Sunday, 19 June 2016

When the children come - chapter 2

I've not been blogging much recently, mainly because I've been working and traveling like crazy, and working on three novels simultaneously. Don't know what's got into me. But whatever it is, it is trying to get out.

So, here's chapter 2 of 'When the children come'. If you missed chapter 1, it's here.

It's about a man who hates kids. Then he notices they are disappearing. In fact they're being killed. And it turns out he's the only one who can save them.

Of course that's what it's about on the surface. What's it really about? Well, for that you'll have to read it.

Oh, and last time i'll say it, kids are disappearing, because they're being killed. The story isn't gratuitous about this, but it is central to the story, So if that turns you off, just don't read any further.

Chapter Two
Sally was well hidden in his Corvette, under a blanket, behind the driver’s seat. Lara rolled her eyes when she saw the red sports car. “Glad we can travel incognito,” she said.
            “At least it’s fast.”
            They got in. She popped open the glove compartment, pulled out its main item. “Loaded?”
            “You’re not a NRA nut, are you?”
            He shook his head, turned the ignition key and rolled the car up the ramp into the daylight. He pulled away fast enough to outpace three men who saw them emerge and walked towards them, but not so fast as to look suspicious. Once they were on the move, he spoke to Sally.
            “Sally, you can come out now.”
            “No. They mustn’t see me.”
            At least she was speaking. He’d not had a peep out of her yet. “Why don’t you tell us what’s going on?”
            There was a pause. “Timmy’s dead.”
            Nathan hit the brakes. The Corvette skidded to a halt.
            Sally shrieked. “Don’t stop! They’ll find me!”
            “Drive, Nathan,” Lara said.
            He stared at her, but Lara wasn’t looking at him. He followed her gaze to a cluster of men on the street corner looking his way. He smiled at the men, and took off again.
            “Who’s Timmy?” Lara asked.
            “Her younger brother,” Nathan answered. Sally was sobbing.
            They passed a rubbish truck. Not difficult, they seemed to be everywhere.
            “Holy fuck,” Lara said.
            “What?” He turned around to try and see what she’d just seen, but the truck was already behind them.
            “Just drive.” She fumbled with the lock on the glove compartment to get it open, pulled out the Glock, let it rest in her lap. “Don’t stop Nathan. Stay down Sally, you can come out when we’re out of here.” Lara gripped Nathan’s hand. He glanced at her. Her face had gone the same marble white as the running kid he’d seen earlier.
            His army training kicked in. His voice went into its flat mode. “Tell me,” he said. “What you just saw in the rubbish truck. Describe it to me.”
            Lara shrank back into the leather seat. “Kids,” she said. She glanced over her shoulder to where Sally was hidden, then back to Nathan, and said quieter, “Small children.”
            Nathan drove on, tried to process again, to stare things in the face. That was how you survived. See the world as it is, not as you think it is, not as you want it to be, but exactly as it is.
            Parents in the neighbourhood were killing their kids.
            Lara’s hand grew clammy. She didn’t talk any more.
They were effectively behind enemy lines, surrounded by hostiles. This had to be local. Maybe nerve gas, or a virus. Whatever was going on, normal rules no longer applied. Act like the locals, get Sally to a safe haven, Lara too, though he didn’t know if she was in any danger. Mags’ place in the country. Virginia. Their best bet. He thought about calling the Doc. But he was local, might be infected too. He’d call him later, then call some of his buddies in the Mil. But first, get the two civilians out of harm’s way.
It was a twenty minute drive to the highway. There shouldn’t be much traffic on New Year’s Day. He kept to the speed limits, but his accelerator foot remained tense, ready to floor the pedal if required. His window stayed open, and he listened as much as watched. He flinched at hearing a siren, but it was going the other way. Streets were still quiet, even the clusters of men had disappeared. Then he saw people queueing to get into a church. It was clearly packed. No kids. He turned on the radio but only got static, and an uneven beeping noise, like Morse, but faster. Each red light seemed to take forever, even though there was almost no traffic. He only breathed easier when he spied the ramp up to the Freeway. It was open, it was clear. 
            He talked Lara and Sally through his idea of what had happened, reassuring them. Sally stopped sobbing, Lara’s grip on his hand loosened. Lara and Sally started talking to each other once they hit the highway and evergreens began to appear.
             But for Nathan it was like Afghanistan had come to find him. Five years since he’d left, but right now it felt like yesterday. And though Manhattan receded far behind them and the promise of Virginia loomed up ahead, the miles to the exit slowly counting down like last night’s New Year clock, his gut wouldn’t let up. He kept expecting roadblocks, helicopters, mad axe-wielding men to come charging out in front of them like some zombie B-movie. But nothing happened, and an hour later he took the exit to Mags’ neighbourhood. It was going to be okay. It was safe after all. Lara drifted off, and Sally was quiet, no doubt asleep under the blanket.
            As he wound the car up the single track to Mags’ place, he gently prised the Glock from Lara’s fingers, and pocketed it inside his jacket. The car crunched up the gravel driveway to Mags’ ranch house, and he drew to a stop. No sound outside except the cool winter breeze in the barren sycamores.
            “We’re here,” he announced, waking them both.
Lara stirred. She looked for the Glock, guessed Nathan had it. “Give it to me,” she said.
“We’re not here to shoot my sister,” he countered. He reminded himself he knew almost nothing about Lara.
She wouldn’t let it go. “You’re making my point for me. Either give me the gun, or give me the car keys.”
Sally reared up from the back, her face puffy, that sleepy kid smell Nathan detested.
“Stay out of sight, Sally,” Lara said.
She ducked back down.
Out of the corner of his eye, Nathan saw a net curtain pull back, someone peer out from the house. Mags. She came out the door. She looked well. It was going to be okay. Nathan’s gut told him so.
“Neither,” he said to Lara, opened his door and got out.
“Fuck you!” Lara said.
Nathan ignored her, got out of the car, and started walking towards Mags. “Hello, Sis.” He held out his arms and his sister, shorter than him but wider, beamed, and they both entered into their habitual mock bear hug contest. Nathan closed his eyes and squeezed the only person in the world he truly trusted. He was home. He heard Lara walk up behind them.
“Hello Mags,” Lara said. “Us two thought we’d come and thank you for some great sex.” She smiled at Nathan. “Well, above average.”
Nathan returned the smile, but recognised what she was doing: hiding Sally. Lara walked towards Mags, hooked her arm, and walked her towards the house. “And you know how hungry it makes me.”
He followed her lead. Just before he entered by the front porch, he cast a look back to the car. His door wasn’t closed properly. Sally had moved into the bushes. Smart kid. And in that moment he suddenly wondered where Mags’ hubby Phil and the kids were.

Pancakes with maple syrup. Lara devoured three of them. Nathan knew Sally must be hungry, and would smell them from wherever she was hiding. He put two to one side, and glanced at Lara when Mags wasn’t looking, but Lara shook her head a fraction.
Mags chided him. “You gonna’ eat those or start a new religion, Nathan?”
“Yes, Nathan,” Lara joined in, “you didn’t seem to be into delayed gratification last night.”
He sighed and tucked in. “Why do girls always gang up on us men?”
“To keep you in your place, little brother.”
He finished up, leaned back into the deep sofa, nursing a large mug of coffee. Josh’s mug, Darth Vader and Yoda battling with light-sabres. For the first time he considered Yoda’s size. It looked like a child fighting a parent. To the death. He downed the rest of the coffee, bitter dregs catching on the back of his tongue. Mags took the mug and the plates into the kitchen, and started loading the dishwasher.
            “Where’s Josh?” he called out to her.
            The dishwasher closed with a soft click. Mags didn’t answer straight away. “Out back somewheres, with Archie and Phil.”
Lara caught his gaze, locked it in place. He felt compelled to play it out.
            “Can’t hear them, Mags.”
            Another pause. “Probably in the tree-house playing video games, headphones on, you know, disconnected from the real world, like most kids these days.” She came back into the lounge. Nathan’s cocoon of happiness punctured as he saw her face. It was as if she had two faces, one a loose mask over the other. On the surface she looked chummy, happy-go-lucky, but underneath she was drawn, wild. A carving knife hung from Mags’ right hand.
            Nathan swallowed. The Glock was in his jacket hanging by the porch door. Lara had been right. He kept his eyes on Mags.
            “All those years,” she said. “All those years, turns out you had it right, and the rest of us had it all wrong.” Mags glanced at Lara, then Nathan. “I don’t know how you both stood it.”
Mags’ two faces morphed back into one, a coldness rising to the surface. Nathan had seen that look before, a suicide bomber they’d cornered just in time in a village in Helmand Province, locked into his own tortured logic, no reasoning with him. No way back, just wanted to die and go to the afterlife. The Sarge obliged, via a bullet in the bomber’s re-coded brain. But this was Mags, his sister.
“That’s all changed now,” Mags said. “A fresh start.” Her face brightened, that same faraway look in her eyes as if she were glimpsing a better world. “Yes, a new beginning.” She stood between Nathan and Lara, while both of them sat in soft, deep chairs, hard to get out of in a hurry.
“It will all be fine when the children come.”
Nathan had no idea what she meant, but the way Mags looked at him he wasn’t sure it was a good idea to ask.
Lara piped up. “And when will they arrive, Mags?”
Mags turned to Lara, beatific smile gone. Her eyes narrowed. The hand with the knife waved casually at Nathan.
“Stay there, little brother, no need to run around after all that eating.” The knife twisted back towards Lara. “Don’t you know, girl?”
Nathan felt helpless, stuck in that damned sofa. If he tried to clamber out Mags could slash him and still cut Lara. But Lara kept her composure.
“Like you said, Mags, we knew better all along. I’m just checking that you know.”
Mags’ lips twisted. “Nice try.”
Nathan had to act. Mags wouldn’t cut him, he was her brother; that would come through. Anyway, he had to risk it. He launched himself forward as best he could, then dived as a flash of silver whipped past his left eye. He ended up on the floor. Mags screamed like a banshee and raised the knife high, eyes blazing.
His instincts and training kicked in as she fell on him. His foot rose like a piston into her chest as his left hand chopped into her forearm to block the knife, then seize her wrist. His right hand should have slammed into her carotid, but he couldn’t do it. She used all of her weight as she squirmed and shoved, and thumped his face with her free hand, scratching across his eyes so he couldn’t see, all the time screaming and grunting. She kneed him in the balls, and he almost lost his grip on her wrist, felt it slip. He was losing this. His little sister was going to kill him.
A loud crack, louder than thunder. Lara had found the Glock. Hot rain spattered his cheeks. He kept his eyes closed. Mags collapsed on him, dead weight. The knife clinked onto the floor. He let go of her wrist, caught her head and lowered it next to his, like they were embracing. He held her, wrapped her in his arms, fingers clasped behind her back, one last bear hug. Nathan began to sob, just like Sally earlier.

            “Don’t go up there,” Sally said, her body stiff, her hands in small fists by her side.
            Nathan stared up the sturdy oak tree to his hiding place of old, his and Mags’ one refuge from the folks. It looked peaceful. He spotted bird movement in the top-most branches, high above the wooden tree house. Crows. Carrion birds. The rope ladder beckoned. How long since he’d last climbed it? The space between the rungs was smaller than he remembered. Gripping the ladder with both hands, he began the ascent.
            Even before he arrived, he could hear the tell-tale buzzing of insects around a fresh corpse. He paused at the top of the ladder, staring through the doorway. Phil had tried to protect the boys, that much was clear from the gashes to his arms, and the hole in his chest... Mags had slit the two boys’ throats, and it suddenly occurred to him he’d not asked Sally how Timmy had been killed. The three of them looked peaceful, Phil in the middle, the boys on each side in his arms. There were blankets, flashlights, books, all in disarray; Phil and the boys had this yearly ritual of staying up till dawn to see the New Year in. Phil would say that otherwise all your New Year’s resolutions departed with your dreams upon waking. Mags would have none of it, saying it was a dumb idea to start the New Year bleary-eyed and sleep-deprived. Phil hadn’t been too successful, unemployed on and off, scraping through the hard years like so many, but he’d been a good father, one Nathan would have traded for his own in a second.
            Nathan climbed back down.  
“We should bury them,” Sally said.
            Lara eyed him. “What do you think, Nathan?”
            He’d barely spoken to Lara, didn’t know what to say. He’d known her less than twenty-four hours and in that time they’d become lovers, and she’d saved his life by killing his sister. He needed to call someone, get the military involved. He looked up at the sky. No planes, no choppers, yet this house was underneath the flight path to Baltimore International Airport. His ‘local epidemic’ theory wasn’t looking good.
            He couldn’t climb back up there. He looked to Lara, then Sally, both standing apart. Like him, they were barely holding it together. He strode towards the garage.
            “Where are you going?” Lara said.
            “To get some kerosene.”

Working with Lara, he checked the TV channels while she searched the Internet. Even Sally tried, after she found a tablet. Nothing. The Internet was down. The TV was bare, except one channel that had irregular red flashes that gave him a headache. The cell network was down. The landline was dead. It was as if they’d been invaded, without a single bullet being fired, the whole state shut down. He suddenly wondered if it could be some kind of cyber-security attack. That could explain the shutdown, but not the behaviour.
            “Eat something, Sally,” he said.
            “Not hungry,” she replied.
            “Do as you’re told,” he snapped, then caught himself. Jesus, just like his father. “Sally, we’re leaving soon, I don’t know when we’ll next be able to eat. Please.”
            She glared at him, then ran to the kitchen. Cupboard doors slammed, then he heard cereal dumped into a dish, milk sloshed over it.
            Lara appeared. “I found this in the garage.” She handed him a VHF radio, along with the charger. He took it, inspected it, then set it down carefully, knowing it might be the one thing that could get them out of this mess. He watched Lara. Her lips were pressed together, her movements unsure, lacking the grace that had so attracted him last night. 
            “Listen,” he began.
            “No. Don’t you dare forgive me for killing Mags. Don’t thank me either, I was aiming for her chest. Nearly took your head off.” 
He held out his hand, but she didn’t take it.
“We should get moving,” she said.
While Lara got Sally and some provisions into the car, Nathan went back out to the garden, and lit the fuse he’d made earlier from torn sheets. Eager flames licked up the rope ladder, and spread under the tree house.

He drove into the hills, glancing every now and again in the mirror, the pillar of smoke from the tree house barely visible in the late afternoon sky. The VHF sat on the dashboard, crackling once in a while, that fast morse-like code rattling more often than he liked. He’d tried to raise anyone, but just got static.
He found the spot he’d been looking for and pulled over. It was a viewpoint at the top of a zig-zag road ascending the highest hill around. An overflowing trash can and enough room for several cars, a stone-mounted plaque noting an ancient battle site far below against the British. They all got out and approached the edge. You could see for twenty miles. His parents had brought him and Mags here every Sunday he could remember. After each of his two tours, he had come up here to try and anchor himself back into normal life, never truly sure on which side of the looking glass he’d landed. He shaded his eyes. The waxy yellow sun would set in a couple of hours. Pulling out a flask of coffee, he poured a cup for him and Lara, while Sally dug out a Coke Zero.
            Lara stood next to him. He felt the touch of her body. She cleared her throat. “What do you suppose she meant?”
            Nathan closed his eyes. Mags was gone, the kids too. His head spun for a second, his body tensing. He opened his eyes. Lara moved away a fraction, no longer in contact.
“What do you mean?” he said.
            “When the children come.” She moved in front of him. “I don’t get it. They’re killing all the kids. Do they think they’re coming back? Some kind of resurrection?” She walked away, kicked hard at a stone, booting it off the edge. He’d never been allowed to do that.
            NFI, he thought, a joke from the war. No fucking idea. He glanced at Sally. She sat on the edge, her feet dangling over the two hundred foot drop, just like he had all those years ago, secretly hoping his parents would tell him to come back, that it was dangerous. They never even got out of the car.    
            Sally played with the Coke can, shoulders slumped, body listless. Crushed. He put down his coffee, walked right behind her and picked her up, startling her, Lara too. The can pitched over the edge. Sally began fighting him, kicking, thumping his chest with her tiny fists, re-enacting Mags’ attack. “Let me go!” she yelled, as he returned to the car. He held her tight, let her pummel him, till she stopped and buried her head in his shoulder, her body wracked by sobs. She wrapped her small arms around his neck. Lara came over, stared at him awhile.
            “What are we going to do, Nathan?”
The radio crackled alive. A voice, foreign. He could have laughed, life was always best at cruel jokes.
            “What the hell is that?” Lara asked.
Sally lifted her head, her red-rimmed eyes large, hoping he had all the answers, knowing he probably didn’t.
But this time he did. “It’s Afghan,” he said. He put a hand on Lara’s shoulder, and spoke to both of them. “They’re calling for people like us, people not affected.”
Putting Sally down, he picked up the radio, and began talking in pidgin Dari, coming back to English when it got too complex. He had to keep his eyes open, stare out at Virginia, had to remind himself he wasn’t back there. He had to trust these people. It helped that for the first five minutes they clearly didn’t trust him.  
When he finished, he turned to see Lara and Sally waiting, holding hands.
“Let’s go,” he said, then squatted down to Sally’s level. “I’ve found some more kids,” he said.
Sally’s face lit up.
            As they drove onward into dusk, he spotted a police barricade far ahead, lights flashing, and pulled onto a side road. Lara got out the map, and Nathan hugged the small empty roads. It grew dark. He kept his headlights off.
            Lara glanced back to see Sally asleep, then turned back to Nathan. “Why do you think we aren’t affected? It can’t be just because we don’t like kids?”
            “Don’t know. At least we’re not the only ones,” he said, pointing straight ahead to a compound resembling an old fort. As they pulled up, floodlights blinked on, dazzling him, waking Sally with a shriek. He came to a stop, guessed what was coming. He put a hand over Lara’s as heavy footsteps rushed towards them, people yelling in Pashto and Dari and something else, way too fast for him to decipher. Within seconds he felt the familiar cold metal ring that was the pointed end of an AK47 jabbed into his cheek.
            Sally had bolted down behind the seat again. Over their shouting, and in the haze of the floodlights and hand-held flashlight-beams, he spoke calmly to Sally.
            “Sally, I need you to sit up and show yourself. Trust me, they’re on your side. Do it now please, or we’re all dead.”

            The rifle’s nozzle shoved harder, but when Sally stood up in the back, the voices changed tone, and the men withdrew. More shouting, and several women dressed in traditional knee-length skirt and trouser outfits – panjabbi, he recalled – walked quickly from the compound towards the car. When they saw Sally, they broke into a run, arms out-stretched, ululating a familiar welcoming cry. Nathan thought back to his tours in Helmand Province – no prizes for guessing what the guys had nicknamed it – but for the first time since his return, he admitted there were things about it he missed.

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Fighting for the enemy

Something of a trope in science fiction is when a hero becomes trapped or brainwashed into working for the enemy. Usually, by the end, the tables are turned, and the hero exacts revenge. But what if the enemy turns out to be right? What if the hero truly goes native? What if he starts believing the enemy is right?

I'm reading Neal Asher's Dark Universe at the moment, and this is one of the recurring motifs in the book. But my first encounter with this idea was the 1962 taut cold war thriller, the Manchurian Candidate, in which a platoon of men are captured, brainwashed, and then sent home to US soil. In the truly epic Dune series by Frank Herbert, there is much betrayal by people coerced into working for the enemy. As a reader, you want them to rebel, to say 'no', enough is enough, to see the larger picture, that their small world is not a good enough reason to sacrifice the bigger one. Of course, that's easy to say when it's not you being coerced.

When I used to watch the original Star Trek series, I remember wondering about the Klingons - were they really so bad? Wasn't this some kind of inter-species racism being portrayed? Sure enough, later on, the Klingons were seen as an honorable warrior culture, and fight alongside humans to defeat the galactic threat in the best of all the series, Deep Space Nine, where dirty politics, deception and duplicity run rife, even inside Starfleet. So, that got me thinking, and taking it one step further. What if an alien race had almost annihilated humanity. Could one of the survivors be persuaded to help them afterwards? 

In my first SF book, the Eden Paradox, there is a secondary character, a general, who is in the background most of the time fighting to save Earth from the Q'Roth. He disappears at the end of the book, presumed dead. But he returns in the third book, Eden's Revenge, some eighteen years later, transformed into a Q'Roth warrior. More to the point, they've made him a general, and sent him into battle against a galactic invader... So, where do his loyalties lie? And if he gets the chance to take out an entire Q'Roth fleet, will he take it? 

If Jorann had still been human he’d have shaken himself. The Q’Roth had been his sworn enemy, that much he remembered; he’d nuked a quarter of a million of the warriors in the last days of the fall of Earth. Then he’d been captured and offered a stark choice – join forces or die. He’d spat at Sister Esma, told her where to go, and she’d obliged him by venting him into space. But she’d downloaded his memories beforehand and taken enough DNA to produce a hybrid clone. She told him later that the Q’Roth leaders usually got what they wanted – in this case his intuitive battle strategies. Initially they’d tested the clone without his memories, but its performance had been rudimentary. So they’d uploaded his personality, and he’d woken, surprised to be alive, and then disgusted at what they’d turned him into – a six-legged, black-carapaced three metre tall Q’Roth warrior. 
His trapezoidal head had a lipless gash of a mouth that rarely opened, communication achieved instead by stone-like throat muscles that clicked and grated in Q’Roth language whose sound reminded him of rustling leaves and grinding rocks. Instead of eyes he had six vermillion slits, like razor cuts, arranged in two opposing pairs sloping diagonally downwards toward the centre of his forehead. Although the slits occasionally oozed blood-like sweat, Q’Roth warriors could not cry. That suited Jorann just fine.
He only wished he could remember his human name.
“Bring the Hunters forward, they go in hot,” he signaled the other battleships. There was no reply, no confirmation – Q’Roth war tactics were largely silent, they would only speak if they disagreed. But he knew they also disliked talking to him, let alone taking commands from a hybrid once-human. Yet this was his battle strategy, his call. Pride and prejudice were irrelevant today; if he had miscalculated, they would all be dead very soon.
For seven years he’d refused to cooperate with his Q’Roth captors. But they kept taking him on missions. He witnessed the inexorable slaughter as the invader Qorall slashed and burned his way across the galaxy, and Jorann knew where the remnants of humanity lay – right in Qorall’s path. They wouldn’t last a second. Four ships full of human cargo had fled the Q’Roth’s culling of Earth eighteen years earlier, and without doubt still saw the Q’Roth and their Alician cohorts as their principal enemy. But Jorann had seen many species far more malevolent; he knew how brutal the galaxy could be, and Qorall put even those alien races to shame.
So, here he was, fighting alongside the species who had almost erased mankind. He even had command of a four hundred crew, kilometer-long battleship, sculpted from obsidian Scintarelli tree-metal and shaped like Thor’s hammer, dripping with weapons turrets. If he’d wanted to, he could cause it to self-destruct or fire on the other Q’Roth ships and take out as many as possible. He had enough command overrides on the Bridge, and was alone – his lieutenants worked a deck below in Tactical. But futile bravado had never been his style. He’d learned that to survive in this galaxy you had to play the long game.
“Your guest is en route.” A voice message from Granch, the senior commander, interrupted his thoughts. The fact that Granch had announced it fleet-wide was significant. Perhaps he finally trusted Jorann, or more likely he wanted all his troops to be focused and follow commands. In any case, it was good that the ‘guest’ was en route; Jorann’s whole strategy depended on it.
Jorann knew the nine other senior commanders never fully trusted him, despite his strong performance in the last dozen battles. He’d saved most of the fleet from near disaster in the Ossyrian sector less than a week ago, seconds after Qorall fired an anti-matter cluster into its sun, triggering a superflare, engulfing four defending fleets and two of Jorann’s destroyer squadrons unable to jump fast enough. Still, to his colleagues, Jorann was an aberration. One of them had even fired on Jorann’s flagship a month earlier during a firefight. Qorall had surprised them all by launching planets through a wormhole at the third largest Q’Roth shipyard, after destabilising their cores to turn them into world-sized grenades. None of them, even the oldest Q’Roth warriors from the Antechratian Campaign five centuries earlier, had ever seen anything like this level of carnage or firepower. The errant commander who’d fired – luckily Jorann had just raised his shields – confessed his misdemeanour and took the honourable way out, piloting a Hunter vessel stacked with atomics deep into enemy space, taking out one of Qorall’s supply convoys.
He checked his displays, densely packed with Q’Roth three-dimensional script no normal human could ever hope to fathom. Sixty seconds till they emerged and met the leading edge of Qorall’s forces.
Jorann understood the Q’Roth sense of frustration – they were warriors, foot-soldiers of the highest calibre, space dog-fighters extraordinaire. But such skills were useless against Qorall’s Inferno Class weaponry. Moreover, Qorall’s strategy eluded the galaxy’s indigenous species – he did not seem interested in the spoils of war, whether worlds, technologies, or resources, except for swelling the ranks of his armies and navies. Instead, he spread inexorably across the galaxy like a cancer. What perplexed Jorann in particular was that the arrowhead of Qorall’s general front had from the start charted a course towards the new homeworld of humanity, Esperia. It didn’t make sense: mankind – what was left of it – was as much a threat to Qorall as an ant was to a Q’Roth warrior. And yet through eighteen years, despite brief deviations, Qorall’s forces held this course. Perhaps that was one reason the Q’Roth High Guard wanted to keep Jorann alive.
His ex-humanity lowered his standing amongst the commanders’ ranks. He had no Q’Roth ‘friends’, and certainly never any female companionship – which would have been a step too far in any case. Despite being in the largest army in the galaxy, and having four hundred crewmembers on his ship under his command, he often felt completely alone. He’d learned to live with it, channeling his energies into battle tactics and strategies. That was all that kept him going; quite Q’Roth, he realized. But he sensed he had had a vibrant social life before, when human; a wife, friends, camaraderie. But there were so many holes in his memory, locked away somehow, the key being his original name. If only he could remember it. He didn’t want to go to his grave as Jorann; he wanted his human name, whatever it was. Surely he deserved that much? But after eighteen years as a Q’Roth, and perhaps even as a military commander back on Earth, he knew that ‘deserved’ had nothing to do with it. And so he’d prefer his grave, if there ever was one, to be unmarked.
As with all front-line commanders, his nights were numbered. Yet the Q’Roth High Guard grew increasingly desperate – they had lost thirty-three battles in a row, more than eight thousand ships; they couldn’t keep taking those kinds of losses. This mission was different. Jorann had outlined a new strategy, enlisting the aid of the mysterious Tla Beth, the very top layer of the Grid hierarchy, who were apparently pure energy creatures whose Homeworld remained a closely-guarded secret. One of them was venturing out from their hyper-dimensional safe haven where they strategized, moving ships and inter-stellar counter-measures on trans-dimensional maps that no species below Level Fifteen understood. The Q’Roth all but worshipped the Tla Beth, and if anything happened to this one… But that was why they’d recruited Jorann into their ranks in the first place, to think outside the sphere. He prayed his gambit would work.
The normally green display in front of him flashed blood red, and the Q’Roth equivalent of adrenaline surged through his arteries. Jorann deplored war and its inevitable carnage, but he nevertheless felt the thrill of battle he’d known so many times before. He’d always been a career soldier, and was never more alive than when his life was on the line, knowing he could be killed at any second. His upper claw hovered above the ‘fire’ button during the extended jump into Qorall-controlled space.
His fleet re-materialised as planned, the enemy’s flotilla dead ahead, and he and nine other commanders unleashed the planet-breakers. Waves of energy whipped like fluorescent barbed wire at the darkly translucent, bubble-shaped shield protecting the enemy’s ships. Secondary artillery fired automatically, spewing volleys of energy pulses and strange-matter-tipped missiles, which crashed into the energy barrier like psychedelic hail on glass. He hated using strange-matter weapons. Aside from their precarious nature – they sometimes ‘went off’ before being fired – they tended to rip the space-time fabric, leaving jagged potholes for any traffic transiting through the affected sector. But as the Q’Roth were in permanent retreat, that hardly mattered, and conventional atomics and anti-matter artillery seemed to have no effect on these shields. In any case, as had happened the last three times he’d encountered this enemy formation, the shield remained intact. The enemy’s strategy was simple – they would wait until the Q’Roth forces had expended considerable firepower, then lower the shield and attack. Jorann’s gash of a mouth opened a crack and a hiss issued forth.
As planned, five Q’Roth Hunter Class crab-shaped ships broke formation and hurtled toward the sphere. Ten other Q’Roth destroyers vectored particle weapons around the tightly-packed quintet, creating a halo of white plasma fire around them, as they converged toward a single point on the barrier’s surface, inflicting the heat of a hundred suns. In eighteen years of warfare, no one had successfully breached one of these shields, and Qorall’s army had remained unstoppable, conquering more than half the known galaxy, laying waste to any sector refusing to surrender.
Jorann’s claw squeezed hard as the glare of the beams blotted out all the stars. Now would be good… On cue, his ‘guest’ appeared. A small Tla Beth single-occupant ship, iridescent blue and shaped like a gyroscope, popped into existence behind the five Q’Roth Hunters, sucked along in their wake. Steady… He’d not been able to ‘talk’ with the Tla Beth directly, having instead to explain his strategy through several layers of intermediaries. He accepted this state of affairs – after all, he was a mere Q’Roth, Level Six intelligence standard, and the Tla Beth were Level Seventeen. He’d never even seen one up close. He hoped the upward briefings had been effective.
Intel on the holo dashboard contained nothing but bad news: the barrier was holding. Their drenching of the shield with enough energy to rend apart a star was looking increasingly like a suicide dash. If any more Q’Roth ships joined in with their weapons, the radiation backlash would fry their compatriots. Still, he’d seen too many futile deaths.
He signalled, “Break off?” to Granch, but already guessed the answer, which remained unspoken. His suggestion was broadcast to all commanders simultaneously using the mind-plexing system the Tla Beth had granted them, enabling them to communicate and react as one. Humans could never use such augments, it would sound like a deafening cacophony and paralyse them; one of the advantages of being Level Six. He imagined his own standing amongst his commanders had dropped a notch for even suggesting aborting the charge.
Space appeared to ignite as the Hunters pummelled into the shield, vaporizing on impact, cremating their crews. Fifty. He always counted the dead; he’d never know their names, but the least he felt he could do was to recognize the sacrifice of those under his command. The explosion would have burned out his retinas if he’d still been human, but instead the six slits on his trapezoidal head oozed a little more vermillion than usual, rending the scene blood red. He missed human vision, but then his Q’Roth senses allowed him to see what no human eye could have. Amidst the explosive swirl of plasma boiling off into space, the Tla Beth craft launched a missile of unknown origin directly at the glowing area of the barrier wall, which sprouted electric blue fractures, then shattered as the toy-like Tla Beth ship rammed it. Jorann’s mouth-gash widened into something approaching a grin. Fire and ice – smart bastards.
Jorann wasted no time. His flagship and four other battleships supported by ten destroyers jumped according to a pre-ordered pattern, and punched their way through the fissure. Finally! A message from Granch appeared fleet-wide, a staccato Q’Roth phrase translating as “Kill them all, no prisoners, leave nothing alive.”
But as soon as Jorann was inside he knew something was wrong. His battleship stuttered, its engines faltered, losing speed. Black ships shaped like sea urchins approached, but the beam weapons he fired on them dispersed like a lamp in fog; letting loose the planet-breaker would simply backfire on his own ships. It took him a second to recognise what was happening: they weren’t in normal space anymore – it looked like so-called ‘empty’ space, but it had a much higher density.
He ignored the storm of comms from other commanders; instinctively he knew what it was – he’d been a nuclear submarine commander back on Earth a lifetime ago, and knew how a craft handled in space, and in water. They were in a very low density, transparent fluid. Some of the Grid scientists had conjectured this possibility, how some form of unknown ‘liquid space’, presumably from Qorall’s galaxy, could make the shield more resilient, offering internal pressure, and dampening any energy-based attack on it.
“Torpedoes!” he barked in Largyl 6, the formal Q’Roth command language. His battleship spattered the nearest enemy ship, and he relaxed as he saw hundreds of other Q’Roth-launched intelligent missiles to port and starboard, snaking their way through the invisible medium, homing onto their targets. He recognised the enemy ship design: Mannekhi, Level Five. So, they’d joined ranks with Qorall. Not surprising, they’d been treated like dirt by Grid Society for eons. But such defections bled away effort that should have been targeted at the real foe.
The Mannekhi ships returned fire, purple pulses spitting from their spines, unaffected by the fluidic space. He ignored the battering as the energy bursts slammed into his battleship, keeping one sensory slit focused on the damage indicator, dropping slowly from ninety-three per cent. At fifteen per cent his ship would implode. He leaned forward, two of his six slits trying to see what was behind the ranks of Mannekhi vessels. His battle instincts kicked in; he had a bad feeling…
The enemy sea urchin in front of him ignited, a third of its spines flaring before melting. Something nagged at him; a seed of doubt growing fast, but he and the other commanders drove on. This was the first time they were actually progressing; for eighteen years it had been a cycle of defeat, retreat, re-group, attack, defeat. He checked that the other ships outside the sphere had installed a stent to ensure the hole didn’t close; he didn’t want to be trapped inside a galactic pitcher plant.
His battleship forged through three ranks of Mannekhi ships, decimating dozens. Fifty-three per cent integrity left. That meant casualties. Connection broke with three destroyers whose hulls were less protected. Jorann and his fellow Q’Roth commanders were winning, but the attrition rate was punishing. He sent a coded message up the chain to the Tla Beth: . He knew how many Q’Roth were vanishing in this battle, but that would pale into insignificance against losing a single Tla Beth.
Amidst the flashes and blossoming flares of space battle – his lieutenants and the automatic systems handling the Mannekhi ships – his old rage unexpectedly surfaced. He recalled watching as the Q’Roth purged a dying Earth of its atmosphere and all its water, all its life. When he’d first emerged as a Q’Roth clone, he’d promised himself one day that he would exact revenge, seizing an opportunity to eradicate a large number of Q’Roth. And here it was. If he turned and opened fire on the other battleships, the Mannekhi would not stop to question, and together they would annihilate the Seventh Fleet. He’d promised himself that he’d never empathize with his blood enemy, the Q’Roth, no matter what. Seven billion people wiped out, he reminded himself.
Five years ago he would have done it without hesitation. But he didn’t know himself anymore. What he did know was that against all odds, Blake and Micah and thousands of other humans had survived, safely quarantined on Esperia, the so-called spider planet, protected by a Level Twelve shield and Ossyrian guardians. But the quarantine – always intended as a temporary measure – would come down soon, and Jorann wanted to hold back Qorall as long as possible. If they had any sense, as soon as quarantine ended, mankind’s refugees would run like hell to the far end of the galaxy.
And if Jorann somehow met them one day – Micah, Blake and the others – he wouldn’t expect them to understand. He’d be quite happy if they dealt out rough justice, court-martialed him for treason as a Q’Roth sympathizer and executed him. That would be more than okay.
A shudder, as a crumbling enemy ship rammed his own ineffectually, jolted him back into the present. The Tla Beth ship was still there, buzzing about like a mosquito, occasionally visible, then moving too fast for even Q’Roth vision to keep up. What was it doing? Why hadn’t it left? But he knew why: curiosity. Like him, it was trying to determine what was lurking in the background. The Mannekhi ships had given up firing at the Tla Beth ship, their sprays of purple pulses failing to touch it.
Jorann’s ship nudged through more wrecked sea urchins and dispatched Hunter Class vessels from his bays to clean up the mess – just as well, he’d run out of torpedoes. He ignored the charred corpses drifting around cracked hulls – the Mannekhi were humanoid in shape, the only species he’d seen that resembled humanity. More than once he’d wondered if they were distant cousins. Too bad, they’d chosen the wrong side.
The last row of sea-urchin ships was white instead of black, burning bright, masking whatever was behind. Seven Q’Roth ships remained active inside the shield-bubble; five others including two battleships were now debris. Two destroyers limped back to the stent. Jorann knew that their commanders and crew would have preferred to fight to the death, but the Q’Roth ship-yards were finding it hard to keep up with daily losses, so any ship not obliterated was towed back for re-conditioning.
The tiny Tla Beth ship spun into view ahead of Jorann, and fired a metastaser – a weapon he’d only heard rumours of until now. Orange light bathed one of the sea urchins then leapt across to adjacent ships, spreading outwards to the entire array, latching onto any material with a Mannekhi signature, ignoring Q’Roth ships. The sea urchins shimmered then exploded one by one, opening up a gap in the final defence perimeter.
That was when he saw it. His claws flexed defensively of their own accord. It was darker than anything around it, a slug-shaped hole in space. Except that it writhed. One of the fabled dark worms. As he tried to take it in, to see any features, a priority message plexed into his mind: the stent was collapsing. His gun turrets trained on the worm, fifty times the size of his battleship, but he didn’t fire – he’d read the reports. One of his fellow commanders lit it up with focused particle beams, but as Jorann had heard before, no sooner had the beams touched the worm’s vacuum-hardened flesh, than black tendrils traced their way back to the firing ship – as if they could latch onto light – and yanked the ship towards the worm with alarming speed, enveloping it inside its dark folds.
He now knew why the Mannekhi and the liquid space had been present: to exhaust the Q’Roth’s supply of torpedoes. Even so, he wasn’t sure they could really have inflicted much damage. These fabled creatures usually inhabited the null-space between galaxies, surviving on dark energy and any vessel foolish enough to attempt such a voyage. Qorall had used the worms in the first battle to breach the galactic barrier, but they’d hardly been seen since, and most in the Alliance had hoped they had returned home. Jorann sent a priority message to those outside the stent, to dispatch one ship immediately back to the High Guard with news of this development.
The worm slithered towards the Tla Beth ship. Why wasn’t the Tla Beth running? The other commanders were eerily silent. Breaking protocol, he tried contacting the Tla Beth ship directly on the emergency channel, but there was not even a transponder response.
He skimmed through sensor readings and then his mind snagged on one: the worm had emitted a dark energy spike that had been off the scale, directed at the Tla Beth ship. No one knew much about Tla Beth tech or physiology, but Qorall must have somehow gained intel on their weak spots. But then another thought struck him: how had Qorall known a Tla Beth would be present? The idea of a corrupt Q’Roth was impossible. Never mind, he told himself, that would have to wait.
Qorall’s tactic was suddenly clear to him: all this slaughter had been a ploy with a single objective: to destroy – or more likely capture – a Tla Beth, the highest level of intelligence in the galaxy. Qorall wanted one, presumably alive, to study. The Tla Beth were the only species of any real threat to him, and Qorall didn’t know enough about them, coming from a different galaxy. Jorann understood the importance of military intelligence: if Qorall captured a Tla Beth…
He mindplexed the other commanders, not bothering to apologise for involving the Tla Beth in the first place; that was in the past now, and regret wasn’t in the Q’Roth psychological lexicon.
Immediately the two remaining battleships lurched forward to place themselves between the worm and the Tla Beth ship. Jorann received a message the commanders appending the Q’Roth equivalent of “Sir”. In all Jorann’s years serving with them, even when he’d led entire fleets, they’d never used it. He understood why – for the first time they’d penetrated one of Qorall’s fleet spheres and had gained valuable intelligence, even if they now risked losing one of their masters. Jorann had an instinct to salute them and their imminent sacrifice, but his Q’Roth anatomy wouldn’t do it justice. Nor did he return with “Good luck” – Q’Roth warrior culture scorned such concepts.
Instead he spun his ship into action, plotting a loop-and-catch manoeuvre that would push more ‘G’s than human physiology could have handled. Using a gravity web he snatched up the inert Tla Beth craft into the main hold. As he raced back toward the collapsing stent, the liquid space increased its density, slowing his ship down. That made him realise something about the sphere – it had intelligence. He wondered if it was alive in some rudimentary way; so much of Qorall’s arsenal was organic, compared to this galaxy’s focus on techware. Instinct could react faster than intellect. Jorann wanted to think this through but he had other priorities: his ship’s integrity was at twenty-five per cent and falling. Two destroyers paved a way before him, attracting mines which hadn’t been there on their way in. The two battleships behind him went silent. He gunned all engines and thrusters, ordering his faster Hunter craft to make a dash for the stent. Instead, they turned and charged the worm, trying to slow it down.
Jorann wasn’t going to make it. The stent had already buckled. One of the outside commanders informed him the whole sphere was shimmering; it was about to jump, presumably away from the War’s front, back deep inside Qorall space. The destroyer to port exploded, and two seconds later the one to starboard peeled off, its drives heavily damaged, drifting backwards to detonate in the worm’s pathway. Jorann watched the gargantuan creature ease through the debris field, nudging the exploding destroyer aside like driftwood. Jorann and his surviving crew were alone.
His sensors told him the worm was increasing its speed, gaining on him. He calculated he had twenty seconds before it would make contact and leach the energy from his battleship, including all Q’Roth life, and capture its Tla Beth prize.

Jorann set the self-destruct timer for ten seconds and broadcast a message to Granch and the other commanders outside. “They won’t get the Tla Beth. Take the intel we’ve gained back to the Ch’Hrach staging point. Prepare better next time.” He didn’t add what he thought: that it had been an honour serving with them, that they were the most impressive, fearless soldiers he’d ever seen. He counted down. At three seconds everything around him turned quicksilver.
© Barry Kirwan |
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