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Invasion

Invasion

Аннотация

    We are not alone…
    Earth – today, we go about our everyday business. Tomorrow, it doesn't matter: The Invaders from Space have arrived. And for all the worst reasons… Humanity is about to be brought face to face with the most dangerous enemy it has ever faced, at the worst possible time. But the aliens don't care – they have only one goal – the complete conquest of the Earth and converting us to their religion, by any means necessary. From Texas, to Australia, to the Holy Land, the bitter struggle for victory rages, with millions of innocent lives caught in the crossfire. Victory is our only hope for survival…
    But can humanity stand a chance when the enemy holds all the cards?


Christopher Nuttall Invasion

    To Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, for hours of enjoyment.
    Thanks guys!

Chapter One

    No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water…yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.
    – The War of the Worlds, HG Wells

    The President of the United States, Colonel Paul James was surprised to note, looked younger than he had expected, although more impressive in person than on the television. Paul had grown up in a time when politicians were carefully photographed to make them look either intelligent or idiotic – depending on the political values of the given media source – and he had thought that he was used to it, but the President looked oddly impressive. He was fairly handsome, in an unfinished kind of way…but at the moment, he looked shocked. It was hard for anyone, particularly Paul, to blame him. He’d known for years that he might be faced with this moment, but the President had probably never considered it, outside his wildest nightmares.
    “Explain it to me again,” the President said, finally, briefly sparing a glance for the three other Cabinet members in the room. “We have a what coming our way?”
    Paul took a breath. It didn’t get any easier. “There’s an alien starship approaching Earth,” he said. He’d spent years, literally, trying to think of ways to get that basic message across to the political lords and masters of the United States, but somehow it had never seemed easy. He had been prepared for disbelief, or doubt…and he didn’t know how the President would react. “Perhaps I should start at the beginning.”
    The President glanced once at the calendar mounted on his desk. “It does not appear to be April 1st,” he said, with a hint of the same smile that had captivated a certain class of voters. “I assume that no one would bring a joke about such matters into the Oval Office, so…by all means, begin at the beginning.”
    “A day ago, the International Space Station was doing a routine sky-search with one of the telescopes orbiting near the installation,” Paul began. “The search was actually part of the asteroid defence program, which was set up to hunt for possibly dangerous NEO asteroids – that is, asteroids near enough to Earth to pose a danger…”
    “I’m familiar with the program,” the President said. He’d even voted funding for the program. “The telescope sweep found an alien starship?”
    “It found the drive flare from the starship as it lit off its drives,” Paul said, carefully. This wasn't going to be easy. “The sheer brightness of the display rapidly convinced the observers that it was far from natural and they informed NASA, along with the other involved nations, of the contact. The information was forwarded rapidly to Operation Nightwatch – my command – and we started to do a preliminary data check and analysis. The conclusion, Mr President, was inescapable. There is an alien starship approaching Earth.”
    The President said nothing for a long moment. “Aliens,” he said, shaking his head in disbelief. “I assume that we have a contingency plan for this?”
    Paul smiled, despite himself. “Sir, Operation Nightwatch has contingency plans for everything we could imagine involving aliens…”
    “If you tell me that a UFO actually did crash at Roswell, I’m going to be astonished,” the President said. “I think I’d like a fuller briefing on your activities.”
    “Of course,” Paul said, welcoming the distraction. “There was no UFO crash at Roswell, Mr President. Operation Nightwatch was founded during the Carter years as a top secret response to the prospect of alien contact, which some members of the administration thought was just around the corner…”
    “Bunch of loonies,” Tom Spencer said. The Secretary of State snorted. “How many billions of dollars did they waste on this particular boondoggle?”
    The President laughed. “At the moment, Tom, it’s starting to sound as if they were precognitive,” he said dryly. “Carry on, Colonel.”
    Paul nodded. “It was actually one of several programs launched into the question,” he continued, “but the only one to survive the Reagan years. Reagan didn’t believe in aliens outside the movie screens, but Operation Nightwatch was actually involved in other intelligence issues as well, such as examining captured pieces of Soviet – and later Chinese – hardware. The idea was that the techs would gain experience working on technology that wasn't American in origin or derived from American technology, while keeping an operational pool of experienced personnel. We proved, back before my time, that the Japanese strike fighter design was partly a copy of one of our designs that never made the final cut. We also were involved with analysis of captured Iraqi hardware after the war and the research into their attempts at fooling our systems.”
    He paused for comments, receiving none, before plunging on. “But the primary objective was to plan for a possible alien contact,” he said. “The overall cost was barely more than a billion dollars, for which we came up with contingency plans for every possible alien encounter – or at least every possible encounter that we could imagine. When we actually did discover alien life, Operation Nightwatch was activated as a matter of urgency and I was detailed to brief you personally.”
    “I see,” the President said. He looked down at his desk for a long moment. “What do we have so far?”
    Paul activated the small secure laptop he’d brought with him and displayed an image on the wall. “This is the best image we have so far from the ISS,” he said. There wasn't much to see, but a pinpoint of brilliant light against the darkness. “Most of the data is speculative, so far, but it seems likely that the alien craft is huge, at least a hundred kilometres long. NASA has a team of researchers analysing what we’ve picked up so far and they believe that, judging by the drive emissions and its observed performance, that it will enter Earth’s orbit within a month.”
    “They’re certain of that?” The President asked. “It’s definitely coming here?”
    Paul frowned. There was a detail the President would definitely not want to hear. “Orbital mechanics are well understood, even though the space program would be unable to duplicate the alien ship,” he explained. “The craft is currently on a trajectory that would allow it to enter orbit within a month – safely. It’s…very unlikely that they do not intend to visit Earth, unless they’re interested in the Moon, which is a possibility. If they had been heading to Mars, or the asteroids, we might not have picked it up at all.”
    “Aliens, in my term,” the President said. He was eager, Paul saw, for re-election already. “I take it that they haven’t attempted to signal us?”
    “Not as far as we are aware,” Paul said. “Operation Nightwatch maintains a handful of contacts in the various SETI programs and other public alien research programs and they have picked up nothing, so far. However…”
    Spencer broke in suddenly. “Who else knows about this?”
    “Us, the Russians, the Chinese, the Europeans and the Japanese, I presume,” Paul said. “They were – are – all represented on the International Space Station at present and their people won’t have hesitated to inform their superiors on the ground. It won’t be long before someone leaks…and it’s quite possible that the starship will be detected from the ground before long, in any case. I doubt that secrecy will last more than a week.”
    He paused. “And there is bad news,” he added. “Their choice of…orbital insertion manoeuvres is…worrying.”
    “Explain,” the President ordered. “In English, please.”
    “Entering orbit isn’t easy,” Paul explained. “They have to match speed with Earth and slip into orbit. It would actually be easier simply to ram the planet, but if they intend to arrive intact, they have to make radical course changes to enter orbit. If NASA’s research is to be believed, the aliens have held back from making those changes until the last possible moment.”
    He held up a hand before he could be interrupted. “It’s impossible to be sure, without knowing more about the alien craft and their technology and physiology, but it looks very much as if they intended to prevent us from noticing them for as long as possible,” he said. “Unless they have some way of compensating for the effects of the manoeuvres, they have got to be very uncomfortable…and they could have avoided it by starting their burn much earlier. One possible reason for such an action, the most likely one in my opinion, is to limit the amount of warning time we will have of their arrival.”
    “And, based on incomplete data, you believe that they are hostile,” Spencer sneered. “Are there no other explanations?”
    “None that fit the data,” Paul said, refusing to allow himself any anger. “They could be attempting to limit the time spent under boost, but there seems to be little reason to do that, not least because all of the effects will have been compressed into a few days. They’re putting themselves through agonies just to limit the time spent under boost and there’s no reason to do that, not when they could have started much earlier and had a far gentler ride in to Earth orbit.”
    The President tapped the table. “Unless this really is some kind of hoax, I think we have to proceed on the assumption that the aliens might be hostile,” he said. “That leaves us with something of a problem.”
    Spencer shrugged. “Why would the aliens come all this way to start a war?” He asked. “I’ve read hundreds of alien invasion novels and most of them were unsatisfactory in that regard. Why would they come after little old Earth when they have the entire solar system to play around in?”
    “There are dozens of possibilities,” Paul admitted. “They could be anything from refugees themselves to merely stamping on a competitor before we could become a threat. Radio waves spread out in space, but anyone within twenty light years of us would know that we were here and might consider us possible competition.”
    “But none of this suggests that the aliens are hostile,” Spencer insisted. “They could be friendly and if they are, greeting them with a hail of fire is probably…not a good idea.”
    “We will, of course, hope for a happy encounter in space,” the President said. His manner became recognisably political. “We do, however, have a responsibility to ensure that all necessary precautions are taken to ensure the safety of America and, indeed, the world.”
    And ensure that you have your chance at re-election, Paul thought, quietly.
    The President peered around the table. “That leads to the simple question,” he said. “Do we mobilise our forces?”
    “I believe that we have no choice,” Deborah Ivey said. Her strong contralto echoed in the room. “If the aliens are hostile, we have to prepare to meet them, but there is a second possibility. Someone else, maybe Iran or North Korea, may seek to take advantage of the alien arrival.”
    Paul found himself giving Deborah a look of honest respect. She was, by almost any measure, the most powerful woman in Washington, and perhaps the world. A close friend and confident of the President, Deborah Ivey had climbed from being one of the world’s leading businesswomen to the post of National Security Advisor, leaving a trail of battered lives and bruised egos. Knowing, as she did, where far too many bodies were buried, she was regarded with a mixture of fear and awe by Washington insiders. There was even talk of her running as Vice President or even making her own run at the Presidency in the future.
    “Perhaps,” the President agreed. “Could we handle it if they did so?”
    General Hastings coughed. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was a bluff honest man, with a long and decent war record. “The forces currently stationed in South Korea have the capability to break a North Korean attack, assuming that it doesn’t include nuclear weapons,” he said. Paul nodded grimly. Even now, no one was sure just how many nuclear weapons North Korea had, or even if they would work when deployed. It was one of the reasons why the BMD missile screen had been extended – quietly – to cover large parts of the world. “Iran may pose a more dangerous problem, but the Iraqis and our own forces, stationed in Iraq, should be able to handle it. If we mobilised, however, we would have more reserves ready within the United States to handle any alien threat.”
    Spencer scowled at him. “There is no reason to believe that an alien threat exists,” he said. “If we called up the reserves and federalised the National Guard, would we not look threatening to the aliens?”
    “A threat exists when capabilities exist to make that threat a reality,” General Hastings said, coolly. There was little love lost between him and the Secretary of State. “The aliens may not be hostile, but we have to treat them, for the purposes of planning, as though they are…and they have the capability to do us serious harm. If they content themselves with knocking out all of our satellites, for example, we would be crippled almost instantly.”
    “But you have no proof that they intend to do that,” Spencer snapped. “Mr President, we should be taking advantage of this magnificent opportunity by making contact, now, with the aliens, before the Russians or the French can get involved. They’re probably beaming signals at the aliens right now, offering peace and friendship, trying to get ahead of us!”
    “Another reason to prepare for a possible war,” General Hastings said, dispassionately. “What happens if the aliens get involved in our human quarrels?”
    “Why would they care?” Spencer asked. “Perhaps we should seek to hide the fact that we are a violent race…?”
    “We can’t,” Paul said. “They will have been intercepting our signals for years. They may have problems with understanding our language, but it is much easier to understand images…and most of our entertainment is grossly violent. They may not even understand the difference between Rambo III and the daily news. They’ll know that we have a capability for extreme violence and they’ll certainly have a good idea of our technological capabilities, if only by using their own development as a yardstick.”
    General Hastings smiled. “They’re also going to be intercepting Star Trek and Babylon 5,” he said. “That’s bound to confuse them about our capabilities.”
    The President laughed. “We can’t keep this to ourselves,” he said, nodding towards the single phone that sat on his desk. He could call any world leader, any time, and be fairly sure of an answer. “I’ll have to discuss it with our allies and the other major powers, particularly those involved with the ISS, before we can decide on a joint response. If nothing else, we don’t want the aliens playing divide and conquer.”
    He looked over at General Hastings. “General, I want you to start mobilising our forces as quietly as possible,” he continued. “For the moment, we’ll call it a drill and I’ll brief the Press and the Speaker of the House to that effect; later, once the news breaks, we can explain that it’s a simple precautionary measure. Colonel James…?”
    Paul nodded. “Yes, Mr President?”
    “I want you and your people to coordinate the response and to expand our defences as much as possible in the time we have,” the President said. “Again, keep it covert until the news breaks, but I want a plan for defending the country – and indeed the world – if it does come down to a fight.”
    “Yes, Mr President,” Paul said. It wasn't going to be easy. The most optimistic alien wargame he’d played had suggested that humanity was in for a hard time. “I won’t let you down.”
    “We need to get some of our people onto the International Space Station,” Deborah said, bluntly. “Logically, the aliens will make First Contact on the station itself; they can’t just enter Earth orbit and ignore it. If we lifted a team of representatives onto the station, we would be in a good position to dominate talks with the aliens, without putting too many international noses out of joint.”
    “The UN will demand that it takes the lead in talking to the aliens,” Spencer said. “How do we respond to that?”
    “If the UN could agree on anything more significant than what to have for dinner, I might suggest leaving it in their hands,” General Hastings said. “As it is, they should come to some agreement a few years after we all die of old age.”
    The President winced. Paul could almost follow his thoughts. He was a committed internationalist, but at the same time, half of his voter base would desert him if he considered handing the entire contact team over to the United Nations…and the Senate would scream for his impeachment. Republicans and Democrats alike would scream for his head and they’d probably get it. Even if he survived that, his chances of being re-elected would plummet like a stone; he certainly wouldn’t be nominated for the coming election.
    “That’s something to discuss with the other great powers,” the President said, finally. “If the Security Council is in agreement about the issue, the remainder of the UN won’t have a say in it.” He stood up. “General, Colonel, I’ll want to see you two in a few days to discuss defence preparations. Tom, I want you to start looking for a suitable candidate to be our ambassador to the stars.”
    He paused. “We will do everything in our power to avoid a war,” he concluded, “but if we have to fight, we will do everything we can to make a good account of ourselves. We have a mandate to defend America and that, my friends, is what we are going to do…or die trying.”

Chapter Two

    I hate newspapermen. They come into camp and pick up their camp rumours and print them as facts. I regard them as spies, which, in truth, they are. If I killed them all there would be news from Hell before breakfast.
    – William Tecumseh Sherman

    “So, there’s nothing you can tell me?”
    Joshua Vote Bourjaily liked to think of himself as an ace reporter, a combination of Woodward and Bernstein, but the truth was that he was just a muckraker. He painted himself as having access to hundreds of sources within the military, but when pressed, even he had to admit that his sources weren't high-ranking officials, but dissatisfied juniors who had a grudge against the military. It made for a handful of interesting scoops, but mostly…he just picked up rubbish.
    “No,” Sergeant Ellsworth said. She’d been passed over for promotion at least twice, according to her, because someone else in her platoon had been sucking off the entire promotion board. Having met her in person – Joshua had learnt, quickly, that meeting sources in person was the only way to gauge their reliability – he suspected that the truth was that she was actually incompetent. “All I know is that we’ve been ordered to report to the barracks in a few days for possible deployment.”
    She put the phone down; Joshua heard it click as he sat back in his tatted old armchair. He liked to think of his office as a headquarters, perhaps with a bodyguard and a sexy young secretary, but it was really a converted flat in the low-rent district of Austin City, Texas. A handful of filing cabinets, a pair of old computers – so old that they ran Windows 95 – and a single modern laptop took up most of the space; it had been months since anyone else had entered the office, or even the flat. It was cheaper than hiring a proper office…and it wasn't as if he had any chance of gaining a proper position with a regular respectable newspaper. His blog might have a handful of devoted fans, but his reputation kept most major producers from even considering him as a source, let alone a regular employee. The newspaper industry was not a forgiving one and someone who had been discredited so comprehensively didn’t have a hope of employment. The fact that some reporters actually survived such an experience only added to Joshua’s hatred of the world. They got away with it because they were politically impossible to fire.
    He didn’t see the notes in front of him for a long moment. He was too busy remembering. He’d been so certain of his source, so convinced that the source was telling the truth…and he’d impressed his editor enough to write the article. He should have known better; for three days, he’d been a hero…and then he’d become a laughing stock. The story of torture and rape committed by American soldiers had been detailed; too detailed. It had been easy to prove that the unit in question not only didn’t have any soldiers with the right names, but hadn’t been anywhere near Iraq – ever. Joshua’s memories of the next few days had become hazy, probably because he didn’t want to remember, but now…now he was a freelance reporter whom no one in authority would even consider using. All he could do was pick up titbits and try to pass them onwards.
    The notes taunted him as he picked them up and read through them again. Joshua had realised, much to his own private surprise, that more soldiers, sailors and airmen were being recalled to duty than could reasonably be expected, even through there was a war on. His opinion of the military had never been high, even before he’d been used to smear every reporter in the United States, but even he had to concede that there was little reason for them to suddenly call up everyone in Texas. It was possible, of course, that it was just a drill, but Joshua knew that he would have heard rumours about it long before it began…and he hadn’t heard anything. It was as if the United States was, very quietly, preparing for war.
    He’d wracked his brains trying to understand the reason why, but he’d come up with nothing. Normally, there would be storm clouds on the horizon, some kind of threat to America or American interests in the world, but there was nothing. Iran was behaving itself, Iraq had been quietening down for years, Russia was concentrating on consolidating it’s gains over the last few years…hell, there hadn’t even been an annual confrontation with China. It was possible that the country was actually on the verge of war, but he knew enough about the political game to know that it would have been leaked by now, by a politician eager to play the political game. The President would need to build up support for any policy…and he hadn’t been releasing warning notes, or insider briefings, or anything.
    He looked back down at the notes again. He was careful never to store anything on computers these days; his enemies wouldn’t hesitate to hack into them to remove the data. Paper was inconvenient, but it had the advantage of being secure, unless someone actually broke into his office. He’d traced movements that didn’t quite add up. Additional Patriot batteries had been deployed around the region. Various USAF asserts had been placed on standby. Aircraft at USAF bases and Air National Guard bases were being armed with live weapons. That wasn't so unusual in the days after 9/11, where everyone knew that one day they might have to shoot down a hijacked airliner before it became a weapon, but there were a lot of them. Army, navy and air force personnel activated suddenly and whisked off into the unknown. The entire country was gearing up for war…and he didn’t even have the slightest idea of who they intended to fight!
    There was no choice, he decided. He would have to call Daniel Holloway.
    He listened as the phone rang slowly. Holloway was the pearl in his collection of contacts, a Captain in the USAF who was dissatisfied…without any apparent reason to be dissatisfied. That bothered Joshua more than he cared to admit. Normally, he found a source who had a clear motive to want to talk outside of school…but Holloway had never talked about why he wanted to share what he knew. That made him unreliable, in Joshua’s view, but as the highest-ranking person he knew, there was little choice, but to listen, at least, to what he was saying.
    “Holloway,” a voice drawled, finally. “What can I do for you?”
    “Daniel,” Joshua said. He knew that his voice would be recognised at once. Holloway swore blind that the phones in the base weren't tapped, but it was his career on the line if he was wrong; Joshua trusted that self-interest, if nothing else, would keep him honest and discreet. “I wonder…”
    “Damn you,” Holloway snapped. His normal drawl had almost vanished, replaced by…fear? “You shouldn’t be calling me here?”
    For a moment, surprise almost brought Joshua’s heart to a stop. “Daniel, I…”
    “Shut up,” Holloway thundered. Anger had rapidly replaced fear. “Fuck off! Never call on me again!”
    He slammed the phone down before Joshua could say another word.
    “What the fuck?” Joshua asked, finally. He’d sometimes had a source vanish on him, but he’d never been told to fuck off, not in such a manner. Some of his sources had realised just how little influence he actually had and abandoned him, but even they had been polite, but Holloway…Holloway had been scared out of his skin. He’d been scared enough to tell Joshua to get lost and had put the phone down. Someone had put the fear of God into him…which meant that something serious had to be going on…but what?
    He spent the next hour making a series of other phone calls. It was depressing how few of his sources he could actually contact…and two of them, like Holloway, told him never to try to call them again, before hanging up on him. His research told him that there was something serious going on, but what? It seemed a riddle he couldn’t even begin to crack. His sources in the State Police, such as they were, seemed to think that they’d all been placed on alert as well…and warned that there might be riots, if not outright civil unrest. How did all of it add together?
    “Damn them,” he muttered finally, and started to compose a story with what little he did know. He wasn’t supposed to know, but a few dozen stringers from major newspapers read his blog regularly…and they’d have much better sources. Whatever the military was trying to cover up, they’d uncover it…and reveal just what they were trying to keep hidden. If reporters existed to keep the government honest, Joshua was determined that they would find out what was wrong, or die trying.
    Maybe it’s a military coup, he thought, and on that note, went to sleep in his armchair.

***

    From the outside, the building looked like a normal office block, owned by a company called International Developments, Inc. Visitors who entered, after passing through a security system that rivalled anything else used in a civilian building, found their way blocked by an attractive secretary, who informed them that the building was merely an office and gave them contact details for the higher-ups in Virginia. More inquisitive people, or job-hunters, were given addresses to visit, the latter warned, however, that recruiting was not underway, at least not at the present time. Even if a persistent visitor entered the main building, they would not be able to use the elevator or the stairs, not without passing through a biometric reader that guarded the doors. The company kept its secrets…and, as anyone could discover, had a long history of being trustworthy, partly because of the extensive security measures.
    The man who strode in through the front doors looked like a casual visitor, at first, until he stepped up to the inner doors and pushed his hand against the reader. There was a brief pause, and then the doors unlocked, allowing him entry to the remainder of the ground floor. He marched through the corridor to the elevator, waited for it to open, and then stepped inside, pressing his hand against a second reader as soon as the door hissed closed. It was a nasty little trap, in its way; anyone who attempted to use the lift, without clearance, would find themselves trapped inside the cubicle. The newcomer waited for the lift to reach the fifth floor and stepped out as soon as it opened. Here, the trappings of a normal office block were cast away, revealing the heart of one of the foremost covert operations units in America. The men and women in the office might not wear uniforms, but there was no disguising their military bearing.
    Captain Brent Roeder stepped into the briefing room and caught the Colonel’s eye. The Colonel had commanded SF34 for the past two years, although – unlike Brent himself – he hadn’t actually been on a mission for a while. The SF unit only accepted experienced officers, those who had seen the elephant and knew that there were times for breaking rules, but someone so senior could hardly be risked in Iraq, Afghanistan and a number of places where everyone would be surprised to learn that American soldiers had served. A month ago, Brent had been in Northern Pakistan, hunting the Taliban and the terrorist leadership hiding somewhere within the badlands. The recall to duty, two weeks ahead of his planned return time, had been a surprise.
    “Now we’re all here, we can begin,” the Colonel said. Informality was the order of the day in SF34. The Colonel wouldn’t put up with any horseplay or the jokes that idle soldiers would sometimes play on each other, but he would allow a level of free discussion that would have been out of place in most units. “There has been a surprising development and we have been placed on alert to cope with it.”
    Brent found himself leaning forward eagerly and pulled himself back. The grapevine had been suggesting, for the past week or so, that the Iranians had finally been caught with their fingers in the till…or, rather, accepting money from terrorists to host bases in their territory, safe from conventional attack. Brent and the remainder of SF34 represented a more serious – and unconventional – response to their actions. It wouldn’t be the first time that they had raided a friendly country, or at least a country that they were not officially at war with, aiming to burn out the terrorists.
    The Colonel’s next words shocked hell out of him. “NASA has detected an alien starship heading for Earth,” he said, shortly. “I have been given a classified brief – an extremely classified brief – that we are going to be going on full alert for their arrival. God alone knows how the world will change – hell, God alone knows if they are hostile or not – but if there is an invasion on the way, we’re going to be ready.”
    Brent stared at him. He’d been told, months ago, that they would be conducting a secret mission in Germany…and he’d taken that calmly. He’d hiked over Saudi Arabia in local clothing and he’d taken that in his stride, but…aliens? Cold suspicion flared through his mind; it wasn’t unknown for the Special Forces to be tested to see how far they would go, a procedure intended to guard against the possibility of a rogue unit blindly following orders that ended with the assassination of the President or something along the same lines. Aliens were a little unusual for such a test run, but maybe…
    One of the other officers put it into words. “Sir…aliens?”
    “I’m afraid so,” the Colonel said. “This isn’t a drill. Ideally, you won’t have anything to do and all of these are just precautions, but if you have to act as stay-behind units, you’re going to find yourselves in the rear lines.”
    There were some nervous chuckles. SF34 had been tasked as a stay-behind unit, but it had been generally accepted that they wouldn’t be staying behind in their own country; after all, America was generally impregnable. The war-gamers came up with endless contingency plans, but barring a Mexican invasion or a major civil upheaval, no one seriously expected to be operating behind enemy lines, on American soil. The closest any of them had come to such operations had been special – and highly classified – operations in Iraq. Aliens, on the other hand, might actually be able to invade America directly, something that no nation possessed the power to do.
    “Hopefully,” the Colonel continued, once he had fielded a handful more questions, “you won’t have anything to do. However, you will spend the rest of this week working on covert operations procedures in the event of America falling under enemy attack.”
    “Madness,” Brent said, shaking his head. “Are you sure it’s not a drill?”
    Another soldier had a different question. “When is the President going to tell the nation?”
    “We suspect in a few days at most,” the Colonel said. “We want to get as many of the preparations completed, out of the public eye, as possible before it hits the news channels. Once it does, there is going to be a panic, and when that happens…”
    He didn’t bother to elaborate. “I’ll hold individual conferences with you over the next few days to sort out final preparations,” he concluded. “If nothing else, this will make for a particularly interesting exercise.”

***

    “The shit’s about to hit the fan,” Deborah Ivey said, cheerfully, as she swept into the Oval Office. “We’ve had calls from a dozen major media outlets and other such bastards demanding to know just what the fuck is going on. I think we’re going to have to come clean about the aliens, chief.”
    The President eyed her balefully. Deborah’s ability to swear like a drunken trooper never creased to irritate him. Days spent arguing with various world leaders about disclosure, let alone a united front to confront the aliens, hadn’t done anything for his mood. The Europeans and the Japanese wanted to move to informing the public, while the Chinese and the Russians wanted to keep it to themselves, for the moment. The NSA had informed the President, covertly, that the Chinese in particular were working overtime to block out the news, even to the point of restricting the Internet use rights of foreign-owned companies. He was morbidly certain that the Chinese, and probably everyone else as well, were already trying to communicate with the aliens.
    “I see,” he said, finally. Deborah’s intelligence was both an asset and a curse. “How much do they know?”
    “They’re pretty much figured out that we’ve calling a covert mobilisation…and that most of the other world governments are doing the same,” Deborah informed him. “No one has actually dropped the A-word yet, but ten gets you twenty that the thought has crossed their minds…and they might even be considering using it in public.”
    The President smiled thinly. “How long do you think we have?”
    “A day, at most, before it leaks out,” Deborah said. “It’s probably going to leak out from Europe – their security is pretty much crap – but as we brief more and more of our own people, we increase the likelihood of a leak from our side as well. If one of the national governments goes public…”
    The President nodded. “Contact the Press Office, then,” he said. “Tell them that I want to reserve a slot on all of the national networks – normal conditions – for this evening. Get in touch with the various Governors and tell them that we’re going public, so they have to put their people on alert for any panic, and then tell Tom that he is to inform the other governments…”
    Deborah frowned. “You really think that there’ll be a panic?”
    “I don’t know,” the President said. “Young James couldn’t give me any real production, but as far as I am concerned? We’re in uncertain – uncharted – waters…and God alone knows what’s going to happen when we drop this little bombshell on the world.”

Chapter Three

    If a space-faring species with faster than light travel wants to take Earth they are probably going to succeed. Once a species "owns" the gravity well, there's not much you can do about it.
    – John Ringo

    “The President and Governor Rollins appealed for calm in the wake of a further set of panic-buying riots and further chaos in the streets of New York,” the talking head said, speaking from a television set into the room. She would have been pretty under more natural lighting. “This has had no apparent effect on the rioters and the NYPD has warned that it might be necessary to call out the National Guard for additional crowd control.”
    There was a long pause. “The riots are, of course, in the wake of the President’s announcement, subsequently confirmed by the foremost observatories, of an alien starship heading towards Earth,” she continued, just in case someone had just joined the program. “A wave of panic-buying has swept America, with food, drink and guns being purchased right across the country. Senator Hanks, in response to the crisis, has criticized the President’s decision to inform the country of the alien ship and has demanded that the President face a special session of the Senate to explain his actions. In the meantime, marchers demanding a peaceful meeting with the aliens clashed with marchers demanding military preparations and had to be separated with water cannons…”
    Paul picked up the remote control and silenced the television before the talking head – he couldn’t even remember her name – could offer any further inanities on the Meaning Of It All. America – hell, the entire world – seemed to have gone crazy in the wake of the announcement; people were, as the talking head had said, were panicking and rioting. Millions of citizens had fled the cities for the countryside, while millions more intended to remain where they were to greet the aliens personally…and the rest of the world wasn’t much better. The Arab states had attempted to conceal the presence of the alien craft from their people, but the rest of the world knew…and, thanks to the Internet, so did most of the Arabs. Censorship was much harder these days; the Russians and the Chinese had sealed their borders and were mobilising, just in case. The President had been talking to them, trying to get some kind of common agreement on dealing with the aliens, but they were both playing their cards very close to their chests.
    He scowled and returned to the reports on his desk. The President’s decision to appoint him defence coordinator for the United States, in the event of an alien invasion, had been an inspired one, in his opinion. If he’d had an unlimited budget and a few years, he could have ensured the entire world’s safety against the alien starship, all one hundred kilometres of it. He had barely two weeks left before the alien craft reached Earth orbit and, in that time, he knew that there wasn’t going to be any new technology for deployment. America – and the rest of the world – had to work with what was on the shelf, and he knew, better than anyone else, that the cupboard was almost bare. It was ironic; he was, in effect, a General…with hardly any forces under his command.
    The deployment of THAAD missiles, including the latest configuration designed for satellite interception – as well as a limited BMD role – was proceeding apace. Unfortunately, the United States had agreed to a cap in the number of viable ASAT missiles after China had deployed a working ASAT system of its own, and while production had been intensified, he knew that there weren’t going to be more than a few hundred missiles at most by the time the aliens arrived. Patriot missile batteries and Air Defence Artillery had been deployed around the country, linked into a ground-based communications system that would allow their efforts to be coordinated even if the satellites were lost, but again…he wasn't convinced of their effectiveness. He’d attempted to get the shuttles rigged up as gunships, but only one shuttle was available and that craft had already been assigned to a role, ferrying the diplomats to the ISS. He hadn’t even tried to have the ISS armed; the consortium operating the station would never have agreed to have it armed to the teeth.
    On the ground, matters were a little better, despite the chaos. The Army had been called up and had been deployed around the country, while air assets had been dispersed to avoid a single lucky hit taking out entire squadrons of fighters. The National Guards and the Reserves had been called up as well – if nothing else, it was a fascinating exercise – and deployed in defensive positions, but he had his doubts as to how useful the entire exercise would be. The rest of the world was doing the same – he’d read a report that warned that the bulk of the French Army had been deployed near Paris, in case the aliens landed there – but he suspected that it was just whistling in the wind. They’d prepared, as best as they could, for the worst case scenario…and he couldn’t help feeling that that was exactly what would happen.

***

    “Mr President, Ambassador Prachthauser is here to see you.”
    “Thank you, Irene,” the President said. He’d spent the morning, as he had almost every day since the alien starship had been detected, in conference with different world leaders and almost welcomed the interruption. The larger countries tended to be carefully choosing their options, but the smaller countries – and the UN – were publicly buying into all kinds of tales of alien benevolence, acting as if the new millennium was about to begin. The UN debates on the alien starship had gotten nowhere fast, but the President knew that many of the smaller countries had no reason to view the alien arrival with caution. “Please send him in.”
    Ambassador Francis Prachthauser was a tall dignified man, barely entering his forties, with dark hair that somehow gave an expression of length. He had a very empathic face; the President had known him during his election campaign and had been impressed by how well he’d handled people who might have been a problem. He’d offered Francis the post of Ambassador to the Court of King James – Britain – as a gesture of thanks…and a highly practical measure. It was the most significant Embassy in the world, outside Russia and China.
    “Mr President,” Francis said, with a half-bow. “That was a very…entertaining flight.”
    The President smiled. He’d given orders for Francis to be picked up by an F-15 aircraft from one of the bases in Britain. Speed was of the essence now that there was a working consensus, between the larger powers, on how to proceed. It wasn’t as if the remainder of the world could prevent America, Russia, Europe and China from proceeding, but the whole affair could leave a bad taste in their mouths.
    “I hope that you enjoyed it,” he said, settling back into his chair and waving Francis to one of the smaller chairs. “Do you know what this is about?”
    “The aliens,” Francis said, proving again that he wasn't a fool. Even the President wouldn’t order a fast-jet fighter aircraft used as a transport, even for an Ambassador, unless it was urgent. “I assume that you have some role in mind for me regarding the aliens?”
    The President nodded. “How would you like to go up to Earth orbit and meet them?”
    Francis stared at him. Deep inside, where no one could see, there had once been dreams of flying into space. “Are you serious?”
    “Yes,” the President said, flatly. He stood up and started to pace the office. “The alien starship will probably, at least in the belief of my expert advisors…”
    “As far as we have expert advisors on this sort of thing,” Francis injected.
    The President acknowledged his contribution with a nod. “The aliens, we think, will attempt to dock at the International Space Station,” he said. It was more likely to be the other way around – the alien starship was far larger than the ISS – but that hardly mattered. “It represents, so I’m told, an easily-accessible group of humans, just waiting for them to come and visit. They could be sure, if they docked with the ISS, of meeting representatives from the great powers on Earth. It has been designed that a group of Ambassadors will be placed onboard the station and, hopefully, that they will meet with the aliens.”
    He paused. “Would you like to be the American representative onboard the station?”
    Francis laughed. “Do you even have to ask?”
    “No,” the President said. They shared a long smile. “I won’t lie to you, Francis; I could be sending you to your death. We don’t know what the aliens actually want and, if they’re hostile, the ISS is pretty much a sitting duck. Still want to go?”
    Francis frowned. “The aliens have not responded to any of our messages?”
    The President shook his head. Ever since the alien starship had become public knowledge, there had been attempts to signal the craft, a torrent of radio signals pouring out from Earth, some not even pointed in the right direction. No one could agree on what to say to them, however, and the aliens, if they were listening, had to be very confused. There had been sober and mature transmissions, invitations to land at one location or another…and hundreds of messages offering everything from marriage to abduction victims. The aliens had to be really confused…but there had been no reply to any of the messages.
    “Not as far as we know,” the President said. “The most sensitive communications gear we have, items so classified that I’m barely allowed to know more than their existence, has been deployed to cover the alien craft…but if they’re transmitting, they’re doing it without us being able to pick it up. Some of my advisors are worried that they’re actually in communications with the Russians, or the Chinese, but if they are, they’re doing it without us hearing anything.”
    “Occam’s Razor,” Francis said. “The simplest explanation is normally the correct one – and it’s that they’re not transmitting anything to Earth. If we can’t detect any transmissions, the Russians are unlikely to be able to detect them themselves.”
    “I know,” the President said, wishing that he could somehow convoy the gut-wrenching feeling that the lack of communications was causing. A hundred kilometres of alien starship was racing towards Earth…and no one knew what they wanted. Colonel James had been right, he decided; there was something ominous in the lack of communication, let alone their attempt to limit Earth’s warning time. The decision to start dispersing the federal government had been easy once he’d realised just how ominous it was. “Still want to go?”
    “Yes, Mr President,” Francis said. “Someone has to be up there to meet them, so…why not me?”
    “Why not indeed,” the President said. He smiled thinly and took his seat again. “You’re going to be up there with four other representatives; a Russian, a Chinese, a European and a UN representative. The UN expects their representative to take the lead, but the great powers have agreed that it will be them in the lead, not least because we paid for the ISS and the space program. The European has instructions from the European Union, but he may have orders from his own government as well…”
    Francis rolled his eyes. That always seemed to happen. For everyone devoted to the international organisation that they worked for, in theory, there were ten who were actually following the orders of their own countries, regardless of how well – or badly – they interacted with the remainder of the world. The only country that seemed to actually respect the concept of international organisations was the Swiss, and they’d been safe for hundreds of years.
    “Your instructions are simple enough,” the President added. “Ideally, we want an exclusive agreement with the aliens, but that’s not likely to happen. More practically, we want to ensure that we have a share in whatever dealings happen with the aliens and that we don’t get frozen out, or that the Europeans don’t get frozen out. We can rely on them to support us against Russia or China, but the UN representative is a wild card. She might have ambitions of placing the entire issue before the UN.”
    Francis frowned. “Should we not be working towards a united front?”
    “It depends on what the aliens have in mind for us,” the President admitted. “We have a series of agreements with the other great powers that if the aliens are hostile, we will fight them together, but if they’re not hostile, they could play divide and rule very easily. The orders I gave you…well, the other Ambassadors are likely to be following similar orders, and the crew of the ISS…well, they’ll have similar orders themselves. They might be more pro-American than their fellow countrymen, those who aren’t American, but…”
    “The stakes are high,” Francis agreed.
    “Too high,” the President said. “The entire country seems to have gone crazy, but hopefully it will have calmed down by the time the aliens enter orbit and actually make contact.”
    “Let’s hope so,” Francis said, pessimistically. “What about our defences?”
    “I can’t really discuss those with you,” the President said. “No offence, but if the aliens capture you…”
    Francis nodded. “I understand,” he said. He smiled, a little nervously. “Thank you for this opportunity.”
    “Ambassador, perhaps, to the Galactic Empire,” the President said. “Thank me when you come back alive, Francis; I suspect that I haven’t done you any favours at all.”

***

    The daily briefing to the President was a chore that Paul disliked, not because the President was an unpleasant person, but because it took him away from continuing his work. There was little choice, however, and he had to admit that it was better that he briefed the President, rather than some REMF who wouldn’t know what was important and what wasn't. The thought was quietly ironic; he’d been in the American armed forces for sixteen years and he’d never fired a shot in anger. He’d never been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, or any of the other places where American troops had been deployed.
    “NASA confirms that the space shuttle Discovery is currently going through its final flight checks before launch,” he said, once he’d updated the President on the ground-based preparations. “They’re stripped out the planned launch schedule – they intended to launch a trio of new communications satellites – and replaced it with a module for supporting additional crewmembers, so the Ambassadors won’t be too much of a burden on the ISS.”
    “Good,” the President said. The ISS normally had only six crewmembers and adding five representatives – and the shuttle crew – would have pushed life support to the limit. “And the defensive capability?”
    “It’s been added, after a long argument,” Paul admitted. NASA had been almost universally opposed to the idea of arming Discovery; the basically civilian organisation hadn’t wanted to accept the idea that the aliens might be hostile. It wasn’t as if the shuttle could be turned into a real space warship, but at least it would have some teeth. “Captain Markus Kane has been practicing using the weapons on the simulator, but…”
    He shrugged. “We ran simulations for intercepting Chinese and Russian satellites, not alien ships,” he said. “It could be that Discovery will last more than a few seconds, but I doubt it.”
    The President frowned. “We’d better hope that it doesn’t come down to a fight, then,” he said. “Have the Chinese responded to our proposal?”
    “No,” Paul said. “The Chinese ASAT capability is remaining firmly in their hands. The Russians have expressed some limited interest in sharing data for launching the Gorgon and Gazelle missile systems, but the system is outdated and the number of operational missiles is…not large. We have heard a rumour that they’re actually refitting the nuclear warheads onto the missiles, but so far we have no independent confirmation of that fact.”
    The President smiled. “Doesn’t that violate a treaty?”
    “We might be happy that they had them,” Paul warned. He’d proposed arming American missiles with nuclear warheads, but that suggestion had never made it onto the operational level. The proposal alone was hugely controversial. “That said, they never composed a serious ABM shield for technical reasons, although one of the more persistent worries of the past decade was that they would solve their problems and deploy a working nuclear shield. If they had succeeded in accomplishing such a feat…”
    He shrugged. “But it didn’t happen, so not to worry,” he said, and changed the subject slightly. “They’ve also been altering their old ICBMs for launching them straight upwards into alien ships, if it does come down to a fight.”
    “Ouch,” the President said. He scowled down at the table. “How much damage are they likely to cause to the aliens?”
    “That’s the question,” Paul admitted. “The Russians have been revamping their nuclear missiles over the past decade, but the Soviets let their missile designs atrophy slightly during the years after the Fall of the Berlin Wall. We don’t have exact data, but its quite possible that not all of the missiles will fly when they hit the launch button. It’s also possible that they’ll all fly, but some will disintegrate in midair.”
    He frowned. “The Chinese missiles are more modern, but they have far fewer missiles than either us or the Russians,” he added thoughtfully. “They might be very effective if it comes down to a fight, or completely useless.”
    A tone rang. “Excuse me,” he said. The Nightwatch staff wouldn’t have interrupted unless it was important. “Yes?”
    He listened, carefully. “Mr President, there has been another development with the alien craft,” he said. “They’ve split their craft into two starships…and they’re both still heading this way.”

Chapter Four

    Since, in the long run, every planetary society will be endangered by impacts from space, every surviving civilization is obliged to become spacefaring-not because of exploratory or romantic zeal, but for the most practical reason imaginable: staying alive.
    – Carl Sagan

    “It’s confirmed, then?”
    “It looks that way,” Jeremy Damiani said, as Commander Gary Jordan frowned over his shoulder. Standing wasn’t really possible in the zero-gravity environment of the International Space Station, but he loomed as close to his subordinate as he could. “The aliens have launched a smaller part of their starship at us.”
    Gary scowled. The only telescope mounted on the ISS – a research program that would have served so much better if it had been floating freely in space – had been watching the alien starship ever since it had been sighted, three weeks ago. He’d been suffering from steadily growing envy ever since the starship had been sighted – compared to the alien starship, the ISS was little more than a toy – and yet, it worried him. What respect could the human race hope to obtain from a race that could cross the interstellar gulf without worrying about little details like cost and ‘social programs’ down on Earth? They’d probably take one look at the ISS, and the shuttle that was coming in to dock at the main tube, and die laughing.
    And the alien separation manoeuvre was even more worrying. The larger section of the alien craft had continued decelerating, violently enough to shake the crew, while the smaller section continued to race towards Earth. The smaller section – and ‘small’ was relative, given that it was over ten kilometres long – would make Earth orbit in a week, while the larger section would arrive in two weeks. He didn’t know exactly what that meant, but the implications seemed ominous; it wasn't as if the aliens could avoid visiting Earth now. The aliens might be much more advanced, but it wasn’t that wide a gap; their technology, or at least what the human race had seen, wasn’t that far in advance of humanity’s technology. If Earth concentrated enough resources on space travel, they could match the alien ship in short order…
    He pushed that out of his mind as a ‘might have been’ and focused on Damiani. “What does that suggest to you?”
    Damiani frowned. “There are two possibilities,” he said. “The first is that that’s the ‘meet and greet’ ship, with their ambassadors and maybe even trade goods, sent ahead to ensure that we don’t mean them any harm. The second possibility…is that the aliens are hostile and that they’ve launched a warship at us, with the intention of knocking us out of space before the mothership arrives.”
    “I was hoping you’d come up with something different,” Gary admitted. He’d been the Commander of the ISS, insofar as the rank meant anything when everything had to be checked with Houston and NASA, for five months and he knew the station like the back of his hand. The ISS could actually manoeuvre, but only enough to avoid a major collision, not a missile or a manned spacecraft. If the aliens were hostile, his unarmed command wouldn’t last more than a few seconds. “Of course, there’s a third possibility; it’s a planet-killer aimed at us.”
    They contemplated the image for a long moment. “I don’t suppose that the telescopes have picked up anything new?”
    “I’d have told you if we’d seen anything new,” Damiani reassured him. Every telescope in the world might be watching the alien craft, but so far, they’d seen very little beyond the drive flares. Even the most powerful telescopes hadn’t seen much to suggest alien capabilities, but NASA had done enough research – without actually building any hardware – to have a rough idea of minimum alien capabilities. They made a fearsome list. “There’s nothing, not even a radar pulse or a communications signal…”
    “I know,” Gary said. He looked down at the live feed from the telescope. The entire world was logging onto the internet to see that feed; the telescope’s owners had had to invest in extra systems just to meet the demand. “Keep me informed…”
    He scowled as he pulled himself back through the modules towards the main hatch. He’d spent some time browsing the internet for anything useful, but apart from hundreds of paranoid messages, there was nothing useful at all. Some of the comments and suggestions made Stalin seem a trusting sort of man…and almost all of them would have been gravely insulting to a human ambassador. They couldn’t demand that the aliens went through a strip-search for weapons before they boarded the ISS; after all, they had no way of backing up the threat. He hadn’t been allowed any details on Earth’s defences, just in case he was captured and interrogated, but he was intelligent and knowledgeable to know just how weak the defences actually were. The Earth might have had the numbers advantage – although no one knew how many aliens might have been stuffed into that starship – but the human ability to carry out a frontal attack in space, let alone a defence, was minimal. If the aliens bulled through to orbit and took control of LEO, the war would be within shouting distance of being lost. The United States had been watching, nervously, the development of Chinese and Indian ASAT systems…but this was worse, far worse.
    And, now, there were going to be Ambassadors on his station. They were probably going to start complaining about the food, or the lack of gravity, or whatever else high-ranking dignities could find to complain about. The ISS was as comfortable – and safe – as human ingenuity could make it, within the limited budget, but it was far from the Waldorf Hotel.

***

    Ambassador Francis Prachthauser was in no state to complain about anything. The pre-flight medical at Houston had been the most intensive medical procedure he’d ever been through in his life, a nightmare of drugs, poking, and simulators that made the worst roller-coaster ride in Disneyworld look like nothing. He’d staggered out, half-convinced that he’d failed the program completely, only to be told that he’d passed with flying colours, for a man of his age. The others hadn’t fared so well, although the Russian had gone through his own preparations first in Russia; they’d all ended up looking terrible the day they’d eating steak and eggs, before boarding Discovery. It had been easy to read the looks on some of the NASA personnel faces; they’d been envious of the Ambassadors, and wished that they’d been flying with them.
    The shuttle launch had been terrifying, but exciting at the same time, even though he’d felt as through an elephant was sitting on his chest during most of the flight. When the shuttle had slid into orbit, they’d been allowed to leave their seats and float about in the cabin, something that had almost lived up to his dreams. He’d been told, by one of the doctors, that zero-gee could be unpleasant to a person who was unprepared for it, but he’d managed to adapt quickly. The same couldn’t be said for Bai Li, the Chinese representative, or Philippe Laroche, the EU representative, both of whom had been sick when they floated into the air. The shuttle’s co-pilot had sucked the vomit out of the air with a vacuum cleaner and ‘suggested’ that the representatives remain in their seats until they were used to the conditions.
    Francis was lucky; he was invited up to the main cabin. The shuttle was shaped like an airliner, allowing the pilot a view out into space, and Francis peered out with glee. The blue-green sphere of Earth turned slowly above him, falling…no, it was below him, but the shuttle was orientated towards Earth…and the twinkling shape of the ISS could be seen in the distance. He’d expected to see networks of satellites orbiting the Earth, if not the alien starship itself, but they were too small or too distant to be seen with the naked eye. The shuttle’s radar display picked up pieces of space junk, or even active satellites, but their current orbit appeared to be clear of any obstacles.
    “The vast majority of space junk heads down towards Earth fairly quickly,” Captain Markus Kane said, reading Francis’s thoughts. “The real problem comes from items that somehow got loose from the ISS or other stations and remained in the same orbit. NASA keeps talking about rigging up some orbital sweep, but so far nothing has actually passed beyond the research stage.”
    He scowled. “One Chinese proposal was to have a station of their own that they could blow up if there was a war,” he added. “If that worked, they would seal off space for at least a decade, or so they thought. There was even a terrorist plot to get a bomb onboard the ISS, but everything loaded onboard the shuttles or the supply capsules from Russia gets checked carefully, just in case.”
    “I don’t think I wished to know that,” Francis said softly. He looked out at the ISS. “How long will it be until we dock?”
    “Forty minutes,” Kane said. “It won’t seem that long, believe me, but we have to be very careful. If we collided with the station instead…”
    He tapped a key on his console. A moment later, Francis recognised the use of the opening from Richard Strauss's Blue Danube Waltz, a tune he’d first heard on a movie soundtrack. He had to laugh as he realised why Kane was using the tune; it kept the passengers relaxed while the shuttle moved steadily towards the ISS. Kane had been right; the docking did seem to take only a few minutes, although he’d been entranced for most of time. The Earth from space was so…beautiful.
    “Welcome to the International Space Station,” Kane said, after the docking formalities had been completed. “Please remember to tip your pilots after the docking and that the flight back to Earth will be, God willing, in two weeks…and if you miss that, you’re stuck on the ISS for two months.”
    He grinned up at Francis as he finished the announcement. “Back when I was a kid, I read a story about someone rigging the IS escape pod so that they all got to go home early, apart from the commander,” he added. “They had to send a shuttle up to recover the poor bastard on his own.”
    Francis winced. They’d been briefed, endlessly, about ISS safety procedures, but they looked a little flimsy to him. If the crew couldn’t reach the escape pod, or were trapped without a spacesuit, they were dead. End of story. He’d thought himself resigned to that, but now he was on the station – well, technically attached to the station – it felt as if he’d made a huge mistake. He should have let some hotshot young State Department punk fly into space and meet the aliens…and then steal the limelight when the aliens moved their activities down to Earth. He should have…
    Kane read his thoughts again. “Don’t worry,” he said. “There are hundreds of would-be astronauts who would be furious with you if you got up and then panicked when the aliens arrived. They were all more than a little…miffed that the shuttle wasn't crammed with scientific people and even duplicate pilots, instead of…”
    “A bunch of fat ambassadors,” Francis guessed. He had always thought himself in good shape until he’d gone through the pre-mission physical. “Just now, I wish I’d let them come up instead.”
    “And if you’d been on the bottom of the gravity well, watching as history is made up here, would you share those feelings?” Kane asked. “Think about it; you’re going to make history up here and people will remember your name a long time after Kennedy, Carter and all those other idiots who sabotaged the space program are forgotten.”
    “I suppose,” Francis said, with a sudden smile. “So, what do you think the aliens will look like?”

***

    Somewhat to Gary’s surprise, the first three days on the ISS passed almost without incident. The Ambassadors were shown around the station, once they had gotten over the shock of finding themselves in zero-gravity, and enjoyed themselves. Gary didn’t hesitate to show them everything, apart from a handful of classified instruments; he couldn’t allow the opportunity of impressing such important people with the importance of the space program to slip past. The Ambassadors were all trusted friends and allies of their Heads of State and if they could be convinced to support the space program, it would be worthwhile. The aliens alone might not be enough to convince humanity to advance into space, although Gary hoped that the mere presence of alien life would serve as an incentive, but if there was actually some strong political support for the program, it might push the human race forward.
    And space was insulated from most of the tensions on Earth. The rioting and panic in America was calming down slowly, although millions of citizens were still intending to move away from the cities, at least until they knew that the aliens were friendly. China and Russia had a major dispute over testing boosters for their space program, but the representatives from both powers on the ISS ignored it and played endless games of chess with one another. Gary had half-expected them to be studying their instructions and trying to sort out what they would say to the aliens, but there was little point in further revision. Like children awaiting an exam, there was a point where further revision would be almost useless…and they’d reached it long ago. The sheer absence of data on the alien starship, let alone what they actually wanted, made it impossible to draw up any real plans for the future or even key non-negotiable points. They all hoped for an outcome that would be, at best, beneficial to their countries and, at worst, neutral towards their countries, but in the absence of further data, there was little point in speculation.
    That didn’t, of course, stop them from speculating like mad. “So,” Sonja Greenhorn said, one evening, “what do you think the aliens will look like?”
    It was Philippe Laroche who answered first. “I think they’ll look exactly like us,” he said, and grinned at their faces. “They’re an evolved race, just like us, and so they will fit their environment. The humanoid form is so useful that the aliens are quite likely to have evolved along similar lines to us. If they were, say, massive octopus-like creatures, could they have evolved a space-based technology?”
    “Octopuses are actually quite smart,” Sophia Friedrich said. The UN’s representative, a German-born girl who spoke English with a slight accent, smiled from her perch. “You could get one of them to actually do almost anything, as long as it was underwater.”
    Kane laughed. “So, you don’t believe the abduction claims, then?”
    “No,” Francis said. “I think they’re just attention seekers.”
    Gary nodded. The number of reported alien abductions had skyrocketed in the days since the announcement of an actual alien starship. The reports had featured the stereotypical little grey aliens, but also hundreds of other kinds of aliens, from humanoids with pointy ears to perfectly indistinguishable human-aliens that had been attempting to pick up breeding stock. So far, no one had actually managed to provide proof that any of the abductions – let alone the UFO sightings, government men in black covering up alien contacts or even the super-secret FTL starships flown by the American government – actually existed.
    “Its obvious,” Bai Li said, with one of his rare smiles. “They’re going to be Chinese.”
    “Chinese? Asians? Space Asians?” Kane asked. “How did you figure that?”
    “Well,” Bai Li said, mischievously, “it’s been proven by the latest revisionist history book, in the sprit of 1421 and 1434 that the old imperialist patriarchy actually built spacecraft and headed into space before somehow losing the technology in the collapse of Chinese civilisation caused by the Glorious Revolution. Of course they’re Chinese.”
    Kane stared at him, realised that he was being wound up, and laughed. “I don’t think that that’s quite the answer,” he said. “Maybe they look like spiders, or other insects.”
    “Won’t happen,” Sonja said. “There are limits to how large a spider, or a crab, could become before it collapsed under its own weight. It’s rather more likely that they’re dinosaur-like creatures.”
    “Or little baby elephants,” Francis said, grinning. The barriers were breaking down, one by one. “Hell, they could look like anything, even the Manhunter from Mars.”
    “That would be funny,” Philippe said, dryly. “Do you think that there would be a case for a lawsuit if the aliens actually looked like some alien we invented on Earth?”
    “It would be hard to imagine an alien who didn’t look like something we invented on Earth,” Stanislav Genya said. The Russian smiled into the silence. “Come on; between Hollywood and the rest of the world, we have hundreds of thousands of aliens that might reassemble the real aliens. They could look like something from Star Trek or Lost in Space or…well, anything.”
    Gary spoke into the silence. “Does anyone have any phobias they wish to confess to, now they’re up here and beyond recall back to Earth?”
    There was a long pause. “Perhaps the aliens are machines,” Kane suggested. “That entire starship could be a machine, or two machines, and there won’t be any humanoid life at all.”
    “You didn’t answer the question,” Gary said. He leaned forward carefully. “Anyone want to confess?”
    “I can’t stand horses,” Sonja admitted, suddenly. “I rode on one once, fell off and broke my arm…and since then, I haven’t been able to deal with them at all. You, sir?”
    Gary shrugged. “I’m scared of falling into vacuum,” he admitted. “It focuses the mind a bit on the station. Anyone else?”
    “I used to be terrified of the Germans,” Philippe said. “No offence, Sophia.”
    “None taken,” Sophia said. “My family weren’t in Germany during the war.”
    “Perhaps we should forget about humanity’s long history of war,” Stanislav suggested. “After all, this is the dawn of a new era, right?”
    On the screen, the alien starship raced closer.

Chapter Five

    Then came the night of the first falling star. It was seen early in the morning, rushing over Winchester eastward, a line of flame high in the atmosphere. Hundreds must have seen it, and taken it for an ordinary falling star.
    – The War of the Worlds

    Colonel Paul James watched as the President took his chair in the middle of the White House National Command Centre. The decision to have the President in the White House, even though he was actually in the underground command centre, hadn’t been an easy one for the Secret Service to swallow. They’d read countless novels of alien invasion, and seen Independence Day and other big-screen versions of alien invasion, and they feared that Washington would be attacked almost at once. They’d wanted the President in one of the massive command centres, well away from anything that might draw alien fire, but the President had insisted on remaining in the White House. First Contact, he’d said, on national television, would not be made with him cowering in a bunker somewhere.
    The Vice President, Theodore Taylor, had been packed off to a command centre, despite his protests. If the aliens attacked Washington, it was likely that he would be President of the United States within the next hour. The NCC was supposed to be proof against a nuclear detonation, built using the most advanced bunker-building techniques known to man, but there was no such thing as absolute security. If the aliens dropped an asteroid on the city, the shockwave alone would probably collapse the bunker completely. Paul watched, dispassionately, as the President glanced around at his fellows, from the operators working at various consoles to the handful of Cabinet members who’d joined him for the alien arrival.
    There was one hour to go.
    Paul caught the eye of one of the Secret Service men and nodded briefly. The man didn’t respond. He’d seen Secret Service men who fitted the stereotype exactly and men who blended perfectly into the background, but they all had one thing in common; they couldn’t be distracted from their primary task. They would all put themselves between the President and lethal danger, yet they knew that there were limits to their protective abilities, particularly against such a dangerously unknown faction. The aliens might have weapons that were beyond human imagination; Paul was reasonably certain they wouldn’t be flying City Destroyers into the atmosphere and blasting Washington with a death ray, but even the weapons encompassed by their observed technological level were formidable. A single asteroid would completely ruin their day.
    His eyes strayed to the big screen, overlooking the room. Normally, it would show the President, at a glance, the precise status of the entire United States military machine. Now, it showed the images from the ISS and the orbiting telescopes, including a pair of highly-classified spy satellites that had been re-tasked from watching for terrorists to studying the alien craft. The larger alien starship, the one that was still a week away, was still almost impossible to resolve, even in the most powerful telescopes, but the smaller one was much easier to comprehend. NASA’s scientists believed that it didn’t have any gravity of its own, which suggested that it was designed for high-speed manoeuvring, rather than a slow and stately entrance into Earth orbit. The ship’s hull, vaguely conical in form, was studded with bumps and blisters, some of which looked like smaller spacecraft, attached to their mothership like giant parasites. The more Paul studied the footage, the more worried he became; if nothing else, the aliens had made a hideously effective show of strength.
    The President looked over at him from his chair. “Colonel?”
    “Ah, yes, Mr President,” Paul said, ashamed of having been caught unprepared. The sheer size of the alien craft was daunting. He checked his terminal briefly before speaking. “I have the latest reports from the joint defence program.”
    The President lifted an eyebrow. “The FAA has grounded, at our request, almost all civilian air traffic,” Paul said. It hadn’t been a hard decision; almost everyone in America, and indeed the rest of the world, had decided to stay at home and watch the alien arrival. The live feed from the ISS was going to have more viewers than anything else in human history; companies, resigned to the inevitable, had decided to give their employees a day off to watch the show. No one seriously believed that anyone who had a choice would come in to work…and, for those whose service was essential, they were still glued to television sets or watching streaming internet broadcasts. “The only aircraft in CONUS, apart from emergency aircraft, are military aircraft maintaining a CAP over our cities and defence bases, and the Boeing 747 aircraft that we adapted to carry laser weapons.”
    He paused. “Please, continue,” the President said. “What about our ground forces?”
    “The soldiers are in their deployment zones and ready for action, if called upon,” Paul said. Most of them would be watching their television sets as well, even in the bases. “Police departments across the nation have been called out completely to maintain order, if necessary, but everyone seems to be staying home. Crime seems to have dropped to almost nothing over the last couple of days. The street parties in New York and San Francisco for the alien arrival have been boisterous, but almost completely non-violent.”
    Deborah scowled. “They need proper jobs,” she said. “Policy isn’t decided by people shouting their heads off in the streets.”
    “They have a right to express themselves,” Spencer snapped. It was an old argument. “If they want to protest what they think of as injustice…”
    “We want a peaceful contact as well,” Deborah snapped back. “Don’t they know that?”
    “Not today,” the President said, firmly. The two scowled at each other and then returned their attention to the main display. “Colonel?”
    Paul had used the brief diversion to catch up with the reports. “The THAAD launchers, Patriot missile batteries and Air Defence Artillery are on standby and ready for action, if required,” he continued. “The ground-based radar network is up and running at full capability and hard linkages between each site have been checked and confirmed. If we lose the satellites, we should still be able to coordinate our operations. The Navy has deployed antiaircraft ships in positions to provide extra firepower to defend our ports and other installations; the ballistic missile submarines and other strategic assets have been placed on alert. We have a direct link to Discovery and the ISS, Mr President; we’re as ready as we’re ever going to be.”
    The President nodded slowly. An unnatural air of peace had settled over the entire world. Everyone was watching the alien contact, even the people whose leaders had tried to keep the fact of alien existence from them; wars, disputes and even underground insurgencies had almost come to a stop. The President was fundamentally a man of peace, but he had come to power in a world of endless war, one where he had to wage a war against shadowy opponents. The peace wouldn’t last…but then, did it ever?
    “That leaves one question,” he said, looking up at the alien craft. “What about the rest of the world?”
    Paul spoke without taking his eyes off the screen. “The Russians, Chinese, French and British have launched and dispersed their ballistic missile submarines,” he said. “Russian and Chinese ASAT systems have been brought online and, in line with the secret protocols, have been linked into our tracking system. The EU will do what they can, but their ASAT weapons are rather more limited than either the Russians or ours. In short, everyone who has some ASAT capability is preparing it for operations, while everyone else is merely going on alert and praying.”
    The President snorted. “And the aliens themselves?”
    Paul shook his head. “Nothing, Mr President,” he said. “They’ve said nothing to us.”
    “When I was elected to lead this country,” the President said, talking more to himself than Paul, “I thought I wanted the job. I thought that it would be the crowning accomplishment of my career. Now…I think I made a mistake.”
    Paul smiled, but said nothing.
    There was half an hour to go.

***

    “And tension is rising in the streets as the alien starship continues towards the International Space Station,” the talking head said. Joshua Bourjaily listened with half an ear as he typed away on his laptop. He’d actually managed to win back some prestige with his article on the secret military build-up, although not for the right reasons, at least in his view. His sources had started to offer him titbits again, but now that the MSM had access to the story, there was nothing exclusive for him. “In San Francisco, crowds have gathered to welcome the aliens to Earth…”
    The television changed, briefly, to show a group of topless men and women dancing together in the streets. “Welcome to our new insect overlords,” one of them shouted, through cheers and giggles. They were clearly all very drunk. “We welcome you…”
    The cameramen at the studio hastily cut back to the alien starship. Joshua had followed the negotiations with some interest; NASA had wanted to classify most of the live feed, but the MSM had refused to accept that. They’d pushed and harried NASA until they’d been forced, in the wake of congressional enquired into the failure of the American space program, to agree to share the raw footage. Again, it wasn't something that really interested him, at least not as a source of possible income. He didn’t have a steady wage; he only got paid for exclusivity, and every news service in the world would have access to the live feed. Even Al Jazeera had decided to show the alien contact, live and uncut.
    “Only twenty minutes to go until the alien starship comes to a halt near the space station,” the talking head continued, her voice breathless with excitement. Joshua wondered, in a moment of pure spite, how she managed to keep awake from the excitement of pointing out the obvious, time and time again. “NASA scientists have informed us that the aliens will enter an orbit that will put them at rest, relative to the International Space Station, where they will either dock directly with the station or send a smaller shuttle towards the station.”
    She rolled on and on, making it simple enough for an idiot to understand, dumbing down the science as much as possible. Joshua tuned her out as best as he could, ignoring her even as he wrote his own article, knowing that getting it online was his only hope of making money off First Contact. Once the alien craft docked with the station – or however they intended to proceed – the entire world would see what was going on…and, unfortunately, would have talking heads explaining the meaning of it all. There were times when Joshua wished he had chosen a better line of work.
    There was fifteen minutes to go.

***

    The house looked like a normal semi-detached, one that might be owned by an up and coming junior executive, or high-paid tax lawyer, with a wife, two children and a third on the way. Inside, it looked normal enough on the ground floor, but the upper floor rooms were studded with weapons of all kinds. Any of the gun control factions who saw the weapons would probably have fainted; Captain Brent Roeder and his men, all wearing civilian clothes, had amassed enough weapons to take and hold a shopping mall for a few hours.
    “We shouldn’t be here,” Corporal Cody Fahy said, in-between stripping down a M16. SF34’s ‘deployment’ to suburban America hadn’t sat well with a man who had fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. If the shit hit the fan, he’d been loud in expressing his opinion that they would all die before being able to fire a few rounds in the direction of the enemy. “We should be out in the countryside holed up in a barn or a farmhouse or…”
    “We’ve been through all this,” Brent said, as patiently as he could. There were twelve men occupying the house, all carefully briefed to keep themselves out of sight so that the neighbours didn’t see them, and the tension had been rising steadily. The suburb on the outskirts of Austin was almost deserted – the population had headed out to the countryside to escape an alien threat, if the aliens were actually hostile – but there were too many people around, still, to lower their guard. Everyone in SF34 had been warned about the discovery of one team – on exercise, thank God – that had been reported to the Police as a possible terrorist cell. Somehow, he was pretty certain that having a shoot-out with the local SWAT team or the National Guard would not endear him to his superiors…or SF34 to the politicians. “If something happens, we have to be emplaced in position to fight…”
    “If we have to fight at all,” Fahy growled. “They’ve come hundreds of light years to visit us, sir; they’re not going to be hostile.”
    “You don’t know that,” Brent snapped. “Tell me something, Corporal; how did you get your medal if this was the level of professionalism you showed in Ashcanistan?”
    “There, I knew that I was on a mission,” Fahy replied, dryly. “I knew what I was doing, even if it was just lurking under a blanket for a few days until Mullah Fat-Ass drove by, unaware that there was an American soldier ready to send him to a fiery end. Here, sir…here is surreal.”
    “There’s a vampire in the loft and a roomful of student nurses in the next house,” Sergeant Clayton Mancil offered, from his position in the corner. “What more do you want? A chance to fire automatic weapons with total abandon?”
    “You know what I mean, sir,” Fahy said. He finished working on his M16 and picked up a second weapon, running through a basic set of checks. “This whole situation feels unreal.”
    “Yes, but…it’s our duty,” Brent said, dryly.
    “So shut up and soldier,” Sergeant Tessa Wireman said. The stocky woman didn’t look like a soldier, something that she’d used to her advantage in the past; as the only woman on deployment with SF34, she had to play the role of the woman of the house. The other men had to remain out of sight, but she could be seen in public; no one would even question her presence. “Best case; we all go home in a week and never speak of this…embarrassment again. Worst case, well…”
    She shrugged as they directed their attention back to the television set. There was little point in taking up defensive position, not unless the aliens had some kind of matter transmitter…and if that were the case, the war against them would become rather more unwinnable than it already was. The remaining soldiers ambled in with studied casualness, taking their seats and leaning back to watch, knowing that their overt brethren, deployed across the nation, would be watching as well.
    There were ten minutes to go.
    Ten minutes until the world changed forever.

***

    NASA’s standard emergency vacuum protection suit felt hot and clammy to Ambassador Francis Prachthauser as he shifted uncomfortably within the heat, but there was no choice; it had taken hours of arguing to convince Gary to permit the diplomats to wear the protection suits, rather than a full-out spacesuit. The protection suits were supposed to provide protection against a brief exposure to vacuum, but it felt uncomfortably as if he was wearing a condom, one large enough to cover his entire body. He hadn’t spoken that thought aloud; the closer the alien starship grew, the more tense and silent the ISS felt, even to him.
    The alien starship was settling down into its orbit now, catching up on the ISS on its stately orbit around the planet. The hail of communications beams from Earth had only intensified, but still the aliens made no reply. It was almost large enough to be seen with the naked eye now, even though it was hundreds of kilometres away from the station. Francis swallowed twice as he realised just how dry his throat was becoming. The entire situation was becoming increasingly surreal.
    “If they don’t slow now, they’re going to ram us,” Gary said, softly. The ISS commander was as riveted to the display as the rest of them. Almost on cue, the alien starship twinkled with little lights, slowing the starship still further. “Impressive power source; I wonder what they use to provide their power. Those aren’t chemical rockets.”
    Francis felt his gaze straying to the display. “Perhaps they have something we haven’t even imagined,” he said. He’d read all the speculations, but now, watching the alien craft approaching in silent majesty, they were somehow inadequate. The aliens seemed to move so effortlessly in space…and still they were silent. “Or maybe…”
    An alarm sounded. “Radar sweep,” Damiani snapped. His face was very pale in the room. “They just swept space with a high-powered radar!”
    Sophia flinched. “Did they detect us?”
    “They detected everything on this hemisphere,” Damiani said. It had been a stupid question, born of fear and tension, but he allowed it to pass. The aliens would have located the ISS with a simple telescope sweep. “They’ll have picked up everything that wasn't behind the planet…”
    A second warning tone sounded. Francis saw Gary’s eyes swinging towards the radar display…and saw the icon of the alien starship slowly beginning to break up. For a crazy moment, he thought that the aliens were committing suicide, that they’d spent all of the effort to get to Earth only to die, but then he realised that the aliens were launching smaller craft. Lots of smaller craft…
    Damiani’s eyes went very wide. “Incoming,” he shouted suddenly. There was no hiding the raw fear in his tone. “Incoming…”
    And the hammer of God struck the space station!

Chapter Six

    Is an alien attack possible? Of course it is. Statistically speaking, almost anything is possible. There is a better question to ask, which is ‘what is the probability of an alien attack?’
    – Travis S. Taylor

    Captain Markus Kane watched with increasing disbelief as the alien ships opened fire. He’d watched, enviously, as the alien starship launched its parasite vessels – hell, he wished he had one of them; each of the smaller ships was still larger than the shuttle – but then awe had turned to horror as the alien ships launched a single missile at the ISS. The station, almost defenceless, was hit and started to come apart in chilling slow motion, tumbling though space.
    “My God,” Sonja breathed. She sounded stunned and Kane didn’t – couldn’t – blame her. The aliens had opened fire. Without any communications, without any provocation…they’d simply opened fire. They hadn’t even transmitted a surrender demand! The ISS was doomed – that was inevitable – and it was only a matter of time before the aliens turned their attention to Discovery. The shuttle had been flying a few dozen kilometres away from the space station, watching and recording everything that happened…and the aliens had to know where it was. Escape was probably impossible. “Sir…”
    “Focus,” Kane snapped harshly, as he brought up the weapons console. The shuttle had never been intended as any kind of warship and it had been a new addition, but they might manage to take a bite out of the aliens before they were blown away. The alien ships were spreading out, taking out satellites with some kind of rail gun-like weapon…and he knew that Earth was rapidly being knocked out of space. The aliens would take and hold LEO…and further resistance would become almost impossible. “Concentrate on your duties!”
    The shuttle orientated towards the lead alien ship, now boosting towards them with effortless ease, not even making any attempt to hide from the shuttle’s sensors. It was a gesture of contempt for the human race, Kane was sure, and one he intended to ensure cost them. The alien ship was the size of a small wet-navy destroyer, larger than anything humanity had launched into space, and yet…it wasn't doing anything impossible. It was bound by the same laws of physics as Kane and his own ship.
    “Weapons online,” Sonja said. Her voice had steadied as she pulled herself together. Like him, she had probably accepted that they were both dead; it was only a matter of time. “I have a track on the incoming ship…”
    “Fire,” Kane ordered. The shuttle jerked once as two missiles were launched from the open cargo bay. They didn’t have nuclear warheads, an oversight he cursed silently under his breath, but if they hit the alien craft, they would do some damage. The aliens probably couldn’t evade them at such distances, either; unlimited by concerns for human pilots, the missiles were travelling much faster than any manned ship already. “Bring up the second pod and…”
    The first missile exploded, a good five kilometres from the alien ship. Kane spared the telemetry a glance and realised that the aliens had somehow shot the missile down with a point defence system, probably a laser. The second missile followed moments later, while the big alien craft orientated itself on the shuttle. Alarms started to ring in the shuttle as the forward heat shield, designed to shield the crew from the fury of returning to Earth, started to melt under the alien bombardment. The alarms grew shriller as the lasers swept across the protective covers over the cockpit windows; Kane saw red light starting to burn through as the shuttle started to spin helplessly in space.
    He looked across at Sonja. “I'm sorry,” he said, reaching out and taking her hand. “I wish that…”
    The alien lasers punched through the hull. A moment later, the wave of heat reached the remaining fuel in the shuttle’s tank and Discovery, one of three remaining space shuttles, exploded in a ball of fire. The alien craft moved slowly through the wreckage, paying a moment of respect to the crew, and then returned to its attack profile. The remaining satellites had to be wiped out of space.

***

    The entire space station was shaking madly. Francis heard the sound of tearing metal as the station spun through space, the noise somehow overcoming the noise of the alarms blaring out as the space station was torn apart. The status display on the wall was showing hundreds of red icons, almost obscuring the image of the space station itself, before it blinked out of existence, revealing that the power was failing. He caught on, desperately, to the side of his chair, just as he heard the dread noise of an air leak. The habitation module had been breached.
    This can’t be happening, he thought, dazed. The sudden rush of air towards the breach was pulling at him. He saw one of the space station’s crewmembers flying towards the breach and then out into space, pulled helplessly along by the rush of air…and then he saw one of the ambassadors following him. It looked like Bai Li, to him; the Chinese ambassador was merely the second victim of the aliens. This can’t be happening
    A hand caught on to his arm and he turned, automatically, to see Gary waving a mask at him. Gratefully, he took it; he hadn’t even realised that the air was racing out of the compartment, leaving him with nothing to breath. He saw Sophia, one of her hands turning black and blue in the fading light, take a second mask and breathing desperately through it; he couldn’t see the Russian or the Frenchman at all. He concluded, as the seeping cold started to filter into his system, that they were both dead. The air was starting to slow now, leaving them completely dependent on the masks and their links to the emergency air storage units; he said a silent prayer of thanks for the NASA genius who had designed the protective outfits.
    We should have been in spacesuits, he thought. It was becoming harder and harder to think; his head was pounding away like mad. An hour ago, they’d been so hopeful about the meeting…and now the aliens had simply opened fire. It was crazy; had they really come hundreds of light years just to start a fight? He didn’t have any illusions as to how long he would survive the coming few hours; as long as they were using the masks, they couldn’t reach the escape pod…assuming that it was still intact. Even if they did reach it, the aliens might target it on the way down, which would mean certain death. If Discovery was still in orbit, the crew might manage to pick up the survivors, but somehow he doubted that the aliens would give them that chance. He’d read a thousand different versions of the alien invasion story in the fortnight since he’d known he was going to meet the aliens…and all of them warned that the aliens would seek to control space. Given how weak Earth’s defences actually were…
    The cold was growing colder, somehow. The station was still spinning, providing the semblance of gravity, but he could see the hull buckling under the pressure. A moment later, a new rent appeared in the side of the module, tearing open and revealing the spinning starfield outside. For a moment, he saw Earth, growing larger in the growing breech in the hull…and wondered if the entire station was plunging down towards the planet. It would destroy them without any need for further expenditure of alien weapons. It was so hard to think now…
    Something moved at the edge of his perception. He turned slowly, feeling his body slowly turning to ice, and saw something moving towards them, coming through the steadily growing rent in the hull. It looked human, at first, and he wondered if one of the crew had managed to don a spacesuit, but as it came closer, manoeuvring with the aid of a small gas pack mounted on its back, he realised that it was humanoid, but far from human. It was impossible to make out any features in the black spacesuit, if spacesuit it was, but all the proportions were wrong. Looking at the featureless humanoid, Francis realised that it was moving…oddly, as if it had grown up on a very different world. The alien came closer and closer…and then one hand reached out and pulled Gary’s air tube free of the wall.
    Gary thrashed, desperately, as he started to run out of air. The alien ignored his struggles and carefully pulled him away from the wall and into an inflatable bubble, leaving him floating in the middle of the room. Francis stared, convinced that the alien intended to kill them all personally, and then he realised that Gary was breathing normally, inside his bubble. A moment later, the alien pulled Sophia free of her chair and added her to his catch, seemingly unconcerned or unaware that she was female. A second bubble inflated and the alien pushed Philippe into its warm confinement, and then added Stanislav and Damiani’s body to the catch. A third bubble inflated and Francis cringed as the alien reached for him, breaking the air hose with one hand and pushing him forward into the bubble. He fought to prevent himself from breathing, irrationally terrified that the aliens breathed poison, but in the end he had to take a breath. The air was hotter and dryer than the ISS had been, almost like being in a desert, but it was breathable. A wide-eyed Katy Garland, one of the scientists on the ISS, joined him; the alien left the remaining bodies behind, perhaps for later recovery. Damiani and the remainder of the crew had to be dead.
    Damn you, Francis thought, staring at the alien shape. The alien’s features were completely hidden, but he tried, desperately, to gain a sense of how his – or her – body language worked. It was impossible and he gave it up after a few moments of struggle, choosing instead to lean back and watch as the alien started to tow his – he decided to think of the alien as male until he knew for sure – human captives out towards the rent in the hull. A moment of insane panic swept up in his mind as the alien tugged them out of the hull and into space, Earth glowing below them as they were dragged towards the alien ship. The parasite vessel, a blocky shape reminiscent of Thunderbird Two, awaited them.
    “No,” Katy said, her voice breaking with shock. “Sir, look…”
    Francis followed her gaze back towards the ISS. The station had looked fragile when he’d first seen it…and now, all of his fears seemed to be coming true. The ISS was slowly tearing itself apart, spinning in space and flickering with light as the solar power panels came apart. The once-neat modules were torn and broken; he felt a bitter lump in his throat as the alien pulled them through a hatch into a small chamber. It was as featureless as the alien helmet and protective spacesuit, but there were seven other aliens in the chamber, watching emotionlessly as the humans were escorted forward.
    Of course, they could be gloating, Francis thought, bitterly. He’d given up most science-fiction because of its reliance on space barbarians…and an hour ago, he would have sworn that they didn’t exist. Of course, the Soviet Union or the Communist Chinese had managed to accomplish wonders, despite having a very unfree society…and the more repressive states on present-day Earth could simply buy most of the items they couldn’t produce for themselves. It seemed impossible that the aliens could have so much without developing democracy, but they might have somehow accomplished it…or maybe they were a hive mind, or…endlessly, he contemplated the problem, using it as a way of avoiding the real question. What were they going to do with their captives?
    Reality intruded as the lead alien pulled out a sharp knife and started to cut the bubble open. Katy screamed as the alien pulled her out and left her floating in the room; Francis, more sedately, followed her a moment later. An alien stepped forward, somehow walking on the deck despite the lack of gravity, and caught him. He saw a second flashing knife and feared the worst, but all the alien did was slice all of his clothes away from his body. The protective outfit might have protected against the vacuum, but it was no protection against the knife, which cut through it sharply and left him floating naked in space. The aliens showed no interest in their human captives once they were naked, transferring out the remains of their clothes and various electronic gadgets through a tube, leaving the humans floating helplessly in the middle of the room.
    Bastards, Francis thought angrily, trying not to look at either of the two girls. They’d taken four men captive and two women, and they’d stripped them all. It made a certain kind of sense – the aliens might not recognise a human weapon on sight, so they’d removed anything that could possibly be a weapon – but it was inhuman. The thought made him smile, bitterly. They were in a very inhuman position. The aliens just…watched them, unconcerned by their protests or attempts to talk. Francis tried to speak directly to one of the aliens, but got no response, not even a sign that the alien could even hear him. It was like dealing with robots, or automations.
    He met Gary’s eyes briefly and saw the hell in the former ISS commander’s eyes. He’d lost his command and almost all of his crew…and, now, he was a prisoner. The aliens had him under their thumbs and there was no way out, not without weapons. Francis lifted an eyebrow, wondering if the far more experienced Gary had any idea what was going on, but the former commander merely shook his head. They were trapped.
    A dull rumble ran through the alien craft. Francis felt the craft shift under silent acceleration and felt himself wafting towards the wall. The aliens ignored their struggles and allowed them to grip hold of handles set into the wall, while the craft shivered slightly as it moved on in its orbit. Francis hoped, despite knowing that it would mean their certain death, that they were under attack from the ground, but he knew that that was unlikely. The aliens were probably safe from anything that the human race could throw at them.
    The rumbling grew louder. They were on the move.

***

    Philippe Laroche was not a man given to panic. Unlike most of his contemporaries – and his fellows who’d been onboard the ISS – he was used to being in stressful situations in his roving brief as the President of France’s special representative. He’d been held hostage in terrorist training camps, threatened by armed militants in countries where France had ‘interests,’ and fired upon by one side or the other in various civil wars. He knew enough to be fairly certain that the aliens didn’t intend to kill them outright – they could have destroyed the ISS completely or merely left them to suffocate or freeze to death – and that meant that, sooner or later, they would be talking. It was a power game, like those played by human militants; they would do what they had to do to show that they were The Boss…and then they would talk. Being naked didn’t bother him, much; he’d been stripped naked before, by at least a dozen highly suspicious factions.
    Besides, it’s not as if the aliens are interested in human bodies, he thought, and concentrated on acting harmless. Stanislav looked as if he was furious – he might even have jumped the aliens if they’d been kept in gravity – and the American representative looked to be on the edge. Sophia, the UN representative, was shaking madly, her eyes wide with panic and fear. Naked, she was pretty…and almost completely helpless. Philippe watched with a certain private amusement as she clutched the handles and waited for death. It would be a long time in coming.
    The pressure pushing them against the wall suddenly eased. Like Francis, Philippe had considered the possibility that the craft was under attack, but it wasn't something he could do anything about. Chances were if the craft was destroyed, they would die before they knew what had hit them, but in any case there was nothing they could do about it. The aliens would talk to them, in time, and when they did, he would be prepared to open a line of communication. Perhaps he could even convince them that Earth was harmless and attacking the planet was hardly productive.
    He turned his attention, briefly, to the aliens. They were as featureless as ever, but the more he studied them, the more he could pick out slight differences in height and, he suspected, weight. If they were alien soldiers, they would be fit and healthy, but he couldn’t tell how strong they were, relative to a human soldier. Philippe had more experience with the military, particularly the French covert operations unit, than he cared to admit…and he found himself studying the aliens from a tactical point of view. It was a shame that he couldn’t see their weapons in action, but…
    Another dull thump echoed through the ship. A moment later, the aliens started to pull the humans off the handles and escort them through a door that had just appeared in the featureless hull metal, down towards an unknown destination. Philippe forced a smile onto his face as an alien started to pull him along. If he were right, the alien ship had just docked with their larger mothership…and they were being taken to their leader. Philippe could talk to him then…
    And see what advantage he could draw from the nightmare.

Chapter Seven

    Yesterday, December 7, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy – the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.
    – President Roosevelt, Dec 8th, 1941

    The massive display fuzzed once and blanked out.
    The President stared in horror as the display flickered and then reset to its default position, showing the military might of the United States of America. One moment, the alien craft had been approaching the International Space Station, the next…the aliens had opened fire. Paul glanced at the President and wished that he hadn’t; the President looked like a man who’d just discovered that his loving wife had been cheating on him for years, shocked, helpless and terrified. The entire chamber was filling with voices as everyone started to talk at once, trying to make their opinions heard over the racket…as new alarms rang in the air.
    “We just lost Andrews,” one of the technicians shouted. A new red icon, then another, then another, appeared on the display. Paul watched as dozens of icons blossomed into existence, climbing rapidly into the hundreds, each one covering the location of a major airfield, civilian or military. The aliens – and it had to be the aliens – weren't discriminating; every air base or civilian airport in America was coming under attack. “Sir, the entire air base is off the net!”
    “Quiet,” General Hastings bellowed. Silence fell, broken only by a chain of incoming reports. “Mr President, the country is under attack!”
    The President looked up from his chair. He appeared to have aged overnight. “General…are you sure that it’s the aliens?”
    Paul had no doubts. “If they were the Russians, or the Chinese, we would have had plenty of advance warning,” he said, as new red icons flashed up on the display. The Atlantic Fleet, he saw through a haze of disbelief, had just lost contact with the Ronald Reagan. A space-based weapon – a kinetic energy weapon – could have sunk the massive carrier within seconds. “Sir, the aliens fired on the space station…”
    “The satellite network is failing, sir,” one of the technicians shouted, into the silence. “All satellites; civilian, military…ours, the Russians, everyone… they’re going down!”
    The display altered as, one by one, the satellites started to wink out of existence. The entire network of radars and observatories was falling apart as powerful radars were targeted from orbit and destroyed, but enough remained to show the alien craft as they encircled the Earth, firing constantly down on the surface of the planet. Radars that could track billiard balls in orbit had no problem tracking the precisely targeted kinetic energy weapons – they couldn’t be anything else – as they slashed down and destroyed their targets. Bases, airports, ships…all were being targeted and destroyed.
    ”Mr President,” General Hastings reported. “We have to engage the enemy!”
    “We have to get the President out of here,” Deborah snapped. Her face had tightened sharply. “They might go for Washington next!”
    “It has to be a mistake,” Spencer babbled. “They…they can’t do this to us!”
    “It’s happening,” General Hastings growled. “Mr President, do I have your permission to engage the enemy before we lose everything?”
    The President seemed to stagger inwardly. “Yes,” he said, shaking his head hopelessly. Paul realised, with a sudden moment of fear, that the President was almost beyond his limits. He couldn’t deal with the steady destruction of America. “General, hit them. Hit them hard!”
    “We just received an update from the Russians,” someone shouted. “They’re engaging with everything they have!”
    Or so they claim, Paul thought coldly. Russia was actually more vulnerable to precise orbital bombardment than the United States. The Russian ABM and ASAT weapons had never been tested under such circumstances, any more than the American weapons had been tested. God alone knew how well they would perform…and how long the enemy would allow them to maintain their missile bases on the ground. The aliens would track the weapons as soon as they were launched and destroying the bases would be one certain way of limiting their deployment.
    “Clear to engage, clear to engage,” General Hastings snapped. “Transmit the engagement signal to all units earmarked for Skywalker; fire at will, I repeat, fire at will!”
    “Transmitting,” one of the technicians said. The display updated itself rapidly as THAAD missiles started to launch from their launch sites, scattered over the United States. Another red icon blinked up as an alien kinetic weapon came down near New York. “Signal sent…”
    “God help us all,” the President breathed.

***

    “We have an engagement command,” Captain Duke Connolly snapped, as the Boeing 747-400F twisted in the air. The crew had been preparing desperately to engage the alien ships before they got around to destroying the Boeing 747, but without clear orders to engage, they couldn’t proceed. “Get me a track on an alien craft, now!”
    “Here, sir,” one of the radar operators snapped. Normally, the Boeing 747 would get a direct uplink from the ground or space-based radar systems, but now the latter were completely out of action and the former were being hammered from space. The Boeing 747 carried its own radar dome, but if they lit it up, they might as well call the aliens directly and ask to be killed. The radar pulses would almost certainly draw alien fire. “There are four alien craft within engagement range.”
    “You are cleared to open fire,” Connolly said. “Burn them out of space.”
    The lights dimmed slightly as the aircraft rerouted power to the laser. The modified Boeing 747-400F – classed as a Boeing YAL-1 Airborne Laser weapons system – carried a megawatt-class chemical oxygen iodine laser that could engage targets in the air or near-space. It had been designed to engage incoming ballistic missiles, burning through their heat shields and destroying them a long time before they could detonate, but it could be used to engage alien spacecraft as well. Indeed, there had been a movie made around that very premise, although Connolly had gone to see it with his girlfriend…and had laughed so much that they’d asked him to leave the cinema.
    He watched as the alien spacecraft’s orbit took it closer to their position in the atmosphere. The other Boeing 747’s would be engaging as well, along with a surprising number of ABM and ASAT systems, but no one knew what sort of armour the alien craft carried. It might even have a perfect shield against laser fire, in which case their attack was worse than useless…but as he saw chunks of the hull burning off, he realised that the laser was having an effect. The only question was how badly they were damaging the craft…and how the aliens would respond…
    “Laser fire,” the pilot snapped suddenly. The 747 lurched as the pilot threw the aircraft into an evasive pattern, trying to break free of the alien attack, even as the computers automatically kept the chemical laser burning away at the alien ship. The alien craft appeared to be in trouble, but how much trouble. “Sir…”
    The plane screeched like a living thing. “Eject,” the pilot bellowed suddenly. “Eject…”
    Connolly and his crew had no time to react. A moment later, the alien laser weapon burned through the aircraft, ignited the jet fuel, and the entire aircraft vanished inside a white-hot burst of fire.

***

    The THAAD launch site had been carefully positioned well away from any civilian targets that might be caught up in the midst of an alien attack. Furthermore, the only radar and targeting data the site used came through a landline from a radar site twenty kilometres to the north, further concealing the launch vehicles from alien detection. The crewmen hadn’t been expecting to see action – the only excitement they’d seen since their activation as part of the Missile Defence Agency had been a handful of test flights and exercises, half of which had been effective failures when the test missiles had failed before the THAAD could be launched – but as soon as the aliens had opened fire on the space station, they’d taken up their positions and prepared to fire.
    “Clear,” Colonel Young shouted, as he picked up the warning message from NORAD. The landline-based defence communications network, at least, was intact; satellite communications appeared to be completely down. The alien craft were becoming harder to track as the radar stations were destroyed, or they beamed jamming signals into the atmosphere, but there was enough data to coordinate the engagement. “Prepare to engage!”
    The THAAD – Terminal High Altitude Area Defence missile system – had been modified several times since it’s origin as a missile intended to engage incoming targets on a terminal boost. The growing need for a working ASAT capability, in response to Chinese and Russian developments of comparable systems – and the Chinese had never accepted the right of other countries to fly spy satellites over their borders – had pushed the designers into adding an ASAT capability, with the net result that the THAAD could engage targets in low Earth orbit, even if they weren't entering the atmosphere. It was that capability that was going to be put to the test.
    “Targets locked,” the operator shouted back. “Launcher one targeted on UFO #1, launcher two…”
    Colonel Young listened as the operator finished outlining the targeting patterns. The small amount of tactical data they’d pulled off the network suggested that the aliens used lasers themselves, which suggested that the THAAD missiles would be engaged as they raced towards space, but there would be enough missiles to make engaging them difficult. Political considerations had prevented the use of nuclear warheads – and practical considerations, such as the possibility of fratricide, had limited the Missile Defence Agencies attempts to have that ban overturned – but the THAAD missiles carried a powerful warhead. A single hit would be enough to devastate an alien spacecraft, unless they had some armour or force shields out of science-fiction.
    “Engage,” he ordered, and blew a whistle. “Move!”
    A thunderous roar split the air as the first missile launched from its launcher and grabbed for height. A second followed, and then a third, while the crews abandoned their vehicles and ran for the shelters. The THAAD missiles were almost undetectable until they opened fire – they’d been well camouflaged and observed perfect emission security – but now the enemy ships would be reacting to their presence. Colonel Young had seen simulations that suggested that they would be engaged almost at once by the aliens, and others that suggested that they would be left alone…but he’d placed his money on the former. The THAAD launch site was about to become very unhealthy for human life.
    He looked up into the sky as he ran. Space seemed to be glinting with light, not just twinkling stars, but the presence of falling stars and space debris. The blasted remains of fifty years of space exploration and utilisation was falling into the atmosphere and burning up. A particularly large streak of fire tumbled silently towards the ground and he wondered, bitterly, if it was the remains of the International Space Station, before realising that it was in the wrong orbit. The THAAD missiles were fading out as the final missile launched from the truck…and then he found himself facedown on the ground. A thunderous shockwave had knocked him over, smashing him down before he could react, or even realise that they were under attack. It took all of his strength and determination to roll over and check his body, before glancing over at their former positions…
    The aliens hadn’t scored a direct hit on the launchers, but they hadn’t had to score more than a glancing blow with their weapons to destroy the THAAD launchers. The kinetic weapon had blasted all three of the vehicles to atoms; he couldn’t even see any flaming debris, apart from some burning patches on the ground. Their tents and camouflage had been completely destroyed by the alien attack.
    “Call in,” he ordered dryly. The crew had a landline station a kilometre from their position. There was little point in using a cell phone or a radio; the odds were that they would either not work or draw fire themselves. “Jock, report to HQ and tell them what’s happened to us.”
    They’d given it, literally, their best shot…but now they were out of the game.
    He looked up at the twinkling lights in the sky and shivered.

***

    Corporal Nathan Loomis gunned the Humvee’s engines and silently cursed Sergeant Bradbury under his breath. The Sergeant had had it in for him ever since he’d been assigned to the high-security protection detail for Area 51, apparently blaming Loomis for his failure to be assigned to a combat zone. Loomis, who had been trained as a guard for USAF facilities on the ground, didn’t have anything like the kind of influence that Bradbury seemed to believe he possessed; the only thing he had that not all USAF perimeter security staff possessed was a perfect security clearance. Area 51, the legendary research site and test bed for advanced military aircraft and technology, could only be guarded by men possessing enough clearance to gain access to the outer levels of security.
    And, even so, Loomis and his fellows had seen almost nothing of the interior of the base. Despite popular culture, Area 51’s guards and even some of the staff weren't permitted into the interior of the base; they’d been warned, in no uncertain terms, that entering the inner compound without permission could lead to a life sentence in Leavenworth, with no hope of parole. What little he’d seen had been perfectly normal – and boring. He certainly hadn’t seen an alien flying saucer, regardless of what the nuts who kept trying to sneak in believed, and he hadn’t even seen any advanced aircraft. There had been times when he and the remainder of the Company had been confined to their barracks for a few hours, but even that hadn’t been anything unusual. If it hadn’t been for Bradbury, the entire deployment would have been boring; he would almost have welcomed a second deployment to Iraq, just to see some action.
    Bastard, he thought, again. He’d been off-duty when the alien craft had been supposed to arrive – until he’d explained that the real reason why the aliens were coming was because they wanted to pick up their fellows from Area 51, after their flying saucer had crash-landed at Roswell. Bradbury hadn’t appreciated the joke and had ordered him to join the roving guard patrols around the complex for when the aliens arrived and no amount of arguing had been able to sway him. It was true that, with the discovery of a real alien craft, Area 51 had almost been under siege by barking mad loonies convinced that the USAF had a thousand grey alien bodies in the base, but most of them were harmless. The guards merely caught them and, as long as they were only in the outer security zone, escorted them out. A handful had reached the inner security zone, where they were arrested and interrogated. Most of them were just…more persistent than others, but a handful had had suspect connections to outside countries, including the Russians. They would give their right teeth for a look inside Area 51.
    “This is Delta-Seven,” he said, keying his radio. The guards were supposed to check in every twenty minutes, just in case; if they delayed for an extra five minutes, the security alarm sounded and extra guards were deployed to find the missing patrol. It had happened before…and the unlucky patrol, who had often just forgotten to report in, had to buy the beer for a month. Loomis, who was saving up to go on holiday with his girlfriend, had no intention of having to pay the same penalty. “All clear, I repeat…”
    He glanced up, just in time to see the night sky twinkling with a thousand lights. It didn’t look like a peaceful meeting now, but space war. He’d seen asteroids and even the remains of burned-out satellites returning to Earth, but this was different; it was almost like a meteor shower, but worse. The entire sky was ablaze with streaks of light. He started to key his radio again, only to be almost deafened by a burst of static…and then a shockwave picked up the Humvee and tossed it end over end.
    “Fuck,” he breathed, as the vehicle came to a rest, upside down. He’d been in worse accidents, but there was no reason for the accident, was there? They had been driving on flat ground, not on terrain that could cause an accident if not treated properly. “Sound off; everyone all right?”
    “Cole’s dead, sir,” Private Rashid said. The dark-skinned soldier managed to crawl out of the vehicle, pulling the body of his friend with him. A glance revealed the truth; Cole’s neck had been broken by the impact. The other two privates were alive, although shook up by the blast. “Did you get the number of that Abrams we crashed into?”
    Loomis shook his head as he took in the sight to the north. The air base had been attacked, somehow; there was a massive mushroom cloud forming over the base. His basic training reasserted itself and he glanced down at his terminal, relieved to find out that there had been no EMP to disable it, which suggested that the blast hadn’t been nuclear. Speculation on alien weapons had been rampant in the guard force and several of the soldiers had believed that the aliens would deploy asteroids from orbit…and, well as far as Loomis was concerned, it was as good an explanation as any.
    He keyed his radio. “Base, this is Delta-Seven,” he said, as calmly as he could. If the base had been destroyed – and, from their distance, it looked to have been completely destroyed – what the hell did they do? They didn’t have emergency plans to cover the complete destruction of the base. The worst they’d anticipated had been a terrorist attack using a nuke. “This is Delta-Seven; base, come in!”
    There was no reply.

Chapter Eight

    Anyone who clings to the historically untrue – and thoroughly immoral – doctrine that ‘violence never solves anything’ I would advise to conjure up the ghosts of Napoleon Bonaparte and of the Duke of Wellington and let them debate it. The ghost of Hitler could referee, and the jury might well be the Dodo, the Great Auk, and the Passenger Pigeon. Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and freedoms.
    – Starship Troopers

    The aliens, as enigmatic and faceless as ever, escorted their human prisoners down the middle of a long shaft. It could easily have been a corridor or a vertical shaft, Francis realised; the absence of gravity only meant that people could swim through the corridors in any direction. The shaft was as dark and featureless as the aliens, hidden behind their armour, but he could see signs of construction that suggested that the aliens hadn’t bothered with finesse. There were hints of welding scars and maybe even battle damage on the passageway, while the aliens themselves seemed bright and new. There was an uncertain crudity about the entire construction, as if the aliens had decided that ‘good enough’ was better than ‘the best,’ at least for their starships. There was a certain something about it that, somehow, reminded him of Soviet and Russian machines.
    He caught Gary’s eye and watched as the former commander studied the alien technology. Francis would have given his right teeth to share observations with someone who might actually know more than pop science and speculations based on vague recollections of various stories of the space age that had never been, but they didn’t dare take the risk. Even if the aliens didn’t understand English now, they would in time, and then they would play back the recordings of everything the humans said to each other, testing their captives. Resistance was probably futile, but looking at the aliens, it was evident that they were taking no chances. Stark naked, weaponless, defenceless, they were helpless…but the aliens were still treating them as dangerous opponents.
    Bastards, Francis thought, looking up towards one of the aliens. The featureless helm gazed back impassively. He tried to see some hint of the alien’s features under the black mask, but it was hopeless; the alien mask didn’t even show his own reflection. The alien, attached to the floor by obviously magnetic boots, merely gave him another push down the shaft…or perhaps it was along the corridor. It was growing harder to maintain a sense of reality as they were pushed further into the alien spacecraft.
    “That’s an airlock,” Gary said suddenly, as they reached a massive hatch, set into what was now obviously the corridor wall. The airlock looked more like a typical safe door from an old movie about bank robbers, but Gary was almost certainly right. The gunmetal construction had the same crudeness about it as the rest of the ship, but there was no denying that it was actually capable of carrying out its task and keeping the air inside the ship. It opened, automatically, as the small group approached and the aliens escorted them into a small chamber, and then into a second.
    “We’ve docked with a larger ship,” Francis guessed, as they passed through a third chamber. The aliens seemed to have a very practical approach to their space technology; they showed strength in depth, redundancy and over-design. He resolved not to allow the crude appearance of the technology to lure him into a sense of complacency, even though it was more than a little galling; the ISS had looked more advanced than the alien ships, and yet it was the ISS that was flaming debris falling down towards Earth. “I wonder if…”
    The third airlock opened, revealing a much larger chamber, almost large enough to hold an entire squadron of space shuttles. It was almost empty, save only for pieces of wreckage that had, at a guess, come from the ISS…and a line of aliens waiting for them. Most of the aliens wore the same featureless black battle armour – he guessed that they were the guards and soldiers, protecting the leadership – but others…others wore nothing but the bare minimum. He felt sweat prickling out all over his body – the interior of the alien starship was warmer than the desert, definitely – but the sensation was swept away as he came face to face with an unshielded alien. The creature…
    A sense of pure…unreality swept over him, again, as he took in the alien form. The alien was almost disappointing, in a way; it was humanoid…and yet, just looking at it, it was impossible to escape the knowledge that it was alien, that it had grown up under the light of a very different star. It was wearing nothing, but a loincloth and a golden amulet around its neck…and it was hairless. Its skin was an eerie red shade, mottled slightly around the forehead; it’s eyes were dark ovals, darker than the alien helms. It stood slightly taller than Francis himself, but it seemed almost childlike, a child’s body blown up to unrealistic proportions. Just looking at the alien, it was impossible to escape a sense that he was staring at a being that was, somehow, fundamentally wrong.
    A second alien, standing behind the first, took a step forward. This one was shorter and, he had the impression, weaker than the first. It also seemed to have uncovered breasts, although they looked very different to human breasts, and he decided to assume that it was female unless corrected. The male, if male it was, seemed to be in charge, but that said nothing. Human societies might have been based, more often than not, around the principle of female subordination – however expressed – but the aliens might be a matriarchy, instead of a patriarchy. Or, maybe, they were complete sexual equals and the aliens facing them just happened to have a male leader. He looked into the dark eyes, feeling a chill running down his spine when he met the pupil-less eyes, and wondered, grimly, what they were thinking.
    Another of the females stepped forward. “You are welcome onboard our ship,” she said, her voice odd, but not unintelligible. Her English was precise and finely tuned, but with an odd accent that spoke, somehow, of alien worlds. Francis had half-expected to speak to them in English – they’d had plenty of time to listen to human radio signals and several groups down on Earth had transmitted entire dictionaries to them when their starship had been detected – but still, it was a shock. “We will learn from you and you will learn from us.”
    The alien leader, if he was the alien leader, watched impassively. Francis was certain, looking at him, that he was the one who was calling the shots, but how much did that mean? A democracy had its checks and balances built into the system, but a dictatorship had far fewer checks on the leader’s powers…and there was no way to know how the aliens governed themselves. They could be anything from a human society to something so alien that it would make no sense to human observers.
    Francis spoke, finally, his voice soft and weak. “What do you want?”
    “To spread the word,” the alien female said. Francis stared at her. The answer made no sense at all. “We have come a long way to spread the word.”
    Gary drifted forward, slightly. “Why did you attack us?”
    “To establish our superiority and the folly of resistance,” the alien female said. Francis felt more than heard Gary’s gasp of shock. The aliens, far from bringing technology and gifts to Earth, seemed to want conquest. Why? He had thought that there was nothing on Earth that the aliens would want that they couldn’t get from the solar system, or through trade. A single one of the alien ships, offered to the great powers on Earth, would have netted the aliens an astonishing amount of trade goods. “This system will be brought into the word.”
    Francis frowned. “The word?”
    Sophia unbent herself from her crouch. Nakedness had forced her to try to cover herself and the aliens had just pushed her where they wanted her to go. Her voice was shaky and weak, but she managed to speak clearly, perhaps understanding that the aliens wouldn’t understand a frantic human voice.
    “I am the representative of the United Nations of Earth, the Parliament of Humanity,” she said. Francis might have questioned her claim to superiority, but he was more curious about how the aliens would react to the claim. If they had been intercepting human transmissions, they probably had a very weird view of the UN, or, for that matter, anything else. The old jokes about the Fox or CNN generation no longer seemed funny. “If you want to talk to the human race, you must talk to the United Nations, to Earth as a whole…”
    “We will send you to pass on our message to your leaders,” the alien leader said, cutting her off. The male spoke, for the first time, and Francis listened carefully; his voice was darker, more emotional, than the females. “You will convoy our messages to your people so that they might all be saved.”
    Francis blinked. It sounded almost like a religious concept. Humans had conquered in the name of religion before; he couldn’t think of a religion that hadn’t, at one time or another, tried to convert or exterminate its enemies. The Crusades, the Spanish Armada, the Arab-Israeli Wars, the ongoing global Jihad against the secular West…all of them had been fuelled, at least in part, by religion. Had the aliens come all that way just to spark off a new religious war?
    “Saved?” Sophia asked. “Saved from what?”
    “Themselves,” the alien said, flatly.

***

    Philippe, like the remainder of the humans, found the entire concept rather…unbelievable, but he suppressed the suicidal urge to laugh while he listened to the alien leader and Sophia arguing backwards and forwards. It was easy enough to dismiss the alien concept, and yet…there was no denying that the aliens were powerful enough to make their presence felt. He was pretty certain that the spacefaring powers were attacking the aliens in orbit, but the mere fact that they were still alive – and prisoners – suggested that the war wasn't going well. The United States and Russia had the capability to launch attacks on orbital targets, but compared to what the aliens had shown, it was puny. The real question was simple enough; were the aliens telling the truth about their aims?
    He mulled it over as the aliens carefully separated the humans, a pair of guards pulling him through the vast hanger bay and into a smaller connection tube, trying to ignore some of the human protests. Philippe kept himself calm and docile, for the moment; the aliens would probably punish resistance, if they really were religious fanatics. He’d dealt with more than a few human fanatics, but most of them had known – or at least had believed – that France would punish any offence to his person…and, besides, he was more use to them alive. The aliens were far too powerful for the United States to hurt, let alone France…and somehow, he doubted that the French Government would seek recompense for any harm that occurred to him. It was better, by far, to act docile…and seek to profit from the situation, somehow.
    The alien guards finally pulled him into a smaller room. Despite the absence of gravity, it was set out as if it was normally used in a gravity field, with none of the modifications the ISS had had to take advantage of the lack of gravity, which suggested that the aliens would spin up the ship to generate gravity, sooner or later. It didn’t help him now – and it was a good thing that he’d recovered from his bout of space-sickness after a day on the ISS – but it was interesting to note. The aliens were advanced, sure, but they weren't magicians who could generate gravity on tap. Everything they’d shown so far could be explained, or even matched, by human technology. The aliens pushed him over to a table, pushed him down on the table surprisingly gently, and secured him down with straps. Philippe felt, despite himself, panic stirring at the back of his mind; the aliens could do anything to him…
    …Suddenly, all those stories of alien abduction and medical experimentation seemed very real…
    “Remain calm, please,” an alien voice said. He found himself looking up into a featureless alien face. The aliens seemed to have far fewer differences between themselves than a comparable number of humans, although maybe they thought the same of humans; the only thing he could see to distinguish this alien from the other alien females – he was sure that the breasts meant that it was a female – was a tattoo mark on her hairless forehead. Name? Rank badge? Fraternity pledge? Or merely the alien version of ‘mom?’ There was no way to know.
    He caught his breath as the alien moved a set of ominous-looking medical equipment over his naked chest. It would have been easy to speak to the alien in French, to see if she understood, but if not…why give up a possible advantage? Two of the other ambassadors spoke French as well as English and Sophia, he was sure, would have some French herself. He resolved to keep speaking in English until he was with the other humans.
    His voice caught in his throat as he spoke. “What are you going to do to me?”
    The alien didn’t answer at first. “We must know how your race works,” she said, finally. It had the air of a brief answer intended for a child, not a serious answer, accurate and yet entirely useless. There was little point in vivisecting a live human – the odds were that they had recovered bodies from the remains of the ISS and perhaps the American space shuttle – but he doubted it was going to be pleasant. “We must know if we can live on your world safety.”
    “Odd,” he observed. “You’ve started a war against us and you don’t even know if you can live on our world?”
    The device lit up before the alien could answer. She moved it, carefully, over his body, paying careful attention to the implanted plate he had in his forearm, where he’d broken his wrist years ago while showing off to a girl. He couldn’t even remember her name now – she’d married someone from the army, if he recalled correctly – but at the time, impressing her had been much more important than it should have been. The alien spent an hour studying him through her sensors, the medical technology displaying a hologram in front of her of his insides, and then moved on to more invasive procedures.
    “Ouch,” he said, as she started to draw a little blood from his arm. She either hadn’t heard of anaesthetic, or, more probably, she hadn’t wanted to risk an alien drug on a human. God alone knew what an alien painkiller would do to him. A normal blood sample wasn't painful, even though most humans maintained an irrational fear of needles, but the alien either wasn't gentle or simply didn’t have the right tools. It hurt. “Can you stop doing that, please?”
    The alien female ignored him, examining the human blood through a microscope, picking it apart for information. The tests grew more invasive – she probed into each and every one of his orifices – and painful, but he tried to keep the protesting to a minimum. He would have sold his soul for another human in the room, even someone he disliked personally, but he was alone. It was another example, he suspected, of alien paranoia. They didn’t want their prisoners comparing notes.
    Idiots, he thought, eyeing the alien out of the corner of his eyes. They would probably have learned more from what their prisoners said to one another. Instead, they’d separated them, just to keep them meek and helpless. Did they really think that they would break free of the alien guards and attack the crew?
    “You will come with us,” the guards said finally, as the doctor – although that wasn't a title he would have willingly given to the alien medical expert – released him from his straps. The aliens seemed to have plenty of people who understood English. The guard caught his arm as he drifted into the air and pulled him out into the corridor, through a twisting maze marked only by alien writing, which looked like a dyslexic’s attempt at joined-up writing, and propelled him into a small cabin. It was almost empty, with only a sleeping pallet, a small toilet, water tap and a constant flow of air, blown through the ceiling to keep the air in motion. The door closed with enough force to send little shockwaves through the air; it only took a moment to check it and realise that it was locked.
    Trapped, Philippe thought, and wondered what had happened to the others. He hadn’t seen them as the alien guards pulled him through the corridors. They had probably gone through the same examination as he had and then…then what? What did the aliens intended to do with them? Would they be given a message and sent back down to the planet, or would it be worse than that, or…what? Humans had done horrible things to prisoners of war in the past and the aliens might have worse things in store for them.
    The wall lit up and revealed itself to be a display screen, showing an image of Earth taken from space. “You will answer our questions,” an emotionless alien voice said. It seemed to come from everywhere. “You will give us full and complete answers to our questions. Where on your planet do you come from?”
    Philippe sighed and started to answer.

Chapter Nine

    Honour? There ain't no honour in this war. The machine guns killed it. And if the machine-guns didn't, then the artillery did. And if the artillery didn't, then the chlorine gas sure as hell did.
    – Harry Turtledove, Great War: American Front

    Bastards, Joshua Bourjaily thought, as the live feed from the ISS showed the alien starship approaching the station. There’s no one going to profit from this, but NASA.
    A moment later, the alien starship opened fire. Joshua came to his feet, shocked out of his complacency and cynicism by the sudden attack, as the alien weapons started to fire…and the live feed from the ISS cut off sharply. He’d seen something like it before, when watching live feeds from combat zones around the world, and that could only mean that the source of the live feed had been destroyed. The camera had been mounted on Discovery, if he recalled correctly, and the unarmed space shuttle would have been a sitting duck to alien weapons.
    “They…they opened fire,” the talking head said, sounding shocked. The image switched to the live feed from a commercial satellite orbiting near the ISS. The alien starship was breaking up into an entire armada of smaller ships, spreading out from their mothership to attack the planet below. There was a graceful inevitability about the hazy images coming through the network and then the image vanished as the satellite was destroyed. “We seem to have technical problems…”
    “They took out the satellite, you stupid bitch,” Joshua yelled at the screen as it switched back to the talking head. The blonde-haired girl looked stressed out of her mind. “They destroyed the system and you’re calling it technical difficulties…”
    The television fuzzed once and failed. A single line of red writing appeared on the display. NO SIGNAL. Joshua stared at it in disbelief; ever since he had been a child, there had been literally hundreds of channels available to the discriminating viewer, more than anyone could have watched in their entire life. The growing presence of satellite television had only added to the constant barrage of news, entertainment and boredom from the media, but now…now it was dying, fast. He cycled the television through a set of channels and watched as, one by one, other stations vanished off the air. The BBC vanished in the middle of a stunned discourse by a professional astronomer on how the aliens couldn’t possibly be hostile; Al Jazeera flickered into nothingness during a live feed from a ground-based observatory.
    His telephone rang once. When he picked it up, there was nothing, not even a dial tone. On impulse, he pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and examined it, unsurprised to discover that there was no longer any link to the satellite. The modern make of cell phones used satellites rather than ground-based stations…and they were all going to be destroyed. High overhead, the aliens were blasting them out of space…and suddenly Joshua’s horizons shrunk to the four walls of his apartment. He checked the radio quickly and discovered that it was still working, barely.
    “This is an emergency broadcast,” someone said. Despite the static, it didn’t sound like the President or the Governor. Joshua didn’t recognise the voice at all…and yet, it sounded vaguely familiar. “The aliens have opened fire on orbital targets. Remain in your homes. Do not go onto the streets. Do not place yourself in danger…”
    A wash of static echoed through the machine. When it cleared, a different voice could be heard. “We speak now to astronomer David Berkinshaw,” it said. Joshua couldn’t tell if it was male or female. It could have been either. “David, you predicted that the aliens were friendly. How does this tie in with the current state of affairs?”
    “They could have been provoked, somehow,” the astronomer said. Joshua smiled briefly as he heard the stunned disbelief in his voice. Few had considered the possibility of the aliens being hostile, as far as the news media was concerned; they had preferred to focus on how the world would change once the aliens arrived and brought the new millennium. “Science-fiction is full of wars starting by accident. I would ask you all to broadcast messages of peace towards the alien craft…”
    The ground shook, violently. A thin layer of dust shivered down from the ceiling. “My God, they’re attacking,” Joshua gasped, and dived under the table. A moment later, the building shook again and a flare of light spilled up through the window. He pulled himself up and headed for the door, catching his camera in one hand and his recorder in the other, and ran up the stairs. If Austin was under attack, he was in the perfect position to record the images for future distribution. He passed a handful of his neighbours, all looking as stunned as he was, as he ran upstairs, ignoring their shouts to remain down under cover.
    He ran out onto the roof garden and stopped dead. The starry night was ablaze with light. For a moment, he thought he was staring at fireworks, then he realised that there was a battle going on, high above the world. Streaks of light seemed to be flaring through space, rising up to challenge the aliens high above, while the aliens moved in their stately orbits around the planet. He lifted his camera and peered through the zoom function, but he couldn’t see enough to tell who was winning…and then he saw the fires.
    The Austin skyline was marred with towering flames. They came from the direction of the airport and he remembered, with a sudden burst of guilt, that he’d reported on the deployment of a Patriot missile battery to the airport. The aliens had hit the civilian airport – they’d hit civilians – and had he somehow encouraged them to target the men deployed to defend the location? Had he betrayed them to the enemy? Cold logic suggested otherwise…and yet, cold logic wasn't very reassuring, not now. The entire towering furnace had to be the fuel and aircraft going up in flames; what had the aliens done to it to cause such devastation?
    “I should go down to the bank and take out the rest of my savings,” a voice said. Joshua turned suddenly to see Mr Adair from the flat below his. He was watching the conflict in space through a telescope and wincing as more bursts of light sparkled out high above. “They have to give me my money, right?”
    “Right,” Joshua agreed, thoughtfully. He might have joined the father of two girls, both of whom were entering their teens and knew it, but it wasn't as if he had much in the way of money. He’d kept most of what he earned safe in his apartment, where the IRS and other busybodies couldn’t find it. There wasn't enough to make it worth taking special precautions. “I think you’d better get moving fast…”
    Another burst of light, high above, illustrated his point. A moment later, a streak of light appeared from space, racing down towards the planet, striking…somewhere kilometres to the west. He wondered, suddenly, if that was where Fort Hood was located; there was a flash of light in the distance, followed suddenly by a long rumble of thunder. More flashes in the distance caught his eye and he found himself wondering, suddenly, what was under attack. Had the aliens gone after everywhere? Was Austin the last city left on Earth?
    It was silly, he knew, but in the air of unreality surrounding the entire war, it was easy to believe that they were alone in the world.
    “Yeah,” Mr Adair said. “Do you want to come with me?”
    “No, thank you,” Joshua said. Banding together, along with the others in the apartment, probably wasn't a bad idea; one of the permanent inhabitants had even started a neighbourhood watch and encouraged the other residents to stock up on guns, just in case. At the moment, Joshua wondered if he’d been precognitive, or just paranoid. The media had been full of stories about collapsing gun control programs everywhere as the reality of alien contact sank in. “I’ll stay and watch…”
    An hour passed slowly. Shelia, one of the other residents, appeared with a flask of hot soup, which she distributed around to the residents. Joshua hadn’t realised that they’d been joined by five others, including two children, but he was grateful for the soup and for the quiet buzz from the radio one of the others had brought. It was a more powerful model than his own, but despite constant channel sweeps, they heard very little. The static – or, he suspected, the jamming – seemed to be everywhere.
    It cleared, suddenly. “All designated emergency personnel are to report for duty at once,” it said. Again, the voice was almost impossible to recognise under the static, but it sounded like the FEMA manager he’d interviewed once in the wake of a building collapse in the city. “All FEMA volunteers are to report to their local emergency centres; all others are advised to stay inside and off the streets…”
    There was another burst of static. High overhead, he heard the sound of an aircraft, racing towards…what? A wink of light flared up and a streak of flame fell towards the ground, coming down somewhere to the east. This time, the explosion was smaller and he found himself praying that the pilot had managed to eject before the sudden destruction of his aircraft. He hadn’t been a big fan of the military, but watching the death of the aircraft reminded him that they risked their lives so that people like him didn’t have to risk theirs. The pilot, male or female, had deserved better than to die like that…
    “They’ve bombed San Diego,” the radio squawked suddenly. “The death toll is in the millions…the entire harbour has been destroyed!” The voice changed suddenly. “We have an unconfirmed report of an aircraft carrier ablaze and sinking off the Atlantic coast.” It changed again, again and again, each message vague, unconfirmed, and panicky. “The President is dead! My God; they bombed Washington!”
    Joshua gasped and heard the others gasp as well. It had been fashionable to bitch about Washington, to complain about the IRS auditing good Americans, about the FBI wasting time playing politics when they should be protecting American citizens, about fat cats outsourcing businesses to places that didn’t have labour laws, or starting wars in far-off countries for their oil…but…but it was Washington! He hoped – he prayed – that it was a lie, or even a mistake; he didn’t want to face the possibility that it might be real. No one did.
    Shelia came over to him and sat beside him. “If the President is dead, then who takes over?”
    Joshua shuddered. “That would be the Vice President, in theory,” he said. He didn’t think much of the Vice President and knew that others shared that opinion; he’d only been given the role, or so they believed, because he had no embarrassing skeletons in his cupboard. “With all the disruption of communications…God alone knows who’s in charge these days…”
    Another piece of flaming wreckage fell towards Earth. He remembered, with a sudden flash of dark humour, the end of Independence Day. The destruction of the alien mothership had produced the same effect, even though the mothership should have sent enough wreckage crashing down onto the planet to make it completely uninhabitable. More and more streaks of fire were burning up in the atmosphere; he found himself praying that they included alien wreckage, spacecraft destroyed from the ground, or even by the secret orbital defence systems that rumour said had existed for years. A brief flare of yellow-white light, like a bad version of a science-fiction laser, flared for a moment in the darkness, and then faded out. Whatever was happening up there was coming to a close.
    “Damn it, they should be telling us what’s going on,” someone said, in the darkness. “We’re taxpayers, right? We have the right to know what’s happening!”
    “I doubt,” someone else said, “that the government knows what’s happening right now. What are they supposed to tell us?”
    The first man had no answer. “We now have confirmed alien attacks on almost every military and civilian airport within the United States,” the radio said, suddenly. “Alien weapons have struck them from orbit and the death toll is…”
    The voice broke off, again. Joshua listened to the next two reports – and a bout of terrible elevator music – without fully hearing them. High overhead, the fighting seemed to have stopped, but the man with the telescope was reporting that there were still spacecraft moving high overhead. It was tempting to believe that NASA had launched the shuttles and somehow driven the aliens arrive from Earth, but Joshua had listened to enough NASA-bashing over the past three weeks to doubt that the NASA bureaucracy could organise a whorehouse, let alone a coordinated counterattack against alien spacecraft. The situation called for Will Smith, Arnold Schwarzenegger and a patriotic scriptwriter. All three were rather lacking.
    “This is Governor Brogan,” a new voice said. Joshua recognised the man at once. The Republican Governor of Texas might not have been one of his favourite people, but just then he’d have welcomed George Bush, father or son. “The aliens have attacked the planet Earth…”
    “Yeah, tell us something we don’t know,” someone jeered, in the semi-darkness. Dawn was coming, slowly. “You useless…”
    Someone shushed him as the Governor continued. “I have no communication with the Federal Government,” Governor Brogan continued, “so I am declaring a state of emergency on my own authority.” His voice was growing stronger as he continued to speak. “The aliens have hit at least a hundred targets within Texas and, reports suggest, hundreds more within the Continental United States. I ask all civilians to remain calm and remain in your homes. Rioting and looting will be dealt with severely and perpetrators will be arrested and tried under martial law.”
    A voice echoed out in the darkness. “Is that legal?”
    “I don’t know,” Joshua answered. It didn’t sound legal, but he’d had enough experience to know that ‘legal’ was often just a matter of interpretation. The Governor probably couldn’t get away with ordering looters gunned down in the streets, but the police, National Guard and State Defence Force would have very liberal rules of engagement. “At the moment, he could probably get away with anything…”
    “There is no cause for alarm,” the Governor said. There were some laughs from the small group. “So far, we have received no confirmed reports of any cities destroyed, including Washington. I was able to speak, briefly, to a member of my family in Washington and confirm that the city remains intact, although several nearby military facilities have been bombed from orbit. There is no reason to believe that the aliens intend to start bombing cities. Normal services and facilities will resume as soon as possible; the power outrages will be brought to an end as quickly as we can. Please remain calm and remain in your homes.”
    “There’s someone who isn’t listening,” someone said, nodding towards the outskirts of the city. A massive line of cars, vans and trucks was heading away from the city, heading outwards to an uncertain destination. Some of them would have friends in the countryside, others probably intended to camp out somewhere…and still others would have nowhere to go. “I wonder what the Governor will do about them.”
    The radio was silent. Now that it had been brought to his attention, Joshua could hear the sounds of a riot coming from the inner city…and a handful of shots, fired by police or gangsters. It sounded like war had broken out on the streets; a line of police vans drove past the apartment, heading towards the riot. The noise of smashing glass and screams rose up from the distance. He looked over for Mr Adair, hoping to convince him to remain at the apartment and not go to the bank, but he couldn’t see him. His daughters, Sally and Jane, were sitting on one of the chairs, staring up at the sky…but there was no sign of their father. He could only hope that the two girls wouldn’t be orphans by the end of the coming day.
    Joshua stood up, nodded to the handful of others who had remained on the roof, and walked slowly back down to his flat. The door had been left ajar when he had left and it a matter of moments to put the kettle on for a cup of coffee. He’d expected the power to fail completely, but instead there was enough for boiling water; he made himself a cup and sat down in front of the television. Unsurprisingly, it was still useless; he flicked through channel after channel, only to be confronted by static or warning messages. The satellite network was completely gone. Televisions still used ground-based systems as well, but those seemed to be gone as well, either through alien action or the system hadn’t adapted to the disaster very well.
    On impulse, he checked his laptop. He’d connected it to the internet through a landline, so it should still work. His normal connection service was down, but he linked into a secondary network and was relieved to discover that part of the internet still functioned. It wasn't what it had been a day ago – the internet seemed to be missing hundreds, probably thousands, of web pages – but he was at least able to log on. No one seemed to know anything; the more reputable forums merely confirmed what Governor Brogan had said, while the less reputable ones were full of horror stories, including the destruction of Austin. Seeing Joshua was still alive, he paused long enough to debunk that rumour, and then started to write up his own notes. It was possible, barely, that someone out there would be interested.
    It all seemed so petty now.

Chapter Ten

    Never awake me when you have good news to announce, because with good news nothing presses; but when you have bad news, arouse me immediately, for then there is not an instant to be lost.
    – Napoleon

    The United States National Command Centre (Virginia) had been constructed in absolute secrecy and, unlike some other bunkers with the same purpose, had never been revealed or leaked to the media. It was an open question if the Russians, or the Chinese, knew about its existence, but as far as the public knew, it didn’t exist. They would have thought, if they had bothered to think about it at all, that the President had gone to Cheyenne Mountain and the complex there, not somewhere much closer to Washington DC. If the aliens managed to capture and interrogate humans from the ISS or from the ground, they wouldn’t be led directly to the President.
    Colonel Paul James was relieved to see that the President looked much better in the light. He’d been taken quickly, once the fighting had begun, to the complex, but he’d almost been broken by the sheer scale of the attack. He’d had a few hours sleep, a shower and a shave and almost looked human again; Paul wished that he shared that feeling. He’d been up all night trying to collate the data as the United States – and several other nations – fought a war with the aliens, one that they were losing. The aliens were still faceless, their goals and objective still unknown, but they were winning their war. The human capability to fight a war in space, such as it was, had been almost completely destroyed.
    The main briefing room was a combination between a control room, manned by operators with the highest level of security clearance in the United States, and a proper briefing room. A table, at the centre of the room, provided seating for the President, his Cabinet and the handful of senior military officers at the complex, while a large map of the world illuminated one wall, overwhelmed by red icons. The aliens had targeted their projectiles with malice aforethought; they’d hit military bases, docks, bridges, ships and even power stations. Parts of the United States were in darkness, their power suddenly cut down by the alien attack, other parts were almost normal and probably wondering if the alien attack was all a dream. It would take time for the truth to sink in, Paul knew, and by then, it would be too late. If they hadn’t stocked up on food in the past weeks, they might be starving pretty soon. Even at a glance, it was obvious that the global economy had been destroyed overnight.
    “Ladies and Gentlemen,” Colonel Perkins, the commander of the base, said, “the President of the United States.”
    “Please be seated,” the President said. His voice sounded better as well. He waited until Deborah Ivey, Tom Spencer, General Hastings and a couple of unnamed military officers took their seats and then nodded to Paul. “Colonel James, if you would…”
    Paul bit down a smile and began. “As you know, Mr President, last night the alien starship – the lead alien starship – arrived in Earth orbit and attacked,” he said. “The principle target of their attack was apparently the International Space Station, but they have also attacked hundreds of targets within the continental United States and the rest of the world. Every country that was obviously developed, as seen from space, was targeted from orbit, with a very high death toll, both civilian and military. Information is still flowing in, so we may have to revise the estimates, but at the moment we are looking at over ten million dead, worldwide.”
    A small display lit up as he spoke. As he covered each of the items, a pop-up window opened on the display, providing further information. “The military communications network has been seriously disrupted by the loss of all of our satellites, military and civilian, but the landlines have barely been touched. Readiness data on each of our bases is transmitted hourly to the Pentagon and other secure military communications hubs, providing a multiple level of redundancy in case of nuclear attack. At the moment, we can confirm that almost every USAF base, USN harbour and civilian airport within the United States has been destroyed. Army and National Guard bases were attacked as well, but several survived almost untouched, while others were too large to be completely destroyed. Fort Hood, for example, was hit, but most of the base remains intact and usable. That may change, of course.”
    The display changed to show a naval map. “The aliens also hit our ships,” he continued. “Based on incomplete data, we can confirm that every carrier in the world – ours, British, French, Russian, Chinese – was sunk from orbit. We have independent confirmation from an agent in Gibraltar about the Charles de Gaulle and its destruction from orbit; British sources confirm the loss of Invincible and Queen Elizabeth. The other ships were treated on more of a hit-or-miss basis; anything that was clearly capable of launching aircraft was sunk, as was anything that could launch missiles towards targets in Low Earth Orbit, but the remaining fleet was generally ignored. Several hundred civilian ships have been lost as well, but again, the targeting seems almost random.”
    “They don’t care about the seas,” General Hastings growled. “Why should they care about the water when they can land anywhere they damn well please?”
    “Yes, sir,” Paul said. “The damage to our infrastructure has been very severe. So far, we have confirmed that no cities have been destroyed, although a handful of weapons fell within cities and caused considerable damage, but most of the weapons fell outside the cities. Interstate junctions, dams, harbours and power stations were hit, including a handful of nuclear power stations.”
    The President blanched. “Do we now have radioactive clouds drifting over the country?”
    “No, Mr President,” Paul reassured him. “The three nuclear power stations that were hit were all over-designed to ensure that an airliner crashed into them wouldn’t release radiation or nuclear waste. FEMA is working on the plants now, but it looks as if the worst effect so far is multiple power outrages. Entire sections of the country have lost all power, while other sections have fallen back on backups and secondary systems…”
    The President held up a hand. “We can sort out those details later,” he said. At any other time, damage to even a single nuclear power plant, let alone blackouts over a large part of the country, would have been a major disaster. Now, it was just incidental damage, barely worth mentioning. “What happened in orbit? How badly did we hurt them?”
    The display clicked back to the image of the ISS, seconds before the aliens opened fire. “The ISS was apparently hit at least once by an alien weapon and opened to vacuum,” Paul said. “NASA won’t commit itself on the possibility of prisoners being taken, but observers watching from the ground, through the most powerful telescopes we have, report that the smaller alien spacecraft recovered most of the ISS before it fell into the atmosphere. It could be that some of the crew survived and were captured, but we don’t know enough to be sure, one way or the other. There were definitely no survivors from the Discovery; the shuttle was clearly blown into atoms. The final telemetry from the ship confirmed that it went down fighting.”
    “They’re going to get medals,” the President said, firmly.
    “We attacked the aliens quite heavily with the ground-based missiles and laser weapons, as well as laser-armed aircraft,” Paul continued. “Our losses in laser aircraft were total. The download of readings from the aircraft, before they were destroyed, suggest that the aliens targeted them with their own lasers, burning them out of the air. There were no survivors from any of the aircraft. Ground-based missile launchers managed to launch most of their missiles before they were destroyed, but…it’s hard to say just how effective they were.”
    General Hastings coughed. “Give us a rough estimate,” he ordered. “What is the best and worst-case scenario?”
    “We know we took out three of the parasite craft,” Paul said, after a moment. “The Russians attacked heavily with their ground-based missiles, both ABM and ICBM missiles, firing them straight up and detonating them in space. They claim to have killed five more of the alien ships, but the claims are impossible to verify. There are two more that we damaged, we believe, and a third that was subjected to a heavy pounding from the airborne lasers, but again, it’s hard to say for sure. We know they launched upwards of twenty-five parasite craft; at best, we took out ten between us, at worst, only three…”
    “And they’ve killed millions of us,” Tom Spencer said. The Secretary of State looked almost broken by the night. Paul didn’t blame him; if he hadn’t had his duties, knowing what he did, he might have been broken as well. “What the hell do they want?”
    “The Earth,” General Hastings said. He scowled over at Spencer. “You talked about the aliens having to be friendly, but now…now, look what they’re doing to us!”
    “Enough,” the President said. There was an unaccustomed firmness in his tone. “Colonel, what do you believe the aliens will do next?”
    “The analysts here and at other command complexes believe that the attack can only mean one thing,” Paul said. “They’re nothing, but the opening moves of a full-scale invasion of our planet.”
    The President’s face paled. No President, outside impractical fiction, had had to live with the possibility of the United States being invaded. No one had the ability and motive to launch such an attack. The Soviet Union, at best, could have thrown away a few parachute divisions in a suicidal attack on the United States, but what would that have gained them? Mexico or Canada could have marched over the border, but one was friendly and the other was weak…and neither one could mount a significant military challenge. It would be the shortest war on record…and shorter still if anyone else had been insane enough to try. It was a geopolitical reality; barring an all-out nuclear war, the United States could not be attacked significantly on its home ground…
    But the aliens could change all that.
    “They’re coming here?” He asked. “Where do you think they will invade?”
    Paul looked up at the display. It hadn’t been easy to collate all the data, but it all pointed to one thing; the aliens had global ambitions. A handful of smaller countries had been spared, mainly powerless countries like Somalia or Zimbabwe, but almost everywhere else had been struck. Saudi Arabia, Iran, Australia, India, Pakistan, Europe…hell, Europe was much more compressed than the States. The damage had to have been more than just significant. The aliens had gone after everything that could have been a threat to them and plenty more that could never have been more than a minor problem.
    “It’s impossible to tell,” he said. He’d studied the reports, but so far, there was no sign of where the aliens intended to land. They’d bombarded the United States heavily, but they’d done the same to Europe, Russia and China…and they could go after any of them. He’d seen scenarios from a direct landing in Washington DC to a landing on the other side of the world. What would the aliens use to guide them in choosing their landing sites? “If I was commanding their forces, I’d go here, but…”
    He broke off. “There’s no way to know, Mr President,” he admitted. “All we can really do is watch them through the observatories and see what they decide to do.”
    “But they can’t seriously think that they can take on the entire world,” Deborah Ivey said. “There’s six billion humans on this world and plenty of them are soldiers, or armed to the teeth and…”
    “They’re not all concentrated in one place,” General Hastings said. “They’ve sunk too many of our ships. If they landed in Europe, we couldn’t get a force over to help them without getting them sunk on their way, getting them all killed for nothing. It’s a pretty effective form of divide and conquer and if they take out all of the industrial areas of the planet, they can take over the rest later, assuming that invasion and settlement are their motive.”
    “But they could just destroy us,” Spender protested. “Why would they even bother to keep us alive?”
    “Perhaps they want slaves,” Paul said. It didn’t seem very likely; in his view, a civilisation that could cross the stars wouldn’t need slaves, but it might be a status thing. There were plenty of rich men and women in America – and indeed the entire world – that got a kick out of having servants; some of them probably wished that they were back in the days when slavery was legal. “Or maybe they want to integrate with us, but on their terms, or…”
    “And if that’s the case, they must have a plan to deal with the current government,” the President said slowly. “They haven’t attempted to talk to us at all?”
    Paul shook his head. It was the point he found most ominous. The attacks on the planet showed a frightening lack of concern for civilian causalities; he had the nasty feeling that Washington had been spared only because it wasn't a military target, rather than any concern for the preservation of human life. Human rules of engagement might be very different to alien rules of engagement; for all he knew, any human with a weapon was a legitimate target. Humans had come up with a whole mixture of rules of war, some practical, some the work of dreamers…but the aliens might have a whole different attitude. They might regard genocide as a practical and moral solution to a problem, rather than a horrific crime to be avoided at all costs.
    “No, Mr President,” he said. “If they can talk to us, they’re not interested in talking.”
    “Maybe they’re talking to their prisoners,” Spencer said, hopefully. “Ambassador Prachthauser could tell them how to communicate with the government, couldn’t he?”
    “If they’re interested,” Paul said. “They might be being sucked dry of everything they know about us.”
    The President rubbed his eyes. “Major Neilson, tell me about the civilian population? How are they coping with the…war?”
    Neilson, one of the military officers Paul didn’t know, leaned forward. “It’s really too early to tell, Mr President,” he said. “The vast majority of citizens stocked up on food, drink and emergency supplies during the week before the predicted arrival date and should be fine, those who remained in the cities. Hundreds of thousands set out of the cities and are scattered all over the countryside. Civilian morale is hard to measure at the moment, but people are scared; we’ve already had riots in a dozen cities and an upsurge in looting and other crimes. Those who are without electric power are actually taking it worst; there seems to be a belief that the entire country is coming to an end and they’re taking it out on everything. Some lit fires which started to get out of control. The lucky ones with power are coping better, but that might change…”
    He paused. “You have to talk to them, sir,” he added. “The country hasn’t been shocked like this since Pearl Harbour. 9/11 was a pinprick compared to this and…well, there’s a lot of speculation out on the internet, some of it pretty accurate. If they get the idea we’re losing the war…”
    General Hastings fixed him with a look. “That’s another issue, son,” he said, not unkindly. “What about the damaged bases and facilities?”
    “The death toll near the bases and the other targeted facilities was pretty high,” Neilson said. “FEMA reports that the destroyed harbours and dams caused massive flash floods. The survivors are being helped as best as we can, but our resources are badly overstretched and we can’t help everyone.”
    The President’s eyes narrowed. “Are you telling me that we’re going to abandon American citizens?”
    Neilson looked terrified. “No, Mr President,” he said, “but I must caution you that we’re not going to be able to save everyone. We were never allowed to raise a stockpile of disaster recovery equipment in every state and the equipment we do have is often in the wrong place to be helpful. We daren’t launch aircraft, even helicopters, and some of the roads have been bashed up. The response from the locals has been very good, but they don’t have the right equipment, and in some cases they have even tried to refuse to allow us to use it.”
    “Seize it,” Deborah suggested, angrily. “I cannot believe that anyone would be so selfish while the country is under attack. We need that gear, so take it off them and put it to use saving lives!”
    “We have done,” Neilson admitted. “In a few days, we should know just how bad it is all over the United States, but at the moment, the best we can really do is accept the fact that local command has devolved down to the state level or lower and let them get on with it. Once we have a full and accurate report of the state of the nation, we can begin shuttling equipment around the country, although it will be years before we can recover from this.”
    “It’s probably worse everywhere else,” General Hastings said dryly. “I took part in a study of the Russian infrastructure and if the aliens destroyed only a handful of vital points, they’re going to be completely fucked.”
    The President gave him a reproving glance. “We might need the Russians,” he said. Paul knew that he was right. “What are the aliens going to do to take advantage of the chaos they’ve caused?”
    Paul yawned and desperately tried to cover it. “I don’t know,” he said, tiredly. He really needed a few hours sleep and a shower. He probably wouldn’t get them anytime soon. “I think, however, that the choice about what happens next isn’t ours, but theirs. The aliens will decide the next move.”

Chapter Eleven

    I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.
    – Susan B. Anthony

    The massive hanger bay normally carried the spaceplanes that would be used to carry the believers down to the surface of their new world. Now, the craft had been moved back to the rear section of the Guiding Star, allowing the space to be used for the remains of the human space station and the handful of captured satellites. The space station had fallen easily, almost without a shot being fired, and enough of it had been captured to allow the researchers to study the remains. The other researchers would examine the human captives, but for Researcher Femala, there was nothing quite like examining the human technology. It promised to be the most interesting – and productive – line of investigation.
    The space station, after a few cycles of study, had been…puzzling. It hadn’t been hard to locate and identify most of the components and there was nothing really new in its design, but some of the technology was more advanced than she had expected. A race that had a space program was a rarity, as far as they knew, but those that had had a space program had pushed it to the limit. This race seemed to combine advanced computers and technology with a space program that was barely enough to maintain twelve people in orbit. The spacecraft that had, however futilely, opposed them in orbit had been junk, primitive junk…and yet some of the tech she was looking at was more advanced than any she’d seen before. Were it not the foulest blasphemy, she would have wondered if it were more advanced than that of the Takaina.
    Or maybe it’s a gift, she thought, with a certain amount of wry amusement. The Takaina had never encountered a race more advanced than their own, but if they were to locate one, it was well that they had located one that had never bothered to actually use what it had developed. It was a certain sign of carelessness and, perhaps, a warning that the Takaina themselves were falling behind what was expected of them. The human race, given a relatively few cycles of warning, might have been able to really hurt the expedition; she’d watched in horror as several of the parasite vessels had been blown out of space by their weapons. They’d suffered worse, of course, but…
    “Researcher,” a voice said, from behind her. Femala twisted in space to see the High Priest, floating behind her, watching as her people swarmed over the alien wreckage. She twisted her head into the closest one could come to a full genuflection in zero-gravity, wondering why the High Priest had chosen to come talk to her in person. He rarely had anything to do with anyone below the level of a Priest, apart from the military officers. “What can you tell me about our new friends?”
    Femala caught the undertone in his voice and shivered. According to a strict interpretation of the Ways of Takaina, she should have been exiled from her people…which in interstellar space meant certain death when she left the starship without a spacesuit. A sterile female was useless for breeding children and her undoubted competence at science and technology wasn't enough to make up for the fact that she wouldn’t carry new scientists and warriors to term. The High Priest had intervened to save her life…and she still didn’t know why.
    “They’re advanced,” she admitted bluntly. Her special case gave her a certain amount of freedom from the constraints of normal Takaina society. She no longer had a Clan who could be held accountable for her actions. No one could subject her to the informal inter-Clan discipline that kept the majority of society in line. She knew, from her studies of the starship that had carried them to their new world, that such measures were necessary, but that didn’t make them any easier to bear. “Some of their tech is primitive, but the rest is actually as capable as our own, if not more so.”
    “Really?” The High Priest asked, with interest. He, at least, didn’t seem to care about the possible inference that the belief that their status as the most advanced race known in the universe wasn’t divinely ordained. “And yet, they were unable to prevent us from seizing the high ground.”
    “Yes,” Femala agreed. Her position did give her a certain insight into how the higher echelons worked. The High Priest had probably decided that their ordained superiority still held true; after all, the aliens hadn’t bothered to develop their capabilities to the point where they could destroy Guiding Star in flight. That was the real nightmare.
    The High Priest listened as she ran through the handful of discoveries they’d made so far. There was, as she freely admitted, nothing that was new, but much that was surprising. Dozens of alien devices were understandable, but their use was confounding; she couldn’t imagine a use for a device that propelled a stream of hot air, unless it was for localised drying of alien skin. Others were just strange, if understandable; one advanced computer seemed to be useless for anything, as far as they could tell, while another had disintegrated when they’d tried to open it. They hadn’t found anything that was an obvious weapon, but the warriors who’d gone through the space station first had suggested all kinds of possible weapons, based on their experience of drilling in space. A little ingenuity could convert some of the human devices into weapons easily enough…
    “We must proceed,” the High Priest said finally. “You will accompany me.”
    Femala wanted to argue – she didn’t have any special interest in the aliens, apart from their technology – but one didn’t argue with the High Priest, particularly one who’d saved her life. She followed him meekly through the airlock, through the security check, and along the corridors, silently cursing the lack of gravity. Normally, when both sections of Guiding Star were linked together, there would be gravity, but with a planet of hostile aliens below them, the commanders had taken the decision to keep Guiding Star in zero-gee. If they had to alter course quickly, it would save them from accidentally damaging their own ship.
    The handful of alien bodies recovered from the space station, all dead through exposure or suffocation, had been quickly studied and then dissected. Femala watched, dispassionately, as the first alien body was checked, carefully, for any surprises. The Doctor examining the body barely spared her a glance and Femala felt the old hatred bubbling up within her; the doctor could have children, as many children as she wanted, and she had a safe place within society. Femala had none.
    “We can survive on their world,” the Doctor said, ignoring Femala. The High Priest didn’t reprimand her for that. Why should he have? “Their biochemistry is different from ours, obviously, but we should be able to eat some of their foods and grow our own crops on the surface. The subject froze quickly enough to allow us to study the bacteria and viruses running through the body and we believe that the chances of a cross-species infection are extremely low. They may have the same basic body shape, but their interior is very different…”
    Femala listened absently as she droned on. Her attention was taken up by the images coming from the humans in their cells. The Inquisitors would be asking them questions about everything and nothing, carefully comparing the answers to try to detect alien lies, if they decided to tell lies. They’d intercepted literally billions of transmissions from the alien world – they called it Earth, it seemed – but most of them had been completely confusing. Humans seemed to spend a great deal of their time watching other humans doing normal human things…which puzzled the sociologists no end. The best they’d been able to come up with was that they were instructional films to teach younger humans to be adults, but that made no sense at all. A race that needed to be taught so comprehensively, covering every imaginable situation, was a race on the brink of extinction. What sort of race needed instruction on how to mate?
    The human race just didn’t make sense!

***

    Francis had started to lose track of time. The alien cell had remained firmly closed and they’d started questioning him at once. Some of the questions had been simple and easy to understand and he’d spent hours explaining how the United States actually worked, others had been plain confusing. The aliens had displayed an image of Bugs Bunny at one point, followed by Bart Simpson, and had asked him to explain just what they were. It just didn’t make sense!
    Or maybe it does, he thought, as he found himself being gently awakened by the alien voice. They’d let him sleep in brief periods, but without his watch, it was impossible to tell how long he’d been in the hell the aliens had created for him. It felt as if his entire world had shrunk down to the metal cell and the questioning, impersonal voice. They just kept questioning him…and they never made the same mistake twice. He had started to suspect that he was actually talking to a computer, one with a computer’s odd sense of priorities, but again, it was impossible to tell. The whole position was unpleasantly like some of the drills he’d been run through by the State Department, before he'd been sent to London; they’d known that, these days, Ambassadors were hardly respected by anyone. Francis had once supported measured responses, rather than a modern-day version of the Relief of Peking, but now…now, he would have been grateful to see the United States Marines bursting down the metal hatch to rescue him. Hundreds of kilometres from home, cut off from the handful of remaining humans on the ship, it was easy to believe that he’d been abandoned…
    The hatch opening shocked him. The two aliens who stood there beckoned him forward, taking care that he never got between them. Francis found that rather amusing; they’d probably spent most of their lives in zero-gee and they were worried that an out-of-shape ambassador was going to overpower them. Their weapons looked useable, but they might have been keyed to their touch only…and even if he did steal one of the weapons and kill them, where would he go? One man couldn’t overwhelm an entire alien ship unless he was a star in a bad movie.
    They pushed him gently down the corridor into a large room. It was as bare and undecorated as the remainder of the ship, but there was a large porthole set within the wall, open to space. He saw the blue-green globe of Earth orbiting below, caught a sight of the eastern coastline of the United States, and felt a pang of homesickness that was almost painful. There was no sign of anything man-made in orbit now, nothing, but a handful of alien ships, barely visible.
    “Francis,” a voice called. Francis turned to see Gary there. The ISS commander looked as if he’d been through the wringer as well; there was a dark bruise on one side of his face and at least two days worth of stubble on his chin. The aliens were escorting the others into the room; the two girls looked tired, but very relieved to see them. Katy even gave Gary a hug in zero-gee. The Russian and Frenchman looked tired as well; Stanislav was sporting his own bruise, on his chest.
    “Had a little disagreement with the doc,” he said, when Francis looked at it. “The guards struck me and…well, you see.”
    Katy winced. “I have some first aid training,” she said. “Do you want me to take a look at it?”
    “I’ll live,” Stanislav said, firmly. He looked over at the aliens, gathering at one end of the room. “I think our hosts want to tell us something.”
    The alien leader, the one wearing a gold medallion, seemed to drift forward slightly, coming to face the humans. Two other aliens, both female, stayed behind him; the guards watching the humans from their positions. Francis wondered, looking at one of the females, if she had been the doctor who’d examined him; the marking on her forehead was the same.
    “You will be returned to your homeworld,” the alien leader said, his voice echoing in the room. Francis realised, suddenly, that there was almost no airflow in the room at all, something that could be very dangerous in space. Did the aliens even need to breathe? They clearly heard, but where were their ears? The sides of their heads were bare. “You will carry with you our message to your people.”
    Here it comes, Francis thought, dryly. Having sucked their human captives dry, they would proceed to make what use of them they could. Returning them from orbit would be a gesture, but, more than that, it would be a sign that they were prepared to open communications, if only on their terms. They held the more powerful position, he knew, so…well, they could determine their own terms and make others stick to them. How very…human of them.
    “We have come to bring you the Word,” the alien leader said. “Your people will hear the Word and will become one with us, with the Takaina.” Francis felt his heart race suddenly, thinking hard – was that their name? “You will join us in our worship of God.”
    Francis stared at the alien. He’d suspected, but…it was impossible. “You want to convert us all to your religion?”
    “You will accept the Truth,” the alien said. Francis could almost hear the capital letter thudding into place. The aliens were insane…and yet, they had the power to back up their words. “We have come to change your world. We will settle on your planet and bring your people to the Truth, making you like us.”
    “And,” Gary growled, “resistance is futile, right?”
    “Yes,” the alien said, without irony. Francis would have laughed if the situation hadn’t been so deadly dangerous. “You will inform your people that resistance will only result in the death of as many of your people as necessary and considerable destruction being wrecked on your planet. We will not be denied. You do not have the ability to prevent us from imposing order on your world.”
    Francis felt his head spin. “You want us to go home and demand their surrender?”
    “Yes,” the alien said, flatly. “Once we have secured a foothold on your world, we will transport you to the surface and give you a means of communicating with us. You will pass on the message to your leadership. Until then…”
    He gestured. The guards pulled them away.

***

    “They did not want to believe you,” the Inquisitor said, after the humans had been escorted out of the chamber. The humans had probably not been aware of his presence, watching from the sidelines, but he’d been there. Like the High Priest, but for a very different purpose, the Inquisitor’s real name and clan had been stripped from the record, let alone his Chapter. His task, to keep the Takaina themselves in line, could not be influenced by mere politics, or old clan loyalties. The Inquisitors were merciless to their own who failed their tests. “They thought that you had more…mundane purposes.”
    Femala watched, dispassionately, as the High Priest stared towards Earth. She disliked Inquisitors on principle, even though this one was more inclined to accept her continued existence than some of the others she’d met. She was, after all, the most capable researcher they had, even though some of the males showed surprising promise. They wouldn’t get a chance to learn further; as males, their role was either with the warriors, or with the priesthood. It was the females who did the remainder of the work.
    “Their beliefs are of no concern,” the High Priest said. “They are a fragmented race. They have fragmented religions that have had a glimpse of the Truth, but only a glimpse. They have shown themselves unworthy to be anything, but subordinates until they embrace the Truth.”
    The Inquisitor smiled thinly. “And so you intend to proceed?”
    Femala shivered suddenly. The other role of the Inquisitors was to provide a check, the only real check, on the power of the High Priesthood. If this one had reason to believe that the High Priest wasn't living up to his role, he had the right to take corrective action, in any form he felt justified. The impending invasion of Earth meant that the High Priest was going to be under more scrutiny than any High Priest had faced since they had left their last world and headed towards Earth.
    “We have little choice,” the High Priest reminded him, dryly. “We have delayed longer than we should before landing on their world.” He looked over towards Femala and, for a moment, smiled at her, inviting her to share a joke. “Do you oppose the planned landing site?”
    The Inquisitor, scenting the trap, drew back. “Such matters are not within my area of responsibility,” he said, firmly. “I merely…”
    “It is the most powerful and advanced nation on the surface of the enemy planet,” the High Priest said. “In the absence of further data about how their world works, we will attempt to seize a foothold there for rapid expansion and conversion. The other nations on the world’s surface will be unable to interfere in any significant fashion.”
    “And you intend to settle there?”
    Femala watched the High Priest hesitate. The remainder of the colony force was on the second section of the Guiding Star, seven cycles away. Landing them would allow the Takaina to rapidly overwhelm the natives, but not all of them were warriors…and massive losses would be crippling. The humans could be expected to resist settlement of their lands.
    “Perhaps,” the High Priest said. They would have to discover if the foothold occupied an area of local religious significance. “Will you join the landing force?”
    The Inquisitor said nothing.

Chapter Twelve

    In the magazines war seemed romantic and exciting, full of heroics and vitality…I saw instead men…suffering and wishing they were somewhere else.
    – War correspondent Ernie Pyle

    High overhead, the first of the landing craft disengaged from the Guiding Star, slowly falling into a new orbit. Powerful optical sensors scanned their designated landing site, watching for possible threats and picking out targets for further bombardment, before the craft slowed their orbital speed and started to fall towards the planet. Streaks of light accompanied them down, racing ahead to strike at targets on the ground, clearing the way for the landing.
    Inside, warriors and a handful of priests waited nervously for the landing. They were, they knew, almost helpless as long as they were in their craft. The natives of the world below had expended most of their weapons that were capable of reaching orbit, but the lower the landing craft came, the more likely it was that they would enter the engagement range of previously unseen weapons, ones designed to engage aircraft rather than spacecraft. The landing craft were completely beyond their ability to stealth; the heat of their entry into the atmosphere alone would provide a perfect target for enemy fire. Some of them prayed, as soldiers had done throughout history, others just waited for the landing and the coming fight. As the first to set foot on the alien world, they could expect vast estates and fame…if they survived.
    A handful reviewed what little data was known about the aliens. It was a matter of policy that few warriors would know the alien language, but those that did would have to be in the front lines, in hopes of convincing the aliens – the humans – to surrender without a fight. Few believed that would happen. They’d studied their own history extensively and the Truth had been resisted, constantly, by every breed on their homeworld and every other race they’d encountered. The Unification Wars alone had cost millions of lives, even though it had bred a planetary unity and a determination never to risk extinction again. Earth would become another settled world. It had been written.
    And it would be done.

***

    Dawn was breaking as Joshua awoke from his bed and climbed blearily into the shower. Austin had been luckier than some other cities; the power and water supplies had remained on, even four days after the aliens had attacked the planet. The shower wasn't quite as reassuring as it had once been – and it had a nasty habit of suddenly running cold in the middle of a hot downpour – but it was enough to shock him awake. He climbed out of the shower, dressed rapidly in his standard working clothes, and retrieved the gun from under his pillow. It still seemed to be working.
    He scowled down at the weapon and winced. He knew almost nothing about guns. The gun nut who lived on the fifth floor had given it to him, along with a handful of clips, but Joshua had tuned out the lecture on how the gun worked, past the basics. He could take off the safety, fire and reload, but past that…he didn’t even know what type of gun it was. It didn’t give him a feeling of inflated self-esteem, either; he’d almost been disappointed when he’d brandished it for the first time. He wouldn’t have taken the weapon, at all, except for the fact that Austin was clearly a city on the edge; the residents of the apartment had been pushed into banding together to keep themselves alive.
    Coffee, he thought, and staggered out the door and down to the next flat. It had never been occupied, or at least it had never been occupied since Joshua had moved in, and it had become the communal kitchen, despite some dark mutterings about creeping communism. Between the thirty men, women and children who lived in the apartment block, they’d amassed quite a surprising amount of food and equipment, including campfire stoves and other camping gear. If the power failed completely, which Joshua suspected was likely to happen sooner or later, they would be still capable of boiling water and cooking their food. The whole arrangement worked on trust and while Joshua would have scoffed before the war, now he was amazed by how well it was working out.
    As long as the food holds out, he thought, sourly. Sally Adair, who had been appointed official coffee maker, poured him a cup without even being asked. Joshua didn’t know who’d thought of electing a twelve-year-old girl as coffee-maker, but he had to admit that it had been devious; somehow, trying to cajole or steal more coffee out of her was impossible. Their father had been making daily trips to the bank, trying to build up a supply of dollars, but Joshua suspected that it wouldn’t be much use. The President might have restricted withdrawals to three hundred dollars a day, something that would have been unthinkable a month ago, but dollars were becoming less and less useful. In time, Mr Adair might even find himself faced with his cash becoming useless and the other thing he had to trade would be his daughters…
    Joshua shook his head, hoping to banish the image, and took a seat in the corner. Sally got very irritated when people took her coffee mugs away and didn’t return them. The city was slowly being eaten out of food and drink…and when it ran out completely, all hell was going to break loose. A city the size of Austin, which had a population of nearly eight hundred thousand inhabitants, consumed an astonishing amount of food and drink…and while there had been stockpiles, they were being distributed out to the public in hopes of preventing a panic. The Governor had tried to make hording illegal, but as a law, it was about as unenforceable as the laws against copying CDs and putting them on the internet. There had been a couple of cases where the police had met with armed resistance to their plans to distribute some of the larger private stockpiles and the entire city was on edge. The damage to the infrastructure surrounding the city meant that incoming food was going to be reduced…and, when the city dwellers worked that out, there was going to be panic.
    He took another sip of his coffee and shivered. The entire global infrastructure, according to the internet, had been completely knocked down by the aliens. Ships were being sunk, more or less at random…and international banking had been destroyed. America didn’t import much in the way of food – in contrast to Japan, which did and therefore would be on the verge of starvation within a week – but everything else that was imported would be…delayed. Chinese steel, Japanese electronics…everything that came from overseas would now never come, while the internal transport network had been shot to hell. No wonder the Governor had thousands of policemen and National Guardsmen patrolling the city; it wouldn’t be too long until the social order started to collapse completely.
    Sally called over to him as two more people entered the room. “Good coffee?”
    “Yes, thank you,” Joshua replied, placing the cup in the sink and earning a dirty look. It was the work of a moment to clean the cup and place it neatly on the side for someone else to use. He was supposed to be on the guard shift in an hour – so far, no one had tried to break into the apartment, but they all knew that it was just a matter of time – but until then, he had to return to his apartment and start logging into the internet. It wasn't what it had been before the war…but then, what had?
    The thought stayed with him as he walked back to his apartment. America looked the same on the surface, but the entire country had taken a beating. Television was almost completely off the air, apart from a handful of minor channels, and radio was…erratic. Kids had to play with their friends now, rather than watching television all the time, and older children had to grow up fast. Schools and colleges had been cancelled for the moment and most parents were trying to keep their kids off the streets. People were pulling together, with or without help from the feds…but Austin was one of the lucky cities. If the radio or internet was to be believed, Detroit was on the verge of restarting the civil war.
    A roar of thunder passed high overhead. He cringed, remembering, deep inside, the silent skies after 9/11. There hadn’t been any aircraft in the skies since the aliens had arrived – the internet claimed that they were all blasted out of the sky by the aliens from orbit – and the sudden change shocked him. A series of thunderclaps followed, the entire building shaking with their impact, and he felt himself stagger. He heard the sound of smashing china below him, back in the kitchen, but ignored it. He had to get to the roof! The elevator had been marked as untrustworthy since long before the invasion, but he could still take the stairs. He ran up them, passing others coming out of their apartments, half of them holding guns as if they believed the aliens were coming down right on their heads…and burst onto the roof.
    “My God,” he breathed, as the sight struck his eyes. Austin seemed to have been hit several times by the alien weapons – kinetic energy weapons, according to the internet; they didn’t need nukes when they could destroy anything from orbit – but it wasn't that that caught his attention. “They’re landing!”
    A massive set of contrails was burning across the sky. The sight was eerie, almost impossible to grasp, a set of…rockets moving through the air. He scrabbled for the binoculars someone had left on the roof and pulled them to his eyes, wincing as the brightness of the rockets almost blinded him. He’d seen, a long time ago, a movie about the first astronauts returning to Earth, their space capsule overheating as it came down in the atmosphere and what he was seeing now was almost exactly the same. It would be nice to believe that the alien craft had somehow been destroyed and were burning up in the atmosphere, but he couldn’t cling to the delusion. The aliens were landing…somewhere in the direction of San Angelo.
    They’re insane, he thought, his ears echoing with the sound of their passage. They might be hundreds of kilometres above the Earth, but he could still hear them…and the thunderclaps of their KEWs impacting around the city. The Patriot missile batteries that had survived the first exchange of fire wouldn’t survive this one; as he watched, a flare of white light flashed up in the city, followed by a thunderous explosion. Windows were shattering all over the city. He didn’t want to think about the number of people who had been hurt in the invasion.
    “We’ll eat them alive,” the gun nut said, with heavy satisfaction. He was toting a long rifle-like weapon that somehow managed to look completely terrifying. Joshua wouldn’t have bet against it being an illegal military-grade sniper rifle. “If they’re on the ground, they can be killed, right?”
    Joshua shrugged. The closest he’d been to Iraq had been Florida, but he’d read enough about the insurgency against American forces to know that fighting the aliens was going to be bloody, very bloody. The aliens might have their own way of fighting insurgencies…or maybe they would force the Texans to turn Austin into a post-modern version of Stalingrad.
    He smiled suddenly. If nothing else, he was going to get one hell of a story.

***

    The enemy attempts to engage the landing craft hadn’t been entirely unsuccessful. A handful of the smaller, expendable craft had been hit with ABM warheads and destroyed, the stresses of their sudden course change tearing them apart. Two of the larger landing craft had rocked as warheads detonated under their heat shields, but the shields were strong enough to absorb the blow without significant damage. Retro-rockets fired madly to slow the descent, trying to ensure that the craft landed without emulating a KEW and causing massive damage – while incidentally keeping the crew and warriors alive.
    An alien town seemed to spin up at them and they came down, hard. Shockwaves ran through the entire fleet of landing craft, but the warriors had braced themselves for the impact and were unhurt. Rapidly, knowing that they might be coming under fire at any moment, they ran for their escape hatches and vehicles, spilling out onto the new world they had come to conquer. One way or the other, there was no way back to the Guiding Star, not unless they secured a safe landing site for the spaceplanes. The landing craft could never return to space.

***

    “Dear holy shit.”
    Sergeant Oliver Pataki stared in disbelief as the small unit made its way towards the alien landing site. They’d been on a patrol of the area, just to check up on the thousands of refugees who’d fled the city and to locate possible deployment areas for Third Corps when the aliens had started to land. They’d had to seek shelter as the aliens had landed, the noise of their landing had been deafening, even at their distance, but now they were heading towards the alien positions. The higher-ups back at Fort Hood would need intelligence just to decide on a response.
    Fort Hood was huge. The aliens had hit it, but they hadn’t actually done much damage…although they had killed several hundred men. If the remains of Third Corps could get into position to engage the enemy before they were deployed, the human race would win the first engagement with the aliens on the ground. Pataki knew, however, that that wasn't going to be easy. Part of the platoon’s duties had been to check up on the damage to the roads and transportation network and they’d discovered that the aliens had blown the shit out of it. He didn’t fancy driving a few hundred Abrams tanks towards the aliens, not when the aliens would see them coming from orbit…and would probably drop a hammer on them. He’d listened to the briefings on possible enemy weapons with great care; some of them had been outrageously impossible, but others were all too practical. The crater back at Fort Hood provided all the proof of that that he could possibly want.
    The massive column of towering flames reached into the sky. It seemed to be completely uncontrollable and he found himself wondering if the aliens had suffered a terrible disaster and had crashed into the ground. It wouldn’t have been that impossible – he was fairly sure that the aliens weren't magicians, even if they could do things that humans couldn’t do – but somehow he doubted it. They wouldn’t have set out to invade a planet unless they were sure that they could actually land on it.
    “Scott, stay behind,” he ordered, tersely. If they reached the top of that hill, they should have a good vantage point for staring down at the alien activities. Unless he missed his guess, the aliens had actually come down, intentionally or otherwise, on top of a small town. The population…he hoped they’d all fled, but if they’d been caught in the open. “If something happens to us, haul ass out of here.”
    “Sergeant,” Scott said, tersely. Pataki could see the disappointment in his eyes, but someone had to remain to watch from a distance. “Good luck.”
    Pataki led the quick march up the hill. It was only a handful of minutes before they reached the top – it wasn't a very high hill – and they gazed cautiously down onto a scene from nightmares. The entire town seemed to be on fire, with human bodies scattered everywhere…and alien craft seemed to be distributing their troops. He pulled his binoculars to his eyes and stared down at the massive craft. They looked to be giant conical ships, each one the size of a major warship…and hundreds of aliens and their vehicles were spilling out of them. He watched, hypnotized, as the first marching group of aliens advanced out of the town.
    They weren't human. Standing still, wrapped in black body armour that concealed everything, it was easy to mistake them for humans, but as they moved, they bent and flexed in ways impossible for a human. They seemed almost to be made out of stiff jelly, each one moving almost like a shimmering mass, but yet…they marched perfectly in time. Pataki forced down the growing sense of unreality, remembering an encounter, long ago, with a humanoid android he’d seen at a science-fair, and forced himself to concentrate on the aliens. There seemed to be hundreds of them, maybe thousands, maybe more! They’d certainly gotten there the first with the most!
    He wished, suddenly, that he had a nuke. A single nuke would have killed them all and put an end to their invasion of the planet. He watched as they set up machines around their landing site, some of them obviously designed to defend against aerial attacks, while others advanced out to secure an expanding perimeter. Large alien tanks – they had to be tanks – hummed up towards their position, riding on cushions of air. The hover tanks seemed unbothered by any kind of terrain.
    Duty reasserted itself and he lifted his radio to his mouth. He could only hope that the alien jamming wouldn’t affect the signal. Fort Hood had to know what was going on and what the aliens were doing, whatever the risk. He composed a brief message and spoke, quickly, as the aliens headed around the hill and onwards to conquer the virgin land. He knew that they weren't unstoppable, but from their position, they looked as if they had already won.
    No, he thought, as he repeated his signal. They haven’t won yet.

Chapter Thirteen

    Get there first with the most men.
    – Nathan Bedford Forrest

    The President had been working on some of the plans for reconstructing the country when Colonel Paul James burst in and disturbed him. It had astonished Paul how much and how little the President actually did; before he’d started to work with the President closely, he’d imagined the President as having his hand in almost everything. Instead, the President and his Cabinet set policy and left actually carrying out the policy to lower levels, something that had caused more than its fair share of problems in its time. The US had had several President who hadn’t been quite as black as they’d been painted, but had taken the blame for not micro-managing everything, despite the fact that that was impossible. The United States was the most complex nation on the Earth and micro-managing everything would have been impossible.
    “Mr President,” he said, grimly. “There’s an invasion!”
    The President blanched. That had been pretty much Paul’s reaction when the first reports had started to come in from Fort Hood of the alien landings. He'd known that he might be faced with the possibility of an alien invasion one day, but the President hadn’t known…and if he’d thought about it at all before the alien mothership had been detected, he would have dismissed it as science-fiction. America was almost impossible to invade and impossible to invade successfully…until now. The aliens might change all the rules.
    “I see,” the President said, finally. He still looked stunned, but at least he was reacting. “Where are they landing?”
    “Texas,” Paul said. He was tempted to make a redneck joke, but there wasn't time; besides, Texas had been one of the states that the President had lost during the election. “Sir, they’re landing in force. You have to come to the Situation Room, now…”
    There was a new air of urgency in the situation room when they arrived. The operators were even busier than they’d been during the first attacks, trying to pull information out of the airwaves and the internet. The aliens had wiped out the satellites, but large parts of the military communications network remained intact, enough to allow them to rebuild their communications, given time. Communications outside the United States were still fragmentary, but inside the United States, they worked almost as normal. It wasn't as reassuring as it should have been.
    The main display had been focused entirely on Texas. Paul had been surprised to discover that it could cope with an invasion of the United States at all, but it was just a simple matter of programming. There were hundreds of new KEW strikes all over Texas – and the surrounding states – but also three areas on the map, completely shaded in red. The alien landings had been detected, easily, but interdicting them had proven impossible. If some of the estimates were to be believed, the aliens might have landed a million tons or more of material…
    But it wasn’t going to be an easy conquest. Paul had once taken part in an exercise that had been based around an invasion of America. The conclusion had been that it would take upwards of six million soldiers and very unpleasant rules of engagement to succeed in invading the United States; if nothing else, most of the adults in Texas would have a gun. People had been buying them madly in the weeks since the announcement of alien contact. They could make life very unpleasant for the aliens…but what methods would the aliens use to maintain control?
    “I spoke to General Ridgley briefly,” General Hastings was saying. “Third Corps is attempting to get organised to mount a counterattack, but it’s not going to be easy. The aliens are spreading out rapidly and anything of ours they detect gets smashed from orbit. Fort Hood isn’t crippled, but anything that transmits a radio signal of any kind gets smashed, so we’re losing our ability to maintain tactical control.”
    The President stared desperately at him. “But there will be resistance, right?”
    “Of course,” General Hastings said. Paul could hear the grim resolution in his voice, the professional military man unwilling to admit that his country could be beaten. “The National Guard, militias, people with guns…but a lot of it is going to be uncoordinated. We need to get organised and get a heavy force in there and that’s not going to be easy. It’s the old problem; who gets there the first with the most wins, and our ability to reinforce has been curtailed.”
    “Send them in at night,” Paul suggested, suddenly. “Failing that, wait for heavy cloud cover and then attack their positions.”
    “In Texas?” General Hastings asked, dryly. “We barely know what’s happening. God along knows what’s happening in the red zone, under the fog of war. We can’t peer down from orbit any more, can we?”
    “Have your people do what they can,” the President said. He sounded almost broken. No American President, with the possible exception of Lincoln, had presided over so much destruction. The country he loved was getting torn apart. “We have to do what we can to help the Texans. They’re Americans too…”

***

    Captain Felicia Argyris winced as the Warthog flew low over the ground. Normally, she would have a wingman coming up behind her and other American aircraft in the air, but most of the bases in Texas had been hit – badly – from orbit. Her A-10 Warthog had only survived because it had been placed in a warehouse and concealed from orbit, along with a handful of other planes. Flying with the aliens in such complete control of space was almost suicide, but Felicia was determined to hit back at them at least once before she was grounded permanently. The odds were that some hotshot male pilot who’d used to fly F-22s would try to claim her Warthog…and the fighter pilot mafia would ensure that he succeeded.
    She could see the towering pillars of smoke rising up in the distance as she raced towards the alien landing zones. The last report had said that at least a dozen alien cone-shaped craft had landed in Texas and that they were deploying their ground forces rapidly, securing their landing sites and ensuring that humans didn’t get to go near them. Third Corps would engage as soon as possible – she found herself praying for them; her brothers were both deployed as part of Third Corps – but until then, they had to be delayed, somehow. That meant that she had to fly into harm’s way, again, and hurt them as much as she could.
    It was strange, flying without a GPS or radio chatter, but there was no choice. A radio signal meant certain death around the aliens. The last reports had been that anything transmitting a signal had been hit, a list that had included cell phone masts and pirate radio stations, all of which had been destroyed. She’d also been warned to keep active emissions to a minimum, so she had no terrain-following radar or IFF transmitter. It would be ironic, after everything, if she was blown out of the sky by her own side, but it was a risk she had to take. She wasn't going to give up without a fight.
    “Warning,” the onboard computer said, suddenly. She’d selected a male voice, a whimsy from friendlier times. She’d used to joke about a man who always did what he was told, but it didn’t seem so funny now. “Hostile transmissions detected.”
    Felicia glanced down briefly at the display. The aliens were using a more sophisticated system than she’d anticipated, but she’d trained to operate in far more hostile environments. Judging from the deployment of their air-search radars and even from some of their radio transmissions, they were heading for the interstate that would lead them directly to Austin. That had been anticipated; unless they had some magical form of antigravity, they would need the interstates – or what was left of them – to move their own people around. She flew low over a crowd of refugees, people struggling to get away from the aliens…and then, as she approached the interstate, she saw them.
    For a chilling moment, she thought that they were human vehicles…and then she realised that the tanks had no tracks. They hovered, a third of a metre off the ground, advancing at terrifying speed towards Austin. They didn’t seem to have encountered any resistance, so far; they were just racing onwards. Burning human cars blocked their way, but they seemed to be capable of evading them, their hovering forms gliding over the cars, or avoiding them. Suddenly, with shocking speed, the aliens turned towards her, the dark barrels of their weapons pointing up towards her aircraft.
    She flipped up the protective cover for the trigger and pushed the trigger down as hard as she could. The Warthog’s heavy Gatling gun thundered out and a pair of alien tanks exploded into balls of fire. She threw the Warthog into an evasive pattern as a third alien vehicle drew a bead on her and a streak of…something flashed just past her wing. The Warthog was a tough bird, but somehow she doubted that she’d be flying home if one of the alien weapons struck her. She twisted through the air, locked on to a second group of alien vehicles and selected a pair of cluster bombs. A satisfying series of explosions billowed up below her as she turned her aircraft and…
    The laser beam struck the underside of the Warthog and started to burn through the armour. Felicia had only a second to realise that there was a problem and by then, it was too late. The laser burned through the aircraft and send the remains crashing to Earth, smashing down into the ground. Behind her, the aliens recovered and continued onwards towards Austin.

***

    “It’s confirmed, sir,” the aide said. There was a grim helpless note in his voice. The United States was not used to defeat. “We got distress sequels from all of the Warthogs.”
    General Ridgley winced. Normally, he would be commanding from a bunker, rather than a heavily camouflaged command vehicle. He’d had to send the Warthogs into the fray, in hopes of delaying the aliens and obtaining intelligence on their deployments, but they’d all been burned out of the air. The UAVs and even the handful of supersonic fighters he’d risked had suffered the same fate; the aliens, it seemed, were really determined to keep the human race out of the air.
    “Send a runner down to the camp,” he ordered shortly. He'd grown up in a world where intelligence would arrive almost at once, where he could command his forces from half a world away…but that world was gone. If they sent a single radio signal, the aliens would smash them from orbit, probably without ever knowing what they had done. They were dependent, now, on runners, either on foot or using motorbikes. Without them, he would be completely cut off from the rest of his force. The field telephones weren’t working very well. “Tell them that we’ll meet them outside Austin.”
    The map looked barely changed. The fragmentary reports weren't enough to build up a real picture of what was happening. Fort Hood had been hit hard enough to destroy its communications systems and he no longer had much in the way of communication with the other forces scattered around the area. The aliens were likely to defeat them all individually, one by one, and prevent them from concentrating against was through orbital bombardment. The only clue they had as to the alien locations were through the work of a signals and intelligence unit, which was tracking the sources of alien transmissions, even if they couldn’t read them. It wasn't enough. He didn’t know what was going on…and that meant that command had devolved down the ranks.
    He hoped that they’d be up to the task.

***

    The torrent of aliens seemed never-ending. Sergeant Oliver Pataki had given up trying to estimate how many aliens there actually were in their conical spacecraft; he’d counted over two thousand so far, and at least a hundred vehicles. Their hovering tanks and smaller vehicles, which he suspected were their form of IFV, seemed to move faster than comparable human vehicles…and that would give them an advantage. The countryside seemed to be burning everywhere; he could see plumes of smoke rising up in all directions. It didn’t look good for the human race.
    He was mildly surprised that the aliens hadn’t detected their signals by now, but it was possible that they were simply ignoring them…or maybe, given how close they were to the alien landing site, they were reluctant to risk bombing them from orbit. The aliens hadn’t attempted to come up the hill yet, but once they did, the four soldiers intended to give them a hot welcome. He checked his M16 for the umpteenth time as yet another alien force advanced into the distance, heading towards the fires. Now that the alien craft had landed, he could hear the sounds of shooting in the distance, human weapons…and a deep booming sound that seemed somehow unearthly.
    At least they don’t have handheld lasers, he thought, with a sudden burst of amusement. The alien weapons, as far as they could tell from their vantage point, were projectile weapons, although they looked nastier than some human weapons. He might have been imagining it – it was hard to tell at their distance – but there seemed to be a certain crudeness to their design, although that didn’t mean that they were useless. The AK-47 was an example of a crude approach…and no one would have called it a bad weapon, or even a useless piece of junk, not like some of the ideas that the scientists sold to the Pentagon that didn’t work in the field. The aliens seemed to prize the simple approach to technology; he’d seen nothing, so far, that he couldn’t understand, although human hovercraft technology was inferior to alien tech. He wished that he had some antitank mines he could test against the alien vehicles; he had a nasty feeling that some of the more basic mines wouldn’t be triggered by the alien hovercraft.
    “Sir,” one of his men said. Pataki followed his finger and saw an alien aircraft take to the air. It looked like a drone to him, something comparable to the Predator recon drone, but as it flew, he saw that it carried bombs under its wings as well. Predators had been armed for years, but he hadn’t viewed them as a serious threat against a well-planned air defence system…but the aliens had shattered the American defences.
    “I see it,” he said. There was nothing for it. They’d have to make another radio transmission. The system recorded the message and then transmitted it in one compressed burst, but he suspected that the aliens could detect microburst transmissions. They’d certainly proven themselves adapt at tracking other radio transmissions. “Recording…”
    Having decided to take the risk, it was easy enough to make a complete report of everything they’d seen, including their count of alien tanks and other vehicles, as well as the aliens expanding their control over the landing site. They’d taken over a field and started to string up some kind of wire around it, something that reminded him of a holding pen for prisoners, although he doubted that they intended to capture the entire population of Texas. It was a good sign, in a way; it proved that they were taking prisoners. He completed the report and transmitted it…and then saw the aliens altering course. A group of them, marching on their strange legs, were heading up the hill.
    “I saw them,” he said. They’d taken up as good a defensive position as possible, but he was certain that the aliens wouldn’t allow them to escape, not when they could surround the hill and intercept any attempt at fight. That left fighting or surrendering and he didn’t want to surrender, not when the aliens might have killed them all on sight. “Take aim…”
    He levelled his M16 at an alien head, hidden behind a black helm, and his trigger finger tightened on the trigger. “Fire,” he snapped. Four shots rang out as one; four aliens tumbled to the ground. Their heads seemed to explode as the bullets passed through them, a sight that caused him to blink with disbelief; outside the movies, it wasn't that easy to literally shatter a person’s skull with a bullet. “Hit them again…”
    An answering burst of fire flashed back at them. The sounds of the alien weapons were definitely different, but they seemed to work on similar principles; Pataki pulled a grenade off his belt, unhooked it and tossed it down towards the aliens. The explosion seemed to shake the ground; in its wake, he heard inhuman sounds of pain. They sounded like a trio of sea lions, or seals, howling their pain and outrage…and then an enemy grenade came over into their position. Pataki threw himself away from the weapon, watching in horror as one of his men tried to cover it with his body and was blown to bits when the grenade exploded. A second grenade, much closer, stunned him long enough for the aliens to break into their position; dazed, he realised in a moment of clarity that he’d lost his weapon. They peered down at him, their faces hidden behind their dark masks, and then pulled him to his feet. His body ached dreadfully, but they didn’t seem to notice, or care.
    A buzz from one of the alien suits caught his attention. “You are our prisoner,” it said. “Do not attempt to resist.”
    The aliens searched him quickly, and then marched him off towards their prison camp. He watched, helplessly, as thousands more aliens spilled out of their ships and headed towards the human cities, burning in the distance. One way or the other, he was out of the fight.
    He could only hope that the rest of Third Corps was having better luck.

Chapter Fourteen

    In peace or in war I have stood by thy side,
    My country, for thee I have lived, would have died!
    – Davy Crockett

    The men and women of the Texas National Guard hadn’t seriously expected to have to fight an alien invasion. The 36th Infantry Division – also known as the Fighting 36th – had been deployed to strategic locations, but there had been an air of unreality about the entire proceedings. The aliens wouldn’t be landing at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, would they?
    Captain Tom Wallis peered through the tank’s optical sensors and bite down a curse. They’d been wrong about the aliens being friendly and he and his tank were right in their path, along with the remains of what should have been a heavy BCT, attached to their unit at short notice. The idea had probably looked good to some staff weenie back in the Pentagon, but it had been pure hell for the tankers, many of whom had died when the aliens opened fire with KEW weapons on anything they saw from orbit. Several dozen Abrams and Bradley vehicles had met certain death when the aliens saw them, although they had sometimes ignored other vehicles on their own. They couldn’t have an unlimited supply of projectiles, after all, and expanding them all on individual tanks wouldn’t be cost-effective.
    Or at least he hoped so. He’d managed to get the four tanks remaining in the platoon into the large warehouses by the side of the interstate. The latest reports, garbled over the radio – and rapidly silenced – or through the telephone lines and often out of date, had warned that the aliens had broken onto the interstate and started to advance down towards Austin. They were apparently blowing hell out of the civilian vehicles along the way and meeting some resistance from gun-owners in their path. Wallis doubted that the civilians would be able to do more than irritate the aliens, not unless they had some antitank missiles hidden in their cars, but they might slow the aliens down long enough for the National Guard to get organised. They might not be able to defeat the aliens in the field, but a fight in Austin would chew the aliens to bits, as long as they had enough time to prepare.
    He scowled down at his watch as he peered into the distance, noting the rising columns of smoke and flashes of light, all coming closer. He’d been a tanker in Iraq and he recalled how Saddam had made the Iraqis switch their defences to the north, apparently under the delusion that the Coalition was about to make a new thrust out of Turkey. It had revealed the position of far too many Iraqi soldiers, who had paid for their leadership’s mistakes with their lives…and it was exactly what the aliens had done to America. Significant amounts of firepower, enough to stall or even defeat the aliens, was wandering around, trying to get back in touch with headquarters, or even other units. Between the jamming, the smashing of any radio transmitter and the complete control of the air, the aliens held all the cards. They were probably anticipating an easy mopping up operation.
    Not fucking likely, he thought, as he stared into the distance. Four Abrams mounted a significant amount of firepower in their own right and there was an entire company of infantry, many of whom lived in Austin, providing support. The aliens would probably react at once when they opened fire, but even so, he expected that they would get at least three shots off before the aliens could hit them, assuming they stayed where they were. That would be suicide…and so he intended to move as soon as they opened fire. The only problem was that they hadn’t had time to exercise properly…
    A green flare flashed up in the distance. He tensed, even as he muttered a quick command to the runner, sitting by the tank. The spotter had been ordered to fire the flare once the aliens came into view and then make himself scarce, hopefully finding a way out of the occupied zone and back to a military unit. Fort Hood was large enough to be extremely difficult to cleanse of human life…or, with a little luck, he might even make it to Louisiana or Oklahoma, if he didn’t find any other military units in Texas. Wallis prayed under his breath as the first of the alien tanks came in to view, heading right towards their position.
    It was the first time he’d seen an alien vehicle and he drank the sight in greedily, hunting for weaknesses. The alien tank looked crude, but tough, tough enough, perhaps, to take a high explosive round and survive. That wasn't too surprising – the Abrams tanks were capable of taking one hell of a beating and remaining functional – but he’d loaded his guns with armour-piercing rounds. They were supposed to be capable of destroying any tank on Earth; they’d even been field-tested on other Abrams and other tanks. No one knew what they would do to the alien tanks; one of the other spotters was tasked with nothing more than watching the entire engagement from a safe distance – if there was such a thing – and reporting back to brigade HQ.
    It’s hovering, he thought, with a flicker of envy. They’d been talking about hovering tanks for years, but as he knew, they remained firmly in science-fiction, rather than real life. It certainly didn’t leave the same trail of wreckage that a normal tank would leave behind on the interstate and it simply hovered over smaller obstacles. It was lucky that most of the civilians had simply abandoned their vehicles and fled; he didn’t want to see a massacre, not when he had to prepare as best as he could for the ambush.
    “Take aim,” he ordered, watching the targeting display carefully. He’d assigned targets before seeing the aliens and it was a relief to see that his orders would hold. If the aliens had done something else, two or more tanks might have gone for the same target. That would have left at least one enemy tank completely unengaged. “Any sign of air support?”
    “No, sir,” the observer called, from his position outside the tank. “They’re on their own.”
    “Probably think they don’t need it,” Wallis said, and grinned. It didn’t matter how deadly the KEWs were; it would still take time for them to call in a strike on his position, and by then he would have moved. He wondered what the aliens thought of it; he would have given his teeth for a Warthog or a B52 high overhead, providing cover to the tankers. “Prepare to fire…”
    He peered at the oncoming form of the alien tank for a long moment. “Fire!”
    The Abrams shook as it fired, the sound of the shot deafening, even through the tank’s armour. He’d ordered the crewmen outside to wear their ear-protectors, but if they’d slipped up even slightly, they’d have been deafened. There wasn't time to worry about them; he barked orders and the tank’s turret hurriedly traversed to the next target, barking out a second shot towards the alien vehicle. The first shell, he saw with some relief, had blown right through the alien vehicle and left it in flaming wreckage, the second had had a similar result. Their tank, he saw with a burst of emotion that surprised him, were far from invincible. Between them, nine alien tanks were in ruins…
    “Move us,” he ordered. The driver didn’t have to be told twice; he gunned the engine and the tank rocketed backwards, out of the rear entrance of the warehouse. They’d be visible from orbit now, but there was no helping that, not now; a moment after they’d vacated the warehouse, a thunderous explosion shook the entire complex and sent the warehouse up in flames. “Get us to the second firing position!”
    An echoing sound announced the arrival of return fire. The aliens were firing into all of the warehouses, not just the ones occupied by the tanks, and shattering explosions blew through the complex. Warehouse after warehouse was wiped out, destroying two of the Abrams along with them, destroyed before their crews could escape. His vehicle rocked and shook as it reached the next firing position, where he could see the aliens tanks ripping apart the complex and, behind them, alien infantrymen dismounting from their armoured fighting vehicles. They probably intended to storm whatever remained of the complex and deal with the human survivors before they could escape to fight again. They had to be…delayed.
    “Fire,” he snapped. They had to act quickly before the aliens saw them. “Fire at will!”
    The Abrams fired twice in quick succession while the driver put the vehicle through a spinning series of manoeuvres. It wasn't quick enough. An alien missile, fired from an invisible drone a kilometre above the tank, blew through the turret and roasted the crew alive. The alien infantry pushed through the National Guardsmen and engaged them in brutal fighting, before sealing the complex off and pushing onwards towards Austin.

***

    “This is the emergency broadcast system,” the voice said. Coming from a pair of old laptop speakers, it was somehow tinny and almost inaudible. The power supply had fallen to almost nothing and the laptop – and the entire apartment – was running on batteries. They had never thought of a portable generator. “Austin is under attack.”
    “No shit,” Joshua growled. It had been increasingly obvious, as they’d watched from the roof, that the city was on the verge of coming under assault. It was clever of Governor Brogan and his staff to think of using streaming internet radio for their transmission, but the entire network in Austin was on the verge of failing. Joshua suspected that between the alien bombardment and human incompetence, the national communications system was about to fall apart. It hadn’t been designed with this sort of mistreatment in mind. “Tell us something we don’t know, you fat pig!”
    Governor Brogan kept talking. “I do not know what will become of us under alien rule, but I urge every citizen to remain calm and refrain from rash acts,” he continued. “Our attempts to signal the aliens have met with no response, but they cannot want to slaughter us all. I hope – I believe – that peaceful co-existence is possible.”
    He sounds like a broken man, Joshua thought, feeling an unexpected burst of sympathy for the Governor. He had never respected the man before the invasion had begun, but now…what would he do now? He’s watching his entire state being dismantled in front of his eyes. Does he want to surrender?
    “Please remain calm and obey their instructions,” the governor said, his voice now weaker than ever. “Please don’t attempt to resist them…”
    “Turn it off,” the gun nut snapped. “They’re not going to sell us out to them!”
    “Be reasonable,” Mr Adair said, grimly. “What are you going to do against the aliens with your hunting rifle? There’s an entire army out there.”
    There was another burst of firing in the distance. This burst seemed to go on forever, a horrendous mixture of weapons and explosions. He couldn’t tell, even, the direction of the shooting; it all seemed to have blended into one catastrophic whole. Three massive explosions, each one larger than the last, shook the walls and sent dust tumbling down from the ceiling. They’d taped over the windows, remembering that that had worked back in London, during the Blitz, but the sound was just getting closer. The weapons had to have fallen within a kilometre of their position…
    “I’m going to join the militia,” the gun nut said, and slipped out of the room before anyone could object.
    Joshua watched him go. The militia had been organised, quickly, to back up the defenders of the city…and, looking at them, he suspected that they would be more dangerous to themselves than the enemy. Some of them had military experience, but others merely shot at ranges, if they shot at all. The reservists and most ex-military types had been recalled to join the army. They wouldn’t be providing vital and experienced leadership.
    “I’m going up to the roof,” he said, and left the room as well. He looked down towards the basement, where they’d placed the children and everyone who hadn’t wanted to remain above the ground floor, before heading upwards. The entire building shook, again, as he staggered up the stairs, taking a moment to unlock the padlock they’d placed on the door. They hadn’t wanted someone on the roof when the aliens entered the city, but Joshua knew that if he could provide an eyewitness report…
    No, he thought, as he stepped onto the roof. This was for him.
    Austin was burning. Wherever he looked, there was a fire, burning through the city. The sound of shooting had been bad inside, but outside it was worse, an endless cacophony. He saw a line of missiles fired somewhere from within the city, aimed at the aliens on the outskirts, only to see the missies explode in fight and their launch site explode a moment later. The defenders were being forced back into the city, cleared out building by building, while the aliens pushed closer to the apartment. Streaks of light fell from the heavens, picking off strongpoints one by one, shattering the defenders. Army, National Guard, police forces, militia…they were dying out there, dying to defend their city.
    And the gun nut was out there too. Joshua would have liked to believe that he was just a poser, that he would take one look at the conflict and try to run, but he knew the man better than that. It bothered him, somehow, that he didn’t know the man’s name. Once, he would have enquired for his story, or his hot tips to an editor who could be induced to pay a few hundred dollars for them, but now…now he wanted to know for himself. The man would probably die out there, defending his city…and the least that Joshua could do was remember the man’s damned name.
    Another wave of explosions shook the city and then, slowly, the fighting started to die away. Silence fell, gradually, as the defenders were either killed or surrendered. He wondered if the aliens would actually take prisoners – he could still hear the occasional gunshot – and if they did, how they would treat them. It didn’t matter so much, now; they held all of Austin in their hands. Or, he thought with a sudden burst of amusement, they held it in their tentacles instead. He still hadn’t seen a live alien.
    He told them to surrender, he thought, suddenly. It was the only explanation he could think of for the sudden collapse of resistance, or at least most resistance. His city had been delivered into the hands of its enemies. They hadn’t taken the city building by building, which would at least have been understandable, but through treachery? Or was it simple pragmatism? I wonder how he intends to win re-election in the coming election?
    The thought wasn't that funny. There might not be another election.

***

    “Son of a bitch!”
    Captain Brent Roeder shrugged. They might have remained inside the house, rather than going out to join their fellow soldiers fighting to prevent the aliens from entering the city, but they had had access to some elements of MILNET. They hadn’t had any access to classified data, and much of what they could see was obviously outdated, but it was enough to provide a clear view of what was going on. For whatever reason, Governor Brogan had ordered the remaining defenders to surrender…and the aliens were taking control of the city.
    See how you like that, you bastards, he thought. There were plenty of guns in Austin and not everyone would obey the Governor’s surrender order. They might wait for a few days, but sooner or later there would be an insurgency directed against the aliens, and probably the Governor himself and anyone else involved in the surrender. Brent had studied insurgency tactics himself and, despite his horror at the situation, was almost looking forward to having a chance to put what he’d learned to use.
    Corporal Cody Fahy looked over from his position on the edge of the bed. “Sir, what are we going to do now?”
    Brent smiled. They were, now, officially behind enemy lines. They didn’t know what the aliens would do with the remains of the human government, but they had to be counted as suspect, at least for the moment. If the aliens followed one set of human precedent, they would take their families as hostages and force their unwilling cooperation, or they would round them all up and try to govern the city for themselves. They might shoot all of their prisoners at once, or they might press them into service to help them maintaining order, or they might simply imprison them a long way from help. So much depended on how the aliens treated the city that had suddenly fallen into their hands.
    It wasn't going to be easy. The men and women of SF34 knew the city like the back of their hands, and the aliens would be operating in completely unfamiliar territory, but that wouldn’t last. They’d probably be patrolling the city as heavily as possible – he wondered, briefly, just how many of them there were on the ground – and they’d use it as a chance to learn how the city worked. If they controlled the water, the power and the food…far too many people would have no choice, but to do as they wanted and damn the cost to their country.
    But they had no choice.
    “Well,” he said, finally, “we’re going to give them a few days to get settled down and relax a bit…”
    He smiled at their expressions. “And then we’re going to make their lives hell…”

Chapter Fifteen

    Do not ask what the Government can do for you. Ask why it doesn't.
    – Gerhard Kocher

    The big situation map was updated constantly as elements of the tactical communications network were re-established, but no one was entirely sure just how accurate it was. A big swath of Texas was covered with the red glow of occupied territory, reaching from Houston in the east to San Angelo in the west and northwards as far as Fort Worth, but it couldn’t all be occupied by the aliens. They might control the entire territory in a grip of steel or they might have restricted themselves to the cities, fighting it out to take and hold them against human resistance. Countless military units, trying to make their way out of the trap and back to the human lines, were filtering through the area, while places like Fort Hood continued to resist the aliens. The entire situation was hopelessly confused.
    Paul sighed as he checked the latest updates. The chaos in Texas was only the tip of the iceberg. The alien invasion, even if it had landed in Russia or darkest Africa, would have been disruptive enough, simply through the loss of all the satellites. The landings in Texas were starting to push the United States into chaos; sooner or later, they would have to evict the aliens…and even if they succeeded, what then? As long as the aliens controlled space, they could simply pound the planet into submission…and no one even knew why they were doing it. They clearly wanted Earth intact, or else they would have rendered the planet uninhabitable, but why? What did Earth have that was so attractive to them?
    But that didn’t matter, not at the moment. The truth was that the United States Army was on the run, caught between the fires of the alien landings and their bombardment from orbit, exposing countless civilians to the wrath of their new masters. The aliens might treat their captives decently, or they might simply slaughter every human that they found; there was no way to know. In time, reports would filter in through the Internet of what was happening in the occupied territory, but the handful of reports they had were contradictory. He suspected that some of them were actually the product of wishful thinking.
    He stood up and walked down the corridor towards the Situation Room. The Secret Service guard at the door checked his ID quickly and professionally – ignoring the fact that if the aliens had managed to create human duplicates, the war with probably hopeless anyway – and allowed him to enter the room. There was a new air of despair floating through the air as the cabinet took their places, a new sense that everything might just be hopeless, but Paul ignored it. They had to keep fighting, if only so they could get better terms…
    Easy for me to think, he thought, coldly. He was in a bunker, safe and protected by an entire battalion of infantry…although they would be no protection if the aliens realised their location and dropped a KEW on their heads. He was safe…and millions of American citizens were not. The entire planet wasn't safe. It was easy to talk of resistance, but how many would resist when their lives and families were under threat from the aliens? Human response to enemy occupation was often a random variable; it depended, too much, on how the occupiers acted and why. The French had been happy to remain quiet under the Germans, but the Russians, knowing that they would be thrown into the gas chambers eventually, had had no choice, but to resist. What did the aliens have in mind for humanity?
    “Ladies and Gentlemen, the President of the United States.”
    The President looked tired, but there was a new strength in his eyes. The position of war leader wasn't one that most American Presidents had to hold and few of them had really expected to hold it. There was a vast difference between a minor peacekeeping operation in Africa and the global war on terror, to say nothing of World War Two or an alien invasion. Paul wondered, cynically, if the President was contemplating his chances for re-election…if there would be another election. The aliens might render it all irrelevant.
    “Please be seated,” the President said. He took his seat and peered around the table. “What the hell was Brogan thinking?”
    There was a long uncomfortable pause. “I believe, from our brief telephone conversation, that he wanted to spare Austin further destruction,” Spencer said, finally. There was an uneasy tone in his voice. He had to know that his own position was exposed and vulnerable. “The aliens would have taken the city anyway, devastating it like Houston in the process, and…”
    “And nothing,” the President said. “Why did he order the defenders to surrender? He shouldn’t have even been able to do that!”
    “I don’t know, Mr President,” Spencer admitted. “The last report we had was that he’d gone to meet the aliens personally…and then we lost contact. The fighting was dying down anyway when he decided to…spare us further bloodshed.”
    General Hastings coughed. “He may have sent several thousand of our people into a POW camp, if the aliens have POW camps,” he said. “I don’t think that all of our people will have accepted the surrender order – some of them actually made their way out of occupied territory to report to us – but enough did that the cities fell. Houston was devastated by heavy fighting; so far, reports indicate that the city was literally torn apart.”
    The President ran his hand through his hair. “I know,” he said. Paul realised that he felt the weight of each death personally. “What exactly is going on in the occupied territories?”
    “The aliens,” General Hastings said, nodding towards the main display. An image of a black-clad alien appeared in front of them. A moment later, it changed to reveal an eerie purple-red face, marching towards a target on the horizon. “They’re humanoid, which the scientists can’t explain, but they’re clearly alien. They don’t move like us.”
    “One theory of alien life is that alien worlds will seek similar answers to similar problems,” Paul injected. “The humanoid form is incredibly versatile, far more versatile than…say, a fish or a horse, and alien intelligent life might have developed along the same lines. No one has actually gotten proof, one way or the other, until now. They may be alien, but they have to have at least an equal grasp of science and technology to us, if not a superior one. They may not be as alien as we imagined.”
    “That’s not, of course, a good thing,” General Hastings said. “That means that we’ll want the same worlds and so on.” He paused. “The aliens landed in extremely heavy force – one figure puts their landing force at over five hundred thousand soldiers – and expanded rapidly. NASA says that they might actually be stuck on the planet…”
    The President was interested. “Stuck?”
    General Hastings nodded at Paul. “The issue with getting anything into orbit is mass, basically,” Paul explained. “To get a shuttle into orbit requires two external boosters and an external tank, all of which are discarded once the shuttle is on its way. To get the Apollo moon missions into space required a massive rocket, which actually discarded several stages as it rose upwards into space. The more mass, including fuel, the more power you need to push it into orbit, which means that the requirements keep going upwards.”
    He realised that the President was starting to look a little confused and swiftly came to the point. “The aliens haven’t shown anything that is completely beyond our understanding yet,” he continued. “A fusion rocket – if that is what they have – is beyond our current accomplishments, but we can understand it. They are definitely bound by the same laws of physics as we are. Their massive landing craft can get down, all right, but they can’t reach orbit again. They’re stuck on the surface of Earth.”
    The President laughed suddenly. “Are you sure of that?”
    “It’s impossible to be certain, and a lot depends on the assumptions fed into the computers, but unless they have some means of reducing mass or even full-blown antigravity, they’re stuck. They have to win or they can’t get back into orbit.”
    “In other words,” General Hastings said shortly, “we can kill them all.” He looked over at the map. “At the latest reports, all of the cities and towns within the occupied areas had been occupied by the aliens. Resistance was light in some places and extremely heavy in others. There are literally millions of refugees roaming the countryside and many of them are trying to get out of the alien-controlled territory. Our remaining units within the red zone have been forced back to their feet and are either trying to make it out or prepare an insurgency.”
    The President frowned. “I was under the impression that an insurgency was doomed unless it had outside support,” he said. “General, we need to liberate that area as soon as possible.”
    “Yes, Mr President,” General Hastings said. “The problem is that it might not be possible to liberate them at once.”
    He looked back at the map. “The aliens have deployed ground-based antiaircraft systems that are capable of blasting anything we have out of the sky, so far,” he said. “They have deployed a mixture of ground-based and space-based radar arrays that allow them to literally track everything moving on the ground. Tanks, armoured vehicles and other targets, such as trains, have been blasted from orbit. I doubt that we have a single tank remaining intact within the red zone. Their laser weapons are capable of burning missiles and artillery out of the air…and, of course, anywhere that opens fire is targeted at once from orbit. In short, Mr President, their position is impregnable for the moment.”
    Paul spoke before the President could say a word. “But that still leaves us with the insurgency option,” he added. “We can certainly supply insurgents and send Special Forces over into the red zone…”
    “The Army has to liberate the area,” the President said. “Can’t you launch a major attack?”
    General Hastings hesitated. “It will take at least a week to sort out everyone who escaped from the red zone and get them into new units,” he said, grimly. “We have major forces massing outside the red zone, but at the moment, they are totally vulnerable to KEW strikes from orbit. If we launch a major armoured thrust, we will have the shit blown out of us and merely add a few thousand more dead to the lists. Given three weeks, we could mass over seven hundred thousand men and a thousand vehicles…but that might be exactly what they want us to do.”
    “All the money we spent on the Army and it cannot defend us?” The President asked. “Is there nothing we can do?”
    “The Army was not built up to fight in these conditions,” General Hastings said, tartly. Paul heard the underlying anger in his voice and shivered. “We were used to fighting as part of an armoured force with air cover, or as a counter-insurgency force, but not as an insurgency force in our own right. We lost control of space, Mr President, and as long as they can look down on us from their lofty perch, we’re going to lose.”
    Paul spoke quickly. “We may be able to negate some of their advantages,” he suggested. “We’re building up new missiles and ground-based lasers as quickly as we can. If we use our remaining missiles, we could force the ships orbiting high overhead to concentrate on defending themselves, rather than attacking the planet.”
    “Work out a plan,” the President ordered. “Find us a way to hurt them.”
    “Nukes,” Deborah said suddenly. “Can’t we get a nuke in there and use it against one of their ships?”
    “You can’t be serious,” Spencer burst out. “You’re talking about nuking American soil!”
    “At the moment,” Deborah snapped, “it is not American soil.”
    “And so you’re going to destroy it in order to save it?” Spencer snapped back. “I don’t think that the people will thank us for scorching their cities with nuclear fire.”
    “Have you been listening?” Deborah asked, icily. “We are not in a position where we can just wash our hands of the entire affair. We cannot decide that the going is too tough and so we’d better get going, not here. This isn’t Iraq, or Somalia, or somewhere where the cowards in government can decide to back away, having made the entire situation a great deal worse, and leave the locals to death, enslavement or worse. This is American soil!”
    “It won’t be American soil if we leave it a radioactive mess…”
    “Enough,” the President said, sharply. “Colonel James, what do you think of the proposal to deploy nukes against the enemy?”
    Paul flinched, suddenly very aware of his junior status. Special Advisor to the President or no, the President could quite easily blame him for anything that was politically…uncomfortable. As an American, he disliked the thought of using nukes on any American soil, particularly a number of cities…all of which had thousands of Americans serving as human shields.
    He said as much. “Any deployment of nukes will have to be done carefully to avoid major civilian casualties,” he said. “The second problem is that deploying the nukes isn’t going to be easy.”
    The President blinked. “Was all the money we spent on missiles wasted as well?”
    “No, Mr President,” Paul said. “We developed a limited ABM capability and, we know, so did the Russians and Chinese, but we never developed the kind of working screen that the aliens have deployed. Nukes are normally deployed via aircraft, missiles or shells…and the aliens have a working screen against all three. We could bombard them repeatedly in the hopes of getting a warhead through their defences, but we would rapidly run out of warheads. The stockpiles were, I’m afraid to admit, badly run down in the years since the cold war ended.”
    He leaned forward. “The only way we could get a nuke through would be to smuggle one into the red zone,” he added. “There are Special Forces personnel who are trained for such missions; we could deploy some of them, pick a target, and nuke it.”
    Spencer scowled. “And what will they do to us?”
    General Hastings coughed. “What can they do that’s worse than what they have already done?”
    Spencer glared at him. “When Saddam threatened to use chemical weapons during the Gulf War, we quietly warned him that we would go nuclear in response,” he said. “When there was a danger from missing Russian nukes, we made it a policy that if the Russian nukes were used against us, we would retaliate against Russia, if only to provide a great deal of incentive to cooperate. We have long had a policy that one nuclear strike must be repaid with another, if only to keep the deterrence factor in play. We have even considered striking Iran first to prevent them from using their nukes!”
    The President winced. No President since Roosevelt and Truman had been in a position where they had seriously had to consider the use of nuclear weapons, except Kennedy. The Cuban Missile Crisis hadn’t exploded into war, thankfully, and with the end of the cold war, the nuclear nightmare had faded slightly. Terrorists with nukes were an ever-present threat, but actually producing or obtaining a nuke was much harder than the media made it seem. Sure, the Russians could still devastate America, but they’d be devastated in turn…
    But they’d all had to wrestle with the possibility of a terrorist nuke. If terrorists had nuked Washington, who could the US retaliate against? Russia, if the nuke came from there? Mecca, if Islamic terrorists? Retaliation wouldn’t actually achieve much beyond adding a few million extra dead to the death toll. It would have been pointless spite…and the President who didn’t hit back would be impeached and replaced by someone else who would hit back, even if the target in question was innocent. He could understand the alien position all right. They would have to strike back.
    “This is war,” General Hastings said. “I take no pleasure in the thought of a nuke being used, but I don’t think we have a choice. Once the aliens get organised, they’re going to start pushing outwards, clearing the way as they move. If that happens…”
    He didn’t have to spell out the consequences. “Colonel James, I want you and your staff to draw up a plan for evicting the aliens as soon as possible,” the President ordered. “Once you have an operating plan, inform me at once. We need to move fast.”
    Paul said nothing. Maybe it could be done; maybe the aliens could be removed…or maybe it was merely the beginning of the end for humanity.

***

    Deborah Ivey had more practice than most in keeping her face under control. Her career in a man’s world – despite an ever-increasing number of women entering politics – had taught her to keep her innermost thoughts to herself…and what she was thinking was far from complimentary. The President was losing it. He’d been shown, twice, that conventional war wouldn’t work against the aliens, but he was still keen for such a war to be launched. It would be nothing, but an unmigrated disaster.
    In her view, the only way to win was to burn the aliens out of Texas before it was too late. The people living there, those who hadn’t fled, might manage to raise an insurgency, but somehow she doubted it would put the aliens off their advance for long. They might simply call in strikes from orbit and crush resistance completely. No, burning Texas was the only option…and yet it was one that the President wouldn’t embrace. Something would have to be done.

Chapter Sixteen

    The first hours after an invasion and occupation are always the most dangerous ones.
    – Anon

    The human city was…strange.
    Part of it had been devastated, of course, by the fighting. The defenders shouldn’t have had a hope, but they’d held out long enough to delay the advance and cost the lives of nearly a thousand warriors. The outskirts of their city was in ruins, but they’d held until one of their superiors had given the order to surrender…and even then, not all of them had obeyed. A pile of bodies, sorted out from the remainder of the wreckage, showed just how many humans had fallen in the defence of their city.
    WarPriest Allon watched dispassionately as the small convoy advanced further into the human city. It was a strange sight to his eyes. The humans seemed to have been far more profligate with their resources than the Takaina had ever been, or at least had been since the Unification Wars. Every household seemed to have a private motor vehicle of its own, or other signs of great wealth and status, while their buildings were crude and unfinished to the eye. They were proportioned wrong, of course, for Takaina…but even then, they looked weird. They’d built towering skyscrapers in one part of their city and smaller buildings in others, according to a plan that made no sense at all to him. It wasn't a logically laid-out city, nothing like there would be at home, which meant that controlling it wasn’t going to be easy.
    The High Priest had given him command of nearly a million warriors, but they weren't all down on the planet yet, coming down as the landed warriors secured control of landing sites for the spaceplanes. They’d deployed a hundred thousand warriors to each of the major human cities, but half of them had to remain alert for attack by the remains of the human forces. They were scattered throughout the occupied zone and, as they encountered warriors, tried to fight their way out rather than surrendering. They were doughty warriors, he admitted without particular concern; they’d certainly hurt the landing force badly, if not badly enough. The ruins of their cities testified to that.
    We have to hold here, he reminded himself. The High Priest had made a major gamble by deploying so many warriors to the occupation and conversion duty, but if they were all killed, the Takaina would be weakened badly. The natives would probably resist, regardless of orders, and he had to do whatever it took to keep them down. Once the remainder of their planet had been subjected to Takaina rule, they would all be brought into line.
    Ahead of him, human prisoners were marched out of the city, their arms and legs shackled, clinking as they moved. They didn’t look beaten, not to his eyes, and there were a surprising number of different uniforms among them, some recognisable as fighting garments, others strange and seemingly ill-designed for fighting. The Researchers who spoke the human language would interrogate some of them, later, to find out what they knew, but Allon doubted that they would know much. Warriors were never told much by their superiors, just because they might fall into enemy hand and be brutally interrogated. Torture was commonly known among the Takaina, particularly of those who converted and then tried to fight on; he wondered, briefly, if the humans used it as well.
    The human civilians seemed to be trying to flee the city en masse. He didn’t blame them for it; most of the fires might have burned out, but the devastation had probably rendered some of them homeless…and they had to know that the war was going to continue. They couldn’t be allowed to leave, not yet; they had to learn to understand the city first. The improbably-named Austin – and what sort of name was that for a city, he wondered – would be the test case for occupying the remainder of the human world. If he succeeded, he had a good chance of becoming High Priest. If he failed, his Clan would disown him and he’d be lucky to be allowed to commit suicide. The rewards and risks of high rank were both vast.
    They reached the centre of the city, a strange building that served as the centre of human government. It didn’t look majestic enough to his eyes; the humans could have built a massive towering construction, but instead they’d chosen to build a fairly small building. A small group of unarmed humans, watched carefully by a group of warriors, waited for him as he dismounted from his vehicle and touched the ground of Earth. He’d been in space for years, literally, but thanks to the miracle of cold sleep, he hadn’t forgotten what life was like on the surface of a world.
    The lead human looked up at him. Their faces were more expressive than those of the Takaina, but he wasn't able to read them; indeed, watching them almost made him feel unwell. It made him wonder, in a rare burst of self-introspection, if the Takaina had the same effect on humans; how would the two races integrate if both races repulsed the other? Maybe it was something they could learn to overcome…
    “Ah, how do you do?” The lead human said. The statement made absolutely no sense at all. For a moment, he wondered if he’d learned the right language. “I am Governor Brogan, the duly-elected leader of this state. Welcome to the Texas State Capital.”
    That made more sense. The human governing system – rather oddly, their development of high tech hadn’t led to some version of the Unification Wars – made very little sense to the Takaina…and their news broadcasts regarding it made even less sense. The Takaina would not have tolerated someone dishonourable in a high-ranking position, both for actually being dishonourable and for being caught at it.
    He leaned forward enough to watch the human’s eyes, weird and unpleasant though they were, flicker away. “You have surrendered your city to me,” he informed the human. “You and the remainder of your people are my prisoners and will be held accountable for the behaviour of your people.” He gave the signal. “Take them to the holding camps.”
    The warriors swarmed forward. There had been a surprising number of humans in the building, a handful of whom tried to run when they saw the warriors, but they were all rounded up and shipped out of the city to the camps that had been established at the early landing sites. Taking hostages was an old habit, one long honoured among the Takaina, although it was still too early to know how the humans would respond. A handful of human civilians, watching from the sidelines, would be allowed to leave, to spread the word. They would have to see what was happening to their world.

***

    Joshua felt an uncomfortable prickling behind his shoulder blades as he saw the aliens for the first time. Most of them wore the black armour that covered their entire bodies, including their faces, but the handful that went without protection were almost worse. From a distance, when one was standing still, it was easy to mistake them for humans, but there was something indefinably creepy about their faces and when they moved, they looked almost like jelly-legged soldiers, straight out of an anti-war film.
    He’d had to see the surrender ceremony. When they’d heard about it through the remains of the city’s internet, he’d insisted that he went to see what was happening, if only to discover how the aliens treated Governor Brogan. Joshua had been surprised to see the aliens grab him, chain him up and start marching him out of the city, but maybe that wasn’t so surprising after all. They would want to keep the leaders away from the remainder of the civilian population, just to try to keep a lid on acts of resistance…and instead, they’d taken one of the limiting factors away. People who had surrendered because of the surrender order would know, now, that it had been a mistake.
    The aliens seemed to be searching the Texas State Capitol. More and more aliens were arriving on their hovering vehicles and Joshua decided that it was time to make himself scarce before they decided to add him to their bag. He walked quickly back though the streets, passing shops and buildings that had been boarded up by their owners, and discovered what the aliens were doing with some of their prisoners. A KEW had fallen on the street and smashed several buildings and at least a dozen cars…and they had put their prisoners to work clearing up the mess. Shackled, their legs chained to stop them from running, former soldiers and policemen worked together to clear the area, piling up the debris into massive hills. The aliens didn’t seem to have a more comprehensive plan besides clearing the streets so they could use them, but maybe they’d dispose of them all in time.
    It was the bodies that almost made him throw up. He hadn’t realised just how many people had been killed until he’d seen the pile of bodies, just tossed there without any concern for funeral rites or the feelings of their relatives. Men, women…the tiny broken bodies of children, caught up in a war they’d never asked for nor wanted. The aliens seemed to be sorting them out themselves, without regard for human feelings, piling up the bodies until it seemed that the stink alone would drive them out of Austin. There was a brief pause as a pile of bodies was finished…and then flames flared through the pile, consuming all the bodies in a wave of irresistible heat. Joshua gagged at the smell of burning flesh and this time, he did throw up. The aliens ignored him, despite the vomiting; their masks probably provided all the protection they needed from the smell.
    “Bastards,” he hissed, as soon as he could speak again. His stomach felt as if he’d thrown up everything he’d eaten and yet, he was still trying to retch. “They could have buried the bodies, but no…”
    It took everything he had just to keep moving, just to get away from the smell, but somehow he managed to stagger back to the apartment. The smell seemed to be everywhere, but at least it wasn't as bad inside, although most of the residents were wearing masks. They seemed to think that the aliens were trying to gas them all out and kill them; they didn’t want to know what the smell actually was. Mr Adair suggested that the real reason the aliens were burning the bodies was to prevent them from decaying and spreading diseases, but there really was no way to know.
    Others came in and reported other news. The aliens were ransacking libraries, for some reason, taking all of the books, loading them onto their vehicles and driving them away. Joshua guessed that the real reason was that they intended to study the human books and learn more about humanity, something they wouldn’t have been able to do from orbit, allowing them to chose their tactics more carefully. They’d already damaged the world significantly, but if they knew exactly how it worked, they could take over completely.
    “I’m going to blog,” he said, and went to his apartment. The laptop was where he’d left it – one advantage of the apartment union was that theft was almost impossible – and he powered it up quickly, gambling that the aliens couldn’t have interfered with the internet that much. They hadn’t; it might have been slow and erratic, but it was working. “Now, lets see what I can post.”
    He wrote up the entire story of the downfall of Governor Brogan and what he’d seen in the streets quickly and concisely, and then uploaded it to a dozen news sites, using his private key to confirm authorship. The internet news media had redesigned itself in the last few days; instead of the mainstream media, there was now an entire series of bloggers reporting on what they saw, outdoing the MSM. The MSM was probably on the verge of falling apart anyway; they wouldn’t be getting any income, they weren’t broadcasting and the newspaper distribution network had been shot to hell. He smiled as he typed, enjoying the thought…and feeling like a real reporter for the first time in far too long.

***

    The first day of the occupation passed quietly, too quietly. There were a handful of incidents in the inner city, an area that seemed to have been completely abandoned to the gangs of young humans, but they were dealt with quickly. Allon couldn’t understand why the humans had even allowed them to flourish; it wouldn’t have happened at home and it wouldn’t have been difficult for the humans to clear them all out. The young humans had been easy to crush once he’d sent in a few hundred warriors and the survivors, those who hadn’t escaped to spread the word that lawlessness would not be tolerated, had been added to the clean-up crews.
    “WarPriest,” the Inquisitor said. Allon eyed him with carefully concealed disliked. Inquisitors were all the same; they stuck their noses into everything, often without any concern for propriety. “We have completed our survey of human religions establishments within this city.”
    Allon felt a flicker of annoyance. He’d assumed that it would take longer for the Inquisitors to locate all of the human religious buildings. His people weren’t prepared to hold down the city if it erupted against them, not yet. The warriors were poking their heads into every nook and cranny, confiscating all the weapons they could find, but he was far from convinced that they’d found all of the weapons. The city seemed to have a quite amazing amount of weapons in civilian hands, something that the Truth strictly forbade, and the humans seemed to dislike losing them.
    “The humans had actually listed them all prior to our arrival,” the Inquisitor continued, apparently unaware of Allon’s innermost thoughts. Or maybe he wasn’t; he might have been as nameless as the rest of his kind, but there was a certain sliminess around this one. “We have located them all and we would like them destroyed, as per standard procedure.”
    Allon fixed the Inquisitor with an icy look. “We are not secure enough to move against their religions,” he said. “You know that as well as I do.”
    “That is beside the point,” the Inquisitor said, firmly. “You have the duty of breaking their religions so that they may come to us. You will carry out your duty or I will be forced to convey my doubts to the High Priest and the remaining Inquisitors. Their armies have been broken, their cities in ruins…what else can they do to prevent us?”
    “We are not required to kill unbelievers in vast numbers,” Allon snapped. “If they revolt against us, they will be slaughtered, along with hundreds of warriors.”
    “If they revolt against us, they exempt themselves from their protection,” the Inquisitor countered. That, too, was accepted doctrine. “Your warriors will die in defence of the Truth. You must move now.”
    Allon looked up into the Inquisitor’s eyes. He was right, damn him; he had to move, and yet…he didn’t want a slaughter. A few more cycles and they would have had the entire city disarmed and then they could have done what they liked, but no, they had the power to move now…and that was their cue. If it couldn’t be done…but it could.
    “Very well,” he said. If nothing else, he could try and make sure that the right person got the blame for failure, if failure it was. “I shall issue the orders at once.”

***

    The University Baptist Church had had something of a interesting history. Officially chartered in 1908, it had chosen to welcome African-Americans in 1943, becoming one of the first integrated churches in the Southern Baptist Convention. Later, it had accepted women as deacons…and then, most controversially of all, it had accepted gay men in the same role. The Committee had even spoken of accepting aliens to the Church, should they feel the call, but the Takaina had other plans.
    The warriors spilled out of their protective vehicles and advanced at once to surround the Church. The procedure was well understood; everyone who came out of the Church was to be seized, and then checked to see if they were a religious official. Those that were deacons, or priests, or any other religious personage were hauled off at once to the camps, the remainder were permitted to leave, while the church was thoroughly searched. The bibles and other holy books in the church were gathered together as the warriors completed their work, left in the pews and covered with oil. As soon as the search was completed, the warriors left the building, the last one out throwing in a grenade. The explosion ignited the oil and the flames spread rapidly. Within minutes, the entire building was a towering inferno, watched by warriors and humans alike.
    It wasn't the only religious building to be attacked. The list had been quite comprehensive. Churches, synagogues and mosques were attacked, in two cases defended viciously by their parishioners, but the warriors simply called in a KEW strike and then cleared up the mess afterwards. Austin’s religious buildings, one by one, vanished in the flame. The handful of firemen who tried to put out the fires were manhandled away from the flames by the warriors.
    From the apartment block, Joshua watched in horror as new flames reached for the sky. It didn’t take a genius to know what was burning…and that suggested that the aliens had come on an interstellar crusade. It sounded impossible, but they seemed to believe it…and the city was ready to explode in fury. The world had to know what had happened…and what was yet to come.

Chapter Seventeen

    Diplomacy is the art of letting the other party have things your way.
    – Daniele Vare

    The remainder of the week onboard the Guiding Star – as the aliens informed them the starship’s name could be roughly translated into – hadn’t been as bad as the first two days. The humans had been allowed to spend the rest of their time onboard together, which they’d spent comparing notes on the aliens and the data they’d been given. The aliens had even provided them with clothes of a sort. It all made it easier to focus on other issues, perhaps more important ones.
    It was impossible to speculate too much on what the aliens might be doing down on Earth, although Francis had a nasty suspicion that that’d invaded the US because the aliens kept asking questions about his country, but it could have been worse. He kept trying to talk to the aliens, if only to try and learn more, but it seemed that not all of them were able to speak English…and they’d never heard any of their own language. It was something that puzzled him; if it was a security measure, designed to stop the humans from speaking to the guards, it was a very paranoid one. He wondered, looking at the faceless guards who accompanied them from time to time, just what they thought of the humans, or the invasion.
    He knew, from his experience, that cultures were never monolithic. It was easy to believe that a human group was perfectly united, but that was never the case. Imperial Japan had been as united as human societies ever became…and yet there had been good and decent people, caught up in the maelstrom of World War Two. There had to be weaknesses in how the alien society worked, if only closet atheists, but without the ability to talk to the aliens directly, it was impossible to find them. The handful of aliens who were able and willing to talk to them freely – all female, he’d noted – refused to be drawn on certain subjects.
    And that, too, was odd. He’d expected, he realised, that a highly-religious society would keep the women subordinated, as most human societies had done, but the aliens seemed to place women in all ranks, except one. It was hard to tell, under the armour, but as far as he could tell, their guards were always male. That wasn't unknown in human society – there had been a time when the status of women and homosexuals in combat had seemed like the most important issue in the world – but what did it signify for the aliens? Who was really in charge? What happened to determine how the aliens mated?
    There were so many questions and so little time.
    “You will accompany me,” an alien said, appearing suddenly in the hatch. She was obviously female; two guards, obviously male, flanked her. The presence of the guards always made him smile; the aliens seemed to expect them to suddenly pull a gun out of an unthinkable orifice and start shooting the starship apart. He wondered, with a sudden flicker of gallows humour, if the aliens had watched too many action movies and taken them for reality. James Bond would have had some problems finding a way out of the alien craft. “Follow.”
    She pulled herself through the corridor to the same open bay. “These are communications devices,” she said, as they floated into the room. “They will provide a direct link to our ships and…diplomatic personnel. You will take them, our demands and our data to your governments and use them to open communications.”
    Francis coughed suddenly. “You are prepared to negotiate with us?”
    “We are prepared to discuss your race’s integration into our society,” the female said, in response, and turned to the group. “You will be returned to the ground, where you will make your own way to your leaders, carrying with you our messages. The groups that open communications first will receive preferential treatment when they submit to us.”
    They’re learning, Francis thought, feeling his blood run cold. He’d had the impression, listening to the aliens, that they’d been surprised to discover so many governments on Earth. Sophia’s representing the United Nations had only confused them further. Perhaps, if they’d all agreed in advance to maintain that the UN was the real Earth government…but that was impossible. Too many governments were quite happy to ignore the UN and its edicts could never be enforced. It would just end up with the impossible task of converting the Earth to the Truth…
    But if the aliens worked to manipulate human powers on Earth, they would eventually knock down all of their opponents and take over the planet. If there really were a billion of them, as they claimed, they’d be the most powerful race on the surface of the planet instantly – hell, they already were – and by playing the human factions off against one another, they would remain on top. It was a devious, if obvious, offer…and he wondered, bitterly, who would be the first to accept the alien trick. Which nation would be the first to swear allegiance to the aliens?
    “Follow,” the female said, and led them down another long corridor. The design seemed to be changing all around them, changing from a stylised – if understandable – set of corridors, orientated to have a deck…to a compartment that seemed to have been designed like the International Space Station. It was clearly intended to remain without gravity, permanently…and, watching the aliens moving through the area, he understood why. They used the area to prepare and launch their spacecraft.
    The massive hatch opened as they approached, revealing the interior of a vaguely conical spacecraft. They found themselves escorted in to discover a set of chairs that had obviously been designed for the human form; the guards, silent as always, pushed the humans into the chairs and secured them down with straps. The escort checked the straps, nodded once to the humans, and floated up back through the hatch. A moment later, it slammed closed.
    “I wonder if we’re alone on this craft,” Gary said, suddenly. Francis silently cursed himself for forgetting the closest thing to an expert they had. “It looked like a basic SSTO design from the outside, but I don’t think that there was enough room for the pilot, not inside.”
    “Perhaps it’s on remote control,” Stanislav suggested, absently. “We have used remote-controlled spacecraft to resupply the space station before and there is no reason why the aliens might not use a similar tactic. I wonder if…”
    A series of bangs and shocks ran through the craft. “They’re launching us,” Katy said, her voice shaking. Francis understood her feelings; it was rather like being about to take a roller-coaster ride. There were more shocks…and then everything stopped. “Boss…”
    “I don’t think we’ve been launched,” Gary said, calmly. He sounded perfectly calm; Francis couldn’t hear any tension in his voice at all. “It sounded more like they were attaching something to the craft, perhaps the piloting section. Two-stage SSTOs have been discussed for years, but no one actually produced a working model. The aliens would certainly need something like that unless they actually managed to develop some magic…”
    Francis winced as a new sensation, that of endless falling, swept through him. The SSTO didn’t seem to have changed at all, but he was suddenly convinced that the craft was finally moving, flying down towards the planet. A dull hiss echoed through the craft, and then another, pushing them back down to Earth. Brief moments of pressure built up in the craft and then dissipated; he wished, suddenly, for a porthole, some way of judging their progress. The aliens had sent them on a ride without any way of knowing what was going on, apart from the sensations they could all feel. None of them, except perhaps Gary, could read them…but it felt as if gravity was finally reclaiming its hold on them.
    The pressure on his body was growing as the SSTO’s engines started to fire. There was no mistaking the roar as they fought to slow their fall, saving them from crashing into the planet like a KEW, or from burning up in the atmosphere. His ears ached as the noise grew louder, but he didn’t dare cover his ears, even without the straps. They’d been warned, back before the aliens had arrived and the world had looked bright and full of promise, that doing so could prove fatal…and he had no intention of being wounded, not while it would leave him under alien care. The noise grew to a crescendo…and then stopped.
    A dull thump ran through the SSTO and gravity caught up with them permanently. It felt, suddenly, as if he were carrying a crushing weight, one he hadn’t even been aware of while in orbit. It was all he could do to raise his head, cursing himself for not asking for an exercise machine or something while on the alien ship; they had to have known about the problem. Two weeks – it felt like much longer – in zero-gravity…and it felt as if all of his muscles had atrophied to fat and bone.
    “The feeling will pass,” Gary assured him, as the aliens opened the hatch. Air, warm dry Earth air, wafted in. Despite an unpleasant smell tickling his nostrils, he had never tasted anything so good. “It takes longer than two weeks for real problems to kick in, although we should all rest before we actually go anywhere.”
    The aliens seemed to understand. Surprisingly gently, they helped the humans out of the ship and down to the tarmac. Francis looked around, suspecting that they were somewhere in the south by the air, but he didn’t recognise the small airfield at all. A handful of other SSTO craft dotted the field, patrolled by heavily-armed aliens; there were no sign of any other humans at all.
    Philippe looked up at him from where he was trying to stand on wobbly legs. “Do you know where we are?”
    Francis laughed. “I suppose you know everywhere in France, right?” He asked. “You Europeans; your countries are so small. It can take days to get across America!”
    “No,” Philippe said, reasonably, “but the aliens wouldn’t have dumped us somewhere we couldn’t get out of, would they?”
    They looked towards one of the aliens. “Where are we?” Francis asked, wondering if the guard spoke English. “Where do we have to go?”
    The guard said nothing, but pointed with one long hand towards a small group of aliens, waiting for them at the edge of the field. Francis placed his trust in his legs and started to walk towards them, feeling his legs grow stronger as his body got used, again, to the Earth’s gravity field. The aliens waited patiently for the humans and their guards; he suspected, watching the way their faces twitched, that they were finding their progress funny. The aliens should have been used to bodies that had been in space too long, but instead…they were laughing! He was sure of it.
    “Welcome to Earth,” the lead alien said, with hopefully unintentional irony. “You will take that vehicle there and head to your people’s lines, outside our area of control.”
    Francis followed the alien’s gaze and saw a large SUV, carrying a white flag on the hood, fluttering in the wind. It would be very visible from space, he realised; the aliens were taking no chances on a friendly fire incident from either side. It would be fairly easy to drive once he got his strength back – and Gary or Katy would be able to drive it as well – and it should have enough fuel to get to friendly lines, wherever they were. Gary went over to check the vehicle out as Francis continued to speak to the aliens.
    “Thank you,” he said, dryly. The aliens probably wouldn’t recognise sarcasm. “Where are the friendly lines?”
    The aliens produced a map. It was a fairly basic roadmap of Texas, one that might be used by any driver planning a road trip, and someone had written on it in green ink. If the map was accurate, the aliens controlled the state as far north as Waco, although the area that represented Fort Hood couldn’t be that firmly under their control. He would have bet good money that Fort Hood was currently the site of a nasty little war. He might never have been in the services, but he was confident that Third Corps could hand out one hell of a beating to the aliens if they were confronted on their own ground.
    “Your military has formed a base here, outside of Dallas,” the alien informed him. Francis felt his blood temperature start to plummet again. If the aliens knew that the base was there, how long would it be before they decided to hammer it from orbit? He had to get there first to warn them before they got hit. “We advise you to drive there. Our forces will not interfere with you provided that you do not attempt to enter the cities. Once you have reached your people, convey our messages to your leaders.”
    “Of course,” Francis said. He was starting to get sick of being given alien orders. “It shall be done, superior sir.”
    The joke was lost on the alien, but Gary cracked a smile. “Come on, sir,” he said. “We’d better get moving if we want to get there before dark.”
    Looking at the map, Francis doubted that they would get there before it got dark, but he held his peace. They had a long way to go before any of them would feel safe. The columns of smoke, rising up all around them into the clear blue sky, would see to that. He hoped, desperately, that they meant that the fighting was still going on.

***

    Philippe took the backseat and watched as the two American men took turns to drive through what had once been a prosperous American state. He had never been to Texas before, but somehow he suspected that it hadn’t always looked like this, not even when a hurricane had blown through it. The Americans said little as they drove on and even the others kept their thoughts to themselves; none of them had been prepared, really, for the reality of alien invasion. Texas had been wrecked overnight.
    The Interstate highways had been torn apart. Hundreds of cars, vans, and even trucks had been abandoned, or had been shot up in the fighting by one side or another. Near civilisation, there were mercifully few bodies, but further away from the towns and cities they were everywhere, mostly just civilians who had been caught up in the fighting and had been mown down by one side or the other. They passed through the remains of a town that looked as if a bomb had hit it, the handful of survivors watching them bleakly as they passed. Philippe had thought himself a hardened man – he’d seen more of the misery that humans could inflict on one another than most – but there was something truly soul-crushing about seeing an entire country laid so low. The aliens seemed to have occupied the land, but outside the cities, they saw little of them. They just didn’t care.
    They passed, as quickly as they could, groups of refugees, trudging along to the north. They saw no other moving vehicles on the roads, although there were plenty of abandoned or burned-out vehicles. It wouldn’t have taken long for the aliens to have…convinced the civilians that vehicles should be abandoned; the odds were that they had decided that cars might be used as weapons, or worse. Katy and Sophia wanted to pick up a handful of refugees, but Philippe and Stanislav disagreed with them and Gary and Francis agreed; they couldn’t take the risk. A lot of refugees had to be completely desperate and willing to steal a vehicle…or at least to rob them of everything they had.
    An hour after they started out, they came across the first sign that there had been a battle. A collection of destroyed or burned-out military vehicles littered the interstate, facing a handful of oddly-shaped piles of wreckage, surrounded by hundreds of bodies. It took Francis a moment to identify the bodies as National Guard…and Gary a few moments longer to realise that the oddly-shaped wreckage was in fact the remains of alien vehicles. The National Guard had made a stand and hurt the aliens…and had then been brushed aside from orbit. Gary insisted on picking up a handful of dog tags, if only to identify some of the dead, and collecting some of their weapons, just in case. They might be attacked along the way.
    The signs of devastation grew less as they headed north, the sky becoming overcast as darkness started to fall, but they stayed away from the cities. They could have headed up to Dallas or Fort Worth, but the Americans wanted to head directly to the military base. They were still arguing about the decision when a shot rang out and several soldiers appeared from nowhere, pointing their weapons at the SUV. Gary braked to a halt and grinned as the soldiers surrounded them.
    “Who the hell are you?” The Captain commanding them asked. Even in twilight, he looked half-beaten, at least to Philippe’s eyes. The aliens had driven the United States out of one of their most prosperous states. Under other circumstances, he would have laughed at how the mighty had fallen, but if America could fall, what hope did France have of victory? “The Redskins don’t let anyone have vehicles.”
    “Redskins?” Gary asked, puzzled. The Captain briefly explained that that was the alien nickname. “Ah, I see…”
    “I am Ambassador Prachthauser, Special Representative of the President,” Francis explained, shortly. They didn’t have the time for pleasantries. “Believe it or not, we’ve just come down from orbit and we have to get transport to Washington at once. The President will be anxious to see us.”
    “We don’t have constant communications with Washington these days,” the Captain said, “but I’ll see what I can do. You’ll have to be debriefed, of course…”
    Philippe shrugged. He could live with that.

Chapter Eighteen

    We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.
    – Winston Churchill

    Night was falling as Captain Brent Roeder led seven men out of their apartment and up through the silent streets. Austin had once been a well-lit city, but now hardly any of the street lamps were working, nor were there flickering lights from behind any windows. The city felt like a ghost town, one occupied by an army of monsters, and the people were trying to keep out of sight. Brent partly wanted them to come out and fight beside him, but the rest of him was glad that they were out of the way. The fighting was about to get messy.
    They ghosted through the streets, sticking to smaller roads and back alleys, trying to remain away from the alien patrols. The aliens hadn’t announced an official curfew, something that had surprised him, but they would probably take an interest in anyone on the streets after dark. It was what he’d do in their position and, given the amount of weapons and explosives they were carrying, would mark them out at once as soldiers. The aliens didn’t seem to shoot armed civilians on sight, as they would have been legally permitted to do under human laws, but they did take them away and, so far, no one had seen any of them again. They might have gone into the work gangs who were clearing the streets, or they might have been taken out of the city, shot and dumped in a mass grave. The internet had been full of speculation, but no one actually knew much for sure. The only piece of encouraging news was that the aliens were having a hard time controlling the chunk of Texas they’d occupied.
    Time to make it a bit harder, he thought, as they reached the gas station. The aliens had destroyed every official religious building in the city and, in doing so, had created a few million more enemies. If they applied that standard on a wider scale…it didn’t bode well for human religious cities. He suspected that the aliens hadn’t realised just how many human sects didn’t want or need religious buildings – Baptists didn’t need a meeting house – or, for that matter, how many religious books were in private hands. He couldn’t even begin to guess at how many bibles existed in Texas alone, let alone the other religious texts. Their response was likely to be brutal and unpleasant. The only reason he could think of for destroying religious buildings was that they wanted to replace them with their own…and that wouldn’t sit well with humanity.
    He scouted out the gas station yesterday and was relieved to discover that it hadn’t been looted. It had been operated by a Pakistani family who’d later tried to flee the city, abandoning their home and livelihood. They'd also left a gas tanker that had been used to make deliveries. The aliens still prevented humans from using any kind of motor vehicle, sometimes shooting up a few cars to make the point, and so it had been abandoned, along with its cargo. It wasn't completely full, unfortunately, but there was enough to make one hell of a bang. He made a series of hand signals to his men, ordering them to take up their positions, and then slipped into the driver’s seat. It was a matter of moments to hotwire the tanker and move it forward so that it was closer to the road. He left his little surprise in the vehicle and slipped out again, back into the darkness.

    The aliens, it seemed, patrolled on a regular basis. They had ten minutes until the next patrol would hover down the road. Two of his men quickly pushed a car into the middle of the street, blocking it, even as the others scattered a handful of other surprises around the area. As soon as they were finished, they drew back and waited for the aliens to arrive. If they’d changed their schedule…
    Brent smiled as he heard the hum of the alien vehicles. He’d been nervous that they’d send a tank along, but instead they’d merely been using their armoured fighting vehicles. There was something about their design that suggested that they were used to fighting insurgencies, but he guessed they’d learnt out of a book, rather than real experience. No sane and experienced soldier would have driven up to a blockade without checking the area first.
    Got you, you bastards, he thought. From his vantage point, he could see the alien hatches opening and a platoon of alien soldiers emerging, wearing their dark masks. That was more worrying than he liked to admit – no one knew what kind of night-vision gear the aliens had – but they were committed now. Four of the aliens headed towards the blocking car, the others fanned out towards the gas station…and the waiting ambush. There wasn’t any time, any longer, to wait for more aliens to emerge. He pushed down on the small detonator and all hell broke loose. The gas tanker exploded and a sheet of fire cascaded down onto the alien vehicles.
    “Move,” he snapped, and ran for his life. The aliens smashed every radio transmitter, without fail, and they might try to target him from orbit. It seemed insane to waste a projectile on a single man, but everything since the war had begun had been insane. Shots started to ring out as his three snipers started to pour fire onto the remaining aliens and their burning vehicles; he heard their ammunition start to cook off in the midst of the fire, creating a new hazard for anyone nearby. Trapped, the handful of surviving aliens had no choice, but to hunker down and hope that they could hold out until help arrived. Ironically, Brent wanted them to survive, now; they represented a lure to the remainder of the aliens. Without them, it was possible that the aliens would just write them off and not bother to send help.
    “They’re coming,” Fahy shouted, his voice almost drowned out by the roar of the fires and the shooting. “I see two heavy tanks and three smaller vehicles.”
    Brent grinned. The aliens were about to make a bad situation worse, much worse. High overhead, he heard the noise of a helicopter, one that he’d never heard before. It had to be an alien craft and so he nodded to one of his men, who brought up a Stinger and prepared to target the alien aircraft. Brent was already moving towards the second ambush site when the Stinger was launched, blasting up towards the unsuspecting alien craft, which was hit and fell burning out of the sky. There was no sign that the crew had escaped.
    The lead alien tank went over the mine and detonated it. Brent had worried that the hovercraft wouldn’t trigger the mine, but it did, sending a burst of flame up towards the soft underbelly of the alien vehicle. It was armoured enough to allow the crew to survive, but it fell to the ground and skidded to a halt, out of the action for the moment. The other alien craft opened fire with their machine gun-like weapons, but they weren’t shooting at any of his men, as far as he could tell. Buttoned up in their vehicles, the aliens were just attempting to force them to keep their heads down, trying to prevent the humans from using antitank missiles or suchlike on them. If Brent had had some of those missiles with him, he might have tried to use them.
    The ground shook, violently, as an office block was struck from high above. Two of his snipers had been positioned there and they had to have been killed in the collapsing building, along with however many other humans there were inside, hiding out from the aliens. He could hear the sounds of more aliens approaching, marching out and setting up a cordon around the area, hoping to trap and destroy his force. He gave a quick whistle, waited for the response, and then headed down towards a shopping mall. He’d picked the location for the ambush with malice aforethought; it was not only the perfect place to get in a solid blow, but a fairly easy place to escape from, given some careful planning.
    The aliens didn’t stop shooting. Brent wasn’t sure, but he thought he could hear the sound of other weapons booming out in the distance, human weapons. It sounded as if the entire town had risen up against the aliens, although it was much more likely that there were only a few groups taking advantage of the chaos to strike a few blows at the aliens. It would have been much easier if they could coordinate the various groups, but that would have been impossible, not without risking SF34 being exposed to the aliens. The civilians would be on their own. Other alien aircraft flew overhead, but now they didn’t dare try to engage them; they might as well have put out a call to the aliens inviting them to come kill them.
    “In here,” Fahy muttered. He looked scarred, but Brent was glad to see that they were all right. The five remaining men hadn’t been seriously wounded. The others might have survived, but he doubted it; the aliens had smashed the building to rubble. The interior of the mall looked eerie in darkness, with smashed glass and shattered shops everywhere; the looters had stripped the building rather comprehensively. He couldn’t understand why someone would want to strip a shop of the latest dolls, or even crass souvenirs of Texas, but people did strange things when society broke down. The odds were that they would be desperately hunting for food in a few days, if they weren't already. All the thousand-dollar dolls in the world wouldn’t buy them food. “Sir?”
    Brent looked quickly back towards the scene of the engagement, still wrapped in flame, and then followed him into the shaft. They’d checked it out first and getting down to the underground tunnels and sewers was fairly straightforward, if unpleasant. The smell was worse than it had been when the aliens had started to burn bodies, but he tolerated it, hooking up a breath mask as they made their way through the tunnels, up towards an exit five kilometres away, in an old warehouse. They could hole up there until the dawn broke, then change their clothes and slip back to their base. The odds were that it wasn't going to be a very pleasant night for the aliens.

***

    The window shattered as a hail of bullets crashed through the tape.
    “Get down,” Mr Adair shouted, as the wall was pocketed with bullet marks. Joshua didn’t have to be told twice. He was on the floor within seconds, watching in horror as the burst of fire tore the room to bits. He could hear one of the girls screaming, one of the other boys laughing in awe as the endless stream of bullets chewed into the wall. After what felt like hours, but was probably seconds, the bullets stopped…and a dull ominous silence fell.
    He looked over at Mr Adair. “Are you all right?”
    “Hell no,” Mr Adair said, his face very pale. The candles they’d been using to illuminate the apartment had to have been visible from outside…and someone had opened fire on them. It might have been the aliens, or it might have been a resistance group, or…there was really no way to tell, not at the moment. “Girls, stay low; when I tell you, start crawling down towards the basement.”
    Sally looked fearful, but determined. “Dad, what about the coffee?”
    Joshua chuckled and broke it off, suddenly, when Mr Adair glared at him. “Your life is much more important than the coffee,” he reproved his daughter, making the point with a sharp slap to her rump. Joshua hid his smile at her outraged yelp. “Now, get crawling down there and stay low!”
    The three of them left, slowly, leaving Joshua alone. His laptop was where he’d left it, but he didn’t dare power it up, not when the light might draw more fire. He crawled over to the candles, mounted on the table, and blew them out, one by one. Darkness fell in the room and, with it, he could see flickering light from outside. Greatly daring, surprising himself by his own courage, he crawled over to the window and peered, carefully, out over the city. Flames and smoke were everywhere and he could hear, in the distance, the sound of shots.
    They’re revolting, he thought, with a sudden sense of awe. He wanted to get up and go join them down on the streets, but he didn’t quite dare that much, not when he didn’t know who’d been shooting at them. The streets below were almost empty, but he saw a gang of teenage boys, running towards the fighting and carrying bottles in their hands. He hoped, for their sake, that they were only alcohol, not Molotov Cocktails. The kids wouldn’t last more than a few seconds when the aliens saw them. The anarchy on the streets might be drawing them like a magnet, but they wouldn’t be able to hurt the aliens, now that they were warned…
    A burst of fire, fired from somewhere out of his view, came down towards the kids and tore them apart. Joshua watched in horror as an pair of alien vehicles rushed past, one of them firing its heavy gun towards an unidentified target, the sound of the impact and detonation echoing through the air. He saw, briefly, a sniper crawling over a nearby rooftop…and realised that he didn’t dare go onto the roof. Soldiers had mistaken reporters for insurgents before…and the alien rules of engagement, it seemed, were much more liberal than any that American forces had used. He didn’t dare leave, though; he wanted – needed – to know what was going on. Below, the bodies sprawled, abandoned. If they were still alive, they would die there, on the streets.
    He saw a beam of light, reaching down from high above like a pointing finger, striking somewhere to the north. The sound of the explosion reached him a second later and he realised he had seen a falling KEW; the aliens, in their anger or desperation, had reached for the heavy firepower. A series of secondary explosions echoed out over the city; he watched, grimly, as a new line of alien vehicles passed, heading northwards as well. The hovercraft drove over the bodies and, when they finished, there was very little left of what had once been human youths.
    Bastards, he thought suddenly, as more aliens passed. They were heading towards the Texas State Centre, he realised suddenly, or at least they were heading in the same direction. Some of the great reporting heroes had been on the ground when American or British bases had been attacked by insurgents, surrounded, but never broken, and he wondered if that was what had happened to the aliens. They’d taken over the government buildings in the city and…hell, he’d have bet good money that attacking them would have been one of the population’s fondest dreams. How capable would the aliens be at defending a building they barely knew?

***

    It was the arrival of the reinforcements from the camps outside the city, WarPriest Allon knew, that had turned the tide of the battle. The warriors charged with guarding the human buildings had fought well, but the best they could do was hold out against the attackers, knowing that they might run out of ammunition and be hacked down before they could escape. Nine tanks had been deployed to cover the human buildings – and every human they’d found in the area had been taken to the camps, just in case – but four of them were now burning and two more had been disabled. There had been too many warriors in the area to call in a KEW strike; the entire battle had been a close-run thing.
    Dawn rose upon a burning and battered city. Hundreds of warriors patrolled the outskirts of the government zone, while thousands more patrolled the city itself, trying to locate the remaining human insurgents. Most of the remaining human population, Allon was relieved to see, was trying to keep itself out of the firing line. It might have helped keep incidental damage down during the fighting, but the odds were that some of them had been blazing away at his people last night, leaving a grand total of five hundred and seven warriors dead or seriously injured. Partnered with the losses all across the occupied zone, nearly a thousand warriors had been killed outright…and he didn’t want to think about how many humans had been killed. Their death toll, he thought, must number in the high thousands, at best.
    And then there were the booby traps. The humans had proved themselves fiendishly cunning; there had been incidents where warriors, not recognising what was harmless and what wasn't, had strayed into a killing ground and had been slaughtered. Cars had been rigged to explode, mines had been hidden in inventive locations…the chaos went on and on. It would take cycles upon cycles to restore the morale of his warriors; a day ago, they had felt themselves in charge of the city and of the humans. They had been confident of ultimate victory. Now…
    Now, they felt as if they’d lost the war.
    We’re not used to resistance on this scale, WarPriest Allon thought, coldly. They still held the advantage, but it didn’t feel like it. We never expected anything like it. There was nothing like this, not even during the worst of the Unification Wars. What sort of world have we found? What will we need to do to win?

Chapter Nineteen

    A Diplomat; a person who gives up all the spoils of victory for an uncertain peace.
    – Anon

    “Welcome back to Washington,” the President said, as the handful of surviving Ambassadors were ushered into the small meeting room. The Secret Service had wanted them to come to the President’s bunker, but Paul had advised strongly against it, warning that the aliens might have left a surveillance device on their captives, or tampered with their minds in some way. That had started a new round of official paranoia, including the thought that all the Ambassadors might have been killed and replaced by look-alike aliens, but Paul had pointed out that that was probably a step too far. The aliens hadn’t shown anything like that kind of capability. “I’m sorry about the accommodation, but…”
    “That’s all right, Mr President,” Ambassador Francis Prachthauser assured him. The Ambassador had been so relieved to be back on Earth, Paul had been told, that he’d ordered a huge meal for himself and his fellow travellers before he'd been allowed to see the President. That had provided a chance for them all to go through a medical and security check, but nothing suspicious had been found. The aliens, it seemed, had played it straight with them. “We have something of a long story for you.”
    He started outlining everything that had happened since the ISS had been attacked. Paul listened carefully, occasionally injecting a question or a request for clarification, while part of his mind considered everything that had happened and how it related to what was happening down on Earth. The alien communications devices hadn’t gone anywhere near the President; they were being storied in a secure compound on the other side of Washington, being examined carefully by scientists. They seemed to be fairly standard radios, if tuned and locked to a particular frequency, but the scientists hadn’t been able to swear that they didn’t have other functions. They couldn’t be allowed anywhere near the President or an important military base, just in case; two of them would be leaving the country soon, anyway.
    “And so they left us to make our own way out of the occupied zone,” Francis concluded. His tale had included a long section on the alien territories and they would have to revisit that, pulling out everything he’d observed to add to their growing stockpile of knowledge, before the foreign ambassadors could be allowed to leave the country. “They knew where the base near Dallas was.”
    “I can’t say I’m surprised,” General Hastings said, with a moment of grim amusement. “That’s a dummy base, meant to be noticed by the aliens and keep their eyes off the real base. Doubtless they will bomb it soon, with dummy bombs.”
    The President smiled. “You’ve had a hell of a time,” he said, shaking his head slowly. “Are you convinced that the aliens want us to surrender to them?”
    “They gave us, in effect, a demand for unconditional surrender,” Francis admitted. “They indicated that there might be some room for negotiations at the edges, at the fringes of their plan, but I think they intend to force us all to surrender and convert to their religion.”
    “That’s going to really please the Bible Belt,” the President said, shaking his head. “I wonder why they think it’s going to be that easy.”
    Paul shared his thought. Religion might be a collective delusion – and he had never been convinced that there was a god or gods out there – but it was deeply held, for all of that. There would be outrage across the world at the suggestion that they should abandon human religions and convert to an alien religion; there’d be resistance almost everywhere. He didn’t want to think about what would happen if the aliens landed in the Holy Land…
    Something clicked in his head. The bloggers in the occupied territory, even though they saw only a tiny percentage of the occupation, had all been in agreement on one detail; the aliens had been smashing places of worship. They’d smashed, without the slightest show of regret, any religion building they’d found, from Churches to Mosques, while carting off all the priests they’d found to an uncertain fate. It had ensured that the resistance was simmering away, but it also suggested something about how the aliens treated other religions; they sought to destroy them completely.
    “They’re going to go for the Holy Land,” he said, suddenly. “That’s going to be the scene of the next landing!”
    General Hastings lifted a single eyebrow. “What possible good would that do them?”
    “You mean apart from controlling the oil?” Philippe asked dryly. The French Ambassador had obviously followed the same line of logic. “The land is…well, Holy. We’ve been killing each other there for centuries over religion. Even now, we have Jews, Arabs, American soldiers and thousands of mercenaries battling it out for religion.”
    “We didn’t invade Iraq for religious reasons,” the President said, coldly.
    “That’s not what many of them think,” Philippe countered. “It doesn’t matter that much, Mr President, but if they destroy religious places wherever they find them, they will go, sooner or later, for the Holy Cities. They could devastate the entire Middle East with ease.”
    The President looked up at the map. “We have to warn them,” he whispered. “We have to tell them that they might be the next targets…how long do they have?”
    “I honestly couldn’t tell you,” Paul admitted. “It would depend on when then found out. They’re looting every library they come across in Texas, so they would have the information, if they bothered to use it. The more secure they feel in Texas, the more likely it will be that they will feel able to launch a second offensive against the Middle East.”
    The President nodded slowly. “General, what are the odds of the Middle East beating off the aliens?”
    “Piss-poor,” General Hastings said. “The Iraqis have the second-best army in the region, trained and equipped by us, as well as a large contingent of our own soldiers, but they’d take a second beating when the aliens land. The Saudi Army’s best units aren’t up to our standards and the worst aren’t good for more than cracking unarmed skulls. The Iranians could put up a fight, but they’re mainly an infantry army…which, coming to think of it, might just put them in a better position than I thought. Israel…is the joker in the deck. They’re tough, the best army in the region, and they have nukes. It could get messy.”
    He paused, thoughtfully. “I can’t see them failing to crush the Middle East,” he added. “They have too many advantages. They’d still face a massive insurgency and everything would depend on the tactics they used to quell it.”
    “They want to destroy religion, human religion,” Paul said. “It would get messy.”
    “And they want us to surrender,” the President said. “If we surrender, what’s going to be our fate?”
    Francis scowled. “They provided us with a surprising amount of data,” he said. “I haven’t had time to go through it all, but they intend to basically accept humans – converted humans – as equals in their society, where we will start rising up to join them. Its going to cause massive social unrest, Mr President; if they try to force their society and social norms on us, it’s not going to be the Middle East alone that fights back.”
    “Colonel James, go through the material as quickly as you can,” the President said. “Report back to me when you’ve finished.” Paul nodded. “Gentlemen, is there anything I can do for you?”
    Philippe nodded. “I have to return to Paris,” he said. He gave a slight, self-depredating smile. “I was going to have to beg you for transport.”
    “That might be tricky,” General Hastings said dryly. “Anything that flies, except on very short flights, gets swatted eventually.”
    “Oh, the fighter jocks have to hate that,” Gary said, with a sudden laugh. “They’re going to be pissed as hell that they have to stay on the ground. Can we conscript them as infantrymen, please?”
    Francis gave him an odd look. “I thought you were a former fighter jock?”
    The President ignored the by-play. “If the communications devices work, we can ask the aliens to leave your flight alone,” he said. “If not, getting you back home might take a few weeks, but we can and will do it. What do you intend to suggest that your government does?”
    Philippe hesitated. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “If some of the reports here are right, I might not have a government any longer to report back to.”

***

    The small cube-shaped room had, Paul had decided the first time he used it, been designed by a sadist. It was uncomfortable, small enough to induce acute claustrophobia in anyone unlucky enough to stay there overnight and barely habitable. The metal desk, the small computer and the hard chair all spoke of efficiency over comfort, of a mindset that prized business more than happiness. The person responsible had probably been promoted.
    He opened the file of alien documents, settled back with a cup of coffee – the only advantage the underground bunker had, as far as he could tell, was that it had excellent coffee – and started to skim through the documents, searching for the important points. The aliens…spoke excellent English, but sometimes their writing and sentence structure looked like Microsoft Word on a bad day. They might have understood English, but they were a long way from learning to compose properly…which still put them ahead of many school graduates. The spellings were a little weird as well – PHONE was spelt F-O-N-E – but it was straightforward to sound out the words and realise what they meant. The aliens had actually provided a surprising amount of data…
    The problem was that little of it was of any use. Their history, according to them, had been dark and barren before the Truth had arisen and united their planet in a series of Unification Wars. They hadn’t suffered the collapse of a global empire, or even a serious heretical challenge, if the documents were to be trusted. They had already been reaching into space, in a manner humanity had only dreamed of, and they had started to expand across the stars. The documents were vague on exact timescales, but reading between the lines, Paul had the sense that they’d been expanding for a long time.
    They’re burning off resources by sending the surplus population to other worlds, he realised, with a touch of awe. The religion seemed to control everything, having built a fairly stable social structure, but as the society got richer, it would face more internal challenges. Their solution had been to throw resources into building the generation starships that spanned out across the universe, slowly, very slowly, carrying the Truth to hundreds of nearby stars. It was awe-inspiring, humbling…and terrifying. Wherever the aliens came from – and the documents were silent on that point – had been sending out starships for hundreds of years. They could have settled vast reaches of space…while the human race had grubbed around in the dirt.
    Hot tears of rage stung his eyes at all the missed opportunities. If the human race had just started serious space exploration, the aliens wouldn’t have stood a chance. Their only hope had been to discover a pre-space world and that had been, effectively, what they’d found. It would be aliens who studied and settled the Solar System, mining the asteroids and gas giants, while humans became their subjects, a slavery that would be sanctioned by a religion that had originated far from Earth. The human race would, indeed, adept to service them. They couldn’t even remember any other religion.
    And they claim that there’s a billion of them on their mothership, he thought, angrily. The separated, larger, section of the alien starship had entered a Lagrange Point, waiting for the time when the settlers would be called down to Earth, well out of range of any possible attack. There had been a vague report from the Russians that they’d attacked the aliens in orbit, again, but that had been unconfirmed and the aliens had seemed unworried by the attack, if indeed it had taken place.
    He stood up and walked through the corridors, back to the President’s suite. The President had looked better when his friend had returned from orbit, but he wouldn’t be happy to hear the news. When he was finally allowed into the room, he was surprised to see not only the President, but General Hastings and Deborah Ivey as well, briefing the President on Operation Lone Star. The name might have to be changed, he knew, before it was discussed outside the bunker; they could even borrow a trick from the British and pick something completely unrelated to the target. If the aliens figured out that Texas was the Lone Star State, they would know the target of the American attack…and take precautions.
    “Colonel,” the President said, sounding almost relieved. He had the task of deciding if Lone Star should be launched or not…and, in the wake of the alien surrender demand, he might have had no choice, but to order the operation. “What have the aliens told us?”
    “Quite a bit,” Paul said, and outlined what he’d read. “They seem to be determined to expand everywhere, following their own form of manifest destiny, until they have all of the stars in the galaxy.”
    “But that would take them…centuries,” General Hastings protested. “Haven’t they run into someone bigger than them out there?”
    “Apparently not,” Paul said. “The documents read like one of those after-action reports Saddam’s people published, ones where they could do no wrong and their enemies made every mistake in the book and were wiped out several times over, so I don’t know how reliable they are, but it all hangs together internally.”
    “You mean they could be lying,” the President said. “They could be trying to convince us to surrender based on a bluff.”
    “I don’t think that it’s a bluff,” Paul admitted. “Oh, based on what we’ve seen so far, I have to agree that if we can destroy their mothership, we’ve won, at least for a few centuries. Plenty of time to build up our own defences and get a massive force into space ourselves. The problem is that destroying the mothership is not going to be easy.”
    “Of course it is,” Deborah said, in a rare moment of humour. “Just take the alien spacecraft at Area 51, fly it up to the mothership, plant a bomb and blow it to hell, then fly back in time for tea. Simple.”
    General Hastings scowled at her. “There has never been an alien spacecraft at Area 51,” he said, irritated. The internet had been filled with speculation that there had been sixty years worth of warning of the invasion, during which nothing had been done to prepare for their coming. “Groom Lake was also hit, badly, from orbit and was seriously damaged. Recovery efforts are underway, but it is unlikely that anything there will be able to help us, apart from the lasers.”
    The President leaned forward. “Lasers?”
    “They’re a key part of Operation Lone Star,” Paul injected. It was something he hadn’t wanted to discuss. “If we can use them as a surprise, the aliens may find that countering our attack becomes much harder.”
    There was an uncomfortable pause. They were faced with the task of ordering an attack that might fail…and, in doing so, leave large parts of the country exposed to alien attack. Thousands of American soldiers might die, for nothing. None of them were used to making such decisions and the prospect hypnotised them. Deborah, finally, broke the silence.
    “If we lose,” she asked, “what happens to us?”
    Paul shivered. “According to the documents, civilians will be brought into the faith, military soldiers will be offered a chance to fight for them, religious leaders will be, at best, jailed and leaders will be killed,” he explained. “They don’t intend to build a new and prosperous state, not like we did when we went into Iraq, but to crush us and completely re-work our society into their image. If they win, existence as we know it is over. At best, we will be their slaves for the rest of time, unless our descendents can organise a revolt. At worst…”
    “At worst, they drop an asteroid or fry the planet and kill us all,” General Hastings growled. The frustration in his voice was easy to hear. “It kind of makes you wonder why they haven’t simply threatened us with complete devastation if we don’t surrender.”
    “It could be a religious thing,” Paul said, softly. He hated to admit ignorance, but there was no choice, not when the fate of the entire planet was involved. “There is still so little that we understand about their society.”
    “Is there a bio-threat?” Deborah asked suddenly. “Might they catch something nasty off us and drop dead?”
    “I don’t think so,” Paul said, after a moment. “They took enough samples from the captured ambassadors to check that they could live here safely. I don’t think that the common cold will be wiping them out anytime soon.”
    “We live in hope,” the President said. He pulled himself up to a sitting position and looked them firmly in the eye, suddenly galvanised into action. “General?”
    “Yes, Mr President?”
    “I am hereby ordering you to start making preparations to launch Operation Lone Star within a week,” the President said. His voice, at least, was firm; Paul noted Deborah’s surprise and wondered why she was so interested. “Keep it non-nuclear if possible…”
    “We need to use some EMP,” Paul said, quickly. It wasn’t a part of the plan that could be removed fairly quickly without impinging on everything else. “We need some of the nukes, Mr President. They won’t be used on the ground.”
    “Make it so,” the President said. “General, the country is counting on this. Make it happen…and may God help us all.”

Chapter Twenty

    Where the laws of war have worked to migrate the horror and protect innocent life they have…done so when the combatants shared the same values and had what we might like to think of a basic decency.
    – Tom Kratman

    The alien holding pen was massive. Ringed by barbed wire and guarded by a handful of alien tanks, it held upwards of four thousand American prisoners, spread out over a set of smaller holding pens. The soldiers and other men and women captured during the invasion occupied one large section of the camp; civilians captured in the act of resistance occupied a second one. There had been no attempt to segregate the sexes, or even to ensure that the prisoners behaved themselves; if there hadn’t been an ingrained habit of discipline and a common enemy, the prisoners would have probably started to kill each other after the first day, or fallen into rule by strength.
    Sergeant Oliver Pataki, senior prisoner by virtue of being one of the first humans to be captured, stared out over the camp and winced. It wasn't the best POW camp he'd ever seen, that was for sure; the aliens seemed almost indifferent to their comfort. They didn’t bother to provide more than basic foodstuffs and a constant stream of running water; the medical tent, where the injured had been placed in hopes that the medical staff could help them to recover, was the only covered place in the entire camp. The prisoners made their beds on the hard ground and planned, grimly, for an escape. Pataki hadn’t wanted to end up serving as the commander of the camp – in effect, the chief collaborator – but there had been no choice. The aliens had certainly never given him a choice, or even someone senior to take the burden away.
    The thought nagged at his mind; where were the senior officers? The highest-ranking person in the camp was a Master Sergeant, but he was sure that all of the Captains or Colonels wouldn’t have been killed in the fighting, or maybe even a General or two. The aliens had definitely figured out human ranks and, once they’d captured a few hundred prisoners, had started to weed them out; senior officers, it seemed, went elsewhere, while the junior prisoners got dumped in the work camps and put to work.
    I’m sure there’s a treaty against that, he thought, with a certain burst of amusement. It was illegal, under the Geneva Conventions, to put prisoners of war to work – or, if there was no choice, they had to be compensated for their work – but the aliens had never signed the treaty. They’d organised groups of men, each one chained up and shackled together, and marched them out of the camp and put them to work. In the week or two since the aliens had landed, Pataki and the remainder of the prisoners had dug graves, helped clear roads and airfields and countless other tasks that required manpower and little thinking. A handful of soldiers had tried to escape, only to be gunned down by the aliens, who had then left their bodies outside the camp as a warning. The warning hadn’t passed unheeded; Pataki had learned that if they escaped, they had to make certain of it…or they would die.
    He’d started the Escape Committee the day after being captured, and had ensured that everyone who entered the camp was thoroughly debriefed by his people, but none of the news was good. The aliens had simply rounded up everyone with a weapon and thrown them into the camps. If they’d arrested most of Texas, he’d thought at the time, they'd have to almost wrap the entire state in barbed wire, but if they were merely keeping guns off the streets…they’d put a crimp in any resistance right there. The civilians who’d been added to the camps had told them about the destroyed churches and the ongoing fighting, but it seemed that Texas wouldn’t be liberating itself anytime soon. The aliens could move forces from place to place far faster than the insurgents could react…and, if they were pushed out of a given area, they would simply call in a strike from orbit and pulverise the resistance fighters. The more he thought about it, the more he suspected that the aliens would, eventually, secure an uneasy peace.
    Bastards, he thought, as he started to pace the camp. He’d started to organise games and exercises to keep everyone as healthy as possible, but the longer they stayed in the camp, the weaker they became; they just weren’t getting enough food. He wasn't sure if the aliens were simply working them all to death, or if they didn’t understand the problem; he’d tried to talk to them, but most of the guards didn’t seem to speak English. It was another security measure and, he had to admit, a fiendishly simple one; if they couldn’t talk to their guards, they couldn’t try to win friends. The guards couldn’t talk to them to learn that humans were…well, human…and they couldn’t talk the guards into joining them. There could be hundreds, or thousands, of frustrated democrats among the aliens…and they couldn’t make contact with them!
    A whistle blew and he, tiredly, started to walk over to the gates. The aliens had a fairly simple set-up, compared to one of the camps he’d seen while on deployment, but it was backed up by an absolute willingness to kill anyone trying to escape. Some of the SF troops swore that they could get over the wire if the power was cut, but unless the aliens lost their night-vision goggles, they’d just be picked off while still on the wire. Digging a tunnel wasn't possible; they didn’t have anywhere to hide the soil, or even conceal the tunnel entrance. It was a neat little trap…and, so far, all of his escape plans depended on being on the other side of the wire. That wasn't exactly helpful.
    The alien who stood at the gate was one of their senior officers, as far as they could tell. Most of the alien soldiers wore their body armour, which several soldiers had sworn could turn aside a shot from an M16, although Pataki had seen several die when they’d been shot through the head, but those that went without the head covering always had a tattoo on their foreheads. This one had the most elaborate tattoo he’d ever seen, a strange spiralling pattern that seemed to cover half of the forehead.
    “You are ordered to form one hundred of your people,” the alien said, shortly. They were rarely interested in talking about anything else, even the weather. They hadn’t even bothered to interrogate the prisoners. “Their services are required.”
    Pataki nodded, hating himself. They’d tried, at first, to refuse…and the aliens had simply cut off the food supply. Their total indifference had been worse than any hatred, in a way; the aliens would have made use of them had they lived, but it wouldn’t have bothered them if the humans had died. He’d been shot at by insurgents who had screamed their hatred as they had fired, but the aliens were worse…and competent, at that. They had their boot firmly on Texas’s collective neck and showed no inclination to remove it.
    “Come on,” he ordered, rounding up the men. He’d had little choice, but to sort them all into groups, despite some muttering about collaboration from the younger men. The aliens hadn’t cared who they’d rounded up either; there were infantrymen, Marines, National Guardsmen and civilians. He’d planned the groups so that there would always be several people who knew Texas with them, just in case there was an opportunity to make a break for it, but so far it hadn’t worked. “I’ll come with you as well.”
    The alien guards, silent as ever, escorted them out of the camp. They shackled the humans together and then marched them towards a line of human trucks, driven by other humans. Pataki wondered if he was looking at the first collaborators when he realised that the aliens had thoughtfully handcuffed the drivers to their steeling wheels, just in case they got any ideas about escape. Besides, even if they had broken free, the civilian prisoners had told him that the aliens had a total monopoly on transport. They shot at all human vehicles on sight. The prisoners were escorted into the vehicles, which started off down the road, escorted by a line of alien infantry vehicles.
    “Must be serious,” someone commented. A handful of others agreed loudly, shouting insults towards the aliens, who ignored them. It wasn't easy to get an insult across to the aliens if they didn’t understand English. “They’ve got a handful of their tanks escorting us.”
    Pataki said nothing. He was too busy trying to see as much as he could of the outside world. There was much more to Texas than just the cities; there were hundreds of towns and villages scattered throughout the countryside. Some of them looked intact and inhabited, others looked deserted and looted and still others looked as if the aliens had used them for target practice. A handful of shots rang out as they passed through a deserted village; the alien tanks returned fire with enthusiasm, but didn’t stop to dismount and root out the insurgents. It didn’t look like a good sign.
    Thunder run, he thought grimly. A new series of thunderclaps burst out in the distance. The poor village had just been hammered from orbit. If there were any survivors, they were probably stunned beyond recovery and completely shell-shocked. They don’t have to care about the little people.
    Their destination, it seemed, was a fair-sized town, one that had once probably held ten thousand people, maybe more. He might have recognised it if he’d seen it intact, but between the aliens and its defenders – soldiers or civilian resistance – there was very little left of the original shape. Bodies, burned-out vehicles and damaged buildings were everywhere. The scene was almost heart breaking; the chaos of the Middle East, or the Gaza Strip, brought to Smalltown, USA. The aliens ordered their drivers to stop and started to unload the prisoners, taking care not to get their chains tangled up and broken. Several prisoners had been injured when the chains had been tangled in the early days.
    “Clear the area,” the alien leader said. “Dig a grave for the bodies, then start clearing the road and the buildings. Do not attempt to recover any weapons or other material.”
    As if I’d had any such thoughts, Pataki thought, with a certain amount of bitter amusement. If his men had been armed and ready, he would have bet on them against the aliens, even with the tanks and attendant IFVs. A handful of Javelins or even a few RPGs would have really ruined the aliens’ day. Without the weapons and freedom, a handful of recovered weapons would do nothing, but get them all killed.
    “Come on,” he said, tiredly. “We’d better get to work.”
    Judging from the condition of the bodies, the fighting hadn’t been more than a day or so ago. Moving in groups of five – chained together enough to make walking difficult and running impossible – they went through the remainder of the buildings, recovering all of the bodies as they moved. Some of them were clearly those of men who’d sold their lives dearly in defending their homes, others were women and children who’d been caught up in the fighting. There looked to be fewer bodies than there should have been and Pataki found himself hoping that most of the townspeople had managed to escape. They finally recovered over two hundred bodies, thirty of them belonging to children too young to bear a weapon. The sight almost broke his resolve and he sat down heavily, unwilling to carry on, until he was helped to his feet by one of the others.
    “I understand, boss,” he said. There was a stiff reassurance in his voice that almost made Pataki feel better. Almost. “We’ll get these bastards yet, so don’t go and die on us yet.”
    “Thanks a bunch,” Pataki said, sourly, but allowed himself to be talked back to work. “At least they’re letting us dig a grave for these poor bastards.”
    Or maybe it was the smell, he thought, as they finished filling the grave and started to shovel soil over the bodies. He had warned that they didn’t dare say any prayers, not where the aliens might hear, but instead, he thought the words in his head and hoped that God would understand. The others thought their own prayers in their own way, hoping that someone, somewhere, would hear and understand. The townspeople hadn’t deserved to die like that. The aliens gave them a small pause to eat and drink, and try to forget the bodies, before pushing them over towards the remains of the buildings again. It was time to clear the roads.
    “You got to figure,” Sergeant Waterford said, from his position. Pataki didn’t want to talk, but what else could they do to avoid thinking about what they’re doing? “Why do they care about burying the bodies and clearing the roads?”
    “They probably want to avoid stinking the place out again,” Pataki offered, as he shovelled aside the remains of a house that had been struck by a missile. It had detonated inside and burned out the building, including any bodies, but most of the walls had remained intact. The aliens probably intended to flatten the whole village and build one of their own in its place. “They burned the bodies in Austin and made the entire place smell.”
    “You’d think they’d know better than that,” Waterford said. “Or maybe their bodies don’t burn smelly, but burn sweet perfume, or…”
    “Maybe,” Pataki said. It was a reminder that they were held captive by aliens, not strangely-shaped humans. They might do something completely irrational in the perfect confidence that it made sense. “Or…”
    The streak of light caught him completely by surprise. The missile – he recognised it at once as a Javelin antitank missile – streaked across from the countryside and slammed right into one of the alien tanks, which went up in a spectacular fireball. A second alien tank, trying to get into firing position, was hit as well; Pataki saw the turret come off as the missile exploded inside the tank. The third managed to get a hail of machine gun fire off towards the source of the missiles before the newcomers picked it off as well.
    “Get down,” he shouted, suddenly remembering where they were. They were caught right in the middle of a firefight – and completely unarmed and defenceless. The resistance, if it was the resistance, had to kill the aliens before they could scream for help. He threw himself to the hard ground as machine guns and automatic rifles joined the firing, bombarding the alien position heavily and sending two of the trucks up in flames. He spared a thought for the drivers, both of whom were probably dead, but there was no time to think. More rockets were coming down, bombarding the alien positions, and he felt a burst of hot pain as a piece of shrapnel sliced his cheek in passing. “Stay down…”
    An alien unit raced past them, trying to lay down covering fire, but it was too late. The resistance cut them down swiftly, sending concealed bodies falling to the ground as a handful of humans emerged from the buildings. They’d done it very well, Pataki realised; if they’d been in the village while they’d been moving the bodies, no one had realised that they were there. If they’d somehow sneaked up on them, they’d completely fooled the aliens. Other aliens were trying to concentrate and defend themselves, but there wasn't time to prepare; more rockets and grenades landed and shattered their defences.
    “Get on your feet, quickly,” the lead human shouted, as they cut down the remaining aliens. He bent down and applied a key to the chairs, unlocking the prisoners and allowing them to stand free for the first time in weeks. Pataki hadn’t known that it was possible to feel so good since the time he'd lost his virginity. They might die in the next few hours, but at least they’d die free. “Pick up the alien bodies and weapons and then come with us.”
    “Yes, sir,” Pataki said, and shouted orders. The entire scene had fallen quiet with the death of the last of the aliens – it was a pity, he realised, that they hadn’t set out to take prisoners themselves – but it wouldn’t be long before the aliens organised a rapid reaction force. How far were they from an alien base? Or, for that matter, would they simply strike them from orbit? Resistance fighters were moving among the alien vehicles, tossing grenades into them and completing their destruction, while others were scattering booby traps around the area. “What now?”
    “All right, listen up,” the leader shouted. Now that the shooting was over, he presented an almost larger-than-life image. “We have to move and we have to move fast. I want all the alien bodies carried together; follow your guide and we might manage to get you all out of here without losing anyone. Do as you’re told and you get to live.”
    He smiled suddenly. “Oh, and welcome to the resistance,” he added. “God bless America!”

Chapter Twenty-One

    Death by a thousand cuts – this is the time-honoured tactic of the guerrilla army against a large conventional force.
    – Mohammad Yousaf

    The unnatural darkness cloaked the small group of resistance fighters as they made their way towards the alien base. A bare few kilometres from Waco, the night should have been lit up by the glow of the cities and the human habitation all around them, but most of the power was gone. The citizens spent the night in near-complete darkness, illuminated only by candlelight and hand-powered flashlights, while the aliens didn’t seem to need the streetlights. It was possible, Pataki had been warned, that they saw in the dark better than humans, or that their black helmets included an advanced form of night-vision gear. It didn’t seem to matter that much; all that mattered, as far as he was concerned, was getting in as hard a punch as he could.
    The aliens hadn’t given chase when they’d been liberated from the destroyed village, allowing the resistance fighters to bring them to a hidden base somewhere within Texas, before arming them and inviting them to continue the fight. Texas seethed with resistance activity, from gasoline bombs being thrown at alien vehicles to attacks by entire companies of resistance fighters, but the aliens were developing their own tactics to counter them. The aliens had cut off most of the communication with the cities – although they didn’t seem to grasp the possibilities of the internet – and they were conducting persistent sweeps for resistance fighters. The tactic wasn’t that successful, but it forced the resistance to remain hidden, while coordinating over such a large area was proving difficult. Worst of all, the aliens had even started to figure out human relationships and, as they started to strengthen their control, a handful of resistance fighters were picked up at checkpoints.
    “If we could all coordinate, we might have a chance at actually throwing them out,” the leader had told him. Pataki had been told that the leader had been an accountant in a previous life, but he would have bet good money that there was some military experience in there somewhere. “As it happens, we can only hurt them and hope that people outside the red zone can get supplies in to us.”
    Pataki had been astonished to discover how many different groups there were. Mercenaries in training at one of Blackwater’s training camps had proven surprisingly effective…but then, most of them had been ex-servicemen of one kind or another. The inner city gangs had fought the aliens with the same determination they’d used to keep the police out of their territory, but the aliens had brought up heavy firepower and systematically blasted them out of their hiding places. Thousands of soldiers, cut off from the front lines, had turned into insurgents…and Fort Hood, he’d been told, was pinning down thousands of aliens in trying to sweep out the remains of the soldiers there. The entire situation was a bloody mess; he almost felt sorry for the aliens.
    Almost. Their base, ahead of him, had been built on the remains of yet another small town. It had been deserted before they arrived, but according to observers, the aliens had flattened all the buildings anyway, paying special attention to the two churches. It seemed to fit their normal pattern; the only religious places they left alone were graveyards, perhaps preferring to leave the dead alone. It was strange thinking of a star-faring race as being scared of ghosts, but maybe that was the answer, although he cautioned himself that just because he wanted to believe it didn’t make it true. The aliens had provoked more attacks on themselves by destroying religious buildings…and, by placing the base so far from major support, they’d handed the resistance a chance at a real success.
    Or, perhaps, it was a trap.
    The briefing had been clear enough. The aliens had deployed powerful radars around the red zone. Between them, they controlled the skies and blasted anything, aircraft or missile, out of them before they got close enough to do some damage. No aircraft flew on Earth now, apart from the handful of alien helicopters, which at least meant they could fire off anti-aircraft weapons at anything in the sky. The aliens didn’t seem – thank god – to deploy any heavy aircraft, either fighters or bombers, but they didn’t need them. If they were under heavy attack, they called in strikes from orbit…and they’d been doing more of that lately. Something had to be done to throw them back on their heels.
    He peered through his night-vision goggles towards the alien base. It was nothing much; a handful of vehicles, carefully organised to protect the vehicle in the centre, the source of all the radar emissions. The techs had gone on and on about multi-phased radar algorithms and bullshit like that, but as far as Pataki was concerned, his only task was to destroy the radar vehicle. No one had told him so, specifically, but he’d picked up enough to guess that his assault wasn't the only one being mounted. If they could knock down all of the alien radars…but then, they’d still have the ones in space. The very concept astonished him; the aliens could literally sweep the ground with radar emissions from orbit and pick up on any moving vehicle, maybe even a moving person. If it didn’t have the right IFF, it got blasted, automatically.
    All right, you bastards, he thought, as he surveyed the remainder of the base. Where are you?
    The aliens had billeted their forces in what had probably once been a school. A handful were patrolling around the outskirts of the village, but the remainder were supporting the vehicles, watching for any incoming threat. It all looked surprisingly lax to him – he would have established random patrols of the area, just in case – but maybe the aliens couldn’t afford to expend more people on guarding the radar base. It was even possible that they were running out of soldiers, although that happy thought was probably wishful thinking. They couldn’t rely on the aliens running out of manpower any time soon.
    “Sarge,” one of his men whispered. “Look.”
    Pataki followed the pointing finger. A group of humans sat there, chained to a truck, a human truck. They didn’t look very pleased to be there, which probably meant that they were slaves, as he had been, rather than collaborators. There were actually quite a few alien collaborators now, although most of them were working for the aliens under duress, their families held hostage for their good behaviour. Pataki was glad, despite himself, that he didn’t have any family in Texas; what would he do if he were told that he had the choice between betraying the resistance, or his family being killed?
    “We’ll get them out,” he muttered. “Are the mortar teams ready?”
    “Aye, boss,” another man said. He actually had been a government official, too low-level to be important, before the invasion. He’d taken to underground work like a duck took to water. Somehow, he was also one of the best shots in the small company. “They’re ready.”
    Pataki smiled, carefully sighted his M16 on one of the alien guards, and pulled the trigger. The alien fell. A moment later, all hell broke loose as the mortars opened fire as one, their shells targeted on the alien radar. Mortars weren't the most accurate weapon in the world, but they’d had plenty of time to choose their targets and at least one shell landed directly on the alien radar. A chain of explosions tore it apart as the aliens returned fire…
    Damn, they’re fast, Pataki thought. His position had barely been missed by a machine gun mounted on one of the IFVs. One of his men took aim with a Javelin and expended it, against orders, on the IFV, blowing it up in a massive fireball. The remaining aliens, forced back into the school, fired down desperately towards the human positions, daring them to attack the school and flush them out of their position. Pataki smiled, nodded to one of the missile teams, and watched as they launched a single missile right through one of the school windows. Judging from the size of the explosion, the aliens had been stockpiling ammunition inside for quite some time; if any of them had survived, it would be God’s own miracle.
    “Get the prisoners,” he snapped. The aliens would respond harshly and, despite his belief that they were being attacked all over Texas, he knew that they didn’t dare stick around. “Squad Two; you’re on rearguard. The rest of you, fuck off; we’ll meet you at the rendezvous point, assuming we survive.”
    “Yes, sir,” the former government worker said, rapidly packing up his mortar and retreating. Pataki rolled his eyes – he’d told the man never to call him ‘sir’ a dozen times and it still hadn’t taken – and watched grimly as the former prisoners were released and welcomed to the resistance.
    “Time to take our leave,” he said, as Squad Two rapidly completed their work. The alien bodies – so far, no one had taken an alien alive, apparently – were being booby-trapped with grenades and a handful of mines. The aliens recovered all of their bodies, apart from the ones that had been spirited away by the resistance, and if they were lucky, they would kill a handful of aliens when they came to retrieve these bodies. The alien vehicles, he suspected, were well beyond repair. “Move out!”
    They vanished back out into the silent night…except it wasn't silent. The still night air could carry sound an amazing distance and he could hear, faintly, the sound of shots and fighting. In the distance, he could see new fires burning…and, when he looked up, he could see twinkling in the night sky. Something was happening up there, he was sure…but what?

***

    The ground-based laser vehicle hadn’t been a great success in trials, Mikkel Ellertson knew, despite the best that the researchers could do. The laser was the most powerful built on Earth, so far, but it couldn’t slice through metal like a knife through butter; that, alas, was still in the realm of science-fiction. It could – and had – be used to trigger off missiles before they could impact on the ground, but it couldn’t be used to destroy alien spacecraft high above. If it could, it would have prevented the aliens from seizing control of Low Earth Orbit and the entire war would have gone very differently.
    What it could do was damage sensitive components. Ellertson, a student of high technology since he’d been a little kid watching his father solder together a mass of components to produce something weird and wonderful, was certain that the alien space-based radars were actually quite fragile. If they were deployed in zero-gee, they could have been built without any of the limitations that ground-based systems hard, hardened against any kind of attack. The aliens thought that their radar system was untouchable…and, as far as missiles were concerned, they were right. A missile could destroy the station with ease, assuming that it reached the alien radar, but it would be burned out of space a long time before it reached attack range. The alien lasers could burn through steel, if not immediately.
    “Target locked,” one of the technicians said. Ellertson shivered, despite himself; they couldn’t use active sensors to track the alien craft, but the alien radar was pumping out a formidable amount of energy with each sweep. It might as well have been taunting them; it was easy to track it, but far less easy to attack it. “Laser primed and ready.”
    Ellertson picked up the field telephone. “We’re ready,” he said, without preamble. “Go?”
    “Ten seconds from my mark,” the voice on the other end said. “Mark.”
    Ellertson counted down the seconds. “Fire,” he barked, as soon as he reached zero. The humming from the laser truck grew louder, but there was no sign of any other effect; the laser beam was almost invisible in the air, although some people might see a hint of its presence. “Run!”
    The laser was firing on automatic now. He could almost imagine the beam pumping energy into the alien system, vital components frying and being damaged, even as the alien craft zeroed in on the source of the attack. They sprinted as far as they could from the vehicles, knowing that the aliens would react swiftly to the attack, wondering which laser would be the first to go. There were a dozen stations pumping out laser fire, trying to take down the alien radar network before the aliens could react…and one of them would be the first hit. Perhaps…
    The ground heaved and threw him through the air, smashing him into a rock. He felt, in slow motion, his bones start to break under the impact…and then darkness came for him. He almost welcomed it. Behind him, the laser truck had been almost completely obliterated by the alien strike.

***

    The display had been showing the eerie red sweeps of the alien radars, both the space-based and ground-based systems, but now, one by one, they were blanking out. The operator turned to General Ridgley and gave him the thumbs up; the alien network had been knocked down, for now. They’d have a window of opportunity to hurt the aliens before they got their radar network set up again and started to strike back.
    He lifted his field telephone and smiled. “All units, this is base,” he said. “Go!”

***

    Captain William Morrigan, USN, checked the message slip against the codebook and winced. The USS Nebraska had been lurking in deep water ever since the aliens had started their invasion, hoping that they would have a chance to launch their missiles against a target in orbit, if not a target on the ground. The possibility that they might be called upon to nuke Texas had sparked some interesting debate in the wardroom, but most of the crew had understood that it would be their duty, although several seaman who had come from Texas had almost collapsed when they realised that they might have to kill their own families.
    “I have an authorised launch code,” he said, once he had briefed the firing crew. He inserted his key into the launch system and waited. “Do you concur?”
    One by one, the remaining four officers inserted their own keys. The order had been simple and, in some ways, it was almost a relief. They had to fire two missiles, programmed to detonate at high attitude and generate an EMP pulse, which would – hopefully – disrupt the aliens from counterattacking.
    “Missile primed and launched,” he said, finally. The boat shook as the missile was discharged from its tube in a burst of pressurized gas. A moment later, its rocket engine ignited and propelled it towards space. The second missile followed moments later. “Helm, take us out of here, somewhere deep!”
    The Russians had reported that the aliens had killed two of their ballistic missile submarines from orbit, Morrigan knew, and there was no point in taking chances. They had to run silent, run deep…and hope that the aliens were too occupied to fire back. The odds were in their favour, he hoped…

***

    The MLRS truck had been carefully camouflaged and positioned only a short distance from the alien lines. Its crew had been amazingly lucky to get as close as they had, although given that the MLRS looked fairly harmless from the air, it might have simply been mistaken for a truck and ignored. The aliens might have worked hard to prevent human vehicles from moving within the red zone, but there were so many vehicles of all kinds in the United States that destroying them all from orbit might have expended all of their projectiles. They still shot at tanks and other obviously military vehicles, but they tended to leave civilian vehicles alone, unless they presented a very temping target. The railroads had been almost completely shut down by the aliens, so the truck was being used to move food and supplies across the United States…and military gear. The logistics were interesting and, in places, hung by a shoestring.
    The aliens hadn’t created a World War One-style network of trenches and so there was a ‘no man’s land’ between their positions and the human forces, gathering in strength. Both sides were uneasily aware that they could be attacked at any moment, and the aliens had insurgents to worry about, and so the border had been surprisingly peaceful, although the KEWs had continued to fall. The aliens had been fairly confident of their ability to defeat any conventional attack and so…they might, the crew hoped, have grown a little overconfident.
    Time to show them the error of their ways, the commander thought, as he made the final checks on his vehicle. The briefing had warned that the alien parasite ships would have something else to worry about, but they couldn’t rely on that. He smiled, briefly, as the sky lit up with a blinding glow in the distance. The first of the nukes had detonated. That explained why the higher-ups had thought that the aliens would be distracted, although no one knew how much EMP shielding the alien technology mounted. What little had fallen into human hands had been crude, but functional. That hadn’t stopped them tearing the guts out of the USA – or, for that matter, the rest of the world.
    “Fire,” he ordered. The MLRS elevated to launch position and started to fire. Illuminated by the flare of the rockets, the crew ran for their lives, abandoning their vehicle. The aliens might still be able to react, somehow. He watched, as they reached their pre-prepared bunker, as the rockets continued to fly towards the alien base. They looked to have been completely surprised. Their lasers weren't even burning the rounds out of the air. A moment later, he started to hear explosions as the rounds came down in the alien positions, shattering their defences.
    Operation Lone Star had begun.

Chapter Twenty-Two

    Surprise is the one constant in the universe.
    – Anon

    The SSTO slowly fell away from the Guiding Star. Researcher Femala sat back in her chair and tried to force herself to relax as the pilot started to guide the shuttle down towards the planet below, but it was impossible to be calm. She was about to set foot on a new world, the first female to set foot on the planet Earth. How could she be calm when excitement was bubbling up within her chest, her four hearts beating like crazy as the craft’s engines fired, pushing them out of orbit? How could she keep herself composed when she was going to study the human technology in its own environment?
    The High Priest had sent her on the mission, she knew, because she was expendable. Females were the source of the new warriors, and the females who supported them, and as a sterile Clan-less female, Femala wouldn’t ever be having children of her own. It wasn't unknown for a clan-less female to raise her own clan, sometimes creating one more powerful than the one that had disowned her, but that wasn't possible for her. If she died down on Earth, as so many of the warriors had done, it wouldn’t hurt the development of Earth at all. The High Priest might mourn her passing, but he’d be the only one who would even care. The remainder of the settlement force would probably be glad that she was gone. She felt a sudden burst of delighted amusement, remembering the faces of the other researchers; how could they prove themselves when it was Femala who would be on the ground, Femala the person who would make the discoveries that would tap human ingenuity for the good of the Truth? How could having children and expanding their clans compare to bringing new technology to the Takaina?
    Her smile grew wider as the shuttle continued its plunge towards the surface. The only other female in the compartment, a researcher into human behaviour who needed new subjects to study, was clearly terrified. She had been the best at her job, but the High Priest had had to order her to take the trip down to the surface, escorted by a unit of warriors. Femala watched, with a kind of disinterested amusement, how the warriors preened themselves in front of her, trying to convince her to choose one of them as a mate. Warriors didn’t have much to do with clan leadership – that was the domain of females – but if they helped create the children, they had a certain place within the clan. Normally, that was a serious matter, but now, with a world being invaded and death lurking for them somewhere on the blue-green orb, they were treating it lightly, almost as a joke. The poor researcher wasn't flattered; she was terrified…and Femala found it hard not to laugh. She would only have interacted with males on the Guiding Star, where they were properly respectful, not in a combat zone. Femala almost wished that they would pay her that much attention, but the brand on her forehead marked her clearly as sterile, a woman who wouldn’t be the mother of a warrior’s immortality.
    The shuttle shook, suddenly, and the lights dimmed. Femala heard the other female cry out in panic, wondering what could cause the lights to suddenly dim Femala knew that it normally meant that power was being rerouted to somewhere else on the shuttle, perhaps the guiding systems themselves. The shuttle was a tough modular construction, a simple device built for landing a small number of people or a tiny amount of cargo on a world, but it was far from perfect. If they were being forced to take evasive action – if there was anything that could shoot at them on the ground – they would rapidly burn through all their fuel, and fall to Earth and crash. They were probably no longer capable of returning to orbit. The craft shook again and she peered through the porthole, watching as Earth span below them, and shivered. The planet was massive…and it was getting closer.
    “Remain calm,” the pilot said, through the intercom. “The base on the planet is under attack and…”
    His voice fuzzed out suddenly. Femala stared as the lights dimmed still further and computer screens blinked out. The craft had to have taken a major hit from an EMP, she realised, but that wouldn’t have knocked out everything. The craft was still under power, as much of the systems were shielded, but not all of them. The odds were that the shuttle was still going to crash. Gravity would make that inevitable…but they might still survive. Her fate rested in the hands of the pilot and his crew.
    “What’s happening?” The researcher female demanded. Femala knew that she should ask the woman’s name and share what reassurance she could, but she’d been driving Femala mad ever since they had first met, assuming a superiority she didn’t possess. She thought she was better than Femala, just because she could bear children, and society would back her up. “You’re the technician, what’s happening?”
    Femala kept the cruel smile she wanted to show off her face as she explained, in precise detail, what was going on and just how many things could go wrong and get them killed. If the craft had been in orbit, she could have aided the pilot in repairing the damage…but then, if they had been in orbit, one of the parasite ships would have recovered them and brought them back to the Guiding Star, the adventure at an end before it had even begun. Clearly, the High Priest and the Arbitrators had underestimated the human capability for fighting back. Anyone would think that they didn’t want to be converted to the Truth.
    The researcher seemed to shake more as Femala outlined the possibilities, but at least she listened quietly, allowing Femala a chance to think. They’d been entering an orbit for a landing at once of the human airfields that had been repaired and pressed into service when the EMP had hit. The odds were that most of their systems had been knocked out. If the main engines weren't working, they would plummet to their deaths, but if they were, they could probably land…but where? Would they still come down in occupied territory, or would they land amidst the wild humans?
    “We’re going to have to go for a landing,” the pilot said. Standard emergency procedure encouraged getting the ship down as fast as possible, but the procedure hadn’t been created for a war zone. “I want everyone to remain in their chairs until we land, whereupon we might have to evacuate the ship as fast as possible.”
    One of the warriors had clearly been thinking along the same lines. “Pilot, where will we land?”
    “Unknown,” the pilot said. There was a long uncomfortable pause. “I’m not even sure that I can guarantee landing on the land. The beacons are all down and I can’t pick up any station to guide us down.”
    Femala smiled to herself as the researcher started to panic again. The idea of coming down in the water wasn't as bad as it seemed. The shuttle would float for a short period, although there would be no hope of recovery, unless the humans picked them up and offered to trade them for humans within the occupied zone. Judging from the researcher’s face, she was more worried about having to swim, rather than meeting uncontrolled humans, without a squad of warriors to protect her. She’d spent most of the last few cycles studying captured human materials…and she knew, probably better than Femala, how unpleasant humans could be. The thought of capture wasn't a pleasant one. The old laws of war allowed warriors to be killed, but females were allowed to live, but the humans knew nothing of such laws. On the other hand, they probably wouldn’t kill Femala for being sterile.
    “I’m firing the main engines now,” the pilot said. “Remain in your chairs.”
    Gravity returned suddenly as the roar of the engines cut through the air. Femala could tell, at once, that there was something badly wrong. The sound of the rockets was rougher than it should have been, and nastier. She could hear the shuttle’s frame screaming in protest as the craft fought to avoid a fatal craft; for the first time in far too long, she found herself mouthing prayers as they plummeted towards the ground. The roar rose to a crescendo, and then suddenly faded, half of the racket simply vanishing. She knew what that meant; one of the engines had flamed out, perhaps condemning them if they were still too high. The craft seemed to shudder, again, and then the ground rose up and hit them. Dull thunder echoed through her head as the shuttle tipped, tilted towards the ground…and Femala blacked out.

***

    Captain Andrew Stocker and the company had been on patrol in eastern Arkansas when they had seen the falling star. The alien occupation had sent hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Texas and his duty had been to find them and escort them to refugee camps, where they could be processed. Most of them were harmless, mainly men and women who were willing to work for food and help rebuild as much as they could of the state, but some were criminals and others had been forced into working for the aliens. They normally were easy to spot, but most of them tried to escape rather than surrender, although a couple had tried to shoot their way out of the trap. The ones who were captured confessed at once, admitting that the aliens had their families under their control as hostages, but they couldn’t be trusted. The soldiers sent them to a prison camp in the north and prayed to themselves that they would never be faced with the same decision.
    They had seen the alien craft from a distance and it had been obvious that it was trying to land. One of the men had produced a Stinger – they’d had hundreds distributed to the soldiers and resistance fighters, in hopes of wearing down the alien helicopter force – and taken aim, but Stocker had ordered him to hold fire. The craft was definitely trying to land, hundreds of miles from the red zone…and it was clearly in trouble. It came down, a demented cross between Thunderbird One and Thunderbird Three, and he felt a moment of respect for the pilot. It was clear that his craft was in deep shit, but he was working desperately to prevent a crash, struggling with his engines to land safely on the ground.
    “We need to take that craft intact,” he muttered, knowing that it might prove futile. The alien pilot was good, but if his drives cut out at the wrong moment, the craft would plunge to the ground and explode. Probably. At the very least, it would be unusable. If they could gain control of a working alien craft, it would unlock new secrets…hell, maybe they could fly it up to space and bomb the aliens from orbit. “Sergeant, I want a perimeter around the craft; I’ll lead the squad that investigates.”
    He ignored the Sergeant’s comment that he shouldn’t put himself in danger. Wild horses couldn’t have kept him from meeting the aliens directly. The craft was clearly at the end of its tether – the noise of its rockets sputtered, bare meters above the ground, and failed – and it hit the ground with a thud. Stocker covered his eyes, expecting an explosion, but instead the craft tilted, slowly, and fell over. It lay on the ground, smoking slightly, waiting for them.
    “Come on,” he hissed, and led the way down to the craft. Up close, it was massive, but somehow they would have to camouflage it and hide it from the aliens. He’d sent for a camouflage team, but they’d have to be incredibly lucky – if Lone Star hadn’t blinded the aliens, they’d already be scrambling a response. The craft was rapidly cooling, but the waves of heat would probably be noticeable from orbit. They swept around the craft and located a hatch, set within the cooling metal, and he knocked. There was no response.
    “There,” the Sergeant said, pointing to a smaller section within the hatch. Stocker realised that it was a control of some kind and pulled it. The hatch unlocked, but it took the combined strength of three soldiers to pull it open and lock it in place. A wave of hot air, smelling of something indefinably alien, struck them in the face, but Stocker pushed forward anyway, shining his torch ahead of him. It was a disaster area; the entire interior of the craft had been torn to pieces, but he could see some bodies. The alien engineering had held up, barely; he barked an order and the soldiers started to recover the bodies. There were nine live aliens, in total, including two with very noticeable breasts. He had to remind himself that they might not actually be female. “Sir, what do we do with them?”
    “Get them to the hideout and have the medics work on them,” Stocker ordered, after a long moment’s thought. If they could take the aliens alive, they'd have to give him a proper combat role, rather than patrolling the rear. “Check them for any kind of weapon and then move them out, carefully. We need to get them well away from here before dawn.”
    The sense that the aliens would be taking steps to prevent them escaping with this treasure trove forced him forward, exploring the higher reaches of the craft. It had once stood on its end; now, lying on the ground, it was hard to reach the cockpit, but when he managed to climb inside, he found two more dead aliens. He examined them quickly, trying to determine what had killed them, but there didn’t seem to be any kind of real damage. They had cuts and scars from damaged consoles, but…there didn’t seem to be any real reason why they were dead. It was a complete mystery.
    “Get these bodies as well,” he hissed, as the camouflage team arrived. Moving the alien craft before dawn would be impossible, but if they could hide it, they could break it up and move it, piece by piece. “Sergeant, get a couple of others up here and strip the craft of anything we can carry; books, files, whatever…”
    “Yes, sir,” the sergeant said.
    Stocker managed to climb back to the hatch and out into the cool air. Lights were twinkling high above him and he could only hope that one of them wasn't an alien KEW, coming to ensure that no alien secrets fell into human hands. If they could hide the craft…
    “Sir, look at their foreheads,” one of the junior lieutenants said. “They’re marked!”
    “Yeah, so?” Stocker asked coldly. The priority was getting the prisoners away from their craft, not discussing their tattoos. They’d be discussing the alien breasts next. “What about them?”
    “They destroy religious buildings and they have marks on their forehead,” the lieutenant pointed out. “It could be the Mark of the Beast. They could be demons, or the servants of the antichrist…”
    Stocker stared at him for a long moment. “You’ve been reading Left Behind too much,” he said, dryly. “This whole war is quite bad enough without adding supernatural elements to the problem, don’t you think? They bleed and die when we shoot them, so they’re not demons, are they?”

***

    Femala felt her head swimming as, slowly, she returned to awareness. It took her time – it felt like entire cycles – to remember what had just happened. The shuttle had crashed, but somehow, she was still alive. They had to have come down in occupied territory, then, and the warriors had recovered their craft. The gravity was slightly heavier than that on the Guiding Star’s habitation section, which meant that they were still on Earth. The field medics had probably insisted that they remain on the planet until they were fit to return to orbit.
    She opened her eyes and got the shock of her life. She knew, instantly, that she was lying inside a human room. The bed wasn't designed for her race – it was softer than any that they would have used – and the proportions were all wrong. Sprawled across the bed, she struggled to sit up, only to discover that she was strapped down. A massive black shape leaned over her and she cringed back, convinced that he was a demon and had come to drag her to the shadow pits for her disbelief. Cold logic asserted itself, eventually, and she realised that she was looking at a human. It took her a moment to realise that his dark skin tone was his natural colour, rather than a dread disease, and that he was smiling at her.
    His voice was soft, but still too loud for Femala’s ears. “Can you understand me?”
    She winced from the pain. “Yes,” she said, softly. She’d had to learn the human language to talk to their captives, but she hadn’t imagined being a captive herself…and stark naked into the bargain. The air was really too cold for normal clothing, let alone nakedness. Females might have bared their breasts as a matter of course, but they didn’t undress completely unless they had chosen a mate…and a father for their children. “What do you want?”
    “We’re going to try to make you better,” the human assured her. His voice had softened, revealing that he had realised her problem, she hoped. Human medical science might be better or worse than that of the Takaina, but they wouldn’t know how to treat any of them. They might kill her with the best of intentions. “Once you’re well, we’ll discuss what’s going to happen to you next. Perhaps you can help us bring the war to an end.”

Chapter Twenty-Three

    No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.
    – Anon

    “What do you mean, they’re attacking us?”
    By long-standing tradition, the High Priest was never woken during his sleeping periods unless it was an absolute emergency. It was something that he had learned wasn’t the great advantage of high rank that it had seemed, back when he’d been a lowly under-priest at the mercy of his superiors. No high-ranking priest could avoid his duties, not even the High Priest…and if he started to neglect them, the lower-rankers would start sharpening their knifes.
    “They have launched a major attack against us,” the War Leader said, as a display of Earth appeared in front of them. “Submarines have launched missiles against us and their EMP has blinded some of our systems. Their ground forces are engaging our forces on the ground and human insurgents are making reinforcing them difficult.”
    They timed their assault perfectly, the High Priest said, as the display updated rapidly. The space-based radars had been knocked out, almost completely, and the parasite ships had been given too many problems of their own to contend with. The Takaina had honestly never thought of the possibility of using submarines to launch missiles, so while the orbital bombardment units had fired back at once, it was quite possible that the human submarines had escaped and lurked somewhere under the water. Do they know us that well?
    He shook his head. It didn’t matter at the moment. “We were too gentle with them the first time,” the Inquisitor said. “We should have moved at once to convert them, rather than…”
    “Quiet,” the High Priest said, firmly. He didn’t have time for recriminations, particularly not from the Inquisitor. “War leader, where are the remaining parasite ships?”
    “In orbit,” the War Leader said. “They have not been engaged.”
    The High Priest thought rapidly. The other human powers weren't important, not as long as they could only kill their fellow humans, but if the human Americans managed to destroy the occupied zone, the Takaina would lose over two hundred thousand warriors and their supporting units. It wasn’t a real choice; they had to leave the Chinese and Russians without surveillance, just to maintain their whole.
    They didn’t cooperate with the Americans, he thought, vaguely. In their place, he would have involved the Chinese and Russians in the attack as well. It might even have been decisive, but instead, both powers remained quiet. They’d sent a Russian ambassador back down to Earth, but they’d accidentally killed the Chinese representative when they’d boarded the human space station. In hindsight, that had been a mistake, but not one that could have been avoided.
    “Order the parasites to swarm over to the occupied zone and punish the humans for their imprudence,” he said. “Surge the secondary occupation forces into their landing craft and prepare to insert them into the occupied zone.”
    The War Leader hesitated. “Your Holiness, the secondary occupation forces are not prepared for a landing under fire,” he said. “If the humans win on the ground, we will be throwing them all away, for nothing. If not…if not, the forces we have on the ground should be capable of maintaining their control, with support from orbit.”
    The High Priest nodded slowly. The deployment of the secondary occupation force would limit their ability to secure a second beachhead on Earth, let alone a third. The researchers were studying the human religions now, locating the places that were of religious importance to the human race. The human religions, in some ways, were rather like the Truth, although a junior version of its truthfulness. It was suggested, deep in the sealed files, that at one time the Takaina had had several religions and the Truth had been a merger of them, but that was the foulest blasphemy. Once the human religions were crushed, they would be ready for the Truth.
    “Hold the secondary forces in reserve, for the moment,” he ordered. “I want this assault defeated before the end of the day.”
    “Of course, Your Holiness,” the War Leader said.

***

    The alien tanks drove right down the centre of the road, their guns firing at anything that looked even the slightest bit suspicious. It didn’t save them; the mines that had been carefully hidden in the sewer detonated, suddenly collapsing part of the road and disrupting their path. They crashed into each other, suddenly brought to a helpless stop, as bullets started to rain down on them from the surrounding buildings. The alien soldiers, buttoned up in the IFVs, remained within the vehicles, trying to return fire with the weapons mounted on the outsides. Trapped, they couldn’t bring them to bear on their tormentors.
    “Now,” Brent snapped, and seven Molotov cocktails were thrown into the alien position. Intact, the alien craft could have shrugged them off and kept coming, but broken as they were, the burning fuel would really ruin their day. The snipers picked off a handful of aliens who were trying to escape, while others watched for signs of an alien response. It wasn't long in coming. “Run!”
    The aliens had sent in a much larger ground force since the first insurgency. They had managed to tighten security around the Texas State Capital to the point where Brent couldn’t get anyone back inside the secure zone; humans, even collaborators, weren't allowed into the building. It helped that most of the collaborators were helping the aliens under duress and were quite willing to help the resistance, but they weren't allowed inside the secure zone. A handful, broken and defeated, had offered to carry bombs, but there was no point. They couldn’t get anything important.
    He keyed his radio once as he ran. “Fire the rockets,” he ordered. “Now!”
    There was no response, but then, he hadn’t expected one. The rockets had been assembled using basic components that could be found everywhere, built by rocket-enthusiasts who were, one and all, furious at the aliens for taking away the stars. They probably weren’t very accurate – he would have compared them to the old Russian Katyusha system, which he had actually seen in action – but they would definitely upset the aliens. The scream of the rockets could be heard all over the city as the teams launched them towards their targets and then fled. The alien helicopters were coming. This time, the helicopters remained high above, firing tiny rockets of their own towards the launch teams, rather than coming in low where they could be attacked by Stingers.
    They’re learning, he thought, as he retreated back to the second base. The aliens were sweeping the entire area, building by building, and they weren't hesitating to bring in the heavy firepower. He saw entire blocks blasted to rubble on suspicion of harbouring snipers, probably killing far too many civilians in the process. Most of the civilian population had been encouraged to leave for the outskirts – the aliens weren't allowing anyone to actually leave the city – but there were still thousands of them caught in the firing line. He prayed for their safety, even as he imperilled it, deploying his teams of insurgents to hurt the aliens. The noise of IEDs could be heard all over the city. One of his team, an ex-Marine, had been working overtime to make them and emplace them around the city, including – somehow – in a building the aliens were using as a barracks. By now, they had to be feeling a little paranoid…
    The ground crunched under his feet as he ran. It was easy to pick out the remains of hundreds of Transformer toys, shot up by the aliens. It was a complete mystery why they were there, unless the aliens had decided that they were something to do with human religion and destroyed them, and he dismissed it as he ran. The alien helicopters were coming closer and he threw himself into a lobby as they swooped past, engaging anything they saw that looked hostile. He pulled himself to his feet and started the climb towards the vantage point, hoping that he’d be able to see something of the overall situation. The office block, almost like the one they’d used as a base, what felt like years ago, was covered with broken glass and completely deserted. He hoped that the occupants had managed to escape before the war began, or maybe they’d remained in the city, maybe fighting the insurgency. It was so hard to be sure of anything these days…
    Austin was burning, again. He stared out over the city as dawn rose, revealing new fires burning through the city…and hundreds of aliens on the streets. Humans were almost completely absent, the only man he saw clearly an alien collaborator, although not one he recognised. The insurgency seemed to have been defeated, again, but conventional wisdom proclaimed that a victory. They had survived another alien attempt to annihilate them. He wanted to draw his pistol and shoot the collaborator, but it wouldn’t be easy to hit him with a handgun at that range…and it would definitely give away his presence. The aliens seemed to have regained control and, for the moment, it would be unwise to challenge them again.
    He looked up at the streaks of light, coming down in the distance, and shuddered.
    He knew what they meant.

***

    The tank charged forward, gunning its engine, every member of the crew knowing that the next second could be his last. There was no way of knowing just how badly the alien orbital bombardment system had been damaged, or even, really, just how it worked. The observatories swore that they’d seen the projectiles launched from the parasite ships and guided in by the orbital radar system, but how could they know for sure? The weapons weren't perfectly accurate, but given how much power even a single KEW possessed, they didn’t have to be perfect. They just had to come down within a few meters of the tanks to destroy them.
    But there was no choice. The aliens had massed a few kilometres to the south and the three-prong human force had to break through and destroy their base, and their armoured forces. If they could be destroyed, they could use infantry to continue the assault when dawn rose and the aliens got back into position, but if not…they would probably lose the war. Captain Jim McCoy peered nervously through his sensors, probing the darkness for the first signs of the alien tanks, and waited. It wouldn’t be long before they had what they’d been longing for all along; a direct clash with the alien armour, without their orbital weapons. His tank, Heavy Messing, had been lucky to survive so far, but now…
    “There,” he snapped, as the first shape appeared. It was an ominous shape, even though part of him admired the design, and the flexibility it gave the alien leaders. The Americans had knocked down bridges across Texas, but the aliens had just crossed the rivers like hovercraft, which he supposed they were. They were very suitable for intimidating civilians, but against American tanks…they were about to get a surprise. “Load antitank, prepare to fire!”
    “Loaded, sir,” the gunner said. The laser targeting system had the enemy tank perfectly targeted. The alien driver was bringing has vehicle around with terrifying speed, far faster than his tank could move, but it wouldn’t save them. “Ready to fire…”
    “Fire,” McCoy barked. The tank shook as it fired the shell towards the alien vehicle. A moment later, they were rewarded by a billowing fireball consuming the alien craft and it’s crew. A second alien tank appeared, and then a third, turning to face the Americans. The other tanks in the force were firing now, as well, with the aliens caught out of place. The aliens lost seven tanks before the remainder could start to return fire…
    But when they did, it was effective. McCoy had taken part in the invasion of Iraq and he’d come face to face with a group of Iraqi tanks that should have made mincemeat of his entire force, but instead their shells had bounced off the Abrams, while they themselves were ripped apart by the American vehicles. The aliens, on the other hand, were quite capable of destroying the American tanks and when they hit, they destroyed. Losses, now, were going to be about even.
    God bless the infantry, he thought, as they engaged the alien tanks with Javelins. The aliens had to know that they’d been caught out of place and that retreat would be the best option, but the tankers had been warned not to allow a single vehicle to survive, if they had a choice. The higher-ups believed that the aliens had no way of getting a resupply from their homeworld, wherever the hell it was, and any destroyed vehicle, they lost permanently. One by one, the alien craft were destroyed and he drove forward, onto what had once been a training camp for scouts or something. A hail of high-explosive shells finished off the remains of the alien positions, leaving the entire camp in flaming ruins…
    “Call in,” he ordered. They couldn’t use their radios, but now they’d managed to get a new network of field telephones set up, they could communicate with HQ. “Tell them that…”
    Something moved across the sky. He had barely a second to realise what it was before the KEW came down a bare meter from Heavy Messing. There was nothing left of the tank, or of its crew.

***

    “They’re getting slaughtered out there,” the aide said, in growing dismay. The first parts of the assault had worked so well, but now…now, the aliens were counter-attacking and they’d moved up more orbital bombardment platforms. The passive sensors, tuned to detect alien radar sweeps, were warning that they were deploying more space-based radars…and, in slow inevitable motion, the armoured forces were being destroyed. “Sir…”
    General Ridgley closed his eyes. “Call them off,” he ordered, and knew that the aliens wouldn’t let it go. They’d known more about their operations than he’d realised; they’d picked off, almost casually, several bases they weren't supposed to know about, including the dummy ones. They hadn’t used dummy weapons either. “Call them all off and terminate the offensive.”
    It hadn’t been a complete loss, he knew, as the further reports came in. They had hurt the aliens, sometimes badly, and they had managed to get a few thousand civilians out of the firing line, but overall…they had lost. The aliens had managed to make the red zone completely impregnable, as long as they retained their command of space, and yet…getting at the aliens in space seemed impossible. Perhaps the captured ship would provide some clues, or maybe…maybe, they had lost. Maybe it was the end.
    “Get the post-battle reports in as soon as you can,” he ordered, finally. “Once everyone is debriefed, we can decide what to do next.”

***

    The President looked a broken man. “Operation Lone Star failed,” General Hastings admitted. “I take full responsibility and…”
    “Enough of that,” the President said, bitterly. The guilt in his voice made the listeners shiver. “I ordered the attack, after all. What happened?”
    “They kicked our asses,” General Hastings said. “We had some successes, but once they brought up more parasite ships, they pounded everything of ours that they could see. I don’t think that there’s an active tank left in Texas or the surrounding states. The insurgents hurt them worst, but without our support, the aliens gave them a beating as well.”
    The President didn’t want to ask, but there was no choice. “How many dead?”
    General Hastings hesitated. “Around two to three hundred thousand,” he admitted, reluctantly. The President blanched. America hadn’t taken so many losses in a single battle since…well, ever. “We massed every fighting man we could who wasn't needed elsewhere, with all of the armour and supporting units that we could muster, and deployed them against the aliens. The assault failed. The figure might be too high, Mr President; the guards at the border have been discovering hundreds of stragglers trying to make their way out of the red zone.”
    “Thank you,” the President said. He looked over at Paul. “We caught some prisoners, right?”
    Paul winced inwardly. The President sounded as if he were coming apart. “Yes, Mr President,” he said. “We took eight prisoners alive. We had a ninth prisoner, but he died on us while the medics were trying to save his life. We’re still not sure why. Two of them speak English and are talking to us, the remaining six don’t speak English…”
    “Unless they’re playing possum,” Deborah growled. Paul had to admit that she had a point. They knew so little about the aliens, let alone the difference between real illness and faking it. The doctors would certainly refuse to try drugging the aliens with human truth drugs. “What sort of information are we getting from them at the moment?”
    Paul frowned. “They’re still a little in shock,” he said. “The two females – those are the ones who speak English – are rather stunned by being captured. One of them seems to be a researcher into humanity; the other…we’re not sure what her role is, yet. The males appear to have been their escort.”
    “Find out what they know,” the President ordered. Paul suspected that the aliens would know very little that was tactically useful, but the President was right; they had to find out what the aliens had in mind. “If only what will happen now.”
    “They’ll attack northwards,” General Hastings said. “There’s fuck-all left to oppose them now, apart from the militias and the survivalists. It’s going to take weeks to rebuild the shattered force from the survivors. They knew we’re weak, so they might come after us…”
    “Then we have to go nuclear, now,” Deborah said, firmly. “What other choice, young man, do we have?”
    Paul had no answer.
    “Find one,” the President ordered. “Do whatever you have to do.”
    He left the room, a broken man.

Chapter Twenty-Four

    Nations do not have permanent allies, only permanent interests.
    – Anon

    Ambassador Philippe Laroche tried to remain calm as the F-15 raced over the Atlantic Ocean towards Europe – and France. The American fighter might be the first aircraft since the invasion had begun to actually fly over the sea; the aliens had picked off every aircraft that had been in flight since the war began and then tried to keep the remainder of the human aircraft firmly grounded. No one dared to fly, he’d been told, apart from very short trips, although there were plenty of American daredevils willing to risk sudden death from above in making flights across America. The death rate was apparently high; a handful of people who’d tried to fly into the alien-controlled red zone had disappeared without trace.
    He’d barely listened to the pilot’s occasional chatter, lost in his own thoughts. The American assault on the aliens had failed – and badly. The loss of so many American soldiers and their equipment was going to have a serious effect on their ability to continue fighting. At worst, it might even prove fatal. The aliens would, everyone expected, start expanding the red zone soon…and there was very little to stand in their way, but partisan resistance. They’d done something that no one had done for a very long time and beaten an American army in the field.
    And, by doing so, they had scared hell out of the rest of the world.
    The flight from Washington to France had been carefully planned, but the F-15 was on its last legs when it finally started to descend over France, towards a little airfield in the west. The French Air Force, like almost every other air force in the world, had taken a beating and lost all of its tankers, leaving the American fighter completely dependent on its drop tanks for the flight. If the aliens had engaged them, despite the message informing them that one of the ambassadors was going to convey their message to his government, no one would ever have known what had happened to the aircraft. They would have been lost somewhere over the Atlantic. According to the pilot, the aliens had not only taken out the satellites, but most of the beacons as well, leaving him to compute their course by dead reckoning. Philippe could only hope that he was being teased; the thought of losing their course somewhere in the cold waters and vanishing wasn't a pleasant one.
    “There’s the airfield,” the pilot said, suddenly, breaking into his thoughts. “We’ll have you down on the ground in a moment.”
    France looked dark from high above. Like Britain – they’d flown over the south coast of Britain – the cities, towns and villages looked dark, the power permanently out. The aliens might not have invaded, but with a few hundred carefully-targeted projectiles, they’d brought Europe to a standstill. From what he’d seen on the Internet, or what was left of it, railways, motorways and power stations had all been destroyed, crippling Europe. The shortage of power and fuel meant that the continent would have a very cold winter…assuming, of course, that they lived through the summer. They might not have invaded Europe, but they’d caused quite enough devastation, simply by closing down most of the transport network.
    The F-15 touched down on the tarmac and screeched to a halt. A set of ground crewmen appeared at once and helped them move the aircraft into a small hanger, one that would have normally held a private business jet or two. Once inside, they began the task of preparing the aircraft for its return flight, while helping the pilot to a bunk and providing him with a good meal. Philippe almost envied him; while the pilot was eating, drinking, and sleeping, Philippe would be reporting to the President of France himself. It wasn’t a meeting he was looking forward to having.
    “Mr Ambassador?”
    Philippe nodded. “That’s me,” he said, too tired to say anything else. “I trust that transport is laid on?”
    “Yes, sir,” the army Captain said. “If you’d like to follow me?”
    Transport, as it turned out, was a black security car, armoured against all reasonable contingencies. It was soft and sinfully comfortable inside, so Philippe leaned back and started to doze while the car, and its military escort, drove off into the night. He awoke when the car entered Paris and looked around, unable to believe the change. French paratroopers were patrolling the city, their weapons and equipment in full view, and armoured vehicles were everywhere. It looked like he was driving though one of the more unstable countries in the world, not France; he wondered, despite himself, if someone had tried a coup or uprising or something. France had changed…and, he decided, not in a good way.
    There weren't as many destroyed buildings in the centre of the city, but it wasn't a surprise when the car was rerouted to a secured building, rather than the more normal residence. Philippe was escorted out of the car, where his papers were checked by a tough-looking paratrooper who examined every line carefully, and helped into the building, where he was shown to a room. A change of clothes sat on the bed, so he showered, got dressed, and almost felt human again. That, given the nature of the war, was a profound irony. He skimmed quickly through the television channels, but, unsurprisingly, there was nothing on at all. The aliens had shut that down as well.
    That probably did us a world of good, he thought, in a moment of humour. He had never been a big fan of watching everything on the television, regarding most of it as trash. There had once been a big campaign to have American trash removed from French television, but in his view they had merely replaced American trash with French trash. Politics was so much more interesting if you had the insider view, but the newsreaders and talking heads could suck the excitement and real news out of anything. When the escort arrived, again, he went with them quite willingly.
    “Welcome back to Earth,” the French President said, as soon as he was shown into the small meeting room. They were alone, without even an aide or one of the President’s many mistresses. President LePic had had more than his fair share of scandal. “I trust that you had a pleasant journey?”
    Philippe bit down the comment that came to mind and started to talk, carefully outlining everything that had happened from the moment the aliens had opened fire to the failure of Operation Lone Star. The President listened carefully, asking a handful of questions from time to time, while looking almost vague and uninterested. Philippe wasn’t fooled; LePic was known for looking unconcerned…until he revealed that he had been thinking hard all along. Governing France wasn't an easy task and even knowing, as he did, where many of the bodies were buried, it wasn't a task for a weak man.
    “And so they’ve come for us all,” LePic said, finally. “Some of my advisors believe that they only wanted to attack the Americans and don’t intend to attack us.”
    “No,” Philippe said, flatly. LePic was testing him, pushing forward a viewpoint that might have been shared by advisors, or perhaps his own. “They picked on the Americans, we think, because the Americans were the greatest – well, certainly the most powerful – nation on Earth. Having beaten the Americans, they will use the time they’ve won to come for us. We have to prepare for them landing here.”
    LePic frowned. “You may not have kept up on the news from home,” he said, dryly. “The economy collapsed days after the aliens opened fire. Millions of Frenchmen are now on the streets, despite the…legal difficulties in firing so many at once. Millions more have decided to blame their problems on the Arabs, who in turn blame their problems on us. We’re this close” – he held up a finger and thump – “to outright civil war.”
    Philippe winced. Summers in France were often marked by civil unrest. He hadn’t even realised how badly the French economy, indeed, that of the remainder of the European Union, would have been hit by the invasion. The United States had been hit hard as well, but it had been distracted by a landing and, in any case, it was much larger. The Americans might manage to hold on, barely, but he wasn't sure that France could survive without major upheaval.
    And that was an irony. LePic had been the most determined person in France to tackle the country’s problems. It hadn’t been easy to start breaking down some of the labour laws, but he’d been succeeding, barely. Now millions were out of work as companies folded, one by one, and without the high military presence, France would probably have seen more riots by now. The government was getting blamed, but truthfully…the aliens had caused the nightmare, and the aliens were untouchable.
    “The aliens want us to join them,” LePic said, finally. He’d clearly taken the time to go through some of the documents before meeting with Philippe. “Do you think that we should accept their offer?”
    Philippe took a breath. “No,” he said, as calmly as he could. “I think that it would be a bad idea, both for France and for the world.”
    LePic lifted an eyebrow. “Do you really think that the country can continue like this?”
    “It’s not going to make a difference,” Philippe said. “Even if the aliens stopped harassing us tomorrow, how long is it going to be before we can rebuild everything they destroyed? Years, at best. Submitting to the aliens won’t do more than putting us firmly in their camp, which means that the entire human race might lose the war.”
    “The war looks pretty hopeless already,” LePic countered. “I hate to admit it, but it is a reality that must be faced, squarely. If the Americans cannot defeat the aliens, there is no way that we can do so. I have ordered the mass production of additional nuclear weapons, but even with them…”
    “Getting them up to the aliens might be a problem,” Philippe conceded, ruefully. The American internet had been full of people condemning their President for whimping out – their words – and not using nukes when launching the attack on Texas. In their view, scorching Texas down to bedrock would have killed all the aliens and improved the real estate value no end, a point of view that ignored all of the humans – American citizens – who would have been killed as well. “If they come down here…”
    They shared a single thought. France had a long history of resistance to outside occupation, but it was as chequered as any other such history, and, at the moment, France was more likely to tear itself apart than fight the aliens. They’d have no choice, but to organise an insurgency – knowing that the population might turn their weapons on the government, rather than the aliens.
    “We don’t have a choice,” Philippe said, as forcefully as he dared. “Mr President, the aliens are not humans in suits, but…something other.”
    “You sound like one of those National Front bastards talking about the Arabs,” LePic said, toying with him. “What makes the aliens so different?”
    Philippe ignored the jibe. He’d never had much time for the National Front. “When the Nazis invaded France, there were Frenchwomen who had affairs with German soldiers and often became quite fond of them…”
    “And had their hair cut off afterwards,” LePic pointed out.
    “The Germans and us are sexually compatible,” Philippe said. “Given time, Europe might blend into one civilisation, one society, with children born to mixed parentage. Hell, given enough time, the same might be true of the entire world. The entire human race might abandon such follies as racism and sexism – maybe even nationalism – to unite as one race.”
    “And maybe the horse will learn to sing,” LePic said. He sounded disturbed, now. “Carry on…”
    “In an alien world, humans will be marked as forever human,” Philippe pressed. “They claim to have a billion settlers on their mothership and, just by landing anywhere, they will have a massive influence on the world. In time, they might take over the entire planet, or at least the important parts of the world…and create a nightmare where humans are permanent second-class citizens. We will never be able to breed with them, or create a new race, but we will be doomed to permanent inferiority. How could we reach a position of power and responsibility when we will be forever marked as human?”
    He paused. “The damned SS actually recruited Frenchmen and even Russians,” he added. “Why should the aliens even allow us to do that? Aliens will have the best jobs. Aliens will control all the weapons and defences. Aliens will accept us into their faith, but God damn me if they ever give any of us any control, or even a priesthood! If we surrender now, we are going to be under them forever.”
    “Nothing lasts forever,” LePic said. The confidence in his voice was a surprise. “Their control will weaken, eventually.”
    “Why?” Philippe asked bleakly. “They don’t have to worry about little details like internal revolt from their own…and if we do, we’d be crushed. At best, we will be second-class citizens. At worst…at worst, we will be their slaves forever.”
    “A powerful argument,” LePic concluded. There was a bitter helplessness in his voice. “But then, really, what can we do? If we fight, we get squashed. If we surrender, we get melded into their self-image. What can we do?”

***

    The High Priest and his immediate subordinates gathered below a massive image of Earth, floating in space below the Guiding Star. It had been a busy few cycles, but once the main thrust of the American assault had been blunted, the warriors had been able to cut up the remaining insurgents who dared to show their faces. The occupied zone was peaceful again, for now.
    “We have studied the human writings extensively,” the researcher informed him, after they had briefly discussed the situation on the ground. “The human religions, their dominant religions, all appeared in the same general area, here.” She touched a place that humans would have identified as the Middle East. “Their dominant religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – are actually related and have their centres in that area, apart from this centre here.”
    Her finger touched Italy. “Other religions exist on Earth, but they are less likely to conflict directly with the Truth,” she added. “They can be dealt with later. This part of the world has an added advantage in that it is the source for much of their oil, although it escapes us as to why they have allowed the dependency to continue when they could build solar platforms in high orbit and get all the power they need…”
    “Humans are more inclined to consume resources than ourselves,” an Arbiter said. The scorn in his voice was unmistakable. He might have been awed by how much each individual human had, but as a race, they were remarkably poor. “They do not practice self-discipline when it comes to deciding what they want and what they need. Their failure to ensure proper use of resources has crippled their development as a race.”
    The High Priest said nothing. He could never have admitted it to anyone, least of all her, but he missed Researcher Femala badly. She hadn’t been afraid to tell him what he needed to know; after all, she had a certain freedom from most consequences. The researchers were right about how important the Middle East was to the humans, but it wasn’t as if there was much else there to recommend it, apart from the holy cities. The Inquisitors would demand that they were occupied or destroyed, in order to continue the task of destroying the human religions, but what would that do to the human determination to resist? Captured humans down on the surface of Earth had sworn that they intended to avenge attacks on their religious buildings…and if they went after the very centres of their religions, what sort of attacks would that provoke?
    The Inquisitors, of course, wouldn’t care. They would see it as a chance to root out more human fanatics and burn them all down. The High Priest believed in the mission as much as anyone else, but he didn’t want to rule over a charnel house, with millions of humans slaughtered without being given a fair chance to convert. It was possible that the ambassadors would convince their respective nations to convert en masse, but that didn’t really seem to be a human concept.
    But there were no other places that held such significance. “We will move against their Holy Cities,” he ordered, finally. He looked over at the War Leader. “You will prepare the secondary landing force for deployment and the capture of their Holy Cities and oil wells. Once they are secure, we will begin the conquest of their hearts and souls.”
    “Yes, Your Holiness,” the War Leader said. “It will be done as you command.”
    “And we should also begin the conquest of hearts and souls in the occupied area of America,” the Inquisitor added. There was a conceited tone in his voice that was at odds with the seriousness of his purpose. “We have been lax in our duty there, I fear, and thus we have been punished with many attacks and many deaths.”
    “Of course,” the High Priest said. They still held the advantage over the humans. As long as they held space, they were unbeatable. Even if they lost people like Researcher Femala, they would still win in the end. He missed her…but she was lost, somewhere in the chaos of the American attack. They’d probably blown her out of the sky without even noticing. “We would not want to fail in our duty, would we?”

Chapter Twenty-Five

    Alien life can take many forms…but some are more likely than others.
    – Anon

    “I think this is your stop,” the trucker said, as the truck pulled to a stop outside a warehouse complex in the middle of nowhere. “Good luck, buddy.”
    Paul thanked the driver as he slipped out of the vehicle and down onto the tarmac. The destruction of the railroads and aircraft had left most of the transport network in the hands of truckers, who risked the chances of sudden death from high above in order to keep things moving across the United States. The gas was heavily rationed now so that the truckers could keep moving, which in turn kept the country going…until the gas ran out as well. The United States had built up a massive reserve of fuel – and other vital raw materials – but no one had really anticipated such a cut-off. The results in other parts of the world were even worse.
    It wasn’t that America was suddenly a poor country, but that it was much harder to move items around…and almost nothing was coming in from the outside world. There might be a surplus of one item in California, but not in Maryland, where it was needed. Some places had more than enough food to eat, other places were starving…and still others were in a state of anarchy. Two weeks after the failure of Operation Lone Star, the country was struggling to pull itself back together, a procedure marred by constant specific bombardment. The truckers, statistically, didn’t face many risks, but the odds mounted up over time. His driver had been asked to carry a single passenger…and anything out of the ordinary tended to attract attention. If the aliens had seen him getting onboard the truck, would they have blasted him on general principles?
    The warehouse complex was as dark and silent as the grave, but he knew where to go, pausing long enough to see the truck vanishing off into the distance before climbing quickly up to the complex. It had been created, originally, to serve as a shipping hub for some trucking company that had gone out of business, and then Uncle Sam had taken it over. The CIA, working through a front company, had bought the entire complex and developed it for their own purposes. From the outside, it was just another bunch of warehouses…and there were plenty more of them across America. Inside, it was a very different story.
    “Welcome,” Doctor Jones said, once the guards had checked Paul’s ID and fingerprints. The CIA, he’d been told, had once used the place for defectors from the USSR and, later, terrorist groups, a perfectly secure compound where they could be interrogated and debriefed in private before being given their reward. No one would think twice if a helicopter landed in the complex, or a truck pulled up to it, which kept everything secret. “You’ll be pleased to hear that we’re ready for you.”
    Paul followed him down a flight of stairs into an underground complex that wasn't on any of the publicly-available plans. “We didn’t bring the craft itself here, I’m afraid, but we were able to move it to another complex, where NASA’s best engineers have been working on it,” the Doctor continued. “We did bring the alien captives here, although alas, without Captain Kirk to court the pretty alien babes, we didn’t learn much at first.”
    Paul almost gave in to the temptation to grab the doctor and shake him, hard. “Doctor, people are dying out there,” he snapped, as they reached the bottom of the stairs. “It’s not fucking funny!”
    “No, of course not,” Jones agreed. He paused for a moment in the corridors. “What would you like to see first? The craft – or at least the images of it – or the prisoners?”
    “The craft,” Paul said, forgetting his anger. The craft might be able to help them actually win the war. “What have the engineers found out about it so far?”
    Jones led him into a small briefing room, turned out the lights and activated a PowerPoint presentation. “The craft appears – I’m no engineer and we couldn’t spare one to brief you, although they did write the notes – to be a fairly basic SSTO design,” he began. “We actually worked on trying to build one, but we never got the concept quite right and…well, NASA wasn't too keen on it for some reason. The alien craft looks crude” – he clicked through a series of images of the conical shuttle craft – “but it is, in fact, very sophisticated. One of the engineers even called it sheer genius.”
    The image changed again, this time to show the dissembled pieces of the craft. “The craft was designed on a principle that seems to allow them to take the entire thing to pieces very easily,” Jones added. “The field engineers who reached the crash-site were able to figure out how to take it apart, after which the separate pieces, all seven hundred of them, were transported to a secure complex somewhere else. A lot of the electronics were fried by the EMP – that’s probably why the craft got so far off course anyway – but the mechanical aspects were easy to understand. Hell, sir, we could duplicate it, given a few months.”
    “Better get working on it,” Paul said. He’d have to recommend that to the President, if the President survived the threat of impeachment. Apparently, these days, not nuking America was considered a crime. The Russians were probably laughing over a glass of vodka. “Can we actually fly them ourselves?”
    “The fuel mix is a little unusual and the electronics will have to be replaced carefully, but if we can meet those issues, we could even fly the craft we have now,” Jones said. “Building our own shouldn’t take that long; according to the engineers, it’s one hell of a lot less sophisticated than an F-22 or even the space shuttle.”
    “The President will be pleased to hear that,” Paul said, relieved. It was something, perhaps, that they could use in the future. The aliens might be advanced, but they weren't all-powerful. “And the aliens themselves?”
    Jones turned the lights back on and started to fiddle with a computer, playing with it until it showed an image of the aliens, each one in a separate cell. “We think that they’re reasonably unhurt, although it’s hard to tell for certain,” he said. “We’ve kept them separate, but six of them don’t seem to speak English and don’t even seem interested in anything else. They don’t respond to our questions, not even in their own language.”
    “So they could be faking it,” Paul said. “They might understand English and are just pretended not to speak it.”
    “They might,” Jones agreed. “Some of my…fellow researchers have advocated a more rigorous program of questioning, but if they genuinely can’t speak English, there’s little point in trying to hurt them. We could try to get them to speak in their own language, but they could be saying anything, although samples would be useful to the linguistics people.”
    Paul studied the aliens for a long moment. “What are they doing?”
    Jones followed his gaze. “We think the males are at prayer,” he said. “The females…they talk to us, or they read the books that we give them, but little else.”
    “I see,” Paul said. He peered towards the male aliens. “And that’s the male Redskins?”
    Jones winced. “I wish that you wouldn’t use that word,” he said, tightly. “It has too many…issues with Americans. Call them Redshirts, if you must insult them.”
    Paul ignored him. Naked, the aliens seemed somehow unhealthy, even though the doctors believed that they were in good – alien – health. They did have reddish-purple skin, their eyes dark pools of shadow…and, despite himself, his gaze slipped to the alien genitals. The alien penis – if penis it was – was a long thin sausage; it seemed to hang down further than…
    “I can’t believe I’m thinking this,” he admitted. “How do they have sex?”
    Jones gave him a reproving look. “As far as we can tell – and so far we haven’t seen them engaged in sexual congress – the male’s penis is inserted into the female’s vagina. I guess God wasn't feeling too imaginative when he created these aliens.”
    He pulled up the results of an x-ray. “Internally, on the other hand, they’re very different from us,” he said, changing the subject firmly. “Their biology is nothing like ours, so there’s no chance of a War of the Worlds outcome, in either direction.”
    Paul scowled. “Could we come up with a biological weapon that might attack them?”
    “I would prefer not to speculate,” Jones said. “They have a brain set-up that is comparable to our own, but they also have four hearts, which suggests that a heart attack isn’t going to be anything like as dangerous to them. Two of the males, in fact, have only three working hearts…and it doesn’t seem to have slowed them down any. Their legs have very little in the way of bone structure – much of their strength is concentrated in their upper bodies – and they are, in fact, very much like a human penis.”
    Paul stared at him. “Now this I have to hear,” he said. “How are they the same?”
    “We think that the…rigidity of the legs depends largely on an act of will,” Jones said. “When tired, their legs get more…bendy and they tend to try to sleep. It could be a matter of endurance; the males here seem to keep their legs usable longer than the females, or…really, sir, this is pretty much a new field of science. It could be that half of what I have told you is completely wrong.”
    Paul looked up at the alien female, sitting in a position that would have broken the legs of a Yoga master. “I see your point,” he said. “What have you been able to discover from talking to the females?”
    “They generally agree with the documents that the ambassadors brought home,” Jones assured him. “Subject Female One is seemingly completely broken. She answers all of our questions and, otherwise, just sits there. I think she’s in shock, but without a baseline for what represents normal among them, it’s impossible to know for sure. The interesting part is what she thinks of Subject Female Two.”
    Paul blinked. “What does she think of the other female?”
    “That she’s worthless,” Jones said. A slight hint of disgust echoed through his words. “She is, apparently, sterile and therefore worthless. The female, according to her…friend, should have been thrown into space once it became clear that she wouldn’t be having any children. That’s…odd, because as far as we can tell, the sterile female is the brightest one of the pair.”
    “Odd,” Paul agreed. “I suppose I’d better talk to them, right?”
    “You should talk to her,” Jones agreed. He sounded tired, pushed beyond endurance. “If nothing else, you might realise just what sort of beings they are.”
    “They’re tearing up Texas and killing thousands of humans,” Paul snapped. “I think I know exactly what kind of beings they are!”

***

    Researcher Femala – who still clung to her title, despite having lost everything else – looked up as the door opened. She assumed that she was under constant observation – it was what she would have done to alien prisoners – but that didn’t bother her much; she’d been under more overt observation while on the Guiding Star. Her clan had watched her, as they had all of the younger children, until they’d realised how useless she was…and even when she’d won her freedom, she’d been watched by the Inquisitors. The humans, at least, weren't going to jump on her for the slightest hint of disbelief or blasphemy. They had asked her hundreds of questions, some of which she had refused to answer, but they didn’t seem to have any real plan for the interrogation. Very few of the questions linked together into one whole.
    The human who entered the room was slightly shorter than her, with short dark fur on his head and hints of darker hairs on his chin, something that still looked a little strange to her. It was odd, but the more signs of similarity between her people and the humans she saw, the more her mind focused on the differences. Her people had no hair, anywhere, and the human eyes…! They seemed so mobile, so constantly in motion, compared to her own. The dark-skinned human she’d encountered first, who had cleared all hairs off his scalp, had been the most like her she’d met while held captive.
    “My name is Paul,” the human said. She had noticed that most of the humans tended to have wildly varying ways of pronouncing certain words, even in their own language, that puzzled her. Surely, they would have developed a unified language by now. “What is your name, if I may ask?”
    Femala smiled. If this…Paul was some version of an inquisitor, he was surprisingly polite. Most Inquisitors tended towards the ‘hit first, ask questions later’ approach. “I am Researcher Femala, Researcher in Technology,” she said, supplying her full title. “What is your title?”
    The human produced the sound they made when they found something amusing. “I suppose, madam, that I could be called a Researcher in Alien Life,” he said. “I used to consider meeting people like you, you see.”
    Femala didn’t. The Takaina had never seriously considered the possibility of life on other planets, not until they’d actually started to send out generation starships and colonise as many worlds as they could, all in the name of God. They’d wondered, judging from some of the human broadcasts, if humanity had encountered other races somewhere, but most of them had been unbelievable. No engineer among the Takaina could see how a starship that was nothing more than a giant cube could even function…and that had been among the more realistic designs.
    The human leaned back slightly. Femala was partly repulsed and partly impressed by his motions. He was much less flexible than a male of her race – it had taken cycles just to get used to the idea of males actually working as researchers – but he moved with an odd jerky motion that seemed to hint at considerable power. God had designed the universe for her to explore and a human body was merely another engineering puzzle.
    “Tell me something,” he said, finally. “What do your people want here?”
    Femala blinked. “To bring this world into the Truth,” she said, puzzled. They’d told the humans that, hadn’t they? “The settlers on the Guiding Star will settle here and bring you into the light.”
    “And there I was hoping that it was all a con,” the human said. Femala didn’t understand. How could anyone doubt the word of the High Priest? If he was caught in a lie, his power and position would vanish in a flash. “Tell me something else, then; why doesn’t your friend like you much?”
    Femala, despite herself, started to explain. She talked about the four sects that made up the Truth and the Truthfulness, and about the clans that made up each of the sects. She spoke about how the clans saw to it that each of the children was raised to know his or her place and how they wanted, more than anything else, to increase their own numbers. As a sterile women – not even a male who could be expended in war – she’d been sentenced to death by her clan, until the High Priest had saved her.
    “Why?” Paul asked. The human really didn’t understand. How did humans handle such problems among their people? “Did he…want your body?”
    It took several rounds of explanations before Femala understood what he meant. “No,” she admitted. The very thought showed how aliens the humans were. The idea of someone selling their sexual services was strange. “As a sterile woman, I don’t have the…scent to draw in the males and convince them to protect me and compete for my favours.”
    The human seemed puzzled, but passed on the issue. “What do you think of this place?”
    “Boring,” Femala said, truthfully. It was true that they’d brought her books to read – human books, sometimes interesting ones – but it was very confining when she could have been running through the fields of Earth, or examining more of their technology in the occupied zone. “What are you doing to do to me?”
    The human ignored the question. “Why are your males just…waiting for something?”
    Femala almost laughed. “They expect you to kill them, of course,” she said. It had been a trait of warfare since before the Unification Wars. Females could bear new children for the victors, but the males were useless. “They’re warriors who fell into enemy hands, so of course you’re going to kill them, or enslave them. What are you going to do with them?”
    “I don’t know,” Paul admitted. It sounded as if he didn’t really care, although it was hard to read the human voice. If the other female had been able to share her insights…but that was air out the airlock now. “That’s a question for my superiors.”
    “You should tell them to surrender and accept the Truth,” Femala said. She pushed as much earnestness into her tone as she could, although she suspected that the human wouldn’t recognise it as such. “It’s the only way to stop the fighting.”
    Paul leaned closer. The eerie human eyes peered into her own eyes. “Is there nothing else we can offer you?”
    Femala sighed. “The Truth has endured for thousands of cycles,” she said, almost sadly. It had been the Truth that had condemned her to death for being sterile. “It cannot be broken. Your world will break before the High Priest chooses to leave you to your unbelief.”

Chapter Twenty-Six

    We must respect the other fellow's religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.
    – H. L. Mencken

    “And you may rise.”
    Joshua Bourjaily rose to his feet, his joints creaking, as the alien priest blessed them and shoed them out of the converted warehouse. The alien religion, Joshua had discovered, required plenty of forward kneeling, a pose that the aliens could hold almost indefinitely, but humans couldn’t hold for long. It was worse for the women; when they knelt, their hands held behind their heads, they pushed their breasts forward into prominence. After a pair of incidents, the aliens had apparently broken one of their own taboos and segregated the sexes for prayer meetings, even though they seemed to worship together. It was hard to tell; they’d seen very few alien females on the streets and they’d never seen the aliens in solo prayer.
    He glanced towards the alien priest, thinking dark thoughts that he was careful to keep to himself. A couple of people – an old woman and a young black man – had attempted to challenge the aliens, praying out loud in their own style, only to be mercilessly gunned down. The aliens had regarded it with the same level as horror as most Americans would regard taking a dump on the American flag…and similar incidents had been nipped in the bud. The aliens, it seemed, weren't taking too many chances with their prayers and their flock.
    The priest, wearing a simple brown robe, nodded once to him as he left the warehouse. The alien religion was still a thing of mystery, despite the lessons; they were literally teaching him the prayers without bothering to explain the meaning. The only choice he’d had had been a question about which element – fire, water, air or earth – he favoured, a question he’d answered with ‘earth,’ trying to be clever. The aliens hadn’t even noticed; they’d merely ordered him and his fellow ‘earthers’ to report to a certain warehouse, every second day, or see their food supply cut off. Now that the aliens were feeding more of the population, somehow, it was a powerful incentive. A person without a valid feeding card, marked by one of the priest’s servants, simply wouldn’t be fed.
    He looked at the card as he waited in line for the mark. It wasn't alien technology, he was sure; they wouldn’t have bothered to bring that level of tech from their homeworld. It was human tech, a simple ID card with a picture, a brief level of detail…and a microchip mounted in the plastic that did whatever the aliens told it to do. He was pretty sure that what was really happening was that the aliens were building up a picture of who went where, and why, in their search for other insurgents. Austin might have been fairly quiet over the last couple of weeks, but there had been a handful of IEDs, several of which had killed alien collaborators. The insurgents were still out there, somewhere, but doing what? Joshua hoped that they were plotting new attacks on the aliens, but ever since the attack on Texas had failed, the population was starting to realise, in the cities at least, that insurgency was only going to get a few thousand more people killed.
    It was a different story, he’d been told, out in the countryside; the Internet had been buzzing with stories of mounted Texans fighting the aliens. Joshua had dismissed at least half of that story as exaggeration, but Texas had literally tens of thousands of people who could handle guns and horses…and there might be a nugget of truth in there somewhere. The cities, however, were falling further and further under the alien control…and even those who hated the aliens had to eat, somehow.
    “May God be with you,” the alien under-priest said, as he passed Joshua’s card through a scanner. To be fair to the aliens, they didn’t dally about like a drug-supplier lording it over a dependent flock, they just handed over the card with a benediction. “Eat well and give thanks.”
    Joshua walked onto the streets and around the building. The women – which basically seemed to mean every woman over ten years old – were emerging from the other side of the massive building. The warehouse was nowhere near large enough to hold all of the citizens of Austin – although everyone knew someone who’d been killed in one of the bouts of fighting – and he’d heard that there were dozens of such places, all around the city. The aliens didn’t mess around…and he’d heard rumours that children – defined as anyone under ten years old – were being taken for special instruction. The Adair children, thankfully, were too old…but there were hundreds of others. No one seemed quite sure what the aliens were teaching them, but Joshua had determined to get to the bottom of it. Blogging from an occupied city was rapidly starting to lose its shine.
    “Joshua,” a voice called. He looked up to see Loretta running towards him. He’d met her by sheer accident, a girl who actually had better computer skills than he had – which wouldn’t have been difficult – and was willing to assist him in navigating the remains of the internet. “How was your day?”
    In Joshua’s admittedly sexist view, Loretta looked very good when she was at prayer, alien-style, but he knew better than to say that out loud. “Painful,” he said, rubbing his knees. Muslims, he’d decided, had it easy. They got to sit back. The thought reminded him of a group of Baptists whom the aliens had discovered holding prayer meetings…and executed them publicly for heresy. “And how was yours?”
    “You old fogy, you,” Loretta said, slipping her arm through his. “I swear – a single twinge of pain and you men just curl up and die.”
    The thought wasn't as amusing as it seemed. The alien religion was complicated – as were most human religions – but one thing was clear; the alien females chose their mates. There were details that seemed to be beyond human understanding, at least as the aliens had explained them – and he’d gotten the impression that the aliens hadn’t wanted to discuss them with their human pupils – but it was clear that the women ran the alien families. The men might have been the breadwinners, insofar as alien society had that term, but they didn’t call the shots at home. They might be divorced at any moment if they didn’t behave themselves.
    It had led to a whole series of new understandings. The alien society was full of Mrs Grundy-types. They would watch everyone from the cradle to the grave and they wouldn’t hesitate to report any misbehaviour. It reminded him of how Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia had encouraged their children to report their parents for anything remotely criminal – as defined by the state – and the horrors of 1984. If that was what they were teaching the children, they would have made progress on completely changing human society.
    “Bitch,” he said, trying to avoid thinking about the future. They were just two lovebirds out for a stroll, as far as anyone knew. The aliens continued to snatch people off the streets if they were armed, or carry out the occasional random search, but otherwise they tended to leave the human civilians alone. They were trapped by their dependency on food and water from the aliens, now that the aliens had taken control of the latter. The entire supply of food left in the apartment, he’d calculated, would last them barely more than a week. “What do you want to do now?”
    “Well, I thought we’d go for a big expensive lunch and then an afternoon at a swanky hotel,” Loretta announced, mischievously. “I suppose we’ll have to settle for a walk, a feed at the kitchen, and then perhaps an afternoon at the computer.”
    “No arguments,” Joshua decided. If nothing else, having Loretta on his arm lead to a lot of envious glances. She was blonde, bubbly, and looked around nineteen years old, a tall girl with great legs. He wasn’t sure what she saw in him when she could have had hundreds of boyfriends, but maybe it was the shared danger, the sense that they were getting back at the aliens, even in a small manner. Accurate information from inside the occupied zone would be vitally important to the entire human race. “Come on then, let’s go eat.”
    The aliens had, if nothing else, cut down on crime in the city. Between the rapid destruction of most of the street gangs, the curfew and their patrols, criminals found it harder to operate without being caught and either shot or dumped into a work gang. The aliens punished every misdemeanour, no matter how small, and the net result was that people could walk the streets in safety – apart from the risk of an IED, of course. They reached the soup kitchen in perfect safety, showed their card to the handful of aliens guarding the cooks – all human – and took bowls of soup and curried meat from the table. It was a far cry from the hamburgers and freedom fries his stomach was crying out for, but it was the best that they could do. He really didn’t want to think about what sort of meat was in the curry, but he was damn sure it wasn't beef, chicken or pork. There hadn’t been a lot of cats about lately, he’d noticed.
    Loretta chatted happily about nothing throughout the meal, almost monopolising the conversation on her own. Joshua had learned that she could switch from ‘girl genius’ to ‘dumb blonde’ in seconds, comparing notes on computing and reporting one moment, the next chattering away about pop stars and films. It was one hell of a disguise, he’d realised; men would tend to talk more to someone who looked attractive on their arms, but had nothing in their heads. As a reporter, Loretta would be a terror.
    “I wonder what they did?” She asked, in a moment of distraction. Joshua turned and saw a bunch of chained humans being marched through the streets. He wasn't sure, but he thought he recognised a priest – a human priest – among them. The aliens could have whisked them out of the city without having to make them walk, but he suspected that they were actually trying to make a point, rubbing the human race’s nose in its defeat. “Hey, boss, you wanna interview them?”
    Joshua tried to scowl at her, but didn’t quite manage it. “I think they probably did bad things,” he said, very aware of the ears nearby. The aliens had too many collaborators working for them. The insurgents, he hoped, didn’t come to the soup kitchens. “Once you finish your dinner, we can go.”
    Ten minutes later, they were on their way back to the apartment. “They probably got picked up at prayer,” Loretta said, the airhead act vanishing as soon as they were out of earshot. The streets were almost deserted now; the ‘airs’ were at prayer, and the remainder of the population was out of sight. “You want to ask around and see who knows something?”
    “Not now,” Joshua said, as they reached the apartment. It had been easy enough to convince the others to allow Loretta to stay with them, despite the limited food; her very presence lit up the place. It was a sexist thought, but who cared? They were well past the stage of caring about PC thoughts. “If the aliens figure out that someone is interested in finding out…and if someone betrayed them…”
    He didn’t have to finish the thought. The aliens had plenty of collaborators…and not all of them were forced into the role. If someone had tipped off the aliens about the prayer meeting, perhaps to settle some pre-invasion score, they wouldn’t hesitate to report two reporters as well, before their names and faces got onto the Internet. It had happened before…and those collaborators hadn’t lasted a week.
    Once they were back in his apartment, with the door firmly bolted, he dug up the new laptop from where he’d hidden it, under the bookshelves. A quick search of the apartment would miss it, but he had no illusions about how well hidden it was if the aliens searched his room thoroughly; they’d find it within moments. His old laptop had failed the night of the big human attack – he suspected EMP, although entire swathes of the city had been undisrupted – and Loretta had found him a new one, although it didn’t work as well. He’d lost most of his secure files when the old laptop failed, but luckily he’d kept the passwords to the blog in his head. It was a matter of moments to read through the comments for his last post, make a few notes of questions that needed answers, and then started to write the next post.
    Loretta draped herself over the bed and winked at him. “Can’t I distract you, even for a few minutes?”
    “I have to make this post while everything is fresh in my head,” Joshua said, absently. “Besides, this game of Solitaire won’t finish itself.”
    “Nerd,” Loretta said, pulling herself off the bed and wandering over to him. “What are you telling them?”
    Joshua smiled. The one thing they’d disagreed upon had been that Loretta’s name hadn’t been mentioned at all. If the aliens caught him, they wouldn’t know about her…and he’d given her his passwords. If he got carted off to their work gangs, or whatever, Loretta would be able to carry on. He’d written mainly about the religious ceremony, in hopes that someone with a bigger brain than he had could work out how it worked, but he'd also mentioned the work gangs and other alien innovations. The aliens might not have believed in hearts and minds, although they obviously believed in souls, but they certainly believed in grabbing people by the nuts.
    “The truth,” he said, and smiled. The aliens called their religion the Truth. It probably had a subtle meaning in their own language, but so far the only people who’d heard the alien language had been a handful of collaborators, who’d reported that it seemed to be impossible for human throats to duplicate. “What else do you think I should tell them?”
    “How many aliens there are here,” Loretta said. “Is it just me, or are there fewer aliens these days?”
    Joshua frowned at her. “No,” he said flatly, and then he stopped. It was true that the aliens had been patrolling heavily, but what did that prove? It only proved that the aliens were patrolling heavily. It was odd, but in a sense, she was right; there did seem to be fewer aliens on the streets. “They could all be in the Green Zone…”
    “Yes, they could,” Loretta agreed. The name for the alien-controlled centre of Austin had stuck, somehow. The insurgents occasionally lobbed mortar shells and homemade rockets into the complex, an irony that the aliens probably didn’t appreciate. “Do you believe it?”
    “I think it would be crazy to jump to any conclusions,” Joshua said, considering it. It was possible that she was right…but if it were true, what could they do about it? Could they use it as a chance to mount another attack…and, if they did, what would the aliens do in response? It was a moot point, in any sense; he was pretty sure that the insurgents read his blog page, but he didn’t know any of them personally. “Do you want to post it as an observation…?”
    “That’s not the point,” Loretta said. “If the aliens aren’t here, then where are they?”
    “Good point,” Joshua agreed, and then it hit him. “You think they’re preparing another strike against the outside world?”
    “It’s possible,” Loretta said. “They could also be conducting anti-partisan operations, or…hell, boss, I don’t know. I just think that its something you should post and see who agrees with you, or not.”
    “There could be people – hell, there will be people – agreeing with it because they want to believe,” Joshua warned, but she was right. “I’ll post a note to that effect and see who agrees, or not. For all we know, they’re barracking thousands of aliens in the green zone, just waiting for us to get uppity again.”
    “Maybe,” Loretta agreed. “In fact…”
    She broke off as a crashing noise echoed up from downstairs. Joshua knew what that sound meant; they’d taken a few precautions to warn the residents of an alien raid, precautions that weren’t triggered by anyone with the right to live in the apartment. He heard the sound of harsh alien voices as they flooded into the apartment, running up the stairs, and froze in panic. Loretta, quicker thinking, dived for the laptop and tried to hide it again, before the aliens burst in, weapons ready.
    “Halt,” the leader snapped. Loretta fell on the floor in shock. “Do not attempt to escape.”
    The aliens marched forward, their black helms hiding their faces, and grabbed Joshua with their gloved hands. Before he could make a single protest, they tied his hands behind him and thrust him against the wall. A moment later, Loretta joined him, a nasty bruise developing on her face where she’d hit the ground. Joshua tried to meet her eyes as the aliens searched the apartment, smashing their way through everything to find all of his secrets, but she kept her face turned away from him. He could hear her sniffling, just loud enough to hear, but he couldn’t even touch her to comfort her.
    “You will accompany us,” the alien leader said, finally.
    A handful of aliens carried the evidence – the laptop, Loretta’s computer junk and his handgun – as they were hustled down the stairs. Joshua saw a pair of residents, staring at them…and then he saw Mr Adair. One look was all it took to know what had happened; he had, for some reason, betrayed them. Joshua couldn’t think why, or even care, not when they were being hustled off to some unknown fate.
    Bastard, he thought, and let the aliens drag him onwards.
    There was no escape.

Chapter Twenty-Seven

    What makes the Holy Land so Holy if so much blood is shed there?
    – Anon

    Captain Mohammad Karim leaned back as the line of prisoners were marched past towards one of the security camps outside Basra, where they would be interrogated and – eventually – punished. The Iraqi police had been watching this particular group for several weeks, confirming that they were actually involved with smuggling weapons and explosives into the country, before sending in his Company to arrest the men. Some of them had tried to fight it out, hoping, like so many others, that poisoned faith could provide a counter for training and experience, the others had shown their ‘willingness’ to die for the cause by surrendering at once. Karim and his men had bound their hands, searched the warehouse quickly and effectively, and found enough proof to ensure that the men spent a few uncomfortable years in the desert.
    Idiots, he thought, as he lit up a cigarette. His men had been recruited in the chaotic years of the insurgency, first working for the Americans and then for the Iraqi Government, and between them they had nearly a hundred years of experience in street-fighting. The terrorists they’d captured were nothing more than untrained punks from a madrassa somewhere in Saudi or Pakistan, dangerous only in numbers and only then if their targets were unarmed. The explosives they’d had with them might have killed a few dozen Iraqis, but it was much more likely that they would kill themselves when they tried to plant them. The Iraqi citizen who’d called in the tip, one of millions who was sick of the violence that kept trying to rear its head in his country, had probably saved their lives. They wouldn’t be thanking him any time soon.
    “All yours,” he said, as the policemen came and took custody of the terrorists. It made sense to have the army conduct the arrests, but the police had to hold them in custody, before they were tried and sentenced. The police weren't a soft option; they lived and worked in Basra and loathed the terrorists who’d tried to tear the city apart. They would be more likely to accidentally shoot the prisoners while trying to escape, rather than letting them go, something that had been a persistent problem back in the early days. Now, Iraq was finally starting to stand on its own two feet.
    He looked over towards the single American advisor. The man had been distracted lately, worrying about the fate of his fellow countrymen in America…and it was hard to blame him. The terrorist internet had been shouting the praises of the aliens to the skies for destroying the Great Satan, but Karim was fairly sure that the aliens didn’t mean Islam any favours either. They’d casually destroyed mosques along with churches in America, after all, and they probably intended to do the same in Iraq. The only saving grace, as far as he could see, was that the aliens probably didn’t have the numbers to take on the entire world. By the time they reached Iraq, they might even be ready for them…
    But in the meantime, there was work to be done. The main Iraqi supporters of terrorism had been either beaten or brought into the government, where they found it much harder to get to grips with the problems they’d claimed had easy solutions, but there were still thousands of terrorists out there. The alien invasion had brought more of them out of the woodwork, whereupon they’d started to attack Americans and their allies all across the Gulf. They’d also started another campaign to bring down the Iraqi Government, although this one had failed spectacularly…even though the world media would probably hail it as a great terrorist success. Karim had a private blacklist of reporters, mainly American, who always exaggerated in their reports…and not in the favour of the good guys. It was a complex war, an endless struggle that had been, mercifully, coming to an end…and one where enemies could become friends, or vice versa, at the drop of a pen.
    He rounded up the men of his company – the only injury had been a soldier who’d accidentally banged his arm against a wall and was hamming it up in fine style, claiming to have been crippled – and they collected their weapons and supplies. One thing they’d learned from the early days had been to keep a close eye on their own weapons, even though Iraq was swimming in weapons, just to prevent further losses to the enemy. He recalled a newly-formed unit that had been thrown into the deep end and collapsed under fire, surrendering all their weapons to the terrorists, and was determined that that wouldn’t happen again. Like most young officers, he had a wife and children…and they would never have any cause to be ashamed of him.
    “Back to barracks,” he ordered. “By the left, quick march!”
    It still amazed him how many people were willing to wave and cheer as the soldiers marched past, even if they were blocking up the roads. The streets were much safer now then they’d been during the insurgency, back when it had been dangerous for armed men, let alone women and children, and the civilians knew who had cleared the streets. Karim was more than happy to let them cheer, knowing that many young boys would want to become soldiers if they saw the ceremony, and…
    He sensed, more than heard, the falling KEW. A blast of light, followed by a massive explosion, rose up from the docks. A second later, the shockwave flashed out across the city, shattering windows and sending glass cascading onto the streets. Men and women, caught under the falling shower, were cut and torn by the glass as it sliced into their skin. A second explosion followed, then a third, sending new explosions billowing into the air. It looked as if they’d hit the military complex outside the city and perhaps the new airfield that had been under construction, smashed it from orbit. An instant later, he heard the thunderclaps of other strikes, hitting targets all over the area.
    “The aliens,” the American said. Master Sergeant Robin Brooks was even more experienced than the Iraqis; he’d been in Iraq almost constantly since 2003, barely pausing for leave. Karim expected him to take an Iraqi wife and settle down any day now. “They’re hitting the bases!”
    Karim had to agree. The population was starting to panic. “We have to get back to the base,” he snapped, trying to understand what was going on. The docks had been hit…which meant that thousands of Iraqis had just been killed. He couldn’t even understand why they’d hit the docks. “Come on!”
    Basra was in ferment as the soldiers quick-timed it through the streets, but the police were starting to restore order, encouraging people to return to their homes. Imams and Mullahs were trying to restore calm as well, although a flood of worshippers had descended on the mosques, seeking guidance and prayer. The sound of alien bombardment was fainter now, drifting through the air, but he suspected that it meant that the aliens were moving their targeting further northwards, towards Baghdad. He wanted to shout at the skies, cursing the aliens for doing so much damage after it had been painstakingly rebuilt, but what was the point? The aliens wouldn’t hear…
    The American pointed into the distance. “Look,” he said. “They’re landing!”
    Karim knew, just for a moment, what Saddam’s poor soldiers must have felt when they’d seen invincible American tanks heading into Iraq. A line of massive…craft were falling out of the sky, leaving massive trails of light behind them. They looked as if they were coming down to the south, towards the Saudi border, and he found himself hoping that they’d head south into Saudi rather than into Iraq. He’d done enough patrols of the border and arrested enough Saudis trying to sneak into Iraq that he wouldn’t have minded if the aliens invaded and crushed Saudi Arabia. Everyone in Iraq knew that the Saudis were behind all of their torment. One of the best-selling Iraqi books had blamed everything on them, from the American invasion to the insurgency. It had been very popular, largely because everyone wanted someone to blame.
    “Shit,” he muttered, as they headed out of the city towards the base. “What have they done to it?”
    “Kinetic energy weapon,” Brooks said. The barracks had once held thousands of soldiers. Now, they were flaming debris, those that were left. They’d been designed to stand up to an IED at close range, but the KEW had shattered them with ease. A handful of vehicles survived in the tank shed, but most of them had been destroyed from orbit, caught up in the blasts. The aliens, he was starting to realise, played for keeps. “You’d better try and get in touch with Baghdad.”
    Karim barked orders, getting his men to sort out the survivors and treat the wounded, while sending others to hunt for a working communications system. His radio, which should have been powerful enough to reach the next base, was suffering from jamming, while the American-designed satellite communications system was useless in the absence of the satellites. The Iraqis hadn’t realised just how important they’d become until they’d been destroyed by the aliens. An hour passed slowly while he tried to muster some kind of defence…and he realised that while there were over three thousand soldiers left alive, mostly reporting in from Basra, he was the senior officer.
    “Send out a scouting unit,” Brooks advised. The aliens had landed somewhere to the south and would probably be advancing against him soon. Judging by the rising columns of smoke from the direction of Kuwait, they were attacking the Kuwaitis first. “Find out what they’re doing and then prepare to counter it.”
    There wasn't much in the way of defences to the south, Karim knew. There had been some reason for it, mainly to show that the new Iraq had nothing, but fraternal feelings towards the Kuwaitis, but it was starting to look like a major oversight. He didn’t have much in the way of armour or supporting vehicles either; if the Americans were to be believed, the aliens could simply pick them off from orbit. His infantrymen could make their stand, but if the aliens came at them, they would probably be slaughtered. As much as he hated to admit it, he was out of his depth and sinking fast.
    “Move the antitank teams up to the main road,” he added, after a moment’s thought. The men knew it intimately. The American experience had suggested that the aliens liked using roads, although the terrain was different in Iraq, and they might have a chance to mount an ambush. The aliens were still landing – he could see signs of their massive landing craft falling out of the sky to land somewhere to the south – but he didn’t know what they were doing. The aliens had left him blind and deaf. “I want…”
    A green flare burst up in the distance. Without radio, he’d been forced to fall back on a more primitive method of signalling an alien advance, a flare. The aliens were coming up from Kuwait to attack Basra, whereupon they would probably cut the city off and head northwards. He barked orders, ordering most of his men back towards the city; their only hope was to try and hold the city and hope that the Iraqi forces further to the north could muster a counter-attack in time. Somehow, he doubted that they would make it; the aliens had probably dropped all the old and new bridges from orbit. His force was almost completely on its own.
    There was a brief skirmish when the aliens engaged the antitank teams, and then they pressed on towards Basra. Karim had found a vantage point along the outskirts of the city, while his men struggled to organise the residents of the city to defend it, watching as Sunni and Shia forgot their traditional hatreds to defend Basra. They’d all see the footage of what had happened in America and there were shrines and mosques aplenty in Basra. He’d had his tanks pulled back to hiding places, but three of them had been picked off from orbit, the alien fire almost vaporising the tanks and their crews. The others had been rapidly abandoned, which might have been the alien plan all along; they probably wanted to force him to abandon some of his firepower. Their UAV-like aircraft buzzed high overhead; two of his men had tried to bring them down with antiaircraft missiles, but the aliens had avoided them neatly.
    “Here they come,” Brooks said. There was a new anticipation in his voice, a chance to get stuck into the enemy who had devastated his country. The aliens were still landing in the background, but their ranks seemed never ending, led by hovering tanks. The sight was almost out of a science-fiction movie. “Hold your fire until they’re right on top of you, then engage them before they can call in fire from orbit.”
    “Got it,” Karim said. His remaining sergeants were moving among the volunteers now, passing on the same message, even though he hoped that most of the civilians would stay out of the fighting. If they were caught with weapons they would be treated as hostiles, if the aliens stuck to their standard tactics…and there were thousands of weapons in Basra. People tended to carry them around as a status symbol. The government had tried to warn people of the danger, but there were too many old wounds from Saddam’s era and the invasion. “It’s been nice knowing you.”
    Brooks looked at the aliens as they carefully surrounded the city. “Yeah,” he said. “You too.”
    One by one, the roads and railways leading out of the city were occupied and severed. People who were trying to leave the city were encouraged to return by brief bursts of heavy firing from machine guns. A pair of Iraqi army snipers, who’d made a career of picking off unsuspecting terrorists, took down a handful of aliens with headshots, before their hiding places were picked off from orbit. Karim watched the buildings collapse, praying that only a few people had been caught up in the fallen rubble, and wondered how they did that. It wasn't easy to locate a sniper, but for all he knew, they had some alien sensor trick that could track him by his sweat or some other bodily odour. The Americans had shown enough impossible tricks to convince him that still others were possible.
    The aliens didn’t bother to demand a surrender; they simply opened fire. One by one, their tanks advanced towards his positions, while their heavy guns boomed fire into the city. Karim and his men held their fire until the aliens were close, whereupon they opened fire with their rifles and a handful of antitank weapons, picking off four alien tanks. A pair of men who’d been close-lipped about their past, but toting RPGs fired them as well, hitting and damaging two tanks. It didn’t seem that they’d been damaged too badly; they were still moving, and still firing. Shells crashed into buildings and detonated, shattering them and sending masonry falling to the ground, while their machine guns swept across the suddenly-visible men. Explosions billowed out across the city as the aliens started their advance and pushed into the city. The damage rapidly grew into a nightmare.
    Damn them, Karim thought, as his command and control disintegrated. His ability to coordinate the fight had vanished almost as soon as the aliens opened fire. They were calling down strikes from orbit even as their infantrymen swarmed into the city, a seemingly never-ending rush of black-clad humanoids, their armour protecting them from most shots. It took headshots to kill them, or grenades, while they could kill the Iraqis. A line of civilians, men carrying old AK-47s, charged the aliens, screaming aloud…and the aliens mowed them down without even breaking step. Basra was dying as the aliens hacked their way into the city…and the best Karim and his remaining men could do was harass the aliens through hit-and-run tactics. The rubble provided plenty of places to hide.
    “They’re just killing us all,” he shouted at Brooks, as the American picked off a pair of aliens. The burst of return fire almost shattered the building they were using as cover. The fight had grown completely out of hand, but the aliens, somehow, were coordinating their advance perfectly, tightening the noose around the city. “What’s the point of this?”
    “Who knows?” Brooks answered, as they found themselves stumbling into a mosque. It had taken a shell from somewhere, shattering the minaret, but the interior of the building was somehow unharmed. The worshippers, praying desperately for salvation, hadn’t found it; they’d been crushed under the rubble. “I don’t know what they’re thinking…”
    Another round of explosions revealed, suddenly, that they were surrounded and alone. Karim realised, feeling absolutely calm, that he was going to die. He checked his rifle, loaded his final clip, and smiled tiredly at Brooks. The American had run out of rifle ammunition, so he’d drawn his handgun and checked it quickly.
    “I don’t feel like surrendering,” Brooks said, as he unhooked a grenade from his belt. “You?”
    “Hell, no,” Karim said, as Brooks prepared to throw the final grenade. The smoke from the growing fires was making it harder to think; his eyes were stinging and burning. He had a nasty suspicion that he was on the verge of going deaf from all the noise. “Hit them!”
    Brooks threw the grenade in a practiced toss towards the alien position. A moment later, the aliens fired back, a heavy burst of machine gun fire that shattered the walls and tore through their bodies before they could escape. The remains of the building collapsed inwards and buried their bodies.
    Both men died instantly.

Chapter Twenty-Eight

    I never really hated a one true God, but the God of the people I hated.
    – Marilyn Manson

    Oddly enough, pure fanatics were rare among the Takaina, those who followed the Truth. They had no problem with fighting and dying for their religion, but the idea of throwing their lives away for nothing was alien to them, allowing their commanders to cut their losses if a battle was going badly. To retreat, honestly and openly, was not a sin among them, although some of the Inquisitors might have disagreed. They, shaped into a mould that rejected all personality, all individuality, watched for heresy in their own manner, while disregarding their own safety. They were conditioned to do anything for the faith and rarely questioned their orders. The five hundred Inquisitors on the Guiding Star kept the rest of the population in line.
    The parasite ship carefully altered its course and dropped into a lower orbit. Unchecked, the parasite would eventually fall into the atmosphere, but the handful of Inquisitors in command of the vessel would alter its course again long before atmospheric drag became a problem. The parasite was the single ship controlled by the Inquisitors and, also, the sole Takaina ship to carry atomic weapons. The warriors weren’t allowed to control them, not even the most capable and trustworthy of them, because of the danger. A single questioning mind in the wrong place could do untold damage to the starship. Instead, the Inquisitors not only controlled the bombs, but they controlled their deployment as well.
    The Inquisitors felt no nervousness as they swept over a continent that the humans called Europe. Nervousness required a normal functioning brain, regardless of race, and they no longer had them. The conditioning process that had made them what they were had altered them to the point where they were almost incapable of feeling any emotion, from sexual lust to despair. If the Europeans had been building new weapons, ones capable, perhaps, of being turned on the spacecraft, they weren't concerned. Besides, a handful of possibly-threatening targets had been bombed only a cycle ago and the Europeans hadn’t attempted to respond.
    “Prepare to deploy device,” Inquisitor Five said. Among themselves, the Inquisitors called themselves by numbers, just to keep everything straight. It was one of the secrets that they didn’t share with the rest of their race, let alone the others under their control, because it was something they wouldn’t understand. Inquisitors had to be faceless, nameless and utterly without feelings, because feelings led to corruption. In their role, corruption could be lethal to more than just them. “Compare targeting data and enter clearance codes.”
    One by one, they pressed their hands to the scanners and confirmed the targeting data. The Inquisitors, apart from watching their own people, served as the intelligence staff for the High Priest, if only to prevent warriors and researchers from being contaminated by direct access to alien data. They had researched the human religions thoroughly and had located their centres of power, preparing targeting data for the High Priest and the War Leader. The idea of physically occupying their centres of power was an attractive one, something they knew would guarantee them victory, but that wouldn’t always be possible. The Takaina couldn’t afford to occupy every human city, not yet, but they didn’t have to. They could take other steps instead.
    Inquisitor Nine spoke from his seat. “Target is locked and device is armed,” he said. There was, as was right and proper, no excitement or anticipation in his voice. As far as they were concerned, what they were about to do was just a job. “We can fire on your command.”
    Europe was passing rapidly underneath them. It still escaped the researchers how the humans hadn’t united into a handful of large states, but at the moment, it served in their favour, particularly when it came to religion. The Truth tended to ignore, or place to one side, religions that weren’t directly competitive, but the human religions were all going to be competitive. The Inquisitors, insofar as they felt anything, would have loved to get to grips with the religions on the ground, but that wasn't going to be completely possible. They would have to take other steps.
    “Fire,” Inquisitor Five ordered.
    The ship jerked slightly as it launched the single device from its underbelly. Small rockets fired at once, nudging the device into a trajectory that would, inevitably, bring it down to Earth, hard. It wouldn’t matter; once the device had reached the required distance from the ground, it would detonate and purge one of the human religions from the face of the Earth. Without its centre of power, it would fall apart and the Truth would be there for the humans. It had worked on dozens of worlds, ever since the Unification Wars…and it would work here. The Inquisitors were literally unable to even question that doctrine.
    “Weapon away,” Inquisitor Nine confirmed. “Trajectory is precise.”
    “Good,” Inquisitor Five said. He would have liked to have visited nuclear fire across the remaining human holy sites, but that wasn't part of his orders. “Take us back into orbit and prepare to return to the Guiding Star.”
    Below them, the device continued its fall towards the planet.

***

    The small observatory had been taken over by the Italian military a week before the aliens had arrived, despite the protests of its staff and students, and rapidly converted into an alien-monitoring centre. Italy, being the part of Europe that might come under attack from Iran – a trend, so far, that had remained happily fictional – had taken a progressive attitude towards defence, constructing a network of radars, tied into NATO, that monitored Italian airspace constantly. The aliens had shut down the radars with their KEW weapons, but the observatories remained, passively watching the aliens from the ground.
    Colonel Alberto Felici had been on duty when the telephone call had come through from Britain. A British observatory had tracked an alien craft as it lowered itself down towards the planet, coming in on what was suspected to be an attack run, even though the aliens normally launched their weapons from standard orbits. There was certainly something odd about it…and, with the aliens invading the Middle East, everyone was nervously awaiting the next step in the alien plan. He studied the computer screen, which showed the alien craft as it entered their view, and frowned. It almost looked as if the craft was going to pass directly over Rome…
    “I have a track,” Julia announced, from her console. Programming the computers to work with the telescope data had been easy…once they’d realised that astronomers had been doing it for years. “The UFO is definitely going to pass over Rome, almost exactly over our position.”
    “How lucky for us,” Felici muttered. The alien trajectory was taking it over France, but at the speed it was moving, it would be bare minutes before it crossed over Italy. He longed for some kind of weapon, something that could be used to shoot back at them, but the aliens could just pick off whatever part of Italy they wanted. The Italian Air Force had been literally shot out of the sky and several army bases had been destroyed from orbit. He wasn't even sure why…unless the aliens hoped that there would be an uprising and the Italian state would be destroyed. “Keep an eye on it and pass it on to the next observatories in line.”
    He ran his hand through his hair. Italy had been badly hit by the aliens and he was worried about his family. He got to watch the aliens as they carried out the invasion, but he was unable to intervene…and, as far as he knew, no one else could either. The aliens had been attacked in orbit during the first encounter, but since then they’d kept space to themselves and prevented the human race from striking back at them. The Prime Minister might keep up the encouraging tone in his webcasts, but Felici and his fellow officers knew the truth; Europe was naked and defenceless under alien fire. Once the aliens had finished attacking the Middle East, and completed the destruction of America, it would probably be their turn next…and all they could do was wait to be hit.
    “Sir,” Julia snapped, her voice suddenly rising with alarm. “The alien launched something towards us!”
    Felici whirled towards her console. She was right; the alien spacecraft, now firing it’s boosters to reach a higher orbit, had left something behind. The telescope was powerful, but all they could tell was that it didn’t appear to be a KEW. The KEWs they’d seen while Italy had been attacked had been smaller, somehow, and faster. This…object was just falling down slowly towards Italy.
    His blood ran cold, suddenly. “Get me a trajectory on it,” he said, knowing that it was already too late. The Americans had said that the aliens were religious invaders…and Rome was the home of the Vatican, the largest religious centre in the world. Felici, himself a devout Catholic, had wondered what the aliens would do when they reached Rome, but now he had the suspicion that he knew. The alien weapon was still falling…
    “Sound the alert,” he ordered. It was already too late. “Everyone get down…”
    The windows went white as the bomb detonated.

***

    High over Rome, precisely targeted on the Vatican, the nuclear bomb detonated. For an instant, too quickly for human minds to follow, the bomb was still there…and then it exploded, sending a massive blast of flame over the city. Seconds later, the shockwave followed, blasting Rome and smashing buildings, merely human in the face of the raging power of nuclear fission. The people caught under the blast were vaporised, utterly, while those further away, but unlucky enough to be looking at the blast, were blinded. The secondary effects of the blast, the shockwave and the firestorm, tore through the city, disrupting or destroying the city’s emergency response teams. Armed police and soldiers had been patrolling Rome, as in many other European cities, and the blast hit them, killing and maiming thousands. The EMP pulse knocked out or disrupted every piece of electronic equipment within range, apart from shielded devices, and further disrupted recovery efforts. No city in Europe had been hit like that, not since the Second World War, and Italy was ill-prepared for the crisis…but really, who could have prepared? The disaster was so large as to be unimaginable.
    A quarter of Rome’s population had fled the city well beforehand, going to live in the country or with friends and family in other parts of Europe. Half of those that remained were killed outright, or died within the first hour of the blast…and they were the lucky ones. For the remaining citizens of Rome, the nightmare had only just begun…
    And, of the Vatican and its centuries of history, almost nothing was left.

***

    The High Priest watched dispassionately as the fireball billowed out over the City of Rome. The shielded satellites that were constantly observing the planet below the Guiding Star had tracked the weapon from the moment it was launched to the moment of detonation, whereupon they’d started to monitor the devastation. The humans below had been slaughtered in the blast – and the High Priest mourned their deaths – but the centre of their religion had been destroyed. Few would go now to the City of Rome, few would even consider rebuilding it, not when it could be knocked down again in a heartbeat. Some of the Inquisitors had even called for a second strike, mounted as soon as the humans started recovery efforts, but the High Priest had rejected that as meaningless barbarism. It wasn't as if the humans below could hurt them in orbit. If they had had such weapons, they would have deployed them against the bombing ship.
    He turned his attention to the near-orbit display. The Inquisitors, as untouched as ever by the magnitude of what they’d done, were coming in to dock with the Guiding Star, probably not even expecting praise for their actions. They’d killed, at the very least, hundreds of thousands of humans…and they didn’t even care. There was a reason why even the High Priest disliked the Inquisitors; if he showed any weakness, or lack of resolve and ability, they would turn on him. They were…not popular.
    But they were necessary. The Guiding Star was a closed environment. When the starship had been launched, it had been outfitted with all the supplies it needed…and could carry. It could not afford dissent or even major changes in society, not when they operated with so few supplies, whatever the reason. The population of the ship, all one billion of them, had exactly what they needed, no more, no less. The massive farms on the habitation module produced enough food for the people, but barely…and as for having luxuries, forget it. The High Priest had few perks that came with the robe, and many problems. He had thought, back when he’d been an under-priest, that the High Priest had had everything, but he knew now that that wasn't true. He might have had extra servings of some foods, and the occasional sip of forbidden water, but that was about it, even for his rank. They couldn’t afford a major social upheaval that would come, inevitably, from so many perks for the high-ranking priests.
    And yet…the humans had so much. They had barely developed a space program – and smashing what they’d had in space had been easy, far easier than he’d allowed himself to anticipate – but their civilians had so much. They all seemed to have their own means of transport, their own computers, their own links to the human computer network that was proving so hard to shut down…they had so much, and his people had so little. The Takaina had access to the endless wealth of space; they could have provided their people with such a lifestyle, but that would have meant that they couldn’t launch further colony ships out towards the stars. He knew, even if the Inquisitors didn’t, that there were warriors down on Earth wondering why the humans had so much, and they so little. Looting and pillaging were forbidden, on pain of a sudden and horrible death, but there were dozens of reports of just that. Envy was a powerful motivator…and, now that there was an uneasy peace in Texas, the warriors had time to think.
    Human religions, according to the researchers, discouraged thinking. That was alien to the Takaina – literally. They needed their warriors as dangerous as possible and that meant training them to think and react to any situation, without having to wait for orders from higher up the chain. The majority of the population was actually fairly young, due to the magic of cold sleep, and they were thinking…and wondering why they didn’t have so much themselves. The Truth had originated – and the High Priest mentally punished himself for even thinking of it – in a part of their homeworld where resources had been scarce. That had driven them onwards, to conquest and glory…and yet, it seemed so weak when suddenly faced with so much obvious wealth. Young warriors, down on Earth without the strictures of their clans, might make the wrong decisions…
    He cast his attention towards the new landing sites. The landings had been on a much larger scale, but this time, they’d known where to bombard. The humans didn’t seem to have any concept of basic security; the researchers had discovered, fairly easily, entire books of tactical and strategic data on the entire world. Instead of telling their people what they needed to know, the humans were allowing them to know everything…or, at least, far more than they really needed to know, or even care about. A chart of bases in the Middle East, useless to the human who’d died defending his home, had been very useful to the planners when the invasion began…
    This time, it was going to be a far more powerful offensive. The bombardment had been much more carefully planned, and, now that they had better intelligence, should be almost decisive on its own. The landing forces had landed in three human countries…and then were expanding out as rapidly as possible. The most powerful country in the region might be a problem, which was why it had been left for last – there was also a human religious element involved, although none of the researchers could explain why it was still there – but the remaining militaries would just melt away. They didn’t know it, yet, but they had nowhere to hide. The cities of Jerusalem and Mecca would be taken soon…and they would be used to bring down the human religions and replace them with the Truth. The High Priest was certain of it…
    So why did he have those quiet nagging doubts?
    He dismissed them and turned to the War Leader. “I want the enemy organised resistance quelled within the next two cycles,” he ordered. The human resistance had been disorganised all over the region; some units had fought well, if utterly outclassed, and some had just scattered and run. They’d had to be rounded up quickly to prevent them from turning into insurgents later. “Keep up the pressure on their governments and don’t let them have a chance to form a new defence line.”
    “Of course, Your Holiness,” the War Leader said. “As unprepared as they were, they will fall before us.”
    “Good,” the High Priest said. If nothing else, a second round of fighting would keep the warriors from having uncomfortable thoughts. “Keep me updated on the progress of the invasion.”
    The War Leader bowed and retreated. The High Priest knew that he should relax. He'd done all he could to ensure victory…but he still had those nagging doubts. Only victory would salve his concerns…and victory was just around the corner. It just felt as if they’d made a terrible mistake.
    He was sure of it.

Chapter Twenty-Nine

    It is an illusion that youth is happy, an illusion of those who have lost it; but the young know they are wretched, for they are full of the truthless ideals which have been instilled into them, and each time they come in contact with the real they are bruised and wounded.
    – W. Somerset Maugham

    His name was Naseer Ziad and he was nineteen years old.
    Like most other boys in Riyadh, he’d been brought up in a very conservative household. As the oldest male child, Naseer had a degree of freedom denied to his sisters, or even to his younger brothers, one that he’d used to ensure that he had very little actual work to do. Along with most of his contemporaries, he’d gone into an Islamic school when he was very young, and through that school, had gained a near-perfect knowledge of the Qu’ran. He could recite a surah on command…but he didn’t understand it. His learning had been learning by rote, a mixture of the form of Islam officially practiced in Saudi Arabia and hatred, hatred of the Great Satan, the Little Satan, and the other official Enemies of Islam…
    And it led him nowhere. He’d found out fairly quickly that there was little chance of a job without training or connections…and he had neither. He considered the Saudi military to be beneath him – and, besides, an older cousin he looked up to was in the National Guard and told him that it wasn't a pleasant job. The highly-paid – and without doing any actual work- posts were denied to someone without the right blood, or the right connections…and, again, he lacked them. The American and European companies doing business within Saudi Arabia wouldn’t hire someone who could offer them nothing, not even introductions to the right people, and the Saudi companies reserved most of their slots for princes or their lackeys. At eighteen, he found himself unemployed and, it seemed, stuck.
    He’d drifted into the radical fringe merely for something to do. He couldn’t swear to any kind of devout belief, merely a conviction that the Americans, or the Jews, or the British were to blame for his troubles. He’d certainly enjoyed the trip to Bahrain he’d made with his father as an eighteen-year-old birthday present, where he’d tasted alcohol and lost his virginity. He was nineteen…and unmarried, unemployed, and completely without prospects. No father or brother would consider him as a possible relative…and, caught up in his need to blame someone, he'd gone radical. The teachers and contacts he’d met in the radical mosques had singled the young Naseer out – there was little wrong with his intelligence, only his learning and application – and played on his fears and beliefs until he was willing to do almost anything for them. They’d seen it a thousand times before; the products of the Saudi educational system, designed to co-opt or keep down the Saudi population, found themselves in a world where their skills were worthless. The recruiters gave them a cause and something to die for.
    The radical mosques had praised the aliens to the skies, at first, for running roughshod over Texas. Cartoons of former President Bush performing oral sex on one of the aliens had been passed around the mosques for weeks, despite Wahhabi bans on images of human beings, while the radicals had delighted in the Royal Family’s discomfort. They held the whip hand for once; as long as they seemed to speak for the people, the Royals didn’t dare move against them. Naseer had learned to hate the Royal Family – he'd been assured that they kept the job rate down just to prevent people like him from having their own chance at reaching power – and he’d joined in the protests and demonstrations with the others, seeing for the first time the weakness of the regime. A power that could – and had – lock up all the believers in democracy couldn’t cope with the forces of hatred and revolution seething up from the deepest, darkest part of their nation. Their time was coming…
    And then the news had sunk in, slowly, that the aliens were coming to destroy religion, human religion. Naseer hadn’t wanted to believe it, but the internet-based service which had replaced Al Jazeera – it had been knocked off the air by the destruction of their satellite, although Naseer knew, of course, that it was a plot of the wicked Zionists – had passed on images of the destruction of churches, synagogues…and mosques. The radicals warned, changing their tune slightly, that Islam was in as much danger as the other religions…and, when the aliens had landed in the north, Naseer had realised that the aliens were coming for Riyadh.
    The young men – women were expected to remain in their homes – had gathered in their mosques as the aliens approached the city. The sounds of battle could be heard in the distance, although rumour, spreading from person to person and growing wilder with each telling, claimed that the Royal Family had cut a deal with the aliens, or the Shias had come out in favour of the aliens, or even that the Jews had nuked the aliens before they could land. The only news that seemed at all reliable was that the aliens had punched through the Saudi Army and broken it like a twig, advancing on the suddenly unprotected cities. Naseer had been given a bottle of petrol, a match, and ordered to take to one of the rooftops. The aliens were about to enter the city…and they were going to give them a warm welcome.
    “Allah,” he breathed. Suddenly, as he saw the aliens for the first time, from the distance, the religion seemed more important to him. They weren’t advancing into the city, not yet, but were spreading out around it. He wanted a gun, one that could be used to shoot at them, but the leaders had refused to give him one. His duty was to throw the Molotov Cocktail and then as many stones as he could, before the aliens retreated, faced with the determination of thousands of young men to defend their city. A handful of aliens were walking without their masks, their reddish faces exposed to the hot desert air, and he saw them…and knew that they weren't human.
    Behind the lead alien vehicles, there was a line of prisoners, some of them bleeding and battered. He wondered, desperately hoping that it was not so, if his cousin was among them, but he couldn’t recognise him among the beaten men. They were mainly high-ranking officers, which, to his mind, suggested that they had remained well behind the fighting when brave soldiers like his cousin had gone out to fight the aliens. He watched, grimly, as the aliens came closer…and then someone opened fire.
    They’re not supposed to fire, he thought, horrified. The plan had been simple enough; wait until the aliens were well within the streets, then close in and beat them to death. Instead, someone had fired early…and, judging from the sparks bouncing off one of the tanks, completely without any use at all. The aliens on the ground dropped and, for a moment, he thought they’d been hit…before they unslung their weapons and returned fire. A second later, the remaining fighters with weapons opened fire…and the tanks returned fire. In seconds, what should have been an orderly attack, at least according to the leaders, disintegrated into a bloody screaming mass of bleeding flesh. Hot bullets tore through bodies – clothes and even makeshift armour were no protection – and sent chunks of blood and gore everywhere.
    Naseer just stared. He had completely forgotten the bottle in his hand as he watched the scene unfold. Calmly, dispassionately, the aliens were slaughtering anyone who even looked threatening. He hadn’t seen any real violence in his life, not even on the American cowboy films that his father had loved – and his teachers had disapproved of so strongly – and suddenly coming face to face with it scared hell out of him. He was barely aware of the sudden hot rush trickling down his leg as he tried to move, but his legs failed him. He was supposed to throw his bottle at an alien – no, he was supposed to light his bottle and then throw it at the aliens – but he couldn’t even remember that. He was rooted to the spot as more aliens appeared, flushing out fighters from the surrounding area, streaks of light thundering from the sky and smashing a handful of buildings, just to make the point. The shockwaves sent him stumbling, his building shaking as if it were going to collapse, other buildings across the city collapsing like dominos. The princes whose firms had handled the construction costs hadn’t bothered with minor details like safety…he saw a skyscraper collapse inwards, coming down with a rumbling noise audible over the entire city.
    Below, the prisoners were gathering. Mainly young and very scared men, their enthusiasm for the fight had vanished the moment the aliens opened fire, their clothes stained with the blood of their fellows. Most of them had been wounded, sometimes badly, in the lopsided fight; Naseer saw, now, just how stupid they’d been. Out in the open like that, it had been easy for the aliens to cut them all down; all they’d had to do was point and shoot. They could hardly have missed! The prisoners cringed inward as the aliens threw them out of their hiding places, trying to combine sullen defiance with a desire to avoid being noticed by their captors, the black-garbed aliens who had beaten them. The leaders…
    The thought gnawed at him. Where were the leaders? Where had they gone?
    It struck him, suddenly, that they’d been betrayed. The leaders had pushed them into a position where they could fight – and die – while they’d remained behind. The Royal Family’s tame clerics had been right all along! The attack hadn’t, as far as he could tell, harmed a single alien, while hundreds of young men were prisoners…and it looked as if the aliens had wiped out the entire population. Surely so much blood and gore had to come from thousands of people!
    He heard, below him, alien stormtroopers, moving through the building and flushing out the inhabitants. The young fighters – so long ago it felt like another life, one lived by an idiot – had ordered the families within the building to remain, confident that the aliens wouldn’t put their lives in danger. The leaders had had some reason to believe that, one that they hadn’t shared with their young charges, but whatever their reason, they'd been wrong. The aliens hadn’t hesitated to burst into the buildings, drag out everyone involved, regardless of their sex or clothing, and throw them out to join the other prisoners. He felt a cold burst of helpless anger when he saw the young women being added to the bag, even though the aliens didn’t seem to be interested in them that way, but coming on top of all the other shocks, it hardly seemed to matter. The aliens would find him, soon enough; he had to be visible from their position, standing up and looking stupid. He hadn’t even sought cover when the aliens had opened fire.
    He sighed and turned to face the aliens as they came out of the rooftop door. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, but he no longer wanted to fight; when the aliens appeared, he started to hold up his hands in surrender…and then they shot him. A hot burst of pain, right in his chest, sent him staggering backwards and crashing to the ground.
    “Why?” He tried to say. A clinking sound as the remains of the bottle hit the roof answered his question. He’d forgotten all about the bottle and they’d shot him for it. He would have laughed, but suddenly it hurt so badly…
    Darkness came for him, finally, a child lost in an adult world.

***

    Ambassador Simon Carmichael watched grimly as the aliens completed the suppression of Riyadh. The American Embassy within the city had been almost under siege from the first alien landings in Texas, when the radicals had realised that they would probably never have a better chance to take complete control, but the month hadn’t ended with a repeat of the Iranian Hostage Crisis. Somehow, in defiance of all of his predictions, the Saudis had managed to hold on, barely, until the aliens had landed. They’d rapidly crushed the Saudi Army and National Guard, before moving in on the cities…
    Idiot stupid prince, he thought, taking a puff on his cigar. He had the feeling that it would be a long time before any more cigars came in from Cuba, assuming the aliens let him live. No one knew if they had any concept of an Ambassador, even if they had treated the folks in orbit well enough, but they might seek to make an example of him. Judging from the complete collapse of the defences, they wouldn’t need to make any more horrible examples – the Ambassador’s Saudi aide had slipped through the streets and returned with tales of horror – but who knew how the aliens thought? What was he thinking?
    He shook his head, watching the fires swelling in the distance; the fire brigade couldn’t cope with so many at once. The Saudi Prince in command of the Army hadn’t had any proper training; the Princes that actually did have such training were rarely allowed to actually put that training to use. There was too much fear, apparently, that someone who was genuinely popular and linked to the Royals might launch a coup…and that fear had led to a quick and complete disaster. The Americans attached to Saudi HQ, before the telephone links had been lost, had reported that the General in command had led his tanks out to do battle. He might as well have shot all of his men himself. It would have been quicker and perhaps kinder.
    Redshirt bastards probably couldn’t believe their luck, Carmichael thought. There they are, knowing full well that they stomped us and that everyone else has been learning from those lessons, and here’s a complete dumbass leading his men out for the slaughter
    He turned, slightly, as Captain Harper entered. “Sir,” the Captain said. The Marine Protection Detail in Riyadh was much bigger than most cities. The thought of losing the ambassador and all of his staff had focused a few minds at State and they’d ensured that the embassy defenders were armed to the teeth. They couldn’t have hoped to hold off a full assault, not long enough to matter, but a rampaging mob might have been beaten off. “The gates are closed, but…”
    Carmichael understood his problem. If the aliens took it into their heads to take the Embassy, it was going to happen…and the best the Marines could do was go down fighting. They might not even have that chance; several buildings in Riyadh had been destroyed from orbit and the aliens might just do the same to the American Embassy.
    “Tell them not to open fire unless attacked,” he said, grimly. There was little point in trying to pick a fight with the aliens. Washington’s orders, before the aliens had knocked out the landline – had been simple enough; burn the documents, then do what seemed necessary in the circumstances. His lips twitched, suddenly; the Ambassador in South Korea was probably in worst circumstances. The North Koreans had gone over the border and had taken Seoul. “If the aliens want us, they’ll have us.”
    “Sir,” Harper said. Despite knowing the man for nearly a year, and spending at least an hour with him each day since the invasion, Carmichael still found it hard to read him. Did the Marine wish for a final, glorious last stand, or was he silently grateful that his men would be spared a hopeless fight? “What do we do about the natives?”
    Carmichael blinked. “The natives?”
    Harper nodded. “Sir, we have already had hundreds of men coming to the embassy and begging for sanctuary,” he said. Carmichael lifted an eyebrow. He honestly hadn’t thought that that was a possibility. “Some of them are…well, just civilians, others are actually important figures in the government.”
    “I doubt they even have much of a government now,” Carmichael said, looking out towards the towering flames. He wondered, idly, what to do. The compassionate answer would be to take as many in as possible, but the practical answer was to keep them out, reserving their stockpiles of food for the Americans. Part of him, he was unwilling to admit aloud, took a certain amount of pleasure in watching the former government suffer, the rest of him knew that it would be bad publicly. The practical side won out. “Keep them all out, unless they are actually working for us…yes, them and their immediate families.”
    “Sir,” Harper said, without any sign of approval or disapproval. His face refused to crack from its harsh good looks. Carmichael had thought, from time to time, that he was a Hollywood stereotype that had somehow escaped into the real world. The man’s record certainly read like something out of a patriotic film. “What are you going to say to the aliens?”
    Carmichael shrugged. He wasn't sure what the procedure was for being an enemy ambassador in an occupied country. “I’ll see what the aliens want to do,” he said, finally. “I’ll present my credentials at wherever they end up placing their government, and then…well, see what happens. Perhaps they’ll just send us back to Texas.”
    “Or perhaps they’ll kill us all,” Harper pointed out. There was a dispassionate note in his voice, as if he were ordering dinner or discussing accounting, rather than issues of life and death. “You might want to start thinking about contingency plans for that.”
    Carmichael laughed, despite himself. “Die,” he said. The laugh became a louder chuckle. “Yes, I think I might just manage that…and if I can’t, I’m sure they’ll help me.”

Chapter Thirty

    In the long, fierce struggle for freedom of opinion, the press, like the Church, counted its martyrs by thousands.
    – James A. Garfield

    Joshua had lost track of time. It had been days – or had it been weeks – since the aliens had burst in and snatched him and Loretta out of his apartment. He hadn’t seen her since the day of their arrest…and he hadn’t even seen any other humans. The aliens had kept him isolated, preventing him from having even the comfort of seeing another human face, while they decided what to do to him. His world had shrunk to the cell and the regular mealtimes; the aliens, it seemed, had a sense of humour. They might as well have fed him on bread and water. From time to time, they’d pulled him out of the cell into another room, where they’d asked questions, and then, without really caring about the answers, they’d placed him back in his cell.
    The police stations in Austin, he’d heard, had been defended vigorously during the fighting. The aliens had rounded up police officers with the same care they’d used to round up soldiers and former soldiers, but armed and dangerous, some of the police had fought back and died in the defence of their city. Enough of the police stations had survived, he saw now, to ensure that the aliens could keep their special prisoners secure, regardless of the cost. Joshua, it seemed, wasn't going into a work gang or the rumoured camps outside the city. They probably had a different fate in mind for him.
    He had very little to do, but sleep, eat and speculate on what was going to happen to him. The aliens normally put people who resisted them in work gangs, but he’d been doing a damn sight more than just resisting them, hadn’t he? His blog from the middle of occupied territory had ensured that the rest of the United States knew what was going on…and what alien rule was really like. Joshua wouldn’t have bet against new appearances of The Truth in America, founded by humans looking for something to believe – hell, if there was a Jedi religion, there would be humans who wanted to embrace the alien religion – but if people knew the truth about alien-controlled territory, they’d resist, right? He’d spread the word…until, finally, he’d been discovered.
    The thought tormented him when he slept. It wasn't easy to sleep in the cell – the light burned brightly, day and night – but somehow, he managed it. He’d been betrayed, but why? He would have understood one of his ex-girlfriends, or maybe one of his enemies from the regular media outlets – or what was left of them – but Mr Adair? What had the aliens offered him to make him turn traitor and betray Joshua’s existence and activities to them? Joshua could have almost forgiven betraying him, but Loretta had been young and innocent; she didn’t deserve what the aliens would do to her. The only consolation he had was that the aliens probably wouldn’t try to rape her, even though they might just dump her in a camp and forget about her. He couldn’t forgive that, but why?
    Maybe it had been the girls, Joshua wondered, and thought dark thoughts about strangling their father. Maybe he’d been threatened with losing them, or perhaps having them sent to a work gang, unless he turned informer. Or, perhaps, they needed something and only the aliens could provide it. He hadn’t known that either of them needed special medicine, but it wasn't as if he’d known them that well before the invasion had begun. Perhaps Mr Adair had been threatened himself, or had been offered extra food, or…
    There was little point in wondering about it. In a long career spent in the gutter, Joshua had seen how easy it was for someone to betray a sacred trust, or even someone they didn’t like or care about. It was easy to find a source on almost anything, if someone knew where to look; a dissatisfied employer, the victim of workplace bullying, the past wives or girlfriends of the rich and famous, the person who had committed a minor or major indiscretion in the past and didn’t dare allow the rest of the world to know about it. Anyone could be broken, or made to share secrets, given the right incentive…and no security precaution was ever one hundred percent effective. Mr Adair’s motive might even have been as simple as money; the alien money, handled through their ID cards, was starting to take hold.
    Bastards, he thought, feeling in his pockets. The aliens had searched him carefully and removed anything that could be used as a weapon. Part of him was rather flattered by their assumption of his ingenuity, for he didn’t have the slightest idea how half of them could be used as weapons, the rest of him was furious. What was a reporter without even a pen and some paper? They’d given him a prisoner’s outfit, probably burned all of his remaining clothes, and made sure that if he escaped, he would be noticed. Without an ID card, they would probably pick him up a few minutes after he escaped…if it had been possible. He’d examined the cell in the first few moments after being dumped inside, after the panic had worn off slightly, and discovered that it was very simple and completely escape-proof. Picking the lock would have been impossible even without the bolts, while the cement walls and floor would have required high explosives or a drill to break through. In the absence of either – and, while he was wishing, he wanted a teleporter as well – he was stuck. He was caught like a rat in a trap.
    He poured himself a glass of water, tasting the bitter tang as he drank a few sips, and scowled at the plastic jug. The aliens had given him a jug of water a day and expected him to use it sparingly. They hadn’t missed a trick, either; the plastic jug wasn't even useable for slitting his wrists. Joshua had never seriously considered suicide, not since he’d been sacked from his last job, but now…now he would almost be tempted, if he had something to hurt himself with. He’d tried not breathing, as he’d read in one of the spy novels he’d read once as a younger man, and all he’d got was a headache. Real life didn’t seem to work as well as a novel.
    The banging on the door brought him back to himself. He knew the routine by now; the aliens would bang to wake him up, then open the door and drag him out into the light. This time, there were three aliens standing there, their black helms regarding him, before one of them caught him by the scruff of his neck and dragged him out into the main room. It was as cold and barren as before – he’d wondered, despite himself, if they’d stuffed him in a warehouse, rather than the remains of a police station – but there were several more aliens there, watching him as he was carefully secured and marched off up the stairs. The lighting was better outside the cell and he found himself wincing as it struck his eyes. He hadn’t realised how gloomy the cell had become until he saw the outside world.
    I probably look like a vampire, he thought, absently. The mixture of malnutrition and the limited supply of light had probably made him look very unhealthy. He couldn’t remember, off-hand, how much time it would take in the dark to leave someone with pale skin, but he was sure that he had passed that time, even if he hadn’t been in the dark. It was getting harder to think properly, although he wasn't sure if that was because of the limited food or because of the way his horizons had shrunk to the four walls of the cell. How long had it been, after all?
    He looked at one of the guards. “How long have I been in the cell?”
    The guard didn’t answer. He just rammed the barrel of his weapon into Joshua’s chest. The pain was incredible and he almost collapsed on the ground, steadied only by an alien hand. In a movie, he would have captured the rifle and shot his way out, but in real life…the pain made it impossible to think. He dry-retched, wishing that he’d had enough in his stomach to throw up all over the aliens, but nothing came. Coughing and wheezing, feeling like a two packs a day man, he found himself being herded into a waiting room. A line of human prisoners, some of them looking much worse than him, waited there. No one spoke to one another, not to Joshua or to anyone else; they were all trapped in their own private hells.
    Joshua felt reporting instincts coming to the fore and tried to study his fellow prisoners. Just seeing a human face after so long was a relief, but he didn’t see anyone he wanted to see, not even Loretta. There were girls, some barely entering their teens, handcuffed and waiting for the aliens. There were young men, some of them wounded badly, left to wait as well. Several of them looked as if they were going to die unless they got some medical treatment, but the aliens didn’t seem to care. The handful of older people in the room tried to ignore the aliens and Joshua himself, keeping themselves to themselves. The stink of hopelessness and sour death was everywhere.
    He looked back towards the impassive aliens and shivered. What the hell was going on?
    An alien caught onto his arm. “You will accompany us,” he said, in an accented voice. He almost sounded German. After everything else he’d seen, that made Joshua giggle, feeling right on the edge of sanity, but the alien ignored it. He pulled Joshua to his feet, escorted him through a pair of doors, and thrust him into another room. Three aliens faced him, all unmasked…and one of them, he saw, was a female. The breasts had to mean a female, right?
    It almost sent him into another fit of giggles. If the aliens were going to enforce bare breasts on the human population, he wouldn’t mind in the slightest…and most young men would probably feel the same way, as long as it wasn't their sisters, or girlfriends, or even mothers…but it would be. The people who believed in modesty and chastity would have several different kinds of shit-fit over the whole idea…and the aliens would probably be bemused. Did they really understand humanity, after all this time?
    “You are the human…reporter Joshua Bourjaily,” the lead alien said. It was the male who spoke and the sound of his voice snapped Joshua back to full alertness. The situation was incredibly dangerous for him personally…and yet, he was fairly sure that he wasn't going to get out of this one. Being interrogated by military police or spending the night in the cells after a demonstration suddenly seemed like a minor issue. “You have spread propaganda against us and spread perversion through the land.”
    Joshua blinked. He actually had few kinky sexual tastes…and he certainly wasn't one of those reporters who followed Hollywood stars and pop singers around, not least because he’d never had any of the contacts needed to gain admission to those scenes…and even then, he wouldn’t have defined them as perverted. Sure, they had silly lives and couldn’t sing, but they were hardly perverted. How could the aliens have assumed he was perverted? They might have read one of those books where all reporters were worthless weak-chinned liberals, out to sabotage the bravery of the granite-chinned Marine/Soldier/Spy/Republican, but even so…
    He wasn’t getting out alive. Who cared what happened to him? “I did my duty,” he said, and tried to plaster a determined expression on his face. A human observer would have probably recognised the terror hiding under the expression. “The free press is a vital tool for keeping the country honest and the government’s nose firmly clean…”
    “You were not operating under the laws of your former country,” the lead alien said. Joshua stared at him; had the aliens overrun the remainder of America? He didn’t think they could have done it so quickly, but if the internet was to be believed, they had smashed most of the army during Operation Lone Star. “You operate as a subject of the Theocracy, one who has accepted the Truth.”
    Joshua didn’t – quite – speak the words that came to mind. “I still have little idea what the Truth is,” he protested. “I know some of your prayers, but nothing else! How am I supposed to abide by the tenets of a religion when I don’t even know what I’m not allowed to eat?”
    “You were brought into the Theocracy by right of conquest,” the alien informed him. “You are not a soldier, one expected to remain loyal to an old ideal. You are not a leader, one expected to maintain the old ideal. You are not a priest, one expected to…”
    “I know what I’m not,” Joshua burst out. “I was raped!”
    The alien regarded him blankly. Weeks of pent-up frustration burst up within Joshua’s mind. If he was going to go out, he was going to tell them exactly what he thought of them.
    “You seem to think that just holding some of us in your clutches means that we will convert to your religion,” he snapped, expecting every moment to be his last. “What value does such a conversion have when we don’t even know what is required of us, or why we should choose your religion over the others…”
    “It is The Truth,” the alien thundered. “We are its guardians and its proponents. We have replaced your religion with our own. You will follow it or accept the fate of those who commit heresy.”
    “And you have perverted others,” the alien female added. “The female we arrested with you has developed a quite unseemly attachment to you and believes that she is yours. You have…corrupted her into believing that she belongs to you.”
    Joshua stared at her. “Loretta,” he asked. “Is she all right?”
    “She appears to have been a minor partner in your treason,” the alien leader informed him. “She will be treated in a camp and, eventually, permitted to rejoin society. You, on the other hand, betrayed your religion and served as a spy within our land. You will be treated accordingly.”
    “You don’t understand us, do you?” Joshua asked. “Each and every one of us makes his or her own decision in the matter of religion. We all do. How can you convert us all? Do you think to punish everyone who steps away from your beliefs, beliefs they don’t share because they don’t even know what they are…?”
    “The act of worship pleases God,” the alien said, firmly. Joshua realised, grimly, that he wasn't even getting through to the alien. They were speaking the same language, but they didn’t mean the same things. “You have a choice. You may work for us, spreading the word throughout the land, or you can die. There are no longer any other alternatives.”
    “Join you or die,” Joshua mused. The old Joshua, he was ashamed to admit, would have probably accepted the alien offer and sold his soul for survival. The aliens wouldn’t have had anything to complain about with him. The new Joshua, who knew what was really important and what wasn't, had other ideas. He wasn’t going to bow down to them any longer. “No.”
    The alien seemed surprised. “You are a man of no convictions,” he said. “Do you really wish to die?”
    “No,” Joshua said, “but you’re not going to let me go, so…”
    “Very well,” the alien said. He straightened up. “I am the Inquisitor. As is my right and duty, I find you guilty of heresy, treason, and activities that risked the lives of the warriors…and those of your race who have converted to the Truth. The sentence is death. You will be taken to a public place, where you will be burned alive.”
    Joshua said nothing as the alien guards grabbed him and marched him out of the room. They had to have received orders, somehow, because they didn’t hesitate, but took him right out of the complex and into one of the hovering trucks they used for transport. A moment later, the truck started to move, gliding out through the streets towards one of the soup kitchens, established in the remains of what had once been a building. Austin seemed almost duller now, drabber…the remains of life slowly being extinguished as the occupation took hold. He looked, desperately, for some sign that there was still an insurgency, but saw nothing. He was alone.
    They’d already prepared a bonfire and a stake, almost like something out of one of the Salem Witch Trials. The humans who had been at the kitchen watched, their faces betraying nothing, as Joshua was hauled out and marched over to the stake. The guards lashed him to the stake and stepped back, one of them producing a small lighter-like device and bending down to the wood. Judging from the odd smell, the wood had been treated somehow to allow it to burn faster and hotter…
    “I commend my soul to God,” Joshua said. He didn’t know why he’d said it. It just seemed like the right thing to say. The crowd, growing larger all the time, watched him, perhaps wondering what he would say next. He wanted to pray, but somehow all the prayers he had known had deserted him, even the alien prayers. His mind was calm, composed…and accepting. He was going to die. “You bastards, burn in hell.”
    The alien clicked on the lighter…
    And then there was a shattering explosion from the other side of the kitchen.

Chapter Thirty-One

    The most effective leaders of companies in transition are the quiet, unassuming people whose inner wiring is such that the worst circumstances bring out their best. They're unflappable; they're ready to die if they have to. But you can trust that, when bad things are happening, they will become clearheaded and focused.
    – Jim Collins

    The report on the President’s desk had taken nearly two weeks to compose and, by then, was probably partly out of date. Compiled by a team of Beltway Bandits, who had been feeling the pinch as the economy collapsed, it was a grand survey of the entire United States and the results of the alien invasion. It didn’t make pleasant reading. The aliens had, deliberately or otherwise, interfered with an economic system that had worked fairly well for years…and, in doing so, had brought most of the world to its knees. The United States might well be on the verge of being defeated – completely. That had never happened in history, not since the Revolutionary War; the destruction of the White House during the War of 1812 had been a minor pinprick.
    Now, however…the aliens were carefully hacking the remainder of the United States apart. They were targeting everywhere, but one case was particularly bad. They’d picked off a handful of bridges across the Hudson River and virtually cut New England off from New York. The net result was mass starvation, despite careful rationing and an evacuation program that had relocated hundreds of thousands of people. If it continued, the population would soon become so desperate that they would convert to any religion, even Satanism, just to be fed. The report had suggested that defeatism was actually growing in parts of the country, despite the daily reports of atrocities from the Red Zone in Texas and the Middle East.
    Worse, almost all of the food coming into the northeast corridor, where nearly two-thirds of the population lived, including Washington, came by truck. The aliens, as they had figured out more of the American system, had started to pick off additional vital bridges and interchanges in Pennsylvania, as well as a handful of trucks, picked almost at random. The cumulative effect, the report suggested, was that vast sections of the population would be facing starvation – and a complete social collapse – fairly soon. The stockpiles of food and supplies were running low…and, worse, there was almost no oil coming in from outside. The US could, and did, pump up some from within its borders, but even so, getting it somewhere was proving difficult…
    Worst of all, the alien occupation of the Middle East gave them massive clout with the remainder of the world. Sure, they were fighting an insurgency that made the Iraqi insurgency look like nothing, but they were holding the oil wells and even starting to pump out more oil. There were countries, everywhere, that needed that oil and would be willing to sign an agreement with the devil to get it. Judging from some of the reports and rumours drifting around the world, the Japanese were within days of signing an accord with the aliens, and they would only be the first. The President was surprised that Europe hadn’t gone under already, although the reports from the various embassies suggested that it was just a matter of time. The aliens were learning how to manipulate the human economy…and, in doing so, had caught the entire world in a vice.
    The report actually became grimmer when handling the longer-term issues. The American – and thus the global – banking system had effectively collapsed. The restrictions the President and other world leaders had put on it before the aliens arrived had helped to disguise it, but the truth was that thousands of international loans were never going to be paid back, let alone internal loans. The destruction of the satellites had started a chain reaction that had brought down dozens of companies, including some that had seemed invincible, and even that was only the beginning. The American economy was in ruins…and nothing, it seemed, could halt the process.
    He scowled and took another sip of his coffee. They were trying, but would anything be enough? The new depression made the Great Depression look like nothing, and yet…people were trying to pull through. There were thousands of men and women being encouraged to go work on the farms – supplies of vital farming equipment had been disrupted as well – and others who had signed up with the army or various recovery projects, but would it be enough. The little patches of America where law and order had been destroyed, or had become the provenance of survivalists or militias, were only disrupting recovery…
    The President placed his head in his hands. There seemed to be no way out of the trap, nothing, but surrender…and see what terms the aliens intended to offer the remains of the United States. He doubted that they would be kind.

***

    General Herald – Justin Michael Herald – didn’t fit the popular image of a General, Paul decided, after watching him as the President called the meeting to order. Herald looked more like a slightly underweight version of Dilbert, rather than a hard-charging cigar-chomping soldier, but perhaps that was to be expected. As the foremost expert in biological warfare in America, Herald was the commanding officer of the US Army Chemical and Biological Defence Command, a unit so secretive that even Paul had found it hard to obtain any real data, until the invasion had begun. The prospect, however small, of an alien bio-threat had concentrated a few minds and Herald had been given the task of ensuring that any such threat was neutralised before it became a serious problem.
    Paul listened absently as the President ran through the handful of preliminary details. Herald had, apparently, told the Congressional Committee that if there was any trace of a bio-threat from the aliens, it would be serious if it only infected one human before being discovered. He’d been blunt about it, to staffers and congressmen who’d only learned about biological weapons from movies, blunt enough that he had more than his fair share of enemies on the Hill. The prospect had been unlikely, he’d assured them, but if it did happen, it would be disastrous.
    “As you know,” Herald began, for the benefit of those who didn’t, “all captured alien bodies were recovered as rapidly as possible, frozen and transported to a variety of centres throughout the country, coordinated with the CDC and a handful of other institutions. The live aliens might have been kept at a separate facility, but we had a strong input into the design of the complex, which was originally intended for possible Typhoid Mary’s. It is impossible to be one hundred percent certain, but I can now state that it is probably impossible for any of their diseases to make the leap into humanity and cause an epidemic.”
    The President, who was hearing that for the first time, frowned. “How certain are you of that?”
    “It is difficult to be absolutely sure,” Herald admitted. “However, it seems that the aliens lived in a fairly closed environment, one where diseases were generally isolated and controlled, if not wiped out, and the net result is that our tormentors are a fairly healthy lot. Regardless, their internal biology is very different from ours and something intended to attack their systems would probably be unable to get a hold on ours. We have attempted to actually cross-transfer cells from their bodies” – and, Paul knew, a series of experiments that would sicken anyone who heard about them cold – “and so far we have had absolutely no success.”
    “And so they cannot affect us,” Senator Ovitz snapped. The Texan eyed the President and then Herald as if they were personally responsible for everything that had happened to Texas. Senator Ovitz had more power than an average Senator…and, with his state under occupation, had been the loudest voice demanding action. “Can we affect them?”
    Herald didn’t seem to notice the tone. “The results suggest that any War of the Worlds scenario is unlikely,” he said. “We conducted a series of tests on live alien cells, taken from the captives, and again, nothing we have seems to take hold.”
    “But…damn it all,” Senator Ovitz thundered. “You’re supposed to be constructing new viruses to use against the enemies of the United States! Can’t you come up with something that can infect the aliens?”
    There was a brief outburst of chatter from around the table, which ended when the President lifted a hand. “The brief of my department,” Herald informed Senator Ovitz, in a frosty tone, “is to develop defences against biological attack. At times, the difference between a defence capability and an attack capability is actually almost non-existent. In order to discover how best to prevent the spread of bio-weapons, we need to study the diseases directly, which means that to all intents and purposes, we have an attack capability.”
    He peered at Senator Ovitz through his spectacles. “Biological warfare is not straightforward,” he continued. “Despite the belief of Hollywood scriptwriters, it is very difficult to come up with the required mixture of lethality and timing that are the hallmark of a successful bio-weapon. The more…unpleasant a disease is, the shorter the timescale between infection, symptoms and death. Ebola, to use only one example from the movies, has a tendency to show symptoms too quickly. The victim seeks medical help, whereupon the disease is recognised and countermeasures begun.”
    The President leaned forward, interested. “If that’s the case,” he said, “why do most of the scenarios I saw when I became President show a massive outbreak across the United States?”
    Herald had the grace to look slightly abashed. “It was anticipated that the political leadership wouldn’t be willing to take action until it was already too late,” he admitted, ignoring Senator Ovitz’s snort. “If a case was discovered in Washington, it would be necessary to seal off Washington completely…and probably several other cities as well, while shutting down air transport and everything else. It would be hard for the political leadership to act like Jack Ryan and take the heat for overreacting if it was a false alarm. Worse, the ideal biological warfare attack would be focused on several Patient Zeros and, therefore, would defeat any blockade.”
    He paused. “But we’re getting away from the point,” he continued. “We don’t have a sample of any alien disease to experiment with. Even if we did have one, we wouldn’t know what we were doing, at least not at first. And, if we did come up with a usable bio-weapon, we couldn’t get it to all of the aliens at once. In short, we’ll keep researching, but I doubt that we’ll find a biological angle of attack.”
    Deborah spoke into the silence. “And you can’t modify something of ours to attack them?”
    “No,” Herald said, flatly. “It’s a completely different biological system. Oh, we may discover that something of ours isn’t good for them, but the odds are against finding a magic bullet.”
    “Perhaps that’s not a bad thing,” the President said. “I would not care to be faced with the choice between deploying a bio-weapon – and committing genocide – and losing the war.”
    “With all due respect, Mr President,” Senator Ovitz said, “my people are being crushed under the alien boot. They do not have time for your fancy northern morality.”
    “We’re doing what we can for them,” the President said. “General?”
    General Hastings scowled. “We have actually managed to take advantage of the alien distraction – and their invasion of the Middle East – and use the time to slip in a few thousand more Special Forces, mainly Green Berets, Force Recon and a handful of lower-key units. Intelligence types have been infiltrating the alien-controlled cities and towns and have been reporting back to us on how the aliens are conducting themselves. In short, Mr President, we’re making it much harder for them to conduct further offensive operations against us.”
    His voice darkened. “But not, I fear, impossible,” he added. “The reports were unconfirmed at first, but it appears likely that the aliens intend to launch a northwards thrust, perhaps into Arkansas or Mississippi. Our forces, which have been gathering there, are not in any state to resist such an attack, even without the addition of space-based weapons. They may believe that attacking us will force us to stop supporting the insurgents, or they may simply intend to add to their human resources…”
    The President winced. “Are you sure that they’re going to expand?”
    “We believe that that is what they have in mind, yes,” General Hastings said. “The intelligence and signals units are unable to actually read the alien transmissions, but there has been a steady increase in transmissions from bases they have established in north-east Texas. They may be intending a punch at our bases, perhaps a spoiling attack, or they may have another advance in mind.”
    “Mr President, we need to consider the nuclear option,” Deborah said, firmly. “If we cannot stop the aliens from expanding, we have to look at other possibilities.”
    Senator Ovitz nodded in agreement. “They have to be stopped,” he said. “If that means turning a section of America to glass…”
    “There are American citizens under any nuclear blast,” the President snapped. Paul could hear the pain in his voice. “Do you want to butcher them like the aliens did the Pope and the Vatican?”
    “What choice do we have?” Senator Ovitz demanded. “General, can the army stop them if they come at you?”
    General Hastings’s face was unreadable. “Delay them, yes,” he said. His voice soured. “Stop them…no. They have too many advantages. I’m seriously considering suggesting that we only delay them and prepare the ground for a much larger insurgency.”
    “And would nukes add to our chances of stopping them?”
    “Not easily,” Paul said, sparing General Hastings. “The aliens can – and do – shoot down every missile we launch at them. The mass use of every known ICBM left on Earth would probably not destroy the Red Zone. Long-range fire from artillery has also been shot down in flight. We would have to hide the weapons along the expected lines of advance…”
    “But we could use them,” Senator Ovitz said. “We could put an end to their threat…”
    “The issue is closed,” the President snapped, firmly. “Colonel James, what progress has been made with the SSTO program?”
    “Useless,” Senator Ovitz muttered, just loudly enough to be heard.
    Paul privately agreed – partly – but kept that thought to himself. “The program for constructing our own fleet of SSTO craft has been accelerated, now that we have a working model of our own,” he said. “We hope that within two to three months we will have around thirty craft that we can deploy – if we can get rid of the alien orbiting systems. As long as they control space, we cannot actually get anything of our own into orbit – and they will be very aware that as long as they control space, their ultimate victory is assured.”
    “So, son,” Senator Ovitz said, “are you saying that it’s time to haul up the white flag?”
    “Hardly,” Paul said. “The one great advantage of the war is that a lot of research programs into advanced weapons and concepts have been kicked into high gear. We may not be able to duplicate the alien laser weapons, not yet, but we have other weapons of our own now. The latest models of lasers can actually harm the alien craft in orbit, although they cannot inflict significant damage in seconds. The alien parasites have too much armour to be easily taken out from the ground – and, of course, any missile boosting upwards from Earth is easy to detect. We took down their space-based radar network in Operation Lone Star and forced them to use parasite ships in that role, but that means that we cannot take the network down again, not easily.”
    He paused. “But we do have options,” he continued. “Give us three months and we might be able to convince the aliens that they’ve been in a fight.”
    “Three months,” Senator Ovitz said, more thoughtfully. He looked over at the world map, showing the Red Zone in Texas and another, larger one, covering most of the Middle East. It would only be a matter of time before Israel fell and the aliens ruled from the Suez to the Pakistani border. They even had diplomats from the Middle East talking to their counterparts from Europe and the rest of the world. Quite a few African nations were on the verge of surrendering. “Can we hold out that long?”
    “If we deploy the weapons we have now, we will lose the advantage of surprise,” General Hastings warned. “Some of the newer weapons will only be useful if deployed all at once, without the aliens having any kind of warning. Others can only be deployed if we have reasonably clear skies and a chance to work without alien interference. We cannot liberate Texas yet, sir, but give us enough time and we’ll have a very real chance at victory.”
    “If the country holds together that long,” the President said, tiredly. His eyes looked tired; he hadn’t slept properly in weeks. “Is there no way we can take down their network again?”
    “Not as yet,” Paul said, and he grinned. He couldn’t tell them everything, but if the psych teams were right, the alien prisoners might be converted to human ideals. “We do, however, have the help of one of their tech experts. If we can work on the prisoners and convince them to help, we might just manage to pull off a real surprise.”
    Senator Ovitz looked at him. “You trust them to help us?” He asked. “And what if it fails?”
    Paul smiled. “If it fails, Senator,” he said, “we lose. If that happens, we all die. You’re part of the old government…and, as far as the aliens are concerned, you’re marked for death.”

Chapter Thirty-Two

    Do not confuse "duty" with what other people expect of you; they are utterly different. Duty is a debt you owe to yourself to fulfil obligations you have assumed voluntarily. Paying that debt can entail anything from years of patient work to instant willingness to die. Difficult it may be, but the reward is self-respect.
    – Robert A. Heinlein

    Captain Brent Roeder pushed down on the remote control and the IED exploded. It had taken him nearly twenty minutes, using a mixture of children’s electronics and pre-packaged explosive, to make the device, but it was worth all the effort. The blast exploded from a pile of rubble and slaughtered the handful of alien guards who’d been standing there, watching the execution. There was no need to bark a command; his two remaining snipers, hidden on rooftops, started to fire down into the remaining aliens, forcing them to duck and dive for cover. For a few moments, no one would be paying any attention to the remains of the crowd, which was now running in all directions, and that would give him his chance. He ran forward, holding his pistol in one hand and a knife in the other, towards the stake.
    Up close, it looked barbaric…and he hadn’t believed his eyes when he’d seen them bring out the poor bastard who was now tied to it. The insurgents in Iraq had had plenty of interesting and horrible ways to make a man die – and he'd sent a few of them to Allah himself in unpleasant manners – but he’d never burned a man alive, not deliberately. The aliens had been telling everyone that there would be a public punishment of someone for ‘treason and perversion,’ whatever that meant to them, but he hadn’t realised just what they had in mind, not until he’d seen the stake. If they’d lit it, the best his men could do was avenge the poor bastard’s death.
    The man cringed away from him as Brent came up to him. “US Army,” Brent hissed, suddenly very aware of his appearance. Any Drill Sergeant would have thrown a fit and had him cleaning toilets for months if he’d dared to report dressed as he was, although neat freaks and anal-retentive morons didn’t tend to last long in the Special Forces. They were fighters first; posing in proper uniforms came a long way down the list. “Stay calm, understand?”
    “Yes,” the man gasped. Brent checked him over quickly – seeing a thin man, slightly too pale for his build, with a week’s worth of stubble on his chest – and started to saw through the bonds. The alien material, whatever it was, resisted fiercely, but he sliced through it and unwrapped the captive quickly. He didn’t have any idea who the man was, but messing up the aliens fun and games was probably worthwhile, if only to remind them that the insurgents existed. “What…”
    He came free in an instant and almost stumbled over the small pile of wood. “Never mind that now,” Brent snapped, as he caught his arm and dragged him back towards the rubble. The crowd, knowing what the aliens did when it came to counter-insurgency, had dispersed, but a handful of aliens had taken cover and were still trying to fire back. They were pinned down and effectively helpless – he hoped – unless they wanted to die, but the longer he kept his forces in one place, the more time the aliens had to organise a counterattack and slaughter his men. “Come with me!”
    He keyed the second remote control and heard the series of explosions as they blasted through the alien complacency. If they were lucky, the IEDs would convince the aliens that they faced a third all-out insurgency, rather than a relatively limited strike aimed at embarrassing them. A handful of collaborators, men and women forced into serving the aliens, had risked their lives to smuggle in the devices, which would have the added side benefit that the aliens would no longer be able to trust their collaborators – if they ever had. He counted the explosions quickly, noted that one of the devices seemed to have failed, and then smiled in relief as a final explosion billowed up in the distance.
    “Now, run,” he snapped, and led the charge down the street. The remainder of his men would have seen him flee and would be disengaging as well, while the aliens, still trapped, would be unable to impede their retreat. He felt, more than heard, the presence of alien helicopters swooping in from high above, but by now they were under some cover and fairly safe. “Don’t look back, just run!”
    The area had been devastated by one of the earlier rounds of fighting, but there were still some families squatting in the remains, unwilling or unable to move. The aliens, for some reason, had started to move families into intact buildings, and then they’d stopped. It was a mystery, but not one he had any time to solve, not when the entire alien army was likely to be on their trail. They could simply devastate the area from orbit, but he was gambling on them not being prepared to shatter a few kilometres of the city just to kill a handful of insurgents. By the time they realised they’d been tricked, he hoped, the pair of them should be well away.
    “Thanks, I think,” his rescued captive said. Brent had to laugh as the tension wore off. He might be still trapped in the midst of an alien-controlled city, with thousands of embarrassed and humiliated aliens coming after him, but for the moment they were safe. “I thought I was a goner there.”
    “You pretty nearly were steak and fries,” Brent agreed. He checked the corridor quickly, and then opened the battered and looted apartment, recovering the suitcase that they'd hidden under the bed. “Strip off, completely, and change into what’s in the case.”
    The man seemed inclined to object. “But…”
    “But nothing,” Brent snapped. “Those bastards are tricky. Ten gets you twenty that you have a tracer somewhere on your clothes and if they start looking now, they’re going to find us.”
    That, he noticed, got the man’s clothes off quicker than a teenage boy faced with a naked and ready girl. His body was pale, like his face and hands, but there were bruises everywhere. It didn’t look as if he'd been tortured, but the alien guards had probably worked him over once or twice, just to make the point that they could do whatever they liked to him. The alien concept of treachery and perversion might not be the same as a human concept, but they clearly took it seriously; he hadn’t seen them trying to burn anyone before.
    Doesn’t mean they’re not doing it elsewhere, he thought. They’d invaded the Middle East, according to their tame humans, and so far the Arabs had just prostrated themselves before them. Brent suspected that the aliens were lying; he’d been in the Middle East and fought there, in some countries that it would have surprised the general public to know that American troops had ever fought, and he knew that defeating them wouldn’t be a pushover. Their armies were crap, commanded by poor leaders who got their jobs because of their contacts or lack of competence, but as insurgents, they were formidable. The US had killed off thousands of the incompetent insurgents, and the Iraqi Army had been completing the process, but hundreds of very experienced bastards had fled Iraq, into Saudi or Iran, where they’d started to cause trouble for the established rulers. The aliens might be having more difficulties than they were prepared to admit…
    “Good,” he said, finally. The man now wore a pair of jeans, a shirt that looked as if it had seen better days, and a baseball cap that concealed his hair. “What’s your name?”
    “Joshua,” the man said. He looked as if he was going to fall dead at any second, but his eyes were bright with determination. “If they had a tracer on me, shouldn’t we move?”
    “Yep,” Brent said, and quickly stuffed the remaining clothes in the briefcase. The aliens would probably be able to track the tracer through the cloth – at least, he hoped they could – but when they found the briefcase, the thermite grenade he'd rigged up as part of the case would detonate, hopefully in their faces. He dumped the handgun and his coat in the case, returned it to the bed, and activated the trap. “Come on…and remember, act casual.”
    “I could go back to my apartment,” Joshua said, sounding as if he were coming down from a high. He’d probably never had such excitement in his life before. “If we split up, they would still be looking for two men…”
    “And then you’d be picked up again when they checked that,” Brent said, as they stepped out onto the street. Automatically, he lowered his voice. “The aliens aren’t stupid, buddy, and your face and fingerprints are known to them. Given time, they’ll check out everywhere you could go, but if you come with me to a safe house, you should be safe for the moment.”
    Joshua winced. “There’s really nothing else left, is there?” He asked. “Existence as I know it is over?”
    “And resistance is futile,” Brent agreed gravely. “On the plus side, you won’t have to repay any money you owe.”
    The aliens, much to his relief, hadn’t managed to get a proper cordon up in time to catch them both. He still had his ID card, the one that they’d issued to him, but it wouldn’t save Joshua, whose card was lost somewhere in the alien headquarters. He reminded himself not to take anything for granted, but it looked to him as if the aliens hadn’t yet realised the target of the attack, or perhaps thought that Joshua, whoever he was, had been killed in the IED blast. Their object lesson to the human population had been foiled…and, given how he suspected they thought, they would be more concerned with finding a second victim than chasing down Joshua.
    The question nagged at him as they slipped into the outskirts, past a group of aliens who paid them no heed, and into their street. It was fortunate that there had been so many people moving around the city in the days and weeks following the invasion; no matter what the aliens did, tracking it all was going to be a major pain in the ass. In time, he was sure, they would lock down Austin and the remainder of the Red Zone properly, but until then, the insurgents could move relatively freely if they were careful. The last house had had to be abandoned – one of his men had been wounded and fallen into alien hands – but the new one was suitable for the purpose. He hadn’t wanted to bring Joshua here, but given how little time they’d had to plan the snatch, there had been little choice.
    “Stay back,” he said, as he opened the outer door. The inner door had been rigged with all the ingenuity of a pack of Special Forces soldiers, free to use some of their more advanced training at last, and would be rather…dangerous for anyone opening it without special precautions. The string had been exactly where they’d left it, but the slightest misstep would detonate the claymore they’d rigged up and blow them both to pieces; carefully, he dismantled enough of the trap to allow them both to enter. “This place is rigged, so stay on the upper floor unless you want to kill us all.”
    He showed Joshua the stairs and the washroom and waited, patiently, while he had a shower and a shave. He almost looked human again when he emerged, although the remainder of the bruises wouldn’t fade until he’d had time to sleep and perhaps been taken someplace where humans still ruled themselves. The remainder of his group – the five who were left after nearly six weeks of constant fighting, hiding and fighting again – had arrived in the meantime and it was a thoughtful, but elated group that met up again in what had once been the master bedroom. The previous owner of the house, Brent had decided long since, had either been filthy rich or owed some banks a great deal of money.
    Enough greenbacks to carpet the moon, he thought, as he took a beer and relaxed.
    “So,” he said, finally, once he'd caught up with his people. “What did they get you for, eh?”
    “I’m a reporter,” Joshua admitted. “I used to blog a lot about life under occupation. They didn’t like it.”
    There was a long pause. “Well, fuck me,” Sergeant Mancil said, finally. “Are you telling me that I risked life and limb to rescue a fucking reporter?”

***

    Joshua hadn’t been expecting rescue at all, let alone in such a dramatic manner, and he was grateful to them for their timely appearance, but there was no way that he was going to let that pass.
    “Tell me something,” he said, acidly. “Is there something wrong with being a reporter?”
    “Oh, I don’t know,” Sergeant Mancil said. “Only countless missions compromised, lives put at stake, reputations ruined, minor and isolated incidents blown out of all proportion…I’d say that there’s a lot wrong with being a reporter.”
    “I must have been doing something right,” Joshua countered. He’d had similar debates before and they'd always ended up as screaming matches. It might have been childish, but there was a part of him that would never abandon an argument. “They wanted to kill me…and not just kill me, but make an example of me.”
    “And there are others who sing the praises of the enemy,” Sergeant Mancil hissed. “In every war we have fought, people like you have served as a fifth column, sapping the morale of our side and encouraging the enemy. Do you have any idea how much damage you do with a single unquestioned report from the enemy? Do you even care if the facts are right, provided that the story is hot enough to get you a promotion and some fame?”
    Joshua’s eyes glinted. “And you don’t think the public has a right to know?”
    Sergeant Mancil matched him. “You think the public has a right to know everything? Do they have a right to know that an operation is kicking off well in advance of its start? Do you have a right to tell the world everything about our damn deployments?”
    He leaned closer. “And don’t you have an obligation to at least tell them when you’re printing shit the enemy gives you?”
    “Don’t the American people have a right to know what is being done in their name?” Joshua demanded. “Shouldn’t they know when the CIA is backing the latest unsavoury bunch of oil-rich fucks in a nothing state? Shouldn’t they know when America is being used to prop up dictatorships…and then acts all surprised when the people of that state decide they hate us?”
    “And so you sell them shit?” Sergeant Mancil asked. “Are you so surprised that no one trusts a reporter?”
    “Was it shit when the CIA decided that it would be a good idea to back the Iranian Shah against a democracy?” Joshua asked. “Was that really such a hot idea?”
    “And who was it who convinced the public that the war in Iraq was so immoral? Who is it who convinces the students who have never worked a day in their lives that ever tin-pot dictator is a good and kind ruler?”
    “If you two would both shut up,” Brent said, angrily. “You both need to blow off some steam, but if you shout any louder, the neighbours will hear. It only takes one call to bring the aliens here and then we will all die.”
    He waited for them both to simmer down. “The argument doesn’t matter to us,” he continued. Joshua felt the words as a slap…and, judging from his expression, Sergeant Mancil felt the same. “For the moment, we have a common enemy and something of a problem. Joshua, how did they find you?”
    “I was betrayed,” Joshua said. The pain of the memory resurfaced as he remembered that final look. “I don’t even know why!”
    “We can visit him and…teach him the error of his ways,” Sergeant Mancil said, when he’d explained. Joshua recognised it as a peace offering of sorts, although not one he wanted. “There are too many people like him out there, betraying their fellows just to get some reward from the Redshirts. Once we make an example of him, perhaps there’ll be a lot less willingness to betray people.”
    “Perhaps,” Brent agreed. He looked over at Joshua. “Are you sure they didn’t track down your Internet connection?”
    Joshua blinked. “I don’t think so,” he said. The very thought seemed crazy. “They couldn’t have mastered our Internet so well, could they?”
    “Perhaps,” Sergeant Mancil offered. “Their weapons work on the same principles as ours, so why not their computers? For all we know, they have the same collection of porn and dating sites that we do.”
    “They’re religious,” Joshua protested. “They wouldn’t do that.”
    “What sort of reporter are you?” Brent asked, amused. “It’s the religious lot and the moral majority who spend most of their time on the net, looking at naked babes. I remember bursting in on this jackass of a terrorist in Iran – ah, forget you heard that – and you know what he had on his computer? Spanking movies!”
    Joshua found himself sniggering. “Spanking movies?”
    “The latest and best from Lombardi Productions, so I’m told,” Brent said. “Can you imagine him? Going to the mosque, leading his bunch of merry women-haters, gay-bashers and general scumbags in prayer, and then coming home and jerking off to the images of pretty western sluts getting their butts beaten.”
    His face darkened suddenly. “But if we can hook you up again, we can use you to put out propaganda of our own,” he said. “Welcome to the resistance.”

Chapter Thirty-Three

    Doesn't anyone know? We hate the French! We fight wars against them! Did all those men die in vain on the field at Agincourt? Was the man who burned Joan of Arc simply wasting good matches?
    – Blackadder

    The Channel Tunnel, Philippe Laroche had been surprised to discover, had survived the alien attack, even though picking it off from orbit wouldn’t have been that difficult. The train links from Paris to the French side of the Tunnel, and then from the British side to London might have been destroyed, but the tunnel itself remained intact. He took a car from Paris to the tunnel, rode through on a train that remained firmly under cover, and then picked up a second car in Britain. International trade might have almost ground to a halt, but there was still enough petrol for government requirements, even though every government in Europe was restricting petrol for emergency use only. The British motorways, once packed and heaving with traffic, were silent and, somehow, eerie in their desolation.
    The last time he’d visited London, he’d used a French private aircraft and the trip had only taken a short period of time. Now, the drive up from Dover to London took nearly three hours, most of it spent avoiding damage caused by alien bombardment. The aliens had picked off bridges, intersections and even a handful of transport convoys from orbit, something that had battered the motorway network into a handful of broken sections, requiring careful navigation to surmount. It was the same story in France, Germany and the rest of Europe; he was unsurprised to see British soldiers patrolling the streets, just as other soldiers were in Paris. The aliens had caused enough devastation to ensure that civil unrest remained a very real possibility.
    “That was Ten Downing Street,” the driver said, as they drove through London. There were fewer places for the British population to go than in America or France, but without petrol, they had to walk all over London. The underground links were no longer working. Philippe had been to the centre of British government before, but now…there was only a pile of rubble. It was the same story at the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace, although in the case of the latter he found it hard to understand why the aliens had bothered. The British Royal Family didn’t actually run the country these days. “They just bombed it from orbit, but missed anyone important.”
    “Good,” Philippe said. They’d improved their targeting, he saw; logically, they’d picked up plenty of intelligence from Texas. He would have blamed the Americans if anyone had seriously considered the dangers of a copy of some encyclopaedia falling into alien hands. The human race hadn’t even known that there were aliens three months ago. The fighting in the Middle East had probably provided them with more intelligence…and one hell of an economic club to beat the Europeans with. “Where are we going then?”
    “Round here,” the driver said, and drove back down the river. Philippe watched in amusement as a line of demonstrators passed them, their placards calling for military support to free Mecca from the aliens. The irony almost made him laugh; years ago, they would have been complaining about western military forces in the Middle East…and now they wanted them to get back in. There had been similar protests in France, but they’d been banned there, mainly because of the prospects for violence. He was rather surprised that the British hadn’t done the same. “Simon wanted you to see the remains of Ten Downing Street first.”
    “Oh,” Philippe said. The aliens didn’t make a habit of bombing individual cars, but if there were so few in London these days, would they try to pick him off just to see if they got someone important? Their targeting, as far as Europe was concerned, was almost random…apart from Rome. The destruction of the city had concentrated more than a few minds. “Next time, I’ll show him the ruins of the Eiffel Tower.”
    The car slid into an underground parking lot and came to a halt. Two men dressed in simple black suits, but moving in a style that suggested that they were actually very dangerous men, came up to it and opened the door, inviting Philippe out into the open air. They checked his face against a file, ran his ID card through a scanner, and then beckoned him to follow them through a heavy door and into a elevator lobby. There was no music as the elevator slowly descended; no one spoke until it reached the bottom, where the doors opened, revealing a single man dressed in a suit.
    “Welcome to the Vault,” he said, shaking Philippe’s hand. “If you’ll come with me, they’re just getting ready for you.”
    The Vault was functional, but surprisingly cosy for a glorified fallout shelter, one that the general British public probably didn’t even know existed. Philippe had read classified briefing papers that warned that London was honey-combed with Cold War bunkers, classified research labs and other surprises, but he’d never been invited into a functional installation before. The cold air helped to sharpen his mind as the civil servant showed him into a simple meeting room. He looked around and smiled in sudden recognition; Ambassador Francis Prachthauser, his former comrade onboard the alien starship, was standing there waiting for him.
    “Francis,” he said, in delight. The former Ambassador looked older than he remembered; his country had been torn apart by alien forces. France’s problems had been relatively minor compared to that. “How have you been?”
    “I survive, Mr Ambassador,” Francis said, returning the handshake. “I assume that you know Prime Minister Thompson?”
    The British Prime Minister had something of the same air as the French President, the sense that no matter what happened, or what orders he gave, the country was going to go through a very bad patch. He was shorter than Philippe remembered, dignified enough to pass for an aristocrat, and yet there was more white in his hair than there had been a year before, when they’d last met.
    “Charmed,” Philippe said, as they shook hands. “By the by, it’s Special Representative of the President these days.”
    “The same with me,” Francis returned. “The President has had me going around the world and trying to drum up support for the war. It’s not easy, I fear; I wish that Li had survived. The Chinese are in two minds about everything and desperately short of oil. If the aliens offer to help them to recover Taiwan, they might seriously consider joining their side…and I don’t know what the Russians are planning. They’re a riddle wrapped inside an enigma wrapped inside a mystery.”
    ”I think that’s a misquote,” Philippe said, more to conceal his own concern than anything else. He’d visited most of the European countries in the past month, trying to keep some semblance of the alliance apart, but the Russians had been completely non-committal. “I’m surprised to see you here, but…damn, it’s good to see you again.”
    “We were asked to keep that detail to ourselves,” Thompson said, as he took his own seat. “The Ambassador has a request for us.”
    Philippe lifted an eyebrow. “A request?”
    “A request,” Francis confirmed. “We are formally requesting your support under the NATO treaty.”
    Philippe frowned, inwardly. The NATO treaty had, before the invasion, either been alive or a dead duck, depending on whom you asked. The disputes over Iraq and the War on Terror had hampered French willingness to send forces to join American wars – even though most French politicians had known that they were French wars as well – and, politically, selling any sort of aid to America to the people would be tricky. There were also practical problems as well…
    “I understand your request,” he said, finally. He did understand, but how could they help? “You do know that we can’t send an army to America?”
    Francis nodded. Even if a fully-prepared and deployable force was ready, even if the Americans would welcome a French force on their soil, even if the shipping and transport capability existed, even if the French Army wasn't required at home…the aliens would still simply sink the transport fleet from orbit. The French Navy was in tatters these days, with almost every major unit sunk from orbit, and there was no way that the remaining combined European forces could provide cover. The aliens would simply wait until the transports were in the mid-Atlantic, sink every one of them, and in doing so, win a free victory. Thousands of soldiers would die without even a hope of taking an enemy soldier with them.
    “That’s not what we need,” he said. “I assume that you’ve been following the events in America?”
    “Yes,” Philippe said, flatly.
    “We have been having some success with shipping in Special Forces and other units into the Red Zone – alien-occupied territory – and using them to harass the aliens,” Francis said. “That’s hardly a secret, but you must understand that almost all of our capability for doing that – mounting strikes against isolated alien units, destroying infrastructure, contaminating electronic systems and so on – is tied up in that war. We had several thousand troops left in Iraq, but most of them were scattered or slaughtered by the aliens when they invaded.”
    “A handful did manage to get out,” Thompson injected. “They got to Europe and were shipped to one of the bases here.”
    “We need to set the Middle East ablaze, to tie them down,” Francis said. “We’re asking you to concentrate on doing just that.”
    “You want us to send supplies to the Middle East?” Philippe asked. “If we do that, most of the supplies will end up being pointed at us instead.”
    “We don’t just need supplies, but actual Special Forces units,” Francis said. “We’re cutting loose what we can, but we need most of our special forces at home. The problem is that if the aliens gain undisputed control over the Middle East, either by converting or killing the entire population, they can expand. We have some reason to believe, in fact, that the aliens actually intend to settle there themselves. If they do…”
    “They’ll end up ruling the world,” Philippe said. His mind raced. He’d thought about proposing something similar, but the French Government, which was in a shaky state, would have rejected it. If it was an official American request, from the American government, then it could be discussed openly among the movers and shakers, without any actual need to disparage it. “What happens if they end up retaliating against us?”
    Francis smiled. “If you try to stay out of the fight, that will just put you last on their target list,” he said. “If you fight now, you might end up helping to force them to accept less favourable terms.”
    His smile deepened. “And I am bringing some gifts,” he added. “We have been designing ground-based laser and beam weapons that can be used to attack the alien ships in orbit. If they are used properly, all at once, we would be able to hurt them badly enough to force them to come to terms.”
    “There’s no guarantee of that,” Philippe pointed out. “The destruction of Rome scared the piss out of the civilians. If we hadn’t slapped movement controls on the population, the cities would be nearly deserted…God help us if a rumour starts that Paris or Berlin is going to get bombed.”
    He glanced over at Thompson. “What is the British Government’s position on this?”
    “We lost seven hundred men when the aliens hit Iraq,” Thompson said. Philippe scowled; the British troops who had been backing up the Iraqis had been regarded as tough professional troops. The aliens had hit their barracks from orbit and almost wiped them out. “We also have nearly a million dead in Britain alone. If we can tie them down in the Middle East…”
    “We might be able to delay their invasion of Europe,” Philippe agreed. He paused. “You do know that the Council for Islamic Understanding has declared Jihad against the aliens?”
    Francis snorted rudely. “I'm sure they’re shaking in their shoes,” he sneered. “They’re not PC-thugs who can be terrified by a few threats and maybe a burning car or two.”
    “They’re trying to recruit young Muslims from Europe to go and fight in the Middle East,” Philippe said, remembering the meeting in Paris where it had been discussed. Very few people knew that similar groups had been quietly shut down during the Iraqi insurgency. Now, perhaps, it would work in their favour. “We could encourage this, maybe slip in a few of our own people amongst them, and even provide transport…”
    “That’s not going to be easy,” Thompson said. “They might have thousands of recruits from North Africa and India heading east, but anything large in the Mediterranean gets sunk.” He paused. “Most of them are going to get killed anyway.”
    “If they can tie down the aliens long enough for us to prepare for their invasion of Europe, then it’s worthwhile,” Philippe said. He looked over at Francis. “I’ll have to take the issue up with my government, of course, but I believe that the President will look kindly on it.”
    “That’s as much as I expected,” Francis said, gravely. “Thank you for your help.”
    Philippe eyed him curiously. “There’s a billion of them, if they are to be believed,” he said. “They have the Red Zone in Texas pretty much impregnable. They hold most of the Middle East and the only holdout is Israel. The Generals think that Israel won’t last more than a week. We might be kicking and scratching against the inevitable…or do you and your people have some kind of endgame in mind?”
    “You know I can’t talk about that,” Francis said. “No offence, but we don’t know who might be listening.”
    “This complex is completely secure,” Thompson said. “If they knew where it was, they would have bombed it by now, just like they bombed Colorado Springs.”
    “At the moment, it looks like we’re going to lose the war,” Philippe snapped. “If that happens, my government would sooner sell out for the best terms they can get than have the country torn apart by an alien invasion and civil war. We’re barely hanging onto the country as it is. The next round of redundancies will probably trigger revolution and war. I don’t want details, I don’t want information that we dare not let the aliens have, but I need to know if there’s any hope!”
    Francis held his eyes. “Yes,” he said, simply. “There is hope.”
    “I hope you’re right,” Philippe said, as he sat back. “I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but Europe is a powder keg these days…and there are plenty of idiots out there who might light a match.”

***

    Ambassador Francis Prachthauser understood the French point better, he suspected, than Philippe expected. It was true enough that America and France had had their disagreements, along with mutual incomprehension of the other’s point of view, but they were both allies against the aliens. Neither of them really had a choice; Philippe might raise the spectre of the French, or everyone else in Europe, selling out to the aliens, but they both knew that that meant complete submission. The aliens would insist that the French change their culture and religion to suit them. In the end, it would mean nothing, but an absence of an invasion.
    He would have liked to share more of what he knew – but he knew how dangerous that could be. Philippe might be trustworthy, but what about the remainder of the French Government? He wouldn’t have offered odds against there being a few people in France who would have been willing to deal with the aliens…and telling the aliens about the American plan to strike back at them would have been one way to win their friendship. The lasers and maser weapons were only one part of the plan, but if they were seen, it would be easy to convince someone that they were the only part of the plan. The President had told him, in no uncertain terms, that the remainder of what he knew was not to be discussed, even in confidence. God alone knew where the information might end up.
    But they needed the Europeans. The remaining Americans forces in the Middle East were scattered, little more than insurgents themselves, ones where the natives weren’t always friendly. If the aliens got an easy victory and started landing their population, they would be in a position to dictate terms to the rest of the world. It was ironic, given his loudly-expressed opinion of them, but he almost missed the Saudis. At least then they could have snatched the oil wells if the terms had been too onerous. The aliens wouldn’t be beaten that easily…
    He changed the subject firmly. “What do you think about the Japanese?”
    “They didn’t have a choice,” Philippe said. He’d understood the real question. “The aliens were controlling everything they needed to survive as a nation. Without it, they end up on the verge of starvation…and collapse. If the price for getting those resources is submission…”
    Francis nodded. Japan’s geopolitical trap had led it into conflict with the United States once…and several of the more perceptive thinkers had pointed out that the war had actually changed nothing. A second war might have broken out in the future, but instead, the aliens had arrived…and the Japanese had no way of striking back at them.
    Thompson shrugged. “But how can they enforce the alien religion on their own people?” He asked. “If they go around knocking down their own shrines, their people won’t be happy…”
    “Judging by their response to what they call heresy in Texas, the aliens would react harshly,” Francis said. “It won’t be pretty.”
    Philippe shrugged. “Neither will the war we will ignite across the Middle East,” he said. “Let’s see how the aliens cope with that, eh?”

Chapter Thirty-Four

    Who dares wins.
    – SAS Motto

    Anything less like a small group of soldiers would be hard to imagine. The four men rode on a set of six camels, using two of them to carry their baggage as they travelled across the desert, navigating by the stars. They wore Bedouin outfits, concealing most of their faces from the handful of others they encountered as they travelled east, ignored or sneered at by the inhabitants of the small villages they visited. A handful of villages were blackened ruins, the sight of a brief struggle against the alien infidels who had violated the Holy Land, but they passed on without pause. Their target was further to the east.
    Sergeant Sean Gartlan peered into the heat haze as they kept moving. His face was tanned and slightly tinted, but he couldn’t have passed for an Arab for long, even though he spoke Arabic like a native. The three Corporals with him were even less Arabic, but as long as they kept their faces hidden, they should be fine. The locals tended to treat the wandering Bedouin with a mixture of awe – they travelled the desert, like their ancestors had once done – and contempt. The townspeople often disliked the wanderers, which actually provided the small SAS squad with a surprisingly effective cover. Once button-holed, it was easy for observers to miss important and yet vital details, such as the fact they were a tiny party. Sean had been careful to assure anyone who asked too many questions that they were merely on a wandering pilgrimage, but a quick check of their saddlebags would have revealed the weapons and ammunition. Openly, they carried AK-47s, enough to prevent robbery – particularly when they had nothing, not even women, with them – but the saddlebags contained more advanced weapons than simple tribesmen should possess.
    It might not make a difference, Sean reflected. He'd served in Iraq and Afghanistan and he’d seen an astonishing variety of weapons in the hands of the enemy, from American-built M16s to Chinese-built knock-offs of Russian antitank weapons. There had even been a man in Afghanistan who’d possessed an intact Stinger from the war against the Soviets, one that he had never dared use, because it would have knocked his status down from Big Man to a lower level. The weapon, once it had been confiscated, had been so corroded that anyone using it would be lucky if they didn’t blow themselves to bits. Very few of the supporting aircraft had ever had to face a Stinger from that particular war, although some of them had had to face ore modern weapons, smuggled into the country for the insurgency. It was quite possible that anyone who searched them would think that there was nothing odd in their arsenal.
    But of course that can’t be allowed, Sean thought, as they moved on. Navigating by dead reckoning wasn’t easy, but in some ways, he almost felt freer. There were no longer any satellite phones or radios that could be used by senior commanders to issue orders while watching over his shoulder, or to suddenly change the rules of engagement at exactly the wrong time. They were completely on their own…and, if they ran into thieves, would have to kill them or escape. They couldn’t lose their weapons, not before they’d used them on the aliens.
    He scowled. The aliens, it was well known, used a space-based radar system to track everything that moved on the ground – and, if they didn’t like the cut of its jib, to blast it with a KEW from orbit. In theory, they could pick off an individual human, let alone their vehicles, but the American reports from Texas showed that only large masses of vehicles, or obviously military units, drew fire. They could have taken a jeep from one of the Jordanian military units that were trying to hide out in the desert – and had probably been ignored because they were more of a danger to each other than to the aliens – and driven down into Saudi, but that was too much of a risk. The aliens worked hard to shut down most human transport and an individual jeep might have attracted attention. No, they had to rely on the camels, even though they were mangy beasts.
    A faint whistle from behind him caught his ear and he frowned, one hand falling to the AK-47 as he searched the horizon for threats. The remains of the Saudi Army, he’d been told, were cowering in the desert…but the reports were at least two weeks out of date. The aliens had probably rounded them all up by now. He saw, moving quicker than he had imagined, a line of vehicles buzzing across the sand, heading for the small village they’d passed through a couple of days ago. They came closer and closer, close enough to spook the animals, but didn’t seem inclined to stop and chat to the humans. Instead, they just kept moving…
    It was the first time he’d seen the aliens close up and he was fascinated. Their vehicles didn’t look that different to human vehicles, but they floated on a cushion of air, rather than tracks. Judging by the way the sand moved and swirled around them, they were probably immune from sand getting into the engines as well, which made them even more deadly in the desert. Sean had done a few months with Arabic forces and, apart from the Iraqis, they tended not to worry about actually maintaining their engines and vehicles. They’d been defeated a long time before the aliens had landed…and they’d done it mainly to themselves.
    The aliens themselves were the black-clad figures he’d seen in the webcasts from Texas, but there was an indefinable air of wrongness about them, even standing at their guns and ready to blast them if they had even looked like a threat. The images he’d seen hadn’t – they couldn’t – conveyed their alien nature; they’d gone, in a second, from men in suits to a genuine alien threat. He felt sweat trickling down his spine as they accelerated past the camels and their riders, heading onwards towards their destination…and leaving them in the dust of their passing.
    Corporal Loomis spoke for them all. “Well, fuck me, sir.”
    “Perhaps not,” Sean said, trying to get the image of the aliens out of his head. “I suppose if I spent longer than a few weeks in this women-less country you might start looking attractive.”
    They bantered back and forth for a few minutes, before they sank back into thought. Sean, in particular, thought about his adopted father…and how he would react to the aliens. His mother had lost her first husband at an early age, four years after Sean had been born, and he’d grown up without a male role model. He’d run rampant across Birmingham, completely out of control, until his mother had married again, this time to a former Royal Marine who’d fought in the Falklands War. Sean hadn’t been impressed and had made the mistake of mouthing off to his new father, who had challenged him to a fight, beaten him with ease – he’d never had a serious opponent before – and informed him flatly that he was going to be brought up properly, or else. It had turned Sean’s life around and he’d actually scraped through school with some qualifications, but in some ways he’d remained a rebel. Instead of signing up with the Royal Marines, he’d become an infantryman…and then passed the dreaded SAS Selection course. His father – he couldn’t really remember his real father – had fought humans, not…aliens. What would he have thought of the mission?
    He would want me to do my duty, Sean thought, as they found the hide. The Americans had sworn blind that it would be where they’d said, but it wouldn’t be the first time that American intelligence had been lacking, with even the best will in the world. The SAS team managed to enter the tiny underground bunker, sort out their equipment, and catch some rest. Having pitched their tents near the bunker, they looked – as always – like natives.
    It would probably get a lot harder soon, Sean knew. The Saudis had never been very good at controlling their borders, despite a lot of high-flying rhetoric and promises that they’d made to the Americans. The Royal Family might have intended to cooperate, but in a land where every junior and most of the seniors were on the take, it was easy for anyone to get into the country. The aliens would probably replace the old system with one of their own eventually, but for the moment, they were where they needed to be. If the reports were correct, just over the horizon was their target, an alien prison camp.
    Darkness fell. Sean and Loomis unwrapped one of the saddlebags and dressed, quickly, in their night-operations gear. The Americans had invented the outfits and the SAS had fallen in love with them as soon as they’d seen them. They not only acted like a chameleon, cloaking the wearer in a near-perfect disguise, but also kept their body heat within the suit and therefore rendering them invisible to infrared detectors. The aliens apparently used such methods in protecting some of their bases in America and there was no reason to assume that they wouldn’t do the same here. As soon as they were dressed, they slipped out, leaving the other two to watch the camels. It was still a long walk to the alien camp, but it wasn't anything like as bad as they’d been through while training. The only surprise was stumbling over a pile of unburied bodies, all human, apparently shot through the head.
    “Got to be insurgents,” Loomis muttered, barely loud enough to be heard in the cold night air. The desert rapidly became freezing at night. “They tried to reach the camp, were detected, and were simply shot.”
    “No argument,” Sean whispered back. The alien camp was just over a sand dune. “Keep your voice down…”
    They crawled the remaining few meters and reached the top of the dune, peering down into the camp. It was much larger than Sean had expected, a massive complex of wire, backed up by a set of guards patrolling around the outsides. A pair of watchtowers stood guard, spotlights flaring out from time to time, burning down into the camp. The prisoners had to be going neurotic trying to sleep; the lights were bright enough to shine through even tightly-closed eyes. They weren’t sending a spotlight over the desert, he realised, and understood why. They’d be watching with infrared sensors for intruders. Anyone stupid enough to come within range would be shot out of hand.
    The prisoners didn’t look that good. Sean was reminded of what his father had told him about the Argentinean prisoners in the Falklands. They’d depended on the British to look after them. Once they’d been beaten and captured – and, in point of fact, surrendered by incompetent superiors who should have been able to win the final battle with ease – they’d acted like children who’d been beaten once and expected to be beaten again. They looked to be mainly lower-ranking soldiers, all Arabic, many of them wounded openly…and wounded inside. They’d been beaten…and, worse, they knew that they’d been beaten.
    They crawled back out of sight. “You think we can save these people?”
    Sean shrugged. “Do we have a choice?”
    The two men made a final circuit of the prison camp. The aliens didn’t seem to have a lot of firepower gathered around the camp – he hoped that that meant that they were having problems keeping the cities under control – but they didn’t need it. Judging by the wiring and the guard towers, they could have slaughtered all the prisoners before they could escape, unless they had help from an outside force. The real question was simple; there were four of them, armed to the teeth, but would that be enough to break the prisoners out?
    “Time to get back to camp,” Sean muttered. “We’ll get the other two and move tomorrow.”
    The day passed slowly. He’d taken the time to prepare an excuse for lurking near the camp – although, officially, he wouldn’t know that the camp was there – and was surprised when the aliens didn’t even bother to come and investigate why they were there. He’d seen the same problem in Iraq, when there had been too many armed men to investigate and arrest them all, but he hadn’t realised how nerve-wracking it had been for the other guys. The thought made him smile; the grass was always greener on the other side of the hill. He’d been hunted through the Middle East before, but he’d always known more than his enemies, until now. When night fell, they were ready for the fight; indeed, they welcomed it.
    “Take your positions,” he hissed, as they reached the same ridge. They had to take out the towers and the IFV almost at once, or they were all dead. “I’ll give you fifteen, then open fire, so get into position by then!”
    He crawled away from the others towards the firing position. The MILAN missile was easy to set up, and he’d practiced doing it in near-complete darkness, but it was still a dangerous job. A single clink at the wrong time could have brought the aliens down on his head. He couldn’t believe that they didn’t bother to patrol far outside the camp, although he suspected that they weren't impressed with the quality of the opposition so far. The insurgents in Saudi would have a learning curve before they became more than a nuisance. He pointed the weapon carefully at the tower and checked his watch. Bare seconds to zero hour.
    Precisely on time, he launched the missile. The MILAN was intended to punch through tank armour and detonate inside the vehicle; it had no problem at all blowing the guard tower apart in a blast of fire. He'd actually been worried that the weapon would fly through the guard tower, but it exploded and knocked out one of the main alien defences. A heartbeat later, the second tower and the IFV followed the first into destruction, while the handful of alien infantry struggled for position. Patel, the sniper, picked them off one by one before they could get into cover. Dan Mills had trained Patel, after all, and no one would bet against him.
    “Cover us,” he snapped, and ran down to the alien gates. They’d rigged them to be impossible to open from the inside, but with some packs of explosives, it was easy to bring the first set crashing down. He shouted orders in Arabic – he’d decided that explaining who they really were would be too confusing – as he started work on the second gate, freeing a few hundred prisoners. Most of them streamed out and headed into the desert, a few of the quicker-thinkers picking up alien weapons as they moved out. They’d be a pain in the ass to the aliens if they could get back to their home cities and villages. He tore open the remaining gates and watched as the prisoners fled.
    A strange thrum-thrumming noise announced the arrival of the alien helicopters as they swooped in from high above. They were barely visible in the darkness…and, because of his protective suit, they couldn’t see him. They could see the escaping prisoners, however, and he winced as bright streaks of light flared out in the darkness, their machine guns scything down the prisoners before they could escape. He swore, watching helplessly, just before Loomis fired a Stinger at the alien bird. Unlike the ones in Afghanistan, it worked perfectly, blowing the helicopter out of the sky. The second helicopter launched a spread of missiles towards Loomis’s position, but Sean knew that he would have abandoned the useless remains of the Stinger and fled to another position. Until the aliens got some more of their soldiers up to round up the remainder of the prisoners, it would be impossible to prevent at least some of them from escaping.
    And, if some of them were real men, the aliens would have a problem on their hands.
    He blew his whistle as he retreated out of the camp, knowing that the other three would be abandoning their positions and falling back with him, back towards the camels. The aliens would be on their way from their nearest base and no one knew how long it would be until they arrived. He could have wished for better intelligence; the aliens had learned enough from Texas to almost isolate the Middle East from the remainder of the world. If it hadn’t been for the invasion, the general death and slaughter and aliens intent on replacing Islam with their own religion, parts of the population would probably have been quite happy with that.
    They could see the approaching lights of an alien rapid reaction force as they headed back over the sand. Through a dark coincidence, the aliens were going to pass close to their position, so they fell to the ground and hugged the sand as the aliens raced closer. Sean thought, for one terrifying moment, that the aliens were going to actually drive over them, but instead they veered off down towards the camp. He heard the sound of shooting, lots of shooting, in the distance, but he was sure that at least some of the prisoners would have made it.
    “Shit,” Loomis said.
    Sean followed his gaze and swore. The aliens hadn’t been as stupid as he’d thought. They’d put two and two together and, while on their flight to the camp, had fired a spread of missiles into the tents and the camels. The poor beasts were dead now…and the aliens probably thought that the tribesmen were dead as well. Getting somewhere where they could wreck more havoc was going to be harder than he had thought.
    “Get into the hide,” he ordered finally. They’d be detected easily if they were walking on the desert in daylight. “Tonight, we’ll head for Riyadh.”
    “If nothing else,” Loomis said, as they bedded down, “we put one hell of a dent in their pride.”
    ”Sure,” Sean said. “All we have to do now is make sure that someone knows what we did. Anyone up for the quickie book deal? Alien Two Zero?”

Chapter Thirty-Five

    No military force can remain on guard indefinitely.
    – Anon

    Forty cycles – or six weeks, as humans reckoned time – after the first landings, WarPriest Allon felt that he had some grounds for relief. The first and second human insurgencies within the cities had been dangerous, and there was a constant series of attacks out in the countryside, including some that had been embarrassing, if not disastrous, but the grip on the occupied zone was fairly secure. The warriors had learned, quickly, that not all of the collaborators could be trusted, but they had enough to keep a lid on trouble. The occupation forces had been moved towards the human-controlled area, prepared for their advance further into the country called America, and enough forces had been deployed in the rear area to ensure security.
    It had taken him longer than he had expected to obtain the High Priest’s consent to the advance, but really…there was little choice. A constant stream of soldiers, weapons and other equipment were flowing into the occupied zone from the remainder of America…and some of them were deadly indeed. The warriors patrolled the border, but it was a vast area of land and they discovered, quickly, that isolated units tended to come under attack. In fact, smaller units were used as bait to draw larger units into a bigger trap, sometimes leaving them with heavy casualties for nothing. There seemed to be an unlimited number of humans willing to fight directly, while he knew that his own strength was limited. With the massive landings in the Middle East and the insurgency there, the High Priest was unlikely to be willing to risk the foothold on America.
    But there was no choice. The humans were very good at camouflage, but the observers high above had picked up on new human forces arriving along the borders. It was possible that they would launch a second major counterattack…and even through he knew that they wouldn’t be able to actually burn the Takaina out of Texas, they could launch spoiling attacks or even reinforce the insurgents. The handful of KEWs that had been used to hit likely targets had not, as far as he could tell, taken out anything vital; in fact, going by the human skill at deception, he had a nasty suspicion that half of them had been dropped on decoys. The humans were good at tricking automated systems.
    He watched, for a long moment, the live feed from the orbiting cameras, and then issued the order. “Advance.”

***

    They called it No Man’s Land.
    Sergeant Darryl Tyler wiped his forehead as the small patrol made its way across the devastated country. Sage, his Atika-Husky bitch, looked up at him, her tongue hanging out, as if to ask why the patrol had stopped. Technically, the presence of a dog was against regulations, but Sage had saved their lives several times during the first battles with the aliens, if only howling to warn them of their advance. No man in the small patrol, or even in the entire army, would have refused to allow her to serve, despite what the rules said.
    “Don’t worry,” he said, more to her than the rest of the men. The seven men and two women of the patrol had been on duty for several hours and it was getting hotter. “We’ll be on the road again soon.”
    The Army’s defeat had scared hell out of the civilians, he reflected, as he peered into the distance, towards the Red Zone. Only the presence of a black helicopter, several kilometres away, warned him that anything was amiss. The civilians who were actually army-reservists had been drafted back into service, while the remainder had been evacuated from the area to somewhere safer, although there weren't many places in the United States that could be termed as ‘safe’ these days. The Marine and Special Forces operators had been through a three-kilometre wide area and carefully rigged the entire zone with booby-traps. Lake Palestine was no longer a safe place for swimmers, while the towns had been converted into death traps. Snipers and survivalists lurked in the bushes, prepared to shoot any alien who so much as showed his face, even though most of the locals had been removed. They had wanted to stay and defend their homes, but instead they’d been removed. The army couldn’t take the risk of them falling into enemy hands.
    Sage barked and gambolled around while the patrol checked around. The problem these days was simple; the aliens could come at them at any time, with very little warning. They moved awesomely fast on the ground, weren't bothered by the destroyed or rigged bridges and radio transmissions tended to draw a strike from orbit. The Special Forces had rigged up a lot of dummy transmitters, trying to dissuade the aliens from taking pot shots at every transmitter, but still, using radio was dangerous. The patrol was, effectively speaking, on its own.
    “Move out,” he said, and strode off, confident that his men would follow him. They were a confusing mixture of reservists, soldiers whose units had been destroyed in Operation Lone Star and even a pair of civilians who had somehow talked their way into a military unit, but they knew their stuff. If they were attacked, he was confident that they would manage to acquit themselves well. They marched up a hill, watching out for infiltrators…and saw, instead, a line of alien vehicles, advancing right towards Athens. They were coming directly up the road, their passage almost soundless, right towards the defence lines.
    “Shit,” he snapped, and pulled a small radio out off his belt. Keying in a single command, he placed it down by a rock, and then led the patrol away from the radio. Thirty seconds after he’d left it, the radio sent a single burst transmission and then shut down. The aliens didn’t bother to destroy the radio from orbit; the odds were, he decided, that they had already started to jam the human communications. When they decided to put on a blitzkrieg, they were almost unstoppable. “Come on.”
    He led the patrol down towards a possible ambush point. They could have retreated into one of the hidden outposts the Army Engineers had scattered around the cleared zone, but that wasn't in his nature. He knew that there was little that they could do to slow the aliens, despite the mines and suchlike that had been left in the area, but they had no choice, but to try. The aliens were not going to break through the lines without a fight.
    In the distance, he could see the light of falling KEWs. Overhead, a seemingly endless swarm of enemy helicopters passed, heading towards the human lines. The aliens were definitely on the move…and all they could do was die bravely. By now, they probably couldn’t even make it back to the human lines.

***

    “It’s confirmed, sir,” the aide said. “We’re looking at a major push from the Red Zone.”
    “Thought so,” General Ridgley admitted, as he peered at the map in front of him. One advantage of working in relatively static lines, even if they had to keep it very low key to avoid attracting alien interest, was that they could rig up a whole new battlespace communications network. It wasn't as capable as the one they’d enjoyed prior to the invasion, but at least it allowed him some additional control over events. The sensors they’d scattered throughout the cleared zone actually allowed them to track the aliens fairly closely, although not all of the readings made sense. “They’re heading for Athens?”
    “Yes, sir,” the aide said. “At last report, they’ll be there in at least half an hour, unless the traps and snipers delay them more than expected.”
    “True,” General Ridgley agreed. “Send the signal to the President, son; tell him that I intend to put the Omega Plan into use.”
    “Yes, sir,” the aide said, and vanished towards the field telephones at the back of the bunker.
    General Ridgley watched him go. He hadn’t wanted to discuss that with the President, not personally, because it was a decision that only the man on the spot could make. Athens, Texas, had once had a population of over ten thousand, a little irony that the General knew the aliens wouldn’t understand. Now, the citizens had been moved out and replaced with thousands of booby traps and a small army of Special Forces operatives to give them a hot reception. The small units that had been deployed around the city to harass the aliens wouldn’t stop them – nothing short of the 1st Armoured Division would stop them, and that particular unit no longer existed – but hopefully they would lure the aliens into a city fight. Athens no longer had any innocents, it no longer had anyone to get mashed in the gears…and it had a final, unpleasant surprise for the aliens. If they reacted as he’d hoped…

    They’d regret the day they chose to land in Texas.
    “That was the President, sir,” the aide said. General Ridgley looked up, expectantly. “He said to hang fire as long as possible, then make it count.”
    General Ridgley nodded.

***

    The building had once been a fairly typical General Store, holding everything from canned food to clothes, guns and camping equipment. The citizens of Athens had gone through it in the days before the aliens had landed, buying the store out of almost everything, although Nguyen Gia Thai had been amused to discover that they’d abandoned some cheese that looked to be a violation of several anti-biological warfare treaties all by itself. The Vietnamese-American carefully climbed to the top of the store, following the safe ways his small unit had built into the structure, and watched as the aliens started to advance towards the city. The noise of fighting could be heard, drifting over the city in the dry air, and he hoped that the aliens were taking a beating. The briefing had strongly implied that no one, not even the commandos, would get out alive, but Nguyen had dared to hope. It looked, now, as through the hope had been misplaced.
    Nguyen’s father had been a citizen, ironically enough, of North Vietnam. His sister had married an American soldier, who’d taken her and her family over the seas to America, after they’d realised that North Vietnam was hardly the paradise the Party promised. He’d learned English, taken on American jobs and married another Vietnamese exile, bringing up seven children, of whom Nguyen was the youngest. He’d been fascinated, at first, when he’d heard tales of how the United States had been beaten, even if he’d later discovered that the United States hadn’t lost to the Vietcong, or even the North Vietnamese Army, but to propaganda pushed out by Hanoi and eagerly licked up by American youth. Nguyen had joined the army during Desert Storm, been transferred to the CIA three years later, and then spent years helping other underground movements. It hadn’t been a rewarding task and he’d retired, only to be called back to service for war with an inhuman foe. It would be the crowning glory of his career.
    “Come on,” he muttered, as the aliens probed up towards the city. They’d be expecting to be engaged at once, but apart from a handful of booby traps, the defenders had almost abandoned the outskirts of the city. The aliens had learned a little, however, sending in their infantry to flush out any possible attackers. They had to be a little mystified at the sudden absence of opposition, but…
    BOOM! The explosion shattered an entire block. The defenders had carefully rigged up enough explosive in the sewers to shatter the area…and kill as many aliens as possible. The shockwave was so powerful that it knocked Nguyen to the rooftop, where he lay while the alien helicopters made their sweep over the city. He’d dressed to blend in with his surroundings, but without proper precautions, they might see him. They had other targets, however; the decoys they’d left around the city, showing up brightly on their instruments, were drawing fire. The aliens didn’t know it, but they were expending their ammunition for nothing. He rolled over to the side of the building and glanced through a crack towards the crater the explosion had left. It looked large enough to swamp an entire alien division.
    The aliens were coming in, shooting. Nguyen knew that that was useless, but hoped they’d burn though their ammunition before they actually encountered live resistance. They were taking it more carefully now, but the explosion had revealed some of the underground network and they were sending in their infantry to probe for other booby-traps. More of them seemed to be swarming in from nowhere – they couldn’t allow a human force to remain in Athens, threatening their supply lines – and joining the hunt for the human defenders. Smiling to himself, Nguyen rolled back over to the hatch, slipped down into the store, and headed carefully towards the next observation point. As he left the building, careful to remain under cover, he flipped a switch and closed the door.
    When an alien patrol opened it, ten minutes later, the C4 exploded. They died instantly.

***

    “Here they come,” the commander breathed. “Wait for it…wait.”
    The crew of the small Bradley Linebacker had known, almost as soon as they’d been told the mission, that they probably wouldn’t get out of it alive. There simply weren’t many military vehicles left in the combat zone and if they tried to manoeuvre they would reveal their existence to the aliens, who would stomp on them from orbit. Their vehicle had, in fact, been due for retirement, but fortunately it hadn’t been scrapped before the invasion began. The experts who’d hidden the vehicle, under cover of darkness, in Athens had warned them that they would get one free shot, and then the aliens would know that they were there. Remaining with the vehicle would prove fatal.
    “Got them,” he said, after a long moment. He keyed a command into the console and watched as it blinked up an ‘OK’ signal. They were committed now; for a moment, they would be out of sight, but within seconds, the alien helicopters would over-fly their location. “Go!”
    The three men didn’t hesitate; they ran for their lives into the warehouse and down into the basement. If they were lucky, they might make it out of the city alive, although the commander doubted it. They had bare seconds to act now…and the aliens had surrounded the city before starting to storm it. If they thought anything like humans, they’d have taken hundreds of casualties and they’d be in an evil mood. The commander switched on the air-tracking system, toggled the automatic fire switch, and dived out of the vehicle, running for his life. Behind him, the four mounted Stinger missiles rotated towards the sky, tracking the alien helicopters, and were launched into the air. The commander hit the ground as the fourth missile was launched, right into the teeth of the enemy formation, the sound of explosions suggesting that they'd hit something. A secondary explosion and a shockwave that passed through the ground showed that at least one of the helicopters had been hit and crashed. If they’d been lucky, they’d hit a different helicopter with each missile.
    He pulled himself to his feet and kept running. The Bradley was out of missiles now, but the aliens didn’t know that. He was still running when the KEW came down and smashed the Bradley, the warehouse and collapsed the underground tunnels. He died without knowing just how successful he’d been.

***

    Under War Priest Aflaha was in a furious mood. “Get the additional forces brought up and break into that damned city of heretics,” he thundered at his subordinates. He’d been running the battle directly from his command vehicle, very aware of his responsibilities…and he felt as if he were losing. The War Priest had commanded that the city – the humans called it Athens – be taken, but somehow it was stalling his most powerful thrusts. “I want it taken before dark!”
    The humans had barely showed themselves, but they were delaying his advance, step by step. Rockets had been fired from cover, nasty bouncing mines had revealed themselves and damaged and destroyed tanks, insurgents had mounted sneak assaults on his supply units…it was turning into a nightmare. Some of the smaller human habitations had been rigged to be lethal traps; he’d come to the point where he was ordering them all levelled, just to prevent more of his warriors from being lost. He wasn't losing, but the High Priest was not going to be happy…
    “Push on,” he snapped, to a question. Taking the city was the only way he would redeem himself. “Take that city!”

***

    General Ridgley carefully opened the small box, mounted on the single console, and pulled the key from around his neck. It looked so…small, barely more than the key to a teenage girl’s diary, but it commanded unimaginable destructive power. He tried to analyse his own feelings as he placed the key within the device and turned it, but it was impossible. A dull inhuman calm had come over him. The key opened a second section within the device, this one demanding a fingerprint scan, and he placed his thump to the scanner. A moment later, a single click revealed that the device was now functioning.
    “Sound the warning,” he ordered, checking his watch. The soldiers on the line, if line it could be called, would have what warning he could give them. “Five minutes, mark.”
    All around the area, they would be abandoning the fight and diving for cover. The aliens might wonder why, or perhaps they wouldn’t notice, but it no longer mattered. He inserted the second command, watching as the timer ran down…
    And seven nuclear bombs, the first nuclear weapons detonated in anger on American soil, exploded as one.

Chapter Thirty-Six

    I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.
    – J. Robert Oppenheimer, from the Bhagavad Gita

    The High Priest watched with a kind of numb horror as the nuclear warheads detonated. The American use of the warheads had not been anticipated, not in such surroundings. The analysis of the human mindset had suggested that they were terrified of their own weapons, to the point where only two had ever been deployed on their homeworld, until now. The researchers had interviewed countless humans and most of them had regarded nukes as an unbeatable horror, a crutch for the entire human race. They had believed that they would never be used.
    In hindsight, the trap was easy to see. The humans probably had nukes buried all around the occupied zone. They’d lured the warriors into a trap and detonated the nukes, catching thousands of his people in the blasts. Some would have been on the fringes of the explosion and survived, but most of the force, almost ten thousand warriors and their vehicles and equipment, would have been killed. It was the most serious loss that they’d suffered since making landfall on Earth.
    He had feared – and taken precautions against – nuclear weapons being deployed against either of the footholds. The Americans, in particular, had plenty of nuclear weapons, although interrogation and intelligence work hadn’t revealed many precise details, and seemed to dislike the inhabitants of the Middle East. The High Priest had expected to see the Americans firing missiles into the Middle East, and had deployed his forces and parasite ships to counter such a move, but instead…instead, they had used nukes on their own soil, the one thing most of the prisoners had believed that they would never do.
    But, he thought, they probably had the entire area evacuated.
    He’d followed the battle carefully and noted that the warriors hadn’t encountered any human civilians. They’d been ambushed and delayed by humans sniping from cover, or booby-traps that had taken out a few vehicles or warriors, but they hadn’t encountered any civilians. It wasn’t easy, to be fair, to tell the difference between human civilians and human warriors – the Americans and Middle Eastern humans seemed to have a fetish for weapons, something that was alien to non-warriors- but as a general rule, anyone shooting at the warriors was a soldier. There had been thousands of them, delaying the advance…and baiting the trap. There was a first-class mind over there, the High Priest decided; a first-class mind with a willingness to use his own people to bait a trap.
    The War Leader waited for the High Priest to finish his meditations. If Guiding Star itself had come under attack, he would have reacted at once, but at the moment, there was little need for hasty action. If the humans had taken out the parasite ships floating high overhead, they could have used the chaos caused by their nukes to really hurt the foothold, but they’d left them alone. It still struck the High Priest as funny that a race with so many advancements and other surprises had done so little with space, but it was clearly a sign of divine favour, a blessing that would allow them to bring Earth under their control and lead their race to newer heights. There were researchers, even now, working on captured human technology, some of which promised uses even beyond what the humans had imagined. As a race, they were even more imaginative than the Takaina; he’d been astonished to discover, from one of the researchers, that some humans had even plotted out the course of the war a long time before they’d even known that they weren't alone in the universe. And yet…what had they done to prepare for it?
    The High Priest turned to face his subordinate. “How many of our people were killed?”
    “Preliminary data suggested seven thousand warriors have been killed or seriously injured,” the War Leader said. He sounded nervous and well he might; it wasn't unknown for unsuccessful commanders to be burnt at the stake by the Inquisitors, as failure in battle was often taken as a sign of sin. The commander on the ground was probably considering honourable suicide right now, assuming that he hadn’t been caught up in the blasts and killed. “The line is being re-established and our forces are being pulled back to regroup.”
    “And effectively abandoning the advance,” the High Priest said. He kept his own voice under careful control. The last thing he needed, now, was to hear what they thought he wanted to hear. He had to heat honest advice…just for a moment, he wished that the War Leader was a sterile female, as blasphemous as the thought was. It might have been easier to get advice then. “How should we react to the human action?”
    “They have killed enough of us to force us to redeploy,” the War Leader said. The High Priest nodded impatiently. It was true that seven thousand was considerably less than a billion, but as part of the force deployed to hold the American occupied zone, it was a serious loss. If the humans had had the capability to mount a counterattack, it might have proven decisive. “They cannot destroy the foothold, but we can no longer advance, at least without redeploying additional vehicles and warriors to the area.”
    And those we deploy there from orbit we cannot recover quickly, the High Priest thought. Getting them down was easy. Getting them back up was much harder. The logistics alone argued against further deployment, but with the preparations for settlement, they had to strengthen their position. The human insurgency had swelled up again and additional soldiers were needed. Moving one unit of warriors from an occupied and – supposedly – pacified area meant that it very rapidly turned out not to be pacified after all. Some genius of an Inquisitor had decided to take all the children from a small town to be brought up in a religious training centre…and the entire town had risen in rebellion. They had all had to be slaughtered.
    The situation was even worse in the Middle East. The natives there were even more bent on protecting their religion than the Americans. They came at the occupying forces, dying in vast numbers…and yet they kept fighting. Warriors who’d never experienced real fighting found themselves learning on the job…and discovering how much their training hadn’t prepared them for. They were learning fast, and plenty of humans were dying before they could pass on their own lessons, but it was still becoming well past uncontrollable. He was confident that, when settlement began, they would bring the area firmly under their control, but the humans there were so unreliable. They had kept oil workers working – for them – only to discover that a handful of them had betrayed their new employers. It meant that developing the entire region would take time, time they didn’t have.
    “We need to respond harshly and decisively,” the High Priest said, firmly. The use of nuclear weapons against his forces was a dangerous threat…and one that had to be prevented, whatever the cost. If the humans got the idea that they could use nukes without any serious consequences, they would start smuggling them into the footholds and destroying them…and the war would be within shouting distance of being lost. If they started to use their nukes on the settlements, they would slaughter thousands of settlers, even the females. “None of our prior wars have been anything like this…”
    He looked over at the War Leader. “We will strike them hard,” he said. “I will order the Inquisitors to take out one of their cities. They will not be permitted to use nukes without a mass slaughter of their civilians in response.”

***

    Washington just wasn't what it had once been, Patrolman Keith Glass decided, as he ambled down one of the streets. In some ways, the city was safer than it had ever been, patrolled not only by the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia, but by countless neighbourhood watches, guardian angels and self-help protective associations. The streets might have been almost empty of traffic, but they were also empty of drug dealers, thieves and rapists. In theory, none of the associations had any law enforcement powers, although some of them had been deputised by the police, but in practice they tended to drive away undesirable people. The streets had never been safer and children, enjoying the quiet streets, played freely with their friends. As Glass passed a park, he waved cheerfully towards some of the other patrollers, receiving everything from a wave to a salute in return.
    He checked his gun and other equipment out of habit as he turned down a new street. The people who’d lived in about half of the houses on this row had deserted the city and gone to live in the countryside, where they’d had relatives who farmed. Looters had tried to steal their worldly goods in the chaos following the invasion, but they’d been arrested and shipped to prison camps somewhere outside the city. There were high-priced lawyers arguing that the looters hadn’t received a fair trial, which was true enough, but Glass, who’d been there when they’d been arrested, wasn’t sympathetic. As far as he was concerned, if the looters spent the rest of their lives in a work camp, they deserved everything they got. They hadn’t needed the televisions, computers and jewels that they’d tried to steal, but had merely wanted to sell them on the black market. They were hardly starving misguided kids.
    The noise of a passing car caught his attention and he smiled. The police were still allowed some of their patrol cars, but not many of them, while only the fire and ambulance services were allowed unlimited fuel. Civilians didn’t get any fuel unless they had a really pressing need, while the handful of Army vehicles in the centre of the city – he believed – got as much as they needed. Glass didn’t begrudge them that, even though he rather missed his own car; if the aliens landed in Washington, they were going to need all the fuel they could get. He looked upwards, into the clear sky, and shook his head. There hadn’t been any aircraft flying overhead since the invasion had begun. It reminded him, too much, of the days just after 9/11.
    His radio bleeped once, a noise he hadn’t heard outside the drills; air raid alarm. A second later, the sirens that had been rigged up started to blare, warning that the city itself was under attack. Glass threw himself to the ground, remembering Rome and how the entire city had been destroyed, and crawled as fast as he could towards shelter. There was no bomb shelter, as far as he knew, in the area, but if he could just get some cover…
    The shockwave blasted over his head. If he hadn’t been sheltered, it would have killed him, either directly or by picking him up and throwing him against a wall. The fury seemed endless, and, before he could even catch his breath, the firestorm roared past. He found himself praying, desperately, as the storm raged past him, his mind summoning up visions of radioactive poisoning and worse. It ended, suddenly, and a torrent of noise crashed into his mind. He could hear and smell burning…
    He pulled himself to his feet, feeling his body tremble, and stopped dead. The entire street was devastated. Buildings had been shattered, windows had been smashed, cars had been thrown over and set on fire…the sight was impossible to grasp as anything, but a collection of separate images. Burning vehicles, smoke and flame rising from all over the city…and a towering mushroom cloud, billowing up in the air. The aliens had spared the White House in earlier attacks, for some reason, but now…now, unless he was wrong, the aliens had chosen it as ground zero. The damage was so absolute, the entire city reduced to rubble, that he couldn’t even see where to begin. As far as he could see, he was alone in the city, the only survivor of the blast. He checked his radio, hoping against hope that it would work, but it was dead. Either the EMP or the landing on the ground had knocked it out.
    It was agony to move – he’d been wounded by the shockwave, although not badly – but he managed to walk down towards the end of the street. It was growing harder to breathe as smoke and flames built up, fires spreading rapidly from house to house, while there was nothing to stop them. He remembered vaguely that nuclear blasts sent out a wave of heat that set everything on fire, or thought he did; it was hard to think of anything practical in the midst of so much devastation. He might have been completely wrong; perhaps the nuke had simply triggered off horded fuel, or maybe…
    The screams pulled him back to himself. They were coming from only a short distance away and he forced himself to run towards them. When he reached the house, he discovered a young black girl, her face brutally scared by…something. Blood ran down her cheeks, marring what remained of what had once been a fashionable outfit, while one eye looked to have been sealed shut. Glass was no stranger to violence on the Washington streets, but he’d never quite seen anything like it, not even in a horror movie. The movies couldn’t detail the sheer horror of a nuclear blast against unprepared civilians.
    “It’s ok,” he lied, catching on to her hand and gently checking the remainder of her body. She was well beyond his ability to treat; he realised, numbly, that she needed a proper hospital. It crossed his mind that it would be kinder to snap her neck now, but he pushed that thought away with an angry curse. “I’m a policeman; I’ll get you out of here, somehow.”
    “You can’t,” the girl said, and gasped into a fresh round of sobs. “There’s nowhere to go.”

***

    It was deathly quiet in the bunker.
    Paul had expected that the aliens would retaliate in some form for the human use of nukes. It was their only real choice. Israel was probably on the verge of using them themselves, while they were pushing up against the Pakistani border and disrupting Europe’s development by holding the Middle East. They had to make an object lesson and, after Rome, no one had doubted that they had the capability. It would have been almost impossible to prevent them from striking back…and the alien craft that had bombed Washington had done so almost without being detected. That should have been impossible…
    “The National Guard and the militia have been deployed to seal the area,” General Hastings said, his voice grim and very controlled. “They should start bringing people out of the city soon enough…”
    “But where are we going to put them?” The President asked, bitterly. It was yet another shock to his system, Paul knew, one that might prove fatal. He had never expected to have to cope with a war on such a scale…and he’d been the one who had authorised the use of American tactical nukes. “How are we even going to save all the injured?”
    We can’t, Paul thought. It was easy to say that there were so many hospitals, doctors, nurses and trained first-aid volunteers within the blast zone, but that hardly meant that they could handle such a catastrophe. The medical personnel would have been hit by the nuke as well, so they might need medical attention themselves, while all the normal effects of a nuclear blast would be taking their toll. Fires would be spreading out of control, roads would be blocked and rendered impassable…and people would be fleeing in their thousands in hopes of avoiding radiation poisoning. So far, at least, it seemed that the alien nukes weren't that radioactive, but anyone caught up in the blast needed medical attention, attention they weren’t going to get. Worse, if they got out of the city carrying radioactive dust in their clothing, they might spread it further into the refugee camps.
    It was barely half an hour after the nuke had detonated and the emergency services what was left of them, were already overwhelmed. The soldiers deployed around the city could bring out as many people as possible, but it would be almost impossible to save them all and, with the city destroyed, they might have to leave the fires to burn themselves out. That wouldn’t sit well with the President, but there was little other choice, not when it was so hard to get supplies from the rest of the country. They would have to save those who could be saved, which meant that thousands of people, trapped in the rubble, would just have to be abandoned.
    “We will save as many as we can,” General Hastings promised. He leaned forward. “Mr President, we did prevent them from continuing their advance…”
    The President gave him a bleak stare. “How many cities can we afford to trade off for preventing any further advance?” He asked. “Detroit? San Francisco? How many more?”
    He rounded on Paul. “Colonel, get back to the prisoners,” he said. “Do whatever you have to do to get them working with us, just to use them, somehow, to get out of this mess.”
    Paul couldn’t argue. He looked around the table and saw…a mixture. General Hastings, shocked, but determined to do whatever he needed to do. Spencer was terrified and furious at the destruction of his city. His family was somewhere within Washington, unless he’d gotten them out before the explosion. Deborah…watching the President the way a hawk watches a mouse, thinking hard.
    “Yes, Mr President,” he said. He had the unnerving feeling that he was listening to the funeral bell for the United States of America. “I shall see to it at once.”

Chapter Thirty-Seven

    When taken prisoner, there is a tendency to attempt to become friendly with the jailors, perhaps even to assume their beliefs and ideology. This is known as Stockholm Syndrome and is a response to the near-complete powerlessness of a prisoner.
    – Anon

    I am becoming a heretic, Femala thought.
    The weird thing, the worrying thing, was how little that thought bothered her. When she’d thought about it, the rare occasions before her capture that she had thought about it, she hadn’t expected to survive more than a week of captivity. As a sterile female, she had thought that it was likely – and would have happened in the Unification Wars – that she would have been treated as a honorary male and simply executed, along with the remainder of any male prisoners. It was true that in some cases, male prisoners would be enslaved, but they tended not to last very long if cut off from the possibility of reproduction. They could – and sometimes had – go for years without having children, if producing children was actually possible, but if they were prevented from meeting and courting females, despair overcame them and they just drifted away.
    A female, on the other hand, would be treated differently. As a possible source of new children, any normal female would be accepted into the enemy clan…and treated as a mixture of junior wife and prisoner. She would become one of the enemy clan, expected to forget her old clan and become one of them, in heart and soul. Accepted into the comforting warmth and safety of a clan, treated with respect by the other females, thoughts of escape and the old clan quickly vanished, becoming nothing more than memories. Femala had read somewhere, when she had been studying biology in the hopes that she could escape the fate she had been condemned to, that their own biochemistry played a role in their submission and subversion. They literally brainwashed themselves into becoming one of the enemy.
    The research hadn’t interested her as much as machines and the way they went together, but she remembered enough of it to understand the reason why. Human females, it seemed, couldn’t pick and choose their mates. Any human male strong enough could force himself upon them and into them, forcing the poor woman to bear his child, regardless of her opinion. It had happened, several times, in the occupied zone and the High Priest had been contemplating ordering a death sentence for the human male responsible, once he had been able to wrap his head around the concept. The idea was literally alien to the Takaina; Femala, like all females, couldn’t have sex unless she wanted to have sex, which was part of the reason why her biochemistry would push her into the enemy clan. Any male who tried to force himself on her would be unable to force his way into her…and even if he did, he couldn’t get her pregnant. When her condition was discovered, as it would have been pretty quickly, she would have been classed as useless and, if she was lucky, killed.
    But she was becoming more…human.
    The humans hadn’t treated her badly and hadn’t cared that she was sterile, although there was no logical reason for them to care, unless they wanted to breed more Takaina. Instead, they’d treated her well and given her plenty of books to read, although no access to their computers. She couldn’t blame them for that, even though it was much harder to use a computer for hacking and sabotage than most people believed, but…they had so many! Perhaps there were so many computers on their world that hacking was commonplace, while on the Guiding Star there were only a few hundred who really knew how computers worked and how to use them for their own purposes. It was an odd way of doing things, but studying the human race through the eyes of an engineer made her wonder just what the final outcome of it all would be.
    And the warriors!
    She’d expected – as had they – that they would simply be killed. Instead, they had been brought into the human clan, as she was coming to think of it. It was an odd clan, but one she was starting to associate herself with, and so was Fallon. The female researcher into humanity was rapidly becoming one of her own test subjects, something that was even moderating her attitude to Femala. She’d scorned the sterile female on the shuttle, but now they were almost friends, although there would always be that barrier between them. Fallon had the attention of all of the warriors, and probably always would, unless more females arrived and joined the clan…and she studied humans. She believed that the humans meant what they said when they’d offered to treat them well, and, in many ways, she had almost gone completely over to them. She couldn’t fight her own biology, while Femala, who had been brought up in a society where she was worthless, was on the verge of joining her. She almost welcomed the sight of new and different humans…
    They were, she had decided, an odd race. What she had thought to be a disgusting skin disease was actually a change in skin colour that, she had been assured, covered the entire body. Their males actually did real work! She had seen a male-female pair and had addressed the female as the engineer, only to discover that it was the male who was the engineer and the female was a security guard. That had turned her world upside down; males didn’t have long-term professions. They were Priests or Warriors, not engineers or doctors. They didn’t have the mindsets to do more than rote work…or was she wrong? The human hadn’t known as much as she had about practical work in space, but he had known more of the theoretical side of space construction work…and even spacecraft design. The conversations had been productive and Femala felt the last of her doubts slipping away. She was one of them now.
    It was easy to know what the humans were doing. They wanted – needed, desperately – to get back into space. They had the services of a tech expert, one of the foremost in the system, and they would be foolish not to use her. It gave her value and even a few bargaining chips; she’d traded her assistance for more human books and even entertainment. The humans seemed to be more imaginative than her own people, even though she’d watched several episodes of human science-fiction and couldn’t stop herself laughing, and yet…was it really something unique about them, or could her own people match it, under the right conditions? Her position had been permanently uncertain under the Theocracy…and yet, was that a natural law, or something invented? Had God really decreed that all sterile females were to die?
    The thought blazed through her head. The High Priest had kept her alive…and, in doing so, had broken that law…if that law existed! He wouldn’t have got away with it, High Priest or no, not when there were hundreds of other Priests who wanted to be High Priest themselves. One of them would have used it against him, or the Inquisitors would have taken action; they couldn’t allow such open breaking of the rules, not by a High Priest. Femala’s existence and nature was hardly a secret either; it wasn’t something that could be covered up, so why had he been allowed to keep her? The only reason that made sense was that there was no such law!
    And yet…it happened. Free, now, from restrictions, she wondered at her own society. The humans had so much and her own people so little, when it should have been the other way around. She knew how to extract wealth from asteroids, gas giants and comets; the Takaina should have been able to give each of their people a life-style they could only dream about, and yet…they didn’t. All resources were bent towards the task of expanding and spreading the faith across the universe. In time, Guiding Star or a replacement built on Earth would continue onwards, leaving a massive settlement behind. Earth would become part of the Theocracy…but for how long? What effect would it have on her society if this, the knowledge of how another race acted, became common knowledge?
    They kept us down, she thought, and felt her delight at making the connection turn to rage. She hadn’t seen it because she had had nothing to compare it to. She hadn’t been part of society because society had shunned her…and even the one who had saved her hadn’t been able to give her what she needed. She’d been held down by her own society…and, she saw now, the same was true of all of them. The males went to become warriors, where they died, or priests, where they became part of the system, while the females were held down by the self-perpetrating clans. How could they escape when they were trapped in chains that held their minds?
    Humans had escaped, in part of their history, and others had remained trapped. It was possible to escape, but how could she spread the word to the rest of her people? How could she get them to believe and change when there was no way that they would listen to a sterile female who was a prisoner? Everyone knew that someone who had been a prisoner could no longer be completely trusted…and she was honest enough with herself to admit that her mind might not be what it had been. The High Priest wouldn’t be able to spare her this time, even if he wanted to spare her; she would be burned alive by the Inquisitors.
    And why had he spared her anyway? The humans had attributed it to unsavoury motives, but while the Takaina males had sex for enjoyment as well as procreation, they wouldn’t have it with a sterile female, one who was unable to join them fully in the act. Or was that, too, a part of their conditioning? The humans seemed to believe all kinds of silly things about sex and there was no reason, on the face of it, while the Takaina could not be the same. What possible use had he had for her?
    She was still mulling over that question when the human, Paul James, was shown into her quarters. She’d grown to like him, along with the other humans, even though she wasn’t sure of his duties. A person who had been in charge of preparing for an alien invasion should be able to do more than the Takaina had faced, but if the humans had had the idea that an alien invasion should consist of massive flying saucers with impossible beam weapons and even more impossible force shields, they probably hadn’t been able to come up with a proper defence. Amazing special effects, though; the Takaina had never come up with anything like them.
    “Hi,” she said, suddenly aware of her manners. He was, technically speaking, senior in the clan to her, although that had required some mental adjustment as well. No male was normally of any position within the clan. That was a female role. “How have you been?”
    She was starting to recognise some human emotions, but the look on his face was beyond her. “Washington has been destroyed,” he said, grimly. The liquid that had appeared in one eye couldn’t be healthy. “Your people took out an entire city.”
    “Mass slaughter is forbidden by the Truth,” Femala protested, honestly shocked. The High Priest had to have gone mad. The only justification for such slaughter was to prevent the spread of heresy. Earth, being largely unaware of the Truth, didn’t count as a legitimate target. “What happened?”
    He explained, bit by bit. “The High Priest had to be more than a little worried about your sudden willingness to use nukes,” Femala said, when he had finished. “How many of your people were killed?”
    “No one is sure, yet,” Paul admitted. “The preliminary figures are high, but they’re always high; all we know for sure is that there were several million people under the footprint of the nuke when it went off. Why did they hit Washington, of all places?”
    “Your capital doesn’t mean much to them,” Femala said. Now she understood the system that she had been a slave to her entire life, she felt little in the way of loyalty towards it. “The intention was to settle your world and bring your people into line with their own.”
    “We don’t want that to happen,” Paul said, rather dryly. It was so hard to pick out and understand human tones, but Femala was getting better at it. “We want to stop it.”
    So did Femala – now. She needed the humans to awaken her own people. “It won’t be easy to stop,” she said. “They’ll have started the settlement by now – or they will soon start it, and that will bring lots of their people down to the planet. How is the shuttle-building program coming along?”
    Paul started. “How did you know about that?”
    Femala explained, unable to keep her disappointment out of her voice. The human probably didn’t notice. Why else would anyone ask her about them? She might have been a victim all her life, without even the very human consolation of knowing that she had been a victim, but she was far from stupid. The humans had to be working on ways to recover control of space.
    “Yes, I see,” Paul said, finally. “The building program is fine. It’s getting up into orbit that’s going to be the problem.”
    Femala thought about it. Anything boosting to orbit, unless they discovered something so completely out of the box that the High Priest wouldn’t have the slightest idea it was even possible, would be very hot. The orbiting sensors would detect the rocket flame and react at once. Missiles and spacecraft would be shot down as soon as they were identified as such. It wouldn’t be easy to build enough craft to get some into orbit in the face of such firepower…and failing to retake control of space would be fatal in the long run. She could help them build thousands of shuttles, if that was what they wanted from her, but it wouldn’t solve the overall problem.
    She tossed it around in her mind. They couldn’t get into orbit, therefore they would lose…and that was unacceptable. She couldn’t allow the opportunity to pass, and yet, unless they could get into orbit, it would pass. They needed to clear space of hostile ships first, but even with the most powerful ground-based weapons, it wasn't going to be easy. In fact, it was probably going to be impossible. Unless…
    “I want to make a deal,” she said. “I have, I think, a way of getting you into orbit, something that will give you a chance at victory. In exchange, I want something.”
    Paul looked at her, his human face unreadable. “What do you want?”
    “I want you to help me educate the remainder of my people,” she said, and explained her epiphany. She wanted, she needed, to share it with her fellows, male and female alike, and give the dissidents something to rally around. They could bring down the Theocracy, at least in one tiny system. “Will you help me?”
    Paul leaned forward. “How do you intend to get us into orbit?”
    Femala smiled and explained.

***

    “Do you think we can trust her?”
    Doctor Jones shrugged. “Intellectually, she’s probably the smartest person in this base and certainly among the captives,” he said. “The various Redshirts are comparable to us, but she is very definitely the smartest…and she has practical experience that no one on Earth can match. As for trust…
    “We kept a close eye on them and watched, carefully,” he continued. “As far as we can tell, her conversion seems to be genuine, hers and the other prisoners as well. It’s impossible to be sure, but I suspect that she means what she says, which doesn’t mean that either of her plans will work. It’s quite possible that we’ll run into a security check she didn’t know existed, or another trap intended to snare heretics…and that’s exactly what they’re going to regard her as being.”
    “But she’s becoming human,” Paul protested. It was an interesting concept, and, if it was true, a handle on her. “Surely…”
    “No, she’s adapting,” Jones said, firmly. “She isn’t human; do not forget that. Such behaviour is not unknown among humans, but it is rather unreliable. Stockholm Syndrome can kick in at the oddest places, but it is also not unknown for captives to pretend to be converted, just to get lighter treatment and a chance at escape. You know how many people are capable of fooling parole boards?”
    Paul nodded. “Point taken,” he said. The thought was a galling one. Time and time again, dangerous criminals were released because they fooled parole boards into believing that they were reformed. “Still, it’s the only plan we’ve got.”
    “She’s very smart, yes,” Jones said. “I’m very smart as well, but I couldn’t build a spacecraft and she couldn’t perform surgery. Just because someone is smart doesn’t mean that they’re…street-smart, or even capable. How many soldiers do you know who look like total assholes and have a string of degrees longer than mine? Her very cunning plan could be a complete disaster just because we don’t know everything we need to know about her people.”
    “The President will probably agree with you,” Paul said, remembering the threat of possible impeachment. “It could be that this plan is a complete fuck-up waiting to happen. It could be that she intends to betray us…but, like it or not, it’s the only plan we’ve got and I intend to recommend to the President that we proceed at once.”
    “Of course,” Jones said. “Good luck.”

Chapter Thirty-Eight

    The enemy of my enemy is my enemy’s enemy.
    – Anon

    Riyadh, Ambassador Simon Carmichael had decided, hadn’t changed for the better under alien rule. It had been a repressive environment in so many ways, with the religious police watching for the slightest hint of un-Islamic behaviour, and the political police watching for anti-government attitudes, but it had been fairly safe, provided that you were an Arab male. Now, aliens patrolled the streets, the Burka was banned and every mosque in the city had been destroyed. The entire city was waiting nervously for the penny to drop.
    The aliens had rounded up, with the help of a number of senior princes and government officials who had fallen into their hands, every member of the religious police they could find and transported them out into the desert somewhere. Rumour, never the most accurate source in the world, claimed that the aliens had simply made them dig their own graves and then shot them, but given that rumour also claimed that the United States had been destroyed and that Mecca was burning rubble…well, it wasn't very helpful. The only piece of truth that had been spread had been that Tel Aviv had been destroyed by the aliens…after Israeli nukes had fallen on several of their formations. The aliens now ruled from the Mediterranean Coastline – they’d overrun North Africa in a week – to the rapidly dissolving Pakistani border. They had not been short of ideas, this time, on how to treat the people who were suddenly under their control and a full-fledged insurgency was underway.
    It wasn't going well. The Iraqi Insurgency had benefited from dozens of factors, including the misuse of the Iraqi Army, the presence of literally millions of weapons in the country and plenty of outside support. The Saudi Army – and, for that matter, every other army in the region – had been destroyed. Those soldiers who had been captured – or, so rumour said, surrendered rather easily – had been placed in prison camps and carefully kept away from the cities. Insurgents had managed to break one of them open, but the aliens had rounded up most of the prisoners, leaving only a handful on the loose. Experienced fighters were rare among the new insurgency…and the learning curve was steep. The supplies being smuggled in from outside, mainly from Europe, weren't enough to tip the balance, although the commandos and Special Forces were very helpful. The irony was thick enough to slice with a knife – they’d spent blood and treasure on suppressing radical Islam, and now they were trying to support it – but it still wouldn’t be enough. The aliens had learnt from Texas as well.
    Worst of all, they’d found allies. Carmichael wouldn’t have believed that anyone brought up in a strictly religious environment would have been willing to work with the aliens, but he’d underestimated them. The Saudis had imported tens of thousands of guest workers to do all the shit work…and treated them, well, like shit. They’d taken the opportunity offered by the aliens to get some revenge on their former masters and taken an unholy delight in exposing insurgents wherever they found them. There were even some Shias from the oil-rich regions who were willing to join the aliens. They had to know that that would merely put them last on the alien list for conversion, but perhaps they just didn’t care. It wasn't as if the Saudis had offered them anything better.
    Carmichael scowled as he peered down over the city. A rising column of smoke announced the detonation of another IED, although it was anyone’s guess as to what – if anything – it had destroyed. The insurgents were still learning, while the aliens were becoming much quicker at rooting out and destroying insurgent cells before they could become active. Part of it was through collaborators, but judging from what Captain Harper had said, the aliens used sensors to sniff for explosive residue and other signs of insurgent activity. They were probably using such methods in Texas too, now, and perhaps they would win there as well.
    Bastards, he thought suddenly, clenching his fists in helpless rage. He’d known people in Washington who had vanished somewhere under the mushroom cloud. The not knowing was worse than any report of their deaths. They might have survived, or they might have been killed, but there was no way to know. The single communications line to the government bunker had to be reserved for important matters. A question regarding the dead, however important, wouldn’t go through. It was a complete mystery why the aliens had allowed the embassy to continue to exist, without either throwing them out of the country or dumping them all in a POW camp, but it would be selfish not to take advantage of their generosity.
    Captain Harper appeared, as always, perfectly silently and cleared his throat. “Welcome back,” Carmichael said, refusing to give the impression that he’d just jumped. His ears were good…and yet the Marine managed to sneak up on him all the time. “Did you find them?”
    “Yes, Mr Ambassador,” Captain Harper said. The aliens had wanted the Americans to stay mainly in their embassy, but with so many other diplomats around, they had reluctantly agreed to allow the foreigners to talk with each other, if not the insurgents. It wasn't much, but it allowed a great deal of mischief, much of which was taking place right under the aliens’ noses. The aliens might not be willing to respect the embassies forever, but for now – covertly – they could be used to help the insurgents. “They’re in place.”
    So were four of the Marines, the ones who could pass for Arabs, but neither man mentioned them. Officially, they weren't there. “Good,” Carmichael said, finally, looking back towards the rising sun. The aliens were in for a surprise. “And the equipment?”
    “Untraceable, I hope,” Captain Harper said, dispassionately. His face showed none of the difficulties in smuggling in large quantities of weapons into territory the aliens controlled. “If anyone, they’ll blame the Russians…”
    Carmichael wanted to laugh, but it wouldn’t come. The Russians had retreated completely inside themselves, not taking part in the insurgency, or even fighting the aliens. They’d engaged the aliens during the first battle, back when it had looked like Earth could do more than kick and scratch on its way to the gallows, but now they were almost completely uncommunicative. News from Russia was very sparse and talked, in worried tones, of tanks in the streets and chaos at the highest levels. Langley had wondered if the Russians were in the middle of a civil war, but with so little intelligence leaking out, it was impossible to tell. They’d grown too used to intelligence being available at the push of a button.
    “That would be fitting,” he said. He knew that some European governments were shitting bricks after Washington, even though they had lived with the threat of nuclear war since the fifties, because the aliens had proved that they could and would strike cities. The destruction of Tel Aviv had only reinforced that impression. He worried that some of them would back off from supporting the insurgents, but now…it was much harder to call off an operation just because it was politically inconvenient and might embarrass a major government. “Perhaps they’ll go invade the Russians instead.”
    “There’s also an ugly little rumour being passed around the bazaar,” Captain Harper said. “They were saying that a lot of refugees have been coming into the city, claiming that the aliens have driven them out of their homes and sent them into the desert to die.”
    Carmichael blinked. “Fake, do you think?”
    “Impossible to tell,” Captain Harper said. He shrugged. “Except there was a similar story being passed around the Internet from Texas, claiming that the aliens were depopulating entire towns, for no apparent reason. They just show up, order the people out, and take over. It could be an odd coincidence, but…”

***

    There was no change in the noise of the city, no call to prayer echoing over the city, but the streets suddenly became empty as shoppers and civilians, most of them completely unemployed now since the government had collapsed, headed to their homes to pray. The aliens hadn’t twigged, openly, that any Muslim could lead prayers, although their experience with other sects in Texas would probably tip them off, sooner or later. Sergeant Sean Gartlan watched from his position as the civilians started to filter home, clearing the streets completely, apart from his small group.
    He looked back at them now. They were all young, Arab, and determined to fight. They’d also been pains in the arse, and if he hadn’t needed them, he would have dumped them all or done the resistance a big favour by selling them out to the aliens. The aliens had crushed their semi-comfortable lives, and now they wanted to fight, but they needed training and experience. They had once followed mullahs and clerics who had promised bloody revolution and a change in the established order, but if nothing else, the massacre of the young religious students on the day that Riyadh fell had convinced them that the mullahs didn’t have the slightest idea of how to fight. Neither did they; Sean had tested them, several times, and had realised that they were more likely to be dangerous to each other than the enemy. Given time, and a proper training camp, they might have made soldiers, but without such luxuries, the best he could do was give them a quick course in urban combat and hope that they could take a few of the aliens with them.
    “Remember,” he hissed, in Arabic. “Do not open fire until I give the word, or I’ll cut off your dicks, understand?”
    The alien patrol was late, unsurprisingly. They’d learned after a few ambushes in Texas to keep their patrols on a varying schedule, just to make planning an ambush difficult. Sean had been careful to keep the young men from attacking until conditions were absolutely perfect, even though they wanted to attack as soon as they saw a hint of the alien presence, knowing that they would need all the advantages they could get. The aliens, if nothing else, would have passed through the area several times, unmolested. Like every other city they had occupied, Riyadh was now almost completely without moving human vehicles. There were a handful driven by collaborators, some of them formerly the possessions of princes who’d been killed, captured, or quick enough on their feet to flee, and one of them had been parked on the curb. The collaborator had been, apparently, a lousy driver…and the trunk had been packed with explosives.
    A thin whistle echoed through the air from the lookout; the aliens were coming. Sean gripped his weapon in one hand and checked it, again, as he heard the strange noise of alien vehicles. A few weeks ago, the religious police would have been on the whistler and beaten him, but now…now, the young men could whistle all they liked. The aliens wouldn’t notice until it was too late. He saw them turning the corner, a handful of armoured fighting vehicles…and pushed hard down on the detonator. The IED exploded with colossal force.
    “Now,” he barked, and opened fire, spraying bullets across the alien forms. The blast had been more powerful than he'd anticipated and the alien convoy had been dented, although the two armoured vehicles had survived. Their gun barrels traversed with frightening speed to bear on the insurgents, but two of the young men hurled satchel charges onto the vehicles and detonated them, caught in the blasts themselves. The handful of remaining aliens took cover with commendable speed and returned fire, but knew that they were trapped. Their only hope was to hold out long enough for help to arrive and, hopefully, wipe out the insurgents.
    He waved across at Kalid, a young man who was slightly more responsible than the others, and gave the retreat signal. Five of the men obeyed at once and came running, while a series of detonators and firecrackers exploded high above, trying to convince the aliens that they were still under attack. Sound-wise, it would be as if an entire Company was attacking their positions, although the absence of bullets pinging off their armour would be a bit of a giveaway. The remaining men continued to fight, trying to get as many aliens killed as possible, but Sean knew that they would all die. He wanted to stay and fight himself, but they would just end up trapped; grimly, he led the retreat though the streets, heading for the safe house.
    “We can’t leave them,” Kalid protested, as they ducked under cover. A flight of alien helicopters passed overhead with menacing speed. A moment later, he heard the scream of rockets as they pummelled hell out of the surrounding buildings, apparently still under the impression that the buildings were occupied by dangerous insurgents, firing down at trapped aliens. “Sir…”
    “There’s no choice,” Sean snapped back. He missed the remainder of the platoon desperately at such times; he would have welcomed a Royal Marine or even a Paratrooper, rather than such poor raw material. The other lads were likely to get killed by the people they were meant to be training. “They knew the dangers and they knew what would happen if they disobeyed.”
    He looked back as the sound of human weapons cut off abruptly. The Saudi culture, as far as he could tell, was a bizarre mixture of Islam, machismo and a superiority complex that dwarfed anything else he’d ever met. He could imagine what the idiots he’d left behind had thought – there was no reason why proper Saudi lads couldn’t do the job of the infidel and probably better – and, in doing so, they’d gotten themselves killed. He wouldn’t shed any tears over them, not now, even though he saw a hint of the young teenager he’d been in their eyes. They’d never had to learn the way the world worked until it had been far too late.
    The walk back to the safe house was easier as the streets filled with people again. They might have realised that several of the insurgents were returning to their base, but Sean had taken the precaution of ordering his men to keep their weapons hidden, both from the humans and the aliens. A collaborator could be anyone, and, unlike Texas, the collaborators were more often genuine than not. He’d taken a more complex precaution as well – none of the boys, apart from Kalid, knew the location of the safe house, but they would have to be more careful in the next few weeks. The aliens might have taken prisoners…and everyone broke eventually. There were more horror stories than hard fact about the alien methods for interrogation, but no one doubted that they worked, although the cynical part of his mind suggested that it had more to do with hard cash than anything else.
    “Check the traps,” he ordered, as they entered the house. The noise of alien helicopters was growing louder, but they didn’t seem to have picked up any scents, just buzzing around to see who reacted. He refused to be panicked by them. “Once that’s done, we’ll lay low for a few hours, understand?”
    The house had once been owned by a wealthy man, although none of them knew who, and he had had an astonishing – and probably illegal – collection of DVDs, some of which were borderline pornographic. He also had a collection of drink, including some quite rare vintages, all of which Sean had poured down the sink. The young men would have tasted alcohol before, on trips to Bahrain and Europe, but the last thing he needed was for them to get drunk near weapons. That was asking for disaster.
    “Not a bad days work,” he said, once they’d checked the traps and confirmed that they were undisturbed. The aliens would have gotten a surprise if they’d tried to burst in. “We might just make soldiers out of you yet.”

***

    “They’re not happy,” Captain Harper reported, that evening. The Marine seemed more excited than normal, almost smiling. “It seems that several attacks were made against their forces in the city and they want answers.”
    Carmichael smiled thinly. “And are they blaming the attacks on us?”
    “Not yet, but they do have their suspicions,” Captain Harper said. “They might not want to disturb the embassies, but I think it’s going to be harder to move around now. Hell, we don’t even know why they let us stay here…”
    Carmichael had been giving the matter some thought. There seemed to be no logical reason for it, but the aliens had actually treated them as a semi-official delegation, although they seemed unwilling to say so out loud. “They don’t have an embassy in…America,” he said. He’d been about to say Washington, but that was too painful for words. “Or anywhere else, for that matter, unless they have one in Russia and the Russians haven’t told us. Perhaps they want to have some way of communicating officially with us…”
    He broke off as a dull rumble echoed over the city. “Are we under attack?”
    “No, that's coming from further away,” Captain Harper said. He tilted his head for a second as the rumbling grew louder. The entire building, as large as it was, was shaking slightly under the pressure. “I think…I think we’d better get up to the roof.”
    He led the run up the stairs and onto the roof. The sky was alight, not with the strange twinkling of the first battles in space, but with a thousand glowing engines. He thought of fireflies, hanging in the sky, but these were falling down towards the south. It wasn’t like the first invasion, or other alien activities, but something else…
    Captain Harper put it into words. “My god,” he breathed. “They’re landing their population! We’ll never get rid of them now!”

Chapter Thirty-Nine

    Imperialism is the growth of one self at the cost of another.
    Jacob Davies

    “Are you sure that this is a good idea?”
    “Nup,” Brent said, happily, as he mounted his bike. “You do know all the dangers, don’t you?”
    Joshua gave him what was supposed to be a reproving look, although he suspected that after having faced flying bullets, it wasn't that terrifying. “Yes,” he said. Brent had spelled them all out in precise detail. “Are you sure that this is a good idea?”
    “It has to be done,” Brent said, dryly. “You’re the only other person I can take with me, so…you’re coming. Besides, you can write about it for your blog.”
    Joshua said nothing. The ID cards they both carried, to say nothing of their relative freedom to move around the city and even outside it, marked them as first-rate collaborators. The aliens might not be a danger to them, unless they had brought in some new security checks or even some of their own ID card technology, but there was a fair chance that some insurgent would take a shot at them, convinced that they were alien collaborators. Brent had wondered about some kind of general notice to the rest of the insurgents, but by now the aliens would have collaborators monitoring the blogs, just watching for intelligence they could use. Joshua had even helped to make them look unreliable; if half the attacks threatened on the Internet had come to pass, the entire alien force would have been exterminated several times over.
    The three weeks he’d spent with the soldiers, once he'd come to an uneasy truce, had been the most exciting and the most boring of his life. Exciting because he never knew when the aliens caught on to the safe house and burst in, boring because he couldn’t go out on the streets, even for a short time. The aliens might not have a positive ID on the soldiers, but they certainly knew who Joshua was and had even hung up wanted posters, offering a reward for his capture. They hadn’t said ‘dead or alive,’ but that had been the impression Joshua had gotten…and so he hadn’t wanted to wander. Instead, he’d taken his blog back and updated it with heroic stories about the insurgents, although Brent had insisted on reading everything first, just in case. The result was a series of exciting stories that were rather vague.
    And then the aliens had started to land several miles away from the city, to the west. Joshua had watched the massive shapes moving down in the darkness, their drives turning night into day, and wondered what they were doing. The aliens seemed to have clamped down harder on the city as the landings began, running far more patrols and checking everyone for signs of insurgency, leaving only their collaborators with any real freedom. Brent had spoken to one of his best sources, a former lawyer who’d signed up as a collaborator while working for the resistance, and obtained two ID cards. If they worked, they could get out of the city, if only for a short period of time, and find out what the aliens were doing.
    “Fine,” he said, finally. He suspected that one of the reasons that Brent had brought him alone was because he needed support, but he didn’t have any soldier he cared to risk, not when they would be needed in Austin. Joshua was expendable. “Let’s get on with it before I have an attack of brains to the head and realise how dangerous this is.”
    Brent swung himself onto the bike and peddled off, Joshua following him a little more uncertainly. It had been years since he’d ridden a bicycle, but it was all coming back to him, if only because he was glad to be out in the fresh air. The smell of vehicles had faded, to be replaced by an ever-present smell of smoke and burning, caused by the fighting. Large parts of the city were destroyed and, for some reason, the aliens hadn’t even started rebuilding them. He saw, out of the corner of his eye, an alien patrol, but ignored them…and was ignored in turn. If they were caught, it wouldn’t be right next to the safe house.
    The city’s populations had gone back to bikes in a big way. The aliens didn’t seem to care about people riding bikes, although they tended to stop anyone carrying a large bag, and so everyone was peddling around the city. Brent, Joshua had to admit, had been right; the two of them just blended into everyone else. There was nothing to mark them out as wanted fugitives, not until they reached the checkpoint at the edge of the city. The aliens didn’t let just anyone out, although the internet was buzzing with some odd reports of moments of alien kindness, of all things, and if they were caught…
    I could die here, he realised, suddenly. The city had seemed darker and darker as they’d ridden towards the checkpoint. Away from the remainder of the cyclists, it was easier for them to be marked as collaborators and the dirty looks…he was lucky that no one had thrown a stone at them. Brent might have managed to stay on his bike – if he was to be believed, he had managed to cross a river under fire from both sides – but Joshua had no such illusions about himself. A single stone would have pitched him off his bike and into the tender mercies of the aliens or another resistance cell. The aliens, watching them dispassionately, would be delighted to get their hands on him.
    The alien checkpoint was simple enough, but Brent had taught him enough for Joshua to pick out the hidden and well-protected machine gun nests, held well back from the road. The resistance had once driven an explosive-laden truck into one of the checkpoints, blowing it up along with all of the guards, and since then the aliens had been rather more careful. They might not be afraid of a pair of cyclists, particularly ones with such good papers, but they wouldn’t take them for granted either.
    “Papers,” the lead alien said. As always, there was no way of seeing the alien face behind the mask, or anything to mark him out as the leader. Brent had bemoaned that in one of their brief discussions; standard sniper practice was to pick off the leaders first and it wasn't easy to identify an alien leader. They didn’t salute or genuflect to each other. “You will present your papers now.”
    Joshua was suddenly very aware that they were trapped. “Here,” he said, passing over his ID card. He couldn’t stop his hands from shaking, so he returned them to the bike handles and squeezed them hard. The collaborator looked enough like Joshua that a little make-up could allow them to pass for one another, but he wouldn’t have been so scared when facing the aliens, not unless his cover was blown. Brent seemed utterly untroubled by the guns pointed at them, while Joshua needed to go to the toilet urgently.
    “You may proceed,” the alien said finally, as the gate opened. Joshua almost forgot to recover his ID card before pushing down on the pedals and biking madly out of the city. It was an illusion, but as he breathed in his first breath, he was almost sure that he tasted freedom in the air.
    “Not too bad,” Brent said, when they were away from the city. From a distance, Austin looked almost normal, although parts of the skyline had been remodelled by the aliens, with several missing buildings. He could almost believe that the aliens had vanished and the human race was still alone in the universe. Only the complete absence of any moving vehicles and the devastation all around them spoiled the illusion. “You could have handled that worse.”
    Joshua glared at him. “I could have handled that worse?”
    “Oh, of course,” Brent assured him. “Do you think that a good soldier is automatically a good Special Forces dude?”
    “I have honestly never given it much thought,” Joshua said, tightly. He had the shakes badly now and pulled over to calm himself. “What makes you so special?”
    “You have to be more than just the best, you have to be willing to play a role, or even to bend the rules,” Brent said, seriously. “Most soldiers are honest people; they won’t lie or even consider lying, particularly in a combat zone. I have worn enemy uniforms and been in places where an American soldier might have shot me. I could have been shot by someone on the same side! You need a special mindset for that and most soldiers don’t have it.”
    “Oh,” Joshua said. “Why is it that half the time I can’t tell if you’re telling the truth or lying through your teeth?”
    “I’m a very dishonest soldier,” Brent said, with a wink. “That story about the General’s daughter, the Swedish woman’s naked badminton team and the six vats of hot custard was all true, as I live and breathe. Besides, if it weren’t for all the tall tales, terrorists wouldn’t get so scared and do something stupid when they hear we’re after them. Did I ever tell you how I managed to get a terrorist cell to kill itself?”
    “No,” Brent said. “Does it have anything to do with those Iranian girls you were telling me about?”
    They rode onwards, towards the alien landing sites. Joshua fell silent as the scale of the invasion became clearer, with destroyed vehicles and houses everywhere, as far as the eye could see. Someone, probably work gangs, had cleared the roads of vehicles, but otherwise there had been very little clean-up work done, even removing the bodies. Most of them had been picked clean by now, probably by animals – he didn’t think that the aliens would eat human flesh – but the white skeletons seemed to mock him. They had died, perhaps bravely, perhaps shot in the back…but they had died.
    The sight was a bitter reminder. The soldiers had charged that Joshua and other reporters had gotten fat on the carnage caused by fighting, but that hadn’t happened in America, not since the Civil War. The United States had had internal troubles, but there had never been a danger of an invasion and its population had been allowed to forget how unpleasant the world could be. Now, war and devastation had torn the United States apart, with the population fleeing burning cities, carrying what little they could with them.
    “We’d better be careful,” Brent warned, as they detoured around a particularly large cluster of destroyed buildings. “I thought they were burying all the bodies, but if they’re leaving them here, they’re probably Club Med for diseases now. We might even catch something really nasty.”
    “I would, you mean,” Joshua said, absently. “You’re too tough for any disease.”
    The sounds of alien activity had been growing louder, loud enough to convince them that they were close, so they hid the bikes and proceeded on foot, seeking a vantage point. A pair of alien patrols, armed to the teeth, passed them, but seemingly missed picking them out from their surroundings. Brent led the way up the ridge, and then swore softly under his breath. Joshua followed him, careful to keep his head, and peeked over the top. What he saw shocked him.
    As far as the eye could see, the aliens were building, constructing strange buildings from the remains of the massive conical craft that had landed on American soil. Aliens, thousands of aliens, were everywhere, directing the construction process as hundreds of massive robots established their cities. A small army of human prisoners, chained and shackled together, were carrying massive containers around, aiding the aliens as they built their base.
    No, Joshua realised, as terror sank into his mind. That’s not a base, not any normal base. That’s a city.
    His eyes caught a rising puff of smoke. A human town was being demolished by the robots, smashing the remains of the town and pushing them aside. He’d never seen activity on such a scale before and so he had no idea how long it would take them to complete their city, but it had barely been days since they had landed. The city already seemed kilometres wide…and it was still growing.
    Brent caught his arm and nodded towards a group of aliens. For a moment, Joshua didn’t see what was different about them, and then he saw the breasts. He almost laughed, despite himself; topless alien women were prowling the streets of the alien city! The aliens hadn’t set any clothing rules, he remembered, although they’d banned openly religious clothing, and it was very hot…but looking at them, he wondered if it was a cultural thing. Did bare breasts mean the same to them as they did to humanity?
    “You could use your charm on them,” he muttered, barely above a whisper. “Perhaps you could seduce them into joining our side.”
    “I think that needs Captain Kirk, or maybe Captain Sheridan,” Brent replied. “I don’t know if I could…perform with any of them.”
    “You did see some of the girls Kirk had it off with, right?” Joshua pressed. “That girl with the skull-bone in her hair was pretty hot…”
    “Focus,” Brent muttered, pulling a small device out of his sleeve. Joshua had seen the camera back in the safe house and had admired it; Special Forces really did get all the best toys. It was tiny enough to pass completely unnoticed, and yet provided excellent images for later analysis. The images of the alien construction work would come in handy for someone, although at the moment, Joshua wasn’t sure who. How could they even get them back to independent human territory? The Internet was unreliable at the best of times. “Keep an eye out for any alien patrols.”
    Joshua looked. The aliens seemed to be almost unconcerned about the possibility of danger, although they had at least four patrols orbiting the construction site, and probably others that he couldn’t see. They had been lax to allow the two of them so close to the construction, although they might have let them through, just to show off their work. Paranoia, never far from his mind these days, blossomed; the aliens might have allowed them close to show the human race that they weren't going to leave. The thought was maddeningly taunting.
    “Got all we can,” Brent said, finally. Joshua, who had been feeling a growing tingling between his shoulder blades, allowed himself a sigh of relief. “I think we’d better make tracks before they realise we’re here.”
    “They may already,” Joshua said, and outlined his reasoning. “What if they let us this close?”
    “After Washington, they have to be worried about someone like me sneaking up with a suitcase nuke,” Brent said. “It’s piss-easy to hide a nuke of you know what you’re doing, so unless they have something we don’t have, they would have to intercept us well short of the city. Hell, I might volunteer to come back here with a nuke and blow them to hell.”
    Joshua looked back down at the strange buildings. They seemed utterly alien, a strange mixture of pyramids, oblongs and pointy spires, blended together into a very alien mass. The aliens had sometimes had problems with human buildings, he recalled, but if merely looking at their buildings made his head hurt, he didn’t want to think about what it would do to anyone living inside for any period of time. The slaves had to be going mad down there, or perhaps they had gotten used to it.
    “Yeah,” he said, thinking. “I reckon that that’s going to be one of their first major settlements on our world. If we could blow it up…”
    “We’ll lose another city,” Brent said, grimly. “I think I need to take this one upstairs.”
    Somewhat to Joshua’s surprise, the trip back to the city was accomplished without incident, even passing through the checkpoints. The aliens didn’t seem interested in what they were doing outside the city, although they did remind them to report to the meeting hall the day afterwards for a new briefing. The real collaborators would have to go in, find out what the aliens wanted, and then report back. There was no way they would allow either Joshua or Brent into the meeting. The resistance had blown up two previous meetings and security was tight.
    “We can’t send these over the Internet,” Brent said, once they’d finished outlining what they’d seen. The images had been downloaded to a laptop, but they were not only huge, but easily recognisable. “The government needs them, but we can’t get them to them, not directly.”
    Joshua frowned. “How do we get them out, then?”
    Brent winked. “I guess I’ll have to start walking,” he said. He winked at Joshua and grinned at the others. “It’s only a few kilometres to the human lines.”
    “It’s over two hundred kilometres to the human lines,” Joshua burst out. “You won’t stand a chance!”
    “Of course I do,” Brent said. “It’s the last thing anyone in their right mind would expect, so they won’t be prepared for it. There are plenty of people who do make their way out of the Red Zone without my training or advantages, so…”
    “You’re mad,” Joshua said. The very thought struck him as completely insane, even if there weren’t any alien patrols watching for people doing just that. “You’re completely loopy!”
    “And that’s why we will win,” Brent assured him. He opened one of the cupboards and started to pile up the contents. “We once had to force-march five hundred kilometres merely for the hell of it, all around Fort Hood. Damn sadists thought it would help us build character.”
    He winked again. “Don’t worry; I’ll be sipping Coors a week from today,” he said. “Besides, when I get back, you get the exclusive interview.”

Chapter Forty

    Governments vary. A monarchy protects the interests of the people through the interest of the state while a democracy protects the interest of the state through the interests of the people.
    – Anonymous

    “The President is losing it.”
    Deborah Ivey lifted her eyebrows at the bald statement. The bunker was surprisingly luxurious for its size, but then, it did play host to nearly a third of Congress and the Senate. The government had been dispersed across the United States, although one of the bunkers, in Texas, had been converted into a resistance headquarters, and it had been a surprise to be summoned from the President’s bunker to a very different facility. She had suspected anything from a session in front of a Senate Committee to another round of recriminations, but instead…
    She leaned forward. “In what way is he losing it?”
    Ovitz met her eyes, unflinchingly. “He hesitated to unleash nuclear weapons against the Redshirts,” he said. Far be it from a major politician to use the Redskin label. “The result of that failure was the alien landing and successful occupation of Texas. He refused to use them in Operation Lone Star…”
    “Nukes were deployed against targets in orbit,” Deborah said, carefully. “They generated the EMP pulses that helped to blind the aliens.”
    “But not completely,” Ovitz reminded her. “If they had been deployed against ground targets, Operation Lone Star would have gone the other way. Instead, they were not deployed and thousands of our best fighting men were killed. Worst of all, when the aliens started their advance, he did use nukes…and the result was the loss of Washington, with hundreds of thousands dead or seriously injured.”
    “I advised the President to deploy nukes, as did you,” Deborah said, dryly. “One must argue that the President was right. At best, we would have turned Texas into radioactive glass, with the remainder of our cities open to alien attack. I don’t think that anyone would consider that a plus.”
    Ovitz frowned. “I was under the impression that you supported harsher measures against the aliens,” he said. “We know, now, that they have very few nukes, certainly no more than fifty. Our prisoners have confirmed that for us. We could have traded nukes with them and come off the winners.”
    Deborah steepled her fingers. She loved arguing and debating…and this one promised to be interesting, spiced with the taste of possible advancement.
    “First,” she said, “we don’t know for sure that they really do have only fifty warheads, of which three have now been deployed on Earth. The alien prisoners might be lying…or they might have been lied to by their leadership. An old intelligence trick is to do just that, knowing that the person doing the lying is under the impression that they are actually telling the truth. Second, they have easy access to thousands of asteroids and other pieces of space junk; they don’t need nukes to mess up our cities. Third…I don’t think that anyone in America would take the exchange of forty-seven cities for burning out Texas.”
    Ovitz smiled at her. “Are you taking his side?”
    “I think that we’re not in a position to start rocking the boat,” Deborah said. “I don’t mean to be rude, but really…what do you want?”
    “I want Texas freed from alien control and America restored to its former heights of glory,” Ovitz said. “I will do whatever is necessary to achieve those goals.”
    “And take the credit as well,” Deborah finished, dryly. It wasn't a question. “How exactly do you suggest that this miracle is to be achieved?”
    Ovitz said nothing. “I understand your desire to rid your state of the aliens, but at the moment…it’s not possible,” Deborah said. “The former might of the Army has been effectively destroyed. There are barely more than a hundred active tanks left in the entire United States. Levels of other vehicles and equipment are also low; certainly, anyone driving a military vehicle anywhere does so at risk of his life. We have gone from possessing an army that could go anywhere and beat anyone to a force that can barely delay the aliens if they decide they want the remainder of the United States.”
    “The gun nuts are happy, at least,” Ovitz growled. He’d been a loud opponent of any form of gun control before the aliens had arrived and now, with civilians the only form of resistance in many areas, had been watching the gun control lobby disintegrate under the pressures of war. Several Governors had unilaterally revoked all gun control legislation, allowing their citizens to arm themselves to the teeth, while others had discovered that no one was listening any longer. “They’re the last line of defence.”
    “You’re forgetting the League of Woman Voters,” Deborah said, just to watch his reaction. Ovitz wasn't their most favoured politician. “Don’t they get a say?”
    She cleared her throat and continued. “The aliens have deployed weapons systems that make it impossible for us, even if we had the full pre-war might of the United States concentrated in one place, to recover Texas,” she warned. “We lost several units, including some of our best, before they even had a chance to shoot up some of those floating tanks. Senator, I’m sorry to put this to you, but…Texas is beyond our ability to recover.”
    “And yet, the President is on the verge of a breakdown,” Ovitz said. “I have been reading the reports from his doctors. He’s stressed, is developing an ulcer, and hasn’t been sleeping enough. What happens if he decides he wants to surrender?”
    “I don’t think that he is on the verge of deciding anything of the sort,” Deborah said, icily. She’d forgotten that Ovitz, fourth in line to the Presidency, would see those reports as a matter of course. “Yes, he’s not in a good state, which is hardly surprising. How many Congressmen and Senators are in the same state?”
    “They’re suffering from a sudden loss of importance,” Ovitz said, with a quick grin and a wink. “They don’t like the damage that is being inflicted on their states and they really don’t like the way that power is devolving down, more and more, on the Governors. Why, dear Jacqueline was all upset yesterday because her people weren’t listening to her any more.”
    Deborah rolled her eyes. Jacqueline had been a Senator who made most left-wingers look like the reincarnation of Genghis Khan. She’d been a fervent proponent of gun control, climate control, multiculturalism, homosexual marriage and everything else that tended to send right-wingers into a frenzy of rage. She had represented San Francisco, secure in the knowledge that she would never be voted out, until the aliens had arrived and destroyed her comfortable world. She’d been one of the loudest voices demanding no military preparations for First Contact…and, after the first attacks, she had continued to demand peace, not war. Her people, suddenly powerless and with an alien occupation force in Texas, only a few days away, hadn’t agreed. The only reason she hadn’t been recalled was the difficulty in having her travel back to California…and, probably, no real desire to have any further dealings with her. When – if – the next elections took place, she would probably lose by a landslide, screaming about right-wing plots and conspiracies all the way.
    “But some of them want to impeach the President,” Ovitz continued. “They think that he is not living up to the role.”
    “They say that in every war,” Deborah said, angrily. She had a sneaking suspicion – more than a suspicion – about who was behind it. “Did any of them seriously believe in aliens before we detected the mothership?”
    “Jacqueline probably did,” Ovitz said, wryly. “They want the President to get rid of the aliens, post haste.”
    Deborah thought fast. It was hard to tell what was really an impeachable offence; generally, it was whatever Congress thought it was. Every President since Nixon had faced the possibility of impeachment, although proceedings hadn’t always gotten underway. It was used more as a club to beat the President with rather than a serious threat. They didn’t have a case…but if they were angry enough, they might be able to impeach the President anyway.
    “And how much better would anyone else do?”
    “They just think that someone else could do a better job,” Ovitz said.
    “That’s what always happens,” Deborah said, frustrated. “We have a war…people start second-guessing the President and the Government. We should be doing this, no, we should be doing that, no, we should never have done that, yes, we should have bombed there instead…”
    She leaned forward, genuinely angry. “The President cannot fix the country with a wave of his hand,” she snapped. “No one can do that!”
    Ovitz smiled. “You don’t think that the President should be held as accountable as everyone else?”
    “You think that merely sitting in the White House confers omnipotence?”
    “There have been Presidents who have believed that,” Ovitz countered.
    “They were morons,” Deborah snapped. Her voice grew sharper. “The President might be the most powerful person – the most powerful human – in the world, but he was always far from omnipotent. He had power and leverage, but using half of that power would only make the situation much worse. The entire world system was based on America and damaging it would have damaged America.”
    Ovitz smiled. “Are we better off now?”
    “I doubt the dead or unemployed would agree,” Deborah said. Millions had died in the war and millions more were completely out of work. “We cannot be anything, but sneaky now, if we want to win.”
    “All we have is an insane plan that might fail…and fail badly enough to convince the aliens to wipe us out,” Ovitz grumbled. “What happens if that fails?”
    “It’s the best plan we have,” Deborah said. “Failure remains a possibility, but…what choice do we have?”
    “If the plan fails, and the country suffers, we will move for impeachment,” Ovitz warned. “The country is on the verge of collapse. New blood is needed.”
    “Well, you’ve been in politics for nearly forty years, so you don’t count,” Deborah snapped, standing up sharply. “If it fails, I dare say that the best the new government could do is get a slightly better deal out of the aliens. Good day, sir!”

***

    “You’ve looked better,” Ambassador Francis Prachthauser said, as he was shown into the President’s private room. He hadn’t seen the President for nearly a month and was shocked by the changes. The President looked to be permanently on the verge of a stroke, or a heart attack. “Have you been eating properly?”
    “You’re my Ambassador and Special Representative, not my mother,” the President said. He sounded as if he was amused, but his voice was as thin as tearing paper. “I have been eating enough food to feed a mouse, all very bad for me, of course.”
    “Of course,” Francis agreed, genuinely concerned. The President was the best looked after person in the world, but there was nothing the staff could do about the real problem. The only plan they had was halfway insane. He’d finally secured permission to brief a handful of non-Americans, but it had only made it clear just how insane the plan actually was. “You need a break.”
    The President snorted. “Yes, I suppose I could go to Camp David and have a month away from the stress of government,” he said. He laughed harshly. “A year ago, a crisis could be handled with proper reflection and I could take hours to decide what to do. Now…if I don’t react at once, the crisis will just get worse…and the entire country has a knife to its throat, while I’m stuck in this bunker.”
    He paused. “Do you know how many plots there have been to kill me?”
    Francis blinked. “Mr President?”
    “The Secret Service and FBI broke up several,” the President said. He smiled thinly at Francis, who could only stare at him. Plots against the President were hardly unknown, but in times of war? “They didn’t know about the bunker, but the White House got attacked twice by people who blamed me for the invasion and everything else. The Senate blames me for their loss of influence, the rest of the world thinks that I should have deployed some super-secret weapon system that only exists in the imagination of a science-fiction author and blown the aliens out of space and the aliens…the aliens want me dead. At least they’re honest about it.”
    He sat up suddenly. “But enough of that,” he added. Bright eyes focused directly on Francis. “What news do you have for me?”
    Francis felt almost relieved. The President wasn’t as far gone as he’d feared. “The French, Germans, British and Russians are onboard,” he said. The President looked relieved. The absence of any one of them would have made the plan much harder. “They’re convinced that the plan is absolutely crazy, but they don’t have any other option, although they drove a hard bargain and demanded the plans for the shuttles.”
    “Not such a bad move,” the President said, dryly. He seemed to be considering events properly again, even if there was a morbid note to his thoughts. “If America gets scorched from end to end because of this, they’re going to have to try it next.”
    “If they can,” Francis warned. “Europe’s been pretty much coordinating the insurgency in the Middle East, as far as anyone can, with weapons, aid and even commando units, hitting the aliens as hard as possible. They have plenty of young Muslim men who want to fight in a jihad and they’re shipping them in by the boatload. Now that North Africa is under alien control, it’s a lot easier to slip in weapons and supplies, and there were a lot on the ground anyway. Someone actually managed to fire a string of Scuds directly at an alien base…and actually got one of them down to the ground.”
    The President laughed. “How did they manage that?”
    “The Egyptians had designed them to break through Israel’s defences and they were configured to confuse any defences,” Francis explained. “All, but one of them got shot down, but the one that landed packed enough punch to really ruin their day.”
    He scowled. “The bad news is that most chemical weapons don’t seem to work on them either,” he added. “The Libyans managed to deploy some chemical weapons they didn’t have – officially – and drenched the aliens in some, but no apparent effect. It could be just their masks, but the scientists in Europe are wondering if their biology is so different from ours that nothing designed for us affects them.”
    “That was our conclusion,” the President said. “Overall, how are the Europeans with the plan?”
    “They need a month to finish their preparations,” Francis said. “That said, once the weapons are set up and ready, they could move at a moment’s notice. Coordinated action is our only hope for any victory and they all understand that. Now that we have the new communications links set up, we’ll have the submarines in position and ready to act.”
    He smiled. “Can you imagine what we’re asking the Russians and French to do?”
    “It does have its humorous side,” the President agreed. “If they all cooperate…”
    “If they all play ball,” Francis agreed, “we might actually manage to get this insane plan to work.” He frowned. “I think that the aliens might be preparing for a third landing.”
    “A third?” The President snapped. “Where?”
    “Australia,” Francis said. “I got it from MI6 – that’s the British intelligence service – and they got it from their counterparts down under. They’re taking more alien KEW strikes now and it looks as if they’re going to be knocked back down again; every harbour and airport has been destroyed. Indonesia is also taking a beating, but it’s just not as interesting to the aliens as Australia. If they want Australia, they can take it, probably.”
    “And their deployments?”
    “The Australians know as much as anyone else about how the aliens work,” Francis said. “They should have made preparations for resisting an alien landing, but…if they land in enough force, they can probably take Australia completely within a few weeks. They don’t have a large enough army to stand off the aliens.”
    “And so another state is lost,” the President said. “Once they control Australia, they can bring other nations into line and keep consolidating their control. Japan…Japan is effectively on their side now, while China is just trying to avoid an uprising.”
    “They got hurt worse than we did when the aliens attacked,” Francis said. “Their economy is a shambles and the chaos from the Korean border isn’t helping. If their government falls completely, they’re fragile enough to go through a second warlord period…and that will remove them from the balance sheet. By the time they recover, the aliens will probably hold the rest of the world.”
    “Not if we can help it,” the President said. There was a note of renewed determination in his voice. Francis welcomed it, even though he knew it wouldn’t last. The President studied the map, noting the red shade that covered Texas, the Middle East and North Africa. The aliens were having real problems with the Pakistani border, but Islamabad seemed to have lost control completely, leaving the disposition of their nukes a total mystery. Francis had even heard a rumour that the Indians were considering a strike against the Pakistani nukes before they could fall into the hands of fanatics who might turn them against India, even with the aliens breathing down their necks.
    The President’s gaze fell on China. “Is there no way we can get in touch with them?”
    “We can try, but it’s hard to know what their government controls now,” Francis admitted. He allowed a bitter note to seep into his voice. “If we don’t stop the aliens, that’s what we might look like, in a few months. If the aliens don’t blow up the world and call it a draw, of course.”

Chapter Forty-One

    True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others, at whatever cost.
    – Arthur Ashe

    The aliens, wisely, had finally imposed a formal curfew on the humans in Austin, but a smart person could avoid being picked up, provided that he was careful. Brent hadn’t lied when he’d claimed to have walked a further distance, but even he had to admit that this time he would be facing more dangerous opponents, if they knew that he was out there. The last time had been facing a group of terrorists who’d given up the chase after a few days, on a mission that had never become public knowledge, but now…now he had to get out of the Red Zone completely.
    He’d planned carefully. The aliens might have the city sealed, but they hadn’t cut off all traffic, not when they needed to move things out of the city. There was a small army of truckers working for them, some semi-willingly, others with their hands cuffed to the steering wheels, and they were granted permission to move in and out of the city, provided their papers were cleared. They were, for the most part, tough men and women and he would have liked to have had them in the open resistance forces, but their current work was too important. The aliens had them moving supplies from their new cities into Austin and shipping back empty containers, one of which now contained his supplies and rucksack.
    “You’d better keep well hidden,” the trucker said, his face a nervous mask. Brent didn’t know his name – it was safer that way – but he’d been tested before and found to be a strong link. He’d actually helped smuggle a few dozen people out of the city before, to one of the refugee camps in the countryside, but this was something different. He could earn one hell of a reward from the aliens if he turned Brent in to them. “The bastards see you, you’re dead.”
    The container – and indeed the entire vehicle – had been rigged, carefully, but Brent still felt exposed…and naked. The one thing he couldn’t take with him was an obvious weapon, not through the checkpoint, although he had placed a pistol in the bottom of his sack. If the aliens found him, they might let him through…as long as they thought he was just some idiot trying to get to the refugee camps. If he were carrying a weapon, it would mark him as a soldier…and a heretic. A handful of other resistance fighters had been charged with betraying their new religion and burned in public, pour encourager les autres. He had no intention of going the same way.
    He felt the dull rumble of the diesel engines as the truck moved down towards the checkpoint. He listened carefully as the aliens gave the truck a quick examination, but they couldn’t go through all of them, not when they were leaving the city. They’d caught quite a few truckers trying to smuggle weapons into the city, but they weren't as careful for departing vehicles, not always. If he’d been betrayed…there was a brief exchange between the driver and the aliens, too low for him to make out the words, and then the truck went back into gear, heading out through the cleared roads, westwards towards the alien city.
    “You can come out now,” the driver hissed. Brent pulled himself out of the container and crawled forward to the cab. He could see the lights of the lead truck in the distance, but little else; the countryside was as dark and silent as the grave. It was unnatural, as if all of humanity had vanished, to be replaced by a world where monsters ruled the night, but there was no time to care. “They won’t bother us until it’s too late.”
    He pointed a finger at the roof. “They’re watching us from up there,” he warned. “You sure you want to do this?”
    Brent looked upwards. The sky seemed alive, the twinkling light of alien craft high overhead…and, to the west, an unnatural glow lighting up the skies. “You want a honest answer to that?” He asked. “I don’t think there’s much choice now. What would they do if they found me when we reached their city?”
    He looked back towards the silent black mass of Austin. “I’ll take my leave now,” he said, as he worked briefly on the door. “Keep your mouth shut and no one will notice.”
    The driver slowed the vehicle and then stopped, as if he was answering a call of nature.. “Good luck,” he said. “God bless America!”
    Brent barely heard him as he leapt from the vehicle, into the darkness. It had been almost impossible to get a clear view of what was waiting for him, but as he landed neatly on the tarmac, he realised that he’d timed it perfectly. The jump had been dangerous, but if the driver had stopped for long, it would have been disastrous. The aliens, watching from high above, might not see him, but they would see the halt. They would start to wonder why.
    He took a moment to take stock, watching as the remaining trucks sped past into the darkness, and took a quick compass reading. He knew, roughly, where he was, but he would still have to walk to the first safe area. He had been tempted to make directly for the border, but as Joshua had pointed out, correctly, it was a long walk. The information had to get to someone who could use it quickly, and that meant taking the risk of travelling to Fort Hood. He hadn’t told Joshua that. It would only have upset him.
    The darkness swallowed him up as he started the walk. Fort Hood was still holding out, if a bitter underground struggle constituted holding out, and the aliens had sealed the area. There were over twenty thousand American soldiers in the area, according to the internet, and the alien attempts to dig them out had, so far, failed completely. Brent was a little surprised the aliens hadn’t simply resorted to nukes, or more KEWs, but given the size of Fort Hood, it would take hundreds of nukes to make a real impact. They had bombed the base once and barely dented the actual danger, as far as they were concerned.
    But he had to make sure that they knew he was coming first. The Special Forces had been busy; they’d set up a whole series of hidden fibre-optic cables all over the Red Zone, using them to stay in touch and try to coordinate their operations. Brent didn’t trust them completely, not when the aliens could have found some – either through coincidence or prisoner interrogation – and that meant that they could have been subverted, but there was no choice. If he went blindly into Fort Hood, he would be lucky to find anyone…and if he did, they might shoot him on sight. That would be embarrassing. The data had been sent to his little resistance cell through the Internet – another detail he had kept from Joshua, although that was mainly from habit rather than any operation security procedure, as by now the aliens were well aware of the Internet – but it might not be easy to find the link.
    If I can’t find it, I might have to make the walk after all, he thought, as he found an isolated path that ran towards the north. He didn’t dare go down and use the roads; if the aliens didn’t spot him, he might blunder into a IED and be blown up by his own side. There was supposed to be a hide around somewhere, one used by the soldiers who prowled the night and hunted aliens, but if they'd found it…
    Dawn was starting to rise when he stumbled across the hide. Someone had been very clever and hidden it from view; the aliens would have to be very lucky to find it, even with directions. He found the entrance, checked it carefully for booby-traps, and opened the hatch. The small electronic panel confronting him lit up and pasted a question for him; which President got a blowjob in the Oval Office? Brent chuckled, clicked on Clinton, and sighed in relief as the bomb defused itself, allowing him to enter the hide. The aliens, even if they got so far, wouldn’t know the answer…although he knew that collaborators would, if the aliens trusted them to hunt their own people.
    Now, he thought, where are you?
    The hide wasn't as sophisticated as some of the ones he’d seen in Iraq. It was barely more than a hole in the ground, hidden from view, with a tiny cache of food, supplies and a single terminal. He took a breath as he activated the terminal, placing his thumb against the screen and waiting for the scanner to confirm his identity, praying that it included his fingerprints in its memory. There had been times when details like that had been missed from terminals, screwing up entire operations or worse, and there was so much that could go wrong. The terminal bleeped, granting access, and opened up for him, revealing a link that stretched all the way back to Washington. He’d seen enough of the systems to believe that they would continue to work, even with Washington’s destruction.
    His hands danced quickly across the keyboard, confirming his identity and sending a message to Fort Hood. The main buildings would have been destroyed, but that wouldn’t worry the soldiers, not the ones hiding out on the grounds. The trick would be to see if he could get there…and if they would be expecting him. It took nearly an hour before a reply arrived, confirming that they could meet him, but he’d have to make it there himself. He checked the location quickly, made a mental note of a route that would take him there by a roundabout route, and settled back into the hide. He’d have to sleep during the day and then make the rest of the journey by night.
    He’d wondered if one of the other resistance units would come to the hide, but none came during the day, allowing him to get several hours of uninterrupted sleep. He awoke as darkness started to fall, ate a small MRE quickly, and then sealed off the hide again before starting the long walk. He was tempted to visit some of the smaller towns on his route, but the aliens would be active there, or they would have driven out the human citizens. He’d picked up the reports about them clearing towns by force, but it had taken Joshua to put two and two together and figure out why; the aliens didn’t just want an invasion, they wanted settlement as well. The towns they’d cleared were probably being demolished already.
    Should just nuke you, you bastards, he thought. The aliens hadn’t, as far as he knew, reached the Pantex Plant in the north of Texas, but if they knew that the only nuclear weapons assembly and disassembly plant was in their grasp, they would certainly try to grab it. The Internet had been silent on just what had happened to the plant, but his imagination filled in all sorts of possibilities, from alien occupation to the plant rigged to blow…to the aliens having bombed it and destroyed the United State’s capability to make new nukes. He hoped that the equipment had been moved, but that wouldn’t be an easy task, certainly not with the alien control of space. Their unearthly glow was still lighting up the skies to the southwest, a reminder of the cities they were building, which meant that they would soon be trying to expand again.
    The thought distracted him from his walk as he skirted all human or alien contact, walking northwards. The aliens had been balked from expanding further into America, but that wouldn’t deter them forever…and there were plenty of weaker countries out there. They’d landed in the Middle East, which couldn’t put up much of a fight against their capabilities, and that gave them access to most of Africa. There were plenty of people in Africa who would have welcomed their arrival, if only because it might actually give them some safety. The Janjaweed couldn’t stop the aliens for a moment…and if they were duly slaughtered, as they would be against any halfway decent military force, the aliens would make one hell of a lot of friends.
    …And then the aliens wouldn’t need the United States anymore.
    He saw a set of lights down on the road and detoured around them, spying the alien patrol from a distance, wishing for a pair of night vision goggles. The aliens seemed to be more on alert – this close to Fort Hood, they were probably terrified of IEDs and the human soldiers who were covering them – and operating on a random schedule, but there was no way to be sure. He didn’t need to be noticed, at least not by them, but if they saw him, they would certainly want to know what he was doing in the area. The Internet had claimed that thousands of refugees had tried to make it to Fort Hood, or out of the Red Zone, and by now he had dumped his ID card. He wasn't going to be stopped now.
    A flash of brilliant white light lit up the sky, followed by a rising explosion and a burst of shooting. It sounded as if the alien patrol had run into trouble. Fighting down the urge to go see what had happened, Brent picked himself up and ran, running as fast as he could over the road and into the sealed area, avoiding the aliens as they moved to respond to the attack. Fort Hood was so large that they couldn’t hope to guard the entire border and, if the reports were to be trusted, they weren’t even trying. He should have passed their forces now, heading into the trees and thickets of the training area, scrambling over the remains of a fence as if the devil himself was after him. Lights and sounds flickered through the night, the noise of alien helicopters – giving Fort Hood a wide berth, he noticed – sending shivers down his spine. He was used to fighting in an urban environment; it had been too long since he’d been to Fort Hood…
    “That’s far enough,” a voice drawled, seemingly out of nowhere. A red dot, barely visible, settled on his chest. “Hands in the air, if you please, and don’t touch any weapons.”
    Brent mentally kicked himself as he raised his hands. A moment later, three soldiers materialised out of nowhere, their weapons raised and covering him. He was impressed with the ambush, although hindsight told him that they’d simply been watching for anyone trying to get into the area with night-vision gear…and he’d been fairly obvious during that final sprint. A pair of strong arms searched him roughly, removing the pistol, his rucksack and a knife.
    “All right,” the soldier growled. Brent was suddenly aware of just what sort of sight he presented. He could have taken one of them in a fight, but all of them? They had every right to be more than a little paranoid of strangers. “Who the hell are you?”
    “SF34,” Brent said. He didn’t have to give out anything else, not yet. “Who the hell are you?”
    “They told us to expect you,” the soldier said. He sounded a great deal friendlier now, but Brent was still very aware of the red dot, now dancing around his heart. “Who was the instructor in unarmed combat during your time at Fork Polk?”
    Brent almost panicked. There were several possible answers. “Sergeant Corso,” he said, finally. The gruff man looked completely harmless…and had thrown soldiers twice his size around as if they were children. “He reported to Captain Harmon, who in turn…”
    “Ok, ok, we got you,” the soldier said. “Come on; we don’t have all day.”
    Fort Hood’s interior felt…freer to Brent. It was certainly a far cry from Austin, where the insurgency had fought the aliens. Here, there were defensive positions everywhere, with tunnels and fallback positions carefully woven into the terrain, backed up by artillery and even a handful of tanks. The men – and a handful of women – looked as if they would never pass another inspection, but they were united by their determination to hold out indefinitely. They were proud of what they’d done, he saw, and he couldn’t blame them. The best the insurgency had done was bleed the aliens badly.
    His guide told him some of the stories as they reached a hidden door, leading down to a bunker complex. Fort Hood had been on alert since the aliens had separated their ship and most of the buildings had been abandoned…and the aliens had barely dented their capabilities, even if – his guide assured him – there had been a lot of very convincing weeping and gnashing of teeth on open channels. They’d come in expecting an easy occupation, ambushed and chased back out again, after which the fighting had settled down to the occasional savage confrontation between the two sides and plenty of insurgency. The bunker system, something that wasn't discussed publicly, had kept Fort Hood alive…and kicking.
    “So that’s what they’re doing,” Colonel Osborn said, when Brent had finally finished his story. He’d regained a little of his own pride when he’d realised that the soldiers were in awe of his own accomplishments, even though neither side had really harmed the aliens enough to make them give up and withdraw. “They’re settling here.”
    He scowled. Brent had been a little surprised to discover that a mere colonel was commanding the defence, but it had turned out that the original commanding officer had been killed by the aliens, although so far it seemed that they didn’t know that.
    “We’ll forward this off to Washington,” he added. “You might have to go with it later. Until then, get some rest. You’ve earned it.”

Chapter Forty-Two

    Always listen to experts. They'll tell you what can't be done, and why. Then do it.
    – Robert A. Heinlein

    “It’s confirmed, then?”
    Paul nodded. The sight of the massive engineering bay, covered with engineers moving, welding and slowly building the spacecraft, awed him. He’d been a frustrated spaceman long before he’d passed his tenth birthday, learning far too quickly that very few people flew the fantastic space shuttles…and that they never went anywhere, and part of him envied Gary Jordan, now a General, beyond words.
    “Yes,” he said, grimly. “They’re landing in Australia.”
    Gary nodded slowly. “And it’s still going to be a week before we’re completely ready to move,” he said. “At least that should keep them busy somewhere on the other side of the world.”
    Paul scowled. The aliens had fallen on Australia one morning and, according to the handful of reports, were securing their landing zones now in the centre of the country. The Australian Army had put up a fight, but the aliens had stamped on them from orbit with the same power they’d brought to bear on America and the Middle East, forcing the remainder of the army to go underground and carry on an insurgency. Australia was hardly as disarmed as Europe, but with far fewer people and far fewer sources of supplies, he didn’t know how long an insurgency could last. They would have made the same kind of preparations as other armies had been making, even since the lessons from Texas had started to sink in, but would they be effective? No one knew for sure.
    He cast his gaze around the dissembled spacecraft. “A week?” He asked. It seemed implausible somehow. “Are you sure?”
    “Oh, yes,” Gary said. “Really, the guy who invented these things was a genius who didn’t have to work for a bunch of idiots who knew nothing about risk and cared only for pork barrel funding. A few hundred parts, each one easy to make with the right equipment…and all we have to do is put them together like a jigsaw to build a flying spacecraft. It’s far more impressive than I can say; if part of one spacecraft went down, we could cannibalise parts from another to keep it flying, without much in the way of compatibility issues.”
    He led the way over to a set of strange-looking modules. “The shuttle that crashed in our territory was a cargo and passenger ship,” he explained. “They were actually capable of carrying quite a bit of cargo and we’ve replaced all of that with weapons. It’s going to make landing a bit more dangerous than it would be for them, but with the parachutes in the nosecone, we should be able to get back down safely. Of course, if we don’t actually win, our chances of survival will be about the same as a meat-eater at the annual tofu-munch convention, but…”
    Paul grinned. “How many volunteers did you have?”
    “Thousands,” Gary said. “Pretty much every surviving USAF pilot wanted in, along with the remaining astronauts, navy and Marine flyers. We put them all through the training period – it’s lucky we have your lady friend; simulating flight was actually quite difficult without her help – and put the best ones to work, simulating attack vectors. So much needs to be done carefully – we can’t really plan this too much – but if luck is with us, we should be able to hurt them.”
    Paul nodded. “And the remainder of the gear?”
    “I’ll show you,” Gary said, leading him out of the underground hanger and into another large room. A pile of newly recovered alien equipment lay on the table, being sorted out by a group of young engineers, while a second table had several alien suits lying on them. Gary nodded towards the pile of equipment. “Looks crude, doesn’t it?”
    “Yes,” Paul said. “Why…?”
    “You’ve never been in combat, have you?” Gary asked. Paul said nothing. It was shameful, at least to him, to admit it, but he’d spent his whole life in the military and had never been shot at or fired a bullet in anger. “Trust me; the Pentagon buys a lot of crap that promises the heavens and the earths, but is hell on the battlefield users. The guys in procurement tell the designers to fuck off and they bitch loudly to their congressman, who takes a large bribe and orders the army or the fighter jocks or whoever to accept it. Oh, they’re not always that bad, but…most of them tend to have flaws that need to be edited out, somehow.”
    His eyes lit up with the glow of enthusiasm. “Now, take the AK-47, preferred weapon of rag-headed punks from one end of the world to the other,” he continued. “It’s simple, easy to learn and can take one hell of a lot of mistreatment by illiterate ditch-diggers before it craps out. This technology, Colonel, is an alien version of the AK-47; they could build handheld lasers and other really nifty shit, but would it be usable on the battlefield? This stuff may be crude, but it works.”
    “But it can be countered, right?” Paul asked. “We can get around their tech.”
    “Oh, of course,” Gary said. “Some of their weapons are actually inferior to ours; the handful of their sniper rifles are far inferior to ours, but don’t let that fool you. In the hands of someone who knows what they’re doing, a blunderbuss is a lethal weapon. Their night-vision gear is also inferior, but we’ve actually had reports that they’ve been improving theirs or deploying newer stuff…and they have the distant advantages of not needing to worry about how much damage they do to their surroundings. Who cares? It’s all going to be knocked down, right?”
    “So it seems,” Paul said, tightly. The images from Texas were far from reassuring. “If they keep expanding at their current rate, they’ll be knocking down Austin before too long.”
    “I bet that will make the people unhappy,” Gary said, lightly. He grinned as he paced over to the other table. “Now this” – he lifted up one of the alien suits – “is sheer genius. There just isn’t any other word.”
    Paul studied the garment thoughtfully. He’d seen images, pictures and videos, of the alien stormtroopers, but it was the first time he’d actually seen one of their outfits. It seemed to be composed of slinky silk, something that just shimmied over his hands, like liquid oil. It felt weird to the touch, as if he wasn't touching anything at all, almost as if it wasn’t really there.
    “I give up,” he said, finally. “What the hell is it?”
    “Buggered if I know,” Gary said. “We had a few dozen materials experts, scientists, even a pair of fashion designers in here and they took two of them to pieces, only to discover that it’s something well beyond our current capabilities. You want to know what this baby can do?”
    Paul lifted an eyebrow. “Show me.”
    “Watch,” Gary said. He made a fist and waved it in front of the alien garment in a threatening style. “Take that, you…illegal alien.”
    He thumped the garment, which made a metallic sound. Paul stared as Gary rubbed his hand. “That always hurts,” he said. “Somehow, you hit this thing with enough force, it hardens instantly, hard enough to repel the attack. You can cut it with a knife, if you try, but come in too hard and it just hardens. We’re lucky they didn’t manage to get the tech even tougher; this stuff is better than our body armour already and if it had been better…well, invincible alien warriors would have kicked our butts all over the world.”
    “But they can be killed,” Paul protested. “I mean…the wearer of this one doesn’t need it anymore, does he?”
    “No,” Gary said. “Bullets do get through, mainly headshots, although the armour is far from perfect. The interesting thing is what else it does. It provides near-complete protection from chemical weapons, for one thing, somehow filtering them all out before they can reach the alien inside. There is a breather here” – he pointed to a spot under the mask – “that filters out anything dangerous, or merely irritating. I imagine that some chemical weapons, the basic ones if nothing else, will work on unprotected aliens, but so far no one has let us test them on the alien captives.”
    “I don’t think that that would be a good idea,” Paul said, dryly. “If we take one of their Inquisitors alive, feel free to do whatever you like to him, but we need the others.”
    “Sooner or later, someone is going to pull off a chemical strike on one of their settlements,” Gary said. “They don’t wear the armour all the time; hell, their women go around topless. Something simple is going to have an effect, but what?”
    “Knowing our luck, it will probably give them superpowers,” Paul joked. “Anything else that’s come out of R &D?”
    “Microwaves,” Gary said. He smiled thinly. “There is a school of thought that believes that we can use microwaves to really mess up their day. The designers are currently working on something we can test in the field, as the President has banned testing them on any of our prisoners, and when we have a working model, it’ll be tested. Just imagine a group of alien infantry, running along, when suddenly the liquid in their legs starts to boil. It’s based around a crowd-control weapon, one that can drive entire crowds away, so it’s workable…but we don’t know how much protection their suits will provide. We’ll just have to test it and see.”
    He put down the suit and scowled. “That’s something that we won’t have for the offensive, I’m afraid,” he said. “It’s going to be at least two weeks before we have it ready to go…”
    “Never mind,” Paul said. It wasn't a weapon that could be used on all of the aliens at once. The real priority, now, was weapons that could be used against the spacecraft in orbit. If they could be destroyed, despite the vast damage inflicted on America, they could liberate Texas in fairly short order. “Have you prepared the special suits?”
    Gary nodded. “There’s one rather small problem with them,” he admitted, as he led the way into yet another way. “We don’t move like the aliens. The first three will be alright, as they will be worn by aliens, but the minute they see the others moving, they will smell a rather large rat. How do you intend to solve that?”
    “Leave that to us,” Paul assured him. The fewer people who knew that, the better; no one knew how far the aliens might have compromised their security. There were far too many people who had had relatives in Texas, perhaps now in alien hands. “Are you sure that you can have all the craft ready to fly on schedule?”
    “Yep,” Gary said. “Hell, we could fly in twenty-four hours, if you want. It’s just a question of fitting everything together and then we can fly.”
    “Good work,” Paul said. He paused. “Are you sure that you want to fly the mission in person?”
    “I’m the most experienced spaceman the United States has left,” Gary said. “I did think about taking one of the aliens along with us, but that…might provide too much temptation for them.” He paused suddenly. “Do you really trust them?”
    “I think so,” Paul said. “You know, in all of the skirmishes along the Red Zone’s border, not a one has ever surrendered? That fits in with what Femala told us; they kill male prisoners without mercy.”
    “They took prisoners from us,” Gary said, thoughtfully. “Have you considered that?”
    “They’re being worked to death,” Paul said. The images taken by the insurgents had been spread across the world, awakening a new desire to fight on, whatever the cost. The aliens had been doing the same in the Middle East and probably Australia, working the human prisoners to death. The soldiers, sailors and airmen might have been in the best of health when they’d been captured, but after nearly three months, they’d be dropping like flies. “I don’t think that that counts as the softly-softly approach.”
    “No,” Gary said. “Still, they’re not human, and so…I don’t trust them, not completely.”
    “Without them, we could never have gotten this far,” Paul reminded him. “We don’t have to trust them, but we need them.”
    “One week,” Gary mused. “One week…to victory, or certain destruction.”

***

    “Everything’s gone silent,” Joshua complained, examining the laptop. The Internet was the same as always, on the surface, but more than a few voices had gone silent. “What happened to him?”
    Tessa shrugged from her seat, watching over his shoulder. He was very aware of her presence…and how she could break him in half without really trying. His former life hadn’t prepared him for female Special Forces soldiers, particularly ones who told him tales about how she’d infiltrated some terrorist’s harem and killed him when he'd summoned her to his bed. Her stories were so complex and strange that he really didn’t know if she was telling the truth, or merely playing games with his mind.
    “He might well have made it,” she said, dryly. “He said he’d send a signal when he made it, so…just wait and see.”
    “History is being made out there,” Joshua protested. “History…and I’m stuck here.”
    “Is that a reporter’s spider sense?” Tessa asked. “You’re stuck here because the aliens would cut off your head the moment they laid eyes on you. I’m stuck here because the Captain told us to keep our heads down for a while before we tried to make any other aliens regret ever landing on Earth. If history is being made, it’s being made elsewhere and we’re on the substitutes bench.”
    Joshua scowled as an explosion rattled the windows. “Someone didn’t get the stop order,” he said. “Was that one of yours?”
    “No one could really control the insurgency,” Tessa admitted. “The aliens will break one cell and discover that they don’t have any links to other cells. It should drive them mad.”
    “Being here is driving me mad,” Joshua protested. He knew he sounded petulant, but he couldn’t help it. “I’m bored.”
    “Something will happen soon,” Tessa assured him. “Just wait and see.”

***

    “One week,” the President said, staring down at the map. The Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean was covered with little icons. “One week.”
    “We have to get moving now,” Paul said. “Once we get all the pieces in play, we won’t be able to stop, or parts of the operation will go ahead anyway and fail.”
    The President looked up at him. “And what are the odds of success or failure?”
    “Fifty-fifty,” Paul admitted. “There are some parts of the plan that might fail, and fail spectacularly, but we’d still have a chance. If both of the vital parts fail, then the aliens will have won the battle and know, exactly, what we tried to do. That will certainly draw a response from them that we won’t like.”
    “They could go after the remaining cities,” the President mused. “If we try and fail…should we cancel the operation?”
    Paul hesitated. “No, Mr President,” he said. “We should go ahead and pray.”
    The President lifted an eyebrow. “Risking the lives of every American…and indeed all six billion people on Earth?”
    “We cannot win without changing the power balance and reclaiming command of space,” Paul said. “If we let them stay up there, they can finish us off at their leisure. We might come up with new weapons and tactics, but none of them can prevent them from crushing us from orbit, hammering us into submission with asteroids, or even developing a bioweapon of their own and exterminating us. If we don’t move, we run the risk…no, we will be permanently subordinated on our own planet.”
    “And if the plan works?” The President asked. “If we have to push it right to the bitter end, we’re talking genocide. They’ll put me up there with Hitler, Pol Pot and everyone else who thought it would be a good idea to slaughter a few million people they didn’t like. I could be condemning a billion of them to death.”
    “No,” Paul said. Femala hadn’t been clear on the program for moving as many aliens down to Earth as possible, but judging from the reports, millions of aliens had already been landed in Texas and the Middle East. “They’re emptying their starship now.”
    “And the remainder will be down on the planet, at our mercy,” the President said. “Do we have the right to kill them all?”
    “Perhaps we can come to some accommodation,” Paul said. “Mr President, they’ve killed millions of us…and there are six billion of us. There are uncounted trillions of them out across the stars, but Earth is the only place where there are humans. We have to move now, or we will end up as slaves – or exterminated. What right do they have to survive at our expense?”
    “Forty-years from now, they will paint my name with red, like they did for Bomber Harris,” the President said. He had been something of a historian in his youth before he had turned to politics. “The person who made the decision to attempt to commit genocide to save a larger number of people. Do you think that that is right?”
    Paul said nothing.
    “But you’re right,” the President concluded. “The attack has to be launched and…we have to try to stop them, to force them to surrender on our terms. If we don’t, the alliance, such as it is, will come crashing down and humanity’s unity will be a thing of the past. Give the orders, Colonel, and put everything in motion.”
    “Yes, Mr President,” Paul said. “Will you be monitoring from the Situation Room?”
    “A week,” the President said. “That’s almost a lifetime in politics. If I’m still President by that time, I’ll watch. It’s time that a President took responsibility. The buck stops here, after all.”

Chapter Forty-Three

    Deception in wartime is always confusing. You can deceive yourself as well as the enemy. That can be embarrassing – and dangerous.
    – Anon

    It was impossible, both sides had concluded, for an area the size of the Red Zone to be sealed off completely. Defences, barricades and other surprises could be avoided by any advancing force, so both sides pulled back and skirmished along the borders, rather than glaring at each other over a fence. The main alien forces were held back a kilometre into the Red Zone, perfectly positioned to intercept any detected force crossing No Man’s Land, while patrols moved up and down the line, watching for human insurgents. Their crews were getting better at spotting human infiltrators and reacting to them…
    The Marines weren't trying to hide. The oversized platoon had carefully charted out the alien patrol routes and, once the last patrol had passed, had slipped into position and deployed to meet the coming patrol. As soon as it showed itself, the Marines opened fire, slamming a pair of Javelin missiles into the alien infantry vehicles, while their snipers picked off the alien infantry as they dismounted and struggled to return fire. The handful of remaining aliens crouched behind the remains of their vehicles, screaming desperately for help, while expecting the humans to break contact and retreat, as they had done several times before. The humans had learned that maintaining contact brought helicopters and alien tanks rapidly to the scene, which meant certain death, but this time the Marines didn’t run. As the alien helicopters swooped down, two of the Marines opened fire with Stinger missiles, blowing both of the helicopters out of the sky. They crashed down, their explosions providing cover for five of the Marines, who got into firing position and dispatched the remaining aliens.
    The Sergeant made a bird call and started to retreat. The others followed, two of them pausing to rig up a pair of grenades to the remains of the alien IFVs, just to give the aliens pause. The alien engineers could rebuild some of the vehicles, as American vehicles had been repaired in Iraq, and while there wasn’t time to smash them completely beyond repair, they could be booby-trapped. The onrushing alien unit, almost the size of a Marine Company, wouldn’t have a chance to catch them, but would have to spend it’s time looking for threats. It looked like a serious attack, one alarming enough to cause the aliens to rush reinforcements to the threatened area…and take them away from elsewhere. The Marines melted away into the darkness, leaving the aliens behind…

***

    “You want me to do what?”
    “Get into the alien spaceport and steal one of their shuttles,” Captain Andrew Stocker said. Brent had read the paper report on him – it wasn't something that could be sent over the military communications network, just in case the aliens had gained access and were reading everything passed along the wires – and had been impressed, but at the same time he would have preferred the remainder of SF34. They might have been reduced, but they were used to working together. “We already have the pilots” – he nodded to a pair of humans who might have been wearing BDUs, but didn’t look like soldiers – “and some inside help.”
    Brent stared. The two aliens stared back at him. It had been the closest he'd ever been to an unmasked alien and his instincts had screamed kill! The very concept of the aliens turning on their own kind surprised him, but was it really that unusual? Humans always saw other groups as monolithic, but he’d had enough experience to know that that was very rarely the case and you could always find someone who would turn on their fellows, for money or protection or women or just for revenge. The hunt for terrorists wouldn’t have been as effective without so many terrorists being willing to turn on their friends and allies; honour, it seemed, was alien to them.
    He looked up at Stocker. “Are you sure they can be trusted?”
    “We’re part of the American Clan now,” the lead alien said. The sibilant voice sent chills down Brent’s spine. He hadn’t realised how much the mask altered their voices. “You welcomed us when others would kill us.”
    You don’t know the half of it, Brent thought, remembering how many attacks on the aliens had been motivated by a desire for revenge. The two aliens might not know it, but they were luckier than they deserved to be, really; they’d been recovered by someone smart enough to understand the value of prisoners. The aliens were normally unwilling to allow themselves to be taken prisoner and tended to keep fighting when a human unit would have been trying to surrender.
    “Very well,” Brent said, finally. “How do you intend to get into the spaceports? They’re the most heavily guarded places in the entire Red Zone. The collaborators who go into them only do so under heavy guard.” He felt a moment of pleasure at that, because it meant that some of the collaborators the aliens had accepted had turned out to be rather untrustworthy. “Perhaps if we…”
    He looked down at the aliens. “With their help, it might be possible to get in, but then…how do we reach the spacecraft?”
    A thought blossomed out in his mind. “Perhaps it can be done after all,” he said. “How long do we have to make preparations?”
    “Three days,” Stocker said. He nodded towards one of his men, who was carrying a heavy backpack. “If worst comes to worst, we have one hell of a surprise for the aliens here.”
    “Good,” Brent said. Three days meant that there wouldn’t be time to call upon the remainder of his people. They’d have to stay on the sidelines for this battle. “Tell me the rest of the plan and then let’s start working on the practicalities.”
    The next hour was one of the strangest in his life…and that was saying something, considering all he'd done since joining the army and being streamlined into Special Forces. The two aliens might not have known specifics – it was clear that interrogation was a common feature of their treatment of prisoners – but they were a gold mine of data on how the aliens reacted when faced with specific situations. Their training, Brent wasn't surprised to discover, had been almost entirely theoretical, although the occupation of Texas had rapidly sorted out the alien infantrymen who wouldn’t, or couldn’t, learn. Their security measures had been limited to preventing humans from breaking into their complexes, not their fellows, a blindspot that Brent intended to exploit. If they could cause enough panic…
    “It should work,” he conceded, finally. It wasn't as if there was much time left, after all; once enough aliens had landed, they wouldn’t need collaborators any more. They might decide to start expanding the Red Zone, or perhaps they would simply slaughter all of the remaining humans. The two aliens had reacted with horror to the concept, but the humans hadn’t been responding well to The Truth and Brent rather suspected that the aliens had a time limit. If humans didn’t become Truthful – he smiled thinly at the pun – they could probably be legally massacred. “Go get some sleep. When the shit hits the fan, we want to be ready.”
    Three days later, the insurgents were lurking along the remains of a road. The aliens swept it regularly for IEDs and other surprises, assuming correctly that the insurgents would mine the road just to cause a little disruption and chaos, but this time there was a different surprise. The truckers working for the aliens were transporting alien supplies from the spaceport, but heading back empty. The aliens didn’t bother to provide any proper escort for the returning vehicles, knowing that the insurgents knew that there was nothing in the trucks, and that the truckers knew that their families were under guard. It had only taken a pair of executions to get the message across.
    “I’ve got an IFV and two outriders,” Jack muttered, from his position. The aliens had provided just enough escorts to make matters complicated. Brent was almost relieved; if there had been no escorting units, he would have smelled a rat, and if it had been heavily escorted, mounting the attack would have been impossible. “Orders, sir?”
    “Take out the IFV as soon as it gets within range,” Brent muttered back. The other insurgent units in the area should have received their orders to stay well clear and prepare for the assault on the spaceport, but not all of the units were under direct command, from Fort Hood or anyone. There were too many loners out there taking pot shots at aliens and their collaborators. Like most advantages, it was a disadvantage at the most irritating times. “Matthew, Luke, are you ready?”
    “Yes, sir,” the sibilant alien voice said. They'd chosen new human names, for reasons that made sense to them and little to him, but it was still difficult to tell the difference between them. “We’re ready.”
    The LAW lit up the night as it was fired directly into the IFV. The alien vehicle, caught by surprise, exploded into a billowing fireball, while the trucks skidded to a halt, knowing that it was useless to run. Some of the truckers would probably be wishing that they’d been allowed to keep their weapons, just to save their vehicles from the insurgents and their families from the aliens, but others would almost welcome the attack. The aliens dismounted rapidly from the outriders, firing into the darkness, only to be picked off quickly and efficiently by the snipers. So far, at least, the attack had been textbook perfect.
    Brent winced. Now came the real challenge. “Follow me,” he snapped, and ran towards the lead truck. The driver was already opening the doors, although it wasn't clear if he wanted to fight or beg for mercy. “You, what are you carrying?”
    “Nothing,” the driver said. Brent looked into his eyes and read his story; his family hostages, his truck used against his country…and the relief that came with knowing that there was no longer any need to make the terrible choice. “They’re all empty.”
    “Just get back into the driving seat,” Brent snapped. They ran through the remaining seven trucks, checking that they were empty – the aliens had ambushed them before with ‘empty’ vehicles – and then returned to the original cab. “You need to drive on to the spaceport, understand?”
    The driver didn’t. “But…”
    “But nothing,” Brent snapped. He drew his knife and held it to the driver’s throat. It would have been much easier if one or all of the drivers had been insurgent sources, but there had been no way to make sure of that. “They’re going to think you’re in with us, so do as I tell you and your family will have a chance to live, understand?”
    “…Yes,” the driver said, finally.
    “Good,” Brent said. He looked across at Luke. “Do your stuff.”
    Luke put the alien radio, recovered from one of the outriders, to his mouth and started to talk. Brent had never heard the alien language before, apart from a handful of shouts from dying aliens, and merely listening to it made him shiver. No wonder the aliens were so confident of their security; human mouths simply couldn’t make the same sounds, no matter how hard they tried. The die was cast now, whatever else happened; the aliens would know that at least one of them had been taken prisoner and had gone over to the human side.
    The driver blinked as Luke finished speaking. “What did he say?”
    Luke’s voice was softer than normal. “I told them that we’d been attacked, but that we’d beaten the attackers off and the survivors got into the trucks,” he said. The driver gave the alien a sidelong look as he put the truck into gear and moved back onto the road. “They should buy it long enough to reach the spaceport.”
    “All the bullet holes will be very convincing,” Brent agreed. It was a shame they couldn’t risk a radio transmission – he wanted to check in with the rest of his team – but he was prepared to move. If the assault on the spaceport went in as planned – and, all of a sudden, it seemed like the stupidest idea he'd ever had – they would have their chance. “I’m sorry about the danger, but…”
    “Man, if you can do something about my family, I’d help you blow the spaceport up myself,” the driver said. “How much explosives have you put in the trucks?”
    Brent smiled, but said nothing. A pair of alien helicopters flew past, probably examining them, but much to his relief, they didn’t insist on the convoy pausing for inspection. He would have done that, if he’d been in command, but that wouldn’t have been safe. The priority would be to get the trucks back to a properly secured location and then search them, just in case. The spaceport was the closest secured location…and, although the aliens didn’t know, it was about to become a great deal less safe.
    “There,” the driver said. “That's their spaceport.”
    Brent wasn't sure what he had expected, but images taken by insurgents had revealed that the spaceport had once been a private airfield, one that had been used by several large corporations and their personnel for some reason. The aliens had overrun it during the first landings, repaired it – after having bombed it from orbit with a KEW during their arrival – and turned it into a spaceport. Even now, in the darkness, Brent could see several alien shuttles climbing up into space.
    “They must trust their pilots,” he remarked to Luke, as he slipped into a hiding place. The aliens had two fences surrounding the spaceport and, unless he missed his guess, they would be shown into the first, but held there until they were checked out. “Has there ever been a collision?”
    “Not as far as I know,” Luke said. He made a complex signal with his fingers and the alien guards waved them through. “We’re committed now, boss.”
    “Yes,” Brent said, taking the risk of looking around. Luke was right; they weren't in a good position at all, defence wise. The trucks were coming to a halt now, but as soon as the aliens searched them, they would be discovered. “We are…”
    The first mortars fired as one, hurling shells over the fence and into the guard posts. A spread of missiles followed, blasting guard towers and alien vehicles alike, shredding alien defences as if they were made of paper. A high-pitched noise started to echo out over the complex as the aliens responded to the attack; for a long moment, they took their eyes off the trucks.
    “Move,” Brent snapped, and jumped out of the cab. The remainder of the force was already deploying, halfway inside the alien defences and storming the remaining guard posts. They had to be taken quickly, before the aliens could react, or they would all be caught in a killing zone. “Luke, with me!”
    The Rangers had been cooped up in Fort Hood – if one could call that cooped up – for three months. They attacked the aliens directly, smashing through the guards and securing the entrance, throwing it open for the remainder of the insurgent force outside. Brent ignored it, keeping his group together and looking for their target, an alien ship sitting on the tarmac, waiting for permission to take out.
    He keyed his radio quickly. “Take out the command centre, now,” he snapped. One way or another, the cat was firmly out of the bag. A moment later, a shell from a mortar crashed down on the former air traffic control building, shattering it and bringing it down in a wave of bricks. “The pilots, with me!”
    The aliens didn’t seem to need NASA’s massive hangers and launch frameworks. Their craft needed as little preparation as a helicopter; the only sign of anything that might be needed for the launch was a small moveable stairwell, like one from a major airport. He ran towards it, keeping his head down as alien forces responded to the attack, praying under his breath that they weren't seen. By now, the insurgents would be attacking as many of the alien bases and antiaircraft sites as they could, trying to suppress them all…and risking everything in the attack. If they lost this time, the insurgency would have shot it’s bolt, at least for a few months. He threw himself up the stairs and into the small alien cabin, discarding his weapon and drawing his knife as he swarmed up into the cockpit.
    One of the aliens turned to draw a weapon with astonishing speed, but Brent threw his knife, neatly punching it through the alien’s head. They’d thought that they were safe, he realised; none of them had worn armour. The other two were stunned, staring at the humans bursting into their craft, and were quickly killed. Their bodies were moved down to the cabin below while the pilots jumped into the seats and started work.
    Brent leaned forward. “Are you sure that you can fly this thing?”
    “If I can’t, we’re all about to die,” Thomas Pearson shouted back. His hands danced across the alien system. “We worked endlessly on the captured ship, but do you know how complex this is?”
    Brent glanced down at his watch. “No, but if we don’t move now, we’ll lose our window,” he snapped. The aliens were counterattacking in strength now, driving away the imprudent insurgents…and it wouldn’t be long before they realised that their shuttle had been boarded. “Move!”
    “I am declaring an emergency,” the pilot said, in a glacial tone. “Sit down, now, and brace yourself!”
    Brent sat. A moment later, he felt as if the weight of the world had suddenly come down on him.
    “We’re on our way,” Pearson said. Brent could only wince under the pressure. The pilot seemed all too happy about it. “We’re on our way to space.”

Chapter Forty-Four

    What's the point of having nukes if you can't use them?
    – Coop, Megas XLR

    The timer ticked steadily down to zero.
    “Ten minutes,” the Captain said, finally. The USS Kentucky had been on station for nearly a week, waiting for the signal. It had come, finally, and placed the submarines on warning; at the precise time, they were to fire all of their missiles at a specific coordinate and then scatter. “Mr Exec, if you would do the honours?”
    The Exec was as pale as his commander…and not because of the conditions deep underwater. Kentucky had been on a long patrol before the aliens arrived and now was one of the United States few remaining bargaining chips. The crew knew, all too well, that if they surfaced for too long, they would be picked off from orbit…and that they might never be able to go home. Submarine crewmen were used to long deployment, but no one had really believed that they would never be able to go home, not even if there was an all-out nuclear war. There would always be somewhere to go, but now, if they surfaced anywhere, they could be destroyed without warning.
    “I have a targeting coordinate for Texas, USA,” he said, formally. “Mr Navigator, are we in the correct position?”
    “Aye, sir,” the Navigation Officer said. The missiles had been reprogrammed as soon as they had received the orders, perhaps the final orders they would ever receive, but they were useless without an accurate position fix. In one sense, it hardly mattered, as long as it looked as if the warheads were going to come down in the midst of the Red Zone, but submarine crewmen were perfectionists. A nuke that went off-course could really ruin someone’s day. “I have an accurate fix and I have updated the missiles accordingly.”
    The Captain took a breath as the timer entered its final countdown. “I have an authorised launch code,” he said, to the Exec. “Do you concur?”
    “I concur,” the Exec said. Trembling hands inserted a key into the correct socket. Only the Captain knew that the Exec had had friends in the Red Zone, friends he might be condemning to death. “Mr Navigator?”
    “I concur,” the Navigator said. His face was blank, unwilling to accept what they were about to do. He inserted his own key and tried to smile. It didn’t work. “May God forgive us.”
    “I concur,” the Engineering Officer said. The Weapons Officer followed him in concurring. “Captain?”
    The Captain glanced once at the timer and then composed himself. They’d had to rewrite several modules of programming, digging up old programs from the Cold War, back when it was all-too-possible that there was a Russian submarine closing in on their position, ready to sink them before the bundles of death were launched towards Russian targets. The irony was almost killing him; there might have been Russian submarines in the area – hell, there were Russian submarines in the area – but they were friendly. The Redshirts, as far as anyone knew, didn’t have submarines. They had orbiting Rods From God instead and if one of them hit the submarine, they were dead…
    “Insert keys,” the Captain said, to the two who hadn’t inserted their keys. “On my mark…mark!” The keys were twisted almost as one. The weapons were now armed and very dangerous. The Kentucky carried twenty-four Trident II D-5 Ballistic Missiles and they were going to launch them all as fast as possible. The noise of the tubes rapidly filling with water could be heard throughout the boat. “Weapons?”
    “All tubes are flooded and ready to fire,” the Weapons Officer said. His voice shook slightly, but training still held. The Captain watched him carefully; he'd known people who collapsed during drills, despite knowing that they were drills. No one’s behaviour could be really predicted until they faced a real test…and by then, it could be too late. The Weapons Officer touched a covered button and opened it. “Timer now at twenty seconds and counting down.”
    “The responsibility is mine,” the Captain said, as calmly as he could. The Weapons Officer looked relieved; the Captain made a mental note to ensure that he had as much of a break as was possible on the submarine. He would have offered drink, but it was forbidden onboard American submarines. “Ten seconds…”
    The timer ran down. “Firing,” he said, and pushed down on the button. There was a dull rumble as the first missile was blasted into the water, and then it’s drive ignited, safely behind the boat. The second followed, and then the third, until the Captain thought that the entire boat would shake itself apart. They’d betrayed their location now and their only hope was that the aliens didn’t have anything overhead to react to them before they could hide. The shaking stopped suddenly and everything was quiet.
    “Evasive action,” the Captain barked. They had exposed themselves now. “Sonar?”
    “They all fired,” the Sonar officer said. The young man looked shaken by what he’d just heard through the computers. “I counted over two hundred missiles, fired into the air…and no sign of any enemy retaliation.”
    The Captain closed his eyes. Thirty missile boats – American, French, British, Russian and even – finally – a Chinese and Indian boat – firing all of their missiles towards Texas. If God was with them, the aliens would have very little to intercept them in their boost phase…and they would have to shift their orbital positions. They’d see the missiles, of course, but would they react the right way? It didn’t matter any longer, not to him; USS Kentucky was out of the war now.
    “Take us down,” he ordered, knowing that the remainder of the small squadron would be doing the same. “Run silent, run deep…”
    And hope that we can make the rendezvous, he thought, silently. If we can’t…

***

    The High Priest had been studying the plans for the expanded settlements in the Middle East when the first reports of the attacks down in America had come in. He hadn’t been unduly worried, despite the somewhat panicky tone of newcomers to Earth who hadn’t faced the humans before, but it was possible that the humans intended to launch a second attack. The orbiting spies hadn’t picked up anything that might suggest that the humans had massed another attack force – although it had turned out that nothing they picked up from human radio could be entirely trusted – but the humans were masters at camouflage. He’d issued orders for the parasite ships to prepare to repel any armoured advance and for reinforcements to advance out to help secure the border – now that the settlement process was underway, they could no longer trade space for time – and turned back to the other matters. By now, the War Priests and their subordinates had the experience to handle the humans without his direct intervention.
    The second report had shocked him back to the issue. They’d learned about human missile-launching submarines – a concept the Takaina had never actually invented – when they’d been used to attack the Texas Foothold and the orbiting ships with EMP, but they’d thought that they had destroyed them all. The reports had obviously been exaggerated, the High Priest decided, as the new missile tracks started to rise up from the trackless wastes of the oceans, reaching for orbit.
    Smart of them, the High Priest thought coldly, as the tracks kept rising. He thought, for a moment, that the humans were actually intending to attack Guiding Star itself, or one of the starship’s sections, but the missile tracks weren't aimed at the starship. It was almost a pity – the missiles were slow and Guiding Star’s point defence would have picked them off before they became a danger, even if they were armed with nukes – but instead, the missiles were aimed at Texas. For a moment, the High Priest couldn’t believe his own eyes; they had to be out of their minds! There were millions of humans – and Takaina settlers – in the targeted zone…and the insurgents had been knocking down their local air defence units. The warheads would fall to Earth and detonate, burning Texas down to bedrock…and slaughtering everyone within the area.
    “They’re mad,” he breathed. There was time, yes, there was time, but barely enough to react. He opened his channel to the war room. No one would dare not to take his call unless Guiding Star himself was under attack. “War Leader, move the parasite ships from their patrol positions to intercept the missiles before they can scatter their warheads.”
    “Yes, Your Holiness,” the War Leader said. “Should we move, also, to defend the settlements in the Middle East?”
    They, the High Priest saw, were also coming under attack. “Do so,” he ordered. If the humans intended to destroy Texas, they might intend to destroy the Middle East as well, even though they needed the oil. It was insanity, as far as he could tell, but so much about the human race made no sense. If they had needed the oil so badly, why hadn’t they thrown out the previous owners, or converted them to their own religion? How many submarines were left, anyway? “Order the parasites to hunt down the remaining submarines and teach them a lesson.”
    “Yes, Your Holiness,” the War Leader said. The High Priest could hear his subordinates barking orders in the background. The Takaina Warriors were responding to the new challenge…and, soon, the humans would discover that they’d made a mistake. They’d wasted a lot of very expensive, even in human terms, missiles…for nothing. “The parasite ships are on their way now.”
    “Good,” the High Priest said. There would be time enough, after the missiles had been wiped out, to punish the people who’d fired them. There were more missiles than the Americans could muster, if the details they’d recovered from Texas were correct, involved in the attack, which meant that the other human powers were involved. They would pay for their impudence in due time. “I want those missiles wiped out now.”
    The War Leader paused. “There were five shuttles rising from the Texas Foothold when the attack began,” he said, thoughtfully. “Do you wish them diverted to the parasite ships, or to the settlement ship?”
    “No,” the High Priest said, after a moment’s thought. The vast stores of war material on the battle section of Guiding Star would be needed in Texas, and they were running out of landing cones. It was a pity that they were use-once items, but not even the humans had invented a drive that could lift things that size to orbit, although there were some interesting thoughts in their engineering journals. Once the war was won, the Takaina would study them and try to develop them for further expansion. “We will need the shuttles here.”
    He linked into the main communications network and watched, dispassionately, as the warriors raced to defend the footholds. The warriors remaining in orbit were, even now, bracing themselves for a possible emergency deployment to Texas, if the humans actually did manage to mount a serious attack, with a handful of parasite ships coming in to dock to provide transport. Others were being diverted to deal with the missiles threat from the humans…
    Soon, he thought. They had three footholds, two of them effectively impregnable and the third well on the way to becoming firmly subjected to their rule. Soon, we will rule…

***

    “We picked up the FLASH signal from Madagascar,” Paul said, as the Situation Room screen updated itself frantically. The aliens were lighting up their drives in orbit, reacting to something, but it wasn't until they got the signal through the landline that they knew that the missiles had actually flown. “They launched, Mr President.”
    The President stared bleakly at him. Two hundred missiles, most of them carrying at least four nuclear warheads, were flying through space towards Texas. If even one of them landed on a populated area, the consequences could be devastating. The insurgents had even tried to force the aliens hand by assaulting the ground-based laser stations that would normally have served in an ABM role, which meant that they had exposed their own citizens to nuclear fire.
    “They launched,” Paul repeated. “Mr President…”
    “I heard,” the President snapped. He looked up at the display showing the alien ships in orbit, moving with a stately elegance. “Is it time for Phase Two?”
    “Just about,” Paul said, watching the timer. The aliens weren't creatures armed with advanced technology that looked like magic; they, like the human race, had to obey the laws of orbital mechanics. Turning in space to react to new developments on the ground would be almost impossible. They had to move just a little further. “We’re committed now, sir.”
    “I know,” the President said. “We were committed the moment we started the offensive.”
    Paul nodded. The timer finished its second countdown. “Mr President, it’s time to start,” he said. “May we proceed?”
    “Proceed,” the President said. Both of them knew that it had already begun. “May God go with us.”
    “That’s what they’re thinking too,” Paul said, tightly. “God is on their side.”
    “That wasn't funny,” the President said, irritated.
    “No,” Paul agreed. Now, they were just spectators on the eve of Armageddon. One more task, one more order, and then all they could do was watch. “It wasn't meant to be.”

***

    The complex had been built in the south of France, well away from any city or any major town, near one of France’s nuclear reactors. It had been hard to conceal it’s presence from the handful of locals, but the declaration of marital law and the crackdown on any form of unpatriotic activity – defined rather loosely by the government – had prevented any word of it spreading from the locals to the aliens, or those who might seek to topple the government.
    “We’re ready,” Chef d'Escadron Renan reported, through the landline to Paris. He would have preferred to be commanding one of the units patrolling the southern cities, keeping the peace with extreme…firmness, but the government had trusted him to handle one of the stations. “We can fire as soon as the timer reaches the appointed time.”
    He looked up at the camouflage netting. It would be removed seconds before the lasers and masers opened fire, targeting every alien parasite ship within range, along with a hundred other stations all across the world. From America to China, Britain to Russia, the stations would engage the large alien ships, giving them something else to worry about. Renan doubted that the station would last longer than ten minutes, not with the aliens – high overhead – ready and willing to bring death down on their heads, but they had to fire for as long as possible. The lasers were the most powerful the human race had ever produced and the masers designed specifically to take advantage of alien weaknesses. It was almost as if the Americans had obtained inside information, although he wouldn’t have traded an invasion of France for that data.
    The timer reached zero. “Fire,” he ordered, as soon as the covering was recovered. The weapons fire was invisible in the air, but he could feel the heat as the beams burned through the air, reaching up towards a target high overhead. The alien ship would be writhing now, trying to target and destroy them before the lasers burned through something vital, despite the armour. It was a shame that Star Trek weapons were impossible – yet – but the weapons he had would suffice. “Keep hitting the bastards!”
    He smiled broadly as the lasers burned into the sky.
    He was still smiling when the KEW smashed the station, the lasers and him into dust.

***

    “The aliens are under attack now,” Paul reported. It was hard to tell how much success they were having, but at least one parasite ship had gone completely dead and was falling towards the planet, Earth’s gravity pulling it down to a fiery end. The mass of the ship would probably survive – if parts of the old Skylab had, there was no reason why the alien craft wouldn’t – and would come down like an asteroid, somewhere in Africa. “They’re being forced out of the sky…”
    “And our boys?” The President asked. His gaze searched the main display. “Where are they?”
    “On their way,” Paul said. The small shuttle was almost beyond detection, assuming that it was the right shuttle. There had been no emergency signal, but that proved nothing. The aliens might have reacted quickly enough to prevent a distress signal from getting out. “It’s time to launch the main attack.”
    The President smiled wryly. “Two angles of attack, each one offering the possibility of decisive victory, but if both of them fail, we lose. Is it worth the risk?”
    Deborah spoke from her chair. “You saw the report, Mr President,” she said. “Mass starvation across Africa and Europe. The Northeast is no longer capable of functioning. China in ruins and torn apart by civil war. Russia is disintegrating…and hell, we’re disintegrating as well. They’ve killed upwards of a billion humans in three months of war. If they remain in control, well…we’re reaching our limit. A few more months like this and we won’t have a country any more.”
    “Besides,” General Hastings added, “we’re committed now.”
    “So everyone keeps saying,” the President said. He smiled thinly. “What was I thinking when I decided I wanted to run for President? Colonel, send the order; Phase Three is to commence at once.” He paused. “And pass on a message from me; good luck.”
    “Yes, Mr President,” Paul said. He turned to issue the orders through one of the junior operators. The big displays kept updating as the orders went out, although no one was entirely sure how accurate they were. The fog of war was settling in around them, confusing the humans…and, he hoped, confusing the aliens as well. It would all be settled, one way or the other, within the next few hours.
    The President bowed his head in prayer.

Chapter Forty-Five

    Speed is the essence of war. Take advantage of the enemy's unpreparedness; travel by unexpected routes and strike him where he has taken no precautions.
    – Sun Tzu

    “That’s confirmed,” the dispatcher said. “We have a GO signal.”
    Gary leaned back in his chair and started flipping switches. The SSTO, sitting under the camouflage netting, started to warm up. They hadn’t dared test the shuttles before – the aliens would have noticed and known what was coming – and there was a small, but definite chance that something might go wrong, even though the alien definition of ‘idiot-proof’ was much more thorough than the NASA definition. There were thirty shuttles, built according to the alien plans with some improvements, and some of them might not fly.
    “Understood,” he said, winking at the co-pilot. Simon Horvat had been a USAF fast-jet pilot who had survived the decimation of the USAF in the first bombardment of Earth and transferred to the SSTO corps, looking for some payback. The vast majority of the pilots hadn’t managed to make the switch – the simulated SSTO craft flew very differently to F-22s and other normal aircraft – but Simon had made it. “We have thirty seconds to lift-off, I repeat, thirty seconds to lift-off.”
    The dispatcher managed, somehow, to convey a scowl through her voice. “You have clear skies and good hunting,” she said. By now, the remaining two parasite ships had been hammered into beaten hulks by the ground-based lasers and masers. They wouldn’t have been completely destroyed – the lasers weren't that powerful – but in the midst of the bombardment, they would have lost most of their systems and were, hopefully, falling down towards the planet. “The President has sent you a personal good luck message.”
    “Tell him we’re on our way,” Gary said, and keyed in the final sequence. The SSTO suddenly came alive around them as power thrummed through the ship. It didn’t feel like a space shuttle, or even one of the massive Russian rockets, rather more like a helicopter on the verge of leaping upwards. The craft had been much easier to make than he’d expected; if NASA had pushed it, Earth would have had the craft a long time before the aliens arrived. “This is Armstrong, requesting permission to depart.”
    “Permission granted,” the dispatcher said. The drives were now throttling up, producing a heat signature that might be detectable from space. The alien prisoners hadn’t been able to shed light on the exact moment when the shuttle would become detectable, or when it would draw fire; it depended on how the aliens had preset their automated servants. “The covering is being removed…now. The area is clear.”
    Gary laughed. “Mission control, launching…now!”
    He pushed down on the switch and the rockets fired. Instantly, he felt as if an elephant was sitting on his chest, the pressure growing stronger as the craft started to struggle towards orbit. They were definitely committed now; the simulations had suggested all kinds of things that could go wrong, from improper fuel mixes to stealthy alien Brilliant Pebbles-type systems in orbit, watching for human spacecraft. The console was coming alive as the sensors, suddenly shed of the need to remain hidden, started to come online, sending radar pulses out ahead of them. They were on their way.
    “So far, so good,” Simon said, watching the readouts carefully. The pilots were almost passengers in their own craft at the moment, allowing the computers to handle the first part of the flight. They had to reach escape velocity and orbit before the aliens managed to get more of their parasite ships overhead, or their whole adventure would come to a sudden and unpleasant end. “Establishing laser links…now!”
    Gary took a breath. The entire fleet, thirty shuttles, should have risen from Earth. If even one of them had failed, their combat capability would be seriously degraded. They couldn’t risk using radios either, not when the aliens would definitely be listening to their words, so they had to use lasers to communicate…and that meant finding the other shuttles. If something went wrong…
    “I have laser link with ground stations and twenty-eight of the shuttles,” Simon said, after a moment. “Telemetry reports that Reagan and Lead Pipe were unable to generate thrust and rise from the ground.”
    Gary swore. Barely five minutes into the mission and they were already down two shuttles. The pilots would survive, but if they lost the battle, the aliens would smash the shuttles from orbit, whatever was wrong with them. The only good part of the caper was that they’d had their problems on the ground and not at attitude, when they might have cost the lives of the crew.
    “Get on to the engineers and see if they can figure out what happened,” he ordered, despite the growing pressure. He didn’t understand how Simon managed to talk so normally. The pressure was worse in a Russian rocket, but at least it was over quickly. “Tell them to inform us if it was a problem that could affect anyone else.”
    Simon winced. “Could we do anything about it if it was?”
    “Probably not,” Gary admitted. There wasn't room for proper spacesuits in the shuttles, although they did wear standard NASA-issue protective garments. It brought back a sense of Déjà vu; they’d worn similar outfits when they’d been taken onto the Guiding Star. This time, at least, they were armed and dangerous, unlike the pitiful Discovery. The aliens had simply blown the shuttle out of space and destroyed the remaining two on the ground. “I’d just like to know…”
    The pressure eased, slightly, as they punched their way through the upper atmosphere and out into low Earth orbit. Gary examined the live feed from the ground quickly, running through the situation in his head, trying to assess it properly. There was no time, now, for orders from the President or someone else looking over his shoulder. Seventeen parasite ships in orbit and apparently intact, despite the best the ground stations could do; two more apparently disabled and damaged, and an additional three on entry trajectories that didn’t look controlled. All of them out of place for a mass attack, but seven of the seventeen on trajectories that would allow them to intercept the shuttles short of Guiding Star’s battle section, which was ahead of them. The battle section, he’d been told, was almost out of fuel mass, but it didn’t take much imagination to conceive of the aliens refuelling her somehow and guiding her away from the shuttles. They had to reach her before she could escape.
    “I now have direct links to Europe and the other stations,” Simon said. The shuttles were falling into orbit now, heading outwards on an intercept course. Could Guiding Star escape? The habitation section, remaining in L4, was out of reach, for the moment, but if they could take out the battle section, they would have won. “They’re confirming our orbital tracks. Five of the alien craft are definitely moving to intercept us.”
    “Understood,” Simon said. He keyed in a command sequence and smiled. It was the sort of moment that should have a soundtrack, one composed by a patriotic composer, perhaps who’d taken a mind-blowing cocktail of drugs. He was almost disappointed that there was no music playing. “I am deploying weapons…now!”
    A series of dull thumps echoed through the hull as the hatches opened and the weapon systems deployed out from the cargo hold. The aliens had used their holds to store cargo, but the human designers, pressed to invent as many weapons as possible, had loaded them with racks for weapons. Each of the shuttles had a slightly different weapons load, a trick intended to confuse the aliens, although none of them carried as many missiles as Gary would have liked. The shuttles simply weren't very large, as far as carrying heavy missiles was concerned, and most of their offensive punch was contained in the lasers and rail guns. The alien parasite ships would have much more capable weapons.
    “I have radar sweeps,” Simon said, as warning tones sounded. The display lit up with red waves of light as the parasite ships swept space for targets. The aliens knew that they were there, now, although they could hardly have missed them. He’d planned the engagement, insofar as he’d planned it at all, on the assumption that the aliens would have seen them from the beginning. “They know we’re here.”
    Gary nodded. The aliens had swept orbit carefully in their first week at Earth, knocking down or recovering every piece of space junk Earth had launched, which included pieces from the satellites they’d destroyed. The shuttles were flying into clear space, apart from the alien craft, and that would ensure that they wouldn’t be decoyed. The aliens would not be able to trick them into wasting their missiles.
    “Good,” he said, accessing the laser link to the other shuttles. “All units, prepare to engage.”

***

    The High Priest stared as the new icons appeared on his display. They looked so much like Takaina shuttles – almost completely identical, at first glance – that he had wondered if they’d all been launched from the Texas Foothold, before the tactical staff realised that most of them had risen from other parts of North America. The humans had built their own spacecraft, he saw now, and had managed to coordinate their actions beautifully. The parasite ships should have been able to knock them all down before they even reached orbit, but they’d been diverted to handle the missiles and their warheads…and had been caught out of position.
    It was going to be a close-run thing, he saw, as soon as he realised what must have happened. The humans would have armed those ships to the teeth and, sending them out on such a course, intended to destroy Guiding Star. The realisation wasn't as shocking as it might have been – the High Priest had known for a long time that that was the only way the humans could actually win – but he’d thought that he’d placed his people beyond all possibility of actual defeat. The attack formation developing in front of him proved that he’d been wrong…and that the time needed to correct matters was much shorter than he had imagined.
    His mind traced the orbits of the parasite ships. Half of the force was either damaged or out of position, while the remainder were not armed to the teeth. The designers hadn’t really anticipated the need for real space warships, even through the Takaina could have built them, because of the divine blessing that had ensured they only encountered races that were behind them, technologically. In hindsight, it was a costly blunder and one the High Priest vowed to fix, assuming that he had the time. Guiding Star was bringing up the drive now, preparing to simply outrun the human craft, but warming it up would take time, time they wouldn’t have.
    “Order the parasite ships that can engage to get into position and engage,” the High Priest said. The humans couldn’t have stuffed much in the way of weapons into those hulls, no matter how advanced their technology. It was possible that the two sides might be more evenly matched than he had supposed. “Prepare to move us from orbit as soon as the shuttles are onboard and the drive is ready. Do not wait for orders, just ignite the drive and move.”
    “Yes, Your Holiness.”
    The High Priest turned back to the display. Now that he had issued his orders, and further orders would only confuse the issue still further, something was alarmingly clear. The human shuttles weren't just similar to the Takaina shuttles, but practically identical. The conclusion wasn't very pleasant, but the Takaina had seen it before, back during the Unification Wars. There was a reason why females were generally kept away from the danger of being taken prisoner; their tendency to fall into the mindset of the enemy side was well known. It was a survival trait, and not something that the Truth blamed them for – in contrast to some of the more perverted human religions, which blamed women for things they couldn’t remotely help – but something that had had to be taken into account. Someone, down there, had gotten their hands on a Takaina female and brought her into the human race.
    The Inquisitors are going to be furious, the High Priest thought. It didn’t take much imagination to know which female had been captured. The reports that the shuttle had crashed and had been destroyed during the battles on Earth had obviously been inaccurate. The humans, so much more practiced at deception than the Takaina, had taken the crew alive…and one of the foremost engineers from the Guiding Star. The recriminations would be dreadful; the Inquisitors would claim that it was his fault, for protecting her from the fate reserved for all whose sterility marked them as sinners.
    He watched, grimly, as the parasite ships began to engage. One way or the other, it would be over soon.

***

    “All right, here they come,” Gary said. In theory, they could have engaged the parasite ships as soon as they reached orbit, but their lasers didn’t have the power required to do real damage at such range. The aliens clearly agreed; they might have been pushing their ships around the planet, but they hadn’t opened fire. “Mark your men…and fire!”
    The shuttle’s lights dimmed as power was rerouted to the lasers. The parasite ships, targeted, returned fire at the same instant, their lasers burning against the heat shielding and armour the engineers had built into the hull. Gary had seen the specs on the armour – it was designed to provide considerable protection against laser fire – but no one had really tested it in space. A dull series of clunks announced the launch of four missiles from the lower hold, their drives already boosting them ahead of the Armstrong towards the alien craft. The parasite ships would have to switch their lasers to serve in a point defence role, buying time for the human ships to engage them.
    “This is Homer,” a voice said. The pilots had been allowed to name their own ships, but after several scatological names had been added to the rosters, and several other names that no one had dared to write down, that particular permission had been withdrawn. “We’re burning up; they’re breaking through…”
    Communications vanished in a hail of static. “The Homer has been destroyed,” Simon reported, grimly. The lasers would have burned through the armour, flashed through the cockpit and ignited whatever fuel remained in the shuttle. The parasite ships were learning and concentrating their fire on the human ships. Two more vanished within seconds as the missiles lanced closer. “One direct hit; one parasite ship destroyed.”
    Gary bit down a curse. The missiles would guarantee the destruction of the parasite ships – if they were allowed to hit them. The aliens now had every reason to burn the missiles out of space before they reached their targets…and the missiles were easy to hit. They weren’t armoured like the shuttles.
    “Deploy the rail guns,” he ordered. He’d hoped to hold it in reserve for the Guiding Star, but there was no longer any choice. The lasers just weren't inflicting enough damage on the alien ships. Their armour was just too strong. Craft designed to skim to the very limits of Earth’s atmosphere wouldn’t be too troubled by their lasers. They just didn’t have the power. “Prepare to engage.”
    “Rail guns deployed and locked on target,” Simon said. Three more shuttles vanished in bursts of fire, the wreckage falling down towards the planet below, while one of the parasite ships started to leak air. Somehow, Gary doubted that that would really put the aliens off the attack. They were fighting to protect themselves as well as suppress the human race. “We’re ready to fire.”
    “Fire,” Gary ordered.
    The rail guns fired pellets at incredibly high velocities. At such speeds, even marshmallows would be dangerous, but the slugs were depleted uranium. The downside was that they were difficult to aim and the alien point defence could still engage them, although they would have to vaporise them completely to be sure of their safety. The shuttles fired several bursts each, while the aliens started to fire their own missiles, their targeting getting more accurate as the two sides closed…
    “Got you,” Gary burst out, as one of the parasite ships disintegrated. The pellets had struck the ship so hard that their mass vaporised and converted to energy. The aliens, suddenly very aware of the threat, burned five more shuttles out of space, but one by one, the remaining parasite ships were picked off. They didn’t stand a chance now that they were in range. “What’s our ammunition status?”
    “We burned off seventy percent of our total rail gun rounds,” Simon said. Gary cursed under his breath. He'd expected expenditure, but not that much. No simulation had truly grasped how hard the rail guns were to aim. The remaining parasite ships might have been caught out of position, but they were moving now to intercept…and, ahead of them…
    He could see the Guiding Star. The alien battle section hadn’t been moving, but now, judging by the emissions, it was on the verge of bringing up its main drive and trying to escape. They couldn’t allow that to happen; the aliens would simply find a piece of space junk and push it down towards Earth. If they aimed properly, they wouldn’t even kill many of their own people, although they’d have to be carefully. He allowed himself to consider the prospect of an alien own goal by dropping an asteroid in the Indian Ocean, before checking his console one final time.
    “Take us in,” he ordered, running through it again in his head. The aliens could bring up their drive now and still cheat the human race out of victory, but they would never forget this day. “Bring the remaining weapons online and prepare to fire.”

Chapter Forty-Six

    General Gohblair "That is why Bun-Bun will underestimate us."
    Mrs Claus: "Because of your resolve?"
    General Gohblair: "We're freaking nuts!"
    – Sluggy Freelance

    The alien shuttles, particularly those designed for civilian service – insofar as they had civilians – were superior to the human-built craft in one very neat respect; they had portholes. Brent, despite feeling a little sick as the gravity ebbed away into nothingness, found the view of Earth to be exhilarating. It was easy to see why the aliens wanted Earth now; he would have happily paid half of his salary just for the chance to see the Earth from space, if only for a few seconds. The thought reminded him, though, that if the aliens won, the only humans who would see the sight would be their collaborators…and those raised within their religion.
    Perhaps that’s what they have in mind for us, he thought, as the shuttle tilted slightly. It was harder to breathe the alien air than he had expected – it was hot and very dry – but somehow he held himself together. Luke, of course, looked utterly untroubled by the temperature; for him, of course, it was just like coming home. The aliens were, in their own way, as adaptable as humans, but they preferred a given environment and created it for themselves wherever possible. Perhaps there would be aliens who would be happy to live in Antarctica or at the North Pole, but somehow he suspected that they would prefer the Middle East and the other hot zones on Earth.
    He’d expected, somehow, to see lights and starfighters zipping past, but the laws of physics didn’t allow such things, not outside of a science-fiction movie. There was a battle raging behind them, according to the radars and the download from the alien ships, but there was no sign of it in the darkness of space, not even twinkling lights. The engineers had warned that if they were detected, the shuttle wouldn’t provide more than a moment’s protection against the lasers defending the Guiding Star, but so far, it seemed that they had passed unnoticed. Their survival was proof of that.
    “They have accepted our clearance codes and have granted us permission to dock,” Luke said. The alien didn’t even have the decency to look winded by the effort of speaking in a thoroughly alien tongue. Of course, to him it was as warm and natural as English. “They’re suggesting, very strongly, that we expedite.”
    Pearson glanced over at him. “Do they say why?”
    “There’s a human attack force following us and engaging the parasite ships,” Luke said. If Brent didn’t know better, he would have sworn that the alien was learning sarcasm. “They’re going to bring up the drive and attempt to escape.”
    Brent frowned. “Can they do that?”
    “If what we were told about the ship is accurate, then yes, they can simply outrun the attacking craft and make it to high orbit or even further away,” Pearson said. “If they do that, we’ve lost.”
    It first appeared as a twinkling star, hanging over the Earth, and then rapidly swelled into a shining Matchbox toy, a city hanging in space. Brent had seen the images from the space-based telescopes when the starship was heading towards Earth, and then the much more detailed images taken from the ground when the aliens had opened fire and brought so much death and destruction to the world, but none of them had truly captured its immensity. There had been nothing in human experience to compare it to, no words that could capture it and bind it to a common reality, a shared understanding of what it was. It was beyond imagination, beyond perception; he could barely make out tiny fractions of the immense whole…
    It was conical, floating in orbit, and yet it wasn't smooth. Like the rest of the alien technology, it had an almost crude appearance, despite the advanced science that had gone into building it. Spacecraft of all kinds fussed around it, while others hung on the hull like barnacles to a watery spacecraft, clinging on for dear life. He could see the shape of a parasite ship, clear even at their distance, and wondered why it hadn’t been launched to take part in the battle. The conical landing craft, the ones that condemned an army to victory or inevitable destruction, could be seen, in perfect position for launch.
    Pearson’s eyes were shining with tears. “That could have been us,” he whispered. “We could have built something like that.”
    Brent said nothing. The Internet had taken on an increasingly anti-NASA tone as the news of the first attacks sank in…and how much could have been avoided, if only NASA had done its job. It had been easy to share that when he’d been down on the planet, but now, looking at the alien ship, he wondered if that had really been the problem. The human race was so limited, so short-sighted; how could it really have prepared for such an invasion. The aliens had sent generation ships to hundreds of stars, knowing that there would be no real return on the investment, while humanity frittered and played with junk science and oil. The future might yet belong to the aliens. They had done something the human race had never matched.
    “They’re taking a download from the flight computers,” Luke said, suddenly. A new icon had appeared on the small display. “That’s fairly normal; they just want to know if there are any problems they should be compensating for. Their main computer may take over the approach…”
    “Bastards,” Pearson said, suddenly. “I didn’t trust anyone on the ground to try to tell me how to fly and I never met a pilot that did. Can your computers really dock this craft?”
    “Yes,” Luke said, slowly. The tension was rising sharply in the cabin. “Unless, of course, they realise what we are. They might decide to direct us back down towards the planet instead.”
    The alien craft grew larger. In an instant, it transformed from an object in the distance to a massive wall, covering the entire skyline. Brent had been wondering if they would be brought inside the hanger bay, but it seemed that there wasn't time for it, not if the battle was going badly. The alien craft was turning slowly, preparing to inject itself into a transfer orbit to leave Earth behind…and come back with a world-wrecking asteroid. He saw other shuttles, just like their own, docking…and then it was their time. The alien ship reached for them and drew them in.

***

    The engineering report scrolled across the screen and the High Priest allowed himself a moment of relief. The Takaina had invented rail guns as well, but using them against targets that could move and evade fire was something that they had never required. Even assuming a degree of efficiency beyond anything they’d come up with themselves, the human weapons had to be running short of ammunition by now…and two of their shuttles hadn’t fired a shot in the last ten minutes. That suggested, to the High Priest, that they were either laying low or had shot themselves dry…and he was betting on the latter.
    The situation was almost intolerable, but the humans seemed to have shot their bolt completely, despite their surprise. The projections confirmed it and confirmed it again. They couldn’t get into close range of Guiding Star in time to prevent the battle section from boosting out on a transfer orbit, escaping their reach completely and heading out to one of the near-Earth asteroids. The remaining parasite ships could evade as well, remaining out of effective range of the human craft, secure in the knowledge that, in time, the human life-support systems would run down. There was no way, unless they’d made a real breakthrough, that such small craft could carry a self-renewing life support system. They would either exhaust themselves in orbit or land…and either decision would ensure their defeat.
    They can’t have many more ships like those, the High Priest thought, coldly. They’d used the data they’d obtained from the Middle East to smash up the American industrial plant, but it was clear now that they’d failed, badly. He wasn't sure if that was because of bad intelligence or because the humans were irritatingly resourceful, but it hardly mattered. He would see to it that the American humans and their European allies were pounded to scrap from orbit before a single Takaina warrior set foot on their lands. They would be reduced to such a condition that they would be begging for the priests to come amongst them and bring them to the Truth. The Takaina would not heed their calls until they had proven themselves submissive…and he would extract a high price. He would…
    Something changed on the display. “No!”

***

    The lone warhead was lucky, if luck could be applied to a missile head, when the parasite ships engaged the missile that had launched it on a ballistic trajectory. The Chinese missile engineers had known for years that American ABM systems were only going to get better and better…and doubted that the Americans would stick to any treaties relating to the deployment of ABM weapons. They wouldn’t have hesitated to shield all of China if they had had the capability and suspected that the Americans, in secret, had actually deployed such a capability. No one had been insane enough to test it, but the warheads loaded into the Ju Lang-2 missile had been supported by enough decoys to make knocking out the warhead a fearsomely difficult task. The aliens had engaged the missiles…but missed the warhead.
    It had passed through space on a trajectory that would take it down over Texas. The insurgent attacks on the ground-based ABM systems prevented the aliens on the ground from engaging the warhead when it became detectable…and all of the parasite ships were either destroyed or out of position. The targeting system might have been less advanced than the Chinese engineers could wish, but the warhead wasn't intended for precise work; there was really no such thing as a near-miss with a nuke. It detonated, almost perfectly, over the largest alien settlement in Texas.
    In Austin, miles to the east, people saw the mushroom cloud rising up in the distance. Joshua, watching a third insurgency from the safety of a rooftop, saw the blast and knew what it meant. As the dirty shape became clear in the air, both sides separated and broke contact, too awed by the sudden destruction of a major target to keep fighting. They both knew what it meant. Thousands of aliens were killed…and the remainder were naked to human attack.

***

    “They will pay for that,” the High Priest vowed. The reports were vague and scanty – a part of his mind insisted, nastily, that the human leaders in America and Italy must have gone through the same experience – but fairly clear. The warhead had detonated and released ninety kilotons of nuclear power onto the defenceless city below. They wouldn’t have been in protective gear, for all the good it would have done; they would have been naked and helpless against such a towering blast. “I swear, before God himself, they will pay!”
    He glared down at the screen, and then, in a moment of anger, turned it off. There would be time, later, to bury himself in the details, a fitting punishment for his mistake. He would watch the dead and dying a thousand times over to steel himself for the task that lay ahead. It took a moment to compose himself and then he keyed his radio.
    “Find me an asteroid, one near Earth,” he ordered. The destructive power of the nuke wasn't as bad as he had feared, but it wasn't something that he was going to allow to happen again, not when the Texas Foothold was more vulnerable than it had ever been. It would take careful planning to chart an impact point that wouldn’t slaughter thousands of his own people, but it could be done. An asteroid in the heart of Europe would put them off anything, but bare survival for years. A second one in North America would complete the destruction of America. “Find one and chart us an interception and capturing course.”
    “Yes, Your Holiness,” the War Leader said. The High Priest could feel the growing power of the drive now. The last of the shuttles had docked and they could move. “We will punish them for this impudence.”
    “And summon the Inquisitors,” the High Priest added. He had a final order to give. “Those who converted to the Truth must face the ultimate test.”

***

    Brent had been nervous about combat in zero-gravity, but the handful of aliens who had come to meet the shuttle hadn’t suspected a thing, not until they popped open the hatch and came face-to-face with silenced gun barrels. Brent disliked silencers – he’d yet to meet one that didn’t screw up his aiming – but they had to be used…and the heavy ammunition punched through the alien skins like a knife through butter. Blood, dark alien blood, bubbled off the bodies and floated in the air, slowly falling towards the rear of the ship as the drive started to push them away from the planet.
    “You two, stay and guard the shuttle,” Brent said. “The rest of you, follow me.”
    The aliens clearly had their own problems in zero-gravity and had thoughtfully rigged up a series of hoops and railings to help their people manoeuvre around the ship. Gary had been right, Brent decided, after five minutes of swarming through the tunnels and corridors down into the heart of the ship; the aliens had designed the battle section to have gravity, at least some part of the time. It wasn't shaped like the interior of the International Space Station, but rather more like the Starship Enterprise, although a decidedly less advanced one. They passed – and killed – groups of surprised aliens, wondering how long they would have before the alarm was sounded. If they could take out something vital…they might survive this crazy mission after all.

***

    “We’ve been boarded!”
    The High Priest couldn’t believe his ears. No one had ever boarded a Takaina starship before, not since the Unification Wars…and even then, the boarding actions had been minimal and designed to hamper operations. They had never even anticipated the possibility! The human prisoners they’d taken and held onboard, before returning them to Earth, had been watched carefully…but naked and unarmed, what could they do?
    But the display was clear. The internal security system was reporting humans, real armed humans, moving unerringly down into the vitals of Guiding Star, right towards the main drive shaft. If they started to wreck havoc down there, their very success of their holy mission would be in peril. They would be crippled, at the very least, their plans to defeat the human race shelved until they could rebuild the starship. The High Priest’s hindsight was nagging at him now, reminding him of all the things that could go wrong, and his mind snapped under the pressure.
    “Send the warriors,” he screamed. If nothing else, they couldn’t know about the security system, or that they were being monitored all the way; the sterile bitch had never known about that! They knew where they were going, all right, but they didn’t know to knock out the system as they moved, and even if they did…they would mark out a clear pathway for the warriors to follow. “Destroy them!”

***

    “Shit, we’re hopelessly lost,” Jack called. The corridors all looked the same to the humans. If they’d had a chance to navigate, they’d blown it somewhere once they left the hanger deck. “Captain, you got any idea of where we are?”
    “No,” Brent said. He looked over at Luke, but the alien was coming apart at the seams. The sight of one of his priests blown apart by a spray of bullets seemed to have unhinged him slightly. He wouldn’t be any use at all and it was damn lucky that they’d never given him a weapon. “We just keep heading into the ship and…”
    A spray of bullets cut off his words. The aliens had, somehow, managed to get a blocking force in ahead of them…and, he suspected, another in back of them. The space engineers had suggested that the aliens would be reluctant to use heavy weapons on their mothership, but clearly no one had bothered to tell them that; they were firing heavy machine guns right into the confined space. The small unit split up and threw a pair of grenades back down the corridor, hearing an explosion and screams of pain, but Brent knew that they were trapped. They might punch their way through the blocking force, but by now the aliens would be sealing them into a trap and sending warriors to cut off all the escape routes. They’d be expecting a surrender; they knew that most trapped human units tried to surrender, but not now.
    “Cover me,” he ordered, and pulled his backpack off. It was the work of a moment to open the covering and reach the control panel and then, taking a breath, to enter his code. The red lights lit up, revealing a countdown, but he cancelled it impatiently. The aliens would break through at any moment…and, he realised now, they had been foolish to think that there was even a chance to get away. He thought, briefly, of the remainder of SF34 and allowed himself a moment of relief that they hadn’t come with him, and then held his finger over the button. It was a moment for last words, but he couldn’t think of anything he wanted to say, even though he’d known it would come down to this one day.
    “I’m sorry, Luke,” he said, and pushed down on the button.
    It made a single ominous click under his finger.
    The world went white.

Chapter Forty-Seven

    Wars end when one side decides that the uncertain prospects of peace are more hopeful than the uncertain prospects of war.
    – Anon

    We’re going to lose this, Gary thought, grimly. A cold sense of hopeless came over him, a feeling that it had all been for nothing. Guiding Star was picking up speed now, its massive drive starting to push it out of orbit, contemptuously outrunning the pitifully feeble human opposition behind it. The massive ship should move like a whale, he thought, but it still had the legs to outrun them. They’d barely have a chance to light it up with their lasers, let alone the rail guns, and it was large enough to shrug off a hit from one of those. It would be difficult to hit at such speeds, let alone damage enough to…
    Guiding Star exploded. He stared at the twinkle of light on the display, the cameras showing the starship literally ripping itself apart, the full fury of a nuclear blast, inside the ship, shattering it like paper. The weapons and ammunition onboard the ship only added to the catastrophe tearing the ship apart…and there was no way that it could shrug that off. It might have been able to survive a nuclear blast close to the hull – and the Russians claimed that it had done just that – but the detonation had occurred inside the hull. They would have some precautions against accidental detonations, but nothing that could stop a nuke. Offhand, he couldn’t even think of anything that would stop a nuke from vaporising the ship.
    Simon was laughing. “Sir,” he said, delightedly. “Didn’t I promise you fireworks?”
    “Shut up,” Gary said, unable to keep a smile from his face. Even the thought of the commandos who had sacrificed themselves to take out the battle section couldn’t put a dampener on his mood. “What the hell are they going to do now?”
    His thoughts turned pensive. The briefcase nuke onboard the shuttle had been the most powerful small nuclear warhead ever built, capable of levelling a major city…or at least inflicting serious damage on it. In space, where there were no rescue services, it had proven devastating…but there were still the remaining parasite ships. He did a quick count and was relieved to see that there were only fifteen of them left, most of them out of position for a quick engagement. They appeared to be trying to concentrate their forces…
    It didn’t really matter. The laws of orbital motion bound the shuttles now, as thoroughly as they bound the alien craft. It would be hours yet before they were either in a position to engage or return to Earth…if they could return to Earth. It was possible that one of the two craft that had remained on the surface could be repaired to lift a small amount of propellant to orbit, but if the parasite ships wanted to interfere, they could slaughter the remaining shuttles when they made re-entry. Judging from their positions, and the uplinked data from the ground, they'd knocked out most of the ground-based laser stations…and probably still carried enough weapons to slaughter a few million humans.
    His eye caught the icon for the habitation section of Guiding Star. What were the aliens thinking over there? They’d lost most of their supplies and a vast number of warriors – and the female crew members who did all the supporting work in the background – but would they feel defeated? Would they seek terms, or would they try to continue the war? Even without the battle section, they were in a formidable position to just continue fighting…and perhaps they would win.
    He looked over at Simon. “The war’s not over yet,” he said. “Your wife will have to wait a few hours longer.”
    “Or forever,” Simon said, numbly. He’d finally married the girl only a week before being launched into space. “I hope she waits for me before starting the honeymoon.”
    Gary laughed. “Hey, you’re going to be one of the most famous people on Earth,” he said, grinning. “Girls will be lining up to suck you off and offer themselves to you.” He allowed his grin to become a leer. “If you want my advice, you got married at the wrong time…”
    “Sir, with the deepest respect, go fuck yourself,” Simon said. Gary found his laugh growing deeper, almost as if he couldn’t stop. “I love her…”
    “And she’s going to be insisting on the pair of you travelling incognito,” Gary pressed. “If people find out who you are, you won’t have a moment’s peace.”
    “Yeah, they’ll make me sign autographs,” Simon said. He looked down towards the icon of the alien craft. “What the hell are they doing over there?”
    “I wish I knew,” Gary said, checking the updates from the other shuttles. One of them was too badly damaged to make it back to Earth, not without help…and the only people who could help them were the aliens. He wasn't too sure about themselves, for that matter; the heat shield had been bubbling off under the impact of alien lasers. They might win the battle and disintegrate in Earth’s atmosphere. “I bet they’re wishing they knew too.”

***

    “The Guiding Star has been destroyed, Mr President,” Paul said, formally. The room had erupted in cheers when the starship had disintegrated, but the habitation section remained at L4, completely out of reach. Femala swore blind that the habitation section had nothing in the way of weapons, but Paul distrusted that on principle; he would have armed both sections to the teeth. “The attack craft are preparing to engage the remaining parasite ships.”
    “And they’ve said nothing?”
    “They took some damage, but the remaining craft can continue with the mission,” Paul assured him. The download suggested that several of the craft were no longer fit for anything, but scrap, but they had to fight with what they had. “They can probably defeat the remaining parasite ships, but probably at the cost of mutual annihilation.”
    The President shook his head. “I meant the aliens,” he said. “Are they not trying to talk to us?”
    “Not yet, Mr President,” Paul said. The President stared at the display. He had to know, more than any of them, just how close the war was – still – to being lost. If the aliens decided to call it a draw and wreck the planet, the human race would be exterminated or, at the very least, knocked back down to barbarity. There were people, he ruefully acknowledged, who would claim that the human race had never climbed out of barbarism. “We don’t know what’s going on over there.”
    He paused as a message came through his earpiece. “Femala thinks we probably killed the High Priest and most of their senior officers,” he added. The possible ramifications, now that the battle section was destroyed, were not good. “They might not have someone left in a clear and undisputed position of authority.”
    “They’re a bloody hierarchy,” General Hastings commented. Like the rest of them, he'd been little more than a spectator, watching as the final battle was fought out high overhead. “They must have someone who can declare himself the new High Priest and issue orders.”
    “They have several Under-Priests who are all equal in power and responsibility,” Paul said. “They might not have someone who can take over quickly.”
    There was a long pause. “Mr President, we’re picking up a communications beam,” one of the operators said. “It’s being relayed through the attack craft. They want to talk.”
    Paul saw the President’s face, a mixture of fear and hope. “We have to be careful,” Paul muttered. “They’re still dangerous, even without their battleship. We can’t afford to make a mistake.”
    The President took the microphone. “This is the President of the United States of America,” he said. Paul found himself wondering, absurdly, if they knew who the President was, before dismissing the thought. They’d interrogated the diplomats back when the war had started; they had to know who the President was, even before they landed in Texas. The masses of political books had probably confused the hell out of them. “To whom am I speaking?”
    There was a long pause. “This is Arbitrator Air Alinae,” the alien voice said, finally. Paul couldn’t help himself; he shivered. There was something utterly inhuman about the alien’s voice. The Arbitrator Air, one of the senior Arbitrators, the ones charged with keeping a check on the High Priest’s power, subject only to the Inquisitors. “I wish to discuss a general halt in place and a truce between our two powers. On whose behalf do you speak?”
    The President wasn't fazed by the question. “I speak on behalf of the people of the United States of America and a number of other nations that have allied to defeat you,” he said, flatly. Paul was relieved that he mentioned no names; the aliens might have a good idea of who else they needed to bomb, but they might hesitate without clear proof. “What terms do you propose?”
    There was a second pause, longer than the minute time delay would account for. “We are willing to stand down and hold in place,” the alien said. “We would not seek to expand our footholds on your lands and settle further of our people there.”
    The President looked sharply at Paul. “He wants to keep Texas and Australia,” Paul said. “We can’t allow them to hold on to Texas…”
    “We have a duty to the Australians as well, and the Iraqis,” Spencer put in. “They’re our allies!”
    Deborah leaned forward. “We need to get them out of Texas, but do we have the leverage to get them out of anywhere else?”
    “No,” General Hastings said grimly. “It’s going to take us years to repair the country and rebuild our military to the pre-invasion levels. We might be able to keep fighting in Texas indefinitely, but we can barely get to the Middle East and Australia.”
    The President was appalled. “You mean we have to write them off?”
    Paul hated to admit it, but there was little choice. “We cannot get the aliens out of there,” he said. “If we continue the war, we might lose anyway…or see the entire human race destroyed in the crossfire.”
    “But that would mean abandoning our allies to the aliens,” Spencer protested. “They won’t be able to escape alien domination.”
    “Perhaps,” Paul said. He smiled suddenly, remembering how the prisoners had reacted to human society. There was no way to know – yet – but he would bet good money that the alien society they’d seek to establish on Earth wouldn’t last longer than a few years. “We can help them, covertly.”
    The President lifted a hand for silence. “This is the President,” he said, keying the microphone. “We require the evacuation of the Texas settlement and occupation forces as part of the agreement.”
    There was a longer pause. “Evacuating the settlement would be…difficult,” the alien said, finally. “The transport capability to move all of the million settlers and the supporting troops no longer exists.”
    “And that’s us told,” Paul commented dryly. The destruction of the Guiding Star had obviously shattered more of the alien capabilities than they knew. “They can use shipping – our shipping, if they don’t want to stay with us and immigrate into American society.”
    “We can provide the transport to your other settlements,” the President said, giving Spencer a warning look. The man had been clearly nerving himself up to protest, again. “Your people can be moved without much trouble.”
    “You would agree to us continuing to hold the other two footholds?” The alien asked. Paul saw sweat beading on the President’s forehead. One way or the other, he was going to be remembered for this…perhaps as a hero, perhaps as the greatest traitor the human race had ever known. “You will not attempt to recover them later?”
    The President suddenly looked very tired. “No,” he said. “Provided that you continue to supply the oil, as you have been making deals to do with the other powers, we will respect your right of conquest.”
    The alien said nothing for a long moment. “The Arab world is going to go nuts,” Spencer said, angrily. “Mr President, I must protest this and…”
    “There isn’t an Arab world any more,” Deborah snapped back. “What other choice do we have? We can’t liberate them even if we wanted to liberate them! How many of our fighting men and women – and our civilians – are you going to condemn to death just because you’re scared to face the Ivy Tower intellectuals and tell them that the world is hardly perfect?”
    Spencer purpled. “The military doesn’t run the government,” he snapped. “We have…”
    “They’re the ones who will do the dying,” Deborah snapped back. “This isn’t one of the wars where we can dip a toe into the blood, decide it’s too hot and back off; this is a war that could destroy us all! How many have to die because you were too stinking stupid to admit that we can’t give your backers what they want?”
    “Enough,” the President said. His voice was very calm, but Paul could hear the tension underlying his voice. “General Hastings, do you believe that we could fight this war out to decisive military victory?”
    “My job, among other things, is to issue military advice,” General Hastings said, calmly. “At the moment, our capability – ours and the combined forces of free humanity – to launch a liberation of the Middle East or Australia is effectively non-existent. The Navy is sunk or in hiding. The air force is wrecked and useless in an alien combat zone. The remains of the army can barely hold the line. The same, more or less, goes for our allies. The fighting would be effectively hopeless. It is hopeless.”
    “I know,” the President said. “The responsibility is mine.”
    The alien voice issued suddenly from the speaker. “We will abandon the Texas Foothold if you agree to provide us with transport to the other footholds and recognise our control of those territories,” the alien said. “We will recognise your independence, providing only that you allow missionaries to pass among your people and seek to lead them to the Truth. The precise details can be decided by our subordinates. Do you accept those terms?”
    The President looked up at the display, and then back down to the speaker. “The responsibility is mine,” he repeated. “We accept your terms.”

***

    “They’re getting closer,” Simon said, grimly. The parasite ships would be entering laser range – effective laser range – within minutes. The laser link to Earth would probably break the moment they opened fire. “Your orders?”
    “We wait,” Gary said, sharply. They could have targeted the remaining parasite ships with the rail guns and perhaps destroyed a handful before they could react, but the remainder would probably blow the damaged shuttles out of the sky. If the aliens really were talking, however, how could they open fire and ruin the fragile truce? The wreckage of the Guiding Star’s battle section, drifting down and burning up in Earth’s atmosphere, was a potent reminder of how quickly the situation could change. “We…”
    The radio buzzed once. “This is Mission Control,” it said. “The aliens have accepted our terms. The war is over!”
    “Right on,” Simon said. “Bugger me, we actually won! What now, sir?”
    “We’re going to have to ask them to help us get down,” Gary said, looking up at the icons of the alien ships. It was funny how they suddenly didn’t look so threatening. “See, you’re a hero! I told you it would work out fine.”
    “No, you didn’t,” Simon said. “You told me to make sure I took out extra life insurance.”
    “But you survived,” Gary said. He lit an imaginary cigar and pretended to take a long drag. “Once we get down, we’ll be heroes. They’ll be naming spacecraft after us.”

***

    “Did I do the right thing?”
    “There was no choice,” Paul said. He pushed as much conviction into his voice as he could. “We couldn’t have won a second outbreak of hostilities. This way, part of the human race remains free and can build up our own space capabilities. New spacecraft, bases on the moon and the outer planets, asteroid mining…within a few years, we’ll outstrip them completely.”
    “Maybe,” the President said. His tone became pensive. “I have the feeling, however, that some of the electorate won’t understand that. Why should they?”
    Paul considered it. “When has the electorate ever been right about anything?”
    “When they elected me,” the President said, and grinned. Paul decided not to point out that he had voted for the other guy. “I think that was a good choice, don’t you?”
    “They sit in their chairs and got fed soundbites by talking heads,” Paul said. “They looked at the world through a prism held up by people with dubious agendas. They swallowed all sorts of crap because it came from someone with a bright smile, or because they didn’t want to appear racist or sexist or whatever other kind of bad buzzword of the month, or because it was easier than thinking for themselves. They got whatever they wanted when they got it and forgot that it came with a price – a heavy price, one that they didn’t have to pay.”
    He shrugged. “I guess we’ve had it too easy for too long.”
    The President smiled. “Rich democracies are soft?”
    “No,” Paul said. “Rich democracies just have a habit of forgetting how cold and harsh the universe can be. They might crucify you for…abandoning the Middle East, but everyone who knows anything about it will know that you had no choice. The world is in chaos and…well, we have our own reconstruction to go through, again. I think they’ll probably forget what’s important by the time the next election comes around.”
    “How true,” the President said. “The war is over. Now, all we have to do is win the peace.”

Chapter Forty-Eight

    I do not want the peace that passeth understanding. I want the understanding which bringeth peace.
    – Helen Keller

    “He was scared,” Joshua said.
    Loretta looked up at him. A month in captivity hadn’t dulled her much, although the aliens hadn’t set out to really break her. “Who was scared?”
    Joshua watched the lines of collaborators, some willing, some unwilling, as they were escorted towards the holding camps outside Austin. They would be held there until they could be tried, but plenty of people weren't waiting for the trials before extracting revenge. Several hundred collaborators, some of the worst, had been lynched before the insurgent network – what was left of it – had finally regained control and taken the remaining collaborators into protective custody.
    “Mr Adair,” Joshua said. “I had wondered if he hated me, or if he thought I didn’t deserve a hot babe like you, but he was merely scared. Scared that one day the aliens would discover me, break in and take his children away. He betrayed me and he didn’t even have the decency to be a secret arch-enemy or something.”
    Loretta elbowed him. “Stop complaining,” she said, with a wink. It was the type of wink that would have gotten a young girl arrested or whipped in a more repressive country. “You’re alive, you survived the occupation, you have a pair of quickie book deals lined up…”
    “How many people are going to be buying books in the next few years?” Joshua asked. “The country’s a wreck. The war was little more than a stalemate. Millions of people are dead – do you know they’re saying that the total death toll is over one and a half billion? Half of America barely has enough to eat. The economy is a shambles and…”
    “I thought I told you to stop complaining,” Loretta said, firmly. “Come on, think of all the new vistas opening up in front of you.”
    “I used to think that getting the Pulitzer would have been the greatest day of my life,” Joshua said. “I never had a hope of getting it…and now, what remains of the committee is falling over itself to offer it to me, and I find it hard to care. What does getting the story mean now?”
    He looked at the retreating collaborators and then around at the damaged city. “The entire country has been shaken,” he said. “What’s the point any more?”
    “You beat the odds,” a voice said from behind him. Joshua jumped and spun around to see Tessa standing behind him, wearing, for the first time in his experience, a standard uniform. “You get to carry on living when armed and dangerous people wanted to kill you. What better victory can you have?”
    “Damn it,” Joshua said, with feeling. “Do you have to keep sneaking up on me like that?”
    “It’s good for your heart,” Tessa assured him. “It gets the heart beating and the blood pumping – I’ve probably put your heart attack off by a few extra years. You ought to be paying me for such a great service.”
    “I’m broke,” Joshua said, and laughed. “Whatever I had in the banks vanished when the banks folded. God help the insurers when the claims start coming in.”
    “I’m sure their lawyers will claim that they don’t cover damages by aliens,” Tessa said. Her face twitched into a smile. “Of course, all those people who claimed to have been abducted by aliens and even took out insurance against it are going to be laughing.”
    She sobered up rapidly. “The Captain died up there,” she said. “That’s not common knowledge, but I thought you should know.”
    Joshua winced. He’d liked Brent, in his way, even if the soldier had been reluctant to have a reporter anywhere near him. It would have been easy to take refuge in hating him for censoring his posts, but it had been Joshua’s life on the line as well; a single mistake could have killed them all…and Loretta. Brent had deserved better than death, even if he had lied to Joshua about his destination when he left the safe house.
    “I’m sorry to hear about that,” he said, sincerely. “What are you going to do with your life?”
    “Have a long one,” Tessa said. She shrugged. “Plenty of people are a…little upset to learn that the United States maintained insurgency groups and stay-behind units, even if they came in handy when they were needed. I imagine that there’ll be inquiries and suchlike before too long, and people questioning the rightness of our cause.”
    Loretta scowled. “Can you imagine the President agreeing that the alien missionaries could travel through America?” She asked. “What about freedom of religion?”
    “I doubt that many of them will survive the experience,” Tessa said. “Oh, there were a few converts who maybe actually mean it, but most people seem to be shrugging it off now and abandoning it. Freedom of religion does include freedom from religion.”
    She winked. “The Captain would have wanted you to have a nice life, so have one,” she said. “I’m going to take a long vacation somewhere.”
    Joshua blinked. “You’re going to take a vacation?” He asked. “Where can you go in these times?”
    “Yep,” Tessa said. “They tell me that Saudi is very nice at this time of year.”
    She walked off. “So, what do we do now?” Loretta asked. “You know what that meant…?”
    Joshua grinned at her. “It meant nothing,” he said, and took her arm. “We’re going to cover the return of American forces to Texas, the surrender of the alien ground forces, and the end of the war. Once that’s done, we’re going home.”

***

    “And what are we going to do with them?”
    Sergeant Oliver Pataki looked over at the speaker. “I dare say most of them could be charged with something, but that’s not going to be easy,” he said. “What do you want to do with them?”
    Corporal Myers blinked. “They’re guilty of crimes against humanity!”
    Pataki watched the remaining alien warriors as they waited in the holding camp. Rumour had it that the ports were already being repaired so that most of the aliens could be repatriated to the Middle East, or Australia, but there were plenty of humans who wanted to extract bloody revenge on the aliens. A handful were waiting just beyond the face, glaring at the soldiers who were standing between them and the aliens. They might not have taken part in the insurgency – and Pataki wouldn’t have bet money on it – but they sure wanted revenge now.
    “I don’t know if we could charge them with anything,” he said. “They might have broken the Geneva Conventions, but they certainly didn’t sign the treaty. They could be charged with breaking their own laws of war, except they didn’t…even if we find their laws of war harsh. They make the Soviet Union look nice and polite. They even punished a few of their own for being excessive…”
    “And one for crimes against their own religion,” Myers added. The sight of the alien body hanging among a group of human bodies had been a surprise. “Sarge, they have to be guilty of something…”
    “I imagine it will make a lot of money for lawyers,” Pataki agreed. “The normal definition of a war crime is anything the loser did that the winner didn’t like. That’s pretty much everything, but this lot have plenty of friends who are armed to the teeth, so simply punishing them all isn’t an issue. Once we get them over the waters, well…fuck them. We’ve got a country to rebuild.”

***

    “You expected this outcome,” Philippe Laroche said, as they sat together in the conference room. “Not everyone is happy with it.”
    “I know,” Francis Prachthauser agreed. Europe was, in some ways, much worse off than America, even though there hadn’t been a direct invasion. The shortages of food alone had cost them thousands of lives. The civil unrest had cost more, even though thousands of young Muslims were being encouraged to leave for North Africa and the Middle East to fight the aliens. “Does the French military have any better ideas?”
    “None,” Philippe admitted. “They agreed that the aliens couldn’t be dug out of the Middle East, or Australia. The Brits aren’t happy about that, and there are going to be millions of humans wanting to leave Australia, but…it can’t be done. Maybe once we build up a space force of our own we can…renegotiate the agreement.”
    “Maybe,” Francis agreed. “On the plus side, it was one hell of an argument for international cooperation.”
    “Yeah,” Philippe said.
    “Russia, China, Europe, America…all working together,” Francis said. “Don’t you think that we might actually have a hope of surviving the next few hundred years?”
    “You think the human race has a chance?” Philippe asked. “Us, with all our prejudices and hang-ups, our silly loves and lusts and hates and fears? Now I know you’re dreaming.”
    Francis laughed as the two men went down for dinner.

***

    “It might be possible to find a cure,” Paul said. “You don’t have to be stuck that way forever.”
    Femala, who by now was getting practiced at reading the human expressions, frowned. “I don’t know if I want to have children,” she admitted. “I don’t have a real clan now, apart from your people, and I really don’t want to join the Yankee Clan.”
    She watched Paul’s expression shift slightly. Over five thousand Takaina had chosen to remain behind in America, mainly converts to the American way of life, although there were a handful of religious converts in the mix. They’d been moved, for the moment, to a sparsely-populated region of Nevada, but they were rapidly becoming part of the area, almost as if they had been born human. The weeks and months since the Battle of Earth and the destruction of the Guiding Star’s battle section had brought in a lot of changes. Takaina who were – legally – citizens of the United States, by Act of Congress, were merely the least of it.
    The Middle East was still a hotbed of insurgency, but the Takaina had dug in under their new High Priest, who had accepted the truce and stalemate. That wasn't too surprising; the defeat of the old High Priest had been accepted as a sign that he’d been doing something wrong, and so there had been a few changes. Femala suspected, however, that the destruction of so many human religious sites wouldn’t dampen the insurgency, but would instead fuel the flames of resistance. The Takaina might never be able to relax in their new conquests, let alone start conquering the remainder of the world. Worse, new ideas had started to enter the matrix, despite whatever the High Priest and his Inquisitors would do…and she suspected that it wouldn’t be long before there was a major social upheaval. The old system wouldn’t survive…and, now, she had a feeling that it hadn’t survived on other worlds. What was really happening out there, among the stars?
    “You don’t want to be immortal?” Paul asked. “You don’t want children who could carry on your name?”
    Femala laughed. Her position was a puzzle. The High Priest might have regarded her as a traitor, but not a willing traitor; the Takaina biology would see to that. The standard way of treating captured females would be to breed them with enemy warriors, but that wasn't possible with humans. The only possible fathers were in Nevada, with the Yankee Clan, and they…were something new.
    But her dispassion and her intellectual freedom had come from her sterility.
    “I don’t think so,” she said, finally. She had long ago resigned herself to life on Earth. The human space program alone would keep her busy for a long, long time. The humans had come up with ideas that even the Takaina hadn’t invented, although they had been remarkably slow about actually putting them into service. It puzzled her still; if the humans had developed their own technology, they would have won the war within hours and captured the remains of Guiding Star. “I think I’m happy the way I am.”
    “If you change your mind, just let us know,” Paul said. “We all owe you a great deal. The war couldn’t have been won without you.”
    “I think you’d have won anyway, in the long run,” Femala said. “Your society would have broken ours apart from the inside.”

***

    The President looked tired and drawn, but oddly happy as Paul was shown into the private room. The American Government might have been dispersed, but the President had insisted on moving the seat of government to Philadelphia, with the intention of returning to Washington as soon as possible. Recovery and repair teams were already at work in the destroyed city, but everyone knew that it would take years before Washington was rebuilt, not least because of all the other demands on the workforce. The United States had come closer to collapse than anyone liked to think.
    But we survived the Civil War, Paul thought, wryly. We can survive this as well.
    “Thank you for inviting me, Mr President,” he said. “I understood that you survived the vote of impeachment.”
    The President smiled. “We won the war, so suddenly they all decided that unseating the President wasn’t the brightest idea,” he said. The impeachment proceedings had started because of the President’s concession to allow alien missionaries to work within the United States, a face-saving gesture on the part of the aliens. Certainly, the aliens hadn’t been concerned when two of them had died within a week of arriving on American soil. “That’s politics for you, son.”
    Paul nodded. “Yes, Mr President,” he said.
    “I'm appointing Francis as my Ambassador to the Takaina Government,” the President said. “Ambassador Carmichael and the other Ambassadors in the occupied territories will have to be withdrawn as part of the peace treaty, which means that we’ve written them all off for the moment, as long as the oil keeps flowing.”
    “Yes, Mr President,” Paul said.
    “It’s a degree of realpolick that most people would be uncomfortable with,” the President said. “Have you given any thought to your own future?”
    Paul shook his head. “Operation Nightwatch is hardly required any longer,” he said. “I expected that I would be reassigned to some other task within the New Pentagon.”
    “I’d like you to take over the United States Space Force,” the President said. “It seems that I can do no wrong at the moment” – he smiled, rather sardonically – “and Congress is rubber-stamping everything, too scared of losing their positions to object loudly. It comes with a promotion to General and a massive budget, as much as we can spare. We need more shuttles, moon bases, orbiting weapons platforms, tactical observation systems…everything we need to defend ourselves if the next High Priest turns out to be less fond of us, or if others turn up from their homeworld.”
    “I doubt that we will see any more ships,” Paul said, and outlined his reasoning. Anything could have happened back on the alien homeworld, or the other worlds they’d settled. “Still…I accept your offer, with pride.”
    “Good,” the President said. They shared a meaningful look for a long moment. “And the black operations?”
    Paul paused. “They’re proceeding,” he said. The mere fact that the United States – and Europe and Russia – was supporting the insurgency in the Middle East could restart the war. It wasn't something anyone wanted to discuss openly. “We should have the time we need.”
    “All of this could have been avoided,” the President said, gazing into the future. “History will say that I, or Bush, or Clinton, or Bush Senior, or Reagan should have done something to prevent it. The largest cover-your-ass-and-voting-base budgets in the world won’t make up for history’s judgement on us. The best we can do now is make sure that it never happens again.”
    “Yes, Mr President,” Paul said. “I will see to it personally.”

***

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