The Inventory

Bureaucrat Level 3 Alston Grieve woke up suddenly and in very good spirits. He'd tossed and turned all night with the excitement of what the day held for him, finally succumbing to exhaustion and managing to get a few inadequate hours of sleep. But, no mind! Today was going to be a very good day for Grieve. For today was the day he'd finish his inventory of the alien jails in all 55 of the participating countries and would be able to finalize his report to the Cabinet. No single person had ever inventoried every alien jail before and it was an accomplishment Grieve was very proud of.

Humming in the shower while the coffee pot did its thing, Grieve couldn't help but think how lucky he'd been to snag this assignment when he was a mere Level 1 Bureaucrat a few years ago. Bright eyed and bushy-tailed and recently graduated from the Ministry training camp, he was plucked from the crowd of his similarly new, but overall much dumber, peers by a Level 5 Bureaucrat within mere days of being on the job.

“I can't impress the importance of this job on you enough, B1 Grieve”, intoned B5 Smarth from behind his massive wooden desk while resting his grey stubbled chin on steepled fingers. “Since the wormhole breach 5 years ago, we've managed to capture every alien that lived after coming through it”. He waved dismissively as he trailed off, “but, you know that. Everyone knows that.“ Smarth was right. Nearly everyone alive today had been taught this history in grade school and beyond. “The important thing to do now is to enumerate them so we know how many there are and where they’re located.”

Grieve reflected on his own time in Civic Duties class when he'd learned why there were so many jails on earth and why they were filled with the most unearthly creatures. Almost a decade ago a wormhole was detected slightly this side of Mars. At the time we didn't know what a wormhole was so it was just recorded as an oddity for later investigation by the duty astronomer in Hawaii that day. It wasn't until a few days later when screaming hunks of metal started slamming into the earth that the astronomer's routine log entry became important. And when those wrecked smoking hunks of metal opened and these...things...came out of the craters, we realized what was happening.

It was an alien invasion. We were being invaded just like sci-fi movies had predicted for ages. But it was the slowest and most easily controlled invasion ever. A few of these ships would plummet into the earth every few weeks or so. The aliens would not be able to open the ship until it cooled which took a few hours but that was almost always enough time to get a quick reaction force onsite when it opened and the strange alien would be quickly overpowered and handed over to the Ministry for processing. “Processing” usually involved interrogation, study, and then jail to rot out their natural days, however long that might turn out to be. And then, as suddenly as the invasion began, it stopped. With a very decisive winner jailing every captor.

“We were just lucky that they didn't attack en masse or you and I would be talking in some alien pit somewhere, or not talking at all”. Smarth's voice dragged young B1 Grieve back to the conversation. “Yes, sir. That certainly was lucky. It allowed us to get quick reaction teams set up in the most frequent landing countries and capture the ones that didn't die.” Grieve said, just to prove he was paying attention.

“Gah!” Grieve was shaken back to present day by the sudden loss of hot water in his shower. Five minutes is all anyone got these days, unless they were OK with showering in cold water. He towelled off and got dressed in his uniform while drinking his coffee and catching up on the overnight news on the wall terminal. “No news is good news”, Grieve muttered as he snapped the terminal shut and left the small windowless living unit to complete his mission. A mission that should net Grieve a B4 promotion and the accompanying improvement in Ministry living quarters.

The last jail on Grieve's list was Sudan. There was really no plan to where jails were placed. Or, rather, the jails were placed according to the aliens' plans for the most part. When an invader crash landed, it was usually captured by the quick reaction team in that country. The first few were caught fleeing because we weren't prepared for them initially, but by and large the country that caught them jailed them. Grieve had been to 54 countries and 54 jails during his mission to biometrically tag each alien. In true bureaucratic fashion, the thing the Ministry cared about most was the paperwork. Creating an inventory of the aliens so the Ministry knew how many there are and exactly where each one was jailed was of paramount importance. Almost, it seemed, more important than finding out what they were doing here in the first place.

Grieve stepped out of the subcrust hyperloop car into the station. Even under the surface it was warm in Sudan. He climbed a few flights of stairs up the mezzanine where his Ministry driver was waiting for him with a pencilled “Grieve” sign. Grieve gave the man a curt nod as he slid into the vehicle through the open door the driver held for him. “How far to the jail from here?” Grieve asked, knowing full well it was about 15 minutes depending on traffic. “I'd say just a little over 10 minutes, sir”, replied the driver as he expertly manoeuvred the vehicle through streets mostly filled with people.

The jail looked like most of the others. Most countries on Earth were too poor to build substantial jails so they were subsidized by the countries with better manufacturing infrastructure. Consequently, the vast majority of the jails were made of the same massive heavyplast blocks that was brought in as a light powder and then turned into impenetrable plastic with a little water and a light dose of the right radiation. Heavyplast allowed all manner of structures to be built virtually anywhere.

Grieve showed his Ministry ID at the gate and was escorted to the small interview room where the captor would be waiting for him. Grieve never really understood this part; he understood that he had to visually see every prisoner, not only to verify its existence but also to lance it with the biometric tagger stowed away in his attache case. But the aliens never talked nor gave any idea they could understand him. In the early years, Grieve fancied himself a bit of a interrogator and held beliefs that the aliens could understand him, and his job was to outsmart them to prove it. But as time went on and the stream of dejected aliens slumped in chairs became seemingly endless, he resigned himself to the fact that years of captivity had whittled these aliens down to sad, depressed life forms wishing they were anywhere but here.

This one was no different. It stared sullenly at Grieve with its intelligent eyes as he carefully recorded the basic dimensions and appearance of this alien into his terminal and then winced slightly as Grieve touched it with the biometric lance. The lance effectively added the alien to the Ministry inventory list. It injected a small capsule that contained a long-range radioactive marker that could be used to track an alien, should one ever escape, and also held unique information about that particular alien. Grieve snapped shut his attache case, jumped to his feet, yelled “Guard!” to be let out of the room and triumphantly left the interview room. He had done it. “B4 Grieve, here I come!”, he gleefully said to himself while trying not to skip out of the jail.

System Viceroy Ocherian was filled with anticipation. He had arrived a few months ago into the Claris system to assess the situation and to see if the invasion could be saved. His time surrounded by the armada of dark, unmoving ships filled only with sleeping soldiers floating in space was almost over. The ships were on the Claris side of the wormhole that punched through space near the Sol system's fourth planet. The anticipation came from the knowledge that the humans were about to bio-mark his last captured pilot which would finally allow him to surgically extract all of them out of their unfortunate predicament on the planet and into their assigned ships. These dead hulks around him would finally come to life, once again piloted by their masters, the cryo de-sleep process would be initiated to wake the occupation troops and the invasion of the planet could finally resume after so many years of waiting.

The logistics of interstellar operations are significant. High Speed Faster Than Light travel is too hard on bodies. The first few HFTL operations resulted in significant loss of life among the war ships’ crews. Experiments showed that slowing down to just a few factors of light speed alleviated some of the damage to the crew, but at that speed the galaxy was too large to feasibly get to any other suitable planet. It took a few decades for cryogenic technology to catch up but when it did, it was a game changer. Cryo-sleeping bodies did better with HFTL operations and while it wasn't perfect, it was better. Fine motor skills and precision thought didn’t survive the HFTL trips well, but that was OK for the brutish ground combat troops. Massive troop carriers like the ones surrounding Ocherian now could be maneouvered almost anywhere in the galaxy within a matter of months. The only problem is that the carrier pilots could not go with them. Fine motor skills and precision thought are exactly what pilots need and it would not do to strip the pilots of these necessary attributes.

That problem stopped the invasion plans for a few months until one young physicists suggested sending the pilots first and the unmanned troop carriers much later. The unmanned carriers would be somewhat imprecise and could not actually attack lacking a human pilot, but they could certainly manage to emerge in a target as large as a star system. The pilots would travel slower, so as to preserve their abilities. They would leave long before the troop carriers and then rendezvous with them on the Claris side of the wormhole, transfer to their assigned carrier, wake the troops and start the invasion.

It was a good plan except that same young physicists made an error in time/space calculations. That error led to a series of alien ships dropping in the Claris system too close to the wormhole at too high a velocity. The pilots were unable stop their ships from blasting through the wormhole into the Sol system and crashing into the target planet. This allowed the humans to simply scoop up the pilots as they appeared.

Shortly after the first pilots arrived in the Claris system, Ocherian’s Ops Commander came to Ocherian’s office in the lavish Army HQ building and broke the bad news to him. The first few pilots hadn’t reported in after arrival and there was no reason to believe the rest would either. The ship markers showed the pilot ships dropping into normal space in the Claris system, but the velocity was all wrong. The best guess was that the pilots either crashed into something on the Claris side, or shot through the wormhole and something bad happened on the Sol side. This was the largest invasion ever planned and there simply were not enough pilots left to just send another batch.

Ocherian, embarrassed at the thought of his entire invasion force being captured, killed or dying from over-exposure to cryo-sleep immediately recalled his staff and began the long slow trip to the Claris system to see what could be done. By the time his dreadnought arrived, the last of the pilots had long since careened through the wormhole to the Sol system. When his command ship popped into real space, it was greeted silently by massive hulking troop carriers floating in space against the backdrop of some distant stars and the twinkling light coming through the wormhole from a system far way in normal space. There were no pilot ships and no sign of wreckage so it seemed the correct guess was that they overshot and ended up in the Sol system.

Ocherian’s scouts carefully worked their way through the wormhole to avoid detection. The human’s technology was good enough to detect an out of control ship blasting through the wormhole, but it was no match for special scout teams. The scouts quickly confirmed through crash sites and various local media sources that the pilots had been captured alive and held in various facilities around the planet. It was fairly easy to discover the location of most of the jail facilities because many of them looked very out of place, made with the same material, scattered in unlikely places to build. But just knowing the probable locations of the pilots was not enough to extract them. The intelligence teams kept pouring over the scouts’ recon data and continued to observe the planet in the hopes of stumbling across something usable.

It was the Signal Intelligence team that cracked it. It had detected a series of small, but loud, radio signatures coming from a number of facilities on the planet. Some of the obvious jails had a signature coming from them and a number of previously undetected facilities did as well. For reasons unknown, it seemed the humans were tagging their captors with radio beacons that were readable over large distances. The only perplexing issue was that there were less signals than there were missing pilots. So many fewer that Ocherian calculated there were not enough pilots on the planet to man enough ships to successfully defeat and occupy the planet.

Ocherian was resigned to the fact that this invasion was a failure. Without pilots there was no expectation of a successful invasion and, even worse, It may not even be possible to bring the cryo-sleeping troops back home. He was preparing a report containing this information for the Army Commander in the home system when his cabin bell sounded. He opened the door to find his SigInt officer obviously about to burst with some news. The SigInt team had detected more radio signals in the past few days since the initial discovery. They were popping up in facilities that had been marked as jails but did not have a beacon a few days ago as well as other facilities that were previously dark. It seemed that Ocherian’s ship had arrived while the tagging was in progress so it is just a matter of time until the location of all the living pilots would be known.

“Extract”. System Viceroy Ocherian gave the command to the transportation team shortly after the last beacon lit up on his display. Amazingly, it appeared that most of the pilots had survived and the number of beacons closely matched the number of pilots he had deployed to the system. It had been a long few months waiting on edge wondering how many beacons would light up. By the time the 40th beacon lit up, Ocherian knew he’d have enough pilots to continue the invasion. When the 55th beacon lit up, he knew he’d have enough pilots to win.

Ocherian’s gaze was locked in this view screen. For the first time since his arrival, the hulking black shapes around him came to life. First tiny pinpoints of light from the bridges, then running lights winked on, and finally engines lit up. Ship after ship came to life and status reports came flowing in through the inter-ship ops channel with information about everything from fuel status to cryogenic de-sleep progress. Speed was of the essence now. The humans would be in chaotic disarray as they discovered every alien in their jails across the planet had suddenly vanished and it would not take them long to suspect the worst.

Ocherian sighed happily as he watched his fleet’s operation metrics rise on the tactic display. This was going to be a good day.