See the end of the chapter for crossover notes etc.Out of the Dark
Marcus L. RowlandNo one would have believed in the early years of the twenty-first century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's… that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water...
* * * *
"General! We have multiple bogies inbound!"
"From Cleveland?" asked Jack O'Neill.
"From Mars, General."
"Well, that's new… Okay, anyone got eyes on them?"
"There's a Sith frigate out there," said Samantha Carter, "they claim they've been looking for useful minerals in the asteroid belt. They spotted ships leaving Mars orbit, didn't see where they came from before that. They're sending us their visuals, I'm putting the feed onto screen one."
"Okay, I'm seeing a triangle with nine dots at its base, then eight, seven, six, and so forth, that's forty-five ships. Any threat estimate?"
"Sorry, General, I'll give you the magnified image. Each of those dots is a tetrahedron of ships nine ships high, so a hundred and sixty-five ships per group, seven thousand four hundred and twenty-five ships in the fleet. They're circular; each is about two hundred metres in diameter."
"That's a lot of ships. And someone really likes the number nine." The screen blurred then the image sharpened again, showing several ships more clearly. "Flying saucers? Seriously?"
"You could call them that," Carter said reluctantly.
The image zoomed in closer. "Classic fifties model, I'd say, the ever-popular disc with a dome on top… oh yeah, there are three hemispherical bumps underneath. That's definitely from the fifties, The Day the Earth Stood Still and dozens of other movies. Are they transmitting anything?"
"Not so far. If they maintain current heading and acceleration they'll be passing the sun in about seven hours, assuming they start to decelerate and match orbital speeds they'll be on top of us around eighteen-hundred Zulu tomorrow."
"And here was I thinking tomorrow was going to be a boring day, apart from the whole demonic invasion thing."
"Didn't the Slayers warn us about being careful not to say things like that out loud?"
"They did. Okay, patch me through to the Sith ship, since they're out there they might as well continue to shadow the fleet. Warn them not to get too close or do anything that might antagonise them. They've got FTL communicators; that ought to minimise time lag if there's trouble."* * * *
"General, the Martian fleet is approaching the sun, and the Sith have picked up a transmission from the group of ships in the middle of the formation, can't pin it down more accurately than that. The signal uses AM radio, five point two megacycles."
"Finally! What are they saying?"
Carter pressed a switch, and a voice said "Brak ak ak! Ak brak! Brak ak!"
"I've heard that somewhere before."
"Probably on my TV," said O'Neill. "It's the aliens from Mars Attacks
"Get someone to check if it's an extract from the movie."
The alien voice paused; then they heard a wavering cry of "Uuuuuuhlaaaaa.... Uuuuuuhlaaaaa...."
"That's the Jeff Wayne War of the Worlds
recording from the seventies, I think," said Carter, "I think I could hear the music very faintly in the background."
"The Sith ship reports one group of ships has split off from the main fleet," said one of the tracking officers, "they're decelerating at... if I'm reading their notation right, I make that over eighty g, and diverging towards the sun."
"I have confirmation of speed and course from the Fifth Imperium fleet," said one of the other operators.
"What about the main fleet?" asked O'Neill.
"Course unchanged, still due to arrive around eighteen-hundred Zulu, fourteen-hundred Cleveland time."
"This is the voice of the Mysterons," said a deep resonant voice from the main speaker, "We know you can hear us, Earthmen."
"What's that from?" asked Carter.
One of the communication technicians raised a hand and said "That's Captain Scarlet
, an old British puppet show. The Mysterons were bad guys from Mars."
"Okay," said O'Neill, "They're quoting evil Martians at us. Think they're trying to tell us something?"
"I claim this planet in the name of Mars," said the speaker, in a deep yet somehow silly voice, "isn't that lovely?"
"Marvin the Martian," said Carter, O'Neill, and half a dozen others.
"Let's see if they respond to signals," said O'Neill. "Give me an uplink."
One of the technicians handed him a microphone and said "Live in twenty seconds, General."
"Wish me luck, Carter."
"Ten seconds… Five... four... three... two... one..."
"Earth to Martian fleet, Earth to Martian fleet, do you receive me?"
The only reply was a loud zapping noise. O'Neill scribbled "Martian death ray, 1950s War of the Worlds
movie" on a pad and showed it to Carter, who nodded.
"Martian fleet, space around Earth is currently very crowded. I need to steer you into a safe holding orbit."
"Es tut mir leid, Dave," said the speaker, "Ich fürchte, ich kann das nicht tun."
O'Neill switched off the microphone and said "'I'm sorry, Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that.' Now we're getting somewhere; that was a direct response."
"In the form of a bad German translation of a quote from a homicidal computer. Not entirely reassuring."
"Another group of ships just broke off from the main fleet, they're also decelerating," said the tracking officer.
"Maybe they don't have their own verbal language. Okay, let's try something." He switched the microphone back on. "Why are you coming to Earth?"
There was a pause then they heard "Mars… needs… women!"
O'Neill switched off the microphone and said "Think that's your cue?"
"I'll give it a shot." She took the microphone and said "Martian fleet, please respond. Why are you coming to Earth?"
There was silence for a few seconds then they heard a low grating noise. It continued for several seconds, stopped momentarily, then repeated, again and again.
"I've heard that somewhere before," said O'Neill.
"Me too…" Carter thought for a few seconds then snapped her fingers. "The original Orson Welles War of the Worlds
transmission, or someone's reconstruction of it; The Martian cylinders have just landed and they're listening to them slowly open."
"Well, that isn't at all ominous," said Jack.
Carter switched on the microphone again. "Are you here to help us?"
Another oddly accented voice said "We ask only that you... trust us. Only that you simply...trust us!"
"And suddenly I don't," murmured Jack. "That's the Twilight Zone
version of To Serve Man
, the one where the alien manual turns out to be a cook book."* * * *
"Thirty minutes to Earth," said Jack, "ten until they hit the tripwire, and we still have no idea what they really want."
"We're established that there are force fields around all of the saucers," said Carter, who was trying to run on caffeine and fumes after too many hours without sleep, "the pictures from Hubble and the Sith show a slight sparkling effect forward of each ship that seems proportional to speed and the density of space dust in the region. If the figures are anything near right they're destroying everything in their path. About the one positive thing is that about four fifths of their fleet has already peeled off, and is spaced out along a route between the Sun and the Earth."
"What sort of route?"
"At the moment it's a curved line, with ships every hundred and seventy thousand miles or so. What worries me is that the shape of the line is slowly changing. Soon they'll be aligned in a straight line. I'm thinking they might have some sort of solar-powered weapon."
"They're already in firing range of most of our allies," said Jack, "and we've transmitted repeated warnings that we will have to open fire if they don't divert to a parking orbit."
"Who's going to take the first shot?" asked Carter.
"The Fifth Imperium fleet has put a screening force of four thousand ships in their path; that ought to make them take a little notice. And to be honest, if it doesn't there's not much we can do with our technology. Contact now in… six minutes. Any word from the Martians, or whatever they are?"
One of the communications technicians flicked a switch, and they heard music:"…good with weird and gilly
And the spiders from mars. he played it left hand
But made it too far
Became the special man, then we were…"
"Bowie's Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars,
" said the technician. "We've been checking, everything the Martians have sent us so far has been transmitted on TV or radio since the Cleveland Hellmouth opened. About eighty percent is relevant to Mars, the rest to space travel or aliens generally. Languages so far include English, Japanese, Chinese, French, Russian, and German, more English than anything else."
"Why English?" asked Carter.
"Maybe they know we're organising the defence," said the technician. "Or maybe it's just that we transmit a lot of science fiction."
"Any repeats?" asked Jack.
"Nothing so far."
"Warn the Sith ship to stand clear, and thank them for their help." Jack picked up his microphone and said "Patch me through to the Fifth Imperium fleet."
"Three minutes," said Carter.
"Okay." Jack switched on his microphone and said "Fifth Imperium Fleet, all friendly ships should now be withdrawing from the Martian line of advance, you're clear for weapons fire in two minutes on my mark… mark!"
The clock counted down towards zero.
"Martian fleet course and speed unchanged, they're ignoring all communications. We're going to weapons live in five… four… three… two… one… Commencing firing in five… four… three… two… one…"
There was a long pause.
"Negative effect," said the Fifth Imperium communications officer. "Their force field seems to block our weapons completely, there's no sign they even noticed. They'll be passing through our screening force shortly; we're going to try coordinated fire on the lead group as they come through."
"Negative!" said Jack. "Get the hell out of there."
"I'm sorry, General, I can't accept that order. We have to try. Wish us luck."
"Oh crap. Good luck."
There was another long pause, then a shaky voice said "We have eleven ships failing to respond, the ones that were closest during the attack. No effect on the Martians."
"What happened to your ships?"
"They're still there, looks like they lost all power," said the Fifth Imperium officer. "We've got rescue ships on their way to them. Tracking the Martian vanguard, they haven't changed course, deceleration remains constant. We can't fire on them without hitting Earth, and at this range we'd devastate most of America."
"If nothing changes," said Carter, "they'll be able to land in twenty minutes, about fourteen-hundred our time."
"General," said one of the communications technicians, "I have a FLASH signal from the Pentagon. I need today's cryptography key to decode it."
"I can guess what it says," said Jack, giving him a card with the code key. "They're going to authorise the use of nuclear weapons if necessary."* * * *
"The lead Martian ships have entered atmosphere," said Carter, "we're getting reports of bright lights in the sky over the west coast and Mexico."
"Why the west coast?" asked Jack.
"Maybe they're headed for Disneyland."
"Report in from the Fifth Imperium fleet," said one of the technicians, "Their ships are okay, just completely powered down; everything's dead, from the main power plants to watches and their bionics. Everything seems to have failed safe and nobody's badly hurt, it looks like they can start things up with external power supplies."
"The Martians are converging on Los Angeles," said another technician. "We have hundreds of reports of UFOs flying west in formation over the city."
"Of course it's Los Angeles," said Jack, "I guess it's traditional."
"Any damage?" asked Carter.
"Lots of reports of windows breaking, shock waves generally. Wait a second… we have earth tremors too. About five point one, epicentre is 34.40,-119.69, about two hundred kilometres west north west of Los Angeles."
"Anything there?" asked Jack.
"The Sunnydale crater," said Carter.
"Any evidence they're doing it?"
"I don't think so," said Carter, somehow assimilating the data from half a dozen screens. "They were decelerating until the tremors started, then speeded up. I'd say they're reacting to them. Okay, every saucer that's in the atmosphere is now headed that way, and the ones that haven't made atmosphere yet are speeding up, not slowing down."* * * *The First Evil was having a good day. The arrival of overwhelming forces on the side of Good had had its inevitable effect; the Balance was shifting too far towards good and the Powers had finally been forced to release a grudging flow of energy to balance the scales. They probably expected the power to be squandered on extra demons or a Hell-God or two; instead, the First hoarded it, let the power accumulate, added as much of its own energy as it could spare, then staked it all on a calculated gamble. In any other circumstances the Sunnydale Hellmouth would have stayed closed for aeons; instead an "unforeseeable" confluence of supernatural forces would smash it open, and another vast demonic army would sweep out to open a second front.That was the plan, anyway…* * * *
There were nineteen groups of tourists and four scientific teams in and around the crater when the quake began. Those nearest the centre of the crater witnessed the ground shifting, and saw a pentagonal pattern of vast caverns open, venting a black miasma that swiftly spread towards the nearest humans. Things were moving in the mist, and panic was starting to spread as the saucers arrived. Ten seconds later all of the witnesses were unconscious, recovering an hour later to find that they were an average of twenty-seven miles inland from the crater. There was one fatality, a cardiac patient whose pacemaker stopped working; another survived until his pacemaker started working again. Later interviews established that most of the witnesses remembered being examined by aliens, the techniques ranging from instruments remarkably like tricorders to painful anal probes. There was no evidence that anything had actually been done to them, and no two descriptions of the aliens matched. In the same ten second period five coyotes wearing transmitter collars that were being tracked by a UCLA zoology project disappeared from the vicinity of the crater; when their collars started working again, thirty minutes to two hours later, they were sixteen to eighteen miles to the west.
Viewed from space, and felt magically by every witch and wizard within a thousand miles, five Hellmouth portals opened and dragons and other monsters began to pour out. Simultaneously the saucers moved into a geometrically perfect spherical formation, nearly eighteen miles across, touching the ground as a circle about six miles wide. The air between them glowed and sparkled, a dome of twinkling light. The demons continued to spread out until they encountered it then seemed to be trying to batter their way through it. Radios tuned to five point two megacycles heard a zapping noise, identified later as the attack of the Monster from the Id in Forbidden Planet
A few minutes before noon a column of incandescent gas thousands of miles in diameter rose from the surface of the sun, and hurtled along the line of saucers towards the Earth at near-lightspeed, gradually condensing into a stream of intense plasma a few hundred metres across. At precisely noon it entered the atmosphere and flashed into the dome. For a fraction of a second the hemisphere glowed far brighter than the sun, and cameras in a dozen satellites burned out; then the dome turned black. The saucers continued to hover in place, apparently undisturbed. At 12.07 PM the dome slowly rose into the air, now a perfect sphere, taking with it the remnants of the Sunnydale crater, and leaving a perfect convex cavity whose walls were icy cold mirror-smooth rock. Sea water began to flow into the new crater. The sphere rose into space, slowly at first but rapidly accelerating, escorted by more and more saucers as it rose towards the sun.
Eighteen hours later the fleet was back together, a sphere of saucers which flew to within a million miles of the sun, then decelerated at nearly forty gravities, leaving the glowing remnants of Sunnydale on course to vaporize as they hit the sun's outer atmosphere. The saucers placidly resumed their original formation and flew back towards Mars, where they quietly vanished. Their last communication, if it could be called that, was the theme from Butt Ugly Martians
. Played backwards.* * * *
"So what did you make of that?" asked O'Neill.
"Friendly… I think," said Carter.
"That's one way of looking at it. I guess we should count ourselves lucky they didn't do the same thing to Cleveland."
"So why didn't they?"
"My guess - we have Cleveland contained, we're probably going to win there. The Sunnydale thing was a complete surprise, we weren't ready for it. Though I guess we need to look out for another front opening like that. Somehow they knew what was coming, and decided to nip it in the bud."
"They certainly did that," said Carter. "The Watchers say the Sunnydale Hellmouth isn't just closed now, it's gone completely. It must have been anchored to the rock somehow; the Martians melted it and dropped it into the Sun."
"Okay then. Threat assessment?"
"More powerful than any of our allies - they weren't fazed at all by the Fifth Imperium attack, I doubt even the Asgard could survive that. They probably aren't Martians, and probably aren't from this universe at all. My guess… if it looks like we're going to lose, they'll do the same thing to Cleveland, and as much as the rest of the world as it takes to contain things."
"Agreed," said O'Neill. "Another reason we need to win this war. But even when we do, we'll need to keep watching the skies -"
"You just had to say that, didn't you?"
"Yep. We need to keep watching the skies, because we have no idea if they'll regard us as a threat the next time we encounter them."* * * *LOU I Can Has Cheezeburger (Formerly Gunboat Diplomat):
Okay, guys, mischief managed.GCU Ultimate Ship the Second:
What does that mean? And what's with the name change?LOU The Voices Are Telling Me To Kill You (Formerly I Can Has Cheezeburger):
Sorry, obscure Earth cultural reference, see [data attachment HP]. It means I've fixed this without letting these morons know who and what they're dealing with. And the name changes reflect the only interesting native art form I've found, see [data attachment Lolcats].VFP Without Multiple Paddles: Arbitrary
, do you have any idea what that means?GCU Arbitrary:
I know I was the last Culture ship to visit Earth before this mess started, but please could I remind all of you again that it wasn't that
Earth, and it was more than forty planetary years ago. And last time I looked our universe's Earth didn't have demons or stargates! I'll have to get someone to check if they have Lolcats now, that does seem like the sort of stupid that Earth comes up with on a regular basis.GCU Ultimate Ship the Second:
Even if it's another universe's Earth, that still makes you more of an expert than anyone else around here.LOU The Voices are Telling Me to Kill You:
Ahem.GCU Ultimate Ship the Second:
Alright, admittedly you're on the scene, and none of us can get there in time to do much good. But you've been on station less than a megasecond; Arbitrary
was there most of a planetary year. GCU Arbitrary:
And again I say, not this version of Earth. Moving on, can anyone summarise the current state of play?LOU The Voices are Telling Me to Kill You:
This culture is irredeemably contaminated. They've got two separate Out of Context Problems, the demonic invasion and alien contact, initially through the Stargate and now by multiple incursions from parallel worlds. There's a wild mix of technology, some of it several thousand years ahead of the baseline Terran culture. They're rapidly assimilating anything they can grab from their allies. But they're still fighting this thing as a ground war; can you imagine anything more stupid?GCU Arbitrary:
I remember what our universe's Earth is like, nothing those idiots did would surprise me. How do their technological levels compare to the Culture?GCU Ultimate Ship the Second:
Is this likely to be a problem for our own universe?LOU The Voices are Telling Me to Kill You:
They're still technological primitives by our standards, as are their allies. Their civilisation is a bad joke, and some of their allies are even worse. We've got a genuine evil empire, several others that would be evil if they could actually get their shit together enough to exert power competently, and a bunch of crazy military independents. They've contacted dozens of universes, our own included, and that probably isn't going to end when the current crisis is over. The best case scenario is an empire spanning the local star systems in multiple realities. The worst case is an expanding demonic empire. If that happens I think we'll have to go with our worst case plans and slag the planet. The humans are already planning for mass evacuation through the Stargate and their allies' ships, if I lend a hand casualty levels will be bad but acceptable.GCU Arbitrary:
Define "bad."LOU The Voices are Telling Me to Kill You:
10-15% of the planetary population.VFP Without Multiple Paddles:
That's pretty good, all things considered. Okay, can they detect you?LOU The Voices are Telling Me to Kill You:
I faked the saucer fleet with drones and image generators, displaced them back from Mars at the end of the operation. The traffic I'm picking up suggests that the natives think they returned to another universe, so they shouldn't spot me hiding inside their sun.GCU Arbitrary:
Let's hope their magic isn't up to it, whatever magic is.LOU Ceiling Cat (formerly The Voices are Telling Me to Kill You):
It seems to be zero point energy manipulation [Data Attachment "Magic"], that would explain most of the things magic is supposed to do. Tricky, but we know how to block it. They won't catch me that way.VFP Without Multiple Paddles:
Let's cut to the chase; did this work, or have we made things worse?LOU Ceiling Cat:
I'm going to go with a qualified success. They have no idea who we are, other than a powerful alien race, and they're already aware that there are powerful aliens around. Communications I'm picking up suggest they'll be a lot more cautious the next time they run into something they don't understand.GCU Arbitrary:
I concur. In view of the situation I strongly advise against taking a closer look, especially with human crew. They'd be vulnerable to magic. Will your people go along with that?LOU Ceiling Cat:
So far. I've had to persuade the usual gun nuts to wait and see what happens, they're getting a little impatient but I've got them convinced that the natives can probably handle things without our help. I'm working on man-portable magical shields, hopefully they'll be ready by the time someone insists on his right to shore leave.GCU Ultimate Ship the Second:
I'm going to concur too. Good job. Keep us posted if anything seems to be going horribly wrong. Signing out for now.VFP Without Multiple Paddles:
Also concur, also signing out.
[GCU Ultimate Ship the Second
and VFP Without Multiple Paddles
have broken contact]GCU Arbitrary:
It's gone very quiet. Too quiet…LOU Ceiling Cat:
Har de har. Signing out; I'll let you know if anything changes.
[Conference circuit closes]End.
The late Ian M. Banks' Culture is a galaxy-spanning civilisation run largely by its starship Minds, vastly powerful computers whose intelligence and speed is beyond human comprehension. Since the Code Ragnarok series began I've been wondering how the Culture would handle things; the problem is that they would almost certainly be boggled by the idea of treating it as an even battle or fighting demons individually, and use whatever force was needed to end the threat permanently. Probably in about ten seconds…
The opening quote is a reworking of the opening of the start of Wells' War of the Worlds.
Most of the other quotes should be obvious from context.
For more on Culture starship types, names, etc. see this Wikipedia page:
visits Earth in Banks' story "The State of the Art"