Hena Day One
02:00 Heathrow Airport, London, United Kingdom
“Flight 747 for Sydney has been delayed. New estimated time of departure is 0400 hours.”
The clipped British voice came over the intercom, echoing around the cramped departure room.
Nicholas Hancock sighed into his hand as he clamped it onto his chin and drummed his fingers against his stubble-covered jaw.
More wasted time, ha? This ill-fated business trip had already gone on too long. The Brits weren’t interested in what his brother’s company, Nano-Wire Armaments, had to offer. And it was time to come to terms with that fact.
“Further delays may be expected,” the voice over the intercom advised to a chorus of groans around the lounge.
Nick kept his frustration to himself as he settled further into the unyielding plastic of his chair, crossed his arms, and tried not to count just how many hours this was adding to this worthless trip. If the Brits weren’t interested, he doubted the Australians would care, either.
Nick would pack it all in, if it weren’t for one thing – he owed his brother. Without him, Nick would have jumped off a bridge two years ago.
After a disastrous stint in Afghanistan in private security, Nick had returned to the States a broken man. The Army had chewed him up and spat him out, and private security had been worse.
For a man who’d once known exactly what he had to fight for, he’d returned a man who’d had his fight taken, broken, and twisted.
Even now, two years later, Nick could remember the moment his brother had dragged him off that bridge.
The look in Jake’s eyes. Nick would never forget it. And even now, as his frustration mounted at the continued delays, he could close his eyes and see it.
“You’ve got to live. Because you save people, Nick. That’s what you’ve always done, and it’s what you’re meant for.”
“What I’m meant for, ha?” Nick whispered under his breath as he let his hand drop over his mouth. He breathed into it, feeling the air pressure pool against his palm then press through his fingers.
Nick took another breath, then finally let his hand drop.
He let his eyes scan the departure lounge around him. It was packed with pissed-off, tired passengers. Most of them were on their phones or buried in their respective devices. A few weren’t. A few, like Nick, were just waiting.
And, to a T, those not on devices were looking at the two massive TVs on either side of the lounge.
Nick frowned as he looked up at them.
He’d caught snippets of conversation through the airport and on the shuttle ride over here.
There’d been some kind of meteorite impact in the South China Sea.
At the time of the impact, there’d been a tsunami warning for southern China and Vietnam. A big one. But there’d been no tsunami. Not even a blip in wave height.
What was weirder was none of the space agencies had picked up the meteor in the first place. It had come from nowhere, struck the middle of nowhere, and disappeared without a trace, apparently.
Nick stared at the TV closest to him for a few minutes, but the banner down the bottom was just rehashing what was already known.
If Nick were in a different mood, maybe he’d care. As it was, he tilted his head back, checked the departure board, and sighed.
Time to get something to eat.
He stood, stretched his large form, and headed out of the lounge.
“It’s got to be the meteor,” he caught a couple saying in front of him.
“Meteorite,” he corrected under his breath, not interrupting. Though Nick had always been a soldier, once upon a time – a long, long damn time ago – he’d wanted to be an astronaut. Space… had called to him since forever. Fitting, considering his biological father had apparently had something to do with the space industry, though the exact details weren’t known.
Not the point. As soon as a meteor impacts the Earth, it’s called a meteorite. But that’s even assuming the object that supposedly struck the South China Sea survived its impact. Presumably it was burnt up in the atmosphere, and that’s why there was no tsunami.
The Earth got lucky today. Which was more than could be said for Nick. He glanced to the side as he saw two airport staff jogging past, their faces pale.
“They say they haven’t heard anything new – just what’s been in official communications,” one of them said.
“Why on earth is the government keeping us in the dark? If we have to cancel these flights, we need to know now, or we’re going to have a riot on our hands.”
Nick stopped, pivoted, and watched the two staff members jog out of sight.
… What the hell was going on?
He hesitated, wondering whether to head back to the departure lounge in case there was any news, but then he figured it would just come over the intercom, anyway.
Nick kept picking up snippets of conversation as he made his way to the food court.
TVs were on around the court, and people were glued to them as they ate their burgers and overpriced sandwiches.
Nick paused in front of one and watched as the animated news anchors discussed whether this could be the result of some secret Chinese weapon launch.
He doubted it. Likely it was some artifact on someone’s radar, and there’d never been a meteor in the first place. That, or it had burnt up in the atmosphere like he’d said before.
This would just blow over, and the news would move on to the next sensational piece.
Nick scratched at his jaw and yawned. Then he stood in line at the first café he could find and bought a sandwich with the few bob still in his pocket.
When he was done, he walked through the court, resisted the urge to stop and watch the TVs again, and headed back to the lounge.
On his way, he saw more staff rushing around. Their expressions were heavy with worry and stress.
Nick could ignore a lot, but his body was primed to pick up expressions just like those. It was in the way their eyebrows were flattened, in the stiff skin around their eyes, in the height of their shoulders. All of it suggested something was going on.
Most other passengers were in their own worlds, reading the news on their phones or chatting excitedly among themselves. If people did look up, it was only ever a brief glance before they buried themselves back in their devices.
He reached the split in the corridor that would lead back to the departure lounge to the left. He paused.
Jake had always told Nick that he had a talent for sensing danger. As kids, they used to head out to the woods behind their house and spend long afternoons in the fir and larch forests of western Montana. A few times, they’d crossed paths with bears and mountain lions, but every time – according to Jake, at least – Nick had sensed danger and saved their necks.
Nick knew he didn’t have some magical, god-given gift to sense danger before other people did. He had good hearing. He also had a body that was primed to adrenaline. Which wasn’t a good thing. It might save your life when you correctly interpret the crack of a twig as an enemy pressing in from behind, but it’ll ruin your life after you come back from war. Your adrenaline will tell you the whir overhead is a chopper. It’ll tell you the scratching sound at your back door is a burglar lifting the window with a crowbar. It will haunt your every damn moment, promising that there is nowhere safe in this world anymore.
Right now, Nick could try to convince himself that his adrenaline was acting up.
And for a few seconds, he tried to do just that as he tightened his grip on his sandwich and shifted a single foot toward the left.
Then he heard something.
It wasn’t someone breathing. It wasn’t some pipe leaking air.
It was way too mechanical for that.
Nick’s body reacted, charging with adrenaline that blasted through his torso and jumped into his feet like electricity grounding itself.
Before he knew what he was doing, he shifted to the right. He walked down a ramp, his heart speeding up with every step, blood pounding into his body, blasting into his chest, promising him it was time to act. It was time to run. It was time to fight.
As a kid, Nick had gotten into trouble too many times for starting fights. He’d flare up over the smallest thing. No, wait – though other people would tell him it was over the smallest thing, it never was. Nick could forgive and ignore a lot. But there was one thing his damn body was primed to react to. Injustice. If he saw a weaker kid getting beaten up in the playground, he would act. If he saw someone bullying others, he would act. If he saw someone stealing or breaking the rules, he would act. Because if he didn’t, he’d never be able to live with himself.
“So you live with yourself. If you can’t stop yourself from protecting others, then you do that to live.” That’s what Jake had told Nick up on that bridge, the rain pounding down around them, the wind slamming into Jake’s wet jacket. “If this is the only way you can live, then you live this way.”
… You live this way.
Those words echoed in Nick’s ears as he walked around another turn in a corridor.
That’s when he saw the guy in the hoody. The first two things Nick noticed was that the hoody was too large, the hood completely obscuring the guy’s face, and that he had his hands in his pockets, the fabric stretched, meaning there was something much larger in those pockets than hands.
Nick was instantly bombarded with images of his private security gigs in Kabul. Watching the dust-covered streets for trouble, checking cars, checking people, and knowing if you lost your attention or nerve for a second, it could be your last.
He’d lost count of the number of times he’d picked up a hidden weapon or IED others hadn’t.
Energy would always pick up through his back, race to his neck, and set his hair standing on end. It would always pluck at his senses, always tug his head forward and focus him on what needed to be seen.
And right now, nothing would be able to tear his gaze away from the man in the hoody.
The guy had his back to Nick now. His gait was slow but determined, apparently easy, and yet obviously measured. It was the unmistakable walk of someone trying to look innocuous.
The guy was up to something.
Nick jerked his gaze down the corridor, searching out security or a staff member, but in the time it took him to scan the crowd further down the corridor, the man moved. Quickly. With the snapped efficiency of someone who’d been trained their entire life to use their body as a damn weapon.
He closed the distance to a door – a security door – and jammed something from his pocket onto the keypad next to it.
“What the hell are you doing?” Nick spat.
He could only see the side of whatever device the guy had in his hand. It was bulky and looked home-made.
A thrill of terror shot up Nick’s spine.
“Hey, security!” he bellowed at the top of his lungs, his voice carrying right through the corridor like the blare of a horn.
But the guy was too quick, and his home-made device worked. With a beep, the door unlocked and swung open. The guy ducked through.
Nick had a moment, a moment where he had to decide whether to throw himself after this guy or wait for security. But, despite his bellowed words, he couldn’t hear them or see them.
So Nick went with the words of his brother, instead. “If you can only live by saving others, then that’s how you live.”
Nick threw himself forward.
Back in the Army, he’d grown a deserved reputation for having a turbo mode. All soldiers will find their reaction time shortening in the height of deadly battle. The body pumps everything it has into surviving.
But there were some soldiers, like Nick, who could give even more, who found not just their reaction time shortening, but their strength and speed increasing almost exponentially.
Which is precisely what happened now as Nick somehow closed the several meters between him and that door and managed to grab it before it could close.
He wrenched it open to see some kind of machinery room.
“Security!” he bellowed again.
Or at least he tried to.
The guy in the hoody spun out from the side of the door, grabbed Nick’s collar, and yanked him forward.
The guy was a good half-a-foot shorter than Nick and didn’t have Nick’s brick-wall build.
That didn’t matter. Call it momentum or plain training, but the guy wrenched Nick out of the doorway with the ease of someone hefting a butter knife.
Nick’s rubber-soled shoes squeaked against the floor as he struggled to grip his assailant.
The door swung shut behind them.
The guy flipped Nick right over his shoulder. Nick tried to control his descent as he struck the concrete, immediately pushing forward into a roll.
The wind was knocked out of him by the time he pushed onto his feet and pivoted to face the guy.
The guy looked down at Nick.
Nick looked up.
… And he swore he saw something under that hood. Something that shouldn’t be there. The glow of two red lights.
“What the hell have you got planned?” Nick spat as he rose and backed off, not stupid enough to throw himself into a fight after this guy had shown his considerable skill. The best thing Nick could do right now was wait until security came.
If they were coming.
There was every chance that with the hubbub going on in the airport, they wouldn’t be called until it was too late.
“Nicholas Hancock? Son of Sergey Petrov?” the guy asked, his tone oddly breathy, as if he had asthma or something.
The hair on the back of Nick’s neck stood even further on end until every strand felt like little lightning poles. “What the hell?”
“That was the name of your registered biological father, correct?” the guy asked, his breathy tone efficient and clipped as if he’d been taught to speak by an artificial voice assistant.
Nick had no idea what his biological father’s name was, or what the term registered referred to. The only fact Nick had ever learned was that his dad had been interested in space.
“Answer,” the man spat.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about. I never met my father. What the hell is this, anyway? Why do you know my name? Are you here for me? Did you lure me in here?” Nick realized as he paled.
The guy tilted his head to the side, the movement too quick, almost as if it wasn’t made by muscles, but pulleys and levers that had just been released. “Yes. To all of your questions for which yes is a suitable answer. As for your other question? What the hell is this? This is you dying. You match the biological signature we’re looking for,” the guy said as he finally pocketed the odd, jerry-rigged device in his hand.
Nick’s life came down to a point. A sharp one. All his memories clumped together until he felt a race of nerves like no other plunging into his spine. It shifted through his body, biting into every muscle, blasting through his nervous system with all the power of lighting.
It left his whole body tingling.
He didn’t have time to question what the hell it was. The guy threw himself forward.
Somehow Nick managed to roll back over some kind of air con unit. It was just in time, and as his feet flipped over his head, he pushed the ball of his left foot into the guy’s shoulder and threw him off.
Nick landed on the ground on the other side, then pushed forward, his muscles straining like stretched springs.
His head was… filling with this dense ringing. Picking up in his ears, filtering through everything, shaking his damn skull.
He wanted to clap his hands on his temples but couldn’t dare spare the momentum.
The guy didn’t hurry to catch up. He slowly walked around the side of the air con unit.
By that time, Nick had ducked behind another machine, then another.
In a few seconds, he was out of sight.
But not out of mind. The guy started whistling.
It didn’t sound right. Dammit, it didn’t sound right. There was a sharp edge to it as if it was being played through a broken speaker.
“Shit,” Nick breathed, never letting the word echo from his lips.
He needed to get back out into the corridor to raise the alarm and get some help.
He ducked down behind the console in front of him. But as he did, his chinos caught on an unprotected screw.
That slight tear of fabric was all it took for the whistling to stop. Nick picked up the pound of footfall, then felt a rush of air as the guy jumped right over the console behind him.
The guy came at him so fast, by the time he was upon Nick, he didn’t even have time to stiffen.
The man wrapped his fingers around Nick’s throat, slammed Nick’s head against the unpolished concrete, and hissed.
It was the mechanical hiss he’d picked up in the corridors, the same damn hiss that had seen Nick head here in the first place.
The guy kept his white-knuckled grip on Nick’s collar as he yanked Nick’s head back and slammed it against the concrete.
Nick’s world started to fracture. A ringing filled his ears as the wet press of blood filtered out from the wound to his skull.
But he didn’t stop fighting; he started. He wrapped what was left of his weak grip around the guy’s wrist and tried to yank him off. But Nick’s body was starting to shut down.
And that ringing… that ringing was growing unbearable.
His life flashed before his eyes. His adoptive parents, his school, his job, his ex-girlfriend. Everything and everyone blinked away in his mind’s eye as that ringing continued to fill his ears.
The guy leaned forward, the hood of his over-large gray sweatshirt never falling from his face as his white lips pulled back hard over his neat, perfect white teeth.
Nick tried to wrench the guy’s arm off one more time, but it was useless. His assailant was too strong.
Way, way too strong. Because as he yanked Nick’s head up again and slammed it against the concrete, Nick heard the stuff cracking.
It took a lot to crack industrial concrete. A lot more than the impact of one man’s skull against it.
One more time. The guy did it one more time, jerking Nick back and slamming him against the concrete with such force, blood splattered out over Nick’s neck and down his back, over his face, and up over the guy’s hood.
… The ringing still wouldn’t stop. It filled Nick up, more and more, finding cracks in him he’d never known had existed.
The guy pressed a hand forward, cupped it over Nick’s blood-covered lips, and paused.
Nick heard something click and the faintest buzz.
But it was on the edge of his hearing. His body was shutting down, succumbing to his irreversible brain damage.
The guy let out a soft laugh, then stood and walked away. “It’s done,” he said to seemingly no one but himself.
Blood seeped out of the injury to Nick’s skull, pooling behind him and slicking over his torn shirt. He stared up at the ceiling as his life left him. Just out of the corner of his eye, he saw his assailant as the guy continued to walk away.
The last thing Nick saw before he died was the man’s hoody. The blood-covered hoody.
The splatters disappeared. The guy didn’t wipe them off – they simply melted away as if they’d never existed.
Then Nick Hancock died.
11:30 Seoul, South Korea
“Ah, really? Can’t it wait?” Kim rubbed the back of his head as he walked out into the yard.
“The car’s broken, Kim. Without it, you won’t be able to go to work.”
“Fine, fine.” Kim shrugged as he let his hand drop, grabbed the handle of the back door, and wrenched it open.
A chilly Seoul morning hit him, prickling over his freshly shaven chin. He grabbed a hand to it as he tilted his head up and stared at the clouds.
They were different. Wrong.
The current wind speed and condensation couldn’t seem to account for how large they were.
He shoved a hand into his pocket and pulled out his phone. It was nonstandard. Like everything else in his life. He’d modified it.
“Fix it properly this time,” Mi Na said from the kitchen as she leaned against the kitchen bench, crossed her arms, and shot him an angry glare.
“Yes, aunt,” Kim managed as he quickly scanned the data on his phone. He was right, the wind pressure, current temperature, and condensation didn’t account for the meteorological show those clouds were putting on.
He shoved his phone back into his pocket.
He walked around to the garage, kicking an old empty plastic pot out of the way and watching it tumble down the steep drive to the rusted metal gate beyond.
He took a moment and swept his gaze over the small slice of the outskirts of the city he could see from the top of his drive. Or at least, the top of his aunt’s drive. Kim had very few things in life, save for those he’d made himself.
He didn’t have ambitions for much more, either.
And though that was a perpetual frustration to his adoptive family, such was life.
Kim had a higher purpose.
As he watched the cold morning mist settle over his neighbors’ houses, he ground his teeth back and forth. Just beyond the enamel, he felt the reassuring clunk of metal.
He pivoted on his foot, headed over to his garage doors, slid back the bolt that kept them locked, and opened them.
He walked inside and was instantly met by the musty smell of dust and petrol.
Though the cold, smoggy air of the morning infiltrated the cramped room, it was no competition for years of oil, grease, and solvents.
Mi Na hated the smell, and so did the rest of his family. Kim really didn’t care; though he could detect scents, he rarely had emotional reactions to them.
Starting to whistle under his breath, he shifted around the old, red Hyundai Excel that took pride of place in his aunt’s garage. Popping the hood, he reached in and started messing around.
In reality, he knew exactly what was wrong with the car. It was an inefficient combustion engine that wasted precipitous amounts of energy to power four rundown rubber wheels.
There was only so much fixing you could do. The concept itself was broken.
Glancing over the engine chassis, Kim brought his face close and sniffed.
One smell was all it took.
The fuel line was clogged.
He stood up.
And that’s when he heard it.
The lightest sound of footfall on gravel.
It wasn’t Mi Na or her kids.
It wasn’t one of the neighbors coming around with grilled mackerel.
It was something that was incalculably light on its feet.
He stared right ahead.
So they were here.
And it was time.
He reached up, and with one white-knuckled hand, grabbed the hood of the car. He lowered it just as he reached down and grabbed up the can of oil beside him.
The crunch of gravel echoed out again. But it was quiet. Muffled, too. It wasn’t muffled simply by the efforts of the owner of the foot to remain quiet.
No. All sounds were muffled. From the constant noises of traffic further into the city, to the sound of his neighbors waking up. Everything sounded as if it’d had a blanket thrown over it.
Slowly, Kim locked his hand around the oil can.
He focused his senses on the movement of air around him, on the subtle changes in the scent carried along by the cold morning breeze.
There, just at his side, he smelt it. Something that shouldn’t be there. Something mechanical, something sophisticated, and something hundreds upon hundreds of years beyond the car in front of him.
Just as Kim saw a flash of light to his side, he reacted, locking a foot on the car and pivoting backward. He threw the contents of the oil can to his left, at the precise point where he smelt the machine.
His move was quick, calculated, and paid off. The contents of the oil can splashed out, covering the previously invisible creature.
As the oil splashed along its form, minute holographic panels flickered as they attempted to instantaneously adjust to the presence of the viscous substance covering them.
But it was too late. Even though they reacted quickly, for a fraction of a second, Kim saw the outline of a body in armor.
Kim kept abreast of technological advancements. Nobody had this technology.
The man shoved forward, the holographic sensors covering his armor finally reacting to the oil until he was once again invisible.
But Kim didn’t need to see to track him. Kim’s sophisticated sense of smell was enough.
Dogs may have 300 olfactory receptors in their noses – Kim had 100 times as many, and unlike a human hound, he could readily categorize each scent.
His armored assailant took another step forward, and Kim’s sophisticated hearing managed to discern the sound of almost imperceptible joints – technology that had been developed to ensure that it made barely any sound.
But even the slightest creak was enough for Kim’s ears.
He didn’t say a word. He didn’t scream. And God knows he didn’t call for help.
There was nothing in this city that could help him now – except his own ingenuity.
His assailant didn’t say a word.
Neither did Kim as he backed off, locked a hand on his phone, and clutched his fingers around it until they started to press in against the metal.
Every engineer knows that the quality of your finished product depends on your tools. You cannot make a sophisticated computer out of a chunk of metal and silica unless you possess other sophisticated devices.
But everybody equally knows that a truly talented engineer can make miracles where others can only make mistakes.
Just as his armored assailant came up to him again, Kim yanked his hand out of his pocket, drawing his phone out with him. His fingers were crushing the case, warping the metal, bending it in until the sound of metal fatigue crunched through the garage.
Kim hadn’t lost his mind.
But his assailant was about to.
Kim didn’t know that much about the exact quality of the armor he was facing up against, but he could predict its security defenses based simply on the oil test. The fact the holographic sensors had taken about 0.9 of a second to react to the oil meant this wasn’t a particularly sophisticated setup. Whoever had sent it here had obviously assumed Kim wouldn’t put up much of a fight.
A dangerous assumption.
As Kim’s fingers twisted the metal of his phone, electrical discharges started to zap across it. It wasn’t the lithium-ion battery of his apparently simple cell phone reacting to the torsion of its metal casing. It was the disruptor chip Kim had spent the last five years perfecting. One that was designed to do one thing.
Just as the man in armor pivoted around the car and threw himself at Kim – obviously wanting to kill Kim with his own hands and not a particle weapon – Kim threw his phone right at the guy.
As it whistled through the air, more energy discharged over it. Though it tickled along Kim’s fingers and sank into his flesh, it did nothing more.
His internal endoskeleton could absorb far more without complaint.
Plus, he’d programmed that chip not to disrupt his own processes.
The man in the armor would not be as lucky.
The idiot didn’t dodge out of the way, and instead brought up a hand and caught the phone, just as Kim had calculated he would do.
The sound of invisible armored fingers crunching around the phone and holding it in place echoed through the garage.
The armor’s holographic sensors were now functioning perfectly, and to the naked eye, it simply looked as if a contorted metal phone was hovering in the air unassisted.
“What is this?” Kim had the time to ask.
“An invasion,” the man said, his voice twisted and crackling, coming out of his armor’s external audio feed.
But not in English, and not in Korean.
He was speaking in one of the eight ancient languages of the universe – Cartaxian.
Just before adrenaline – or his body’s synthetic equivalent – could rush through Kim’s body, his armored assailant crushed the phone completely.
And the disruptor chip did the rest.
There was a jolt of energy as sparks erupted from the contorted case. They powered into the alien’s arm, instantly disabling the holographic sensors along his gauntlet and finally making it fully visible.
The Cartaxian jolted to the side, grabbing his wrist with his free hand as the rest of his armor became visible.
“What is this?” he demanded in Cartaxian, the guttural, spitting blasts of his words bouncing through the room.
“Insurance in case I was ever disturbed,” Kim explained as he brought his hands up, dusted them off, and took a step toward the alien. “You miscalculated how much of a threat I would be.”
“The Cartaxians never miscalculate.”
Kim had a moment. A single moment of recognition, then the bastard in armor exploded and took the garage and half the house with him.
10:00 Da Nang, Vietnam
She shoved her hands further into her pockets as she strode along Non Nuoc beach. Though it was usually cram packed with tourists, considering the devastating tsunami warning, there was hardly a Westerner to be seen.
“Hurry up,” Harry Edwards called from behind her.
When Linh didn’t immediately pull her hands from her pockets and hurry up to the cameraman, Harry jogged up to her instead, his heavy boots churning through the sand as he lugged his camera with him, the big rig jostling over his shoulder.
Linh still wouldn’t turn to him. With her hands pushed all the way into the pockets of her jacket, she caught herself staring out to sea.
“You heard the network – they want footage, and they want it now. They want peaceful shots of the beach to show there was no tsunami,” Harry repeated their brief, even though Linh had read the exact same message.
She still didn’t reply. Slowly, she found her head tilting up to watch the clouds.
She knew the clouds of Da Nang. She’d been here for years. From the forests and Buddhist temples inland, to the sun-kissed beaches, she understood the weather patents that predominated on the eastern coast of Vietnam.
She understood them, in fact, in a way no one else could.
They flowed through her. From the temperature, to the wind speed, to the condensation, to the pressure. She experienced it in a way no other person would understand.
Humans are good at dealing with variables, and their machines are even better at the task. But there is a state beyond variables that one must access to truly predict. A state of flow in which data becomes more than mere points and numbers. It becomes a movable, living reality.
And as Linh tilted her head back and watched the massive cloud mass, her eyes darted over the bulbous gray brain-like upper stem that penetrated high into the sky. It looked like cumulonimbus flammagenitus – a meteorological event that would only form above a source of heat like a wildfire. Except it was forming above the ocean.
Something wasn’t right.
When Linh had been woken abruptly this morning to the shocking warning of a tsunami, she’d felt that same feeling. The one that had rushed down her back, the one that had sliced high into her neck, chilling her flesh, pulsing over her cheeks and sinking into her jaw.
The one that had reached right down deep and told her that peace was over.
And now that feeling rose, higher and higher, almost like the cumulonimbus as it reached further into the heavens.
“What are you doing?” Harry asked, exasperation clear.
Slowly, she tugged a hand out of her pocket and pointed with a stiff, slightly shaking finger at the cloud form.
Harry glanced at it, then shrugged. “You get weird clouds over oceans all the time.”
“Not like that,” Linh commented, her voice quiet with knowing.
Harry dismissed her comment with a shrug. Then he patted the expensive case of his camera. “We gotta get this footage now. Or the network is gonna be on our backs.”
“Hmm,” was all Linh managed as she tore her gaze off the clouds.
“Let’s get the shot here. The tourists are starting to come back,” Harry mentioned as he jammed a thumb over his shoulder. “We gotta get this footage before they return. The network wants you to highlight how false warnings like these can have deleterious effects on terrorism.”
Linh still didn’t comment.
She pulled her other hand out of her pocket, walked to where Harry was pointing, and got ready for the shot.
She tried to neaten her short black bob that was cut to her jawline, but at the last moment, a quick wind coming in off the coast cut a few strands over her face, sending them slashing against her nose and eyes, but more than anything, grabbing her attention.
Again she angled her face toward the ocean.
One of the greatest features of flow was the ability to discern when one was in danger.
If you truly attuned to all of the information coming to you from every angle, you would always be in a constant state of readiness.
From the subtle sounds, scents and movements around you, you could detect what was about to happen.
“You’re running in five,” Harry said as he brought up his free hand and started to count down silently.
Linh’s eyes widened as she stared out to sea. She detected certain scents being pushed along by the wind.
“Hey, Linh, look at the camera already. I’m going to start the countdown again. Five—” Harry began.
Humans feel fear when they encounter danger. It’s how they’re built. When the correct stimulus arises, their limbic system reacts, increasing adrenaline, heart rate, and breathing – getting ready to protect the body in any way it can.
But there’s a state beyond fear. One Linh hadn’t been forced to enter for years. She’d always fondly named it sharpness.
When your body and all of its senses narrow down into a single point and all other distractions fall away until you’re left with the focus of a laser.
And that happened to Linh now as she turned fully toward the clouds. There was now no doubting it. The cumulonimbus flammagenitus reached high into the sky, growing with every second.
“Hey, Linh,” Harry snapped.
People further down and up the beach started to point to the shoreline.
Linh glanced down as she walked toward it.
Fish were washing up. Boiled fish, their once scaly, wet flesh cooked to beyond recognition.
“What the hell?” Harry spat. “We need to pick this up,” he added as he turned his camera on and started to take wide sweeping shots of the beach line.
Linh moved toward the waves. One step after another. She tilted her head back, her black bob flaring around her face as the wind picked up off the ocean. It brought with it two things. Heat and a very specific smell.
Most humans wouldn’t be able to detect what it was. They would assume it was some kind of acrid smoke.
Those involved in the space industry, however, would be able to correctly identify it.
There’s a certain scent that accompanies something falling through the atmosphere of a planet. It’s the scent of burnt up ozone.
It could be mistaken for the sweet, tangy scent that accompanies the onset of rain. But not in this quantity.
Chills started to race down Linh’s back as she took yet another step toward the shoreline.
“Linh, start speaking or I will,” Harry said as he thumbed the button on the microphone of his camera.
Linh would not start speaking. She walked, like a woman possessed, over to the shoreline. Then she stood there as the lapping waves traced over her shoes.
She knelt down, pressed a finger forward, and pushed it into a wave as it scattered the sand over her black shoes.
Instantly, the tip of her finger scolded. She didn’t yank it out of the waves. She left it there, focusing on the sensations that pushed through the innumerable specialized receptors embedded into her apparently human skin.
“Shit, what’s that smell? Is that your skin? What the hell is going on? Is the ocean boiling?” With every new question, Harry became more and more terrified.
Linh could start to hear screams picking up over the beach as locals and tourists alike realized what was happening to the ocean, as they tilted their heads back and saw the clouds reaching higher and further into the sky as if they were attempting to penetrate the upper atmosphere and punch out into orbit.
Finally she stood. She paid no heed to her fingertip.
She closed her eyes.
They were coming.
She knew it from the direction of the wind, from the heat still tingling against her fingertip, from the scent of the cooked fish.
They were finally here.
Linh snapped her eyes open.
“Run,” she said with finality as she shifted forward, looped an arm around Harry’s, and started pulling him back.
“What the hell are you talking about? We need to pick this footage up.”
“We need to get to safety, if it still exists,” she added.
When Harry resisted her pull, she put more effort into it, until her diminutive form managed to drag his six-foot broad build backward with little more resistance.
Something passed through Linh. Passed through the beach. It passed through Da Nang. It pushed into Vietnam, it echoed out across the world.
A jolt of recognition, if you will.
A final realization of what was about to come.
Linh ground to a standstill, her eyes opening wide as her hair fanned in front of her face.
“What—” Harry began. He stopped.
Every single person on that beach stopped. And all of them looked up.
The top of the cloud formation burst apart as the bottom of the great, undulating mass suddenly shot into the ocean.
From far out to sea, light built at the base of the clouds. Red and glowing like the center of a furnace.
People finally started to scream.
It was too late.
Linh shoved into Harry, yanked the camera off him, and placed it down on the beach, careful to ensure the lens was directed right at the ocean. Then she lugged the cameraman backward, her shoes with their partially melted soles digging holes into the sand as she hauled his heavy body back toward the edge of the beach.
Were they coming for her?
Or were they coming for humanity?
Did it matter?
“That camera is expensive,” Harry tried to point out, but his voice was husky, his throat compressed, his force becoming weaker with every second.
Linh didn’t stop pulling him until they reached the edge of the beach and ran up into the car park.
Around her she saw people standing and staring.
“Get out of here while you still can,” she snapped in Vietnamese then repeated in English and Chinese to warn the tourists as well as the locals.
No one paid heed.
Though some obviously had an admirable sense of self-preservation that saw them shrink back, others brought up their phones as if the glowing red ocean was nothing more than an Instagram-perfect curiosity.
In her peripheral vision as she yanked open the passenger door of her Jeep and shoved Harry inside, Linh saw the beach.
The glow now permeated the entire cloud bank, making it look as if it were now a pyrocumulonimbus, a superstorm created by violent heat and condensation.
Sure enough, lightning started discharging through the massive cloud stack.
Harry shrunk back in his chair, his head banging dramatically against the leather headrest, a few slicks of sweat from his neck transferring over the mottled black fabric. “What the hell is that?”
“An invasion,” Linh said.
“What?” Harry turned to her dramatically, his shoulder-length sandy hair scattering over his unshaven chin as his round green eyes opened wide.
Linh didn’t pause as she gunned the engine, thrust the gear stick into reverse, and slammed her foot on the accelerator. The jeep’s old tires squealed as she forced them to churn over the gravel of the car park as fast as they could. She slammed on the brakes, shoved the car into drive, and threw her foot onto the accelerator with all her weight.
The car shuddered as it shot forward.
Harry gripped the side of his seat, his pale skin becoming all the paler, looking like a corpse that’d had the blood squeezed from every last capillary.
As Linh drove, she watched the cars and motorbikes paused on the side of the road, the passengers leaning out of their doors, their phones lifted to the heavens.
She honked at them, her window down as she tried to wave them to safety.
Some ran, some didn’t.
Harry no longer said a word.
Linh drove. She drove where her body told her to. She shoved the fear away, throwing her mind into her sense of flow instead, allowing every movement, every muscle contraction, every damn breath to push her forward.
And as she was pushed forward, the world behind her fell apart.
For the day she had dreaded was finally upon her.
The invasion had begun.
14:30 Southwest National Kim, Tasmania, Australia
“She’s not the greatest tour guide,” Shane muttered under his breath, fixing the straps of his pack as he tightened them and pulled them closer to his already tired shoulders.
“She’s silent, but she always seems to know what to do when things get rough,” Rachel replied gruffly.
“Not the point of a tour guide though, is it? These people paid top dollar for this.”
“They haven’t paid top dollar for us to natter in their ears about how damn special this UNESCO World Heritage site is,” Rachel said, repeating that phrase as if she’d rote learned it. “They paid for peace and quiet. And nothing says peace and quiet like the Southwest National Kim.”
“She hasn’t said a thing to a single one of the guests, and be damned if I’m gonna let her ruin our Yelp rating.”
Rachel rolled her eyes as she navigated around a tricky section of rocks. “You think top-rated executives care about Yelp ratings? They care about this.” She thrust her hand to the side, indicating the sweeping Western Arthur Ranges. From the high ridge they stood upon, dotted with the wind-beaten grasses and gray, starkly jagged rocks, they stared down into the untouched wilderness of the Southwest. “You don’t get views like this in downtown Sydney and Shanghai.”
It was Shane’s turn to roll his eyes. “And there are a million other tour operators who could be running gigs just like ours. We need to offer full customer service,” Shane said through clenched teeth as he ticked his gaze toward the object of his ire once more.
Alice Edwards. A 20 or 30 something diminutive woman who didn’t say a word and never revealed anything about herself. At 5’3, she had no commanding presence, and yet somehow managed to lug around a 30-kilo pack with ease.
Shane didn’t doubt that she was a good walker. She was sure on her feet, and she never complained about extra weight being put in her bag when one of the guests realized that running a high-powered business did not mean they had the wherewithal to trek these great ranges.
But Alice lacked one thing. A pretty key thing in someone who was meant to guide others. A personality.
She was a blank slate. Her expression was almost always neutral, her attention almost always turned within.
Rachel sighed, tipping her head back, bringing up a hand, and scratching her short nails through her brown hair. “Would you just give it a rest, already? She can probably hear us, you know?” Rachel said as she dropped her voice down low.
Shane snorted. “She’s upwind. And no one has that good hearing.”
“I don’t know. Alice has always given me the impression she can do anything.”
Shane snorted derisively. “Except hold a conversation for longer than 10 seconds. I don’t care what you say. When we get back, I’m making a complaint.”
“Then you’re a dick,” Rachel huffed.
Shane opened his mouth to snap a snide reply, but then heard one of the guests – a highly paid, highly powered, highly arrogant executive from Shanghai – muttering in excitement.
The guy had his satellite phone out and was presumably spending an insane amount of money using it to check his messages.
The entire point of this trip was so that the apparently stressed out executives could tune into nature and tune out for a while.
“Be kind,” Rachel said as she caught Shane’s expression. “These people have businesses to run. Plus, with the amount of money they’re paying for this experience, who cares if they want to surf the net while walking through some of the most unique scenery in the world?”
Shane didn’t bother to reply, and instead pushed further ahead. “What’s going on, fellas?” he asked.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Alice.
Though she’d been walking quickly before, she suddenly stopped. And it was the exact way that she stopped that caught Shane’s attention.
Her back became rigid, her overly large pack pushing out and up as her head twisted to the side. The movement was slow, precise and controlled like a snake tracking its prey through the grass.
At first her gaze darted over the side of the ridge, then up, locking onto a point in the sky.
The movement sent a pulse of nerves pushing through his stomach, even though it was just that – a simple movement. But there was something—
The executives started to talk quickly amongst themselves, and though Shane spoke a little Chinese – the entire reason he’d got this job – their muttered Mandarin was too quick to discern completely.
He picked up several words. Tsunami and impact.
He frowned, walking up to the group. “What’s going on?”
Out of the corner of his eye, he watched Alice’s head jerk all the way up until the long line of her neck revealed the ridged muscles of her trachea.
“Something’s going on in the South China Sea,” one of the Chinese Australian guests, Chan, pointed out.
Shane tried to shake off the blast of adrenaline that pulsed through his body, sending biting tingles down into his toes and fingers. “What’s going on? Some kind of tsunami? Where has it hit? I have friends in—” he began. He didn’t get to finish his sentence.
More people were checking their sat phones, and a real fear pushed through the group.
Shane had an imagination. One he sometimes couldn’t switch off. Sometimes when he lay awake in his tent at night, he’d stare up at the canvas flapping in the wind and wonder what it would be like to ride out the end of the world far away from civilization in a place like this.
Countries could go to war, there could be large-scale cyber-attacks, and whole cities could fall to untreatable viruses, but you wouldn’t know. Not out here. Without a phone, you’d have no idea civilization was crumbling at all.
“There’s live footage, live footage,” he picked up broken Mandarin from one of the walkers as they shoved their phone in front of one of their friends.
This far out, far away from the comfort of the modern world, everything humanity holds dear – from the Internet, to distributed power grids, to technology itself – could all crumble, and you wouldn’t know. Your friends and family could die, and you’d have no clue. Whole governments could crumble, and it wouldn’t matter.
Rachel wasn’t saying a word. Neither was Alice. But while Rachel had moved toward the group to pick up the footage on their sat phones, Alice hadn’t moved at all.
She was still standing exactly where she was, her head tilted up, her eyes never blinking as she stared at a single point in the sparse clouds shooting through the otherwise blue sky.
Rachel suddenly gasped. “What the hell is that cloud? What’s going on?”
“It appeared over the east coast of Vietnam,” somebody replied, their words quick, harsh, and full of pressure.
Shane might’ve imagined what it was like to ride out the end of the world in the Southwest, but he hadn’t ever bothered to fill in one detail.
The primal, gut-wrenching, spine-climbing fear of someone who has no idea what’s going on and who can’t even begin to gauge the level of threat out there.
Sweat slicked his brow, trickling down the sides of his temples and splashing over the waterproof fabric of his windbreaker.
Rachel shunted forward, grabbed a hand over his arm, and pulled him in, showing him one of the sat phones.
And Shane stared at the end of the world.
But as the group stared down, Alice continued to look up.
The first hint something was wrong was a sound. So sharp and piercing. It started off low, but then arced up.
It finally got the group’s attention.
People pulled their gazes off the phones and stared at the clouds.
“What the hell?” Shane had a chance to say, then he saw it. This black dot, punching through the clouds, getting closer every second.
No one said a word. Except for Alice. Her lips slowly parted as a single word echoed out. “Invasion.”
Shane had a second – a second where his blood ran cold and his heart skipped several beats. Then an almighty boom split the air, and he was forced down to his knees as he clamped his hands over his ears.
The rest of the group fell like daisies, too – everyone except for Alice.
She kept her head directed up as a black shape suddenly appeared above them.
It was more than a shape.
Impossible. It was impossible.
It… was some kind of ship. But it wasn’t a jet, and God knows, despite the fact it was jet black, that it wasn’t a spy plane.
Shane’s brother worked maintenance at Tullamarine Airport in Melbourne, so Shane knew a thing or two about airplanes. About their inherent design. You needed a certain aerodynamic shape and a specific engine design in order to get a chunk of metal off the ground for any prolonged time.
But as far as he could tell, the sleek black shape that now hovered right above the ridge didn’t even have any engines.
People screamed. And yet, their screams didn’t echo. They didn’t punch out over the ridge, sail down the side of the mountain range, and bounce through the valley. It sounded like they’d had a blanket thrown over them.
“What?” Shane managed, his lips wobbling.
A hatch opened in the side of the black vessel, a cloud of white atmosphere escaping around the door as it didn’t open upward, but instead disappeared into the side of the ship, sleek shards of metal breaking apart and somehow re-knitting themselves against the hull of the hovering craft.
He heard two metal clunks – but the sound was as soft as two droplets of water splashing against wood.
A black shape appeared in the shadow of the hatch, sunshine instantly glinting off its smooth metal body.
It was a man. Dressed in full boot-to-head armor.
The sun glimmered along his gauntlets as he gripped the side of the ship, tilted his head down, then pushed off. He sailed the 20 meters down to the ridge, then landed. Though his heavy, armored form should have clanged against the dolerite rock, it didn’t. Those two solid black boots striking the stone was the equivalent of two feathers falling from the sky.
The man punched his gauntleted hand into the ground and rose.
The hovering ship closed its hatch, lifted several meters and shifted in direction, turning with all the ease of a bird on the wing, then shot off back into the clouds, disappearing until it was little more than a dot on the horizon in under three seconds.
As it flew away, Shane flinched, expecting a sonic boom as he wrapped his hands around his ears, his shoulders punching high, the sound of his wind breaker scrunching indiscernible.
But there was nothing.
Nobody screamed anymore, and nobody ran. The entire group stared in awed shock at the black armored man.
And the man stared at Alice.
She hadn’t moved.
Her expression was unmoved, too.
The man took a step toward her.
Alice stood her ground. “Why are you here?” she asked. There was no passion in her tone. Nothing at all. She had the same blank expression as she always did.
She was facing off against some kind of armored warrior, and she looked as if she was talking about the weather.
“Taking,” the man said.
“The word you’re looking for is invasion,” Alice said.
Shane didn’t bother to ask what the hell was going on anymore. He hunkered down with everyone else, a protective hand on Rachel’s shoulder.
“Invasion, then,” the armored man said as he tilted his head to the side, the sun glimmering off his helmet.
“But why are you here? Have you come for me?”
What the hell was going on here? Why wasn’t Alice reacting? What the hell was this creature?
With no answers, all Shane had were questions, and they felt as if they were tearing him up from the inside out.
But more than anything – more than anything – he couldn’t take his eyes off her.
She looked… like a pillar. She wasn’t tall, she wasn’t broad, she didn’t have a body that suggested strength at all. But as she stood there and faced the armored man who was a good two feet taller than her, she didn’t shrink back.
And the effect was like staring at an anchor weighing down a ship in a storm. The rest of the world might be crumbling, falling apart under the wings of uncertainty, but Alice stood still like a homing beacon calling everyone back to safety.
“Detected nonhuman sophisticated bipedal readings,” the armored man said as he extended a finger toward Alice. His armor didn’t creak – there was no sound at all. In fact, there was the absence of sound, almost as if something was actively blocking it.
But that fact could not detract from what he’d just said. Shane had read enough science fiction to understand what non-human bipedal reading meant.
He didn’t get the chance to finish that thought.
Alice laughed. It was low and unquestionably emotional. He simply couldn’t figure out what that emotion was.
If you’d asked Shane before, he would’ve said 150 percent that Alice didn’t have emotions. She was one of those closed, blocked-off people who reminded you of a robot. Sure, some psychoanalyst might say she was just repressed. Shane would’ve doubted it. Shane would’ve told you there was nothing going on behind Alice’s vacant brown eyes.
Now he detected more.
“So you’re here to kill me?” Alice asked, her tone back to neutral. “I see you’re going around the world as we speak killing every single nonhuman sophisticated bio reading you can find.”
“Correct. First wave,” the man said.
Shane didn’t think he could feel any more adrenaline. He was wrong. His back practically shuddered with it as his muscles begged him to do something. Fight or flee – just do more than kneel here.
“I need to warn you of something,” Alice said as the man took a step toward her.
The man brought his fingers forward, spreading them. It was then that Shane noticed there were seven.
He… Jesus Christ, he was a goddamn alien.
This… it couldn’t be happening.
But the situation had no intention of slowing down to allow Shane the time to process the literally world-shattering news.
As all seven of those appendages stretched out, the palm of the alien’s armor changed, little fragments of metal parting, again with no sound. They shifted up around his wrist, sinking back into the metal as if they weren’t a solid but rather a liquid.
The hole they left in the alien’s arm seemed to reach down through his wrist and into his elbow.
A hollowed-out chamber.
And in that hollowed-out chamber a glow started to pick up. Blue and vibrant. It looked like a hot gas flame.
Alice didn’t shift. “There’s something I need to warn you of,” she repeated.
“No words. Nothing you can do. First wave is almost complete.”
“If you attack me, I will defend myself. Under the Hysian Accords, I will defend myself,” she repeated.
Shane didn’t follow a word. He didn’t have to. He was a student of psychology, and Alice’s expression and body language told him one thing. She wasn’t afraid. In any way. As the man took a step toward her, that glowing chamber sunk through his arm burning brighter like white phosphorus fire, Alice looked impassive.
“You cannot defend yourself,” the alien said.
Alice looked up. Slowly. And again Shane saw it. The calculated, precise movements of a snake. The coordinated, masterfully precise choreography of a predator. Not prey. “Then you do not know who I am.”
“Irrelevant. Die,” the alien said.
The energy building up in the hole in his palm finally discharged, shooting toward Alice instantaneously.
And it struck her. Right in the chest. Right in the center of her clavicle.
Physics told him it would rip through her body and send her spiraling down off the side of the ridge below. It would tear her chest apart with all the ease of a samurai sword slicing through paper.
The heat of the blast would cauterize her skin, boiling her blood until it evaporated into gas.
But none of that happened.
The blast slammed into her chest and discharged against a faint blue glow.
The people in the tour group who still had their voices – who hadn’t become hoarse with terror – screamed.
Shane stared. His eyes opened wider, and wider again. A faint blue glow now picked up over Alice.
She reached up, grabbed the straps of her pack, and loosened them with one strong yank. The shoulder straps widened until the pack overbalanced and fell off her diminutive form. It struck the rock behind her as she took a step forward.
That blue glow still covered her, from the soles of her thick track boots, to the tips of her mousy blonde hair. The light seemed to be shifting, undulating as if it were a wave – a wave of energy that was somehow sitting above her flesh like a veneer of ocean swell.
The armored alien took a double take. Shane couldn’t see the alien’s face, but that didn’t matter. It was in the sudden twitch of his shoulders and the fact his boots crushed the fine rocks behind him as he took a jerked step back. “You—”
“I am a Peacekeeper. And under the Hysian Accords you should not have attacked me.”
The alien brought his hand up in a defensive move.
It was too late.
Alice moved. She moved faster than a human. Faster than a cheetah. Faster than any animal on earth. In a flash, she closed the distance between her and the alien, and that blue wave over her body pulsed into her hand, disappearing from her flesh as it formed a sword.
She thrust it right through the center of the alien’s chest.
His armor could do nothing. It split apart, whatever sound dampening effect it had been casting breaking as the alien inside broke at the same time.
There was a hiss of gas, of atmosphere escaping, and caught amongst it, the hiss of a dying creature’s breath.
Alice opened her hand, and her sword disappeared, pulling back through the hole in the alien’s armor, covering her hand, then growing over her body until it sat over her flesh once more.
The alien fell to his knees and clattered to the side, every sound of his armor now as loud as a bell.
Alice stood there and stared down, the wind catching the loose strands of her hair and sending them tumbling around her face.
She looked stark. Strong.
The alien twitched, its head lolling to the side as its helmet tilted and twisted to her.
“You shouldn’t have invaded,” she said.
“Nothing… you can do. Hysian Accords,” the alien spluttered.
“Even under the Accords, if you attack me, I will attack back.”
“But you can’t do anything more. Hysian Accords,” the alien hissed once more, its voice becoming harsher, as if it was being pushed through a tube. “How much… this planet… worth to you?”
Alice stood above the alien, never moving as the wind scattered faster around her hair.
The light covering her body flickered, and for just a second, it concentrated in her palm again, but then she relaxed her hand.
Shane could see the side of her face, and again he picked it up. That complicated emotion he’d caught a glimpse of before. The one that told him that her previously blank personality hid uncharted depths.
The alien spluttered through a laugh. “There are only 7 billion people here. Only one world. The Accords cover over 100,000. You… Peacekeepers can count.”
Alice didn’t reply.
The alien spluttered once more before its head rolled to the side and it was finally still.
The wind picked up, now practically roaring over the ridge. It whisked the small white clouds faster through the sky until Shane caught a glimpse of that far off black dot.
His back stiffened, his mind suddenly telling him it was growing larger, that the ship was coming back around.
“We need to get off this ridge,” Shane finally found his voice. “Before that thing comes back.”
He didn’t know why he was speaking. He didn’t know if Alice would pay attention to him or kill him and the rest of the group.
He did know one thing, though. The world had just changed. In an instant. And be damned if he was going to die up here on this lonely, desolate peak.
Alice slowly tilted her head and looked at him. “They won’t come back.”
“How do you know that?” he spluttered.
“The Cartaxian sent a low-frequency subspace message before it died.”
Alice extended a finger toward the dead alien’s body.
Shane gulped. “Then—”
“They will not return. Even to retrieve their armor. Your group is safe here.”
“Won’t… won’t they care about him? Or it?” Shane stumbled over his words as he pointed at the Cartaxian.
Alice stared back impassively. “Cartaxians do not value single lives.”
“What does that mean?” Maybe there were other questions Shane should be asking right now. Hell, definitely there were other questions that Shane should be asking right now. He’d just seen his first alien, and the underperforming, apparently diminutive tour guide he’d been ready to sack when the trip was over had turned out to be something called a Peacekeeper. But his brain couldn’t process anymore than what was right in front of him.
His personality felt fractured, as if someone had painted a picture of all the things that made up Shane then thrown that picture off the precipitous cliff to his side.
“The Cartaxians are an inveterate warring race made up of three key subspecies from the Cartax Colonies. They have a strict spiritual hierarchy.”
“Spiritual hierarchy?” he stuttered.
The rest of the tour group was starting to pick themselves up, none of them daring to venture too close to Alice or the dead Cartaxian. But fortunately, none of them were running away, either.
“The Cartaxians maintain that it is only by taking that one can attain. It is at the heart of their spirituality. Those who have taken more ascend through the ladder of their hierarchy.”
“I,” Shane gulped, “don’t understand.”
“She means the more they kill, the higher up they get in their society, right?” Chan asked, his voice remarkably controlled compared to Shane’s.
Alice glanced at him and nodded. “To the Cartaxians, each of their lives is a hole. A hole they must fill with other’s lives. The nature of being conscious is to consume other conscious creations.”
Shane felt like throwing up. “And… this… this race is… invading—”
“Planet Earth? Correct. The Fold must’ve fallen.”
“Fold?” Chan asked quickly.
“A subspace fold that once kept Earth hidden from the rest of the universe. The rest of the real universe,” she corrected, emphasizing the word real with a puff of air.
This was… all too much to take in.
Shane had always believed in aliens. But aliens far away – beyond the Milky Way, maybe, out into the rest of the practically unfathomable universe. Not here. And not like this.
His back was now so cold, it felt as if the damn thing had been carved from ice.
“What do we do?” Chan asked.
Alice looked at him. “Stay here. You have food and water. Find shelter.”
“And then what?” It felt like there was a hand around Shane’s throat. And that hand was his every growing realization. His family back in Melbourne, his girlfriend, his brothers. Everyone. Every friend, every acquaintance. What the hell was happening to them now? Just how many of those Cartaxians were there? Just what cities were they hitting?
“Nothing. Stay here. There is nothing else you can do.”
“You’re not going to stay with us?” Chan asked perceptively.
Alice ticked her gaze to the side. “No.” It took her a long time to respond, and when she did, Shane saw it again – that flicker of something underneath the surface. He caught it for longer this time, long enough that he could appreciate what it was.
Deep, soul-crushing frustration.
A frustration his simple human mind would never be able to fully conceive of.
“You can’t leave us alone,” Shane tried.
“I can, and I will. Whether I am with you or not is irrelevant. They will not return. They will be busy elsewhere.”
Busy. That word… it was wrong. In every damn way. So fucking wrong. Those things were out there invading the goddamn Earth, and—
“Don’t waste your emotional energy,” Alice stated simply and brutally as she looked Shane right in the eyes.
Shane couldn’t hold back the tide of fear, anger, and desperation that climbed his throat, tightening around every trachea fold like a noose. “The world’s ending—”
“Incorrect. The Earth’s been invaded. Whether it will end or not will be entirely up to the efforts of your race.”
“What are you? What are you going to do? I heard what he called you. A Peacekeeper. I saw what you can do,” Shane said as he pointed a shaking finger at the corpse of the Cartaxian.
“I’m bound by the Accords.”
“Then who is going to help us?” Shane spat.
For just a second, hope rebounded in his heart, pushing back the dark cloud of desperate depression that had pushed over him like a storm. “You mean there are others like you? Other aliens on Earth?”
“And they’ll help?”
“But you won’t?”
Alice paused. The wind still whipped around her, catching her mousy brown hair and sending it scattering over her face, the quick, whip-like movements of each strand framing her eyes.
And the look in her eyes was unmistakable.
She looked like a woman on the edge. It reminded him exactly of the expression she’d held when she’d faced the Cartaxian and it had asked her if she would break the Accords.
But then she closed her eyes. “No, I will not help. But I will observe. Stay here, and you will be safe,” she said as she took a step backward toward the edge of the cliff.
For a second, Shane’s heart fluttered with fear, then he remembered what she was. If being shot by an enormous, powerful blast of blistering hot white-blue energy couldn’t damage her, then he really doubted a tumble off a cliff could.
“And if we don’t want to stay here, if we want to help – what do we do?” Chan asked, his words quick.
“You work in the weapons industry,” Alice said after a pause.
“They will not return for that,” she said as she extended a finger toward the Cartaxian’s armor.
Chan slowly nodded. “I understand.”
Did he? Because Shane didn’t. “You’ve got to help us,” he tried once more.
“You have to help yourselves.” With that, Alice took several steps back, then one final step that took her right off the side of the ridge.
Alice didn’t fall.
Shane saw that flicker of blue energy covering her boots, extending out beneath her like a step.
She shifted back again, her whole body now simply floating in the air.
“Give us an edge,” Chan said. “I’ve never seen armor like this. I don’t even know how to remove it. Is it safe? Does that alien carry… dangerous bacteria or other microbes?”
She paused. Paused as she floated there in the air, a southwesterly blast of wind rushing up from underneath her as it charged up the side of the cliff. It untucked her jacket from around her hips and sent it slamming into her arms. It made her hair stand on end, the strands curling around like fingers grasping toward the sky.
Shane couldn’t tell what Alice was. He had no idea what these Accords were, but he could tell they bound Alice in some way.
“Is it safe?” Chan demanded once more.
“It can’t kill you.”
“What about the alien’s body?”
“It would have discharged by now.”
“The armor would have broken it down.”
“How do I open it?” Chan demanded.
“With your intelligence. The only weapon you will have against the Cartaxians. Now learn how to wield it.” With that, Alice tumbled backward.
By the time Shane rushed up to the side of the cliff, she was somehow out of sight. He didn’t see her tumbling form catching the light as it shot down the side of the peak.
It was as if she’d disappeared.
But then, just as his heart stilled with fear, he saw a flash of blue blasting up into the clouds above.
He watched it until it was out of sight.
Then Shane fell to his knees.
Planet Earth was being invaded, and this was only day one.
04:00, South London, United Kingdom
“This is insane. It’s insane,” John spluttered in his South London accent as the balding 40-year-old brought a hand up, clapped it on the top of his skull, and dug his white fingers in.
Amal shifted forward, brought an arm up, and clapped his large hand on John’s shoulder, his black skin stark against John’s blue Metropolitan Police Force uniform. Amal ticked his head down, folding his tall form in half as he looked into his friend’s eyes. “We have a job to do. Let’s do it.”
“You’ve seen the news,” John could barely push his words out. “You saw that footage from Vietnam – you heard the reports filtering around the world. The Earth is being invaded by something.”
An ordinary person wouldn’t be able to pick up John’s muttered, jumbled words.
Amal wasn’t ordinary. He looked deeply into his friend’s eyes, trying to ignite the bravery he knew was within.
At first, Amal hadn’t been able to draw parallels between his own people and those of his adoptive world, Earth. But over the years, he’d seen it.
To the Centauris, only one characteristic mattered, and it was one they spent their entire lives perfecting.
Selflessness. The willingness to sacrifice one’s life for the many. It was the glue that bound their society together, that saw a race ascend from its basic instincts until it found something greater than the need to survive.
Amal didn’t stop staring into his friend’s eyes until finally John looked back.
Amal took a breath.
Unconsciously, John took a breath, his body tuning in to Amal’s.
“Focus, friend. It doesn’t matter what the news says. We only have one duty – the same as always. Let us serve and protect.”
John was still slicked with sweat, his heartbeat pounding through his muscles, pulsing into Amal’s hand as he kept it weighed there.
But finally John nodded.
Amal pulled back. Then he tilted his head up and looked at the sky.
He could feel it in the clouds, despite the dark. More than anything, he could feel it reflected through the people of the city.
The Centauris had a peculiar ability. They could connect with any living system. Humans did not have an equivalent concept, though a psychic connection came close.
As Amal tipped his head back and stared at the dark, cloud-streaked sky, he could feel millions of Londoners doing the same throughout the city. All their collective fear and uncertainty, it brushed against him like a wave.
But it didn’t buffet him back. It pushed him forward as he waved John down the street.
Above them, the clouds continued to boil. They were moving in fast, scattering along the horizon as if they weren’t being driven by wind – but were rather being collected together by invisible hands.
There was now no doubting that the invasion had begun.
All around the world, in every corner of the globe, they were coming.
But not for human strongholds – capital cities, governmental centers, army bases – points of strategic purpose.
No. The invaders would first come for those just like Amal. Aliens who had been living amongst the humans for centuries.
Some would’ve crash landed, others would have come here secretly, seeking salvation behind the fold, seeking a peace that should not have broken.
But it had broken. Something had happened to the Fold, and the earth was being invaded.
John remained a few steps behind Amal’s towering form. Though John’s heart rate had dropped to a manageable level, Amal could still feel his fear. He could still sense the fear of every single man and woman in this city. Growing greater with every moment. Turning from uncertainty into desperation. Tearing down the collective doubt in people’s minds until they appreciated what was happening to their planet.
“Get inside, ma’am. Now,” Amal said as he encountered a woman with her child standing outside their townhouse, the both of them staring up at the billowing, glowing clouds.
When the woman didn’t react to his words and instead kept staring in dumbfounded shock as the clouds built and built, Amal took a breath. He stretched his mind toward her. He allowed his emotional senses to synchronize with hers.
He didn’t have to speak again.
With brief eye contact, the woman rushed inside, carrying her son as she closed the door and locked it.
On the face of it, there was little Amal could do. He was one simple alien. But he was not alone.
There were others like him. And even if the invaders successfully managed to wipe them out, Amal would still have hope.
For without it, there would just be despair.
Behind him, he twisted his head as he heard the blare of sirens.
“What team is that?” John had time to question just as a loud boom echoed out over the city.
It wasn’t an explosion.
It was the sound of two Army jets flying in low overhead.
Behind him, he saw a squad car hurtling past on the practically empty street. And behind it, he heard the crunch of heavy tires. Tilting his head to the side, he saw two troop carriers rolling in.
“Jesus Christ,” John said as he brought up a hand, gripped his collar with white-knuckled fingers, and stared in horror.
Amal reached forward once more. He locked his hand on his friend’s shoulder, and he stared at him. “All we must do is serve and protect.”
Behind him, down the gap between two houses, Amal heard a clatter. Metal on metal. The grind of joints. The imperceptible hiss of breath trapped inside armor.
He half closed his eyes and breathed.
“You are a good friend,” he told John. Then Amal took his hand off John’s shoulder. Though beat cops didn’t usually carry guns, considering the situation, they’d been handed out. Amal grabbed the gun in his holster, pivoted on his foot, and started firing long before the alien in invisible armor launched itself toward him.
John jolted, wincing but quickly going for his gun.
Out in the street, the two Army transports responded to the sound of gunfire, their brakes squealing as they rammed up onto the pavement.
Amal had no idea what level of armor he was dealing with. But he didn’t need to understand the armor to know that there was a sentient being in front of him. Even through it, he could feel the mind within. The mind of a killer.
Despite the fact Amal didn’t stop firing, he whispered one word under his breath. One word that chilled his soul. “Cartaxian.”
All Amal’s bullets could do was slow the Cartaxian’s armor down. He would not be able to blast through its holographic invisibility field – not with his simple gun alone.
“What—” John began.
Amal reached into his friend’s mind. Then he reached beyond, into the minds of the troops lining up on the street outside.
He grasped hold of their emotional selves, and he connected.
The Centauris have always known the secret to survival. Working as one.
As his mind spread first into John, then the soldiers behind, they all toted their weapons and started firing.
The Cartaxian almost reached Amal, but under the combined, concentrated fire of the soldiers’ high-powered assault rifles, the Cartaxian’s armor started to crack.
With imperceptible patters, almost like marbles striking stone, the holographic filters broke, one after another, until, in a cascade of sparks, they were obliterated completely.
The Cartaxian appeared, its jet-black armor glimmering under the strikes of sunlight making it in through the broken cloud cover.
Though Amal had reached into the minds of the men around him, he was not controlling them completely, and as they collectively saw an alien in armor appear in front of them, their fear rose like a strike of lightning blasting through a cloud.
But they did not stop firing.
Amal wouldn’t let them.
Though the Cartaxian was withstanding the combined volleys for now, its armor was starting to break, hairline fractures appearing over the metal faster than it could heal itself.
The velocity of each combined bullet was enough to stop the Cartaxian from throwing itself forward.
But they would need more.
Amal stretched his mind further, penetrating the psyches of the soldiers behind him, then up into the house beside him.
He reached the mother’s mind.
She’d just climbed into her car with her crying son in the back.
Amal grabbed hold of her fear. And he pulled it toward him. He pulled that one string that turned fear for oneself into fear for others.
He heard a car door bang as she took her son out of the car, placed him on the pavement and told him to run.
Then she got back in the car.
Its engine roared, unheard over the constant sound of gunfire, unheard over the click of John running out of bullets and the soldiers behind switching desperately through magazine clips.
Then her car appeared around the side of the laneway. A flash of metal. The glimmer of a single street light cast over the bonnet of her SUV. The tires crunched and pounded over the concrete of the laneway.
He saw through the windscreen, right into her wide open, tear-brimmed eyes, and right past into her mind.
Amal shifted to the side, using his full speed as he wrapped an arm around John’s body and hauled him backward.
Just at the same time, he stopped the soldiers behind, their blaring gunfire ceasing with the click of his mental fingers.
The woman’s SUV struck the Cartaxian, the sound of metal on metal screeching through the quiet suburban street, the dampening effects of the Cartaxian’s armor having switched off after its holographic filters had shut down.
The Cartaxian was pinned against the front of the SUV as it plowed forward and slammed into a parked car.
The SUV jolted to the side, its passenger door crumpling into a low brick wall that ran around the front of the woman’s house.
“Get the woman,” Amal instructed John, his voice low and deep, a vehicle for his mind as he slid past John’s fear and activated his sense of protection.
John pushed to his feet. He ran toward the driver’s side of the car, managed to open it despite the deformed metal, and helped the woman out as he pushed against the deployed airbag.
Amal walked around the side of the SUV. He climbed over the broken wall, his lithe form having no trouble.
He reached the Cartaxian just as it pushed back against the car, the massive metal body of the vehicle groaning as it shifted back.
The Cartaxian reached a hand forward, but before it could activate its pulse gun, Amal shoved forward and clamped his large hand on its helmet.
The impact of the SUV had finished off what the soldiers’ bullets had started. There was a crack in the Cartaxian’s armor. And that’s all Amal needed to get in.
As his palm slammed down against the smooth surface of the metal helmet, he pushed past it into the mind of the creature within.
There was nothing the Cartaxian could do.
Amal pushed in and pulverized its mind.
As his breath blasted through his chest, shaking through his torso, he rocked forward, his muscles like tight springs that had just been snapped.
He panted. But then he stopped breathing. Entirely. Seconds ticked by. He didn’t die. He didn’t fall unconscious again.
Then he took another single breath.
He was… he was….
He tilted his head down and saw the puddle of blood beneath him.
… It was his blood, wasn’t it?
As he twitched to the side, his body remembering the violence he’d just survived, he saw that bastard in his mind’s eye.
He remembered his white lips spreading into a smile as he’d smashed Nick’s head against the concrete.
Jolting, still breathing so infrequently, he shouldn’t be alive anymore, Nick brought a hand up and pressed it against the back of his skull. He expected to feel bone shards. He expected his fingers to press up against torn flesh.
But they didn’t. His hair was coagulated with blood, dried and flaky as his nails scratched against it. But there was no wound.
“What the hell?” Nick managed as he dropped his hand and stared at it.
He should be dead.
Dead a thousand times over. But he was alive.
And he was still barely breathing.
Nick tried to be alarmed. He tried to give in to the soul-crushing sense of terror that should be ripping through him.
But it felt dampened.
Not by drugs. Not by some head injury.
But by reality.
Nick’s body felt strong – stronger than ever. His senses felt sharp, too. Though he wasn’t about to do long division in his head, he couldn’t detect any cognitive fault.
He pushed to his feet.
He didn’t fall, even though reason told him he would.
He stood strong and tall.
He brought his arms up, his body never shaking, and he stared at his fingers once more.
He ran his hand over the back of his head, this time pressing in, allowing his short nails to scrape over his skull.
Nothing but the wet press of old blood.
“What the hell?” Nick managed again. He breathed when he spoke, but as soon as he stopped speaking, he only needed to breathe about once a minute.
There was no one to explain this to Nick.
As he pressed a finger into his temple, he picked up the last discernible traces of that ringing. He could remember it now – the way it had shaken through his skull as that man had smashed his head against the concrete.
Nick tapped his temple once, then twice.
He… didn’t feel right. It was like his skin was too hard.
He didn’t bother to ask what the hell was happening anymore. He walked forward. He didn’t stagger. Even if he’d mentally felt as if he was incapable of walking, his body was stronger than ever, possessing a poise it had never possessed before.
Though Nick had always been a strong man, and an athletic one, too, he felt like a frigging Superman now.
He… needed to get to help, didn’t he?
No, wait. He needed to stop that man. His assailant. Presumably he was still out there in the airport.
It was that – Nick’s latent sense of justice and protection – that finally saw him push forward.
He headed around the air conditioning equipment and straight for the door.
Then he stopped.
He stared at the electronic keypad on the side of the door.
He stared at it because he could… see something through it. Right through the stainless-steel metal casing – this… light.
But it wasn’t coming out of the panel. It was… inside of it.
Nick brought up a hand, clamped it over his eyes, pressed his finger joints hard into them, and dropped his hand.
But the view didn’t change.
Nick took a step forward, then another, but no matter which angle he stared at the device from, he could still see that… residual light. It was almost like he was detecting the heat or electricity within the panel – or both.
It reminded Nick of using night vision goggles.
He rubbed his eyes again, but that glowing aftereffect would not shift no matter what he did.
And no matter how much he rubbed his eyes, he couldn’t see stars.
Nick stood there and tried to force himself to breathe through whatever the hell was happening to him, but his body simply did not need to breathe.
The only thing that broke him out of that reverie was a scream. He heard it clearly – as if it was right by his ear.
It came from further out into the airport.
In a blast, Nick remembered his attacker, and he pushed forward, wrenching open the door.
Except the door had been locked, but that hadn’t mattered. As soon as Nick had yanked on the handle, the lock had broken.
He stared in shocked alarm at the warped, mangled remnants of the lock and handle.
Then he jerked his head up and heard more screams out into the airport.
He heard footfall and watched as several pale-faced, completely shocked people ran past.
He pushed out of the room and straight toward them. “What’s going on?”
The woman of the couple faced him, and he could see right into her eyes, right into her soul.
Nick had been around enough death to know that look. It was the look of a family member who’d just been forced to see one of their own cut down in front of their eyes.
Terror pulsed through his heart.
“The news,” she said, voice trembling.
It took Nick a moment, then he remembered. “You mean the meteorite?”
She brought a trembling hand up, and Nick’s attention locked on her wrist as it spasmed, on every fine muscle into her fingers as they twitched back and forth. He could see the heat of her skin, chart the warmth of every capillary opening and closing.
She clamped her hand over her mouth, her fingers sinking into her lips until they whitened to the color of dead flesh. “I mean the invasion.”
Something clicked in Nick’s head. That wasn’t to say he came to some conclusion. It was to say that he actually heard a click reverberating through his skull. He felt something pulse through his body, too, this sudden rush of nervous energy that cascaded down his spine, broke through his legs, blasted into his feet, and rushed up his torso. It was like swallowing lightning.
Nick… he started to see things.
Transposed over the woman. More than her heat signature now, he could pick up the tiny micro-movements of every muscle. He could pick up the heat of her breath warming the cooler air then dispersing.
But more than that – more than that. He could… see the sound waves of her every breath and muttered words. He could pick up the sound waves of every scream out into the airport. The way they bounced off objects. The way they met in the air.
And all the while, one word echoed in his mind.
Every time it echoed, it magnified, bouncing around his mind like a snowball growing as it turned into an avalanche barreling down a mountain.
He brought a hand up and clutched at his face.
“Aliens are invading,” the woman said. “All around the world. Ships. In the sky. Above the ocean. Above cities. We’re going to die.”
The woman’s partner locked an arm around her middle and pulled her forward.
The couple ran off.
Nick stood there staring at them. He couldn’t blink. He didn’t need to. He got the impression that even if he put his face in a furnace, his eyes wouldn’t dry out.
It took him seconds, maybe a minute to take a step backward, then another.
The section of corridor he was in didn’t have any windows. So he slowly walked to one that did. He passed other passengers, huddled together or running away. All wearing the exact same expressions of total terror.
And that ringing in Nick’s head grew louder.
He saw a window in front of him.
Nick paused, incapable of pulling himself the meter forward it would take to close the distance between him and the window.
He waited an entire minute until he breathed once more. Then he did it. One step after another of his long legs until he turned to face the window.
He tilted his head up and stared at the clouds.
They were glowing. The night was dark, but the clouds were not. He’d never seen anything like it. And the way they moved? It was like they were the curtains on a stage being yanked back.
And that’s when he saw it. High above. Something in the sky, visible through a gap in the cloud cover.
Metal. Glimmering under its own light.
The belly of a massive vessel. It was no plane – it was at least 100 times larger than that.
It was a spaceship.
And it was hovering above London.
That ringing picked up in Nick’s mind, a crescendo that would not stop, one that rang through his skull, louder and louder, reaching into his furthest depths, grabbing hold of everything that made Nick up.
Until finally it pulled him.
Not away. But forward.
Nick Hancock pushed toward the glass.
He was up on the second floor of the airport. The drop to the ground below was at least 20 meters.
It didn’t stop him.
As his body struck the glass, it shattered outward, hailing around him, framing his form as it hurtled down.
He fell against the concrete of the tarmac. His knees bent as his feet planted into the ground. His body didn’t break. It simply bent as it absorbed the impact.
He planted two fingers into the tarmac, launched up, and started running.
Kim gasped, consciousness returning to him like a punch to the jaw.
Outside, he heard the shouts of his neighbors.
The garage was on fire, burning around Kim, a wooden beam pinning his chest down.
He stared at it. Then he locked his hands on it and pushed. The sound of the beam grating off him was matched by the metal of his joints singing in harmony.
Kim stood, his clothes practically burned off him.
He reached a hand under the scraps of his shirt and tapped two fingers onto the dog tags he always wore.
This wasn’t a remnant of his stint in National Service. The two tags were dischargers. Two apparently slim innocuous strips of metal that, for the past however long he’d been under, had kept him alive.
Kim shrugged his shoulders, and inside, his endoskeleton creaked, coming to life.
Over the decades that Kim had been trapped on Earth after his ship had crash landed here 20 years ago, he’d been maintaining his Baxian Issue endoskeleton with every dollar he could get his hands on.
But now he didn’t need dollars.
He walked through the burning garage, his shoes now nothing but boiled rubber stuck to his naked skin. He pushed around the popped glass of the car door, settling a hand on the molten hot hood of the car as he shifted down to one knee and faced the remaining chunks of the Cartaxian.
As he picked up the screams of his neighbors outside, and finally heard Mi Na’s voice, he smiled.
And he reached forward. The two apparently innocuous dog tags around Kim’s throat were heat disruptors. And they were more than enough to push away the relatively low heat of the fire. They protected his skin as he reached forward and rummaged through the scraps that remained of the armor.
He quickly found what he was looking for.
A power source.
He plucked it up, the small, cube-like battery looking like nothing more than a chunk of polished steel.
Kim chuckled. He brought the cube up, rolling it between his thumb and forefinger as he used his other hand to rip open his chest cavity. He didn’t suddenly take a bone saw to his sternum and tear through it. Instead, locking his thumb and middle finger against two points near his collarbone, he pushed in with precisely measured force until there was a click. Then he twisted to the side.
And Kim’s chest opened.
He pushed the cube inside.
It wasn’t what his endoskeleton usually ran on, but unlike the cheap armor this Cartaxian had been wearing, Kim’s endoskeleton was some of the best. It could run on anything as long as it was sufficiently energy dense. And the Cartaxian cube was more than energy dense enough.
As Kim placed his chest back together, he let his hands drop, tipped his head back, and closed his eyes.
He logged onto a central processor and watched his power output levels rise.
Then he looked down at the other chunks of the Cartaxian armor. He gathered them together, grabbing a metal box that hadn’t burnt up in the fire and throwing them inside.
Kim walked out of the garage, the armor rattling around in the box as he pushed through the clouds of smoke and gas produced by the burning car.
Instantly, he tipped his head back and looked at the sky.
He’d been right this morning.
The clouds were wrong.
Because they weren’t clouds.
When Kim had crash-landed on this planet, he’d always suspected a day like this would come.
It was here.
Day one of the invasion, ha?
He’d be prepared for day two.
“Why are we ditching the car?” Harry could barely breathe, let alone push his words out.
Linh pulled the keys out of the ignition, pushed open the door of her Jeep, and jumped down, her balance perfect even as her boots struck the uneven jungle ground beneath her. “Because it’s time to ditch the car.”
Linh turned her head, tipping her chin up slightly as she tuned into the natural world around her. The rustle of leaves, the tickle of the wind across her cheeks, and the ever-present dark, bulbous clouds above.
They’d driven several hours out of the city to Mỹ Sơn – historical ancient temples dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, the defender and transformer of the universe.
“We need to keep driving – we need to get further into the jungle.”
Linh brought up a finger, requesting silence.
She’d driven up the jungle track behind the ruined temples.
Though they were far away from the panic of the city out here, she’d faced it on the roads and highways. If she peeled her hearing, she could even hear the screech of jets scrambling overhead.
Harry was shaking – he’d been shaking since Da Nang. The poor man was as pale as a glass of milk. “Why are we here, Linh?”
“Because this is where I kept them.”
“Your keys are in your hand.”
“Not these keys,” Linh said as she casually tossed them over her shoulder. They fell into a bush by her side.
Harry spluttered and threw himself at them. “What the hell have you done? Are you out of your mind?”
“Trust me when I say that I am more centered within my consciousness than most people on this planet right now.”
Harry was obviously done asking what the hell Linh was on about. He finally grasped up the keys and stood there, shaking.
Linh could feel he was trying to come to a decision – whether to ditch her crazy ass or whether to expend yet more energy trying to convince her they had to get going.
Linh paused, her hand on some jungle leaves as she pushed them half to the side. She nodded toward the Jeep. “You can go if you need to, Harry. But I don’t suggest you do. There won’t be anywhere safe near Da Nang. There won’t be anywhere safe this side of Asia.”
“We don’t know what’s going on,” Harry tried.
She looked right into his eyes. “The Earth is being invaded by aliens,” she said point-blank.
She’d been working with Harry for two years now, and if there was one thing that marked his personality, it was his skepticism. He was a card-carrying member of the International Skeptical Society, for God’s sake. He loved debunking conspiracy theories.
So she could tell he desperately needed to reject every word she was saying.
But all he had to do is tilt his head up and look at the meteorologically impossible cloud formations to realize this wasn’t normal.
Finally, his skepticism won out. “We don’t know that it’s aliens. It’s just—”
“What? Some weapons test that’s gone wrong? You think that was some kind of nuclear blast?” She pointed toward the massive cloud bank that was still climbing high into the sky and would presumably continue to climb high. Because they weren't clouds.
It was a tunnel.
She could understand what had happened now. That had been no meteor that had struck the South China Sea. It would’ve been a gate ship, one designed to blast past the Fold that was meant to keep the Earth safe. And one that was right now creating a gate back through the Fold.
“Yeah, maybe it’s a nuclear—”
Linh pointed patiently to a butterfly that fluttered in front of her. She didn’t point out that the butterfly would be dead. She just kept tracking it across the sky with her finger until it darted out of sight. Then she pointed that same finger back up. “The sea boiled, Harry. The fish died. And this, this, Harry, is an invasion. Now you can leave – but you’ll be safer with me.”
She pressed her lips together. She came to a decision. “Because I’m an alien.”
Harry looked at her, as pale as ever, and forced a laugh.
There would have been a time when Linh would never have shown her true self.
That time had ended at approximately 4:45 this morning when that probe would’ve penetrated the Earth’s atmosphere.
Linh shrugged. She took a breath, half closed her eyes, and tipped her head to the side. “Two jets are about to scramble overhead. In precisely 30 seconds.”
“What the hell are you talking about, Linh? You’ve cracked. This is insane,” Harry pointed out.
Slowly Linh raised a hand and pointed upward.
Precisely 30 seconds after she’d said it, two jets scrambled low overhead, the sound of their sonic booms blasting through the jungle and rattling the dense foliage around her.
“Jesus hell,” Harry managed as he clamped his hands over his knees and staggered back. But by the time he tilted his head up to track the path of the jets, they were already gone.
He tilted his head down.
Linh had never stopped looking at him.
He appeared to pause, then he shook his head, the move wild and jerking. “Did you hear those coming? It doesn’t prove anything.”
Linh laughed. “You want proof, Harry? That cloud,” she jammed her thumb toward it, “is about to discharge red lightning to the west.
As Linh spoke, she did not make guesses. She tuned in to every fact that flowed through her senses, and she grouped them together. She threw herself into the skill her race was renowned for.
Once upon a time, long before she’d crash landed on this planet, Linh had been the battle mind of an interstellar cruiser.
There was only so much a computer could do, even a sophisticated AI.
A conscious being, however, could go a step further. And that is precisely what her race did.
They conducted battles, predicted targets, altered the whole course of wars all by seeing and attuning to the level above facts.
It was not prediction – it was understanding.
And now as Harry shook his head once more, she reached a hand out to him. “A butterfly is about to land on my palm.”
Harry managed to shake his head once more until a butterfly landed in her palm.
He stilled. His face paled even further, framing his wide-open blue eyes.
She cradled the butterfly for several seconds until she pushed her hand up and encouraged it back into the air.
It took her several seconds until she dropped her hand. “You need more proof, Harry?”
She brought a finger up. Just one finger. She rested it into the shallow indent in her left temple. She traced one finger down her jaw line and tapped on her chin.
Her race, the Covax, looked remarkably like humans structurally, save for several key differences. Covax blood was luminescent – energy and information-rich like electricity.
And as she dragged that finger down her face, she disrupted the holographic filters she’d managed to craft from the matter replicator in her vessel just after she’d crash landed.
It was only a momentary disruption, but that was all it took. She commanded the filters to switch off, two blazing lines of light appearing on her face.
Harry backed off, jerking to the side so quickly, he fell over his own feet and slammed down onto his butt.
Linh removed her hand.
She watched him as he scuttled backward. Then he stopped. He stared at her. He shook his head once, then paused halfway through, his body frozen like a still frame.
“Like I said, Harry – you can take the keys and the car and go. Or you can stick with me. You’ve got a better chance with me.”
“What the hell are you?”
“It’s not going to mean anything to you, but I’m a Covax. We are high-level processors of information. Once upon a time we were used as central processing brains of large cruisers. Until the purge began.” She couldn’t control her voice as she said that.
“I could stand here all day and relay the sorry history of my race to you, but trust me when I say there’s no time. You’re either with me or you’re not with me, Harry. Which is it?”
Harry was still clutching hold of the keys, his hands now bloodless.
He looked down at them, then he dropped them into the dirt as he pushed toward her.
“This is crazy,” he managed.
“If this is crazy, gird your loins, because it’s about to get a whole lot worse.”
She pivoted on her foot and walked through the jungle, heading for the crash site of her vessel.
She just hoped it was still there and that other aliens hadn’t found it and picked her tech dry.
If they had?
… She would cross that bridge when she came to it.
Overhead, more jets scrambled, and the clouds reached higher to the heavens.
Around the world the aliens would be attacking. She had no idea which race they were, but whoever they were, the humans wouldn’t be ready.
And right now, they would be falling.
This shouldn’t be happening.
The Fold should never have fallen.
Alice knew that. Though Alice was not and had never been her name. Her title as a Peacekeeper was Hena.
Alice was the moniker she had chosen for herself after she had come to this planet.
She hadn’t been deployed here. This was no active mission. Her people did not operate behind the Fold.
But she had been sent here nonetheless.
The Peacekeepers had a long tradition of sending their people out into the various cultures of this universe.
Her ancient, powerful race had always understood one thing. There is no greater protection than understanding.
Since time immemorial, the Peacekeepers had protected the universe. From outer disturbances, from inner wars.
And though, once upon a time, they’d operated under their own control, as the spacefaring races of the universe had grown in power and influence, their activities had been brought under the control of the Universal Governing Body.
There was one pact, more than any other, that locked the Peacekeepers in place. The Hysian Accords.
No one Peacekeeper, no matter how powerful, could break that pact. Do that, and the UGB would turn against her people.
When the spacefaring races of the universe were young, they’d celebrated the protection of the Peacekeepers. But as they’d aged, and critically found their own power, they’d became covetous, then scared.
The activities of the Peacekeepers had not changed – the attitude those races had toward power was the only thing that had altered. When somebody cannot protect themselves, they seek protection from others. When they can protect themselves, they seek to control others.
But none of this changed one simple fact – the Accords should not be broken.
Hena pushed her hand to the side, energy picking up along her fingers, distributing up her palm, over her wrist, around her arm, and over her entire body. As the pocket of energy enshrouded her, she pushed through space. At one moment she was floating there, above a ridge in the Southwest National Kim. The next, she transported two kilometers up into the air. The air pressure didn’t affect her. Even without the energy enshrouding her skin, she wouldn’t have felt it. Alice’s skin, appropriately, was only skin deep. The rest of her was essentially an energy being. And the glowing blue light that covered her form and that could be morphed into any weapon or defensive item was an extra appendage, if you will. It was a symbiotic light form each Peacekeeper was given when they came of age.
Right now Alice used it to cut a hole through space and transport up into the sky, and as she arrived, she stared down on the landmass of Tasmania beneath her.
It was unchanged. But as she shifted her head to the north, she saw the approaching storm clouds. They were not natural meteorological activity. Though some of the great towering gray and white cumulonimbus were a natural weather reaction to the excess heat in the atmosphere and rising off the ocean, the rest were camouflage created by the invasion.
As Hena floated there in the air, her light form covering her and stopping her clothes and hair from buffeting and the remaining moisture covering her form from turning into ice, two of her fingers twitched in as they tried to curl into a fist.
But she stopped herself in time.
She knew why she was on this planet, and it wasn’t as a Peacekeeper. She was here to understand humans. It was a sacred rite of her people that they must be deployed throughout their long lifetimes into emerging cultures to understand the various races of this universe.
Earth was not part of the Hysian Accords. The Accords strictly stated that as a Peacekeeper, she must be deployed by the UGB. Apart from acts of self-defense, she must never take on an offensive without permission.
But even if she were to apply to the Senate for permission, they would not grant it.
Nobody in the modern universe – including the truly ancient races like the Peacekeepers – knew who or what had created the Folds or how they’d managed it.
The Folds were simply a fact of existence. Perhaps a quirk of creation itself to ensure that burgeoning races could develop on their own without the interference of the rest of the modern universe.
But even if the exact details of the creation of the Folds and their ultimate purpose were unknown, the rules relating to them and the Hysian Accords were simple. All planets behind Folds were not considered part of the modern universe, and the Accords only applied to the modern universe.
She tipped her head up further, staring up the side of the closest cloud bank. Even from here, she could feel the subspace, quantum disruptions pulsing out of the ship at the center of the meteorological mass.
Her skin tingled with them, and her body shook with other sensations that would be impossible to describe to a human.
Even if the Hysian Accords related to the Earth, and there was a clause offering protection, Hena still wouldn’t be able to act. There was a strict moratorium on Peacekeepers attacking the Cartaxians. The Cartaxians were an ancient race, a warring, violent race that had been a stain on the universe for eons. But because they were an ancient race, and because, over the years, the Peacekeepers had fought them repeatedly, the Accords protected the Cartaxians. Very few of the original races – the very first intergalactic civilizations – still existed. And all remaining eight of them were protected, excluding her own.
Considering the violent history between her people and the Cartaxians, the Accords strictly protected the Cartaxians, lest her people hunt them to extinction.
So Hena was trapped, and her path forward was clear.
She could not stop this invasion. To do so would risk her entire race. The remaining Peacekeepers in the modern universe were few and far between. They existed on a knife’s edge. They had gone against the Senate’s wishes too many times. And if any member of the Peacekeepers did so again, this time, there might be no going back.
She partially closed her eyes, concentrating on her integrated senses as she picked up a sudden influx of energy from the closest ship.
… Without the ability to do anything, Hena would have to observe. So once more she threw her hand to the side and created a pocket of space around her body. She cut through the normal barriers dividing matter, and she transported.
If the least she could do was watch the demise of this planet, to observe these people’s last moments, then that was what she would do. She would bear witness to what was about to come.
Nick ran. Faster than he ever had in his life. Faster than his body should allow. His joints should have given up by now. His knees should’ve crumbled. The cartilage should have goddamn turned into dust. But that didn’t matter. There was nothing that could stop him. He swore with every step he took, he just got faster. His shoes were disintegrating under his feet as he slammed them into the bitumen pavement beneath him. But even as the pads of his feet pushed into the unyielding ground, it didn’t matter. Nothing seemed capable of cutting him.
Nick could no longer deny that something fundamental was happening to him. Nor, crucially, could he deny the effect that ship above was having on him.
Nick had always felt his feelings deeply. Men who try to push themselves off bridges are certainly not immune to the burden of emotion.
But now his body was… pulsing with feelings. It wasn’t just the fact he could now somehow pick up heat signatures with his naked eyes. He could sense so much more. And his perception of the world was growing more intricate with every second.
He could now judge obstacles by whether he could push them out of the way or leap over them. He could virtually see the world not as it was, but as a map of how he could interact with it. Things were instantly more tangible, and yet surreal at the same time.
Though the rational, sane part of Nick’s brain that couldn’t believe what was happening to him wanted to find help, the rest of him was caught up in only one task. Getting to that ship. Getting into the center of London so he could be there when the invasion started in full.
He played around with that word in his head. It rang right between his years, bashing around his skull like a sledgehammer to his gray matter. The Earth he had always called home was on an edge. On a cliff. And the next several hours would decide whether it was pushed off or saved.
Had Nick always believed in aliens? He’d always believed they were statistically likely, sure. But as he’d already pointed out, he’d believed in aliens far away and long into the future. He’d believed that when humanity finally gained the capacity for interstellar travel, they would come across sentient creatures, sure, but not of the same caliber as people. Unusual bacteria and slime molds and maybe even more complicated multicellular organisms – but not this. Not living, breathing aliens with the same level of brutal intelligence as people.
Nick was vaguely aware of the chaos around him. Of the traffic lining the roads. Of people screaming. Of their sheer desperation.
There were police and troops, but it was still early in the morning, and under the veil of darkness, he managed to skirt around them, ducking out of the way down laneways, jumping right over cars if he had to.
Some people saw him, some people screamed – but no one got in his way.
… Got in his way to do what, though? Though something was unquestionably happening to Nick, and he’d found some hitherto unknown power within himself, was it really going to be enough to take on an entire ship and an entire alien army?
They were good questions, but they couldn’t stop him. It didn’t seem anything could.
Nick ran until his shoes finally gave way, tearing out from underneath him, chunks of the old rubber scattering over the street as the leather that held them together tore and fell into a drain by his side.
The closer he came to central London, the more troops and police he faced.
But if he expected a coordinated response, he didn’t get it. They lined the streets, sure, and they waited, most of them with their heads held high, staring at the belly of the great ship that now sat low over London.
But whatever that ship was planning, it hadn’t attacked yet.
The crazy tall, puffy, billowing clouds that had heralded the arrival of the vessel still encased its sides, looking like great dark curtains made from the very heavens that were paring back to reveal Earth’s final show.
The darkness no longer affected Nick, and it sure as hell didn’t stop him from seeing the belly of the vessel above in full. It was sleek, and though it was wholly made out of an unusual black metal that caught the light and stored it up, here and there, where its enormous hull plates were joined together, there were thick slices of an almost luminescent silver-gray metal that glinted under the force of their own light. They outlined the massive vessel, pushing back the dark night and ensuring the entire city could see exactly what was above it.
Nick ran. And ran. And ran. He barely breathed. He never got tired.
In fact, he could feel his body continuing to change right from underneath him, his muscles re-knitting until they were impossibly strong, his skeleton doing the same until it felt as if he could take on a mountain.
But he would need more if he were to make the difference he was born to.
Kim had checked on Mi Na. She was fine.
The rest of the city?
That was yet to be seen.
Before Kim had left the house – or at least the remnants of his aunt’s house – he’d grabbed his backup cell phone. Oh yeah, and a pair of pants and a new shirt. Now as he strode along the street, the scraps of the Cartaxian’s armor still rattling around in the metal box he’d saved from his burning garage, Kim didn’t bother to tilt his head back and stare up at the impossible meteorological sight forming over Seoul.
As people stopped and stared, he heard the sound of sirens further into the city.
He smoothly walked to the side as somebody plowed around the tight cobbled corner of the street, their SUV riding up the broken curb and almost catching Kim.
The desperate father of four inside didn’t bother to apologize. He just kept driving.
South Korea was meant to be one of the most connected countries in the world. Everyone had a device, and everyone was on them 24/7.
So, even though the invasion hadn’t begun here yet, nobody could ignore what was going on in Vietnam, or the unexplainable cloud masses popping up over the eastern coast of the USA and over the major cities of Europe.
A woman ran past Kim, and she fell, her high heel twisting as it hit a groove in the cobble.
Without taking his eyes off his device, and without dropping his box of reclaimed armor, he switched his phone to his other hand, hauled the woman up without even looking at her, and kept walking.
Her thick black bob scattered around her face as she turned, muttered a thank you, and kept running.
After a few more minutes, he walked past a tech store. In the window was a fancy new curved screen. He paused, twisting his gaze to the side, pulling it off the continuous readings coming in on his device, and he stared at the television.
It was locked on one station. But that didn’t matter, because every single station was playing the exact same footage.
The seemingly impossible cloud bank off the coast of Da Nang, Vietnam, had broken approximately 10 minutes ago.
And the invasion had begun in full.
Some news crew had dropped a camera on one of the beaches of Da Nang, and it was directed right out to sea.
Kim paused as he watched a black mass break from the clouds. To the humans, it would be an utterly immense vessel. To Kim, he could appreciate it was nothing more than an advanced reconnaissance ship. One meant to house the gate that would be cutting through the Fold and allowing the Cartaxians access to Earth.
The sea beneath the ship was practically boiling, and the clouds were struck through with red lightning.
To the humans, it would look like the apocalypse.
To Kim, it was just another invaded world.
Which was a pity. He liked Earth.
With a shrug, he turned to stare at his mobile once more, and he pushed off.
He continued along the street.
Now his endoskeleton had been activated in full and was being powered by the Cartaxian Q crystal, he could do more than one thing at once. Hell, he could do hundreds of things at once. He could easily pay full attention to the continuous feed of critical information coming over his cell phone while at the same time maintaining full awareness of the street around him.
He shifted to the side, deviating across the pavement just before a kid could run out in front of a troop carrier plowing down the street.
He yanked the kid back, turned him around with a hand on his head, and pushed him back along the pavement.
Kim no longer needed his thumb to interact with his phone. He sent wireless commands through his endoskeleton. He kept monitoring, not just news stations, but meteorological data reports. He’d hacked into the feed of the geostationary Japanese weather satellite, Himawari 8.
The satellite’s 16 channel multispectral imager was set to capture infrared images of the Asia-Pacific region, and it was the best way to track the oncoming invasion. It was also the best way to ascertain how wide the subspace gate was the Cartaxians had opened above the South China Sea.
The answer was it was wide enough for a small invasion force – maybe 10 ships in total, all larger than the original gate vessel.
That was more than enough to hit key cities around the globe. Still, it wouldn’t be the full Cartaxian force. And until they found a way to open the gate wider on Earth, he doubted a full force would come through.
To do that – to widen the gate above the South China Sea – they’d need two things. Time and power. The power would come, presumably, from Q-type generators the Cartaxians would’ve brought with them in their first wave of strike vessels. But the same generators, presumably, would be running the ships. To preserve energy, they would want a swift, quick victory over Planet Earth.
If it could be delayed, and if the Cartaxians could be forced to use more power to subdue the Earth, then humanity could have a chance.
Could being the operative word.
The odds were stacked against them.
But they would have one advantage. The other resident aliens who’d been inhabiting Earth before the attack. Kim doubted he would be the only one who would’ve survived the Cartaxian assassination attempts.
So all he would have to do was find them.
Still staring at his phone and watching the infrared images of the Pacific coming in from the Himawari satellite, Kim deviated several meters to the left just as an old man clutched a hand to his heart and staggered toward a park bench.
Kim reached out a hand, leveled it on the guy’s shoulder, and sent a calculated blast of electricity into the man’s heart before he could suffer from sudden ventricular fibrillation.
Just before the guy could collapse sideways, Kim restarted his heart. “Get to a hospital,” he muttered.
Then he walked on.
The sensors in his endoskeleton started to pick up a sudden change in pressure on the city streets. Even ordinary humans would be able to sense it. The pressure in their inner ears would be desperately trying to equalize as the barometric pressure dropped precipitously.
Kim paused. He looked up.
Clouds were streaming across the sky, pushed on not by the wind, but by subspace vents – filaments opening up through space, controlled by the Cartaxian ships.
It would be the precursor to one of their strike ships arriving.
Kim breathed. Did he need to? The exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide from his lungs to the outer world sure had kept him fitting in with humans over the years, but the alien within did not need to breathe, and God knows his endoskeleton was far too sophisticated to require simple inhalations to keep going.
But he breathed anyway. Either to fit in, or to remind himself of one key fact. When Kim had become a human to fit in, he’d become something more.
Humanity had a somewhat unique concept – or one that was unique to his race, at least.
That of a person.
A quality of sentience that was above the mere body of a Homo Sapiens.
If you displayed a certain level of consciousness, and if you used that consciousness to interact and connect with others, you became a person.
Kim would never be human, but he fancied himself a person.
So he would fight.
Linh continued to battle through the forest, Harry behind her.
She could feel him slipping further into desperation with every second.
It wasn’t just what she’d revealed to him. It was the constant sound of jets scrambling overhead, interspersed every five minutes with a certain sound. One that rang out over the jungle and shook down through everything, one sharp enough to burst human eardrums.
She would make him kneel down on his knees and clamp his hands over his head several seconds before the blast would ring out.
She didn’t bother protecting herself.
There was no point.
“How much… how much—” Harry began, but lost track of his conversation as once again a jet scrambled overhead.
“How much longer until we reach my vessel? About 10 minutes. If it’s still there.”
“What does that mean?”
“That other aliens might’ve picked it dry already.”
“Aliens?” His voice shook. “You mean the invaders?”
“No, I mean other aliens like me. Crash landers or people who got beyond the Fold for some other purpose. Though I tried over the years to hide the signal of my ship, who knows what kind of other aliens are on Earth and what their capabilities are.”
“… You mean there are more like you?”
She snorted. “Of course there are. I’ve seen a few, here and there. Felt them, too – if they weren’t good at hiding themselves.”
“Do they control the world?” Harry asked out of the blue.
Though it was hardly a laughing situation, Linh couldn’t help herself, and she paused, her hand pushing away a large jungle vine. She tilted her head back and laughed. “Definitely not. You humans love your conspiracy theories.”
“Why not, though? If they have… technology better than ours, and if they can… if they can do that,” Harry said as he brought a shaking hand up and pointed at the sky, indicating the massive cloud stack that was now pushing high into the furthest reaches of the atmosphere, “why wouldn’t they control the world?”
Linh pressed her lips together. There was only so much more Harry could take. If she kept inundating the poor man with more information it wouldn’t just shatter his world, it would shatter his sanity, too.
But he’d asked, and Linh was not one to keep facts from others. “They would be too scared to.”
“What does that mean?” Harry said, a quick note of hope infiltrating his tone.
“It means…” she paused. “It means the Fold,” she supplied eventually. “They would be scared of it.”
“What’s the Fold?”
“Call it a veil – one that keeps you hidden from the rest of the modern universe. One, until the invaders broke through, that kept you safe, too.”
“I don’t get it. If you aliens are meant to be scared of it, why did the invaders break through it?”
Linh snorted. It was a good question, after all. One she was battling to understand.
If a race was smart, they feared the Folds. Those great forces that separated pre-interstellar civilizations from those who had mastered spaceflight.
The Folds were… ancient. It was more than that, though. They possessed an intelligence. Keen, sharp, and powerful. That wasn’t a fact taught in the modern universe, but it was one her race had always been able to feel.
Think of it as a hand – the hand of some immense intelligence that separated interstellar civilizations from each other until they were ready to take their equal place on the universal stage.
“Not all races are smart.”
“How does this Fold operate, anyway? You said it separates us from… the modern galaxy.”
“Incorrect – the modern universe.”
Harry swallowed, and he continued, “So does that mean… there are more people out there like you?” Again hope shone through his tone.
Linh paused, turned, and shook her head. “They won’t come to protect the Earth. It’s beyond the Fold, and therefore, beyond the Accords.”
“The only thing that keeps the modern universe peaceful. Or, at least, technically peaceful,” she said, emphasizing the word technically. “It does not apply to any planet beyond the Fold.”
“So no one’s going to come help us?”
Linh chose not to answer.
“What about you and all of these other alien residents of Earth, or whatever they are? Won’t their races come to protect them?”
“They won’t interfere beyond the Fold.”
“So we’re all screwed?” Harry asked, his fractured voice making it clear he was seconds from breaking down.
Linh still faced him. “I have a ship capable of punching out of the fold and making it back to ordinary space now the invaders have opened a gate. The invaders will not be able to follow us there. They can do what they want here, but out there, they’ll have to follow the Accords.”
Something finally struck Harry. “You’re talking about running away, aren’t you?”
Linh looked right into Harry’s eyes and nodded.
“But you… you have to stay and help. You know more about these invaders. You’ve got technology. You need to use it to help us,” Harry begged.
Linh wouldn’t stop looking at him. He was losing it, breaking down with all the finesse of an earthquake undermining a city. “The Earth is already lost. You do not possess technology sophisticated enough to take on an invasion squad like this. It doesn’t matter what other alien residents are on earth. I doubt they’ll have the power to take on an invasion force like this.”
“How do you know that?”
“I come from a race that does one specific thing. As I’ve already told you, my people used to be the heart of battlecruisers. We take battle data and use it to predict and react to outcomes. Think of us as light years beyond your most sophisticated supercomputers. We access a realm beyond facts and use that fluid understanding of causality and probability to optimize battle decisions. So yes – I know that the Earth has no hope,” she said, and though she tried to keep her voice even, on the word hope, it fractured.
At first, after Linh had crash-landed on Earth, it had taken her some time to adjust to humanity and its peculiar concepts. It inefficiently split reality into unnecessary arbitrary concepts that compromised the way people calculated and appreciated probabilities. It led to appalling long-term decisions and constrained the long-term capacity of this race.
But there was one concept Linh had found uniquely alluring. Hope.
Even as a being capable of predicting future occurrences from a seemingly incalculable number of data points, she appreciated that there were some things that could not be predicted. It wasn’t simply that there were some data points beyond her reach. It was that, at the heart of reality, indeterminism was built-in.
But it was a leap from understanding that there was an element of chance in every situation to wishing that element of chance would begin working in your favor. Which is precisely what hope was. It allowed the human mind to trick itself into thinking that things would get better.
Again Harry looked as if he’d fall apart. But just before he could crack completely, he looked right at Linh. “Thanks for the offer, but I won’t come. I’ll stay. I’ll do what I can. Because you’re wrong.”
She arched an eyebrow softly. “What do you mean I’m wrong?”
Digging deep from some unknown reserve, Harry stood taller, encouraged the strength back into his muscles, and faced Linh with renewed determination. “There’ll be a way.”
Linh didn’t need to ask him to clarify what he assumed there would be a way to. Redemption. Salvation for the human race.
She couldn’t agree. She went to turn away, but Harry got there first, heading back the way they’d come. “I’ll take the Jeep. Good luck getting beyond the Fold, or whatever you call it. If there’s anything – anything at all you can do once you’re beyond that – please do it. We don’t deserve to die.”
Linh stood there, and she stared.
She opened her mouth to reinforce to Harry once more that it was virtually statistically impossible that humanity would see itself through this invasion. But she saw something in Harry’s eyes, something that told her he didn’t care.
He nodded once, then started to walk back toward the car.
She opened her mouth to tell him to stop.
She pressed it closed.
Two sides of her were warring. The side that could appreciate there was no chance for humanity, yet the side that could appreciate hope was the only thing Harry had left now.
Her concern won out. She opened her mouth.
She stopped as her better side caught up with her.
Throughout the entire conversation – throughout the entire ride over here – the flow part of her mind had not been switched off. Her conclusion was still clear. It didn’t matter what each individual human did – the human race and Earth were still screwed. There simply didn’t exist the amount of power required to take on the invaders. And even if humanity could somehow scrounge the weapons to make a difference, they were too desperate. Most modern races had computational power that far outstripped anything humanity could comprehend. It would mean that the invaders would be capable of predicting every single move the humans would be able to think of. Under circumstances like that, all hope was was ignorance.
She reinforced that conclusion as she turned from Harry and continued through the jungle.
And yet, no matter what she did, she could not stop his last words from echoing through her head.
Once she left the Fold, she should do everything she could to help humanity.…
But how much would it take to save this condemned race, and how much was she willing to give?
There were countless examples of races like humanity across the universe. Planets that had been invaded and cultures that had been lost.
No single race had more right to live than any other. If you wanted to live, you had to prove your right through might.
And today, humanity would be able to prove nothing.
With that cold conclusion flowing through her, Linh walked on.
There was only so much Amal could do to keep the men and women around him focused. Their world was literally falling apart around them.
A Cartaxian strike ship had arrived over London, bursting out of a massive dark cloud bank in the middle of the morning.
But civilization hadn’t crumbled yet. The Cartaxians hadn’t attacked in full, no doubt still concentrating their forces on assassinating alien residents of Earth so when the invasion began in full, it wouldn’t be interrupted.
But there was a difference between bridges and buildings and houses and roads crumbling, and minds going first. It is often at the point where hope turns into utter desperation that battles are lost.
Amal could not touch the minds of everyone throughout England and push their fractured psyches past desperation to the point of action. But he could affect the group right in front of him.
And he did.
Of all the soldiers lining the streets, preparing their defenses behind hastily made barricades, parked troop transports, and Metropolitan police squad cars, those within Amal’s vicinity were the calmest.
They did not keep their heads back and stare at the massive underbelly of the Cartaxian strike vessel. They were poised for what would happen next.
And what would happen next would be an all-out battle for the city.
Amal had gleaned a lot when he’d invaded the mind of the Cartaxian. He’d picked up snippets of the plan to come. For some reason, the Cartaxians had no intention of leveling London and other key capitals around the world. They wanted the cities whole.
And yet, they would still require them subdued.
So rather than launch a blitzkrieg-style attack from their strike ships, and completely obliterate London in a few seconds, the Cartaxians had planned a ground assault.
There was only so much Amal could do. He was a Centauri, but there was only one of him.
Though his race was strong and steady in battle, it wasn’t their true place. They were better off behind the lines, guiding and calming troops, connecting minds when the constant assault of battle threatened to make individuals out of groups. For that is a concept that the Centauri’s understood better than most.
Battles are rarely won by individuals. They are won by armies that can fight together, that can maximize their ability to operate as a singular unit and not a disparate collection of parts.
But there is only so much that connection can forge. Without raw firepower, Amal knew that the taking of London was only a matter of time.
And that matter of time was now.
Just before the underbelly of the strike ship opened, Amal felt it. He momentarily connected with the ship full of bloodthirsty Cartaxians above. He saw flashes of their greed for war, of their thirst for the consumption of others. And all of it was directed down into the city like a funnel getting ready to suck a puddle dry.
Amal reached forward and locked a hand on the shoulder of the soldier in front of him.
He connected to the woman’s mind, and through her, to the minds of the rest of the unit.
And he held them together with the hands of his consciousness as the massive hatch of the strike vessel opened.
There was no sound, neither the grating of metal or the hiss of depressurized air.
The Cartaxians had already instituted a sound-dampening field over the city, correctly ascertaining that humans would become disoriented if they couldn’t hear the sounds around them.
It made the sight of the strike vessel opening like a black flower reaching toward the sun surreal. It would be dreamlike for the humans, possessing the quality of an image not a circumstance.
But as Amal maintained his connection to the troops and police around him, he pushed them past that point of abstraction and back into the real world. He held them together as the first glimpses of Cartaxian armored units became visible through the hatch.
Dawn was finally breaking over London, and here and there, scant rays of sunlight managed to push past the tumultuous clouds. They glimmered off the Cartaxian warriors above. Then the first wave jumped.
Amal would hold on as long as he could.
But how long he could hold on was no longer dependent on him.
To get through this, he would require either an act of God, or an act of chance, but he could rely on neither.
They were getting ready to attack.
The 10 Cartaxian strike ships distributed at key points around the globe were minutes from initiating land attacks.
Not air attacks. For some reason, the strike vessels were not getting ready to deploy their far superior air capabilities on the human population of Earth. Instead, Hena could practically hear the bellies of the strike ships bursting with Cartaxian warriors getting ready for a full-scale land assault.
Which made no sense at all. If the Cartaxians were here to take down humanity and claim this resource-rich world for themselves, they would value swiftness above everything else.
But if they were opting for a ground attack, that meant one thing. They couldn’t afford the large-scale, imprecise damage that would come from high-yield air attacks.
What were they after?
Though the Accords prevented Hena from getting involved in the fight, they did not prevent her from observing. There was nothing to say that she could not use her skills to transport across the globe and keep track of those 10 strike vessels.
She’d already warped to the point above the South China Sea where the gate was opening.
It was smaller than she would’ve suspected. Obviously the Cartaxians had only been able to break the Fold with a small force. But what was a small force to her was an unmanageable force to the humans. The difference between one strike ship and ten to them was irrelevant.
But to her, it was a curiosity, one confounded by the Cartaxian’s apparent unwillingness to launch a swift air attack.
“What are you after?” she found herself muttering under her breath once more as she hovered above the western United States.
There was a strike vessel appearing from a cloud 100 kilometers away.
She doubted, considering the relative lack of sophistication of the ship, that it would be able to detect her. Or perhaps every single Cartaxian ship had now primed their sensors to pick up the unique bio readings of a Peacekeeper.
If she chose to, she could mask her signal. If she chose to, she could mask her signal from even the most sophisticated of scanners.
But there was a difference between observing and hiding.
For now, she hovered there, her blue light form still covering her body.
She paused for several more seconds, watching the spectacle that was the ship pushing from the cloud bed it was embedded within.
She could tell that the attack was minutes from beginning. Seconds, in fact. A second before the ship began to descend, its massive belly orienting toward New York, she felt the ship’s apparently invisible thrusters alter direction.
She shifted back.
She brought her fingers in. They curled, one by one, pressing hard against her palm, energy coalescing as they contracted.
But just before she could form a light sword, she relaxed her hands.
She knew what was at stake.
Earth was one planet. Within the universe, there were innumerable. She would not risk her race to save this world, when her race could save so many others.
Did she agree with the Accords?
Could she afford to break them?
So Hena pushed a hand to the side and opened another gate.
Her fingers threatened to curl in once more.
But then her better judgment won out, and she transported.
She would observe. Every atrocity. Every death. And she would remember this civilization, even if no one else was alive to do the same.
The invasion was about to begin. He didn’t need the heat signatures being picked up off the Pacific Ocean and the South China Sea to tell that.
It was in the air.
This sense of anticipation, almost as if Planet Earth itself was taking a breath before the first onslaught.
Kim was downtown. Though the government had done their best to evacuate people, there was nowhere to put them. And perhaps they could appreciate that there was nowhere safe.
The strike vessel above the city had now completely pulled free from the cloud around it, and its black, sleek belly hung low over the city, right above the Han River.
Kim understood the sanity of sending armored units in for covert assassinations. He did not understand why the Cartaxians would bother initiating a land assault.
Unless they were after something.
He didn’t have the time or luxury to question.
The hatch to the belly of the vessel began to open. The soldiers lined up on both sides of the riverbank wouldn’t be able to hear it.
Kim could. The Cartaxians could use all of the sound-dampening fields they wanted, but now his endoskeleton was back up and running, they’d need a dampening field 10 times as strong to prevent him from picking up the grate of metal as the hull plating moved seamlessly into the sides of the ship.
“This is it, ha?” he commented to himself, finally pocketing his phone.
He was currently standing on one of the pylons underneath Hangang Bridge, his shoulder pressed into the concrete beside him, one foot hooked over the other.
Now he stood straight, clapped his hands together, and stretched. His muscles didn’t creak, and neither did his endoskeleton.
Kim didn’t know how many other alien residents of Earth would be out there in Seoul, but statistics dictated that he couldn’t have been the only one to survive the first attack.
So it was time to buy humanity a chance.
He’d already stashed the chunks of the Cartaxian armor. But before that, he’d taken detailed structural scans and sent them to every security agency around the world.
Kim cracked his shoulders once more, shifted his chin to the side, and watched as lines of Cartaxian soldiers readied just beyond the opening hatch.
Just as the sun glimmered off their armor, Kim patched his endoskeleton into his phone and used it to connect to any remaining cellular signals the Cartaxians hadn’t jammed. He also used it to patch himself into the same radiofrequency the soldiers on the ground were using.
“Right, let’s do this.” Kim pressed a hand into the base of the pylon and pushed forward.
Above him, the first wave of Cartaxian warriors dropped down. There were only about 100, but that was technically 100 too many for humanity.
But humanity wasn’t alone.
As Kim pressed off, he intercepted military radio traffic and started handing out orders.
He fully expected the humans to ignore him – until they saw what he could do.
Technically Kim could fly with his endoskeleton – but it was a stupid waste of energy.
He didn’t need to, anyway. He pushed off the pylon with enough force to send him jolting high into the sky.
He shot straight toward two Cartaxian warriors, looping his arms around their middle and tackling them down into the cold water of the Han River.
As the water surged around him, he used a massive pulse of energy from his Q crystal, forcing his arms together with maximal speed and strength. It was enough to crush the Cartaxian’s armor on impact.
As he twisted his head up and stared through the water above him, he saw blasts of light zooming high in the sky.
The Army had opened fire.
And so had the Cartaxians.
The first battle had begun.
“Jesus Christ,” Harry jolted back, dropping the keys for the Jeep. They banged against his shoe and fell into a ditch beside the dirt road.
He made no move to grab them.
He stood there, shaking with shock as two black dots dropped from the sky.
They struck the car, landing on the hood and roof and crushing it completely.
Harry jolted back, but he didn’t run. There was no point.
Both figures were tall. Easily standing at about seven feet. They were broad, too, giving their bodies the look of linebackers in American football.
They looked exactly like humans were it not for the seven fingers on each of their hands and the fact they’d dropped from the damn sky.
Harry didn’t bring his hands up. He didn’t beg for his life. He stood there.
Both of the aliens walked off the crumpled car, the sound of metal grating around their armored boots echoing through the previously quiet jungle.
One angled its head toward him.
And it started to speak.
But he only spoke patchy Vietnamese. Linh was always there to translate.
Except for now.
Harry was covered in sweat, and his heart pounded so hard, it felt like hands trying to tear his rib cage in half.
But he didn’t run. He didn’t fall on his knee and beg for salvation.
He stood his ground. Because if that was all he could do in the face of certain death, then goddammit, that was all he would do.
There was a pause as the alien obviously expected Harry to answer.
The other alien ticked its head to the side. “It doesn’t speak that language,” it said in perfect clipped English.
Before he could conclude that the alien somehow had the ability to scan his brain and figure out what language he spoke, the alien brought up a finger and pointed at his pocket. “The documents in its pocket are in this language.”
… They had the ability to scan what was in his pocket through his clothes? Detecting what something was made of was one thing. Somehow discerning writing through several layers of fabric should be impossible.
“Human, you will tell us where the Covax went,” the first alien repeated in English this time.
So they were after Linh, ha?
He had two options. Tell them exactly where she was or try to be brave.
On the face of it, he didn’t owe Linh anything. She’d already made her choice to flee, and he’d made his choice to stay.
She hadn’t tried to stop him as he’d walked away.
And even if he didn’t tell these aliens where she was, presumably they’d be able to track where he’d been walking based off his damn footprints, let alone the use of their fancy scanners that could read through solid matter.
So there was no point, ha?
It was the same thing he’d tried to tell Linh before she’d decided to flee.
It was precisely when there was no point that you had to act as if there was.
Maybe Harry didn’t always come across as a deep thinker. And God knows, most of the time he wasn’t.
If there was one thing his old man had instilled in him, it was that when you had to make a difference, you did. When you were thrust into a situation that could mean life or death for others, you chose life, even if it meant yours.
So Harry took a step forward, out of the forest, right toward the aliens. As he did, he shifted himself between them and the direction back to Linh. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Kill it,” the second alien said.
Harry wasn’t afforded the opportunity for his life to flash before his eyes.
The first alien brought up its hand, metal peeling back from its palm and revealing a hollowed-out recess that penetrated deep into its elbow.
Light began to build in that hollow, blazing as brightly as a gas flame.
Harry stared at it.
And he waited.
He hadn’t saved Linh’s life, but maybe in the great scheme of things, he’d somehow made a difference.
He took his last breath.
Or at least what he assumed would be his last breath.
But just before that white-hot, blistering pulse of light could strike him, tear his body apart, and end his life in an instant, something slammed into both aliens. It struck them with such force and speed that, in the blink of an eye, they went from being there, to disappearing in a flash.
The sound of metal striking metal blasted out around the jungle, and Harry jolted backward, the tread of his boots slipping against the treacherous gravel path and sending him tumbling.
By the time he managed to pick himself up, he felt air flattening down from above. He expected to see a helicopter, some sort of low-flying plane, but he could see nothing. And yet something had to be there. He could detect an increase in heat, and he could hear the faintest hum, almost as if a thousand insects were separated from him by a wall.
“What the hell?” he had time to say.
Something appeared right in front of him, just a meter away. A hatch door. It wrote itself out of nothing but the air as if an artist had quickly drawn it over the picture of the jungle.
Just before Harry could fear that it was another alien, Linh appeared. She crossed her arms and leaned against the hatch door and looked right down at him.
Past her, he could see a vessel. Deep enough that it spanned the 20-meters-wide road.
“Jesus Christ,” Harry managed.
“No, not Jesus. Now get in.”
Harry stared at her as she pushed off the door and reached a hand out.
“Are you going to… drop me off somewhere?” he found himself asking, even though he could appreciate his words were stupid.
You would ask your friend if they would drop you off somewhere if they picked you up in their car.
This was not a car.
And where exactly would Linh drop him off that wouldn’t be like this? Crawling with aliens and about as safe as a snake pit.
“I thought it over,” Linh revealed, hand still held out to him.
“Keep up. Your chances.”
“And?” Harry asked, hope echoing through his voice.
Linh looked right at him, and even though he could no longer see the blue line that she’d revealed on her face, he fancied he saw just a flicker of something deep in her pupils – enough to prove once and for all that she was the alien she claimed to be. “And you have a chance. Humanity has a chance. One I’m willing to take with you.”
Harry’s shoulders practically caved, and he almost fell. But he managed to place his hand into hers, and Linh, showing strength her small form shouldn’t have – or at least if it were really human – pulled him easily into the vessel.
As soon as he was inside it, he could no longer feel the heat that had alerted him to its engines. It seemed to be the perfect temperature. And the sound of the wind outside was completely obscured, too.
But who cared about the temperature and wind?
This was a goddamn spaceship.
It looked the part.
He guessed he was currently in some kind of airlock, and it looked like it was straight out of a sci-fi film. It wasn’t made from any metal he was familiar with. It was this glossy white, almost liquid substance. And as he took a step back away from the open hatch, it closed, the metal seamlessly pooling over the air outside as if it was wet paint being sloshed over the view.
Linh chuckled. “Don’t have a heart attack, Harry. If you react like this to my ship, wait until you see the strike vessels.”
“10 of them. It took me a while to get my ship’s sensors operational, but I managed it, and there are 10 Cartaxian strike vessels currently located around the globe.”
“Who are the Cartaxians?”
Linh paused at what looked like the secondary airlock into the rest of the ship.
She didn’t need to make a command – it reacted to her presence. The metal moved exactly like it had before, pooling to the side, acting exactly like a solid metal shouldn’t as it revealed the rest of the ship.
Linh walked confidently through the now open airlock, and Harry staggered in after her.
He could see from the outline of her shoulders, from the tension running through her back and up into her jaw, that she was just holding on.
Maybe Harry shouldn’t push her, but he needed to know absolutely everything she did about this race. Harry wasn’t a scientist. God knows he wasn’t a soldier. He was a cameraman. But over his years of journalism, he’d come to appreciate one fact. Not everybody liked the press, but everybody needed them. Because the press did something society required. It brought people together through news. At its best, the press was a unifying mechanism to bring people together through shared understanding. And that was precisely what humanity needed now.
“The Cartaxians are an ancient race, one of the protected eight.”
“What does that mean?”
“Harry, I get that you want to know as much as you can, but if you keep interrupting me, you’ll just slow things down.”
Linh had always been acerbic. It’s what made her a great interviewer, so Harry didn’t react to her tone.
He just followed along several steps behind her, trying not to be completely flabbergasted by the ship.
He didn’t have a great sense of spatial proportions, but he appreciated one thing. This ship was both too long and too wide to fit in the space allocated to it.
When it had struck those two aliens, it had done so head on, and he’d assumed it would have been no bigger than a large van.
But now as Linh kept walking through branching corridors, he appreciated it had to be the size of a large house.
How it sat in the space allocated to it above the road, with the jungle pressing in from both sides, he had no idea.
But Linh was right – he had far more pressing concerns to think about.
“To answer your question anyway,” Linh continued, “the protected eight are the eight original races. The very first races in the universe to achieve interstellar travel and push past their own Folds.”
“You keep speaking about this Fold,” Harry began, then he stopped abruptly. “Sorry for interrupting.”
Linh didn’t even bother to turn over her shoulder and glower at him. With a breath, she continued, “as such, they’re protected.”
“Because they’re ancient? Kind of like… I dunno, some kind of ancient wonder of the world?” he continued, appreciating he was sounding more foolish with everything he said but having no way of stopping himself.
For a man who always worked behind the camera, Harry had always been a babbler.
“Sure, why not. It’s kind of like that. The modern universe appreciates that the ancient races founded everything, and as such, must be protected.”
“And the people who are invading us – the Cartaxians,” he said, trying the word out for size and finding it too clunky and sharp for his lips, “are one of these protected races?”
“I wouldn’t call them people,” Linh said sharply as they came across a door.
Unlike the other doors she’d already come across, this one didn’t instantly open for her. Instead, Linh had to press a hand forward. She opened her thumb and little finger, and she spread them far wider than an ordinary jointed human could. It was as if she suddenly no longer had bones in her hands. He also saw them – those blue lines he’d seen on her face. They glowed as if they were lines of illumination channeled through some power plant.
He knew he shouldn’t stare, but at the same time, he couldn’t stop himself.
Linh didn’t snap at him and rather appeared to concentrate.
Finally the door reacted to her touch, and right in the center, just in front of her palm, the metal started to peel away. It disappeared toward the edges of the door, traveling in a circle, almost like water falling down the drain.
Linh didn’t say another word as she walked through the door.
Though Harry hesitated, he eventually pushed through.
And he entered… some kind of hub.
Harry had never been a fan of sci-fi, but he’d seen enough growing up.
And this room was precisely the kind of get up you’d see in some fifties flick.
That wasn’t to say it looked cheap as if it was made out of cardboard. It was to say it was a mishmash of sleek and industrial.
Though there was a wall of consoles on one side, right in the center of the room was a chair, and around it were these black tubes. They almost, at first glance at least, looked as if they were nothing more than flexible ribbed piping used to protect cables in a wall.
The closer he got, and critically, the closer Linh got, the more they reacted to her. He saw them shift around, as if they were snakes.
Harry hated snakes.
Just as he stiffened up, Linh pivoted on her foot, walked backward, and shook her head as she rolled her eyes. “Don’t freak out. They’re simply connectors.” With that, she fell backward into her chair, the apparently uncomfortable metal instantly shifting and molding around her.
As soon as she appeared comfortable, those apparently innocuous connectors started to shift up the arms and legs of her chair, wrapping around it until they reached her ankles and arms. They started to loop around her, as if they were chains tying her to the spot.
“What the—” he began.
“Just relax, Harry. These connectors are what allow me access to the ship’s sensors. It makes for a smoother ride and will enable me to get us out of Da Nang without us being obliterated by that strike ship.”
“… Okay,” he managed. Again he sounded like an idiot, but you try not sounding like an idiot after learning the damn world was ending.
There was no view screen in here. And even the consoles on the opposite side of the room didn’t have screens. They appeared to have buttons – or at least glowing symbols embedded in the metal – but that was it.
Harry didn’t speak again, accurately appreciating that Linh was obviously concentrating on connecting to the ship’s sensors.
But it was one of the strangest experiences of his life to stand there and wait, incapable of knowing what was going on outside.
For all he knew, the strike vessel Linh had talked of could be right overhead, about to engage them in a fatal battle.
Or maybe they’d already made it out of Da Nang. Hell, considering the propulsion capacity this ship would have to have to be capable of interstellar travel, maybe they’d already made it around the other side of the world.
It took a full five minutes before Linh roused.
Before she did, her skin started to glow. Whatever mechanism she used to hide her alien cells from the rest of the world obviously either couldn’t run when she was connected to this ship, or was no longer necessary.
These… luminescent lines appeared all over her skin, making it look as if her blood was made from chopped-up illuminated sapphires.
It was startling in every way.
Harry had once been a card-carrying member of the international skeptics society. Now he would have to rescind his membership. If, of course, they still existed.
Working in journalism most of his life, there was one fact Harry appreciated. How damaging a lack of information could be to people, especially when they were facing a critical situation. Good intel – not the lies that were bandied around by sensationalist shock jocks – could often be the difference between life and death. But when you were in a bubble and you could only hear the sound of your own screams, there was nothing to help you unless you could find some way to connect to what was really going on.
Eventually, Linh opened her eyes. She crossed her legs, those weird connector tubes moving with her. Though they were still fastened around her ankles, they were sufficiently flexible that they shifted, accommodating her move.
She reached out a finger and tapped her armrest. “We’re out. I think they detected us, but we’ve evaded them now. Plus, it looks like they’re too busy.”
“What does that mean?”
Again Linh looked at him unflinchingly. “That they’re too busy invading Planet Earth.”
A cold wave of dread started to strike him, but he managed to shake his head. Then he looked right at her. “Why—”
“Did I come back?”
“How did you know that I would ask that? Wait, no, scratch that, that’s what you do, isn’t it? You predict things.”
“Predicting things is a coarse way to describe it. What a battle brain, such as myself, does is find the accurate path forward.”
Though Harry had seen enough today to blast his skeptical mind out of the water, it was still a part of him, buried deep in his personality, and it would take more, apparently, than an alien invasion of Earth to completely scour it from his personality. So he frowned hard. “What the hell is an accurate path forward?”
“A battle brain matches one’s goals to the suitable path forward to attain such a goal.”
“Fine. I guess. So why did you come back?”
Linh tilted her head up and looked to the side. Though at first Harry thought she was connecting to the ship again, he realized she was just thinking, and either she’d spent too much time amongst humans and was now copying the exact movements someone would use when they were accessing their critical faculties, or she was just mimicking him to make him feel comfortable.
It took a few more seconds until she answered. “Because I reassessed the situation. There’s hope after all.” She looked at him. “Not that I believe in hope.”
“What do you believe in, then?”
“Goals to reality, got it.”
They dwindled into silence.
It was heavy.
Before his current stint in Vietnam, Harry had once been a war correspondent. It had taken him across war-torn Afghanistan, deep into Iraq, and out into the insurgencies of Syria.
In other words, he’d been in terrifying situations. Situations where you didn’t know if your next step would bring you into a fatal dance with an IED. Situations that unfolded so quickly, you could go from being in an apparently safe section of town, to being right in the center of a gun battle.
Was on another level.
And he didn’t have the guts to process this.
“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” Linh suddenly said.
Harry balked. “Wait, can you read minds?”
She snorted. “Of course I can’t read minds. It’s obvious from the sudden change in your temperature, breathing rate, and heart rate that you’re engaged in negative introspection. I suggest you stop. It will not help you going forward.”
Harry didn’t have time to be awed by the fact that she could detect his physical symptoms with all the accuracy of a machine. He turned his head toward the white consoles on the side of the room. “Where are we headed, anyway? And is there any way for me to see what’s going on?”
“I can create a view screen if you need it. But why would you need it?”
Harry turned and looked at her. “You said before you came back because you sensed an opportunity. What opportunity did you sense?”
“When I logged in to the sensors of the ship, I realized that there are others like me. Not battle minds, but others.”
“The other alien residents you spoke of?”
She nodded. “Some of them are strong. There’s a guy out in South Korea that’s an Endo,” she said, a touch of awe infiltrating her tone. “He’s already reached out on the web to the rest of us. And if there’s someone like him—”
“Then statistically, there might be more. That’s hope, you know,” Harry said, somehow managing a smile.
Linh looked at him, her expression trying. “Incorrect, it’s probability.”
“Call it what you will. It changed your mind, made you want to risk something. In my books, that’s hope. But to answer your question, what I want to do is this – get the word out.”
It took Linh a moment, then she arched an eyebrow. “You mean continue our report?”
Harry nodded. “It’s what you’re taught in journalism school, remember? You get information out to people because it’s often the difference—”
“Between life and death.”
Harry found himself swallowing as he stared at Linh, as he waited for her to torpedo his plan.
She didn’t. With a slight tick of her head to the side, the consoles he’d been pointing to suddenly changed. The metal along them pooled and slid upward, almost as if gravity was nothing more than a name to it, and then it collected together and formed a screen.
It was a screen unlike any he’d ever seen – as the images that flickered over it a second later were made out of moving metal – but it was a screen nonetheless.
“The Cartaxians haven’t shut down all cellular networks, nor have they interfered with any satellites in orbit. They haven’t bothered yet,” Linh said as she nodded toward the footage coming across the screen. “Even if they do, the resident aliens left on Earth will find a way to keep those networks running, even if they have to rebuild them themselves. What you’re seeing here—”
“Is the invasion,” Harry said quietly as he took one soft step after another toward the screen.
Somehow, even though it was small, he could see it crystal clear from across the room, but that didn’t stop him from walking closer, the pound of his footfall like the sullen beat of a drum.
He saw footage from key cities all around the world, and all of them were the same. Massive black bellied ships appearing out of huge formations of clouds.
“How long—” he stuttered.
“Until the invasion occurs in full? Right now.”
Harry winced, expecting the worst – expecting those 10 vessels to open up above their respective cities and completely blast them off the Earth.
But that didn’t happen.
Harry didn’t know that much about war, but there were a few germane facts he could appreciate. When you had an advantage, you used it. And those ships no doubt had the advantage.
But they didn’t begin an air assault.
“I don’t understand it, either,” Linh said, obviously reading his mind from his body language once more. “There’s no good reason for them not to obliterate those cities and move on, taking down every single last trace of human civilization.”
Harry turned to her, somehow pulling his attention off that terrifying footage. “What does this mean?”
“There are innumerable things this could mean.”
“Whittle it down to the most likely.”
“They’re after something. After something they can’t afford to destroy.”
“If that theory is correct, then they would have to be after something in every single one of those cities.”
Linh paused, and he heard her shifting, those creepy connector tubes slithering over the ground with her every movement. “I appreciate that.”
“What the hell could they want?”
“I don’t know. But I have a feeling it could be the key to saving Earth.”
Harry took a breath. Then he pulled himself forward, got down on his knees, considering there was no chair, and he watched the footage. “How do we get this out to everyone?”
“Leave that to me. What you need to focus on is figuring out what to say.”
Harry bristled as he turned to her. “But I’m not the anchorwoman.”
Linh took a moment, then laughed. “Really? You’re gonna take now to point out that you’re more comfortable behind the camera than in front of it?”
Harry shrugged, conceding her observation.
“You’re human, Harry. And you were right back there. Hell, you were right in general.”
“Maybe hope does exist. Maybe it’s taken me a while to understand that. And maybe I have further to go. But you already understand it. And that’s what you have to give them.”
Harry felt cold. All over. Except for one point. It wasn’t his heart; hell, it wasn’t necessarily located anywhere in his body. It was like a flickering flame on an otherwise dark night. One that told you that the darkness could be pushed back.
“You find the message that will give hope, and I’ll broadcast it. I’m confident that I can stay out of the Cartaxian’s clutches. But it will take my full attention. You have to do the rest.” With that, she leaned back in her seat, the connector tubes shifting further across her chest, again looking like chains.
Harry took several seconds to stare at her, then he finally pulled his attention back to the screen.
Him? Really? It was gonna be up to him to give humanity hope?
He just hoped he was up to it. And no, that was not meant to be a pun.
The first battle had begun.
Nick had stood there on the corner of the city street, staring up at the belly of that massive vessel, watching the armor-clad alien warriors line up.
And as he had, the ringing in his skull had only intensified until it had felt as if someone was banging on massive church bells embedded between his ears. He’d fallen down on one knee, and he’d had to clutch at his ears, had to press his palms against his eardrums as hard as he could.
It hadn’t made any difference.
And now Nick stood there and watched in utter horror as line after line of warriors jumped down from the low flying vessel.
He couldn’t even hear the sound of their armored feet slamming into rooftops, into pavement, into parked cars.
Though several had landed only a block away from him, there wasn’t the clash and bang that should accompany it. Just this dull, muted sense you might get as if you were watching TV with the volume turned down.
But nothing could turn down the volume in Nick’s head.
It grew louder with every second. And it pushed him into action.
The next thing he knew, he threw himself forward, turning around one of the cramped streets of inner London.
Further out into the city, he heard the sounds of combat. Sporadic blasts of gunfire, assault rifles, even handguns.
He didn’t hear the ping of metal bullets slamming against armor. Just these tiny, muted thumps. He fancied he could only pick those up because of whatever the hell had happened to his hearing since he’d awoken in the airport.
None of that mattered right now. The only thing that mattered to Nick were the two massive seven-foot-tall armor-clad aliens standing several meters in front of him.
They both landed on top of a lorry, and the thing was crushed as if it had been hit by a meteorite.
The both of them turned at his approach.
Though Nick had been hurtling forward at full speed, now he backtracked, shunting hard into his foot and stopping his momentum as he staggered a step to the side. He snatched a hand around a lamp post, fingers pushing in, bending until he started to hear the sound of the metal being pushed in, as if he were crumpling paper.
He didn’t have time to appreciate that his newfound skills gave him the apparent ability to crush metal with ease.
He noticed as both of the armored aliens twitched their heads to the side. Nick may have absolutely no founding with aliens, and no reason to believe that he could understand their emotional reactions, but something told him that those two quick twitches were curiosity. Maybe they were accessing some kind of scanner, or maybe they recognized something in Nick.
“Should be dead,” one of them said in perfect clipped English that nevertheless lacked the correct syntax.
The alien who spoke pointed forward with three of its seven fingers, and the other alien beside it took a step off the lorry. The front chassis of the lorry buckled further, finally releasing as the wheel suspension bounced like a spring.
The alien took a step toward Nick, then another.
Should be dead?
So it was them, ha? The guy who’d tried to kill Nick at the airport had been one of them, ha?
It made sense. And yet, it didn’t make any damn sense. Because why the hell would they want Nick dead?
“Call for backup. Change has begun,” the alien who hadn’t yet moved off the top of the lorry said. Why he was bothering speaking, Nick didn’t know, but he could guess it was probably to do two things. And neither of them would be to communicate with his fellow alien. Presumably, if they had the technology to invade Earth, they’d already mastered wireless communication. Hell, maybe they even had access to mental communication.
The only reason this alien was speaking out loud was to grab Nick’s attention and to hold it.
But Nick had no intention of dying today.
Just as the alien nearest reached out a hand toward him – a hand which Nick knew would have a grip just as crushing as an industrial vice – Nick pivoted to the side. He threw himself forward. But at the same time, he didn’t let go of the lamp pole.
Though it was hollow inside, its outer casing was made from thick, durable painted steel.
There was no way an ordinary man should be able to bend it. But one thing had become abundantly clear in the last several hours since the invasion had begun. Nick Hancock was no longer a normal man, if he had ever been one.
He broke the pole right in half just as the alien reached him. And before he could give into his surprise at his move, Nick pivoted forward, grabbed the side of the massive steel pole, and slammed it into the alien like a bat.
Though Nick had absolutely no idea about the capabilities of the alien’s armor, he could tell it should be strong enough to withstand Nick’s strike. The ship hanging low over London was still a hell of a long way up, and Nick had watched these armor units jump down without parachutes and without heed to the crushing forces of gravity.
It meant Nick’s blow should do nothing. But it sure as hell did something. It slammed into the alien with enough force that Nick heard a strange click. Those heat sensors overlaid over his vision went crazy, too, and for some reason he got the crazy impression that he’d managed to overload some kind of gravity generator in the alien’s armor – whatever it was using to maintain a lock with the ground to steady its balance.
The alien went flying. Just a meter or so – but it was enough to get it out of Nick’s way.
Neither of the aliens said another word. Instead, the leader jumped down from the lorry and pushed toward Nick. The alien didn’t run. Suddenly two lines of almost invisible thrusters appeared on its back, and it used them to launch forward as if it’d been shot from a gun.
A microsecond passed, then the next thing he knew, the alien wrapped its arms around Nick’s middle and slammed him into the side of the shop front to his left.
The move was strong enough that Nick’s body blasted through the double brick wall.
Masonry scattered around Nick as his brain told him he was dead.
Nick wasn’t dead. But as he struck the floor behind him, bricks slamming over his body, one even striking him right in the center of his head, Nick didn’t pass out, and God knows he didn’t take his last breath. Instead, instinct unlike anything he’d ever felt pulsed through him. It saw him wrap his arms around the alien’s middle.
Nick had always been a good wrestler in high school. Blame it on his heavyset form. But there’s a difference between grappling a man and grappling a seven-foot alien in sophisticated armor. A difference that Nick should not have been able to overcome simply with the rage pulsing through his body.
You tell that to his body, though. His muscles were different. Tenser somehow. Taut, not like rope, but like the strongest and yet most flexible substance he could think of.
And his mind wasn’t so much ringing anymore as pounding with this certainty, one that told him exactly what to do.
Nick had never felt like this. And God knows he’d never seen an alien before. But suddenly neither of those two things mattered. The heat readings still overlaid over his vision did. They were joined with more information. Echoing patterns of intersecting sound waves, frequencies of electrical interference, and more.
They gave him all the information he required to appreciate the exact point of greatest weakness in the alien’s armor.
And Nick’s growing rage and strength did the rest.
He hooked his fingers – his unprotected, apparently human fingers – into a joint just under the left ear of the alien’s helmet. Or at least, where the left ear would be on a human.
And Nick pressed. With all his might. With everything his body could give. And then more.
The rage pounding through him was doing something. Unlocking energy on a level Nick hadn’t just never experienced, but one that shouldn’t be possible.
It pulsed through him, in wave after wave of energy.
And somehow, it was enough. Just as the alien brought up its left hand, and Nick saw an impossible sight as strips of metal peeled back from the equivalent of its palm and revealed a long, hollow shaft up to its elbow, his prying fingers dented the alien’s helmet.
And the energy pulsing through Nick did the rest.
Though Nick couldn’t see the alien’s face, and God knows he probably would freak out if he could, he could tell that right now, the equivalent of the alien’s eyes were opening in surprise. Fatal surprise.
With one last pitching scream, Nick pressed his fingers in with all his might until there was an almighty crack.
Energy pulsed through the alien’s helmet as its body jolted hard to the side.
Nick followed the move, wrapping an arm around its middle, throwing his weight into it as he pushed the alien off him. He straddled the alien, jamming his fingers straight back into that point under its left ear. With another earsplitting groan, Nick pulled the helmet off.
But if he expected to see an alien face staring back at him, he didn’t. As soon as he damaged the armor, there was this flicker.
For a split second, he saw something.
A large, animalistic face with two pinprick eyes no larger than thumbnails. A long mouth with jagged teeth with two yellow tusks pressing hard up into the creature’s bulbous nose.
But the vision didn’t last.
Something happened to the alien. It disappeared. It was like an image suddenly turning off – like a TV that was having signal troubles.
Something was happening within the armor, and a split second later, the alien body within it was destroyed. Though destroyed was the wrong term. Those tusks weren’t suddenly crushed into bone dust. Its bulbous lips weren’t suddenly burst like two blood-filled balloons. Its flesh wasn’t suddenly burnt until it blistered like cooking sugar.
It was as if it was broken down on the minute molecular level, every constituent atom that made up the alien being reabsorbed by the armor.
Though everything Nick had – or at least his human side had – told him to jolt away and protect himself, whatever was now running his body ensured he didn’t lose his grip on the alien’s middle.
It also ensured something else.
Just as the alien’s form was disrupted, he heard something click within the armor. Again it was imperceptible, and again the only reason he could hear it was because of whatever extraordinary processes were going on in his once-human form.
His body reacted to it. Something deep down in his stomach. A level of instinct so precise and so powerful no ordinary person would be able to ignore it.
It saw him reach up, shove a hand in through the now empty helmet recess of the armor, and grab something.
What that thing was was a small glowing cube. It was no bigger than a sugar cube. As soon as Nick pulled it out of the alien’s armor, he heard something whirring down. And that instinct that had told him he was seconds from dying if he didn’t act finally subsided.
As it subsided, whatever was left of the human side of Nick’s body regained control.
For a split second.
Then he heard the pound of armored boots and remembered there was another alien out there.
Reason told him there was nothing he could do.
Reason was wrong. His instinct was right. His fingers did something to that small glowing cube in his palm. They wrapped around it, but they did more. They didn’t just try to compress around whatever strange substance the cube was made from. That wave of energy Nick had felt in his body previously pushed out of him, pulsing through his hands, feeling as if Nick was holding a Tesla ball. It concentrated in the cube, and a split second later, as that other alien warrior came pounding through the door of the shop, breaking it as glass and metal hailed everywhere, Nick threw the cube.
The alien reached up and caught it. It had half a second to orient its head toward Nick, then paroxysms blasted through its form. Whatever Nick’s body had done to the cube was in turn doing something to the alien, something the alien couldn’t stop. His armor jerked this way and that as if he were a puppet being tugged around on strings.
The alien fell down to one knee, and this time, anyone would be able to hear the clang of its metal-reinforced knee smashing against the tile shop floor.
The alien’s head jerked this way and that, looking as if someone were trying to break its neck.
Its free hand twitched, the fingers pulsing like the arms of a jellyfish.
Then finally it fell forward. It slammed into the shop floor, and a second later, it was still.
Waves of electricity – or something like it – discharged from the cube still clutched in its right hand.
But soon they too ebbed.
And Nick was left there, alone, gasping in horror as he stared at the two aliens he’d killed with his own bare hands.
He couldn’t sit there forever.
Outside, the invasion of London was only just beginning.
There was only so much they could do without sophisticated weapons. And without soldiers who knew what they were doing, it was only a matter of time.
And that time was quickly coming upon him.
Though Amal could keep the soldiers in the street around him calm – and though he could guide their moves – they were only one unit. And around London, the Army was falling.
He could be thankful for one fact.
The Cartaxians had obviously appreciated that something was different about this street and the human resistance along it. They were redirecting their forces, the almost imperceptible pound of Cartaxian warrior feet continually heading Amal’s way.
It wouldn’t take them long to figure out Amal was here – to scan for his non-human bio readings. Then, all they would have to do was take him out.
Amal did not stop. He didn’t run away. There might be sanity in trying to save himself so he could live to fight another day, but he would not leave the unit around him. For as soon as he extracted himself from it, their fear would flood through them, and they would be sitting ducks, as the humans would say.
So he continued to fight, even as he saw a contingent of 10 more warriors pound around the side of the street.
The soldier in front of him started to shake. There was only so much Amal’s mental influences could do. His touch could do the rest. He reached forward, placed a hand on the man’s shoulder, and gave him the silent command to stay strong.
With the forces he’d commanded, they’d managed to take down three warriors with nothing more than combined fire.
It was a drop in the ocean compared to the hundred warriors that had jumped down from the belly of the Cartaxian mothership. But drops in the ocean, when gathered together, are significant.
Amal just hoped that he was right, and there were more alien residents just like him out there – more who had survived the first assassination wave. And more who could help when humanity needed it most.
Out in the street opposite, Amal saw two Cartaxian warriors appear, jumping down off the side of a building, completely obliterating a fancy sports car as they landed on it. Its tires pinged out and struck the building opposite, its windscreen shattering out in a halo of glass and heat.
As the Cartaxian warriors stood, revealing their full height, Amal appreciated they were no ordinary grunts.
They were legionnaires. The level up – the level who were presumably intended to remain in the ships and direct the land forces.
Amal should be touched that his efforts had gained such notoriety.
One of them pointed at him, and Amal prepared.
Even before death, he could give these humans one parting gift.
He tightened his grip on the shoulder of the soldier in front of him. He focused his mind.
But just as those two legionnaires raised their hands and set their pulse cannons on Amal, he watched them snap their heads to the side.
Out in the streets, Amal heard a scream.
One that was louder than the sound-buffering field. One that should have been impossible to hear, and yet one that echoed out, practically blasting off the buildings like a shockwave.
It got both legionnaires’ attention, and they swiveled their heads to the side.
The scream was human. Or at least it was mostly human.
Though Centauris did not have the best physical senses – or at least, compared to some other races- what they did have was an unparalleled ability to recognize emotion.
And each species had its own emotional signifiers.
“Impossible,” Amal had time to say. Then he pulled himself to his full height, throwing caution to the wind, despite the fact there were two Cartaxian warriors nearby who could take the opportunity to smite him. It was all in aid of seeing one thing. The apparent human who suddenly came running from the street to Amal’s side.
The human was not a human at all.
“By the gods,” Amal managed, his gaze focusing in on the man.
He had a broad build and was tall.
But neither of those features were relevant.
He had no shoes on, and though it had been clear he’d been running for some time, there were no marks on his feet, other than where the rubber had melted and stuck between his toes.
His clothes were in disarray, his shirt top torn and covered in blood. But again, those details weren’t what mattered.
His mind was.
“Rayar,” Amal said, his voice stuttering.
He lost momentary control over the unit around him, and fear swelled through the ranks once more.
Amal couldn’t help it.
There should not be a Rayar on Earth. But the fact that there was changed everything.
The man was obviously disoriented, and judging by the wild look in his eyes, he had absolutely no idea what was going on.
The only way for a Rayar to be on Earth would be if it was hidden here. Meaning that man had absolutely no idea what he was, and he was undergoing an alien transformation on fast forward as his body reacted to the proximity of the Cartaxians and tried to protect him.
The two legionnaires obviously appreciated what they were seeing, and they now apparently lost all interest in Amal. They pushed up, instantly becoming airborne as the once invisible thruster strips on the backs of their armor pulsed out, blue lines of light slicing through the air as they shot up a good 50 meters.
He shunted forward, using all his strength and agility to leap over a barricade in front of him. “Get down,” he screamed at the man.
The man simply looked at him, his eyes wild with fear and desperation.
When the man didn’t react, Amal threw himself at him, gathered his arms around the man’s middle, and hauled him to the side.
But that would be the exact moment when the legionnaires attacked.
And that would be the exact moment when the man’s instincts kicked into gear.
Rather than Amal saving him, the Rayar saved Amal, suddenly putting on an almost impossible burst of speed and throwing them both to the side behind the relative safety of a parked van.
It was just in time as two pure white slices of light slammed into the road where they’d both been standing. They punched down through the asphalt and broke into the tunnel system below.
The bitumen bubbled, reaching such a level of heat, it wouldn’t just have scorched human flesh, it would have turned it to ash in an instant.
As the man shifted up, Amal stared straight into his eyes.
And the guy stared back. Though at first it was with fear – and Amal could feel it practically reverberating through the man’s emotional mind – in an instant, the Rayar kicked into gear, and Amal fancied the man suddenly realized he was staring at a fellow alien. Amal had a chance to clap a hand on the man’s shoulder. “You are a Rayar. An ancient race of rulers—”
He didn’t have a chance to finish. The Rayar picked him up once more, hauling him to the side just as the two legionnaires jumped against the van, crushing it like a hand slamming against a bug.
The guy grunted in Amal’s year, again the sound-buffering field covering London not affecting him somehow as that grunt punched out as loud as a shot.
The man, though obviously reeling from whatever was happening to his body, was just as obviously appreciating that he now had strength he’d never possessed. Rather than try to open the shop door beside him, he simply slammed a shoulder into it, and the thing buckled as if someone had punched a sheet of paper.
“You know what those things are, don’t you?” the guy said as he pointed toward them but never stopped backing away, leaping over the shop counter to their side and heading toward a door behind it.
Amal copied his every move, his lithe form making it look easy, and yet nowhere near as easy as the Rayar.
“Yes. I’m a Centauri.”
“You’re one of them?” the guy demanded as he kicked down the door behind the counter and blasted through, barreling like a bull pushing through a fence.
“I can judge from your emotions that you do not believe that.”
The man looked at Amal sharply. “What’s going on?”
“Earth is being invaded by one of the eight ancient races – the war-like Cartaxians.”
Amal watched, and he felt, and he appreciated just how much emotional import that word had for the man.
His inherent Rayar senses would be reacting to it, pulsing through whatever remained of his human heart and sending adrenaline pounding through his body.
When a Rayar was hidden on a planet, though they would be given the forms of the race around them, their bodies would always be programmed to protect themselves. So even if this man had absolutely no idea what the word Cartaxian meant, it was clear his heart did as it shuddered in his chest.
“What’s your name?” Amal asked as they both ran down the long corridor of the shop.
Out toward the front, there was an earsplitting bang as the legionnaires obviously used their pulse cannons to obliterate the shop front.
The ceiling above them shuddered, threatening to cave in, but just before a large chunk of concrete could strike the Rayar’s head, Amal shifted forward, caught it out of the air, and threw it at the wall.
The Rayar looked at him and nodded. “Thanks. I’m Nick. Who the hell are you?”
“My human title is Amal. It is conveniently close to my Centauri title which is Amakalanar,” Amal said, pronouncing it in the exact unique way Centauris did.
Somehow Nick had the time to arch an eyebrow. “I wouldn’t call that close. I’ll stick with Amal. How the hell do we stop this?”
“Yeah, the invasion.”
“There may be no way to stop it. That is no longer your concern, anyway.”
Nick looked at him sharply as they reached the back of the shop and Nick barreled chest first through a heavy locked door, the metal and wood simply opening out like a flower being hit by a bat.
Amal ran out behind Nick, then paused on the street as he put up a hand in front of Nick. At the same time, he used his mind to reach out.
“What the hell are you doing? I felt that. What did you do to my head?”
Amal looked at Nick sharply. “My race is uniquely capable of connecting with others. I was simply asking you to be calm and quiet. I need to check for enemy units.”
“You can tell where they are with this… mental communication of yours?”
“Then take me to them. Even if I have to fight each one of those bastards by hand, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”
Amal looked at him seriously. “I can’t. That would break the Accords.”
“What the hell are the Accords?”
“Though you do not remember them, they apply to you, and most importantly, they apply to anyone who encounters a hidden Rayar.”
Though Amal had been referring to Nick as a Rayar mentally since he’d first encountered him, this was only the second time he’d stated that word aloud, and it had a real and visceral effect on Nick.
His cheeks paled, the skin becoming sickly wet. His eyes widened, too, and his neck muscles hardened as if he thought he was about to pick up the heaviest weight in the universe. “… Rayar?”
Amal pointed to him, confident that there was no one on the street. Yet. At the same time, he pointed forward, and Nick followed. “That is you. You are a Rayar. And Rayars form the ruling class of the universe.”
“Ruling class of the universe?” Nick asked, his voice stuttering, the revelation too much for him.
Before he could demand to know more, Nick brought up a finger sharply, and the quickness of the move obviously spoke to Nick’s protective side, as the man didn’t say a word again.
Instead, they both fell into step, and Nick followed Amal, not questioning until the two made it several blocks away.
As soon as they reached a quieter section of the city, Nick turned on him. “What about the soldiers back there? You were helping them, weren’t you? What will happen to them now?”
“Perhaps the Cartaxians left them alone,” Amal tried.
Nick looked right at him. “Perhaps?” His voice shook.
“Though I can tell you don’t want to hear this, you are more important than them. I’m now honor bound to get you out of here and off Earth.”
“I don’t want to get off Earth. And I don’t care about your honor. This is my home,” Nick said as he stabbed a finger at the broken, scorched pavement beneath him. There were two massive gouge marks from where a Cartaxian warrior had obviously landed from a great height. “I’m not leaving Earth. Not until it’s safe.”
Amal didn’t say a thing. He could read Nick’s emotions well enough to appreciate that there was no arguing with the man.
And yet, Nick would not get his way.
His full memories had not returned, and may not return until he was off Earth, but Amal knew precisely what Nick was. And he understood his worth.
Though Amal had once been resigned to staying on Earth and doing whatever he could to protect as many people as was possible, his vision had changed.
“Now what do we do? Between the two of us, we have a chance, right? Only about 100 warriors dropped down from that ship. I guess there’s more in there, but if we make a dent in the current land forces—”
“The Cartaxians will simply change the way they fight. Though, for some reason, they appear reluctant to engage their air forces, if we offer too much resistance, I guarantee you they will.”
Nick’s jaw hardened. “We have to do something. We can’t just stand here.”
“No,” Amal reached forward, locked a hand on Nick’s shoulder, and tried to center the Rayar’s mind, “we can run.” With that, Amal pulled Nick forward.
At the end of the day, Kim was only one man – or alien.
And there was only so much he could do.
His endoskeleton may have been 10 times more sophisticated than Cartaxian armor, but what did that mean when they had an almost limitless supply of warriors?
It meant they’d only send more.
Kim put on a burst of speed, his now completely bare feet gouging a chunk out of the asphalt road as he threw himself forward, wrapped an arm around the closest Cartaxian warrior, pivoted on his hip, and threw the guy right through a parked car. Kim had so much velocity on the move, by the time the Cartaxian warrior struck the car, it burst into flames.
It wasn’t enough to completely obliterate the Cartaxian’s armor, but it was a step in the right direction.
Kim did the rest. He plowed forward, closing the distance between them in the blink of an eye. He latched hold of the guy’s helmet just as he pushed up from the burning remnants of the car. And Kim squeezed.
The Cartaxian tried to punch Kim in the gut, but the big guy’s fist simply glanced off. The warrior tried to punch him again, but again it glanced off. Kim didn’t even bother to scream – heck, make any noise at all – as his endoskeleton won out and he crushed the Cartaxian’s helmet. Instantly he heard the hiss as the Cartaxian’s body was disrupted, the remaining armor breaking it down and re-absorbing it back into the armor’s molecular buffers. The Cartaxians were obviously smart enough to appreciate that it was better to destroy their corpses so, in the unlikely event that the humans managed to capture a broken set of armor, they wouldn’t get access to the Cartaxian’s valuable biological data.
Not, of course, that the humans had the necessary biohacking abilities to do anything to the Cartaxians. But that wasn’t the point.
As the humans would say, this was not the Cartaxian’s first rodeo. They’d been invading worlds for eons.
And the Great Universal Body had been allowing them to do so, simply because the Cartaxians were considered ancient.
There was a lot about the modern universe that was stuffed up.
But the preservation of the eight races was perhaps the most screwed up factor of all. It allowed inveterate invaders like the Cartaxians to destroy whole new cultures simply because they knew the Great Universal Body wouldn’t lift a finger to stop them.
The humans had a thing for tradition – especially some of the more ancient cultures.
Tradition often had an important place in society.
But tradition could also be used to protect existing social structures. It could be used to justify and uphold social inequities simply based on the reason that things had always been done this way.
Such was the inequities of the ancient eight races.
If you came from one of those races, well done, the universe would hand you protection on a silver platter. If you didn’t, just like Kim? You had to forge your own path.
Which was precisely what Kim was going to do on behalf of Earth.
As soon as the armor had finished disrupting the Cartaxian’s body, Kim reached in, disabled the auto-destruct, and pulled out the Q crystal. He pocketed it, stretched his shoulders, jumped out of the burning car, and turned for the next fight.
His phone was still in his pocket, and he was still using it to remotely connect to the Army and police.
Though at first, they’d ignored his orders, they’d seen his one-man fighting routine, and they’d started responding.
Did they trust Kim? Hell no. He imagined that right now some General in some safe base somewhere was hatching a plan to capture him. But that wasn’t the point. Humans, despite their many foibles, are creatures capable of seeking out opportunities.
And everyone could tell that if they wanted to save Seoul, their only way to do it was with Kim’s help.
So Kim lifted a hand and waved as a group of three soldiers on the other side of the road cheered.
Then he put on a burst of speed, again throwing his endoskeleton into full throttle as he watched two Cartaxian warriors streak down from the clouds above.
“Legionnaires, ha? Finally getting the mothership’s attention, am I?” Kim commented as he shifted his shoulders back and forward. The 15 or so Q crystals he’d managed to scrounge from the obliterated armor units clattered in his pocket. As both legionnaires landed and tilted their heads toward that very same pocket, Kim shook a finger in front of them. “Finders keepers,” he muttered.
The legionnaires moved, the thruster strips on the backs of their armor sets pulsing white-blue as they powered forward too quick for humans to see.
Kim could see just fine, and a split second before they reached him, he pivoted on his foot, fell down to his knee, and threw his other foot up. He caught one of the legionnaires as it shifted past, altering its momentum and sending it slamming straight back into the burning car beside him.
Kim was a lot of things, and his armor was a lot more, but there was one fact germane to all armor technology throughout the universe. It ran on power. And when that power ran out, you needed to find an alternate source.
When Kim had grabbed the Q crystal from the assassin who’d tried to kill him, he’d ascertained it would allow him to run at close to full power for years to come. But here’s the thing. The fight had been brutal, and Kim was running through energy quicker than usual.
Though his endoskeleton could run on Q crystals, it wasn’t designed to. It was designed to run on far more energy-rich substances like marax ore.
He’d have to switch out soon. Maybe in a half hour, maybe in an hour – maybe he’d even be able to stretch it to a day. But at some point, he’d have to stop his frenetic battle, open his chest cavity, and stick in another crystal.
And at that point, he fancied the Cartaxians would throw everything they had at him.
Kim cracked his neck and threw himself at the legionnaires.
He was determined to make as much trouble as he could.
She arrived over London.
It was a battleground, the war now in full swing.
Though she was high up in the stratosphere, away from the prying sensors of the Cartaxian ship, that did not dent her own senses at all.
She could track the desperate human soldiers and law enforcement officers rushing through the streets, trying with all their meager might to win a battle they were destined to lose.
Her fingers threatened to pulse in, to curl so hard against her palms, she would scrape the light from her skin.
But she stopped herself in time.
For, you see, there would always be another battle.
Every Peacekeeper knew that.
The universe was too large and full of too many races to ever hope that one day peace would be found on every single planet in every single star in every single galaxy.
War would mark the fabric of reality until the day the universe ended itself.
So the mark of every great Peacekeeper and the central philosophy of her race was to wait. To be judicious with force. To save when, and only when, it would make a difference.
But did that make it easy to watch? Did it make it easy to float there, thousands of kilometers up, watching this unfold?
No. It made it harder.
And the harder it became, the closer she got, floating down through the clouds and tumultuous weather patterns that were reacting to the transport gate and the Cartaxian ships. Down and down, closer and closer to the horror.
It felt as if someone had tied a chain around her, and there was nothing she could do – no reason that would stop her from falling down to Earth.
Peacekeepers very rarely had a sense of destiny. They had something far stronger. A sense of duty.
And though, try as she might, Hena could not extinguish hers.
It called to her to do one thing. Intervene before it was too late.
As she descended, her fingers curled, pressing against her palms, reacting to her light form, making it spark and leap around her, making it pulse with light, making it shine with hope.
But it was a hope she would ultimately have to push away. Hena knew her place. And if she forgot it for an instant, the Cartaxians would remind her of it.
So she closed her eyes as she descended down into the horror.
“Dammit, he’s gonna get himself killed. They’re sending the gate ship to South Korea,” Linh spat as she curled a hand into a fist and slammed it against the armrest of her command chair.
Harry jolted on the opposite side of the room. His knees groaned, the joints stiff as he pushed up into a standing position. “What are you talking about?
He’d been spending the last several minutes dutifully doing exactly what Linh had told him to – crafting reports to send around the globe to inform people of precisely what was happening to their planet.
“That Endo in South Korea. I just picked up some chatter between Cartaxian units. They’re going to use a gate to capture him.”
“What do we do?” Harry demanded.
Linh didn’t want to say this, but Harry had come a long way from the frightened jittering mess she’d saved from that beach.
She suspected it was because in this ship, he was protected from the brunt of the horror, and though he could watch it through a screen, it would still seem at arms-length.
Then the kinder side of Linh’s personality pointed out one thing. She wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the muttered words Harry had shared with her. She could pretend that Harry was only holding onto his nerve because the battle was far away, but he’d managed to hold onto it when it had mattered most in front of those two Cartaxian warriors.
“What do we do?” Harry demanded once more, and she could see a flash of real determination deep in his eyes.
Linh sighed. It was a heavy move that saw her shoulders bang hard against the back of her chair. The connectors shifted around her body, always accommodating her movements. She could pulse to her feet as quickly as she could, and they would shift with her. They were designed to go wherever she did, ensuring that her connection to the vessel never ceased.
And that very same connection was telling her not to do this.
Not to do what?
Save the Endo.
She ground her teeth together.
Maybe Harry knew her better than she suspected, because he took a sharp step toward her, his rubber-soled shoes echoing out against the smooth metal floor. “Is this where I’m meant to tell you to believe in hope again?”
She got the reference, and she ground her teeth together. “If we go to save him, it will jeopardize our primary mission.”
“Our ultimate mission,” Harry said, emphasizing the word ultimate, “is to save Earth. “If this guy is nearly as good as you suggested when you practically guffawed, then we need him.”
“Firstly, I did not guffaw.”
Harry shot her a knowing look.
She ground her teeth even harder. “It won’t be easy. They’re sending more forces to South Korea to get him. That’s not even to mention the forces they’re rerouting to London.”
“What’s going on in London?”
“I honestly have no idea. But we’re closer to South Korea, and without knowing what the Cartaxians are up to in London, I don’t want to take the chance of heading to the wrong place.”
“Fine, then we save this guy. What did you say he was again?”
“An Endo,” she said, and she tried to keep that slightly awed tone out of her voice.
Once upon a time, Linh had assumed that she was the most sophisticated alien resident on Earth. She’d been wrong. If there was an Endo, then God knows what other sophisticated aliens could be out there.
Maybe, somehow, humanity had a chance.
But Linh didn’t want to blow her own chance by getting messed up in the epic battle happening over South Korea.
Harry kept his knowing gaze locked on her. He took another step toward her and crossed his arms. “I guess we have to risk it.”
“There’s no we. There’s me. And it’s me who’s going to have to risk. It’s a long time since I’ve been involved in a battle like that.”
“You said you were a battle mind. You said your people once formed the heart of entire battlecruisers. How long has it been?”
Linh shifted her gaze up to the side. “About 1325 years.”
Harry had looked in control before, but now he balked. “I’m sorry?” The skin around his eyes widened.
Linh shot him a sly smile. “What, don’t I look my age?”
She brought up a finger. “1325 years,” she said emphasizing the 5, almost as if those measly five years mattered in the long length of her lifespan.
Harry didn’t bother to correct himself. He shifted another step forward and angled his head toward the screen. “Let’s do this.”
She didn’t bother to arch another eyebrow. Instead, she half settled her eyes closed and concentrated on connecting to her ship once more. Not, of course, that she ever technically lost her connection to it.
As long as she was in this command seat and as long as the connector tubes were attached to her body, she would always have a full lock on the ship’s sensors, and they would always be integrated with her own.
And they were telling her one thing. This was suicide. There was a very low possibility of success.
The Cartaxians obviously appreciated that in order for their land attack on South Korea to be successful, they needed to get the Endo out of the way, and to do that, they were going to gate him out of there.
That raised a rather important question. Why not just blast him off the street with one of the strike ship’s ionic pulse cannons? Sure, the guy was an Endo, and had some of the most sophisticated endoskeleton armor this side of the real Milky Way – but a few concentrated blasts of an ionic pulse cannon would scatter that armor over the Korean Peninsula.
But they weren’t doing that. Which was another important indicator that the Cartaxians had something else planned.
She knew enough about the war-loving race to appreciate how they usually behaved – and this wasn’t it. though they loved hand-to-hand combat, and there was nothing they enjoyed more than striking fear into the hearts of their prey before ripping said hearts free from their prey’s chests, they were also in it for the ultimate victory that lay at the end of a successful battle. And there was no good reason the Cartaxians should be engaging in such protracted warfare.
“What are you thinking about?” Harry demanded.
Linh took a moment to answer him. She rolled her eyes. “I’m thinking this is suicide, but there’s… a tiny chance it might work.”
“Okay, then we take hold of that tiny chance—”
“Don’t you dare say that we take hold of that tiny chance and we hope. Hope is not going to come into this equation. Overcoming and adjusting for astronomical chance will.”
Harry nodded competently, almost as if he were accepting the mission on her behalf. “Okay, then we do that. Now tell me what to do. Is the South Korean Army still functional? What kind of message can I get out?”
Linh winced. Then she tilted her head back and finally started to think. “We need to concentrate on the gate ship that’s approaching. As soon as it reaches Seoul, that Endo is done for. I don’t care what kind of armor he’s got, they’re going to open a gate above him and whisk him away, as well as half of the city.”
“Do we have anything that could take a gate ship down?” Harry demanded.
“I assume by we you mean the humans. The answer is no. Technically.”
“Technically?” Harry’s voice did it again, and she heard unmistakable hope soar through it almost like a bird reaching for heaven.
She half groaned. “It is not necessarily the quality of weapons that make the difference in a battle—”
“But the quality of intelligence and how you use it. That’s where you come in. Just tell me what to do,” Harry demanded once more.
Linh sat all the way back in her command seat and closed her eyes.
She tuned in. She didn’t want to do this. But Harry was right, and she had no choice.
If humanity had a chance, they needed that Endo.
So it was time to show the Cartaxians just why a battle mind was so damn dangerous.
This Amal – the Centauri, as he called himself – seemed to think Nick was something special. Something worthy of protection.
Nick didn’t need to be able to read people’s emotional expressions to appreciate that. He could… feel it coming in from Amal.
Amal had already claimed his race had the unique ability to touch people’s minds, and Nick could confirm that.
Or at least whatever the hell was happening to Nick’s body could confirm that.
Nick desperately needed the opportunity to stop, stand still for several minutes, and truly gauge what was happening to him. He had to take stock of these astounding changes to his body.
He didn’t have that option.
London was falling.
Not the bridges and buildings. Not Westminster, not Buckingham Palace.
The people protecting it were falling while the city itself remained eerily fine.
Though all Nick wanted to do was find every single Cartaxian warrior he could and blast through them, Amal wouldn’t let him. He kept muttering something about the Accords, and how if he allowed Nick to be hurt, he’d be breaking them.
Nick had no idea what these Accords were, but his body did. Just as his body had known what the Cartaxians were when Amal had mentioned them.
And more importantly than that… just as his body had known what a Rayar was.
That was Nick.
What he’d always been.
On the inside.
He’d never been a human struggling to get by. He’d been… some kind of illusion. Something that had been painted to look like a human while its true nature remained hidden within.
The old Nick would have crumbled under this knowledge. The new Nick was caught between his human side and something growing inexorably from within. This strength the likes of which he could never have imagined previously.
Amal locked a hand on Nick’s head, forcing him forward and down into a tube station.
Nick expected to see people huddling out of the way, but he saw nothing.
The center of the city had been evacuated, save for the soldiers still battling selflessly above.
“We have to get back up there,” Nick spat.
“Trust me, Rayar. Please,” Amal said, and Nick could feel his desperation. Which was saying something. Amal seemed to be unflappable. And yet at the prospect that Nick could be harmed, his façade of control always broke.
They ran down the steps, Amal’s boots striking discarded gun magazines and chunks of concrete that had fallen from the ceiling above.
They got to the base of the stairs, but Amal suddenly stopped, throwing out an arm and catching Nick around the middle before he could take another step.
He didn’t need to ask Amal what the problem was. He could feel it himself. His extended senses started to pick up the barely perceptible sound of footfall. Heavy as hell, and not coming from a man’s foot.
“Dammit,” Amal spat bitterly under his breath. He twisted his head wildly from side to side, and Nick could tell he was looking for a way out. But just before he could push further down into the tube station and take his chances, Nick picked up yet more heavy armored footfall.
Amal didn’t bother to swear again. He grabbed hold of Nick’s shoulder, turned him around, and pulled him up the stairs.
But up on the city streets, it was arguably worse.
The constant blare of gunfire echoed through the air, and yet it didn’t reach as far as it should.
Amal had already pointed out to Nick that the Cartaxians had put in place some kind of sound-buffering force field over London. It was there to interfere with people’s natural senses, to disorient them, to give the Cartaxians a further edge.
And yet, for some reason, it wasn’t working on Nick. As his body transformed into a Rayar, his new sense of hearing was piercing through the veil of that force field.
Though he could hear most things, he was still vaguely aware of them being muted as if someone had thrown a thick blanket over the scene.
Amal pulled him all the way up to the top of the steps, pausing for half a second before he yanked Nick forward with all his might.
They both ran together, skidding several meters until they stopped behind a double-decker bus that had been thrown on its side.
Nick’s bare feet crushed the glass beneath him, but it would take more – much more to cut him.
Amal appeared to judge the scene, but rather than his eyes darting around as he looked for a way out, Nick could feel it again as the Centauri relied on his mental senses instead.
It was like… a wave. A warm, energetic wave that spread out in every direction.
If it weren’t for its warmth, maybe Nick wouldn’t have trusted Amal when he’d come across him. And maybe Nick would now be dead.
But he’d since appreciated that Amal was firmly on his side.
“We need to make a run for it,” Amal whispered.
Amal shifted forward, his body compressed like a spring, and just as much energy locked in his muscles as he got ready to throw himself across the street to another bus that had been crumpled like aluminum foil.
But Nick stopped. Just before Amal could pull him away, Nick reached forward, locked a hand around the Centauri’s arm, and held him in place with all Nick’s growing strength.
Amal snapped his head around, his mouth opening, no doubt to ask Nick what he was doing. Then the Centauri stopped.
Nick watched and felt as desperate, gut-pounding realization pulsed through the alien.
There were eight thumps.
Eight of them. All of them far heavier than a standard Cartaxian warrior.
“Legionnaires,” Amal hissed. “We have no chance,” he added.
Something in Nick wanted to tell Amal he was wrong. But that something wasn’t his alien side – it was his human side. The same human side that saw the Nick of old throw himself into battles, even when it seemed everything was lost.
But Nick could appreciate from the shaking certainty of his voice that Amal was not making this up. They were done for.
… Images started to flash before Nick’s eyes. Fast. Growing faster with every second.
Some of them were from his childhood. Some of them… felt as if they were from a time beyond that.
He… he swore he could see a planet below him. He swore he was looking out from a massive wide porthole, down to the glistening gem of Earth below.
He swore he could feel a hand on his shoulder as he contemplated his planet from orbit.
He almost heard a whisper by his ear, too. A rushed, hurried message.
But it didn’t last.
Because the bus suddenly jerked into Amal and Nick, throwing them forward and practically landing on top of them as two legionnaires blasted it with their pulse cannons.
Just as the metal buckled and started to superheat, Nick latched a hand on Amal’s shoulder and shoved him forward, pushing him out of the way and down the steps to the tube station to their left.
“Run. Take your chances with the two Cartaxian warriors below.”
“There’s no way I’m leaving you,” Nick spat.
“You don’t know your worth, Rayar. I do, and I must protect you. So run,” Amal had the time to say.
And he stood up.
“No,” Nick screamed.
He reached for Amal. Just as three legionnaires jumped up onto the side of the overturned double-decker, just as their bodies caught the growing light of dawn.
“Run,” Amal mouthed.
And the legionnaires got ready to fire.
A second before they could, they stopped.
Nick was no Centauri. He certainly couldn’t read the emotional states of minds, but even though he couldn’t see the Cartaxians’ faces, he could appreciate one thing. They stopped in fear, almost like birds seeing an eagle overhead.
“What?” Amal had the chance to stutter.
Then Nick saw it too. Something floating down, right above him.
At first it looked like nothing more than blue light, then he realized it was the form of a woman. A human woman.
Her head was directed at him.
“Peacekeeper,” one of the legionnaires spat. “You know the rules. You know the accord. Do not interrupt.”
“Peacekeeper?” Amal stuttered.
Nick may not have been traveling with Amal for long, but he could confidently say that he hadn’t yet heard this much emotion cracking through the Centauri’s voice.
It reminded Nick of one thing. A man on the edge of death finding salvation just before he could draw his last breath.
The woman continued to float down, her head still directed at Nick.
Despite the fact there were eight legionnaires around him, Nick couldn’t drag his eyes away from her. It wasn’t simply the inherent grace locked in her form as she shifted down like a vision from heaven. It was the way she couldn’t tear her eyes off him.
“Peacekeeper, you know the Accords,” one of the legionnaires spat again. What they did not do, however, was attack. They looked exactly like roosters squawking at an eagle, wondering whether they could risk trying to drive it off, or wondering whether they would end up sacrificing themselves in the attack.
A lot of unknown words had affected Nick, from Cartaxian to Rayar. But Peacekeeper reached even deeper. All the way in, until he saw it again – a flash of that vision. A flash of him standing in a ship just above the Earth, staring down at that glittering beauty as someone stood beside him with a hand on his shoulder.
“Peacekeeper?” His lips moved of their own accord, and the word tumbled out with all the ease of a rose dropping its petals.
The Peacekeeper landed. There was no sound, and it wasn’t simply because the Cartaxian’s sound-dampening field was still in effect. It was because gravity didn’t seem to affect this woman.
She did not take her gaze off Nick once.
“Peacekeeper,” the legionnaire growled. “You have no right to interfere.”
“He’s a Rayar,” Amal stuttered from beside Nick. “You have to protect him. It’s part of the Accords.”
“You mustn’t interfere. Do, and it will threaten your race. We will bring this to the Universal Senate,” the legionnaire roared.
“You have a greater duty to protect a Rayar. You know that. Now do it,” Amal demanded.
Nick felt as if he was standing on a precipice, and the only thing that could save him and stop him from being pushed off into oblivion was this woman.
She took a step toward him. She reached out a hand.
He didn’t take it.
She planted it against his forehead, her light covered palm driving in as the sound of the battle for London echoed out behind.
He saw it. Clear now. Clearer than ever. That vision of observing Earth from that massive portal. The solid feel of that hand on his shoulder. More than anything, the sense of anticipation and duty.
It didn’t last.
The Peacekeeper removed her hand and stepped backward.
She stared at him. Though at first it appeared that her deep eyes could hold no emotion, he swore he saw something.
In his time in the Army, Nick had come across soldiers who’d had to bury themselves under layers of emotional control. You see enough blasted-apart bodies – you see enough destroyed families – and you’ll need to start building a wall to keep yourself together.
For a second, he saw that same wall in her gaze.
The legionnaire snapped. “Don’t interfere,” he blasted once more, and he threw himself at Nick, the Cartaxian’s massive arms slicing toward Nick’s head.
But just before it could impact and crush Nick’s skull with the ease of an egg cracking against the pavement, the Peacekeeper moved.
Nick couldn’t see it – even his advanced senses weren’t fast enough. But in the smallest unit of time, the Peacekeeper shifted, that glowing light around her form condensing into her palm until it formed a sword – one she used to slice right through the legionnaire.
Its powerful armor couldn’t do a thing. It was obliterated on impact.
The legionnaire’s armor didn’t turn to dust. It wasn’t burnt and broken up into chunks.
It simply disappeared, almost as if she’d burnt it at the atomic level, separating all of the energy trapped in each atom and somehow reabsorbing it back into her sword.
The other legionnaires backed off as one.
She faced them. Now the blue light that had once been covering her form had condensed into the sword in her hand, the wind caught her hair, sending it tumbling softly around her face. It framed her eyes. She never blinked. Even if she had, the move wouldn’t have been able to detract from the look in her gaze.
It was a look Nick had never encountered before, save for in art, save for statues from old.
When the great masters had tried to capture the look of powerful gods or heroes, they’d painted that look.
It seemed to be the perfect attainment of two states. Will and drive. The capacity to act, and the need to do so.
They came together in the Peacekeeper’s gaze as she leveled her sword between Nick and the legionnaires. “Under the accord, you can’t kill a Rayar.”
“And under the accord, you cannot intervene,” one of the legionnaires spat, but Nick fancied his voice stuttered with fear.
Nick watched as the woman flinched. It wasn’t in fear. It was with intention. Her free hand twitched, the fingers curling in, pressing hard against her palm.
He was drawn in by the move, completely captivated by it, in fact.
Again he felt as if he was standing on a cliff, and the only person who could save him was this woman. But he wasn’t standing on that cliff alone. The rest of humanity was there with him.
But just as hope could soar in his heart, she took a step back. She turned, latched a hand on Nick’s arm, and pushed up.
A split second before she lifted off into the air with all the ease of Superman, Nick grasped Amal’s wrist, and pulled him with them.
It took half a second before Nick was high above the city, staring down as the morning light lit up the streets.
Slowly he let his gaze tilt up as he locked it on the Peacekeeper. And slowly she let hers tilt down.
He stared into her eyes, and he saw it again. That emotional wall every true soldier has to build when they face horrors they can do nothing about.
But there was a difference – one key difference in her gaze.
It wasn’t that she could do nothing – it was that something was holding her back.
Nick had no idea what a Peacekeeper was, even if his alien side recognized the word.
But he could appreciate one thing. She could do what he couldn’t. She could save Planet Earth.
And he would do everything to ensure she did.
The end of Hena Day One. This series is complete, and you can buy all four episodes today.