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FINALIST — Submission by Matt Hilliard

Occidentis Telum Est   [ Part 2 of 3 ]

For the first time, he doubted his orders. It was a minor miracle his meager pistol had managed to bring down even a small drone (evidence, perhaps, of his skill and cunning). "Ah, things are pretty--"

He was forced to pause as a much larger Antaran drone slammed into a building fifty meters away at a speed that must have been close to the speed of sound. He wasn't knocked down this time, but he drew back and instinctively brought a hand up to one ear. Only seconds later, a human soldier in power armor came landed a mere twenty meters away.

The armor made the soldier stand nearly three meters tall, and would have made him even more imposing had the impact of the landing not shattered the pavement beneath the armor's huge feet. The soldier stood in rubble up to his shins, held up by some tougher layer of the road. After a moment in apparent contemplation of the fallen Antaran drone, the soldier fired a shot with the armor's lightest weapon just to be sure the drone was out of commission.

Etoin jerked his head away, but a rough streak remained scorched across his vision. His head hit the wall behind him and something seemed to ring loudly all around him. In his daze, he realized he had been temporarily (he could only hope) deafened by the blast. The drone had been split into two burning pieces, revealing a deep gash torn into the already battered building by the soldier's shot.

The soldier looked, Etoin thought, like some sort of medieval nightmare. The armor completely concealed its occupant and bristled with deadly armaments. After a moment's further reflection, it soared into the air like Ares leaving the field near Troy, the sudden rush of air and further crumbling of the ground directly below it the only signs betraying a technological rather than preternatural power.

Etoin stumbled forward, unable to hear himself as he tried to speak to his coordinator. Trying to get a grip on himself, he once again hefted his pistol, which in comparison to what he had just seen seemed like a savage's cudgel. Somehow, he managed to walk a block from the site of the fight. He thought it was back the way he had come, but since his head had hit the wall his sense of direction was hopelessly confused. Rounding a corner, he stared uncomprehending at the sight in front of him.

A spaceship realized as a rough cylinder a hundred meters in length and forty in diameter lay smoldering in front of him. Amongst the ruin of their troopship, small Antaran drones fired at the power armored human soldiers circling high overhead like vultures. Etoin was still trying to get his mind around this new scene when one of the larger drones, perceiving him as a small threat at best but wary of a trap, shot him in the head.

The sounds coming over the comm made it clear to Florian Martel, brooding in his makeshift headquarters, that the spy Etoin was dead. This was something of a relief, as he had been worried he might have to kill the fool himself. Etoin was one of those romantic types who saw himself in the third person, a character in an exciting drama. When dealing with him, Martel had always laid the "secret agent" nonsense on much thicker than usual, and the simpleton had always lapped it right up.

Ironically, Etoin had been fiercely patriotic and almost completely unquestioning of government propaganda. Martel had almost felt guilty about using Etoin as part of his operation. What would the patriot think if he knew he was actually working for the Antarans against his own race? If Martel had needed to use clever stratagems and all his cunning to fool Etoin, it wouldn't have seemed as predatory, but it had been so easy. Etoin was really just a child, whatever his age actually was.

Now he was dead, and that was one less loose end Martel had to worry about. His operation was obviously winding down, faster than perhaps he had expected. As soon as the Martel's people had incited riots in the government complex, the first of assuredly many troopships had landed near by. With the soldiers vainly fighting the Antaran drones and the unprotected complex was controlled by the mob, the end was surely near. Clearly the Antarans would soon no longer need Martel's intrigue to supplement their brute force.

Consequently this was the most delicate period of the operation for Martel. This was where he no longer had any negotiating power, where the Antarans held all the cards. He had been given assurances, of course, but he knew they meant nothing.

His comm unit gave an urgent beep, causing him to jump in surprise. His Antaran contact! He reached over quickly and hit a button to receive the message.

On the comm unit's screen, a middle-aged human officer appeared. It was odd, scheming against the human government with what looked like a military officer. It was, Martel thought, a rather clever means of evading detection. The Antaran made the image look like a human officer, and as a result if their conversations were intercepted and the encryption broken, it would seem like a military intelligence officer was talking to him rather than an Antaran. Little details were wrong, things like way the human's uniform was that of a fighter commander and not military intelligence, but Martel didn't bother to correct them. Their conversations wouldn't stand up to intense scrutiny no matter what tricks they used, the point was to fool cursory glances by surveillance crews.

"Good work," the disguised Antaran said. "We are very pleased with your performance."

Martel bowed slightly. "What do you wish of me?"

The human's eyes glanced off camera a little unrealistically. For some reason, Martel felt better when he spotted these mistakes. It was important to remember the seemingly omnipotent Antarans could get these things wrong occasionally. "What is the situation in the city?"

"Chaos. The riots I have incited have broken through into the government complex. One of your troopships, as you know, has landed and is occupying the defense forces."

The human nodded but took just slightly too long to speak, probably due to the translation algorithms the Antaran computers were using to render the Antaran's language into human speech. "This landing is the first of many. We still hope to avoid large scale fighting on your homeworld, but the orientation of the defense forces gives us no choice."

"You've got them on the ropes, though. It'll be over soon, right?"

"Yes. Then we will need you and other sympathizers to lead your race into a new era of peace under our rule."

This was the crux of the matter. It made sense that they would want figurehead human politicians, but it could be they wouldn't trust known traitors. Perhaps they wouldn't use any humans. There were too many factors for Martel to have any confidence. Because the Antaran victory was inevitable, betraying his humanity was the only way he even had a chance of coming out of the whole mess on top. "What would you have me do until your victory?"

Another pause. "Stay where you are for the duration of the fighting. The surrounding area is a combat zone and is not safe. I will contact you again after our victory."

Martel bowed slightly, and the Antaran broke contact. He felt at last a sense of finality. There was nothing more he could do. The ball was in the Antarans' court. Leaning back in his chair, he began to think about what he would do if he became part of a puppet government during the Antaran occupation. He wouldn't have any real power, he supposed, but he'd have plenty of money. Only the best for the quislings "in charge"...

His daydreaming was interrupted by several people knocking down the door and running into his apartment. Before he could even get out of the chair, two strong men where holding him down and a third shoved a gun into his face. "Florian Martel?"

Well, he thought, trying to be philosophical, he had rolled the dice and lost. Somehow they'd found out. "Yes."

He'd done his best. Oh well. He closed his eyes as the third man pulled the trigger.

Lieutenant George Cantor got out of the chair with a sigh. When he had been asked by high command to take part in what they called "an unusual counter-intelligence program" he hadn't expected it to be so much work. Why hadn't Fleet Intelligence handled it? He had done some acting before joining up, but impersonating an Antaran who was impersonating him wouldn't be beyond the abilities of even the most modest actor, difficult as it had been at first to get his mind around the idea. In the end, though, it was rather pleasant keeping his mind occupied. The preparations for his conversations to expose would-be traitors like Martel kept his mind off the war.

Unfortunately, things were wrapping up. Oddly action was being taken rather late, after the spies had begun their attempts to destabilize the government. Maybe they needed concrete evidence. It must be important to them, since they occupied him with it today mere moments before the battle. This was not just any battle, either, it was the Decisive Battle. The night before, Escobar da Varga had given a speech to the defense forces making known for the first time that the military's research arm had come up with a secret weapon which would be able to destroy the entire Antaran fleet. The Admiral's strategy, therefore, up to this point had been designed to get the entire Antaran siege force into battle. Unfortunately, the only way to do that was to put the entire human fleet in one place as a lure.

Like everyone else, Cantor's spirits had been buoyed upon hearing they had a chance to beat the Antarans, but he wasn't sure if this superweapon, even if it did work, would help in the long run. For several cycles the Antarans had been slowly wearing away at the Solar System's powerful defenses with drone fleet after drone fleet. The situation was clear. The Antarans had the resources of an entire sector, maybe, if rumors about the growing hegemony were true, even an entire galaxy, to set against one system.

He didn't mind at all, however. Soon they would be fighting real Antarans rather than their robotic servants. The battle, however futile, would finally mean that the Antarans would suffer true losses. Perhaps minimal in the grand scheme of things, but there was something satisfying about taking out a real Antaran ship instead of a mass produced drone. He didn't expect to survive the conflict. The Admiral had said the superweapon would take time to work, and likely a large portion of the fleet would be destroyed. Cantor couldn't get interested in the plans. No matter what they did, it was just another group of deaths, another fanfare in humanity's long funeral.

 

[ CONTINUED...   Part 3 ]


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