An Intervention Short Story
by Clive Anthony
Copyright © Clive Anthony 2021
Chapter 1: Jack
Jack looked at Illy, dipping his head in an attempt to make eye contact. “Is it something I said?”
“What?” Illy didn’t even glance up from the glowing display projection as she spoke, her eyes flicking across words and numbers he couldn’t read from his position. “I’m checking the feedback analysis for the planned landing”.
“I’m only trying to be friendly as we’re working together.”
He watched her pause and look him in the eye as she spoke again: “This is an important posting for me Jack, I don’t have time for your flirting”.
“I see” he said, trying not to sound hurt.
“Sorry, just focussing on work, so I don’t screw it up, and so I don’t let you screw it up. Men are good at that sort of thing I’ve found. And it’s your first real assignment which increases the risk of failure as well.”
“Would it make it any easier for you if I said that I’m not interested in you anyway?”
“Ah. Well at least you’ve spoken to me, and I know a little more about you, I count that as a success.”
“Good for you, now can we do the equipment briefing? We should have done this days ago.” Illy paused but as Jack seemed to take that as rhetorical, she carried on. “Right, so, as your neural comms implant won’t have the range to reach me in orbit, you’ll need a signal booster which I have hidden in this wooden staff.”
“I have to carry a big stick?”
“Probably better than a carrot. I was going to put it in a backpack, but drone footage shows several locals walking with a staff and a few fighting with them. Only soldiers, nobles and bandits have swords or other sharp weapons it seems, what with metals being a tad rare on this planet. The invaders do have a lot of spears, which basically are only staffs with a pointy bit added. I’ve found and uploaded a training manual for you to help you learn to fight but I suspect it may take a little practice, so just be nice to people.” He gazed flatly at her as she paused and flashed him a condescending smile, presumably checking that he was paying attention.
“The staff should be really useful,” she continued, “big enough for a strong comms relay plus a decent sized dimensional field manipulator. Obviously, I’ve made it all extra-durable, as it may get a little bashed about.”
“I can control everything through my neural comms?” he asked.
“Yep, and I recommend setting a permanent detection and protection programme for missiles, they have bows and arrows you know.”
“Thanks, and what about real weapons for me?”
“Well, bearing in mind the directive about them being only for use in a last resort, the field manip isn’t just for shields, it can be used to push and move things or people, and it is also calibrated for intense, brief, high velocity pulses. Only for extreme circumstances of course, you know, life and death. Yeah?” She gave him an intense, questioning look.
“Invisible bullets eh?”
“Yes, I suppose.”
“What if I lose the staff?”
“Please try really hard not to, Jack. But if you do, the belt will save you, it has a backup comms relay and small field manip.”
“And if I lose both?”
“That’s when I give up on you and go home, leaving you to live out your days in a world with no showers or flushing toilets.”
“Hmm, point taken.”
“Please get to know your kit, set it to scan for threats and automatically activate discreet defences, you know like deflecting arrows slightly rather than stopping them dead. So that you look lucky rather than superhuman. And you’re imagining yourself looking superhuman right now, I can see it on your face. Anyway, I’ll be in constant touch from orbit and can help with setting the programmes if you like.”
“So you’re like Q to my James Bond, yeah?”
“Who?” said Illy.
They had shipped out on the Guiding Hand – an inter-systems frigate that was part of the operational fleet the Early Worlds Intervention Programme, EWIP. Not a new ship but recently repurposed to travel the galaxy monitoring planets where the inhabiting humanoids were at an earlier stage in their societal and technological evolution. There were only a few teams like Illy and Jack, who were to be dropped by the Hand in small orbital landers near planets where the Global Earth Government, GEG, had decreed some form of intervention would be appropriate. It was a brand-new approach for the previously non-interventionalist GEG and no one had any practical experience. Catching up on all this as mission info was the reason that Jack was late with the technical briefing with Illy. The politicians had shifted from ‘observe only’ to ‘get involved’ unexpectedly and everyone was worried that it could be reversed just as suddenly. Jack was more worried about getting this wrong than figuring out the technical gear which he guessed he could do pretty easily.
The small landing pod detached from the Guiding Hand in high orbit of the planet designated for their first mission. Jack hadn’t thought about the risks involved with landing, or from interacting with the primitive natives. With the relentless optimism of youth, his focus was instead on relishing the feeling of weightlessness as the little pod left the large interstellar craft and slowly rotated into daylight. Free-fall in space made him feel like he was flying. It triggered a joyful and strangely nostalgic emotion that nothing else came close to. He saw a view very similar to simulations of what Earth used to look like from orbit, before such a viewpoint was even possible. Huge azure oceans that dazzled in the light of the system’s sun, which itself was not too dissimilar from Earth’s. The continent-sized jigsaw-puzzle pieces of emerald landmass covered less than a third of the globe. Patchy white clouds swirled in slow motion, brilliantly bright in the sunshine and contrasting the black of endless space all around. He vowed never to lose his sense of awe at such a godlike view of a magnificent planet spinning serenely beneath him. It amazed him that people weren’t clamouring to invade and populate the place, to forge a fresh start on such a relatively empty planet. Historically that would have been the way of course, a race to put the US or Chinese flag here first, but nearly a century of Global Earth Gov actually seemed to have tamed the species that started off by wiping out all the other humanoids and large mammals. Hence colonisation was only considered on planets uninhabited by sentient life. That was an entirely different department from this one anyway. How boring he thought, all geology, meteorology, and farming.
Jack first met Illy at the on-board briefing. She was clever but he felt she was more snappy than friendly. They were similar in both being in their thirties and both slightly taller than average. Where she differed from him was the short, spiky red hair and bright blue eyes, such that Jack felt ordinary in comparison with his light-brown hair and grey-blue eyes. His training and background were military whereas hers were both technical. He was to be the sole person on the ground, leading the charge so to speak. But her role was to remain in geo-stationary orbit above him in the specially modified landing pod to monitor the technological side of the mission, guide, support and help if needed. On meeting her he had felt an attraction and smiled, holding her eyes for a moment, but he was not rewarded by any discernible reaction. Like everyone on the ship she was all business – formal, technical, and terse. These people took themselves very seriously; they were here to save worlds he supposed, but he liked to keep things a little lighter, even though, or perhaps because, he was the only person in any real danger on these missions. He wouldn’t say he was the most important person and that the success of the mission relied on him, because that would be immodest. And anyway he assumed everyone realised it without him spelling it out.
Chapter 2 – Illy
Illy was worried about Jack. Well, to be honest, she was more concerned about the risk to the mission that he represented. He was treating this all too casually. He was the grunt on the ground, directed by her as the mission specialist and engineer, but he seemed to think he was in charge. Typical military she supposed, self-confident to the point of arrogance. It should have been a trained diplomat of course, but they were too few and too timid. It would take time to train up some suitable hybrid diplomat/soldier/agent types.
The formal briefing from the commanding officer had been long and stern but contained no surprises. The mission, as she assumed these always would be, was to intervene discretely (or covertly) in this early world, this early human civilisation, to improve the lives of its inhabitants. Generally, as in this case, it was to be by averting war, genocide, and oppression. On other planets it may involve promoting trade, culture and so on. They were always to start with influence and persuasion, working along a sliding scale through diplomacy to manipulation and only if utterly unavoidable could this escalate into use of intimidation, coercion, and force.
Revealing the existence of advanced technology or their off-world origin was strictly forbidden, a big no-no. Jack had actually asked at the briefing if this wasn’t a deceitful and condescending way of helping but was answered with a disapproving put-down. Presumably he realised that questioning further would lead them into the realm of politics, an area that no doubt made his tiny brain hurt.
She guided the pod down well away from any populated areas, right in the middle of nowhere. The dimensional field manipulation generators powered the high-speed descent whilst also protecting them from the enormous friction temperatures that would otherwise have destroyed the pod and its occupants. So much of the planet was forested, but here there were some more open areas where vast herds of grazing animals had kept the tree cover down. Jack was apparently musing on his briefing, maybe some very last-minute checking of the equipment. This planet had only been monitored from space and high-altitude drones, so they knew population sizes and locations, but nothing of the local names. The intervention programme was new enough that resources didn’t yet stretch to placing spies on all possible planets, but it was clear enough from initial observations that the largest emerging civilisation was facing a new threat. It was a relatively stable kingdom, relying on agriculture and trade, likely to be starting to develop culture and sophistication. But like a mould growing over the skin of a ripe apple, the invading hordes were spreading towards them across the continent, showing all the signs of a brutal society where strength was all, and conquest was a way of life. They showed no sign of agriculture or settlements, no building, no trade. The hordes of Genghis Khan had sprung to mind when she heard of this and her opinion was clear: though the Mongol Empire had unified much of Earth it had been achieved through mass slaughter and complete domination, a means that really was not justified by the end and ultimately was not sustainable. And really not conducive to good neighbourly relations.
Did conquest as a way of life leave traces of a desire for aggression and oppression in future descendants? Or did it gift a competitiveness strength necessary to survive and evolve? She guessed that military types like Jack would say the latter. Debates raged on the web. But their job would be to avert that part of Earth’s history being copied out here on a world that knew nothing of such past events and so could not learn from them. Perhaps science would not advance so quickly without the imperative of war – the life or death prioritising that Earth had gone through. But then maybe later we would share our technology with them. Jack had suggested that bribery would be an effective intervention – our advanced tech if you stop fighting. But the moralists advocated freedom of development and the politicians preached discrete intervention with a wait and see approach, while pouring most of the money into colonisation of uninhabited worlds. With new worlds populated exclusively by the Earth’s inhabitants the politicians would of course have complete control and no need to worry about the delicate morals of preserving native races and figuring out their needs or rights.
Illy was determined to remain business-like, ignoring Jack’s attempts at friendship or more. He wasn’t too bad she supposed. Apart from the macho soldier arrogance and being a bit dim for her liking. This was a great opportunity to help people – possibly saving thousands from slaughter. A hugely important posting for her career. So she concentrated on the job as she flew the pod to drop Jack on the surface, leaving without even a goodbye to return to a geostationary orbit above his location. From there she could direct him easily and even update the Guiding Hand to a limited extent as it toured the galaxy in its absurdly busy schedule necessitated by scarce resources. It was a large pod with space for two to survive comfortably for years if necessary, and came equipped with sophisticated communications and surveillance, but only limited weapons systems. Quite a nice office, now she had it to herself.
Chapter 3 – Jack
A short while later Jack found himself feeling wonderful and stupid at the same time. And annoyed for letting the stupid interfere with his enjoyment of the wonderful. It was only stupid to look like a country bumpkin if he was back on Earth – here it was normal. Striding out across wild, wooded and hilly countryside without the slightest sign or sound of humanity was utter bliss. True solitude was rare these days on a seriously overcrowded planet Earth. This whole world had a smaller human population than one city back home.
He thought that people, including Illy, saw him as a gregarious extrovert. But he knew that a large part of him was introverted. He needed periods of quiet to recharge. And he wasn’t a countryside type of person; few people were these days as so little truly wild landscape existed anymore. His personal world was one of technology, simulated conflict training and cramped living quarters, making this an experience beyond anything he had ever imagined. It literally took his breath away. And replaced it with such fresh air! The green of the plant-life was so vivid it was almost overwhelming. His initial purposeful striding soon slowed, and he found himself touching the grass and trees, gazing at the birds and listening, astonished, at the sounds of life everywhere. For a while he stood and just breathed – the air smelled wonderful, he was sure he felt healthier already. He lingered a while longer, awestruck and gaping like a fool at everything.
With Illy powering back up to orbit he was the only person for miles around and the only modern human in this entire world. Despite his best efforts he still couldn’t completely enjoy it because he looked ridiculous, a bit like someone pretending to be some wizard from ancient stories. He was enough of a geek to know people who did that for fun, but not enough of one to be comfortable doing it himself. He was dressed in creamy-brown rough leggings and tunic, gathered by a strangely thick leather belt and chunky buckle, over which he wore a long dark green coat. A simple-looking backpack, crude leather boots and a slightly gnarly staff as tall as he was finished the outfit off. At least he didn’t have a pointy hat.
-Well how’s it going Radagast?- A comms indicator appeared in his vision just as the voice spoke right between his ears.
-All ok Illy. Who is Rudogost?-
-Radagast the Brown, Gandalf’s friend and fellow wizard, you know, the rustic one that loved animals a little too much.-
-Oh right, thanks, you flatterer. Gandalf would have been a better reference. Is there something I can help you with?-
-The other way around really, did you know you are being hunted?-
-Local wild animals, apparently something like wolves and lions got together to create what is probably the dominant predator here. Scan the area.-
Jack had been more than content with the normal human sensations of sight, sound and smell on this wild and naturally beautiful world and knowing there were no humans in the landing area he had felt completely safe. He hadn’t even thought of wild animals and now was suddenly flustered, mentally fumbling the neural signals from his brain to his implanted comms and control pack. Knowing that Illy would be monitoring all his neural signals as well as the functioning of his internal and external systems made him self-conscious. Thankfully she couldn’t actually read his mind, but even knowing she was all business and not attracted to him, he still worried a great deal about what she thought of him. She was, after all, an important colleague who would report on his actions, successes and failures to his commanding officers. And of course, she was still a young and beautiful woman even if disinterested – and that he could just not get out of his head.
He should have completed more training simulations on the way here – as Illy had nagged him to do. Finally getting the scanning programme activated he set it to detect life forms near to his position, displaying simulated graphics in his field of vision: he chose a series of concentric circles marking range with pinging dots like an ancient radar system. Two amber dots pinged alarmingly close behind him and turning he saw two roughly dog or large cat-shaped outlines where the simulated highlighting indicated their positions, even though they were not visible through the trees and undergrowth.
-Shit! Why didn’t you warn me earlier?- He started running away from the pursuit in a sudden panic. – I haven’t even practised with the zap function of this big stick you gave me!-
-Whoa Rincewind, calm down, your heart rate is going wild. I thought you were trained military? Stop running! It’s an ambush, dummy, there are more lying-in wait ahead than there are behind you. Calm down and think.-
Fear was fighting with embarrassment in Jack’s mind now as Illy’s words sank in. Stopping, he forced himself to remember his training, calm his breathing and his mind, slowing his pulse. He focussed on the radar-like graphic projected virtually in front of his eyes, seeing that she was right, two quadrupeds behind, one each to side at a distance, and then three lurking dots ahead – motionless in an arc which his course would dissect right in the middle. What a fool. Gloating to himself about being the most advanced, sophisticated, and intelligent being on the planet, supplemented by technology way beyond anything on this world. Yet within an hour of landing he had been outsmarted by animals he might characterise as dumb, yet they were close to literally eating him alive. It could have been a fatal outsmarting if not for Illy looking over his shoulder. He had to do better than this, he had to take control of himself and the situation. Perhaps he could use the manips to push them away or stun them with pulses. He had just opened the programme controlling this when Illy spoke up again through the neural comms.
-Typical man. First reaction is to reach for a big gun. If only you had sufficient intelligence to outsmart them.-
-Not helpful Illy, it’s harder to think when you are experiencing the real danger, it’s easy for you sat up there in complete safety.-
-True, but you are supposed to be trained to deal with that.
-They are closing in, I can see the two behind me now without using any tech aid, stop pissing about and suggest something helpful before I zap them.-
-Levitate, your field manips can easily lift you out of their reach and there are no people to see so you can simply fly away from them.-
-Damn! Why didn’t I think of that?-
Quickly he sent the mental impulses needed to activate the field manips built into the staff. The generators reached out, causing invisible oscillating waves to cross in and out of this and other dimensions, creating fields that gently embraced Jack’s body and pushed against the immense mass of the planet to lift him into the air. His actual experience with manips was limited and he half expected to have to hold on tightly to the staff as it ascended but of course the fields were programmed to spread their force over him and anything he held. Twelve feet up he paused to look down on the hunting wolf-cats as they raced up. They were not amazed like people would be, just frustrated to see their meal going out of reach, as if he were simply climbing a tree. The nearest two growled as the others closed in to see what was happening as he drifted away.
-See, no problem, I supplied you with a solution in time to escape. You really do need to chill, and you need to trust me. I told you I wouldn’t let you screw up.-
-Well thanks for caring, me being eaten would simply screw up your posting is that it?-
-Basically, yes. But try not to take it personally, and do try not to sulk.-
Jack decided to ignore her and plot his own course, even though it would indeed seem like he was sulking. Perhaps he was. But he had to admit, if only to himself, that she was turning out to be way more help than he had imagined. He had to do better and be more self-reliant, and not just because of his mental image of being the all-powerful saviour of this primitive world. Determining the direction towards the large, settled population he urged the manips to increase his speed, shooting up and off over the treetops, the wind starting to rush in his ears as his clothing flapped. He mentally pictured a stupid pointy hat being blown off his head.
After a short while he started to cool down, still mildly furious with himself for his pathetic performance and annoyed with Illy for her lack of understanding, but the joy of flying rapidly over the trees with the cool, clean air in his face was very distracting. Belatedly he realised that at this speed he may come in sight of people sooner than expected and reset the scans, checking for ground movement. A sub-line of the control programme pinged a highlight and Illy spoke in his head:
-You may want to set this to detect and deflect any flying objects. At that speed a bird in the face may be a little uncomfortable.-
-Okay. Done. Thanks. Illy, we have to get on you know, and it’s weird having you in my head, looking over my shoulder more closely than is humanly possible, so perhaps you could stop trying to wind me up?-
-Relax Jack, we’re getting on fine, but let me see if there is a control here to turn up your sense of humour.-
Chapter 4 – Illy
This guy was hilarious. The tough soldier and the man in charge – or so he seemed to think. But in practice he had been really spooked by the quadruped predators. Just a few hours on planet and already she’d had to save his life.
He had grudgingly accepted her remote guidance to direct his flight towards civilisation and to watch out for people, while he reviewed a video that she had prepared of the invading hordes. She wanted him better informed, more aware of what was going on before he tried to influence them and she watched with him, keeping an eye on his reactions. A tiny drone had captured remarkably clear shots of the dark stain spreading across the verdant land. At first there were a few edited shots of rustic peasants working in the fields while small children played or ran about. Clothing, food and shelter were all very basic. She had selected this video section for him so that he understood what was at stake, but the second part was not going to be pleasant viewing. The invading tribes were barbaric and hedonistic. She watched Jack as he followed the glimpse of the harsh reality. The video now showed an aerial view as a poorly disciplined mass of tens of thousands of armed men in rough garb, as they slowly infected the land, trailing their women, children and slaves behind. The stain of their destruction slithered towards the sprawling signs of emerging civilisation which was yet miles away. Towns and villages in their path were simply overwhelmed every time, no resistance succeeded, people either fled, died, or were enslaved – to be added to the growing mob of dejected people trailing along behind.
The focus narrowed in, showing a rustic little town that appeared to be of no strategic value, just simply in the invaders path. There had been no warning, not even any refugees from other attacks had passed through here. There were apparently no soldiers in this bucolic and rather idyllic little settlement, only a few gathered townsfolk and farmers, obviously alarmed at the sight of so many armed men whose casual advance seemed frighteningly threatening.
A nervous but resolute spokesperson, perhaps a mayor or just a respected elder, walked out along the roadway towards the first of the newcomers, these thirty or so were riding slowly and casually, far too confidently. They were little more than a vanguard, scouting ahead of the masses that followed. The town spokesperson reached within a few yards and started to talk, inaudible on the playback, but the men on horseback simply kept on, slowly riding forward as if there was no one on the road but them. The lone representative had to move out of their way and then run to keep up, now visibly frightened and angry, shouting and waving his arms to no avail. As they neared the town others came out to remonstrate along with the mayor, but some were hiding or fleeing hastily and some simply stood there, not believing it was happening, not knowing what to do. The obvious intimidation juxtaposed with such careless indifference was deeply chilling. A sense of menace emanated from the scene.
The armed men rode on, ignoring everyone, to the centre of the village where they looked around lazily. Apparently, the unarmed peasants were inconsequential to them and presumably they were confirming what they knew, that there was no resistance. They stopped in the town square and eyed the gathering local people, seemingly nonchalantly. Illy – figuratively watching over Jack’s shoulder – felt their leader was smiling evilly, though they couldn’t see that closely.
Jack must have guessed what was coming as he stopped the field manips, settled to the ground and found a spot to sit leaning against a tree trunk. Illy could see that dappled sunlight flitted around him warmly, trees swayed gently in the fresh breeze and birdsong moved around him, filling the gap in the sensory luxury. She was almost jealous to be in such a wonderful, peaceful place. Jack made himself comfortable. In his head, simultaneously in front of his eyes and far away, fierce men carried spears in their hands and malice in their eyes. Women and men screamed and shouted as the slaying began. People ran but were ridden down. Some tried to fight back with staffs or whatever makeshift weapons they could find, but they were no match for the ruthless invaders. Men of all ages were slaughtered along with old women, while young women were dragged away screaming. Children were killed if they resisted but most were captured. A few of the killers rode after those who had fled, apparently making a game of it. The buildings were looted and occupied as the invaders settled in to wait for the rest of their ilk.
Illy was horrified afresh and new that Jack would be too – seeing it was so much worse than being told about it in a briefing. She glanced at his med-signs, noticing a surge in both heart rate and adrenaline just as he stood, grim-faced, and then began operating the field manips.
-Hold on Jack! Remember your orders, no direct intervention, you are here as an influencer, not a soldier.-
-But we can’t ignore them and let them die! There are men, women and children being massacred, cut to pieces in cold blood! They aren’t even fighting back, they can’t, they’re defenceless for god’s sake! Orders or no, I have to go and save any I can, damn the consequences!-
-Listen to me Jack. It’s a recording. You are too late; it has already happened. Think about it. I deliberately only showed you a recording, not a live feed, so you can’t dash off trying to be a heroic wizard.-
-Don’t trivialise this Illy! It is not about heroism but about people dying. Real families dying horribly.-
-I know. Look Jack, I’m sorry, it is awful, I’ve seen it myself and I’ve had time to recover from the shock. But listen. That village, those people, they are lost, but there are hundreds, thousands more that you may be able to save. Flying in on your own won’t save many, it’s a big enough invasion that several attacks could happen at once. And there is risk to you personally. So think of the biggest difference you can make, think of the complacency of the rulers of those townspeople, why haven’t they sent out troops or called the people back behind their walls? Why aren’t they out watching, why no planning and preparation? If you can mobilise this nation, feed them information about movements, remove whatever threat or coercion that is stopping them from reacting, then you can save many, many more people than were in that little village. And they will learn lessons for the future.-
-Ok Illy, you’re right, I’ll stop and think. But when did we cop out of caring? If it was up to me I would send in the military to stop an invasion like this, use force unashamedly to save so many lives!-
-Yes but that would also take many lives.-
-Come on Jack, you’ve studied history, you’ve seen old news reports, you’ve gone over the case studies and you’ve heard the politicians. Chances are if we went in heavy, even if it was supposed to be a short sharp shock to frighten off the bad guys, a three-month operation would become two years and ‘minimal casualties’ would turn into millions killed. We might even lose some of our own people, despite our hugely superior tech. Then we’d step back leaving locals still fighting long after we pulled out. And you know that if EWIP has a disaster then the whole programme could be halted, there’d be no interventions at all. We have to find a way to do it effectively, so if you want to save lives you have to find a way to help the locals save their own lives.-
-I need to get to this cultured civilisation then, as quickly as possible – time to fly.-
-Time to walk I’m afraid, you are coming up to some populated areas and will soon be getting into a farming belt.-
-Well I had better get going then.-
She had thought that it was going to be easy and fun directing him on this mission, but it had just got more complicated. After calming him down she received word from the now distant Guiding Hand. Apparently after analysing the updated drone footage she had sent to the Hand after dropping Jack, they had decided that the original plan may have to be modified, with complete abandonment as an emerging option. Since some months ago when they had initiated the project for this particular early world, the barbarian race had increased its hostility and aggression, being far more successful than expected. And the more sophisticated people were not taking the threat seriously, being far too passive, presumably influenced or manipulated by spies. It was now considered highly unlikely that jack would be able to infiltrate the aggressive types and redirect their leaders towards a more peaceful way of life, or conversely, to motivate the apparently pacifist people to defend themselves. One person’s meddling may not be enough and there was neither the time nor the resources for a diplomatic team. The Hand commander thought that she and Jack might be more effective elsewhere.
They were facing the worst-case scenario for this world – the rabble conquering all and setting back any emerging more cultured civilisations by centuries. It also raised the spectre of full military intervention being the only likely path to success – but if word of that reached earth there would be a massive political fuss to be played out over the global and system-wide media. That might lead to the cancelling other missions, a disaster she didn’t want to contemplate. The anti-interventionists would rather see the invading hordes succeed than see even a limited and controlled military interference. How would Jack see this? After that video he would detest the idea of walking away. He’d see it as a justification for less discretion in the use of his high-tech gear to quickly avert destruction and enslavement before he was taken off-world. It now looked like the mission would be either much more exciting or completely cancelled – one extreme or the other.
She didn’t know how she was going to explain it to him and decided to wait for the final instruction to arrive.
Chapter 5 – Jack
The fire had gone out of Jack, he couldn’t even find the energy to argue about flying a little further. The horror of the dreadful killing and the surging adrenaline followed by the slow realisation that he could not actually do anything, had all left him stunned and drained. So he walked and Illy had pulled back, presumably to give him time, knowing that walking and thinking would be the best thing he could do. But a purposefulness crept into his walking, and it fed a growing conviction and sense of resolution within him. He walked a route to avoid the farmers or villagers that now were more frequent as he neared a settlement. Illy was right, if he stormed in with shields and invisible bullets it would only be a tiny set back to the thousands upon thousands advancing for the slaughter. He could call down fire from the sky if he could convince Illy to unleash the weaponry on the landing pod in orbit. But she was right, he needed to find out why there was no opposition. Was this a race of pacifists or were they simply unaware that the invasion was happening? How could that be possible? Even allowing for extremely primitive communications that seemed highly unlikely.
He made good progress without rushing and wearing himself out. He snacked on dry food from his backpack and sipped water as he walked, relying on physical stamina gained from years of military training. He knew the land was still fabulously beautiful and unspoilt, a Garden of Eden in high summer. But now he saw it as if in black and white, through a fog.
As night fell Jack stopped to rest a little. Then he accepted Illy’s suggestion of some short flying hops over the sparsely populated farmland by cover of night in order to speed up the journey. In such a manner he soon reached a small town and walked in to find a large but basic inn on the simple main road.
Standing in the doorway he saw a handful of men around the bar, just a couple at a table, a girl serving. All the talk stopped and they all gazed at him with a mix of curiosity and mild hostility that he imagined would be shown to all strangers in such remote areas. But with no talk there was no data for his translation software to work on so he could say nothing and he just stood there looking blank.
Two big men walked towards him, speaking incomprehensibly. When he said nothing they simply grabbed an arm each and dragged him out of the inn, a third man following.
The door slammed behind them as he was brought to stand facing the third man in the cool night air, with a strong and uncompromising hand gripping each arm.
“*** don’t like **** people. Who are you **** frighten people ******* ****?” The third man’s words were only partially translated as the software rapidly learnt the local language. Jack knew Illy would be picking up the increasing speed of his heartbeat and would be ready to urge restraint. He glanced at his staff and pack, dumped on the floor nearby by one of the thugs. He saw the man open his mouth again and decided to beat him to it. He could either slowly pick his words from his neural comms virtual display or speak out loud and have a speaker in the staff repeat in their language. Neither was going to work. He needed more time to question them but was pretty sure he wasn’t going to get it if he said nothing. One of the thugs was turning towards him with a clenched fist, his intent blatantly obvious.
-Please keep calm.- Illy’s voice in his head was exactly the message he expected.
Jack relaxed his muscles before suddenly jerking free from both grips with a sudden twisting movement, then ducked and grabbed his staff. He moved fast, and he swung to strike his assailant across the forehead, intending to then jab at the second thug. But apparently there was more to this staff fighting than he realised, and the brute of a man was quicker than he looked, using his own staff to deflect Jack’s blow before bringing the other end around to hit Jack in the stomach. It was slow enough to get past the missile deflection manip setting and hard enough to wind him badly. The second man used his staff to rap Jack’s knuckles, causing him to drop his own weapon which rolled away as he dropped to his knees. Struggling to breathe, he forced himself to think. First priority was survival, so he set the manips to detect and deflect slower objects. Then he called up fields to slow the movement of both his assailants and summoned the staff to fly back into his hands as he stood up. Their shock at seeing that, the strange dragging of their arms as they swung and the odd way their strikes seemed to miss or glance off rattled them both. Jack hit them both with two hard but not brutal blows before stepping back and gesturing them to stop.
The third man also stepped back, wide-eyed, then tried to turn and run. Of course he could not turn or run, held as he was by an invisible force. Two more manifestations of this strange unseen energy held back the pair of henchmen as Jack came close to the leader and locked eyes.
-Wow, Rincewind comes into his powers at last.- Illy gently mocked.
-Impressive kit this- Jack replied. – If only I could somehow use it to read his mind.-
Jack paused to think carefully.
He raised his staff and set it to continually generate a small sparking electrical discharge at the tip. He moved the staff slowly forward until it nearly touched the man’s nose, and a small spark jumped the gap. The man shrieked, though Jack had calculated that the pain would be minimal.
-Oh, very wizardly.-
-I know, I’m using it too much, but it’s so hard to resist, and I was losing.-
“Stop, please!” The leader was wide-eyed and shaking.
-Urgent message from the Commander on the Guiding Hand. New orders. I quote: cease current activity immediately, locate leader of invaders and assassinate. Frighten horde into dispersing.-
-What? Assassinate? That’s a different level of intervention altogether.-
-Orders confirmed Jack, you have to extricate yourself now while I try to locate the leader.-
-It makes sense I suppose, he’s like Genghis Khan, uniting all the tribes into one world-conquering army. Let’s hope his successors are not as successful. OK.-
Jack locked eyes with the man in front of him and spoke quietly, setting the staff to emit a translation at a louder volume: “Listen, tell your people the truth, that they are all going to die if they don’t run. Then go warn the main city. If you don’t, I will know and I will come back and kill you myself.” Then he tweaked his field manips again, forcing all three men to turn away from him. With a sudden burst of power he launched into the night sky, releasing the man and his thugs when he was out of sight.
-Am I heading the right way Illy?-
-Nearly, shift to this heading…-
Chapter 6 – Illy
Illy was surprised. Assassination was indeed an unexpected change of direction as Jack had said. Although it did make sense in terms of being practical and effective: take out one man to save many people. She felt uncomfortable about it though. Killing was morally wrong and no doubt the argument was that the end justified the means, an approach that felt ethically dubious to her in any circumstance. It was still murder. The order smacked of political desperation. Murder for political reasons? She expected that Jack would be fine with it of course. A chance for him to be a soldier and to use his tech as a weapon.
She watched as he followed the bearing she had sent him, and then looked ahead with a small drone using night vision. Back past the vanguard and ignoring a couple raiding parties the main bulk of the invading army was easy to find. Some way ahead of the centre but not too near the front was a grand tent, glowing from the firelight within. Nearby was the massive wagon that bore it by day. The density of campfires was highest here, casting a warm orange glow. The area close to the tent was ringed with burly guards, although many of them seemed to be drunk or asleep. The risk of attack no doubt seemed slight with there being no opposition in this part of the world and with their conquest targets apparently emasculated.
She formulated a couple of possible tactics for Jack while he flew, then when he was closer and walking, she could discuss them with him. A direct high-energy field manip pulse would kill quickly, and they’d never know what happened. But should he deliver this from on high? He wouldn’t be seen but there was a risk to accuracy and a chance of killing the wrong person. Face to face would be surer but also riskier for Jack. A remote strike from the pod she had ruled out as there would be too much collateral damage, as the military called it. The objective was to kill the leader and no one else. But a discrete killing wouldn’t scare and disperse the tribes, maybe someone else would seize control and carry on with the invasion.
He was nearly upon the main army now, descending, and would be landing near the huge tent. As she watched him she laughed, imagining that he may prefer to walk up to the despot dictator, surrounded in a glowing shield, issue a dramatic threat and then zap him with blue lightning from his staff. If he disagreed with her preferred option she may have to disabuse him of his belief that he was in charge.
She was practising in her mind the words to say to Jack when the silence in the pod became deeper a fraction of a second before her displays went blank. She was alone in a dark and silent box. One moment surrounded by bright visual information and the next bereft of it all. Then the pod displays stutteringly flickered back to life – stable geostationary orbit, life support optimal, power optimal. Contact with the planet – zero. Not just no comms with Jack but no drone footage, no feed at all. She tried rebooting the links with the planet and with Jack, she tried neural, verbal, audio, text, back-up systems, but nothing. He might be flying along unaware of any change or trying to contact her. Or if it was his systems that failed, and that was probable as the pod was functioning, then he may be dead. He was only about a hundred feet up, but a sudden loss of power would be fatal.
Illy had to think. She was following protocol, retrying everything, next was to advise the Guiding Hand. They were a fair way away now, so she put together a high-speed data burst explaining the situation and adding a digital record from just before the problem.
Error, transmission failed.
Chapter 7 – Jack
Jack wasn’t sure how he felt about the change of plan. Assassination seemed direct and purposeful, but a part of him asked if he had the right to kill a man in cold blood just because said man was being very successful, albeit as a warlord. Face-to-face fighting was what he was trained for in part, but he was not a sniper or an assassin. He would only be following orders of course. But should he follow any orders without question? Absolute military discipline was relied upon and it made sense. Leaders were leaders for a reason and would accept the responsibility for their decisions. Probably. He wondered what Illy thought about it. She had been quiet for a while. He noticed a small comms error message pop up in his virtual display.
-Illy? Illy are you there?-
After the discrete comms error warning came a loud, dazzling and unmissable warning that his field manips had disengaged! The warning disappeared a split second after starting, leaving a shocking absence of visual and auditory information. His own body’s warnings of falling were even more frightening. Through the rising panic he recalled that if the staff manips failed Illy had said there was a back-up system in his belt – that should kick in automatically but clearly hadn’t. Before he had even time to think about what he could do a frantic thrashing of leaves and twigs filled his awareness, then a violent buffeting as he hit thicker branches of the trees he had been flying over. As his body spun and twisted, so his head spun even more. Until it stopped when consciousness left him abruptly.
Pain called him back to awareness. It shouted at him from several directions at once so that he couldn’t tell where it specifically originated from. Slowly opening eyes revealed leaves, twigs, and darkness, which led to confusion, dizziness and sudden vomiting. No neural comms virtual display so no health diagnoses and no way to call for help. He was halfway up (or down) a large tree, lying tangled in a slightly head-down angle. One eye didn’t want to open. His face, head, neck, both arms and one leg were shrieking about agony, while everything else just moaned about discomfort.
Despite the agony and disorientation, he noticed a solitary figure, some ten yards away. Clothed in a grey and nondescript robe with a full hood, nothing of the person visible.
“Who the hell are you?” Jack failed to keep his voice steady. “Did you cause me to crash?” The stranger gazed silently at him. Jack was about to ask for help when some branches bent away from him and he felt gravity reassert itself on his bruised body. Crashing to the ground, the intensified agony overwhelmed him.
Sharp piercing pain and slow throbbing aches vied with strange noises to drag Jack back to consciousness. A gentle thundering from the ground, harsh voices shouting, rattling, creaking, and an unidentifiable clamour. Puzzlement became panic as his blurred vision cleared up the confusion. No sign of the trees he fell out of. He was lying on the ground directly in front of the advancing horde. Trying to move made the pain lance through one leg, a shoulder and various ribs. He was alone, none of his systems were working and he didn’t even have the staff to use for its most basic purpose of leaning on to stand. No defence, no weapons, no help of any sort, facing an army of ruthless barbarians. He tried to get up but only managed to elevate himself to be almost sitting. Death faced him, unavoidable and imminent. His training was no use now and he wished had some religious faith to ease his departure from the world. Such a shame not to get to know Illy better. And was she safe or had she also been attacked? They were close now. He’d heard of people being calm in the face of death, but he couldn’t stop his heart from hammering, his breath from panting.
Some of the soldiers were riding past him, seeing him but evidently deciding he was no threat. One made eye contact and nudged his horse slightly towards him. He lowered a spear as he rode slowly toward him, a faint smile showing white teeth through the dark beard. He stabbed once as he rode by, nonchalantly.
Chapter 8 – Illy
Illy was not a soldier. Sure, space travel carried risks but her technical training, inherent caution, and detail-conscious rule-following made her feel safe. So this was a totally new experience for her. Alone in space, her colleague out of touch and possibly dead, senior officers unavailable and an unprecedented failure of technology. She was beginning to think that the racing of her heart would kill her before any imminent catastrophe even had the chance. She’d mocked Jack for panicking earlier but now felt herself unable to think rationally, her frantic thoughts blocking out the careful consideration that she usually employed.
What to do? Slow deep breaths, then options. Think of options, assess chances of success for each. OK, good plan.
Do nothing – not acceptable.
Call for help – tried and failed, but worth trying again. Systems operational but unable to transmit? Did that mean that she was being blocked? By what or by whom? If it was coming from the planet it would be feasible to block her from Jack, but it shouldn’t be able to block her from transmitting to the Hand.
More options? Jack may be alive and in need of help but the option of going to the planet was scary, something or someone could have interfered with Jack’s gear, so if she went down, she might be of no use in helping him and unable to even save herself.
She reluctantly decided on a detailed and thorough system-wide diagnostic check. It would take time but there was nothing else she could do. Then it occurred to her that she should as a matter of procedure scan for other ships. When she found none it was a huge relief.
The Guiding Hand was the only ship scheduled to be in this system and wasn’t due to return for some time yet. She really needed to get a message to them and so using both neural implants and rapid fingers she programmed a tiny inter-systems drone missile aimed towards the Hand’s last known position. She quickly recorded: “Guiding Hand, be advised. Catastrophic failure of orbit to surface communications. Contact with surface operative and all atmospheric drones lost. Cause of multiple tech failures unknown. I am deploying to surface to rescue ground operative. Request urgent assistance.”
She launched the missile, making sure it actually exited the pod and sped away. She paused, having surprised herself that she had decided to go down to the surface, then shrugged and got on with it. The pod started to move, its big manips making orbit to surface travel fast and frictionless.
During the few minutes of flight down to the planet, Illy was busy. No time for disguise and a life may be in danger so a light combat suit was called for with propulsion and protecting fields programmed. If a weapon was needed it would be manip pulses. The suit was programmed so that only she could use it and access the systems – in the hands of any primitive it would be utterly useless and they would not have to tech to understand it for hundreds of years yet. Added to that she needed to knock up some kit and programme it to protect her from jamming and blocking, not a scenario that had been considered necessary when planning this mission. Finding Jack should be easy, just go to his last known position, but just in case she rigged a portable scanner that could detect the materials in his staff and belt that otherwise would not be found on this world. That should cover it. Oh wait! An emergency med kit might be a good idea.
Nearing the ground Illy could see that Jack’s last signals came from a place now in the midst of the advancing hordes, so she landed some way off in a dense copse of trees and leaving the pod she used her suit manips to fly up high to find the right spot. Soon she detected the staff at the base of some trees. Using suit camouflage she retrieved the staff and saw the snapped branches and scuffed earth indicating where Jack must have fallen but he was nowhere to be seen. The staff was not functioning but didn’t seem to be fried. A quick reboot had it working again, but she had no idea what had caused the failure – nothing was broken or missing.
She must search for the belt then, as it had the same high-tech materials. It was quickly found and not a great distance away, so she quickly set off on foot, still camouflaged and ready to flee if that was seen through. As she turned off the scanner, she noticed some very strange materials readings at a greater distance than Jack was. Curious, but rescuing him was the top priority for now.
She had to hide against a tree to give the suit camo something to work with while she looked around the location identified by the scanner. She was behind the main advancing army but only just, and all around were chaotic groupings of camp followers and slaves trudging after the invaders. With no sign of Jack came the worrying thought that she may only find the belt and then would have no way to find him. Moving slowly and carefully nearer to the signal source Illy finally saw a body lying on the ground, completely immobile. It faintly resembled Jack’s robes, but they were muddy, torn, and bloody! Up close she saw it was indeed an unconscious Jack. Rolling him over she saw several cuts and scratches and one nasty looking wound in his right shoulder. Her hands were shaking and her thoughts racing as she frantically searched for signs of life. A faint pulse and shallow breathing detected, she fumbled with the emergency med kit, horrified that she nearly forgot to bring it. Clamped over his arm, it immediately started measuring his signs and medicating him.
A shadow fell over Jack’s pale and still face. Illy looked up to see a burly man with a very sharp looking spear, mouthing some angry-sounding gibberish at her. Without thinking she prepared a lethal field manip pulse and aimed between his eyes. But then she froze, horrified that killing would come so easy to her. The butt of his spear whooshed past her head only barely deflected in time and causing a look of surprise to cloud the warrior’s face. Flustered, she set a field to restrain all his external movements as she stood looking at him, glaring back at his rising wide-eyed panic.
Chapter 9 – Jack
Again it was the pain that called Jack back to awareness. It seemed to be everywhere all at once. A memory of the spear hitting him in the shoulder suddenly shocked him and he gasped.
“Hello Jack, good to see that you’re still alive, I was mildly concerned for a moment there.”
“Uh,” was all he could manage in reply.
“I’ve fixed your staff and belt, any idea what happened?”
“I’m glad to see you Illy, thanks for coming down, you’ve saved me again. No, no idea what happened. Everything died on me and I fell into some trees. But I saw someone.”
“There are lots of ‘someones’ here Jack.”
“Mmm, but he, she, or it, looked weird, not like the invaders and they were checking that I was out of action. Tall and angular, walked funny, all robed and hooded so no face was visible. Are you listening to me Illy?”
“Yes, sorry. Just remembered that when my scanner found you by your belt, it detected some odd materials further away. Maybe that could be the source of whatever interfered with your staff and belt? By the way I also lost all comms, but I’ve sent a missile message to the Hand. Shall we investigate the odd materials and see if they belong to your mysterious friend?”
“Yes,” groaned Jack as he forced himself to his feet and leaned on his staff, breathing deeply and staring at the immobile barbarian. “Odd how?”
“Just flagged as unknown material and unknown elements,” said Illy, staring at the scanner. “This way.”
They trudged along, Illy in camo and Jack looking like a defeated slave, limping and leaning on his restored staff. Occasionally a soldier would come towards them questioningly or threateningly and Illy would turn them around and freeze them. She now had four of the invaders held firm like statues and would soon have to start releasing them before she lost range. Jack was keen to knock them out if not kill them, but she thought that would draw more attention short-term.
The meds were helping with the pain, but he had to balance them with stims to stop wanting to simply lie down and sleep. He couldn’t stop worrying that their sudden loss of power and ops came just before he intervened. It was almost as disconcerting as the fact that Illy had had to come down to the surface to save him.
They caught up with the main army by early evening and the invaders were camped. Two small but bright half-moons and a multitude of dazzling stars cast a stunning silvery light, the effect not quite ruined by a faint breeze wafting the stench of the invading masses. Illy wanted him to rest but he wanted to show no more weakness in front of her, stupid though he knew that was. He knew he should acknowledge her skills and her role in this.
“Well, Illy, what do you think our next move should be?” He asked her as he slumped down and leant on a large tree trunk.
She looked at him calmly, pausing to think before saying “our orders are unchanged, but the situation is different. I think you should try again to take out the leader while I watch your back for any more interference. I’ve set some anti-blocking routines and I’ll need to keep an eye on that. I don’t get who could do this, the anti-interventionists from home wouldn’t be able to get here let alone stop us. Oh, and I recommend no flying this time, you know, just in case.”
“Mmm, sounds right to me. If we can get that done, we can get out of here. Leaving seems more appealing than before. It’s unnerving thinking that there might be someone else here that is not local. How long before the Guiding Hand returns do you think?”
“Hard to say, I don’t know where they were or what they were doing.” Illy paused. “How are we going to frighten the hordes after the boss-man is dead? I’m guessing you want to be a levitating wizard calling down fireballs from the sky whilst foretelling doom. About right?”
“That sounds good, maybe I could also be holding up the leader’s severed head as I do that.”
Jack stood tall before the awakening invaders with the sun rising brightly behind him. With his robe discarded and wearing the best clothes they could steal from corpses he still needed to project a shimmering glow around himself to appear less shabby. Arms outstretched and using a manip field to levitate, he was six foot above the ground. His staff sparked and flashed with lightning.
“I will speak to your leader!” His amplified voice boomed out over the landscape as he nodded to Illy, sitting nearby and obscured by camo.
-That’s great!- She sent, encouraging him unnecessarily.
-I think I got their attention.-
Next he sent a simulated lightning surge from his staff up into the sky, grinning happily at the effect. Now this I am enjoying, he thought.
-Jack. I’m picking up some attempted interference, stand by, trying to block and locate the source.- A loud crack sounded like it was in his head.
-STOP.- The hooded figure appeared in front of him but the voice was in his neural comms, right between his ears.
-Did you hear that Illy?-
-Oh yes. It must be this hooded dude, but I don’t know how it got through my blocks, or how he suddenly appeared.-
-YOU CANNOT BLOCK ME. YOU MUST NOT INTERFERE.-
-Why not?- Jack asked as he recalled the horrifying slaughter and called up a another lightning bolt and flung it towards the hooded figure, aiming for the ground just in front. It flashed and dissipated with no apparent affect. But the barbarians that had been cautiously advancing now stopped, clearly frightened.
Jack felt himself hurtling through the air with only a brief glance possible toward a seriously panicked-looking Illy.
Warnings and alarms flashed in front of his eyes, but it was only information, he had no control at all. Within a few minutes his rapid movement ceased and he found himself stood upright but unable to move in amidst a grove of tall trees. Illy stood beside him, just in his line of sight, but otherwise they were alone. Dappled sunlight and the fresh smell of woodland did little to calm his rapid heart rate. He could breathe and could move his eyes but that was it, not even able to move his mouth to form words. Just like Illy had done to the four savages. But the neural comms might still be working.
-Yes. That was scary! I thought we were dead.- Her rapid reply suggested that she was rattled and he wondered if he came across the same to her.
-Who was that and how did they do that? I can only think of the Anti-Intervention League, but as you said they don’t have anything like the resources to get here, let alone the tech to stop us.-
-No idea on either,- replied Illy. -He, she, or it has removed us from sight of the invaders. Seemed very keen to stop your attack. Oh, the irony – it seems that our intervention suffered an intervention. I’m working on releasing your restraint field, the tech seems not too dissimilar to our field manips. Be ready, just in case, soldier boy.-
The angular hooded figure appeared from between the trees and strolled up to them with a peculiar swaying gait.
-You have no right to attack these primitive people.- The voice of the stranger seemed to have calmed, but still carried a stern and authoritative tone.
-What gives you the right to attack us?- Jack was quick to send back.
-This is a crucial development phase for this planet. I will not let you interfere. We forecast that the currently more civilised race would stagnate. The invaders will not wipe out the whole race but will leave some alive and eventually settle with them as they have nowhere else to conquer. The mixing and interbreeding will eventually produce a race of humanoids that are motivated to change and develop, but who learn to temper aggression with compassion. Thousands suffer now so that billions will thrive in the future.-
-How can you know that? And the slaughter!- Jack saw his health indicators rising and he knew Illy had noticed his emotional levels by her expression, but he couldn’t help it. -You want to let them continue killing, raping, enslaving! It’s wrong! It’s not good for these people right now and you can’t know for certain that it’s somehow good for the evolution of this race!-
Jack saw Illy wink at him. For a moment he couldn’t figure out what that meant. Then realisation struggled through his stressed state of mind and he called up neural controls which were suddenly no longer blocked from him. His superficially normal wooden staff flew into his hands and a wide wave of field manip pulsed out towards the stranger. He was hugely relieved to see the figure fly backwards, but before it crashed into a wide-girthed tree it came to a halt. Its hood had been thrown back revealing a bare head, grey and slightly bulbous. The face was humanoid although with strange proportions – eyes wide apart and nose high between them. Subtle differences but clearly not human. Close enough though to show surprise and anger. Jack hurriedly fired a burst of electricity and three intense pulses of concentrated energy, his invisible bullets, while striding towards the alien, raising the staff for a purely physical blow in case the high-tech attacks failed. He would not let the invasion go on, whatever this creature said or did.
A pulse emanated from the alien. As Jack flew backwards he heard Illy scream before he landed hard, very hard. As the blackness started to envelop his awareness, he heard the alien’s words in his head: -More of your type are coming so I will depart for now. Hear me before I go. In your history, more than 65,000 years before your time, we didn’t stop the near extinction of all humanoids on Earth. We didn’t halt the extinctions of other races like Neanderthals and Denisovans or your race being reduced to just a few thousand. If we had, then the so-called great leap forward would not have happened and modern Homo sapiens would never have evolved further than cavemen and hunter-gatherers.
Think on that, primitive beings.-