In the frozen darkness of deep space, something stirred. Pulses of energy raced through systems buried deep within a vast vessel as slowly it woke. Blood-red lights glowed on the hull of the enormous black ship as the consciousness within its heart stirred, and like a beast waking from a long hibernation the ship began to unfurl. Long, sweeping, arc-shaped pylons stretched out from the hull, lighting up in turn with a corona of crimson lightning. The entity within felt something approximating satisfaction as it received the stream of diagnostic messages. The speed and direction of the vessel was exactly as anticipated; it was less than a light-year from its target, a small blue planet orbiting an insignificant yellow star. The entity felt a moment of excitement—its long sleep was over, and soon it would be time to feed.
* * *
Sam woke with a start, his breath coming in ragged gasps as he sat bolt upright in bed. Another nightmare. He wondered if they would ever fade or if he would always be haunted by the faces of friends and family he had lost over the last two years. He put his hand to his forehead and just for an instant was startled by its cool metallic surface pressing against his skin. It had been a month since he had lost his hand to the Voidborn nanite swarm and he was still struggling to get used to its replacement. He turned on the small bedside light and looked down at the gleaming gold of his lower arm. He concentrated for a moment and the surface seemed to ripple as the millions of microscopic nanites that made up his limb swirled into a new configuration, the fingers of his hand turning into a smooth flat panel that reflected his face. The boy who stared back at him was very different from the slightly overweight, carefree person that he would have seen in the mirror before the Voidborn invasion.
If you could even call it that, he thought to himself.
Invasion didn’t properly describe the experience of seeing an entire planet enslaved in the blink of an eye without a shot being fired. He willed his hand back into its original form, the flat panel replaced once again by slowly flexing golden fingers. He could hear the Voidborn nanites as an almost inaudible hiss in the back of his skull. It was symptomatic of the strange connection that he had with the Voidborn, something that had ultimately proved
to be the decisive factor in their defeat. He still did not fully understand why it was that he had the ability to sense the alien creatures in this way—all he knew was that it gave him an edge that other survivors of the invasion seemed to lack.
“Still mostly human,” Sam said to himself with a wry smile. He quickly got dressed and headed out into the snow-covered remains of St. James’s Park, rubbing his hands together to warm them up before shoving them into the pockets of his camouflage-print overcoat. This winter was proving to be particularly harsh.
Sam paused for a moment and looked up at the colossal Voidborn Mothership hovering above central London. Once it had been a terrifying sight, something that had filled him with dread, but now it was strangely reassuring. The bright yellow glow of the lights that covered the enormous vessel’s hull was the only indication that this Mothership was any different to the ones that were hovering above other cities all over the world. This ship was now their protector and had been ever since the mysterious nanites that swam in Sam’s bloodstream had become integrated with the Voidborn consciousness that controlled it. That entity was now known as the Servant. It was something neither human nor Voidborn, but for reasons still unclear to Sam, it seemed to be on their side. The Servant could control the Mothership above them, but its connection to the
rest of the Voidborn consciousness had apparently been severed completely.
“I trust you have rested well, Illuminate,” the Servant said as she approached. The Servant had assumed a striking human-like appearance as a tall female with golden metallic skin and glowing yellow eyes.
“Yes, thank you,” Sam replied with a nod. None of them understood what Sam’s status as Illuminate actually meant, but it appeared that the Servant was programmed to protect and obey him.
“Doctor Stirling has requested that you join him in the research building,” the Servant said. “He wishes to inform you of a problem that has been encountered with awakening the dormant humans.”
“What kind of problem?” Sam asked with a frown.
“Doctor Stirling stated that he wishes to explain it to you personally,” the Servant replied.
“Okay, tell him I’ll be there in two minutes,” Sam said with a quick wave to his friend Rachel, who was walking toward them.
Rachel’s smile faded as she approached.
“What’s up?” she asked, tucking a dangling lock of her long brown hair behind her ear.
“Not sure,” Sam said, glancing toward the research building on the far side of the compound. “Stirling wants to see me—sounds like there’s some kind of problem with waking the Sleepers.”
“That’s not good,” Rachel said. “Didn’t Goldie give you any more information?”
“No, she said he wants to speak to me himself. I know they’ve been getting close to perfecting a localized transmitter for the waking signal, but it sounds like there might have been a setback.”
“Mind if I tag along?” Rachel asked.
“’Course not,” Sam said. “If Stirling and Will descend into their usual technobabble, I’ll need someone to keep me awake.”
The two of them walked across the open central area of the compound, passing the firing range that they’d set up next to the armory. The hulking shape of a Grendel, the Voidborn’s most feared soldiers, stood in front of the entrance to the armory, keeping silent, patient vigil. The creature stood thirty feet tall and was covered in black segmented bio-mechanical armor. Its low-slung head swung back and forth, its burning yellow eyes searching for any threat. Just a couple of months ago, being that close to a Grendel would have meant a very messy and unpleasant death, but now this creature and the hundreds more like it aboard the Mothership and patrolling the streets of London were their sworn protectors. It had taken some getting used to.
As the two of them approached the entrance to the research building, Dr. Iain Stirling walked outside to meet them.
“Thank you for coming at such short notice,” Stirling said, rubbing his eyes. He looked as if he hadn’t slept properly in a while.
“The Servant said you’d had some sort of problem with your research into waking the Sleepers,” Sam said.
“Yes,” Stirling replied with a sigh. “I’m afraid that the situation has become more complex than we had initially anticipated. You need to see this for yourself.”
The three of them headed up to the second floor and out into a long room filled with portable army surplus cots where several dozen apparently unconscious people lay. It was a sight that Sam had witnessed many times over the past two years. This was the fate of most of humanity, enslaved instantly by an alien signal that robbed them of all free will, turning them into mindless slaves. As they had begun to explore the city more thoroughly, they had discovered hundreds of buildings that now served as huge storehouses for the enslaved millions who had once called this city their home. It was in a place not unlike this that Sam had last seen his sister, lying unconscious on the floor. That was the day the Voidborn had invaded, nearly two years ago, and it was the last time he’d seen any of his family. He and a handful of others who were immune to the effects of the signal were, as far as they knew, the last human beings on the planet with any free will.
“These places give me the creeps,” Rachel said as she and Sam followed Stirling down the narrow path
between the prone bodies. It led to a screened-off area at the other end of the room. “Those things floating around don’t help either.”
Sam glanced over at the pair of Voidborn Hunter Drones moving slowly around the room. They looked like hovering mechanical jellyfish; gleaming silver shells covered their top halves and a mass of writhing metallic tentacles hung beneath. The surface of their bodies was illuminated by fine patterns of yellow light. Once that light had been the sickly green color that was typical of Voidborn technology, but that had all changed when the Mothership above London had fallen to the human resistance.
As Sam and Rachel crossed the room, a single row of Sleepers opened their eyes and slowly climbed to their feet, their faces blank. In unison they turned and slowly walked to the other side of the room, where a large cylindrical Voidborn machine sat on a table. As the first of the Sleepers approached the machine, a hatch slid open on its front and the mute woman reached inside. There was a click and a hiss, and a few seconds later she withdrew her arm from the opening.
“Feeding time,” Rachel said as the woman returned to her previous position and lay down on the cot, her eyes closed.
“They’re not animals in a zoo,” Stirling said, sounding irritated, as the rest of the line of silent people slid their
arms into the machine one by one. “The human body requires remarkably little in the way of sustenance if it’s delivered efficiently. It also dramatically reduces the amount of waste produced by the digestive system.”
“Let’s not go there,” Sam said with a crooked smile. “There are some things that I’m happy just to leave to the Drones if that’s okay with you.”
The simple fact of the matter was that they still had no idea why it was that the Voidborn had taken such care to keep their human slaves in relatively good physical condition. Certainly some had been used as workers, gathering resources for the aliens or building mysterious structures, like the giant drilling rig that the resistance had disabled in St. James’s Park a couple of months ago. That still didn’t explain why they were so meticulous in their care of those who were either too young or too old to be of use to them.
“Through here,” Stirling said, pushing aside one of the screens and ushering Sam and Rachel through the gap. In the area beyond were three beds, each containing a motionless figure. Their friend Will stood at the foot of one of the beds studying a medical chart. He glanced up and gave the others a quick nod. He looked tired.
“Any change?” Stirling asked as he joined Will, looking down at the man on the bed with a frown.
“Nothing,” Will said, “but early indications are that they’ve fallen into comas triggered by neurological shock.
What is impossible to determine currently is how much permanent damage was caused. We could be looking at brain death. There’s a very real possibility that they won’t ever wake up.”
“These are the ones we were trying to wake?” Rachel said quietly.
“Yes,” Stirling replied with a sigh, “I’m afraid so.”
“What happened to them?” Sam asked.
“As you know, the Servant and I had isolated what we believed to be the signal that could wake individuals from the Voidborn sleep,” Stirling explained. “We created a portable transmitter that would allow us to broadcast the signal to a single individual and the results were . . . well . . . catastrophic. All the subjects showed clear signs of regaining consciousness and then all three suffered the same massive neurological shock. We must have missed something, some kind of fail-safe that the Voidborn have put in place to stop us from doing just this.”
“And the Servant didn’t know that?” Rachel asked. “She may be on our side now, but she’s still Voidborn.”
“The Servant has no memory of her previous existence,” Stirling replied, shaking his head.
“So where does that leave us?” Sam asked. “If we can’t wake up the world, how can we fight? We may have retaken the city, but there’s no way we can take the fight to the Voidborn with just one Mothership. If we can’t wake people up, all we can do is sit here and wait while
the Voidborn do whatever they want with the rest of the planet.”
“I am quite aware of that,” Stirling replied, “but our understanding of Voidborn technology is still rudimentary at best and this is a perfect example of how that ignorance can have terrible consequences. It is likely that none of these three men will ever regain consciousness, but what if it had been three hundred Sleepers or three thousand? We need to proceed more carefully. These things can’t be rushed. We will find an answer, it’s just going to take time.”
“Is there anything that we can do to help?” Rachel asked.
“Yes, actually,” Stirling said. “We need an ECG monitor so that we can properly assess the brain activity in these men. As to where you would find one, your guess is as good as mine. Local hospitals, medical equipment suppliers, somewhere like that, I would imagine.”
“Jay and Adam should be back from their scouting run soon,” Rachel said. “Write down exactly what you need and I’ll pass it on to them. If anyone can find what you need, it’s those two.”
“Fine, give me a couple of minutes,” Stirling replied, pulling a notepad and pen from his jacket pocket before retreating to the desk in the corner of the room to put together his shopping list.
“Do you want to tell the others or shall I?” Rachel said
quietly as they walked back into the dormitory. “You know it’s not going to go down well.”
Sam was aware that the prospect of waking the Sleepers had been keeping the group’s spirits high since the elation of the Voidborn’s defeat in London. Nobody talked about it much, but they all knew it was the only way that they might ever see their friends and families again.
“I’ll do it,” Sam said with a sigh. “We’ll get everyone together when Jay and Jack get back and tell them what Stirling told us. They may not like it, but they all need to know.”
“What if Stirling’s wrong, Sam?” Rachel asked as they walked down the stairs leading to the exit. “What if we never find a way to wake everyone up? How do we fight then?”
“Same way we always have,” Sam replied as they stepped out into the crisp winter air. “Dirty.”
* * *
“Well, that sucks,” Jay said with a sigh as he collapsed back into the armchair in the living area of the team’s dormitory.
“I’m going to have to agree with Jay, I’m afraid,” Nat said with a nod. “So what’s the plan now?”
“We can’t give up,” Sam replied, sitting on the edge of the table at the end of the room. “We just have to hope that Stirling and the Servant can come up with a solution.”
“But there’s no guarantee that they will,” Adam said as he sorted the various items that he had scavenged on his last run into piles on another table. “Heads up, Jack, got something for you.” He tossed a book across the room to the boy with bright red hair sitting opposite. “Don’t say I never do anything for you.”
“Whoa, Anarchist’s Cookbook,” Jack said with a grin as he examined the book, “a thousand ways to blow yourself up with household ingredients. Thanks, man.”
“Great, remind me to thank you when we’re reassembling the building,” Anne said. “Jack and explosives, what could possibly go wrong?”
“So does Stirling have any idea why it didn’t work?” Jay asked.
“’Fraid not,” Will replied, pushing his glasses back up onto the bridge of his nose. “Just guesses at the moment, but he’ll figure it out—he always does.”
“Let’s hope you’re right,” Nat said. “So what do we do in the meantime? Just sit and wait and hope that Stirling and the Servant come up with a way around the problem?”
“No,” Sam said, “we can’t assume that just because the Voidborn haven’t attacked us and our Mothership yet that they aren’t going to. We need to start planning our next move. We know from the TV coverage of the Mothership fleet’s arrival that there were ships above other cities around the world, but we don’t even know for
sure how many were sent here to Britain. We need to know much more about the enemy’s strength if we’re going to take the fight to them. I know that we’ve all been focused on Stirling and the Servant’s efforts to wake the Sleepers, but it may be that the only way to actually do that is to eliminate the Voidborn completely.”
“The Servant has no ideas, I assume?” Will asked.
“No, her memory begins with the moment we first saw her on the bridge of the Mothership,” Sam said, “and she has no connection to the Voidborn consciousness anymore.”
“Fortunately,” Adam said, “because you know that’s going to be a two-way street and I don’t want to be around if she ever has a change of heart about helping us.”
“So we need to go look, then,” Jay said. “Let’s face it, another Mothership floating above Britain isn’t going to be that hard to spot.”
“I agree,” Rachel said with a nod. “I’m tired of sitting around waiting for the Voidborn to make the next move. We’ve barely ventured beyond the outskirts of London since this all began. We have no idea what might be happening in the rest of the country, let alone the rest of the world.”
“So how do we do this?” Anne asked. “I hear what you’re saying, Jay, but, big as that thing is,” she gestured upward to the ship floating unseen above them, “we can’t just set off wandering randomly looking for another one.
We need some clue to where we should look.”
“I believe I can help with that,” Stirling said, stepping from the shadows at the other end of the room. No one had seen him come in.
“I hate it when he does that,” Jay whispered to Rachel.
“I still have some printouts of telemetry data from tracking stations that were monitoring the Voidborn vessels during their final approach to Earth,” Stirling continued, walking slowly toward them. “It only gives us limited local sub-orbital trajectory data, but that should be enough to let us make some educated guesses as to where some of the other Motherships went. At the very least it should help narrow the search.”
“Sounds good,” Sam said. “How long will it take to crunch the numbers?”
“A couple of hours,” Stirling replied. “I’m afraid my orbital dynamics may be a little rusty.”
“We could get the Servant to process the data,” Will said. “Might be faster.”
“I’m quite capable of performing the calculations myself, thank you, William,” Stirling replied.
“Of course, Doctor Stirling,” Will said sheepishly. “Sorry.”
They had all experienced the more abrasive side of the doctor’s temper at one time or another, and their recent victory over the Voidborn seemed to have done little to improve his mood.
“Once we have an approximate location we can scan more effectively for Voidborn signals and hopefully pinpoint their precise coordinates,” Stirling continued. “I will discuss the necessary modifications to the Mothership’s equipment with the Servant.”
With that he turned and walked out of the room.
“So what are we going to do when we find out where the other Motherships are?” Jay asked Sam quietly as the others sat around chatting with one another.
“Good question,” Sam said with a sigh. “It’s important that we keep everyone occupied with planning this operation until Stirling and the Servant have more of an idea about what’s causing the problems with the Sleepers. What we don’t want right now is everyone starting to think about what it might mean if we can’t ever wake them.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean,” Jay said, glancing over at their friends. “We’ve all been thinking for weeks that this was our big chance, that maybe we could wake enough people and actually strike back at the Voidborn. That’s going to be a lot tougher if it’s just us.”
“Hey,” Sam said with a smile, “just us managed to take control of a Voidborn Mothership. Who knows what else we could pull off if we put our minds to it.”
* * *
Stirling sat at his desk in a tastefully furnished room that had once been occupied by his old colleague and traitor to humanity, Oliver Fletcher. The office was housed within
the structure that the Voidborn had built around their drilling rig in St. James’s Park. He studied the sheets of data, occasionally making small marks on a large map of the world that was spread out on the desk beneath them. The columns of numbers would have been meaningless to most people, but to his mind’s eye they were a graceful arc plotted through the open sky.
He reached into one of his desk drawers and pulled out a ruler, using it to mark a line that passed straight through London, intersecting with the location of the one Mothership that they knew for certain, before turning to another sheet of figures and starting to make small marks on the map.
“Doctor Stirling,” the Servant said as she appeared at the open door, “I am sorry to disturb you, but I have made a discovery that I believe you will find interesting.”
“And what might that be?” Stirling asked without looking up from the map.
“I have been attempting a broad frequency scan as you had instructed,” the Servant explained.
“And you had success?” Stirling asked.
“Not as yet,” the Servant replied. “I am proceeding with caution to ensure there is no possibility that I will inadvertently re-initiate my own connection with the Voidborn.”
“So what have you found then?” Stirling asked, frowning slightly as he looked up at her.
“A signal of unknown origin,” the Servant replied. “Both the content and transmission frequency suggest it is human in origin.”
“Human?” Stirling said, sounding surprised. “Some kind of automated beacon or distress signal probably.”
“I do not believe so,” the Servant replied. “I have recorded the message. Would you like me to play it back for you?”
“Yes, please do.”
The Servant opened her mouth slightly wider and her own voice was replaced with a hiss of static that suddenly resolved into a man’s voice.
“Hotspur two, this is Hotspur seven. We have live targets at grid seven two nine, repeat live targets. We need a Predator strike package on station now.”
“Roger that Hotspur seven, Drone inbound. ETA four minutes.”
Stirling’s eyes widened as he listened: it was a military transmission. A moment later the signal dissolved back into white noise.
“Where did this signal come from?” Stirling demanded, all thought of sub-orbital trajectories suddenly gone from his head.
“Unfortunately, my systems were not designed for tracking such basic communication technology, which makes that more difficult to determine. Also, the transmission was very brief, making it difficult to get a precise
fix on its point of origin, but it appears to have originated from somewhere in the northern region of this landmass.”
“Show me,” Stirling said, standing up and walking over to the large map of the British Isles that hung on the wall.
The Servant studied the map for a few seconds and then pointed at a specific location.
“My calculations suggest that this would be the nearest human population center to the point of origin for the transmission.”
“Edinburgh,” Stirling said. “There’s someone awake in Edinburgh.”