He survived. If only he knew what to do next, and how to keep that “alive” thing going.
The lorry and bus were filling up, as many assemblers and printers as they could salvage from this evacuated piece of Yorkshire loaded inside. “Are you sure about this?” Ros asked. She was loading the crates of metal and plastic feeder kits into the few empty spaces she could find. “We really need to get the bloody hell away from here.”
“You’re right, probably should,” Danny Gleeson said, looking into the graying skies. Yorkshire couldn’t be long for this world. He saw one more area of the lorry he was sure he could fill. “Let me go back for one more, yeah?” he said, pushing the cart back into the mini-factory. It was unwieldy, worn down from the many loads of industrial equipment it had carried out. Danny himself was worn down from the same.
“I’ll help you,” she said, guilted by his struggles.
“Hurry up, you two!” Aziz shouted over their interfaces. He started the lorry’s engines. The sound of Ehvow engines was audible from clicks away, but it was hard to tell from the abrasive noises if they were headed this way or circling. “We can’t have much more time.”
“I’m aware,” Danny said. “Raif, you’re filled up so why don’t you get going?”
“Don’t have to tell me twice,” Raif said, throwing the bus into gear and lumbering the vehicle from the factory space’s loading dock. Both Ros and Danny watched him go.
“And then there were two,” Ros said. Raif, Danny, and Ros had been the last three MI-5 agents in the area. Really, the last three they’d ever known or talked to, their handlers and organizational structure dead or scattered. Aziz was technically MI-6, but he’d surfaced to help when they all got that emergency communique about the printers and assemblers. It had been the only specific orders they’d received from any sort of command.
They heaved the cart as far and as fast as they could with what was left of their upper body strength. They passed emptied rows and severed power jacks from all the manufacturing equipment they’d already raided. The only ones left were toward the back. “Guess we should’ve gone from the back to the front,” Ros said.
“Probably,” Danny said. “This was a maker space, though. People rented out all these printers for small runs of stuff. All the best and most expensive manufacturing tech was in the front. All the low-scale, pre-Tarrare stuff was in the back.” They finally came to the closest remaining printer and a stack of material cartridges sitting for the taking, perfect for the last bit of space they had in the lorry. Ros set about unhooking them from the dead power supplies around them while Danny tried to see if he could heave it into the cart. A hum rattled all the machine racks and wires around them. It intensified into an impact that rippled the walls and ceiling above them, causing Danny to drop the small printer on the floor before he could get it on the cart. The machine smashed open, its components spilling on the floor.
“Shite, we’re out of time!” Ros said.
“I’ve got to fuck off, you two,” Aziz said through their interfaces. “Six doomblooms are overhead already and the territorials said three of those pod bombers were inbound before they went dark.”
Right as Danny and Ros’ feet began to move for the door, the floor cracked and split. A basement storage level opened up around them as they tumbled and fell below. The entire factory space came tumbling down after that, crushing as the sound of Doombloom strafing went from a roar to a screaming wreck.
Both of them landed badly, Danny’s legs twisting under him. When some emergency lights flicked on in the basement, he could see that Ros was crouched with her head bleeding. Piles of wood, plastics, and fibers tumbled into the storage, further showering them with filth and covering the hole they’d fallen through. Danny tried to move, but all he ended up doing was involuntary biting his lip and causing his legs to crack a few more times. By the pool of blood leaking from his pants, they were sliced, broken, or both. Ros tried to get back to her feet in the basement level, stumbling and unable to steady herself.
“Aziz,” Danny said through his interface. “We’re not going to make it.”
They only heard the sound of sighing on the other end. “Go with God, you two,” he said.
“I hope he makes it,” Ros said, leaning against a pile of crushed building components before she lost her footing and sat down, defeated.
“Well,” Danny said. “Are you going to tell me how stupid it was to go back one more time?”
“No,” Ros said, the frown on her face showing even in the dark. “I just hope maybe someone, somewhere can use what we pulled out of this place to make these bloody aliens pay.”
“That’s the general idea,” Danny said. It hurt his neck to look at her, but he did anyway. If he was going to die here, at least she would be the last thing he saw. The collapsed factory shook again, dust turning the emergency light into a fog. “We’re proper fucked now.”
Her frown lifted, the corners of her mouth turning upward. “You ever think about that night? When the MEF ambassador was in for the night and we switched off all the interfaces and comms and took that break?”
“It’s almost all I think about,” Danny said. The two shared a desperate laugh.
“I was wrong,” Ros said. “It wasn’t a mistake.” They felt heat, Danny’s interface filling his peripheral vision with radiation warnings as they both drifted away into darkness.
NASA, ESA, J. Walsh (ST-ECF) and ESO
Acknowledgment: Z. Levay (STScI)
“Of course,” was all Sandra Abreu said. They stood outside secured gates. On the other side of them were blasted-out buildings, vehicles, missile batteries, and downed Ehvow starships. They’d traveled so far. Burning through a few cars, then a military transport when they met some soldiers until they ran out of usable road. They finished on foot for two days through the New Mexico desert. Thankfully it wasn’t the middle of summer, the heat merely hovering between intolerable and unbearable. The moisture-leeching Hydralator bottles and other survival gear the soldiers had with them were the only reason they’d survived.
“Welcome to Colin Powell Proving Ground, everybody,” Sandra said. She opened the gate, the secured fence nearly falling apart from the force of her hand. An aerial drone had crashed into a portion of it about ten meters from where they were standing.
“This place is supposed to be a sanctuary?” was all Julia could say. She was too tired to be angry. “This is what my lost-ass parents have been trying to drive to the whole time?”
“It was,” Sandra said. “I didn’t know much about it except they were supposed to be a shelter of some kind. I saw lots of redacted reports. Senator Alvez was opposed to the project.” She let out a sad, single chuckle thinking of the debates over it.
“But isn’t that Tarrare colony underground? Like in the mountains or something? Maybe this is too,” Julia said. She pawed at her interface, trying hard to access something. Sandra imagined she was trying to contact her parents.
“It’s worth a look, isn’t it?” Lieutenant-Colonel McCorvey said. He was average height but muscular, his dark skin glistening with sweat. His voice was low but soothing. “We came all this way. Might as well check it out. Even if there’s no sanctuary maybe we can salvage some supplies.”
“You’re right,” Sandra replied. They walked inside, weaving around the road barricades. Lieutenant Rivers marched beside Sandra. She was an imposing young woman at two meters tall. She’d been really quiet so far but Sandra had heard her crying last night in her tent in a covert display of emotion. Sandra couldn’t imagine what all of this would’ve been like if she’d still been in the military. It was bad enough being a civilian. Being told to abandon your post while watching your friends and fellow soldiers fight for their lives and lose had to hurt. She understood the logic, the futility of making a big stand right now when they were still understanding the threat. Logic never soothed raw trauma, though.
They walked past a burned-out Ehvow starship, keeping their distance. It was one of the smaller cone-shaped ones ones, a dropship that Thornseeds would jump out of. Julia using her interface to take pictures of it. “Rivers, give me an SAA, overlays with the Proving Ground Map.”
“Yes, sir,” Rivers answered, thumbing at the sensor-laden goggles over her eyes to bring up her advanced interfaces. Wires followed down her neck and into the electronics situated in her field pack. “About a klick ahead we should take a left. There’s activity.”
“Hostiles?” Sergeant Kekes asked, his scrawny body charging forward. He scanned the horizon for any fight he could find. Like most short men given an assault rifle, he had a real inferiority complex and the violent impulses to make it sing. She’d known a lot of men like that during her tours of duty, but not many of them kept it all the way to middle-age like Kekes had.
“No hostiles,” Rivers answered. “It’s some kind of active power source. Giving off a faint thermal signature and I’m seeing what might be encrypted comm signals coming from it. I can’t make out any more than that. Partial ID that it’s Tarrare, but not certain. Maybe when we get closer.”
Julia gave a sigh of relief, digging through her interface more. “My dad,” she said, to no one in particular. “He and my mom are still alive, but they just had a really close call and are back headed this way.”
“That’s great,” Sandra said, forcing a smile. “First good news we’ve had in a long time.”
They passed the husk of a burned personnel carrier. “I should be used to it now,” Julia said, choking on the smell of burning bodies inside. “But I don’t think I’ll ever be.”
“Neither will I, if it’s any consolation,” McCorvey replied. They prodded forward to the site Rivers had identified. It was a small out-building, like a pump station or storage shed. Even from a distance Sandra could see reinforced blast doors on its front.
“Dead Weeds,” Sergeant Kekes said, their feet squishing in a brown trail.
“They sure are,” Rivers answered. A sizable pile of dead Thornseeds were clustered around the entrance to the building.
“There have to be almost a hundred of them,” Julia said, counting the burned piles. It almost looked like they’d cooked from the inside out. Sandra tied to imagine what sort of weapon would do that to Thornseeds.
“They’re all in a single spread pattern,” McCorvey said, finishing Sandra’s thought. “Something took them all out at once.”
With a roll of clicks, camouflaged plates in the ground around the entrance opened. Six rod-like arrays with spinning appendages emerged. The arrays bathed them in flashes of light. Sandra winced, expecting something terrible was either happening or about to happen to her body.
“This can’t be good,” Kekes added. They all had their weapons pointed at where the arrays were, but they were gone. Too fast. Sandra realized that, miraculously, she was intact. The blast doors made a series of zipping noises, hissing open.
“Subjects identified as human, standard,” a synthesized voice announced. It sounded close to the “voices” the Tarrare used to speak when they interacted with humans. “Welcome to Sanctuary B. Others await you inside.”
“Oh my God!” Julia said, almost hopping up and down. “It’s real!”
“I’ll drink to that shit,” Rivers answered.
“Entrants, please note that this facility is only 70% complete,” the synthesized voice continued. “In case of full-scale assault, safety not guaranteed.”
“I’ll take that over the outside,” McCorvey answered. “What does that 70% mean, Ms. Abreu?”
“Tough to say. I couldn’t glean much with all the redaction on the status reports. Last progress report I saw, there were mentions of supplies, sensors, an arms cache, and communication systems,” Sandra answered. “I assumed it was the post itself, not something like this.”
“What’s it supposed to have at 100%?” Rivers asked.
“Way above my security clearance,” Sandra answered. “The Senator was allowed to see complete schematics only once. The project charter promised self-sustaining algae and micro-farming techniques that could deliver a food supply that would last decades, a power source based on Tarrare tech, even manufacturing.”
“Sounds like a doomsday prepper’s wet dream,” Kekes muttered. “Wonder why they didn’t finish it.”
“Alvez said they were money pits,” Sandra said. The group of five crossed the threshold and followed the steps down, the doors sealing themselves behind them. Lights swelled as they approached and faded as they passed to guide them down the tunnel’s steps. “He insinuated that it was a Tarrare plot to build something we wouldn’t understand the purpose of until it was too late. He noted that they were strategically placed, maybe secret Tarrare command centers for an invasion.”
“Or as muster points to defend against one,” Rivers whispered. “I’m willing to bet these stairs are loaded with more hidden defenses.”
“Yeah, seems obvious now,” Sandra said.
“I can’t believe I volunteered for that dick’s campaign,” Julia said. “Both of my parents wanted him to be President.”
“I told myself he was a good leader with one weak point,” Sandra said. “He became obsessed with whatever hidden agenda he thought the Tarrare had. That obsession cost us all. Wiped out all the good he did in his career.”
“Politicians for you,” Kekes said. “They have a gift for making the worst call at the worst time.”
They came to another secured door, a yellow grid of energy passing across them before more blast doors hissed open. A wary bunch of soldiers stood on the other side with Thunderbolt assault rifles trained on all of them.
“Easy, brothers,” McCorvey said. “It’s been a little while since I’ve showered but last I checked we don’t look much like Ehvow.”
“The Alien system told us you weren’t hostiles, but you can never be too safe, sir,” the ring-leader said. He was auburn-skinned and muscular. He saluted McCorvey, noticing the LTC’s dust-covered rank insignia. “I’m Major Ralston. You’re welcome to come in. This place is really impressive and there’s lots of room to spare. Too bad we didn’t find out about it until after nearly the entire post was lost in the attack. The Post Commander sent it out over the comms right before he and all the MPs were KIA. I was the highest-ranking officer in here until you walked through the door.”
“At the moment I’m not so concerned about rank and more concerned with shelter,” McCorvey answered. He stepped through the inner doors, the rest following. The inner blast doors obediently shut and sealed. The rest of the soldiers dispersed and setting down their weapons on an improvised rack to return to whatever they’d been doing
“It’s good to see some friendly faces, “ Ralston said. “The comms and feed access we have here are telling us we’re not alone, but it’s hard to see it that way. Some of us managed to get our families down here during the attack. Others weren’t so lucky. Anything we can get you?” Ralston said.
“Right now, I think we all want some rest,” Sandra answered. “We might have more survivors coming soon, though.” Relief crossed the teenager’s face. “Looks like you can finally point your parents at something real.”
“Riko, is everything okay? Are the children okay?”
“They’re scared. I’m scared. I’ve been checking the feeds. The Ehvow are still only around Quebec and Montreal, but what if they head this way? How much longer are you going to be gone, Hena? Half the staff left in the past few hours. I think they abandoned us to go find their families. I’ve been trying to hold everyone together, but I hardly know half of them.”
“I should be back soon. I found a bus and a bunch of cars parked near a hotel. I’m trying to get the bus to start, but the fuel cells are low and there’s some sort of password to unlock it. I’m reading the instructions on the feeds for doing the emergency override, but it’s not easy. I also need to drain all the fuel cells in the cars here to charge it back up. This isn’t exactly something I’ve done before. Once I get that I can load the supplies from my car and head back to the school. Don’t worry about the Ehvow yet. We’re in Seskatciwan, the middle of nowhere. All the Tarrare files say they’ll focus on major populations first.”
“There’s something else you should know. Some of the children’s abilities are manifesting stronger than we’ve seen before. I guess it’s the stress. It’s just small stuff now, knocking things over, moving chairs, rattling windows, but I’m worried it’ll get worse.”
“They’ve never dealt with anything like this before. Whatever they can do, this is definitely going to bring it out. All you can do is to try to keep them calm.”
“We’re almost out of meds. I know we’ve been trying to ration them, but should I just go ahead and give them all their normal doses? Just to help control it?”
“Riko, I have a confession to make.”
“I don’t like the sound of that.”
“The meds have been placebos for the past two month.”
“No, that can’t be right.”
“It’s right, Riko. I was only clued into it two weeks ago by IEI. The treatments we’ve been giving the children for the past two years were Phase I. Phase II they go to placebos and see if the results stick. At least with these kids, apparently. There’s some other school in Mexico where they were keeping the children on the meds, but our school was the control group.”
“And you didn’t tell me, Hena? I know you’re the school administrator, but I’m their doctor. I need to be in the loop. How can I care for them effectively if I don’t even know I’m giving them sugar pills?”
“I know, Riko, and I’m sorry. I was going to tell you even though IEI made it abundantly clear they’d sue me into oblivion if I did, then all of this happened. At least we know the children can survive without their meds. Whatever their abilities are, the neural regenerations have worked. Their conditions and neural damage are gone and then some. They’ve stabilized. Good thing, too, because I don’t know if there’s ever going to be meds again with the Ehvow out there.”
“Hena, this is a lot to absorb. It changes everything. I thought we were treating conditions and helping these kids learn like everyone else. I didn’t know this was all part of a sinister corporate plan with phases.”
“I hear what you’re saying and I’ve been thinking the same thing since they told me. It makes me wonder what the hell they had mind for Phase III. I was told there were five phases to the program.”
“That’s … unsettling.”
“I know. I took this job knowing that it was going to be a special needs school and that there were going to be some innovative treatment programs using Tarrare science against terminal diseases, debilitating injuries, and chronic conditions. We thought we were helping these kids. In reality we were accomplices in an illegal biotech project.”
“But I think of where these kids were and where they are now. Most of them couldn’t walk on their own, some of them couldn’t even form words.”
“That’s the only thing that helps me sleep at night.”
“Hena, there’re people pulling up outside. I’m going to see if I can get a look.”
“Be careful. I’ve seen a lot of stuff on the feeds about some violent people taking any shelter and supplies they can get. I’d like to believe they wouldn’t go after a special needs school, but you never know. Thank god, I finally got this bus unlocked. I just need to recharge it.”
“There’re vans and an armored carrier. Looks like one of those new tanks. They’re all armed, but they don’t look like military. There’s someone in a suit leading them. He looks familiar.”
“Riko, can you take a picture of him?”
“Not a good one, but I can try. Here, I’m sending it.”
“Not good. That’s Pheng, our IEI handler and the one who always comes once a month to tell me they’re not seeing enough progress. That’s why he looks familiar. He’s bad news. You can’t let him inside.”
“What am I supposed to do? They have assault rifles and a tank.”
“Listen, you can’t trust him. Hey? Are you there? Dammit, recharge! I’ve drained two cells into the bus, one more and I should be able to head back. You’re talking to him, aren’t you? I know you can hear me even if you’re on mute. All Pheng cares about is what IEI wants. If he came armed he must want to take the children. You can’t let him do that! Riko, come on, tell me what’s going on or switch to speaker or something. I can’t take this. I think I’ve got enough to come back, so I’m starting the bus.”
“Hena, I can’t stop him. They want the children. Wilson tried to stand up and they stunned him with one of those microwave guns. They said they’ll do the same or worse to any of us who try. They’re using sedatives on the kids to knock them out. They said they have to take them somewhere safe. Pheng is going on and on about IEI’s investment.”
“This can’t happen. They can’t take those kids and stick them in some dungeon somewhere while this war is going on. I’ve started the bus and I’m on my way back.”
“Hena, it’s too late. They locked me and the rest of the staff in one of the supply rooms. I can hear the kids crying and screaming out there. Nefertiti lashed out, knocked a few of these armed soldier-types down, but they sedated her before she could do more. There’s nothing we can do.”
“I’ll be there soon, Miko. Maybe we can catch up to them. Maybe we can find them.”
“We can’t hold it!” Sergeant Kilmedes bawled, tears streaming down his face. He was smeared with blood. His face and body with the red kind. His feet with the dark-green sludge from Ehvow.
“For fuck’s sake,” Chief Inspector Downes shouted back at him. He didn’t really have anything to follow that exclamation up with as his verbal and mental arsenals were very much out of ammunition, much like the single clip left in his gun.
“We’ve been fighting these damn Ehvow for almost a week,” Private Liz Jameson said. “We’ve lost every piece of ground we’ve stood on. Typical that we’d die here. Backed into godforsaken council flats that’re almost an exact replica of the building I grew up in.”
“South London isn’t exactly where I planned to end my days either,” Downes replied. They’d started out under command of some Captain in the SAS, pulling in territorial military, police, basically anyone he could into some impromptu militia. Of course as soon as they’d really engaged the Ehvow the dashing SAS officer’d been killed promptly. Their group of hundreds had fallen to 18.
“Trying to think of everyone else,” Jameson said. “Those civilians hiding a few floors up. There’re almost a hundred of them. We’re all that stands between them and those things out there.”
“No way in hell we can save them,” Private Roarke said. “Or ourselves.” Downes had thought Roark a psychopath when they’d first met. He still did, but psychopathy was starting to sound more and sensible.
“It’s all bollixed up,” Bob Finch, an MI-5 agent with them mumbled. “The chain of command’s become so diluted no one’s really in charge anymore. Take our merry little band. Highest up is technically the Sergeant over there, and he’s clearly broken. We can’t even follow the orders to evacuate and disband or rendezvous with other poor sods still in this city. Nowhere for us to go that doesn’t involve cutting our way through hundreds of those Aliens out there, and there’s no way the civilians left in this high rise can follow us through that even if we could make it out alive. We have no choice but to make a stand here.”
A chugging whir started outside. Eric Downes crumpled even further to the floor as the Ehvow guns pulverized the walls and windows near him, the Thornseeds firing into the building from the streets. “Christ,” Private Jameson said, trying to cover her ears even over her helmet. The sound was like hundreds of tiny jet engines coming at them. “If I survive this there’s no way I don’t go deaf from those guns.” It stopped after awhile, like it always did.
“Like I said, all bollixed up,” Bob Finch said. He was the only one who’d kept them alive this long. He really knew the city, leading them around passages and back-alleys not even Downes knew from all his years on the force.
“What are they doing?” Jameson asked.
Downes decided to be the brave one. He slid across the floor and peeped out a gaping hole in the exterior wall. “Nothing,” Downes said. “They look like they’re waiting for something. Maybe more so they can charge the building.” He counted around thirty outside, far more than their group could handle and certainly more than the unarmed civilians in the floors above them could face.
“Probably doing their equivalent of calling in an airstrike,” Private Jameson said.
“She’s probably right,” Finch said. “Last I checked the MI-5 feeds they were hitting military and civilian convoys trying to leave the city. Only remainders like us left now.”
“Wait,” Downes said, seeing two new Thornseeds arrive, each of them holding something. The other Thornseeds tried to take up a more defensive posture around them. “They’ve got boxes of some kind and they’re headed into the lobby.” There were two loud pops as the improvised bombs they’d placed in front of the lobby entrance went off, taking a few more Thornseeds down in a splash of sludge and glowing particles.
“They’re really coming in,” Roarke said. “I think this is it.”
“Whatever they’ve got must be explosives,” Finch grumbled, after thinking it over for a minute. “For all we know, they’ve got tactical nukes or worse.” Finch rose to his feet. Everyone did the same, following him instinctively at this point. The group gathered themselves, all of them smelling ripe from the blood and sweat they hadn’t had a chance to wash off for the past week. “Territorials, you’re the best armed so I’m going to need you to go first.” Kilmedes had gotten back to his feet, but looked shaky as he lurched toward the stairwell.
“Yes sir,” Private Jameson said, pushing ahead of her Sergeant. Downes followed them, marveling at the pyramid-shaped tunnels taken out of the walls and stairwell from the barrage of the Thornseeds’ guns. The cheap construction wouldn’t stand for much longer.
Downes thought he could almost taste his heart beating in his throat, his London police uniform and riot gear looking worse than the soldiers’ given all the filth he’d waded through. He heard the gunfire, remembering his tactical training as the territorials lit into the room. They were using old Thunderbolt caseless assault rifles. Eric himself just had one of those new SMGs they’d deployed a few months ago. He wasn’t up on gun manufacturers, but they seemed to be at least slightly effective.
The gunfire resumed, the Thornseeds doing the usual and barely taking defensive positions. Casualties didn’t seem to matter to the Aliens. As he fanned to the side and leveled his gun he saw Kilmedes take a direct hit from a Thornseed weapon. It took his body completely apart, some of it splashing off the wall and onto the side of Downes’ head. His interface on the right side was clouded with a red film. The combined fire from the soldiers was precise, drilling into the Thornseeds’ midsections in squeals and toppling bulks. They’d learned a lot from all the skirmishes they’d had with the Aliens, Downes himself cutting into the middle of one in a way that burst it open and painted the big windows at the front of the lobby a dark brown-green. As he found his way to a small hallway near the elevators. Cover was minimal, a few load-bearing columns and drywalls all that protected them in the lobby. His weapon stopped firing, the last of his ammunition gone as he ducked through a half-collapsed maintenance room.
The Thornseeds began to back away, retreating with shrill warcries. “Got them!” Private Jameson shouted. When Downes crawled from the maintenance room he saw everyone backed as far from the lobby entrance as they could, clouds of spectral yellow-green bits floating around. They settled to the ground after a few minutes, fading to a harmless dull. “I think we took down four of them,” Jameson said. The broken remains of three of the plant-based creatures were on the ground leaking everywhere.
“They got six of us,” Private Roarke said. Downes scanned with his interface, identifying Kilmedes among the loss, four others, and then a name in critical condition that made him stop.
“Fuck!” Downes shouted, seeing Bob Finch’s body on the ground trembling. Downes looked down at Finch’s body, watching blood leak from his eyes, nose, and mouth. The glowing spores pulsed under his skin as they filled his bloodstream. He was dying.
“He almost made it,” Private Jameson meditated. “It’s not enough that they shoot you, when you’re lucky enough to take them down that happens.”
“That may be the least of our worries,” Downes said, realizing that they’d overlooked the obvious. The two boxes the Thornseeds had dragged into the building were opened, a floating orb popping out of them. The orb was spinning faster and faster. “Anyone have a clue how we shut something like that down?”
Jameson went to his side, the other soldiers starting to back away. He searched through his police interface and found the the bomb disposal application. “Alien Object Detected” was all it said back. “Really now?” Downes said, pounding his fist into it. There were no buttons, no control panel.
“I’m out,” Private Roarke announced, sprinting out of the building as fast as his legs could carry him. Downes didn’t think as he watched the energy in the orbs grow brighter and their spinning orbit turn blindingly fast. Instinctively did the same as Roarke, scrambling out of the lobby. The Thornseeds were running in the opposite direction down the street, uninterested in taking any shots at them.
Downes ran a hundred meters or so in a blur before he stopped. No one was with them, the other soldiers and police officers all still in the building. Then he remembered the civilians. He’d just run, leaving all those families in there. He’d abandoned everyone. Roarke kept running, leaving Downes far behind.
A flash, brighter than any Downes had ever seen, rumbled the council estates building as it pulsed out of every one of its windows. It hurt Downes eyes even though he hadn’t been looking directly at it. Heat and wind flowed up the street. He had expected the whole building, maybe even the streets to be disintegrated or on fire or covered in spores or some other deadly scenario.
His interface began to flash warnings, everyone in the council estate’s life signs flickering out. His own body began to fail him, heart racing as his skin flared in itches and then burns. He turned back in the direction Roarke had run and saw that he’d slowed down. “Warning: Lethal Radiation Levels,” Downes’ interface told him, far too late for him to do anything about it. He fell to his knees as his legs ceased to work and all he could feel was fire, pain, and nausea. His eyes settled on the completely intact buildings around him as he started to go into spasms before they went blind.
ENCRYPTED DISCUSSION CHANNEL – AFRICAN UNION SECURITY COMMITTEE
TOPIC THREAD – EHVOW INVASION – WHAT SHOULD WE DO
SUBJECT: CAPE TOWN ATTACKS
SUBMITTED: YESTERDAY, 02:32 SAST
We have suffered devastating losses in the last few hours. I, for one, have lost nearly a third of my ground forces, the South African President and parliament, and half of my command’s air force drones in an attempt to save Cape Town. I was not successful. Please see attached images and casualty reports. I hear that conditions are similar for Cairo. The conditions for the UAS, EU, GCC, and RUF are severely worse, as it is for many other highly developed nations. It seems obvious to me that the Ehvow are focusing on destroying every strategically important city they can locate. I have read additional reports of them targeting concentrations of military activity. I’m only halfway through the intelligence packet provided by our allies the Tarrare. I have seen the cables from the UAS Secretary of State, now Acting President, suggesting disbanding of the militaries in order to avoid them becoming targets of the Ehvow. I wholeheartedly concur with this policy and have already given orders to my own officers to commence such a disbanding and to produce communication plans. I have identified areas of low population density in neighboring nations and areas of South Africa where I intend to send my troops and to encourage civilians to evacuate. I have given orders to my soldiers to fight defensively if attacked but not to seek out further engagement with the Ehvow at this time until we have a clear strategy in place. I encourage you all to do the same and to tell your own militaries to stand down from attacking soldiers from our friends and neighbors who are simply looking for safe haven. We must disperse as much as possible and avoid areas of concentrated populations to avoid making ourselves targets. I look forward to hearing your thoughts and concerns.
<attached files redacted>
General Mongane Tafari House
African Union Armed Forces
SAC (South African Command)
SUBJECT: RE: CAPE TOWN ATTACKS
SUBMITTED: YESTERDAY, 02:58 SAST
Thank Allah someone has addressed this madhouse of a situation. I have finished the entire Tarrare intel package provided and have demanded my top officers do the same, and given what I have learned from it I concur with your strategy. I have ordered my military and militias to behave as you have suggested. Tripoli has already received some minor strafing and bombardment, but the mass of this Ehvow fleet has not focused on Libya as of yet. We will be staging in neighboring Mali and several other countries, as well as in encampments near our smaller cities as an interim measure. I hope I will be accorded a similar latitude by our friends and neighbors in the other commands even though such actions step outside of our national charters and could provoke certain questions of sovereignty. We should share our tactical positions once a secure method of doing so can be found. If our forces all converge on similar locations the likelihood will increase that the Ehvow take notice and attack. The so-called round ‘Doombloom’ ships the Ehvow have sent, with their hundreds of strafing guns as points, can inflict mass casualties on encampments in mere seconds. They did so to a substantial camp of refugees and my own forces outside Tripoli. We must avoid giving them easy targets.
General Mahmmoud Karaman
African Union Armed Forces
LMC (Libya-Mali Command)
SUBJECT: COMMAND PROTOCOLS
SUBMITTED: YESTERDAY, 05:12 SAST
Generals House and Karaman (and other esteemed colleagues),
Need I remind you of the proper protocols in this situation? Your commands are not yours to do with as you please. The resources you have flow from the African Union’s Defense Committee, as do your command appointments. Both can be easily removed. Please consider the men and women who serve under you and refrain from implementing such a highly risky and dangerous strategy. We must come together and work through this crisis. We cannot have our commands dispersing and behaving on their own without regard for the orders and priorities of the African Union or its member countries’ national borders. This attack is just beginning and we must deliberate on what it means and what will occur before such drastic steps are taken. I urge calm on all sides and for us all to respect each other in such times as these. I am already drafting up a schedule for all of us to meet at a secured and undisclosed location to sort this situation out and come to a common understanding and agenda to avoid misunderstandings as we deal with the current situation.
African Union Defence Committee
SUBJECT: RE: CAPE TOWN ATTACKS
SUBMITTED: YESTERDAY, 05:15 SAST
Excellent point. We do not want all of our military, as it disbands, to gather in similar locations or locations of close proximity to one another. The Ehvow are likely to work their way to smaller and smaller population centers after they have finished eradicating the major cities. Moreso, I have deeply disturbing reports coming out of Paris, London, and New York about these Thornseeds, including that they consume the dead. Have you heard this? I’m unsure what is real intelligence and what’s rumor. I have heard rumors that they are attempting to establish a base of sorts and are making landfall in Cairo as they have in New York City of the UAS and in a few other places. I imagine our Egyptian colleagues would weigh in on this if they had been included on this discussion group, as I believe you and I both articulated the need for to our esteemed chair Mr. Zuma long ago. I will work on sending encrypted information regarding my troop positions as I receive them and transmit them securely upon request. Disseminating them through even a secured forum like this may be unsafe. As far as we know, these Ehvow have hacked our networks and could be reading these very conversations.
General Mongane Tafari House
African Union Armed Forces
SAC (South African Command)
SUBJECT: RE: COMMAND PROTOCOLS
SUBMITTED: YESTERDAY, 06:00 SAST
FOLLOW-UP TASK: DUE YESTERDAY, 09:30 SAST
General House (and esteemed colleagues),
Have you not received my previous posting on this secure thread? We must not continue with this very risky strategy you are proposing. And, as I explained to you at the time, our supposed colleagues in Egypt ARE NOT PART OF THE AFRICAN UNION. They joined the Arabian Union. We have not, as yet, finalized the memorandum of understanding with them, let alone the appropriate interdepartmental protocols for the sharing of intelligence of this magnitude. I will reiterate that it is key that we must have a strategic summit to focus on this problem and to articulate a unified strategy going forward. The Acting President of the AU has a great many ideas he has directed me to share with you all regarding this war effort.
African Union Defence Committee
SUBJECT: RE: COMMAND PROTOCOLS
SUBMITTED: YESTERDAY, 06:23 SAST
FOLLOW-UP TASK: DUE YESTERDAY, 09:30 SAST
What kind of drug do you think our friend Alphonse is on? The world is crumbling around us, and he wants to have a meeting? God help us all. What a prick. I’m with you and will direct my people to do as you suggest.
General Ali-Ben Grizard
African Union Armed Forces
ZC (Zimbabwe Command)
SUBJECT: RE: COMMAND PROTOCOLS
SUBMITTED: YESTERDAY, 06:27 SAST
FOLLOW-UP TASK: DUE YESTERDAY, 09:30 SAST
You have replied to the entire discussion group as opposed to General House individually via direct message, as I assumed you were planning to do. I believe my request is quite reasonable! Also, I do not appreciate the name-calling. If anyone is a prick, it is you.
African Union Defence Committee
SUBJECT: RE: CAPE TOWN ATTACKS
SUBMITTED: YESTERDAY, 06:47 SAST
I think this sounds like a good way forward. Let’s keep the communication flowing.
I don’t believe there’s a need for such meetings. If we can communicate directly with one another, I’m sure we can resolve this. If there are those who dissent with us other than yourself, I invite them to express their concerns. I also think the idea of a summit would be irresponsible at best. If the Ehvow have any strategic sense they would find a way to attack such a summit. I recommend you get the Acting President to a secure and isolated location and then you can find a way to communicate his vision to us all.
General Mahmmoud Karaman
African Union Armed Forces
LMC (Libya-Mali Command)
ESA/Hubble & NASA
Acknowledgements: R. Sahai (Jet Propulsion Laboratory), Serge Meunier
He paused in the stairwell to check the social feeds on his interface. All of his friends and coworkers from the city, their faces full of smiles from their avis, simply said “offline.” They’d said that for hours. Only one lone message, from Nika, had come across. Was that a bomb it had said, right before the second barrage had hit Moscow. None of his messages had been returned. He’d begun to accept that they weren’t going to get returned.
“Viktor, what the hell are you doing?” he heard as he stepped outside the apartment building. Viktor Pasternack couldn’t take it anymore. He’d been hiding in their apartment for a whole day since the Aliens had started to attack, and he wanted to see.
“Nothing,” he spat back at his aunt.
“Don’t go outside, Viktor,” Aunt Natasha yelled down the stairwell as he reached the ground level. “It’s not safe.”
“I want to see for myself,” Viktor said, walking outside. The site of Moscow loomed in the distance, a wall of fire pouring and smoke straight into the sky. Another series of energy bursts fell on it, shaking the structures around him and cracking windows even though they were kilometers away from the strike. His apartment building was on the edge of the city, such as it was after the Ehvow. It was on a high hill with a lot of other dilapidated high rises, so it offered a good view of everything going on in the streets below below and the ruins of Moscow. Distant columns of destruction and ash were all that remained of the city’s core.
Military vehicles rolled through nearby roads with the Russian Unity Federation symbol. He recognized them as the BTR-150. His father had worked in one of the factories that had built them. They were all going different directions, their all-terrain tires and axels crawling over sidewalks and even smashing over abandoned cars. “What’s going on out there?” Natasha said. She had come down to the ground floor, but was still too wary to come outside.
“First you don’t want me to come out here to find out what’s going on then you want to know what’s going on?” Viktor shouted back. “You’re sending mixed signals.”
“Since you’re already out there,” Natasha said.
“They’re abandoning it,” Viktor said, hoping it would coax his aunt outside. He’d gone to live with her after being laid off a month ago, both of his parents long dead. “The soldiers, everyone, they’re all leaving.” The traffic was only going one direction. Natasha finally ventured outside.
A few other people had collected outside of the apartment buildings. Many were getting in their own cars or even bikes and leaving. “Are they stealing a bus?” Natasha said, pointing to a gang of people down the block who were loading suitcases and bags onto a sizable piece of public transportation.
“Looks like it,” Viktor said. If they were the type to steal buses, he wondered how many of the suitcases and the bags were actually theirs. There seemed to be piles of belongings coming from the lobby of the building.
“I don’t think the powers coming back on, it’s been hours,” Natasha said. Victor nodded in agreement.
“What are those things in the sky?” Victor asked a young girl watching what appeared to be tiny flying specks in the distance chasing each other. Viktor thought her name was probably Mishka. He’d seen her standing around outside at night when she probably shouldn’t have been, sneaking stimsticks.
“They’re the bad aliens,” the girl said. She seemed to be around 12 or 13, but Viktor wasn’t sure.
“The drones are fighting them,” an older man, presumably her father, said. He seemed to come from nowhere, abruptly standing behind Viktor in a way that made him flinch. “Not very well either, by the looks of it. They’ve sent thousands of them at the alien ships and they just keep getting shot down. I think they’re trying to cover the retreat.”
“How do you know?” Viktor asked him.
“I used to be military,” he responded, his voice worried. “Or something like that.” Victor trembled with anxiety as he saw some of the specks getting larger, coming toward them. He could also see bursts in the sky as the smaller ones, likely the drones, were shot down by the round and spiky Alien ships. “This is a retreat. They’re abandoning the area. We probably should too.”
“And go where?” Natasha said.
“Away,” Viktor said. The ships zoomed ever closer, some looking like big round balls with spikes jutting out the side and front and other looking like a small, broken and thorny branch. They were strafing everything, ruins and roads. High-rise apartments that looked a lot like theirs collapsed on themselves after seconds. The Ehvow ships even caught some of the military vehicles, the tanks and crawling all-terrain trucks popping in clouds of fire on a faraway road.
“Do you know where our family in Crimea lives?” Viktor asked Natasha, his aunt stepping back at the suggestion.
“That’s a long way,” Natasha said. “Are you sure it won’t be the same there?”
“I don’t see another option,” Viktor responded. “It’s looking like, at best, we’re about to be homeless.”
“Crimea is good. Not so many cities. Less targets. Do you mind if we go with you?” the girl’s father said. “My name is Yegor Krupin. This is my daughter, Mikka. What was left of our family and everyone I knew was there.” He pointed in the general direction of Moscow. “Not so much reason to stay here anymore unless you feel like dying.”
“You said you were with the military?” Viktor asked.
“Or something like that,” Yegor corrected.
“What did you do?” Natasha asked. Mikka sighed, grinding her foot in the sidewalk and starting to wander away.
“Many things,” was Yegor’s answer. His face was set in a slight frown. He didn’t seem menacing, but Viktor wasn’t sure he could read the man. He did know that Yegor probably knew a hell of a lot more about surviving out there than he did.
“You can come if that’s what you want,” Viktor said. “I can’t promise you much. Aunt Natasha, let’s go get everything we can carry.” She spent a long time looking at the Aliens flying in the sky, watching them strafe more ruins, ever closer to them. “I have a car, but it’s small. Let’s meet back here soon, twenty minutes.”
Yegor nodded, then leaned in close to Viktor. “I recommend you bring any weapon you have,” Yegor whispered. “Knife, pepper spray, stun gun, regular gun, whatever, it could be quite useful.”
“Pepper spray, against them?” Viktor whispered back, rolling his eyes toward the Alien ships flying in the sky in the distance.
“They’re not what I’m worried about just yet,” Yegor said, swiping his eyes side to side at all the other people collecting on the sidewalk. Yegor collected his daughter and led her back into the building. Neither of them seemed too broken up about whoever they had known in Moscow. Viktor checked his social feeds again, the smiling faces of his friends and acquaintances and the offline statuses looking back at him. No messages, once again.
“Strange that I was depressed when I had to leave Moscow to move in with you,” Viktor said to his aunt. “It looks like I’d be dead if I hadn’t.” The woman smiled, a rarity.
“And to think this shitty apartment was just starting to feel like home,” Natasha said, following him as they went back inside.
“Thornseed” was what was coming over her interface’s radio. She didn’t care for the name, but people were using it all over the comms. As dawn rose over the landscape of toppled buildings and fire, Sergeant Alicia Kent stared down the scope of her sniper rifle. It was anti-materiel grade, the Hecate IV. Affectionately known as The Witch, or the Motherfucking Witch if you were so inclined. More lances of light fell onto New York from the sky. She hardly noticed the bombardments since they’d been coming every few minutes for almost a full 24 hours.
There’d been 18 more snipers in the area with her until one of those orbital bombardments had fallen on them a few hours ago and an Ehvow starship had come by and strafed them to make sure. Even the small ships had guns so powerful they tore building supports apart. Only Corporal Danae Malvo and Alicia had survived. They had been assigned to watch and guard the George Washington Bridge after three national guard units had been wiped out. The bridge had almost collapsed but the Ehvow ships zipping by had left it standing so far. She wondered if it was just to lure as many people to it and kill them. If so, their strategy looked to be working. It had been hours since they’d seen anyone even try to cross it.
Alicia looked sickeningly at one of the dead, Lieutenant Keith Lin. He was still bleeding out and had exposed, broken bones from the triangular gouges in his body. That was the wound the Ehvow guns left. Over the comms they’d been saying that the Ehvow bullets expanded after firing into spinning, three point objects that were about 15 cm long. Made it hard not to miss your target, which the skyrocketing UAS military casualties in Alicia’s combat interface feeds told her. She hated to even think about the number of civilians. The Thornseeds killed everyone they saw, regardless of whether they were armed or unarmed, adults or children. Alicia had positioned herself behind a scorched series of drop barricades that normally stopped every small arms fire humans had designed but were more of a mild annoyance to the bigger Ehvow guns. They weren’t cover so much as a hiding place.
They came into view, four of the lumbering things. Their blocky bodies surged forward, squatty limbs holding their guns. “You ready, Danae?” Alicia said over her comm. “We’ve got some friendlies that need help.” They were chasing two men and a little girl. “Christ, a child.” One of the men was wearing the shambled remains of a UAS uniform. Her combat interface identified it as diplomatic security.
“Got them in my sights, ma’am,” Danae said. “Nothing’s happening to her on our watch.” She had a larger Steyr anti-materiel railgun that packed more of a punch than Alicia’s but it couldn’t fire as fast.
“Damn straight, soldier. I’m picking my target,” Alicia focused in on the closest one to the trio of survivors. Her combat interface showed their targeting choices, Danae aiming for the one behind Alicia selected. She knew it’s head with the dead colorless eyes and the toothy maw was far from the weak point. She aimed first at one of its legs, squeezing the trigger. She’d killed people with a Hecate before, turning them into a red mist with one shell. It was different with the Ehvow. The charged railgun shot burst from the sniper rifle across the bridge in a smoky trail, shearing off the thornseed alien’s leg off in gush of green fluid. The Thornseed took a knee, Alicia taking another shot that burst the Alien open as it squealed that horrible sound. Even almost a km away she could hear that ear-splitting cry. Green fluid leaked out of it and it began to fire indiscriminately at the survivors as they ran through a series of toppled and burned buses. Alicia took another shot, splurting more Ehvow fluids and finally the tell-tale glowing-green viral spores into the air. One down.
Danae got lucky. She fired one shot into her target’s gun arm, taking the limb and its intimidating weapon with it. A second hit from the Steyr blasted its center-mass clear off it’s legs in a shower of more death spores. Alicia took another one’s leg off, Danae backing her up with a shot that took half of the thornseed’s head off. Alicia used her last round from her clip to finish it off in another cloud of death spores. That left one more. Alicia reloaded. Fortunately she had lots of ammunition. Unfortunately it was all the unused from the rest of her dead squad mates. The last Ehvow was close to the survivors. “Dammit, dammit, dammit,” Alicia spat. Her interface told her Danae was reloading too.
She couldn’t panic, she finally finished reloading, chambering a round just in time to take a shot into its midsection, then it’s head. The first shot was a good one, but the second was hasty and only grazed the target. It barely slowed the creature down as it bounded forward and leaked slime over everything.
One of the survivors, the one in UAS uniform, turned. He had an old Thunderbolt assault rifle and he clearly planned on buying the other man and the girl a chance to make it. He backed away slowly as he sprayed random shots in the Thornseed’s direction. Alicia tried to help him, grazing the Alien’s leg as rounds from the Thunderbolt hit home. The Thornseed stumbled around as it took the hits, its insides rupturing.
“No, no, run you fucking idiot,” Alicia hissed under her breath. The guy with the Thunderbolt was still trying to shoot at the Thornseed, even as the Alien burst open in a cloud of sparkly parasites. The spores flew free, showering him and burrowing into his skin. He began crying out in pain, dropping his gun and falling to his hands and knees.
The other survivor and the girl stopped. Alicia watched the him shout and wave at them. The downed diplomatic security officer was telling them to leave him and run. Alicia, against her better judgment, zoomed into them as far as she could. The girl tried to run to him, the other man holding her back. Through her scope watched the girl mouth “daddy” and yet another piece of her died. There wasn’t much left in Alicia, but she let out a defeated exhale. They did leave him, right as his body flapped in spasms. The spores did whatever they did. He didn’t look like one of the lucky ones who died in seconds. The spores were doing something to his body, poisoning him slowly.
“We did what we could,” Alicia murmured into her interface, her voice scattered.
“They’re going to make it,” Danae said. Alicia knew they were. They were close. She became aware of them running through and around her and Danae’s barricades. They’d crossed the bridge finally. They weren’t stopping, running as far and fast as they could. Trying their best to leave the bloody spectacle behind them. Her combat interface lit up with worse news from the nearby scanner arrays. There were Ehvow drop ships coming, and they were slowing as they approached Danae and Alicia’s location. Finishing the job.
“We helped, what, two or three hundred people across that bridge?” Danae said. “Maybe more. There were a lot in the beginning. Maybe even a thousand.”
“Yeah, at least that much,” Alicia answered. More Ehvow ships were coming, the round strafing ships that had an energized, beaming core and dozens of gun barrels arranged around it.
Alicia reloaded the Witch, switching it to full auto mode and positioning several clips next to her ready to load in an instant as she changed her orientation to behind them. With her interface and relays nearby, she prepared herself to fire the Hecate’s railgun power through her own barricades. “They’re coming for us, Danae.” She loaded the SMG, watching the pods fall from the dropship through the tangles of her barricades. They were less than ten meters away. She hoped the two last survivors would escape in the mayhem, but she knew that she and Danae weren’t making it out.
“Ready to give them hell, ma’am,” Danae said. The Thornseeds climbed out of their pods, pointing their guns in Danae and Alicia’s general direction. Alicia took aim from the tangled barricades as their guns shredded everything around her, ready to take down as many as she could. Feeling the barricades and debris shredding around her, shrapnel digging into her arms and helmet, the sound of the Ehvow’s guns drowned out even her own gunfire as she aimed at the closest Thornseed and emptied her entire clip.
ESA/Hubble & NASA
Acknowledgement: Kathy van Pelt
The displays and infographics had lots of nothing for everyone. Hours ago they’d been covered with status updates, formations, detected hostiles, and a feed from the Black Sphere. Only background data provided from Luna’s arrays and the Heimdallr program remained. Everything else only had “disconnected” or “offline” where a helpful widget had been. The one that used to provide data from the Black Sphere was the largest absence.
“General Crouse, I place responsibility for this catastrophe at your feet!” Admiral Jude Revard seethed. “You shaped and ran all of the programs that were supposed to give us an edge. Those upgrades were useless, just like the entirety of your Joint Research and Development Service. The entire USSF defensive fleet has been eliminated. All their crews, lost. Their blood is on your hands. The Ehvow are beyond anything we have and it was your job to keep that from happening.”
“That should hardly be a surprise when even the Tarrare couldn’t stand, either,” General Ian Crouse responded. “I’ll refrain from discussing how many times my budget was cut and my schedules delayed, because it pales in comparison to how badly the civilian Sanctuary program was eviscerated by the same people. I fast-tracked and rescoped every design I could, but we never even contemplated something of this magnitude. I wasn’t even given this position until a year ago and the re-org to move all of your RDT&E commands under me still wasn’t complete. You should know since you fought me at every turn. I did the best I could with what I had.”
“All I’m hearing are excuses, Crouse. I don’t know why I expected anything different from an engineer. We’ve lost almost an entire branch of the UAS military, my branch, and you’re complaining about budgets and designs. It was your job to find a way to get this done. We were powerless to stop this invasion,” Admiral Revard continued. The emergency session of the Joint Chiefs not going so well.
“That’s enough, Admiral,” Regina Fleck said from her chair. She’d watched the Joint Chiefs bicker with each other for the past two hours. “The President is missing, assumed killed in orbital bombardments that have all but wiped DC off the map, taking most of Congress with it. The Vice President is confirmed killed at a campaign event with Senator Alvez. Make no mistake, this is a disaster.” She was their acting President, as far as the succession could be determined. They were safe for now in their secured bunker deep in the Appalachian mountains from hundreds of miles away from DC, but no one believed that would last. “That said, General Crouse is right. Whatever we did or could have done would not have been enough to prepare for this. I’ve been listening to you all indict each other and I’m sick of it. We’ve got work to do. General Estes, can you give me an update on the status of our ground defenses?”
“We’ve lost a lot,” General Maria Estes said. “But we still have pockets of capability and some numbers. Some of our anti-air defenses can shoot down the smaller ships, that doesn’t save us from these orbital strikes on the cities. The division we sent to New York is fighting them in the streets, but losing ground rapidly. They can be killed, but not as easily as we can. I’ve also got reports they release some kind of bioweapon when you kill them. I’ve sent orders out for everyone to wear full bio-warfare gear, but there isn’t enough to go around.”
“Our ships are being annihilated,” Admiral Barton of the UASN said. He was resigned, despondent. His entire command was being erased and there was nothing he could do about it. At least he taking it better than Revard. “We’ve lost all of our drone carriers, which would’ve been incredible assets. Even the Aegis Next-Gen are gone. They’re being targeted directly and can’t seem to outmaneuver the orbital strikes. The Ehvow seem to know better than to try to engage them with their smaller ships, the kind of threat they’re designed to counter. Only our submarines are not suffering heavy losses. My staff is trying to figure out how we can use them.”
“General Crouse, your opinion on this?” Regina asked him.
“I’m just R&D, Madame President,” he responded, surprised he was anything other than a target. “Grand strategies are not really my expertise. That’s more Admiral Revard and General Estes’ department. For what it’s worth, I think we’re seeing Aliens with a truly, well, Alien way of thinking and an Alien physiology. We’re dealing with the same kind of thought exercises we went through when we used to prepare plans to fight off the Tarrare if they ever became hostiles. A lot of what-ifs. We only know a few things: the Ehvow obviously favor a more brute force and direct assault approach, which is predictable for the moment. They’ll focus on cities, concentrations of forces, and obvious threats. Our weapon systems don’t perform as well as we want, but they’re not wholly ineffective. I think our only hope is to work with Tarrare and find out as much as we can about the Ehvow. They’ve already dumped a lot of intelligence on us that we’re still sorting through. I think we also need to petition them for assistance with developing better weapons and building anything that could kill them more efficiently than we do now. In the meantime, we need to get everyone we can out of the cities and avoid large concentrations of people and forces. Once we have the right tools, we can adopt an insurgency strategy. I’m no expert on that, but those would seem to be the next steps.”
“What General Crouse says makes sense,” General Estes said. She started pulling things up in her interface. “I’d also recommend you exercise your powers under the Alvez-Bush Act. It only passed six months ago, but it made the Defense Priorities and Allocation System significantly more robust. Senator Alvez wanted it to be in place in case the Tarrare turned on us. You can waive testing and force all those contractors to show what cards they’re holding. They may be sitting on experimental tech that could help.”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” General Crouse said. “I know IEI must have something. I’ve been hearing rumors about it from my colleagues in the black world for ages.”
“I can’t believe you’re listening to him,” Admiral Revard said. “He doesn’t know anything about fighting wars and he’s dictating strategy.”
“I’m reminded of a lot of history at this moment,” Regina said, staring down Admiral Revard with an ego-melting glare she usually saved for petty dictators and corrupt foreign ministers. “For once, let’s teach the lesson to these new visitors instead of learning it ourselves. I want the map of so-called ‘low-risk’ areas disseminated in pieces to all of our ground forces, and I want them to disband and retreat immediately. General Estes, I’m leaving it up to you to come up with a way to contact and reactivate them once we have a more concrete plan. General Crouse, since you hatched this idea, I’m going to give you a lot of taskers. I want you to work with Tarrare to find out whatever is deadly to the Ehvow and find ways to manufacture and distribute it as quickly as possible. I’ll use my powers under Alvez-Bush to provide you with cover. I don’t care if it’s old technology, new technology, whatever. I want you and General Estes in communication on a daily basis to flesh out a more specific insurgency strategy once real options are identified.”
“Yes ma’am,” Estes said. Crouse nodded in agreement.
“Admiral Revard,” Regina said, turning her attention toward him. “You may have lost the fleet, but you still have the networks and Heimdallr arrays. Once, you made a very public point in front of the President by explaining to me that wars are won on ISR: Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance. The Heimdallr arrays are just that. I want reports on the Ehvow fleet’s status for as long as the arrays are operational. The networks are also under your command. I want you to work with the Tarrare to determine their capabilities of intercepting our intelligence. We need to know what they know or can find out, or if the Tarrare know ways of protecting our network. If they can hack in and find out the locations of the Sanctuaries or are forces, this is going to be a very short resistance,”
“With all due respect, ma’am, what if the Tarrare won’t work with us?” Revard said. “They’re already all going into that invincible hole in the ground they built for themselves. They can just sit back and use us as a distraction until reinforcements come.”
“I doubt that,” General Crouse said. “They’re trapped here too. Their ship was destroyed. I don’t pretend to know everything about the Tarrare, but a rescue fleet, whether it comes from or god-knows-who-else, will have to be sizable and will probably take a lot of time to get here. They’re in a bad situation just like us. Don’t get me wrong, I think there’s still plenty they’re hiding from us, but I don’t expect them to stand back and watch us die.”
“Agreed,” Regina said, cutting everyone off. “General Crouse, I think the best place for you to be right now is co-located with the Tarrare. Their embassy, or Sanctuary, has more than enough space and apparently substantial manufacturing and modeling facilities. They’ve already communicated an offer to house a select number of officials and I think you’re the best person for the job at the moment. Select a team to get you there. I’ll make sure JSOC has some people to make sure you get there safely. You all have your orders. I may not have been your President until today, but I’ve been working with all of you for the last three years and I’d like to hope we have enough mutual respect and will to live to work with each other on this. If you disagree, you can hand in your resignation, take your uniform off, walk outside, and see how you fare on your own against the Ehvow. I want all of you to remember that this is more than a war. This is going to be a hellish fight against extinction. There’s no victory, just survival. Dismissed.”
“Yes, ma’am,” was the unison response, though some were more enthusiastic than others.
Dust fell, the muffled noises of guns seeping through the cracking cement. Stumbling through the flickering lights and uneven ground, Lina decided not to tell Patrick that he was about to break her wrist. He gripped her arm too tightly and ran too fast.
The lit subway map activated her interface’s transit app. It told her that service had been shut down on all lines due to a police emergency. She gathered the app didn’t have a preset for Aliens.
They searched the subway platform for an exit. Patrick wanted to go underground, one of his only good ideas. Too bad he already wanted to reverse course. “How many of them do you think there are up there?” Lina said. Starships were landing on top of buildings, in the streets. Bulky greenish-brown Aliens plodded out of them guns blazing with their shrieks.
“I don’t want to find out,” Patrick said. They’d only hooked up a few times over the last month, which had somehow morphed into running for their lives together. All because they worked a couple of blocks away from each other and this had gone down in the middle of a weekday.
Collapsed concrete, plastics, and debris blocked the exits. Trails of blood were leaking out from under the piles. Broken pipes stuck out from the wall, gushing brown water. Patrick stopped, dumbfounded. “Where to now?” Lina asked, trying not to let her impatience show. She could tell that in his head Patrick saw himself as a hero rescuing her. It was getting tedious.
“Not the way we came,” Patrick said. “They were swarming that other entrance..”
“What about the tunnels?” Lina said. She pulled out her more powerful display interface, opening its projected screens. “I’ve got all the maps already downloaded so I don’t have to sync.”
“You do get lost all the time,” Patrick said.
“I’ve only lived here for a few months. It’s not exactly intuitive,” Lina replied with a sigh. “Service is out so we don’t have to worry about trains.”
“Okay, guess we don’t have much of a choice,” Patrick said. The two of them jumped down on the tracks, minding the flickering electrified rail. They heard footsteps coming from the tunnel nearby, a group approaching.
“Is that a Tarrare?” Patrick asked, seeing what was leading them. She’d only ever seen them on the feeds, never in real life. Next to the Tarrare was a disheveled woman in UAS armor. More followed behind, some dressed for office jobs, a few police officers with dirty and burned clothes, and a couple of people in maintenance jumpsuits. She counted thirteen of them following the Alien altogether.
“We should join them,” Lina said.
“How do we know that Tarrare isn’t leading them to the slaughter?” Patrick whispered.
“Really, Patrick?” Lina said. “We both saw the Black Sphere get destroyed. I doubt they blew up their own ship just to trick us.”
Lina approached them, Patrick lagging after her. The Tarrare paid them no mind, but the UAS soldier narrowed her eyes. “I’m Nitika, UAS Diplomatic Security,” she barked. “You can follow if you want, but stay quiet and keep up.”
“Where are we going?” Patrick whispered, speeding up to avoid being left behind.
“Away from fucking bad Aliens,” Nitika said. The Tarrare projected some sort of ambient light from the layers of material covering most of his body. It allowed them to see what was ahead but still dim enough not to draw too much attention. Lina tried not to gawk at the suit’s technology or the Alien himself.
“How far do we need to go?” Patrick whispered.
“Far,” was Lina’s only response.
“Can we trust it? The Alien?” Patrick tried to murmur at Nitika. He received no response, which was more than he deserved.
The Tarrare stopped, lights from the next station’s platform up ahead. “They are nearby,” the Tarrare said in his synthetic voice. “Remain here. I will eliminate them.”
“You got it, Ambassador,” Nitika replied. The Tarrare stalked forward, its stick legs silent and graceful. His ambient lights switched off, causing him to disappear completely.
“Is he going to be okay?” Lina whispered.
“Oh, he’s going to be fine,” one of the cops muttered. A construct of pure energy appeared, exposing the Tarrare as he closed in on the platform. His hands began blasting chunks of destruction at whatever he was targeting. Since the only source of light was the intermittent, damaged subway lighting from the platform ahead and the energy coming from the Tarrare’s armor, it was hard to see.
Shrill, inhuman noises followed. Then the noises of their guns. The hostile Aliens had guns that sounded like a chainsaw fighting a jackhammer. Lina’d never imagined something could be so loud. She saw the Tarrare dive to the side and stick on the ceiling as showers of glowing, bladed projectiles followed. The Tarrare’s lithe, insectoid form evaded it all as he projected blobs of explosive energy at whatever he was battling. She saw several green masses jump off the platform to try to get closer to their target.
Somehow, the Tarrare suddenly had a string of blades. He skittered in circular dash through and around the hostile Aliens, their bulky green bodies leaking fluids and howling. After a few more deft swipes from the Tarrare they collapsed onto the tracks and let out high-pitched hisses that faded to nothing.
The Tarrare paused, a field of energy around him as glowing green particles burst from the corpses of the Aliens. They seemed to actively try to dig through the field, but couldn’t make it through. The Tarrare stood stark still until the parasites or whatever they were faded and dropped.
“You may advance,” the Tarrare called from ahead. “It is safe now.”
The Tarrare walked over to a nearby light source in the subway tunnel, flipping it open and tearing the bulb out. Lina watched as the bladed weapon he had apparently created to gut the other Aliens shifted and morphed into a hooked clamp. The Tarrare plunged it into the light fixture. The few non-flickering lights dimmed for a short period. “He needs to recharge his stuff,” another one of the cops added helpfully. After he was finished, the Tarrare gathered it and placed it back onto its armor, the material dissolving into it.
“Unfuckingreal,” Patrick said. “Did it just make a weapon and then a tool out of its clothes? Then turn it back into clothes?”
“Yes,” Nitika said. “But HIS name is Sihs-Jin.”
“What are they?” Lina said, looking at the Aliens that the Tarrare Sihs-Jin had slain. She hadn’t gotten a good look at them, and now she had almost more than she could handle.
“Never thought I would see a bug save me from exterminators,” a woman in a torn and stained business suit mumbled nearby to the no one in particular.
Lina noticed that they were bigger this close, about 2-3 meters tall and at least 2 meters wide. Each one was slightly differently shaped, and they had anywhere from two to five arms. Their shoulders and stumpy outcropping of a head were ringed with spikes and had a maw full of hundreds of sharp, thorn-like objects that she took for teeth. Their skin was hard, greenish brown with a texture between a sea-shell and tree bark with a membrane or oil covering it. In some spots they had colorful outcroppings like flower buds. Their insides reminded Lina of the fluid in a cactus, but with chunky sets of organs. They smelled awful. She noticed their guns. Fat, multi-barreled pieces of hardware that looked way too heavy and unwieldy for any human to use.
“They are from a race called the Ehvow,” Sihs-Jin said softly, approaching Lina. She didn’t know if he read her mind or just noticed her curiosity. “As for what this variety is specifically, we do not have a direct analogue in your language. The most direct translation would be ‘seeds that become thorns.’ They are evolved from a carnivorous species of invasive plant. They devoured or crowded out nearly every other species on their homeworld.”
“Thornseeds,” Nitika dubbed them. “That’s what we’ve been calling them. You can kill them, it just takes a lot of bullets and you don’t want to be too close.”
“Those glowing green things?” Lina asked. They were dull and lifeless on the ground where Sihs-Jin had been standing like a bunch of squashed bugs.
“Everyone that gets hit by them starts bleeding and spasming,” Nitika said. “Most die. The others seem to go into a coma like they have a disease.”
“They are spores,” Sihs-Jin added. “My defensive fields can block them. You have no such countermeasure as they can pierce any exposed skin. We must move. Others nearby will detect what I have just done and come looking.”
“Let’s move out, then,” Nitika said. “You heard Ambassador Sihs-Jin. We’ve got a long way to go before we get out of the city.”
“That thing is a killing machine,” Patrick mumbled under his breath. Lina was inclined to agree.
“I am not without my skills,” Sihs-Jin quietly replied. “Before we leave, there were human soldiers and others killed here on the platform. I recommend you take their weaponry quickly. We may need it later.” Lina was the first to act, crawling up on the platform and seeing a dead police officer who’d dropped some sort of shotgun.
“Are you crazy?” Patrick asked. “Do you know how to use that?” The other people in the group were picking up assault rifles and pistols from dead police officers and other people in UAS uniforms like Nitika.
“I fired a gun,” Lina said. “Once.”
CHAT: JULES, ME
Jules, we saw the news. The Black Sphere, the Tarrare, they’re gone. They’re saying all the defense fleets are shot down and the Aliens are attacking. You’ve got to get home
Dad, I’m here. I’m alive. Are you okay?
Nothing’s happened out here in the suburbs. It’s safe here. What’s happening? Where are you?
I was at the Senator Alvez rally, the one at the old Houston space center museum. Right before the rally we heard the Black Sphere got blown up. There was an explosion. Those new Alien ships flew over us. They’re flying circles over the city dropping bombs and shooting everything. My friends, Senator Alvez, almost everyone died
Julia, are you safe? Who are you with? Where are you?!
Not sure. We’re in a car, some woman named Sandra found me and 2 other people and she’s driving. but we’re stuck. Planes keep flying by and there’s lots of noise. We can tell if what’s flying by us is us or those Aliens. There are blown out buildings and cars everywhere. The national guard is trying to evacuate the place and people are getting killed everywhere. I heard something about orbital strikes hitting everything around here
Julia, get back to the house. We’ve got a basement and some emergency supplies, we can take shelter, wait for this to pass
Dad, I’m getting texts from all over the place. Everyone I know. They’re taking out every city. Something crazy is happening in New York. The basement isn’t going to do it. Sandra says she knows a place
We’ll stay hidden. It’ll be fine. It’ll be over eventually, it has to, just get home.
Dad, I don’t think this is going to be over. This is, it could be the end. We live right outside of Houston, dad. Houston is on fire! Most of it’s gone. They’re saying to evacuate everything, even the suburbs near the city. You’re not going to be safe
Stay calm, Jules. Don’t talk that way
They blew up the Black Sphere! Nowhere is safe
Jules, please. Please come home. Do it whatever way you can. Use your interface. You should only be about 10 km away. You can walk it or run it. You don’t know what this Sandra person might be planning or where she might be going
We can’t get back to you, Dad. We’re on the other side of the city and we’re heading to New Mexico. We can’t drive back, it’s a war zone. Sandra said she knows something about some government place. I’ll send it to you. You need to get there. You need to join us there
Jules, there’s no way to know if that’s true or not. This Sandra person might be crazy. You can’t trust her.
Jules, are you there?
Jules, this place is hundreds of kilometers away, there’s no way any of us make it there.
Julia, we love you. Please be careful, text me as soon as you get this
He set his interface to keep the alarmed headlines off to the side. If they were to be believed secret armies of Tarrare were appearing and taking over cities as their secret invasion had finally begun. Or, worse, that orbital bombardments were already underway from these new hostile Aliens. It was the panic before the real panic.
Omar dismissed it all. He only cared about the messages he’d been sending to his daughter’s school. None of them were receiving a response. The social media accounts of the school were swarmed with worried parents, all receiving worse than silence. Whoever was in charge was telling people they were assessing the situation and were waiting to hear back from state and local authorities. Not something that filled him with warm fuzzies. Omar was standing in a building full of the biggest and most powerful officials in the world, and they were all as dumbfounded as his daughter’s teachers and administrators.
The chamber doors opened, Sihs-Jin ambling gracefully down the hallway on his thin legs. The Alien looked distracted, his many fingers from his four forearms up in the air and touching at unseen things. He was deep in whatever wild interface the lenses over his compound eyes told him. “Fuck it, I’m asking him,” Omar said to Nitika.
“Not a good idea,” Nitika murmured, trying to follow Omar as he went to catch up on Sihs-Jin. By all indication, the bug was headed to the exits.
“Maybe I should spend hours pondering what a good idea might look like and be like everyone else in this crazy-house,” Omar said. “End up dying in a hail of fire and dust or unknown Alien goop like they all probably will.” Sihs-Jin was the only one that had real answers. The bug turned around, stopping. He clearly sensed Omar coming and prepared to address him. “What just happened in there, Ambassador?” Omar squeezed his Sunfire thermal assault rifle. If anything, the Ambassador was honest. He’d learned that over time. He felt like he’d earned answers. “What are we dealing with here?”
“Over the last many years, you have both been very good at your assigned tasks as my security detail,” Sihs-Jin said. “Despite the fact that such a thing was completely unnecessary, I have enjoyed your company. I have learned so much about your culture and your civilization from our conversations.”
“I’m sensing a lot of past tense here,” Nitika said.
“Oh, it speaks now?” Omar asked her.
“Everything’s else is changing today, so why not?” Nitika seethed.
“If you both want to live, I recommend that you follow me. I am prepared to offer sanctuary to both of you. If that option does not appeal to you, I suggest that you both abandon your posts immediately. Time is very short. This city will either be overrun or non-existent within a day,” Sihs-Jin said.
“Anyone else I would ask them if they were serious,” Omar said. “But I know you well enough by now to know you don’t have any other setting. So these other Aliens, whoever they are, they’re going to break through everything and wipe us out?”
“They are called the Ehvow. They will breach all of our combined primary defenses,” Sihs-Jin said, starting to move. “The effort will probably reduce the size of their invasion force substantially, but they will have sufficient forces to begin an occupation of this planet. They will seek only to inflict as many casualties as possible. We may not be able to escape the city entirely before the attack begins. If you choose to follow me, be prepared to defend yourselves. If we see Ehvow soldiers, keep your distance. That is critical.” Sihs-Jin increased his speed, Omar and Nitika desperate to keep up.
“Soldiers?” Omar asked. “They’re going to land ground forces? Dammit, I have to go find my daughter. Moment of truth, Nitika. What are you doing?”
“I’m following the ambassador is what I’m doing,” Nitika said. “He knows more about this than we do, and I intend to take him up on his offer. If this city is about to be leveled, I don’t want to be in it when it happens. Sounds like this is the only way we regroup and fight back. I don’t have any family here, just a job that looks like it’s about to obsolete.”
Omar wondered what he had to do. It was an impossible situation. There was his daughter. His brother. Both somewhere out there in the city. The feeds told him his daughter’s school was still in denial. Maybe his brother could meet him there and the three of them could try for it. “Ambassador, I appreciate your offer, but I have to go. My family …”
“I understand, Omar,” Sihs-Jin said. “Believe it or not, my own race has very strong social and familial bonds, different though they may be from yours. For this effort, I recommend that you abandon that weapon. Should you encounter Ehvow, it will be highly ineffective.”
“This?” Omar said. He held up his Sunfire. “This is supposed to be one of the best, most advanced guns we have out there, and you’re saying it’s going to be useless.”
“Advanced is not always a superior option,” Sihs-Jin said. “I detect an armory on your main floor five. Several of your outdated HK Thunderbolt models of caseless assault rifles are located in storage there with a variety of armor piercing ammunition. Those will be far more effective against the Ehvow than the Sunfire rifle. I would explain why this is so, but we do not have sufficient time. Just know that their weapons will penetrate structures, armor, and many forms of battlefield cover. You should only engage if you have no choice. And, I will re-emphasize, keep your distance. Even if you succeed in killing them. This is very important.”
“Advice is advice,” Omar said. “And considering the source, I won’t question it. No matter how goddamn unreal all of this is.”
“I wish you the best of luck, Omar,” Sihs-Jin flicked a few hand gestures. Omar received a series of messages in his inbox. “I just transmitted several sets of coordinates to you, as well as multiple routes to those locations. If you escape the city, I suggest you find your way to one of them. They are close and we have determined them to be low-risk. I have also sent to you both an early version of the intelligence materials on the Ehvow we’re preparing for your militaries. There is no time to review it now, but should you survive that knowledge will prove essential. Nitika, I recommend you go with Omar and retrieve an HK Thunderbolt rifle as well. I will wait in the loading dock area of the building for you.”
“Do you need any weapons from the armory?” Nitika asked. “Since we’re going there anyway, and all.”
“No, I am quite well-armed already,” Sihs-Jin said. Omar looked at the thin layer of material and blinking lights all over the Tarrare ambassador’s body, wondering what technological violence it could unleash. He’d always assumed it might be armor of some kind, but he clearly didn’t have enough imagination when it came to Alien tech. “As my size makes taking your elevator difficult, I will utilize the stairs.”
“Ambassador,” Omar said. “Thanks.” Sihs-Jin nodded his head with his flexible, segmented neck. It was the one human mannerism he’d picked up so far. Nitika and Omar stepped on the elevator and took it to the middle secure level to get to the armory.
“You think anyone’s going to be on duty there?” Omar asked.
“Nope,” Nitika said. “We’re the most hard-working motherfuckers in this place. If we’re abandoning ship, you can bet all the admin people and check out desk officers at the armory are long gone.”
“I hear that,” Omar said. He shifted in his boots. Advisory messages appeared in his interface about the subway experiencing delays from everyone crowding the platforms. That plans was gone, and he already knew the roads would be a disaster. His feet already hurt from standing all day, but he knew he was about to be doing a lot of walking. For once, he was glad he’d skipped his PT this morning. He’d need all the energy he could get.
TRANSCRIPT – WORLD UNITED COUNCIL SECURITY COMMITTEE – DATE <REDACTED>
FINAL RECORDED MEETING OF WORLD UNITED COUNCIL SECURITY COMMITTEE
ARTHUR DEGLASS, UNITED AMERICAN STATES (UAS) - Ambassador, we’ve called this emergency meeting to order because we need answers. That’s why myself and all the key players who couldn’t attend in person are linked in remotely to hear what you have to say, as I imagine we’re going to need to coordinate at the highest level against this new threat. We’re hoping you can provide some additional information regarding what we’re facing here and next steps. What kind of casualties can we expect? What is the capability of this new enemy? What level of combat readiness will be necessary from our combined militaries?
AMBASSADOR SIHS-JIN (TARRARE) – We have reviewed the data provided from our starship’s long range scanners and the Heimdallr arrays. This is a matter of utmost urgency. You must mobilize a significant amount of military force to obtain additional time for civilian evacuations of all of your major cities. That is all your forces can hope to accomplish at this time. Objectives beyond that would be counter-productive to long-term survival.
AYOUB ABDULLAH, ARABIAN UNION (ARU) - Excuse me, Ambassador, did you just say evacuation of all major cities? Over what time period? Days? Weeks?
AMBASSADOR SIHS-JIN (TARRARE) - You have approximately six hours based on our analysis of all readily-discernable probable outcomes before large-scale casualties will be inflicted.
XIE INTAO, GREATER CHINA CONFEDERATION (GCC) - Excuse me, Ambassador, but when you say the most our combined militaries can do is obtain additional time, do you mean that our military resources will be insufficient to contain this threat?
AMBASSADOR SIHS-JIN (TARRARE) - Yes, Minister Intao. That is precisely what I mean. Have the emergency sites designated under the Sanctuary program been completed?
DEGLASS (UAS)– Hold on a minute, Ambassador. This is a lot to take in. From your response to Minister Intao’s question, it sounds to me like you’re talking about a defeat, maybe a massacre here. How is that even possible?
AMBASSADOR SIHS-JIN (TARRARE) - Yes, Secretary DeGlass, you are indeed headed for a military defeat. We all are, at least in the short-run. I would ask you to address my question regarding the Sanctuaries. Are they complete?
XIE INTAO, GREATER CHINA CONFEDERATION (GCC) – No, they are not. Many were started, but to my knowledge none have been completed unless my allies here want to correct me.
AMBASSADOR SIHS-JIN (TARRARE) – In that case, I request information regarding percentage completion on those sites as soon as possible. These were resource-intensive but simple engineering projects. We provided the appropriate schematics directly to your governments, as well as site surveys and recommendations. We indicated that the Sanctuary program should be a very high priority.
ARTHUR DEGLASS (UAS)– Ambassador, there were complications with that program. The political climate is very tricky. Many of our domestic constituencies view taxes as unacceptably high at the moment, and most of us are running significant budget deficits. Raising taxes or cutting spending on other areas to engage in a costly Alien project was not politically palatable. Many even attribute unfortunate motives to your people for wanting to construct them, that they might have a sinister purpose. We simply didn’t have and couldn’t obtain the resources to build the number of Sanctuaries you recommended, especially in the manner you specified them. We’re in a serious climate of fiscal austerity. There were also legal issues with the contracts to build them.
XIE INTAO (GCC) – That’s because the UAS wanted to ensure preferential treatment of their own domestic contractors, which violated a number of international trade agreements.
ARTHUR DEGLASS (UAS) – You and the GCC took the same tack. How dare you accuse us when you wouldn’t let our firms bid on your contracts either.
HANNELORE SCHUCHERT (EUROPEAN UNION) – Both of you did it, so did everyone else. That’s why our firms filed the appropriate bid protests at the Global Trade Organization. No one would provide a level playing field for anyone to bid on the Sanctuary program, so we all had no choice but to take it to the respective trade courts.
AMBASSADOR SIHS-JIN (TARRARE) – I am beginning to understand, though I am having difficulties expressing my level of disappointment with this situation. What of the emergency distributed production caches we recommended?
XIE INTAO (GCC) – Many of our domestic manufacturers raised concerns over the impact these “meta-tools” you proposed would cause in terms of unfair competition. We couldn’t proceed without covering their concerns.
HANNELORE SCHUCHERT (EU) – Building those facilities would’ve had dramatic impacts on all of our economies.
AMBASSADOR SIHS-JIN (TARRARE) - We recommended the introduction of those caches to only be used for emergency circumstances. I do not understand how their mere existence would have created economic impact.
ZHENYA PETROV, RUSSIAN UNITY FEDERATION (RUF) - I knew this meeting was a waste of my time. We are spending what few minutes we have left talking and arguing when death comes for us all. <Logging off>
AYOUB ABDULLAH (ARU) – The meta-tools were clearly too much of a temptation. No one would keep to using them just for emergencies. If just one nation broke ranks and began using those meta-tool factories on a regular basis it could have triggered global trade wars. We were conducting studies on how they could be gradually introduced so as to minimize this disruption pending the appropriate multi-lateral agreements and assurances to be codified in the GTO. Nevertheless, I’m sure at least some of you built them anyway.
AMBASSADOR SIHS-JIN (TARRARE) – This is not the scenario we had envisioned, but I accept there is little to be done at the present. To reiterate, I recommend that you commence evacuation of all of your major cities immediately.
HANNELORE SCHUCHERT (ARU) – Ambassador, that is not a satisfactory answer to our concerns and questions. Just what is this fleet or hostile starships coming toward Earth? Who are they? Speak plainly, Ambassador, so that we can clearly understand what it is we’re about to face.
AMBASSADOR SIHS-JIN (TARRARE) – We are preparing more complete data on this subject to distribute to your respective military and political leaderships, but I will provide you what brief information time will allow. These aggressors are a crude but brutal race known as the Ehvow. They will attack with no mercy. They will target every major city and political capital that they can identify and bombard them from orbit, possibly sending in drop ships full of ground forces that will exterminate all human life they encounter.
XIE INTAO (GCC)– Ambassador, your ship, the Black Sphere, is the most advanced piece of technology humanity has ever seen. Can you not defend us? What about the UAS Space Force? Our own GCC fleet? Are they truly helpless to stop this?
AMBASSADOR SIHS-JIN (TARRARE) – We may have superior technology, but even our ship cannot stand against a force of this size and scale for very long. Your own fleets may allow you additional time, as I have stated before, but victory against this Ehvow force at this time is nearly impossible. Humanity must retreat and regroup. That is the only chance you have for survival.
AYOUB ABDULLAH (ARU) – So that’s all you can do, buy us time? With all of your advanced science and weapons or whatever you have on that ship, you’re just as helpless as the rest of us?
ARTHUR DEGLASS (UAS) – Can’t you at least call for reinforcements? Send out a distress call or something like that? You must have more warships that can come stop this!
AMBASSADOR SIHS-JIN (TARRARE) – We have requested relief from those that may provide it, but so far none have agreed to accept our request within a timeframe that would make a difference. I must take my leave now as we attempt to devise a battle-plan to defend your planet.
HANNELORE SCHUCHERT (EU) – That’s it? That’s all you can do?
<ARU and GCC delegations logging off>
AMBASSADOR SIHS-JIN (TARRARE) – Most of my people that came as part of our delegation are on our starship. As we discuss this, they are preparing for battle. Nearly all of them will die defending your planet. Buying you time, as you put it. I deem this sacrifice sufficient. If you disagree, that is unfortunate.
<Unintelligible crosstalk as Ambassador Sihs-Jin departed the chamber>
NASA, ESA and W. Harris (McMaster University, Ontario, Canada)
“No thank you,” Danya said, pressing the reject button in her interface. Being Director of Interstellar Exploration and Research for the UAS’ Interstellar Administration had a lot of baggage, but every time she could kill idiotic designs meant to give someone with a military uniform a hard-on made it all worth it.
“Five years, Eamonn,” Dr. Danya Fund moaned from her spot in the conference room. Spent water bottles, coffee cups, and a devoured lunch tray marked her territory. Visions of graphs and engineering drawings from her recently enhanced interface filled the room around her. It was a little too immersive sometimes. “Five years and the proposals are only now starting to get better. Too many of the same old starship designs with a few Tarrare tricks injected that barely make sense. We’ve done far too little in far too much time.”
“You’re right about that,” Dr. Eamonn Condon said next to her. “I would be demoralized about the pace of all this but I forgot what having morale felt like years ago.”
They continued browsing drawings and theoretical, unrealistic performance specs in silence for awhile, “I just don’t know what we’re even looking for anymore,” Danya said. “We were supposed to be commissioning fleets of civilian FTL ships. Now, after all the budget cuts, all we do is provide input into military starship procurements and provide oversight on commercial space projects. Not exactly what any of us in this agency signed up for. We’ve still only done even a few token missions since Project Vanguard. We should have colonies in other systems. All the funding goes into a defense fleet that’s obsolete the moment it rolls off the line because the designs are shit. Then there’s the Alvez Act. Everyone who actually tries to propose too many Tarrare elements gets bid-protested or sued into oblivion.”
“It’s sickening,” Eamonn said. “All these proposals want to do nothing but discuss their compliance with the damned Alvez Act. They all say something to the effect of ’90% human ingenuity and design with only a hint of Tarrare elements to enhance performance’ then demand their Alvez Act Price Preference because their design is the ‘most human.’ Couple that with the vague suggestion that they would see us in court if we decided anyone else deserved it. I hear there’s some huge project the UAS and GCC are trying to work with the Tarrare that Alvez Act litigation has blown all to kingdom come. Something called Sanctuary.”
“Typical,” Danya said. “Whatever his intention, Alvez successfully made progress a competitive disadvantage. No wonder he’s about to be elected President.”
“You know how it is, Danya,” Eamonn said. “Only so much change can be absorbed at any given time. The FTL flight blew people’s minds. Most of the human race wasn’t ready for it. Then you had the Tarrare show up. They’ve flipped everything over again. It’s going to be decades before the dust settles. I sometimes wonder if the bugs did it on purpose.”
“Something’s off, that’s for sure,” Danya said. “Some of their survey ships have shown up to look at the asteroid belts outside Mars for minerals and that’s it. They leave the system after a few months of poking around. There’s something the Aliens aren’t telling us.”
“Maybe this is all some social experiment to see how the backwards primitives can handle eating from the tree of knowledge,” Eamonn asked. “Maybe it’s all some big reality program. Back home they’re watching it all and laughing their instectoid abdomens off.”
“Funny,” Danya said. “But I’m being serious. I’ve heard that the Tarrare have cautioned all the world leaders against us using FTL for further exploration, giving a bunch of platitudes about how we aren’t ready. That’s why there’s no support at the top and the funding isn’t there.”
“Or the funding isn’t there because there’s nothing impressive to invest in,” Eamonn said. “Sounds like finger-pointing mixed with conspiracy theories to me.”
“Conspiracies are the only thing I can come up with to explain the total lack of forward momentum,” Danya said.
“There’s progress in biology,” Eamonn countered. “Anti-agens, anti-virals, and next-gen synthetic organs better than the originals are flooding the market, legal or illegal. No one cares about the litigation there. Too much money to be made. I’ve heard rumors they’ve built completely artificial animals from the ground up with the AI and nanotechnology breakthroughs. Not just designer genetics and breeding, they’re creating whole new species.”
“It’s all about the fast money and gimmicks,” Danya said. “Scientists with decades of expertise wasted on making dragon-cats, hamster-cows, or who knows what terrifying hybrid in a lab with a bunch of private biotech research money and we’re trying to scratch together real science and research from whatever meager appropriations the UAS throws at us.”
“Don’t forget the constant threats of reprogramming to the UAS DoD,” Eamonn replied.
“This morning I read someone on the feeds who was actually arguing that the Black Sphere is a Dyson sphere,” Danya said, switching to a less depressing subject. Most people had taken to calling the Tarrare ship the Black Sphere. People had become less afraid of it over the years, mostly accepting that if the Tarrare had planned to kill them or enslave them they would’ve done it by now. It hung there, like an ominous new moon in the sky. Danya used to look at it all the time back when she had an office with real windows. Before she’d worked for the government.
“Impossible,” Eamonn said. “Well, I don’t know. Maybe. Not likely, at least. There are whole sections of the tech transfer that only a few people get, and plenty of pieces no one gets. They could be that advanced. They could have a mini-star or some plasma core in there. The generators people have built from based on some of the rudimentary Tarrare plasma physics are very efficient and stable and that’s just the basic level of what they must be capable of.”
“You have to wonder why they’re not helping more,” Danya replied. “The Tarrare basically handed us the biggest textbook in the history of mankind and told us to teach ourselves the course. Why not give us more practical designs? Schematics? There are hints of that, but nothing ready to use.”
“Maybe because that would be like handing a house cat a starship,” Eamonn responded. “We need to understand what we’re doing. If they handed us the toys right away we may kill ourselves and each other because we don’t understand the magnitude, the danger.”
“I hate you,” Danya leered.
“It’s not my fault I’m so damned right all the time,” Eamonn said. “God made me this way. Or … maybe the Tarrare. They’ve just come back to check on a research project they started MILLIONS OF YEARS AGO!”
“Don’t even joke about that. You sound like one of those Starchild cultists, Eamonn,” Danya said. “I have to walk through enough of those religious fanatics on the way into work every day. I won’t tolerate it inside my workplace, too.”
“You’re repressing my freedom to exercise or some such! Oh, forget it. I don’t even have the energy to make that into a bit,” Eamonn said, rising from the table. “I’m taking a break. Here,” he made a few targeted finger movements, manipulating his own interface to send files to Danya’s. “These are the proposals I think are promising. Solid ones. Small ships, agile. Limited range. Just what the doctor ordered. Low risk, low money, low profile. The manufacturer even says it can have a few weapons mounted to it and be flown unmanned.”
“The doctor?” Danya asked.
“The one that flies around in the magic call box. Just take a look,” Eamonn started out of the room.
“Eamonn,” Danya said. “Thanks. I’d lose my mind without you here.”
“It’s how all the ladies feel,” Eamonn said. “When I’m not being so annoying that they’re ready to cave my skull in, that is.”
“Eamonn, one more thing,” she said. “What do you think I should do about that job on Mars? It’s a step down, but …”
“I think you should take it,” Eamonn said. “An FTL-ready spaceport and that little test fleet they have there? It’s not the most groundbreaking of projects, but it’s different. You’re clearly not happy here. You should move on. Nothing will change your perspective like going to another planet.”
“And it doesn’t hurt that you get promoted into Acting Director if I leave,” Danya needled.
“There’s that, too,” Eamonn said, giving her a slight grin.
Reuben zoned out. He was clearly in his interface checking the feeds and messages instead of monitoring how close they were to the schematic drawings displayed all around them. Luis Rodriguez tried to ignore it, operating the bots as they assembled and secured yet another pathway of ventilation ducts. Once the ventilation extension was done they’d be able to enclose this branch of the structure. The dirty, cavernous underground space with partially finished rock walls would soon become a hive of rooms. “Smoke break?” Reuben asked.
“Out of stimsticks,” Luis said. The spider bots were crawling up and down the ducts, their welders sparking furiously.
“Me too, but I have a pack of hashtags,” Reuben said, smiling devilishly. “It’s quitting time in two hours, I don’t think it’ll hurt …”
“Fuck it,” Luis said, putting the bots into pause mode. He took off his control gloves and optics. “Is this a special occasion?”
“Not really,” Reuben said, the two of them walked over to the tool and bot storage room in the corner of the vast open space, the only place they could have any privacy. Reuben pulled out the hashtags. The blend of genetically manipulated tobacco and marijuana was perfectly legal, but certainly not allowed on the job. Luis and Reuben activated the electronic cylinders and began inhaling.
“We’re 65% done, according to this,” Luis said, checking the earned value estimator in his interface. “When I saw the drawings, at least the part I was allowed to see, I thought this project would never be done. But here we are, on time.”
“65% done building an underground mansion for Aliens,” Reuben said. “It still fucks me up thinking about it.”
“Not exactly what you imagined when you signed up for an illustrious career in facilities?” Luis asked.
“No, can’t say that it was,” Reuben replied. “And as for that 65%, that’s damn near all you. All those extra hours you worked off the clock, making us all look bad.”
“I’m a professional, Reuben,” Luis said, letting the soothing and focusing puffs of the hashtag hit him. “I take pride in my work. I want it to be right.”
“You know what the difference between a professional and an amateur is, Luis?” Reuben said. “Professionals get PAID for the work they do. You’re turning yourself into one with all those unbilled hours.”
“You get paid for work you don’t do. What do you call that?” Luis said.
“A genius,” Reuben said. They both coughed out a few laughs. “What do you think is down there?” Reuben asked. “Those ventilation ducts go hundreds of meters down to that core, or hub, or whatever it’s called.”
“No idea,” Luis said. “The whole six months of this project I’ve never been down there, I’ve never encountered anyone who’s been down there except for maybe the Tarrare. They’re not exactly forthcoming. It’s classified past our clearance level. That part of the building drawings was redacted except for the outline of the outer wall.”
“Whatever it is, it’s going to draw a lot of power,” Reuben speculated. “I know some people on one of the other work crews, and ALL they’re doing is installing generators. Apparently they even brought in a few of the Tarrare’s own generators in a few levels below us.”
“It’s not my place,” Luis said. “I just want to get this damn thing built and move on. The sooner I can move out of those barracks out there and back home, the better. I told Daimon it would only be another three months and I’m keeping my word. The back and forth to Pittsburgh on the weekends is killing my ass.” The hashtag was good. Reuben hadn’t bought the cheap shit.
“I can see that,” Reuben answered. “But doesn’t it bother you? I mean, why are we doing all of this in the first place?”
“From what I understand, it was part of the deal,” Luis answered. “They’re helping us, technical assistance or something with that big data dump. This is sort of like their embassy or whatever. It’s all above my pay grade.”
“Why underground?” Reuben asked. “It seems unnatural.”
“I read that’s the way they live on whatever planet they’re from. They prefer it this way. You really should read the guidebooks, Reuben. We’re in the middle of goddamn nowhere,” Luis responded.
“They’re like a million pages, though,” Reuben protested.
“Whatever, man. I’m sure you’re even getting bored of porn by now. You might as well learn yourself something.” They puffed out the last of their hashtags, the lights growing dim as the vapors coming out were thinner and thinner. “We should get back to it.”
“I suppose,” Reuben answered. “I’ll be there in a minute.” He pulled a second out. Luis shook his head, not really ready to do two hashtags. He certainly wouldn’t be productive after that. He walked out of the room, shutting the door behind him and leaving Reuben inside.
He froze when he saw two of them had suddenly entered the worksite. Tarrare, both inspecting the ventilation ducts. “Oh, excuse me,” Luis blurted. “My … associate and I were just taking a quick break.”
They turned to look at him, those mantis heads with compound eyes and their height causing him to crumple defensively. “Don’t be concerned, Luis,” one of them said through its synthetic voice aide. She was a faint purple hue, indicating a female. He’d read his guidebooks enough to know that. “We were simply admiring your progress. You are a very diligent worker and everyone deserves a break from time to time. Productivity suffers otherwise.”
“Thank you,” Luis said, unsure what else to say. She strode toward him, getting uncomfortably close as the Tarrare tended to do, the compound eyes with the glowing displays and goggles over them scrutinizing him.
“I am the Colony Administrator, Krand-Vie, this is our chief Science Officer Ophen Lon.” The pale green male turned his head to look over at him, then went back to examining the ventilation ducts. “We were just discussing your future.”
“My future?” Luis asked.
“Yes,” Krand-Vie said, striding around on her flexible legs. “You have made better progress than any of the other teams or workers, despite the fact that your associate seems prone to lower levels of productivity. We would like to recommend you for a promotion if you’re interested.”
“Promotion,” Luis said. “My company would have to approve it …” His mind immediately raced to how pissed Daimon would be. Then again, Luis’ mom was sick. And on a project like this, it would be a huge pay bump to help with that sort of thing.
“Yes, Intelligent Evolution,” Krand-Vie said, fixating her eyes on the IEI logos affixed to Luis’ orange jumpsuit. “They have generally accepted our recommendations in the past, so we would be surprised if you did not receive it. Are you interested in taking on greater responsibilities in this project?”
“It’s a great opportunity …” Luis started.
“Excellent!” Krand-Vie interrupted him, signaling to her colleague. Luis didn’t get the chance to finish his “but that would depend on what you want me to do, I need to consult with my husband …” Not that it really mattered. “We will be seeing you on the lower levels tomorrow. I’m sure the appropriate clearances will be granted. There is much exciting work to be done in the core of this facility. Especially with the new expansions we will be negotiating tomorrow.” The Tarrare left, taking their time at it as their antenna twitched and heads looked over every part of the place.
A few minutes passed before the door to the storage room opened and Reuben stuck his head out, Luis slowly suiting back up to resume work. “What was that about? I thought I heard those simulated voices …”
“You did,” Luis said. “They were just in here.”
“Shit!” Reuben said. “Are we about to get fired?”
“No, as a matter of fact I’m about to get promoted,” Luis said, still awestruck.
“Then why do you look like you just stepped in Alien shit?” Reuben said. “This is great news, man. Maybe you can put in a good word for me, too.”
“I’m supposed to go down there tomorrow,” Luis said. “Way down to the secret part.”
Reuben paused, before fully emerging from the closet and clapping his hand on Luis’ shoulder. “Well, it couldn’t’ve happened to a nicer guy,” Reuben said. “I just hope they use some quality seasoning on you before they dig in, though. Otherwise it would really be a waste.” Reuben kept a solemn look for around five seconds before cracking up.
“Fuck you, Rueben,” was all Luis could say for a comeback.
“What is Daimon going to think?” Reuben asked. “I doubt he’s going to want to move from Pittsburgh to this place. It’s an hour from anything worthwhile. It’s like they looked at a map of the entire UAS and tried to find the most boring and vacant place they could.”
“He’s not going to be happy, that’s for sure,” was all Reuben could manage. He was already thinking about how he would explain it. Daimon already hated that he only saw Luis on the weekends when he got back home. “I’ve got a lot of long commutes in my future.”
NASA, ESA, Martin Kornmesser (ESA/Hubble)
“I’m having a hard time understanding how we’re supposed to spin it that way,” Sandra Abreu said. “We’re about to argue that knowledge is a threat?” She was looking directly at Senator Alvez, whose weary eyes looked glazed over. The other six people at the conference table were immersed in their interfaces, complete with wandering eyes and the occasional finger presses and sliding stabs at the air. The others in the strategy session clearly did not share her viewpoint. “Because we fear change? How is that going to look to history? How is that going to look to the Aliens if we decline?”
“This is out of your lane, Sandra,” Brent said. He was the youngest person in the room, but he was supposed to be some kind of genius at building meta-narratives in all the feeds. He’d nearly cost Alvez his re-election several times already with his meta-bullshit. Shamefully, he was the campaign manager so the spew that came out of his mouth and passed for “opinions” had a lot of weight.
“Out of my lane?” Sandra said. “I’m the fucking foreign policy expert! I have a really hard time understanding what’s more foreign than dealing with representatives of an Alien species.”
“This goes beyond foreign policy,” Sheila said. Sandra gave Sheila a murderous stare. They’d been friends for years, and she couldn’t believe Sheila was out there stabbing her in the back at a crucial moment like this. “Everything is on the table here. The economy, health care, all of it. This could upend everything, cause mass hysteria. All of our donors are already scared shitless over what it will do to all of their R&D programs and their intellectual property. It could all become obsolete overnight. Entire industries could die, thousands of jobs lost. That’s even assuming these Aliens are telling the truth. They could be giving us power sources and medicines that turn out to be bombs and bio-weapons.”
“I would assume we let scientists figure that out,” Sandra said. “They’re not exactly handing out How to Serve Man booklets here, they’re giving us data, research, and knowledge. It’s up to us what we do with it.”
“I like that!” Brent said. Alvez nodded slightly. Sandra didn’t like that nod. It usually meant the Senator was falling for one of Brent’s insane schemes. “A bio-weapon! It could be anything! They could just be waiting to see how trusting we are before they harvest us or something. Maybe we synthesize this stuff and its a nanoplague, wipes us out. We could come up with plenty of scenarios. These Aliens are the ultimate ‘Other,’” Brent said. “Easy political points, there for the scoring. Beating up on them in the media will get us plenty of traction, lots of buzz. This transcends race and nationality, they’re not human, they’re not even of this world. I’m sure we can find some scientist to back us up on the dangers of this.”
“Hold up,” Davis interjected. He was looking at Sandra, and perhaps the only other voice of reason in the room. He was the economist, and he stroked his chin, thinking this over. “Look, there’s a lot of risk here. You come out too strident and what happens if they end up dropping miracle drugs and true game-changing technologies during this tech transfer they’re proposing? I somewhat agree with Sandra here. We don’t want to be on the wrong side of history. We could end up looking like we stood in the way of life-saving breakthroughs. I can already see the campaign commercials where whoever is running against us trots out all sorts of children and veterans that would be dead or worse if not for whatever Alien space-magic healed them and then they tactfully point out that we would’ve said no. The narrative writes itself.”
“Thank you, Davis,” Sandra said, relieved that he took something in the neighborhood of her side.
“However,” Davis added. “Just as bad if we have terrorists or criminals prowling around blowing everything up with some Alien space-magic weapon. I think we should express skepticism in our new ‘friends,’ whatever they may have to offer. Perhaps a middle-ground? We accept that this tech transfer is going to happen, but state that we’re going to do everything we can to minimize the risk and negative consequences. Legislation, regulation, all of it to control whatever might arise.”
“Not against, but guarded,” Vera, the official press wrangler, nodded and smiled. “I like it. We can say we’ll urge the President and Congress to put together a special inter-agency task force to look into strategic issues, that kind of thing.”
“I think this is a good approach,” Senator Alvez said. “I can state that given my experience, I will look out for our interests. I’ll trust, but verify. No free pass for these Aliens, however many shiny treats they might dangle in front of us. I’ll be a steady hand, ready to take action and keep this new Alien tech and whatever research and practical uses come out of it under control. We’ll look into heavily regulating whoever uses the information from this tech transfer.”
“I couldn’t have said it better myself, Senator,” Brent yes-manned. Sandra leaned back in her chair, defeated. “It will also do a lot to reassure our donors.”
“While we let a once in a lifetime opportunity get choked by croneyism and red tape,” Sandra murmured under her breath.
“Well, that’s it then,” Senator Alvez announced, everyone around the table bobbleheading except Sandra. “I want to see a full communications plan and talking points by the end of the day. Get to it.” People got up in a sea of murmurs, Sandra ready to go fume in her office.
“Sandra,” the Senator said. “A word please.”
“Yes, sir,” Sandra said, her military background winning out over however collegial the Senator tried to keep it. She stayed put until everyone left.
“Sandra, you know I value your experience. You served in the African Union wars and the GCF offensive, then you were a State department diplomatic officer for years. No one has your background and your perspective. That said, this is the greatest unknown any of us have ever faced. I need you to be a team player on this,” the Senator said. “I can see you have strongly held opinions on this, and I want you to express them, but in a more respectful way to the others. There are a lot of sides to this issue that don’t follow the ordinary rules. Things are happening very fast, as you well know. We can’t afford to pick unnecessary fights with each other.”
“Yes, sir,” Sandra grimaced. “I’ll try to be more collaborative with my colleagues. I just think it’s beneath you to make fear the centerpiece of this campaign.” She had plenty more to say, but she swallowed it. The combination of choked back spite and bitterness formed a potent cocktail in her mouth.
“I understand and appreciate your concern,” Senator Alvez said.
“Thank you, Senator,” Sandra said. “I have a lot of work to do. Every government on the map has a different opinion on all of this, and it’s a fluid situation keeping it all straight.” Alvez turned away as she left. She tried not to think of how small-minded political games were squandering potentially the greatest thing to happen to humanity in years. She should’ve known better. She should’ve known this would be business as usual.
NASA, ESA, E. Sabbi (STScI)
The last page of the structural engineering report appeared on her display. “Thank God, Buddha, Jesus, assorted other deities, and the Devil,” Danya whispered as she closed it. The floating diagrams around her apartment workstation mercifully faded. The results had been solid, only minor wear and tear. The hull had held up, a miracle considering how many new materials were at play.
“When is enough enough?” a voice echoed through another one of her many displays. He was an older man in an impeccable three piece suit with silver hair. “First there were the colonies, then this? It’s like we don’t even care. It’s like we’ve given up. Most of our arable farmland is gone thanks to climate change. We have regular food shortages in the poorest countries so bad that only the most unnatural GMOs can keep us all from starving. We’ve overfished most of the ocean to near extinction. We’ve clearly thrown in the towel on our own planet. So we go to another one? Rinse and repeat?”
“Isn’t that the point?” A second voice said, a younger woman in a pantsuit almost as expensive. “We’re doing this because we’re not exactly brimming with choices here. This mission is the only way we survive long term, period. I can’t believe anyone could see what happened today and not be excited for the possibilities. We are no longer bound by this planet or our past. And you’d have us abandon this because of naturalist fallacy? Maybe instead of finding new worlds and moving forward we stay here and make this planet our tomb. Sometimes I think that’s what it would take to appease people like you.” Danya Fund watched them argue for awhile, a panel of so-called “experts” on a news talk show skewering each other with stock arguments. Either today was the most momentous event in human history, ushering us into a new post-human future, or it was some weird admission of failure. She sipped the Malbec in her hand, its hints of spice, berry, and acidity a welcome distraction.
“You don’t think this is a bit problematic, at all?” a third voice said. He was more disheveled, a little overweight. His voice had slouched way past calm and gone into full on enraged. “So it’s possible for us to travel to other star systems now. Fantastic. Excuse me if I’m not filled with childlike wonder thinking about what might be out there waiting. Or, even worse, what might’ve noticed us leaving our bubble here.” Another tired meme she’d heard a hundred times in the past few days. She switched the newscast off. She’d hoped it would be entertaining, a blend of hysteria and excitement. Instead, it was like watching children fight over a new toy. The ones that didn’t get to play with it only wanted to talk about how stupid the toy was and how they didn’t need it anyway.
A new message arrived in her personal account. “Congratulations, Danya,” she read out loud, grimacing at the identity of the sender. “I always knew you could pull it off.” The rest of it went on and on about how remarkable it all was and how he’d always had faith in her. How everyone must now see what he always saw. Apparently he’d seen even more in his lab assistant. “Fuck you, asshole,” she verbally responded, summoning some fantastic memories of leaving all of his belonging in the hallway outside of their apartment. She didn’t bother writing him back, deleting the message.
Danya took a bigger glug of her Malbec, swirling it her mouth. As much as she’d labored to build humanity’s first successful manned Faster-Than-Light mission, she couldn’t help but get wrapped up in the same anxieties as everyone else. She wanted to believe she’d been above it all, but watching the test flight had filled her with dread. It had been a success, the small manned crew leaving and returning in only a matter of days. Sure, it had followed a series unmanned drone test flights launched over previous years, but to the media and everyone else those had been curiosities more than real events. Sending people was different. No one knew the next move, though. More colonies in other systems were on the table, and like the colonies elsewhere in the solar system they would likely be a wonderland for corporate exploitation and starry-eyed fantasies. So many had expected this day would never arrive, so the powers that be weren’t exactly well-prepared.
Where are you? Another message trickled in from Paige, one of the chief financial analysts on the project. You aren’t still working, are you?
She opened yet another message from her work account, the medical team. The crew was boringly normal. No indication that the FTL drive had taken them to Hell and they’d come back possessed by a malevolent supernatural force. No evidence that they were filled with inter-dimensional parasites that would spawn eldritch horrors once they matured and burst forth from their hosts. No evidence they had a mysterious plague or microbe that would wipe out the human race. Not even space madness. Some morbid bastards she’d heard about who’d started an office pool would be very, very disappointed.
Danya, or “Dr. Fund” as the team called her, rose to her feet and moved around her apartment as she finished her Malbec. She’d left the displays broadcasting headlines from the feeds, the quiet breathlessness of them much more revealing than listening to people talk or watching the same video footage of the crew returning she’d seen a dozen times. The headlines were entertaining enough. Source: Vanguard Astronauts Report Anomalies While in Faster Than Light Travel. Of course they did, considering no human had ever witnessed FTL travel. Reports that Vanguard Astronauts in Critical Condition. There was a difference between a precautionary quarantine and critical condition, not that the news media would care. Vanguard Astronauts Flee Hostile Anomalies, Barely Survive another one alerted. Previous FTL Drones Missing, Government Cover-up Suspected. Some of them were missing because their drives had failed to activate on the return trip, and it hadn’t exactly been covered up. Then there were the corporate press releases. First human colonies on nearby Earth-like world expected within ten years, says IEI CEO. ADS Unveils New Line of FTL Starships Ready in Six Months. One day she’d need to get one of her old artist friends to make some sort of collage out of this madness.
Her body was sore from the first intense and solid workout she’d had in weeks. They’d crashed hard on finishing the Vanguard XX and checking everything before launch. She was finally able to come up for air and restart her routine. She started to put on her dress. Judging by more messages, most of her coworkers were way ahead of her on drinks. She had a lot of catching up to do.
The last report she’d been waiting for arrived. She opened it. Danya, as the Deputy Program Manager in charge of Quality Assurance and Program Controls, basically had to read and summarize everything from all of the other engineers into words that politicals, public affairs flacks, and budget wizards could understand. She liked to joke that she was a translator more than a PM. In the coming days, all those people would be voracious consumers of whatever information she could give them. It was a hell of a position for someone who was only 34. Everyone would want to pick apart Vanguard to understand if this was what it appeared to be: real.
Sure she had her PhD in astroengineering, the sexy replacement for what had been aerospace engineering, but that didn’t mean even she understood everything on Vanguard. As much as being a Deputy PM on the Vanguard FTL program was her passion, the oversight role took her out of doing real engineering. She was starting to feel like she was losing her knowledge of what that even looked like. It didn’t help that they were working on the bleeding edge of technology with just about every work package.
The data from the propulsion team showed way below expectations. The stability of the engines had barely held together. The FTL drive had nearly burnt out in overload twice during the return trip. That would’ve been lovely, stranding a historic manned spaceflight with no way to return. They’d had similar problems with the earlier drones, but it was supposed to have been corrected. The Product Manager had an elegant list of excuses. “Shit,” Danya said, setting the wine down. She was in front of her bedroom mirror. Her slight frame reflected back to her, reminding her how little she’d eaten in the past few months. Danya had always been thin, but she was getting near-skeletal. Her fridge was a graveyard of heavily fortified yogurt and spicy kelp. Her pantry only had a nearly spent bulk bag of oatmeal. That was all she’d subsisted on for months. That and Malbec.
“Danya?” Paige said. Danya looked up, seeing a projection of Paige’s face. Danya silently cursed the day she’d given Danya rights to open video chat without permission when she was online. “You’re working aren’t you? You’re still reading reports? You really can’t help yourself, can you? You have a disease. Maybe more than one. You’re addicted to data and allergic to enjoying yourself.” There was a lot of noise in the background, things at the bar starting to get out of control.
“Tough talk coming from a spreadsheet engineer. Listen, I’m almost done,” Danya said. “Really. It’s not my fault the propulsion team waited until the last minute to get this to me.”
“Danya,” Paige said. “You’re missing the finest the Huntsville bar scene can possibly provide here. No one is going to notice if that waits until tomorrow morning. You can read reports when you’re hungover in your office with the blinds closed. There will be plenty of time to dissect every scrap of this thing. It’s months until our next launch. That’s if the higher-ups don’t delay it, which we all know we will. The Government is a substantial player in this, after all. You need to get here. General Diamond is having a pretty intense drinking contest with Mary Fillmore, that VP from ADS. I’m giving the edge to Mary right now. She’s drinking the old man under the table. You have to see it.”
“That would be worth seeing,” Danya admitted. Rubbing her eyes, she checked the time on her portable interface. More than work or play, she needed to go to sleep. That was defeatist thinking, though. “All right, I’m leaving.”
“Now?” Paige asked.
“Now,” Danya affirmed. “You can see me. You can see that I’m dressed. I just have to walk out.”
“Easier said than done for you. I’m sending a search party if you don’t show in like ten minutes,” Paige said.
“I’ll be there,” Danya said to her friend’s image. “You have my word, whatever that’s worth.”
“Danya?” Paige asked.
“Yeah?” Danya said.
“We broke the light barrier, bitch,” Paige said.
“Hell yeah we did,” Danya laughed in response. She closed the chat with Paige, then headed straight for the door of her Huntsville two-bedroom. Before she knew it, she was out of the apartment and in the elevator. She stopped thinking about propulsion, and starting thinking about how many bottles of wine she would kill tonight.
NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration. Acknowledgment: R. O’Connell (University of Virginia) and the WFC3 Scientific Oversight Committee with Photo Manipulation by J. Hamlet
NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration. Acknowledgment: R. O’Connell (University of Virginia) and the WFC3 Scientific Oversight Committee with Photo Manipulation by J. Hamlet