General Adams is on her way to negotiate with the invaders, having hit them hard enough at last to win a ceasefire. It’s hard to imagine how mankind can triumph in the long term, but she carries an object with her that may make all the difference.
General Adams gazed out of the curved windows of the suborbital jet as they passed high over what had once been known as North America. Now it was ash and ruins as far as she could see. It had always been thus, for her, and though she’d been raised on stories of Earth as it had once been, she found it hard to reconcile the grainy images and recordings with what she had seen all her life. They were passing over the old Midwest and she could see the rubble of the cities, along with the great chunks of space rock – near-Earth asteroids, long held in gravity’s gentle embrace, describing quiet, graceful parabola through the vacuum for uncounted aeons, crudely blasted from their orbits and dropped on human cities across the globe by their implacable enemies. It had happened a century ago, before Adams was born. It was old news. But still, her eyes drifted over the grey ruins, wondering what it must have been like when these places teemed with life, when the lights of human activity spread like a gleaming spiderweb across Earth’s continents. Snuffed out in just a few days of hell.
Their ship carried them high in the atmosphere. As battered and patched together as it was, it was the height of their technology. Once, she knew, they had travelled to the Moon and back, and had dreamed of visiting the stars, but all they were capable of now was skimming the top of the atmosphere. Even that though, she thought with pride swelling in her chest, was enough. Enough to change the shape of this war. Enough to finally bring their enemy to the point of seeking negotiation.
“Look,” Lieutenant Singh said, pointing over her shoulder in the direction they were going.
Adams craned her neck and saw the pinprick blue lights of enemy vessels. Her heart instinctively began to beat faster, and she had to control her breathing. They weren’t here to fight: they were here to lift them the rest of the way, where their primitive ship couldn’t take them. It galled and, not for the first time, it occurred to her that it would be a simple matter for them to blow her and her staff out of the sky, but why bring them all this way to do that? For all their destructive power, the enemy were almost incapable of duplicity. When they bargained, they did so honestly. It was this difference between them, amongst many others, that had led them to this point, this stalemate, and the negotiating table.
The sleek enemy fighters engulfed their blocky ship in a glowing electromagnetic net, lifting them out of Earth’s atmosphere and up into the void of space. Their ship had artificial gravity – technology stolen from a crashed enemy ship some decades ago – but it was jury-rigged and crude, and she could feel her weight shift unnaturally as they entered zero-g. She gripped the bulkhead by the widow firmly and gritted her teeth. She could not show weakness now. Her other hand rested lightly on the pommel of the sword she wore at her hip. It was a ridiculous badge of office she’d once dismissed as an affectation, but now she felt quite differently. Now, it would finally serve a purpose.
The design of the enemy ships was strange to her eyes. All of her staff, men and women from a dozen different shattered nations, all bearing scars and the occasional crude bionic augmentation, all wearing patched together uniforms and armour, looking every bit the war-ravaged guerrilla fighters they were, stared up at them with fear, awe, contempt and other mixed emotions. Like her, they’d fought all their lives to drive the weird, asymmetric craft from Earth’s skies. To now be locked in their embrace like this and, worse, carried towards an even greater threat, was profoundly disturbing.
“Relax,” she murmured, and her voice carried across the small cabin, “we’re not here to be killed.” She’d had the arguments over and over. Colonel Kemp had been the hardest of all to convince. He had even hatched a plot to smuggle an explosive with them, which she’d quickly discovered and nixed. Once she’d disciplined him, she’d explained – carefully, slowly – that no gun or explosive would get beyond the airlock of the enemy mothership and, if they so much as tried anything stupid like that, this hard-won stalemate would all be for nothing. Reluctantly, he’d acquiesced to her authority, but she’d made a point of leaving him behind. She needed no hotheads around the table today.
Sooner that Adams had expected, the great bulk of the enemy ship appeared over Earth’s curving horizon. It was an incomprehensibly vast construction, conforming to no geometry that made any sense to the human mind. Once, perhaps, it had been some sort of ship, but now it was like a miniature world unto itself, the size of an asteroid, augmented and extended over its centuries of interstellar travel. The only recognisable features were the struts protruding from its fore section which held the vast ramjet wings. When fully deployed and charged with plasma harnessed from the interplanetary medium, they would carry the immense vessel at relativistic velocities, cutting their travel time by millennia. But, even so, it was a long journey from their home system; longer than any Earth creature would have been able to endure. But they were not of Earth: they were alien. They had come here to exterminate them, one hundred years ago and, by God, they had almost succeeded. And this, Adams was about to make certain, was where it would end. She gripped the pommel of the sword again. This was her hour.
They were not greeted at the airlock, which was hardly a surprise. Almost all contact with the aliens had been conducted via their automated machines. The creatures themselves had never descended from their mothership and only stolen databanks, translated laboriously by the few remaining human scientists, had even revealed their form. They were utterly unlike humans, except in as much as they used the same basic chemistry to run their bodies. They had evolved on a world not terribly unlike Earth – hot and moist, with an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere and liquid water on the surface – but in all other ways they were different. Their bodies lacked bilateral symmetry and they had a weirdly modular design, as if assembled from blocky parts. They interfaced directly with their technology in a way that was hard for humans to understand, and had little sense of individuality. They were genderless, and their methods of reproduction were unknown. But, more than that, they were ancient. They had plied the stars for hundreds of thousands of years and had adapted – or perhaps modified themselves – to make it bearable. Each member of their species might live for a thousand years or more, so that they could make the vast journeys across space without needed to house generations, or endure cryogenic sleep. For them, the five-hundred year jaunt from their home system to Earth was barely an inconvenience. And it was that which was the key to Adams’s negotiating position.
They walked through the alien ship, all of them wary, glancing from side to side at the alien geometry of the walls, narrowing their eyes at the floating drones that shepherded them forward. The machines spoke to Adams in mechanical translated voices. Even after all these years, communication was difficult – the aliens had never bothered to make official contact, and the first humanity had known of them was infrared signals in deep space, followed by the asteroid bombardment. Since then, they had gleaned little, and they would be forced to rely on the alien translators to make this dialogue possible.
It took them a long time to reach their destination; a chamber somewhere in the heart of the huge, unlovely ship. No doubt this room had been built especially for them. The modularity of the alien’s bodies extended to their technology as well and they could rebuild whole sections of their ships in minutes. The whole ethos of their culture, such as it was, was like a swarm of Van Neumann replicators. Modular, adaptable, harnessing whatever resources they could to continue their implacable advance across space. Each wave attacked, consumed, replenished its losses and moved on. They were not planning to go home; their ship had been built to take them this far, and they were supposed to make whatever they needed for the next trip from whatever they found here. That was their undoing, of course.
Adams sat down at the table. It looked like it had been grown from the floor. The room was shaped like an egg, illuminated by a directionless light source, and there was no surface details on the walls. It was just a chamber, like an orifice in some monstrous beast, made for them to be as comfortable as the aliens could manage. An aperture opposite her opened and she got humanity’s first look at their aggressors. It was hard to focus on what she was seeing, hard to bend her mind around the shapes and forms that tumbled chaotically towards her. Those staff she had brought with her stepped back, reaching for guns that weren’t there. Nothing in her evolution had prepared Adams for the sight of a creature birthed in orbit of a distant star, so she said nothing, just waited for it to approach.
Oddly regular segments of its body, spongy and grey and pitted with what might be pores, gills or, for all she knew, eyes, rearranged themselves. They were held together by fibrous tissues that looked, to her, not unlike tendons, and moved almost independently. There was machinery there too, embedded in its flesh, obviously integral to its being, whirring and slotting into place as it deposited itself across the table from her. No chair could hold such a creature but, she was gratified to see, it was no larger than a human. If nothing else, they at least operated on the same physical scale.
A drone hovered into place, connected to the alien by a fleshy umbilical, and a tinny, toneless voice began speaking to her. “I believe your race places much stock in face to face contact. As agreed, we are presenting ourselves in person for these negotiations.”
Adams nodded. “And who is it I’m talking to? Who are you?”
“There is no easy answer to that question. We do not measure identity as you do.”
“So you’re not in charge of your people?”
“Our people do not use hierarchies. This entity before you has been nominated to speak for our species today.”
“Very well. This is acceptable.”
The creature shifted slightly. It was impossible to read its emotions, if it even had emotions a human would understand, but Adams knew that sensors of all kinds were reading her and her people, measuring their body temperatures, the tiny, imperceptible movements of their muscles and skin, detecting and cogitating, perhaps relaying all kinds of information to the hive mind that sat behind the weird creature that addressed her. Or maybe humans were just as bizarre and alien to them too.
“Before we begin,” the alien spokesperson said through its drone interpreter, “you must understand that the minor victory your people have won over us recently is not the end of this operation.”
“I know that,” Adams replied with a flicker of a smile.
“Your resistance has been unusually robust compared to other encounters we have had, but this vessel and the craft it carries are but a vanguard. Ordinarily these forces are sufficient to process any system.”
Adams winced at the word ‘process’. That’s all this was to them: an industrial operation, and humanity were vermin who were in their way, like rats in a dilapidated factory you were planning to refurbish. “Not this time,” she said softly.
“Not this time,” the alien agreed, not taking her meaning, “but the resources in our home system are vastly greater than we have assigned to this operation. After your last attack, we signalled our people calling for reinforcements.”
“We know that,” Singh interrupted, “we detected your signal and…”
Adams held up a hand to silence him. “He’s right,” she said, keeping her voice calm and even, “we know you sent a pulse of data back towards your star. I don’t think that’s as important as you think it is though.”
“It is important, General Adams,” the alien said, “because soon, a fleet of our ships a magnitude greater than has thus far assailed you will launch towards your world.”
“And rain fire down upon us, just like a century ago, is that right?”
The alien adjusted itself again. Adams almost thought it might be sighing, but of course she could never know. “General Adams, why do you persist in this discussion of morality?”
Adams raised her eyebrows. “What do you mean by that?”
“We have studied your species closely during this conflict. We know much about you – how do you think we are able to communicate in a way that you can understand? – and we understand what has driven your people to resist us with all the strength you have remaining. Our initial bombardment killed over twenty-five per cent of your population; two billion individuals. This alone was enough to cripple your infrastructure, render you near helpless against our further attacks. So it has been with a thousand other species we have encountered. So it is across the galaxy, as far as we are aware. And, despite your sense of outrage at it being visited upon you, so it is on Earth. Are you yourselves not responsible for exterminations on just such a scale? Once, your world teemed with megafauna, and your species hunted them to extinction. More recently, your activities have driven countless species to the edge of destruction and beyond. And you have even turned on your own people when the need has arisen, when the battle for the scant resources of your biosphere has demanded it. We have studied your history closely, General Adams, and what we have witnessed did not surprise us. Pogroms and genocides, invasion and enslavement. So I ask again, why do you persist in claiming the moral high ground against us? Know that worlds like yours – like ours – are abundant in the galaxy, but they are far flung. The entire resource of your planet can sustain a fleet like ours only as far as the next system like it. We are not the first to make our way across space like this either. Our world was devastated much as yours has been in our ancient history. Life, across the galaxy, is in conflict. Earth is a mere microcosm of that.”
Adams considered the creature’s words carefully. “Perhaps you’re right,” she admitted, “perhaps we should just lie down and take it like all the others. But we’ve realised something about you, something that makes you very different to us. See, you can talk about thriving on conflict, about the way of life throughout the galaxy, but I don’t think you’re as comfortable with it as you think you are or, more importantly, as we are. I think that’s why we’ve fought so hard to stay alive. You see, we still remember fighting for our survival in a harsh world. How long have you been in space?”
“I don’t understand the question.”
“When did your species first leave your planet? How many years ago? How many decades, centuries, millennia?”
The alien’s body underwent another subtle shift. “Records of that age are fragmentary,” it said carefully.
“Indeed. You each live a thousand years, and it takes you almost half that time to get here, is that right? Even with all your technology, you still have to crawl across space at sublight velocities.”
“It is not possible to go any faster.”
“Right, right. So, it took your five centuries to reach us, and you just sent your message which, travelling at light speed, will take – what? – seventy five years to reach your homeworld?” Adams smiled again, but her eyes were cold, like shards of flint. She drew her sword from the scabbard on her belt and placed it on the table between them. It glinted in the low light. The aliens hadn’t thought to take it from her, for one very simple reason. “Do you know what this is?”
“A symbol. A badge of office carried by the leader of Earth’s military forces. You adopted it some years after our initial attack.”
“We did indeed, but it isn’t a symbol, alien. It’s a weapon.”
“I don’t understand…”
“A weapon,” she growled, “like your ion cannons and your asteroid beams. A weapon, like the ones you’ve been using to blast us from our hiding places for the last hundred years. A weapon, like the ones we created to destroy your ships, like the thermonuclear warheads that left those scars I saw all over your mothership. It’s a tool, for killing. This object, this piece of metal, boiled and beaten into a sharp, cutting blade, is a thing humans used to kill each other, once.”
“What is the significance of this demonstration?”
“Do you know when we used it, alien? Do you know when this crude object, this simple shard of steel, was a mainstay of our military strategy? Less than six-hundred years ago. When your species first set out on its long journey to destroy us, this was what we used in our wars.” She ran her hand along the long, straight blade of the sword. “If I was to pick it up now and try to stab you with it, I wouldn’t get within a metre, I’m sure. It would be useless against you. I couldn’t possibly swing it fast enough, if I even knew how to use it properly. Like you say, it’s really just a symbol, which is why you let me bring it in here. But it’s not a symbol of my authority as General: it’s a symbol of my people, of the human race and its ingenuity. Six-hundred years ago, we cut each other with bits of sharpened steel and now…now we have brought an alien invasion to its knees. We have forced you to negotiate with us, to threaten us with reinforcements unless we finally roll over and let ourselves be killed. We may not have beaten you but, by God, we’ve come close. Close enough to make you think twice about carrying on this war. Billions of us have died, but how much have you lost? How long can you continue this senseless conflict? Not long, I don’t think, or you wouldn’t be calling your homeworld for help.”
“I fail to see what…”
Adams slammed her fist into the table. The sound was muffled, spongy, but it was enough. “This is the point, alien! In six-hundred years we went from swords to nuclear bombs! In six-hundred years, we went from sticking bits of metal into each other to repelling a fleet of interstellar warships! By my calculations,” she said through gritted teeth, “it will be another six-hundred years until your friends get here. Now imagine, if you can, what we’ll fight you with then.”
The room was silent. The alien said nothing. Between them, the sword continued to gleam.