Author : Julian Miles, Staff Writer

“I’ll bring your drinks over in a moment, but the steak sandwich will be about ten minutes.” With a flick of her auburn hair, Teria moves away, navigating the tables, chairs and customers with an unconscious grace.

She works fourteen hours a day, six days a week, and volunteers at a shelter for abused women on the seventh. As she relays my order, Leo, her supervisor, looks up and waves a greeting toward me. I smile and nod. He splits his time between working here and caring for his terminally ill son, doing nothing else except eating and sleeping.

Compassion. I had never encountered a race like you, nor had I heard of anything like it. In a universe of predator-eat-predator, the concept of being strong enough to survive was thought to be the antithesis of caring about the weak.

I arrived by supralit, stepping from its crackling portal with eighty-four others. We were the infiltration teams, spreading across the continents of Earth. Our job was to start the rot that would ruin your societies, weakening you for the moment when our governance would be welcomed as a saving grace rather than an invasion.

Since then, I’ve seen war zones, refugee camps, rural towns and packed cities. I’ve broken break with Amish, shared MREs with survivalists and greeted the dawn on Anglesey. I’ve sung in churches and thrashed like a lunatic at heavy metal gigs.

And, more importantly, I’ve intervened in situations where the strong prey upon the weak. The first time that happened, the rapist was dead on the ground before I realised what I was doing. As the intended victim fled, I stood there with blood on my hands and cried like a lost child.

You did this to me. With your savage battles and glorious last stands, by giving your last pound to a homeless man, the completely impossible ability to go from killer to healer in the blink of an eye. Nowhere else in this universe will a fighter stoop to aid a fallen opponent after the bout is done. Respecting your adversary is a concept alien to the very aliens you postulate about. Valuing every life – is ridiculous.

Until I saw you do it. I came to wreak havoc in the name of an empire so distant you cannot see the light from the sun above its nearest outpost with your greatest telescopes. In the ten years since I have killed seventy-three of my former comrades. I would be agonising over that, were it not that the remaining eleven have suffered similar epiphanies to my own.

We send back reports of a race torn by factions of varying depth, of fighting a long war with deadly opponents, of a long-term strategy that may take generations to accomplish. The empire we serve notes our reports and commends us, as it pursues a thousand strategies on ten thousand worlds. We have a couple of centuries before suspicions arise.

A chromed tray sliding onto my table breaks my reverie.

“One latte, one red wine, and a Danish from Leo’s mama. He says she demands that you visit again.”

I smile up at Teria: “Which evening will you be free next week?”

She grins: “Tuesday. I meet this lovely bloke after work, but you’ll do if he doesn’t show up.”

It’s our little joke. She spent ages stalling me, just to see if I was deadly serious about her. This ‘lovely bloke’ was born thousands of light years away. My children will be born here, and we will start the defences. Deadly serious is all I have left.