It's been a fair old while since I've posted some new writing on here, so here's the first few thousand unedited words from a new epic space opera I've been working on. The 'Lychgate' refers to the portal in space through which aliens are approaching earth. It opened six months before, directly above the disputed region of Kashmir, which is nominally under the control of India, Pakistan and China. Let me know if you enjoy it and would like to see more!
When the Pirate came down on the hillside, local media reported it as an earthquake. Terracom watched the skies, and they knew better. Within minutes, the radar signature was communicated to the Security Council, and a radio signal echoed off the endless curves of the landscape, eventually beaming down into the squat dirt-brick buildings in the simple complex at Pakhyala. The alarm raged, and the light passenger transport carved a path out of the underground silo and into the night sky above Kashmir.
There was the initial vertical climb, and then the plane banked lazily to the right, heading north-east. In the daytime, a pilot could find their way easily enough even when searching deep into the mountains by picking out the occasional landmark rising out of the fog, but once the sun went down, the hinted undulations of the hills underneath were lost in lengthening shadows and the light would disappear as though someone had dropped an ebon blanket over the landscape. Back in the direction of Lahore, ten thousand lights flickered, the twinkling eyes of a city heaving with life.
On board, there was the relentless hum of the engine, and the feeling of her own blood pumping in her veins. Holding her rifle steady at her side, Lacey Crowden shifted in her harness, the blocky ridges of her body armour catching every time she moved. She was hot, frustrated, knowing that she should be focused on the job ahead, and all the more annoyed that her mind wanted to be elsewhere. She adjusted her combat glove, pulled a finger guard back into place with her teeth and took several deep breaths.
Opposite her, Francisco Hierro gazed wordlessly into the middle distance above her left shoulder, his tiny dark eyes and immaculate moustache rolling from side-to-side with the movement of the craft. To his left, Van Hooiveld and Nydegger glanced at one another as strands of Nydegger's flame red hair escaped from her helmet in ringlets. Opposite them sat the two local recruits that had been pressganged into joining the mission. She knew nothing at all about these two except that they clearly weren't familiar with the standard issue rifles. She'd even had to point the shorter one in the direction of the armoury.
Crowden hated the way that the Partnership force organised troops. As they couldn't justify keeping a barracks full of battle-ready soldiers on standby due to cost implications, what soliders they had were cycled with local forces. This meant that apart from her own core squad of eight, at any given time they had between five and twenty troops from India and Pakistan, many of whom were barely teenagers, and others who seemed to have more interest in fighting one another than providing the joint force that they were supposed to under the UN's Partnership Agreement. It made for interesting politics, but Crowden was concerned first and foremost with staying alive. When the firefight began, she wanted to know who had her back, and the Partnership forces were akin to rolling the dice and hoping for sixes.
Of course, it had been one thing dealing with them when she was just a squaddie, but from now on, she would be the troop leader, the first woman and the first American in Terracom to hold the role. Up until her decision to step sideways into Terracom, more than three-quarters of the UN troops that had been through the base had been European. Not all of the local Partnership troops looked kindly upon the country of her birth; others weren't happy taking orders from women.
'This is a challenge quite unlike any other,' her lieutenant had said. 'But you're young, bright, an excellent soldier. It's an amazing opportunity. Every pair of eyes in the world will be watching you.'
Privately, the thought of having her every move followed by the world disturbed Crowden greatly, and she was trying not to let the thought cause her to lose concentration. Besides, she was aware that she was flying under the radar just now. While the missions were low key, none of the top brass would try to step in and take them away from her. If anything major came through the Hole, there would be senior staff who would fight one another to be seen as the lead driver of the project. So far, there had been half a dozen small jobs to do in the eight months that the project was live. The rest of the time, she read in her bunk room, exercised in the limited confines of the Partnership gymnasium and relaxed in the common room. Crowden felt ready to lead Terracom troops in combat. And now that her lieutenant had finally moved back into terran-based peacekeeping missions, they'd held the short ceremony in the Civic Room back at the base noting her promotion to senior NCO, with the second shoulder pip and the derisory pay increase that went with it.
Crowden was an experienced commando and knew the ropes. From now on, she'd be writing the rules for anyone that came after her. But still, it wasn't so hard. You cracked the nut, neutralised the enemy and got everything on the craft home before the local tribal leaders gathered to ask what in hell had stormed from the clouds and landed on their village. But every now and then, through impatience or poor judgement or just sheer bad luck, something went wrong and friends who'd gone out living came back in body bags. This was the first time that she'd led an operation, and even with Hierro there, she could feel her mucles knotting and her heart beating a step ahead of the rest of her.
A few minutes later, the rear supports of the aircraft crunched down onto loose rock. At the moment of impact, the engines whined and died. Van Hooiveld ripped the earphones from her ears, and Crowden could hear heavy rock music blaring from them as they hung down by her chest. She watched the ear buds dangle uselessly for a moment, then realised Hierro was watching her.
'It's not easy, is it?' he said.
'I don't think it'll ever get easy, Franco,' she said. 'But all we can do is get it right.'
Hierro and the Dutch girls were out of their harnesses quickly enough, but the local troops made no attempt to get up.
Crowden slapped the nearest one on the shoulder, and he looked up at her wide-eyed from under his comically large helmet. It was the one from earlier who hadn't even known the layout of the building he was working in.
'How good is your English?'
'Yes...oh, I mean, good, yes.'
'What's your name, soldier?'
'Singh, ma'am. Jyoti Singh.'
'Private Singh, please don't call me ma'am. My name is Sergeant Crowden...but to you, just Sarge is good for now. This is Hierro, Van Hooiveld, Nydegger. Who's your friend?'
Singh looked around for a moment. His colleague was an immensely tall man with the build of a wiry dog. He seemed to be dozing, head forward, eyes closed. 'This is Naakesh Motra.'
'Do me a favour and wake him up.'
Singh looked uncomfortable. 'He's not sleeping, ma'am...I mean, Sarge. He's praying.'
Crowden could forgive him for that. Sometimes she regretted having left her own religion back with her family in the States, like it was something she'd forgotten to pack in her hurry to leave. When she'd left home two years earlier, her horizons expanded and they'd turned an already doubtful girl into an outright sceptic. Then the world had changed beyond all measure, and when you'd seen some of the things that Crowden had, suddenly the whole notion of a god seemed thoroughly superfluous.
Crowden placed a heavy glove on his shoulder, and the one called Motra opened his eyes.
'I'm sorry to interrupt your prayers, Motra, but we need to go.'
Motra gave the slightest of nods and stretched his long arms upwards as though trying to get the feeling back in them after the journey. Crowden watched him carefully as he released his harness, and took an age to check his sidearm. At the moment he finished, the voice of central control sounded in Crowden's ears.
'Delta two-one, you are cleared to leave the craft and approach the Pirate.' The heavily-accented English sounded rich and smooth to Crowden's ears. She far preferred the subcontinental sound to classically-spoken English.
'Copy, Central. Motra, come on, on your feet.'
As Motra unfolded one set of joints at a time and stood upright, the radio buzzed in her ear again. 'Exercise caution, Delta two-one. This is a strange one. Dispatch says that the Pirate fell through the Hole, straight to Earth.'
'Copy, Central.' With these kind of incidents, briefings tended to be short, simply because details were in short supply. Even so, this was a patchy effort. Pirates weren't an everyday occurrence, but they usually came through the Hole with their thrusters intact. This one had simply dropped, like a bird falling dead from a frozen sky.
Putting her nagging concerns to one side, Crowden addressed the crew directly. 'You all heard Central. This is a standard sweep and tag. There's been nothing so far to suggest that this one is a hostile, but we all know that these things can change quickly, so keep your rifles handy. Remember your brief - you're cleared to engage if necessary.'
The three Europeans assumed positions, while the two Partnership troops hung back.
'Singh, Motra, have you two been out on live ops before?' Crowden said. The pause in the aftermath told her all she needed to know. 'Okay, fine. In which case, stay close to the group for now. We'll establish a fifty yard perimeter and then secure the craft. When we crack the Pirate, you're backup to the first team. Move into the craft when they've secured a foothold. Keep your eyes open and don't take any chances.'
Singh looked visibly excited at the thought of the combat ahead, while Motra was clearly the more cautious and reserved of the two. Crowden thought back to how the taller man had handled his pistol. It had looked thorough and professional, but also slow and measured. Motra looked like someone who prepared and planned, rather than someone used to reloading in a hurry in the middle of a firefight. She caught his eye.
'So I'm guessing that you told the armoury you didn't want a standard issue pistol? Only that looks like a custom build to me.'
Motra frowned for the briefest of moments, and then shrugged. 'This is what they gave me.'
'Sure,' Crowden said, her tone easy. 'Though someone's going to be pissed, 'cause that gun of yours is monogrammed. It looks like it belongs to somebody, and the kind of person who owned that kind of gun would probably take very good care of it.'
Motra was suddenly very still, and his eyes met Singh's. Their was a tiny flicker of recognition, and then there was a cursory exchange in a language that Crowden couldn't understand. It was Singh who spoke. 'My friend is sorry. His spoken English really isn't very good. This is definitely the gun that they gave him in the armoury.'
Crowden felt the reassuring presence of Hierro at her shoulder and decided that this was a mystery best tackled later. She glanced at Jyoti Singh, and then addressed Motra. 'I am sorry. Your spoken English seemed fine a minute ago, that's all. But whatever. I'm sure I'll find out more about you when we get back in a few hours. Let's just hope that you shoot better than you lie.'
Crowden's pulse fired and her body twitched with the anticipation of the mission ahead. She brushed off a lingering doubt at the back of her mind that she'd been unduly harsh to the two Indians. She had mixed feelings about the training that local recruits from both sides of the border received. The team members undertook combat simulation exercises in addition to the basic training that they received from their respective national armed forces. UN resources were stretched however, meaning that it was hard to accurately reproduce the kind of short range, craft-based urban battles in which Terracom were specialists. Unless they found themselves becoming part of the core squad, troops tended to get cycled out before they garnered enough battle experience to be really useful. Repeated practise of the exercises they had set up at the base tended to encourage overconfidence in a recruit's ability and teach a range of bad habits that had to be unlearned in the field. Even then, Crowden knew, all the experience in the world was of no use if you ran into a combat situation you'd never previously encountered. Occasionally, you got a hell of a lot more than you bargained for.
The sergeant could feel Hierro watching her closely as she marched to the transport's rear and engaged the hydraulics. She glanced at him and his eyes were mirrors that reflected her own fear.
She could die today. Here, now, thousands of miles from home, a hundred wishes unfulfilled.
'Are you okay?' Hierro asked. By all accounts, with his wide, masculine shoulders and his Mediterranean heritage, Crowden always thought that Hierro's voice should be deeper. Instead, it was soft, light, almost melodic. He was ten years older than her, could easily have been a Sergeant himself by now had he shown any inclination to be one. Maybe he hadn't put himself forward because he didn't want to feel the same deep sickness in his stomach that Crowden was feeling now.
'I'm good,' she said, as much to herself as to him. She pushed a few strawlike strands of hair out of her eyes and back into her helmet before reaching for her rifle. The gantry rolled down, opening a yawning toothless maw before her. Crowden took another controlled breath and led her team of six into the night.
As they walked, the group's boots crunched on the loose surface. Crowden took two steps and immediately looked for cover. The second lesson they had taught her at cadet school had never let her down yet. She took point, Hierro followed, and the back up squads took left and right respectively. Slightly ahead and to one side, the mountain sloped updwards steeply and she used the cliff face as cover, trusting that the squad to her side would sweep the ridge.
She reached down to her belt, pulled out a T-shaped device about half the size of a handgun and twisted the base. There was a hiss, and she balanced it between her thumb and index fingers. A few seconds later, the device began to emit sparks and then it jetted off at pace in a graceful vertical arc about a hundred yards into the distance. When it landed, the casing burst open, flooding the mountainside with light.
Hierro had a second flare ready, but he waited for her order before he loosed it in a flatter trajectory wide and to their right to illuminate the area for the second support team. Crowden stood motionless in the shadow of the cliff face, one eye scanning the countryside, one watching the two pairs of blips on her tac-map. When both teams had gained good flank positions, she reached back and gestured to Hierro. He followed her around the corner.
There was an expanse of open, flat ground before her that swung away in a dog leg that turned almost back on itself as it gained height. The track above joined their own, meaning that the Partnership pair on the ridge would be coming down towards Crowden and Hierro as they climbed. On the far side where the second flare gleamed, there was a lot of brush and some debris, but little that would present itself as genuine cover. They would need to move forward and secure the area in front of the craft before the Dutch girls would be able to follow safely.
The craft itself could be seen as three wide grey arches that had dug themselves into the treeline at the end of the ridge where rock gave way to thick forest. The Pirate rested as neatly as if it had been built there, silent, but full of deadly promise.
In three previous missions that Crowden remembered, Pirates had been shot down by UN-sponsored fighters. On those occasions, there had been grooves scored ten feet deep in the rock by the dying alien aircraft as they had screamed from the sky. Other days had seen the Pirates evade combat with their superior speed, or simply land amongst the mountains without needing to be shot down. Those ships always carried a crew of three Blues, sometimes four. They always fought to the death.
The standard spaceships that carried these crews were about the size of modern European houses, with a room for the engine, a bay for storage and a bridge. There were also smaller craft that seemed to operate as unmanned drones. This Pirate was neither of those. It was wide, far wider than any Pirate that Crowden had seen before, and while she couldn't judge the depth from her position, she was ready to bet that it was deeper too. There was no way to tell from here what the purpose of the craft had been. The alien ships operated via some kind of anti-gravity mechanism that was not well understood, and the wide areas of this ship did not look like wings.
Crowden jogged towards the craft, staying low and keeping to the shadows. As she got closer, she saw that the port side was scorched and caved in. This was another first. Even Pirates that had been shot down retained almost full structural integrity. The impact of a high-speed landing generally did more damage to the mountain than to the alien ship. In this instance, there had clearly been a massive concussive blast to the port side, which might go a long way towards explaining why this ship had simply fallen through the Hole. Crowden could not imagine what kind of destructive force would be needed to cause this damage. The hull had not been breached but the surface was bent and jagged. It looked to Crowden like an aluminium can that had been crushed underfoot.
The Partnership support team of Singh and Motra had the best angle of approach. 'Singh, Motra, come in along the ridge. You have the best field of fire. I'm not expecting to see aliens outside the craft, but if you see Blue, don't wait for an invitation.'
There was a crackling noise, and then Singh's voice, high-pitched with excitement and nervous energy. 'How are we going to recognise these Blues?'
It wasn't the kind of question that someone familiar with the combat simulations would ask. Crowden filed it away under the growing list of items causing her disquiet and held her breath as she silently watched the blips move along the ridge. She only breathed out once the two men were resting alongside the body of the Pirate. 'Don't worry, you'll know them when you see them.'
The team that cracked the first ever Pirate to land on Earth had brought plastic explosives to breach the hull. They were shocked when the detonation had little visible impact upon the hull, and then they found to their amazement that the craft doors appeared to be sealed via some form of curtain made of fractal data that dissipated at a simple touch. Every other craft since had had the same mechanism, and never more than a single door. The door to this craft was dead in the centre of the middle archway, and Crowden and Hierro ran up on the near side of it. There they waited, guns trained on the entranceway and the empty ground behind it, providing cover for Van Hooiveld and Nydegger. Crowden called them forward and allowed herself another silent sigh of relief when all of her crew were under the low cover of the archway.
'Okay, nicely done so far, everyone,' Crowden said to the assembled horseshoe. 'This is where it gets real. Hierro and I will go through first. Singh, Nydegger, stand back to give yourselves a field of fire to cover us. Motra, Van Hooiveld, come through once I give the order.'
The group formed positions, all eyes on her, and she and Hierro took a position on each side of the door.
Hierro stopped short of the breach, offered her five fingers to start a countdown, but she shook her head. She had to force herself to focus her mind before she stepped through the hole and put it all on the line. Hierro watched her anxiously, rocking nervously from foot to foot. Once the door was opened, it would alert any hostiles to their position. A hundred things were going through her head, and the crushing weight of her uncertainty was preventing her from letting go of them.
Of course, it doesn't have to be you, Crowden thought to herself as the squad waited, their silent questions unasked and unanswered. She could order Hierro - she could order any of them - to lead the charge, but she was the leader, and what was the point of being the leader if you were too afraid to lead? Yet still she stayed, motionless apart from the rising and falling of her chest, and somewhere behind her, the seconds she wasn't using slipped away into the void.
She didn't dare look around, couldn't imagine what the Dutch girls or the Partnership troops would think as they watched her, but she lifted her helmet slightly - a few inches, just enough to allow her to press her cheek into the frozen metallic surface of the Pirate's outer walls. There she stayed for a count of one...two...three. The cold burn on her cheek lit a fire in her brain, her fingers counted down and she pressed a palm to the door of the Pirate, which was a fractalised barrier made up of millions of shifting silver numbers that fell away like rain.
The transluscent curtain in the doorway dropped away with a flash, and then there was nothing to suggest that it had ever existed at all. They were in.
The space directly beyond the door was illuminated by a row of tiny ceiling lights that stretched away into the distance, casting spotlights into a cargo hold that was bigger and deeper than the size of the craft suggested it had a right to be. At the periphery of her vision, the width of the Pirate craft quickly gave way to suffocating gloom. The internal mechanisms of the Pirates actively dampened light at long wavelengths, meaning that infra-red photocathode and other night vision technologies were of little use
Crowden didn't let the physics of the situation phase her - she had already seen crafts that warped space and time, with the result that they looked bigger inside than out. She also knew that that if there were combat troops on board the Pirate, those troops tended towards direct confrontation at the earliest opportunity rather than relying upon stealthiness. The small research team back at Pakhyana had some evidence that the aliens Terracom had encountered up to now were very sensitive to light at short wavelengths and their flesh burned easily in daylight. They postulated in turn that that since the aliens could themselves see electromagnetic light at long wavelengths, they didn't realise that humans had so limited a range of light vision.
She made as if to take a cautious step inside the craft, and then the space between the spotlights shifted as two small blue streaks appeared from nowhere and stopped momentarily a short distance away. As Crowden's eyes gradually adjusted, the interior of the ship began to take on dimensions that she could not have made out before and a large, imposing shadow became outlined in the darkness before her. The two blue streaks zipped behind it, vanishing once again. Crowden heard a guttural metallic sound and then a noise that suggested air was being sucked into something, as if the ship itself was drawing a breath. She felt the cold air moving around her face, the harsh ends of her hair lifting and dropping away, and she was already throwing herself to one side as Hierro yelled, 'Crossbow!'
With the deep hiss of the Devil exhaling, the superheated bolt of energy lanced at Crowden. She flung herself despairingly away. It clipped her shoulder pad, melting it instantly. The plastic popped and fused. Continuing on its path, the blast struck Nydegger full in the the face. Her head exploded with a damp pop.
Crowden watched in horror as Nydegger's corpse spun and dropped lazily away into a sitting position, knees pulled up, hands resting in her lap. Her body looked oddly comfortable, reclining slowly, resigned to fate.
'Franco, get in there!' Crowden yelled. She absorbed the horror of the scene and mentally filed it away for later, but for now she could not afford to let the Blues recharge the Crossbow. Hierro duly lowered his shoulder and launched into the ship. Crowden rolled up onto the balls of her feet and sprang forward after him.
Hierro was ahead of her and by the time she had leapt inside the cargo bay, he was sprinting towards the war machine, firing as he did so to keep the aliens pinned down. Crowden yelled for backup from the squad members behind her, but the aliens began a high-pitched screeching noise that drowned out her calls.
The Crossbow was a huge deck weapon so named because it looked vaguely similar to the siege crossbows from medieval times. The base of the weapon was held in place with a powerful magnet and their sturdy construction easily offered cover to the small frames of the Blues as they frantically tried to defend themselves. They were crouched behind it, small sidearms poking through the mechanism, snapping off blind rounds. She couldn't hear the fire over the keening aliens, but she tried her best to anticipate and dodge the chartreuse beams that arrowed at her from the night.
A figure appeared to Crowden's right, and to her amazement, it was Motra. He turned his body side on to the Crossbow, assumed a sport shooter's stance and his monogrammed pistol spat fire at the Blues. The aliens turned away from Crowden, concentrated on the new shooter, but he was already moving again towards the side of the craft, flanking them and drawing their fire.
Making herself as small as possible, Crowden loosed two rounds, the first of which slammed into the base of the Crossbow and the second zipped past it, blazing a trail into the darkness beyond. The aliens continued to return fire, beams scorching the floor under her feet, but Crowden was sprinting now and her pace carried her past the war machine in the centre of the bay. She dived and rolled, bringing her rifle to the fore. A squeeze of the trigger unleashed a wide blast into the Blue nearest her, which staggered and fell, dropping its pistol at her feet.
As all the noise of seconds past suddenly abated, Crowden glanced across to Hierro, who was nudging at the other fallen Blue with the toe of his boot. A small cerulean limb rolled limply to one side. Hierro looked at Crowden and shook his head.
Crowden scanned the bay for movement, but there was nothing. Hierro walked over, knelt down and scooped up the alien's weapon. Motra moved towards them with the air of a man enjoying a casual stroll. As Crowden watched, he ejected the clip from his pistol and inserted another with a single flick of his wrist. In the doorway, Van Hooiveld and Singh bundled warily, before finally inching inside.
'Good shooting,' Hierro said to Motra. 'First kill for you. And it was brave to run and draw their fire. Good going for a new guy.'
Crowden nodded at him, but Motra showed no outward acknowledgement of her reaction or of Hierro's words. She wondered if it was bravado, or natural focus. Her interest in his background rose another notch.
'Nydegger got it,' Crowden said. Her voice echoed eerily around the empty space.
'Yeah, I saw,' Hierro said, carefully neutral.
'No-one should die like that.'
Hierro reloaded his rifle and looked down at the two small broken alien bodies on the floor beside them. He wisely decided not to reply.
The radio crackled in her ear. 'Sergeant Crowden, report.'
'Copy, central. Two Blues and one bow, one man down. Cargo bay is significantly larger than the outside of the craft would suggest, and this is not a little ship to begin with. We still need to secure the perimeter.' Unbidden, Van Hooiveld was leading Singh along the near wall of the Pirate.
Crowden looked at Motra. 'That could be all, but this is a big ship, so we need to stay alert. Normally they all come to the door to welcome us in, but once a group of them hid in a side room and...'
'Sergeant,' Hierro said.
Crowden was already mentally building the wall between that day and this one. The crew had done a few sweeps by that point, thought they'd seen the only tactic that the Blues were ever going to use. Complacency had been a killer. The Blues had never ambushed in that way, before or since. It added an unwelcome page to the handbook, and Crowden was taking no chances.
'Motra, I want you to stay and guard the Crossbow,' Crowden said. The tall man looked over at Singh for a moment, but he stepped over towards the deck weapon nonetheless. Despite the clear indications that he was more than first impressions had suggested, Crowden was still surprised by the grace of the Partnership man's movements.
'Franco, with me.' Hierro followed her, and the two headed towards the back wall of the craft.
The pair reached the back wall within two minutes and turned through ninety degrees. Crowden looked around, down and above constantly. As the side of the craft took them diagonally back upon themselves, she looked to her left hand side and realised that she could see Van Hooiveld but not Jyoti Singh. There was only a single blip on her tactical vision. Instinctively, her rifle came up to her shoulder as she turned, and whether he had realised the same thing or not, Hierro was right with her, as he always was. She could see Van Hooiveld moving towards them, but Singh hadn't followed. Instead, he was wandering towards the opposite wall, away into the inky darkness. The tac-map fizzed, picked him up, and immediately lost him again.
'Private Singh,' she called over the radio. When all she got by way of a response was a burst of static, she said, 'Private Singh, return to the Crossbow immediately. You're in serious danger. Repeat, return to the Crossbow immediately.'
There was more white noise from the radio but he lifted his head and turned in her direction, suggesting that he had at least heard her. She hurried over with Hierro towards Van Hooiveld, who was realising too late that her search partner had got away from her in the gloom. Then, Crowden heard Motra's voice in her ears, speaking the strange language from earlier that she didn't recognise. Singh was standing stock still in the empty space. Only the reflection of distant lights could be seen glintting on the harder corners of his armour. It would be all too easy for the darkness to swallow him.
'Motra, report,' Crowden called as she ran. A slap on the shoulder sent Hierro off to meet Van Hooiveld, and they met just as Crowden drew level with Motra. He was facing away from her, hunched over a panel on the side of the Crossbow, his long limbs suddenly making her think of a spider spinning a web. Gritting her teeth, she raised the gun in her hands and pointed it at his back.
'Motra, I said report.'
Motra said nothing and stabbed at the panel in front of him. The whole floor of the alien craft was suddenly bathed in brilliant light, like the Pakhyala laborotories which were brighter than the sun despite being deep underground. Crowden saw her comrades in the bay wince and shrink away from the light. Then there was a scream from Singh, and her tac-map was overwhelmed with blips.
In the middle of the floor, he was surrounded by massed ranks of aliens, twelve, fifteen, twenty deep and at least as many wide. They had not suddenly appeared with the light, Crowden realised, but rather they had been sitting there in absolute silence all along. The creatures were not tall, barely more than three feet in most instances, but the clawed appendages, fleshy humanoid limbs and their shrunken heads would be enough to disgust most human observers, and their insectoid pincers where one might expect a jaw completed a horrific countenance. Singh had wandered straight into the middle of the largest crowd of aliens that Crowden had ever seen by a factor of a least a hundred.
'Caligo! Lacey, they're Caligo!'
Hierro's voice over the radio told Crowden what she hadn't even realised she had been hoping to hear, and no angel in any holy book ever sang a song that was sweeter. Motra's eyes had opened wide when the lights had come up and the monogrammed pistol had flicked into firing position, but Crowden had been able to knock away his arm before he squeezed the trigger.
'Motra! Hold your fire!'
The alien crowd was a perfect rectangle that disappeared into the distance and there was a moment for Crowden that took her breath away. She thought of soldiers in conflicts in ancient times, forced into formation blocks, looking up amazed as the seemingly empty hills around them suddenly disgorged ten thousand enemy combatants from behind rocks, bushes and hummocks. They must have cursed the way in which the rolling countrysides could hold and hide.
There was no better camoflage for the Caligo than the darkness that had resulted in the troops giving them their name. Still, they were adaptable creatures and capable of hiding in plain sight. Given just a few seconds, their chameleonic flesh took on a hue that matched the available light, and even as Crowden watched, the dark colour drained away from the alien crowd with the insistency of a wave, and in the brilliant glare of the ship lights the Caligo changed from black to milky white, right down to the lizard-like balls of their eyes. Aware that they had been spotted, the gathering began to hiss softly. The sound didn't assault the nerves in the same way that the high-pitched shriek from the Blues had done during the firefight earlier, but the insidious nature of the Caligo, not to mention their numbers, meant that the sound chilled Crowden's blood nonetheless.
She had been unable to raise Jyoti Singh on the radio, but he was screaming loudly enough now for Crowdon to comfortably hear him from her spot behind the Crossbow. In a more composed man, fear could have precipitated a slaughter, but rather than open fire blindly on the crowd surrounding him, Singh dropped his rifle and collapsed into a shivering, whimpering heap.
'Private Singh!' Crowden's voice rang out across the bay as she peeled back her helmet. Her other hand was still holding Motra's gun down against his side. 'Private Singh! Listen to me.'
The other soldiers watched warily and Singh must have heard her too, as he looked up towards her despite his obvious terror.
'Private Singh! Get your gun and get back here to the Crossbow, stat. Do it! Now!'
Singh rolled over and put his hand on his rifle, and his frantic voice then snapped through on the radio part way through a burbling speech, sounding as though someone had flicked on a commercial radio station part way through a broadcast.
'What's he saying?' Crowden asked Motra.
'He's apologising to his mother and grandmother for making this trip. He's saying that if he had known, he would have stayed home and got a job with the Diplomatic Corps like they wanted.'
'Get him back here,' Crowden said.
Motra shook himself. 'What in God's name are they?' he breathed.
'Caligo,' Crowden said. 'Named for the darkness, but they're chameleonic. You can see them changing colour in the light.'
'Are they dangerous?'
'No,' Crowden said, before checking herself. 'At least, not that we've seen so far. They seem to be a non-combat species. If there's gunshots, they run for cover rather than fighting.'
'They look the same as the ones we shot earlier.' Motra's firing arm relaxed, prompting Crowden to release her grip on it, but he didn't holster his pistol.
Crowden shook her head. 'The ones we saw earlier seem to be the warriors. Their skin is blue, like you saw. The warrior ones seem to be stuck that way. We've not seen the chameleonic ability that these Caligo ones do. The head researchers think the camouflage skills are a defence mechanism that they've adapted specifically because they don't fight.'
'They look like children with insect heads. Or devils in human form.'
'We don't know what they are. But be glad they're not Blues. If they had been, we'd all be dead now.'
Motra gripped his pistol more tightly. 'And how many times have you seen these creatures before?'
'Only once,' Crowden replied. It was an answer that failed to satisfy either of them.
Hierro moved swiftly and steadily through the crowd of aliens, his face set in a horrid grimace. Van Hooiveld backed him up, turning every few yards to try and keep her weapon focused everywhere at once. Crowden watched them, loving them for their courage and simultaneously cursing their reckless bravery. She almost wished that they'd refused to follow the order. Insubordination was one thing but she wouldn't be able to bear it if her poor judgement resulted in their deaths. There were no previous reports of a Caligo acting aggressively, but the sheet weight of numbers here made them seem like spooked cows in a dangerously small corral. Crowden levelled her weapon at the front row and tried to project the image that she was in charge of the situation. She wondered if she was fooling anyone.
Motra's eyes flashed from Crowden to the aliens and back again. 'There are hundreds of them,' he said.
'Yes, there are,' Crowden replied, trying to keep her voice even.
'What are we going to do if they attack?'
Crowden said nothing, because she had nothing to say. Across the bay, in the middle of the mass of curious, hissing humanoids, Hierro reached Singh.
'Up,' the Spaniard commanded. He helped Singh to his feet and got him moving with a hand under his arm. Van Hooiveld retrieved Singh's rifle.
When the troops made as if to return the way they had come, the Caligo suddenly compacted, closing ranks in front of them. They formed a horseshoe in front of the squad and blocked their progress.
Crowden saw Hierro raise his rifle, even though he surely realised that facing down such a vast crowd would be impossible.
'Sergeant,' he said over the radio, 'we're in trouble.'
His voice was the same Franco it had ever been, but it was tinged with a sadness she had never heard before. Crowden's heart flipped and she found herself struggling to breathe. 'Franco. Talk to me. What can you see? Are you okay?'
The alien hissing increased in volume. Anxious, anxious seconds passed for Crowden. 'They're not letting us out.'
Motra appeared next to Crowden, his pistol drawn. 'We need to go in there and get them.'
Crowden gaped at him. She was torn by the situation they found themselves in, but she pulled the cable out of her radio mike and hissed furiously at him. 'Motra, I give the orders here. Hold your fire!'
The Indian pulled himself up to his full six-and-a-half feet and towered over Crowden, looking at her as one might study an interesting bug before mounting it on cardboard. 'You heard your friend. He's in trouble.'
Crowden looked desperately at Franco and Van Hooiveld, who were trying to manoeuvre Singh so that each of them had their back to him. 'If we shoot,' she said, 'it could cause them all to attack at once.'
'One at a time, or all at once. The outcome is the same.'
Crowden hit him in the chest with an open palm. Despite his slim build, he barely seemed to notice. 'You listen to me, Private. You fire before I order it, and I'll shoot you myself!'
'Sergeant. I'm sorry, but I made a promise to Jyoti's mother that I would bring him home. I'm not going to go back to her and tell her that I let him die.'
Crowden stepped back and levelled her rifle at him. 'Private Motra. Stop. Now.'
Motra met her eyes, his own pistol still hanging loosely at his side. 'Sergeant, you know I'm not in your army. You already figured that out.'
'You shoot too well, much better than any Partnership trooper I've encountered before. But right now, you're here with us. You're in my squad. You follow orders and we might just get out of here with our lives.'
Motra glanced briefly at the unwavering automatic resting on her hip. 'I don't think you'll shoot me, Sergeant.'
'Try me,' she said.
Before either of them could do or say anything further, the crowd of aliens shifted inwards towards the squad at the centre. It wasn't a wild charge, but the suddenness of the movement shocked them both. Hierro and Van Hooiveld were back-pedalling frantically. Singh, crushed between them, called over the radio in his local tongue, prompting a exchange with Motra. He seemed to be trying to reason with his friend, but Crowden didn't have the time to find out what they were discussing. Instead, she moved swiftly forward to the space that the aliens had vacated. Hierro's voice rang in her ears.
'Sergeant, I know you can hear me. They're backing us up towards the far wall...though they're not attacking...not yet.'
Crowden looked desperately at Motra and the pair of them raised their guns at the same time.
'Sergeant...should we fire?'
Crowden began to give the order, but then realised that her microphone was still unplugged. She pulled at the cable but it resisted, would not find the connection. 'Shit, shit, shit!'
Hierro's voice was straining now. 'Sergeant, what are your orders?'
The world clicked into place. 'Fire at will,' Crowden said.
'Wait!' Another female voice echoed across the frequency, startling for how quiet it had been up to that point. Everything seemed to stop, including the alien advance. Eline Van Hooiveld had a naturally soft voice, but the strain in it just now was obvious.
'There's a door in the wall here,' she called. 'A fractal curtain, like the ones on the main entrance.'
Crowden had been moving forward with the aliens and if she advanced any further now, she would trip over the nearest row of Caligo. The squat humanoids watched her carefully with what might have been expectation, and their pincer jaws shifted inquiringly. They certainly didn't seem ready to attack her, but the ones near her chittered to one another, seemingly anxious at her presence. She wanted to give an order, wanted to know what do for the best, but the words just wouldn't come.
Motra tapped her shoulder gently. She had been concentrating on the situation ahead so intently that she jumped and shrank back from the touch.
'Is the order to fire still valid?' he inquired politely.
'Wait.' Crowden looked at him, but addressed her question to the other squad members. 'What's happening now?'
Van Hooiveld said, 'I think they want us to go through the door.'
'It could be a trap.'
'I think they're insisting, Sergeant.' The Caligo nearest the squad watched Van Hooiveld raise a hand towards the door, and as she did so, the hissing from the crowd became noticeably louder.
'Wait. Ready your weapons. If you're going to go through there, take a position on either side of the doors. Remember how we do breaches.'
Crowden was trying to concentrate on the instructions she was giving, but then she felt Motra's breath hot on her ear, and she had to fight the urge to punch him. He said, 'Sergeant, no-one's guarding the Crossbow. Just to remind you.'
'Dammit, do it,' she yelled at him.
'Understood,' Van Hooiveld's voice rang out and before Crowden could do anything, the curtain had fallen away, and the hissing of the massed aliens became so loud that she couldn't even hear the urgent voices on the radio.
Base chose that precise moment to try and contact her via the officer's channel. 'Sergeant Crowden, come in, Sergeant Crowden.' The words went in her ears and floated out again.
Before her, sitting on what appeared to be a simple wooden chair, sat the largest of the aliens that she had yet seen. Even seated, it stood a head taller than her, with indistinct features captured in a glowing, red silhouette. As she entered, the being turned towards her, and she saw a visage form and then shift again, a face with that had all the intensity of flame.
'Who are you? What are you?' Crowden breathed.
The being turned the hollow side of it's face to Crowden, and suddenly her mind was filled with images and each image . There was too much to take in all at once - it was as if every moment of a life were photographed and cut into a viedo that was played at fast forward - but she still saw much. A creature cae into the world. Different from the others of its kind, trusted to lead, because that was what it was born to do. A red creature in a sanguine world. There were Caligo working, their colours ranging from cherry blossom to burnt umber. There were celebrations. Crowden's heart swelled and her skin flushed. She felt euphoric.
And then, over time, unrest. Happiness became uncertainty. There was sudden cruelty, and fighting. The red vegetation was burned and the world was scarred. The tones became darker, with much of the planet given up to smoke. Caligo running, dying. There were flags, treaties, raids by hostile races. The scene switched to a planet with rings that rainbowed across a breathtaking sky. Sadness, Crowden felt, a feeling of inevitable loss. This ruler, on a ship leaving dock and entering space, and then an epic hunt spanning a hundred years as these were hunted across space. A flash, and then a dive through unknown dimensions, time turning and twisting in agony, like a stomach trying to digest itself. Then falling, falling through the abyss, and then the hillside, and then the door opening...
'Lacey!' Franco had her by the shoulders and was shaking her.
'It's okay!' she shouted. 'I'm okay.'
'You spoke in a deep voice...like, it was talking through you!'
Crowden was too excited by what she had seen to feel scared by this. She was also no longer afraid of the massed aliens waiting anxiously outside this chamber. From what she had seen, they were not agents of terror. Rather, they were refugees, fleeing their own planet in fear for their lives. She couldn't wait to get back to Pakhyala, tell everything she'd seen to the lab guys so it could be documented. The images were so numerous, and so fleeting, fading already like a treasured dream at dawn. She wanted to write them down immediately before they escaped her recall.
'Franco, it was amazing! Did you feel any of that?'
'Any of what?' Franco said, his voice more anxious than she could recall. 'Sergeant...Lacey. We've got a situation here. We've a man down, a room full of hundreds of Caligo, more than we could fit in any craft and take back.'
'I need to write down their story,' Crowden said.
'No,' Franco said. 'You need to contact Base and let them know we need a pick up here and some assistance to move these aliens back to a secure location.'
There was a cough behind them, and they both turned to see Jyoti Singh, who had been rather forgotten in the events of the last few minutes.
'If I may, I believe I can help you with this matter.'
Crowden was still shaking with something like excitement, so she took a few deep breaths and tried to ignore Franco's expression of deep concern. 'Private Singh, what did you have in mind?'
'With your permission, I need to speak to Base staff.'
'What do you want to tell them?' Franco demanded. Crowden noticed him stand back a little so that both she and the large red alien were in his field of vision. The alien still hadn't moved, though it turned its kaleidoscope face to each of them as they spoke, suggesting that it was listening.
'It's a...delicate matter,' Singh said.
'Permission granted,' Crowden said. She was still lost among the images she had seen, taking out all the ones she could remember and running them through her mind again. Strangely, in her thoughts, some images were in black and white, and others in glorious, glorious colour, with the roseate fauna predominant. She wanted Franco to see it too. No, she wanted everyone to see it.
'Sergeant, are you sure you're okay?' Franco said.
'I feel amazing,' she replied. She hoped the certainty of her tone suitably implied that the discussion was over.
Singh had stepped over to the doorway and was on the radio. 'Base, this is UN Security Council rep Jyoti Singh speaking. I need a direct line to the Prime Minister about an urgent matter of national security.'
Crowden blinked and met Franco's stare. 'You're who?' she said to Singh. He wasn't listening. He had put his finger to his ear and begun to pace to and fro by the doorway.
'You heard me. Switch to the council frequency. No, I didn't say argue, I said switch to the council frequency. There. There you go. Now, put me through to the Cabinet Secretary. No, not someone in his office. Did I say someone in his office?' When he turned to see Hierro and Crowden standing incredulously behind him, he gave them a winning smile and a thumbs up.
'Did he just say he's a UN Security Council representative?' Franco whispered to Crowden. She couldn't reply. The last few minutes had simply been too overwhelming for her. She knew that the thunderstorm was coming, but there was still a few minutes before it hit land and she wanted to stay there for now. Every pair of eyes in the world will be watching you...
As if on cue, Motra appeared and filled the doorway. He didn't seem the slightest bit surprised by the red alien on the throne in the centre of the room. When Crowden looked at him, he nodded in acknowledgement. 'I left Van Hooiveld in charge of things in there. The aliens didn't try to stop me.'
'Yes...yes...no, I don't care if he's in bed with Sherlyn bloody Chopra,' Singh was saying. 'Get him up. And while you're at it, get the Defence Minister too. He's going to want to hear about this. And while you're doing that, get the Interior Ministry to track the GPS location of the Terracom craft in Jammu. We're going to need transport copters here, and quite a few of them. Say a dozen. I want reinforcement troops, real ones, not the ones that normally get sent on Partnership duty. Send the Sikh boys, they know what they're doing.'
'Sergeant Crowden, report,' Base said.
'Base, I've found something huge,' Crowden said.
'You're going to tell me that Jyoti Singh is there with you, and that he's alive and well, and then you might just escape with a court martial,' Base said.
An eerie calm descended upon Crowden and she was left with the feeling that she was walking on a tightrope above the abyss. So much had happened in such a short space of time that she felt immune to the censure she was facing.
'Base, Jyoti Singh and his bodyguard are here and they're both safe.' Motra nodded and raised his eyebrows. 'He's on the phone to the Indian Defence Ministry right now. I think though that you're going to want to get a transport craft out here stat.'
'Why in hell did you take Singh along on the mission with you?'
'He brought himself. Anyway, it doesn't matter. Listen to me. This is epic.'
Static buzzed in her ears and Crowden waited impatiently for the response. 'What have you got, Sergeant?'
'I'm pretty sure I just found whatever passes for their King.'