Prologue<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-comfficeffice" /> The senior officers of the Conquest Force rose to their feetas the Command Triad entered the briefing room. Ju’tro Oheghizh bowed his headin submission as they took their three seats, each one representing andcommanding an element of the fleet. Together, they would oversee the conquest – and pose no threat to thestate, back home. They’d be toosuspicious of one another to ever plot treachery together. “We have been observing Earth for the past five of itsrotations,” Va’tro Nak’tak said. Years,Oheghizh reminded himself, careful to think in the language of the prey. “The humans are a curious race. They may well be more unlike us than the Uteck.” A rustle ran around the compartment as his words sankin. The Uteck, unlike most known races,didn’t possess two arms, two legs and one head. They were utterly alien – which hadn’t stopped them fighting theEridiani to a standstill in fifty years of bloody warfare. The State still believed that they coulddefeat the Uteck and occupy their worlds, but it would be a long time beforeanyone saw fit to resume the war. It hadsimply been too costly. “The humans have progressed remarkably unevenly,” Nak’takreported. “Their space presence ispathetic; they have yet to establish a base on their moon or start miningasteroids for war materials. They areliterally unable to pose any threat to the Conquest Fleet, even once we are inorbit around their world. Furthermore,their ruling power seems curiously unwilling to crush its enemies – they appearto be willing to accept the hatred of their inferiors, instead of forcing theirinferiors to submit. This is without aprecedent in all of known space.” There was a pause. “However, in certain areas, they are actually more advanced thanourselves,” he continued. “Their mostadvanced computer systems are more capable than the devices we use on thesestarships – and certain other advancements may pose a threat to the LandingForce once we start taking up positions on the planetary surface. In particular, they have an alarmingly highnumber of nuclear weapons and – we must assume – a willingness to use them ifthey face defeat.” Azhadib, the Director of Conquest, spoke into thesilence. “Do you believe that this racewill make acceptable clients for the State?” “We believe that it may be harder than we expect to convincethem to submit,” Nak’tak said. “Unlikeour previous encounters with low-tech races” – all of which had been broughtinto the service of the State, their development short-circuited by theirnatural masters – “they offer the promise of a workforce that will not requireextensive training to grasp the basics of our technology, assuming that theyare capable of grasping it at all. Wehave a secondary reason not to simply exterminate this race. They will be very useful to us.” He didn’t mention the first reason, Oheghizh noted, in theprivacy of his own mind. Known space hadmany mysteries – races blossomed to life, built their empires, dominated thegalactic scene for a few million years and then faded away – but even the Statehad heard rumours of the Elders. They’dbeen warned that genocide would be harshly punished. Oheghizh wasn't sure if he believed the talesor not – the idea of someone being more powerful than the State was difficultto grasp – yet it seemed clear that someonebelieved them. There was no otherexplanation for the prohibition on genocide. Earth spun in the centre of the compartment, a luminous orbglowing with blue-green light. It lookedalmost homelike, yet it was home to over seven billion humans. He glanceddown at the reports the observers had filed in their long study of Earth,carefully monitoring the humans and devising plans for the invasion andconquest of their world. As one of thesenior Land Force commanders, Oheghizh could expect high honours and rewards ifhe succeeded in bringing his portion of Earth under control – and endlessinfamy if he failed. The humans wouldpose a formidable problem, even to the State. But they would succeed. Failurewould not be tolerated. The assignments had been sorted out by the Command Triad andpassed down as a unanimous decision. Oheghizhwould be assigned to a medium-sized island nation, still one of the mostadvanced and developed states on Earth. Quite why they hadn’t developed any form of unity was a surprise –technological advancement tended to unite previously separated nations – but ithardly mattered. Their politicaldivisions would work against them when the Conquest Fleet revealed itspresence. They would have no time toplan a unified defence before they were overwhelmed. And slowly, but surely, Oheghizh and his companions drew uptheir plans against Earth. The HumanRace would never know what had hit them until it was far too late.