In his fatigue, he almost missed it. There, a blip that could be something.... but probably was just another chunk of space debris being hurled at them through the Maelstrom. Better get the XO to take a look at it anyway... he thought.
In the South-Eastern Panhandle of Alaska, not too much had remained of the town Nois Aistrus. After the earlier clear-cutting of the natural forested regions, little towns like this had sprung up as families had moved in the Black Rushes of the early 2050's, when overseas oil supplies began to cut off the supply to the United States and cause fuel shortages. During those days, droves of citizens flocked to the relatively uninhabited regions of Alaska, intent on joining the lucrative drilling crews being commissioned to drill new oil wells in the Alaskan tundra.
Many of these families were in fact not hired on the selective crews, and were forced to find residence closer to the few urban centers located in the South-Central regions of the state. These towns degenerated into little more than ghettos and projects, home to dozens of families that had sacrificed everything they had on a failed chance.
On this particular night, few remained in Nois Aistrus. The nights were already beginning to feel the bite of the approaching winter; the one thing that remained the same through the Change being the ferocity of Alaskan winter conditions. In the shanties and dilapidated buildings of the Black Rush town, few could afford to heat their buildings, and many had taken advantage of the Union Population Consolidation programs that allowed them to move to more hospitable locales. If they hadn't, this particular night could have been far more disastrous.
A twinkling of light, which could have easily been mistaken for the Aurora Borealis before the Change, moved quickly though the night sky. One homeless man, trying to warm himself by a burning barrel, noticed it in his drunken stupor. Thinking himself to be hallucinating, he rubbed his eyes with his free hand, and took another swig from his bottle... just to warm his insides, of course.
He looked back up into the startlingly-clear night sky, and froze. Now there were TWO twinkles, one moving faster than the other...
He put his bottle down and rubbed his eyes again, turning his back to the fire so he could see better. Oddly, he could see the town more clearly now, as if the sun was rising early. When he looked up again, the second, faster twinkle was now bigger, and coming faster. With dread, he realized it was coming towards him.
That was the last thing he had time to think before the energy blast detonated in the air, sending a rippling wave of force over the town that pulverized buildings and set the larger buildings ablaze with their own heating fuels.
The Union technician almost spit his coffee over his monitor as his instruments registered the blast. What the hell...?
His XO was by his terminal before he could recover, demanding a status report.
"Corporal, you had better tell me what in the hell that was, and I mean NOW," the Lieutenant ordered, leaning in to study the monitors for himself.
"Sir, there was some sort of explosion..." the corporal started, before the XO cut in.
"No shit son, but where and how? Find out!" he gruffly barked, and the corporal began feverishly hammering at his console.
"North-west of us, sir... Looks like somewhere in the South-Eastern Alaska Panhandle... I'm trying to get a fix. Energy readings are weird, not anything I've seen before," the technician reported as he scrolled through several different data streams.
"I have," the Lieutenant said grimly, eyes fixated on the read-outs. Without another word, he turned on his heel and strode away from the bewildered corporal's station.
Strapped into his squad's Titan, Pvt. John Kane grimaced as the anti-grav transport bucked; its servos desperately trying to compensate for the horrid Pacific waves.
"Hey new guy, easy up," grinned his squadmate. The Corporal obviously enjoyed Pvt. Kane's discomfort, and was mocking him for it. "These Titans are tough as hell... I suspect it'd take somethin' a bit bigger than a wave to topple this monster." For added emphasis, he pounded a gloved fist on the metal bulkhead.
"Sure thing, whatever you say," said Kane through clenched teeth. What the hell were they doing out here anyhow? What was going on in Alaska that pulled them from their sunny California staging base? That place was a soldier's dream come true... If you didn't mind the nuclear fallout from the ruins of Seattle, that was.
"It could be worse, kid. You could be getting Orbitally Deployed, like the Captain in his Shoot Suit."
That came from the Sergeant, referring to Captain David Cole, who would be getting a trip to the surface in his Ares Heavy Assault Suit.
"I'll just be happier when we get on solid ground, Sar'nt," Kane replied, closing his eyes.
A few hours later, he got his wish. Boots to ground, Kane's small squad deployed on the outskirts of the town Nois Aistrus. The smell of burnt structures stung his nostrils, and even with his IR visor lowered the smoke stung his eyes.
"By the book, soldiers," growled the Sergeant as they deployed out of their APC. They ran bounded for cover, pairs of soldiers covering each other as they moved up. They stopped at a ruined wall, rivulets of molten metal still cooling in the night air.
"Image feed from TacNet," stated the corporal, "Uploading into your visors."
The image was green, as Infrared images tended to be, and it was hard to pick out details. So much debris... how could this used to be a town? Ruins and rubble chocked every street, making the whole town a total mess. Craters from sympathetic explosions pockmarked the debris, chunks of the natural-gas tanks that caused them still sticking up from the earth.
"Looks like the Glory Boys beat us here," huffed the Corporal, jerking his thumb at a nearby building ruin. On the second floor, a section of the wall had collapsed. Kane didn't notice it at first, but as he peered at it he noticed a hand waving arrogantly.
"Who is that?" Kane asked.
"Just the SF team that Command dispatched to reconnoiter... forget them. We need to do a sweep," the Sergeant ordered.
The Maw began to peak up over the mountains, its first rays caressing the tops of the ruined buildings. "Switch off IR," ordered the Sergeant, switching off his own visor's enhancement. His squad followed suit.
The morning light did little to remove the dour mood of the ruined town. Fires still burned here and there, sending acrid smoke into the chilled air.
After they had adjusted their visors, they started their sweep. The Corporal took point, glancing at his wrist-mounted motion sensor periodically. As they cleared the ruins of former apartment buildings, bloated remains of squatters could be seen in the rubble, and it turned Kane's stomach. He tried to put it from his mind, and finish the sweep.
After an hour into the sweep, the Sergeant declared their sector clear. Another private relayed the information to the Command, and they were instructed to stay in position until further notice.
Before long, a roaring crescendo could be heard over the crackling of the still-burning fires. Descending on a plume of smoke, a single Ares Heavy Assault Suit burned down a disposable Descent Pack strapped to the frame. The pack was doing well at controlling the descent, but Kane guessed that it was more due to the skill of the Captain controlling the suit than by design.
After touching down, the external visor to the Ares raised to reveal the visage of the Captain, the twin vertical bars distinctly painted onto the forehead of the visored pilot's helmet.
The Commanding Officer wasted no time in getting the squad to work, fortifying a couple positions with sandbags. Kane wondered what the point was, but he knew better than to ask. In the military, it was wise never to ask the question "Why," because that question always preceded consequences.
Before long they heard it. A keening moan, like a bass siren, reverberated throughout their bodies.
"What the hell?" the Corporal was first to comment, earning him a stern glare from the Sergeant.
"Places, people, now." the Sergeant ordered firmly, but quietly. He motioned for a nearby ruined wall, and the squad quickly dove behind it, guns braced in the direction of the noise.
"I've got eyes on... something..." trailed off one of the SF troopers over the comm-link. "It looks like... Jesus, a egyptian mummy or something! It's got some sort of weapon... Captain, am I cleared to engage?" the trooper anxiously asked.
"Engage at will," stated Captain Cole curtly, pushing his Ares forward at a slow and lumbering gait.
With that, the Union engaged the Pharon.