A wall of thunder slammed through the lecture hall.
The aftershock knocked Professor Weiss off his feet before he could finish. As he rolled to his knees and pulled himself up to his podium, his students stared back with eyes like ash on water. Seconds later, Weiss’s assistant burst through the classroom door.
“Professor, it’s the Khendaar. They’re here!”
Weiss closed a textbook that had fallen open and steadied himself. “Vhere are they, Brad?”
“One came down Mali. The other took out Topeka.”
Weiss excused his students, most of whom were already packing to leave or openly weeping, and made for the exit. Once outside, he dropped all decorum and ran for his lab. His T.A. reached it first. Brad had the build of an athlete, and Weiss often wondered why the young man was wasting his time in science.
Inside the lab, on an old television with a “Don’t Panic” sticker blocking the lower part of the screen, a cable newsman was holding back tears. There was no sound, the set’s speaker having blown a decade before. The scene cut to a shaky aerial video of an enormous glass crater that had once been Saharan sand.
“Vhere is it?” Weiss asked.
“Heading for the Atlantic. The other one’s going northeast. They’re both moving at twice the speed of sound.”
“I meant the translator, dummkopf.” He didn’t mean to bite Brad’s head off, but it just came out. “Ve should at least try to talk to them, jah?”
“Most of it’s in the storeroom, but the software is all on the server.”
“Vell, vhy isn’t it on the laptop? Get the equipment; I’ll transfer the files.”
Weiss’s colleagues in SETI had received their first extraterrestrial transmission over a year earlier. The signal from nearby Tau Ceti carried a cornucopia of technical data. It also gave a description of the Khendaar and a warning to evacuate the planet. Once the details of the message leaked to the press, however, the following societal meltdown made large-scale preparations impossible. Only a handful of institutions, such as Weiss’s university, were able to develop a fraction of the alien technology needed for survival.
Brad wheeled a device that looked like part of a rock band’s sound system toward the lab’s loading dock while Weiss drummed his nails on his laptop and waited for the last of the software to install. The translator had yet to be tested to his satisfaction, but it would simply have to work. There was no more room for error.
On the silent television, a prominent media personality shouted at an unseen audience. Behind the pundit’s pudgy face, a satellite photo displayed a chain of giant footprints across the Midwest, each half a mile from the next.
A VTOL jet collected Weiss, Brad, and the device from the university commons and rocketed into the air as soon as they’d shut the hatch. Brad held a radio to his ear.
“My God,” he said. “The African target is swimming the Atlantic. It’s moving so fast it’s plowed a furrow to the sea floor.”
“And the American one?”
“Ran right through Chicago and knocked over half of downtown,” said their pilot. “Now it’s wading up the Great Lakes. It looks like the aliens will meet up somewhere in Maine or Quebec.”
“Not any more,” announced Brad in a dead voice. He set the radio down. “The western Khendaar just flattened Toronto. Now it’s heading for New York.”
The alien crouched over the ruins of Jersey City. Its clustered heads swirled through the clouds like a mass of gargantuan snakes, and its twin tails cracked the air with repeated sonic booms. Weiss asked the pilot to land, but he declined.
A hundred-foot wall of water approached from the east in advance of the second Khendaar. The wave rolled over Manhattan and up the Hudson, tearing bridges apart like reeds. Half of the city collapsed into pillars of smoke and rubble; the few skyscrapers remaining leaned and groaned like drunkards. The inevitable back spill down the river would wash the rest away, but for the moment there was stillness.
Weiss demanded that their pilot put them down somewhere, and after consulting with his superiors he set down in the wasteland of debris that was Central Park. Weiss and Brad had just unloaded their equipment when the quake hit. Tremors rocked the earth with the rhythm of footfalls and a shadow blocked the morning sun.
To the east, a Khendaar rose on its hind legs. Sheets of Atlantic seawater slid off of its body in localized downpours. The other alien had crossed the Hudson, but was partially concealed behind the ruined skyline.
Weiss activated his machine and spoke through a microphone. “Please! You must stop this! Ve are intelligent beings! You are destroying our cities, our homes! Vhy are you doing this? Please, vill you listen?”
As he spoke, thunderous sounds in an alien tongue poured from the translator. Brad staggered to his knees from the force of the shockwave. Weiss gripped the edge of his device to keep his legs from buckling.
The alien to the east leaped into the sky and soared overhead, thunder crashing behind it like the voice of God. The other Khendaar tried to dodge, but its doppelganger tackled it, flattening a huge swath of steel and concrete. Giant words spilled from its maw as they wrestled, and a translation appeared on Weiss’s monitor:
>TAG / YOU’RE IT
“Professor!” shouted the pilot. “The radar station in Australia just spotted twenty more Khendaar out past the moon. They’re heading this way!”
Weiss didn’t hear. He stared dumbfounded at the translator, even as the battling titans rolled in his direction. Numb to the world, he never felt the foot that squashed him.
This story is copyright 2011 Jared Millet.
See also: Fire and Witch's Cross.