He was a soldier. Designation 4-4671 – Fourth Wave, soldier number 4,671. His directive was to kill. Destroy the plague that terrorized the Earth, in the form of the Earth's own inhabitants. Vicious shape shifters - to touch them was to die, infected by a deadly venom that could be transferred directly from their icy skin to the soldiers.
The soldier was effective. He had terminated over forty aliens by himself, which was a high number for a Fourth-Wave soldier. He would be rewarded.
His battalion fanned out – spread through the town seeking remnants of the enemy. He walked alone, rifle at the ready, moving through the buildings, stepping over the dead aliens, bodies still clinging to their semi-human appearance. Insidious.
The third building. The soldier's keen hearing picked up an unusual sound. Above. He moved up the stairs, slowly, cautious. Many of the enemy had weapons. He met no one on the way. The sound did not repeat, but the soldier was thorough. He would secure the site.
The top floor. No aliens remained alive. He could not understand where the sound had come from. There was no wind, though the air was cold enough that he felt the chill through his armor.
There. Again, the sound, like a tiny puff of air. Confusing. Higher up, still. He aimed his rifle at the ceiling, light on, and searched. Finally, inside a small room with garments hanging on wooden rods, he found a doorway – a square in the ceiling that could be opened.
There was a rope on one end. He pulled, but the door was locked. He fired his rifle at the lock, and he heard more sounds inside. His eyes narrowed. Enemy. He recognized that sound – the fearful whimper they emitted when they became aware that death was imminent. He had heard the sound after the fighting forces had been destroyed, and they had moved in to clear the enemy from the buildings.
The sound did not upset the soldier. It was a deception of the enemy, part of the shape-shifting. A vain attempt to appear human. The soldier was not affected. He was a professional.
The soldier pulled down the door and a ladder extended. He stepped up cautiously, pointing the rifle in through the dark hole first. The whimpering sound came again, but no gunfire. He made his way up quickly, stepping through the hole onto a solid floor, immediately scanning the room.
He saw nothing at first. Boxes, dust, random meaningless shapes. But in one corner, the dust had been disturbed. Footprints, and other odd markings, and then a fresh streak – a swipe toward one corner of the room. The soldier moved toward the corner. There were more boxes and strange shapes covered with cloth. From disturbances in the dust, he could tell the cloth had been moved recently.
The soldier gripped the cloth and flung it back, revealing two of the aliens crouched beside more boxes. The larger of the two cried out, and clutched the smaller one to its torso. Both of them vibrated, and the larger one shook its head. Its long, dark hair shifted and rustled with the vigorous motion, and clear liquid drained from its eyes.
It began to speak, frantically, its alien language sounding choked and shaky because of its body's strong vibrations. The sounds meant nothing to the soldier, though he assumed the alien was pleading for its life. The soldier powered his weapon. As expected, the enemy grew more frantic. It squeezed the small alien tighter, pressing its head closer, shielding its eyes.
"No," the larger alien cried, shocking the soldier by using human language. Not many of the aliens had mastered it, and it was always jarring to hear human speech from these creatures. Insidious. "No, not my son, please. Not my son!"
Some of the alien words could not be translated. The soldier did not understand "son", just as he had not understood "wife" when he had heard one of them say it early in the mission. The soldier took aim.
"Please, please, not my son!" The small-sized one gripped the larger one's clothes. It was about fifty percent smaller than the large one, and its voice was pitched high like the larger one, even though this one appeared to be male. The soldier had noticed this pattern – the small-sized aliens (whether male or female) and the female aliens tended to be grouped together, and they tended to sound more like one another than the aliens that had formed themselves to appear male.
"Please," it said again, reaching a hand toward him.
The soldier blinked, feeling a moment's disorientation. Could the enemy poison humans without even touching them? Then his vision blurred, and he was suddenly out in the bright sun. The dusty upper room was gone, the aliens were gone, and another person approached him – human, he was positive. She was like the alien, or the alien was like her – long dark hair, multi-colored eyes – greens and browns and golds - almost like the soldier's. She smiled. It was an expression he had never seen before. The soldiers had no reason to smile – they were on a serious mission – and it was understood that the aliens were incapable of recreating that particular expression.
"Hello." Her voice was accented with the lilt of the alien language, like the creature's had been. Why? The human woman reached for him.
He reached back. "I have a surprise for you," he said. She smiled again. Then, he spoke in the alien language. Why? How?
She laughed. Put her lips on his cheek and made a short sound. "That's horrible," she said, still laughing.
"Aw, that bad, huh?"
"Yes." She giggled and put her mouth on his cheek again. "But you are adorable for trying."
He laughed then. He put his hand on her cheek, smiled at the warm softness of her face. "Just means you'll have to help me practice tonight."
Her smile widened, and she shook her head, her long, dark, wavy hair rustling with the movement. "I don't think we're going to have time for any Russian lessons tonight."
The soldier blinked and shuddered. He was back in the dusty room. The alien was crouched at his feet again, and the human woman had faded. The alien still reached for him, hand shaking, now whispering in the alien language – Russian? What did it mean? Why would he or any of the soldiers try to use it? Why would any human use it?
The half-sized alien gasped, then let out a short, sharp breath of air through its nose. The sound the soldier had heard before. The small alien rubbed its nose and cowered against the chest of the larger alien.
Then, the soldier heard another sound. The door on the first floor opened. Booted footsteps, scanning, climbing stairs, scanning again. The alien made the fear sound again.
The soldier looked down at the alien. Slowly, he slid his rifle back, so it hung behind him on its strap. He pulled out his small gun and moved closer to the creatures. He bent down and reached out, unsure why he was taking the risk, but feeling compelled to do so. Just before he reached it, the soldier hesitated slightly. Then he gritted his teeth and touched the side of the long-haired alien's face. Warm. The skin was warm to the touch, not icy as he had been told in his mission directive. His hand did not wither or change colors. He did not feel sick.
The solder frowned. The venom was said to work instantly, so how could this be? The creature's eyes were wide, and it... she... glanced at his hand. Then she looked into his eyes, the clear liquid still draining from her own. "Please," she whispered.
Footsteps on the floor below. The alien jumped and looked wildly in the direction of the floor's opening. The soldier glanced that way, then turned back to the alien. He pressed the palm of his hand to her mouth. She understood, and was immediately silent. The small alien stopped making sounds as well.
The soldier stood up and tossed the cloth back over their hiding space. He holstered the small gun, then moved his rifle back to his shoulder and scanned the room again.
When the new soldier came up, they identified one another immediately – they wore the same face – cloned from the same prime soldier to more easily identify who to kill and who not to kill. Do not kill anyone wearing your own face. Terminate anyone else.
The new soldier, Designation 4-5032, stopped with head and shoulders through the hole, as soon as he saw Designation 4-4671. "Area secure?" he asked.
Designation 4-5032 moved back down the ladder without further words. There was no need to confirm the soldier's reply. All Earth's sounders were professionals – dedicated to one common goal – save the planet from the invaders, so that Earth would be safe for humanity again. There was no reason to assume one soldier would deceive another - deception was not necessary.
The soldier waited until all sounds from downstairs were gone. Then he went back to the hiding place and lifted the cloth. The alien was there, still vibrating, but still completely silent. She smiled – how? – and her mouth moved, still silently. She formed the words, "thank you".
The soldier understood, but he didn't know the correct words to say in response. He nodded and mimicked her expression – the smile, like he had given to the human woman in his mind. He stood and went back to the opening in the floor. He stepped down, then paused. He pulled off his small gun and slid it across the dusty floor toward the aliens. Theirs was the final wave, but if Mission Control sent another just in case, he wanted them to have protection.
Why? They were the enemy – an infestation to be terminated with efficient and thorough action. But he could still feel the warmth of her face on his hand. Still felt the liquid - tears - on his fingers. And he was still alive. Something was wrong. He would ask Mission to explain it when they returned to the space station.
The soldier completed his portion of the final city sweep. If weapons were raised against him, he terminated the attackers. But when he heard the occasional odd sound coming from an upper floor or a locked basement, he passed through and declared the site secure without further investigation.
After the invasion, when the remnants of humanity gathered together in small groups, sheltering under cover during the day, foraging for food and supplies during the night, learning to live under the reign of the TET with its mechanical drones and its cloned "technicians", it seemed that each group had a few members who told fascinating stories of making a connection with one of the hordes of duplicated soldiers. They were always stories from the fourth wave of soldiers – people who had still been exposed during the enemy's final deadly sweep.
When the story came from men, they usually fit one of four basic descriptions – olive-skinned men with small eyes and rounded chins, dark-skinned men with broad noses and strong jaws, slightly overweight Asian men with spiky hair, or light-skinned men with light brown hair and freckles. The men had been alone, often wounded, and always unarmed.
When the stories came from women, they always had either dark brown, black or red hair, usually at least mid-length or longer, with large round eyes, and full lips in almost every case. The highest concentrations of dark-haired women were to be found in Russia and other Eastern European countries, and in neighborhoods in other countries that held high concentrations of such immigrants. A large concentration of them were to be found in South America as well. The red-haired women were most highly concentrated in the United Kingdom, and neighborhoods with a large number of British immigrants. The women, too, had always been unarmed, and almost always alone, unless they were with young children.
The stories from all the survivors were the same. They had been cornered, certain they were going to die. Then, the invader would grow confused and stand still, staring at nothing for a few seconds. When he seemed to re-set again, the invader would usually simply turn and leave the area without speaking.
Theorists and anthropologists in most countries (those who had survived) pondered the patterns, but no real reason could be determined for what had triggered the soldiers' sudden show of compassion, where absolutely none had been present before. It was only in the few tight groups that were aware of the details of the NASA exploratory flagship Odyssey who eventually understood the significance.
In those small groupings, or Remnant Tribes as they came to call themselves, the survivors of these face-to-face encounters with members of the semi-human force learned that their lives had been spared through more than just a random glitch, or divine intervention. (Although, most still considered divine intervention to be a large part of why some members of the enemy army's Fourth Wave seemed more human than the first waves had been.)
Among these tribes, those who had stable "homes" and were no longer nomadic, created memorials to the victims from the Odyssey flight – victims who had indirectly saved the lives of dozens of humans. In several dark caverns, names could be seen etched into the stone walls, or branded onto wooden pillars.
Lieutenant Ahmad Zarin – Iran
Lieutenant Julia Rusakova – Russia
Lieutenant Kevin Ishioka – Japan
Lieutenant Commander Michael O'Marley – United States of America
Lieutenant Commander Amalia Cortez – Peru
Lieutenant Commander Victoria Olsen – United Kingdom
And those who could bear to do so included one final name on their list of victims. Some thought it was near sacrilege to list him among the fallen, but others reasoned that he was, perhaps, the victim that was to be pitied most of all. Usually, that truth would win out, and the final name would be added to the list: