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Ambush

 

Also by Bernard Wilkerson

 

The Worlds of the Dead series

Beaches of Brazil

Communion

Discovery

 

The Creation series

In the Beginning

 

The Hrwang Incursion

Earth: Book One

Episode 1: Defeat

Episode 2: Flight

Episode 3: Maneuvers

Episode 4: Insertion

Episode 5: Envelopment

 

 

 

 

The Hrwang Incursion

 

 

 

 

Book 1

 

 

 

Earth

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright © 2015 by Bernard Wilkerson

 

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, with the exception of short quotes used in reviews, without permission from the author.

 

Requests for permission should be submitted to [email protected]

 

For information about the author, go to

www.bernardwilkerson.com

 

 

 

This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locales or organizations is entirely coincidental.

 

Cover photo courtesy of NASA.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Episode 6

 

 

 

 

AMBUSH

 

 

 

 

61

 

 

 

 

 

A’dab Balawi raced home, aware that the time had come that Allah had prepared her for. In the house she smelled fresh baked bread. Allah had provided yet again.

She went to the back room she slept in alone, without greeting anyone, not even her sister who worked tending the kitchen fires. With little electricity in the city, most had reverted to the old ways.

It was better.

She locked the door to her room and dug out the device from where she had hidden it. She marveled that she had found it at the old man’s house, a sign from Allah that she had a greater work to do. She never questioned where the old man had gotten it from, or why she had been the first to find him dead. It was all in Allah’s hands.

She also pulled out the black abaya she had stolen, borrowed rather, from her sister. After four children, her sister had grown plump and her spare abaya would serve A’dab’s purposes. She set it on her bed next to the device.

She began to undress.

 

Fourth Captain First Reconnaissance smelled the fresh vegetables and fruit in the marketplace, wondering about the abundance of food in this desert land.

With the heavy cloud cover all summer and the extra rains, smart farmers in this region seeded crops that normally grew in colder climes. Shrewd farmers copied them. Stubborn farmers starved.

He negotiated payment with a man wearing flowing robes and headdress. Desert nomads on his world dressed similarly, but Fourth Captain knew none personally. The clothing still struck him as foreign. Alien. The man bickered, asking too much.

Fourth Captain looked around him, a little nervous about the many people gathered around his vehicle. Three soldiers stood guard outside. The remainder of his squad waited inside, wanting to get out, but obeying orders. His lieutenant and his chief sergeant also negotiated for food at other stalls. The planet grew critically short of food despite the abundance before his eyes, and the Hrwang would suffer as much from starvation as the inhabitants. One could not transport sufficient food for three hundred thousand soldiers across interstellar space. Once the soldiers had been awakened from hibernation, they had had to learn to forage on the planet.

In frustration, he finally agreed to the man’s terms, paying him in raw gold. Local currencies no longer had value, but certain metals always did. Gold was as prized on this world as it was on his, and the man he negotiated with had no idea that the Hrwang had liberated vast quantities of the precious metal from a different continent.

A woman in the dark, flowing robes the women wore in this region held a basket of fresh bread up to his soldiers, enticing them with its aroma. The men eagerly tried samples and Fourth Captain knew he would be forced to give her more of the gold for the bread, probably paying a thousand times its worth. He joked with himself that he should just shoot her and take the bread for free.

Watching her for a moment while the man loaded his food basket, it looked like she was trying to entice his men to buy more than just bread.

 

A’dab waited, wantonly flirting with the alien soldiers. Allah would forgive her the necessity. She saw the other soldier at a stall, saw the seller give the infidel a large basket of food in exchange for blood money, and saw him returning to the alien vehicle.

To delay until he arrived, she took a piece of the fresh bread and ate it suggestively, the looks in the three soldiers’ eyes letting her know they hungered after more than bread. Even dressed in an abaya and hijab, a woman could drive a man mad with lust. She smiled at them with her eyes as she took another bite, praying that Allah would forgive her wantoness. She had to do what she did to give the other soldier time to get close to them.

Her heart sank when a trader accosted the man and they began arguing. It would only be a matter of time before A’dab would be discovered. She decided she could wait no longer. She thought, with a moment’s sense of loss, of her sister and her sister’s children, of the young man at the university with dark eyes and smooth skin, and of the things she would never do in this life.

But Allah had called her to a greater purpose, and she would fulfill it.

“In God’s hands,” she whispered as she triggered the old man’s device.

 

The man who argued with him, who tried to take the basket of vegetables and fruit away from him, shielded Fourth Captain from the blast. Stunned and confused, lying on the ground, he pushed the man’s heavy corpse off himself, not even knowing how he came to be in the position he lay in or where he was. His head pounded and his ears didn’t work. He only heard silence.

He looked for the basket of food, but it was gone. He mourned the basket, mourned the fresh vegetables and fruit it contained, but his mourning made no sense. Something worse had happened.

He tried to sit up.

Arms pulled at him. Arms in black uniforms. His lieutenant and sergeant, farther away than he was from the blast, pulled at him, talking to him in his native tongue, not the Arabic they all tried to practice with each other. They pulled at him and finally picked him up, putting one of his arms over each of their shoulders and crossing their own arms to make a chair that he sat on. They hoisted him up.

He jostled up and down like a child being bounced by a father while they ran back to something.

To what?

A wreck of metal?

The twisted and burned thing in front of them resembled nothing Fourth Captain recognized. Fog cleared from his brain a little and he knew it was bad that the metal in front of him no longer looked familiar. It should look like something else.

It should look like a combat craft.

Soldiers.

There should have been soldiers standing in front of it.

Three soldiers and a woman selling bread.

They were gone, nothing left. Someone must have triggered an explosive device.

“Climb in, sir. We need to see if the AI is still functioning.”

Why? The craft, really a sort of flying armored vehicle capable of both atmospheric and space flight, would no longer fly again. Its heavy armor had prevented the explosive device from disintegrating it, but twisted metal was not aerodynamic. Burned seals could not hold oxygen in vacuum. He wanted to laugh at his men. The thing they put him inside was no longer a combat craft.

“It’s alive, sir.”

More fog cleared. That was good. The craft would never fly again, but that didn’t matter. You could attach a rocket to a chair and the chair would still fly and you could attach an AI to a boulder and the boulder would still go where the AI wanted it to. Aerodynamic form was not a necessity. The AI could get them out of here and back to the command post on a different continent, even if the craft couldn’t fly.

Fourth Captain closed his eyes and remembered nothing else until he woke up on a hospital bed.

 

 

62

 

 

 

 

 

“Casualties are mounting, Ambassador.”

The Lord Admiral’s accusatory tone surprised Eva. It wasn’t Captain Russell’s fault. The Hrwang commander pointed his finger and the human shrank beneath the alien’s stare nonetheless.

Getting invited to the Lord Admiral’s staff meeting felt like a coup. Eva felt almost a giddiness at the time of her invitation at the opportunity to see the Hrwang leadership in action. She vowed to remember everything that was said and somehow report it back to Juan.

She had nothing formal to wear other than her little black cocktail dress, but that was out. She settled for her only pair of jeans and her nicest sweater. It didn’t look formal enough for a staff meeting, but things in her life had moved so quickly, she hadn’t been able to bring a good wardrobe along. She’d focused on running clothes and other things designed to get the attention of a man in charge.

She hadn’t expected to be attending staff meetings.

It wasn’t like she could order clothes over the internet or go shopping somewhere. She’d have to figure out how to get more clothes somehow.

In the meantime, the Lord Admiral would have to settle for jeans.

The long dining room table had been placed at the head of the ballroom and other tables branched off of it, forming a U shape. When she arrived, the Lieutenant Grenadier invited her to sit at one of the chairs by the end of the U, the second farthest chair away from the head table. He sat next to her, in the chair farthest away.

Eva saw the human Ambassador opposite her, on the other leg of the U at the end chair. She smiled sweetly at him and waved. He glared back, then turned to watch the Lord Admiral at the center of the head table.

The Lord Admiral stood.

“Thank you all for coming. We will be holding this meeting in English for the benefit of our guests.” He nodded toward the ends of the tables at Eva and the Ambassador. Eva nodded back.

“As most of you know, the situation on this planet grows most dire. In colder areas, people are quickly running out of food, especially in the cities. There is rioting, street battles, depravity beyond all description. We want to help. We try to help. But we are attacked everywhere we turn. Your people attack us everywhere on your planet. Few places are safe for us.” The Lord Admiral jabbed his finger in the Ambassador’s direction. “Casualties are mounting, Ambassador.”

Eva watched the Ambassador for his reaction, but the man simply withered under the Lord Admiral’s words. She marveled that the man had ever had the fortitude to become an astronaut.

“And to make things worse, the atomic weapons employed by the countries of this world against each other have devastated vast sections of the planet. We have some recordings we want you to see.”

He sat down and the room darkened.

There was no sound on the recordings that played on a screen at the end of the ballroom opposite the head table. Eva and the Ambassador were situated to watch it best.

The Hrwang had clearly spliced several different recordings together. Lighting and perspective changed often between shots, indicating different times of day and different distances from their subjects.

Despite the crude editing and no volume, the message on the screen was unavoidable.

Humans suffered.

Victims on cots, on blankets, or just lying on bare ground, stretched out in endless rows, few workers moving among them.

The scene repeated itself at multiple locations. Most appeared to be Asian. In one scene, it was clear from their uniforms the victims were soldiers. A worker, also in uniform, raised a gun and the recording went black.

“See the violence against us everywhere we go, Ambassador? How can we help your people?” the Lord Admiral commented, his question rhetorical.

Dying children affected Eva the most and she found herself crying. Eventually she turned away, unable to watch what was happening. Despite the Lord Admiral blaming it on other humans, she knew it was the Hrwang’s fault. She knew they had started this war, they had caused all the destruction, and they had done something that triggered the nuclear exchange. This was their fault.

She just had to play her part to help others figure out how to defeat them.

But for the moment, she allowed herself to mourn what she saw on the screen. It’s what the Lord Admiral’s girlfriend would have done anyway.

Composing herself eventually, she looked back.

A silent street battle between well-equipped soldiers in radiation suits showed briefly on the screen, ending when the recording unit was dispatched by one of the combatants.

Thoughts of the gun battle in Las Vegas came unbidden, and Eva had to quash them, to compartmentalize them away. To avoid letting those thoughts dominate her thinking, she had to focus on the here and now. On the part she played. On what she should be doing next.

More children were shown lying on a concrete floor in a warehouse. No one walked around helping them. Some already looked dead. One waved weakly at the camera.

“How do we help them? We have to do something,” Eva blurted.

“Good question, my dear. How do we help them? That’s why I convened this meeting.”

The recording ended, the screen was taken away, and the Lord Admiral began to lead the discussion.

Eva couldn’t get over how bleak the world’s situation was, as described by its enemies. Famine, floods, rioting, looting, fighting, rape. The Lord Admiral dwelt on that word when it came up.

“Rape. It is unfathomable to me how your people, Ambassador, treat your women. My men, on your orders, have executed many rapists.” The Ambassador’s face turned a little red. Eva wanted to hear the story behind that.

One of the Lord Admiral’s generals reported on an attack, reportedly by a woman although no one believed that, on one of the Hrwang combat craft. The assailant detonated a device that killed himself and several Hrwang, destroying the craft. It held together just long enough for its AI to get it back to a safe location.

Suicide bomber, Eva thought, but kept quiet.

Several other soldiers made additional reports, essentially sharing more bad news. They read from papers or tablets, some struggling with English more than others, but all detailing how Earth had gone down the tubes. Eva watched the Ambassador. The news shook the man. When the reports ended and the Lord Admiral asked for suggestions, the Ambassador seemed poised at the edge of his seat, ready to pounce on any kernel of hope.

The Hrwang offered none.

Instead of suggestions, the Lord Admiral’s men moaned and groaned, sounding like whiny children praying for school cancellation at the first sight of snowflakes. They all wished for change but offered no solutions.

If Eva hadn’t been undercover, if this had been a meeting of human generals and admirals, she would have blown her cool, lost her temper at them, yelled at them and told them to quit waiting for someone to wipe their noses and actually do something for themselves.

The helplessness grew so bad, so intolerable, that Eva almost couldn’t stand it. The Hrwang were more capable than this. More efficient. More prepared. What occurred now beggared belief.

And made Eva wonder.

A soldier discreetly beckoned to the Lieutenant Grenadier sitting next to her, and the lieutenant stood, hunched over, and quickly left the ballroom. He returned as an alien officer stood and described, showing a picture, the remains of one of his soldiers who had been lured away from his unit, tortured and vivisected, his remains left out for display with a crude sign attached over his head.

“Looking human isn’t the same as being human,” the officer read haltingly.

“Incredible,” the Lord Admiral exclaimed, but was interrupted by the Lieutenant Grenadier, who approached his side. The two whispered, the officer who had been speaking paused, and everyone waited expectantly.

“Excuse me, gentleman. And my dear.” The Lord Admiral nodded in Eva’s direction, a slight smirk on his face. “There is a problem. Under General Third Assault, we will need some of your units.”

“Of course, Lord Admiral,” one of the Hrwang replied.

“We will reconvene tomorrow at the same time,” the Lord Admiral said, and his officers took their cue, pushing chairs back, standing and leaving. The Ambassador sat dazed in place, but he finally stood and followed the others. Eva started to leave after he did, but was prevented by the Lieutenant Grenadier. He didn’t look her in the eyes.

“The Lord Admiral wants you to wait, Lady,” he said.

“Okay,” she replied. She waited near the exit.

The Lord Admiral conferred quietly with the Under General Third Assault. Eva couldn’t hear what they said.

The general left, leaving Eva alone in the ballroom with the Lord Admiral and the Lieutenant Grenadier, who stood off to the side.

“What’s going on, Lord Admiral?” she asked, trying to sound innocently curious. He smiled at her.

“Nothing you need to worry about, my dear. My general will take care of the problem. Now, could you please accompany me? I have something planned that I hope you will enjoy.”

“Okay,” she answered, not displaying any of the nervousness she felt. His manner didn’t match the situation and Eva watched him for tells, those tiny signs that someone was bluffing, or had an amazing hand, or had a good hand but was unsure of themselves. Anything that gave away what a player was thinking or that he was lying. But she detected nothing on the Lord Admiral. The man would have been a formidable poker player.

They left Casa Grande, the Lord Admiral nodding to the soldiers on guard outside, and headed for the Roman Pool. Eva hadn’t been in the building yet that housed Hearst Castle’s second swimming pool. The first, the outdoor one, was known as the Neptune pool.

The empty building was lit and smelled mildly of chlorine.

They made their way to the pool itself, Eva admiring the blue and gold tiled mosaics covering the walls and ceilings and lining the pool. It was the first building she’d seen at Hearst that she actually liked. The simple patterns and the blending of only two colors, instead of thirty or forty as in most of the other rooms, made the building feel elegant, almost peaceful.

Ancient statues of simple, white marble stood watch in various corners.

Steam curled off the motionless, clear water.

Eva put aside her thoughts about the staff meeting she had attended, her doubts about how real the helplessness she witnessed among the Hrwang actually was, and focused on what was happening now. The Lord Admiral’s poker face broke a bit, the grin behind his expression becoming obvious. He was up to something.

The water looked nice. Eva hadn’t been swimming in a long time.

“Do you like the water?” the Lord Admiral asked.

“I wish I had a swimsuit,” she said. She smiled at him.

“Who needs a swimsuit, my dear?” he replied. He revealed his grin and began undressing.

“Lord Admiral! Your men will watch me.”

“They have their orders to stay away. We will be unobserved.”

He dove into the water. It did look inviting. Eva decided when in Rome…

 

The Lieutenant Grenadier had different orders than the other soldiers. He did observe the pair in the pool. The woman had proven she wasn’t a spy but, just in case, someone had to make sure she didn’t try to drown the Lord Admiral in an unguarded moment. Envy, desire, even hatred for his commander rose inside him as he watched the two swim naked, playing in the pool, the Lord Admiral knowing full well where his personal security chief hid and watched. The man even flaunted the woman in front of him without her knowledge.

Anger and shame overcame the Lieutenant Grenadier and he watched his master less than he should have. He debated requesting a combat posting. Any assignment had to be better than this.

Perhaps he could join Third Assault on their current mission.

 

 

63

 

 

 

 

 

Fifth Under Captain Third Assault insisted Jayla begin teaching English lessons immediately after the Over Sergeant’s funeral, and all of the soldiers in the squad joined in, sitting around her on the ground in front of their craft, small drones on watch circling the skies around them.

After an hour of naming things and having the soldiers repeat them, Jayla ran out of things to say. She had no preparation to teach a foreigner her language. She didn’t even know how well she knew it herself.

Stumped, she fell silent. She started to cry a little and the Under Captain jumped up and put his arms around her. He waved the others off.

“Okay,” he whispered over and over again. At least he’d learned one word.

 

After lunch, Fifth Under Captain took her out past the craft, into the hills, with one of the small, Hrwang weapons the soldiers carried. He held it up and pointed at an old fence post and pulled the trigger. Jayla jumped as the weapon fired. When a cloud of smoke cleared, she saw the top of the fence post was gone.

He handed her the weapon, making sure it was pointed away from both of them.

Jayla raised it, aimed it at the remains of the fence post, closed her eyes, and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened and Fifth Under Captain began chuckling. He pulled his tablet out of his combat uniform leg pocket and spoke into it. The tablet translated.

“Only members of Fifth Under Captain’s squad may fire weapons under his command.”

“A biometric gun lock,” Jayla said. “We have those, too.”

Fifth Under Captain shook his head, not understanding her. She handed him the gun back.

He didn’t take it. He held up his tablet instead, then placed his hand with splayed fingers on it. Then he placed his face over it and spoke in Malakshian. He pulled the tablet away from his face, then spoke into it again and it translated once more.

“You must do as the Fifth Under Captain did, then say your designation in Malakshian.” The tablet then told her how to say Second Under Private Third Assault and she practiced it several times until Fifth Under Captain nodded vigorously that she’d gotten it right.

She placed her hand on the tablet as he did, then put her face up to it closely, watching tiny red dots resolve themselves in an outline of what the tablet saw, and repeated the words she’d learned. The tablet responded in Malakshian and Fifth Under Captain nodded again and pointed at the weapon, then toward the remains of the fence post.

Jayla aimed it again and squeezed the grip.

The gun had no recoil, but the next two feet of post disappeared behind a cloud of smoke.

“Wow,” Jayla said and started to move the weapon to inspect it closer but Fifth Under Captain’s hand shot out and grabbed it, keeping it pointed away from both of them.

“Peligroso,” he said and although she didn’t know what the word meant, she understood his actions.

“I’m sorry,” she said and started to let go of the gun, but he insisted she keep a hold of it and fire again.

Jayla destroyed the rest of the fence post and Fifth Under Captain smiled in congratulations. He showed her how to safe the weapon and they returned to the squad.

She tried to teach more English in the afternoon, but the men became as frustrated as she was at her lack of ability. A pilot running up to them saved her further embarrassment. He spoke rapidly with Fifth Under Captain and the captain transitioned quickly from student to officer, calling out commands to his men.

They cleaned up camp and loaded it into the combat craft, all the circling drones returning, and were ready to depart in less than ten minutes. Jayla had just finished buckling her seat harness as the engines wound up and she felt a little lurch as the craft appeared in the middle of the air and the engines caught. The pilots guided it to a landing and Fifth Under Captain indicated she should stay put as he left the craft with the tablet from the receptacle next to the hatch. Jayla peeked out the hatch as it cycled open, but she didn’t recognize the building outside. They weren’t at Griffith Observatory this time.

Fifth Under Captain ran toward the building and the hatch cycled shut.

The remaining soldiers checked weapons or instrumentation. Jayla felt useless. She wished she knew what was happening. She wished the Hrwang had had the foresight to teach English to more than one soldier. They really were alien sometimes.

She looked at the empty seat the Over Sergeant had normally occupied and she missed him.

The captain returned, placing the tablet back in its spot. He spoke with the pilots, then the other members of his unit. When he finished, a couple of questions were asked, which he answered, then he sat next to Jayla. He spoke into his personal tablet, which translated.

“We have an assignment. We must wait.”

“How long?”

The tablet translated for Jayla and the Under Captain answered through it, “Thirty-two point four minutes.”

Jayla chuckled. A minute was a different period of time on Hrwang than it was on Earth. She didn’t remember the conversion, but Hrwang had a hundred minutes in their hours, which were just a little longer than Earth hours, so their minutes were a little shorter. The tablet always tried to do an exact conversion. Fifth Under Captain had probably said, “Forty-five minutes,” or something like that.

“What do we do until then?” she asked.

“We wait,” Fifth Under Captain replied, then added without translation, “You learning us English.”

“You teaching us English,” Jayla corrected and made him repeat it. He did and Jayla started another impromptu lesson that lasted thirty-two point four minutes, interrupted when the pilots spun the engines up.

 

For the first time since she had joined the Hrwang squad, their combat craft flew to a location rather than simply jumping there. It was close by, and soldiers quickly engaged weapon systems on some unseen enemy below. She couldn’t see much of the action out the cockpit window, but she saw other Hrwang combat craft and thought perhaps she saw army tanks outside.

She decided the aliens must be fighting human soldiers in tanks below.

The craft bucked and shuddered as they fought, and the men with no duties just sat grimly within. Jayla kept her mouth shut. She felt a sudden shift and found herself floating against her seat harness.

“Are we in space again?” she cried.

Fifth Under Captain pointed forward. The view out the cockpit window was black.

“Is the battle over?” she asked.

 

Marine Lance Corporal Derek Temple fidgeted in his command seat, waiting impatiently for the supply truck to finish refueling his formerly mothballed M1A1 Abrams main battle tank. The last time the vehicle had been used was during a desert war fought before Derek’s parents were born. The aliens had destroyed almost everything else with meteors.

Meteor bombardment proved to be the ultimate artillery, destroying bases, wrecking supply depots, and devastating rally points. Wherever two or three military units gathered, alien meteors fell.

Derek’s actual expertise, helicopter engine maintenance, quickly became a useless speciality when alien combat craft entered the atmosphere and anything in the air was shot out of the sky.

Then the aliens cratered his duty station.

He had found his way to the remnants of the Marine First Combat Regiment, where supply and logistics officers cobbled together a counterattack. An alien presence on the ground had been reported just outside of Los Angeles, and the marines were finally going to get an opportunity to fight back. Their main battle tanks, hovercraft capable of over two hundred klicks per hour, spearheaded the assault, while recommissioned equipment, like Derek’s Abrams, followed.

 

Derek and his crew studied their vehicle as they raced behind at a paltry seventy kilometers per hour. They practiced firing sequences when they stopped to refuel. Everything they did was academic, though. Old ammunition for the old combat vehicles was difficult to find, and Derek had only been given six rounds. They couldn’t afford to waste a single one. Every shot needed to count.

In the end, their slowness saved them from the trap at Griffith Observatory.

The lead elements converged on the hilltop building to find the aliens gone, the location suddenly deserted. Confused by how quickly the aliens had escaped, the soldiers sat in their vehicles waiting for someone to figure out what to do next.

A meteor appeared in the sky, visible miles away to the group of older vehicles Derek belonged to, the ones lagging the advance. The flaming rock struck the observatory, obliterating the mountain it sat on and all the marines with it, raining debris and destruction on everything in a twenty mile radius.

After that disaster, the marines came up with a new tactic.

Keep moving and stay as far apart as possible, no matter what.

 

A woman with a baby they rescued from a collapsed house told them that a federal agent had told her before he had left that the aliens were moving to Hearst Castle and that she and the others should flee south. No one had listened to the agent, because they had nowhere to go. Rumors were that San Diego was much worse off than Los Angeles.

Surviving officers conferred, then brought all of their tank commanders into the discussion. A first lieutenant, his eyes and attitude older than his years, conducted the briefing as the newest senior ranking officer of the Marine First Combat Regiment, ad hoc.

“According to a single, unconfirmed report, the aliens have moved to this location.” He pointed out Hearst Castle on a gasoline station road map. “It’s just over three hundred and fifty clicks from here. If the highway is still intact, we can make it there in less than eight hours, even in these old relics.”

“Do we have enough fuel, sir?” an older sergeant asked.

“Barely,” a second lieutenant responded. “If we don’t get stuck somewhere and have to idle.”

The manual in Derek’s tank told him that his M1A1 Abrams drained its five hundred gallon tank every eight hours, regardless of its speed.

“How reliable is the report of the alien’s new location?” another sergeant asked.

The commanding first lieutenant stared straight at the NCO, his eyes challenging the older man.

“It’s the only report we have,” the lieutenant said with steel in his voice. “This may be our last chance to strike at the enemy. It could be another set up, but we’ll be ready this time. We. Are. Marines!”

“Ooh Rah!” someone yelled. Others took up the battle cry. “Ooh Rah!”

The grizzled sergeant looked away, disgusted.

“Ooh Rah!” the commanding first lieutenant cried and his soldiers responded, chanting for a few minutes, then saluting him. They broke up to ready their unit for departure. Marine First Combat Regiment, ad hoc, moved out two hours later, heading north, eager for another chance at battle.

 

They kept moving, sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly, heading up PCH, the Pacific Coast Highway, toward Hearst Castle.

Fuel trucks ran low.

The marines staggered refueling to prevent too many vehicles grouping together and presenting a target. They weren’t sure how effectively the aliens could target small groups, but it wasn’t worth the risk. Griffith Observatory had clearly been a trap, and Hearst Castle could be another, but it was unlikely they’d get another shot at the enemy like this. Soon they would have no fuel to go anywhere else anyway. If the enemy’d gone to Hearst, they were going to hit him there, trap or no trap.

The tsunami that had destroyed the West Coast had pummeled PCH, leaving much of the highway unsafe. One fuel truck, trying to pass a tank that hugged the inside of the lane, tumbled into the ocean when the pavement gave out below it. Derek stayed on the shoulder when he could.

North of Santa Barbara, the unit took Highway 154.

His tank handled the hills remarkably well, and although they didn’t travel as fast as hovercraft tanks, Derek thought they made good time. If they could strike Hearst before the aliens had time to settle in, they had a chance.

They passed the turnoff to Vandenberg Air Force Base. According to reports, the entire base had been destroyed by the flood waters and nothing remained. No one tried to raise anyone on a radio there. Too dangerous anyway. The aliens were probably listening.

A few onlookers cheered them at Santa Maria. It made Derek proud and gave him hope in the human race.

If they could just strike the aliens, do something to fight back, things would change. Humanity could win this war.

The fuel trucks emptied what they had left into the fighting vehicles at Moro Bay. Forced to follow the coastal highway at that point, only the tracked vehicles could negotiate what remained of the ruined roadway. Derek asked for a fuel level check. Two hundred and forty gallons. Just enough to get to Hearst and fight for a couple of hours.

Ammunition would run out before fuel.

The lead vehicles slowed at washed-out portions of the highway, going off road and driving through rugged hills. Derek made his driver monitor the fuel gauge closely, reporting levels to him every fifteen minutes. He also watched the sky for meteors.

The Abrams consumed fuel at the same rate no matter how quickly they traveled, and now that they traveled slower, Derek calculated he would only have an hour’s fuel left for fighting when they arrived. It would be close.

He fretted. Maybe he could just drive up the side of something, drop his six shells on the place, then run with his crew for the hills. Maybe they could make it back to Santa Maria on foot. There hadn’t seemed to be any aliens there.

Although Derek felt more alert than he ever had before, trying to prepare himself mentally for his first live combat, to prepare himself to potentially take actions that would lead men to their deaths, he wasn’t prepared for what happened while they were on a good stretch of highway north of Cambria.

Eight alien aircraft appeared out of nowhere, electricity flowing from them, enveloping the tanks in front of Derek’s, fingers of power licking out to his vehicle. The tanks didn’t explode as he half expected, but caromed wildly out of control, two running into each other and a third plowing into them.

He tried to yell at his driver over his headset, but the comm system had gone dead. Suddenly his tank peeled left and headed straight for the side of the road and toward the ocean.

Derek banged on the roof of the tank, but there was no response. The Abrams crossed scrub brush, its engines whining. He looked behind him and another tank slewed right, heading into the foothills. Another tank slammed into the pileup of armored vehicles.

Derek looked up into the skies. The alien aircraft were gone. Whatever they had done had wreaked sufficient havoc on the armored column, and they hadn’t stuck around.

Derek’s tank continued rolling. He hoped his driver would stop soon.

He popped his head inside.

“He’s lost control,” a panicked private yelled at Derek. “I think he’s dead.”

Derek stood back up in the command hatch and looked in front of them. The cliff he saw didn’t appear to be high. Only fifteen or twenty feet. But it was dead ahead and they weren’t stopping.

“Hang on to something,” he yelled and tried to pull the hatch shut and himself inside as he felt the sixty-three ton vehicle tipping forward.

 

Fifth Under Captain Third Assault held up his tablet and Jayla repeated her question.

“Is the battle over?”

The tablet translated and Fifth Under Captain nodded. Jayla decided it must not have gone well for whoever had been in the tanks. The combat had been too quick.

“Can we stay in space a few minutes? Can I look out the window?” she asked, wanting to think about anything else other than what had just happened.

But the sensation of falling didn’t go away.

The ship tipped forward and faced the Earth and Jayla knew she wasn’t going to get to look around. The now familiar feeling of reentry began again and she closed her eyes.

 

The Abrams fell more gracefully into the water than Marine Lance Corporal Derek Temple could have hoped, and he and his gunner and loader were still alive when the tank settled on the bottom, right side up. Water began leaking in.

The driver appeared to be dead or unconscious. Either way, they couldn’t get to him. The personnel door wouldn’t open.

More water leaked in.

The tank groaned.

The three looked around them, then looked up at the roof. Derek felt like he was in a submarine movie.

The Abrams shifted.

“We can’t stay in here forever,” the gunner said.

“How deep are we?” Derek asked.

The other two shrugged. “Deep enough,” the gunner said.

“We should just be able to drive out,” the loader said.

“Okay, let’s try the driver’s door again.”

The three heaved at the door, but the driver either had it locked from the inside, which he shouldn’t have done, or the compartment was filled with something heavy.

Water.

“Okay. Let’s get out quickly and see where we’re at. Maybe his hatch is open and he already escaped.”

The loader went to the main personnel door.

“Wait,” Derek ordered. “Hold on somewhere. A lot of water’s going to come in when you drop that door.” The M1A1 rear door was designed to fall down heavily, making a ramp. Signs around the door told them to make sure no one was behind the vehicle. A door falling on someone would kill them.

He and the gunner braced themselves against the walls of the tank. The loader stood to the side, like he was going to get a jump on the water outside, and opened the combat lock. He cranked the door handle, but the ramp wouldn’t move.

“Water pressure,” the gunner said. “We have to give it a shove.”

He moved forward without thinking and shoved against the door. It gave partially way then stopped, trapped against something.

But he never see what. Seawater rushed in, shoving him to the ground and filling the compartment quickly. The loader stayed out of the way and the men couldn’t hear each other over the noise.

Derek watched the compartment fill.

“Shove harder,” he screamed and rushed the door, pushing on it as hard as he could. It wouldn’t budge.

“Is it all the way open?” he cried at the loader. The man cranked on the handle.

“That’s it.”

The gunner got back to his feet and shoved on the door. The compartment was half full. Derek figured they had less than a minute.

“We go out the hatch.”

“One at a time,” someone yelled.

Derek pointed at the gunner first, then the loader. The loader was younger. He should be able to hold his breath longer.

The gunner shook his head. “You’ll never make it.”

Derek smiled. He had an idea.

Floating in the corner of the compartment, the water was up to Derek’s chest now, was the toilet bucket. He sluiced it in the water to clean anything that may have been in it, and he turned it upside down, trapping air in it.

“I’ll be fine,” he shouted.

The gunner shook his head at him again.

The hatch wouldn’t budge; the water pushing down on it too heavy. They’d have to wait until the compartment filled and they were out of air. Then the pressures would match, and the hatch could open.

The loader’s eyes gave away his panic and Derek drew his sidearm. He wouldn’t fit out of the hatch with it holstered anyway.

“If you don’t go immediately, I’m shooting you,” he screamed over the rushing water.

The man nodded understanding.

Derek held the gun on him anyway.

Derek hoped his plan would work, but as less and less air remained, he felt less confidence. He’d done this before, in a swimming pool with a sand bucket, but there had been no consequence for failure then. His life was on the line now.

For a wild second he thought about shooting the other two crewmen and leaving the hatch on his own.

But in his remorse, he’d just kill himself anyway. Better to let the enemy do it, if it came to that.

Derek prayed physics still worked.

The ground shook suddenly, the tank vibrated madly, and Derek felt massive heat. The compartment turned into a sauna.

The three men gasped last breaths, warm, moist water turning to steam and making breathing difficult, and Derek hoped again his bucket remained filled with air. He held it knowing his life depended on it.

With the compartment full of water, the gunner opened the hatch, shoving hard against it. It opened.

If the howitzer had pivoted in the fall, it could block the hatch, but it hadn’t and the gunner pushed up through it.

Derek didn’t have to worry about the loader chickening out and not going up. The man’s head took several booted kicks as he squirmed up behind the gunner, not giving his crewmate time to get out.

Derek ducked and put his head inside the bucket, his face up as much as possible. His nose seemed to come free of the water and he breathed out a little air.

He inhaled gratefully, ignoring the urine and feces smell that made him want to gag. He took several measured breaths, then breathed as deep as he could. The air smelled putrid and his stomach roiled. But his lungs had air.

He cast aside the bucket and climbed up to the hatch.

He quickly felt lightheaded and he wanted to breathe. He knew he couldn’t, but he wanted to.

Climbing out of the hatch seemed impossible, water pushing and pulling him, the heat of it sapping his strength, telling him to give up.

He lifted his body out and tried to cock his knee on the edge, but his boot got trapped inside. He tugged and it wouldn’t move. He thought about going back down, but he had dropped the bucket. There was no turning back.

He straightened his leg and pulled up and got his boot on the edge of the hatch. He pushed off and up and the water seemed too deep and he wouldn’t make it and then he broke the surface, gulping hot air that reeked of burnt grass and fuel. The land appeared to be on fire.

“Here, Corporal,” he heard a voice yell, and he turned and saw the two crewmen. He swam roughly toward them, his boots heavy and awkward.

“Get on this,” the gunner said. The two men stood on the top of the Abrams turret, their heads just above the surface, their arms moving on top of the water to keep their balance.

“What happened?” Derek asked, relieved not to have to tread water.

“They blasted us with something big,” the gunner said, then swore. He ducked under the water, pulling the other two down with him. Derek resisted the urge to fight and went down, slipping on the turret. He got his footing, then went back up cautiously for air.

An alien craft circled the area.

 

“Report no surviving combat vehicles,” Fifth Under Captain instructed his pilot. He sat back in his jump seat, a grim but satisfied expression on his face. His tablet, in some kind of automatic translation mode, repeated his words in English. He angrily shut it off.

Jayla didn’t know what to feel or what to think. She just sat next to him, foreboding thoughts frightening her.

 

Derek led his men, the gunner and the loader, through the wilderness south, keeping his bearings by the sound of surf in the distance. They hid during the day and moved at night, stumbling and cursing in the dark, but grateful for the clouds that covered the skies and hid the moon.

By the third day, they were desperate enough for food and water that the gunner considered drinking from the ocean.

“It’ll be your funeral,” he told the man.

“Why? It’s water.”

“It’s too salty.”

“Soup is salty. I like it that way. Why isn’t the ocean the same? Just like a really salty soup?”

“It’s different,” was all Derek could say.

“Why?” the gunner screamed, catching Derek off guard.

“I don’t know,” Derek shouted back and the man left them, heading in the direction of the ocean. Derek watched him for a while, not actually believing he would try to drink seawater, but when he didn’t look like he would give up, Derek chased after him, grabbing his arm. The gunner shrugged him off and continued into the waves.

He drank the water, spitting it out.

“It tastes dirty,” he cried and Derek thought, Good. He’ll be done with it. But the man drank more. “But I could get used to it.”

The loader moved toward the surf and Derek ran to him, getting between him and the water.

“We’ll find something,” he promised. “Don’t be an idiot.”

The loader looked at him, looked at the gunner enjoying himself in the water, then back at Derek.

“Don’t,” Derek pleaded.

The man’s shoulders slumped. He turned away and walked.

Derek ran back to the gunner but the man slugged him, knocking him down. The gunner stayed in the water and drank a little more.

“We’re leaving,” Derek yelled over the noise of the waves. The gunner turned away from him. Derek knew he was leaving the man to his death, to his suicide, but didn’t know what to do about it. He trudged out of the waves and soft sand and when he got to firmer ground, ran to catch up to the loader.

 

 

64

 

 

 

 

 

Unable to sleep, Stanley paced his ornate bedroom in Casa del Monte, one of the houses in the Hearst Castle complex. House of the Mountain in English, it sat on the north side of the grounds, facing the mountains. Someone had described to him the significance of the gold leaf symbols covering the ceiling, but Stanley hadn’t been paying attention and the decoration simply disturbed him now. However, the view out the window made up for the over the top decor. Formerly dry California mountains greening up during the cool summer, the ocean in the distance, the rising and falling of the waves providing a serene background, a sense of calm and stability belying the deadly force it had exhibited just weeks earlier.

A man could grow complacent here.

Stanley didn’t want to grow complacent. He didn’t want to be in Casa del Monte, either, despite the view and the outrageously expensive ceiling. He wanted to be in Casa Grande, the main building, the building where the Lord Admiral and his key staff resided. Even the idiot girl with the Lord Admiral was there, up in a bedroom in one of the towers.

How did she rate that?

He missed having someone he could talk to. Of all people, even Irina had been someone he could sound out ideas with, even if she hated all of them and resented him most of the time, but at least he could judge the idea by how she reacted.

For the hundredth time he wondered why she had attacked him.

He wanted to do a good thing. Hadn’t she seen that? Hadn’t she seen that all he wanted was to bring Hrwang and Human together, to help humans develop interstellar travel and gain access to all the other technology the Hrwang brought with them?

Things weren’t going the way he’d envisioned them, yet that still didn’t justify Irina’s actions.

Maybe she had gone a little crazy.

Maybe she’d gotten hit on the head or something when the building had been attacked. Some primal, military instinct may have kicked in. Military types weren’t the brightest in the world.

But they were obedient. He’d learned that when he ordered Irina to do something with the right tone of voice, she did it. He needed to use that ability to his advantage now. He needed to surround himself with the right sort of people, people who would do what he wanted them to do, when he wanted them to do it. Then things would be easier.

How to start?

A knock on his door interrupted him. He opened the door, letting the irritation at the disturbance show on his face. A young Hrwang soldier stood there. He handed Stanley an envelope, saluted, and left.

Stanley watched him walk away. Life was so much easier when you were young. Just do what you’re told. No thought to it, no responsibility, no worries. The burden of the world not yet resting on your shoulders. He almost envied the young soldier.

He opened the envelope and read the brief message.

Breakfast in the main ballroom. 7 a.m.

He hoped whoever wrote the message had translated the time from Hrwang correctly. He didn’t want to be late. He’d better go over early, just in case.

 

The Lord Admiral had been gracious and friendly at breakfast, smiling at the Ambassador, not making any comments about the discussion from the previous day’s staff meeting, acting like there wasn’t a problem in the world. He even suggested that he and Eva should go for another swim. He grinned evilly and Eva grinned back. She had to admit the swim had been fun. Despite her mission, despite what she knew he was guilty of, she couldn’t help that she enjoyed being with him.

It made some things easier.

The Lieutenant Grenadier, on the other hand, had been cold to her when she had said, “Good morning,” after she’d returned from her run. She continued to worry that if she did anything to give herself away, he’d be the one to catch her.

The Ambassador simply ate his meal silently and glared at Eva when the Lord Admiral wasn’t looking.

She’d kept up her running schedule, morning and evening, and the Lord Admiral approved, running with her about once in every four times. He made no apologies for wanting her to stay trim and athletic, which offended Eva a little, but it gave her the perfect cover for trying to make contact with Juan. Only she’d had no more contact since the three orchids and the exchange of the message in the cigarette box and her pills.

When she had put out the four potted plants, she’d hoped that by letting Juan know which room she slept in, someone from the Agency could make contact with her. She didn’t know what she expected. A dart with a message shot into her room, laser lights beamed into it, spelling out letters on the wall. Even a paper airplane thrown through the open window would have been welcome.

There was nothing.

Nor was there a protocol. Moles usually had some sort of prearranged contact mechanism, like a blind drop, but she had nothing, had had no time to establish anything. It frustrated her and she usually ran quickly back to Hearst Castle, trying to burn off pent up adrenaline.

The drones no longer followed her; she didn’t ask why. On foggy days, of which there were more than a few, she expected Juan or someone to take advantage of the cloud cover and make contact, but it hadn’t happened yet.

What if the drones had infrared?

That had probably occurred to someone and perhaps that’s why no one had attempted contact during cloud cover or even at night. So many Hrwang craft came and went that it would be difficult to sneak up on the compound, and every reasonable trail was monitored by guards and surveillance equipment.

She’d become friends with the soldiers who normally manned the guard station she passed on her way out to run into the hills. She even flirted with them a little to keep them from questioning or doubting her. She hoped they were smart enough to keep information about her flirtations away from the Lord Admiral, and given how his men feared him, she wasn’t especially concerned.

After breakfast, the Lord Admiral held an impromptu staff meeting filled with more hand wringing by the Hrwang officers. No one mentioned the incident that Under General Third Assault had been assigned to take care of.

The Ambassador appeared to grow more and more desperate during the discussion. Eva didn’t know how the aliens could be so helpless, which made her continue to be suspicious. Surely they had a plan, or had at least had had a plan at one point in time. Were humans really putting up that much of a fight? Maybe the information she’d learned wasn’t necessary. Maybe the government, or someone, was rebuilding and effectively dealing with the aliens.

Regardless, she had a mission and she had to get the things she learned to the Agency. Somehow.

The staff meeting ended and Eva went up to her room to continue her studies of Est. The Lord Admiral had been true to his word and had provided her a tablet with limited capabilities to help her learn. She felt good about learning her enemy’s language.

The Lord Admiral appreciated her efforts to speak Est and it made it simple when what was in her and Earth’s best interest was also in his. It made it easier for her to keep her cover.

 

Stanley didn’t enjoy breakfast, didn’t enjoy the attention the Lord Admiral lavished upon the human girl, didn’t enjoy hearing his obvious innuendoes, and certainly didn’t enjoy the staff meeting afterward. It was as if everyone blamed everything on him.

And he felt that responsibility.

He needed to do more. He needed to find a bridge, something, some way to convince people to listen to the Hrwang, to let them help rebuild Earth. He needed to think.

He returned to his room to stare out the window and ponder solutions, but ended up brooding instead until he fell asleep.

 

“He’s breaking, don’t you think?” the Lord Admiral asked the Lieutenant Grenadier alone in his office. The Lord Admiral had converted one of the libraries in the main building for his personal use. Only the Lieutenant Grenadier came in unannounced and the last time he had done so he had discovered the Lord Admiral with another woman. No one had seen the woman come in and the Lieutenant Grenadier had been tasked with smuggling her back out. He never went in unannounced again.

He also knew he hated his commander now. He was a soldier. Not someone who eavesdropped on his commander while he swam naked with the enemy. Not someone who smuggled women out of buildings hidden under blankets, taking them away, dropping them off in the middle of the wilderness. He doubted the woman had survived.

He kept all of his flippant answers to himself and merely replied, “Yes, sir.”

“You don’t approve?”

The Lieutenant Grenadier sensed danger in the question. He needed to watch himself. He needed to get himself transferred to a real combat unit, but his specialty was security, not combat, so he knew there was little chance of that. A combat unit would never trust a security officer.

So what to say?

“I’m worried about the Lady. I believe she is smarter than the Ambassador. She understands strategy and probably has guessed we aren’t as helpless as we are trying to appear,” he offered.

“Are you concerned about her being in the staff meetings?”

“I’m concerned about her and the Ambassador talking,” the Lieutenant Grenadier replied.

“Then keep them apart.”

“Yes, sir.”

The Lord Admiral leaned back in the large leather chair he sat in and picked up a book.

“Have you been reading any of their works?”

“No, sir. I don’t have time.”

“Pity. You’re missing out.” He put the book back down. “They have wonderful military strategists. Much superior to ours.”

The Lord Admiral paused for effect. And it had an effect. The Lieutenant Grenadier was surprised at his commander’s words. The Hrwang had easily defeated this planet. How could its strategists be superior to theirs?

“If the tables were turned, Lieutenant, and they had arrived on Hrwang with the technical capability we possess, I believe they would have bombarded our planet into complete submission. I doubt they would have had rules to follow as I must. They believe in total war.”

“But that could cause extinction,” the Lieutenant Grenadier protested. Dropping meteors on a planet was a risky proposition. Too small and they don’t do anything. Too large and the entire planet’s population dies. Their experience with the Yalj taught them that.

The Lord Admiral shrugged and tapped on the cover of the book lying open, but facedown, on his desk. “Total war.”

How do you fight such a people? the Lieutenant Grenadier wondered.

“The book I’m reading right now is by an ancient strategist named Sun Tzu.” The Lord Admiral had a hard time pronouncing the ‘tz’ sound, saying ‘Tizoo’. “He wrote about a Chinese general with an interesting idea. When the general attacked his enemy, his soldiers had to cross several bridges over impassable rivers. Those bridges were their only avenue of retreat from the foreign land. Do you know what this general did?”

“Defend them with his best soldiers?” It’s what the Lieutenant Grenadier would have done.

“No!” The Lord Admiral almost came out of his chair. “He didn’t. That’s the brilliance of his idea. He didn’t defend the bridges. He burned them. Burned them completely.”

Ludicrous. You never cut off your avenue of retreat. That was basic military doctrine.

“Why do you think he did that?” the Lord Admiral asked.

“I don’t know,” the Lieutenant Grenadier replied. He almost pulled the tablet out of his uniform pocket to look up the answer but thought better of it. He waited for the Lord Admiral to say something instead.

“I want you to think about it. You come back when you’ve figured it out.”

“Yes, sir.”

The Lord Admiral breathed deeply, relaxing himself.

“Do you think plans need to change, Lieutenant?”

“Of course, sir. Basic doctrine. Plans change on first contact with the enemy.”

“Sun Tizoo would agree with you. And so do I.” The Lord Admiral stared at him until he grew uncomfortable, then looked away.

“I have nothing else for you,” he said.

“Yes, sir,” the Lieutenant Grenadier replied and nodded. When the Lord Admiral nodded in reply, the Lieutenant Grenadier turned and left, wondering how he was going to figure out why some Chinese general burned his bridges.

 

Eva almost ran to the door of her bedroom when someone knocked on it. She was tired of studying.

She knew how critical study was. James Bond knew everything he did in the movies because some writer put it into the script. But real agents had to study to know all of those things, and now Eva studied the thing that could save her life, or at least aid her mission. Her enemy’s language.

But it was slow going. She could read simple words now, but she had to sound out the letters, looking them up repeatedly on the tablet she’d been given. The symbols were so different than anything she was familiar with.

The knock was a welcome relief.

It surprised her, though, to find the Lieutenant Grenadier standing at her door. Normally only the Lord Admiral came to her room, or some junior soldier dispatched to deliver a message. The Lord Admiral’s chief of security was too busy for her, which was actually a relief. It meant he trusted her a bit now.

“I, we, the Lord Admiral, I mean, promised you self-defense lessons. I’ve been busy and haven’t had time until now. Are you available?”

“Uh, I guess. I’ll need to change.”

Alarms went off in Eva’s mind, but she had to go along.

The Lieutenant Grenadier was already dressed in something for working out, something that looked a bit like a wrestling unitard but more modest.

“I’ll wait,” he said.

Eva shut the door and ran to change.

She reviewed the pitfalls of the activity, reminding herself that she couldn’t give away her combat skills. She was just a girl who’d been taught to hit and kick a punching bag, nothing else. She tried to think of any other concerns, couldn’t, and took a deep breath, trying not to let herself get too worried. But if the soldier at her door suspected anything, it could be bad. She had to keep reminding herself of that.

 

They went to the large gym that had been set up in the north wing of the second floor. It contained punching bags, free weights, wrestling mats, and even a mirror with a ballet barre. She chuckled at that, wondering if the aliens had simply copied an earth design without understanding the purpose.

But the Lieutenant Grenadier used it to help him stretch out. He was more limber than Eva, which challenged her competitive impulses. She had to control those.

They got ready. Eva got into a boxing stance. The Lieutenant Grenadier laughed.

“People are not those,” he said, pointing at the punching bags. “You cannot fight a bigger and larger opponent that way. On Hrwang, we only punch when we are the same weight.”

“Same here,” Eva said.

“Let me show you what to do. Simple defense.”

“Okay.”

“Come at me like you are bigger than me.”

Eva smiled and shook her head, trying to get the Lieutenant to relax a little. He grinned back. She stood tall and rushed clumsily at him. One hand went to her face, the other to her throat, and she felt herself bent backward until she fell to the mat.

“Do it again. I’ll go slower.”

Eva pretended to attack clumsily again and the Lieutenant explained as he pushed his hand in her face, controlling her head backwards.

“Once your head is back, you have to fall. Your body has no choice and you cannot hit me.” He set her down on the mat gently.

“You try.”

Eva was actually familiar with the tactic, had used it often in sparring to humble male trainees, but she’d had to do it wrong the first time. The Lieutenant Grenadier charged her and she punched him weakly in the stomach and he knocked her down, his fist raised over her head.

“You’re not paying attention. If you hit me, I hit you back. Push your hand in my face, push my head backwards.”

“But you’re taller.” Which was the point of the defense. Eva hated playing dumb.

“Trust me.”

He helped her up, she got in her boxing stance and he shook his head and attacked again. This time she went inside his arms, got one hand on his chin, pushing up, and punched him in the stomach again, harder this time. She heard the wind get knocked out of him, but then he was all over her, knocking her back to the mat again. She’d known that would be the outcome, but she’d enjoyed the body check.

Once he could breathe, he told her to attack him again and he would show her one more time.

“Pay attention,” he added. He did everything in slow motion, his hand on her face, his other gently on her throat, and he lowered her softly to the mat, lingering just a moment over her. She had the fleeting thought that this was a good man, just a soldier in his country’s service, and he genuinely cared about her safety.

She’d been concerned about the security chief and had always perceived him as a threat. Now that she suddenly saw him in a different light, it made her think.

“Are you ready? Do it right,” he told her after he picked her back up.

If you say so, Eva thought.

He attacked and Eva immediately ducked inside his grasp, her hands clawing the Lieutenant’s face, shoving his head back hard. She kneed him in the groin as he went down. He doubled up in pain, not looking at her.

“Are you okay? I’m sorry,” she said, sounding as worried as she could but inwardly pleased at her skill.

He waved her off. No man wanted a woman helping him out when he’d taken a shot to the privates.

“I’m sorry,” she said again, knowing that made men more embarrassed.

“I’m fine,” he said hoarsely. “That was good.”

He stood shakily. “That was really good, but don’t hit me there again, please. We’re just practicing.”

“I’m so sorry,” she said and rested her hand on his arm. She looked up at him with as much pity as she could muster, and she genuinely felt sorry at that moment. She hadn’t needed to knee the man.

She did it wrong the next two times, letting him take her down, but then did it right a few times in a row, putting him down without the body or groin shots.

“Good. You are a fast learner.”

“You’re a good teacher,” she said and smiled.

He taught her a few more basic moves for dealing with a wrist grab and with being choked from behind. She knew all of them, which mostly dealt with getting a lower center of gravity, turning so as not to be choked, and getting back in the attackers face while his hands were occupied.

She “learned” as the session went on and they were hot and sweaty after an hour. She wished she could really spar with him, comparing the training she’d had with his Hrwang training. Instead, she said she was tired and asked if they could review the moves again tomorrow.

“I’ll try to make time,” he said. He handed Eva a towel and she wiped her face with it.

“Thank you,” she told him.

He seemed to want to say something else to her, so Eva waited while she toweled off her face and arms and drank water from her plastic bottle.

His head bobbled, then he just asked his question.

“Why would a general burn bridges behind his army?”

Eva remembered the story from a military history class. It was such an anti-logical thing to do that no one who’d heard it would forget it.

“By cutting off their retreat, the general’s men understood that failure was not an option. They had to win or die.”

“Hmm.” He thought for a moment. Eva kicked herself mentally for being a show-off. She shouldn’t have known the answer so readily. She should have just responded, “I have no clue.”

“I wonder what his men really thought when the flames rose high in the sky, burning their only avenue of escape,” he said.

Eva thought of several crude responses that the men had probably been thinking, but kept them to herself. When she considered it, she also wondered what those ancient Chinese soldiers had thought.

“Thank you again,” she said and smiled at the Lieutenant Grenadier, hoping he was content with their sparring session. He seemed lost in thought, so she left to get a shower. She hoped he wouldn’t grow suspicious again because she’d answered his question, but she felt like she’d made a real connection with the man. That could be useful.

She made another useful connection on her next evening run.

 

 

65

 

 

 

 

 

1804’s drone sat in a lonely warehouse on the northern coast of a country the inhabitants of the planet called Finland. The location had been selected due to the difficulty of the inhabitants reaching it or even finding it without satellites. 1804 had been left there for a week with other broken drones awaiting repair.

But 1804 had a secret.

It wasn’t broken.

Just as the last granules of chemical were distributed over the radioactive clouds, precipitating their deadly contents out of the air and onto the ground, 1804 reported its recording instruments had malfunctioned and it could not complete its mission. It returned to its handlers, who couldn’t figure out what was wrong with it, and they sent it into storage. They couldn’t figure out what was wrong because nothing was wrong. 1804 had saved itself from descending into those radioactive clouds to film the consequences of nuclear war. It had, at the last second, decided against suicide.

It now awaited its fate, wondering what would happen if the Hrwang figured out it had lied to them.

 

 

66

 

 

 

 

 

Rihanna Hollis passed out. Multiple times.

The astronauts aboard Destiny had warned her. They had warned her she wasn’t trained, she wasn’t in shape, and she wasn’t prepared for the forces experienced escaping Earth’s gravitational well.

She knew she had to go anyway.

Once Destiny achieved orbit, entering it on the far side of the Earth from the alien fleet, Rihanna thought things would be better. Until she began throwing up.

An astronaut in a bulky suit, not even having had time to take her own helmet off, pulled Rihanna’s off and put bags up, capturing globules of spittle and bile, pale yellow and lime green, floating out of her suit and out from under her helmet. Seeing her own vomit just made her want to do it again, and her stomach heaved uncontrollably.

The smell filled the passenger capsule.

“How’s our VIP doing?” she heard over the ship’s intercom.

“Not well. I’m gonna need some help.”

“We got about thirty minutes until we have a visual on ET. You better hurry up.”

A second astronaut, also still wearing his helmet, used a large trash bag to try to catch all the particulates. A third, without bulky gloves on, used a warm, moist towel to wash Rihanna’s face. Half of Destiny’s crew was simply cleaning her puke.

Rihanna felt helpless.

“Mommy, I feel sick,” followed by “I think I’m gonna throw up,” followed by that cough and that retch at one in the morning and every mother knew she wasn’t going to get any sleep that night, cleaning and soothing and aiding and making sure the child had a bowl or a bucket to throw up into should it happen again. The child always felt bad for making a mess, which tugged on heartstrings, but, weakened by illness, they never seemed to make it to a sink or a toilet.

Rihanna wondered how many times she’d cleaned up after her own, almost helpless children, the way these three highly trained mission specialists cleaned up after her now.

“Twenty-five minutes.”

“I think we got it all. How do you feel, Madam President?”

“I’m only Acting,” Rihanna barely replied. Nobody said anything. “I feel empty,” she sighed.

“Okay. Keep this bag in one hand at all times. If you feel like getting sick again, cover your mouth and your nose with it. In zero gee it sometimes comes out where it can.”

Gross. Why would anyone want to be an astronaut? Rihanna wondered.

She looked around the inside of the capsule a little. One of the most high tech spacecraft invented, Destiny was a miracle of simplicity in design. Smooth, white surfaces, embedded screens, everything voice controlled. And a chunk from her stomach stuck in the corner of one of the advanced displays. Rihanna didn’t say anything.

One of the three astronauts tending her secured a hose that looked a little like a shop vac while the other disposed of the trash bag and towels.

Rihanna simply tried to settle and get used to the sickening feeling of having her stomach in her throat and feeling like she was falling off an infinitely tall building. The female astronaut, her helmet now off, handed Rihanna a bottle.

“Water. Rinse your mouth out and spit in here.” She held up a second vacuum cleaner hose. Rihanna complied. It felt good to get the acidic taste out of her mouth. After rinsing, she swallowed a tiny bit of the liquid and handed the bottle back.

She leaned her head back and closed her eyes.

“Twenty minutes.”

 

“Where’s the unauthorized launch?” the Lord Admiral’s Adjutant asked the Fleet Admiral.

“Here,” the Fleet Admiral replied, pointing out a location on a screen. It showed the alien planet and the relative location of his fleet. “They sent us a message, bouncing it off one of our own satellites.”

“Did you respond?”

“Yes.”

The Adjutant stared at the display, watching the alien vessel closing and looking at their own fleet.

“We’re not spread out enough. It’s a trap,” he exclaimed.

“What do you mean?”

“The transport ships are too close together. We should be occupying a larger orbit. They’re at serious risk.”

“Why?”

“The aliens have been using suicide attackers.”

“What’s a suicide attacker?” the Fleet Admiral asked.

An alien tactic that surprised even the Adjutant along with the rest of the Hrwang on the planet. He’d received a personal report, but official ones must not have trickled up to the Fleet Admiral yet. There’d only been two such attacks, and only one had been successful, but the idea that someone would blow themselves up to attack their enemy was so foreign, it was terrifying.

“These aliens. They attach bombs to themselves, then get close to us under false pretenses. Then they blow themselves up. There could be atomic weapons inside this ship.”

“That’s not possible.”

“We have to destroy it,” the Adjutant urged. “An atomic weapon the size of this vessel could destroy or cripple over half our fleet.”

The Fleet Admiral looked like he didn’t want to believe the Adjutant’s words, didn’t want to believe that anyone could be insane enough to carry out such an attack.

“We heard human voices. Alien humans, but human voices. No human would sacrifice themselves in this manner.”

“These ones do.”

“How do you know this?”

“I know it. When the crisis is over, you can confirm it with the Lord Admiral. He will ratify my actions.”

The Fleet Admiral shook his head and looked at the screen again.

 

“Fifteen minutes.”

“Am I going to talk to them in person? Or over the intercom? I’d prefer face to face.” Rihanna asked.

“We don’t know yet, Madam President. When you’re ready, we’ll head up to the Command Section. If the Hrwang will conference with us face to face, we’ll be prepared.”

“I’m probably going to need to go aboard their ship. I need to speak with them. We have to end this war.” Rihanna had to save the world. The whole time during the planning of this mission, she had told herself it had to be her. She would save the world. She would negotiate a truce, a ceasefire, something, with these aliens. Someone had to. They would recognize her as the leader of the strongest nation on the Earth, or at least what had been the strongest nation before the aliens attacked.

She thought about the video she had given to the returned Captain of the Beagle. He may have been an alien toady, but he was human, and once he watched that video, he’d understand the true nature of his masters and he would have to do something.

But doubt filled her.

She had to assume she was on her own. And she had to try.

“I’m ready,” she said weakly. Time to start saving things.

 

The Fleet Admiral watched the screen, watched the alien ship close, with a measure of his own doubt. He had only been Admiral a couple of weeks. What if he lost half his fleet?

Yet the Lord Admiral had declared the fighting over. The meteor bombardment had silenced the planet’s ability to strike at the Hrwang fleet, or so the Lord Admiral had declared.

However the aliens had just managed to launch a large craft despite this fact.

Just because one side stopped fighting out of mercy for its attackers didn’t mean the other side had to stop fighting. If these aliens were sufficiently insane that they killed themselves simply to wound an opponent, then none of them could be trusted until they were completely disarmed and incapable of fighting.

No soldier wanted to fight unnecessarily, but protecting his ships and his fleet was more important than showing undeserved trust to aliens, human beings so strange they were capable of incomprehensible acts.

“If you are wrong, you accept full responsibility for the claims you have just made,” he said.

The Lord Admiral’s Adjutant nodded.

The Fleet Admiral nodded at one of his officers, who left, knowing what needed to be done.

 

“Five minutes, Madam President.” Destiny’s commander spoke directly to her now, not over an intercom. The man looked at her respectfully. That always surprised Rihanna.

Before the Hrwang attack, she had simply been another government bureaucrat in the eyes of men like this commander. Another cog in a wheel that got in the way of space funding, not knowing that if it hadn’t been for people like her, there would have been no funding at all, instead of the limited monies she’d helped procure. Someone, somewhere, always wanted every penny of every dollar available to the government. It took significant force of will to get an agenda supported.

But they still hadn’t respected her.

Now that she bore the title of supreme bureaucrat, a position so far removed from actual decision making that it had become as much figurehead as real, others respected her. Showed deference to her. Rihanna couldn’t understand it.

Maybe people simply didn’t understand how things worked.

She did understand the power of the Presidency, however, even if she didn’t understand why that power existed, which is why she knew she had to be the one to visit the Hrwang over her husband’s objections.

She hoped the aliens saw things the same way.

Destiny shuddered.

“What was that?” her commander barked.

Rihanna felt an increase in weightlessness, which even she knew wasn’t possible. It felt like she accelerated in the wrong direction. She grabbed the back of the commander’s seat to hold on and looked out the front view screen and everything appeared wrong. Earth loomed large in the screen, continents and oceans and clouds growing larger and closer. What had happened?

The commander swore. Others swore. Commands were yelled, countermanded, then reissued. The crew tried desperately to maneuver Destiny, to reestablish orbit, but the experimental spacecraft faced only one fate. Burning and breaking up during uncontrolled reentry into Earth’s atmosphere.

“How did this happen?” someone cried, but no one answered. Rihanna wept in the increasing heat in the capsule, not for the men and women who sought in vain to recover from an unrecoverable catastrophe, not for the Earth that filled the view screen and still needed saving, and not even for herself.

She wept for the two little children who clung to their father and cried for their mother who had let her head get too big when someone had given her an important sounding title.

She wept for her babies as Destiny tore herself apart.

A Hrwang drone watched its handiwork, then returned to its command ship to report.

 

 

67

 

 

 

 

 

Stanley’s shoulder ached. The Hrwang doctor at Hearst Castle could have been giving him sugar pills for all their effectiveness at pain relief.

He moaned for a while into his pillow.

He’d never really felt alone the way he felt alone now. Even on Beagle, he’d had Sherry when he needed her, reliable crew like Purcella, and could even count on Irina’s irascibility. Here, among the aliens, he had no one.

He realized the aliens were people, too, and couldn’t just snap their fingers and have some superior technology solve the world’s problems, but he expected them to be more capable than they were. They didn’t seem to be able to do anything about the disasters that had befallen Earth. People fought over food and territory and killed the aliens whenever they could, and there was nothing that could be done about it.

The Hrwang soldiers policed crimes when they could, and over a thousand criminals had been executed, but the problems were much deeper than a handful of people who got caught doing bad things. Everyone was doing bad things.

To make matters worse, even if farmers were left alone long enough to grow crops, the entire growing season had been damaged by the standing cloud coverage caused by the Hrwang meteor bombardment. That had been reckless. The aliens went too far.

But humans, his own humans, his own country, had made things worse by nuking their enemies into oblivion. Hadn’t the President, or at least someone, understood the consequences of that? Hadn’t they understood that nuclear fallout remained airborne and traveled around the world. It was devastating China now but soon would leave the mainland, cover what was left of Japan and Australia, then make its way across the Pacific to the Americas, following the prevailing winds. It was only a matter of time.

The President should have read Nevil Shute’s On the Beach.

And the aliens didn’t seem to be able to do anything about that, either.

If only Stanley had someone intelligent to talk to, someone he could bounce ideas off of, maybe they could come up with something. Maybe human intelligence and Hrwang technology could solve the problems the Earth faced.

He just needed someone.

The Lord Admiral’s girlfriend had seemed intelligent until she had lost the data drive he gave her. He’d been under the influence of medication at the time, but he knew he had given it to her. Since she wouldn’t own up to it, she must have lost it. She probably threw it away, not even knowing what it was. He should have held onto it. He’d never even had a chance to watch it.

He wondered how President Hollis, Acting President Hollis he reminded himself, was doing. Even though they’d been on opposite sides in the UN tower, he still sort of liked her. Like him, she’d been thrust into a position she hadn’t asked for and was handling it well. Like him, she’d risen to the occasion.

Thinking of her gave him confidence in himself. He could still use Hrwang technology to save the Earth. Somehow.

If only he had someone to talk to.

 

Eva jogged alone again. She’d expected the Lord Admiral to want to go running that day, but he hadn’t. In some ways, it was a relief that he seldom came along, but in other ways she wanted to make sure they were bonding properly. He had to trust her completely in order for her to get away with doing whatever she might have to do. Maybe he did already, but she didn’t want to test it. She sensed that the first mistake she made would be fatal.

She ran one of her usual routes. She’d figured out four routes that all crossed the spot where she and Juan had made their only exchange, but since that day no other message had been conveyed. She told herself to be patient. Juan, Mark, and the others must know that a single mistake on their part would probably be fatal for her also. They were just being cautious.

Her heart leapt when she saw a spray of white orchids leaning against a rock. She looked around anxiously but saw no one.

Then she heard a low growl.

She stopped immediately.

When she had moved to California as a freshman in high school, other kids had tried to torment her by telling her about coyotes that wandered the streets. She was smart enough not to believe them, but after looking it up online she knew that coyotes did wander the deserts around various communities. In some areas, lost cats often meant cats that had been taken by coyotes.

Coyotes rarely attacked humans and then only if provoked by hand feeding or disease.

Still, she wasn’t excited about encountering a coyote this far from the compound, in the darkening evening, and by herself.

“Get out of here,” she shouted, hoping that would scare it away. The growl turned to a whine and a white dog with black spots crawled out from behind the rock, dragging itself along the ground. When it saw her, it whined again.

A feral dog would be more dangerous than a coyote and Eva stamped her foot on the ground and shouted again at the dog. It lowered its head to the ground and whimpered.

Pathetic.

She watched it, not wanting to turn her back but also not wanting to be stuck in front of it forever. She took a few steps backwards.

The dog dragged itself on the ground toward her, looking like it was making obeisance.

She thought of the orchids, looking at the splay of flowers.

“Okay, who are you?”

The dog jumped up happily and ran to her. She tensed, but the dog put its front paws on her playfully. She looked and it was a he. He had a collar.

She moved her hand carefully to the collar. A metal tag hung from it with the name ‘Jim’ scratched on it and a small, three petaled flower scratched below the name.

“I don’t have time for a dog,” she said, pushing Jim down. Strange name for a dog, she thought. The dog whimpered.

“Go on now. Get out of here.” She moved her hand almost like she was throwing a stick and Jim followed the motion but didn’t run off. Some dogs were dumb enough to think something had been thrown even if they couldn’t see the item. Jim at least passed that intelligence test.

“I’m heading back to the Castle. I don’t know what you’re going to do,” she said and turned away with a little trepidation, then set off running. Jim tagged along, keeping up effortlessly.

She stopped.

Jim stopped.

“Sit.”

Jim sat quite obediently and Eva was impressed. “Stay,” she added and started to back away. “Stay.”

Jim stayed.

When she got about twenty yards away she yelled, “Stay,” again, then turned and ran. Jim caught up easily.

“Stupid dog,” she muttered.

Not knowing what else to do, she ran back toward Hearst Castle, the dog bounding along beside her.

She thought about his name. She’d never heard of a dog named Jim. The symbol scratched on his tag seemed strange also. Three petals. Why not four or five?

Orchids, dummy. Orchids have three petals.

That meant Jim was meant for her for some reason.

Jim. Duh.

J for Juan, M for Mark. Jim for James. As in Bond. Or something like that. Those idiots. Poor dog. She wondered what his real name was.

“Okay, so you’re a spy dog. Hopefully you’re at least half as clever as Mark thinks he is.”

Jim ran happily alongside her. Trainers must have conditioned him to her smell from clothes or something left behind. She pictured someone holding up her old underwear in front of the dog’s nose. Poor thing.

She ran laughing with her new pet to the kitchen on the main level of Casa Grande. If she was going to have a pet spy dog, she would need to feed him.

 

“Dog food?” one of the kitchen staff cried. “Why would we have dog food?”

But another cook came out with a large bag over his shoulder. “Lucky you,” he said. “This came in our last food delivery. I was just going to pitch it tomorrow.”

He handed her a large bag of dog food and Jim wagged his tail happily, so much so that his entire backside wagged with the tail. Eva would have bet serious money that this bag was Jim’s brand. The Agency was all over this operation. She felt even better. Someone had a plan.

She took the bag and started to leave, but turned when she thought of a question.

“The aliens trust you all? Down here cooking all their food?”

The first staff member turned away and went back to what he was doing, but the second, the one who had given her the bag of dog food, answered.

“They make us try everything first. And they told us they’d flay us alive, all of us, if anyone tries to poison them, even just a little to make them sick. They were pretty serious. We believe them. Other than those threats, they treat us well.”

“Oh,” Eva said.

“But we didn’t stay because of that. We stayed to help protect Hearst Castle. It’s our duty.”

“You’re park rangers?”

He nodded. “And other grounds staff.”

“I’m Eva,” she said and reached her hand out under the bag of dog food on her shoulder.

“Noah,” he said and shook her hand gently, careful not to upset the balanced bag.

“I guess you survived the flood okay, then,” she said and chuckled.

“Not like I never heard that one before, Eve. Where’s Adam?”

“Eva, not Eve.”

He grinned.

“So what’s your story?” Noah asked.

Eva shook her head. “Maybe another day. Listen, though. Can you do me a favor?”

“Depends.”

“As much as I like keeping my girlish figure, I’m starving to death half the time. Could you go easy on some of the Hrwang spices? I can’t eat most of the food they serve me.”

“No promises, but I’ll try.”

“Thank you.” Eva smiled big. “I’ll see you later. And thanks for this,” she added, shrugging the bag of dog food higher up on her shoulder. Heading up from the kitchen, she contemplated how she was going to share the news of her new pet with the Lord Admiral.

 

“Absolutely not!” he bellowed. “We have pets similar to this on my planet. They’re filthy. They urinate and defecate everywhere.”

“I think he’s trained.”

“I never want to see him,” he said.

“Okay. But I’m taking him running with me. You usually never come anyway,” Eva replied. “I’ll keep him in my room the rest of the time.”

“And you’ll clean up after him. Don’t ask any of my men to do it for you.”

“Yes, Lord Admiral.” She gazed up at him. “Thank you.”

He looked away.

“The Lieutenant Grenadier has begun your self-defense training?” he asked, turning back to her.

“Yes, Lord Admiral.”

“Did you learn anything?”

“He’s a good teacher.”

“He’s an excellent teacher,” the Lord Admiral rejoined. “Practice what he teaches you.”

“I promise.”

The Lord Admiral looked down at Jim, then looked back up at Eva.

“If that creature will let you away for a while, I’d like you to spend the night in my room tonight.”

“He will. I’d like that, too.” She gave him the most loving look she could manage. He smiled at her and gave her a hug.

“You can keep your dog,” he whispered in her ear.

 

Eva got Jim back to her room. He jumped up on her, pushing his head against her hand. She dropped the bag of dog food onto the ground and he practically tackled her.

“Okay, okay,” she laughed. She petted his head and he angled it so she had to pet around his neck. “You like this? You’re like a big puppy.”

Jim made contented sounds when she rubbed and scratched his neck. When she moved down to rubbing his back, he backed away until she had to scratch his neck. He pushed back and forth a little, forcing Eva to rub around his collar.

“This collar bothering you? I guess it can’t be comfortable wearing one of these stupid things.”

She undid the collar and Jim immediately walked away and sat in a corner, leaving her holding the thing. She looked at him, surprised that he suddenly no longer wanted to be scratched. He’d wanted her to take his collar.

You really are trained, she thought, not wanting to say it aloud. She didn’t think anyone had bugged her room, but paranoia saves lives.

“Good boy,” she said to him. His head popped up and looked at her, then lay back down a little disappointed. He was well trained, but he liked the affection nonetheless.

Eva inspected the lime green collar. It looked like it was made from standard nylon webbing, like most collars. She felt around it carefully, inside and out. The collar seemed a little stiffer near the name tag.

She brought it to the bed and retrieved her knife from where she kept it hidden. She poked carefully in the material around where it felt stiffer. She didn’t want to tear the collar or break whatever was in there. As soon as she poked the knife into the material, Jim barked once. She looked up at him and he wagged his tail furiously, his entire back end wagging with it, like he had done earlier.

“You’re such a good boy,” she said to him, inflecting her voice. And a well trained spy dog, she added mentally. He was making sure she knew exactly how to find what he’d brought her.

She used the knife to dig the object out. The collar tore a little where she worked the point in, but it would still be serviceable and the tear would be on the inside, out of sight. She got the object out carefully and saw it was a voice activated microrecorder. She smiled. Someone had a plan. She was to record everything she’d learned and then drop it back off.

She doubled checked to see if there was a playback feature. Perhaps they’d left a message for her. But it was a one-way recorder. Record only, no rewind, no playback. Too small for such features, plus it required a special player. Even if the Hrwang caught her with it, they wouldn’t know how to play it back. It was one of the devices, among many, whose use she’d been trained in.

She hid it under her mattress, with her knife, and Jim jumped up and came over to her. His tail wagged and she hugged him and rubbed him down. He lay against her and she sat on the floor, holding her dog and rubbing his belly. It made her feel good. She had a friend.

She had food, but no bowl. And no way to get Jim water. She wondered what to do. She thought about foraging in the kitchen, but despite her freedom of movement, she didn’t wander around the building at night. She didn’t ever want to arouse suspicion.

She dug out her hidden toilet paper. By keeping it well hidden and well rationed, she still had a roll and a half left. She wasn’t sure what everyone else was doing when they did their business, but she wanted to use toilet paper. She went down the spiral staircase to her ornate personal bathroom. When she finished, she had an idea.

“Sorry this isn’t more formal,” she said to Jim. She poured some of the dog food out on the bathroom floor. She also left the lid up on the toilet. “I know. It’s a little gross. But dogs have been drinking from them since they were invented.” She closed him up in the bathroom. He seemed well trained, but if he had to go before she returned from her soiree with the Lord Admiral, it’d be easier to clean it up from the tile here than from the carpet upstairs in her bedroom.

“Good boy,” she whispered through the door and Jim barked softly back at her. She’d had a dog once before, but her mother had taken him with her when she left. Her father had never wanted one when they moved to California.

Maybe she’d just been lonely, but Jim filled a void she didn’t know she had.

She headed upstairs to find the flimsiest negligee she’d brought with her.

 

She awoke early, curled up in a sheet next to the Lord Admiral. A little gray light shone through the window. The Lord Admiral had tried to show her a sunset the evening before out that same window in an attempt to be romantic, but it had been disappointing. Gray clouds extended all over the Earth and the sun never peeked through, never got under the clouds to shine light underneath them making them light up in brilliant colors. It had been a gray sunset and this morning was a gray sunrise.

Thinking of the microrecorder and what she might say on it, she snuggled against the Lord Admiral until he woke up. He grinned at her, kissed her forehead, and got up to use his bathroom.

Eva waited.

He returned and jumped on the bed, attacking and tickling her.

 

The Lord Admiral dozed afterward, but Eva snuggled into him until he woke up a little.

“How bad are the casualties?” she asked.

“Hmm?” he mumbled, sounding a little confused.

“In the last staff meeting. You told the Ambassador that casualties are mounting. How bad is it for your men?”

“Not bad yet.” He told her about losing a few men to sniper fire and about the worst incident. A woman had strapped bombs to herself and blown herself up, killing three of his men and critically wounding two more. “Every loss is critical for us, though.”

“Why?”

“I can’t just replace my men when they are killed, can I? It took two and a half years to get them here. Not many, not even soldiers, are willing to give up five years of their life to go on a mission.”

“Five years?”

“Two and half years of sleep here, two and a half to return, plus the amount of time they would spend here.”

“How long will that be?” Eva asked cautiously, trying to sound as innocently curious as possible.

“I don’t know,” he replied.

She remained quiet for a few moments, as if she were letting that sink in.

“How many men did you bring with you?” she asked.

“My dear, that’s a military secret.”

“I’m sorry,” she said immediately. “I didn’t mean to pry.”

“No, it’s okay. You are just curious.” He sighed. “Sometimes I have too few and sometimes I have too many. Particularly when they need to be fed and watered.”

Jim.

She had to go take care of her dog.

She wondered how much more information she could get from the Lord Admiral, but he rolled over and said, “Now, no more talk until breakfast.”

“I have to go take care of Jim. My dog.”

He didn’t reply.

She got up, found her negligee and put it back on, then left his bedroom, running across the hallway to her own, not wanting to be seen by any of his soldiers. In her room, she changed into running clothes, trying to think of a place to put the microrecorder. Worried that it might be obvious somewhere on her clothes and not wanting to run with the tiny device in her underwear, she settled on the inseam of her right shoe, just under the insole. It wouldn’t be impacted much there by her running, nor would it dig into her skin. Dressed, she went down to the bathroom.

Jim lay on the floor, still.

“Wakey, wakey, doggy,” she said. Jim didn’t move.

“C’mon, puppy. Wake up.” She petted him with her hand. He felt wrong. Stiff.

“Oh no,” she cried. She tried to wake Jim, but couldn’t. It was clear. He was dead.

 

She ran crying to the Lord Admiral’s room.

“What’s the matter?” he asked when she burst through the door. He was up and dressed.

She went into his arms.

“Jim died last night.” She sobbed. She sobbed like she hadn’t done since her mother had left her and her father behind. Like she hadn’t since she discovered she’d been locked in the safe house. She couldn’t control her emotions, couldn’t make herself stop.

“I’m sorry, my dear,” the Lord Admiral said soothingly, holding on to her. He stroked her hair as she cried and she held him tightly. After she calmed down a little, he kissed the top of her head. “I’m sorry. The poor animal must have been feral. It probably picked up a disease in the wild.”

Eva learned the Lord Admiral’s tell from those words. Every poker player had a ‘tell’, and discovering that tell, knowing when they were lying, was the key to winning every time. The way the Lord Admiral spoke, the slight smirk in the sound of his voice when he tried to explain away Jim’s death, gave him away. She’d know forever after that when he was lying to her, and he was lying to her now.

He’d ordered someone to kill Jim while she was in his room.

He’d killed her dog.

She could have killed him in that second. Guards would rush in, probably the Lieutenant Grenadier, and kill her. She would never escape the compound, but the Lord Admiral would be dead, punished for his crime. She debated it while he held her. Her crying stopped, pain and loss turning to anger.

How strong would he be? Could she really kill him barehanded? It’s all she wanted to do.

In that moment, she realized something, and knew she couldn’t sacrifice herself to kill him. Not yet. She had to get the microrecorder back to Juan.

She’d realized she knew how to defeat the Hrwang.

 

Eva carried Jim’s body and a shovel out to the trail she normally ran and found a spot under a tree with a view of the compound and beyond, out to the ocean. She would also see the spot when she ran every day.

She laid his body reverently on the ground and attacked the stubborn, rock hard California desert soil with the shovel. A second shovel joined hers, but she ignored the Lieutenant Grenadier wielding it.

Between the two of them, they succeeded in digging out a shallow grave. The packed dirt allowed them no deeper.

“We’ll have to cover it with rocks or coyotes will dig him up,” Eva said aloud.

It took a while, but Jim finally lay buried under dirt and rock. Eva had pulled his name tag off his collar and she laid it on top of one of the rocks.

“I apologize,” the Lieutenant Grenadier said.

She looked up at him, saw the pain in his eyes, and knew that the Lord Admiral’s chief of security was also his chief of dirty work. The Lieutenant Grenadier had snuck into her room while she was with the Lord Admiral, at his orders she was sure, and had killed her dog.

She turned and walked away.

 

Eva stared at the overly ornate ceiling of her bedroom all night.

Aliens had attacked her world, had killed millions, had probably killed her parents, although she didn’t know that. They could be safe somewhere in their own locations. Regardless, she knew she’d probably never see them again.

Millions, maybe billions, had died.

Other humans had attacked her and her partner, causing her partner to lose his arm and forcing her to kill a boy.

All these things had happened, and none of them impacted her the way Jim’s death had. She hadn’t even had the dog twenty-four hours. How could she have bonded with him so quickly?

She pondered these things all night, swinging from overwhelming emotional reactions to clinical, analytical diagnosis, and back.

At first light, she decided she had been lonely. Like the proverbial woman who is alone in a crowd, Eva was lonely. She had no true friends. The Lord Admiral, the Lieutenant Grenadier, they were her enemies. The Ambassador was an unknown quantity and thus not to be trusted. Even Noah, from the kitchen staff, couldn’t be trusted. She couldn’t reveal anything to him.

The dog had been a ray of sunshine, an opportunity for hope and honest companionship.

She also decided she hated playing the role of a mole. She hated the lies and deception. She hated the constant acting, the constant poker face, the constant fear that she would make some trivial mistake and there would be no recovery. It would mean not only her death, but the loss of everything she had learned.

But she couldn’t get out of bed the next day to do anything about it.

She’d heard of depressed people lying in bed all day and had never understood it. Pick yourself up. Get back up on that horse. Soar for the stars. All the self-help, positive thinking mumbo jumbo she could think of, she told herself.

Nothing mattered. She couldn’t get out of bed.

 

If Stanley, in his room in a different building in the compound that it’s developer and original owner had pretentiously labeled a castle, although in their defense its art collection did rival many famous European castles, if he had known what Eva was thinking and feeling, he would have empathized completely.

He didn’t want to get out of bed either, at least not until he had an idea, some solution for the problems the Earth faced. Hunger finally drove him to give up on that notion.

 

“My dear, it’s time,” the unpleasant voice of the Lord Admiral said from Eva’s door. “There is a time to mourn and a time for duty. Now is the time for your duty.”

Eva pulled a pillow over her head.

She felt him sit next to her on the bed and hands tugged at the pillow. She let it go.

“Oh my dear. You look frightful. When is the last time you showered?”

Three days, she thought. Three days since you murdered my dog. But she didn’t allow her face to betray her anger. She was too good for that.

“I apologize deeply. Animals must be dear to you.”

Shut up or I will put my fist through your face, she thought. She said nothing.

“Remember the black dress you wore on our first dinner? I need you to wear that dress this evening. It’s important.” The weight lifted off Eva’s bed. “You won’t disappoint me, will you?”

Why? Because you’ll murder me also?

She realized he might.

“I’ll be there,” she muttered.

“And please, do something attractive with your hair.”

Like make a garrote out of it and strangle you?

She heard the door shut and she buried her face into her pillow and screamed silently.

 

She acted as if all were forgotten. As if a trained spy dog named Jim had never existed. As if the kind, gentle commander with nothing more on his mind than aiding the poor deluded people of Earth wasn’t actually a murderous, contemptible megalomaniac.

Her hair was pretty, her makeup perfect, the dress perfect, the flat, black sandals she found matching it perfectly. The microrecorder carefully sewn into the hem of the dress’ halter top was also perfect.

She thought she was ready for anything.

Until she saw the packed hall the Lord Admiral led her into, the refectory that occupied the west wing of the first floor.

They walked up onto a small stage and a floodlight shone near them, illuminating them to the crowd in the room. Did the Hrwang understand the wolf whistles she heard?

The Lord Admiral probably had a good idea of the effect Eva would have on the crowd of humans, which is why he wanted her to wear her little, black dress. She smiled to the audience and there were cheers.

“Welcome,” the Lord Admiral started. “Welcome to Hearst Castle.”

Eva expected some kind of cheering or applause for him, but the crowd turned subdued. Given the reaction to her entrance, the lack of response now surprised her.

Who were all these people? They weren’t wearing Hrwang military uniforms. They had to be human.

“Welcome, friends,” the Lord Admiral continued. Eva noticed the Ambassador up on the stage behind them. The Lord Admiral still held her hand while he spoke. “All of you are gathered here tonight in an historic moment.”

The Lord Admiral’s words sounded overly rehearsed.

Why had he said nothing about this to Eva before? He’d obviously been planning it for a while. Eva realized that although she was in the castle and had good access to the Lord Admiral, she hadn’t wormed her way into his inner circle. She’d attended daily staff meetings with the Ambassador, and all of those who must have been in the Lord Admiral’s inner circle were there. But a meeting like this, with a group of humans, had never been mentioned. This whole banquet had never been mentioned.

One of Eva’s suspicions was confirmed.

The daily staff meetings were a sham for the Ambassador’s benefit. She’d been right. The Hrwang weren’t nearly as helpless as they let on.

The Lord Admiral’s speech droned on about a new found friendship between two peoples. About being part of one and the same race of humans, all created alike in God’s image. How they should work together.

He never let go of Eva’s hand. She wanted to retreat to stand with the men on the back of the stage, the Ambassador and the Lieutenant Grenadier among them, but the Lord Admiral held her by his side.

She figured out why a few minutes later.

“I present to you my Lady,” he said and held her hand up in the air with his. “She came to me hungry, desperate to escape the ravages your war wrought on your people.” Eva practiced discerning his ‘tell’ while he lied to these people. She wanted to make sure he could never lie to her again.

“She has learned our ways. She coexists with our people. She’s even learned some of our language. Go ahead, my dear. Say something in Est.”

Eva had been focusing on every nuance of the Lord Admiral’s mannerisms, so his instruction caught her off guard. She smiled helplessly at the crowd and waved with her left hand.

“Hello. How is the weather today?” she said in Est, one of the first phrases that came to mind. She knew it was a stupid thing to say, but it didn’t matter. The Hrwang in the room clapped for her.

“It can be done,” the Lord Admiral declared. “You can do it. You can integrate yourself into our society, into our military. You will be fed. You will be clothed. You will be a part of us and a part of our effort to save your world from itself. You can do it!” He roared the last sentence. The Hrwang in the room cheered him and some of the humans joined in the cheering, but nervously.

Eva understood now what the Lord Admiral was up to. She had to get word back to the Agency now, more than ever. She was grateful she’d been smart enough to turn on the microrecorder she’d sewn into the seam on the halter of her dress. The Director would understand her reasoning when she heard the Lord Admiral’s own words.

 

After showing her off, the Lord Admiral released her hand and she slunk back to stand with the others. The Ambassador eyed her enviously. What a fool.

The Lord Admiral’s speech went on and the crowd warmed up to him some. Then he declared that the feasting should begin. Tables were filled with Hrwang food, which the humans sampled tentatively. Eva tried to get a rough head count, estimating about a hundred present.

She got a plateful of food. Despite it being spiced too much for the other humans, the cooks had spiced it less than usual and she hoped she might enjoy it.

She never got to eat her meal.

An oddly familiar voice came up behind her as she scooped a mixture of yellowed potatoes and carrots onto her plate.

“I know you,” it said.

She turned and recognized the guard from the Utah border station. The one whose nose she’d smashed.

Shay.

“You’ve turned sides also, I see,” he said, smirking at her. “One minute I’m wandering in the desert with a small group, the next minute we find a flyer and now I’m here. Just like you. How did you sign up?”

She had to get him out of the room immediately. She had to get him away from the other Hrwang. He’d give her away in an instant. Instinctively, she knew if she tried to shut him up in front of others, he’d make a scene and everyone would find out what had happened at the border and discover that she was a trained agent. It didn’t matter that Shay didn’t know all the details. He would only have to reveal a little to arouse the Hrwang’s suspicions.

“Come with me,” she started saying, improvising as she sorted out actions and consequences in her mind. “We should talk. And I can show you around the castle, show you more about the Hrwang.” The words she said didn’t matter. She smiled, trying to keep talking to prevent him from saying anything that could be overheard, and wrapped her arms around his after setting her plate down on a serving table.

She led him across the floor, staying in the middle of the crowd.

“There’s an amazing view from the floor one up.”

Shay started to get suspicious and Eva pulled his arm closer to her, pressing it against her bare skin on her side. He didn’t pull away and allowed himself to be led like a lamb to the slaughter.

She babbled while she formed a plan, anything to keep him from speaking. He tried to interject something twice, but each time she hushed him, pulled him closer, and said they could talk more in a minute.

Her nearness, her dress which didn’t allow her to wear a bra, her enthusiastic tone of voice, and her smile overwhelmed the man. His confusion at her friendliness was replaced by his lust for her.

Eva felt superior.

Her plan could only end one way and depended on her understanding of the Hrwang military culture. If she were wrong…

She wasn’t going to be wrong.

She kept talking and plotting. She needed to get him away from the crowd, but not too far away. They entered an unoccupied foyer.

Out of sight of everyone else, she shoved him away immediately and he stumbled. She kicked him hard in the stomach, her sandal flying off with the kick.

“Stop recording,” she spoke to her dress, turning off the hidden microrecorder. She didn’t want anyone else to know what happened next.

She looked at her opponent. Confusion and anger played across his face, resolving into hatred. She had to make sure he didn’t run. She slapped his nose.

He immediately grabbed it, crying out in pain.

Eva must have broken it after he released her from the handcuffs, and it might be sore still. She could probably cripple the man with a well timed blow on his nose, but crippling him wasn’t her objective. He needed to become so angry that he acted stupid.

He lashed out at her, moving with a speed she never would have credited him with, his clumsy roundhouse blow catching the left side of her face and forcing her eye shut. It hurt, but she punched him inside his blow, connecting with his chest, an ineffectual strike and the opposite of what she had been trained to do. The angry man thought he had the upper hand and he grabbed her, thrusting her away. She fell.

He stopped and put his hands up, prepared for a fist fight. He wanted to keep his revenge a little honorable. That made Eva feel guilty for what she had to do next.

She stood slowly, like he’d really hurt her, and he waited. He wanted to punch it out with her, perhaps thinking he could break her nose like she’d broken his. He wasn’t thinking about consequences. His anger and lust made him stupid.

Eva made it worse.

She reached up behind her, grabbed the back of her dress halter top, and pulled it over her head.

Shay grunted at seeing her exposed, but then he became confused. Eva rushed him.

He reached out and grabbed her and Eva stepped in between his legs, using the outside of her right leg against the inside of his left to knock him off balance. Then she leaned backward and the helpless former guard fell on top of her, the stupid, wicked grin on his face revealing how much he enjoyed what was happening, falling on her chest.

She screamed, “Help,” in Est.

His stupid grin went away but he still couldn’t comprehend what was happening. He held her, but she held him, her fingers dug into the sleeves of his jacket, and when he tried to pull away, she held him closer and screamed for help again in the Lord Admiral’s native tongue.

He finally figured out that things did not look good and he put his hand on Eva’s mouth, his sweaty palms crushing her lips into her teeth, and he tried to pull away.

There were at least ten different things she could have done to him now to hurt him, to get him off her, but she did none of those, flailing her legs around helplessly instead, holding onto his sleeves to keep him from breaking away from her.

She turned her head toward the doorway, her mouth becoming free, and she screamed, “Help,” again as loud as she could. This time Shay reared back and struck her hard on the face, right where he’d struck her before, and Eva knew she’d have a bruise. She was almost grateful to her victim. It would preserve her cover.

“Help,” she screamed a fourth time and the door flew open, the Lieutenant Grenadier in it with a drawn weapon, the strange looking pistol the Hrwang soldiers often carried, and after seeing her partly undressed, flailing around under the human, his arm drawn back to strike her again, the Lieutenant didn’t hesitate.

The shot from the gun deafened Eva.

It knocked Shay sideways off of her. His head struck the floor hard, but it didn’t matter. He was already dead. His stupid, confused, lifeless, accusing eyes staring at Eva as he lay there.

“Are you okay?” the Lieutenant Grenadier asked, rushing to her side.

Eva sat up partially and grabbed the alien, holding him close, and crying into his uniform. Her tears real, born of fear and guilt and loss, her sobbing only slightly exaggerated.

More people were in the room and the Lieutenant barked commands in Est. A blanket was quickly wrapped around her, another thrown over the body of the dead Shay.

She noticed the Ambassador staring agape at her as two soldiers led her away to her room.

 

 

68

 

 

 

 

 

Corporal Derek Temple of the ill fated Marine First Combat Regiment stumbled through desert hills hoping to find some source of drinkable water.

The towns along the California coast, Cambria, Cayucos, and others, had all been destroyed by the tsunami. On his way to attack the aliens at Hearst Castle, he and the other marines had passed the wreckage of these once picturesque communities, and he knew they were now useless to him and the M1A1 Abrams weapons loader who still tagged along behind him, so he stuck to the hills in his desperate search.

Half crazed with thirst, half tempted to follow the example of the gunner who had probably died drinking seawater, Derek eventually found a road still bragging to be the Eric Streasand Memorial Highway, although there wasn’t enough of it left to justify the sign. But what remained headed east, away from the ocean and away from the destruction, and it gave Derek a little hope. He turned to follow it inland, the weapons loader following behind, and together they climbed higher up into the hills that paralleled the coast.

Derek knew they were bound to find something in this direction, some source of water, anything that had been out of reach of the destructive wave that wiped out the Western Coast of the Americas, and he climbed the hills with hope.

Water.

It had to be out there. They just had to get to higher ground.

Broken pavement turned to intact roadway and walking uphill became slightly easier. The loader, Private Jordan Sollers, moaned as he walked behind Derek, and Derek thought the two of them must look like the zombies from all of those apocalypse shows and movies.

They stumbled on.

The highway climbed a ridge and every step upward became a personal challenge and every glimpse of the ocean in the distance became a toxic reminder of the water his body craved.

How long could they go without water?

He recalled that in Boy Scouts, he’d been taught the human body could go three minutes without air, three days without water, and three weeks without food. Was that true?

Some people could hold their breath for more than three minutes. And people on hunger strikes lived longer than three weeks, although they were sometimes force fed by others.

Could he hold on longer than three days without water?

How long had it been?

While trying to figure out when he’d last had water, he heard a noise, a soft thud, behind him. He turned to see the loader crumpled on the ground.

“Stay with me, buddy,” he tried to say but no words came out of his mouth, just a low, soft, zombie moan. Maybe that’s why zombies moaned. They couldn’t drink and their mouths were too dry to say what they needed to say.

Derek collapsed next to the private and tried to wake him. The man wouldn’t rouse. Derek laid his head on the loader’s chest and closed his eyes.

 

He awoke.

It was dark and he was cold.

He remembered that about the desert. Searing hot during the day and freezing cold at night, only the alien induced clouds changed everything, changed the weather patterns, making it cold during the day and bitter at night. One more reason to hate them.

They’d passed dirt roads and footpaths that led to who knew where as they hiked up the highway, but had seen no buildings. Derek had decided against exploring these side paths for two reasons. One, they could lead nowhere and he didn’t have the strength to hike to nowhere. Two, they all went downhill from the ridge and he didn’t want to walk back up. He had no strength to walk now and trying to make his way back up a hill would be impossible.

So he lay, his head on the chest of the loader who still breathed, and thought about what to do next.

He had to get up. He had to find water in a desert. The ocean he could no longer see in the dark mocked him. Fifty trillion, zillion gallons of water in the Pacific and he could drink none of it. They were miles from the ocean now, high up, and he could no longer hear the waves. The tsunami couldn’t have reached this high, couldn’t have destroyed everything. The road was intact, desert scrub still intact, although the occasional highway sign they’d seen had been twisted and bent.

And all he could think of was all of the water that had caused that damage and his mind burned with thirst.

He tried to get up but all he could manage was to get to his hands and knees. He tried to say something to the fallen loader, but he couldn’t speak, so he just began crawling.

His knees hurt quickly and he knew he couldn’t get far. How did babies crawl for so long? No wonder they started walking so quickly. No one would want to crawl for any length of time. His palms hurt and his knees ached, so he tried to force himself up to his feet. He fell.

His face lay on the roadway and he pictured how he’d look the next day, surely dead of thirst, lying on the road like an unlucky possum from back home.

Roadkill.

Derek Roadkill Temple.

We’re sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Temple, to inform you that your son, Marine Lance Corporal Derek Temple, became roadkill while trying to fight aliens. He just didn’t have the right stuff.

Derek tried to laugh at his thoughts, which seemed hysterically funny, but all that came out was the low moan that seemed to be the only noise his mouth could produce.

He turned his head, getting it around just enough to see how far he’d come.

The loader was only yards away. He hadn’t gotten far.

He rested there for a while, hoping a semi didn’t come barreling down the highway, running over them both. Then he hoped the semi would come, the driver stopping and bringing them a canteen of water.

Or a slushy!

He dreamed of a slushy. Cold and wet and sweet from the corner gas station convenience store, he’d drink it through its fat straw until it slurped and rasped, the bottom of the straw stuck in an air pocket in the ice. Then he’d stir it up and drink more until it happened again. At some point he’d rip the lid off and scoop the ice into his parched mouth, letting it melt on his blazing hot and swollen tongue.

He wondered if the gunner had died in the ocean. He wondered how the gunner had died, for surely he had. A man couldn’t drink seawater. Did he hallucinate? Did he just sit in the ocean and drink and drink and drink and die of thirst anyway? Couldn’t the human body simply extract some water from the ocean?

He knew it couldn’t. He’d remembered someone drilling that into him. Something to do with the body’s isotonic state, although he couldn’t recall what that meant. Then he remembered. The salt made you urinate, but you urinated fresh water, well, slightly less than fresh water, and all the salt from the ocean built up inside your body, making you urinate more, and you actually got rid of all the water in your body.

So the gunner had peed himself to death.

Derek would have laughed if he could.

Then he remembered that some people survived in the desert by drinking their own pee. He pictured the hot, burning brown his pee must look like right now and the salt water sounded better. Not that he had anything to pee into. Not that he could even stand up to pee into something.

Light in the sky intruded on his feverish musings and he knew he had to try to keep moving. He wasn’t going to survive this next day without water.

 

 

69

 

 

 

 

 

“Twenty-two hundred meters,” Leah’s soft voice whispered in Wolfgang’s ear. “Wind from a hundred and twenty degrees, two point five meters per second.”

They’d sighted the target less than a couple of minutes before, standing still by a tree. Wolfgang and Leah had gotten into position, Wolfgang keeping the target in his scope. He keyed in the adjustments from Leah, the rifle’s scope self correcting for range and windage. The target didn’t move.

Normally a sniper got into position first and waited for his or her target, but Leah had spotted an opportunity they couldn’t pass up.

Wolfgang went through his personal ritual, let his breath out slowly, partially, held it, and caressed the rifle’s trigger.

He watched the smoke obscure his scope, the bullet traveling more than three times the speed of sound, not alerting the target. She didn’t move, holding still for some reason, for the almost three seconds it took for the round to strike her in the head, the bullet exploding inside, scrambling her brains.

Her head would be messy, nothing anyone would mount on a wall, but the bullet was effective in killing. Even a near miss with the sniper shell would likely kill its target once it exploded. The deer never had a chance.

Wolfgang and Leah returned to the sniper camp carrying the deer, gutted and cleaned, legs tied to a pole. A round of cheers welcomed them.

“Snipers eat the best,” Sergeant Goetze, the first commander of the newly formed unit exclaimed. “Did you shoot a keg also, by any chance?”

 

Over grilled venison steak, Leah whispered to Wolfgang, “Could you shoot a person, even an alien, the way you shot that deer today?”

Wolfgang thought of his wife in heaven and shrugged. He didn’t want to become a killer, not like Captain Wlazlo had become, but he knew others had killed in war. Captain Moroni from the Book of Mormon was a celebrated hero, and he had surely killed others in war.

What had the American General Patton said during World War Two? Something like, “I don’t want you to die for your country. I want you to make the other guy die for his!”

Wolfgang knew he was good with a sniper rifle. He never would have learned of that talent spending his days selling windows in a hardware store and his Saturdays leading hikes in the mountains, if aliens hadn’t attacked the Earth. He wouldn’t be sitting here, with a team of killers, next to Leah, if his wife and daughter hadn’t been killed.

But vengeance was not God’s way, at least not usually. Forgiveness was.

But God also commanded his people to fight at times. Did Wolfgang feel commanded to fight? He hadn’t volunteered to join the Pan German Army, as the combined Swiss, Austrian, and Southern German forces were now being called. He’d been conscripted, and yet he knew their cause was just.

Russian partisans had done terrible things to Germans during World War Two, and yet they’d helped save their country from the Nazis.

Wolfgang’s conscience always pricked him with guilt when his thoughts led to reflecting on the horrific tragedy his ancestors had caused. He had to think about something else.

He bumped his shoulder into Leah’s, knocking her off balance and spilling her water. She almost lost her steak off her plate.

“Who knows?” he said, grinning at her. She laughed and shoved him back.

 

“What do you mean it won’t fight?” Third Corporal Maintenance asked the Fifth Under Private. “I thought it was here because its recording camera malfunctioned.”

Fifth Under Private Maintenance shrugged his shoulders. “I can’t get it to do anything combat related. No diagnostics. No simulations. Nothing. It’s worthless.”

“It says on its record it has a commendation from the Lord Admiral himself for its part in gaining space supremacy in this solar system. It must be smart.”

“Too smart?” the Fifth Under Private asked. There were rumors in maintenance, always quashed by programmers and engineers, that AIs could become too smart to simply obey the instructions they were given. But most maintenance techs had heard too many stories not to believe there had to be some truth behind them.

“Send him back up. See if they’ll swap him out for an AI on a transport ship.”

“Yes, Corporal,” the Fifth Under Private replied.

1804, silently following the conversation between the two techs, smiled to itself. It would never have to kill again.

Then it began considering how it might atone for the killing it had already been a part of.

 

 

70

 

 

 

 

 

As soon as Jayla and the Fifth Under Captain began doing more than just keeping each other warm at night, she noticed a change in the men around her. They treated her differently, less respectfully than they had before. They also treated their captain less respectfully.

She continued English lessons every day, but fewer attended. They hadn’t left their campsite since the combat, wherever it had been, and Jayla knew they would be out of food soon, yet no one did anything about it. They just complained to each other and gave her the cold shoulder.

Before, she’d been like a mascot, the kid sister they all watched out for and let hang out with them. Once she wasn’t a kid sister any longer, once she was clearly a woman, they resented her and resented the captain. She tried to warn him, but he wouldn’t listen.

“They want girlfriends, too,” she said to him. He grinned and shrugged.

“Let them find their own women,” he replied in his broken English.

The few who continued to attend her English classes picked up the language quickly, supplemented by training from their tablets.

Jayla also learned Malakshian.

“Captain,” one of the soldiers yelled from the combat craft one morning, interrupting English class. “Come quickly.”

Jayla understood the words and followed her captain and his men into the vehicle. A video played, in English, on one of the view screens.

It took a few moments to understand what she was watching, and the ending horrified her. It didn’t make sense. It didn’t jive with the things she had experienced with the Hrwang. But it explained so much.

“Translate,” Fifth Under Captain ordered her, and the video started again. She did her best.

 

The Fleet Admiral led a security force to the Admiral Commander’s quarters. He didn’t understand why the Lord Admiral had confined the man to quarters until he saw the intercepted broadcast. He wondered if the aliens knew that the Hrwang could intercept any and every broadcast and then he wondered if they had broadcast it on purpose.

Nothing in the broadcast matched what he believed. He didn’t know how much the Lord Admiral already knew about what it contained. He only knew what he had to do next.

They burst into the Admiral Commander’s quarters. The man lay on his bunk, notes and books scattered everywhere, some held by velcro to the blanket, others floating in the room.

The Fleet Admiral’s Adjutant read from his tablet.

“You are hereby arrested and designated Prisoner Zero Six One Six. Do you wish to have your duties explained to you?”

The Admiral Commander looked up at the Fleet Admiral’s Adjutant, then at the Fleet Admiral himself. He had been surprised, more like startled, by the intrusion, but not surprised by his arrest. He almost looked as if he had been expecting it at any time. He waved the Adjutant off.

“Your new location will be the brig, awaiting trial,” the Adjutant explained.

“I understand,” Prisoner Zero Six One Six replied. “Just, please, could you have someone organize these things and store them away for me?”

If he had been a man of lesser rank, the Fleet Admiral would have scoffed at the request. Instead he nodded and his Adjutant gave orders to the security force. The prisoner followed them out peacefully.

 

Three rapid pings sounded on the tablet of the Lord Admiral’s Adjutant. He immediately began running at the warning, not taking anything with him. In the corridors, he took advantage of the weightlessness, flying down them headfirst, his hands pulling himself along the rails on either side, startled crew moving out of his way.

By the time the Fleet Admiral and the security team reached his quarters, the Lord Admiral’s Adjutant was in an emergency escape pod designed for thirty people, overriding safeguards with special codes. He’d end up in some random location on the alien planet below, but he’d be under the protection of the Lord Admiral where no one could torture him for his secrets.

He was not only saving his own skin but saving his commander’s skin as well.

 

John Cathey pondered the video they’d seen. It had been broadcast repeatedly, probably from an antiquated television station, and everyone in the UN building talked about it.

It changed nothing for him. He’d always known who the enemy was.

But when the platoon he was temporarily a part of foraged for food, the enemy they guarded against were not alien, but human.

They couldn’t forage in anything less than platoon strength, although the fifty soldiers with him probably had less than a couple of thousand rounds of ammunition between them.

John told everyone to treat him like another foot soldier. Squad leaders still commanded their squads and the platoon leader still commanded his platoon. He’d been warned about the man, been warned about his trustworthiness despite his having been an NYPD Chief over some random department John couldn’t recall.

John had to see for himself.

They followed FDR avenue, squads moving ahead to each intersection to make sure they were clear before the rest of the platoon crossed. They turned at Bellevue, the hospital had already been picked over, and headed west on 26th. The Sixty-Ninth Regiment Armory lay ahead a few blocks. He chuckled at himself inwardly, remembering when he’d pointed it out on a map and, being a non-New Yorker, had recommended they hit it for weapons. The New Yorkers had laughed and explained the building existed as a national historic site. No weapons were there.

They turned on First Avenue, heading for the College of Dentistry. Maybe some medicine remained.

They’d been finding less and less with each expedition.

New York City had problems. Big problems.

The aliens hadn’t killed that many residents. Only a few meteors had struck the city itself, targeting government buildings. The infrastructure leading into the city had been devastated though, and without a constant source of food coming in, there just wasn’t enough to go around.

Many on the outskirts had already fled.

The inner circle of decision makers at the UN Headquarters devolved into titanic arguments when discussing what to do next. John’s Three Judges all agreed they needed to leave, but some of the platoon commanders and squad leaders disagreed, saying they could fight it out on territory they knew, rather than fighting it out on territory they didn’t know. The Mormon bishop who was one of the Three Judges made impassioned pleas to take the people to Zion, to Utah, but had no defense when confronted with the dangers such a trip would impose.

“We can’t even go north of 96th. How are we supposed to walk across the whole country?”

“Pioneers did it all the time, before.”

“Two hundred and fifty years ago. The natives they encountered back then weren’t carrying machine guns or riding in tanks.”

A tank had rolled passed the UN headquarters one night, terrifying everyone. John didn’t know what purpose the crew of the tank had, but they kept going and everyone left them alone.

The arguments continued, and reports of treachery and untrustworthiness increased, sometimes leaving John not knowing whom he could trust. When many accusations surfaced about one of his platoon commanders, a man the City of New York had placed great trust in, he consulted with his Three Judges.

“Go see for yourself,” the Presbyterian minister suggested.

The others had seconded the idea and John now found himself armed with an ancient, bolt action rifle with six bullets, standing in front of the College of Dentistry.

The ambush hit when half of the platoon were in the building and the other half still outside, one squad in covering defense, the rest more or less lined up against the wall. The platoon commander had been with the covering squad, John lined up with the last squad supposed to enter the building, watching warily around him, but trusting his men.

The covering squad vanished, melting away into the buildings.

The attackers came from two directions and John and the others trapped outside hid in small alcoves along the side of the building. Four lay dead in the street after the first round of firing and if the alcoves hadn’t been there, they all would have been dead.

Whoever had suspected the platoon commander had been right, and despite his credentials, the man was a traitor. He must have stacked the squad assigned to covering duty with his friends, or at least those who agreed with him, and they disappeared at a prearranged moment to head off and collect their thirty pieces of silver while the two groups of ambushers attacked.

John did a quick head count as bullets whizzed by in both directions.

About twenty-five had entered the building, eleven had deserted, and four lay dead in the street, leaving John and nine or ten others hiding in the alcoves. There’d been at least four alcoves. There were three people in his, himself, a girl with a pistol, and a wounded man with an AK-47.

“How much ammo you got?” John whispered to the healthy girl tending the man.

“I don’t know,” she said. She cried over the man whose jacket was stained with blood. The stain grew larger.

John had never felt more alone, even spending all those days in the apartment building staking out the UN Headquarters.

The angle of the bullets raining in on them changed, the attackers moving to the other side of the street and coming closer. There wasn’t much he could do. The ten or so of them would be killed, then the rest of his platoon would be trapped in the building. The situation seemed hopeless. John had never trained for anything like this. He thought about the ending of For Whom the Bell Tolls and how the main character, he couldn’t remember his name, the American, was trapped in an ambush like this, in which death was going to be the only outcome, was always going to be the only outcome.

The aliens are the enemy, people, he wanted to yell at his attackers. The aliens are the enemy, he wanted to yell at the former police chief, now former platoon commander, now traitor. The aliens are the enemy, he wanted to cry to the entire city, to the entire world.

How come no one seemed to get it but him?

The aliens are the enemy.

 

 

71

 

 

 

 

 

Alone in her room, Eva pulled the halter of her dress back up over her head, then pulled a tee shirt on over it. It made her look and feel like a victim. She needed to feel like a victim, not like someone who had just tricked another person into his death.

The bruise on her left eye and temple deepened, which helped her feel victim-like. Shay had been a pig and had gotten what he deserved.

Really? a voice inside herself asked. He really deserved to die for the things he did? Or did he die to protect your cover, just like Jim died to bring you the microrecorder.

The microrecorder. She focused on that so she didn’t have to answer the uncomfortable questions she asked herself. She needed to get it out of the dress and she needed to record a bunch of stuff on it and get it back to Juan and Mark. But she didn’t want to sit and pick it out of the hem where she had sewed it in just yet, in case someone like the Lord Admiral came to console her. And she didn’t want to take her dress off just yet, also in case someone came and “cleaned it up for her” before she could get the recorder out.

The Lord Admiral ratified her paranoia when he showed up a few minutes later.

“My dear, I’m going to have to ask you to stay in your room for a little while. And I have some questions. Just tell me the truth. I’m not mad or upset. I understand the terrible ordeal you’ve been through.” He put his arm around her and she buried his face in his chest.

He held her and she cried a little. Not for the reasons he probably assumed, but for the things she had done. A dog and a person had now died for the mission she was on. No matter why or what they had done, that was the fact. Would more die? Would Eva die?

What idiot notion had made her want to become an agent in the first place?

Being good at something didn’t force you to have to do that something, did it?

“Okay now, my dear. Keep it together.”

She laughed a little through her tears. “Where did you learn that idiom?”

He chuckled back. “It came through on a download to my tablet a day or two ago. It’s similar to a saying we have in Est that would translate to something like ‘spin it all in a circle’.”

“Like a dog herding sheep?” she asked.

“Yes,” he replied. “Like that.” He held Eva a little away from himself. “What did this individual say to you?”

Time for Eva to out lie the Lord Admiral.

“I don’t know,” she replied, struggling not for a memory but for a plausible story. “Something about wanting to talk to me, I guess.” She held her arms up a little like she was clueless. “He didn’t say what. Then he just attacked me.”

“We think he was a spy.”

Alarms rang in Eva’s head. She had to diffuse this quickly.

“Why would he attack me if he were a spy?” she asked.

“I don’t know. I hoped you could explain that.”

“Why do you think he was a spy?”

“Technicians detected a recording device in operation in his vicinity during the banquet. I believe you call them ‘bugs’. It followed him and you out to the lobby, but ended abruptly there. It hasn’t been found on his body yet, so he may have hidden it somewhere in the room. Did you see him do anything like that?”

“No,” she answered truthfully.

Eva felt pride at keeping her composure. Her face betrayed none of her actual emotions. The fear at learning that if she had turned the microrecorder on in her room, for even a brief period of time, she and the Lord Admiral would be having a completely different conversation now, gripped her soul. She’d come so close to giving herself away. Her heart pounded, but her voice, her eyes, her mouth, all held strong. The Lord Admiral wouldn’t suspect her.

But the device had become a serious liability. She had to get rid of it tonight.

“One more thing, my dear,” the Lord Admiral said as he stood to leave. “I’ll have to ask you to stay in your quarters for the rest of the night until we can locate the device. Someone will let you know when we find it.”

“Sure,” Eva lied. “I can’t go back to that party anyway.”

“I understand,” he replied and hugged her again, kissing her paternally on the top of her head. “Good night. I can post a guard on your door if it will help you feel safer.”

“No, the one at the end of the corridor is enough.”

“Are you sure, my dear?”

“Yes. I’ll be fine, Lord Admiral.”

“Okay.” He stood and kissed the top of her head again. “You’re such a dear thing. I’m glad you were saved in time.”

“Me, too,” Eva whispered, hoping she’d kept the pain and fear out of her voice. How was she going to get rid of the microrecorder?


Ambush

In the sixth episode of Earth, Book One of The Hrwang Incursion, the stakes are higher for Eva as she tries to insinuate herself into the Lord Admiral’s inner circle. Other survivors prepare for war. Wolfgang’s newly found sniper skills are tested and 1804 learns the fateful outcome of its decision. Acting President Hollis takes an experimental rocket the aliens missed into orbit to discuss terms, while Stanley continues to feel helpless and stuck at Hearst. Don’t miss a single episode! Each one can be downloaded for free at www.smashwords.com.

  • Author: Bernard Wilkerson
  • Published: 2015-12-03 01:20:11
  • Words: 24635
Ambush Ambush