When the war started, it started slowly.
The Russian military, performing routine satellite scans, were the first to spot S-B21. They found it just days before the end 2021. It was a large piece of debris, thought to be the aft section of what the UN Council on Extraterrestrial Objects (UNCEO) classified as a battleship. For any country, it would be an exciting discovery. Battleships were comparatively scarce, only twenty or so recorded in the world, only matched by the rarity of carriers and dreadnaughts. To this date, the StarArc was the only dreadnaught class vessel that had fallen to Earth. Battleships were front line fighters, heavily armored and stuffed to the brim with advances weaponry. They were a goldmine of military tech, and for a country as desperate for an edge as Russia had been, it was a phenomenal opportunity.
The Russians had been falling behind on the world stage. Despite having such a massive country, they had incredibly poor luck with the “crashing spaceship” lottery. Not a single piece from the StarArc had landed in their country, and in the years following, they received only a scant few fiery visitors. That put them far behind the tech race that was raging between the major powers. They attempted to invade other countries for their parts, like the rest of the big boys had, but their ability to project force was limited. Thus, they were confined to the sidelines, watching as the rest of the world strode into a Golden Age. In time, they essentially caught up, but the shame of those early days had left a large mark on their psyche.
So it was no surprise that, even a decade later, Russia positively jumped at the chance to lay sole claim to a battleship.
I remember when I first heard about the alien life that had been discovered. It was like the moon landing so all those years ago. Everyone who lived through it remembered exactly where they were when they heard about it. I was sitting on the couch in the dingy little apartment I shared with Camille, reading a book. I heard stomping on the stairs; she was sprinting up them. She burst through the door, a wild grin covering her entire face.
“They found them!” she yelled, besides herself, “those fucking Ruskies actually found them!”
She started doing an adorable little dance of excitement in the living room. It took me a good minute to calm her down enough to tell me what the hell was actually happening. I might have squealed a little bit when I finally got the story out of her. It was momentous. Finally, after all these years, we had found something besides twisted metal and burnt out hulls. Not only that, but it was actually alive. I pulled out my holopad, skimming through the hundreds of articles that cropped up, all while Camille’s was exploding with calls from research teams and newspapers asking her to either consult for them, or give a quote about our new visitors.
I’d like to say that I had realized in some far corner of my brain that maybe this wasn’t such a good thing after all. That maybe, just maybe, those aliens hadn’t come in peace. But that would be a lie.
I graduated college in the spring of 2022, a year earlier than I was supposed to. Camille was ecstatic that we would be graduating together. She had planned to stay the extra year in Massachusetts while I finished my degree, but now we could begin our work together in the real world. With the money we earned from the brain reader’s invention, we decided to buy an apartment in Denver, which had become an absolute hotspot of xeno research. Perhaps due to its exploding, highly educated population, or its centrally located position, research teams from all over the United States and the world had started to set up shop there. Just like all mass migrations, nobody knew exactly what sparked it, but everyone wanted to jump on the bandwagon. The more labs cropped up, the more researchers wanted to move there to be in close contact with their compatriots.
Our apartment was a large two bedroom flat in a swanky high-rise near in one of the booming neighborhoods on the edge of town, far nicer than our humble abode in Massachusetts. It had a gorgeous view. It was mostly my decision to move there, since Camille honestly didn’t give a shit where we lived.
I remember telling her off when she whined about how we had to shell out so much money for an apartment, “You, my love, would be happy in a rusty shit-crusted trailer if you had access to your holopad and your research. I, on the other hand, want something that has room for more than one person to be in the kitchen at a time, and has a bathroom that is not liberally coated in mildew.”
Her response was to stick her tongue out at me, but I think in the end she was happy with our home. In the first few weeks we owned our apartment, I had a blast decorating the place. We bought new furniture, put our posters in actual frames, and even bought art for the walls. Shockingly enough, even though she hated spending money on the actual apartment, she had a field day with the decorations and the furniture. When she wanted something expensive, she would tug lightly on my sleeve and smile at me with her big green eyes opened wide, using her other hand to twirl her dirty blonde hair around a finger. I had to physically drag her away from a two-thousand-dollar recliner, which she insisted she needed for work purposes. She could afford to buy it with her own money but it felt like we had to both agree on the decision when we purchased something big. When we went to buy the bed, we didn’t realize how big king sized really was, and we ended up with barely any space in the bedroom because of it.
News about humanity’s new cohabitants was sparse, at best. Beyond the initial press release of alien life being discovered, there was precious little information that reached the public about what exactly was found. Governments and research teams were foaming at the mouth to get a look at them, and the UN security council had attempted to pass several resolutions ordering Russia to share their findings with the world, but to the surprise of absolutely no one, Russia had vetoed all of them. Their stated excuse had been something along the lines of making sure that there was no contamination to the alien specimens, but everyone knew that was utter horseshit. They just wanted to monopolize any potential benefits.
All that anyone knew was that the Russians had taken the aliens to a facility outside of Saint Petersburg, which was locked down tighter than a nun’s bloomers.
So, most of the world settled in for the long, arduous wait. Eventually, the story of the century lost its wings. With our media being what it was, a single press release and an obstinate, secretive government could only provide headlines for so long. Eventually, the story faded. But it was something so important that nobody ever really forgot about it. It just sort of stayed in the back of people’s mind, something to think about in idle times or theorize about over the dinner table or when you were high off your ass.
There was one such intellectual discussion I had with Camille and some of our new pals from the local branch of DARPA, where both Camille and myself were employed.
“Do you think they’re like… tentacley or something?” Camille asked, stoned into the stratosphere.
I was more or less sober, preferring keep my mental faculties well in check.
“Keep your fetishes to yourself or in the bedroom, Camille,” I responded, “and I’m not really into that particular one, so just keep it to yourself.”
“Fuck off Sam,” she said while laughing, “it was a legitimate question.” She had a really pretty laugh.
“Camille’s bizarrely Japanese fetishes aside, I think the aliens are more likely to be humanoid than anything else,” said one of the engineers. I think his name was… Jason? Maybe. I’ve got a terrible memory for names. He was a short, stocky man with a frock of blonde hair. He was working on anti-grav thrusters.
“Oh, and why do you think that?” Meghan replied. I remember the names of the women. So sue me. She was a pretty brunette, very tall though. Damn smart lady. Railgun researcher.
“Well, all the aliens in Star Trek were humanoid, and they’ve had a decent track record so far.”
The room took a second to take that in.
“That’s fucking stupid.” I said, breaking the silence, “if we’re doing TV shows we might as well just say that they’re just big anime eyeballs and that we can use the power of dance to drive them off.”
Camille nodded serenely, “Gotta go with Sam on this one, squids are far more likely.”
“That is not what I said.”
Me, Camille, and all the others were working on some pretty classified stuff, so moments to relax like that were few and far between. Camille and I had considered the private sector pretty heavily, but we decided to go with DARPA for a couple of reasons. One, we could work together. We made a wonderful team, and the government wanted us so bad they would have agreed to anything. Two, the government had access to far more samples than any private sector lab. The tech they had for us to peruse was nothing short of breathtaking. We could have made a considerable amount more working for a defense contractor, but at that point it wasn’t about the money. It was about the research.
We were working on refining the brain scanner into something far more efficient and accurate when the news came out of Russia. Earlier that week, the Russians had withdrawn all their diplomats and mobilized their army. Everyone knew that something was going down, but we had no idea what. The US and EU put all their forces in Europe on high alert. When the first reports started coming out, it was worse than we thought.
On the third of August, 2022, Saint Petersburg had gone dark. Not the research lab where the aliens were kept. The whole fucking city was just gone, seemingly overnight, and nobody knew what the hell had happened to it. No videos were posted on YouTube, no reporters sent live feeds. It was as if the whole city had been emptied all at once. We didn’t know exactly what transpired. But we suspected that whatever was being held in that lab was responsible.
To their credit, just twelve hours after the Saint Petersburg disaster occurred, the Russian government released everything they knew on the aliens, and all the events that had led up to Saint Petersburg.
The report was not encouraging.
Initial contact with the aliens had been exciting, if underwhelming. They had been locked into a bulkhead behind five layers of an extraordinarily hardened madrium-ceramic composite. The Russians hadn’t even known what was behind it, but they assumed something that well-guarded had to be valuable. And so they recklessly pushed ahead, using high-powered lasers to painstakingly cut through the layers and layers of incredibly tough material. At this point, some of the more cautious voice in the government had noted that nothing humans had ever discovered in any of the alien ships had been sealed so completely, and that caution should be taken before unearthing it. Those voices were ignored, unfortunately.
When they broke through the final layer of the Tomb, as it became known, what they found was both absolutely amazing and slightly disappointing. Disappointing in that there weren’t high tech weapons or other tech, and incredible because there was something there that had never been found before. The room was decorated with dark red strips of metal that wound in a spiral from the outside and ended at a pedestal. On it was a pitch-black sphere, so black it looked like the absence of light rather than a color. Every once in a while, it would expand and contract, like a lung, and it emitted a low hum that would vary in pitch. It was alive.
In the spring of 2022, three months after S-B21 had landed in the Siberian tundra, humanity had found their doom.
After a bevy of tests on it, to make sure it wouldn’t expire if removed from its pedestal, the Russians spirited the sphere away from the ship as fast as they could. They actually ended up ripping the whole room out of the ship and taking it with them, making sure the sphere stayed right where it was. They took the whole thing to a top-secret base outside of Saint Petersburg, and rebuilt a good portion of the base around it. They then released to the world that they had found a living extraterrestrial being.
Upon further examination, the Russians became convinced that what they had was actually an egg of some kind. They were quite sure that if they could get the egg to hatch, they would have a living example of the alien species that had been a mystery to us for so long.
For the life of me, I can’t imagine why nobody asked why a species would ever seal their offspring behind five layers of nigh-impervious walls. Why there were no visible doors that led to it. Why it seemed like the whole room was meant to be detached from the rest of the ship. If someone had asked those questions, they must have been overruled. As they say, hindsight is 20/20.
The Russians finished their preliminary tests in July of 2022. That they took so long was a testament to the fact that they acknowledged the gravity of what they were doing. They had been incredibly frustrated by how little progress was being made. X-Rays, MRIs, and even alien scanning tech couldn’t pierce through the through the shell. Attempts to communicate with it by replicating it’s humming had no visible results. The Russians knew about as much about the egg as they had when they started examining it months ago. They had limited themselves to testing the egg as it sat on the pedestal. Now though, they would remove it to give their researchers better access.
They carried out the removal procedure on the last day of July.
The egg “hatched” immediately after, security cameras showing it erupting from its shell in the hands of a Russian scientist, consuming him immediately as he screamed in the quarantine room.
Within a few hours, the alien had emptied the base of all life, and planted itself near the reactor that powered it.
Our name for them came from a Russian word that roughly translated to assimilation. We took to calling them Assimilators, though that was a bit of a misnomer. They did not so much assimilate beings, they copied them and made changes. Within minutes of settling down, the first original Assimilator began to grow at an insane pace, reaching the size of a small apartment room. The Russian government watched, horrified, as massive tumors began to rapidly appear all over its body, and things began to slide out of them. The camera feed went dark shortly after. The military response team stationed nearby soon followed.
Two months into the invasion, as their cities were destroyed one by one, the Russians begged the world for help. The world ignored them, choosing to shore up the defense on their own borders instead. Perhaps if the world had banded together in that moment, launched an attack on the threat with all its combined military might, we could have beat them back before they were unstoppable. But we didn’t. Instead we watched horrified as they began to nuke their own lands, desperate to stop the demons on their doorstep.
Russia fell within four months.
When Moscow went silent, the United States and its allies began to throw everything they had into military research and development. The US war machine, which had slowed in recent years, roared back into life. The government began massive recruiting drives, knowing that they had to build up their armies. New, highly advanced tanks and planes rolled off the assembly lines in droves. Munitions factories started producing at an insane pace. The economy boomed as people were put to work. There simply wasn’t enough automation available to meet the spike in demand.
Camille and I were tasked with turning out brain reader into something that could be used in military tech. We refined the designed, and stuck it into control systems and weapons, allowing people to command them with just a thought. Up until that point, the Paladin suit had been something that I had idly planned for a few years, a dream project I would never get the budget for. Now I was being told that the military was seriously considering funding it, once they had a better handle on how the Assimilators could fight.
It was a scary time, but it was also exciting, like knowing that there a wildfire a few dozen miles from your home. A faraway threat, but close enough to be tangible. It felt like living through history. It felt like the world was about to change. But we were far less prepared for it than we thought.