life.
The low ash clouds blocked out the sunlight, creating a dusky environment. A blind cow staggered along the edge of a smoking field. One of its sides was completely burnt and bloodied ribs stuck out through the charcoaled hide. The animal was screaming with pain. Igor was so stunned by this scene that he forgot about the controls and Aquila stopped, a dying howl coming from its servomotors.
The blind cow stopped, turned to face the sound, and Igor was faced with a surreal image, for the animal's other side was completely whole.
A lump was stuck in Igor's throat. The animal's cry was a plea for mercy but his fingers shook and he couldn't grab the joystick. Rokotov's mind began to crack in these moments. Everything became enveloped in fog. He had been desperately hoping that things would be different on this side of the mountains, but he was wrong. The farm buildings stood without their roofs. The shattered windows were framed by pools of fiberglass. One side of the building was coated in soot with a pale human outline standing out sharply against the background: someone had stood there in the moment of the blast.
Tears came unbidden into his eyes. His misty gaze could find only more evidence of death around him. The trees planted along the road had been toppled over and uprooted, while the ones that still stood upright reached their charred branches to the ash-covered sky like broken arms.
Only Aquila's scanners continued to gather information, scant lines of data appearing on the screen.
There had been several nuclear explosions. The direction of the blast waves and the radiation indicated that the second large city on the continent had also been destroyed. Furthermore, the servomachine's sensors picked up a group of awakened volcanoes near the shore. They were the source of the flashes that intermittently lit up the horizon.
Only the probe sent in the direction of Dabog's capital showed a gradual decrease in the radiation levels. 
Igor's lips shook. No matter what would happen, his previous life was gone forever.
The screaming cow, whose one side had turned into a bloody pulp and the other side glistened pristinely, was like the two halves of his broken life...
He finally pressed the switch and ended the animal's suffering.
The frequency scanner continued to crackle with interference. Ash floated through the air.
Several minutes passed before Aquila began moving again, turning towards the capital city and cutting straight through the field.
Igor didn't have much time left. The energy in the museum's bunker would only last another 3-4 hours. Thinking about the children trapped there helped to clear Igor's head and get himself under control.
I must bring help...

* * *

The air assault modules of the Terran Alliance entered Dabog's atmosphere, descending in the direction of the planet's capital, the only large city that had been spared an attack from space.
The now reddish sun still shone over this part of the continent, but the ash front was rapidly approaching.
"This is AAM-1," Major Sherman watched the groups of volcanoes that had awakened near the shore. "We have passed the low orbit zone. We've had no resistance and no communication intercepts. The city," he switched to the data from the probes, "looks abandoned."
This inhabitant of Earth hadn't been impressed by the sudden eruptions. He'd seen worse. The huge conical pipes of the waste incinerators in Europe Megacity, for example, had a diameter of several kilometers and reached up to the stratosphere. Several times per day, a flame would burst from them that lit up the sky from one horizon to the other...
The modules began a rapid descent. The cybernetic systems were scanning constantly but not finding any targets. This was concerning. According to the plan, Dabog's capital was to be captured in half an hour, and its population, frightened by the orbital bombardments inflicted on the other cities, would turn into willing hostages, ready to provide access to the bunkers and to release data from the biological studies conducted over centuries of colonization.
It looked like there was nobody to ask... "Where did the population all go?" the Major wondered as he studied the signature maps.
Raising clouds of dust, the air assault modules landed one after another at the edge of the city. Multi-tonne ramps dropped down with a clang and planetary combat vehicles rolled down them. From a distance, their cast wheels looked like giant rotary cutters.
A minute later, the armored vehicles reached the ring road surrounding the megapolis and surged towards their predetermined positions.
Sherman watched the situation from the tactical compartment and continued to puzzle over the disappearance of the city inhabitants. There should have been panic and chaos on the city streets, but instead they were empty!
Meanwhile, PCV-1 had reached the upper level of the nearest petal-like junction and stopped, swaying softly on its suspension. The assault team in their armored suits began climbing out. The vehicle's cybernetic system had found a target – a communications complex at the top of one of the high-rise buildings. The plasma generator turret turned sharply and a small clump of energy, similar to ball lighting, formed within the force field and was rapidly shot upwards.
There was a flash a few seconds later and shards of melted metallic constructions showered down.
"Communications node has been destroyed. No natives seen, maybe they've all died from fear," Captain Joshua, in command of the planetary vehicle division, made a nervous and clumsy joke.
There was a sharp smell of ozone in the air after the attack. Soon it would become familiar to many worlds, the smell of high-tech death.
Sherman didn't reply to the captain. He wasn’t liking this silence.

* * *

For the past hour, Igor had taken Aquila down the highway, moving at over a hundred kilometers per hour and overtaking the ash cloud front. The radiation level was steadily decreasing, which gave him hope. The foggy outline of the megapolis could already be seen in the distance. It seemed that he would soon meet people or at least catch the signal of the emergency services.
Suddenly a hot, gusty wind began to blow. Thick, billowing clouds covered the whole sky. Filled with ash, they separated into strips, passing so low that it seemed like they could touch the servomachine's cabin.
Visibility dropped again and the air around Aquila seemed to collapse. Then, on top of everything else, came a downpour of rain.
The drops of deadly water, mixed with ash, struck the servomachine's armor. The Bao tree plantations that stretched along the highway began to wither before Igor's eyes. He watched the crowns of the young and not yet sturdy saplings dropping helplessly, dying from the effects of the radioactive rain. 
The frequency scanner unexpectedly picked up a communications signal.
"Finally!" Rokotov touched the communication sensor but the information channel turned out to be encrypted!
"How is this possible?! Shouldn't the emergency services broadcast on an open channel?" his thoughts faltered. An additional screen suddenly lit up on one of Aquila's consoles. Igor had never seen this subsystem in action previously, which was related to the servomachine's neural net.
Protected communication channel found.
Cryptographic subsystem activated. Analysis is being conducted.
Igor knew that Dabog's colonization history contained many dark and poorly recorded moments. Due to the crash of the colonial transport, groups of people came out of cryogenic sleep at intervals of many months and sometimes years. They took the available technology and formed the initial colonies. These enclaves often fought with each other. Nevertheless, Rokotov would not have guessed that the servomachines took part in these clashes of many centuries ago!
Despite all that, it took Aquila only a few minutes to break into the protected communication channel. 
The sound of a foreign voice shocked him. Igor didn't even understand the language in the first few moments. He needed some time to understand that it was Intergalactic English, spoken by everyone of Dabog, but significantly altered, full of unusual turns of phrase and unfamiliar words.
He felt chills run down his spine as he listened to this foreign voice, gradually becoming used to the accent and beginning to make out separate words. When he understood what was being said, he bit his lip until it bled and continued to listen...
"Dammit, Major, they've hidden away like rats!"
"Rotmistrov, frayg take you, report properly! What is the problem? Where is the population?"
There was a sharp crackle of interference and then speech again:
"...we can't reach them. There's a deeply echeloned system of bunkers here! It's like another city but underground!"
"Did they realize what was happening?"
"Yes. And they've sealed off all the entrances!"
"Are there many?"
"Sorry?" Many who?"
"Entrances, you dolt!"
"There's one in the basement of each building! That's why they managed to descend so quickly into their shelters!"
"So find some ventilation shafts or other pipelines!"
"Everything's sealed off. There are probably closed-circuit life support systems in the bunkers. Past tech, I bet. We should have struck this city from space!"
The interference crackled again.
The meaning of what he had heard slowly seeped into Igor's brain. The words, like rocks thrown into water, sunk through the layers of terrible images seen over the past few hours, and dropped to the bottom of his exhausted soul – heavy lumps of fact that left no room for doubt...
"...Rotmistrov, get them out of there! This is in your own best interests! If you need to, blow up the seal or open up one of the shafts and pump gas in there!"
"So that they die off underground? It's an option, of course, but what will Nagumo say? The admiral needs..."
"Shut up and carry out my orders!' Sherman roared. "The admiral needs the controlled environment of the bunkers and the automatic manufacturing plants! Nagumo will have our hides if we don't report the planet's capture in due time! We'll be buried alive in the mines of Ganymede, in the name of Uncle Hammer! Do you get it now, imbecile?!"
"I get it, don't you worry, Major. But think about this, if we don't leave any captives alive, who is going to give us the access codes? Who will give us the results of the biological studies?"
"I said to frayg with it all! The information that we need must be in their computers! That's it! Go! I must report to the 'Shadow of Earth' in an hour! Open up the bunkers! I don't care how many people die in there, get it?! It's my ass that I'm worried about!"
Igor listened to the argument between the two officers and an icy feeling grew in his chest.
A strike from space... My ass that I'm worried about... Gas...
They couldn't be human! Igor couldn't believe it! He didn't want to!
"I must have gone crazy..." Rokotov whispered painfully, crushing his pulsing temples between his hands. "I've gone crazy!"
He had forgotten that his communicator was still connected to the encrypted communication channel.
"Hey, who's that mumbling? What do you mean 'gone crazy'? Who has gotten onto the command frequency?"
Igor could taste the salty tang of blood on his bitten lip... He had never thought that a person could change so much in only a few hours.
With one strike, everything had been ripped from his life... His mind refused to believe it but it seemed that his soul already did... He remembered the pale silhouette of a person on the wall, the blinded cow blundering along the road, and understood that the words he had heard were not an empty threat... The newcomers from the distant, long-forgotten ancestral planet had already decided that they had the right to come and murder...

Chapter 3.

Dabog. Downtown.

The rain poured down without stopping.
The planetary combat vehicle bearing the number 7 crossed the city by moving down the central avenue, and without meeting any opposition, burst from the narrow jumble of buildings onto the expansive road interchange.
This was not at all how Lieutenant Patrick Goodman had imagined landing on colony planets. There had been an aggressive information campaign prior to the invasion, where Dabog was presented as a world ready for immediate colonization. The new Promised Land remained inaccessible only due to the selfish stubbornness of a small group of colonists, according to the mass media.
The combat vehicle's sensors now showed the complete opposite. Despite the transformations performed by the colonists, a person from Earth had to beware of a multitude of deathly dangers...
"Seven, are you there? Report!"
"I have reached the southern road interchange," replied the lieutenant. "The assault team is still combing through the buildings but I think that it's a waste of time."
"Hold your position. And think less," there was no triumph in Captain Joshua's voice, only irritation and worry.
Goodman looked at the screens again. He didn't know what real life was like and had never seen death. All his so-called values had been formed in virtual reality and could not have prepared the young lieutenant with a meeting with another world. He knew that many people had died on Dabog on this day, but didn't feel any compassion.
The unexpected trill of the long-distance sensors startled him.
Goodman froze in the first second. It turned out that the mind can clearly differentiate between realities. This wasn't the virtual training area. In virtual space, he hadn't felt even a tiny fraction of all the sensations that washed over him.
"This is seven reporting! We have guests! Unknown signature, fifteen kilometers away and approaching rapidly! Heading four-sixteen-south!" he announced in a rush.
His message flowed through the network of the invasion division like a nervous impulse. Major Sherman immediately turned his attention to the situation, since he was responsible for the ground operation.
Looking at the signature analysis data, he switched on the comms:
"Keep it cool, Lieutenant. It's probably a lost robot from one of the agrofarms. At least it's some sort of entertainment during our rainy walk, right?"
Goodman didn't appreciate the man's attempt at humor.
"I consulted the intelligence database. This signature is unknown!"
"Don't panic! Just trust me on this. And don't forget that the PCV has no worthwhile opponents!"
The telemetry switched on. Now the planetary combat vehicle could be seen from different angles on the tactical module screens, with filming done by the accompanying probes.
The huge ribbed wheels skidded over the wet road and the multi-tonne vehicle leapt forward with the speed of a racing flycar, leaving behind a plume of smoke.
Major Sherman liked the lieutenant's keenness, in which he could sense the trembling of a predator that had first smelled blood. No matter who was hiding in the depths of radiation-poisoned tree plantations, they were about to come face-to-face with some serious problems!

* * *

The Bao tree plantations, Dabog's main agricultural crop, surrounded the city like a solid green wall. Now they were withering away. Rokotov directed Aquila over the remains of the crushed plant life.
He could not understand how one could enter someone else's house and kill without pause, and justify it somehow... Everything that he loved, everything that he believed in was dying before his eyes. Invisible death hung over everything: it fell from the sky in droplets of rain, it squelched under the feet of the servomachine in the oversaturated soil.
He felt deafened. A ringing emptiness filled his soul.
Having directed Aquila to the southern edge of the city, the location of the cargo bay of an ancient colonial shelter, Igor knew what he had to do in the nearest ten to fifteen minutes. But how was he supposed to live after this?
It turned out that these fragile seconds of hopelessness were a crucible. Igor’s soul, like a rusty piece of metal, was thrown into the fire and burned away, leaving behind the cinders of the past. To keep living, he had to force down the hopelessness, grinding his teeth and accepting the irreparable damage that had been inflicted, but what would remain? What would his new inner core be made of? Hate? Madness? Desperate recklessness?
It was impossible to predict. It would be decided in seconds, for the true clash of civilizations happens face-to-face and eye-to-eye.
Right now, Igor filled the gnawing emptiness inside with thoughts of Daria and the children. I must reach the cargo bay... I'll find an all-terrain vehicle there with an untouched emergency store and send it to the museum bunker...
Igor was just a normal person. He followed the path of desperate hope, seriously believing that one could hide behind airlocks and sealed gates from a conflict between two worldviews, which is what war really is.
Igor released a probe, which disappeared among the withered trees, and a few seconds later, the terrain map lit up with a scattering of red markers.
Were they Terrans?
The system was still processing the gathered data when the wall of trees unexpectedly split into two under the force of an enormous, blunt-nosed vehicle. Hidden by its masking field, it rapidly attacked the ancient agrobot from the side.
Igor didn't have time to react. A bolt of plasma scorched the left side of the cabin, Aquila's sensors were burned away and the surrounding screens went dark. There was a fading howl of the servomotors while missiles struck the robot's armor. One of them pierced the cabin, ripped through the base of the piloting chair and blew up the edge of the chair's back.
The overwhelming strike made Rokotov's consciousness fade for a moment...
The seventh platoon of the colonial space troopers (this was now the name of the planetary forces) reached the southern road interchange.
The troopers were angry and tired after combing through the city blocks abandoned by the inhabitants. Their camouflage armor was covered in raindrops and blended into the gray color of the street. The closed visors occasionally flashed with electrostatic charges, which dispersed the radioactive drizzle.
The planetary combat vehicle suddenly came alive, its motors roaring hollowly as it launched forward. The phantom generators kicked in and the PCV disappeared from scanners, with only the fallen trees marking its passage.
"Where did Goodman rush off to?" the platoon's computer technician asked in puzzlement.
"No idea. I think they found some kind of signature," replied the sergeant and added, "We've been ordered to take our positions and await further orders." 
The pale glow of a plasma shot and the rapid drumbeat of targeting electromagnetic weapons suddenly came from the direction of the disappeared PCV.  
Lieutenant Goodman's pale lips trembled from the stress. He was stunned by the size of the behemoth that he had managed to fell with his unexpected attack. He had never seen anything like it in his life! The cabin of the colonial machine, dribbling smoke, rose above the wilted tops of the trees, which were at least fifteen meters tall!
"I shot it!" Patrick exhaled.
The lieutenant was severely mistaken in his belief that it was all over. It was not enough to just shoot down a machine created by Hans Gervet. One had to do it again and again, and then cautiously approach the pile of twisted metal, in case it came alive again.
Even now, this colonial monster triggered an unconscious sense of alarm.
"Finish it off!" came the abrupt order from Major Sherman. 
"Finish off the pilot! He's still alive, can't you see?!"
Goodman looked at the summary display and swore under his breath. True enough, the scanners showed the warm outline of a person, standing out from the overall signature.
The fear was suddenly back as a sweaty trembling. 
Goodman's subconscious didn't feel gleefully victorious, as if an inner voice kept whispering, 'Something is wrong, lieutenant'.
The reactor of the enormous colonial mechanism was still working. The plasma-heated armor was peppered with holes but it was exuding a gray foam, which rapidly hardened. The behemoth's system was clearly restoring the control cabin's seal!
"Hurry up and die already!" he thought as he aimed at the pilot's warm outline.

* * *

War is a hell where the phantom of near death rips away everything contrived and reveals each person's true nature.
Life grasps people and throws them into the whirlpool of war like blind kittens. Someone will swim to safety, someone else with drown, and someone, in a desperate attempt to save oneself, will climb over the heads of friends or enemies, whoever is there.
In any case, nobody knows how to swim at the start but they learn, rapidly and painfully.
Something savage burst forth from Patrick Goodman. He tried to quash the fear inside but it only grew, demanding an immediate blood offering. 
Die! It was the only word he heard in the whine of the servomotors controlling the aim.
Rokotov regained consciousness among a crimson fog of pain. His throat hurt from the acrid smoke. Something hot and sticky was sliding down his temple and cheek. The control panels doubled in front of his eyes. The ringing from the contusion drowned out all other sounds.
Cabin seal had been restored.
Reserve sensors are active.
Confirming the system message, the holographic screens switched on again.
Igor struggled to focus on the machine attacking him. Its frontal armor contained two electromagnetic guns. Their barrels suddenly twitched, jerking right and left, as if they were alive, aiming... at him!
His back was drenched in cold sweat.
It was a terrifying moment of shock, a desperate desire to live, a nagging icy feeling in his chest. Rokotov suddenly understood very clearly that if he hesitated for a few more seconds, he would be killed...
The reserve indicators glowed brightly on the control panels. The system had already bypassed the damaged links and had restored all its functions.
Igor's hands grasped the control joysticks. The right thumb flicked off the safety switch on the tunneling laser control. The servomotors howled as they straightened and rotated Aquila's frame.
Lieutenant Goodman could not believe his eyes.
The enormous servomechanism, which a moment ago had been still and slumping towards the soaking earth, had come alive and was straightening up. Lumps of sealing foam were still being forced through the jagged tears in the frame.
The PCV scanners let out a warning shriek, noting the unexpected energy spike: pumping mechanisms began to work in the depths of the colonial mechanism, while the rotary barrels of the two heavy lasers on the robot's shoulders suddenly started spinning.
"Goodman, fire!" Major Sherman screamed over the comms. The division commander watched what was happening from the tactical section of the assault ship, a safe distance away from the unfolding events.
The PCV's guns sprayed long lines of bullets but the giant servomachine shifted out of the line of fire so that only a few missiles scraped along its armor and bounced off, shredding the nearby trees.
In the next moment, Aquila's cabin unexpectedly spun around: the colonists' robot was moving along the path towards the city, but its heavy lasers stayed locked on the planetary vehicle of the Alliance. 
The PCV plasma generator didn't have time to reload – a new burst of energy was still gathering in the force field...
"Goodman, move!" Major Sherman saw the whole picture and understood what was about to happen but his order came too late.
The emitting tubes of the immensely powerful rotary lasers released a storm of coherent radiation.  
The air in the narrow glade boiled up. The planetary combat vehicle's armor was split open all along its length and burned right through.
"Frayg! I missed! Aaaaah!!!" Goodman's deathly scream was drowned out by the thunder.
The mud was boiling. The trees were aflame. Geysers of overheated steam shot up into the sky, everything was enveloped in a thick fog and images from the probes' cameras disappeared. Only one reconnaissance unit, moving along the edge of the plantation, continued to transmit images, automatically zooming in as much as possible.
Major Sherman could clearly see the pulpy leaves of the unfamiliar trees curling from the heat, and a burning, spinning ribbed wheel with the remains of a melted axle fly out of the fire.  Another series of powerful explosions shook the ground and the blackened, twisted PCV flashed past the video camera: a fragment of the armored vehicle flew several hundred meters through the air and crashed into the base of the road interchange.

* * *

The colonial infantry forces had barely taken their positions when a burst of automatic gunfire thundered behind the wall of rain, there was a blinding flash and the blast wave rolled over the ground.
When they saw a charred fragment of the PCV get dragged along the reinforced concrete, nobody panicked. Their amazement was too great. There were only unintelligible exclamations – even the veterans of local conflicts had never truly come face-to-face with death. Wars in the 27th century were only demonstrations of technological might and very rarely, non-contact strikes. An orbiting cruiser could control a whole planet by aiming its guns at the cities below and forcing the inhabitants of the intrasystemic colonies to do the bidding of the World Government.
Right now, the fighters were stunned as the myth of the indestructibility of the PCV was destroyed before their eyes. Fear came a few seconds later, when the howling servomotors announced the arrival of a huge, threatening outline of a colonial mechanism that towered above the wall of trees.
Shrouded in steam, it looked like a horrible hallucination.
"Command-1, this is Infantry-7!" the sergeant pressed himself into the small cement fence that he was hiding behind and hurriedly made the report. "We've lost the PCV!"
"Do you see the opponent, seven?"
"Y-yes," the sergeant stammered. The technological monster that had just destroyed the PCV continued to tower above the tops of the trees. Its construction seemed inexplicable, matching none of the known combat technologies.
"Listen carefully," Major Sherman also didn't sound very calm. "It's just an agricultural robot of the colonists! Do you hear me?! Forget about what happened! Goodman was dumb enough to get in the line of fire! Hold your position until the other PCVs arrive! They're coming!"
The next phrase was lost in the interference.
The sergeant peeked cautiously over the top of the fence. The creepy servomechanism wasn't moving. Did Goodman damage it after all?!

* * *

A person doesn't break down in an hour, even if they are under pressure from deadly and insurmountable odds. They will keep their character and habits, everything that makes them who they are, for a little while longer.
So it was for Igor.
When he fired the shots, he saw only the enemy vehicle and acted decisively and instinctively, but when he heard the desperate, dying scream in the communicator, the thought of other people (even if they were the enemy) stabbed him like a knife.
The emotional impulse that pushed Rokotov out of the pilot chair could not be comprehended. Common sense dissipated. Igor’s moral shock was stronger.
Dabog's society wasn't perfect but they treasured life. Igor didn't understand that the invaders from the overpopulated homeland were raised with a different value system. They were cannon fodder, an easily replaceable 'human resource', much cheaper than the complex planetary technology.
He had yet to learn this truth but now he climbed outside and ran to the burning wreckage of the planetary vehicle, feeling the nightmare become reality.
"I'm coming... coming!" his bloodless lips kept whispering.
 Rokotov thought that the people buried under the twisted metal could still be alive and hear him.
A radioactive rain poured from the sky. Hot mud steamed underfoot.
The storm of laser shots had cut the planetary vehicle into several parts and the internal explosions had finished off what he had started by scattering the remains all around.
Igor slowed down and then stopped, looking around him.
He glanced over the twisted interior of a compartment: he could see a hand under the wreckage, still clutching the controls.
Igor grasped it and pulled. The mound of smoking metal shifted and he saw the deathly pale and grimacing face of a stranger. Suddenly, the upper half of the body, bloodied and smoldering along the bottom edge, slipped easily into the mud.
Igor threw up. Suppressing the spasms with difficulty, he stared into the Terran's dead eyes for several seconds and then staggered back, swaying as if intoxicated. Igor leaned heavily on Aquila's leg and then was sick again.
The rain washed the mixture of blood and water off Rokotov's fingers.
In this instant began his descent into apathy and hate. This terrifying, desperate second marked the beginning of the Galactic War, the moment when the defense of Dabog began, which all the history books would write about in the future.
Right now, one man stood under a lethiferous rain, staring blindly ahead and trying to suppress his uncontrollable trembling.
Aquila rose above him. The overheated lasers were enveloped in steam. The warning signal from the scanners was transmitted to Rokotov's cyberstack but he didn't react. The bottom of the servomechanism opened automatically and an elevating segment slid down, as if the ancient agrobot was calling him back into the cabin...

Chapter 4.

High planetary orbit. On board the flagship cruiser Endgrouse. 

"We've lost one PCV!" the report from the tactical center came as Nagumo was studying the plans of the bunkers, obtained from deep scanning.
"What?!" he turned abruptly.
"The planetary combat vehicle attached to the seventh platoon has been destroyed!"
"All information to my terminal!"
The admiral struggled to keep himself under control. He could see the shock and bewilderment in the eyes of the officers standing on the bridge.
The invasion plan was falling apart as it was. Many factors hadn't been considered. The rocket strike had been too powerful, the nuclear catastrophe had been unforeseen, while the colonized continent was under a veil of deadly precipitation due to the strength and direction of the winds.
So what happened now?!
The image of the gigantic servomechanism, armed with two industrial lasers, impressed but didn't frighten the admiral. He understood that he had been sent this angle of filming on purpose. The armored vehicles looked like toys, captured from a significant height.
"Give me a decent image!" he demanded irritably.
The panorama on the screen grew larger. Now the colonial mechanism was walking, leaving deep indents in the sodden earth and its curved body breaking the tree branches around it, while the planetary vehicle made its way through the forest, crushing the tree trunks that fell into the mud with an agonizing shudder of their leaves...
Nagumo watched the recording up to the moment when the blast wave destroyed the reconnaissance probes.
He sat for several seconds, staring at the darkened screen.
"How many are there?" he finally asked.
"Give me the chief fleet engineer!" Nagumo glanced over the tactical data. The Shadow of Earth's orbit was taking it over Dabog's capital in this very moment. "Give me Nadyrov on a secure channel."
Nagumo had appropriately assessed the degree of risk. There was no time to deal with the intelligence services, who had missed the fact that the colonists possessed such powerful technology.  The situation had to be rectified at once!
Two communication channels switched on simultaneously and the admiral combined them with an annoyed flick of his hand. Let Tiberius look at the behemoth and listen to the opinion of the technical specialist.
The head fleet engineer had already seen the recording and now, while it was being transmitted to the bridge of The Shadow of Earth, decided to immediately begin his explanations.
"This mechanism was created by a truly genius constructor and it has no counterparts among modern technology. The machine contains a reactor that supplies the lasers, whose power is comparable to the largest guns on a frigate. The external view and the signatures recorded by the probes don't give us enough information about its construction so it's vital that we capture the robot for further studies, even if it's damaged!"
"What do you say, Tiberius?"
"There are cargo portals nearby, leading to the ancient shelters. If the robot gets in there and plants itself among the reinforced concrete, it's unlikely that we will be able to defeat it using our assault forces. I think it must be destroyed. At once."
Nadyrov's logic was easy to understand. While Earth's fleet had complete dominance in space, it had a limited number of assault subdivisions since most of the intrasystemic wars had taken place in the asteroid belt and involved small forces. For this reason, the design of the ships did not allow a large number of assault forces. If there would be prolonged fighting on the planet, the whole operation would fail.
"Admiral, sir, the sample's destruction is unacceptable! Can't you see that if we possess a prototype of such a machine, we could..."
"Tiberius, act!" Nagumo interrupted the engineer. "Destroy it! We'll figure it all out later. I need a report that the planet has been captured in less than an hour!"
"But the seventh assault platoon is there currently!" the chief fleet engineer threw down his last ace.
"You can chip in and build them a memorial," the admiral brushed him off.

* * *

The first wall of explosions came half a kilometer south of the road interchange and threw up an orange-black shower of earth into the sky.
The Aquila swayed and that snapped Rokotov out of his daze. The screens showed him the fiery hand of the orbital strike ploughing through the plain, rapidly nearing the edge of the plantations. He suddenly understood that he no longer feared death, for his mind and soul had broken down completely. 
The nervous trembling was gone as if everything human had been left behind, beyond the experienced shock.
He touched the controls automatically and shuddered when he felt their soft, porous coating.
"I'm still alive..."
Aquila's right leg lifted from the mud with a sucking noise. Igor's heart bet slowly and evenly. He moved the machine out of the way of the approaching explosions.
A new wall of flame ran through the city suburbs. Several buildings on the Avenue of Fugitives suddenly shuddered and began to collapse, tossing up clouds of white cement dust.
Someone yelled angrily and wordlessly on the radio.
The clouds boiled, the glowing lines of rockets struck the ground like a rain of fire.
"First, you bastards! Where are you shooting? We're here!!!"
The fragments pelted Aquila's armor.
"Withdraw!" someone's breaking voice sounded over the comms.
The orbital strike was gaining power with every passing second: it seemed as if the earth itself had reared up and was hovering in the air, contrary to the laws of physics.
Aquila's frame shuddered from the crushing vibrations but the servomachine maintained its balance: a multitude of automatic subsystems were helping Igor by making split-second decisions.
Navigating between the explosions, Rokotov was initially aiming for the cargo portal of the colonial shelter but the fire kept getting denser in that direction. Stepping over an intersection that had been shattered by a direct strike, with only its reinforced cement foundations remaining, he was forced to turn onto the central avenue.
The search and identification system was self-learning as it went. If its database had previously contained information on aggressive lifeforms on Dabog, now the list was being supplemented by a variety of cybernetic monsters: several times already, Aquila's scanners had confidently identified the signatures of planetary combat vehicles among the fire and smoke.
All around Igor, buildings were collapsing from the damage done to their walls. The sensors found another PCV among the fiery splashes: it was lurking in the ruins at the intersection, and loading up its plasma generator.
Igor found the target and gripped the tunneling laser controls.
Streaks of coherent radiation pierced the gloom. There was a shower of cement fragments and a powerful explosion.
The frequency scanner cut off the interference and emitted someone's voice, "He's coming! He's still coming! We've lost the second PCV!"
The past was burning up in the boiling hellfire of the city streets. The Igor Rokotov that had parked his flycar in front of the museum this morning was gone.
The fragments of phrases he heard over the comms no longer upset him.
"Bring out the AAM! Launch the rockets at him!"
On the other side of the city, two signatures of the air assault modules began to rapidly gain power. The assault ships were a serious threat to the Aquila, but Igor had passed beyond doubts, fear and pity, he was burning up in the knowledge that he was not going to survive this battle.
His grief, bounding on madness, pushed him to take a desperate step. Crashing through the wall of one of the buildings, he led the servomachine onto a highway segment that had somehow been spared.
The air assault modules could only be seen on the scanners as pale energy matrixes. They were landing at intervals of 500 meters. Right now, the middle pair was lifting into the air while they turned to make a pass over the target.
Rokotov launched a volley from the industrial lasers and then immediately reversed.
The elevated segment of road was reduced to pieces by the return fire while a bright glow suddenly blossomed where the scanners had noted the AAM position, illuminating the low clouds. One of the modules was clearly damaged.
Igor realized a very important fact in this moment: the invading forces were relatively small and he could fight as an equal with any of the Terran vehicles.  
Navigating towards the glow, Igor headed into the ruins and then turned Aquila towards the northern edge of the city.  

* * *

A volley from the PCV's guns reached Aquila at the next intersection. The cabin had already been pierced in several places and the screens flickered as a bitter smoke seeped from underneath the damaged consoles.
Four planetary combat vehicles were shooting from inside a building, having positioned themselves on the ground floor, behind the shattered front window of a supermarket.
The frame's rotary motors worked jerkily with a screech of damaged metal.  The storm of laser charges cut through the building's supporting beams, collapsing it on top of the enemy.
The combat vehicles' plasma generators exploded in blinding flashes among the pale clouds of dust, burning huge holes in the cement.
If Rokotov had obeyed rules, tactics or tricks during his terrifying march through the streets of the destroyed city, he would have died. But it was only the maddening grief that drove him. Having resigned himself to death, Igor directed Aquila toward the fire, driven by a single urge – to destroy the enemy's assault ships at any price.
They should not have come to Dabog. They had no right to be here...
Igor didn't know that the enemy was beginning to feel a mystical terror at the sound of Aquila's heavy and fatalistic sixty-tonne tread.  
The next explosion was only a few meters away. A spinning section of the cement curb flew past the cabin. A scraping sound came from Aquila's right leg.
"...entering Sector Four! That's a click away from the AAM's position!"
"...the planet's fuel is burning! We can't put it out..."
"... can't stop it! It struck the right leg... He has ceramic armor! It's obviously the plating taken off a colonial transport! Another successful hit! It keeps moving! I have no idea what's powering it!"
Nagumo was listening to the comms and glanced glumly at the tactical monitor.
"Withdraw!" he ordered hollowly, having made the difficult decision. "Start the AAM when ready! These losses are unacceptable! We'll finish it off from orbit and then launch the assault modules again."
In truth, this was a crushing defeat. Two assault ships were burning in a pool of planetary fuel at the edge of the city. Six PCVs had been lost. The admiral couldn't comprehend how one colonial mechanism could do such a thing!
Approaching the landing site of the air assault modules, Igor noticed how people in vaguely familiar uniforms appeared and immediately hid among the ruins. 
He was having trouble thinking. The severe concussion that he had sustained and the two shrapnel wounds were making themselves known. His vision had become blurred. Aquila was leaning heavily to one side. The damaged servomotors in the right leg howled and scraped.
Something crackled alarmingly in the left laser, and its rotor was jammed. Showers of sparks cascaded off the top of the Aquila.
Crimson spots of pain floated before Igor's eyes. He was controlling Aquila with difficulty but there was almost no resistance in his path. The enemy was withdrawing and the orbital strikes had ceased.
Rokotov's drawn face and pale, tightly pressed together lips showed not only a desperate effort but also hopelessness. He truly felt that he had lost his right to live in the wreckage of the first destroyed planetary vehicle, among the ripped apart human bodies.
Signatures appeared again in the smoke. Two PCVs were approaching fast, attacking from opposite sides. They began firing from far away and the projectiles skimmed along the ruins, creating bursts of flame, before reaching Aquila and biting into its armor, causing the giant to stagger.
The right leg became completely jammed. The ancient servomechanism, created at the dawn of Dabog's colonization, genuinely surpassed Earth's technology, especially in its defenses and ability to keep functioning. This is what had allowed Rokotov to survive this long, but now the limit had been reached.
Aquila's frame was riddled with holes. The massive parts, made from the colonial transport's ceramic plates, were covered in pits and scorch marks. Most systems were still functioning, hidden deep under the armor, but one of the lasers had stopped working and the second was reloading slowly and jerkily since its reactor had been overloaded.
Ignoring the PCV, Rokotov turned the frame around. The cabin shifted with a metal screech so that it was slightly covered by the corner of a building. The target monitor showed pale crosses over the assault ships - two of them were in the firing line.
The right laser released a long volley of light with a scattering of sparks. They pierced the moist air with a hiss and struck the assault ship, burning through the defenses with a shower of molten metal.
Another powerful explosion shook the Avenue of Fugitives in the northern corner of the city.
The weapons of one of the starting AAM’s growled in answer. Inversion plumes of rocket fire exploded from behind the building ruins. The air itself was boiling. One of the rockets found its target yet the damaged Aquila remained standing. It leaned the front part of the cabin against the ruins and froze, enveloped in a cloud of poisonous green steam. Warning lights flickered on the control panels. The system had automatically shut down the overheated reactor. Hydraulic fluid squirted from the damaged power transmission of Aquila's limbs.
This is the end...
Rokotov was barely aware of reality. He had received a large dose of radiation and was bleeding from several shrapnel wounds. There was a roaring in his head and shifting his gaze to the surviving sensors was unbearably, painfully difficult.
The flames rose higher and higher in the north of the city. Igor couldn't understand why this was happening. He had shot down three modules, but the fire from the released planetary fuel could not have enveloped such a large area.
A few seconds later, Rokotov realized what was happening. The remaining ships were leaving, one after another.
They were running, abandoning the remaining assault teams and taking with them only the intact combat vehicles. It seemed that technology was much more valuable to them than human lives.
 The roar of the engines drowned out everything else. The ground shook. Like burning torches, the ships soared up into the ash-gray skies and slowly faded beyond the roiling clouds.
A few troops were still running towards the destroyed avenue, hoping to reach the last landing ship, when they were suddenly blocked by people wearing ancient protective suits.
They quickly surrounded the ship which had been damaged by the laser volley.
A tear rolled down Igor's cheek. He felt overwhelming fatigue.
A Hugo-BD12 model android swiftly climbed up Aquila's damaged leg. It tried to contact Rokotov but didn't receive a response and began manually opening the emergency hatch.
Hundreds of pillars of smoke rose into the sky. The low clouds touched the jagged ruins, scattering ash over the buildings.
Igor could no longer see it. He was unconscious.

release - March 22, 2018

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