Archive | April, 2012

Snippet: Hitler’s Mages

16 Apr

Chapter One

“What Ho, Gabriel?”

Gabriel pasted a smile on his face as Bernie shook his hand firmly. He was young, but his body was already showing the signs of too much good living and too little hard work. As the younger son of a minor aristocratic family, it was unlikely he’d ever inherit anything worth having unless his older brothers died. Instead, he spent his time enjoying life, avoiding the attempts of his aunts to get him married off to a suitable girl – and pursuing every last fad that ran through London’s aristocratic community. Rumour had it that his family paid him a small stipend as long as he didn’t come home.

“What Ho,” Gabriel replied, with little enthusiasm. Bernie’s company was intolerable except in small doses, for all that there was little genuine malice in him. “I take it that tonight’s the night?”

“Of course,” Bernie said. “If you’ll come in…”

Bernie had rented – or purchased – a large townhouse near the centre of London, one close enough to the Houses of Parliament to feel as if they were connected, but far away enough to avoid attracting attention from the authorities. Chamberlain’s government might have been denying it, yet war with Germany was inevitable and those in power were concerned about the danger of German spies. It wouldn’t be the first time that someone with an impeccable pedigree had betrayed Britain to her enemies.

The sign just inside the door read THE WORSHIPFUL AND ANCIENT ORDER OF MYSTERIES, casting doubt’s on Bernie’s ability to hide anything. To those with the right eyes, it was easy to see the glyph underlying the words, revealing something far older than the society’s handful of weeks. The only ancient truth about the society was the fact that there was a sucker born every minute – and that had been known for thousands of years before the American had coined the expression. If Gabriel hadn’t seen the glyph, he would have suspected that the Council had sent him on a useless errand.

“Come on, old man,” Bernie said. “We’re just about to get started.”

Gabriel took one last look at the glyph and shuddered. It read, simply, THE HELLFIRE CLUB. Most people outside the magical community believed it to be nothing more than a harmless society for high-bred morons, founded by a would-be sorcerer called Crowley. Those who had grown up with magic knew better. The Hellfire Club was far older – and far more dangerous.

The men in the living room didn’t look particularly dangerous. Like Bernie, they were all of aristocratic blood – and yet unlikely to inherit anything of value. A good war would probably kill many of the chinless imbeciles off, unfortunately killing the men under them in the process. The Army had traditionally been the home for wayward second sons, with the Generals viewing good breeding as more important than military ability. Sometimes it worked out fine, but more often the British Army found itself struggling to cope with problems that the Duke of Willington would have known to nip in the bud.

A handful of serving girls moved through the room, wearing nothing apart from fancy necklaces and bangles. The eyes of the guests followed them, but without particular interest or even lust. They’d indulged themselves so much that they’d become jaded, unable to take interest in the simpler pleasures of life. Some turned to drugs, others to travel – and some turned to the Hellfire Club. They wouldn’t have been here if they hadn’t been willing to dabble in the occult. It was possible that they even believed what they preached.

Gabriel took a glass from one of the girls and listened to the conversation, careful not to take more than a sip or two of wine. No magician had a good head for wine, not if he wanted to remain a magician. That was hardly a concern for the guests, all of whom were drinking the finest claret as if it was nothing more than water. Conspicuous consumption was part of their life, a mocking defiance of the problems caused by the depression that had spread out from America and washed across the world. Few of them realised that there were others less fortunate, or how the aristocracy preyed upon their fellow men. Those who did were often called Communists by their fellows, who regarded Communism as a deadly threat. They might have been right.

But they weren’t just interested in drinking enough to blot out the world – and the ultimate purposefulness of their lives. They were nerving themselves up for something, something bad…something that suggested that this particular chapter of the Hellfire Club had already managed to demonstrate magic. Bernie was a fool, but he wasn’t that much of a fool – even though he wasn’t half as smart as he thought he was. And his butler would probably have seen through it if someone had tried to con Bernie out of his money.

Much of the talk was in nervous whispers, but Gabriel had always had good hearing. A handful of them were chatting about the races, or about last month’s hunting outside the city – nothing particularly important apart from their growing nervousness. Bernie had vanished somewhere while Gabriel had been listening and pretending to socialise, leaving Gabriel feeling out of place in the gathering. Not all of them were friendly to a man whose bloodline was far less illustrious than their own, even though his real bloodline dated all the way back to Queen Elizabeth – further, if one counted the families before John Dee had come to terms with the Faerie.

There was a loud gong and the chatter stilled instantly. Bernie was standing on a raised dais, looking down at the gathering. Gabriel almost didn’t recognise him at first. He had changed out of his respectable brown suit into a set of tacky red robes and a hat made out of gold and silver leaf, carrying a colossal staff in one hand topped with a glittering jewel. Despite himself, Gabriel almost started laughing at him; he looked absurd. The others didn’t seem to find it so amusing. They took Bernie seriously.

“Most honoured brethren,” Bernie said portentously, “the Grand Master of the Ancient Order of Mysteries summons you to the Place of Power.”

He led the way through a doorway that had been covered by drapes and down a long stairwell into the basement. The Place of Power turned out to be a fairly large room illuminated by burning torches placed along the walls, revealing a pentagram drawn on the stone floor and a single man standing at the rear of the room. Gabriel shuddered as he recognised a handful of the symbols surrounding the pentagram, some older than the human race itself. They were names of entities who could be invoked and manipulated by sorcerers, provided that the sorcerer was willing to meet their price. A handful seemed to have been drawn poorly, as if the person who had shaped them hadn’t quite known what they were doing. It was tempting to believe that Bernie had come up with the whole idea on his own, but Gabriel suspected otherwise. There were several names on the floor that weren’t known outside a handful of experts in the magical community. The mundane world had completely forgotten them in the centuries since Merlin had banished the gods from the Earth.

Bernie dropped into a sweeping bow and the rest of the gathering followed suit, bowing to the man at the rear of the room. His face was cloaked in shadow, the result of a simple illusion spell that hid his features from curious onlookers. Gabriel could have seen through the spell, but unless this magician was a complete amateur he would have thought to add wards to warn him of anyone penetrating his guise. And it was clear that he was a magician interfering in mundane society. The Council had been right to be concerned.

“Today is a great day,” the magician said. There was so much magic running through his voice that they would have cheered him even if he’d done little more than recite railway timetables at them. “Today we shall crack through the veneer separating us from the magic we can use to bend the world to our will. Today we shall finally make contact with the Beings who can aid us in our task. Today…”

He went on and on, while Gabriel listened carefully. The magician was clearly either mad or deluded – or both. Summoning a demon was never a safe thing to do, even with trained magicians and carefully-set wards. A single mistake and the demon would drag the magician down to Hell with him, or break free and wreck havoc before being banished back to Hell. It was possible to summon Beings who were not part of the hell-kin, but even they were dangerous. No one risked summoning angels if they wanted to live to see the next day.

The magician’s speech finally came to an end and they cheered. Bernie stepped forward to kiss the magician’s ring, followed by four other guests. They’d probably prefer to be called acolytes, Gabriel thought sarcastically, except it was chillingly clear that none of them knew anything about what they were doing. If they’d known what they were talking about, they would have run for their lives and not stopped until they ended up in Aberdeen. Instead, they took their positions at each corner of the pentagram, muttering chants under their breath. The remaining guests, including Gabriel, stepped back into the shadows. They apparently weren’t going to be called upon to make any contribution…

…Or were they? The unknown magician either didn’t know what he was doing – which was quite possible – or had devised a nastier spell than anyone had expected. There were few wards drawn on the floor, symbolising barriers beyond which the Being couldn’t cross – and nothing protecting the spectators from the Being. Did Bernie know that a single mistake might mean the end of his life? Gabriel rather doubted it. Bernie wasn’t keen on danger, or else he would have joined the Navy. A year at sea might be good for him.

“We begin,” the magician intoned. “Follow me.”

He started to chant out loud, shaping the words carefully as he spoke. They were nonsense syllables, rather than a genuine magic spell, something that puzzled Gabriel until he realised the truth. Chanting nonsense out loud would bring the speakers together in harmony until they were ready to start shaping real magical words into the ether. And then someone down below would start listening. The chant grew louder, almost semi-hypnotic in its intensity. A handful of watchers who had seemed on the verge of going upstairs and finding a drink – and perhaps a nubile companion for the night – visibly changed their minds and started to stare at the pentagram. Gabriel watched grimly as their gazes became fixed, their shared belief tearing away at the fabric of reality. He’d underestimated the magician. By uniting the watchers in shaping the spell, he’d added to its power.

The chant changed suddenly, becoming real. Each word was a name, one of many attached to a specific demon. None of them were true names, not ones that could be used to bind a demon properly, but they helped to define a demon’s identity and therefore could be used to summon one of them out of Hell. Gabriel’s teacher had once wondered if demons actually didn’t exist – at least as humans understood them – until humans had summoned them, shaping and then binding them into more tolerable forms. It might explain their ageless hatred of humanity if they had been beings made out of light and energy until their human masters had bound them in bodies of flesh and stone. Or maybe they were just nasty bastards, so consumed by their hate that it was all they had left.

Gabriel sensed it, even though the chanters wouldn’t sense it for several minutes. A presence had appeared in the chamber, watching them through eyes that saw through reality as if it were made of water. Something was pressing against the fabric of reality, something huge and awful and beyond human comprehension. If it broke through, it might be bound into a form that was tolerable – or perhaps it would rip apart local reality and drag them all down to hell. There were hidden great cities under the polar ice, cities that dated back to the era before Merlin, where once-mighty civilisations had been torn down by entities they had never been able to understand. It was always a dangerous mistake to summon something that one could not dismiss.

He touched his forehead as the presence grew stronger. The demon was reaching out to their minds, crawling through their thoughts. It’s mental touch was incredibly foul, reminding Gabriel of everything bad that he’d done in his life – and offering him the world, if only he would give up his soul. Too many had made the same deal in the past, only to discover too late that getting what they wanted wasn’t worth the price. Trusting a demon to keep a bargain in good faith was a fool’s game. His senses started to swim as the demon’s malign influence grew stronger. The watchers were also being slowly drained by the entity. It was drawing on their life energy to sustain its presence on the mortal plane.

But he had the evidence he needed to intervene. It was hard to step forward, to break the spell that the demon had laid upon its victims to keep them in its thrall, but Gabriel had been trained by the best. The spell shattered like a cobweb as he stepped forward, leaving his mind as clear as ever. He smiled as the magician turned and stared at him, even though he was still chanting out loud. The spell he’d designed should have sucked all of the spectators dry while they were effectively paralysed.

Bernie and his fellow acolytes were still chanting, but it was clear that the demon was drawing energy much more rapidly from those standing around the pentagram. A trained magician would have known to set wards so that that couldn’t happen, yet their magician had clearly not bothered to protect them. Their deaths would empower the demon to a remarkable degree, perhaps letting him loose upon the human world – or allowing him to grant the magician whatever he wanted from the demonic realm. Either way, it had gone too far. It had to be stopped.

Gabriel held up one hand as he walked around the pentagram. It was fizzing with blue fire now, casting weird flickers of light that seemed to bend and twist around the centre of the drawing, as if it now existed in a different world with different laws. The demon’s presence was growing stronger by the second, preparing for the decant into an idealised form devised by the magician. Or maybe he hadn’t bothered, knowing that the demon wouldn’t kill him outright. Why would he when the magician clearly intended to keep feeding his pet demon?

“Stop,” he said, firmly. Even at the last minute, a demon summoning could be halted – although there were risks involved. But then there were risks involved with anything that had to do with demons. “By authority of the Thirteen, this has to stop.”

The magician turned to face him, the shadow around his face slowly dispelling into nothingness. He was shorter than Gabriel had expected – height and magic went together, for reasons no one understood – and his eyes were wide and staring. All of his hair was gone, leaving nothing apart from a scar to mark where it had once been. Illuminated by the magic, Gabriel could see other demons feasting on his soul. Shit-Demons, they were called, Hell’s carrion-eaters. But still very dangerous. Only a soul who had willingly opened itself to evil could fall prey to the monsters.

“I won’t let you stop me,” the magician said. His voice was more telepathic than vocal, another sign of black magic. A black magician could project his thoughts into another’s head, knowing that his victim might be unable to separate his thoughts from the intrusive suggestions. “This is the way to true power!”

“No,” Gabriel said, as calmly as he could. He caught sight of Bernie and shivered. His almost-friend was aging right in front of him. His lush brown hair had turned grey and he was staggering, only the force of the demon’s will holding him upright. The entire room was dying – and once they were dead, the demon would be free. “This is madness. Let them go and we will help you.”

“They didn’t send me the Executioner,” the magician said. The demon’s presence was growing stronger and stronger, breaking into Gabriel’s thoughts. It was growing so powerful that it would soon be able to start draining Gabriel even through his protections. “They didn’t take me seriously. But they will when they see what I have become!”

He was beyond help, Gabriel realised, tiredly. Whatever resentments he’d felt over the course of his life had been twisted and magnified by the demons until he could no longer separate right from wrong. And he’d started preying on helpless victims, in breach of the magical community’s most sacred law. There was no longer any choice.

Gabriel lifted his hand and shaped a killing spell, only to see it absorbed by the energy surrounding the pentagram. The magician laughed at him, his mocking thoughts asking if Gabriel had bothered to consider the possibility that he might have protected himself. Maybe the Executioner would have done a better job, but the Executioner was only unleashed when it was already too late and the only way to solve a problem was through destroying it root and branch.

Instead, he reached into his hip pocket and produced a small revolver.

Quite calmly, he pointed it at the magician and shot him neatly through the head.

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Weird Little Background Piece

15 Apr

The Roads of Happenstance

Understanding the Roads of Happenstance is a difficult task. The first step to understanding is to realise that the term ‘road’ is a misnomer. It would probably be easiest to regard the Roads of Happenstance as a dimension in its/their own right, although a very high-energy and unpredictable universe compared to our own.

The Roads of Happenstance effectively overlay our own universe. Like sci-fi conceptions of hyperspace, it is possible to use the Roads as a shortcut around the light years between stars, provided that one has a suitable Guide. Navigating the Roads is not easy, for reasons that will be described below. Disturbingly, the Roads are always imperfectly interpreted through the human mind. It is possible for a traveller to see a path through the Roads as a highway, or a steep climb (depending on the local texture of the dimension), without realising that the Roads are far more than they seem. A peaceful scene might conceal dangers beyond the ability of the human mind to grasp.

Technology doesn’t function properly on the Roads – the more advanced, the more likely it is to fail. AIs and automated sensor systems cannot operate on the Roads at all, perhaps because they have no mental filters allowing them to perceive the Roads without damaging themselves. If even human rationality falters on the Roads, devices designed to operate in one physical universe cannot cope with one that exists in so many more dimensions than ‘normal’ space.

It is intellect that allows intelligent life forms to travel the Roads. Most humans can see the Roads, even though they cannot escape the prisons their minds construct to keep them from going insane. Guides – humans with a gift for navigating the Roads – are capable of instinctively understanding the underlying structure of the Roads, allowing them to chart paths through the chaos. And Sorcerers are capable of manipulating the energies in the Roads, giving them vast powers.

Worse (from the point of view of a planet-bound civilisation) sorcerers are capable of pulling energies from the Roads into the normal universe. This allows them to perform ‘magic’ acts that seem to defy explanation, or easy countering. Iron seems to negate ‘magic’ to some degree, dispelling the Road energies. Working magic can lead rapidly to madness or death – sorcerers who make a habit of it are invariably very dangerous.

Gateways onto the Roads open up naturally or at the behest of a Guide/Sorcerer. Some gateways allowed humans from pre-technology times to travel to other worlds (and accounted for legends of demonic creatures, as not all of the other intelligent races are friendly) and establish settlements there. One Gateway flickered open and closed in the area known as the Bermuda Triangle, swallowing ships and planes seemingly at random. Most of the lost humans died within the Roads or found themselves on isolated worlds. A very few were lucky enough to link up with other civilisations.

There are very few communities within the Roads themselves. The Roads are treacherous, constantly shifting; what was stable one day may not be stable the next. Some races (including the Fair Ones and the Demons, who have entered our mythology) claim to rule large tracts of the Roads, but these claims must be regarded as highly dubious.

The Spanish Armada…in SPACE

12 Apr

Thinking about the Spanish Armada

One thing I like about reading history is that it is easy to pick out areas of history that can serve as templates for writing novels. The Spanish Armada is certainly a fascinating story in its own right, one where a ponderous fleet created by Spain (and launched by a deluded King who thought that God would rescue him from the consequences of his own stupidity) was defeated by superior English ships and seamanship. But can it be used for interstellar war?

On a small scale, what about a settled solar system without any real extra-solar expansion. Maybe there are settlements on Mars, the Asteroids…Jupiter’s moons, while Earth falls under the grip of a corporate tyranny. Perhaps a form of transnational-progressivism could serve as a counterpart for the Catholic Church. This might be cool, but it doesn’t really give grounds for a counterpart of Francis Drake. Or maybe it does.

Here – in 2025-2100, Earth starts a move into space. Some military bases on the moon, settlements on Mars and a few asteroids, maybe Titan and the other icy gas giant moon. Then there is a major economic shock and the colonies get cut off from Earth for decades, while Earth (or at least Western society) falls under the control of the Unity Party – in reality, a fascist party dressed up as a socialist party. Much of the economic shock is blamed on the space program, which is largely nonsense, but people are stupid. But as access to space-based resources is necessary for continued survival, the Party rewrites history and declares that the wrong people got control – and therefore the Party needs to take space back from the capitalist heathens.

Larger scale, perhaps Earth has a relatively ‘slow’ form of FTL, but has settled a dozen colonies or so. One of those colonies declares independence (which may be meaningless if there are months between sending a message and receiving it) and builds an improved FTL drive that allows them some measure of superiority over Earth (which has a vastly greater space fleet).

Even bigger, maybe aliens playing the role of ‘Spain’ give Earth their slow FTL drive by accident, perhaps attempting to impose limited rule over us. Humanity starts building improved ships and starts raiding their shipping. Eventually they realise what’s happening and launch a fleet at Earth intending to put a stop to it.

Thoughts?

Chris

Double-Dealing–Snippet

10 Apr

Just had this idea going through my head…

Chapter One

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Kuala Lumpur was a city of contrasts.

Modern buildings, gleaming impressively in the bright sunlight, contrasted oddly with a monorail that gave Jacob the willies every time he rode on it. Immense wealth coexisted with poverty on a scale that gave the impression of permanent conflict. Fancy dining palaces and expensive shops were there for the tourists, the visitors from overseas, while the locals ate at street vendors and swallowed down unsavoury meat and dubious vegetables. A man could eat all he wanted for a dollar in Kuala Lumpur, provided that he was willing to risk stomach cramps – or worse. And, everywhere, there were half-naked girls walking beside modest women wearing headscarves or veils. And there was the ever-present heat.

Jacob walked through the crowd, keeping himself mentally apart even though he looked like a wealthy local resident. Four years in Malaysia had tanned his skin and enhanced his vaguely Arabic features, features that he had used to pass himself off as an Arab with dubious motives – but that was long in the past. Behind his sunglasses, he scanned for familiar faces, even though he knew that it was stupid. If his past had finally caught up with him, the Company wouldn’t have sent anyone who he’d known before he’d told them where to shove their attitude and disappeared. They probably wouldn’t have bothered to use his old dead drops either, merely hired a team of local assassins to kill him. The thought wasn’t particularly reassuring. He’d known plenty of skilled field agents in his time, but the people who ran the show were more concerned with PowerPoint briefings and promotion than actually understanding what their underlings did for a living.

He shook his head as he caught sight of a rich foreigner, almost certainly American, with his hand around the waist of a local girl. It wasn’t unknown for sugar daddies from the states to find a local girl to show them around – and share their beds. Sometimes they made good money, if they survived the disapproval of their male relatives. Like most deeply conservative countries, Malaysia had its dark underside, where money spoke louder than religion. But then, there were so many religions jammed together in Malaysia that Jacob feared that one day there would be an explosion. And he’d be on the ground when that happened.

Old habits drove him onwards as he approached the hotel. It was a fairly discreet place to meet a contact, close enough to the city centre for westerners to find it easily, without the swank and glitter of the truly expensive hotels. Malaysians were very friendly and rich tourists had no trouble finding people who would direct them from place to place, in exchange for a small gratuity. He walked around the building twice, searching for observers lurking in nearby coffee shops or chatting with the locals at roadside stalls selling pirated DVDs, but saw nothing. Maybe it was completely legit, without any plans for double-dealing, or maybe his skills had rusted with age. God knew he hadn’t been doing any intelligence work since he’d left the States and found his way to Malaysia.

A sign on the hotel door – NO DURIANS – made him smile as he entered, watching for his contact. Durians were surprisingly tasty, but they stank so badly that Westerners were reluctant to risk eating them. Rotting flesh smelled better, in Jacob’s rather biased opinion; the locals sometimes joked about using them as interrogation tools. It might just have worked if the victim didn’t know what they were, or how they tasted.

His contact was seated in the lobby, reading a copy of an American newspaper. Jacob studied him for a long moment, noting the bland face, the expensive suit and the secure briefcase between his legs. Probably not much of a field agent, he decided, although it could be a cunning bluff. God knew that there were plenty of crass American businessmen visiting Kuala Lumpur and Malaysia. Jacob strode over to the man, sat down next to him, and smiled, wondering if the visitor would recognise him. His official photographic in the Company’s records was nearly seven years out of date.

“A pleasure to meet you,” his contact said, stiffly. He folded away his newspaper and picked up the briefcase. “If you will come along with me…”

Jacob let him get into the elevator and push the button before he reached out and pushed a different button. “I took the liberty of booking a second room,” he said, watching the man carefully. “I wouldn’t want something unfortunate to happen in yours.”

The contact shrugged. “Suit yourself,” he said. “My name is Peter, by the way.”

It wouldn’t be, of course. The Company was extremely skilled at producing false identity papers – and when it came to American documents, the false identity papers were literally real. A few weeks of careful work could devise a legend so perfect that no amount of data-mining could pick holes in it, at least as long as the user was competent. Breaking cover under the wrong circumstances could tear a disguise so completely as to be beyond hope of recovery.

“Suit yourself,” Jacob agreed. The lift doors opened, revealing a darkened corridor and a maid vacuuming the floor. Jacob had checked her and the rest of the hotel’s staff out long before the meeting day, confirming that she was the eldest daughter of the owner, working for him without pay until she married and left to stay with her husband. “If you’ll step into my parlour…?”

He allowed Peter to precede him into the bedroom and closed the door. The maid would probably think that they were homosexuals, if she bothered to think at all. It didn’t bother Jacob enough for him to care. Inside, the room was mercifully cool and nondescript. The hotel provided a bed, a weak shower and very little else.

“The bottles of water are an extra expense,” he said, as he took the sole chair. “But believe me – you’ll need them if you want to live here.”

Peter sat down on the bed and removed his jacket, revealing sweat stains on his shirt. “I have no intention of living here,” he said, shortly. “I…”

“…Intended to punch a ticket or two on my way to the higher levels of management,” Jacob interrupted, dryly. Peter definitely wasn’t a field agent. Oddly, that felt slightly reassuring. “I don’t have to listen to a word you say, so cut the gab and get on with it.”

Peter smiled, a smile that looked forced and unnatural. “Why did you answer the message if you didn’t want to listen to me?”

“I was curious,” Jacob admitted. He didn’t mention that he’d spent hours trying to decide if he should burn his dead drops and run, or brazen it out. The Company had good reason to dislike him, even if he hadn’t turned into a Russian spy. They’d probably have found that somewhat more acceptable. “And besides, you still owe me money.”

He smiled and swung his legs up on the bed. “Get on with it,” he added. “I don’t have all day.”

“Victor,” Peter said.

Jacob stared at him. Victor! There were no doubt millions of people named Victor in the world, but only one of them meant anything to him. Victor, the man who had ruined his life and career – by accident. Seemingly. Victor had learned from the KGB, an organisation of ruthless competence with a reputation for doing whatever it took to gather intelligence and advance Russian aims. It was quite possible that Victor had known precisely what he was doing when he’d ruined Jacob’s life.

Peter took his silence for an instruction to continue. “I’ve read your file,” he said. “It’s really quite interesting, even though there are a great many holes in it. Your father was a Marine, as was your Grandfather; your mother was a nurse before she retired to bring up you and your sisters. You must have wanted to be a Marine, because you joined up in 2002 and served in Iraq and Afghanistan…”

“And along the line I got pushed into Intelligence and then the Company,” Jacob cut him off. “I know my own story, thank you.”

“You were one of the most successful field agents the Company ever had,” Peter said, remorselessly. “There’s a whole string of reports saying that you never listened to a word from higher authority beyond the actual mission objective. You had too many political enemies, really – far too many for your own good.”

“And then it all went to shit,” Jacob said, sharply. “Get to the point or get out.”

Peter opened his briefcase, pushing one thumb against the concealed sensor. An unauthorised person attempting to open the case would result in everything inside being incinerated long before they managed to break the locks. The Company had probably managed to improve the design since Jacob had worked for them, but technology had never really been one of their weak points. It was human intelligence and field operations that they screwed up on a regular basis. Jacob put the file to one side for later study. Peter’s words would be more important at the start.

“We don’t have that many sources inside Russia these days,” Peter said, which was technically accurate. The KGB had been hellishly good at counter-intelligence. There were people in the CIA who suspected that many of their ‘successes’ had actually been orchestrated by the Russians for their own ends. But with the current interest in the Middle East and Central Asia, the Company had probably placed the Russians on the backburner. “A report did manage to cross our desks, however, about Victor. Rumour has it that he’s gone rogue.”

Jacob shrugged. The collapse of the Soviet Union had left hundreds of thousands of trained military and intelligence personnel out of work. Elite paratroopers had found work with the Russian Mafia; former intelligence officers had run blackmail and kidnapping rings. One of the Company’s greatest fears – even after 9/11 – was that a Russian biological or nuclear warfare expert would hand Iran or North Korea – or terrorists like Bin Laden – the plans and materials for unleashing a holocaust on the West. No one was quite sure if the North Koreans had built their nukes with Russian help or not, or just how much material had fallen into Iranian hands. There was a big question mark over Iran’s nuclear program…

…And Bin Laden might be dead, but his legacy remained.

“He’s left it a bit late,” Jacob said, after a moment. “I thought Putin really clamped down on this sort of shit. Or did someone find him with his hand in the till?”

“We’re not sure,” Peter admitted. That meant they probably didn’t know anything beyond rumours. The desk jockeys in Langley would be happy to dress up a rumour as fact as long as their projects got funded. “It’s distantly possible that he’s still working for the Russians.”

“Cloak and dagger bullshit,” Jacob said, in disgust. “Tell the President to ask his buddy in the Kremlin, man to man, what’s really going down in the hood. We’re such great friends these days, aren’t we?”

The sarcasm and mock street lingo washed off Peter like water from a duck’s back. “There are diplomatic issues involved,” he said, sternly. “The President, I am told, does not wish to push the Russians too hard when we need their cooperation on Iran and Afghanistan. A public demand for answers would embarrass the Russian leaders.”

Jacob snorted. “Did Langley come up with that burst of appeasement crap on its own, or did the State Department help?”

“You know as well as I do that we need the Russians, or we might as well forget Afghanistan and let the Taliban regain a country,” Peter said, tiredly. “With the Pakis playing their usual games…”

“You mean supporting the Taliban for fun and profit,” Jacob interrupted. “I see your point. Where does Victor come into all of this?”

“We didn’t pay much attention to the rumour at first until we accidentally picked up Victor in a meeting with Sheikh Al-Bata, in Jeddah,” Peter said. “You may have heard of the name.”

Jacob sucked in his breath sharply. After Bin Laden’s death, the organisation he had founded had fragmented – which, confusingly, had made it much more dangerous. The old guard had either learned to survive or had been hunted down and killed. Twelve years of war had left the USSC extremely good at capitalising on a chance discovery and hunting down other terrorist cells before they could scatter. But those who survived were careful, patient, and deadly dangerous.

Sheikh Al-Bata had been almost unknown in the West before Operation Geronimo had killed his leader – and even now, few outside of military and intelligence circles had heard of him. His real name was unknown; the only details of his life that were known for certain was that he’d been born in Saudi Arabia, served with Osama in Afghanistan, and eventually ended up running the terrorist’s rolodex. He wasn’t a fighter, although he’d supposedly seen combat against both the Russians and the Americans; his real role lay in supporting terrorist cells across the world and providing them with men and equipment they could use to lash out at their host countries. Killing him would put more of a crimp in enemy operations than picking off a hundred illiterate street thugs who felt that an AK-47 in their hands made them dangerous.

“Tell me you dropped a Hellfire on his head,” he said, even though he knew the answer. A drone strike in Jeddah would have opened up a hornet’s nest of repercussions and the President didn’t have the nerve. “Or at least you tracked him down to his lair.”

“I’m afraid not,” Peter admitted. “The bastard is very good at covering his tracks. We didn’t even dare risking bringing him to Saudi attention…”

Jacob knew what he meant. The Saudi Royal Family had as much reason to fear the terrorists as the West – more, perhaps – but their country was riddled with people who sympathised with the goals of Radical Islam. Asking the Saudis to hunt down a man like Sheikh Al-Bata, who had been careful not to commit any terrorist attacks in Saudi itself, might result in the bastard getting a midnight call warning him to flee the country. No one could be considered fully reliable in the poisoned stew that was Saudi society.

“We believe that Victor is working directly with Sheikh Al-Bata,” Peter said. “There is some evidence to indicate that terrorist cells in Algeria and Yemen received SA-24 Grinch man-portable air-defence weapons from a supplier in the Russian Federation, as well as some basic training in their use. It is impossible to be sure, but we think that Victor was the supplier and Sheikh Al-Bata the middleman – if the terrorists hadn’t been aiming at military aircraft, they might have caused a disaster. Since then, we’ve been data-mining and we’ve linked Victor to cells in France, Britain and possibly America itself.”

“So tip off the Europeans and get them to deal with him,” Jacob said, shortly. “What does this have to do with me?”

“We haven’t been able to dig up any specific location, or even identities,” Peter admitted. “Victor is a pro, with experience and resources – and contacts – most terrorists can never match. And he’s a goddamn invisible to boot. We can’t tip off the Europeans without hard data and you know how reluctant they are to act if someone is merely acting foreign…and…it is not beyond possibility that Victor has contacts in the Agency. Even compartmentalised, information moves from department to department without permission.”

“I suppose it wouldn’t be beyond possibility,” Jacob agreed. The KGB used to have an entire department of beautiful ladies skilled in the arts of pleasure – and of convincing unwary Americans to pose for the cameras in a wide variety of compromising positions. Once the American was back home, the Russians would approach their victim, pass over copies of the photographs and threaten to send them to the victim’s wife unless the victim slipped them information under the table. After a couple of transactions, the victim had no choice, but to keep spying – or face the consequences for espionage. Victor might have kept a list of sources when he deserted Mother Russia – assuming, of course, that he had deserted.

“The Director has authorised me to…hire you to terminate Victor and destroy his network,” Peter said. “I can offer money and support…”

“People who work for the Company as mercenaries tend to find themselves abandoned when they become too politically hot to handle,” Jacob said. He should run, he knew, and find a new home somewhere else…but a chance at Victor was something he’d wanted for years. “I have terms. Take them or leave them.”

Peter lifted a single eyebrow. “You pay me five million dollars for the hit,” Jacob said. “Half up-front; half in escrow somewhere you vultures can’t snatch it back when the shit hits the fan. Whatever incidental expenses I encounter along the way, you pay up – and no demanding receipts from arms merchants either. You give me access to everything you have on Victor and his current whereabouts and you set up a dead drop so you can update me if you pick up anything new. And I don’t want to engage in a pissing contest with some dick-head from Analysis who thinks that he knows better than me – I get clearance to everything and no quibbling about what you think I need or don’t need.”

He met Peter’s eyes, holding them firmly. “And if you think those conditions are unacceptable, screw you,” he added. “I am not going to let you butt-fuck me without lube like so many other mercenaries. You decided you didn’t want me any longer, so I went away…”

“I quite understand,” Peter said. He reached into his case and produced a second file. “This is everything we have on him at the moment – updated yesterday in the Station House in Taiwan. I shall see to the transfer of your funds the moment you nominate an account – and if you wish I will operate as your direct contact. All we ask is you succeed.”

Jacob kept his face expressionless, thinking hard. The Company was tight-fisted with field agents, let alone independent contractors – or mercenaries. And their representative had agreed without an argument. Five million bucks was a hell of a lot…

And that suggested that Langley hadn’t told him everything.

Double-Dealer: Vague Idea

9 Apr

Just a weird little idea going through my head. Tentatively entitled Double-Dealer.

There’s a former FSB officer (Victor, at the moment) who’s gone rogue (officially, but no one knows for sure; he might still be a deniable asset). Said officer has contacts with plenty of undergrounds arms smugglers and other criminals, making him extremely useful to various terrorist organisations. Apparently, he’s working for one of OBL’s replacements who is planning to unleash a terrorist holocaust on the West, but for diplomatic reasons it’s difficult to deal with him directly.

Enter Jacob, an ex-CIA case officer who was retired following an accidental brush with Victor (the bastard seduced his wife, effectively ruining Jacob’s career. Might have been deliberate; might have been purely coincidence.) Someone has to find Victor and terminate him – and stop whatever he’s doing before he unleashes hell. Jacob’s the man, but he’s all on his own. And Victor has an entire army on his side…

How does that sound?

Chris

Hitler’s Mages: Background

7 Apr

Once there were the gods. That much is certain, although scholars disagree on their true nature. The gods could perform small miracles for their followers in exchange for worship, often switching sides when they tired of the game; indeed, it is not clear if the gods existed prior to humanity or if they were shaped out of human dreams.

It was just before the birth of Christ that Merlin, a powerful druid and sole survivor of his clan, worked the Spell of Sundering. The Romans, worshippers of gods who demanded blood and sacrifice, found themselves largely cut off from their gods. Merlin hadn’t entirely separated the Fixed Lands of Men and the Changing Lands of the Gods, but he had made it far harder for the gods to intervene in the human world. Slowly, magic started to leech out of the world, with its final flourish at Camelot. Merlin (or perhaps a second sorcerer with the same name; no two sources agree) oversaw the defeat of dark sorcerers who dreamed of bringing back the magic, and then either died or went to sleep in a cave. Magic was gone from the human world.

But it returned when the Faerie reopened a doorway to Earth. A child taken from Earth by the Faerie somehow tore through the Sundering and attempted to blend in with the human population, escaping from her mistress. Adopted by local nobility, her name became Anne Boleyn. Unknown to Anne, a little Faerie magic had blurred into her soul, transfiguring her into a hybrid. When she caught the eye of King Henry VIII and became his wife, she accidentally created a permanent link between Earth and Faerie. Magic started to seep back into the world.

The effects were becoming noticeable when Anne’s daughter became Queen Elizabeth I of England. Being partly of Faerie blood as well as human royalty, Elizabeth commanded the respect of the Kings and Queens of the Far Realm (Faerie). In order to help the Faerie overcome their sterility, she ordered a number of English nobility to interbreed with the Faerie, creating a number of human magicians. (Distorted reports of this leaked out to the Pope, convincing him to encourage the Spanish to invade England.) These magicians became the Thirteen Families, who considered themselves guardians of magic and protectors of humanity from the forces of darkness. When Elizabeth died and James I of Scotland took the throne, the Thirteen Families hid their nature from him. James was no great friend to witchcraft, regarding it as the spawn of the devil.

By that time, the Thirteen had already convinced many of the magical creatures that roamed Earth to accept limitations on their behaviour, in exchange for the right to exist. It had become an article of faith among the Thirteen that anything ‘satanic’ would eventually expose their existence, exposing them to persecution and eventual destruction. Certainly enough had leaked out over the years to help encourage a witch-burning craze that swept Europe and parts of America. Many of the victims were not actually witches, but the damage was done.

The British Civil War fractured the Thirteen along with the remainder of English Nobility. Some of them supported King Charles I, despite doubts about his religion and his wife’s links to Rome, while others felt that Parliament could provide more stable government (and protection for the growing magical community.) Magicians eventually faced each other at the Battle of Pendle, a battle that devastated the region and taught both sides a sharp lesson about the dangers of magical combat. The long-term effects included magical contamination that created newer and more dangerous versions of magical creatures. Even after the Restoration, the magical community never truly reunited and countless magicians split off from the Thirteen to create their own covens. However, the Council of Thirteen continued to claim supremacy over the magical world.

Each of the Thirteen Families has a Master, usually (but not always) the senior member of the family. Collectively, the Thirteen Masters form the Council of Thirteen, the most powerful magical government in the world. Their main priority is preventing the mundane world from learning about magic, although the justification for this varies from family to family. The Council is bound together by solemn oaths, which they attempt to apply to other magic-users where possible. Remembering Pendle, the strongest oath is a strict ban on interfering with mundane society.

The Thirteen is served by the Triad; the Arbitrator, the Investigator and the Executioner. The Arbitrator is charged with meditating disputes between rival groups of magicians, the Investigator with investigating misuse of magic and the Executioner with eliminating individuals or groups who pose a serious threat to the status quo. They are all immensely powerful and skilled magicians, although their precise authority tends to wax and wane depending upon family politics. Direct intervention is generally frowned upon unless there is a clear and present danger to the community – and sometimes even blatant threats can be ignored.

Outside the Thirteen, the different covens organise themselves differently. Some are basically democratic, others have masters and students bound together by oaths of power. Some of them are believed to have links to various royal families and intelligence agencies outside Britain, something that is frowned upon by the Thirteen, but generally ignored (largely because pushing matters too far might result in outright magical war).

The magical world and the mundane world intersect in a number of ways, although the Sundering made it harder for mundane folk to become aware of magic. Entities like vampires and werewolves exist, but their predations on the humanity are generally controlled by the agreements they made with the Thirteen. It is fairly simple for a magician to create a hiding place right under the noses of mundane authorities, and to move through the streets of mundane society without being noticed. Goblins, trolls and other such creatures exist, but generally hide behind glamours or far from human society. A few seemingly-normal humans cast very long shadows into the magical world.

On a higher plane, there are representations of cosmic principles and forces (like Death), angels and devils. They can be summoned into the human plane by humans and bargained with, although some have no interest in humanity and others take sly delight in tricking humans into selling their souls for trinkets. Trusting the devil to keep a bargain fairly is a fool’s game.

Magic is generally a talent – most magicians are descendents from the Thirteen or magical lines that existed before the Sundering – but there are some exceptions. Given enough determination, magic can be learned, although a trained magician is rarely a match for a born sorcerer. Certain acts can give vast amounts of magical power, including sex, murder and suicide.

New Book–Invasion!"

7 Apr

It is my pleasure to announce that I have published a new book on Kindle, an alien invasion story – sample below.  As a special offer to my readers, I am prepared to offer a free RTF copy to anyone prepared to review it for Amazon.

Get Invasion here!  Or read the FREE SAMPLE below.

invasion2

Invasion Cover Blurb

We are not alone…

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

But can humanity stand a chance when the enemy holds all the cards?


Dedication

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

Thanks guys!
Chapter One

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

-The War of the Worlds, HG Wells

The President of the United States, Colonel Paul James was surprised to note, looked younger than he had expected, although more impressive in person than on the television. Paul had grown up in a time when politicians were carefully photographed to make them look either intelligent or idiotic – depending on the political values of the given media source – and he had thought that he was used to it, but the President looked oddly impressive. He was fairly handsome, in an unfinished kind of way…but at the moment, he looked shocked. It was hard for anyone, particularly Paul, to blame him. He’d known for years that he might be faced with this moment, but the President had probably never considered it, outside his wildest nightmares.

“Explain it to me again,” the President said, finally, briefly sparing a glance for the three other Cabinet members in the room. “We have a what coming our way?”

Paul took a breath. It didn’t get any easier. “There’s an alien starship approaching Earth,” he said. He’d spent years, literally, trying to think of ways to get that basic message across to the political lords and masters of the United States, but somehow it had never seemed easy. He had been prepared for disbelief, or doubt…and he didn’t know how the President would react. “Perhaps I should start at the beginning.”

The President glanced once at the calendar mounted on his desk. “It does not appear to be April 1st,” he said, with a hint of the same smile that had captivated a certain class of voters. “I assume that no one would bring a joke about such matters into the Oval Office, so…by all means, begin at the beginning.”

“A day ago, the International Space Station was doing a routine sky-search with one of the telescopes orbiting near the installation,” Paul began. “The search was actually part of the asteroid defence program, which was set up to hunt for possibly dangerous NEO asteroids – that is, asteroids near enough to Earth to pose a danger…”

“I’m familiar with the program,” the President said. He’d even voted funding for the program. “The telescope sweep found an alien starship?”

“It found the drive flare from the starship as it lit off its drives,” Paul said, carefully. This wasn’t going to be easy. “The sheer brightness of the display rapidly convinced the observers that it was far from natural and they informed NASA, along with the other involved nations, of the contact. The information was forwarded rapidly to Operation Nightwatch – my command – and we started to do a preliminary data check and analysis. The conclusion, Mr President, was inescapable. There is an alien starship approaching Earth.”

The President said nothing for a long moment. “Aliens,” he said, shaking his head in disbelief. “I assume that we have a contingency plan for this?”

Paul smiled, despite himself. “Sir, Operation Nightwatch has contingency plans for everything we could imagine involving aliens…”

“If you tell me that a UFO actually did crash at Roswell, I’m going to be astonished,” the President said. “I think I’d like a fuller briefing on your activities.”

“Of course,” Paul said, welcoming the distraction. “There was no UFO crash at Roswell, Mr President. Operation Nightwatch was founded during the Carter years as a top secret response to the prospect of alien contact, which some members of the administration thought was just around the corner…”

“Bunch of loonies,” Tom Spencer said. The Secretary of State snorted. “How many billions of dollars did they waste on this particular boondoggle?”

The President laughed. “At the moment, Tom, it’s starting to sound as if they were precognitive,” he said dryly. “Carry on, Colonel.”

Paul nodded. “It was actually one of several programs launched into the question,” he continued, “but the only one to survive the Reagan years. Reagan didn’t believe in aliens outside the movie screens, but Operation Nightwatch was actually involved in other intelligence issues as well, such as examining captured pieces of Soviet – and later Chinese – hardware. The idea was that the techs would gain experience working on technology that wasn’t American in origin or derived from American technology, while keeping an operational pool of experienced personnel. We proved, back before my time, that the Japanese strike fighter design was partly a copy of one of our designs that never made the final cut. We also were involved with analysis of captured Iraqi hardware after the war and the research into their attempts at fooling our systems.”

He paused for comments, receiving none, before plunging on. “But the primary objective was to plan for a possible alien contact,” he said. “The overall cost was barely more than a billion dollars, for which we came up with contingency plans for every possible alien encounter – or at least every possible encounter that we could imagine. When we actually did discover alien life, Operation Nightwatch was activated as a matter of urgency and I was detailed to brief you personally.”

“I see,” the President said. He looked down at his desk for a long moment. “What do we have so far?”

Paul activated the small secure laptop he’d brought with him and displayed an image on the wall. “This is the best image we have so far from the ISS,” he said. There wasn’t much to see, but a pinpoint of brilliant light against the darkness. “Most of the data is speculative, so far, but it seems likely that the alien craft is huge, at least a hundred kilometres long. NASA has a team of researchers analysing what we’ve picked up so far and they believe that, judging by the drive emissions and its observed performance, that it will enter Earth’s orbit within a month.”

“They’re certain of that?” The President asked. “It’s definitely coming here?”

Paul frowned. There was a detail the President would definitely not want to hear. “Orbital mechanics are well understood, even though the space program would be unable to duplicate the alien ship,” he explained. “The craft is currently on a trajectory that would allow it to enter orbit within a month – safely. It’s…very unlikely that they do not intend to visit Earth, unless they’re interested in the Moon, which is a possibility. If they had been heading to Mars, or the asteroids, we might not have picked it up at all.”

“Aliens, in my term,” the President said. He was eager, Paul saw, for re-election already. “I take it that they haven’t attempted to signal us?”

“Not as far as we are aware,” Paul said. “Operation Nightwatch maintains a handful of contacts in the various SETI programs and other public alien research programs and they have picked up nothing, so far. However…”

Spencer broke in suddenly. “Who else knows about this?”

“Us, the Russians, the Chinese, the Europeans and the Japanese, I presume,” Paul said. “They were – are – all represented on the International Space Station at present and their people won’t have hesitated to inform their superiors on the ground. It won’t be long before someone leaks…and it’s quite possible that the starship will be detected from the ground before long, in any case. I doubt that secrecy will last more than a week.”

He paused. “And there is bad news,” he added. “Their choice of…orbital insertion manoeuvres is…worrying.”

“Explain,” the President ordered. “In English, please.”

“Entering orbit isn’t easy,” Paul explained. “They have to match speed with Earth and slip into orbit. It would actually be easier simply to ram the planet, but if they intend to arrive intact, they have to make radical course changes to enter orbit. If NASA’s research is to be believed, the aliens have held back from making those changes until the last possible moment.”

He held up a hand before he could be interrupted. “It’s impossible to be sure, without knowing more about the alien craft and their technology and physiology, but it looks very much as if they intended to prevent us from noticing them for as long as possible,” he said. “Unless they have some way of compensating for the effects of the manoeuvres, they have got to be very uncomfortable…and they could have avoided it by starting their burn much earlier. One possible reason for such an action, the most likely one in my opinion, is to limit the amount of warning time we will have of their arrival.”

“And, based on incomplete data, you believe that they are hostile,” Spencer sneered. “Are there no other explanations?”

“None that fit the data,” Paul said, refusing to allow himself any anger. “They could be attempting to limit the time spent under boost, but there seems to be little reason to do that, not least because all of the effects will have been compressed into a few days. They’re putting themselves through agonies just to limit the time spent under boost and there’s no reason to do that, not when they could have started much earlier and had a far gentler ride in to Earth orbit.”

The President tapped the table. “Unless this really is some kind of hoax, I think we have to proceed on the assumption that the aliens might be hostile,” he said. “That leaves us with something of a problem.”

Spencer shrugged. “Why would the aliens come all this way to start a war?” He asked. “I’ve read hundreds of alien invasion novels and most of them were unsatisfactory in that regard. Why would they come after little old Earth when they have the entire solar system to play around in?”

“There are dozens of possibilities,” Paul admitted. “They could be anything from refugees themselves to merely stamping on a competitor before we could become a threat. Radio waves spread out in space, but anyone within twenty light years of us would know that we were here and might consider us possible competition.”

“But none of this suggests that the aliens are hostile,” Spencer insisted. “They could be friendly and if they are, greeting them with a hail of fire is probably…not a good idea.”

“We will, of course, hope for a happy encounter in space,” the President said. His manner became recognisably political. “We do, however, have a responsibility to ensure that all necessary precautions are taken to ensure the safety of America and, indeed, the world.”

And ensure that you have your chance at re-election, Paul thought, quietly.

The President peered around the table. “That leads to the simple question,” he said. “Do we mobilise our forces?”

“I believe that we have no choice,” Deborah Ivey said. Her strong contralto echoed in the room. “If the aliens are hostile, we have to prepare to meet them, but there is a second possibility. Someone else, maybe Iran or North Korea, may seek to take advantage of the alien arrival.”

Paul found himself giving Deborah a look of honest respect. She was, by almost any measure, the most powerful woman in Washington, and perhaps the world. A close friend and confident of the President, Deborah Ivey had climbed from being one of the world’s leading businesswomen to the post of National Security Advisor, leaving a trail of battered lives and bruised egos. Knowing, as she did, where far too many bodies were buried, she was regarded with a mixture of fear and awe by Washington insiders. There was even talk of her running as Vice President or even making her own run at the Presidency in the future.

“Perhaps,” the President agreed. “Could we handle it if they did so?”

General Hastings coughed. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was a bluff honest man, with a long and decent war record. “The forces currently stationed in South Korea have the capability to break a North Korean attack, assuming that it doesn’t include nuclear weapons,” he said. Paul nodded grimly. Even now, no one was sure just how many nuclear weapons North Korea had, or even if they would work when deployed. It was one of the reasons why the BMD missile screen had been extended – quietly – to cover large parts of the world. “Iran may pose a more dangerous problem, but the Iraqis and our own forces, stationed in Iraq, should be able to handle it. If we mobilised, however, we would have more reserves ready within the United States to handle any alien threat.”

Spencer scowled at him. “There is no reason to believe that an alien threat exists,” he said. “If we called up the reserves and federalised the National Guard, would we not look threatening to the aliens?”

“A threat exists when capabilities exist to make that threat a reality,” General Hastings said, coolly. There was little love lost between him and the Secretary of State. “The aliens may not be hostile, but we have to treat them, for the purposes of planning, as though they are…and they have the capability to do us serious harm. If they content themselves with knocking out all of our satellites, for example, we would be crippled almost instantly.”

“But you have no proof that they intend to do that,” Spencer snapped. “Mr President, we should be taking advantage of this magnificent opportunity by making contact, now, with the aliens, before the Russians or the French can get involved. They’re probably beaming signals at the aliens right now, offering peace and friendship, trying to get ahead of us!”

“Another reason to prepare for a possible war,” General Hastings said, dispassionately. “What happens if the aliens get involved in our human quarrels?”

“Why would they care?” Spencer asked. “Perhaps we should seek to hide the fact that we are a violent race…?”

“We can’t,” Paul said. “They will have been intercepting our signals for years. They may have problems with understanding our language, but it is much easier to understand images…and most of our entertainment is grossly violent. They may not even understand the difference between Rambo III and the daily news. They’ll know that we have a capability for extreme violence and they’ll certainly have a good idea of our technological capabilities, if only by using their own development as a yardstick.”

General Hastings smiled. “They’re also going to be intercepting Star Trek and Babylon 5,” he said. “That’s bound to confuse them about our capabilities.”

The President laughed. “We can’t keep this to ourselves,” he said, nodding towards the single phone that sat on his desk. He could call any world leader, any time, and be fairly sure of an answer. “I’ll have to discuss it with our allies and the other major powers, particularly those involved with the ISS, before we can decide on a joint response. If nothing else, we don’t want the aliens playing divide and conquer.”

He looked over at General Hastings. “General, I want you to start mobilising our forces as quietly as possible,” he continued. “For the moment, we’ll call it a drill and I’ll brief the Press and the Speaker of the House to that effect; later, once the news breaks, we can explain that it’s a simple precautionary measure. Colonel James…?”

Paul nodded. “Yes, Mr President?”

“I want you and your people to coordinate the response and to expand our defences as much as possible in the time we have,” the President said. “Again, keep it covert until the news breaks, but I want a plan for defending the country – and indeed the world – if it does come down to a fight.”

“Yes, Mr President,” Paul said. It wasn’t going to be easy. The most optimistic alien wargame he’d played had suggested that humanity was in for a hard time. “I won’t let you down.”

“We need to get some of our people onto the International Space Station,” Deborah said, bluntly. “Logically, the aliens will make First Contact on the station itself; they can’t just enter Earth orbit and ignore it. If we lifted a team of representatives onto the station, we would be in a good position to dominate talks with the aliens, without putting too many international noses out of joint.”

“The UN will demand that it takes the lead in talking to the aliens,” Spencer said. “How do we respond to that?”

“If the UN could agree on anything more significant than what to have for dinner, I might suggest leaving it in their hands,” General Hastings said. “As it is, they should come to some agreement a few years after we all die of old age.”

The President winced. Paul could almost follow his thoughts. He was a committed internationalist, but at the same time, half of his voter base would desert him if he considered handing the entire contact team over to the United Nations…and the Senate would scream for his impeachment. Republicans and Democrats alike would scream for his head and they’d probably get it. Even if he survived that, his chances of being re-elected would plummet like a stone; he certainly wouldn’t be nominated for the coming election.

“That’s something to discuss with the other great powers,” the President said, finally. “If the Security Council is in agreement about the issue, the remainder of the UN won’t have a say in it.” He stood up. “General, Colonel, I’ll want to see you two in a few days to discuss defence preparations. Tom, I want you to start looking for a suitable candidate to be our ambassador to the stars.”

He paused. “We will do everything in our power to avoid a war,” he concluded, “but if we have to fight, we will do everything we can to make a good account of ourselves. We have a mandate to defend America and that, my friends, is what we are going to do…or die trying.”


Chapter Two

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

-William Tecumseh Sherman

“So, there’s nothing you can tell me?”

Joshua Vote Bourjaily liked to think of himself as an ace reporter, a combination of Woodward and Bernstein, but the truth was that he was just a muckraker. He painted himself as having access to hundreds of sources within the military, but when pressed, even he had to admit that his sources weren’t high-ranking officials, but dissatisfied juniors who had a grudge against the military. It made for a handful of interesting scoops, but mostly…he just picked up rubbish.

“No,” Sergeant Ellsworth said. She’d been passed over for promotion at least twice, according to her, because someone else in her platoon had been sucking off the entire promotion board. Having met her in person – Joshua had learnt, quickly, that meeting sources in person was the only way to gauge their reliability – he suspected that the truth was that she was actually incompetent. “All I know is that we’ve been ordered to report to the barracks in a few days for possible deployment.”

She put the phone down; Joshua heard it click as he sat back in his tatted old armchair. He liked to think of his office as a headquarters, perhaps with a bodyguard and a sexy young secretary, but it was really a converted flat in the low-rent district of Austin City, Texas. A handful of filing cabinets, a pair of old computers – so old that they ran Windows 95 – and a single modern laptop took up most of the space; it had been months since anyone else had entered the office, or even the flat. It was cheaper than hiring a proper office…and it wasn’t as if he had any chance of gaining a proper position with a regular respectable newspaper. His blog might have a handful of devoted fans, but his reputation kept most major producers from even considering him as a source, let alone a regular employee. The newspaper industry was not a forgiving one and someone who had been discredited so comprehensively didn’t have a hope of employment. The fact that some reporters actually survived such an experience only added to Joshua’s hatred of the world. They got away with it because they were politically impossible to fire.

He didn’t see the notes in front of him for a long moment. He was too busy remembering. He’d been so certain of his source, so convinced that the source was telling the truth…and he’d impressed his editor enough to write the article. He should have known better; for three days, he’d been a hero…and then he’d become a laughing stock. The story of torture and rape committed by American soldiers had been detailed; too detailed. It had been easy to prove that the unit in question not only didn’t have any soldiers with the right names, but hadn’t been anywhere near Iraq – ever. Joshua’s memories of the next few days had become hazy, probably because he didn’t want to remember, but now…now he was a freelance reporter whom no one in authority would even consider using. All he could do was pick up titbits and try to pass them onwards.

The notes taunted him as he picked them up and read through them again. Joshua had realised, much to his own private surprise, that more soldiers, sailors and airmen were being recalled to duty than could reasonably be expected, even through there was a war on. His opinion of the military had never been high, even before he’d been used to smear every reporter in the United States, but even he had to concede that there was little reason for them to suddenly call up everyone in Texas. It was possible, of course, that it was just a drill, but Joshua knew that he would have heard rumours about it long before it began…and he hadn’t heard anything. It was as if the United States was, very quietly, preparing for war.

He’d wracked his brains trying to understand the reason why, but he’d come up with nothing. Normally, there would be storm clouds on the horizon, some kind of threat to America or American interests in the world, but there was nothing. Iran was behaving itself, Iraq had been quietening down for years, Russia was concentrating on consolidating it’s gains over the last few years…hell, there hadn’t even been an annual confrontation with China. It was possible that the country was actually on the verge of war, but he knew enough about the political game to know that it would have been leaked by now, by a politician eager to play the political game. The President would need to build up support for any policy…and he hadn’t been releasing warning notes, or insider briefings, or anything.

He looked back down at the notes again. He was careful never to store anything on computers these days; his enemies wouldn’t hesitate to hack into them to remove the data. Paper was inconvenient, but it had the advantage of being secure, unless someone actually broke into his office. He’d traced movements that didn’t quite add up. Additional Patriot batteries had been deployed around the region. Various USAF asserts had been placed on standby. Aircraft at USAF bases and Air National Guard bases were being armed with live weapons. That wasn’t so unusual in the days after 9/11, where everyone knew that one day they might have to shoot down a hijacked airliner before it became a weapon, but there were a lot of them. Army, navy and air force personnel activated suddenly and whisked off into the unknown. The entire country was gearing up for war…and he didn’t even have the slightest idea of who they intended to fight!

There was no choice, he decided. He would have to call Daniel Holloway.

He listened as the phone rang slowly. Holloway was the pearl in his collection of contacts, a Captain in the USAF who was dissatisfied…without any apparent reason to be dissatisfied. That bothered Joshua more than he cared to admit. Normally, he found a source who had a clear motive to want to talk outside of school…but Holloway had never talked about why he wanted to share what he knew. That made him unreliable, in Joshua’s view, but as the highest-ranking person he knew, there was little choice, but to listen, at least, to what he was saying.

“Holloway,” a voice drawled, finally. “What can I do for you?”

“Daniel,” Joshua said. He knew that his voice would be recognised at once. Holloway swore blind that the phones in the base weren’t tapped, but it was his career on the line if he was wrong; Joshua trusted that self-interest, if nothing else, would keep him honest and discreet. “I wonder…”

“Damn you,” Holloway snapped. His normal drawl had almost vanished, replaced by…fear? “You shouldn’t be calling me here?”

For a moment, surprise almost brought Joshua’s heart to a stop. “Daniel, I…”

“Shut up,” Holloway thundered. Anger had rapidly replaced fear. “Fuck off! Never call on me again!”

He slammed the phone down before Joshua could say another word.

“What the fuck?” Joshua asked, finally. He’d sometimes had a source vanish on him, but he’d never been told to fuck off, not in such a manner. Some of his sources had realised just how little influence he actually had and abandoned him, but even they had been polite, but Holloway…Holloway had been scared out of his skin. He’d been scared enough to tell Joshua to get lost and had put the phone down. Someone had put the fear of God into him…which meant that something serious had to be going on…but what?

He spent the next hour making a series of other phone calls. It was depressing how few of his sources he could actually contact…and two of them, like Holloway, told him never to try to call them again, before hanging up on him. His research told him that there was something serious going on, but what? It seemed a riddle he couldn’t even begin to crack. His sources in the State Police, such as they were, seemed to think that they’d all been placed on alert as well…and warned that there might be riots, if not outright civil unrest. How did all of it add together?

“Damn them,” he muttered finally, and started to compose a story with what little he did know. He wasn’t supposed to know, but a few dozen stringers from major newspapers read his blog regularly…and they’d have much better sources. Whatever the military was trying to cover up, they’d uncover it…and reveal just what they were trying to keep hidden. If reporters existed to keep the government honest, Joshua was determined that they would find out what was wrong, or die trying.

Maybe it’s a military coup, he thought, and on that note, went to sleep in his armchair.

***

From the outside, the building looked like a normal office block, owned by a company called International Developments, Inc. Visitors who entered, after passing through a security system that rivalled anything else used in a civilian building, found their way blocked by an attractive secretary, who informed them that the building was merely an office and gave them contact details for the higher-ups in Virginia. More inquisitive people, or job-hunters, were given addresses to visit, the latter warned, however, that recruiting was not underway, at least not at the present time. Even if a persistent visitor entered the main building, they would not be able to use the elevator or the stairs, not without passing through a biometric reader that guarded the doors. The company kept its secrets…and, as anyone could discover, had a long history of being trustworthy, partly because of the extensive security measures.

The man who strode in through the front doors looked like a casual visitor, at first, until he stepped up to the inner doors and pushed his hand against the reader. There was a brief pause, and then the doors unlocked, allowing him entry to the remainder of the ground floor. He marched through the corridor to the elevator, waited for it to open, and then stepped inside, pressing his hand against a second reader as soon as the door hissed closed. It was a nasty little trap, in its way; anyone who attempted to use the lift, without clearance, would find themselves trapped inside the cubicle. The newcomer waited for the lift to reach the fifth floor and stepped out as soon as it opened. Here, the trappings of a normal office block were cast away, revealing the heart of one of the foremost covert operations units in America. The men and women in the office might not wear uniforms, but there was no disguising their military bearing.

Captain Brent Roeder stepped into the briefing room and caught the Colonel’s eye. The Colonel had commanded SF34 for the past two years, although – unlike Brent himself – he hadn’t actually been on a mission for a while. The SF unit only accepted experienced officers, those who had seen the elephant and knew that there were times for breaking rules, but someone so senior could hardly be risked in Iraq, Afghanistan and a number of places where everyone would be surprised to learn that American soldiers had served. A month ago, Brent had been in Northern Pakistan, hunting the Taliban and the terrorist leadership hiding somewhere within the badlands. The recall to duty, two weeks ahead of his planned return time, had been a surprise.

“Now we’re all here, we can begin,” the Colonel said. Informality was the order of the day in SF34. The Colonel wouldn’t put up with any horseplay or the jokes that idle soldiers would sometimes play on each other, but he would allow a level of free discussion that would have been out of place in most units. “There has been a surprising development and we have been placed on alert to cope with it.”

Brent found himself leaning forward eagerly and pulled himself back. The grapevine had been suggesting, for the past week or so, that the Iranians had finally been caught with their fingers in the till…or, rather, accepting money from terrorists to host bases in their territory, safe from conventional attack. Brent and the remainder of SF34 represented a more serious – and unconventional – response to their actions. It wouldn’t be the first time that they had raided a friendly country, or at least a country that they were not officially at war with, aiming to burn out the terrorists.

The Colonel’s next words shocked hell out of him. “NASA has detected an alien starship heading for Earth,” he said, shortly. “I have been given a classified brief – an extremely classified brief – that we are going to be going on full alert for their arrival. God alone knows how the world will change – hell, God alone knows if they are hostile or not – but if there is an invasion on the way, we’re going to be ready.”

Brent stared at him. He’d been told, months ago, that they would be conducting a secret mission in Germany…and he’d taken that calmly. He’d hiked over Saudi Arabia in local clothing and he’d taken that in his stride, but…aliens? Cold suspicion flared through his mind; it wasn’t unknown for the Special Forces to be tested to see how far they would go, a procedure intended to guard against the possibility of a rogue unit blindly following orders that ended with the assassination of the President or something along the same lines. Aliens were a little unusual for such a test run, but maybe…

One of the other officers put it into words. “Sir…aliens?”

“I’m afraid so,” the Colonel said. “This isn’t a drill. Ideally, you won’t have anything to do and all of these are just precautions, but if you have to act as stay-behind units, you’re going to find yourselves in the rear lines.”

There were some nervous chuckles. SF34 had been tasked as a stay-behind unit, but it had been generally accepted that they wouldn’t be staying behind in their own country; after all, America was generally impregnable. The war-gamers came up with endless contingency plans, but barring a Mexican invasion or a major civil upheaval, no one seriously expected to be operating behind enemy lines, on American soil. The closest any of them had come to such operations had been special – and highly classified – operations in Iraq. Aliens, on the other hand, might actually be able to invade America directly, something that no nation possessed the power to do.

“Hopefully,” the Colonel continued, once he had fielded a handful more questions, “you won’t have anything to do. However, you will spend the rest of this week working on covert operations procedures in the event of America falling under enemy attack.”

“Madness,” Brent said, shaking his head. “Are you sure it’s not a drill?”

Another soldier had a different question. “When is the President going to tell the nation?”

“We suspect in a few days at most,” the Colonel said. “We want to get as many of the preparations completed, out of the public eye, as possible before it hits the news channels. Once it does, there is going to be a panic, and when that happens…”

He didn’t bother to elaborate. “I’ll hold individual conferences with you over the next few days to sort out final preparations,” he concluded. “If nothing else, this will make for a particularly interesting exercise.”

***

“The shit’s about to hit the fan,” Deborah Ivey said, cheerfully, as she swept into the Oval Office. “We’ve had calls from a dozen major media outlets and other such bastards demanding to know just what the fuck is going on. I think we’re going to have to come clean about the aliens, chief.”

The President eyed her balefully. Deborah’s ability to swear like a drunken trooper never creased to irritate him. Days spent arguing with various world leaders about disclosure, let alone a united front to confront the aliens, hadn’t done anything for his mood. The Europeans and the Japanese wanted to move to informing the public, while the Chinese and the Russians wanted to keep it to themselves, for the moment. The NSA had informed the President, covertly, that the Chinese in particular were working overtime to block out the news, even to the point of restricting the Internet use rights of foreign-owned companies. He was morbidly certain that the Chinese, and probably everyone else as well, were already trying to communicate with the aliens.

“I see,” he said, finally. Deborah’s intelligence was both an asset and a curse. “How much do they know?”

“They’re pretty much figured out that we’ve calling a covert mobilisation…and that most of the other world governments are doing the same,” Deborah informed him. “No one has actually dropped the A-word yet, but ten gets you twenty that the thought has crossed their minds…and they might even be considering using it in public.”

The President smiled thinly. “How long do you think we have?”

“A day, at most, before it leaks out,” Deborah said. “It’s probably going to leak out from Europe – their security is pretty much crap – but as we brief more and more of our own people, we increase the likelihood of a leak from our side as well. If one of the national governments goes public…”

The President nodded. “Contact the Press Office, then,” he said. “Tell them that I want to reserve a slot on all of the national networks – normal conditions – for this evening. Get in touch with the various Governors and tell them that we’re going public, so they have to put their people on alert for any panic, and then tell Tom that he is to inform the other governments…”

Deborah frowned. “You really think that there’ll be a panic?”

“I don’t know,” the President said. “Young James couldn’t give me any real production, but as far as I am concerned? We’re in uncertain – uncharted – waters…and God alone knows what’s going to happen when we drop this little bombshell on the world.”


Chapter Three

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

-John Ringo

“The President and Governor Rollins appealed for calm in the wake of a further set of panic-buying riots and further chaos in the streets of New York,” the talking head said, speaking from a television set into the room. She would have been pretty under more natural lighting. “This has had no apparent effect on the rioters and the NYPD has warned that it might be necessary to call out the National Guard for additional crowd control.”

There was a long pause. “The riots are, of course, in the wake of the President’s announcement, subsequently confirmed by the foremost observatories, of an alien starship heading towards Earth,” she continued, just in case someone had just joined the program. “A wave of panic-buying has swept America, with food, drink and guns being purchased right across the country. Senator Hanks, in response to the crisis, has criticized the President’s decision to inform the country of the alien ship and has demanded that the President face a special session of the Senate to explain his actions. In the meantime, marchers demanding a peaceful meeting with the aliens clashed with marchers demanding military preparations and had to be separated with water cannons…”

Paul picked up the remote control and silenced the television before the talking head – he couldn’t even remember her name – could offer any further inanities on the Meaning Of It All. America – hell, the entire world – seemed to have gone crazy in the wake of the announcement; people were, as the talking head had said, were panicking and rioting. Millions of citizens had fled the cities for the countryside, while millions more intended to remain where they were to greet the aliens personally…and the rest of the world wasn’t much better. The Arab states had attempted to conceal the presence of the alien craft from their people, but the rest of the world knew…and, thanks to the Internet, so did most of the Arabs. Censorship was much harder these days; the Russians and the Chinese had sealed their borders and were mobilising, just in case. The President had been talking to them, trying to get some kind of common agreement on dealing with the aliens, but they were both playing their cards very close to their chests.

He scowled and returned to the reports on his desk. The President’s decision to appoint him defence coordinator for the United States, in the event of an alien invasion, had been an inspired one, in his opinion. If he’d had an unlimited budget and a few years, he could have ensured the entire world’s safety against the alien starship, all one hundred kilometres of it. He had barely two weeks left before the alien craft reached Earth orbit and, in that time, he knew that there wasn’t going to be any new technology for deployment. America – and the rest of the world – had to work with what was on the shelf, and he knew, better than anyone else, that the cupboard was almost bare. It was ironic; he was, in effect, a General…with hardly any forces under his command.

The deployment of THAAD missiles, including the latest configuration designed for satellite interception – as well as a limited BMD role – was proceeding apace. Unfortunately, the United States had agreed to a cap in the number of viable ASAT missiles after China had deployed a working ASAT system of its own, and while production had been intensified, he knew that there weren’t going to be more than a few hundred missiles at most by the time the aliens arrived. Patriot missile batteries and Air Defence Artillery had been deployed around the country, linked into a ground-based communications system that would allow their efforts to be coordinated even if the satellites were lost, but again…he wasn’t convinced of their effectiveness. He’d attempted to get the shuttles rigged up as gunships, but only one shuttle was available and that craft had already been assigned to a role, ferrying the diplomats to the ISS. He hadn’t even tried to have the ISS armed; the consortium operating the station would never have agreed to have it armed to the teeth.

On the ground, matters were a little better, despite the chaos. The Army had been called up and had been deployed around the country, while air assets had been dispersed to avoid a single lucky hit taking out entire squadrons of fighters. The National Guards and the Reserves had been called up as well – if nothing else, it was a fascinating exercise – and deployed in defensive positions, but he had his doubts as to how useful the entire exercise would be. The rest of the world was doing the same – he’d read a report that warned that the bulk of the French Army had been deployed near Paris, in case the aliens landed there – but he suspected that it was just whistling in the wind. They’d prepared, as best as they could, for the worst case scenario…and he couldn’t help feeling that that was exactly what would happen.

***

“Mr President, Ambassador Prachthauser is here to see you.”

“Thank you, Irene,” the President said. He’d spent the morning, as he had almost every day since the alien starship had been detected, in conference with different world leaders and almost welcomed the interruption. The larger countries tended to be carefully choosing their options, but the smaller countries – and the UN – were publicly buying into all kinds of tales of alien benevolence, acting as if the new millennium was about to begin. The UN debates on the alien starship had gotten nowhere fast, but the President knew that many of the smaller countries had no reason to view the alien arrival with caution. “Please send him in.”

Ambassador Francis Prachthauser was a tall dignified man, barely entering his forties, with dark hair that somehow gave an expression of length. He had a very empathic face; the President had known him during his election campaign and had been impressed by how well he’d handled people who might have been a problem. He’d offered Francis the post of Ambassador to the Court of King James – Britain – as a gesture of thanks…and a highly practical measure. It was the most significant Embassy in the world, outside Russia and China.

“Mr President,” Francis said, with a half-bow. “That was a very…entertaining flight.”

The President smiled. He’d given orders for Francis to be picked up by an F-15 aircraft from one of the bases in Britain. Speed was of the essence now that there was a working consensus, between the larger powers, on how to proceed. It wasn’t as if the remainder of the world could prevent America, Russia, Europe and China from proceeding, but the whole affair could leave a bad taste in their mouths.

“I hope that you enjoyed it,” he said, settling back into his chair and waving Francis to one of the smaller chairs. “Do you know what this is about?”

“The aliens,” Francis said, proving again that he wasn’t a fool. Even the President wouldn’t order a fast-jet fighter aircraft used as a transport, even for an Ambassador, unless it was urgent. “I assume that you have some role in mind for me regarding the aliens?”

The President nodded. “How would you like to go up to Earth orbit and meet them?”

Francis stared at him. Deep inside, where no one could see, there had once been dreams of flying into space. “Are you serious?”

“Yes,” the President said, flatly. He stood up and started to pace the office. “The alien starship will probably, at least in the belief of my expert advisors…”

“As far as we have expert advisors on this sort of thing,” Francis injected.

The President acknowledged his contribution with a nod. “The aliens, we think, will attempt to dock at the International Space Station,” he said. It was more likely to be the other way around – the alien starship was far larger than the ISS – but that hardly mattered. “It represents, so I’m told, an easily-accessible group of humans, just waiting for them to come and visit. They could be sure, if they docked with the ISS, of meeting representatives from the great powers on Earth. It has been designed that a group of Ambassadors will be placed onboard the station and, hopefully, that they will meet with the aliens.”

He paused. “Would you like to be the American representative onboard the station?”

Francis laughed. “Do you even have to ask?”

“No,” the President said. They shared a long smile. “I won’t lie to you, Francis; I could be sending you to your death. We don’t know what the aliens actually want and, if they’re hostile, the ISS is pretty much a sitting duck. Still want to go?”

Francis frowned. “The aliens have not responded to any of our messages?”

The President shook his head. Ever since the alien starship had become public knowledge, there had been attempts to signal the craft, a torrent of radio signals pouring out from Earth, some not even pointed in the right direction. No one could agree on what to say to them, however, and the aliens, if they were listening, had to be very confused. There had been sober and mature transmissions, invitations to land at one location or another…and hundreds of messages offering everything from marriage to abduction victims. The aliens had to be really confused…but there had been no reply to any of the messages.

“Not as far as we know,” the President said. “The most sensitive communications gear we have, items so classified that I’m barely allowed to know more than their existence, has been deployed to cover the alien craft…but if they’re transmitting, they’re doing it without us being able to pick it up. Some of my advisors are worried that they’re actually in communications with the Russians, or the Chinese, but if they are, they’re doing it without us hearing anything.”

“Occam’s Razor,” Francis said. “The simplest explanation is normally the correct one – and it’s that they’re not transmitting anything to Earth. If we can’t detect any transmissions, the Russians are unlikely to be able to detect them themselves.”

“I know,” the President said, wishing that he could somehow convoy the gut-wrenching feeling that the lack of communications was causing. A hundred kilometres of alien starship was racing towards Earth…and no one knew what they wanted. Colonel James had been right, he decided; there was something ominous in the lack of communication, let alone their attempt to limit Earth’s warning time. The decision to start dispersing the federal government had been easy once he’d realised just how ominous it was. “Still want to go?”

“Yes, Mr President,” Francis said. “Someone has to be up there to meet them, so…why not me?”

“Why not indeed,” the President said. He smiled thinly and took his seat again. “You’re going to be up there with four other representatives; a Russian, a Chinese, a European and a UN representative. The UN expects their representative to take the lead, but the great powers have agreed that it will be them in the lead, not least because we paid for the ISS and the space program. The European has instructions from the European Union, but he may have orders from his own government as well…”

Francis rolled his eyes. That always seemed to happen. For everyone devoted to the international organisation that they worked for, in theory, there were ten who were actually following the orders of their own countries, regardless of how well – or badly – they interacted with the remainder of the world. The only country that seemed to actually respect the concept of international organisations was the Swiss, and they’d been safe for hundreds of years.

Your instructions are simple enough,” the President added. “Ideally, we want an exclusive agreement with the aliens, but that’s not likely to happen. More practically, we want to ensure that we have a share in whatever dealings happen with the aliens and that we don’t get frozen out, or that the Europeans don’t get frozen out. We can rely on them to support us against Russia or China, but the UN representative is a wild card. She might have ambitions of placing the entire issue before the UN.”

Francis frowned. “Should we not be working towards a united front?”

“It depends on what the aliens have in mind for us,” the President admitted. “We have a series of agreements with the other great powers that if the aliens are hostile, we will fight them together, but if they’re not hostile, they could play divide and rule very easily. The orders I gave you…well, the other Ambassadors are likely to be following similar orders, and the crew of the ISS…well, they’ll have similar orders themselves. They might be more pro-American than their fellow countrymen, those who aren’t American, but…”

“The stakes are high,” Francis agreed.

“Too high,” the President said. “The entire country seems to have gone crazy, but hopefully it will have calmed down by the time the aliens enter orbit and actually make contact.”

“Let’s hope so,” Francis said, pessimistically. “What about our defences?”

“I can’t really discuss those with you,” the President said. “No offence, but if the aliens capture you…”

Francis nodded. “I understand,” he said. He smiled, a little nervously. “Thank you for this opportunity.”

“Ambassador, perhaps, to the Galactic Empire,” the President said. “Thank me when you come back alive, Francis; I suspect that I haven’t done you any favours at all.”

***

The daily briefing to the President was a chore that Paul disliked, not because the President was an unpleasant person, but because it took him away from continuing his work. There was little choice, however, and he had to admit that it was better that he briefed the President, rather than some REMF who wouldn’t know what was important and what wasn’t. The thought was quietly ironic; he’d been in the American armed forces for sixteen years and he’d never fired a shot in anger. He’d never been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, or any of the other places where American troops had been deployed.

“NASA confirms that the space shuttle Discovery is currently going through its final flight checks before launch,” he said, once he’d updated the President on the ground-based preparations. “They’re stripped out the planned launch schedule – they intended to launch a trio of new communications satellites – and replaced it with a module for supporting additional crewmembers, so the Ambassadors won’t be too much of a burden on the ISS.”

“Good,” the President said. The ISS normally had only six crewmembers and adding five representatives – and the shuttle crew – would have pushed life support to the limit. “And the defensive capability?”

“It’s been added, after a long argument,” Paul admitted. NASA had been almost universally opposed to the idea of arming Discovery; the basically civilian organisation hadn’t wanted to accept the idea that the aliens might be hostile. It wasn’t as if the shuttle could be turned into a real space warship, but at least it would have some teeth. “Captain Markus Kane has been practicing using the weapons on the simulator, but…”

He shrugged. “We ran simulations for intercepting Chinese and Russian satellites, not alien ships,” he said. “It could be that Discovery will last more than a few seconds, but I doubt it.”

The President frowned. “We’d better hope that it doesn’t come down to a fight, then,” he said. “Have the Chinese responded to our proposal?”

“No,” Paul said. “The Chinese ASAT capability is remaining firmly in their hands. The Russians have expressed some limited interest in sharing data for launching the Gorgon and Gazelle missile systems, but the system is outdated and the number of operational missiles is…not large. We have heard a rumour that they’re actually refitting the nuclear warheads onto the missiles, but so far we have no independent confirmation of that fact.”

The President smiled. “Doesn’t that violate a treaty?”

“We might be happy that they had them,” Paul warned. He’d proposed arming American missiles with nuclear warheads, but that suggestion had never made it onto the operational level. The proposal alone was hugely controversial. “That said, they never composed a serious ABM shield for technical reasons, although one of the more persistent worries of the past decade was that they would solve their problems and deploy a working nuclear shield. If they had succeeded in accomplishing such a feat…”

He shrugged. “But it didn’t happen, so not to worry,” he said, and changed the subject slightly. “They’ve also been altering their old ICBMs for launching them straight upwards into alien ships, if it does come down to a fight.”

“Ouch,” the President said. He scowled down at the table. “How much damage are they likely to cause to the aliens?”

“That’s the question,” Paul admitted. “The Russians have been revamping their nuclear missiles over the past decade, but the Soviets let their missile designs atrophy slightly during the years after the Fall of the Berlin Wall. We don’t have exact data, but its quite possible that not all of the missiles will fly when they hit the launch button. It’s also possible that they’ll all fly, but some will disintegrate in midair.”

He frowned. “The Chinese missiles are more modern, but they have far fewer missiles than either us or the Russians,” he added thoughtfully. “They might be very effective if it comes down to a fight, or completely useless.”

A tone rang. “Excuse me,” he said. The Nightwatch staff wouldn’t have interrupted unless it was important. “Yes?”

He listened, carefully. “Mr President, there has been another development with the alien craft,” he said. “They’ve split their craft into two starships…and they’re both still heading this way.”


Chapter Four

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

-Carl Sagan

“It’s confirmed, then?”

“It looks that way,” Jeremy Damiani said, as Commander Gary Jordan frowned over his shoulder. Standing wasn’t really possible in the zero-gravity environment of the International Space Station, but he loomed as close to his subordinate as he could. “The aliens have launched a smaller part of their starship at us.”

Gary scowled. The only telescope mounted on the ISS – a research program that would have served so much better if it had been floating freely in space – had been watching the alien starship ever since it had been sighted, three weeks ago. He’d been suffering from steadily growing envy ever since the starship had been sighted – compared to the alien starship, the ISS was little more than a toy – and yet, it worried him. What respect could the human race hope to obtain from a race that could cross the interstellar gulf without worrying about little details like cost and ‘social programs’ down on Earth? They’d probably take one look at the ISS, and the shuttle that was coming in to dock at the main tube, and die laughing.

And the alien separation manoeuvre was even more worrying. The larger section of the alien craft had continued decelerating, violently enough to shake the crew, while the smaller section continued to race towards Earth. The smaller section – and ‘small’ was relative, given that it was over ten kilometres long – would make Earth orbit in a week, while the larger section would arrive in two weeks. He didn’t know exactly what that meant, but the implications seemed ominous; it wasn’t as if the aliens could avoid visiting Earth now. The aliens might be much more advanced, but it wasn’t that wide a gap; their technology, or at least what the human race had seen, wasn’t that far in advance of humanity’s technology. If Earth concentrated enough resources on space travel, they could match the alien ship in short order…

He pushed that out of his mind as a ‘might have been’ and focused on Damiani. “What does that suggest to you?”

Damiani frowned. “There are two possibilities,” he said. “The first is that that’s the ‘meet and greet’ ship, with their ambassadors and maybe even trade goods, sent ahead to ensure that we don’t mean them any harm. The second possibility…is that the aliens are hostile and that they’ve launched a warship at us, with the intention of knocking us out of space before the mothership arrives.”

“I was hoping you’d come up with something different,” Gary admitted. He’d been the Commander of the ISS, insofar as the rank meant anything when everything had to be checked with Houston and NASA, for five months and he knew the station like the back of his hand. The ISS could actually manoeuvre, but only enough to avoid a major collision, not a missile or a manned spacecraft. If the aliens were hostile, his unarmed command wouldn’t last more than a few seconds. “Of course, there’s a third possibility; it’s a planet-killer aimed at us.”

They contemplated the image for a long moment. “I don’t suppose that the telescopes have picked up anything new?”

“I’d have told you if we’d seen anything new,” Damiani reassured him. Every telescope in the world might be watching the alien craft, but so far, they’d seen very little beyond the drive flares. Even the most powerful telescopes hadn’t seen much to suggest alien capabilities, but NASA had done enough research – without actually building any hardware – to have a rough idea of minimum alien capabilities. They made a fearsome list. “There’s nothing, not even a radar pulse or a communications signal…”

“I know,” Gary said. He looked down at the live feed from the telescope. The entire world was logging onto the internet to see that feed; the telescope’s owners had had to invest in extra systems just to meet the demand. “Keep me informed…”

He scowled as he pulled himself back through the modules towards the main hatch. He’d spent some time browsing the internet for anything useful, but apart from hundreds of paranoid messages, there was nothing useful at all. Some of the comments and suggestions made Stalin seem a trusting sort of man…and almost all of them would have been gravely insulting to a human ambassador. They couldn’t demand that the aliens went through a strip-search for weapons before they boarded the ISS; after all, they had no way of backing up the threat. He hadn’t been allowed any details on Earth’s defences, just in case he was captured and interrogated, but he was intelligent and knowledgeable to know just how weak the defences actually were. The Earth might have had the numbers advantage – although no one knew how many aliens might have been stuffed into that starship – but the human ability to carry out a frontal attack in space, let alone a defence, was minimal. If the aliens bulled through to orbit and took control of LEO, the war would be within shouting distance of being lost. The United States had been watching, nervously, the development of Chinese and Indian ASAT systems…but this was worse, far worse.

And, now, there were going to be Ambassadors on his station. They were probably going to start complaining about the food, or the lack of gravity, or whatever else high-ranking dignities could find to complain about. The ISS was as comfortable – and safe – as human ingenuity could make it, within the limited budget, but it was far from the Waldorf Hotel.

***

Ambassador Francis Prachthauser was in no state to complain about anything. The pre-flight medical at Houston had been the most intensive medical procedure he’d ever been through in his life, a nightmare of drugs, poking, and simulators that made the worst roller-coaster ride in Disneyworld look like nothing. He’d staggered out, half-convinced that he’d failed the program completely, only to be told that he’d passed with flying colours, for a man of his age. The others hadn’t fared so well, although the Russian had gone through his own preparations first in Russia; they’d all ended up looking terrible the day they’d eating steak and eggs, before boarding Discovery. It had been easy to read the looks on some of the NASA personnel faces; they’d been envious of the Ambassadors, and wished that they’d been flying with them.

The shuttle launch had been terrifying, but exciting at the same time, even though he’d felt as through an elephant was sitting on his chest during most of the flight. When the shuttle had slid into orbit, they’d been allowed to leave their seats and float about in the cabin, something that had almost lived up to his dreams. He’d been told, by one of the doctors, that zero-gee could be unpleasant to a person who was unprepared for it, but he’d managed to adapt quickly. The same couldn’t be said for Bai Li, the Chinese representative, or Philippe Laroche, the EU representative, both of whom had been sick when they floated into the air. The shuttle’s co-pilot had sucked the vomit out of the air with a vacuum cleaner and ‘suggested’ that the representatives remain in their seats until they were used to the conditions.

Francis was lucky; he was invited up to the main cabin. The shuttle was shaped like an airliner, allowing the pilot a view out into space, and Francis peered out with glee. The blue-green sphere of Earth turned slowly above him, falling…no, it was below him, but the shuttle was orientated towards Earth…and the twinkling shape of the ISS could be seen in the distance. He’d expected to see networks of satellites orbiting the Earth, if not the alien starship itself, but they were too small or too distant to be seen with the naked eye. The shuttle’s radar display picked up pieces of space junk, or even active satellites, but their current orbit appeared to be clear of any obstacles.

“The vast majority of space junk heads down towards Earth fairly quickly,” Captain Markus Kane said, reading Francis’s thoughts. “The real problem comes from items that somehow got loose from the ISS or other stations and remained in the same orbit. NASA keeps talking about rigging up some orbital sweep, but so far nothing has actually passed beyond the research stage.”

He scowled. “One Chinese proposal was to have a station of their own that they could blow up if there was a war,” he added. “If that worked, they would seal off space for at least a decade, or so they thought. There was even a terrorist plot to get a bomb onboard the ISS, but everything loaded onboard the shuttles or the supply capsules from Russia gets checked carefully, just in case.”

“I don’t think I wished to know that,” Francis said softly. He looked out at the ISS. “How long will it be until we dock?”

“Forty minutes,” Kane said. “It won’t seem that long, believe me, but we have to be very careful. If we collided with the station instead…”

He tapped a key on his console. A moment later, Francis recognised the use of the opening from Richard Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz, a tune he’d first heard on a movie soundtrack. He had to laugh as he realised why Kane was using the tune; it kept the passengers relaxed while the shuttle moved steadily towards the ISS. Kane had been right; the docking did seem to take only a few minutes, although he’d been entranced for most of time. The Earth from space was so…beautiful.

“Welcome to the International Space Station,” Kane said, after the docking formalities had been completed. “Please remember to tip your pilots after the docking and that the flight back to Earth will be, God willing, in two weeks…and if you miss that, you’re stuck on the ISS for two months.”

He grinned up at Francis as he finished the announcement. “Back when I was a kid, I read a story about someone rigging the IS escape pod so that they all got to go home early, apart from the commander,” he added. “They had to send a shuttle up to recover the poor bastard on his own.”

Francis winced. They’d been briefed, endlessly, about ISS safety procedures, but they looked a little flimsy to him. If the crew couldn’t reach the escape pod, or were trapped without a spacesuit, they were dead. End of story. He’d thought himself resigned to that, but now he was on the station – well, technically attached to the station – it felt as if he’d made a huge mistake. He should have let some hotshot young State Department punk fly into space and meet the aliens…and then steal the limelight when the aliens moved their activities down to Earth. He should have…

Kane read his thoughts again. “Don’t worry,” he said. “There are hundreds of would-be astronauts who would be furious with you if you got up and then panicked when the aliens arrived. They were all more than a little…miffed that the shuttle wasn’t crammed with scientific people and even duplicate pilots, instead of…”

“A bunch of fat ambassadors,” Francis guessed. He had always thought himself in good shape until he’d gone through the pre-mission physical. “Just now, I wish I’d let them come up instead.”

“And if you’d been on the bottom of the gravity well, watching as history is made up here, would you share those feelings?” Kane asked. “Think about it; you’re going to make history up here and people will remember your name a long time after Kennedy, Carter and all those other idiots who sabotaged the space program are forgotten.”

“I suppose,” Francis said, with a sudden smile. “So, what do you think the aliens will look like?”

***

Somewhat to Gary’s surprise, the first three days on the ISS passed almost without incident. The Ambassadors were shown around the station, once they had gotten over the shock of finding themselves in zero-gravity, and enjoyed themselves. Gary didn’t hesitate to show them everything, apart from a handful of classified instruments; he couldn’t allow the opportunity of impressing such important people with the importance of the space program to slip past. The Ambassadors were all trusted friends and allies of their Heads of State and if they could be convinced to support the space program, it would be worthwhile. The aliens alone might not be enough to convince humanity to advance into space, although Gary hoped that the mere presence of alien life would serve as an incentive, but if there was actually some strong political support for the program, it might push the human race forward.

And space was insulated from most of the tensions on Earth. The rioting and panic in America was calming down slowly, although millions of citizens were still intending to move away from the cities, at least until they knew that the aliens were friendly. China and Russia had a major dispute over testing boosters for their space program, but the representatives from both powers on the ISS ignored it and played endless games of chess with one another. Gary had half-expected them to be studying their instructions and trying to sort out what they would say to the aliens, but there was little point in further revision. Like children awaiting an exam, there was a point where further revision would be almost useless…and they’d reached it long ago. The sheer absence of data on the alien starship, let alone what they actually wanted, made it impossible to draw up any real plans for the future or even key non-negotiable points. They all hoped for an outcome that would be, at best, beneficial to their countries and, at worst, neutral towards their countries, but in the absence of further data, there was little point in speculation.

That didn’t, of course, stop them from speculating like mad. “So,” Sonja Greenhorn said, one evening, “what do you think the aliens will look like?”

It was Philippe Laroche who answered first. “I think they’ll look exactly like us,” he said, and grinned at their faces. “They’re an evolved race, just like us, and so they will fit their environment. The humanoid form is so useful that the aliens are quite likely to have evolved along similar lines to us. If they were, say, massive octopus-like creatures, could they have evolved a space-based technology?”

“Octopuses are actually quite smart,” Sophia Friedrich said. The UN’s representative, a German-born girl who spoke English with a slight accent, smiled from her perch. “You could get one of them to actually do almost anything, as long as it was underwater.”

Kane laughed. “So, you don’t believe the abduction claims, then?”

“No,” Francis said. “I think they’re just attention seekers.”

Gary nodded. The number of reported alien abductions had skyrocketed in the days since the announcement of an actual alien starship. The reports had featured the stereotypical little grey aliens, but also hundreds of other kinds of aliens, from humanoids with pointy ears to perfectly indistinguishable human-aliens that had been attempting to pick up breeding stock. So far, no one had actually managed to provide proof that any of the abductions – let alone the UFO sightings, government men in black covering up alien contacts or even the super-secret FTL starships flown by the American government – actually existed.

“Its obvious,” Bai Li said, with one of his rare smiles. “They’re going to be Chinese.”

“Chinese? Asians? Space Asians?” Kane asked. “How did you figure that?”

“Well,” Bai Li said, mischievously, “it’s been proven by the latest revisionist history book, in the sprit of 1421 and 1434 that the old imperialist patriarchy actually built spacecraft and headed into space before somehow losing the technology in the collapse of Chinese civilisation caused by the Glorious Revolution. Of course they’re Chinese.”

Kane stared at him, realised that he was being wound up, and laughed. “I don’t think that that’s quite the answer,” he said. “Maybe they look like spiders, or other insects.”

“Won’t happen,” Sonja said. “There are limits to how large a spider, or a crab, could become before it collapsed under its own weight. It’s rather more likely that they’re dinosaur-like creatures.”

“Or little baby elephants,” Francis said, grinning. The barriers were breaking down, one by one. “Hell, they could look like anything, even the Manhunter from Mars.”

“That would be funny,” Philippe said, dryly. “Do you think that there would be a case for a lawsuit if the aliens actually looked like some alien we invented on Earth?”

“It would be hard to imagine an alien who didn’t look like something we invented on Earth,” Stanislav Genya said. The Russian smiled into the silence. “Come on; between Hollywood and the rest of the world, we have hundreds of thousands of aliens that might reassemble the real aliens. They could look like something from Star Trek or Lost in Space or…well, anything.”

Gary spoke into the silence. “Does anyone have any phobias they wish to confess to, now they’re up here and beyond recall back to Earth?”

There was a long pause. “Perhaps the aliens are machines,” Kane suggested. “That entire starship could be a machine, or two machines, and there won’t be any humanoid life at all.”

“You didn’t answer the question,” Gary said. He leaned forward carefully. “Anyone want to confess?”

“I can’t stand horses,” Sonja admitted, suddenly. “I rode on one once, fell off and broke my arm…and since then, I haven’t been able to deal with them at all. You, sir?”

Gary shrugged. “I’m scared of falling into vacuum,” he admitted. “It focuses the mind a bit on the station. Anyone else?”

“I used to be terrified of the Germans,” Philippe said. “No offence, Sophia.”

“None taken,” Sophia said. “My family weren’t in Germany during the war.”

“Perhaps we should forget about humanity’s long history of war,” Stanislav suggested. “After all, this is the dawn of a new era, right?”

On the screen, the alien starship raced closer.


Chapter Five

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

-The War of the Worlds

Colonel Paul James watched as the President took his chair in the middle of the White House National Command Centre. The decision to have the President in the White House, even though he was actually in the underground command centre, hadn’t been an easy one for the Secret Service to swallow. They’d read countless novels of alien invasion, and seen Independence Day and other big-screen versions of alien invasion, and they feared that Washington would be attacked almost at once. They’d wanted the President in one of the massive command centres, well away from anything that might draw alien fire, but the President had insisted on remaining in the White House. First Contact, he’d said, on national television, would not be made with him cowering in a bunker somewhere.

The Vice President, Theodore Taylor, had been packed off to a command centre, despite his protests. If the aliens attacked Washington, it was likely that he would be President of the United States within the next hour. The NCC was supposed to be proof against a nuclear detonation, built using the most advanced bunker-building techniques known to man, but there was no such thing as absolute security. If the aliens dropped an asteroid on the city, the shockwave alone would probably collapse the bunker completely. Paul watched, dispassionately, as the President glanced around at his fellows, from the operators working at various consoles to the handful of Cabinet members who’d joined him for the alien arrival.

There was one hour to go.

Paul caught the eye of one of the Secret Service men and nodded briefly. The man didn’t respond. He’d seen Secret Service men who fitted the stereotype exactly and men who blended perfectly into the background, but they all had one thing in common; they couldn’t be distracted from their primary task. They would all put themselves between the President and lethal danger, yet they knew that there were limits to their protective abilities, particularly against such a dangerously unknown faction. The aliens might have weapons that were beyond human imagination; Paul was reasonably certain they wouldn’t be flying City Destroyers into the atmosphere and blasting Washington with a death ray, but even the weapons encompassed by their observed technological level were formidable. A single asteroid would completely ruin their day.

His eyes strayed to the big screen, overlooking the room. Normally, it would show the President, at a glance, the precise status of the entire United States military machine. Now, it showed the images from the ISS and the orbiting telescopes, including a pair of highly-classified spy satellites that had been re-tasked from watching for terrorists to studying the alien craft. The larger alien starship, the one that was still a week away, was still almost impossible to resolve, even in the most powerful telescopes, but the smaller one was much easier to comprehend. NASA’s scientists believed that it didn’t have any gravity of its own, which suggested that it was designed for high-speed manoeuvring, rather than a slow and stately entrance into Earth orbit. The ship’s hull, vaguely conical in form, was studded with bumps and blisters, some of which looked like smaller spacecraft, attached to their mothership like giant parasites. The more Paul studied the footage, the more worried he became; if nothing else, the aliens had made a hideously effective show of strength.

The President looked over at him from his chair. “Colonel?”

“Ah, yes, Mr President,” Paul said, ashamed of having been caught unprepared. The sheer size of the alien craft was daunting. He checked his terminal briefly before speaking. “I have the latest reports from the joint defence program.”

The President lifted an eyebrow. “The FAA has grounded, at our request, almost all civilian air traffic,” Paul said. It hadn’t been a hard decision; almost everyone in America, and indeed the rest of the world, had decided to stay at home and watch the alien arrival. The live feed from the ISS was going to have more viewers than anything else in human history; companies, resigned to the inevitable, had decided to give their employees a day off to watch the show. No one seriously believed that anyone who had a choice would come in to work…and, for those whose service was essential, they were still glued to television sets or watching streaming internet broadcasts. “The only aircraft in CONUS, apart from emergency aircraft, are military aircraft maintaining a CAP over our cities and defence bases, and the Boeing 747 aircraft that we adapted to carry laser weapons.”

He paused. “Please, continue,” the President said. “What about our ground forces?”

“The soldiers are in their deployment zones and ready for action, if called upon,” Paul said. Most of them would be watching their television sets as well, even in the bases. “Police departments across the nation have been called out completely to maintain order, if necessary, but everyone seems to be staying home. Crime seems to have dropped to almost nothing over the last couple of days. The street parties in New York and San Francisco for the alien arrival have been boisterous, but almost completely non-violent.”

Deborah scowled. “They need proper jobs,” she said. “Policy isn’t decided by people shouting their heads off in the streets.”

“They have a right to express themselves,” Spencer snapped. It was an old argument. “If they want to protest what they think of as injustice…”

“We want a peaceful contact as well,” Deborah snapped back. “Don’t they know that?”

“Not today,” the President said, firmly. The two scowled at each other and then returned their attention to the main display. “Colonel?”

Paul had used the brief diversion to catch up with the reports. “The THAAD launchers, Patriot missile batteries and Air Defence Artillery are on standby and ready for action, if required,” he continued. “The ground-based radar network is up and running at full capability and hard linkages between each site have been checked and confirmed. If we lose the satellites, we should still be able to coordinate our operations. The Navy has deployed antiaircraft ships in positions to provide extra firepower to defend our ports and other installations; the ballistic missile submarines and other strategic assets have been placed on alert. We have a direct link to Discovery and the ISS, Mr President; we’re as ready as we’re ever going to be.”

The President nodded slowly. An unnatural air of peace had settled over the entire world. Everyone was watching the alien contact, even the people whose leaders had tried to keep the fact of alien existence from them; wars, disputes and even underground insurgencies had almost come to a stop. The President was fundamentally a man of peace, but he had come to power in a world of endless war, one where he had to wage a war against shadowy opponents. The peace wouldn’t last…but then, did it ever?

“That leaves one question,” he said, looking up at the alien craft. “What about the rest of the world?”

Paul spoke without taking his eyes off the screen. “The Russians, Chinese, French and British have launched and dispersed their ballistic missile submarines,” he said. “Russian and Chinese ASAT systems have been brought online and, in line with the secret protocols, have been linked into our tracking system. The EU will do what they can, but their ASAT weapons are rather more limited than either the Russians or ours. In short, everyone who has some ASAT capability is preparing it for operations, while everyone else is merely going on alert and praying.”

The President snorted. “And the aliens themselves?”

Paul shook his head. “Nothing, Mr President,” he said. “They’ve said nothing to us.”

“When I was elected to lead this country,” the President said, talking more to himself than Paul, “I thought I wanted the job. I thought that it would be the crowning accomplishment of my career. Now…I think I made a mistake.”

Paul smiled, but said nothing.

There was half an hour to go.

***

“And tension is rising in the streets as the alien starship continues towards the International Space Station,” the talking head said. Joshua Bourjaily listened with half an ear as he typed away on his laptop. He’d actually managed to win back some prestige with his article on the secret military build-up, although not for the right reasons, at least in his view. His sources had started to offer him titbits again, but now that the MSM had access to the story, there was nothing exclusive for him. “In San Francisco, crowds have gathered to welcome the aliens to Earth…”

The television changed, briefly, to show a group of topless men and women dancing together in the streets. “Welcome to our new insect overlords,” one of them shouted, through cheers and giggles. They were clearly all very drunk. “We welcome you…”

The cameramen at the studio hastily cut back to the alien starship. Joshua had followed the negotiations with some interest; NASA had wanted to classify most of the live feed, but the MSM had refused to accept that. They’d pushed and harried NASA until they’d been forced, in the wake of congressional enquired into the failure of the American space program, to agree to share the raw footage. Again, it wasn’t something that really interested him, at least not as a source of possible income. He didn’t have a steady wage; he only got paid for exclusivity, and every news service in the world would have access to the live feed. Even Al Jazeera had decided to show the alien contact, live and uncut.

“Only twenty minutes to go until the alien starship comes to a halt near the space station,” the talking head continued, her voice breathless with excitement. Joshua wondered, in a moment of pure spite, how she managed to keep awake from the excitement of pointing out the obvious, time and time again. “NASA scientists have informed us that the aliens will enter an orbit that will put them at rest, relative to the International Space Station, where they will either dock directly with the station or send a smaller shuttle towards the station.”

She rolled on and on, making it simple enough for an idiot to understand, dumbing down the science as much as possible. Joshua tuned her out as best as he could, ignoring her even as he wrote his own article, knowing that getting it online was his only hope of making money off First Contact. Once the alien craft docked with the station – or however they intended to proceed – the entire world would see what was going on…and, unfortunately, would have talking heads explaining the meaning of it all. There were times when Joshua wished he had chosen a better line of work.

There was fifteen minutes to go.

***

The house looked like a normal semi-detached, one that might be owned by an up and coming junior executive, or high-paid tax lawyer, with a wife, two children and a third on the way. Inside, it looked normal enough on the ground floor, but the upper floor rooms were studded with weapons of all kinds. Any of the gun control factions who saw the weapons would probably have fainted; Captain Brent Roeder and his men, all wearing civilian clothes, had amassed enough weapons to take and hold a shopping mall for a few hours.

“We shouldn’t be here,” Corporal Cody Fahy said, in-between stripping down a M16. SF34’s ‘deployment’ to suburban America hadn’t sat well with a man who had fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. If the shit hit the fan, he’d been loud in expressing his opinion that they would all die before being able to fire a few rounds in the direction of the enemy. “We should be out in the countryside holed up in a barn or a farmhouse or…”

“We’ve been through all this,” Brent said, as patiently as he could. There were twelve men occupying the house, all carefully briefed to keep themselves out of sight so that the neighbours didn’t see them, and the tension had been rising steadily. The suburb on the outskirts of Austin was almost deserted – the population had headed out to the countryside to escape an alien threat, if the aliens were actually hostile – but there were too many people around, still, to lower their guard. Everyone in SF34 had been warned about the discovery of one team – on exercise, thank God – that had been reported to the Police as a possible terrorist cell. Somehow, he was pretty certain that having a shoot-out with the local SWAT team or the National Guard would not endear him to his superiors…or SF34 to the politicians. “If something happens, we have to be emplaced in position to fight…”

“If we have to fight at all,” Fahy growled. “They’ve come hundreds of light years to visit us, sir; they’re not going to be hostile.”

“You don’t know that,” Brent snapped. “Tell me something, Corporal; how did you get your medal if this was the level of professionalism you showed in Ashcanistan?”

“There, I knew that I was on a mission,” Fahy replied, dryly. “I knew what I was doing, even if it was just lurking under a blanket for a few days until Mullah Fat-Ass drove by, unaware that there was an American soldier ready to send him to a fiery end. Here, sir…here is surreal.”

“There’s a vampire in the loft and a roomful of student nurses in the next house,” Sergeant Clayton Mancil offered, from his position in the corner. “What more do you want? A chance to fire automatic weapons with total abandon?”

“You know what I mean, sir,” Fahy said. He finished working on his M16 and picked up a second weapon, running through a basic set of checks. “This whole situation feels unreal.”

“Yes, but…it’s our duty,” Brent said, dryly.

“So shut up and soldier,” Sergeant Tessa Wireman said. The stocky woman didn’t look like a soldier, something that she’d used to her advantage in the past; as the only woman on deployment with SF34, she had to play the role of the woman of the house. The other men had to remain out of sight, but she could be seen in public; no one would even question her presence. “Best case; we all go home in a week and never speak of this…embarrassment again. Worst case, well…”

She shrugged as they directed their attention back to the television set. There was little point in taking up defensive position, not unless the aliens had some kind of matter transmitter…and if that were the case, the war against them would become rather more unwinnable than it already was. The remaining soldiers ambled in with studied casualness, taking their seats and leaning back to watch, knowing that their overt brethren, deployed across the nation, would be watching as well.

There were ten minutes to go.

Ten minutes until the world changed forever.

***

NASA’s standard emergency vacuum protection suit felt hot and clammy to Ambassador Francis Prachthauser as he shifted uncomfortably within the heat, but there was no choice; it had taken hours of arguing to convince Gary to permit the diplomats to wear the protection suits, rather than a full-out spacesuit. The protection suits were supposed to provide protection against a brief exposure to vacuum, but it felt uncomfortably as if he was wearing a condom, one large enough to cover his entire body. He hadn’t spoken that thought aloud; the closer the alien starship grew, the more tense and silent the ISS felt, even to him.

The alien starship was settling down into its orbit now, catching up on the ISS on its stately orbit around the planet. The hail of communications beams from Earth had only intensified, but still the aliens made no reply. It was almost large enough to be seen with the naked eye now, even though it was hundreds of kilometres away from the station. Francis swallowed twice as he realised just how dry his throat was becoming. The entire situation was becoming increasingly surreal.

“If they don’t slow now, they’re going to ram us,” Gary said, softly. The ISS commander was as riveted to the display as the rest of them. Almost on cue, the alien starship twinkled with little lights, slowing the starship still further. “Impressive power source; I wonder what they use to provide their power. Those aren’t chemical rockets.”

Francis felt his gaze straying to the display. “Perhaps they have something we haven’t even imagined,” he said. He’d read all the speculations, but now, watching the alien craft approaching in silent majesty, they were somehow inadequate. The aliens seemed to move so effortlessly in space…and still they were silent. “Or maybe…”

An alarm sounded. “Radar sweep,” Damiani snapped. His face was very pale in the room. “They just swept space with a high-powered radar!”

Sophia flinched. “Did they detect us?”

“They detected everything on this hemisphere,” Damiani said. It had been a stupid question, born of fear and tension, but he allowed it to pass. The aliens would have located the ISS with a simple telescope sweep. “They’ll have picked up everything that wasn’t behind the planet…”

A second warning tone sounded. Francis saw Gary’s eyes swinging towards the radar display…and saw the icon of the alien starship slowly beginning to break up. For a crazy moment, he thought that the aliens were committing suicide, that they’d spent all of the effort to get to Earth only to die, but then he realised that the aliens were launching smaller craft. Lots of smaller craft…

Damiani’s eyes went very wide. “Incoming,” he shouted suddenly. There was no hiding the raw fear in his tone. “Incoming…”

And the hammer of God struck the space station!