Distant voices echoed from a long way away, from somewhere in the depths of darkness. But light followed, along with the scents of stale sweat and staler beer.
Rough gray breeze-blocks, cut by a scar of golden March sunlight from on high, greeted Daniel West as he opened his eyes. Blood thumping dully behind his ears, he rolled with a groan into a sitting position on the edge of the metal cot. His shoes sat on the cement floor next to him. He coughed, wincing at the taste in his mouth, and stretched. His shoulders popped, stiff and painful. He wondered if his tongue was as furry as it felt.
“You awake, Wild?” a voice called from outside the cell door, “or coughing in your sleep? We might need your room for some real criminals later.”
The door opened, revealing a uniformed policeman of similar build to Daniel, fit, but with paler skin and a small trimmed beard. A reassuring tall and solid presence that had stood by Daniel on quite a few high school sports fields.
Daniel smiled. “Cody Walker, as I live and breathe; we must stop meeting like this.”
“That’s probably not a bad idea. Do you have any concept of how much paperwork you could cause me? And you know how much I hate paperwork.”
Daniel pulled his shoes back on, and then stepped out of the cell. “If you didn’t like paperwork, you wouldn’t have become a cop, surely?”
“If I did like paperwork, I’d have gone to Yale and been your roomie in law school. Come on, let’s get you back home.”
Cody led him out of the drunk tank, towards a flight of stairs leading up. Daniel could hear voices from above—both the variable tones of actual conversations, and the slightly too-loud voices that either suggested an elementary school teacher talking to a class or a TV host.
It turned out to be the latter: some of those voices were coming from a TV on the ground floor. He recognized the breakfast news anchors and one of the roaming overseas correspondents, who he couldn’t put a name to. He only caught half the actual words, but they seemed to be discussing something about an upcoming Presidential briefing on something overseas. Passing a restroom door, Daniel halted. “Hold up, Cody. Mind if I stop off and clean up?”
“Why should I mind? I should have thought of insisting upon it.” Magnanimously, he held the door open. The voices muted as Daniel pushed through into the restroom and went to a sink. He splashed some water on his face and cleaned his teeth as best he could with a wet finger in hopes of spitting out some of the stale paste that coated his tongue.
The face looking back from the mirror was unshaven, good-looking, he thought, with a Mediterranean tone dusted in patchy stubble. The lines under the green eyes were deeper than a regularly sober man’s would have been at his age, and he was surprised that the brown hair could look so messy when it was so short. The man in the mirror also looked a lot more athletic and fit than Daniel felt, and a lot less slumping and aching. At least the guy seemed to have good dress sense.
The Greenwich Police Department’s ground floor was much like any business office, with two walls that held large Armorglass windows looking out onto the concrete-slabbed plaza that was Bruce Place, in the downtown area of the city. A firearms locker was against a third wall, a private interrogation room and more serious cells through a door in the other. A few waist-high cubicle dividers separated out four desks, and few of the faces there were strangers.
Apart from himself, he saw only the officers, the civilian clerk, and a janitor. Officer Gabriel, whom Daniel knew was still nursing a busted knee, was at the switchboard, but his attention—like that of Officers Santos and Ryan, and the burly Detective Hansen—was on the big flat-screen mounted in the corner. Daniel wondered for a moment what was so interesting, but doubted it was going to be as important as getting this over and done with. It looked to be a stock market tracker on the screen. More immediately, he knew Cody would have his personal effects safe, and the paperwork for the Public Intoxication ticket filled out, same as every other time he hadn’t been able to walk home in a straight line.
“You see this?” Cody asked, picking up the citation from his desk.
“It looks like paper,” Daniel admitted.
“You’re half right. It’s paper-work. You know what I’m thinking?”
Daniel shrugged. “That you hate it.”
“That’s more just a basic fact, Wild. Right now, I’m thinking that next time this happens, I may just drop you off in an empty freight car heading up to Canada. When the Mounties up in fair Canuckistan find you sleeping off your trip with no passport, then you’ll get to do a lotof paperwork. And the Mounties get some, too...” Cody trailed off, looking over Daniel’s shoulder. Daniel turned to see what he was looking at.
The TV was covering the US News Network’s Breakfast Briefing, but instead of courthouses or celebrities, the screen was showing something Daniel couldn’t quite make sense of. On the left was a night starscape with something darkening a patch of it, blocking some stars. The familiar blue press briefing room at the White House was on the other side of the screen, with an empty podium and reporters failing to duck far enough out of the shot as they swapped seats. A rolling update slid across the bottom of the screen, but he couldn’t get a clear view of what it said.
Cody stood up and stepped a little closer to the TV.
“Hold up and listen, Dan.” Daniel hesitated; Cody had called him by his actual name, which meant he wasn’t bantering.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the Press Secretary began from behind the podium, wasting no time after walking out. “At twenty-one thirty, local time, astronomers and radar specialists from NORAD and several other organizations and countries confirmed the existence—the arrival—of an unknown Near-Earth Object in low orbit over the southern Pacific Ocean. It is much larger than most NEO asteroids, but its orbit is stable, and does not appear to pose any imminent threat to Earth. Further statements will be issued as we learn more.”
Immediately, the TV speaker was filled with a clamor of questions about the object’s effects on the tide, what it might be made of, where it had come from, and why it hadn’t been detected earlier. One braver journalist stepped toward the podium more directly, risking being ejected for a such a breach of protocol. “Is this a man-made, or, I should say, artificial object?”
The Press Secretary caught herself before completing a shrug and smiled blandly and professionally. “As yet, Ms. Lance, we have no comment to make on the object’s origin.”
“Then, is it natural?”
“As I said, we have no comment as of yet.”
“Can we take that to mean that you—the government—don’t know either?”
The Press Secretary’s smile became slightly more frozen. “Studies are continuing, Ms. Lance, but that’s all we can say for now.” She shuffled some papers and nodded. “That’s it for now. We’ll hold another briefing when more information comes in.” She retired behind the curtain as another wave of camera flashes went off. The USNN studio filled the screen again, and a visibly surprised host turned to an elderly guest next to him. “If I can just ask Professor Gray of Princeton’s Astrophysics—”
Hansen grunted and muted the show. Daniel blinked and looked at Cody. “What was that all about?” he asked at last. “Did someone slip me a roofie last night, and I’m tripping?”
“If someone did, it was probably a little green man, and he got the rest of us, too.” Cody grinned. “Wouldn’t it be cool if that’s who was coming? If it’s an alien mothership or something, the world changes right now.”
“Even if it’s natural, it’d be a second moon now...”
“May as well finish up with this citation so you can get on home.”
Not wanting to pull his eyes away from the silent TV screen, Daniel asked, “The usual fine?”
“The usual. No free road trip to Canada. This time.” Cody nodded to the paper and slid it across the desk with a ballpoint pen. While Cody got Daniel’s wallet out of his desk drawer, Daniel signed the form, but then felt his eyes pulled back to the TV screen. A live feed of the object was on now, showing its darkness against the sky. There was a hint of pre-dawn lightness in the sky, which the rolling caption identified as being filmed by an Australian TV station.
The object was a rough, dark smudge maybe the size of a full moon, but more oval than any natural object in the sky. Another image of it flicked onto the screen, this one captioned as being shot from a US Naval ship. Then there was a shot taken from a passenger jet five miles up in the atmosphere. With this one, whoever had been filming on a phone or a tablet had zoomed in on the object as best they could, and now Daniel could see, despite the blur and motion-shake, that its surface was as rough as it was gray.
Daniel stood to get a clearer view of the TV over the shoulders of other people watching it. As he watched the silent image, the picture began to change. Something around the bottom edge of the shapeless object began to lighten, then glow. “What the...” As if reacting to his thought, three dull flickers shot out and away from the patch of darkness, and vanished. “Hey, what—”
Hansen shot in with the remote, bringing on a voice saying “…objects are traveling at hypersonic velocity...” Cody stopped form-filling.
“Dan, this might be—”
“NORAD,” the TV voice went on, “has begun tracking three unknown ballistic objects. Analysis of their descent trajectory predicts landfall on the Eastern coast of Australia within minutes. Now, we’ll go live to our Australia correspondent, Kath Garner.”
Garner was way out of her depth, if Daniel was any judge. She was on the roof of what Daniel assumed was a USNN building, looking to the east with a shaky smile. The camera kept following her gaze, but the evening sky was normal and clear. “We haven’t heard any more about what’s going on than you have,” she was saying, “but as you can tell from the sirens in the streets below, people are... worried. Local authorities are advising all residents and visitors to take tsunami precautions, to go to the strongest structures. We’ll stay out here as long as we—”
She broke off with a look of wide-eyed horror, and the camera whipped round dizzyingly.
The sky brightened, as if the sun were flying past in a blinding, blazing light with a slight green tinge, leaving purple streaks on the screen. Buildings in view flared with the amount of light reflecting off them. The TV speakers blared out yells, curses, car horns, and the sound of breaking glass. A thunderclap followed, snapping the screen to static.
The TV went black for a startling instant before cutting back to the news studio. Daniel felt as if the wind had been knocked from him, even though he wasn’t sure why he felt that. The hosts looked as if they felt the same way, their jaws slack and their eyes darting around for direction from their producers. Daniel remembered feeling winded and seeing casters like this on TV on 9/11, and he felt something sink inside himself now. He suddenly understood something very bad had happened, and his stomach lurched at the thought.
After a stunned moment, the host spoke uncertainly. “We seem to have lost signal with our affiliate... We’ll try to regain contact as soon as we can, and...” He looked down at the notes on his tablet, visibly disturbed. “We can go to Terry Danvers in Canberra—that’s around two hundred miles from Sydney—who I believe can give us some kind of update on the situation. Terry?”
“Can you hear me OK?” an American male voice asked.
“Sure, Terry. You’re coming through loud and clear.”
“Things are a little... a little crazy here. Much of the Australian internet is down; phone connections to Sydney are down. We have a feed from a traffic chopper over North Canberra, and… oh.” The last sound was small and lost, the sound of a man seeing a knife-hilt sticking out of his own body.
The chopper’s picture feed was jittery, but showed the neat layout of Canberra’s streets backed in the distance by a low range of khaki hills. Beyond them was a dark and roiling gray and brown ceiling of dust, with thick pillars of clouds holding up the sky. It took a moment for the scale to make sense, but then Daniel saw the true pattern: the thick mushroom cloud, almost blending with two others flanking it.
Daniel felt behind him for the chair and sat heavily, falling into it. How high must that mushroom cloud be to be seen from two hundred miles away, he wondered, and how big a nuclear blast did it take to make a cloud that high? Cody’s look of cautious wonder had drained from his face. A phone rang, which everyone in the room ignored, and then another, and then all of them were going off. Cody took a deep breath and stood up. “Let’s get you home, West.” He put a hand on Daniel’s elbow, steadying both Daniel and himself as he stood. “While we can. You got transport?”
“You know I drink and walk; I didn’t bring my SUV.”
Cody nodded, and handed Daniel his phone and wallet. “Since we had it anyway, I put your cell on charge. You’d best call your dad.”
Daniel nodded, wishing it would shake this strange world away. “You guys are probably about to get pretty busy.”
“I think the world’s about to get pretty busy,” Cody said.
The Pentagon, VA.
The mushroom cloud over Sydney loomed far larger on projection screens in the Joint Chiefs’ secure Combat Information Center, or C-In-C for short, nestled in the most shock-proof and bomb-proof sub-level of the Pentagon. It was a larger version of the chambers aboard aircraft carriers and other warships, from which battles were controlled and commanded. The Secretary of Defense, Gardner Davies—himself a former four-star general before he’d embarked on a political career—had hustled his way over immediately while the Secret Service moved the President and the rest of his Cabinet away from DC. Sydney might have been at the opposite end of the world, but it had been an object lesson in how cities were vulnerable, whether for deliberate attack or for natural disaster.
“They nuked us?” he asked the generals, admirals, and technicians filling the ultra-modern room. There were more than enough screens and high-tech consoles to keep dozens of tech geeks and strategists busy 24/7, but every eye was on the big display, and every ear glued to a phone or headset.
“NORAD doesn’t think so,” Air Force General Amanda Carver said at last, over the background chatter. She was a woman of average height, with close-cropped auburn hair, and wore US Space Command insignia. She’d never expected to be placed in charge of such a group, but it had been a dream come true for her, as her father had gone from being an Air Force fighter pilot to being an astronaut back in the 1980s. “Their best guess is a dense metallic impactor—nickel-iron—about 75 meters across, accelerated by artificial means to give an impact yield equivalent to a fifty-megaton nuke.”
“Jesus,” somebody muttered.
Carver nodded. “Jesus would probably understand it pretty well; in Biblical terms, they stoned us, not nuked us.”
Secretary Davies frowned. “But if they have the technology to travel however many light-years, why would they just… throw rocks? They must have firepower far beyond any nuke ever built.”
“Why bother?” Carver asked simply. “Technology can fail; control signals can be jammed. There’s not much you can do to interfere with a rock once it’s been thrown. If your rock is metallic enough, you can accelerate it to any speed you want with a magnetic rail—”
“Like a railgun?”
“Not just like,” an admiral said from across the floor. “Exactly, a railgun.”
General Carver nodded. “Make your rock fast enough, and shooting it down or deflecting it with missile defenses stops being an option—and the faster it goes, the higher the destructive yield on impact. And if your target doesn’t have any sort of missile defense, you don’t even need to accelerate it at all. Just let go of it from orbit on a trajectory that will take it where you want to hit, and let gravity do the work.”
An adjutant approached Secretary Davies with a phone. “Sir, it’s the President.”
“Yes, Jim,” Davies said into the phone. “I see...” He nodded thoughtfully, even though the man on the other end of the line couldn’t see it. “I think that’s our only real option, yes. Yes, I’ll get things moving on that here. Good luck.”
He handed the phone back to the adjutant as his expression caught the eye of everyone in the room. “The President has been in consultation with the leaders of various nations—China, Russia, Australia, our NATO allies—and all are agreed that...” He hesitated, as if trying to think of a gentler way to phrase what he had to say. “Whatever or whoever that thing is, or those in control of it, have committed an act of war upon this planet. We are agreed that a proportionate response is necessary.”
“For retaliation?” Carver asked. “Is that even possible?”
“Space Command’s job is to make it possible.”
Daniel West was, literally, on the edge of his seat in his parents’ large TV lounge, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. Their TV was a lot bigger than the one in his New Haven apartment, but he wasn’t sure that was necessarily a good thing.
On the screen, a slightly distorted fish-eye lens image showed jagged black and gray shards and spikes on a slowly-rotating, slate-colored backdrop. It was impossible to tell whether any of the stuff was rock, or metal, or some other weird material. Daniel supposed that’s why they called it ‘alien’—he knew enough about Latin from his legal studies to know that the word meant ‘other.’ Maybe it was something other than rock or metal. There was a NASA copyright notice in one corner of the image. Daniel guessed they’d turned an imaging and photography satellite around to get a good look at the object that had destroyed Sydney.
There didn’t seem to be doors or windows, let alone laser cannons or engines. It didn’t look much different than the images sent back by probes that had landed on comets or asteroids.
A reporter had been giving a voice-over about what the news coverage was showing, but they didn’t have much to talk about, so he’d kept looping back to experts repeating that they had no idea, and callers demanding it be destroyed. Daniel had turned the sound off.
Now, however, a scroll had opened up at the bottom of the screen, reading, ‘US and Chinese missiles launched at object,’ and he grabbed for the remote to turn it back on.
The image rotated, just enough to include the curvature of Earth and a number of bright specks approaching the object. “We’re fortunate,” a female reporter was saying excitedly, “that NASA has a good view of the imminent impacts of the nuclear ICBMs launched by China and the US. NASA exo-geologists estimating the density and structure of the material from their satellite images believe that two or three impacts will shatter—”
The voice fell silent as a flash came from somewhere between the spikes protruding from the object’s surface. At the same time, one of the approaching specks flared up spectacularly, almost whiting-out the satellite’s camera. Then, another flash and another whiteout, and another, and another. Daniel winced, glancing away from the TV at the rapid flashing like camera flashes at a concert.
“Oh my god. The missiles—” the reporter’s voice cut off, and Daniel saw that the TV screen had gone to gray static. He picked up the remote and started flicking channels, but they were all the same: cable, streaming, everything. Dismayed, he reached for his cellphone to call for tech support, and he almost jumped out of his skin when the phone buzzed and shook just as his hand touched it.
It wasn’t Cody, or his dad, or anyone else he knew—not that he knew personally, anyway. It was the Presidential alert system, but the message on it was weird:
MOZARI,it read. The word just sat there, and Daniel couldn’t tell if it was a plea, an order, or just some new attempt at a buzzword from the government. It was on the TV screen, as well, now: MOZARI. Daniel leapt to his feet and ran to his laptop in the study. When it booted up, its screen reassuringly showed his usual desktop background and icons, but as soon as he opened a browser window, that reassurance blew away like smoke. There was no internet.
There was just MOZARI. He glanced back through the door to the lounge just in time to see the TV image change. It still showed just one word, but now the word was TRAINING.The same thing had happened on his cell and laptop. TRAINING, they now proclaimed. After a minute or so, the screens changed again, and to a new single word: NOW. This time, he kept watching until the word changed again, and this time it was to a phrase. WE ARE THE MOZARI.
Now the screens started to show multiple words at a time. First, WE ARE THE MOZARI, and then, TRAINING BEGINS NOW.
The two phrases alternated, flashing back and forth almost painfully on every medium Daniel could check—TV, email, texts, everything.
WE ARE THE MOZARI. TRAINING BEGINS NOW.
The Pentagon, VA.
General Amanda Carver had never heard a C-In-C go so silent. The screens said all anyone needed to know. “Every missile destroyed,” she whispered.
“If this is what they call training...” Secretary Davies said. “I’d hate to know what they’d call real.”
“Sirs,” a technician said in a quavering voice. “I think we might be about to find out.”
“NORAD reporting three inbound targets,” another technician chimed in. “No, wait, six targets, on ballistic arcs.”
Alarms began to sound. “That’s ourearly warning system,” Carver exclaimed.
“Three targets projected to impact on the continental United States,” someone was saying.
“Where?!” General Carver demanded. “We need to start evacuation protocols for—”
“USGS reports impacts in China,” another technician called.
“NORAD confirms,” another said. “Impacts at coordinates… Shenzhen. It’s the city of Shenzhen.”
“US impact projection confirmed. Three targets are on trajectory for Houston, Texas.”
“Get onto our people there,” Carver snapped. “Begin evacuation procedures.”
“Impact reported. Houston has gone off the air.”
Carver fell silent and slumped into her chair. Signals came in from so many channels and phones and screens for another minute, and then there was a deafening silence. For a moment, the screens showed static, and then words appeared.
UNITE AND LIVE.
“Jesus,” Carver muttered, just before the words changed.
FIGHT AND DIE.
There was sobbing around the room, and prayers and muffled swearing. Then the systems came back on line. For a few hours, the C-In-C worked as best as its occupants could manage, given the scale of the attack that had just occurred. The Secretary of Defense managed to make a trip to meet with the President and the rest of the Cabinet while General Carver was able to plan out orders for Space Command, and have a conference call with senior staff in Strategic Command.
The last thing she wanted, when she had been awake for twenty-seven of the worst hours in Earth’s history, was to hear the newest words that came from the NORAD comms operator: “New contacts separating from the main object.” Carver felt a void open in her gut, as if she were going to be sick. “How many?” she asked wearily.
The reply sounded incredulous. “Twenty-four object returns, random trajectories.”
Carver gritted her teeth so as not to be sick. She could hear someone failing on that score somewhere behind her. “More cities... How many millions...?”
The NORAD comms tech frowned, and said, “No cities. They’re tumbling, much harder to track.”
“Radar returns suggest low mass, approximately two metric tons each, size estimated to three meters... hollow.”
Hollow?If they were hollow, what might be inside them? “Track them. Get every service branch on this—anything with radar, anything with magneto-metrics, satellite imagery—whatever these things are, be they canisters, or pods of some kind, or just pieces of debris, we have to find them.”
“And we won’t be the only ones looking,” the Secretary of Defense said, coming back into the room. “These are going to be the highest value recoveries with which our military has ever been tasked. However unreal all this may seem today.”
“Trust me, Mr. Secretary,” Carver said grimly, nodding to the big strategic information screens all around. “This is more real than any of us have ever seen before.”
“And may God have mercy on our souls?”the Secretary asked.
Carver snorted. “I guess that depends on whether it’s one of our gods or one of theirs that’s at work today.”