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path to conquest

BOOK: path to conquest
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Prologue

The saucer-shaped starship hovered effortlessly, two miles high over Southern California’s night-shrouded coast. Deep within the massive vessel, its antigrav drive system quietly held the ship above a world Diana still hoped to conquer.

In the darkness of the commander’s cabin, Diana stretched under the covers of her bed. Her partner, a junior officer stripped of his human disguise, slept curled in a protective ball, his back toward her. Soft as silence, she ran a finger along his shoulder and watched the muscles under his green-scaled hide ripple in reflex.

Then she slid the covers aside and touched her own pale skin, marveling at how sensitive the Visitor scientists had made this bioplastic casing. She thought back to her first reaction at being enclosed in this glove:
Ugly! I want my own face back!

But she’d grown accustomed to it, even developed an appreciation for the alien beauty of the human form. Diana slipped out of bed and tiptoed to the mirror on one wall, then lifted her arms over her head and caressed the full length of her supple torso. Smooth skin had a certain fascinating grace that Visitors’ scales lacked—the contrast of textures added a thrilling new element to making love with one of her own kind. And she’d found humans mostly incapable of anything other than terror when confronted with a natural-looking Visitor. So as long as she felt an occasional urge to seduce a human—of either gender—it was necessary to maintain her own human appearance.

She turned from the mirror, then allowed herself a last lingering glance. “You’re awfully beautiful, no matter which species you look like,” she whispered, giving her reflection a wry half smile.

Diana reached for a robe at the foot of the bed and wrapped it around herself. Then she padded to the computer console and touched a button. The screen came on, glowing with subdued green lettering. Shadows danced on the far wall as she punched up the bridge communications channel and the words faded out, to be replaced by a view of the control deck. A blond officer stood with her back to the screen, gesturing to a subordinate male and watching him hurry off to follow her orders.

“Lydia,” said Diana, her voice soft but commanding nonetheless.

The blond officer’s shoulder slouched with a studied insouciance, and she turned casually to face Diana’s image on the bridge screen. “Why, Commander, I didn’t expect to see you at this time of night. I thought you had a guest for the sleep period.”

“I still do,” Diana said evenly. “But we spent a substantial part of the time engaged in other than sleep, and he’s tired now.”

“Pity,” Lydia deadpanned. “You should be more sensitive to the needs of your partners.”

Diana smiled imperiously. “I didn’t bring him here to see to his
needs,
Lydia. And I didn’t call you to discuss my social activities. I want a progress report.”

Out of the comer of her eye, Diana spotted a covered plexiglass serving dish left over from dinner. Four small mice were still inside it, wriggling as they tried to gain a foothold on the container’s slippery sides, vainly attempting escape. While watching Lydia sit in the command seat on the bridge, Diana absently reached for one of the mice. Tail grasped between her fingertips, she held the terror-stricken creature at her upturned lips.

“Snacking at this hour, Diana?” Lydia clucked her tongue disapprovingly. “Better watch that human waistline of yours.” “I burned off quite a bit of energy tonight, Lydia, dear. But I appreciate your concern. Now get on with your report.” She popped the mouse into her mouth and chewed it for a moment before letting it slide down her throat.

“The six ships involved in Project Icewind have completed their final preliminary study. I checked the results over and they do look promising. My recommendation is—”

“Is something I didn’t ask for. I’ll look at the results myself.”

“Very well, Commander,” Lydia said sullenly. “The human convoy in the North Atlantic is turning toward the south, at last report.”

“Finally. Is the strike team standing by?”

Lydia nodded. “Per your orders—on full alert.”

“Good. If Project Icewind can accomplish its goals, the humans are in for a very chilly surprise. Tell the strike team to prepare for launch in one hour—just before dawn East Coast time. That will be all, Lydia.”

Diana cut the channel and her computer terminal displayed green lettering again. She sat back in a plush lounger and her robe fell open. With a probing look, she patted her taut stomach.

“Watch my waistline,” she snorted to herself. Then she reached for another mouse and sensuously slid it past her lips, savoring the taste.

Chapter 1

August
25
—the North Atlantic

The giant aircraft carrier
U.S.S. Nimitz
cruised purposefully through swells far more gentle than Captain R. W. Felix had any right to expect. At ninety thousand tons she was the largest warship in the world. As a seagoing city housing more than six thousand men, and a floating air base for a hundred planes and helicopters, she
was
built for stability. But for the small amount of ocean motion Captain Felix could sense as he lay in his bunk, his ship might well have been resting at anchor in some protected harbor.

The calm before the storm?
he wondered. In better than twenty-five years at sea, that was one cliche he’d never been able to prove or dispel. Still, as rough as the North Atlantic could be, even in late summer, Felix knew that any storm the
Nimitz
and her task force might yet face would not be weather related. It would come from the sky all right, but it would take the form of fighters launched from the Mother Ships of the invading aliens called the Visitors.

Reptilian creatures in human guise, they had come once, nearly three years ago now, ostensibly in friendship. Their real purpose, of course, had been conquest. That invasion had been repelled, but a year later the Visitor expeditionary force returned—weaker, in disarray, many of the Mother Ships and skyfighters gone from the fleet. But still a formidable battle group.

The second wave of attack, the heroic struggles by a world still weary from its first interplanetary war but buoyed by confidence gained from the earlier victory, the irregular effectiveness of the red-dust toxin that had driven the Visitors away that first time—this was all history now, a part of human folklore that would someday grow to legend,
if
humanity survived the new invasion.

Felix had always been a student of history. He believed any good military commander had to be, had to understand not just the causes and effects of past battlefield clashes, but also how those battles affected and were affected by the world at large. He was certain that
every
shot was a shot heard round the world.

The
Nimitz
anchored a force that surrounded a pair of oil supertankers, protecting the precious black gold needed to fuel virtually every part of Earth’s war effort. This shipment was going from England’s plentiful North Sea deposits to America. As Captain Felix knew only too well, the red-dust toxin remained virulent only in areas where consistently cold winters enabled the man-made bacteria to become dormant and regenerate annually. Unfortunately, a substantial portion of America’s oil came from wells in the South and Southwest, and off the warm Gulf Coast—contested territory at best, and under the aliens’ iron domination at worst.

But the northern industrial cities of the United States were still under human control, and they were centers of production for weapons and war materiel. They needed continuous supplies of fuel to keep up maximum output, so nations with secure crude oil reserves shipped it where it was required. Transporting crucial supplies by oceangoing tanker was dangerous, but running out of fuel for factories presented bleak alternatives.

Felix had made this run twice before. To cover the task force, resistance fighters all over the world stepped up their terrorist actions to keep Visitor forces from being free to strafe ships that strategists deemed little more than helpless targets.

Not that he minded that extra bit of assistance, but Felix bridled at the suggestion that his convoy was just so much iron waiting to be turned to scrap by alien lasers. His flagship alone could muster dozens of the finest, fastest, and most heavily armed jet fighters in the world. The F-14 Tomcats might not have antigrav propulsion systems, but they could still maneuver nearly as well as the alien skyfighters, and each plane had radar that would direct attacks on six targets simultaneously while they were a hundred miles away. Hawkeye radar planes could go aloft and give a 250-mile warning of approaching attackers. And land-based planes were circling in wide reconnaissance—F-15 Eagles, the fastest fighters on Earth, capable of accelerating in a flash to over 1,600 miles per hour.

And that was just the air power at Captain Felix’s command. Off the flanks of his flagship, he could call on pairs of cruisers, destroyers, and frigates, all equipped with surface-to-air guided missiles. The Mother Ships could produce energy fields that made the SAMs and air-to-air missiles useless, but the skyfighters were vulnerable. Phoenix, Sidewinders, and Sparrows had all proved their deadly accuracy in past encounters.

With an audible cracking of bones, Felix leaned out of bed one leg at a time. He narrowed his steel-gray eyes at the red numbers on his digital alarm clock. He had a full hour before he had to be on the bridge to relieve his exec, but he was too nervous to fall back asleep and the last thing he wanted to do was lie in bed and stare at the bulkheads. He quickly dressed in his white uniform, brushed his thick black hair into a semblance of discipline, and headed for the flight deck.

As big as the supercarrier was, it had too many people aboard and too much to carry to devote much space to corridors, which were low and narrow, crisscrossed with pipes and conduits. A single continuous passageway might be several blocks long, broken only by open hatchways. In some spots two broad-shouldered seamen couldn’t pass at the same time. The most heavily traveled corridors were painted pleasant light colors like blue or yellow to relieve the feeling of incipient claustrophobia.
Nice try,
thought the captain,
but it doesn't work.

Despite being twenty decks or so from bottom to top, the
Nimitz
had no elevators except for the ones used to haul planes from hangar deck to flight deck. So Felix went up the same way every crewman did—hand over hand up a long succession of ladders.
I’d like to think it keeps me young,
he thought, but his own wheezing told him otherwise.

On the way the captain passed the “shopping mall”—-the passageway with stores, barbershops, and snack bars. He made a mental note to stop off during his lunch break and telegraph flowers and candy home. He’d been married to the Navy for the same twenty-five years he’d been married to Suzanne. Remembering this anniversary while at sea on a difficult mission should be worth a few marital Brownie points once he got back home.

He pulled himself up one more endless ladder and took a deep breath.
Finally!
The tang of salt spray flared his nostrils as he emerged onto the thousand-foot-long flight deck two-thirds of the way back toward the ship’s stem. The carrier’s superstructure, housing the bridge and flight-control decks, rose directly overhead, a hundred feet high against the dim predawn sky.

Felix turned to find Master Helmsman Matt Reinhold standing at the spindly railing bordering the deck’s starboard edge. Reinhold snapped a crisp salute. Felix returned it. “What’re you doing on deck, Helmsman? We’ve got an hour till watch.”

Reinhold shrugged. “I might ask you the same thing, sir,” he said, grinning. He brushed a strand of blond hair under the bill of his baseball cap.

“Fair enough, son. I couldn’t sleep.”

“Me neither, Captain. I mean, I shouldn’t be nervous. Hell, we were in the Middle East, with those crazy Iranians and Iraqis shootin’ at each other and every oil tanker in sight.” “Yeah, but even if they were lunatics, at least they were
our
lunatics—not lizards from a planet around Sirius.”

The young helmsman chuckled. “In a weird sorta way, that’s got me psyched. I mean, the Iranians and the Iraqis weren’t necessarily out to get
us.
Know what I mean, sir? But these Visitors—hell, they’re here for one thing. They’re gunnin’ for
us.
That really gets me pissed off, you know?”

Felix nodded. “Yes, son, I know exactly what you mean. Gets me mad, too.”

They turned to watch an E-2 Hawkeye being readied for a surveillance flight. Its folded wings were straightened and locked into place. The rotating radar dome attached to the top of the fuselage looked almost like a small, flattened replica of a Visitor Mother Ship. The four-bladed Allison turboprop engines were started, their humming blanketing the otherwise quiet flight deck.

The captain jerked a thumb toward the bridge high up in the superstructure. “Shall we go, Mr. Reinhold?”

BOOK: path to conquest
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