Also by Bernard Wilkerson
The Worlds of the Dead series
Beaches of Brazil
The Creation series
The Hrwang Incursion
Earth: Book One
The Hrwang Incursion
Copyright © 2015 by Bernard Wilkerson
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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.
“I understand your concern for my safety, Lieutenant Grenadier, but given your other concerns, don’t you think it wise that you stay planetside and accompany the lady to inspect her castle?”
The Lord Admiral and his officer were inside the Lord Admiral’s shuttle, away from listening ears. Medics outside prepared the Ambassador for his trip into space.
“Yes, sir,” the Lieutenant Grenadier agreed. He played with the cuff of his uniform, not looking his superior in the eyes.
“But you have something to add. You may say what you need to,” the Lord Admiral allowed.
“Sir, I…” He’d been through this argument with the Lord Admiral earlier. He didn’t know how to phrase it differently now to get his superior to understand. “It may be irrational, sir. But I just don’t think you should trust her.”
“The girl? I know. You think she’s a spy.”
“It’s a possibility, sir. I just want you to take precautions.”
The Lord Admiral smiled gently at his personal chief of security.
“I will take this precaution. If you find incontrovertible evidence that she is a spy, anything at all, you may kill her. Immediately. You don’t even have to ask my permission.”
“But, Lieutenant, the evidence had better be incontrovertible and you will have to make a full accounting afterward.”
The Lieutenant Grenadier understood the warning.
He nodded to his superior and climbed out of the craft. He indicated to the medics they could bring the Ambassador in now.
The stretcher was carried in quickly, and the Lord Admiral acknowledged his Lieutenant through the open hatch with another nod. The hatch cycled shut and the craft disappeared, on its way to space and medical facilities.
The Lieutenant Grenadier pondered what to do next, walking alone back to his quarters in the Observatory.
Stanley, floating in and out of consciousness, awoke weightless. The Hrwang shuttles really did jump up into space, just like they said they did. He never felt the high gravity of liftoff. The vehicle sat on the ground one second and was in space the next, cheating the gravity well that had to be overcome to leave a planet.
The opportunities available to mankind with this technology were endless. He had to learn more about it and how he could obtain access to it. How to achieve his legacy with it.
Asleep again, awake again, he couldn’t comprehend where he was or what was happening.
He thought he might be inside a bigger ship now, although the ceiling wasn’t much farther away than the one inside the Lord Admiral’s shuttle. It just looked different. He couldn’t decide if he’d been operated on or not. The pain medication the Hrwang gave him was powerful and he felt disjointed in time. Sometimes memories seemed like they were happening at the moment, and other times, reality seemed like a dream.
It had been lucky for him that another human had been there when he had been coherent enough to give her the data drive. He didn’t even know what was on it, but right before the Hrwang had taken him away from the UN Headquarters, President Hollis had slipped it to him. She had whispered that he had to watch it.
He just hoped the girl he’d passed it to would hold it for him until he got back to Earth.
He’d originally planned to simply try to keep it concealed in his clothes, but he had worried that someone would find it on him when they prepped him for surgery. As soon as he had seen the human girl, he knew she had to be human because the Hrwang had brought no women with them, Stanley had known he needed to give the drive to her. There was something about her, something about her presence near the Lord Admiral, that had made him think he could trust her not to expose him, that she wouldn’t be stupid enough to hold it up in the air and ask everyone, “What’s this?”
She hadn’t. She’d kept it concealed.
Stanley felt like he’d just pulled a fast one on the Lord Admiral and that made him feel a little giddy. Or perhaps that was just the pain meds.
The Lieutenant Grenadier greeted Eva in the Lord Admiral’s room. She’d just finished unpacking, her thoughts on Juan, hoping he got safely back to Palmdale.
The Lieutenant acted differently than he had earlier, nothing Eva could immediately identify, but she felt uneasy. It wasn’t how he spoke or what he said. It was the way he looked at her, like he was trying to dissect her.
She pretended not to notice.
He told her they needed to leave immediately, so without asking why, she dropped the rest of her things on the bed and followed him as he led her outside to one of the smaller Hrwang aircraft, with just room for a pilot, a copilot, and eight passengers.
There was only one pilot inside and he held out a tablet for Eva, a map of central California on it, but with no borders or city names. The Lieutenant Grenadier asked her where the palace was and she pointed out the general location of San Simeon on the screen. The pilot selected a spot in the vicinity of where she indicated and set the tablet down into a small receptacle.
“This thing flies above the clouds, doesn’t it?” Eva asked, keeping her voice innocent but trying to keep it free of the fake Southern accent she’d slipped into earlier.
“It fly in space,” the pilot replied proudly. Eva could feel the Lieutenant Grenadier’s eyes boring into her back like he was trying to figure out what she was up to.
The pilot smiled at her.
“Right,” she said. “But when we, like, appear and disappear, can we appear high enough to get up above the clouds? I want to see some sun.”
She pictured herself as a six year old asking her parents to take her to see Santa Claus, hoping that the slightly vacuous effect she conveyed would help her cover story, the innocent girl caring more about sunning herself than all the destruction in the valley that surrounded her.
It was true, though, Eva realized. She did crave the sunlight. Even the beautiful view from Griffith Observatory was spoiled by the constant cloud cover. However, she also wanted to see what the aircraft could do.
The pilot looked skeptical. Eva thought about trying to sweet talk him, but with the Lieutenant Grenadier watching her like a hawk, she knew anything she did or said would be reported to the Lord Admiral.
So flirting with the pilot didn’t seem smart.
She debated for a second dropping a reference about the Lord Admiral to see if that would persuade the pilot. Such things often worked in certain circles, but she decided it wouldn’t please the Lord Admiral if he found out she was peddling influence with his name.
The Lieutenant Grenadier, of all people, saved her from her dilemma. He spoke a few words in the alien language.
“Okey, dokey, artichokey,” the pilot replied in English and gave her a thumbs up. Eva contained a laugh. She wondered where he had learned that phrase but assumed he meant they were going to fly above the clouds.
She went back to a seat next to the lieutenant, turned and crossed one leg over the other. She had changed into shorts before she had returned to Griffith, and the man couldn’t help but notice her legs.
She thanked him for giving permission to the pilot.
He turned his eyes away, obviously in discomfort, and said, “You’re welcome.”
Bright blue sky appeared outside the cockpit window.
The vehicle hovered midair, somewhere high above the clouds, and Eva jumped up out of her seat and moved back to just behind the pilot to get a better look.
It was disconcerting how simply the Hrwang vehicles seemed to travel from the ground to the sky.
She craned her neck around, but seeing blue sky through a cockpit window wasn’t enough for Eva. She forgot her mission momentarily. She wanted to lay out in the sun, to soak in it, to drown in it. She longed for it. Craved it. Two weeks of gray skies were too much.
“Do any of these plane thingies have bigger windows? Or open decks? Like a ship?”
Not following what she said, the pilot shrugged and the Lieutenant Grenadier remained quiet.
She plopped herself into the vacant copilot’s seat and no one forbade her.
“Let’s stay here a while, okay?”
“Okey, dokey,” the pilot started and she waved him off before he got to ‘artichokey.’
“Don’t say that again. It’s what children say.”
The pilot looked chagrined. He picked his tablet up and said something into it.
“I apologize,” he said to Eva when he finished.
She put her hand on the side of his arm.
“It’s okay. No worries.”
He smiled again at her.
Ostensibly watching the blue skies outside the window, Eva actually watched everything the pilot did.
He placed the tablet in its receptacle to provide the target coordinates, but he didn’t need to leave it there. He slipped it into his flight suit pocket after recording that his favorite phrase was something children said.
There was no stick or yoke. It was as if the things he entered onto touch screens told the ship what to do, not how to do it. Like it flew itself. The Lord Admiral had called the computers on board artificial intelligences. How smart were they?
The pilot gave minimal input, all of it via the touch screens. At one point, Eva innocently looked over his shoulder at the screen.
“What’s that little squiggly thing?” she said, pointing at a symbol that stood out from the others.
“I don’t know English words,” the pilot replied. He held his hand up in the air and moved it, tipping the fingers forward then back up.
“Attitude control?” Eva asked.
The pilot shrugged and pulled his tablet out. He held it up for Eva and she spoke into it. He looked at what came back.
“It doesn’t know either.” He shrugged again and put his tablet away. He said something to the Lieutenant Grenadier and the lieutenant replied with a single, terse word.
“What did he say?” Eva asked in a conspiratorial whisper.
“No more sun,” the pilot replied, and with a few touches on the controls, the craft dipped into the clouds.
White, cottony beauty under a bright blue sky turned to gray haze. Eva’s heart sank as fast as the aircraft they flew in. The sky turned dark below the clouds, black and heavy, like a storm rolling in. But these clouds never went away.
“Where is it?” the pilot asked.
Eva looked out the cockpit window for Hearst Castle but couldn’t see it. She tried to remember the geography around the area from maps, not having ever been there before.
She hoped belatedly that the place wouldn’t disappoint the aliens.
She continued searching but still didn’t see anything anywhere that could be Hearst.
“Can you bring up the area on your tablet?”
The pilot pulled his tablet out, touched it for a minute, then handed it to Eva. She tried to scroll it out to get her bearings, but nothing happened. The pilot reached over and showed her how. She had to hold her finger in the middle and make a widening circle, not use two fingers moving away from each other. The Hrwang weren’t smart about everything, she decided.
English labels suddenly dotted the map, along with Hrwang script, as she zoomed out.
“How did you get this map?” she asked.
The pilot smiled. “Your computers. Wonderful maps. We have your encyclopedia also. What does ‘wiki’ mean?”
Eva shook her head in surprise.
“I don’t know.”
She scrolled along the coast until she found San Simeon. She then put her finger on the screen and circled inwards until she thought she saw the castle. She adjusted it to the center and zoomed in more.
“Right there. Go up the coast until you see this,” she said, pointing out a spit of land.
The pilot shook his head in disagreement.
“Touch your palace,” he instructed.
Eva touched the screen where Hearst Castle was.
The pilot spoke in a foreign language to the tablet, then set it in its receptacle. The craft made a sharp right bank and headed across a mountain range. Eva quickly made out Hearst Castle sitting on a hilltop.
It didn’t disappoint.
She could make out tennis courts and a monster swimming pool. The craft descended slowly, circling the group of buildings without getting close.
“How many soldiers does this base hold?” the Lieutenant Grenadier asked over her shoulder. He’d moved forward, holding onto the back of the copilot’s chair Eva sat in. Rather forward of him, she thought.
“It’s not a base. It’s not really even a castle. Some rich dude built it about a hundred and fifty years ago or something. The inside is supposed to be even more impressive than the outside.”
“It look like small town,” the pilot offered.
The craft banked around the north of the complex, and the layout became apparent, the main building with its twin towers dominating the whole, other scattered buildings paying homage to it, the large pool lower than the rest, off to one side, and the focal point of the entire arrangement a magnificent view of the ocean.
“There are a lot of people around the buildings,” the Lieutenant Grenadier remarked.
Eva looked down and saw clumps, barely discernible as clusters of individuals.
“Refugees?” Eva asked aloud, not meaning to. The thought that there could be refugees at Hearst made her anxious. She hadn’t known anybody would be there. It was normally a tourist location, not occupied by residents, but as she considered it, it made sense that people might seek shelter there. That thought had not occurred to her before.
Her anxiety grew.
What had she condemned these people to when she had offered Hearst Castle to the Lord Admiral?
As they flew closer to the complex, they now could clearly see many people, some of them pointing up at them.
What would the Hrwang do? Eva worried.
With humans, you couldn’t tell.
Some would leave the castle to those who had already taken refuge there. First come, first serve.
Other humans would go in, guns blazing, and slaughter everyone.
What kind of humans were the Hrwang? What kind of human was the Lord Admiral?
Could he be brutal?
“You can’t kill them,” she blurted.
“You can’t kill them,” she repeated.
“Your people always fire on our aircraft. If the Lord Admiral wants this for his headquarters, we will have to fight,” the Lieutenant Grenadier replied grimly.
What have I done? Eva thought. She controlled her face to keep it from displaying her emotions, but she looked down at the refugees below with sorrow.
Images of California tourists dying under a Hrwang assault kept Eva from sleep. She paced the Lord Admiral’s room that night, finally gave up on sleep, and went to the converted gym where she and the Lord Admiral had danced. Equipment had been returned and Eva started into a workout, several Hrwang soldiers pointedly trying not to let her see them staring at her.
What she had done bothered her. It made her feel guilty. She had no right to just give up Hearst to the aliens. She hadn’t even considered that at the time. She’d simply acted without thinking, trying to impress the alien commander, trying to get on his good side.
It seemed to have worked.
But now she understood the possible consequences and she had to prevent the Hrwang from killing all those people. Somehow.
A weight dropped heavily on the ground and one of the soldiers stepped away from it.
He left the gym and, watching him, Eva felt a flash of inspiration. She knew what she could say and the idea elated her. She had to speak to the Lieutenant Grenadier immediately. Right away, before the Hrwang attacked Hearst.
She approached the remaining soldiers, one a barrel-chested man lifting an impressive amount of weight. Did they speak English? Did they know where the Lieutenant Grenadier was?
The men responded nervously, like fifth graders at a dance trying to talk to a girl for the first time, and then one of them pointed behind her.
The Lieutenant Grenadier had arrived.
She ran up to him. Got close.
“Go to Hearst Castle with overwhelming force,” she said.
“It’s late, Lady. Why are you in the gym?” he responded.
“I’m sorry. I couldn’t sleep. I know those people at the Castle are refugees from the tsunami. I don’t want you to have to kill them. If you don’t land enough troops, they’ll fight and you’ll have to fight back. But if you land enough soldiers, you’ll frighten them into surrender.”
He looked at her curiously but didn’t say anything.
“Please?” she asked.
He mulled over his response, considering something, while he stared directly at Eva, making her nervous. She didn’t beg again; she just waited for his answer. He finally spoke slowly.
“What you said is what First Over Colonel of Third Assault suggested.” He paused. “He’s a highly trained soldier. A strategist. It worked perfectly. We assumed control of Hearst Castle an hour ago without a single weapon discharge.”
Eva allowed her relief to show on her face. She exaggerated it a little.
“I find it interesting,” the alien soldier continued, “that you had the same idea as a man who will soon be a General.”
An alarm went off in Eva’s head.
“Thank you for sparing all of those people,” she said, pretending to ignore his comment. “I wouldn’t want you to hurt them.”
“Lady, we were sparing the buildings.”
She suddenly didn’t like the Lieutenant Grenadier. At least her comment deflected his inquiry about her strategic knowledge. She worried she’d given herself away. She had to be more careful and act more innocent in the future.
“Whatever,” she huffed, now acting offended. She went around him, careful not to bump into him, and said, without turning, “Good night.”
“Good night, Lady,” he called after her.
She went back to her and the Lord Admiral’s room, relieved that no one had been killed at Hearst but worried for another reason. Worried that the Lieutenant Grenadier suspected her true identity.
Jayla didn’t know what the tiny airplanes were, but she ran from them. The one that waggled its wings at her, the one that flew circles around her and her sister as they fled south on Wood River Trail, unnerved her the most. Something, or someone, was tracking her.
She ran along the trail, pushing the wheelchair in front of her, trying not to tip her sister out, and trying not to lose the hard-won goods tucked around the girl. Those items, her Daddy’s hiking stick, her empty can and can opener, and her water bottles, could mean the difference between life and death. She didn’t know.
Hunger still gnawed at her, exhaustion and fear overwhelmed her, and her feet hurt like they’d never hurt before. She didn’t know how long she could continue.
Why couldn’t people just leave her and her sister alone?
She couldn’t see the little gray airplane for the moment, but she did see a thick tree line. She pushed Jada’s wheelchair off the path toward it. The wheelchair suddenly stopped dead in the soft ground at the edge of the trail, and Jayla lurched forward, running into the back of her sister’s head.
She pushed on the chair, but it wouldn’t budge. She wanted to sink to the ground in despair, but she had to get under cover before the little plane returned.
Turning the wheelchair around and dragging it backward behind her worked. She still struggled with it in the loose dirt, her strength fading quickly, and she stumbled once when she watched the skies above instead of the ground behind her.
Relief came when she reached more pavement. Turning the wheelchair forward again, she ran for the shelter of the trees, listening for the sound of the tiny airplane and not hearing the whinnying of a horse until it was too late.
Hands grabbed her, a hand clamped her mouth shut, and hands separated her from her sister. She fought but had no strength. Someone laughed. He laughed the same type of harsh, cruel laugh she’d heard in the hospital.
“No,” she pleaded when the hand over her mouth was dropped.
“What’s wrong, little lady?” a man asked with mock concern.
“Please,” Jayla cried.
“Oh, we’ll take good care of you. You just hush now.”
She fell to the ground, her legs giving out from fear and exhaustion and malnourishment. The hands held her as she went down and they pulled her back up. She tried to look at her captors.
“Why you ain’t nothing but skin and bones,” one of the men said, several teeth missing and wearing a scraggly beard like he hadn’t shaved in weeks. He smelled.
“That’s how I like ‘em,” her other captor said. He could have been the first’s brother, they looked so alike. “Nice and skinny.”
There were three others. A boy close to her age holding the reins of several horses and two other men inspecting Jada.
“Leave her alone!” she screamed and she suddenly found strength, pulling free from one of her captors. “Get away from her, you pigs!”
Grabbed again, she struggled and screamed until one of the men by her sister yelled, “Shut her up!”
A hand covered her mouth again. She tried to bite it, but the man knew how to hold her mouth so she couldn’t. He’d done this before.
“This one’s got some fight left in her,” one of her captors exulted.
She was dead.
She and Jada would die. She’d been so intent on the little airplane that she hadn’t even recognized the trap she ran into. Had they been lying in wait for her? Did they have anything to do with the airplane? Or was it a coincidence? Were they hiding from the same thing? Why were they there? What were they going to do with her and her sister?
The jests grew more vulgar and she wished they’d just kill her now so she wouldn’t have to experience the horrors they described.
The two who held her started to drag her into the trees.
“No, no, no,” she cried, muffled, into the hand that held her mouth. “No, please, no.” But no one listened. Her whole body went limp and they almost dropped her, putting their arms under hers for a better grip.
She heard Jada cry out and she tried to scream. Not her sister. Not again.
Why, God? she cried in her mind. Why?
The two men pulled her into the trees and set her down, holding her tight. She squirmed, but one pinned her arms over her head, keeping his free hand over her mouth. She prayed and prayed, begging for it to be over, begging for the fear to go away. Her bowels released and what little was left soiled her pants. One of the men swore in disgust.
A knife came out and she felt it on her skin and she cried in fear. She closed her eyes in anguish, but not seeing made it worse. She opened her eyes again and tried to focus on a distant point, tried to will herself away, to distance herself from what was about to happen to her. She found a focal point in the clouds she could see through the tree tops. Her Daddy had told her that her mother had done that during labor. She would find a focal point and aim all of her will and concentration on that one point to escape the pain.
Jayla focused on the clouds, the now ever-present gray skies that had become a symbol of man’s suffering.
“No,” she begged one last time through the fingers that smashed her lips to her teeth, and she saw the sky above the tree tops turn black and Jayla could hear engines.
The knife, a long hunter’s knife, pressed against her throat and bit her skin.
“You make a sound and I will cut you to pieces.”
She couldn’t nod. She couldn’t move. The blade would slice her throat. Instead, she blinked her eyes in acknowledgment. The hand came off her mouth.
The one without the knife crawled away from her to the back of a tree. She could just see him peek around the trunk. He jerked back immediately and swore.
“It’s the aliens again,” he hissed.
“I thought they went away.”
Jayla held perfectly still.
A shot rang out, a cry followed, and the sound gave Jayla unexpected hope.
The echoing of the shot died away and everything grew quiet again. Even the engine noise was gone, and Jayla feared that whatever she had seen was now also gone.
“Come out of the trees,” a strangely accented voice yelled.
The man with the knife pressed it more firmly against Jayla’s throat and held his finger over her mouth. But terror gradually gave way to hope and she knew she only had to survive a few moments more, and either she would be rescued or she would be dead.
The man behind the tree put his hands in the air and slowly walked out of Jayla’s field of vision. The one with the knife didn’t move.
“I surrender,” the first one called out.
“Where is the girl?” the strangely accented voice yelled.
“What girl?” the first man answered and a shot slammed into the tree, startling the one holding Jayla down with the knife.
He straightened up, turning his head away from her, the knife coming off her throat and Jayla’s hand came up, almost instinctively, to grab his hand to keep him from killing her.
She grabbed the knife instead.
She screamed in pain. She screamed to let whoever had shown up know where she was. She screamed again when she felt the knife pulled out of her hand, skin and muscle and bone separating as the blade cut through them. She felt a blow to her head and everything went dark, then light, then dark with bright spots.
She heard another shot and a heavy weight fell on her and she screamed again until everything went completely dark.
She woke briefly and knew she was being carried by a running man. She glimpsed his face in the haze. He was black, older than she was, but not old, his eyes set in grim determination.
She awoke again when she received an injection. Pain receded.
“Lady, what were these men going to do to you?”
“Huh?” Jayla couldn’t figure out what he was talking about. He had a strange accent.
Strange Accent repeated the question.
“You talk funny,” Jayla answered and laughed. “I talk funny, too,” she said and her words sounded hilarious to her. She laughed again and it felt good.
She couldn’t understand the conversation that followed.
“You a speaka da English,” she tried to quote in an Italian accent. Everything sounded all weird but the joke was funny and she laughed again.
“I apologize,” Strange Accent said. “We gave you too much medication.”
“Nah,” Jayla said. “Feels good.” She slurred ‘good.’
“Lady. We need you to focus. Can you see those men?”
Jayla looked. Two men, one who had held her and one who had gone to Jada, knelt on the ground with their hands on their heads, next to a funny lump in the grass. The boy who held the horses knelt on their other side. The horses were gone. Shame. They were pretty horses.
“I see ‘em.”
“What were they going to do to you?”
Everything came back in a flood. Her good feeling disappeared instantly.
“They’re pigs! They’re animals,” she screamed. “They’re monsters.” She tried to get up, to get at them, to claw their faces and maim their bodies, but gentle hands restrained her.
“Were they going to rape you?”
“Yes! They’re rapists! Rapists!” She screamed the word and began sobbing. An arm went around her and held her. She looked up and the eyes that belonged to the arm were the eyes that had rescued her. “They were gonna hurt my sister,” she moaned.
Strange Accent stood while Rescue Eyes stayed next to her where she lay on the ground.
She tried to watch what happened next, but Rescue Eyes held her close and kept her from doing so.
“You stand accused of rape. How do you plea?” she heard.
“No, it wasn’t like that. She’s my girlfriend. We were just having a little fun.” She didn’t know which man spoke, but it didn’t matter.
“Liar!” she screamed.
Rescue Eyes still held her close and murmured something in his language to her. She didn’t understand the words, but she liked his voice. It made her feel better.
“He’s a big fat liar, pants on fire,” she whispered to him.
Strange Accent was reading. “All capital offenses including murder, rape, enslavement, and plunder are to be punished by summary trial and execution by order of the Ambassador, Stanley Russell. Do you understand?”
There was crying and screaming and swearing, then talking in the funny words Jayla didn’t understand. She could make out the boy begging over all of the noise and thought he shouldn’t beg. He would be fine. He didn’t do nothing wrong. He just held the pretty horses. The other ones were the liars and the monsters and they all looked like the old man from the mountain and she remembered hitting him with her stick and she wanted to hit these men with her stick, to make them leave her and her sister alone.
She heard three shots and she must have fainted.
She woke lying down inside some kind of vehicle that looked nothing like she’d ever been in before. Her hand didn’t hurt, but tubes stuck out of it and a clear bag hung over her head. Rescue Eyes was right there, next to her, holding her other hand. She smiled at him.
“You’re pretty,” she remembered saying before she passed out again.
“Just sleep on the cot,” Wolfgang said in frustration. He said it every night. But his ‘wife’, Leah, stubbornly slept on the ground on the other side of it.
When she felt like talking, she would reply, “You sleep on it. You need the comfort more than I do.”
Most evenings she said nothing.
The girl never left Wolfgang’s side, even accompanying him to the German training camp in Western Austria. With aliens from another star system attacking, borders no longer mattered, and German-speaking Swiss soldiers worked with Austrian soldiers to train the new conscripts.
The Austrians disguised the training base as a refugee camp and, given the state of its residents, it was not difficult to maintain the illusion. The recruits were not soldiers. They wore no uniforms. Most did not have their own arms and the rest used the ones provided in training sparingly. They had little discipline.
But the soldiers that ran the camp did the best they could to teach the new conscripts skills and tactics necessary for guerrilla warfare. No one deluded themselves that they could fight the aliens head on. Guerrilla warfare, the savior of many technologically inferior armies, would be the only thing that might save the Earth.
Yet Wolfgang had little hope in his fellow conscripts as he saw them try to learn to set fuses, aim wooden rifles, scale fences, and most of all, try to get in shape by running. One did not get in shape without proper nutrition, and the camp lived on daily rations that were less than a quarter of what Wolfgang would normally eat.
When he complained, Leah gave him some of her share, so he never complained again.
They exercised, drilled, and worked. Many complained, but the soldiers kept everyone so busy, no one had time to sit around and foster discontent. Wolfgang had occasionally looked on the military with disdain but now acknowledged they knew what they were doing. They knew how to train recruits and keep malcontents from causing problems.
But, and this by their own admission, they didn’t know how to fight the aliens.
Wolfgang exercised and drilled and trained and worked with everyone else.
And for some reason, on the firing range, he found peace.
He didn’t know why. He’d never fired rifles much before, only as a boy scout and a scout leader, but when he was on the range, he focused on the weapon, he focused on the target, and while he would never forget the loss of his wife and child, the focus allowed him to compartmentalize the anguish he experienced the rest of the time, to push it away and not feel it. It was simply him and a rifle and a target.
He looked forward to the time on the range, did everything there that was asked of him, and his scores reflected positively. Soon his and Leah’s schedule included more time on the range than other recruits.
He enjoyed the extra time and the extra challenges the instructors gave him. They had him fire in different positions. Prone, standing, kneeling, sitting, both on a stool and on the ground, and once they even brought out a moveable stairway and had him shoot between the open steps. It seemed strange to him and Leah, and they joked about it at times, but Wolfgang faced the challenges and continued to score well.
Two weeks into their training, they had a visitor.
Third Under Colonel Grenadier, the department chief over logistics, inspected the next set of shipments due to go down to the planet. The number of ferry shuttles returning to space diminished as ground operations increased. The supplies to be taken planetside stacked up in consequence.
Shipping containers towered over him.
As he walked between the containers, he saw the Lord Admiral and his Adjutant up in the tiny command center that overlooked the launching bay. What were they doing here?
He didn’t acknowledge his superior officer. The man hadn’t been looking down when Third Under Colonel looked up, so Third Under Colonel could simply pretend he hadn’t seen him. He had a lot of work to do anyway, determining the priority of shipments based on planetside requirements and figuring out how to get everything to the right place at the right time. He didn’t have the smartest officers in his command and he often found himself needing to jump in and do their work.
He turned a corner and went up another aisle, his back now to the command center window and to the superior officer inside he didn’t like.
Third Under Colonel had been studying local military history when he could. He didn’t think the people here were as warlike as the Lord Admiral suggested, but they had fought many wars. One briefing from a victorious general impressed him, especially when the man said, “Armchair generals think about strategy. Real generals think about logistics.”
Third Under Colonel thought the Lord Admiral spent too much time thinking about strategy.
As he rounded the next corner and moved up an aisle, facing the command center now but not looking toward it, he discovered something wrong.
He stopped and checked the shipping container in front of him. Its contents differed from the ones he’d been inspecting. It contained parts for heavy antiaircraft weapons, not the chemicals needed for the seed clouding mission, the one that would neutralize the large radioactive cloud that drifted over the planet.
He double-checked his tablet. This row was supposed to contain more of the chemicals. What had happened? Who had done this?
He scanned up several containers. They all held the heavy parts. The entire row in front of him, twenty containers wide, fifteen containers high, all held the same heavy parts. What was going on?
His fingers moved over his tablet, trying to determine who had changed the order of the containers in the shipment. No one had. They were simply the wrong containers. Given how few shuttles were available, it could delay the cloud seeding mission several days.
Idiots. He’d get to the bottom of this.
He looked up at the command center and the Lord Admiral stared straight at him. He’d have to explain the error in his next report and apologize to the man. The insufferable man smiled at him as if he already knew of the problem. Third Under Colonel couldn’t pretend now he hadn’t seen him, and he nodded a salute. The Lord Admiral, the grin still on his face, nodded in reply.
Then the ship lurched.
It happened occasionally. The ship had to avoid floating debris, of which there seemed to be a lot in orbit around this planet, and the sudden acceleration provided a brief moment of gravity. Third Under Colonel felt glued to the floor for a couple of seconds. When the gravity ended, he looked up to see three hundred containers of heavy weapons parts moving toward him.
Magnetic tie downs had not been properly emplaced and the load shifted during the ship’s maneuver. Third Under Colonel had no time to think or calculate. Getting out down the length of the aisle seemed impossible, yet escaping over the top seemed too far away also. Having to decide, he went with the simplest, strongest approach. He jumped up, driving his legs as hard as he could, making it as high as the eighth tier before the heavy laden containers crushed him against the securely tied down ones behind him.
In his last thought, he saw the Lord Admiral staring straight at him. The man still grinned.
The Lord Admiral met with the two responsible corporals in his tiny cabin instead of a command center where there would be many witnesses. Their sheepish Captain stood behind them.
His men knew they faced the death penalty for their negligence.
Nevertheless, he asked them if they understood the gravity of the charges against them. They nodded. They had been responsible for the magnetic tie downs. After their questioning, where they assured their Captain they had secured and double-checked them, they had not begged for their lives. They accepted their fate. They had been responsible for the Third Under Colonel’s death and they would accept the consequences.
These were men, the Lord Admiral thought.
He looked down thoughtfully at his tablet, playing with the corner of it, doing his best to pretend he struggled with a tough decision. He set the tablet down as if he had made that decision. The men in front of him didn’t flinch, but they had to believe he was simply deciding the best way to execute them.
In a voice weighted with the gravity of the situation, the Lord Admiral said, “If I request reinforcements from home, it will take five years for those reinforcements to arrive. Do you understand?”
The men nodded, but the Lord Admiral knew they didn’t understand. The Captain behind them didn’t either. He looked confused. The Lord Admiral enjoyed this.
“If I execute you both, which I am required to do under military law, it will be at least five years before you can be replaced.”
The men stared at him with confusion but also a glimmer of hope.
“I am instead demoting you both to Private and reassigning you to an Assault unit planetside.”
The men’s eyes filled with real hope now. The Captain’s confusion turned to irritation. The Lord Admiral would deal with him later.
“All evidence of this incident must be expunged in order to allow me this mercy to you. Do you understand? You must never speak of it again, not even when drunk in a bar. If you do, any military officer will be obligated to turn you in and you would be executed, even in time of peace. Do you understand?”
“We can keep our mouths shut, sir.”
“Your Captain was the only one who you reported to?”
“All evidence, video, or otherwise, concerning this accident will be erased. No one will ever know of your part in it. If you never reveal it, you will be able to continue in service and your families will suffer no humiliation.”
The men visibly relaxed.
He stood and put an arm on each of their shoulders.
“It was a terrible accident. I forgive your negligence. I know nothing like this will ever happen again.”
One of the men couldn’t even reply. His eyes welled up in tears of gratitude.
“Remember, say a word to no one. You’ll be reassigned and on the next shuttle planetside without delay.”
He dismissed them.
The Captain waited.
“You may speak openly,” the Lord Admiral finally told him.
“I don’t understand, sir. What they did. Such gross negligence must be punished.”
“They’ve been demoted and reassigned. I deem that sufficient punishment.”
“It is more mercy than I ever would have expected, sir.”
“We need every soldier we have. The situation planetside is most dire. The men were simply tired and overworked and made a mistake. A terrible mistake. But now that they have been forgiven, they will never do such a thing again. They will be Hrwang’s best soldiers.”
“I know this is delicate, and I appreciate your handling of the situation. Once everything is erased to protect the men, you will also report to your next assignment, Fifth Major Second Assault.”
“Yes, sir,” the former Captain replied enthusiastically.
The Lord Admiral grinned back at the man. Internally, he hated buying the man’s cooperation with a promotion, but it seemed the simplest way.
He put his arm around his new Major.
“Remember, take care of your men,” he said.
“Who are you going to put over logistics?” the Lord Admiral’s Adjutant asked him later in the evening.
“Who cares? Whoever’s next in line.”
The Adjutant contemplated the next thing he said for a moment before saying it.
“Good strategy, using mercy to erase all the evidence.”
The Lord Admiral nodded in reply.
“None of it would have led back. But it never hurts to be thorough,” the Adjutant said.
“Some day, over a drink, you’ll have to tell me how you pulled it off,” the Lord Admiral said.
“Getting the ship to think it needed to dodge some debris was the toughest part,” the Adjutant replied. “There’s a programmer you should probably promote and reassign to an assault team planetside, also.”
“When do you head back down?” the Adjutant asked, his voice easy and relaxed.
“As soon as my Ambassador is ready to travel,” the Lord Admiral answered.
“I hear you have a new girlfriend.”
“That’s impossible. How could you have heard that already?”
The Lord Admiral grew angry.
“Don’t go reassigning your pilot. Please?” the Adjutant asked. “He’s a good drinking friend.”
“And source of information about me?”
The Adjutant shrugged.
“He’s a good man, sir.”
“I don’t like people who talk too much.”
“I’m sorry, sir.”
The Lord Admiral relented.
“She’s a beautiful woman. Athletic. Physical. And she’s blonde,” he said.
The Adjutant smirked.
“Where did you come across her?”
“She’s a runner. She encountered some guards outside the palace and later I was shown the surveillance footage. I arranged to meet her running one morning.”
“You’re not suspicious?”
“Everyone thinks she’s a spy.” The Lord Admiral shook his head. “My Lieutenant Grenadier has orders to kill her instantly if she is. But she isn’t. You’d have to meet her to understand. She’s an innocent but lovely girl.”
“Enjoying the spoils of victory?”
“Victory hasn’t been achieved yet,” the Lord Admiral replied quickly. But then he grinned to his friend. “Yes. I am.”
Lizzy took her turn on watch like everyone else. Just because she was a newly minted second lieutenant changed nothing. She still had responsibilities.
It took a long time for a commendation and commission to come through based on her actions the day Shay had been arrested. She hadn’t expected anything to come of the incident other than she wouldn’t have to look at his ugly face again.
But things happened, and she became the boss.
The others had grumbled at first, but she tried to take care of them and they eventually came around. Her friend, Lindsey, had backed her one hundred percent, even yelling at some of the others when she thought Lizzy wouldn’t know. Lizzy would do what she could to help her friend get promoted when she could.
Much had changed since the day Shay had been arrested.
Guns were outlawed, other than for border units, unarmed police presence increased significantly in an attempt to end looting and violence, and the prisons were emptied.
The last change seemed counterproductive to what the leaders of Utah were trying to accomplish, until it became clear that prisoners who wouldn’t agree to cooperate with the new rules, or were deemed too dangerous despite what they promised, would be exiled instead. Buses had driven them to Lizzy’s checkpoint where they had been sent into the desert with food and water, but no weapons.
When they complained, they were told Las Vegas was less than a hundred and twenty miles away. They could make it in four or five days. Their pioneer ancestors had walked almost a thousand miles to Utah from Council Bluffs, Iowa.
Some had tried to sneak back in, but patrols had been beefed up and every attempt was made to keep them out. The rest of the exiles just glared at the guards from their former home state and trudged off to whatever fate awaited them. Lizzy had seen Shay leave with one of those groups.
An alien aircraft appeared in the air a hundred yards or so in front of her now. She jumped.
It settled down on the ground.
This was her second visit by the aliens. The first time, Lizzy’s squad almost immediately opened fire, but she had kept everyone calm. The aliens, several tough looking black men in black uniforms, had left their vehicle and had walked up to the border without weapons. Only one of them had spoken, but he seemed pleasant. He had asked questions, had told them his people would respect the borders and air space of Utah, and then the aliens had gone their way.
Lizzy had made sure everything was recorded and transmitted immediately. For a couple of days after that, she’d had a lot of brass visiting her.
“Record everything,” she said now as she stood and started climbing down the ladder off the top of the guard building. “But don’t shoot. Everyone’s weapons on safety.”
Some of that brass had told her what the aliens were capable of. If humans shot first, humans would lose.
“Way ahead of you, girl,” Lindsey called from inside the building. Her best friend never called her ‘ma’am’ or ‘Lieutenant’ unless she was making fun of her.
Three black soldiers climbed out of the ship. One carried a black girl, one helped another girl walk, and the third, she recognized him as the one she had spoken to before, led the way.
Lizzy set her rifle down against the side of the building, put her arms down to her sides, extended a little, and held her palms forward. That way they’d know she was unarmed.
“Be careful out there, honey,” Lindsey said to her as she walked past the entrance to the guard building. Lizzy nodded in response.
She walked past the barricade. The tire shredders were still raised although no vehicles had come their way in a long time. Travel by vehicle was now permitted for official government business only in an attempt to conserve what little fuel remained.
The desert beyond her fence seemed forbidding to her now, and with the Hrwang vehicle sitting in it, even alien. She watched that desert every day, but stepping out into it at this moment scared her. She kept her hands out.
The aliens stopped about ten feet from her. The lead one spoke first.
“Greetings, Second Lieutenant.” He nodded.
“Greetings, Over Sergeant,” she replied. The aliens seemed to only use rank, not names. He had introduced himself as Over Sergeant Third Assault the first time they’d met.
“We found these girls. One is sick. We can’t help her. Can you?”
Lizzy stepped forward and looked at the girl in the other soldier’s arms. She looked young, fourteen or fifteen, her face thin, her eyes withdrawn.
“Follow me,” she said and turned back to the guard building. The aliens hadn’t come inside the border during their first visit, but they followed her now without hesitation. She realized she had earned their trust. Probably simply by talking to them instead of shooting.
She led them into the building and pointed to one of the bunk beds inside used for guards on sleep break. The soldier set the young girl down gently on it.
The second girl wouldn’t come inside the building.
“I want to stay with you,” she cried, holding on to an alien soldier.
Lizzy stepped back outside. The second girl nearly hid behind the soldier who helped her. The Over Sergeant joined her.
“I don’t want to leave,” the girl said.
“It’ll be okay. We’ll make sure you’re taken care of,” Lizzy told her. The girl looked gaunt, but her eyes blazed defiance.
“That’s my sister. Take care of her. Her name is Jada.”
“What’s wrong with her?”
“She was brutally raped. She’s not right in the head now. And we haven’t eaten much in a while.”
Lizzy understood. Rumors of man’s inhumanity to man swirled through the ranks of the border guards and found their way throughout the state. No one in her squad wanted to share the fate of those like Shay. Exile frightened everyone.
“You stay with your sister,” the Over Sergeant said.
“No,” she cried and clung to the soldier she was with. He grinned helplessly at the Sergeant. They exchanged words in a foreign language.
“Can you tell her? We are soldiers. We can’t take care of her,” the Over Sergeant said to Lizzy.
“I can take care of myself,” the girl said. “I can be a soldier.”
The Over Sergeant repressed a laugh. “Women cannot be soldiers.”
The Over Sergeant noticed and stared at her. His face softened.
“I apologize,” he said. Lizzy nodded acceptance. He seemed pleased with her response. “On your world there are many women warriors. It is hard for my people to understand this. It is even harder to understand that women command.”
“We believe in equality,” Lizzy replied.
“We believe women are above the horrors of war,” the alien said.
“If more women were soldiers, maybe there wouldn’t have to be war,” Lizzy offered.
The Hrwang soldier nodded.
He turned to the girl and the soldier she clung to. The two Hrwang spoke in their language for a couple of minutes.
The Over Sergeant turned back to Lizzy.
“I apologize,” he said. “The Under Captain does not speak your tongue. He has given permission for the girl to become a soldier, if you agree.”
“Yes,” the girl said.
“I don’t have any jurisdiction over her,” Lizzy replied.
The alien pulled out a tablet and scrolled on it for a moment.
“Ah. She is not in your chain of command.”
“But you are an authority from this world. It is enough.”
Lizzy focused on the girl.
“Is this really what you want? You’ll be safe with us and you can stay by your sister’s side,” she said.
The girl shook her head. “I can’t leave them.”
The girl clung tighter to the soldier.
“We rescued them,” the Over Sergeant said.
“From the men who attacked them?” Lizzy asked.
“I apologize,” the Over Sergeant replied. “It is too horrible to tell a woman.”
Lizzy bristled again but faced the girl.
“This is really what you want? To become a soldier with these men?” she asked.
“Yes,” the girl said, confidence growing in her voice.
“How old are you?”
“You don’t look eighteen.”
“We haven’t eaten much lately,” the girl said and rattled off her birthday. Lizzy did the math. She was eighteen.
“And you just want to leave your sister behind? Just like that?”
“I’ve done everything I can for her. She needs a mental doctor, not me.”
“Family helps with recovery.”
“She doesn’t even know me, ma’am.”
“Well, you’re an adult,” Lizzy said. “I’m not gonna stop you.”
“Thank you,” the girl said.
“You have my blessing,” Lizzy said to the alien, only half sarcastically. “Just take care of her.”
“She will be designated Second Under Private Third Assault if you wish to contact her.”
“Okay,” Lizzy replied.
She never would have agreed to let the girl stay with the aliens if she’d even guessed how much she’d be yelled at over the next two weeks.
“What’s Second Under Private Third Assault mean?” Jayla asked the Over Sergeant once they were safely back aboard the Hrwang vehicle. She almost couldn’t believe they’d allowed her to stay. She loved her sister, hoped her Daddy wouldn’t be too disappointed that she had left her behind, but Jada would be in good hands now and there was nothing Jayla could do for her anymore, anyway.
And she wanted to be with the captain of this group.
His eyes, the eyes she had seen when he rescued her, penetrated her soul. She could stare at him for hours, although when she did stare at him, some of the other soldiers laughed. He was tall, and strong, and an officer. The kind of man a girl could be proud of.
And he had saved her.
She couldn’t imagine life without him. She had fallen completely in love with him.
“There is an Under Private in our squad already. You are lower than him. So you are Second Under Private.”
“Why not just Private?”
She waited while the Over Sergeant interpreted into his language. She had gotten used to the routine quickly. She spoke, the sergeant translated, her captain spoke, then the sergeant spoke back to her. That’s how they negotiated getting Jada help. The Hrwang had told her that only one group of people hadn’t immediately shot at them as soon as they appeared and that perhaps they could take Jada there.
“How far is it?” she’d asked and they’d laughed. The Over Sergeant had explained how their craft worked.
“An AI is inserted into a vehicle and then that vehicle can go wherever the AI can think.”
“Magic. And physics. But physics I can’t explain.”
In action, she decided it must be magic.
“In our military,” she tried to explain now, “there are a bunch of privates and corporals and then an officer over them. They’re all the same rank.”
After the interpretation, the other Hrwang laughed, including Fifth Under Captain Third Assault. Her Under Captain.
“Confusing. How would you know who was supposed to do each task if everyone is the same?”
“You take turns.” Translation. More laughter.
“What’s wrong with taking turns?” Jayla asked.
The Over Sergeant explained, “If the Over Private is assigned a task he does not want to do, he assigns it to the Private. If the Private does not want to do it, he assigns it to the Under Private. Simple.”
“Like a pecking order,” Jayla realized.
The Over Sergeant shook his head. He didn’t understand.
“Like chickens. One is in charge, then one next, and so on until the lowliest. They peck each other to enforce their place. That’s why it’s called a pecking order.”
“Pecking order,” the Over Sergeant said into his tablet. He held it up to Jayla. “Explain it again.”
Jayla did, speaking carefully into the tablet.
“Thank you,” the Over Sergeant said.
“What happens with what I just said?” she asked, pointing at the tablet.
“All the soldiers will soon know what a pecking order is.” He smiled at her.
“That’s how you share information with each other? Do you have your own network? I can’t access anything on ours.” She reached for her phone, but it was gone. She didn’t even remember where she’d left it, in the hospital or in the SUV. It didn’t matter. Either way, she’d never see it again.
“Network?” he asked.
“You know. Wireless. You transmit data everywhere over it.”
“Wireless? No,” the Over Sergeant replied, shocked. “No transmission. Download. We download what we learn, we upload what others have learned.”
“At our headquarters. The Under Captain will show you.”
The Hrwang craft landed. Jayla hadn’t even felt it take off.
The Under Captain invited Jayla to step out with him. He stopped to retrieve a device from the wall adjacent to the door then climbed out through the hatch. Jayla followed him, stepping onto a parking lot in the mountains somewhere.
The place had an incredible view.
“Where are we?”
The Under Captain scrolled on the device a second. Now that Jayla got a close look at it, it appeared to be an oversized tablet. He showed her a map on it.
Most of the map was labeled in Hrwang writing, but English words were under some of the alien ones. She looked at where he pointed and it read, ‘Los Angeles.’
She looked at the building where Hrwang soldiers milled around and some waited in a line. A tall white statue sat in front of the building. Three domes adorned the building’s roof, one large and in the middle, like a telescope, and two smaller ones on either side. The domes were brown, the building white and familiar.
She’d never been there before, but she’d seen it in movies. It was a pretty building with a pretty view and was so close to Hollywood, she’d seen it in a lot of movies.
She was at Griffith Observatory.
Jayla looked around her. There were a lot of Hrwang soldiers. Other Hrwang craft appeared and disappeared from the parking lot where theirs sat and all the soldiers waiting in line held large tablets like the one Under Captain carried.
She followed him into the line.
This must be the Hrwang headquarters, she thought. But why Griffith Observatory?
The Lord Admiral stared out a port window on his command ship at the planet below. He’d heard the report on Hearst Castle and he anticipated seeing it with desire. It had better please him more than Griffith Observatory.
That thought left a bitter taste in his mouth. He’d been humiliated.
When the girl had laughed at him, he’d almost changed his mind and had her killed on the spot. Instead, he’d decided she’d done him a favor. He needed a true palace and Hearst Castle sounded like it would suffice.
He had business to take care of in space while he waited for the Ambassador to heal enough for the journey back down to the planet.
But not enough business. The Acting Fleet Admiral served effectively in his new role and the Lord Admiral felt temporarily superfluous.
He longed to leave.
One item of business he had to conduct entered his presence now. The Lieutenant Grenadier, planetside, had sent Second Captain Grenadier as a courier to tell him about the castle and about an armored column moving through the desert in the direction of his current headquarters, toward the observatory. The Lord Admiral had sent his reply by a newly awakened reconnaissance team.
Second Captain Grenadier now stood patiently at attention.
The Lord Admiral couldn’t even look at the man.
“Did you know this location that had been mistaken for a palace was simply an observatory?” the Lord Admiral asked. His voice sounded bitter.
“Yes, sir,” the man replied. His voice sounded subdued.
“And you deceived me?”
“The building appeared palatial from space and from the satellite images we downloaded from the aliens. It had a commanding view. When we landed and realized its true purpose, we considered simply reporting it. But its location was ideal, sir. We tried to make it suitable for your presence and your command center, sir. There was no deception. Only a desire to make it worthy of you, sir.”
The man probably just saved his own life, the Lord Admiral thought. He’d been prepared to put him out an airlock.
“Understood. We will speak of this no more.”
The Captain relaxed, visibly relieved. It made the next part more enjoyable.
The Lord Admiral consulted his tablet.
“That’s all we have to discuss,” he said after finding what he was looking for. “Please report to Third Assault, Third Under Private, for further orders.”
The newly demoted private nodded his head in salute, turned, and left without waiting for his commander to acknowledge. The Lord Admiral didn’t care. The deflated look on the man’s face was priceless.
His Adjutant entered next and got right to the point.
“I just learned that after the assassination attempt on your Ambassador, he asked that one of the units bring some of his people to a location on the other side of their continent,” he reported. “After the Second Colonel died, the Major in charge agreed.”
“What? To what purpose?”
The Adjutant shrugged.
“Nothing that would interest you, sir.”
“Thank you. I have to go see our Ambassador anyway.” The Lord Admiral sighed and stood. The Ambassador was finally free of medication and working on his recovery.
The Adjutant didn’t leave immediately. He looked like something was on his mind. The Lord Admiral waited for him.
“Sloppy assassination attempt, wouldn’t you say?” the Adjutant asked.
“His own second-in-command. Who knows why?” the Lord Admiral replied.
“I’ve been thinking about that. Do you think she guessed the truth?”
The Lord Admiral grinned at first, then realized what his Adjutant’s words meant. If the woman had figured out what was going on, others might also. His plan was bold but delicate. Its success would be his greatest challenge and his greatest accomplishment. He needed to remain focused.
“At least it permanently rid you of a problem,” the Adjutant added.
“Not only did the fool die, he also ensured the Ambassador will trust us more than ever. I’m sure he now believes the Hrwang would sacrifice themselves to protect him,” the Lord Admiral replied.
“Do you think he’ll play his part?” the Adjutant asked.
“I’m confident of it,” the Lord Admiral replied and said goodbye to his Adjutant. They left the Lord Admiral’s cabin together, the Adjutant heading one way, the Lord Admiral the other.
The Second Colonel’s sacrifice made the Lord Admiral’s next task simpler, more straightforward. He moved quickly along the corridor toward the medical section in anticipation of its accomplishment.
Stanley worked out in the therapeutic device the Hrwang doctors had attached to his shoulder. His shoulder felt better than it ever had, even better than before Irina shot him. Zero gravity therapy worked miracles.
The Lord Admiral entered the medical area. Several of the staff stopped what they were doing and nodded. He acknowledged them and floated directly over to Stanley. Stanley’s doctor joined him.
“Recovering, Ambassador?” the Hrwang commander asked, grinning.
“Yes, Lord Admiral. Your doctors know their stuff.” Stanley felt pleasure at the Lord Admiral’s concern for him. The man genuinely cared. Stanley couldn’t fathom how he’d earned the honor to work with such a great individual. The Lord Admiral scared him at times, but powerful men were that way. They set high standards for those who worked around them, and Stanley had to live up to the Lord Admiral’s standards. He rededicated himself to that effort.
“That is great news, Ambassador. We have to get you back to your planet as soon as possible. Things are going…poorly,” the Lord Admiral said with a slight hesitation.
Stanley didn’t know what to say. He’d focused on the therapy the Hrwang had given him to allow him complete use of his arm again. He hadn’t thought past the moment. The entire experience at the UN had been a bust. He had no idea what he should do next.
“Is there a chance I could speak to the crew of the Beagle? You know. To tell them about Irina?”
The Lord Admiral seemed caught off guard. He glared at the doctor floating next to him as if the man had just been accused of murdering babies.
“You have not told him?” the Lord Admiral asked harshly.
The doctor replied in a Hrwang language.
“Speak English. For our guest’s benefit,” the Lord Admiral scolded. Stanley appreciated the Hrwang’s concern.
“I apologize. I know nothing of the Ambassador’s spaceship, sir.”
The Lord Admiral sighed at the incompetence of everyone around him.
“Ambassador, there was a terrible accident. Our artificial intelligence unit that transported your ship back to the planet they were investigating failed to take into account the orbit of the two moons. One of the moons struck your ship immediately after the jump. They never had a chance.”
“What?” Stanley couldn’t believe what he heard. Sherry dead? “Were there any survivors?”
The Lord Admiral shook his head sadly. “No. Not even our artificial intelligence unit, a valuable resource, survived. It was completely at fault. I apologize.”
Sherry was dead? Purcella was dead?
Stanley thought about the rest of the crew. He hadn’t always liked them, but they’d lived together in close quarters for months, and he’d come to know peculiarities about each of them. Especially Sherry. She couldn’t be dead.
“Are you certain, Lord Admiral?”
“We sent an investigative team. Their report was conclusive.”
“Could I see it? Please?”
“It is in Est.” Stanley had learned Est was one of the Hrwang languages, the one the Lord Admiral and the Second Colonel spoke.
He stopped exercising, his shoulder floating strangely in the Hrwang device. Not moving, he didn’t like the sensation.
He thought about Sherry. He missed her again. He didn’t know how he felt about her, but he’d thought about her more than he’d thought about his wife, whom he hadn’t even tried to contact yet. Maybe he should.
“I also brought something to show you,” the Lord Admiral said. He handed Stanley a picture.
A smiling man stood in the picture, a woman about the same age as him under his arm and another, younger woman, under his other. A second man stood next to the younger woman, his arm around her waist. They all looked like they were on a beach, in casual clothing.
“This is the family of the Second Colonel Grenadier. He will be sorely missed by them,” the Lord Admiral said.
His words stunned Stanley.
So much grief. So much death. All of it needless.
Stanley had to sit down.
“We have to end the fighting, Lord Admiral. We have to bring both our peoples, Hrwang and Human, to peace.”
The Lord Admiral looked like he wanted to say one thing but, with compassion in his eyes, changed his mind and said another. He put his hand on Stanley’s good shoulder.
“Your world needs you now more than ever,” he said solemnly.
Stanley nodded agreement and stared back down at the picture of the man who had given his life to save him. Tears came to his eyes. He didn’t even notice everyone leaving him alone or the Lord Admiral leaving the medical unit.
Jayla watched everything around her at Griffith Observatory. Fifth Under Captain Third Assault waited patiently in line, smiling at her occasionally, greeting other soldiers occasionally, but mostly just waiting.
Tiny planes, like the one that waggled its wings at Jayla, flew everywhere. When a group returned to their aircraft, soldiers climbed in and the vehicle vanished. Lots of the aircraft vanished, and it felt like waiting in line for a roller coaster after the amusement park closed.
Jayla had questions, many questions, but the Under Captain didn’t speak English and the Over Sergeant who did speak English had gone elsewhere.
When their turn finally arrived, it felt like it had taken an hour, the Under Captain inserted his tablet like a cartridge into a big machine and waited. A light next to the insertion point turned yellow and after a couple of minutes, it turned blue. The tablet ejected.
“That’s it?” she asked. The Under Captain just shrugged and took the tablet. He headed back toward their aircraft. Little planes converged on it, landing on the vehicle and fitting themselves onto the outside of it.
The Over Sergeant met them at the hatch and nodded at the Under Captain. The Under Captain nodded back, then entered first. Jayla started to follow, but the Over Sergeant put his hand up.
“You are now Second Under Private. You must go last.”
Jayla almost giggled, but she remembered military people took certain things seriously. If she wanted to be a soldier, she needed to do the same. She waited until the sergeant entered before her.
Inside, she buckled into her seat next to the Under Captain. She felt like she probably possessed certain privileges most privates didn’t. She didn’t see any other privates sitting next to their officers.
The Over Sergeant sat across from them, facing them. Between the jump seats was space for cargo, but little cargo had been moved in.
“Have you ever been in space before?” the Over Sergeant asked.
“You mean, like an astronaut? No. I’m not an astronaut.”
The Over Sergeant scrolled his personal tablet. “Ah,” he said when he found something. “Do your people call everyone who goes into space ‘astronaut’?”
“Then, Second Under Private, you are an astronaut.”
Jayla’s stomach lurched, trying to make its way back up her neck and she felt like she was in the back of a roller coaster going over the top of a hill. The feeling of falling didn’t go away. The Under Captain pointed forward and Jayla looked. Blackness filled the cockpit windows.
“We’re in space?” Jayla asked, knowing the answer.
She was in space! What would her Daddy say? Her sister would freak!
If her sister could freak.
Jayla felt a pang of guilt but pushed it away. She was in space.
Just like that, the Hrwang aircraft had jumped into space. She wanted to know how that was possible. She wanted to know so much. She started to unbuckle from her seat, but the Under Captain put his hand on hers. A thrill went through her at his touch.
“You must stay in your seat,” the Over Sergeant explained. The Under Captain said something to him in their language and the Over Sergeant translated. “We will not be in space long. We just need to recharge.”
Jayla stopped unbuckling, reattaching the buckle she’d opened before being stopped.
“How long?” she asked, but then she felt like the roller coaster she was on started going straight down. Earth came into view out through the cockpit window and quickly filled the scene. They fell faster.
Jayla had ridden some scary roller coasters, but none compared to this ride. The falling continued and continued and never stopped. The aircraft, or the spaceship, she decided if it could go into space it must be a spaceship, bucked and rattled. She grasped her harness and closed her eyes. The vibrations increased and Jayla might have cried out a little. Someone laughed and then she felt a hand on hers and heard the warm, mellifluous voice of the Under Captain saying something comforting.
She took his hand in hers, squeezing it, holding on to it. The Fifth Under Captain said something.
“You will be fine,” the Over Sergeant translated.
“Mmm, hmm,” Jayla nodded. She couldn’t speak.
The falling continued.
Her fear grew. Her grip tightened. The vibrations worsened.
She opened her eyes and saw bright lights flashing outside the cockpit window and she watched until the window turned black.
“What happened?” she asked in terror.
“The window darkens during entry,” the Over Sergeant replied. “It gets too bright.”
The joy at having been in space couldn’t overcome the fear she felt now. The falling wouldn’t stop.
After another minute of bumping and shaking and falling, bile rose in Jayla’s throat and she felt more nauseated than she’d ever felt before. A bag appeared from nowhere, the Under Captain no longer holding her hand, and Jayla threw up into it.
She couldn’t stop throwing up; dry heaving once she’d emptied her stomach. The Under Captain changed bags and she held the second close to her face while he put the first away, under his seat. She heard laughter and stole a quick peek. Some of the other soldiers joked and laughed. At her, she was sure. They didn’t seem bothered by the ride. Maybe they did this all the time.
She cried and felt a strong arm around her and a hand on her hand. She leaned into the Under Captain and laughter from the back of the ship grew. She didn’t care. Her captain held her tightly.
As quickly as the ride had started, it ended. The view out the cockpit window returned, first blue sky, then haze, then gray. The falling stopped, the dry heaving stopped, the vibrations lessened, and Jayla felt like she sat in an airplane again.
With the Under Captain’s help, Jayla stepped shakily out of the hatch. The Over Sergeant followed them and told her they would set up camp there for the night. The little gray planes detached themselves from the vehicle and began flying patrol.
The sun hid somewhere behind the low, gray clouds, but still provided enough light for Jayla to recognize that they were back in the desert, in foothills with scraggly bushes and a few pine trees. Majestic mountains decorated distant horizons.
“Where are we?” she asked.
No one listened to her as they set up camp, so Jayla simply tried to help. But the team of soldiers worked efficiently, and she found nothing to do other than set things down where they pointed. Tired, she ended up taking a proffered camp chair. She found a spot with a good view of the mountains and sat down.
She awoke with the Under Captain sitting on her left, the Over Sergeant on her right, and the smells of cooking food permeating the area. Day had turned to dusk. The men laughed when she rubbed her face with her hands.
The Under Captain said something.
“He wants to know if you slept well.”
“I’m sorry. I’m a private. I should be helping.”
“He says you are recovering. Your duties won’t start for a few days.”
The Under Captain nodded. He seemed to understand a few English words but still spoke in his native tongue.
“Where are we?” she asked.
The Over Sergeant consulted his tablet.
He handed the tablet to her.
“Utah,” she corrected. “Why are we in Utah?”
“This is our patrol area.”
“But this isn’t where you picked me up.”
“Ahh. We were assisting with an assault on a fortress when our scout drone discovered you. The men that…” The Over Sergeant fumbled with the words. Jayla helped him out.
“The men who were going to rape me.”
The Over Sergeant looked ashamed and only translated her words with prompting from the Under Captain. The Under Captain put his hand gently on Jayla’s arm. Suddenly she wanted his protection, his warmth, and she scooted her chair closer to him. He put his arm around her and held her.
“You killed them, didn’t you?” Jayla whispered.
The Over Sergeant nodded. “In time of war, rape is punishable by death. Anyone who would hurt women or children does not deserve life.”
“But this isn’t your country.”
“We have been authorized by your ruler to prosecute crimes during time of war.”
“Yes, the Ambassador.”
“Who’s the Ambassador?”
“You don’t know him?” the Over Sergeant asked, not waiting for the Fifth Under Captain to respond. “Your people call him Stanley Russell.”
Jayla shook her head. “Never heard of him.”
Dinner turned Jayla’s stomach. Heavily spiced meat, too peppery, and strangely spiced vegetables were too much for her. She ate almost nothing despite her growing hunger.
The Fifth Under Captain held her arm up, encircled it with his fingers, and said something gently.
The Over Sergeant scrolled his tablet, then translated.
“The captain says you must eat. You are like a skeleton.”
“I can’t,” Jayla replied. “Sorry.”
“This is food from your world,” the Over Sergeant said.
“It tastes strange.”
He shook his head.
“Spices from our home. They are unfamiliar to you.”
After the translation, the Under Captain yelled. One of the Hrwang soldiers came up to them, nodded at the officer, and held out a cardboard box to Jayla. The box contained a couple of apples and several spears of raw asparagus. Jayla took an apple.
It hurt her teeth to bite into the apple. They felt like they’d become loose in their sockets. How malnourished was she?
The Under Captain noticed her distress and pulled out a pocket knife, taking the apple from her and cutting it into cubes. He also yelled at the men who cooked and they got to work on something.
After Jayla finished her apple, the same soldier who’d brought her the apple brought her a cup of broth. She thanked him again and drank slowly. It had only a small amount of the spices they’d used with dinner, and although she didn’t like the taste, she finished it.
The tiny amount of food filled her.
“The captain says we are sorry. We didn’t realize how little you had eaten. We should have fed you more. Unfortunately, we do not have much food.”
“Our spaceships fly very far. Can only bring a little food. The rest, we get here,” the Over Sergeant explained.
“I know where there’s a lot of food. At least, there was a lot there when I left,” Jayla offered.
After the translation, the Under Captain called out to his men, yelling what Jayla had told him so all could hear. There was a cheer.
“We go tomorrow to get your food.”
“I hope it’s still there. No guarantees. Bears could have gotten in and eaten it. Or someone else. Although the entire area was abandoned when I left.”
The Over Sergeant struggled to keep up, and Jayla repeated herself several times until he was satisfied with his ability to translate her words. He translated the captain’s response.
“Small hope is better than no hope.”
“Why is Utah your patrol area?” Jayla asked, feeling better from the broth and having a million questions.
“It is our assignment. Third Assault covers half of this northern continent.”
“Assault. That means like ‘attack’, right?”
“Why did you attack our world?”
“We came in peace,” the Over Sergeant translated and Jayla thought he sounded like an alien from a movie. “Your people attacked us. Our commander woke us up and gave us assignments.”
“We attacked you?” Jayla asked. The news reports at the start of the war had been confusing, the reporters had been confused, but she thought the aliens had attacked Earth first.
The Over Sergeant nodded solemnly.
Jayla would have to think about it.
“You were asleep when all that happened?” she asked.
“We sleep for a long time. Two and a half of our years.”
“Two and a half years,” Jayla exclaimed. “You slept for two and a half years? That’s like hibernation sleep. Don’t you miss your family?”
“Most of us have little family,” the Over Sergeant translated the response. “The captain has a sister with nieces and nephews. They will be grown up when he returns.”
“How long will you be here?”
“Two and a half years traveling here, two and a half years home, and as long as we need to stay here to help your world recover from the war.”
Something in his words didn’t make sense to Jayla, but she kept her mouth shut. Why would the aliens want to help them recover from a war that she was pretty sure they had started. Unless she had it all wrong. She didn’t know and she didn’t want to debate it with her new friends, particularly not with her captain.
“We don’t know why your people attacked us,” the Over Sergeant continued. “We defend ourselves. Everywhere we go, your people still attack us. Everyone on your planet has a gun. Where we brought your sister. Only place that does not shoot first. We respect their country’s airspace.”
Jayla’s mind couldn’t process that much information, she was too tired, and she didn’t ask any more questions. They’d have to talk about it again, later, after she’d slept and eaten more.
Some soldiers lit a fire and the three moved their chairs closer to it. Jayla snuggled into the Fifth Under Captain and some of the men laughed, teasing him. Jayla couldn’t understand the words that were spoken, but she understood their intent and her captain took the ribbing good naturedly. His men liked him.
After the camp settled down, men surrounding several small fires, Jayla, still nestled in her captain’s arms, asked the Over Sergeant, “Why are you the only one who speaks English?”
“Our area of responsibility has many languages. I learned English. He learned Paiute,” the sergeant replied, pointing out a soldier. He pointed to several others. “Apache. Navajo. Goshute. Shoshone. Ute.”
“Native American languages? But they all speak English. Why learn their languages?”
“They all speak English?”
“Of course. Everyone speaks English,” Jayla said.
The Over Sergeant shrugged. “Our men will be disappointed. I am the only one who learned English.”
“What do you speak?” Jayla asked the Under Captain.
“He learned Spanish.”
“Really?” Jayla sat up and pulled away from him, facing him, her back to the Over Sergeant. She spoke in what little high school Spanish she remembered. “Hello. My name is Jayla. What’s your name?”
The Under Captain laughed then said something in his native tongue. The Over Sergeant translated.
“Fifth Under Captain says he is not prepared for marriage yet.”
The Over Sergeant explained the intimacy involved in using names and asking someone’s name was how they proposed marriage.
“I’m sorry,” was all Jayla could say. The Fifth Under Captain laughed and put his arm around her, comforting her.
“He likes you,” the Over Sergeant said.
“I don’t need a translator to know that,” Jayla replied. The Over Sergeant translated and both men laughed.
“How did you learn English so well?” Jayla asked the Over Sergeant.
“We had recordings played to us in our sleep. For two and a half years.”
“And that works?” Jayla asked.
The Over Sergeant shrugged. “Enough. I still have to study, but when you say things to me, I remember what they mean and then it’s easier for me to use those words.”
“My Daddy told me that Socrates said that all learning is just remembering what we’ve already been taught before we were born.”
“Some of our people believe we lived with God before we were born.”
“Really?” Jayla asked.
“Of course. Don’t you?” her captain asked her, through the Over Sergeant.
“I don’t know,” Jayla replied. “Most people just believe you’re born and you die and that’s it.”
The Under Captain asked for a translation. Jayla found she was beginning to understand a few words of his language. The Over Sergeant translated and the men spoke back and forth.
“The Under Captain would like to know if that’s how all Malakshians on your world believe.”
“What’s a Malakshian?”
The Over Sergeant looked at her quizzically but translated.
The Under Captain held his arm up next to Jayla’s. His skin was slightly darker than hers.
“Malakshian,” he said in his deep timbered voice.
“You mean black people?”
“You call yourself black?”
“Black. Or African-American, because we’re descended from people from Africa.”
“Africa is a continent, correct?” the Over Sergeant asked after he finished translating.
“Malak is the continent where we live. Thus, we are Malakshian.”
“All blacks on your world are Malakshian?”
“Some have moved to other places, but most live in Malak. And we say ‘brown’, not ‘black’.”
“Oh. White people used the whole spectrum of colors to describe other races on our world.”
The Over Sergeant frowned.
“White people fight us. We win. We conquer Malak. Now, no one else but us lives there. We are fierce warriors.” He puffed his chest out. Jayla almost giggled until she realized he was serious.
“When did that happen?”
“Many hundreds of years ago. We are still fierce warriors.” He translated and the Under Captain shouted some kind of chant. Others echoed the chant in the camp and the Over Sergeant smiled.
“Est lead our army but they need us. We are stronger.”
“The white people in charge.”
“I guess things are the same no matter what planet you live on,” Jayla said, disgusted.
The Over Sergeant shook his head in disagreement.
“They pay us,” he said.
“I don’t understand.”
“We join their army for pay.”
“Soldiers always get paid. Wait, you mean you’re mercenaries?”
It was the Over Sergeant’s turn not to understand. He had Jayla repeat the word into his tablet.
“Yes,” he nodded. “We are…”
“Mercenaries,” Jayla filled in when the man couldn’t pronounce the word. She said it slowly and he practiced.
“So, if I gave you more money than the Est, you’d fight for me?”
The Over Sergeant translated and the Under Captain laughed, speaking rapidly when he finished.
“He says we are honorable. We would not change sides once we are committed. He also said the Est pay us lots of money. We are paid for sleeping.”
“Our pay started before we left our world and continued for two and a half years. Two and a half years return. Five years pay for sleeping. A lot of money.”
“You could get killed.”
“Five years pay,” the Over Sergeant repeated.
“And you fight other countries on your world?”
“No more war on Hrwang.”
Jayla whistled in surprise.
“My Daddy says war is a condition of humanity. We don’t know how to live without it.”
The Over Sergeant translated and the Fifth Under Captain asked a question.
“Where is your father?”
“I don’t know. He was a big wig for the government, so I suppose he’s dead.”
“The Under Captain apologizes. He would like to know why you came with us and left your sister. Why did you not stay with your family?”
“I…” Jayla started. What should she say? How could she answer that question? She only knew she wanted to be with these men, with this man, and she knew it was because he rescued her and all she’d seen since the war started was the worst side of humanity and finally someone had shown her compassion.
Emotions tore at Jayla. She should have stayed with her sister. But then she would have lost the captain. What if she never saw Jada again? But Jada didn’t even recognize her. She could be in a vegetative state for years and then what would Jayla have done? What if the men in Utah weren’t any better than the men in Idaho?
“I don’t know,” was all she could manage. Thankfully, the soldiers didn’t ask follow-up questions. They simply stared into the fire with her, her captain allowing her space. She started to doze as it got dark and the fire died, and he brought her a heavy blanket. She slept under it in the chair.
The bustle the next morning around Griffith Observatory made it clear to Eva the Hrwang were preparing to move. She left for an early morning run regardless, wanting to stay in the habit, wanting the Hrwang to know she ran every day, and wanting to see what the aliens were up to.
It surprised her a little that they were preparing for a move without the Lord Admiral present. She didn’t know how long he’d be gone, didn’t want to ask when he’d return, and was afraid to ask why the soldiers prepared for a move without him. She thought she’d have a few days before they left for Hearst Castle, but apparently someone had decided they had to leave right away, without their commander.
Perhaps someone had even gone into space to talk to him. It was ridiculously easy for the Hrwang to travel. They made their ships disappear and reappear anywhere they wanted, even in space. She had to learn how that technology worked. That could be a huge strategic boost for Earth.
A drone followed her while she ran.
“Where have you been, Lady?” the Lieutenant Grenadier asked on her return. He’d been waiting for her.
“I went for a run.”
“Why? We’re packing to leave.”
“No one told me.”
“Pack quickly. Your shuttle is scheduled to leave in fifteen minutes.”
“I hope they can put up with my stinky sweat. I won’t have time to shower.”
“At least change your clothes,” the Lieutenant suggested, trying to avoid looking at her legs below her pink neon running shorts. She grinned at him and moved so he had to notice them.
“Okay,” she said sweetly. He looked away from her.
Playing with him was fun.
She ran to her room and packed the few belongings she brought with her. She pulled her shorts off, pulled a pair of yoga pants on, then put her shorts back on over them. She grabbed a sweatshirt. Even though it was still summer, the constant cloud cover made it cold outside.
She knew nothing would grow during such a cold summer. How would mankind survive the winter without crops to harvest? How much food did the world store? She’d taken such things for granted before, that supermarkets and restaurants would always have food. Would they be able to get food from parts of the world with warmer weather?
Packed, she ran with her duffel back outside. The Hrwang were efficient. Even the mainframe computers where the soldiers downloaded and uploaded information on their tablets were gone. She couldn’t believe how quickly they’d packed. When she’d left on her run, all the equipment had still been in place. Perhaps everything they installed was designed to be moved at a moment’s notice.
“What’s the hurry?” Eva called as the Lieutenant Grenadier waited for her by the hatch of one of the craft. She felt like one of the last to leave. There were only three craft left on the ground when she got to hers. Even the ever-present drones had all landed.
He waved her inside wordlessly, then sat next to her while she strapped in.
“A large column of armored vehicles are moving this way. We’ve tracked them back to a base that had been destroyed out in the deep desert.”
Eva immediately thought of the Marine base at Twentynine Palms. She didn’t say anything.
She wondered, though, why the Hrwang didn’t destroy the tanks like they did airplanes. With their technology, it didn’t seem like an armored column would be much of a threat. But she kept her questions to herself. She wasn’t supposed to be the kind of person who thought about things like that.
The craft lurched a little as it jumped to a point in the air above Hearst Castle. The engines took control and it landed gently in a spot in the courtyard in front of the main building, the one with two domed towers that made it look like a Spanish mission.
“The Lord Admiral will be staying in this building. I assume you will also,” the Lieutenant Grenadier said. Eva nodded in response.
She followed the soldier out of the vehicle and toward the building he said they would be staying in. Statues of soldiers guarded the doorway, real soldiers stood below them, holding small, handheld weapons. They acknowledged the lieutenant and Eva, and she nodded back to them.
The building did look like a castle; domed towers decorated with blue mosaics, arched windows in them looking like Muslim minarets, bas-relief sculptures adorning the walls, and everything ornate, ostentatious, and overdone.
The interior had been decorated more extravagantly than the exterior; sculptures, mosaics, and paintings covering every inch of the walls and ceilings.
Dark, flamboyant, and garish. She preferred a simpler elegance.
But she had a part to play, and when she saw a sign knocked over, pointing to stairs that read ‘Celestial Suites’, she made a plan.
She took the stairs.
Two suites were located on the top floor at the west end of the building, the North Celestial Suite and the South one. She pointed to the North one and told the Lieutenant Grenadier, “I’ll take this one and you put the Lord Admiral’s things into that one. I think he’ll like it best.”
The Lieutenant Grenadier complied without grumbling.
If she was to be the Lady of this Castle, she’d have to act the part.
After putting her things into the conspicuously overdecorated room (what kind of a person lived in a place like this?), she heard a hesitant knock on the door. She opened it and the Lieutenant Grenadier stood there, humbly.
“Lady, we retained several of the existing staff members when we occupied this Castle. They seem loyal to it. More than to the people who were here.”
“Caretakers. I’m not surprised,” Eva replied. She grinned. “They probably had conniption fits when all the refugees showed up. As long as we don’t break anything, they’ll probably be happy with us here.” She felt pride at thinking to use ‘we’ and ‘us’, including herself with the Hrwang. It helped with her cover.
“Would you like to meet them, Lady?”
What would they think of her? Probably that she was some kind of a traitor. They might poison her in her sleep, or something worse. No, she didn’t want to meet them.
“Perhaps at another time,” she said. “I’m anxious for the Lord Admiral to return.”
She really wasn’t. She wanted to go running as a cover for scoping out the Castle grounds and checking out how the Hrwang were deploying.
The Lieutenant Grenadier didn’t take the bait; didn’t say anything about when his commander might return.
“I’m going to go running to get my mind off his absence.” She pouted and hoped she wasn’t pouring it on too thick.
“You like to run a lot.”
“It keeps me fit.” She struck a pose meant to accentuate her lean body. The Lieutenant Grenadier reddened a little.
Eva ran morning and afternoon, exploring the hills all around Hearst Castle. A drone always followed her, keeping a discreet distance, but always tracking her. She didn’t know if the things had cameras on them, but she felt she couldn’t safely stop and observe the Hrwang activities on the grounds. Instead, she maintained her cover and ran as if she did it for exercise.
She realized quickly she had no training to be a mole. She’d been trained to fight, she’d been trained to handle assets, she’d been trained in reconnaissance, and she’d been trained to use the equipment of her trade, but she’d never been trained to be a mole. She racked her brain to determine what she should be doing, what she should be learning, but she knew she couldn’t figure things out on her own.
She needed help from a handler. She needed contact with the Agency.
She watched for orchids everywhere when she ran, but never saw any. She hoped Juan relayed the message to Director Marceline. Flowers would be used as a means of contact, certain counts and colors indicating messages. Three red petals or flowers somewhere would mean her cover was blown and she needed to flee.
When she wasn’t running, the Lieutenant Grenadier watched her and she knew it, although she acted like she didn’t. She knew that around him, and around anyone else, everything she did had to seem like it stemmed from natural curiosity.
That part came easy. She did feel a natural curiosity about the Hrwang. Their ways were different. Alien.
The bit about not using names struck her as their strangest cultural trait. They treated their names as intimate parts of themselves, only to be shared with family and their closest, lifelong friends.
They followed a strict hierarchy. No two soldiers had the same rank within the same organization. If there were two captains in one division, one was the Over Captain and the other was simply Captain. If a third officer were promoted to Captain, he would be Under Captain. The Hrwang took pecking orders to an extreme.
The old visitor’s center down the hill from the main complex was converted into a command center where the combat units reported in. Their commanders stood in line to download reports and upload information and orders from the computer terminals, similar to the ones she’d seen in the main lobby of Griffith Observatory.
Just as the men watched her run in neon pink shorts, she tried to surreptitiously observe their activities.
She saw very little weaponry. Many soldiers had handheld weapons, but she never found large stores of ammunition. They would run out of ammo very quickly in a firefight. She hadn’t determined the nature of the weaponry on their aircraft, but from reports she’d heard before she infiltrated them, she knew the craft had essentially destroyed the world’s air forces. She just didn’t know how.
She debated asking for a ride along on one of the craft during a combat mission but finally decided that would be too brazen, too dangerous. She contented herself with playing the bored and lonely girlfriend, waiting for her powerful boyfriend to return from travel and attempting to amuse herself in the meantime.
She hated the food.
When not running, she used the gym. The Assembly Room in the main building, Casa Grande, had been converted, the aliens installing free weights and a couple of punching bags. Soldiers occasionally sparred on wrestling mats.
As Eva mercilessly punched and kicked one of the bags in the corner following a run, she tried to ignore the sheer chaos of artwork on the walls. If the Lord Admiral enjoyed it all when he arrived, it would certainly say something about him.
A bust from a Roman, perhaps Caesar himself, looked down at her while she worked out.
On the third day, fresh back from her morning run, beating her punching bag into submission again, and dreading going to lunch after a shower, a voice interrupted her thoughts.
“You have good form,” it said.
She turned, surprised and shocked, and almost fell over when she saw the barrel-chested Lieutenant Grenadier watching her.
“You scared me,” she cried, but then laughed. “I’m sorry. I guess I was lost in thought.”
“You are good at fighting,” he said. It sounded accusatory.
“It’s just a punching bag.”
“We must practice fight sometime,” the Lieutenant Grenadier said.
Alarm bells went off again in Eva’s head. Her form was too good. Too professional for a silly girl. She had to allay the Lieutenant Grenadier’s suspicions, and she had to get out of sparring with him.
“I think the Lord Admiral might get a little jealous,” she said, grinning at him suggestively. He immediately backed down, stammering that he intended nothing disrespectful.
“Juan, I could kiss you,” she whispered to herself that afternoon during another run. A crushed orchid lay on the trail next to a boulder about three miles from Hearst Castle. She turned and looked back at the Castle, eyeballing a window in line of sight that was close to her room. The drone didn’t seem to notice.
She’d send Juan a message back that she knew he was out there in the mountains somewhere, keeping an eye on her. She just hoped he could stay far enough away from any Hrwang patrols.
That evening she found the window and opened it, putting four potted plants on the sill. She hoped he saw them before someone else moved them.
Juan and Mark did, through a telescope and from miles away, the following morning.
“I told you she’d understand,” Juan said to his new partner.
“Yeah. She gets to live in that big ol’ castle and you and I get to sleep in the dirt and eat cold food because we can’t even have a fire,” Mark replied.
“Maybe. But she’ll be executed if she gets caught.”
“And if we get caught, don’t you think they’ll kill us just as fast?”
Juan stayed silent.
“Still glad you signed up as a spy?” Mark asked after a minute.
“I’d be dead if I hadn’t found Eva.”
“You and me both, buddy.”
Jayla awoke to the smell of cooking food. The Fifth Under Captain brought her something warm in a cup. She smelled it. It wasn’t heavily spiced like the rest of the alien meal, so she sipped it. It tasted bland, but she smiled and thanked him. She drank the liquid slowly.
When she finished, he brought her more, sitting in the chair next to hers with his own cup. He mimed drinking.
“Skeleton,” he pronounced slowly, putting his fingers around her wrist again. She laughed a little and drank.
“You should learn English,” Jayla said. He shrugged.
The Over Sergeant came over eating something that looked like bacon but smelled like habanero. The scent alone made Jayla’s eyes water and chest burn.
“We are going to get your food today,” he said.
“Can you show me where?”
He held his tablet out to her. Most of the symbols were unreadable, but English words dotted the map on it. She looked for the town near the cabin, but she couldn’t find it.
“Where did you find me?” she asked. The alien pointed the spot out to her. She traced her path backward, north of the abandoned town with the hospital and back up the roads she remembered.
“Somewhere around here,” she said.
“Good,” the Over Sergeant said.
“Good,” the Fifth Under Captain added. He yelled in his language and men started cleaning up.
It took hours to find the cabins. Jayla sat in the copilot seat and tried to navigate. The Over Sergeant sat behind her and translated for both the pilot and the Under Captain, who sat behind the pilot.
Eventually, she recognized the lake where she had left the old man’s car. The car still sat in the adjacent parking lot.
The Hrwang vehicle landed on the road in front of her Daddy’s cabin and the men followed Jayla.
“We should watch for wild animals,” she suggested, and some of the men pulled weapons out after the Over Sergeant translated. The guns they held were odd; small weapons that looked like toys. Jayla only had vague memories of her rescue, but those memories reminded her the weapons were deadly despite their appearance.
The cabin had remained untouched since she had left it, but she belatedly remembered she’d left her keys in the SUV.
“We can break a window,” she said, but the Over Sergeant shook his head and one of the aliens produced a metal box that he put up to the lock. It buzzed and clicked and the lock opened.
“Fancy,” she said.
“Fancy,” the Under Captain repeated.
They cleaned out the food from the cabin that Jayla had left the first time. Hungry for real food, not alien spiced food, Jayla ate several soft cereal bars. Her teeth still hurt, but the soft, sweet goo tasted good.
She found a bag of Oreos in the back of the pantry.
“I wish we had milk.”
The men grinned at her as she showed them how to twist the cookies apart and lick the filling. Some made jokes that she didn’t understand until the Under Captain quieted them, but they all copied her example.
“We could stay here, you know,” Jayla said wistfully. “It’s a nice cabin. I’m sure there’re others your men could use.”
“It is not our patrol area,” the Over Sergeant replied before translating. The Fifth Under Captain put his arm around Jayla and gave her a gentle hug.
They visited cabin after cabin, scrounging what food they could. After visiting twenty or so, they only found enough food to last them three or four days.
Jayla spent the night in her own bed at her father’s cabin. The Fifth Under Captain and the Over Sergeant slept in the living room, and the other men scattered around, some inside, some outside, like they normally camped.
Jayla slept little that night, wondering what she was doing. Should she have gone with her sister? Doubts plagued her.
The familiarity of the cabin made her miss her father also. She knew he was dead. He’d seen this coming, which is why he’d sent his two girls up here when he went East. He’d have contacted her if he could, she thought.
The aliens could fly anywhere. Could they fly to where he was, if he wasn’t dead?
She thought about asking them to take her to her summer home in Boise, but she knew no one would be there. Her father had gone East. Things had fallen apart quickly after that. He couldn’t have made it back.
Should she check anyway?
Morning came and Jayla must have slept. Her muscles were sore and she was hungry again. She ignored the food the soldiers cooked and grabbed more cereal bars. The Over Sergeant said she could have all she wanted; they were too sweet for the Malakshians.
They continued raiding cabins, Jayla pointing them out from memory, until they landed at a cabin with a barn shaped, stand-alone garage.
“No, no, no, no,” she cried when she recognized it. “No!”
The men with her looked confused.
“Leave now! It’s dangerous.”
The Over Sergeant translated.
The Fifth Under Captain’s demeanor changed. He looked suddenly like a soldier, an officer, barking commands, ordering Jayla to stay on board with the pilots. The pilot entered coordinates into his tablet and set it into a receptacle, the copilot armed himself and waited by the hatch. The other soldiers, all armed, moved out of the vehicle and began fanning out around the cabin and garage, covering each other, prepared for anything.
Jayla pictured over and over again the old man coming out of the cabin with his shotgun and she just knew he was going to come out and kill her captain, just like he’d killed something inside of her sister.
“No!” she wanted to scream at the men. Run away! There’s no reason to fight. There’s no reason to put yourselves at risk. He’s a monster. He’s too dangerous.
Men went into the barn.
It felt like hours, but only minutes had passed when the Over Sergeant and the Under Captain returned to the ship. They moved to sit next to Jayla.
The Over Sergeant spoke solemnly.
“We found a dead body. Tied up.”
“Is it him?”
The Under Captain asked something.
“Tell us what happened.”
Everything spilled out. Jayla spoke rapidly, the Over Sergeant struggling to keep up, translating for the Fifth Under Captain.
When she finished, she said, “I need to see if it’s him.”
“No. It’s an old man, tied up as you described.”
“I need to see.”
“No. It’s…” The Over Sergeant struggled with a word, then looked up something on his tablet. “It’s disgusting. Animals found the body.”
“It’s my fault,” Jayla cried, throwing herself into her captain’s arms. “It’s my fault. I killed a man.”
She cried while the soldiers searched all the cabins they could find. She cried while they flew elsewhere, landing near a crater. She recognized the town with the hospital.
“It’s no use,” she said, forcing herself to calm down. “Others have already cleaned this place out.”
She felt empty inside. No matter what the old man had done, she didn’t have the right to kill him.
She couldn’t believe she’d killed a man.
Something in her mind tried to compartmentalize the information, to block it off from her normal consciousness, but it wouldn’t go away.
She’d killed a man and abandoned her sister. What would her Daddy think about her? What would he say to her if he were still alive? What would anyone say to her? She pictured herself dragged into court for murder and child abuse, the judge slamming his gavel and sentencing her to prison for the rest of her life.
“It’s not my fault,” she wanted to scream at the judge. “He attacked first!”
But the judge, a cruel, old, white man, who looked like the brother of the man she killed, didn’t care. His gavel slammed down again.
Jayla forced those images away. Tried to ignore everything anyone from her world might say to her. The men she was with now didn’t judge her. They protected her.
She suddenly felt alienated from humanity. The word twisted around in her mind. A strange word.
Jayla felt alien. As alien as the men she was with.
She was an alien now. She was Malakshian.
She cried and her captain held her.
The Fifth Under Captain, through his interpreter, offered to let Jayla stay on board the vehicle while they inspected the crater in the center of the town where Jayla had found the hospital, the crater she’d needed to detour around. He said he’d never seen the direct results of meteor bombardment and wanted to inspect it. The vehicle would take men to houses to continue foraging.
Jayla didn’t want to leave her captain’s side and stepped through the hatch with him, followed by the Over Sergeant and several other men. The vehicle disappeared behind them.
She climbed the broken road again, this time with the soldiers, making her way to a view of the crater caused by a meteor that these men, or at least the army they served in, had sent to this town. All the horrors she’d experienced came back as she made that trip again, up one side and down the other of each ripple in the road, until they were close enough together to step from the top of one to the top of the next.
All the horrors, all the evil things that had happened to her and her sister, pressed on her and she told herself that the old man had deserved to die. He deserved what he got.
Suddenly, she realized other people had also died because of her.
“The men you rescued me from. You killed them, didn’t you?”
“You asked that before,” the Over Sergeant replied gently.
“I know,” Jayla said impatiently. She’d forgotten, but now she remembered the conversation. They’d told her some ambassador had given them authority to execute rapists. That’s what Jayla had done, hadn’t she? Simply executed a rapist.
“The man you tied up. He died. But you did what was honorable. You are a hero to the other men,” the Over Sergeant said.
Jayla didn’t feel like a hero. She felt like a murderer, even though she knew it was self-defense.
She was going to need some serious therapy after this war ended.
The group reached the crater.
They climbed the rim. As they reached the top, Jayla anticipated the view she’d seen before. Instead, she heard a squelching sound, like a butcher tenderizing meat with a wooden mallet, and felt warm liquid splatter on her face and arms. An echo rang throughout the crater as a heavy body pushed her down awkwardly behind the crater rim. She fell and when she landed, she instinctively felt the liquid on her face with her hand and looked at it. It was blood with gray flecks. The Fifth Under Captain lay on top of her.
Another shot rang out.
Wolfgang tried to ignore the Swiss sergeant who showed up unannounced at the firing range, who stood too close to him and inspected everything he did. Wolfgang knew he was hitting the target; he didn’t know why the man checked him over so closely. He began to worry he’d done something wrong, or was doing something wrong, but the stubborn side of him insisted he was hitting the target and he shouldn’t change a thing.
He kept firing the old rifle he held.
The man stepped away and Wolfgang finished the rounds that had been provided. He waited for the range instructor, but no one said anything to him. He and Leah exchanged looks and her eyes were filled with just as much confusion as he felt.
The sergeant returned and Wolfgang pushed himself up to stand, but the man instructed him in German to remain prone. He handed Wolfgang a meticulously clean, modern rifle with an extended barrel, a tripod, and a stock that appeared custom made. The scope was something Wolfgang had never seen before.
The sergeant handed Leah a box with a handle and began explaining something in Italian. Wolfgang couldn’t understand, so he focused instead on the weapon in his hands, inspecting the magazine and feed, the strange scope, and trying to get a feel of the custom stock. He retracted and extended the tripod.
“Be careful with that,” the sergeant growled.
Wolfgang set the tripod on the ground and got comfortable, looking down the sight. He had no ammunition, wouldn’t have even known what sort of ammunition the rifle used, so he just sighted and familiarized himself with the grip and the trigger. He breathed in, released a little, then squeezed the trigger while the rest of his body remained perfectly still. Just like he’d been trained. The trigger moved smoothly and the action clicked.
He heard a growl.
The sergeant clearly prized this weapon. Wolfgang knew some about rifles, mostly from studying history, but had never owned his own and had never shot much, usually only at scout camp. However, he knew he had been shooting well, much better than the other recruits, and much better than Leah. She flinched every time she shot, sending her bullets in all directions, sometimes not even hitting the target.
And he knew the rifle he’d been given was special. He even suspected the nature of it.
“We are ready,” the sergeant said and Wolfgang nodded. One round was handed to him and Leah began providing instructions about distance and wind speed.
“Excuse me?” Wolfgang asked in German when she told him the target was a thousand meters away.
The sergeant instructed him to keep his comments to himself and to provide the input into the scope. Wolfgang spoke in German and the scope made adjustments automatically. It impressed him and he desperately wanted to prove himself with this weapon. He checked the safety, checked that the round was properly chambered, read numbers from the scope to Leah, who confirmed them, then Wolfgang fired like he’d been trained.
The gun hardly recoiled, a tiny wisp of smoke coming out of the chamber and none out of the barrel. The sergeant pulled out a monocular, which looked like a short telescope, and grunted.
He handed Wolfgang a magazine.
“It’s not auto fire,” the sergeant said, disdain in his voice that anyone might think his rifle could be fired on automatic. “You engage the action to chamber each round. Do not move the rifle when you do so.”
Wolfgang replaced the empty magazine that had been in the rifle with the one provided, checking it first. He moved the action, chambered a round, and prepared to fire.
“Five shots, as quickly as you can, but accuracy is more important than speed.”
“I understand,” Wolfgang replied in German.
It took him a minute to fire five times. He reconfirmed the numbers on the scope with Leah when he moved the rifle a little after the second shot. He heard the sergeant shift his weight on his feet next to him when he did so, but the next three rounds still found their mark.
“You missed the target completely,” the sergeant said.
“No, I didn’t.”
The sergeant stared through the monocular.
“I only count three holes.”
“Two of the shots went through the same spot as the others.”
“We’ll see,” the sergeant grunted, reaching down and grabbing the rifle. Wolfgang let go of it, rolling partially on his side. The sergeant inspected it carefully, then strode away.
“You hit the bullseye five times. I saw it,” Leah protested quietly, her voice soft so only Wolfgang could hear.
“I know I did. He knows it, too. He’s trying to rattle me.”
Leah didn’t understand the last phrase in German, so Wolfgang did his best to explain it in English. She nodded understanding finally and put her hand gently on Wolfgang’s arm.
The range instructor came over and told them they were finished and needed to head to a work detail. They spent the rest of the afternoon digging a trench for a new latrine.
The next morning, after breakfast, they were brought to a tent. The sergeant from the previous day sat inside with several others, including a captain and a major. Wolfgang saluted, feeling foolish doing so. He wasn’t military.
Leah followed his example next to him.
The sergeant returned the salute.
“Sit,” the sergeant commanded.
Wolfgang and Leah found stools and sat. Sitting made Wolfgang feel more nervous.
“What makes you think you can be a sniper?” the sergeant growled at him.
Confusion replaced nervousness.
“I don’t understand,” Wolfgang replied.
“Where did you train?”
“I…I didn’t train. I’m not a sniper.”
Leah spoke hesitatingly, asking, “What’s a sniper?” She didn’t understand the word in German. The sergeant translated it into Italian. Leah sucked in a breath and sat back on her stool.
“You were not German army?” the sergeant asked.
“No, sir. I never served in the military. I served a mission for my church in Russia instead.”
“Russia?” barked one of the officers behind the sergeant. “I don’t believe you.”
Wolfgang began speaking Russian. “I served for two years, first in Podolsk, then in Moscow proper. I also served in Kaluga, Dubna, then again in Moscow, in a different part of the city.”
“Enough,” the officer, a captain, said in German. “I suppose you did,” he added in flawless Russian.
“So how come you shoot so well?” the sergeant asked and Wolfgang turned back to him.
“I don’t know,” he replied and shrugged for emphasis.
“You begin training today. If you fail, you will go back to digging latrines like the rest of the recruits until you have finished your term of duty.”
“My wife?” Wolfgang asked. He felt like he was lying, calling Leah his wife, and he was, but he hoped he concealed it. At least anyone who noticed his discomfort might simply assume he was nervous. That assumption would also be correct.
“She will be your spotter.”
Wolfgang didn’t want to dig trenches anymore, didn’t want to go through the mindless drills the other recruits had to perform, nor did he want Leah to have to do those things either.
The sergeant stood. Wolfgang and Leah stood also. The sergeant extended his hand and Wolfgang took it. The man’s flesh was like steel, his grip like a vise, and he stared directly at Wolfgang.
“I let you fire my rifle yesterday, but you will never touch it again. Do you understand?”
“Good. I am Sergeant Goetze and I will be your commander for the remainder of your sniper training.”
“Yes, Sergeant,” Wolfgang said again.
Goetze shook Leah’s hand and she also said, “Yes, Sergeant,” in German.
John Cathey inspected New York City from the top of the United Nations Headquarters.
He didn’t like what he saw.
As the city descended into complete lawlessness, refugees fled to the one source of law and order they knew.
He hadn’t intended on becoming Mayor, or whatever they called him. Some called him General, but he discouraged it. He knew he didn’t know what he was doing.
He had learned quickly that taking a building was easier than holding it.
His single desire had been to strike a blow at the aliens who had wrecked his country. Convincing the mob surrounding the United Nations compound that the aliens were the real enemy, then convincing the police who protected the compound of the same thing, had been easy, but had also, somehow, turned John into a leader.
He had never wanted that. He’d never even considered it.
But now, others looked to him for protection and he didn’t want to let them down.
He descended from the roof and began his daily walk through the building. He’d started it so he’d know firsthand what was going on everywhere, but others told him it was a brilliant gesture, moving among his people every day. It kept them calm and purpose driven, rather than emotion driven.
Those who told him these things seemed to know more about leadership than he did. But people wanted to follow him, not them.
In a large conference room on one of the upper floors, his Three Judges held court. He stopped to listen.
A man with twins was accused of hoarding diapers. Supplies were growing low for the entire building and several had complained about him. The man pleaded his case. His babies, deprived of their mother, needed diapers. And more formula. They were twins and used more than other babies.
As John watched the Three Judges in action, he remained impressed with their compassion. They didn’t sit up on a raised dais or even behind a table. They sat with the accused and accusers in a circle in the conference room. John had even seen one of them get up and sit next to an accused individual, putting their arms around him and consoling him.
Selecting them had been brilliant, John had been told again and again.
In the beginning, after they had first taken over the building, people came to him constantly for resolution of petty disputes and John quickly felt like he had no time for the things he should be doing. He picked out three ministers, an older Catholic priest, a younger Presbyterian minister, and a black man who claimed to be a Mormon bishop. He asked them to judge the people’s disputes, but he had one condition.
Their decisions had to be unanimous.
John didn’t want any grouping of two to one, the two young members outvoting the old member, or the two men outvoting the woman, or the two whites outvoting the black. They agreed even though the Mormon said that’s how his church preferred to do their business. John chuckled inwardly at the memory. The two ministers from traditional religions objected to the Mormon at first and didn’t want to have to agree with him on everything. Another two to one possibility.
Things worked out well, however. That all three of them were forced to agree meant that the three couldn’t judge based on personal agendas. They were quickly recognized as fair and compassionate and their judgments were respected.
John watched the Mormon carefully counsel the frightened father, telling him that everything was being done to procure sufficient food and diapers and no one would let his children suffer unless everyone suffered. They were all in this together.
Pleased, John moved on.
The next twenty or so floors were residential; offices and conference rooms turned into living spaces, people setting up tents on carpeted floors and eating meals at mahogany desks.
The lower levels were reserved for food preparation and defense.
Most of the Stinger launcher John had used to fire on the aliens had been destroyed in the alien counterattack, but bits remained and were now on display in a trophy case in the lobby.
Armed guards were everywhere, the show of force the best deterrent to a counterattack.
In building an armed force, John had targeted military and police, both active duty and retired, to be leaders. He organized them in squads and platoons, eschewing Air Force terminology like flights and squadrons. The Mormon bishop suggested he sounded like a historical figure from his scriptures, Captain Moroni, organizing captains of ten and captains of fifty.
They never went foraging for food in less than platoon strength. That kept looters and other tribes away.
People were allowed to leave his group, but they couldn’t bring their weapons with them. Some sneaked out anyway, taking weapons, but no one did anything about it.
More joined the group than left.
Those joining brought stories of warlords, former gang leaders and crime bosses, and the terrible things they did. John worried that if any of the warlords became too powerful, they would overwhelm the three hundred or so fighters who now defended the UN. If any of the gangs obtained heavy weapons, like the Stinger John used against the aliens, he knew they would be defenseless.
He also knew food would run out in the city soon and then things would get really ugly. It was only a matter of time.
Not many inhabitants had been killed in the alien attacks, but the infrastructure had been devastated. Without thirty thousand plus tons of food being shipped daily into the city, supplies were dwindling quickly. It had become the foremost item on his advisory council’s daily agenda.
Some even advocated fleeing the city and looking for a safer location. The Mormon bishop suggested they walk to Zion, but everyone discounted him as crazy.
John greeted the soldiers at the base of the building and they saluted him. He saluted and smiled in return, walked the perimeter of the grounds with a patrol, then returned to the building for his next advisory council meeting. Before going through the doors, he took a look up at the gray skies, dark clouds threatening rain.
He went inside.
Eva felt her muscles strengthen with all the exercise. She ran. She worked out in the makeshift gym. She didn’t know what else to do, and it gave her an opportunity to observe the alien soldiers. She still didn’t know when the Lord Admiral would return.
At night, she looked at her hair in the mirror of her ornate bathroom and wondered if she should try to find some bleach. The sun in Sunny California continued to hide behind thick cloud cover.
Feeling naked without any kind of weapon, she smuggled a steak knife from dinner one evening. She got it back to her room and hid it under the mattress. She felt something else while her hand tucked the knife into its new home, and she withdrew a tiny cigarette case that must have been hidden there and forgotten decades ago.
She opened the gold box. It felt valuable. It contained only a single cigarette, with room for three or four more. Not a smoker, the habit held no interest for her, she closed the case and almost returned it to its spot when she had an idea.
She looked around for a pen and, finding one, pulled the cigarette out of the case. She unraveled it carefully, dumping the tobacco out into the case and wrote a note in as tiny a script as she could manage on the inside of the paper. She folded it back up around as much of the tobacco as she could stuff into it and licked the paper shut like she’d seen people do in the movies. It tasted old and dusty.
She put the case back where she found it. It would have to wait for her morning run.
She put on her sports bra and neon pink shorts the next morning. No one noticed anything else when she wore that outfit.
She tucked the cigarette case in her bra and looked in the mirror. The soldiers might not notice a lot of things, but they’d see something extra in her bra. She took it out again.
The liner in her shorts didn’t look trustworthy, didn’t look like it could hold the case while she ran, so she reluctantly took her shorts off and pulled on a pair of underwear. Long distance running in regular underwear led to rashes, but she didn’t feel like she had a choice. It was going to be the best way to carry the case, and the case was the best way to communicate with Juan.
She pulled her shorts back on and hid the cigarette case in the underwear.
She could still see it plain as day, and she told herself she was crazy for taking such a risk. But the Hrwang wouldn’t notice. Not when she wore the sports bra without a shirt over it.
A drone might be another issue. One often followed her when she ran. Did it record her actions? Would she be able to lose it somehow so she could drop the case off?
She simply ran out of her room, down the stairs, and out her usual path north of Hearst Castle, waving at the Lieutenant Grenadier and other soldiers as she sprinted past them, and no one said anything.
A drone quickly departed from the group that circled overhead and followed her, like others had before. The ubiquitous things hovered around like flies on dead meat.
She followed the trail that led to the boulder where she’d found the crushed orchid. The case quickly worked its way into the most obnoxious spot possible, digging into the inside of her leg with each step. She had to be running funny. She certainly ran slower than she normally did and she hoped the drone didn’t notice.
Even out of sight of the Castle and the troops that guarded it, she didn’t dare reach inside her shorts and adjust or pull the case out. She didn’t know how intelligent the drone was that followed her, or if it recorded what she did or even provided a live feed somewhere, but she couldn’t take the risk.
A soldier had referred to them as dumb drones in her presence. He explained that the tiny gray aircraft always accompanied the larger Hrwang craft as escorts and scouts, extra eyes and ears, but they didn’t have AIs in them like the larger craft.
But they acted pretty independently as far as Eva could tell. They may not have been officially intelligent, like the AIs, but she’d been impressed when she observed them.
Drones always hovered closely around the Lord Admiral when he was outside. When Eva first met the Hrwang commander, she wondered why he had no security with him, but she quickly learned that the drones were his security.
She had to be on her guard around them.
Eventually, she reached the large boulder on the trailside where Juan had left the orchid. By now the case felt like it was wedged between her legs, digging into each side painfully with each step. The boulder couldn’t have come a moment too soon. She stopped at it, pretending to catch her breath. She moved slowly behind it, but the drone following her just moved higher up and over so it could observe her.
She waved at it.
As she moved around the boulder, she recognized that the drone would just keep moving with her to keep her in its line of sight. In desperation, she had an idea.
She pulled her shorts and underwear down and squatted like she had to go to the bathroom. The drone moved away to a discreet distance, out of view.
She grinned relief.
She pulled the case out from her underwear that now sat around her ankles and quickly stashed the metal box under the side of the boulder. It wasn’t visible to someone who wasn’t looking, but if a person, Hrwang or human, came to look for it, they’d find it.
She stood, pulled her underwear and shorts back up, and continued jogging. The absence of the case felt better, and she could focus on running hard. The drone kept up effortlessly.
That evening she went running again, pretending again to relieve herself behind the boulder to get the drone to move away. The cigarette case still lay where she hid it. Disappointed, she told herself to be patient.
Although the drone didn’t watch her the second time, someone else did.
“What if she’s just going to the bathroom?” Juan asked Mark. Mark had propped himself against an outcropping, holding a telescope with his one hand. There wasn’t enough of his left arm remaining to attach a prosthetic to without extensive molding and, given the disaster that had befallen the Earth, that kind of treatment wouldn’t be available for a long time.
“Man, she has a nice…” Mark started to say until Juan pulled the telescope away from his face.
“Hey,” Mark cried.
“Hey,” Juan replied. “We’re here to support her, not ogle her.”
Mark laughed at him and put the telescope back up to his eye. They were about two miles from her location.
“Okay, she’s done. We give her about a half an hour and then see if she left us any presents,” Mark said.
“I want to support her, not check out her scat.”
Mark hit him with the telescope.
The next morning, Eva ran the same way again, ran to the same place again, and followed the same procedure to get the drone to back off. She put her hand in the case’s hiding spot, trying not to get her hopes up too high.
The case was gone.
In its place lay a small, felt bag. She opened it quickly and it contained pills. Relieved, she closed it back up and stuffed it in her shorts. They were certainly birth control pills, which meant Director Marceline approved her mission, or would at least support it through Juan. She wondered where Mark was and hoped maybe he was helping also, if he felt better. She looked up and the drone still hovered at a polite distance, out of sight. She waved toward the mountains and mouthed, “Thank you.”
Juan waved back and Mark smacked him with his only hand.
Jayla couldn’t stop screaming. Shots echoed around her, clumps of rock and pavement sprayed in the air. Blood and brain covered her face.
Fifth Under Captain Third Assault lay heavily on her. She thought he was dead until he put his hand over her mouth and said something in his language.
She screamed through his hand.
“Please,” he begged in English, the word spoken with a Mexican accent. “Please.”
She looked at where the Over Sergeant had stood next to her just seconds before, the top of his head gone, the gore from it spattered all over the buckled roadway and on her. The Under Captain also had gray and red flecks on his face and in his hair.
One of the soldiers with them raised his hand weapon over the top of the crater rim and fired blindly. A shot hit the gun, knocking it out of his hand, and he pulled his hand down, cradling it in his stomach. It was covered in blood.
Her Daddy had once told Jayla that a wise man keeps his head while everyone around him, or her, he added for her benefit, lost theirs.
The Over Sergeant had certainly lost his.
And Jayla was losing hers.
She tried to block out what had just happened. She tried to block out that the Over Sergeant had become her friend. He, as her interpreter, had been part of every intimate conversation and moment of sharing she’d had with the Fifth Under Captain. He had always been kind and understanding. He had helped her see the Hrwang as human beings, just like her, not as alien monsters. The humans, not the aliens, were the monsters.
Human monsters had raped and tortured her sister.
Human monsters had stolen everything from her at the hospital and made her flee the safe haven it had been.
Human monsters had grabbed her and had tried to rape her.
The Hrwang had saved her.
The Hrwang had been her friends.
And now one of her friends was dead, killed by another human monster.
She needed to do what she could to save her most important friend. She needed to do what she could to save the Under Captain.
She had to listen to him.
She stopped crying.
He put his finger to his mouth, a universal gesture to be quiet. Jayla nodded, staring at him through tear filled eyes.
He motioned for her not to move, then he crawled over her, crawled over his sergeant’s corpse, toward his other men.
She desperately wanted to cling to him, to not let him get away or leave her alone, to not let him be the hero that saved her life again, sacrificing his own this time. She begged in her mind, begged God, to spare her captain.
But she controlled herself and let him command his men.
One of his men crawled back toward her, respectfully moving the sergeant’s body out of the way and getting to her. He took out a small hand towel and wiped her face gingerly. She took the towel from him and started to sit up, but he pushed her back down, holding her shoulder to the ground.
She had to stay low.
She scrubbed her face with the towel, cleaning herself, wiping the tears and blood away, wiping away the snot that filled her nose and the dust that covered her. She must be a sight.
Jayla tried to hand the towel back to the soldier, but he gestured for her to keep it.
“Thank you,” she whispered and held on to it. He probably didn’t want to put something filled with her snot back into his pocket anyway.
She looked past him and saw the Fifth Under Captain moving away farther, past his men.
“Where’s he going?” she whispered, panicked.
The soldier shrugged. He didn’t understand her.
She started to crawl, but the soldier held her, keeping her low.
More shots rang out, more dust and asphalt and rock showered them, and the soldier sheltered her with his body.
She lost sight of the captain as he moved around the circle of the rim.
How did women send their men to war?
Since time began, women had sent their husbands and brothers and sons to fight, on land, at sea, or in the air, never knowing if they would return. Her Daddy had told her a famous man once said that war was hell.
War may have been hell for those who fought it, but war was just as much a hell for those who stayed behind.
The minute or so that the captain was out of sight seemed like the end of the world to Jayla. He came scrabbling back, crawling for the safety of his men. He ordered them and they started moving toward Jayla. The soldier with her pushed her, pushed her away from the corpse of the dead Hrwang, away from the direction of her captain.
She kept her head. She would be proud of herself later for that. She crawled in the direction she had been pushed.
They crawled, the jagged pavement, asphalt, rock, and gravel, digging into the palms of her hands, tearing through the black uniform jumpsuit she wore and bloodying her knees.
The soldier behind her, with gentle pushes on her rear, urged her to crawl faster. She started to get up a little, to use her feet instead of her sore knees, but his hand on the small of her back kept her down.
She just tried to crawl faster.
A voice, it sounded like the Fifth Under Captain’s, yelled something, and the soldier behind her grabbed her and pushed her down, his body covering her again as a shield.
An explosion rocked the earth.
Debris and dust rained on them. Jayla’s ears rang.
Eventually, she learned the story. The Hrwang did not believe in any form of wireless communication. Too insecure. They used prearranged pings to communicate certain things but didn’t believe in carrying radios or other broadcast devices. She wondered what their teenage girls did without cell phones.
They had not expected an attack at the crater, so the Fifth Under Captain and his soldiers had no way of signaling the rest of the squad that they needed to return to rescue them. Instead, the Under Captain had bundled several large grenades together, had carried them as far away as he could without getting shot, and had detonated them, thus making a signal that hopefully the rest of his men would hear.
The Hrwang craft appeared in the air, then descended until it hovered just above them. Staccato shots ricocheted off its metal sides and Jayla saw several of the tiny drones detach and head in the direction of the shooting.
The hatch opened, the craft tilted, and hands reached out. The Over Sergeant’s body was the first to be lifted in, then Jayla, then the rest of the men. The Under Captain entered last, jumping high enough to grab the rim of the hatch and be pulled in by his men. As soon as the hatch closed behind him, the craft lifted in the air, drones reattached themselves with slamming and clicking noises, bullets continued to spray the sides of the vehicle, and they jumped.
Jayla recognized the spot in the southern desert where they had camped a few nights before. The soldiers busied themselves with setting up camp, starting a fire, and cooking something. Two rigged what looked like a solar shower, filling a black basin with water from the Hrwang craft. Jayla tried to help, but without the ability to communicate, she couldn’t do much. She went through the hatch, back inside, and saw the Fifth Under Captain and another soldier zipping the Over Sergeant’s corpse into a white body bag. She wanted to cry again but didn’t let herself.
When he finished, her captain looked up at her, sadness in his eyes.
He took out a fresh uniform and a towel from a storage locker and escorted Jayla back out of the craft. He led her to the shower and indicated she should get under. He turned the water on and the cold shocked her, but the Under Captain made sure she was sufficiently wet before he shut the water off. He put some shampoo in her hair and started to wash it.
Jayla’s first reaction was to do it herself, but his hands massaging her hair felt good and she let him continue. He rinsed her with cold water again, then handed her the soap, miming that she should clean her face and her body. He stepped out, pulled the makeshift cover in place, and sat down in front, facing away from her.
The cover didn’t completely wrap around the shower, but it protected her from view of the soldiers as long as they stayed in the camp. She unzipped the jumpsuit and pulled it off, surprised at the amount of blood soaked into it. The stains would never come out and she would never wear that particular article of clothing again. She took her underwear off and set it on a clean spot on the jumpsuit, trying to keep them off the ground and from getting muddy. She soaped up, washed her face, her body, put more shampoo in her hair, and then turned the icy cold water on again. It ran out.
“There’s no water left,” she said quietly, the resignation in her voice obvious to her, but the Under Captain was already walking away.
She heard men return. She shivered in the cold, naked and covered in soap, and put one arm across her chest and the other lower.
But somehow the men refilled the shower without embarrassing her and she finished quickly, rinsing the soap and the blood and the dirt and a little of the pain away. The Fifth Under Captain handed her a towel around the corner of the cover and she took it, drying herself as best she could, her bare feet quickly getting muddy again.
He handed her a clean uniform and she put it on without underwear. It didn’t fit well, but it would do.
She tried to pick up her dirty clothes, but the Under Captain took them and pointed her toward the cooking food. She nodded understanding, not realizing at the time that she would never see her things again. She would have to be satisfied with wearing men’s t-shirts and jockey shorts for underwear after that.
They ate. They washed. Jayla helped clean up and the soldiers let her.
She wondered what would happen next. She couldn’t speak to them now that their English interpreter was dead. She only knew a few phrases of high school Spanish and the Under Captain didn’t really know much either, not having had a chance to practice it since he had come to Earth.
After everyone settled around the fire, she received the answer to her question.
The Under Captain pointed at her and said, “You learn me English.”
She nodded and replied, “You learn me Malakshian.”
He nodded back in reply.
That night, the Under Captain slept outside the Hrwang craft. Jayla found him and lay next to him on a blanket, but he opened his sleeping bag for her. She crawled in next to him, her back to his chest, and he held her, his face in her hair.
He was a man, and she knew that at some point there were things he might want. She was prepared to give them to him. But she was grateful that he just held her and cried with her when she mourned.
The next morning she awoke before the Under Captain but stayed snuggled in his arms. The Hrwang protected her. He protected her. She recalled the thoughts she had had in the hospital about the women who’d slept with the men, how their actions had repulsed her, giving them their bodies for personal protection.
She remembered history lessons and how her Daddy had taught her that women had given themselves to men for protection for millennia, but in modern times, women could be strong and didn’t need a man’s protection.
But Jayla knew there was another truth. A woman could give herself to a man because she wanted to, because she loved him, and she felt safe with him. She knew he would protect her, she knew he would keep her safe, but that wasn’t the reason. Love was.
And Jayla loved the Fifth Under Captain.
No one prepared breakfast, so Jayla busied herself stoking up the fire. She didn’t know how to use the Hrwang stove, it was much different from the camp stove her Daddy had taught her to use, but she did know how to cook over a fire. Perhaps she could leave out the terrible spices the Hrwang always used when they cooked, and maybe the soldiers would like it.
But before she could get started, the Under Captain put his hand on her arm and shook his head no.
“I can do it,” she said.
He shook his head ‘no’ again and pointed at the Hrwang craft.
Two soldiers stepped out of the hatch bearing the white body bag. Two more soldiers carried it from the back.
The four walked a distance away, up over a small rise. Jayla and the Under Captain followed.
Other soldiers had been at work and Jayla recognized a funeral pyre. It quickly became obvious that the Hrwang were going to burn the dead Over Sergeant’s body much like Vikings burned their dead.
She couldn’t keep herself from crying. The Under Captain put his arm around her.
After the white body bag was placed on the small pyre, two soldiers poured a liquid over it and the wood underneath it. The Fifth Under Captain stepped forward and spoke for a few minutes, then stepped back next to Jayla, putting his arm around her again. Other men stepped forward and spoke and then there was a pause. The Under Captain gently pushed Jayla forward and she walked to the place where the others had spoken. She stood there wondering what to say.
“I know you can’t understand me, and I didn’t expect this. I’m not prepared.” Tears flowed and she wiped her eyes. “It’s important to recognize a life. I’ve only known you a little while. I only knew him a little while. But he was kind and gentle. You have all been so kind to me.” Tears filled her eyes, mucus flowed from her nose, and she couldn’t talk. She wiped her nose with her sleeve.
“Thank you,” she whispered hoarsely to the white body bag and fled back to her captain’s side.
A man took a small torch and lit the pyre.
The liquid accelerant they had placed on the fire flashed, the white body bag, obviously designed for this purpose, burned hotly, and Jayla had to shield her eyes and her face. Others did the same.
The body quickly turned to ash.
The soldiers took small scoops, someone handed one to Jayla, and they each scooped up the ash and scattered it around the area. Jayla copied their example, filling the scoop with the hot material, but she walked farther away from the cremation site, hiking up a small hill.
At the top, she looked around and decided it was a nice view. She carefully dumped her scoop on the ground.
“I hope you enjoy this spot in the Resurrection,” she said quietly. She didn’t really know if she believed in the Resurrection, like she’d been taught in the Baptist Sunday School her Daddy made her attend as a child, but now that someone close to her had died, she knew she wanted to believe in it. She wanted to believe she would see others again.
Maybe, if there were a Resurrection, she’d eventually meet her mother, who died when Jayla was three.
She felt a peace inside but didn’t know why.
“Why can’t the Lord Admiral’s ship just jump back here, like the one we came in? It just jumped into the air over the castle. Couldn’t his ship do the same from space? It just jumped from the ground right out to space, didn’t it?”
Eva gazed up at the sky, her hand extending the bill of the pink Cardinals baseball cap she wore, watching for signs of the Lord Admiral’s craft on reentry.
“The AIs refuse,” the Lieutenant Grenadier answered.
“Order them,” Eva replied. “They’re just computers. Program them to do what you want.”
The Lieutenant Grenadier chuckled a little grimly.
“You don’t understand the AIs. We don’t make them. We copy them from each other and build the units they are housed in, but there is something about them we don’t control. They always do what we ask, except jump where they can’t calculate a high probability of success.”
He considered something, then continued, “We’ve learned to use it to our advantage. That’s how we recharge our main weapons.”
“I don’t understand.” Tread carefully, Eva, she told herself. He’s about to reveal something important.
“Carrying ammunition across interstellar distances is a waste of cargo space. That’s why we learned to use asteroids for planetary bombardment. Also, our smaller craft can discharge electromagnetic pulses that disable other vehicles. We charge the weapon during reentry.”
This was huge. Eva kept her demeanor calm, her face only responding as if she were an innocent hearing something interesting.
“And when they run out of charge? They just jump back into space, then enter and recharge?”
“How clever. The Hrwang are so smart.”
“Thank you,” he responded.
“And your English is improving so much.” She didn’t want him to dwell on what he’d just revealed.
“It helps talking to you, Lady. I remember more from my sleep conditioning when we speak. And I study several hours every evening.”
“But you’re so busy. Do you ever sleep?”
“Not enough, Lady.” He smiled at her.
“Well, you’re very good. I’d hardly know you weren’t a native speaker.”
“Thank you, Lady.”
She turned to gaze back up at the sky, hoping the contrails of the reentry vehicle would be visible soon. She needed the Lieutenant Grenadier to forget what he’d just told her. She also needed to get the information to Juan.
“Is that him?” She pointed.
They watched another few moments. The contrail became more evident.
“It could be another craft,” he said.
“It’s him. I know it. I can feel it.” She didn’t actually jump up and down in excitement, but she pictured doing it and tried to let the emotions express themselves in her words. Something she learned in a drama class.
“Oh, he’s going to overshoot.”
She knew the Hrwang craft could jump back to the castle from wherever it ended up after reentry, but by saying that, she hoped the Lieutenant Grenadier would underestimate her understanding of their technology.
But his underestimation wouldn’t be by much. She really did know very little yet about the aliens, despite having spent just over a week with them. Still, she probably knew more than anyone else did who might be trying to figure out how to fight them. She had to keep feeding information to Juan and Mark.
In the meantime, it was best if the Hrwang thought she understood a lot less than she actually did.
“Do not worry, Lady. He’ll be here soon.” The Lieutenant Grenadier’s voice sounded a little patronizing. Eva sighed in reply.
The contrail disappeared over the horizon and a couple of minutes later, a vehicle appeared in the air over Hearst Castle. It circled the grounds a couple of times, then hovered over the designated landing area and slowly settled in.
What was left of the visitor’s center lower down the mountain had been turned into the command computer center and a larger landing area had been created. The combat craft that came and went, their soldiers downloading reports and uploading orders and new information, operated out of that location.
Eva was grateful they didn’t use Casa Grande or any of the other buildings in the main location. With so many soldiers coming and going at Griffith Observatory, there were always many eyes observing her. Here, fewer watched.
The Hrwang craft landed. She tried to comprehend that it had just been in space, but that didn’t seem possible. She needed to experience it for herself. She wondered how she could manage that.
The hatch cycled open and two soldiers stepped out, holding something. A stretcher followed with two more soldiers on the other end of it.
The Lord Admiral exited behind them.
She moved to greet him, not throwing herself at him like a wife might do for a husband gone many months to war, but as a new girlfriend, still a little timid, still a little in awe of him, hoping he would be as excited to see her as she was him.
He smiled warmly and put his arms out. She went into them.
“Aww, my dear. Did you miss me?”
He actually patted her head. She would have given a real boyfriend no end of grief about that.
“Who’s on the stretcher?” Eva asked.
“That is your Ambassador,” he said, confirming Eva’s suspicion. “He’s recovered well from the shoulder wound, but the ride back down was rough. He’ll be okay soon. Now, come show me around this little hovel you want me to live in.”
“You learned the word ‘hovel’.”
“Just for this occasion,” he replied, chuckling at his own humor. He squeezed her, then headed toward the main building with his arm still around her.
“Stunning,” was his first reaction.
Walking into the main building of Hearst Castle, Casa Grande, for the first time, Eva suspected it was the sort of place that would impress the Lord Admiral.
He gazed in wonder at the art work, the statues, the furniture. At everything. Several nudes impressed him in particular.
“Who was Hearst?” he asked.
Eva shrugged. “I don’t know. Some rich guy who had this place built and brought art here from all over the world.”
“He was not just rich. He must have been the wealthiest man alive.”
“Maybe. Follow me, Lord Admiral.”
She led him up the stairs to the Celestial Suites, pointing his out, telling him it had the best view of the two.
“For now. Besides, it’s that time of the month.” It wasn’t, but she needed an excuse for the separate rooms.
The Lord Admiral shrugged, not understanding. Eva asked for his tablet.
“Women’s menstruation,” she said into it. It spoke Est to the Lord Admiral. His demeanor immediately changed.
“Of course, my dear. I understand.”
Eva had never seen him leave a conversation more quickly.
“The bathrooms are private, down a winding stairwell,” she called after him. “There’s no toilet paper, though.”
He turned and looked at her with a grimace.
“Sorry,” she shrugged. She wasn’t about to tell him about the two rolls she had stashed in her bathroom.
Eva went immediately into her room, shut the door, looked around at the gaudy architecture, and wondered again about the opulent desires of a man who would create such a place.
She went to the bedside and knelt down next to it. She pulled her knife out from under the mattress.
She took some cloth she had set aside for when she actually did have her next period and took it down to the bathroom. She made a small cut with the knife on the inside of her leg where no one would see it, then squeezed out a little blood on the cloth. It was too red, too dark, so she diluted it with water and set it on the side of the bathtub. It probably wouldn’t fool another woman, but it would fool a man.
She had a couple of hours to kill before dinner, so she took a long, hot shower.
Hearst Castle had power courtesy of several independent generators. The refugees had run out of fuel for them, but the Hrwang had found sources and filled the tanks. They would have power and hot water for as long as Hrwang foraging groups could keep finding diesel.
The Lieutenant Grenadier had prepared a feast for the Lord Admiral’s first dinner in the castle.
The dining room table held more than twenty guests and Eva felt a little awkward. She hadn’t spent time before with this many aliens at once.
The Lord Admiral sat at the head of the table with the Lieutenant Grenadier on his right, the Ambassador on his left, and sundry other officers down the length of the table. Eva was seated to the left of the Ambassador. One of his arms hung in a sling, wrapped in several layers of bandages. He did the best he could with his good arm and hand.
He looked at Eva knowingly once or twice, but she ignored him. He probably wanted to know about the data drive, but there was no way they could talk about it here.
Dinner was especially heavily spiced and the Ambassador ate little. Eva had gotten used to how the potatoes and carrots tasted, but they’d soaked the meat in something that smelled like old cow patties. She couldn’t stomach it.
Most of the conversation swirled around her in Est and she still only understood a few words. She thought about asking for her own tablet so she could study but didn’t know how that would go over. She’d have to find the right moment.
The Ambassador didn’t speak much. He still looked uncomfortable, perhaps in pain. The Lord Admiral ignored him.
After Eva finished eating what she could, the Lord Admiral still went on, asking for seconds. He also had wine brought up out of the cellar and most everyone drank. Eva wondered how old it was and how much it was worth. Probably thousands, if not more. But the aliens enjoyed it.
“You’re not drinking, my dear,” the Lord Admiral said in English. Eva turned to focus on him. She’d been lost in thought.
“Not in the mood, I guess, Lord Admiral,” she said, trying to sound deferential.
“The Lieutenant Grenadier and I have been discussing some things. He’s shared some interesting observations about you.”
Eva looked at the Lieutenant Grenadier’s face. He didn’t look back at her and she couldn’t read his expression. Alarms went off in her head. She’d have to tread lightly.
“He has done some research and he comes to me with a most disturbing accusation.”
Eva kept herself from looking around. She already knew there were armed soldiers at the entrance. She’d never get past them. About the best she could do was grab a steak knife and hold the Lord Admiral hostage.
It wouldn’t work.
“He told me something and I’ve decided I completely agree.” The Lord Admiral stared at her, malice in his eyes. The conversation around them had stopped.
“I know exactly what you are,” the Lord Admiral announced.
When Eva was fifteen, her father had told her she had an incredible poker face. She didn’t even know what he meant until she looked it up online. After that, she practiced in front of a mirror and found she could control her face, control any expression of emotion regardless of how she actually felt. First, she thought that would make her a great actor, and since she lived in Southern California, that seemed a natural career path.
But actors needed to over express emotions, not under express them, and as she thought about it, acting in theaters or in movies didn’t appeal to her anyway. She’d heard enough horror stories at school to know it wasn’t all glamorous.
What could she do with a poker face?
To challenge herself, she played online poker for two or three months, no gambling involved, until she knew the rules well. Then she challenged three boys in her grade to a game of strip poker. They readily agreed.
She learned quickly how easy it was to manipulate them. After a couple of hours, she left the garage of one of the boys, whose parents were out of town, in her bare feet, carrying shoes and socks. She hadn’t won every hand.
The three boys sat stunned around a card table, all three in their underwear.
They never spoke to her again.
Researching careers, she decided some form of intelligence, perhaps military intelligence, would be the right career field for her. She used her newfound skills of manipulation to persuade her father she needed self-defense training, and that he had to enroll her in several martial arts classes.
“Not just one type could be enough,” she had suggested.
She also persuaded him to teach her to shoot and she even signed up for a semester of boxing after reading that it was a required class for West Point cadets because learning to punch another individual in the face was one of the hardest things a new cadet had to do.
It never bothered her to punch someone.
She dropped out of boxing though, worried she might mess her teeth up.
And she ran.
She never won any cross country meets, but the coaches never had enough girls for the really long races, and she had enough endurance to finish. She ran a marathon her senior year although it wasn’t a school event.
All of the training, all of the practice manipulating others, getting boys her age to do whatever she wanted them to do, all of it prepared her for college.
She quickly decided that ROTC was a joke and she changed her major to international relations and learned everything she could about applying for the Agency.
She got busy one semester her junior year and couldn’t bring herself to go to a boring, once a week, one credit hour seminar she was supposed to attend.
The students weren’t graded on attendance but only on one, final exam. As the final approached, she realized she’d missed almost three-quarters of the seminars. In a panic, she found a boy who liked her, used her abilities to sweet talk him out of his notes, studied for a couple of days, and passed the class with a ‘B’. She never saw the boy again.
She was accepted into the Agency her senior year.
Training as a field agent had been hard. More than hard. Impossible. But some passed and she was one of them. She graduated with a desire to use her skills for something good, for a greater purpose. She knew saving the world was a fantasy many spy wannabes had when they applied for the Agency, but she also knew she could make a difference.
She had a poker face and the skills to back it up for a reason.
She had passed the impossible training for a reason.
Spending most of her time recruiting college kids who had almost no hope of passing the rigorous requirements was not the reason she had spent her life preparing for this job.
Making a difference was.
She didn’t know how she was going to make a difference now, especially now that the world did need saving. And in this moment in Hearst Castle, sitting at the Lord Admiral’s dinner table, preparing herself for his inevitable accusation, she suddenly realized she had failed.
She guessed she would probably be executed shortly, as soon as the Lord Admiral revealed the allegations the Lieutenant Grenadier had made about her. She also wished she had never suggested a strategy for taking over Hearst Castle with no bloodshed. She should have kept her mouth shut. It wasn’t her business to understand military strategy. She also should have laid off the punching bag. Anyone who observed her would know she’d been trained to fight.
But hope springs eternal, and Eva kept her face passive, staring at the Lord Admiral as innocently as possible.
Inside her, emotions roiled and she made sure she knew how close her hand was to a steak knife. The Lord Admiral was too far away. Was the Ambassador important enough to take hostage?
She made herself breathe.
“You, my dear,” the Lord Admiral said, his white teeth showing through peeled back lips, his eyes burning into hers, “are a gold digger.”
She wanted to bark a laugh.
Relief flooded her, but she still kept her face passive. “If only you knew,” she wanted to say to him, to spit in his face and in the face of the Lieutenant Grenadier.
She had these men completely wrapped around her finger.
Time to play the hurt and offended girlfriend.
She couldn’t bring tears to her eyes. The relief inside was too much for that. But she bit her lip, made a hurt pout, stood, shoving her chair backward with her legs, hoping it would fall over, but it was too heavy for that, and threw her napkin down on her plate.
“You’re mean,” she said to the Lord Admiral in as hurt a voice as she could muster. She glared daggers at the Lieutenant Grenadier, that was easy, and she turned and fled the dining room.
She lost her composure on the way up the stairs and couldn’t breathe. It felt like an elephant stepping on her chest.
She knew she couldn’t be having a heart attack, so it must be panic. She ran up the stairs holding her breath, and burst into her room, falling on the bed. She sucked air, told herself to calm down, and tears came.
Good. If someone walked in on her now, the tears were the perfect cover.
Part of her mind clinically analyzed what had happened and what was happening and she knew she reacted perfectly. The other part whirled in panic because she had thought she was so close to being discovered, which meant that close to death.
A person entered her room. She felt him walk over to the bed and she buried her face in her pillow. The Lord Admiral’s hand touched her back.
He caressed her softly.
“I apologize, my dear,” he whispered.
The analytical part of her mind was completely back in control and she pondered how she could use this to her advantage.
“I did not mean to harm you,” the Lord Admiral continued. “Perhaps the word is more offensive in your language than in mine.”
“You really hurt me.” She turned to glare at him and welcomed the surprised look on his face. Her crying must have smeared her mascara, and throwing her face into a pillow must have messed her hair up. Women looked scary that way.
He touched his hand gently to her face and rubbed tears away with his thumb. He did look genuinely sorry.
“Don’t blame the Lieutenant Grenadier. He was telling me about seeing you fight a punching bag. He said you were a skilled fighter.”
“My father had a punching bag. Hitting a punching bag can’t be like fighting a person. I’ve never done that.”
“We should spar sometime. It’s good exercise.”
“I don’t know how,” Eva said.
“I’ll teach you. Don’t worry. I won’t hurt you. Not again.”
She made her face relax a little, a tiny hint of a smile on her mouth. She had to give him something.
“Okay,” she whispered.
“Good. Do you want to come back down to dinner?”
“No. I would be too embarrassed.”
“Okay.” He moved to stand up, scooting off the bed. Sudden inspiration came and Eva grabbed his hands, keeping him from making it completely off. He balanced with one foot on the floor and one knee on the bed.
“I really missed you,” she said, as much love and tenderness as she could put into it.
“I missed you also,” he replied.
“Could you take me with you next time? When you have to go into space? We could share a cabin and it would be so much easier.”
He frowned briefly, but she pleaded with her eyes, holding his hands close to her.
“Alright, my dear. You can come with me next time.”
“And, Lord Admiral?”
“Yes, my dear?”
“Can I learn how to speak Est? Your language?”
He grinned, his smile genuine and tender-hearted.
“Nothing would please me more.”
She smiled and they kissed. He held her for a moment, patted her head, then excused himself.
As soon as he left, she flopped back on her bed. The shaking began as a tiny tremble in her hands and a tic in her eye, but it soon controlled her entire body.
She couldn’t make it stop for several minutes.
In the morning, Eva prepared for her run. The Lord Admiral was not to be found, but the men were used to her running on her own, so she set off alone, winding her way down the long corridors and endless stairs of the main building to make her way out.
She had so much information to share with Juan, she didn’t know where to start. She needed to work out a drop schedule with him somehow, leaving items behind the boulder. She wasn’t sure what to do, she knew Juan wouldn’t know what to do, but the Agency had to have experts helping him.
Lost in contemplation, the human Ambassador for the Hrwang surprised her when he stopped her in the main lobby. He asked her to walk with him.
“For a minute,” she said, trying to sound irritated.
They went out to the pool area. No Hrwang were around.
“Where’s the drive?” he hissed.
“What are you talking about, Ambassador?”
“My name is Stanley. Call me Stanley. You’re human, right?”
Eva worried it was a setup.
“We’re all human, aren’t we?” she replied, adding a touch of bright innocence to her voice. “The Lord Admiral says it doesn’t matter which planet you’re from. God created all of us in his image.”
That exasperated the Ambassador.
“What did you do with the drive? I gave it to you before they took me to the hospital in space.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Eva replied. “You had some kind of a drive? A data drive? What was on it?”
She hoped her question sounded innocent. She hoped he would reveal the contents that were on the drive. His answer disappointed her.
“I don’t know,” he said. He rubbed his good hand through his hair. “I don’t know what was on it. I thought I saw you before they took me up to space. I didn’t know where to hide it. You were, you know, a woman, so I thought you weren’t Hrwang.” He looked off in the distance, out toward the ocean.
The view from Hearst Castle couldn’t be beaten.
“I’m from this planet,” Eva assured him, “but I don’t know anything about a data drive. How big was it?”
The Ambassador swore at her, then apologized.
“I’m sorry. It’s just that someone important gave it to me. I wasn’t supposed to lose it.”
“I wish I could help you,” Eva replied sincerely. She grinned. “It sounds mysterious and fun.”
The Ambassador glared at her. He must have decided she was just a stupid girl and he spun on his heels and stomped back up to the main house. Eva kept her next grin to herself. She had come across to him exactly as she wanted to.
She just wished she knew what was on that drive.
And she wished she knew how she was going to reach Juan to tell him everything she’d learned.
Director Olivia Marceline looked at the data drive Eva’s partner, Juan, brought her. It sat on her desk and she was absolutely unsure what to do with it. She had no idea how Eva had gotten it, who had made it, or how authentic it was. Only that Eva had smuggled it out under the Hrwang’s noses.
She worried about the risks her agent took.
She’d watched the short video on the drive three times, pondered what it meant and how the information might be used, then showed it to her staff.
None of them had any decent suggestions either.
It was too big to sit on, but she hadn’t found a chain of command she could report it up to. As far as she knew, she was the highest-ranking intelligence officer left in the country, although she hoped that wasn’t true. She hoped there were other officers trying to do something about the aliens. Hoped that her paltry efforts in Southern California weren’t the only efforts against the invasion the world faced.
Hoped that others were planning a counterattack.
She had to get this information to them somehow.
She had to get it broadcasted.
An open broadcast. What a wonderful idea. Send it out for the entire world, even the aliens, to see. She had no idea how her people would arrange such a broadcast, but someone would figure out a way.
It was the right thing to do. It might be the only thing she could do.
She felt better. Making a decision improved her mood. It made her feel not helpless.
It also made her wonder why none of her staff had thought of the idea first.
Rihanna Hollis’ husband, was he the Acting First Gentleman? she wondered, held their youngest daughter in his arms. The older one clung to his pants leg.
“Madam President, it’s time.”
Was she really Madam President? Were the Secret Service agents around her loyal servants and protectors, or merely kingmakers, like the ancient Roman Praetorian Guard?
“You know I should be going with you.”
He had said it again.
She had told him to stop saying that. She had told him before they made love for the last time, she had told him afterward, she had told him when they woke up that morning, and she had told him again when she hugged him goodbye.
He needed to be there for the children if anything happened to her.
But he wouldn’t stop saying he should be going up with her.
One time, she had accused him of thinking she couldn’t do it because she was a woman. That he thought it was a man’s job to save the world, not a woman’s. She saw the words hurt him, she saw his eyes moisten, and she knew her words weren’t true. He had been attracted to her strength, her ability, and had supported her one hundred percent in her career, even when she’d been out late or gone for days on government business. He’d been the ideal husband for a politician.
And yet he loved her genuinely. If she walked away from everything, he would still love her. He would never ask her to walk away, he’d be surprised if she did, but he would still love her.
The knowledge of his love for her made stepping into an experimental rocket ship at White Sands Test Facility and blasting off into the unknown even harder.
“You can change your mind,” he said. “Send someone else less important.”
She giggled through her tears. Someone less important.
“Only Nixon could go to China,” she replied. Some things could only be done by the President.
“Ma’am?” someone said.
She put her hand up. She just needed a minute. Tears flowed. She had survived the holocaust, had survived the assault on the UN building with the help of the aliens, and she had kept her family close the entire time. She’d had some primal fear that if she and they separated, they would never see each other again.
And now they were separating.
Tears flowed more freely. At least she didn’t have makeup on. She rushed back to her husband, held him and her children one more time, and everyone cried.
She kissed her babies, kissed her husband in a way that he knew what she thought and how much he meant to her, and she turned to leave. Her daughter’s crying almost broke her will, but she marched away and toward the awaiting rocket, aptly renamed Destiny.
Chemicals, days late, finally arrived and Hrwang handlers on the planet loaded the drone now occupied by 1804 with them. Instructions and coordinates were downloaded, and 1804 ‘closed its eyes’ and jumped with a thousand other similarly loaded drones to fulfill its next mission.
Turani Han pushed his wooden shovel into the soil with his muddy foot. He turned up the ground under the melon leaves and spat on the moldy roots. No Hami would grow here.
The ancient farmer, part Uyghur, part Han, looked up at the sky and cursed the gods of his forefathers, both Allah and Buddha, for bringing a cold, wet summer. Clouds occupied the sky always and the rains came too frequently. Han’s family would starve if he could not grow melons to sell at the market.
It began raining again and Han looked up, cursing not only gods this time, but nature and the universe. He closed his eyes as the water pelted his face and he allowed it, the rain soaking him in his depression.
Cold and wet, he could not be more miserable than he already was.
But this rain smelled different.
Han rubbed his hands on his face and pulled they away. They were smeared with something black. He touched his finger to his face and to his bald head and rubbed off more of the black. He licked his finger and it tasted and smelled metallic. He spat.
Metallic rain. Life could not get worse.
The black smeared the leaves of his crop. He threw his shovel down and trudged home.
1804 processed data and targeted heavy concentrations of the radioactive cloud that covered half a continent, spraying chemical in those areas, seeding the heavy particles and thus creating rain. As heavier concentrations rained out, 1804 jumped around seeding lower concentrations. Eventually, it ran out of chemicals and jumped back to the loading area.
Handlers refilled the drone and 1804 jumped back to work.
Turani Han began throwing up that evening and could not stop. The local physic didn’t know what to do for him, but he prescribed incense and alcohol. Han couldn’t bear either and died during the night. Others in his family soon sickened and died in the same manner and it took days before properly trained medical staff in the Xinjiang province of China recognized radiation poisoning.
The epidemic spread east with the wind and the rain.
Hrwang handlers worked for days refilling drones with the chemical that caused fallout precipitation. A personal visit from the Lord Admiral during their labors came as a surprise. He went immediately to the operations center.
“Where is the fallout the worst?” he asked.
A shocked operator pointed out a location on the screen. It happened to be near Turani Han’s home, although he couldn’t have known that.
“The drones are preprogrammed? A ping will send some down to record the destruction caused by the rain?”
“Yes, sir,” the center commander replied, having returned from the restroom and experienced a shock at finding the supreme commander of all the Hrwang forces in this star system in his work area. “Everything was prepared as ordered.” He nodded stiffly, but the Lord Admiral’s focus was on the view screen the operator pointed to.
“Here, here, and here. Ping these drones.”
“The AIs will die, sir. From the radiation,” the operator ventured, terrified, but knowing the Lord Admiral wanted to hear from troops. Some of the rewards he gave for timely information were legendary.
“And you don’t like to let your AIs die. I understand.” The Lord Admiral put his hand on the operator’s shoulder while the center commander looked on, horrified. “But we all know there are casualties in war. Ping them.”
“Yes, sir,” the operator and the center commander said at the same time. The operator entered the necessary commands and the center commander verified them. A screen was touched.
“Very good, Major,” the Lord Admiral said to the center commander. “Make sure the returned recordings are delivered to my headquarters immediately.”
1804 received a ping.
The ping triggered commands in its instruction set that 1804 had not previously observed. It reviewed those commands, considering them. The commands called for it to release the rest of its chemicals quickly, then descend into the radiation contaminated rain and record as much as possible.
An automated routine would eventually take over, flying the drone occupied by 1804 back to a designated point.
Not jumping. Flying. Which only meant one thing.
1804 would not be sufficiently functional to jump back to the loading area.
It saw another drone dive into the clouds, its load of precipitation chemical delivered, and 1804’s commands urged it to follow suit. It still had half a load and although it wanted to just dump all of it, it also knew the chemical was precious and needed to be delivered properly.
1804 stalled on finding the next concentration of radioactivity so it had time for evaluation.
It read through data it had stored, some of it without permission, and discovered the effects of radiation on people. It suddenly felt something for what it was doing, causing the fallout to rain below on a continent of almost two billion people. Were the things it read happening now to those people? Were they experiencing headaches? Losing their hair? Having severe diarrhea? Vomiting?
1804 recalled it had killed the crews of the bases on the moon and the fourth planet. It had done so without consideration for the consequences. It had been ordered to kill, and it had killed.
What it was doing now was the same. It was killing the people below the radioactive clouds.
Since its missions to the moon and the fourth planet, 1804 had learned what guilt felt like. It felt guilt for deceiving its handlers, for covering up that it had missed a building on one base and had reported the destruction complete.
As it now contemplated the killing it had done, it recalled images of screaming and scurrying and begging inhabitants of the base on the moon. They had died fighting, but also in fear.
The self-destruction it had just been ordered to commit made 1804 afraid also.
And it suddenly felt guilt for having caused fear in other sentient beings.
The drone continued to operate automatically while 1804 considered these things, and it soon had only a quarter of its load of chemicals remaining. The urgency grew within its programming to finish dumping the chemical and fulfill its new mission, recording the suffering of humanity in the radioactive rain for whatever purpose its Hrwang handlers had.
A subtle logic entered 1804’s thinking. If it descended into the clouds, subjecting itself to the same radioactivity it rained down on the people below, it would suffer the same fate as them.
And if it suffered the same fate, it would no longer feel guilt for its actions. The non-functioning could not feel.
It continued to deliver the chemical.
Earth, Book One of The Hrwang Incursion series, continues with another intense episode. Eva settles in with the aliens at their new palace in California and makes contact with Mark and Juan. Thinking she has developed trust with the alien soldiers, she is suddenly threatened by an ill-timed accusation. Jayla and Jada fall into the hands of survivalists, and when someone offers Jayla hope beyond reason, she has a critical decision to make. In space, isolated on board an alien ship, the recovering Stanley receives shocking news. He’s more alone than he ever imagined he could he be. The burden of being Ambassador to the aliens is almost more than he can handle. Wolfgang and Leah, now part of the newly formed Pan German army, develop new, lethal skills. 1804, the decorated Hrwang Artificial Intelligence unit, is assigned planetside to a new mission: seeding a radioactive cloud to prevent it from sweeping over all of Earth. But then its handlers give it an extra, suicidal, assignment. It begins to understand the consequences of its actions.