Short Story by Radek Pazdera


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John’s fighter was amongst the last to be shot down. The jet plunged through the arcades of Covent Garden Market before drilling deep into the cobblestones of the North Market Hall. The massive stone columns of the east portico clipped the plane’s wings as it rammed through but they weren’t strong enough withstand such an impact. The entrance folded to the ground, lifting a haze of dust and debris in the air. The roar of deformed steel and crushed concrete ceased, replaced by a meek but urgent beeping of the emergency warning coming from the cockpit.

John was still inside, trapped in the shattered pile of gnarled machinery. He was flying too low to eject when the engine got hit. The shock numbed his brain. He kept staring at the blood on his hands, unable to feel any pain. He felt nothing at all.

After a while, his body did what the hundreds of emergency drills engraved into his subconscious so deeply — he cut the seatbelt straps and climbed out. As fast as he could, he crawled through the rubble away from the aircraft, breathing the dark smoke that was coming out of it. Every move filled his mouth with more of the warm metallic taste of blood. He stopped behind one of the fallen columns a mere 100 feet from the jet — hardly far enough to be safe.

The acrid fumes, dust and debris in the air made John cough, leaving a worrying splatter of blood on the ground. When he caught his breath again, he rolled over to his back and rested his head against the fallen column.

A host of dark clouds swirled in the sky. It wasn’t just the smoke from his plane. London was burning again. An orange glow marked the horizon behind the dim facades of buildings that surrounded the piazza. Once a bustling place of business and pleasure, there was nobody around here anymore. Not since they had evacuated the city.

John undid the strap of his helmet and let it tumble down beside him. He closed his eyes for a minute. There was no chance they would send someone down here to pick him up. He was on his own.

A deafening explosion shook everything around him. Pieces of debris trickled down from the crumbling walls. They must have shot down another fighter not far from here, and by the sound of it, the pilot wasn’t as lucky as John.

What was the point of being rescued anyway? Their pitiful fleet of supersonic fighter jets never stood a chance against the power of the Oxerians.

Oxerian surveyors found Earth years ago. One of their intergalactic drones designed to wander the universe in search of resources had detected unprecedented quantities of Xeronium within our planet. Unknown to men at the time, the veins of this mysterious purple metal were deep under the surface, thousands of miles beyond the capabilities of any man-made drill.

When the aliens came forward and offered people their technology in exchange for access to the deposits, there wasn’t much of a discussion. For the first time in human history, the governments of the world were united. The next World Summit unanimously approved the deal. They said that the pact would mark a new era for Earth and the universe. Soon, people would be colonising the solar system, and the rest of our galaxy would follow. The Oxerian spacecraft, their human cell sized autonomous computers, their advancements in medicine, their weapons and engines, people wanted it all.

Their mining fleet reached Earth five years later. Vessels as big as entire cities entered the orbit. Like the moon and stars, the ships became a permanent feature of the sky, floating menacingly above everyone’s head.

Another loud explosion resonated through the Covent Garden Market and filled John’s ears with a piercing ring. He covered his head with his arms to shield it from the debris that might come flying his way. The fire was closing up around the piazza. It was time to get out of there.

The river, he thought. Victoria Embankment was just a few blocks away. With his life jacket on, the Thames would carry him out of London where his death was likely but not certain. That sounded like a plan.

John gritted his teeth and opened his eyes, getting ready to jump up and run. But he couldn’t move. He froze in outright terror when he saw the stream of blood trickling down from his legs — both amputated under the knee.

Tears burst out of his eyes. He screamed and cried and gasped for air. His piercing howl reverberated through the ruins of Covent Garden, a voice of a broken man in the face of his death.

But how was this possible? He felt his legs. He could move his toes. Frantic, he pushed himself up anyway and tried to walk. A streak of pain, unlike anything he had ever experienced swept through his body when his stumps touched the pavement. He fell face down in agony, whimpering like a dog. His breaths were numbered, and it was time to start counting down.

John rubbed more soot and dirt into his eyes and mouth, trying to turn back around — the glamour of a soldier, falling in battle. Tears rolled down his bruised cheeks. Was this how it was supposed to be?

Flight Lieutenant John Riggs was 22 years old, and he had no idea. He knew orders and drills. He could take off and land a fighter jet on a ship as easy as he could fold his uniform. He had served in the RAF for four long years. He fought the enemy in war, but he never got a chance to live his own life. He would die alone, and that hurt more than his severed legs.

Then somebody grabbed his shoulder and turned him around. John screamed and covered his head with his arms. He heard steps and then felt a gush of lukewarm water on his face.

‘Drink this,’ a hoarse female voice said and placed a plastic bottle into his hand. She had a rifle slung over her shoulder but wore no uniform. Her black cargo trousers were muddy, and her leather jacket was one size too big. She wore a helmet and a black scarf to cover her face.

‘I’m Ava,’ she pulled the scarf down and knelt beside John. He could have sworn that she smiled. She opened the bottle and gently helped him to pour some of the water to his mouth.

‘What’s your name?’

‘John,’ he said through his rattling teeth. He felt her hand on his bruised neck; his eyes were closing.

‘I’ll be here with you, John. But you need to stay with me, okay?’

John replied with an almost imperceptible nod. Ava pressed the bottle back into his hand.

‘Try to drink some more, okay?’ She took off her knapsack and started unpacking it. The battle raged on around them. The heat kept rising as the flames burned nearer.

‘I’m dead,’ John said after watching her for a while. The soot on her face was deceiving. She was just a girl, even younger than himself.

’Get down to the river while you can. The fire is closing around us.’ Just saying those two sentences left John gasping for air. A few more blasts went off nearby, but what happened next knocked Ava to the ground. The South Market Hall crumbled down like a house of cards obscuring everything in a thick cloud of dust.

‘Go!’ John shouted and started to cough. Ava’s face was covered by her black scarf when she emerged from the smoke again. She held a dagger in her hand, looked straight into his eyes and stabbed him into the chest.

The thin blade cut straight through his heart, he could feel it. His gaze froze rigid. He saw Ava roll to the side and disappear in the haze, and then the darkness took over.

Oxerian miners had been drilling in the North Atlantic for months when the tragedy happened. The Eurasian Tectonic Plate had split. The rupture swallowed up the south-west of Ireland up to Cork, and the whole of Cornwall, and buried them deep in the ocean. The world was shocked and once again deeply divided. Ireland and the UK demanded an immediate halt to the mining and termination of the agreement. But other countries played it down as an accident or something that would happen eventually as the plates moved.

There was too much blame and no one to take it. Alliances were broken up and pacts dishonoured. The Brits launched an offensive to force the Oxerians to stop. The disagreements turned into a war that would change the world forever.

John breathed. He woke up again. It might have been minutes or hours, but the dagger was still protruding out of his chest. The poor girl must have missed. Just when he thought he would have it easy.

The thing was, it didn’t look like a dagger at all. More like a thick needle, and there was a phial at the end of it, a quarter of which was filled with a viscous, mercury-like fluid. John pulled it carefully out of his chest.

‘I’ll take that back,’ Ava said and snatched it straight out of his hand.

‘Whoa, you’re still here?’

She nodded. ‘Feeling better now?’

Now that she asked, he realised that he did. The excruciating pain had gone. Whatever anaesthetic that was, it worked perfectly. He only felt a bit drowsy. John grabbed her arm.

‘Thank you,’ he said.

The black scarf around Ava’s face curved into the shape of her smile. ‘Come on, let’s get outta here before this bit comes down too.’

‘But I told you, I can’t walk like this.‘

‘Yeah, you can,’ Ava said and lifted his leg up so he could see it.

John yelped. He crawled backwards from her on his elbows. Then he sat up and looked at his feet, his eyes as wide as he could open them. His lower legs stuck out of his torn trousers, knees, ankles and feet. With no socks or boots, he looked dressed for an afternoon at the beach. Reluctantly, he touched his calves and soles. These were his feet, just as he remembered them.

‘Are those nanoids?’ John asked, pointing at the phial in Ava’s hand.

She nodded. Tiny programmable, bacteria-like computer cells, nanoids were one the miraculous technologies that Oxerians had offered to mankind in exchange for letting them mine on Earth. In larger quantities, they looked like thicker mercury.

‘These were programmed to rebuild broken tissue based on the host’s DNA and neural paths,’ Ava said. ‘They only work a few hours after the loss, before the wounds start to heal. And you have to have enough tissue left to repurpose.’

‘But where…how did you get them?’

‘We made them,’ she said. ‘We found samples in a crashed fighter before the sentries could destroy it. They’re not hard to synthesise at all from Xeronium. Luckily for us, their entire fleet is made out of Xeronium.’

John was speechless. A scruffy teenage Londoner had what the most powerful people of the world were so desperately after, that they were willing to wager the fate of the whole planet to get it.

An overpowering squeal cut their conversation short. Before John could do anything, Ava grabbed him by his uniform and dragged him over to the other side of the stone slab.

’Sen—try,’ she mouthed at him. The noise was so loud that she might as well be yelling and he wouldn’t hear a thing. She rested her rifle on her shoulder and carefully perched the barrel over the stone. It was homemade, more akin to the long-nozzled sprinkler gun that John’s grandfather used to water his front garden than to the SA80 machine guns he knew from the RAF.

The howl grew louder every second, but the sodding sentry was nowhere to be seen. John couldn’t take it anymore. He dropped to his knees and covered his ears with his palms, but it barely did anything. The sentry had emerged from behind a half-collapsed wall in front of him, hovering mid-air and moving slowly towards the crashed jet. It was round, slightly bigger than a basketball, with four jet engines at the bottom and light that moved around and scanned its surroundings.

FUCK! his mind screamed. As far as the legends went, these drones could wipe out entire towns. John had never seen one himself. Most soldiers who did were no longer alive to tell the story.

He urgently tapped Ava’s back. She turned her head to the side. After seeing the purple glow behind her, she spun around in one sweeping motion. Ready, aim, fire. A ray of pure white light blasted off her gun, and the sentry dropped to the ground silent.

Ava pushed the scarf off her face and wiped the sweat from her forehead.

‘I’ll explain later,’ she said. ‘We need to get out of here.’ She ran over to the scraps of the drone and stuck the stock of her rifle under one of the engines. It took a few pulls of her makeshift lever to crack it open, revealing a host of wires and other mysterious devices. She slammed the scraps repeatedly with her gun to separate those from the outer armour which she strapped to her backpack.

‘Xeronium,’ she said and beckoned to him, ‘Come on, let’s go.’

Astonished by what he just saw, John hoisted himself up to his bare feet and ran after her.

The explosions didn’t stop until long after the two of them had disappeared into Southampton Street and under the Waterloo Bridge into the Thames. The Sun set below the horizon, letting the flames burn higher, and spread wider, unchallenged. The night would see the city turn into a blackened smouldering shell of the past.

The victorious Oxerian fighters kept circling high above the rooftops. Their sentries patrolled the burning streets, extinguishing any last signs of life. The city had fallen.

In Tilbury Docks, 20 miles east from Covent Garden, two soaked figures climbed ashore and disappeared into a nearby warehouse. Many relieved voices could be heard welcoming them inside. They sounded weary but hopeful.

They lost this battle, but the war had only just begun.

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