False Profit

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					           False Profit

    (A Novel of Alien Invasion)




       Christopher Nuttall

Christopher_g_nuttall@hotmail.com
Blurb

The Traders – a race of interstellar gypsies, desperate to pay their debts…

The Malick Karn – clients of the Traders, desperate to escape their rule…

The Human Race – victims of the unholy alliance, desperate only to survive…

The Traders thought that they had a neat solution to their problems; use their Malick Karn
clients to invade Earth – keeping their hands clean – and take control of the planet and the
resources in the solar system. But the Malick Karn are desperate to escape the control of the
Traders and have plans of their own, plans that will intersect with the desperate human
defence of their own world to give the Traders a lesson in how underhand humans can be…

The Traders are about to learn that they have caught a tiger by the tail…
Dedication

To Tom Anderson, who inspired this work…
Prologue

It didn’t look like a business room.

Not, at least, in any sense that a human would have recognised, but its purpose shone
through. It was the room of one being alone; Tradermaster Maxtin. The Trader sat in the
centre of the room, surrounded by the projected lights and energies that made up the main
computing systems of his starship, lost in thought. At a silent mental command, the image in
the centre of the room resolved itself into the shape of a planet, glowing green and blue
against the dark of space. A handful of Trader ships floated in orbit around the lovely green
world, their Shipmasters and Crew waiting to hear from him, waiting for him to tell them that
it was not so.

It was so.

The figures in front of him proved that it was so.

Maxtin had been the first Trader to see potential in the race that dwelled upon the planet
below, the first to stake a claim to the right to exploit the resources of the system. The other
Traders of other Clans had watched and waited, wondering if Maxtin would fail…and fail
badly enough, perhaps, to have the system declared an open system under Trader Law. They
had had the last laugh, Maxtin could see; the figures proved it. His Clan had fatally
overstretched itself.

Interstellar conquest was difficult, even for the Traders…and Trader Law forbade just taking
over worlds, or even stealing the resources from pre-space worlds, many of whom wouldn’t
even have the slightest idea of the resources floating in orbit around their stars. Maxtin had
entered into a bargain with the local potentate below, King of a small nation that had been on
the way to ruin under pressure from three local neighbours; now, that King was Emperor of
an entire planet. What no one had known, from Maxtin himself to the natives down below
(many of whom wouldn’t have known what an asteroid was if they had been asked), was that
the system was worth much less than the Traders had thought…and the resources in the
required amounts just weren’t there. Maxtin had bargained in good faith and the King had
also bargained in good faith; there had been no attempt to cheat the Traders, but just…

He smiled, in the style of his race. Trader Law permitted punishing a local ruler who had
tried to cheat the Traders, but the King hadn’t even thought of cheating him; it was Maxtin’s
own people who had failed when carrying out the survey. Maxtin now owned the rights to a
lot of worthless rocks and one gas giant, hardly worth the effort involved in setting up the
King as master of his world. Once the other Traders found out…

The Traders didn’t get involved in direct conquest; conquest was messy and tended to leave a
lot of natives rather more than a little angry at the Traders. Instead, they dealt with the
natives through trading, slowing worming their way into planetary economics. If the world
below had actually produced something worth having, beyond curios and some interesting
local alcohol, control over the planet’s finances might even have been useful. As it was,
despite the near-immortality that was the birthright of every Trader, Maxtin couldn’t see any
real value in the agreement…
His thoughts turned to Earth. He held the rights to the exploitation of Earth as well, except
there was no way that he could gather the resources of enough ships and sub-clans to make
any attempt to exploit Earth worthwhile. The natives were known to be tough and very
capable, perhaps as capable as the Traders, and manipulating them into ruin would be a long
slow process with no guarantee of success. Instead of adding Earth to his private trading
empire, Maxtin would find sub-clans deserting him, finally leaving him with just his own
sub-clan…and as they left, he would find himself lord and master of a planet of primitives
with a massive army and not much else.

Earth, now; control of Earth would have provided him with all the resources he would have
needed to produce a successful comeback. If there was only some way around the iron
Trader Law, then perhaps he could save his Clan, but the Trader Law had been designed to
ensure that Traders never fought each other directly, or, alternatively, started a major war
with another space-faring civilisation. There were loopholes, but few of them were actually
any use at all to him…

He stopped.

He had just had an idea…
Chapter One: Paying Debts

“Your Highness, your father summons you at once to his Imperial Presence,” the Page said.
“You are commanded to attend him at once.”

Prince Rohan, Crown Prince and Heir Imperial to the Throne of Char – and hence the entire
world of Karn – studied the Page through half-closed eyes. The annual military review, the
third since the end of the Final War three years ago, was important, important enough for the
Royal Family to send the Heir to the Throne. The parade of heavy vehicles – most of them
built using the information provided by the alien traders – was as important a part of his
education as it was a display of the strength of Char. It wasn’t something that his father
would interrupt on a whim.

The Page’s green skin seemed to lighten, a sign of just how important he considered his
charge. “Your Highness, the Tradermaster has come to the Palace,” he said, his voice
seemingly unbroken. “Your Father sent for you at once.”

Rohan exchanged a long glance with First Sergeant Sir Chamita, his trusted aide and advisor.
They both knew that the very presence of the Tradermaster indicated that something serious
was up; the alien traders rarely visited anywhere on Karn, preferring to avoid the company of
the Malick Karn. The Traders rarely spoke directly to any of the Malick Karn; Rohan and his
father were the only ones who had anything more than brief contact with the Traders. Char
owed them too much to offer insult by attempting to force more contact…and there was the
unquestionable proof that no matter what they had given to the Empire, the Traders had more
unpleasant weapons hidden somewhere within their strange outfits.

“I will come at once,” he reassured the Page, and dismissed him. “Sergeant?”

Chamita waved a command to the members of the Imperial Guard scattered around the Royal
Box and allowed Rohan to lead him out of the box, heading towards the Prince’s personal
helicopter. The helicopters, Rohan had long believed, were the most wondrous devices that
the Traders had taught them to built, a way of observing the ground from the air, providing
close-air support to armoured units and transporting small numbers of soldiers around the
battlefield. Rohan had commanded some of the battles of the Final War and had used his
helicopter frequently enough to give Chamita the shivers; the commoner-born Sergeant was
charged with keeping his prince alive, whatever it took.

“Please convoy my regrets to the Master of Ceremonies and inform him that I was well
pleased with what I saw,” Rohan said, addressing one of the flunkies who had been hovering
around, prepared to carry his smallest words to the Master of Ceremonies. “I believe that
there will be fewer problems in the Viceroyalties because of displays like that.”

“Of course, Your Highness,” the lead flunky said, and departed.

Chamita caught his arm and held him back as a security team went through the helicopter
with a fine-toothed comb, using both a physical search and Trader-provided devices that
sniffed out explosives without any need for direct contact. No one on Karn, not even Savant
Wyllie, could figure out how the sensors worked, something that worried Rohan more than he
cared to admit. The Traders had taken them, in less than twenty years, from coal-fuelled
battleships to nuclear power…and Rohan was all-too-aware of what might happen if the
Traders determined that they would sooner support another faction on Karn. The gap in
knowledge and understanding was too great; there were still areas on the planet that believed
that the world was orbited by the sun, rather than the planet orbiting the sun. The Traders, if
they were to be believed, could outrun light itself; could they be trusted to always support
Char?

There was no way to know.

The security team reluctantly cleared the helicopter and Rohan boarded it, taking the co-
pilot’s seat before the Sergeant could say anything to object, whatever the risks. As Char had
grown in power, largely due to the Traders’ and their favours, his life had become more and
more constrained, placing him into a cage with the power to do almost anything, but free
himself from the trap. As the helicopter launched itself into the air, he was only dimly aware
of the Sergeant’s concern as he looked down and saw the power and might of Char City,
spread out below him…and the shape that had appeared near the Royal Palace.

His ancestors had had a limited imagination when it came to naming people and places, his
father had once bemoaned, but there was nothing limited about their architecture. Char City
was massive, designed with buildings that challenged any other buildings on the planet, and
the Royal Palace was the greatest of them all. It had been built on a mountain near the city,
it’s guns in a perfect position to dominate the surrounding landscape…had the technology
remained where it had been, nearly a hundred Karn years before. These days, Rohan was
grimly aware, an enemy could shell the Royal Palace from a safe distance, or attack it from
the air, or unleash the terrifying power of the atom to vaporise the Palace. He had watched,
from a safe distance, the use of atomics to break into one of the final stands of the enemy
forces during the war; the devastation had been immense. Afterwards, the entire region had
been stripped of its population; it wouldn’t be safe for hundreds of years.

It was the shape near the Palace that caught his attention as they flew closer, and, once again,
he couldn’t resist the overwhelming feeling of…wrongness. Whatever else had been built in
Char City had been built by the Malick Karn; the Trader spaceship had been built by entities
who were unaccountably different from the Malick Karn. The Traders said very little about
themselves, beyond what they had told his father when they had first made contact, but they
had come from outside the Karn System itself. That ship, Rohan knew, had been built under
another star…

It was massive, almost a kilometre long, a long flat tube of metal that hardly seemed capable
of flight. It was nothing like one of the heavy bombers that had transported the atomic bombs
during the war, seemingly as flight-worthy as a brick; had he not seen it moving through the
air as effortlessly as a bird, he wouldn’t have believed it himself. The soldiers of the Imperial
Guard, who had formed a cordon around the spaceship, seemed tiny ants compared to it’s
immensity…and Rohan knew that it was only a small ship compared to the massive starship
he had seen orbiting Karn. Savant Wyllie, his tutor and one of the leaders of the desperate
effort to understand what the Traders had given the Malick Karn, had shown him, though a
telescope, the new moons that orbited his world. One of them, the Savant had believed, had
been well over a thousand kilometres long, visible to all who looked up and saw.

“We are being told to land directly on the lawn,” the pilot said, as his radio crackled and
buzzed. “Your Highness, you will have to leave as soon as we land.”
Rohan nodded. He flicked an eyelid at Sergeant Chamita, whose green skin seemed to grow
a little darker as he took in what the pilot had said. The Royal Palace hadn’t been designed
for landing aircraft – the grounds had been laid before any of the Malick Karn had done more
than dreamed of flight – and the gardeners were in an uproar. It was bad enough that the
Trader ship sat on the lawns when it came to visit, but other craft? The Imperial Guard were
even more worried about the security problems; they would have been happier with
permission to work on the assumption that anyone trying to land was hostile and greet him
with a hail of fire.

“It really must be important,” Sergeant Chamita said. “Your Highness, remember to wear all
of your medals.”

“Of course,” Rohan said, as if he hadn’t been thinking of stripping off as much as possible of
the dress uniform before facing his father, let alone the Tradermaster. He reluctantly checked
his uniform for creases as the helicopter came in to land. “I wouldn’t think of doing anything
else.”

Sergeant Chamita gave him a reproving look. They had been together for nearly fifteen
years, long enough to know each other quite well. The Heir to the Throne, like all of the
aristocracy that aimed at or would inherit a serious position within the Government, had no
choice, but to take on a role within the Army before being permitted to assume a position that
their rank demanded, even before they could be taken seriously as adults. No one would
dream of placing the Heir in as a common soldier, however; Rohan was ruefully aware that
Sergeant Chamita’s real purpose was to ensure that the young section-leader didn’t assume
that rank equalled military skill and get his men killed. Rohan hadn’t; deep inside, he knew
that he had discovered a real talent for war, something that had served him well as a General
and commander of his father’s soldiers in the Final War.

“Your Highness,” the Chamberlain said, as they entered the grand hall. Rohan observed
impassively as everyone lowered themselves to their knees, apart from a couple of war
veterans who could barely move and had been granted exemption from the ritual greeting by
the Emperor. “Your father has asked that you, and your manservant, join him in his private
audience room at once.”

“Good,” Rohan said. Discussions with the Traders were always fraught, not least because of
the imbalance of power between the two races; he was just as happy that fewer Courtiers
would see the discussions, even through the gossips would already be twitching with
speculation and rumour. His eye fell on a pair of Ladies of the Court, who were muttering
amongst themselves; somehow, he was sure that they were not talking about him. “Lead us
there at once.”

His father’s private audience room was intended, at most, for ten people; the presence of the
Trader meant that only a smaller amount of people could fill the room. Apart from the
Emperor himself, Rohan saw Savant Wyllie and Duke Wisthe, Commander of the Armies.
He had no eyes for his fellow Malick Karn, however; his eyes were on the Trader as the alien
turned to look at him, it’s strange skin glittering in the light.

“Your Highness,” the alien said. It’s voice – no one had been able to tell if the Traders even
had sexes as the Malick Karn understood the term – was flat and atonal, created by some kind
of mechanical device. Rohan was sure, somehow, that there was a faint hint of mockery
under its voice. “Thank you for coming at last.”

Rohan refused to allow the Trader to get under his skin. The Trader’s strange alien form,
almost like a taller and thinner version of a Malick Karn, was blurred into strange mechanical
devices that seemed to tear through its skin. Some of the medical researchers had talked
about implanted hearts and other organs, but the Traders themselves refused to be drawn on
the subject, only noting that it was the price for travel in space. Rohan had seen all manner of
his own race, but the Traders, in the end, were very different. The heat radiating from its
body was proof of that.

“Tradermaster Maxtin has something of a problem,” his father said. Sergeant Chamita,
behind Rohan, knelt as the Emperor turned to face his son. “He is looking to us to help solve
it.”

The Trader’s atonal voice broke through the air. “The costs involved in making your nation
the supreme power on Karn have been considerable,” it said. There was no hint of emotion
in its voice, but Rohan was sure that he sensed something under the alien’s flat voice. Not
mockery, not amusement, but something darker. “My group has risked much in order to fund
your expansion, in order to finally have a group that we can deal with on the surface of your
world.”

Rohan frowned. As he understood it – and as the translations were all handled by the
Traders, there was no way to be sure that they truly understood each other – the Traders had
to bargain with the natives, rather than simply moving in and taking over. There seemed to
be no obvious reason why that were so – Char and the other older nations on Karn had a long
history of moving in on primitive tribes – but the Traders, instead of taking over, had opened
communications with his father, trading the resources of the Karn System for the support that
they had provided to Char. His father, seeing the Empire disintegrating around him, had had
no choice, but to accept the fateful offer.

Later, Rohan had been advised, by Savant Wyllie, that the Traders had perhaps overcharged
the Char Empire considerably, if they wanted the resources of the worlds and asteroids
orbiting around the star. The Savant – and hundreds of others – had tried to use the Trader-
supplied equipment to learn as much as they could, and one thing they had learned was that
there were literally thousands of asteroids floating around the planet. The Malick Karn might
one day want to head into space themselves…and that was the one thing that the Traders had
refused to discuss.

“Your system has proven to be worth less than we had anticipated,” the Trader said. “We
require additional payment.”

The flat tone couldn’t quite hide the implicit menace in the Trader’s voice. “I see,” the
Emperor said finally. “What do we have that you want?”

Rohan met Savant Wyllie’s eyes and they shared a puzzled look. The Traders weren’t
interested in much from the planet’s surface; they didn’t want any of the scarce metals on the
surface, nor did they want women or slaves. The Empire would have provided each of them
willingly – and had even tried to offer slaves to the Traders – but the Traders hadn’t been
interested. A handful of Ladies of the Court had tried to court the Tradermaster, but the alien
hadn’t even noticed. What could they want?

The Tradermaster rotated slightly to look around the room. “We require the services of your
armed forces,” it said finally. Rohan stared at the alien; the Trader’s ships had weapons that
were so far beyond anything the Malick Karn possessed that it seemed unlikely that any
threat that the Traders couldn’t handle could be handled by the Malick Karn. Rohan had
every confidence in the army – he had commanded it during several battles – but he knew its
limitations. “We have a world that needs to be brought under your control.”

The alien kept speaking, but Rohan’s thoughts were elsewhere, running with the possibilities.
One of the problems, now, was that the Char Empire had a massive force of soldiers…who
now had to be demobilised, presenting a major problem for the planetary economy. The
Viceroys were working hard to bring their regions back to full production after the Final War,
but they didn’t need additional soldiers…and dumping tens of thousands of soldiers into the
employment market would only allow discontent to rise across the Empire. If the soldiers
could be sent to conquer yet another world, as fantastic as that seemed…

Sergeant Chamita elbowed him. His father was still talking. “You are offering us control of
the world and its resources?”

“Yes,” the Trader said. It was impossible to tell if the alien was sincere or if it was lying.
Savant Wyllie had pointed out, more than once, that the aliens were…well, alien. Something
that meant that a Malick Karn was lying could mean something completely different when a
Trader did it. “We require only that people who are allied to us on a permanent basis control
the only source of intelligent life within the system.”

Rohan wished, not for the first time, that he had a certain means of knowing when the strange
alien was telling the truth. “We do not possess any means of…jumping across the…distance
to this new world,” Duke Wisthe said. The Commander of the Armies had had real problems
even adapting to the existence of non-Malick Karn forms of life. Rohan privately suspected
that Duke Wisthe didn’t really believe that the Traders weren’t native to Karn itself. “How
are we to move our armies there, even if we agreed to your offer?”

“You owe us for the support we provided when we contacted you,” the Trader said. There
was a hint, only a hint, of an ominous undertone in the alien’s voice. “We will provide
transport to the target world and intelligence covering the details of the race you are to crush
and conquer for the greater glory of the Char Empire.”

Rohan shared a look with his father. There were too many details that had been left
uncovered, starting with the future of the new world, even assuming that the Malick Karn did
manage to conquer it and occupy it. Historically, the conquering forces had interbred with
their subjects, but that wouldn’t be possible with aliens, would it? The practice of forcing
subject women to marry Char soldiers wouldn’t be possible on the alien world…leaving them
with a bitter and permanently resentful population on their hands. And, and, and…

The shared message was clear; they had no choice. Rohan knew, deep inside, that they knew
too little about the subject at hand to know if the Traders were being honest or not, but the
Traders could do whatever they liked to the Malick Karn. During the final year of the war,
one of the remaining enemy nations had mounted a desperate attack against a Trader
ship…and the attack had failed completely. The nuclear blast hadn’t even scratched the
Trader’s paint. What could the Traders do, if they wanted to collect their debt?

“We will require all of the intelligence you can give us and details of what you can transport
for us,” the Emperor said finally. “However, this will be the last payment on the debt.”

“Of course, Your Majesty,” the Trader said. “This will repay your debt in full.”

Rohan only wished that he could tell if the alien meant it.
Chapter Two: An Act of Desperation

“I understand that you are concerned,” Tradermaster Maxtin said, as the other Traders
flickered into existence around the table. Their holographic projections were merely another
reminder that Traders were hardly the most sociable of creatures, despite their vast age and
social maturity. Their origins, so long ago, had been all, but forgotten; it had been years
since Tradermaster Maxtin had been face to face with another of his race, even a Clan
member. If they found out that he had already begun discussions with the Malick Karn…

“Concerned, Tradermaster, is not strong enough to describe my feelings,” Shipmaster Salkan
said. Like Tradermaster Maxtin himself, the Shipmaster had risen though the Clan’s ranks to
command of the Profitable Day, one of the largest ships in the Clan’s fleet. “There is a
reason for the iron implantation of the Trader Law.”

“Of course there is,” Tradermaster Maxtin agreed. “The question remains, of course; is the
Law designed to cover such a situation?”

“The exact specifics are hardly important,” someone said. That someone had used the
privacy setting, hardly unusual if someone wanted to disagree with a senior member of the
Clan, but Tradermaster Maxtin had a fairly good idea of who it was who had spoken. “The
Law is clear; we do not interfere directly with other civilisations.”

“We are civilisation,” Shipmaster Salkan said. “The others are not civilised by definition.
Races that are incapable of space travel are not civilised enough to take control of their
surrounding system, let alone develop the ability to travel faster than light.”

“All we do is interfere,” Tradermaster Maxtin snapped. Holographic projections turned to
face him; questioning the Law could almost be regarded as the closest thing the Traders had
to blasphemy. Centuries of inter-clan fighting had left enough of a mark on Trader history
that no one, but no one, wanted to return to the days of civil war. Space was profitable
enough for everyone. “Down below” – he waved one long tentacle in the direction of Karn –
“we have ensured that a friendly government has taken power over the entire surface of their
planet. Had we not interfered…”

The Traders had studied the entire political structure of the Malick Karn. The Char Empire
had been in decline for a whole number of reasons and simply lacked the ability to reform
before one of their main enemies took them apart. A nation that had once dominated the
entire planet had been reduced to their core homelands…before the Traders had interfered
and provided enough support to first stabilise…and then expand the Empire again. The other
Malick Karn nations hadn’t believed that there was a new threat at first, and when they had
grasped the existence of aliens, it had been too late. The Char Empire had risen again.

“…They would not have developed the sciences of atomics for many more years,”
Shipmaster Gargan said. He was Tradermaster Maxtin’s subordinate and resented it bitterly,
but he lacked the support among the other Traders to either break away and form his own
Clan, or challenge Tradermaster Maxtin for the position of Tradermaster. “As it was, they
posed an actual threat to our ships!”

“One primitive atomic,” Sulkin said, who had been safely in orbit when the nuclear weapon
had been detonated. “Your shields were barely affected.”
“This is not the time for gambles,” Shipmaster Gargan pressed. He had, Tradermaster
Maxtin knew, absolutely no sense at all of what was possible, if they gambled and gambled
again. Shipmaster Gargan was the ultimate conservative in a race of conservatives; the
Traders, bound to no star and supreme in their own area of operations, careful to remain on
good terms with races that matched their level of development, had a conservative outlook on
life. Shipmaster Gargan would pass up a reward worth billions of Trader Credits, just for his
reluctance to expend thousands of Credits. “We are dangerously exposed as it is.”

“We are over the brink,” Tradermaster Maxtin said flatly. He hadn’t wanted to discuss it
openly, but there was no longer any choice. “Our expenditure in interfering with the Malick
Karn has cost us considerably, particularly in real items from other clans, and we will no
longer be able to cover our debts.”

He silently cursed the inflexible Law. It was forbidden to do more than a preliminary survey
of any star system, unless it was uninhabited; there was too much chance of severely irritating
the locals. The Traders wanted to stay on good terms with their neighbours, whatever it took;
if a Trader irritated a race that actually matched the Traders in technology, the Trader Council
would hand him over to the race without hesitation. Permission was required from someone
in the effective position of ruler of the world…and the Malick Karn hadn’t possessed a global
authority. One had had to be developed…and in the time it had taken to do that,
Tradermaster Maxtin had led his clan into debt.

There was a long silence, and then everyone started to shout at once. Tradermaster Maxtin
tried to focus on one speaker, but it was impossible, even with the advanced computer links
between the starships. He finally hit a command into the system, blanking all speech, but his
own. It was technically forbidden, but that was a custom, not the Law.

“You may recall that we had to purchase heavy equipment and information from other clans,”
he said, into the sudden silence. His clan had needed the information to complete the project
of uniting the Malick Karn…and it had come with a cost. “Those debts have to be paid
somehow, and we all know that we cannot extort enough from the world below, or can we?”

He waited for a response, wondering who would be first to speak. As the Malick Karn
themselves had deduced, there was very little that he was interested in on the surface itself, or
at least nothing that was worth the effort of extracting it. The Traders hardly needed slaves,
even if the Malick Karn would have been happy to sell them as many as they might want, and
in any case, slaves were dangerous. Robots and other automated systems were much safer.
There were no rare elements on the surface; the only items that were worth taking were small
artworks and even they were hardly useful to cover all the debts.

“No,” Shipmaster Gargan said finally. “They are a primitive race, barely worth tolerating on
their own world, let alone in space itself.”

“In short, our only asset is the right to develop Earth as well,” Tradermaster Maxtin said.
“We own the rights to develop Earth for a period of one hundred Earth years, and yet…Earth
poses a vastly greater problem than Karn ever did. The humans are much more capable with
their technology than the Malick Karn, and they are certainly more aware of the physical
basis behind the weapons they produce. Humans may not, yet, qualify as space-farers, but it
will not be long before they actually see the benefits of establishing bases and installations on
other worlds within their system. Once they do that, we will be required to open
communications on a more…open basis.”

He smiled to himself as they reacted. The Traders looked down on any race with the
capability to reach space…and didn’t take advantage of it. Any fairly decent judge – by
which he meant a Trader Arbitor – looking at the human space program would declare them
hopeless idiots; Tradermaster Maxtin still didn’t understand why the humans hadn’t reached
for space. They clearly knew that aliens were at least a possibility – and a report that aliens
were abducting humans had caused some panic, as the Traders had indeed scooped up a few
hundred humans for medical research and experimentation – but they had no defences in
place against even random malice on the part of the universe. It would have been easy to
deflect an asteroid so that it hit Earth – and Tradermaster Maxtin had considered just that –
and the humans would have been defenceless. Only the fact that the Trader Council would
have punished the entire clan harshly had forced him to reconsider his plan.

Shipmaster Salkan hissed once. “Are you suggesting that we will have to deal with the
humans as equals?”

Tradermaster Maxtin tapped one command into the system. “You will be aware, of course,
that we monitor everything that our friends and allies the Malick Karn do in their centres of
power,” he said. It was something that they had never discussed with the Malick Karn; the
Traders had surveillance systems far in advance of anything they’d given to the Malick Karn.
The various intelligence services on the planet below would have had a collective heart attack
if they had known just how deeply the surveillance systems had reached. “The reports are
clear; the Malick Karn are attempting to understand the principles behind the technology we
have given them. Although the task is difficult, they may well succeed, particularly given the
inherent simplicity of the systems. The armoured fighting vehicles and weapons were
designed, literally, to be idiot-proof.”

“There are some very smart idiots out there,” Shipmaster Gargan commented.

Tradermaster Maxtin wondered if that had been intended as a subtle poke at him and ignored
it. Something else that the Traders had never discussed with Emperor Ryland XXXV and his
subjects had been the fact that the Traders had been practicing covert social engineering on
the Malick Karn. If the engineering worked perfectly, allowing for random chance, the
Malick Karn would become much more stagnant than the Char Empire had ever been, back
before it had to fight for its very survival. If it failed, and he knew that the Malick Karn
would want to get out from under the Traders thumb if they could, they might reach space.

“In contrast, the humans are much more capable than the Malick Karn with their own
technology and are unlikely to accept a single power dominating the world to a greater degree
than their current hegemonic nation…and giving one of the smaller human powers the ability
to defeat the superpower runs the very high risk of actually pushing them into developing
space technology to match ours,” he said. “The main human power will certainly suspect
something if we make a covert offer…and none of the smaller powers are worth the effort to
develop them.”

“So, you would have us set the Malick Karn on the humans,” Shipmaster Gargan said. “Did
it occur to you that the Malick Karn have no space flight? They barely understand the
concept of us being from another star; some of them even think that we are…demons.”
There were some chuckles; the Traders had no religion themselves. “Interstellar conquest
generally doesn’t work.”

“Between equals,” Tradermaster Maxtin said softly. It was true; the logistics involved with
transporting a major occupation force from star to star made the task of overwhelming a
planet difficult, if not impossible. If both planets possessed a space fleet, the invasion would
become much, much, more difficult. “The humans have no space capabilities.”

“Unless our invasion fails and the humans use it as an booster to develop true space flight of
their own,” Shipmaster Gargan said. “I still don’t understand how you intend to get them to
Earth…”

“They will be carried in our ships,” Tradermaster Maxtin said.

There was a very long pause.

“You’re mad,” Shipmaster Gargan said finally. “It is forbidden in the Law to take aliens
onboard our ships…”

“That is not strictly accurate,” Tradermaster Maxtin said calmly. “The exact reading of the
Law states that aliens may not be given control of our ships, or even permitted into the
command centres, particularly if they have the ability to take control of the ships. Is there
anyone here who feels that the Malick Karn could control one of our ships, even if they
gained control of the ship?”

He smiled thinly, waving his tentacles in the air. “Each of our ships is built only to take
commands from the shipmaster and the appointed subordinates,” he reminded them. “We
could hand over an entire ship to the Malick Karn and they would be likely to” – he made a
long complicated pattern with his tentacles, inviting them to share the joke – “attempt to work
magic with it. We have been careful to avoid given them any hints at all as to how our core
technology works…and even if they had perfect understanding, how could they crack the
security systems?

“No, they and their equipment will make the trip to Earth in our holds, transferred to the lunar
base, and then landed on Earth in one of the transports,” he concluded. “They will not be
allowed out of the holds, apart from a couple I intend to awe, and they will have no chance at
all to learn how the ship works. At worst, we can always just abandon the army on Earth.”

“And then the humans destroy it for us,” Shipmaster Salkan said.

“But the humans will consider us to be on the side of the aggressors,” Shipmaster Gargan
protested. “They will certainly be unaware of our…presence; they might well assume that
the starships are being piloted by Malick Karn. They may well engage our ships with their
own weapons.”

“We do not have much to fear from their air-to-air weapons,” Shipmaster Salkan said. Her
eyes were a little glazed; she had absorbed all of the information contained on Earth within
the starship’s computers. “The only danger would come from nuclear weapons, targeted on
the starships as they descend into their atmosphere. If they do attack, I might remind you that
the Law permits us to fire back.”
Tradermaster Maxtin said nothing. He was already considering ways to contrive encounters
between human aircraft or ground forces that would give his ships all the excuse they needed
to open fire. It would be a long campaign, perhaps taking years, which was all to the good.
The more Malick Karn who died on Earth, the fewer that would have to be either disposed of
in space, or dumped back into their global economy. Using up the soldiers was the only
sensible move. The difficult part would be hampering the Malick Karn enough to ensure that
thousands of soldiers were…used up, while avoiding giving the humans an easy victory. The
Malick Karn would have the advantage of surprise…

He smiled to himself. Perhaps there was a way to balance everything.

“I still feel that there are too many dangers in this course of action,” Shipmaster Gargan said,
making his opposition plain. “Humans are dangerously unpredictable.”

“Humans are confined to their planet,” Shipmaster Salkan snapped. He, at least, was an ally;
Tradermaster Maxtin had counted on him, ever since they had mated when Shipmaster
Salkan had been female, a few hundred human years ago. Traders changed sex on a regular
basis, something that gave them a different view on the universe from most races, which
generally had one dominant sex. “If worst comes to worse, we can invoke the quarantine
protocols.”

“We are talking about making a major investment in time and credit,” Shipmaster Gargan
said. “Can we afford it?”

Tradermaster Maxtin stood up. “Can we not afford it?”

Shipmaster Gargan looked confused. “At the moment, we are in a seriously leaky starship,”
he said. There were grim looks all around; no one who spent time in space, an unforgiving
environment even for the Traders, would make jokes about leaky starships. “In less than one
Great Year, the Trader Council will perform its annual audit, and when that happens, they
will realise that we are seriously in debt. When that happens…”

He didn’t bother to spell out the consequences. They all knew what they could be. “If we
remain where we are, we will be unable to patch the air holes and disaster may come sooner
than one Great Year,” he continued. “All it would take is for one of the producer clans to ask
for payment, or for a claim-jumper to make an independent survey of the system, or for an
unexpected visit from an Auditor…and our little problem would be revealed.”

Shipmaster Gargan sputtered, insofar as a Trader could splutter. “You were the one who led
us here,” he said, after he had regained control of himself. “We should remove you from
command and send you to some other clan!”

“We all voted to come to Karn,” Shipmaster Salkan reminded him. “The consequences will
not be on the Tradermaster alone, but on all of us. We will be stripped of our starships,
perhaps, if we are lucky, adopted by another clan. The clan will come to an end; some of us
will end up indentured to the Trader Council as workers in dangerous locations, or even as
personal servants.”
He met Tradermaster Maxtin’s eyes for a moment. “I move that we accept the
Tradermaster’s plan and begin preparations to transport a Malick Karn army from Karn to
Earth.”

The voting system itself was private, something intended to prevent abuse; Tradermaster
Maxtin had been young when that particular system had been added into the Trader datanets.
He almost regretted it now; it would have been nice to know who had supported him, and
who had thought that the entire idea was crazy. He didn’t want to risk taking disloyal
elements to Earth, but there was no choice; leaving someone known to be in opposition
behind was asking for trouble. FTL direct communications were impossible, but anyone left
behind could easily send a drone to the Trader Council and report him.

“Seventeen in favour, twelve opposed and one abstention,” the computer reported, after
everyone voted. The system was designed to be impossible to hack; he was confident that no
one would know who had voted for what. Pity, really. “The motion is carried.”

“Thank you,” Tradermaster Maxtin said. He glanced around the room. The vote would
ensure that his authority would remain unquestioned, unless there was a serious change in
their fortunes. “We will begin preparations at once.”
Chapter Three: Professionals Study Logistics

The three officers in the room rose to their feet as Rohan entered the room, their aged faces
reflecting both pride in their young commander, and concern over his youth and general
inexperience. Between the three of them, they had over a hundred years of experience in
fighting – and, more importantly, in making war – and they had worried that Rohan, Prince
Imperial or not, had lacked the skill to command the armies. They saluted as one, accepting
Rohan into the room, and then saluted Chamita; a Knight of the Imperial Guard had a right to
accept a salute from anyone short of a Prince of the Blood.

“We dedicate ourselves to your service, General,” General Sir Bothe said, as Rohan returned
their salutes. He meant it, Rohan could tell; that meant more to him than the fancy words of
the court and the seductive glances of the Ladies of the Court. Many noble officers, at best,
were blank slates; the worst were the ones convinced that their noble blood gave them the
right to succeed, whatever they did. Rohan and his father had spent too long trying to weed
those officers out of the service, but they would never be rid of them completely. “We stand
behind you to the last.”

The words came out of the distant past, when Emperors and Princes led the charge
themselves, proving their valour in the only way open to them. These days, the commander
of the army remained behind the lines, commanding from a distance and controlling troops
with radio and other direct communications methods; there would no longer be fights where
they would be settled in single combat between the commanders of the armies. There were
times when Rohan regretted it; the prospect of actually having to lead the charge might have
prevented a few officers from coming up with the plans that had almost cost Char it’s
existence, before the Traders arrived.

“Please be seated,” he said, as serving maids brought small glasses of water, a sign that they
were expected to think and plan. Normally, they would have drunk wine or beer; being real
soldiers, they would have expected beer in vast quantities. They weren’t blind to either the
water, or the rapid departure of the maids; he watched as they straightened up and waited for
the briefing. “We have a lot to discuss.”

“We are going to war,” General Sir Bothe said, puzzlement implicit in his voice. “Your
Highness, My Commander, who are we going to fight?”

The other two commanders echoed his concerns. The world belonged to Char; miracle of
miracles, there wasn’t even a rebellion going on against his family’s rule, and even if it had, it
would hardly have required the force of the entire army to deal with it. The only other force
to fight was the Traders…and none of them would countenance an assault on the invincible
starships. It said something about the security surrounding the Imperial Court that no one,
not even Duke Wisthe, had breathed a word to them about the new mission.

Rohan took a breath. Duke Wisthe might command the armies, but he trusted the three men
in the room completely; they had served with him for years. General Sir Bothe, the former
calavery officer who had become commander of the first armoured units when the Traders
had shown the Malick Karn how they could be built and then used in battle against their
enemies. General Sir Ryath, an infantry officer who had risen in the ranks to become
commander of an entire battle force. General Sir Carha, younger and technically junior to the
other two, the officer responsible for combat logistics. Rohan had promoted him personally,
realising that logistics were vitally important on a modern battlefield; General Sir Carha had
worked miracles during the closing days of the war and the final battle.

“We are going to war on a different world,” he said, and explained quickly about the humans.
He ran through the explanation that the Tradermaster had given his father, and provided them
with as much additional information as they had been able to deduce from the asides that the
Trader had said. “This will be rather testing…”

“You’re telling me,” General Sir Carha said. His rapid rise had given him a determination to
prove himself that had never been quenched. “We do not have the ability to cross interstellar
space on our own.”

Rohan nodded grimly. One very strong possibility was that if everything went wrong – and
he knew better than to hope for success without preparations - the Traders would simply cut
their losses and abandon the army on the surface of Earth. The logistics at that point would
narrow down to nothing, leaving the army alone against the wrath of understandably outraged
humans.

“The Traders have agreed to provide us with transport,” Rohan said. “Apparently, it takes a
ten-day for the trip from here to Earth, so we will establish, with their support, a base on their
local moon to serve as a logistics hub as well. Once we have secured a base on Earth’s
surface, we will not only bring supplies directly to Earth, but also establish factories on Earth
itself, perhaps with native labour.”

“Native labour,” General Sir Bothe repeated. “Your Highness, these are not Malick Karn,
but…aliens, aliens like the Traders, only different. Is the Tradermaster expecting us to dive
into the unknown without any intelligence at all? We know nothing about the…people we
are expecting to fight, and how their system works; who do we have to kill or capture to
win?”

Rohan frowned inwardly. The three men in the room, not counting the Sergeant, were among
the most adaptable officers under his command, and they were having problems coming to
grasp with the concept of fighting aliens. How would the common soldiers handle the task?
Would they fight as well as they had during the Final War, or would they freeze up when
they saw their first human?

“The Tradermaster has provided us with all the intelligence that his people have been able to
gather,” he said, his eyes sending them a warning message. They didn’t know for sure if they
could trust the Traders when such matters were concerned. There was no way to verify what
the Traders were telling them, and that worried him more than he could say. “Our task is to
study the humans, and then draw up a plan of campaign.”

Without further ado, he opened his pocket and produced a small device, placing it on the
table. It was a device that was literally years ahead of anything the Malick Karn were
capable of producing for themselves, even now; the Savants attempting to decipher how some
of the technology the Traders had provided hadn’t been able to even begin to deduce how the
‘holographic projector’ worked. The best they could come up with was the suggestion that it
was somehow capable of creating mirages to order, but even that seemed impossible. He
tapped a key on the device and an image of a human, naked, blinked into existence.
“This is a human,” he said, noting the almost superstitious fear in their eyes. Humans
weren’t monstrous, but the ghostly image worried even men who had faced death without
flinching. “Like us, most of their armies are composed of men, although a few of their
national armies have women in the fighting ranks. Don’t laugh; you ma remember the Battle
of Grozh and the fighting women who fought there.”

He smiled thinly at the memory; he’d been a young troop commander then. The Grozh had
been republicans, so convinced that everyone had the right to vote that they’d even allowed
women to vote, which had resulted rapidly in women rising to power and filling roles only
meant for men. Women were generally smarter than men, although he had to remind himself
that that might only hold true for the Malick Karn, but they were also weaker, with much less
endurance. The women had fought well at Grozh, but in the end, they had been broken. Char
was much more responsible when it came to the care and protection of their women.

“Unlike us, they are divided into nations, without a single all-powerful government,” he
continued. “This gives us an advantage; we will be fighting as a single force, while they will
be disunited and perhaps with even a faction or two that would be willing to side with us,
rather than their fellow humans. Our own history tells us that many would be willing to
betray their own kind, rather than allying with them.”

He spoke rapidly, outlining the information in the files, mouthing strange alien names in
strange languages. America, Britain, Russia, Mexico, Canada, Iran, China…they all sounded
very alien, very strange. Some of them seemed crazy, at least in terms he understood; what
was the point of having a nation built around a single religion? Killing, enslaving or
expelling those who were different made no sense; Char’s only concession to liberalism was
the agreement that Malick Karn could practice whatever religion they liked. Others were
even worse, a nation where the leader was elected, or a nation where military officers took
power whenever they felt like it. What was the point of building the most powerful military
force in the history of Earth when it wasn’t used?

“This is unbelievable,” General Sir Bothe said, after skimming through one of the files. Char
had one very simple response to challenges to its rule; extreme force. This…America –
Rohan had thought at first that it was some counterpart to Char, but apparently the incident
where two ‘Presidents’ had the same name was a fluke – seemed to be composed of
weaklings, fools, and traitors. “Your Highness, are we sure that the Traders are telling the
truth?”

“Of course,” Rohan said, flicking his eyelids at him, a warning that not everything was as it
seemed. Char Intelligence had found all manner of useful surveillance technologies from the
information the Traders had given them; what might the Traders have kept for themselves?
Was the Tradermaster watching, even now? “I have every confidence in their ability to find
out whatever they want to find out.”

“The main problem will be the bottleneck in transportation,” General Sir Carha said, after
reading through the information. “We can expect that the humans will not be defeated in the
first battle; at that point, they will be much closer to their bases than we will be to ours, and
they will be bringing their forces to bear on our beachheads.” He paused. “Spaceheads?”

“It hardly matters,” General Sir Bothe said. “According to this, they can move an entire
corps in three of their ships.”
“And all of their equipment?” General Sir Carha asked. “We will need supplies, aircraft,
medical support, occupation troops…can all of them be transported rapidly to this planet?
We can have the logistics on this side well organised, but the Traders will have to keep the
supplies flowing, and if that fails…”

Rohan nodded. He had watched as supply lines across the oceans had flexed and weakened,
sometimes breaking, under the sheer weight of requirements from the soldiers on the attack.
Enemy attack would only make that worse; if the humans somehow succeeded in breaking a
Trader supply line, as improbable as that seemed, the army would be in serious trouble.

“We can build up on the moon base first, Your Highness,” General Sir Carha continued.
“That would give us some reserves, but at the same time, it would limit the number of Trader
ships that could make the journey from here to Earth. There would be a period of
around…two ten-days when we would have no reserves at all, until the first reinforcements
came directly from Karn.”

“We may have to trust in the Traders to handle that side of the operation,” Rohan said. He
was pleased that his subordinates were coming to grips with the problem, but at the same
time, there were just too many unknowns. “Sir Bothe?”

It was General Sir Ryath who spoke. “We cannot take on all of Earth at once,” he said flatly.
“There is no central government that we can knock out to win, but dozens of smaller
governments, each one determined to maintain its own independence. Some of them may
well work with us, but others will take advantage of our arrival to carry out their own
agendas, while the ones that we target will devote everything they have to attacking us.
There is also the issue of an air force; we will have problems transporting enough aircraft to
make a significant difference.”

Rohan remembered the infighting over the creation of a major independent air force and
smiled. General Sir Ryath, an infantry officer to the core, had been adamantly opposed to
introducing an air force that would concentrate on bombing the enemy factories, rather than
providing close-air support to the army as it advanced. The results had changed the General’s
mind, until the new air-denial systems had come into play.

“They have thousands of aircraft, it seems, many of them fully equal to our own aircraft,”
General Sir Ryath continued. His voice, naturally gruff, was growing more enthusiastic as he
spoke. “If we bring in air-denial systems, we will prevent them from operating either their
own aircraft or their cruise missiles near our bases, which will give us an advantage. We are
used to operating without air cover; they are not.”

“We can probably transport in a few hundred attack helicopters of our own,” General Sir
Carha said softly. “Armoured units and infantry, however, will remain the most important
priority; they will have to be transported first, along with air denial systems.”

Rohan nodded. “Please draw up mobilisation orders for the units you intend to call upon,” he
said calmly. “The Traders are keen that we begin as soon as possible.” He glanced across at
General Sir Bothe, one of his best strategists, among other things. “General?”
General Sir Bothe had a tendency to lecture his young commander at times. Rohan tolerated
it; compared to some of the officers he had to deal with, General Sir Bothe was competence
made flesh. He had risen in the ranks rapidly enough to prove his worth; it was a rare
incompetent aristocrat who reached General’s rank without someone calling him on his
competence. The nuggets of insight were worth the lecture.

“As we cannot hope to invade the entire planet at once, I suggest that we concentrate our
efforts here, here and here,” he said, pointing to three main locations on the map of Earth. “A
successful defeat of America in her own territory would underline our power to any other
human who dares to think of taking us on; on the other hand, America is the nation most
capable of producing long-term opposition. Their rapid defeat is important.

“Challenging a second human superpower would be unwise, therefore we will target their
main oil producing region, and some of their smaller nations, something that will give us the
ability to strangle some of their more developed regions, giving them some incentive to come
to terms with us. Once we have defeated the Americans, we will be in a position to take out
their other developed nations and then expand our control still further. Their nations that do
not possess a significant military capability will not be a problem; it is possible that they may
even provide soldiers for us, as some of the regions on our own planet did. As
this…America” – he stumbled over the alien word – “is so disliked, we may well find allies
in the region.”

“An excellent plan,” Rohan said, after General Sir Bothe had finished. There were some
minor refinements that the plan would need, but all that would be required was preparing the
logistics and making sure that the Trader intelligence was accurate. Humanity possessed
weapons and equipment comparable to what the Traders had provided the Malick Karn, but,
as the Savant had pointed out, the humans would understand their own technology far better.
Rohan could see opportunity there…and great dangers. “We will also need ambassadors, to
talk to the human nations; they will have to learn human languages, whatever it takes.”

“Of course, Your Highness,” General Sir Bothe said.

General Sir Carha looked surprised. “Your Highness, can we not use Trader transelation
devices?”

“The humans may not allow the Ambassadors to take translation devices with them,” Rohan
said. He couldn’t tell them the truth; he wasn’t entirely sure that they could trust anything
that the Traders had provided them from their own technology. The computer Savants were
almost certain that there were no unpleasant surprises built into the computers that the
Traders had taught the Malick Karn how to make, but Rohan was all-too-aware that the
Traders had been building computers for much longer than any of the Malick Karn. Talking
to the humans might become important in more ways than simply doing as the Traders
wanted and dictating terms. “We cannot rely on anything.”

He stood up. “I have much to attend to,” he said, knowing that they would understand. He
hated to leave them to work out the details without him, but there was little choice…and so
little that he could tell them, so little he dared share without running the risk of the Traders
listening in and hearing everything. “I need you three to complete the plan of campaign and
present it to me and my father within a week. Time is not on our side.”
“Yes, Your Highness,” General Sir Bothe said. “One question; do the humans know that we
are coming?”

“Apparently not,” Rohan said. It was a good question; had the Traders opened
communications with Earth before planning the invasion? If so, what had happened? If not,
how would the humans react if the Malick Karn made a diplomatic move of their own? “We
should have the advantage of surprise.”
Chapter Four: Where No Malick Karn Has Gone Before, Take One

“You are troubled, Your Highness,” Prince Courtesan Garlinda-Ya said, as she came up
behind him in the night. Rohan was looking over the Palace Grounds, looking down at the
massive shape of Trader transport ships, loading with soldiers and equipment for the trip to
Earth. Only two ten-days had passed since the Traders had ‘asked’ for the military invasion
and already it seemed as if enough equipment to invade ten worlds had been loaded into the
starships. “Come back to bed.”

Rohan shook his head. Prince Courtesan Garlinda-Ya was his companion, a woman who had
been selected for him by his father, someone to keep a young prince’s mind off the
temptations presented by any of the Ladies of the Court. Women, even Court women,
couldn’t wield any authority of their own; their only claim to status was whom they had
married. If Rohan fell into bed with any of the Ladies, he would find himself betrothed and
married before he had even had time to consummate the relationship. Garlinda-Ya was not
only gorgeous, she was sterile and of such low status that she could never marry him.

“I can’t sleep,” he admitted. He was taking Garlinda-Ya with him on the mission, even
though his father had advised against it; he needed her presence more than he cared to admit.
The Malick Karn women were smarter than their men, something the Trader had once
explained as being a result of their biology. Garlinda-Ya was smaller than him and much
weaker; he could have broken her in half without much effort. The Trader had noted that if
intelligence and the ability to manipulate men was the only means of defence that the women
had, then that was what they would use. “I’m nervous.”

He had been nervous before his first battle, nervous about failing his men, nervous about
being in the face of very real danger. His presence on the front lines, no matter how far back
he had been held, had been dangerous; had the enemy known that the Crown Prince was
there, they would have spared no effort to kill him. Personal danger hadn’t even occurred to
him until just before the fighting had begun; when it had begun, he had been too engaged in
fighting to panic. Now, now he would command an army that had to engage aliens, on a
different world, and one that depended on even stranger aliens for bare survival.

Garlinda-Ya’s hands reached out and started to massage his back. She was a trained medical
technician – one of the few careers open to women was medicine – and knew everything
about his reactions after nearly ten years of living with him. It had occurred to him, from
time to time, that she loved him, but he found the thought too frightening to confront. Love
was forbidden to one of his rank; he would marry someone who would serve as a link
between the Royal Family and one of the other noble families, perhaps even one of the nobles
from the crushed nations. He could no more marry Garlinda-Ya than he could marry a
human.

“This is too big,” he said, as her fingers gently smoothed out the aches and pains. He
wouldn’t have taken her along if she hadn’t been useful, regardless of her position in his
household; almost all of the medical staff was composed of women. Malick Karn wouldn’t –
ever – kill women if it could be avoided; it was the old guarantee that the medical staff and
their patients would be left inviolate. Trained medical officers were valuable, too valuable to
kill or traumatise with rape and torture. “We’re going to take on another world, even if it’s
divided into smaller nations. We’re going to face aliens, people very different from us,
and…they’re not going to think like us.”
Garlinda-Ya was the only one he had shared any information about the Traders with; the
other members of the study groups knew that she spoke with his voice, when she spoke.
Even so, there were limits to what they dared share amongst themselves; they all knew how
capable the Traders were with technology. What had they invented to use against the Malick
Karn that no one, not even one of the newer Savants, could even imagine? There was no way
to know.

“They don’t look like us,” Garlinda-Ya said, as her hands moved lower. He recognised an
attempt to distract him and smiled to himself. “Perhaps they will make good subjects and
stronger allies for the Emperor.”

“Perhaps,” Rohan agreed. “Even so, we will be campaigning for at least ten years to defeat
and occupy an entire world, even if everything goes perfectly – and it won’t. There are too
many things that have to go right…and if they go wrong, something else will go wrong, and
then…no battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.”

The Malick Karn had had that saying for years. It had amused him to note that the humans
had a similar saying, even as the study groups had dug into the information provided by the
Traders, trying to understand humans. They seemed…odd as a race, capable of being as
ruthless as the Malick Karn themselves, and yet, somehow unwilling to move towards a
global government. There were a lot of little puzzles surrounding humanity that didn’t quite
add up, some pieces of the puzzle that were either missing, or so alien that they didn’t quite
fit into anything a Malick Karn could understand.

In Rohan’s experience – in all of the history of the Malick Karn – a nation that managed to
gain power tended to expand until it ran into something big enough to stop it. The defeated
would be crushed and assimilated into the victorious society, trading their submission for
their lives; their women would marry into the victorious nation and blend their blood into the
victor’s blood. If a small nation attacked a large nation, it was crushed ruthlessly; the humans
seemed willing to tolerate any number of verbal attacks, let alone military attacks, from their
smaller nations. Rohan didn’t understand and it worried him; Malick Karn experience said
that a display of weakness would bring other foes down on the head of the weak nation.

His lips twitched thinly. After all, was that not what had happened to Char, before the
Traders had arrived? The Char Empire had once been powerful beyond belief, but finally, it
too had lost battles, losing parts of the empire to outside forces, and being reduced bit by bit,
each loss spurring on further defeats. Rohan’s father had known that he would be the last
Emperor…before the Traders arrived.

Garlinda-Ya considered his words as her hands worked their magic on him. “They cannot
reach here, can they?” She asked, referring to Karn itself. “If so, they can only defeat the
army on Earth, not use it to get back here.”

“True,” Rohan agreed. A flicker of light glinted off one of the Trader ships as it rose
soundlessly into the air, carrying a few thousand soldiers up towards the orbiting fleet. Some
of the soldiers would be terrified, he knew, even though they had all been briefed on how
harmless the entire process was. Some of the soldiers would come from nations that held the
sky to be the home of demons; their superstitions would risk the entire mission unless they
were broken, quickly. “What do you think of the humans?”
He had shown her all of the information on the humans, hoping for her insights. “I think they
make much better use of their women,” she said, mischievously. “How big an army could
you raise if most of the work was done by women?”

“Don’t even joke about that,” Rohan warned her. There were always conservatives who
wanted to place even more restrictions on the lives of women, mainly the viceroys in regions
that had upheld female equality before being crushed. The women just didn’t know their
place. “Do you have a more serious point to raise?”

Garlinda-Ya pinched him. “They’re capable of fighting a long war, at least they have been
capable in their past,” she said. “They have weapons and capabilities to match ours, perhaps
even more; they may even be capable of flying in space under their own power. Just because
they can’t match the Traders doesn’t mean that they can’t match us.”

Rohan felt warm. “Worrying,” he agreed. “Any thoughts on how we should approach
them?”

She read his mind. “Carefully,” she said. There was a warning note in her voice. The
Traders had to be watched carefully; intelligence, after all, was the only defence of the weak.
It occurred to Rohan that a woman might be much more capable of finding weaknesses in the
Trader technology than a man. “We may not want to win too quickly, after all.”

“No,” he agreed. A second Trader ship rose into the air. It was massive, larger than most
ships he had seen on the water, reminding him that they had no effective way to move a naval
force across the gulf of space. The humans might have a much smaller fleet than he would
have expected – larger ships were apparently expensive – but they would add to the firepower
that they could call upon. Ships hadn’t played that much of a role in the Final War; the
humans might have more tricks than the Malick Karn could call upon. A quick victory, even
with the planned decapitation strike, was unlikely to succeed. “We may need to convince
humans to submit conditionally to us…”

Garlinda-Ya made a disgusted noise. A conditional submission was always based around a
marriage, victorious man to defeated woman…and that was impossible where humans were
concerned. Human women were…strange, taller and stronger than Malick Karn women,
with larger mammalian breasts; they were ugly compared to Malick Karn women. It was
unlikely that his soldiers would abuse human women, let alone marry them; if nothing else, a
large civilian Malick Karn population would have to be moved in to provide security and
comfort for the occupation army.

“I know,” Rohan said. The thought stirred his blood and he pushed backwards against her
flesh. “We may have to find other ways to come to terms with the humans.”

She gasped slightly as he pressed against her. “I have already begun to study their language,”
she said. The Traders hadn’t realised, perhaps, that they might have denied the Malick Karn
access to a real primer for human languages, but they had accidentally provided enough
information for trained linguistic experts, like Garlinda-Ya, to make some progress. Once
they landed, the researchers would go to work on human prisoners, learning how they spoke.
“I will be able to translate for you.”
Rohan turned to face her, turning her, gently, but firmly, away from him. She understood his
urgency, turning her back and bending over for him, opening her gateway for his entry.
Rohan took her, there and then, before leading her to the bed and pulling her down with him
into sleep. They had only a few hours left before they left Karn, perhaps forever.

Despite the pleasure of mating, it was a long time before Rohan was able to sleep.

                                              ***
The shape of the Trader starship rose up in front of Footsoldier Othoes. It had been visible
for kilometres as the unit of armed infantry marched along the long Char road towards the
landing zone. The infantry of the Volunteer Army – and wasn’t that, Footsoldier Othoes
knew, a joke – were not permitted to spend any time inside Char City itself; who knew what
they might get up to if they were permitted entry. Footsoldier Othoes, along with the
remainder of his unit, hadn’t seen even an Army prostitute for months, since his last leave.
The reminder of what he was missing stung, even as he felt awe – and terror – when he
looked upon the Trader ship.

He hadn’t known, when he was young, about the Traders. All he had known was the terror in
Grozh when the invading Char armies had finally broken through the defence line and headed
directly for the city. His mother had hidden him, his brother and his three sisters as the
soldiers had approached, but the soldiers had found them anyway. His brother, a man of
near-military age, had been beheaded; his sisters had been raped. He…had been left alive, to
remember, and to swear revenge. Joining the Volunteer Army had seemed the only way to
gain any military experience, but he had never been posted back to Grozh; instead, he had
been sent from one hellhole to another as part of the war, the massive grinding machine that
had been used by Char to complete the task of destroying its enemies. Somewhere along the
way, he had found out about the Traders…

His eyes lit on the single Char officer, riding along beside them on a small truck, and felt
hatred burning through his mind. Some of the Volunteer Army officers were very capable,
competent, and actually cared for their men, but Captain Ginkes was thoughtless and cruel,
someone who had acquired his position merely because of the iron rule that only Char
officers could actually command Volunteer Army units. The highest that Othoes, a mere
Footsoldier, could reach was the rank of Sergeant; no non-Char officers were permitted. It
might not have been bad for the common soldier when they were not actually at war, but
from what Captain Ginkes had told the five thousand soldiers of the regiment, they were
going to war against an alien foe.

The Trader ship, massive, something out of a nightmare, finally dispelled the vain hope that
Captain Ginkes had been playing a cruel joke on his men. Othoes had seen ships floating in
the water that seemed impossibly vast, but the Trader ship actually flew! No technology he
knew could build anything like that…and he felt cold hatred for the Traders spreading
through him, even as he acknowledged their power. It was almost beyond his
comprehension, but they would be going to a different world, one so far from Grozh that
desertion was no longer even a theoretical option. He knew, they all did, what happened to
deserters; it was no longer possible to cross a city without having one’s identity checked by
the police. In the distance, a Trader ship lifted off, heading into the air…and he felt his jaw
drop. What could do something like that?
“Silence in the ranks,” a Sergeant bellowed. Some of the men had begun to panic. “Silence
there!”

Footsoldier Othoes adjusted his pack and looked aback at the landscape of Char. It wasn’t
the hills and mountain that had given birth to his people, but at least it was on the same
world; they were going to fight on a completely different world. It scared him, more than he
cared to admit; they were going to rise up in the air and somehow reach another world.
Darkness fell as they entered the shadow cast by the ship; some of the men actually
whimpered in fright.

“17th Regiment, Volunteer Army, reporting,” Captain Ginkes snapped, and the entire force
snapped out a salute at the military policeman trying to direct the chaos. Every Char officer
or soldier had to be saluted by a Volunteer, no matter how lowly his rank. “Where are we to
be billeted?”

A light shimmered into existence in front of Captain Ginkes and he jumped back. “Please
follow the light to your bedding area,” the military policeman said. “Once you are there,
remain there until you are ordered to leave.”

Inside, the ship was…strange, almost like the interior of a transport naval ship. The bright
lights were everywhere, casting the entire scene into sharp relief, revealing the existence of
thousands of other soldiers, some of them trying to get comfortable on hard floors. Captain
Ginkes led them through the cavernous interior of the ship, following the light as it bobbled
in front of them, finally entering a room large enough to hold thousands more soldiers. The
Sergeant bellowed a command and the infantrymen started to disperse, finding places where
they could sleep comfortably; Othoes himself was more interested in a drink. Like many of
the others, he had a small flask with him, taking a sip as he unfurled his sleeping mat and
looked around. The room’s only benefit was a series of water taps for the men, and what he
hoped were toilets, with a line of soldiers already forming in front of it. There was no sign of
any food.

Two sergeants were already pacing among the lines of soldiers, inspecting sleeping
arrangements, and Othoes hurried to get ready to sleep. His pack contained enough food for
two ten-days, if he ate sparingly, as well as equipment and briefing papers that had been
provided by Captain Ginkes himself. Naturally, Footsoldiers like Othoes knew better than to
take all of it seriously, but even Captain Ginkes wouldn’t lie to soldiers who were going to
war. The information on the humans had to keep the soldiers alive and killing humans, not
having them walk into traps because they underestimated their foe. Humans, according to the
report, were not only barbarians, but capable of building and using weapons fully equal to the
army. Soldiers were warned that they must not fall into human hands, because otherwise
they would be tortured before being killed on the spot.

His lips twitched as he looked at Captain Ginkes, who had managed to set himself up a
proper bed, carried by two of his porters. The senior officer had his slaves and two of his
women along with him, the common Footsoldiers had no one to help them with their loads.
They were lucky if they ever saw real medical care after they were wounded.

The humans couldn’t be that bad, could they? Othoes wanted to return to Grozh, one day; he
didn’t want to leave his bones under an alien star. Were the humans really that bad? He
wished he knew…
Chapter Five: Where No Malick Karn Has Gone Before, Take Two

“The passengers are behaving themselves,” Shipmaster Salkan said, as the Profitable Day
made its way out of the Malick Karn system. “I was expecting that there would be more
protests and perhaps even an open mutiny or two before we were halfway out of the system.”

Tradermaster Maxtin gave him a thin smile. The Profitable Day was something so large that
none of the Malick Karn could really grasp the scale of the civilisation that had produced it.
It measured as nearly a hundred kilometres long…and carried seven Traders within its hull.
Not a social race, not any longer, even the merest apprentice could have rooms that would
have awed the Malick Karn with their luxury. It would hardly have required effort to give
each and every one of the thousands of soldiers embarked on the starship their own suites fit
for a king – or even their own Emperor. They were used to dingy cabins and holds in their
own transport ships, sailing upon the watery sea; the facilities on the Profitable Day seemed
wondrous to them.

He said as much. “They are primitives,” he said. “The Char Empire would have died a
natural death, were it not for us. The social trends were clear; the centre of Malick Karn
power was gravitating towards the democratic republics, which were far more capable of
harnessing both the willing labour and intellectual capital available to them. By contrast,
while Char had worked to evolve a system that allowed talent to rise to the top, there were
strong limits on where they could actually draw that talent.”

“Barbarians,” Shipmaster Salkan said.

“Of course,” Tradermaster Maxtin agreed. “The Malick Karn were developing towards a
system where democracy would ensure that talent had a chance to rise and be replaced
constantly by newer talent, until we interfered. Our support literally removed the need for
Char to think for itself, and indeed their own social system worked in our favour, as there was
little opposition to the introduction of new technology.”

He waved one tentacle in the air. He had chosen to retain the basic Trader form, in order to
be able to visit the surface of a planet at leisure, while Shipmaster Salkan had gone much
further into becoming a space-faring being in his own right. He might still be able to have
children, if he made the change back to being female, but Tradermaster Maxtin privately
doubted that the Shipmaster would ever choose to change again. The Traders, unlike the
Malick Karn, had no sex-based discrimination, but changing back now would be messy.
Only a small percentage of Shipmaster Salkan’s body was organic now, the remainder was
bio-engineered flesh and implants.

“By contrast, the humans have actually produced a fairly sustainable social system across
nearly a third of their world, although they are too primitive, as yet, to realise either the
advantages of space travel or the advantages of formal unity,” he continued. “This is
fortunate as the humans may well crack the secrets of faster-than-light travel soon enough to
pose a threat to us, unless we defeat them first…”

He paused. Something that the Malick Karn couldn’t hope to understand was how
thoroughly the Traders had penetrated the networks and computers that they had taught the
Malick Karn how to build. The Malick Karn were indeed attempting to crack the secrets of
Trader technology, but their understanding of the sciences behind the Trader gifts was very
limited, and in some cases what they thought they knew was actually holding them back. The
humans were less advanced, but they at least knew the underpinnings of their own sciences,
giving them a head start over the Malick Karn. Open contact was too dangerous; any attempt
to manipulate any human faction was too risky. Humans were paranoid, with good reason;
the Traders had to work at a distance.

He noticed Shipmaster Salkan’s nervousness and looked over at him. “Is there a problem?”

“Your pet” – he meant the Malick Karn Prince – “is intending to land in the heart of the
human centre of power,” he said. “This will expose our craft to human fire.”

Tradermaster Maxtin made a dismissive gesture. “So what?” He asked. “Can they harm the
transports when we take them in to land?”

He sent a pulse of information towards the other Trader. “The latest report from the ship
observing the humans has reported that the humans suspect nothing,” he said. “There is, after
all, nothing for them to see…until they see us as we approach their satellite network. Even if
a major war breaks out on the surface of Earth, it could hardly threaten their power centres,
could it?”

Shipmaster Salkan sent a complex emotion pulse back towards him. “You are talking about
exposing us deliberately to the humans,” he said. The emotion pulse spoke of fear,
trepidation and concern. “They will see us coming, just in time to know that they are about to
be attacked.”

“We have limits, even on our technology,” Tradermaster Maxtin reminded him dryly. “For
all of our power, we could not move the transports through their atmosphere without them
noticing us; their early-warning systems might not be configured to track ships from outside,
but they will see us when we enter their atmosphere.”

“When they would have less than half of their hours to react to us,” Shipmaster Salkan said.
“Your plan means that they will have nearly a day to react to our presence in their system.”

“Precisely,” Tradermaster Maxtin said. He spoke very carefully; it was important that
Shipmaster Salkan remained on his side. “The humans do not maintain large military forces
in constant readiness, so we need to give them some warning of our presence to have them
scrambling for us to catch and defeat them at our selected landing sites. I have studied the
humans carefully, and if they see us coming in openly, they will attempt to make a peaceful
contact, rather than panicking before we get our forces on the ground.”

Shipmaster Salkan sent a doubtful pulse through the network. “We do not want the humans
engaging our ships as they pass through the atmosphere, do we?” Tradermaster Maxtin
asked. “If they see us, they will hold their fire as we head in towards the landing sites,
hoping that we will make peaceful contact.”

“It makes a certain kind of sense,” Shipmaster Salkan agreed grimly. “And if they open fire
on our ships?”

“Then we can engage them, under the Law,” Tradermaster Maxtin said. The overall
weakness in the plan, the one weakness that the Malick Karn hadn’t noticed, because they
were planet-bound, was that the humans would have a good chance to attack them while they
were unloading their supplies. If the humans were unwise enough to attack the starships –
and he had created a situation where the humans would have little choice, but to attack the
starships – his ships could sweep the humans away and win the Malick Karn some time to
deploy. “If they attack us, they deserve everything that we give them.”

“Your fascination with these primitives is unseemly,” Shipmaster Salkan reminded him.
“You are a Trader, one bound to no one, but your Clan. What fascination do these creatures
hold for you?”

“They are the key to the future greatness of our Clan,” Tradermaster Maxtin said. “We have
no choice, but to study them, and use them all up in the pursuit of our own glory.
Understanding them is the key to using them for our own benefit.”

A console chimed. “The Prince of the Malick Karn would like to see me,” he said. “I believe
that you would find the discussion interesting.”

“I would prefer to not engage with the natives,” Shipmaster Salkan said firmly. “We will talk
again, once we have entered the Earth solar system.”

His image blinked out of existence. Tradermaster Maxtin smiled inwardly and activated a
series of holograms; it wouldn’t do for the Malick Karn to realise just how few Traders there
actually were on the big vessel. It might give them ideas, ideas they lack the sophistication to
understand were futile, regardless of how brave or foolish they were. It was a breach in the
Law to bring the primitive to the bridge of the command ship, but the Tradermaster was
fascinated; he wanted to know what the Malick Karn would make of the ship…and of the
view of space outside the bridge.

                                               ***
It had taken almost a day – time seemed much harder to keep track of inside the ship – before
Rohan had finally realised, deep inside, that he was further from his home than he had ever
been before…and completely at the mercy of aliens he knew to be ruthless. The shakes had
started then, and only the presence of Garlinda-Ya and the desperate need to protect and
support his men had kept them at bay, as it sank in that he was completely powerless. The
strange environment of the starship only rubbed in to him just where they were…and how
much danger they were really in.

Some parts of the starship seemed almost built for Malick Karn, possessing the correct
proportions and gravities for their existence, other parts had different gravity fields, or even
seemed designed for creatures smaller than any Malick Karn. The Savants had explored as
much of the ship as they had access to, purely in the sprit of experimentation, but hadn’t
found anything useful; they weren’t even sure of the interior design of the ship. The soldiers
themselves had been worked hard, running through both briefings on Earth and tactical
exercises, trying hard to keep their minds of where they were. First Sergeant Sir Chamita had
reported that many of the men, even the elite of the Imperial Guard, were scared, those that
had the intelligence to understand their position. Those that didn’t have the intelligence were
a godsend; they kept the others focused on their plans…

And some of the Trader technology was perfectly built for war. The elite soldiers had been
running through more holographic projections of their target areas, strange buildings on Earth
that served as the centre of human power and authority. Not all of them would be hit by the
first wave of invasions, but it gave them all some understanding of humans and how they
thought. In many ways, humans were similar to the Malick Karn; they wouldn’t be as strange
as the Traders. If only their blood hadn’t been that strange colour, they might even pass for
Malick Karn with only a few small surgical alterations.

“You’d better come,” he said, to Garlinda-Ya. She wasn’t the only woman on the ship, but
he valued her advice more than he let on to anyone, except Sir Chamita. The Sergeant
understood; most of the men would have only thought that being willing to listen to a woman
was a sign of weakness. The ball of light floated in front of him, beckoning him onwards,
into the vast starship, leading him through an airlock he could have sworn wasn’t there an
hour ago, when they had explored their living quarters.

She took his hand as the airlock closed behind them, the light leading them on towards the
Tradermaster, somewhere within the ship. Rohan had given up trying to figure out how large
the ship was, or how some units who had gone up on different transports had ended up being
able to intermingle with one another. Some of the Trader technology still seemed like magic
to him, no matter how much the Savants kept reminding him that it was just science; for all
they knew, they were going much further from Karn than the Traders had claimed.

A massive hatch opened up in front of them, and then another, then another, each one silently
closing behind them as they walked through, leaving them trapped until the next set opened
and closed. They kept walking, until they finally reached a much larger door, feeling lighter
as the gravity field started to fade slightly. The large doors opened, revealing…

He felt his legs start to freeze and forced them to work through sheer force of will. The sight
that greeted his eyes was awesome; they were floating out in the darkness of space, stars
shining down on them from above. He could see the Tradermaster sitting in a single large
chair, its bulky form glittering in the cold light cast by the stars, a handful of other Traders
scattered around the room, working at consoles. He wasn't sure if they were Traders, some of
them looked so different that he wondered if he was looking at yet another alien race, but he
was somehow sure that they were related to the Traders. They were…

“The stars,” Garlinda-Ya said, her voice shaking. “They’re not twinkling.”

“There is no atmosphere here,” the Tradermaster said. There was a faint hint of amusement
in its voice. “There is nothing, but the fields surrounding the ship to prevent the force of
nature from destroying you, body and soul.”

The reminder that they were completely dependent upon the Trader grated, as Rohan
suspected it had been meant to grate. He carefully avoided looking at the Tradermaster,
taking the opportunity to examine two of the other Traders with more care, noting how the
alien flesh seemed torn and rent with mechanical devices, tearing through them and replacing
it with…what?

“They have expanded their capabilities for life in space,” the Tradermaster said, answering
his unspoken question. “Are your forces adapting well to the transit through space?”

Rohan looked up at the stars. There was no sense of movement; somehow, he had expected
stars to be flickering past, faster than the speed of thoughts. It was easy to believe that they
weren’t moving at all, that somehow below Karn waited for them to return, but he knew that
that wasn’t going to happen unless they won the war. If the humans beat them, Rohan knew
that his bones and those of Garlinda-Ya would lie forever on Earth.

“They are surviving,” he said finally, somehow unwilling to confess to weakness. “Some of
the men are suffering from the distance of being so far from their homes, others are excited
about going on to fight a different foe and win glory. We will be ready to fight the humans
according to the plan.”

“I have approved your plan,” the Tradermaster said finally. “It is a daring plan, but under the
limitations that we face, it is perhaps the best plan. I notice that you do not worry too much
about the safety of the starships.”

The sudden point took Rohan by surprise. “I was under the impression that the starships
were invincible,” he said. He would have preferred to discover that the humans could destroy
the starships if they tried. “Is there a problem with using them to transport us to the surface?”

“Not at all,” the Tradermaster said. “I want you to ensure that you land right on top of some
of your targets, understand?”

Rohan frowned. “I understand,” he said, after a long moment of puzzlement. He still didn’t
understand why, but at least he knew what he had to do. The Traders had their own game
going on…and it would be foolish of him to assume that he knew what it was, until he knew
more about them than he did. “We intend to hit the humans as hard as we can.”

“Good,” the Tradermaster said. “The humans are dangerous foes, Prince Rohan; it is
important that you defeat them before they defeat you.”

“I understand the problems,” Rohan said. He had gone though all of the information on the
humans, but he knew that there were too many questions remaining unanswered. For one
thing, just how would the humans react to beings who looked like Malick Karn? Humans
looked strange to his eyes, almost amusing parodies of what Malick Karn looked like, but
what would they make of him? “Tradermaster, how large is this ship?”

He had hoped that the question would discomfit the Trader. “It’s as large as it needs to be,”
the Trader said. “It is four days before we enter Earth orbit and begin the attack with the elite
soldiers you insisted on loading onto these ships. Will your people be ready to launch the
attack?”

Rohan hesitated. “There are some matters that concern me,” he admitted. “The humans
posses thousands of orbiting satellites that will be watching down on us from high above.
Those satellites need to be destroyed.”

“That need not concern you,” the Tradermaster informed him. “Your advanced air denial
systems, although limited in power, are capable of disabling the human satellites, which were
not built with such an attack in mind. Their targeting systems have been provided with the
ability to target and destroy the human satellites.”
Rohan filed the information away. The Traders had prepared for a threat…without even
bothering to discuss the need with the Malick Karn. It was interesting; deep inside, he was
sure that it meant something important, but…what?

“We may also need to open channels to other human nations,” he continued. They had
discussed that aspect of the plan at some length. The main target for violence was America.
The other human nations needed to be distracted…and the Malick Karn didn’t know enough
about human politics to trigger a few fault lines. “May we have access to a Trader transport
pod for the diplomatic discussions?”

There was a long pause. “That would be permissible,” the Tradermaster said finally. “One
will be provided for you.”

“The only other complaint concerns the food on the ships,” Rohan concluded. He was aware
of Garlinda-Ya’s sudden nervousness. “The soldiers are finding it bland and unsatisfying.”

“It contains all of the nutrients and supplements you need for your journey across space,” the
Tradermaster informed him. “You will have all the resources that you require to survive.”

There was a pause. “Now, detail the final version of your attack plans,” the Tradermaster
ordered. “The time is fast approaching when you will have to put the plan into action.”

Rohan nodded and got down to business.
Chapter Six: First Contact

The Klingon suit was far too hot, Alex Houghton thought ruefully, as he carefully started to
climb out of it. It wasn’t as if it was that impressive any more; only hardcore Trek fans were
walking around the convention wearing outfits and costumes from Star Trek. A handful of
attendees were dressed as Wookies from Star Wars, but by and large, there were fewer of
them as well in the light of the disappointment of the prequels. A single boy dressed as Jar
Jar Binks had been roundly jeered by attendees and was currently sitting in a side room,
crying his eyes out.

Not that the rest of the convention was a disappointment. A noted author of military science-
fiction had gone head-to-head with a hardcore feminist who felt that the perception of women
in his books was generally misogynist, providing much argument for the audience to watch,
while another author had hit the booze pretty hard and had told his audience exactly what he
thought of them. Sales and readers weren’t enough, he had said; he wanted comments,
comments, and more comments. Houghton was certain that he would have them now, in
spades.

“Hey, take care of this, man,” a hardcore Trek fan said, as Houghton finished removing the
military uniform. He didn’t speak Klingon and the next time he heard an invitation to do
battle in the alien tongue, he had privately decided to kick the bastard in the nuts. “These
things are classics.”

“I’m going to return it to the dressing room,” Houghton said, as he carried the suit back out
into the main hall. “Feel free to hire it yourself if you want.”

The main hall was packed with authors signing books, along with a handful of actual
astronaughts, signing fewer books. Houghton had taken the time to visit and chat with a few
of the real space travellers, but they had fewer people queuing at their tables; they were
just…less interesting than the authors, or the film stars. Tommy O’Flynn, hero of the Cosmic
Warfare series, had had thousands of young girls queuing to see him, but real space flight
was just…not interesting any longer. Those magnificent ships went into Earth orbit…and
never went anywhere interesting. Houghton believed, deep inside, that if NASA could only
get its thumb out of its collective arse, it could set up a moonbase and start running tours to
the moon, convincing thousands of young people that it was worth the effort. Space Camp
just didn’t cut it.

He stepped out of the hall and into a Washington summer, pausing only to wave at a girl he
knew from college, Gloria Featherstone. Like many other girls of her age, she pretended not
to know him; nerds were just less exciting, compared to the jocks who had made his life hell
before he won the scholarship to a Washington university. He had only exchanged a few
words with Gloria, enough to know that while there might be a nice person hiding under her
skin, she was very well hidden indeed when any of the jocks or shallow girls were around.
Her current boyfriend was a case in point; the piss-off look he gave Houghton was enough to
scare off someone much bigger than a short nerd with nothing going for him.

His cell phone buzzed. “Alex, this is Gary,” a voice said, when he answered. “Are you still
at that Sci-Fi convention?”
“Yes, sir,” Houghton said. Gary O’Rourke was his boss, the head of SETI’s Washington
branch. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence had hired him after reading a paper he
had written on alien life and how science-fiction could be used as a guide to what kind of
aliens might exist and how humans could meet them. He knew that he had done well, but
O’Rourke was a master of gathering funds to feed both a growing political lobby and produce
more equipment to search for extraterrestrial life. Houghton had believed, at first, that ET
would phone Earth as soon as he took on the job, but two years later, ET had not even
bothered to ping Earth. “I just left.”

“I told you not to go in that stupid costume,” O'Rourke said. Houghton blinked; there was a
note of suppressed excitement in his employer’s voice. “Please come to the office at once,
Alex; we have some things to discuss.”

“Understood,” Houghton said. “Can I hire a taxi…?”

“Yes,” O'Rourke said. Houghton blinked; he had only asked that to see if O’Rourke would
give him some clue as to how urgent it was, particularly since he had asked for the day off.
“Charge it to the institute, but come in here as soon as possible.”

The Washington headquarters of SETI had been designed to give a hint of the boundless
imagination of the people who had come up with the concept of SETI. Like many other
buildings in downtown Washington, it was instead a tribute to bad taste and the high profit
margins of designers with more skill at collecting payments than designing buildings. It had
been something of a scandal when the cost had finally sunk into the Board of Directors;
O’Rourke’s predecessor had lost his job over it. The building wasn’t studded with antennas
and radio telescopes, much to the disappointment of many visitors; it was an analysis centre,
a public information centre, and a base for the countless lobbyists who pressed Congress to
give them more money for further development.

Gary O’Rourke himself was short and covered in stubble, his long frizzy brown hair giving
him the appearance of a crazy man, running around on the streets shouting about
Armageddon. He had once acted in one of the Posleen movies and never quite let anyone
forget it, even though he had only played one of the civilians who had run up against the
Posleen and had been promptly eaten by the aliens. Houghton was surprised to see his boss
waving him into his office, his face very pale.

“Sir, what’s happening?” Houghton asked, as soon as the door closed. There was a faint air
of unreality around the entire situation; he began frantically running though all of his actions
over the last few weeks to wonder if he was in trouble for something he had done. He
couldn’t remember doing anything beyond using the Internet to send a personal message to
his parents in California, but that hardly required him to be called back to grilled in person.
“Why have…”

“Something has happened,” O'Rourke said. “Contact.”

It took a moment for the message to sink in. “You’re fucking me,” Houghton said, feeling
his knees growing weak. He would normally never have used such words in front of his
boss, but now…now the world had just changed. “We picked up a signal?”
SETI had picked up several signals, he knew; some of them permanently unexplained, others
the results of human error or human construction, such as a satellite that had drifted out of
orbit and had then tried to signal back to Earth. Each of those false alarms had provoked
concern, even panic, among the community; every time there was such a mistake, SETI
found itself a laughing stock. Officially, SETI was committed to public disclosure, but
privately, Houghton knew that SETI would go through every last possible check they could
make before they even made a tentative announcement. The media could not be allowed to
know until SETI was certain.

“Not exactly,” O'Rourke said. His hands danced over the computer on his desk, and then
swung the monitor around for Houghton to see; there were a handful of sources of radio noise
heading towards Earth, from deep space. “As you can see, the source is a little bit closer than
we expected.”

His voice was forced, the light tone an attempt to keep his feelings from overwhelming him.
“There are at least seven spacecraft out there, Alex; the largest is fucking massive,” he said.
His voice started to shake. “Alex, that force, whatever it is, is coming to Earth!”

Houghton felt his blood run cold. He had watched, as had they all, almost all of the alien
contact movies. Some were peaceful, others were anything, but peaceful. SETI, as an
institution, had stayed away from thoughts about Independence Day and War of the Worlds,
preferring to think about Close Encounters and ET. Paranoia about alien intentions seemed
misplaced; the human race might even have called aliens to Earth with radio transmissions…

The thought reminded him of something worrying. “Sir, what about the Government?”

O'Rourke winced. “They know about the aliens,” he said. “We normally have access to
some of the declassified intelligence gathering orbital sensors, but they were all re-routed
away from us by the NRO. So far, there’s been no official response, not even a request that
we hang fire on any announcement.”

His face twitched again; Houghton nodded in sympathy. It was an article of faith among
those who bought into the myth of SETI that the Government would send men in black – or
Men in Black – around to silence SETI as soon as any real alien contact was detected. The
noble and heroic SETI investigators would have to fight to get the information out to the
world…but the truth was more mundane. The Government couldn’t care less about SETI;
the only time that officialdom had crossed paths with SETI in Houghton’s experience had
been when there had been a possible interception of a classified transmission from the Middle
East by SETI’s sensors.

“Alex, what the hell do we do?”

Houghton wanted to scream at him; how the hell was he supposed to know? He was a
fucking student, for Christ’s sake, not Doctor Who! SETI had played at alien contact, but
now that there was real contact, they were terrified of the possible implications, terrified of
doing the wrong thing! His job was to advise on public relations…and something like SETI
desperately needed a real success, except…HG Wells, Larry Nivan, John Ringo, all the
authors who had written about alien contact seemed to be looking over his shoulder. Danger,
Alex Houghton…
“The Government knows about this, right?” He said. O’Rourke nodded once. “In that case,
we are certainly in the position that one of the other governments will break the news,
probably as soon as they can. The Russians or the Japanese would love to embarrass NASA
and us, or the French and ESA would be delighted to prove that they can best NASA at
something. Hell, it’s even possible that another branch of SETI will make the
announcement.”

He paced, collecting his thoughts. “We make a statement that aliens have been detected and
leave it at that,” he said, focusing his mind. “You know the government; they’ll attempt to
keep as much as possible classified and it doesn’t look as if we have any major choice, does
it? There will be panic, but if we tell everyone now, at least we’ll have the chance to get the
panic over with before they land.”

He looked again at the feed from the telescopes. Some of the alien craft were massive, larger
than Star Destroyers, or even Borg Cubes. The military was going to have a real shit fit…and
he thought that he might join them. A day ago, the United States of America had ruled Low
Earth Orbit, now…now it was dominated by unknown aliens, aliens who had appeared out of
nowhere, unless they came from Mars…

He shook his head. It was unlikely in the extreme that they came from Mars.

“And, besides, we really want the credit for finding the aliens,” he concluded. “If there is
anything that gets the funding rolling in, it’s success…and we have had success, sir; plenty of
it.”

O’Rourke looked at the computer screen. “At the moment, Alex, I am not so sure that
success is such a good thing, after all,” he said. “History as we know it is over.”

“And a new history is being made,” Houghton said. “Come on; you’re going to be famous in
the history books of a thousand years hence.”

                                            ***
Sergeant Jeremy Damiani, District of Columbia Army National Guard, was out of his seat
and heading for the door before it dawned on him why he had been moving. His pager,
something issued to all National Guardsmen after a handful of terrorist outrages during the
war, was buzzing…and his wasn’t the only one. His boss, a fat overweight man who was
somewhat intimidated by the soldier who had served in Iraq and the cesspit of Syria, saw all
ten of the National Guardsmen leaving and waved desperately in front of Damiani’s face,
trying to get him to stop.

“Damiani, what the hell is going on?” He demanded, cheeks bulging with his shock. “Where
the hell do you thiunk you’re going?”

Damiani held up the pager. “A general call to report for duty,” he said, and watched the
colour draining from his boss’s face. A general call was only issued when there was an
immediate need for the National Guard’s presence, which meant…well, Damiani wasn’t sure
what it meant. He had certainly heard no explosions, no indications that something had
happened that would require the Guard; that was strange. If they were being deployed, they
would not have been summoned literally at the drop of a hat, would they? “They’re calling
us all up.”
His boss nodded, and then held out his hand. “Good luck,” he said, and shook Damiani’s
hand firmly. “Take the company van, if you need it; I think we can avoid charging you for
the fuel, just this once.”

So he is patriotic, after all, Damiani thought, as he collected the van. He wouldn’t have
expected it from a man who wouldn’t have crossed the road to help someone if it was out of
his way. He picked up the other ten soldiers and three airmen from the Air National Guard
who had been running down the street when he encountered them, driving down the road like
a tanker.

“You’re not in a fucking tank, you manic,” one of his co-workers bellowed, as he narrowly
avoided hitting another car with a young woman driving it. “Keep the fucking speed down.”

“You pussy,” Damiani shouted back. He laughed aloud, glad to be alive. “You weren’t
complaining in Iraq.”

“They were shooting at us in Iraq,” the co-worker shouted. “Do you actually want to spend
the rest of your life in heaven?”

“They’ll be shooting at us if they catch sight of your ugly mug,” Damiani said, as he pulled
onto the overpass. Traffic had seemed to have increased rapidly in the last few moments and
many of the drivers were soldiers, or people who looked like soldiers; it reminded him more
of Iraq than he wanted to say. “It’s your fault that we didn’t get any cunt in that last
hellhole!”

He hit the radio, expecting to hear music; instead, he heard a radio report. The speaker
sounded shaken. “…Units of the National Guard, the Army, the Air Force and all other units
are ordered to report for duty at once,” she said. “This is an emergency announcement, all
members of the United States Armed Forces are to report to their local base at once. The
President has issued a full mobilisation order and all units are to report in at once.”

Damiani felt his mouth fall open. “What the fuck is going on?”

“We have a confirmed report from the United States Space Tracking System,” the voice
continued, sounding as if she didn’t believe her own voice. “Objects of unknown origin are
heading towards Earth and…appear to be spacecraft of unknown origin. They’re…they’re
alien spacecraft, heading towards Earth. I…”

Her voice stabilised. “The President will address the nation momentarily,” she said, “but for
the moment, State Governors and Mayors have called for calm. There is no reason to assume
that the aliens are hostile; the military preparation is merely intended as a precaution. We
have confirmation, now, from several independent astronomers and even astrologers; this is
no hoax. There really are aliens heading into orbit…”

Her voice broke off. “Pussy,” someone commented from the rear of the van. “Guess she
couldn’t take digging a bullet out of a buddy’s back when there are Taliban all around you,
preparing to take you up the butt and…”

“Shut up, Kit,” Damiani snapped. “This is important!”
“It’s gotta be a hoax, hasn’t it?” Nelson said. A big burly soldier, whose sexuality was a
deep dark secret from everyone who was not actually in the platoon, Nelson was never scared
of anything, until now. Damiani could actually hear fear in his voice. “It has to be a joke;
come on man, I saw that movie…”

Damiani looked at the traffic, which now included a handful of Hummers and jeeps. “If it’s a
joke, Fell, I think it’s one that’s gotten way out of hand,” he said. He looked up, half
expecting to see a City Destroyer hovering overhead, preparing to fire an alien death ray. A
flight of Raptors flashed overhead, out of one of the air bases covering Washington, heading
towards the centre of the city. “No, I don’t think it is a joke.”

“My fellow Americans,” a familiar voice said, on the radio.

“Shut up, you bastards,” Damiani snapped. “It’s the President!”

“It is my duty to confirm that there are indeed alien spacecraft heading towards Earth,” the
President continued. “Deep space tracking systems have located the alien ships as they
approached and are tracking the craft as they close in on the planet. There is as yet no
communication from the craft, but there is no sign that they are hostile, or even that they are
incapable of communicating with us. I must repeat that there is no sign that the aliens are
hostile.

“At the advice of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I have ordered a precautionary mobilisation to
ensure that we are prepared for all contingencies. This is only a precaution; I ask for calm,
and for peace. We will update the population – we will update the world – as soon as there is
more information, but we ask, again, for calm. I have faith that, once again, America will
meet the challenge that God has presented us…and the honour that he has given us, the
chance to be there when the human race finally learns the truth of the universe.

“We are not alone.”
Chapter Seven: Shadows in the Pattern

“Mr President, we feel that the aliens may not have friendly motives,” General Mathews said.
The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff stood just behind the President as he stared out
over the White House lawn. “We may have to consider some manner of precautionary
action.”

President Robinson felt – again – inadequate. His nomination for the elections last year had
come at a price, the price being that he was perhaps the only major Democratic candidate
who was actually electable. He knew that he wasn’t anything like the perfect President for
the country and had accepted the nomination reluctantly, only to discover that he had a
groundswell of popular support that had allowed him to beat the Republican candidate and
win the Presidency. Even so, it was a dangerous time for an American politician, one where
weakness would not be tolerated.

The problems were vast. American troops remained in Iraq, the American economy was
weaker than it had been in far too long, and international tensions were growing more and
more dangerous every year. His priority was the economy, but he also had to support the
soldiers in Iraq and, now, deal with aliens. It didn’t seem fair at all…and only the knowledge
that some members of his party would have ordered a complete military stand-down when the
aliens arrived reassured him that he was where he needed to be.

“There’s panic out there,” he said, as grimly as he could. The sheer terror of discovering that
humanity was no longer alone had to be forced aside to make room for handling the situation,
somehow. “What is the current situation?”

General Mathews glanced down at the palmtop he held in his hand. “There are now twelve
alien craft in orbit, each one larger than something out of Star Trek,” he said. “So far, there
has been no attempt to communicate with us, despite us attempting to use the transmitters at
Cape Canaveral to talk directly to them. Everyone who can get their hands on a transmitter is
firing messages towards the alien craft, but there has been no reply.”

The President took his seat and rubbed the back of his head. “Would we know if there had
been a reply?”

“We believe that we would detect anything that they could reasonably use to talk to us,”
General Mathews assured him. “If they have some form of technobabble system we know
nothing about…well, at least they won’t be talking to anyone on Earth.”

“I see,” the President said. He leaned forward. “How do you know that they are hostile?”

“I don’t,” General Mathews admitted. “However, Mr President, they are floating in orbit
around our planet and they have not attempted to talk to us. That could be an invasion fleet
floating up there, and the mere fact that they are refusing to talk to us is worrying; they may
be merely making sure that they have all their facts correct before landing and launching an
attack.”

“And the last thing we want to do is blunder into a war with a vastly superior force,” the
President said. “Can we do anything to them up there?”
“There’s a space shuttle in orbit, but apart from that and the space station we have no one in
orbit, and of course both the shuttle and the station are unarmed,” General Mathews said.
“We have contingency plans to engage objects in Low Earth Orbit with ground-based
THAAD missiles and even retargeted ICBMs, but we have only limited time to retarget the
weapons before something happens, unless they’re giving us a chance to have a good look at
them for some reason of their own.”

He sighed. “Apart from that, we have serious problems,” he continued. “We have only a
handful of weapons that can touch them in Low Earth Orbit, while they can just drop things
on our heads. Mr President, we have a total mobilisation underway, but frankly, we may not
have the time to recall all of our soldiers and National Guardsmen before something
happens.”

The President nodded and tried to put a noble, presidential, expression on his face. The alien
contact was the worst crisis the country had faced – ever – and he was determined that they
would not be found wanting, whatever it took. There were a lot of frightened people out
there, on the streets, and he had to be there for them.

He looked up. “What might happen?”

“We don’t know,” General Mathews said. “We may be looking at all all-out invasion, or
perhaps they’re friendly, but they just want to be careful. I still think, however, that it’s
unlikely that they are friendly, just because they haven’t bothered to introduce themselves to
us. They’re up there, right in the midst of the satellites we depend upon for communications
and military intelligence, and we can barely touch them.”

He sighed. “We don’t have contingency plans for an alien invasion, Mr President, or even an
alien encounter,” he said. He tapped the map display that had been placed on one wall of the
Oval Office. “We have soldiers rushing to possible defence locations, including Washington
itself, but frankly…they could land anywhere they like. We have USAF and Air National
Guard aircraft in the air, providing CAP for dozens of bases, but they may be completely
useless. Hell, we may even have illuminated the importance of the air bases to us, just by
launching the aircraft.

“Once they do land, we will have forces ready – we hope – to engage them,” he continued.
“Everyone is hoping for a peaceful encounter, but if not, destroying their beachheads is the
only option that would allow us a chance to win.”

“Unless they start bombing us from orbit,” the President said, who had watched the Footfall
movie. He had even read the book in his younger days. “Is there anything we can do about
that?”

General Mathews shook his head. He was a big black man, the President could see, someone
who had never seemed to be scared of anything. He had been an odd candidate for the post
of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Republican, a veteran of several wars and a fervent
critic of the Bush and Clinton years. He was also known and respected by all three services;
the President hadn’t hesitated to confirm him when asked to accept him.

“No, Mr President,” he said. “I think that we will have to accept that the world has changed
remarkably in the last few hours.”
The President nodded. He had been discussing the trading imbalance with the Japanese
Ambassador when the emergency had developed, when two Marines had wanted him to go at
once to Camp David. He had refused, ordering the Vice President to go to the emergency
command post instead, when he had heard about the aliens; the last thing America needed
was to see the President scuttling off like a cowardly crab.

“Then we dare not engage the aliens until we have clear proof that they are hostile,” the
President said. Oddly, he felt more like a President than he had in years. “So, what’s the
word on the international front?”

The Secretary of State looked nervous. “A lot of panic, a lot of concern, a lot of plans to
exploit the entire situation for national ends,” she said. Jaclyn Ridgeley had been an
unexpected additional to the President’s Cabinet, a known internationalist and believer in
international responses to global problems. “There’s already a motion at the United Nations
to turn the entire issue over to the UN, with quite a lot of Third World support. The British
and the Germans have been angling for consultations; the French have been keeping their
own conseusl, but I suspect that they are interested in having the entire matter handled by the
United Nations Security Council.”

“It’s only been a few hours,” the President said. He shook his head ruefully. “Anything
else?”

“Nothing as yet,” the Secretary of State said. “There are apparently some charges going to be
filed against SETI by various governments, who feel that any announcement should have
been made by them and not by an independent group, no matter how politically powerful. I
think that in the next few days there will be some consensus on an international approach to
the contact, but far too many of the poorer nations are buying into New Age crap about a
redistribution of wealth and resources.”

She smiled thinly. “If the aliens make contact, Mr President, everyone and his grandfather
will want access to their messages,” she said. “We have to take the lead on this, or we may
end up playing catch-up with a group at the United Nations.”

“I see,” the President said. “As yet, the aliens have made no contact, so how do we talk to
them?”

“No one expects that to last,” Jaclyn said. Her face, just for a moment, paled. “The aliens
will make contact, and then the world will change, and, frankly, there are too many
conflicting agendas out there. We really need to pull together some kind of diplomatic
coalition as quickly as we can.”

The President felt his eyes burn. The entire Iraq Crisis had had its beneficial side, but it
hadn’t endowed the other world governments with any faith in American intelligence or
willingness to consult with others before taking action. The President knew that, in part, his
election had come as a result of pledging to consult with the remainder of the world before
taking military action, a pledge that had been carefully balanced between being willing to talk
and being willing to act anyway, after talking. The risks of military action were dangerous at
any time, but with the only possible enemy being both an unknown and in a seriously
powerful position…
“I understand,” he said. “Please can you organise a conference call with the other permanent
members of the United Nations Security Council? My complements to Ambassador Rollins
at the UN and inform him that we will have a policy for him to explain before the UN after
consulting with our allies. Jaclyn, what military steps are the other powers taking?”

“The British, French and Russians have placed their militaries on alert,” Jaclyn said. “Like
us, they have recalled all of their soldiers on leave and ordered their reservists to report for
possible duty. The Canadians, Germans, and most of the other West Europeans have avoided
mobilising, but their military commanders have ordered a number of smaller-scale alerts. We
haven’t heard anything official from the Chinese yet, but there are signs that they too are
mobilising, which has triggered a mobilisation on the part of Taiwan. Anyone else…well, we
don’t know yet; a lot of the Third World powers are just sitting on their hands.”

“And in any case,” General Mathews said, “they would have little to contribute to a global
defence effort.”

The President shrugged. “Normally, it takes us weeks of arguing to decide to decide on who
commands any international military force,” he said. “We have had barely hours since the
aliens have arrived, hardly long enough to get over the panic. General, what is the current
military position?”

“Well, ships and air bases have gone on alert, as I mentioned,” General Mathews said. “Give
us a day or two and we will have troops in position to meet an alien landing anywhere in the
continental United States. At the moment, reservists and others are heading to their bases,
despite some rumours that the entire business is a hoax. The Vice President and the
remainder of the government have been dispersed to various bases and command centres
around the country and we have activated the emergency landline communications systems,
so if we lose the satellites, we will continue to remain in touch with the deployed military
forces.”

He paused. “Some of the people on the emergency evacuation lists also believed that it was a
hoax,” he said. “They were most alarmed…”

“I wish it was,” the President said, and scowled. “So…what do we do when the aliens land?”

“NASA has actually had a contingency plan for alien contact for quite some time,” Jaclyn
said. “I have had a discussion with the Director – he wants to use this to gain extra funding,
by the way – and he has activated it, warning the crew of the space shuttle that they may
encounter aliens in space. On the ground, NASA has prepared a team of experts in every
conceivably useful discipline, from medicine to languages, and has warned them to prepare
for deployment to wherever they may have to go. We will seal off the landing area – that will
cause problems with other nations, I’m afraid – and allow the team to make contact, verify
that there is no biohazard and then open proper communications.”

“I think I would like to review that plan,” the President said. “Please see to it that I get a
copy of the notes.”

“Of course, Mr President,” Jaclyn said. “The Director was very keen that you approve it
personally.”
The President stood up and paced over to the windows again. The crowd of protesters had
begun to appear almost as soon as the first announcement had been made, students, workers,
all gathering to express their sincere hopes for a peaceful encounter with the aliens. Some of
them looked terrified, others were already chanting slogans and demanding a complete stand-
down of the military. DON’T START A WAR, one placard read; the President shared the
sentiment completely.

“Jaclyn, what is the mood of the country?” He asked. “What sort of behaviour are we likely
to see?”

“It’s off the scales,” Jaclyn said softly. “We have no precedent at all for alien contact.
There’s a great deal of panic already, with people heading out of the cities to stay with Uncle
Tom on the farm, if they have a farm. Others…well, there was a lot of looting and rioting in
a couple of cities before the National Guard turned up to reinforce the police. It’s early days
– early hours – yet, so the panic might well subside or grow to a point where it poses a
serious risk to the country.

“And, of course, there are the protesters,” she continued. “Some of the protests below are
spontaneous, but others are already being organised by known troublemakers and rabble-
rousers. They want to see a peaceful solution…”

“So do we,” General Mathews snapped.

“And they believe that making military moves will imperil any hope of peace,” Jaclyn said,
ignoring the interruption. “It won’t be long before some of them start pressing Senators and
Congressmen to do something, perhaps even to the extent of convincing them to order a
stand-down, while other groups are scared. We haven’t seen any pro-military protests yet,
but I bet you, by this time tomorrow, we will have marches demanding action against the
aliens. There are a lot of frightened people out there, Mr President, and frightened people
lash out.”

“I know,” the President said. He felt, all of a sudden, very old. Few would forget the
CalTech riot a year ago, when protesters and counter-protesters had crashed into one another
and had a bloody free-for-all. He would never forget it, the sheer hatred between Left and
Right that had, for a few hours, led to a massive fight. He couldn’t remember, now, what the
march had been about, but everyone remembered how it had ended. “We have to reassure
people.”

There was a long pause.

“For the record, military morale, so far, is high,” General Mathews said. Morale had gone
downhill when some senior officers remembered the Clinton years, but President Robinson
hadn’t cut any funding at all to the military; the military was needed, more than ever.
“There’s a great deal of concern, of course, at the prospect of fighting aliens, but our soldiers
are confident in their training and abilities.”

The President nodded. “So, all we can do is wait?”
“NASA has ordered the space shuttle in orbit to attempt to take a closer look at one of the
alien ships, but the aliens seem to have capabilities that make the space shuttle look like a
matchbox toy,” Jaclyn said softly. “If that doesn’t get us some reaction, we may have to wait
and see what the aliens do, although that does give us all the time we need to get ready and
perhaps even learn more about the aliens from direct observation. There are scientists
already salivating at the mouth to work on what makes the alien craft tick; the aliens are
certainly far in advance of us.”

General Mathews’ pager bleeped. “Excuse me,” he said, as he stood up. “This may well be
the aliens making a move.”

The President felt his blood run cold. “Ah,” General Mathews said. “Mr President,
something is happening. Several of the alien ships are descending into the atmosphere…and
they are heading towards…”

His voice broke off. “General,” the President said, “where are they going?”

“Here,” General Mathews said. His voice was almost a whisper. “They’re heading for the
Atlantic Coast, directly towards Washington itself.”

The President turned to face him. “Jaclyn, you and the others are to get out of Washington at
once, heading for Camp David and then the command post,” he ordered. “I’m going to
remain in Washington; get NASA’s team on their way here and organise what we can in the
way of a welcoming committee.”

“Mr President, I request permission to remain by your side,” General Mathews said. The
President looked up at him sharply; he had never understood, until now, the sheer bravery of
anyone who wore the American uniform. He had determined to stay because it was his duty,
but the General could easily have left. “Someone has to watch out for your safety.”

The President smiled. “Thank you,” he said. He didn’t need to say anything else. “Make
sure that everyone military unit gets the message; we do not fire, unless we are fired upon
first. The last thing we need is to start the first interstellar war.”
Chapter Eight: Encounters at Dawn

“There she blows,” Sonja Greenhorn breathed. The shape of the alien craft loomed closer as
the space shuttle Atlantis drifted along its ballistic course around the Earth. “That’s…just
fantastic.”

“Yeah,” Captain Markus Kane said, unable to suppress a twinge of foreboding in his soul as
the alien craft drifted closer. It wasn’t as if the shuttle was actually heading towards the alien
craft; perish the thought that NASA would actually order them to do something daring like
making a close approach. The alien ship was adjusting course slightly, presenting them with
a chilling display of its power; he wished with all his might that the space shuttle he
commanded could make similar manoeuvres. “Fantastic.”

The alien craft was over a kilometre long…and it was one of the smaller craft. NASA had
reconfigured a dozen satellites at a speed he wouldn’t have credited, using them to scan for
other alien craft in the vicinity, and had found three more near the moon. One of the craft
was over five hundred kilometres long, large enough to actually cause problems with the
tides if it came any closer. The space shuttle…seemed broken and old compared to the alien
craft, which flew through space with the grace of a bird.

He stared as the craft drifted closer, sunlight glinting off its hull, revealing shape and form.
The craft was shaped like a sword, with a pair of wings at the very rear of the blade; it sat in
orbit like a dagger waiting to plunge into the very heart of Earth. The other craft that had
entered Earth orbit had similar designs; they all seemed identical, but there were odd
differences in the tone of their hulls. He had wondered if he was looking at something like a
nametag on the hull, or something alien; he had to remind himself that aliens might not play
by the same rules as humans.

“Mission control, we are moving closer to the craft,” he said. Technically, the iron laws of
ballistics would bring them past the alien craft, allowing them to have a good look at it,
unless the aliens changed course and avoided all contact. It seemed impossible, but what
he’d seen of how the aliens had appeared out of nowhere proved that whatever else the alien
ship had, it had one hell of a power source and drive system tucked away inside its hull.
“There is no sign that the aliens are aware of our presence, but they must be aware that we are
here.”

Captain Markus Kane had been born years after humanity had taken the first tentative steps
into space, years after humanity should have been living on the moon and across the solar
system, with perhaps the first starship heading out across the stars. Instead, humanity had
turned its back on the stars, heedless of the possible danger of unintelligent threats like
asteroids or even the danger of encountering another intelligent life form. Kane…had gone
into spaceflight on the hope that NASA would actually manage to live up to its ideals and
develop more spacecraft, but instead only the fleet of three leaky and ancient space shuttles
kept the dream alive. As his hopes had faded, he had seriously considered going to work for
one of the private projects, or perhaps entering politics and pushing for massive reform of
NASA.

Now, he looked upon what he had dreamed of…and felt afraid. Humanity hadn’t
encountered the aliens in deep space, but in orbit around humanity’s homeworld. Human
history told of what happened when a weaker culture met a stronger culture; the stronger
culture smashed the weaker culture and took over. Why would the aliens grant humanity any
respect? Why should they? Fifty years of research into spaceflight had produced nothing
more than the space shuttles, plenty of wasted money, and pretty pictures of the next
generation of spacecraft. Where was what NASA had promised, back then? Where was the
human who could hold his head up high, when compared to the craft the shuttle was drifting
towards? If the alien wanted to destroy them, he knew that the alien could destroy them
before the crew of the shuttle even knew what had hit them.

Sonja was still tapping instructions into her control panel. “I can bounce a radar pulse off the
alien craft, but it’s coming back fuzzy,” she said. “There’s no sign of any radar on the craft
tracking us, but they must have something to let them know if there is a danger of hitting
something, right? They’re floating through one of the messiest orbits in the solar system and
they haven’t hit a single satellite.”

“They probably have something beyond the wildest dreams of NASA,” Kane said bitterly,
unable to hide his feelings as the alien craft loomed overhead. Lights could be seen
flickering on the hull; he couldn’t resist a shiver, wondering if they were going to end up like
the Welcome Wagon. “I don’t suppose that there’s any response to our signals?”

“Negative,” Sonja said. “Everyone and his dog is sending signals to the aliens, but they’re
not saying anything in return; they must be very confused.”

“Or perhaps they’re letting us have a good look,” Kane said. It was what he would have
done, after all, just to put the uppity humans in their place before opening communications.
“We see them as they are and we know our place in the universe, without doing something
that will permanently sour relations, like blowing this shuttle apart.”

He scowled. The aliens might not have been needed to destroy Atlantis; the shuttle was far
older than the paintwork suggested. Small problems cropped up all the time, problems that
had destroyed Columbia when the shuttle had tried to re-enter the atmosphere, leaving the
crew uncertain as to wither or not they would survive any given mission. In fact…

The shuttle shook violently.

Kane flinched. “What the hell was that?”

“I think we hit some kind of distortion field,” Sonja said. Kane could hear the sounds of
panic from the rear of the shuttle and ignored them. There was a faint shimmer in the view
ports, almost as if they were passing through water, or very condensed air. “Captain…”

Quicker than seemed possible, the alien craft tilted away from them, heading down towards
the planet. Kane watched it go as it headed down, feeling as if something infinitely precious
had been snatched away from him. Everything was taking place on Earth, and all he could do
was watch from his high vantage point.

Softly, he began to cry.

                                            ***
“Primitive,” Tradermaster Maxtin commented, as the direct feed from the landing craft was
displayed in front of him. The human craft had been built by someone who knew next to
nothing about travelling into space; it was a mixture of elements that made little sense to him.
Humans needed, desperately, to get into space…and instead they wasted their time with a
spacecraft that actually leaked. The shuttle hadn’t even had the common sense to stay away
from the Trader ship’s drive fields; it had been lucky not to have been torn apart by the field.

Earth itself, as he had half-expected, had refrained from opening fire on his ships as they
entered orbit, instead bombarding them with an entire series of messages promising peace,
promising trade, promising alliances…if only the aliens would deign to contact them. It said
much for the prospects for a successful invasion if all the humans could agree upon was that
other humans should not have the right to talk to aliens. It would take them weeks, at least, to
form a group that could speak for the entire planet…by which time, the conquest would be
well underway.

“It’s not that different from what we had when we were young,” Shipmaster Gargan said, as
his hologram flickered into existence. “A few more years of development and we would
have had to talk to the humans as masters of their own system.”

Tradermaster Maxtin made a dismissive gesture, a complicated series of tentacle movements,
that encompassed the depth of his feelings. The success, so far, of the plan had rocked him; it
was possible that thousands of worlds that didn’t respect the Traders, or honour their
obligations to the galactic civilisation, could be brought into heel by the use of alien soldiers.
His Clan could be boosted to levels that no trader had ever dreamed of, ever since the day
that the Clan had left their original homeworld and headed out across the stars.

“They are also moving their military forces into position to resist landings,” Shipmaster
Gargan warned. “It is possible that your pet will find himself outmatched.”

“It hardly matters,” Tradermaster Maxtin reminded him. He made a complicated shape in the
air for the benefit of his fellow Trader. “We do not want to disturb the social structure on
Karn itself by allowing the primitives to demobilise thousands of soldiers, do we? The more
of them that get killed or tied up here on occupation duty, the better.”

Shipmaster Gargan’s eyes glowed. “Tradermaster, with all due respect, it is not too late to
break contact and leave,” he said. “Open the airlocks, let the Malick Karn suffocate in the
airless vacuum of space, let us leave this system with nothing, but a mystery. Let us return to
the old pattern and not attempt to change anything of the rules that have served us well…”

“The Law has served our people well,” Tradermaster Maxtin said, “but has it served us
well?”

“You blaspheme,” Shipmaster Gargan hissed. It wasn’t blasphemy as a human would have
understood the term, but the Law was the Law and could not be disobeyed. “You are talking
about using a loophole in the Law to challenge the very purpose of the Law itself!”

Tradermaster Maxtin smiled. “And what happens if we remain within the word of the Law?”

Shipmaster Gargan said nothing, but weaved a complicated pattern in the air.

“Of course,” Tradermaster Maxtin said. “We lose everything. You and I will be disgraced;
all of the shipmasters will be disgraced. What will happen to us then? Our culture is not a
forgiving one, whatever we may claim when we talk to the primitives who fight over the
debris we leave behind, but one that can be cold and harsh. I would almost sooner die than
suffer the loss of this position, and what about you? Will you go quietly when the Auditors
arrive?”

Shipmaster Gargan said nothing.

“Then we have no choice,” Tradermaster Maxtin said. He looked down at the blue orb of
Earth, spinning below the ship; the mothership was far enough from Earth to see it all clearly,
as if he could just reach out a hand and take it. “I expect your full and complete
cooperation.”

Shipmaster Gargan pushed himself into an ancient posture of submission. “I will cooperate
with you, my lord,” he said. A human would never have detected the sarcasm in his tone.
Another Trader, one aware of the ancient meanings that echoed from the days when Traders
walked on the surface of worlds, would have understood perfectly - Shipmaster Gargan
would cooperate until a better option came along.

“Then contact Shipmaster Salkan,” Tradermaster Maxtin ordered. He felt the anticipation
welling up within him as the moment approached. There would be no going back from the
moment when a Trader finally took destiny into his hands. His name would live on forever in
Trader legend. “Order him to begin the final approach to the human centre of power.”

He paused. “And land the landing force!”

                                           ***
“This is Guardian-lead,” Captain Tommy Ryan said, as the flight of F-22 Raptors headed out
over the Atlantic Ocean. “We have as yet no contact with the unknowns, I repeat, no
contact.”

A day ago, Ryan would have said that aliens didn’t exist, and his squadron had been
preparing for a fireman deployment to one of the European bases to support the Europeans as
part of an endless series of missions to attempt to bring a permanent peace to the Balkans.
The F-22 Raptor was a joy to fly, but by its very nature, it was one that couldn’t always be
used in American conflicts. What was the point of using a Raptor, its critics had asked, when
a B-52 could handle the job of bombing terrorist bases and remain on station for much longer
than a simple fighter jet, regardless of the fighting power of the Raptor? Ryan had expected
that the only excitement the squadron would get, unless that Third World War book proved to
be more prophetic than the squadron believed, would be facing Russian aircraft over the
Balkans. The Russian Bear still believed that it had historic ties to the region…and from time
to time, would growl in the direction of the NATO forces present. Now…now his force was
racing towards possible alien contact, and the world had gone crazy.

His radar pinged. “Contact,” he snapped. For one heart-breaking moment, he thought that a
helicopter was about to appear right above him and crash into the cockpit. “I have one large
contact, lowering itself though the atmosphere and heading towards Washington.” He
paused. “Is anyone else getting that Independence Day vibe?”

“That’s fine,” one of his wingmen said. There was a mocking note in his voice. “I’m
handsome enough to play Will Smith…just remember, its not over till the fat lady sings.”
There was a cutting remark on the tip of Ryan’s tongue, just as the alien craft came into view,
heading directly towards them. He was no virgin when it came to flying near other aircraft,
of course; pilots had been known to be terrified on their first tanking mission, but experience
tended to make it tolerable, if still worrying, but the alien craft was something else. It loomed
at them, appearing out of nowhere and somehow, impossibly, decelerating as it headed
towards Washington. Smaller craft seemed to be launching from it and falling into formation
as the larger ship headed down towards the city. The sight was awesome…and terrifying.

“They’re not going to be able to land that on the White House lawn,” his wingman said.
“That big bastard is too big to land anywhere outside a Russian airbase, sir.”

“I noticed,” Ryan said. The alien craft was continuing to decelerate; it would stop, his
onboard computer informed him, over the White House. It completely ignored the presence
of the human fighters, or even the growing number of media aircraft that had taken to the air
and were observing from what Ryan fervently hoped was a safe distance. His piloting
instincts were screaming at him; something was very, very, wrong. It was starting to look as
if the aliens were intent on getting as close to the President as possible…

“Control, this is Guardian-lead,” he said, wondering if the aliens could intercept his
transmissions. The sunlight was glinting off the alien hull, his cockpit shaded itself
automatically, but he was still aware of just how alien the ship was, compared to the Russian
fighters he had expected to test himself against. “Request permission to warn them off…”

“Denied, Guardian-lead,” the controller said. There was a worried tone in the woman’s
voice; she would have instincts of her own dating from Iraq or the occasional disputes with
China. The aliens might be friendly, but they were to acting as if friendly contact was
important to them, or even to the humans below. “The State Department is very keen that we
present a peaceful welcome for our guests.”

“Ball less bastards,” Ryan muttered. The alien craft had slowed enough to allow it to
approach Washington, its smaller craft lowering themselves towards the ground and heading
towards the White House. He could see the crowds on the streets now…and the line of traffic
heading away from Washington, as the alien craft finally came to a halt, right over the White
House. They were just moving in…and no one seemed willing to try to stop them.

“My God,” someone breathed. Ryan found it hard to disagree as one of his pilots began
reciting the Lord’s Prayer just loudly enough to be heard. “Mary, Mother of God, look at that
thing…”

It just hung there, a demonstration of power almost as terrifying as anything else Ryan had
seen. The smaller craft, each one only half the size of a B-52, were heading down and
landing, gently, on the ground in front of the White House and around Washington DC. He
could see soldiers, media reporters and even thousands of civilian protesters, trying to keep
calm under the looming presence of the alien ship. The air was flickering around the smaller
craft; he could almost sense the presence of something…unearthly surrounding the alien ship,
a flickering dome of semi-light.

“They have a force field,” someone said, into the silence. Ryan muttered a curse under his
breath; the reminder of Independence Day was far too strong for comfort. He checked the
missiles stung under the Raptor quickly and efficiently, knowing that if the enemy did have
technology comparable to the aliens from the movie, all his force could accomplish was to
die bravely. “They’re protecting their craft with a force field.”

“Guardians, pull back to the city limits,” the controller ordered. Ryan wanted to rebel against
his orders – he wanted to know with all his heart what was going to happen next – but
training and duty asserted themselves and he pulled the Raptor away from the alien ship. The
massive hovering craft didn’t even react to their departure. “A contact team is moving in
now.”

“Good luck, you lucky bastards,” Ryan muttered, as the Raptors raced for the edge of the no-
fly zone. The media aircraft were still buzzing around, the media pilots being willing to risk
the fines for the scoop of the century; he wished, for once, that he was flying with them.
“You’re going to need it.”

Five minutes later, all hell broke loose…
Chapter Nine: The Battle of Washington, Take One

“My God,” someone breathed from behind Sergeant Jeremy Damiani. “That looks like a
fucking sword.”

Damiani would have preferred to have disagreed with the speaker. The company had
assembled at the nearest base, only to be issued weapons and told to prepare for immediate
deployment somewhere, they assumed to prevent rioting in Washington itself. The news was
full of stories about the rioting as desperate people fought to get their hands on food and
weapons…and thousands of people were fleeing the cities. A handful of people still
maintained the belief that it was a hoax, but now…

He could see the alien starship as it headed over the city, dozens of smaller craft following in
its wake, and he felt a presentiment of gloom. The alien force looked far too much like an
invasion force for comfort, and the presence of the F-22 Raptors wasn't enough to reassure
him that it would be quickly handled. Damiani’s son was in the air force, and he lacked the
standard ground-pounder attitude towards the air force pukes, but if by some miracle the
Raptors did manage to shoot down the alien craft, it would crash down on the city,
presumably destroying much of the city when it exploded. Damiani had never claimed to be
a science-fiction fan, but he knew enough about the theory of matter-antimatter to know that
the effects of an alien crash could be utterly disastrous.

“I have an uplink from the company commander,” his communications tech shouted to him.
The company had been ordered to the centre of Washington, something he was starting to
realise was far from a honour, with Marines setting up cordons and trying to keep the crowds
of protesters away from the aliens as the smaller craft came into land. The smaller craft were
still massive, landing with hardly a bump; the sheer scale of the power the aliens were
displaying was terrifying. “We’re to make our way to joint the Marines at the southern
barrier!”

“Terrific,” Damiani shouted back. “Did he tell us how we were to do it?”

They had driven along the roads back to the centre of Washington, but the streets were
packed with protesters, tourists, and civilians, all trying to get a look at the alien craft as they
landed. The trucks of obviously armed soldiers were hardly enough to get them though the
crowds; he thought wistful thoughts about steamrollers as the protesters closed in, waving
and blowing kisses to the soldiers, and shouting slogans of peace and friendship to the aliens.
Damiani wasn't complaining, not with a handful of topless girls making invitations to him
and his men, but there wasn't time for them to get distracted.

“Get out of the fucking way,” he bellowed, through the loudspeaker. The noise was
deafening; he mentally bade farewell to his promotion as some of the protesters reeled away,
clutching their ears. The driver was able to get the first truck in gear and they moved slowly
up the road, just as the alien force field flickered into existence. “What the hell is that?”

“Force field, sir,” Kit said. The homosexual soldier was studying the alien craft with as much
enthusiasm as he studied the latest in fashions. “Notice how it seems to be shared between
the craft, providing wider coverage, almost as if there are different generators on each of the
ships. I wonder…”
A strange noise echoed across the plaza and he broke off, watching as a hatch opened in the
side of one of the alien ships. Damiani grabbed for his binoculars, cursing the rules of
engagement that prevented him from using his riflescope, and peered into the darkness.
There was a wave of wind and a strange smell reached out to him, something utterly…alien,
monstrous. It wasn’t a human smell, good or bad; it was something alien. A light flared and
a figure appeared at the hatch, then another, then another…they were marching out in perfect
order.

“They’re soldiers, or I’ll eat my hat,” Fell said. Damiani looked and realised that he was
almost certainly right. The aliens moved like soldiers. “Sir, look at how they’re marching.”

“Deploy, now,” Damiani snapped, as they came to a halt. Silence had fallen, broken only by
the noise of the alien hatches as more and more aliens appeared, tramping out in order. He
peered at them through his binoculars as he took cover, trying to keep the company’s
weapons out of sight; the aliens didn’t seem to be operating under any such silly rules of
engagement. He studied the weapons they carried, holding them as if they definitely knew
how to use them, and frowned; going by appearance, the weapons were heavier than anything
his forces possessed. There were a handful of Abrams from the Marine forces in the nearby
barracks, but he was starting to feel distantly outgunned.

“This is Colonel Hanson,” a voice said very softly, on the tacnet. Damiani recognised the
voice and smiled in relief; he’d served under Hanson before, during Iraq. “Remain ready for
anything…the contact team is moving forward now.”

“Brave bastards,” Kit muttered, from his position. He held one of the company’s antitank
weapons in his hands, stroking it as if it was his current boyfriend’s penis. “I wouldn’t go
near them if they paid me.”

“Speak for yourself,” Damiani muttered back, subvocalising so that only his people heard the
comment. It wasn’t something that the Marines or the commanding officers, or even the
President, needed to hear. “Those men are going to get their place in history.”

“I think that getting a place in history is rather overrated,” Kit said. He glanced upwards as
the roar of a helicopter passed overhead; there seemed to be hundreds of helicopters in the
air, trying to film the first encounter between human and intelligent beings from another star.
“Those men could fuck everything up for the world.”

“Yes, I suppose they could,” Damiani said. The alien force field sparkled as the contact team
approached. “Makes you think, doesn’t it?”

                                                ***
Alex Houghton hadn’t expected to take part in any contact team, but SETI had insisted, and
SETI was popular at the moment, so Houghton had found himself assigned to join the first
contact team. He was surprised that the President himself hadn’t come to join them, but his
boss hadn’t minded at all; it gave SETI the best chance to make a peaceful contact on behalf
of the entire world…or so he had said. Looking at the aliens now, Houghton wasn't so sure;
there was little doubt that the aliens were carrying weapons…and he was starting to feel
dangerously exposed.
They all wore only shorts and shirts, the better to show that they were unarmed, and the
military forces had been ordered to try to keep their weapons out of sight. At the moment, he
would almost have preferred a show of force; the silence of the aliens was as unnerving in
person as it was over the radio channels. Hours after discovering the presence of the aliens –
had it really been in the morning? – there was still no communication from them, only the
landing in Washington. As far as SETI had been able to discover, before time had run out,
there were no other landings on the surface of the Earth.

He forced himself to look at the aliens as the contact team walked closer. They seemed
basically humanoid, although it was hard to tell behind the masks and equipment they wore,
equipment that reminded him too much of the gear that the soldiers had carried as they
deployed around the alien landing site. The few hints of skin he could see was green;
inwardly, he wondered in a moment of irrelevance if the aliens were merely green humans
under their garments. Their eyes were invisible behind masks…

Ambassador Sandra Collins led the small group, a former American Ambassador to the UN,
now the senior member of the delegation. She was young enough to look remarkably good in
her revealing clothes, old enough to respond maturely to any jives from soldiers or students.
The eyes of the entire world, from the protesters, soldiers and reporters in the audience, to the
media cameras filming their slow progress towards the aliens, were watching them as they
moved closer to the alien force field. Up close, he could feel it, a strange sensation, almost
like a thunderstorm brewing nearby. It smelt, faintly, of ionised air…

Sandra held up her hands as an alien stepped forward to look at her. “On behalf of the people
of this great nation, and the entirety of Planet Earth, I welcome you to Earth,” she said, as
clearly as she could. The jury was still out on the question of if the aliens would understand
human languages or not. SETI believed that aliens who had read human radio transmissions
– including an English primer that a SETI researcher had tried to transmit to the alien craft –
would have the ability to understand them, but there was no way to be sure. “We welcome
you on behalf of all mankind…”

The alien shot her.

Houghton felt his jaw drop as Sandra staggered backwards and collapsed on the ground,
blood leaking from a neat hole in her forehead. The other aliens were bringing up their
strange rife-like weapons to firing positions; he threw himself to the ground as a hail of fire
blasted over his head, in eerie silence. The shouts and screams of the civilians caught in the
alien blasts were all too audible, as was the sharp noises of human weapons, firing back
towards the alien positions. The human bullets were bouncing off the force field, he realised
suddenly; the force field glowed with light when the bullets hit it, then repelled them…but it
was only one way! Secure under their force shield, the aliens were pouring fire onto the
human positions, massacring soldiers and protesters alike. Something exploded, right on top
of the force field, and blue light flared. The ground shook…

Houghton was dimly aware of dark figures as his mind finally lost its grasp on reality and he
fainted, the figures bending over him as the savage battle raged on…

                                                ***
 One of the alien craft was struck by a main gun shell from an Abrams tank as it rumbled
closer; a second later, there was a flash of blue light and the tank disintegrated, a strange flare
of energies marking the spot where it had died. There was something odd in the alien
position as they poured fire into the humans, something that kept nagging at the back of
Damiani’s mind, even as he barked orders for the snipers to try to punch through the alien
force field. It didn’t work; the aliens just fired and fired from the position, safe from
anything a puny handheld weapon could unleash.

“Sir,” Kit shouted, over the noise. The tacnet seemed to have broken down completely;
Damiani guessed that Colonel Hanson had been killed by the first alien discharge of fire, into
the Marine position near the White House. He felt sick as he realised what had happened; the
aliens had just massacred thousands of unarmed Americans. Without provocation, without
reason, they had sprayed bullets into the unarmed civilians and…there were thousands of
bodies littering the entire battlezone, many of them unarmed. “Should I…?”

He was holding up his antitank weapon. “No, we have to fall back,” Damiani snapped, trying
to see any other choice. As long as the aliens remained behind their force shield, it was
glaringly obvious that there was nothing that he had that could do anything to prevent them
from slaughtering his men at will. The strange blue weapon – a plasma weapon, part of his
mind wondered – could tear through buildings at will, perhaps even…

A helicopter flew low over the battleground, firing missiles and rockets down towards the
alien position, covering the force field in a series of explosions before a blue flash of light
caught the helicopter and blew it into the next world. Damiani used that brief moment of
respite to mutter commands, ordering the company to move back; there would be orders on
the tacnet soon, he was sure. There had to be someone else alive, didn’t there?

The aliens seemed to be pleased with their work, some of them advancing outside the force
field, others hanging back and waiting…waiting for what? The thought nagged at him that he
was missing something obvious, even as the first alien vehicle emerged from the alien craft,
rumbling across the ground. Just for a moment, he wondered if he was looking at a simple
Abrams tank, before seeing the slight differences as it passed through the force field and
rumbled onwards into Washington. It bristled with machine gun ports and machine guns; in
many ways, it reminded him of a half-assed Sryian attempt to duplicate the M1 Abrams…

“Snipers, take your targets,” he subvocalised. Using the close-range radio systems worried
him – no one knew how capable the enemy radio detection systems actually were – but there
was no other choice. There were bangs and explosions in the distance, something that
suggested that there were other alien craft landing across the city, perhaps even landing
directly in front of the Pentagon and the other targets of military value. He muttered a loose
prayer that the IRS Building would become a target of alien wrath, as the snipers prepared to
engage the aliens who had come out from under the force field. He had once read a book
where the aliens had had personal force fields and could only pray that the aliens he had
encountered weren’t like that. “Kit, I want you get that bastard as soon as the snipers fire!”

He lifted his rifle and took careful aim as the aliens spread out, revealing several other alien
tanks as they advanced out of the alien transports. They moved very much like humans, but
there were faint traces of a very different build as they moved, almost like people pretending
to walk silly rather than a disabled or even a merely injured soldier. They all wore equipment
that reminded him of human equipment, being divided rapidly up into squads that were
spreading out, with one group preparing to take the White House. One of them was clearly a
sergeant of some kind; he felt an odd sense of kinship as the alien mustered his forces, more
and more aliens appearing from the massive ship hovering high overhead. Some of the
smaller alien transports were returning to the big ship, to collect more soldiers to wreck havoc
in Washington…

“Snipers, fire,” he snapped, and squeezed his own trigger. He had the satisfaction of
watching the alien sergeant’s head explode, revealing a burst of green brains and blood,
before Kit’s missile struck and detonated on the side of the alien tank. There was a long
pause, just long enough for him to wonder if the aliens had protected their tank, and then the
tank exploded, with a very familier burst of flame. “Hit the bastard!”

“Good shot, Kit,” one of the soldiers said. “Now, all you have to do is repeat it…”

The trucks were in ruins, Damiani realised at once; he hadn’t even seen them explode as the
aliens opened fire. The aliens were moving rapidly, expanding their beachhead, and he had
no idea of just what the situation was outside their position. There were supposed to be both
Marines and other National Guardsmen, perhaps even some regular army, nearby, but it was
proving impossible to coordinate with them at all. No one had expected to have to fight a
war in the middle of Washington…

A big gun on the roof of the White House began to thump shells towards the alien starship
hovering overhead; a burst of blue light struck it, shattering the entire side of the White
House, while alien infantry units rushed forwards, surrounding the remains of the building.
Damiani wanted to interfere with the aliens, but there seemed to be no way to hold them, or
even to make contact with the outside world…and there were three alien tanks heading
towards them.

“All right, I think we’re going to have to make a run for it,” he subvocalised. He hated to run
and they had never had to run in Iraq, but then they had always known that they were part of
a larger team. The entire city had to be panicking; from his position, it looked as if the entire
city was burning. “Let’s get low, and let’s get fast!”

He motioned seven of his men to go first, keeping only three men as a rearguard as the aliens
approached, forcing them to keep back through occasional bursts of sniper fire. The alien
tanks seemed designed for fighting in cities; every time one of his snipers fired, the tanks
launched a burst of machine gun shells towards the sniper. He lost two people before
ordering the snipers to join the retreat; they needed a chance to regroup and meet the aliens in
open battle. More explosions echoed across the city and he realised that the aliens were
making other resistance, perhaps the remains of the Marines, or perhaps armed citizens trying
to resist with their own weapons.

Kit had found the edge of a sewer pipe and was ordering men to get down it to escape;
Damiani didn’t argue, but followed him, taking the time to set up a claymore at the edge of
the tunnel. If the aliens came to reach them, they would have at least one unpleasant surprise
before they killed his force like they had massacred the unarmed civilians. Everything
depended on how far they could move before they could meet up with friendly forces and
higher command…and right at the moment, he had no idea where they could do either. If
they had to go all the way back to the base…

He ground his teeth. There would be a reckoning.
Chapter Ten: The Battle of Washington, Take Two

“Merciful God, they’re killing everyone!”

Captain Tommy Ryan didn’t hesitate, he yanked the aircraft around into a tight turn, noticing
how other jet fighters were already heading back towards the centre of Washington. Smoke
and flames were rising up from the city, only partly hiding the massive alien craft directly
above the White House. As he watched, explosions rippled up from the city as blue fire
flared, the sign of an alien weapon being fired at a target on the ground.

“This is Guardian-lead,” he snapped, into his radio. He could hear a lot of outraged shouting
on the communications channels; he could see media helicopters and a handful of civilian
craft trying to flee the scene. “We’re going in.”

“Affirmative, Guardian-lead,” the controller said, professionalism overriding the horror that
he could hear in her voice. The aliens had attacked Washington, the centre of America; it
occurred to him to wonder what had happened to the President. He couldn’t see the White
House under the smoke and fog; the President might already be dead, or perhaps the Secret
Service were trying to get him out of the city and into a bunker somewhere. “You are
authorised to engage the enemy craft.”

The shape of the massive alien ship became clear, even through the smoke, as they raced
closer. It loomed in the sky, defying them, seemingly unconcerned about the wave of human
fighters heading directly towards its position. He studied it as they flashed closer, wishing
that they knew more about it; where could they hit that wasn’t likely to send it crashing to the
ground, but merely drive it away over to the Potomac? The prow of the ship, or the ‘handle’
of the sword?

“Designating target now,” he said, and sent the pulse of information to the other fighters. If
the aliens thought like humans, their command centre would be at the front of the craft, and
the engines would be at the rear, therefore the best place to target would be the front of the
alien ship. “All Guardians, lock onto the target and prepare to fire on my command.”

The smoke and flames rising from Washington obscured the fighting below; he could only
hope that the Marines and soldiers were putting up a good fight as the aliens advanced across
the city. There were plenty of armed civilians below, he knew; the press had been going on
and on about how many people had bought entire gun stores out of their guns when the first
reports of aliens arrived. Somehow, Ryan was convinced that the anti-gun lobby was about
to take a serious hit.

“Lee would be pleased,” he muttered, as he accessed the Raptor’s weapons control system.
There was no time to waste; the aliens hadn’t started to fire at the fighters yet, but it wouldn’t
be long before they opened fire. “All Guardians…fire!”

The aircraft jerked as it launched two missiles, one after the other, heading directly towards
the alien craft. The other aircraft in the flight were firing as well, a stream of missiles, aimed
right at the prow of the alien ship. He glanced down at his display and cursed; deep-space
tracking systems and local radar were warning of other alien ships, entering the atmosphere
and heading towards Washington. The controller was warning them that other flights of
human fighters were being held in reserve, but as soon as they knew what the missiles
actually did to the alien craft, they would have as much back-up as the USAF and Air
National Guard could send.

“Impact in three…two…”

The missiles struck something surrounding the alien craft. Just for a moment, as the light of
explosions flared in the sky, he saw a shimmering wall of light, surrounding the alien craft.
The missiles slammed into the force field and exploded; the force field slowly faded as the
moments passed. Ryan stared in horror…and then the alien craft started to fire back.

A pulse of blue light flashed out of the craft and stuck one of the Raptors, which vanished in
a blast of fire. Ryan cursed and threw his aircraft into evasive manoeuvres as the aliens kept
firing, targeting and blasting human aircraft and media helicopters alike. He saw a CNN
camera helicopter, the crew lingering just long enough to get one final shot, blown out of the
sky, along with three more Raptors of his flight. Something…flashed past his craft as the
aliens targeted him and he felt his hair stand on end, his equipment flickering as the alien
energy passed close to the Raptor. The aircraft lost attitude rapidly; it saved his life as
another bolt of energy flashed past…

“Everyone out,” he snapped, and hit the afterburners, forcing the Raptor through a series of
punishing turns. The aliens seemed to be almost shooting at random; some of the blasts they
aimed at human craft struck the ground, others just danced through the air, leaving strange
afterimages on his eyes as the aliens pressed their attack. He saw a skyscraper, towering into
the sky, hit by an alien blast and come crashing down, killing thousands of people.

“All Guardians, fall back,” the controller said. “The weapons don’t make any impact on the
force field, just get back to base and prepare for further orders…”

“They’ll be attacking the bases soon, you cunt,” someone shouted, over the communication
lines. Ryan heard the panic in the pilots voice and wanted to scream at him. “What the fuck
do we throw at them?”

“Just jet out of there,” the controller said. Her voice was desperate. “You’re being
slaughtered!”

“Understood,” Ryan said. He took the Raptor low, skimming over Washington and leaving a
trail of broken windows behind him, wondering what the enemy range was. The display
showed that the aliens weren’t actually giving chase; they had settled for only blasting the
humans out of the sky, or every human who was actually near one of their craft. It was the
ideal moment for a pursuit, he realised, but the enemy were just…taking possession of
Washington, as if they intended to stay there.

“Not fucking likely,” he muttered, as he saw for the first time how many of his friends and
comrades had been killed in the brief catastrophic battle. “We’ll be back before you fucking
know it.”

                                               ***
The President came to his feet to watch as the peace delegation moved forward…and then his
jaw hit the floor as Sandra was killed by a single alien shot. The Ambassador’s body fell
back and hit the ground, and then the aliens opened fire, their weapons tearing great bloody
chunks out of the crowd.

“Mr President, we have to get you out of here,” General Mathews snapped. There were
already five armed Marines in the room, part of a detachment that the General and the Secret
Service had insisted on stationing within the White House itself. The display showed, all too
clearly, the desperate fighting surrounding the White House…and the President could hear
the sounds of firing as the two forces collided. He couldn’t tell which side was which from
the noise alone, but then there was a massive blue flare of light, and a towering explosion,
shaking the White House to the foundations. “Soldier, alert the Captain; I want guards posted
on every possible point of entry.”

Two Secret Service men burst in the door. “We have to get the President out of here via the
tunnel,” one of the snapped. “We’re not going to be able to get him to a helicopter under that
bastard of an alien ship.”

“Move,” General Mathews snapped. “Sergeant, go with them, ensure that the tunnel remains
uncompromised.”

“Sir,” a Marine snapped, and ran out of the room. The other Marines had fanned out around
the President, weapons held at the ready, but some of them were nervous. Another unearthly
blue flash of light flared through the windows and everyone cringed, their hair standing on
end just long enough to remind them that they were fighting an alien foe.

“I have to talk to them,” the President mumbled, realising dimly that he wasn’t thinking
clearly. His thoughts refused to focus properly; he silently blessed his foresight in sending
the Vice President out of the White House, out of the city, before all hell broke loose. He
could only wish that he had done the same for himself, but it was too late now. “I have to tell
them…”

General Mathews spoke gently, as if to a child. “Mr President, they know that this is the
capital of America, or else they wouldn’t have come here,” he said, glancing down at his
uplink terminal. “Radar is reporting that there are more…enemy craft heading towards
Washington and they may well be thinking of landing all around the city, cutting off most of
our chance of escape. If they know what the White House is, and they must, they will storm
the building as soon as possible.”

A distant thunderous explosion underscored his words. “They’re following a conventional
attack strategy,” General Mathews said softly. “As long as they remain inside that force
field, they can clear the defenders away, and then secure the White House, the Pentagon and
the other buildings. General Muldoon at the Pentagon is reporting that he has already begun
to destroy papers; the aliens won’t wait for us to get ready for them now.”

The President fought to clear his mind. “Where will we go?”

“We take the tunnel out of here, and then we get you to Raven Rock, or Mount Weather,”
General Mathews said. “Once there, we can plan a counterattack against the aliens…”

“They’re coming out from under their force field,” a Marine said, watching from behind the
curtains. His face was very pale; it dawned on the President that the Marine was barely out
of his teens. The entire situation seemed surreal; they were in the Oval Office, waiting for
aliens to invade or a tunnel to be opened, whichever one came first. “Hah!”

His voice became much happier. “Someone just shot one down,” he said. General Mathews
grinned, his face showing the first hint of very real hope. “I saw the bastard’s head explode!”

Blue light flared again and a human tank was silenced. “General, the tunnel is open, but there
are alien movements outside the White House,” the Sergeant said. The President couldn’t
even remember the man’s name and resolved to ask at the earliest possible moment. “The
Captain believes that they’re about to storm the White House.”

“Come on,” General Mathews snapped, drawing his pistol and yanking the President behind
him. The Marines fanned out in front of them, adding an extra air of unreality to the entire
scene as they marched down the corridor with weapons raised; the President spared a thought
for the staff, who had to be terrified out of their minds. What were they thinking, he
wondered; did they know that he was being escorted out by the Marines?

He forced himself to ask. “What about the staff?”

“We’ll get them out after we have you heading down the tunnel,” General Mathews said
shortly. The Marine Sergeant nodded once, grimly; a strange noise echoed all around the
White House, just long enough to chill them all to the bone. “We don’t know anything about
what kind of detection or tracking equipment they have, so we won’t risk exposing you by
waiting for them.”

The building shook again; plaster fell from the ceiling. The President shivered, noticing the
reactions of the Secret Service men; he had read the reports of just how much modification
had been built into the White House, over the years. It might not have looked like a fortress,
but it was tougher than any other building of its size and general design. Something that
could actually shake the building…

He fell to the ground as the building shook a second time. “Something hit the rear of the
building,” one of the agents said. The sound of human and alien weapons began to echo
down the corridor, broken only by explosions and the dull thump of grenades. “I think that
the attack has begun.”

“No shit,” General Mathews muttered, as they reached the stairs. “I don’t think we dare trust
the elevator in these conditions, it would be a bloody stupid way to get caught.”

The President couldn’t argue.

“John, Tom, stay here and set up a few traps,” General Mathews ordered. He seemed to have
taken command of the entire detachment – the President remembered that he had once been a
Marine – and part of him seemed to be having the time of his life. “Once that’s done, get
down the stairs and join the rearguard.”

The President met his eyes as they struggled down the stairs. “General, what about the
staff?”
On cue, the building shook again. “They’ll have to take care of themselves,” General
Mathews snapped. The President tried to protest. “Right this moment, Mr President, the
country needs a leader! You are not expendable.”

Official Washington existed far below the surface of the city; not even the most diehard
conspiracy theorist really grasped how many bunkers, tunnels and storage facilities had been
built under the ground, purely to fight the Cold War, and later the war on terror. The
President himself hadn’t known, not from his beginnings as a street politician to becoming
first Governor of Virginia, until he had become President and had been briefed on the system.
Some details were classified even to him, mainly technical details, but he knew just how vast
the system actually was. At the time, he had thought that it was paranoid…

The ground heaved again. “We’re going to have to run now,” General Mathews said. The
President nodded. “We couldn’t get the train tunnel to extend this far without causing more
public notice than we really wanted, so we have to run to the train station. The other tunnels
go to the Pentagon and a handful of other buildings, but we daren’t use them, not now.”

His hands danced over a panel. “Good,” he said. “Air Force X remains where it is and hasn’t
been touched.”

The President stared at him. “Air Force X?”

“Stealth VTOL transport,” General Mathews said. “Your tax dollars at work.”

The two Marines, John and Tom, came racing down the stairs. “Sir, the aliens are pressing
towards the traps,” Tom said. He was a tall Marine with strikingly white hair, under his
helmet; the President trusted him on sight. “They may already know about the tunnel
system.”

“Let’s hope not,” General Mathews said. He tapped a command into the panel; moments
later, blast doors came down, covering the stairs. “Sergeant, I need you to hold this position
for at least twenty minutes, understand?”

The Sergeant nodded. “Understood,” he said, gruffly. “We won’t let you down.”

“Plan B,” General Mathews said. He tapped more commands into the panel. “I’m sealing off
the tunnel system from the other buildings that have direct access to it,” he said. The
President wanted to protest – they were condemning thousands of people to be trapped with
the aliens – but there was no other choice. “once that’s done, we start running.”

He tapped a final command into the system, just as the ground shook again. “That was a
claymore, or I’ll eat my hat,” the sergeant said. “They must have found Tom’s little
surprise.”

“Now we run,” General Mathews said. He took the President by the arm. “Come on!”

The President felt his body rapidly growing tired as they pounded down a long tunnel, the
lights flickering from time to time as the ground shook, casting an air of horror over the entire
situation. The President wanted to stop, he wanted to collapse, but there was no other choice;
the iron grip on his arm saw to that. They heard the sound of distant explosions echoing
down the corridor as the aliens broke through the blast doors…and ran faster.

“You can do it,” General Mathews said, as they passed under a blast door. He stopped,
briefly, glanced behind him…and closed the door. A second later, alien bullets cracked into
the blast door and bounced off, sending the President into near-shock. “Interesting…”

“Interesting?” The President asked, as they started to run again. There wasn’t much further
to go. “What’s interesting about it?”

“Their weapons sound similar to ours,” General Mathews said. They passed and closed two
more blast doors before they entered the station, where a small electric tram waited for them.
“They have that…weird blue energy weapon, and at the same time, they use weapons that
sound very much like ours, but smell slightly differently.”

The President didn’t bother to ask how the General could have smelled the alien weapons.
“Different propellant?”

“Perhaps,” General Mathews said. His dark face was creased in thought. “Why have the
enemy weapons and the bullet-firing weapons?”

“I don’t know,” the President said. “What do we do now?”

The door of the tram hissed open, revealing a very nervous Marine and a small row of seats.
“We take the tram,” General Mathews said. “Take a seat and make sure that you strap in!”

The President obeyed. “Done,” he said. The driver didn’t hesitate; he hit a switch and the
tram lunged forwards, the force of the acceleration forcing the President back into his seat,
the darkness of the tunnel hiding them from alien eyes. “General, can we stop them?”

General Mathews sighed. “They got us this time because we weren’t ready for them,” he
said. “If we can get to a command bunker, we can talk to the other units we have around the
country…and we can talk to the rest of the world. Once we know what is going on, then we
can plan and respond to the alien attack.”

The President glanced behind him, into the darkness. Somehow, he knew that he would
never feel safe again, no matter where he was. The world had been turned upside down in
less than a few hours…and he was on the run. General Mathews might act confident, but in
the end, was there any hope?
Chapter Eleven: The Battle of Washington, Take Three

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times…

Rebecca Sylvain peered down from the top of the skyscraper towards the alien ships hovering
as they came in to land around the city, and allowed himself, finally, to realise that she had
won the reporting prize for the year. The younger reporter, blonde enough to pass for Reese
Witherspoon and enthusiastic enough to pass for a girl half her age, had been passed over for
the position of reporting on the actual landing…which she was starting to feel had actually
been a lucky break. The reporter on duty – whom Rebecca knew was screwing the Director
in between a string of boyfriends who shared her with men who could help her reach even
higher positions – had either been killed or disabled; either way, she was off the air.

Rebecca found it hard to care. She had been unlucky enough to join during a period when
there were too many pretty young reporters…and her only assert was her body. She would
never make an investigative reporter, never be a real journalist like Ben Urich or Sally Floyd;
all she could do was stand in front of a camera and report on events to thousands of people
who only watched her because of the outfits she wore. It was no life for a girl who had been
brought up properly; there were times when she wondered if she could just quit and find a
honest line of work.

The cameraman gave her a thumb up. “On three, two, one…”

“I’m standing on top of an undisclosed location, looking down at the chaos as the aliens
launch their attack,” Rebecca said, ignoring both the fact that anyone who knew Washington
would be able to deduce her location, and the fact that she was facing the camera, rather than
looking towards the aliens. CNN had dozens of cameras around Washington, some of them
emplaced by reporters, others web-cams owned by people who were even now trying to sell
their footage to the media; the viewers would see a constant shifting series of images. “The
battle raging around the White house seems to have spread out across Washington and there
are thousands of aliens landing every moment along the Mall and in front of the White
House.”

She gasped as she looked, briefly, towards the conflict. “The White House is burning,” she
said, trying to place her feelings into words. “I can hear the sound of shooting, but its fading;
there are thousands of people fleeing the carnage, or trying to hide from the aliens, while the
aliens move as many of their people into the area as they can. They’re flushing humans out
and forcing them to run, trying hard to get…

“My God, there are more alien ships,” she breathed. “They’re just landing, they’re blasting
helicopters and…”

Her voice tailed off as a media helicopter was blown out of the sky. Reporters simply
weren’t killed that often, and if they were, naturally it was all the fault of the government’s
poor decision-making in the Middle East. Rebecca knew that far too many reporters who
were openly in favour of the government’s policy were targeted by terrorists or insurgents,
but uncontrolled slaughter of reporters was rare; it brought bad press…

She watched in horror as an American aircraft, launching missiles towards a small alien ship,
was blown out of the sky. She didn’t see a parachute, or any sign that the pilot had survived
the fiery destruction of his aircraft, only the ball of fire and the strange alien flares of blue
light that hacked aircraft out of the sky with ease. Another aircraft flashed up, rolling to
avoid a burst of alien fire…and then rammed the alien craft directly. For a terrifying
moment, Rebecca thought that the alien craft hadn’t been damaged at all…and then the alien
craft began to break up and fall out of the sky.

“They brought one down,” she said, hoping that the network was still functioning. The larger
alien ship was rising in the sky, blue flashes of energy still hissing into the air, while the
smaller craft crashed into Chinatown. “That brave pilot rammed an alien craft and brought it
down!”

The aliens didn’t seem deterred, she could see their tanks, strange crude vehicles, moving
through the streets and spreading out, trying to secure the entire city. The larger alien ship
was moving away now, but there seemed to be no end to the transport craft that were landing
all around them; she realised with a frisson of horror that the transports might be landing right
around the state. The aliens had defeated the forces arrayed to face them; what would they do
now…?

“This is an emergency broadcast,” a voice said speaking directly into her earplug. She
winced, clapping a hand to her ear, before realising that the speaker was talking on all
frequencies. “All military forces within Washington are to retreat to the predetermined…”

A screech of static, jamming, cut off the voice. “Becky, they’re jamming signal
transmissions,” her cameraman shouted at her. The sound of explosions was growing louder;
for the first time, it dawned on her that she could die in the middle of Washington as the
aliens expanded their control over the city. She glanced south, quickly, only to see more
alien transports heading in to land outside the city. There was an air force base in that
direction, wasn’t there? She could hardly remember. “We have been cut off from
broadcast.”

Rebecca pulled her earplug out before the static permanently deafened her. She could see the
aliens launching rockets and drones into the air, firing missiles towards human positions and
centres of possible resistance. A cowering group of policemen, trying to make a stand with
their pistols and a handful of rifles, were rapidly destroyed by the aliens, the remains of their
bodies left strewn around the blast zone.

She looked up at him. “What the hell do we do now?”

He had never touched her, never even hinted that he might be interested in touching her; at
the moment, she almost wanted to be held. “We have to get away from here,” he shouted at
her. “If we stay here, they’re likely to see us as a threat and kill us like that reporter in
Baghdad.”

Rebecca stared at him. “They’re not going to know what one of our guns looks like,” he
shouted. “They’ll see us aiming something at them and shoot first…”

A flight of helicopters flew overhead, heading west. She wondered, just for a moment, if
they were American helicopters, and then she saw them clearly; they had the same strange
crude design of the alien tanks. They were firing rockets as they flew overhead, pounding
American positions as the city dissolved into a mass of humanity and blind panic.
Washington had thousands of people living within the city…and the aliens were firing
indiscriminately at them all. They were all going to die…

“Fuck,” the cameraman shouted. He threw himself at her, knocking her to the ground. The
weight of his body was a total shock and she tried to struggle, old nightmares coming to the
fore as he pressed down on her. There was a noise close by and she knew that it was
important, but she could barely grasp it. “Stay down and…”

A burst of machine gun fire passed over their heads as a helicopter flew past. She hadn’t
even noticed it; the helicopter seemed to be almost silent, certainly quieter than the CNN
helicopter she had used on her only deployment outside the country. Something liquid and
warm gushed onto her and she shuddered, her thoughts going in all manner of directions,
thinking…she didn’t know what she was thinking. She pulled herself out from under him,
wondering insanely if there was an evil reason why he wasn’t climbing off her…and saw the
bloody mess of his back. She was covered in his blood.

“I’m sorry,” she said, noticing how all of the equipment had been ruined by the alien
helicopter. Her mind refused to focus on his death…and then it hit her, all at once. She
staggered to the side of the building and looked over the side, hearing now the thud-thud-thud
of heavy guns; the invaders, whoever they were, had set up guns on the White House lawn
and were using them to fire at human locations. The entire city seemed to be burning;
desperately, she felt the events of the day catching up with her and she was violently sick,
throwing up everything she had eaten in the entire day. “I think that…”

The focus of the alien movements were starting to turn in her direction, she realised, but it
was becoming harder to care. She could barely focus her mind to notice the fleeing civilians,
or the chain-reactions as cars were hit by alien weapons and destroyed by the explosions,
roasting the few drivers who had remained in the cars before they could escape. She had
forgotten everything, but the need to somehow watch and remember…

She sensed it coming before seeing it, a streak of light passing through the air and striking the
skyscraper, well below her position. The building shook…and started to topple as the
explosion blew away the supports, knocking the building over towards the ground. Rebecca
opened her mouth to scream…as she and hundreds of other people who had taken refugee in
the skyscraper fell to their deaths.

                                                ***
“Those bastards,” Gary Rawlings shouted, as another building was destroyed by the pressure
of the alien attack. Rawlings had been in Fallujah during Operation Phantom Fury and it had
been nothing like that; the scale of the alien attack bespoke a complete lack of concern for
civilian injuries or deaths. The aliens, clearly, had no media who would claim that all of the
deaths were their fault, but they were also clearly worried about the capability of their
opponents. The radio bands were rotating rapidly, trying to stay ahead of the alien jamming,
but they were warning him that the alien helicopters were heading towards his position.

An alien missile slammed into a tower, only a few hundred meters from their position. It was
a fantastic sight and he would have loved to watch, had he been a child; the building seemed
to implode, then collapse in on itself and come shattering down in a towering cloud of dust.
He screamed his fury to the skies as the alien forces advanced, wondering if he even had the
time to do anything before the aliens broke him and his company…
“Get ready,” he muttered, into his subvocal mike. The platoon had been deployed around
Rawlings’ very own Avenger of Washington, the M1097 Avenger Air Defence System. It
was a fairly common unit; the only distinctive marking was the image of Captain America on
the front, something that the crew had fought to retain against various politically correct
morons. His unit had been assigned to defend the airport against terrorists for the past few
months, something that had been boring and uneventful, until the aliens had arrived. The
orders to deploy to the heart of Washington had caught them with their pants down; they had
only been able to make their way through part of the city before all hell broke loose. “Once
we fire, they’ll know where we are…”

There was something oddly important about the alien deployment, he was certain; something
that was nagging at the back of his mind. The larger alien ship had headed away towards the
east, perhaps to cross the Atlantic and menace Europe, but the smaller craft were still landing
a constant stream of troops and reinforcements. Several transports, each one several times
the size of a B-52, had landed in the rubble, crushing it under their weight as they unloaded
tanks and equipment for the invaders, allowing them to increase their control of Washington.
He could only hope that the remainder of the civilians had gotten out of the city…and he was
sure, deep inside, that it was nothing more than wishful thinking. There were thousands of
civilians in Washington, caught inside a meat-grinder to rival Stalingrad itself.

It hit him in a moment of sudden awareness; the larger alien craft hadn’t fired unless they
were fired upon. It seemed crazy, but why else would the invaders allow the USAF to fly so
close to their ships without firing, or even attempting to evade; the force fields were tough,
but they were clearly not invulnerable. The reports from the centre of Washington had been
vague, but it seemed as if the landers had followed a similar pattern; they hadn’t fired until
they were fired upon, no matter what happened to the soldiers on the ground. It
was…strange, alien…and he was sure that it was important somehow. He just didn’t know
why…

“I have emissions,” the Avenger’s operations officer reported. The crewman was staring
down at his console; they had emplaced a smaller sensor well away from their position, in the
hopes of not attracting enemy fire directly onto their position. The enemy should have shot at
both the American radars and radios and they didn’t seem to have deliberately targeted either,
even allowing for the confusion in the battlezone as the aliens poured their reinforcements
into Washington. “At least three enemy helicopters; they’re coming our way.”

And that, too, was odd, Rawlings knew. If the enemy could build ships as powerful and
capable as the force field-protected transports, why were they bothering with helicopters?
Hell, why were they bothering with tanks? Just run up a force field around a vehicle and
move into the enemy like they had cheat codes for a RTS game. They were playing it
stupid…and in his experience, when the enemy were playing it stupid, it normally meant that
there was something going on that the good guys weren’t seeing.

“Good,” he said. They had been intended to link up with a National Guard company
somewhere in Washington, but the outbreak of fighting had prevented that from occurring.
He had deployed the thirty men in his platoon in position to hamper any alien attack, but he
knew that once the aliens knew they were there, his unit would come under rocket or artillery
fire. It was what he would have done in their place. “As soon as they come into view,
engage them.”
The aliens were flying in a jerky fashion that reminded him far too much of some of the
fighting in Iraq…and now the American forces were playing the insurgents. He thought
wistful thoughts about IED devices as he mentally prepared himself for the coming fight; the
aliens seemed unaware of his position, but they could hardly miss the Avenger when it
opened fire. He was half-convinced that the aliens had already seen it; it wasn’t as if they
had had time to hide it properly when they made a stand…

An alien helicopter floated into view and the gunner fired the first missile at the alien, at what
was practically point-blank range for the Avenger. The alien had no time to react as the
Stinger missile punched right through its armour and detonated, sending it exploding in a
gout of fire. The platoon opened fire on the second helicopter, which Rawlings noted grimly
had better armour than the Marine helicopters in Iraq, before a second Stinger destroyed the
alien craft. The third helicopter jerked backwards and vanished somewhere in the smoke and
fog.

“Get the vehicle moving,” he shouted, as the Avenger leapt into motion. The Sergeant
driving the vehicle had once been a stuntman for Hollywood; his driving skills were
phenomenal, he stamped on the gas and yanked the vehicle back as the first howl of incoming
shells echoed over the sound of the fighting. Rawlings threw himself down into the shelter of
rubbish and prayed desperately as the ground shook around him and chunks of debris and
dust went everywhere. The Avenger was lucky; clearly, the image of Captain America on the
front brought luck after all. Rawlings laughed to himself; he preferred Wildstorm himself.

A force of alien soldiers had appeared, picking their way through the rubble, moving with a
strange jerky motion that reminded him of crippled or wounded humans. There didn’t seem
to be anything wrong with the aliens, however; they moved onwards with caution and – he
saw now – experience. They knew what they were doing, moving as a group and covering
one another as they advanced…

“Fire,” he snapped. There hadn’t been time to ascertain how many of his people had been
left alive, but over fifteen weapons barked out as the aliens advanced, striking them and
knocking some of the aliens down. There were no personal force fields, but the alien body
armour was strong; only headshots seemed to work to kill them. They bled green, he noticed,
as the aliens scrambled for cover and returned fire, trying to pin his men down. He saw, very
clearly, what they were trying to do; trap his men so that they could be killed by long-
distance fire. It was the perfect solution if one cared nothing for civilian deaths in the midst
of the battle.

“Incoming,” someone shouted from behind him. The Avenger had returned and unleashed a
burst of its own machine gun fire onto the aliens; the aliens seemed to recoil and scatter as
several of their number fell to the bursts. Their body armour, he realised in a moment of
relief, couldn’t stand up to the machine gun; aliens lay dead in front of him. Some of them,
judging from the position of the wounds, had been torn apart by splinters of their body
armour. “Sir…”

“Get back,” he snapped. The survivors of the platoon were dangerously exposed; there was
no choice, but to fall back and find reinforcements, but now they knew one thing that they
hadn’t known…and they had had to know.
The aliens could be killed.
Chapter Twelve: The Aftermath of Washington, Take One

“Your Highness, Your Highness, Char, Char, Char!”

Crown Prince and Heir Imperial Rohan, Commanding Officer of the First Interstellar
Conquest Force, accepted the cheers of his men as his transport settled to the ground,
allowing him to leave the Trader craft and step out onto the soil of Earth. He had wanted to
be on the first ship to land in front of the human centre of Government – the centre of the
most powerful human nation, he reminded himself - but First Sergeant Sir Chamita had
threatened to sit on him until he reluctantly agreed to allow someone less important to
command the first wave of the attack.

The human city rose up around him, very much a typical city in flames, but one whose very
design spoke of safely and wealth. Char would never have built a city with so many large
and vulnerable buildings; the last time that the city had been threatened directly had to have
been out of living memory. The humans had fought hard, but they had been forced out of
their own city, something that had to hurt their pride as much as it would have hurt his.
There were thousands of his soldiers landing now, all around the city and spreading out to
ensure a secure foothold on the American continent. The core of the former government, as
always happened on Karn itself, would serve as the core of the new government, one that
would replace human authority with Char authority – his authority.

“Your Highness,” General Sir Bothe said, bowing his head in an ancient gesture of
submission. It was important that the soldiers see Rohan as the supreme authority right from
the start; it was necessary in order to prevent an ambitious junior officer attempting to take
power for himself. “Welcome to the human city of Washington.”

Rohan cast his eyes towards the centre of human power and smiled thinly. The home of their
President – a strange word for a stranger principle – had been badly damaged during the
fighting; the humans had fought for every inch. They hadn’t had a chance, but they had
fought with the courage of demons as they forced the infantry to kill them all, one by one.
Other buildings had been used as makeshift defence posts – proof again that the humans
hadn’t expected to fight a war in the heart of their own power – and had been damaged,
others had been taken almost intact. His ears pricked up as a series of shots echoed out over
the city, but most of the city had already fallen to the infantry.

“Thank you, My General,” Rohan said, as General Sir Bothe straightened up to a walking
position. “You have done well.”

There was a final series of cheers and then the soldiers were rapidly dispersed, apart from the
Imperial Guard elite, who fanned out around Rohan to ensure his safety. The city might have
had most of its defenders killed, but there was still a vast population present and humans
knew nothing of the rules of war that the Malick Karn had used since they had learned to
make fire. Insane attacks by surviving soldiers, aware of the fate that awaited them, weren’t
unknown; it was even possible that some of the civilians might rise up against the occupation
forces.

“Thank you, My Prince,” General Sir Bothe said. Rohan was distracted for a few moments
by a team of female medics, crossing the battlefield to tend to wounded soldiers. “If you
would care to come with me to the command post, we can organise the post-battle occupation
of the city and our future military moves.”

Rohan nodded and allowed the General to lead his small group towards a large tent that had
been set up in front of the White House. He was surprised to see the tent; standard practice
was to set up as quickly as possible within the centres of power, but General Sir Bothe had
clearly decided to change the rules. The tent itself was safe – it was surrounded both by
armoured vehicles and a set of anti-aircraft systems – but it was…odd.

“The enemy have been leaving a set of traps behind,” General Sir Bothe said, when Rohan
asked. “Many of them have been quite ingenious when it comes to killing or wounding most
of our soldiers; one of their soldiers dug himself into a building and set up an entire series of
traps that wounded three of my people. Some of the most innocent-looking items have been
attached to mines or grenades; several of the Footsoldiers will be blinded for life unless we
find a way to heal the effects of a strange burning liquid. Many of the buildings that weren’t
made unsafe by the fighting were made unsafe by the enemy as they retreated.”

Rohan allowed himself a moment of irritation. “It was definitely the work of the soldiers?”

General Sir Bothe read his mind. “It would appear so, although some of their civilian
population also carried weapons and used them against us,” he said. “Given the confusion,
Your Highness, do you want to order the implementation of the protocols to deal with uppity
civilians?”

Rohan considered it. Had the city of…Washington been a Malick Karn city, he wouldn’t
have hesitated; civilians did not get to resist in Malick Karn warfare. They existed to serve
whoever ruled the land and any overt resistance meant rebellion, which meant death. At the
same time, it would be difficult to sort out who was really a civilian and who was a soldier;
human uniforms made little sense to the Malick Karn.

“Not at present,” he said. “We will have to inform them of what happens when they trespass
against the laws of warfare. Have the protocols implanted in a small manner; that should be
enough to prevent overt resistance for a while.” He found a strange, human-designed chair,
and sat down on it, studying the updated map. “General, what is the current status of our
forces and enemy resistance?”

The map was filled with strange, human names for locations, some of them almost Malick
Karn in pronunciation, others strange and alien. “We have massed our forces around this city
and have landed units up and down the coastline, securing control over a large amount of
their land and population. Resistance has been mixed, from heavy resistance in some
locations, to barely any resistance from anyone, but the young.”

Rohan smiled. That, at least, was something that humanity shared with the Malick Karn.
Human youth would come out to do battle with the invading forces, only to discover that the
Malick Karn laws of war included crushing and enslaving such crude attempts to attack the
occupation forces. If their elders allowed it to happen, the protocols would be adopted and
entire communities would be punished.

He took a breath. “And human soldiers?” He asked. “How do they compare to us?”
“They took down a Trader landing craft,” General Sir Bothe said. Rohan felt his mouth fall
open in shock. A nuclear strike on a much-larger Trader ship had produced no result, but a
human had somehow killed one of the automated landing craft? How? “We’re not sure how
they did it, but it looks as if one of their fighter aircraft collided with one of the Trader
transports and somehow punched out the ship’s force field.”

Rohan stared at him. “And the ruins of the craft?”

“The Traders actually sent several other ships to recover it,” General Sir Bothe informed him.
Rohan shook his head bitterly, and then felt new opportunities opening up in front of him. If
humans could take down a Trader ship, if only a small transport, it offered all manner of
options for the future. “They took the ruins away and I don’t know what happened to them.”

“That’s not a problem at the moment,” Rohan said. “How many men did we lose?”

“Somewhere around two hundred killed and five hundred injured,” General Sir Bothe said.
The old General tapped the map. “We took hardly any losses from the first few moments,
because we were under the Trader force, and we took the opportunity to blow away as much
of the human military force as possible. Once we were out from under the shield, our losses
became much higher; the humans fought like demons. In some places, we had to bring up
heavy artillery to clear them away; if nothing else, humans will make useful soldiers for the
Volunteer Army.”

Rohan shook his head slowly. “Securing a handful of airfields cost us lives, and our losses
got higher when we had to go up against their prepared units without the force fields,”
General Sir Bothe continued. “Once they get organised, it’s going to get a lot more
expensive, Your Highness; their aircraft managed to inflict a great deal of damage on our
units until we were able to get laser systems into effect. Even so, their tanks are as good as
ours and their crews know how to use them; it won’t be the easy invasion that Makal was.”

“I wasn’t expecting it to be,” Rohan reminded him. “How many of them did we kill?”

General Sir Bothe hesitated. “Going by bodies alone, we killed upwards of several thousand,
which may be a limited figure because there will be plenty of bodies buried under rubble,” he
said. “Most human soldiers either stood their ground or made a tactical retreat; there was
only one case of outright panic among the humans.”

“Prisoners?”

“We captured around nine hundred humans who we found in the main battlezone,” General
Sir Bothe said. “Some of them were obviously soldiers, others were probably civilians,
although some of the civilians had weapons and we suspect they used them against us.”

“If there is clear proof, kill them,” Rohan said shortly. “Did we capture anyone important?”

General Sir Bothe hesitated. “We were unable to capture the President,” he said. He bowed
his head. “The assault force went in too late to block his escape, and once he was
underground, we lacked the information to capture him or to arrange a surprise for him once
we knew where he was going. I took the liberty of ordering an assault group and a force of
helicopters to try to locate the tunnel’s egress, but the helicopters ran into enemy fire and had
to abort the mission. I offer my head in recompense.”

Rohan shook his head. There were times when he felt that the traditions of the old guard had
played more than a minor role in Char’s fall in power, before the Traders had come and stood
everything on its head. General Sir Bothe was of the old school, no matter how well he had
adapted to the Trader-designed equipment; his offer was sincere. Rohan had no doubt that
had he accepted the offer, he would have committed suicide on the spot.

“There is no blame attached for the fortunes of war,” he said, formally. It had hardly been
the General’s fault, after all; the armed forces of America had been partly an unknown before
the invasion had begun, no matter what information the Traders had provided. Like the
Imperial Guard, the American defenders of their President had sworn their lives to defend
him. “You are blameless in this matter.”

He paused, just long enough to note the General’s private relief. “Did we capture anyone else
important?”

“It’s difficult to say,” General Sir Bothe said. “One of the survivors was part of the group
that approached us, before the fighting began, but he was injured. The others came from all
around the central government region; it is possible that we have snatched up someone
important without actually knowing it. The Savants have been waiting to begin
interrogations, Your Highness, but there will be more problems than merely a lack of
cooperation.”

Rohan nodded slowly, running one green hand along the side of the command computer. The
humans couldn’t be expected to speak any of the languages spoken on Karn, could they?
They would have to learn one of them, or, rather, the Savants would have to learn to talk one
of their languages, all the while probably terrified for their lives. The Traders had promised
that their translation devices could handle communications, but Rohan didn’t completely trust
the Traders; it had been the Traders who had insisted on the war in the first place.

“They will have a good incentive to tell us how to take care of them,” he said. It was quite
possible that some of the humans were in pain, without ever knowing how to tell their captors
that they needed help; there was nothing to be done, but attempt to decipher one of their
languages. “Ideally, we don’t want them learning our language, but…”

He shrugged. “I think that we need to decide on what to do now,” he said. He studied the
map for a moment. “What do you expect the humans to do?”

“Counterattack,” General Sir Bothe said. “This is a beachhead in most respects, and they will
have to attempt to crush us before we can weaken them before their fellows and use their
prostration as a symbol of our might. We know that hundreds of their soldiers escaped, but
where have they gone? Now that we have landed, they will have a target to concentrate their
forces against.

“We have positioned our forces around this city and expanding outwards,” he continued.
“Human refugees have attempted to flee the city and we are generally permitting them to
leave, unless they have weapons. As we bring in more forces, we will have the units
assembled to strike either north or south, towards either New York or Richmond, depending
on how the humans react. Their priority will be to strike first…”

He spoke rapidly, detailing his dispositions; Rohan made a comment from time to time, just
to reassure the General that he was paying attention. There was little to alter; the plan had
been drawn up back on Karn, and so far, events had borne out most of the pre-war
predictions. The loss of their President was annoying, but there would be time enough to
capture a figurehead later. Once the American government had revealed its location…

“When someone senior in their government is found, I want him to be the focus of attention,”
Rohan said, after General Sir Bothe had finished his long and detailed explanation. “We will
need someone to serve as a messenger to the American Government, as well as the other
human governments on Earth. That person will carry our offer of peace under our rule to
their government.”

“Of course, Your Highness,” General Sir Bothe said. He paused. “I believe that Savant
Kothas wanted to speak with you at your earliest convenience. He was inside the White
House when he asked to talk to you…”

Rohan decided that he could allow himself one small risk. “I think I’ll go see him,” he said,
and nodded at Chamita. “I have always wanted to see how the humans treat their rulers.”

The White House was much less ornate than he had expected, although the devastation of the
fighting had probably had something to do with that, he reflected. Some of the corridors and
rooms had been reduced to shattered ruins by the savage fighting, others seemed almost
obscenely intact, with one long row of paintings on a wall. The human faces looked down at
him, their pale faces seemingly unnatural in the strange light of the human sun, their faces
unreadable to him. None of them looked strong, not in the sense that his father was strong;
he wondered how the humans saw their rulers. Democracy didn’t work; that had been proved
by Char…

“Your Highness,” Savant Kothas said. He was standing in the middle of a large room,
decorated with strange images and flags, some of them clearly military in origin. “You may
find this of interest.”

Rohan was in no mood for games. “Perhaps,” he said. “What have you found?”

“Their computers are certainly different from any that the Traders taught us how to make,”
Savant Kothas said shortly. Rohan smiled to himself; learning how the human system
worked would be one easy way to escape what he was convinced was a Trader surveillance
system in disguise. “This one here may actually be more capable…and its here on its own,
not part of a network…”

“Yes, very interesting,” Rohan said. He had had an idea. It meant playing for high stakes,
higher than he would have normally chosen to play for, but there was little choice, “Have
you begun your task of learning the human tounge?”

“They call it English, Your Highness,” Savant Kothas said. “My team is working on it now,
but you can talk to them using the translators. You don’t have to wait…”
Rohan met his eyes. “I have a task for you,” he said. “You are to ensure that Prince
Courtesan Garlinda-Ya is among those who learn the human language.”

Savant Kothas recoiled. Teaching a woman anything didn’t sit well with him. “Your
Highness!”

“You are to ensure that Prince Courtesan Garlinda-Ya is among those who learn the human
language,” Rohan repeated. He leaned forwards; he needed someone he trusted completely
who was fluent in English. “I expect you to ensure that this takes place in complete secrecy
and that it is done, without any attempts to delay it. Do you understand?”

Savant Kothas flushed. “Yes, Your Highness,” he said sullenly. He wouldn’t dare to attempt
to slow the teaching as ‘proof’ that a woman couldn’t match a man at anything. “It will be
done as you command.”

Rohan looked out of the human windows towards the setting sun. Time wasn’t on his side,
but with a little luck, he might just be able to kill two birds with one stone. If done properly,
not only would he have an empire of his own, but his people would also be free, once and for
all, of the Traders.
Chapter Thirteen: The Aftermath of Washington, Take Two

Alex Houghton sat on the ground of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium and held his
head with one shackled hand. The pain was overwhelming and he had a nasty suspicion that
he had a concussion somewhere in the back of his head; there had been time during the night
when he had feared that he wouldn’t wake up after going to sleep. The ground was
uncomfortable; the reminder that SETI had been disastrously wrong burned away at his very
soul. There seemed to be hundreds of people gathered into the stadium, a chilling note of
what life under the aliens might be like. The morning was warm, something that almost
everyone greeted with relief; the aliens had stripped them all naked.

Houghton understood, even as he silently cursed the aliens. They were…well, alien;
anything human could be a weapon and they might not recognise it as one until it was too
late. When they had picked him up from the ruins of Washington, they had carefully cut his
clothes free, removing everything from his watch to his cell phone, before shackling him with
dozens of other prisoners and marching them into the stadium, which had been converted into
a makeshift prison. Some of the men and women had tried to resist; the aliens had simply
flattened them with their weapons and stripped them anyway. If the aliens spoke English –
and SETI’s assumption that they could was looking more and more shaky by the minute –
they were hiding it; shouts, insults, tearful pleadings, reasoned discussions…all of them had
had no effect on the aliens at all.

And he was privately terrified. He had seen every alien movie under the sun, from War of the
Worlds to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and they suggested all manner of different
possibilities for what the aliens had in mind for them. It was unlikely that the aliens intended
to use them as breeding stock, even though he had used to think that alien attack was
unlikely, but they might have intended to use the humans as food, or even as human shields.
It was also possible that the humans in the prison camp might tear themselves apart; the
naked women were a temptation to every red-blooded man in the camp.

He could see Gloria, sitting hunched over with her breasts pushed into her knees. Her
boyfriend was sitting next to her, shackled to her, his eyes following the curves of her body,
rather than thinking about how disastrous the situation actually was. His eyes were
shadowed; the former football jock wasn’t responding well to captivity. There were too
many lowlifes in one place.

He tore his eyes away from her as her boyfriend glared at him, looking up towards the alien
guards. They almost reminded him of Klingons, except their heads were almost human, with
no ridges, and they had green skin. The alien skin colours seemed to move from light green,
almost a cartoonish colour, to darker green; they all smelled the same strange alien smell. It
was something…beyond his experience, a strange blend of spice and vegetables and
something utterly strange. The aliens walked oddly, but quickly; their bodies were slightly
different to a human’s body. As far as he could tell, they were all male.

An alien clumped into the stadium, looking down at a small device on his hand. There was a
moment’s pause and then he heard a voice, speaking in flat, atonal English, addressing them
all loudly enough to be heard at quite a distance. The alien lips didn’t seem to be moving
with the voice; he could just hear the noise of the alien language under the English words.
The device had to be some kind of translator, he realised; it was speaking in English.
“All humans will be processed as prisoners of the” – the translator stumbled over an odd set
of words; Malick Karn – “Children of Karn,” the alien said. “Resistance is futile; you will be
classified and then you will be used for the good of the” – another odd word; Char –
“Empire.”

Houghton watched as the alien moved from human to human, asking questions in a low
voice. He couldn’t help, but notice that the soldiers were being stripped out of the group,
along with the gang members who had survived their short and brutal encounter with the
aliens. One of them had been ranting on about due process when the aliens had dumped him
into the pen; the irony of the situation wasn’t lost on Houghton. If the aliens were prepared
to mow down innocent civilians, they would certainly not bother with a trial first.

The alien stopped in front of Gloria, its eyes boring down on the naked girl. “You will state
your function in human society,” it said. “What do you do?”

Gloria spoke through shuddering tears. “I study linguistics for the university,” she said, her
voice trembling. It hadn’t even occurred to her to lie, Houghton noticed; she was terrified of
the alien. Not that he blamed her; only sheer determination to learn as much as he could kept
him from panicking as well. “I speak nine languages and work as a translator and…”

“You will be important,” the alien said, and unlocked her shackles with one quick motion.
“You will accompany the guards to a place of research.”

“Hold on just a minute,” her boyfriend said, catching hold of her leg. “She’s not going
anywhere without me.”

The alien turned and looked down at him; he cringed back slightly, just enough to reveal that
he was terrified. “You will state your function in human society,” it said. “What do you
do?”

It was the same question that he had asked Gloria. “I play football for the university,” her
boyfriend said. The alien’s face was impassive; Houghton wondered if the jock had
accidentally stumbled on something important. The translation device clearly had limits.
How well would it handle a different human language. “She’s my girl and she goes nowhere
without me.”

There was a long pause. “The defeated have no rights over women,” the alien said, and shot
him. The noise of the shot echoed over the stadium as the boyfriend fell back, dead; his head
shattered into red pieces of flesh and blood. The alien looked oddly disgusted; judging from
the alien skin colour, their blood was a different colour. Houghton tried to force his mind to
puzzle out the secrets of the alien biology, but it was impossible, he kept remembering the
jock falling backwards, dead. He had hated him, half-wanted to walk into college one day
with a gun and blow him away, but he hadn’t deserved to die that way. No one did.

Gloria staggered off, half-carried by one of the aliens, and the alien interrogator continued its
rounds. A policeman was ignored; a doctor was taken away to some unknown destination. A
soldier was saluted and then taken away as well. Houghton studied the alien, trying to
understand; they seemed more interested in warriors and people with practical skills. An
economics student’s attempt to explain what he did was met with incomprehension; finally,
the student was left with the others. A gang member was smacked on the head for mouthing
off…

The alien looked down at him. Up close, the alien eyes were featureless black orbs, without
hints of iris or anything else to show how they functioned. Houghton remembered some of
SETI’s wilder speculations and wondered if the alien had implanted eyes, or if it somehow
saw in a very different way to humanity.

“You will state your function in human society,” it said. The question had never changed; the
implications of the question, assuming that it was translated accurately, worried him. It was
as if the aliens cared nothing for people as individuals. “What do you do?”

Houghton took a breath. “I work to discover ways to contact non-human life,” he said,
truthfully. He could have spoken about being a student, but the aliens hadn’t seemed
impressed with the other students, and he didn’t want to find out what the aliens would do
with people they considered useless. “I was part of the group that attempted to talk to you
peacefully before…”

He broke off. What could he have said? From what the handful of captured soldiers had
said, the aliens had kicked humanity’s ass, but they had been killed; they could be killed. He
knew enough about space warfare, however, to know that defeating them would not be easy;
did they possess orbital battle stations and hovering orbital bombardment weapons to hammer
humanity into submission?

The alien’s expression changed slightly. It shaped its lips into what reassembled an
unpleasant smile, although he fought to remind himself that an alien smile might look quite
different to a human smile, and it was possible that the alien was actually glaring at him. The
alien teeth were flat and sharp, very neatly set within its mouth; they seemed to be almost
pure white in the green face.

“You will go with the guards,” the alien said, unlocking Houghton’s shackles. “Do not
attempt to resist.”

The guard proved to be another alien wearing body armour. Houghton had never claimed to
be an expert on the military – the closest thing he had come to real military experience had
been reading military novels and taking one visit on his life to a firing range – but it struck
him as the alien led him across the ruins of Washington that the alien weapons were very like
human weapons. The basic design philosophy appeared to be the same as humanity’s…and
the same went for the tanks and vehicles that he saw, spread out around the ruins of the centre
of the city. Some of them reminded him of Abrams tanks, others…others seemed to have no
discernable purpose at all.

There were groups of humans around, working under alien supervision to clear rubble and
pick up dead bodies; there was a massive pile of bodies in one part of the city, with no
concern for hygiene or anything else. Disease would spread rapidly, he knew, and wondered
if the aliens would be bothered by human viruses. Would the common cold save mankind?
His eyes met those of a handful of civilians; they all looked beaten and defeated, their eyes
wide with shock and fear. Had it really been a day ago when humanity had thought itself
alone in all the universe?
The aliens had set up a series of tents in a park, surrounded by more of the strange units; there
was no sign of the massive alien ship that had appeared at the beginning. He had a
nightmarish vision of it coming in over Paris, or Moscow, or Beijing, or another human city,
landing more troops; was this happening all over the planet? He wondered if he dared ask the
guard, but judging by the alien use of a translator, it was quite possible that the alien spoke no
English.

Four guards stepped up as they approached, weapons raised, examining Houghton with great
interest. His nakedness bothered him more than he cared to admit, but the aliens seemed
unconcerned; they seemed more interested in ensuring that he wasn’t carrying anything
dangerous. They took their time as well; had they encountered a suicide bomber already, or
something that warned them that…

They don’t understand our technology, he realised. It dawned on him in a flash of sudden
understanding; the aliens were probably utterly baffled as to what elements of human
technology could be dangerous to them. They might recognise a gun if they saw one, but
what about an improvised explosive device, or a hidden weapon, or even one of the
camouflaged weapons that the CIA had invented…would the aliens understand one if they
saw one? No wonder they were nervous. They could treat something harmless as if it was
deadly dangerous…all the while, missing something that could kill them all…

“Chatses, masies, eyakwe aieske,” a guard said. Houghton tried, futilely, to probe the alien
words for meaning. It might have been anything from ‘anything to declare’ to ‘drop your
pants, bend over, and spread them’ – there was no way to know. His escort replied in the
same language, speaking almost too rapidly for Houghton to make out any words; the only
word he made out clearly was Rohan.

The guard said something else and waved them into the secure section of the alien camp.
There was something oddly primitive about it for a race that had crossed space; it reminded
him of the French camp that Q had once confronted the crew of the Starship Enterprise with,
except there were dozens of tents and several wounded aliens around, lying on stretchers. A
handful of the aliens glared at him – or perhaps they were smiling – and his escort shouted
angry words at them. Injured aliens, like Americans in Iraq, would probably not be too fond
of the natives.

They started it, he thought coldly.

A large alien tent rose up in front of them and the escort opened it, revealing a table, a lamp,
another pair of aliens…and Gloria. She looked up, her eyes haunted, as Houghton entered;
he smiled at her as bravely as he could and took the seat next to her. The two aliens looked at
them, one of them gave him a sense of age, the other…the other, unless he missed his guess,
was an alien female.

She – if she was female – was smaller than the male aliens, seemingly weaker. She was also
the first alien to give him an unashamed smile of welcome, so…human that he had to remind
himself that it might mean something completely different for her. Her hips seemed to be
wider than male hips, but there were no sign of breasts; the aliens were clearly quite different
to humans in that respect at least. Her face was sharper than a male face, but softer; her hair
was longer and wrapped up around her face in a beehive design. Her clothes, finally, spoke
not of war and fighting, but of casual wear, hardly clothes to fight a war in…
“Welcome…to…this room,” the male alien said. The old alien’s voice was softer than the
other alien he had heard speaking aloud…and it took him a moment to realise that he was
speaking English. “I am…Savant Kothas, a student of humans. I…have been assigned
to…study your kind.”

Houghton took a breath. The alien’s halting delivery suggested that he was still learning the
language, but in their place, he would have tired to keep hidden just how well he spoke a
human language. He felt anger welling up within him, pure anger, demanding that the aliens
pay for what they had done. He wanted them to pay!

“Why?” He asked, only half-aware of Gloria’s sudden panic. “Why did you attack us?”

The alien ignored the question. “You…will assist us to…learn about humanity and help us in
our cause,” he said. The female alien met his eyes; was there a flicker of sympathy there, or
was he just deluding himself? “If…you help us, we will reward you as part of the
assimilation of Earth into the…Empire?” He hesitated, as if unsure if that was the correct
word. “If you do not, you will be punished…”

“Alex, don’t fight them,” Gloria said. The concern in her voice was real; part of Alex’s mind
wondered why she hadn’t cared about him before seeing her boyfriend blown away right in
front of her. The bastards hadn’t even given her time to wash the blood off her naked body.
“They’ll kill you, just like they killed everyone else…”

“Resistance is…futile,” the alien agreed. Houghton suppressed an insane urge to giggle.
Had the aliens ever heard of the Borg? “Your world will become part of the Empire and
humans must learn their place in the Empire. If you serve us, you will become powerful
within the Char system and your…ancestors will benefit.”

“Descendents,” Gloria corrected softly. Houghton wondered if she was right; was the alien
making some odd point about their religion? Did the aliens believe what they were doing
was a holy crusade?

“Descendents,” the alien agreed. Somehow, Houghton was sure that the alien wouldn’t make
the same mistake twice; the speed at which he had picked up English was remarkable. “You
worked for this…Search for Non-Human Life, correct?”

Houghton blinked. How had they found that out? He remembered losing his ID card and
wondered if it had fallen into the hands of the aliens. SETI had been idealistic, but it had
never been expecting a hostile alien arrival, or even direct contact face-to-face. What would
the aliens make of SETI?

“Yes,” he said. When in doubt, admit as little as possible. He wasn’t about to admit that
SETI had never planned for what looked so obvious in hindsight. “I work for them.”

“You work for us now,” the alien said. They exchanged glances; there was something odd in
the way they looked at each other that gave him pause. “You and we will begin a heavy
course of learning…one another. Once we can talk properly without the aid of” – he used a
word that Houghton didn’t recognise – “translators, we will talk about the future of your race
under the Empire.”
There seemed to be no signal, but a guard appeared at the entrance anyway. “You will
be…taken to somewhere to wash, sleep, and prepare for the morning,” the alien informed
them. “Once you are ready to begin, we will learn how to speak perfectly, understand?”

Gloria seemed on the verge of panic. “Yes,” she said, as she stood up. There wasn’t
anything sensual about her body now; she was quaking as she moved. The aliens didn’t seem
concerned at all about her personal dignity or modesty; they just…treated humans as their
pawns. “We will obey you, sir.”

Houghton kept his own thoughts to himself. He would do as SETI had intended to do and
learn as much as he could, and then…

He smiled. They would see.
Chapter Fourteen: Jihad

“Remind me of something,” Général de division Philippe Laroche said, as the tanks of the
Saudi Arabian Army rumbled onwards towards the Al-Hasa oilfields. “It was the Americans
who taught you to use tanks, wasn’t it?”

Prince Qutaybah, who had been appointed a General because he was related to the King
though a series of marriages and divorces that puzzled Laroche whenever he thought about it,
looked oddly conflicted. Laroche had studied the Prince’s history carefully, noting not only
the evidence of loose and un-Islamic living, but the sealed records from an American army
training school. Saudi Arabia might have evicted most of the American forces from the
country in the wake of Iraq, but the country remained dependent on the Americans,
something that most of the inhabitants bitterly resented.

“I studied at one of their military training schools,” Prince Qutaybah said, after a long pause.
“I have more experience than anyone else in the region.”

“Apart from the Americans at Prince Sultan, the British units in Basra, and…well, me?”
Laroche asked dryly. “How well did you do on the training course?”

Prince Qutaybah said nothing. Laroche privately guessed that the Americans had only
graduated him because it would have been politically embarrassing to have the man slated to
become the field commander of part of the Saudi Army failed by the Saudi Army’s mentors.
The deployment of the units in Saudi Arabia bespoke not confidence, or flexibility, but of
iron adherence to orders and a massive lack of flexibility. The tanks were bunched up and
advancing as a group towards the looming pillars of smoke in the sky; there had been no
attempt to even send out a reconnaissance patrol. Laroche had attempted to convince Prince
Qutaybah to send out at least a few scouts, but the Prince had overruled him, citing the need
to claim the advantage of surprise.

He shook his head as the column moved onwards. He hadn’t expected – ever – to be facing
aliens, let alone beside Arabs, rather than his fellow Frenchmen. He would have sold his soul
for just one French armoured regiment, or even an entire battle group; instead, he was almost
certain to die alongside the Saudis. He had believed, back when he had been ordered to serve
as part of a French military mission to Saudi Arabia, that the Americans had deliberately
hampered the Saudis from developing a powerful military; looking at the way that Prince
Qutaybah handled his forces, he was starting to realise that the Americans needn’t have
bothered. If Saudi Arabia had ever faced a real military challenge, it would probably have
evolved much better doctrine, but the last war they had fought had been the Gulf War…and
then the Americans had held their hands all the way.

He smiled. The French commanding officer had insisted on his units being moved to
American command just before the war began. If that didn’t show how well the Saudis were
regarded by any competent military, he didn’t know what would; Paris would have sooner cut
off its own unmentionables than cooperate openly with the Americans – let alone being under
American command – if it could be avoided. His smile widened; Paris’s last few
governments hadn’t had any unmentionables to cut off.

Prince Qutaybah looked over at him. “Is there something funny?”
Laroche shook his head. “You need to spread out your units more,” he said. “There’s too
much chance of a single strike knocking them all out.”

The French had hoped to replace the Americans and show the Saudis how to build a proper
military. It hadn’t taken long for Paris and the remainder of Europe to realise that the Saudis
weren’t really interested in building a proper military, no matter what they said in public.
Any Arab ruler who managed to hold on to power knew that the Army was a source of real
threat, not a blessing; Saddam had managed to emasculate the Iraqi Army and he had never
trusted it. That, more than anything else, explained the outcome of the Arab-Israeli Wars; the
Arab armies had never been allowed to develop the flexibility that would offer them a chance
at victory. They’d come close to smashing Israel once…and their failure to follow up on it
had left the entire conflict a ‘might-have-been.’

“I need to maintain command and control over my forces,” Prince Qutaybah reminded him.
“Now, watch what happens when the air force goes to work.”

Laroche glanced down at his watch. It had been something like an hour since the aliens had
landed near Al-Hasa, one of the foremost oil-producing regions of Saudi Arabia. Worse, for
the Saudis, it was inhabited by Shias, who generally didn’t like the Saudis very much.
Uprisings had occurred from time to time, growing worse as the pressures from the religious
clergy – something of a contradiction of terms in Saudi Arabia, but never mind – and Iran
brought temperatures to the boil. There were Saudi units – light infantry – stationed in Al-
Hasa; nothing had been heard from them since the invaders landed.

The BBC had spoken of alien landings in Washington; Laroche felt real fear whenever he
contemplated it, the sheer scale of the disaster was nightmarish. France – and much of the
rest of Europe – depended on oil from the Middle East; the chaos in Iraq meant that Saudi
Arabia remained the main oil producer, along with a handful of smaller Gulf states. If the
Saudi Army lost – and Laroche could hardly see them winning – the only real threat to the
aliens would be the American, British and Iraqi forces in Iraq…and the latter weren’t
considered that reliable. If the Americans had to redeploy their forces from Iraq…

His blood ran cold. Could the Americans withdraw their forces from Iraq? If the aliens held
a commanding position, could the Americans move their forces without defeating the aliens
first? If not, then several American units would be trapped, while the aliens used their
commanding position to slowly strangle Europe, China and dozens of other nations. The
move had been brilliant; Laroche saw that now. The aliens, intentionally or otherwise, had
taken the one piece of real estate that the human race would have to recover…and at the same
time prevented a quick recovery of the oil wells.

“There,” Prince Qutaybah said. “Look at them go.”

A line of aircraft flared overhead, the noise of their passing deafening some of the soldiers,
particularly in the infantry. The Saudis hadn’t provided them with any earplugs, after all; like
far too many armies, the Saudis had neglected the basics of their trade while buying as many
advanced weapons as possible. They weren’t the only ones who had made such strange
decisions; Laroche couldn’t think of a single army that had made the right decisions
consistently.
“Yes, very impressive,” he said, keeping his face blank. He had never claimed to be an
expert in aircraft, but he had taken part in European military exercises that had tried to make
a united force out of French, German and British units. The Saudis were deploying a mixture
of American F-15 Eagles, British Tornados and even a handful of French and Chinese
aircraft. “What exactly are their orders?

Any modern air force would have scrambled its aircraft at once. The Saudis had kept most of
their aircraft without fuel and unarmed, just to prevent a coup. The aliens had had plenty of
time to land, almost unopposed; a group of the National Guard and religious policemen
weren’t going to be able to stop them, not if half of the whispered reports from Washington
were accurate. He’d put in a request for information from the American CENTCOM, under
the theory that Washington might forget the political firestorm with the growing threat to the
world, but as yet the Americans had sent him nothing, not even a good luck message.

“They’re going to bomb them back to the Stone Age,” Prince Qutaybah said, his voice eager
for the battle. The Saudis had invested more money than the French Air Force in precision-
guided weapons and had been bragging of their capabilities, enough to worry both Iran and
Israel, although for very different reasons. Laroche would not have rated them any higher
than any other Third World country; the Saudi pilots tended to act in ways that would have
cost any normal pilot his or her job. Not that the Saudis had female pilots, of course. “There
are thousands of tons of high explosive under their wings and each one of those pilots has
been trained in how to use their weapons to best advantage.”

He grinned. “One of the pilots even went head-to-head with an American pilot and won,” he
proclaimed. “That man was the hero of the hour, proof positive that Saudi men are just as
good as the highly-trained infidels…”

The American must have been drunk, Laroche thought coldly. Naturally, the number of
Saudi pilots who had lost such mock duels was a closely-guarded secret, but he was sure that
it was pretty high, perhaps even total. The Saudi pilots had a Top Gun mentality; any French
– or American – pilot who acted in such a manner would have been thrown out of the air
force.

He looked over towards the rising clouds of smoke. “I think that…”

A streak of light flickered in the distance. Laroche had seen laser beams before, back during
on of the innumerable European celebrations of something or other, and he had no doubt that
he was seeing an alien weapon being deployed. The beam just seemed to appear, no sense of
a ballistic path; the laser would travel at the speed of light. There was an unbearable
pause…and then the lead aircraft simply exploded.

Prince Qutaybah used a word in Arabic. “Philippe, what the hell was that?”

“Lasers,” Laroche snapped. Not even the Americans had deployed a ground-based laser air
defence system; four more aircraft were swatted out of the sky, as if they were nothing. The
beams just flickered in and out of existence, trying to hack the aircraft out of existence…and
half of the Saudi aircraft weren’t even trying to evade! A Tornado screamed low, making a
pass over where he assumed the aliens to be…and something struck it, destroying it in a
moment of pure violence. “Call the planes, get them back, out of there!”
He saw it all, clearly; the aliens had allowed the Royal Saudi Air Force to move their aircraft
into the area, just so they could destroy them under the cover of their laser units. It was a
diabolically effective plan, the more so because the Saudis simply weren’t trained or capable
of reacting quickly when the need was upon them. The armoured force was moving right
into a trap…

“I can’t,” Prince Qutaybah stammered. “They’re…they’ll see that I lose my…”

“Call them back or they’re all dead,” Laroche screamed at him. “Would it really have
fucking killed you to have let the Americans keep a fucking armoured division here?”

Prince Qutaybah looked as if he had been slapped. “We will defeat them,” he protested.
“The aircraft…”

Another F-15 was struck by the laser. This time, the beam only clipped the wing of the
aircraft, sending it into a spin that ended only when it slammed into the ground. Laroche
muttered a silent prayer under his breath, hoping that some of the wreckage had landed on
alien heads; it was unlikely that they would get any more good out of the air force.

“The aircraft are doomed,” Laroche shouted. “Call the artillery; tell them that we need
suppressing fire onto the lasers at” – he rapidly deduced the coordinates of the enemy
weapons – “and tell them to hurry!”

“Too late,” Prince Qutaybah said. Two aircraft had escaped by turning and fleeing low, the
curvature of the Earth saving them from a death that moved faster than any conceivable
human aircraft. The others had been annihilated; Laroche had never seen anything like it in
his life. A day ago, the Royal Saudi Air Force had been the proudest military force in the
world; now…only two fighters had survived the battle. There were other fighters, and
transports attempting to find and transport more infantry into the threatened region, but
Laroche didn’t believe that it would make any difference. “They’re all gone…”

“You could at least sound as if you care,” Laroche snapped. He fought hard to calm himself.
“It will be your turn next…”

A Saudi MLRS opened fire, only three minutes too late to be of any real use, showering
rockets down towards the alien position. Laroche noted coldly that the lasers seemed to
intercept missiles as well as aircraft, but not always successfully; there was a slight delay in
firing the weapon that perhaps could be taken advantage of, if a competent military force
arrived in time to stem the alien advance. Moments passed…and then the aliens returned
fire, hurling shells back towards the MLRS launcher. It fell silent…and never resumed the
attack.

“Gone,” Laroche said.

Prince Qutaybah rounded on him. “Do you doubt that we can defeat the aliens?”

Laroche decided, rather sadistically, that the Prince deserved a honest answer. “No,” he said.
“The best course of action is to fall back and allow for a united response to be developed, not
for a mad charge into the unknown, facing an enemy who has already shown military
superiority.”
Prince Qutaybah shook his head. “The King has commanded that we do not give up any
ground,” he said. He raised his voice. “If you refuse to fight with us, you may take a
Hummer and watch from a safe distance.”

Laroche shrugged and hopped off the command vehicle. A driver pulled up and allowed him
to board a small SUV, listening to Prince Qutaybah’s orders and pulling back to allow
Laroche to observe as the tanks moved along the highway…

It struck him, suddenly, what was missing from the scene. There was no floor of cars or
trucks attempting to leave, no tidal wave of refugees; it all seemed quiet. Too quiet. Now
that he was away from the command vehicle, he could sense a strange feeling in the air,
something…unearthly that had touched the desert sands. There were some noises in the
distance, but none of them were familiar; the aliens had had hours to dig in and prepare for a
counterattack.

“There,” the driver said. “Sir – look!”

Laroche grabbed for his binoculars and peered through them as the enemy appeared. One,
two, three, four…tanks, or tank-like vehicles, appeared ahead of them, moving slowly to
outflank the Saudi position. Prince Qutaybah wasn’t acting as if he had seen them…and the
Saudis were moving into a trap! He couldn’t hear any noise from the alien vehicles; had they
some kind of perfectly silent engine, or something else that allowed them to move silently.
He lifted the radio to issue a warning, even though Prince Qutaybah would probably ignore it,
and cursed as a screech of static echoed out of the radio. Jammed!

“Merde,” he swore. “Blow the horn…”

The aliens opened fire. Their guns, at least, sounded normal, throwing shells directly towards
the side of the Saudi tanks. Four tanks were hit and he covered his eyes as a blaze of light,
almost as bright as a magnesium flare, covered the tank just for a second, and then the tank
exploded. Whatever they put in their shells, it was hot; he felt a wave of heat even at their
distance as three more tanks were picked off, just as the Saudis were swinging their main
guns around to fire themselves.

“Move, you morons,” he screamed at the Saudi tankers. If they heard him from their
distance, they gave no sign, remaining in the danger zone as the aliens fired again…and then
the Saudis got off a shot of their own. One shot; it struck an enemy tank and destroyed it,
punching through its armour and shattering it. Laroche shouted in delight, despite himself,
hearing the cries to Allah of his driver. “Keep moving…”

Saudi infantry dismounted as one of the troop carriers was picked off, Saudi soldiers running
around with their clothes and bodies on fire. Caught in the trap, the infantry were almost
useless; their only real hope was to run and hope that the enemy didn’t shoot them in the
back, but it was hopeless. Some of them tried to fight with rifles against the alien tanks,
some of them tried to flee; one of the soldiers cowered into the ground and hoped that he
wouldn’t be noticed. They all died…

He saw an alien then, an alien commander, looking down from beside one of the alien tanks.
The commander looked up and saw him; somehow, their eyes met through their binoculars.
The alien, part of him noted, was using a similar design to his own; absurdly, the alien waved
at him.

“Get us the hell out of here,” Laroche snapped to the driver, who was praying in Arabic. An
alien tank was swinging around to fire at the Hummer and the Hummer didn’t stand a chance
if it took a main gun round. “Get us back to the base…”

The driver had the standard Arab respect for road safety; none whatsoever. He yanked the
Hummer around on three wheels – at one point, Laroche was sure that they were only on one
wheel – and hit the engine, forcing them to run from the aliens as the tank fired a single shell,
blasting into the sand behind them. The driver stamped on the gas and they ran for it,
dodging as the aliens fired a second shot, and then abandoned the pursuit, letting them go.
Laroche glanced behind him as the aliens retreated, heading back towards their base, and
understood. The aliens had spared their lives, allowing them to spread terror, terror of the
aliens through the region. After what had happened to a formidable Saudi force, Laroche
suspected that many of the rulers of the region would find a way to accommodate the aliens,
rather than face an attack…

Grimly, he opened his bag, pulled out his satellite phone, and started to speak. There was
work to be done.
Chapter Fifteen: Safe for the Present, Take One

“Ladies and Gentlemen, the President of the United States of America.”

The small group around the table rose as the President stepped into the room, feeling much
better after a shower and a good sleep. The flight from Washington to Camp David had been
uneventful, but General Mathews had insisted on moving on at once to the command base,
pointing out that if the aliens had done their homework, they would certainly know about
Camp David. The secret command base somewhere in the more isolated region of America
wasn’t known to the public, and therefore should have remained secure.

The President didn’t know if he would ever feel safe again. He had been brought up to
believe that the only conventional military threat to America was a Mexican leader going
mad and launching an attack across the Rio Grande; no one had expected an alien attack.
Even a day after the alien attack occurred, there was still a faint air of unreality around the
entire situation; some parts of the country seemed to be carrying on almost as normal, other
parts seemed to be in a state of pure chaos. It didn’t help that there were countless reports of
alien landing that had to be proven to be fictional; hoaxes and simple misidentification
merely added more and more to the problem of fighting the aliens.

“Thank you,” the President said. There was something about the meeting room that he found
reassuring; someone was responding to the crisis and plans were being developed, even now,
to protect America’s population from the aliens. The chaos in Washington seemed almost a
distant memory…until he looked up and stared at the display. A massive red blot of light sat
firmly on the District of Columbia, Virginia and Maryland, revealing the location of the alien
landings. It looked terrifying…and surreal. Had it really been a day? “It’s good to see you
all again.”

He hadn’t been to the National Command Centre since his briefing on the facility’s existence,
what felt like years ago, back after he had been inaugurated as President. He knew that it
held one of the command nodes for the country, as well as complete access to the entire
military defence network, satellite uplinks to bases and units deployed around the world, as
well as other world leaders and international movers. It occurred to the President to wonder
what the Secretary-General of the United Nations thought about the invasion; the man was
known for his ability to compromise, not for his intelligence. What was the rest of the world
thinking?

“Welcome back to the National Command Centre,” Major Monahan said. The tall officer
had been introduced to the President as one of the shadowy officers who would take
command of the US military if Washington or the other command nodes were knocked out of
action, just to keep some control over the vast American military machine. “It’s good to see
that you got out alive.”

“Thank you,” the President said. He had been astonished to discover how many layers there
were to American command and control systems, providing enough services to ensure that
the list of people with command authority were able to get information and respond to it as
quickly as possible, even in the wake of a full-scale nuclear attack.

General Mathews coughed briefly. He looked tired and drawn; he hadn’t been able to
shower, sleep, or even have a shave, and his dark face looked pale. The President gave him
his full attention; the General would have a complete military briefing for him, something to
allow him to decide policy and coordinate a response to the alien invasion. After the briefing,
he made a mental note to insist that General Mathews got some sleep; he clearly needed it
more than the President had needed it.

“Mr President,” he said. “As you may remember” – they shared a grim smile – “the aliens
have proven themselves to be hostile and managed to force a landing in the centre of
Washington and at several smaller sites in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Colombia.
Hostilities broke out at once and ended with the aliens driving us back from Washington and
the surrounding areas, with our forces being pushed back towards New York and Richmond.
Philadelphia is under threat and may be the aliens’ next target, once they pull their forces
together, mop up our stragglers and – we assume – reinforce their beachhead from orbit.

“Our losses were very heavy, particularly in aircraft and in armoured fighting vehicles,” he
continued. “The aliens deployed at first under a force field and as far as we can discover,
took no losses at all during the first moments of the battle. In addition, the aliens deployed a
heavy antitank weapon that destroyed some of our tanks with a single shot, forcing us back
out of the city. Alien tanks and infantry completed the rout, although I am pleased to report
that once the aliens were out of their force field, we inflicted heavy losses on the ground.
Had we a few more days of warning…”

He shrugged. “Losses were much heavier in aircraft, with only one alien craft known to be
brought down. The aliens not only have a variant of their heavy plasma weapon – at least we
think it involves charged plasma somehow – on their craft, but they also have force fields
surrounding their craft…and during the later phase of the battle, they deployed laser battle
stations on the ground. The net result was that every aircraft that was in the battlezone, with
only a handful of exceptions, was destroyed. I am sorry to report that that figure includes a
number of commercial aircraft, including media helicopters and two heavy passenger jets.”

His hand traced a line on the display. “The units within the battlezone that were able to
withdraw were ordered to break contact and fall back either north or south, depending on
their exact location,” he concluded. “Most of the units that were unable to withdraw fought
like mad bastards and made the aliens pay for the ground they took. In most cases, those
were units that had been cut off and had nowhere to go; we believe that the aliens managed to
take a few prisoners, but so far they haven’t attempted to talk to us. Washington, also, was
not the only attack.”

He nodded to Jaclyn Ridgeley, who looked almost as tired and weak as the General himself.
“The first reports were somewhat conflicted, Mr President, but it is clear that there was a
second major alien landing in eastern Saudi Arabia, near Kuwait,” she said. Her disdain was
implicit in her voice; Jaclyn belonged to a group that believed firmly that Saudi Arabia wasn't
worth its status as an American ally, and in fact should be downgraded to ‘serious nuisance,’
if not ‘rogue state.’ “As you know, our own forces in Saudi Arabia were limited to a handful
of staff at Prince Sultan and King Kalid; the only direct report comes from a French officer
who was seconded to the Saudi military as punishment for some misdeed or another.

“If we take what he said at face value, the aliens have landed in force, smashed whatever
forces Saudi Arabia had in the region, and then smashed a force of Army soldiers who were
sent to relieve the region,” she continued. “The Saudi government is either begging for help
or trying to get out of the country; anyone would think that they had no confidence in their
army.” There were some snorts from the military people in the room. “Our closest forces are
in Iraq, and are otherwise occupied…”

“I have taken the liberty of ordering them to go to force protection ROE,” General Mathews
injected. “If we need to redeploy them, then we can’t have them engaging with the terrorists
at the same time.”

The President nodded. “Understood,” he said. “Why Saudi Arabia?”

General Mathews nodded to a young man, who stood up. “This is Analyst Dwynn,” General
Mathews said. “He has a background in space warfare and global geopolitics; he has some
insights into the crisis.”

Dwynn was of average height, with short blonde hair and simple spectacles perched on his
nose. He looked terrified to be briefing the President and spoke in a dull monotone, only
looking up when he had to meet the President’s eyes. The President was past caring; the
words were alarming enough.

“The aliens have selected two targets that are sure to draw a response from us,” Dwynn said,
very softly. “One; America, the most powerful nation on the surface of the Earth. If they
beat us, they will send a very strong message to the rest of the world; here comes the new
number one, cooperate, or else. Two; Saudi Arabia, provider of oil to a large percentage of
the developed world and the developing world, the swing oil producer for the entire industry.
If they take Saudi Arabia, Mr President, they will be in a position to expand their control over
the Middle East…”

The President held up a hand. “Can they do that?” He asked. “We know from Iraq that
holding down an Arab country is far from easy.”

“I was going to come to that,” General Mathews said. “The aliens…do not seem to have
signed the Geneva Convention when it comes to treating civilians. We have thousands of
reports, Mr President; civilians who attempt to fight, or are found with weapons, are simply
slaughtered on the spot. They bring up vastly more firepower than is needed to deal with
each little holdout, civilian or military; the collateral damage alone is immense. Most of the
wireless communications system has gone down, but we have reports that civilians are being
press-ganged into clearing up rubble and generally assisting the invaders.”

The President saw a straw and grasped for it. “They can talk to us?”

“It would seem so,” Dwynn agreed. “Mr President…”

“Yes, yes,” the President said, sinking back into his chair. “you may continue.”

“There are a lot of odd points about the aliens and their technology,” Dwynn said. “The first
one is that they are clearly in command of Low Earth Orbit, but they have made no serious
attempt to knock out our satellites. The only attempt at ASAT warfare comes from their
ground-based laser stations, which seem to be no more capable than our own ground-based
lasers. We have some problems with the satellites, but with some effort we can keep most of
our communications network in being.”
He paused. “The second odd point is that they have made no attempt to use their position to
their advantage,” he continued. “They should have been able to bombard us from space…”

“Well, don’t complain,” a Congressman said. The President gave him a warning look. “They
might change their mind.”

Dwynn smiled. “They do not seem to have thought of the potentials of their own
technology,” he continued. “They have also not adapted their heavy ship plasma cannon –
we believe that it involves using a EM field to gather and project the superheated plasma,
although the mechanics of the system are beyond us at present – for ground use, nor have
they used it for covering fire during their attack on Washington. It’s strange, and
inexplicable, but the only times we were engaged by the flying craft, apart from the alien
helicopters, was when we fired first.”

He tapped a keypad set into the table. A fuzzy image of the alien craft appeared in front of
them. “The plasma weapon, for reasons we don’t understand yet, interferes with our
unshielded electronics if the blast passes too close to them. In some cases, that may have
saved a few of our pilots lives; their aircraft lost their course for a short period of time. The
rate of fire, compared to hits, wasn’t impressive; the weapon may not be that accurate as an
anti-fighter system. In some cases, our pilots were actually able to dodge the blasts.

“There are several other odd points about the aliens,” he concluded. “Their force fields are
good, but they only use them on their flying ships. Their radio jamming devices are
impressive, but we can rotate frequencies to avoid being jammed, while their radios seem to
be little, if any, superior to ours, while they fight with…well, tanks and infantry. If we had a
plasma weapon that was death to any tank, would we be using tanks ourselves?”

“Perhaps,” General Mathews said. He leaned forwards. “Do you have any theories as to
what it means?”

“None that I can back up,” Dwynn admitted. “At the moment, the only thing I can say for
certain is that the aliens, for whatever reason, seem unaware or unwilling to use some of the
capabilities of their own systems. Just what it means…oh, it’s possible that they haven’t
fought a war for a long time, but…”

“Bollocks,” Major Monahan. Everyone looked at him. “I saw those aliens as they advanced
on the cameras and other sensors. They don’t act like newcomers to the art of war, but more
like experienced soldiers.”

The President looked at General Mathews, who nodded. “I must concur, Mr President,” he
said. “Their small-unit tactics were at least as good as ours, although, like us, they seem to
rely on heavy firepower rather than being sneaky. They clearly don’t have restrictive rules of
engagement.”

“I see,” the President said finally. “What do you think they will do now?”

“I think that they will try to expand their gains as fast as possible,” Dwynn said. “At the
moment, they have us on the run and know it. Given a few days, or even a week, who knows
what we might bring up to throw at them? I expect that they will launch a thrust at one of our
defence lines, while absorbing as much as possible of the oil-producing regions of the planet
and perhaps even trying to talk with the rest of the world.”

“I’m curious,” the President said. “What makes you think that?”

“I don’t believe that it was coincidence that it was Washington and Saudi that got hit,”
Dwynn said. “Both of the locations have fantastic strategic significance; Saudi perhaps more
so, as it not only has vast oil reserves, but was defended by a fifth-rate army. The odds, Mr
President, are vastly in favour of the enemy knowing exactly where they hit and why.”

The President looked over at Jaclyn. “What about our allies?” He asked. “Has there been
any word?”

“A great deal of confusion and outraged shouting,” Jaclyn said. “It’s only been a day
and…frankly, I think a lot of them will want to stay out of the fighting if they can manage it.
The British and a handful of others may end up being dragged in if the aliens expand their
control to Iraq, but otherwise, there may be only a few nations who are ready to offer
unqualified support, if any. Some of the reports from Washington are…not encouraging.”

“No,” the President agreed. “General?”

“We may have to call soldiers home from dozens of bases,” General Mathews said.
“Seriously, it may be impossible to get any help from the allies, willing or no; how could they
move troops across the ocean in time to help? The British or the French could send aircraft,
but as long as they have those laser stations on the ground…”

The President placed his hands firmly on the table. “Enough about the problems,” he said.
“We have to force the aliens off American soil as soon as possible. How are we going to do
that?”

General Mathews altered the map. “We have been attempting to redeploy units based within
the nation itself, spearheaded by Third Corps, as fast as possible,” he said. “We are looking,
however, at least two weeks – perhaps longer – before we have most of Third Corps and the
1st Marine Division in place to take the offensive against the aliens on the ground. The USAF
is looking at the use of stealth aircraft to get through the alien ground-based systems, but the
analysts are not optimistic; the aliens are deploying some very powerful and sophisticated
radar systems and might be able to see the F-117s when we send them in.

“The good news is that we have all of the reservists and thousands of armed volunteers
flocking to join,” he continued. “The aliens seem to take a dim view of civilians in warfare,
so we have ensured that they have all taken uniforms, in the hopes that that will give them
some protection if captured. Hopefully, in two weeks, we should have a major force
assembled to launch a two-prong attack on the alien position, trapping them between two
fires.”

The President shook his head in dismay. “Two weeks?”

“At least,” General Mathews warned. “Much of the equipment that was stockpiled in the
general region was destroyed in the first round of fighting; we also have to worry about
mounting a defence if the aliens attack north or south. At the moment, I’m worried about the
aliens launching an attack of their own; it would seriously disrupt our preparations to attack
them.”

“We also need time to compensate for the loss of Washington,” Jaclyn said. “I know, it’s not
the economy, stupid, this time, but it is going to have an effect. The aliens have caused,
intentionally or otherwise, a serious economic crisis for us, which is going to have a nasty
effect on people when the scale of the problem sinks in.”

The President rubbed his brow. “That, at least, is a minor problem,” he said. He looked up
again at some of the footage taken from Washington, of the aliens firing into the crowd of
soldiers and unarmed civilians alike. The bloody massacre would have repercussions far into
the future. “What is going to happen when that gets out and the people start demanding
revenge?”
Chapter Sixteen: Safe for the Present, Take Two

It didn’t look much like a military camp.

The building had served as a high school gym before the National Guard had ‘liberated’ it
from its owners, the civilians having either decided to keep their children at home or to head
south with the other refugees. Stafford and the surrounding region had over five million
people living nearby and many of them had decided that leaving was the sensible option.
Others had snatched their weapons and headed out to join the militia, or even headed north
into occupied territory to try to fight the aliens.

Sergeant Jeremy Damiani didn’t give much for their chances of survival. The remains of the
District of Columbia Army National Guard had staggered south, avoiding the other alien
landing zones by the skin of their teeth, skirmishing with the aliens when there was no other
choice. The aliens had seemed to be everywhere for one nightmarish day; thousands of
soldiers had been killed in the savage fighting. Finally, they’d headed down the interstate
and encountered patrols by the Marines and the Virginia National Guard, trying to establish a
defence line to the south of Washington. Everything had been utterly confusing; as far as
Damiani knew, he was the senior officer to have survived Washington, perhaps they were the
only survivors from the fighting at the heart of the city.

He could still remember the horror of seeing alien weapons tearing through civilians, blood
and gore going everywhere as heavy weapons shredded flesh and bone with ease. The aliens
had concentrated on securing their landing zone and they hadn’t cared about the human
civilians caught in the fighting; he didn’t hold out any hope that anyone caught in
Washington could escape. There had been a massive flood of refugees from the city, but the
chaos had been so great that many of the refugees had run into other alien patrols or landing
zones. Just how many had died? No one knew for sure.

The remains of the company looked as shattered as he felt. Kit Marlow and Fell Nelson had
been supporting each other for the final part of the retreat; both of them had been lightly
wounded and there had been no possibility of a medical evacuation. There were too many
injured soldiers for either of them to be shipped out of the battlezone…not that either of them
would have gone, had they been asked. Only a few soldiers had been evacuated from the
front lines; they had been the ones in very real danger. Others had been tended to by army
and civilian doctors, before the supplies ran out; no one had expected a fight right in the heart
of Washington. The Marines might have had a major base not too far away, but it hadn’t
anything like enough support to handle thousands of wounded men; was there anywhere in
America that was big enough to handle the task?

He glared down at the floor, noting the signs of children at play; the final hours had been
worse than anything else. They had tried to leave traps behind for the aliens as they retreated,
but there was no way to know how successful they had been, although a wounded Marine had
told them that the Marines had been leaving traps of their own behind as well. Marines were
trained to make the life of enemy hunters miserable, but the enemy were aliens; who knew
how they would respond to booby traps? Perhaps they would take them out on the civilians;
there were reports that armed civilians had been shot on the spot. That, too, was something
that the company burned to avenge.

A hard female voice broke in from behind him. “Sergeant Damiani?”
“Yes,” Damiani said. He turned to see a young woman, her face scarred, wearing the
uniform of an Army officer. She looked as tired as he felt, with her short hair matted and a
service weapon slung over her shoulder, ready to use. She held herself professionally; she
wasn’t a simple REMF, then. “Can I help you?”

“Colonel Corso would like to see you in the cafeteria,” she said. There was a flickering note
of amusement in her voice, the voice of someone who was trying hard to avoid thinking of
something. “I have been ordered to escort you there.”

Several retorts leapt to Damiani’s lips, starting with the obvious point that as far as he knew,
he wasn’t in trouble for anything, and then that he had to look to the welfare of what
remained of his company. He kept them down; it wasn’t her fault after all, even though she
could hardly have known that he had visited the school before, when he was younger. He
allowed her to lead him through the corridors, trying to make small talk before realising that
she had been through the fighting as well, someone else trying to adapt to the changed world.

The cafeteria looked just as he remembered it, but with the tables shoved to one end of the
room and a series of rows of chairs assembled to allow various officers to sit and watch a
small stage. The scene was almost surreal; he remembered attending a school play with his
cousin’s children and wondered in a moment of sheer insanity if the senior officer was going
to break into song. Armed guards were everywhere, their weapons held at the ready; he knew
that units had been arriving all day to be slotted into the defence line. The only question was
simple; why had his unit – and the remains of a dozen other units – not been employed as
defenders of the line?

“You men have been through hell,” a General said. He was a short man, apparently of Indian
descent, his face a tinted colour rather than any shade of black or brown. The nametag on his
uniform read STEWART; the uniform itself was a Marine uniform. The Marines had served
well in Iraq; Damiani had no preduijiees against them. “Hopefully, we’ll have a chance to
even the score a little soon.”

He nodded towards the map on the wall. It wasn’t military standard; it was barely classroom
standard, but it would have to do. “The bases and facilities in this area are completely
overwhelmed,” General Stewart continued. His voice held traces of a southern accent, barely
detectable under his rapid-fire delivery. “The preparations for any form of deployment in this
area were concentrated around natural disaster, not an alien invasion, and have proven
inadequate. You were sent here because it was a designated emergency command centre, not
a military base or even a place equipped for your stay.”

There were some chuckles. “But enough of that,” General Stewart said. He glared around
the room. “We intend to set up a defence line here, along Interstate Highway 95, US Route 1,
which we suspect that the aliens will use to launch their attack, when it comes. Tracking
systems have revealed that the aliens are still bringing in reinforcements and are likely to
want to expand their area of control as soon as possible, if only to make a counterattack much
harder. Of course, we intend to go on the offensive ourselves” – there was a deep ugly noise
running through the room from the soldiers present – “as soon as possible, but for the
moment we will have to stand on the defensive until sufficient forces are gathered to force a
change in that policy.”
He leaned forwards. “As you may have realised, we do not have any direct links to the
aliens,” he said. “We don’t know how long this war will go on for, or even what the aliens
actually want. We intend to make the aliens pay for what they have done, but I will not
tolerate any rogue actions or suicidal attacks by soldiers under my command. Is that
understood?”

There was a rumble of agreement. “I know that the aliens have caused thousands of deaths,
but one of our priorities is to take an alien alive for study,” General Stewart said. “So far, we
have been unable to recover an alien body, despite some attempts by Special Forces to find
one; any soldier who manages to recover one will get a medal, but we really need live
prisoners. I will not have any opportunity lost because of revenge acts committed by forces
under my command.”

Damiani kept his face blank. He understood how the General felt, and the need for
intelligence; they had discovered in Iraq, after all, that dead prisoners told no tales.
Intelligence was important, but at the same time, his men wanted to get stuck into the aliens
and give them hell, not try to take them alive. Taking men alive wasn’t easy; how would the
aliens react to an attempt to capture them?

“There are sizeable reinforcements heading our way,” General Stewart said, changing the
subject. “Our defence line will begin here, outside Stafford and along the interstate, blocking
any advance to the south. Your men will be reassigned to units intended to block an alien
advance; we simply have to mix and match units just to sort out who is alive and who was
killed during the fighting. Once we get a line into place, we will begin some aggressive
patrolling in the direction of Washington, hopefully something that will give us an
opportunity to take an invader alive. I assume that you would like that duty?”

“Hell, yes, sir,” Damiani said. Several other officers echoed him. “We can’t wait.”

General Stewart gave him a sharp look. “Good,” he said, finally. “Several points; first, what
limited intelligence we do have suggests that the aliens are willing to take soldiers prisoner,
although we don’t know what they intend as the long-term fate for their prisoners. We know
that civilians – who seem to be defined as not wearing uniforms – who offer resistance are
shot, so do not get caught out of your uniform. These monsters do not seem to recognise that
everyone has the right to bear arms.

“There are militia units operating in the region and we have been attempting to dissuade them
from taking part,” he continued. “Legally, it’s questionable if we can stop them, but if you
encounter a militia unit, order them to leave and report here for uniforms and training. We
have thousands of volunteers, mainly from the refugees, for basic training, but if they go up
against the aliens without uniforms…”

He left it unspoken. “We don’t know why they act like that,” he concluded. “In order to
ensure that we make the best use of our combat power, however, we are limiting the use of
volunteers until we get them some basic training. Please don’t forget that…

“Second point,” he said, changing the subject again. “We cannot – ever – count on air power.
The aliens have deployed ground-based systems that are capable of swatting air force pukes
out of the sky with ease, so it has been decided that our aircraft will be held back from the
combat zone, even to the extent of limiting the use of transports at the international airport
nearby. There are some attack helicopters being prepared for use and we expect that they
will be safe as long as they remain low, but it cannot be relied upon, understand? A handful
of Predator drones have been blown out of the sky as well and some of our satellites have
been attacked, so remember…the enemy could be anywhere.”

Damiani winced. The United States had held command of space under two days ago. It had
used the advantage mercilessly, using it to track enemy deployments from space, watching as
enemy units had attempted to position themselves for counterattacking American forces. It
wasn’t a perfect system, far from it, but it was the most flexible means of avoiding the fog of
war that anyone had ever devised. Going without it would be a major blow…and perhaps
even limit their efficiency.

“Third point; enemy tanks and infantry seem comparable to ours,” General Stewart
concluded. Damiani was surprised at the General giving the briefing, but understood; there
was more to it than just the briefing, it was also a pep talk. “They can kill our tanks, but we
can kill theirs; antitank weapons, as Sergeant Damiani proved, can kill their tanks as well. I
don’t care how many force fields they have; as long as we can kill them when they are out
from under the force field, we can wear them down. They can’t have as many soldiers as we
have.”

An infantry officer held up a hand. “General, has there been any progress on cracking their
force fields?”

“One force field protected craft was brought down,” General Stewart said. “Analysis remains
unsure of what – exactly – brought the craft down, as a Raptor rammed the craft directly.
However, we believe that, given time, we will find a way to break the shields. At the
moment, however, we are advising against a direct attack against the enemy spacecraft; that
draws a reaction from the plasma cannon.”

Damiani felt a light bulb explode in his head. “I have it,” he said. Everyone turned to look at
him. “Their force fields touch the ground, don’t they?”

General Stewart nodded. “Yes,” he said. “The images from Washington make that clear.”

Damiani smiled. “Then why don’t we place a bomb under the craft and blow it up that way?”

The remainder of the meeting concentrated on harmless details, mainly the roll call of the
dead and the dying, civilian or military. It was easy to tell who had survived the fighting and
had escaped from Washington; the military had ID tags that had been scanned into computers
when escaping soldiers had crossed into friendly territory. Damiani noted with some relief
that some of his men had escaped after being separated from the main force; he sent them a
quick email through the army communications system insisting on their return to the unit.
The civilians hadn’t been so lucky; there was no trace of anyone related to him. He told
himself that that meant nothing, that his cousins might have gone away from Stafford before
the aliens attacked, but…

There was no trace of his boss either.

“I guess I’m not employed any more,” he muttered. The aliens would have devastated that
section of Washington, along with the rest of the city. “Bastards took my job away.”
The slow walk back to the gym allowed him time to think; his orders were burning a hole
though his mind. His unit would be undertaking some of the aggressive patrolling that the
general had ordered, just to ensure that they would have a chance for some payback, or at
least to take an alien alive. Damiani didn’t think that that would be easy; the insurgents in
Iraq had been bastards to capture when they had been fanatical. It was only the children –
barely into their teens – who realised the sheer danger when they came face to face with
armed Americans. He wondered, in a moment of bitter reflection, if America would end up
looking like Iraq; would criminal clergy send American boys and girls to die as they had in
Iraq?

He smiled thinly. The aliens had invaded Saudi Arabia, after all; they would soon find
themselves on the receiving end of an insurgency, perhaps one even worse than the one that
had confronted America. Damiani – like many other American military officers – had a low
view of both Saudi Arabian soldiers and the insurgency tactics, but the latter, at least, would
bedevil the aliens…until they broke out the heavy firepower. If they were prepared to shoot
un-uniformed civilians for daring to resist, what would they do in a hell-pit like Fallujah?
They might leave nothing left of the city or its population.

A woman came face to face with him as he turned a corner. “Hey, were you in Washington?”
She asked. “Can we talk?”

Damiani gaped at her. She had the look of someone who spent too much time attending to
her appearance; she had aimed at the fresh and innocent look, but had ended up with more of
the ‘overdone’ look. She was oddly familiar, but he couldn’t place her face as anyone he
actually knew.

”Yes, I was in Washington,” he said. “What do you want to talk about?”

“I'm Clara,” she said. “I’m reporting for the Washington Post…”

Damiani smiled. Washington was in ruins and there was no sign that the aliens spared
reporters. “Do you think that your job still exists?”

Clara laughed. “I can try and write a story anyway,” she said. She had a nice laugh, Damiani
admitted; she would have been much prettier without the make-up or the strange outfit. “If
my editor is really dead – and I don’t think that even a bunch of green-skinned aliens from
Mars could kill him – then I can try to sell it to the other newspapers and get some new
employment.”

“I see,” Damiani said. He hesitated; there was an hour before the remains of his unit was
deployed out, just long enough to let the soldiers have a chance to try to track down relatives
and friends. Part of him didn’t want to talk about it, but he had had all the briefings about
how important it was to keep the press onside, even though he knew perfectly well that most
of the reporters he had met on deployment had hated America and all it stood for. They had
blamed the Americans for each and every death across the entire world. “What sort of story
do you intend to write?”

Clara looked down. “I want to tell the world what happened in Washington,” she said. “Will
you agree to be interviewed?”
Damiani nodded. She deserved a chance…and she might even write a good story. “Why
not?” He asked. “The world needs to know what barbarians the aliens are…and just what
happened to the fools who thought they came in peace”
Chapter Seventeen: The Ambassadors of Death

“They are barbarians,” the French Deputy Ambassador thundered, as he paced around the
walls of the jail. It hadn’t started life as a jail, but rather as a museum; the curious disparity
between the fine surroundings, the armed alien guards, and the shackles attached neatly to
their legs. “What are they going to do to us?”

It was, Lord Arthur Darlington admitted, a very good question. The French Ambassador had
been the luckiest man on the planet, as far as Darlington knew; he had been recalled for
consultations the week before the aliens arrived. The embassies in Washington had been
surrounded from the start by the aliens, and despite frantic resistance, they had been captured
by the aliens. He had expected to be killed at once – he’d seen the images from the centre of
Washington before the television had cut out – but instead the aliens had merely demanded to
know who the ambassadors were and who they worked for. Once he had admitted to being
the Ambassador from Britain, he had been dragged out of the embassy, shackled, and
dumped into the makeshift jail, along with fourteen other Ambassadors.

He forced his mind to focus as the guards marched in and out, checking up on the prisoners;
they had been treated roughly, but there had been no sense of sadistic violence, not like there
had been when hostages had been taken by insurgents in Iraq. The challenge of actually
talking to the aliens fascinated him, but the aliens who were guarding them either spoke no
English, or were merely refusing to speak to their captives. They spoke to one another in a
strange tongue; their voice hauntingly humanlike and at the same time, very…alien.
Darlington had always been good with languages, but deciphering the alien language seemed
almost impossible, even for him.

His mind kept returning to one thought; how would they treat their prisoners? In theory,
Ambassadors were meant to be inviolate, but human regimes had mistreated foreign
Ambassadors from time to time. The aliens were…well, alien; they might not play by the
same human rules. They might even intend to eat the Ambassadors; had they landed in
London, or Paris, or Mexico, or…was there a reason why they had saved the Ambassadors
from the chaos of Washington? Endlessly, he fought out the war in his mind; did the aliens
really have the power to overwhelm the entire world?

There was a crash at the door and three aliens entered, one of them holding a metal tube to his
lips, the others carrying guns. Darlington had been a colonel in the British Army before
transferring to the diplomatic service in the wake of Tony Blair’s fall from grace; he knew
enough about weapons to note that the weapons the aliens held looked oddly crude. That
wouldn’t stop them being lethal, of course; a flintlock could kill as well as an M16 or even
the most sophisticated weapon in the world. Just because the weapon was old didn’t mean it
couldn’t kill.

The alien with the tube spoke in a flat atonal voice. “The Ambassadors of Earth have been
summoned to present their credentials before Prince Rohan, Commander of the Occupation
Force and Viceroy of Earth under the wisdom of His Supreme Majesty, the Emperor of Char.
Come.”

The alien guards unlocked their shackles and pushed the Ambassadors gently out of the door,
down a long flight of stairs and out onto the road. The entire area was teaming with aliens,
from alien soldiers in their body armour, to alien tanks and guns, positioned in a massive
display of strength and might. The term ‘occupation force’ worried him, leaving him to
wonder if the aliens had somehow overrun America within the few days they had been
imprisoned; he could only hope that it was a translation problem. There were no sign of any
humans as they walked up towards the White House; he suppressed a gasp as he took in the
damage that the White House had suffered during the fighting. It was no longer white.

Some of other Ambassadors looked as if they had mixed feelings. The Chinese and Russian
Ambassadors had had their differences with the Americans; many of them would have been
happy at the damage the Americans had suffered…until other circumstances. The Russians
or Chinese might have dreamed of invading America, of extracting revenge for what they
saw as slights in insults from Washington, directed against them, but they had all known that
it was a pipe dream. No human power had had the ability to topple the United States; the
aliens had seemingly crushed America in a day.

They were escorted into the White House, noting that there were still no humans in sight; the
White House, scene of many receptions for the great and the good, looked as if a tornado had
been going on. Some parts of the building had been cleared, other parts had been left
devastated…and aliens were everywhere. He had spent time in the hall before, back during
one of Washington’s endless receptions for foreign guests; now, it had been cleared of the
buffet and band that had played while the guests mingled, leaving only a single alien, seated
on what looked far too much like a throne.

Three other aliens stood nearby, one of them smaller and slighter than the other aliens; he
wondered if he was looking at an alien woman. Unless the aliens were very different from
humans, they would have some sex discrimination in their roles; was she advisor,
commander, bodyguard…? There wasn’t enough information; he had to remind himself not
to make judgements based on limited information. The other two aliens were both males – he
had to remind himself that he might well have the sexes mixed up – and one of them was
clearly a bodyguard.

They don’t trust us, he thought. The image brought a thin smile to his face; ambassadors
weren’t assassins or murderers, at least not on Earth. Who knew what protocol governed
alien creatures from whatever planet they called home? The conventions were likely to be
different…and the alien force of arms suggested that their interpretation of conventions and
rights were likely to dominate.

An alien stepped forward and spoke. “You will kneel now in the presence of His Imperial
Highness,” he said. Darlington hesitated, and then slowly knelt on one knee; a handful of
Ambassadors refused to kneel and were knocked down by the aliens behind them.
Darlington heard a woman gasp in pain behind him and he understood, deep inside, that the
aliens were…alien. He felt it; the human race was forced to adapt to alien ways, not the other
way around. They had fallen…

Knowledge, he reminded himself. Knowledge is the only weapon of the weak.

“We have taken this place for ourselves,” the alien Prince said. Darlington almost opened his
mouth with shock; the alien was speaking directly to them, not through a translation device of
some kind. The words were rich, warm, filled with strange alien emotions…and he realised
that the alien understood every word he was saying. “In the name of the Empire of Char,
rulers of the Malick Karn, we have taken this place by right of conquest.”
Darlington held his breath, feeling his senses reeling. He had expected some kind of
justification for what the aliens had done, some self-serving series of lies to explain how
America had brought the alien invasion down on top of itself, but instead there was
merely…the blunt statement that the aliens had seen and taken. He had never expected to run
into Attila the Hun in starships…

The alien was still speaking. “To show to you our power, we have taken this country and
have taken other places of vital strategic worth around the world,” he said. “Your countries
now face a choice between submission to us as subordinate allies, or in joining your
American friends as helpless chattel, beneath our feet. You cannot prevent us from going
where we will and taking what we want; you have no choice, but to either submit or be
crushed.”

There was a long pause. “You were ambassadors to America,” the alien said. “You are now
the Ambassadors to us instead, where you will carry our words to your government and
present to us their words. We have taken America by right of conquest; you have the choice
of becoming our allies, or taking a position that will bring you into inevitable conflict with
us.”

My God, Darlington thought. The realisation stunned him. They’re serious.

It was almost unbeliveable. Humans had always dressed up their aims under a cloak of
legality, something to convince the rest of the world, or at least the rest of the nation actually
trying to do the conquest, that their aims were just and right. From Hitler onwards, humans
had sought such a cloak, however thin…but the aliens didn’t seem to care about such things.
They came, they saw, they tried to take. Caesar would have understood them almost
perfectly.

There was a thin cough from the Japanese ambassador. He was an older man, old enough to
have white hair and parched skin; Darlington felt a hint of old prejudice as he looked upon
the man. His appointment had not been seen as a good sign with threats of a trade war and
disputes over the Japanese role in Iraq.

“Your Highness,” he said, with a bow. He had learned his manners in the Imperial Japanese
Court, after all; he looked old enough to have served in the Pacific War. His file said that he
had been born ten years after the war. “I have the honour to be the Ambassador from Japan.
Are you saying that if we refuse to ally ourselves with you, we may face attack?”

“You will submit to us, or you will be brought into the empire by force,” the Prince said.
Darlington thought furiously; he had always thought that monarchy was outdated, even if it
had given him a lordship, but the aliens seemed to take the title seriously. “Many empires on
Karn have subordinated themselves to the Empire and became wealthy, rich, and secure,
supported by us.”

The Japanese Ambassador hesitated. “Your Highness” – he paused, a picture of helpless
puzzlement – “begging your Most Imperial Pardon, but what is the proper form of address for
yourself?”
Darlington wondered if the Japanese Ambassador was taking the piss. If the alien was
annoyed, he showed no sign of it. “You may address me as Your Highness,” he said.
“Should you enter my service, you will be able to address me as ‘sir’ or several smaller
titles.”

There was a pause. It was broken by the French Deputy Ambassador. “Your Highness,” he
said, his voice confident, but with a faint hint of unease, “my government is always willing to
discuss matters with a fellow government, but what exactly are you demanding from us?”

Another good question, Darlington noted; the French Government was clearly well served by
its staff. It was also a question he had known would have to be asked, one that he had been
nerving himself up to ask before the Frenchman saved him the effort…and took the risk on
his own shoulders. Who knew how the aliens would respond to being questioned?

“You will submit to us,” the Prince said. “We will assume some limited influence over your
dealings with other states. We will require a certain amount of your people to come and work
for us directly. In time, you will make internal political changes to bring your people in line
with ours. Those of you individual humans who work with us to bring Earth into the empire
will be rewarded with titles, power and wealth as part of the ruling class. Those who attempt
to resist will be crushed.”

Darlington understood; somehow, the aliens had taken a very medieval society and
transplanted it onto spaceships, even starships. He knew enough about the history of
humanity’s own period of Kings and Queens and Knights in Armour to know what to expect;
the aristocrats would end up being integrated into the victorious empire, while the working
class would get it in the neck. British history was full of such strange events; the Scottish
Wars with England had included a vast number of aristocrats who had fought on the ‘wrong’
side. Even Robert the Bruce had once been an English Lord.

But they can’t, can they? He wondered. The medieval societies had always relied upon
marriages…and human-alien relationships were impossible, weren’t they? He looked at the
alien woman, if woman she was, and saw little attractive in her body. Perhaps a pervert
would find her attractive, but Darlington knew that he would never find an alien interesting…

The possibilities seemed endless. There were plenty of shaky governments whose rulers
would probably be delighted to have an alien guarantee of their position, in exchange for
support and protection. Would Egypt, shaking as the old President grew older, accept an
alien-backed political dynasty? Would North Korea accept alien support in a war with the
South, or even further away? Would they send occupation troops to America if the aliens
asked? And yet…

There would be humans who would fight, lots of them. The aliens had made sure of that just
by attacking Washington. If they really had crushed America, they might well be able to
dominate the remainder of the world, but…there would be thousands of humans who would
not accept alien rule, particularly under such terms. How many countries had overthrown
their aristocrats, or neutralised them? What sort of elected politician would accept an alien
title that brought so much pain?
“I would have to discuss matters with my government,” the Frenchman said finally. “We are
not authorised to make any such agreements without the consent of our governments. Will
we be permitted to return to our nations?”

The alien loomed in front of him. “You will be permitted to return along with our message,”
he said. There was a terrible pause. Darlington had a sense that there was about to be a
complete disaster. “Those who join us now will be rewarded beyond their dreams, but those
who come later will have to take the scraps from the table.”

The Frenchman nodded once. Darlington was impressed; he would have quailed under the
pressure of the alien gaze. He had wondered, just for an absurd moment, if Hollywood had
come up with a trick of some kind, but the aliens were just…alien. Too alien to be a
Hollywood invention…and they had gotten all the details right. He could smell the aliens
now, smell them and know that whatever the source of that smell was, it wasn’t human.

“You will be returned, now, to your embassies, where you will communicate with your
governments and arrange to be picked up,” the alien said. “Once you communicate our
message to them, we will be expecting you to get in touch with us. Do not delay.”

The guards caught hold of Darlington and firmly escorted him out of the White House,
heading towards Massachusetts Avenue and Embassies Row. There would be many more
Ambassadors and Representatives in the area; he suspected that the aliens would be very busy
rounding them all up and giving them the same message. If the aliens thought that they could
convince enough humans, they would be wrong; he was sure of that.

The embassy itself was only slightly damaged, but he caught sight of the first sign of what
happened to civilians under alien rule. A group of men and women, of all ages, were being
marched down the street by aliens, chained together and picking up rubble as they moved.
Some of the embassies had been damaged in the fighting; the rubble was already being
cleared away by work crews, under alien supervision. Just for a moment, he caught the eye
of a young teenage girl in the crew, seeing the despair and fear written all over her face.

“I'm sorry,” he mouthed, before heading into the embassy. Most of the staff had been
removed; only a handful seemed to have remained in the embassy, all of them given alien ID
bracelets. He examined his secretary’s bracelet with concern; it was just like a handcuff, but
only on one wrist. It looked as if it would be impossible to remove. “Sara?”

“They just took a blood sample and put this on me,” she said, her voice shaking. She
collapsed into his arms and started to cry. Under other circumstances, he would almost have
enjoyed the attention from her. “Mr Ambassador, what are we going to do?”

“I need a line to London,” Darlington said shortly. There were more important things to do
than comfort her, even if she was very good to look upon. He wasn’t sure how long they had
been captives, but the computer terminal insisted that it had been a week. “London has to be
informed of what happened here…and what the aliens might have in store for us all.”
Chapter Eighteen: Learning the World Anew

“That woman,” Gloria observed, “is smart. Very smart.”

Houghton nodded from his chair on the other side of the room. The aliens had placed him
and Gloria into the same room, which had produced some embarrassment, before both of
them had realised that they needed someone to talk to. The aliens hadn’t mistreated them, but
they had expected them to work; every day, they had talked to aliens, and talked, and
talked…

The aliens hadn’t asked much about the government of America, or even of the world,
although he had been able to deduce that the aliens themselves were monarchists. The
discovery had upset his preconceptions of alien life, even after witnessing the aliens firing
into an unarmed crowd; he had never expected to meet aliens who followed an Emperor. The
aliens themselves hadn’t been too surprised by the many different types of human
government; from what they’d said, he deduced that there had been a war at some point, and
the monarchy-governed nation had won. Instead, the aliens had insisted on learning English,
learning as much as they could of the language and using it in conversation.

It had been the alien girl, Garlinda-Ya, who had spent most time with them, learning their
language. She was smart, Houghton had realised; she had picked up English quicker than he
would have expected, and insisted on practicing constantly with them. Whatever taboos kept
her silent when alien males were around evidently didn’t apply to humans; she talked, and
talked, to them. The taller alien male who seemed to be connected with Garlinda-Ya in some
way – he suspected that they were lovers, or married – had spent a little time with them, but
he tended to remain out of sight, probably plotting the conquest of the remainder of the
world. If Garlinda-Ya knew something about how the invasion was proceeding, she had kept
silent and discussed only domestic matters.

“I know,” he said. He had expected to have entered discussions with the aliens, but there had
seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the aliens, nothing that made sense. The aliens seemed to
be high-tech aliens with the minds of primitives; Garlinda-Ya had learned English the hard
way, very fast, but without any computers or even one of the translation devices. If they had
translators, why bother with the process of learning English…unless they considered the
translators unreliable for some reason. Human computer-aided translators were hardly
reliable, but they were useful, and yet…the aliens refused to use their much more advanced
technology. “She is clever, isn’t she?”

Gloria picked up the undercurrent in his voice and gave him a warning look. “What do you
think they want to do with us?”

“I have no idea,” Houghton said. He saw the fear in her face and tried to modulate his
comments slightly. “They may want to get us to simply teach more and more of them how to
speak English, or they may want intelligence from us, or…it’s not as if we know anything
important.”

“You worked for SETI,” Gloria said. “Did SETI know anything useful about alien life?”

“Nothing,” Houghton said. “No little green men in the basement, no concealed transmissions
from outer space, nothing, but good intentions. We couldn’t have hidden anything from the
media, anything at all. When we picked up a radio transmission, the media was on it like
boys on a girl; it was only later that we realised that the signal came from a lost satellite.”

“Oh,” Gloria said. She paced around the room, her nearly-naked form improving the room’s
general appearance; the aliens had only reluctantly given them clothing after Gloria had
begged for clothes. The clothing they had received had been checked out very carefully by
the aliens, with anything that could even remotely be dangerous removed before they gave
the clothes to the humans. Houghton’s trousers had no belt, while Gloria had not been given
a bra or a belt of her own; there were times when he was more impressed with the aliens’
thoughts on just how ingenious they might be at escaping. How could he have used a belt to
escape?

It grew stranger. The aliens used massive ships to land on Earth, but they seemed unwilling
to use them to move people around on Earth, and they used slaves instead of robots. The few
females he had seen seemed to be subordinate to the men, while he had the impression that
not all of the aliens he had seen were happy to be on Earth, but his understanding of the alien
language was far from perfect. It was…odd; the aliens had technology that they didn’t seem
to use properly, or even see the possibilities, technology that was in plain view. Why did
they even need to bother with a ground invasion when they had such technology?

The door opened slowly, revealing a guard, who looked around the room with dark eyes
before standing back and allowing Garlinda-Ya to enter, along with her…husband? The alien
who Houghton was sure was in charge of the alien invasion force had struck him as a
dangerous person, with little sign of any redeeming tendencies, although they had hardly
been able to talk to one another properly. His body language was strange, but he had the
impression that he cared deeply for his female companion, or perhaps he was just deluding
himself. There were still too many unknowns about the aliens.

They knelt at once. They had learned that particular part of protocol on the first day, when
they had been formally introduced to their new commanding officer; the aliens had a very
hierarchical society. Subordinates were expected to only obey their superiors; he was grimly
aware that the humans were right at the bottom of the pecking order. The alien could have
them both butchered and no one would give it a second thought.

Garlinda-Ya smiled at them. The alien smile – he was certain that it was a smile – was oddly
sweet on her face, with its light green skin and strange alien hair. She was certainly the
smartest alien they had met so far, even through they had only met a few aliens closely
enough to talk to them; it had struck Gloria as odd that she wasn't running things. Houghton
had made a fist and waved it at her; the alien males were stronger and certainly more violent
than the alien females, and in a society where females couldn’t compete equally, their weaker
bodies would hamper them. A degree or a high IQ wouldn’t save someone from being raped,
would it?

“There are matters to discuss,” she said. Her accent was different from her man’s accent; it
was musical, but very alien. “We must discuss the war.”

                                            ***
Prince Rohan knew that his First Sergeant had been furious at the thought of his Prince going
into a room with only Garlinda-Ya for company and protection, against an alien male. The
humans seemed to have the same lack of natural weapons that the Malick Karn had – they
had no poison stingers, or even sharp claws – but the Malick Karn had encountered enough of
the human ingenuity at building unpleasant and sneaky weapons to know to be careful. The
Savants digging through human computer technology had been terrified; some of the human
tech was far in advance of the technology the Traders had provided.

The male human seemed roughly the same size as Rohan himself, although he wasn't
anything like as strong, or as fit, as the human soldiers who had been driven out of
Washington by the Malick Karn. His face seemed abnormally pale, even in the darker light
of the human sun; Rohan was reminded of older legends about walking ghosts and worse.
The female human seemed weaker than the male, with large bulges sticking out of her chest;
it seemed a very inefficient design to Rohan’s eyes. How did she walk without toppling
over? She certainly acted as if she was a princess; she hardly deferred to her male companion
at all, something that few Malick Karn women would do openly.

The human spoke in his own language. “Why did you attack us?

Rohan had already decided to be honest. If the humans could recover the prisoners, they
would have won the war anyway; the captured region in Washington was one of the most
secure places in the world. There was no easy way to get to Saudi Arabia without using one
of the Trader ships, but in any case the Saudis hadn’t been able to put up much of a fight.
The pre-attack intelligence had indicated that the Saudis were a ruling clan, much like some
of Char’s predecessors, but they had hardly worked to defend themselves. He had almost
concluded that the humans had been less interested in oil than the Traders had said, but the
reaction of the human Ambassadors to the news that Saudi Arabia had fallen had proven
them right. It was…odd.

“We have to secure a commanding position on your world,” he said, without finesse. There
was no need to mince his words with prisoners. The human language sounded odd coming
from his mouth, but he persisted anyway; what choice was there? “We had to make an
impression on your people.”

“Yes, you did that,” the human male said. Moisture was dripping from his eyes; it seemed
another flaw in the design of humans. “You killed thousands of innocents there!”

Rohan frowned. The Char Empire considered workers – civilians, in the human lexicon – to
be subject to whoever had the power to make them submit. Resistance was considered
rebellion and punished harshly; several of the other Char states had actually been based
around democratic principles, allowing their workers a role in the government. They had all
been destroyed in the end, but they remained hotbeds of rebellion, back on Karn itself. The
human citizens had been blocking a military attack and as such deserved everything they got.

“They were in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said. “Why were you there to welcome
us?”

The human stared at him. “We thought that you had come in peace,” he said. “We wanted to
welcome you to Earth, to trade information and share our world with you! Why do you want
to take Earth from us?”

“I don’t,” Rohan admitted, truthfully. It raised a second question; why had the Traders not
opened communications with Earth directly? They could have done that for much less effort
than transporting the army across space, couldn’t they? “Am I to understand that we are the
first non-human race that you have encountered?”

The human female placed a hand on her mate’s arm. “You’re the first aliens we have met,”
she said. Her voice was quavering, but she held his eyes, something that would be
unthinkable for a Malick Karn woman in public. “How many aliens have you met?”

“Two,” Rohan said shortly. He was starting to wonder if the Traders intended to play the
Malick Karn against the humans to prevent the humans from becoming a threat to the Traders
themselves. The Malick Karn couldn’t – yet – understand the systems that the Traders had
given them, but the humans had clearly managed to master the systems themselves, unless the
Traders had kept their hand well hidden. “Are you prepared to enter my personal service?”

There was a pause. It was the male human who spoke. “And what would this personal
service consist of?”

Rohan almost smiled. The males of the human race were clearly as aggressive as the males
of the Malick Karn race. “I need advisors on human affairs,” he said, knowing that if they
took the oath, he could discuss the Traders with them. “You would be rewarded for your
service with loyalty and honours.”

The two humans shared a look. They couldn’t be completely assimilated, of course, but they
could certainly have a fair chance at rising within the Char system. He wished that he could
understand their faces better; the humans were both the greatest opportunity and the greatest
threat that the Malick Karn had ever faced. The interior of the human houses spoke of riches
and understanding well beyond that of the Malick Karn, perhaps even to the point where they
could rival the Traders themselves. The Traders had, knowingly or otherwise, ordered the
Malick Karn to try to saddle a live Tarax…and he now knew that if the humans had time to
react, they might well defeat his force.

“I accept your offer, on one condition,” the male said. Rohan inclined his head suspiciously;
few indeed would insist on adding conditions to such an offer. “I won’t help you to kill more
humans.”

Rohan nodded. “I would prefer to have live humans,” he said, sincerely. Human radio
broadcasts had spoken of rage over the unarmed citizens who had been slaughtered, as
incomprehensible as he found it; he would attempt to keep human deaths down to an
acceptable number. “You must understand; we are not entirely here of our own free will.”

He had placed the captives in a human building, just to ensure that the Traders hadn’t left any
unpleasant surprises such as surveillance devices in one of their ships, or even in the
translators. They were far from perfect anyway; one human who had explained his
profession as “I sell recreational pharmaceuticals, and expropriate unsecured properties” had
turned out to be a human criminal, who had actually said “I sell drugs and steal.” No one had
known until one of the Savants had learned enough English to understand the original
recordings.

“I’m not here of my own free will,” the human male said. “My name is Alex; what is
yours?”
“I am Rohan,” Rohan said. He left off the titles; they were in private. He met Garlinda-Ya’s
eyes and she gave him an encouraging smile. “I am the leader of the invasion force that was
transported to your planet and given the task of defeating your people; I am also one of the
people intent on escaping the grip of the Traders.”

The word Traders was in his own tongue; Garlinda-Ya provided a human translation. “Some
years ago, my…nation made a deal with the Traders,” he continued. “The Traders gave us
the technology to defeat our enemies and unite our world, but they have since been ordering
us to do tasks for them. The latest task has been to invade your world.”

                                                ***
Houghton took a long breath, staring into the strange alien face, and felt an odd moment of
kinship with the alien. If the story about…Traders were accurate, it would explain a lot about
the aliens, the Malick Karn. If it wasn’t true, then…no, he was fairly sure that it was the
truth, not least because the aliens had no need to lie to them. Why should they lie? They
were in the centre of the alien invasion! If it was true…

He forced himself to ask a question. “Why do you do as they want?”

“We have no choice,” the alien said. His name was Rohan; Houghton hadn’t been blind to
the girl’s surprise when the alien told them his name. Was that a gesture of trust among the
aliens? “We do not understand the technology they gave us and we do not know how to
crack one of their force fields, but you do…”

Houghton hadn’t seen much of the battle. The only thing he knew for sure was that the
Malick Karn had won. “We managed to crack one of their force fields…?”

It made sense, perhaps too much sense; the army had certainly had the appearance of a force
that had been simply dumped on Earth, rather than using their spacecraft for tactical mobility.
There were also missing items; the aliens didn’t seem to use computers as much as the
humans did…and the translators were not in evidence. They were an order of magnitude
more capable than anything else the aliens had, which was interesting…and curious. Were
they Trader technology?

“Yes,” Rohan said, when he asked. There was an odd note in the alien’s voice. “My world is
hostage to the Traders, who can either destroy us directly, or support one of the other forces
on my world to rise up in rebellion. If we do not defeat you, we will face the anger of the
Traders, with no hope at all of getting out from under their thumbs.”

The human metaphor translated well into the alien’s mouth. “And even if you win, you too
will be at the mercy of the Traders,” he said. Houghton sensed something, desperation
perhaps, underlying the alien’s words. “Can your race help ours to survive?”

Houghton took a breath. “You should ask the President,” he said, grimly. He had never even
held real political ambitions. “I am not one of the people who govern this country.”

“I have one of your…Congressmen here, who will be carrying a message from myself to the
President,” Rohan said. Houghton wasn’t exactly surprised, not now; the aliens would
probably act like most medieval groups and leave the nobility – or the closest American
equivalent – alone. “I dare not risk losing a battle, however, or in revealing the plan to the
Traders, who will certainly react in some way to us attempting to escape them.”

Houghton felt his heart sink. “You’re going to attack,” he said. Fury, helpless fury, raged up
within him. He wanted to lash out and didn’t quite dare. He suspected that the alien would
respond…badly to any physical threat. “You’re going to get a lot of people killed.”

Rohan met his eyes. “Many more will die if the Traders decide to strike,” he said. “I do not
understand your race, but I understand the ruthlessness of the Traders, and what they will do
if they think that they are being balked. Your race must be defeated so that my race can
survive…unless we can find a way to defeat the Traders directly.”
Chapter Nineteen: Hunting the Hunters

“All clear on the western front, sir,” a voice subvocalised. “We’re clear to bugger them up
the back passage.”

“Shut up before Kit or Fell hear you and take it as an invitation,” Sergeant Jeremy Damiani
subvocalised back. “We’re not here to enjoy ourselves.”

“Yes, sir,” the voice said. There was hardly any contrition in the voice, no regret, only
eagerness to take the fight to the enemy. “Let’s move out.”

Damiani muttered a curse under his breath as the small group started to advance carefully
through the darkened region, heading up the interstate towards the alien-held territory. The
aliens had been reported as patrolling themselves from their own positions – they had been
confirmed as passing through Springfield on regular patrols, ignoring the few remaining
inhabitants – and he hoped that the patrol would encounter a small alien probe. Their orders
said to be aggressive…and he intended to be as aggressive as possible.

America looked odd as they moved on, strange, almost alien. The night sky was clearer than
it had been in years, thanks to the power outrages all over the region, lit only by strange
flickering lights that seemed to come from the direction of the alien-held territory. The
buildings they passed as they headed onwards were largely abandoned; even with the
President’s draft of all men of military age in hopes of providing them with some legal
protection from the aliens, much of the population had fled southwards, leaving only a
handful of people behind, lurking in ambush or looting. Damiani had orders where the latter
were concerned; looters were to be shot on sight.

“No sign of any alien communications nearby,” the communications technician reported. He
would have preferred not to have taken Patricia along, regardless of her expertise; she had no
experience at all in combat situations. He also knew that they needed her; there was
something distantly odd about the alien radios and if one of them could be captured…

“Good,” he subvocalised back, as they entered a small town. It was deserted; the only sign of
life was a stray cat, howling mournfully at the night. His experienced eye noted a handful of
danger signs in the area; some Marines or the Special Forces had gone through, setting a
handful of traps for the aliens when they arrived. The aliens were experienced, he had
realised, but they hadn’t been prepared for traps at first. Who knew? The traps might kill
enough to make them give up on the idea of invasion. “Keep back and keep listening.”

His night vision goggles cast the entire area in a faint, unearthly glow; the team spread out as
they sensed something, far too close to them. He glanced around, hunting for the….presence
he had sensed, and saw a heat signature from what looked like a pile of rubble. He didn’t
know how aliens compared to humans in the body heat department, but he was fairly sure
that he was looking at a human, if not more than one. They had hidden themselves and might
well be armed.

“Spread out,” he muttered. If it was an alien trap, his team would make sure that the aliens
paid a price for their behaviour. “Kit, you’re with me.”
He stepped closer. He would have preferred to have fired on the aliens, if aliens they were,
but it wasn’t the right time for reconnaissance by fire. He was growing more and more
certain that he was looking at two humans, maybe four…and they saw him at the same time,
one of them lifting a weapon.

A voice hissed out of the darkness. “Halt,” it snapped. “Who goes there?”

Damiani almost laughed. “Sergeant Damiani, National Guard,” he answered. “Who are
you?”

A figure unfolded neatly from the pile of rubble. “Jake,” he said, and gave no other name.
The darkness hid most of his figure, but Damiani judged him as old enough to fight in
Vietnam, which would have given him considerable experience in urban warfare. “This is
Tom and Betty.”

Betty looked young enough to be jailbait, Damiani saw; her male companion placed a
protective arm around her shoulder. He wondered what their relationship was – she held a
hunting rifle as if she knew how to use it, which suggested that she wasn’t a captive, at least.
They’d caught a rapist operating within the disputed zone; there were rumours of even worse
people migrating to join the chaos. Her companion looked to be in his late teens…

He shrugged. “What the hell are you doing here?”

Jake lifted his weapon. “We’re here to kill the Greenies,” he said. Damiani had to smile at
how the slang term had caught on; the aliens had utterly green skin, after all. His voice was
harsher, louder, than was wise; Damiani tapped one finger to his lips to quiet him. “They
came through the town a while back, took a few people with them, killed a few more, and we
hid. When they left, we took our weapons and set up here, waiting for them to come back.”

Damiani blinked at him. “You set up the traps?”

Jake’s face fell. “Learned how to do it as a Green Beret,” he said. “You saw them?”

“It was very professional,” Damiani reassured him. His voice darkened. “Listen; do you
know what they do to civilians who resist? They kill them. You should get the hell out of
here.”

“This is my home,” Jake said. “My granddaughter and her boyfriend are all I have. The
boy’s a complete waste of time normally, but at least he can shoot straight, and so can she. I
taught her myself.”

“Good, good, but there isn’t time,” Damiani said softly. “Listen; if the aliens are patrolling,
they’re bound to come back here and kill you if you try to fight. Go; follow the interstate
down towards Stafford and one of our patrols will meet you there.”

“We won’t leave,” Betty said. “We have to stay.”

“If you change your mind, you know what to do,” Damiani said softly. “Good luck.”
He stepped back to his team. “The aliens are patrolling,” he said. “We may run into one of
their patrols.”

“Oh, goody,” Fell said. “Just when I was thinking that we would be bored.”

Kit had a more serious objection. “Sir, we can’t leave them there,” he said, as Damiani
started to lead them out of the village. “They’ll be killed.”

“They made their own choices and we don’t have the time to drag them out,” Damiani
snapped. Kit looked grim. “This isn’t a debating club, so move it!”

Time passed as they slipped onwards, freezing at the slightest noise from the land around
them, until they heard a series of strange noises from the north. Something was happening in
the alien base; he could see a laser beam flaring against the sky, targeting something very
high up. He had heard that the Air Force was going to send in F-117s at some point, but it
was almost as if the aliens were shooting straight upwards towards space. He allowed
himself a moment of grim humour; the aliens might well be shooting at each other…

The hail of fire caught him by surprise; he hurled himself down into a small gully before even
realising that something had happened, the noise of the alien bullets deafening him. He
pulled himself up, trying to locate the aliens, and realised that they didn’t show at all on the
night vision giggles; they were either very cold, or they were wearing something designed to
keep them appearing cold. The Special Forces had plenty of equipment that could hide its
wearer; had the aliens something identical?

“Andrew, Gordon, spread out,” he subvocalised. The battlefield tactical communications
network was still working, much to his relief; the aliens didn’t seem to have very good
jamming systems. He would have jammed the enemy at once if he had the capability. “Pat,
call in the contact and warn them that we are under heavy fire…”

An explosion shattered a tree behind him. “Return fire,” he snapped, lifting his rife and
shooting back towards the alien guns. He could see the flares that showed their position,
firing at the flashes of light; the aliens didn’t seem to be bothered at all, firing back without
losing their cool. They had somehow sneaked up on his patrol and ambushed him. “Kit, use
the grenades!”

There was a long pause, and then he saw a grenade explode in the middle of the alien
position. Something, perhaps an alien weapon, exploded under the blast, killing its user; he
heard a scream torn from an alien throat. The scream was harsh and unpleasant…and very
human. Just for an instant, he felt sympathy for the alien, dying so far from home, and then
heard one of his own team dying in pain.

The aliens launched something into the air…and it burst, bathing the entire area in bright
white light. He tore off his goggles as the flare burned in the sky above, allowing the aliens
to see clearly and nearly blinding him; he had to fire back almost at random to hit something.
Kit threw a second grenade, and then a third; blinking away tears, Damiani could see the
alien position now, carefully hidden in the bushes. It wasn’t a planned ambush, more of a
surprise to both sides than he had anticipated.
“They’re dug in there,” Fell sent sharply. An alien machine gun tore though the air and
shredded vegetation and everything else it hit. “We’re going to have to dig them out.”

Damiani nodded. The aliens would see them if they tried to leave, at least until their flare
burned out, and they would shoot his team in the back. He still couldn’t tell just how many
aliens there were in their position, but they were clearly just as determined to kill his people
as he was to kill them. He reminded himself that they needed an alien body, but he found it
hard to care if the bodies were intact or not. One of his people had died, another was
injured…

“Kit, how many grenades do you have?” He asked. He had had an idea. “Pat, is there any
chance of support?”

Patrica had been trying to use the laser link to the satellites high overhead to call for support.
“No, sir,” she said. “The helicopters are grounded until we find a way of defeating their laser
systems.”

“Bloody overpaid flyboys, off chasing women while we’re dying out here,” Fell muttered.
“Not that I support such acts, of course.”

“Next time you screw a pilot, could I suggest that you get him to swear his life to protecting
yours?” Damiani snapped back. However they acted, he was going to lose at least one more
member of his team. “Kit, grenades?”

“Four, and the antitank missiles,” Kit said. “May I suggest…”

It was overkill, but Damiani didn’t care. “Everyone, but Kit, start laying down covering
fire,” he ordered. “Force them to keep their fucking heads down…”

The noise of firing rose rapidly to a crescendo as Kit took aim with the antitank weapon.
“Fire,” Damiani snapped. A streak of light flared in front of them as Kit fired the antitank
weapon directly towards the alien machine gun, destroying it in a thunderous explosion.
“Move!”

He leapt forward, followed by two others, firing as he ran up towards the alien position. The
entire position was burning, he forced himself to jump through the smoke, noticing that the
aliens had found a good natural defence site and used it properly to hold his people off. One
alien had been caught directly in the blast and had been turned into a gooey mess, two others
had been killed, their bodies shattered by the blasts…and one was still alive. Damiani glared
down at the wounded alien, whose dark eyes seemed to hold his just for a second…and then
closed.

“He’s dead, Jim,” Kit said. He was wounded, blood leaking from his shoulder, but he was
alive. “I think you got him.”

Damiani looked up at him. “How long have you been waiting to say that?”

Kit grinned. “Thought of it last week during the retreat,” he said. “What do we do now?”
“Get the body bags,” Damiani snapped. “I want this bastard bagged up and ready to be
carried home as quickly as possible. Leave the others; Pat, take a GPS reading so we can
send back some SF to pick them up, if the aliens don’t come find them first. I wonder if…”

The flare burned out, casting the scene back into darkness. “That’s going to lure the aliens to
us like moths to a flame,” Fell said. He was bandaging Kit’s wound with one hand, blood
trickling down his face from a scratch when he had fallen. “Sir, with all due respect, what
about Gordon’s body?”

“We take him as well,” Damiani said. He hadn’t known Gordon that well, but the man had
performed well in the brief skirmish before being shot down. There had been a time when a
single death would have been catastrophic; he wondered now if anyone would even notice.
How many people would die in the war before the aliens were finally defeated?

“I think that this is important,” Patricia said. Her face was pale in the darkness, but she was
stripping the alien bodies like a pro; Damiani was almost impressed. “We have to take as
many samples of alien technology as we can.”

“Hurry, then,” Damiani said. He was sure that the aliens would be sending out patrols to
discover what had happened to their patrol. “We really do not want to stay here.”

Despite his urgency, it took nearly ten minutes to strip the aliens of everything that might
prove useful and then start heading down the path back towards the human lines. They had
used the time well, but Damiani was sure that the aliens were coming; he could almost sense
them as they retreated as rapidly as they could move with a pair of bodies, one human and
one…not human. They made slow progress; he had already decided to avoid the village that
held the three civilian fighters, just to give them a chance at life.

“Sir, we have company,” Fell snapped. Damiani looked back, and then up; he saw them
moving through the air as dark shapes, hardly making a noise. They had to be helicopters,
but how could even the aliens send helicopters that were almost completely silent? He hard
heard that there were some helicopters that made much less noise, but the alien ones were
remarkable; it was almost like being chased by gliders, or microlights. How the hell did they
do it? “Orders?”

Damiani cursed. They were caught in the open and had nowhere to run. “Get the missiles
ready,” he snapped. If the aliens had night vision gear of their own, they would have already
seen the humans; they could swoop down to open fire as soon as they liked, unless they were
determined to recover the body as well. Did they even know that the team had an alien
body? “I need them both shot down as quickly as possible.”

Kit wasn’t in a fit state to use his Stinger; Damiani took it from him and brought it around,
trying to use the system to pick up the target. Fell took the other helicopter, looking for
something the missile could lock onto; fortunately, the alien helicopter still had a heat
signature. They weren’t firing as they closed in; he wondered why before dismissing the
thought. There wasn’t time to worry about that. The missile tone changed sharply and he
squeezed the trigger, launching it towards the first helicopter, striking it directly and blowing
it away into a massive burst of fire. The noise was terrifyingly loud…
The second helicopter seemed to flare with light as it fired a long burst of fire towards the
ground, just before Fell fired his own missile, striking the helicopter directly in the prow and
sending it staggering away before it fell out of the sky. The thunderous explosion echoed as
Damiani stared into the darkness, wondering what else the aliens would bring to bear on
them.

“I think it’s time for Plan B,” he said. The aliens would certainly be hopping mad now. They
might already have troops heading towards them and they were in no state for another battle,
not least because they’d just run out of antiaircraft missiles. Another helicopter could kill
them all. “Run!”

He remembered the reporter as they ran, someone whose company he had actually enjoyed,
once he had gotten over the prejudice against reporters. Clara had actually been intelligent
and thoughtful; she was hardly the type of person who spread lies, even though she had
assumed, like all reporters, that when the Army said nothing, it was because the Army had
something to hide. Clara was a good person, someone who would have made a better
intelligence analyst than the entire CIA put together…and it dawned on him that he would
have something really interesting to tell her, if he got back alive.

He smiled. The feeling of…almost desire for her was new. It wasn’t unknown for soldiers to
feel desire when they had just been through a firefight, but he hadn’t often felt it before, even
in Iraq. Of course, Iraq had been a boring place as far as women were concerned…and Clara,
at least, was intelligent. If only she didn’t spend so much time on her appearance…

“I just had a flash message from the base,” Patricia said. They didn’t dare use their radios
now. “They’re sending up some Marines to help extract us and they should be here soon.”

“Good,” Damiani said. He glanced behind them, into the darkness, seeing nothing, but
shadow. If the aliens were chasing them, they would have to move fast. “I really can’t wait
to get back to the base.”
Chapter Twenty: Things Fall Apart, The Centre Cannot Hold…

“If that is the best that humanity can provide, we would have little to fear from them,”
Shipmaster Gargan said, as the human space shuttle drifted past one of the orbiting starships.
The humans hadn’t recalled their craft, nor had they been able to use it in an attack;
Tradermaster Maxtin had privately concluded that the craft was almost out of fuel. Humans,
for some reason, had never pushed their nuclear research as far as it could go, let alone tap
into the power of the universe itself. “We could have made contact with them openly…”

“We have had this argument before,” Tradermaster Maxtin snapped. “What were you
expecting? Instant conquest?”

“Your pets have not defeated the main human force,” Shipmaster Gargan reminded him.
“What do we do if the humans defeat the Malick Karn?”

“As yet, there is no sign that the humans can defeat the Malick Karn in open battle,”
Tradermaster Maxtin said. He sent a mental command into one of the computers, which
displayed an image in front of them, an orbital observation of the human positions near
Washington. “They have been moving forces slowly towards the battleground, but we have
been flooding in Malick Karn reinforcements and even additional equipment. Without their
air forces, humanity must fight the Malick Karn on even terms, and with our help, the Malick
Karn can outmass the humans at the decisive point.”

He tapped a location on the map. “Look at the oil-producing regions,” he said. It still baffled
him why the humans had become so dependent on oil when there were dozens of other
possibilities for generating energy, but he wouldn’t hesitate to take advantage of the human
mistake. “Their production plants are in the hands of the Malick Karn, or in the hands of
humans who don’t like the most powerful human nation very much. The only exception is
here” – he tapped Iraq’s position on the map – “and there are human forces there that are
reluctant to fight our allies…”

“Because the Malick Karn told them that if they didn’t fight, they would have the chance to
submit peacefully to their rule,” Shipmaster Gargan said. “The Malick Karn are barbarians
and it won’t be long before the humans, barbarians themselves, realise that their only chance
of surviving as an independent group is to defeat the Malick Karn. We are dangerously
exposed here, Tradermaster…”

Tradermaster Maxtin extended an eye towards the holographic image. “Are you questioning
my authority?”

Shipmaster Gargan waved his tentacles in the air. “Tradermaster, we have…incidents when
the Malick Karn realised that our translation software was less than perfect,” he said. “They
have used that as an excuse to have many more of their people learning the human language,
just to ensure that they can actually talk to the humans in places where we cannot hear them!
They are talking to humans and we have no idea what they are saying.”

Tradermaster Maxtin paused, just long enough to give the appearance of a considered reply,
rather than just dismissing what the Shipmaster said out of hand. In a sense, of course,
Shipmaster Gargan was quite right; the Malick Karn had been talking to humans, perhaps
including humans who knew how to use their wondrous machines…and even to build them.
The Malick Karn might have learned from the Traders, but they had no idea of the practical
sciences underpinning their computers; they hadn’t even any real sense of computer security.
How could they have? The enemies they had faced before had been even more outclassed.

But the humans were different. He had said it before, time and time again; the Traders didn’t
dare risk having another space-faring race at their back, one holding a grudge. If the Traders
could secure the resources of the Solar System, Tradermaster Maxtin would save his Clan,
but that could only happen if it was done in accordance with the Law. The Law was all the
Traders had; if he broke it, he would earn nothing, but scorn from his fellows and perhaps
worse. The Trader Council would have a few things to say in any case, but if he brought
home victory…

He scowled. It would be so much easier if they were allowed to get involved directly. He
had attempted to ensure that there were as many opportunities for the humans to engage the
Trader ships – and therefore be destroyed – but that had backfired. Somehow, and he wasn’t
sure how, a Trader ship had been destroyed by a human aircraft. The only way to bring down
such a ship would be to overload the drive-shield fields, but that normally required the use of
a vast amount of energy applied in one moment; could a mid-air collision really have such a
result?

Silently, he cursed the law. A few asteroids from orbit and the humans would be screaming
for terms. Instead, he had no choice, but to hope that the Malick Karn could defeat the
humans; that would give them the rights to the system, which he could then use himself to
claim the system. The Malick Karn were under his thumb…

“It is unlikely that they will be able to learn much from the humans,” he said. If necessary,
Prince Rohan and his force could be abandoned on Earth, rather than being shipped home to
Karn. “Even if they do, what of it?”

He returned the display to the picture of the human spacecraft. “Can that thing pose a threat
to us?”

Shipmaster Gargan gave him the Trader version of a cross look. “You know perfectly well
that it cannot,” he said. “However, what of history? Every race we have encountered that
has reached into space has done it very quickly. Within ten to twenty years of discovering
how to build primitive rockets, they have established bases in orbit, reached for the other
worlds in their systems, and have even started looking for the stars. You will remember the
Garske, Tradermaster; they started to equip asteroids with heavy fusion drives and used them
to seed themselves right across their entire sector before they discovered FTL.

“How long will it be before the humans start heading out into space themselves?”

Shipmaster Salkan made a rude noise. “They have had craft like that…piece of space junk
for years,” he said. “They have not attempted to reach into space properly; their only
achievement of note was placing a handful of people on their moon. In a week, we
accomplished more than they ever did; there are Malick Karn soldiers on Earth’s moon now,
waiting for their chance to be landed on Earth.”

Tradermaster Maxtin studied the image of the human ship and privately cursed its existence.
Earth itself could be blasted with impunity…except the other races in the galaxy would know
who had done it, and maybe even why. Interstellar space was a jungle, but if the Traders
were caught destroying an entire race, the other space-faring powers would consider them a
threat and take action. A trading network that had been built up over longer than the human
race had been in existence could be shattered…if he did the wrong thing.

It was possible, just, to claim that intercepting a Malick Karn-built ship was legal under
Trader Law. The Traders had the rights to the rest of the Malick Karn system, after all; it was
their territory. Attempting to interfere with humanity, except in direct self-defence, would be
considered a hostile act; there were too many races already that distrusted the Traders, not
entirely without reason. What would happen if they suspected that the Traders were
interfering? There were already suspicions that the Traders had intercepted some STL ships
and captured or destroyed them for some evil purpose. No one had found proof, yet…

He smiled. “Can the Malick Karn pose a threat to us?”

“They are acting outside our surveillance systems,” Shipmaster Gargan insisted. “that is a
threat in itself. What are they saying to the humans?”

“If they relied on our systems, we could ensure that the messages they gave the humans
prevented any sort of agreement between the two races,” Shipmaster Salkan said.
Tradermaster Maxtin scowled; he privately doubted that there was any real room for an
agreement between humans and the Malick Karn, whatever the Shipmaster might have
feared. The humans wouldn’t forget the massacre very quickly. “As it is, what might they be
telling the humans?”

“What are they learning from the humans?” Shipmaster Gargan asked. “What can the
humans teach them?”

“Their languages, apparently,” Tradermaster Maxtin said. He made a complicated series of
motions through the air. A human would have sighed aloud. “What can they learn from the
humans that can actually help them? What are they now, but our servants, as they have
enslaved so many on their own world, what else can they be? Their culture is a dead end; we
have ensured that it is a dead end.”

He paused. “And, besides, can we afford to lose?”

He would have smiled at their expressions. Trader Law didn’t recognise anything less than a
government that clearly dominated the entire planet…and it insisted on effective domination.
The Malick Karn had only a few months to win; they had to defeat the Americans, and also
force most of the world into submissive alliances. The Malick Karn society was based
around submission; far too many human nations were based around fighting for freedom.
They would have to batter the humans into submission, before the Auditors checked though
the accounts and realised that the Clan was in serious financial bother. Once that happened, it
would be the end, and he would be forever known as Tradermaster Maxtin the Fool.

Shipmaster Salkan looked as if he had absorbed something unpleasant. “No,” he said. “We
can no longer afford to lose.”
“You have committed us to this,” Shipmaster Gargan snapped. “What happens when the
Auditors turn up? It’s only a few months or thereabouts before they realise how deep in debt
we are, thanks to you.”

Tradermaster Maxtin smiled. “I will urge the Malick Karn to continue their offensive as soon
as possible,” he assured him. “Until then, I expect you to continue the logistics of moving
Malick Karn from the moon to the planet, reinforcing the success in the Middle East so that
the Malick Karn can advance into Iraq and complete seizing the oil fields. That will force
much of the planet into submission.”

“I lost a transport through moving troops,” Shipmaster Gargan protested. “How much more
will we lose before this whole…disaster is over?”

His image vanished before Tradermaster Maxtin could formulate a reply. “That is a good
point,” Shipmaster Salkan said. “How many more transports can we lose before we start
suffering real losses?”

Tradermaster Maxtin gave him an icy look. “You should convert back into a female,” he
said. “You were more pragmatic then, weren’t you?”

“We had relations in exchange for promotion,” Shipmaster Salkan said. “I no longer have
that luxury, or the need to share my genes for anything that you can give me.”

“I know,” Tradermaster Maxtin said. He kept his thoughts private. “You have come far from
the young female you were.”

“And you’re trying to distract me, my lord Tradermaster,” Shipmaster Salkan said. The
Malick Karn honorific surprised him. Traders weren’t known for honorifics. “How much
can we lose before we start facing a real crisis?”

Tradermaster Maxtin considered the question. The original predictions had been based on no
losses in transports, automated or not, let alone starships. Fine, the starships could defend
themselves if attacked, but…what happened if they started to lose real starships? The Clan
would be within shouting distance of a mutiny, followed rapidly by an undignified end to the
war. The humans might not even know that they had killed a transport; there had been
considerable chaos in the battle over Washington.

But transports were expensive and starships were far more expensive. Replacing a handful of
transports would be difficult; at the moment, replacing a starship would require being able to
prove that they could pay for the ship…which they couldn’t. The clans that handled
shipbuilding insisted on guaranteed payment…and he knew all too well that there was no
way that he could provide the proof that they would demand. If a starship was destroyed, the
Clan would almost certainly overthrow him and abandon the Malick Karn on the surface of
Earth.

“We can afford a handful of losses in transports,” he said. “As long as the starships remain
up here, how are they going to be able to hurt them?”

Shipmaster Salkan said nothing. “I have orders for you anyway,” Tradermaster Maxtin said.
“I want you to take your ship back to Karn and collect the next force of soldiers.”
“I see,” Shipmaster Salkan said. “Why me?”

“Because you are loyal,” Tradermaster Maxtin said. “If I give the job to Shipmaster Gargan,
he might just decide to declare independence and create his own Clan. It wouldn’t save him
from some of the possible consequences, but it would weaken us enough to ensure that the
Auditors would destroy us. That would be…unfortunate.”

“Indeed,” Shipmaster Salkan agreed dryly. They would all face a serious drop in their status
if the Auditors saw the real facts and figures, at the least; the Tradermaster himself would
certainly be disgraced beyond recompense. “You feel that the Malick Karn require
reinforcements?”

“I would prefer to have them on hand, if they are needed,” Tradermaster Maxtin said. “Do
you feel that it is a bad idea?”

“There have been some mutinies among the transported soldiers, particularly among their
‘volunteer’ units,” Shipmaster Salkan said. “Their normal means of discipline seem to be
meaningless when they’re so far from home; their commanding officers had to ask us to use
gas to knock them out after one mutiny. Prince Rohan might find himself with a load of
troublemakers on his hands.”

“That’s hardly our problem,” Tradermaster Maxtin said. “That seems more like a problem
for the Malick Karn.”

“Be careful,” Shipmaster Salkan said. “I think that you should take more care with the plans.
Time may be running out, but there is too much at stake for us to be hasty, isn’t there?”

his image vanished.

Tradermaster Maxtin moved himself around the bridge. There were times when he wished
that he had had the time to undertake the full transformation into a space-dwelling Trader,
rather than being part of both worlds, but he valued the freedom of being able to move around
under a gravity field, rather than remaining stuck on starships or space habitacts. It reminded
him of landing on Karn; Earth wasn’t that different from the Malick Karn homeworld,
existing in the same belt of space that normally gave birth to humanoid life forms.

She was right, of course, but she was also wrong…it took him a second to realise that he had
thought of her as ‘her,’ not the male that Shipmaster Salkan was at the moment, a second
longer to realise that he was entering the first stage of sexual desire. He wasn’t surprised, but
it was worrying; the passion of the invasion, of planning the greatest coup in the history of
the Traders, had infected him. His mind was no longer completely rational.

He tapped a switch, summoning one of the interns to the bridge, and then turned to the main
display. The command was a simple one to send, but harder to carry out; Prince Rohan had
declined the offer of a Trader transport to use as a base. It was perhaps a good idea, after the
humans had shot down a transport, but it was irritating; it would take time, too much time, to
summon Rohan to speak.
“I will not be beaten by my body,” he hissed. It would have been much simpler if he had
taken the space-form. “I will not be beaten and…”

Rohan’s face appeared in front of him. “Tradermaster,” he said. “I greet you with the respect
you deserve.”

The sheet of lust faded as Tradermaster Maxtin held it under iron control. “There is much
less time than we had anticipated,” he said. “You are ordered to commence the attack as
soon as possible. Crush the human armies, win the war, defeat them and make them submit
to you.”

Rohan blinked. “Tradermaster, are you all right?”

“Imprudence,” Tradermaster Maxtin snapped. He fought to get himself under control.
Traders were normally coldly calculating beings; they weren’t used to dealing with their own
lusts. It occurred to him to wonder if he had been poisoned, before dismissing the thought;
that was impossible. “We require the attack to be launched as soon as possible.”

“Your Excultance, we do not yet have the force needed to both defend our base and take the
offensive,” Rohan said. “At current rates of reinforcement, we will need at least a ten-day to
prepare, perhaps longer…”

“The reinforcements will be sped up,” Tradermaster Maxtin assured him. He placed a harder
edge into his voice. “I require only that you obey.”

The intern, a young female, had arrived. He broke the connection and turned to her,
spreading out his body into a mating dance. There was no time left at all.
Chapter Twenty-One: Mutinous Minds

“Damn that weak son of a whore to the seven hells of baka-Karn,” Footsoldier Kolana swore,
invoking the deepest, darkest elements of the Grozh religion. The Grozh had been defeated
and crushed by the Char, during the wars of unification, and their religion existed under very
strict controls. Soldiers in the Volunteer Army were banned from having a religion – unless
they adopted the original religion of Char – and if they were heard invoking it, they would
almost certainly be beaten.

That was a moot point now, of course.

“Keep your voice down,” Footsoldier Othoes said, as softly as he could through the haze of
pain. The soldiers of the regular army had taken an unwholesome pleasure in breaking up the
disruptive Footsoldiers, and then forcing them into submissive positions – female positions –
for a beating. It had been intended to humiliate as well as hurt…and it had; his body and
pride ached together. “You don’t want to be heard, do you?”

Footsoldier Kolana made a droll noise. “They’d kill me if they thrashed me again,” he said.
Footsoldier Othoes had to agree; both of them had welts up and down the length of their
bodies. “That doesn’t really sound like a bad idea…”

Footsoldier Othoes said nothing. The mutiny hadn’t been planned; it had been the result of
placing several thousand men into a cramped location, without good food, without good air,
and expecting them to entertain themselves for a twenty-day without making a nuisance of
themselves. The Traders hadn’t really cared about the people they had been transporting; the
soldiers had been treated worse than slaves, first by the Traders, and then by their own
leaders. That wasn’t a surprise, of course, but the level of suffering had been unprecedented,
even for the Volunteer Army. Something had had to give…

And it had. He remembered the sudden incident – a tiny unnecessary command that had
sparked off a riot – dimly; one moment the soldiers had been milling around, the second there
had been fighting everywhere and the officer had been torn apart by the soldiers, who had
then rampaged as far as the Trader airlocks…and stopped dead. There had been literally
nowhere to go, so they’d barricaded themselves in and waited for the military police to try to
sort them out. They had dozens of scores to settle…except the Traders had somehow started
to pump the air out of the room. Footsoldier Othoes, like thousands of others, had begun to
suffocate as the military police rushed in, capturing, securing and transporting the mutinous
soldiers to the surface of Earth. The smell of a live planet had almost made it all worthwhile.

“Normally, you would all be killed,” General Sir Ryath had informed them all. The
Volunteer Army had howled abuse at him; the normal fate for mutinous soldiers was death by
slow torture, or being burned alive. Char believed firmly in iron discipline. “However, we
need you for the offensive, so those of you who fight well will be given a pardon. You have
my oath on that.”

There had been a ragged cheer, but then they had been whipped anyway, just to remind them
of the power of Char. General Sir Ryath had watched dispassionately – it had occurred to
Footsoldier Othoes that the General might have gotten something out of watching the
punishment, but he was very certain to keep that thought to himself – and then ordered them
to take half an hour to try to recover from the beating. Footsoldier Othoes had realised that
that wouldn’t be anything like long enough…

A whistle blew. He knew what that meant as well as anyone else; it was time for assembling
in front of the Captain, who was in a foul mood. It was hard to blame him when he wasn't
around – the Captain would almost certainly get some of the blame for the mutiny and might
even have been thrashed himself – but when they were in front of him, it was easy to hate
him. He staggered to his feet and followed Footsoldier Kolana towards the human-built
podium, pausing only to note a handful of women watching them with wide eyes, protected
by a unit of the regular army.

“Those lucky sons of whores will have the time of their lives,” Footsoldier Kolana hissed.
“They’ll be having those bitches whenever they want them and we will have to be content
with waiting until they bring in a proper pleasure unit, if they bother to allow us access to the
whores at all.”

Footsoldier Othoes said nothing. The Volunteer Army was granted considerable rights over
the inhabitants, the civilian inhabitants, of the regions they occupied, but they were never
permitted the chance to settle down and mingle until they were too old and frail to pose a
danger, assuming that they survived the experience of being part of the Volunteer Army in
the first place. It wasn’t an easy role; there were people out to kill them all the time…and
they were just the commanders. The enemy only made matters worse.

“Welcome to Earth,” Captain Ginkes said. The Captain sounded as if he had been drinking
heavily; he must have been flogged himself, or perhaps worse. “We have been given the task
of patrolling a human town and ensuring that no humans remain in the town. This is not a
safe job – you may guess why we have been given it, if you like.”

No one spoke. No one would have been foolish enough to speak. “I have been ordered to
warn you to take extreme care with any human device you encounter,” Captain Ginkes
continued. “Remember Iacon, when they fought us from building to building, and make it a
thousand times worse. Use of extreme firepower has been authorised; any humans
encountered are to be captured or killed, understand?”

“Yes, Our Captain,” the soldiers shouted in unison. Footsoldier Othoes privately considered
the entire ritual ridiculous – his mother had told him that Grozh had had nothing like that –
but any soldier who refused to follow it would end up dead, or worse. “We are at your
command.”

“Of course,” Captain Ginkes agreed. “We are to be wary; humans are sneaky and they know
the country better than we do. We will crush them like pests! Move into formation and
move out!”

The soldiers, wincing as they moved, formed into a single column of fifty soldiers, walking
towards a long table where officers checked their ID bracelets and issued them weapons, the
same basic primitive weapons that they had used for their entire period of service. By now,
they all knew it like they knew their own bodies; the regulars were the only units who
received newer weapons on a regular basis. It would be years before the Volunteers got any
new weapons, or even any improved radios or other devices; they were right at the bottom of
the supply chain. It was just one more safeguard against a mass revolt; the entire unit could
barely talk to other units without going through the central control systems.

Captain Ginkes, once again, rode on a small vehicle, although he at least possessed the
decency to lead the way. He shouted a command as his driver started to move out of the
compound into the middle of the human city, the soldiers almost falling out of their formation
as they took in the sight of the ruined city. Destroyed or damaged cities were nothing new, of
course, but the city had been…alien, utterly different to anything he had seen on Karn. The
soldiers marched on, their eyes flickering backwards and forwards as they tried to see
everything; the city reminded Footsoldier Othoes far too much of one from Grozh. There
was a…haphazardness to its design that amused him, a sense that everyone living in the city
had been pulling in different directions; it was certainly different from the standard Char city.

A Char city had the rulers in the centre of the city, and then a walled district for everyone
who was anyone, and a sizable military force to guard against revolts from the dwellers in the
slums, outside the walls. Slave barracks existed some distance from the city – he
remembered fighting to put down a slave revolt at one time – but the humans didn’t seem to
have any facilities for slaves or even for internal revolt at all. Parts of the city had clearly
been badly damaged by the fighting, but there was an improvised air to the damage, as if the
fighters hadn’t expected to fight there and had had to act quickly.

It was then that he saw his first humans. Some members of the unit laughed as they took in
the pale, pallid forms, some of them taller than an average Malick Karn, some of them
smaller and fatter. They were naked, some of them with great bulges on their chests; he
wondered if they were the males or the females. They had been promised human language
lessons, but he would believe that when he saw it; the Volunteers were right at the bottom of
that chain as well. The humans were clearing rubble, bowing to the soldiers as they passed;
all in all, it was a typical city conquered by Char. Had Grozh looked like that too?

The outskirts of the city thronged with activity; he saw laser battle units and thousands of
regular army soldiers walking around, preparing an offensive. They had to move out of the
way as a line of tanks, newly landed by the accursed Traders, passed them, heading south.
The regulars noticed their condition and jeered at them; the regulars were hardly treated like
slaves all the time. They might have harsh discipline, but they were treated with much more
respect…and better conditions. The Volunteers got what was left.

“Bastards,” Footsoldier Kolana hissed.

The march took over two hours, but the soldiers were used to such marches; only the regulars
got to ride in trucks when there was an offensive in the works. The landscape of Earth
seemed much like that of Karn itself, with vegetation, lakes and even birds and wild animals.
The gravity seemed to be identical, as far as he could tell, and the only real difference was
that the air was cooler. That might just have been the weather, he reasoned, or perhaps they
were just in a cool part of the planet. They had been told nothing about the remainder of
Earth; all they knew was their orders. They didn’t even have maps of their location.

“Halt,” Captain Ginkes bellowed, as they reached a roadblock. A human town stretched out
ahead of them, strange, alien, almost undamaged by the war. It was so much like what he had
dreamed Grozh to be that he almost cried. “Await orders, stand at…ease!”
He’d once kept them at attention for over an hour, but this was war, and clearly even an
incompetent who had only reached his position because of family connections – it said much
about his level of incompetence that the post he held was the highest his family could get him
– could recognise the fact that they were in a war zone and there was no time for games. The
Captain was talking rapidly with another regular officer, standing near the roadblock; he
wondered why there was a delay. Were they expected to wait for something to happen?

Captain Ginkes climbed onto his vehicle and held up a microphone. “Men,” he bellowed.
“There is a small group of enemy soldiers in that town and we are going to take them out!”

He barked orders while the soldiers formed themselves into assaulting formation. Footsoldier
Othoes followed the orders as best as he could, wondering all the while why they didn’t just
bring up the tanks and blast the humans out of the buildings. It was standard procedure, after
all, and it wasn't as if the town was actually important, was it? The only reason he could
think of was that they high command wanted to bloody the unit before they went into a real
fight…

Captain Ginkes blew a whistle and the soldiers began their advance, moving carefully into
the town and spreading out to avoid enemy fire, of which there was none. The humans were
holding their fire, rather than aiming at exposed targets; he reached the side of a small human
dwelling without being fired at, or even seeing a human. Apart from the Malick Karn, the
town seemed almost completely empty…he fixed a charge onto a human door and triggered
it, blowing the door open. Three soldiers leapt into the human dwelling…and found nothing.
They had damaged the building, but there was no sign of any resistance, or even of cowering
females, waiting to be raped. Rape was the only real reward the Volunteers had, something
encouraged by their commanding officers to make sure that there was no chance they could
make friends with the people they were trying to control. The entire building was deserted.

“Search the place,” he muttered. The team spread through the house, noticing the strange,
almost eerie, feeling that they could feel, a sense that something wasn't quite right. It was
rich, the house; there was the sense that the owners of the house had been wealthy beyond
even his dreams. They had had a personal computer – three of them, something that few
Malick Karn could dream of owning – and they had had so many strange items of wealth.
The owners hadn’t been able to take much from their house; the items they had left behind
might have been nothing to them, but they were important to the soldiers, who had almost no
reward at all. Carefully, he picked up a strange item and examined it; it looked like a radio,
but with strange buttons marked in the human language placed on it.

Something moved behind him and he spun around, lifting his weapon, only to see a small
animal slinking away. It emitted an arf noise and fled the house, disturbing some of the
soldiers outside, who almost fired at the creature as it fled. Footsoldier Othoes was almost
disappointed to see it go; it had been the first creature he had met on Earth and he would have
liked to have played with it…

There was an explosion outside, followed rapidly by the sound of heavy firing and screams,
torn from a Malick Karn throat. He snatched up his weapon, pocketed the strange device and
a handful of small human artworks, and fled outside, throwing himself to the ground as he
emerged from the house, followed rapidly by his comrades. A human house was burning, it
had gone up so rapidly that he found it impossible to believe…and there was shooting
coming from a second house. The house was set back into a small wood; the enemy would
have plenty of cover to fire at them. He saw a flare of light and rolled away from the house
he had searched before something struck it and caused an explosion, destroying it as if it was
made of kindling.

A sergeant was bellowing orders, struggling to be heard over the noise; he unhooked his
grenades on the order and prepared to throw them towards the occupied house. The other
soldiers were moving closer, shielded by the covering fire of their comrades; he threw his
grenade with as much force as he could muster, hoping that one of the soldiers would hit
something important. The grenade went off near the human house, others exploding all
around it, and then someone fired an antitank missile at the door. It exploded in a billowing
wave of fire and soldiers ran forward, trying to burst into the house before it exploded. The
house refused to explode; he blinked, puzzled, before realising that the humans had to have
rigged some of the houses to blow…

“Move,” the sergeant bellowed. He ran forwards, half-expecting to be shot down at any
second, and saw a human running into the woods. He fired a long burst at the human,
watching as he - or perhaps she – was torn apart by the blasts. A second human, older by the
looks of him, was fighting desperately with a long strange weapon; a soldier finally put a shot
through his head and sent him falling to the ground, dead. Human blood was red, Footsoldier
Othoes realised; they had red blood. The thought made him sick. “Get that human…”

A human had appeared, far too close to him; he leapt and pinned the human to the ground.
She had the bulges on her front, which he thought made her a female; she struggled almost as
violently as a male as she tried to reach the weapon she had dropped when he had jumped
her. Even Grozh had hesitated at the thought of placing weapons in the hands of women,
although they had done so in the end, too late to save them from conquest; how like old
Grozh were the humans?

He stared at her as two other soldiers dragged her to her feet and then forced her to her knees.
She was bleeding badly, a strange look in her eyes, as if she didn’t quite believe what was
happening to her. Footsoldier Othoes didn’t understand; she had been firing at them, what
did she expect to happen? What was she, really?

Captain Ginkes had appeared behind him. The human said something utterly
incomprehensible to him; he looked as baffled as Footsoldier Othoes himself felt. They had
no one who spoke the human tongue, at least, not yet; he made a prevate resolution to learn it
as quickly as possible. He already spoke nine Malick Karn languages, so it should be easier
for him, but…

“You are guilty of carrying a weapon and using it against your betters,” Captain Ginkes said,
addressing the human. She said nothing, only blinked at him, strange clear liquid running
down her face. At that moment, Footsoldier Othoes no longer considered humans to be prey.
In a terrible second, he understood what was about to happen. “The sentence is death.”

Captain Ginkes drew his pistol and fired once.

The girl tumbled forwards, dead.
Chapter Twenty-Two: What The Hell Are We Fighting?

Congressman Daniel Waters did not normally have to think of himself as a big man. Tall and
bulky, with short white hair and a powerful body, he had never needed to indulge in infantile
displays of temper to get his way, be it in women or politics. As one of the elected
congressmen from New York, he had been a staunch Republican for as long as anyone could
remember, a firm proponent of American involvement overseas and a reformed political
system at home.

He was absolutely terrified.

Without comment, the President poured him a small glass of Bourbon and allowed the
Congressman to drink it, hoping that it would calm his nerves. Congressman Waters had
passed though the lines yesterday, only to be picked up by a patrol and transported rapidly to
explain himself to the commanding general in Fredericksburg. As soon as the General hard
heard what the Congressman had to say, he had arranged transport for him to the National
Command Post; the President had to hear what Waters had to say for himself.

“They came and took me out of the ruins of the Senate,” Waters said. Far too many Senators
and Congressmen had been in the city when the aliens landed; only a few of them had
escaped. That might have made the aliens very popular in some parts of America, but it
hadn’t done anything for democracy; the handful of emergency elections had put rapid alien-
haters into power. “They went through the rubble, dug out the bomb shelter, and dug me up.
Once they found out who I was, they isolated me and kept me from any contact with anyone
else.”

Waters had been lucky, the President knew; almost all of the unimportant captives had been
put to work for the aliens. They seemed to know better than to let soldiers loose onto the
streets, even under guard, but Waters, the Congressman, someone who might have hoped to
be President one day, had been treated almost decently. Try as he might, the President could
not convince himself that it was a coincidence.

“I see,” he said, non-committally. Waters was a Republican, which made him an enemy by
default, but there had been no hint of personal malice in his actions. He had generally acted
to safeguard America, insisting to bigger appropriations for the military and newer and more
powerful aircraft…none of which would be helpful unless someone managed to figure out a
way to generate force shields like the aliens used themselves. “What happened then?”

He frowned. It had been nearly three weeks since the aliens had landed and Waters had been
the first person to be in alien captivity and escape…if he had escaped. Most of the people
who had fled the region had only seen the aliens from a distance, if at all. The Ambassadors
had been allowed to leave, returning to their own countries; had Waters been allowed to leave
as well?

“They feed me from time to time, but refused to answer any questions until the day I was
brought before one of the aliens and forced to kneel,” Waters continued. The President heard
the shame in his voice and felt a moment of sympathy. Not a big one, but one that reminded
him that they were all humans together. “He called himself Prince, the Prince of the Char
and the Commander of the Invasion Force. He told me that they had won, that they had
thrashed every American army they had come across, and that half of the world had agreed to
join them. He wanted me to tell you, directly, that you are being called upon to submit to
them.”

The President leaned forwards. “Under what terms?”

Waters coughed bitterly. “They said that they were prepared to accept a puppet American
government under your control,” he said. “You would end up one of their nobles, as would I
and the other leaders of America; some of our soldiers would enter service with the aliens and
fight for them across the world. The people…the people would be subjected to alien control;
damn it, we didn’t fight the Civil War for this!”

The President had a sudden stark vision of what the alien-controlled world would look like.
It would be hell. “I assume that there is an ‘or else’ attached to this,” he said. Waters nodded
bitterly. “What is it?”

Waters looked as if he would rather have eaten a rattlesnake. “If we don’t submit,” he said,
“they will crush us and bring in occupation forces from other countries to assist them in
crushing America. America will crease to exist, replaced by a series of smaller states as the
aliens reward their allies, and we will all die. You can’t agree to that.”

“I see,” the President said. He stood up. “Have another drink, then go see a doctor and get
yourself checked out properly.”

General Mathews was waiting outside. “You heard him,” the President said. Mathews had
used a one-way mirror to listen as Waters spoke. “What do you think?”

“I think that we only know what the aliens told him,” Mathews said seriously. “We also
don’t know exactly what passed between the aliens and Waters, although the fact that he was
urging resistance is a good sign. He might have been subverted in some way, or he might
have been bribed, or…hell, Stockholm Syndrome isn’t a myth, Mr President.”

“So Waters might be under alien control,” the President said. “Is there any way to tell for
certain?”

Mathews shook his head. “There are interrogators who will go through every last detail of
his ordeal, like we do for people captured by enemy forces, but…I can’t give you any
certainty,” he said. “We know so little about the enemy, but Doctor Jones and Sergeant Alan
Landers have been going through the material we captured recently and will hopefully have
some information for us at the briefing in an hour.”

The President nodded. They had their first alien body now, along with some samples of the
alien technology; the researchers could work on it to their hearts content, as long as they
found something that was genuinely useful. He needed answers, before the uneasy peace was
shattered and the aliens came boiling out, north or south, heading for another city.

“On a different note, the draft is going well,” General Mathews said. “Hopefully, we should
have everyone in uniform before the aliens attack and that should give them some protection.
As to how well it will work…”
The President nodded. He had taken the precaution of publicly drafting everyone who might
come into contact with the aliens, something that was technically legal; the aliens didn’t seem
to kill surrendered or captured soldiers, but just to imprison them. It might provide some
protection for the militia when the aliens finally launched their attack; many of those who
were too old to fight had been ordered to evacuate from their homes before the aliens got
them.

A thought struck him. “Did the aliens tell Waters how he was to get back in touch with
them?”

“According to the report from the front, the aliens gave him a radio transmitter, which is
currently waiting in Richmond,” General Mathews said. “We didn’t dare take it anywhere
actually important; if the aliens fire at its location, they’ll hit a deserted warehouse.”

“Good,” the President said. “So, all we have to do now is wait?”

                                              ***
“Mr President, this is Doctor Virginia Jones and Sergeant Alan Landers,” General Mathews
said. Doctor Jones was a slight brown-skinned woman with dark hair and an air of general
nervousness. Landers was a short fireplug of a man with a shaved head and a military
uniform. “They have been taking the lead on examining the alien items that have fallen into
our possession.”

The President nodded. “Doctor Jones, why don’t you begin?”

“Thank you, Mr President,” Virginia said. Despite her name, there was a faint Indian accent
to her voice; she spoke softly, but with increasing confidence. “As you know, one fairly
intact alien body was recovered; cause of death was determined to be a bullet through the
head, although we cannot rule out shock caused by other impacts as having had some effect
on the body. Under instructions from the General, I treated the entire procedure as a
biohazard risk and ran a series of complicated tests before opening the body itself…”

The President held up a hand. “English, please,” he said. “I don’t have a medical
background.”

Virginia smiled and the ice was broken. “The aliens are remarkably like us in many ways,”
she said. “We don’t have any other aliens to compare them to, but they are very definitely
humanoid, right down to their general naked appearance. Their skin and blood colour comes
from a chemical that their bodies seem to generate themselves; until we get a live one, it will
be difficult to say exactly how this process happens. Slide.”

A picture of a naked alien, wounded, appeared in front of them. “This is the alien we
captured, before dissection began,” she said. “Note that there are some odd patterns, to
human eyes, in its legs and arms; the joints are designed differently to human joints. It’s
difficult to say for sure, but I would say that this alien was of roughly equal strength to a
grown human and in good health when he was killed – death of course being very unhealthy.
Slide.”

A second image, zooming in on the alien face. “The first priority was to confirm that there
was no biohazard,” she continued. “I took samples of the alien blood and attempted to use it
to cultivate bacteria that would be actively harmful to a human and at the same time looked
for alien bacteria that would be dangerous to a human and placed it in a sample of human
blood. After several different tests, I feel that there is no real biohazard from the aliens; our
diseases won’t affect them, nor will the reverse happen.

“The good news is that we won’t have to worry about an alien epidemic to add to our other
woes,” she said. The President smiled in pure relief. “The bad news is that any War of the
Worlds scenarios we might have been hoping for are unlikely. The aliens probably have
diseases of their own, but I suspect that they will have them under the same sort of control
that we do; they are not all about to catch colds and die.”

Major Monahan raised a hand. “Could we or they make a bioweapon that could be used
against them?”

Virginia hesitated. “They’re very different from us,” she said. “It would be possible – in
theory – but it would be impossible to predict success, or failure. They do have to breath, so
gas would be effective against them, but we won’t know the actual results until we actually
have a chance to experiment. Moving on…

“There are some odd points in the alien body itself,” she continued. “The aliens evidently
suffer from tooth decay, like we do, and there are some signs of dental work on the alien
teeth. The technique is crude, unsophisticated; frankly, any American dentist who did work
like that would be drummed out of the service and would probably face an entire series of
lawsuits. There’s no sign that this was a hasty repair; if that represents their standard medical
skill, I’m surprised that they’re still not using leeches. I looked for other evidence of medical
intervention and found nothing, including no attempt to heal what might have been a growing
ache in his left arm. The entire joint was slowly coming undone, but our medical science
could heal it.

“Internally, the aliens have a skeleton only slightly different to ours, with a couple of major
differences,” she said. “First” – she altered the slide again – “the aliens have much more
bones around the groin area than we do, so kicking them in the nuts is likely to be a little less
effective than it is for us.” There were some chuckles. “Second, they seem to have two
spines, not one, with plenty of muscle around the neck. Hitting them there might well prove
fatal; the outfit that Fred here had was designed to provide additional protection to that area.

“Sexually, I believe that this alien is a male,” she concluded. “There is no sign of a womb or
anything, while they clearly have an extendable penis. Slide.” The President kept his face
blank as the image changed to the alien unmentionables. “The aliens appear to have a only
one organ for extruding waste, here, roughly where a female vagina would be on a human
body. The alien penis is here, above the position of the human penis, and I believe that when
extended, it would literally shoot away from the body at a right angle. There’s no way to be
sure without an alien female for comparison, but rear entry might well be the only sexual
position that the aliens can use. That has interesting possibilities for their development, but
again…there’s no way to know, without a live alien. It is suggested that one be obtained.”

“Thank you very much,” General Mathews muttered, as Virginia sat down. “I would never
have thought of that. Sergeant?”
Sergeant Alan Landers extruded an air of brisk competence. “Mr President,” he said, by way
of greeting. “I have been examining the alien weapons and devices captured during the
recent skirmish.” He tapped a remote control and an image of an alien weapon appeared on
the display. “This, sir, is an AK-47.”

There was uproar. “It looks nothing like an AK-47,” General Mathews snapped. The
President took his word for it. “Is that your idea of a joke?”

“No,” Landers said seriously. “This weapon was designed with the same principles as the
AK-47 in mind. We took it to pieces easily and examined it; it might well have been
designed for alien hands, but the design was easy to fathom. It was built according to the
‘total idiot’ design; no one with more than an hour’s practice could use the weapon to fight in
a battle. Everything about it is easy, from reloading to stripping it down for cleaning. This
weapon, sir, was built…well, the way it’s made, I would have said that it came from one of
the Taliban factories before we cleared them out.”

He altered the slide again. “I can’t explain it, but there are definite signs that the weapon was
built somewhere primitive,” he said. “Tolerances aren’t that important with this weapon –
certainly not compared to something like a Stinger missiles – which is lucky; whoever built
this weapon didn’t have access to any of the design tools we take for granted. The other two
weapons show similar signs; I confess that it makes no sense to me at all.

“The same holds true for most of the other items that were recovered,” he continued. “The
radio they carried shows signs of being produced in a more advanced factory, but it’s the only
exception; everything else is pretty crude. The body armour, by contrast, is actually tougher
than ours, although if it is shattered, it becomes utterly lethal to the wearer as shards dig into
their skin. This…seems to be a theme among the aliens; a handful of high tech items that are
equal to or even better than ours, and plenty of weapons that are primitive, at least in design.”

He paused. “Incidentally, we recovered some alien food, which is fairly compatible with
ours, and a medical kit,” he concluded. “I have the feeling that they don’t really worry that
much about casualties in combat; there is a surprising absence of anything that might provide
more than very basic medical care. I know we hit a patrol, rather than one of their bases,
but…it’s strange.”

General Mathews lifted an eyebrow. “In what way?”

“It’s as if the aliens have two minds,” Landers said. “One that thinks in terms of crude
devices built for idiots, like the Russians did, and one that possess high tech and uses it to
defeat us, like we do ourselves when we invaded Iraq. Some of their advanced weapons
could wreck havoc if they were used in open combat, their position in space alone should
give them the chance to wipe our satellites and the space shuttle out of space, but…I bet if we
launched a second space shuttle, they wouldn’t do anything to interfere with it at all, unless it
came within range of one of the ground-based lasers near Washington.”

He sat down. The President took command of the meeting. “Jaclyn?”

“I have been in communication with Ambassador Rollins, at the UN,” Jaclyn said shortly.
The Secretary of State looked tired. “I don’t think that we can look for any support from
overseas, although almost everyone is mobilising their forces and preparing for war. Canada
has mobilised its army…”

Major Monahan coughed. “What, all twelve of them?”

“But I don’t think that there will be any direct military support,” Jaclyn continued, ignoring
the interruption. “Everyone is panicking over the alien ultitimation to them, and there are
protest groups already that think that we started this. We might be able to launch a
propaganda war of our own, but…logistically, there is very little that they can do to help,
even with the best will in the world.”

The President scowled. “Is there any chance of any nation joining the aliens?”

“It’s possible,” Jaclyn admitted. “There are reports that Iran is talking to the aliens in Saudi,
but that would be politically difficult for Tehran, after all. The aliens now hold the Muslim
Holy Places and Muslim opinion is that they have to be recovered at all costs. If the aliens
strike a bargain with Iran, they might get the Iranians to agree to work with them…while
North Korea is reportedly considering discussing the matter with the aliens. Russia, China,
and Europe are keeping their own thoughts private; they want to see who comes out ahead
when the aliens move out before committing themselves to one side or the other.”

She sighed. “Everything depends on us defeating them when they attack us,” she said.
“Everything.”
Chapter Twenty-Three: Cry Havoc, Take One

“My Lord Prince, the Traders are demanding that we attack at once?”

Prince Rohan looked along the length of the alien table and nodded once. The tradition of
taking over alien symbols of power had a long-standing history on Karn, but it had never
been intended to apply to an alien race. Until the Traders had arrived, the Malick Karn had
believed themselves alone in the universe; few indeed had ever considered the possibility that
there were aliens out there among the stars. The table wasn’t built for a Malick Karn and he
made a private note to have the human buildings knocked down and replaced with a proper
palace, once the war was over.

“They have insisted that we take the offensive and smash the remainder of the human forces,”
he said. He knew that that was a tall order, something that would be difficult, if not
impossible, but the Traders had insisted and they'd even forced forward more in the way of
reinforcements for the offensive. “We do not have time to debate the decision.”

General Sir Carha looked nervous. The logistics officer had done wonders in learning how to
live off the land, but not all of the human food was suitable for their people; several soldiers
had drunk a human liquid and become very ill. Whatever humans saw in the drink they
called alcohol, it made the Malick Karn very unwell, although some human foods were tasty.
The Savants had worried that Earth would poison them, but instead they had been able to eat
most of what they had found. The problem was that there wasn't that much in the city,
certainly not enough to feed a million-man army.

“Your Highness, we have grave shortages of both ammunition and spare parts,” he said. He
had been panicking after the first Battle of Washington; a human offensive would have
severely embarrassed the Malick Karn, if not defeated them altogether. “The only items that
we can make here at the moment are bullets, using captured human metals to produce them;
what happens if we run out of weapons?”

“There is a further problem,” General Sir Ryath said. He nodded towards the map they had
pinned on the wall, a map that the humans themselves had created, far better than anything
the Malick Karn had had, until the Traders had arrived. Now, each and every one of their
units reported to a central computer, but the system was far from perfect. “We have only
limited knowledge of the enemy positions.”

“The Traders have supplied the information,” Prince Rohan pointed out. “We have images of
what they see from high above…”

“None of which have been that useful,” General Sir Ryath reminded him. “The Traders may
know how to cross the stars, but they know little about the problems of infantry warfare on
the ground. If we take the offensive, we may well run into traps, or worse, because the
humans will have time to deploy their own reserves to face us. We cannot take the offensive
in all directions…and whichever flank we stand on the defensive on runs the risk of being
attacked by the humans. They have space to deploy; we do not.”

He picked up one of the Trader devices and used it to make his point. “This is the human city
of Richmond and they expect us to take it,” he said. “We first have to defeat the human
forces in the field and capture or seal off their city of Fredericksburg, to say nothing of the
smaller towns and villages in the area, not something that will be easy to do. We know
already that there are some humans who are digging in and fighting us wherever they find us;
now, we know that they are very good at hiding traps for our people. Taking a city is not
easy, Your Highness.”

“I am aware of that,” Prince Rohan snapped. He appreciated their frankness, but there was
very little choice; his attempts to understand humans better were proceeding slower than he
would have liked. The Trader demand for action meant that there was no longer any time to
waste. “What are you trying to say?”

“I am telling you that it will not be easy,” General Sir Ryath said. “Our logistics base may be
very close to us, but the humans will have time to manoeuvre their own logistics to match our
positions. The main body of the human force may succeed in escaping us, even if we win the
battle, and if we get sucked into a city fight, it may bleed us red.”

“Humans bleed red,” Rohan reminded him dryly. He knew all of the objections, of course,
and others; they hadn’t been able to completely sweep out the remains of human partisans
operating in the occupied zone. Surprise was almost certainly impossible, at least on the
tactical level. When they opened fire, they were bound to alert the humans…and every
human soldier they had captured seemed to have more advanced radio than any of his people
carried. It might be possible to knock out the human command and control centre with
Trader-supplied cruise missiles, but…the humans would almost certainly manage to get their
own command network re-established before confusion set in. “The problem is that we don’t
have a choice.”

He met their eyes, hoping that they would understand. Garlinda-Ya would understand at
once, but there was no way that he could place her in command of the soldiers; they would
refuse to obey the orders of a woman, no matter how smart she was. Women went to pieces
in combat zones, they would say; women couldn’t fight at all. It was nonsense, as some of
the nations on Karn had proven, but there was no escaping the problem. And yet…how could
he tell them that his long-term plans included escaping the domination of the Traders?

“I understand that,” General Sir Bothe said. The commander of the army – Rohan’s second,
in other words – nodded in grim understanding. Rohan wondered if he really understood the
truth, or if he was merely trying to help Rohan as best as he could. He human President, he
was sure, had it easy. “Sir, the army stands ready to carry out the attack.”

Rohan looked at the human map. “Good,” he said. He had to force himself to think in terms
of human time units; they had to get used to the Earth. The project to hammer the human
language into the heads of the soldiers wasn't going well; the Volunteers were learning more
of it than he was happy with. “We will attack at dawn tomorrow.”

He paused. “And we will prevent the humans from responding quickly,” he said. It meant a
change in plan, but that was acceptable. The humans would be unlikely to respond well to it,
but they would have problems in hitting his forces back at once, unless something went really
wrong. If that happened, it was unlikely that it would matter any longer. “General, I want
you to clear the use of a…special weapon.”

General Sir Bothe looked up at him. “Your Highness, are you certain…?”
“There is no other choice,” Rohan said, and hoped that he was right. The Traders had a lot to
answer for. “See to it at once.”

                                             ***
All along the line, they waited.

Soldiers, Marines, National Guardsmen, even Militia, they all waited for the aliens to attack.
They all knew what they were fighting for and they burned for revenge, revenge on the aliens
who had driven them out of their own capital city and slaughtered thousands of innocents,
revenge on the aliens who had enslaved what seemed like the entire surviving population of
Washington. They knew that it was only a matter of time before the aliens came either north
or south, and most of the soldiers prayed that the aliens would come to the south, through
territory the Marines knew like the back of their hands.

They shared what information they could as they waited, discussing alien weapons and alien
tactics, from the helicopters to the heavier body armour that the aliens wore, capable of
protecting them from small hand-held weapons. The sergeants and commanding officers
moved from unit to unit, reminding them that they had to aim for the alien heads, while being
careful not to let themselves be outflanked. Everyone expected an alien blitzkrieg coming
their way…and they were determined to destroy it.

Tanks, artillery and ground-attack aircraft, their pilots warned to remain low whatever
happened, had been moved into position to support the infantry. Everyone waited, and
waited, knowing that it was only a matter of time before the aliens attacked. Some men spent
the time relaxing as best as they can, others wondered what was happening across the world,
to friends and comrades who had been stationed in Iraq before the aliens had launched their
attack. There were rumours that the aliens were preparing to launch an offensive into Iraq;
many of them wondered, now, what price Iraq when there was the remainder of America at
stake? They waited…

And waited…

                                               ***
The trees of the Prince William National Park rose up around Sergeant Pascal Schmidt as he
positioned himself carefully to observe the interstate from a safe distance. The Marines were
known for using the nearby region for their training and knew the area like the backs of their
hands; Schmidt had been a natural for being sent into the national park to observe the aliens
from a safe distance. Most of the time, he had seen only a handful of patrols, hunting for
infiltrators, but never coming anywhere near his position. There had been a small group of
people trying to hide in the National Park, but the Marines had warned them to leave; it
wouldn’t be long before the aliens started to try to evict the humans from the region.

He glanced down at his terminal as it accessed, very briefly, a secure transmitter a few
kilometres away, downloading any messages that had been saved for him. The National Park
was a real difference to Iraq; living off the land was easy, compared to the desert. The Park’s
guardians would have been horrified to discover that he was eating some of the wildlife, but
in the end, they didn’t dare attempt to resupply him and call attention to his location.
Schmidt was fairly sure that he wasn't the only observer in the region, but he knew nothing
about the others or where they might be hiding; security considerations trumped everything
else, even the comfort of knowing that he was not alone.
The terminal vibrated once and disconnected; he picked it up and checked the messages. His
own reports had been boring and to the point; all he had seen had been a handful of patrols,
nothing more. He heard a noise in the sky and moved, rapidly, under cover as an alien
helicopter flew overhead, high enough to worry him, but it didn’t attempt to engage him. He
knew that the aliens were keeping their craft back from the ground-based antiaircraft systems
that the Americans had set up, but they hadn’t hesitated to use them when there was a real
patrol under attack. As far as he knew, there was nothing to summon the helicopter; he had
certainly heard no firing…

He heard it then, the dull rumble of alien vehicles as they appeared along the interstate,
heading south. There were at least two-dozen units, mostly their Type A tanks, tanks
configured for use in urban environments. The United States Army had been screaming for
them for years, but politically they had proven difficult to produce; the way the aliens treated
civilians, he wondered if they had any civilian lobby back home trying to hamper them.
Other alien units were marching south behind them, including one strange truck that was
carrying a shiny globe on its back.

He stared. “What the hell is that?”

There was no answer, of course; the aliens didn’t even know that he was here. More and
more aliens were appearing, heading south…and he realised with a sudden flash of shock that
the long-dreaded alien attack was about to begin. He had taken the precaution of scattering a
handful of sensors around the region; he accessed the wires he had emplaced to channel
information without a betraying electromagnetic signature for alien weapons to home in on.
They were already gathering information; he tapped a code into the system and ordered his
laser transmitter to begin flashing the information to an orbiting satellite, high overhead. He
picked up his weapon and moved; in theory, no one could detect a laser beam, but it would be
a terrible time to be wrong.

Time passed…and more and more aliens moved past, some of them seeming to be almost
reluctant to be there. He peered at them, puzzled; were there gaps in the alien war machine?
Were there flaws that could be exploited? As far as he knew, there had been no success in
understanding the alien language, but if they could take prisoners, if they could learn how to
talk to them…

In the distance, he heard the sound of guns. The fighting had begun.

He kept himself low, wondering if there would be an opportunity to do some good before the
aliens either won or were driven back. Their logistics had to be weak, just because they were
dependent on what they were bringing in from their starships, but no one knew just how
much they could bring in within their ships. A single man could do a lot of damage, if he was
given the chance.

The sound of fighting was growing louder. Silently, he wished his people luck.

They were going to need it.

                                              ***
“General, we have at least three major enemy attack forces appearing to the north,” the
technician informed General Alfred Harrison, as he came into the makeshift command base
in Fredericksburg. Most of the city had been emptied; the remainder of the city was packed
with soldiers, militia, and support troops. If the aliens wanted to take Fredericksburg, the
Mayor had been determined to give them one hell of a fight. The veteran of the Iraq War had
proven to be very, very determined to make the aliens pay. Fredericksburg would now be
unsafe for anyone who didn’t know where all the traps, and bombs, and firing positions were;
even in the aliens brought up heavy weapons, they would still have real difficulties taking the
city. “They’re launching their attack now.”

“It looks that way,” General Harrison agreed dryly. The satellite network had been battered
by the alien lasers, but enough remained for him to see the main alien threat, heading down
the interstate and around the region, heading for his defence lines. Alien infantry had spread
out, covering the alien flanks, and alien drones were skimming out, hunting for human
positions. “Send the alert to every unit, order the tankers to prepare for movement orders
and…”

An alarm sounded. “I have missile launches, multiple missile launches, coming from
Washington,” the technician said. His voice was alarmed; Harrison, who had served himself
in Iraq, wasn’t as worried as the junior officer. The United States Battlespace Control
System would allow him to keep careful control over his own junior commanders, while
permitting them some initiative of their own. “They’re firing on us; Air Defence
commanders are requesting permission to engage.”

“Granted,” Harrison said. Reports of skirmishes between patrols had been popping up over
the last week; now, there were dozens of additional encounters as alien infantry encountered
human positions, both sides trying hard to bleed the other. Alien shellfire was splattering
down in Stafford, using long-range guns to bombard human defences, hoping to knock down
some of the defences before they engaged the alien attack. Patriot missile batteries had been
set up around the region, some of them dating back from before the invasion, emplaced since
September 11th; they were the only hope of stopping the alien missiles before they hit
something vital.

“I have contact reports from infantry, the aliens are engaging them with tanks and artillery,”
the technician said. General Harrison nodded; the aliens would be attempting to engage the
infantry to punch through the lines before he could bring up his own armoured units.
“Several of the missiles have changed course and have attacked several armoured units with
smaller missiles before being destroyed.”

“Interesting,” General Harrison said. The concept of using a cruise missile to carry bomblets
to be deployed before the main warhead hit something wasn’t new, but the system had still
been in development before the aliens had landed. It was yet another puzzle from the aliens,
something that the aliens had that didn’t match up with the remainder of their weapons. It
made no sense to him, as if the modern USAF had decided to go into battle with flintlocks
and swords. “Where are their other targets?”

“Bridges, mainly, places that are easy to hit,” the technician said. He paused. There was a
nervous tone in his voice again, he sounded worried. “General, one of the missiles is coming
towards Fredericksburg itself.”
“Sound the warning,” General Harrison ordered. Sirens began to howl. He kept his voice
calm; he had been fired upon by the current enemy before, although the Iraqis had never been
able to hit anything important with their cruise missiles. “Inform the mayor that the city is
under attack and may well end up being hit by the enemy.”

“Yes, sir,” the technician said. “Impact in twenty seconds; Patriot missiles attempting to
engage the bastard…enemy lasers have sliced two aircraft out of the air. The 13th Bomb
Squadron, the Grim Reapers, are launching cruise missiles towards the alien positions from
out of their laser range, enemy forces are trying to respond. Impact in five seconds, air;
Patriots are unable to engage.”

General Harrison swung around. “What?”

The cruise missile detonated high above the city, bathing Fredericksburg in nuclear fire.
Chapter Twenty-Four: Cry Havoc, Take Two

“NUDET,” a technician shouted, as alarms howled through the vast facility. “We have a
NUDET!”

The President came to his feet and paced over to the big display. He hadn’t intended - or
planned – to exercise direct coordination of the battle himself; that was far better left to the
man on the spot, General Harrison. The fighting had been spreading rapidly…and then the
deadly symbol of a nuclear detonation had appeared on the display, revealing that the aliens
did indeed possess nuclear weapons. The deadly symbol seemed to be mocking him as it
winked on the display; he almost fainted with the sheer impact of the blast.

General Mathews was more self-controlled. “Where?”

“Fredericksburg, Virginia,” the technician said. “Sir, it reads out as being roughly forty
kilotons; the city’s a wreck, sir!”

“Have emergency staff do what they can,” General Mathews snapped. The display was
updating itself frantically, where units were dropping out of communication, and then re-
establishing their links as they recovered from the EMP. Most of the equipment was shielded
from the EMP – that had been a design requirement for years – but dozens of components
had been exposed to the pulse. “Who has command now?”

“Major General Langford seems to be the senior officer,” the technician said. “He’s a
Marine, sir; he’s in command of the 1st Marine Division.”

“Order him to take command of the defence,” General Mathews ordered. “Mr President, we
cannot let this go unpunished.”

The President had been having the same thought. “General, we cannot use nuclear weapons
on Washington,” he said. “We cannot blow up our own capital city; we need another
option.” His voice weakened. “My God; millions of people just…”

“Most of the population was evacuated,” General Mathews reminded him. There was no
disguising the fact that it had been a major blow, even if General Harrison had somehow
survived, but it wasn't a complete disaster. “Mr President…”

“We will not nuke Washington,” the President said. “Can we hit one of their starships in
orbit?”

“It would require the use of several ICBMs,” General Mathews said. They had spent weeks
preparing the ballistic missiles for deployment against an orbital target. “It could be done,
but they would certainly see the missiles coming and take countermeasures. We could use
low-yield tactical weapons on their bases in Saudi, or even if they punch through us near
Stafford…”

“Draw up a strike plan for the bases in Saudi,” the President said. Politically, retaliation was
a must; it was very much a damned if you do, damned if you don’t, situation. The howls of
outrage about bombing Washington would be unmatched by anything in history. “And try to
knock down that starship in orbit, the one that has to be supplying them with information. If
we can knock that down, they might think twice about the safety of their ships.”

                                              ***
The blaze of light from behind them interrupted the battle for a long chilling moment; the
impact of the blast wave passed over their heads and echoed onwards into alien-held territory.
Sergeant Jeremy Damiani fired a long burst at an alien infantryman who had been trying to
sneak up on their position, and then took the risk of glancing behind him. The sight that met
his eyes terrified him.

He saw it, clearly, in the distance, a massive rising fireball, already shaping itself into the
shape of a mushroom cloud. It was an unhealthy red colour, the colour of pure evil; just for a
second, he fancied that he could see a laughing face in the cloud as it rose in the air. The
terrible sight shocked him silent; even the aliens seemed stunned as the rumble of the blast
shook the ground.

“My God,” Kit said, from his position. The unholy silence only grew longer; just for a
second, Damiani wondered if he was deaf. “That was Fredericksburg!”

Damiani stared at the cloud for a moment longer, then turned to look back at the alien
position, noting that the aliens were trying to bring up one of their own tanks to engage his
forces. The company had dug into the area and intended to slow the aliens as much as
possible before the tanks came up and cleared the enemy out of the area, forcing them
backwards. That had been the plan, at least; slow the enemy, prevent them from making a
breakthrough or force them to pay for it, allowing the tanks to be concentrated and then
driving them back. The plan had just gone up in smoke, along with the command post in the
city…and the city itself.

“Clara,” he breathed. They’d had two dates since he had returned to be feted with honours
for bringing back the first alien body. The first date had been special, in its own way,
although almost anything was special if done with a pretty girl. The second date had
involved a swimming pool and then a hotel room; he smiled every time he thought about it.
But Clara had been on the list of people to evacuate to Fredericksburg and beyond when the
enemy started to attack; had she made it to the city before it had been destroyed?

Kit shouted a warning. Wounded or no, he had refused to be evacuated himself and Damiani
had insisted on keeping him with the company; Kit had proved himself under fire, which was
more than could be said for some of the replacements he had been sent from other National
Guard units. Some of the cherries had the air of peopole who had just been sent through
basic training and expected to be the best of the best, others seemed utterly overwhelmed by
what was happening and they were a dangerous unknown quality. Normally, he would have
insisted on heavy training for the entire company, but there just wasn’t time. The aliens
were…

He ducked as a burst of fire came towards him; one of the cherries lost her head as the alien
burst tore through her body. Damiani cursed and kept low; the alien tank was advancing
slowly, convinced that it could not be hurt as it made its slow way towards their position.
Alien infantry shielded themselves behind their comrade tank, firing at the handful of his
people who exposed themselves; the tank was doing most of the firing. He had heard
complaints that American tanks in Baghdad had claimed all of the kills before the infantry
could get into the game; now, he wondered if the aliens could make similar claims. Cold
hatred curdled through him and he composed himself, determined to ensure that the group of
aliens they faced wouldn’t have the chance to make such a claim.

“Fell,” he subvocalised. The EMP hadn’t knocked down the divisional net, which was lucky;
he had been counting on it for his limited defence and he had suddenly been made aware of
just how dangerous a blunder he had made. A little closer to the blast and the
communications net would have gone down and stayed down. “Deal with that bastard, would
you?”

“Yes, sir,” Fell said. The soldier had been held in reserve, armed not with a rifle or a
machine gun, but with a portable M220 launcher for a BGM-71 TOW antitank missile. It
was incredibly bulky – under other circumstances, it would have been much better fired from
a jeep or a Hummer - but with the aliens around, it was much safer to keep it well hidden
until it was needed. Fell had set up sensors around the region, preparing the targeting
information; he popped up with the missile, locked on, and fired. “Take that!”

The enemy tank didn’t hesitate; one of its machine guns swung around and fired a long blast
towards Fell and the launcher. The missile itself was almost impossible to hit; the tank was
firing at the signature of the launcher, just before the missile struck it and blew it apart.
There was nothing left to explode on the launcher, which was merely torn apart by the fire;
Damiani heard Fell shout in pain as something hit him. Had he been hit by the bullets, or
merely hurt by the flying debris? There was no way to know.

”Mow them down,” he shouted. The alien infantry that had survived the destruction of their
armoured comrade were trying to escape; the humans refused to allow them to run and hide.
One by one, they were wiped out…and green blood splattered all over the ground. “Don’t let
them get away!”

Silence fell, broken only by the rumble of artillery in the distance as both sides slammed
away at each other. He saw the strange lights of alien lasers passing through the smoky sky,
targeting human aircraft and missiles, perhaps even shells as they passed towards the enemy
positions. The cloud over the destroyed city was starting to fade as the wind blew it out to
sea; he could only hope that it wasn’t as radioactive as it had looked. Had the bomb been
clean, or utterly dirty? There was no way to know…

“Shit,” Kit said grimly, as three more enemy tanks appeared, heading directly towards them.
They fired as one, hurling high explosive shells towards their position, blasting part of the
line into chunks of debris and shattered lives. “Sir, I think it’s time to retreat; we have no
more launchers.”

“Fuck that, we just got here,” Damiani snapped. He reached down into one of their storage
points and recovered an entire belt of grenades, designed for antitank work. “You get
everyone else back down the escape route and let me handle this.”

They’d taken the precaution of preparing an escape route if they needed it, an escape down a
storm drain into a gully and back towards the second part of the defence line, which had been
dug in around Stafford itself. Kit shouted orders, sending the others scurrying for cover; the
aliens moved in pursuit, missing Damiani crouching in the shadows. He hoped that they
wouldn’t send in infantry; did they know that the company had no more antitank weapons? If
they didn’t, they would push forward with the tanks first…

A tank appeared and he hurled the belt of grenades, before jumping back and running for his
life. There was a colossal explosion and the tank disintergrated, sending chunks of flaming
wreckage everywhere; the aliens had to have been shocked by the sudden violence. They
were shooting almost at random, bullets and shells flying everywhere; he kept his head down
as he reached the storm drain and pulled himself down it as if the devil himself was after him.
The tunnel was dark and silent, with only a trickle of running water; he silently thanked God
that there was only a little water flowing through the tunnel. If the aliens saw him before it
was too late…

He felt his heart beating as he forced himself towards the glow of light in the distance, the
thin circle of light that became a bigger circle, and then one large enough to allow him to
escape. Kit was there waiting for him, along with two heavy machine gunners; the aliens
didn’t seem to have found the entrance.

Kit looked up at him. “Destroy it, Sarge?”

Damiani nodded. It would be worth waiting for the aliens to send some people into the
tunnel so that they could be crushed under the impact, but there was little time. Kit tapped a
small remote and, moments later, the front of the tunnel was buried by a massive explosion.
Damiani smiled tiredly; if nothing else, the aliens had certainly had a surprise when the
explosives had gone off.

“Sergeant, we have problems,” the communications technician said. Damiani looked up
tiredly; he wanted to do nothing more than collapse for a few moments, but there was no
time. “The main body of the line is collapsing and we have been ordered to retreat to prevent
ourselves from being cut off by the enemy.”

“Understood,” Damiani said. He forced himself to his feet. They didn’t dare be captured, not
after some of the odder reports of what the aliens did with their captives; just for a moment,
he wondered what had happened to the three partisans they had met a lifetime ago. “If
there’s anyone wounded seriously – that includes you, Fell – go ahead. The remainder of us
will form a rearguard.”

The route back towards Stafford was easy to follow, but they had lost track of the battle.
There seemed to be no other humans or aliens in the area at all, apart from the sound of
fighting as aliens punched through the first defence line. He knew that there were human
tanks somewhere in the area, but there was no sign of them; he could only wonder what it
meant. Had anyone managed to take over command…or had the unity of the defence been
shattered by the nuke?

There was no way to know.

                                              ***
“Avenger-three, you have targets at the following locations,” the radio crackled. Even
though the results of the EMP and several alien attempts at jamming them, it came though
clearly. The results of the micropulse of information popped up in front of her. “Good luck
and good hunting.”
Captain Shelia Jackson was starting to understand what it had been like to be an Iraqi pilot
during the Gulf War, or even the Iraq War. Her Harrier jump-jet had been designed for
VTOL flight, allowing it unprecedented flexibility in deployments, but it had also been
designed for low-level attack, something that could be very dangerous against a modern
opponent. There was little choice; the USAF’s massive force of fighter jets and heavy
bombers had been neutralised by the alien lasers, which had hacked all such aircraft out of
the sky with ease. The only defence seemed to be remaining as low as possible, under the
horizon of the alien weapons, and intelligence believed that the lasers weren’t moving
forward with the remainder of the alien units.

She clenched her teeth as she brought up the engines and took the Harrier into the air. It was
that sort of thinking, the thinking that the aliens were just strangely-shaped humans, that had
cost them Fredericksburg. The aliens might not think like humans at all…and, tactically,
destroying the city that held the command post was a master stoke. The aliens would pay, of
course, but for the moment she had to worry about forcing the aliens to give the ground
forces a break. The real danger was that the retreating human forces, only barely aware that
any human aircraft were operating at all, would shoot her down before she could attack the
aliens.

Her terrain-mapping radar kept scanning ahead of her, something that made her nervous,
even if it was necessary. The aliens might well notice a radar sensor, even one operating on
low power, but without it, she might well crash into something before she saw it coming.
The aliens themselves only used helicopters; as far as she knew, she was the only jet in her
section of the sky. The entire squadron had been broken up and distributed around the area,
just to ensure that a lucky shot didn’t take them all out in one blow. She would have traded
the security for some companionship; the hidden field in the woodlands had been lonely. All
she had been able to hear as she suited up had been the rumble of guns.

“Come out, come out, wherever you are,” she muttered, as she flew as low as she dared. A
single missile could blow her out of the sky before she could react; she had been terrified
when they had discussed the mission back at base, before being moved to the improvised
airfields. There was no time for fear now; she flashed over human forces on the retreat,
heading south. She flew north, hunting for aliens; her threat receiver picked up an alien radar
for a long moment, before fading and leaving her alone in the sky again. She flipped the
aircraft into a new course, just in case; the aliens might well have locked on to her without
revealing that they had done so to her eyes. “I have some of the hot metal for you sons of
bitches.”

She saw them then, on one of the roads near the interstate; a group of alien tanks and trucks.
She swooped away from them, calling on all of the Harrier’s ability to manoeuvre, before
turning to race up the road towards them. The aliens seemed to notice her, desperately trying
to bring up some kind of weapon to target her aircraft, but it was too late. She hit the trigger
and a series of cluster bombs fell from her aircraft, crashing down on top of the alien
vehicles. The explosions were all the gratification she could want; she saw them burning and
smiled as she flipped the aircraft around…and almost ran into an alien helicopter that had
appeared out of nowhere. The alien seemed just as surprised to see her.

“Fuck,” she snapped, and triggered her cannon. The shells struck the helicopter, blowing it
apart in a massive gout of fire; she cursed again as she evaded bursts of fire from alien
infantry on the ground. The helicopter had to have been landing aliens there; she puzzled
over it as she hit the throttle and raced away from the alien advance, heading back towards
the landing base. “Control; I hit an alien convoy, details to follow.”

“Understood, Avenger-three,” the controller said. She blinked at the sudden concern in his
voice; no congratulations for her successes, but only concern. What did he have to be
worried about? He wasn't even on an AWACS or another target for the aliens. “Be advised;
you are ordered to head for landing zone seven, not your launching point. The aliens are
advancing on Stafford and a general retreat has been ordered.”

Shelia felt her blood run cold. A general retreat could only mean one thing.

They were losing.
Chapter Twenty-Five: Cry Havoc, Take Three

“General, the enemy forces are breaking through the main defence line and bringing up
armour of their own,” Captain Paterson reported. “Colonel Richie is requesting permission to
engage the enemy with his tanks.”

Major General Langford took a long breath. It had been sheer luck that the 1st Marine
Division, or at least most of it, had been at Camp Pendleton for a short period of rest and
reform before it had been returned to Iraq. Instead, it had been dispatched rapidly through the
Panama Canal, and then to Virginia, where it had been placed in position to block a major
enemy attack. Langford himself had not expected to be exercising supreme command over
the entire battlefield; no one had expected that the aliens would resort to nukes.

Goddamned idiots, Langford thought, as he stared down at the chart of human locations and
suspected enemy locations. The aliens were enhancing their satellite-killing weapons; a
dozen satellites had been rendered non-functional in the last ten minutes as alien lasers
focused energy on them. The weapons seemed to have a limited range, but the satellites
hadn’t been built to serve while under fire; the fog of war was starting to cast its shadow over
the defenders. Worse, the drones, from the tiny Dragon Eye to the larger stealth UAVs, were
being targeted by enemy lasers as well; his ability to see what was happening over the
horizon was being reduced by the moment.

We knew that someone would someday hit us with a nuke and what do we do? We don’t
make any real precautions at all, he thought. The enemy were punching through the main
defence line and bringing up heavier forces to exploit their success, all very basic doctrine,
although they seemed to be inclined to use more infantry manoeuvres than any other army
he’d seen. It might have reflected a basic ‘infantry are expandable’ attitude, or it might have
been something far more sinister; there was no way to know. Either way, the first defence
line was breaking apart and the aliens were running rampant towards Stafford.

“Order everyone on the first evacuation list to be moved out of the city at once,” he said.
Alien lasers would have closed the airport by now – he wasn't about to risk moving in
transports to evacuate people under the threat of having them wiped out of the air by the
aliens – but there were still plenty of lorries and railway cars in the area, although the loss of
Fredericksburg had damaged the command network. He didn’t even have time to worry
about what had happened in the city. The survivors were on their own. “I want the tankers to
move up to hold off the enemy and bleed them.”

He glanced down at his terminal. The chaos was spreading out of control and the line was
breaking. “Order all other units to fall back towards the second defence line,” he continued.
General Harrison had planned a fall-back position south of Frederiskburg, towards
Richmond; if they couldn’t stop the aliens outside Stafford, they would have to fall back that
far before they could mass enough force to really hurt the aliens. “Any news on the F-177
strike?”

“They got blown out of the sky,” the USAF liaison said, through the command network.
“They just got seen or heard or something; two of them were hit with lasers and the others
retreated sharply. I told them that they should have gone in under cover of darkness…”
“Shut up,” Langford snapped. There wasn't time for a post mortem. A month ago, the loss of
two stealth bombers would have been a disaster beyond disasters; now, it would be barely
noticed in the ruins of the burning city, the thousands dead, human and alien alike. He could
hear a MLRS system begin a firing sequence in the distance, trying to bombard the alien
positions as they advanced; it wouldn’t be long before the aliens themselves returned fire
with their own systems. He didn’t get it; the aliens were a strange mixture of stupid and very
smart.

“They have lasers that can blot missiles and shells from the sky and radars that can see
through stealth systems, and at the same time they have crude guns and even cruder tanks?”
He asked himself, knowing that there was no possible reply. The mystery would have to
wait. A hail of enemy fire exploded in the distance; the network reported that the MLRS had
escaped before the enemy blew it away. The alien counter-battery fire was good, almost as
good as the American fire; their guns might even have a longer range. “What the hell are
they?”

“The 1st Tank Battalion is ready to move in,” Captain Jackson called. “They’re asking
permission to engage the enemy.”

Langford smiled, despite himself. “Order them to move in with infantry support,” he said.
“Tell them to give the bastards hell.”

                                              ***
“It’s a real battle,” Armour Knight Gleys said, as the armoured unit advanced slowly against
the human positions. Armour Knight Gleys had been commanding his tank for years, ever
since the Traders had introduced the concept of tanks to Char; his early work in the Char
Cavalry, riding Rogars, had prepared him for the use of tanks in a fluid battle environment.
Some of the older officers and soldiers, loving their animals, had refused to change to the
smelly cramped tanks, but he loved them; the battles against Grozh had proven, once and for
all, that Rogars had no place in warfare. A single burst of Grozh machine guns had wiped out
an entire regiment; thirty lovely animals and their riders, ripped apart in seconds. “Keep
looking forward for trouble.”

Char had always, thanks to the Traders, been far ahead of the other nations on Karn when it
came to tanks. From the first wars against Grozh to the final defeat of the last non-Char
nation, the tanks had played a vital role in warfare, but there had never been an equal tank
force. It worried him more than he cared to admit; for the past few years, the only service
that the Char Cavalry – the older officers had insisted on at least keeping the old name – had
seen had been against revolting peasants and even a couple of lesser lords who had seen a
chance to become bigger lords. None of those battles had been serious; an axe might be a
fearsome weapon in the right hands, but bashing a tank with an axe was hardly the way to
win. Three tanks had been lost in the last battle they had fought before Earth, two of them to
mechanical failure and the other to incompetence. He had seen to the punishment of that
commander himself.

Three weeks after landing on Earth, the invasion force had lost over forty tanks. The humans
had tactics for fighting tanks equal to his own, at least in America. The scuttlebutt from the
land the humans called Saudi had talked about enemy units rushing up to impale themselves
upon the Char Cavalry’s guns, but the Americans were smarter; worse, their weapons were
powerful enough to punch through the armour with a single shot. Their weapons could do
the same, of course, but it was becoming a question of who got the first shot off…

The hull rang as a human somewhere unleashed a hail of bullets at the tank. The gunner
reacted at once, firing back; a human with a machine gun was a human who might have an
antitank weapon hidden somewhere. Armour Knight Gleys took the opportunity to check
around as they followed the unit commander’s tank up towards the human line, punched open
by the artillery and the infantry. A handful of Volunteer Army soldiers were digging in on
the other side of the line; one of them paused to make a rude gesture as the Armoured
Knights drove past, their guns hunting for targets.

The gunner cursed. “Should I fill him full of lead?”

Armour Knight Gleys glanced back at the gunner. “No,” he said, as he started to hunt for
targets. The enemy had good doctrine, which meant that they would have to know that their
line had been broken…and they would move to cover it if they could. The infantry had
advanced onwards, to check for mines; the tankers would have to provide mobile fire for
them if they ran into something they couldn’t handle…

“Incoming fire,” he snapped, ducking down and banging the hatch down as enemy fire rained
down all around them. Two of the Armoured Knights were hit, their vehicles going up in
smoke as the enemy shells struck them, a third was damaged and skidded to a halt as a shell
struck the ground, far too close to it. The explosions rattled on in the distance; whatever the
enemy had fired at them was obviously an area effect weapon, not something specifically
targeted on the tanks. He carefully poked his head out again, looking for the enemy, and saw
only one human, lying on the ground. It took him a moment to realise that the human was
dead. “Drive on…”

He saw it then, a bulky shape looming out of the smoke, its weapon turning rapidly to face
the Armoured Knights. He barked a command as the enemy tank fired, its weapon blowing a
hole right through the lead tank; his tank fired a single round and the enemy tank exploded in
a sheet of white fire. A second tank appeared, it’s turret revolving with terrifying speed;
three of the Armoured Knights fired as one. There was a heart-stopping pause…and then the
enemy tank exploded in a blast of fire.

“There’s a report that there are more enemy tanks massing somewhere to the south,” the
communicator called from his position. The four men in the tank were very cramped; it was
the price they paid for being the elite of the Char armed forces. “There are hunter-killed
helicopters heading in to hunt them down before they can threaten us and…”

A streak of light shot out of the smoke and raced directly towards a helicopter as it rose up
and headed towards them. Armour Knight Gleys cursed and muttered an order as the
helicopter exploded; the tank lunged forward, revealing a human half-hidden in the smoke,
holding what was obviously an antiaircraft weapon in one hand. The driver gunned the
engine and the tank surged forwards, crushing the human beneath its treads. He listened, but
there wasn't even a squelching sound. The human had gone quietly.

“There’s infantry coming up to help make the breech wider,” the communicator said, as two
more helicopters flew overhead, their rockets flaring. “We’re to go help a group og
Volunteers who have penned a large force of humans and are proving reluctant to actually
attack.”

“Cowardly sons of whores,” Armour Knight Gleys commented. He muttered a command to
the driver and the tank wheeled around and headed towards the sound of firing in the
distance, part of a human complex that was wrapped in smoke, broken only by the flares of
gunfire as the humans fought to defend the complex. He couldn’t understand the point of
resistance; didn’t the humans know that their line was broken and they had to reform their
line elsewhere? “Let’s give them a hand.”

“Let’s give them a bullet in the back,” the driver said, who hadn’t forgiven the earlier
Volunteer for his rude gesture. They’d never find him to extract revenge; there were
thousands of Volunteer Army soldiers on Earth and they were all interchangeable as far as
senior authority was concerned. “Sir?”

“No,” Armour Knight Gleys said, not without a twinge of regret. One of the riots they’d had
to put down had been caused by the Volunteers, back on Karn. He studied the human
position for a long moment and then designated a target. “Fire!”

The tank fired once. Seconds later, a shattering explosion blew apart the human building,
sending debris and flames everywhere. A hail of shots glanced off the tank’s armour as other
humans fired at them desperately; the driver laughed and drove them closer as Armour
Knight Gleys ducked into the turret again and slammed down the hatch. Snipers were trained
to shoot at tank commanders, but the humans didn’t act as if they had thought of that, did
they? A hail of bullets was no threat to a tank…

“Gunner, bring down the other buildings,” Armour Knight Gleys ordered. “Get them all…”

“Look out,” the driver shouted. Armour Knight Gleys glanced forwards and saw a human
running towards them, carrying something in his hand. The gunner reacted, too late; the
human threw something towards the tank before the gunner cut him down…and the item,
whatever it was, caught onto the tank. Before Armour Knight Gleys could do anything, the
bomb exploded…and blew them all away on a wave of fire.

                                           ***
“The enemy has broken through the improvised line,” Captain Paterson reported. “Colonel
Richie has taken losses and is wondering when the hell he will get some relief, sir?”

“That sounds exactly like him,” Langford said grimly. The enemy had punched through too
many places for them to be stopped through improvisation, even though they were taking the
time to exterminate small groups of holdouts in the newer region they had overrun, rather
than driving directly on Stafford. His forces might still stop the aliens, but they were going to
be hit hard; he needed to keep his force as intact as possible. No one knew how many forces
the enemy could deploy, but it took years to train up a Marine and the militia units were
hardly worth their weight in lead. He was the commander and it was his responsibility.
“Order the infantry to pull back into Stafford; the armoured units will fall back to the staging
bases near Fredericksburg and prepare to either cut the bastards off at the knees, or fall back
to the lines near Richmond.”

Captain Paterson blinked. “Sir, that’s…”
“If we stay and fight, we get torn to ribbons and bled white,” Langford snapped. “I’ll talk to
General Mathews, but unless he convinces the President to unlock the nuclear missiles, we
don’t have a hope in hell of stopping them before Richmond, but if they go into Stafford,
they’ll be the ones who get bled white!”

He hoped. The aliens had fought their way through one human city, and if God was kind,
they wouldn’t want to do that again. If he had enough soldiers dug into Stafford, they might
just balk at the thought of trying to take it through direct force. They would either seal the
city off completely, or perhaps destroy it, but there was no other choice. Silently cursing
himself, he withdrew to call General Mathews, already knowing what the answer would be.
As alien patrols moved closer and closer to Stafford, he watched as the retreat went ahead,
saving what they could to fight later.

It just didn’t feel right.

                                             ***
“My Prince, the enemy have dug themselves into one of their cities,” General Sir Ryath
reported. His voice was very grim; fighting through Washington had hurt the Malick Karn
more than anyone cared to think about, and no one liked the thought of fighting through
another city. Humans were good at turning their cities into death traps that required massive
firepower to clear them. “I request permission to use a second special weapon.”

“Denied,” Rohan said shortly. The problem with special weapons was that they were very
radioactive, although at the time when the Malick Karn had been introduced to the concept of
atomic power, they had never even suspected the existence of radioactivity. The very
concept still seemed counter-intuitive to some of the Savants; no one had known about it until
infantry had fought their way though a radioactive hell and had been poisoned by the
weapons. The Traders had to have known…and they had said nothing about it. Bastards.
“We can’t go fighting through that sort of hell.”

He studied the map for a moment, his mind filling in the human movements that they knew
about. “Order the armoured units and the main infantry to fan out and seal off the city,” he
ordered. It was possible that the humans would order a retreat from Stafford when they
realised that they were being surrounded; if that happened, the Malick Karn would fall upon
the retreating humans and make them wish that they had never been born. He wished, just
for a moment, for Garlinda-Ya’s presence; she would have been able to offer advice, he was
sure. “If not…”

His face twisted. They couldn’t leave a town of armed and pissed-off humans in their rear; it
would come back to bite them when the humans came out and attacked the supply lines. The
Malick Karn had seen that happen before during their own wars and the humans would be
bound to have added a few nasty refinements of their own to the tactic. The town would have
to be reduced, whatever it took…and he couldn’t afford to spend regular army units in
reducing the town. The blood toll could cost them the war.

A thought struck him. “Inform the Volunteers that I have a task for them,” he ordered. The
Volunteers hadn’t been pulling their weight in the fighting and that would have to change. “I
want them to take that town or at the very least clear it of humans and their weapons.”
General Sir Ryath bowed. “I will inform the Volunteers that they have been volunteered,” he
said. Few of the regular soldiers had any real use for the Volunteers; their purpose was to
serve as cannon fodder and nothing else. “They can take the town or die trying.”

A lot of them would die trying, Rohan knew, but it didn’t matter. They came from subject
nations, nations that had no rights at all under Char Law, none at all. They were expendable.
Chapter Twenty-Six: Cry Havoc, Take Four

“With all due respect, madam, keep your fucking head down!”

Clara Dubois had never considered herself to be a brave woman; there had been days when
the most daring thing she had done had been going to the shop to buy milk. She had been too
nervous to commit herself to a string of boyfriends, too nervous to try for one of the senior
reporter posts at the Washington Post – although that might have saved her life – and too
nervous to leave the newspaper when she had been offered a job back in her old hometown.
The decision to remain behind in Stafford had been so out of character that she had been
forced to wonder if there was more between her and her National Guardsman than lust and a
shared joy in being alive during the war.

“I heard you,” she said, from her position in Stafford. The aliens were coming closer and she
silently cursed her decision not to join the evacuation when the General commanding had
ordered everyone out. She was, technically, qualified with the pistol she wore at her belt, but
she had never fired at anyone in anger. She would have been too nervous. The sight of the
advancing army – what little she could see of it through the smoke and dust, broken
occasionally by laser beams – chilled her to the bone.

“Then do as I said,” the officer said. He was muttering into the radio, calling in strikes from
the guns and other heavy weapons based in Stafford, using them to impede the alien army as
the human forces retreated. She had expected aircraft to be used, but the only aircraft flying
now were alien helicopters; human jets just got wiped out of the sky. “Keep your head
down!”

An explosion, not too far away, marked the death of one of the decoy transmitters. The aliens
were throwing their own shells, targeting obvious human positions in the city and anywhere
foolish enough to use radio for longer than a few seconds. Parts of the city were burning as
alien incendiary shells attempted to destroy it and burn out the human defenders; it occurred
to her suddenly that she might be standing at ground zero of a nuclear blast. The thought
made her freeze, before she realised that it was unlikely that she would live through the day
anyway.

The observer was using the ground network of communications systems; he’d told her that
they’d linked all of the buildings together and rigged some of them to serve as bunkers for the
fighting, forcing the aliens to fight from house to house if they wanted to take Stafford.
There were over three thousand human soldiers dug into the city; he had told her, with unholy
delight in his voice, that it would be a nightmare to rival the worst of Stalingrad, or the
unpronounceable town in Iraq.

“Here they come,” he muttered, as three alien helicopters appeared out of the smoke and
raced towards the town, rockets and missiles flaring as they swooped down. An Avenger
missile truck opened fire, engaging them as the aliens dropped napalm and FAE weapons on
some of the human positions; the helicopters exploded in the air, shattering to the ground in
fire. Alien shellfire ranged in on the truck, which promptly moved backwards, evading the
shellfire while waiting for another opportunity to hurt the aliens. A wave of heat passed over
her face; she was dimly aware of fire trucks fighting the flames that the alien attack had
caused. “That’s them moving guns closer, unless I miss my guess.”
“I’m not doubting you,” Clara informed him, too nervous to think clearly. “What are they
going to do now?”

The sound of smaller weapons burst out on the northern side of the city. “They’re moving up
their own infantry, perhaps under cover from their tanks and armoured vehicles, and
preparing to dig us out, house by house. It’s going to be bad.” An explosion underscored his
words. “Very bad.”

                                             ***
The small truck, a captured human vehicle, moved forward, the machine guns on its top
blazing fire and defiance at the humans. Footsoldier Othoes kept his head down and his
weapon raised as the human position was revealed; a small building that seemed to have a
sniper or machine gunner at every window. The entire building seemed to be blazing with
the flare of guns firing madly; the small human force seemed to be keeping the entire unit
pinned down.

“Grenades,” Captain Ginkes bellowed. Footsoldier Othoes had been wondering how long it
would take him to think of that. “Smoke and high-ex, on my command! Now!”

A set of grenades flew through the air; flares of black smoke appearing as the grenades began
to cloak the human position in shadow, explosions billowing out against the walls. Three
Footsoldiers ran forwards and were shot down; he realised in a moment of horror that the
humans could either see through the smoke or had heat-vision gear. That sort of equipment
only went to the regulars; were the humans so rich that they could give the best to all of their
people? The few human weapons he had seen had looked much more advanced than the best
of the regular weapons.

“Tank,” Captain Ginkes shouted. Footsoldier Othoes felt his skin crawl as the tank rumbled
up behind them; he was under no illusions as to how the Armoured Knights felt about the
Volunteers. They would have been happier shooting the Volunteers in the back. The tank
fired once and a tremendous explosion shattered the human building. He ran forwards, along
with the other men of the squad, and saw the burning ruins and a shattered crater in the
ground. “The next building!”

Muttering under his breath, Footsoldier Othoes followed two others towards the next
building. No fire came from its windows, but the machine gunners shot them out anyway,
just in case; a handful of launched grenades were prepared, held ready for their use. The first
Footsoldier placed his hand on the door, preparing to open it…and a wave of fire caught him
as the door exploded. Footsoldier Othoes threw himself away, clawing at his face, as a sheet
of liquid fire cascaded out; by a miracle, only a few drops caught on his uniform. He rolled
over and over, heedless of the pain, heedless of the deadly humans and their marvellous
weapons; the flames refused to go out until he squashed them under his weight.

Footsoldier Kolana helped him up and they staggered together to a pile of rubble, using it to
catch their breath. “This is getting grim,” Footsoldier Kolana said, with almost Char-like
understatement. “What was that?”

“I have no idea,” Footsoldier Othoes said. The sheet of liquid fire had been something out of
a nightmare. He didn’t want to move at all from his position, but he knew that they would
have to move before the regulars appeared to claim victory and perhaps even shoot them in
the back for desertion under fire. He staggered to his feet and they headed back towards a
rally point; a much larger human building was being used as a human defence point and they
were being called upon to assault it.

“Should just bring up the guns and shell it into rubble,” Footsoldier Kolana muttered, as
Captain Ginkes barked orders to the squads as they assembled around him. Many of them
were wounded; most of them had blood in their eyes. He wouldn’t have given anything for
the chances of any humans they caught; many of them had lost friends or comrades within
half a human hour of going into the city.

“They seem to want it for some reason,” Footsoldier Othoes muttered back. There were other
units patrolling now, ensuring that the entire section was cleared of humans; Footsoldier
Othoes wasn’t confident at all about how much success they would have. City-fighting was
difficult and dangerous; that was why it was left to the Volunteers normally. “It’s an
unsightly piece of work; perhaps that's why they want it, it would remind them of Char.”

Footsoldier Kolana snickered as the groups moved into position. A human sniper fired twice
and two of the Volunteer Sergeants dropped dead; it was lucky for Captain Ginkes that he
was on the ground, almost indistinguishable from the Volunteers. The Char officers had once
worn outfits that were gorgeously outfitted, but after some of their enemies had introduced
the tactic of sniping at the officers, they had been forced to change. The only real difference
was the rank badge he wore on his chest. A tank threw a shell towards the human building
that hid the sniper and it came crashing down with a thunderous impact.

“They’ll be shelling here in a moment,” Footsoldier Kolana said. As it happened, he was
wrong; the streak of light of an antitank weapon lanced out from behind them, striking the
tank and sending it up in flames. The soldiers took one look and hurled themselves to the
ground; that building had been secured! Captain Ginkes shouted orders to re-enter the
building, find the humans who had somehow sneaked back into the building, kill them,
torture them and eat them, perhaps not in that order. “Heh – that was the regulars guarding
that building.”

“Lazy sons of whores were probably amusing themselves with the human women rather than
watching their own backs,” Footsoldier Othoes agreed. The squads were moving forwards
now for the attack on the human building; he was amused to note that the building hadn’t
been designed as a fortress, with a massive glass frontage filled with plastic humans. Half of
the windows had already been shattered by the fighting. “I think that…”

The whistle blew. The group armed with rocket-propelled grenades – a fearsome weapon
and one rarely issued to volunteers – fired them; the entire frontage disintegrated in a wave of
fire. Footsoldier Othoes hurled himself forward, firing bursts from his weapon into the
darkness, and saw the barricade that the humans had erected, right in front of him. Human
soldiers fired at him; the grenades detonated, tearing them apart and leaving the handful of
survivors for the Volunteers to kill. He saw a human desperately lifting a gun, horribly
wounded as he was, and shot him in the head. It was a mercy killing; the human would have
died quickly without the shot. Other humans fired at him, and fired; the building was starting
to dissolve into a free-for-all. As the volunteers cleared the building of human soldiers, it
was starting to shift; they all had to run, quickly, to escape the slow collapse of the building.
He grinned. Whatever reason the high command had had for wanting to keep the building
intact, it had suddenly become much less important. The surrounding area was blurring now
as reinforcements arrived, forcing the humans back towards the centre of the city; he passed
though building after building, becoming dazed as the fighting raged on and humans popped
up, trying hard to kill him and his people. There seemed to be no end to the fighting…

                                             ***
“What the hell is that?” Sergeant Jeremy Damiani demanded, as a tall lanky man with long
dark hair appeared, holding a strange looking weapon. It had looked oddly familiar, but he
couldn’t quite place it before the newcomer loaded the first round. “Who the hell are you
anyway?”

“This is a weapon made by the glorious Red Army,” the newcomer said, carefully preparing
it for use. “This is a RPG-29, the latest and great antitank weapon for use against the tanks of
the capitalists and communists alike.”

Damiani stared at him. Either the man was mad, or he had been unhinged by the fighting.
“Are you for real?”

“Jared Barr, head of the local Anarchists chapter,” the man said. He held out a grubby hand,
which Damiani dubiously shook, noting the deceptive strength under the hand. “This weapon
and quite a few more have been banned, but I thought…who cares what the gun control
people have to say when they have all those interesting tank-like cop cars, eh?”

“I think that the gun control legislation is going to take a hit,” Damiani agreed carefully. He
wasn't sure what to make of Barr at all. “Where you planning an armed revolt?”

“Course,” Barr said. “What would be the fun in life without a few revolutions, eh?”

“Tank,” someone screamed from down the street. The sound of fighting was growing closer;
they’d escaped the first round of fighting, only to become embroiled in the defence of
Stafford, although they had been warned that they might be ordered to pull out of the city if it
looked as if it was going to fall. He spared a thought for Clara; where was she? He would
have loved to have met up with her one final time. “They’re coming!”

“The Russians designed this thing for use in places like Iraq and sold a few thousand to Iran,”
Barr commented, as he prepared the other rounds. “One like it took out a couple of British
tanks and there are persistent reports that one killed an Abrams tank. No one has said
anything, of course, but do you think that the military-industry complex would admit that a
multi-million dollar tank could be taken out by this, which could be produced for peanuts?”

“I think that we have other problems at the moment,” Damiani said. “The aliens are on their
way.”

They’d taken the time to build up a barricade, intermixed with a handful of claymore
grenades and some nasty traps that a Marine who had served in Iraq had devised. The
humans who had been opposing the aliens to the north had all been killed or driven out; the
aliens didn’t seem to be taking captives any longer. He heard the rumble of an alien tank as it
appeared around the corner, noting with grim concern that it was a Type A tank, one designed
for street-fighting. Tanks like it had already driven the Americans out of too many towns and
villages.

“Stand by,” he said. The enemy tank didn’t seem to have noticed them, but its crew would
definitely notice the barricade; would they advance themselves, or would they send for
infantry? The answer appeared as a group of alien infantry, dressed in black outfits and
carrying weapons, appeared, advancing slowly towards the barricade. “Barr, can you hit the
tank from here?”

“Easy,” Barr said. A burst of machine gun fire crashed over the heads as the enemy
advanced. “Now?”

Damiani squeezed his trigger and saw an alien fall. “Now,” he agreed. “Give them hell!”

Barr fired. A long streak of fire raced out towards the tank, finally striking it in the frontal
armour and setting it ablaze. The alien tanks didn’t seem to have as good armour as an
Abrams, which would have shaken off such a hit; it was something else about the aliens that
was…well, alien. They just didn’t think quite like humans. The alien infantry howled in
pain and outrage; deprived of their heavy cousin, they threw themselves to the ground and
sniped at the National Guardsmen as they saw them, trying hard to force them to keep their
heads down as they scrambled backwards. The National Guardsmen were having none of it;
they picked off the aliens as they tried to retreat.

“Good shooting,” Damiani said.

“I never accept praise from a lackey of the military-industry complex,” Barr said, but
Damiani could tell that he was pleased. “Now what?”

“Now we try to force them back,” Damiani snapped. He had prepared half of his company
for that mission, half of them hefting SAWs, others holding grenades and rifles. They moved
forwards as fast as they could, encountering a group of aliens who fired at them before being
mown down. One building had survived the earlier fighing and they ran towards it, hearing
something nearby that forced them to run. “I think that…”

They rounded a corner into an alleyway and came face to face with…

                                              ***
Captain Ginkes died before anyone knew that they were under attack, a single human bullet
passing through his head and spattering his brain out across the human street. The humans
were firing and firing; Footsoldier Othoes barked a command and led them into an alleyway,
hoping that it would be safer, knowing that they were completely lost. Captain Ginkes had
had the map…and Captain Ginkes was dead, his body being stripped by humans, the same
humans who were in rapid pursuit of the team. Standing orders called for a last stand, but
Footsoldier Othoes knew that no one in the squad would do that if they could avoid it; they
had to link back up with the other Volunteers.

Suddenly, Captain Ginkes was looking mighty good.

The humans seemed to be everywhere, just out of sight. They moved as fast as they could,
not quite fleeing, not quite panicking, but they were close to simply giving in. They went
down one alley and then down another, lost; there was no way to know where human lines or
Malick Karn lines were. Footsoldier Kolana asked if he had a map, or even a compass, but
the truth was that he had neither. They were lost.

They rounded a corner and came face to face with a human force. Footsoldier Othoes stared
at the humans in their mottled green uniforms, and knew that there was no way that they
would survive the next few moments. There seemed to be hundreds of humans staring at
them, weapons already pointing at their heads, and escape seemed impossible. Footsoldier
Othoes stared…and then let go of his weapon. It dropped to the ground with a clatter.

Slowly, carefully, he lifted his hands into the air. Behind him, he was aware of the remaining
members of his squad doing the same, offering their surrender. He expected to feel hot
bullets ripping through his body at any moment, but instead, the humans accepted their
surrender.

He breathed a sigh of relief…
Chapter Twenty-Seven: Light in the Darkness, Take One

Doctor Virginia Jones was in heaven as she examined the prisoners. A grand total of forty-
seven aliens had been taken out of Stafford before it had finally fallen to the invaders, and all
of them had been transported rapidly into the heart of the country, well away from any hope
of rescue. It was possible that the aliens might launch a raid on the secret government
hospital, but there had been no sign of anything that might have led the aliens directly to their
lost personnel. No implants, no homing beacons in their skulls; the aliens seemed to have
generally primitive medical care for their injuries. It made little sense.

One of the aliens had been battered to death by the others as soon as they had been secured in
the pen; after that, armed guards had separated them all and placed them into different cells,
while some of the more cooperative were examined by the human doctors. The aliens had
seemed alarmed by the biohazard protection suits that the team had worn, at first, before
confirming that there seemed to be no biological hazard. The aliens had been given some
food to eat; they only drank water and refused some of the meat they were offered.

The real surprise – one of them, anyway - had been that two of the aliens had been female.
Those aliens had been more terrified of the other aliens then of the humans, insofar as
emotions could be read on an alien face, and they had been rapidly separated to ensure their
safety. The second surprise had been that the alien women spoke English; they had protested
desperately, despairingly, when they had been stripped and examined. She hadn’t been
surprised by what she had found when she had examined them; not only were the women
physically weaker than the men, but the only way they could mate was for the woman to bend
over. It just didn’t seem fair.

A guard looked up as she reached the cell. “You’re going to talk to them, woman to
woman?”

“I can try,” Virginia said. They hadn’t attempted to talk to the aliens, not yet; no one had
wanted to talk to the few that could when Stafford was being torn apart by the aliens. The
President had ordered that the aliens be treated well, but no one was inclined to give them
more than the bare minimum; the chaos was still growing, even though it looked as if the
alien offensive had run its course. “They might not recognise me as a woman, even if they
saw me naked.”

The guard shrugged. “Don’t forget the normal rules,” he said, as he opened the first door. “If
you are taken hostage by what are regarded as high risk prisoners, we cannot – we will not –
attempt to bargain for your release.”

Virginia scowled at him and stepped into the cell. The two aliens had been sitting on the
beds, waiting for something to happen, chatting quietly in their strange language. Linguistic
experts from all around the world were already studying the alien tongue, attempting to
divine a meaning; the aliens would have to be worked hard to provide even a basic set of
words to communicate. One of the aliens had wrapped a blanket around herself; the other
hadn’t bothered and desperately tried to hide herself as Virginia smiled down at them,
wondering just what they were. They looked…oddly charming, almost cute; it was hard to
remember that their menfolk were tearing the eastern seaboard apart.
“Hi,” she said, unsure of what to say. Various army teams had insisted on serving as prisoner
interrogation teams, but she had insisted – and won the President’s support – on being the
main liaison to the female aliens. She had half-wondered if one of the aliens might be
pregnant, something that would give her a real insight into their biology, but apparently
neither of them were going to have an alien baby. “My name is Virginia.”

She paused. One of the aliens looked up at her, eyes wide and fearful. “My name is
Chantho-Ya,” she said. “I am a medical worker for the Army of Char. I am valuable to you;
please don’t hurt me.”

Virginia felt her heart go out to the alien. “No one is going to hurt you,” she said, as gently
as she could. Just how did the aliens treat their women anyway? If their biology was any
indication, there was a lot of submission and submissive poses involved, and there was the
obvious fear that they had shown when alone with naked alien males. She looked at the other
alien. “What is your name?”

“Jabe-Ya,” the alien said. Her eyes never left the floor. “I am…”

She broke off. “No one is going to hurt you,” Virginia repeated, wanting to place a hand on
the woman’s shoulder. “I am a female of my race myself.”

Chantho-Ya stared at her. “You can’t be,” she said. “You were issuing orders to the men. I
saw you; you’re lying, you’re trying to deceive us…”

Virginia thought about the cameras in the room, and then decided it wasn’t important. She
would kill any of the operators if they ever dared tell anyone about it. With one smooth
motion, she pulled down her trousers and panties, revealing her vagina to their eyes. The
women would probably have seen naked human men before, if they had really been medical
workers; it was very obvious that she had no penis. She let them have a long look, and then
pulled her trousers up again, silently glad that she couldn’t blush.

“In my race, a female is just as good as a male at most things,” she said. “There have been
female soldiers, there have been female doctors, there have been female businesswomen,
there have even been a few world leaders who were women – some of then even had more
balls than the men. What are you doing on Earth?”

It was Chantho-Ya who spoke. “We were trained as medics because medics are valuable,”
she said. “Women are recruited to do it because men wouldn’t kill a woman if she was safe
and women are not allowed to carry weapons. Our skills keep us alive because everyone
needs medics and…”

“They put you on the battlefield?” Virginia asked, in shock. “How do the men react to that?”

The look on the woman’s face was all the answer she needed. She had read about the case
where a medical worker had killed a convicted murderer who had kept threatening her while
she was trying to treat him and had felt sympathy. The AMA hadn’t known what to make of
the case, any more than the rest of the world; the jury had found her innocent in the end.

“You poor things,” she said. “Listen; you don’t have to go back to them.”
“They’ll make you give us back, like they always do,” Chantho-Ya said. Her eyes darkened
slightly. “That’s what always happens; they win the war and then impose their own peace.”

“We fought them to a standstill,” Virginia said. “You won’t be going back unless you want
to go back, as long as you answer our questions.”

“No one tells us anything useful,” Chantho-Ya said. “They summoned us, placed us on a
ship, and then they just had us caring for one of the senior officers when your men grabbed
us. They just wanted us to work and in-between serve as whores.”

“Really,” Virginia said. She was puzzled; how could a civilisation that had invented starships
have such a disparity between sexual roles? Humanity had made real progress since
admitting that women were equals; no human society had advanced for long without giving a
voice to its women. Even in the societies that had tried to marginalize women, women were
often the power behind the throne, or even influential in their own way. “Why did your
people come here?”

Chantho-Ya spat. “The Emperor sent us on a Trader ship,” she said. “All of us, Regulars,
Volunteers, Support Staff…all of us. One day we were just helping with the reconstruction
of Karn, and then we were ordered to board one of their ships, come to Earth, and be medics
there while the victorious army headed off to take your land.”

Virginia stared at her. She was certain that she was on the cusp of a very important
discovery. “The Traders?” She asked. Some kind of…alien nation that was more powerful
than the rest? “Who are the Traders?”

Chantho-Ya told her everything. Virginia, horrified, asked question after question and it all
came tumbling out; the Traders, Char, the war that had raged across Char, some strange
reason for the passage to Earth, the base on the human moon…and finally the landing on
Earth. The aliens – she established early on that their name for themselves was the Malick
Karn, which Chantho-Ya translated roughly as ‘Children of Karn’ – knew that their women
were generally smarter, but treated them as chattel.

They would have grown out of it, she thought. The two women were treasure troves of
information on the aliens, knowing far more than their menfolk ever gave them credit for
knowing; they were not even believed to be capable of using whatever knowledge they knew
to harm people. She was awed and sickened; Chantho-Ya knew more about medicine,
proportionally, than she did, even if some of her knowledge was literally from the second-to-
last century. She also knew politics; her father had been one of the handful of senior male
doctors, one of the doctors to the Imperial Court. The Char Empire had been dying when the
Traders had arrived…

She felt her heart go out to them. The two aliens – she had learned rapidly that ‘Ya’ was a
feminine addition to any Malick Karn name – were intelligent and very knowledgeable, but
they would never be anything, but doctors and nurses, if they were allowed that chance. The
men who fought well would be granted access to their bodies – not by them, but by the men
supervising them – while if discipline broke down, they could expect to be raped by their
own side. They had expected to be raped by the humans who captured them; Virginia found
that laughable, but neither of the two aliens did. Lacking any sense of understanding of the
real differences between humans and Malick Karn, they couldn’t understand that they were
about as attractive as a dog to her.

There have been humans who have been fucking dogs, she thought coldly, before deciding
that she was being silly. Humans wouldn’t find Chantho-Ya attractive, no matter how
desirable she was in Malick Karn terms; she wasn't even sure how old the two aliens actually
were. They had deserved better than to be hauled across the skies by mysterious aliens; a
third alien faction, a third alien race, explained much more than she had expected. What, at
the bottom of it all, was the Traders’ game?

“You will be safe here,” she promised, at the end of it. The two girls had been able to answer
dozens of questions on how to care for the Malick Karn prisoners, although they had been
desperate to extract a promise that they wouldn’t be put back in with the men. “We won’t
send you back.”

Chantho-Ya met her eyes. “The Army of Char has conquered the entire world,” she said.
“The soldiers you captured were mostly Volunteers. We don’t get allowed to treat them
unless they have done some really great service; mostly, we stay well away from them.
They’re barbarians from lands that were crushed by Char.”

Virginia lifted an eyebrow. “Really?”

Chantho-Ya began to speak again.

                                              ***
The blood on his hands refused to come off, no matter how much he attempted to scrub them
with the human-provided cloth and the endless stream of warm water cascading down from a
tap in the wall. The small prison cell, intended to house captured prisoners, was more
luxurious than anything else a Volunteer could be expected to ever have for himself, unless
he was one of the lucky Volunteers who was offered a place within a Great Char House.
Captain Ginkes could have done that for him, had he known that Footsoldier Othoes even
existed, but Captain Ginkes was dead.

Footsoldier Othoes took a long breath as he tried to pace in his cell. He had expected to be
killed at once by the humans; surrender had been an attempt of desperation, an attempt to
prevent the humans from killing them out of hand. Captain Ginkes had warned them that the
humans would kill them on sight, but he had felt that there was no other choice and he was
sick and tired of fighting for Char. He had seen it, in the hell storm of the human city; Char
would use them and use them until they were all dead. The humans, at least, would make it
quick.

Instead, they had stripped them, bound them, blindfolded them and forced them to march.
The march had seemed endless, the strange and horrifying smells that had risen up around
them suggested that they had been taken into a tunnel system, which had only come to an end
when they had come out into the fresh air, what felt like years later. Tired, they had been
shackled and then placed in two trucks, which had transported them to the prison complex,
along with nearly thirty other prisoners, one of whom had been a Volunteer Officer.

The man had tried to assert his authority and they had killed him for it…
He remembered how the humans had separated him from the rest of his people – they had
taken the two nurses as spoils of war earlier – and placed him in the cell. It was almost like a
hotel to him; the humans had even provided a toilet, although it had been very strangely
shaped. If they could afford to treat prisoners this well, he wondered just how the human
high lords lived; surely, they had castles that touched the sky and magical devices to tend to
their every need. Perhaps Grozh would have been like that, once; perhaps the Grozh belief in
the equality of all would have caught on all over Karn. It seemed so much like a dream now.

The medical examination had been humiliating, the more so because he had been unable to
talk properly to the humans who were trying to examine him. He offered no resistance,
unsurprised by the presence of armed guards behind him, whose grim eyes had promised
swift and violent retribution for anything that he tried to do that might interfere with the
procedure. The humans had examined every part of his body, run strange devices over his
flesh, and even poked probes inside his ears and mouth. Not a single part of his body had
been spared their interest.

And yet, he knew that he had no choice, but to cooperate. Volunteers weren’t regulars, they
weren’t even female nurses; they had no particular value to the Char authorities. Prince
Rohan wouldn’t bargain for their return and even if he did, Footsoldier Othoes didn’t want to
go back; the Char would kill him for being captured and perhaps subverted. It was possible
to use drugs to warp a person’s mind so that they would try to kill someone important; they
would claim to suspect that that was what had happened to them. If the humans just returned
them, they would be simply killed for failing in their duty to die for Char.

He cursed the humans under his breath; how could they speak to him? He didn’t have the
slightest idea of how to speak human to them – they clearly didn’t know how to speak any of
the languages of the Malick Karn. He couldn’t attempt to bargain with them himself,
offering his service in exchange for not sending him back or killing him themselves,
so…what could he do?

A guard stepped into the cell and beckoned him out. A second guard, waiting outside,
secured his hands behind his back and led him down a long dark corridor into a bright
chamber. A single chair sat in the centre of the room; the guards unceremoniously placed
him into the chair and secured him to it. He almost laughed; where did they think he was
going to run to? He found himself staring at a mirror; he could see his own reflection and
knew that he appeared dreadful. What was going to happen to him now?

A voice echoed through the chamber. It took him a moment to realise that the voice was not
only female, but also speaking the Char tongue. “Please identify yourself,” it said. “We need
to know your name and your designation.”

Footsoldier Othoes took a breath. At least the humans had managed to figure out a way to
speak to him, even if it did involve a disrespectful woman. “I am Footsoldier Othoes,
Volunteer Army of Grozh,” he said, and gave his identification code. His bracelet had
vanished somewhere along the journey; he would be shot if he was caught without his
bracelet back in occupied America. “What are you going to do to me?”

“I am going to ask you some questions,” the female said, after a pause. She was definitely a
Malick Karn; he didn’t think that a human could speak the language so well. At least, not
yet; the humans fought as well as the Malick Karn. “You are to answer them as honestly as
you can and then we will decide your future.”

There was a pause. “Tell me about Grozh, Footsoldier Othoes,” the voice said. Footsoldier
Othoes blinked at the question; most Malick Karn were discouraged from asking any
questions about the states that had been crushed by the Char in their long march around the
planet. “Tell me everything.”

Footsoldier Othoes took a second breath and began.
Chapter Twenty-Eight: Light in the Darkness, Take Two

“Ladies and Gentlemen, the President of the United States of America, broadcasting from a
secure location somewhere in America.”

The President composed himself as all of the cameras focused in on him. It had been the one
nightmare of his campaign, the nightmare that something would go wrong in front of the eyes
of millions of viewers. He had long been concerned about the tens of thousands who never
bothered to vote in elections, but a single misstep in front of the cameras could turn all of the
‘don’t care’ people against him. Few would forget the candidate who had called the voters
‘morons,’ or the man who, when addressing a black audience, had claimed ‘my heart is as
black as yours.’

He still had nightmares about stepping up in front of the cameras…and discovering that he
was naked.

“My fellow Americans,” he said. It had been the hardest speech he had ever had to write;
there were times when he wished that he could just leave speechwriting to the experts, or his
opponents. There was no time to leave politics alone; the alien invasion was a possible
minefield for his political destruction, if his opponents chose to use it. “It is with grave news
that I stand before you today. With a heavy heart, I must confirm the destruction of
Fredericksburg with a nuclear device, a weapon launched by one of the alien invaders.”

He took a breath, imagining the reactions ranging across the world. It had had an effect on
world opinion, but how many nations could actually help the United States? Everyone who
had any real combat power wanted to keep it on hand to defend themselves, if the aliens came
flying down in their transports to force a landing somewhere else. Canada had been the only
nation to pledge open support and the Canadian Army had offered a few divisions, but the
army was small, weak, and out of practice. The nuke had scared everyone.

“The city was largely evacuated before it was destroyed, along with most of the other cities in
range of alien cruise missiles,” he continued. “The death toll was not as high as might have
been expected; the radioactivity has left an sizable area in need of recovery work, although
most of it has been blown out to sea. Medical staff are already working to assist the survivors
of the blasts and other emergency personnel are working to clear the area. There is no known
danger to any other city.

“I ask you all to remain calm,” he concluded. “We have beaten back the alien offensive from
out of Washington and we have proven, once and for all, that the aliens can be beaten. If we
stand together, we can defeat the aliens and use the knowledge that we have learned to
understand one thing; we are no longer alone. The world is no longer what it was, a month
ago, but it remains human. We are not alone any longer.”

The cameras wound down and he stepped off the podium. “I would have thought,” General
Mathews said, “that humanity would be much happier not knowing that it’s not alone at the
moment.”

“Everyone needs a sense of perspective,” the President said, as they walked back through the
long corridor, a Secret Service agent following at a short distance behind them. They were
safe in the complex; if it was penetrated, the war was lost anyway. “Even if we win
completely, we can no longer rely upon the protection of light years of space, not with alien
races out there, some of whom are clearly hostile.”

General Mathews lifted an eyebrow. “Utopian dreams of a united human race?”

“Perhaps,” the President said. “Of course, if we cannot defeat the aliens, the whole question
becomes a bit moot, doesn’t it?”

“I see,” General Mathews said. He paused. “Do you believe what the prisoners are telling
us?”

The President hesitated. “I think that they are mostly telling the truth, yes,” he said. “The
story does stick together, doesn’t it?”

“My old intelligence officer used to tell me to be careful what you heard when it was what
you wanted to hear,” General Mathew said. “There was a time, back in the Iraq War, when
we thought that there were no Iraqi tanks near the border, and then we had a terrifying report
that there were indeed tanks there, heading right towards us. They turned out to be tanks
from the last war, dumped there for years, but…it put the wind up a few people. Other times,
people got intelligence and believed it because it fitted in with their own preconceptions;
these folks are aliens, Mr President.”

The President smiled thinly. “Then why would they hamper themselves? It’s not like we’re
facing the Posleen, is it?”

“I wish I knew,” General Mathews said. “Even if they are telling the truth – and as we have
no baseline for the species, we have no way of being certain – they may only be telling the
truth as they see it, or as they know it. I could lie to you, Mr President, and then you would
repeat the lie, convinced that it was the truth. Our alien prisoners might well be lying without
knowing that they are lying.”

The President shook his head. “I thought that politics was nice and simple,” he said, as they
reached the conference room. He had insisted on holding the meeting directly after speaking
to the nation, just to ensure that he had something to focus on, rather than endlessly replaying
his speech in his head. “Do we have any way to confirm that they are telling the truth?”

“Only if we keep pushing at them, keep cross-checking, and keep watching for
inconsistencies,” General Mathews said. “Once we learn their language properly, then we
can find out how they talk to one another, and then we should be able to make real progress.”

The President tapped the table as he sat down. “I think that we can skip the formalities,” he
said shortly. “Item one on the agenda; the diplomatic situation. Jaclyn?”

Jaclyn Ridgeley stood up. “As you know, we invoked Article V of the NATO treaty the day
after the Battle of Washington,” she said. “Response was limited, not least because of the
diplomatic moves by the aliens, and the practical difficulties in actually sending us any
support. The political movements in Europe and to some extent in Japan and South Korea
made it difficult for any European Government to step forward and declare it’s support for us.
The bloody nose we gave the aliens last week, despite the loss of Fredericksburg, has made it
a little easier for other governments to commit themselves to supporting us.”
She paused. “In short, we have played the innocent victims of nuclear attack card,” she
admitted. “It has worked. Although the practical difficulties remain, there is more support
for us on the world stage, not least because of some of the intelligence that we secured from
Special Forces personal operating within the occupied zone and the words of the aliens
themselves.

“Japan has agreed, reluctantly, to take over some of our duties in Korea, allowing us to bring
back several units from South Korea,” she continued. “Politically, that’s dangerous for the
South Koreans, but we told them that we – basically – were pulling out most of our forces as
soon as we could and it was the Japanese or no one. The Australians were approached for
troops as well, but they don’t have enough men to cover everywhere in Australia itself that
might be a target, therefore they only agreed to send a token force. Europe has proved a more
serious problem, but the EU has reluctantly agreed to send several units to Iraq to join the
international forces there, in case the aliens head north into Iraq. Both Turkey and Israel have
indicated their readiness to send forces, but both of them present political problems, even
though the chaos in Saudi is unbelievably bad. The bastards literally levelled Riyadh.”

She shook her head slowly. “The Chinese have agreed to pressure the North Koreans to stay
quiet,” she concluded. “So far, the Russians have said nothing officially, but we have
unofficial comments of support and sympathy, but no real support. Both powers, I suspect,
are waiting to see who comes out on top in the US before they declare themselves.”

She sat down. “Thank you,” the President said. “Item two; the military situation.”

General Mathews coughed. “There’s very little to say,” he said. “A week ago, the alien
forces came boiling out of the zone they occupied and headed south. A set of attacks heading
north were apparently designed to keep us from thinking about trying to stab a knife in their
backs; they never launched a serious offensive to the north. They used several new weapons,
including an odd and almost unstoppable cruise missile and a single nuclear warhead. That
warhead was targeted on Fredericksburg and destroyed one of the command bases, along
with the soldiers who had dug into the city. The damage was not total – the effects of nuclear
weapons have been grossly overrated – but pretty bad; the vast majority of facilities in the
city have either been destroyed or damaged beyond easy repair.

“The enemy attacked Stafford and several smaller towns with direct assaults, after bashing
through the defence line,” he continued. “We made them pay for their success and we bled
them white – well, green – in Stafford itself. By the time we broke off the struggle and
evacuated most of the city, including the alien prisoners we had taken, we had killed
thousands of the aliens and destroyed most of the city. We hope that they’re having fun with
the traps we left behind, but it’s hard to tell.”

His hand traced a line on the map. “New defence lines have been established outside the
remains of Fredericksburg, with a second line being established outside Richmond,” he
concluded. “We also have hopes of launching an offensive of our own into the alien
positions, now that we know enough about them and how they fight. My staff are already
drawing up plans for a counter-offensive.”

The President looked down the long table, towards Doctor Virginia Jones. “Doctor Jones has
been performing work with the alien captives,” he said. The doctor lowered her eyes; she
didn’t know – and hopefully would never know – that the President had ordered the record of
her exposing herself erased from the records. “She has something to brief us all on that might
prove the key to ending the way.”

Doctor Virginia Jones looked embarrassed as she stood up. “We took around forty alien
captives,” she said. “Three of them died in custody; one of them under attack from his
fellows, the other two of something we have been unable to explain. It is possible that they
had poison on their bodies somewhere that was not located by the military policemen who
examined them, or perhaps that something we gave them accidentally poisoned them. We
tend to rule out the latter as no other prisoners have died. The alien captives appear to be in
good heath; two of them were females. The females, as it happened, were able to speak
English.”

She paused. “I’m not a linguistic expert so I’ll gloss over the language studies,” she
continued. “What I do know is that their language is fairly simple and structured; in some
ways, the main language – Char Prime, as far as we can tell – bears some similarities to
Arabic when it comes to being written and spoken. Of course, a speaker of one cannot speak
the other. The aliens have at least four other languages, but all of them speak Char Prime; we
have made vast progress on understanding it. However, I must caution you that most of the
information we have gathered comes through using the two alien females as translators, and
is therefore possibly suspect.”

“Cavorts duly noted,” the President said. “Please carry on.”

Doctor Virginia Jones nodded. “The aliens – they call themselves the Malick Karn – seem to
operate on a basically feudal system; they have Lords, Dukes, Knights and a vast structure of
confusing social precedence to provide everyone with a place in society. Char – their most
powerful nation and the nation that has taken over their entire world – is an Empire, it is
governed by an Emperor, and is based around social position, ownership, and submission. As
far as we can tell, in order to gain status within Char, you either have to be born to one of the
nobles or be very, very talented; peasants from Char have been known to reach quite high
positions in their society.”

She grimaced. “That doesn’t go for women,” she said, grimly. “The women within Char
society are treated in ways that make the Taliban look like the ACLU; there are only a few
career paths for them. They can be wives, medical personnel or whores; little else. Trained
women are apparently valuable property; the medical women we captured were convinced
that they would either be traded back to the Malick Karn, or kept and put to work by us.
They have a habit of butchering their enemies, but just as we don’t shoot at Red Cross or Red
Crescent ambulances, the Malick Karn won’t kill nurses out of hand. The women are more
intelligent than the men, but they’re treated as slaves. They may have some influence on the
politics of their husbands, but in general, they are chattel.”

Jaclyn Ridgeley coughed. “How can they stand it?” She asked. “Why don’t they just
revolt?”

Major Monahan coughed. “I have yet to meet an IQ large enough to stop a bullet,” he said.
“It’s easy to hold someone prisoner if you know what you’re doing.”
“True,” Virginia agreed. “There are two truly important pieces of information we extracted
from the prisoners. The first piece is that most of the soldiers we captured belonged to their
‘Volunteer Army.’ That’s apparently a bad translation; the soldiers are something akin to
sepoys, but almost slaves, they beat their own officer to death. Most of the ones we captured
had no choice, but to go fight for Char; they don’t want to go back. To some extent, we
believe that they were sent to Earth to get them well away from their homeworld; they were a
potential threat.”

“A political division among the aliens,” the President said thoughtfully. “Can we use that to
break the aliens somehow?”

“We may have to try,” Virginia said. “The important detail, however, is almost all of the
Volunteers are infantry; the tanks and helicopters are all manned by purely Char forces.”

“Hold on,” Jaclyn Ridgeley said. “There’s one thing I don’t understand. How did a race like
this actually manage to reach the stars?”

Virginia closed her eyes. “It’s very simple,” she said. The President sensed doom before she
spoke. “They had help.”

There was uproar.

“Silence,” the President bellowed finally, in a rare display of temper. “Doctor Jones, please
continue.”

“Thank you,” she said. “According to our captives, some time ago – we don’t have perfect
understanding of their time periods yet – the Char were contacted by an alien race, known
only as the Traders. The Char were on the wane at the time, facing more efficient units such
as a democracy and some system that doesn’t quite make sense to us. The Traders apparently
provided the Char with some weapons and ideas, and sent them out to take over the rest of
the world. Ten years or thereabouts of fighting later and Char ruled the world.”

She paused. “For some reason – and none of the people we captured know why – the Traders
insisted that the Char expand their activities to another world,” she continued. “The Char
Empire assembled a vast army and the Traders transported it, first to a base they had
established on the moon, and then down to Earth. That army has orders to crush our
resistance and take possession of the population – the Char apparently regard civilians as the
President’s property and having taken them, they have to transfer their loyalty to the Char.
Armed civilians are a complete no-no as far as they are concerned; it has something in
common with the ban on weapons to the peasants or to blacks during the heyday of the Ku
Klux Klan. Any resistance of any kind, even a refusal to hand over a daughter for gang rape,
is treated as overt rebellion and results in death.”

“That will not happen here,” the President vowed. He glanced around the room. “If the
Traders – whoever they are – ordered the attack launched, why do it in such a manner?”

“It explains some of the discrepancies in the alien – the…ah, Malick Karn – line of battle,”
General Mathews said. “What it doesn’t explain is why? What do the Traders get out of a
subjected alien homeworld and Earth? Why are they even doing this?”
“I don’t know, sir,” Virginia said. “None of the prisoners knew – or if they did know, they
refused to tell us. We might have to ask the bastards directly.”

The President stood up. “We have a war to fight in America and a nuclear strike to unleash
in Saudi,” he said. “Doctor, can you find out as much as you can about the aliens and how
we can talk to them? If the Malick Karn aren’t here of their own free will, we might be able
to bargain with them.”

“Mr President, few of the prisoners want to go back to the Malick Karn,” Virginia said.
“May I have your word that none of them will be returned unless they want to be returned?”

“Yes,” the President said. “General, I also want your teams working on finding something
else, a way of bringing down one of the Trader ships and capturing us a few Traders.”

General Mathews nodded. “Yes, Mr President,” he said. “If we can bring down one, we can
bring down a second, perhaps even one of the larger ships.”

The President felt real hope for the first time in far too long.
Chapter Twenty-Nine: I Am Become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds…

“Captain, we have an urgent microburst from COMSUBLANT,” the weapons officer said.
“It’s providing us with targeting instructions and orders to fire.”

The Captain of the USS West Virginia glared down at the display as the orders came in from
the President, orders he had half-expected since receiving the unbelievable information about
the alien invasion. Only the fact that CNN, Fox, the BBC and Al Jazeera were telling the
same crazy story had reassured him, even though some of the images of alien conquest had
chilled him. He had expected orders to fire at an unseen target in outer space; instead, he had
to fire his Trident missiles towards a set of targets in Saudi Arabia.

He barked orders to his crew as he confirmed his own identity for the encrypted transmission.
His ship had been patrolling in the region as part of a flexible response strategy if the Mullahs
in Iran decided to unleash one of the nukes that they were suspected to possess. The
persistent scares over Iran’s development of ballistic missiles, matched only be a reluctance
to invade Iran following the semi-disaster that Iraq had been, had convinced the US that
keeping a missile submarine tasked to fire at Iran in retaliation might be a good idea. He
hadn’t expected to be firing at Saudi Arabia…

Like many Americans, he disliked Saudi Arabia, but some of the reports from the region had
been horrifying, even compared to the reports from Washington. The Saudi Army had lasted
around a week, a remarkable feat considering that everyone on the ship had been betting that
it would be around three days before the Saudis were smashed, although the Saudi Royal
Family had evacuated the country remarkably quickly. Anyone would have thought that they
hadn’t trusted their army to defend them; the remainder of the country had been overrun
quickly…and then the nightmare had begun. The insurgency had been launched, as it had
been against America in Iraq…and the invaders had responded with overwhelming firepower.
The stream of fighters coming from around the world to defend the Holy Cities had been
encouraged by local governments, who had wanted to get rid of them; the aliens had
responded with massive force and methods that had shocked the region. The insurgency in
most of the cities had lasted two weeks after the first conquest and ended with the cities in
ruins and the humans either dead or enslaved.

He had no time for Saudi Arabia, regarding it as a menace and America’s alliance with it the
stupidest foreign policy decision since trying to topple the elected government in Iran, but no
one deserved such treatment, no one. The news reports had been grim; Iran was in a panic,
Israel was digging into its defences and preparing for war, and Iraq was on the boil. It
wouldn’t be long before something happened there, even if the American and British troops
were starting to look remarkably good compared to the aliens. Everyone expected the alien
forces massing near Kuwait to move into Kuwait, or Iraq, as soon as they had gathered
enough force; the stream of fighters hadn’t even been a road bump to them.

“The missiles have been retargeted,” the weapons officer said. Five officers were required to
launch the missiles; they gathered together in the main compartment. “I have checked our
location through both GPS and radio bearings.”

The Captain nodded. The GPS system had been damaged by the aliens, who seemed to treat
every satellite within range to a dose of ground-based laser fire. The system had been
breaking down ever since the first day of the invasion, the aliens just didn’t seem to have the
power needed to knock out a satellite with a single blast apiece. It was yet another puzzle
about the aliens, even though there had been a note attached to the encrypted information that
something important had been discovered about the aliens.

“Good,” he said. He unhooked his key and began the ritual. “I have an authorised launch
code; do you concur?”

“I concur," the executive officer said. His black face was pallid and sweating; none of them
had ever seriously thought that they would do it for real. He checked the missile coordinates
with a practiced eye and a shaking hand. His key almost dropped from his hand as he
prepared to slot it into the system. “I…”

“I concur," the navigation officer said. She looked as terrified as the others, not least because
she had been the one to run the location and targeting checks; a missile that was badly
targeted could ruin the wrong people’s day. If the nuke came down on Mecca, instead; the
United States would face the anger of the entire world. Her hands, too, were shaking. “The
coordinates have been checked three times.”

The Captain scowled. They had risked detection and destruction by going up to carry out the
checks, no matter how important it was to ensure that they didn’t accidentally blow up the
wrong location. There were times when he cursed the Government; the safety of his ship was
his prime concern, not satisfying global opinion. Let a different government worry about
such things for once.

“I concur,” the engineering officer said. He was brisk and efficient; either he didn’t really
grasp what was happening, or he was keeping his own concern and worry deep inside, hidden
from the world. The Captain almost envied him. He was about to go down in history as the
first American to unleash a nuclear attack in anger since…1945. Never mind that it had been
President Robinson who had issued the orders, never mind that he was sworn to follow the
orders of the legitimate President and Commander-in-Chief of the American Armed Forces,
never mind that…everyone would know his name. “The weapons are ready to fire.”

“I concur,” the weapons officer said finally. His face was blank; the Captain wondered how
he was holding up under the impact of controlling such power. Some officers had become
unbalanced under the strain; the tale of the sergeant who had literally built an atomic pistol
was a chilling reminder of just what could go wrong. “Captain?”

He had to set an example, the Captain knew. “Insert keys,” he ordered. The firing unit lit up
as they inserted their keys, almost simultaneously. “On my mark, twist.”

The unit confirmed that the weapons were armed and ready. “Tubes one to twelve are
opened,” the weapons officer said. His voice was shaking slightly now. “Missiles one to
eleven are confirming ready; missile twelve is…ah, missile twelve is confirming ready to fly.
Targeting coordinates have been locked and the missiles are armed.”

The Captain gently pushed his hand away from the covered switch. “It’s my responsibility,”
he said. He flipped up the switch and touched it gently. “Confirm targeting?”

“Confirmed,” the weapons officer said, confirming it once again. “Weapons are locked.”
The Captain touched the release button and flipped the switch. The submarine shook as the
first missile launched itself into the air, its drive igniting seconds later and punching it out of
the water and up into the air. The entire submarine rang like a bell; for one nightmarish
moment, the Captain wondered if someone was dropping depth charges on them. A second
missile flew, then a third, then a fourth…one by one, twelve payloads of death shot into the
air, targeted on alien positions. It was overkill, by most standards, but no one knew if the
lasers could intercept ballistic weapons. Soon, the Captain knew, they would find out…

“Send a signal to the National Command Authority,” the Captain ordered. “Twelve missiles
have been launched from this ship. Target; Saudi Arabia. May Allah help us all.”

                                              ***
The missiles punched their way through the atmosphere and came over, slowly, heading for
what had once been called Saudi Arabia. As they rose, sweeps of radar energy from Saudi
Arabia found them, identifying them as a possible threat. The Traders had never discussed
some of the programs built into the laser radar units with the Malick Karn; some of the
possible uses of the system would have given them ideas and they already had too many of
their own. The Malick Karn knew little about ballistic missiles – they had never needed them
themselves – but the Traders had prepared for the possibility by adding antimissile targeting
programs to what they’d supplied to the Malick Karn.

General Sir Kolayh had been working to organise his forces when the alarm rang, warning of
an incoming air attack. He ran at once to the command centre, convinced that it wouldn’t last
long; after all, everyone had already discovered that sending aircraft in to attack the Malick
Karn was asking to lose the aircraft. The Royal Saudi Air Force had been wiped out on the
first day of fighting; a handful of aircraft from the nearby countries of Kuwait, Iraq and Iran
had been shot down as well as the Malick Karn expended their foothold over the region. If
the enemy were attacking again – and the soldiers in the region had shown no ability to learn
from fighting or even any desire to follow the rules of war – they would be rapidly wiped out.

He stared as he saw the pattern developing on the computer. “What is that?”

“Bombs, I think,” the controller said. The missiles were fissioning now, launching their
smaller warheads towards their targets, falling rapidly towards the ground. “I request
permission to engage.”

“Granted,” General Sir Kolayh snapped. There was something about the situation that felt
terribly wrong. “Engage them at once.”

The Trader computers had linked the laser systems together, mainly to prevent two systems
from accidentally engaging the same target and wasting power. Now, they brought the
weapons online and started to target the weapons as they fell out of the sky, almost one
hundred bombs falling towards the planet. General Sir Kolayh watched in horror as bomb
after bomb vanished from the display, breaking up under the powerful heat of the lasers, only
to realise that it was too late. It was taking too long to destroy each bomb so completely that
it disintegrated and too many weapons were going to reach the ground…

“Focus on covering this base and the troop concentrations,” he snapped. The other places
would have to take their chances. The operator nodded and overrode a dozen urgent
commands from subordinate officers, ordering Metalstorm units to provide additional
covering fire for the units that had been left on their own. The first target was a small
garrison along the coastline, armed with lasers and antiship weapons, and…

The warhead detonated over the base. Moments later, the base was wrapped in a fireball.
The operator cursed, knowing that there was no longer any way to control events; they would
have to wait and see what had happened when the bombs stopped going off. A second bomb
exploded, then a third; two troop centres were wiped off the map. A prison camp with
thousands of human slaves died in a fireball; a medical centre for the lucky wounded was
caught in a blast from a weapon that had ‘missed’ the target. One warhead got through to a
troop concentration along the Iraqi border; it detonated, roasting the volunteers and regulars
in a wave of fire. The command base, through selfishness and a dark miracle, survived.

“Inform Prince Rohan,” General Sir Kolayh said, as the damage reports came in. Many of
his facilities and bases had been destroyed; one hit, near what the humans had called Prince
Sultan, had shattered part of his command network. Others had survived almost intact; the
enemy warheads hadn’t expected to fly through a laser defence system. “Inform him that we
are wounded, but we will be back at full efficiency as soon as he sends us some
reinforcements.”

The operator decided that it would be better not to dispute General Sir Kolayh’s version of
events. It wouldn’t be good for his health.

                                             ***
Général de division Philippe Laroche looked to the south as a flare of light appeared in the
distance. Paris had only flashed him the warning ten minutes ago, the warning that an
American President had finally broken the taboo of using nuclear weapons against an enemy
and fired on enemy positions across Saudi Arabia. Laroche wasn’t actually surprised,
although a few of the other officers had howled in outrage when they realised that the
Americans hadn’t bothered to consult with anyone, they'd just launched the attack.

“When we were at risk of missile attack, they insisted that we consult with them,” David bar
Elias muttered. The officer’s papers claimed that he came from ‘The Republic of Gondor,’ a
rather transparent attempt to hide that he was from Israel. “They go and launch a missile
attack on the bloody aliens and do they bother to ask us? No!”

“I think that we should be relieved,” Laroche said frankly. There were nearly forty thousand
human soldiers in or near the city of As Samawah, nearly three hundred kilometres southeast
of Baghdad. British, French, American, Polish, Japanese and Iraqi, all grimly aware that if
the aliens came north, stopping them would be difficult. The Iraqi Government had taken
over responsibility for the security of the Al Muthanna Governorate and was desperate to
prove that it could hold its head up high, despite the presence of at least three – Laroche had
never been able to keep track of Iraqi factions – militias that opposed the new government.
“Do you think that we could have stopped them?”

He was more worried than he cared to admit. The aliens had unleashed nuclear fire on an
American city and the Americans had launched a smashing blow back against the aliens. The
results had been spectacular – he didn’t doubt that – and the Americans had been careful to
miss Mecca and Medina, but the aliens had successfully shot down several of the warheads
and they might want to shoot back. Did they understand that they had taken on the
Americans, or did they think that they were fighting the entire world? There was no way to
know.

What he did know was worse. Iraqi oil had never quite reached the levels it could have
reached and Iranian oil had been cut off by the alien presence and the occasional attack on
Iranian and Kuwaiti tankers. Europe was much more efficient when it came to using energy
than the Americans, but even so, oil supplies had been sharply reduced by the aliens, not just
because they had knocked over Saudi, but because they had cut off most of the other
countries in the region as well. Europe was going dry when it came to oil, and there was a
global economic collapse looming. Rationing had been instigated at once, of course, but how
long would it be before something gave?

David bar Elias looked towards the looming mushroom cloud in the south. He had to be
looking at one of his nightmares – one of Israel’s nightmares – and Laroche gave him credit
for remaining calm. A handful of nukes would devastate Israel; one of their main worries
had been Iran or Iraq actually launching a spread of nukes in their direction. Israel now had a
second problem to worry about; the aliens had nukes too…and they had clearly managed to
somehow get a warhead through American defences, like the ones that were covering Israel’s
cities. America could soak up a nuclear detonation and keep going; Israel could not.

“They’re talking about intervening directly,” Laroche commented, wondering exactly where
the Israelis stood on the subject. The entire region was so…coy! Israel had sent help to
Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War, but no one had breathed a word about it; why hadn’t the
Israelis told the Saudi people everything? “The Americans have certainly weakened the alien
position badly.”

David bar Elias snorted. Silently, the pretence was abandoned. “What, this bunch of fuck
ups?”

Laroche had to admit that he had a point. The massed power in Iraq was confusion incarnate;
there were British infantry and tanks, some American infantry, some Japanese soldiers who
might as well have been policemen, and lots of Iraqi infantry. The Americans had some
heavier equipment based up north, but he rather suspected that it would all be pulled out
through Turkey and sent to the US. And…

And no one was quite certain who was in command. The Iraqi Government had overall
authority, except it could agree on nothing. The Americans had formal military command,
but not all of the other nations were prepared to go along unquestioningly. The most
powerful armed forces in the region, Turkey and Israel, were persona non grata as far as the
other Arab nations were concerned. The various militias were only good for annoying the
aliens; the ruins of a dozen cities in Saudi stood as mute testament to that. They needed a
unified command…and Laroche knew that one would never be established.

“There may be no choice,” Laroche said. “I assume that the Mossad knows about the alien
demands?” David bar Elias nodded once. “I have been asked to inform you, through the
back, as it were, that no European Government is going to agree to what the aliens want.”

“That seems like a good idea,” David bar Elias said shortly. “What exactly are you going to
do about it?”
Laroche took a breath. It would be so much easier if they could have it out in the open. “The
European Union is assembling a military force to recover the oil fields and secure the
coastline,” he said. “We would like – we need – Israel’s help. Please would you take that to
your government?”

“Behind the scenes, of course,” David bar Elias said. “The European Union as a military
power. It almost doesn’t bear thinking about.”

“Needs must when there is a devil at your back,” Laroche said. He allowed his voice to
harden. “Tell them that we are determined; one way or another, we will not go quietly.”
Chapter Thirty: One More Victory and I am Ruined, Take One

“One more victory like this and I am ruined,” Prince Rohan said, as he examined the report
from the front. It had been a victory, in theory; the cost had been awesomely high. The
losses in tanks and other vehicles alone had been far higher than he had expected, higher than
in any previous battle with the human forces. The destruction of a human city had pushed the
humans into firing back with their own nukes…and he was sure that only their reluctance to
scatter radioactive fireballs over their own country had saved his force in America from
destruction. The damage to his forces in Saudi had been considerable.

He looked across at Garlinda-Ya. She looked beautiful in the strange light of the human
room, but he knew that she was thinking just as hard as he was, if not harder. She had spent
more time with the humans than anyone else, otr at least the two humans he had taken into
his service, but she had no answers for him. No one could answer the questions he needed to
answer, starting with a reason for the Traders sense of urgency – why had they pushed him
into an offensive?

He cursed them under his breath. He had taken the human room, rather than using one of
their starships, force shield or no, just to provide some security against them listening in. He
wasn’t sure if they even considered him someone worth listening to – half the time they
seemed to act as if his entire race was composed of children and peasants – but he would
have ensured that he had some surveillance technology in their place. What had they been
thinking?

Conquering an entire world was difficult; even with the Trader-granted technology, he had
known that it had taken Char ten years to overrun all of Karn…and Earth was a much more
formidable target. He had picked his main targets carefully, but the Traders had forced him
into action before he was ready to take the offensive again, something that had both frittered
away some of his forces and their supplies, and proven that his force could be beaten. The
Trader assurance that none of the other nations on Earth could intervene in a meaningful way
might or might not be accurate, but it hardly mattered; all they had needed to know was that
the Malick Karn could be beaten. They knew it now…and he was sure that it wouldn’t be
long before they started to join in the fighting somehow.

He stared down at his hands. “Why?” He asked her. “Why did they push us into that
offensive?”

He recalled the odd behaviour of the Tradermaster and wondered exactly what had been
wrong with the alien. The Traders were generally cold and calculating; the Tradermaster had
seemed almost in a panic, as if there was something important that he hadn’t told the Malick
Karn. If there was a time limit, what was it; he had the grim idea that he was playing without
knowing what the stake was, or even the rules of the game. What were the Traders playing
at? If they knew the rules, why had they not shared them with the Malick Karn?

She met his eyes. He trusted her completely. “They wanted us to lose?”

Prince Rohan stared at her. It made no sense, but then, neither did the offensive plans as they
had stood. The problem lay in logistics; his only real source of supply came from the Trader
supply lines back to Karn, and they were frail. They hadn’t taken any real human industry;
most of what they had taken had been useless for military purposes, or had been destroyed
before they had managed to secure it. They had captured plenty of information – security
seemed to be a sometime thing when humans were concerned – but most of it was useless on
Earth. It had to go back to Char…and the Traders were refusing to allocate space for people
to return to Char. They might have been rushing in reinforcements, but he knew that it was
only a matter of time before the humans took the offensive, perhaps using their own nukes as
well.

“They wouldn’t want us to lose,” he said, trying to convince himself and not having much
luck. Perhaps it made sense, from a Trader point of view, to ship an army across the gulf of
space and have it destroyed on an alien world. He found himself unable to convince himself
that that was indeed the case. The Traders had used gas to suppress a riot on one of their
ships; they could have killed the army without having to take them to Earth. “What would be
the point?”

His Generals had been quite clear; his army was in no state to resume the offensive. Indeed,
they couldn’t even guarantee holding onto what they had; the shortage of ammunition and
other supplies was too great. Lasers only needed power, but guns and tanks needed fuel and
ammunition; fuel was the only item that wasn’t a real problem as the tanks ran on distilled
hydrogen.

“I don’t know,” Garlinda-Ya said. She placed a hand on his chest. “Come here and forget
about it for a while.”

He pushed her away gently. “I can’t,” he said. “I don’t understand it; what are the Traders
playing at now?”

She held his hand. “Perhaps you should talk to the humans directly,” she said. “It is possible
that the Traders might have opened communications with them, rather than helping us to take
the world for them.”

Rohan thought about it. The Traders had backed Char to take over their world; why would
they not back a human faction on Earth? It was, as far as he knew, how they operated…but
as far as any of the Savants could make out, there was no reliable report of any pre-invasion
alien contact. The thousands of aliens described by humans who seemed to have been
drinking – although how they could drink beer and wine baffled Rohan – bore little
resemblance to Malick Karn, or Traders. Small sinister grey aliens, tall shaggy monsters;
humanity seemed to have an imagination when it came to alien life. Had the Traders some
reason for refusing to back a human faction?

He smiled. “They were scared,” he said. The thought was oddly reassuring; they knew from
study of the human books and records that the humans had been preparing to move into space
themselves, something that the Savants back on Karn could only dream about. The Traders
might have been worried about the humans, worried enough to transport a Malick Karn army
across the stars to Earth. He was convinced that he was right; the smile on her face only
confirmed it for him. “They were scared of the humans.”

He tried to think of a time where a Trader had been exposed to direct danger and couldn’t
think of one. Only a couple of Traders had ever set foot on Karn itself, even at the height of
the fighting; they had never been exposed to real danger. What did they have to fear from the
Malick Karn? But if he was right, and if the Traders were scared of the humans…then all
manner of opportunities opened up in front of him.

“We have to talk to the humans,” he said. They had only a few bargaining chips; silently, he
cursed the Traders again for what they had done to his people. If the humans suspected how
weak his forces were, they would do as he would do – and attack. He couldn’t stand off a
human attack now, not for long. “We need them to help us somehow.”

He smiled. “Those humans who I took into my service; how are they preparing for their
duties?”

Garlinda-Ya smiled. “Some puzzlement over what their duties actually are,” she said. By
now, she spoke the human language fluently, almost perfectly. Rohan’s own understanding
was much more limited. “You do know that one of them is a female?”

Rohan shrugged. He didn’t know how human men coped with the strange bulges on the
chests of the human women, but it wasn’t his problem. “She’s not one of us,” he said. The
thought of treating a woman as an equal was…odd, even in private; Garlinda-Ya was, at
bottom, someone who could never take his place. He could never open up to a man that way,
not even First Sergeant Sir Chamita. It would be taken as a sign of weakness. “She can have
whatever airs and graces her man will allow her to put on.”

Garlinda-Ya looked oddly hurt. Rohan didn’t worry about it. “Their duties consist of
advising me about their race,” he said. “Are they prepared to do that?”

Garlinda-Ya bowed her head. “They’re ready for that,” she said. “They’re still rather shaky
on protocol, but I have not given them an intensive education course; I’ve treated them as
royalty, rather than commoners or soldiers. The humans seem more like the Grozh than
anything we would recognise as an empire; their leader is elected once every four years.”

Rohan shrugged. The Grozh had been a democratic state; they had been crushed beneath the
power of Char. Democracy didn’t work; they had even put women in the ranks of the
soldiers – a gross insult to the ways of war – and they had given everyone the vote. They
might have fought like mad bastards, but in the end they had fallen; the Trader weapons had
crushed them. There were even some Grozh volunteers with the army.

“Human protocol lessons can wait,” he said. It was forbearance that would be unknown
among even the Grozh – the Malick Karn believed firmly in protocol – but it was necessary.
The humans…were not Malick Karn; they weren’t peasants forced to adapt to a new master,
or former members of a destroyed royal family, forced into a new role. They had to be cured
of their airs and graces, broken down and integrated into the Royal Family of Char…if they
were lucky. “We need their advice now on how to outwit and escape the Traders.”

He leaned back and allowed her to massages his back. “The Traders will have to be told that
we need supplies,” he said. The trap was deadly; if the Traders devoted themselves to
bringing in supplies, they would be unable to bring in more soldiers, even from the thirty
million man force that had been assembled on Karn for the war. “There has to be some way
to bring in additional supplies, whatever it is; without that, we will have nothing to bargain
with when we talk to the humans.”
Her hands worked wonders on his back and he felt himself relaxing. They had little to
bargain with; the only thing they really had was information on the Traders and a direct line
to the Tradermaster. Would that be enough? Thanks to the Traders, defeating and occupying
even America would be far more difficult…and perhaps even impossible. If the humans ever
realised his weakness…

She distracted him enough for him to slip out of his robe and turn to her. As she bowed her
head and turned, allowing him entry, he felt something new for her and held her tightly.
Whatever happened to the army, he wouldn’t let anything bad happen to her. The
humans…placed their own women in the fighting forces; did they know anything about how
valuable trained women could be? What would they do if they captured her alive?

The thought was unbearable.

                                               ***
The more he thought about it, the more Houghton realised that the numbers didn’t quite add
up. He had never claimed to be a military expert, but he knew enough to know that it was
generally taken that a three-to-one advantage was required at the point of impact for victory
to be fairly certain. Their understanding of the Malick Karn language was still flawed, but he
had asked the aliens how many of them there were…and the answer had been that the army
had around five hundred thousand soldiers crammed into Washington, and a complete
strength of around thirty million.

It was possible, of course, that it was a translation error. The first time they had tried to work
out the figures, they had been told that the Malick Karn had sixty billion soldiers, something
that would have caused a massive population crisis on their homeworld. The Traders had
provided them with transport; they had no other colony worlds or sources of supply. Sixty
billion Malick Karn would have caused a war that would have shattered their world; he
would have been surprised if their total population was larger than five billion overall.

There were, they’d learned, some counter-balancing factors. The Traders had introduced
some medicine and medical knowledge…and that had spread rapidly, rapidly enough for
hundreds of thousands of babies who would die in infancy to survive, giving them a
population boost. The Malick Karn also had a habit of literally farming out conquered female
populations to their soldiers, boosting the birth rate again, but even that wouldn’t give them
such a vast population. If thirty million soldiers was all they had in reserve…how could they
hope to take over the Earth?

The aliens, he had learned, were based around submission. Females submitted to males,
peasants submitted to soldiers, soldiers submitted to their commanding officers, commanding
officers submitted to nobles, nobles submitted to the royal family. The aliens might well
have something like the ‘Lord’s Right’ over not only enemy women, but the women of lower
status as well. The entire system had been falling apart before the Traders saved it…and that
meant that the Traders were hostile to both humanity and the Malick Karn. His own position,
as he understood it, was odd; he had been taken captive and was therefore the properly of
Prince Rohan, who had given him the post of Advisor.

Even so, thirty million seemed too low to take over America, let alone the rest of the world…
The door opened and First Sergeant Sir Chamita – who seemed to be Rohan’s bodyguard and
occasional advisor himself – stepped in, checking out the room before allowing Rohan and
his woman to step inside. The relationship between the two seemed odd; Garlinda-Ya could
have nothing of her own, but she could and would do anything to enhance the career of her
man. She was smarter than him, smarter than Houghton himself, and should have had a real
chance at life. Instead…

He knelt before the Prince.

“You may rise,” Rohan said, as Garlinda-Ya smiled down at him. “Your advice is required.”
He spoke briefly, detailing the battle and how the Traders had pushed them into the fight.
Houghton wasn’t sure how to feel; he was only relieved that he knew no military information
that would be really helpful to the Malick Karn. “Your comments are required…”

Gloria spoke before Houghton could say a word. “The Traders don’t seem to like you,” she
said. There was a very grim tone to her voice. “Perhaps they wanted you to lose.”

“Perhaps,” Rohan said. Houghton had nearly had a heart attack; from what he’d heard, a
woman who talked first would be lucky if she was only flogged. He had been terrified for
her; they only had each other, in the end. He knew about Stockholm Syndrome and all that
jazz, but he was falling in love with her…and was pretty certain that she felt the same way.
“How do you believe your government would react to a peace overture?”

Gloria spoke again. Garlinda-Ya looked as if she was trying not to smile herself. “I thought
that you had made peace overtures?”

“They were peace overtures made on your terms,” Houghton said, before Rohan could run
out of patience. It was far too easy to forget that they were completely at the mercy of the
aliens; they could be sent to one of the slave camps at a word from Rohan. “What do you
want from them?”

Rohan held his eyes. Perhaps it was easier for him to take Houghton seriously. “We need to
find some way of getting out from under the Traders,” he said. Houghton nodded to himself;
the danger, the real danger, was that the Traders would respond violently to any attempt to
unseat them from their position. They were apparently allowed to fire in self-defence; they
might even engage in an exercise in pre-emptive self-defence. “We need your people to help
us with that.”

Houghton felt the world spinning around him. He knew that Rohan would listen to whatever
he had to say, but the very real danger lay in saying the wrong thing. The truth, that America
would certainly want something from the Malick Karn in exchange for peace, might not
encourage Rohan to make peace…and then there was the danger of whatever the Traders
might do. He wished that someone who was actually empowered to make actual decisions
was present; he could only advise.

So advise, idiot, he thought. “You might have to give up your conquests here,” he said.
Rohan nodded without comment. There was a second danger, but he decided not to mention
it; America would almost certainly want war crimes trials for some of the Malick Karn.
“They won’t let you keep them.”
“As long as they don’t kill my army, I don’t mind,” Rohan said. Houghton could only hope
that he was being sincere. Oddly enough, he suspected that the Malick Karn was being
honest; Rohan wasn’t a bad person by the standards of his own people. “How can I talk to
them?”

“Send someone though the lines with a white flag,” Houghton said. “They’ll listen to him, at
least, but make sure that he is unarmed and not dangerous in any way.” He paused. There
was a final problem. “You must keep it secret…because if the Traders find out too soon,
they might take action of their own.”
Chapter Thirty-One: One More Victory and I am Ruined, Take Two

“They want us to do what?”

Shipmaster Gargan sounded horrified, his tentacles waving in the air as he paced around the
bridge, passing through consoles and tactical display panels as he moved around. Well used
to the effects of holographic projections, neither of the other two bothered to comment. Each
of their ships was designed slightly differently, after all; Shipmaster Salkan’s Profitable Day
could even fly into a planet’s atmosphere.

Tradermaster Maxtin smiled thinly. “You must admit that they have a point,” he said. “Our
logistics line is limited as it is.”

“One of our ships – my ship – was attacked directly by the humans,” Shipmaster Gargan
thundered. He came to a halt, like an outraged ball of bouncy plastic, and swung around to
glare at Tradermaster Maxtin. “They launched nuclear missiles at my ship!”

Tradermaster Maxtin gave him a reproving look. There were times when he felt that his race
had given up something when they had become less sociable. Mating had stopped being
something that they did for pleasure; they only mated now to quench the desire and to use as
a power tool. The more power a single Trader acuminated, the more solitude he or she would
desire; only five Traders lived on Tradermaster Maxtin’s ship. Two of them were nothing
more than apprentices.

“The human missiles barely left their atmosphere before you destroyed them all in flight,” he
reminded him. “With such a long flight time, how could they hope to hit us with such
missiles? Perhaps next time, we should let them get closer before shooting them down; we
should make a game of it all, eh?”

“I assume that you are joking,” Shipmaster Gargan snarled. “Just how easy is it to replace a
starship?”

“And I assume that you are being ironic,” Tradermaster Maxtin said. “You are aware that
there is nothing that the humans can do to us?”

“One lost starship and we might as well break up the Clan,” Shipmaster Gargan said.
“Shipmaster Salkan, tell me that you are going to call a halt to this, aren’t you?”

Shipmaster Salkan looked uncomfortable. Tradermaster Maxtin was careful not to show her
any sign of fear, or even of concern. He had no choice; if his protégée turned against him,
there would be little choice, but abandoning the Malick Karn on the surface of Earth and
running from the solar system as if they were being chased by a horde of outraged humans.
But…he had to know that turning against the Tradermaster would have a price; no other
Tradermaster would trust him after that. He would be a rogue among Traders, someone stuck
with only his own ship and crew…

“We are committed to this,” he said finally. “Logistically, we cannot actually increase the
speed of our movements, can we?”
“No,” Tradermaster Maxtin said flatly. There was a twenty-day round trip to Karn and back.
That meant that while they could move vast quantities of supplies and soldiers, there would
always be a hard limit on what they could move, to say nothing of clearing up the mess after
groups of outraged or mutinous soldiers attempted to rebel against their Char commanding
officers. The Trader FTL drive was a marvel, but it couldn’t produce any higher speed. “We
run the very severe risk of losing the Malick Karn foothold on Earth.”

“Your pet has probably been exaggerating the danger to extort more out of you,” Shipmaster
Gargan sneered. “If the humans were that capable, they would have wiped the Malick Karn
off their planet long ago.”

“They have already seriously impacted upon the Malick Karn foothold in the main oil
producing regions,” Shipmaster Salkan said. “The nuclear warheads they deployed were
tough enough to withstand limited laser fire. Had the humans fired more, they might well
have destroyed the Malick Karn position completely.”

“They still seem reluctant to use such weapons against the main foothold,” Shipmaster
Gargan said. “What exactly are they asking for?”

Tradermaster Maxtin looked at him. “Direct involvement,” he said. “They want…”

“Out of the question,” Shipmaster Gargan said. “We cannot get directly involved!” He
started to pace again. “What happens when one of the other races realises that we played a
direct role in the conquest of an intelligent race, in defiance of all strictures? We are neutral
in galactic affairs for a reason; that reason, Maxtin” – the insult flashed past Tradermaster
Maxtin in a second – “is that we are not a numerous race and we are very far-flung from the
world that gave us birth. If our neutrality becomes suspect…”

“You don’t have to spell out the possible consequences,” Tradermaster Maxtin snapped.
They were dangerous; entire regions of space would become barred to Trader penetration as
race after race learned about their actions at Earth and banned Traders from their space – or,
worse, actually engaged Trader ships whenever they encountered them. “What they have
asked for, they need…

“They have asked for food producing machines,” he said. “We can provide those and we
must, otherwise their army will starve and die. The humans did a good job of stripping the
occupied area of anything that was actually useful to the Malick Karn. They have asked for
equipment to produce vehicles and weapons, which…”

“Food producing machines are one thing,” Shipmaster Gargan said. “You’re talking about
handing over fabricators to the Malick Karn! Do you know what they could do with them?”

“Oh, grow up,” Tradermaster Maxtin snapped, a nasty insult when individual Traders were
almost immortal. “What do you think they can do with them? They can produce what we
give them the templates to produce! They cannot use their computer Savants” – his voice
dripped with scorn – “to somehow reprogram the fabricators to create equipment comparable
to ours, can they?”

“They have their Savants working on computers,” Shipmaster Gargan pointed out.
“There is a gap of literally light years between the clunky machines we taught them to make
and the computers that control the fabricators,” Tradermaster Maxtin snapped. “They may
have managed to figure out some of the programming of the other machines, but do they
understand the how and why? Even if they had complete mastery over their machines, they
would still know nothing about our computers…and if by some extremely unlikely chance
they did manage to access the controlling subroutines…so what?”

Shipmaster Gargan scowled. “So what, what?”

“So what,” Tradermaster Maxtin said. “The fabricators will hardly have the plans for
anything of ours stored in their memory…and if they knew how to make antigravity devices,
or FTL, we would never have entered our relationship with them. See?”

He took a moment to enjoy his victory. “If we can provide them with such equipment, we
can also find a way to interfere without being obviously interfering with the humans,” he
said. “We could certainly destroy all of their satellites without any danger to us
personally…even that stupid space station and space shuttle that is flying around in orbit.
What do we have to fear?”

“Other direct intervention,” Shipmaster Gargan said. “Shipmaster Salkan; you appear to have
the casting vote.”

Shipmaster Salkan looked at him. “Then let us help supply our…pets,” he said. His long
tentacles extended towards the hologram of Earth, spinning in front of them. “Destroy the
satellites by all means; most of them are damaged and present a hazard to space navigation in
any case. But directly killing humans? No; that would certainly break the Law.”

“The Law has already been stretched almost to breaking point,” Shipmaster Gargan muttered.
“How long must he lead us down the path of doom before you stop supporting him?”

Shipmaster Salkan shot one eye towards Tradermaster Maxtin, the other towards Shipmaster
Gargan. I will support him until he wants to break the law,” he said. “We are sworn to
uphold the law.”

Shipmaster Gargan gave him a look and vanished from the connection. “There’s someone
who wants to replace you,” Shipmaster Salkan commented, as soon as the computers
confirmed that Shipmaster Gargan had indeed left. “Anyone would think that he was not
grateful.”

Tradermaster Maxtin shrugged. “Shipmaster Gargan was born old,” he said. It was an insult
in the Trader society; their age gave them a different outlook on the universe. They had
outlived hundreds of races, but the price they paid for their near-immortality was social
stagnation. He had wondered, sometimes, what would happen if Traders actually built
empires of their own; would they have a chance? Few races managed to build real empires –
the logistics of shipping men and material across the galaxy made it tricky – but the Traders
had the long-term perspective to make it work. It only required someone willing to bend the
Law…and perhaps then the Law could be rewritten. If…

Shipmaster Salkan looked up at him. “I have doubts,” he admitted. “What happens if this
goes badly wrong?”
Tradermaster Maxtin made a shrug. “That rather depends on how and how badly it goes
wrong,” he said. “There are still cards that we can play.” He shrugged again. “And if worst
comes to the worst, we retreat and leave the humans stuck on their little world, unable to
follow us back towards civilisation.”

                                               ***
“They’re moving again,” Sonja Greenhorn said. There were only two of them on the
Atlantis; the others had been transferred to the ISS and then transferred down to the surface
along with most of the ISS crew. Only two Americans remained on the ISS; the Russians and
the other parties involved in the station had insisted – knowing just how vulnerable the ISS
was to one of the odd alien weapons – that their crewmen be pulled off the station. Some at
NASA had wanted to take Atlantis down as well, but the military had insisted on keeping the
shuttle in orbit.

Keeping their options open, Captain Markus Kane thought, remembering the justification.
His mission was already pushing the record for space shuttle endurance in space; were it not
for several unmanned re-supply flights to the ISS, he would have had to have landed the
shuttle before they ran out of food and air. He felt bitter envy as he watched the aliens
whenever they came near the shuttle, from the massive ship that floated near the moon – it
couldn’t come any closer without affecting the tides, something else that Independence Day
had gotten wrong – to the smaller craft – ‘small’ in this case meaning ‘only’ fifty kilometres
long. One of those craft had actually floated down into the planet’s atmosphere; it puzzled
him that a race that could create such ships would have bothered with landing a ground army
at all.

Or at least it had; the confidential briefing from the national command post had explained a
lot about the aliens. Many of the details were missing, but Kane had experience with
NASA’s bureaucracy; he had been able to read behind the lines to determine that the
Americans had actually captured some alien prisoners. He’d been in a position to observe the
attempt to strike one of the ‘small’ alien ships with nuclear missiles, but it had been
worthless; the aliens hadn’t been hurt at all. They hadn’t even raised a sweat, as far as Kane
could tell; as soon as the missiles had appeared above the atmosphere, they had calmly blown
each and every one of them out of space.

“Well, at least we know that ABM tech could have worked,” Sonja had said, quoting one of
the hundreds of electronic books they had on the shuttle. They had both been devouring alien
invasion books, in-between watching the aliens, trying to understand them, and spending
some time making each other very happy. There had been times when the pressures had just
become too much and they had sought comfort in each other; NASA had turned a blind eye.
Privately, Kane suspected that NASA was collecting data on zero-gravity sex, but he found it
hard to care.

“I see,” he said. He checked the laser link to ground control and the ISS before saying
anything else; the shuttle could be smashed before either of them knew what had hit them.
The link-up was working perfectly, but it wasn’t as if the ground could have done anything to
help them; if nukes hadn’t worked, then what else was there? He had heard that there was a
crash program going on to duplicate the alien lasers – which were much more powerful than
any the US had had before the invasion began – but as far as he knew, there hadn’t been any
real success. “Where are they going?”
There was no point in bringing the shuttle to battle stations, or to red alert, or any of that jazz.
They were unarmed and completely helpless if the aliens tried to open fire on them. The
alien craft were definitely moving rapidly, criss-crossing the planet, their drives sending
waves of energy across space. The alien drives – no one knew how – could shake the shuttle
if they were too close. It was as if something was driving far too close to them…and that was
supposed to be impossible, in space. He hated NASA at that moment, hated it for failing in
its duty, hated it for not putting the human race in space where it belonged. The stars were
cold and hostile now, and aliens ruled the sky above Earth.

“Energy pulse,” Sonja snapped. Alarms were sounding on the shuttle now; he turned them
all off with a wave of his hand. One of the alien craft was emitting a pinpoint beam of
energy; there was a long chilling pause…and then a blue flicker of light appeared in the
distance, swatting a satellite from the sky. “Markus, they just…”

“I saw,” Kane said. Two more satellites vanished, followed rapidly by a third; the alien
drives seemed to be pushing the debris down towards the surface of the planet. The pulses of
light came faster and faster; the aliens were knocking out the entire satellite network rapidly,
much faster than the ground-based lasers had been able to damage satellites. Russian,
Chinese, European, Japanese, American…all of them were picked off and destroyed in
glinting flashes of blue light. “That’s going to hurt, badly.”

He thought about it. He had a USAF qualification in space, military uses of; he knew more
than most people about just how important the satellite network was to the world. Knock it
out, just for a few months, and the resulting economic shock would send most of the world
right down into Third World status. The global military manoeuvres would be impossible to
coordinate, weather observation would become tricky, entire regions would be left without
communications.

“You bloody bastard,” he shouted at the alien craft. “What the fuck are you?”

He stopped dead. A thought had just occurred to him. It was crazy, it was insane, but it
might just work. If the people on the ground agreed to it, it might become possible to give
the aliens a shock that they weren’t expecting…and hurt them right where it would hurt the
most.

“I’ve had an idea,” he said, and reached for the secure console. They would have to hope that
the aliens couldn’t listen in to laser communications; he had no illusions about how safe their
encryption codes were under alien scrutiny. “Tell me, where do you stand on dying for your
country?”

                                              ***
The night sky was warm as they lay together on a blanket, far from the war; the only signs
that there was actually any fighting going on were the occasional bangs and flashes from the
north, where human patrols encountered alien patrols, with no quarter being given on either
side. Sergeant Jeremy Damiani smiled contentedly as he looked down at the long naked body
beside him, half asleep and smiling blissfully in the night.

He had been promised a promotion, along with a medal, for the capture of alien soldiers.
When he thought about how close he had come to simply cutting all of the aliens down
before they left Stafford, he felt cold; he had never taken part in an atrocity before, even if the
aliens had deserved it. They might now – thanks to him – have a name for the aliens, but he
preferred to think of them as the aliens. He didn’t want to put a face on people he might have
to kill.

Clara shifted against him and opened her eyes fully. She’d shared the same sense of sheer
delight in survival; he’d heard that she’d actually taken part in defending Stafford before
retreating along with some of the other personnel. Only a handful of residents had remained
behind, determined to only surrender Stafford over their dead bodies; Damiani himself knew
that he had been lucky to escape. The alien prisoners might have been important, but he
valued Clara more higher than them; she was important to him in a way that no one had been
for years.

“You’re divine,” he whispered, as he gently stroked one of her breasts. She growled, deep in
her throat, and pulled herself up, climbing on top of him. Scuttlebutt claimed that the only
way the aliens could make love was by the woman bending over; humans clearly had the
advantage in that competition. Kit and Fell had liked the idea, provoking a long argument
and fistfight in the camp. “I want you…”

She lifted herself up and came down on his hardening penis. “Now,” she breathed. Her
voice was hot and husky, a shared burst of desire welled through him. “Fuck me now…”

Something caught his eye as she started to move on him. The sky was starting to flare with
sparks of light and shooting stars, falling into the atmosphere and burning up as she moved,
faster and faster, throwing her head back as she worked him as hard as she could. They had
spent most of the night making love; both of them were tired, but very happy and…

“Shooting stars,” she said, as he felt a dam bursting inside him. “I love you…”

Damiani felt cold, just for a second, as it clicked. The aliens were up to something…

“I love you too,” he breathed. Nothing else seemed important. Nothing.
Chapter Thirty-Two: Knives in the Dark

He left his kit behind, apart from the small items at his belt, and walked through the park
towards the interstate. The orders had been very clear and quite peremptory; his duties in the
national park would be taken over by two new officers who were being dispatched from the
human lines to the south. He would meet up with other team members as they slipped into
enemy territory, but for the moment, he was on his own. He didn’t like it.

Sergeant Pascal Schmidt paced onwards in slow, measured steps, careful to keep out of sight.
The enemy seemed to be patrolling more furiously than usual; no one was sure if that mean a
resumption of the offensive or if the enemy was trying to convince the humans that they were
stronger than they actually were. He knew where what he was looking for actually was, but it
was still a surprise to see it; the farmhouse that was so pristine and white that it was
obviously a decorated holiday home, owned – he had been told – by someone who was
patriotic, loyal, and probably well compensated for the loss of his or her property. The
farmhouse was a fake, he could see now; it still escaped him how the aliens had missed it, not
least because there wasn't really a farm. It was the ultimate in yuppie chic; a farmhouse that
was not a farmhouse that looked like a dream farmhouse.

His lips twitched as he moved closer. Schmidt had been born on a farm, born to walk behind
the back end of a mule, as his daddy had said, long ago. There hadn’t been any mules –
they’d had electronic trucks and combine harvesters – but it had been boring. The day that
he’d been chosen to train as a Marine had been the happiest of his life, not least because he
would never have to go back to the farm. He had only been back once, to attend his sister’s
wedding; he had sworn, then, never again.

Memories rose up unbidden as he slipped down towards the carefully hidden trench, hiding
himself and waiting. His father had been a hard man, but very gentle; he had once taken his
son to see a parade that had given him a lifelong fascination with the military. The scene was
almost surreal; there, he had lost his virginity to a girl in high school, there his dad had
thrashed him for smoking when he had been too young to understand the consequences,
there, his mother had been buried after she lost the long fight with lung cancer…

Someone moved, not too far away; he unslung his weapon and peered, carefully, for the
source of the noise. There had been no sign of any aliens nearby, but that could change; if
the aliens had had any idea that he was there, they would have sent a patrol of their best men
to intercept him, and if they had had any idea what was hidden in the farmhouse, they would
have either destroyed it or garrisoned it. It was just too dangerous to be left alone. It took
him a moment to realise that he was being watched…and then he sent a single pulse of sound
through the air, using his transmitter.

“Sergeant,” a voice said, far too close for comfort. A dark shape revealed itself to be Robin
Garland, one of the Delta Force commandos he had worked with in the past; the tall black
commando slipped forward as Schmidt saw him clearly. “You made it.”

Schmidt eyed him. “What about you and your people?”

“They’re just behind me,” Garland said. He waved towards the woods, carefully planted to
appear natural; the owner had clearly wanted a Little House in the Big Woods vibe. A
handful of shapes appeared; a handful more waved and then spread out, securing the
perimeter. Schmidt wouldn’t have wanted to be the alien who had to challenge them; Delta
Force operators tended to have a nasty sense of humour when it came to booby traps and
unpleasant ways to mutilate or kill the opposition. “Glad to have you with us.”

“That must be the first time,” Schmidt muttered. “I thought you were never glad to see us.”

Garland ignored the jibe. “The stars you might have seen last night were the aliens hacking
down all of the satellites,” he said. “We have orders to head into alien-controlled territory
and recover something of great worth there, along with a quick recon through alien territory
and see what’s happening. Shall we move into the farmhouse?”

Schmidt nodded. “I made no aliens as I went around, saw no patrols,” he said. “If there are
any aliens nearby, they’re well hidden. This place is somewhere they can’t afford not to
guard, if they knew about it.”

He led the way up towards the farmhouse door, expecting at any moment to hear gunshots,
but it was as cold and silent as the grave. The entire location had a vague horror-movie feel;
he wondered if that was some residue of what the place had been used for, from time to time,
or if it was merely his own knowledge affecting his perceptions. The door opened as Garland
unlocked it, using a key that seemed normal, then opened a second burglar-proof door as they
stepped into the lobby. It all still seemed as silent as the grave.

“Down here,” Garland said. He opened a door, revealing a flight of stairs. Everything
changed as soon as they entered the basement; there was no disguising that it was a military
facility of some kind. A set of guns were secured against one wall, from rifles that a person
could buy at any gun store to assault rifles that were clearly military issue; a small set of
computers sat against another. “Everything seems to be where they left it.”

Schmidt saw a set of manufactured restraints positioned against one wall. “Tell me,” he said.
“Is this some jerk-offs idea of a bondage dungeon, or is it something that we ordinary citizens
aren’t allowed to know about?”

“Officially, this facility does not exist,” Garland said. He opened a sealed door in the wall of
the basement, revealing a tunnel that was sloping downwards towards the north. “This place
has no name, only an identification number; even to most of those in the know, it’s little more
than a safe house for interrogating deflectors and terrorists alike. Before the invasion, only
nine people, three of them former Presidents, knew about this place; it’s one end of a tunnel
system right into official Washington.”

He whistled; four of his men came down into the basement. “The President used this place to
escape,” he said. “We’re going to use it to get back it.”

Schmidt stared at him. “If the aliens chased the President down here, then they must know
about it,” he protested. “Why the hell are we here?”

“The aliens don’t know about here, or else they would have triggered a whole series of
alarms further up the chain,” Garland said. He winked. “You’re doing fine; I raised many of
the same questions at the briefing. The fighting in the White House brought down some of
the tunnels; limited distrust charges brought down others, hampering the aliens from
following the people who were escaping. Much of the system remains powered, so…”
His hands were dancing over a console. “The sensors report that no one has passed through
the tunnels since the President left a month ago,” he said. “It’s safe for us to use, although we
will have to walk. Sorry.”

The team entered the tunnel, weapons raised, just in case. “I don’t believe it,” Schmidt said,
as they walked onwards. It felt as if the tunnel system went on forever. “How the hell did
they build it without anyone noticing?”

“I have no idea,” Garland said. He paused. “Given what some of the places we visited in
Godforsakenstan and Ashcanistan were like, they might well have built parts of it at a time,
linking them all together during one long period of renovation. There have always been a few
underground surprises near Washington; I heard once that after the War Between the States,
they put a dump in Washington with enough ammunition to re-fight the entire war.”

The tunnel stretched on into the distance. The lights were barely active; he didn’t even want
to think about what would happen if the lights failed with them all down there. They could
have crawled back, he supposed, but he didn’t want to admit defeat, whatever happened.
Even so, it was a terrifying experience; he was very glad when they reached the end of one of
the tunnels and a ladder leading upwards into a building.

“Most of the government buildings were destroyed or occupied by the aliens,” Garland
breathed, his voice barely audible above the limits of Schmidt’s hearing. The commandos
remained silent, spreading out to ensure clear fields of fire. “This one remained intact,
something that has worked in our favour; our alien friends have mounted one of their lasers
on the roof.”

Schmidt blinked. “Are you sure of that?”

“The triangulation of the laser beam comes back to here,” Garland assured him. “They don’t
keep the lasers near their radars for obvious reasons; anyone would think that someone
intended to punish them with fire. There are a handful of other possibilities, but this one was
the easiest for us to reach, assuming that we can get into the system here…”

He uncovered a small computer panel and attached a pack from his bag to the system.
Schmidt nodded in silent understanding; the designers of the system had been careful to keep
it powered down to avoid creating a betraying energy signal for the aliens. It was hard to
imagine any circumstance in which the system might be really useful, but someone in
Washington was obviously made of more paranoid stuff. Garland muttered a curse under his
breath as the device downloaded its data into his terminal, then shut down and went back to
sleep.

Garland turned to face the group. “Do you want the good news or the bad news?”

“The good news first,” one of the commandos said. “We could do with it.”

“The good news is that the laser is still here,” Garland said. “The bad news is that there’s a
small alien group here as well, guarding the lower levels.”

Schmidt snorted. “You didn’t seriously expect them to leave the laser unguarded?”
“The guards we anticipated were at the top, by the laser,” Garland said. He glared upwards
towards the shaft. “There are seven guards in the living room, one more standing just inside
the house. We have to take them all out quickly.”

He nodded to three of the commandos, who started to scramble up the shaft; Schmidt
followed them, hoping that Garland knew what he was doing. He'd seen the plan of the
building; the aliens themselves seemed to have taken over the lower floor, leaving the other
floors abandoned. The commandos moved with terrifying silence; one of them slipped down
the hall as soon as he left the shaft, heading right towards the alien’s back. The alien heard
something, started to turn, and the commando caught him and cut his throat with a single
slash of his knife. The alien sagged to the floor…

Garland pointed at a door, held up three fingers, and used them to count down. At ‘zero,’ the
commandos moved, their weapons silenced and opened the door. Schmidt heard the dull
thump of silenced weapons; the aliens, completely surprised, offered no resistance. After the
aliens had used a nuke, there would be little sympathy for their soldiers, killed without being
offered even a slight chance at mercy. They dared not risk giving the aliens time to
surrender; a single loud shot might bring the aliens down on them like the wrath of God.

“Bloody hell,” Garland said, as they entered the room themselves. “Look at that.”

Schmidt shook his head. It reassembled a typical room for soldiers, one where they didn’t
have to clear up the mess; they had left debris everywhere, along with what he thought were
the equivalent of alien porn. The alien females in the images all seemed to be bent over,
exposing their charms; he grimaced as he studied one of the images before pulling it down
and pocketing it.

“I know a guy called Lombardi who would pay good money for alien porn,” he said, at
Garland’s raised eyebrow. “He would be delighted to have it.”

“Sooner him than me,” Garland said. He paused. “Conner, what is it?”

The Delta Force commando had checked out the alien kitchen. “I found her,” he said.
Schmidt stared, for a moment not even believing his own eyes; the aliens had had a
housemaid, a female human housemaid. She was naked, with frightened eyes and hands that
desperately fluttered, as if she was trying to cover up her sex, but not quite daring to dare.
Schmidt felt pure anger; what the hell had the aliens put her though? “We can’t leave her
here, sir.”

“We’re not going to,” Garland muttered. “Conner, take her down the shaft and get her to
start running. Mother’s Milk, Wee Hughie, get some claymores set up around the ways in
here; buy us some time. The rest of you, with me.”

He led them up a long flight of stairs, heading up towards the roof. “We understand that the
majority of the laser stations are automated, slaved to the alien firing computers,” Garland
said, as they reached the top. His voice was very quiet; whoever had built the building hadn’t
designed it for the convenience of soldiers attempting to assault the property. “There are
three guards and they all have to be taken out…”
A door hissed open and they came face to face with an alien. Garland fired; the alien’s head
exploded as the other commandos ran forwards, their weapons ready to use as the other two
aliens snatched up their own weapons and prepared to return fire. They had clearly been
smoking something like a joint; one of them almost fell over before a shot caught him and
sent him crashing to the ground. The second actually fired a shot before he was killed;
Garland used a set of words that would have made a Marine blush.

“That’s torn it,” he said. Schmidt realised that everyone in Washington would have probably
heard that shot. “Grab that trolley, now!”

The commandos grabbed onto a heavy trolley and pulled it back inside the building. It held
what Schmidt assumed had to be the laser, a weird rotating ball, glittering with mirrored
sparkles of light and suspended above a strange power pack. It was surprisingly light for its
size; he had expected something much bigger.

“I’d give anything to know how they do it,” Garland said. He was searching the device
rapidly with his hands. “Built for idiots, they said,” he muttered. “The problem is that some
idiots are very clever and others are just thick. I wonder if…ah!”

The device came rapidly apart, just as a hail of shots shattered off the wall of the building. “I
think the game is up,” Garland said. Schmidt wasn’t surprised; they’d been awesomely lucky
so far, but everyone knew that luck always came to an end. “Grab a piece and come on!”

They ran down the stairs as if the devil himself was after them, hoping that the aliens would
give them time to escape. Mother’s Milk met them at the bottom of the stairs, just as one of
the claymores went off, detonating and shattering an enemy probe. Garland cursed and
ordered a rearguard to form, while three of the commandos and Schmidt carried the parts of
the laser down the shaft and reached the tunnel. He never knew how they managed it in later
life.

The girl looked up at them, her eyes wide with panic and fear. “Move, you silly bitch,” one
of the commandos snarled, kicking her bare rear with his boot. She ran, keeping her head
down; Schmidt joined her as Garland half-fell down the shaft. “Move!”

“Don’t wait for me, you fucking bastards,” Garland snapped. Schmidt realised in a moment
of horror that the commando leader had been badly wounded. There was no way that they
could get him out in time. The aliens were right on their backs. “Run! I’m going to blow
this Popsicle stand!”

They ran. They ran like there was nothing, but death behind them, which there was. Schmidt
caught up with the girl and caught hold of her, pulling her along as a shattering explosion
rocked the tunnels, making the entire region shake. Schmidt took a breath and looked back,
seeing only rocks and debris. There was no sign of Garland, or Wee Hughie; both of them
had been caught by the blast.

“I think we had better keep moving,” Mother’s Milk said. There was a grim note to his
voice; Schmidt wondered just who was in charge without Garland. “If we stay here, they will
have died for nothing.”
Schmidt nodded and kept running, pulling the girl with him. It felt like they had been in the
tunnel forever, but finally they reached the farmhouse, safe at last. They already knew their
way out; Schmidt passed the other commandos his part of the alien laser.

“We can’t take her out as well,” one of the commandos said. Conner swung around to glare
at him; Mother’s Milk kept his face blank. “If we take her, we might be detected or…”

“I’ll take her,” Schmidt said, and tried to tell himself that it was the logical decision. It felt as
if he were doing the wrong thing. “You lot just make sure that this thing, whatever it actually
is, gets back to the base, or they will have died for nothing, ok?”
Chapter Thirty-Three: Decisions, Decisions, Take One

“You know, whoever came up with this design was a real piece of work,” Sergeant Alan
Landers said. “Designed for idiots? This was designed for someone who know absolutely
nothing about the science behind this.”

General Mathews looked down at the dissembled laser on the desk. “I see,” he said, wishing
that he had more technical knowledge. “Can you elaborate?”

“I knew that there was something wrong the moment I realised just how small the device
actually is,” Landers said. “Most of our laser weapons, which don’t have anything like the
kick of this bastard here, are much larger and require much more capable power sources.
One of the problems we had was compressing the power sources down in order to make
something that was actually portable, even if we had to carry it on a 747 jumbo jet. I knew
there was something wrong with the alien system and I found it.”

General Mathews blinked. “Are you saying that it’s not a laser?”

“Oh, it’s a laser all right,” Landers assured him. “It’s just…whoever made this, it’s literally
an order of magnitude more advanced than almost everything else the aliens, the Malick Karn
have deployed. Look.” He tapped the sphere with one finger. “Most of the system seems to
rotate like a disco ball, which looks impressive, but does it have anything to do with the
laser? Hell no; the system seems to have dozens of components and systems that have
nothing whatsoever to do with the laser itself. That” – he tapped a small cylinder that he had
removed – “is the laser; everything else is gravy.”

“That…thing is barely longer than my finger,” General Mathews said. “Are you sure about
your results?”

“Yes,” Landers said. “That thing is a very small, very powerful laser, capable of hitting and
burning through an aircraft hull. At a rough guess, the heat rises so rapidly that anything hit
by the laser gets destroyed when its fuel explodes, or something else; whatever it actually
does, it’s lethal. This thing” – he picked up a small box – “was in the second section of the
laser system and is its battery; there was enough power in that thing to provide this complex
with power for a week.”

He grinned. “That will change the world when we manage to duplicate it,” he said. “Just
imagine; not only lasers like they use, but even cooler things, like fast electricity operated
cars, or even no more coal or gas power plants. As far as I can tell, it was created as a super-
superconductor, and somehow absorbed additional power from the sun. I bet you anything
you care to put forward that the Malick Karn don’t have the slightest idea of how this system
actually works.”

He shook his head. “No, General; this is Trader manufacture.”

General Mathews stared at him, his eyes very dark and shadowed. “Are you sure about your
results?”

“If they can build something like this, they can certainly build items much – much – more
advanced than anything else we’ve seen them deploy,” Landers said. “If it was added to a
constant power source, they could literally shoot down our shells in flight permanently,
preventing us from using artillery to hit them. They could mount them on tanks and use them
to slice our tanks apart from well out of our range. They could mount a pair of projectors on
shore and melt any ship that came within range. Hell, sir; they could use it for all kinds of
things…

“And, instead, all they do with it is provide an air defence system,” he concluded.
“Something like this could win them the war…and instead they remain blind to the
possibilities of the device. No, sir; this thing, whatever it could have been, was built by the
Traders.”

He tapped one device on the bench. “It received targeting instructions from a radar based
nearby; when we capture one of those, I bet you that it will show the same mix of
unnecessary junk and a handful of Trader devices, probably without the Malick Karn having
the slightest idea that they’re there or what does what.”

General Mathews shook his head. “How can they be so…ignorant?”

Landers grinned. “Sir, there are only a few soldiers in America who could tell you how to
build some of the components in a tank from scratch…and we’re one of the best educated
armies in the world. There are soldiers in the Middle East who got a shiny new tank from the
Russians, and then just…never bothered to maintain it, apparently because they were too
proud. Those that weren’t were often denied the knowledge they needed; it was often
considered safer to buy a new tank than risk a few sergeants developing any real technical
skills.

“The Malick Karn, if the prisoners are to be believed, had barely invented the tank when the
Traders arrived,” he continued. “How could they look at a black box and know, at once,
what was inside it and how it worked? I bet you that their theory is not only limited, but way
off – the Traders certainly have ample motive for deceiving them and leading them away
from any practical use of the science. Some of them may even believe that it’s done by
magic.”

They shared a laugh. “That’s not unprecedented,” Landers said. “It’s not unknown for our
scientific establishment here to get hung up on something that everyone ‘knows’ to be
accurate, even if it’s complete nonsense. A single mistake by someone respected highly
enough to pass almost unquestioned and science gets retarded for a few years or more. If the
Malick Karn believe that they need all that junk to make the laser work, then they might
never figure out the truth, not least because miniaturisation on that scale is impossible to
them.”

“What about us?” General Mathews asked. “Can we duplicate the laser?”

Landers hesitated. “I don’t know – yet – how they made it,” he said. “My rough guess is
some form of nanotechnology, but the laser alone is something beyond us, for the moment. If
it was nanotech that made it, then we might be able to duplicate it, but it will take time and a
massive research budget…”

“With no guarantee of success,” General Mathews said. “Is there anything else to report?”
“First, we have a primer on both the Malick Karn written language and their computer
programming language,” Landers said. He picked up a dissembled bracelet and held it out to
the General. “Each of their people wore one of these, sir,” he said. “It contained a microchip
– the manufacture was probably Malick Karn as it was inferior to our own chips – that held
information on each of the soldiers. For what it’s worth, which might be nothing, their
stories are collaborated by the bracelets; the two nurses included an offer of ransom if they
were returned alive, although not unharmed.

“It was actually simple; again, the system was designed for idiots. Once we devised a
connection device, we were able to read and understand their programming language, even
modify it; it’s hardly more complex than the old BASIC, although they have made some
interesting modifications of it. Mostly, we managed to generate information we could use;
the people studying the aliens were delighted. The teams examining the other devices were
actually hoping to find a personal computer, but I’m not even sure that they exist. The
Malick Karn just didn’t develop like any system we are familiar with, sir.”

General Mathews nodded. “If you had to, could you hack the Malick Karn system?”

“Easy,” Landers said. He shook his head. “I’m just not convinced that it would do any good.
Anything important would be on Trader systems…and if they have a computer system here, I
can’t find it. They must have a targeting computer on the radars, but…”

“Let me worry about that,” General Mathews said. “Is there anything else you wanted to tell
me?”

Landers nodded. “Under certain circumstances,” he said, picking up a bracelet, “these can be
used for tracking people. Someone wearing one could have it set to reveal their
location…perhaps without their knowledge or consent. It’s something to worry about, sir; if
we take more prisoners, the enemy may know where we are keeping them.”

“I see,” General Mathews said. “That only adds another problem, of course. We’ll bear it in
mind.”

                                              ***
The President had once heard a joke; the United States Government was run by paperwork
for the paperwork, which conspired to generate little baby paperwork. The entire
government, he had been told, was operated as nothing more than a paperwork-generating
machine…and there was enough paperwork passed across his desk to give the joke an
unpleasant sting. Certainly, more than a few bad decisions made by American Presidents had
happened because of their failure to read the paperwork; there were so many reports,
documents, and outlines passed up the chain that they had missed the important ones.

The report he was reading now, however, made grim reading. The aliens had destroyed the
entire satellite network surrounding the planet, shattering the fragile links that humanity had
in space. Even if the Traders vanished tomorrow, it would take years – literally – to rebuild
the satellite network; there had been billions of dollars at risk in orbit…and now they were
gone. The economic storm had already started to hit, a tidal wave of depression, debt
refutation, bank collapses and worse was spreading around the entire planet…and America
was at ground zero. The report went into cold terms, like ‘unavoidable loss of international
and public finances,’ but the President knew what it meant.
America had suffered, badly, in the wake of the first battles on Washington, but confidence
had slowly been recovering…until the aliens had blown up a city. The oil market, in
particular, had had real problems, but most of the others had survived…until now. Banks,
owed billions from nations around the world, now were screaming for action…and there was
nothing that he could do. By the end of the week, the report had warned, millions would be
out of work and it seemed impossible to stem the disaster. The dominos were falling, one by
one by one; there seemed to be no possible solution.

The President had ordered a freeze on the stock markets and redundancies, but he knew that
that wouldn’t last long; the money supply would be drying up across America. The aliens,
deliberately or not, had managed to cripple America…and the rest of the world. No one
spoke, now, of peace with the aliens; the economic crisis had managed to force them to face
reality – that, and some of the images from Washington. The face of alien conquest was not
love, laughter, and peace evermore.

He wanted to take a drink, to follow Congressman Waters into the bottle, but knew that he
didn’t dare. The country needed a President, even one who had been a failure; somehow, he
was sure that any of the Presidents in the past would have handled everything better. What
would Bush have done? What would Clinton have done? What would Bush have done?
Reagan? Roosevelt? Lincoln? They had been great – the President knew that he was
merely…adequate. His own party leadership had only put him forward because he was the
only one who stood a real chance of getting elected. What was there left to do?

There was a chime at the door. “Come in,” he called. There could be no real danger at the
heart of America's defences; only a small team of agents guarded him. The door opened,
revealing General Mathews and Jaclyn Ridgeley, who took the seats the President waved
them to, their faces grim. “General?”

“There were some interesting discoveries made by the team investigating the alien laser,”
General Mathews said, and outlined them. “It may be a while before we can build similar
devices, but at least we know one of their weaknesses.”

The President nodded and tapped the report on his desk. “We are running out of time,” he
said. The report had gone into cold bloodless detail, reporting on some of the possible long-
term consequences of the loss of the satellites. It made the American Civil War look like a
child playing games. “We need to find some way of driving the aliens away from Earth.”

General Mathews nodded. “We have an idea along those lines,” he said. “It involves the
shuttle and…”

He spoke rapidly for ten minutes.

Jaclyn Ridgeley spoke first. “Are you out of your mind?”

The President held up a hand. “More importantly, can it work?”

“We believe that the first part of the plan can work perfectly,” General Mathews said. “The
second part of the plan…well, that requires a lot of luck and the perfect opportunity.”
The President nodded. “Start making the preparations at once,” he ordered. “I don’t want
any action at all taken without my direct authorisation, understand?”

General Mathews nodded. “Of course, sir,” he said. “Given what is at stake, we cannot
afford any accidents.”

“True,” the President agreed. Oddly, he felt hopeful; the idea suggested that there was,
perhaps, a way that human ingenuity could reach inside the alien shields and make them hurt.
“Jaclyn?”

Jaclyn frowned. “As we discussed, the EU was considering assembling a force to send to
Iraq and liberate the Saudi oil wells before their economies went splat,” she said. “The loss
of the satellites has only made matters a lot worse, but the French and German governments
remained firm and convinced everyone to take part in a deployment. They’ve officially
asked for our help.”

“We cannot spare combat power,” General Mathews said, at once. “The aliens are still
moving in transports and landing enemy soldiers, even in Saudi as well. We can’t send some
of our men fighting there when the real threat is here.”

“They’re not asking for troops,” Jaclyn said. “They want the sixth fleet to help with
transporting their troops to Turkey and then into Iraq. The Turks have reluctantly agreed to
allow the transit; you know they want to be EU members, but they have been screwed
repeatedly by Brussels and have insisted on cast-iron guarantees first. Israel may or may not
take part in the operation, but we know that they have supplied some intelligence to the
Europeans, perhaps more than anyone thinks. As for the remains of the Saudi
government…”

She shrugged. “The Princes in exile have been loudly demanding a return to their homes,”
she said. “One would think they’d be glad to be out. The French might go along with them,
but the Germans are insisting on democratic elections, made a little easier by the fact that the
aliens have killed everyone who thought that going out to fight and die for jihad was a good
idea. The question is; do we support them or not?”

The President looked at General Mathews. “Thoughts?”

“If the Europeans can defeat the aliens, then yes, by all means,” General Mathews said. “Our
position in the Middle East is ruined anyway. Let the EU sort out the mess if it thinks it can
sort out the mess; our problems are here, at home.”

The President nodded. “Order the sixth fleet to provide all the support we can, short of direct
engagement with the enemy,” he said. He stared down at the table. There were things that
they needed to discuss. “We are running out of time.”

“Yes, Mr President,” General Mathews agreed. “My staff and myself have been putting
together an operational plan for taking the fight directly into Washington and removing the
alien presence, once and for all. We have the forces massing now; in a week, perhaps less,
we can thrust right into the alien lines from two directions and tear them apart.”
Jaclyn coughed. “What about the Traders?” She asked. Her voice was very worried,
touching on something the President himself worried about late at night; what might the
Traders do if their clients lost beyond recovery? How involved were they anyway? What
might they do if their plan was falling apart? “The strike on their ships was unsuccessful,
so…”

“They’re already at war with us,” General Mathews said. “If we can hurt them, then perhaps
they might decide to talk, or to leave. I think, however, that time is far too short for
hesitation.”

The President stood up and paced around the room. “If they remain where they are, in
Washington, we have problems in even claiming to control our entire country,” he said. “Our
only hope is to take the fight to them as quickly as we can; General, can you guarantee
success?”

“We can certainly destroy a chunk of their army,” General Mathews said. “There are
weaknesses in their system and we would be using them against the enemy. If we bashed up
their army, they might agree to come to terms, instead of forcing us to fight our way into
Washington and destroying whatever’s left of the city.”

The President privately suspected that that was a moot point. If the aliens had done any
repairs to the city, no one had noticed; they had seemed to be focusing only on establishing
themselves, clearing the rubble, and generally building up…and building up. The Traders
had been running more and more transports in; he wished that there was some way to knock a
few down and force them to react to the humans, for once. The only plan they had was
dangerous and almost crazy.

The President took a breath. “Then please make the preparations for the offensive,” he said.
“Use whatever you need, apart from nuclear weapons, and crush them. We must drive them
off American soil, before it is too late.”
Chapter Thirty-Four: Decisions, Decisions, Take Two

“You know,” Footsoldier Kolana said, as they sat one day in the human complex, “I could get
used to this place.”

Footsoldier Othoes was inclined to agree. They had expected nothing more than a later
death, as opposed to a quick death at the hands of the humans; they were too unimportant
even to torture for information. He’d told the humans everything he knew about Char and
how it related to the other nations on Karn; he’d answered every question without regard for
the possible consequences. Char’s only instructions for captured footsoldiers had been to
order them to die bravely…but he refused to do as they wanted. Besides, what good would it
have done?

He wasn’t sure how long they had spent in the human complex. In many ways, it reminded
him of the Trader starships, except the humans had better food. The Traders had claimed that
the food they had supplied – a thin gruel – was full of all the components they needed for a
long and healthy life, but he knew no one who actually believed them. It hadn’t tasted bad; it
hadn’t tasted of anything. The humans hadn’t decorated the complex, which was a glorified
prison, after all, but they had allowed the prisoners some time to talk to one another. The
cynic in him suspected that that was so that the humans to listen to what they said to one
another and translate it, but he found it hard to care. For the first time in far too long, he
wasn’t being bullied, forced to fight, or at risk of being killed by his own side. It was almost
heaven.

“Tell me about occupation tactics,” one of the interrogators said, in rough Char. The humans
generally had strange accents, but they were learning rapidly; he had had dozens of
conversations that were nothing, but idle chitchats intended to boost the human knowledge of
their tongue. “Why are you so…violent?”

Footsoldier Othoes fought to think of an answer. It didn’t help that most of the tactics they
used had been developed by Char; they played a role in explaining why every other nation
had been turning against them, just out of fear of what a conquest meant. The Volunteers had
carried out their orders; their opinions hadn’t even registered on the people planning the final
wars of the conquest.

“The Char believe that they have to crush all resistance,” he said. “Peasants” – he used the
Char term out of necessity – “are not allowed to resist; the Char consider them property and
theirs by right of conquest.”

“So they have no rights,” the interrogator mused. “Does that include access to human
women?”

Footsoldier Othoes grimaced. There had been one – one – case of a Malick Karn forcing
himself on a human, a bet undertaken with a half-drugged-out soldier and some serious
money behind the bet. He didn’t understand, not really, what the humans themselves saw in
their own women; the Volunteers had certainly not been given access to any of the Malick
Karn females who had come with the invasion force. There had to be around a thousand
women…but the lowly Volenteers were never allowed anywhere near them.
“They wouldn’t be interested,” he said, and hoped that the human believed him. It was so
easy to forget that they remained firmly at the mercy of the humans who had captured them;
their lives might not be taken in a trench, but by being taken out and shot by a human guard.
“Malick Karn women, yes; humans, no.”

The interrogator smiled. The human smile was a fearsome thing to behind. “And what did
Grozh have to say about such practices?”

Footsoldier Othoes almost wanted to cry. “Grozh is no more,” he said. “The Char came and
took it when I was very young and crushed it. When I was growing up, every last hint that
once people had been able to make their own decisions was being removed; when I reached
my majority, only a few people could remember that it had ever been any different. I was
born in Grozh, to a Grozh family…and I can’t even speak the language. It was death to speak
in that tongue when I was there.”

The interrogator shrugged. “You didn’t answer my question,” he said. “What did Grozh
think of such practices?”

“Only what I was told when I was growing up by people who wanted to try to keep
something of us alive,” Footsoldier Othoes said. “We had women soldiers; they were raped
to death during the final battles. We had women with money and property; they lost it all
during the occupation. Once, all of us could read and write; now, only those in the military
ever learn…and here I am, so far from home that I can’t even see it, and stuck.”

The rage boiled up within him. “Look what they have done to us,” he screamed, wondering
if the human would understand. “There’s nothing of us left!” He turned to face the
interrogator. “That’s what they will do if they win; they’ll kill everyone who poses a threat
and break the others, no matter how long it takes. Those Traders…why did they want Char
in the first place? We could have offered them so much more!”

“Perhaps Char could not evolve and the other nations could,” the interrogator said. “I have
been…charged with asking you a question: I would like a honest reply.”

Footsoldier Othoes shrugged. “Anything,” he said. “Ask me anything and I will try to
answer.”

The interrogator met his eyes. “What do you want to do with your life?”

Footsoldier Othoes stared at him. “What kind of stupid question is that?”

“Answer it,” the interrogator said. “What do you want to do with your life?”

Footsoldier Othoes took a breath. “I would like to be at home, somewhere I haven’t seen for
years, with a wife and children of my own, free from the domination of the nobles of Char,”
he said. “I can barely remember my home, a wife is hard to find for a Volunteer, and as for
Char…do you know how many revolts there have been against them? I would probably have
to buy a wife from someone; no family of good breeding is going to want to offer their
daughter to me.”

He laughed bitterly. “Can you offer that to me?”
“It might be possible,” the interrogator said. “We may not be able to get you back to Karn
for a few years, but we can set you up and your fellow soldiers somewhere in America. A
wife…well, you might manage to convince one of the Malick Karn females to marry you, but
you would have to be a little bit more alluring than you seem to be.”

“Don’t jest,” Footsoldier Othoes snapped. It was a dream; worse, it was a dream that he
could almost believe. He would have preferred to remain on Earth than return to Karn, unless
the Char were somehow swept off the planet. “It won’t ever happen. You’ll use me up and
then shoot me once I’m no longer useful to you!”

The bitterness in his voice surprised the interrogator, who lifted a single eyebrow. “I don’t
think you know us very well,” he said. “The truth, such as it is, is that we intend to launch an
attack on the encampment in Washington and hopefully destroy the army. If that happens,
we will probably have a lot of prisoners – some of whom will be innocent of any war crimes.
We were hoping that if you could help your friends and comrades to desert, it would save
lives.”

“It might not work,” Footsoldier Othoes pointed out. “Each of the Volunteer units has
several spies inside…and we don’t always know who they are. I would be noticed at once as
a deserter if they saw me back in their territory.”

He broke off, suddenly afraid that the interrogator would see him as useless.

“You misunderstand,” the interrogator said. “We would be asking you to call out to your
people and invite them to surrender before we had to blow through them and kill most of
them in the fighting. You wouldn’t be exposed to any danger.”

Footsoldier Othoes considered it. “And, in return?”

The interrogator smiled. “You and your comrades, those who won’t be tried for war crimes,
will be given somewhere to live,” he said. “If we can, we’ll get you back to Karn, although
honesty compels me to remind you that that might be difficult. The Traders might have a
vested interest in preventing it from happening.”

He paused. “We won’t force you to go out, or make you do anything against your will,” he
admitted. “If you do this, however, we will be very grateful to you and you would be
welcome – you and your friends – to apply for American citizenship. I have the feeling that
you might find a little part of Grozh here.”

Footsoldier Othoes had to smile. “It beats being in the Volenteer Army,” he said. “I agree to
your terms.”

“Good,” the interrogator said. “Now, all I have to do is tell you about human laws of war…”

                                              ***
The more time she spent with the two alien nurses, the more Doctor Virginia Jones cursed the
aliens who had devised the social structure they used…and the Traders who had ensured that
it would not die a natural death. Each of the girls – she couldn’t help, but think of them as
almost children – had more medical knowledge than she had…and more direct experience at
using it. To be fair, a lot of what they ‘knew’ was nonsense, but they had been learning and
developing their skills in ways that no human doctor had had to learn for years, at least in
America. She had never attempted to give medical attention on a battlefield…and both of the
aliens had had to do exactly that.

Had she wanted, she could have called on the services of dozens of specialists in hundreds of
different fields. The two aliens knew nothing of some areas of medical research, but what
they did know, they knew almost comprehensively in their heads. Information she could
have looked up on a computer, they had to have in their heads; support in the field was
almost non-existent. Some of what they knew was folk knowledge; she had been surprised
that the Malick Karn knew about sanitation and how some diseases spread, even if they didn’t
understanding. Medieval humans had believed that flies somehow appeared out of nowhere
on dung heaps; the Malick Karn had had battlefield sanitation drummed into them from an
early age. The two aliens, had they had proper training, would have rivalled the best human
doctors.

And they had become friends.

“Answer me a question,” she asked Nurse Chantho-Ya, that evening. The two aliens had
been more than willing to help her dig through the bodies of their fallen comrades, revealing
far more about the Malick Karn than she had ever suspected. The aliens might have poor
medical treatment, but they understood birth control, which was fortunate; Nurse Jabe-Ya had
admitted that a Malick Karn woman could get pregnant at almost any time. Birth control was
handed down from woman to woman as a secret; the men were never allowed to know.
“What do you want to do with your lives?”

Chantho-Ya flinched slightly. She had promised both women that they would never have to
go back, or never have to set eyes on a member of their own race again, if they wanted to
remain with humanity, but they hadn’t believed her. They hadn’t thought that she was lying
– their race had a curious attitude to lies – but they had believed that she would be unable to
keep that promise. Despite themselves, they didn’t really grasp that she was an equal to the
men; they had believed that she had slept with the President or one of his ‘lesser lords’ to
gain the promise, one that could be tossed aside at any moment. People asking what they
wanted were so rare as to be almost non-existent.

“I don’t know,” she said. She had endured a life of horrors and would have done anything
rather than return to the horrors. Virginia felt her heart go out to her. “What can we do here?
What are you going to do to us?”

Virginia understood the question and shrugged. It wasn’t unknown for human rape victims to
shun men as long as they could, and both of the alien women had been worse than raped for
most of their lives. The Malick Karn had been studied by psychiatrists, who had warned that
their biology, like humanity’s had shaped their world. Deep down, both women saw
themselves as being without value, nothing more than chattel; they saw themselves as
worthless in a world of powerful men.

“You can teach us a lot about your race,” Virginia said. “You would be welcome to remain
here for the reminder of your life, whatever happened; we would be happy to have you.
Without you, we would not understand so much about your people.” She paused. “If you
want to go back, that might be…tricky. We don’t have any starships, you see.”
She’d had to explain the concept of starships to the girls; the Traders had evidently taught
them nothing about starships, even though they had been dimly aware that they had been
moved though space across an incomprehensible distance. They had been astonished to
discover that humanity had no starships; they had seen some of what she used regularly for
medical work and thought that the Traders themselves couldn’t do any better. Their medical
tools had been primitive; that, at least, explained some of the medical signs on the recovered
bodies. They had literally had to use thread to sew wounds shut.

Their smiles were charming. “I don’t think that we want to go back,” Chantho-Ya said. Her
voice was very soft; Virginia had realised, a long time ago, that both of the girls worked hard
to invoke protective feelings in their watchers. It was a defensive system; they had to work,
somehow, to make themselves important to the people who held all the power. “We could
work for you here, couldn’t we?”

Virginia had to smile. Both girls would have made natural surgeons; they had steady hands,
steady eyes, and good reflexes. She couldn’t think of a medical college across the United
States that wouldn’t want them – if they were human. They were Malick Karn, part of a race
that had threatened Earth; they would face discrimination beyond imagination…worse, they
could hardly defend themselves. She looked down at her brown hand and winced; they
would face discrimination that made the Ku Klux Klan look like a child’s playschool game.

She thought about it; she had been trained in one of the classified medical facilities, once she
had graduated; a place like that could take on a pair of Malick Karn without anyone raising
an eyebrow on the outside. The President could certainly order it if it were necessary, but
there would hardly be a security risk; medical knowledge wasn’t dangerous in a permanent
sense. Neither of the girls would be making viruses, or biological weapons; they both wanted
to remain on Earth.

“I’ll try and get you some proper training,” she said. If worst came to worst, she could
always take them on as her interns; the government definitely owed them something for their
translation efforts. “With some proper equipment, imagine what you could do!”

Chantho-Ya smiled. “Thank you,” she said, bowing her head. “We will be forever grateful.”

Virginia decided not to mention that several of the captured alien males – she found it hard to
think of them as men – had tried to demand access to the captured females. They didn’t seem
to be that interested in human women – after all, they were not Malick Karn – but they had
seemed to think that they would get access to the girls anyway. They didn’t even threat it as
a demand; they seemed to think that it was their right, so much that they didn’t even think
about it!

It would only have upset them.

“Tell us about the Malick Karn leader,” she said. She had been surprised to discover, back at
the beginning, that the aliens were a monarchy. That surprise had faded as she learned more
about the Malick Karn. “What sort of person is he?”

The two girls exchanged glances. “Crown Prince and Heir Imperial Rohan is the commander
of the force,” Chantho-Ya said finally. Virginia had half-hoped to pull Nurse Jabe-Ya out of
her shell. “He’s supposed to be good, and handsome, and honoured by all, and a great
military leader, and…”

Virginia smiled. General Mathews had made it clear what he thought of the enemy
leadership.

“We are told all about him, but only the good details,” Chantho-Ya finished. “What did you
actually want to know about him?”

Virginia realised that she’d been stupid. “You wouldn’t have actually met him, would you?”

“No,” Chantho-Ya said. “We saw him once when he was visiting some of his wounded
soldiers; he could have beckoned and we would have come for him.” Virginia scowled; the
old perception that nurses were either sex objects or battleaxes didn’t apply to the Malick
Karn, who saw them only as sexually available women to console the heroes of the fighting.
“But no, we don’t know what he’s like as a person. Only his Prince Courtesan would know
that and we never had a chance to talk to her. She has to be on her own; they can’t let
someone like her talk to other women. We talk about them.”

Virginia ran one hand through her long dark hair. “I wish you could tell me more about
him,” she said. “If we don’t talk to him, we may have to kill most of his army.”

Jabe-Ya’s eyes flashed. “Kill them,” she snarled, with sudden uncharacteristic fury. “Kill
them all and piss on the remains!”
Chapter Thirty-Five: Point of Departure

Prince Rohan has to be crazy, First Sergeant Sir Chamita thought ruefully, as he picked his
way through the battlefield, heading south. It didn’t help that he was closer than he wanted to
be to the site of a nuclear detonation; he had seen too many nuclear battlegrounds in his
lifetime. The Traders might have provided a handful of Malick Karn with drugs to counter
the effects of radiation, but they had either been unable or unwilling to provide them to the
ordinary Footsoldiers. Some of the soldiers had died in the radioactive ruins, desperately
struggling with the hold-outs who had intended to die, rather than suffer the fate ordered for
them by Char.

Prince Rohan had done well then, but Sir Chamita had always been proud of the Prince, ever
since being offered the post as First Sergeant for the Prince. He had accepted, nervously; it
was one of the few posts that were truly voluntary in the Char Army. No one who wanted the
post could be accepted, but at the same time, anyone who truly didn’t want it had to be
rejected. It was a lifetime post, a chance to exercise more authority than a commoner could
reasonably hope to wield, but one that came with its own risks. Noblemen were expected to
spend time in the army, but they could be either spoiled brats or ignorant people, unaware of
the levels of their own ignorance. Some of them allowed their Sergeants to handle all the
work and remained in their tents; they, at least, could be tolerated.

He had feared that he would have some youngster who had been firmly impressed, by his
father and family, that he would be expected to show command qualities right from the start.
They could be worse; sometimes they only issued orders just to appear as if they were issuing
orders, some of them useless orders at best. They tended to be weeded out quickly, either by
showing courage by charging an enemy position, or through gross incompetence that brought
the wrath of Generals down on their heads. He would have been nervous, indeed, to have the
Prince as his commanding officer; who could argue with him?

Rohan, however, had been good, with a natural talent for war. He had been ignorant, but he
had learned quickly and well, spending as much time as he could with the Footsoldiers before
being forced into higher office. He would have been happy as a Colonel, or even as a
General, but he had Royal Blood…and sometimes the sense to step back and allow his
subordinates to handle affairs. Even with the Traders involved…

Sir Chamita shuddered. He had loathed the Traders from the day he had first set eyes on one,
a figure so…wrong, so…alien, as to make the differences between his kind and humanity’s
seem minimal. They had been…unconcerned about the Malick Karn; he had had the sense
that they basically didn’t care, they couldn’t even be bothered to hate. He had been brought
up in a hardliner Char family, where a single step out of line meant a beating, but none of the
Traders ever showed any of the empathy his father had shown, from time to time. They
just…considered the Malick Karn beasts of burden.

He walked onwards, checking his compass from time to time; that, at least, worked the same
on Earth. The world was quite beautiful in its way, even if parts of it were colder than he
would like; it was almost a shame to fight a war over it. Rohan had been clear, however, they
could not afford to defy the Traders…until they found some way to defeat them. Sir Chamita
had seen the devices that the Traders had supplied to produce the equipment the army needed
and knew just how powerful they were; someone who could do that would think nothing of
wiping the entire Malick Karn race out of existence. What was the choice, after all; was it the
humans or the Traders? The humans, at least, fought openly…and they hated. It was a
human touch…

A dull rumble in the distance alarmed him as he pressed on. The Malick Karn patrols had
reported that there were human patrols running through the area; he should encounter one
fairly soon. Prince Rohan had ordered him to go unarmed and that worried him; a First
Sergeant was not only his Prince’s advisor, but also his bodyguard. Going unarmed went
against the grain…

“They could shoot you down from hiding,” Prince Rohan had said. “You have to talk to
them. They must not see you as a threat.”

Sir Chamita scowled. The human snipers were devils; they could shoot someone down from
vast distances, even in the dark. They’d lost a dozen men before they knew what had
happened to them; it had been something so new that they had actually been terrified. The
Traders had never given the Malick Karn much in the way of night-vision equipment; the
humans, once again, built their own. Rohan had understood, to some degree, the advantage
that that gave the humans…but no one of the Malick Karn could really grasp it until they had
seen it in action. He had…

The thought stung. They’d captured a dozen human liberties and the Savants had gone mad,
trying to use the captured information to expand their own knowledge. The humans had
known so much, information that no one had ever even suspected existed, from medicine to
engineering; the information would save thousands of lives on Karn itself…assuming that it
ever got there. Sir Chamita knew that Prince Rohan wasn’t the only one with suspicions
about the Trader refusal to transport live Malick Karn back to the homeworld. Were the
messages they were sending even getting there?

A human tank sat in the muddy ground, burned out; he leaned against it long enough to catch
his breath, then moved onwards towards human lines. The entire area had been fought over
badly; there were signs of fighting everywhere and…

BANG! A shot slammed into the ground in front of him. He stopped, as the humans who
had entered Rohan’s service had told him to do, and lifted his arms in the air. The white flag
he was carrying fluttered in the wind as the humans appeared all around him; he hadn’t even
realised that they were there. Terror, almost superstitious terror, gripped him; he forced it
away as he came face to face with a human.

“I come in peace,” he said, and wondered why the humans burst out laughing. “Take me to
your leader.”

                                                ***
“We have a contact on sensor #463,” the dispatcher had muttered into Sergeant Jeremy
Damiani’s ear, as the patrol had slipped from building to building, road to road, hunting for
any Malick Karn infiltrators. The aliens had been patrolling aggressively, ever since the
night the satellites had fallen from the sky; some suspected that they were planning a second
attack. The stream of reinforcements from wherever the hell they came from seemed
unending; the soldiers had been utterly frustrated by the failure of the USAF – or anyone else
– to actually do anything to stop it. The aliens just seemed to be bringing in their
reinforcements with impunity.
“Understood,” he subvocalised back. Alien hearing had been reported to be better than
human hearing; they could have to be very quiet. “Kit, Fell, Jack; you’re with me.”

He had been briefed that it was very important to keep the aliens away from the staging posts;
everyone knew what that mean. The arrival of hundreds of new vehicles and men, some of
them supplied from bases around the world, hadn’t passed unnoticed; an offensive was in the
cards. No one knew what surveillance capabilities the aliens possessed, but everyone was
certain that the attack would succeed…if the aliens didn’t have a clue it was coming before it
was too late.

They saw the alien, advancing along a road right in the open; he would have walked directly
into a minefield if no one intercepted him. The alien was carrying – Damiani stared, unable
to believe his eyes – a white flag, waving it in the air from time to time. He knew little about
the aliens, but he was certain, somehow, that the alien was older than he looked. He could
see the weight of experience in the way the alien walked.

”Now,” he muttered. He had expected to encounter an alien patrol; no quarter asked or
given. They would have mowed down the aliens from hiding and vanished before alien guns
could respond. Instead…instead, the white flag changed everything. Was it a trap, or was it
something genuine? Was there anyway to know. “Jack; cover us. If he fired, kill him.”

He moved forward with lightning-quick speed, noting that the alien had almost missed seeing
him before the three of them surrounded him, wondering how the alien would react. The
alien looked at him, met his eyes, and held his hands in the air. Damiani opened his mouth to
speak and the alien spoke first.

“I come in peace,” the alien said. Damiani broke down into helpless laughter. “Take me to
your leader.”

Kit looked worried. “Sir?”

“Cover him,” Damiani snapped. He moved forward, closer to the alien, and hesitated; there
were procedures for taking in prisoners, but a peace envoy was something different. There
had been few peace envoys in Iraq. He looked at the alien. “I need to search you and remove
anything that might be dangerous.”

The alien nodded. Damiani sensed the alien’s reluctance to go through the entire procedure,
but the alien – it was clearly a male – went though with it anyway, stripping down to
underwear and revealing nothing, but the same bracelet as all of the Malick Karn wore. They
had been warned about them; sometimes, they served as location beacons. There were no
weapons, no radio, nothing, but a sheaf of notes in English.

“Those are for your President,” the alien said. “Please could you take me to your leader?”

Damiani lifted his radio. “Firebase, we have a single greenie envoy here,” he said. The alien
timing had been terrible; the main offensive was expected in a day to a week. If the alien had
something on his body after all, something that could be used to send a warning, surprise
might be lost completely. “He wants to talk to the President.”
The radio squawked in outrage. “He wants to what?”

“Talk to the President,” Damiani repeated, patiently. He wasn’t pleased with using the radio
at all; you never knew who might be listening in, or what colour skin they might have. The
aliens would be fools to miss the possibility of listening into the human transmissions. “I
require instructions.”

He assumed that the alien spoke English perfectly and said very little to a handful of other
questions. “Yes, he’s unarmed,” he said. “Yes, he agreed to be searched. Yes, he has letters
that he says are for the President, yes, yes, yes…”

“All right,” the radio said finally. It had taken nearly five minutes for any kind of response,
something that proved that the entire matter was being pushed up the chain of command until
it encountered someone who could actually make a decision. He wondered who had made it,
finally; was it the General in command of the sector, or was it the President himself. “You
are to escort your prisoner the long way around, to base nine; a transport will meet you there.
You will escort him at least as far as an airfield, do you copy.”

Damiani made a face. They would miss the battle. “I copy,” he said. “The entire unit or just
the four of us?”

“The four of you,” the radio said. “Once you have delivered your prisoner, you may be
returned to your base or ordered to continue providing escort. Good luck.”

“Someone is making this up as they go along,” Fell muttered, as the radio cut out. Damiani
nodded in agreement. There had been no standing orders for alien envoys; no one had
expected that they would be likely to be sent out to the human forces. “Lucky us.”

“Quite,” Damiani said. He looked at the alien. “Do you speak English?”

The alien looked up at him. “A little,” he said. His accent was almost Californian, which
was interesting; who had taught the alien how to speak? “I speak it a little.”

Damiani eyed him. “How well do you speak it?” He asked. “Can we talk, or are we going
to be asking each other the way to the beach in very loud and silly voices?”

“We can talk,” the alien said, in flawless English. “What would you like me to do?”

Damiani had the odd impression that the alien was an NCO, like him, even if he had been
promised a promotion to Captain as soon as possible. He was commanding an entire
company after all, working well above his pay grade. Oddly, he found himself liking the
alien; there was just a hint of a real personality there.

“I am Sergeant Jeremy Damiani, United States National Guard,” he said. “What is your
name?”

“I am First Sergeant Sir Chamita, Knight of the Imperial Guard, Advisor to Prince Rohan,”
the alien said. Damiani wondered if the translation was perfect, or if the alien was merely
using human terms to explain himself. “I have messages for your President.”
“Yes,” Damiani said, drawing the word out. “I have been ordered to escort you. I won’t
restrain you, but I must ask you to behave yourself; we are authorised to use deadly force if
necessary.”

“I understand,” the alien said. “I will do exactly as you order.”

“Very good, Sir Chamita,” Damiani said. “Please, follow me.”

Kit and Fell brought up the rear, Jack hung behind. The walk was intended, he could see, to
keep the alien’s eyes away from anything that might be sensitive, something that might reveal
to the alien the battle plans that were being drawn up, even now, to take the offensive. He
suspected that, whatever happened, something was going to go badly wrong. He could feel
it, deep inside.

                                               ***
“General Mathews, with all due respect, we have to launch the attack,” Major General
Andrew Langford said. His voice, normally cold and hard, was grim. He was responsible for
the southern front against the aliens – confusingly, the aliens were to the north of them, but
south of the northern front – and knew that the peak of readiness they had reached could not
be frittered away. “If we don’t move now, we will face a major spoiling attack.”

General Mathews sounded almost as angry as Major General Langford felt. “Andrew, you
may not have noticed, but an alien envoy came through the lines,” he snapped. “Don’t you
think that that could presage something?”

Langford glared down at the phone. “General, reports from our positions in the field show
nothing, but alien forces being moved down towards Stafford, towards us,” he snapped back.
“The longer we delay, the longer the aliens have to dig in; they are already using human
slaves to help build their defence lines! We have to move now, or we will lose more lives
when we finally move against them!”

He took a breath. “There are humans there,” he shouted. “Americans! We can get them out
now, without challenging the main body of the alien defences. Let me put Red Road One
into action, sir; we need to move now!”

“I will consult with the President,” General Mathews said. “Hold on.”

“Pussy-whipped son of a bitch,” Langford swore, as the line was placed on hold. It was
insulting a senior officer, but he no longer cared; he had assembled the largest force America
had massed since the Invasion of Iraq…and he had no intention of allowing it to be broken
against massed enemy defences. “When the hell are we going to do something to smash
those ugly green bastards?”

He paced around the office he had borrowed from the commander of a National Guard base.
The Marine facilities at Quantico were under enemy control, although the Marines had been
careful to booby-trap the entire place first; they were hopefully having fun trying to make the
entire place safe. It hadn’t been safe before, of course, but the Marines had taken an almost
childlike delight in rendering it unsafe for man or alien. Even so, there was no time…
He was one of the few to know about the Traders…and that meant that they had to move!
The Traders might decide to intervene at any moment, which meant that his force might end
up facing blue plasma bolts, or something even more unthinkable. His view was simple;
even if they didn’t take the war right to the heart of the enemy position, they had no choice,
but to free the prisoners. To do otherwise was to fail in their duty.

The phone buzzed. “I have consulted with the President,” General Mathews said. There was
a portentous pause. Langford silently tapped his fingers against his knees in frustration.
“You may launch Red Road One at your discretion. Red Road Two is not to be used unless
there is a major release of atomic weapons.”

“Understood,” Langford said. The President had done the right thing. He almost wished that
he had voted for him, instead of for the other guy. “I’ll talk to you after the commencement
of the operation.”

General Mathews frown could be sensed, even without a television screen. “Major General,
be careful,” he said. “Not everything here is what it seems.”

Langford nodded as the connection broke. “No,” he said. He tapped his radio. “Emergency
meeting, all senior officers,” he said. They’d hashed out the details of the plan a week ago,
but there were some minor refinements that they all had to be aware of before the fighting
began. “We’re about to launch Red Road One.”
Chapter Thirty-Six: De Oppresso Liber

“The countdown is almost over,” Sergeant Patrick Trombly muttered. “It’s time.”

Captain Zack Lynn nodded, peering into the distance with his binoculars. There was no sign
of alien activity – or human activity – but both of them knew that they were not that far from
the alien positions. There was a line of infantry – and the forces gathered to launch Operation
Red Road One – between them and the aliens, but if the aliens returned fire, they would
almost certainly be targeted first.

“Good,” he said. There was no time for nerves. His hand danced across a panel, setting
permissions and engaging the firing plan. “We are ready to fire…”

The radio buzzed once. “You are authorised to open fire,” it said. “Good luck.”

Lynn tapped a switch and seventeen M119 A1 Howitzer units fired as one. The weapons
fired, launching a hail of shells towards the alien positions, targeted on their radars and laser
systems. Cruise missiles and MLRS were also being fired from other locations, damaging
and disrupting the alien ability to respond to the shells; their lasers could only hit so many
targets before they were knocked down by precise shellfire. The aliens had only one realistic
option as the raiding force prepared to throw itself into their flanks; they had to return fire as
soon as possible.

“Time to move,” he snapped, as the guns completed the first firing sequence. Warning signs
were already flashing up as counter-battery radars detected the incoming shells of alien
gunfire, directing other guns to fire on the alien guns. A deadly game of fire and counter-fire
had begun, forcing the aliens to reveal more of their weapons, even as his team moved the
guns that had started the entire battle. “Incoming…”

He heard the noise of the alien shell seconds before it stuck the ground, far too close to one of
his positions for comfort. He threw himself to the ground, aware of the Sergeant doing the
same to hide from the alien weapons, shouting at one of his gun crews to quit moving the
weapon and take cover. They didn’t listen, or perhaps they didn’t hear him under the racket;
a blast of shrapnel caught one of them and shredded his head. Blood and gore flew
everywhere; his partner fell to the ground.

As quickly as it had begun, the alien attack creased, their guns searching for other targets.
Lynn checked his forces; one of his guns had been destroyed, along with its crew, the others
had survived the experience. He snapped orders, requesting firing instructions from the
forward observers that had been calling in fire on the alien positions; they informed him of
the location of a new alien force. The aliens had been using a human crew to clear rubble and
build them defences; they had made it possible for the crew to be rescued, hopefully putting a
lot of aliens out of Earth’s misery at the same time.

“Fire,” he snapped, as new orders were downloaded into the system. There was no time to
waste; the aliens might have believed that they had knocked out his force, but the minute they
opened fire, the aliens would know that they were wrong and try again. “Knock them all
down, quickly, and then move!”
Guns fired. He smiled; there were tales of what rewards could be expected by makle soldiers
who rescued women from the clutches of the aliens. Half the stories had to be bullshit, but
some of them sounded oddly like truth – or perhaps wishful thinking on the part of soldiers
and Marines as they waited for the next alien attack. Just striking themselves was doing
wondered for morale; they were on their way back to Washington.

“We have alien helicopters,” someone buzzed. Lynn shrugged; if the aliens were mad
enough to use helicopters to attempt to attack his force, they deserved everything they got.
There were seven soldiers swaggering around with handheld Stingers and one ground-based
antiaircraft unit only a kilometre away from his force. “They’re heading into the air, trying to
escape.”

The guns were moving again. For a second, everything was quiet, just long enough for him
to wonder if they had knocked out the alien guns, and then the aliens opened fire again. No
one hesitated this time; they drove down into the trenches and hid from the rain of deadly
fire. The aliens were determined to kill them…and he was equally determined to remain
alive.

“New targeting priorities,” the controller buzzed in his ear. “Enemy armour is attempting to
deploy; take them out with shells before they engage the Marines.”

He muttered commands as his men picked themselves up and returned to handling the guns.
The Americans had never fought a battle like this in the new century; artillery hadn’t played
that important a role in Iraq, not compared to air power. The entire battle was starting to
seem more like the First World War; both sides, given enough time, could stop an armoured
charge in its tracks. They were back to the basics; he wondered, dimly, just what the aliens
thought of it all. It hardly mattered; they had sown the wind…and now they could reap the
whirlwind.

“Engage the enemy,” he ordered. Even now, Marines and soldiers would be pushing into
enemy-held territory, attempting to cut off and trap a section of the alien army. They needed
all the support he could give them, whatever it took; his men had to hold their position and
shell the enemy like they had never been shelled before. “Give them hell.”

He looked towards the north and saw clouds of smoke rising. The Marines would have their
ground-support Harriers ready to move up if enemy lasers were disabled; the army had its
close-support Warthogs, some of which had even launched low-level raids into enemy
territory before the operation was launched. If they had disabled the alien lasers…then for
the first time, they were fighting the aliens on American terms, not the other way around.

The guns rumbled again. He would have given anything for a few tactical nukes. They had
some nuclear shells, but they were held in reserve for a desperate situation; the aliens
themselves might be willing to destroy chunks of America, but the brass were much less keen
on the idea. Lynn understood, even though a nuclear detonation would improve Washington,
at least in his opinion. The politicians might have learnt a few things from the aliens, if
nothing else…

Another rain of shells rumbled overhead. “Go boys,” he shouted. “Give them hell!”

                                              ***
“We just kicked in the door,” an officer reported. “The aliens are launching their helicopters
and trying to shell our own guns.”

“Cheeky bastards,” Major General Langford commented. The surprise in the officer’s voice
had been almost comical. “Anyone would think that the aliens intended to lose.”

He smiled dryly. The Red Road operations had been his brainchild, after all; one designed to
hammer the enemy over a limited territory, the other designed for a direct charge to
Washington, stopping for nothing. Whatever the mission of the mysterious alien envoy, he
had no choice, but to assume that the aliens intended to work the human slaves to death. The
scouts had reported on them; naked men and women, working for the aliens in terrible
conditions. Red Road One had been designed to free them…and hopefully teach the aliens
that human lives weren’t cheap.

There was no longer any reconnaissance from the air or space, not after the aliens had killed
all of the satellites, but he had reports from several dozen commandos operating within
enemy-held territory. Given time, he was sure that enough aliens would succeed in rooting
out his observers, but for the moment he had some access to information about alien
dispositions. It would take the aliens at least an hour – barring friction – for them to reinforce
their forces in the south of their territory…and that would be far too long. By the time they
responded, his force would have completed its mission and either dug in or withdrawn.
Either way, the aliens would be dancing to his tune.

“Inform all of the men,” he said. “This time, we’re taking back what is ours.”

He smiled darkly. “Inform Colonel Edward Hobelhouse that he may commence the
operation as soon as possible,” he said. “It’s time for them to engage the enemy.”

                                         ***
“You may commence operations,” the voice said, in Captain Jose Pizarro's ear. “Engage the
enemy and don’t stop for anything.”

Pizarro nodded. The massive Regimental Combat Team, 1st Marine Division, had been
waiting for the call for weeks. He barked an order and the Abrams tank startedto move,
heading through the minefields and defences that thousands of American soldiers had
constructed to blunt an alien attack. He wasn’t happy with operating so close to a nuclear
detonation zone, but there was little choice; the aliens had to be stopped.

Some of the gunners and infantry defending the trenches waved as the tanks rumbled past,
others didn’t; they had all wanted to be part of the operation. The Marines had been given
the mission – or at least the main part of the mission – because they had experience in such
operations, but many of the soldiers had claimed that itw as because the commanding general
in the south was a Marine and could be expected to take care of his own. It wasn’t something
that would make sense to a civilian – how, they would ask, was putting someone in the field
of fire taking care of them – but it meant a great deal to the Marines. They all knew what had
been done to America, to the Marines who had fought in Washington, to the National Guard
who had tried to hold the line, to the brave airmen and women in the skies above…and they
wanted some revenge. The aliens had to pay for what they had done.
He took a breath as they rumbled on; they were in bandit country now. He’d served in Iraq as
a junior officer and known then that satellites and intelligence estimates were never as
reliable as they sounded. From time to time, they had reported non-existent enemy units, or
they had underestimated the power of the defenders…and then had been the brutal fighting in
the cities, against the insurgency. Pizarro himself, an immigrant from Mexico, had been
shocked at some of the insurgency tactics…and the irony was killing him. Humans had used
similar tactics against the aliens, but now…now a massive Abrams tank was heading towards
the aliens, hunting for their slave camp. Somewhere, not too far away, there was an alien
camp, with alien guards and perhaps even alien tanks.

He bared his teeth. Whatever was out there, he was going to kill it.

The aliens had pulled back slightly after the Battle of Stafford, hopefully licking their
wounds; the no-mans land had been filled with patrols as both sides clashed from time to
time, trying to prevent the other from getting a good look at their dispositions. The aliens
presumably had access to reports from their ships in orbit; they wouldn’t need ground-based
surveillance officers, but unless they were dumb, they would have them anyway. They had
learned, in Iraq, that nothing beat eyes on the ground…

“Contact,” the driver snapped. Pizarro cursed himself as an alien tank appeared, its barrel
already turning to face the advancing humans, while its driver gunned the engine and
attempted to retreat. It didn’t save it; at Pizarro’s command, the gunner put an anti-armour
shell right through its armour and destroyed it. The enemy tank exploded in a blast of fire.

“Good shooting,” he said. Marine infantry were already coming up to support them. Their
orders said to stop for nothing and he had no intention of disobeying them. “Onwards!”

The tanks moved faster as it headed down the road. The alien tank had seemed to be
completely on its own; he wondered if the tank had been out on a training mission, or if
something else had happened to prevent it from joining up with its buddies. The 3rd Infantry
Division was supposed to be hitting Stafford itself, or what was left of the city after the aliens
had battered their way through into the human defences; perhaps the aliens had been
distracted by the Marines and then had been unable to decide where to commit their forces.

He glanced at his terminal. They had forced a pincer operation; one tank unit to head to the
east, one to the west, and infantry to move forward into the city. The aliens hadn’t been
keeping their human captives in the city itself – something that intelligence had suspected
was because they had only limited knowledge of human technology – and the camp was
outside. They should be encountering it…

The alien tanks appeared with astonishing speed. “Gunner, take them out,” Pizarro barked, as
the Marines and aliens opened fire. There had been an encounter near Baghdad where Iraqi
tanks had appeared too close, but had failed to hit a single American tank; now, the aliens had
managed the same trick…with better weapons and tactics. The exchange of fire seemed to
take forever – it had been around five minutes – and it ended with nearly three-dozen burning
tanks, on both sides. Alien infantry appeared with their RPG-like weapons and the gunner
mowed them down with machine gun fire; the Marine infantry was advancing onwards, and
onwards, and…
There was a final explosion and the remainder of the alien force disengaged, heading towards
the north. A handful of aliens surrendered as recorded messages in the alien language
boomed out from the tanks, inviting them to surrender to the humans and promising – he’d
been told – that their lives would be spared. The Army had learned one thing from Iraq; they
had translators waiting back at the deployment area, people who actually spoke the alien
tongue. Pizarro considered that a vast improvement…

“Do not attempt to challenge the defence line to the north,” the controller ordered. Pizarro
swore under his breath; he was confident that the Marines could have punched through the
main alien line without any problems at all, even though they had lost seventeen tanks. The
aliens had come off worst. “Liberate the camp and await further instructions.”

“Understood,” he said. The camp wasn’t far away at all. “We’re on our way.”

It was only five minutes until they reached the camp. As soon as he saw it – as soon as they
blasted a alien guard tower to pieces to allow them to enter – he felt sick. No one deserved to
suffer like that, no one.

“We need medical support, right fucking now,” he snapped into his radio. He forced his
body not to be sick by sheer force of will. “Medics, doctors, nurses, whatever you can
fucking send, just get them up here now!”

                                              ***
For Michael Collins, the world had become a nightmare. He had been employed in
Washington as a telemarketer for one of the world’s foremost law firms, calling people to ask
them if they had any legal problems that needed solved. Collins had enjoyed his job, even
though most of the people he called swore down the line at him; they seemed not to care that
he needed the job to live. When the aliens had landed, he had taken his camera and hoped to
snap a few pictures that he could see to the media, something that might just have bought him
a holiday far from Washington. Instead…

Instead, he had been caught by the aliens, stripped, and sent into a camp. At first, that hadn’t
seemed like a bad idea; the camp had plenty of naked women as well, but then the aliens had
insisted on putting them all to work. Collins had never been employed as anything other than
a telemarketer; he knew nothing that the aliens actually considered useful, not even how the
telephone system actually worked. He had tried to convince them that he could be useful, but
the aliens hadn’t been fooled; they had whipped him for lying, and then sent him to one of the
work camps. He had been dying by inches when they had seen a mushroom cloud in the sky;
since then, the handful of prisoners had feared that they were going to die of radiation
poisoning. The aliens hadn’t cared; they had taken all the prisoners who were not otherwise
useful and put them to work, working hard to carry out all the manual labour that the aliens
wanted them to do.

He felt weak as the sound of approaching vehicles penetrated the fog that seemed to
permanently surround his mind. He had never done any hard work in his life; in a week
under the alien regime, he had lost plenty of weight. Had he been given proper food, he was
aware that he would actually be building muscles and perhaps even making something of
himself, but instead he was just growing weaker. They all were; the aliens just didn’t care at
all.
He moaned, knowing that no one could help him. They had tried to band together to support
each other, but the limited food was taking its toll; they just couldn’t do much to help each
other. Students, lawyers, salesmen…everyone the aliens had deemed as useless, all packed in
together and worked until they died. He had seen a co-ed, young and pretty, fading away
right in front of him. He had seen…

Something exploded; moments later, something crashed through the fence. Turning to look
was the hardest thing he had ever done, but he forced himself to turn, seeing a massive tank
drawing up near the camp. He knew that it was an alien tank…and then he caught sight of the
American flag on the front. The shock of knowing that they had been rescued pounded
through his head and…

The blood rushed through his head and darkness rose up to claim him as its own.
Chapter Thirty-Seven: Convergence, Take One

“He’s First Sergeant Sir Chamita,” Chantho-Ya said, as she peered through the one-way
mirror. She’d hadn’t been willing to face Sir Chamita – Virginia assumed that the
knighthood meant the same thing for the aliens as it did for humans – directly, but she had
agreed to look at him without his knowledge. “He’s a legend.”

Virginia had to smile. She hadn’t heard gushing like that since her sister had developed an
obsession with a local member of a boy band; a handsome pretty boy who had always looked
too good to be true. He had been, at least for the female population of the world; it had
turned out that he was homosexual. Not that his band – with the wonderfully stupid name of
‘MWashyngMachyne’ – had been worth much; far too many commenters had commented
that it was effeminate. The singing hadn’t been much good either.

“It means nothing to us,” she reminded her gently. “What does a First Sergeant do?”

“They’re one level to the right of Master Sergeant and not a rank that gets held for very
often,” Sergeant Alan Landers inserted mischievously. “We call them Top Hats normally.”

“Shut up,” Virginia said. She’d ordered him to give her as many chances as possible to assert
her authority, for the two alien females’ sake. “Chantho-Ya?”

“He’s Prince Rohan’s personal aide, advisor, bodyguard, whatever he needs,” Chantho-Ya
said. “He may be a commoner, but he has more authority than a General; if he’s here with
the Prince’s consort, you can trust that he means what he says. Why has he come here?”

Virginia exchanged a glance with Landers. It had taken a day to bring the alien First
Sergeant to the National Command Bunker…and only the insistence that he would only pass
on his message to the President himself had ensured that he had actually been permitted to
come to the bunker. The man – alien – had been searched from top to bottom first, a search
that would have had her a cringing mass of jelly on the floor; he’d borne it storietically.
Still…

The report from Red Road One had been grim. The liberated human prisoners had all
suffered terribly while under the control of the aliens. Their statements, those that had
survived the experience, confirmed that the aliens seemed to care nothing for humans who
weren’t either politicians or soldiers; she suspected that ending the war without a complete
surrender from the Malick Karn would be impossible. Some of the captured prisoners might
have agreed to join humanity and even apply to become American citizens…but others, those
guilty of war crimes, could be shown no mercy.

“He claims to have a message for the President himself,” Virginia said. “Do you know what
that message is?”

Chantho-Ya shook her head. Her long yellow hair, almost cartoonish in colour, fell all
around her face. “How could I know?” She asked. “Even if I were back there, they
wouldn’t have told me.”

“And he won’t talk,” Landers snarled. Virginia gave him a reproving look; it had taken
nearly a week to convince Chantho-Ya that he wasn’t interested in her body. The mere
thought was disgusting; the Malick Karn females looked very different from human females,
but the irrational fear had remained in her very soul. “How do we make him talk?”

“You can’t,” Chantho-Ya said softly. “He would have been sworn only to speak with the
President.”

Landers shook his head. “The President can’t go in there alone,” he said. “That alien could
snap his neck before anyone else could break in and stop them.”

Virginia gave him a reproving look. “If the message is what we think it is, then the President
needs to hear it,” she said. “Isn’t that worth the risk?”

“Perhaps, but even so…I don’t want anyone to take it,” Landers said. “The President…”

“Is a grown adult and can make his own decisions,” a voice said dryly from behind them.
Virginia almost jumped; Chantho-Ya let out a squawk and tried to hide behind her. General
Matthews was standing there, his face pinched; Chantho-Ya seemed utterly terrified of him.
She’d never seen a black man before; it had been hard enough convincing her that Virginia
and Landers were of the same race with her brown skin in contrast to his pale skin. “Have
you found anything useful?”

“That man is a trained bodyguard, which makes him a deadly assassin,” Landers protested.
Virginia wasn’t sure if she should be impressed with him arguing with a General, or very
worried for him and his future career. She was also half-convinced that Chantho-Ya was
right and there was no real danger. “It’s dangerous…”

Chantho-Ya knelt on one knee. “Lord, there would be no objections to him having a
bodyguard,” she said. Virginia was reminded, too strongly, of someone giving oral sex. The
submission in the pose was terrifying. “The Prince Himself has a bodyguard whenever he
meets anyone.”

“Good,” General Mathews said. His eyes glittered. “As an additional precaution, the First
Sergeant will be secured to his chair while the President is in the room. Sergeant, Doctor,
you will remain here and observe the meeting. Miss…ah, Chantho-Ya, you will remain with
them. Do you understand?”

Chantho-Ya was still kneeling. “Yes, My Lord,” she said. Virginia remembered some of the
reports from survivors of Japanese rape camps, back during the Second World War; they had
lost almost all of the volition to live, reduced down only to automations whose only response
to a man could be to attempt sexual contact. Chantho-Ya was young, intelligent…and
completely wasted back with her kind. “I will do as you command.”

“Good,” General Mathews said. Virginia could tell that he found the scene a little creepy; it
was unclear if Chantho-Ya could ever take part in a normal society, ever again. “Afterwards,
we will require your observations. You never know, this might be an offer of surrender, and
then we can end this war.”

Virginia took advantage of her basically civilian status. “You don’t believe that, do you sir,”
she said. “Not really.”
“No,” General Mathews said. “It’s not over till the fat lady sings…and I don’t hear any
warbling.”

                                               ***
The President accepted the salute from Sergeant Jeremy Damiani as he entered the outer
room, glancing through the one-way glass to see the alien, sitting there on a chair with
restraints around his chest. The alien hadn’t protested the treatment, but it didn’t sit well with
the President; they could hardly claim to have received Sir Chamita with all the honour due to
an ambassador if they chained him to the ground.

“Whatever happens, don’t say a word,” he said, to the Sergeant, who seemed to be taking the
entire business far too seriously. He held an assault rifle with a bayonet in one hand, had at
least two other guns that the President could see, and wore body armour. General Mathews
had insisted on the President wearing body armour as well; it sat uncomfortably beneath his
suit and tie. “I won’t go anywhere near grabbing range…”

The alien looked up as they entered, seemingly unsurprised to see Damiani and his rifle.
There was even a hint of an alien smile; up close, the alien smelt strange, something odd and
alien. The smell made the President’s nose twitch, but he couldn’t place it at all; it
was…alien. The alien looked older, somehow; he had the impression that the alien was
around his own age, not much younger, even if he was a Sergeant. The Malick Karn rank
structure just didn’t compare with anything humanity was familiar with; it was certainly not
as logical as the human system.

“I am the President of the United States of America,” he said, as he took the seat that had
been placed, facing the alien. It made him worried, looking at the restraints around the alien,
but they couldn’t be helped. Whatever the truth about the Malick Karn and the Traders, they
were a hostile power and had to be treated as one. He wondered if the alien would recognise
him; there were plenty of pictures of him around the White House, but would they know who
was who? It was possible that the alien had been led to expect Bush, or Clinton, or even
Lincoln; there seemed no way to know. “I understand that you have a message for me.”

The alien’s eyes were the darkest he’d ever seen. “I am First Sergeant Sir Chamita, Knight of
the Imperial Guard,” the alien said. “I bring you a message from His Highness Prince Rohan,
Heir to the Throne of Char, Prince of the Blood of His Most Imperial Majesty Emperor
Ryland XXXV, Honoured General of the Final War, Commanding Officer of the Army of
Earth and Viceroy of the Occupied Region.”

The President refused to laugh. The situation was serious. He’d met far too many people
who had titles of one kind or another, all of whom assumed that their titles entitled them to
respect and benefits, from the British Royal Family to more Saudi princes than he could
count. The Malick Karn had done Earth a favour there; perhaps without the Princes, the
Saudi people would have a chance to make something of themselves.

Sir Chamita took a breath. “To our cousin in rule, greetings,” he said. The President
assumed that he was about to begin reciting Rohan’s message. The captured aliens hadn’t
really understood how a President became elected; they had assumed that he was an emperor
as well. It was lucky that they hadn’t heard about Bush I and II, or they would have been
impossible to convince of how democracy worked. “I mush beg for your indulgence, now,
on a matter of grave importance to us both.
“You have fought well and hard against my people, my cousin, but you remain unaware of
the real threat,” the message continued. “The truth is that we have been pushed into this war
by aliens who intend to use us as their puppets. My people were transported here at their
whim, forced to lift their arms against you and your people. Now we must beg for your help.
I do not know, my cousin, how the Traders will react to recent events, but they may seek to
make both of us pay for failing them. I can only ask for you to work with us to defeat them,
so that we may both seek a more honest basis for a relationship.”

The President said nothing, thinking hard. Could Rohan be trusted? The alien captives spoke
well of him – or at least the Char captives did. The ones who weren’t from Char had little
bad to say about him personally, but they had lambasted the system that had given Rohan his
powers and position. If he could be trusted, perhaps it could be used to defeat the Traders, or
perhaps it was a trap…

He shook his head. A trap made no sense.

“In the hope of an agreement to the mutual benefit of our people, I invite you to meet with
myself somewhere along the border between your people and mine,” Sir Chamita continued.
“As a token of good faith, I am willing to turn over samples of equipment supplied to us by
the Traders, so that you may verify my claims for yourself. My First Sergeant has the
information on how to get in touch with me; I await your response with interest and concern.
We do not have much time.”

There was a pause. “That was the message,” Sir Chamita said finally. “He would like a
response as soon as possible.”

“I'm sure he would,” the President said, his mind racing backwards and forwards. Everything
hung on just how trustworthy Rohan actually was…and there was no way to actually verify
that, apart from actually going to the meeting and seeing what happened. “I will inform you
of our decision.”

He stood up and left the room. “General, please order Major General Langford that all
offensive operations are to be postponed,” he said, as the door closed behind him. “I want a
meeting in the conference room in half an hour; all the principles are to attend.”

“Yes, Mr President,” General Mathews said. “I will see to it at once.”

                                               ***
“You all heard the message,” the President said, as the doors were sealed. The nine men and
women in the room knew everything; there were only a handful of people in the entire world
who knew the truth. The Traders, the Malick Karn…they didn’t dare share the information
any further; no one knew what sort of surveillance capabilities the Traders possessed. “If
some of our new friends are to be believed” – he nodded over towards Chantho-Ya – “this is
from as high as it gets in the alien power structure. What do we do?”

There was a long pause. “We need to end this as quickly as we can,” Jaclyn Ridgeley said.
The Secretary of State leaned forwards, her eyes bright. “If we can end it now, we have to
try, whatever the cost.”
“I don’t think that we can afford to make any deals with them,” Major Monahan said.
“They’re torturing innocent American civilians now, in making them work for them; we
cannot allow them to get away with it.”

General Mathews gave his subordinate a sharp look. “No one said anything about letting
them get away with anything,” he said. “If they can help us to end the threat of the Traders,
then…do we risk contacting them?”

“At the very least, we should at least find out what this…Prince Rohan is offering,” Tucker
Dwynn said. The analyst stared down at the frozen images of people, trapped within the alien
sphere of control; their lives subject to a ruthless alien overlord. “we punched through them a
day ago; what might they do if we force them back against the wall? Some of them will
surrender – and we have had success with the loudspeaker broadcasts inviting surrender – and
others…others might decide to go down fighting.”

He paused. “And even if we do win, we are still going to have to deal with the Traders,
somehow,” he continued. “If the Malick Karn have information that can help us, then we had
better move on and get it before something happens to force our hand.”

“It has already happened,” Major Monahan said. “The news of what Red Road One found is
across the nation. The people want blood.”

The President said nothing. He wanted to know what his subordinates thought before he said
anything, but he was starting to lean towards talking to Rohan.

General Mathews coughed. “There’s also his offer of a free gift of Trader technology,” he
said. “If that offer is genuine…then we would have something we need desperately, a chance
to study more of their technology. If people like Sergeant Landers and the other research
teams have a chance to learn more, it would put us in a stronger position.”

“True,” Dwynn agreed. “We are at a position of serious weakness regarding the Traders and
yet…why are they so unwilling to intervene? That ship up there can presumably wreck
havoc on Earth, but instead they do nothing apart from shipping in reinforcements, placing
the Malick Karn at risk of defeat.”

“They haven’t lost yet,” Major Monahan pointed out.

“Yet,” Dwynn said. “They might well lose if we push ahead with Red Road Two.”

The President tapped the table. “The question is really quite simple,” he said. “Do we talk to
him or not?”

General Matthews frowned. “We have managed to carry out part one of the shuttle plan,” he
said. “One could argue that we have more options than we had a week ago.”

“It’s still a very chancy plan,” the President said. “We launched two dozen nuclear missiles
at a Trader ship and how many hit them?”

“None,” Dwynn said. He met the President’s eyes; the President saw worry, and fear, within
his young face. “Is that not a good reason to be careful?”
The President looked over at Virginia. “Doctor Jones, do you believe that the envoy is being
sincere?”

Virginia hesitated. “I believe that he’s telling the truth as he sees it,” she said, finally.
“Rohan’s only offer of any real note is the one about Trader technology; if that is sincere,
then we should go along with it for that alone.”

Major Monahan blinked. “Mr President, you would be in potentially hostile territory, at
grave risk of being captured or killed,” he said. His face was very pale, half-shocked that the
President would even consider the idea of going to meet the aliens. “It’s a terrible risk.”

“But one worth running,” the President said. He looked around the room, making it clear that
the debate was finished. “Are there any other issues that need to be raised?”

“The European Union has worked like mad bastards and actually managed to get a force in
place to attack the aliens in Saudi and liberate the oil fields,” Jaclyn Ridgeley said, after a
long moment. “Do we tell them to stop the offensive?”

The President muttered a word under his breath. “Would they believe us if we told them?”

“I think we don’t dare,” General Mathews said. “If the Traders hear about this before we are
ready, they may take action of their own and make it impossible for us to react in time. We
have very limited ways of taking the fight to them; we cannot just send an aircraft carrier and
watch them bending over for us.”

“I wish it were that easy,” Jaclyn Ridgeley muttered.

The President looked over at her. “Jaclyn, I want you to organise a meeting with the alien
prince,” he said. “Myself and two others will go, along with a small close protection force.
As for the future…well, we’ll worry about that when it comes.”

He stood up. “This is a game of very high stakes,” he said. “We cannot afford to lose…and
we will not lose.”
Chapter Thirty-Eight: Convergence, Take Two

“No, I won’t,” someone gasped, far too close to Houghton for comfort. His eyes snapped
open and he saw Gloria, twisting in the grip of a nightmare. Her eyes were moving madly
under her eyelids; her face was drenched with sweat. “I won’t…”

He reached out and placed a hand on her shoulder. She flinched away from him, as if he was
something terrible, and her eyes opened. She saw him clearly and withdrew into herself for a
moment, before taking his hand and holding it tightly.

He smiled at her. “Nightmare?”

“Yes,” she said, pulling him to her. She smiled, trying to distract his attention as she kissed
him. It had been inevitable that they would have sought comfort in one another while
prisoners of the aliens; his only fear had been that she would get pregnant when they were
making love. The aliens didn’t understand contraception; they didn’t even seem to have
condoms, even though humans had known about them for years. “I have a better idea.”

He pushed his lusts aside. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“Not really,” Gloria said, climbing on top of him. She had been reluctant to go under him, let
alone allow him to take her doggy style; he understood her fears without really sharing them.
Humans didn’t have any limits on how they could have sex, but the Malick Karn’s society
was bound up around their sexual relations…which was not that unlike humanity’s, now that
he thought about it. SETI might have generally believed that the universe was a nice place,
but he had taken a handful of courses in tribal development; the myth of the noble savage had
been just that. A myth. “I just want you inside me.”

He couldn’t resist her any longer; he didn’t want to resist her. As she pushed down on him,
he felt his own passions rising and pushed back, bringing them both to the boil before they
collapsed on each other, happy and safe. Just for the moment; she had had nightmares almost
every night. He had had a handful himself, but none of them had been as grim as Gloria’s
knowledge of what might happen to her under Malick Karn rule. He might have half-liked
Prince Rohan; she couldn’t allow herself even that. He held her as tightly as he could; the
Malick Karn made the Taliban looked like paid-up members of the ACLU.

There was a knock at the door, a tribute to their new status; he pulled himself out of the bed
and grabbed a robe before opening the door, unsurprised to see one of Prince Rohan’s
assistants there, beckoning him. He kissed Gloria goodbye and followed the alien through
the corridors, finally entering the room that Rohan used for his private meetings with the
humans. Garlinda-Ya stood behind him, her hands gently pressed into his shoulders; they
made an interesting picture. He could almost believe that they were man and wife.

“Your Highness,” he said, bowing. The alien protocol had almost defeated him; it had been
Garlinda-Ya who had taken on the task of trying to educate the humans in how the protocol
actually worked. “You called for me?”

“There was an attack on us bare hours after my First Sergeant crossed into enemy lines,”
Rohan said, without preamble. Oddly enough, that was a gesture of respect among the aliens;
they could talk for hours about nothing if they didn’t respect the person whom they were
talking to. “The attack destroyed a small force and recaptured Stafford.”

Houghton said nothing. He had known what was happening there, what the aliens were
doing to those they had termed ‘useless’ – those who seemed to hold no useful position in
human society. Some of them, lawyers and telemarketers, had perhaps deserved their fate;
others were guilty of nothing more than taking the wrong course at university.

“This is beyond my understanding,” Rohan continued. His courtesan’s hands worked at his
shoulders. “Is this a rejection of the attempt to parlay with the human authorities?”

Houghton hesitated. He had no doubt that the President would be interested in discussing a
peace with the aliens, but the aliens themselves had made it hard. It wasn’t their fault –
western standards of civilised behaviour didn’t apply to the rest of the world, let along aliens
from outer space – but the citizens of America wouldn’t be interested in such niceties. The
aliens had wrecked havoc in America…and they had killed thousands, perhaps even millions.
No one would mourn for Saudi Arabia – except perhaps those who had grown fat on Saudi
bribes – but invading Washington itself was a different matter.

“It was possible that they couldn’t stop the attack in time,” he said, after a moment. He knew
very little about military affairs, but he was sure that it was all too possible to have an attack
to be so far advanced that stopping it would be worse than continuing it. “They might have
had it planned even before you sent your First Sergeant to talk – and you ordered him to talk
only to the President.”

He paused. They had spent long enough looking for an image of the President for the First
Sergeant. “They haven’t attempted to exploit their victory?”

“They got hurt too,” Rohan said. His face fell though a series of different expressions.
“They lost at least ten of their own armoured vehicles – tanks, as you humans call them.
What was the purpose of the offensive?”

Houghton blinked. How was he meant to know? “They probably wanted to retake Stafford
and bite off a small chunk of your forces,” he hedged. “It would have served a role in
convincing the remainder of the human population that they could win the war.”

Rohan smiled thinly. “One would have thought that that wasn't difficult,” he said. “Is that
always a problem?”

“There are always defeatists,” Houghton said. “Whenever something goes wrong, they will
carp and claim that the war is lost and the only thing to do is pull out and let the enemy get on
with enjoying the victory.”

“Strange people,” Rohan said. “Why does your government not have them killed?”

Houghton realised, not for the first time, just how rare Rohan was among the alien
commanders; he actually listened to advice from his subordinates. The Char seemed
normally to act as if they knew best just because they were the Char…and their nobles were
worse than any member of SETI’s beaucratcy that he had met. They actually believed that an
accident of birth not only gave them their positions, but that it somehow made them
intelligent beyond any of the commoners. Rohan had had the service of a skilled First
Sergeant, but even so…he had grown into something the Char Nation should be proud of,
assuming that it ever knew what had happened on Earth.

“Because we believe that everyone has a right to say what they want,” he said, unwilling to
go into that argument. Free speech versus personal privacy; the aliens couldn’t understand
that anymore than half of the human race could understand it. “Don’t you have such
problems on Karn?”

The moment he said it, he knew that the answer would be no. The Char weren’t the type of
people to allow free speech…and they had inflicted their views on all of the Malick Karn.
The Traders had a lot to answer for; given time, Char would probably have been destroyed,
with Rohan perhaps the last Emperor of Char as its enemies completed the task of destroying
it. Instead, Char ruled all of Karn, and all of that potential had been blown out of the water.

“No,” Rohan said. “What is a war crime?”

Houghton kept his face blank. The truth was that there was no real definition of a war crime
on Earth, let alone one that could be applied to the Malick Karn, even though the human race
would demand retribution against the aliens. Humanity had been using the term as a political
football for so long that there was no way that anyone could really understand it any longer.

“It’s a crime committed against the laws of war,” he said, finally. How could he explain that
a large part of the Malick Karn army would be indicted under any normal interpretation of the
term? “Any harmful act committed against the soldiers you have in captivity would be
considered a war crime.”

“I see,” Rohan said. He paused. “Why have your people been encouraging mine to desert?”

“I beg your pardon,” Houghton said. The conversation was rapidly becoming harder and
harder to follow. Rohan just seemed to be switching from topic to topic, as if his mind was
refusing to focus on just one thing. He had had the general iumpression that it would be
impossible for the Malick Karn to desert; they could hardly expect any real help from the
humans, could they? “What do you mean, encouraging your men to desert?”

Rohan fixed him with a grim look. “The human force that attacked us was also screaming
out an offer – in our language, no less – inviting any Malick Karn soldier who wanted to
leave the war and come to America safe conduct, as long as he came without weapons,” he
said. “We told soldiers at once that people who accepted the offer were being mown down
by your people, but that didn’t stem the tide of desertions, particularly among the Volunteer
Army.”

Houghton frowned. When he had first heard about the Volunteer Army, he hadn’t truly
understood it…until he had started to unravel how the system worked. It was perhaps the
most brutal and vicious army that the Char had ever created; thousands upon thousands of
subject men from subject nations, taken from their homes, given basic training and unleashed
upon the foe. The Char regarded them with contempt; the remainder of the Malick Karn
feared them like no others. They had so much anger and suppressed rage to work off that the
regular Char soldiers were almost popular, compared to them. They left a bloody trail of
rape, murder, looting and burning, wherever they went.
He paused. “They’re deserting?”

“Many of the ones not from Char are accepting the offer,” Rohan informed him. “Other units
were pulled back for defence duty closer to forces that could intercept them if they tried to
desert, or punish them for any thoughts of disloyalty. It is having a dangerous effect on my
ability to hold the army together.”

Houghton had to smile inwardly; he hoped that Rohan couldn’t read it on his face. The
Volunteers were only infantry; they never had access to any of the tanks, or artillery, or
helicopters, or even radios, but they were clearly tough. If Rohan pressed them too hard, he
might end up with a revolt at the worst possible time, or if he treated them too lightly, he
might end up with the revolt anyway. It was a balancing act…and Rohan was starting to lose
control.

“I repeat my question,” Rohan snapped. “Why are your people trying to do this?”

Houghton considered. “Because they don’t want to fight your army and want to weaken you,
whatever it takes,” he said, after a moment. “If your men desert, then they have a source of
intelligence about your force, and you don’t have them to fight when they come to dig you
out of this place. It’ll keep down the deaths in the final battle.”

Rohan snorted. “They also have someone who can speak our language,” he said. Houghton
remembered Iraq and thought that it would make a change. “Why would they trust him to
say something like that?”

“They will have plenty of humans who can speak your language by now,” Houghton said.
“There are computer programs that can speed up learning a language if they hear it and can
make connections between words, using them to unravel the underlying structure…or
something like that. You’ll have to ask Gloria for more information.”

“And they use it to make my people desert,” Rohan said. “Why did we never think of that?”

Houghton smiled. “What do you do to surrendered soldiers?”

“Keep them in camps,” Rohan answered. “What will your people do to the deserters?”

“They might get a place in our society,” Houghton said. He leaned forwards. “They might
even extend the offer to you.”

Rohan opened his mouth. A buzzer made a noise and he turned to answer it. “Yes?”

There was an unintelligible burst of speech at the other end of the line. “I see,” Rohan said.
“Have the forward patrols pulled back one human kilometre. We don’t want any accidents.”

He turned to face Houghton. “The American President has sent back my First Sergeant,” he
said. “He has agreed to the meeting!”

Houghton breathed a sigh of relief. “However, he has insisted that we go unarmed,” Rohan
continued. “That sounds almost like a deliberate insult.”
“It’s nothing of the sort,” Houghton assured him. The meeting was too important to allow
pride, human or Malick Karn, to interfere. “The President himself is coming and he’s
important; I voted for him, after all.” Rohan didn’t understand the joke. “Would your people
allow someone with a weapon so close to the Emperor?”

“No,” Rohan agreed. His face creased into a strange smile. “In fact…”

He broke off as the buzzer rang again. The system, Houghton suspected, had been designed
by the Malick Karn themselves, rather than the Traders. It was supposed to be impossible to
tap and, without direct access to the system, it was hard to see how the Traders could tap into
it. It was primitive…but effective.

“I see,” Rohan said. “I think that I have to talk to the Traders.”

Houghton stared at him. “Your Highness…”

“Your forces have attacked our foothold in Saudi,” Rohan said. “They have breached the
ceasefire.”

“Those are not American forces,” Houghton said, although he was baffled as to who they
actually were. Had the Gulf Cooperative Council somehow raised an army? The Iraqis?
The Iranians? The Turks? Even the Israelis? “You can’t throw away the peace agreement
for the sake of Saudi and its oil.”

“I can’t, but I can’t let it fall either,” Rohan said. He nodded once to Garlinda-Ya. “Take
him back to his rooms; I have to ask a Trader for more direct help.”

Houghton opened his mouth to protest, but Garlinda-Ya shook her head sadly. He stared at
her for a moment, and then allowed her to lead him out of the room, back towards the room
he shared with Gloria. There was a cold feeling in his heart; somehow, he was very aware
that everything was going wrong. What was happening…and how would the Traders react?

                                               ***
The image of Saudi Arabia hung in front of Tradermaster Maxtin as he considered it with a
certain sense of disdain. He had never revealed to the Malick Karn the full details of what a
person with a starship could see from high above; there had been no need to reveal their
capabilities and admit to something that he would have preferred to keep a secret. They had
watched all of Earth’s surface for the entire period they had been in orbit – since before the
time that humanity had ever heard of the Malick Karn – and there were few secrets from
them. The humans were more challenging targets than the Malick Karn, who lacked anything
reassembling advanced encryption, but there were limits to how much could be hidden from
eyes in the sky. A major human attack was impossible to hide.

He had already made the decision that if there was a second human attempt to launch a
nuclear strike on the Malick Karn, his forces would intercept the missiles before they could
strike the surface of the planet. The decision hadn’t been hard at all, even though he had been
aware of the concern that his two junior shipmasters had shown; both of them had worried
that he was dragging them closer and closer to becoming directly involved with the war on
the surface of the planet. He had thought, sincerely, about dragging an asteroid towards Earth
and drowning millions of humans, but neither of his subordinates would have gone along
with it. Genocide would have been impossible for them to hide…and if the Trader Council
found out, they would be lucky to survive the experience. The Council would be looking for
scapegoats and they wouldn’t have to look very far.

Now…now there was a new problem, something that could cost the Malick Karn everything
and Prince Rohan had asked for help. The massed army in Iraq was challenging the Malick
Karn in Saudi…and they might well win. The Malick Karn had been badly weakened by the
nuclear strikes, and even though reinforcements and a handful of fabricators had been rushed
in, there wasn’t enough to prevent the humans from succeeding in their attack. He had been
asked to intervene, to pull something out of his hat to save their position, and…there was
nothing that he could do. Bombarding human positions would be in direct breech of the
Law…

A thought occurred to him. It wasn't, technically, something hostile. If he did it, and it
worked, it was something that could be denied easily. If it didn’t work, no one would ever
make the connection between the Traders and…well, whatever did happen. He was almost
curious as to what would happen if he tried…

It was a matter of moments to draw up the program, a matter of five minutes to begin the
procedure. He smiled to himself; whatever happened, valuable information would be gained
on the technology…and what happened when something basically civilian was adopted as a
weapon of war.

It should be very interesting indeed…
Chapter Thirty-Nine: Sandstorm

“Oh, you have got to be fucking kidding me,” SAS Sergeant Christopher Roach breathed, as
they slipped closer to the alien position. There was a faint air of unreality around the entire
location, a strange sense that something unearthly had touched the desert, but all they could
see was the alien deployment base and the vehicles surrounding it…and the human prisoners
in the camp. The Saudis had been captured and used as slaves, just like the aliens had done
elsewhere.

The alien base looked almost too human, something that made him smile, even though it
made sense. The aliens themselves might look more…human than some of the aliens that
appeared in early science-fiction – although they didn’t appear to have beautiful women from
outer space – but their base seemed very like a human garrison. Roach had served in Basra,
Baghdad and several places where most people would be surprised to learn that British troops
had served…and the alien base was almost identical to the barracks in Basra.

The main complex had apparently been taken from the Saudis and redecorated, perhaps by
using human labour, assuming that the Saudis in question hadn’t done anything stupid like
resisting. Iraq-style insurgency tactics didn’t work that well on the aliens, whose standard
response to resistance was to bring up awesome firepower and use it unmercifully; thousands
of would-be Islamic fighters had walked into Saudi and never come out again. It made a vast
contrast to the American and British failure to defeat the insurgents, although, to be fair, the
aliens were bent on conquest and could legitimately shoot anyone, anywhere.

“That’s going to be tricky to crack,” he muttered, as he studied the alien defences. The aliens
had built trenches and gun positions right around the camp; not unlike the Americans in
Desert Storm, they hadn’t considered it worth the bother of trying to defend the entire Saudi-
Iraq border. Any European attack would have to be targeted on the camp…and that would
be…tricky, if not impossible, to carry out without losing too many people. The aliens had
secured the entire region and with Kuwait bowing the knee, only a direct assault out of Iraq
was likely to succeed. “I wonder if the French and Germans can do it.”

The American Government had had other problems; only a small American force was
attached to the European force massed to invade Saudi and evict the aliens once and for all.
The British Government had been even more reluctant to take part, but had much less
manoeuvring room; finally, a handful of soldiers that had been already present in Iraq and a
pair of infantry battalions had been assigned to the multinational European force. Roach
himself hadn’t been sent to one of the newer camps; he had been ordered to proceed at once
into Saudi and investigate the alien camp, the linchpin of the alien defences of Saudi Arabia.

It was almost like being in the 19th Century. The SAS unit had no GPS units, not any longer;
the aliens had taken out all of the satellites. The rest of the world had regarded that as a
declaration of war, even though not every nation even had satellites, and had determined to
find some way to strike back. The team had holed up during the daytime and navigated by
the stars at night, trying to locate the alien base. The aliens themselves were running heavy
patrols, but they didn’t seem used to the desert; they were more intent on keeping what they
had than massing their forces to head north.

He smiled. If nothing else, the American deployment of nuclear weapons should put a few
fears to rest; the nukes had been used and the world had not come to an end. He had been
worried about encountering a radioactive cloud, but the alien base was nowhere near any of
the American targets. The Americans had smashed up Saudi’s terrible transport network with
their weapons – what little the Saudis hadn’t ruined themselves in a desperate attempt to
prevent the aliens from taking more of their country – and the large alien force at the camp
was the largest they knew about in the area. It was difficult to be sure any longer, thanks to
the alien destruction of the spy satellites, but there were plenty of special forces teams
crawling around the desert, trying to avoid a land-equivalent of the Battle of Midway. The
European command had decided that the right way to start was by knocking off the isolated
alien force before it could get any reinforcements.

“Poor bastards,” he muttered, staring at the humans in the slave camp. He had little
sympathy for the Arabs; few soldiers who were on deployment in the Middle East ended up
with any love for them, although there were a pair who had converted to Islam with much
fanfare. A nation that killed women who talked to the soldiers, for whatever reason, wasn’t
one that deserved protection; female soldiers received almost no respect from the Arab men
whatsoever. The people in the slave camp, last year, might have been baying for the blood of
western soldiers…but they didn’t deserve that. The most rapidly anti-Muslim revenge
fantasy ever, conceived by a crazy xenophobic racist, would have been better than the fate of
civilians, under the aliens. “We might be able to get you out, but…”

He shrugged. He had taken all the images he could with his tiny camera; it was now time to
toss them back to the EUROFOR HQ. The lack of satellites meant that they had had to use
relay stations, some of them using ideas that dated back as far as the Falklands War, to relay
tiny microburst transmissions, but there was no other choice. The European and American
armies were having to get used to the concept of operating without 24/7 communications and
coverage, although in some cases there would probably be an increase in efficiency. He
tapped the small transmitter as he hid behind a dune, hoping that the alien sensors wouldn’t
be capable enough to pick up the brief moment of signal before it faded.

“Good luck,” he muttered, and triggered the transmitter.

                                              ***
Five kilometres into Iraq, Général de division Philippe Laroche studied the images that the
SAS officer had sent, appreciating the daring that the British soldier had shown in sneaking
so close to the alien encampment. The man had lived up to his unit’s reputation; Laroche
half-wished that he had thousands more just like him. It was armour and artillery that would
decide the battle, but a good commando was worth several times his weight in gold.

He scowled as the brief flickers of communication between the units revealed their readiness
to move on and tackle the small alien base. There was little point in holding territory in the
desert without destroying the opposing army, a lesson that both the Axis and Allied forces
from the Second World War – and the Americans in the Gulf War – might have done well to
heed. The aliens understood it to some degree, but the Americans had torn up their
communications network; it was an opportunity that he didn’t dare let slip past. The political
arguments over who would have command had been tricky enough to surmount; had he not
been in Saudi at the time, the EUROFOR would probably have never gotten off the ground.

Still, it was an impressive force; four divisions of European soldiers, mainly French and
German. The British had made a smaller contribution, but their expertise would be
invaluable and he had won permission to make his deployments without regard to politics.
Paris and Berlin might want their soldiers to both play important roles – and be exposed to as
little danger as possible – but they had agreed to let him run the war his way. The best people
for the job would get the roles they could handle…and politics could be buggered. He had a
war to fight.

“Confirm with Brigadegeneral Wolfe,” he ordered. He wasn’t allowed, apparently, to lead
his forces into battle himself; it didn’t sit well with him. “I need him to confirm that his
forces are ready for deployment.”

“They’re reporting as ready,” an aide said. Brigadegeneral Wolfe was a German expert in
armoured warfare, someone who had only taken part in exercises until the aliens had landed;
he was still highly thought of by the European armed forces. “Brigadegeneral Wolfe says
that his men are ready to advance and engage the enemy as soon as you give the command.”

“Good,” Laroche said. There had been no sign that the aliens had been mining or otherwise
preparing the border for an attacking force attempting to engage them, but he knew better
than to take anything for granted. The aliens could cross the stars; who knew what surprises
they had up their sleeves? All he knew was that he didn’t know anything like enough about
the foe…but what General had ever known everything about his opponent? “Inform him that
the eyes of Europe and the world are upon us…and that he may commence the attack when
ready.”

The thought numbed him. European military solidity had been a myth before the aliens;
NATO and a handful of smaller defence agreements had been everything they had thought
they had needed…and politics, always politics, had interfered. The aliens had reminded them
that the world wasn’t nice, or safe…and some of the reports from America were terrifying.
For the first time in far too long, the European people were taking a concentrated interest in
defence…and woe betide the politician who got in their way. It never failed to surprise him
how stupid some people could be…

He closed his eyes, long enough to remember; there wasn’t a nation in Western Europe that
didn’t bear the scars of failing to remember that the world wasn’t safe. His own country had
been crushed by the Germans and then fought over by the Americans and British. The
Germans had elected Hitler…and then allowed him to lead them to doom, and half of the
country had been dominated by the Soviet Union and their own home-grown communists.
The British…had been on the winning side in the last European war, but had then allowed
their standards to slip; even the Falklands hadn’t woken them to the dangers of the world. He
wondered if…

“The advance guard is now crossing the border,” his aide said, breaking him out of his
thoughts. Everything rested on victory; none of the European countries, on their own, could
pull the weight of the Americans…or the Chinese, or the Russians. If he failed, his force
would be used as an excuse to scrap any hope of European integration once and for all.
“They’re moving on their way.”

Laroche nodded. “God help us all,” he said. “May He have mercy on their souls.”

His aide blinked. “The Pope has not yet decided if the aliens have souls,” he said. “They’re
still arguing over what the aliens role in God’s creation actually is, let alone anything else.”
“I was thinking about everyone who is going to die today,” Laroche said. “May God have
mercy on their souls.”

                                                ***
“I fucking hate this place,” Hauptmann Fritz Bohlen growled, as the Leopard 2 German main
battle tank started to cross the border in a cloud of dust and smoke, heading southwards into
Saudi. He had heard stories of how the Deutsches Afrika Korps had survived service in
Libya and Egypt, but they seemed to pall compared to serving in the Middle East. The
German Government had remained out of the Iraq War, for which Bohlen would be forever
grateful; they had avoided becoming entangled in a nightmare.

Iraq was…crazy. On one hand, the Iraqis hated them as much as they hated the French – for
supporting Saddam during his time in power – and the Americans, who had disposed of
Saddam. On the other hand, they wanted as much protection as possible from the aliens, who
had been sending refugees fleeing northwards with tales of horror and nightmare. There were
places in Iraq that could only have been improved with a direct nuclear strike, an irony, given
what the Americans had claimed to have fought the war in Iraq for.

“I know,” the driver said. She was tall and blonde; the Arab men they’d seen had taunted her
until she had clocked one of them in the face. “Keep your eyes front, sir; the enemy is
somewhere to the front of us.”

Bohlen nodded as the tank rumbled onwards. The Americans had built the road years ago to
support their operations during the Gulf War; the Saudis hadn’t bothered to maintain it,
therefore leaving it as almost completely ruined before the tanks came, therefore making it
even more ruined. A tank wasn’t a very good vehicle for driving on a civilian road, not least
because most tanks were too heavy to avoid damaging the road. Alien tanks had been on
patrol in the area; they all had to be hunted down and destroyed before they managed to pull
of a surprise on the human forces. He kept glancing around as they moved; the aliens could
be anywhere.

His radio crackled. “Had a bit of buzz from the alien bands,” one of the headquarters staff
said. The tank was operating under radio silence; Bohlen couldn’t respond unless there was a
genuine emergency. “The aliens are up to something at” – he recited a series of coordinates;
Bohlen had to remind himself that the coordinates were only the location of the alien
transmitter – “and you are ordered to close in and destroy.”

Bohlen glanced briefly at the map; the European forces were heading in, but this new…alien
force, assuming that it was an alien force, as opposed to a single spotter or some alien version
of the special forces, was in the way. He muttered orders to the driver and the tank picked up
speed, leaving a massive cloud of dust in its path as it advanced rapidly, hunting for the
source of the transmissions. The main attack forces would be reaching the alien base
soon…and if the aliens got any warning, the attack might fail.

They crested the ridge and saw the aliens; seven alien tanks, utterly unprepared for the attack.
The aliens had been having a pause and a chat, seemingly safe from danger, but they had kept
their gunners in the tanks. Alien turrets rotated with terrifying speed, bringing their weapons
up towards the German tanks, and Bohlen barked a command before the aliens could open
fire.
“Fire,” he barked. The tank shook as it unleashed a shot right towards the alien tanks,
destroying the lead tank in a billowing fireball. The orther tanks opened fire at the same
time, shattering two more alien tanks and cripliing a third before the aliens returned fire,
blowing apart two German tanks in a blaze of white light. No one knew just what they put in
their weapons, but the humans had learned to respect it; it melted human tanks with ease.
“Take them all down!”

An alien appeared with what looked like a RPG. Bohlen snarled a command and the machine
gunner cut him down, shredding the alien into a hail of bloody chunks. The alien RPGs were
rare, but they were deadly; like their tank shells, they burned through human tanks, even the
dreaded Abrams tank. There was a final explosion and the alien force was destroyed.

“Good work,” Bohlen said. He paused. Something was wrong, something in the air…he
could sense it, right at the limits of his perception. He glanced down sharply at the NBC
warning systems, wondering if they were being gassed somehow, but nothing was tripping
the sensors or triggering alarms. The systems were among the best in the world; what was
making him feel that way? “Can anyone tell what that is?”

The others in the tank sensed it as well. “No,” the driver said, after a long moment of
introspection. “I can feel it, but I don’t know what it is.”

A wind whipped up all around them. Bohlen didn’t understand at first, and then they moved
over the ridge, looking south; the massive cloud of a sandstorm was advancing rapidly
towards them. He had heard about the Shamal that had forced offensive operations to come
to a near-complete halt in Iraq, but now…now he saw it for the first time as a wave of dust
reached out for them. He muttered a command into his radio and banged down the hatch,
knowing that the offensive had just come to a halt. The feeling reminded him of something;
had the aliens somehow caused the sandstorm?

“My God,” he breathed, as the sandstorm buffeted the tank. “What is this going to do to the
timetable?”

                                              ***
The first reports had all gone well, much to Laroche’s delight, and then the sandstorm had
begun. The reports came in from everywhere along the front; a massive storm had blown up,
right out of nowhere, covering the invaders and defenders alike in sand and forcing offensive
operations to grind to a halt. He almost found it impossible to believe; some of the reports
from weather stations around the Gulf hadn’t predicted anything, but good weather for at
least a week.

It was a weapon, it had to be. Laroche had heard about some speculation about weather
manipulation as a weapon, but nothing had ever been produced…and the human race had
breathed a sigh of relief. A dust storm that covered almost the entire border and threatening
to spread into Iraq was something utterly impossible…but it had happened anyway.
Somehow…the aliens had harnessed the power of the Earth.

“Bastards,” he hissed. The aliens didn’t seem to like or hate the desert; could they be plotting
a counterattack under the sand? “Order all forces to pull back or dig in under the weather
clears.”
His aide looked up at him. “Sir, does that mean that we are abandoning the offensive?”

It felt good to snap. “Yes,” he snapped. The bitterness of effortless defeat tore at him.
“What other choice do we have? We can’t fight in that!”
Chapter Forty: A Meeting of Minds

“Why is it,” Sergeant Jeremy Damiani asked, “that I have the feeling that someone is
preparing to bugger me up the back passage?”

He glanced behind him. “Lit, Fell, what exactly are you doing?”

“This is discrimination against gaysexuals – even though you do have a nice arse,” Fell
protested. “I don’t know, sir; why do you have the feeling that someone is plotting to commit
unnatural acts on your body?”

Damiani gave him a droll look. The small force had been looking forward to some rest and
relaxation; they’d brought out the alien emissary, which they were sure meant that the aliens
were considering surrender. Instead, they had found themselves guarding the alien prisoner,
bodyguarding the President himself…and now securing an abandoned house in the country.
The house had survived – somehow – despite being far too close to the fighting and in the
middle of no-man’s land.

“Spread out,” he muttered, pushing the discussion aside. There wasn’t time for an argument.
“I want this building checked and secured before it gets any darker.”

Reflexively, he glanced skywards, half expecting to see an alien ship descending on his
position. He knew what was at stake; that, more than anything else, had won his small group
the position it now held. A task that would have been more suited to the Marines, or the
Green Berets, had been left to them…because they already knew what was happening and
what was going to happen. The Traders, if they caught a sniff of the meeting, would be keen
to interfere.

It took them nearly an hour before Damiani was satisfied that the house was safe. Humans
had been leaving booby-traps all over the alien-occupied territory – and the aliens had been
doing the same in the area that human forces had liberated – and it would have been the
height of irony to have lost either of the main people at the meeting to a booby-trap. The
house itself was in surprisingly good shape; he could only guess that the aliens hadn’t
considered it a possible threat, or that humans hadn’t seen it as somewhere to hide.

They’d be caught like rats in a trap, he thought, as they completed their task. The house’s
isolation had a lot to do with the decision of higher-ranking officers and politicians to use it,
even if it did look like something that had stepped out of a horror movie. He had even –
jokingly – reminded his team never to go off on their own, just in case; there was always
something unpleasant lurking in the shadows in such a house. It didn’t help that they weren’t
allowed to use electric lights anywhere where they might leak out and be seen from high
above; there were times when he was certain that security concerns were taken too far. The
Secret Service had had a collective heart attack at the very thought, even though substantial
forces were held in reserve, just in case something happened.

Damiani felt his radio buzz once. They’d taken the risk of using the low-powered
transmitters, just because they had had to have some way of talking with the outside world,
even though it was a danger. One of the rooms, an interior meeting room, had been sealed
off from the rest of the house; the principals would go in there and…well, talk. Damiani
hoped that they would find a way to end the war – both sides of the war – before there was a
repeat of what happened in Saudi in America. He couldn’t see any reason why the Traders
would hesitate to do it again…particularly if they were balked further. In fact…

“Everything is ready,” he whispered, into his radio. There was something about the entire
situation that made him want to whisper. “All’s set.”

He paced back to the window and peered outside. The owner had placed a long line of yew
trees, mingled in with dozens of other trees, intended to provide shelter from the sun and the
wind. Now, they sheltered the three humans advancing from one side of the house…and the
three aliens, advancing from the other side. He took a breath; if it was a trap, he and his men
would make the enemy pay in blood for their treachery.

                                              ***
“There’s no question about it?”

“I’m afraid not,” General Mathews muttered, as they walked slowly towards the meeting
house. “We don’t have anything like as good observational capability in space any longer,
but the ISS went overhead during its orbit and saw what happened. Somehow – the weather
expects think through some kind of laser – the Traders caused a sandstorm to rise up and
attack the European forces. One of their craft was definitely in position to carry out
the…hell, what do we call it?”

“Attack,” the President said shortly. It was a nightmarish demonstration of power, more
scary in that the aliens had issued no threats or demands, only the blunt truth that the Malick
Karn positions in the Saudi desert had been firmly held. The storm had blown for nearly a
week and had had terrifying effects on the entire region; some weather scientists had even
speculated that the weather would be disrupted for a very long time. “It was an attack.”

He glanced up at the house ahead, seeing the form of an American soldier on the door,
waiting for them. There had been protests at the President exposing himself in such a
manner, but there had been no choice; the storm had proven that, even though it had been a
long way from America. There was no way – yet – to prevent the Traders from doing the
same to America, and the panic was becoming dangerous. Farmers had been tempted by the
promise of weather manipulation, but if the aliens could cause a storm, they could cause
drought, or flooding, or…anything. Humanity could no longer afford to play a waiting game,
nor could they just hit the Malick Karn and destroy the last of the alien forces in Washington.
He knew that, now; the only hope was to find some way of actually talking to the Malick
Karn and – somehow – finding a solution to the problem of the Traders.

Doctor Virginia Jones looked unruffled by the experience, even though she understood it,
perhaps better than any of them. The President had signed the papers for the two alien
females without hesitation, once she had explained their circumstances to him; they had done
enough to deserve a second chance at life. The President almost envied them; he had to make
decisions that would touch the future of the entire world. If he had to it all over again…

“Mr President,” the soldier said. “They’re set up for you in the briefing room.”

The President felt his lips quirk. Briefing room was a fancy name for a room that had been
used to host meetings – business meetings – far from any prying eyes. He very much
doubted that anyone who had worked in the building had been seriously briefed on anything,
but it made no difference; it was all they had. He allowed the soldier to lead them through a
set of richly-appointed corridors, half-shrouded in darkness, and into a room that was brightly
lit. The soldiers had set up a table and chairs; he took one and watched as the aliens came
into the room.

He had seen enough Malick Karn to be more amused by their appearance than horrified or
scared; in many ways, they reminded him of the cheap aliens that had appeared in some
movies, although the covered parts of their bodies were very different. Looking at them,
seeing how they moved, there was a faint sense of pure unreality around them; they moved in
a way that was…wrong to human eyes. They were aliens…and, just then, it was impossible
to forget it.

“Mr President,” the alien leader said. Looking at him, the President could tell that he was
young, and perhaps a little insecure. It was hard to blame him – he was caught between the
Traders and humanity – but the President had seen the damage; he had even fled the ruins of
Washington when the aliens attacked. Cold fury grew in his heart; he wouldn’t allow that to
go unpunished. “I am Prince Rohan, Heir to the Throne of Char.”

“I am the President of the United States of America,” the President said shortly. There was
no protocol for such a meeting; how could there be? “This is my military expert, General
Mathews, and my expert in medical affairs, Doctor Jones.”

Prince Rohan nodded. “This is my military assistant, General Sir Bothe, and my advisor,
Garlinda-Ya,” he said. The President realised with a shock that Garlinda-Ya was clearly
female; was it a case of someone who could never overthrow him because of differences in
her plumbing? He hadn’t been able to learn much about her from the prisoners; the only
thing that they knew was that she was Prince Rohan’s lover. “I do not want to be on your
world.”

The President smiled. “I don’t want you on our world,” he said, carefully. “Why have you
asked us to come to this meeting?”

Prince Rohan spoke quickly. “Because of the Traders,” he said, and outlined the entire story.
The President had already known most of it, but some of it was new, not least the fact that the
Traders seemed to be bound not to interfere on the surface of a planet. It was odd, given that
the Traders had most definitely interfered to create the sandstorm that had devastated the
European offensive, but it seemed to fit with everything else. “I – we – believe that the
Traders will eventually either abandon my army here, or they will push us into making more
and more attacks on your people.”

“You destroyed an entire city,” the President said. He remembered the images of the nuclear
end to a city and shuddered. “Why did you do that?”

Prince Rohan met his eyes. “The Traders insisted that we move faster,” he said. “They are
ioperating on a time limit of their own and demanded that we take action before their limit
ran out and…”

The President leaned forward. “Time limit?”
“We don’t know,” Prince Rohan said. “They…years ago, they made contact with Char and
offered us the chance to become powerful again, in exchange for certain rights to use of our
solar system. My father had no choice, but to accept the agreement, but the Traders
discovered – or claimed to discover – that the system was much less useful than they
thought…and insisted that we pay them in another way.”

He paused. The President felt an odd moment of sympathy; the story had occurred, time and
time again, during the human expansion into America. The American Indians had sold
Manhattan for a handful of beads, after all; what might the Traders have offered to gain what
they wanted? He had read, once, long ago, a story about an alien race that arrived on Earth
and offered to give free energy and resources…in exchange for the entire black population of
America. Might the Traders have had something like that in mind?

“They insisted that we came to Earth and took it for them,” Prince Rohan continued. “We
had no choice; thousands, millions, of us had to cross space in one of their ships and fight
your people. We know now that we cannot take Earth in time for their needs to be
fulfilled…and what will they do to us, or even to Karn itself? You humans know so much; we
need you to help us.”

The President steepled his fingers. If Prince Rohan was telling the truth, they had an
opportunity to manipulate the Traders, perhaps even to get them to leave Earth alone
permanently, but at the same time…challenging the Traders was going to be dangerous, and
difficult. NASA had been trying desperately to duplicate the Trader drive, but there had been
no success…and no hope of success, at least for a few years. The Traders, however,
wouldn’t wait; what would happen if they tried to use Earth’s weather as a weapon to force
surrender to the Malick Karn?

“I see,” he said finally. His instincts were telling him that Rohan was telling the truth, but his
political instincts were warning him that he didn’t know enough, yet, to make any final
decision. He was a political animal through and though; Rohan was a hereditary Prince and
therefore someone who would have a different view of the world than an elected President.
“Why do you believe that we can help you?”

Prince Rohan stared at him. “You know so much more about the science and technology that
you have invented for yourself,” he said. “We have little understanding of what makes the
Trader science tick; Mr President, we are desperate to understand their science, but we can
barely understand how some of the tanks and radio systems work. We make items they tell
us how to make, but we don’t understand them and we can’t improve them for ourselves.
The Traders hold us forever under their control, just because of their science…and my entire
world is in their hands. They control us, directly, indirectly, what matters it?

“You humans have fire they lack, and understanding,” he continued. “We need your help and
we are prepared to deal with you to gain your help.”

The President looked up at him. “We want your unconditional surrender,” he said. “Those
of your race who are guilty of carrying out war crimes against my people will be punished.
There are those of your race who have already accepted citizenship in the United States; we
want them to remain with us and any others who want to join us, subject only to them not
being guilty of war crimes. We don’t have any starships…”
“Yet,” Rohan injected. He sounded very confident of it. “You will have them before Karn.”

“And we cannot return you to your homeworld,” the President concluded. “If we can, in the
future, we will. However, all of that depends upon your surrender and your cooperation. Are
you willing to accept these terms?”

                                               ***
Prince Rohan composed himself with an effort. He hadn’t expected much from the
agreement and Houghton had warned him that there would be a price to be paid for
mistreating human citizens. The real danger remained, of course, the Traders…but he had
needed something to bargain with. He had asked the Traders to help, just because of the fact
that without the oil fields, he had much less to bargain with.

“The oil fields,” he said. “What happens to them?”

“Those are surrendered as well,” the President said firmly. Rohan was privately relieved at
such light terms; Char had never given anyone such easy terms, except once. “After we
handle the Traders, you hand the fields over to us and we try to use them to rebuild the
region. Again, if any of your people there committed war crimes, we will put them on trial
and punish them if they are found guilty.”

Rohan bowed his head. “I understand,” he said. They were light terms, after all. He had
expected much worse. “Once the Traders are defeated, I will formally surrender to you.”

“Thank you,” the President said. He smiled thinly. It was a look that was almost as warm as
a Malick Karn smile. Humans just didn’t smile right. “How do you plan to defeat the
Traders?”

Rohan almost laughed. He knew one thing about the Traders that could be used. “The
Traders are cowards,” he said. “They rarely come out of their ships, where they are safe and
protected; outside, they would be as vulnerable as we are.”

The President held his eyes. “That doesn’t tell us how to get around one of their force
fields,” he said. “We brought one small craft done by sheer luck; can we bring down a craft
in orbit? We tried to attack one…and it didn’t work. They didn’t even bother to retaliate.”

Rohan refused to look away. “We can lure one of them down here,” he said. The thought
had occurred to him a long time ago, but he had never dared even mention the possibility
somewhere where the Traders might be listening in. “If he comes, we can capture him and
take his ship…and use him to force the others to leave.”

The President stared at him. “Are you serious?”

“I have never been more serious in my life,” Rohan said. He felt free for the first time in
years, free to finally consider ways to hit back at the Traders and remove their yoke from his
homeworld. “If they consider their lives to be so important, let’s see what they do when one
of them is directly threatened by us.”
Chapter Forty-One: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back…

“Your Excellency, Shipmaster Gargan wishes to hold converse with you,” the AI said, as
Shipmaster Salkan turned to investigate from his private quarters. “The transmission is
encrypted personnel and secret.”

Shipmaster Salkan inclined what remained of his head. Like most races, the Traders had
developed from humanoid life forms, only later becoming the twisted octopus-like creatures
that could survive in space and were generally disdainful of planets. Shipmaster Salkan had,
like others, altered himself so much that he could survive in space, but not on the surface of a
planet, unlike Tradermaster Maxtin. The Tradermaster had remained almost humanoid; he
had been determined that he would be always able to visit the worlds he had incorporated into
the Clan’s empire.

“You may put him through,” Shipmaster Salkan said. The fact that the communication had
been marked private was curious; neither of them were capable, any longer, of sexual
relations…and in any case, they were equal in rank, although not in age. Shipmaster Gargan
would never be a Tradermaster, not least because he had no imagination or daring; he was
only slow and steady, not daring. “Shipmaster Gargan; a pleasure to talk to you again…?”

The question seemed to irritate Shipmaster Gargan. He was older, much older, than
Shipmaster Salkan, old enough to remember the original homeworld before it had been
abandoned by the Traders. He looked and acted old too, despite the fact that his body was
young; his tentacles drooped and waved feebly when he was upset. His eyes, glowing a faint
red, a legacy from the time when the Traders had lived under the water on a planet, seemed to
grow even brighter as he spoke.

“Perhaps it is, Shipmaster Salkan,” Shipmaster Gargan said. He had once been Shipmaster
Salkan’s supervisor and rarely allowed him to forget it, even though he had been a female at
the time. Traders mated rarely, but often enough to keep the population steady; once a Trader
had had a few children, they tended to go the complete route towards becoming space-
dwelling…and abandoning the ability to have children. “However, I rather doubt it.”

“It has been a long voyage from Karn to Earth,” Shipmaster Salkan said sourly. It didn’t help
that Shipmaster Gargan was not trusted enough to ship barbarian soldiers from their
homeworld to Earth, let alone their equipment and supporting elements. Had Shipmaster
Gargan been that trusted, anything could have been accomplished, but instead their supply
lines, already far too thin, were been thinned further still by the shipmaster’s grim
disapproval of the Tradermaster. “Do you have something relevant to say?”

Shipmaster Gargan looked at him, just long enough to make the younger Trader feel
uncomfortable. He had implied, when the Clan had started the long mission to Karn, that
Shipmaster Salkan had only been given the post because of his prior relationship with the
Tradermaster, a double insult as such matters were often forgotten once they were over. The
remembrance that Tradermaster Maxtin had once fertilised his eggs – except he’d been
female at the time – meant nothing to him; it had just…happened. The depth of
sentimentality that humans and Malick Karn wasted on their sexual relations puzzled and
disgusted him; such sentiments were unknown to the Traders. Love was unknown; all they
had was lust during mating season.
“He has finally crossed the line,” Shipmaster Gargan said, shortly. His tone was so icy, so
hard, that it took Shipmaster Salkan a long moment to remember that he could no longer be
dominated by the older man. They were of equal rank…all of a sudden, that no longer
seemed to matter. “He has gone too far.”

There was no need to ask who ‘he’ was. “He is our Tradermaster,” Shipmaster Salkan
protested. “What has he done?”

Shipmaster Gargan’s glare became stronger. “He has ensured that there will be no easy
escape from this world,” he said. His eyes seemed to glow ever brighter. “He directly
interfered in support of the Malick Karn!”

Shipmaster Salkan paused. He had only just returned to the Sol System, after all; it was the
work of moments to query the automated systems floating in Earth’s orbit, informing
everyone of what had happened when Tradermaster Maxtin had decided to take a hand in the
war.

“He interfered with the human weather system,” Shipmaster Gargan said, as if it could not be
read or deduced from the information in the files. “He thought to hide it from me, but no! I
was able to deduce very rapidly what he had done; he used a focused laser to warm the air to
generate storms that are now spreading out across the region! He has…”

“He has terminated the probe,” Shipmaster Salkan said tartly. “Whatever he was doing, it has
come to an end…”

“He has meddled with the weather system,” Shipmaster Gargan said. “I remember our
weather on the homeworld; part of its ruin happened because we tried to meddle with the
weather to make sure that it rained all the time. What he has done will have literally
unpredictable effects on Earth; already, there have been disruptions caused by his weapon
spreading across Earth.”

He leaned forward, his hologram seeming to be straining to keep up with him. “The
Tradermaster might have just damaged the entire human race,” he snapped. “What does the
Law say about such matters?”

Shipmaster Salkan found his entire body shaking. The Law was the Law; it could not be
disobeyed, particularly by the Traders. The entire galaxy would rise against them; one
cardinal principle of interstellar law was the each race held clear title to its own world and it
could not be taken from them. The worlds could not be damaged, either; life-bearing worlds
were so rare that they had to be protected. Tradermaster Maxtin’s actions might have
triggered off an interstellar Trader pogrom.

“He remains our Tradermaster,” he said. “What happens to us if he fails? We’ve discussed it
millions of times; we will lose everything! You and I are not interns on our ships, but the
people who will bear some of the responsibility for the disaster. What future can either of us
expect?”
“You are young,” Shipmaster Gargan hissed. He made it sound like a capital crime. “I am
over a million human years old. Do we have a responsibility to more than just the
Tradermaster? What about the entire race?”
“The entire race will quite happily strip us of our asserts and render us paupers,” Shipmaster
Salkan reminded him. “We are so exposed that we cannot step back…”

“Yes, we can, we must,” Shipmaster Gargan insisted. “We are exposed in a different way,
just by what Tradermaster Maxtin has done; we risk exposing ourselves to something worst
than mere pauperism. I know that he means a lot to you, Shipmaster, but we have a
responsibility to prevent him from bringing down the Clan and perhaps even our entire race.”

Shipmaster Salkan felt a wave of hot anger. “Perhaps we do,” he conceded. “What do you
suggest we do about it?”

“We are both shipmasters, commanders of the largest ships in the Clan,” Shipmaster Gargan
said. “We are his subordinates, his most senior officers, and between us we can dispose him
without all of the tiresome formalities like an open debate and an election. We have that
power! We have that right. We have no choice!”

Shipmaster Salkan knelt down on his tentacles. “If we do that, we will never be trusted
again,” he said. “If we manage to keep our ships, which is unlikely, then we will still no
longer be accepted into another Clan. They will regard us as possible betrayers, possible
enemies; they will not trust us.”

He paused. “And even if we do, what then?”

“We leave this system,” Shipmaster Gargan said firmly. “No one will care about the Malick
Karn; we leave them to their own devices and scale back our activities in their own system.
The force we transported here can just be abandoned; let the humans and the Malick Karn kill
each other as long as they like. Once we get back to Central, we ensure that everyone knows
that Tradermaster Maxtin is mad and was therefore removed from command; that alone will
buy us time to make a new endeavour before the Auditors start their work. We could save
the Clan!”

“Under you, I take it?” Shipmaster Salkan said. He leaned forwards, the better to allow his
irritation to show. “Tradermaster Gargan?”

Shipmaster Gargan eyed him. “Who else has a better claim?”

“I have made up my mind,” Shipmaster Salkan said. “I will not move against him. I owe
him too much to just…move against him. Let him play all of this game out; he might just
succeed.”

“He won’t,” Shipmaster Gargan said.

“He did at Postyan,” Shipmaster Salkan reminded him. It had been Tradermaster Maxtin’s
greatest triumph, a no-holds battle against the elements themselves. “How many of us
thought that we were looking at a complete loss?”

“That world had no intelligent life on the surface,” Shipmaster Gargan snapped. Shipmaster
Salkan nodded, remembering the barren world that had proven so stubborn in the face of the
Trader attempt to mine it. “This world has an intelligent form of life…and the eyes of the
galaxy are upon us.”
“I understand your concerns,” Shipmaster Salkan said. “However, I will not betray him or
move against him.” He paused. There was something else that he had to make clear before
worse happened. “I will not join a mutiny either…and that is exactly what you are
suggesting.”

Shipmaster Gargan shrugged. “Good luck, then,” he said. There was a grim tone in his
voice. Shipmaster Salkan ignored it, concentrating instead on the future, wondering what
would happen next. He was brought short by Shipmaster Gargan’s final words. “Believe me,
it is not going to work.”

                                                ***
The blue globe of the Earth was covered in icons and little snippets of information as the
computers onboard the starship worked to keep up with the effects of the weather
manipulation experiment. Tradermaster Maxtin had called it an experiment when he had
begun the procedure, mainly to stop the other Traders from panicking, but the truth was as the
human radio and television stations proclaimed; it was an alien weapon. The humans
continued to assume that his ships were in fact built by the Malick Karn…something that
would neatly keep their hand hidden from the rest of the galaxy. It wasn’t unknown for some
items of high tech to fall into the hands of lesser races…and it was quite possible that none of
the Galactics would ever realise that the Malick Karn had needed help to reach Earth.

Not that it mattered, of course; Tradermaster Maxtin’s mind was alive with possibilities.
Weather manipulation just wasn’t something the Traders had much experience with, not since
they had left their own homeworld, but they had sold the technology to several races who had
been intent on terraforming worlds for their own benefit. He wondered, now; would it be
possible to use the weather-control system as a weapon on a much larger – and more precise
– scale? The thought was tantalising…

There were thousands of ways to take a planet if one possessed control over its orbitals, but
none of them were easy for the Traders to carry out without breaking the Law. Oddly, there
was no Law against weather manipulation; he hadn’t ruined the planet’s biosphere, after all,
and the side effects…well, it was only humans dying. They could hardly complain, after all;
they had resisted the Malick Karn and deserved whatever happened to them. It would be
easy to make them suffer further until they surrendered…

Of itself, one of his eyes looked up towards the timer on the wall, a displayed holographic
image of a clock, set to galactic standard time. He knew what it meant; it was the countdown
to the moment when he would have to face the Auditors and try to convince them that Earth
was in the bag…except Earth was not in the bag. There was no central human authority to
talk with, no successful Malick Karn conquest of enough of the world to make it worthwhile
signing an agreement with…no one would be fooled if they signed an agreement with any of
the political structures on Earth. There was no way that any of them could speak for the
entire planet.

Silently, he cursed the humans. Most races managed some degree of political unity when
they reached their technological level…but the humans had not, instead remaining scattered
and divided. Their entire social system had been on the verge of collapse when the Malick
Karn had launched their invasion; now, a tidal wave of economic collapse was spreading over
their entire planet, shattering their world. There was no human power for the Traders to
back, no power that would cooperate with them to the degree that the Malick Karn had
cooperated – had had no choice, but to cooperate – and no hope of forging an agreement.
The choice was simple; somehow help the Malick Karn to victory, or abandon the Earth’s
solar system. Weather control provided a weapon that could be used, with some effort, to
actually crush the human resistance…but could it be used in time?

The computers, each one vastly more capable than every human-built machine put together,
were still working on it. Destroying Earth’s biosphere would be easy, but it would be against
the Law and would be bound to bring retaliation down on their heads from other intelligent
life forms. Limiting the damage was possible, but it made the old problem of predicting the
location of a molecule in a nuclear reactor seem simple by comparison. It was beginning to
dawn on Tradermaster Maxtin that planets were complicated; the Traders controlled
absolutely the environment of their ships and their habitats, but humans didn’t control their
own planet. They were at the mercy of the weather.

Tidal waves, droughts, storms, sunny spells…all of them would have a knock-on effect that
seemed totally random. Tradermaster Maxtin was confused and more than a little frustrated;
for reasons he didn’t understand, they had literally covered most of the Middle East in sand.
Even Trader technology had its limits…and he suspected that it was one limit that it would be
hard to overcome…

The communications device chirped. “Your Excellency, there is a communication from the
planet below for you,” his intern said. The memory of their mating brought a sour taste to his
mouth; Traders only felt lusty when they felt lusty. “The Prince would like to talk to you.”

Tradermaster Maxtin nodded. “Put him on,” he ordered, and sat up. Rohan had no
holographic transmitter; his image appeared as part of a flat-screen. “Your Highness,” he
said. It cost nothing to give Rohan his title. “I trust that you will soon be ready to resume the
offensive?”

Rohan seemed almost amused at the question. “The offensive has been prepared,” he said.
Tradermaster Maxtin allowed himself a moment to look pleased. “However, I would like to
honour you with a banquet on Earth to reward you for what you did for us in the desert.”

Tradermaster Maxtin smiled. Did the Prince think that he would be honoured by such an
invitation? He was almost about to refuse when the Prince continued speaking.

“Many of my officers are…concerned about your commitment to the supply lines,” Rohan
continued. Tradermaster Maxtin eyed him with unconcealed malice, which the Malick Karn
probably didn’t recognise; the question touched a very sore spot. Shipmaster Gargan’s
insubordination made it much harder for him to have a proper supply chain set up, even with
the Trader technology that was working away to help support the Malick Karn. “They are
nervous about the level of support that we might receive in future.”

“You have my word that the lines will be kept open,” Tradermaster Maxtin said firmly.
Shipmaster Gargan’s mutterings hadn’t had any real effect on the other Traders, not yet, and
he wouldn’t go on his own. “There is no power able to close them.”

“The fact remains that my people are becoming nervous,” Rohan admitted. Tradermaster
Maxtin scowled inwardly; the last thing he wanted was to spend time on Earth, even if he did
enjoy walking on planets. “Your Excellency, they would be far more reassured by your
presence at a banquet, as happened before the Battle of Garaesk, than by anything I could tell
them.”

Tradermaster Maxtin smiled as he remembered. Then, he had joined the Malick Karn in a
feast, one where everyone had kowtowed before him. The thought of humans kowtowing
was…pleasing, it would satisfy a desire that he hadn’t really known that he had until he came
to Karn, and then to Earth. He had thought that the Emperor hadn’t wanted more such feasts,
not least because it weakened his own position; perhaps Rohan was willing to
look…supported if it gained him a more confident army.

And besides, it might be entertaining. It would be something that he could tell Shipmaster
Gargan, who couldn’t go down to the surface at all, something that he could never do. What
was the respect and admiration of Trader interns, compared to the kowtowing of thousands of
humans and Malick Karn? The Traders were the superior race…and it wasn’t enough just for
them to know it.

“Very well,” he said. Human food would be unlikely to be able to hurt him; poison wouldn’t
get through his nanites. Human slaves would be unable to hurt him, even if they were willing
to risk a horrible death by trying to poison him. “When is this…banquet?”

“In three local days,” Rohan said. His face twisted oddly. “Will you attend?”

Tradermaster Maxtin smiled. “It would be a pleasure,” he said, only half-truthfully. He had
the experience of hundreds of Trader formal events to guide him, after all; they had been
much worse than anything that the Malick Karn could produce. “I look forward to it with
very clear interest.”
Chapter Forty-Two: Preparing for Destiny

“Mr President, with all due respect, are you out of your mind?”

The President turned to face General Mathews. “Why is it when everyone says ‘with all due
respect,’ they don’t mean any respect at all?”

General Mathews refused to be deflected. “Mr President, this means…we are committed to
opposing the Traders directly,” he said. “Is that wise?”

The President nodded. “I don’t see that we have any choice,” he said. “The longer this
situation continues, the worse everything becomes; they now know that they can manipulate
our weather at will and use it as a weapon. How long will it be before they get the idea of
causing a drought in Kansas?”

General Mathews grimaced. “Do you think that they will do it?”

“There’s no way to know,” the President said. He had a politician’s instinct for scenting
weakness and he was sure, somehow, that the Trades had a weak point. “They didn’t attempt
to lend their weight to bombarding Earth to support their slaves, did they? They could have
pounded us from orbit until we were compelled to surrender, but did they? No…which
means that there must be something convincing them that acting directly against us is a bad
idea.”

General Mathews paused. “Perhaps they just never thought of it,” he said, sounding as if he
didn’t believe it himself. “You’re talking about committing us to fight a vastly superior
force.”

“I think that we’re already at war,” the President said. The discussion with Rohan had been
edifying in any number of ways, not least the explanation of how the Traders had acted on
Karn itself and God alone knew how many worlds. It puzzled him why the Traders just
hadn’t found a proxy force on Earth itself, but it was hard to think of any force that would
have actually been capable of providing a suitable role. The Americans already had world
power, the Russians and the Chinese would be too ambitious, Europe wasn't warlike…and
the rest of the world could be smashed without causing too much bother. “It’s just a proxy
war…and we have to bring the cost of the war home to the people behind the war.”

“That’s the logic that the Jihadis use, among others,” General Mathews pointed out. “They
saw us as providing the supporting elements for places like Saudi Arabia and
Godforsakenstan and others. They tried to bring the war home.”

“I know,” the President said. He met the General’s eyes. “General, how long do you think it
would take us to drive the Malick Karn into the sea here, and in the Middle East?”

General Mathews considered it. “If we launch Red Road Two, we could defeat them within a
week of hard fighting,” he said. “Now that we know more about their lasers, we might be
able to use tactical nukes ourselves; wipe them out in a day if we didn’t mind losing
Washington and much of the District of Columbia. The Middle East provides a second
problem…and it would be difficult for us to handle it if they are able to generate a second
sandstorm.”
“My point,” the President said. “How long will it be until the Traders find a new way to
make us hurt? What will they do if they know that the Malick Karn are about to lose?”
General Mathews had no answer. “We don’t have time, General, and if capturing a live
Trader is what is required…”

They reached the door to the combat armouries. “Sergeant Landers and his men have been
examining the Trader tech that we captured,” General Mathews said, by way of introduction.
He had argued strongly against the President coming to visit at all, not least because of the
dangers of the Traders using the items to listen in on human conversation. The teams
investigating the Trader items had been told that they had been captured, like the laser
weapon the commandos had recovered earlier; they weren’t privy to the truth. Rohan’s plan
could only work if the Traders had no reason to be suspicious; it was chancy enough as it
was. “They have made some interesting discoveries.”

“This is Adam Denton,” Sergeant Landers said, introducing a young man with long hair and a
strangely disorganised expression. “He has been one of the researchers in nanotechnology
before being invited to come here and research the alien tech.”

“Mr President,” Denton said. His hand was sweaty; he shook the President’s hand with a
curious disdain, almost a lack of awareness of whose hand he was shaking. “It’s a great
honour, a great honour, to examine technology that originated on another world…and yet it is
so simple that a child could build it, if they had the tech base. It’s wonderful, fantastic; we
could solve half of the problems involving our own nanotechnology with a year’s study of
this device and…”

He paused for breath. “This is something the aliens call a Fabricator,” Sergeant Landers said,
before Denton could start talking again. “As near as we can tell, the device uses a form of
nanotechnology to produce other items, as long as the correct materials are fed into the
hopper. This item was actually designed to build small weapons suitable for alien use; we
fed in raw materials and produced several dozen of the alien weapons. Ammunition? They
produce it as well; as long as they have this, they won’t have to worry about running out of
bullets.”

“It’s very odd,” Denton said. “It matches little else in the alien arsenal. Compared to some
of their guns, even the ones produced by this baby, this thing is the perfect refinement of all
of the techniques that we discussed and experimented with, so long ago. It just doesn’t match
with anything else they have, apart from a handful of other items, including the laser…”

The President held up a hand. “Fine,” he said. “Can we use it for ourselves?”

Landers spoke quickly. “We have been analysing the computers in it for two days,” he said.
“They’re both very – very – advanced and very stupid; I think that they have no choice, but to
produce items according to specifications within their databases. The aliens seem to have
locked out the higher command routines, but we don’t need access to them to alter what we
want produced, as long as the items are already within their database. Curiously, they can’t
produce lasers, or any of the other oddly more advanced tech, but they can make everything
that the aliens deploy on a regular basis.”
He paced around the table, stopping in front of a silver box. “Now this, Mr President, is
something much more remarkable,” he said. “As far as we can tell, it is actually a fusion
reactor of an impossibly small size, generating almost unlimited power; one of them seems
capable of being hooked up to a laser and expanding the power reserves that the laser could
call upon for the fight. The downside of all this, of course, is that there are still limits to how
much the laser could put out in a single burst of power. If we can crack this technology, we
could solve more of the world’s problems at a stroke.”

“That would be useful,” the President said, without irony. “And that item?”

“As far as we can tell, it produces food,” Landers said. He winced. “Let’s just say that the
food is disgusting, although some of our prisoners assure us that the aliens find it more edible
than we do. I thought that our MRE meals were bad, but this stuff…words don’t really tackle
the subject of just how vile it actually is. It also purifies water perfectly; if we can manage to
use it on a large-scale deployment, we could solve many of the world’s other problems as
well.”

He grinned. “This is the final major item we recovered,” he said. “We believe that it
produces hydrogen from water to power tanks and other vehicles. It’s actually much more
dangerous than petrol, but with some work it might be useful for us as well as them. Water is
plentiful around the world; it could even replace oil in some parts of the world.”

The President nodded. “How quickly can we duplicate any of this?”

Landers hesitated; Denton jumped in. “We might be able to duplicate the nanotechnology
within a year with sufficient funding and a great deal of experimentation,” he said. “I think
that nanotech went into some of the other equipment as well – that reactor, for example, had
to have been built with nanotech or something similar. If we can crack that, we would be
well on the way to duplicating most or all of this.”

General Mathews shrugged. “That still leaves the problem of the drive field or their force
fields,” he said. He nodded to Landers and led them all into a secure room. “Have you made
any progress on that front?”

“It’s tricky,” Denton admitted. Landers seemed content to allow him to speak. “The force
field seems to be related to their drive and their weapons both; we have video of them firing
their weapons, but never from the hull. The burst of blue fire definitely comes from the force
field. They also don’t fire when they’re being fired upon; when missiles were impacting on
the shield, the craft under fire didn’t fire back until the missiles were all gone.”

The President shared a long glance with General Mathews. “And how did we bring one of
them down?”

“I think that it was the sheer force of the impact,” Landers said. “The USAF dissected the
recordings pretty thoroughly; the aliens definitely took a major impact from the crashing
aircraft, which was moving at over Mach Two. That gives us some idea of how much force
is needed to bring down one of the craft, but frankly, we would have to apply the force all at
once.”
“Nukes,” Denton said. His face had an ‘oh cool’ look that the President instantly distrusted.
“We would have to hit one of their craft with a nuclear-tipped missile to be sure of bringing
the craft down. They don’t shoot at missiles – but then, they have hardly had any reason to
worry about the missiles – and we could plant a small nuke on a handful of fighters. Give
them something to worry about.”

Landers shrugged. “You’ll have to forgive him,” he said. “He’s a nuke-wanker.”

The President made a mental note never to allow Denton anywhere near the Football. “I
see,” he said. “General?”

They left the laboratory in silence and headed back up towards the secure briefing room.
“Interesting,” General Mathews said, as soon as they were alone again. “Do you suppose that
we can use such a tactic?”

The President frowned. “Will we have volunteers?”

“Everyone who lost friends and wingmen at Washington will be delighted to volunteer,”
General Mathews said. “There are other dangers, however…”

“This is always dangerous,” the President said. His lips twitched. “General, it occurs to me
that if they were half-right, we might be able to ensure that we – America – no longer has a
dependence on oil from the Middle East…and nowhere else will have the same dependence.
The world could be improved…”

Just for a moment, he allowed himself to imagine it, even though it had proven an impossible
dream for the first year of his administration. He had known – every American had known –
that oil was the great danger, something that could bring America tottering to its knees…and
that it was controlled by people who wished America ill. He had known the danger and he
had worked to overcome it, but there had seemed to be no possible solution…until one had
appeared from the stars. That the aliens had provided convenient flypaper for mopping up
the American-haters…

He smiled to himself. If they could overcome the Traders and force them to leave, there
would be the basis for a just and lasting peace right across the world, something that could
change the world forever…and prepare it for the next, inevitable, encounter with aliens from
a far-distant star.

“General, begin making the preparations,” he said. “Coordinate with the aliens as best as you
can…and don’t fuck up.”

General Mathews smiled. “I won’t,” he said. “The Traders will never know what has hit
them.”

                                               ***
“You have done very well,” General Mathews said, two hours later. Sergeant Jeremy
Damiani nodded impatiently; there might have been a covert meeting with the aliens – the
Malick Karn – but he would have preferred to have gone back to the defence lines. The sheer
volume of firepower that had been gathered to evict the aliens was awesome; he wanted to be
part of the mission, like countless others. Instead, he and the remains of his original company
had been ordered to remain at a firebase well to the rear of the lines. “However, we have
another mission for you.”

It wasn’t fair, Damiani decided; he owed the aliens payback…and he didn’t trust them at all.
No matter how…honourably the aliens had behaved – and even Stalin would have hesitated
to massacre a group of emissaries - he still didn’t trust them. He had fought in almost every
battle from Washington to Stafford…but it had been the fighting that he had missed that
gnawed at him. He had wanted to take part in Red Road One…and he had been held back
because of the alien prisoner. He hadn’t even been able to call Clara and tell her what had
happened to him.

“You know about the Traders and how they started the war,” General Mathews continued. It
was unusual for a three-star General to brief common infantry; that, more than anything else,
underlined the danger of their situation. “Working with some of our…counterparts on the
other side of the Washington defence lines” – he meant the Malick Karn, Damiani realised –
“we have devised a plan to seize a live Trader. It must be repeated, here; we need the bastard
alive. You men have been ordered to take him.”

He tapped the map. “You have a further qualification,” he said. “You have all pulled duty at
Andrews AFB, where the aliens have set up one of their main camps and bases. The alien
Trader is going to land at the base – we have something else operating at the same time, but
that isn’t something you need to know – and he will proceed into the main terminal, where
you will secure him. You must assume that he is dangerous; we also cannot take him out of
his environment suit until we know what sort of support he needs. Your task…yes?”

It was Fell who spoke. “Sir, can’t our new allies tell us such things?”

“They don’t know,” General Mathews said. Damiani nodded; from some of the reports and
speculations on the Internet, the Malick Karn were a low-tech race that had somehow gained
access to a set of high tech gadgets. They might not even know about things like gravity, or
atmosphere; he had the brief mental image of someone deciding that it would be perfectly
safe to open an airlock and step out into the vacuum. “Your task is to lurk within the terminal
and secure him as soon as the door closes behind him. Once you have secured him, you will
remove him to one of the bunkers under the base, where he will be examined by our people.”

He paused. The room seemed to hold its breath. “Any questions?”

Damiani held up a hand. “What sort of support can we expect from the Malick Karn?”

“That’s unclear,” General Mathews admitted. “Their leaders dare not discuss it with anyone,
just because of the dangers of the Traders listening in to them. They won’t interfere with you
using the tunnels to reach the base, and then taking up position, but they may not help you if
the alien causes problems. You being where you are may make it harder for the Traders to
try to snatch back their person; they would have to go through the Malick Karn as well.”

Damiani shrugged. There was no proof that Malick Karn lives were remotely important to
the Traders, rather the opposite. Their operations on Earth had been conducted with a
complete disregard for lives, human or Malick Karn; they could only hope that they took their
own lives more seriously. He had to admit that it was a cunning plan, but it was also
dangerous; if something went wrong, the entire planet could suffer.
General Mathews looked around at them. “This mission is volunteers only,” he said.
Damiani felt almost insulted, despite his own reluctance to waste more time away from the
front lines. “No one will be forced to take part in this mission. If any of you want out, now
is the time to say so; it will not be held against you in your later career.”

There was a long pause. “Respectfully suggest, sir, that we get on with it,” Kit said. “If we
don’t move now, I will have a sudden attack of brains to the head and realise just how stupid
this is.”

Damiani laughed. “Yes, sir,” he said. He pushed as much confidence into his voice as he
could. “We can do it.”

General Mathews leaned forward. “It is no exaggeration to say that the fate of the country,
indeed the entire world, rests upon your young shoulders,” he said. “May God go with you
tonight.”
Chapter Forty-Three: Endless Dicing with Death and Destiny, Take One

“I am not impressed by the human city,” Tradermaster Maxtin said, as his ship slowly
descended over Washington. He was speaking to himself; it was not an impression that he
would have cared to share with the other Traders. He might have recorded his own
conversation for future reference, but some of his insights were very private. Knowledge was
power in the Trader world…particularly if someone had it before anyone else.

The human city had been devastated by the fighting. Buildings, some of them old enough to
be interesting to the Traders, had been shattered in the ruthless fighting between the two
sides. The slave labour had cleared up much of the debris, but even so, there were countless
tents for housing the Malick Karn, protecting them from the elements and human infiltration
alike. Washington – a strange name for a city – showed nothing, but signs of primitive
development; Tradermaster Maxtin was unimpressed.

The Traders wouldn’t have built a city on the surface of a world if they could have avoided
it…and most of the time, they could avoid it. They preferred space habitats and spaceships,
places where they could be in perfect control over their environment; a world was
distressingly unpredictable. Some of the older Traders spoke wistfully of living on the
surface of a world, but most Traders found it terrifying; Tradermaster Maxtin himself could
only tolerate the surface of a world for a short period of time. He had walked on dozens of
world in his thousands of years of life…and they had all been strange and dangerous to his
eyes.

His sensors reported human aircraft nearby, rising and falling hundreds of kilometres to the
south, some of them heading out to take a look at his ship before retreating rapidly, unaware
that he legally could not fire without them firing first. They weren’t coming within range of
the lasers that surrounded the airport; the Malick Karn could certainly fire on them without
further provocation. The humans had learned something from the earlier battles; they would
give the Traders some space to allow them to get on with their work.

The human city grew closer and he studied it with a detached expression. There was nothing
elegant in its construction at all, it was just sheer randomness, created by a nation that knew
itself to be invulnerable. Human history was short compared to that of the Traders, but the
Traders had studied it with interest; no one had directly attacked Washington for two hundred
years…until the Malick Karn had arrived. Not unlike the Traders themselves, the humans
hadn’t seriously considered an attack on their capital; they had known that they were
invulnerable.

It still puzzled Tradermaster Maxtin; the humans had believed themselves alone in the
universe. They had taken almost no precautions against an alien contact, let alone alien war;
their attempts to adapt their weapons to strike at the Trader ships had been almost laughable.
Tradermaster Maxtin hadn’t even bothered to retaliate, even though it would have been
legally permitted; their weapons had been so slow, so stupid, that they hadn’t had a chance of
hurting his ships. Why hadn’t the humans developed space travel for themselves?

He had been on countless world where the natives had developed into space-faring powers
within twenty years of inventing the rockets and computers they needed to loft heavy cargos
into space. Some of them had even gone on to become Galactics; the humans had poked a
foot into space, and then given up. It was insane; all the resources they could possibly need –
or trade with the Traders in exchange for a leg-up – were practically within walking distance,
and they had abandoned them. Humans were…strange; they weren’t primitive like the
Malick Karn, nor were they as advanced as the Traders, or indeed the other Galactic powers.

The human airport rose up as his ship descended. One massive human aircraft, tiny
compared to his ship, but decorated in blue and white, sat on the runway, next to the landing
zone. He had been informed, by Rohan, that the aircraft was one that belonged to the
American President; the Malick Karn had taken it as a symbol of their conquest. He had to
feel cold amusement, even as he knew that Rohan and his people could never be allowed to
return to Karn; they knew too much. They would just…be left on Earth, handling the affairs
of Earth for the Traders, and no others would come to replace them. The Malick Karn
women on Earth were far too few to sustain a breeding population – even if the Malick Karn
didn’t start fighting each other over the women, something that only a race as primitive as the
Malick Karn would do – and their population would decline. By then, humans would be
domesticated; they would become part of his empire and used in his future work.

He smiled. There had to be a market for bloodthirsty barbarians somewhere…and he would
find it.

“Extend the landing struts,” he ordered the computer, which hastened to obey. He had
brought no other Traders with him on his flight; they would only have cramped his style.
Showing ‘respect’ to a primitive would grate on them; they would lose respect for him if he
treated Rohan’s title as anything other than a child’s trick. The idea of taking a barbarian
ponotate seriously was alien to most Traders. “Prepare to land.”

“Understood,” the computer said. The drive field shimmered out over the airport, shaking the
human aircraft violently; Tradermaster Maxtin watched it with interest, wondering if it would
topple over under the pressure of the drive. By some miracle, it escaped that fate, only
shaking slightly as the drive field faded away. “We have landed.”

“Good,” Tradermaster Maxtin said. He stood up, feeling the pressure of natural gravity
pulling on him for the first time since his visit to the Char Court on Karn. He could always
tell the difference between real gravity and generated gravity, even though the scientists
swore that there was little real difference at all. “Open the hatch.”

                                                 ***
Sergeant Jeremy Damiani had watched the descent of the alien craft with a dry throat, feeling
pure fear for the first time since seeing the alien arrival in Washington. They hadn’t known,
then, about the Traders; they had only sought to welcome the arrival of aliens who might
have been peaceful. Instead, they had opened fire…and even though the Malick Karn might
have been as much victims of the Traders as the human race, he found it hard to sympathise
with them. They might have been people from the eighteenth century walking on the Earth,
with all the power and glory and barbarity that that implied; they were too dangerous for him
to forgive easily.

The alien craft had paused in the sky above the airport, long enough for Damiani and his men
to get an eyeful, staring at it with the same sort of intensity that was normally focused on
topless women dancing in bars. It was massive, much larger than he had anticipated, and the
knowledge that it was one of the smaller craft chilled him. It had glided into the atmosphere
like some deranged version of the Starship Voyager; he remembered seeing Independence
Day when he had been a younger man and felt cold. There was no reason to expect the aliens
to suspect something, or to begin lashing around with bolts of blue fire, but the memory of
the aliens devastating the centre of Washington hung over him like a cloud.

He stared; the alien ship was almost six hundred meters long, coming down on the runway
with effortless ease. It looked like a giant sword floating in the air as it extended its landing
legs, touching down gently on the runway right next to Air Force One. It was a miracle that
the aircraft had survived at all and Damiani had seriously considered asking the Malick Karn
to move it, but in the end they hadn’t dared; only a handful of Rohan’s people were even
present at the airport, the remainder were attempting to find shelter from possible retaliation.

The ground shook as the alien craft touched down. Damiani had been briefed that the runway
at Andrews AFB had been specially hardened for improved survivability, but even so, the
weight of the alien craft dented the runway, pushing down the tarmac through sheer pressure.
A strange shimmer in the air washed over the craft, then faded as the drive field was pulled
into the craft, heading towards the rear of the alien ship. It glowed, faintly, as the craft came
to a halt; they could feel it now, a strange tingle passing through the air, underlining the
silence of the alien craft. He took a deep breath; if someone ever managed to figure out the
alien technology, the United States would develop a whole new way of inserting soldiers
behind enemy lines. The sheer potential of the system awed him…and he knew that it was
the least of the alien technology.

“The hatch is opening,” Kit muttered. Damiani could see it; a lighted square in the side of the
alien craft, glowing with light as a figure emerged from the hatch, followed by two more
figures who took up positions on either side of the hatch. He peered through the zoom lens at
the aliens, seeing them as robots, both looking almost like Transformer robots. They both
looked armed and very dangerous; the second team would have their work cut out for them
when they tried to seize the ship itself. He could only hope that a series of antitank weapons
would work on them. “Sir?”

“Remain out of sight,” Damiani muttered back. “We wait until they enter the terminal itself.”

Prince Rohan was showing no small degree of personal bravery; he walked out to greet the
alien Trader. Damiani focused his attention on the Trader and muttered a curse under his
breath; the Trader put the ‘alien’ in alien. Compared to the green-skinned Malick Karn, the
Trader was very alien; suddenly, it was easy to believe, as some in Europe had, that the
Malick Karn were simply humans wearing green make-up. The Trader advanced on the
Malick Karn Prince…and Damiani drank in every detail.

The alien was massive, almost like a walking fat man, clad in a suit of armour that seemed to
chill the air. He could see tentacles waving out of the suit, a vivid spectrum of colours
decorating the alien’s flesh, even as it – he – spoke to Prince Rohan. The Trader looked like
a cross between an octopus and a human, a bizarre mutation of the human form, something
out of a nightmare. Glowing red eyes, one of them on a stalk – it took him a moment to
realise that the Trader had more than four eyes – completed the image. The alien was
very…alien.

“My God,” Fell breathed. His voice was cold and slightly nervous at confronting something
so far out of their experience. Damiani found it impossible to blame him at all. “What the
hell is it?”
There was something almost surreal about watching the two aliens talking; Damiani wished
for a mike or something that could reveal just what they were saying to one another. Finally,
Prince Rohan knelt before the alien, almost as if he was preparing to give the alien a blowjob;
Damiani heard Kit snicker as Rohan bowed his head, the alien walking past him slowly,
almost weakly under Earth’s gravity. The alien moved through sheer determination,
seemingly bothered by Earth’s gravity; Damiani wondered why, if it hurt the alien, he had
even bothered to come at Rohan’s request. Was it all an act? He reminded himself that the
aliens were alien and might not play by human rules; suffering might build their character.

He smiled. His father had been fond of saying that suffering built character.

“That is the enemy,” he said, softly. “We have to take it alive.”

The Trader was coming closer now, passing the honour guard and the small display of human
slaves. Damiani hadn’t wanted them there at all and it tore at them, seeing them naked and
shackled for the Trader’s inspection, but there was no choice. The Trader could not be
allowed to suspect anything until it was too late. The sense of alienness grew stronger as the
Trader approached, heading directly towards the doors and the honour guard, which Rohan
had assured them was unarmed. The Traders used it as a demonstration of their power; their
subjects weren’t allowed to point weapons at them.

Damiani felt his hands tighten around his own weapon. They had loaded it with armour-
piercing bullets, designed to handle some of the armour that had been coming out of Iran and
falling into the hands of various insurgent groups in Iraq, but truthfully, no one knew just
how effective it would be against whatever the Trader was wearing. The Malick Karn who
had seen Traders before had told them that the Traders didn’t have personal force fields, but
just because they hadn’t seen a force field didn’t prove that one didn’t exist. Damiani had
learned far too much about the limitations of intelligence in Iraq.

The alien entered the building. Just for a second, pure animal terror passed over Damiani as
the alien slipped past him, a wave of cold and pure sinister evil touching him right at his
heart. He knew that he might have been imagining it, but there was something fundamentally
wrong about the Trader, a sense that the alien was more than just an alien, but that humanity
and the Traders could never meet on friendly teams. It held him rooted to the spot for a
moment, and then he stepped forward, weapon raised.

“Halt,” he snapped. There had been some dispute over how well the Trader would
understand English, but the M16 was pretty much a message in its own right. They had fixed
bayonets as well, just to make the message stronger; halt or be shot. “You are under arrest
for crimes against the people of Earth.”

Dark red eyes eyed him with malice. “You are committing a crime against the Trader
Council and Galactic Law,” the Trader said. Its – his, he had to keep reminding himself that
the alien was a male – voice was flat and atonal. Damiani remembered some of the reports of
translators the Malick Karn had used and knew that the Trader was using a similar device.
The Malick Karn and their human slaves had just melted away; the Trader seemed shocked to
notice that, but also slightly amused. “You will release me at once.”
“No,” Damiani said shortly. He prodded the alien slightly. “You will move forward into the
lift; do not attempt to escape or you will be shot.”

The alien refused to move. Damiani nodded to Kit and Fell, who grasped hold of the alien,
picked him up with much grunting and straining and rushed him forward, followed by the rest
of the squad. The alien seemed to come alive, hissing words in a language that reminded
Damiani more of Parseltongue from the Harry Potter films than any human language and
waving his tentacles in the air. The alien didn’t seem to bother protesting in English;
Damiani was almost relieved as they rushed him forward, into the lift, which headed down
towards the secure area. Everything had been prepared for their prisoner.

An explosion echoed out across the airport; a second one followed moments later. “You will
be punished for this act of insolence,” the alien hissed. Its words seemed almost as if it was
trying to speak English directly, rather than through the translator. Damiani wondered if it
could speak English. “Your world will suffer.”

Damiani ignored him. “You have the choice between cooperating or suffering yourself,” he
snapped. He was unwilling to allow the alien to retain any dignity at all; the alien hardly
deserved anything. “What choice are you going to make?”

The alien eyes seemed to show more malice…or perhaps he was just imaging it. There was
no way to know; the Malick Karn were hard enough to read, and, compared to the Traders,
they might as well be humanity’s cousins. The Trader seemed determined to resist, and at the
same time, the Trader seemed almost terrified. Damiani felt no sympathy; the alien had
started the war…and was now coming face to face with the consequences.

His radio buzzed once. “The alien starship has been secured,” Sergeant Pascal Schmidt
informed him. “We have control over the ship and have attached the nuke to the ship, just in
case they try to regain control from outside.”

“Your people could never understand how to control the ship,” the alien hissed. Damiani
sensed a growing despair under its voice, somehow; the alien seemed to be in despair. “You
may well destroy it without meaning to destroy your city.”

Damiani looked down at him. “You started this war,” he said. “Welcome to the payback.
It’s a bitch, right?”

The alien said nothing.
Chapter Forty-Four: Endless Dicing with Death and Destiny, Take Two

“I think we have something of a problem,” Shipmaster Gargan said, as his image materialised
on the bridge of the Profitable Day. The Shipmaster of the Heavy Profit seemed surprisingly
amused by the developments. “Have you seen the information pulse from the Tradermaster’s
ship?”

Shipmaster Salkan glanced down at the display. The pulse had been very clear…and was
almost unbelievable; a situation that had never happened in all the years that he had been a
Trader in his own right. Humans, armed humans, were on the bridge of the Tradermaster’s
personal ship, exploring as if they owned the ship. The live feed was jerky, but it was clear;
there were hundreds of humans examining the ship with the greatest of interest.

“Attempt to take over the ship,” he snapped. The information on what had happened to the
Tradermaster himself appeared; he had been hustled by armed humans into a lift…and then
the signal had cut off. The Tradermaster had never been one for using a neutrino
transmitter…and even if he had, he would have been stripped of it very quickly. “Take over
the ship and get it back into orbit.”

“I have tried that,” Shipmaster Gargan informed him cheerfully. Shipmaster Salkan gave him
a furious look. “The controls have been locked out.”

Shipmaster Salkan felt his tentacles wave of their own volition. “How could humans do
that?”

“It would seem that our noble Tradermaster thought that it would be a good idea to lock us
out of his personal ship,” Shipmaster Gargan informed him. “Naturally, if someone had his
command codes…do you have his command codes?”

“No,” Shipmaster Salkan said. Traders rarely shared their command codes with anyone;
taking control of the captured ship and ordering it to take flight back to orbit would be
impossible without the command codes. His mind raced desperately; what had happened the
last time a Trader had been taken hostage by a barbaric race? It hadn’t ended well, he was
sure; it had been so long ago that only a few Traders would have any living memory of the
event. His mind sent queries into the computers, locating records; what had happened the last
time? “What will they do to him?”

The agitation seemed to almost amuse Shipmaster Gargan. “They are unlikely to just kill him
out of hand,” Shipmaster Gargan said. The live feed flickered, revealing humans removing
artefacts from the ship at a terrifying rate, trying to get them away from the starship before
something could go wrong. “What are your orders?”

Shipmaster Salkan felt something that no Trader had felt for a very long time. Fear.

Shipmaster Gargan smiled. “Orders?”

“My orders?” Shipmaster Salkan asked. “My orders?”

“Of course,” Shipmaster Gargan said. The gloating tone in his voice was terrifying. “You
have the command in the Tradermaster’s absence, do you not?”
Shipmaster Salkan took a long breath. He almost wished that he was an intern again. “He
expected me to consult with you,” he said, desperately. He knew that he was completely out
of his depth. “What do we do without him?”

“He expected you to hold command,” Shipmaster Gargan pointed out. There was a nasty
undercurrent of truth in his voice; the Tradermaster had made much of how he mistrusted his
subordinate – and older – Shipmaster. “You are the one in command of deciding how we are
to react to this human…kidnap.”

“The Malick Karn had to be involved as well,” Shipmaster Salkan said slowly. Shipmaster
Gargan’s grin grew wider and nastier; the Tradermaster’s plans were falling down around
them. “They couldn’t have just…not noticed a human assault force hiding in that aircraft
they were so proud of, could they?”

“Of course not,” Shipmaster Gargan said. “His pets…have proven more active than we
thought they could, even to the point of making a deal with the humans. I knew that this was
a bad idea from the start.”

“This is no time to be assigning blame,” Shipmaster Salkan protested. He felt almost young
and vulnerable again. Panic gibbered at the corner of his mind; was his ship safe, was his
ship safe, was his ship safe…could the humans somehow attack his craft in lunar orbit and
kill them all? “We need to think of something to do!”

“Had you supported me when I asked you to work with me to move against him, this would
never have happened,” Shipmaster Gargan said dryly. “I told you so; this situation has gone
right out of hand!”

“This is not the time for recriminations either,” Shipmaster Salkan snapped. His mind was
refusing to focus; his career was about to come to a screeching halt. It was actually becoming
harder and harder to think! “Do you have any suggestions?”

“We could just leave him,” Shipmaster Gargan suggested. Shipmaster Salkan wasn’t sure if
he should be outraged or shocked; he settled for being both. The thought of
just…abandoning the Tradermaster to his fate was terrifying; they would be held accountable
for sure. “The Trader Council will not punish us for leaving him to answer to the humans for
his breach of the Law.”

Shipmaster Salkan wanted, desperately, to believe that. “They will certainly object to them
remaining in possession of a Trader and his ship,” he said. “Might the humans use the ship
for their own benefit?”

Shipmaster Gargan shrugged. “The humans are unable to crack the codes of the
Tradermaster’s system either,” he said. “How could they use the ship themselves, or even
learn much from it; the Tradermaster won’t interpret for them, so how can they even
understand it? We can just leave.”

“We can’t,” Shipmaster Salkan said. “We have to make some attempt to rescue him.”
“There is no way that we can trust the Malick Karn to rescue him,” Shipmaster Gargan said.
“Let us just deactivate the technology we gave them from orbit – we can do that – and then
abandon them to the tender mercies of the humans. They are not worth trying to save.”

“We send in the transports with robotic defenders,” Shipmaster Salkan said. “If we can land
and secure the airport, we can recover the Tradermaster before they can get him back above
ground and somewhere much more secure.”

“I see that you are determined,” Shipmaster Gargan said wryly. There was something in his
voice – a cold gloating note – that Shipmaster Salkan didn’t like. “Just remember, humans
are not the Malick Karn. They know things that the Malick Karn never dreamed of before
they met us.”

                                               ***
The United States Deep Space Tracking System had been radically reorganised following the
arrival of the alien craft, which had come very close to Earth without tipping off the sensors.
The President had ordered the system to be expanded in the wake of the destruction of the
satellites and the system had in fact been linked into other systems across the world,
providing a surprising degree of international cooperation to watch for further alien intrusions
into Earth’s atmosphere.

For Colonel Marius Roodt, it was too little, too late. The aliens held total possession of
Earth’s orbitals, and that gave them the capability to land wherever and whenever they liked,
landing anywhere right across the world. No one really understood how the aliens did it, but
they seemed to show the same unconcern for the laws of physics as ships from Star Trek did,
moving and dancing in orbit, unconcerned about the humans watching them. They came,
from time to time, close to the ISS, or the Atlantis, both of which looked like toys compared
to the alien ships. It was a dangerous and worrying time in human affairs; who knew just
what the aliens wanted? Earth seemed to be what they wanted…but they didn’t even seem to
know about the potentials of their own technology. Roodt had spent time dissecting a book
about lizard-like aliens invading the Earth…and he shared the general view that if the lizards
had used space junk as weapons, they would have been much more successful in their
invasion.

The same, he knew, applied to the aliens hanging over Earth’s head in real life. As soon as
they twigged to the idea that all they had to do was bombard Earth with asteroids…

An alarm broke off his musing. “We just received a FLASH signal from RAF Feltwell,” an
operator snapped, referring to the tracking station in England. The British and the other
Europeans, even the French and the Russians, had cooperated with the Americans on building
the network, in exchange for access to the information. Roodt wasn’t too surprised; the
Europeans had been opposing the aliens in Saudi Arabia, after all. “They’re reporting
incoming traffic.”

It was vaguely possible, Roodt supposed, that the traffic might not be hostile…or at least
from the same race, but he knew better to assume anything. Assuming things was the cause
of more deaths in wartime than anything else, with the possible exception of being fired upon
by the enemy. The display was already updating itself as a dozen alien craft plunged towards
Earth and headed directly for Washington. They would be making insertion midway over the
Atlantic, far too close to a carrier group for comfort, and heading directly towards
Washington at Mach Five. If they didn’t slow down, they would be breaking windows all
over the region.

“Send a FLASH update to the Enterprise and the other recipients on the warning list,” he
ordered. It was just as simple, now, as hitting a key on a dedicated computer; his hand tapped
down hard to send the signal. Right across the country, military officers, politicians and the
civil defence teams would be scrambling to the alert; they might even do some good.
Everyone had been preparing for the shoe to fall, but America was just too large to defend
every last corner of its territory with the force required to stop an alien attack in its tracks.

Stupid politicians, he thought coldly, as the display continued to update. We could have
smashed the force in Washington and prevented another Fredericksburg…had they not
insisted that we garrison everywhere to prevent a second landing somewhere in America.

“The update has been receipted,” the operator said. Her face was very pale. “Sir, what do
you think it means?”

The ten alien craft were heading lower, each one of them larger than a jumbo jet and moving
like an F-22 wished it could, although they didn’t seem to be almost as agile as a Harrier.
They weren’t worried about hiding themselves either; they just…moved through the air as if
they owned it. He realised, with a sinking feeling, that the aliens didn’t seem to know that
they had to care about the human defenders.

“I think it means trouble,” he said, rather dryly. He had monitored the Battle of Washington;
the United States had lost dozens of aircraft, the aliens had lost…one. That sort of loss rate
was utterly unsustainable in the long run; would that happen again? There was no way to
know. “Is the evacuation plan ready to go?”

“Yes, sir,” she said. “Everyone who is not absolutely required is already on their way out.”

Roodt nodded and sat back to watch as the alien craft flashed closer. There wouldn’t be long
to wait.

                                           ***
Prince Rohan stared down at an alien weapon. “What do you mean, they’re not working?”
He demanded. His own nervousness was starting to show, despite the fact that he had
Garlinda-Ya by his side. “They were working fine yesterday!”

“They just stopped working,” General Sir Carha said. The logistics officer looked very grim.
“Our own radars, the devices we made and built, are working fine, but everything else is not.
Anything that the Traders had a hand it…it’s just stopped working.”

“They must have somehow deactivated it,” Garlinda-Ya said very softly. Her voice brought
Rohan back to his senses; the warning from the human sensors that the Traders seemed to be
making a move of their own had spurred him to real panic. He was committed now,
committed to standing with the humans to oppose the Traders…who were just launching their
own strike against him. Without the lasers…

Without the lasers, the humans would overwhelm them with their air power and then crush
them, if they decided that the Malick Karn were no longer required in their own plans. He
had offered surrender and they had accepted, but it would be easy for them to just decide that
a promise made to the Malick Karn had no validity. How many promises had Char broken
over the years?

Garlinda-Ya placed a hand on his arm. “Have all of the older weapons checked and issue the
captured human weapons,” he ordered. If the Traders could somehow deactivate them, the
war was lost before it had even fairly begun. He had seen what their robots could do and he
had taken the time to think about opposing them. “We may go down, but we will go down
with a fight!”

He smiled at Garlinda-Ya. He just wasn’t sure who they would be fighting.

                                              ***
“Avenger-lead, you are cleared to depart,” the controller said. Captain Thomas Howell hit
the trigger on the F-22 and the Raptor hurtled forward, launching itself into the air and
gathering speed rapidly as it headed outwards, over the Atlantic. “Good hunting.”

Howell took a breath as the twelve aircraft spread out. The mission depended on too many
assumptions for his liking, the first being that the ground-based enemy lasers would not
attempt to engage the Avengers as they headed out to war, even though they had made sure to
stay out of the known range of the enemy weapons. The second assumption was that the
aliens wouldn’t attempt to engage his aircraft until they were fired upon…which meant that if
the aliens did open fire first, his squadron would never have the chance to engage them with
the special weapons that had been loaded onboard their fighters.

“I have the enemy on my onboard radar,” he reported, as the ten enemy craft appeared on the
display. They were coming on fast, at Mach Five; the Raptor had an impressive top speed of
its own, but the American aircraft couldn’t reach Mach Five unless it was diving and very
lucky into the bargain. He had the uneasy feeling, looking at the now-familiar profile of the
alien transports, that the aliens were just loafing along and could easily pull a much higher
speed, had they chosen to leave the humans in the dust. “I make it ten craft, spread out.”

“Understood,” the controller said. There was nothing else to say. “Good luck.”

Howell nodded. He had volunteered for the mission as soon as he had heard of it; it was a
much-needed opportunity to gain a little revenge for the pilots who the aliens had slaughtered
back during the Battle of Washington. The entire USAF had been up in arms, but their role
in the fighting had been confined to transports and helicopter support, most of which was
provided by the Army fliers in any case. It was humiliating; the USAF had spent literally
billions on the F22, only to discover that the threat they faced could hack it and the stealth
bombers out of the air with ease. It just wasn’t fair.

“Time to missile range, seven minutes,” he said. They all knew the dangers of the mission;
he was very proud of the volunteers who had followed him to death or glory…or perhaps
death and glory. “Designating targets…now.”

The alien craft flashed closer. The brief flickers of information between the craft allowed
them to choose their targets, each of them selecting an alien craft to target. The countdown
was moving faster now as the aliens closed with a terrifying rapidity; they were almost there,
almost there…
“Fire,” he snapped.

The missile launched itself from the F-22, heading directly towards the lead alien craft,
followed by a dozen other missiles. Instantly, he yanked the aircraft into a rapid dive and hit
the afterburners, trying to flee from the blast. Bolts of blue light lashed out towards them,
only one of the aircraft was hit; the aliens didn’t seem to be interested in chasing them and
hunting them down. The Raptors were racing away and then the first missile struck…

The shockwave struck the aircraft, tossing them around the sky as seven nuclear warheads
detonated simultaneously. Howell cursed as he fought to maintain control against the
irresistible force of the shockwave, knowing that the aliens would be suffering the direct
force of the impact. The weapons had been designed as a prototype ABM warhead before
being banned under a new treaty; they were designed to utterly destroy their targets in a
massive blast of nuclear fire.

“Four and seven are down,” his wingman said, his voice breaking through the static that had
deafened him for a moment. He had expected that, but how many people had actually flown
close to a nuclear detonation? “They’re just…gone.”

If they had lost control, they would have been smashed, Howell knew. The sheer force of the
blast would have shattered their aircraft. He tried to push the thought aside; there were other
problems. “The aliens?”

“They seem to be gone too,” his wingman said. His tone was wondering. Howell cheered in
delight, knowing that humans all over the world would be cheering, apart from the handful of
idiots who would oppose the use of nukes in any combat zone at all. They didn’t matter; who
in their right mind would refuse to allow the use of nukes to save the world? “We did it; we
got the bastards!”

                                              ***
Shipmaster Salkan stared in disbelief as the warheads detonated and the transports vanished,
utterly destroyed by the nuclear blasts. A message blinked up on the display from Shipmaster
Gargan; one very precise message. After a moment, he swore at the display and sat down to
think, trying to ignore the message on the display. It was very precise indeed.

NOW WHAT?
Chapter Forty-Five: Now What?

“Now what?”

The President looked down grimly at the image of the alien Tradermaster in his cell. The
analysis of the alien body armour had been completed rapidly; most of it seemed to be almost
literally joined to his skin, if not part of a set of cyborg implants. The alien didn’t seem to be
transmitting anything, either requests for help or even a location monitor; he just sat there,
brooding.

“We talk to him, of course,” the President said, smiling to conceal his private fears. Anything
could happen now; the defeat of the alien transports only proved that the aliens had been
prepared to intervene to try to save their leader. If he was their leader; the President had to
remind himself that they knew almost nothing about the Traders. “We try to talk to him.”

He studied the alien thoughtfully. The Tradermaster seemed to have no problems with
breathing Earth’s atmosphere, but the gravity seemed to be having an effect on him, although
the science teams studying him had reported that half of his body was mechanical, implanted
with any number of devices that could include strength and gravity-resistance. The alien was
much more alien, they’d said, than the Malick Karn; they hadn’t had the slightest idea how
his body worked. He might well be faking it.

He tapped a switch. “Tradermaster Maxtin, can you hear me?”

The alien’s four eyes seemed to peer up at the source of the voice. The President wished, just
for a moment, that he could read the alien’s expressions, or even his thoughts. Tradermaster
Maxtin was perhaps the single most dangerous person on Earth…and there was no way to
know what he was really thinking, or plotting as he sat in the cell. How did he show his
emotions…?

A tentacle moved. “Mr President,” the alien said. Its voice was flat and atonal; they hadn’t
managed to remove the translator, or even identify it in the mass of strange systems that had
been welded into the alien body. It was an abomination, something strangely obscene to the
President’s eyes, but the alien didn’t show any traces of concern over his mutilation. “You
will release me at once.”

The blunt instruction was galling. “That is not a possibility at the moment,” the President
said. “Why did you order the Malick Karn to invade our world?”

Red eyes glowed in the semi-darkness of the cell. The researchers had given the Trader the
controls for his own environment, learning much about the alien by the way he reacted to the
equipment. Tradermaster Maxtin liked it cool, with slightly darkened lights; one of the team
of researchers had even speculated that the Traders could see in the dark without problems.

“We required the resources of your system,” the Trader said finally. The President wondered
if he was telling the truth; there had been nothing stopping the Traders from just walking in
and taking Jupiter or a few dozen asteroids. The human race had had nothing that could
defend the solar system from such an attack. “You have attacked us directly.”
The President forced his voice to remain calm. “You have attacked us directly,” he said, as
calmly as he could. “How do we convince your people to leave this world alone?”

“We cannot leave without a proper trade agreement,” Tradermaster Maxtin said. His voice
remained atonal, but the President was convinced that he heard a form of desperation in the
alien’s voice. “If we do, we will have failed.”

The President said nothing for a long moment. “I see,” he said finally. “You must
understand that we can hardly give you a trade agreement now. What on Earth could we give
you anyway?”

The alien looked down for a moment. The President realised in a sudden burst of insight that
the Tradermaster was in shock; the experience had stunned him beyond anything he had
experienced before. He had gone from near-perfect control over the universe surrounding
him to becoming a prisoner of the human race. He smiled to himself; it was something that
could be used against him.

“The resources of your system,” Tradermaster Maxtin said finally. The President nodded to
himself; he had read books discussing what resources might be available once humanity went
out into the solar system. “If you gave them to us now, we could end it…”

“And deprive the human race of something it would need for the future,” the President said,
silently cursing his predecessors who had cut funding for NASA. “What would happen if we
traded you back to them, in exchange for your people leaving the system?”

Tradermaster Maxtin seemed to pause. “I could give you anything if you sent me back,” he
said. “Give me my freedom, return my ship and…”

“Ah yes, your ship,” the President said. “We will need your help in understanding it.”

Tradermaster Maxtin waved his tentacles in the air. It took the President a moment to realise
that he was laughing his head off. The strange noises the alien was making had to be laughs;
they couldn’t be that different, could they? The alien seemed to be vastly amused…and
almost delighted by the suggestion.

“Your race could not hope to understand the technology that powers my ship,” Tradermaster
Maxtin said. There was a hint of condescension in his voice. “You are very lucky that there
is no antimatter onboard; you might have destroyed yourselves without ever knowing what
you had done. The ship is worthless to you.”

“Your people didn’t think so,” the President said. “They attempted to recover you and your
ship. We shot down ten of your small transport aircraft.”

Tradermaster Maxtin turned so quickly that he almost unbalanced. “You lie!”

“I do not lie,” the President said, remembering the old joke about politicians and lies. How
do you know when a politician is lying? Answer; their lips are moving. “We used tactical
nuclear weapons and brought your craft down in the fires of the heart of the sun.”
He felt oddly poetical. “We have prevented your people from snatching you back and they
don’t know where you are now,” he said. “You are completely at our mercy.”

Tradermaster Maxtin keened. “You will not be permitted to retain possession of my person,”
he snapped. “What do you think you can do to me?”

“You started a war,” the President snapped back. “What did you do to the millions of
innocents on Karn? What did we do to you that made you bring a million alien barbarians to
our world? Why did you disrupt the weather in the Middle East and risk the lives of millions
more humans? Why…why the hell didn’t you just take the resources without all this
trouble?”

The alien stared at the camera. “Because of the Law,” he said. “We could not take anything
from the system without the permission of a legitimate authority.”

The President exchanged a long glance with General Matthews. “I see,” he said. It made a
certain degree of sense. “Then why didn’t you just ask us?”

Tradermaster Maxtin said nothing.

“There will be some people coming in to ask you questions,” the President said finally. “If
you cooperate, it will speed your return to your people.”

He hit the switch again, closing the link. “General?”

“I’m out of my depth,” General Matthews admitted. “The bastard could be telling the truth,
or he could be selling us some bottom land in Florida.”

The President opened his mouth to speak, but was interrupted. “Mr President, sir, we have a
communication directly from one of the alien ships,” the operator said. One of the larger
alien ships had come from the moon, directly to Earth orbit, glaring down on them and
creating a shadow on the surface of the sun. “The aliens are asking to talk to you.”

“I see,” the President said. He was more disturbed by the aliens knowing where to find him
then he wanted to admit. “I will be there directly.”

                                             ***
“I am Shipmaster Salkan,” Shipmaster Salkan said, identifying himself. It galled him to
almost treat the human as an equal, but they did have the Tradermaster under their control. “I
assume that I am speaking to the President of the United States?”

The President nodded. He seemed oddly…unevolved to the Shipmaster; the natual human
form was most disagreeable, and yet…he had done nothing to correct the situation. He could
remove his nose entirely with human tech, and yet he had left it in place, along with the odd
teeth, the hair and the slight indentation at the top of his head where the hair had been fading
away.

“I am the President of the United States of America,” the President confirmed. A dozen
computers performed checks, comparing and contrasting the man in front of the display with
recorded images collected before the invasion had begun. They seemed to match, although
he had to remind himself that humans had proven themselves more devious and dangerous
than anyone had anticipated. “I would like to open discussions about the future of this
system.”

Shipmaster Salkan ignored the probe. “You are holding one of us prisoner,” he said. That
could never be forgiven, even with Shipmaster Gargan needling him with his WHAT NOW
message. “We demand his release at once.”

The President seemed curiously unconcerned by the threat. “What are you prepared to trade
for him, Trader?”

Shipmaster Gargan would have laughed. Shipmaster Salkan fought to control himself. “We
are prepared to consider a small technology transfer to you,” he said, after a moment’s
thought. A ransom demand had not been expected; so few had dared to lift their hands
against a Trader that there were no established procedures for handling such a situation. “We
could offer you perfect desalination technology that could help make your deserts bloom.”

“An interesting offer, but basically worthless,” the President said. “We want something more
important to us.”

“You can barely feed your own people and you are turning down the ability to feed them
all?” Shipmaster Salkan asked. The thought was…well, alien; the humans certainly had the
ability to feed everyone, but refused to do it. The Traders were hardly inclined to help people
out of the goodness of their hearts, but it was one of the benefits of living in a space habitat
that no one had to starve, even the lowliest intern. “What sort of barbarians are you?”

“Desperate barbarians,” the human President said. “You must be aware that your attempt to
use the Malick Karn to defeat us and occupy our world has failed.”

“There are billions upon billions of Malick Karn,” Shipmaster Salkan said, dismissing the
thought with a wave of one long tentacle. It was a slight exaggeration, but not by much; there
were four billion Malick Karn who could be pressed into service, if the need arose. Who
cared about their little cultural problems with employing women in combat if the Traders,
their masters, needed to use them? “We can ally ourselves with human forces and work with
them instead.”

The President leaned forward. “Can you?” He asked. “The major human nations have
joined together in opposing you.”

Shipmaster Salkan, who found it hard to grasp the concept of separate governments on
different parts of the surface of a world, shrugged. The human would be unlikely to
understand the gesture, unless the human male – he was sure he was dealing with a male –
had spent a long time talking with the Tradermaster. Just to be sure, he made his position
clear verbally.

“Perhaps,” he said. “I find it hard to see how it matters. Return the Tradermaster or face the
consequences.”

The human seemed to have a faint sheen on his forehead; it made little sense to Shipmaster
Salkan. “We are prepared to negotiate for his return,” the President said. His voice was very
calm. “We want you and your ships to vacate this solar system and never return. We will
conduct discussions relating to the further development of this system on a more equal basis
later, once we have recovered from the invasion and have established ourselves in the solar
system.”

Shipmaster Salkan stared at the President for a long moment. He was tempted to just agree
and break the agreement later, but no one would ever trust him again. Traders had to keep
their word, no matter who they gave it to; if he agreed, he would have no choice, but to cut
his losses and retreat. The military option was still possible, but how could he recover the
Tradermaster? He couldn’t even find him…

It dawned on him, slowly, that he had underestimated the planet. Planets were big!

A message flickered up on his display. THE TRADERMASTER IS AN OUTLAW, it read.
Shipmaster Gargan had been monitoring the transmissions. LEAVE HIM BEHIND TO
FACE HUMAN JUSTICE.

“No,” he said, casting around for another opportunity. He had had an idea. “I know that you
value your lives and we will take hostages of our own to trade for the Tradermaster.”

The President lifted an eyebrow. “We have the ability to destroy any of your ships that tries
to enter the atmosphere,” he said. “Where can you get your hostages from?”

He might have been bluffing, but Shipmaster Salkan had thought better of calling his bluff.
“We will recover your astronauts in space in their pitiful little pieces of junk,” he snapped.
“Once we have them, you will trade for the Tradermaster, or we will kill them and look for
other possible solutions.”

One tentacle struck the display, which blinked off. “Take us towards the human spacecraft,”
he snapped, addressing the comment towards one of his own interns. “We will snatch it up
from space before it can even begin to run from you.”

                                              ***
“That’s the situation,” the President said. There was a long pause. Captain Markus Kane just
wanted it to end. He knew what was needed…and knew that there was no choice. “I won’t
order you to do anything, but…”

Kane held up a hand. “I understand, Mr President,” he said. He shared a long look with
Sonja Greenhorn; they had spent enough time pushing back the limits of what was known
about intimente relationships in space. “God bless America.”

The proximity display was already beginning to bleep a warning. It had been designed to
watch for pieces of space junk and satellites that might have damaged the shuttle; now, it was
reporting on the shape of a vast alien spacecraft that had moved towards their position. Kane
wanted to run, but there was no point; even if he fired all of the rockets, there was no way
that they could escape the alien ship. Their only hope was it taking them onboard…and, from
the glowing Star Destroyer-style hatch that was opening on the underside of the starship, that
was exactly what they intended to do. The alien craft was moving closer and closer; he could
feel the shuttle shuddering at the force of the alien ship’s passage.
“There’s no air in space,” Sonja protested, as the alien craft grew larger and larger in the
viewport. It was over a hundred kilometres in size; there would be people on the ground who
were seeing it as it approached the shuttle, perhaps some of them even observing with their
telescopes. “I’m scared.”

“I know,” Kane said. It wasn't hard at all to make the admission. He had no doubts at all
about his bravery, but the truth was that he had always been nervous before flying a jet
fighter into harm’s way; it had been a survival instinct. He missed the war on terror; then,
they had all the advantages and time on their side. “I’m scared too.”

The alien craft just kept growing larger; a beam of light lanced out towards the shuttle,
catching them in a wave of gravity. Objects that had been floating around the cabin crashed
to the floor, Kane felt real gravity returning as the alien ship started to pull them closer. His
hand reached out towards the control panel for the thrusters, then he forced himself to leave
them; there was little point in trying to use them so close to the alien ship.

His other hand touched a second panel. It was lit up and ready.

“Sonja,” he said, “will you marry me?”

Sonja burst out laughing. “We’re about to be swallowed alive by an alien ship and die
horribly,” she said. Kane saw the humour and joined her in her laugh; he hadn’t heard her
laugh enough in the last few weeks of their mission, their seemingly endless and useless
mission. “Of course I’ll marry you.”

She leaned over and kissed him. It struck Kane suddenly that they had never made love on a
beach, or in a proper bed, or even admitted to their folks at home that they had found one
another. NASA frowned on such fraternisation, even though it had tacitly admitted that such
actions would be more than likely to occur on the much-planned and much more delayed
Mars mission. He almost cried; his decisions had ensured that neither of them had a future.

The shuttle shook again. The alien craft had become a terrifying wall in the sky as the tractor
beam moved them towards the hatch, large enough to take an aircraft carrier. It made a Borg
Cube seem like nothing; just for a moment, he wished for the Starship Enterprise to fight the
aliens with phasers and photon torpedoes. It just didn’t seem fair. He leaned over and took
her hand, pulling her close, while his other hand caressed the button. They would have to
wait until just the right moment…

The shuttle shook again; he saw the great doors of the hatch sliding closed, trapping them
within the alien craft. He kissed her again; holding her close, wishing that they had time to
hold each other one more time, and then his hand touched the button again.

“I’m sorry,” he said, and pressed the button. It clicked. “I’m so sorry…”

The nuclear warhead detonated.
Chapter Forty-Six: Terms of Surrender

It happened very quickly.

It seemed to happen in slow motion.

Shipmaster Gargan watched it all. The blossom of the explosion on the underside of the
Profitable Day, spreading rapidly in chilling silence down the length of the sword-like hull,
reaching the drives and destroying them in a blinding flash of light. There were no survivors,
not from the seven Traders who had inhabited the ship, nor from the tens of thousands of
Malick Karn who had been stuffed into the holds and prepared for a landing on Earth. They
were the lucky ones; they died before they knew what had hit them.

No, Shipmaster Gargan corrected himself; the humans were the lucky ones. The safeties had
held just long enough to rotate the antimatter into hyperspace before the magnetic bubbles
failed and allowed the antimatter to meet matter. The blast would have sterilized half of the
planet. It would have been so easy to have stood back and watched as the humans paid for
their own foolishness in trying to attack a ship they had known next to nothing about, but it
hardly mattered. The humans had been lucky.

The Tradermaster was a human prisoner; he was also an outlaw. Shipmaster Gargan was
determined of that, at least; he had broken the Law and led the Clan to ruin. It would be easy,
also, to blame everything on him, and Shipmaster Gargan knew that he had a good record of
opposition to the Tradermaster and his lapdog, Shipmaster Salkan. The Auditors wouldn’t be
happy, but if he played his cards right and shamelessly passed on all the blame to them, he
might just manage to keep his ship, perhaps even the other Traders in the fleet. If…

A simple command into his system brought up the weapons array and he smiled,
contemplating the damage that he could wreck on Earth. It would be so easy; he wouldn’t be
so foolish as to allow an obviously booby-trapped spacecraft inside his shields and even his
hull. It would be so easy…but, in the end, the Law forbade punishment on the scale he
wanted to administer. Giving the human race a good spanking had much to recommend it,
but in the end, it wouldn’t solve any of his problems.

And, beside, leaving the Tradermaster in human hands was just what he deserved.

“Contact the remaining ships,” he ordered. The humans would be unable to make head or tail
of the ship that had fallen into their hands, they wouldn’t even be able to use it to bootstrap
themselves to a more advanced level of technology. “We’re leaving this system behind for a
very long time.”

They would return, he was sure. Humans lacked the life spans of the Traders…and the
Malick Karn would have all died out by then. They would forget and a new relationship
could be initiated, one that would allow the Traders to recoup some of their losses. Perhaps
the Tradermaster would still be alive when they returned, or perhaps the humans would have
killed him; either way, it hardly mattered. It also hardly mattered about the Malick Karn;
they would just be abandoned on the surface of Earth, dying far from their homeworld and far
from any hope of perpetrating the species.

The fleet turned and fled, leaving the Sol System far behind them.
                                           ***
General Mathews stared at the display. “They’re just leaving?”

“It looks that way,” the President said. It hadn’t been what they had planned, but sending the
nuke to the shuttle had clearly paid off in ways that made the entire effort worthwhile. “What
about the debris?”

“Most of it is already heading into the atmosphere,” an operator said. “The remainder will be
falling inwards or heading outwards within a few weeks at most; the alien ship apparently
didn’t have any real speed beyond what the drive field generated and the field failed as soon
as the nuke detonated.”

“Good,” the President said. Everyone on Earth would have seen the detonation, at least those
on the right side of the planet; he would have to address the nation again before too long. It
would be important to ensure that everyone knew what had happened, just what had fallen
into the hands of America…and how he intended to use it to ensure that when the Traders
reappeared – or something else came out of the icy darkness of space to threaten the Earth.
“All we have to do now is tidy up the mess.”

General Mathews nodded. “That does leave us with a few major problems,” he reminded the
President. “The Trader…and all of the Malick Karn.”

The President grinned. “Oh that will be easy,” he said. “The real problem has just left Earth
Orbit and by the time we meet them again, we will have a much better grasp of their
technologies and…who knows? Perhaps we will meet them first in space, if we can use the
ship we captured to generate a real space capability.”

Jaclyn Ridgeley coughed. “The world and his wife wants access to that ship,” she said.
“Some of them are even threatening war over it.”

The President felt his smile grow wider. “It’s a bargaining chip,” he said. Ideas were
dancing behind his eyes. “If we use it properly, we can even get the remainder of the world
on our side.”

                                              ***
The ceremony had been short, simple, and utterly depressing. The President of the United
States had honoured the protocol of the Malick Karn and not attended; the surrender was
unconditional, after all. The President, who the Savants had decided was at least the
equivalent of an Emperor, even though he had to fight for his post every four years, could not
show anything, but contempt for the proceedings.

Prince Rohan had handed over his sword, his flags, and his letter of authority to the
President’s representative, General Mathews, and then surrendered himself personally. A
handful of soldiers had been weeded out – those guilty of war crimes – but the majority had
simply been herded into camps while the humans worked out what to do with them. Some of
the Malick Karn, those who had been in the Volunteer Army, would be delighted at the
chance to build a new life on Earth, others who had served with Char from the beginning,
would be horrified. They would bear watching, as would the two humans he had taken into
her service; it hadn’t occurred to anyone that the human authorities might prosecute Alex
Houghton and Gloria Featherstone for treason. They had been moved to a more private
detention camp, along with Rohan himself, First Sergeant Sir Chamita, Prince Courtesan
Garlinda-Ya and his remaining Generals. Rohan knew that the humans could do whatever
they liked to him; that was what unconditional surrender meant, after all.

The President came to see him a week into his stay at the camp. “You’ll be pleased to hear
that the decision on the two humans who served with you was that they were the victims of
circumstance,” he said. Rohan hid his relief with an effort, grateful for the private room,
even if he wasn’t so grateful for the armed human who stood behind him and had informed
him in no uncertain terms that if he made a single aggressive act towards the President, he
would be shot in the head. “Their role in forging the agreement to oppose the Traders was
noted by the court.”

He paused. “It wasn't so good for the war criminals,” he continued. Rohan bowed his head;
human standards of war crimes had surprised him in some ways. He was a product of a very
different world. “Of the four hundred and seven who were indicted, three hundred and thirty
have been sentenced to death and will be hung over the next week. Forty-seven have been
sentenced to life in prison; the remainder were declared innocent and will be released to the
detention camps.”

Rohan sighed. “And what about me?”

The President seemed to ignore the question. “The Traders dumped nearly a million of your
people on the surface of Earth over the last few weeks,” he said. “Of those, only three
thousand are female, a vast imbalance under any circumstances, and much worse when most
of the women don’t want to return to any of your men. Roughly half of your people
were…volunteers and have volunteered” – he smiled thinly – “to become citizens of the
United States of America. The remainder pose a harder problem, not least because we cannot
return them to Karn.”

Rohan nodded once. “And so, what will you do with them?”

“There are strong…political currents running across the Earth at the moment,” the President
said. “One current of thought wants you all executed. Another current wants you to remain
permanently in detention camps and to be sterilised. I have an offer for you personally; we
need you to enter the service of the United States. If you agree to this, we’ll forget about
charging you personally with war crimes and assist you in maintaining an enclave on
American soil.”

“It sounds too good to be true,” Rohan said. “What do you want me to do?”

The President told him.

                                               ***
Days became weeks and weeks became months; the clean-up effort had swallowed up most
of Captain Jeremy Damiani’s time as the National Guard had returned to the streets of
Washington. The city itself was in ruins, with far too much damage scattered all over the
city, but many of the important buildings were intact. The civilians had been barred from
returning to the city – many of the liberated slaves had been all-too-keen to leave the city at
once – but the National Guard had been ordered to establish a show of strength at once.
Life was slowly coming back to Washington, despite the handful of booby-traps that had
been discovered, never triggered by the aliens. Some of the Marines had left surprises behind
that the aliens had never discovered; they posed a threat, ironically, to clear-up teams trying
to restart the life of the city. The soldiers patrolled carefully, watching out for the occasional
alien holdout, and maintained a presence on the streets. Almost all of the Malick Karn had
surrendered, but there were still a handful who had refused to surrender; most of them had to
be killed rather than risk lives trying to capture them. No one wanted to be killed by the last
bullet of the war, after all.

The monument had grown up rapidly in front of the White House, a massive pile of medals
and awards, handed out by a grateful nation to soldiers who had survived the fighting and
lived to tell about it. No one knew who had started the tradition, but most of the soldiers
knew someone who had died in the first brutal fight for Washington, or had perished at the
desperate fighting trying to hold the line. Someone had left the first medal there; almost
every soldier in the region who had won a medal had left one there, marking their own
commitment to the recovery of the nation.

Clara found him there one day.

“You’re brooding,” she said. She had been one of the few reporters to be allowed into the
city, a mark of the favour she had found in her reporting from the war zone. A new breed of
reporters had sprung up and Clara was in the lead; America would no longer tolerate insults
to its fighting men from reporters and libellers of the press. “It doesn’t do any good to
brood.”

“I was just thinking,” Damiani said. He tapped his new Captain’s insignia on his uniform.
“What was it all worth, really?”

Clara considered the question. “It might have been worth everything,” she said, finally.
“What were you thinking about?”

“They were brought here, against their will, and sent out to fight us,” Damiani said. “The
people who brought them here either died in the explosion, or fled far beyond human justice,
apart from one in the most secure cell in the world.” They exchanged a long glance; only a
handful of people knew that there was one Trader left alive in the solar system…and it was
one fact that would never be made public. “What was it all worth, really?”

Clara laughed. “You know what you need? You need to get laid.” Damiani gaped at her.
“You men; you take everything too seriously. I bet it’s the same with the aliens as well. You
want great meaning in everything and drama in everything that happens to you. What about
the mundane world?” She took his arm. “The world is safe again. Little girls and boys will
grow up without having to kowtow to the aliens. Men and women won’t have to die in battle
or live on their knees. People can go to dance, or sing, or even browse the Internet; doggy
style will remain an option instead of a requirement for sex…”

She broke off at his laugh. “Perhaps you have a point,” he said. “Now, about that getting
laid…?”
“Come on, then,” Clara said. “How long until you’re on duty again?” She laughed again.
“Never mind, if a war hero can’t get laid, then screw them all.”

                                           ***
“Thank you for everything that you have done for us,” Chantho-Ya said, as she hugged
Doctor Virginia Jones. “You’ve done us the best thing that anyone ever has.”

Virginia knew that it was true. The handful of women who had been taken into custody
along with the remains of their fellow aliens, had mostly wanted to remain apart from the
men. The sexual urge was a strong one, but who knew? If the men had time without the
women, perhaps they would treat them better when they saw them again, or…she shrugged; it
was no longer her concern.

“You have the chance to really make something of yourselves,” she told them, and kissed
them both goodbye. It still surprised her that the Malick Karn women had never managed to
use their superior intelligence to take control, but then, she’d never met an IQ high enough to
stop a punch, or a bullet. “Good luck; write or email often.”

She wiped a tear from her eye and glanced into the next set of rooms. The handful of
captured Footsoldiers from Grozh had taken to democracy and the rights of man – and
woman – in a big way, not unlike immigrants from the dictatorships around the world.
Footsoldier Othoes and Footsoldier Kolana had already become community leaders; in the
future, she was sure that they would become more American than the Americans. It wouldn’t
be easy for them – they would have to overcome a lot of fear, mistrust and outright hatred on
the part of the human Americans – but she was sure that they would do it.

She waved cheerfully to Sergeant Alan Landers as he appeared around the corner and
surprised him with a kiss on his cheek. The Sergeant had been involved right from the start
of the project to unravel the secrets of Trader technology; now that they had an entire ship,
and a live Trader to work on, she hoped that there would be all manner of new discoveries.
The Trader himself was a fascinating puzzle, a mixture of technology and biological life, a
puzzle she could spend the remainder of her life solving.

Landers grinned at her. “I was coming to ask you to lunch,” he said. “Interested?”

She looped her hand though his. “Of course,” she said. “Why not?”

                                             ***
Lord Arthur Darlington stood next to the President and heard him expounding on his plan for
the future of the world….and for a coordinated defence against a new alien threat. Everyone
had seen the flash in the sky…and everyone knew that it wasn't the end. Far from being the
safeguard of humans everywhere, the skies had become a source of grim menace, something
that threatened all of humanity. Unity was vital; the human race had no choice, but to hang
together…or hang separately.

“I will be blunt,” the President said, speaking directly to the Ambassadors. “The world has
changed remarkably and all of the old conventions are no longer valid.”

Darlington wouldn’t have argued with that. The American decision to base the remainder of
the alien army in the ruins of Saudi Arabia had been almost universally condemned by the
Third World…but the developed world had said almost nothing. Some of it was a private
relief that the Malick Karn army would be doing something useful – serving as flypaper for
thousands of jihadis – the remainder was the grim knowledge that America – and America
alone – possessed a starship from an advanced alien civilisation. Britain – and France,
Germany and the other nations that had contributed to the forces in Iraq – had some items of
Trader technology, but America had the prize…and it had tipped the global balance of power
on its head.

No one knew what would happen to the starship…and everyone knew that the situation was
unacceptable. It was also one that would be difficult to alter; America was almost
invulnerable to conventional attack and nuclear attack would only have resulted in a nuclear
exchange that would have devastated the world and provided an opportunity for the Traders
to return. The starship was alien, it might be impossible to reverse-engineer quickly, but no
one knew for sure. If the Americans could duplicate the technology in the ship, then they
would hold an advantage that would be utterly unbeatable.

“We have an opportunity to work towards providing a joint defence system for the entire
world and even a defensive alliance,” the President said, after a long review of what
technologies were already available to America…presenting them with the carrot of the
American offer. The stick didn’t need to be waved; with alien technology changing the
world, any nation that allowed itself to be left behind would be in serious trouble. The end of
the oil dependency alone would make the world far better. Darlington knew that public
opinion would force them forward, whatever the politicians wanted, or demanded. “We are
prepared to offer full and complete access to the alien technology, in exchange for a few
minor concessions.”

Darlington almost laughed as the President outlined the ‘minor’ concessions. There would be
haggling, lots of haggling, but he suspected that most of the democratic world would fall in
line. Russia and China would be in a more dangerous position and would have to be watched
closely, but the benefits of agreeing to the American terms would be worth developing a
stable democracy. In short…

He smiled. All was well that ended well.

Of course, it wasn’t the end…
Epilogue

They had left him.

Tradermaster Maxtin sat in the human cell and brooded. He had once walked the stars as if
they had been jewels in the sky; now he was a prisoner on one of the worlds had had
disdained. His few hours on Earth’s surface had been extended for an eternity and a
day…and his fellows had left him.

He had known before the American President had told him that the remaining Trader ships
had fled the solar system. He had never told Shipmaster Salkan about the neutrino link with
the Profitable Day; the termination of the link could only mean that the starship had fled the
system. He refused to think about the alternative. The human claim to have destroyed one of
the massive ships had to be a lie; how could it be true? The ships were so fast, so powerful,
so invulnerable…even a supernova, properly handled, presented little threat. How could the
human race have destroyed one?

And yet they had left him…

He knew who to blame; Shipmaster Gargan. The Trader had been pressing him right from
the start of the mission, demanding this, demanding that, working – he was sure, now – for
one of his competitors. The remains of his Clan would be absorbed into another one,
cheating the Auditors and Tradermaster Maxtin alike; his Clan would come to an end in the
embrace of another. Shipmaster Gargan had to have been working with the humans right
from the start. No other explanation seemed to fit.

He brooded. Where had it all gone wrong? Everything had seemed to go so perfectly…until
they had arrived at Earth. He had exploited his subjects to invade a new world, skirting the
letter of the Law – or at least ensuring that blame fell on the Malick Karn, rather than the
Traders – and it had seemed so perfect. If only the humans had not proven so stubbon in the
face of their certain defeat. If only the Malick Karn had pulled off one more victory. If
only…

If…if…if…

His existence now was frustrating. His implants provided him access to every human
computer within range…which was far too short for any kind of use. The humans didn’t rely
on their systems, not like the Traders; they had physical guards watching him everywhere he
went. He was confident that he could have escaped, had he a means of knocking out the
guards…but where would he have gone? Earth was a large place, but it was hardly a
cosmopolitan world with dozens of different races visiting; a single Trader would be easy to
find.

He knew better than to hope for rescue. The Auditors wouldn’t bother to send a mission to
recover him; they would have cursed him and written him off, along with his starship. The
humans were showing all the signs of covert assistance from one of the Trader factions; they
asked penetrating questions about the starship, questions that seemed to reach right into his
soul and freeze his blood. He wanted to lie, he wanted to mislead them, he wanted to trick
them into doing something that would destroy the ship…but he didn’t quite dare. He was at
the mercy of the human race and…it terrified him. A single lie would doom him, perhaps to
an encounter with instruments of torture, perhaps to death itself. He found that terrifying
beyond belief; he could have looked forward to millions more years of life, perhaps even
until the end of the universe, but now his life depended on satisfying a bunch of primitives.
He was somehow sure that his very chance of escape, or at least gaining something in return
for his assistance, depended upon helping the humans to design and build starships of their
own…but he knew that there was little chance that they would succeed. He had once spent
several days talking to human physics students about hyperspace and how to use it…and they
had greeted it with incomprehension.

It was hopeless…and it was all he had, the only thing he could cling to. Once, he had walked
the stars like a god; now, he was confined to a single world.

It just didn’t seem fair.

Tradermaster Maxtin sat in his cell, alone.

                                          THE END
Appendix - The Malick Karn

General Overview - The Malick Karn originated on a planet orbiting Tau Ceti, roughly
twelve light years from Earth. Their homeworld is called Karn – their racial name translates,
into one of their old languages, as ‘Children of Karn – and orbits as the second world from
Tau Ceti, at a distance slightly further from their primary than Earth. In consequence, the
natives tend to prefer colder climates to humanity, although in practice they are capable of
operating in most Earth environments without serious problems. A Russian winter would not
be a serious problem to them.

In general appearance, a single Malick Karn looks very human, although naturally there is no
chance of interbreeding. The most notable physical difference between humanity and the
Malick Karn are their noses. They have a rather flat nose that is shaped as a four-sided
pyramid. They also have green skin only, unlike the various skin tones that humans possess.
Furthermore, the Malick Karn have a rigid caste that limits an individuals activities and social
standing, encouraged by the Empire. Only those in the top caste may participate in an
oligarchic governmental system, but advancement may also come from service to the
advanced races, most notably in the Empire’s ground forces.

An average Malick Karn is slightly shorter than an average human, with hairless green skin
that absorbs heat from their sun. They do not sunburn, but they can become uncomfortable in
very hot temperatures; heatstroke can be a problem if they spend too long in the sun. They
move as quickly as humans, possessing roughly equal strength to a male human; their
females are often roughly weaker than a male by around a third. Their intelligence is roughly
human-standard, with a slight, but definite bias in favour of the females.

Politically, the Malick Karn are ruled by the Char Empire, an empire that was in decline
before the Traders showed up and offered the Emperor a bargain he couldn’t refuse. Trader
assistance boosted the Char armed forces rapidly; from around the levels of 1914era when the
Traders arrived, to roughly 1945 when their First Global War was won by the Char Empire.
There then followed a short (ten years) period of a Cold War-analogue, which ended by a war
provoked by the Empire’s enemies. They lost; the Traders had led the Char Empire to a point
where they were vastly more capable than their opponents. The war of conquest ended with
the Char Empire in control of the world and all-powerful.

Karn itself is divided up into sections, each one ruled directly by a Viceroy, who is only
accountable to the Emperor and his sons. The world is a patchwork of relatively civilised
regions that are net contributors to the Empire, mixed with lands that are rebellious and lands
that were never developed before the Wars. Local authority is minimal and almost always in
existence only at the Emperor’s sufferance; high technology (nuclear power plants, etc) is
only permitted in the loyal regions. Below the viceroys, there are a confusing series of levels
of aristocracy, some of them hereditary ranks, others earned and granted by the Emperor.
The House of Lords is the only real check on the Emperor’s powers, but it is often in dispute
with itself over issues such as taxation and the armed forces, particularly with the end of the
war.

The common people are divided into castes, which determine what roles they play in life,
although there is some inter-caste movement for the particularly skilful, talented, or lucky.
The Army Caste is unique in that it lets common soldiers rise in the ranks, while making even
the scions of noble houses serve a period as a common soldier, maintaining a high level of
proficiency and contact between the ranks. In contrast, the Navy and the Air Force are much
more exclusive; commissions are bought and sold in exchange for patronage. The remains of
the conquered populations are treated as slaves, officially, although the Viceroys have been
encouraged to integrate them into the Empire as more than hopeless – and rebellious –
subjects. It should be noted that – thanks to the Traders – the Empire has become very good
at people control.

The position of women is almost universally second-class, although there are differences
between the various viceroyalties. There was some movement towards greater equality in the
pre-War democratic states, but the Char Empire remains fairly conservative where such
matters are concerned, denying women the right to vote (such as it is) and generally treating
women as adult children. Legally, women’s rights are limited (rape is regarded as a civil
offence, rather than a crime) and mainly confined to the aristocratic women; outside the
aristocracy, women can be treated with anything from respect to chattel. A woman has no
right to succeed to any of her family’s positions, or to inherit money or industries. They
remain under the thumb of their male relatives, although various honour codes give them
some respite from outright slavery. The only positions they can hold are medical positions –
as a trained doctor is considered valuable property – but they rarely have any form of equal
treatment.

The Armed Forces – Every citizen of the Empire is, in theory, subject to the Emperor’s call
to arms. In practice, the majority of the army is made up of four main sections; the Imperial
Guard, the National Army, the Volunteer Army and the Shadows. Most commanding
officers hold a peerage of one kind or another, although that is not always a requirement (and
nor is it a guarantee of a command, should someone who already holds a peerage join the
army), and have generally proven themselves in combat. Support for all operations is
provided by the Logistics Corps, which handles supply, medical support, etc.

The Imperial Guard is under the Emperor’s direct command as his personal guard, with both
a force capable of holding off any revolts in the other units of the army, and capable of
providing bodyguards and assistants to any member of the Royal Court. They have also been
known to carry out the executions of uppity noblemen, something for the nobles to keep in
mind. The Imperial Guard is generally commanded by a member of the Royal Family and
has units dedicated to the protection of each member.

The National Army (named for the time when Char was a nation among other nations) is a
volunteer corps, equipped with some of the most modern equipment in the nation’s arsenal.
It is very much a highly-trained and armed force, one that has a high degree of mobility
within the ranks, as well as the toughest record on discipline. The commanding officers will
normally have spent at least a year in the ranks and small-unit experience is a must for higher
command.

The Volunteer Army is something of a sick joke, at least in name. Its ranks are generally
composed of soldiers recruited from conquered territories, men who literally have nowhere
else to go, and units are generally based well away from their homelands. Discipline, at least
when it comes to local relations, is lax; rape and pillage is not unknown, something that is
privately encouraged as it reminds the soldiers that if they lose their positions, they will often
be torn apart by outraged locals. Internal discipline is harsh and mobility is very rare,
although a spectacularly capable soldier will generally be aided to reach higher positions;
units are always officered by a commander from Char. A unit of the National Army is
generally deployed alongside a Volunteer Army unit.

The Shadows are a Special Forces unit, trained to serve in almost all conceivable roles that
cannot be handed by the hammer of the main army units. They are the most secretive unit on
Karn, with hardly any links to the other forces.

				
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