Chapter 1: Technical Means
Thin clouds of dust drifted along his path, the force impelling them barely moving the scrub along the trail. He heard nothing but a few birds, a few small animals, nothing larger than a groundhog. He had paused dragging the litter on which he transported his day’s catch back to the village. He eased his rifle off his shoulder, shrugging to help slide it into his arms. He flipped off the safety then crouched. Something was out there. He couldn’t hear it, see it, or even smell it, but he knew.
Then he caught it—that low throbbing groan bordering on a whine that marked the alien’s anti-grav technology. A drone? Something larger?
He didn’t move. He had cover. If it were an ISR bird—intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance—it would have an easier time finding him if he proceeded. Just like the human eye, those things were attuned to movement. But one could destroy the small ones with a good shot. And this far from any control zone? The Unitary would never seek to recover it. It’d self-destruct. If it lost its connection with the SecNet, it’d go inert if it didn’t have other programming. He had two disabled ISR drones to thank for his current comfortable life.
Though that was absolutely and positively a relative term. Eleven years ago, he would have considered this a hardship posting. The village at which he currently resided—a place the locals called Dry Roads—had more modern conveniences than any of the holes in the Middle East or Central Asia he had scouted back in his counter-terrorism days, but when things were bad, you had to stay underground and you might not see the sun for days.
Dry Roads and places like it—the places he had lived for the last decade—continued to exist because the Unitary considered them too small and insignificant to warrant the expenditure of resources necessary to remove them. Still, when there was a lot of air traffic, the population stayed hidden. It was like living in a warren of rabbits, scared to catch the notice of a pack of predators, unwilling to abandon their homes for the unknown.
How many such villages had he known since the aliens had come? Wait, was this lucky number thirteen?
That fled his thoughts as the transport came into view. This was a big, slow, commercial freighter not a military or security personnel carrier. It had no escort. He could see no armed autonomous vehicles up there with it. That could mean bait, with other AVs either in its cargo area or flying higher, waiting to engage any hostile force. It could also mean the Unitary considered this area inactive. In a way, that was good—less security traffic. In another way, that wasn’t so good as it meant more aerial traffic which both meant more time underground and a higher likelihood of Dry Roads getting noticed.
He had once heard an academic call a particular target country “the land of no good options.” Yeah, that about cut it. He was a prince in the land of no good options.
Watching the freighter move slowly across the sky—it seemed slow because of the altitude, but he was sure that thing was approaching supersonic—he considered his plan for the rest of the day. Willa would buy the carcasses off him—he had gone out at her request—and then he’d pick up a few perishables before heading to the communal kitchen to cook a meal. He’d share that with Ahad and Sally—they’d helped him enhance his radio—and then a couple of cups of Sally’s bad homebrew before early to bed. He had volunteered for patrol the next day and there were some tracks to the south that needed investigating. There was a chance one of the neighbouring warlords was pushing closer to Dry Roads, and that could lead to some hard choices.
It took a long time for the freighter to finally disappear over the horizon. He checked his watch. He had plenty of time. It was a lazy day—no rush, no fuss.
It seemed like he had just risen when his sixth sense got him under cover again. This time, the angry roar of afterburners accentuated the whine of the anti-grav. Two close-support drones streaked through the sky, following the path of the freighter. If it had been bait, that freighter had been way too far out ahead. If those two weren’t linked to the freighter, that was way too much traffic for a normal day.
He checked his weapon, then his sidearm, then the backup on the cart, then the man-portable air defence system strapped to the side. He steadied his breathing as he did so, willing himself into a mindful but meditative state. Time to move on. Change the plan. One cup of homebrew to be neighbourly then pack.
By morning, he’d be gone.
When he got moving, he had the carts straps across his chest and cradled his rifle in his arms. It wasn’t that he consciously dialled up his senses, but it sure seemed like they were turned up to eleven.
The pall that hung over the village, the hint of wood and coal smoke that usually welcomed him ‘home,’ increased his anxiety. These were signposts for any hunter. Would it whet the curiosity of the Unitary? Feed the greed of a rising warlord? Maybe. If it did, he wouldn’t be around to face it. And if he had been around, what could one person do to stem the tide? He hadn’t built this world, he just needed to live in it.
For the third time that day, the sight of a vehicle led him to seek cover. That technical—an off-road utility vehicle with a crew-served weapon in its cargo bed—could have been from a warlord’s fleet, but it almost certainly wasn’t Unitary. An individual sat in that cargo bed, legs hanging off the back, sharing a cigarette with Jasmine, one of the village’s ‘marshals.’ Jasmine actually had law-enforcement experience before the aliens had come, but nobody held that against her. She had proved a patient and fair arbitrator. Those few times she had used violence, she had shown admirable restraint.
He watched the pair. It was obvious that Jasmine was comfortable, as was the individual in the bed of the vehicle. That individual dressed in a somewhat military manner—back before the aliens, he would have called it ‘tacti-cool’—and he was armed, but he didn’t seem to intimidate or worry Jasmine. In fact, it looked like the two were flirting.
Shouldering his weapon, he adjusted his sidearm so it would be easier to access. He had made a decision informed by the details he saw, but if pushed he would have to admit it was about his gut. His instinct. He thought he knew Jasmine pretty well, and her reaction sold him.
He approached cautiously, slowly, dragging his cart but with his hand close to his sidearm in a shoulder holster. He had another in a concealed holster in the small of his back and then another on his upper leg. If he went down, it would not be for lack of proper tools.
Jasmine gave him a wave. “Hey Decker. Welcome back. We’ve got company.” She ran her hand through her short hair and turned back to the male in the bed of the vehicle.
Company indeed. The male in the back of the vehicle had his eyes on Decker. The weight of the cart no longer registered for the man Jasmine knew as Decker.
The guy in the back of the vehicle smiled and pointed. “Holy—is that an FAL? Man, that is kitted out.”
“Yeah, Decker loves that gun like it was a puppy he raised to a wolf.” Jasmine chuckled a bit at her own comment.
The man Jasmine knew as Decker didn’t like the intensity with which that unidentified male watch him, even worse that the guy tried to hide it, tried to continue his conversation with Jasmine while keeping Decker in sight. It was all Decker could do not to turn around, just drop the cart and disappear. He had started with less than what he carried. He could start again.
Two heart beats later, when it was too late, Decker regretted not abandoning Dry Roads as soon as he saw the technical.
“His name isn’t Decker. That there is Webb.”
When he heard his name, Webb froze. His hand went instinctively to his sidearm. Vehicle Boy reached for the AK laying beside him on the bed of the vehicle, and that changed everything.
Webb dropped the cart, drew his sidearm, put it on Vehicle Boy. “Don’t move. Don’t touch your weapon. I will put you down. Do. Not. Move.”
Vehicle Boy stopped, then started to raise his hands. Jasmine backed away and raised her own weapon. She didn’t train it on Vehicle Boy. Webb couldn’t blame her. She was smart and she was tough and she was a good shot, but two people she probably considered allies looked like they were about to start shooting, and she had no idea why.
To be honest, neither did Webb.
“Webb, jezus, put it down, man.”
Dry Roads had a kind of a berm around it, a defence that wasn’t particularly noticeable from the air. Beyond that, walls and obstacles had been constructed between remaining structures, creating a kind of wall. Again, not much, but anything more might draw the wrong kind of attention. The upper floor of the standing structures had multiple heavy weapons in them, and the man the residents knew as Decker, but who was also known as Webb, had helped them set up a mortar position that could be camouflaged when not in use.
The defences deterred raiders and got the warlords thinking it might cost too much and profit them too little to try to conquer the settlement while still escaping the Unitary’s notice.
There were two access points—not exactly gates, though there were two reinforced vans that could be wheeled into place to create a kind of barrier. Through the closest of those points, hands held above her head, strolled Sharma. Dark eyes on him, a smile on her wide mouth, her dark hair cut shorter than when he had seen her last and with a touch of gray, Anita Sharma walked out of Dry Roads.
He had worked with Captain Anita Sharma—well, she had been a captain before the aliens came—on a few operations in Central Asia. He thought she had been abroad when the aliens came. Maybe she had.
“I’ll lower my weapon when you explain to me what you are doing here.” He altered his aim slightly, so that the barrel of the SIG Sauder P226 autoloader handgun was not directly on Vehicle Boy’s chest, but it would be an instant to return to centre mass and put rounds into it. “How did you even find me?”
Sharma shrugged. “I still have contacts, a fair number of them, and you’ve made a bit of a name for yourself out here in the Red.”
The Red—the red zones, areas which lacked the infrastructure or populace that the aliens and their puppet government of the Unitary desired. Places that were free of their dominion. But also places in which they felt free to act with impunity. Like the other great empires of history, the Unitary made sure the barbarians all fought each other so they wouldn’t join together to fight them.
“Sorry to waste your time.” Webb holstered his sidearm. He turned to get his pack from the cart. If there was going to be a betrayal, if he was a target for whatever reason, he hoped Sharma would make it fast. If they tried to capture him alive . . . well, he was going to make sure that didn’t happen.
“What do you mean?” Sharma took a couple of steps toward him but stopped when he turned his head to glare at her. “Listen, I don’t know what you think I hunted you down for, but I’m not a threat, and neither is my team. I just want to talk.”
Shrugging on his pack, Webb glanced at Jasmine. “Would you mind grabbing us some coffee if you could?” He cleared his throat. “Michelle might want to join us as well. I don’t know if this is about Dry Roads.”
Sharma shook her head. “It’s not about Dry Roads, and I’ve already had a good chat with the mayor. This is just about you. Well, you and us.”
Jasmine didn’t move. Her eyes moved from Sharma to Webb and back like she was watching tennis.
Webb turned to face them, his pack on his back, his weapon cradled in his arms. “Us?” He pointed at Vehicle Boy with his chin. “You and him?”
“No, not Russell and I.” Sharma paused. Her eyes grew tight and she had a slight grimace. She was decided what she was going to say next, trying to be careful. There was something she figured he didn’t want to hear.
Webb exhaled loudly. “Just say it.”
“I’m with the Resistance.”
“Yeah, good talk.” Webb shouldered his weapon. “Best of luck.” He started walking away.
“Just a minute, Webb.” Sharma started walking toward him, hand outstretched. “Just listen for moment.”
“There’s nothing to listen to.” But Webb did stop. “How many capitals did they vaporize in an instant? How many people got killed because we thought plucky optimism was sufficient? No, you and your Resistance are going to get people killed, and not just the stupid ones like yourselves. Innocents are going to pay the price.”
“It’s the regular people we are trying to help.” Sharma had almost reached him. “Thus to tyrants, right?”
Webb turned. “Thus always to tyrants, but that was you, not me. And it’s easy to play at that when the tyrants are always weaker than you. This tyrant wiped everything out and has rebuilt it from the ground up.”
Sharma stopped within reach of him. She spoke quietly, and it wasn’t likely Russell the Vehicle Boy could hear them. “We have a chance, Webb, a real chance.”
“No you don’t.” Webb pinched the bridge of his nose. “The thing with insurgencies is that they work great against an opponent that is concerned with human rights or protecting property or population. When an insurgency faces an entrenched government that is willing to saw off its own arms and legs to win, the government wins. And you know who ends up dying the most.”
“Listen, I can’t say more, not here, not now, but I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t honestly believe this was possible.” She grabbed his upper arm. “I know about insurgencies. I know about fighting them. I know about crushing them. We’re ready for this.”
“Are you?” Webb cocked his head slightly to the side. “You know where this will go, don’t you?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean it starts with us attacking military targets, but then we realize we aren’t making a difference.” Webb shook off her grip. “We aren’t creating any pressure. We are not degrading the enemy. So then we turn to civilian leadership. I mean, they’re working with the aliens, right? They’re collaborators. Maybe they deserve this. But that doesn’t move victory any closer. Then we target government sites. They’re just bureaucrats, and this is a just a job to some of them, and some of them might actually make more of a difference to people’s well-being than us, but they’re working for the enemy. And then it’s a theatre or a museum. And then it’s parents near a school. And then it’s a school.”
Sharma’s face got hard. “No. That’s not going to happen.”
Webb let out a mirthless laugh. “It always happens. They all start as freedom fighters, but when the dial doesn’t shift, terrorism is just higher up on the spectrum.”
“Then that’s why you need to be a part of this.”
Webb took a step back. “Because I could stop it? How? Are you making me the boss? If not, how do I stop it from the inside? By assassinating Hitler? Sure, maybe. But what if it’s removing bin Laden? How did that work out? How do I stop it when it’s a cell-based decentralized structure? How many more do I have to kill then?”
“Look, I don’t know,” Sharma said. “I don’t have all the answers and I never have. I’m not going to be able to make you love this, but I need you on board.”
“No, you don’t.” Webb shrugged. “I mean, you never did, right?”
“Yeah, I did.” Sharm rolled her neck then looked down at her hands. “Listen, I’m in the shit and I need your help. There it is, okay?”
There it was, and it was no surprise. She hadn’t played the card right away, and she could have. She tried to talk him over, tried to get him to see the light—well, her light—and when all that failed, she targeted his weakness. Loyalty.
“What kind of shit?” He crossed his arms over his chest. “What kind of help?”
In spite of the tension, she chuckled. “I tell you and you’ll definitely walk away.”
“Try me.” It was as close to signing on as he could get.
“It’s a mole.” Sharma held up her hands to pause Webb’s retort. “That’s my theory. That’s what I’m thinking. It’s not a widely held view.”
“I appreciate your faith in me, really, but you need someone from counterintelligence.” Webb knew just the person, one of the very few people he had trusted back in the day and if Sharma could find Webb, this person should be no problem. “You remember Jackson?”
“Yeah.” Sharma rubbed her face with both her hands then her shoulders dropped slightly, her posture collapsing if only a bit. “Jackson got hit. He’s dead.”
“He’s dead?” Dead because he had thrown his hat in the ring with Sharma’s insurgency. Webb wanted to be angry. He wanted to blame Sharma, blame the insurgency. He couldn’t. Jackson would have done what Jackson wanted to do. “The mole?”
“That’s my working theory, but I can’t say more until I know you’re in.”
“They killed Jackson.” Webb all but snarled the words out. “You better believe I’m in.”
Sharma let out a breath she may have been holding for days. “Thank you.”
Webb flexed his hands—they had involuntarily balled into fists. “I mean what I said, and I’ll probably walk once we take care of Jackson’s killer, but you always had my back. I got yours.”
“Always.” She grabbed his upper arms and squeezed.
“You know who we need, right?”
Sharma nodded. “Bren.”
“Yeah, Bren.” Webb pursed his lips. “You . . . you’ve got a line on her?”