Hopefully, I’ll start writing either on Sunday or Wednesday, depending.
(Heinlein Colony; Two Years Before Vera Cruz.)
“Well,” Ira said. “Aren’t you glad you came all this way?”
Jill Pearlman hesitated, then glanced out over the water. The sun had set hours ago, but the moonlight illuminated a warm lagoon, with water lapping gently against the sandy shore. It was completely isolated from the colony five miles to the south, largely unseen by human eyes. Ira had boasted he was the first person to set eyes on the lagoon.
“Yes,” she said, shaking her head. “But did we have to come all this way?”
Ira grinned at her, his teeth gleaming white against his dark skin. “Yup,” he said. He turned, then moved towards the beach. “Come on!”
Jill watched him run, shedding clothes as he moved, then blinked in surprise as she realised he’d stripped himself completely bare. His ass winked at her as he paused on the very edge of the shore, then splashed into the water. She hesitated, unsure if she wanted to skinny-dip, then ran after him, almost tripping over his trousers and the gun he’d left on the beach.
“It’s warm,” he called. “Come on in!”
“Coming,” Jill said.
She removed her shirt and trousers, then hesitated before adding her bra and panties to the pile of clothing. Ira was fun, and she knew her parents approved of him, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to allow their relationship to get so intense so quickly. And yet … she pushed her doubts to one side and splashed into the water. It was warmer than she’d expected, now the sun had gone down. But it was definitely lovely.
“I told you so,” Ira said, as she swam out to meet him. His eyes flickered to her breasts, then looked back at her face and remained fixed there. “It’s lovely out here.”
Jill let out a sigh as she flipped over and stared up at the rising moon. She’d pitched all sorts of fits when her parents had announced that the Heinlein Society was setting up its own colony world – and that they would be among the first colonists. They’d wanted to leave overpopulated and overregulated Earth, but all Jill had been able to think about was leaving her friends behind. And Earth’s facilities. She’d fought, for nothing.
And I’m glad I lost, she admitted, in the privacy of her own mind. This isn’t Earth.
The colony was only three years old, but the settlers had already created a number of farming settlements, including the homestead Jill and her family worked. Life was slower than it was on Earth, without entertainment movies or VR downloads, yet there was something about it that made her feel content, something she’d never truly felt on humanity’s homeworld. And her relationship with Ira felt better, more wholesome, than anything she’d had on Earth. She didn’t feel any pressure to move faster or to have loveless sex with him …
She turned and smiled at Ira, then dived under the water and swam away from him, daring the young man to follow. Heinlein had few higher forms of life; the settlers had introduced various breeds of fish as well as cows, sheep and pigs, monitoring their progress as they swarmed and multiplied in the endless oceans. Jill had been told that, one day, they would be able to fish as much as they liked, but for the moment they were restricted in what they could take from the waters. Not that she really cared, she had to admit. She preferred lamb or beef to fish.
Ira caught up with her as she stopped and rested her feet on the sandy seabed. Jill turned to reach for him … and froze as the moonlight revealed something in the water. For a moment, she was convinced she was seeing things. Heinlein had no sharks or dolphins, nothing that might be dangerous to human swimmers. And yet … the water ripped where the shape had been, just under the surface. Something was definitely there.
“What?” Ira asked. He was more sensitive than any of the boys she’d known on Earth, more able to read her moods. “Jill …”
“Look,” Jill stammered. The shape seemed to be growing larger. “What is that?”
Ira turned, just in time to see the shape burst through the surface and out into the open air. It looked humanoid, but it clearly wasn’t human. Jill screamed in shock as it faced them, one long leathery hand reaching out towards the humans. Water dripped from its skin as it stared at then, as shocked to see the humans as the humans were to see them. Jill shivered, feeling suddenly cold, then started to back off towards the shore. Heinlein had no higher life forms, she knew. And yet she was staring at evidence of … what?
“Get back to shore,” Ira said, through clenched teeth. “Hurry!”
They’d been stupid, Jill realised, as she splashed through the water. It suddenly seemed very difficult to move. They were so far from the colony homesteads that they couldn’t help to attract attention, no matter how loudly they shouted. Behind her, she heard Ira calling out to the creature, trying to speak to it. Jill reached the shore and turned, just in time to see the creature advancing towards Ira. Panic overcame her and she ran for his clothes, then scooped up the gun in one hand. Her parents had drilled her again and again until she was an excellent shot, cautioning her that she might need to be able to defend herself one day. But they’d never envisaged this …
Ira started to back off … and the creature followed him, its leathery hands waving frantically, as if it were trying to say something. But Jill couldn’t hear a sound, apart from a very faint rasp that echoed unpleasantly on the air. She couldn’t understand what she was seeing. Was the creature actually intelligent? Or was it a previously undiscovered form of life? The planet was big, after all. There might be anything outside the colony’s walls.
“Get back to the farm,” Ira ordered. “Tell them about …”
He stumbled and fell backwards into the water. The creature kept advancing towards him, its hands reaching out as if it intended to pick him up and carry him into the deep waters. Jill shouted, but the creature showed no reaction. Desperately, she lifted the gun, snapped off the safety and fired, just once. The creature stumbled as her bullet struck its head …
… And collapsed back into the water.
The devastation stretched as far as the eye could see.
Admiral Sir Theodore Smith stared down as the shuttle made its way towards London, struggling to keep his face and emotions under control. Like all of the officers and crew in the Royal Navy, he had sworn an oath to put himself and his body between his country and war’s desolation. But the scene below the shuttle was proof that he and his fellows had failed to keep Britain safe. The country had been devastated.
He sucked in his breath as he looked down at what had once been towns and cities, fertile countryside and harbours. The aliens hadn’t targeted British soil directly, but it had hardly mattered. They’d landed a massive warhead in the Atlantic Ocean, which had triggered tidal waves that had washed over Britain and Ireland, Spain and Portugal. No one had anticipated an attack on such a scale, not even after Vera Cruz. Uncounted millions were dead, millions more were unaccounted for. The country hadn’t suffered devastation on such a scale in all of living memory, if ever. Not even World War II had come close to slaughtering so many British citizens.
A feeling of horror, mixed with despondency, grew in his breast as he tracked the passage of the tidal waves eastward. Penzance and Cardiff, Bristol and Bournemouth, had been drowned beneath the massive tidal waves. The Brecon Beacon National Park, where the British Army had put its recruits through hell for hundreds of years, had been washed away into nothingness. Only the presence of Ireland, he knew, had kept more of the western coastline from being drowned under the waves. And yet the devastation had still not come to an end. So much water had been vaporised and thrust into the upper atmosphere that it had yet to stop raining over parts of the country. Floods were an ever-present threat.
He’d seen pictures, of course, broadcast over the datanet by reporters eager to claim the first scoops from the devastated zone. There were images of horror, of dead bodies piled up as the tidal waves receded or looters making their way into the devastated areas to loot, yet those images hadn’t seemed quite real. Devastation on such a scale was far beyond his imagination, even though he’d been a serving naval officer for what felt like an eternity. And yet, now, he knew he wasn’t even looking at the worst of it. Far too many countries had lost millions of lives in the wake of the alien attack on Earth. And entire complexes in space had been destroyed with all hands.
Down below, he knew, there were thousands of refugee camps for survivors, policed by the military. There had been nothing like it in Britain since the Troubles – and even the Troubles, at their worst, had been on a much smaller scale. The social fabric that made up the British nation had been badly damaged, perhaps shattered. He’d accessed news sites as the shuttle made its way towards Earth, only to discover a non-stop liturgy of horror. Food riots, protests against refugees … outright defiance of the government’s authority. No matter how he tried to be optimistic, part of him couldn’t help wondering if he was looking at the final days of mankind.
The devastation faded slightly as the shuttle picked up speed, heading towards London, but it wasn’t normal. Floods covered large tracts of land, a small army convoy made its way through devastated fields and a large refugee camp covered what had once been a farm. If the Troubles hadn’t taught the government the wisdom of making sure Britain could feed itself, Ted knew, it would have been a great deal worse. But it was already bad enough …
He sighed as London came into view, then winced in horror as he saw the flooding. London had always been vulnerable to floods, but the safety precautions seemed to have failed in the wake of the alien attack. Or perhaps it was the rain, part of his mind noted. London was on the wrong side of the country to have a tidal wave marching up the river, smashing everything in its past. One of the datanet interviews had been wish a scientist who had claimed the aliens had deliberately set out to melt the icecaps. Ted couldn’t help wondering why the aliens would have bothered.
But they live below the waves, he thought, as the shuttle slowed to a hover over London, then dropped down towards Heathrow Spaceport. They might see advantage in drowning the human race, then taking our world.
Raindrops splashed off the shuttle’s portholes as it touched down, sending shivers running down Ted’s spine. He’d travelled in space, even flying cloudscoop missiles through Jupiter’s atmosphere as a young man, but he’d never been comfortable flying through the rain. He knew it was safe, yet part of him had always been scared. It was funny how he’d never had any problems in space …
He rose, then looked towards his travelling companion. “Lieutenant?”
Lieutenants Janelle Lopez looked up at him, her eyes dead and cold. Ted felt a flicker of pity, despite the certain knowledge there were people outside the shuttle who were far worse off. Janelle had blighted her career through pressing for assignment to Ark Royal, the Royal Navy’s outdated space carrier, when assignment to Ark Royal was normally reserved for officers and crew the Royal Navy couldn’t be bothered to discharge. She might not even have been promoted if Ark Royal hadn’t proved to be the only ship capable of standing up to the aliens in open battle. And yet she’d proved herself under fire …
But it isn’t her service that brings her to London now, Ted thought, as he helped her to her feet. The fire had gone out of her when she’d discovered her lover was dead – and who he’d really been. And I wouldn’t have brought her here at all, if it had been up to me.
“Come on,” he said, gently. “It’s time to face the music.”
The hatch opened, revealing puddles of water gathering around the shuttle. Ted hesitated, then let out a sigh of relief as a pair of armed soldiers appeared, one of them carrying a spare umbrella. Ted took it, then used it to cover both himself and Janelle. The soldiers looked thoroughly wet and miserable as they beckoned Ted to follow them towards the terminal buildings. He couldn’t help noticing that the spaceport was largely disused, despite the urgent need to bring supplies into the city. Two of the terminals seemed to have been converted into makeshift refugee camps.
“There’s a VIP transport for you, sir,” one of the soldiers said, once they’d checked IDs against a central database. He pointed to a large black car, waiting just outside the terminal, with an armed escort on either side. “You’ll be taken directly to Downing Street.”
Ted swallowed as he saw the soldiers. “Is it really that bad out there?”
“It’s worse,” the soldier said. His voice was dead, as if he had been pushed to the limits of his endurance and there was nothing left, but duty. “If the flood levels keep rising, we’re going to have to move millions more people out to London to higher ground. Damned if we know how we’re going to do that, sir. We had a riot in Soho yesterday that saw several thousand people dead. We had to stick the stiffs in a pile and use lasers to burn the bodies to ash.”
Ted nodded, unsurprised. There was no way that millions of dead bodies could be stored for later identification, not now. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people would never be accounted for, their fates utterly unknown. The prospect of never knowing what had happened to his family gnawed at him, yet he knew there was no choice. Thousands of decomposing bodies would spread disease at horrifying speed.
He climbed into the rear of the car, then settled down and watched as the driver started the engine and followed the soldiers out into the streets. London was awash with water, even on streets he would have thought immune to flooding. It had been years since he’d driven in London, but he was fairly sure the driver was taking the long way round. But then, if some streets were impassable he would have no choice.
“My God,” Janelle said. It was the first thing she’d said since boarding the shuttle. “Look at it!”
Ted followed her gaze. It had once been a park, he was sure, a place for young children to play while their parents watched. Now, it was a muddy refugee camp, with prefabricated buildings providing limited shelter against the rain. The refugees themselves were largely older citizens, young women or children. The young men, Ted knew, would have been drafted to help with the floods. Many of the refugees had torn clothing, nothing more than whatever they’d been wearing when the attack began.
“We’ve been having some problems feeding them all,” the driver said, as he drove past the camp and down towards Downing Street. “I believe there are plans to move them all to Scotland, but no one really knows if it will ever happen.”
Ted shuddered, remembering some of the disaster management plans he’d seen during his stint at the Admiralty, after his promotion. None of them had made encouraging reading – and, judging from the scene before him, they’d simply been swept away by the pressure of events. Some of the plans had even talked about triage, about allowing the elderly to die while lavishing what resources were left on the young men and women who would be required to rebuild the world. He couldn’t help wondering if the system was no longer capable of even separating out the younger men and women and sending them out of danger.
But there is nowhere safe these days, he thought, morbidly. The aliens could return at any moment to finish the job.
The thought was a knife in his heart. Operation Nelson had been a success, tactically speaking. Ark Royal and her multinational task force had hammered the aliens, smashing dozens of alien starships and occupying – for a few long days – an alien world. It had been a tactical masterpiece. But they had returned home to discover that Earth had been attacked, millions of humans were dead and that the war might be on the verge of being lost. A second attack on Earth might prove disastrous.
He frowned as the car turned into Downing Street, catching sight of the protestors at the far end of the road. Some of them waved banners demanding more food or supplies for the refugees, others preached genocide and demanded attacks on alien worlds. Ted understood what they were feeling; he had to admit, in the privacy of his own thoughts, that he shared the desire for revenge. But he also knew that mutual destruction would be pointless.
But how can we come to terms, he asked himself, when they don’t even talk to us?
The car came to a halt outside Ten Downing Street. Armed policemen, their faces grim and pale, checked their IDs again before allowing them to exit the car and run up the steps into the very heart of British Government. Inside, it felt curiously musty and abandoned, as if the vast army of civil servants who made the government work had been withdrawn. It was quite possible they had, Ted knew. The contingency plans had insisted on establishing a command and control centre some distance from the disaster zone, even if the Prime Minister and the Monarch remained in London, symbolically sharing the plight of their people. But it wasn’t quite the same.
“Admiral Smith,” a voice said. Ted looked up to see a man in an elegant black suit. “I’m Giles Footswitch. The Prime Minister is waiting for you.”
Ted placed the name as they passed their coats to the equerry, then followed Giles Footswitch through a solid metal door and down a long flight of stairs into the secured bunker that served as the Prime Minister’s command and control centre. Cold air struck him as they reached the bottom of the stairs and passed another pair of armed guards. Inside, the conference room was nearly empty. The Prime Minister sat at one end of the table, staring down at the latest set of reports. His face was so pale that Ted couldn’t help wondering just how long he’d been hiding out in the bunker.
“Prime Minister,” he said, carefully.
“Admiral Smith,” the Prime Minister said. He rose, then stepped slowly towards Ted. “I must apologise for the welcome or lack thereof.”
“I understand,” Ted said. The normal ceremonies when an Admiral visited Downing Street had to be put to one side, under the circumstances. “I …”
“Take a seat,” the Prime Minister interrupted. He turned, then returned to his seat. “The others will be here soon, I think.”
Ted obeyed, motioning for Janelle to take the seat next to him. The Prime Minister’s eyes rested on her for a long moment, then he looked away with a very visible shrug. Ted understood. Normally, the lover of Prince Henry would be a subject of considerable political importance, but now it hardly mattered. Millions were dead, millions more were missing … there was no time to worry about the Prince’s former girlfriend. And the Prince himself was dead.
“I wanted to thank you for your service,” the Prime Minister said, quietly. “It may have been overshadowed, but I still want to thank you.”
“Thank you, Prime Minister,” Ted said. “We did our duty.”
“Others will disagree,” the Prime Minister said. His voice betrayed no trace of emotion, beyond a deadness that was more worrying than outright hatred. “You should be ready for it. Love can turn so quickly to hate.”
Ted nodded. He’d been a complete unknown before the war. After the first battles, he’d become a household name all over Earth. His fame had been great enough for there to be no other prospective commanding officer for Operation Nelson, despite having a reputation as a drunkard. Indeed, he’d beaten alcohol’s grip on his mind. But now … there was no hiding the fact he’d been hundreds of light years from Earth when the planet was attacked. It was quite possible that the men and women who had loved him before the start of Operation Nelson now hated him for not being there.
He looked at the Prime Minister and sighed, inwardly. The man was utterly exhausted, sitting in a bunker, cut off from half of his staff and struggling to cope with a crisis that could bring Britain to her knees. That had already, in many ways, crippled the entire country. Ted was tempted to suggest that the Prime Minister took a nap, perhaps with a sedative pill, but he knew the Prime Minister wouldn’t want to do anything of the sort. He was just far too aware of his role as elected leader of the country.
“The bunker network was badly damaged by the flooding,” the Prime Minister said. It was such a total departure from the previous line of conversation that it made no sense. “We worried that the entire network would be flooded before realising that it was largely safe.”
“Yes, Prime Minister,” Ted said.
“I stay here because of the danger,” the Prime Minister added. He sounded almost as if he were pleading for understanding, or forgiveness. “No one has ever presided over such a disaster, not ever.”
Ted shared a long look with Janelle. The Prime Minister sounded as if he were losing the ability to think clearly under the pressure. It would be hard to blame him, Ted knew, but right now the country needed clear-sighted thinkers, not tired politicians. But there was no way he could say that out loud, not to the Prime Minister.
“Prime Minister, the latest figures are in,” Giles Footswitch said. “I …”
“Leave them,” the Prime Minister ordered, quietly. There was no room for dispute in his tone. “We can go over them later.”
Ted felt the silence grow until it felt truly awkward, but held his peace. The Prime Minister clearly agonised over each and every death, asking himself if there was something he could have done to prevent the slaughter. Even now, more men and women – British citizens – were dying, some though starvation, some through being caught looting. By contrast, Giles Footswitch didn’t seem to understand that each of the figures had a name and story behind it, or maybe he’d just chosen not to think about it. At some point, the numbers became so high that they were just … statistics. It was impossible to truly comprehend the sheer weight of the losses the country had suffered overnight. To try to understand was to court madness.
He looked up as the door opened, revealing the First Space Lord and a man wearing a General’s uniform. Ted didn’t recognise him. Both of the newcomers looked tired; the First Space Lord, in particular, wore an expression of numb shock. Ted couldn’t help fearing for his life, once the immediate crisis had come to an end. It was the Royal Navy that was responsible for protecting Britain from attack and it had failed.
“Gentlemen,” the Prime Minister said. “Please, be seated.”
He sounded more in control of himself now, Ted noted, as a handful of other men and women entered the bunker. The Leader of the Opposition – Deputy Prime Minister, for as long as the War Cabinet remained in session – sat facing the Prime Minister, the others took whatever chairs were available. Janelle shifted uncomfortably beside him, clearly unhappy at being at the same table as so many high-ranking politicians and military officers. But there was no time to move her out of the room.
“General Steward,” the Prime Minister said. “You may begin.”