Stan Matheson rested after his first-light check of the snares. A couple were sprung, but empty: the remainder were undisturbed. Those he tripped with his walking stick. While resting, he glared up at the shining rod swinging by in low orbit. Dawn was best viewing time, for as the sun rose, the perpetual haze obscured the satellite.
Stan clearly recalled the surprise arrival of the great cylinder and what followed. Many thought it was yet one more Mercilio commercial mission. It was not certain what they could want, having already managed to trade so little for almost everything of worth that could be lifted off-planet. UH88, the last functioning Terra-based observatory, reported it to be roughly four hundred kilometres in diameter by two thousand in length. Within a few days of arrival, it began a slow, but accelerating rotation. There was considerable speculation as to the purpose of “this shiny astral tallboy” (as one American commentator put it, before complaining again about the measurements being expressed in the metrique).
Since it came from off-planet, the Mercilio embassy in Paris was most likely to have an explanation. But that agency was no longer answering the telephone or scheduling meetings with world leaders. The staff issued sporadic and often contradictory statements, whose common thread seemed to be “Our contract promised us much more time.” A steady stream of their smaller transports began launching for the Ceres jump station, marring the atmosphere with contrails redolent of sulphur. What could make the Mercilio, who had so easily skinned out the planetary government, flee? A greater threat, no doubt. Before anything further could be determined, the mists descended.
When the mists rendered the whole of humanity unconscious, one of two things happened to the human species of Terra. Seemingly random populations across the planet began to levitate wherever they were, whatever they had been doing. Since all were unconscious, there were no direct witnesses. But Terra still possessed a great number of automated cameras: security, weather, webcams, time-lapse recorders, military monitors at check points and high altitude surveillance. They showed as many as one hundred million individuals being drawn up towards, then into, the rod. Swaths of landscape and attendant wildlife were also carried off. Great siphons drew so much water that sea levels fell more than one hundred metres. Nothing was ever to be known of the fate of those removed, that being how the world as known ended for slightly more than one per cent of humanity. The other 98.6% woke from the mists in the world where all these things happened. For both the taken and the remainders, life as they had known it was forever changed.
The Terran Union administration soon melted away, even in name. Remerging national governments spoke of the new situation as “The Occupation” - a misnomer. There was no invading force, no garrisons, no commercial outposts. In fact, the Altarai – that much was at least prised out of the Mercilio – abandoned the interplanetary mission in Paris: eventually simply pulverizing the seat of the former world government. If there was no great war, there was at least a pair of defining battles, both altogether one-sided affairs. The Terran forces, cobbled together from the planet’s various militaries, were utterly crushed. The second rout was so through that when the humans were driven from the field, the Altarai didn’t even bother rounding up surviving combatants. There were no proclamations, no re-education camps, no hostages, no retributions. The Altaria bothered with little more than a site office floating twenty kilometres above the mined-out atoll that was once Tasmania.
What they did bother with were tens of thousands of enormous, crawling machines and their operators. What humans dubbed “Type A” machines excavated, refined and smelted every manner of mineral. They did their job well. Where great urban aggregations once stood, there were dust bowls; where foothills and mountains once rose, broad fetid seas of contaminated runoff reached kilometres deep into the earth.
Another thousand or so - “Type B” machines - demolished, pulverized and spread the rubble of any settlement greater than a hundred thousand. As well, countless AI-controlled Monitors patrolled in support of the Type A harvesters. They helped supress the effects of wildfires, floods, indigenous mischief or Mercilio marauders. The concept of large-scale resistance was beyond Altarai comprehension. But if it did reach irritating proportions, the Monitors were quick to dispense the Altarai equivalent of wasp spray.
As the harvesters and smelters did their work, large segments of Terran life fled before the destruction. In hardly more than thirty years - a Biblical generation - those displaced billions were reduced to a few hundred million eking out a bare existence. Every extra cold winter or harsh drought hastened the decline. The old saw that “life beats the alternative” had very much fallen out of use. Daily life had once taken place on a planetary scale, devolving to remnant regions, then fell to variably functional city states, before descending to the level of myriad hard-scrabble villages scattered throughout the lands waiting to be strip-mined. Most existed before the advent of the Altarai. Others were little more than short term refugee camps. Some founded by intention, and some by accident.
One of the later came about when sixty-some refugees fled a factional war over access to fresh water. They set out on foot, and walked for the better part of two weeks, with little food, and less water. When the surviving twenty-six reached near collapse, they rested on the verges of the old rail right of way. Two boys gathering deadfall for a fire dragged along a faded green metal strip bearing pale letters. They had apparently arrived at Wallace Road Crossing.
Deciding they could go no further, regardless of safety, they stayed. The refugees erected lean-tos and tentish shelters and called their refuge Wallace. Traces of paving wound through the marshy area, then went on in long gentle sweeps to Turgo, a village large enough to have a market and a council of sorts. The refugees, joined by a few locals, replaced the draughty shanties with a cluster of modest cob structures, planted pocket gardens and repaired a nearby pre-occupation house as a gathering place. With a sense that things were looking up, they optimistically added “ton” to the name.
Things were not easy, but the community attracted a few new residents. Among them, Fran and Stan Matheson set up house. She had grown up in pre-occupation Turgo, while he had straggled in as a survivor of the second confrontation with the Altarai. Over the years, they built their own cottage, grew potatoes, and raised a daughter and two sons.
Like so many others, their children had grown up and gone on to serve. Even Wynn, their youngest, whom Fran really hoped to have exempted, had signed on three years back. His leaving reduced the settlement to three. Despite the small comforts and sense of community, Wallaceton was steadily disappearing back into the broom and bramble it had grown out of.
Their son’s enlistment left his parents with only the company of a palsied discharged veteran. Laurie Hope came back from the front with augments fried and a mob of phantom ogres running riot in her headspace. She sheltered in a rusty Volvo van until she volunteered to assist with the most recent hatchling. That was last year, the summer the Matheson’s moved into the restored house. Now, nothing left of the place but the two of them, and a bit of distance between the next human settlement. It would do at least one more time.
Every week, Fran set out for Turgo, an hour’s walk to visit her sister, to barter a few blighted vegetables and to volunteer with the Patriotic Knitting Circle. The Circle unraveled various donated items in order to knit them into something for the less fortunate. The resulting somethings were bundled together and irregularly picked up by Headquarters. As a Resistance activity, the PKC was much hindered by a lack of materials and the aging of the knitters. Fran was the youngest at 43, the next up nearing 60. Maybe just as well, given Stan suspicion that those goods were being sent on to other PKCs. There, he felt, they would be unraveled and re-knit into somethings for the less fortunate elsewhere.
That thought first occurred to him as he wrote out the note to Captain Brendan. The Mathesons volunteered to assist with the next hatching. It would be the family’s third. Not a record, but a mark of a true sense of duty.
When, in due course, the egg and attendant supplies arrived, they closed out the rest of the world to concentrate on the hatching. Fran even gave up her visits to her sister. As their lives settled into ever more insular patterns, they now did little more that keep the house quiet, cool and dim. There would soon be a new addition to the household, and they were determined to have the best arrival possible.
Fran came into the kitchen, where Stan sat with a cup of tea and a strip of rabbit jerky. “Nothing from the snares. Disabled those that needed it. No sense in catching what can’t be used.”
Fran nodded. She had been checking the cellar, and opened the matter in her direct manner.
“Stan, the hatching is very soon, within the hour. One of us need be on hand.” Her tone and posture belied a certain fretfulness. After twenty eight years, Stan knew her worry came from wanting the best possible hatching rather than vexation at continuing to miss the knitting circle or worse.