Chapter 33: Hardcover
The weapon felt odd in her hands. The weight of the rifle seemed to speak with authority to its lethality. She had held a gun before. Of course she had. She was a soldier, after all. Well, that wasn’t actually true. There were very few soldiers these days, but a lot of people decided that a change in career was necessary since this mysterious invader had arrived.
The enemy had moved in quick, and all the security that people thought they had in this golden age quickly evaporated. The Warminds, stalwart protectors of everything they had built with The Traveler’s gifts, ceased all communication, but people really started to panic when The Traveler began to move from Mars to Earth. Was it afraid? How could a god feel fear?
Her father had been a knight. An avatar of The Traveler’s protection. He’d trained her in the arts of war, and she had loved those days dearly, but as she grew older her heart turned to different mysteries and her mind focused her towards the study of the newly-vibrant Martian ecosystem. Now, Mars was being evacuated, and she was on Luna, with a gun in her hand, being told that if they failed to repel this threat, it was all over. She could see a symmetry in it, and in the past she would have mused at it. Not now.
At least she was not alone. Sure, there were knights leading the largest volunteer army humanity had ever known, but that’s not the presence that made her feel safe.
Years prior, when she had left home to pursue her thirst for knowledge, she went with a group of her colleagues to Mars. Most were university students at the time like herself, but one individual stood out to her while she waited for the transports to be filled with passion-filled youth like herself. An Exo. Clad in a tasteful cream with brown patches tweed jacket and some well-worn blue denim jeans, he sat in a terminal lounger reading an old paper-printed book about Martian beetles.
“How did you come across that?” she asked, sitting in the lounger next to him.
“I beg your pardon?”
She nodded towards the book and smiled at him. His glowing azure eyes blinked at her curiously.
“It’s a widely-read treatise.”
“I’m very familiar with the paper but how did you get it on… actual paper?” she asked with a giggle. “I don’t think I’ve seen someone reading a physically printed book in years.”
“Ah, yes. Of course. Forgive me. It was a parting gift from a friend. A bit of a running gag with him. He always enjoyed giving me archaic items as a juxtaposition to my synthetic nature.”
She hid a small laugh.
He smiled at her and closed the book to give her his full attention. “I assume you’re here with the rest of these students.”
“Yes! I’m very excited to begin my work on Mars. I have to say that I’ve never met an Exo academic. Your kind is-”
“-As full of surprises as any other sapient being. Yes, originally we were made for war, but many of us explore… let’s call them divergent paths from the one that was set out for us before The Traveler.”
She nodded, understanding his intent. Being a knight was a calling of the highest honour, but not all Exos were given the chance at such exaltation. Of course such sentient beings as the Exos would be free to follow their individual callings. They were perhaps most blessed by The Traveler, after all.
He held up the book. “Ever read it?”
“Of course! The giant Olympian beetles are fascinating. The largest known invertebrates by a wide margin, and such complex behaviours! Some call them Martian dolphins on account of how intelligent and agile they are. Reading about their study was more entertaining than most of the fiction I relaxed with.”
The Exo smiled, picking up the book and retrieving a pen from his inside jacket pocket. “To whom should I make this out to?”
“I can tell you’re really going to love Mars.”
In a year’s time, they were wed at the base of Olympus Mons, where the beetles were first discovered. Now, they were both looking up from the lunar surface at an enormous space battle that spanned as far as they could see, and The Traveler itself limping its way to Earth. The enemy was plowing through humanity’s forces like they were not even there. Enemy monsters were amassing on the ridge two klicks away from the anti-space batteries their volunteer unit was tasked with defending. There was no plan, no strategy, and no hope.
“My kind was made for war, but I’ll admit that I’m probably just as terrified as you, my love,” said the Exo, clad in the same equipment as her but looking not one iota more competent. His visage was especially calming to her as it was encased in a forcefield helmet, and she was thankful for it.
“I miss our beetles,” she said softly, knowing the carnage was almost upon them.