Author: David Barber

“Each generation the Enemy returns to our skies,” the Morale Officer had told them. “This time, Earth looks to you.”

Hari remembered all the things wrong with that speech. The Enemy craft returned every 17.4 years, which was not a generation. And even 17.4 years was only the average interval, sometimes it was more, sometimes less. Hari had wondered if it followed a Poisson distribution.

But then the veteran had stood up, studying their faces silently.

Hari’s squadron was just off shift, running interceptor simulations. Her intense gaze unsettled him.

“When I served here,” she began. “The Enemy came early. Caught us napping.”

Hari knew she did not mean this, he’d learned it was something people said about being unprepared.

The woman shook her grey head. “We let one through and it cost us India.”

India had been two cycles ago. If she was in her fifties now, she had been a teenager then. They tried all sorts over the years. First it was pilots with combat experience. Then teenagers with sharp reflexes. Then gamers.

Tests had picked up Hari at school, like the rest of his squadron. He glanced round the room. Everyone wore badges so he knew their names, though they hadn’t spoken much in the months since deployment into orbit.

Hari liked the veteran because she focused on facts.

The Enemy wasn’t like a comet with a predictable orbit. Hari nodded at this. Unpredictable, like people. Perhaps it would turn up early again, hoping to catch them asleep.

“But it’s coming soon,” she had warned. “More probable every day.”

What she told them was common knowledge, but Hari found himself leaning forward, ticking off each fact.

“The Enemy always appears beyond the orbit of the moon. It folds space, we think. If it jumped in closer, we wouldn’t stand a chance. But their tech has limits. Perhaps they can’t handle steep gravity wells.”

She’d shrugged. Perhaps hers had been the cohort of really smart people.

“And the Enemy has adapted. We got in nuclear strikes once, now it destroys missiles.”

She trailed off. “It’s down to you. And I know what happens if you get it wrong.”

The MO had hustled her away after that.

The Enemy had appeared a week later. There was 80 minutes to closest approach. Strategically placed Attack forces were already engaging the vast craft.

Hari had listened to the comms traffic. Particle beams the Enemy used to clear debris from its path had been upgraded since last cycle, whole squadrons incinerated without getting off a shot.

It seemed obvious they should disperse, and Hari fled his Defence squadron.

The new X-ray lasers had little effect on the Enemy, but the payloads it released towards Earth were vulnerable. They came in patterns Hari recognised from simulations, and it became a blur of one silent explosion after another.

Eighty two minutes later, the Enemy folded out. The last blip on Hari’s screen took two shots, already on the edges of the atmosphere.

The rest of his squadron had obeyed orders and were vaporized. There was no dodging particle beams except by being were they were not.

“We now think it’s a robot probe,” Hari began. “With payloads of nanotech to colonise worlds. It’ll keep coming back until it succeeds. Or we destroy it.”

Hard to meet the gaze of these young pilots, so he stared at the back wall. The new giant Laser Cannons were not their concern. Defence must focus on stopping payloads getting through.

They hung on his every word, this 82 minute war veteran, whose initiative had become a byword for survival.