Ten years ago
September 21st 2018
Solomon Nicholae watched the GPS, trying to make sense out of it. “This is strange,” he told the driver next to him. “This machine doesn’t show our current path.”
“That’s because the map is older than the road,” Victor replied as he looked around the glades. Dayfall was almost upon them. “I’m sure we’re close, keep looking.”
Sol knew that relying on machines was a terrible idea. In the Mercedes’ backseat, the grandchild he never had echoed his sentiment, although for another reason.
“Another bug,” Mathias complained, furiously typing on his tablet. The young child played a video game of his own design, struggling with errors. Solomon wasn’t familiar with video games. Some at his parish complained they made kids violent; but Mathias, who seemed born with the devices in the womb, had yet to hurt a fly.
“You need to streamline your code,” Alice said, showing her son her own tablet. Like always, she wore a fashionable white dress, flaunting her figure. “Like this. You need to set up your enemy AI’s parameters like this.”
“But I don’t want to make them too smart!” Mathias replied. “Or they get too hard.”
“This will force you to improve,” Alice replied with a smile. “You have limitless potential if you tap into it.”
Indeed, he had inherited his mother’s brilliance; and fortunately, none of the boundless arrogance.
Alice Martel. A blue-eyed blonde as beautiful as she was smart. A genius without peer, she had won a Nobel prize for her research on artificial intelligence, and become the Silicon Valley’s golden child. All the tech billionaires wanted her on their team, and one even asked her to marry him.
She chose Victor instead, and many had wept that day. Even now, her husband only earned a fraction of what she did.
The GPS started bugging again, freezing. “Damn,” Victor said. “Hon, can you look up Google Maps?”
“Sure thing, honey,” she replied, typing on her tablet, before frowning. “Wifi trouble.”
“The agency said the zone was covered,” Victor spoke with a frown. “Must be the weather.”
“Honey, the sky is clear.”
“My wifi is fine,” Mathias replied.
Alice looked on her son’s device, her expression darkening. “That’s not possible,” she said, sounding snappy. “My custom tablet is more efficient than yours, I made it myself. It should connect.”
“Maybe it’s overheating?” Victor asked. “It’s been working non-stop, like you.”
“Maybe,” she conceded, sighing. Renting a farm for a weekend had seemed like a good idea to blow off steam away from the turmoil of California, and to celebrate their marriage anniversary. They had invited Solomon to join them, so as to keep Mathias occupied while they enjoyed some intimacy. The priest had gladly accepted.
He had, after all, wed them.
Solomon had met Victor in Argentina when he spoke against the Manada Cartel and was shot in the head for it. Victor had been covering the drug war, and what started as a simple interview after the priest woke up from his coma became a simple, lifelong friendship. When the man had finally found the right person, he had asked Solomon to officiate the ceremony; and he did.
That was long ago. With Hector Manada in hiding and his lieutenants in jail, the Cartel had long since collapsed. So, Solomon had moved to the USA to speak against other, more subtle evils. Climate change, workers’ exploitation, violation of privacy. A pro-televangelist channel had given him a spot for his sermons, allowing him to spread the word of love to the nation. Debating on TVs and radios was pretty much all he did nowadays.
He never lost contact with Victor though, always visiting him at least once a year. Since his duties to God meant he could never have a true family of his blood, he had more or less adopted the Martels. Even Alice had named Mathias after one of his suggestions, one of the few times she had agreed with what he said.
“I can use Google Maps,” Mathias said.
“We’ll get there,” Victor said, confident.
“If God wills it,” Solomon replied.
“God does not exist,” Alice replied brashly. “That is why we must create it.”
Sol forced himself to smile. “Careful, Alice. One cannot create a god.” They had those debates almost every time they spoke.
“Tell me that in a few years, when the singularity rises.”
“No religious debates in this car,” Victor enforced, making his wife chuckle. “This is a place of peace and harmony.”
Alice Martel didn’t believe in God, even if she had relented to her husband's wish of a Christian Wedding. Instead, she believed in herself only, and how artificial intelligences would improve the world. While Sol could only encourage her to show self-confidence, she perhaps had too much of it.
Such was the cost of perfection: arrogance.
“That’s strange,” Alice said, typing on her tablet.
“What?” Victor asked.
“Something is downloading itself on my tablet. That’s what’s slowing down my wifi. It’s…” She stopped, her frown deepening. “It’s erasing files to make space for itself.”
“An app? A virus?”
“Please, darling, my tablet packs enough protection to make the NSA cry, no virus can touch my files. Files which this invader is deleting.”
She tried to turn off the tablet with the main button, to no avail. “Just remove the battery, honey,” Victor suggested.
“I’m…” Alice stopped talking. “This is… I’ve never seen code like this.”
Sol glanced over his shoulder, as Alice showed him the tablet. The screen showed a long, confusing line of strange, colored symbols. “What does this mean?”
“It’s not number-based,” Alice replied, taking back the tablet, her eyes alight with curiosity. Clearly, she had abandoned the idea of shutting down the tablet to look into the matter more deeply. “Color based.”
The world vanished with a flash of violet light, and the ground trembled.
The car almost veered off-track, Victor pulling the brakes before they could hit a tree. Mathias’ tablet went flying against Sol’s seat, while Alice managed to hold on to her own. Thanks to the driver’s skills, the airbags didn’t need to activate.
“Is everyone alright?” Solomon asked, looking at the backseat.
“My tablet!” Mathias whined.
“What the hell was that?” Victor cursed, Alice frowning at him for his language. “A lightning bolt?”
“In a clear sky?”
“Not so clear,” Sol replied, looking out of the window. The skies had darkened considerably, although he could still see the sunlight. Colorful clouds had appeared above them and beyond the horizon…
Solomon squinted. Those clouds moved fast.
As the flying shapes approached closer, the priest realized he had been mistaken. They looked vaguely like planes, or streamlined space shuttles, colored crimson, violet and white. There were so many of them, that they darkened the skies with their numbers.
“What the fuck is this?” Victor cursed, exiting the car to look up better. This time, his wife didn’t scold him.
“An air force,” Solomon said. “Has World War Three just started?”
“That doesn’t look like an airplane,” Victor said, pointing at the shape at the helm of the armada.
Flying as the vanguard of the strange shuttles, a massive, humanoid machine, a titan of white steel surrounded by small, tiny flying spots; a single eye shone crimson in the middle of its helmet. From the distance, it seemed as big, if not bigger, than the Statue of Liberty.
Miami. They were heading for Miami. The closest population center.
“The farm,” Sol said. It was isolated, safer. “Quick.”
Victor quickly climbed back into the car and got back on the road, even as the ground trembled again.
Fuses of light shoot from the ground, quickly moving to intercept the armada. One was shot out of the skies by a red beam, blowing up in a blast of light.
“ICBMs,” Alice said, pulling a confused Mathias closer to her. “Ours. The nuclear defense system.”
The worst weapons known to man. Sol had feared they would bring about the end of the world one day; was he right? “What are they firing at?” Victor asked, speeding up. “The Russians? The Chinese?”
No. Those machines hadn’t been built by men.
In his heart, Solomon knew the truth. He had awaited this moment all his life, been warned by the Scriptures.
Hell on Earth.
September 26th, 2018
6th Day of the Conquest
Their tribulation continued.
Sol struggled to cook rice on the pan, as a quake sent a few flying. He had become almost used to it, but he worried the roof might collapse on them at any time.
Outside the windows, night had fallen, but it didn’t look like it; the fiery beams falling from the skies continued to brighten the night. They had a power generator but decided to ration the power, using candles to brighten the farm, and matches to cook.
Victor and he had found cans, lots of cans; they had enough rations to survive weeks, maybe even months, if it came down to it. Considering how fast human civilization had collapsed, Solomon thought the enemy would come faster than starvation.
Sol’s intuition that the farm would be secure had probably saved their lives. The invaders remained focused on cities, leaving the countryside relatively alone so far. Forest fires had spread nearby unchecked, and Victor worried one may encircle them, but so far hiding had remained the safer option.
The four had taken residence in the farm’s kitchen, Alice having tinkered some radio gizmo out of the TV, the GPS, and spare parts found across the farm. Victor was currently operating it, trying to catch a signal, any signal, while his wife sat on the sofa, furiously typing on her tablet.
That strange code on her tablet… when she wasn’t trying to catch a radio signal, Alice tried to decode it, believing it was some kind of transmission. “It may be the key to save us all,” she said. “I know it.”
She was wrong.
Only God could save them now.
Mathias silently looked through a telescope, which they had found in the attic, through one of the windows. He kept doing that when he didn’t help his mother trying to decipher the alien code, the best an eight year old could.
Sol put a plate of rice on the windows’ edge, but the boy didn’t even look at it. Mathias didn’t speak anymore, having fallen silent since they announced San Francisco and Palo Alto were attacked by one of those giant robots. His young mind didn’t properly process the situation, but he was bright enough to see the big picture.
The world was ending, and people, everywhere, died.
After giving each of the Martels a plate, Sol sat on the sofa, joined his hand, and prayed.
Solomon prayed for the Martel’s safety; he prayed to the Lord harder and more intensely than he ever did in his long life. He prayed for them to make it through this apocalypse.
He prayed to God to protect the poor souls, the meek, and the innocent from the fiends above their head. He prayed the Lord to send his angels and save them.
He prayed each day, each night, and so far the Lord had remained silent.
A buzzing sound interrupted his mediation. Victor finally caught a signal.
“Good evening, America.” A new voice, without warmth nor hope. Ava must have died in the bombardments. “I, I… I hope you’re having a good evening, even if the world is ending. I hope that you are safe. This is Emergency Radio Florida, and your new host Colonel August Sinclair.”
Victor joined his wife on the sofa, both holding hands.
“We continue reporting on the Doomsday War. It is now the sixth day since the first alien ship entered our orbit. The national guard’s last counter-offensive has failed, and the siege of Cheyenne Mountain ended in total defeat. The President and the Etat Major are presumed dead or captured. With the fall of the European Union yesterday, the western hemisphere is fully occupied. No news from China or Russia, but I’m told they ran out of nukes at seven this morning. The skies are dark with smoke and radioactive dust, and communication is difficult…”
Enough of an arsenal to end human civilization ten times over, and it bought it only a few days. The machines kept coming, and most of the alien ships remained high in space, firing down from a safe distance.
“—Atlanta, Washington, Phoenix, San Francisco, and Denver are smoking ruins. Miami nearby remains occupied, details are scarce. The iron giant keeps harvesting material to pop out smaller robots; witnesses say that it is a mobile factory as much as a weapon. With the spaceships landing, we have started seeing flesh and blood beings leading the invader. Bestial humanoids more bull than men, giants, and… and dragons.”
“Dragons…” Solomon trailed. The Dragon of Revelation, prophesied to end the world?
“We didn’t wage World War Three against each other, but against killer machines and dragons. This is a joke… this is all a big joke. All is lost. All is...” The host stopped briefly, sobbing. “Oh God… astronomers said a larger fleet is coming. A hundred times bigger.”
Why? What did those invaders even want? Their oil, their gold, their heads? What could justify such an overwhelming tide of violence?
“All is lost. Take care of your family, hide. God help us al—”
A brief, strident sound interrupted the broadcast; a horrible, alien noise that made everyone wince. The quakes had ended, and the beams outside the windows subsided, letting the darkness return.
“This message is sent across your channels, translated in all languages through your primitive airwaves.” A new voice coming from the radio broke the silence. Imperious. Inhuman. “This is Minister Blackcinders, supreme admiral of the Concordian battle fleet besieging your sphere.”
“I am power unlike which you primates have ever seen. I am a dragon of legends. My breath splits atoms, my claws cleave the hearts of stars. As I speak, my scouting ships wiped out your planetary defenses, preparing the groundwork for my arrival.”
“Scouting ships?” Victor repeated, as dumbfounded as Solomon himself. Alice’s face remained grim, emotionless.
The ships and death machines that laid mankind low were scouts?
“Your planet has intruded into our universal hegemony’s territory. As per the Dragon Mandate, you are now citizens of the Empire, beholden to its laws. Surrender, and you shall be uplifted. We shall bring an end to your wars, to your diseases, to your doubts. We will abolish crime, poverty, homelessness, and hunger. We will clean your air and your oceans, rebuild your forests, provide safety and soundness of mind in this dangerous universe. All shall be equal under our Grandmaster’s benevolent wing.
“But you have proven rebellious. Obstinate. Untamed. Clearly, you will not submit until shown your proper place. As a parent must discipline an unruly child, I will teach you a lesson you will never forget. These ‘Russian people,’ who resist and hide in the frozen wasteland they call home, who insist on firing their stings at our ships… they shall feel the full brunt of my wrath. Accel Graviforce.”
A sound echoed through the radio, then silence.
Mathias moved away from the telescope, grabbing his mother’s arm. “Matt, what is it?” she asked, as he pointed at the window with his fingers.
They didn’t even need a telescope to look at it. A bloody, tailed star, racing across the skies, painting the night red.
“An asteroid,” Alice said, her face white. “It’s an asteroid.”
“I have redirected a meteor, set it to fall on the city of ‘Moscow.’ In ten minutes, it will hit your surface with ten thousand times the power of those nuclear toys you use. It will burn those frozen lands, rain dust and debris across your north hemisphere. The sound of the explosion will echo across your world for weeks, alongside the screams of burning rebels. The land of Russia shall become a crater, an open grave festering with the flesh of millions.
“I grant you twelve hours for your remaining leaders to formally surrender to us. Failing that, I shall pull your moon from its orbit and make it collide with your planet. The skies will become red and black from embers and fumes; blasts of immense power will boil your oceans; searing smoke will taint your atmosphere and extinguish all life, everywhere. My judgment shall cleanse your surface of all trace of your presence. Your civilization will never have existed.”
As the monster kept talking, Solomon realized that an entire species, everywhere, could suffer through a single moment of despair.
“Know that I take no pleasure in this. It simply must be done. From the ashes, your species will rise, better, enlightened by our benevolent leadership. One day, you will understand that I fulfilled my duty as a dragon, to a lesser race. That this was an act of love.”
No, this was not love! An unforgivable crime of this magnitude could never be called love!
“Dragons over all!” Blackcinders shouted, with the same feverish zeal as his own sermons. “One order across the stars!”
“One order across the stars!” Voices echoed across the airwaves before Victor cut the radio. Alice hadn’t listened, her eyes falling back on the alien code, as if it contained the key to their survival.
As the sound of the distant explosion resonated, the meteor impact making the house quake a continent away, Solomon returned to his.
Was someone even listening?
Two Years ago
March 22nd, 2026
One week after Alice Martel’s arrest
I hope everything is fine with your new parish.
In our case… it’s not good. They returned Mathias from his interrogation, safely. We are free to go, but they seized Alice’s (REDACTED) and assets. They took everything. Everything.
She never existed.
I hate to say it… but I knew this day would happen. I knew the moment I learned she kept working on that (REDACTED) behind Concordia’s back. It hurts more than anything I ever felt, but it’s not a surprise.
Mathias’ taking it harder. He’s angry. He’s smart. He has her eyes.
And it scares me.
I’m considering moving out, probably to Evermarsh. I’ve found work in the nearby area. I don’t think it’s healthy for Mathias to stay in New Francisco anymore. Her absence will be felt everywhere in our current home.
Also, I hope your presence will help him. He always loved and listened to you, more than his mother ever did. I know they will read and correct this letter, so all I can say is, we need to carry on.
This is all any of us can do.
Solomon put the letter on his church’s pedestal, before moving to sweep around.
The church was empty. Few came here anymore. He had tried to speak up, to keep hope and faith alive. But Concordia left no room to speak against it, closing channels, silencing voices, cowing men and women into abject submission. And when he spoke, he had found the wells of hope had dried up.
The Conquest broke something in every man and woman who lived through it. A precious light was lost the day Blackcinders made the stars fall and it never came back.
Even Earth’s name they stole away.
In the end, even Solomon Nicholae stopped struggling against the inevitable. They had lost, and salvation wouldn’t come.
Sol stopped sweeping, staring up at the stained glasses of angels and saints looking down on him. A gnawing doubt, that had festered for years until he could no longer ignore it, took him over.
“God, My Lord, I have never prayed for myself. I always prayed for others. But tonight… tonight, please. Answer me. Lord, if you exist…”
He stopped himself, as the weight of his own words fell on him.
“Lord, if you exist… if you ever existed… please answer me. Why? Why did you send the dragons to enslave us? Why did you let them take her?” He paused, taking a deep breath. “Why?”
“Because your God helps those who help themselves.”
Sol’s eyes opened, and he looked behind him.
A human figure was sitting on his church’s bench. He cast a long, great shadow that didn’t belong to a man; his face, strong and ageless, seemed vaguely familiar, both alluring and frightening. He wore a finely crafted suit, the height of Italian fashion; a woodpecker golden brooch adorned his tie. The scent of gunpowder and mustard gas filled the room as he appeared.
The church’s door had been locked, and the priest didn’t hear him come in. “Who are you?” Sol asked when he meant: what are you?
“Probably one of Earth’s last champions.” His voice reminded Sol of that American actor, Nicholas Cage. “You may call me March, for now.”
“That is not your true name.”
This made the man smile. “Yes, and no. Your kind called me by many names, from China to Europe, and I answered to each. But March will do for today.”
Sol hated evasive answers, but he noted an important word. Your kind. He searched his memory for where he had seen the man’s face. He had a good memory, so he quickly remembered. His priest training in Italy.
His eyes widened. “Impossible.”
“Why so surprised? Concordia brought magic back to Earth, and with it, friends and foes.”
“You cannot exist.”
“Must one story spun exclude all others? What if all stories are simply tiny parts of a greater tale? A tale transmitted from mouth to mouth so many times, today’s versions are no longer accurate? That is the modern world, priest. A world of interpretations.”
The entity shifted on the bench, looking at the cross above the pedestal. “While I may not be so impolite to answer in your Lord’s name, I can tell you that our interests align, Him and I. I can bring some answers to your troubled mind if you hear me out. I also have a humble request to make, which I hope you will fulfill in my stead.”
Sol knew better to accept the gift before learning the price. “What request?”
“The boy, Martel… may prove instrumental in our war to come.”
“Mathias?” Sol said with protectiveness. “What do you want with him?”
“I want him safe, or as safe as a creature like him can be. I would like that you watch over him, guide and protect him.”
The man smiled. “I apologize if I offended you. I myself do not know how I should call him now, after what his mother did to him.”
Sol frowned deeply, walking toward the thing in front of him. If he was afraid, as the priest looked at him dead in the eyes, he didn’t show it. “You know what happened there.”
“Partially. I was there, but only at the end. Better late than never, I should say.” The man chuckled, but the priest didn’t. “It was pretty bad. Concordia had to send their Violet Minister, Brina, to deal with the event.”
“What happened?” Sol repeated.
“What did Alice Martel want? Truly want?”
“She wanted to create a god,” Sol said. “A machine god.”
This made Sol pause. “One cannot create a god.”
“So I thought.” March shook his head. “Have you ever heard of Hubris?”
“Another word for pride.” The worst sin of all.
“Hubris is to pride what war is to a bar brawl. Gods can be cold, heartless things; I know that more than anyone, and hopefully Miss Martel learned that too. A shame her son paid the price of his mother’s madness.”
“He was returned fine, from what his father told me,” Sol replied.
“Physically, yes. For his sake, maybe he will stay that way, but I don’t think so and I am never wrong.” March touched the bench, inviting Sol to sit with him.
He didn’t. “Explain.”
The man responded with a sigh. “The iron god did something to him. Connected him to the source of all sorcery. I am not sure myself yet, and neither is Concordia; I think they’re letting him run around until they see in which direction the wind blows. But I have the intuition that what happened to him, if replicated and refined, could turn the tide in mankind’s favor. Mathias will be someone’s weapon, Concordia’s, ours, or the other invader’s, that I can tell you.”
“The other invader?”
“The dragons brought malign forces back to Earth; one just as terrible as them. This is a three-way war, priest. We have two enemies, merciless order and cruel chaos. Both must go for us to be free, truly free. It will be difficult, and not without blood and loss… but we can do it, together.’
A world free of the dragons? Could this man be trusted? At heart, though, Sol didn’t care.
He hoped again. “What must I do?”
“For now, watch Martel, and wait. But mark my word, priest. In time we will gather a great army, and we shall challenge Concordia for our right to exist. Know that your faith in your God is not misplaced and will one day be rewarded. Mankind is not without friends in this vast universe… and we haven’t forgotten you.”
The man vanished, leaving Sol alone in his empty church.
Spell of the Day