Little Moment: In the Face of Extinction
By Eric 'Erico' Lawson
July 27th, 1952
New Avalon (Location Classified)
Strange things had started to happen after World War II.
That wasn't to say that there weren't other events that happened before the war. There'd been incursions by the creatures who came from the stars or by those who wormed their way in through the cracks of reality. Of course there were. During the war, they'd been so focused on stopping the traitors and their Nazi masters that they probably missed some things. At least the 'Foo Fighters' over London during the Blitz had been harmless enough.
But starting in 1947 with that first sighting over Mount Rainier and that bungled cover-up of a saucer crash in New Mexico, the skies over the United States had steadily begun to host more and more sightings of strange lights and strange crafts in the sky. Enough that those not in the know came up with a new term for them: UFO's. There was another word that began to develop too, one which existed but gained new prominence in what was titled the Atomic Age. Fanciful stories of people from other worlds, aliens, developed. Dime store novels made by people with wild imaginations and read by young folks wasting their parent's money. Merlin didn't have many positive words for 'science fiction' writers, but at least H.G. Wells got one thing right. Not the bit about time machines or shooting a giant cannon to put a rocket shell on the Moon, no. His Martians were hostile and were nothing but trouble. The cinema hadn't done much with the genre aside from Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, but even there, it was mindless drivel with a point; You didn't trust aliens.
It had taken everything Jim Huxby and the Plumbers had at their disposal to keep a lid on it and still things leaked through. But they'd been on the mend, pulling off that hoaxed picture of a 'flying saucer' in Oregon which was quickly dismissed as false by the obvious wires outside the farm. They'd been getting people to start buying the excuses of weather balloons and swamp gas, and he and his team of agents in the government had been looking to start up a campaign, somewhere in the armed services, of disproving the rest of those sightings. It would've taken a few years to get going, as the commission couldn't be started by any action of theirs.
All of that pre-planning, though...wasted now. His ability to contain and control sightings and incursions didn't mean shit when the skies of Washington D.C. were suddenly filled with UFOs.
Huxby knew he was chomping down hard enough on his pipe to damage the stem. He didn't care. He glared at the television broadcast coming in from the cameras in the capitol, projected on a small movie screen in New Avalon's situation room and puffed away like a chimney. It was on all three channels, and each one of the reporters on site was trying to sound calm and controlled and failing miserably at it.
"I want to talk to that son of a bitch who made that movie last year." He growled out. One of his agents looked over, blinking in surprise.
"You mean, The Day the…"
"Yes." Huxby cut him off. "This is too much of a coincidence and I don't believe in coincidences." He stood up and adjusted his three piece suit.
"Well, sir, you know it was a short story before they…" Another operative offered, but he closed his mouth and wilted when Huxby turned his glare on the man. The poor fellow coughed, adjusted the plain black tie on his white dress shirt and looked away. Huxby turned his attention back onto the broadcast.
"US Army has mobile artillery pieces and some Sherman tanks from Fort AP Hill situated around the capitol building, the Lincoln Memorial, and the White House." Another technician reported, one hand pressed hard to the headset against their ear. "Fort Meade is tracking approximately forty unknown contacts on radar in the skies overhead. Bolling Air Base and Andrews Air Field are both scrambling all the interceptors they can, but with orders to not open fire unless fired on."
So we wait for the aliens to give us a bloody nose first, Huxby thought to himself. Not that it'd do much good. In past encounters, the UFOs that military assets had met up with had outflown them. Not just the P-51, but the F-86 Sabre in a dead heat. If anything, this was a rare opportunity where they weren't just flying around but were concentrated somewhere.
The phone next to him rang, and Jim yanked it off of the hook. "Merlin." He spat the word out.
"Merlin, sir?" The woman who ran New Avalon's switchboard said nervously.
"What is it, Central?"
"I have the President on the line. He's demanding to talk to you."
His shoulders came up and he huffed. "He's demanding." Huxby repeated flatly. It boggled the mind. Where did the POTUS get off demanding anything from him? "Fine. Patch me through."
"...Yes, sir." Central replied, and there was a delay as the wires were moved around. Almost immediately, the one-term President was hollering at him. Jim gave him a few seconds to rant away, then set to thundering back.
"If you're done screaming at me, Mister President, maybe you can explain to me why in the hell you're giving those damn spaceships full control of the airspace?" He demanded hotly. "This bunch isn't like the one we were lucky enough to find downed by a thunderstorm in New Mexico, and they aren't playing games with our bombers either. For once, we have the advantage of them being surrounded by military hardware and your commanders have orders not to shoot at them?!"
A muted response, a politician's response. One that erred on the side of caution. Not that Merlin was particularly surprised by it. Truman had even hesitated on using the Bomb to end the last war. He was a file clerk, not a leader.
Jim leaned back in his chair, drawing another cloud of pipe smoke into his lungs and waiting until the man finished his well-reasoned, peaceful, naive response. "You know, I miss the days when your old boss was sitting in that chair. He knew how to get things done, and he wouldn't have hesitated like you are!" That got an angry response from the Missouri man, but it ran off Huxby's back like water from a duck. Of course, there was something else that caught his eye right then.
One of the ships was coming down from the sky, a ball of light that resolved into the shape that wasn't anything as simple as a saucer. No, it looked like some of the crazier designs coming out of Lockheed as he watched the blue-green thing moving to touch down on the National Lawn. With the skies still full of UFOs that lazily circled around and gave the first generation fighter jets of the newly formed US Air Force plenty of room to maneuver, one had touched down onto terra firma. And there it sat, powered down and motionless.
Like it was waiting for something, which was more than anyone could say that the man on the other end of the line was doing.
The President barked out something else, and Huxby flinched from the receiver for a moment before fixing a glare on it. "Yes, by thunder, I'm coming out there. You pass the word on to the Joint Chiefs that this is now a Majestic operation. It's no longer your concern, they can report to me." An indignant response earned another glare from Jim. "Well, luckily my purview isn't just protecting the United States, now is it?" He snipped back. "You and I are different men, and we have only one thing in common. We only have our jobs because better men died and left it to us." He slammed the phone back on the hook, swore under his breath, and then emptied his used pile of tobacco ash into the table's ashtray. Picking the phone back up, he only waited long enough for Central to take a breath before he started talking.
"Central. I'm taking the Faerie Ring to Washington. Tell Nimue and Perceval to meet me at Henderson, in uniform, with a jeep and my Class A's."
He didn't wait for a response, putting the phone back down to storm out of the underground base. He stopped long enough to give the grainy black and white television image of the landed spacecraft another hard stare.
It was a whole new ballgame now.
The only cars moving out on the streets were tow trucks, police cars, and fire engines helping the tow trucks. This was the nation's capitol, the beating heart of western democracy, it was at a standstill.
Huxby supposed that that movie did them one favor, at least. Nobody was going outside and the crowd around the spaceship from the radio reports coming in, was a lot smaller than he'd been afraid of having to deal with. Very few people wanted to risk their lives with the memories of that fictional giant robot fresh in their brains. If not for all the cars and city buses left abandoned in the road it would have been ideal. But the car haulers and the fire department were on top of things, at least.
If they lived through this, the insurance adjusters were going to be busy in D.C. for weeks.
Perceval was driving and Nimue had taken the front seat. Huxby had promptly taken to ignoring the both of them, sifting through his paperwork. Just because he was out in the field didn't mean that Merlin got a break. The Plumbers were a worldwide organization, and as soon as they'd landed there had been a 'Majestic' agent in U.S. Army uniform with a salute and a handcuffed briefcase full of reports for him to go over. After-action reports. Various station's monthly reports. The latest new hires to join the force, who weren't part of the old guard that had gotten codenames and were stuck with alphanumerics.
At least Malta was quiet. God, if that had gone off the same time as this happening…
"Why did you never call me?" Perceval asked, his English thick with his native German accent. Merlin paused in shuffling to the next report, listening in.
"We're on a mission, Percy." Nimue replied curtly. Huxby relaxed a little at that admonishment. He didn't particularly like magic, there were always too many question marks attached to it compared to a trusty M1 Garand or a Thompson, but Nimue had come out of World War II as one of the few willworkers who always kept her mind on the job. She was still young, in her twenties, but he trusted her more than any of the others on the roster right now. Not to mention the rest were overseas right now on other assignments.
If things really went FUBAR, though...well. He smirked to himself. Magic scared him some days. It scared the things that came after humanity every day.
"She's right, Perceval." Huxby rumbled from his place in the back of the jeep, not bothering to look up from his notes. "Save the pouting about getting left behind at the USO dance for when the world isn't burning."
"Sir...the world is always burning." Perceval pointed out.
Huxby closed the manila folder and slid it into his attache case, finally looking up. "Exactly." He knew D.C. better than either of his agents, so he quickly sussed out just how far away from the National Lawn they were. "Get ready. We'll reach the cordon in a few blocks." Both Perceval and Nimue straightened up at the announcement, and just in time as well.
Against the backdrop of spaceships in the sky with their glowing lights and powerful air-raid floodlamps sending beams up after them, they could just begin to see the chaos around the National Mall.
It was just close enough to that stupid film to make Huxby's skin crawl.
Two star generals were small potatoes in a room full of brass like the Joint Chiefs, but in the field and surrounded by active duty units the two brass stars on each of Merlin's epaulets made him the highest ranking officer that the units on the ground, Regular Army and National Guard alike had. Or at least, they were up until a three star general waded into the mix.
Not that Huxby had anything against General Bruce, he'd done well enough during the Japanese occupation, but he taught at a military college. The man's indignance at handing over control of the operation only lasted up until Huxby flashed a particular badge and spoke the magic word; Majestic. The old soldier clammed up afterwards, offered a stiff salute, and then deferred control over to him. The Plumbers were not known by name, but Huxby had made sure that his group was known even if just by rumor, and Majestic was a rumor with the full power of the executive branch behind it. He preferred them to be known by rumor, after World War II.
"We have maximum coverage of fields of fire, sir." An artillery major whose name Merlin didn't bother memorizing told him. "If anything goes wrong and the shooting starts, we'll be ready."
Jim made a slight nod and looked up at the skies again. As the light of day had died down, there was nothing but the flickering of the running lights on all of the UFO's orbiting around D.C. along with the occasional roar of a jet engine as their fighter patrols passed by. It was getting dark enough, though, that those would stop soon. A part of him whispered that the aliens were just waiting for that to happen. For them to lose any ability to put planes in the air.
"Of course general, orders are that nobody is to open fire unless we are first fired upon." General Bruce added. Huxby gave him a look and the older man didn't flinch. "President's orders."
"President's orders." Jim repeated flatly, and looked towards Nimue in her guise as his aide. Nimue looked back at him and shrugged. As much as it chafed, Merlin found himself tentatively agreeing with the assessment by the politician in the White House. If it came to a shooting match...they would lose. "Fine. Has there been any movement from the ship that landed?"
"None. It's just sitting there." Biding its time, Jim thought. And waiting. Tactically, it made no sense. If they came to start trouble then they should've started as soon as they made landfall. Before the Army had been able to get into position.
He pulled out his pipe and took a few moments to stuff it with fresh tobacco leaves and light it. A few thoughtful puffs left him with no more of an answer than he'd already had.
"What are you waiting for?" Jim muttered under his breath.
It was almost as if the aliens inside of it had heard him. He was stunned when, after hours of sitting at a standstill, something on that curvy blue spaceship suddenly moved. It began to open up in the back.
"Hold your fire, goddamnit! Hold your fire! I will shoot anyone who lets a shot off without orders!" One particularly harried major shouted into his radio, loud enough that Jim heard him from 50 yards away. He stayed behind the perimeter as Nimue and Perceval trailed in his wake, moving for a better view of the back of the ship. It took him behind the newsreel cameras on their hastily mounted tripods. They cranked away as the on-the-scene reporter chattered away frantically, and he scowled unseen at the newsman. If the aliens had shown up anywhere else, they could have cordoned off the area and kept the press out of it.
The door was completely open, and brilliant white light poured out from it.
"Orders, sir?" Perceval asked from off of his right shoulder. If he told Perceval to grab a rocket launcher from the troops and fire it inside the ship, the man would. Merlin desperately wanted to give that order. Something stopped him, though, and it wasn't the President's wishes.
He thought of what a better man than him had done under similar circumstances.
It was enough to make him give the slightest shake of his head. "Wait." So they waited, along with every other soldier along the perimeter, every member of the press, and every civilian stupid enough to huddle in around the cordon with wide eyes that verged between fearful and enraptured.
A figure scurried inside of the blue ship, looking wholly inhuman. A few people gasped, and Jim narrowed his eyes. A few moments later, the thing came directly in front of the open hatch, more of a black shape that loomed until it scuttled forward and the floodlights on the outside of the ship finally caught enough of its body to reveal it.
People screamed at the sight of a reddish-orange human-sized crab with enormous pincers stopping at the bottom of the ramp on its spindly legs, sweeping its eyes around the perimeter and coolly evaluating them all. A moment later, it raised a claw in the air, and one soldier swore and took a swing at the one next to him ten paces down the line. A rifle clattered to the ground before it could be fired. The crab alien paused, blinked its enormous eyes, and finished the motion. It waved at the gathering.
"I bring greetings to you from your neighbors among the stars!" The crab person enunciated, which surprised everyone there aside from himself and his associates. "We come in peace, and with goodwill!"
That simple utterance, unknowingly repeated from a year-old movie, fell like a hammerblow in the crowd. If they weren't silent before they were absolutely still now. The crab looked around again, shifting in place a little. "Um." He seemed put off at all of the stares, and let out what would have been a nervous chuckle if he were human. "Introductions, I suppose. My name is Ambassador Kal'kera, chosen representative of the Galactic Enforcers and the coalition of planets that it protects. I have come to…"
There was sudden movement from inside of the ship again, and in spite of the warning every gun in the yard was raised up when a pair of...well, things that resembled dogs came strolling down the ramp.
These, Jim knew all too well. The attack dogs of alien invaders from long years past, troublesome beasts that were fierce and could track their prey through any terrain and trail. The sight of them had him tensed up, because the reports and logs from long before his time had always been wary of them.
"S - stay back!" One of the troopers on the ground yelled out, fearful as the lead eyeless dog took up position next to Kal'kera and let out a low growl.
"Hold your fire!" The same major shouted out, and the alien ambassador went still, looking around at everyone again. It seemed disappointed.
"They didn't bring robots, they brought killer dogs and an invading fleet!"
"Hold your fire!" Another shout went up, and now more shouts followed from around the soldiers, some asking for permission to shoot, others repeating the first command.
The alien slowly shook its enormous shelled head. "Perhaps you aren't ready yet." It mused.
General Bruce looked over to Jim and raised an eyebrow. Jim exhaled and nodded. It was his show. His command. He got ready to step forward out of the line and take command, and was already preparing himself to tell Nimue to disable all the cameras with a small hex.
He didn't get the chance to do either of those things, because someone else stepped forward first. It was a buck private who ignored the orders from his squadmates and his squad leader to get back in line. He walked forward slowly and dropped his rifle at his feet before stepping on. His helmet came off next, and it made him look punch drunk when he made his way to the bottom of the alien ship's ramp and the three aliens there. The two blind dogs growled, but the crab alien made a small noise and they quieted. Kal'kera didn't move and stood, waiting, as the unarmed private made his way over. They stood at equal height, perhaps the soldier being a little higher as Kal'kera tipped his head and waited expectantly.
Everyone waited, Jim realized. The voices went silent and the cameras kept rolling, and everyone waited to see what would happen.
The soldier was definitely scared. He swallowed down a lump in his throat and his eyes were a little watery, and he reached a shaky hand out to just barely graze the chitin of Kal'kera's right pincer. Kal'kera let him, keeping still and silent.
"Are...uh…" The soldier hemmed and hawed a little, then shook off his nerves long enough to blurt out one single question. "Are you friendly?"
Kal'kera's beady eyes shuttered over with thick lids for a moment. An eyeblink. "I would like to be your friend, yes. We would all like to be your friends." The soldier let out a quick, disbelieving laugh, and after a moment Kal'kera's mouthparts twitched in what might have been a smile. The soldier grabbed his pincer and gave it an awkward handshake, then looked over his shoulder towards the cameras and the other troopers with the biggest, stupidest grin imaginable.
"They want to be our friends!" The soldier shouted, and a moment later, a few people cheered.
"Unbelievable." Perceval muttered.
"That soldier just averted a disaster." Nimue chimed in.
"I'm not sure whether he deserves a medal or a court-martial for that stunt." Jim replied, keeping his voice low enough that only they heard him. The soldier was laughing as he and the alien ambassador made small talk, and after a moment he reached down to pet one of the ferocious beasts. It licked his hand like it was a tamed golden retriever.
Jim scowled as he finally told the camera crews to shut down, before he started forward to greet Kal'kera himself.
Maybe the private deserved the medal after he got court-martialed.
The Willard Hotel
July 28th, 1952 A.D.
The Willard Hotel had feted many famous people over the century and change it had been in business. Past U.S. presidents were most notable among them, but being given the task of hosting the very first alien ambassador made for a very different sort of highlight to its a sizable contingent of both police and plainclothes government agents acting as security, the Willard was locked down as tightly as could be managed under the given orders. President Truman had ordered Ambassador Kal'Kera was to be shown every courtesy. Him and his retinue.
Five creatures in total had disembarked from the landed ship - Kal'Kera and his two Vulpamancers, a towering Tetramand in gold-colored armor, and someone from a species that Jim had never encountered before.
Jim stood by the front desk while Nimue kept up appearances as his secretary, interrogating the hotel manager. "No, ma'am. They've been no trouble at all. Very polite, although…" The man was sweating from nervousness and he leaned forward, whispering a little softer so his voice wouldn't carry through the front lobby, "They don't seem to wear very much clothing."
Jim harrumphed. Aliens didn't care much for human sensibilities, in his experience. He motioned at Nimue with a small and innocent looking gesture - wrap it up - and she nodded and turned back to the manager.
"We'll be speaking with them. Government business."
"Of course." The manager groveled agreeably. "We have them in the Presidential Suite. Marcus!" A bellhop standing nearby jumped at the shouted name and raced over. "Marcus, show the general and his people up to the Presidential Suite."
"Right away!" Marcus said, giving a small salute in his uniform. "This way sirs. Ma'am." He told Jim's small procession, and led them towards the elevators. It was a short ride, and the bellhop only tried to make small talk once, wilting and going quiet when Jim fixed him with a hard stare. He jumped out of the elevator as soon as the doors opened again. "The suite is down at the end of the hall." He told them. "Is there anything else I can do for you today?"
Perceval put a quarter in his palm. "You can pretend you never saw us." The quiet warning left the bellhop blinking as they maneuvered into the hallway, and as soon as they were five paces down the fellow got back onto the lift and closed the doors. "Eager fellow, wasn't he." Perceval mused. Jim just glanced at him sidewards and the former German man shrugged with a chuckle.
"Watch the door, Agent Perceval. Make sure we're not bothered. Nimue? You're with me." Perceval shrugged and took up position in the hallway. Jim paused in front of the door to the suite, tamped down the urge to draw out his pulse pistol and go in blazing, and knocked instead.
He gave it a second's delay before stepping in.
The aliens had been making full use of the Willard's extensive room service, Jim readily deduced. The ambassador was picking over the remains of what must have been a very impressive fruit plate while the two Vulpamancers were gnawing away on the bones of a few sizable steaks. The tetramand was working its way through a turkey with one set of hands and a chocolate sundae with the other. The fifth alien, with a vaguely green and gray humanoid shape with a spindly one-eyed head wasn't eating anything at all, and was just sitting in front of the television which was broadcasting the midday news.
Kal'Kera looked over and gave a vigorous nod to Jim and Nimue as they walked in. "Hello there, terrans!"
"Humans." Jim corrected the alien, narrowing his eyes at the term. "We prefer to be called humans."
"Ah. Yes, certainly. I admit I was a little confused. This is the planet Terra, is it not?"
"We call it Earth." Jim answered him. "My name is General James Huxby of the United States Army. I've come here to talk with you regarding the purpose of your...visit."
"Well, come in then. I believe that your president wished to speak with me during your planet's nocturnal cycle in a third of a planetary rotation, but we do have some time yet. Have you partaken of sustenance yet? My comrades and I have been sampling this temporary residence's board of fare. You do have some impressive elements of cuisine."
"We're between Virginia and Maryland." Huxby said dryly. "You really should try the crab."
Kal'Kera paused at that, then turned and narrowed his eyelets. "It was offered." The alien said simply. "If that was meant to be a slight, General Huxby, you will have to try harder. I have eaten arthropods before in my life cycle and found them palatable. Among the species that are under the protection of the Galactic Enforcers, we understand the needs of carnivorous and omnivorous species. We take very stringent steps to ensure that sentient species are not used as foodstock."
"Very well." Jim looked around the room. "Would you care to introduce your associates?"
"Oh, certainly." Kal'Kera gestured with a claw. "This upstanding Tetramand is Tini, one of the Arch-Magisters in the Galactic Enforcers. She's young but shows a great deal of promise, and is my assigned bodyguard. These," he gestured to the Vulpamancers, "are G'rf and S'erk, hatchmates. Lastly, my science and technology advisor from Galvan B, Pollinzie." The alien by the television looked over and its head shifted, giving Jim the impression that it had narrowed its eye at him.
"A pleasure." Jim said unconsciously. "You caused quite a disturbance when you arrived. It looked like an invasion with all of your ships up there over Washington." Most of them had left by now, although they were still tracking a pair that were circling the capitol at a height of 70,000 feet by radar.
"Merely trying to get your attention." Kal'Kera reassured him. He looked over to Nimue and nodded. "Who is your associate, by chance?"
"Agent Nimue. She works for me." Jim said. "And you definitely got our attention."
"Yes." Kal'Kera agreed, in a softer voice. "But did we get his?"
The alien by the television stood up in a fluid movement with no shifting of visible muscles that Jim could see. It came over a few steps and then a small metallic device emerged from the palm of its hand, displaying an image of a man with graying black hair and striking eyes in the column of light coming from it.
Jim's eyes widened as he saw the face of his former superior. Nimue sucked in a sharp breath.
"You know this man." The alien with the palm projector said, in a voice that sounded like an echo from a steel box.
"Oh, good." Kal'Kera sighed, clearly relieved. "You see, the last time one of our agents was here on this world, he left with instructions to land in a large city should we ever return. That he would find us."
"He won't." Jim said, wishing for a shot of whiskey. "He's gone."
"...oh." Kal'Kera looked away. "A shame. From our records, he was a good sentient, and a good representative of your species."
"He was the best." Nimue agreed sadly. Jim gave her a sharp look, and the brown-haired willworker hushed up again.
"I'm his replacement." Jim said, eyeing the room. "Nimue, sweep the suite for listening devices."
"No need." Pollinzie said in that same mechanical voice. "I cleared this room of any conceivable electronic surveillance when we arrived. Your technology is very primitive, it was very easy to deactivate the two bugs placed here." Jim just barely hid his wince. The first bug in the room's lamp was FBI property, part of J. Edgar's ongoing campaign to get dirt on everyone that was important in the country. The second bug tucked away inside the television, however, had been one of theirs, and he'd been assured by their science wonks that it was undetectable.
"I was disappointed in the surveillance equipment, though not terribly surprised." Kal'Kera complained. "You 'humans' are a rather suspicious lot."
"Humanity has been fighting aliens for our survival for a very long time." Jim shot back. "Most who come here rarely have good intentions. It's been our experience that you aliens bring nothing but trouble."
"Yes." Kal'Kera agreed. "That is something I came here to change." He straightened himself up and nodded. "Well. Have I assuaged your fears?"
No. "The jury's still out on whether or not you mean well."
"Perhaps when I address all the people of the world, your faith in your galactic neighbors will be restored." Kal'Kera told him.
Jim blinked at that promise. "When you address...What do you mean by that?"
"We have been monitoring your primitive radio signals for quite some time." Pollinzie replied. "It gave us a basis on understanding your language, and a little of your recent history. Ambassador Kal'Kera has come to meet with the United Nations - along with the heads of state, or selected representatives from those countries in your incredibly divided world who lack representation in that body."
"I see." Jim felt his mouth drying out on him again. "What have you come here to do, exactly?"
"I have come in the hope of welcoming Earth as another member planet in the Galactic Enforcers coalition." Kal'Kera informed him. "Earth has advanced to a point where our leaders felt you were ready to be approached openly. There is much we can teach you, and many bad habits we can help you to correct before they threaten your civilization."
On the surface, it all sounded perfectly reasonable. That was why Jim found himself even more suspicious about it. The long history of earth's hidden defenders screamed one lesson he'd adopted early on.
You never trusted aliens.
The White House
"Everything else is quiet right now, Merlin." Central's voice told him. "I'm chalking it up to nobody wanting to start anything while these aliens are around."
Jim sat on one of the couches in the Oval Office with a secured, scrambled Plumbers issue bag radio beside him and the receiver pressed to his ear. "And just how many are still around?"
"Aside from the two that are circling D.C, the analysts think about a dozen are orbiting the planet." Less than the sum total that had escorted the ambassador, but still more firepower than they could take on, short of nuclear intervention. Of course, delivering those payloads effectively was a problem still being worked on. The remnants of Germany's V2 programs, split between Russia and the U.S. were struggling to make headway. They probably wouldn't achieve orbital velocity for a few years yet at the rate they were going. When either side did, the Plumbers would get the first run for their own needs. Planetary defense topped the Cold War.
"Did you get those reports our agents at Dulce sent you, sir?" It was rare that Central asked a question unprompted, but it was appropriate. They'd put the screws to the aliens that they were fortunate enough to capture and incarcerate, and the ones of a larcenous bend had begun spilling their guts after the Warden decided to see if they knew anything about this 'Galactic Enforcers' that Kal'Kera claimed to represent.
"Yeah. I got them." Jim muttered. All of it unbelievable to his eyes, especially their reports of a singular alien who could fly, was fast, super-strong and nigh-invulnerable and near as anyone could figure, close to immortal. If this 'Ultimos' actually existed, Jim would have eaten his hat. It seemed like the kind of ghost story that an organization would feed criminal scum to keep them superstitious and wary of sticking their heads out of the shadows. The gathered interviews all indicated, according to the Warden, that the GE was a legitimate intergalactic law enforcement organization, one strong enough that they were able to hold back the tide of expansionist empires. Jim had stared at the reports when he'd gotten them, glared, and burned the paper in a wastebasket. "But I don't trust the word of alien scum. Did our agents track down that Hollywood angle?"
"The Director and the Producer came back clean. They swore up and down that they had no idea their movie would be so close to a real life event. We still have the writer detained for further questioning."
"I want to know the second they have something, Central."
"Yes, sir. Was there anything else?"
The door from the President's private office to the Oval Office opened up, and Merlin glanced up in time to see President Truman giving him a dirty look. "Not right now. I'll check back later."
"Have fun at the party, sir." Central finished up. Jim scowled and shoved the receiver back into the bag.
"I don't believe I invited you in." The President criticized him. He was dressed to the nines for what would be an intimate gathering of the political elite; House Majority and Minority leaders, the Joint Chiefs, some selected ambassadors from allied nations (And a diplomatic courier from the USSR who'd been unlucky enough to be in New York when everything happened and had been ordered into attending), and a few visiting scientists with high security clearance. The Vice President was being kept well clear of everything, and had in fact been evacuated out of the capitol when the saucers started flying down.
Jim pulled out his pipe and filled it up with a fresh pinch of tobacco. "Administrations come and go, Harry. The staff here know how high my clearance goes. We have business to discuss."
"Get to it then, Huxby." The President leaned against the edge of the Resolute Desk and folded his arms. "I'm expected at dinner in about five minutes, and I suspect you've wormed your way onto the guest list."
Jim smiled back. "You think I'd let these aliens wander around unsupervised?"
"If you'd had your way, you would have tried blowing them out of the sky. You're a warmonger."
"We're protectors, Mr. President. And sometimes that means protecting humanity even from itself. And its bad choices."
"I read your report of your interview with this Kalera…"
"...earlier today, and I didn't see anything worrying in his offer. Nothing compared to the kind of threats from that movie everyone keeps bringing up. I believe that Kennan was planning on asking him about that if he got the chance tonight."
"Kennan's here?" Jim raised an eyebrow. "I thought he was out of favor."
"A poorly chosen sentence about living conditions in Soviet Russia doesn't discount years of the man's contributions to foreign policy. Get to the point, general."
"I'm waiting for the shoe to drop." Jim told him flatly. "It's been an impressive dog and pony show so far. They fly in, in force, make sure that we can't cover up their presence, and offer overtures of peace and galactic brotherhood. It's the kind of sugar-glazed nonsense that the Doves and Kerouac's beat generation eats up in a heartbeat, and it's a distraction. Historically, every alien who's come to Earth has wanted something." Slaves. Material wealth. Worship. The first defenders of Earth had fought creatures who thrived on the suffering of humanity, back when oral stories were the only means of keeping memory. "At some point the bill's going to come due. And if humanity doesn't take a stand now, we're going to find it's a price too high for us to pay."
"We'll see." Truman prevaricated. He pushed himself off of his desk. "Your time's up. You coming, Merlin?"
Oh, there were times that Jim hated the fact that this man knew his codename behind the fictional Majestic operative label. Necessary as it was.
"Fine. What's on the menu?"
"Pressed chicken in a cream sauce over wild rice and assorted vegetables. The cooks really stepped up for this one." The President opened up the door leading out of the office, and only seemed to realize what he'd done a moment before Jim stepped through, against every established rule about the pecking order in Washington.
Jim offered the man a smug smile as he stepped into the hall. "I'll be sure to send them a card."
It was galling to find out that Ambassador Kal'Kera lived up to the title in terms of diplomacy. As Jim mopped up a bit more of the sauce on his plate with a second dinner roll from the kitchens, he held back on his urge to scowl while the entire table laughed at one of the alien's stories about the fraught difficulties of breaking bread across the galaxy.
"But no, if I had to think of a meal offered to me that was truly indigestible, it would have to be a powdered quartz foam suspension by one of the Petrosapiens in the Galactic Enforcers. I was polite about it, but their species was made of living rock, so what they ate largely...oh, what's the saying, Tini?"
"It went in one end and out the other." The tetramand bodyguard supplied, which evoked a mighty laugh from the table. Tini's smile was thinner afterwards. "But then, considering how little of Klingast's culture survived the destruction of his world...I wouldn't mind sharing another one with that cagey rockhead. If he hadn't killed himself."
Jim looked up at that, as intrigued as nearly everyone else at the table was suddenly sorrowful.
"I'm sorry." Mr. Kennan said, and the man actually sounded like he meant it. "He lost his world?"
"He lost everything." Kal'Kera informed them all soberly. "It was a surprise attack by a warlord deadset on removing a perceived threat. The Petrosapiens were among the most stalwart defenders in the Galactic Enforcers, but they mostly stayed at home. The destruction of Petropia turned the survivors into an endangered species. The ones who remain...we try our hardest to protect. Just as we try to protect every sentient species."
The sound of the two alien dogs sitting next to Pollinzie caught the table's attention as they loudly munched their way through a second helping of the chicken.
"Your pets sure are hungry." One of the visiting physicists remarked with a chuckle. To a one, each of the aliens turned and stared the man down, who coughed and stumbled into silence.
"G'rf and S'erk are not - pets." Pollinzie rattled in that mechanical tone of his. "They are Vulpamancers. Sentients, with all of the rights and liberties pertaining to that state of existence." The two alien hounds growled in what might have been agreement, or a lingering threat. The men at the table shifted, and Pollinzie made a small whistling noise that did something to calm the two down.
"For a very large portion of their history, the Vulpamancers were treated as lesser creatures." Kal'Kera went on. "They were prized for their skills in hunting and tracking. Their people were captured and collared and used as slaves by many with unwholesome ambitions. It was a blight on galactic history, and when the Galactic Enforcers were founded, they were one of the first worlds to be liberated and protected."
The President tapped the tines of his fork on the edge of his plate. "So, this 'Galactic Enforcers' you keep mentioning...Are you an empire, then?"
"No." Kal'Kera shook his head. "It is the law enforcement arm of a loose coalition of species united in a desire for mutual protection, as well as mutual knowledge. We are more than warriors. Look at myself, or Pollinzie." Kal'Kera chuckled a little through his mouthparts. "Certainly, anyone can be dangerous if they tried. Either through natural ability or by weapons and technology. But I am a member of the Cerebrocrustacean species, among the most intelligent species in the galaxy."
"Second most intelligent." Pollinzie piped in, which earned the strangely bendable humanoid a dirty look from his superior. The gray and green creature didn't seem affected. "Our creators are the first."
"Debatable." Kal'Kera replied, with the exhaustion of someone repeating an old argument. "Suffice it to say, force of arms is never our first resort. Diplomacy and open dialogue and cooperation is always preferred."
"What about the containment of threats?" The British ambassador questioned the walking crab.
"Mm. That is not my area of expertise, however I have found it to be a very limited policy for effectiveness." Kal'Kera observed. Jim saw how George Kennan looked particularly pleased at that announcement. "No. The best successes both in my time and before it have come with the mutual cooperation of species. And not just for the sake of defense, or a singular set of laws. The universe is such a large, incredibly vast space. The time in the lifespan of the observable universe in which we exist as individuals, as species, is but a droplet in that vast ocean. We could ache from such loneliness. The only thing that makes that vast darkness between the stars tolerable - is each other. Every new species we encounter and welcome to the fold as friends is another light in that darkness." Kal'Kera shocked everyone, Jim included, by popping open the frontal portion of the shell covering his skull to reveal an absolutely massive brain underneath, coated in mucus. A ray of light shone out from that cerebrum and caused the last bite of pressed chicken on his plate to float up into the air, and then glide over to his mouth to be consumed. The shell lowered back into place and clicked shut, and the satisfied ambassador swallowed before humming happily. "Job satisfaction. It helps if one loves what they do for a living. In my case, I find no greater satisfaction than in traveling this galaxy of ours and encountering new species, learning about them and welcoming them into the fold. That is how I fight back against the darkness, in my own small way."
There were a few murmurs of agreement around the table, even if the uninformed were largely queasy about what Kal'Kera had shown of his abilities. Few were used to actually looking at brains, much less alien ones. They went for their wineglasses and pushed their plates away.
"You want to speak with the United Nations, along with other select representatives." Jim cut in. "Why? What do you have to say to that assembly you can't say here?"
"My message is for the whole of humanity." Kal'Kera responded. "I had hoped that there would be one who could speak for all, but that is not a possibility now. So, what I must say I must say to everyone."
There was another muttering at that, and Jim dug in. "Have you come with a warning, then? An ultimatum?"
"No. Why would you think that?" The Cerebrocrustacean wondered aloud.
"There was a movie." The President answered. "In the broad strokes, your arrival played out almost exactly as it did in that cinema picture."
"Hm." Kal'Kera rubbed the underside of his chin. "Curious. No, I have not come with an 'ultimatum.' And I prefer to give my message to the widest possible audience. But I can tell you this. Of the rules that we adhere and live by, there is one which your current bilateral military buildup stands in violation of."
"What is that?" A Los Alamos scientist asked.
"We do not produce weapons that can threaten entire worlds." Kal'Kera told them, leaning forward a little. "Your fission weaponry unleashes terrible side effects and radioactive waste products that would poison the whole of your world if used. In the wrong hands, they could threaten other worlds as well. There is much that we can offer you. Clean, renewable energy sources to last the whole of your star's life cycle. The gift of communication with hundreds of species and the tribes of your own. The wonders of modern medicine, food production, even interstellar travel in time." Kal'Kera smiled at the President. At least, it seemed a smile on the surface. "With all that on the scales, giving up your nuclear weaponry is a minor price."
Jim's blood thundered in his ears as the shoe dropped. Disarmed. The aliens wanted them disarmed. By the look on the faces of at least half of the room, his shock at the suggestion wasn't unique.
Dinner was a very quiet affair after that.
July 31st, 1952
The aliens were the new darlings of the media, and they'd provided a great deal for the news cameras of CBS, NBC and ABC to chew on. Between their ship lifting off from the National Lawn and then subsequently landing in LaGuardia Airport, and the video footage of them riding a Trolley car through New York on their way to the (unfinished) UN Headquarters building in New York, the newsreels had plenty of footage of Ambassador Kal'Kera and security officer Tini. Footage of them trying out the fare of New York, from Chinese Food and Italian, to hot dogs at a Yankees game. An interview after someone suggested that the aliens who'd thrown the world into such panic ought to watch that movie that came out the year before, and they actually went and watched it. And especially footage of his speech before the General Assembly of the United Nations.
"In one sense, I am glad that your species has begun to come together. It is a principle that we, the member species under the shelter of the Galactic Enforcers have long held up as a truth. We are stronger when we are united than separated and alone. I see in this august body that same strength."
Jim sat in the safehouse's study with the lights out and the curtains drawn. A single desk lamp illuminated the papers on the old mahogany desk he was sitting at, and the air was filled with smoke from his pipe. He was on his third one now, and he looked between the reports of the Majestic agents keeping track on their visitors and the highlights of the U.N. visit.
"I see that strength...but I do not see the same unity. Even here, in this General Assembly of your 'United Nations' there are distinct absences. The worrisome trends of colonialism and oppression still linger and eat away at your potential. The past 50 of your years have seen your world torn apart by war twice over, and now you threaten it again with your most dangerous weapons yet, weapons that my people have long outlawed."
Nuclear weapons. Kal'Kera seemed fixated on them, which Huxby found reassuring and unnerving in equal measure. In reading the reports from his agents on patrol, there were accounts of the aliens performing feats of superhuman, supernatural ability. Tini, using the strength in her towering four-armed frame to pull two mangled cars in a wreck apart to save a child inside of it. Pollinzie somehow shapeshifting from his familiar humanoid shape and melding with a broken down taxi, then separating from it and leaving it running better than it had when it first came off the factory floor. Kal'Kera using his 'parlor trick' as he called it to keep a pleasure boat from crashing into the ferry he had ridden to visit Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. Just like in all the stories he'd ever heard and read about secondhand, the aliens had every advantage over them.
Strength. Supernatural ability. Powers beyond comprehension. And they had come, openly, with an outstretched hand and an offer.
An offer with strings.
"There is much we can learn from each other. There are many things we know, technologies we have which can solve many of your world's problems. But technology must always be tempered by wisdom and by empathy, for without them advancement is empty and destructive. At the suggestion of one of our new friends, I took it upon myself to watch your cultural entertainment which was published only last year, and which caused quite a stir. I am grateful that nobody shot me when I stepped out." Amid the laughter that remark inspired, Huxby snarled for a moment.
They were afraid of humanity's nuclear weapons. Afraid of their power, their potential for destruction.
"Having watched that 'film', I can understand your fear and reticence. Your power of imagination is truly incredible, but that was fiction and here, now, I stand as fact. There is no 'killer robot' of unfathomable power at my side. I came not with a warning but with an invitation. Humanity has come far in its short time as a species. I am eager to see where it goes next. I hope that it is hand in hand with those of us in the stars. I believe that would be a truly marvelous future to be a part of."
Huxby killed the film after a second's worth of applause, right when the assembly was beginning to rise for a standing ovation. A moment later, the study door opened and Nimue and Perceval walked inside. Huxby watched them for a moment and went back to his papers.
"You look like death warmed over, sir." Nimue ventured when the silence got too overwhelming.
He snorted. "I was told once that the Chinese have a saying; May you live in interesting times. They did not mean to offer it as a blessing." Jim puffed one more time and gave his most trusted sorceress and Perceval a small, wry smile. "It seems we're living in very interesting times right now."
"This Kal'Kera does have an appealing offer." Perceval pointed out. "On the surface, they have more to offer us than we do them."
"On the surface." Jim repeated. "And underneath it? They offer much, but the cost may be more than we can pay. Today they want us to give up our nuclear weapons. Tomorrow? Maybe they'll decide we can't have battleships or fighter planes. And if we gave those up and they decided they wanted to take our guns as well?"
It was a fear played out in human history, over and over. The outlawing of weapons by dictators and tyrants. Chairman Mao. Mussolini. The stripping of the Samurai's swords. You took away the ability of people to put up armed resistance to your rule. These aliens, this - Galactic Enforcers - what they promised were miracles. But the loss of their autonomy and their most dangerous weapons…
Jim puffed at his pipe twice more and realized there were only ashes left. Fitting. He stood and went over to the Victrola in the corner of the room, digging out one of his favorite records during the war. He put it on and dropped the needle. The velvety voice of Anne Shelton filled the room, and Jim closed his eyes. For a few precious seconds, the fears of the moment drifted away and older memories of a very long decade took their place.
He was not Pendragon. Had never been. Never wanted to be. Even when he took over, he remained Merlin. The guide and guardian, the voice and reason for the Plumbers. He was their leader, the protector of humanity. They fought the fires that burned in the night. They faced the untold horrors. They walked through hell so mankind could live.
Maybe Kal'Kera was perfectly on the level. Maybe the help and friendship these aliens offered was genuine. But the long history of humanity's existence and experience with aliens said otherwise.
"You don't trust aliens." Jim whispered.
"Sir?" Perceval asked. Jim pressed his hands against the edge of the record player and squeezed down on the finished wood. It creaked under his grip, and he opened his eyes, staring at the wall.
"I took an oath to defend humanity against all threats." His words fell like boulders down a mountain slope, picking up terrible speed and noise as they rolled on. "I have fought against tyrants and power-mad lunatics. I have stared down traitors and butchers. I have held back the terrors from the stars and the nightmares beyond reality." He squeezed the edge of the record player one more time and then pushed away from it, turning to face his two trusted agents.
"We are the defenders that stand a post on the wall. Earth has lived in blissful ignorance because of us. Because we do the things that are necessary. Every hard-won inch of my scars and every ache in my bones tells me that this is an offer to be thrown back in their faces. I watched as the world reveled after the Great War, so fearful of ever fighting another one that they meekly surrendered time and time again to that miserable son of a bitch who made empty promises. 'Oh, it's just this one last piece of land. It's just one more bit of territory and then I will stop.' And it never was."
Perceval looked down and away. Nimue sucked in a breath as her aura flared blue for a moment, and she clenched her hands into fists before relaxing them. The wind in the room died down as the blue faded away again. Merlin could hardly fault her for it.
They had lost too much in that war. It had taken the best of them and left him to pick up the pieces.
"The aliens are afraid of our nuclear weapons. They have us beat out in every other category. Stamina. Speed. Size. Strength. Unnatural abilities. Their ships and their technology." Jim went on. "They want us to surrender that one advantage. They want us to join their little group, to be subservient to them. To hand over control of our own fate to them. To be their puppets. If we let the leaders of the world take their offer, then our role as the defenders on the wall would end. Humanity's capitulation would be on us." He shook his head. "I can't risk it."
"What if they're telling the truth? What if joining them now would be for the good?" Nimue asked. "What if this time is different?"
Jim shook his head. They came with an army and they had filled the skies, causing untold panic and terror. "I won't risk it." He vowed. "Earth is ours to defend."
Nimue looked down at the floor. Perceval closed his eyes, rocked on his heels, and opened them again. "What will you do, sir?"
Major General Jim Huxby, codename Merlin, the head of the Plumbers, walked over to the window of the safehouse and looked out through the curtains to the night sky as the song on the record player wound down. "My job." He said, and folded his hands behind his back as the final strains of the orchestra swelled behind the singer.
"I'll be looking at the Moon...but I'll be seeing you…"
Lignite, Virginia (Jefferson National Forest)
August 5th, 1952
Jim had taken a certain amount of pleasure in watching the fallout that came after he made a few select phone calls through the establishments of Washington and the Kremlin. Though neither side entirely trusted the other, the reputation of Jim Huxby's organization meant that his words and warnings carried weight. It hadn't been very hard at all when it all came down to brass tacks. Their natural paranoia fed off of each other, and the traits of humanity he'd long come to understand paid off.
Day after day, Ambassador Kal'Kera's questions were deflected with increasing coolness. His requests to speak to someone in authority after his debut in the United Nations were met with the equivalent of, "We'll call you if something opens up." The alien crab's frustration became more and more apparent, his patience grew thinner. That veil of politeness began to show cracks.
Finally, Kal'Kera had been sent word that the major world powers had selected a singular representative with whom the alien could hold talks and negotiations. And a time and place had been established as well. The alien would take his ship and travel to the town of Lignite, Virginia, southwest of the capitol for a meeting that would take place at night.
That it was far from prying eyes and news cameras and nosy reporters made for the first of two reasons Jim Huxby had chosen it. The second…
He sat in an old army foldout chair by a small campfire and finished packing his pipe with leaf tobacco. In spite of the summer heat and the bugs flying around, he was dressed in a full brown three-piece suit with a hat and polished black shoes. It was quiet, and in the abandoned settlement, he had the whole of his surroundings in view and a perfect night sky absent of any light pollution. It allowed him to know that the aliens were coming the moment a star moved faster in the heavens and grew larger.
Even though he'd known they were coming minutes ago because someone had hailed him on the radio to tell him.
The familiar blue ship of molded, organic curves settled down in what had been the center of town with only a gentle hum, nothing like the screaming whine of the flying saucer from Hollywood. Soon after, the rear hatch opened and Kal'Kera descended down the ramp with his full coterie around him. The two alien dogs sniffed around loudly. Merlin smirked.
"General...Huxby, wasn't it?" The ambassador greeted him. Jim nodded back. "I haven't seen you in some rotations."
"As important as the rest of the world thinks you are, there are some duties I can't walk away from."
Pollinzie swiveled his head around in a full circle, a disorienting motion that would have made Jim shiver if he hadn't seen the footage of the mechanical blob take multiple shapes already. "An interesting choice of location."
"I have been told it's good for a man to get out and breathe in the fresh air every now and then." Jim countered. "And this place is far enough off the beaten path that we can have a proper chat without anyone else getting in the way."
The four-armed alien Tini tensed up at those words and stepped ahead, putting herself between her ambassador and Jim. Jim raised an eyebrow and gestured to the other side of the fire, where the rotted and rolled remains of a tree trunk had given him the fuel to build his fire in the first place. "Her instincts do her credit, ambassador. But I didn't come here to kill you. I came to deliver a message."
"On behalf of whom?"
"Humanity." Jim reached for a stick and poked it in the fire, moving a few of the burning logs around and throwing sparks in the air. "You've been making noise for days about wanting to find someone who could speak for humanity. I'm the closest thing you're going to get."
"You?" Kal'Kera said dubiously. "You are a leader in the armed forces of a single country."
"Oh, ambassador." Jim shook his head, staring into the fire. "I am much more than that." He didn't say anything else until curiosity finally got the better of the giant crab, who scuttled over to stand on the other side of the fire from him. "You've been examining Earth in person for a week now. You've been studying us longer at a distance. So you know that we're a rather divided, argumentative bunch."
"Your species has...many worrying qualities." Kal'Kera conceded.
"We're odd like that. Hard to predict. And sometimes, we do very stupid things. Especially when people start making decisions by majority and we forget the better angels of our nature. Our civilization's a study in endless war. Some historian once said, 'and then peace broke out.' We're geared for conflict. But we have good reason to be." Jim looked across the campfire and narrowed his eyes. "After all, everything's out to kill us. But then, that's why Earth has defenders."
For some reason, he found himself thinking on the poetry of A.L. Tennyson, especially a stanza that got him through the darkest days of the war. Though much is taken, much abides. And though we are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven…
Jim pulled out a ragged matchbook from his inner coat pocket. "I am the leader of a group called the Plumbers."
"Plumbers?" The ambassador said, dumbfounded.
"Plumbers." Jim nodded as he lit his pipe, threw away the match, and turned away. "We fix the leaks." In the world, in reality, and in the story they'd be telling after tonight. "When aliens come and try to cause havoc, we're the ones who deal with it. The world keeps on spinning because people don't have to worry about what's really out there coming after them. Because we put out the fires before they burn down the whole forest. The superpowers of the world? Russia and the United States? They listen to me. I am the only person on Earth qualified to give an answer to your proposal." He tossed his poking stick into the fire and brushed his hands off. "My answer is no."
"What?" Kal'Kera blinked rapidly. "That is irrational!"
"Thousands of years, aliens have been visiting our planet. They never came in peace." Jim growled. "We're supposed to believe that suddenly, you are? When you come with an invading army at your back and the very first thing you demand to 'join you' is giving up our newest, most powerful weapons?"
"We have good reasons for asking you to -"
"I don't really care to hear them." Jim cut the crab off. His mouthparts clicked together solidly in what was probably irritation. "We're keeping our nukes. See, the Russians are paranoid to begin with. They hate the West. And the U.S. doesn't trust Russia for a hot second."
"If you keep on this course, you will obliterate yourselves! You will ruin your world!"
"No." Jim shook his head. "No, we won't. It won't come to that, because the Plumbers are here. Because I'm here. What my organization does, it does for the good of humanity in total. I don't give a damn about flags or borders or political ideology. We're driven by one absolute principle: Survival. In the face of extinction, any alternative is preferable. If we have to knock off a dictator or two to keep the world from burning, then that's what we do. And if we have to make war on every piece of alien scum that comes to our world because they think we're an easy target, then we'll do that too. Even you. The superpowers may hate each other, but even enemies can come together in the face of a larger threat. Happens all the time with us. Right now you're the biggest threat on the board, and nobody is giving up their nuclear weapons. They don't trust you. I wonder why."
"Do you really think you stand a chance?" Tini demanded. "You have no idea what sort of dangers exist out there in the galaxy."
"Don't I?" He countered grimly. "I know your kind, bodyguard. You're not the first four-armed creature to set foot on Earth. Funny how the others all came and raised hell."
"Why, you -"
"Tini!" Kal'Kera snapped, stopping the Tetramand from reaching across the campfire. It didn't stop Jim from reaching into his coat and whipping out a pistol.
Not just any pistol. It wasn't a Cold or a Remington or some cheap knockoff. It was an alien weapon, studied, disassembled, put back together again. The kind that shot burning beams of light. A pulse pistol. And as it whined to life, it was pointed straight at Kal'Kera's chest.
The two vulpamancers roared and started to bound forth, but yelped when two marble-sized steel pellets twhipped through the air and smashed into their faces. They released puffs of foul-smelling gas which dropped them, yelping and making pitiful noises as they pawed at their faces.
It was nice to know the boys in the chemical lab had done their job right. They'd pored over all of the old stories and records and deduced that the creatures, being excellent trackers and hunters in spite of having no eyes, could probably be neutralized with a strong enough smell delivered directly to what served as their noses.
Tini roared and drew out a sword and Pollinzie morphed into a kind of green and gray body armor that flowed over Kal'Kera and produced weapons to match.
The aliens froze when Jim made a silent gesture and Nimue dropped the cloaking spell she'd erected around the whole of the abandoned ghost town. Two dozen Plumbers surrounded them all, unseen and unheard and un-smelled by the power of his sorceress's magic until it was too late. Two dozen pulse rifles whined ominously, and from her spot just behind Jim's shoulder, Nimue had her hands up with glowing blue orbs in her palms, waiting to be thrown.
Jim, who hadn't moved from his spot by the campfire, raised an eyebrow and stared the ambassador down. It was his move.
Kal'Kera seemed to slump. "Stand down." The creature whispered, and Tini reluctantly stowed her sword. Pollinzie retracted the guns, but didn't flow off of Kal'Kera until Jim made another motion and all the guns powered down and were pointed at the ground.
Jim stared without blinking, and Kal'Kera slowly shook his enormous head. "An effective trap. Do you plan on killing us?"
"No." Jim said. "I'm sending you back to where you came from so you can deliver a message. Earth. Is. Defended."
"Is there nothing I can do to change your mind?" The alien crab asked hopefully. "Even if you do not want to join us, I - I do not wish to leave it like this. You are right that your world has been a target for malicious beings in the past. We are finally at a point where we can do something about that long insult. Our offer of help was genuine."
"Your offer carried too high a price. And I don't trust you." Jim countered. "I can't trust you." He could have left it at that, and certainly Kal'Kera thought he would by the slouch in the creature's shoulders. And yet…
With the interrogation reports of their captured aliens lingering in the back of his mind, Merlin closed his eyes and wondered what Pendragon would have said.
"Take a chance, son. Take a chance."
"I'll offer you this, though." Jim sighed a little, shaking his head. He couldn't believe he was doing this, and the way Kal'Kera perked back up again irked him. "We don't mind you keeping an eye on things outside of our home. That I can agree to, since we can hardly stop you. But the moment you enter earth orbit, you're in our jurisdiction. We'll share information. We might be amenable to a prisoner exchange if they're on your wanted lists, provided the incentive's good enough. In return? You give us notice of when trouble's coming. Maybe some of your toys. Beyond that?"
"Let me guess." Tini cut in sarcastically. "We stay on our side of the fence, and you'll stay on yours?"
Jim knew his smile was a fearful thing. Seeing the shiver it produced in the hulking four-armed woman was nearly as satisfying as the ambush laid out by his Plumbers had been. "Precisely."
"It's not ideal." Kal'Kera mused. "It's not what I came here to do. But it's all that we're going to get, isn't it?" Jim nodded. "And I take it from here on, your 'Plumbers' will be our point of contact?"
"Don't land on our lawn next time." Jim lifted a foot up and tapped his pipe on the bottom of his shoe to empty out the ashes. "We'll need a way to contact you."
"Pollinzie will provide you with the means before we leave Earth."
"You have two days." Jim said, then turned around and walked away from them. The rest of the Plumbers did as well, melting back into the night as they went.
Only Perceval and Nimue remained at his side as they walked out of earshot of Kal'Kera, Tini and Pollinzie who picked up their downed vulpamancer allies and trudged for their ship again.
"Excellent work on the cloaking spell, Nimue."
"I didn't think it would be that effective. I honestly thought that those two dogs would see through it." Nimue replied.
"It seems that magic remains something our 'friends' from outer space still lack." Merlin acknowledged. "Pass on my compliments to the squad leaders, Perceval. Excellent fields of fire there at the end. They definitely got the point we were making."
"About not underestimating us, sir? Was that wise?"
Jim had pondered that very question himself, and he'd settled on their power play as the best answer. Aliens were stronger, tougher, and had abilities beyond their ken.
But the humans that fought were like wolves. They were strongest when they worked together. And just like wolves, they fought on occasion. But they always rallied against an outside threat.
"You come after us, you face the whole pack." Merlin rumbled.
New Avalon (Location Classified)
August 8th, 1952
The film projector in New Avalon's situation room had been turned to CBS on the order of Merlin, who took a moment from keeping his Plumbers properly commanded and supported to catch the news. He was largely unimpressed with television as a medium, but there was one news program he followed. It ended with a man in a suit seated behind a desk, a cigarette burning away in his hand, one leg folded over the other as he stared at the camera. He'd made a career of telling it straight during the war and not wasting words, and owning up to the truth.
At least, the truths that Merlin had allowed him to share.
"Hundreds of years ago, mankind believed that the Earth was not only flat, but the center of the universe. Scientific discovery, exploration, and the evidence of our own eyes disproved these beliefs. The past two weeks have shaken the world a great deal, as the evidence of our own eyes made plain another Truth that even now forces us to grapple with the meaning of our existence and the purpose of our place in it; We Are Not Alone."
"Sir, another report from -"
"Not now." Merlin held up a hand, cutting off the agent. He wanted to hear what his old associate in the press had to say.
" -aliens came in a way designed to grab our attention. Though wildly different in form, they came in peace and they left in peace. The alien ambassador's farewell message before he boarded his craft early this morning speaks for itself, and this program will not waste time in re-airing it. It is better instead that we spend these precious two minutes to reflect on what we know, and what we might infer. Those with vivid imaginations thought of aliens in relatable terms. Heroes from our planet battled warlords with death rays and martians to save princesses. But the truth, as always, is stranger than fiction - and still far more believable. The aliens that came to earth were not conquerors or saviors, merely neighbors that came to say hello, and to invite us over for a glass of lemonade. True, some of the things they said stung, but criticism often does regardless of the source. Though we will not change who we are to please them, perhaps it is right to reflect on ourselves, and change for our own prosperity instead. The galaxy portrayed by the departed ambassador was not a utopia, nor a hellish, lawless landscape. Merely a society of vastly different individuals and races who had come together to build something that would endure beyond them. And if these species from the stars could manage such a feat, crossing unfathomable distances to reach out to each other in co-existence, perhaps the nations of man might find a way to do so as well.
"This reporter does not think that the world will change overnight. Neither superpower is likely to forswear their beliefs, their form of government, or their allies in the pursuit of some nebulous brotherhood of man. Religions will not rewrite their sacred texts to fit current events, even though high school textbooks must. For all that we pride ourselves on being a society built on progress, it is in the slow, inexorable snail's pace that our gains have been kept. Will our friends from outer space return to us some day? The promise was an open one without deadline. This was just a first visit. The next step, perhaps, is meant to be ours. We owe it to ourselves to make that next step one that moves forward, and not backwards. Good night, and good luck."
It went to the CBS logo, and Jim gestured for the projector's runner to turn it off, leaving the screen dark. "Didn't take you for a preacher, Ed." He muttered to himself. "But you would've been good at it."
The leader of the Plumbers stood up. "Right. What did you have for me?"
"The tech boys at Fort Tesla have a preliminary report on that communicator the aliens -" Jim took the file from the woman without comment, shutting her down.
"What about our radar stations?" He asked, rifling through the pages in the folder. The boys thought it would be possible to rig up a duplicate with vacuum tubes, but it would take up an entire room as opposed to the briefcase-sized transceiver. They'd need radio dishes and towers regardless, but it meant they could start installing dumbed-down versions at all their bases. Maybe even repurpose the tech for more secure communications so nobody could even mistakenly listen in on 'Majestic' messages. The one time that had happened, heads had rolled. "Any sign of our 'friends' still in the skies?"
"No, sir. So far as the tracking stations can tell, they've moved on. But given the limited range, it's possible that they're staying close by. They may have a way to fool our observation telescopes." Another system to upgrade. Merlin tamped down the scowl he felt building up.
They were hopelessly, hilariously outgunned and struggling to catch up in a race they'd already lost. Bluster aside, the Plumbers needed to become a better equipped, deadlier force. And fast.
The alternative didn't bear thinking about. As things stood, the next time the aliens came by, they needed to be ready for them.
He would make sure they were ready for them.
"In the face of extinction…" Jim Huxby murmured, closing the file and putting it off to the side. He hated the idea that came to mind. Worse, he hated that he would probably be okay with it in a few years. Assuming that they could get it to work.
The traitors never did, in spite of all their atrocities. Small miracles. The technology just hadn't been there, and magic...had been unpredictable.
He looked around the situation room one more time, then started for the door.
"Sir? Where are you going?" Central called out after him.
"Get a hold of Doctor Symanski. Tell him to meet me at Dulce." Jim ordered.
"...yes, sir." Central acknowledged, and turned to the switchboard. Jim pushed out of the doors and strolled down the halls, chewing on the stem of his unlit pipe with one hand in the pocket of his coat. For the moment, things were quiet. He knew that would change. No matter what came, his Plumbers would be there on the wall to meet it.
Earth would be defended. No matter the cost.
Author's Note From Shadows59
I just wanted to let everyone know that Breaking Point is still getting worked on. It's just going a little slow since the world fell apart last year and Erico and I both got new jobs that cut into our writing times, but we're nine chapters in now and I think that there's only four or five more before we get to the end of the first arc and then we'll start posting. Thank you for your patience.