SEC DEF TO CONGRESS: QUOTAS NOT MET, BIG CHANGES LOOM! CHINA THREATENS SANCTIONS; PRESIDENT GERRY LAUGHS STOCKS UP ON SEC DEF THREAT SUMMER ’40–CAST: IT’S A DRY HEAT! YANKS’ ROBO–ARM TOSSES 4th STRAIGHT PERFECT GAME! LILY MEDINA WEDS HER FOURTH—THIS YEAR!
HEADLINES, NATIONAL TIMES, 7 P.M., THURSDAY, APRIL 12, 2040
Whit Murray thought: Something is happening.
He had no information, no warning. There was no visual cue. Yet he felt a cold tickle at the base of his neck.
It was eight in the evening, the sky still light even though the sun had set. Whit had just left the North Nellis metro stop and was hurrying toward the dorm. He was tired, he was hungry (he’d worked past clos¬ing time at the Installation cafeteria), and he was eager to score one of the top bunks.
Then he realized he was alone on the sidewalk.
On the tall side—at least compared to most of his contemporaries— Whit tended to slump when worn down. He was large, but not fi t, certainly not coordinated in any sense of the word. His gait, especially tonight, was more of a shamble.
He also had one of those faces that teenaged humans constantly mis¬read. It had to do with his eyes, which were frequently wider open than
strictly necessary, giving him an expression of superiority or disdain, none of it what he felt, but enough to encourage the odd elbow from a fellow traveler on a bus and even a couple of actual beatdowns inside the Installation itself.
Posture, visage, aloneness, it all added up to robbery victim, or target for the Aggregates.
For some reason—possibly gestures and nonverbal cutes from his co–workers all day—Whit realized that he wasn’t going to be robbed.
He was going to be ambushed by an Aggregate, and likely taken somewhere he didn’t want to go.
It had happened to others. It had happened to his father and mother.
As he continued on his way, though more slowly, glancing left and right, seeing no one—no human beings—Whit wondered why the Ag¬gregates never sent warnings, or even benign messages.
Maybe they found some value in shock and surprise. Of course, Whit wasn’t going to be surprised. The Aggregates had been dealing with humans since before Whit was born, yet they continued to underesti¬mate the informal, off–the–grid ways in which information fl owed from one person to the next.
No matter. Whit was on alert, and ready for the encounter.
All he could do was wonder: Where were they sending him? And why? He was a junior containment specialist spending more time on education than hardware development. What good would he be any¬where else?
Well, there was manual labor. Maybe his size had caused the Aggre¬gates to reclassify him.
Off to his left he could see the glittering towers of downtown Las Vegas. Whit did not gamble; he knew no one who patronized the casinos, though clearly there must be hundreds of thousands. The money eventu¬ally went to the Aggregates. All money went to the Aggregates. He remembered his father complaining that it was bad enough aliens had taken over the United States and now controlled the government . . . but they also let the roads turn to potholes and allowed buildings to collapse. “No matter how powerful they are,” Andy Murray used to say, “when people see everything going to shit, they’re going to rise up.”
Of course, expressing sentiments like that had led to Andy’s
disappearance . . . and so far, he’d been wrong. There was no sign that citizens of what was now called “Free Nation U.S.” or any humans un¬der the Aggregates were going to throw off alien oppression. Th ere were too many, they were too powerful, too all–knowing, too ruthless.
And they had too many humans on their side.
Th e first sign of an Aggregate “ambush” was always the team from Transformational Human Evolution. . . three (never fewer) of the hand¬somest humans anyone ever saw, at least one of them female. Th ey stepped out of the shadows as if they had somehow materialized.
The woman in Whit’s trio was a redhead in a dark blue business suit with a nice skirt. She had eyes so green Whit could tell, even in the darkness.
“Whitson Murray?” she said. She had some kind of accent, too, vaguely Eastern European, what always sounded like Russian to Whit. (THE liked to have its action teams working in countries other than the ones they were born in.)
“Confirmed,” he said. Who else would he be? Obviously they could read his data. (And probably just as obviously, they only wanted to note the delta between his data and his response.)
“I’m Counselor Kate; this is Counselor Margot”—another woman, middle–aged, pleasant and sort of motherly, with a hint of Italian in her voice—“and Counselor Hans.” A man not much older than Whit, but taller, clearly stronger. “We represent Nevada Aggregate Twelve–Ten, and we bring you the joy of a new mission.”
All three members of the team turned, like dealers in a hardware showroom, revealing half a dozen units of Nevada Aggregate Twelve–Ten.
Whit hadn’t seen them arrive—more fuel for the teleportation argument.
He always wondered—did the Aggregates ever go anywhere in groups smaller than a dozen?
The individual units of this Aggregate formation looked and proba¬bly were identical, as if assembled in the same factory. But they were capable of independent action, and the one on the far left stepped for¬ward and spoke to Whit.
“Junior Specialist Whitson Murray,” it said. When the Aggregates
first revealed themselves, fi fteen years ago, everyone expected them to sound like machines—about as articulate as Siri on the iPhones everyone carried then. But they turned out to have sweet, almost childlike voices. Whit knew that if he closed his eyes, he might think he was being ad¬dressed by an eight–year–old.
A dangerous and articulate eight–year–old. The rule was, lower your head a bit and don’t look threatening. So he did as the sweet–voiced mem¬ber of the formation continued: “Your development records demonstrate great mathematical and engineering skill.”
The proper response was “Thank you,” and you can bet he off ered it, even as he thought, Duh, why else would I be working at the Installation?
“Your work in Department Ninety–One is terminated eff ective tonight.”
Which was not great news: When you were out of work, you were out of the dorm. When you were out of the dorm, well . . . Counselor Margot had mentioned a “new assignment.” Whit held the humble posture.
“You are being transferred to Department Two Hundred Ninety–Two effective eight a.m. tomorrow.”
“Thank you,” he said. “I look forward to new and challenging work.” Whatever it was.
“Your future is bright, Mr. Murray.”
And with that, the speaking unit stepped back in line, and the whole crew marched forward into the Nevada evening, in the general direction of the metro stop . . . hell, he thought, maybe they were headed to the Atlantis for a round of roulette and a few drinks.
Whit would never know. He was left with his friends from THE.
He shifted his backpack. “Do I have to relocate?”
“Not far,” Counselor Margot said. “Department Two Hundred Ninety–Two is located in northern Arizona. You will also hear it called ’Site A.’ ”
That was a relief. Because if THE had told him, Your new job is in Cairo, he’d have to get to Cairo tomorrow. Which would leave no time for packing: He would simply have to turn, get to McCarran, and get the first plane to Egypt, leaving behind whatever clothes and possessions he had in his locker.
There would be some allowance for the time change—but he would have to be there by close of business.
“How is this different from my current work?” Which was designing and testing subsystems for power beams.
“Our world is about to be invaded,” Counselor Kate said. Whit was getting the idea that her role in the team was to be dramatic.
His reaction must have shown skepticism. (In addition to having a face that encouraged people to get pissed off at him, his face hid noth¬ing.) Counselor Hans hauled out his pad and displayed it to Whit.
It showed a surveillance camera image of a bullet–shaped vehicle, half–shadowed, obviously in space. “This vehicle took off from Keanu three days ago. It will land somewhere on Earth tomorrow, we believe.”
“What kind of invading force is that?” Whit said, never unable to keep from saying what he thought. “One ship against a planet?”
“One ship can unleash any number of devastating chemical, bio¬logical, or cyber weapons,” Counselor Hans said, sounding a lot like the kind of person who would coldly unleash any one of them. “And we can¬not assume this will be the only one, merely the first of a possible wave.”
“I’m as concerned as I am intrigued,” Whit said, truthfully. “But what—?”
“We’re preparing to strike back, if necessary. A team has been in place for a year . . . but now it needs to be expanded with young, fresh minds like yours.”
“I don’t know anything about spacecraft or orbital mechanics,” he said. He didn’t even know enough about spaceflight to understand the possible jobs.
“The nouns change,” Counselor Kate said, smiling, “but the verbs remain the same.”
Before Whit could ask what the hell that meant, Counselor Hans said, “If you can understand fluid dynamics, you can do orbital mechanics.”
Okay, so he would be doing orbital mechanics now. Forget the two years he’d just spent on electromagnetic fi elds and plasmas, something he’d been studying since age fourteen. You didn’t say no. You wouldn’t die—not immediately. You’d just lose the Aggregates’ trust while wind¬ing up on THE’s shitlist, meaning you would be “offered” a position in
the agro or enviro sectors, likely on some grim cropland or drowning seacoast, where lives tended to be shorter than in the cities of this great land.
That’s what happened to Andy Murray—and he lived two whole years after declining a transfer.
“No” never occurred to Whit.
Besides, he was intrigued. He had heard about the return of the rogue Near–Earth Object Keanu, of course. Even THE and the Aggre¬gates couldn’t stifle that information. Like everyone, he knew the story of the savage takeover of the NEO by terrorists, the extermination of intelligent nonhuman life forms, and the NEO’s attempt to flee the solar system.
When Whit was thirteen, there had even been a TV series called Planet X that told an exciting story about humans landing on a Near–Earth Object and behaving stupidly—and discovering, among other things, that there were zombies on the NEO.
Or something like zombies. Dead humans brought back to life. For a while.
Everything went to shit and the humans—alive and formerly alive— wound up taking over and sailing the NEO out into the universe to fuck more people up.
It was supposed to be science fiction, but everyone said it had a lot to do with whatever had happened on Keanu before Whit was born.
Either way, these people sounded bad.
“It’s a scouting mission,” Counselor Hans said, “prelude to a full–scale invasion.”
“They’re going into orbit,” Counselor Margot said. “Not far away.”
“I’m in.” Whit wasn’t convinced, but he had no options.
It took maybe three seconds for Counselor Hans to squirt Whit’s new employment info data to his pad. “Good luck,” he said. “Earth needs you.” He sounded as though he actually believed it.
“You should get Transformed,” Counselor Margot said. Of course, Whit thought. There’s always the recruitment pitch.
“I’m thinking about it,” Whit said, as he put some distance between himself and the trio from THE. If he didn’t hurry, he was going to be too
late to grab any food from the dorm’s cafeteria, and that would truly suck.
He would actually consider getting Transformed under one condi¬tion, which he could never utter aloud:
Bring back my father, you bastards.
Meanwhile, he had to be on their side.