Chapter 20: Skyborne recon

There were twenty of them, a considerable force for just a reconnaissance arm. The team was split into four teams of five troopers, each headed by a commando, heavily armed and armoured. No light penetrated to this depth, but that did not impede them. After all, their eyes were secondary organs. Very much like fish, they felt their environment rather than seeing them.

The cold ocean currents, with its unpredictable tides and eddies, did not hamper them. Even after so long spent in stasis, they knew how to navigate the treacherous flows. It had been engineered into every cell in their bodies. Hyper-efficient gills leeched oxygen from the salt water, allowing custom-built mitochondria to respire and provide energy to move webbed feet and hands.

Their weapons were held in special groin pouches. They had no sexual organs to speak of, the area having been specially designed to accommodate the bulky cannon in a sac to minimize drag during movement. Some had additional close-combat weapons fitted into similar organic sheaths on their forearms.

The surrounding ocean brightened as the troupe moved increasing upwards, toward the bright sun. Optical membranes automatically darkened, compensating for the illumination. It would be another two days or so, moving along the transoceanic currents, hugging the seafloor in shallower waters to avoid detection. Without the benefit of mechanized transport, the going was slow and hard, but the team was driven forward by the subconscious orders implanted by their master.

Only two days more. Every team member salivated in anticipation. After so long, after so very long, their existence had meaning once more.

"Good morning, Franz," the current Chancellor of Austria greeted his personal aide as he strode into his office. The morning was cold and miserable, a constant drizzle pelting down the streets of Vienna. The Chancellor wanted nothing more than to stay in bed, with his wife, but duties of state called. There was already a stack of paperwork on his desk, and the ever-efficient Franz already had his PDA out, ready to give the Chancellor his itinerary for the day.

Stifling a groan, the Chancellor sank down into his office chair. He beckoned Franz over to him and motioned for him to start the briefing.

Franz saluted, then glanced at his PDA to begin. A puzzled frown crossed his face as he saw the first entry. The Chancellor caught the look at once.

"What is it, Franz?"

"Sir. Your first appointment of the day … it is with …"


The doors to the office flew open, admitting a skinny, almost waif-like man. He had strangely piercing black eyes, and a forehead that was a bit too large for the rest of his body. The man let the doors slam shut behind him, and sat down uninvited in one of the plush chairs in the office. There was no sign of the Chancellor's bodyguard.

"And who are you?" The Chancellor asked, annoyed.

The man just looked askance at Franz. The Chancellor's aide looked uncomfortable for a moment, then shrugged and read from his PDA.

"Karl Von Liechenstein, sanctioned representative of … the … Tel' Istar … galactic empire …" Franz's voice trailed off in shock and disbelief.

"Yes. And a good morning to you all."

The pair gaped at Karl, still stunned. The man sighed and gestured with one elegant hand. "Yes, I am from the … aliens." He said the word with some distaste.

"But … you are human!" The Chancellor blurted out.

"Hardly." Karl sniffed. "I am nothing like you bunch of sheep. I am from a higher order, a higher authority, but I am here to negotiate terms of peace with you, nonetheless."

This, at least, was something the Chancellor could understand. "Why? We conclusively defeated you at London."

"London was a single task force. A single task force that laid waste to one of Humanity's capital cities. And we could do the same to every, single city on Earth. In fact, we would not even need a task force. We could simply reduce your cities to rubble from orbit. I am referring to tactical orbital bombardment, in case you simply do not understand."

The Chancellor reeled. Orbital bombardment? Reducing cities to slag? Was what this mad-man talking about true? Or was he simply bluffing? A look at Franz decided it for him. This person was real. How else could the entry have appeared on his personal itinerary for the day?

"Then why are you here?" The Chancellor asked, clawing for time.

"Simply this. We of the Tel' Istar understand that peace is better for all. What would war with Earth bring? Atomizing life on this planet back a few million years? Where is the point in that? What would we gain? What would you gain? Nothing.

"It is never to anyone's advantage to resort to violence. We regret that at least some semblance of aggression was necessary, to show you what we are capable of, but now that you have seen the might of the Tel' Istar military, no more hostilities are necessary.

"But I digress. We do not wish to prosecute this war against Earth. It is a needless waste of resources for either side. You do not wish annihilation. The Tel' Istar most certainly do not wish to rule over a dead planet. But if we were to integrate our cultures together …

"Think of the advantages, man! Access to technology beyond your wildest dreams. Imagine the disposal of the limitless wealth of the Tel' Istar as part of your treasury. What would you be able to do with that? Rebuild your hospital infrastructure? Keep education free? The possibilities are endless.

"The Tel' Istar stand to gain, too. Earth is rich. It is a melting pot of many cultures. We would gladly learn of those cultures, sift the good from the bad, and integrate it into our own. Because of your short lifespans, humans are among the most creative of the races in the galaxies. We would welcome that creativity with open arms. Indeed, we would rush to embrace you.

"Give it some thought. The Tel' Istar are not a single, uniform race. We are formed from five primary races. Humanity could be the sixth. And each and every one of these races has benefited from an alliance with the Tel' Istar. With the help of the Gelorians, for instance, the Tel' Istar have helped eliminate disease from the Balorians. Turn this to the Earth context: we could help engineer a cure for cancer, for AIDS. It is not beyond the capability of our genetic engineers."

The Chancellor could scarcely believe what he was hearing. "I need to think on this, Herr Karl."

"Certainly. But do keep an eye on your television, Herr Chancellor. Something very interesting will happen today. Within the next three hours, in fact. Call it … a final show of our goodwill. Or ill-will, however you choose to see it.

"I will call upon you in another fortnight. I trust you will have an answer for me then?"

"I shall try." The Chancellor managed. "I must consult with the cabinet, and so on, you know politics."

"Indeed I do. Nor would I expect you to make such a momentous decision without the help of your capable advisors. Until then, I bid you adieu."

Karl Von Liechenstein stood up smoothly, and walked out of the Chancellor's office.

Standing forgotten to one side, Franz looked uncertainly at the Chancellor. "Sir?"

The Chancellor was lost in thought. Franz's voice brought him back to the present, where he visibly made a decision. "Get me a secure line to X-Com," the Chancellor ordered.

CINXCOM was briefing the X-Com combat teams on what had transpired in Austria when the alarms went off. As the teams went sprinting off to the armoury for combat-prep, a rejuvenated Colonel Wolf made straight for C&C.

Along the way, though, he ran smack into Tynovir and Byrak. "What are you doing out here?" Wolf blurted out, surprised.

The two looked at each other and shrugged. "You cannot expect us to stay in the cells all the time," Tynovir said. "We require exercise and training to maintain our combat readiness, too."

"We have been doing this for a while now," Byrak added.

"And no-one thought to say anything about this to me?" Wolf shook his head, not knowing to be horrified or amused at the lapse in security.

"We … well, we said you authorised it," Byrak grinned. It did not look very reassuring. "Social engineering."

"Enough." Wolf resolved to have some words with the other personnel on the base later. "As you can probably tell, we have a developing situation."

"What is it?"

"Your friends are coming to get you, I think."

"We have no friends out there," Tynovir spat, surprising Wolf. "If any of the Crusaders get in here, they will actively seek to terminate us."

There was no more time to argue about that. Wolf beckoned them to move along with him, and the trio entered C&C shortly.

Kark's duty officer had taken his orders to heart, sending not just four Starflight-class scoutships, but also one of the big Seer-class science vessels. The ship was an ungainly regular octagon, and possessed woefully inadequate power for something its size, but she made up for it with the most sophisticated scanners and sensors the Tel' Istar could pack into a space-faring vessel.

She had been christened Ark of Knowledge, and her commander was the Flauvian Gythe. Gythe had a staff of eight scientists under him, along with four security personnel, and a combat supervisor. They had all undergone the rudiments of combat, but ultimately, Gythe was no soldier, and did not appreciate being called away from his studies and experiments to lend a hand in what was essentially a combat mission. Gythe was more than happy to hand over control to his combat supervisor.

Their target was simple: scan a two hundred kilometre stretch of the Pacific Ocean on Earth. Gythe did not pretend to understand why this was required of him and his crew, but orders were orders. Gythe understood orders, and so did his duty.

Unlike the tiny one-man scoutship Malius piloted, the Ark of Knowledge was armed with far more powerful sensors. Unhampered by the thick, toxic Earth atmosphere, the science vessel slid smoothly into orbit over their entry zone and started a controlled descent. Five hundred kilometres would bring the Ark into sensor range, and Gythe would hit the target area with active and passive scanners. Any abnormality would show up like a black spot on a sheet of clean, white paper.

Wolf stalked into C&C, with Tynovir and Byrak trailing along behind him. Amidst startled stares, Wolf singled out Andreas and growled, "We need to talk about base security. Again."

The base security chief was quickly forgotten as Wolf turned his attention to the on-screen radar display. Five unmistakable bogies were inbound. The Colonel grabbed a spare headset and opened a channel to the Area 51 base, where the base commander was actively monitoring situation, and had already scrambled the intercept team.

"Launch." Wolf ordered.

The air intercept team was stabled at Base Area 51. Their planes were kept 'hot' at Area 51. That meant that they were maintained in a continuous ready state: fuelled, armed, and generally loaded for bear. The entire squadron was capable of launching in three minutes flat, and that included wheeling their birds out to the runway.

The wing commander was Colonel Henry McGuigan, from the United States Air Force. Formerly part of the of the United States Army, the USAF was formed as a separate branch of the military on September 18, 1947. As one might expect, the USAF was the largest modern air force in the world, with over 9,000 aircraft in service and about 352,000 men and women on active duty.

The USAF was also the most technologically advanced military air power. That impeccable record was maintained now, as the intercept team's F-16s were armed with an eclectic mix of conventional missiles, laser cannon, and a single, newly-installed plasma beam.

The honour of carrying the plasma beam into battle fell not to Colonel McGuigan, but to Captain Isaac Kwan. Formerly from the 8th Fighter Wing, outstationed at Kunsan Air Base in Korea, Isaac was a veritable genius in the F-16. And like all geniuses, Isaac came complete with one peculiar idiosyncrasy: he very much preferred the F-16's M61 Vulcan 20mm Gatling gun, instead of any high-tech missile.

The Vulcan had been the principal cannon armament of US military aircraft for fifty years now, and was essentially a barrel assembly of six barrels rotated by an electric motor. It was capable of firing 6,000 rounds per minute, and its multiple barrels helped contribute to long weapon life by minimizing barrel erosion and heat generation. The mean time between jams or failures was over 10,000 rounds, making the Vulcan a most reliable weapon.

While an F-16's targeting computer tried its very best to aid the pilot in hitting its target with the Vulcan, it still took plenty of skill to lead a target, and pepper it with enough PGU-28 ammunition to destroy it. The PGU-28 was a relatively recent development, first introduced in 1988. It was a low-drag round designed to increase muzzle velocity, and was classified as a semi armour-piercing high-explosive incendiary round, providing substantial improvements in range, accuracy, and power over its predecessor, the M-56A3 high-explosive incendiary round.

The PGU-28 was not without its problems. A USAF safety report in 2000 noted that the SAPHEI rounds had experienced twenty-four pre-mature detonation mishaps in twelve years, causing serious damage in many cases. Compared against the M-56A3 experiencing only two such mishaps in its entire history, the PGU-28 seemed like an unnecessary, deadly hazard. In fact, the current PGU-28/B round was estimated to have a potential failure rate eighty times higher than USAF standards would permit.

Isaac did not care. He loved the Vulcan. He loved how a light touch on the trigger made the cannon assembly whir to life, generating such an intense vibration that it could be felt from within the cockpit. He loved the brilliant tracer streams that sliced through the air and into a target.

But most of all, Isaac loved how a perforated target smoked and sizzled and died a slow death. He liked to think that such a kill gave the enemy pilot time enough to hit the eject button, thereby saving a life.

So Isaac got the plasma beam, where he would have to track the target almost by eye, since the electronics could not quite integrate seamlessly with the alien weapon. He had been told that it would fire up to eighty kilometres away, but Isaac largely ignored that. In the heat of combat, it was better to rely on one's own eyesight and judgement.

The radar pinged the incoming UFOs at different vectors. The foe was splitting up to cover greater ground, but still within range for each individual bogey to provide fire support for each other. Colonel McGuigan designated targets, and the crew broke up to deal with the incursion.

UFO number one came up on radar, twenty miles off. It was one of the familiar X-shaped bogies, the ones that X-Com knew had minimal armour for a UFO. Deciding that discretion was the better part of valour, Colonel McGuigan cheated, and launched a pair of AIM-120 AMRAAMS as they closed with the target, from well over fifteen miles away. The radar contact flashed once and vanished as the high explosive warheads made short work of the UFO, despite evasive manoeuvres from the foe.

That used up all their luck for the battle. The remaining UFOs snapped into formation, coming in at the intercept team from impossible vectors. Plasma blazed, and two F-16s flamed and spun out of the air. Two of the enemy pulled up short from their attack run, turning to face Captain Jason Elson's flight, veering in from their left.

"Break! Break!" The Australian combat pilot shouted into his transceiver, as the missile lock tone warning started sounding. Taking his own advice, Jason yanked the control yoke left and right, jinking his craft madly in random patterns. Plasma burned through the thick Earth atmosphere, emerald beams that just missed Elston but cut one of his wingmen to shreds. His other wingman ripped a hasty turn left, unleashing a short burst of suppression fire from its Vulcan cannon. Undeterred, the UFOs ignored the cannon fire and oriented on Elston.

"Somebody get these … things off my back!" Jason screamed into the radio, banking right and climbing with all the available power his F-16 could muster. Brilliant plasma scorched the sky as the UFOs opened up once more.

By that time, Isaac Kwan was close enough. His targeting computer plotted trajectories, wind speeds …

"Ah, what the fuck," Isaac swore. The UFOs were not built like their F-16s, they were capable of pulling insane moves that no aerofighter could match. He lined up a shot as best as he could, and pulled hard on the trigger. Still reliant on Q-switches to actually toggle the alien interface, there was a two second delay before the plasma beam actually discharged.

Unfortunately, in the world of dogfighting, two seconds was an eternity. Two seconds was plenty of time for a well-trained pilot to assess and react to any incoming threats. The delay was far too long for even an experienced pilot like Isaac to lead his target, and the alien pilot was no dunce. Isaac's chosen target spun smartly away long before the switches activated enough to fire the plasma beam.

Isaac screamed maniacally. He did not care who heard him. He simply knew that the firing delay had cost him a bogey. His flight screeched past the UFOs at speed, at least breaking off their pursuit of Captain Elston.

Grumbling under his breath, Isaac pulled his control yoke and went after his targets again. He was a professional. He would not make the same mistake twice.

The alien pilots were good. But not good enough, especially when Jason and his remaining wingman recovered sufficiently to get back into the fight. Boxed in with cannon fire, Isaac's wingmen launched four Sidewinders at the same target, and another UFO disintegrated. The last UFO was buffeted by the massive explosion, its pilot failing to compensate for the rocking motion but still opting to fire wildly anyway. The shots hit nothing but air, and the two flights came together in a beautiful pincer movement, a combination of missile and cannon fire shredding the UFO.

On the other side of the airborne battlefield, Colonel McGuigan was having a bit of a tougher time. Hastily launched Sidewinders had damaged one UFO, but it still hung around to lob plasma bolts in support of its larger cousin. And it was the larger beast that had McGuigan worried.

It was painfully obvious to the Colonel that the smaller monster was merely running interference for its wingman. The bigger vessel had hardly fired its weapons, focusing instead of zooming straight for the island chain where McGuigan knew Base Avalon was. It was hardly rocket science to deduce what its real target was.

First things first, though. That pesky fly had to go before they could try smoking its big brother.

Issuing curt orders to Isaac and Jason to go after the bigger UFO, McGuigan turned his attention to neutralize that damned …

"Mayday! Mayday!" The radio cracked to panicked life as a lucky shot took out one of his wingmen. McGuigan growled irritatedly, blocking out his rising worry at another good man lost. Focusing, he took careful aim and fired off his remaining Sidewinders. Moments later, his remaining wingman also let loose with a Sidewinder salvo.

The UFO shattered under the assault, fragmenting spectacularly in a fiery explosion. McGuigan spotted Isaac and Jason flying in hot pursuit of the bigger UFO through the debris cloud. Toggling afterburners, he joined the chase.

Franz strode unhurriedly down the steps of Parliament. Located on Dr. Karl Renner's Avenue, in the heart of the city of Vienna, it was named after Austria's first Chancellor. Dr. Karl Renner was named Chancellor at the establishment of the Austria republic in 1918. The building itself was old, constructed from 1873 to 1883 by Theophil von Hausen, the same man who authored the famous Athenebrunnen fountain that currently stood in front of Parliament.

He paused a moment to admire it. The monumental fountain held a marble statue of the goddess Pallas Athena, goddess of Wisdom, towering over five meters in height. Surrounding the goddess were six allegorical figures: flanking her were the statues of Law and Legislation. At her feet lay the statues representing the rivers Inn and Danube, as well as the rivers Elbe and Moldau. The statues were formed of marble from Laas, the superstructure and basin fashioned from granite.

On either side of the fountain were steel flagstaffs rising full thirty meters into the air. The Austrian red-white-red colours were flying from the flagstaffs, indicating that the National Council was in session. How futile, how fragile, is Humanity, Franz thought to himself. And yet, filled with such strength of purpose, such resilience.

It would be most enjoyable grinding Humanity under the heels of the Tel' Istar.

Franz grinned wickedly as he lifted a hand and gently touched behind his left ear. He exerted his will, and his mindlink came to life, plugging him into the Tel' Istar's Mother network.

You may begin when ready.

It shall be done. Xenothane rumbled in reply.