[Have you read about the Shattered Skies Project, Imperial Literature's mission to self-publish a real paper sci-fi story collection?]
I sprint for the far side of the square, ducking behind the shattered remains of a vehicle. The sounds of pursuit are growing ever closer.
Not long now.
Of course, the final outcome is not in doubt. My mask cracked in the first moments of the assault, an unlucky ricochet. Since then I’ve been breathing a thin mix of scrubbed air and the soup of radioisotopes that comprises what’s left of the natural atmosphere in this part of the world. With the best medical care, I might survive a week – not that I’m going to have the chance.
I snap my rifle up, blinking to clear the sweat from my eyes. Across the square, something tall and unmistakably alien glitters softly. Three shots, the rifle banging painfully into my shoulder, draw a long squeal of agony. As soon as it falls, though, two more appear from the alleyway beyond. Damn it all to hell!
Something buzzes past my left shoulder and buries itself in the wall with a dull whump. Muscles shrieking, I throw myself aside and a heartbeat later the air is split by silent purple light. Chunks of masonry flail me.
Time to go. Firing blindly over the car, I lunge for the smooth-edged hole that has been carved in the building behind. Projectiles whine through the air, but high, and the cool shadows fold around me.
The clock in my mask marks 03:45 – less than half an hour since first contact. The noise of background fire is intermittent now, and fear rises like gorge in my throat. So quick. So complete our fall.
They came in-system on just three ships, so fast that the early warning sentinels barely had time to signal before they were blown out of space. Our fleet elements were way out of position, but apparently one heavy picket made contact at extreme range, half her crew crushed to death by the brutal g she was pulling. Chance in a million railgun strike must have compromised the re-entry integrity of one of the alien ships, because it broke off the descent. The rest of the picket’s crew joined their comrades a heartbeat later.
Once in atmosphere, our orbital defences couldn’t target them. Conventional weapons were too light to wound the hull of a deep space warship; hence the nukes – right over our own centre of population, a last act of mad desperation.
I don’t think they expected that. Only one of their ships emerged from the nuclear furnace, but it was one too many – and large enough to carry an entire army. Which, as it turns out, I think it must have.
We had seven hours between the perimeter sentinel signal and landfall. Mobilisation takes days, but the closest men to city armoury were kitted out on the double and sent to join the standing garrison in the defence of key points. I was still in the armoury when our nukes went off, so I was one of the lucky ones – at least I had a mask to start with.
The main door of this building leads back to the square, so I hit the stairs two at a time, legs screaming. I can’t remember how many rounds are left in the mag, damn it, but there’s no time to check. Another flight and I should be hitting the roof.
The hatch is locked but snaps open under a determined assault from my boot. Noises on the stairs below lend my actions frantic urgency, nameless alien fear rising like gorge in my throat.
The city, or what’s left of it, is a stunning sight. To the east and west fires rage in the pale dawn light, punctuated by gouts of harsh light where some kind of conflict is still being played out. To the north there’s little left – the dark bulk of the alien ship rises like a mountain over the remains of the assembly building, strange shapes flickering at the base of the slender ramps leading to its hidden interior.
To the south the city is relatively untouched – so far. Hopefully the secondary armouries are still active, and reinforcements will be gathered before our communications infrastructure is compromised. I run to one side, then the other, and stop.
There is no way off the roof – not even for a desperate leap of faith.
After a moment’s hesitation I pull off the cracked mask and toss it aside. The air is strangely sharp and I can taste the tang of blood with every rasping breath.
I shoulder the rifle and take aim at the hatch. Only five rounds left, but it doesn’t matter.
It’s my last mag.