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The Invasion of August
by Steven Gordon
Prologue: The Invasion of the Insects
The fleet was destroyed.
The Alliance fleet, the only thing protecting the League of
United Planets and its allies in the June Directorate from the Insects,
had been destroyed. There was supposed to have been an armistice held
at Vitalics, where the Alliance and Insect fleets would meet and the
peace treaty would be signed.
Instead, the fleet was lost in an ambush; a fleet, built up over
hundreds of years, destroyed quickly, easily, in the space of several
minutes, by a mysterious technology the Alliance had never seen before.
That left all the planets of the League, and the Directorate open to
Very little was known about the Insects; not their planets of
origin, not even their proper name for their own species
(unpronounceable for any human), not even why they were attacking us.
What was known was that they looked like insects, large, seven foot
tall ones. It was also known that they had their own language, were
undoubtedly intelligent, they had access to advanced technology, and
for some reason they felt compelled to attack humanity.
The invasion of the League and Directorate planets began with
little or no advance warning.....
Part I: Clifford Croft's Story
Chapter 1: The Fall of August
They were incredible.
One of them could shoot fire from her hands.
One of them could move objects with his mind.
One of them could see into the future.
One of them could create illusions, see through walls, and turn
his right hand into almost any object he wanted.
They were also, in many ways, neurotic or borderline mentally
The one who could shoot fire from her hands was named Red Sally.
She had the power to burn enemies, but also a constant urge to burn
things, which, combined with a hair trigger temper, made her almost as
dangerous to allies as to enemies.
The one who could move objects with his mind was called The
Clapper. He had the intellect of a ten year old, and had the constant
urge to clap his hands, far from ideal in missions requiring stealth.
The one who could see into the future was named Mongo. But he
could only see possible futures, and his predictions were far from
certain. Furthermore, he was very difficult to deal with, because of an
anti-social complex that led him to feel that everyone around him was
ungrateful for his services.
The one who could create illusions, see through walls, and turn
his hand into almost any object was not one but three separate and
totally opposite personalities, each with their own skill. The primary
personality was known as Crazy Rob. He could create illusions. But he
was also paranoid, and was convinced that everyone was out to get him.
Another personality was Matt. He could see through walls. He was
actually the easiest to get along with, although he was kind of dreamy,
which made it difficult to get him to focus on things such as work.
The third personality was Bender. He could turn his right hand
into objects, but the object he usually chose was a large spoon. With
coaxing he could turn it into other things, but Rob, who was clinically
depressed, was not the easiest person to work with. Or should I say
And the master of ceremonies in this four ringed circus was none
other than myself, superspy Clifford Croft.
I'm a spy.
Not a nursemaid.
Not a discussion leader.
Not a psychiatrist.
That means I spy on people. Sometimes, I commit espionage.
Occasionally, and this isn't my favorite part of my job, I have to
shoot people, usually ones shooting at me.
Nothing in that job description even remotely relates to mental
counseling, does it? And yet here I am, in Column HQ, running a
discussion during "community time" for the Column's "gamma operatives",
those with special abilities.
The Chief picked me. He said that the doctors were having trouble
getting through to them, and that they might listen to someone they
That still doesn't explain why he picked me.
"Stop hitting me!" Mongo squealed.
"You tripped me!" said the Clapper.
"You're making me hot!" said Crazy Rob, sweating.
"Stop putting snakes in my lap!" said Red Sally, frantically
brushing away empty air.
"Stop!" I said. They continued to argue. "STOP!" I shouted.
They still ignored me, arguing among themselves, seated in a
circle while white clothed orderlies watched from a respectful
I sighed, and drew my blaster. I adjusted the setting. To
I fired at the ceiling. There was a tremendous noise, and large
chunks of plastiform fell around me.
That got their attention.
"Hello!" I said. "Let's handle this one item at a time, shall
I turned to Mongo. "What's your problem?" I noticed two guards
standing behind him. Mongo was currently confined to the detention
center, and had only been let out temporarily, under guard, for this
"therapy session". I idly wondered what he had done to wind up in
Mongo pointed a bony finger at the Clapper. "He is hitting poor
Mongo! Ow" He said, his head jerking to an imaginary slap.
I turned to the Clapper. "Stop that."
"He tripped me!" said the Clapper, clapping. (Clap clap!)
"No," said Mongo. "Mongo only tells him he sees a future where he
"Yes, and when I actually tripped, it was because you tripped
me!" said the Clapper.
I turned to Mongo. "You can't expect to hurt people without
getting some kind of negative response."
"He never appreciates Mongo," said Mongo accusingly.
"Well, now you can appreciate how he can hurt you," I said.
I turned to Crazy Rob. "What's your problem?"
"This heat is sweltering!" said Crazy Rob, and I saw he was
sweating. He glared at Sally. "She's doing it!"
I felt the air around him. It was hot. I sighed. "Sally, stop."
Sally was still brushing imaginary objects off of her lap. "I
will when he gets rid of these snakes!"
"Rob?" I said. "You want to do something about the snakes?"
"They're not really there," said Crazy Rob defensively.
"And I have no reason to really be here," I said. "But if you
stop, perhaps I can persuade Sally to."
"It's all a conspiracy!" said Crazy Rob, glaring at me. "You put
her up to it! You're making her do it!"
"Yes, Rob," I said, playing into his conspiracy theory.
"You--what was that?"
"Yes, you're right, I conspired with Red Sally to make you feel
hot. Now that you've exposed the conspiracy, can you lighten up on the
Crazy Rob looked startled, as if he hadn't been expecting the
conversation to take this turn. He nodded, and Sally suddenly relaxed
and stopped brushing away the air around her.
"And now, Sally?" I asked.
"He deserves it," she said glaring at me. Her hair was now blonde
with a slight pink ting to it. The more she used her power, the redder
her hair became.
"Yes, but he uncovered our conspiracy, and there's no sense in
continuing," I said.
"All right," Sally sighed, and the air around Crazy Rob suddenly
"I want to know more about this conspiracy," said Crazy Rob.
"Were you all in on it?"
"We can get back to that later," I said. "Does anyone have any
idea why I'm here today?"
"To entertain us!" the Clapper squealed, clapping.
"To show appreciation," said Mongo.
"To annoy us," said Red Sally.
"This is all a diversion for something else," Crazy Rob said.
"I'm here because you're all having some difficulties with
interpersonal relations," I said diplomatically.
"And they sent you?" said Red Sally contemptuously.
"I don't light people on fire when I get angry," I said.
"You just shoot them," said Sally.
"This isn't about me, this is about you," I said.
"Chief orders it," said Mongo, getting a far reaching look. "I
sees it yesterday. Chief says to Croft, she says, Croft, you must do
this. Croft protests, he protests he does not like us-"
"That's not true," I said. "Whatever future you were seeing, that
wasn't the real one. It's not that I don't like you, but...." I paused,
momentarily lost in liespeak. They looked at me, awaiting my response.
I changed the subject. "Let's get back to you. Wouldn't it be nice if
you could interact more easily with other people?"
"If other people were nice, yes," said Mongo.
"Let's start with you, Mongo," I said. "You feel that you're
"But maybe if you appreciated other people more, they would do
the same for you."
"Why would Mongo appreciate others?" Mongo asked. "Can others see
the future too?"
"Well, no, but seeing the future isn't the only nice thing a
person can do for someone else," I said. "Take your food, for example.
If someone goes through the trouble to prepare a special meal-"
"Is nothing compared to seeing future," said Mongo.
"-so you do see the similarity," I said, doing my duty in a
purely perfunctory way. How could the Chief really think that I could
help these people?
I turned to Red Sally, who was next. "Sally, I think you could
get along better with people if you didn't light them on fire."
"You TELL me to light people on fire," said Sally.
"Enemies, in combat, yes," I said. "I was referring to people
here, like the orderlies in this room."
"Who?" said Sally. "I haven't burned anyone."
I sighed. Was this really necessary? "Orderlies, those of you who
have been burned, at one time or another, raise your hands.""
Two orderlies in white slowly raised their hands.
"Raise your hands, don't be shy," I said.
All the other orderlies cautiously raised their hands.
Sally looked around at reality, and temporarily readjusted.
"Well, I don't mean to, but.."
"Exactly. You need to control your temper," I said.
"I'll try," said Sally. "But people have to try not to get me so
I turned to the Clapper. "And you have to learn not to push
people around with your mind."
The Clapper clapped, giving an idiotic grin.
"People don't like being slapped, even if by an invisible force."
The Clapper, still grinning, clapped again.
"And don't think they can't figure out who's doing it, because
The Clapper kept clapping.
"And if you get them angry enough, they might glue your hands
The Clapper stopped smiling, and his hands, clasped together,
suddenly stopped moving.
I turned to Crazy Rob. "Causing hallucinations won't win you many
Crazy Rob, his head drooping, said, "Why should I care?"
I suddenly noticed that his right hand had changed into a large
metal spoon. He had changed from his Crazy Robert personality into his
Bender personality. Bender was merely depressed; he didn't actually
bother anyone. There was no sense in talking to Bender about Rob, since
there was no connection between the two.
I was actively debating how to fill up the rest of the hour when
the building-wide alarm sounded.
A speaker blared. "Condition 44! All agents, report to the
nearest conference room immediately! On the double."
Condition 44? What was that? Probably someone's laundry caught
fire in the sanicleaner. But it was a sufficient excuse for me to leave
and evaluate the situation. "Sorry guys, we'll have to continue this at
another time," I said. I made a quick exit before I could hear more
than a few of the bizarre comments aimed towards me.
As I left I passed through several layers of security guarding
the gamma operatives and went to the Column HQ's main elevator bank. As
I stepped into the elevator I opened up my datapad and thumbed through
my seldom-used Column handbook database.
"Condition 42... listening devices on premises... Condition 43...
intruder on Column grounds... Condition 44...' I almost dropped the
The elevator doors opened. I headed for a conference room at a
brisk pace, followed by Preston, a fellow agent.
"What happened?" said Preston.
"I guess the peace treaty didn't go quite as planned," I said
We had almost reached the conference room when I was stopped by
an urgent bleeping on my comm. I looked at it.
"What is it?" said Preston.
"The Chief wants to see me."
"I don't think there will be time later," I said.
I went back to the elevator and went up to the executive suite.
As the elevator climbed the more than 200 floors to the penthouse
level, I tuned into the general Column frequency on my wrist comm. The
broadcast was chilling.
"-tracking has picked up a large Insect fleet on the outskirts of
the August system. Nearly the entire fleet has been ambushed and
destroyed at Vitalics. August is about to be imminently invaded. We
must assume that our headquarters here is either insecure or won't be
secure for much longer. We are purging our databases as we speak; you
are all to go to ground and operate in small combat cells. Each cell
will have one contact with an adjacent or higher cell. Although you may
receive orders from above, you are to act semi-autonomously in small
groups to harass the enemy, as well as gathering intelligence and
commit acts of espionage and sabotage"
The elevator doors opened to the top floor. The Chief's formal
office. Rare sunlight streamed in through the large open windows.
Security around the Chief had been quadrupled, with worried faced
bodyguards eyeing me as he made his way into the Chief's office.
R.M. Stanton had been Director of Column Operations for the past
20 years, but was already quite old when he had taken the job. Since
the anti-aging vaccination allowed one to appear to be any age, it was
my conclusion that the Chief liked looking old.
The Chief was sitting around a table with several shimmering
figures who were talking. It was a holoconference, with the shimmering
figures being holograms. In the offices of the holograms being
projected to us, the Chief and I would look like holograms ourselves. I
recognized several of holograms, including Vice President Novacan and
Battle General Tenor Markov, who was in command of the August military
district. Sitting next to the Chief, in the flesh, were five of the
eight Level One agents in the Column.
The Chief motioned for me to sit down.
"What's happened?" I whispered.
"The Insects are invading," said the Chief. "They've already
taken several League planets."
I was stunned. "What about the peace treaty? What about the
The fleet had been dispatched to neutral territory, the empty
system of Vitalics, to sign the armistice with the Insects.
"Apparently the fleet was destroyed at Vitalics," said Stanton.
"The fleet? The entire fleet?" said Croft.
"Yes," said Stanton.
"That is merely a rumor which I would not appreciate your
spreading," said the holographic image of Martin McPlease, the deputy
secretary of foreign affairs.
"Not a rumor," said the Chief. "War Admiral Norman North
"-a rumor," said McPlease. "War Admiral Norman North was not at
Vitalics. War Admiral Norman North does not know any more than we did
what occurred there."
The Vice President watched this exchange closely.
"Don't you think it is odd that we cannot get in touch with the
fleet?" said the Chief.
"Not at all," said McPlease. "It was well known that the
interference from the Vitalics pulsar would prevent long range
"But they were supposed to leave Vitalics and report in several
hours ago," said the Chief. "And War Admiral Norman North's fleet was
attacked by the Insects. That's a firsthand report, Mr. Secretary."
"Perhaps it was a rogue element among the Insects, intended to
sabotage the moderate faction's peace efforts-"
An aide rushed up to Stanton and handed him a data pad.
Vice President Novacan spoke for the first time. "What is it?"
"Mr. Vice President, I have reports of Insect landings on four of
our colony planets," said the Chief, rattling off their names.
Novacan looked stunned. "Do you have confirmation?"
"Confirmation? Are dozens of broadcasts screaming, 'We're under
attack' confirmation enough?" said Stanton.
"This is not a time for sarcasm," said the Vice President.
"We must recall the fleet to defend us," said McPlease.
"The fleet is destroyed," said General Markov.
"All of it?" said McPlease.
"Only one ship reported back from Vitalics," said Markov.
"What of Admiral North's fleet?" said Markov.
"I've already spoken to him," said Vice President Novacan,
looking grim. "He refuses to come to our aid. He's mutinied, and run
"He only has a few dozen ships under his command," said Markov.
"Our outbound sensor net indicates an enormous fleet of several hundred
ships heading this way."
"Are there no other ships to recall?" said McPlease.
Markov shook his head. "The President sent all our other ships to
Vitalics. A 'show of peace and strength', remember, Mr. Secretary?"
McPlease looked stunned.
"We can have recriminations later, gentlemen," said the Vice
President. "For now, we need a plan of action."
"We can attempt to negotiate," said McPlease. "Perhaps this is a
"The destruction of our fleet and the invasion of our planets are
a misunderstanding?" said the Chief.
"Perhaps if we talk to them, find out what they want-"
"Mr Vice President, I suggest you evacuate to a safer location,"
said the Chief.
Safer location? I marveled at the statement. What could be
considered safe now?
"Nonsense," said Novacan. "Even if they are invading, it will
take them some time to reach August."
The image of August loomed large outside the windows of the
The throne room of the Insect Queen, Zsst, was full of chittering
activity. It was from there, on her powerful flagship, that she
monitored the invasion forces making their way throughout human
"Our occupation forces have made landings on several League and
Directorate worlds. So far, we have faced little resistance," said an
"Excellent," said Queen Zsst, twitching her mandibles. She sat on
her thrown, looking confident, for a bug.
Too confident, perhaps. She was reprimanded by a hooded being who
stood in the shadows to her right. "Don't be so proud of yourself yet,"
The aide took a step away from the hooded figure and shuddered.
His name was Baraki. His name was more than most Insects wanted to know
about him. Insects steered clear of him. Insects felt the stirrings of
fear when walking in the same room with him; walking near him moved any
Insect to outright panic.
Only the Queen appeared unruffled. Outwardly, at least. The Queen
twisted an antenna towards him.
Baraki spoke in a whispery, hissing voice. "You haven't landed on
June. You haven't landed on August. And the Graftonites will be
especially difficult to take."
"Once we get past their feeble orbital defenses, June and August
will be easy pickings," said Zsst dismissively, referring to the
capitals of the Directorate and the League respectively. "Their
civilian population, by all reports, are weak and sheeplike."
"But they have military ground forces as well," Baraki reminded
her. "And what of Grafton?" Grafton II, was a sparsely inhabited
planet, but almost every person on the planet, to a man, was a superior
gunman, with super fast reflexes that allowed Graftonites to be more
lethal than their numbers let on.
"I have dispatched my best insect troopers to take all three
worlds. Not to worry," said Queen Zsst. "In a few hours our troops will
land. And in a few hours after that we will begin to process every
human pest on those planets."
"We are now in standard orbit around August," said an Insect
"Excellent," said Zsst. "Begin the attack."
August was... August.
August was the capital of the League of United Planets, and as the
senior partner in the Alliance with the June Directorate, it was also
the capital of the Alliance as well.
It was a brilliant gem so perfect, so habitable, that it actually
required little or no terraforming when it first had been settled, over
1000 years earlier. With a warm climate over most of the planet, and
forests teeming with wildlife, and hills filled with precious minerals,
August was virtually a paradise. A paradise which the government
immediately began destroying.
Once August became the capital of the League, the bureaucrats
settled in, and as the bureaucracy expanded, so did their buildings. At
first they started on the eastern coast of Concord, the western
continent, covering up the soil with layers upon layers of metasteel
and plastics and synthetic materials and tunnels and buildings and
travel strips. The buildings became taller and taller and closer and
closer together until they almost blotted out the sun; and when
engineering feasibility made it impossible to go any farther up, they
dug down, creating massive sublevels beneath the planet surface. This
process started on the eastern coast, but quickly spread across
Concord, until most of the entire continent was one big city.
Once pristine forests were cut, and rugged mountains were
leveled, to make way for offices for bureaucrats and accompanying
lobbyists and other parasites. When this spread started to reach the
other end of the western continent, that the League actually did had
the good sense to do the smart thing; they declared the eastern
continent, Aridor, off-limits to development. And to this day the
eastern continent is largely uninhabited, one of the largest national
parks in the galaxy, visited by millions of tourists a year but
rigorously kept undeveloped. Bureaucrats and politicians who felt
trapped by the metal walls of the western continent became regular
visitors to the natural valleys and mountain ranges of the eastern
Meanwhile, back on Concord, the western continent, development
continued unchecked for centuries, and nearly three quarters of the
continent was encased in steel towers and tunnels. Only on the
periphery of the western continent did farmland and less developed
areas still exist.
The capital of August, and from which all power derived, was
Sarney Sarittenden. Sarney Sarittenden was a collection of ornately
designed towers and buildings, all made of an odd, glittering metal
that defied precise description. Sometime one could look at the metal,
and it would be a silver color; at other times, the metal would take on
the colors of the rainbow. Although most of Sarney Sarittenden was
enclosed, in the heart of the grand plaza was the outdoor thrown plaza,
where important ceremonies of state were held.
"Tracking sensors detect a large Insect fleet coming into orbit
around August," said General Markov, listening to a report as he
"How?' said Novacan. "They couldn't have possibly gotten here
from Vitalics so soon."
"Sir, you must evacuate," said Markov.
"Nonsense," said Markov. "How will I run the government if I
"At least order the legislature to leave," said Markov.
"We must stay united!" said Novacan. "The legislature should
convene in emergency session to pass a resolution against-"
"I've had enough of this," said Markov, suddenly interrupting. "I
have to leave and coordinate the defenses."
He appeared to get up from his chair and his holographic image
"General Markov? General Markov?" said Novacan. "I order you to
return at once."
"I second the General's recommendation," said the Chief, a little
more diplomatically. "You must leave."
"Why?" said Novacan.
"You could be captured or killed?"
"I'm the Vice President of the League," said Novacan, lifting his
chin. "They wouldn't dare-"
Suddenly, they heard a pounding in the background. The Chief
turned a knob, and a widescreen scene of the door behind the Vice
President appeared, just as the door was bashed open. Insect troopers
baring blaster rifles smashed through. They brushed aside aides and
headed straight for the Vice President.
"I will not cooperate!" said the Vice President. "However, if you
accord me with respect and dignity and assign me a protocol officer of
appropriate rank, a dialogue between our peoples might be possible."
An Insect trooper looked at the Vice President, as if listening.
Then, making bzzz bzzz sounds, it looked down at some kind of datapad
in its hand and compared it to Novacan.
"Bzzz Bzzz!" said a fellow trooper.
"Are you ready to begin negotiations in a civilized fashion?"
The Insect trooper nodded to its companion and reached forward
with a claw and decapitated Novacan in one swoop. The holographic head
of the Vice President appeared to fall on the conference table.
"Resequence to level two!" said the Chief sharply.
The image of the other holograms faded for a moment and then
reappeared, minus the connection to the Vice President's office.
The Chief turned to an army colonel. "Where's General Markov?"
"Coordinating the defenses, sir."
"Have there been landings on August?" the Chief asked.
The Colonel shook his head. "Their ships are still working their
way into orbit."
"Then what about the attack on the Vice President's office?"
"It must have been an advance scout, a specialized command
decapitation team," said the Colonel.
Suddenly I saw a line of smoke streaking across the sky outside
the Chief's window, and then we fell to the floor as an explosion
rocked the capital.
When the others and I got up we saw the holograms of the others
The Chief and the other level one agents looked at each other.
The Insects had hit the command center.
The Chief said, "We should try to reestablish-"
"No time," I said. "We're likely to become a target next." I
turned to the Chief's bodyguards. "Get him out of here!"
They needed little encouragement, bustling the Chief out of the
But not to the elevator. Up a flight of stairs to the roof. A
bodyguard pressed a panel and a hidden part of the roof opened,
revealing gravitator backpacks. I and the others each strapped
ourselves into one. I had just taken off when I noticed a smoke plume,
apparently heading towards the Column building. I twisted a knob to
full power, and headed off. I looked up and saw a huge smoke cloud. I
had just reached the edge of a nearby building when the explosion went
The initial force of the blast sent me careening against a nearby
building, but, fortunately, out of direct line of site to the Column
building behind him. I felt more than heard pieces of the Column
building blowing up. I gunned my gravitator forward. Secondary
explosions could be heard. In a few seconds there was another
explosion, and buildings adjacent to the Column HQ building began to
Suddenly, I felt a thunk against my backback and I started to
lose power--in fits and starts, the gravitator started to lose
altitude. Power would be on for a few seconds, and then off, and then
on again. I started to fall faster and faster as the periods of power
I maneuvered closer to a nearby building and made a hard landing
on a narrow ledge. I initially landed with my feet but the now dead
weight of the gravitator hung to my back and I fell. I grasped the edge
of the ledge but the combined weight was slowly prying my hands
Suddenly, the gravitator came on for a few seconds, and the
weight on my back disappeared. I used that time to undo one of the
shoulder straps, grabbing onto the ledge with only one hand.
And then the power went off again, and I barely grabbed on with
both hands. Again my grip started to fail...
The gravitator came on again. I undid the second shoulder strap
and hurried to the belt strap using one free hand. My arms were aching.
If power failed again...
I fumbled with the belt strap. It wouldn't open! Suddenly, it
came off. Just as I opened the last strap, the power went dead again,
and the gravitator fell off my back. I frantically grabbed with the
ledge with my free hand.
I hung there, for a few seconds, oblivious to the secondary
explosions around me. Then I slowly, painfully, pulled myself up onto
I looked back where I had come from. All I saw was a swirling
dust cloud. I tried my wrist comm.
There was no answer. I reset it to another Column frequency.
I waited. There was no reply either.
Had the Chief made it? How many other agents had gotten out in
time? There was no way to know.
With the orbiting battlestations now nothing more exploding
pieces scattered across the skyscape, the Insect battle transports
moved in, flanked by their powerful battleships and other capital
Because every square inch of the central part of the western
continent was studded with buildings and infrastructure, there were
relatively few places that the Insects could safely land.
Therefore, it was not entirely unexpected when the first wave
touched down on the tarmac at Sarney Sarittenden Spaceport ("Triple S"
to the locals). The huge landing craft opened up their bellies to
disgorge their large troop transports and landing vehicles while Insect
fighters flying overhead provided cover. Individual columns of Insect
troopers emerged, giant seven feet tall creatures brandishing wicked
looking laser rifles.
But they didn't count on the reception. Battle General Tenor
Markov had survived the initial attack and moved out into the field,
giving orders even while in transit. Once he saw that he was making no
headway with the Vice President he knew his own survival depended on
getting out of the defense directorate, which would be one of the
Insects first targets. Indeed, he had been in the building when the
first attack hit, but many levels below the surface in hardened
bunkers. From there he had made his escape with senior aides.
General Markov stared out at the landing craft through
electrobinoculars from his vantage point inside one of the spaceport's
lounges. There weren't many ground troops stationed on August--after
all, in the heart of the League, with its mighty fleet and orbiting
battlestations to protect it, invasion was never thought of as a
But the impossible had suddenly become reality, and Markov had
used the time afforded him by War Admiral North's warning to best
"Ground troops, attack.... now!" he said, speaking into his
Troops sprang out of hiding and opened fire, cutting down some of
the Insect troopers. Their laser fire merely bounced off the troop
transports, and the Insects on foot took cover behind them as they
slowly rolled forward.
"Gravitators, move in!" Markov had only a single platoon of
gravitator troops under his command, soldiers with anti-grav packs who
could bounce in and over the scene. 45 troops zoomed into battle from
the air, picking off Insect troopers hiding behind the ground
"Battle tanks, engage!"
The snouts of concealed battle tanks emerged from hangers all
around the field. One of them let go with a burst of laser fire that
turned an Insect troop transport into scrap metal.
High in orbit the Queen's handpicked being, Admiral Bzt, watched
the landings on the holoscope.
"We have strong resistance at the Sarney Sarittenden field and
the two military fields here and here," said an aide, indicating a
point on the holograph.
"Resistance? These humans were supposed to be as passive as
sheep!" Bzt spat. "Order our fighters to engage the ground forces. And
unleash the beasts."
The circling fighters started to make dive attacks, scoring
direct hits on the hangers the battletanks were hidden in. The
battletanks weren't in direct line of sight of the fighters, but the
hangers were easy targets. The Insects destroyed one hanger with a
series of cluster bombs; several others were lasered and exploded under
the combined attacks, forcing the surviving battletanks out into the
open, where they were easier targets.
General Markov had several anti aircraft units set up, and they
downed several Insect fighters, until the Insects focused their fire on
them, knocking them out. Markov gritted his teeth as he saw battletank
after battletank knocked out; without air support, the situation was
But at least the troops were dug in; the fighters tried to make
strafing runs, but the troops were too well dispersed in deep,
protected trenches around the spaceport.
But then another Insect transport landed, and when its doors
opened, a series of nightmares from a zoo emerged. Giant insects--bees,
wasps, mosquitoes, and others Markov couldn't identify, each one as
large as a ground car. They were all on leashes held by their Insect
masters. In the distance Markov heard them bark a command, then the
Insects dropped their leashes; he heard another barked command, and the
giant insects flew forward.
The troops saw them coming, but they came so rapidly, there
wasn't much they could do about it. Several of the bees and wasps were
shot down, in flight, dripping green fluid as they hit the ground; but
many more reached the trenches where the troopers were, and the next
thing Markov heard were the screams of his men over the radio.
"Aaaaah!" one screamed as a giant stinger was implanted his
chest, killing him. Another tried to resist a giant mosquito with his
hands, but was pinned down as the monster stuck a giant tube in his
neck and rapidly drained his blood. A giant warrior ant snapped the
neck of another trooper.
Markov saw his troops couldn't last long going hand to hand.
"Recall! This is the recall order. Retreat, full retreat! Gravitator
platoon, cover the troops in the trenches!"
A few of the gravitator troop, who had taken the fewest
casualties, swooped down from above and raked the giant insects with
blaster fire, buying the surviving ground troops time to disengage.
Some of the giant insects took flight to chase the gravitator troops,
forcing a number of them to pull back.
The image of the fleeing troops could be clearly seen on the
Insect holoscope. "The landing area has been secured,' said the aide.
"Excellent," said Admiral Bzt. "Commence the landing of the
assimilators. Begin the processing of the human animals immediately."
Large, oval shaped vehicles rumbled down the streets and
causeways of August, flanked by Insect troopers. Screaming civilians
ran in opposite directions, but were met on other streets by more of
the oval shaped vehicles The shadows of Insect fighters and attack
ships buzzed overhead.
Sandra Layata, an unemployed pleasure seeker, like most of the
population of August, screamed as she saw an Insect vehicle
approaching. She tried to duck down a sidestreet, only to be stopped by
a large, looming shadow above her. She heard a loud, buzzing sound and
saw giant flapping wings supporting a yellow and gold body. Giant
multiplexed eyes stared down at her as the monster descended.
Running back out of the alley, Sandra ran right into the laser
rifles of the Insect troopers.
"This way, this way," they said through their translation
devices. In reality they were making "buzz buzz" sounds, but the
glowing device around their necks spoke in a dull female tone.
Layata and a line of frightened civilians were herded up a ramp
into the belly of one of the oval shaped vehicles. Then the processing
They were herded into narrow corridors on the vehicle. The humans
were warned to close their eyes just seconds before a spray of an
unidentified liquid that smelled like pungent lemon came out from walls
on their left and right. When the spray stopped Layata opened her eyes
to see how drenched her clothes had gotten and was surprised to find
her clothes in pieces. A water hose sprayed down on her from the
ceiling and the remaining bits of her clothes fell into a vent or drain
on the floor.
Then the examination began. She was grabbed by the throat and
strapped to a semi-horizontal table while she was poked and prodded
with alien instruments. Something stabbed her arm and she felt blood
being withdrawn. She tried to scream but a living hose snaked into her
mouth and she felt something slimy feeling around her throat. She felt
small, wirey things entering other parts of her body and tried to
scream again, but it was cut off before it began, as the hose in her
mouth stiffened. Even her eyes weren't left alone as a small screen
descended to her bound head, showing different twinkling images. A
monitor watched her eye movements as the images on the screen moved
around. A sensor attached to her head monitored brainwaves while
pictures of familiar objects--ground cars, buildings, ships, shoes--
flashed across the screen.
Then all the hoses withdrew and the screen cleared away from
Layata's face, and the living machines around her clicked as they
evaluated her. She had this opportunity to turn her head left and right
to see two other people bound to tables just like she was. The one on
her left was an old man, and the one on her right was a young,
strapping youth, both as nude as she was. Layata didn't have time to
feel modest about her nudity because she was still in shock.
Suddenly she heard a voice from the table on her right.
"Designation: harvester labor." A device came out of a wall and sealed
a green collar around the young man's throat. He screamed in pain as it
was sealed. But Layata's attention was distracted by the man on the
table to her right.
"Designation: Useless. Recycle." The arms descended from the
ceiling, and swish! swish! Swish! the old man was instantly
dismembered, the table titled so his parts rolled into a bin.
Layata screamed, so she almost didn't hear the voice when it
spoke from her table. "Designation: Genetic experimentation."
A collar was wrapped around her neck; it burned as it was sealed,
but Layata was already screaming at that point.
When the processed humans emerged from the other end of the
vehicle they were clad in tight green leafy clothing. Most bore the
green collars of agricultural workers or the blue collars of factory
workers. Sandra Layata, however, was wearing a purple collar, and was
hustled off the vehicle by two Insect guards, who took her to a waiting
Chapter 2: Enter the Silencer
"Admiral Bzt reports the landings on August are proceeding
apace," said Queen Zsst. "And we have reports of only scattered
resistance to our landings on other planets. We are beginning to set up
reproduction farms and hive factories on all of them."
"You are on schedule," said Baraki approvingly from under his
hood. "But what about Grafton?"
"Our assault on Grafton II is to start within the hour," said
Zsst. "I have assigned our very best battle troops there. I know how
important that planet is, and how difficult the resistance will be."
But if the Queen really knew how difficult the resistance would
be on Grafton II, she would have at least quadrupled the size of her
invasion force, and even that would've been no guarantee of success.
Grafton II occupied no strategic location in space; it had no
important military bases; it had no vital minerals; it wasn't even a
formal member of the Directorate or the League. What it did have was
very, very good gunfighters.
After hundreds of years scientists still hadn't quite analyzed
what it was, but something on Grafton speeded up the reflexes of the
local population, making them extraordinarily quick. This made manual
tasks and skills requiring dexterity much easier to accomplish;
foremost among those, however, was gunfighting.
Grafton II produced the most sought after soldiers, bodyguards,
and killers in the galaxy. They simply could operate much more quickly
than anyone else.
For hundreds of years scientists tried to determine just what it
was that speeded up the reflexes. It seemed that anyone who spent a few
years on Grafton gained increased dexterity. But once a Graftonite
left the planet, his reflexes started to dull; if he had only been on
Grafton for a few years, he would lose his abilities in months; if he
had been there for decades, he would lose his abilities gradually over
That's why Graftonites were so reluctant to leave home and when
they did so it was for short periods, when they were highly compensated
for it. Scientists tried to figure out what speeded up their resources-
-they tried eating large amounts of Grafton food off-planet, but that
didn't work; they tried drinking large amounts of Grafton rainwater,
but that didn't work; they tried breathing large amounts of Grafton
air, but that didn't work. If it was something in the food, or the
water, or the air, somehow taking it off-planet nullified its effects.
The effects of Grafton on its population didn't go unnoticed to
the Insects. They were confident that in time they could isolate
whatever was speeding up reflexes and instill this ability into all
their Insect troopers; but for now they wanted to conquer the planet
and set up breeding farms so at least new generations of Insect
troopers bred locally would have this ability.
That meant that Grafton had to be conquered, not destroyed.
Without a space force of its own it would be easy enough to bombard the
planet from orbit, but because the population was dispersed (besides
the capital and two other smaller cities, most of the population was
spread out over the countryside), this would have to be done the hard
way, by ground assault.
That's why Queen Zsst had allocated 4 brigades of her most
fearsome Insect troopers, complete with two companies of giant insect
beasts, to take the major population areas. Zsst expected some
resistance at first, but once they had driven the humans out of the
major population areas, she suspected the humans would be content to be
left alone in the countryside. For now, Zsst didn't need the whole
planet; hunting every human down over the sparsely populated surface
area of the planet would be impractical; all she needed was just a
large enough area for the breeding farms. Later, when they had enough
of the new enhanced warriors, they could be sent on training missions
to hunt and destroy the remaining humans.
Zsst gave the orders for the landings to begin....
"For the last time, I'm not interested," said the man in blue, in
a dull tone.
He had a name; actually, he had several names. But the one that
stuck with him over time was related to his profession.
He was one of the best gunfighters, even on Grafton II. His real
name was John Norman.
But everyone just called him the Silencer.
"The Insects are attacking the League!" said his chief of staff.
"Are they attacking this house?" the Silencer asked.
"Are they on the front lawn?" the Silencer asked.
"Has anyone offered to pay me to fight the buggers?" the Silencer
"Then let'm eat cake," the Silencer concluded.
After several hundred years of fighting, and killing, the
Silencer was weary of it all. He turned his chair around to face the
window. He and his wife had just finished decorating the house, and
Annie had finally gotten the landscaping done exactly the way she liked
it--with short, green bushes, with several lines of exotic, multi-
colored flowers on either side.
"But they're attacking Grafton!"
"As long as they don't enter my estate, they're welcome to the
rest of the planet," said the Silencer generously.
"But how will your wife get thru the blockade--"
"Annie's not back for three days. I expect things will be sorted
out by then, one way or another," said the Silencer. If he had to, he'd
go up in his ship and meet her transport himself.
Annie Oakley was his wife. For several hundred years he thought
he'd never find a woman who'd make him feel anything... anything at
all. But then he met Annie, Annie Oakley. Not the name she had been
born with, of course, any more than his was the Silencer. But that's
who she was now, one of the fastest women gunfighters in the Alliance.
Suddenly there was a beeping sound from his portable
holoprojector. The Silencer let the device beep for a few seconds,
thought about it, let it beep a few seconds more, and then very
reluctantly pressed a button on the side of it.
An image of a Graftonite appeared. "John, we need your help,"
said the man. It was his friend, Bob Range.
"What is it?" said the Silencer.
"The bugs are getting ready to invade."
"We've got to band together to stop them."
"Why?" the Silencer wanted to know.
"Do you want Grafton to be overrun with those things?"
"As long as they're not on my lawn-"
"Don't give me your lawn speech!" Range snapped.
The Silencer simply stared at Range.
"Sorry," said Range. "But John, this is important, the alien
ships are in orbit."
"Wasn't the League supposed to do something or other about it?"
The Silencer asked. He didn't follow politics very closely.
"Yes, they're all dead."
"All dead?" said the Silencer. His face showed a moderate amount
of surprise, which was unusual.
"The League fleet was ambushed at Vitalics. The League is being
"Hm," said the Silencer.
"But the bugs have also sent a fleet here," said Range.
"What do you want me to do about it?" the Silencer asked.
"We're having a great gathering by holo. I want you to join in,"
The Silencer paused.
"At least listen in! Even your presence can help sway people."
The Silencer said nothing.
"It won't cost anything, and it won't take much of your time,"
said Range, knowing how the Silencer's mind worked.
"...all right," said the Silencer reluctantly.
"Good," said Range. "I'm patching you in.
The Silencer continued to see Range but could now hear the voices
of many other Graftonites.
"-we have to do something" someone was saying.
"The Silencer has joined us," said Range.
"The Silencer?" "The Silencer?" "The Silencer?" several voices
"Are you going to help us fight the invaders?" said one voice.
"No," said the Silencer.
"Not yet," Range said, hastily amending the Silencer's statement.
"But the bugs have invaded the west coast!" said another voice.
"They've driven me out of my home!"
"You have my sympathies," said the Silencer.
"Aren't you going to help us fight them?"
"How much will you pay?" said the Silencer.
"Pay?" said the man. "Our planet is being invaded!"
"Then it should be important enough for you to pay a considerable
amount," said the Silencer.
Suddenly, he heard the sound of a vehicle stopping outside. The
Silencer looked out the windows.
"Sir," said his chief of staff. "Alien invaders are entering the
The Silencer nodded and lifted up the holoprojector and slowly
went to the front door. He stepped out onto the front porch and calmly
putting the holoprojector down, and surveyed the scene.
Two Insects were exiting some sort of scout craft. The Silencer
heard buzzing sounds, and a second and third vehicle could be seen
coming down the road.
The Silencer calmly drew his blasters and shot them dead.
"What was that?" said one of voices from the holotransmitter.
"Nothing important," said the Silencer.
Two more Insects from the first vehicle moved forward. The
Silencer waited until they raised their weapons, and shot them dead
too. He winced as they fell onto some of Annie's prized flowers. She
wouldn't like that. Could he get his chief of staff to find replacement
flowers so similar that Annie wouldn't notice the difference? He'd have
to ask. The Silencer was beginning to hate this invasion. It was
creating work for him.
"That sounds like weapons fire," said a voice from the
The second and third vehicles pulled up. They were flatbed
gravtrucks, each containing a dozen or more Insect troopers.
The Silencer casually shot them as they got off the truck. It got
a little trickier when they started coming out of both trucks, and
because of their numbers one or two actually got a shot off in his
direction. But unfortunately he couldn't mask the sound of the gunfire.
"John, what's going on?" that was Range's voice.
"Just a moment," said the Silencer casually, still picking the
Insects off. They were falling to the ground almost as fast as they
could get off the transport. The Silencer, a blaster in each hand,
aiming and firing in a blur, picked them off. Finally, when they
stopped appearing, the Silencer frowned, hearing a buzzing sound. He
walked around the end of the truck to see two Insects hiding in ambush.
Even though they had their weapons aimed and ready the Silencer, with
his Graftonite reflexes, was quicker, gunning both down before their
claws could depress the trigger finger.
The Silencer casually walked back to the holoprojector, ignoring
the cries for information until he stood right beside the device.
"It was nothing special," said the Silencer. "Just a few dozen of
"They're attacking your home!" said Range. "Does this convince
"Pay me and we'll see," said the Silencer. "Even the bug
exterminator gets paid; why shouldn't I?"
While the Silencer continued to haggle over price, the Insects
made their first mistake.
Admiral Tstss stood on the bridge of her command ship.
"Opposition?" she inquired.
A subordinate being said, " No ships, no orbiting stations. But
our initial combat probes haven't fared well."
"What is their status?"
"We've gained some ground, but we're having stiff resistance
taking the Regular spaceport."
Grafton didn't have much in the way of cities; its largest city,
Regular, had one of the only two major spaceports on the planet. When
the Insects landed there, the Graftonites who worked at the spaceport
blasted them immediately. It wasn't that the Graftonites were upset
that the Insects were invading; rather, they were peeved that the
Insects weren't paying landing fees. The spaceport, like everything
else on Grafton, was owned by a private company whose job it was to
make money. And anyone who didn't pay the arrival fee got shot. Even
So a few dozen spaceport employees gunned down two hundred Insect
troopers. With their superior reflexes, it was hardly a significant
chore for the Graftonites.
"How many from our combat probe survived?" Admiral Tstss asked.
"None!" said the Admiral. "Well, we'll just have to soften them
up. Prepare for orbital bombardment."
That was the Admiral's first mistake.
When the Insects opened fire on the spaceport, the spaceport
employees retreated further into Regular. The Insects were able to
land, but when they tried to get out of the spaceport, however, they
encountered stiff resistance. That caused the Admiral to order the
bombing of Regular itself.
That only got the Graftonites even madder. Regular, as the
largest city on Grafton II and a main transport hub, held many of the
important warehouses and factories on the planet. It also was the home
of many of the planet's largest corporations. In short a lot of
property owned by a lot of Graftonites was being destroyed.
This united the Graftonites like no invasion could. Thousands of
Graftonites lost property or savings in the bombing. Thousands more
lost access to consumer goods provided by these corporations. And these
thousands had thousands of sympathetic friends and relatives. This
united several hundred thousand Graftonites against the Insects.
The Silencer was going to join the counterattack (he owned stock
in several of the corporations that had been attacked) when his chief
of staff came to him with an important message.
"Sir!' said a servant. "I'm getting a faint transmission from
your wife over the central comm unit. Please hurry!"
The Silencer suddenly came alive, leaping over his desk and
pressing the enable button on the comm unit.
"John?" came her voice in a very staticy picture. "We're under
attack. I don't know how long we have-"
"Annie!" The Silencer yelled, raising his voice.
The transmission broke up.
"Annie!" The Silencer screamed again, smashing his hand against
the wall near the console, creating a fist sized dent.
His chief of staff bent down to pick up some plaster from the
rug. When he stood up, he started to say, "Sir, will you be needing
your ship-", but he was speaking to empty air.
"Only one spacefighter eluded our blockade." Admiral Tstss's aide
That sounded like a fine record of interdiction. "How many tried
to breach the blockade?"
The aide checked. "...only one, sir."
Oh well, Tstss thought,
"What is the status of the main invasion force?"
"They are launching now, sir."
When the main invasion force started to descend, they were
attacked by overwhelming force. Only some Graftonites owned
starfighters, but nearly all Graftonites owned their own aircraft,
which, given that this was Grafton, were nearly all armed. When the
Insects tried to land their first large wave of transports, they were
all shot down.
The Silencer, heading off-planet in his personal starfighter,
didn't think anything of the naval blockade the Insects had established
around Grafton--a bunch of capital ships and four squadrons of
fighters. He didn't even bother to fire back when his fighter came
under attack. But he was a Graftonite, and he adjusted his course and
speed almost before the laser bolts hit; and not one of them came
within 200 feet of his tiny, darting ship.
Within moments he had passed the command ship on the perimeter
and was gone.
Two days of steady flying got him to the point where he
calculated the convoy, four cargo ships and the passenger transport,
were flying. He had no trouble finding the coordinates.
But when he got there all he found was a field of debris.
Meanwhile, the invasion of Grafton proceeded.
Troop transports peeled off from the Insect fleet in orbit and
slowly entered Grafton's atmosphere, escorted by a ring of Insect
The fighters didn't help. The Graftonite atmospheric fighters
shot down all the transports, and most of the fighters too.
* * * * * * * * * *
"What? Totally destroyed! How?" Admiral Tstss demanded to know.
"Fighters, from the surface."
"Target the airfields they launched from!"
There was a moment while the scanners were in play. "Sir, as far
as we can tell, there were no fields they were launched from. These are
vertical lift fighters that are scattered all over the countryside.
They could lift from anywhere--a field, a barn, a road--anywhere. And
when they're grounded they probably keep them under camouflage!"
Admiral Tstss twitched. "Signal the entire fleet. We're going in
"Admiral, we only have two squadrons of fighters left to defend
the remaining transports. Are you sure?"
'All capital ships are going in-atmosphere to cover the remaining
transports on the way down," Tstss ordered. "What can a few hundred of
those little fighters do to us?"
All 27 ships in Admiral Tstss's task force started to descend
into the planet's atmosphere. There were ten heavy transports filled
with several brigades of troops, and 17 capital ships, ranging from
three destroyers to two battleships, one of the Tstss's flagship.
The ships slowly entered the atmosphere. As they entered the
middle layers, the sensor being called out, "Attackers, on their
There were a pause. "1000... 1,500... 1,800... over 2,000!"
"Activate anti-fighter lasers!" Tstss ordered.
The Graftonite fighters swarmed over the descending fleet. The
battleships and heavy cruisers tried to use their bulk to defend the
transports, but the fighters darted through the smallest spaces between
ships to hit the troop transports, using not just lasers but missiles
and heavy rockets.
Tstss's laser batteries scored several hits, but most of the
fighters were too fast and too elusive to be hit by capital ship laser
One by one the transports were hit and caught fire. Damage to the
capital ships was minimal; Tstss's battleship was too heavily armored
and shielded to be damaged by laser fire, or even small missile
impacts; but some of the smaller ships didn't fare as well--one of the
frigates blew up, scattering pieces that hit the other ship. A
destroyer lost its drive section and went crashing into the planet.
When they had gotten halfway to the surface Tstss realized it was
hopeless. They had already lost seven transports and there was no way
the remaining three would survive.
"Retreat to orbit!" she ordered.
The remaining three transports were destroyed long before they
reached orbit, and then the fighters turned on Tstss's battleship,
scoring hits and minor breaches. By the time they reached orbit all the
smaller ships--destroyers, frigates, and troop transports--were gone.
25,000 fighting creatures had been destroyed, and the enemy had taken
almost no casualties.
"Inform the fleet of our situation and signal for
reinforcements," said Tstss. At a minimum, of course, she would be
relieved of command; probably her wings would be plucked and her would
be beheaded in disgrace as well. Tstss sat back limply in her command
chair to await her fate.
Admiral Tstss's fate was decided a more quickly than she thought.
She had expected reinforcements, and her replacement, to arrive in a
week; but it was only a little over four days later before her command
"Human fighter approaching, from outside our perimeter."
What did it matter? Tstss's command was over. Let the fighter go
where it wanted. Tstss didn't have any fighters left to intercept it
"Let it go," she said wearily.
"But Admiral, it's headed straight for us!"
"What?" Tstss sat up in her chair for the first time in two days.
The fighter was indeed heading straight for her command ship. Was it
attempting a suicide run? A fighter that small?
"Activate laser guns," said Tstss.
Shots from the lasers never came near the bobbing and weaving
ship, even as it got closer to his command ship. It looked like it was
about to ram, and then... it disappeared off the screens altogether.
"Where did it go?" Tstss asked. Even if a ship that small had
rammed them, they should have felt something.
"Sir... It's in our landing bay!"
What? "It crashed in the landing bay?" Was it a suicide attacker?
If so, why hadn't they felt the impact?
"Sir, it landed in the landing bay!"
They were being boarded? By a one-man ship? "Security to the
Tstss waited impatiently while several minutes went by.
"Security isn't reporting in from the landing bay," said her
aide. "In fact, I can't get anybody to report from the landing bay."
"Get me a vid of the landing bay."
Tstss stared at the image of the single seat fighters. The
cockpit was open, and the fighter was empty. What about his security
beings? She panned down, and saw the bodies. More than 10 of them.
"Security alert! We have intruders aboard!" said Tstss. "How many
humans can that ship hold?"
"I think... only one, sir.".
"One did all this damage?" Tstss was incredulous.
Then came another report. "Sir, we have reports of gunfire in
"Send more security!" Tstss ordered.
"Now we're getting reports of gunfire in the adjacent Section 3!"
Tstss turned on that section's monitor. He saw one man in blue,
calmly blasting away. His troopers fired at the man, but the human
always seemed to dodge out of the way just in time. His shots, by
contrast, never missed. Who was this man? What did he want? Then Tstss
realized where he was going. To the bridge. Here.
Tstss turned to the two burly bridge guards. "Burn anything that
comes through that door!" The guards turned their rifles on the doors.
They didn't have to wait long. The door opened, a blaster and a
hand darted in, the doorway was raked with fire, and just as suddenly
the blaster hand was gone.
Then, in a move almost too quick to see, someone rolled into the
room as quick as a flash. The figure flashed its gun once, then twice,
and both guards fell; then the gun flashed several more times, and
everything in the room was still.
Tstss looked around. Everyone in the room was dead now except
her, and the intruder in blue.
"You the bug in charge?" the man asked casually.
"Who are you?" Tstss asked, the translator around his neck
interpreting for him.
"You the bug in charge?" the man asked, and something in his cold
tone inspired Tstss to respond.
"I am Admiral Tstss," Tstss said.
"Who is your immediate superior, and where can I find him?"
Tstss remained silent.
The Silencer burned a hole through one of Tstss's walking legs.
She hollered in pain.
"Who is your immediate superior, and where can I find it?"
Admiral Tstss's leg started to leak green fluid. She started to
feel faint, but, fearing even more pain, she said, "Admiral Bzt..."
"Where can I find this creature?"
"August..." Tstss looked up at the Silencer. "Why are you doing
"You killed my wife," said the Silencer. And in the second it
took for him to raise his blaster and pull the trigger, Tstss wondered,
since his force had inflicted virtually no casualties on Grafton, what
this human was talking about....
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Levi Esherkol, former chief technology specialist for the
supersecret spy organization known as the Column, and now the owner of
the best (and only) restaurant in Gateway National Park on Aridor, the
mostly uninhabited eastern continent of August, hummed a simple tune to
himself as he stirred some meat in a pan.
Levi had spent much of his adult life working for the Column,
designing miniaturized devices for use by its agents. He had branched
out from electronics into computers, biology, chemistry, and other
fields. Levi had no formal education; but he could just pick up a
subject, and, if he were interested, learn it quickly. After a number
of years of service, he retired to do the one thing he really wanted to
do: run a restaurant. The Column occasionally persuaded him to come out
of retirement to do discrete jobs for them, when the need was vital;
after one particular important assignment, the Column, very much in his
debt, gave him the one thing he always wanted: a concession to operate
the only restaurant in Gateway National Park. The rest of the
continent, except for the guesting area on the western tip, was totally
undeveloped forests and mountains.
Levi stabbed a sizzling piece of meat with a fork as if to sample
it when his wife, Mindy, entered the basement where he had been
"Levi, it's happened, turn on the holonews," she said, turning on
an ancient dusty device in the corner of the room.
"Eh?" said Levi, sampling a bit of the meat. An excellent cattle
mutation, very flavorful, he realized. But it needed a bit more pepper.
The holographic announcer appeared in their basement. "-even as
we speak our orbital battlestations are under attack. General Tenor
Markov has declared martial law and ordered all civilians to stay in
"Levi, the Insects are coming, what are we going to do?"
Levi motioned for her to come over. "Keep stirring for about five
minutes more under low flame"
"That's it! You want me to cook your food! Levi, what else can we
" Add another pinch of pepper, about two minutes in." He said,
reaching for his jacket.
Even as she grabbed the stirring fork she said, "Levi, where are
"I have to take quick trip to Western continent," said Levi, in
his trademark old easteuro accent.
"Levi, it's too dangerous! What are you going for?"
"I need go shopping for some meat," explained Esherkol.
Meanwhile, back on Concord, August's heavily populated and developed
continent, the Insects had taken over but hadn't yet wiped out all
pockets of resistance.
An army corporal eyed a target in the rangefinder. It was an
administrative building on the edge of the August spaceport. The
Insects had converted it into a barracks for one of their warrior
platoons. The corporal, lying on his belly in a now deserted building
across the street, grumbled, "I don't get it."
The sergeant, lying next to him, said, "Don't ask me."
"We're invaded and there are swarms of these things coming down all
over the place," said the corporal. "And what does the general tell us
to do. Attack an arsenal? Commit acts of sabotage? Ambush a convoy?"
"No," the corporal continued. "We're to attack a barracks unit.
Around lunchtime. Their lunchtime. We're to get the body of an Insect
who's just started to eat lunch. And we're also to capture the rest of
his uneaten lunch. I mean, what sort of crazyness is that? No wonder we
"If you think that's crazy, what did you think of that weird
looking guy standing next to the General during the briefing?" said the
"You mean, the guy wearing the hood, the mask, and the long cape?
Very inconspicuous," said the corporal. "Must be some sort of higher-up
in the resistance who needs to keep his identity a secret."
"Either that, or a nut," opined the Sergeant. He saw a flash to
his right. "That's the signal. Let's do it."
General Markov's troops assaulted the edge of the spaceport from
three sides. Most of the Insect troops had dispersed throughout the
city, leaving only a company on defensive duty. And half of those were
eating lunch now.
Two of Markov's companies pinned down the defenders while the
third moved in, penetrating the barracks and shooting their way in. The
corporal reached the entrance to the barracks and ducked his head
through the door. A split second after he pulled his head back, a
barrage of laser fire blasted where his head had been.
"Lunchtime, eh?" said the corporal. "I hope they like their eggs
scrambled," he added, as he tossed a grenade in and hit the ground.
After the resulting explosion, and a moment of silence, the
corporal and his squad darted into the barracks, one by one. Insect
bodies oozing green blood could be found everywhere.
"Let's take that one, it's bound to be lighter," said the
corporal, pointing to an Insect corpse on the ground that was missing
its lower half.
"They want an intact corpse, one that was clearly eating," said
the sergeant. He pointed to another that lay sprawled over its food.
"Take that one, lads!"
It took four of them just to carry it out of the barracks. The
Insects were really heavy. As his men carried the body out, the
sergeant scooped up the contents of a meal tray and put it in a plastic
bag he had brought with him. Then he followed his men out, all the
while ducking the fierce laser crossfire.
A few minutes later the attackers faded away. The Insect officer
in charge was a little surprised that they hadn't tried to penetrate
more deeply into the spaceport--none of their ships or cargos were
harmed. It concluded, incorrectly, that the attack had been repulsed
They were met at the rendezvous point by a strange looking fellow
whose features were hidden by a mask, a cape, and a hood. He supervised
the body being loaded onto a gravlifter and took the lunch bag from the
sergeant. "Good, is very good," he said. Then, before he left, he
handed a bag to the sergeant. "For your men." And then he was gone.
The sergeant slowly opened up the bag, not knowing what to
expect. Inside the irresistible aroma of soft, crispy rolls struck him
like a brick. The taste, if possible, was even more delicious; each
soldier got half a roll, wishing for more; when the lieutenant heard
about it, he pulled rank to get some too.
As they were eating, they noticed a shuttle taking off from an
adjacent building. It hugged the tops of the buildings as it sped off,
trying to stay below enemy sensors. "I don't know who that guy was,"
said the sergeant. "But he sure was one good cook!"
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The Insects roamed the cities in brigades, but as they covered
more ground the brigades broke up into battalions, the battalions into
companies, the companies into platoons, and finally the platoons into
One element of one such squad happened to wander into the
quarters of one of August's few extraterrestrials, Professor Capybara.
He wasn't a professor, and he wasn't a capybara, but that's what
everyone called him, partially because he looked almost exactly like a
capybara--beige, strawlike fur, four legs with webbed toes, and the
flat, wide snout of a real capybara--and partially because he wore what
looked like spectacles (but weren't) on the end of his snout.
Whatever the reality of it, he didn't mind being called that, and
no one really seemed to know what his or his race's real name was, so
everyone called him Professor Capybara. He was one of the very first
non-humanoid lifeforms encountered in the galaxy, and, fortunately, he
had turned out to be a friendly one. Vague on his origins and the
location of his race, it was unclear if he was one of a kind, or if
there were planets full of Capybaras somewhere in the galaxy.
To most high officials he granted an audience to, he was simply
Professor Capybara, speaking in a low, reassuring voice, making little
"tweatle tweatle" sounds as he talked.
An Insect trooper entered the passageway into Professor
Capybara's study, where the good Professor was curled up with a good
data pad on his couch. A small pile of peanuts lay by him. As the
Insect watched the Professor absentmindedly put one in his mouth,
making loud munch-much sounds as his jaws moved horizontally.
The Insect paused for a moment, as if trying to digest what it
saw there. Then it made a loud buzzing noise, the equivalent of, "Hey,
come here!" to its mates.
Two other Insect troopers, rifles on guard, quickly joined in.
The Professor, as if not hearing, didn't even bother to look up, but
continued chewing. He liked peanuts that had been exposed to open air
for a number of days; they were softer, chewier, and tastier too.
"You!" barked the first Insect, speaking through its translator
Professor Capybara looked up, looking mild-mannered through his
spectacles that weren't really spectacles.
"What are one of you doing here?" said the Insect, as if a
capybara wearing spectacles chewing on peanuts in a tastefully
furnished apartment was the last thing it expected to find in a living
quarters on August.
"Reading," said the Professor.
The Insects their rifles. "I will get a great reward for your
capture," said the first Insect. Reward indeed! It might even get an
award from the governor-general herself, or, perhaps, even permission
Professor Capybara sighed, putting down his datapad, as the
A series of inhuman screams could be heard coming from the room.
Then, just as suddenly, they cut off. The rest of the Insect squad,
patrolling nearby, rushed into the study.
Three Insect bodies were splattered against the walls of the
study, crushed so severely that gallons of green blood oozed out from
them, dripping on the finely tailored carpet.
Of the Capybara, there was no sign.
Chapter 3: A Cook Takes Action
"We are encountering minor, scattered resistance, but all
essential facilities are firmly in our hands" said an aide.
"Good," said Queen Zsst, studying the holographic data stream
containing latest reports. As ordered, her units were taking root
everywhere but on the grounds of the capital itself.
Now was the time to do something she had waited years for.
"Gunner! Lock weapons on Sarney Sarittenden. Lock all missiles and
Her intelligence being spoke up. "Queen, don't you think we
should wait until we examine-"
"I have waited for this moment for over 20 years. Destroy the
human capital now. FIRE!"
Missiles spat out of the Queen's flagship, missiles big enough to
destroy a cruiser with one hit. They sped down into the atmosphere, on
an ark that would prevent them from burning up before impact. They sped
down, and hit... precisely on the Throne Plaza itself, ground zero.
There was a tremendous explosion, and a fireball filled their screens;
and that fireball was amplified by other fireballs, and more missiles
Queen Zsst watched with satisfaction. Finally, after all these
years, the symbol of the Alliance had been destroyed. Her satisfaction,
however, was short lived, as the explosions cleared, and she saw... the
towers and spires of Sarney Sarittenden... without a scratch on them!
How could this be? "Fire energy torpedoes!" the Queen cried.
They fired, slamming into the planet more quickly than the
missiles. More fireballs filled the screen; some of it washed over onto
the immediate area around Sarney Sarittenden; but when the explosions
died down, she saw the impossible; the buildings weren't even
scratched. Some of the civilian buildings on the border of the palace
had been leveled by the attack; but all the structures in the palace
proper, Sarney Sarittenden itself, were untouched. How was this
The Queen jerked her head up to see Baraki entering. Her
mandibles chittered a bit.
"What are you doing?" said Baraki.
"We are destroying the symbol of the human resistance," said
"You are meddling in things you DO NOT understand," said Baraki.
"Cease this immediately!"
The Queen really had no choice; she couldn't have destroyed the
place even if she had wanted to. But how had the palace survived such a
"What do you know about this place?"
"That is not for you to ask," Baraki snapped. The Queen recoiled;
she hadn't seem him this angry before. He stomped out without saying a
All was quiet in the Queen's chamber for a moment, except the hum
of electrical control panels. But then, there came an announcement from
"Queen, we are picking up a signal beacon from the surface!"
stated a comm insect.
"A beacon?" said Zsst. "I thought all communications facilities
were in our hands."
"We thought so; this must be a small portable generator."
"Who can they possibly be hailing? Track their transmission!"
"The beacon is hailing... us!" said the comm insect.
"Is it one of our units?" said Zsst, a little confused.
"No... it is from a human!"
"A human?" This was odd indeed. Could it be one of those pesky
diplomats who wanted to negotiate? Zsst thought she had already
liquidated all of those.
"So it appears, but the signal is definitely directed at us" said
the comm insect, listening to the pulsing sound. "That's it, the same
signal, over and over."
"What does the signal say?"
"It says... come at once. I have something of great value for
you," said the comm insect.
"It sounds like a trap," said a strategy insect.
"Probably," said the Queen. "Where exactly is this signal coming
"The eastern continent."
"I thought the eastern continent was unpopulated?" said Zsst.
"That's what we were told. There are certainly no large scale
dwelling or industrial structures there," said the strategy insect.
The Queen considered. "Send a full combat team to investigate."
Levi Esherkol, fussing with meat on the grill, at first didn't
hear her. But then he did hear the engines of the attack transport
touching down near his home. In the quarry, probably.
"Levi! The monsters are here!" shrieked Mindy. She ran inside, a
look of fright on her features.
"Oh, all right," said Levi, untying his apron and taking off his
chef's hat. If only he had twenty more minutes!
"Levi, what do we do?" she said, trembling.
Levi pointed to the range. "Keep flipping them every five
minutes. When they start to turn black on the outsides, turn down the
temperature." He scooped up a bowl of something and headed out the
A squad of heavily armed seven foot tall warrior insect units
were already disembarked from their ship. Their weapons were scanning,
bobbing all about, but several of them trained on Levi as he
approached, openly carrying only the bowl in his hands.
The human was unarmed. Civilian. Therefore capture, not
annihilation, was in order. For now.
"Human. You will service us," one of them said through its
flashing translator device, It pointed its gun barrel at Levi with one
arm and lifted him painfully by his throat with another. A third arm
reached up and secured a control collar around Levi's throat, which
sealed with a click.
"Oh, uh, yes," croaked Levi, rasping through his sore throat as
he dangled painfully in the air. Then he was cruelly dropped to the
ground. As he dropped he barely managed to avoid dropping the bowl he
"Report to the transport for reassignment-" said the Insect,
stopping in midsentence. For it had started sniffing. The aroma coming
from the bowl was strong, very strong...for an Insect, that is. A human
wouldn't have noticed the smell, but the concoction in the bowl was
designed to give off a very appealing smell. Appealing for Insects,
"What... is that?" came the harsh but flat voice through the
"This?" said Levi, looking at the bowl of brown goo as if
noticing it for the first time. "Just some insect food. I entomologist,
I study insects and I just going to feed... say, you descended from
insects, no? I suppose you might to give it a try...?"
Normally, there was no way the Insect was going to accept food
from a human; it could, after all, be poisoned. But the smell was so
overpowering... for a human, it was the equivalent to the smell of
steaks, frying over a charcoal grill, with a smattering of hickory
chips to give it that special smell... but the scent was even more
overpowering for the Insects, who were even more sensitive to smells
The Insect called over one of its junior hatchlings. "Try this,"
The junior hatching did, without needing to be prompted again; it
liked the irresistible smell too. When the hatchling took a tentative
taste, and then another, and then another, it wasn't long before the
entire squad was digging out of the bowl and licking the sides of it.
"I have some more of it in house" said Levi. He paused, as if
considering something. "You know, it's shame I going to be common
slave. I make very good food for insects, no?"
Queen Zsst, in her ship in orbit around August, dipped one of her
claws into the bowl again. "It is good," she hissed. "Very good, in
fact. Very well, bring it in."
Levi Esherkol, wearing a collar around his neck and manacles
around his hand, was brought into her command chamber, looking mighty
small and alone as he was flanked by seven foot tall Insect guards. He
was actually only the second human to get this far; the first, the
human League President Mitterand, hadn't fared very well.
"I am told, human, that you made this food that is pleasing to
us," rasped the Queen.
"That? Oh, that was nothing," said Levi, with a shrug. "A quick
snack. With proper tools and equipment, I could do much better."
"What do you mean?" the Queen asked.
"Well, it a science, see? At least, for humans it is," said Levi.
"Tell you what; you give me access to lab, and I cook up some food you
The Queen buzzed for a moment. She didn't think humans had any
other uses besides manual labor, but she had never met the likes of
Levi Esherkol before. If the human could produce pleasing food, why
not? She could always terminate him if she grew bored or displeased.
"Very well," said the Queen, raising an arm to dismiss him.
"Ah, just one minute," said Levi. "You haven't heard my
"Conditions?" said the Queen, standing up in her high chair,
towering over the poor Levi.
"Requests, then," said Levi, taking a step back, and trembling.
The Queen sat down, hiding her amusement. "State them."
"One: that you leave my wife out of this. You will need her on
our farm, on August, to produce much of the food I will need to prepare
The Queen nodded. That seemed reasonable enough. "Continue."
"Two: That I have a fully stocked lab, and one or two of your...
associates to experiment on."
A human, experimenting on an Insect?
If Levi couldn't interpret the Queen's expression he was able to
make a good guess as to what she was thinking. "To test new recipes, I
mean," said Levi hastily. "I wouldn't want you to try a new recipe
until I had tested it on your underlings, right? If I didn't, I might
come up with something you might not like, and what would happen to me
"You would be executed," said the Queen. She shifted about,
appearing to grow bored.
"Final condition!" said Levi, sensing her restlessness. "Leave
the Eastern continent free from development."
"You know, mining, manufacturing-"
"Unacceptable," said the Queen flatly.
"Well," said Levi, swallowing hard, "How about just protecting
two or three locations from development?"
Levi gave her the name and spatial locations of a certain rock
formation, a certain forest, a certain waterfalls, and two other
"I will consider your requests," said the Queen. Levi opened his
mouth to say something more, but she cut him off, "Take him away." And
he was dragged off.
"Shall I have the human executed?" said an underling.
"No," said the Queen. "It amuses me. But first scan the locations
the human seeks to have off-limit for development. Look in particular
for any signs of hidden human installations. Then report back to me."
The report came back a few hours later. Orbital scans, aerial
overflights, and even landings by ground troops had found nothing
suspicious in any of those locations--simply varied arrangements of
trees, rocks, and water. Neither the Queen nor her underlings realized
these were the most highly protected natural treasures on August. But
they didn't have an eye for natural beauty.
"These humans are strange," said the Queen. "Tell the human its
terms are accepted, for now. We will see how long it proves
Chapter 4: The Silencer Comes to August
The Insect ships patrolling in orbit around August tracked the
small fighter that streaked past their orbital blockade towards the
planet; but though they trained their lasers on it, it was too quick
for them, streaking in-atmosphere even as their orbital fighters set
course to engage it.
Landing was another matter; once it set down, they would quickly
locate and destroy it. Then a decision was made not to destroy but to
capture and interrogate the pilot. The Insects wanted more information
about this individual who could slip through their net so easily.
The fighter settled in a clearing near a set of low hills on the
outskirts of the Sarney Sarittenden, in a small (and very rare) public
spot: a city park. But the ship's landing also attracted the attention
Clifford Croft's perspective:
"See that?" I said, squinting with his electrobinoculars.
"See what?" said Gantry, one of the Column members he had teamed
When I had gathered my wits I had linked up with other surviving
Column operatives and we operated as a small guerrilla force, moving
around the capital while harassing the bugs wherever we could.
"A spacefighter," I said. "It looks like it landed a bit to the
"How do we know it wasn't an Insect ship?" asked Jenna, another
Column team member.
I shook my head. "It looked like one of ours." Hoisting up my
backpack, I said, "Let's go."
Gantry groaned as he lifted a long, bulky bag. "But today is
Sniper Monday!" Gantry was the "caddie"; he was in charge of lugging
the special rifles in their protective carrying case.
"We can shoot some Insects later. Someone might need our help."
"The landing site will probably be crawling with Insects. Why are
we taking such a big risk to help one pilot?" said another teammember,
I took a breath. "All right, we're not going there to help
whoever's there; we're going there to find out what the pilot knows.
Once we finish interrogating him we can turn him over to the Insects,
It was funny what a difference a few weeks of scavenging could
make. Most of the population of August had been interned in forced
labor camps. But a few scavengers and resistance fighters survived.
Some of them were soldiers, and others were Column teams, like the one
I led. As I was widely known to be one of the Eight, my leadership of
the group was never questioned, even if my decisions constantly were.
We tried as best they could to hurry, but we also had to evade
Insect patrols. But when we arrived at the park it seemed the Insects
had gotten there first. In the distance we saw the fighter, the exhaust
still smoking, as it lay neatly parked by a lake, and they could
faintly see Insects around it. The Insects didn't seem to be moving.
"Neat landing," Gantry commented, peering at the ship in the dim
light. "Whoever did that must've been one great pilot, even with
But then as we cautiously snuck closer they saw another detail...
the Insects we had seen from the distance were all lying on the ground,
unmoving. In fact the lawn around the ship was oozing with green,
coming from their bodies. Dead bodies. All dead, at least 20 of them.
What had happened here?
The ship was a one-seater, maybe a two seater at most. Could one
or two people have gunned so many Insects down?
And then I saw the figure, leaning against the side of his ship,
whistling a sad tune, his hand reflexively drawing, holstering, and
redrawing his gun at a rapid pace.
"Is this a crazy man?" Gantry hissed, as the others and I peered
at the guy through the bushes.
Realizing the sound of his voice might carry, I hit the ground,
pushing Gantry down as I motioned him to be silent. But the warning
almost came too late; right after they dropped, an energy bolt scored
right where Gantry had been standing.
"I... see... you...." came the voice, as it stopped whistling and
started humming. The humming also sounded sad. But that voice! That
voice sounded familiar, kind of.
I raised my electrobinoculars, as I lay prone on the ground. Then
I caught the gunman square in his visual sites... and also caught the
end of the man's pistol, pointing straight at his binoculars. "Wait!" I
yelled at the top of my voice.
The man didn't fire, so it must have worked.
"We're human!" I yelled again.
The man seemed to have known it from the start, but he wanted to
give them a hard time. "Prove it," he said.
I slowly started to get up, but Gantry pulled on me. "Croft, he's
"Oh, most definitely mad," I said. "But probably not at us." I
realized that the man could have shot them dead several times by now,
even at this distance.
I stood up, with my hands raised, and slowly walked closer,
seeing more clearly now the man I expected to see.
The Silencer had his gun drawn and pointed at me. "Croft?" he
said, lowering it a few inches.
I nodded. "Can I lower my hands now?"
The Silencer nodded. "You can tell your guys in the bushes there,
there, and there..." he pointed with his pistol, "To relax. They are
with you, right?"
I nodded again.
They approached his ship. "How did you get here?" Gantry asked.
The Silencer made a deprecating expression on his face and
pointed to his ship.
"I mean, who are you? What are you doing here?" Gantry asked.
"No time for that," I said. "We've got to get you out of here,
it's not safe-"
The gun whirled out of the Silencer's holster and two bolts were
fired. On the far side of the lake, two approaching Insects fell to the
ground, one of them screeching as it was shot.
"I know, it's not safe," said the Silencer. Then, purely as an
afterthought, "You'd better go."
"If you stay here more and more will come, and they'll kill you,"
"I know," said the Silencer, standing his ground. He slowly
turned his head, looking for potential targets.
"What's this all about?" I said. "You don't usually kill unless
you're paid for it." Then, looking at the Silencer's face, and thinking
about his actions, I understood. "Where's Annie?" I asked.
The Silencer's face was granite. He said nothing. But that said
A squad of Insects burst into view. My people raised their
weapons, but before they could fire, it was all over. The Silencer
momentarily lowered his weapon.
"This isn't the answer, John," I said. "Sooner or later they'll
come at you with armored vehicles, or shoot you from the air."
"Don't you want to live?"
The Silencer shrugged. Then, uncharacteristically, he added, "I
just want to kill as many of these creatures as I can."
"That's not what Annie would've wanted," I said. That got me a
glare, and for a moment, I felt a wave of fear. I licked my lips, and
tried a different tact. "These Insects didn't kill Annie, John. It's
their leaders, they're the ones who gave the orders."
"I know, I killed one of them," said the Silencer. "I'd like to
get some of the others, but I don't know where to find them." The
Silencer's gun shot out again, and two more Insects fell. In the
distance the sound of a motorized vehicle could be heard. Time was
"Some of them are on August! And working with us, we can help you
get them!" I said.
For the first time, I felt that something that he was saying to
the Silencer was finally having some effect.
Several mechanized vehicles broke into the clearing on the other
side of the lake. They were brimming with troops.
"That will take time," said the Silencer.
"In the meantime, you can kill some Insects with us, have some
fun, paint the town... just think, you can kill more if you come with
us and live, than if you simply stay here and get shot."
"I don't know," said the Silencer. "I think I can kill an awful
lot more before they get me."
"Come with us, you'll kill even more in the long run!"
The Silencer considered how many he could kill with each option,
as the vehicles closed into effective range.
"Are you promising me I'll be able to kill a lot, I mean a real
large number of them?"
"That's a promise!"
Something clicked in the Silencer's head, and he briefly nodded.
When the Insect ground transports cleared the far side of the
lake, all they found was an abandoned fighter. One of the Insect
troopers, inspecting the cockpit, found a stick pressed against one of
the controls. The trooper removed the stick... and the ship exploded,
taking two of the groundtracks and more than a dozen Insects with it.
When the sound of the explosion carried a quarter mile to the
south, a small smile broke out on the Silencer's lips. But only for a
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
From the personal log of Clifford Croft, one month after the invasion
We brought the Silencer back to one of our hideouts in August. If
you're an outsider reading this (how did you crack my datapad
encryption code?) you may wonder what I mean by that. Where on August?
Well, since Concord, the western continent, is basically one big city,
we just refer to it all as August (except for Sarney Sarittenden, of
course). Oh, there are still some farms in the outlying provinces, and
Aridor, the entire eastern continent, is undeveloped (mental note to
self: whatever happened to Levi?). But, to put it simply, August is
In the past I've kept a log to chronicle my missions, but this
time it had a special meaning to me. We're slowly getting picked off
one by one, and chances are that we won't survive much longer. There's
no air cavalry waiting to come over the horizon to save us. Our fleet
has been destroyed and we're trapped here, on our own.
If you know anything about me or my past, you may think that this
situation should be familiar to me. After all, I've spent most of my
life as an infiltrator, hiding around in a society that would imprison
or execute me (or worse) if they got their hands on me. While that's
true, this is different. Whenever I went on a mission, I always knew
there was a home, somewhere, where I could go in safety once the
mission was over. Only now there is no safe home to return to, and
there will be no end to the mission. This occupation could last dozens
of years, or hundreds of years, or longer. Our only hope is to try to
wear the Insects down, and it's a slim hope. We can hurt the Insects,
but there are only a few Column teams out there, and in the big scheme
of things we can't stop an army; that's not what we were trained for.
The Silencer has been plenty quiet since we brought him in.
Preston and the others think it's because of his grief over Annie. Only
I, who has known the Silencer for a long time, know better--the
Silencer ALWAYS keeps to himself. I could never get him to talk much
under normal circumstances. I wonder if and how Annie ever got him to
Did I mention that I found Preston? He was one of the survivors
of the attack on the Column HQ building. We found him and Collen
skulking around in the underground a few weeks ago. I still don't know
what happened to the Chief or many of the others.
Anyhow, we have to continue to stay active. But each time we go
out on a mission there's a chance that one (or more) of us won't come
back. We lost Fletch last week and Dorim the week before. We're down to
seven Column operatives in this group... seven operatives, and the
"Good mooooorning, August!" I boomed, entering the common room,
giving a strategic toe kick to the forms lying on makeshift bedding of
I was met with groans from barely awake operatives. I had
appointed myself morale officer; I was keenly aware that without
morale, or at least some agitation, this bunch would become little more
useful than an unruly mob.
"Go away," said Jenna, covering her head with a pillow.
"Good morning!" I boomed again. "The sun is shining, the birds
"We're on sublevel 17a, and we don't know or care whether there's
sunlight on the surface," said Gantry.
"And there hasn't been a bird seen on the western continent in
decades," Jenna added, moaning slightly as she woke up some more.
Good. At least I was getting their attention. "It's time to start
our day! While Preston here serves you a delicious breakfast of protein
concentrate and distilled water, it's time to consult our favorite
fortune telling device, the activity planner!"
This had been my pet idea, like everything else that was the
slightest bit creative in our little organization. I turned to indicate
a giant off-white plastiform wheel shaped object behind me, part of a
stabilizer from an Insect shuttle. We had liberated the stabilizer
covertly from a shuttle parked at the Sarney Sarittenden spaceport,
confident that our theft wouldn't be discovered until the shuttle was
used again. (Sure enough, the very next day when the shuttle was next
used, there was a loud explosion at the spaceport and a smoking hole in
the ground not far from where the shuttle had been).
The wheel was divided up into a number of sectors, each of which
had a word painted along the edge, such as "SNIPER", "ASSASSINATION",
and "ESPIONAGE", "SPYING, "SEARCH FOR PROFESSOR CAPYBARA" (where did
that large furry rat go?), and "SHOPPING". A giant pointer (actually,
the burned rifle barrel of an Insect gun) was in the middle of the
wheel, where it could be conveniently spun.
After several weeks of going on the same missions, over and over,
we had decided to introduce some variety by making a game out of it.
Well, ok, actually it had been my idea. But things had gotten so boring
"Who would like the honor of spinning the wheel today?"
I was met by groans in response.
"Very well," I said, taking that as permission to spin myself. I
took a grip on the pointer, and gave a wild spin.
The pointer spun around and around, only slowing down a bit after
three laps. It really started to run out of energy around the
"Professor Capybara", leading me to believe that we were destined to
spend another fruitless day searching for that spectacled rodent, but
then the pointer landed on "INTELLIGENCE GATHERING".
"Well well well," I said. "And so our agenda is set."
And so today became Intelligence Gathering Tuesday. Actually, we
didn't end up gathering that much intelligence about the Insects; but
we did learn a lot about the Silencer.
While doing a routine reconnaissance a few days earlier (last
Thursday being a Recon Thursday), we had noticed some unusual activity
coming in and out one of the tall skyscrapers just a few blocks away
from our hideout (once we came out on the surface).
We had entered an adjacent building across the street that was
empty and had taken the elevator up a few floors. Then we had looked
across the way at the other building; and, seeing no activity, we went
up a few floors more.
On the 44th floor we had seen something interesting, through the
windows across the way into the other building. It looked like some
sort of Insect command post, with consoles set up throughout the floor
that were manned by Insect technicians. Crouching down on the floor, we
caught the images through our electrobinoculars. At the time we merely
took note of the location of this command post, and I filed this
information away for later use.
Today I decided that now was the time to take advantage of this
"If we can sneak in to the building and climb up to the 43rd
floor, we might be able to tap into an access cable on the 44th and get
into their network," I said. "The only tricky part will be getting into
the stairwell, but maybe if we try going underground...."
I turned around to see the Silencer. It was always surprising
just to hear him speak.
"But that's the safest way-"
"How many Insects will die this way?" the Silencer asked.
I considered. "Well, if we're lucky there might be one or two in
"Unacceptable," said the Silencer.
"Listen, Silencer, or whatever you call yourself," said Jenna.
"You may no longer care about your own personal safety, but some of us
here want to remain alive for a while longer. If you want to go in
through the front, guns blazing, by all means, but go by yourself. But
otherwise keep quiet and follow our lead."
A muscle twitched in the Silencer's cheek. I held my breath. No
one talked to the Silencer that way. At least, I had never heard anyone
talk to him that way and live much longer after that. But the Silencer
simply stared at Jenna, with a cold, deadly stare. She matched his gaze
for a moment, then she looked suddenly away, looking flustered.
"Right," I said, stepping between the two (facing the Silencer,
purely as a precautionary measure). "To the stairwell."
We took the elevator down to the ground floor and then we started
down to the stairwell leading under the planet surface. But when I
reached the entrance to the underground, I turned around and noticed
The Silencer was gone.
We ran to the entrance of the building we were in, giving us an
unobstructed view of the Silencer walking calmly to the building across
the street. Four Insect troopers were on guard, all armed with laser
rifles. They watched the Silencer as he walked up to them. Maybe they
didn't shoot him on sight because his gun was holstered; or maybe they
didn't shoot because the sight of this single, grim human slowly
walking to them was not like anything they had ever seen. Humans
cowering in fear? Yes. Humans running away from them? Yes? Even humans
firing on them? Yes. But a single human walking up to them? No.
Either way, they all had the sense to at least point their rifles
at him when he got close. "Halt!" one of them said through its glowing
translator device, located on its chest. "What are you doing here,
"I'm here to steal information from your command center
upstairs," said the Silencer.
This took a second or two to penetrate. During that time the wind
howled, a glint of sunlight glistened off the Silencer's eyes, and a
note of alarm planted itself in the minds of the Insects. They raised
their rifles ever slightly, finger claws tightening about their
And in that split second there was a streak of motion and three,
no, four discharges. All I saw, from across the street, was a blaze of
motion, the light of blaster fire, and then, when I blinked again, the
Silencer's gun was back in its holster, and four Insects were slumped
on the ground.
My little gang and I cautiously ran up to the Silencer. There
seemed to be no other immediate resistance.
"Why did you do that for?" I asked.
The Silencer shrugged microscopically. "She invited me to go in
with guns blazing," he said, indicating Jenna.
We went inside. There were two more guards at reception, but they
barely had time to see us, much less react, before a blaster bolt aimed
at each sent them crashing to the ground.
"Are you going to let us do any of the firing?" I inquired.
"If you're quick enough," said the Silencer.
"I saw you shoot three blaster bolts," said Gantry. "What was the
third for, did you miss?"
The Silencer nodded to the ceiling, where the blasted remains of
a vidmonitor could be seen. "If I got it quickly enough, they may just
think it's a malfunction."
"And if you didn't?"
"Then they'll be waiting for us."
We entered the elevator, after first checking to see that there
were no monitors in there. The Silencer pressed a button, and up we
went.... to the local Insect command center. Why should we worry? We
had the Silencer with us.
When the elevator doors opened, two Insects who were waiting at
the entrance to the elevator sprayed the interior with laser fire the
minute the doors opened. After a few seconds of spraying the elevator
they stopped firing, realizing something.
The elevator was empty.
The Insect troopers turned to look at each other, and at that
moment the Silencer and I dropped down from the top hatch of the
elevator. Before the bugs realized what was happening, they were dead.
The Silencer took five steps out of the elevator, which was
sufficient to put most of the floor in his view. He fired nonstop, a
blaster in each hand, while our operatives emerged from the stairwell
and opened fire as well.
In a matter of seconds almost two dozen Insects were dead. The
Silencer walked calmly down the rows of consoles, shooting
occasionally; he didn't seem the slightest bit concerned about stray
insect guards or insect technicians who might be hiding.
In moments it was over. I went over to what looked like a
database interface terminal, but was dismayed when I saw a ragged
blaster hole through the control circuits. "Now we'll never be able to
log in!" I said. I turned to the Silencer, who was standing idly by,
bored, perhaps, that he no longer had any ready targets. "Look what
The Silencer looked past my shoulder, and inspected the jagged
hole. "That's not from my blaster," he said, as if he could tell.
"This is what we get for going in with guns blazing," said Jenna,
glaring at the Silencer. I sensed those two might have some trouble
The Silencer shrugged. "If you didn't want the equipment damaged,
you should've left all the shooting to me."
"You?" said Preston. "Against two or three dozen Insects?"
"Yes," said the Silencer simply.
Intelligence Gathering Tuesday ended on a sour note.
The next morning we spun the wheel, and it turned out to be
Sniper Wednesday. That was good. That's something we could all share
and enjoy together, including the Silencer. But as we gathered for our
mission I introduced the Silencer to another team tradition.
"Place your bets," I said, pointing to a board which bore all our
names (and the Silencer's, newly added to the board).
"I'll bet one ration on the Silencer," said Gantry.
"I'll bet a ration on the Silencer too," said Preston.
"What is this?" said the Silencer.
I cleared my throat. "We have a competition, a gambling bet, to
see who will come back from a dangerous mission. We each bet on the
teammember we think is likeliest to survive that particular day; if
they win, they get an extra half-ration."
But then everyone made it clear they were voting for the same
person--the Silencer. His tactics might have been only short of insane,
but everyone had seen his Graftonite reflexes in action.
Since everyone was betting on the same guy, we couldn't really
wager effectively, so we had to cancel this aspect of our gaming. Well,
at least we still had the activity wheel to play with. And today the
activity wheel said we were going to sniper kill some bugs, and that
cheered me up a bit.
I think sniping was everyone's favorite activity on the wheel. I
know that everyone was already bored with searching for Professor
Capybara (should we remove him from the wheel?), and most of the other
sort of commando operations we performed were starting to get
monotonous from sheer repetition, but there was nothing like a good day
of sniping to raise morale.
Sniping would be real fun. No one ever got bored of sniping. We
were going to have a great time.
I couldn't have been more wrong.
Preston fetched the rifles, and Jenna brought the cammo tarp, all
rolled up in a tight bundle. It was as if we were going on an outing,
or on a picnic. Well we were going on an outing all right, but the
outing we had in mind was a half mile off the surface of the planet!
We took the elevators up to the roof of one of the tallest
buildings on August, the Regulation Building, and Preston unpacked the
equipment while Jenna spread out the cammo tarp and the rest of us
started looking off the rooftop--north, south, east, west, to find the
best view. The winds whipped by us and the hot morning sun shined down
on us. What a great day!
"Report," I said.
"A squad down the block to the west," said one operative.
"A command post backed up by heavy armor on the east," said
"A few stragglers on the south," said a third.
"A troop convoy on the north," reported a fourth.
"A troop convoy, perfect!" I said. "Just what the sniper ordered!
Preston finished unpacking and assembling three Column laser
sniper rifles with special long range scopes. Only the scopes weren't
the only thing special about these rifles. The laser projector inside
produced a special kind of light not viewable in the visible spectrum.
The problem with most sniper lasers is that after the first or second
shot the path of the laser bolt would give away the sniper's location.
But since the beam was invisible, the sniper's location could remain
hidden for longer periods of time, especially if the sniper was
shooting from long distances.
We had had merry times sniping all over August the past few
weeks, picking off Insects troopers, watching the rest scurry away on
their malformed legs. It was great fun, really, and this time shouldn't
have been any different.
The only problem was that we only had three rifles, and the
customary fight broke out about who would get to snipe first.
"Hey!" I said. "We're running out of time. That troop convoy is
on the move. The Silencer will take one, Preston will take another, and
I'll take the third."
"Hey! You got to shoot first last time!"
"When you're one of the Eight, you'll get to decide who shoots
first," I said. "Now get under cover. We all got down under the cammo
tarp, so that only our heads stuck out. It was a little bit hot under
it, but well worth it; the cammo tarp automatically assumed the color
of the surrounding rooftop, protecting us from prying eyes, if any came
up this high.
I located an Insect trooper on the scope, a driver of one of the
vehicles. I started to squeeze the trigger. "Ready... Aim...."
And suddenly, in my sights, the trooper jerked backwards, and the
vehicle skidded to the side and rammed a building. Someone must have
fired first. And I didn't need to guess who.
After that it was a veritable shooting gallery, where we
attempted to pick off all the targets who were now scurrying across the
thoroughfares. Although they could see the approximate direction of
attack, they had no way of spotting our exact location, nearly a mile
Gantry mumbled something about wanting a turn and I knew that it
was about time to switch. Before I could start dealing with the problem
of how to persuade the Silencer to let someone else take a turn with
his rifle, I heard a dull rumbling which pushed all other thoughts out
of my mind.
I knew what that sound was. "Cease fire!" I hissed. "And get your
heads and rifles under the tarp!" Everyone did, just before an
ascending flying fortress appeared above the top of the building.
At least, it was the Insect equivalent of a flying fortress, a
heavily armed gravitator platform, about 10 feet wide and 40 feet long,
with heavy guns mounted on it every few feet, each manned by an Insect
trooper. I peered out at the gravitator through a tiny hole at the end
of the cammo tarp.
The gravitator hung in the air above us for a few seconds. Could
it have located us so quickly? I thought not. And yet the gravitator
hung there. I suddenly felt a shiver down our spine. The cammo tarp
assumed the color and consistency of the surface around it
automatically; the rooftop should appear empty to them. But if they
somehow detected us... we would be easy targets.
"Jenna," I hissed, getting a sudden thought. "Can this thing
withstand heat scans and infrared?"
She paused a moment. "I think so," she said.
It was at that moment that she shifted an arm to scratch her
nose, and the thought immediately flashed through my head: motion
detectors. But the thought came almost too late.
Somehow the Silencer was already up and running even as the first
laser bolt singed the tarp. Did an unknown hunter's instinct protect
him? Or would that be a prey's instinct?
I didn't have much time to think philosophically about it, as I
and everyone else was running for the stairs that would take us all off
the roof. Laser fire burst thick around us and we all ran for it
without even trying to fire back; well, almost all of us; the Silencer,
reaching the stairwell first, was on bent knee, rapidly firing several
potshots, before a returning volley forced him inside.
We dashed down the single flight of stairs which took us to the
elevator shaft. I noticed that some of us were missing but didn't have
time to count faces because a deep, deep rumbling sound could be heard,
a rumbling so deep that it shook the stairwell. We couldn't see it at
the time, but later hypothesized that a spaceship, a cruiser, maybe,
had snuck up against the building. And a cruiser's lasers could
demolish a civilian building in seconds. I guess they had taken our
weeks of sniping a little more seriously than I thought they would.
"Jump!" I said unnecessarily, leaping into the open shaft, as I
was followed by my companions. A few seconds into our fall the top
levels of the building were turned into a fireball as turbolasers
blasted the area. The concussion from the shock almost pushed Preston
into a wall, but he steadied himself, straightening his descent. We
continued to fall, trying to outrun the flames above us.
It was just a few moments later that we saw explosions again, but
this time even closer; this time the Insects were blasting a giant hole
in the middle of the building, just a few dozen feet above where we
were falling seconds earlier. They were methodically destroying the
building! Would we get to the bottom before they destroyed the entire
I watched the ground below steadily approached. While we couldn't
increase our speed of descent, it was time to start worrying about
decreasing our speed. The buildings generators were located in the
basement, but if feedback or the shockwave from the explosion knocked
The bottom closed quickly and I eyed the rapidly approaching
ground with horror. And then, just as I thought that we weren't going
to slow down, I felt myself suddenly braking rapidly. In seconds I
landed gently on my feet.
As everyone knows, all elevators on August were powered by
gravitational fields and projected force beams; all we did was disable
the elevator car and put the shaft in test mode. This was SOP whenever
we needed a quick getaway from a rooftop.
We quickly slunk back to one of our hideaways, but I didn't have
to wait until we got there to count the missing: Jenna, and two of our
other operatives. Three people dead on what should have been one of our
least dangerous missions!
"They were expecting us," I said, gritting my teeth.
"Expecting us, how?" said Gantry. "Do you think one of us-"
"Gantry, I picked the building myself at the last minute, even if
we had a traitor among us, they had nothing to tell," I said. "No, they
were expecting us because we always did the same thing. Sniping from a
tall rooftop. Do the same thing enough times and they'll prepare for
it. There are only a finite number of rooftops that have a commanding
view over the city. It's probably taken them several tries to catch us
like this," I fumed. I blamed myself, personally; this was supposed to
be a fun distraction, from the normal life and death missions we went
on. Instead, we had our worst casualties yet.
"Did anyone see any of the others who are missing?" I asked.
No one said anything. Then Gantry gulped.
Gantry shook his head.
"As... as I got out of the cammo tarp, for a moment, I passed
over Jenna's body, just for an instant," he said. "She... had a burning
hole in her forehead."
I didn't say anything else. There were only four of us left now,
five if you counted the Silencer. I wondered what he was thinking. He
didn't volunteer any thoughts.
Suddenly, the who-will-survive sweepstakes didn't seem so funny
anymore. Before the next morning, I quietly took down the board
containing our names.
Chapter 5: Fire & Applause
From the personal log of Clifford Croft, five months after the
We acted more cautiously after that, deciding to take things easy
for a while. But taking it easy isn't easy; just sitting around, doing
nothing, drives all of us stir crazy. Even the Silencer. I can see it
in his eyes. He just sits there, quickdrawing, and reholstering,
quickdrawing and reholstering, over and over again.
It must have irritated Jenkins, one of our surviving operatives,
for he looked at the Silencer and opened his mouth, as if to ask him to
stop. But the Silencer gave him a cold stare, and Jenkins simply closed
his mouth and looked away.
After a few days we had to go out, if only to go shopping. Our
food supplies were limited, and we had to periodically raid storage
centers for more. The storage centers and the routes leading to them
were often guarded by the Insects, of course.
We sneaked across one of the underground stripways. August had as
many as 50 interior levels in some areas, and each level stretched for
miles, much to our advantage. The Insects didn't have the trooper force
to station soldiers on all levels. But they did have frequent patrols;
it wasn't often we could sneak from one area to another without at
least seeing a patrol. I tried to crack into the city's internal
security system to see where the patrols were, but while I could break
into the system, I couldn't figure out how to access and target the
scanners. The system had been designed to be used by police
bureaucrats, and so far I had been unable to crack the very unfriendly
I thought I had the route to the nearest storage area memorized,
but we must have turned a wrong corner, because suddenly we were in
unfamiliar territory. Keep in mind that it was very easy to get lost
in an underground this size; but at least, in earlier times, there
would be people traveling through that one could get directions from,
or electronic wall panels to consult. Now the underground was virtually
empty, as most people had been rounded up and the few that hadn't been
were in hiding. The only one to ask directions of were the patrols, and
somehow I didn't think they'd be very forthcoming.
We heard a patrol coming our way and we quickly ducked into a
Wrong turn again. It was a dead end.
We heard the clop clop of the Insect feet coming our way. It
sounded like a LOT of them. Some of their patrols had only two or three
of them, but this sounded like at least a dozen. And in seconds they
would turn the corner and see us.
We all had our weapons out, even the Silencer. I suppose with the
Silencer with us we shouldn't have worried, but we were boxed in a
narrow corridor, and it would be difficult for the Insects to miss when
the shooting started. Unless the Silencer could get them all first.
We never found out because the Insects stopped, just short of
turning the corner. I heard them buzzing to each other in their own
language, but had no idea what they were saying. Then, one of them made
a loud buzzing sound, a warning sound, and I heard sudden movement, and
then the corridor lit up. That's right, it lit up, as if there were a
fire in it. But we heard no explosion, we just saw the lights of a
fire, and the screams of the Insects. One of them, screaming rapidly,
turned the corner and ran towards us. We could see it was on fire and
desperately trying to rub against the wall to put the flames out. It
came close to us and fell to the ground just feet from the Silencer,
who still hadn't fired a shot. I think, for once, that he had been as
surprised as we were.
Then there was silence and the fires died down.
"That's about all of them," I heard a high pitched, almost
little-girl voice say.
And then I heard a clapping sound, also around the corner, as if
someone had offered applause.
My people gripped their guns more tightly. But for me, fear
evolved into cautious recognition. "Stay here," I hissed. I didn't want
I slowly edged my way around the corner, to see charred bodies
under a low flame, and an expressionless young woman with reddish hair
looking at me. Even as she stared I noticed her hair turning back to
"Sally?" I said.
"Who are you?" she said, peering in the gloom. "Come forward
slowly, or I'll turn you into a candle."
"No need," I said quickly, stepping forward so she could see me.
"Oh," said Sally, when I came closer. "It's you," she said,
"Croft!" Clap! "Croft!" Clap!
I turned around and knew who I would see before I saw him. The
Clapper. A powerful telekinetic.
"It's ok," I called, raising my voice slightly.
My people came around the corner, gripping their guns. Preston
knew who they were, but Gentry and Jenkins probably didn't. The
Silencer, oddly enough, had met both operatives before, on a mission on
Grafton II where, as I'm sure no one remembered now, I had saved the
galaxy from an invasion of the Graftonites.
"People, meet Sally Ravanal, aka Red Sally, and Robert Clerk, aka
Clap! Clap! Clap!
Gentry and Jenkins looked at me quizzically, as if more
explanation was needed.
"They're high level operatives from Gamma Section," I said.
"She's a top level fire starter, and he's a middling range
"Telekinetic!" Clap! "Telekinetic!" Clap!
"Who has a tendency to clap," I added. "What are you two doing
here? I thought the Column shipped you people out just before the
Gamma section contained all the Column's mentalics; a hasty, but
correct decision had been made to ship them out just before the bugs
landed; they were too valuable to waste in street fighting. I guessed
rather than knew that most had escaped in time. What were these two
still doing here?
"I decided to stay and fight," said the Clapper nervously. He
Red Sally gave him a look.
"We decided to stay," the Clapper corrected himself.
Red Sally gave him another look, a more dangerous one.
The Clapper gulped. "She decided to stay," he said, in a small
"Why?" I asked. "You were ordered-"
"I'm not going to let myself get kicked off my home planet
because of a bunch of giant mosquitoes," said Red Sally. "I decided to
stay and fight."
"And you?" I said, turning to the Clapper.
"Sally... Sally told me to stay," he said, nodding his head.
"I see," I said.
"I hate to interrupt this reunion, but we're asking for trouble
if we stick around here," said Preston.
We beat a hasty retreat back to our base.
It was really good to have some of the Gammas on our side. But
the flip side is that they were undisciplined, especially Red Sally.
The first night they had problems falling asleep, due to the Clapper's
near-constant clapping, and we were all rudely awoken early in the
morning, due to Red Sally.
It all started after dinner, when we were getting ready for bed.
The Clapper, eyeing the foam packaging we had laid out for him, started
to clap nervously, slowly. It was a clap every twenty seconds or so,
but it was still frequent enough to get our attention.
"Doesn't he have any way of turning that off?" Preston asked.
Red Sally said, "Believe me, I've been resisting burning his
hands off for ages."
I said, "He only claps when he's nervous, or upset, or fearful,
"Or if he's bored, or if the weather isn't right," I added. I
went to the Clapper. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing," he said, vigorously nodding his head.
"C'mon, I see you're clapping... tell Clifford what's bothering
"Bedding..." he said, nodding his head slowly as he studiously
avoided eye contact.
"What about it? You have to realize we don't have real beds here-
"Bedding!" he shrieked.
Everyone looked up for a moment.
"Lower your voice," I said. "Do you want to attract a patrol?"
Our little hideaway, formerly a spacious utility closet, was fairly
remote from the major passageway, but loud voices could still be heard
"Bedding," he said, softly. "Bedding in the corner of the room,
I'm used to my bedding in the corner of the room."
"Your bedding is in the corner of the room."
".... the corner of the room closest to the door, closet to the
door, it has to be in the corner closest to the door..."
I looked around. The Silencer was lying on a pile of bedding in
the corner closest to the door. He couldn't possibly be asleep so soon,
but I wasn't quite ready to test that theory so quickly. I didn't think
he'd appreciate doing a public service for the rest of us by moving to
make the Clapper happy..
"What difference does it make? A corner's a corner," I said. Then
I remembered how he didn't like the shape of our drinking glasses at
dinner, and had spent most of the dinner slowly clapping about that. I
shuddered; was he going to do this all night?
"Corner closest to door," he said dully, slowly clapping in pace.
I sighed and went over to the Silencer. His eyes were closed, but
he couldn't be sleeping with all this talking and clapping going on,
could he? When I crouched down by him, his eyes immediately flew open,
and I saw the muscles in his right arm jump minutely. He looked at me
with irritation, as if weighing whether I'd be worth a blaster bolt.
I cleared my throat. "Um, John, I was wondering if I could ask
you a small favor."
The Silencer continued to look irritated. He wasn't going to make
this easy for me.
"The Clapper... he's used to sleeping in this corner."
The Silencer glared at me.
"I mean no, obviously, he's never slept in this corner before,
but in his previous hideout, he always slept in the corner closest to
the door. It's a nervous habit, see? So I was wondering if you'd mind
trading places with him."
The Silencer said nothing.
"John? Would you be willing to move? To help the group?"
The Silencer considered for a moment. Then he spoke a word, the
only word he would say that night. "No," he said, closing his eyes.
"John? John?" I said. I decided against shaking him. Obviously,
this discussion was over.
"Sorry, I tried," I said, seeing the disappointment in the
We settled down for the night. I tried to ignore the periodic
clapping sound. One could even count numbers to it. 1... 2... 3.. 4...
5... 6... 7.. 8... 9... 10... Clap. 1... 2... 3.. 4... 5... 6... 7..
8... 9... 10... Clap.
This went on for several minutes. Then I heard a sudden rustling
around me, and a startled squeal. Instantly I opened my eyes,
instinctively grabbing my gun.
The Silencer was bent over the Clapper, but before I could move
forward the Silencer had already moved away, and I could see the
Clapper, hands outstretched, bound securely together in several loops
with a sturdy piece of rubber wire insulation. The Clapper looked
astonished, as if no one had ever done this to him before.
I turned back to the Silencer to say something, but he was
already on his back, his eyes closed.
We were awakened early the next morning by a pungent smell; no,
actually, it was a burning smell. My eyelids slowly fluttered open to
find Red Sally, her blonde hair now a reddish brown, slowly burning one
of the legs of our dining table. A stream of smoking was rising out of
the foot of the table as it slowly burned under her constant attention.
A flame came out of one of her fingers, pointed at the leg, burning the
wood but somehow not her fingers.
"Hey, what're you doing?" I asked getting up. "Stop that."
"Some hideout this is," said Red Sally. "You've got nothing to
"We need that table," I said, stamping out the flames with my
"I was only going to burn a few inches. It's like a muscle; I
need to keep practicing it, or I lose it," Sally said.
"Uh huh." By now everyone was up. We had a quick breakfast (after
putting a bit of foam under the burned leg so it would be about the
same height as the other legs), but not before Gantry untied the
"My hands hurt!" he said, looking accusingly at the Silencer as
he massaged his hands, which had red lines on them from where they were
tied. He clapped once, experimentally, perhaps to see if he could still
"I'm relieved to see you haven't lost your touch," said the
After breakfast we spun the wheel again, to see what we would do
"It's a lousy idea, to let random chance decide what to do," the
"What do you care?" I countered, sensitive to criticism of the
wheel. "Whatever option it settles on, it will almost certainly involve
Clap! "Let me do it! Can I turn the wheel? Can I? Can I?" the
"All right," I said, glad that at least someone was getting into
the spirit of things. I stepped aside so the Clapper could turn the
The Clapper didn't move forward, and he didn't touch the pointer.
He concentrated, staring at it, and the pointer started turning on its
own. It spun, around and around, around and around, every few
revolutions getting another mental push to keep it going.
"Uh, the purpose of the pointer is defeated if it doesn't stop
somewhere," I told the Clapper.
"Oh." Immediately, the pointer came to a dead stop, then moved
two sections forward, then one section backwards, and then stopped
"Somehow I don't think this was exactly a random selection," I
said, looking at the pointer. It was pointing to "SABOTAGE".
"Sabotage!" Clap clap clap! "Sabotage!" Clap clap clap!
I used a pointer to indicate sections of a three dimensional
holoschematic of the warehouse grounds. "This is one of the Insect's
main ammo dumps in the city. We could go in shooting again, as I'm sure
is popular in some circles, but that could set off the dump
"Not if I do all the firing," said the Silencer.
"Even if you do all the firing," I said. "There are Insects
barracks here, here, and.... here. If the alert is raised and they
start firing, the Insects may hit the ammo dump with return fire by
accident. No, this requires a bit of sneakiness. There's an underground
service crawl way that leads into the warehouse here. I say we go in
through there, plant a few of our homemade bombs, crawl out, and boom!
We detonate. Any questions?"
The Silencer raised a hand.
"Do we get to kill anyone?"
"I presume all three barracks of troopers will be wiped out in
the explosion," I said. "Any other questions?"
The Silencer raised a hand again. "Let me rephrase my question;
do we get to shoot anyone?"
"There's always that chance," I said. "Other questions?"
"Do I get to light anything on fire?" said Red Sally.
"Absolutely not! Not in the warehouse," I said. "If you do, that
will be the last fire you ever light."
"What about this crawl way?" Preston asked. "Do they know about
it? Isn't it sure to be guarded, or boobytrapped?"
"It most certainly is boobytrapped," I said, having done the
preliminary survey myself. "That's where my hero comes in," I put an
arm around the Clapper.
"Not to touch!" he squealed, moving away. Clap Clap.
We crawled through the access tunnel. It was a five man job--
myself, the Silencer, Red Sally, the Clapper, and Gantry. We sent
Preston and Jenkins out on a shopping trip, to get some more food.
We moved through the narrow space on our elbows and knees. I
moved silently, as did Gantry and the Silencer. But Red Sally and the
Clapper were as loud as a drumset as they banged their elbows and knees
against the floor.
"Quiet!" I hissed. "We're coming up to a guard post ahead.
There's a grill in the floor of the corridor above us that connects
directly to this tunnel. If they hear us, these thin walls won't
protect us from laser fire."
We moved at a slower pace to permit Red Sally and the Clapper to
move more quietly. First I passed under the grate; looking up for a
moment, I saw a shadow over it, and heard buzz buzz sounds. If they
Gantry followed next, followed by Red Sally, followed by the
Clapper and then the Silencer.
When the Clapper was under the grate he froze, trembled, and
stopped moving. I could see his two shaking hands moving closer
together... if he clapped, we were dead. I maneuvered past Gantry and
Red Sally to try to motion him forward, but he ignored me, staring at
his shaking hands, moving closer... and closer....
The Silencer chose that moment to spin around silently in the
tunnel, and he gave the Clapper a great kick in the buttocks, silently
sliding him several feet down the passage. I barely had the sense of
mind to put my hand over the Clappers mouth as he tumbled into me.
The buzzing sound stopped, and we could see the shadows above us
shifting. We kept dead silent for a moment. Had we been discovered?
Another moment, still silent. Perhaps they were being silent
because they thought they heard something, but were not sure and was
trying to hear more.
Another moment. And then, the shadows shifted again, and the
buzzing sound resumed.
I exhaled silently, unaware I had been holding my breath.
We proceeded without incident down another hundred yards of
passageway, where a field of glowing blue bars blocked our way.
"Alarm beams," I whispered.
"Do you have equipment to neutralize it?" Gantry whispered.
"Yes," I said, pointing to the Clapper.
"Me?" said the Clapper.
"See that button in the wall, behind the blue bars?"
The Clapper squinted. "No."
"Look more closely."
"I don't see anything in front of the blue bars."
"Look behind the blue bars."
"Oh.." Pause. "I don't see anything, except for that button."
"Press it," I said.
The Clapper concentrated, and I saw the button push inwards. The
blue bars barring our way disappeared. "Very good. Take two claps out
of petty cash."
The Clapper moved to clap, but I was quicker, grabbing them first
and holding them immobile. "Not until after the mission is over. This
warehouse is teaming with Insects and is a clapping-free zone,
The Clapper nodded.
I opened the grate leading to the surface, my gun drawn as I
pulled myself up and out of the tunnel. I looked around. We were
surrounded by crates of munitions. Good. I cautiously slunk around,
noticing the guard positions. There were Insects posted on the northern
and eastern exits to the room, but they were in fixed posts. They
shouldn't bother us. Of more serious concern were the warehouse
workers, loading, unloading, and moving about. If one of them should
come our way...
I set the Silencer to watch while Gantry planted the bombs. It
would only take two or three to ignite the explosives here and blow the
entire city block up. Meanwhile I was quietly opening up containers,
taking out things that looked useful, and handing them to the Clapper,
who held a sack that I quickly thrust into his hands. It turned out to
be a strategic move, because putting things in his hands also inhibited
his urge to clap.
Gantry, being the consummate professional he was, finished
placing the explosives in under a minute, hiding them underneath things
so they wouldn't be discovered until they were too late. I, however,
was still picking out useful items from this demolitions supermarket.
"Croft," he hissed, hearing footsteps.
I stopped what I was doing and ducked down, but it was too late.
An Insect worker, wearing a hardhat of some sort, came around the
corner, staring at a datapad. It looked up, was about to buzz-
And a bolt from the Silencer's blaster caught it in the mouth; it
I looked at the Silencer, stunned; the blaster bolt hadn't made
but the tiniest of burping sounds. Then I saw the attachment on the end
of his blaster.
The Silencer had used a silencer.
I nodded fractionally, scooped up a few more containers, put them
in the Clapper's sack, and we started for the hole which led to the
tunnel. The timers were set for 8 minutes, and we had already used up
at least one of those...
The Clapper and Gantry popped into the tunnel. I was about to go
next when we heard a klaxon. An alarm had sounded!
Above us on the catwalk we heard an angry buzz, and saw an Insect
trooper standing next to an alarm button. Grabbing its weapon, it fired
down on us.
Fortunately for us, and everyone in the warehouse, its blast
struck a piece of empty floor, just inches from one of the munitions
Red Sally was in action in an instant, sending a ray of fire to
turn the Insect into toast. Screaming and waving its claws wildly, it
fell over the railing, right onto a heavy munitions crate! The minute
it burned through the top of the crate, the whole thing would explode!
"Into the hole! Quickly!" I yelled now, above the klaxon. We
jumped in, me, the Silencer, and Red Sally.
We started crawling as rapidly as we could. There was no telling
when that flaming Insect corpse would detonate the munitions. One thing
was fore sure: we didn't have eight minutes to get to safety.
We crawled as rapidly as possible, and made good progress for
almost a minute. I could see our exit from the tunnel up ahead, and I
knew we just might possibly make it...
And then the explosion came, one which shook us against the walls
of the tunnel, and I could suddenly feel a tremendous heat rising
Looking back, I saw a fireball rushing at us down the tunnel. It
would reach us in seconds, before we could reach the exit.
Instinctively I closed my eyes for a second, but quickly opened them
again, which is a good thing, or else I might've missed what happened
The fires were almost on us when Red Sally, who was last in our
procession, send forth a powerful flame of her own. It smacked against
the advancing firewave, slowing it, slowing it, holding it, and then,
pushing it back slightly, then holding it.
Red Sally, gasping with perspiration and looking exhausted,
whispered, "Hurry... can't... hold it long..."
We scampered out of the tunnel, me dragging Red Sally, who never
left eye contact with the firewall behind us. As I dragged her into the
light I noticed her normally blonde hair was now a bright, bright red;
in fact, it was now even warm to the touch.
We stopped for a moment in the corridor, even though it was
dangerous, merely because we needed Sally some time to get on her feet.
The Silencer stood with a gun in each hand, each pointed in opposite
directions down the corridor. After a moment she nodded and stood up, a
little unsteady. But she was able to keep up with us as we made our way
We all congratulated Sally; after all, she had saved our lives.
But she wasn't happy.
"I didn't get to burn any of THEM," she said.
"You burned one of them," I remarked.
She made a dismissive sound and turned away. Her hair, already
blonde again, was still wet with perspiration as she laid down on her
foam stuffing and dropped off.
"She must be really exhausted," Gantry remarked.
"Oh, all she needs is some rest," I said. "She'll be up and
igniting flammables again in no time."
I looked around, and only then noticed something was wrong.
Preston and Jenkins were missing.
They should have been back before we were. I had sent them
shopping for some food.
"Preston and Jenkins are overdue," I said.
"Most of you non-Graftonites are slow," the Silencer shrugged.
"I think something's happened to them."
"Let's give them a little more time," said Gantry. "Maybe they
had to evade a patrol and hide out somewhere. Let's give it another
hour or two before we start looking for them."
I nodded, feeling a bit alone. If Preston and Jenkins had been
caught or killed, that would leave Gantry as the last Column agent
left, besides me.
It turned out that Gantry was right to insist we wait, because
several minutes later, Preston, breathing heavily, stomped through the
entrance to the large maintenance closet that was our home.
"Need help," he gasped, as if he had been running hard.
"Slow down," I said. "Take a few deep breaths. What's happened?
"An Insect patrol," said Preston. "After we got the food, we had
to run, and we got separated. I got lost. I've spent the past few hours
just trying to figure my way out. If Jenkins is still out there, he's
I knew what it meant to be lost. With fifty dark, underground
levels with corridors that all looked alike stretching for hundreds of
miles in every direction, it was very easy to get lost. Even before the
occupation, of course, it was common for people to get lost in the
underground, but back then there was always someone around to ask
directions of, and the electronic wall maps were functioning. Neither
of which was the case now. The corridors were empty, operating on low,
auxiliary lighting. The only people who came through those tunnels now
were the occasional scavenger, or, more likely, Insect patrols.
I grabbed my blaster. "Then we'll have to go looking for him.
Where was your last known position?"
"Level 32, Section 85, subsection 2," said Preston.
"Let's go." Red Sally would stay behind to rest, but the Clapper,
Gantry, and Preston got up and headed towards our exit. But I noticed
as I headed to the door that the Silencer was staying put. "You
"No," said the Silencer. "You could search for days down there
and not find him. It's a fool's errand. He's probably already dead by
"All right," I said. "If you don't want to come to save Jenkins,
then maybe you'll want to come with us to find some food." Preston
hadn't come back with his pack; he must have dumped it to travel
faster. "We have almost no food left: that's why we sent them out,
remember?" I knew which buttons to push.
The Silencer nodded. That made sense. "But I'm not spending more
than a minimum of time on this useless chase," he warned.
"Noted," I said, sighing.
The Clapper clapped nervously in anticipation as we trooped out.
It was some team we were building here.
Chapter 6: Jenkins is Found, But No One Is Grateful
From the personal log of Clifford Croft:
We went through the dark corridors slowly, alert to every sound--the
drip drip of water, the scurrying of rats, the distant sounds of
footsteps. We were expert enough by now to be able to tell the sounds
of Insect footfalls from human ones, but none of the ones we heard
were human. All we heard were the creepy scurry-scurry scraping sounds
of Insect patrols.
Whenever the sounds of one came close, we stopped and stood
absolutely still, hoping it would pass us by. With so many corridors it
was unlikely they would stumble onto us. That's why in most cases,
standing absolutely still until the sound grew distant, was the
smartest thing to do. Still, there was always the chance that they
would come across our particular corridor...
We searched for an hour, and then two, and I couldn't help but
notice that the Silencer was showing signs of impatience, drawing and
holstering his blaster in rapid succession, as if he were playing with
a toy he was eager to use. Perhaps on one of us...?
I turned to Preston, "We've searched the entire area in this
section of level 32. Are you sure this is where you got lost?"
"Well, partially," said Preston. "But we were also on levels 30
and 31, and that was hours ago. Who knows where he may be now?"
I didn't turn around to see the inevitable look on the Silencer's
face. Even I knew that there had to be some limit to this search. If we
hadn't find him by now, Jenkins was probably lost, or captured or dead,
and there was nothing we could do about it. If he was merely lost, and
he found his way out, then there was some hope, but-
"Who knows where he may be now," said a high-pitched voice,
imitating what Preston had just said in a mocking way.
The Silencer's guns were out of their holsters so quickly that I
hadn't see them drawn. But the blasters bobbed this way and that,
unsure where to point. The Clapper clapped three times, despite the
metal block I had given him to hold.
"Yes, must shoot everything that moves--that is the Column way,"
affirmed the high-pitched voice, obviously sarcastically.
I peered ahead in the darkness. There was a discarded piece of
machinery in the corridor. Whoever or whatever was speaking seemed to
be behind that device.
"Come out," I said, my own weapon drawn. "We won't shoot you."
"Promise not to hurt, yes, the ones gripping guns tightly always
Suddenly that voice sounded familiar. I should have identified it
immediately, but with all the tension, and the unfamiliarity of my
surroundings, my mind had drawn a blank. But another one of the Gammas?
What was this, mutant reunion week? I holstered my gun. "You can come
out now, Mongo."
A head suddenly darted above the machinery. When the head saw us,
it paused a moment, and then the entire person slunk forward. This
being, undoubtedly human, was no ordinary citizen of August. Even in
this poor light we could see he had incredibly pale skin, as if he had
never been exposed to sunlight, and he was incredibly thin, as if he
were only bits and pieces of muscle and bone. He cautiously skulked
over to us, bending slowly back and forth, moving his head this way and
that, like some animal checking out his new surroundings.
"You can relax," I told the Silencer, who didn't lower his gun.
"This one's a friend."
"A friend, yes, we put friends in confinement, that's what
friends do," said the newcomer. His name was Mongo, and he was one of
the most powerful of the gamma operatives the Column had.
"So I heard," I said. "What did you steal this time?"
"Steal? Yes, they say Mongo steals. Mongo looks at bits, and
pieces, and shiny things, and just touches them, small things that no
one misses, and they say Mongo steals-"
"What did you steal?" I asked again, patiently.
"A landing bay power energy converter," said Mongo.
"That's not a small thing that no one misses," I commented,
wondering how he had been able to make off with such a large object.
Well, evidently he hadn't.
"So they put him in jail, Mongo they put in jail, with all
hardened criminals. Do they take into account all Mongo has done for
Alliance? Do they remember all times Mongo has saved Alliance, from
very very bad enemies? No. Do they say, 'Thank you Mongo, thank you for
saving dear sweet lives on August?'. No. Do they say, Do they say,
'Mongo, you have done a small bad thing, but you have saved Alliance,
many, many times, we are grateful?' No! It is only, 'Mongo, you are
bad, we do not need you right now, you go to prison with hardened
"It was the ninth or tenth time you had been caught," I said.
"You couldn't expect the Column to intervene on your behalf forever."
Another thought crossed my mind. "How did you get out?"
"Insect peoples stream out of the sky, invading. Do kindly guards
say, do they say, 'Bad Insect peoples coming. They will make you
slaves, or kill you. We should free you now before we run off'? No,
guards think nothing of prisoners, they just run away. But Mongo knew
that forcefields relied on military generators that were about to be
"About to be hit?" said Gantry. "How did you know they were about
to be hit?"
"So polites, Column peoples, always interrupting, very good
"Get on with the story," I said.
"Force field go off, we escape. Alien peoples come everywhere,
but they don't see Mongo, no, Mongo knows all the places to hide. Mongo
knows; Mongo likes tunnels!"
Gantry got impatient. "Very good, but we're looking for-"
"Jenkins, must find Jenkins," said Mongo. "Mongo knows. You can
find your Jenkins two levels down and on section across--at least you
will find him there. May not find him yet there."
"What does he mean, will find him there?" Gantry said. "Croft,
you know this...."
"Column operative," I said. "Gantry, I've had more contact with
the Gammas than you have. Meet Mongo, an off-again and on-again Column
operative, whose specialty is precognition."
"Precognition! That means he can see-"
"Sometimes," I said. "But his predictions are often vague, and
open to several interpretations-"
"Complain, all they do is complain-"
"And in addition he's very high-maintenance with an attitude to
Mongo didn't take that very well. "Mongo has an attitude? Mongo
just told you where to find your Jenkins. What kind of attitude would
the Croft call that? Would you call it cooperative, yes? Would you call
it helpful? Would you call it-"
The Silencer growled, "We don't have enough time for the entire
list of synonyms. We've spent enough time in this open hallway. I feel
like stationary target. You, creature, take us to Jenkins!"
Mongo shrank back, but was defiant. He didn't like the Silencer's
tone. He stood still for a moment, then started to buff his nails.
"What if Mongo chooses not to-"
There was an explosion of chipped wall pieces and ferrrosteel as
the wall around Mongo exploded with blaster fire. The Silencer had used
one of his blasters with the silencer on the end of it, but in the
absolute stillness of the underground I was still afraid that the sound
would still carry. The Clapper cringed and clapped three times to add
to the noise.
Mongo, his life threatened, immediately turned over a new leaf.
"Mongo help! Mongo help!" he squealed.
"Very good," said the Silencer.
"But shouldn't go to find your friend, no," said Mongo. He moved
closer, coming out of the gloom. He looked at the Silencer and a look
of recognition came to his eyes. "You shot me with your right hand; how
did you do that?" he said, looking at the Silencer's right hand and
then his arm up to his shoulder.
"What did you mean?" asked the Silencer, showing one of his rare
Mongo hastily turned away, muttering, "Sorry... not yet, not
"What do you mean, we shouldn't go after Jenkins?" I said, also
curious but trying to steer things back to more pressing topics.
"You shouldn't go, no, it is dangerous, very dangerous,"
"What kind of danger?" I asked.
"Dangerous kind," said Mongo, his eyes growing large.
"Bugs?" I asked.
"Alien peoples around," said Mongo. "Or they might be, or will
be, or could be."
"What do you mean, might, will, could?" said Gantry. "Which is
Mongo looked at Gantry like he was an idiot. "Many futures, some
happen, some not. And some futures that happen, may happen sooner, may
happen later, often hard to tell. Many flashes, all undated, hard to
sort through." He shuttered, then blinked, as if he had just received
another vision of the future. "You too," he muttered, looking at
Gantry. Gantry looked startled.
With a maximum of histrionics I managed to pin him down on
Jenkins' exact location--two levels down, subsection C, corridor 22,
Room 15a, a deserted classroom. That's where he may be/have been/will
be. Mongo told me that there are or would be patrols in the area
looking for him. If we were lucky, we would get there before the
"You might get there before alien peoples do," said Mongo, "But
you will not get out before seeing them. And this one," he looked at
Gantry with his big dark eyes, "will die."
Gantry didn't look pleased with the news of his impending death.
"I'm not going down there," he said immediately.
"Are you sure about that?" I asked Mongo.
"Mongo never sure. Mongo unreliable, Mongo high maintenance, you
say so yourself-"
"Are you sure," I said again, putting more aggression in my tone.
Mongo took a step closer to Gantry. He peered closely at Gantry
through squinty eyes for a moment.
"Well?" I said, after a moment.
"Mongo wrong," said Mongo. "He dies later, in another place.
Mongo apologizes for the mistake."
Gantry looked extremely agitated.
"Relax," I said. "What Mongo sees doesn't necessarily occur. It's
not a death warrant."
But Gantry had a question, "How far can you... see into the
Mongo shrugged, as if he had never considered the question
before. "Weeks... months... Mongo not sure. Mongo no longer under
"All right, if we've finished with that morale booster, I vote we
go after Jenkins," I said.
"He said the level is swarming with them," said Preston, speaking
for the first time.
"So much the better," said the Silencer.
Mongo took us down two levels to the appropriate section,
offering us running commentary every step of the way describing how
ungrateful we were and how underappreciated he was. I had dealt with
this behavior many times before and over time and was able to
unconsciously screen it out, but I could tell from the expressions of
the others that they weren't handling it as well. As we got close to
the location where Jenkins was reported to be, or would be, we heard
the scrape-scraping of an Insect patrol. We flattened against a wall in
shadow, and three junctions ahead of us heard the chittering sound of
their troopers speaking in their hissing, clicking and buzzing
And then we actually saw them, three junctions ahead of us. A
patrol passing by, crossing in a corridor perpendicular to ours.
We stood silently against the wall, our weapons drawn, pointing,
aiming... could they see us, in the dark? I had heard that their vision
was better than hours...
The patrol passed. I heard Preston clear his throat as if to say
something, but the clicking sounds hadn't declined; they had only
A second patrol passed by, only two junctions ahead of us. We
ducked behind some falling debris and peered out. The Insects seemed to
turn their heads this way and that; they couldn't be more than 20 or 30
feet away. Click, click, buzz...
We watched, one by one, at the last of the patrol passed out of
our line of sight, and indeed stood still for a minute later until the
click click buzz receded.
"I thought you said we wouldn't encounter them until after we
found Jenkins," Preston whispered.
I preemptively cut off Mongo's reply about ungratefulness. "He's
not always as accurate as a weather stat, Preston. Come on."
Cautiously we slunk to the appointed corridor. Mongo's eyes
turned this way and that in the gloom. Was he really navigating
according to a memory, or rather a vision of the future?
Mongo stopped and pointed to a door ahead of us. Guns raised, we
pried it opened and cautiously peered in. It looked like a dark, empty
classroom. Maybe Jenkins wasn't here yet (or maybe Mongo was wrong).
But if he were here, in hiding, he might shoot us before he realized we
weren't bug troopers-I saw a flash of something being raised in a
corner, behind a desk, and hissed, "Jenkins!"
The blaster, it was clearly a blaster, stayed in place but didn't
fire. "Croft? Is that you?" he hissed back.
"Are you on a last name basis with any Insects?" I said,
gesturing for the rest of the gang to follow me in.
"How did you find me?" said Jenkins, getting up from behind a
I introduced Mongo. "But detailed explanations can wait later," I
said. "I can't help but notice the heavy pack on your back; while
rescuing you is reward enough, may I presume it's filled with food?"
"Good." I turned to Mongo. "You said we'd encounter them on the
way out; would we be safer if we hunkered down here and waited?"
"What does that mean?" Gantry demanded.
"Mongo not know. Starting out now may be worse, or better, or no
"You're useless," Gantry snorted.
"Mongo remembers you say that."
I groaned. We'd be hearing about that remark for a while.
"Ok, I vote we get going," I said. I didn't relish hanging around
in this gloomy abandoned place unless we have to. "Any other
There were none.
We prepared to get going. But before we left I took the Clapper
aside. "You know what to do if we encounter an Insect patrol, right?"
The Clapper looked confused.
"That's what I thought. You may have thought I took you along
just for comic relief, but you actually have an additional purpose," I
said. "If we're attacked and forced to fight, I want you to use your
power against the Insects."
"You want me to lift them in the air?" Nervously. Clap clap.
"Push them over! Knock them out! Anything to put a few out of
"My power doesn't work that way," said the Clapper, clapping
twice again. Clap clap.
"Make it work that way," I said, clapping my own hands twice.
Clap clap. "Get it?"
The Clapper nodded.
We didn't find trouble when we left that classroom.
Trouble found us.
Almost immediately we were bracketed by two patrols, coming down
opposite sides of the hallway. It was either the worst run of bad luck
we had had in a while, or perhaps they had been expecting us. The
Silencer's guns were out and firing, one pointed down the north end of
the hallway and one pointed towards the south. Laser and blaster bolts
were flying everywhere.
"Retreat!" I yelled, dashing back into the classroom. The others
quickly followed, taking positions behind desks and pointing their guns
straight at the door. I didn't think anyone had been hit but couldn't
tell for sure. We all took deep breaths as we stared at the partially
The first Insect tried to rush in and was gunned down by three
shots; so was the second, and the third, and then the fourth. And then
they stopped, showing that even the Insects have a modicum of
intelligence. We heard them clicking and buzzing outside.
"A standoff," said Preston, breathing heavily.
"Anyone hit?" I asked, glancing around to identify everyone
visually, but not taking my eyes off the door for more than a second at
a time. No one responded, which meant either no one was hit or whoever
was hit wasn't in a condition to reply. If I had had my wits I would've
had everyone sound off, but on second thought that would've informed
the Insects exactly how many of us there were, so maybe that wouldn't
have been such a good idea after all.
I saw that the Silencer, Preston, and Gantry had their guns drawn
and pointed at the door; I couldn't see Preston from my current
position. Confident that we were as well protected for the moment as we
were going to be, I took the luxury of looking around again. As I
remembered from our first stay, the room had only one exit, the door we
came in. Or did it? I peered in the gloom....
"Humans," came an artificial sounding voice through an Insect
translator. "Humans, we have no wish to harm you." Click click buzz.
"You have a funny way of showing it," said Preston.
"Surrender, we will not dismember, will not hurt," said the flat,
insincere sounding voice.
I crawled my way to the opposite corner of the room. Yes, there
was a vent there! Trying to act as quietly as possible I pulled on the
"We have called for reinforcements, there is no escape...."
With a wrenching sound the grating came off. The Insects must
have sensed that something was going on, for there was a scurry of
activity outside the partially opened door. But no one came in.
I motioned with my hands to get everyone's attention. They saw
what I was doing and one by one started to crawl to my position. The
vent looked dark and uninviting but at that moment our options were
At that moment, however, the dimly lit room lit up with a flash,
and an explosion blew the door in as well as a good piece of the wall
The Insects came streaming in, and, momentarily stunned by the
noise and light of the explosion, we didn't respond.
Except for the Silencer, that is. He hesitated only a split
second before opening fire with both blasters while in a crouched
positions, his hands moving like a blur.
The Insects opened fire but the ones in the front ranks fell
immediately and the other ones were forced to search for cover, hiding
behind desks in their end of the room. But some of those desks started
to push against the Insects; one by one they were being crushed against
the walls, emitting inhuman shrieks as green liquid squirted from their
exoskeletons. The Clapper concentrated hard as he glared at the desks,
one by one, causing them to smash into the Insects.
In seconds it was over. The remaining Insects fled out the large
hole they had created, and we had restored the impasse, for the moment.
Then we heard that the buzz buzzing of the few outside being
accompanied by the click clicking of sounds farther off, and getting
It must be those reinforcements.
"Quick! In here!" I hissed, climbing in the vent. It was a narrow
squeeze, but that was a good thing; the Insects wouldn't be able to
follow us in here. The only trick would be to get far enough down the
vent to be out of direct weapon's fire range of the classroom. If an
Insect should simply stick his weapon into the vent and fire....
That and other cheery thoughts sustained me as I wiggled on hands
and knees down the vent as fast as I could. Thankfully the vent turned
to the right after less than a minute of flight, indicating we'd be out
of sight of the classroom entry point. I could only hope that everyone
followed me behind closely; the space was too constrained for me to
turn around and look.
The vent was totally dark; I could only feel my way by touch. If
the vent should constrict and get too small to continue, I would be at
the end of a small, narrow tunnel, with a half dozen or so of my
companions jammed up behind me, trapping me completely....
Adrenalin kept me going, and thankfully none of these fears
materialized before I saw a dimly lit exit to my right as the tunnel
branched. I avoided that one, figuring it was too close to our entry
point, and kept going. The great thing about our escape was that I was
fairly sure the Insects had no idea where this vent led; maybe they
could punch up the plans for this area, but by the time they did and
figured out where this vent was on their map we'd be long gone. Even
people who were experts in level management had trouble figuring out
maps of the tunnels of August!
After twenty minutes of steady crawling where we had turned down
possibilities to leave the vent system, I finally turned right to what
I subjectively thought was a good place to exit, figuring we had put
enough distance between us and our pursuers. The others exited behind
me, one by one, huffing and puffing, all except the Silencer, who I was
beginning to suspect wasn't remotely human.
We caught our breaths, and I did a count and was relieved to see
that everyone was still with us. As well as the foodpack that Jenkins
had been carrying. Good man! It must have been tough for him to lug
that through the narrow crawl spaces, but he didn't complain.
We cautiously peered out of the room we were in. It was some sort
of abandoned living quarters. I tiptoed to the entrance and looked into
the gloomy corridors around us. They were empty, though in the faint
distance I thought I could hear a scraping sound.
Now we faced a different problem; we were lost.
It wasn't a laughing matter; conceivably, in the dark, we could
be lost down here for days, in which time we could pick up another
We lucked out when we found a stairwell which had the level
number on it. We were one level higher than when we started, but we
still didn't know what section or block we were in. Well, at least we
could return to our level; our current hideout was on level 15. Maybe
once we returned to our level things would look familiar. Of course,
level 15 extended for miles in every direction. Such was the
subterranean sprawl of August.
We climbed in silence and without incident. When we once thought
we heard some activity on the stairwell below us, as if someone had
opened the door to the stairwell, we all froze instantly, at the same
time, for a moment. Then, after a moment's silence, the door slammed
shut, and we waited another moment. When there was no further noise we
cautiously started our ascent again. The bugs, or whoever that was, had
probably been stopping to look, and listen.
We came out on a junction on level 15 that looked vaguely
familiar to me. "That way, I think," I said, pointing one way.
"No, I think it's the other way," said Jenkins, pointing in the
Gantry offered a third opinion for another direction.
The Silencer didn't offer any opinion, and Mongo had no flashes
of insight. So we compromised by going a few blocks in each of our
directions and looking to see if anything was familiar. Nothing did.
Then I remembered my electrocompass. Like many planets, August
had a strong magnetic pull from its north pole. The compass might not
work this far down in a semi-shielded environment, but then again it
The compass didn't move for a moment, and then I shook it; then
it moved slowly, lazily. Ok, we had been going north.
Which was right. Because I remember that Preston had taken us
south to look for Jenkins.
We traveled along this route for another 10 minutes and then
things started to clearly look familiar to all of us--the burn marks on
that wall, the faded sign on that door, etc. And in minutes we were
home, safe and secure in our maintenance closet.
"That was simple enough," I said. "What's for dinner?"
Chapter 7: Liberating The Farm
From the personal log of Clifford Croft, nine months after the Invasion
Of course, nothing was that simple, especially when it came to
living with Mongo. While he was an invaluable asset when used against
the enemy, he tended to create dissension among allies. And I'm not
just talking about his tendencies to steal; no, he created worse
problems than that. Immediately after dinner, he started talking again
about his predictions about the deaths of members of the team.
"It seems to me that if we had stayed put for a few minutes, we
would've avoided both patrols," said Gantry, giving Mongo a purposeful
"Yes, yes, blame Mongo, Mongo always at fault," said Mongo.
"Always get angry at Mongo, yes. Mongo not the one to tell you to go
there. You ask, you ask for help, saying, pleading, 'Where find
friend'? Very lost, must find!' And Mongo, Mongo gives you exact
direction, even guides you there. But Mongo says, 'Danger. Danger if go
there to get friend. Mongo risk life to guide you, but danger.' And
this is thanks Mongo gets."
The Clapper clapped twice.
"Mongo thanks you," said Mongo, erroneously taking it as a sign
"What else can you tell us about the future?" Gantry asked.
"You mean your death?" said Mongo innocently. "Mongo see in
future that you are very, very, concerned about your death. You blame
Mongo unfairly for warning you-"
"That's enough!" I said. "Mongo gets occasional flashes about the
future, but they're not always right, and they are always fragmented.
He's good as a warning sign, and can spot possible events, but we
shouldn't be setting our clocks, or our lives, by his predictions."
"I want to know more," said Gantry. "What are the circumstances
of my death? Do you see death for any of us?"
"Death, yes, see deaths, very unsafe business you are in, is no
surprise," said Mongo sullenly. "See death for you," he said, pointing
a bony finger at Gantry. "And you, and you and you, and maybe you," he
said, pointing at Jenkins, Preston, the Silencer, and at me.
"Under what circumstances? When?" Gantry demanded.
Mongo was silent.
Gantry grabbed him by the shoulders, and started shaking him.
Mongo started to sob and weep as he pitied himself. I pried
Gantry away. "He doesn't work that way."
"Well make him!"
"Mongo gets flashes, insights, concerning himself and people
around him, but that's all," I said. "Imagine if you were constantly
bombarded with visions of possible future events, but each vision
wasn't longer than a second or two long, and all were disconnected.
Would you be able to piece together what they were all about? Would you
be able to keep yourself from going mad?"
It was at that moment that they understood. In a stroke they
understood why Mongo was what he was.
But my defense of Mongo had an unintended side effect. "Mongo not
mad." I heard grudgingly behind me.
"No, of course not," I said. "I meant stressful."
"Yes, stressful, very stressful," muttered Mongo, trying out the
word for size. "Made worse when not appreciated."
Preston asked, "How do you..."
"Mongo not know. Column not know. Top scientists of Gamma Section
not know. Together, know very little. All that is known is that Mongo
is not appreciated."
"I'm glad we had this little getting-to-know-you session," I
said. "And before any of you start planning for your funerals, remember
that what Mongo sees is at best what might happen. Only your
overworrying will cause it to happen. On no less than two previous
occasions Mongo claimed to have "foreseen" my end, and I'm still here."
Mongo muttered something unintelligible and retreated to the
corner with the bedding I had prepared for him. He wouldn't make
I put him next to the Clapper and Red Sally; they had known each
other previously from their time together in Gamma Section. But I made
the mistake of moving the Clapper's bedding to make space for Mongo's,
and that started a whole round of discussion and accusation. The
Clapper was used to sleeping against that wall, the Clapper didn't want
to complain but wasn't comfortable-
I cut it off almost before it began, moving the Clapper's bedding
back where it was and switching Red Sally's bedding (she didn't care
where she slept, as long as she slept in something flammable), with
Mongo's. But that started a line of complaints from Mongo about how
dispensable he felt and how his feelings weren't being considered.
I screened out the noise from that corner of the room and turned
to Preston. "How're we doing?"
"We got enough supplies for a few days, but we won't last more
than four or five days, especially not with this new mouth to feed."
So Preston resented him too. "This new mouth led us directly to
Jenkins, and will save our lives four or five more times before the
month is out," I said. "He's irritating, but he's more valuable than a
squad of Jump Troopers." Speaking of them, I wonder what had become of
the Jump Troopers, the elite mechanized planetary paratroopers? Wiped
out in the initial Insect attack, I supposed.
"We'll need more food soon," said Preston. "It seems they're
stepping up patrols in this sector. We should probably search farther
afield for other supplies."
"Good. You take Jenkins and Gantry and scout around to see what
you can find tomorrow. I'll take the Silencer, the Clapper, Red Sally
and Mongo to scout around on the surface."
"Splitting us up?"
"There are enough of us to form two teams," I said. "And yes, I'm
conscious of the fact that I'm keeping the Column people separate from
the Gammas. You just need to build up some more tolerance for them."
"Where are you going?"
"I spotted a hive last week on the surface. They're starting to
sprout up everywhere. I want to see what's going on inside one of
Buildings all over August were being selectively demolished and
replaced by large, multi-level hive like structures. So far I had never
seen the inside of one of them, a lapse in intelligence gathering that
I intended to remedy the very next day. Usually it was safer to go
around at night, especially on the surface, but I wanted to be able to
see what I was looking at; most of my critical gear, including my
infragoggles, had been left behind at the Column HQ in my haste to
My team slunk around on the surface, moving from building to
building. The Insects were continuing to build up their forces on
August, but the city, covering almost the entire Western continent, was
just so big, that it would be some time before they could fill every
nook and cranny of it. Certain areas like the capital, at Sarney
Sarittenden, which the Insects had taken over as their command, was
simply swarming with Insects, but most of the city only had sporadic
I had noticed a hive going up on the edge of this sector, and we
went and checked it out from a building across the street. We noticed a
steady stream of ground transports loading and unloading equipment and
people. Humans. Slaves with control collars. Lots of them, streaming in
and out under guard.
"Wonder what's going on?" I said. The Clapper clapped twice.
"Let's go in and burn something and find out," said Red Sally,
starting to get out of the squatting position.
I pushed her down and said, "No. This requires a bit more
finesse. The only ones who can get into that building are the Insects
and their human slaves. Therefore, I'll have to dress for the part."
I took a control collar out of my backpack; several weeks ago I
had retrieved it off a deceased prisoner who had been shot in the back;
I had cut it off, made sure it was thoroughly deactivated, and then
made superficial repairs to allow me to snap it on and off my neck. I
put it on now and disgarded my backpack and weapons, except for a small
blaster I put in my ankle holster, under my trousers. While some of the
slaves were wearing the green uniforms of the Insects, others were
wearing their own tattered clothing. My clothes were almost as tattered
and dirty as the human slaves; the only problem is that I probably
looked a bit more well fed than they were. Well, there was nothing I
could do about that.
"So you're going to play spy," said Sally disgustedly, curling
her lip. "Why did you bother bringing us along?"
Clap clap. She had some support from the applause department.
"I may have a harder time getting out than I do getting in; I'll
need you to create a diversion if I'm forced to run for it," I said.
"Think you're up to it?"
The Silencer drew his guns; Sally's hair turned a slight pink in
anticipation; the Clapper put his hands together; and Mongo put his
finger to the wind.
"What do you sense?" I asked Mongo.
Mongo paused, and pointed. "Wind coming from that way."
"Wish me luck," I sighed.
The trick to infiltrating a group is to make it look like you
were always part of it. If I simply walked across the street and
attempted to join the slave procession, the Insect guards would notice
something funny. So I slunk from position to position, moving steadily
closer and into danger, until finally only one guard separated me from
the prisoners streaming in and out. I held a rock in my hand, which I
used to good effect, tossing it far in the opposite direction; it hit
the ground with a clink!, causing the Insect to look at the noise; when
he turned back, he didn't notice one more prisoner moving among the
bunch. Mission accomplished.
I have to parenthetically add that this sort of thing isn't very
difficult for me; as a Level One Column Operative, one of the Eight,
I'm a top-notch infiltrator, and have infiltrated far more controlled
societies than this. But it was good to see that a few months of
guerrilla combat hadn't made me lose my touch. I followed the line of
prisoners shuffling into the hive.
My eyes had to adjust going inside because there was an eerie
green light everywhere. We went up several levels, depositing boxes of
equipment and supplies here and there, and I could see immediately what
this was: a manufacturing facility. So at least some if not all of the
hives were manufacturing plants. They were using our resources and our
labor to help fuel their war machine.
Once we had delivered the supplies we were herded back outside to
waiting vehicles. "Where are they taking us?" I hissed to a young woman
ahead of me in line.
She looked surprised, as if I should already know. She said
We were getting close to the vehicles. Time was running out.
"Where?" I whispered.
"Back to the labor camp," she whispered, glancing this way and
that, as if talking was forbidden.
Indeed it must have been, because two Insect guards closed on us
and struck us with the butts of their rifles, sending us to the ground.
"Get up," one of them grated through its translator matrix.
Wincing through the pain I realized I was actually grateful for
the chance to reach down so I could palm my hidden blaster. As I got up
I showed my appreciation, first by vaporizing the thorax of the Insect
who had hit me, and then blasting the other one, and then in rapid
succession two more behind him.
"Run!" I yelled, taking my own advice. Prisoners, at first unsure
what was happening, started to run off.
There were other guards further ahead in line and they started to
open fire, hitting some of the fleeing prisoners. But then they
themselves were under attack; I didn't have time to observe it at close
hand, but I think the Silencer shot several immediately, picking them
out effortlessly though the crowd of screaming and fleeing humans. Red
Sally caused one to spontaneously combust, and the Clapper hit one of
them with its own rifle butt.
In all the confusion a good number of the prisoners escaped,
though the guards were quickly reinforced, preventing the bulk of the
prisoners from getting free.
"Thanks for the covering fire, gang," I said, when I had rejoined
"I didn't get to shoot that many," said the Silencer.
"I only got to start one fire," complained Sally.
The Clapper clapped unenthusiastically.
I turned to Mongo. "No comments from the peanut gallery?"
"You will chew on seeds," said Mongo enigmatically.
"We should destroy this hive factory," said Preston, over lunch
back at the maintenance closet.
"A good idea, if we had some heavy ammo," I said. I chewed on a
piece of canned apple as we talked. Suddenly, I felt my mouth crunch
down; I spat the food out, revealing seeds mixed in the apple.
Preston made a face, but continued with the subject at hand. "We
still have some of the explosives left."
"The only problem being that we have to plant them inside the
factory," I said. "No, I have a much more pressing target in mind." I
paused. "The work camp. There are prisoners who need freeing."
"We don't even know where this work camp is," said Preston.
"But those transports go there," I said. "It will be a simple
matter to trace them."
"They're bound to be guarded," said Preston.
"I hope so," said the Silencer, making this one of the rare times
he chose to speak.
"This operation will proceed in several stages, or steps," I
said. "Step one involves the Silencer." As I spoke we stood a block
away and around the corner from the factory we had visited the previous
day. Security there had been doubled; but that didn't concern us.
"See that lone Insect guard there, younder, a few hundred feet
away?" I said, pointing to a dot in the distance. "I need you to kill
him neatly, in one shot, where it won't show."
The Silencer snorted, as if he were still waiting for a real
challenge; and he took up his laser rifle (with a silencer fitted to
the end of it), and, after a moment's hesitation, fired. The Insect
dropped like a sack of potatoes.
We ran over to the Insect body and then the Silencer and I
dragged it to the next intersection. It wasn't fun touching the thing,
but I had thoughtfully brought gloves. Once we arrived at the
intersection I saw an Insect transport approaching. Right on schedule.
I motioned everyone back to the safety of the area just around
the corner, then I gave the thumbs up to the Clapper.
He gave me a thumbs up back, with an idiotic expression on his
I looked at the Insect body. It wasn't moving.
I turned back to the Clapper. "Now!" I hissed.
The Clapper cringed.
The dead Insect body suddenly stood upright, as if pulled by
"Good," I said. "Now make it waver back and forth, back and forth
The body started to waver, then swing, back and forth, as if it
The approaching transport saw the Insect standing in the middle
of the road, swaying back and forth; something was obviously wrong. The
transport stopped short of the guard, and one of the Insects got out of
the driver's compartment.
The Insect fell to the ground, dead, the instant it stepped on
solid ground. Another bug in the driver's compartment, seeing something
was amiss, moved to reactivate the transport with its tendrils, but a
sudden bolt from the Silencer's blaster eliminated it as well.
We raced around the back, saw it opening up to reveal two guards
and a load of human prisoners. The Silencer got one and I got the
other; the only thanks we received for our efforts were a series of
shrieks from the prisoners.
"All off, last stop!" I yelled. "Ladies and Gentlemen, I
apologize for this unscheduled stopover, but your guards are
experiencing technical difficulties."
The prisoners stared at me with a mixture of shock and
incredulity on their faces.
"You're free!" I yelled. "Get out NOW!"
The prisoners streamed out of the truck.
"Now we have a transport," I said. I spoke into my com. "Step
two: Preston, go."
Preston, lying prone in a building just above and almost across
from the factory, had one of the parked transports in the scopes of his
weapon which was poking just outside of the hole in the glass he had
cut. He depressed the firing stud, and a tiny transmitter lodged itself
in the side of the transport.
The bugs obliged us by giving us several minutes to collect
Preston and Gantry before driving their ground transport away.
Step three was the pursuit. We followed the ground transport at a
cautious pace, but never letting it get too far ahead; the metal walls
and canyons of August made it difficult to use a tracer effectively at
The transport went south for more than two hours, and we
followed. It only slowed when it reached a less developed district, one
of the few districts left open for farmland.
For although August imported most of its food, it still keep some
of its land open for farming. Were the Insects still tilling the land,
or were they using it for other purposes?
We parked a safe distance away and surveyed the perimeter. There
was a wire fence around the edge, and sentries patrolling. It was
obviously a civilian internment camp.
I looked at the Silencer, gestured towards the sun, and he
nodded. By unspoken agreement, we decided that this was an operation
that would best be carried out at nightfall. I spread the word to
Preston and the others.
While we waited, we counted guards and studied security measures
through electrobinoculars. Not too bad--we counted only a dozen guards,
though there could be more in a barracks structure along the edge of
the perimeter. The barracks were outside the internment area, where it
was safe from attack from the prisoners, but that would give us easy
access to it. It would be the first to be attacked.
But I was forced to bite my lip the rest of the day as I watched
how the prisoners were treated. They were forced to work the land,
growing oddly shaped green vegetables I had never seen before--
presumably food for the Insects. But the Insects were cruel, using
whips or their sharp tendrils and claws to assault prisoners who they
felt weren't working hard enough.
One prisoner even had the temerity to collapse with exhaustion
for a moment when he felt a guard wasn't looking; but within seconds he
was eclipsed by a seven foot tall shadow. The prisoner trembled with
fright, and the Insect vomited some pink goo on him; and then the
prisoner started laughing hysterically, so hard that it looked painful,
and then the Insect vomited some identical looking pink goo, and the
prisoner started crying. There must be neurological chemical in
whatever the Insect was vomiting that worked directly on the brain.
A few of the Insects gathered to watch the spectacle for a few
moments, buzz buzzing to themselves as they obviously enjoyed it. Then
an overseer called out, and one of the Insects ended their fun by
dismembering the prisoner! Swish swish, and his arms were cut off; it
was so quick that the prisoner couldn't even scream. Then swish swish
again, and his legs went off, and then he did scream, but only for a
few seconds, for his head went next.
The other prisoners nearby started to scream, but their screams
were cut off as the Insects turned their attention on them; and then
all was silent, as their horror was checked by their fear.
I raised my rifle in anger.
Preston saw what I was about to do and moved to stop me. "No
Croft, we need to wait until nightfall-"
But I aimed carefully and squeezed the trigger. There was a
"swwit!" and the Insect who had dismembered the prisoner scratched a
slight sore on its body cavity.
I pointed to the tracking sensor, and the blip this Insect now
"Why did you do that?" Preston whispered.
"That one's mine," I said calmly.
When nightfall came we moved, first closing on the barracks. It
never occurred to the Insects to guard from outside attacks, this far
out of the center of the city. We showed them the error of their ways.
Gantry, Jenkins, and Red Sally burst into the barracks, the first
two opening fire, the third sending forth a sheet of flame. The fire
was so hot that it almost singed even her, as her face beaded with
sweat and her hair turned a dull red. They shot and burned everything
that moved in that barracks, and took them completely by surprise.
But the noise alerted the sentries on the perimeter, and that's
where I and the Silencer moved into action. The Silencer picked off
guards left and right in the darkness, and I shot purposefully, each of
us using infrared scopes (something I had been fortunate enough to
liberate from a military armory). When it came time to shoot the target
who had dismembered the prisoner I shot carefully, aiming low.
The Insects must have seen the flashes from our muzzles, but they
were still confused and were dying more quickly than they could
respond. In a matter of moments the area was clear. The five of us had
slaughtered nearly three dozen of the enemy; chalk that up to careful
planning and the advantage of surprise.
We moved cautiously into the camp, alert for any guards we might
have missed. I walked calmly to what I knew I would find, a certain
buzzing, clicking Insect who was down on the ground grabbing one of its
lower limbs in pain. It tried to reach for its gun when it saw me, but
I kicked it away. I looked around for a second and picked up a jagged
piece of metal. That would do.
I started to hack off the monster's tendrils, one by one, pausing
to listen to it shriek each time. Then I cut off its lower limbs,
causing it to shriek louder. Finally, after a pause, I cut off its
There was sudden silence. Then I turned around, feeling rather
than seeing the Silencer standing behind me. He looked at me
expressionlessly, and then moved on.
We gathered up the prisoners and told them they were free. Most
were too weak to start on an extended run, so first we gathered what
food there was and distributed it among them.
"Break up and head in different directions," I said. "There are
several ground transports here, at least half of you should be able to
make your escape that way. Just avoid the transport parked over the
ridge, that's our own ticket home."
"Thank you, oh thank you," said a man, who, like the rest, was
thin and emaciated. "You don't know how beastly they were too us!"
"I have some idea," I said dryly, remembering what I had observed
earlier that day.
"Is there any way we can thank you?" said the man. "I don't even
know your names!"
Reflex, and my training, prevented me from divulging this
otherwise useless fact. "Your thanks is enough," I said. I turned to
Red Sally. "Red? You have enough juice left for another flame?"
Red Sally snorted. "I'm barely warmed up."
"It looks like the Insects were growing some food here; I think
it would be nice if you torched the place," I said. "Just wait a few
minutes for the prisoners to disperse. The flames might attract
It was still early in the night; we actually gave the prisoners
an hour to disperse and make their way away from the internment camp.
Chances are that few of them would survive on their own, but at least
we were giving them that chance. I had Gantry sitting in the front seat
of our vehicle to make sure it wasn't appropriated.
When Sally was ready she took a deep breath, and sent a long
spurt of flame into rows and rows of the greenish whatevers the Insects
were growing. In just a few minutes there were rows and rows of fires
on the farm. The Insects wouldn't be harvesting any of their alien
lettuce from this farm.
"Let's go," I said.
We piled into the back of the transport and headed on our way. I
mentally started to wonder if we could park the transport somewhere in
the capitol, it could be useful. The transport also had some supplies,
sacks and boxes in the corner, that would merit inspection later.
We returned to the capital without incident. I can only wonder at
the reaction of the Insects when the next set of ground transports
arrived at the farm to find all their soldiers dead and the place in
We put the transport in an underground garage.
I bit my lip; out in the open here, it would probably be stolen
or vandalized quickly. Well, there was nothing we could do about that
As we walked back to our hideaway the Silencer suddenly raised
his hand and stopped for a moment.
"What is it?" I asked.
The Silencer shook his head and stood still for a moment.
"What?" I asked again, quietly.
The Silencer waited another moment, as if listening, and looked
oddly at me. "Probably nothing. Continue."
We made our way back to the maintenance closet; I strained to
hear the sounds of an Insect patrol, but heard nothing.
We planned quite a celebratory dinner that night, though I don't
know how we could manage it when the only supplies we had were liquid
starch (hardens when cooked), canned meat strips, and a few other
items. I was preparing to do the cooking myself, basking in the glow of
happy conversation in the crowd--even the Silencer was letting himself
be talked to, which was quite a good sign, for him. For once we had
accomplished something positive and could see the effect of it, and
that made us feel good. And what's more, we had done it without any
"Very (clap clap) good work, Mr. Silencer," said the Clapper.
The Silencer stiffened, looked away, and reached for his gun. The
Clapper shrank back. The room was suddenly silent.
"Uh, John, he was complimenting you," I said. "Please don't shoot
"Quiet!" said the Silencer, in a shouted whisper. We were all
suddenly silent. "Do you hear something?" he whispered.
I strained, I didn't hear anything. I started to speak, when I
DID hear something.
Tap tap tap.
We waited, another moment, and then it grew louder.
Knock knock knock.
Someone was knocking on the door to our maintenance closet.
Chances are it wasn't the Insects; they usually didn't knock
before coming in. Even scavengers wouldn't go around politely knocking
on doors. But everyone who knew about our home base was already inside;
so this meant that we had been discovered by someone, or something.
Weapons drawn, we cautiously approached the exit to the
maintenance closet. We had installed a locally powered cryptic lock and
created passkeys for everyone inside, so the only way they could get
through would be to burn or blast their way in.
The Silencer positioned himself on one side of the door, and I
and Gantry and Preston and Jenkins took positions from other angles to
give ourselves clear lines of sight to the door.
Knock knock knock. The knocking was louder, more insistent now.
Who could it be? Could this be some Insect trap to lure us outside?
The Silencer looked to me, and I nodded. He palmed the door's
control, and pulled back instantly as the door came unlatched. A tiny
crack opened to the outside.
Something reached forward and slowly pulled the door open. In the
dark corridor we could make out the shape; a thin, emaciated person in
"Oooh!" said the man, seeing the outlines of our weapons. "Don't
"Put your hands up!" I barked. "Come in! Slowly!"
As the man came into the light I saw he was unarmed. It was the
same man who had effusively thanked me at the farm.
But the farm was hundreds of miles to the south; how did he get
Preston checked the corridor; it didn't seem like there was
anyone else there.
We shut the door and started the interrogation.
His name was George Sashay and he had been a professional
holographic artist, before the invasion. The Insects evaluated him at
one of their processing centers and found he was only suitable for
manual labor. He had been working at the farm for several months when
we liberated him, earlier that day. When all the prisoners were
escaping, he made his way to our vehicle and snuck in the back while
Gantry wasn't watching; it was there that he hid in one of the boxes
until we returned.
He quietly followed us back to our home.
"Wait a minute," I said. "How did you follow us? I didn't see or
"I did," said the Silencer.
"I followed a bit behind you," said Sashay.
"Then if you weren't in visual sight of us, how do you know where
we turned off to go into the maintenance closet?" I asked.
"Oh, that was easy," said Sashay. "I simply looked at all the
footprints in the dust. They all led here."
I blinked, feeling like a fool. Could we have really left such an
obvious trail for our pursuers to find? But the corridors were very
dimly lit; one would have to really be looking for such a thing to find
them. And this was no expert tracker. Could his story really be true?
"I tend to notice such things, dust, I mean," said Sashay.
"Remember, I'm an artist."
"That leaves one question: why?" I asked.
"Well, I didn't see much of a future following the others," said
Sashay. "But look at you, you're well-fed paramilitaries, obviously
survivor types. I figured I would join your group."
I frowned, but said nothing. I pointed to Jenkins and snapped my
fingers; he watched the prisoner while we went to the other corner of
the room to confer.
"His story is far-fetched at best," said Gantry. "I don't believe
an ordinary civilian could have tracked us like he did."
"Don't underestimate his survival instinct," said Preston. "I'm
suspicious too, but what other explanation could there be? That he's a
spy, placed here by the Insects? In that case, they would've had to
know that we were going to hit their farm, and no one knew that."
"Good point," I said. "However, he could be a camp spy, working
for the Insects to spy on the other prisoners. When he saw us, perhaps
he saw a chance to get a big bounty by turning us in."
"But if he wanted to turn us in, he could have. He already
located our position," said Preston. "He didn't have to knock on the
door to get our attention."
"He said he located us," I said. "Maybe he wasn't sure we were in
"So you think he's a spy?" the Silencer asked.
"Not necessarily," I said. "I'm just trying to consider all the
possibilities." I looked at the emaciated figure sitting quietly in the
corner under Gantry's watchful stare. Maybe, on the other hand, he just
wanted to survive.
But maybe we didn't have to guess. I whistled for Mongo, and he
came scampering over. "Mongo! What do you sense about this new fellow?"
Mongo stared at Sashay with crinkly eyes for a moment. "Cook," he
said at last.
"Cooks. If you keep him, will cook for you."
"We don't care about that," I said. "Will he betray us?"
Mongo concentrated again for a moment. Finally, he spoke. "Don't
see betrayal; but doesn't mean doesn't happen. In some future he cooks
foods for you." He licked his lips. "If you going to kill him, have him
cook dinner, first."
"Doesn't sound dangerous to me," said Preston.
"Are you thinking of keeping him?" the Silencer asked me, as if
we were talking about a new pet.
"Why not?" I asked.
"What skills can he bring to the group?" the Silencer asked. "Can
he shoot a gun, or start fires with his mind?"
"Probably not," I admitted, seeing where this was going.
"Then he goes," said the Silencer.
"He consumes food but contributes nothing," said the Silencer.
"This isn't a ten star hotel. Every time we go out to hunt for food we
risk our lives. We shouldn't have to do it for freeloaders."
"I see your point," I said, and I did, very reluctantly. We were
barely surviving on our own, and we were all hardened survivalists (or
we had very special talents that compensated for our not being hardened
survivalists). I tried to figure out what to do. "How about we keep him
here overnight, give him a meal, and send him on his way?"
"That raises another problem," said the Silencer, his voice grim.
"He knows our location. Even if he's not a spy, if he gets caught and
interrogated by the Insects, he can give our location away."
"Well, we had talked about establishing a new hideout," I said,
not liking where this conversation was going.
"Which we haven't yet done, and once we do, we planned to use
only when we were in imminent danger of discovery," said Preston,
taking the Silencer's point of view. He turned to the Silencer. "What
are you suggesting?"
"I can make it quick and painless," said the Silencer calmly.
I was about to speak up against this when Sally spoke first.
"Don't ask me to burn him," she said, speaking for the first
time. "I don't do executions."
"You're going to burn me?" said Sashay, picking up on some of
this. "But I can be of great use to you!"
"What can you do, paperweight?" said the Silencer. "Have you ever
fired a blaster before in your life?"
"Well, no," said Sashay, rapidly casting about. "But what about
them," he said, indicating Mongo and the Clapper. "They don't look like
"They have other skills," said the Silencer.
Sashay looked about wildly as he rapidly tried to think of a way
to save his life. "Well, so do I!"
"You? What can you do, paperweight?"
"I can cook! Better than any of you, I'll bet!"
"That's hardly an essential skill," said the Silencer
Sashay was silent for a moment, thinking rapidly. The Silencer
let it go on for a few moments, then he took a step forward. I couldn't
let this happen. But could I really stop the Silencer? I was about to
step forward to try and block him when Sashay spoke again.
"Wait!" said Sashay. "I can paint!"
"Also hardly an essential skillset," said the Silencer, reaching
"Wait!" said Sashay again, holding out his bony arm. "I can help
you conceal yourself better!"
The Silencer lowered his arm. "What do you mean?"
Sashay licked his lips nervously. "Well, I already told you about
the footprints, you can clear the dust there yourself. But what about
"What about it?"
"The absence of any dust may also attract unwanted visitors. I
can make you safer by hiding your door."
"Get me some plastiform and some metallic paint and I can put a
facade over your door that will make it look like ordinary wall," said
Sashay. "It will peel back every time you open it, but look like
regular wall to anyone passing by when it's closed."
The Silencer stood, considering. "That might be somewhat helpful,
if we could get the materials, and if you could accomplish it. But
that's only one task; what could you do to earn your keep after that?"
"The transport," I said, picking up on the idea. "He could help
us disguise the transport, hide it behind an artificial wall of his,
maybe." I turned to the Silencer. "You know, if he's as good as he
says, we could really use a disguise and camouflage expert."
The Silencer considered for a moment. Then, to the relief of
Sashay, he slowly nodded. "All right, Paperweight. You show us what you
The Paperweight, as he was called, started with dinner. And by
all accounts everyone was quite satisfied. Somehow the Paperweight took
what few ordinary ingredients we had and used the cooking range to make
quite a tastefully enjoyable meal. I think in retrospect everyone was
glad that we didn't banish or kill him, at least not before dinner.
A few weeks later I found an appropriate time to ask the Silencer
if he really would have killed Sashay if he hadn't proved himself
"Of course not," said the Silencer. "No one was paying me to."
But I knew the Silencer better than that. To my knowledge, he had
never killed someone without a gun in his hand, or someone who ordered
people to put guns in their hands.
Still, I learned early on that it was never good to test the
limits of the Silencer's patience.
Chapter 8: The Raid On Sarney Sarittenden
From the journal of Clifford Croft, ten months after the invasion of
Sashay, or the Paperweight, as the Silencer and the others took
to calling him, was as good as his word. The next day I led an
expedition to locate the materials he needed; and he got to work
immediately, creating a camouflaged version of the door that would look
like the wall around it. But once the task was done, e.g. once the door
looked like the wall, the Paperweight wasn't artistically satisfied; he
kept wanting to dab little colors here or there to make it look more
realistic. I managed to pull him away from that and get started on a
bigger project, building an artificial but real looking wall around the
ground transport we had stolen.
I didn't think it was possible, but when he was done, several
days later, he had colored and molded plastiform around it so it looked
like a real wall. The plastiform could be easily unwrapped from the
very end where it met the real wall, if you knew where to look; and if
you knocked on it, you'd get a hollow sound; but under any but the
closest of inspections it would look real.
The Paperweight's cooking continued to earn our appreciation. I
think his culinary talents, combined with the fine job he did on the
door and the wall covering the transport, muted any sentiment to get
rid of him. The only problem with the Paperweight was that he was,
well, a bit irritating.
He always insisted on painting portraits of us; he would sit
there with an easel, when we returned from a mission and were just
trying to relax, and he would paint us, without our permission. Preston
or Gantry would get annoyed and turn away; Jenkins would just ignore
him, as I did; but the Silencer got him to stop painting his portrait
by shooting one of Sashay's creations in progress, when Sashay was
right behind it. To this day I'm not sure how he managed to get an
angle where he could shoot the painting without also shooting Sashay.
Similarly Sashay stopped painting Red Sally when one of his
paintings burst into flames as he painted it. Only the Clapper and
Mongo actively cooperated with his efforts, posing while making
exaggerated facial expressions. In fact Mongo hung up the atrocious
portraits of himself all over the place and complained that Sashay
wasn't painting enough of him.
I decided to take a break from all this bickering by going out on
a solo recon mission. It might sound foolish to go out alone, but in my
case it made sense. As one of the Eight, I could infiltrate almost any
location silently, without being detected. Even Preston, who was also a
Column operative (albeit a lower ranking one), couldn't move with the
degree of stealth I could. And the others were only noisier.
So I went alone. It was always good to observe the latest Insect
patrol patterns; it showed where they were focusing their efforts, and
sometimes, what they were guarding. I followed one such patrol for an
hour back to its source without being detected, the ground floor of a
heavily guarded building.
What was going on there?
I saw human prisoners, with their hands over their heads, being
marched into the building. Using my electrobinoculars, I noticed
something especially interesting; only some of them wore control
Every human who was captured by the Insects immediately had a
control collar slapped on him. The fact that these didn't meant that
they were new captures. Interesting.
Suddenly, I got the impression there was someone behind me. I
turned, looking into the darkness, my blaster instantly raised. I
waited a long moment. There was nothing. I couldn't see a thing. But
something had given me the impression that someone was there. I almost
felt it rather than saw it.
Unfortunately, it wasn't wise to turn away from the Insects for
very long; I heard sounds of movement from behind me, and turned to see
an Insect patrol, heading my way.
"Halt!" one of them said through their harsh translation devices.
I turned and ran into the building I had been observing the Insects
from; but I hadn't gotten fifty feet before I almost skidded into
"Drop your weapon," they said, blaster rifles pointed straight at
I'm a top-level infiltrator; how had I allowed this to happen?
I was so distraught at the failure of my abilities that I didn't
even consider the consequences of capture as I was marched to the
Insect outpost. How had allowed myself to become distracted? Was it the
presence of the other Insect patrol that had distracted me?
No, the other Insect patrol had been farther away. I had sensed
something quite near me. Sensed, not heard or seen. Could it have been
It was only when I was marched into the Insect outpost that I
decided to focus on my current situation. I was taken to a room
swarming with bugs and brought before one Insect, presumably their
"What is your name/designation?" the leader asked.
"Mr. Nice," I said, automatically falling back into liespeak.
The leader noted it down with one of his claws on an Insect
version of an electronic notepad.
"What are you doing here?" came the artificially stilted voice
from its translation device.
"Looking for food," I said.
"Why do you not have a control collar?" said the leader.
"I left mine at home," I said.
"Where is home?" the leader asked.
I said nothing.
"Where is home?" the leader asked again.
"Where the heart is," I said.
One of the Insect guards reached out and casually smacked me in
the head with the blunt side of one of its claws. I cried out as I fell
"Where is your base?" the leader asked again.
"I don't have a base," I said, grabbing my throbbing head as I
slowly stood up.
One of the Insect guards raised its claw again.
"On level 30," I said.
"Section and location?" the leader asked.
"Section 1. An empty classroom. I live alone, you won't find
anyone else there."
"Dispatch a patrol," said the leader, and some Insects marched
off. "If you are lying you will be punished."
"And what do I get for telling the truth?"
The leader gestured, and one of the bugs reached over for a
"Is there any chance I could take second prize instead?" I asked.
I struggled, but the Insects held me in place with their sharp claws. I
yelled as the claws bit into my arms. Other claws snapped the control
collar in place.
"You will obey or we will do this," said the leader, pressing a
button on a small pad.
I felt a staggering pain throughout my body. I fell to the ground
again, yelling involuntarily.
"That was only an intermediate setting," said the leader, as the
Insects pulled me back onto my feet, their claws biting into my arms
again. I resisted the urge to scream.
Suddenly, the leader held up a holocam and pressed a button.
"Your image will be stored in our files and compared to known
criminals. If you have lied to us about your base, you will be
executed. If your record matches to a known criminal, you will be
The leader turned to the guards. "Hold the creature in storage
for 25 hours. If the creature was telling the truth about its location,
and the computer search turns up negative, have it sent to a work
The leader buzzed menacingly. "And if the creature is lying, have
it executed, immediately."
The Insects took me away.
I found myself in a holding cell, behind a force field with some
other prisoners. My head was still throbbing from the hit I had
received, and I had bloody cuts in my arms where the bugs held me. The
control collar was tightly fastened around my neck.
I looked at the other prisoners in my cell. They looked even
worse off than me; malnourished, exhausted. They were all probably
scavengers who had been lucky enough to survive this long on their own,
but unlucky enough to finally get caught.
Unlike me. I didn't know if the Insects had a holo of me, but if
they did, my life expectancy wouldn't be very long. Perhaps even more
immediate than that, when they didn't find my hideout on Level 30 they
would probably execute me. I had no idea if there was a classroom on
Level 30 Section 1, and if there was, it wouldn't be filled with
supplies or signs of occupancy, unless someone else had lived there.
How long did I have, hours, perhaps?
I thought about the possibility of rescue. But Preston and the
others didn't even know where I was.
Maybe Mongo could alert them--maybe he would get a flash of my
future and warn them.
But Mongo didn't always work like a dependable alarm clock; if he
did, he would've warned me about being caught before I left. And even
if he got an image of where I was, how could he translate an image in
his mind to a precise location he could tell the others? Sarney was so
big, so vast, so full of buildings, that one tended to look like
No, even if Mongo had a vision, unless it was a precise one that
showed some sign of my specific location, he would be unable to tell
the others where to find me.
And then there was the time factor. In a few hours the Insects
would discover my deception. By the time that happened, I would have to
be on the other side of this forcefield.
I looked around the room. There were solid walls and ceiling and
floor. No windows. No equipment, except for a few plastiwood benches.
The forcefield in front of me flickered slightly from time to time.
I was a top infiltrator. But even I needed some kind of
opportunity to take advantage of.
I sat on the ground glumly thinking about this. One hour
stretched into two and into three. I grew more and more nervous as more
time passed. I stared at the solitary guard on the other side of the
forcefield. The guard appeared to ignore me.
"Hey, hey guard," I said.
The Insect turned to face me.
"Lower the forcefield. I have some important information to tell
The guard ignored me, turning away again.
I simply didn't have any idea how to escape. I continued to sit
there, feeling more and more sorry for myself.
And then, I heard the sound of buzzing.
Several Insects were approaching.
They had discovered my deception. They were coming to kill me.
I stood up and stood back from the forcefield. I resolved not to
be killed without a fight. Physically, there wasn't much I could do
against seven foot tall monsters with sharp claws, and the fact they
had a control collar on me didn't help, but I would try my best.
The Insects were coming. The sounds of their buzzing got closer.
And then they stood in front of the forcefield. A button was
The forcefield was lowered.
And then, a totally unexpected thing happened.
The Insects moved aside, and I could see none other than Crazy
Rob standing there.
Crazy Rob. The gamma operative with three distinct personalities,
each with their own abilities. There was Crazy Rob himself, who could
cause hallucinations. There was Crazy Matt, who had a form of ESP that
could let him see through walls. And there was Crazy Bender, who could
change his right hand into almost any object, but for some reason
usually chose a metal spoon.
At least, I think it was Crazy Rob, or at least a dirty and
tattered version of him that was wearing a control collar. Crazy Rob
entered the cell, and the forcefield rose behind him. The Insect escort
Crazy Rob looked at me and straight past me. Maybe it wasn't him.
Maybe it was just wishful thinking on my part.
If it were Crazy Rob, wouldn't he have said something by now?
I had to know.
"Hello," I said.
Crazy Rob, or the person who looked like Crazy Rob, ignored me.
"Excuse me, but is your name Rob?"
Crazy Rob just looked into space.
"Excuse me," I said loudly. "Is your name Rob?"
Crazy Rob looked at me oddly. "No. You should know that, Croft."
He knew who I was. And it wasn't Rob. That left two
possibilities. I looked at his right hand. It wasn't a spoon.
By process of elimination, it must be the Matt personality.
"Matt?" I said.
"Yes," said Crazy Matt, as if it were obvious all along.
"What are you doing here?"
Matt smiled. "Indeed, what are any of us doing here?"
I groaned. That was Crazy Matt, all right. He was the least
aggressive of the three personalities, but he tended to be so
philosophical that it was difficult to get him to focus on reality.
"What are YOU doing IN THIS CELL," I said, emphasizing the key
words in my sentence.
Matt looked around. "I don't know."
"What do you mean-" I stopped, in midsentence. I suddenly
realized that it was very possible that Matt was telling the truth.
If Matt had been captured while in another personality, such as
Rob or Bender, he might not remember what had happened. Each
personality's memory of what happened when the other personality was in
control was tenuous at best.
Still, it had to be more than a coincidence that Matt (and Rob
and Bender) were in a cell with me in the same time and place. Had he
seen me get captured and had decided, in one of his personalities, to
come and rescue me?
That seemed unlikely. The Matt personality claimed to know
nothing about it. If the Rob personality had been in charge, he
would've suspected that my capture was an elaborate trap designed to
capture him. If the Bender personality had been in charge, he probably
would have been too depressed to do anything about it.
So how had Matt ended up here? Could it be a trap, by the bugs,
to allow me to escape? That sounded far-fetched. Almost far-fetched
enough for one of Rob's conspiracy theories. Why would the bugs want me
to escape? Perhaps they had found out who I was and decided to let me
use to Matt & Co. to escape to lead them back to the others.
Far-fetched. But possible.
Or it could really be a coincidence that he was here. I didn't
believe in such convenient coincidences.
But not believing in coincidences didn't mean that I wasn't going
to take advantage of them. If the Insects were trying to manipulate me
into revealing the others, and had hidden a tracking device on either
of us, I could deal with that later.
I had to assume I was still on a time deadline, and if I didn't
get out of here soon, the Insects would kill me.
"Listen, Matt, we have to escape," I whispered to him, not
wanting the guard outside to hear.
"With an active mind, we can go anywhere," he said smugly. He
closed his eyes. "I'm thinking of Aridor now-"
"No, Matt," I said, shaking him so that he opened his eyes. "We
have to escape for real."
"Oh," he said. Then, "How?"
I thought quickly. "We have to convince that guard that the
forcefield is down."
"How?" Matt asked again.
"Create an illusion that will lure the guard over here."
"An illusion?" said Matt. "How do I do that?"
I forgot. I was talking to Crazy Matt. I needed to talk to Crazy
"Matt, I need to talk to Rob," I said. This was the part of the
process I hated.
"What? No, I don't like Rob," said Matt.
"Unless you can create an illusion, I need Rob," I said, knowing
how it worked.
"But I don't like Rob," Matt repeated.
"We need Rob," I said. I whispered in his ear. "There's a
conspiracy. They're trying to kill you."
"What?" said Crazy Matt.
"A conspiracy. They're all against you. You have to wake up! This
is all a plot, a plan against you! Can't you see it?"
"What are you talking about?" said Matt, speaking in a more
rapid, sharper tone of voice. I had gotten through. I was now speaking
"Rob, we're trapped in an Insect cell-"
"How did that happen?" Rob asked. "Did you trick me?"
By process of elimination, again, I concluded that he had been
Bender when he had been captured. I wondered if he had had the spoon
hand then. That would have been kind of conspicuous.
"In case you hadn't noticed, I'm in the same cell with you-"
"The perfect cover," Rob snapped.
"Rob, we have to get out of here. Can we agree on that?" I said.
Rob paused, then nodded. "But once we're free I'm not going to
let you manipulate me!"
"I wouldn't dream of it," I said. I quickly explained what I
needed. Then I turned to the other prisoners. "You have to be quiet
"Why?" one of them asked.
"Because I told you to," I said. "Absolutely silent!"
When we were ready, I turned to the guard.
"Ah, Mr. Insect sir, we have a problem here."
The guard didn't even bother to glance at me this time.
"Mr. Insect sir, sorry to bother you, but the other prisoners
This time the guard did look up. To him, it looked as if the cell
was empty, except for myself and Matt. I mean Rob.
The Insect buzzed and approached the forcefield. He didn't have a
weapon, but with those sharp claws, didn't need one.
"I need Bender now," I muttered.
The Insect guard walked up to the forcefield.
"We're going to lose, it's going to see through our deception, we
can't escape," I muttered.
The Insect guard peered through the forcefield. It couldn't see
the other prisoners, but there was no obvious avenue of escape.
"It's so sad, so very very sad," I said, starting to weep.
Suddenly, Rob's right hand turned into a hand-sized spoon. Rob
was gone, and now Bender was here.
The guard lowered the force field. "Stand back," it buzzed.
"All right," I whispered. "Now make something you can hurt it
"All right," Bender sighed.
The guard stepped into the cell, buzzing as its multiplexed eyes
scanned the area. As it momentarily turned away from us I shouted,
-and Bender hit the bug with his spoon hand.
The guard, feeling the slight impact, turned to face us.
"No, something stronger!" I screamed, ducking under a claw that
came at me.
Suddenly, Bender's spoon hand transformed into a really giant
spoon, one four times the size of a hand, Bender reached forward and
wacked the Insect, hitting several claws so hard that they wilted as if
they had been broken.
The Insect howled in pain.
"Again!" I yelled.
Bender hit the Insect again with the giant spoon, but it's
midsection was more armored. The Insect was now on the defensive,
however, trying to fend off the attack of the giant spoon hand, but I
could see that more would have to be done to finish the Insect off.
"The legs!" I said, and Bender obligingly wacked the Insect in
That didn't kill it, but it did hurt the creature, and get it
down on its knees, low enough to-
"The face!" I yelled.
The giant spoon didn't have much effect against the bug's body,
and it could only hurt its arms and legs, but the face were another
matter. The giant spoon smashed against the multiplex eyes, first one,
and then the other, and the bug started to bleed green liquid profusely
screaming, running into walls, going around and around until Bender
clubbed it enough times so that it lay still.
During the beginning of this combat the other occupants of our
cell had become visible again, and they all appeared to have shocked
looks on their faces. Perhaps they had never seen an Insect beaten by a
giant spoon before.
I gave the Insect body a diagnostic kick; it didn't move. I
turned to Bender. "Nice work. But I asked you to change into something
you could hurt it with."
Bender shrugged. "I did."
"I think a sword or sharp weapon would've been better."
"What does it matter?" said Bender, looking sad.
Bender was always sad.
The prisoners were just now realizing that they were free.
"Let's get out of here!" one of them said, starting to rush for
the door as the others got up to follow him.
I tripped him and held him down.
"Let me go!" he said.
"Stop!" I said, in a commanding voice. And sure enough, they all
"Consider this: we are all unarmed. And we are still in an Insect
stronghold. How far do you think we'll get if we just go rushing out of
"What do you want us to do, just wait around for the guards to
come?" said one prisoner.
"Wouldn't it be nicer to know if we could find a safe way out of
here?" I asked.
"How can you do that?" said another prisoner.
"Give me a minute and wait," I said. I turned to Bender. "I need
to speak to Matt."
"You never want to talk to me," said Bender sadly.
"I need to talk to Matt, so we can regain our freedom," I said. I
suddenly assumed a more intellectual tone. "Freedom is a very
interesting concept, don't you think?"
"I mean, when we say we are free, what does that mean? Freedom
from oppression? Or does it mean something more, such as freedom from
responsibilities? What about freedoms from cultural customs?"
"That's a very interesting question," said Matt. "I have often
wondered about the term when used in conjunction with-"
"Escape," I said.
"No, that's not the word I was thinking of-"
"But it is the one I'm thinking of," I said. "I want you to look
into the outside corridor. Are there any bugs there right now?"
Matt looked towards the door and visualized it in his mind. "No."
"Now let's look into the rooms connecting to the corridor."
In a few minutes we had mapped out an escape route that should
avoid any bugs. Of course, what Matt saw was in the present; there was
no guarantee that a bug wouldn't just step into a room that had been
empty five seconds ago. And we still had no weapons to fight the bugs
with, unless you counted Bender's spoon.
I motioned for the other prisoners to follow me, quietly. They of
course didn't really know how to move quietly but I was willing to
settle for reduced noise. We had been lucky that there hadn't been any
bugs in the adjacent corridor when we had disposed of the guard, or
else the noise from the attack would have brought them all in on us.
We crept into the corridor, with Matt and I in the lead. I could
hear a faint buzzing sound from the end of the corridor, but we didn't
head that way. Instead we took a door to the right, which led into an
empty room, and then through that to another door, which led to a dead
"What now?" said one of the prisoners.
I pointed to a wall.
There was a broken window.
Cautiously, I poked my head outside, looking slowly in every
direction. Then I pulled my head back in.
"What did you see?" they asked me.
"There are no guards on this side of the building," I said. "But
we are only about fifty or sixty feet from the entrance, and that is
guarded. But the guards aren't looking directly this way. I think if we
crept out quietly, we might make it." It was also still dark outside,
which should help.
"We might make it?" said one of the prisoners. "That doesn't
sound very promising. Why don't we go out another way?"
"All the other avenues of escape in this building are filled with
bugs," I said. "You're welcome to stay here. Matt and I are going
first. Once you get out, head for the building across the street where
we'll be waiting. You can get into the tunnel system from there."
"Why are you going first?" a prisoner asked.
"For the same reason that after I leave, you're not going to exit
until I wave to you," I said.
"You just want time to escape yourself," said the prisoner.
"You couldn't be more wrong. Now if you want to get free, don't
argue with me," I said.
I crawled out of the window. I watched the ground as I walked,
careful to avoid any debris which could create noise by being stepped
on. In a short time I had made my way to the relative cover of the
building across the street, on a side not facing the entrance to the
Matt followed me. He made more sounds than I had, and I anxiously
watched behind him to look for any signs of actions on the bugs' part.
But they didn't stir. The darkness of the night was helping to
conceal our escape.
"Now I need to speak to Rob," I said. I whispered a few things
into Matt's ear. When I had Rob's attention, I told him what I needed,
and with the usual hassles, he agreed.
I then leaned out and waved where I was reasonably sure the
prisoners, still inside the window, could see.
The first one came out, and started running towards us. And then
the second, and the third...
There were eight in all. Number eight had just climbed out when
Number seven, in front of him, stepped on some shattered glass. The
sound traveled across the street.
"Now!" I hissed.
Two of the Insect guards looked our way. Slowly, they started
walking towards our position.
I motioned for the prisoners to stand absolutely still.
Surprisingly, they listened to me.
The Insect guards came closer. But they weren't scurrying, as
they usually do when they're in a hurry, but walking slowly.
And then they stopped, mere feet away from Numbers Seven and
They looked around for a moment.
They buzzed to each other.
And then they turned around, and went back to their posts.
The prisoners were very grateful when they reached the cover of
the building across the street. I nodded, and sent them on their way.
Then I turned to Rob.
Even in this dim light, I noticed something different. He was no
longer wearing his control collar.
"What happened to your control collar?" I said.
Rob held up his right hand, which was now a set of metal cutters.
Oh. That must mean he was Bender now.
"Would you mind cutting off mine now?" I asked.
"All right," Bender sighed.
When my collar had come off, I said, "Thanks." I thought about
what to do next. The next logical step would be to bring Bender et.al.
back to our base. But if this was an Insect ploy, and he (or I) was
tagged with a transponder, I would be putting the Silencer and the
others into danger.
"You're welcome, I suppose," said Bender. "But it isn't really me
you should be thanking."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"I was sent here to free you," said Bender.
"Sent here? By whom?" I asked.
"I don't know," said Bender. "It's depressing, isn't it?"
"How can you not know who sent you?" I asked.
"All I saw was a glowing sheet," said Bender.
"A... glowing... sheet....," I repeated slowly, trying to
understand what he was saying.
"The sheet said you were in trouble, and that it was partially
the sheet's fault. The sheet said I had to come and rescue you."
"This... sheet. Do you always do what it says?" I asked.
"Usually," Bender shrugged, as if it didn't make a difference,
This was a genuine rescue. No Insect could fabricate such a plot.
But who or what was this glowing sheet? I would have to take him back
with me to our base to find out more.
"Come with me," I said, starting off into the tunnels.
"No," said Bender.
"No?" I said.
"I have to do another errand."
"For the sheet," said Bender.
"For the sheet," I said. "You're doing errands for a piece of
"I know," said Bender. "Depressing, isn't it?"
I just watched him as he turned and walked away, back out onto
the street. I really should have gone after him, but I didn't want to
risk capture by the bugs again. I stealthily made my way back to our
base, my mind full of questions.
When I got back, they hadn't even known I had been captured. I
told them what happened but kept the part of the story about the
glowing sheet to myself, for now.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
As time went on, everyone started to get on each other's nerves.
Red Sally, for one, kept lighting fires, sometimes burning things we
needed. She kept bugging us to go shopping for objects that were fire-
resistant but not totally inflammable, saying she needed a "challenge".
We tried once or twice to let her cook our dinners, under Sashay's
direction, but she always went overboard and burned things. But the
worst incident happened one night when she had a nightmare and started
to burn her blanket. I, who was on watch, immediately ran over to her,
shook her awake, and snuffed out the flames.
"I guess this is an occupational hazard," I said.
Sally glared at me. She always glared. I think she was angry with
me for not letting her start as many fires as she might like.
I know the Silencer was angry; he was always hopping mad that we
weren't spending every minute of every day shooting Insects. He's still
burning up inside about what they did to Annie; I'm not sure how he's
going to work it out. Maybe he won't.
We're still trying to work things out with the Clapper, who claps
for any reason or no reason at all. If his bed isn't in the right
place, or his dinner dish is out of alignment, he'll start clapping.
We've tried tying his hands together, but that's not a practical
solution; I found some soft gloves for him, but that only muffles the
clapping sound slightly. The only thing we were able to do was to stop
him from clapping at night--I say we, but it was the Silencer who did
it, using something I euphemistically call "aversion therapy".
And then there's Mongo. He still complains how underappreciated
he is, but actually I do appreciate him. We're outnumbered and
outgunned and we need every advantage we can get. He's not always
accurate in his visions but he's saved my life more than once in the
past and I'm glad to have him with us. I just wish I could get him to
shut up sometimes about how ungrateful we all are.
As for us, myself, Preston, Gantry, and Jenkins, the remainder of
the Column cell that was set up several months ago, we don't say much,
for what is there to say? I think our morale suffered because we didn't
have a sense of progress. Sure, we were hitting the enemy here and
there, but we didn't see results that were changing our situation. In
our years with the Column we were used to short, discrete assignments
with clear end goals measured in days or weeks. We had already been at
this for months and there was no end in sight. No amount of sabotage we
could do on our own would end the Insect occupation, and all we had to
look forward to was uncounted years of further resistance and life of
rats living in a maintenance closet.
I think we all felt that underlying unhappiness, and that was the
setting for our feelings and actions on the days we lost both Gantry
and Jenkins, the former on a recon patrol, and the latter only a day
later, on a hunt for food.
Gantry and Preston were scouting the area, looking for potential
targets--an essential task because we had to locate targets before we
could attack them. It was a dangerous task, because they could stumble
into an enemy patrol or trap at any time. And that's exactly what
happened. Preston escaped in a firefight, but he said he saw Gantry
I initially blamed myself, as the senior agent, wondering if I
should have sent teams larger than two; but even I, in my grief, knew
better. Scouting teams by their very nature had to be small in number;
their defense lay in their ability to avoid detection, not to fight, so
the larger the team, the more likely they were to be discovered, which
is why scouting teams always had to be as few in number as possible.
No, chalk it up to weariness on the part of Gantry and/or
Preston, or just plain bad luck, but he was gone. And if that wasn't
bad enough, the following next day, when we were foraging for food, we
Food was getting more and more scarce--August survived by having
food imported from other worlds, and that was no longer happening. The
Insects, maybe, were growing small amounts of food for their captives,
though we never saw any evidence of this on our attack at the farm;
more likely they were doing what we were doing, which is raiding
warehouses of food. But those warehouses were running out of food,
rapidly, forcing us to venture farther and farther a field to search
The Insects, having a good idea that food storage areas were
being raided by scavengers and resistance units, put guards on the
storage areas they were able to locate and identify, and stepped up
patrols in the area. That made hunting for food a losing proposition.
As time went on, we had to spend more and more time searching for food,
and we were more and more likely to be caught.
That's what happened when we found ourselves in a firefight after
we went looking for food one day in one of the underground storage
areas. The entrance to the storage area, a giant quarter square mile
facility on level 37, was under guard by the Insects; but we tried to
use a laser torch to cut our way in through a back wall.
What we didn't anticipate was how quickly the Insects would come
around the backside of the perimeter looking for us; they must have
either implanted sensors in the wall or actively been scanning for
energy signatures. Because before we had cut through one side of the
wall we were attacked from both sides of the corridor in a crossfire.
We at least had some warning that they were coming, because we
could hear their buzzing sounds as they approached; so we ducked into
an alcove opposite the wall we had been cutting into before the first
shot was fired.
But then the firing did begin, from both sides. The Silencer and
I popped around the corner, firing sporadically for a second before
pulling back, but with the unfriendly fire coming from two ways
returning fire became very dangerous.
But then I felt something hot near me, and Red Sally brushed by
me, sending a ball of fire down one end of the corridor for a split
second before pulling back; then she was poking out in the other
direction, sending a flaming ball in that direction as well. We heard
harsh screams and for a moment the firing stopped.
"Now!" I cried, jumping into the corridor. The Silencer and the
others followed, and we opened fire on the survivors. We started
running forward down the corridor, the Silencer and I firing ahead of
us, and Preston and the others firing behind us. If the bugs had been
at full strength they could easily had cut us down, but most of the
ones still living were busy fanning down the flames.
I reached the corner first, firing all along, and it took me a
few seconds to stop when I saw there were no longer any movement among
the bodies; only smoking, charred remains. We turned the corner, taking
us out of the line of fire, and it was then as I counted noses I
noticed Jenkins was missing.
Meanwhile, we heard loud buzzing sounds coming from down the
corridor. Reinforcements were arriving.
I looked at Preston for a split second, and we were in agreement;
no Column agent gets left behind.
We turned back into the corridor we had just left, and could see
a stirring mass at the far end as fresh reinforcements were making
their way past the charred lines of the first wave. We didn't have to
go far, just about 25 feet, before we found Jenkins, face down.
Preston laid down a covering fire while I reached down to check
for a pulse. While I was doing so I saw the gaping hole in his chest;
he had been hit from behind while we had been retreating. And there was
no pulse. He was gone.
I was up and sprinting out of there in a second, and Preston was
following; blaster bolts streaked around us, most of them coming from
behind us, but some of them coming from ahead of us! The Silencer was
giving us covering support, carefully firing around our fleeing forms
to attack our attackers. Only the Silencer could fire down a crowded,
dark corridor in split second intervals to hit targets 70 or 80 feet
away without hitting us.
We rounded the corner, breathing heavily; and I looked at the
Silencer and Preston, to make sure they were unharmed. Preston was
winded but was fine; the Silencer looked totally unfazed. I nodded
fractionally to thank him, and we took off, quickly getting out of
We managed to evade our pursuers and return to maintenance
closet. We had lost two operatives in two days, Gentry and Jenkins, and
we had lost the two of them on what should have been very routine
missions. And what was worse was that we didn't get any food. In other
words, we'd have to go out again and risk our lives again if we wanted
But no one wanted to eat right now. We were all upset, and no one
more than me. I hadn't been especially close to Gantry or Jenkins, but
I had seen a progressive pattern over the past nine months, as, one by
one, Column operatives were eliminated. Only Preston and I were left.
The others--the Silencer, Red Sally, the Clapper, even Mongo--all had
special abilities that might enable them to survive. But Preston and I
were just ordinary men, and, sooner or later, we would probably get
killed in a skirmish too.
From his facial expression I could tell that Preston was thinking
the same thing. We were stuck in a losing proposition, and top Column
operatives were smart enough not to just sit around and wait for the
end to come.
"Maybe we should move on," said Preston, saying what we all were
"Where?" I asked.
"One of the outer provinces," said Preston. "The concentration of
Insect troops may be lower there."
"Yes," I said, following this line of thought. "And let's just
say we find some place in the outer provinces. What do we do then?"
"Establish a new hideout, find food...."
"And what do we do all day when we're not finding food?" I said.
"There will be no targets to hit out there, will there?"
Preston shook his head.
I raised my voice. "We all have our own reasons for staying this
close to the center of things, just a few miles out from Sarney
Sarittenden. Because that's where all the targets of opportunity are.
Because this is where we need to be to hurt the enemy. We can go to the
fringes, and maybe have a peaceful life for a few years, until they
expand out there.. but is that what we want? Preston, how do you plan
to spend the next five, or ten years? What hobbies will you take up to
pass the time? Modeling plastic? Painting?"
Preston averted his gaze.
"We stayed here to fight, because that's what we do," I said.
"Sitting around and doing nothing but existing might be fine for most
of the sheep that passes for civilians around here, but not us. If we
could be happy sitting idly by we'd never have joined the Column. You
and I both know that."
"Then what do you suggest?" Preston said. "We stay here and get
picked off while going shopping for liquid starch?"
"I don't know," I said.
"There's another option," said the Silencer, speaking for the
first time. "We can attack the governor-general's office in the
"Sarney Sarittenden?" said Preston. "That has to be the most
tightly guarded place on August! We'd never get in."
"No," I said suddenly. "I know a way. At least, I think I do."
"We'll be killed before we get close to the governor general."
"It would be nice to get the governor general," said the
Silencer. "But even if we don't, all the senior occupation officials
are located there. We could wipe out a large number of them."
"This is madness," said Preston.
"We're not having much of an impact," said the Silencer, as if he
were reading my thoughts. "Oh, we're an inconvenience; we can snipe at
an outpost here, take out a small factory there, free a group of
prisoners somewhere else. I'm sure our activities get mentioned on some
report that some midlevel insect reviews. But we're not inconveniencing
their leaders; indeed, we're probably not even a blip on their scopes.
I say we make them aware of us."
I swallowed, thinking about this. I had a strong sense of self-
preservation, which was telling me to run, to go to the outer provinces
and hide. But I knew that once the fear wore off, the restlessness
would set in, and I would come back. And if I was going to be killed
for something, I wanted to die fighting for something more substantial
than shopping for liquid starch.
Killing had never been my favorite line of work, but I had done
my share in my time. The nature of the assignment--going in quickly,
getting the job done, and getting out--appealed to me, because it
reminded me of past assignments I had done. Of course, in a real hit
and run job I would have spent days if not weeks researching the
target; what we were talking about doing now was more of a semi-
unplanned raid than a carefully coordinated hit, in the hopes of
nabbing the top Insects.
Maybe it was my desperation, or maybe it was my anger over the
loss of Jenkins and Gantry, but it made sense to me. I looked up;
everyone was looking at me, and I wondered how much time had passed
while I was caught up in self-thought. Slowly, I nodded.
The Silencer nodded back. Red Sally was next--and why shouldn't
she? This was a chance to make her enemies burn. And then the Clapper,
who nodded reluctantly after Red Sally glared at him. Good, he had some
backbone. Or maybe he was just more afraid of Big Red than he was of
I turned to Preston. He shook his head, paced back and forth for
a moment in the far corner of the room, and then came back and nodded.
We were united on this.
"I know of a secret way into Sarney Sarittenden," I said.
"How do you know it's still a secret to the Insects?" Preston
"I don't," I said. "We'll have to find out, tomorrow evening."
"No," said a weak voice.
We all turned. It was Mongo. In all our discussions we assumed
that the Paperweight and Mongo, who were obvious noncombatants,
wouldn't accompany us, and so had unconsciously screened them out of
"No, not to go at night," said Mongo.
"What do you mean?" Preston asked. "Why shouldn't we?"
"Go, go in morning," said Mongo. "Tomorrow morning, or maybe next
morning after that."
"Why?" Preston asked again. "If we go tomorrow morning, it will
"No, not safe!" said Mongo.
"Then what does it matter when we go?" he asked.
Mongo concentrated a moment, as if he were trying to get the
images straight in his head, or trying to summon up the patience to
deal with Preston, I'm not sure which. "Not safe at all! See images of
bad, bad ends for all of you. Many possible bad ends! But many more bad
ends if you go at night; if you go in two mornings from now, much
better, is chance that some of you may survives, fewer bad ends, even a
few good ones."
"Well, since we'll be indoors, I don't think it really matters if
it's day or night outside," I said. "But would it be better if we go
tomorrow morning, or two mornings from now? You aren't being clear."
"Not clear, not clear at all! Yes, they say to Mongo, 'be clear
about future, tell exactly what will happen and when, and fetch me tea
so I can read about it in daily holonewscast'. But Mongo not work that
way; hard to say, see many possibilities. Not sure if morning better,
or two mornings."
"Then we'll go tomorrow morning," I said. "We don't have enough
food to last more than one more day, and I'd rather get shot on this
mission than while shopping for food." If we survived, a tall if, we
would worry about food again afterwards.
Mongo looked uneasy but said nothing.
"What about me?" said Sashay.
"You want to come too?" Preston asked.
"No!" said Sashay. "As my dear departed wife once said, don't put
your finger in a boiling pot! But what's going to happen to me if
"You'll have fewer people to cook for," said the Silencer, lying
back and closing his eyes. Sleep was an easy thing for him, even before
a mission like this. Or maybe the thought of what was to come made him
sleep more easily?
I went over to the Paperweight. "Look, if we don't return in a
few hours, go to the transport. You know where it is. Drive by night
out of the city; if you're lucky, you'll come to a sparsely populated
area out of the provinces."
"And if I'm not lucky?"
"Take Mongo with you," I said. "He'll help."
"O no! You will not get poor Mongo on some d-diiirty farm," he
said. "If Column spies foolishly get themselves killed, Mongo knows
what to do."
"Really? What does Mongo do?"
"Mongo was taking care of himself for maaaaaany, many months
before being rudely captured by Column agents," said Mongo. "Mongo
knows places that are safe, yes, very safe. Before you took Mongo,
Mongo was never seen or shot at by enemy. Mongo live a lot longer on
"I don't seem to recall capturing you, or forcing you to stay
against your will," I said. "You're free to leave at any time."
"Ungrateful Column peoples need Mongo's help." A bony finger
pointed accusingly at me. "Croft himself says so."
"So I did," I sighed.
"Mongo gets no appreciation, but Mongo helps."
"You're a regular philanthropist," I sighed, lying back in my
bedding. I nodded to Preston, who was taking the first watch. Tomorrow
was going to be some day.
I didn't think I would sleep at all that night; I spent the first
part of the night going over options in my mind, how we would get into
Sarney, and how we would get out. I resolved to think out as much of
the plan of action as possible. I knew the layout of Sarney
Sarittenden, but had no information on what had been done inside by the
Insects or what parts of it were occupied. Chances are their highest
officials would be located in the Chamber of Leaders or the central
control room. We might not get the governor-general, but perhaps we
could kill some of his senior aides before we were taken down.
My thoughts turned morose as I reflected on the larger issues.
How had we come to this? I had spent several hundred years of my life
defending the League, and the Alliance, and its predecessors;
governments had come and gone, but I had always been defending August,
always been defending our people. And all of a sudden, because of the
gullibility of our political leaders, we had allowed our defenses to
drop, had allowed our forces to be ambushed, and humanity was now
paying the price for that. The sickness went deeper than a handful of
political leaders; it was the fault of the people who elected them.
They had lost the will to fight, or to even let our warrior class fight
for them; they were more consumed with the latest holos, the latest
fashions, the latest tastes, and they had no room or interest in their
lives for an unattractive war; they considered even news of it to be an
uncouth disruption of their aesthetic pursuits. It was that attitude
that had elected the present administration, and that attitude that had
caused the downfall of the Alliance.
Most of the citizenry who had been so concerned about their next
holovid were now more concerned about their next meal, if and when it
was coming as they labored under the yoke of Insect oppression. If we
ever survived this great disaster, I wonder if the populace will learn
something of hardship from this and the need to have a strong self-
defense, or if the lessons learned during this time would simply be
forgotten after a few years of restorative self-indulgent pleasures....
I awoke in the morning, with the Silencer shaking me; he had
relieved Preston, allowing me to sleep the entire night. I looked up
questioningly at him and he said, "It might have been your last sleep.
You might as well have enjoyed it."
The Silencer looked weary. Perhaps he hadn't been able to sleep.
I got up and prepared our gear. Mongo was still watching us with
wide-eyes, as if something were really bothering him. "Not the right
morning... not the right one..." he muttered, watching us make our
"What?" I asked Mongo. "So tomorrow morning is better, after
all?" Inwardly I groaned; now that our decision had been made, I didn't
want to delay this another day.
Mongo watched me holding my equipment, and looked at the others,
as if he were trying to match this scene with images in his mind. "Not
the right day," he muttered again.
And then Red Sally cracked open the door and peered out into the
gloomy corridor. Mongo's head jerked around; immediately he said,
"That's right, that's correct, that's very correct."
I had been about to tell the others to scrub the mission, when I
turned back to Mongo, and saw what he was looking at. "What? Now it's
the right day, just because Big Red was the one to open the door?"
"This is the morning where she opens the door, opens the door,
opens the door," Mongo repeated. "Probably is right morning. Must be
"Does that mean we come back alive?" Preston asked.
Mongo shook his head. "Chance you may come back; see many
different images. Sometimes you die, other times you are captured, a
few times you escape. But if you go another time, only see same kinds
of images, all of you, dead, shot, killed."
"A few chances that we escape?" I said. "Well, that's the most
encouraging news I've heard in a while. Can you tell me anything more
specific about what actions we should take to survive?"
Mongo started to shake his head, then stopped, and moved close to
me. With big eyes, he whispered, "Must look for hairy big nose."
And then he scampered off.
"Hairy big nose?" said Preston. "What does that mean?"
"I don't know." I frowned. I truly didn't know what Mongo was
talking about, but his description sounded somehow... familiar.
Speaking of familiarity, I was pretty familiar with Sarney
Sarittenden, the capital of August, and, by extension, the capital of
the League and the Alliance. But familiarity of the place did not
always translate into comprehension. Sarney, the capital, I knew quite
well. Sarney, the palace, I knew of but didn't fully understand. There
was something unusual about the palace at Sarney Sarittenden that no
one quite understood. The palace was built of an odd, gently glowing
metal that defied description. No, it didn't actually glow, but the
metallic walls changed colors, depending on how the light hit it or how
one looked at it. Even the exact origin of the palace was a mystery,
for we didn't have the materials to build such a structure. It seems
likely that the palace had been built by aliens, though how or why and
for what reason was unknown. I had had my own experiences with Sarney,
and let's just say that there was more to the place than it seemed.
Sarney Sarittenden, the palace, connected seamlessly to Sarney
Sarrittenden, the city and thus to the rest of August, its polished,
oddly colored/not colored metal extending several levels down below the
surface; but all the entrances to the palace were above ground, on the
surface; there had never been one underground--at least, not one known
to the public.
But I knew of one.
We descended into the tunnels directly adjacent to the palace.
Insect patrols were more frequent here; after all, we were close to the
seat of power. But even the Insects couldn't be everywhere, and we
inched forward, moving slowly and carefully, stopping when we heard the
patrols. It took two hours of slow but steady progress before we got
there, but we arrived undetected (so I hoped).
"There" was actually an empty storeroom, right up against the
side of the palace itself, relatively high up in level 4. Formerly the
home of some sector of the bureaucracy, it was abandoned now. I looked
over at the smooth wall along one side, feeling it with my hands.
"What are you doing?" Preston asked.
What was I doing? I wasn't really sure. I stopped, looking at the
wall. I was in the right place, I think.
"Haven't you been here before?" Preston asked.
"Yes, but usually leaving, not coming in," I said, trying to
"That makes a difference?" Preston asked, not understanding.
"Here it does," I said, finally remembering. I fished a hand
scanner out of my backpack, and slowly passed it along the wall.
Slowly... yes! Several contact points on the wall surface, invisible to
the naked eye. I gauged their location on the scanner, and then tapped
the appropriate code.
A section of the wall slid open, revealing a gently glowing
"Gentlemen... Sarney Sarittenden."
In one bold stroke, we had gotten in without a battle, past
companies and companies of Insect troopers. While I didn't claim to
know much about Sarney Sarittenden, I certainly knew more than the
We entered the passageway cautiously but without incident; my
scanner showed no detection devices or traps waiting for us. As we
entered the entrance sealed behind us, leaving no sign on either end of
an exit there.
I pointed to the door ahead of us. "We are on the 1st level of
Sarney, I think. The Chamber of Leaders is on level 7, and the control
room is on level 4; both are in the central rotunda, one above the
other. Normally, we would use the central access stairs, but they're
sure to be guarded."
"What's the alternative?" said Preston.
"There another stairwell on the side, but that will require a
longer walk through corridors, and a greater likelihood we'll encounter
I looked at their faces. They obviously had no idea what to do.
If I were doing this mission properly, I would've gone in with canmo
tarps, slunk around, explored the place, and planned and plotted for
days. This mission was being done on the fly, with no intelligence
gathering or planning beforehand.
I would have to decide for them. I resisted the urge to go the
most direct route, guns blazing. We'd try the circuitous way.
Cautiously, we made our way out of the room and into the
corridor. I saw the broad, gleaming hallways of Sarney around us, the
gentle hum of its mighty power, but no Insects. I could hear a faint
buzzing in the distance; they were around us, but not too close.
We started off, myself and the Silencer in the lead, Preston in
the middle, and the Clapper and Red Sally bringing up the rear. We
encountered two Insects around a bend in the corridor, but got the drop
on them, with silenced guns; they weren't even armed, which was a good
sign. Chances are that this far in there were only posted guards, not
ones roaming on patrol. We just had to make sure that none of the
Insects we encountered survived long enough to raise an alarm.
We reached the side stairwell, and started climbing. As we
climbed we encountered an Insect coming down the stairs; we shot it
before it had a chance to buzz. We reached level four without incident
and started making our way to the central dome, the capital rotunda.
Traffic was heavier here, and we shot several more along the way. One
of them gave off a scream as it was shot, causing the Silencer to
lightning quick-fire off another shot to decapitate it.
We waited a tense moment to see if anyone or anything would come
running. But nothing happened. So far this was very easy. Perhaps too
easy? But if this was a trap, how could they have known that we were
coming? No, it simply must be that we were too far inside to encounter
much in the way of armed opposition. Ironically, this might be a safer
mission than shopping for food!
We snuck into the outer section of the rotunda. On level four
there was an outer circular area that encircled the control room, with
entrances at every major compass direction. We could see two guards
posted at every entrance. Aiming around curved walls, we shot them, two
at a time. Our guns were silenced, but even silenced guns create some
noise; however, the combined buzz and sounds of electronic equipment
from control dampened anything but very loud noises.
We picked off a second set of guards, then a third, then the
fourth; skipping past an entryway each time to move to our next target.
Now all that remained to do was to assault the control room itself.
I peered inside, just a for a moment. From my constricted
viewpoint I saw a handful of Insects buzzing as they studied their
consoles. Good. This was probably the governor-general's command
center. I made a signal with my hand, and my team dispersed
I took the north entrance; the Silencer took the south; Preston
took the east; and Red Sally and the Clapper took the West. When I had
given them enough time to get into position I withdrew a demo charge
from my pack, which was already set for 5 second detonation. I
whispered into my com, "Ready.... set... now!"
Pushing the activation switch, I lobbed it into the control room
and then retreated into the outer area and flattened my back against
the wall, while the others did the same from their entrances.
There was a loud explosion that shook the ground. And then we
went running in, guns blazing. The room had been packed with several
dozen technicians, functionaries, and guards. There were only a dozen
or so left who were uninjured, and they quickly recovered from their
shock to reach for their weapons as we entered.
But we were quicker, blasting everything that moved and much that
didn't; consoles, equipment, live Insects, dead Insects, spraying the
bodies with blaster fire. Red Sally flamed a guard who was trying to
sneak up on her from behind.
In moments it was all over, and the Insect's center of control on
August was smashed. For a moment we stared around us at the
destruction we had caused. I don't think anyone had believed that we
would get this far, certainly not this easily. I let everyone enjoy a
few moments of satisfaction. This was for Gantry and Jenkins, and all
the other Column operatives we had lost. This was something that
wouldn't just be a blip in the governor-general's report.
The governor-general. The creature was probably on level seven,
in the Chamber of Leaders. Dare we press our luck and...?
It was at that moment that an alarm sounded, and I knew our
attack had been discovered, and that we wouldn't stand a chance of
getting to the governor-general.
It was only many, many years later that I discovered that (a) our
attack hadn't trigger the alarm, (b) that the governor-general wasn't
waiting for us in the Chamber of Leaders, and (c) we had almost bagged
ourselves a much, much bigger target than the governor-general.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Queen Zsst, leader of the Insect invasion fleet, sat in the
Chamber of Leaders on level seven, surrounded by carnage. The walls
were splattered with green circulatory fluid; her guards were all
mashed into crumpled, flattened forms on the ground, except those that
were flattened against the wall; and her aides chittered nervously in
the nest around her, afraid to show their mandibles.
And for good reason. The Queen had been pressing the alarm button
for several minutes before the first wave of guards came in. She vented
her range on them in her harshest buzzing tone, a tone that signified
pending discorporation. "An alien simply walked in here, liquidated my
guard, and could easily have liquidated me! What do you have to say
about your security!"
The captain of the guard was terrified, but stammered something.
"Where is the governor-general? Where is the captain of my
security?" The guard stammered something about a failure to communicate
with central control, but the Queen cut the trooper off.
"If you value your existence, find out where they are, and find
and kill this alien before it escapes!"
The captain of the guard was so eager to get out of her presence
that she never thought to ask the Queen what this alien looked like.
But then, it didn't really matter; all humans tended to look alike.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
We started to run down the stairwell, but heard heavy marching
sounds below us. I could see several squads of Insect troopers marching
up towards us. We ran as quickly as we could, but then we saw/heard
Insects coming at us from the other direction, below us--we were never
going to make it back to level one on the stairwell before they reached
So we got out at level five, just one level down from the control
room, and kept running. The Insects were only a few seconds behind us.
They weren't quite as fast as we were, but I heard a loud buzzing
sound, and saw something catching up with us--a large killer bee. Its
buzzing was loud enough to blank out most other noise, and it cast a
shadow as it closed on Red Sally and the Clapper, who were in the rear.
The Silencer fired a round of quick shots at it as we continued
to run, but that only stung it slightly, causing it to flinch; then Red
Sally let loose, and she burned it in mid-air, and the flaming beast
hit a wall with a whoomph! and it almost exploded with embers as it hit
We kept running, looking for another stairwell, which we
unfortunately found--complete with more Insects, just coming up out of
it. We quickly reversed course, but couldn't do that for very long
before running into our original pursuers, so we took the only
alternative we could, down a winding side corridor... which led to a
A dead end, with no doors or rooms! We didn't have any time to
marvel at the inane palace design. We were trapped!
All we could do was wait for then to come. As the first wave of
Insects came around the bend we blasted them, and the second wave, and
the third; we fired as quickly as we could but there were too many of
them, and blaster bolts were flying everywhere. We all crouched down or
lay prone to try to present less of a target, but we had absolutely no
cover in the corridor, and while the Silencer was blasting away with
his two blasters, a bolt struck his right arm, and the pain must have
been so intense because he cried out and the blaster went spinning from
his hand and at that second I remembered Mongo marveling about the
Silencer's uninjured right arm when we first encountered him and
suddenly knew what he had been thinking about.
More Insects were coming around the bend and the Silencer forced
himself, through gritted teeth, to keep firing with his left hand; if
we gave them even a second to target us, out in the open in this
corridor. we were dead.
The bodies kept piling up, but the Insects kept coming; they must
have been throwing an entire company of Insects at us. Red Sally send
burst after burst of flame at them, but they kept coming; the Clapper
kept pushing them back, or pushing them against each other, but they
kept coming; Preston and the Silencer and I kept firing like madman,
but they still kept coming.
And finally Red Sally sent out a giant sheet of flame, which
engulfed the attackers and forced others out of sight around the bend
to draw back, and she cried out, and fell to the ground, her bright red
hair actually steaming.
For a moment, there was silence. Then I heard an unmistakable
buzz-buzz around the bend. They were still there. Massing for another
attack. Probably gathering even more reinforcements. Without taking my
eyes off the corridor for more than a second at a time I cast glances
at everyone else. Preston and the Clapper seemed to be unhurt. The
Silencer was in obvious pain, bleeding from his arm, but he said
nothing. Red Sally lay unmoving on the ground. Had that last effort
Then I saw some slight movement in her arms and legs. No.
The buzzing sound around the bend grew louder. Reinforcements
must be massing for a quick rush to overwhelm us.
"This is it," said Preston, trying to keep a grip on his weapon
despite his sweaty palms. I wanted to say something reassuring, but for
once I was at a loss for words. I looked at the Silencer. This was the
way he had wanted it to end, to go out fighting; now that Annie was
dead, he didn't care what happened to him, as long as he managed to
kill a whole lot of Insects. Red Sally, with her fierce hatred of the
enemy, probably wouldn't have had it any other way. And the Clapper?
Well, he was always scared, whatever the circumstances.
And myself? Now, in my last few seconds, I regretted my
foolishness, regretted letting my emotions run away with me, to lead me
into making such a hasty and unplanned attack. If only I had listened
to Mongo... I actually chuckled slightly, which I hastily turned into a
cough, as the Silencer glared at me.
The buzzing sound grew louder, and we could see shadows of
Insects massing around the bend. They were getting ready to attack. And
then, improbably, a related thought struck me and I found a second
reason to laugh.
"What's so funny?" said Preston, in a loud whisper.
"Now I'll never know what Mongo meant about the hairy guy with
the big nose," I said, regretfully.
The buzzing sound was very loud now, and we prepared ourselves
for the attack.
Suddenly there were a group of inhuman screams, more like
screeches, and we could the shadows of the Insects, being tossed about
like rag dolls, being propelled this way and that. There were more
screeching, and several bodies were actually tossed around the bend--
flattened, lifeless husks, we could see immediately; they had been
pulverized by some very powerful force.
And then the screaming stopped. The shadows were gone, and so was
the buzzing sound.
I looked at Preston and the Silencer. What was going on here?
And then, because it was absolutely silent, we heard a gentle
pad-pad, tap-tapping down the corridor, and we saw the shadow of a
large, furry four legged creature, much like a big dog, with a large,
flat, rectangular snout.
And then an extremely unlikely thing happened: Professor Capybara
came around the bend.
Chapter 9: A Most Unexpected Capybara
I'm certain my jaw dropped; I think Professor Capybara was just
about the last being I expected to see in an Insect stronghold. His
brown, straw-like hair, webbed feet, box shaped nose, and dark black
eyes were just as I remembered; he was even wearing his trademark
spectacles (which weren't really spectacles, but another piece of
I started to tell everyone not to fire, but they had the good
sense to lower their weapons slightly; they saw what he had been done
to the Insect attackers. Had Professor Capybara eliminated all those
Insects? To our knowledge the Professor was an unarmed and extremely
"Clifford, (tweatle tweatle) how unexpected to see you," said the
Professor, in that sing-song voice of his.
"I could say the same," I said, still stunned. "What are you
"I was on the way out and I sensed the commotion these (tweatle
tweatle) beastly creatures were creating," said the Professor.
Sensed? Not heard, but sensed? But more immediately: "What do you
mean, on the way out? What were you doing in the heart of Sarney
Sarittenden in the first place?"
"Dropping by for a (tweatle tweatle) chat. We must hurry,
Clifford, they will be summoning reinforcements."
We got to our feet and made our way around the bend, with
Professor Capybara in the lead. It was there we saw the pile of bodies,
dead, crushed, and splattered against the wall and floors.
"They were very (tweatle tweatle) rude," said the Professor,
trotting along at a good pace. "I merely asked them to step aside. If
they had showed proper (tweatle tweatle) manners they would not be
leaking as they are now."
At that moment I hoped I had always been polite to the Professor;
I gave this some thought as I automatically started to turn towards the
"No, not that one," said the Professor. "Just a little farther".
He trotted to an apparently smooth portion of the glowing wall and
tapped it twice with his snout. A panel slid open, revealing a room
filled with humming machinery... and a hidden stairwell leading down!
The panel closed behind us as the last of us filed in. "I assume
you made your way in through section four on level one," said the
Professor conversationally, as if giving a tour of the hidden recesses
of Sarney was an everyday occurrence.
This shook me out of my stunned silence. "Yes," I said. "But what
are you doing here? I looked for you, after the invasion, but you were
"I just needed to gather a few more notes in the field," said the
Field notes? Field notes about what? I started to speak, but the
Professor said, "Quietly now; we're on level one, but you may encounter
some (tweatle tweatle) resistance."
We emerged on level one out of a featureless wall panel, just a
few dozen feet from our entry point. We made our way down to the
corridor; I saw two Insects, which Preston and I blasted. But buzzing
sounds in the distance suddenly grew louder.
"Hurry," said the Professor, tapping the appropriate panel. We
all ran into the room, and the Professor entered with us, shutting the
door behind us.
Professor Capybara turned to me. "I believe you know how to get
out from here."
I nodded. But then I caught the implication. "Aren't you coming
"No, Clifford," said the Professor. "I need to (tweatle tweatle)
the facilities here."
Facilities? What was the Professor talking about? Could he just
walk around Sarney with ease? Evidently, he could. As he pad-padded
towards the doorway I said, "Wait! Why don't we meet up, later?"
The Professor shook his head sadly and looked at me as if I were
a somewhat retarded pupil. "I'm going home, Clifford."
Home? As far we knew, the Professor was one of a kind; if there
were a planet of the Capybaras, we sure didn't know about it.
"Wait!" I said, getting my wits about me. This was all happening
too quickly, but I was starting to catch up. "If there are more of you,
perhaps you can talk to your people, get them to help us in our war
against the Insects."
"I'm sorry, Clifford, but we don't work that way," said the
Professor. He tweatled almost apologetically.
"What I mean is, you don't have to fight yourselves; if you could
even give us materials, supplies, weapons-"
The Professor looked at me through his spectacles. "I really
regret what's happened to your people, Clifford. But much as I'm fond
of your species, I cannot intervene; my only role is to observe,
(tweatle tweatle), and report." He turned away, for the last time.
"Will we ever meet again?" I asked, half chokingly. I had grown
very fond of my four legged friend.
Professor Capybara paused, as if he were considering, and he
flexed one of his webbed feet. A small cramp, maybe. "Perhaps," he
said, opening the door, and he was gone. As the door slid shut behind
him we heard insane screams in the corridor and a splat of green
circulatory fluid streaked across the room before the panel slid shut.
Preston and I exchanged glances. I think in that short exchange I
learned more about Professor Capybara than all the xenobiologists on
August had in several decades. But our conversation also raised more
questions than answers.
I noticed the Silencer was bleeding rather profusely and he
looked faint; I dug out some bandages from my backpack and set about
binding the wound. It ran the length of his upper arm and shoulder, and
looked deep. Nasty. The Silencer tried not to cry out in pain as I
bandaged it, but he grit his teeth and looked very uncomfortable.
"We'll see what we can do for you when we get back," I said
We made our exit and reentered the tunnels around Sarney. The
Insects didn't seem to realize that we had made our escape this way,
and had not yet set up any special alerts. While we had to dodge a
routine patrol or two, we made our way back to maintenance closet
without further incident.
Sashay's eyes were round when he saw us bringing in the bleeding
Silencer, who by now had lost so much blood that he was having trouble
walking. But Mongo only looked at his right arm and muttered knowingly.
"I guess you don't have to ask us how it went," said Preston
"You are alive," said Mongo. "Mongo tell you best time, and you
come back alive. Why so unhappies?"
"You could have mentioned that the hairy guy with the long nose
"Did not ask. Many questions you do not ask Mongo, such as 'How
are you today, Mongo? What is new with you, eh?'"
The Silencer groaned. "Somebody shut him up," said Preston,
referring to Mongo.
I looked at the Silencer; he was bleeding through his bandages.
He needed medical attention. Well, that was easy enough; all we would
need was a doctor, a hospital, and medical equipment. All doctors who
were still alive were probably scattered among workfarms across August;
locating one of them would be difficult.
But equipment and hospitals....? There was a chance they were
simply deserted, abandoned. Surely scavengers would've picked through
them, but there was a chance there could be some medical equipment
left. As a field operative I had been given basic medical training; if
I could get a cauterizer, I might be able to stop the bleeding.
"I'm going out to look for medical supplies," I said.
"It's bound to be risky," said Preston. "They're all stirred up
"The Silencer isn't going to make it if I don't," I said. I
licked my lips. "You stay here and watch over him."
"Are you sure you don't want company?" said Preston, offering to
I could tell he had experienced enough shock for one day. I
Clap clap. "I'll go."
I turned to the Clapper, a bit surprised. "No offense, but this
operation requires stealth."
"I can help (clap clap)."
I was about to turn him down, gently, when I noticed Mongo
looking at me, with those great big eyes, giving me one of his "you'll
be sorry" expressions if I said what I was about to say. Or was I just
"All right," I relented.
The first two hospitals we checked out had been thoroughly
scavenged; in one of them, even the sheets on the beds were gone. The
second had been destroyed by fire. Time was pressing when we arrived at
our third prospect, and I was surprised to find that it was quite
And concerned; it was buzzing with activity, literally. We snuck
in through an air vent, and saw Insects buzzing around... experimenting
on humans. They were strapped to surgical tables, being injected by
very alien looking machines, or having implants added to their body.
Most of them appeared to be sedated but there were a few moans from
those that weren't.
I grew sick to my stomach, and retreated back farther in the vent
where the Clapper was waiting. He saw my expression, and reached up
with his hands-
"No!" I hissed almost silently, grabbing them and holding them
together. "One round of applause is all it will take to get us strapped
down in the operating room too."
Mentally I started to calculate if I could take them, if I could
burst out, gun blazing, and try to save some of these people. But I had
no idea what kind of firepower there was in this hospital; the last
time I had participated in an unplanned mission, I had almost been
slaughtered in a dead end corridor. Besides, every minute I delayed
increased the likelihood that the Silencer would bleed to death. He was
the only one I might be able to save right now.
I searched some of the other avenues offered by the vents, and
found one leading into a storeroom, just off one of the surgical
chambers. Supplies were scattered all over the floor, but it didn't
look like the Insects had made a concerted effort to destroy or take
the items here. Keeping one eye on the open door, I scrambled around,
looking for what I could find, trying to be as silent as possible. I
located some more bandages, and sedatives, and put them in my backpack.
I kept searching, aware of the buzzing sound in the next room. I really
needed a cauterizer. I rapidly glanced through the row of shelves,
didn't see one. Then, on a small table just opposite the doorway, I saw
what looked like a handheld model sitting on a bench. I couldn't tell
for sure unless I got close... but it was right in view of the open
I peered ever so slightly into the doorway. There were a number
of Insects performing their ghastly procedures, but several of them
were faced in this general direction. They'd definitely notice me
grabbing something from the bench.
I thought for a long, hard moment; the Silencer was running out
of time! Then I went back to the vent, and silently gestured for the
Clapper to come down into the room. Actually I lowered him gently on
the ground, to prevent him from making any noise; he looked down on the
ground with anticipation as first his toes and then his feet touched
down, as I lowered him by his belt. I motioned him forward, almost to
the point of the doorway, and pointed to the object on the bench.
The Clapper raised his hands nervously to clap; I grabbed his
hands, shook my head vigorously, and pointed to the object again.
The Clapper nodded. The object started to move, making a slight
scraping sound on the table. One of the bugs turned around to look very
specifically in our direction; seeing nothing, it turned away again. I
winced and the object lifted again, and suddenly it was raised into the
Clappers hand. It was a cauterizer.
We heard an odd tenor change to the buzzing, and the sound of
movement; I quickly motioned for the Clapper to hide behind the ends of
one of the shelves; and so did I, tightly gripping my blaster.
An Insect entered the room. It stood there for a moment, buzzing.
I stood with my blaster, peering though a tiny obscure angle to see it
standing there. It looked this way and that. And then it left the room
We made our way back into the vent and out of the hospital
without incident. I tried to sprint as much as possible but had to slow
down to let the Clapper keep up. Finally, we had almost reached the
turnoff to the corridor where the maintenance closet was located when I
saw it; an Insect standing guard at that junction.
Had they discovered our hideout? Very possible. Or it could just
be a general sweep to try and catch resistance members. But it seemed
quite a coincidence that a guard would be stationed there.
But I had to find out if the hideout had been discovered. The
Silencer could still be bleeding to death inside. I thought for a long
moment. I could kill this Insect easily enough, but there could be an
entire platoon around the corner. Even if there weren't, the death of
an Insect right almost outside our hiding place would create unwanted
attention in this area.
I thought for a moment. Time was running out for the Silencer;
what could I do? And then, for some reason, I thought of Mongo. He had
seemed to hint that the Clapper would be useful on this mission. He had
already proven his value once. Maybe he could do so again.
I pulled the Clapper forward, and whispered something to him. He
A piece of debris just past the Insect lifted itself up and
clanged against the wall. The Insect, suddenly stirring from
immobility, started marching down the corridor to investigate. When it
was out of site we raced to the junction to try and reach the turnoff
before it returned. I was conscious of the fact that we could be
running right into the hands of a full platoon of Insects, but we
needed to take the risk.
The corridor, our corridor, was empty; I raced down to the
entrance, accessed the lock and peeled back the door. As the Clapper
scampered in I cast a glance back to be sure the Insect hadn't returned
and spotted us; then I ran in and shut the door as quietly and quickly
as possible.... to find myself facing Preston's blaster.
"Sorry," he said, lowering it. "They've been milling about out
there for hours. I think our little raid got them really stirred up."
"How's the Silencer?" I said, suddenly spotting his inert body
and fearing the worst.
"Not good," said Preston.
The Silencer moaned as I reached over for him, and I saw he was
bleeding onto the ground. The first thing I did was give him a sedative
to knock him out. Then I took out the cauterizer. In my haste I hadn't
even tested to see if it worked, or still had power. But I flicked the
activation switch and was rewarded with a small glow at the tip.
Surgery isn't one of my favorite tasks, and it was about as
unpleasant for me as it was for the Silencer, but in a few minutes it
was done. He jerked a bit from the obvious pain even when he was
unconscious, and I had to give him another shot to keep him knocked
out. When it was done I had stopped the bleeding; but the question is,
had I stopped it in time? What the Silencer needed was a transfusion,
but we had no way to get him one.
For the first time in what felt like years I slumped into a
corner, and immediately sank into un-consciousness.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"There is no sign of the alien who invaded my sanctum; no sign of
the humans who attacked the control center and killed the senior
watchers, and no knowledge of how they got in our out; is this correct,
commander?" Queen Zsst asked.
The commander, actually the deputy commander of the Sarney
garrison until several minutes ago, couldn't help but tremble. Both the
governor-general and the commander of the garrison had been unlucky
enough not to be in the control room at the time the humans had
attacked; at least if they had, their endings could have been quick and
relatively painless; instead, both their dismembered corpses were
hanging just feet away from the Queen's throne, a very poignant
statement about her unhappiness with palace security.
"We do have some more information about the creature who attacked
you," said the commander, sweating profusely. "It was a-"
"I know what it was! Don't you think I recognize one of those
when I see it!" The Queen snapped. "And it shouldn't have been here! Is
there anything else useful you have to say?" She stressed the word
useful. If the commander had nothing useful to impart...
"We also have a holo on the human attackers," said the commander.
"Not enough to show how they got in or out," the Queen noted.
"They disappeared somewhere on level one," said the commander.
"My men are still searching, but the structure of this place prevents
effective-" he broke off, seeing the expression on the Queen's face,
seeing her tendril start to lift, as if to motion her bodyguard to move
forward and set another example. Ever since the last attack she had
placed four heavily armed squads located inside her chambers, and
several more platoons scattered throughout the whole of Sarney
"We have the identities of the human attackers!" The commander
The Queen lowered her tendril, for a moment. "Go on."
"One of them has been identified as the same Graftonite who
stormed our ship orbiting Grafton and slaughtered the crew. He has been
identified as one called 'The Silencer' and is reputed to be one of
their fiercest warriors."
A Graftonite. The Queen shuddered; wasn't there supposed to be a
blockade in effect? Even their intense efforts to invade and pacify the
populace had so far been stymied by strong resistance on the ground; so
far all they had managed to do was occupy and fortify a small, four
square mile area that was under almost constant attack.
"And the other?"
"His name is Clifford Croft, he's a level one operative with the
"I thought we had located and killed all the top Column
operatives!" the Queen roared.
"Apparently not. They may have formed an alliance with the
creature that attacked you in an effort to destabilize our pacification
The Queen considered this possibility. If so, that would be very,
"Then we must prevent such an alliance from being cemented. Bring
me the heads of this Graftonite and Column human. Bring me their heads
within two planetary revolutions, or I will have yours," said the
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
I got up and stretched my very sore muscles; the whole previous
day seemed like a bad dream. Then, remembering, I rushed over to the
Silencer. He was lying on the ground, but his eyes were open and he was
"How're you feeling?" I asked.
"Awful," said the Silencer. He didn't look very good. His face
was very pale.
"You lost a lot of blood," I said. "Most people wouldn't have
lasted as long as you did." I looked around. "You should eat something
to replenish your strength."
"Preston gave me the last of the food before he left," the
"Left?" I looked around. Red Sally and Sashay were gone too, but
Mongo and the Clapper were there.
"Impolite Column man leaves several hours ago," said Mongo. "He
asks Mongo if bugs still waiting outside, but Mongo not know
everything, so finally he goes out." Mongo reflected. "Impolite Column
man only talks to Mongo when he wants something." Mongo sighed.
I ignored that last part. I was more concerned with our immediate
situation. "are the bugs still outside?"
"Mongo not hear sounds of weapons fire, so Mongo thinks not,"
said Mongo. Then, as an afterthought, "But Mongo always criticized for
being wrong, Mongo not want to try to make guesses that will later get
him criticized by rude, unappreciative Columnists."
The door to our little closet hideaway was opening and this was
the Clapper's way of getting my attention to tell me so. My weapon was
already drawn and pointed but it was only Preston and Sashay, and they
were carrying big packages of something.
"Food!" said Sashay. "We stopped off at the most lovely
"That's a lot of food you got there," I said. "Where did you get
"We located a new supply area on Level 48, just one sector over,"
"How did you get past the Insect guards?"
"No guards," said Preston. "Looks like they haven't discovered
the place yet. We should go back there tonight and take what we can
before they do."
"Um," I said absentmindedly. Somewhere inside alarm bells were
going off, but I wasn't sure why. I looked at Mongo, our most reliable
indicator, and he was frowning too, but he also looked puzzled. In
other words, something was bothering him too, but he wasn't quite sure
what it was either.
"Are you sure you weren't followed on your way back?" I said.
"Croft," said Preston, in a very disgusted tone. "I'm not an
I sat back against a wall while Sashay went through the food and
began preparing dinner. While he worked he started taking out the food
from their containers and transferring them to smaller bags.
"What're you doing?" I asked.
"Many of these foods get stale when they're stored in opened
containers for longer periods; I'm transferring them to smaller baggies
to keep them fresh," said Sashay. "As my dearly departed wife used to
say, don't put all your eggs in one stasis bin."
The Paperweight turned his attention to preparing dinner, and
then while the food was cooking returned to his task of unpacking. He
emptied a large container of cereal into several smaller ones, but
something caught his eye at the bottom of the box, and he tittered
"What's so amusing?" I said, stepping forward. For some reason I
was infused with a sense of urgency. Maybe I was just jumpy; but all my
instincts said that something was wrong here.
The Paperweight held up a shiny piece of metal. "Look, it comes
with a prize! I didn't realize they still did these kinds of
"Let me see that," I said. I grabbed it from him, ignoring his
hurt expression, but I only needed a few seconds to look at it....
until I rapidly threw it to the ground and grinded it under my heel.
"Everyone up," I said, loudly clapping my hand. "They've
discovered us! We've got to move, NOW!"
"What?" said Preston.
I stood inches from Preston's face. "They bugged the food, you
idiot!" I turned to everyone else. "Out, out! Now! No, don't wait to
pack everything else, just take essential weapons; I want everyone out
of here in the next 60 seconds, and DON'T TOUCH THE FOOD! Preston, help
the Silencer up NOW!"
I quickly gathered our most essential equipment, and madly packed
them into two bags, one of which I kept and the other I gave to the
Clapper; I told Red Sally to check the door and to see if they were
I had destroyed that transmitter, but there were bound to be
others in those cartons they had brought back. This wasn't some random
sweep by the Insects; they were expending a tremendous amount of labor
and energy to find us.
Big Red opened the door a crack. "Clear," she said, as far as she
could see. Which was only about 20 feet down the corridor.
We left quickly. We had made it to the first junction off our
little hideaway before we heard the buzzing sound. It was still
distant, but closing; we ran down another corridor, and only I hung
back, behind a corner, to see several long columns of Insects trotting
down the corridor, the ones in the lead consulting a scanner of some
We had made it out only just in time.
I crept quietly around the corner and caught up with the others.
We marched urgently away from our former hiding place, stopping to
catch our breath in an abandoned room only fifteen minutes later. We
had to proceed slowly because Preston and Sashay had to half-carry,
half-pull the Silencer, who was in no condition to walk. But even this
area wouldn't be safe for long, as the Insects widened their search.
What do we do now? was the unspoken question. We had talked many
times about locating and equipping a second hideout, but that had
always taken second priority to missions to gather food or raid Insect
facilities. And now we were out in the cold with little more than the
clothes on our backs, a badly wounded man among us and not a crumb of
I looked around at faces as grim as mine. Well, we'd just have to
start from scratch, picking a place to settle in, at least temporarily,
until we could find something full-time. "Maybe we can find something
in Sector 5 of Level 40, at least temporarily," I said.
"No, not go there," said Mongo. "You go to naaaasty level 40 on
your own. Mongo goes his own way."
"Where will you go?" I asked.
"Clifford Croft forgets that Mongo survives a loooong time before
they find Mongo. They think, they may think 'Mongo waiting in hallways
for months, waiting for nice Column peoples to come and save him'; but
no, Mongo has his own hideaway, a nice, safe place where bugs don't
"Is it far? Can you take us there?"
"Not far, no, not too far at all, can take you," said Mongo. But
then, considering, "If Mongo takes you, will you be grateful?"
"Yes," I said, barely containing my annoyance. "Yes, we'll be
very, very grateful."
Mongo had a very different definition of "not far" than I did; we
had marched for over an hour before we found ourselves in an industrial
section of level 14, sector 22, a huge chamber filled with pipes. I
could just barely make out the dim shapes of large vats across the
room. Mongo went for a medium sized pipe and turned a hatch to open it.
I peered inside; it was dark, and it smelled of... something.
"You can't be serious," I said, wondering how we could drag the
Silencer inside. "Isn't there another way?"
"No, no other way. Not far! Not far!"
No longer relying on Mongo's prediction of distances, I told the
others to wait there while I followed Mongo in. Who knows what we'd
find on the other end, or how far the pipe would go?
It was dark, and the stench only grew in intensity as we crawled
onwards. But the distance was relatively short; after just 50 feet, the
pipe opened up into a large, enclosed, spherical area. Mongo groped
around in the darkness and turned something on which I saw to be a
haphazardly mounted light bar.
We were inside a sealed vat! The stench was almost overpowering,
and I recognized it. Gauche. Dried up gauche, the flavored coffee
favored by a large percentage of Augustans (and many off-worlders).
Unfortunately, I was one of the few who wasn't a fan, and the smell of
it was awful.
But when I looked around I saw bedding, ripped up papers, and
several cartons of something. I went over to them, and Mongo
instinctively moved to intercept me, and then stopped himself when I
gave him a warning glance. I saw why when I opened them up.
Food! But where had Mongo gotten all this food? One box contained
chocolate bars. The second box contained chocolate bars. The third
box.... it was all chocolate bars. He must have raided convenience
stands. Had he eaten nothing but chocolate bars for months on end?
Mongo must have seen the expression on his face, because he
smacked his lips and said, "Good food, yes! Very tasty. Mongo not have
much, but Mongo share, yes, Mongo share with good Column friends."
I looked around doubtfully. It wasn't much, the place was as
filthy as a rat's cage, and it smelled bad, but Mongo had used this
place for months to avoid the Insect patrols, so it was probably
"How do you get ventilation?"
"Ventilation?" Mongo asked, as if I had used an unfamiliar word.
Then, frowning, he said, "Leave entrance to pipe open sometimes. But
dangerous, very dangerous, can show bugs where Mongo is."
"Hm," I said, looking up. Well, we could always burn a few small
and discrete holes in the sides of the vat to get some ventilation; at
least we wouldn't asphyxiate ourselves. I nodded, making the decision.
The only problem was how to get the Silencer through the pipe.
There was no way he could crawl on his own; he was so weak now that he
had to be carried everywhere. We couldn't pull him by his arms, not
without causing him tremendous pain.
It was Sashay of all people who figured it out. First Sashay
entered the pipe backwards; then he had us put the Silencer in the pipe
legs first, and then Sashay pulled on the Silencer's legs while
crawling backwards. The Silencer, semi-conscious, moaned in discomfort
but endured it.
When we had all crawled through the pipe I immediately braced
myself for the objections.
"You can't be serious," said Preston, pulling his shirt up to his
nose to act as a filter against the stench.
"This place stinks!' said Red Sally, her blonde hair acquiring
just the slightest tinge of violet in the poor light.
"Look how dirty it is! You can't expect us to live like animals,"
"Like animals, yes, that's how they see us," said Mongo. Oh oh,
we had hurt his feelings. "Nice Column peoples want to live like
civilized peoples; way out of pipe is that way." He pointed with a bony
"He's got a point," I said. "This isn't perfect, but we need a
safe place to hide, at least for a while, and this is all we have for
now. Does anyone else has a better hiding place to suggest, and is he
or she willing to carry the Silencer there?"
I received the silence I expected.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"-We took DNA sampling which shows that the ones called Silencer
and Clifford Croft were in the closet only minutes before we got
there," said the Insect commander, trembling silently as she held up a
sample tab. The deputy commander knew her two days were up.
"So you're saying that you missed them by minutes, and that's the
success you have come to report," said Queen Zsst, as if she were
"We were very close! I'm sure if we just had a little more time-"
"Return to your post," said the Queen, interrupting.
The deputy commander, surprised, saluted, and turned to go.
"Not that way," said the Queen, as two of her bodyguards came up
behind and around the deputy commander. "That one," she said, pressing
a button which lowered a hook near the bodies of the garrison commander
and the governor general.
Queen Zsst watched dispassionately as her bodyguards started to
dismember her former deputy commander, who was screeching even before
the first limb was removed. She summoned the newly appointed garrison
commander, and she stepped forward, trying to ignore the now much
louder screams coming just several feet to the right.
The Queen summoned a holoimage of Clifford Croft and the
Silencer, taken from their internal records. "Do you wish to be
dismembered?" the Queen asked.
"No, Queen," said the new commander.
"Then find Croft, now!" said the Queen.
The new commander saluted and left. Baraki chose that moment to
enter her chambers. He gazed for a moment at the partially dismembered
deputy commander, and then turned away, as if bored him, as if he had
long since become desensitized to such a thing. But who knew what
really went on underneath that hood? Baraki approached the Queen.
Gesturing to her dismembered officers, he commented, "Are you doing a
"A minor matter," said the Queen. "Nothing we can't handle."
"I'm not so sure," said Baraki. "I got a good look at the
'redecorating' of the control area on level four. Perhaps..." His words
were cut off by his gaze, which settled on the image of Clifford Croft.
"This one is known to us! He has meddled in our affairs before." He
gave a dark hiss.
"It is only one being, and we are hunting for it," said the
Queen. "A minor irritant," she said, hiding her rage from Baraki.
"Let us hope you do not suffer any further "minor irritants" in
your command center," said Baraki. "I would hate to think that my
confidence in you had been misplaced." And he strode out of the
chamber, leaving a trail of fear in his wake.
Part II: Interlude
The Story of the Sub Ship Nautilus
Despite the enormity of the League's defeat at Vitalics, where
the fleet had been destroyed, a very small number of ships had managed
to escape, and of those few, one or two actually managed to make their
way back into the heart of League space (which quickly was becoming
occupied territory). One of those few was the battlecruiser Argon,
under the command of Captain Hu. For several days the Argon had been
evading Insect patrols, making its way deeper and deeper into League
space. But wherever they went it seemed that the Insects weren't far
Hu was looking for an even match, where his ship could take on
one or perhaps two smaller Insect ships. But most of the Insect ships
they had encountered on extreme scanner range were large groups that
the Argon would have no chance against. After a few days of abortive
engagements, a single blip showed up on the scanners; it seemed the
Argon was finally going to get its chance.
"Contact!' said the scanner officer. "One ship, small contact,
"Close for battle, maximum speed!" At this point Hu, throwing
caution to the wind, almost didn't care if it were a trap. They had
been running for several days now and the weight of their disgraceful
defeat at Vitalics hung heavy on his shoulders.
"Scanning...." Then, almost incredulously. "It's one of ours,
sir. A fast attack destroyer!"
In seconds a friendly face appeared on the holocom.
"Captain Pasta, of the Swordflash," said their captain. It turned
out that the Swordflash had been one of the handful of ships assigned
to barrier patrol along the rim of League space. Their ship was one of
the few that hadn't been assigned to the Vitalics armistice and that is
what enabled the fast attack destroyer to survive. When Captain Pasta
of the Swordflash had heard what had happened at Vitalics, he had
ordered his destroyer to head back to August. But when the Swordflash
got there, they found August already occupied by a large Insect fleet.
The Swordflash had barely escaped. Now they were roaming around,
looking for opportunities to attack single enemy ships much like the
"We're happy to see a friendly face," said Pasta. "We didn't know
anyone survived Vitalics. Did any other ships survive...?"
Hu shook his head. "Not that I know of. We may have been the only
ship to escape." That thought sunk in for a moment. Hu decided to
change the subject. "I think we should use this opportunity to join
forces," he said.
Hu agreed, and they quickly conferenced to settle on their first
While the Argon and the Swordflash were planning their first
joint attack, the experimental subship Nautilus was making its first
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Rewind, to the day August was invaded.
High above Sarney Sarittenden in orbit around August were a
series of advanced battlestations, as well as a civilian transit
station and a military shipyard.
The military shipyard was almost totally abandoned. Almost. All
the external docking ports on the shipyard were empty. But that didn't
mean the shipyard was entirely empty. The shipyard had several internal
hangers, meant for the most specialized projects that were being worked
on. When War Admiral Norman North broadcast his warning about the
Insect Invasion, Captain Robert Hollister activated his com in the now
abandoned command office in the military shipyard. "Report."
"48 crewmembers have reported," said the voice of his first
officer. "We may get one or two more, but I think the rest are still on
leave on August."
"We'll have to leave without them, it can't be helped," said
Hollister, rapidly pressing keys on a local terminal as he talked.
"Sir, we're going to launch with a skeleton crew?" said the XO.
"Not my first choice but this is our only chance to get the ship
out intact," said Hollister.
"We're not even sure that the technology has been repaired."
"Is the work crew still on board?" said Hollister, still typing.
"Keep them there. They're coming along," said Hollister.
"But sir, they're civilian contractors," said the XO.
"They have specialized knowledge of the technology," said
Hollister. "We need them." He finished typing. "I'll be at the ship in
four minutes. Be ready to leave the minute I step aboard." He raced for
Three and a half minutes later Hollister entered the crowded
bridge of the Experimental League Ship Nautilus. "We thought you
weren't going to make it, sir," said the XO.
"I had to purge the memory banks of all information relating to
the Nautilus. We can't let it fall into the hands of the Insects," said
Hollister. "What's our status?" he asked, settling into his command
"Navigation, shields, and ship systems operational."
"And the cloak?"
The Nautilus was an experimental ship, the League's only ship
that could travel cloaked, totally undetected by other ships. The
Nautilus was modeled after the old water navy submarines, with a long,
slender, oval shaped hull that had only a small projection at the top.
It was a "dual torpedo" ship, meaning it could fire energy torpedoes
from the single launcher at its forward tip, or a metal homing torpedo
from its limited stored supply. As a prototype, the ship had a limited
capacity and operating range; most of its cramped interior was taken up
with machinery used to maintain the cloak.
In its first field test the cloak had operated for nearly twenty
minutes without fading, after which it became visible. The technicians
thought they had figured out what went wrong; now was the time to put
it to the test.
The XO said, "They think it's fixed, but the techs won't know for
sure until they test it-"
"Open the external bay doors," Hollister commanded.
The external doors of the internal bay slowly opened.
The view of the outside was not encouraging. An entire Insect
fleet was approaching.
"Is the cloak ready?" Hollister said.
"A few more minutes," said the XO.
The Insect fleet came into range. They started attacking the
orbiting battlestations first. They launched a wave of missiles and
opened fire with lasers. The battlestations responded.
Hollister watched the battle quietly from his vantage point,
powerless to intervene. So far the Insects were ignoring the space
dock, but that couldn't be expected to last very long.
"We're not even sure that it will work," said the XO. "The latest
repairs to the cloak haven't been tested."
The sounds of explosions around them grew louder as the nearby
battlestations absorbed the punishment the battleships were lashing out
at them. Several of the Insect battleships seemed to orient on the
military space dock, their enormous turrets pointed, it seemed,
directly at their ship.
"We'll find out very quickly if it works," said Hollister. The
Insect battleships loomed closer, getting so close that Hollister could
almost see inside the turrets of their gunports. "We need that cloak!"
"Ready!" cried the XO, checking a display. "But if this doesn't
"Attention all hands," said Hollister. "Prepare to dive. Dive
dive dive!" This nomenclature had been imposed by Hollister.
Technically the cloak made the Nautilus disappear or "submerge" from
the visible spectrum, and Hollister, with his historical romanticism of
the ancient waterborn counterparts, had insisted on using this
terminology for cloaking. Fortunately, the admiral hadn't found out.
"Diving!" said the XO. There was a hum and the interior lights
subtly changed in color.
"Are we cloaked?" Hollister asked.
"I think so," said the XO.
"You think so?"
"At least, that's what the instruments are saying," said the XO.
Hollister gulped. "Thrusters: all head."
The Nautilus slowly worked its way out of its internal bay.
There, ahead of them, less than a mile away, was the looming image of
an Insect battleship. They were in direct line of its enormous turrets.
They were so close that they could see the black insides of those
deadly weapons. If they were going to attack, it would be over almost
The Nautilus exited the bay, slowly moving into space. As it flew
directly in line of the Insect battleship Hollister was suddenly
conscious of the fact that he was holding his breath. When cloaked the
ship wasn't even shielded; all it would take would be one volley....
The ship passed the front line of Insect battleships. A ragged
cheer went up from the crew of the sub.
"Rear view image," Hollister said. The image shifted to the
orbiting stations behind them.
Most of them were in pieces or convulsed with explosions. The
cheering immediately died down. The stations had fallen; August was
"What... what do we do now?" the XO asked.
If they decloaked and joined the battle, they might get a shot or
two off; but the Insects would quickly destroy them. The Nautilus had
been designed for surveillance, and quick strikes at isolated targets;
not general fleet engagements, certainly not without external support.
"I really don't know," said Hollister.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Fast forward: the present.
The Nautilus had finally found a target to strike, and was
closing in, fast.
"Steady... steady..." said Captain Hollister. "Range?"
"Five miles, and closing," said navigation.
The Nautilus was closing on two Insect transport ships escorted
by a destroyer. The Nautilus was bearing down on the destroyer first,
since it was the only ship that could fire back.
"Two miles, and closing."
"Cut velocity by 50%."
"One mile, and closing... One half mile... one quarter mile...."
"Prepare to surface... now!"
"Surface, surface!" cried the XO, as a klaxon sounded. An outside
observer would've seen a shimmering effect as the ship slowly surfaced
into the visible spectrum, a few hundred feet behind the destroyer.
Alarms yammered on the Insect ship as the Nautilus was picked up
on their scanners. Insects scrambled to their battle stations-
Two energy torpedoes hit the destroyer amid ships at point blank
range. The Insects hadn't even had the chance to raise their shields.
The well placed shots detonated the ship's energy core, and in seconds
the ship exploded into a fireball.
"Emergency power! Hard astern!" cried Hollister, gripping a
railing as the ship desperately turned about to avoid the miniature
supernova in front of them. The screens flared bright, white light for
a moment, and there was a shudder as the shockwave hit, and then all
"... small hull rupture on deck 2, must be a piece of debris,"
said the XO. "The cloak is temporarily offline."
Now that the warship was destroyed, the cloak wasn't so crucial.
Probably some of the exterior lining used by the cloak had been
damaged. Well, they had spares in stores, that could be fixed.
Hollister, blinking away the rapidly diminishing white circles in front
of his eyes from the explosion, stared at the two unarmed transport
ships slowly trying to get away. The rest would be a mopping up
Captain's Log, 57 days after I-Day
Captain Robert Hollister, Commanding.
We've been on our own for nearly two months now. After hulling
those two Insect transport ships vessels, we EVA'ed a team to look over
the damage we took from the explosion of the Insect destroyer. We
repaired the sensor webbing over the hull and quickly made repairs. The
cloaked seemed to work fine after that--we say "seemed to" because we
no way of knowing for sure whether and how well its working. But our
hull is very sensitive to damage--any damage to the hull necessarily
damages the cloak, since the cloak requires an intact sensor web around
the ship in order to operate effectively.
The first engagement taught us a number of tricks and tactics,
foremost of which was not to get closer than a half mile to our target-
-too close, and the sub gets damaged by the resulting explosion. We
don't have very much shielding to protect us as a regular ship of the
line does. Since then we've made two more attacks that have been very
successful. First we took out a lone supply ship enroute to the Whenfor
system; then, several days later, we took out another escort ship and
two medium sized transports.
Crew morale is good, under the circumstances, but no one can
forget that we're going to be locked together in tight conditions for
some time. By its very nature the Nautilus is crowded; most of the
space on the ship is taken up by the prototype generator. Our shields
are practically non-existent, and our sole weaponry consists of a
"dual" torpedo launcher; capable of launching both guided missiles, and
energy torpedoes. We have only eight of the former, and they're
invaluable; unlike energy torpedoes, which have to be fired in direct
line to an unmoving target, guided missiles can follow and track.
The crew is holding up well, but there is simply no personal
space on board this ship; we have to rotate and share bunks, and in
fact we had to lay out some air mattresses on the floor of the torpedo
room. The prototype is rated for a crew of 72; we left space dock in a
hurry with a skeleton crew of 64, which include ten civilian techs who
were not regular members of the crew, but it's still crowded. Even
eating must be done in shifts, as our tiny mess hall can only hold 15
(crowded) or 20 (very crowded) at a time.
And that brings me to one of our main problems: food. The
Nautilus is certainly not large enough to have a food station aboard,
though we do have a standard oxygen regenerator; that means that we
must put down periodically for food, and, eventually, fuel. As nearly
the entire Alliance has been occupied, getting resupply is hazardous,
at best. With our food stores already down 25%, I've set a course for
one of our distant resupply stations on Karis; perhaps the Insects
haven't reached there yet.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"There it is, sir," said the scanner officer, magnifying the
image of Karis and the surrounding area on the holoviewer.
As it should be. The satellite was fully automated, in orbit
around a lifeless rock, not the populated planet in the Karis system,
but a small planet with no atmosphere at the fringes of the system.
But they couldn't simply dock with the satellite. It had defense
systems of its own, defense systems that could only be deactivated if
the proper code was transmitted. As of yet, however, Hollister wasn't
quite ready to transmit the code. Not yet.
"No signs of activity."
Luckily, the inhabited planet in the Karis system was on the
other side of the sun, later, if and when they resupplied successfully,
they could go and see if the Insects had arrived there yet.
"We're in effective weapons range of the station," announced the
"Status?" Hollister asked.
Good. That meant the cloak was functioning normally.
"Transmit the signal," said Hollister.
The Nautilus transmitted the proper IFF code. The station sent an
immediate response, and sensors showed that it powered down its
"Shall we surface, sir?" the XO asked.
Hollister paused. When they surfaced into the visible spectrum,
they would become vulnerable. But if there were a trap here, he
couldn't see what it was. He nodded fractionally.
"All hands, surface! Surface, surface, surface!" A klaxon
sounded, the lighting brightened and there was a small shudder as the
cloaking field disengaged and the Nautilus reemerged into the visible
"Maneuver us into docking-"
At that moment there was motion on the viewscreen. A ship, coming
up from the planet's surface.
"An Insect ship!" cried the con officer, checking the readings.
Con checked the readings. "Heavy cruiser... no, a battlecruiser!"
"Dive!" cried Hollister immediately.
"Dive, dive dive dive!" cried the XO. There was a pause that
seemed to last for an eternity. And then, the lights dimmed, and the
proper indicators glowed green.
"Course reset, 114 mark two, full power!" Hollister snapped. He
didn't want to be anywhere near their last visible position when that
heavy cruiser reached orbit. Indeed, the cruiser was streaking directly
towards their former position, but as it got closer it slowed, then
"It's probably not sure what to do," the XO said.
The heavy cruiser violently released a barrage of weapon fire,
surging first in one direction, then another.
"They're firing blind," said the XO. Energy bolts streaked not
far from them, parallel to the stern. "Sir, shall we set course?"
"No," said Hollister.
"No?" said the XO. "Sir, if you're thinking of taking that on..."
"We can't leave. If we do, we won't have the advantage of
surprise anymore," said Hollister. "Right now the bugs don't even know
that we, this ship, this technology, even exists. But that ship saw us
submerge out of the visible spectrum. Once they report back to their
home base, they'll start an intensive search for us."
"But they're bound to find out about us sooner or later," said
"Better later, than sooner," said Hollister. "Con, do a passive
scan of that ship. Look for weak spots."
"Sir, we've taken out destroyers and light escorts only," said
the XO. "Ships that can be taken out in one shot. If we strike that
battlecruiser and don't take it out in the first shot, we've had it."
"Perhaps," said Hollister, eyeing the battlecruiser. It had
stopped firing now, and was moving in slowly expanding circles relative
to its present position--a standard search pattern. But the bugs would
undoubtedly get weary of that soon, and leave to report their findings.
Time was running out. He turned to Con. "Any luck?"
Con activated a three dimensional representation of the Insect
battlecruiser. Using a remote pointer he said, "If we hit them here, in
their engine section, that should cause an explosion."
"Surely it can't be that easy," said the XO.
"Like everything else, it's armored," said Con. "But two or three
torpedoes, at close range, should be able to do it."
"We can only generate two energy torpedoes at a time," said the
XO. "What if they aren't enough?"
"We can instantly switch over to the hard missile torpedoes,"
said Hollister. "Weapons, how long does it take to switch the launcher
mode from energy torpedoes to hardwired ones?"
"That should be sufficient," said Hollister. "Con! Maneuver us
under the enemy ship and into firing position. I want to be exactly a
half mile, no more, no less, when we fire. Weapons! Lock onto the
vulnerable part of their ship. If we hit the wrong part of that
battlecruiser, this whole exercise will be worse than useless."
The Nautilus maneuvered into position. The Insect ship was much
faster than the subship, but was moving slowly in its own search
pattern, seemingly oblivious to the true location of the subship.
"In position," said the Con officer.
"Weapons: lock on target, and prepare to switchover to metal
"Drop cloak... .now!"
"Surface, surface, surface!" cried the XO, over the yammering of
The Nautilus surfaced out of subspace, behind and under the
Insect battlecruiser. A few seconds past as energy from the cloaking
field was transferred to the torpedo generator. During this time the
subship showed up on the Insect scanners; information was conveyed to
the senior Insect officers, controls were activated, and the
battlecruiser started to turn...
"Fire!" cried Hollister.
First one and then two energy torpedoes spat out of the Nautilus,
striking the Insect ship precisely in its engineering section. There
was a miniature explosion which flung the battlecruiser backwards...
but still left its engineering section in direct view.
"Switch over to metal torpedoes," said Hollister. One... two...
three... four... five.... "What's happening?"
"It's not working, sir!" said the weapons officer. He rapidly
depressed a button. "It's jammed! It won't convert over!"
"Prepare to dive," said Hollister promptly.
The Insect ship had regained attitude control and was now turning
to face the Nautilus. Hollister could see miniature explosions and
debris trailing from the bottom of the ship, but the bug battlecruiser
still seemed functional.
"Dive dive dive!" said the XO.
The klaxon sounded again, but the lights didn't dim. "Are we
cloaked?" Hollister asked.
The cloak officer checked a panel. "No!"
"What's wrong?" said Hollister. The Insect ship had almost
completed its turn. In seconds its primary weapons would be in direct
line of sight of the Nautilus.
"I... don't know," said the cloak officer. He slammed his console
in frustration. "It should be working, but it isn't!"
"Helm! Keep us out of position of the topside of their ship!"
said Hollister. Most of the battlecruiser's weaponry was on the
"Too late!" cried an officer, as several beams lashed out of one
of the Insect's laser cannons. Three of them just barely missed the
ship, but a fourth struck the Nautilus squarely amidships, cutting
through the hull and blasting its way out the other side.
Hollister and the rest of the bridge crew were thrown to the deck
as the ship heaved and started spinning. Painfully, he worked his way
over to navigation. He held on to the console for dear life as the ship
spun about, tossing the crew across the chamber like rag dolls.
Gripping the console with one firm arm, he urgently pressed on the
The Nautilus stopped spinning. But the Insect battlecruiser was
right on top of them, all its guns trained on them. A voice came
through the communicator, punctuated by the scratches and squeaks of
the Insect language as it came through their translator.
"Human ship. Surrender," it rasped.
Hollister looked at the looming ship on the screen. Of course
they would want to take the Nautilus intact, if only to learn about its
cloaking technology. Well, that wasn't going to happen. Not as long as
he was captain. He checked engines, weapons, navigation... it was all
down now, except for thrusters. A power line must have been hit.
There was only one thing left to do. Using emergency battery
power, Hollister opened an access screen to the main computer. He
prepared to key in the self-destruct mechanism. The battlecruiser
loomed closer. Good. Maybe they could take the Insects with them.
As he prepared to key in the sequence, there was a brilliant
flash on the viewscreen, and Hollister was thrown back, and hit his
head against the railing, and that was all he remembered for a while.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Captain's Log, 61 days after I-Day
Captain Robert Hollister, Commanding.
We're alive, so I suppose that counts for something. Taking on that
battlecruiser was a miscalculation on my part, for which I take full
responsibility. The Nautilus was a prototype, its systems untested in
battle, its crew untrained in its capabilities and weaknesses. It was
certainly never meant to operate alone, on its own, as we are doing.
Let me try as best I can to reconstruct what happened during our
encounter with the battlecruiser. We had hit the battlecruiser's engine
section twice with energy torpedoes, but that only seemed to slow the
bug ship down. It hit us with a laser cannon that impaled the ship in
sections 9 and 10 between decks 6 and 7. The ship was left spinning,
helpless. I managed to restore attitude control, but we had no power
for most of the ship's systems.
The battlecruiser closed with us, demanding our surrender. I
moved to activate the self-destruct, but then there was a flash, and I
was knocked out. What actually happened, we think, was that the Insect
ship blew up. We had damaged but didn't destroy their engine section.
What we theorize is that while their ship was still operational, our
attack seemed to have caused damage that caused their engines to build
up to an overload.
And just in time, too. The explosion threw our ship clear without
much additional damage; but the gash in our hull from that laser hit
was another matter. It was so powerful that it went directly through
one side of the ship and came out the other. Eight crewmen were dead at
their stations. They were all in the depressurized areas. Nearly all of
us who survived have scrapes and bruises and concussions. The funerals
were a solemn but brief respite from our frantic attempts to repair the
The chief said we were lucky that no "critical areas" had been
hulled; we patched up the hull plating using supplies from the space
station. We replaced the exterior sensor webbing from stores, but used
up nearly all our remaining supply in the process. The only good news,
if there was any good news, is that we were able to take on all the
food supplies we'll need for the next few months and some key spare
But it was a tense time; we hung in space for three days, waiting
for the Insects to show up. I had repair crews working 24 hours a day
to get us going again; if we had been caught here, without the cloak,
we would have been an easy target.
Now the cloak is functioning again, as is navigation and weapons.
We figured out what malfunctioned; when we tried to turn the torpedo
assembly "off" so rapidly after firing, it jammed in place. Not only
could we not switch to metal torpedoes, but energy was still being
drawn into the assembly, making it impossible to get the critical mass
we needed to cloak. A bitter lesson for us all.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Captain's Log, 158 days after I-Day
Captain Robert Hollister, Commanding.
We've been having some better luck lately, having successfully
conducted four ambushes of Insect ships. But we're starting to attract
the Insects' attention, and they're making things tougher for us.
We destroyed another unescorted cargo ship a few weeks ago. Then
we attacked two small convoys, each guarded by a small escort ship.
After that we started noticing the first of several changes. Suddenly,
convoys grew larger, and weren't traveling without escorts anymore; and
the escorts consist of at least two or even three ships. We spied
around for a while, trying to find convoys with only one escort, but
after a week of furtively looking for one, we couldn't find any.
So we had to make a decision whether to stop operations entirely,
or take on a convoy which had a minimum of two escort ships. Although
the decision was mine to make, I held a meeting of the senior officers
in the tiny officer's wardroom to discuss the matter. At first, several
officers spoke in favor of discontinuing operations. They believed it
would be nearly impossible for the nautilus to take on two enemy ships
at once. Once we surfaced and attacked one warship, the second would
attack us; and with minimal shields, even a frigate could destroy us.
On the other hand, if we stopped our attacks, what would we do
next? Where would we go? To our knowledge, the entire League and the
Directorate had been occupied by the bugs. We couldn't go to an
inhabited human colony, because all of them would undoubtedly be under
the iron heel of the Insects. None of us wished to become slaves to the
So where else could we go? Perhaps we could find an uninhabited
world with a breathable atmosphere with edible plant and animal life
and become homesteaders, trying to grow crops and simply stay alive.
But there would be no guarantee we could survive on an uninhabited
planet either, assuming we found one, and also no guarantee that the
bugs would not eventually find it.
I think what settled it for the crew, though, was the thought of
giving up our chosen profession. We were soldiers, and spacemen, not
farmers. That settled it. After much discussion, we decided to take the
risk and continue the fight, even though the odds were against us. I
spent a lot of time working out attack strategies with my senior
The next time we launched an attack against superior forces, we
were successful. We found a convoy of eight ships--four cargo ships,
two troop transports, and two destroyers. We surfaced under one, blew
it up, and immediately cloaked again before the second destroyer could
turn its guns to bear on us. Then the remaining Insect destroyer
started searching for us, and we waited, biding our time, until we
could get a clear shot at its vital areas. We surfaced, blasted it...
and then started our leisurely hunt for the other ships.
But we can't always count on our strategy to work. If we fail to
immediately destroy the first warship we attack and we're forced to
cloak again, one destroyer could hug in close to protect the other,
making further attack impossible. In fact, if the two destroyers had
been close to each other when we attacked, we wouldn't have been able
to carry this tactic out. Sooner or later, they're either going to use
this defensive tactic or increase the number of escorts in a way that
will make it impossible for us to continue to fight. We're doing the
best we can with one prototype that wasn't meant to be in combat,
certainly not acting on its own without support.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Captain's Log, 250 days after I-Day
Captain Robert Hollister, Commanding.
Despite a series of successful attacks, our morale has been
flagging and we are starting to run low on some critical parts; most
crucially, we only have two metal torpedoes left, which will force us
to rely nearly exclusively on energy torpedoes, which consume ship's
power and take time to generate. Being "on" all the time has taken a
toll on the crew too. Oh, we could see that we were inflicting losses
on the enemy, but being trapped in this very confining ship day in and
day out is difficult for the crew. Unlike a regular warship, most of
the interior of the Nautilus is taken up with equipment for the cloak;
we were just fortunate that none of that irreplaceable equipment was
hulled when we took on that battlecruiser several months ago.
But all that changed last week. We were getting in position to
attack another convoy, four cargo vessels escorted by two destroyers.
We had maneuvered under one of them, and I was just about to give the
order to fire, when all of a sudden, the destroyer accelerated away
from us. For a panicky moment we thought we had been detected, but we
could quickly see that both destroyers were heading away from us, and
at top speed.
At that point we had to decide what to do. We could surface into
the visible spectrum and take out the four cargo ships; there were no
other warships in the area, and they would be easy pickings.
Or... we could follow the destroyers. What had caused them to
take off so suddenly? If they had detected us, they would've turned to
attack. Therefore, there must've been something else calling their
attention. Something important.
I felt we needed to find out what that was. So, with the greatest
reluctance, I ordered navigation to follow the destroyers at top speed.
We could've stopped and hunted the other four ships, but in addition to
taking valuable time, it would've alerted the destroyers to our
presence in the area.
The destroyers were faster than us, but they traveled on a
straight line, and their destination wasn't far away, merely two solar
systems away. When we caught up with them we found an amazing sight: a
battle with Alliance warships, League warships. I hadn't known that any
others still existed.
A League deep space cruiser was mixing it up with a damaged
Insect light cruiser. Meanwhile, a League fast attack destroyer was
chasing down survivors of a convoy. Fragments of another Insect
destroyer were spread across space.
The League warships had just about finished off the Insect light
cruiser when the two Insect destroyers we had been following arrived.
The two destroyers immediately lined up on the fast attack destroyer
and started engaging it two to one. The deep space cruiser turned to
assist but it had suffered some damage in battle, and it was slow to
We were still too far away to get an effective shot with energy
torpedoes; at this range, the Insects would easily be able to dodge
them before they arrived. But our metal torpedoes had a homing
"Ready metal torpedo," I said.
"Metal? At this range? They'll shoot it down before it gets
there," said the XO.
"Not if they don't notice it," I said. "I'm gambling they're too
busy with that League fast attack destroyer. Also, since we don't need
power to generate a metal torpedo, we don't even have to surface to do
it. Weapons: target one torpedo for each destroyer."
There was the unavoidable delay. And then...
"Fire!" I shouted.
Away went our last metal torpedoes. It would be a long, long time
before we were ever resupplied with those again. But how often could we
come to the assistance of a League warship? We hadn't even known that
there were other surviving League warships, besides us.
As it turned out the destroyers were so intent on attacking the
fast attack destroyer that they didn't notice, not until it was too
late. One of the destroyers tried to fire a beam from its aft section
at the incoming torpedo at the last minute, but it missed. Each ship
was hit in their aft sections, disabling one and seriously damaging
another. This gave the fast attack destroyer and the arriving deep
space cruiser the advantage they needed to quickly wipe out the new
"Open a channel," I ordered. "This is Captain Robert Hollister of
the Nautilus. Identify yourselves."
Their responses came in. Captain Hu of the Alliance deep space
cruiser Argon, Captain Irwi Pasta of the fast attack destroyer
"But where are you? We can't get a fix on your ship," said
"We'll show you," I said, giving the command to surface.
From their open commlines we heard the gasps of surprise from
We set a rendezvous a few hundred thousand miles away and
prepared to dock with each others' ships so we could meet and plan
strategy. Well, not just meet and plan strategy; our crew hadn't seen
another human being in more than eight months, and their crews were in
the same position. Once we had retreated to a safer location we
conducted a docking operation. The Argon, by far the largest of the
three ships, set up an open galley amidships, and all non-essential
crew were granted leave; except for those on bridge watch or conducting
tours of the ship.
The first question that we all had for each other was the same:
had we seen any other surviving ships? The answer was no.
"They were all wiped out at Vitalics," said Captain Hu. "We
escaped, but we didn't see any other ship get away; not that we were in
a good position to track survivors; we were fleeing with a large Insect
fleet at our rear for days."
"We were one of the few ships on barrier patrol on the rim of
Alliance space," said Pasta. "There were maybe 9 or 10 other ships in a
similar position, but we haven't heard back from them."
"So the fleet is destroyed," I said. I pretty much knew this, of
course, but getting confirmation of it was another matter.
"Not necessarily," said Hu. "We've been hearing persistent rumors
that the Glory survived and is out there, somewhere."
"War Admiral North's personal ship? Wasn't he at Vitalics?" I
"No. We're not sure what happened to whatever forces he's
commanded; at least, we haven't run into them. Likewise for the
Directorate fleet; no word on them either."
"But Directorate space is occupied by the Insects as well, so we
can't presume that many of their ships survived either," said Pasta.
"So we're in a tight bind," I muttered.
"Not the way I look at it," said Pasta. "You're the best news
that's happened to us in months. We've been raiding convoys just as you
have for the past few months. But unlike you we couldn't sniff out a
situation first to see how well armed a convoy was. There have been
several times we've simply gone in to take a look, and been chased out
by battlecruisers and battleships."
"Our problem has been the opposite," I said. "We can go anywhere,
but once we surface, we're very vulnerable to attack."
"Then it's obvious that we should join forces."
And that's just what we decided to do. The Nautilus was tasked
with scouting out potential targets for attack; if we found a suitable
target, we would send a tightbeam signal back to the Argon and the
Swordflash; and once they had engaged the enemy and kept them busy, we
would surface and take them from behind. So we hoped.
But first we took a break, a pause from the combat. After
retreating for so long it was good to see other humans free and alive,
fighting the Insects, especially members of the fleet, whom we had
thought had all been lost at Vitalics.
We took on some additional supplies from the Argon; as a Deep
Space Cruiser, they had the most developed food station, and they
helped augment our stores of food. We also took what spare parts we
could, but the Argon didn't have much to give, and most of our needs
were incompatible. The Nautilus, as a custom prototype, wasn't very
compatible with standard fleet stores. But they did for us what they
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Captain's Log, 521 days after I-Day
Captain Robert Hollister, Commanding
We've had a number of successes operating as a combined force,
and it's got me worried. For the past year we've been successfully
ambushing small Insect convoys, groups of ships with not more than two
or three small fighting escort vessels.
Here's how it would typically work: first the Nautilus would
locate a convoy of ships on our passive scanners. Then we would go in
for a closer look. If we found too many warships in escort, we would
slink away. But if the convoy was only lightly guarded, we would send a
single tightbeam signal back to the fleet--the fleet being the Argon
and the Swordflash. They would come streaking in and take on one or two
of the heavies. Once they were engaged, we would surface from behind
and blast away at an unsuspecting ship in an unprotected area.
In that fashion we've attacked and completely destroyed twelve
convoys in the past eleven months. Our sensors reported that some of
those convoy ships we blew up were clearly carrying munitions; and
others were carrying troops and material for their occupation forces.
While we're certainly not crippling their overall war effort, we must
at least be hampering them in a number of areas--preventing
reinforcements from arriving, preventing troops from being resupplied,
and the like.
But still we can't see the effect of our offensive on the front
lines, on our occupied worlds. It's one thing to know intellectually
that we're having an effect; it's another to actually see it happening.
One thing that we have noticed happening is that convoys are
growing larger and are more and more likely to be escorted by larger
number of escorts. Evidently the Insects don't have enough warships to
provide adequate protection to all their supply ships and so are
organizing fewer but larger convoys. They must know what's happening.
We've spotted increased patrols in the area, presumably on the prowl
for our raiders. But with the Nautilus on the job, we always see them
before they see us.
At least, as long as we can keep the Nautilus operational.
"What's your status?" asked Captain Hu, on a secure holochannel.
"Our cloak is currently operating within acceptable parameters,"
I said. "But that's only at the moment. That system drain we
experienced off of Grafton II nearly forced us to drop cloak. And
that's the third time it's happened this month."
"Any idea what's wrong?"
I shook my head. "My crew was trained, or at least partially
trained, to maintain the equipment. But we're not the designers. Even
the tech team we have with us can't figure it out. Perhaps, if we had
one of the designers with us, they could get to the root cause of the
problem." But the designers of the Nautilus were almost certainly under
Insect occupation on August. "My best guess? That juryrigging we've
been doing isn't holding up. As individual parts fail we've been trying
to replace them as best we can with spare parts from the Argon, but our
technologies aren't fully compatible. It's amazing, I think, that we've
been able to keep things going as long as we have."
"How much risk are we facing?" This was from Captain Pasta of the
fast attack destroyer Swordflash.
"Impossible to say. Theoretically, our cloak could drop at any
time," I said.
"Do you want to withdraw from the field?" Hu said, voicing what
we had all been thinking. "You could stay in the rear, acting as
I shook my head. "My men and I are determined not to spend the
rest of the war as a cloaked vacation ship. Morale isn't great now, but
imagine what it would be if we were simply sitting around and doing
nothing, day after day?"
"There's another alternative," said Pasta. "You could go to
I nodded. "And spend the rest of our life as pastoral farmers on
some uncharted world, hoping the Insects won't arrive one day and put
control collars on all of us. Captain, we're not farmers, we're naval
officers. As long as our ship as the power to move, we're going to stay
"Very well," said Pasta. "For what it's worth, I would have felt
the same way as you."
"On to present business," said Hu. "I suggest we lay another
strike at Whenfor. We haven't launched an attack there in a while...."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The actions of the raiders hadn't gone unnoticed by the Insects.
On her command ship in orbit around August, Queen Zsst said to one of
her aide things, "Report on the status of the Grafton campaign."
"Our forces are holding on to a two mile by two mile enclosure in
the western coast of the central continent," reported the aide thing.
"Still only a beachhead?"
Actually, it was quite an achievement. After several more
disastrous attempts to land on Grafton II, the Insects had sent in
another mighty battlefleet, and sent many of their ships down towards
the eastern coast of the main continent. But this was only a diversion;
when the Graftonite fighters rose up to meet them, the real invasion
force landed in the sparsely inhabited western coast of the continent.
The real invasion force still encountered resistance, but less
than before, as many of the Graftonite fighters had been drawn
eastwards; and 40% of the first wave of troop transports actually
survived to land and disembark. They hurriedly set up their anti-
aircraft units, and organized a defense so the second and third wave
could land with even more anti-aircraft units. For, once the nature of
the east coast deception was detected, the Graftonite pilots attacked
furiously. But it took several hours for the bulk of the Graftonite
aircraft to arrive, and after five waves of anti-aircraft units had
been set up, the Graftonite planes, with strong support from dozens of
squadrons of Insect fighters, had been driven back.
That only changed the nature of the combat; the Graftonites
weren't content to let the Insects establish a beachhead, however
small, anywhere on their planet; and infiltrators came by the night,
sometimes in one's and two's, and sometimes in overwhelming force; and
the Insect compound had to be reinforced against constant attacks, and
they learned to fear the night. The Graftonites were so quick that one
of them could shoot four sentries before they could raise their rifles;
so there had to be eight dedicated guards at every post, and even that
wasn't enough. Still, despite tremendous losses, the Insects were
holding what they had.
But the Queen wasn't satisfied. "What of the effect of the
shipment of warrior beasts we sent?"
"They were destroyed enroute in a raider attack last week."
"Destroyed before they even got there?" Zsst thundered. "Those
were 200 of our best fighting things. Do you realize how hard it is to
breed those effectively!" She emitted a faint buzzing sound and started
to flap her wings in place menacingly. "I want a full report on these
It was presented almost instantly by the aide thing, who started
to fear for its wings.
Zsst bizzed angrily. "Look at all these ship losses! I was told
these raiders were nothing but a minor annoyance! Why wasn't I told
about the extend of their actions! Get me my intelligence creature!"
The intelligence creature, another Insect like the others, but
with larger eyes and bigger antenna than most other Insects, appeared
before the Queen.
"What is the meaning of this?" said Zsst, waving the report with
one of her arms.
It was a credit to the intelligence creature that it didn't need
to ask what the Queen was referring to. "We thought it was a minor
matter, not worthy of your attention, my Queen-"
"When we lose 47 cargo ships and troop transports and 27
warships, that makes it worthy of my attention. Who are these raiders?
What is your intelligence on them?"
"We're not certain; so far, there have been no surviving
eyewitnesses; the enemy makes certain to thoroughly destroy whatever
they choose to attack. However, we've analyzed debris from the
destroyed vessels and found the weaponry used on them consistent with
those used by Alliance cruisers and their destroyers. From the looks of
the numbers and kinds of hits on our ships, I'd expect we're dealing
with a single cruiser, and two or possibly three Alliance destroyers."
"If the attack force is so small, why have there never been any
The intelligence creature buzzed thoughtfully. "We're not sure.
There is another odd fact pattern; many of the torpedo hits that
scored on our ships seem to have been fired at almost point blank
"Point blank? How could they get that close to make such an
attack?" the Queen asked.
"Insufficient data. A further odd item to report: most of those
torpedo hits came from behind, or to vulnerable sections of our ships
that were attacked. It's as if our ships stood very still and waited
for the enemy to come in and take the first shot," said the
Queen Zsst twizzled one of her antenna. "How do you account for
"We're not sure," said the intelligence officer. "There were
rumors that the Alliance was at work on a jitter drive-"
"A drive that lets a ship travel a relatively short distance very
quickly, and then come to a near or complete dead stop almost
instantly. In essence, the ship would make a great leap at one moment,
and at the next be in a completely different location."
"So they could be leaping in from several solar systems away?"
"No, our intelligence speculates that this drive would only work
over very short distances; but it could have been enough to let the
humans get a first strike in."
"How come our intelligence never reported that the human ships
were outfitted with this drive?"
"The humans have had prototypes of this technology for some time,
but we were unaware that it had been widely deployed," said the
"And what are you doing now to locate these errant ships?"
"We've laid traps along the major shipping lanes, waiting for the
enemy to attack."
"And have they?"
"No," said the officer. "They seem to have some ability to detect
where we're laying our traps. We're not sure how."
"Are you experiencing some technical difficulty?" came a
A shudder went through the intelligence creature as the robed and
hooded figure entered the room. Only the tip of a dark greenish nose
and the occasional flash of a rectangular pink tongue could be seen as
"We are dealing with raiders, Baraki," said the Queen.
"Not very well, so it seems," said Baraki. "You have lost over 70
ships so far, have you not?"
Zsst turned to her intelligence creature. "Have you-"
"Do not waste your time, Zsst," said Baraki. "I do not need your
underlings to tell me how the war is going. You seem incapable of
dealing with this minor irritant. Perhaps we had chosen wrongly in
Zsst gave a quick glance at her intelligence creature, to see if
he had any reaction. It was bad enough for Baraki to speak to her like
this, but in front of one of her subjects! "We can handle it," Zsst
said, through gritted mandibles.
"And we will help," said Baraki.
We? Thought Zsst. This was the first time Baraki had ever made
mention of more than one of his kind.
Baraki waved a hand forward and another robed and hooded figure
stepped forward. "Meet one of my assistants, Rugani. He will help you
deal with this small problem."
Zsst opened her mouth to protest, then thought better of it.
"What will you require?"
"One modest fleet should be sufficient."
Only one fleet?
"Where should they be deployed?" Zsst asked. According to her
reports, her admirals had deployed elements of five fleets in search of
the raiders. What could one more fleet do?
"Leave it to Rugani." Both figures quickly left the Queen's
The Queen glared at her intelligence creature. "Speak of this to
The intelligence creature, not wanting to be decapitated, nodded.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Admiral Eze, a junior queen, stared with trepidation at the
hooded figure on her bridge. Eze had never seem one of THEM before...
although she had heard rumors. All Eze knew was that she had been
ordered to give the creature full cooperation.
"What are your instructions?" said Eze in a neutral voice, trying
to hide the feeling of terror building within her.
"Take us to these coordinates," said Rugani, rasping out a set of
Admiral Eze's fleet launched immediately.
When they arrived, a few hundred million miles outside the
Paterson system, Eze checked the scanners. Nothing. Perhaps they had
arrived too early. But it was all so preposterous because how could
this creature possibly know where the raiders were?
"We have arrived," said Eze pointedly, to the silent figure
standing on the bridge. She ignored, or tried to ignore, the feelings
of fear she felt emanating from the creature, but Eze could also see
that her bridge crew was affected.
"Signal your fleet to stop," said Rugani.
Eze waved an arm. "All stop" said a subordinate. The fleet
"And now?" Eze said, after another moment.
The figure in the hood seemed to be looking about for something.
But Eze got the feeling that it wasn't looking on the bridge. It was
looking out into space. How did that make any sense?
There was another moment of silence. Then... "No," said Rugani.
If the raiders weren't here, why had they come here? Eze
wondered. But Eze wisely kept silent.
Rugani issued another set of coordinates, and told Eze to head
there immediately. "Inform me when we arrive," the creature said
simply, as it left the bridge.
Eze didn't ask any questions. Eze wanted to stay alive.
They kept this up for nearly two weeks, stopping at four
different locations. Always, the result was the same. Rugani would
concentrate, or enter some sort of trance for a moment, and then shake
Eze's crew was openly scornful of Rugani by now. After the most
recent attempt, it proved too much for the navigator to keep silent. It
buzzed jeerfully and said, clearly sarcastically, "And where shall we
set course for next?"
Rugani looked up at the navigator. The navigator creature gasped
as it saw Rugani's face for the first time. Rugani made the slightest
of gestures with his right hand, and the navigator's head jerked back,
making a loud snapping sound and then a different sound altogether as
the navigator's lifeless body slumped to the deck.
Rugani turned towards Eze, but his face was obscured.
Eze, waiting in silence, could only hold his breath.
In a calm, cultured voice, Rugani said, "Have your next navigator
set course for...."
The next stop was the right place. They were deep inside the
Whenfor system. Whenfor had been occupied by the Insects early in the
invasion, and sensors noticed a stream of traffic heading in and out of
the system, but nothing unusual. Eze called the fleet to a stop. Rugani
was silent for a moment. And then... "This is it," he said softly.
"What?" said Eze, sitting up. It hadn't expected this.
"The raiders will be here... in 25 of your hours," said Rugani,
speaking slowly as if he were concentrating. "There will be a deep
space cruiser, a fast attack destroyer, and.... and...." he seemed to
"And?" said Eze, not, for the moment, questioning the source of
"Something else," said Rugani simply. "I suggest you prepare, and
move the special ship I ordered you to prepare into position. Is it
ready?" he asked, the dark edge of threat in its voice.
"As you instructed," said Eze, with only the faintest of tremors
in her voice. "The battlecruiser's outer hull has been modified, and
the sensor ghost generators have been installed."
"Then let us send the rest of the fleet into the cover of the
nearby gas giant, and let us wait," said Rugani.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Captain's Log, 543 days after I-Day
Captain Robert Hollister, Commanding
We've arrived at the Whenfor system. We hit them several months
ago on the outskirts of the system as they were ferrying in more troops
and supplies, and we felt it was time to hit them again here. When we
entered the system, however, we noticed only a single ship, a large
transport of some kind, slowly plying its way past one of Whenfor's gas
giants towards the only inhabitable planet in the Whenfor system. Rumor
had it that there was a lot of fighting going on down there; our people
were giving the occupation forces a hard time. We had to stop that
And yet... it was odd of the Insects to send one ship, alone,
without any escort. Could it be that this one ship was dispatched in
such a hurry that no escort had been available? Or could it be another
We had detected several traps of this kind, where a lone
merchantmen plying was the starways, while a fleet of attack ships hung
back. But we could detect no attack ships here. And yet it still
bothered me that one ship should be traveling alone.
I should have listened to my instincts and called off the attack.
But to resist the opportunity to attack an unguarded troopship, if
that's what it really was, was too strong to resist.
I tried to be cautious. I took us closer, nearing the target as
it tangented off of the gas giant. The Nautilus, never very speedy,
especially under cloak, was still faster than a slow troop transport.
As we closed on it our passive scanners provided more information.
It really was a troop transport, a large one, jammed packed with
several thousand troopers. The Insects would never use such a juicy
target as bait for a trap. So it must be real.
I launched the tightbeam signal back to the rest of the fleet.
The Argon and the Swordflash raced in at top speed and were blips on
our passive scanners within a few moments.
Something unusual. By now the transport must be aware of the
closing ships. And yet it hadn't changed direction or speed, or tried
to call for help. I felt a sudden stab in my stomach. Something was
very, very wrong.
But we couldn't call off the attack now. To do so we'd have to
send a general transmission; even if we didn't surface, the Insect ship
would know there was a cloaked ship in the area, and report this to
their headquarters. The best we could do was to be in position to fire
on the transport in case it showed any hidden surprises. I had the ship
maneuver around to its underside as we got closer.
I frowned as I saw its hull up close. There was something odd
about that hull...several pieces of the hull seemed very modern, very
new, compared to the material that composed the rest of the hull.
At that moment the Argon and the Swordflash streaked into range,
and several things happened at once.
Pieces of metal dropped off the troopship's hull, revealing
gaping gun turrets. In a matter of seconds our stodgy troop transport
had turned into a sleek battlecruiser. And on our scopes an entire
fleet of Insect ships emerged from the cover of the nearby gas giant
and were streaking towards us at top speed. In seconds they would be on
"It's a trap!" I said, just as the battlecruiser opened fire.
It's opening volley caught the Argon amidships, sending the ship
tumbling. The Swordflash soared into the battle, firing several
torpedoes. But it was only a fast attack destroyer, and was vastly
outgunned by this battlecruiser.
"Lock onto their engine section! Prepare to surface into the
visible spectrum!" I yelled.
"But sir, that fleet will be on us in seconds-" said my XO.
"Surface!" I said, hitting the button myself.
The Nautilus surfaced into the visible spectrum.
"Fire!' I yelled.
Three energy torpedoes streaked out of the ship, two of them
hitting squarely into the battlecruiser's engineering section. One of
them was absorbed by the ship's shields, but the second went through,
and there was an explosion as the battlecruiser's engines flickered and
it slowly started to tumble.
I quickly checked a nav reading, then activated the ship to ship
comm. "Argon! Swordflash! Set course, 114 by 129 by 224."
I turned to the XO. "Prepare to dive."
"Sir, it will take 60 seconds for our cloak to recharge."
I watched the Insect fleet that was almost upon us. "Helm; get us
out of here!"
The Nautilus was slowly turning about when we saw the Argon and
the Swordflash streak above us. The Argon was hit but its mobility
didn't seem impaired. They both seemed agreeable to heading to another
of Whenfor's nearby gas giants where we might be able to hide in
But the Insect fleet was launching missiles, several of them at
each of us, and the enemy ships would be close enough to attack us with
lasers in less than two minutes.
I watched three missiles closing on us. "Range?"
"700 miles and closing."
"40 more seconds!"
And we didn't even have any anti-missile capabilities.
"We're heading away at top speed. But we'll only gain a few
seconds, those missiles are much faster than we are!"
"400 miles and closing."
"Push it to the limit," I said. I licked my lips. It was going to
be very, very close. The cloaking process took a few seconds; how
"cloaked" would we have to be to throw off the missiles? The enemy
fleet would know what they were dealing with after this encounter, but
at that moment if we could merely survive I'd call it a victory.
I could see the missiles on the viewscreen as they streaked
"....two... one... Cloaking!"
"Dive dive dive!" cried the XO as the klaxon sounded.
The Nautilus started to fade from the visible spectrum. The lead
missile closed on us, 30 miles, 20 miles, 10 miles...
"Hard to starboard!" I ordered. I grabbed the railing as the ship
lurched to the side... and the missiles passed by the space we had just
"Status!" I cried as I climbed back into my command chair.
"The cloak is operating within normal parameters," said the cloak
"Head us towards the other gas giant, top speed. What kind of
lead do the Swordflash and the Argon have on us?"
"The Swordflash is nearly one million miles ahead of us, and is
"And the Argon?"
The sensor officer adjusted the viewscreen, and the picture held
it all. The Argon was dead in space; one of those missiles that had
been launched at it had scored a lucky hit on its engines. The lead
ships of the Insect fleet were coming into range. The Argon turned and
opened fire with its forward batteries, carving into the hull of a
But then the other frontline ships opened fire, seven in all, one
after another, and in seconds there was a brilliant explosion, and the
Argon was gone. I shielded my eyes momentarily from the glare, and one
of the crew cried out involuntarily.
I paused, stunned for a minute, then said, "Continue course to
rendezvous with the Swordflash. Report on movements of the Insect
The sensor officer brought me up to speed. Most of the Insect
ships were in hot pursuit of the Swordflash. Sensors showed the
Swordflash had taken a hit amidships but still had drive power.
But not all the Insect ships were pursuing the Swordflash.
Interestingly, a number of other Insect ships were engaged in a
classic search pattern around the scene of their wounded battlecruiser.
Evidently, they were looking for the Nautilus.
Well, we were a secret no longer, but the Insects would still
have to find us.
Suddenly, a broadcast appeared on our screen. It was Captain
Pasta. "Hollister; if you're receiving this, please don't respond.
There's no reason to give away your location. We've taken some serious
damage here; our reactor is going to go critical at any time. You can't
help us. Take your ship to safety. Thanks for everything, especially
your hospitality and entertainment. Good luck to you, Pasta out."
I sat in the stillness of silence for some time, as our ship
continued to head towards the gas giant. We were cloaked, so were in no
"Course, sir?" asked navigation.
"Maintain present heading," I said.
"The Swordflash has just made it to the giant and is entering the
upper atmosphere, but the Insects are pursuing," said the sensor
"Did your sensors record any reactor damage to the Swordflash?" I
"Not specifically; but the missile hit they took was near their
reactor section, so it's possible," said the sensor officer.
"So that part of the message was true," I murmured.
"What do you mean, sir?" asked the XO.
"Didn't it strike you as odd that in the man's parting message he
took the time to thank us for our hospitality?"
"It did seem kind of odd, but I thought that, under stress, he
was just trying to send a graceful last message," said the XO.
"Or maybe he's trying to send a message of another kind," I said.
"Punch up the files on this gas giant; Whenfor IV, isn't it? I want to
see everything there is to know about it."
Data filled my screens. "Eleven moons, atmosphere mostly helium,
nitrogen... wait a minute. What are the names of those moons?" I
scrolled down the list, and then smiled. "Viola."
I raised my voice. "Ensign Lane, what instrument did you use to
entertain our guests five weeks ago in the mess hall?"
Lane looked as if he were being tested. "My... violin, sir...."
"Thank you." I turned. "Navigation: set course for Viola."
"Sir, Viola's course is currently skimming the outer edge of the
gas giant's atmosphere. It will be difficult to navigate and obscure
"Let's hope so," I said.
As we approached the edge of the gas cloud we could see that the
Insect ships were furiously searching for the Swordflash. We slowly
approached Viola, which indeed was partially obscured by the upper
atmosphere of the gas giant.
But when we arrived... there was nothing there. Due to the
atmospheric interference, our sensors only worked at short distances,
but after several orbits around the moon there was no sign of the
Swordflash. Had the Swordflash been destroyed? We made one orbit around
the moon, then two, then three, then four... and then the Swordflash
We surfaced, on the side of the moon that was most obscured by
the atmosphere, close to the Swordflash. They saw us, and we saw them,
but we still made no signal. Silently we aligned so that we could dock.
It was only then, as we were arranging to get our ships parallel to
each other, that I could see how bad the damage was.
Pasta hadn't been lying; he had extensive damage in his reactor
The sensor officer caught my eye. "Sir, our passive scanners are
showing that his reactor is increasingly unstable. If it blows..."
"Noted. Get everyone on board as quickly as possible as soon as
the hatch opens."
It took a small eternity for the ships to dock, another small
eternity before the connecting hatch opened, and then the crew of the
Swordflash stormed through. They knew the clock was ticking, and many
of them had been waiting at their airlock to get through as quickly as
possible. Some of them were carrying wounded, and one of those I
recognized, First Officer Phones.
"Phones, where's Pasta?" I said, only glancing briefly at his arm
in a sling.
"He's with a search team looking for survivors in the damaged
area of the ship. We estimate we have about three minutes left on the
reactor. He says that if he's not there in two...."
I wanted to go through the corridor to join the search on the
Swordflash but the corridor was still packed with crewmembers trying to
rush into the Nautilus. For a moment I wondered if we could even fit
everyone inside the Nautilus. Did we have enough passageway for people
to physically fit in the ship, even if everyone was standing? Would we
have to turn people away? Should I close the hatches in less than two
minutes and disengage, even if Pasta hadn't arrived?
The two minutes came and went as the remaining crewmembers who
had been clustered at the airlock passed through. Then there was
silence. We were running out of time!
I called the bridge on the con. "Let me know the instant the
cruiser's reactor goes critical."
"Sir, it's critical right now!"
I bit my lip. "Prepare to close-"
At that moment Pasta and several crewmembers came running down
the airlock corridor, saving me from making a difficult decision. They
were half carrying, half dragging several of the wounded.
I helped pull them through, and sealed the hatch. "Navigation!
Get us away from here!"
The Nautilus disengaged and slowly pulled away. A moment later,
just as I was reaching the bridge, we were rocked off our feet by a
tremendous explosion that shook us. We didn't know it at the time, but
a piece of metal from the Swordflash's hull streaked across ours,
scratching the delicate sensor webbing across our hull.
"Take us out of here! Prepare to cloak!" I cried.
The Nautilus emerged from the upper atmosphere of Whenfor IV.
Immediately, five Insect ships zeroed in on our position.
"Dive!" I cried.
"Dive dive dive!"
The Nautilus dived out of the visible spectrum. But as soon as we
had done that, the lights changed color again. We were surfacing!
"What's going on?" I cried.
"It looks like one of the sensor inhibitor relays have burned out
under the stress-"
"Fix it, quickly!" I said. I checked the sensors. The first ship
would be in weapons range in just under two minutes. "Navigation;
orient us away from the lead ship! Top speed!"
As always, the Nautilus was much slower than the pursuing ships.
But our vector away from our pursuers should buy us a few extra
"Cloak?" I said.
"Working on it," said the cloak officer. "I'm trying to bypass
the burned out sections-"
I watched the approaching ship on the screens. "Can't you replace
"No time," said the officer.
"They're almost in lock on range!' said the sensor officer.
"Now!" said the cloak officer.
"Dive dive dive!" said the XO.
The Nautilus dived into subspace again. I immediately changed
course, just as a laser beam lanced out in the area where we had just
"That was too close," said the XO.
All was silent for a moment, and then I noticed that the pursuing
ships, instead of starting a circular search pattern, were continuing
forward. In fact, they were going in the same general direction as we
One of them lanced out with a laser burst. It struck several
meters off our bow.
"Evasive!" I cried, grabbing the railing as I turned to the Cloak
officer. "What's going on?"
"The cloak is operating-"
"-Within normal parameters. I know, but then why did they shoot?"
"Maybe they're guessing," said the Cloak officer, who seemed to
be guessing himself.
"There's one way to find out." I changed course again, this time
in a new direction. The Insects continued along their old course for
nearly a minute. But then they turned, and headed directly towards us.
"Are we cloaked or aren't we?" I asked, my perspiration soaked
uniform getting another rinse cycle.
"I think so," said the Cloak officer.
"Doublecheck!" I said, trying to keep the panic out of my voice.
Those bug ships were heading right for us.
"Everything seems to be functioning... wait! There's a leak in
the sensor web... no it's fine... wait, there is it again," said the
Cloak officer. "There's an intermittent leak in the sensor web. This
isn't related to our previous problem."
"What's causing it?"
There was only a short pause. "...I think we must have been hit
by a chunk of debris from the Swordflash explosion. It must have
scrapped against some of our sensor webbing, not enough to deactivate
it entirely, but enough to give an intermittent reading."
"Every 20 to 30 seconds we seem to be generating an eight foot by
two foot radar signature. It's small, and it winks out, but it's enough
for them to follow."
In other words, a small piece of us was blinking in and out of
the visible spectrum. I immediately set course to return to the gas
giant, and for the next 10 minutes we played the most dangerous game of
cat and mouse I've been involved in.
The Nautilus showed up on their scanners every 20 or 30 seconds;
every 20 seconds we changed course, tacking this way and that, but
always heading closer and closer to the gas giant. Once we got inside
there, if we got inside there, we'd be safe.
The Insects pursued us closely, firing lasers at our last
reported positions, and then, speculating, firing at our next suspected
position. Every time I ordered a course change I had to outguess our
opponents; they had only to guess my course change once, and the game
would be over.
Lasers streaked by us but never touched us. We weren't coherent
long enough for a missile to lock onto us. But then one of the biggies,
a battlecruiser, I think, launched a missile in our direction.
"It's a multiyield warhead!" cried the sensor officer.
"Full speed ahead!" I cried. We were at the outer edges of the
atmosphere now. It would be a race against time.
We plunged into the atmosphere, the warhead following us, at less
than a minute behind our current position. But since the atmosphere
made it impossible for them to track us, they decided to detonate the
The explosion tossed me from my chair, and I looked at a bulkhead
in horror as I heard it creak under pressure....
"It's been nearly an hour," Admiral Eze remarked.
Rugani said nothing.
"The warhead probably got them."
Rugani didn't comment.
"We haven't found any debris, but that's understandable, in the
proximity of such a gravity well."
Rugani put a hand to an ear inside his hood, as if listening to
something for a moment. Then he straightened up. "I'm being called
away. But your raider problem has been largely solved. Station ships at
a discrete distance to watch for the ship if it emerges."
Eze looked at the viewscreen. "For how long?" it asked, turning
back to Rugani.
But Rugani was already gone.
"Status report," I said, staring at the colors of Whenfor IV's
atmosphere on the viewscreen. It looked like pink fog, almost.
"Repair teams are EVA-ing to repair the sensor webbing. and crews
are working on the inside to shore up bulkheads two and fourteen.
Repairs on the Cloak and other affected systems continue."
I nodded, and turned to Captain Pasta. "Once we get the cloak
fixed, we'll be able to escape."
"Escape to where? With only one, overcrowded ship, what kind of
opposition can we mount?" he asked.
"I don't know," I said. "And I don't think one damaged subship
can carry on the fight. We may have to set down somewhere after all....
for the present, at least, we're out of action."
Part III: Croft's Story, Resumed
Chapter 10: New Allies
From the personal log of Clifford Croft, one year and eight months
after the invasion:
I never imagined (or simply wasn't at all sure) that I would
survive long enough to write another entry almost one year after our
near-fatal attack on Sarney Sarittenden. But I have.
The first few days after the raid were tough on all of us,
especially for the Silencer. He lay unmoving for two days, and we
almost thought he was dead; but then on the third day he opened his
eyes, and sat up, and from then on got slowly stronger. Within a few
days he could stand up unassisted; within a week he was walking around;
and within a few weeks he was more or less back to his old strength.
But the injury to his arm was not so easily healed. He had a
deep, black-reddish wound along his upper arm and part of his shoulder,
and had no apparent control of his right arm. He tried to train it,
forcing himself to lift first light and then heavier objects with his
right arm, and soon regained some strength there. But he must have had
some nerve damage, for his arm would jump or tremble at odd times, even
if he wasn't using it. When he was asleep, it was not uncommon to see
his arm jerk about as if he were having a nightmare. Maybe he was.
That effectively meant his ability to shoot with his right hand
was gone; although the Silencer assured us that he was "almost as good"
a shot with his left hand. Almost as good was still several times
better and faster than the rest of us, so I think we're still grateful
to have him with us.
Our first task was to find a new hideout. I didn't want to hurt
Mongo's feelings, but we didn't want to live in a vat forever. After
much searching, and consideration of different possibilities, we found
one, in an abandoned factory. We found a large block of machinery that
we could hollow out and fix up. We fixed it up and equipped it to my
specifications; it was to have a minimum of three entrances and exits,
to give us several avenues of escape; and it was to be equipped with a
security system that also had a self-destruct mechanism tied to a block
of explosives. If we ever had to abandon our base again, next time we
would leave the Insects something to remember us by.
The next step was to equip our new headquarters. I had had some
time to think in Mongo's vat, and I realized that searching for food in
warehouses was a losing proposition. The warehouses were running of
supplies, and most of them were baited traps guarded by the Insects. If
we couldn't get food, we'd have to make our own.
So we raided some garden supply depots (a rarity on August, but
at least they were unguarded), as well as a few outlying farms for
supplies. We got the seeds for some thirty day potatoes, some quick
growing rice, as well as a few vegetables. We even got some seeds to
grow some bioengineered meat. When grown, it looked like meat and even
tasted a little like meat, albeit with a kind of tangy corn flavor. It
wasn't top-notch sirloin from a carefully bioengineered white steer,
but it was better than nothing.
But before we could eat we had to set up the hydroponics garden
and the hot lamps (run on a portable generator) in our new hideout.
That meant we had to eat nothing but chocolate bars for a month; in
fact, we ran out just after a week, and had to raid other convenience
counters for more chocolate bars. By the end of a month all of us
(except Mongo) were quite, quite sick of chocolate; and when the first
of our grubby little potatoes came out of the ground, we greedily
devoured them. After that we laid out more space for our garden, and
soon evened out the supply and demand problem--though, with limited
space, we always had to ration food.
We even made an attempt to live normal lives. When the Clapper
told us that Red Sally's birthday was coming, the Paperweight somehow
managed to put together a cake. I'll never forget the moment when she
put her face close to the cake and blew on the candles. The minute she
blew on them, they all lit up. I wonder what kind of wish she made.
We even got her a present, of sort; I had located a military
target dummy, used for testing explosive and high-caliber ammunition.
It was flame resistant, and that gave Sally hours of pleasure as she
slowly burned little pieces of it off in her spare time. It took her
two days just to slowly burn the head off, and I think she really
enjoyed this present; she would sit in a corner, a flame sprouting from
her finger, grinning as she flamed pieces of the thing.
Sashay took up painting again, and tried to paint each of us; he
would hang the results on the walls, along with other decorations he
would find or make. The Silencer even let Sashay do a painting of him,
when we told him how Sashay had dragged him through the pipe. But only
one painting, the Silencer insisted; and sure enough, when the
Paperweight attempted to test the Silencer on this point, starting a
second painting, the Silencer shot the painting in progress with his
The Silencer practiced quick draws and aiming with his left hand,
to improve his proficiency (if that was at all possible), and he also
worked with his right hand; sometimes he could draw his gun with it and
hold it steady, but often his arm would jump when he drew the gun, or
tremble when he tried to aim.
The Clapper didn't seem to do much on his own. He just stuck
around Red Sally and watched her burn things.
And Preston and I? I think we were just glad to be alive. But
having survived the initial invasion, there was more to do. The first
task I put us to was preparing a secondary hideout, in case our new
base of operations was discovered. I had the unenviable task of
explaining Mongo why we couldn't use his vat as a backup base, that we
were "saving it" as an ultimate backup in case our secondary hideouts
Then I issued unusual orders--I told the Silencer, Preston, Red
Sally, and the Clapper, to find and equip a backup hideout of their
own, while I, the Paperweight, and Mongo would prepare a backup base of
operations on our own. Under no circumstances, I stressed, was one
group to tell the other group where their hideout was. The Clapper,
Sashay, Mongo, and Red Sally looked puzzled with these instructions,
but complied. Those who were experienced enough to understand my
instructions knew why I issued them; and those that weren't needn't be
worried by... unpleasant contingencies.
A turning point of sorts came two months after our attack on
Sarney, when we had finished building up our hideout. It was a bit hot
inside from the light of the heat lamps in the gardening area, but
otherwise reasonably comfortable. We were sitting around, not really
doing very much, when Preston said what was on all our minds.
"So, what do we do now?"
I understood his question immediately. We had finished building
and equipping our base, and we had nothing to do--in fact, our little
farm was going so well, that we didn't even need to go out to hunt for
food anymore. Water was available from a local pipe. Aside from some
trips for gardening supplies, we could stay inside our little hideout
If we were simple machines that could be turned on and off, that
could be an acceptable solution. But we were humans, restless humans;
even the Clapper wanted to go out and cause trouble (it must have been
Red Sally's influence). I tried to make excuses. I said, "What about
the Silencer? Is he up to-"
Two guns came into being, mere inches from my face. The one on
the right wavered a little, but both pointed at me. "I guess that
"We could start small," said Preston. "There's an Insect
checkpoint a few levels up-"
And that's how we started, small. But we planned our missions
carefully. And in another change of methods, we traveled mostly though
the ventilation system, to reduce the chances of getting caught. We
painstakingly mapped all the vents in the area and used them for
travel, to reduce the amount of time we'd have to wander around the
corridors where we could run into an Insect patrol. The Silencer was
well enough to permit him to crawl again using both arms, though I saw
him wincing in unguarded moments.
We went on a few missions, always being careful to check out our
targets first, always being careful not to strike too close to our home
base of operations so we wouldn't draw attention to our location. And
we did this for a few months, achieving some measure of success. By
success I mean that we managed to inflict harm on the Insects; we
weren't crippling their occupation, but we were hurting them, and, most
importantly, we weren't taking any casualties in return. Better
planning and coordination were paying off.
We had a string of minor successes over the next few months, and
then, unexpectedly, we had a mission go wrong. Preston and Sashay were
on a recon mission, to look for new targets of opportunity, when Sashay
I know, I know it sounds crazy to think we would send the
Paperweight out on a military mission. But the alternative for him was
to stay in our hideout 25 hours a day, seven days a week. He could, and
did, get stir crazy. I couldn't afford to give him an armed escort just
to take a walk outside; it was much too dangerous. So he volunteered to
go on missions with us. I figured that recons were less dangerous,
relatively speaking, than direct assaults; and as Sashay refused to
touch a blaster, recon was all he was really good for.
"As my dear departed wife used to say, the only thing I'm good at
firing is a stove," said Sashay.
But Sashay and Preston got separated on a recon mission, and
Sashay stepped on a piece of rubbish that made a noise and gave away
his position, and the Insects pounced on him quickly. In a way maybe it
was better he was unarmed; if he had been armed, he might have been
identified as a rebel and executed on the spot. I think the Insects
thought he was probably an escaped laborer, and they merely took him
"Who will take over his cooking duties?" was the first question
the Silencer asked when he heard the news.
"I hated his food," spat Red Sally.
"Cook not bad," said Mongo. Then, with a far away look, he said,
"Don't let Preston cook. He will make us sick, yes he will."
"Ah, excuse me, but before we discuss menus, can't we even
discuss the possibility of rescuing our current cook?" Preston asked.
Perhaps he felt responsible for his abduction.
"We don't even know where he is," I said reasonably.
"But I know where he is," said Preston. "I saw them take him to
their outpost on the surface, block 14-24, section 2."
"He may not be there anymore," I said. "And it's bound to be
"There were only about 15-20 of the bugs that I could see," said
"And there are only 4 combatants among us," I said.
"If he talks, we'll have to abandon this hideout," said Preston.
"Ummm... you've got something there." While we had secondary
hideouts, I wasn't too eager to uproot and abandon what we had. I
turned to the Silencer. "What do you think?"
"Seems like a lot of work for a Paperweight," said the Silencer.
"He did pull you through the pipe," I said.
"I did let him paint my portrait," said the Silencer. "That makes
"He also spotted the tracker the Insects planted in our food," I
said. "If he hadn't noticed it, we all would've been caught or killed."
"He's a noncombatant, and contributes little outside of the
dinner table," said the Silencer. "I also find his painting and
decorating habits annoying."
"All right, then," I gave an exaggerated sigh. "I guess we'll
just have to pick up and move to a new hideout. It's a pity, though....
I guess you're not up to it anyway."
The Silencer gave me a cold, deadly look.
"I mean, you've been able to handle the minor skirmishes pretty
well, but this would be considerably more of a challenge; after all, we
haven't gone up against this many Insects since our raid on Sarney.
And, with your injured arm, you shouldn't feel shamed..."
Two guns were out and pointed at my face. Neither of them
"Your crude attempt at manipulation isn't worth commenting on,"
said the Silencer. "If you want to go risk our lives for one annoying
cook, cut the psycho-crap and just say so."
I drew my weapon, and checked my blaster charge. "Saddle up,
It was night outside. We moved through the ruins on the surface
cautiously, heading towards the Insect encampment. It was some sort of
checkpoint or outpost, but given the darkness there could be more of
them than Preston reported. When we got close enough, about a half
block away, I peered at the location through electrobinoculars. There
were guards standing outside a small, hastily constructed guard
building that had been built on the sidewalk and over part of the
street. There were only a handful of guards outside, but that building
could easily contain two dozen more. And there, sitting on the sidewalk
under guard, was the Paperweight, looking glum. He seemed to be sitting
there awaiting transport.
As if on cue, a ground car zoomed to a halt near the encampment,
containing four more Insects. As if on cue another group of Insects
came out of the building, making for almost two dozen Insects on site.
I could see where this was leading; once Sashay was in the ground car,
we'd never be able to trace him.
But could we take on two dozen, or more, Insects?
I passed the electrobinoculars around, and the expression spread
from face to face; there was nothing we could do for Sashay. I turned
away, preparing to herd our group home, and my back was to the outpost,
and so I missed the very beginning of the battle.
But I certainly heard it, hearing the unmistakable cackle of
blaster fire. Multiple blaster fire, which my trained ear said was
coming from League weaponry. What was this?
Wresting the electrobinoculars away from the Clapper, who was
tapping unconvincingly on it, I saw what was happening. The Insect
outpost was under attack from several different sides! It was unclear
who the attackers were, but if they were against the Insects, they were
almost certainly on our side.
We joined the attackers, haphazardly running down the block to
engage the Insects who were busy responding to blaster fire from all
sides. The Paperweight had instinctively hit the ground when the
shooting started, which may have saved his life, with all the blaster
fire whizzing around. As we closed on the center of the firefight I saw
the attackers, all undeniably human, many wearing the green uniforms of
regular League/Alliance army units.
In seconds it was all over; every Insect was down, and green was
running on the streets. Sashay, covered with a streak of green, sat up,
looking a bit ill. The newcomers eyed us as cautiously as I did them,
and their guns were now pointed at us. "Halt!" one of them cried.
"He's part of our team," I said, slowly lowering my weapon as I
indicated Sashay. "It's very fortunate you happened to be around. My
name is Clifford Croft."
Their leader approached, a man in a ragged uniform. He gave me a
looking over, and then looked at Red Sally and the others more
curiously. He must have thought we were scavengers, or escaped
prisoners. He made a hand motion, and his men lowered their weapons
"My name is Captain Sklam, Alliance ground forces," he said. "How
long have you been on the run?"
"On the run?" snorted Red Sally. "We've been hitting the Insects
"Really?" said Captain Sklam. "The six of you?"
"We were the ones who raided Sarney Sarittenden, what have you
done lately!" Red Sally countered.
"You?" said Captain Sklam. "I had heard rumors that Sarney had
been attacked... but I think it's hardly possible that a bunch of
I could see that credibility was going to be an important
stumbling block, so I decided to break cover and say, "I'm a level one
There was a murmur among his men. "One of the Eight," I heard
more than one say. Maybe it wasn't wise to admit in public, but I
needed to get through to them.
Sklam's eyes narrowed as he looked at me. "Even if that's true,
what about these others. Or are you saying you're all Column agents?"
he said, perhaps trying to track me in a lie. Red Sally and the others
certainly didn't look like agents.
I was about to fall into liespeak with a cover story when Sally
"I'm a fire surprise," said Sally, sending a spectacular sheet of
flame shooting out of her fingertips into the evening sky. Captain
Sklam's eyes widened.
The soldiers took a few steps as they were stunned. Great, the
Insects could see that for miles.
"And I'm a Clapper!" said the Clapper, clapping as Sklam's
blaster was pulled from its holster by an invisible force and then
holstered again. Sklam's eyes widened even further.
"And Mongo not anything," said Mongo, with big eyes. And then,
"You will have grape juice and liquid starch for dinner tonight."
"Ah, that's enough," I said hastily. I hadn't intended to put
everyone's skills on display.
"I can see there's more to you then it seems," said Sklam, giving
us all an odd look. He came to a quick conclusion. "I think I should
take you back to see the General."
General? Had a significant portion of our military survived,
after all these months? Or had some straggler simply appropriated the
title? No, I decided, a real Captain in the armed forces would only
answer to a real general. I started to feel hope for the first time in
a long time.
"But we'll have to blindfold you, for security reasons, you
understand," said Sklam.
I nodded, understanding the necessity of it. I didn't expect
anyone to resist, except maybe Sally. In fact, the only one who put up
a fight was Mongo.
"No, no," said Mongo, his eyes widening in horror.
"Mongo, it's necessary," I said, rather anxious now to get off
the street. The Insects would be coming to investigate all the noise
and fire, sooner or later.
"They will hurt poor Mongo!"
"No they won't," I assured him.
"They will let Mongo trip and fall down the last five steps!"
"No, of course they won't," I said.
"Our men will guide you carefully," said Sklam. "You have my
Mongo looked unconvinced, but dutifully let himself be
blindfolded. We started marching for some time, at least 30 or 40
minutes, during which time we went underground and down eight levels--
at least I could count the number of stairwells we went down. We passed
through several more corridors, and then, right before we reached our
destination, we walked down a short flight of five steps. A few second
later I heard a "eee...upppp!" behind me and the sounds of someone
falling down the stairs, and then Mongo's voice screaming and yelling,
and then, from one of Sklam's men, "Oh... sorry about that."
When our blindfolds were lifted, we found ourselves in a large
office; a sandy haired man in a general's uniform was sitting behind a
desk, and we were flanked by armed guards.
"So, you are our mysterious visitors," said the general. "The
preliminary action report I received indicated that you have some
rather unusual abilities."
"We demonstrated them to get your attention," I said. "I'd love
to speak further about it... in private."
The general considered. We had been disarmed, but there were
seven of us, and one of him. "Why don't my men and your men wait
outside and we'll talk one-on-one?"
I nodded, instantly agreeing.
Once everyone left we immediately made introductions. His name
was General Tenor Markov and he had been in charge of security at
Sarney Sarittenden when the Insects first attacked. His men had put up
a show of resistance when the Insects first landed, but were forced to
pull back and stage a guerrilla warfare operation over the past year
and a half.
I explained who I and our people were, and Markov looked
surprised. "I had only heard rumors of an existence of--what do you
call it? The Gamma Section? But the things your people were seen to
have done--telekinesis, pyrotechnics--were undeniable."
"It was not my intention to give a personal demonstration to a
large audience," I said. "Our strength rests in secrecy. But yours lies
in numbers. May I ask how large your resistance is?"
The General, now comfortable with my story, gave more details. He
had gathered 350 troopers, almost a battalion sized force, and they had
been conducting raids as frequently as they could. Because of their
size they could engage what we considered larger enemy groupings, like
the checkpoint that was destroyed tonight, but they still couldn't
stand up against the mass of the Insect occupation force.
"Are you working with other allied forces?"
Markov shook his head sadly. "We've had no other contact with
other forces. At the time of the invasion there were at least 80,000
soldiers on August; I can only guess that they're either dead, or
imprisoned, or scavenging just to survive. Of course, August is so big,
there's always the chance that other resistance forces could be
operating without our knowing about it. You're the first top-level
Column man we've seen come through here."
"You've seen other Column people?" I said, hoping against hope.
"We came across two field agents last year; but haven't seen or
heard from any others since," said Markov. Seeing my expression, he
added, "Of course, not all of them would hasten to identify themselves
to us. You people are survivor types, I'm sure there must be more of
you still around."
"Hm," I said, my gears turning rapidly. "How do you avoid
"We have a large underground area here, but most exit points are
sealed off and the rest are carefully hidden," said Markov. "We only go
out in groups and we make sure to collect our dead and wounded."
"Still, in an organization as big as this, you're bound to be
"We have contingency plans," said Markov. "But it's difficult to
constantly move more than 300 soldiers and support staff around. Our
numbers are actually around 500, as we've taken on civilians to support
our efforts." He looked at me appraisingly. "We could certainly use
people with your obvious skills. Would you like to join forces with
I told him I'd have to take that subject to my people. He nodded,
and then spoke into his comm, ordering us to be released and to have
our weapons returned. We had established a certain level of trust.
A few minutes later we sat in a large, busy cafeteria, marveling
at all the well-fed, relatively well dressed and high morale soldiers
and civilians around us.
"I had no idea this kind of resistance was going on, less than
two miles from us," Preston marveled.
"August is a big city," I said. "The General has asked us to join
him. What do you think?"
"Is nice here!" said the Clapper, dropping his spoon to clap
twice. "And food good!" We were, for the first time in months, eating
something that wasn't potatoes, rice, carrots, or artificially grown
"We can get more action and combat here," said Sally.
"I don't like it," said the Silencer, slowly spooning food into
his mouth with his left hand.
"Why not?" I asked.
"Too big. Too many people," said the Silencer.
"I get that feeling too," said Preston. "How can an organization
this big avoid being discovered by the Insects, this deep inside Sarney
"They've done it so far," I pointed out. Secretly, I was torn. It
would be so much easier just to be part of the group, to give up our
hand-to-mouth existence, to be able to strike at larger targets with
less individual risk to ourselves. At the same time I also felt uneasy
being in such a large group, as if that just made us a bigger and more
prominent target to be stepped on. I turned to Mongo. "What do you
"Yes, food good, very good," said Mongo, gobbling up his portion
as if he hadn't eaten in a week. "But stay? No, cannot stay, no, not
"Why not?" I asked.
"Big place may or may not be discovered," said Mongo.
"What do you mean, may or may not?"
"Depends on hooded man," said Mongo. "If big bugs send hooded
man, place becomes discovered. But... big bugs may not send hooded man,
in which case soldiers move on their own before being discovered."
I considered warning Markov. But what could I say? That Mongo
could see into the future, and in some future that may or may not
happen at some unspecified time they would be discovered, and because
of that risk he needed to pick up and move his operations....? No, I
couldn't go to him with that, not unless I had something more concrete.
We agreed that we would go on some joint missions with the
soldiers but not formally move in with them, at least for the present.
The only catch is that the General would need to allow us to let us
leave knowing the location of his hideout. I spoke with him again and
he agreed, stating that he trusted me, and that only caused me greater
alarm. He had never met me before an hour ago, and now he was trusting
both me and my team with the location of his secret base. Even if we
didn't actively betray him, if we were caught and interrogated, the
Insects would get the location from us easily.
And then everything became clear: the General was a military man.
He wasn't skilled in conducting a cloak and dagger guerrilla war; he
was accustomed to large scale attacks that didn't require secrecy like
an Column infiltration did. Sooner or later, I realized, he and his men
would be discovered. The puzzle of how he hadn't been discovered thus
far was still unsolved.
Chapter 11: Disaster
From the personal log of Clifford Croft, one year and eleven months
after the Invasion of August.
We've gone on a number of raids with the General's men, each
seemingly more successful than the last. We've raided supply depots
that contained prized munitions, ambushed convoys whose routes and
timing we knew in advance, and even obtained the location of one of
their top secret breeding vat installations. The Insects established
breeding vats on August to grow more troopers more rapidly. That meant
that destroying those vats were our top priority, but naturally the
location of these vats are the most closely guarded of their secrets.
So the question is, where is Markov getting his information from?
And how is he so successful in staying hidden? I tried to confront him
"Have you managed to tap into the Insect information network?"
No, said the general.
"Do you have some form of electronic surveillance trained on the
The general shook his head again.
"Do you have an Insect traitor who's giving you information?" I
asked, thinking it most unlikely.
The general shook his head again.
"Then how are you getting precise information about their
military assets?" I asked.
The General sighed. "You know, Clifford, if I were to tell
anyone, it would be you. But this was a secret that I specifically was
entrusted with. It's the biggest secret of our organization; even my
senior aides don't know. Unfortunately, because of the sensitive nature
of my source, I can't reveal it to you. It's bigger than all of us; our
organization may fail, but my source of information is more important
than all of us, and can't be allowed to be discovered. It's our most
important asset in the war effort."
And that's all he would say on the subject. Meanwhile my wheels
were spinning rapidly; if it wasn't electronic intel, and it wasn't an
Insect traitor, what else could it be? This mystery bothered me more
and more as time went on. I didn't trust a source of information I
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
For Queen Zsst, the last straw on the Capybara's back, so to
speak, was the attack on the breeding farm.
"Five thousand combat units destroyed!" she raged. "This is yet
another large scale operation just miles from this building, and you
still cannot locate the rebels!"
The commander of security for the city of Sarney Sarittenden
trembled; it had just been appointed to its post a few weeks ago after
the liquidation of its latest predecessor.
"The rebels were an annoyance when they destroyed an occasional
stockpile or industrial facility," said Queen Zsst. "But this is a new
level of assault that cannot be tolerated. There were at least 200 of
these vermin in the last attack; why can you not track them down?"
The commander said, "We have conducted level to level scans but
cannot find any trace of them. If they are located nearby, it's almost
as if they know how we scan and how to defeat our scanning devices."
The Queen considered. Liquidating this fool wouldn't yield any
better results than the past few liquidations of recent months.
Perhaps, now, it was time to ask for help.
She was about to press the button on her console to summon Baraki
when he came in. It was almost as if he had somehow anticipated her
request; but that wasn't possible, was it?
A trail of fear blazed the way for Baraki, and the Insects in the
throne room consciously moved out of the way as he entered the Chamber
"I understand you have a problem," he said simply.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Several more days passed. I noticed we seemed to be having an
easier time making our way from Markov's hideout to our own; it was as
if the Insect patrols had been drawn back for a reason, as if they had
been reassigned, or... were massing for some operation we were not yet
I had sent Preston over to Markov to report my observations, and
Sashay had accompanied him in order to pick up some supplies. In return
for our help in the raids, Markov had supplied us with food to
supplement our own supplies. We had enough food for our own needs, but
it was nice to have some variety in our diet. Markov's men had come not
just to respect but to admire our abilities; after the first joint
operation where Red Sally set a dozen Insects on fire, his soldiers
could hardly fail to be awed. When the Clapper sent an Insect slamming
into a bunch of his companions on guard, causing them all to fall
helplessly to the ground, I think they were also impressed. And of
course they had all heard of the Silencer--he was famous across the
Alliance. Even when limited to shooting with his left hand, he was a
faster and more accurate shot than any of the soldiers in on our raids.
I sat, quietly reflecting, when all of a sudden Mongo, who had
been sleeping, started tossing and turning, going "no.... no.... no...
no!" and then he bolted upright, dripping of sweat all over.
"What is it?" I cried.
Mongo started shaking all over, his thin frame trembling.
"What? What is it?" I had never before seen him like this.
"Death," he whispered. "Much death... and fear."
I didn't need him to say another word. I could figure out the
rest. Markov's group was about to be discovered.
And I had sent Preston and the Paperweight over to Markov's
encampment. I might just have signed their death warrant.
I got my weapons, and quickly turned to Silencer, Red Sally, the
Clapper, and Mongo. "They only have a 20 minute head start. There may
still be time to save them." It was about a thirty minute journey to
"No!" said Mongo, grabbing at my one of my ankles. "Do not go! Do
"Do you see my death?" I asked calmly.
Mongo looked around, at me, Red Sally, the Clapper, and the
Silencer. "You will be blasted, yes, blasted by cruel mean bugs," he
I considered. It was one leap to take an action, or fail to take
an action, simply because of one of Mongo's warnings. Mongo was not,
after all, always correct, given the fluid nature of the future. But to
simply give up on Preston and the Paperweight simply on Mongo's say-so
didn't sit well with me. Mongo wasn't 100% accurate and couldn't fully
predict what would happen next.
"Are you coming?" I said, my face grim. The Silencer and Red
Sally wordlessly made their way to the door. They would go with me. The
Clapper procrastinated for a moment, his hands clapping anxiously, then
he nodded and followed the others.
Mongo also followed us out, which surprised me. Was he really
going into combat with us? But as soon as we came to the first junction
he turned off, heading in another direction. I said nothing; he was
under no obligation to follow us, and wasn't a combatant. But if he
didn't want to come, why didn't he simply stay behind at our hideout?
Maybe he knew something we didn't.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Rugani paused. He had been doing a lot of that ever since he had
returned to August. Immediately after he had successfully tracked and
destroyed the marauding human spaceships, he had been recalled to
August to help with a problem closer to home. Large groups of humans
were assaulting Insect installations and the Insects were typically
powerless to locate and destroy the humans. The Insects made excuses
that their detection equipment wasn't functioning, but to Rugani it was
all words. His people had chosen to back the Insects because they were
deemed to be less incompetent than the humans. Now the gap between the
two were narrowing, and Rugani was starting to wonder if they had
backed the right group. He knew that his master, Baraki, was thinking
the same as well.
Rugani paused. He was standing on an empty street corner in the
dead of night in August, not four miles from Sarney Sarittenden, whose
majestic spirals could be seen in the distance. His Insect escorts
stood a respectful distance behind him, but they didn't have any idea
what he was doing. Rugani would walk a block, or two, seemingly
unmindful of the possibility of being shot down by a human sniper, and
then stand very still, closing his eyes. Then, after a few moments, he
would open them again, and move to another location.
After a few hours of this, Rugani stopped again, but this time
didn't open his eyes for a long moment. When he did, he turned and
spoke for the first time to his escort. "They are here. Directly below
us. Level 8. Make sure the troops encircle from all directions--above,
on all sides, and below, before the attack commences, and alert the
sapper brigade. If you fail, you will answer directly to me."
The shaking Insect he spoke to acknowledged with a slight
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
The first indication that the Alliance troopers had that they
were under attack was when a large section of the cafeteria wall blew
in. A number of soldiers were killed instantly, and more were shot as
Insect troopers streamed through the hole seconds later.
General Markov, who was talking to Preston in his office, was
thrown out of his chair by the force of the explosion. He quickly
recovered, and saw what was happening on his monitor.
"What....? How....? They weren't supposed to find us!" he said,
Preston, grabbing Markov, said, "We've got to get out of here!"
"No," said Markov. He opened a lid on his desk, pressing a
button. "That will wipe our database clean. There's only one other
database that has to be destroyed." He took a pill out of his desk.
Then he turned to Preston. "You had better leave. You still have a
"Come with me!" said Preston.
Markov shook his head. "I have a secret that no one else can
know. I can't risk capture. Go!" he barked.
Preston left. Suddenly it struck him; where was Sashay? Had he
been in the cafeteria during the explosion?
Rugani eyed the battle from the front lines of the hole in the
cafeteria wall. Small groups of human soldiers were making their stands
in different parts of the base, while others were trying to flee.
Rugani, standing among the occasional blaster fire, seemed unafraid of
being shot. He was speaking into his palm, which contained an image of
Baraki. "There are still isolated pockets of resistance, but the bulk
of the enemy has been destroyed."
"Have units switch to stun weapons, and take prisoners," said
Baraki. "We must find out how they evaded detection for so long."
"Acknowledged," said Rugani, who turned and gave the order.
One look on the monitor in General Markov's office had been
enough to convince Preston that he wasn't going to live very long if he
attempted to search for the Paperweight in the mess hall. So his goal
was simply to get out and escape any way he could. The Paperweight was
probably dead already, and if Preston didn't move fast, he'd join him.
Preston ran down a hallway trailing a group of fleeing soldiers.
Suddenly, there was an explosion in front of them, sending some of the
soldiers sprawling to the ground, and Insects were bursting out of a
hole in the wall. Preston and the surviving soldiers fled down another
corridor, and it was at another junction that Preston almost ran
headlong into the Paperweight.
"What? How?" Preston gasped as they ran.
"Was in the kitchen," gasped Sashay. "Barely made it out through
And Preston noticed the men in white who had joined the group
that was fleeing. Of course, the cooking staff.
They started to turn another corridor when a soldier behind them
gasped, "No, this way!" They turned and saw him manipulating something
on the wall, and then the wall slid back, revealing a dark corridor.
They ran down the hidden corridor, for a moment hidden from their
pursuers. Then the soldier, working rapidly, made an adjustment on a
panel at the end of the corridor, and that wall slid aside too,
revealing the underground corridors of August.
They started to run into the tunnel system, but before they
reached the first junction, waiting Insect troopers sprang out at them,
firing away. Preston and the soldiers in the lead were the first hit,
and they fell to the ground wordlessly. The Paperweight hit the ground,
behind a squatting soldier who was attempting to fire back, but there
really was no effective cover in this hallway, and soldiers were
falling left and right.
But then the Insects started dropping as well, first one or two,
then several; when more bugs came into the junction, a sheer sheet of
flame sprang out from behind them, lighting them on fire. They screamed
in agony as they burned and crashed to the ground.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
General Tenor Markov sat at his desk calmly, the pill still in
his hand as he listened to the sounds of his soldiers dying over the
monitors. He heard a distant crashing sound, then a closer one, and
then his own door was bashed in; four, six, no, seven Insect troopers
marched into his office, all with weapons pointed at him.
"Hands up!" one said in a synthesized voice.
Markov raised his hands, letting the pill drop from his fingers.
"I've been expecting you," he said. "My name is General Markov. Your
senior officer will want to talk to me."
"General, this is a leader unit," said one, speaking into a comm
Markov sat like that, with his hands up, until the Insect
commanding the raid entered his office, flanked by two more guards.
Seven plus one plus two... that made ten. Good. He couldn't have hoped
for any better.
"You are the general," said their leader.
"Yes," said Markov, lowering his hands.
"Up!" said an Insect, pointing his weapon more menacingly.
"Whatever you say," said Markov, deadpan, lifting his foot from
the dead man's switch under his desk.
The explosion ripped the desk in half and almost instantly
incinerated everyone in the room. Rugani, who had been following the
Insect commander and was only two rooms away, was thrown off his feet.
His hood momentary flew back, revealing green reptilian features and
angry green eyes.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Sashay and several of the survivors ran across the junction to
the other side of the corridor where I and my team were laying covering
fire. They ran from the north side of the junction to the south; but
moments after they crossed over, an enormous number of Insects crowded
into the junction from the east and west passages.
The Silencer and I lay down covering fire so the others could run
past them and get away, but as the Silencer and I moved to draw back,
bolts hit the Silencer in both legs, and he fell to the ground. I, who
was behind the relative safety of a corner, saw what happened, and
moved to dash forward to recover the Silencer, but the blaster fire was
so thick that I couldn't approach. I looked again, and saw the Silencer
struggle to get up as the Insect lines closed; he fired off several
shots with his left hand, and several more Insects went down; but then
he was hit square in the chest with another bolt, and he went down.
"We have to go!" Sally screamed at me, throwing a ball of fire
down the hallway. It fried the advancing units to a crisp, but more
rushed into replace them. Her hair was bright red and smoking. "Croft!
I can't keep this up much longer!"
She was right. Red Sally and I ran after the fleeing survivors.
The survivors of Markov's base were about two corridors ahead of us,
but we were quicker, and soon were only a half corridor behind them.
We, and they, had no careful plan of escape; we were just running,
running to get away.
And then as we and the survivors approached a junction, they ran
almost headlong into something entering the junction at the same time,
something that blotted out most of the emergency wall panel lighting; a
giant, buzzing form.
I came to a sudden halt, so sudden that I fell on my back and my
blaster had skidded out of his hand. The large buzzing shape descended
on me. I rolled to the side, just barely missing it. But now I was
pressed up against the wall, and had no way to roll to safety for
another attack. The giant buzzing form was already reorienting,
And then a blast of fire hit it, scorching its side; the giant
bug buzzed angrily, and flew higher, and I could see Red Sally,
exhausted, collapsed against a wall, the last remnants of a flame
springing from her fingertips.
The giant bug aimed itself for Sally, and was about to settle its
huge stinger down on her, and I reached for my blaster, but I knew I
wasn't going to make it-
When the bug, charging down on Sally, missed and rammed its head
against the wall. The bug, confused, backed up and aimed again for
Sally; but then it rammed the wall above her again. And again, and
again and again. Then the dazed bug was spun about in a circle, slowly
at first, but then faster and faster and faster.
"Hurry," said a weak voice. "I can't hold it much longer."
Sally and I crawled under the spinning, buzzing bug and got to
our feet, heading for the Clapper, who was sweating profusely, staring
at the bug. He released the bug, and it immediately collapsed to the
ground, dazed and off-balance.
We heard sounds of pursuit in the distance. We were exhausted,
but kept running. Hearts pounding, we made it back to the hideout;
Mongo wasn't there. We tried our best to catch our breaths, as we faced
up to facts.
The Silencer was gone.
Preston was gone.
The Paperweight told me that Preston had been killed in the
firefight right before they arrived.
Mongo was gone. He had fled right after we left the hideout.
I realized that just left myself, the Clapper, Red Sally, and
Sashay. I felt tremendously alone, and dazed and confused.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"They were using a static generator to deceive our sensors;
that's why we never detected them," Rugani, once again hooded, reported
to Baraki and Queen Zsst in the Chamber of Leaders.
"How did they know the precise frequency to set their generators
to?" Queen Zsst hissed.
"That is unknown," said Rugani.
An Insect trooper approached, saluted. "One of the prisoners we
have captured is the one you sought, known as the Silencer."
"The Silencer," said Queen Zsst, gripping her armrests more
tightly with two of her arms. "And its associate pest, the Clifford
"Not known. But we used the mind-drain technique on the prisoner,
and now have the location of their secret base."
"Dispatch a platoon, no, a full company immediately," said the
"They already left several minutes ago," said the trooper. "What
shall we do with the prisoners once we have finished interrogation?"
The Queen waved an arm dismissively. "Send them to the work
farms. All except the one known as the Silencer."
"How do you wish him handled?"
The Queen thought of all the reports of her troopers gunned down,
her facilities destroyed. "Schedule him for execution. Immediately."
Insect troopers massed around the team's hidden hideout,
surrounding it from all directions--top, bottom, north, south, east,
and west, and sealing all avenues of escape, including even the hidden
ones Croft had thoughtfully prepared. The Insects buzzed; all they
waited for was the word to attack.....
The Insect officer surveyed the scene. Having eliminated the
Silencer, now they were after the pest known as Clifford Croft. The
Insects had located their secret base and a heavily armed company of
Insect troopers had surrounded it, awaiting only the order to attack.
The Insect officer's troops were in position. It had more than
enough firepower to assault the hideout. The humans had cleverly
emptied out a power generator and hidden their base inside the outer
shell. The officer clicked its mandibles. The successful completion of
this operation would give its career a strong boost.
The officer had orders to take the Croft pest dead or alive. But
the officer was taking no chances. Its troops had orders to perforate
on sight. If all went well the officer might receive a medal; if the
mission were extremely successful, the officer might even be permitted
"Attack," said the officer, in a neutral clicking voice.
The troopers moved in. They simultaneously closed in from all
directions. They saw a crack in the wall of the hollowed out power
generator that looked like a hidden door. The Insects bunched around
the entrance, their weapons at the ready. The trooper in the lead
pushed the door open and-
A fireball blasted its way out of the generator and engulfed the
troopers. The Insect officer, at the edge of the explosion, was thrown
off its feet. As it painfully struggled to get up, the sight of the
burned body parts, splattered globs of green blood, and the screams of
the dying troopers occupied its senses. There would be no chance of
reproducing now. The officer would be lucky if it wasn't summarily
A video monitor in a room half a mile in another direction
clearly showed the fiery remains on the factory floor. The monitor also
showed the faint reflection of the face intently watching the burned
Insect body parts scattered across the screen. A face that was very
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
I watched the scene with a measure of satisfaction. I wouldn't
be that easy to catch; and if they ever did catch me, they would pay a
higher price than a few dozen burned troopers.
I continued to watch the scene, burning the image into my mind. I
didn't feel satisfaction. I felt anger. I had known Preston for
decades. The Silencer had saved my life countless times.
I watched the Clapper, clapping like an idiot. Red Sally was no
where in view.
"What do we do now?" said the Clapper. "Have we won yet?"
At times like this, perhaps it was good not to have a brain.
The Clapper repeated the question.
I eyed the burning wreckage on the monitor. "Almost. All we have
left to do is to destroy the several million bug occupation force, as
well as their entire space fleet."
"That's nice," said the Clapper. (Clap, clap!) "What's the plan?"
"The plan?" I was so bitter I could almost laugh. There was no
plan now. Most of our allies had been caught or killed. General Markov.
Markov's men. The Silencer. Preston.
Watching the smoldering remains of our hideout on the screen, I
waited for an idea to come to me, the silence only punctuated by
rhythmic clapping sounds.
Chronologically, the next story in the series is "The War Admiral's
Fleet", which discusses events in space during the ground occupation.
Clifford Croft and the Silencer's story is picked up in the book
following that entitled "Death to the Insects!"
The following scene was cut from the book, either because it interfered
with the story's dramatic tempo, or revealed facts that interfered with
The Place: Sarney Sarittenden, Chamber of Leaders
The Time: During Croft's raid, but several levels up, in the throne
Queen Zsst only began to suspect there was an intruder when she
heard inhuman screams outside her chamber and then a loud splatting
noise, as if something wet had been crushed. And then, trotting in on
four webbed feet, was a sight she never expected to see.
"You!" she cried pointing at the being.
Her bodyguards, all 7 of them, took that as a signal to attack;
in seconds, their bodies were splattered against the walls and floors.
The Queen's retainers and advisors huddled behind her high chair in
Professor Capybara calmly trotted up to her throne. "Most
uncouth," he commented, looking left and right through his "spectacles"
at the Insect corpses.
The Queen found her voice. "What are YOU doing here?"
"I could ask you the same question," said the Professor in a
gentle but steady voice. "It seems we both have traveled a bit far
afield, haven't we?"
The ground shook slightly beneath her, shaking the Queen slightly
to her senses. The Queen pressed the button on her console that would
alert her guards in central control, four levels down.
"You may find them occupied with other matters," said the
Professor, noticing her motion but doing nothing to stop them. "But
there's nothing to fear; I've only come to deliver a message."
The Queen was greatly fearful, but tried not to show it. Would no
one come to her aide and slay this beast? "What message?"
"I'm very disappointed in what you and your race have done here,"
said the Professor. "And I strongly suggest you discontinue."
"And what will you do if I choose to ignore your suggestion?" The
Queen asked. "Do you threaten to attack us?"
The Professor sighed, taking off his spectacles and wiping them
with his paws. "No, of course not. We are not like you. I merely offer
you a prediction; if you persist in this course of action, you will not
come to a good end." He put the spectacles back on the end of his
rectangular and whiskered nose. "Good day."
And he turned and trotted out. It was only then that the Queen,
trying another button on her console, finally got the alarms to sound.
Professor Capybara trotted down the corridor contently, ignoring
the hoot-hooting of the alarms. He paused, as if listening for
something else, and then turned to the nearest stairwell.
Standing there, waiting for him, was a hooded being. Baraki.
"You must be very confident to enter my territory," he said, in a
menacing voice. His expression was unreadable under that hood. "Or very
"I was just delivering a message," said the Professor. He started
to move forward, but Baraki didn't move.
"If you simply stand aside, I'll be on my way," said the
Baraki stood very still, staring at the Professor. The Professor
stared back. There seemed to be some sort of measuring of strength
going on, some sort of probing, with the resolution most unclear, for
Baraki. Baraki felt a sudden urge to kill this being, but also, for the
first time, a fear, a rarely felt emotion, the fear that he might not
be successful. Plagued with sudden doubt, he took a step to the side.
There would be another time.
"Thank you," said the Professor. The Capybara walked right by
him, confident enough to show his back to Baraki.
Baraki suddenly felt the urge to strike the Capybara, but a mere
second before he struck, the Professor turned his snout and stared back
at him, and Baraki froze in his tracks.
They stared at each other for a moment, and then the Professor
shook his head sadly, and said, "Most uncouth," and then trotted down
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