Chapter 2 of VIRTUE OF WAR. Enjoy!
Beck had met a lot of aliens, but this time around, it would be different. If all went well, there’d be way less killing and a lot more hellos and handshakes. That was, if the aliens even had hands. Beck hoped to God they did, because there was no way in hell he was shaking a tentacle.
Somehow, the thought of politely greeting their intergalactic visitors made him more nervous than ever. Killing aliens was the natural order of things. They attacked, humans defended, some humans died, but more aliens did. And humanity lived on. He’d spent years living out that pattern as a soldier in the Resistance.
Now things were changing. With an alien attack from the Ascendancy on the horizon, the killing was about to start again. But this time around, it wouldn’t just be humans versus aliens. Instead, it’d be the Ascendancy versus all intelligent creatures who weren’t keen on being targeted for genocide.
And that meant a new survival tactic—setting aside the past and becoming allies with aliens. Or at least attempting to.
Beck glanced around at the three multi-story buildings bordering the tarmac. Snipers were stationed in every building, just waiting for any sign of trouble. He itched to be up there with them. Beck had trained half of the snipers on this base, and it seemed unfair that his former students were the ones who got to have the comfort of a rifle in their hands while he was stuck down here with the greeting committee.
Not that it was much of a committee. Just him and Nathan, the base commander. Nathan stood beside him, squinting up at the clouds, his war-worn face pulled into a disapproving scowl. That scowl was enough to make anyone on base scramble to fix their mistakes, but it had no effect on the clouds thickening above them.
“This is piss-poor weather for flying,” Nathan muttered.
“We’ll make do,” Beck said, trying to sound more optimistic than he felt.
He flinched as a large raindrop plopped on his cheek. An hour ago, the Florida sun had been shining down on the Resistance base, making the landing tarmac shimmer with heat. Now dark clouds grumbled overhead, leaking fat raindrops onto the dark pavement. If the wind kept picking up, pretty soon no aircraft would be able to take off safely from the base.
Which meant they were officially screwed.
Their assignment was supposed to have been simple: They’d greet an ambassador from the alien society of Rhuramentia, hand over the ancient alien relic the base had been guarding, guide the ambassador into a waiting transport craft, and shuttle him over to Washington, D.C. Easy-peasy. The alien would spend thirty minutes on their base, tops.
But the ambassador hadn’t even landed yet, and everything was already going to hell. It’d all started the night before, when a thief had managed to shut off the security system, bypass all their Tier 4 security protocols, break into the base’s most secure safe, kill a guard, and make off with the relic. All within a matter of minutes.
It shouldn’t have been possible—they had too many safeguards in place. But the ambassador wasn’t going to give a damn about that. All the ambassador would care about was that he’d traveled five weeks in hyperspace to pick up a precious relic that was now missing.
As the chief commander of the base, Nathan had been scrambling to find the thief and the stolen relic, but it was no use. The thief had gotten off scot-free. Now all Nathan could do was apologize to the ambassador and ship him off to Washington, D.C, so all the top officials of Earth could also issue apologies.
They were screwed. So screwed.
And all because of one goddamn, murderous thief.
Nathan wiped his hand over his face, brushing aside a raindrop clinging to his short salt-and-pepper beard. In the dark shadow of the clouds, he looked older than he usually did, his hair seeming grayer and his wrinkles deeper.
“The bastard is late,” Nathan muttered, glancing down at his watch.
“I’m sure he’ll be here soon,” Beck said, raising his voice to be heard over the wind. He glanced behind him at the covered hangar. If this storm got much worse, they were going to have to head inside and wait for the ambassador there.
Nathan grunted. “He’s probably just sitting up there enjoying the sight of us getting rained on.”
Beck struggled to swallow back his unease. He’d only worked with the commander for a year, since Nathan had moved to the base and taken charge, but it’d been plenty of time for Beck to learn that the man was no diplomat. Usually, Beck appreciated Nathan’s brutal honesty, but not now. Because there was something else Beck knew all too well about the commander:
Nathan hated aliens. Period. He hadn’t wanted to store the alien relic at his base, hadn’t wanted the ambassador to land here, and sure as hell hadn’t wanted to play the part of a gracious host. The top leaders of the Resistance had insisted on it, since Nathan’s base was the only Tier 4 security center in the region. But Beck had a bad feeling it was about to bite them in the ass. They could force Nathan to host the ambassador, but they couldn’t force him to be civil about it.
A black dot appeared in the sky. At first, Beck thought it might just be a bird, but then he realized the dot was growing larger every second as it descended toward the tarmac. The back of Beck’s neck tingled with alertness, and his hand automatically shifted closer to the pistol at his waist.
The small spacecraft descended at a rapid pace, not seeming to be bothered by the wind. The ship was such a dark black it seemed to gleam blue. It was long and sleek like a bullet, with short black fins on the top and sides. Beck squinted closely at the craft, but couldn’t see anything resembling panels or doors. It looked like it was crafted from a single piece of obsidian.
“Well that’s sure fancy,” Nathan muttered.
The commander sounded more wary than admiring, and Beck couldn’t blame him one bit. Three years ago, when the Syndicate aliens had tried to invade, the Resistance had barely managed to fight back against their advanced technology. And this ship looked even more advanced than the Syndicate’s.
The ship slowly descended to the bright yellow square painted on the hovercraft landing pad. The aircraft made no noise, but a deep, thrumming vibration radiated off it, making the humid air feel thick enough to choke on.
Right when Beck was about to start gasping for breath, the ship settled on the tarmac, and the vibration cut out. Beck shifted back and forth on his feet, while Nathan leaned anxiously forward, ready to pounce at the first sign of trouble.
Beck had no idea what was about to climb out of the ship. From what he’d been told, “aliens” could mean everything from human-like creatures, to robots, to intelligent plants. Nathan had said this species was “humanoid,” but that label seemed to get slapped on everything with arms and legs, regardless of how different they were to actual humans.
A door appeared in the side of the ship, seeming to melt straight out of the pure black hull. It slid upwards, revealing a man and a woman standing in the doorway. Beck sighed in relief as he realized they looked almost totally human. Hopefully, that meant they also acted human. It would definitely make communicating with them a hell of a lot easier.
A walkway made of the same black material as the hull stretched out from the ship, and the two aliens strode confidently down it, heading straight toward them. The wind tugged at their clothes, sending ripples through the loose, light grey cloth.
The man stood well over six feet tall, and his shoulder-length blond hair was so light it almost seemed silver. He looked like he was in his mid-twenties, but his face had a weary, knowing expression that reminded Beck of an aging grandfather.
The woman followed at his side, and judging by the way her sharp gaze scanned the tarmac, Beck guessed she was the bodyguard they’d been told would accompany the ambassador. She had a similar build—tall and pale-skinned, although she was surprisingly old for a bodyguard, probably around fifty. Beck looked her over closely, but she didn’t seem to be carrying any weapons.
“Welcome,” Nathan said, stepping forward with his hand outstretched. “My name is—”
A sharp gust of wind stole away his words and blew a flurry of raindrops against his face. Nathan muttered a curse and turned around, gesturing sharply for the aliens to follow him. The ambassador and his bodyguard stepped off their ship’s ramp, and it retracted back into the hull, sealing it closed.
Nathan headed toward the south door of the covered hangar, and Beck strode at his side, trying not to ignore the anxiety creeping through his veins as the aliens followed closely at their heels. “Never turn your back on your enemy.” The simple refrain echoed through Beck’s head, the same words he’d repeated to young soldiers hundreds of times while training them.
But these people weren’t his enemy. He had to remember that, even if he couldn’t entirely believe it.
Nathan paused to enter his keycode into an electronic padlock. The personnel door to the hanger slid open, granting them access to the wide expanse of the building. The four of them stepped inside, their footsteps echoing off the metal walls. Nathan quickly shut the door and wiped the last of the raindrops from his face before turning toward the ambassador.
“Let’s try this again,” he said, giving a strained smile. “My name is Commander Nathan Hayes. I run this base, and I’ll be attending to you while you’re here.” He gestured sharply to Beck. “This here is Lieutenant Beck Wright. He’s the head of our sniper training program and our security escort for any visitors to this base.”
Beck saluted the ambassador. “Nice to meet you, sir.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Commander Hayes and Lieutenant Wright,” the ambassador said, speaking in a quiet, grave voice. He bowed low, his left palm pressed to his heart. His bodyguard followed suit, although her bow was slightly brisker.
“My name is Ambassador Liomsrata Alanoserbash-Horenporoma Da’nash,” the man said in his soft, melodic accent. He reached out to gently touch his bodyguard’s shoulder. “Accompanying me is my guard and friend, Marinasherban Aydenbaris-Emerorey Na’garm.”
Nathan raised his eyebrows. “Those are quite the names you’ve got.”
Beck looked down to hide his cringe. He had been crossing his fingers Nathan would at least try to hide his contempt when meeting with the ambassador. Apparently, he was shit out of luck.
The ambassador tilted his chin up, staring down his aquiline nose at Nathan. Most of the time, Beck completely forgot that his commander was only about five and a half feet tall. But standing next to the towering height of the ambassador, it was impossible not to notice that Nathan was shorter than most men.
“Names are very important to our people,” the ambassador said. “But if ours prove too difficult for you to pronounce, you may call me Lio and my guard Marin.”
“They’re not difficult, Lio,” Nathan said. “Just time-consuming. And I’ve been told it’s vital to shuttle you off to D.C. as quickly as possible.”
Lio’s face remained impassive, but his voice was curt as he said, “Yes. I would hate to stretch out our conversation any longer than necessary.”
Beck watched the ambassador closely, but the alien’s face stayed blank as a slate as he swept his gaze over the hanger and took in its contents. By Earth standards, the ships in the hanger were impressive—two military-grade hovercrafts and a fighter jet, along with three smaller cargo pods. But judging by the spacecraft the Rhuramenti aliens had arrived in, Beck had a feeling their hanger was downright primitive in the eyes of the ambassador.
Beck patted the hull of the cargo pod to his right, having a ridiculous urge to comfort the aircraft as it faced the piercing gaze of the ambassador. What the Resistance lacked in technology, it made up for in cleverness and bravery. It had gotten them through the Syndicate War, and Beck had no doubt that same bravery would carry them through the impending conflict with the Ascendancy.
Just as long as Nathan’s behavior didn’t get them all killed before the actual war even started.
Nathan didn’t say anything for a long moment, seeming to want the ambassador to have to ask for information. When the silence grew strained, Lio softly cleared his throat and said, “If it’s possible, I’d like to be taken to the Virtue of War immediately. My Council is awaiting a report on its status.”
Nathan crossed his arms, as if bracing for a backlash. “Sorry, Ambassador, but I’m afraid I can’t take you to it right this minute.”
In half a second, Lio’s face darkened, and his bodyguard shifted her hand closer to her shoulder. Beck peered closer at her outfit and realized she wasn’t unarmed, like he’d first thought. She had a discreet holster strapped to her back, and the pearly white barrel of some sort of gun peeked over her shoulder.
Adrenaline kicked through Beck’s veins. He folded his arms, resisting the urge to rest his hand on his pistol. He couldn’t risk escalating things further.
“I don’t understand,” Lio said. “You told my people you had the relic safely stored at this base.”
“We did,” Nathan said. “And now we don’t. A thief broke in last night and stole it.”
For a long, painful second, the ambassador didn’t react. He just stared at Nathan with a blank look of shock. Finally, he said in a quiet voice, “A thief?”
“Yes,” Nathan said. He cleared his throat uncomfortably and added, “Look, I know this makes it sound like the Resistance was negligent about keeping your relic safe, but we weren’t. The thief who stole it isn’t some ordinary dumb criminal. He calls himself Goodfellow, and he’s hit over half a dozen secure compounds in the past year. Resistance bases, American military bases, you name it. He’s like a ghost. Nothing can keep him out.”
“And why are you so sure he was the one to steal the Virtue?” Lio demanded.
“Because he’s a cocky bastard,” Nathan said, his tone lowering to a frustrated growl. “Every time he steals, he leaves a calling card. We found it in the safe where the Virtue was being kept.”
Lio took a shuddering breath. “The Resistance informed my people that the Virtue of War would be contained in the highest security vault you have. They said it would be impossible to steal.”
Nathan rubbed at the back of his neck. “And that was the truth. Look, Lio, I don’t even know what to tell you. Whatever tech Goodfellow uses is something we’ve never encountered before. He shut down our entire security center. Cameras, sensors, communications, locks, every safeguard on this base. It all got disabled, which isn’t at all possible. But somehow, it happened.”
Lio didn’t say anything for a long moment. He just stared at Nathan, his look of disbelief slowly morphing into one of horror. Finally, he said in a low, shaky voice, “You must get it back.”
Nathan nodded. “I swear to you, the Resistance and the United States military will be doing everything we can to retrieve it. We understand it’s a very important holy relic to your people.”
“No,” Lio said, his voice a shaky ghost of a whisper. “No. You don’t understand at all.”
Beck hadn’t been told much about the Virtue of War, but he knew it was some sort of holy object that had been stolen from Rhuramentia thousands of years ago, and that it’d been rediscovered in the wreckage of one of the Syndicate ships. Turning it back over to the Rhuramenti people was supposed to be a gesture of peace and friendship, and it would officially seal an alliance between Rhuramentia and Earth.
The ambassador should be furious, but he hardly even sounded mad. Instead, he sounded downright scared, and that made Beck’s skin prickle with unease.
“There must be some way to retrieve the Virtue,” Lio said.
Nathan nodded. “We’re working on it, but the break-in happened less than a day ago. You need to give us some time to find Goodfellow.”
Lio shook his head, staring wild-eyed at Nathan, as if the commander had just pulled the pin on a grenade and was refusing to throw it. “We don’t have time.”
“I know it’s a tough situation, but we’re making the best of it,” Nathan said. “We have a transit craft scheduled to take you to Washington, D.C. tonight. You can meet with all our top officials there, and hopefully they can help sort out this mess.”
“I do not want to talk to your politicians,” Lio said, his words stiff with anger. “That will do absolutely nothing to help.”
The door behind them slid open, interrupting the tense conversation. A tall woman dressed in a Resistance uniform strode inside, raindrops clinging to her short black hair and a frown weighing down her expression. Beck almost didn’t recognize her. Sierra always had a smile on her lips, to the point where Beck sometimes questioned her sanity. But she looked impossibly grave as she approached them.
Nathan waved her closer. “Ambassador Lio, I’d like you to meet Sierra Lawson. She’s the finest pilot we have on this base, and she’ll be the one transporting you to D.C.”
Sierra nodded to both Lio and Marin in greeting, and both aliens gave a stiff bow. Sierra froze, unsure what to do, and then dipped into an awkward bow in return.
“Pleasure to meet y’all,” she said. Her Southern accent seemed far heavier than usual, the way it got when she was upset. She turned to Nathan and said, “Sorry, Commander, but we’ve got a problem. We can’t fly out in this storm.”
Nathan scowled at this news. “You don’t think you can handle it?”
“’Course I can handle it,” she said, her frown deepening. “But the brass in D.C. won’t let me.” She tapped at the comm unit clipped to her wrist. “Sergeant Faris just sent out an alert. Says the storm ain’t natural and we need to stay out of the sky.”
Lio tilted his head. “Someone created it?”
Sierra nodded. “Yes, sir. The military satellites are picking up some really weird atmospherical disturbances way above here. Someone’s fuc—” She cut herself off and cleared her throat, nodding to Lio. “Excuse me, Ambassador. I meant to say someone’s messing with the weather.”
Beck tried not to show his shock. No one was supposed to know the ambassador was arriving. That was why he’d landed at such a small, high-security base, and why he was flying out in such a discreet aircraft. But it seemed news of his visit had somehow leaked.
“How can they possibly influence a storm?” Nathan demanded.
“Likely a vapor bomb,” Lio said, a frown tugging at his thin lips. “That technology shouldn’t be available on your planet, but given the circumstances…”
His voice trailed off. Nathan nodded grimly.
“We’re probably dealing with the same people who stole the relic,” Nathan said. “Someone who has technology that’s definitely not human-made.”
Sierra nodded. “The military said exactly that. So they’re demanding we wait until the storm ends before we leave.”
“A wise decision,” Lio said, although he sounded more frustrated than impressed. “Whoever set off the bomb did it for a reason. It’d be foolish to walk into whatever trap they’re setting.”
“You’ll have to stay here tonight,” Nathan said, nodding to Lio. “We have empty quarters you can sleep in.”
Lio’s bodyguard turned and spoke to him in a low, hushed tone, using what Beck assumed was their native language. The Rhuramenti language was delicate and slow, with soft syllables that flowed seamlessly together. Despite the tension in the room, she sounded like she was reciting somber poetry.
Lio replied in the same language, and they spoke together for half a minute, seemingly oblivious to anyone else in the room. Finally, Lio turned back to Nathan, primly clasping his hands behind his back.
“We will accept your offer of lodging,” he said. “But we will need to use your communication facility in order to contact our Council. They need to know of the situation immediately.”
Nathan nodded. “Of course. I’ll contact our technicians and get the communication station set up for you.”
“Thank you,” Lio said. “I must also request that you continue to keep our presence here discreet. I would prefer to stay in rooms away from your soldiers.”
Nathan hesitated slightly before nodding. “I assure you my men on this base are as loyal as they come. But if you insist, we’ll keep your presence on the down low.”
“Much appreciated,” Lio said with a nod.
Nathan gestured sharply at Beck, making him stand a little straighter. “Beck will lead you to your rooms, and then to the communication station, whenever it’s set up. If you have any concerns about your security, he’s your man.”
Lio’s eyes raked him up and down, his expression impassive. “Thank you, Beck,” he said. “Your guidance is appreciated.”
“I’m happy to help in any way I can,” Beck said, using the sincerest tone he had.
“Right,” Nathan said. “Now, I need to get back to my office to make some calls. We’ll get that relic back soon, I promise.” He gestured to Beck. “Beck, take them to the North Quarters. If they want seclusion and safety, it’s the best place.”
No. No, it definitely wasn’t. It was secluded, that was true—the North Quarters were used for housing new recruits during their training, and since it wasn’t a training season, the building was empty. But it was also the oldest building on the base and a broken-down piece of crap. Always twenty degrees too hot, leaking faucets, shitty beds. Beck wasn’t any sort of expert in intergalactic politics, but he was pretty damn sure putting an ambassador in the North Quarters was the quickest way to get Earth nuked.
“All right,” Beck said, forcing himself to nod.
Nathan reached out to shake the ambassador’s hand. “Nice meeting you, Lio,” he said gruffly. “I’ll see you later at the communication station.”
Lio nodded and returned the handshake, and then gave another bow, although it was short and stiff. “Peace and duty, Commander Hayes.”
Nathan gave a curt nod, clearly having no idea how to react to the farewell, and headed toward the door that Sierra had come through. Sierra gave a hurried goodbye and followed after him, leaving Beck alone in the hangar with the two aliens.
“Right this way,” he said, gesturing for Lio and Marin to follow.
He took them out the north exit of the hanger, as if he were actually heading that way. But as soon as they exited, he veered toward the left and took off toward the South Quarters.
Lio and Marin followed closely behind him, walking side by side. They spoke to each other in their quiet, flowing language, but when Beck glanced back, he could see concern crinkling the face of the ambassador.
Beck cleared his throat and quietly said, “I’m sorry Nathan was a little… abrupt. He’s a great man and a great commander. But he’s very suspicious of, um, visitors from other galaxies.”
Lio nodded. “I can see that.”
Beck hesitated. He knew he had no right to speak to the ambassador about this sort of thing, but he couldn’t just let the subject drop. Nathan had always treated Beck like a son, taking him under his wing from the moment he’d joined the Resistance. The commander was a damn good man, even if he could be a strong-headed ass, and Beck wasn’t just going to stand by and let the ambassador get the wrong impression.
Beck halted and turned to face Lio. “Look,” he said quietly, “I know Nathan is being really difficult, and I apologize for that. But just… His wife and daughter were killed by the Syndicate, and his son was maimed. It all happened right in front of him, and I think it just kind of… messed with him.”
Lio merely nodded, giving Beck an impassive stare.
Beck cleared his throat uncertainly, but he decided to push on. “Nathan distrusts all aliens. It’s not just you or your people, it’s all of them. So please don’t take his behavior personally, and please don’t think all humans feel the same way. Most of us are eager to work alongside you against the Ascendancy. We want this alliance to work. And I think Nathan will, too, once he sees that it’s best for humanity.”
A little bit of the hardness melted from Lio’s expression. “I appreciate the explanation,” he said simply.
Beck nodded and then turned around, heading back toward the south quarters. In the grand scheme of things, his words probably changed nothing. But he would sleep easier knowing he’d done his part to try to keep this fragile alliance alive.