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The President of the United States looked out of an Oval Office window at Grand Junction, Colorado. The Oval Office was square, but the President’s workplace kept its traditional name. Harris Moffatt III sighed and bent to his paperwork again. Even in Grand Junction, that never disappeared.
Washington, D.C., remained the de jure capital of the United States. Harris Moffatt III had never been there. Neither had his father, President Harris Moffatt II. His grandfather, President Harris Moffatt I, got out of Washington one jump ahead of the Krolp. That the USA was still any kind of going concern came from his ever-so-narrow escape.
Harris Moffatt III was also Prime Minister of Canada, or of that small and mountainous chunk of Canada the Krolp didn’t control. The two countries had amalgamated early on, the better to resist the invading aliens. That, of course, was before they realized how far out of their weight they were fighting.
When the enormous ships were first detected, between Mars’ orbit and Earth’s, every nation radioed messages of welcome and greeting. The Krolp ignored them all. The enormous ships landed. There were still videos—Harris Moffatt III had them on his computer—of human delegations greeting the aliens with bouquets and bands playing joyful music. At last! Contact with another intelligent race! Proof we weren’t alone in the universe!
“Better if we were,” the President muttered. When the Krolp came out, they came out shooting. Some of those fifty-year-old videos broke off quite abruptly. And “shooting” was the understatement of the millennium. Their weapons made ours seem like kids’ slingshots against machine guns.
Seeing how the Krolp wanted things to go, half a dozen militaries launched H-bomb-tipped missiles at the great ships. They couldn’t live through that, could they? As a matter of fact, they could. Most of the missiles got shot down. Most of the ones that did land on target didn’t go off. And the handful that did harmed the Krolpish ships not a bit and the rampaging, plundering aliens running around loose very little.
They weren’t invulnerable. Humans could kill them. Unless somebody got amazingly lucky, the usual cost was about two armored divisions and all their matériel for one Krolp. Back in the old days, the United States was the richest country in the world. All the pre-Krolp books said so. Not even it could spend men and equipment on that scale.
Back before the Krolp came, a fellow named Clarke had written, Any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic. Harris Moffatt III didn’t know about that. What the Krolp did wasn’t magic. The best scientists in the USA—the best ones left alive, anyhow—had been studying captured or stolen Krolpish gadgets for half a century now. Their conclusion was that the aliens manipulated gravity and the strong and weak forces as thoroughly as humans exploited electromagnetism.
Humans could use Krolpish devices and weapons. They could even use them against the invaders, for as long as they kept working. What humans couldn’t do was make more such devices themselves. The machines weren’t there. Neither was the theory. And neither was the engineering to turn theory into practice.
And so Harris Moffatt III ruled an attenuated state between the Rockies and the Wasatch Range. He understood too well that he ruled here not least because the Krolp hadn’t yet taken the trouble to overrun this rump USA (and Canada).
From everything he’d heard, the United States still was the richest country in the world. The richest human-ruled country, anyhow. And if that wasn’t a telling measure of mankind’s futility in the face of the aliens, Harris Moffatt III was damned if he could figure out what would be.
• • •
His appointments secretary stuck his head into the Oval Office. “Excuse me, Mr. President, but Grelch wants to see you.”
“Tell him I’ll be with him in a few minutes, Jack,” Moffatt said. “I really do need to study this appropriations bill.” Calling the economy in the independent USA rotten would have praised it too much. So would calling it hand-to-mouth. Robbing Peter to pay Paul came closest, except Paul mostly got an IOU instead.
Jack Pagliarone turned to pass the news on to Grelch—but Grelch didn’t wait to hear it. The Krolp shoved past the appointments secretary and into the office. “I see you, Moffatt,” he said—loudly—in his own language.
“I see you, Grelch,” Harris Moffatt III answered—resignedly—also in Krolpish. There was a lot of Grelch to see. He was big as a horse: bigger, because he was a tiger-striped centauroid with a head like a vampire jack-o’-lantern. He had sharp, jagged jaw edges—they weren’t exactly teeth, but they might as well have been—and enormous eyes that glowed like a cat’s. He smelled more like Limburger cheese than anything else.
“I have some things to tell you, Moffatt,” he declared. No titles of respect: the Krolp had them for one another, but rarely wasted them on humans.
“I listen,” the President said, more resignedly yet, wondering what Grelch would want this time. He was bound to want something, and he’d make trouble if he didn’t get whatever it was.
Not for the first time, Harris Moffatt III wondered what Grelch had done to be forced to flee to Grand Junction. A dozen or so alien renegades lived here. Humans had learned a lot from them, and from their predecessors. But they were deadly dangerous. They were Krolp, and had Krolpish defenses and Krolpish weapons. And they were almost all of them sons of bitches even by Krolpish standards. No alien who hadn’t done something awful to his own kind would have to stoop so low as to live with humans.
“I need snarfar, Moffatt. You’ve got to get me snarfar,” Grelch said.
“I can do that, Grelch.” The President tried to hide his relief. Some Krolp chewed snarfar. It gave them a buzz, the way nicotine or maybe cocaine did for humans. Harris Moffatt III didn’t know the details; snarfar poisoned people. He did know the aliens turned mean—well, meaner—when they couldn’t get the stuff.
But he could get it. They grew it in the flatlands of the Midwest—what had formerly been wheat and corn country. He still had connections in the lands his grandfather once governed. People and things informally slid over the border all the time. He’d arranged to bring in snarfar before. He’d known he would have to do it again, for one Krolp or another, before too long.
“You better do that, Moffatt. By the stars, you better,” Grelch snarled. He turned—which, with that four-legged carcass, needed some room—and stomped out of the Oval Office. The ripe reek that came off his hide lingered in the air.
The President sighed. “That’s always so much fun.”
“Yes, sir,” Jack Pagliarone said sympathetically. Even a renegade Krolp, an alien who’d put himself beyond the pale of his own kind, was convinced down to the bottom of whatever he used for a soul that he was better than any mere human ever born. All the evidence of fifty years of conquest and occupation said he had a point, too.
“If we didn’t need to pick their brains . . .” Harris Moffatt III sighed again. Humanity needed nothing more.
“By the stars, Mr. President, if the first big uprising had worked—” Jack sadly shook his head.
Back when Harris Moffatt III was a boy, Americans, Russians, and Chinese all rebelled against the centauroids at once. They rocked the Krolp, no doubt about it. They killed forty or fifty of them, some with stolen arms, others with poison. But close didn’t count. The Krolp crushed mankind again, more thoroughly this time.
Jack had spoken English with the President. Humans in the free USA mostly did. Even humans in Krolp-occupied America did when they talked among themselves. But the appointments secretary said By the stars anyhow.
Well, Harris Moffatt III sometimes said By the stars himself. More and more humans these days believed what the Krolp believed and tried to imitate the conquerors any way they could. Weren’t the Krolp stronger? Didn’t that prove they were wiser, too? Plenty of people thought so.
The President had when he was younger. Like his father before him, like Harris Moffatt IV now, he’d spent several years in St. Louis, the center from which the Krolp ruled most of the USA. He’d gone to what was called, with unusual politeness, a finishing school. In point of fact, he’d been a hostage for his father’s good behavior, as his older son was hostage now for his.
He’d learned Krolpish—learned it more thoroughly, that is, because he’d already started lessons in Grand Junction. He’d learned the Krolp creed, too. He’d kept company with the pampered sons and daughters of the men and women who helped the centauroids run the occupied USA. Some of them were descendants of people who’d served in the American government with Harris Moffatt I. They were all much more Krolpified than he was. They thought him a hick from the sticks, and weren’t shy about telling him so.
By the time he finished finishing school, he was much more Krolpified himself than he had been when he got there. He was so much more Krolpified, in fact, that he didn’t want to go back to the independent United States. His own people had come to look like hicks to him.
He hoped he’d got over that. He hoped Harris Moffatt IV would get over it when the kid came home. You had to hope. If you didn’t hope, you’d give up. And where would free humans be then?
Come to that, where were free humans now? In places like Grand Junction, Colorado, that was where. Happy day!
• • •
One of the men with whom the President had gone to finishing school was the grandson of an important official in the DEA. No one in the United States these days, free or occupied, worried about enforcing human drug laws. No one had time for that kind of nonsense. But Ommat—he even had a Krolpish name—knew how to get his hands on snarfar, and how to slip it discreetly over the border. Grelch got his chew. He didn’t bother Harris Moffatt III for a while.
As far as Moffatt was concerned, that was all to the good. He had other things to worry about. The Krolp in St. Louis announced that they were going to send an embassy to Grand Junction. Not that they wanted to send one, but that they were going to. Asking permission of humans wasn’t a Krolpish habit.
The U.S. Army still had a few tanks that ran. It had plenty of machine guns. And it had several dozen Krolpish weapons, which cut through a tank’s armor as if it weren’t there. As soon as one of those weapons hit it, it wasn’t.
Several suits of Krolpish body armor had fallen into American hands, too. The only trouble was, humans had no way to adapt those to their own shape. Nothing people knew how to do would cut or weld the transparent stuff. The tools . . . The science . . . The engineering . . .
Harris Moffatt III received the envoy and his retinue with a mixture of human and Krolpish ceremonial. The Stars and Stripes and the Maple Leaf flew behind him. He wore a polyester suit and tie and shirt from the days before the invaders came. Bugs and moths ignored polyester. They sure didn’t ignore wool or linen, the independent USA’s usual fabrics.
A star shone over the President’s left shoulder. That sort of display was standard among the Krolp. With them, as far as human observers and savants could tell, it was a real star, even if a tiny one. And it hung in the air with no means of support at all, visible or otherwise. The Krolp routinely did things that drove human physicists to drink.
Humans . . . imitated and improvised. This star was made from LEDs surrounding a battery pack. It hung from invisibly fine wires. It wasn’t as good as one of the originals, but it showed Harris Moffatt III claimed sovereign status. (Its weakness might say he didn’t deserve it, but he refused to dwell on that.)
A star followed the Krolp envoy, too. His name, Moffatt had been given to understand, was Prilk. His star was brighter than the human-made simulacrum, but did not float so high. He was a representative, not a sovereign.
Prilk’s overlord wasn’t the Krolpish governor of North America. He was the ruler of the Krolp, back on their home planet. He wasn’t exactly a king or a president or an ayatollah. Not being a Krolp, Harris Moffatt III didn’t understand exactly what he was. He was the boss: Moffatt understood that much. Krolp here could petition him. So could humans. Letters took months to reach the homeworld. Decisions took . . . as long as they took. Answers took more months to come back. Once in a blue moon, those answers made things better for people, not worse. It wasn’t likely, but it did happen.
Prilk’s guards kept a wary eye on the American soldiers carrying Krolpish hand weapons. Those were dangerous to them and to the envoy, unlike almost any merely human arms. Reading Krolpish body language and expressions was a guessing game for people. Harris Moffatt III’s guess was that the centauroids thought humans had no business getting their hands on real weapons. Well, too bad.
The envoy surprised Moffatt: he said, “I see you, Mr. President,” in slow, labored English.
“And I see you, Ambassador Prilk,” the President replied, also in English. He hadn’t expected to use his own language at all in this confab. He smiled broadly.
Then the envoy went back to his own harsh tongue: “I see you, Moffatt.” In Krolpish, he didn’t waste time with any polite titles. That he’d done it in English was remarkable enough.
“I see you, Envoy Prilk,” Harris Moffatt III answered, in Krolpish this time. He might not grant special honorifics to any of the renegades who were such uncomfortable guests here, but he had to give the ruler’s representative his due. The Krolp often acted as if humans offended them by existing, and especially by refusing to become Krolpified. They only got worse when they discovered real reasons for affront.
“Good,” Prilk said, continuing in his own language. Chances were he didn’t truly speak English at all: he’d memorized a phrase or two to impress the natives. And impress them he had. Now he could get down to business. He could, and he did: “We want something from you, Moffatt.”
“You can’t have the renegades. They’re under my protection,” the President said. They were what Prilk was most likely to want, as far as he could see. The Krolp didn’t like it when free humans learned from them, although their finishing schools and other academies taught people in the broad occupied zones quite a bit.
Prilk waved his hands. They looked funny by human standards: they had four fingers in the middle and a thumb on each side. The thumbs had nails. The fingers had claws. Even a weaponless and unarmored Krolp was no bargain. “I do not care about the renegades, Moffatt. We do not care about the renegades. If we cared about the renegades, you would have never seen them. Believe it. It is true.”
Maybe so, maybe not. The Krolp weren’t immune to bullshit: one more hard lesson out of so many the past fifty years had taught mankind. But if Prilk said the renegades weren’t the issue now, they weren’t. They probably aren’t, Harris Moffatt III amended to himself. Prilk might find a way to come back to them later.
Warily, the President asked, “Well, what do you want, then?”
Prilk waved his hands again, this time purposefully. A map appeared in the air between the envoy and Harris Moffatt III. It was, naturally, a Krolpish map, with the place names written in the Krolpish language. That hardly mattered. Moffatt read Krolpish as well as speaking it. And the aliens had borrowed most of the place names from English. Why not? That was easier than making up their own.
Long before the Krolp landed, Americans had borrowed a lot of place names from the Native Americans who’d lived in these parts before them. Much good that did the Native Americans, most of whom were swiftly dispossessed. And much good the English toponyms on a Krolpish map did the USA, too.
“You see this place here?” Prilk pointed. A small patch of northeastern Utah glowed red on the map. How? Harris Moffatt III didn’t know, any more than he knew how the map appeared when Prilk waved. Krolpish technology was that far ahead of anything humanity could do. Or—shit—maybe it was magic. Harris Moffatt III sure couldn’t prove it wasn’t.
“I see that place there,” Moffatt said. “What about it? I see it is in the territory that belongs to the free United States. I see that it is in territory that belongs to me. Not to you. Not to Vrank.” Vrank was Prilk’s immediate superior, the Krolpish governor of North America. The President took a deep breath. “Not to your ruler, back on your planet, either.”
There. He’d made it as plain as he could. Too plain, maybe. As far as the Krolp were concerned, anything they could get their weird hands on belonged to them. But that glowing patch lay right in the middle of what was left of the USA. Harris Moffatt III had to do whatever he could to hang on to it. If he didn’t, what point to being President?
Prilk opened his jack-o’-lantern mouth wide. It looked like a threat display—I will eat you. As a matter of fact, it was. “You say this to me, Moffatt?” he growled.
“I say this to you, Envoy Prilk,” Moffatt answered, as steadily as he could. “Flarglar agreed that this land belonged to humans. Belonged to the USA. Belonged to my father.” Flarglar had been Vrank’s next-but-one predecessor. U.S. archives still held a copy of the treaty.
How much good would showing it to Prilk do? The envoy waved once more, dismissively. “Flarglar is not here anymore. Neither is your father.”
Flarglar, sure enough, had been recalled to the homeworld in disgrace. A drunken Krolpish renegade (the Krolp, damn them, loved whiskey as well as snarfar) had killed Harris Moffatt II. He’d died for it. Not much was left of West Yellowstone, Montana, these days, but that renegade was by God dead.
“The agreement is here. Your ruler did not reject it. It is still good,” Harris Moffatt III said, with more confidence than he felt.
“We did not know everything when we made that stupid agreement. We have been here longer now. We know more,” Prilk said. “There is silver under this land, silver and some gold. We want it.”
Winter ran through the President of the United States. The Krolp took human works of art, in exactly the same way as human conquerors looted the folk they overwhelmed. And the Krolp took minerals in a way that was like nothing on Earth—which was putting things mildly.
They thought Earth was a treasure trove. It was more tectonically active than most of the planets they knew, which meant it kept recycling its riches instead of locking most of them away beyond even Krolpish reach. And the reach of the Krolp went far beyond anything humanity could match. Twenty miles down? Fifty miles? A hundred? The Krolp didn’t care. Controlling the forces they did, they could go that deep with ease.
Of course, they made kind of a mess in the process. Harris Moffatt III knew people had strip-mined whole mountains. The Krolp strip-mined whole countries. Not much worth living on was left of Spain. The Krolp had found a big deposit of mercury under there, and they’d gone after it, and they’d got it. The environment? They worried about the environment on the homeworld. Not here. No, not here.
If they went after silver under northeastern Utah, they’d trash most of what was left of the free USA. What point to being President of an uninhabitable country? “That silver is ours,” Moffatt said. “You cannot have it.”
“I give you some advice, Moffatt,” Prilk answered. “Do not say ‘cannot’ to someone who is stronger than you.”
“That silver is ours. It is not yours,” the President insisted.
This time, vast scorn informed the Krolp’s gesture. “You cannot get this silver. You did not even know it was there. You will never get at it. We can. We will. For us, it is easy.”
“Stealing is easy,” Moffatt said bitterly.
“Not stealing. Taking.” Plain, a difference existed in Prilk’s mind.
“It is ours. If you take it, that goes against the treaty. I will appeal to your ruler.” Harris Moffatt III played one of the few cards he had. He was only too aware it was liable to be the three of diamonds. That could be worth something if it filled a flush. Most of the time, it was just the goddamn three of diamonds.
“Let me show you this, Moffatt.” Prilk could snap two fingers on the same hand at the same time. When he did, the map in the air between him and the President disappeared. He waved again. A document—an appallingly official Krolpish document—sprang into being in its place. Vrank had already told the ruler the silver was there. The ruler had told Vrank to go ahead and get it.
“I can still appeal. I have learned my rights,” Moffatt said. His three of diamonds wouldn’t fill a flush this time. His main right was to do as he was told.
“You will lose.” Prilk didn’t even sound regretful. He just sounded certain, the way he would if he talked about sunrise tomorrow.
The President still had one more card. “If you come after what is not yours, I can fight. The United States can fight.”
Krolpish laughter sounded a lot like human farting. “Well, you can try. Remember how much good fighting has done you up till now,” Prilk said.
“We are still free, here in this part of the United States. Most humans are not,” Harris Moffatt III said.
“You are free because you have not been worth bothering about. Now you have again something we want. Give it and you may yet stay free.”
“Free in a place where we cannot live,” Moffatt said. “What kind of freedom is that? Better to fight.”
“You will lose. Then we will take what we want anyway,” Prilk warned.
“We have a saying—‘Live free or die,’” the President said.
“I do not know about living free. If you fight, dying can be arranged. I promise you that.” This time, it wasn’t so much that Prilk sounded matter-of-fact. He sounded as if the prospect delighted him.
“I must consult with my superiors,” Moffatt said.
“I will give you a day. It is more than you deserve, but Governor Vrank wants as little trouble with you as he can arrange,” Prilk said.
“A day,” Moffatt agreed. “In the meantime, you are our guest. We will treat you as well as we can.”
“Oh, joy.” Prilk sounded as thrilled as a human explorer offered a big bowl of stewed grubs by some tribe in the back of beyond. That was probably just how he felt. Well, too goddamn bad for him. #
Grelch and Willig—another Krolpish renegade—sat in with Harris Moffatt III’s Secretary of Defense and Secretary of Alien Affairs. The latter’s predecessors had been Secretaries of State. The new title reflected the new dispensation.
The renegades could judge Krolpish likelihoods better than people could. Grelch’s tail lashed rhythmically: back and forth, back and forth. He’d had a good chew of snarfar, then. It might cloud his wits—but then, as the President knew, Grelch didn’t have much in the way of wits to begin with. He was a ruffian, a soldier, a deserter. He would never be welcome in polite company.
But he knew all kinds of things humans had never learned. That made him valuable, if not exactly welcome.
“If we fight, we’re screwed,” the Secretary of Alien Affairs said.
“If we don’t fight, we’re screwed, too,” the Secretary of Defense said.
Harris Moffatt III let out yet another sigh, a deep one. Once upon a time, somebody’d told him that two things that contradicted each other couldn’t both be true at the same time. He’d believed the poor, silly son of a bitch, too. He didn’t anymore.
The Krolp had found something here they wanted. They were going to take it. If humans didn’t care for that, tough luck for humans. The President turned toward the alien renegades. “How can we keep them from digging?” he asked.
Grelch looked at Willig. Willig looked back at Grelch. Reading Krolpish expressions might be guesswork for humans, but Harris Moffatt III had more practice at it than most people in the free USA. He didn’t like what he thought he read.
“Forget it,” Grelch said.
“Run north,” Willig agreed. “Maybe it won’t be so bad.” As if conferring a great boon, he added, “We’ll come with you.”
“Of course you will,” the President said harshly. “Your own folk sure don’t want you around.”
“You insult us?” Grelch’s rumble sounded ominous. Snarfar usually calmed a Krolp, but it could also enrage. It was a lot like booze—except it wasn’t. Grelch hadn’t carried any weapons into the meeting, but that might not matter. If a renegade killed another President of the United States . . .
Harris Moffatt III drew a Krolpish hand weapon. If he fired it, it wouldn’t just steam-clean Grelch. It would take out a big part of the building, maybe enough to make the rest fall down. Even so . . . “The truth is not an insult,” he said. “If your own people did want you around, you wouldn’t be here with us.”
He waited. Plenty of Krolp wouldn’t listen to anything from humans, even the truth—especially not the truth. Grelch was right on the edge of being one of them. His tail twitched faster, with a sort of boogie-woogie beat. Moffatt relaxed fractionally. That was a good sign. Most of the time, anyhow.
“All right,” the renegade said at last. “We are losers. So are you, Moffatt. All you humans, you are losers.”
“Now you have lost,” Willig added. “You can’t fight a stand-up fight against my folk.”
The President already knew that. He couldn’t very well not know it. Humans had tried again and again, and got smashed again and again. They’d learned a lot from the Krolp these past fifty years. They’d stolen a lot, too. They could annoy the aliens. They could harass them. It didn’t come within miles—it didn’t come within light-years—of being enough.
But there were ways to make war that didn’t involve stand-up fights. Before that drunken Krolp murdered him, Harris Moffatt II had made sure Harris Moffatt III soaked up some preinvasion history. Names rang inside his head. Vietnam . . . Iraq . . . Afghanistan . . .
“We do not want to fight a stand-up fight,” he said. “Or not a stand-up fight and nothing else, anyhow. But we’ve got . . . connections . . . in the rest of America. Can we cause your folk enough trouble to make them change their minds?”
He smiled at the Secretary of Defense. That worthy’s second cousin held a prominent post in the centauroids’ administration. They kept in touch with each other through some highly unofficial channels. The Secretary of Defense’s cousin didn’t love the cheesy-smelling aliens he worked for. There were humans who worked for him who didn’t love the Krolp, either.
Multiply such cases by a hundred or a thousand. If all those humans raised hands against the invaders or simply stopped doing their jobs or started doing them wrong . . . It would screw up the Krolp, without a doubt.
Would it screw them up enough? Doubt. Big doubt.
Grelch and Willig eyed each other. “Maybe,” Willig said, in tones that meant he didn’t believe it for a minute.
“If we do that and if we fight to keep what is ours . . . ?” Harris Moffatt III said.
One more glance between the two Krolp. This time, Grelch was the one who said, “Maybe.” He also didn’t believe it.
Of course, Krolp never believed humans could do anything. Half a century of occupation gave them solid reason not to believe it, too. Every once in a while, they did get an unpleasant surprise. That they’d got a few was the main reason the free United States remained the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Of the stubborn, anyhow.
Harris Moffatt III took a deep breath. “Well, we’re going to try it,” he said.
Willig and Grelch walked out. That pretty much ended the meeting. They had scant hope, or maybe none. Harris Moffatt III had scant hope, too, but not none. Not quite. Muttering under his breath, the Secretary of Defense also left. His men would have to try to stop the invaders. When the irresistible force met the movable object . . .
The Secretary of Alien Affairs lingered. “I was poking around in the library at Mesa State the other day,” he remarked, with luck not apropos of nothing.
“Okay,” the President said. The college library held mostly human knowledge. Education in things Krolpish hadn’t trickled through the system even now. The chaos of the past half-century had a lot to do with that. Educators’ slowness had even more. Moffatt went on, “You found something interesting?”
“Might be. Might be just depressing,” the Secretary of Alien Affairs replied.
“That’s what I need, all right,” Moffatt said. “And you’re going to tell me about it, aren’t you?”
“Unless you don’t want me to, sir.”
“Oh, go ahead,” the President said. “It can’t possibly make me feel worse than I do when I think about telling Prilk no.”
“You could still tell him yes,” the Secretary of Alien Affairs said.
“That doesn’t do me any good, either,” Harris Moffatt III said, shaking his head. “So go on. Say your say. Depress me some more.”
“Er . . . Yes, Mr. President. You probably know the Spaniards conquered the Incas in Peru six hundred years ago.”
“Sure.” Now Moffatt nodded. He remembered that from studying history, too. And Peru—or the mountainous, inaccessible parts of Peru—still maintained a precarious freedom from the Krolp. Moffatt had exchanged a few messages with el Presidente. That was as much as either one of them could hope to do. “What about it?”
“The Incas never knew what hit ’em. They were just starting to use bronze. They didn’t even write. The Spaniards had guns. They had armor. They had swords. They rode horses. They . . . Well, to make a long story short, they had three thousand years on the Incas. The Native Americans fought like hell, and it didn’t do ’em one goddamn bit of good.”
Harris Moffatt III felt an unpleasant frisson. Given his circumstances, how could he not? “What goes around comes around. Is that what you’re saying?”
“Not exactly, Mr. President,” the Secretary of Alien Affairs said, which wasn’t reassuring to Moffatt. His advisor went on, “The Incas who didn’t give up built a new town called Vilcabamba, in the jungle on the east side of the Andes. Their ruler—the Inca—lived there, and his court, and stuff like that. And they tried to . . . to adapt to what had happened to them.”
“What do you mean, adapt?” Moffatt asked.
“They learned whatever they could. They stole horses and swords. Some of them became Christians—mostly to keep the Spaniards off their backs, I think, but also because their own gods weren’t doing them much good. But other ways, too, littler ways. Some of the houses there had tile roofs instead of the thatch they’d always used before.”
“Huh,” the President said uneasily, remembering the LED display that aped a real Krolpish minisun. He asked the obvious question: “What happened to them?”
“They hung on for about forty years. They had trouble with their renegades, too,” the Secretary of Alien Affairs said. “Then the Spaniards finally got sick of their nuisance raids and overran them.”
“We’ve lasted longer than they did, anyhow,” Harris Moffatt III said. “We’ve just got to keep on doing it, that’s all.”
“Yes, Mr. President,” the Secretary of State replied. What else was he supposed to say?
• • •
Prilk and his guards waited impassively in the square. “Well, Moffatt, what is it going to be?”
“You can’t mine silver on our land,” Moffatt said. “You would ruin our whole country”—what’s left of our whole country—“if you did.”
“We are going to mine that silver,” the Krolpish envoy said, his voice flat and hard. “You cannot stop us from doing it. Because you cannot stop us, you cannot say in truth that the land is yours.”
“If your folk come onto our land without our leave, you will see what we can do,” Harris Moffatt III said. His son was already on his way back to the free USA from St. Louis. He hoped.
Prilk let out flatulent Krolpish laughter. “I foul myself in fear,” he said.
A sarcastic Krolp was the very last thing the President needed. “You will see,” he repeated. “Tell Governor Vrank the land is ours, the silver is ours, and he may not have it.”
Prilk leaned his torso forward, toward the President. As with humans, that meant earnestness among the Krolp. “Moffatt, you had better think again. You have no hope of winning.”
“We have no hope if you trash our country, either,” Moffatt said, which was nothing but the truth.
“But we would not interfere with you if you did not act like a fool,” Prilk said.
“If I did what you told me to do, you mean,” Moffatt replied. “And you would interfere with the United States. You would interfere badly. That interferes with me.”
“You will be sorry,” Prilk warned.
“I am already sorry. Everyone on Earth is sorry. We are sorry you ever found us,” the President said.
“Which has nothing to do with how many claws are on a franggel’s foot,” Prilk said.
Harris Moffatt III had never seen a franggel. Come to that, neither had Prilk. The Krolp had hunted them to extinction hundreds of years before. They lingered on in proverbs, though. The President had heard this one many times before. Nothing to do with the price of beer, an English-speaking human probably would have said. But he’d heard about a franggel’s foot even in English. Krolpish phrases, Krolpish ideas, gained. Human notions retreated. Pretty soon, they’d have nowhere to retreat to.
The President hadn’t imagined he’d remember the name of the place, not while the Secretary of Alien Affairs was yakking about it. He also hadn’t imagined he would sympathize with the poor befuddled Inca holdouts who’d tried to hang on to their old way of life there. If the Krolp started strip-mining in Utah, the old American way of life, or what was left of it, was gone forever.
“Envoy Prilk, we will fight to stop you,” he repeated, his voice firmer than it had been a few minutes earlier.
“Moffatt, we will eat your brains, if you have any.” Prilk turned and walked away. His guards formed up around him. If the humans wanted to start fighting now, they were ready. Here, though, human and Krolpish customs coincided. The envoy was suffered to leave in peace. Trouble would start soon, but not yet. Not quite yet.
• • •
The free United States had to keep the Krolp away from the place in northeastern Utah under which they’d found silver. If the aliens started mining, they would turn too much of what was left of the country into a place not worth inhabiting. But the free USA also needed to show the Krolp that fighting a war for the silver would be more expensive than it was worth.
If we can, Harris Moffatt III thought gloomily. If we can.
He’d already got out of Grand Junction by then. He’d pulled north to Craig, Colorado, just in case. He sat in front of a microphone that led to an AM sending unit. AM radio had been almost extinct even on Earth when the Krolp came. To the striped centauroids, it was as one with hand axes and bows and arrows. That made it as secure a communications system as humanity had left. Smoke signals were primitive, too, but as long as the Native Americans could read them and the U.S. Cavalry couldn’t . . .
“Execute Plan Seventeen,” Moffatt said into the mike. “I repeat—execute Plan Seventeen.”
In the room next to his, an engineer flicked a switch, then lifted his thumb in the air. The order had gone out, and now the radio was off again. The cavalry could learn what smoke signals meant, and the Krolp—or the human traitors who served them—might monitor the AM band. You never could tell.
Moffatt’s mouth twisted. Oh, yes, you could. Whatever the aliens did drove more nails into the coffin of human freedom. It wasn’t even always intended to, but it did.
They didn’t attack the instant Prilk left the free USA. The President had feared they might. That would have complicated things for the United States—complicated them even worse than they were already. But, although Moffatt had feared a sudden assault, he hadn’t really expected one. The Krolp were so arrogant, they had trouble believing human beings still dared to tell them no and mean it.
He wished he could launch thermonuclear-tipped missiles at all the increasingly Krolpified cities in the occupied United States. In point of fact, he could; it wasn’t as if he didn’t have them. The only trouble was, they wouldn’t do much good. The Krolp would swat them out of the air with contemptuous ease.
No, you couldn’t stand toe to toe with the centauroids and slug. First they’d stand on your toes. Then they’d stand on you.
Well, the Native Americans couldn’t slug things out with the U.S. Cavalry. They still drove it crazy for a hell of a long time. They also lost in the end, something Harris Moffatt III didn’t care to dwell upon.
He and his Department of Defense experts monitored as many Krolpish channels as they could. They had to rely on bought and stolen devices; they could no more make the communicators the aliens used than Geronimo could have manufactured a telegraph clicker. But the aliens weren’t very good at keeping things secret from humans. They didn’t think they needed to bother, and most of the time they were right.
A major brought Moffatt a report: “The Subgovernor of the South Central Region has been taken ill. He’s in a Krolpish hospital. They’re trying to figure out what’s wrong with him.”
“I hope it’s nothing trivial,” Moffatt said.
“Me, too, Mr. President.” The major grinned. He wore one broad red stripe on each of his collar tabs to show his rank. That was a human adaptation of the Krolpish system. Once upon a time, the USA had used rank badges of its own. Harris Moffatt III happened to know that. What they were, he couldn’t have said. He’d never seen them. A few antiquarians might know, if the free United States still boasted antiquarians.
More reports floated into the free USA. Krolp administrators and their human flunkies came down with exotic illnesses or sudden cases of loss of life. A Krolpish flyer—which bore about the same relationship to a 797 airliner as the airliner did to a paper plane—slammed into the ground, killing several aliens and injuring several more. (Most survived unharmed. The Krolp built tough.) Bridges and overpasses mysteriously—or not so mysteriously—collapsed.
We can hurt you, the free USA was saying, as loud as it could. We can cause you more trouble than you thought we could.
So far, so good. Pretty soon, though, the Krolp would have some things of their own to say. Moffatt didn’t care to listen to them. As far as the Krolp were concerned, that meant less than nothing.
The free USA was as ready as it could be. Soldiers guarded the passes through which the centauroids were likeliest to come. The ground was mined, sometimes with nuclear explosives. The blasts wouldn’t bother the Krolp much. The avalanches they were positioned to set off would do more . . . everyone hoped.
Winning wasn’t in the cards. The President knew as much. Fifty years of bitter experience had taught him as much—him and the rest of the handful of surviving independent human leaders. Living, and living free, to fight another day was as much as he could hope for.
He got reports that Krolpish forces were advancing on both the Rockies and the Wasatch Range. That didn’t sound good. Neither did the fact that one of those reports cut off all at once, as if the human sending it got interrupted. Fatally interrupted? Moffatt didn’t know. It gave him one extra thing to worry about, as if he needed any more.
And Grelch disappeared. Even Craig, Colorado, didn’t feel safe enough to suit the renegade. He had no confidence that the free USA could hold the line against his own people.
“Don’t worry about it, Mr. President,” the Secretary of Defense said. “The Krolp always underestimate us. We never would have been able to hang on this long if they didn’t.”
“I know,” Moffatt said, wishing the Cabinet official hadn’t tacked on that last sentence. In the hierarchy of wishes, though, that was only a sprat. As always, the big fish was wishing the Krolp had never found Earth. Yes, and wish for the moon while you’re at it, the President thought. Had they found anything on it they wanted, the Krolp would have strip-mined the moon, too.
Two days later, the centauroids started hitting back. That was the day after the assassination attempt against Governor Vrank failed. It took out several of his guards and quite a few merely human minions, but Vrank survived. And he was not happy, any more than a cat the mice had tried to bell.
Perhaps because the Governor of North America wasn’t happy, his soldiers slammed headlong into the free USA’s defenses. The Krolp killed far more humans than they lost themselves. They always did. But they didn’t get very far, not with that first thrust. If humans spent enough blood and laid enough traps beforehand, they could slow down the alien invaders.
They could. For a while. The idea was to make the mining scheme unprofitable for the Krolp. That was the human idea, anyhow. But the Krolp had ideas of their own. One of those ideas was not to let the backward natives get uppity and start thinking they could push their betters around.
Quite suddenly, Grand Junction ceased to exist. That wasn’t an H-bomb, though it might as well have been. But Harris Moffatt III hadn’t just slipped away from Grand Junction by himself. He’d feared the Krolp would strike his capital. People started slipping out as soon as he told Prilk he would fight. Most of them were safe. So were most of the data stored in Grand Junction, and even some of the factories that had been there.
Craig was unlikely to last long, either. Moffatt and his advisers moved farther north still, up into an even smaller town. As long as you had radio, where you were didn’t matter too much.
That all made good military sense. So did stopping the enemy when he came at you. Surprising the Krolp once hadn’t been too hard. Neither had disrupting them behind their lines. But disrupting them wasn’t the same as killing them all, and killing them all was what the free USA really needed. The centauroids shook off the disruption. They weren’t so easily surprised the second time they attacked.
And the American defenses crumbled. Human-made arms never did much against the Krolp. Captured, stolen, or bought alien hand weapons performed like—well, like hand weapons against the full weight of Krolpish military might. As well turn a .357 magnum on a tank. You could, sure, but how much good would it do you?
“We need to be able to make those gadgets for ourselves!” Harris Moffatt III raged, as his father and grandfather had before him.
“Yes, Mr. President,” the Secretary of Alien Affairs said. No doubt his predecessors had told the two previous Presidents the same thing. Perhaps unlike his predecessors, he added, “The Incas needed to be able to make muskets and swords and armor to fight the Spaniards, too. The only trouble was, they couldn’t. They didn’t know how.”
The President knew only too well that humans couldn’t make Krolpish weapons. The principles were beyond them. Even if the principles hadn’t been, the manufacturing techniques were.
By the third day of the second attack, it wasn’t much of a war anymore. It was a rout. American troops in the mountains surrendered as fast as they could—when the Krolp let them. The centauroids made examples of some of the troops. That wasn’t pretty, either. They were as far ahead of mankind in torture technology as they were in everything else.
To add insult to injury, they started smashing northeastern Utah to smithereens as soon as they got there. They might have been saying that human resistance wasn’t even worth noticing. As a matter of fact, that was just what they were saying, both to themselves and to what was left of mankind.
• • •
Harris Moffatt III got over the former border between the USA and Canada about twenty minutes before the Krolp caught up with him. His fuel-cell-powered car was limited to paved roads. Nothing seemed to limit the Krolp. One second, he was rolling north, trying to figure out some way to keep resisting. The next, the Krolpish equivalent of an armored car appeared as if out of nowhere on the highway in front of him. The weapon it carried could smash a city without breaking a sweat; its armor laughed at nukes. For good measure, more Krolp vehicles came up from either side.
Brakes screeched as Moffatt’s wife Jessica, who was driving, stopped before the car ran into that first one. A voice filled the passenger compartment: “Give up, Moffatt!” If God spoke Krolpish and were really pissed off, He might sound like that.
The President had already made up his mind what he would do if and when the Krolp caught him. “You’ve got the wrong guy,” he said. “My name’s Ed Vaughn, and I raise chickens.” He had some excellent false papers to prove it, too.
Not that they did him any good. Man proposes; the Krolp dispose, the saying went. Flatulent Krolpish laughter filled the car. “Don’t waste time lying, Moffatt!” the voice roared. “We know your smell! We know your coil!” He supposed they meant his DNA. Whatever they meant, they had him, all right.
Dully, hopelessly, he got out of the car. A Krolp emerged from the armored fighting vehicle. “Here I am,” Moffatt said. “Can you get it over with fast, anyhow?”
“We do not kill you, Moffatt. The ruler does not want you killed. You are a worthless native, yes, but still you were a ruler, too. You were,” the Krolp repeated. “No more. Now your stupid United States are out of business.”
That was, if anything, an understatement. “Well, if you aren’t going to kill me, what will you do with me?” the President—no, the ex-President asked.
The Krolp gestured toward his vehicle with a massively lethal hand weapon. “Get in, you and your female. You will find out.”
They took him to St. Louis. They squeezed everything he knew about the free USA out of him. They didn’t need torture for that. Knowing when a prisoner—even a lowly human prisoner—was telling the truth was child’s play for them.
One of them told him, “If you ever fuck with us again, even a little bit, we will blow your head apart from the inside out. It will seem to take a very long time, and it will hurt more than you can imagine. Do you understand? Do you believe?”
“Yes,” Moffatt said. The Krolp could do things like that. It was the kind of thing they would do, too.
And so he and Jessica settled into exile life. Even the humans whose families had served the alien invaders since their ships came down gave him a certain amount of respect for what he had been. When the wind blew from the west, it sometimes dropped gray, gritty dust on St. Louis. Harris Moffatt III didn’t know that that came from the Krolpish strip-mining operations in Utah, but he couldn’t think of anywhere else it was likely to come from.
Once in a while, he remembered the Secretary of Alien Affairs talking about Vilcabamba. Those old Incas might have sympathized. But, really, that wouldn’t have done them or him a hell of a lot of good.
© 2010 by Harry Turtledove