FFFF #5: Hegemonic

Okay, missed it again but only by two days this time.

Here are the rules about First Friday Free Fiction:

1) This story (Hegemonic) is the intellectual property of and is copyrighted by me Jake MacMillan. You can read it here for free but don’t pass it around (if you want to share it with people send them here to read it) and definitely don’t share it or any part of it without attribution.

2) I’m not going to tell you anything about the story, i.e. – its genre or length or general subject matter, because as a genrista (a loyal follower of the Genrist), you are blind to such trappings and simply want to read a good story.
This month’s free story is called Hegemonic. Enjoy.

Hegemonic

by

Jake MacMillan

1. “Yes, but why her?” Colonel Drake asked. “We aren’t exactly hurting for people with no living relatives. You could have had your pick of tactical commanders.” She took a seat across from the General, politely refusing the offer of a whiskey with the wave of her hand.

General Ley poured herself a short glass of whiskey and cradled it with one hand over the opening. A habit she came by due to the unreliable artificial gravity. The ship she was on, soon to be renamed the Global Defense Alliance SS Beijing in honor of the dead, was constantly being worked on. It seemed like half the time one of the engineers pulled a wire whose function he failed to fully comprehend and the whole lot of them ended up on the ceiling. “She’s taken all the tests and passed every one of them.”

“It would help if she were psionic. That would make interfacing with the embedded unit that much easier.”

Ley nodded, removed her hand long enough to sip her whisky, and then covered the top of the glass again. She was still nursing a nasty bump on the back of her head from last week when the artificial gravity, what they refered to as the “floor” aboard ship, suddenly gave out and she collided with the metal bulkhead. “Would you like to meet her?”

Drake stood. “Are you about to offer the mission to her right now?”

“I am.”

“Yes, sir, I would very much like to meet her.”

General Ley placed her hand over a flat screen embedded in her desktop and said, “Send her in, Maggie.”

Drake turned to watch as a slender woman with aristocratic features marched in with her head up, shoulders back and spine straight. She stomped her right foot when she came to a stop and snapped a perfect salute. “Wing Commander Revel reporting, Sirs.”

The GDA was still a new thing, cobbled together by the surviving Western forces out of the debris left over from the Pestilent attack, so most everyone was still wearing their old uniforms. Like much of the spaceship command personnel, General Ley was out of the Navy, American in this case. Colonel Drake was late of the American Air Force’s Strategic Air Command. Ley was dressed in standard khakis sans fruit salad but Drake was rarely out of her flight suit. She even had a patch on her shoulder that had the saying, “SAC Fusion Weapons – We Deliver,” embroidered around a colorful mushroom cloud. Fairly nervy considering SAC had been responsible for nuking most of Asia just three years ago.

In fact, Revel was not a Wing Commander at all, as the GDA had adopted NATO standard rank and insignia. She was actually Lt. Colonel Revel but hadn’t quite got used to responding to that rank just yet. She stood at attention looking beyond the general’s shoulder and waited to be spoken to. She looked angry, but Ley had been led to believe that was her default setting.

General Ley said, “Relax, Colonel, you’ve already got the job. This is just a briefing to help you decide if you want the job.”

Revel moved smartly to parade rest.

“Sit,” Ley growled. She grabbed the bottle of Irish whiskey from her drawer and held it up. “Drink?”

“Please,” Revel said, trying to relax as ordered, but she didn’t much care for Americans. She accepted a rocks glass and covered the top with her hand. Then she nodded at the wires hanging out of the ceiling and the hastily written warning placards tacked on every wall. “Conversion going haltingly?”

“Always,” Ley said as she took her seat and waved at Drake to do the same. “The Pestilents were hive mind types. They did everything over the brainwave, a kind of universal thought bus. Individuals seemed to be able to pick out what was important to them and focus on that even though everything was basically going through all their ‘brains’ at once. Their control structures are all built around that brainwave broadcast interface. No readouts, no touchscreens, none of the stuff we would call a Man-Machine-Interface. So our engineers are having to go through them and, you know, yank everything out. Basically, they have to replace the control systems at the same time they’re figuring out how all this advanced stuff works. Fast Folding Engines, Tunneling EM Signals, Warp Shields, Distance Braking. It’s crazy. It’s going to propel us two hundred years forward in an instant, technologically speaking. Their particle beam weapons are unimaginably powerful. It’s really quite amazing we won, when you think about it.”

“Well, we were willing to make the sacrifice,” Revel said, managing to not look at Drake.

“Damn right,” Ley agreed. “We did what we had to do. We won the day. And now it’s time to win the future.”

“Yes, sir,” Revel said. “May I ask what that has to do with me?”

“Of course.” Ley put her hand over the featureless screen embedded in her desktop again and said, “Display data.” She stopped for a moment and looked confused. Then she seemed to remember and added, “Orbital incursion?”

Nothing happened.

She shook her head and amended her command. “Display data, solar system incursion.”

Still nothing happened.

Drake spoke up. “It doesn’t… you’re not telling it which data to display.”

Frustrated, General Ley snapped, “I just want to see the video of the goddamn invaders that are going drop into orbit around Mars!”

That seemed to do it. A hologram flickered into existence over her desk, showing the sun and planets in three dimensions and at their current positions. Sliding smoothly toward the solar system was a black marble traveling on a blurred line that curved in from the unimaginable emptiness of space and then onward until forming a ring around Mars.

“That’s it,” Ley said. “That’s the stuff.” She smiled weakly at Revel. “You’ve heard of living on borrowed time? We’re living on borrowed technology. We don’t know how much of this stuff works but we’ve already got new guests coming to the party.”

“More Pestilents?” Revel asked. The tone in her voice was difficult to decode. Was it eagerness or anxious dread?

“Not Pestilents,” Drake said. “Something new. And maybe worse.”

Ley gestured at the black marble hurtling toward their solar system. “We wouldn’t even know about these guys if the systems aboard the captured Pestilent ships hadn’t started squawking like crazy just all of a sudden when a Psion happened to be nearby.”

“So this is not another wave of Pestilent invasion?” Revel asked.

“Let me clear it up for you,” Drake said. “The things we’re scared shitless of? The Pestilents? They’re fucking terrified of these guys.”

“How could you possibly know that?” Revel asked. She was, as a rule, admirably guarded with her emotions, but there was a slight edge to her voice now.

Ley silenced Drake with her palm. “You’ve seen the endless late night ads for people who think they might be ‘intuitive,’ yes? That’s the GDA trying to subtly recruit potential Psions. We use them to interface with the Pestilent circuitry. It’s not perfect and it doesn’t work all the time because even though they’re on the same wavelength as the alien technology some of the elements of the language aren’t common brain-speak.”

“It’s all about symbology,” Drake said. Her current partner was a Psion, a contractor doing reverse engineering of captured technology for the GDA. Drake had picked at her brain until she made a nuisance of herself because, like all engineers, she couldn’t bear to let something interesting go by without understanding it. “80 percent of what we think is exactly the same as what the Pestilents think even though we have different language for it — language is just a bunch of different words to describe the same symbols. But some of the symbols are of things we have no experience with. For instance, if I grew up on a farm and you grew up in the city, I might tell you that I’m afraid of the threshing machine. You would understand that I’m afraid of something and that it was some kind of machine but you would have no analog in your symbology for the actual thing I’m afraid of.”

Ley gave her an odd look and then said, “Thank you, Colonel. That was a very… precise explanation.”

“You bet,” Drake said. “You know what? I will take a whiskey… if you’re still pouring.”

Ley withdrew the bottle and a glass. “We pair groups of engineers with a Psion so they can get feedback from the systems they’re working on. Eventually, we’ll yank out all of the psionic control systems and replace them with more human-friendly interfaces. Anyway, I’ve gone the long way around to my point: it turns out that the Pestilents carried an extensive system of databases with them.”

“Makes sense to have all the information you need on your enemies; ship types, weaponry, etc.,” Revel said. “I’m sure we will do the same.”

“Yes, but hopefully we will secure them better,” Drake said.

Ley agreed, smiling bitterly. “We didn’t even know about the databases until they started feeding so much information to our Psions that the poor bastards nearly threw clots and died from brain hemorrhage. Since then, we’ve had basically every Psion we can round up taking the feed.”

“After developing a restrictor harness that keeps them from being overloaded,” Drake added. “They don’t like it. It sort of dobs at the sound like earmuffs but it keeps them from stroking out. A bonus when you consider we have 1/10th the Psions we need.”

Ley said, “All the systems in all the captured ships began banging the alarm bell about three months ago. By the time we got some Psions tamped down enough to drink from the data hose, this image of the black marble rolling toward Mars is what we got. That and a ton of information about an enemy race the Pestilents alternately refer to as Infant Killers, Vicious Grabbers of All Food, and lastly but most special of all: Mechanical Row Hoers.”

“Whores?” Revel asked.

“Hoers. As in one who hoes. In this case, a machine that hoes a row.”

Drake said, “This is where my farming analogy from before should come in handy.”

Ley said, “The Pestilent larvae grow underground. They plant acres of them when they take new territory. Apparently, these Infant Killers have a machine that churns the soil to kill Pestilent offspring. Or they did once. Or they never did and it’s all propaganda. What the Psions are getting from the data feed is basically just a constant stream of fear and loathing. From what they’re getting off the feed, all Pestilent battle groups are under standing orders to disengage from whatever they’re doing and attack if they come into contact with these guys.”

“One part of it that’s really interesting,” Drake said, “if you lose a battle against the Baby Killers, don’t bother coming home. Your ship will be fired on.”

“Win or die trying,” Revel said, taking a sip of her whiskey. “It’s hard to find a banner to carry in this struggle. On the one hand, killing children is awful. On the other hand, those “children” are the larval offspring of the creatures that cost our planet two thirds of its population. On yet a third hand, if the Pestilents, who we can all agree are without merit of any kind, have only hatred and mistrust for this new race of beings, they can’t really be much of an improvement, can they?”

“Well, that’s the problem,” Ley said. “We don’t know what their intentions are and we would strongly prefer to have some time to prepare ourselves before meeting any newcomers. After all, it’s been three years and we’re still cleaning up the mess left behind by our last out-of-town guests.”

Revel smiled. “You need someone to go talk to these Mechanical Row Hoers. Someone who can get them to tell us what they intend to do. You need an interrogator.”

“Something like that,” Drake said. “Is that a problem for you?”

Revel merely smiled at her. “Where?”

“Mars orbit. That seems to be the place where our guests pause to collect themselves before they cruise on over for their intergalactic drive-by.”

“Sounds wonderful, but I’m not much of a diplomat.”

“We’re aware of that,” Drake said. “But this isn’t a mission for a diplomat. We need someone who is going to challenge them, interrogate them. We need intelligence about this new race more lucid than the paranoid chirpings of a bunch of terrified insects. We need someone who will stand against them at the very edge of our territory so we don’t have to deal with them here while we’re still recovering.”

“Well, if I’m expected to volunteer, I suppose you should give me the specifics.”

“It’s pretty simple, really,” Ley said. “You’ll be there waiting for them when they drop out of warp. You’ll be in a captured ship that has been converted to a freighter. No weapons and no shields, your comms beaming a white flag of truce. If our data is correct, they will bring you aboard their main battleship for interrogation. Everything you see, hear or say will be recorded on a continuous link to a device located in your ship that we’re calling the Messenger.”

“Wait,” Drake said, “you’re not doing it right.”

“I most certainly am.”

“No,” she turned to Revel and said, “That black marble? That’s a spherical shield that encloses their entire battle group. It’s black because nothing on the electromagnetic spectrum gets in or out, including anything you might try to radio back to us. So the Messenger will basically record everything and then, at the right moment, exit the shield and send everything to us in a digitized burst transmission.”

To Revel, it sounded like a shabby, last minute plan put together by desperate people and, worse, one she wasn’t being given all the details on. “Why don’t they just blast my ship out of space when they see it sitting there?”

“Previously demonstrated behaviors gleaned from the Pestilent databases indicate they will want to interrogate you before they kill you.”

“So I could spend my final hours in a torture chamber before being executed?”

“No,” Ley said firmly but then backtracked. “I mean, yes, that is a distinct possibility, but it’s more likely you’ll be interviewed rather than tortured. The Sleestaks have a demonstrated history of arrogance in this regard. They honestly believe they are the smartest race in the universe. Also, they aren’t expecting us to be here. The logical outcome of the Pestilent invasion would be us gone and those bugs taking over our planet.”

“Sleestaks?” Revel asked.

“Oh… let me show you an image of one. Then I think you’ll get the reference.” She fumbled with the interface for a moment, trying different commands until she made plain in her own mind what she wanted. However she managed it, the 3D projection changed to show a naked lizard man. “They are evolved from some sort of reptile, we think.”

It wasn’t obvious. The skin was a green so pale it was almost white and the eyes were large but almost normal in shape. The mouth was too wide and the lips were almost nonexistent, but it was the nose, or lack thereof, that really set this creature apart from the intellectualized monkeys gazing at it.

“I’m sorry,” Revel said, “but I still don’t understand the name you’ve given them. Is this some sort of Pestilent reference like Mechanical Row Hoer?”

“No,” Drake said, frankly surprised. “Land of the Lost? The Sleestaks? The lizard guys? Pakuni? Sleestak? Will and Holly?” When she got no sign of understanding from Revel, she turned to General Ley and said, “This is a mistake.”

“Stop,” Ley responded with an added warning look that shut her up. Then to Revel she said, “It’s a children’s television show that is destined to live on in reruns until the sun flickers out. These days it’s mostly enjoyed by stoners for its kitsch value but it has a general touchstone quality for Americans. On this show, there was a race of lizard people who were called Sleestaks. We’ve appropriated the reference because it’s easier to say than Mechanical Row Hoer.”

“Indeed,” Revel said. “So once I’m inside their shield, unarmed and defenseless, what is it you propose I do?”

“Talk,” Ley said. “Look, I know your background so don’t bother playing coy with me. You know how to subtly debrief someone in a way that leaves them feeling like they haven’t been interrogated. Our guys go straight to pouring water through a tee shirt, but your MI6 unit knows that’s not effective.”

Even now that she had been consumed by the suddenly expansive Global Defense Association, Revel was hesitant to talk about her MI6 background. But her husband had died in the battle for Samarkand and her sons and daughter had been sacrificed in Kashmir and Hyderabad, killed by their own allies in a nuclear holocaust. What loyalty did she have left to defend? “Yes,” she said. “I have experience in that area.”

“Well, that’s good because that’s what we want from you. A friendly interrogation of a potential enemy. Gather as much intel as you can. If you get into a situation you feel is not survivable, initiate the Messenger eject sequence.”

“And die?” Revel asked. She, unlike the Americans, didn’t care for the unspoken intimacies of language conjured to absolve the speaker of blame. She preferred instead to make everyone put their cards on the table and own up to their hands.

“Yes,” Ley said. “Look, if these lizards turn out to be friendly, they’ll let you go and you’ll bring the Messenger home with you. But from the information we’ve gleaned out of the Pestilent databases, it’s far more likely they’ve come here to start trouble. If that’s the case and you can warn them off, then do it. This is not a suicide mission. Not necessarily.”

And Revel understood from this equivocation that it would most definitely be a suicide mission. She smiled and nodded slightly. “I’m in.”

“The link to the Messenger actually travels over the Brainwave so you’ll need an implant to make that work. By the time you’ve recovered from your surgery, we’ll have your ship ready.”

“My ship,” Revel said, automatically speaking the words.

2. Her ship turned out to be a heavily modified Pestilent Tactical Lander. Slightly shorter than a football pitch, the PTLs were essentially long tubes filled with soldier bugs on the inside and bristling with tactical weapons on the outside. Two such landers had been able to lay down enough suppressing fire to force the People’s Liberation Army from the field long enough to deposit ten thousand millipedes and cicadas on the planet surface. They had then dusted off and remained on station to provide withering air support that drove the Chinese forces back into their cities.

The Pestilent battle plan was to herd the enemy into an enclosed setting and then overwhelm them, feed on them, plant their fast growing larvae to hold the place and then move on. The NATO and Russian ICBMs that had rained down on greater Asia had not been intended to destroy the advancing Pestilent armies. Much like the Mechanical Row Hoers en route to Mars orbit, they had been designed to kill the next generation of invaders. Weakening the existing armies had just been a positive side effect of a nasty necessity.

The ship, which General Ley had thoughtfully named the GDA SS Robert after Revel’s husband, was the comic opposite of Dr. Who’s Tardis, as it was smaller on the inside. So much room had been taken over by cargo, they had been forced to add a door up front that led directly into the cockpit.

She was relieved to find she wouldn’t have to captain the ship. Its navigational computers had been programmed to take her to Mars and put her into a stationary orbit where she would wait for the arrival of the Sleestak battle group.
The trip would take twenty-six hours using the Pestilent technology Ley referred to as a Fast Folding Engine. Not nearly as fast as traveling by warp which the general had assured her was far too dangerous to use within a solar system, but fast enough to make current human technology seem like oxcarts compared to steam engines.

She had eight gallons of water, several boxes of meal bars, a bed and a chemical toilet. For entertainment, she could call up everything the Pestilents had in their databases on the Sleestaks. This proved fascinating, terrifying and enlightening by turns during the trip.

In the end, she had to force herself to disengage from the data feed in order to get some sleep before dropping into orbit around Mars. It would do no good for her to enter into an interrogation so wacked out from lack of sleep that she couldn’t comport herself properly.

But that data feed was addictively fascinating not only for the information about the Sleestaks but also about their relationship to the Pestilents who took her husband and her children from her.

The sudden braking into Mars orbit tossed her off of her cot, ripping her from a dream in which she and Robert and the kids were at Lake Geneva telling scary stories by candlelight while it stormed outside.

As Robert had been a civilian, a corporate lawyer, he had no business being in the military and certainly no reason to be on the front lines in Uzbekistan. But everyone, including their children, had signed up when it looked like the Pestilent horde was going to spill over Asia’s edges into the rest of the world. She had been able to forestall Robert’s enlistment for a little while but not for long. His children were over there risking their lives for the human race. He wasn’t about to let them do that alone. She had tried to use her contacts in MI6 to have them assigned to the rear but Robert got wind of what she was up to and they had a nasty fight about it.

The irony of it all was that she, the professional soldier, was considered an intelligence asset and could not get assigned to the front lines while the amateur soldiers in her family were embedded with partisan forces in the thick of the fighting. She had lost them all while safely ensconced in a bunker in Brighton.

The panel that projected the course of the Sleestak battle group let out a loud whistle that snapped her from her dozing. The big black marble was now evident in her viewscreen and growing larger as it headed her way.

3. Once the battle group had settled into a matching orbit, she could finally get a feel for how large the thing was. Basically, it was smaller than the Moon but larger than anything in whose presence she had ever been. The sphere was made from a perfectly reflective surface that showed the blackness and stars around it.

The control panel beeped and projected the holographic image of an incoming signal. “Sprechen Sie den Namen Ihrer Sprache. Proiznesite imya Vashem yazyke. Prononcez le nom de votre langue.” This went on until she heard the phrase, “Speak the name of your language.”

“English,” she said hurriedly. “I speak English.”

There was a pause and then the voice said, “Your ship will be towed into the battle sphere and parked within a safe distance from the other ships. If you engage your engines, your ship will be destroyed without warning. Acknowledge.”

“Acknowledged,” she said.

“Speak now whether you are able to operate outside of your ship.”

With a baleful glance toward the space suit hanging on the wall behind her acceleration couch, she said, “I am able.”

4. The Sleestak ship’s configuration was oddly similar to the Pestilents’. One battleship for strategic support and many tactical craft meant for air cover and the landing of ground troops. She counted only sixteen landers as the tractor beam pulled her into the middle of the fleet. If the Sleestaks used the same tactics as the Pestilents, they would use two landers for each major city. This made no sense to her. The Pestilents had brought a dozen battleships like the one General Ley was currently headquartering on and hundreds of landers, but the Sleestaks had brought only a single battleship and a few landers.

The tractor beam towed her ship to an empty spot a good hundred kilometers from the battleship and nowhere near any of the landing craft. A shuttle dropped out of the battleship’s underbelly and scuttled down to a position very near her ship. This action was accompanied by further instructions from the control voice: “Bleed your environment. Open the door. Await the tunnel. Climb through the tunnel to the shuttle’s cargo bay. Do not remove your suit until told to do so.”

5. She had been on several tours of Pestilent ships before the GDA engineers had set about mutilating them for human habitation. She had got a strong sense of otherness from them, the way their spaces were too small and the surfaces of their quarters were blank because they were blind to the visible spectrum. But her trip through the Sleestak ship had been disconcerting precisely because of its familiarity. The corridors were slightly larger because the Sleestaks were taller than humans, yes, but the architecture had been designed for bipedal humanoids who interacted with the world primarily through the visible and audible spectrums.

So when she found herself sitting sans space suit at a long table in a conference room she was possessed by the terrible certainty that she was about to be tortured not with thumbscrews but with a PowerPoint presentation. Devoted as she was to her species and her home planet, this was one thing she didn’t think she could bear.

After a short wait, a seven foot tall Sleestak in modest uniform entered the room and made a fist with his right hand while he dropped a clear cylinder into a device that reminded her of those speakerphone devices found in every conference room on Earth. Then he made grunting and croaking noises that this device immediately translated into English. “Apologies, I just needed to add a tune-up to the translator before we get started.” Then the reptilian slit that passed for a mouth cracked open to expose rows of razor sharp teeth. “How are you doing?”
At that moment, she knew she was home. She recognized this grinning monstrosity as her opposite number, an interrogator from the other side’s MI6.

She relaxed, leaned back in her chair, and said, “I’m thirsty.”

He touched his hand to his jaw and then said, “I’ve ordered some cool water brought in, distilled of course.”

“Thank you.”

“Certainly,” he said and then moved to take charge of the interview again. “My name cannot be spoken in your language any more than yours can be spoken in mine. I’ve instructed the translator to replace proper names from a list of meaningful substitutions going both ways. You can call me Joshua and the machine will convert it to my actual name. Just as when you speak the word Sleestak, I will hear my name for our species. Understand?”

“Yes, it’s marvelous,” Revel said. “How do you get the correct inflection?”

“Many decades of study,” Joshua said. “As I’m sure you’re aware, your planet radiates information about itself. Radio, television, microwave transmissions, it all spreads out from your world to anyone willing to listen.”

Her normal rule during interrogations was to give nothing away, to never trade intel for intel, but she was not the interrogator in this case, she was the one being interrogated, so she decided on a dangerous gambit that might make Joshua a little less certain of his position. Always a good way to hook someone known for being arrogant. “Yes, but those transmissions began a little over a hundred years ago. Not enough time for even the earliest broadcasts to reach your home world.”

“We have a collector set up nearby that takes in all your transmissions and tunnels them back using EMT…” He stopped and took a moment to calculate the implications of what she had said and then made that terrifying show of his teeth again. “Of course, you’ve captured a Pestilent battleship and have gained access to its files, including the files on us. Very well done.”

She nodded but didn’t smile. Instead, she made a face that was full of hope and rich with expectation. If this race had learned its human behavior from reruns of Are You Being Served? then they would not understand subtlety of expression to any fine degree.

Joshua continued, “I’m on an uneven keel as we don’t yet have the facts concerning your encounter with the Pestilents. Would you mind catching me up?”

On an uneven keel? she wondered. That wasn’t a turn of phrase she recognized. But then again, it might have been something from America or Australia. Or it could have been a nautical expression for all she knew. Their understanding of English might not be able to differentiate between even the major dialects.

She became aware of a burning sensation in the knuckle of the index finger on her right hand. She pressed her thumb to the joint and the feeling ceased. She would now have four minutes before the joint began to ache again.

She said, “Three years ago, the Pestilents dropped into orbit around Mars and then proceeded at flank speed toward our planet. They never made any attempt to communicate. Instead, they attacked our largest land mass and took most of it before we were able to defeat them. Once the mopping up was done, we took control of their surviving ships and began cannibalizing their technology for our own use.“

“Where did they land?”

“Asia.”

“Interesting, but I must disagree on one point. The Pestilents definitely communicated with you. They landed troops and, unless their behavior has changed recently, they slaughtered everyone in their vicinity, man, woman and child. I would call that a very clear communication of their intentions.”

“My mistake,” Revel said. “They never attempted to communicate with us before they attacked.”

“That is their way,” Joshua said. “But what I’m really curious about is how you managed to beat them. The Pestilents are basically opportunists. When they come across a weak target, they don’t even bother to consider the implications of their actions. They just attack. And seeing how primitive your race is, technologically speaking, they even broke from their normal protocol and decided to take the whole planet in one bite.”

“What would they have normally done?”

“They would have taken Australia and then immediately sued for peace. Then they would have built up their forces and taken the island nations around Australia. And they would have sued for peace again.”

“They would have taken our world by parts,” she said.

“Normally, yes.” Joshua stood and made a fist with his right hand again, a gesture that appeared to mean he needed a moment. Then he opened the hand and a hologram of Earth appeared in the air over the table. As a burned out scar that covered most of Asia, including China, India and Siberia, rotated into view, he said, “This our latest data. I’m going to hazard a guess that you applied your nuclear stocks to the affected area. That would have been unexpected on the part of the Pestilents. Not only would their hive mind have been unable to conceive of a race willing to kill major parts of itself, it wouldn’t even be able to understand the concept of having such weapons pointed at yourselves.”

She cleared her throat while formulating a response. “It has occurred to us that we might not be very much like the other races out there in the universe.” She wasn’t sure why the Sleestaks were bothering to talk to her but she wanted to take the opportunity to plant the seeds of doubt in their minds before they acted on whatever plans they had for Earth.

“You bombed your own cities,” Joshua said as if it had just occurred to him. “You killed the queens and a very large part of the hive mind. They just sort of turned off, didn’t they? You captured their ships because the remaining Pestilents suddenly became inactive.”

“We killed all the remaining invaders,” Revel said. “On the surface and in orbit. Every last one of them. And then we took their stuff.”

“Impressive,” he said and made that toothy grin again, the one that sent waves of chilled quicksilver down her spine. “It’s good to see that you pulled your own iron from the fire seeing as how we were three years too late to help.”

“Help?”

“Our mission was originally timed so that we would arrive in the middle of the attack to sway the outcome against the Pestilents.”

That burning sensation in her knuckle again. She paused to think about her situation, decided she needed more information, and pressed her thumb to her knuckle to ease the pain. Then she took a moment to collect her thoughts and focus her attention on what the GDA needed to know about these alien interlopers. She decided it was too early in the game to challenge him directly. Instead, she needed to dig into his back story a little more. “You’re late?”

“Indeed,” Joshua said. “The Pestilents must have known we would try something like this. They attacked a colony of ours that was located along our course. We were diverted to help repel the attack, an action that turned into a contracted battle. In the end, we were able to fend them off but we lost three years in the process.”

“Which made you late for your heroic entrance,” Revel said, sensing now was a moment to impugn his cocksmanship, a classic interrogatory gambit where the male of the species was involved. “How tragic for you.”

“More for you, I would say,” he said. The translator imbued his response with a slight edge of defensiveness but that could just have been a software error. Still, she liked to think her efforts were paying off. “Had we been on time, most of your planet would not have been depopulated in a radioactive holocaust.”

She changed the subject to put him off his balance again. “You fought the Pestilents for three years?”

“Yes, in a pitched battle.”

“Your two races must have been fighting one another for a very long time.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Long term enemies get to know one another’s tactics,” she said. “The technological differences tend to even out over time. Battles tend to end in stalemate. Wars tend to end in agreements rather than victories.”

“Yes,” he said. “Our solar systems happen to be located very close together. We reached space at approximately the same time and almost immediately began fighting one another.”

That burning in her knuckle again. She thumbed it off. “Why?”

“Why?”

“Why all the fighting? It’s a big universe. It would be easy to just divide it up and go your own ways.”

“Well… it’s a competition, isn’t it?”

“A competition?” she said, honestly surprised by his answer. “What is a competition?”

“Evolution. You don’t think the race for dominance stops once your species becomes sentient, do you? Just because you’ve dominated your planet doesn’t mean you’re done evolving. By our calculations, there are thousands upon thousands of intelligent races strewn throughout the universe.”

“So?” she said, now forgetting her own rules about remaining clean of emotional contagion during the interview. “That’s thousands upon thousands of chances to meet new creatures who might have something to teach you… if you don’t murder them first, that is.”

For a moment, Joshua looked perfectly human to her. The way he slouched in his chair, pursed his colorless lips and let his eyes go half lidded, he could have been any one of a number of male superiors she had had to deal with during her career.

Every one of them had taken on this same posture when someone challenged their long held opinions. And seeing him like that brought her back to the interrogation. “Have you ever even tried to have a dialogue with the Pestilents?”

“You did,” Joshua snapped and this time she thought the translator had managed to capture the true essence of the piggishness he actually felt. “How well did that play out for you?”

This could have been a ploy to make her angry and lose focus, but she doubted it. There was little chance Joshua knew that her entire family had perished in the fight against the Pestilents. She decided to say nothing.

“How well did your Native Americans fair when they met the Columbian invaders?”

This was a standard argument among the more conservative exo-diplomats. The idea was simple enough. Owing to what happened to the Native American tribes once the Europeans arrived, it was supposed to be a given that any meeting between two societies would be disastrous for the less technologically advanced one. This discounted many major examples of different populations simply blending together, such as the Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon versions of her own species and the modern equivalents that had been ongoing in the world until the Pestilents entered the picture and laid waste to everything within their reach.

She took the chance to draw back and play small. “My apologies. I know you must have lost many ships and many men fighting to protect your colony from being overpowered by the mighty Pestilents.” She buried the word “mighty” in a clearing of her throat to make sure he only heard it subliminally, if at all. Either way, it would be fine. Even without the word “mighty” in it, the sentence was an under-the-table kick in the balls to anyone known for their arrogance.

“We lost no ships,” he said, bellowing the grunts and coughs that comprised his language, “and only ten men. And we were involved in several landings that cleared out substantial nests.”

That was all she needed to know, but was it enough for the analysts back at GDA’s headquarters in orbit around Earth? Seeing as how it was very unlikely she would live to explain it to them, she decided she should make sure the information was clearly laid out before she released the Messenger.

“So you arrived here with the full complement of ships you set out with… before being waylaid to defend your colony?” She said this with as much doubtfulness as she could add to her tone without sounding like a regional theater amateur.

“Of course!” Joshua bellowed. “Every ship you saw arrayed around our battleship was originally assigned to this group.”

“That’s fascinating.”

“Of course, it is!” He paused for a second, obviously confused, and added, “Wait. What’s fascinating?”

“You set out to save our planet from a global invasion by the Pestilents, but you didn’t bring a dozen battleships and cruisers. You showed up with a single battleship and a bunch of landers.”

Joshua’s expression was unreadable, but she decided to interpret it as something along the lines of a teenager caught in an obvious lie. He said, “This is our normal order of battle for intervening in a…”

“No,” she said sadly. The burning feeling came to her knuckle again but this time she let it go. She would now have sixty seconds before it returned. “You’re late, all right, but not three years. Your plan was to show up when the Pestilents had been weakened by the battle for our planet and then steal a part of it from them. Or, if we somehow managed to survive the conflict, take it from us. The idea of taking the planet by mouthfuls was not the Pestilent way. Let’s face it, they eat everything or perish in the effort, but your species is more of the cowardly nibbler variety. Attack and beg for peace. Build up forces. Attack and beg for peace. Repeat, wipe dick on curtains and promise to call.”

He regarded her for a moment and then relaxed into what she assumed was his actual, unfettered expression. It was something like a greasy haired kid out front of the Walmart who ostentatiously played with a switchblade whenever anyone passed by. Provocative and yet needy. “Yes, you have it correct. We are coming for your world. Whether we take it from the Pestilents or from you doesn’t really matter.”

“How very honest and straightforward of you.”

“I can afford to be honest,” he said. “Your data feed is being swallowed by our shield. My communications back to the grid on my home planet are running out of here live and unencumbered.”

The burning in her knuckle returned. For a moment, she thought about switching it off again but this last bit from Joshua had given her license to finish her mission and join her family. “That’s good to hear because I have a message for your leadership back home.”

“Oh? Well, please do proceed,” he said, now obviously playing with her. He wasn’t human but his body language was similar enough that he was easy to read now that he had dropped the diplomatic act.

“Don’t bother sending another attack group,” she said as the burning in her knuckle dissipated. “We have the technology now – from the Pestilent ships and whatever we can salvage from this battle group of yours.”

“This battle group…” Joshua said, stifling a laugh.

But outside, the control systems on her captured Pestilent “freighter” jumped to the instructions in their programming designated for the failure of the dead man’s switch implanted in her knuckle.

Step one: Detonate the layer of high explosives that would disperse the skin of the craft and the layers of lead and titanium meant to disguise the true contents of the cargo bay. The lead liquefied into millions of molten droplets, but the titanium had been pre-cut into pyramids six inches on a side. These went out in all directions to create a chaff storm that would, hopefully, cause temporary blindness in the Sleestak battleship’s scanners.

“And we’ll have it reverse engineered and deployed before you can send replacements.” She stood up, fire in her eyes, and pointed at him. These were not the creatures that had taken the lives of her family but they were part of the problem. Them and their hegemonic imperative.

Alarms began to honk and whine throughout the ship. Joshua clasped a hand to his ear hole and then glared at her. “What did you do?”

Step Two: With the ship’s exterior and frame gone, all that remained was its fast folding engine and more than two dozen spheres that measured twenty feet across. At the core of each sphere was a 60 megaton hydrogen bomb that was surrounded by thousands of X Ray Laser lens tubes. In the moments after the initial blast, rocket motors pushed the bombs in all directions, moving them until their proximity sensors would trigger them.

“Tell your superiors not to bother sending another battle group to us. It would be better for them to spend their time building up their defenses, because we’re coming for you.”

Just then the floor shipped beneath their feet and the artificial gravity set them free to float above the elegant conference table. Joshua was incensed. Spittle flew from his mouth as he spat his words at her. “Do you really think your primitive species is a match for us?”

Step Three: In the nanoseconds before the explosion destroyed the lens tubes, thousands of X Ray lasers would shoot out in every direction, riddling everything in their path with fist-wide holes. The rays that managed to pass through their targets or to miss them altogether would then be reflected back in on the ships by the inside of the shield wall.

She smiled at him. “Read our history. Then decide if you want creatures like us, creatures who have done to ourselves what we have done for thousands of years, to come for a visit to your home world.”

Step four: Once everything had been turned to Swiss cheese by the lasers, the globes of expanding radioactive fire would melt anything within a kilometer of the bomb, scramble all electronic circuits in the nearby ships, and turn the floating titanium pyramids into super hot jets of liquid metal that would also be reflected back in on the fleet by the shield.

The Sleestak battleship cracked in two places along its frame and tore apart into three pieces at the same time its power failed. Likewise, the landing ships smoldered and smoked and broke into pieces, spewing the bodies of dead Sleestak soldiers to mix in with the debris and chaff.

Sensing that the shield was now down, the fast folding engine and the autonomous systems grafted to it, turned for home and hurried back to the nascent GDA fleet in Earth orbit, broadcasting the intel it had collected from Revel’s conversation the whole way.

When the battleship’s systems failed, the oxygen fled from the conference room so violently that Revel could feel the life being sucked out of her.

She closed her eyes and saw herself as a girl fresh from school, her first week in London. Robert had been little more than a boy himself and his line about having seen her somewhere before had been hilariously transparent but she let him get away with it.

Then she moved forward in her timeline to a night when she was sitting at the table with the children and they were waiting dinner on Robert and he was outside, smoking and talking on his mobile to some client. She pointed at her wrist and wagged her finger. He winked at her and shrugged. What could he do? It was work. But then he had blown her a kiss and the kids had erupted in torment.

And then it all faded to white and she went to go be with them again, leaving behind her a Sleestak battle group of ships broken and venting fire and smoke and bodies.

End.

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