One year ago . . .
"The Leonis departure-side Second Guard just went down," an Alpha-Centaurian officer informed its commander in its native language. "Two Leonian heavy fighters rammed it. Observers think it's the Fanatic Brigade."
"Confirmed," another officer reported. "We've got at least five intruders . . ." it leaned toward its scope ". . . on an eight-gee least-time course for Go'orla."
Commander Sheltlack puzzled. Only eight gee? "Manned?"
The second officer scanned its leftmost display. "Highest reported acceleration is 9g. Either they're manned or they want us to think they are. But they made transit going damn fast, around twenty permil."
Gr(d)aedo'or — formerly Gr(d)aedo'or Aaach(t)ia — stood in the middle of an empty avenue and looked out at Go'orla's early morning sky. Clanless Centaurians like it were much rarer than they had been just a few centuries earlier, particularly here on the homeworld, but they still existed and still presented a thorny problem for society at large.
Back at the beginning of the War, all of clan Aaach(t)ia had volunteered to serve on board Mobile Base Looop(t)(g)aa, one of Alpha Centauri's premiere fighter deployers. But they needed a clan member or two to stay back home, to ensure that nobody reclassified their homestead as "abandoned" and took the land away from them, and that duty had fallen on Grdaedor Aaachtia and its mother, the aging Zr(t)o'o Aaachtia. Neither of them had liked the arrangement, but the needs of the clan always came first; and besides, their areas of expertise — clan bookkeeping expert and clan gathering expert — weren't exactly the most useful skills to bring on board a war spacecraft.
But Mobile Base Loooptgaa had been utterly destroyed during an assault on the Sol hyper hole, less than two months into the War. At that moment, with only two surviving members, clan Aaachtia had evaporated. And of course, with no clan Aaachtia, there was no longer a legal claim on the Aaachtia homestead. Grdaedor and Zrto had been thrown out of what had been their home, as unceremonially as a tiny pest might be thrown out of a pantry. Theoretically, both were free to join any new clan they wanted; practically, though, a clanless Centaurian was the lowest rung of undesirable, and it was futile to hold out hope that they might be adopted. The strain of living without a roof over its head, mild as the local weather was, had been too much for old Zrto, who died less than a year later.
Were clan Aaachtia still around, Grdaedor supposed it might be huddled with its clanmates in the homestead's bomb shelter. Every homestead had one, some so ridiculously hardened that they could theoretically survive at ground zero of an aerial antiproton burst. That was where everyone had gone when the Take Cover alert had sounded, and why the outdoors was all but deserted right now. Somewhere, up above that peaceful, cloud-dotted blue sky, an invading force of Leonian spacecraft was closing on Gorla at a frightening pace.
Reading news updates on its data pad would have been pointless. By the time military news dispatches made it to the civilian channels, they were hopelessly out of date. All it could do was keep its three eyes scanning the horizon, waiting for —
A bright white flare streaked downward near the horizon. It looked fantastically far away, but such distances didn't mean you were safe. Grdaedor remembered the maxim its clanmates had relayed back home when they were still in military training: If it's close enough to see, it's close enough to kill you. Was this the plasma sheath of a kinetic strike? An antimatter bomb? One of their fighters making a suicidal swan dive into the planet's surface? All these thoughts flashed through its head in the brief instant the flare plunged from the sky, before it truly erupted. A shaft of blue-white brilliance, moving faster than any lightning bolt, stabbed straight down into Gorla's crust. The eye Grdaedor had been pointing at the sight burned out instantly, and the skin facing it flash-fried in the same fleeting moment. Through the pain and shock, the Centaurian realized the true nature of what it was seeing — and went utterly dead inside.
The shock and heat waves reached Grdaedor in a matter of seconds, turning it, and everything else in its path, into so much plasma. The clanless Centaurian had been close to ground zero. It had been one of the lucky ones.
The Centaurians on the other side of the planet were another matter. It took twelve hours — the better part of Gorla's 17-hour day — for the air and ground shockwaves to reach all the way around the world, fuelled by the nuclear fusion of the silicon and oxygen in Gorla's mantle. One by one every city crumbled into so much jumbled rock, and the very air peeled away into space along the wave's relentless shock front. But the news, and the sickening images, raced ahead of the destruction. A few whom the wave had not yet reached — all too few — managed to fight their way into a landing bus or the odd ascender and blast clear of the planet. The rest could only watch the end of the world march steadily toward them before they, too, met the same grisly end.
Unlike UV Ceti IV, Alpha Centauri A III had an iron core. When the phased beam of gamma rays reached it, the nuclear fusion it induced absorbed energy rather than releasing it. The cascade reaction inside the planet stopped before the beam could reach the other side. The planet, as a whole, had been spared from the complete destruction that had befallen UV Ceti IV seventy-six years earlier. But it hardly mattered to the tiny creatures that had been crawling around on Alpha Centauri A III's surface. They and everything they knew was utterly gone. Every clan, every homestead, every bomb shelter, every building, every road, every piece of history, every work of art, every bit of data stored nowhere else in the cosmos — all of it, all of them, were simply erased.
Go'orla, known by the humans as Alpha Centauri A III, the homeworld of the Centaurian species, was dead.
The Pentagon War is continued in chapter 16.
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