Night had fallen over the tactical operations center for the Council of Earth's Phoenix Command. That had no impact on the personnel within. Three shifts of the finest minds humanity had to offer spent their full time sifting through messages, field reports, and raw data to provide a clear picture of the war to the Council of Earth's commanders.
On the far wall, a map of the planet's surface summarized the strategic situation. Pins marked assets and areas of strength. Red marked the increasing and encroaching alien biomass.
It had been about a year ago that we discovered we weren't alone. There were no messages, no "take me to your leader". And also, unfortunately, human germs didn't drive them away. Instead, they spread their spores into the upper atmosphere. In weeks, most life on the planet was extinguished.
It wasn't personal, just business. The aliens needed a life-bearing, but unclaimed, world to build something new and extraordinary. Earth just happened to be convenient. What's a little interstellar genocide between neighbors?
Humanity was not going so gently into that night, however. The Council of Earth represented all of the governments of humankind, united at last for a single purpose. The High Commander and his staff organized the deployment of survivor groups around the globe.
Survivor morale varied. Council of Earth troops had unearthed secret installations, shot down alien craft, busted open alien bases, and converted alien technology to our own use. Some people might believe we're winning this war.
Even inside the tactical center, some bright, na´ve tacticians hoped. The High Commander envied them. There were facts hidden from them. Like, for instance, that no farming since the invasion had yielded enough crops to prevent eventual starvation. Or that they were running out of technical resources: the basic industry to craft components hadn't been re-built, and the raw materials of war would soon be exhausted.
The Commander was in the station tonight because of a distant ray of hope. Yesterday, every human radio receiver around the world received the same transmission from the invaders. High Command had succeeded in translating the message first, but it would be impossible to conceal this message from the people. Other Council members had their own translators. By tomorrow, the whole world would know its devastating content. He had to act quickly.
"I've found one."
Brian Rowley and Malcolm McLean had become brothers since the invasion. The two commanders of Phoenix Company stood about sixty yards apart, both still visible by the blue glow of their alien-human hybrid armor.
Malcolm, in the lead, was moving through tree cover in the early morning light. Phoenix Company had just penetrated and secured an underground bunker, presently becoming operational as a new Council of Earth base. While the technicians were working, Brian and Malcolm led the unit on patrol.
"Rodger that," Brian replied. He spied the moving bulk of the mutated giant car crab. He took aim and fired. The alien laser wasn't extremely effective against the bulk. However, as skin and shell erupted in a cloud of steam the creature roared in pain. Brian was pleased that it hurt.
"I've spotted another one."
Malcolm hip fired the plasma rifle at the nearby crab. The crackle of lightning as the electrically charged mass of superheated gas hit the crab settled into the gentle crackle and glow of the crab's body burning. The crab shuddered and fell to the ground in shock, but probably not dead. Malcolm spared a look to the left.
Chandra had spotted a floating translucent blob of gel suspending a human body within. Beyond it, Malcolm spotted another transgenant, which he reported.
One by one, the unit members reported and dealt with the contacts, eleven in all by the time they were done. And, like clockwork, Phoenix Company maneuvered and divided it's firepower by training. Chandra, and another team member with traditional rifles went to work on one of the gel blobs, Malcolm another, and Brian against the more solid targets. Within minutes, this group of creatures lay dead or dying.
The patrol was necessary. This new base would be special. About five miles distant was the edge of the creeping biomass, which threatened to engulf the Earth. The stuff fed on daylight, grew at an incredible rate, was immune to anything short of high explosives, and attracted the transgenants to it like moths to flame. It already covered nearly half the landmass of the planet, threatening to engulf the remnant of humanity.
New technology existed to combat the biomass, and this new base would be the first place it was tested.
"Is it ready yet?" Chandra asked. Phoenix Company brought pieces of the alien gateway with them on every new base-busting assignment. No bunker had enough power generation capacity to keep both the alien gateway running, and spare power for machine shops or labs. This gateway would activate only long enough for Phoenix Company to step through; afterwards, redirected power would enable other assets.
In this case, the asset activated is a massive psionic transmitter under assembly in one of the flight bays. Twenty-four trained empaths would rotate six-hour shifts strapped to the machine, psychically screaming at the alien biomass' infant mind.
Mr. Slooz, a member both of the alien race and of Phoenix Company and his assistant Mr. Queevaleg both stood by at the assembly. Mr. Slooz provided fine adjustments, while Mr. Queevaleg… managed.
"No, ma'am," the technician replied, "we've just set-up the basics. Once we've got you folks on your way, there's about another twenty-four hours of work before we'll become operational."
Mr. Slooz nodded absently in concurrence with the technician's estimate. He added appreciatively of the device's aesthetics, "Guggenheim or Geiger would be pleased. Although I am unsure which one would be more so."
"I don't want to imagine what this thing will do to a persons mind," Chandra shuddered. She had experienced psychic combat against the aliens first hand, frozen in phantom psychic terror or under control like a marionette. However, Chandra had only experienced those horrors for brief moments in combat. These volunteer's exposure would be prolonged.
"You may not have to," Slooz countered, "it is probable that the biomass will overrun this bunker before we can make the device operational."
Half an hour later Phoenix Company assembled at the second flight bay. The Company's helicopter transport was secured to a wheeled platform, allowing passage through the gateway.
Malcolm stepped up to the terminal attached to the metal arch and began typing in the commands that would activate the archway's alien transport technology. The archway flares bright white light as a quantum tunnel explodes to life in its center. Phoenix Company has traveled this way for nearly a year, but the spectacle is still a marvel.
Malcolm then enters the key codes that will connect this alien-human gateway to the rest of human civilization. He tries a second time.
Brian, sensing trouble, breaks ranks to approach the terminal. "Something wrong?"
"It's not taking my codes."
"Let me try." Brian removes a red calculator from his shirt pocket. A touch of buttons spits out the calculated security code for the gate system. He dials in the code. An error message returns on the screen. "Maybe we should let the techs look it over."
"Sir," one of the permanently stationed soldiers rushes into the flight bay, "there's a UFO approaching us!"
Malcolm and Brian glance at each other, thoughts alike. "It's never happened before, but it could be them."
Malcolm and Brian break up the Company, preparing for the aliens to assault the base. Malcolm orders the permanent staff to pack up their things and seek shelter in the nearby woods. They would be in less danger out there. He clears both flight bays and makes his way to the administration offices.
Brian Rowley, meanwhile, places Chandra, Slooze, and Queevaleg at the obvious entry points for the base. As soon as the doors open, they will unload grenades, plasma, and anything else they can at the enemy.
"Brian," a voice comes over the radio. Malcolm. "I think you should listen to this. Put it through."
The voice patched through is familiar. "Phoenix Company, you are ordered to stand down. Approaching vessel is on a mission from High Command. Verification code follows…"
Brian talked over the playback to Malcolm, "they've got to be spoofing us."
"I don't think so," the reply, "the codes are valid."
"D'you want to have High Command verify?"
"Already did," Malcolm replied. "The Reticulans, they say, are here to evacuate us. A goodwill gesture."
"Who told you that?"
"High Command," Malcolm answered, "himself."
The contents of the alien radio message to Earth were now known to one an all. The enemy had offered terms for humanity's surrender, and we accepted. In eight hours, the alien vessel would be coming to take the survivors to their new orbital homes. Humanity had surrendered to the night.
Minutes after Phoenix Company and the support staff returned safely to London, the order is given. Operatives disable every gateway, destroy every research computer, and delete all research data in an action of sabotage coordinated across the globe. This was humanity's goodwill gesture to the Reticulans.
Brian Rowley took one last walk around London. It was not his home in North America, but it was the last time he would look upon a human city. He walked, rifle in hand, leading a group of ministers and refugees from the Council of Earth headquarters.
"There's never been much myth about her," replied one minister, a Mr. Harrow, sadly, "but what majesty."
"Don't be a sentimentalist," cajoled another. "Getting off this dying world is more important than any pile of brick!"
Brian ignored the ministers. The city was quiet, hollow, sleeping. He wondered if its ghosts lingered, and whether they knew themselves now betrayed.
"Congratulations," clapped the cajoling minister on Brian's shoulder, "about your promotion to commander of Phoenix Company. Pity about your friend turning traitor." Brian did not pay much attention to politics. He vaguely remembered Fitz, but whether it was Fitzhugh, Fitzgerald, or some other Fitz was a mystery.
"I might've misspoken," Fitz retracted. "I had heard your old commander, McLean, had run off."
Two hours later, Brian heard the same story from the High Commander.
"Not everyone will be able to go to the space station," the commander explained, "nor does everyone wish to. This is the right decision for humanity. But I'm afraid Malcolm has put that at risk."
The Commander placed a map before Brian. Phoenix Company assembled and equipped. They would be flying out for one more mission.
"They disappeared off radar around Krakow. If he hadn't managed to salvage and steal plans to the anti-biomass devices, we'd let him go. As it is, he stands to wreck this peace before it's begun." The High Commanded looked at Brian levelly, "I know you two have fought beside one another for a long time, but humanity's survival is at stake. Slooz and Queevaleg may be with him. The truce did not cover the Old Greys, and I think they decided to take their chances out there."
A second ship would be arriving to take Phoenix Company home after the mission. They set out for Krakow, loaded in alien equipment and combat gear to fight their brothers and sisters.
Landing, they kept close and moved forward. The bunker they were approaching once belonged to the Council of Earth. Phoenix Company had excellent intelligence on their enemy.
They walked through rows of brick buildings and burnt-out cars. Nothing stirred.
Brian motioned, and the fastest three members of the squad broke forward to scout as the slower units advanced on the base. There were about a hundred people living and working in the bunker. They may have fled, or they may be armed and hiding in the city's ruins.
A shot rang out, answering the question. A second shot followed. Brian caught motion on the rooftops and on the ground.
Chandra had spotted a rebel in the open, spraying at her with an old Uzi. Oddly, Brian thought, Chandra jumped towards cover instead of returning fire. Brian lifted his laser rifle and paused. He took careful aim and fired. The beam of light turned the black box-gun into slag.
"Chandra," he yelled, "there's no quarter here! Return fire!"
The enemy, however, was not having the same hesitation. Brian realized, in alien armor, it was easy for the rebels to think of Phoenix Company as the enemy. It was a lot harder for Phoenix Company's soldiers to think of fellow humans as such.
The pop and explosion of shrapnel of a grenade bloomed near the other two advanced scouts. They dropped in the dust, obviously hurt badly. One fired from his prone position at a rebel. The alien warp weapon tore the pavement to shreds, but left the unarmored human virtually unscathed.
It was a mistake. He had expected the rebels to be using alien technology and alien weapons against them. Instead, they were fighting with the minimal antiques that Council of Earth troops had to deal with. And, laughably, the low-tech ambush had caught the high tech unit in its weak spot. Brian should've thought of that.
"Retreat!" Brian ordered. Already two members of the team were down, and the ambush had only just begun. "Regroup near our entry point!" Brian himself turned, and made his way back down the alley he had come in from.
A door opened in the ruined building, and a familiar rebel stepped out, leveling a plasma rifle at his old comrade. Brian took aim with his laser rifle, holding his fire.
"You don't have to do it." Malcolm suggested. He lowered the plasma rifle and smiled at his old friend.
"What am I going to do, put the human race in jeopardy for you?" Brian did not drop his aim.
"You could say I shot you. I'm a good shot." Malcolm smiled, recalling memories of better times. "Or you could join us. Come on! We have them running scared! They wouldn't be offering a truce if they didn't know that!"
Brian countered, "they're not about to lose. They're just protecting an investment."
"Then let's damage their investment!" Malcolm exclaimed, "maybe if we break the thing badly enough, they'll just go home."
"Vengeance is a poor substitute for survival." Brian retorted.
"I don't plan on dying." Malcolm smirked. "We've survived pretty good so far, haven’t we?"
"What about the research data?" Brian asked.
"Not going to do me much good at the moment, since the Council's shut down most of the facilities. We're starting from square one, and pretty late in the game. We might not make it. But you've got to let us try. Please."
Brian sighed. He threw the laser rifle to his friend. "If you're going to shoot me, use something that'll leave me in one piece, will ya?"