Ethusalia, Revisited: The Thing About Hope

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Some people - well, those who talked about it anyway - said it was a miracle anyone showed up at all, let alone in such a short time, or in such high numbers. A podunk little town like Ethusalia? How did anyone even notice something was happening before people started getting carted off-world? A bad situation, sure. ("Terribly sorry." "My condolences." "I couldn't imagine such a thing.") But in all, those who remained were lucky someone was watching out for them, to try and repel the attackers and to help with cleaning up in the aftermath.

Of course, they never said it to their faces. How rude would that be? But the whispers were hardly concealed.

The usual tourism dropped off during the surfing season, giving way to a different kind of visitor: Curious conspiracy theorists, faux-suicidal nihilists, self-aggrandizing "service trips," and those who were just interested in getting photographs of the many crisis spots. This, too, was "lucky." Now the town could see an influx of visitors throughout the year, instead of only one part. If they'd consider a historical site or museum, anything to play up interest in the attack, they could spin a benefit. Take charge of their destiny. Make lemonade.

Lucky. What a crock! Anyone who thinks that can tell it to my dad.

Alphonse Halberstadt served as a combat medic for years before ending his military career and returning to his hometown and taking up full-time as both paramedic and single father to his daughters.

On December 27th, 2018 at 3pm he went in to work his last double for the pay period. Sometime between 3 and 4 AM the twenty-eighth, the previous period's paycheck would hit and he'd finally be able to get his girls something for "Late Christmas." Better late than never, Hailey'd, his youngest, had assured him. Katie, the older sister, swore she'd be fine buying her own gifts with the funds from her part-time at the pizza parlor, but he'd get her something anyway, to say thanks for using her last check and tips to help cover bills. And to say congratulations on her performance at the California Academy of Mathematics and Science.

He'd been burning the candle at both ends since the divorce, but there seemed to be a break in the clouds. Once 7 o'clock hit he'd have a few days off. A few days to rest and spend with the girls. Maybe take them to the beach, or just eat out somewhere, or...whatever, they could decide together.

The team had just completed another transport, and Alphonse had only 38 minutes left in his shift when the ground shook. There was something slightly different about them - unlike anything he'd heard overseas, but there was no mistaking the sounds of explosions for the seasoned warrior. A domestic terrorist attack? His thoughts went to the girls. Were they home? Safe? He'd see to them as soon as possible, but as much as he wanted to, he couldn't just leave.

Alphonse exchanged a glance with Jason, the hospital's head of security—likewise a combat veteran, and began to help corralling patients and staff. There wouldn't be much they could do with the limited arms security personnel carried, but at the very least they could try and get as many people to safety as possible. Jason rushed the front door while coordinating his team through the radio and Al tried to control the instant chaos.


From the entrance a shockwave ripped through the air, throwing Al and those closest him to the floor. Shattered glass sprinkled his backside. Scorching heat licked his backside. Pushing himself up, he looked over his shoulder. Jason was nowhere to be found. The front of the hospital obscured in smoke, a vaguely humanoid skid mark at the edge of the conflagration was all that was left. Al's heart sank. He knew he'd be the one to break it to the wife and children. It wasn't the first time, and it wouldn't be the last.

But first, calling an audible, he shouted over the chaos and began shepherding the crowd away from the explosion.

Something roared overhead. The hospital rocked again, shaking dust from the walls and ceilings. Thrice in such quick succession, on the hospital? Overhead aircraft? This was abnormal, even for an attack. Stumbling along, Al ushered the frenzied crowd down the stairs, linking up with several members of the security team and guiding them to the basement level. There they could hide split into smaller groups, hide everyone, and wait for help, or for the bombing to stop.

But, for most of them, help wasn't coming. The bombing stopped. They waited...

And waited...

And waited...

...And waited.

Finally, after he'd gained a modicum of confidence in the silence, Alphonse cracked the door and peeked his head through. One of the officers was unfortunate enough to have the same idea just as a polished metal humanoid machine stepped into the doorway. A silvery steel hand clamped around his throat and thrust him back into the room.


The response came on its own; he didn't even think about it. "HEY!" Al shouted, dashing along the wall to where he could grab the fire extinguisher. He charged the machine, ducking under a backhand swipe and swinging the safety device upside the robot's head. Unflinching, the swift response sent him skidding along the floor. Maintaining his hold on the improvised weapon, he scrambled back up, pulled the pin and squeezed on the trigger, covering the machine and much of the hallway in dry chemical. It seemed to have the desired effect, as the robot's next few swipes struck nothing but the air. Moving nimbly about, Al battered the titanium monstrosity like a Luddite driven mad. Yet he remained uncertain if his actions were having any effect.

Almost as if to answer his thoughts, the robot's ruby eyes roared to life and its hand wrapped around his wrist with a sickening crunch. Once again he was sent hurtling across the floor.

"Hookay then, Plan B." He rose again with a groan, tossing the extinguisher which bounced off the thing's head, and he ran. Ran right past it, down the hall, checking over his shoulder to be sure it was following. It was. The hardy display seemed to have drawn its attention and marked the veteran as a priority target. Good. Maybe he couldn't overpower the thing outright but he damn sure knew the hospital better, and cognitive flexibility didn't appear to be its strong suit.

But he hadn't counted on the numbers. He only made it around the next corner when something sharp punched its way through his chest. He tasted iron in his throat, looked down in shock at the rod lodged in his chest.

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"Hkkh!..Hhhh..." Alphonse sunk along the wall, looked into the glimmering ruby eyes of his killer, who callously walked past, stepping over him as though he were simply some object on the floor. His thoughts fell to his daughters. Were they home? Safe? What would happen to them over the course of this strange assault? After? Would they make it through, go live with their mother maybe? God, what shitty timing. He made a few attempts to crawl on his forearms—To them, he told himself. Going to see more time...My little girls...Daddy loves you...Daddy's gonna be there for you...

But the pool of blood rapidly forming under his body said otherwise. Barely three feet from where he started, Alphonse Halberstadt fell down on his face, and didn't rise again.

He failed. His sacrifice didn't stop those in the hospital from being rounded up, patients left without care, those who remained returning hours later to find some of the more urgent needs deceased. It didn't make a bit of difference except a few minutes' delay. But Goddamn it, he tried! And almost no one outside Ethusalia even talked about it. Any of it. Some heroes showed up and fought, some helped clean up after. On some level Katie knew it was wrong - they did more than anyone expected of them, they tried, and in some ways they did make a difference in the aftermath. But how could that be good enough? How could it, when good, hard-working people gave their lives only to be swept under the rug?

Hmph! Throw a pretty banner on it - "Hope" - call it a happy ending and just forget about the ones who died? The ones who were carted off to who-knows-where, some Godforsaken planet lightyears away, to be slaves to some alien Julius Caesar? That's the thing about hope. It's just so fragile...

That's not how the story ends, swore Katherine Halberstadt. How their story ends. How his story ends. Their sacrifices have to mean something. One way or another, she'd make sure of it.

That morning, like many others, Katie got herself and her sister dressed, walked Hailey to Emma's house, and waited for the bus to take her to work. She too had been racking up as many hours as possible to help things along while school was out for the holidays. Earphones in, eyes down at the screen of her phone, the golden sun had just crept over the horizon when inexplicable darkness reclaimed the sky. Wide-eyed and open-mouthed, Katie and the others gawked for several seconds before alien spacecraft brought fire on the city.

What the...?


She broke into a sprint for Emma's, not even trying to comprehend what was happening. Ethusalia only ever had limited exposure to meta-related events - it was a small city, after all - but everyone'd heard about them on the news, read about or seen them on the Internet, and someone apparently decided the small city was overdue for a big one.

Get to Emma's, find someplace safe to hide with her and Hailey, get in touch with daddy as soon as possible. That was it. All she had to do was run her ass off for a little over a mile. Emma had a cellar intended for use as a bomb shelter that they could all hide in, and father...well, he'd completed four tours of duty. If anyone in the city could navigate the situation and come out alright, it was him. Still, she couldn't help worrying.

Katie arrived, panting, on Emma's doorstep. "Emma, quick open the door, it's me!" she shouted, beating with the heel of her palm. Several moments of nonstop frenetic pounding later, the door swung open so suddenly that she just barely stopped herself in time to avoid knocking her father's friend senseless. "Oh Kitty, thank God! Get inside! Hailey's already waiting in the cellar." Jerking the girl into the dwelling, Emma led her through the house to the back door but they never made it to the cellar. Greeted by Zedracus's enforcers, a stunning blast dropped Emma like a brick. Katie's eyes darted past the bundle of steel and wires to the patch of ground that hid the trapdoor. Hailey would be safe if she stayed put...and if no one led the invaders directly to her.

Katie ran back through the kitchen, narrowly avoiding several bursts herself on the way up the stairs. Searching for any kind of weapon, she decided one of Emma's steel golf clubs would suffice, grabbed the thickest one she could find from the bedroom, and waited next to the doorway with the club raised high over her head. The mechanical legionnaire moved through the house with careless, heavy footsteps that boasted, "What could any of your species possibly do to me?" Katie aimed to find out. Just as it entered a presumed striking range for the club she showed herself, bringing it down over the weapon to knock it off base. A flurry of strikes staggered the machine and though it never fell nor ceased its aggression, she did seem to be forcing it back through the hallway. But whatever it was made of was a good deal hardier than a sporting implement. While modestly effective, the club was bent entirely out of shape by the assault. Katie felt the muzzle against her chest just before a burning sensation flooded her body and she found herself staring up at the ceiling. A claw-like appendage clamped around her ankle and the robot proceeded to drag her through the hall, kicking and screaming and fighting for any handhold—a piece of furniture, a doorframe, anything.

After a harder struggle than even she expected, it turned around and aimed the weapon at her again. Katie rolled aside and scrambled to her feet, this time running at the invader. Both hands on the gun, they struggled against one another, slamming into walls and furniture, sending pictures and other decorations clattering to the floor. It was a long shot but Katie held on for dear life, fighting the way only a cornered animal could. Still she found herself pressed against the wall, rifle threatening to crush her trachea. In a desperate bid to free herself, she raised one leg between the two and gave a hard shove.

It seemed to happen in slow motion. At the time she didn't even believe it was actually happening. The robot flew through the air, over the railing and down to the first level of the home. The weapon was in her hands—both machine hands still attached!

"Holy shit!" the bright-eyed girl cried. "That is not possible!" Unless...Am I...?

Even that was highly likely. Most research indicated mutation – if that was what it was – almost always kicked in at the start of puberty, with rare exceptions.

But that didn't matter. She wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth. By the time she got to the rail, the robot was already back on its feet ready to reclaim both weapon and the "property" it'd come for, now with some newfound vigor at having found a suitable target for its purpose. But now she had the weapon. And, apparently, something else that'd been lying dormant. Stun bursts weren't quite as effective on the machine as it'd been on Emma, or even Katie, but the rifle proved its worth, both in slowing the thing down with its ranged fire and as a more effective bludgeoning tool than a golf club. A few minutes later the intruder'd been completely dismantled and Katie rushed downstairs to check on Emma. Out of it, but she'd live.

The three of them waited out the rest of the invasion in the cellar. The others seemed to buy her story about being knocked out and waking up to find the destroyed machine - "most likely the work of one of those altruistic ones," Emma suggested.

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Her heart rose and fell again that day, as the story of the (somewhat) triumphant heroes spread, followed some hours later by the news of her father. Everyone who'd been present, friends at work and those in the ER when the attack started, had kind things to say. Of course they did. But when had that ever been good enough for anyone dealing with a loss?

The rose-colored tint in the media of the "super heroes' triumph" stung all the worse, for the short while anyone even devoted to talking about it. In a week's time, Ethusalia returned once again to its position as a forgettable, uninteresting city.

Yeah, "lucky." Tell it to my dad.

Or to his headstone, anyway...

The world moved on but they could not. The girls' mother was sympathetic but distant, refusing custody for the sake of her research career. Emma picked up the slack, though she'd be displaced while her home was repaired and inspected. Katie drifted through life and providing for her sister, struggling to care for much. She didn't explore her abilities; what would be the point? Attendance in school dropped well past the point of no return and once it became clear there was no way she'd pass the year, she just stopped showing up at all.

Eventually raging, defiant nihilism gave way to a vague sense of purpose. What exactly "purpose" meant, she couldn't yet be sure, but there had to be ways to keep both the naively simple and the unscrupulous from controlling the world. She might never be able to avenge her loss, but Katie wasn't about to let it stand for nothing.

Got restless. Did a thing. Felt cute, might delete later.