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Only 25 days into the invasion, and already it was impossible to tell friend from foe. The slugs had come in hard, infesting rural towns with minimal resistance. It was as if they WANTED the things in their brains. Such a concept was too much for Jek to comprehend. Why anyone would want to become a mindless slave was unthinkable.

Now, a mind_ful_ slave, that was something else. Jek was himself a servant of the Order, the hard and often oppressive government that controlled his neck of the solar system. He adhered carefully to the Seven Laws and was just as careful to report those who didn't. He paid his taxes and got by on what was left, kept his ration card close and his rights card closer. Jek didn't claim it was easy in the Order, but it was better than what he knew of life under the slugs. The Order reported terrible things, horrors far beyond hunger and fear. No, life in the Order was nothing worth advertising, but it beat the alternative and that's why Jek enlisted.

The Order seemed to be getting desperate. The horrors reported over the tel-viz were gruesome, but it seemed the big picture was even worse than they made it seem. Every able-bodied man was being launched into the stars to fight the slugs, and those that became slaves just ended up being used against the Order. The Order was unwittingly giving the slugs the army they would use to eliminate humanity, and only now was Jek starting to get the big picture.

Or as much of the picture as a little man could get. Now he sat secured in a troop carrier, harnessed against the often sudden movements of the ship. Ten others were crammed in there with him, all flack vests, gear and weapons. No one spoke and everyone sweated. The men on either side of Jek stank of fear and the bubble gum they chewed to help pop their ears. Jek wished he had some to help his spitless mouth. First combat insertion.

"Ten seconds! Lock and load!" the squad daddy said from up near the hatch.

Jek, like the others, slapped the pulse charge held in one hand into its chamber in his forced-sonic assault rifle. He hit the charge lever and heard the tell-tale whine above the lower growl of the ship's engine.

"Stay sharp!" the squad daddy warned. "Weapons free! Shoot anything that moves! Men, women, boys, girls, cats and puppies! They're all taken by the slugs!"

Jek would obey that order without hesitation. The word "mercy" had disappeared from his vocabulary. He had heard too many stories about troops trying to spare children only to have their brains swiss-cheesed by the slugs. Jek had been forced to shoot his own brother. After that, he'd never second-guessed his trigger finger again.

Go time. The rear doors of the ship opened, and Jek felt the sickening sensation of his insides being tossled as he and his squadmates were dropped. As they reached 1,000 feet above ground, Jek could tell some horriffic fighting was ahead of him. For only the third time since the war began, the slugs were present in their true forms, along with their slaves. Blades glistening in the sun, they stared up at the descending troopers, waiting.

"You brain dead bastards!" Jek heard through his helmet radio. "You waitin' for an invitation?"

A black, warbling sonic stream snapped toward the ground, probably from the squad daddy. As if jarred to action, a dozen more blasts punched for the earth below. They leapt from Jek, from his squad mates and from all the other squads and platoons dropping with him like hail.

Jek dischared his weapon over and over. He didn't aim so much as spread his strikes around. He trusted randomness to find meat among the plentiful targets.

Then he was down. He touched earth amid chaos, slugs streaming away from landing troops, exploding like water balloons when struck by forced sonic blasts. The people, strangely, just stood there. They seemed in shock, eyes big, their mouths hanging open. Not soldiers, not a one as far as Jek could see, just ordinary people. And unarmed, without even a slug blade.

"Why?" a matronly woman near him asked, her tone both amazed and puzzled.

Jek shot her dead.

Jek's squadmates touched down all around him and fanned out into a defensive circle, slowly, painfully, expanding their sphere of influence. The slugs and their human slaves very rapidly recovering from their initial carelessness, and were again pressing their advantage with all they had. The miliatry intelligence supplied to Jek and his unit was awful, and it would take some miracle to get any of them out alive. Jek found himself facing a wave of advancing slugs. It looked to him that the moon of Tavarn was doomed. He continued his indiscriminate blasting, but something was wrong. Not even the exponentially breeding slugs would waste so many units without some higher objective.

The sickening scream of FS fire loaded the air, mixed with the stench of pummeled and flash-burned meat. All the slaves were dead as far as Jek could see, but he couldn't see very far in the smoke and the haze from vaporized slugs.

"Jek, Skinner, Halsey!" he heard through his helmet radio. "Look alive! Up front now!"

Jek wondered where "up front" was, then found the squad daddy off to his left. He hurried over, arriving just as the other men did.

"Okay, boys?" the squad daddy asked. Abrasive as he was, he seemed to care about his newbies.

"Five by five," Jek said.

"I don't get it," Skinner growled. "They wait on us, then run like hell, then they're back again. And the humans ain't worth horse turds, Sarge. They actin' all confused."

"Yeah," Halsey agreed, "and the slugs themselves aren't just up for it; they look pissed!"

The slugs seemed to be easing up their relentless pressure, at least for a moment, so Jek and his mates were left to check their gear and weapons while the squad daddy radioed in to platoon headquarters. When he rejoined the squad, he looked both concerned and bemused.

"Listen up, ladies," he barked on the squad command push. "Reports from higher are that the Slugs are advancing on all sides. Our orders are to link up with First and Third squads and move to the Company rendezvous point, where we will establish a defensive perimeter and wait until the brass figures out what the Slugs are scheming.

"Halsey, you go with the carrier and man the plasma cannon. The rest of you, we're on foot. Standard fire and movement by teams, five meter spacing. Watch your backs, people! Now, move out."

With that, the squad daddy turned in the direction they would be travelling and held his arms out and to his sides, indicating the line along which the rest of the squad would orient themselves. Jek and his fire team partner, Skinner, double timed to their position at the squad's right flank and waited for the squad daddy's order to move out. Jek wiped sweat from his eyes with the back of a dirt-streaked hand.

On the command "Go!" Jek brought his assault rifle to the ready position and tried to look everywhere at once. Switching to his fire team push with the clench of jaw muscles, he called out, "Covering," to which Skinner replied "Moving" and jogged forward about five paces. Skinner then assumed the ready position and the two partners switched roles. "Fire and movement" ensured at least half the squad was watching and/or wasting Slugs, while the other half moved the squad forward.

Jek had done fire and movement drills endlessly in basic training, and found he quickly slipped into the old routine: look for targets, run, look for targets, run. He was finishing his run when the slugs hit again. He saw the flash of white steel out of the corner of his eye, and dropped down to a kneeling position to better steady his weapon while Skinner advanced.

A slug to Jek's front split open like an over-ripe sausage as the black beam from his sonic rifle traced over its green-brown surface. Another exploded further off to his left, but for every Slug they brought down, it seemed to Jek like two more took their place. They were relentless.

The squad was soon forced to stop its forward movement. Jek thought they might be forced back for a while, but soon the cyan streak of the carrier's plasma cannon joined the troopers and added to the already incredible number of Slug carcasses strewn about in front of them. Jek was almost beginning to believe they'd drive back this wave as well when Skinner began to tremble, then shimmer, then explode in a silent flurry of blood and gore. Jek hit the dirt.

"Sonics!" Jek heard a scream over the squad push. "They got sonics!"

Explosions. Confusion. Slugs and troops alike burned and shattered at the end of black, warbling snakes. The FS fire mounted, seeking everything, destroying everyone.

A blast struck the ground at Jek's feet. He felt the itch of the air it disturbed. Then he was down, and knew no more.

#

He awoke on his back. Adobe overhead, bridging the space between heavy timbers. He blinked and looked to one side. A man sat in a wooden chair there, leaning toward the bed in which Jek lay. The flitting shadows of candlelight partly hid his features, but he was old and his eyes regarded Jek with intensity.

"Awake? You rest easy for an assassin."

Jek started onto his elbows. He glanced around the dark room.

"Please, don't. An attempt at escape would be a foolish thing at the head of other damned fool things."

"Why are you holding me?"

The man huffed and stroked his chin. "Interesting choice of question. 'So, senator, how long have you denied beating your wife?' No one's holding you, son. You've been rescued."

"Rescued?" Jek spat disbelief. "You sluggie slaves and your masters! You attacked us with swords and sonics!"

"No, they didn't," a new voice said. The squad daddy stepped from a recess of shadows. "If you recall, newbie, _we_ attacked _them_."

Jek inched toward the head of his bed. "Sarge? Sergeant Gehring? What are you saying? Did they get to you? Did they co-opt your mind?"

The squad daddy sighed, then said to the older man, "This is gonna take some time."

"Yes," the stranger nodded, then turned to Jek. "They haven't taken his mind, young man. Nor mine, nor yours. They haven't done so because they can't. All that, it's a fiction." He leaned closer, his fingers intertwined between his knees. "It's time to face your fictions, son. They are many and they are deep. Unfortunately, they may also be painful."

Jek didn't know what to think. A wrench was being thrown into the carefully crafted gears of his existence, and his mind violently resisted it. "What are you talking about? How can I know you aren't slug agents?"

"Tavarn was just a distraction. The slugs dropped here in mass numbers to lure as many of our forces as they could. Like gullible fools, we went charging in to beat them off a barely colonized world of little importance." The squad daddy, Gehring, bowed his head gravely. "With half the fleet here, they brought more units than we could have imagined to bear on Earth. I'm sorry, Jek. Earth is under complete slug control now. Forty billion people are dead. We lost half the fleet..." His voice trailed off.

Jek couldn't believe it. He wouldn't believe it. He had to be dreaming, in the middle of some twisted nightmare. He squeezed his eyes shut. Any minute now he would wake up.

An image of the brother he'd slain swam up in his mind's eye. That last blank stare in Rob's eyes before the gun went off... Jek opened his eyes again. Anything to keep from reliving that moment. But the nightmare hadn't ended. The old man and Gehring were still there, waiting, staring at him with solemn eyes.

What did they want from him?

Jek jumped up, and with trained efficiency, grabbed his nearby sonic rifle and leveled it on the stranger and Gehring. "I want answers."

"And answers you'll get," Gehring said soothingly. "The fact that the slugs can infest human minds is only a half-truth. The fact is, they have not yet perfected their enslavement techniques to the point that they could take anyone. They can only enslave those that come to them VOLUNTARILY. So, to get recruits, they have begun propaganda champaigns to make it seem as though slug infestation is their only hope of survival. The funny thing is, somehow it WORKS. We believe they may be adding chemicals to their messages that serve to persuade the brain to trust what it hears. Sadly, that's just the beginning of it..."

"Just the beginning!?"

"Yes. With earth gone, humanity has no place to call home. As you know, all the other planets with human establishments aren't much, with the bulk of their resources coming from earth. Half the fleet is gone, and the slugs now control 60% of our space. Colonists are giving themselves over to the slugs because they fear all is lost. One colony turns itself over every twelve hours."

"You can't be serious."

"I'm afraid I am. Everything that's left of our fleet is spread too thin to effectively battle the slugs. Our last hope lies in mounting an all-out assault on either Earth, to reclaim it, or the slug homeworld of Kryyshack, deep in slug-controlled space. We still don't know what choice to make."

Things must have been pretty bad for a squad daddy to admit uncertainty. The idea was unsettling to Jek. He had always just taken orders; he didn't make the decisions.

It seemed to him, though, that Earth was _their_ world, and no slug had a right to claim it. They knew it better than any other. And what did they know about Kryyshack? Why struggle through the gauntlet to some strange rock deep behind enemy lines, when their homeworld was right there for the reclaiming?

But the squad daddy seemed broken, resigned to defeat. Jek snorted. _We don't know what to do_, he mocked silently. Jek wouldn't give up that easily. Maybe it was time for him to stop taking orders from this tired weakling and start giving them. He'd find other soldiers of like mind. They'd make their way to Earth with or without their commanders and take it back.

For now, he'd play along, pretend to be the dutiful grunt, listen to what these punks had to say. He didn't have much in mind yet, except to return to Earth and crush the slugs in control of it. But he was sure a plan would solidify once he had more supporters.

With those thoughts in mind, Jek lowered the sonic rifle. "May I speak freely, sir?"

"Why not..." There was something in his tone Jek didn't like.

"Why are we even considering Kryyshack? Earth is our world! We need to reclaim it."

"I don't know, son, I'm just reporting the intelligence as I have it."

_And maybe this poor intelligence is why we find ourselves in our current situation._ Jek thought. "Sir, if it is all right with you, I'd like to be assigned to the earth liberation force, and be dismissed to get my things ready."

"Don't assume our target will be Earth. If it is, I'll do my best to grant your request. Now then, you can go get your gear in order."

Permission procured, Jek left to get ready for the fight of his life, a fight in which he would probably have to break all the rules to stay alive. Winning was nothing more than the distant light at the end of the tunnel...

******

Several muted conversations burbled in the makeshift barracks after the disastrous encounter. Jek only listened, marked men he thought could help his cause. Below him, Byrd and Halsey whispered back and forth. "I've heard that Kryyshack's better than Earth. Earth's all polluted and dirty and torn up. Kryyshack's a paradise compared to our world."

"Shut-up, Byrd!" spat Halsey. "That's just Slug propaganda. And if I ever hear it coming out of your mouth again, I'll cut out your tongue!"

"I don't wanna join them. I'm just saying maybe--if Kryyshack is such a great place--we should go and take it from them. Let them have Earth. We'll take their world."

"Who's seen Kryyshack, huh? You, Byrd? No human has ever been to Slugworld and back with his mind still working, so you expect us to believe the slugs are telling us the truth? It's just another one of their dirty tricks to get us to run straight into an ambush.

"I say we take Earth. I'm sure the slugs haven't put down all the resisters there. They couldn't possibly have taken full control of the entire planet. There are still people on our side on the surface. We gotta get back there before it's too late."

"It's already too late," Fagan chimed in, reclining in the top bunk across from Jek.

"You, too, Fagan?"

"Heel, boy," he replied, smiling grimly down on Halsey. "No one ever talked about cutting off the slugs' supply route from their home space. I say it's time for a little guerilla warfare. Hit them where it hurts then scatter before they have time to mount a defense. Plant an ambush force where they cross into our space. Disrupt their communications network."

"Yeah," Halsey agreed hesitantly, "but command's sitting on its thumbs."

"It's true," Jek commented. "I'm just beginning to see how deeply the well of command's incompetence runs. We should never have lost earth."

"Amen to that," a random soldier chimed in.

"We need to take earth back while we still can," Jek commented.

Halsey sat up. "I'd love to, but comand won't pass the orders."

"There are those within us who would do it without command's go ahead," Jek hinted.

"Why don't we take both worlds?" Byrd opined.

"With half the fleet destroyed!" Halsey stammered, unbelieving. "Are you retarded? That isn't even close to being possible!"

"Sitting here arguing over it isn't going to get anything done," Jek said, a hint of annoyance creeping into his tone. "It's time to take action, whether we have command's _permission_ or not. This is our home, guys. Are you just going to let these slugs write our eviction notice?"

"It seems they already have," Fagan said, looking at his feet.

"You got a plan, Jek?" Halsey asked with interest.

"You guys are nuts. If the slugs don't do you in, command will have your tails for something like this," Byrd said, shaking his head.

"I might have a plan," Jek replied to Halsey, making it a point to ignore Byrd. "But first I want to know who's with me. Anyone else... Sayonara! We don't need your criticism and doubts. You're with me or not, no riding the fence on this one." The other men sat silently, reluctant to speak.

"You're talking about suicide," Byrd mused quietly.

"Possibly," Jek admitted. "I for one, think it's worth the risk." They were all silent for a few moments.

"Well damn!" Halsey exclaimed. "If I'm going to die it might as well be for something. Count me in."

One by one they each put in their votes, all for, even if a few were reluctant. Jek relaxed a little. Perhaps being a leader wouldn't be that difficult after all. He barely kept from letting a satisfied smile creep to his lips as he began to divulge his plan.

"Everybody remembers what happened here, right? The slugs duped us while they took our homeworld. I suggest a similar tactic. However, the first thing we need to get is more followers. Millions, if we can manage it. Retaking Earth will require thousands of men, minimum. When we have enough support, our faction leaders on each ship will mutiny and take total control. With the fleet under our control we send a few ships to Kryyshack, to harass the slugs and provide a distraction. The rest of us go to Earth. That's the basic of it, but I'll get more details as we recruit more followers. Two dozen people isn't going to buy us back Earth. Now, how do you propose we go about getting the... say, 20 million troops we're going to need?"

Silence owned the barracks. They stared at him as if he were insane.

"Wait a minute," Fagan said, "I heard we captured some of the Slug mild-altering technology. Our biggest obstacle is low morale, among the soldiers and on our colony worlds. If we can get hold of that technology and figure out how to program it, we can use it on other humans, convince them we can't lose. Then they would be up for anything."

"Even if that's true," said Byrd, "even if we did capture mind-altering technology, that technology has to be under heavy guard. First, we would have to find out where command is keeping it--if it exists--and then we would have to figure out how to get to it. Not to mention figuring out how to use something designed by beings with an entirely different way of thinking."

Halsey shot Byrd a dirty look. Jek wondered if they would end up having to lock Byrd in a closet somewhere while they got things done--or even while they _discussed_ getting things done. Naysayers might eventually betray them to command.

Even though Jek didn't like it, he had to concede to Byrd's logic. "Byrd's right. We don't know where such technology is, if we even have it. Besides, we'd need more recruits anyway. The two dozen of us wouldn't be enough to steal such equipment."

At this point, Allison Washington, one of the more soft spoken privates, spoke up. "Are you seriously considering the use of such technology? Taking over the minds of our fellow humans would make us no better than those world- stealing slugs." Her voice quivered. "We just can't do that."

"I'm afraid we may have to." Jek replied.

Silence returned again to the barracks, the rebellious soldiers lost in thought.

#

Only a hundred or so feet away, squad daddy Michael Gehring lit a cigarette to cover his disappointment. He glanced around the small, dark room as he drew on the stick and released a blast of smoke. He was secretly pleased when the slug beside him recoiled. Disgusting things. He didn't like them, not even now that he needed to, not even now that he and they were allied.

Mr. Carter sat in a hard plastic chair just in front of Gehring and the slug. He leaned away from the electronics surveillance set on the rickety table before him. He leaned away from the voices of soldiers planning treason. His old face seemed more lined than usual.

"So, we've failed with them," he said, sighing.

"Perhaps not," the slug responded. He spoke no verbal language, but emitted a series of sloshes and snaps communicated through his gelatinous skin. After months in the company of the viscous bastards, Gehring understood fairly good slug. And they understood human.

"What? We should bring in a bunch that would suck out our brains for advantage? Sounds like bad news to me."

"They are willing to risk much to save their world," the slug burbled.

"Did you hear their plan? They wouldn't know a reasonable idea if it bit them on the ass."

"I don't know," Mr. Carter said. "We can't be choosers. We need allies, and they are hard in coming. If we want to save Earth from the Kryyshack Factionary -- and from the Order that started this mess -- then we need recruits."

"Do not forget my own world," the slug rattled and sloshed. "My people, too, fight the Factionary. It is an evil beyond the senses. It is a people gone insane."

"And it's your people," Gehring sneered, and put out his cigarette on the slug's quivering hide. It sank a few millimeters into the creature, and stayed there. The beast didn't seem to notice. The cartilage skeleton within the jello turned toward Gehring, its sharp, spiny structure expanding within its goop.

"My people, but driven by your own," it shot back. "Your Order came to Kryyshack for conquest. Their effrontery sparked the madness."

Gehring snorted. "I won't excuse the Order if you don't excuse that amazing lack of self-control."

"Michael, Rakwadd, that is enough. We are waging a war that will be extremely difficult to win, and petty trifles now will get us nowhere." Carter let a pointed silence hang over the room.

"I apologise," Rakwadd said, his slug body rippling. "You are correct."

"You're right, Carter," Gehring replied. "I'll watch myself better."

"Good." Carter got back to the point, now that his two frontrunners were done bickering. "The Order is an opressive group seeking to expand their influence wherever they go, while keeping their thumbs securely up their collective asses. Their incompetence cost us Earth. The Kryyshack Factionary is greedily seeking revenge, and territory of their own, which is costing the slugs their lives and resources."

"We know all this," Rakwadd interrupted. "Are you getting to a point?"

"My point is this: we need allies just as pissed off at the way things are going as we are. We need troops, we need leadership. Jek may be just the kind of man we are looking for."

"You can't be serious," Gehring growled. "The man's barely seen combat action, besides the fact that he's a wild card. We can't trust him. He's ready to stab us in the back. And what makes you think he's going to trust us or follow our orders any longer?"

"That's why we have to make him think he's leading, when it is we who are pulling the strings," was Carter's quiet answer. Gehring chewed the inside of his cheek. He was growing weary of all the carefully crafted layers of deceit.

"Uh-huh," he grunted. "I'll pull his strings all right." He pushed roughly for the door, jostling Carter and shoving aside the massive gelatinous form of the slug.

"Gehring! Wait!" he heard, but only quickened his stride as he hit the bright outdoors. The remainder of his original assault force was not idle even if small. Soldiers sat under tall pines and on tarps spread over green grass. They cleaned weapons and sorted gear, and some pestered the supply chief at his rickety lean-to centered in the camp. Three long modular buildings enclosed the bivouac on all but one side and smaller mods like the one he had left peppered the open end. Gehring cut across camp toward the rightmost mod and yelled to the supply chief on the way. "Chief! Shacks! I'll sign for 'em later!"

The chief immediately tossed two thick plastic rings. Gehing caught them without breaking stride, then crashed through the door of his intended destination.

"Come to quarters!" he bellowed.

Twenty-odd soldiers sprang from bunks and idle huddles and came to rigid attention. Gehring weaved through them like an armed and released smart missile, rushed right up to Jek as he bolted up from his bunk. He slammed a fist into the private's face. The force of the punch threw Jek back, but Gehring grabbed the front of his shirt before he could fall to the bunk.

"Stupid son of a bitch! Did you think we wouldn't know? Did you think we were so deaf?" He tossed the dazed soldier backward onto his sheets and reached into the frame of the upper bunk to withdraw the electronic surveillance device. He showed it around to all present. "Jesus!" he roared. "You can't throw a rock in here without hitting a dipshit!"

For effect, he snapped the device at Jek, hitting him square in the chest.

Jek bolted up, ready to fight the man if he made another move, but Carter's voice stopped him. "Jek! Gehring! Stop this now!" Carter had produced a small sidearm, and had it leveled on Gehring's temple. "I have no tolerance for insubordination."

"Carter, you can't honestly..."

"Silence!" Carter bellowed. "I didn't want this so soon." He looked over to Jek. "Forgive Gehring. He's not too incredibly intelligent. I'm afraid I must inform you that we have known about your plans from the very beginning."

"Then you're here to arrest me," Jek stated.

"Hardly. I've come to offer you a place on the leadership team for our upcoming strike on Earth. You can bring three others as assistants. Who do you chose?"

"What kind of game is this?" Jek demanded.

"No game. I'm serious, now choose."

There was an extended pause. "Fine. I'll take Fagan, Halsey, and Private Washington."

"Very well." Carter lowered his weapon. "You four, come with me."

Carter led the four back into the main command center and down a series of deserted hallways before reaching a large conference room. "In here." Carter keyed a short combination and the door opened.

Jek stepped through the open door and immediately noticed the slug. Reflexively, he reached for a sidearm he didn't have. "What the hell is this?" Jek pointed to the offending creature. It was easily the largest slug he'd ever seen in its natural form.

"Jek, meet Rakwadd. Rakwaad is a command-class slug. Command-class slugs grow to triple the size of the mind- control slugs you're used to."

Fagan, Halsey, and Washington entered, each as surprised to see the massive slug as Jek had been. "You let Godzilla slug here enter our base...alive?" Halsey stammered. "It belongs in the bio-labs!"

The slug rippled with anger.

"Relax, Halsey," Carter said smoothly, ushering the soldiers to seats. "Let's get to business, shall we?"

The soldiers took seats around the table, and Jek broke the silence. "Why are we here?" He asked bluntly. "And who do you work for?"

"My name is John Carter, and I work for a newly-formed organization called the Symbiosis Project. This organization is made up of humans who want to libearate Earth, and slugs who want to see the imperialism of the Kryyshack Factionary come to an end. To meet these ends, we've assembled a modest fleet of human and slug vessels, and we're looking to increase our numbers."

"Why are we here?" Jek repeated.

"You are here because I feel that you have what it takes to lead our human forces in the battle for Earth. Right now, we still don't have the strength necessary to win such a battle."

"That comes as no surprise," Washington said, with a hint of bitterness.

Rakwadd stretched out to his full length. "We do, however, have a plan to fix that."

With Carter serving as interpreter, as Gehring was the only other one who understood slug, Rakwadd went over the Symbiosis Project's plan to get the forces it needed to take the fight to Earth. They outlined propaganda campaigns that were both honest and campaigns that were aided by slug-induced response hormones. They talked of plans to assassinate members of the Order's top ranks. For hours they layed out their grand plans, with Jek and his comrades asked questions as the need arose.

After all was finished, a bewildered Jek looked at Carter and simply asked, "...And where do you want us to begin?"

"We need to start with the assassinations," Carter replied. "Without some of the top figures in the Order, morale for the troops will plummit, making it easier to get recruits to genuinely WANT to join our cause."

"Who are we targeting?" Jek asked.

"Allen Kompston, the grand sky marshal. He's one of the most respected figures in the whole Order fleet." Carter turned to Washington. "Washington, I want to know if you'd be up for doing the assassination yourself. I feel that you would be the most unlikely candidate for such an act, and that will take you far through Order security."

"I'll do it," she replied after a moment's pause.

"Great," Carter replied warmly. "The rest of you are dismissed for now. Allison, please stay for your briefing."

The soldiers marched back to their barracks, and Jek wondered what he had gotten Washington into.

#

"That chump pulled a gun on you, man."

Gehring stopped stuffing his pack and looked around for the voice. Thicowic, one of those squad daddys from an orphaned unit picked up after the battle, stood hands in pockets behind him. She looked hard, pissed and petulant in her thin brunette frame. Arrayed to her flanks were two other squad leaders and several of their troops. They all looked at Gehring, ignoring the secretive mutterings of the other soldiers around them.

"That Carter," Thicowic continued. "I ain't likin' this much."

"I know," Gehring said, and stuffed the last of his things in the pack. "I ain't liking it, neither."

"You told us to sign on to this."

"I was mistaken."

"You leavin'?"

"Damned straight."

"We're comin' with."

"Oh really?" Gehring asked sarcastically. "I'm done with this whole goddamned war. I don't plan on taking any followers with me." He hoisted the duffel bag strap over his shoulder and made for the door.

"I see," Thicowic replied icily. "And what if I said that I got the access codes to two Nebula-class star cruisers?"

"I'd say find someone else to play grand theft starship with."

"Gehring, with those ships, we could make our way to an isolated planet, far from both the Order and the slugs, and establish our own government. Nobody'd bother us none out there. You ain't interested, even a little bit?"

"No." He made his way firmly toward the door.

All of a sudden, the man stopped. " What, forgot your determination on the way? " asked Thicowic.

No one answered. Gehring just stood still, as if he had just remembered something. Thicowic approached him.

" Hei, you still with us? "

Still no answer. Thicowic put her hand on his shoulder. The squad daddy fell to the floor as if he had been struck by lightning. He wasn't breathing and his eyes were wide open.

" Oh, no."

Janis Thicowic took a glimpse of the entire room. Everyone just stood there, unable to speak or even breathe, just as Gehring had done before. She felt a hand on her shoulder and her brain squeezing inside her head painfully.

" Oh, no. "

In no more than a moment she was just like the rest of them... puppets, just waiting for the puppeteer to pull the strings.

***

Allen Kompston, the Grand Sky Marshal for the Order Fleet, strode confidently up to his dias as he prepared to give the biggest speech of his life. It was time to order the entire fleet into a last ditch attack to retake Earth. It was also to be his last speech, though he didn't know that.

"Citizens of the Order," Kompston began once he was situated. "We are in a grave situation. Our very existance is threatened by the slugs. It is time for decicive action. We WILL retake the planet Earth!" Cheers rose from the politicians assembled to watch the historic speech.

Hidden in the vents overhead, Allison began to assemble her sniper rifle.

***

It was over.

It was all over.

Time and money and tears and brave speeches have been wasted on an already lost war.

There were no slugs, there had been no war. There had been only people trying to take over other people through their very own minds. Only a bunch of weird halucinations meant to create the illusion of a war and of the slugs.

And it had succeeded pretty well ever since the people had first put on those VR helmets. Ever since then, the dream and the addiction to the dream had taken over their lives and their minds.

It was over.

It was all over.

And no turning back. They needed the drug too much now to ever be able to set themselves free.

#

"Jesus H. Christ in a handbasket, what the hell is this?" Mr. Benjamin E. Gardner, agent to the stars in literary science fiction, grand poobah of the New York publishing clique, slammed the manuscript onto his desk. His pencil holder jumped, his stapler rattled, the silver- framed photograph of his dear wife fell over onto its face. His visitor, until that moment comfortably ensconced in a leather chair facing the literary mogul's desk, jolted upright and yelped. Benjamin E. Gardner hardly noticed. He snatched up a cigar smoldering in an ashtray and puffed thunderheads of smoke. "I'm a busy man, you bastard, and you bull your way into my office with this?"

The visitor shrank into his seat. He glanced around nervously, as if seeking escape. But Gardner held him fast with a vitriolic glare.

"Umm, Mr. Gardner," the man ventured under that glower, "I don't think it's all that bad. I think it's quite, er, literary?"

"Literary? Christ, son, have you read it? Mind-controlling slugs? VR drugs? Intelligent privates? Did you notice they just kind of jumped out of their spaceships there at the beginning? Just jumped out! No parachutes, no enveloping inertia-dampening gel, no nothing! Then it was slugs control the mind, slugs don't control the mind, slugs do control the mind, nothing goes anywhere! Who the hell has a name like Thicowic, anyway? If I didn't know better, I'd swear this was written by six or eight different people at once, not one of which can even spell the word 'collaborate.' And you claim you wrote this?"

"Well, yes sir," the visitor mewled. "But really, Mr. Gardner, life doesn't often follow a predictable sequence?"

"Great Caesar's ghost!"

"?or complete its story arcs in nice, neat denouements?"

"GiminyChristmas!"

"?but is more often messy and, well, senseless."

"Peter, Paul and the Virgin Mary, I don't agent for life, I agent for fiction! Get the unholy hell out of my office, you hack, and take that stack of toilet paper with you!"

The visitor did. He scrambled from the office, indeed from the floor. Then he slowed, sighed, and plodded sagging-shouldered to the roof. He waited in line thirty minutes for a ballistic transport to Peoria, stood glum-faced in his torpedo all the way to sub-orbit and back to the catcher in Illinois. His expression stayed the same as he took a Segway taxi back to his small, shoddy apartment complex behind a strip mall at the edge of town. He dragged himself dejectedly up three flights of stairs to the door of his ratty dwelling. His key made a sound like jail in the lock.

As he entered the apartment and closed the door behind him, the huge wriggling slug in the middle of his living room wriggled even more from excitement.

"Greetings!" it said in burbles and blats. "What news of your efforts to warn the human race?"

"It didn't work," the man sighed. "He threw me out of his office."

"That cannot be! Yours is the record of the end of civilization on Betel- 5 gamma! It is true, as I gave it to you, down to the very word, except that we changed the name to Earth! How could he refuse it?"

"He said it didn't make any sense."

"Of course it doesn't! Nothing ever does! He must publish the historical document and thus warn your planet! My factionary will make first contact soon! You must be forewarned."

The man sighed again, so deeply now that his chest nearly imploded. He tossed his keys onto a nearby table and the manuscript onto the floor. "Oh, well, " he said, "we'll try again tomorrow. Maybe an Internet zine this time?" [done?]

The slug shook its head dejectedly. "An Internet zine...? No. Nobody reads those."

The man sighed again, nodded. He walked to the refrigerator, calling over his shoulder, "Hey Sluggo..want a beer?"

The slug plopped down in a recliner and picked up a remote. "Sure. Toss me a Schlitz. Earth may be doomed, but at least we still have Fox TV's Temptation Island."

The man tossed the slug its beer and sat down in another chair. "Amen," he replied. "Amen."

The man watched no more than a few seconds of big breasts and hard chests before it hit him. As he listened to the woman in the ity bity pink bikini stutter and looked toward the camera men for help, he just knew. Reality shows weren't real from the plastic bodies to the scripts behind the cameras. Society was already being trained to over look the truth and accept a falsehood that it prefered.

Nudgeing the manuscript with his toe, he wondered if changing Private Washingtons breast size and giving the slugs fangs would help. After all, no one liked too much reality. [done?]

Only to awake in his cell again.

"We can keep this up indefinitely, Mr. Flynn."

"I don't know what you want from me! I was only following orders. I don't know where the main Fleet is!" Flynn answered.

"Please, Mr. Flynn. Do not insult our intelligence. We have your sworn statement right here. You colloborated with the Enemy. You admit taking part in that ridiculous propaganda campaign. It's all so easy. Just tell us the names of your comrades, and we'll let you sleep without those disturbing dreams.."

"I don't know what you're talking about. I didnt make any confession. I never collaborated with anyone!" Flynn said. But it was starting to come back to him. What had Jek said--'once in the Order, always in the Order?'

"We don't intend to argue legalities with you. Your statement will hold up in the Tribunal. We know what you did, and you will be punished for that. The only question is whether you want to make it a little easier by giving us the names!"

"C'mon Flynn, ol' buddy. Why make it any harder on yourself than you have to? We'll find they anyway," a voice said. Only this was a different voice. It was a voice he recognized.

"Jek? Is that you Jek? I thought they'd killed you!" Flynn said.

"I got beat up pretty bad. But I made it out. Listen, you just have to give us one name. I doesn't even have to be a big shot even," Jek said. He sounded as though he were standing just out of Flynn's reach.

"But the slugs never meant any harm! The Order fought that war for nothing! You guys killed thousands of innocent people," Flynn said.

"Not for nothing. And it doesn't matter what a bunch of filthy slugs wanted anyway. You'll see. Just give us the name. It will be fine, you'll see," Jek said.

Flynn was so tired--so tired. If only they would let him sleep even an hour without the nightmares.

**

And so it was that "Flynn's" nightmare, and the nightmares of all those he knew, did at last come to an end. The Kryyshackian Special Forces brigades, topped off, finally, with the honored 144 recruits who had survived the psych-screening, settled into its final 12-day cycle of hibernation before moving en-masse against earth. The black sonic threads which had tortured their dreams all these months would, in fact, not molest a single earthling. The only thing humans, and all living things on the pretty planet would hear, would be a whisper; a subtle rushing sound from above, as they and everything they ever contemplated evaporated in a single, gentle wisp of purple light. [done?]

Everything was gone. For when the peoples of the outer planets returned several decades later to the soils of earth, what they found was devistation. The appearance of nuclear aftershock still hung in the air. Endless piles of rubble made the skin of the earth. Small patches of grass and concrete peeked through the ragged chaos. An occasional tree trunk, void of branches or bark stood high on the hills and plateaus. What started as disbelief slowly turned into hatred, hatred for a species that years ago had moved on, taking with it the last known enhabitants of earth and leaving behind the dispair and hoplessness that lay all around us.

One of the men in the group spoke up saying, "This is what we all wanted."

"Who are you and why say such things?" asked Marcus of Eros 2.

"I am Eric Well of Eros 3 Research Team and my whole life people wished to 'know in the past that which they now knew', right? Well, this is the past and we do know! It's like knowing the result of one path and starting over from scratch!"

Most looked around at the group and realized the fate that would befall them if they too made the wrong decisions of their ancestors. They faced the challenge of rebuiding a planet, a culture, and all that it entails.

One of the scientists in the group likened it to a group of mercenaries walking into ancient Rome with the knowledge and skills of today proclaiming, "Okay, we know what won't work, now lets build your Utopia!"

I, Jason Barok of Eros 4, though sceptacle, have read much about the idea of Utopia and believe that with the help of these men and women and a little guidance and cooperation we can survive. Problems will occur, but now they will be new problems never before seen as we are building the framework of Utopian society. And so now I find twelve women, twenty men, two dogs, and myself standing at the shuttle landing site looking out at the Rocky mountains in the distance with a hopeful smile forming in my heart and mind. Despite everything...today was a good day.

*********************************************************** ***************

"If history has proven anything, it is that the human race is resilient," Kompston continued, "and unbeatable." Another roar of approval rose from the crowd. In moments, Allison had completed assembling her weapon. Just a few moments more and Allen Kompston would become a mere footnote in the history he had just mentioned.

Allison still couldn't reason out what the Symbiosis hoped to accomplish through these assassinations, but she felt sure that Carter and Rakkwad had things figured out. If they didn't, they would quickly lose Jek's confidence, and losing Jek meant losing everyone else he had recruited. Jek had a way of talking to the privates that made them all listen, despite the fact that he was a bottom-level pawn. Somehow with that mouth of his, he had moved right up to the rank of rook.

And so Jek addressed the privates.

Men, this stuff we hear about the Symbiosis not wanting to do these assassinations, not wanting to kill, is a lot of bull hockey. Symbiosians love to assassinate - traditionally. All real Symbiosians love the sting and clash of assassination. When you were kids, you all admired the champion marble player; the fastest runner; the big league ball players; the toughest boxers. Symbiosians love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Symbiosians despise cowards. Symbiosians play to win - all the time. I wouldn't give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed. That's why Symbiosians have never failed, nor ever will fail to do an assassination, for the very thought of failing to assassinate is hateful to a Symbiosian.

As Jek finished up with the last part of his speech, he noticed several of the privates whispering and snickering amongst themselves.

"What is your malfunction, private?" Jek singled out a skinny-looking runt of a boy.

"Uh, sir! Nothing sir!" The young man snapped to attention.

"Out with it now, private, or I'll have the whole platoon doing double-time on your behalf!"

"Sir, I...Uh, the private was just trying to imagine a Symbiosian champion marble player, Sir."

Jek nearly burst out laughing, and it was only with great restraint that he managed to maintain his dour expression. The private had a point: a Symbiosian marble player wouldn't be respected, nor would he be likely to live long in the their world.

*Bad analogy,* Jek mused.

"Boy, try to pay attention. I've asked someone to come speak to you so you'll get a better feel for the Symbiosians. Lt. Flynn, if you will?" Jek said, motioning to a thin, worn looking man in a too crisp uniform.

Flynn stiffly marched up to Jek's side.

"Hello," Flynn began, clearing his throat and taking a moment to gather his thoughts. Some of the men shuffled their feet and others just stared blankly.

"I am Lt. Flynn and as Jek mentioned I am here to offer some insight into the Symbiosians. Some of you may already know about them and others may not have a clue." He paused and looked around. Most of the group were attentative but he noticed a few that looked like they wanted to be someplace else. He chose his next words carefully for maximum shock value.

"Both Jek and I are Symbosians."

There was a collective gasp and suddenly everyone seemed eager to pay attention.

"I know...I know," Lt. Flynn said placatingly. "Let me explain. Jek and I were approached by a certain John Carter. Some of you may recognize the name. Some call him the 'father' of Symbosians. Anyway, he approached us and explained that the Symbiosis Project, as it was then known as, was the next step to Earth's liberation. It was to be the perfect alliance between man and slug. Both groups fighting a common enemy and hoping for liberation. I don't know how many here know this but the slugs actually have no love for war. They just want to see the end of what they call the imperialism of the Kryyshack Factionary. Well, the good news is, together, the alliance has managed to liberate the Earth, but the bad news is that the Symbiosians have only met half their goal. We have one more mission to take care of which is, of course, the absolute removal of the Kryyshack Factionary. This is where you guys actually come in. We need your help. When we embarked on this mission we never imagined being as successful as we have been. Of course, there are some people who would disagree because of the sorry condition that the Earth has been left in. However, thankfully, we have teams of people who still believe that we can rebuild our home world and maybe even make it better then what it was before. We have the knowledge and we are willing to use it.

But, all that aside, we actually owe it to the slugs to give them a fighting chance to take back what they have lost. If you join us we will have a chance at being successful. Right now, even as I speak, we have an operative who is about to change the whole course of this war. She is about to assassinate a target...actually the word 'target' is too nice...make that a puppet. A puppet who has been in power far too long and who has managed to cause more damage then the best the slugs threw at us at the start of the war. When that operative completes her mission it will be up to us take on the final and most crucial battle. Are you with us? Are you against us? Either way, let us know. Jek will answer all questions. As for me, I am going to get some much needed rest and I will leave you to your decision.

President Atchkinson of Eros 4 looked out the window and onto the lonely solitary horizon. "so... how goes it?"

"The new arrivals have been well informed of allison's intentions at the summit." Secretary of the independece foundation said.

"Good, hopefully truth will prevail." President Atchkinson said.

"President Atchkinson, a mr. Bulwark is here to see you." A voice chimed over the intercom.

"Send him in." the president said.

The man, a large figure with square jaw entered.

"Aww, Mr. Bullwark. Good to have you here. I presume you know what I have called you in here for?" The president said picking up a folder from off a utilitarian desk of unknown material.

"I have been told that it was my ability to think for myself during my time battling the slugs sir." Bulwark said, seeming to stand like an immovable object at parade rest.

"Yes yes. Be that as it may..." The president gestured to the secretary watson. A sound warp enveloped the office. "Secretary Watson, under the guise of a think tank has culled together military officers of both human and slug forces that are best suited to our purposes. As you know there are thousands of factions producing propaganda. Some think the war between the slugs and humans is still going on while some think we have peace, and yet others think, well, other things. Our objective is to merely identify the truth and hopefully set up a government for both our species, that, while autonomous for each can be accomplished by the ritual collation of facts and propaganda and the elimination of people who don't, I dread the phrase, 'think for themselves'. I have had watson create a dossier on a preeminent human leading one of the more harmful of propaganda and mind control programs. Granted, he does work with the slugs, but they're thought processes are much like humans, and the one's he has allied with himself..."

Atchkinson handed him the folder. Bulwark looked at it and through it and smiled. "I see," he said. "Now, if that is all?"

*********************************************************** *

"What?! You're telling me that all the propaganda for the war was started before the war? I don't buy into that, though it would explain why so much of it focused on the dissolution of physio-conscious warping drugs each side had introduced to their populations is important. The universe wouldn't necessarily be torn apart, but, as they say, 'one man's heaven is another man's hell'."

"Look," said Jek, "calm down." His brow furrowed and, as he pressed his fingers hard into the tense mucsles, Jek felt yet another migraine coming on. He'd noticed the headaches increasing in frequency and intensity since achieving symbiosis. "It's all been laid out for you. I'm happy to answer questions, but let's not go over the basics again. On one level I think you're getting closer to the point of induction - what is the truth and what is lies? How will we discover the reality of our own lives? Those are questions worth asking."

Jek thought silently to himself, "and when will we stop being pawns? Is it our destiny to always be lost in this world?" He felt a sudden pain, different from the ache behind his eyes, as his train of thoughts somehow lead him back to Private Washington.

How could it be that this was now so complicated? Looking back and seeing his younger self, a fighter not a frontline politician, who knew absolute right from wrong. It was all black and white. Washington had been a fighter too. Her sacrifice was etched in Jek's mind as his first moment as a propaganda tool. How could he explain to these young soldiers what he had come to lean, that this world was only intangible grey? He looked back into the young man's eyes and regained his composure.

"The phys-con dope," said Jek, "yeah ok. We fought a long war there, soldier, and although lives were lost it was not in a pitched battle like you will be seeing here. It was and remains a battle of the mind. Sure, it started way back in the twentieth century with hyponotic suggestion - the dream of a television in every home. Then drug trials in what was known as 'fast food' to pre-empt the mass infiltration of drinking water systems. But we stopped that over a hundered years ago." He continued to look into the earnest young recruits' eyes, knowing again the awful pain.

Jek threw back his head and ululated into the sky. Looking back down he shouted, "Now Soldiers. Quick March. Double time you bastards."

His back turned, Jek did not see the mutinous looks thrown amongst the recruits. Atkinson, however, watched from the command post with glittering eyes.

******************************************

"It's _still_ not right!"

Dickens picked up the whole pile of foolscap, strangely hieroglyphed with many misstarts and cross-outs. The margin notes themselves seemed like a lost Asian language.

Opening the fireplace grate, he shoved the whole batch in and watched it flare, curl, grow red, grow black, crumble into ashes.

There. That was that.

He dusted his hands and sat back down at the desk as the December winds whipped through the London streets.

Pulling a fresh sheet of paper before him, he nibbled on the quill for a second -- wags about town said that Charles Dickens' ink-tattooed lips were more like a Aborgine tribesman's than the real thing.

He began to scribble furiously as a new inspiration hit him: If he renamed the "Jek" character "Cratchit" and changed the boring mind-control drug explanation into ghostly hauntings...

"Mrs. Perkins!" he shouted, not missing a dotted "i" or a crossed "t" in his writing, "Could we have some of that fresh slug for dinner? Perhaps stewed, with peas on the side and currant jam with fresh bread?

Outside, the streets of London oozed with life. It was evening, and the slugs were afoot -- or something analogous to that.

Sergeant Davis slid carefully along the low concrete wall that comprised the baseline of Lieutenant Harris' platoon deployment. The squads were digging in as instructed and preparing to face the next slug, or slug-infested, onslaught. Davis was pretty certain that the rookies and newbs that made up the majority of the reconstituted platoon, the 2nd Platoon, 3rd Company, 21st Battalion, 41st Infantry Division, not even mechanized any more, would not be able to hold their current position.

There were 30 men, all told, in the new platoon. It was the third or fourth time the platoon had been reconstituted from the ragged remains of vicious combat - Davis could not remember which. He just knew that he was one of the three or four or six old-timers, the survivors of past massacres.

Davis hunkered down behind a row of newly-emplaced sandbags and cautiously raised his right eye over the level, looking at the dark and blasted landscape that lay all around the village in which the platoon had emplaced this defensive position. There was nothing visible in the dark to non-enhanced human eyesight, so he hoisted his weapon to the top of the wall and looked again through the starscope sights...

...a half second later he was rolling to his left and pulling free a frag grenade from his web gear.

"Slugs! Slugs on the wall!" Davis yelled as he pulled the pin and threw the grenade backhanded over the wall the slugs were already crawling towards...

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