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The invaders came to claim earth as their own, overwhelming us with superior weapons and the ability to read our minds like open books.
Our only chance for survival was to engineer a new race of perfect soldiers to combat them. Seventeen feet tall, knowing and loving nothing but war, their minds closed to the aliens.
But these saviors could never be our servants. And what is done cannot be undone.
Table of Contents
A Preview of Love Minus Eighty
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Lieutenant Enrique Quinto
June 26, 2029. Morris Run, Pennsylvania.
It was a quaint Pennsylvania town, many of the buildings well over fifty years old, with green canopies shading narrow doorways. Even the town's name was quaint: Morris Run. If not for the abandoned vehicles, filthy and faded by two years of exposure to the elements, and the trash stacked along the sidewalk, Quinto might have expected someone to step out of the Bullfrog Brewhouse and wave hello.
"Lieutenant Lucky?" Quinto turned to see Macalena, his platoon sergeant, making his way to the front of the carrier. Quinto wished he'd said something the first time someone called him Lucky, but it was far too late now. Most of the troops he was leading today probably didn't know his real name.
"One of the new guys shit his pants," Macalena said when he drew close, his voice low, giving Quinto a whiff of his sour breath.
Quinto sighed heavily. "Oh, hell."
"The kid's scared to death. He hasn't been out of Philadelphia since this started."
"No, I don't blame him." Quinto looked over Macalena's shoulder, saw the kid perched on the side of the carrier, head down. He was about fourteen. The poor kid didn't belong out here. Not that Quinto couldn't use him; they called raw recruits "fish food," but sometimes they were surprisingly effective in a firefight, because they were too scared to think. The starfish could get less of a read on what they were going to do, which way they were going to point their rifles. Usually the newbies didn't shit their pants until the shooting started, though. "Does he have a spare pair?"
Macalena shook his head. "That's the only pair he owns."
Quinto reached into his pack, pulled out a pair of fatigue pants, and handed them to Macalena. "I hope he's got a belt."
Macalena laughed, stuck the pants under his armpit, and headed toward the kid.
What an awful thing, to be out here at fourteen, fifteen. When Quinto was fourteen, he'd spent his days playing video games, shooting bad guys in his room while Mom fetched fruit juice and chocolate chip cookies and told him when to go to bed.
They reached the end of the little downtown, which was composed of that single road, and the landscape opened up, revealing pine forest, the occasional house, mountains rising up on all horizons. There was little reason for any Luyten to be within eight miles of this abandoned backwater town, but they were all out there somewhere, so there was always a chance they'd be detected.
Quinto tried to access his helmet's topographical maps, but the signal still wasn't coming through. He pulled the old hard copy from his pack, unfolded it.
The carrier slowed; Quinto looked up from the map to see what was going on. There was a visual-recognition drone stuck in a drainage ditch along the side of the road. As they approached, the VRA drone—little more than a machine gun on treads—spun and trained its gun on each of the soldiers in turn. When it got to Quinto, it paused.
"Human. Human!" Quinto shouted, engaging the thing's vocal-recognition failsafe. It went on to the next soldier.
It was always an uncomfortable moment, having a VRA drone point a weapon at you. You'd think it would be hard to mistake a human for a Luyten.
Failing to identify anything that resembled a starfish, the gun spun away.
"Get a few guys to pull it out of the ditch," Quinto said. Four troops hopped out of the transport and wrestled the thing back onto the road. It headed off down the road, continuing on its randomly determined route.
Pleasant Street dead-ended close to the mouth of the mine, about half a mile past an old hotel that should be coming up on their left. When they got to the mine they'd have to unseal it using the critical blast points indicated on the topo map, then a 2.5-mile ride on the maglev flats into the mine, to the storage facility.
If someone had told Quinto two years ago that he'd be going into an abandoned mine to retrieve seventy-year-old weapons and ammo, he would have laughed out loud.
It wasn't funny now.
The locomotive and five boxcars were parked right where they were supposed to be—as close to the mouth of the mine as the track would allow. They were late-twentieth-century vintage, the locomotive orange and shaped like a stretched Mack truck. Quinto called Macalena and his squad leaders, instructed them to set the big recognition-targeting gun they'd brought along in the weeds on the far side of the road, and place two gunners near the entrance with interlocking fire. When that was done, they got the rest of the squads moving down the tunnel. The quicker they moved, the sooner they'd be out of hostile territory and back in Philly.
Quinto took up the rear of the last carrier for the ride down into the mine. He was not a fan of deep holes with black walls, and when his CO had first laid out the mission Quinto had nearly crapped his own pants.
Macalena climbed in and took the seat beside him.
"So what are we looking for? I cannot for the life of me guess what we're doing in here."
Quinto smiled. It must seem an odd destination to the rest of the men, but they were used to being kept in the dark about missions. The fewer people who knew, the less likely the starfish were to get the information. Or so the logic went.
"The feds have been sealing huge caches of weapons in old mines for the past two centuries, waiting for the day when Argentina or India or whoever took out our more visible weapons depots. They coat them in Cosmoline and pretty much forget about them."
Macalena frowned, sticking out his big lower lip. "You mean, old hand grenades and machine guns and shit?"
"More or less. Flamethrowers with a pathetically limited effectiveness range, eighty-one-millimeter mortars, LAW rockets, fifty-cal MGs." Most were outdated weapons, but simple, easy to operate.
Macalena shook his head. "So we're that desperate."
In the seat in front of them a private who was at least seventy was clinging to the bar in front of her seat. She was tall—at least six feet. The slight jostling of the carrier was clearly causing her old body discomfort. It was true what they said: There were no civilians anymore, only soldiers and children.
"Yup. We're that desperate," Quinto said. "They've destroyed or seized so much of our hardware that we have more soldiers than guns."
"What's Cosmoline?" Macalena asked.
"I didn't know, either; I had to look it up. It's a grease they used back in the day to preserve weapons. Once you chip away the hardened Cosmoline, the weapons are supposed to be like new."
Macalena grunted, spit off the side. "Dusty as hell in here. And cold."
"Let's be glad we're not staying."
Macalena's comm erupted, a panicked voice calling his name.
"What have we got?" Macalena asked.
"Vance is dead. Lightning shot, from the trees to the left of the mine."
"All stop!" Macalena shouted. The carrier slowed as Quinto dropped his head, covered his mouth as the implications sunk in.
Lucky no more.
"Where are you now?" Macalena asked the private.
"Inside the mine, about a hundred yards."
Quinto looked up at Macalena, who raised his eyebrows. "What do you want to do?"
He wanted to get as deep in the mine as he could, and stay there, their backs against the wall, weapons raised until the starfish came to get them. Of course the Luyten would never come down, because they were reading his thoughts right now. Plus it was far easier to blow the mouth of the mine and leave them to suffocate.
Quinto ordered the small caravan to turn around and head toward the mouth.
They barely got moving before they heard the flash-boom of a Luyten explosive. The cave shook; bits of dirt and debris spewed at them, then everything settled into silence, the cave now truly pitch-black, save for the carriers' headlights.
They climbed out of the carriers. Some of the troops cried, and there was no shame in that. One woman went off to the side of the tunnel and knelt in the rubble to pray. Quinto didn't know their names, because he hadn't served with them long. Troops came, and died, and new troops came. Only Lieutenant Lucky went on, mission after mission. Quinto realized he'd begun to believe he really was lucky, or special. Destined to see the war to its end.
It killed him, to think he wouldn't get to see how things turned out, whether the bad guys won, or the good guys pulled something out of their asses at the eleventh hour.
Quinto used the walkie to apprise HQ of their situation, so HQ wouldn't wonder when Quinto's platoon never returned.
"Lieutenant?" Macalena said. He was studying the topo map he'd borrowed from Quinto. "Did you see these?" A few of the enlisted came over to look at the map over Macalena's shoulder as he ran his finger along black lines set perpendicular to the mine. "There are five vertical shafts sunk along the length of the mine. I'm guessing they were escape routes in case of collapse, or ventilation, or both."
Quinto looked up from the map, impotent rage rising in him. "Jesus, Mac, couldn't you have waited a half hour to notice this?"
It took Macalena a second to understand. When he did, he grimaced, curled his hand into a fist, crumpling a section of the map. He turned and walked a dozen paces down the shaft, cursing quietly, viciously.
Even Macalena was too green for this war. He'd been in the infantry for only four months; before that he'd been writing military technical manuals. The army needed fighters more than writers these days.
If Macalena had waited even fifteen, twenty minutes before examining the old map, chances were the Luyten would have been out of range, and they could have climbed out of this hole and gone home.
"We need to move," Quinto said. "The fish are going to find those exits and seal them up. Spread out, find the exits. When I get to the surface I'm going to set off a Tasmanian devil, give us some breathing room. As soon as it's spent, get out there. Understood? Let's move."
"Couldn't we just stay down here? Dig our way out when they're gone?" It was the kid who'd crapped himself, looking absurd in Quinto's big pants. "If we go up there now, they'll kill us. I mean, maybe they'll get distracted by something and leave…" He trailed off.
Everyone stared at the ground, except for the soldier who was praying.
"Let's go," Quinto said.
Quinto grasped the cold rung of the ladder that had dropped down when they unsealed the iron hatch.
"Good luck to you, Lieutenant," one of the troops waiting to follow him called. It was Benneton, the old woman. The kid who'd crapped his pants was there as well, along with four others.
Quinto looked up into darkness. "Here we go." He headed up the ladder. A lot of people who'd been as lucky as Quinto might have been tempted to believe the streak would hold, but Quinto knew his past held no hint of his future. More to the point, he knew he had no future.
It was a forty-foot climb according to the map, but adrenaline made it effortless. When he reached the top, he twisted the seal on the hatch, then pushed with his back and shoulders to force the hatch open. Daylight flooded into the dusty shaft as dirt and moldy leaves rained down on him.
The kid, who was just below him, passed up the Tasmanian devil. Reaching among the big spines jutting from the central carbon-fiber sphere, Quinto activated it, tossed it outside, and pulled the hatch closed.
The buzzing of razor-sharp shrapnel hitting, and then burrowing around inside everything within five hundred yards, would have been reassuring if Quinto weren't absolutely certain the starfish had retreated outside the Tasmanian devil's range as soon as Quinto thought about using it. At least it would back the fish up so they wouldn't be able to pick off Quinto and his troops as they climbed out of their holes.
"Here we go," Quinto said to the boy. "Have your weapon out. Run as fast as you can. Try to take one with you." His guess was that Benneton would stay behind, shoot from the cover of the shaft until the Luyten cooked her. That's what Quinto would do in her situation; it would probably afford her a few more minutes of life. He took a deep breath, trying to grasp that this was the end, this was the moment of his death, but he couldn't.
As soon as the Tasmanian devil went silent, Quinto threw open the hatch, his heart thudding wildly, and ran.
Their carriers were trapped in the mine, so his best chance would be to make it to the locomotive. Of course the Luyten would have fried the locomotive, so really there was nothing to do but run, and when the fish closed in, turn and fight.
Two hundred yards ahead, he spotted four of his troops running north, into the woods, toward the nearest cover. That probably made more sense than what Quinto was doing, but all of the moves open to them were losers. It was always the same: The fish knew their exact location, but they had no idea where the fish were. If you could catch a fish out in the open, it couldn't dodge automatic weapons fire, but you almost never caught them out in the open.
Quinto glanced back, saw the kid was two steps behind, his dirty cheeks tracked with tearstains.
The locomotive had been melted to a lump. He kept running. Everyone but he and the kid had headed north. Since Quinto wasn't dead yet, it was safe to assume the fish had gone after the larger group first. If he could get outside their range, which meant seven or eight miles, he and the kid might have a chance. Quinto pushed himself to pick up the pace, but when he did the kid started to fall behind, looking panicked. Quinto slowed.
In the distance, Quinto heard the worst sound in the world: the sizzle-crackle of a Luyten lightning stick, a sound as much felt in your body as heard by your ears. Then another. He was spared the pungent, unearthly sweat smell of the weapon. He was too far away.
When he'd made it through the town, Quinto took another glance back. The kid was a hundred yards behind, one hand clutching his side. No way this kid was going to run another four or five miles. Panting, his throat coated in phlegm, Quinto considered leaving him behind. No. No matter how fast he ran, he wasn't going to outrun Luyten on foot. He could try calling HQ and beg for a carrier to come get him, but they'd only tell him what he already knew: They weren't going to feed the fish any more than they had to.
So he stopped, pulled out his comm, and waited for the kid to catch up. The kid stopped beside him, put his hands on his knees.
"You want to call anyone? Your mom or dad alive?"
The kid eyed the comm. "Just my little sister." He swallowed, looked at Quinto. "We're going to die, aren't we?"
"Yeah. We are."
"Maybe they got distracted by something. Maybe the others killed them."
"Maybe," Quinto said. He thought he heard the snap-crackle of something moving through the woods to the north. "Come on." He tugged the kid's jacket and headed into the woods on the opposite side of the road.
Should he call his own mother to say goodbye? He would like that, but he didn't want to risk having her on the line when he died. He didn't want that to be her last memory of him.
Branches whipped his face as he tore through the brush. It was pointless, but he couldn't relinquish that last millimeter of hope that he might get lucky, just one last time. He barreled down a slope as the landscape opened, then splashed through a stream and raced up the bank.
He spotted a flash of crimson ahead, behind a thick cover of green leaves, and stopped short. The kid stopped short beside him, looked at him, questioning, just as a bolt of lightning burst through the foliage.
March 9, 2030 (nine months later). The South Pacific.
The door was locked. The room was comfortable, replete with a well-stocked kitchen and an entertainment system that was so up-to-date it contained movies yet to be released. But the door was locked.
You're considered a risk. They don't know the extent of my power to influence you.
Oliver turned in his rotating chair to face Five, whose accommodations were less plush. Behind the carbon alloy mesh that separated them, Five's room was empty except for a water dispensation device that resembled a giant hamster lick. Five was lying flat, his appendages splayed like the spokes of an elephant-sized wheel. His skin had a stony, mottled texture, and there were bristles protruding at evenly spaced intervals across it. The cilia protruding from the tips were as thick as nautical rope, and transparent.
"Because you were able to win over a thirteen-year-old boy, they think you might be able to convince me that I'm fighting on the wrong side? That's absurd."
But they don't know that, Five said. They think you've become too familiar with me. Too friendly.
The CIA yanks him out of his position at NYU three days after the invasion begins, shifts him from Research to Interrogation as their field agents die off, tells him to figure out how to communicate with Luyten, and when he succeeds, he becomes a suspected sympathizer? Beautiful.
The next time someone comes, ask them when you'll be informed where we're going.
Oliver couldn't help laughing. "You mean you don't know?" He waved in what he guessed was the direction of the submarine's bridge. "Pluck it out of someone's mind."
I don't have to pluck. Your minds are all laid out in front of me. No one on this vessel knows.
"No one knows where we're going?" It seemed an absurd notion, though it also made sense. If no one on board knew where they were going, or why, a Luyten who happened to be flying nearby—within their eight-or-so-mile telepathic zone—wouldn't be able to find out, either. The mission must be important. "How are they navigating if they don't know where we're going?"
They're given a set of coordinates corresponding to a point in the ocean, and when they reach it, they're given another.
"So where are we?"
Oliver jolted back in his chair as one of Five's mouths opened, revealing a bobbing, twitching hole ringed with teeth that resembled the spines on cacti. Smacking, hissing air and background sounds like water draining came from the hole, the sounds so unearthly and repulsive that at first Oliver didn't register that they were approximating words.
"Find out where we're going," Five said aloud.
The ubiquitous hum of the sub's engine was the only sound in the room as Oliver composed himself. Ultimately it didn't matter whether the Luyten communicated telepathically or using spoken words, but it was still profoundly disturbing to hear the thing speak.
"You're just full of surprises, aren't you?" Oliver said.
"Unlike you." Somehow the creature managed to inject a note of irony, and perhaps contempt, into the awkwardly formed words.
Oliver slid out of the chair, went right up to the nearly invisible net of carbon fiber that separated them. "Don't assume you know my mind just because you can read my thoughts. We may not be as simple as you think."
"Yes, humanity is the pinnacle of evolution. The chosen ones, the purpose for the existence of the entire universe. How could I forget?" Aware that Oliver was having trouble understanding his strangely formed words, Five simultaneously broadcast his words directly into Oliver's mind, giving him the uneasy sensation of hearing the words with an indescribable overlap. "I know your mind better than you."
Oliver grunted, folded his arms across his chest. "Right."
"You're uneasy. You're afraid I might try to prove my claim."
It was pointless to disagree. Oliver had quickly learned how absurd it was to deny what you were thinking or feeling to something who knew precisely what you were thinking and feeling.
"You love your wife now—"
"Shut up. I don't want to hear about Vanessa. Just leave it."
Five waited patiently through Oliver's outburst, then continued. "After her affair, her denials, the angry divorce… now you love her. Before, when you claimed to love her, you also despised her."
Oliver turned, went to the door, and thumped on it with the flat of his palm. "Hey, come on. Unlock this door. I'm not the POW."
"There's an irony you're not aware of, in your newfound feelings for your wife. Should I share it with you?"
Oliver turned to face Five, who was running the fine cilia that served Luyten as fingers across the stump of the limb he'd lost. "No. Thanks for the offer, but, no."
"It's something you'd be interested to hear."
When Oliver didn't answer, Five continued. "All right, then why don't I move on? What else can I tell you, to demonstrate you're as simple to read as I think you are? How about your deepest sexual cravings? Some of these you would never admit to yourself. For example, you'd like to be tied up, gagged with your own dirty sock, and spanked by a woman twenty years older than you."
Oliver couldn't care less about his repressed sexual desires. They were what they were; he couldn't control them, only whether he acted on them. But Oliver knew Five was only playing with him now. It had already dropped the bait it knew Oliver couldn't resist.
Five grew quiet, waiting for the question it already knew was coming.
"Fine. What's the irony I'm not aware of?"
All of Five's eyes fixed on Oliver. "The irony is, your instinct to love her is right, because she never had sex with Dr. Paul."
As the words registered, Oliver's vision darkened around the edges, as if he were going to pass out. In some ways, he wished he would. "You told me she had. You gave me specific details."
An icy numbness crept through him. He'd destroyed his marriage on the word of an alien bent on wiping out the human race. He'd taken Five's word as unassailable proof, because Five could reach right in and pluck the truth out of Vanessa's thoughts. Only he'd forgotten Five had abilities beyond reading minds. The ability to lie, for instance.
He'd told Vanessa he knew she was lying, said her unwillingness to admit the affair bothered him more than the infidelity itself. The floor, which was nothing but steel under a thin layer of beige carpeting, lurched beneath him, either because the sub was adjusting course or his knees were wobbling.
"Why would you lie? I didn't even ask you about Vanessa—you volunteered the information."
"I did it to serve as a reminder."
"A reminder of what?"
"That I might be lying to you at any time."
It dawned on Oliver that he had no way to contact Vanessa, and had no idea when he would, because he didn't know where he was going, or why. When he did finally contact Vanessa, would an apology make any difference? He'd trusted the word of a Luyten over hers.
This was going to torture him. In all probability that was Five's intention in telling him now. Or maybe he was lying now, simply to distract Oliver at a crucial juncture.
"Maybe," Five said.
June 29, 2029 (nine months earlier). Washington, D.C.
Kai knew better than to look up at the old man behind the counter to see if he was watching. That was a dead giveaway. Instead, Kai tracked him through the reflection in the refrigerated display case, which was no longer cold, because it was illegal to waste energy to keep drinks chilled. Not that anyone had the energy to spare on such a luxury anyway.
The old guy had an underbite that made him look vaguely apish; what gray hair he had was combed straight back in thin lines. He was watching Kai, frowning, suspicious. Kai knew he looked like a hungry kid who had no one taking care of him, but he couldn't help it; he couldn't find it in him to relax the scowl, to smile. This was also one time Kai's size was probably a liability. Mom used to say he looked sixteen, not thirteen.
A wave of pain washed over him at the thought of his mom. Right now he didn't even feel thirteen—he felt more like eight. He wanted his mommy, wanted her to rock him while he pressed his face against her long, soft hair. That's all most kids wanted since the invasion began. There were no tough kids left, only scared kids. And desperate kids, like him.
The door to the convenience store creaked open; a chubby woman with a tattoo on her shoulder stepped in and went to the counter. Kai seized the opportunity, snaring three fat pieces of jerky and stuffing them under his jacket, pinning them under his left arm.
He rose, spent a moment looking at the drinks in the nearly empty case, most of them homemade, the corporate logos printed on the bottles partially covered with white handwritten labels. Hurrying was another dead giveaway.
He paused again on his way to the door, watched a news feed playing on the TV above the front counter for a moment.
It was war footage of half a dozen Luyten storming a power plant. You almost never saw so many in one place, in the open. They were guerrilla fighters; they lost some of their advantage when they clustered, so when they attacked in force it usually meant they'd identified a poorly defended target.
Kai was repulsed by the sight of them—giant starfish, faceless, silent. Two were flying in their weird formfitting six- and seven-pointed craft, while the rest were on the ground, galloping on three or four of their limbs, staying behind vehicles and trees for cover, their free arms firing lightning bursts from the skintight battle gear that looked like ornate brass embroidery. A couple of human soldiers were peppering them with machine gun fire, but the Luyten always had a second's warning, always knew which way the soldiers were going to point the weapons. If the soldiers had larger weapons—flamethrowers or tanks—they'd have a chance. Then again, if they had larger weapons the Luyten would have known, and wouldn't have attacked in the first place.
When he couldn't stand to watch anymore, Kai headed toward the door.
The old guy moved from behind the counter with surprising speed, beating Kai to the door, brandishing a stun gun.
- "McIntosh is without a doubt one of the most underrated science fiction authors writing today. Defenders is an emotional, action-packed story....McIntosh's cautionary near-future tale, told from multiple perspectives, serves as a brutally honest portrayal of how humans carelessly exploit, destroy - and in this case create - other species."—RT Book Reviews (Top Pick)
- "What makes Defenders such an incredible novel is McIntosh's pure elegance, the beauty of its simplicity. Each element of the novel, the characters, the situations, the world, the results of the world's actions, organically feed into each other as the novel progresses."—SFFWorld
- "This military science fiction novel offers fast paced action."—Publishers Weekly
- "McIntosh's novels often blend unlikely scenarios and genre tropes in ways that make you rethink them. Here he's brought together the classic veterans' "coming home" story with telepathic alien invasion and issues around what it means to have been genetically engineered for one purpose. It's a posthuman scenario that McIntosh is exploring in all its messy complexity."— io9.com
- "McIntosh tells a more global yet still deeply personal tale about life during wartime and its aftermath... McIntosh has his finger on the pulse, again."—Kirkus (starred review)
- "An emotional story of love, loyalty, and forgiveness amid the stark realities of war."—Booklist
- On Sale
- May 13, 2014
- Page Count
- 512 pages