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Fnfian Horde Warcruiser Shadow Warrior
“You are sure this is the correct planet?”
Alien Savant Cn!lss barely refrained from clenching his clawed maniples in irritation at his superior’s doubt. Subhorde Commander Pr!lss wasn’t remotely qualified to serve as anything other than an expendable warrior, at least in Cn!lss’s opinion, preferably one sent to charge over barren ground towards an enemy plasma cannon nest. It would have improved the genetic reserves of the Fnfian Horde considerably if Pr!lss got himself blown away before he had a chance to sire children. Unfortunately, the universe being what it was, Pr!lss happened to be related to the Supreme Horde Commander, a qualification that had ensured his promotion to Subhorde Commander. It wouldn’t have galled Cn!lss so much if he hadn’t been convinced that his superior’s arrogance would get his entire crew killed one day.
He hastily bent into the posture of respect when his superior’s claws started to twitch, threatening immediate violence. Cn!lss was one of the few Hordesmen to understand, on more than an abstract level, just how far advanced the rest of the universe – or at least the significant part of it – was over the Horde. Indeed, one of the reasons for his commander’s near-constant irritation was the simple fact that Shadow Warrior had been designed for creatures of a noticeably different build. The Tokomak Warcruiser had had most of its original furnishings stripped out, but most of its bulkheads and internal passageways couldn’t be replaced. If the Hordesmen tried, it was unlikely they would be able to put the ship back together again.
“The data we recovered from the Varnar was precise, My Liege,” Cn!lss said. “This is the origin world of their damnable cyborgs.”
He allowed himself a faint smile. Years ago, the Varnar had started deploying a whole new force of cyborg warriors onto the battlefield. Their enemies had been driven from a dozen worlds before they had finally realised that the cyborgs were derived from a whole new race, rather than any of the known Galactics. And it had taken months before the Horde had been hired to track down the homeworld of the new aliens and kidnap samples that could be turned into new cyborgs.
“This is a primitive world,” the Subhorde Commander snarled. “They don’t even have fusion plants, let alone a proper space program!”
Cn!lss shrugged, clicking his forelegs together. There was no law against trading technology to primitive alien races – it was how the Horde had acquired their first starships – but it was clear that the Varnar hadn’t bothered to share anything with their human slaves. Indeed, it looked as though they’d never attempted to make open contact with the humans, even though they’d taken humans from their homeworld. But then, given how effective their cyborgs were, it was quite likely the Varnar wouldn’t want to do anything to draw attention to the human race. If the laws against genocide hadn’t been the only laws to be universally enforced, he suspected that Earth would have met with a fatal accident years ago.
“This is their homeworld,” he repeated. He could have pointed out that the Horde was still primitive and yet they flew starships, but it wouldn’t have impressed his commander. Like most Hordesmen, the Subhorde Commander sneered at the Galactics, rather than admitting that the Galactics were centuries ahead of the Horde. “All we have to do is capture a few samples and take them back for study.”
He looked down at the torrent of information flowing into the computers. For a primitive world – and one that seemed to be caught in a socio-political trap that had prevented them from settling their solar system – there was an impressive amount of electronic noise flaring away from the planet. The computers could translate the signals, but the tiny fraction Cn!lss had reviewed made absolutely no sense. It seemed as though the human race was completely insane.
“This section of their homeworld is the most developed,” he commented, tapping one large land mass on the display. “It will serve as a rich source of educated slaves.”
His commander clicked his maniples in disgust. Education wasn’t something that most Hordesmen took seriously, not when they could be drinking and fighting instead. And besides, most of them had an unspoken inferiority complex when they considered what the educated races had done. It didn’t stop them taking and using educated slaves whenever they had the opportunity. Indeed, Cn!lss had to admit there was great potential on Earth, once they taught the humans who was boss. A few strikes from orbit and the humans would be forced to surrender.
But, for the moment, they had other priorities.
“Find me some humans,” the Subhorde Commander ordered. “And then dispatch an assault shuttle to take them onboard.”
Cn!lss bowed his head in obedience.
It honestly never occurred to him, or anyone else on the Horde starship, that the information they’d obtained had been more than a little incomplete.
“Absent friends,” Steve Stuart said.
His friends nodded in agreement as they sipped their beer. It had been a long walk from where they’d left the van to their camping site, but Steve had to admit that it had been worth it. Instead of going to one of the state parks, they’d chosen to walk out into the wide open spaces of Montana and set up a campsite of their own. Now, they sat around the fire and watched the flames flickering as darkness fell over the land.
“Absent friends,” his friends echoed back. “May they never be forgotten.”
Steve sighed, feeling – once again – the pain of loss. It had been seven years since he’d quit the Marines, seven years since he’d put his uniform away for good, but the memories refused to fade, no matter what he did with his life. Death was a part of military life, for good or ill, yet there was a difference between losing a soldier to enemy action and losing a soldier because politicians had tied the military’s hands. It would have been easier to take it, he suspected, if the enemy had simply killed his friends in honourable combat.
He forced the depression away and looked around the campsite. His brothers Mongo and Kevin, both taller than him, but possessing the same fair heads and facial features as himself, almost to the point where their faces could have been mistaken for triplets. Beside them, his oldest friends Charles Edwards – another former Marine – and Vincent Hastings, a retired Navy SEAL.
Military service ran in the family. The Stuarts had served the Kings of Scotland, then migrated to America and joined George Washington’s army, then fought in almost every war since the United States had won its independence. Hell, there had been Stuarts fighting on both sides during the Civil War. But now … in truth, Steve wasn’t sure if he could advise his sons – or his daughter – to go into the military. Defending the United States was important and there were few higher honours, yet … was it worth making such a commitment when one’s political leaders were worse than the enemy?
“He’s brooding again,” Mongo said. “Someone poke him, please!”
Stuart smiled. He could always rely on Mongo to cheer him up. “I have a gun and I’m not afraid to use it,” he said, quickly. “And I am not brooding. I am merely thinking deeply contemplative thoughts.”
“A likely story,” Edwards said. “Don’t you know contemplative thoughts are strictly forbidden in the Wolfpac?”
“Yep,” Kevin put in. “We wrote a ban on them into the charter.”
Stuart rolled his eyes. He’d started the Wolfpac – a band of amateur rocket scientists – as something to do after his retirement, but it had grown into a hobby. Building rockets and firing them into the air was surprisingly fun, even though they had never come close to their dream of building a manned rocket. But then, even if they had, somehow he doubted the government would have allowed them to launch it. It was bad enough when federal agents came sniffing around to determine who was purchasing rocket components and why. They never quite seemed to believe that the club was completely innocent of anything other than trying to have a good time.
“Then we should have barred you,” he said. Kevin was the black sheep of the family; he’d gone into combat intelligence, rather than the fighting infantry. But long experience in Afghanistan had taught him that HUMIT could be just as important as raids and roadblocks when it came to countering an insurgency. “You think too much.”
Kevin made a one-fingered gesture, then poked the fire meaningfully. “You think too little,” he said, as Stuart passed him the marshmallows. “These days, thinking men are required to win wars and rebuild societies.”
Vincent snorted, rudely. “We may be doing it in America soon enough,” he said. “Did you read the email from Tony?”
Stuart nodded. Tony, like Stuart and the rest of the Wolfpac, had left military service and gone back to the civilian world, but unlike them he’d opened a grocery store in Chicago. And then there’d been a riot – the food stamp system had broken down for several days – and Tony’s store had been robbed. Worse, he’d been threatened with arrest for attempting to defend his property with a shotgun and a bad attitude. It wouldn’t be long, Stuart suspected, before Tony abandoned his store and migrated to a state with a more robust attitude towards lawlessness and self-defence.
But it was something that nagged at his mind, whenever he let it. He’d been in Iraq, Afghanistan and several countries it would have surprised American civilians to know their troops had been operating, yet his country sometimes felt more alien to him than any of the foreign nations he’d visited. The old values, the ones he’d imbued with his mother’s milk, seemed to be fading away. Duty, honour and loyalty were just words, self-reliance a joke …
“Brooding again,” Mongo snapped. “Tony will be fine. He always is.”
Stuart shrugged. He had his doubts. Fighting the enemy had been simple, fighting the bureaucracy that was slowly strangling America to death was almost impossible. He’d once planned to open a gun store, but the paperwork had been too much for him.
“Look up in the sky instead,” Kevin suggested. “I think that’s the International Space Station.”
Stuart sighed as he watched the speck of light making its way across the darkening sky. He’d once had dreams of being an astronaut, perhaps of being the first man to set foot on Mars or Venus, but his dreams had been blown away by cold hard reality. NASA hadn’t gone back to the Moon, let alone the rest of the Solar System, while the Space Program had become a political football rather than a viable project. There were no dreams any longer for humanity, no Wild West waiting to take the restless and dispossessed. Instead, there was a decaying society. And, in the distance, he could hear the howl of the approaching wolf.
“That’s a satellite,” Vincent said. “I think NSA is peering down at us right now.”
“Probably,” Stuart said. “We’re a bunch of males out on a camping trip. Of course we’re a subject of interest.”
He sighed. He’d had enough experience with combat surveillance systems to know that they were terrifyingly good. He would certainly have hated to be on the receiving end. Technology had its limits, he knew, but when the United States cared enough to send the best the results could be remarkable. Plenty of insurgents hadn’t learned how to cover themselves before it was too late.
“Could be worse,” Kevin said. “Did I tell you what we saw in Afghanistan?”
Mongo elbowed his brother. “You mean what you saw while you were sitting in a comfortable armchair, sipping cappuccino, while we were slogging over the mountains?”
Kevin ignored the jibe. “There was a bunch of Afghani men making their way towards the base, walking cross-country in pitch darkness,” he said. “Then they stopped. We thought they were setting up a mortar, so we focused sensors on them and primed the guns on the base to return fire. And then there was an odd heat source on the ground.”
He paused. No one spoke.
“And then there were five more, lying together,” he continued, after a long moment. “There we were, all puzzled, trying to figure out just what the hell they were doing. Were they laying IEDs for us? But we didn’t normally patrol that area. Or did they intend to lure us into a trap of some kind?
“And then we realised what they were doing,” he concluded. “They were having a communal shit!”
Stuart laughed, despite himself. “And to think I thought intelligence pukes had exciting lives,” he said. “Wearing black suits, chasing and screwing women, diving out of high buildings …”
“James Bond isn’t real,” Kevin interrupted. “Although there was this time in Bangkok …”
“You banged your cock?” Vincent asked, innocently.
“Oh, shut up,” Kevin said, as the group chuckled. “But I won’t deny that intelligence can get a little hairy at times. There was this village we visited …”
“We’ve been to Afghani villages too,” Mongo pointed out.
“Yes, but you went in full armour and had a whole squad of tough buddies beside you,” Kevin countered. “I was alone, unless you count two more intelligence officers, one of whom was wearing a full veil.”
“And no doubt invited to marry one of the locals,” Vincent said. “Was she?”
“She talked to the local women,” Kevin said. “We told them I was her husband.”
“Poor girl,” Stuart and Mongo said together.
“Guys,” Charles said, suddenly.
Stuart looked over at him, feeling alarm shivering down his spine. The last time he’d heard Charles use that tone, they’d been under enemy fire seconds later.
“Look,” Charles said, pointing up towards the sky. “What’s that?”
Stuart looked up. A glowing light was making its way across the sky, its course erratic. “A satellite?”
“Too large,” Charles said.
“Maybe it’s a UFO,” Mongo said. He snickered. “Do you think they’ve learned everything they can from anal probes?”
“Always knew you were a pervert,” Kevin said. He stuck out his tongue in a remarkably childish manner, then looked back up at the sky. “But it must be a plane, I think.”
“A plane that’s coming closer to us,” Charles said, before Mongo could muster a rejoinder. “Why?”
Stuart stared. The glowing light was growing larger, coming down towards the campsite at terrifying speed. Instinctively, he reached for the pistol at his belt – he never went anywhere without it, no matter what the law said – as the light started to take on shape and form. It couldn’t be a helicopter or a plane, part of his mind insisted; there was no noise, not even a faint clattering sound. But he knew there were some helicopters, designed for commando operations, that were almost completely silent. And yet …
Why would such a helicopter come after us? He asked himself. His imagination could produce a few ideas, but none of them were actually likely. What do they want?
“It’s not a helicopter,” Charles said. He sounded more than a little alarmed. “Look at it.”
Stuart half-covered his eyes as a bright light seemed to shine down on them. It was hard to see the shape of the craft through the light, but it looked to be a crude spacecraft rather than the smooth UFO he’d been expecting. Indeed, it was little larger than a small executive jet, yet it hung in the air with effortless ease. The floodlight swept over the campsite, then started to fade slightly as the craft slowly lowered itself towards the ground.
It couldn’t be human, Stuart realised, feeling a sudden lump in his throat. The others were silent, lost in their own thoughts. There were VTOL fighters and tilt-rotor aircraft, but nothing as large and capable as the craft facing them. As far as he could tell, it didn’t have any exhausts or anything else that might have suggested how it worked. It might as well be magic. But, as the light faded away, he realised that the hull was scorched and pitted. Cold ice ran down his spine as old instincts awoke. Alien the craft might be – and he was convinced it was far from human – but it was a warship.
“Shit,” Vincent said, breaking the silence.
There was a dull crunching sound as the craft touched down. Stuart shook himself, then concentrated on observing as much as possible. There were no landing struts, as far as he could see; the craft had just settled down on the soft ground. For a long moment, all was still … and then the craft’s hatch opened. Bright light spilled out, illuminating strange alien creatures.
Stuart caught his breath. He’d expected, he realised now, tiny grey aliens. Instead, he found himself fighting the urge to panic as the aliens came into view. They looked like eerie crosses between humans and spiders, perhaps with some crabs worked into the mixture too, as if someone had stuck a human torso and head on top of a giant spider and merged them together. Each of the aliens had six legs, greenish-red skin and dark eyes set within an armoured head, as if they had no skin covering their skulls. They’d have difficulty walking on uneven ground, Stuart suspected, although as they pranced forward it became clear that they were more limber than he’d realised. It was impossible to determine their sex from their appearance. Or, for that matter, if they even had the concept of males and females.
He’d seen countless aliens on television and movies, ranging from men in bad makeup and poor suits to marvels of CGI. There was no reason, he was sure, that Hollywood couldn’t produce aliens as strange and inhuman as the ones facing him. But somehow he knew they were real. There was something about them that utterly destroyed any disbelief he might have felt, a sudden awareness that they were very far from human. Besides, he had a feeling that even a small human couldn’t have fitted into an alien-sized suit.
The sense of danger grew stronger as he realised what the aliens were carrying. Four of them were carrying silver tubes that seemed to be made for their hands, the fifth was merely holding a silver box in one clawed hand. He also had a silver band wrapped around his skull, perhaps a badge of rank. The silver tubes were weapons, Stuart was sure, even though they were nothing like any human-build weapon. But there was something odd about the way the aliens were holding them, as if they’d never used them before. And yet … that was absurd, wasn’t it?
Mongo leaned forward as the aliens spread out. “This is real, isn’t it?”
“Sure looks that way,” Charles said.
Stuart nodded in agreement, his mind working frantically. What was this? An attempt to make First Contact without trying to fly into the secure airspace surrounding the White House and the Pentagon? Or was it something more sinister? He found it hard to believe that any alien race invading Earth would bother with a handful of campers … unless, of course, they intended to dissect Stuart and his friends. Or interrogate them on the state of the planet’s defences …
Kevin took a step forward. The aliens chattered suddenly – a high-pitched clattering that only added to the sense of inhumanity – and raised their weapons. Whatever they were actually saying, the meaning was all-too-clear. Kevin froze as the aliens aimed their weapons at his chest.
Part of Stuart’s mind noted, dispassionately, that the aliens might not intend to use headshots – and, given their armoured heads, that might make sense. Or, for all they knew, the alien brains were actually located in their torsos, rather than their skulls. But it didn’t matter, he realised. The aliens weren’t acting friendly. Stuart had been at enough meetings in Afghanistan between Coalition troops and local villagers to understand what compromised a healthy respect for security … and what was outright paranoia. The aliens were acting more like they intended to take prisoners than talk to the humans facing them.
The unarmed alien – Stuart cautioned himself not to assume the alien was actually unarmed – lifted the silver box to his lips. There was another burst of alien speech, followed by a dull masculine voice coming from the box – a translator, Stuart realised. He felt a flicker of envy – a portable translator would have been very helpful in Afghanistan – as the alien voice grew more confident. It spoke in oddly-accented English.
“Do you understand me?”
“Yes,” Stuart said, when it became clear that no one else was going to speak. Perhaps the aliens would have tried French or Russian next if they couldn’t make themselves understood through English. “We understand you.”
There was another chattering sound from the alien. “You will board our craft,” the alien said. It – he, Stuart decided – pointed one clawed hand towards the hatch. “Step through the hatch and into the hold.”
“Wait a minute,” Vincent said, shocked. “Where are you taking us?”
“That is none of your concern,” the alien informed him. He indicated the craft again, his claw flexing open and closed. “You will step through the hatch.”
Vincent reached for the pistol at his belt. There was a flash of light so bright that Stuart moved to cover his eyes instinctively. Vincent’s body fell to the ground, a smoking hole in his chest. Stuart stared in horror; he’d seen wounds from gunshots, IED strikes and even training accidents, but he’d never seen anything quite like this. The damage would have been instantly fatal, the dispassionate part of his mind realised; Vincent had been dead before his body hit the ground.
He balled his fists, then forced himself to relax. The lessons from a dozen Conduct after Capture courses rose up within his mind. There would be an opportunity to escape, he told himself firmly. He saw the same understanding in the eyes of his friends. The aliens would relax, sooner or later, and they would make mistakes. And, when they did, their human captives would be ready. The aliens might have advanced weapons, but advanced weapons didn’t mean anything in close-quarter combat. No one knew that better than the soldiers who had fought terrorists and insurgents for the last twenty years.
Be a good little captive, he told himself, as the aliens motioned for them to walk forwards, into the craft. Vincent’s body was simply left on the ground. Part of Stuart’s mind wondered if it would be discovered before it decayed. What would a autopsy show if any traces were left when it was found? He pushed the thought aside and concentrated on observing the aliens. Bide your time and wait.