In the beginning was the wormhole. It bloomed like a strange flower at the edge of the the solar system, dwarfing Pluto in its size and majesty. It was beautiful; theory become real. The eyes of the Earth turned upon it, and the space telescope Walton was redirected to examine it more closely. Within days, images were being sent back to Earth.
What Walton revealed was a kind of blister in space, a lens-like swelling in the fabric of the universe. As one scientist remarked, to the discomfort of her peers, it looked almost as if humanity were being examined in turn. The stars behind it were distorted, and slightly off-kilter, an effect explained by the huge amount of negative energy necessary to keep the wormhole open. An instense light at its rim dimmed to a dark centre like an unblinking pupil, and so the newspapers began to refer to it as “the Eye in Space.”
Once the initial thrill of its discovery had worn off, disturbing questions were raised. Why had it not been seen before? Was it a natural phenomenon, or something more sinister?
The early years of the twenty-first century had yet to offer any proof that mankind was not alone in the universe. Shortly after the discovery of the wormhole, mankind received conclusive evidence that the universe was more crowded than it had ever imagined.
A fleet emerged from the Eye, a great armada of silver ships, graceful and elegant, moving unstoppably towards the small blue planet in the distance at speeds beyond human comprehension.
And the people of Earth watched them come: steadily, silently. Efforts were made to contact the craft, but there was no reply …
Panic spread. There was talk of the end of the world, of imminent destruction. Riots crippled the great cities, and mass suicides occurred among the more extreme religious cults, convinced that their souls would be magicked up to the approaching starships.
But wherever it was that their souls ended up, it was not on those ships.
The fleet stopped somewhere near Mars, and the Earth braced itself for attack. Some people fled to bunkers, others sought shelter in underground stations and subway systems, or retreated into caves. They waited for explosions and devastation, but none came. Instead, the Earth’s tecnhological systems began to collapse: electricity, gas, water, communications, all were hit simultaneously, sabotaged by their own computers, but in a deliberate and targeted way. National defense systems shut down, but hospitals did not, and warplanes fell from the sky while commercial jets landed safely. All control had been seized by an outside force, but one that appeared careful to avoid more fatalities than were necessary. Still, fatalities there were.
Now, the Earth’s generals warned, the real assault would come, but there was no further attack. The silver ships sat silently above, while below, society fell apart. There was looting and murder. Mass exoduses from the cities began. Cattle and livestock were stolen and slaughtered for food, so farmers began to shoot trespassers. Men turned against men, and so great was their fury that, at times, they forgot the fact of the aliens’ existence in the face of their own inhumanity. After a mere three days, armies were firing on their own citizens. All that mattered was survival.
Then, on the fourth day, power was restored selectively to the hearts of nine capital cities across the world: Washington, London, Beijing, New Delhi, Abuja, Moscow, Brasilia, Canberra and Berlin. A single word was sent to every computer in every government office. That word was:
And the Earth did indeed surrender, for what other choice did it have?
When the planet’s new overlords eventually made themselves known, they were not what anyone on Earth had anticipated, for the Illyri were not unlike themselves. In their grace and beauty they resembled their ships. They were tall – the smallest of them was no less than six feet – with slightly elongated limbs, and their skin had the faintest of gold hues. Some had glossy, metallic manes of hair, whereas others kept their perfect skulls smooth and bald. They lacked eyelids, so their eyes were permanently open, and a clear membrane protected their retinas. When they slept, their coloured irises simply closed over their pupils, leaving their resting eyes like vivid, eerie marbles set in their fine features.
The Illyri spoke of a ‘gentle conquest.’ They wished to avoid further bloodshed, and all necessities and creature comforts were restored to the people. However, modern weapons systems remained disabled. Air travel was initially forbidden. Telecommunication ceased, and for a time, the Internet no longer functioned. There was a period of adjustment that was difficult, but eventually something approaching normal life resumed.
The Illyri knew what mattered most to the planet they had colonised, for their technology had been hidden on Earth for many decades, ever since the earliest human radio signals were detected by by probes at the mouths of wormholes, and the first quiet infiltration of the planet began. Tiny clusters of Illyri androids, most no bigger than insects, had hidden in meteor showers and entered the atmosphere in the late 1950s. They began sending back details of Earth’s climate, atmosphere, population. The Illyri followed the progress of wars and famines, and had seen the best – and the worst – of what the human race had to offer. The Internet had been a particular bonus. Nanobots embedded themselves in the system in the late twentieth century; not only were they capable of transmitting the sum total of mankind’s accumulated knowledge back to the drones, they became part of the technology itself. As humanity embraced the Internet, and computers became an integral part of life, so too mankind unwittingly welcomed the Illyri into their lives and sowed the seeds for their arrival.
After the initial shock of the invasion, the human resistance commenced. There were shootings and bombings. Illyri were kidnapped and killed, or held as hostages in a vain attempt to force a retreat from the planet. World leaders conspired to fight back.
In response, the citizens of Rome were given twenty-four hours to evacuate their city. It was then wiped from the map in a massive explosion that sent dust and debris over all of Western Europe, a reminder that the Earth’s empires were as nothing before the superior power of the invaders. The Illyri then announced that one tenth of the population between the ages of fifteen and twenty-one in every city and town would be conscripted into the Illyri Military brigades for five years. Essentially the youths would be hostages. Each family from which a young adult was removed had a responsibility to report saboteurs, or face the consequences. If violence was committed against the invaders, the townsfolk were informed that they would never see their young people again. It was a charter for informers, designed to sow distrust and crush cooperation among those who would challenge Illyri rule.
But the Illyri also offered hope. They erected great condensers in arid climates, transforming deserts to fields. They genetically modified fruits, and grains, and vegetables, making them more abundant and more resistant to disease. Within two years, hunger was virtually eliminated on Earth, as were many communicable diseases. Geoengineering – the use of giant reflectors to send sunlight back into space before it struck the planet – tackled the problem of global warming, reducing the Earth’s temperatures to levels not seen since the start of the nineteenth century.
The Illyri did all that was possible to change the Earth for the better.
And still the humans fought us at every turn …
Syl Hellais, the first of her kind to be born on Earth, jumped from her desk and rushed to the bedroom window. The grey stone walls and cobbled courtyards of Edinburgh Castle stretched below: her fortress, her home and - she sometimes felt - her prison. Beyond the castle lay the city itself, brooding beneath the dark Scottish skies.
There! A column of smoke rose to the east, the aftermath of the explosion that had caused Syl to abandon her schoolwork. Sirens blared faintly, and Illyri patrol craft shone spotlights from the sky on the streets beneath. The humans were attacking again. They liked bombs. Bombs were easy to plant. They could be hidden in bags, in cars, even under dead cats and dogs. If it wasn’t bombs, it was snipers. All Illyri were potential targets, although the human Resistance preferred to kill those in uniform. They were more tolerant of young Illyri, and females in particular, although they were not above targeting them for kidnapping. Syl put herself at risk every time she walked the streets of Edinburgh, but that knowledge served only to add a thrill to her explorations. Still, she had learned to conceal her alien nature from prying eyes, and with a little make-up, and the right glasses and clothing, she could sometimes pass for human.
And after all, was she not also of this planet? She was Syl the Earthborn, the first Illyri to be born on the conquered world in the early months of the invasion. In her way, she was as much its citizen as the humans. She was a child of two realms: born on one, loyal to another. She loathed the Earth, and yet she loved it too, even if she rarely admitted this love to anyone - even herself.
Shaking her head, Syl turned away from the window, from the smoke and the unseen carnage. There would be more of it. It never ended, and it never would, not as long as the Illyri remained on Earth.
She was Syl the Firstborn, Syl the Earthborn.
Syl the Invader.
But Edinburgh was not the only target to be hit that night. Further south, another attack was about to commence, and it would change the life of Syl Hellais for ever.
The Illyri Military had established many of its bases on the sites of great fortresses from Earth’s past. Those still standing – among them the Tower of London and Edinburgh Castle in the United Kingdom, the Stockholm Palace in Sweden, Prague Castle in the Czech Republic, and the Forbidden City in Beijing, China – were simply adapted for Illyri use. Where nothing of the original forts remained, replacements were either built offworld and lowered into place from ships, or constructed from materials found on Earth.
The fort at Birdoswald had been erected by the Roman Empire as part of Hadrian’s Wall, which originally stretched across the width of northern England to protect the south from Scottish marauders. Before the coming of the Illyri, only the lower parts of its buildings and walls remained standing, the pattern and logic of their construction apparent when viewed from the hills above or the slopes below. Danis, the head of the Illlyri Military in Britain, was particularly fascinated by the Romans, and had made some efforts to ensure that the old fort was not completely spoiled by its new additions. He had local stone to rebuild walls, and the living quarters had also been faced with stone so that they blended into the landscape.
Danis had garrisoned the fort with a small force of Galateans, amphibian-like conscripts commanded by an Illyri officer named Thaios. Not that Thaois was Danis’s first choice, for he was not a member of the Illyri Military. Instead, he was a member of the Diplomatic Corps; the Military and the Diplomats were always at one another’s throats, each constantly seeking to increase its power at the expense of the other. Nevertheless, Danis had been ordered to give Thaios command, for Thaios was a favorite of the Diplomats, and was being groomed for leadership. It was also generally accepted that at some point in the future, administration of the Earth would pass to the Corps, and the Military would move on to other campaigns. Giving command positions to Diplomats was a logical step towards that end.
Still, as far as Danis was concerned, Thaios was a spoiled brat, and Danis, an old soldier, wouldn’t have trusted the boy to command a fish to swim. Thaios, meanwhile, viewed the command of a small garrison fort in the middle of nowhere as beneath him.
However, the garrison was considered necessary. The smuggling of weapons was commonplace in the area, and the local population was regarded as particularly hostile, as is often the case at contested borders. The threat of permanent exile for their children seemed only to have antagonised many of the Scots, and not far from Birdoswald a primitive Improvised Explosive Device had recently destroyed two vehicles in a Military convoy. Among the Illyri casualties had been Aeron, Thaios’s predecessor, who had been blown into so many pieces that his head had never been found. Since then, most Illyri travel to and from Birdoswald was conducted by air. Where cars and coaches had once parked, bringing parties of tourists to view the fort and the wall, a pair of lightly armed interceptors—small, agile craft that were used for short-range sorties and patrols—rested on landing pads.
Otherwise, the garrison at Birdoswald was defended largely by the conscripted Galateans, rugged, grey beings, their skin leathery in texture, their bodies narrowing to a head without the intervention of a neck, their eyes bulbous, their mouths wide. The humans called them “Toads.” They communicated through a system of clicks and croaks, and the strangeness of their features made their emotions impossible to read: they ate, fought and killed with the same impassive stare.
The conquest of the Galatean system had been one of the Illyri’s more profitable campaigns. It yielded a ready source of troops, for the Galateans were natural soldiers, used to being commanded and genetically seasoned for combat by millennia of inter-tribal warfare over scarce resources. Also, since their homeworlds were little more than barren rocks inhabited by an array of predators – with the Galateans themselves trapped somewhere in the middle of this natural cycle of killing and being killed – they were more than willing to enter the service of the Illyri. They provided far more than one in ten of their young to conscription, and most went voluntarily.
Eight Galateans stood on the walls of the fortress, and one occupied the observation tower, all equipped with night-vision lenses and high-velocity weapons. Each also wore a curved knife, like the claw of some great reptile rendered in steel.
The garrison’s radar detected an approaching vehicle while it was still a mile away. It was coming from the west at about forty miles an hour, following the road that ran parallel to the remains of the wall. The Galatean monitoring the screen quickly summoned Thaios.
While the movement of vehicles along the road was not forbidden, the Illyri had imposed a standard curfew in certain areas. Motorised travel was not permitted between the hours of sunset and sunrise unless cleared in advance through the proper channels. No such communication had been received that night by the garrison at Birdoswald.
Thaios watched the dot moving on the screen. He was a muscular figure, and prided himself on his physical strength, although he had yet to be tested in battle. His head was shaved, even though this style was traditionally adopted by more senior members of the Corps. Thaios aspired to join their number, and his grooming choice was another statement of his ambition.
Thaios was always angry, as many secretly frightened people frequently are. The Galateans did not respect him because he did not respect them. The local population hated him because he had taken to ordering searches of vehicles and raids on houses, which interfered with daily life and resulted in damage to property, as well as the occasional arrest. The Military hated him because he was a member of the Corps, and much of the Corps distrusted him because he was the nephew of Grand Consul Gradus, one of the Corps’ leading figures. Many believed that Thaios relayed negative comments back to his uncle – which was true. Many also felt that he was being groomed for leadership only because of his uncle’s influence, which was, again, true.
‘Alert the guards,’ ordered Thaios. ‘Reinforce the detail at the main gate.’
A siren blared. Six Galateans emerged from their guardhouse, weapons at the ready, and loped towards the entrance. They were halfway across the central square when a whistling sounded from the night sky. Moments later the first mortar shell landed among them, killing three of them instantly. Another shell followed while the garrison was still reeling from the shock of the first, and the Galateans who had survived the initial blast were killed by the second.
Caught between trying to find the location of the mortar and monitoring the approach of the truck, which was now visible to the naked eye, the guards concentrated on the most immediate visible threat. The truck was travelling without lights, but the Galateans’ night-vision lenses picked up its shape, and the shadowy outlines of two people in the cab. Without waiting for further orders, the guards concentrated on the most immediate visible threat, and commenced firing on the truck. It crossed the central line of the road as the first bullets struck, then accelerated, heading straight for the gates. The doors on either side of the truck opened and the two humans jumped to safety as the vehicle struck the gates.
The force of the impact knocked one of the guards from the wall beside the gate. He lay sprawled on the ground, one leg twisted at a grotesque angle, his damaged skull leaking fluid through his nostrils and earholes. His companion had managed to hold on to a metal support strut, and although shaken and driven to his knees was otherwise unharmed.
He was still rising to his feet when the truck exploded.
The massive gates were blown from their hinges, one of them landing on the nearest interceptor, crushing its cockpit. The second gate landed on the roof of the main guardhouse, cutting through the tin like the blade of a knife, trapping inside the building those that it did not kill.
Gunfire erupted from the surrounding fields. Thaios’s eardrums had burst as a result of the explosion at the gates and he was in agony as he tried to organise his surviving troops, shouting orders that he himself could hear only as distorted noise. The remaining guards on the walls returned fire, but now there were humans moving past the burning wreckage of the truck, and a concentrated burst of automatic fire knocked the guard from the watchtower. A human was standing at the door of the ruined guardhouse, spraying the interior with bullets. Thaios drew a bead on him and fired a single round. The man twisted and fell, but before Thaios could pick another target, he felt a hammer blow to his shoulder, and a great burning followed. The bullet had passed straight through his upper body, and the wound was already pumping dark red Illyri blood. He retreated to a corner by the ruined guardhouse. There was a dull explosion behind him as the trapped guards used a grenade to blow a hole in the rear of the building. Thaios summoned them to him, and from behind the ruined walls of the old fort they fought the insurgents, dark figures that darted and weaved and were only occasionally illuminated by the flames of the burning truck. A second great explosion rent the air as the remaining interceptor was blown up, and Thaios and his soldiers found themselves under heavy fire. One of the Galateans fell, then another and another, until at last only Thaios was left standing.
The shooting stopped. All was quiet for moment, until a voice called out to Thaios, “Surrender! Surrender and you won’t be hurt.”
Thaios examined the digital read on his pulse pistol. The charge was almost empty: only one shot left. He could have attempted to pick up another weapon from one of the fallen Galateans, but he could see the insurgents working their way around him. If he moved, he would be exposed.
“Throw out your weapon,” said the same voice. “Then stand up and show us your hands.”
Thaios was suddenly very tired. He had been so ambitious, so anxious to progress. This was all such a waste.
The order to surrender came again. The humans were drawing closer. One of their shadows almost touched his boot.
Thaios put his gun in his mouth.
“I’m sorry,” he said. The human nearest him frowned, but it had not been to him that Thaios was speaking.
“Stop him!” yelled a voice.
It was the last thing Thaios heard before his head exploded.