The missiles had been launched from Earth orbit ten weeks before, and for the whole of those ten weeks the Martian military had been tracking them—all fifteen thousand of them. This was the third wave to have been dispatched, and as before, the defence network computers identified each individual warhead, plotting its course, recording even the most minute variations in direction, identifying potential targets and preparing a suitable response. Most of the deep space minefields were gone now, having successfully thinned out the two previous waves, but the short-range laser grid was still mostly intact and for those few warheads that did make it through, there was always the as-yet unused ground-to-air missile defence batteries.
Colonel Naifeh stood at the back of the control room, his feet slightly apart, his hands clasped behind his back, his uniform immaculate. Four rows of busy workstations curved away to either side in front of him, following the gentle slope of the room’s floor towards the bank of giant monitors which filled most of the far wall. From time to time he let his gaze sweep along the banks of desks, each occupied by one of his most experienced controllers, all busy staring at the monitors in front of them, or carefully tapping away on their slates or keyboards, but mostly he focussed his attention on the large, central screen directly in front of him, and never once, despite the urge he felt like an itch on the back of his neck, did he turn around and gaze up at the observation window above and behind him.
He knew who was there. But it wasn’t his superiors—the generals—whose presence was making him so nervous, it was her. Kalina Kubin, the President’s Chief- of-Staff, head of security, along with any other title she chose to give herself. To her face they called her Ma’am, and behind her back they didn’t call her anything like the names they would have liked to because she had a way of finding out things, like who was talking about her behind her back, and the list of people who had spoken out against her and then never been seen again seemed to be growing longer every day. There was a rumour that once she had personally executed an entire room of prisoners because they might have been witnesses to something she wanted kept secret, and Naifeh had no reason to suspect this was anything except the absolute truth.
Missiles now within range, Colonel, came a voice through his comms.
‘Very good. You may activate the laser mesh.’
Laser mesh activated.
Colonel Naifeh watched the screen carefully. After staring at the blank
starscape for a minute or so he began to see tiny explosions of light as the defence lasers tore apart the first of the incoming missiles. More and more flashes began to appear, and after another minute there was a steady stream of explosions for his guests to admire. But Naifeh was not convinced.
‘Control Two, what is your status?’
This is Control Two. Mesh is at seventy-six percent.
“Seventy-six? Where’s the rest of it then?’
Delta South is still being repaired, Sir. They only have one battery online. Gamma South and Delta Central are both reporting minor system malfunctions and we’ve lost contact with Beta North.
Yes, Sir. Total system shutdown. Zero electronic activity.
‘Again? Goddammit. How are these terrorists able to get to our most vital installations so easily?’ Naifeh glanced up at the observation window and then quickly back down again. The comms feed was being piped into the room so they would be able to hear everything he said, and even though the loss of a laser battery station to terrorist attack was not something he was responsible for, it was still his neck on the line if any of the incoming missiles made it through to the planet’s surface. ‘Fire up the missiles’, he barked.
It was an unnecessary command. The ground-to-air missile batteries had long been on stand-by and would automatically launch the instant anything which did not transmit the correct electronic signature entered the atmosphere, but Naifeh wanted to be seen to be doing something. He clenched his fists behind his back and stared at the screen, silently urging the lasers to do their job.
We have penetration. Multiple warheads.
‘How many warheads?’
Ten…twelve…fifteen… the numbers continued to rise. We have thirty-one warheads confirmed through the mesh.
‘Then auto-target them with everything we’ve got. And switch to the in-atmos cameras. I want to see what’s happening.’
All the images on the wall screens changed from the black of space to the lifeless browns of the stark Martian landscape and the washed-out orange sky above. Naifeh watched and waited and felt the trickle of sweat down his back. Only thirty- one targets, and they had over two hundred active seeker missiles, each with its own complex electronic brain which was capable of tracking an object no bigger than a spotter drone for thousands of kilometres. There was no chance of a single one of the warheads getting through. No chance, Naifeh kept repeating to himself. No chance.
We have missile activation, came a new voice in his ear. We have missile launch.
On the main screen, Naifeh watched the exhaust trails of eight separate missiles as they stretched slowly up from behind a distant line of low hills, rising high into the thin atmosphere and gently twisting until they were all converging on the same point. He still couldn’t see the encroaching warhead, but within seconds he knew there would be a massive detonation to mark the termination of the Terran missile’s long and fruitless journey.
But then the exhaust trails began to waver and the careful pattern of lines broke up into a tangle of crossed trails as the defence missiles broke formation and began to head off in all different directions. Only two continued on their original course, three others sped off across the otherwise empty sky and the final three tilted right round and plunged back down towards the ground.
‘What…’ Colonel Naifeh managed, before his words were drowned out by a chorus of screaming voices, both in his ear and from all across the room in front of him.
…we’ve lost control…
…no response to commands…
…the missiles have gone haywire…
There was a bright flash which momentarily caused the screens to auto-dim,
and when the image returned to normal Naifeh was relieved to see that the two remaining missiles had at least succeeded in destroying the Terran warhead. There was a brief cheer from some of the controllers, but this died away as the first of the rogue missiles hit the ground and exploded, followed almost immediately by the other two.
For several seconds there was silence in the room as those controllers not desperately tapping instructions into their consoles gazed up at the screens. Naifeh watched the clouds of dirt billowing out from the impact sites and still couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
‘Status,’ he croaked. He swallowed and repeated the order, louder this time.
Several of the controllers turned to look at him, shaking their heads. Naifeh couldn’t tell if they were trying to say they had no idea, or that it was so bad he was better off not knowing.
Finally the voice of Control Two cut in. It’s an electronic attack. Something is targeting our missile guidance and targeting systems.
‘Don’t be a fool,’ Naifeh snapped. ‘This is a state-of-the-art military grade weapons system, not some short wave radio transmitter. Our communications cannot be jammed.’
No, Sir. They’re not jamming our comms, they’ve taken down the whole system. Our operators are locked out. They have no link to the missiles at all, not even to trigger the kill switches.
‘How?’ Naifeh asked, turning and staring up at the window behind him. ‘How is that even possible?’ The generals stood in a cluster, arguing, shouting, waving their arms about and pointing at each other accusingly. His question went unanswered.
‘Never mind that,’ said Kalina Kubin as she strode into the room through the doorway behind him. ‘Get me a damage report. I want to know how many of the Terran warheads made it through our defences and how many of our own missiles detonated back on Martian ground. I want to know where they landed, what damage they’ve caused and I want an accurate estimate of dead and wounded.’
Naifeh cast a quick glance up towards his commanding officers but they were still busy trying to apportion blame and paid no attention to him.
‘And I want them now, Colonel,’
‘Yes, Ma’am.’ He turned back to the room. ‘You heard your orders. Damage reports and casualty numbers, ASAP.’
It was unnerving for Naifeh to be in such close proximity to the woman. She was younger than he had imagined, with thick, dyed-red hair pulled back from her angular features and tied into a tight plait. He glanced sideways at her, fascinated by her dark, constantly searching eyes and the regular clenching and relaxing of her jaw. She was not beautiful, he decided, but there was something about her he found captivating. She was like one of the giant dust devils of the southern plains, tall and powerful and deadly. Or perhaps a shark, he thought. A shark in search of a kill.
The reports began to come in. Ten of the Terran warheads had made it through. Several military targets had been hit, including two more of the defence laser batteries and given the power of the weapons, it was probable they had been completely destroyed. The shark looked thoughtful, turning the information over in her head, but said nothing. The more he watched her, the more Naifeh felt the name was perfect for her.
It took much longer for the rogue missile reports to come in, but the results— at least at first—were reassuring. Several seemed to have detonated in mid-air, many more had exploded harmlessly in the wastes, far away from any towns or settlements, and Colonel Naifeh was just beginning to feel that a disaster had been narrowly averted when a panicked voice cut in over the comms.
Colonel, this is Control Seven. We’re getting reports of a missile strike in downtown Albemarle; buildings destroyed, seals ruptured, scores dead, casualties in the hundreds—
‘Where in Albemarle?’ Kalina Kubin demanded. ‘Be more specific.’ Just north of the Circle, Ma’am. Around Longwalk.
‘And nowhere else?’
‘Good. Send updates through to my office as soon as they come in.’
‘Good?’ Naifeh stammered. ‘But it’s a disaster. That’s a block residential area. There’s a hospital there, and schools.’
‘I’m sure there are,’ she said, turning to face him. ‘But not any government buildings. That missile could just as easily have hit Hightower, or the militia barracks, or the docks. These are the places we need to protect from missile strikes, not hospitals and schools and hab-blocks. Because in case you haven’t noticed, Colonel, we happen to be at war right now, and how do you expect us to win a war with no government, no ships, no troops? Well?
‘We can’t,’ Naifeh muttered.
‘No, we can’t.’ She gazed at him long and hard. The predator moving in for the kill, he thought, and I’m right in its path. But then she looked up at the observation window. ‘Nor can we win a war if we continue to let the enemy’s agents use our own weapons against us. We were lucky this time. Next time we might not be. So I intend to make sure there isn’t going to be a next time.’
The shark swam past and Colonel Naifeh heaved a huge sigh of relief.