Tell us what you know.
The alien didn’t speak, but used a language of movement. Possibly there was a pheromonal element too—Lingard had yet to decipher that. But he’d learnt enough to understand the general gist of their communication.
“Everything?” He coughed, his throat dry from this dusty cell. “Might want to be more specific.”
It leaned over him a little more. The limb holding the metal pipe wavered in a way that was mildly threatening. But another limb lifted, then turned back to point at the creature itself.
“What I know about you?” The eye-stalks all stretched toward him—a sign of confirmation. “Okay. Arrived six months ago, origin unknown, technology unknown. Destroyed all our satellites, took over most of Eastern Europe within a day, now control a third of the globe. Clearly superior to us.”
Their plans were another big unknown. Their first assault has been ferocious, but once they’d established a strong-hold they slowed. They pushed back only when attacked now, yet they refused any kind of diplomatic solution.
And more aliens arrived all the time, sent down from vast craft that now orbited Earth. If they wanted to take over—or even wipe humans out of existence—Lingard had no doubts they could do so in a matter of days.
The alien in Lingard’s cell swivelled its eye-stalks. Not the answer it wanted, then. It shuffled to one side, the cloth over its body rustling. A smell like dried seaweed wafted in the air.
It moved in a way that indicated the instruction talk, and pointed the club at Lingard himself.
“About me?” A bristling of eye-stalks to indicate a negative. “About my work?”
The creature shuffled in affirmation.
Lingard shrugged. “Bit immaterial now. Ex-forces, deployed to Lithuania, seconded to intelligence.” So much more he could say—the icy chill of the mountains, the chaos of battle. Syria had been bad enough, but at least human enemies were predictable.
The alien bristled, urging Lingard to continue.
“They had me study you—watch drone footage, mobile videos, anything they could get. Wanted to know the enemy.” Hours of intense work made inconsequential in a couple of sentences. “You’re relentless in battle, impervious to conventional weapons, able to withstand extreme temperatures and intense pressure. Chemical and biological weapons don’t have any effect.”
“I’ve seen drone footage from inside your camp.” Lingard pointed to the cloth covering the alien’s body. “You go naked there. And you play games.” He shrugged. “Maybe mating rituals.”
“Okay…I was intrigued how you all moved together, like you were all parts of a single organism. Talked to experts on flocking birds and fish shoals, kept on studying. Figured out how you communicate. But you know that, right?” There was a flicker of eye-stalks, a confirmation.
“Guess that’s about it. Hours of work. Not that it’s helped us any.”
The alien had lowered its weapon now. Didn’t mean it was any less dangerous, but Lingard had to trust that it wasn’t going to kill him yet.
“You’re intelligent,” he said. “You can understand us. I’m sure you could communicate clearly with us. But you haven’t reached out. Since I’ve been caught,” and he forced down memories of the explosion, of more pain, of frantic gestures he hoped were signs of surrender, “you’re the first to…talk to me.”
They’d treated Lingard and the others like text-book prisoners—bound their wrists, marched them in line across the desolate landscape, then threw them in individual cells. But they brought food and water, even first-aid kits.
Merciless on the battlefield, merciful to their prisoners. It was a dichotomy, like the way they acted in and out of their stronghold. All the fluidity of their movements—truly beautiful, Lingard felt—when at ease contrasted starkly with the regimental marching and the jerky fighting manoeuvres they performed on the field.
Lingard almost found it comical, as if they were playing at being soldiers.
Almost. But so much destruction was never funny.
“Can I ask you a question?” he said, waving his arms to mimic what he believed were the correct communication signs.
The creature’s eye-stalks stopped moving. Lingard took that as a guarded yes.
“Do you enjoy this? The fighting, the killing—do you find this fun?”
Lingard tried again, different body movements as he spoke. “Is this…a game? Why do you fight us?”
We want to…
The alien’s movements were hard to follow. Lingard signalled confusion, and the creature tried again, altered its communication. Something about mating, or joining? No. He’d seen this communication before, from the drone that flew over their camp. They used the sign amongst themselves often, and Lingard believed he knew its meaning. But it made no sense in context.
“You want to be friends?”
The fore-limbs slapped together in agreement.
“Then…why kill us?”
You do the same.
“No. We defend ourselves only. And hardly any of you have…fallen.”
And that, too, saw confusing. Not how infrequently an alien was killed, but how the other aliens reacted. They showed no concern, but simply carried on with their regimented attacks. It was almost as if…as if the death was a part of the plan, like a strategic sacrifice or something.
“Why kill us?” Lingard repeated.
You do the same to each other.
Lingard recalled Syria, other tours in hot zones, friends wounded and killed, enemy neutralised.
We try to understand. We study. We watch how you join together.
Lingard thought of how he studied the aliens to understand them, to learn their communication. But he’d studied military tactics too, learnt from battles stretching back over the centuries, inevitable conflicts when two cultures collided.
Lingard understood, and felt sick. He made the signs for regret and sorrow, copying what he’d seen.
We copy, so that we may join too.
The alien made the communication for friend again, and raised its club.
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Stronger Than Death