Falkirk, Scotland - 22 February 2030 - 19:36
The young boy snuggled into his mother's leather coat as they progressed through the line. The line consisted of dozens upon dozens of anxious and terrified locals compressed into one of many columns leading to a row of evacuation vehicles. The familiar, soft touch of his mother's hand reinstated a bit of comfort in his mind, but he couldn't force his eyes away from the massive ball of metal hovering over the Falkirk Steeple several hundred metres away. The blinking sirens stung his eyes and the incessant questions and cries from the crowd panicked him. He pushed himself deeper into his mother's arms.
'Any word from the major?' The boy managed to catch a snippet of conversation from a nearby pair of British soldiers.
The other soldier blew out a ball of mist – a subtle reminder of the artificial winter climate that overlapped the town as the massive ball of steel descended from the heavens over an hour ago. 'Not yet,' the man replied with a slight shrug. 'Haven't a fucking clue what's going on, to be honest with you.'
'You think the Reds are behind it?' the first soldier wondered, throwing his eyes at the metallic ball for reference.
'Doubt they'd pull something like this,' the other soldier said honestly, resting against the bus stop he was standing next to. 'We just got out of a war with them; one that they lost. I think after a billion people dying, they'd give the whole world conquest thing a rest.'
'Fucking Red Union bastards,' the first soldier bemoaned. 'I bet they're behind this.'
'Again, I doubt it. Hell, even if they were – why in Falkirk of all places? Some random town in the middle of Scotland? Nah, I'd say this is some shady government shite we're dealing with.'
'Absolutely,' the soldier affirmed, nodding his head briskly. He happened to glance at the boy and he frowned, before gathering his friend and strolling away from the crowd.
Curled into his mother's left arm, the boy looked back at the ball of alien metal. He and his mother hadn't even noticed its presence until the national news channel reported it. A short time later, police visited each home in their neighbourhood, telling the families to leave the area and proceed to specified evacuation zones established throughout the town.
Although the boy feared for his belongings and his classmates, his father's absence scraped away at what little restraint he held over his growing anxiety. He worked in the outskirts of the town and didn't make it home before the military arrived in Falkirk.
'Where's Daddy?' the boy asked anxiously, tilting his tiny face upwards to face his mother's.
'He'll be here soon, love. Don't worry,' she said tensely, keeping her eyes on the line of military cargo trucks lined up at the front of the crowd.
A few dozen people boarded the trucks, guided and guarded by a number of British riflemen and support gunners, before they all departed. A matter of moments later, an additional fleet of trucks arrived. Additional waves of people clad in dark coats and waterproof jackets were beckoned forward to board the trucks.
'Don't worry, people! There's more than enough space for everyone!' the lieutenant at the front shouted, waving his arms at the back reaches of the crowd. The boy could hear some shouting and arguing coming from the very front of the line, but the towering adults in front of him kept him from catching a glimpse of the action.
The line started moving again. The boy moved away from his mother, carefully peering around the crowd of people standing in front. He could calculate for himself that they were next up.
Panicking, the boy ran for his mother, grabbing the hem of her dark blue coat. 'Where's Daddy!? We can't leave without him!'
'Sweetheart, we'll see him soon. Hold on. Sweetheart, wait-' She tried to fight her son away from her. Tears welling up in her eyes, she wrapped her thin arms around his head and shushed him softly. 'It's okay. He'll be alright. We'll see him soon.'
The next fleet of trucks departed. Their engines growled and brought the evacuees forward, leading them towards the outskirts of the town. The soldiers stood by as the next line of trucks moved into position.
'Alright, nice and slow,' the lieutenant continued, raising his voice. 'There's room for everyone. No panicking. No crowding or you'll be sent to the back of the line. '
'Keep up, sweetheart,' the mother insisted, having to drag her son by the arm to keep him in the line.
'Where's Daddy?' the boy cried, shaking his mother's arm. 'We can't leave without him!'
'We'll see him soon-'
'No, we won't! The soldiers are going to leave him behind!' The boy pushed his mother away, displaying a surprising amount of strength despite his thin build. He forced himself through the crowd and ran into the open, running past the pair of soldiers he inadvertently eavesdropped on before.
'Hold on, lad! Stop!' The soldiers dropped their rifles and sprinted, their sides heaving as they rounded a shop corner in an effort to cut the escaping child off. The boy responded by circling around a nearby car, narrowly avoiding his pursuers. He disappeared into the fog.
The boy proceeded towards High Street, cutting his way through the swirling billows of mist and cloud that fleshed out from each side of the street. The boy's speed was impeccable, having covered an amazing amount of ground in such a short span of time. He felt like he had been running for ages.
Blinking lights and the sounds of radio chatter ahead forced him to stop. A military blockade, featuring several groups of armed men, blocked the path to the Falkirk Steeple. The roar of reconnaissance helicopters dominated the sky as they made their way over the streets of Falkirk, closing in on the ball of metal, which was still visible from the boy's current position.
Afraid, the boy turned and collided with a hooded figure, trashing his arms as the figure held him up and squeezed him.
'Son! Son! It's me!'
Breathless and shaking from the mixture of cold and helplessness, the boy looked into the figure's eyes, smiling broadly once the man pulled his hood down and revealed his gruff, pink face.
'Were you looking for me?' he asked with a grin, haplessly ignorant of the two soldiers panting behind him. He turned to face them, his son in his arms. 'I apologise, gentlemen. He's only eight-years-old. He didn't mean to cause a stir.'
The soldier on the right looked just about ready to start mouthing off, before the other one cut in, saying, 'It's no problem, sir. But we do need you to leave right now. It is far from safe around here.'
'Of course. My apologies once again.' He looked at his son and smiled warmly, his lips stretching through his grizzly beard. 'Let's go find your mam.'
Staff Sergeant Barry Hester watched the commotion transpiring behind. Greyish figures stood in the background, two of whom appeared to be armed. They all broke into a jog and faded into the thicker parts of the mist.
'What was that all about?' asked one of the privates standing nearby.
'Haven't an idea,' Sergeant Barry replied. He fingered his earpiece, switching to his platoon's frequency. 'Lieutenant, this is Hester. Any word from the helos? Over.' Barry twitched his eyes at the reconnaissance choppers hovering a few dozen metres away from the massive anomaly.
'Negative, Staff Sergeant. Recon and the higher-ups have been mostly quiet about what's going on with this thing,' the lieutenant replied, sounding unreasonably phlegmatic in tone. 'Hold your ground until ordered otherwise. No civilians or unauthorised personnel are to get past you. How copy? Over.'
'Copy that, sir,' Barry confirmed.
He looked up at the blue aurora that dyed the town completely blue. It was an artificial skylight that lit up what was supposed to be a fairly dark evening. It was a beautiful, unusually calming sight, made redundant by the fact that it was just another side effect of the anomaly's unexpected presence in the town. 'Sir, mind if I speak freely? Over.'
The lieutenant paused for a moment, before his voice cut in, 'Go ahead, Staff Sergeant, but don't delay me.'
'Is there any evidence to support whether or not the Reds are behind any of this?'
It was a question that was circulating throughout the entire local network for the last hour, but not a single high-ranking officer was willing to provide any clarification on the notion that any of the Eastern European states were behind the whole incident. Barry was hoping that his platoon commander would have an intelligent and believable response.
Another pause from the lieutenant's side. 'To me, no,' he finally concluded. 'The Red economy is in a very bad state after their war with China and the yanks. Their allies are in pretty bad shape as well. I doubt they could muster the willpower, let alone the cash, to get something like this thing past our borders. Not without the air force or the navy shooting it down.'
'And yet it's here,' Barry stated thickly.
'And yet it's here.'
'So, who is behind it?' Barry asked, knowing that he shouldn't expect an answer.
'I don't know, Staff Sergeant.' Barry was right. 'Again, the higher-ups have kept their mouths shut so far, and those choppers up there don't seem to be getting anywhere,' the lieutenant said, referring to the reconnaissance choppers in the sky.
'I was just wondering, sir, because this does seem like a massive waste of the battalion's time.'
'Of the whole army's time,' the lieutenant corrected. 'The whole nation's time. This crap is all over the news.'
Barry took a good look at the various reconnaissance teams stationed on top of a number of buildings on the various streets leading to the old landmark. Many were barely distinguishable from his position, but he could tell from their lack of motion that they were failing to note any activity from the anomaly. The helicopters continued to circle the Steeple, slightly closing the distance more and more after every complete rotation.
Barry felt a strong chill bleed its way through his body. Even with his padded Kevlar jacket and his heavy combat coat, the ghastly cold of the artificial mist made him shiver and stammer every word he spoke. Somewhat reluctant to ask, Barry continued, 'Sir, what happens if we can't find out what this thing is?'
'Command is setting up a few artillery batteries on the outskirts of the town,' the lieutenant said. 'Hence the evacuations.'
'I can see what you mean, sir,' Barry said grimly.
Although the featureless ball of metal seemed harmless, its adverse effects on the local weather was worrying, notwithstanding the fact that it simply materialised from the skies without any sort of indication as to who constructed it and why it was sent to Falkirk in the first place. 'Hopefully it won't come to that.'
A mechanical groan from above startled the entire squad. Reconnaissance and monitoring personnel scattered across the open area broke into conversation over their respective networks. The groan became gradually louder; almost like a wave of energy that was sweeping its way over every living thing in the vicinity.
'Sir, what's going on!?' one of the nearby privates shouted in panic.
'Lieutenant, we're unsure of what to do,' Barry said into his earpiece. 'Please advise. Over.'
'Hold position, Staff Sergeant. Keep in your men in line. Do not falter until ordered otherwise. Platoon leader out.'
It got louder and louder.
'Your wife is up there, sir,' one of the soldiers pointed out as the boy and his father finally joined the line. They both broke into a quicker jog and paced their way to the front of one of the lines, much to the visible disapproval of many of the impatient onlookers.
Ahead, the boy's mother stood with a pair of men, shivering and babbling frantically as she begged them for an update on her son's whereabouts. Turning around, she cupped her hands around her mouth and sobbed, before throwing herself into her husband's arms.
The father whispered into his wife's ear and kissed her neck. He asked for her to hold her anger until they were safely out of the town. Nodding, she turned to her son and hugged him. 'Please, don't ever do anything like that again,' she said, before she rested his head on her neck. 'Please don't.'
The boy wanted to apologise, but he was torn between his delight for reuniting with his father and his guilt for worrying his mother so much. Instead, he returned the hug and let her hold him.
'Alright, you're up next,' one of the soldiers said, escorting the family towards one of the trucks.
A bulky man standing at the head of the crowd stepped out, pointing his stubby finger. 'Hold on a bloody second! We've all been standing here for the last twenty minutes – cold and bloody tired! Why the fuck do they get to skip the line?'
'Women and children get priority,' the soldier stated boldly, crossing his arms. Two of his squad members moved forward to support him.
'That's bollocks, so it is!'
'They've been in line for as long as you have, sir,' another soldier said.
'What about us, then? We all have children with us!' a woman from the crowd shouted. Others joined in, prompting the soldiers to move in and exercise control before a riot could start.
The father took his wife and son and moved them towards the truck. One of the soldiers stationed by the truck had them wait until the crowd calmed down, hoping to avoid additional scrutiny from the evacuees.
That's when they heard it: a loud robotic moan that shook the ground and caused the surrounding mist to sift and part. The crowd quietened, which only made the racket seem louder. The boy covered his ears and winced.
All eyes were on the ball of metal. Several circular compartments on the lower end of its hull slid open, releasing massive, rippling balls of a cyan gas. It fed its way down into the streets, carrying a storm of metal and steam into the town. In the distance, one of the reconnaissance helicopters turned and prepped its guns, firing a stream of bullets into the cockpit of the other craft.
'What the fuck was that!?' one of the soldiers roared. He turned and slammed his hand on one of the trucks. 'Get these people out here now!'
The crowd broke into a frenzy, trying to dive their way towards the evacuation trucks. Soldiers attempted to beat them back, but were quickly overwhelmed by the mass of panicked civilians.
Grabbing one of the guards, the father pointed at the truck they were just about to board. 'Please, get us out of here!'
Visibly distraught, the soldier shook his head and panted, 'They're all filled to the brim and we need to leave now. I'm sorry, but we can't waste any-'
'Take my wife and son! I beg of you! Please, don't leave them to die here.'
The soldier stepped back, sizing up the man's family. Warring with the guilt creeping onto his face, he gave in and redirected them to the truck. 'Get on. Now.'
'Thank you,' the father said, bowing his head in gratitude. He released his wife and pushed her towards the truck.
'Don't,' she pleaded, tears foaming in her bloodshot eyes.
'Dad, why won't you come with us?' the boy asked innocently.
He hoisted his son onto the truck. He helped his wife on, just barely requisitioning enough space on the crowded vehicle. Closing his eyes and sighing with regret, he embraced his wife and his son. 'Please be safe. Do as the soldiers say and stay together. I love you.'
'Dad, please come with us!' the boy screamed, tears trailing down his face. 'Please!'
He stared into his son's eyes, fingers trembling as he stroked his cheek. This was all happening so quickly. Too quickly for him to cope.
'Goodbye,' he finally mumbled, closing his eyes.
The truck screeched forward. The boy reached out to his father as the truck gained speed. His father pursued the vehicle, waving solemnly as the storm of gas and metal cascaded its way into the streets, flying towards the fighting crowd in the background. Once the truck reached full speed, the father gradually slowed before coming to a full stop, watching the departing trucks as the storm consumed him and all of those left behind.
'No!' the mother screamed, her tears spraying. She huddled up in a ball and wept. The people on board looked on uncomfortably, knowing that they couldn't relate to the woman's sudden loss. The boy simply sat on the edge of the truck, staring blankly at the wispy sheet of blue that was lagging a few metres behind the truck.
It took the boy a full moment to notice the gliding piece of metal that cut its way through the gas. It gained altitude and levelled itself with the boy's face – its lone blue eye twisting as it observed the evacuees. To him, it looked like a flying metal fish. Out of childish naiveté, the boy raised his hand and reached out to touch the smooth surface of the device's iron hide.
'Don't,' the boy's mother bellowed, slapping his hand. She took him and held him in front of her, wrapping her thin arms around him in a subconscious bid to protect him.
The device came closer, before its eye exploded into a nova of electricity and metal. The bullet that impaled the device shot through the boy's chest, before digging into his mother's torso.
The boy gasped, his insides aching with every breath he took. His vision faded and dissipated into a burnished blur. He felt a powerful, excruciating warmth melt its way to the entry wound, which bled profusely into his lap.
He rolled to his side. He saw his deceased mother gazing lifelessly into his tiring eyes. He rolled again into the arms of a pair of nearby evacuees, who held him down and tried to cover the bullet wound.
As the young boy was dragged to one side of the truck, he came to face another child, who was huddled up in the corner. He was a boy – presumably the same age – sitting with his mouth drooped open at the sight of another child is such a catatonic state.
The world darkened. The blue waves of light that spilled over the townscape lost their colour and the boy's vision collapsed into darkness.
Staff Sergeant Barry Hester choked a breath as he surfaced from the coffee dock. It took a few moments for his eyes to adapt to the bright blue gloss of the artificial light that shone on the town.
He threw the wooden table off him and regained his footing. Shattered windows, broken furniture, virtually countless bullet holes. The sight terrified him.
He was no stranger to such a sight. He served in a peacekeeping regiment in the Middle East during the global war, which just ended a matter of months ago. However, for it to occur on his home ground was something that he could not have been prepared for.
He raised his machine gun and set it over the coffee bar, keeping his head low to reduce his size and make himself a smaller target. The streets were unnaturally quiet and calm; contrasting with the roars of the gas storm and the subsequent blazes of bullets and explosions that followed as he cowered in the coffee dock.
He stepped out through one of the shattered windows. He walked back towards High Street, where his men had retreated once the gas was released from the hostile construct. Looking back, he could see that the anomaly was still in the air. It hadn't moved so much as an inch.
Strolling through the mist and the frozen streets, air escaped his lungs as he identified the disorganised rows of figures ahead as bodies.
A dozen men. He checked one of the bodies; then another and another after that. Bullet holes were strewn across their bodies. What was even more discomforting was the fact that they managed to cover such a great distance before they were bolted down. However, the most unnerving and noticeable of discrepancies was the fact that only half of his men were here.
Where were the remaining twelve? Did they all flee in a different direction and meet their end elsewhere? Or did they manage to reach shelter like Barry had?
He crouched and touched the face of one of the men, looking at the bullet wound in his forehead. Standing, he felt a thick bristle of wind sting the back of his neck. It was hot. It was heavy. It was the slow, raspy breath of another man.
Turning, he slowly faced the dribbling beast of a man that was standing behind him. Barry took a step back, his entire body trembling at the sight of the man's sickly, ice blue skin. His irises were jet black and his teeth were startlingly bare and white. Looking down, Barry could see that he was wearing the uniform of a British soldier.
Before he could raise his gun, the blue beast struck Barry's jaw with the back of his thick hand. The beast threw his foot up, striking Barry in the groin and sending him to the ground. Sore, but still mobile, Barry crawled towards his machine gun, before another beast appeared and removed it from the ground.
'Fuck,' Barry stammered. He rose to his feet and drew his handgun, firing three shots at the beast that confiscated his weapon. As he went down, the beast hazarded a few shots of his own, hitting Barry's leg and sending him to his knees.
Fighting off the pain with a muffled groan, Barry lined up the other beast for another shot. The beast jolted forward, slapping Barry's hand away and grabbing his throat.
Barry gurgled as the beast hoisted him up with a single hand. Now an arm's length above his assailant, Barry could now see the entire horde of blue beasts. Men, woman and children; soldiers and civilians – dozens upon dozens of blue-skinned humanoids scoured High Street.
Trying to choke out a plea for mercy, Barry's eyes squinted at the metal drone that slowly and carefully glided past his head. Gagging with every word he spat out, he could hear the drone's tiny mechanisms whirr and creak as it closed in on his ear.
A tapering zap of electricity burned the inside of Barry's ear. He let out an exasperated gasp as his eyes closed – signalling the end of his life and the beginning of a new one.