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A Learning Experience
Chapter Fourteen

Shadow Warrior, Earth Orbit

“Welcome to your first dose of guilt,” Mariko teased. “It's what being human is all about.”

Steve snorted, but he couldn't escape the image of the girl staring at him. She had haunted his dreams for the past week, ever since he’d laid eyes on her for the first time. It wasn't romantic, he hastened to tell himself, it was a grim awareness that she was human, that she was real, that she had thoughts and feelings of her own. She wasn't just a statistic any longer.

He sat up in bed and looked over at his partner. Mariko had spent most of the last few days in Afghanistan, working in the refugee camps. From what she’d said, conditions had been hellish, particularly when some of the villagers who’d fled ahead of the Taliban started to return and assert their authority. Eventually, Steve had provisionally authorised a number of children – and teenage girls – to be moved to a camp and placed in line to go to the moon. It was a drop in the bucket, but his conscience would allow no less. Besides, he knew – all too well – what fate awaited them if they remained in Afghanistan.

“I thought I was human,” he said, bleakly. “I didn't know I wasn't.”

Shaking his head, he swung his legs over the side of the bed and stood, making his way towards the shower. Whatever else could be said about the decor the Subhorde Commander had considered appropriate – the interface said it was alien porn, but it looked like nothing more than splashes of paint – the showers were wonderful. He stepped inside, allowed the warm water to wash the sweat of nightmares away from his skin, then waited for the hot air to dry his body. Outside, Mariko was already pulling herself out of bed.

She looked gorgeous, Steve realised, once again. Part of him wanted her right away, to take her back to bed and prove to both of them that life went on, but he knew there was no time to waste. The meeting was scheduled to take place in thirty minutes. Instead, he walked over to the food processor, picking up pieces of clothing along the way, and ordered them both breakfast. There was a ding from the machine as it produced its latest version of something edible for humankind.

“They won’t starve, down there,” Mariko said. “And they won’t die of thirst either.”

Steve nodded. He’d sent two biomass processors down to the surface, along with a portable water cleanser. It was probably best not to think about where some of the biomass was actually coming from, but the locals wouldn't starve. So far, they were so grateful to be fed that no one had started to complain about the tasteless food. The cynic in Steve suspected that it wouldn't be long before that changed.

He passed her one of the plates and tucked into something that looked like scrambled eggs, although the eggs were gray and the bread a faint pinkish colour. It tasted fine, despite its appearance. Kevin and Mongo kept experimenting with the food processors, trying to produce something that both looked and tasted good, but there were just too many variables in a system designed to feed individuals from over a thousand different races, each one with their own requirements. The sections on interstellar diplomacy he’d accessed through the interface had warned of problems in serving dinners when two or more races met to talk. One race’s food might be literally sickening to the other race ...

Once they were finished, Steve returned the plates to the processor and walked out of the cabin, heading down towards the conference room. It was astonishing just how much like home the giant starship had become, now they’d cleaned the decks and removed most of the more disturbing alien artworks. The interface seemed to believe that some of them were worth considerable amounts of galactic currency in the right places, but Steve found it hard to believe that it was right. But then, if someone could stick a piece of wood in a glass of urine and claim it was modern art, perhaps the Horde had their own sense of aesthetics. Or, for all he knew, there were races that collected their art.

The conference room was an odd mixture of human and alien technology. Steve had moved the heavy wooden table from the ranch into the compartment, then surrounded it with chairs from the closest office store. One of the alien projectors sat on the table, ready to project images into the air; another was placed near the door, allowing people outside the starship to attend the meeting virtually. The system was so remarkable that it made videoconferencing look like a piece of crap. Kevin hadn't taken long to point out that it would also add a whole new dimension to pornography.

He sat down at the head of the table and waited, accessing files from the interface to bide the time. Kevin, having the shortest distance to go, arrived within minutes, then sat down at the other end of the table. Charles, who had teleported up from Earth, took a seat next to Steve, while Mongo and Wilhelm sat down at the middle. Steve couldn't help wondering if they were already picking sides, in anticipation of the moment they developed factions. It hadn't taken the newborn American Republic long to develop political parties.

Steve shook his head, inwardly. As long as he had influence, he would make damn sure there were no political parties, no one voting the party line against their conscience. Maybe parties had an important role to play, but they eventually became more intent on ensuring their own survival than actually representing their people. And that was the death knell of democracy.

“I call this meeting to order,” he said, cheerfully. “Coffee’s in the processor, smoke them if you have them, etc, etc.”

There was a brief pause as the group found cups of coffee for themselves and Wilhelm lit up a rather large cigar. Steve, who had given up smoking years ago, watched it with some amusement. Now, with alien medical technology, smoking posed no health hazard at all. But it was still banned on the moon, outside the smoking room. The CO of Heinlein Colony wasn't inclined to take chances with the rapidly expanding base.

“It’s been a week since we intervened in Afghanistan,” Steve said, once they were sitting again. “It’s been ten days since we came to a preliminary agreement with the United States Government. I believe, therefore, that this is a good time to take stock of our position and bring us all up to date. Kevin?”

“I get to go first, do I?” Kevin asked. He smiled, rather dryly, then sobered. “At the moment, both the Afghanistan and Pakistani Taliban are in disarray. Their senior leadership has been effectively wiped out, shattering their command and control structures. In some places, this may allow for local accommodations and even surrender talks, as the Pakistani Taliban absolutely refused to allow any form of compromise between the Coalition and insurgent fighters. We have successfully created a window of opportunity for the local government and the Coalition to re-establish their authority over the nation.

“However, we have not tackled the underlying conditions that brought the Taliban into existence and gave them so many supporters. Corruption in the government has not been brought under control, tribal issues remain untouched and there is still a growing humanitarian crisis in large parts of the country. In the long run, we may see a resurgence of the Taliban insurgency – or something else, something more local.

“A further problem is that we may have accidentally destabilised the Pakistani Government,” he added. “They had ties to the Taliban, despite our protests, fearful of what would happen after the inevitable American withdrawal. Now, several of those agents are dead and the Pakistani Taliban is unravelling. The government may take advantage of the situation to eradicate the last traces of the insurgency or it may become more inclined to host them, as the geopolitical realities have not changed.”

Steve sighed. Like most American officers, he had rapidly grown to distrust and despise the Pakistani Government during his service in Afghanistan. They had played a double game, helping NATO with one hand and protecting the Taliban with the other. Maybe they did have good reasons for acting in such an underhand manner – although it wasn't something Steve would willingly have tolerated – but they also undermined American trust and support for their government. And there were far too many questions about just Osama Bin Laden had remained in Pakistan without being discovered. Had he been hidden by Pakistani intelligence?

“We are proceeding to track down Al Qaeda links from Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Middle East,” Kevin concluded. “As Langley warned, AQ has fragmented into several dozen franchises that are both cooperating and conflicting with one another. We can work out ways to identify most of them, but it’s going to be a long hard slog.”

Steve nodded, slowly. “Keep working on it,” he said. “What about the cooperation you’ve received from the government?”

Kevin smiled. “Which one?”

He went on before Steve could say a word. “I’ve got a team of analysts from NSA and Langley assisting with the intake,” he added. “Most of them are doing a wonderful job, although the sheer torrent of information is often overloading our capacity for analysing it, let alone turning it into actionable intelligence. Still, we have some advantages. For one thing, once we tag someone he stays tagged.”

Steve felt a chill running down his spine. Kevin had been right. The sheer potential for abuse was terrifying. As long as they held control, it wouldn't happen ... or would it? Would there come a time when he’d be tempted to use the technology to rid himself of political enemies? He thought of some of the politicians in Washington and gritted his teeth. Would he be able to resist the temptation?

“Good,” he said, finally. “Charles?”

Charles nodded and leaned forward. With Kevin detailed to intelligence, Charles had effectively taken over recruitment.

“Now that we can move more openly, we have around five thousand prospective candidates in mind,” Charles said. “Half of them are military veterans, some crippled, others are various civilians who may be able to assist us. Quite a number are research scientists on the cutting edge of technological development, several are theorists who can be added to Keith’s group. However, the wider we cast our net, the more likely it will be we pick up a spy.”

Steve nodded. The DHS had already put together a profile of the people Steve was recruiting, even if their imagination had failed to deduce the existence of the starship or Steve’s long-term plans. He had already confirmed that they wouldn't try to recruit serving military personnel, but the government could probably find a likely candidate and try to brief him first. Who knew where that would lead?

“Run them all through the lie detector first,” Kevin said. “So far, no one has been able to fool it. If they turn out to be spies, we can either restrict their movements or tell them we’ll pick them up later.”

“That leads to another problem,” Charles said. “Two, actually; where do we draw the line?”

Steve lifted his eyebrows. “The line?”

“Ninety percent of our recruits, so far, are American,” Charles said. “The remainder are British, Canadian and a handful of others from NATO countries. I’m planning to expand operations in Britain once the British Government is briefed into our existence. But where do we draw the line?”

He leaned forward. “Once we go public, there will be millions of people wanting to immigrate,” he added. “Not all of them will come from the West. Do we refuse to take Muslims? Or Russians? Or Chinese?”

Steve looked down at his hands. America had been built on immigration, he knew, hundreds of thousands of immigrants forced into a melting pot that had produced a semi-united culture. But now immigration was often a threat, to both America and the West, when the immigrants refused to integrate and the government refused to force them to comply. One immigrant was hardly a problem, a whole community – often isolated, not always speaking English – was a major headache. He’d heard too much from the south to take the problem lightly.

“Let me see if this makes sense,” he said. “We take people who are willing to work – no handouts for anyone on the moon – who speak English and are prepared to follow our laws, such as they are.”

“That does require that we codify our laws,” Kevin said. “So far, all we have are a handful of regulations on the moon. We’ll need a constitution, we’ll need a civil code, we’ll need some form of police ... hell, we probably need some form of the Pledge of Allegiance.”

“We’ll write one out,” Steve said. “It's a problem we will have to tackle over the next few months, I suspect.”

He shrugged. “Markus?”

Wilhelm leaned forward. “The US Government has requested ten fusion reactors,” he said, “and as many superconductors as we can produce. So far, we have provided five reactors, three of which have vanished into Area 52. The remaining two have been quietly attached to the national power grid, replacing a number of purely human power plants. I think they’re running experiments with the superconductors right now, concentrating on trying to produce batteries and directed energy weapons. The latter, in particular, will be very useful.

“In the meantime, the Internet Dongles have been a fantastic success and the world is waking up to their potential. Internet geeks all over the United States have been unlocking their functions, including several we didn't anticipate when we produced them. By now, I imagine that NSA is having kittens. It's simply not possible to trace the dongles through modern human technology. Several of them have even spread to China, despite – I’m sorry to say – the Chinese government slapping an immediate ban on them. Anyone would think they didn't want their people to have unlimited and unmonitored access to the internet.”

He smiled. “Suffice it to say that the next few years should be very interesting,” he said. “I suspect that modern file-sharing software is about to be replaced with something else, something far faster. Hollywood and the other producers are going to go ballistic when they realise that someone can download a complete copy of The Avengers II in less than five minutes. In the long term, we may destroy Hollywood completely.”

“What a shame,” Steve said, dryly. He had scant regard for Hollywood. “What about our imports?”

“We’ve been able to expand more,” Wilhelm said. “It turned out that one small company was producing inflatable space stations for the USAF. They ...”

“Hold on,” Kevin interrupted. “Inflatable space stations?”

“It’s quite a sound piece of technology,” Wilhelm assured him. “As always, the real problem is getting the bubbles up to orbit. We can do that, which will allow us to expand our operations in space and start working towards producing asteroid homesteading kits. Give us five years, sir, and the asteroid belt will be full of tiny settlements.”

“Another good reason for laws,” Charles commented. “How do we tell when someone’s been claim-jumping?”

Wilhelm shrugged. “Other imports are proceeding well,” he said. “Now the government isn't going to get in our way, I’ve started to order more specialised space equipment as well as vast quantities of supplies we need for the colony. The cost is quite staggering, but we’re raking in money from the dongles.”

Steve smiled. “Keep a sharp eye on it,” he said. “We don’t want to wind up in debt to the government.”

He looked over at Keith Glass. “And our long-term plans?”

“The alien database suggested several ways to terraform Mars,” Glass said, calmly. “I suspect we will need to use the quickest way, which will take just over a hundred years, once we produce the right equipment. However, the database also warned that it would destroy any prior traces of life on Mars ... assuming, of course, there ever was any. And it will hardly be unnoticed on Earth when we start slamming ice asteroids into the planet.

“Tech-wise, we’ve made some progress on understanding alien weapons and defensive systems,” he continued. “They do have force shields protecting their starships, but they can be broken down by sufficient energy. Unfortunately, the energy needs to be a ravening needle, not a simple explosion. I suspect that a modern alien starship could simply take a nuclear blast and shrug it off. Right now, we’re preparing plans to convert modern nuclear warheads into bomb-pumped lasers. However, without a large-scale nuclear warhead production program, it might take us years to build up enough weapons to defend the Earth.”

Mongo snorted. “And if they made a fuss over Iraq perhaps having nukes,” he said, “what will they make of us building nukes on the moon?”

Steve shrugged. “Could we purchase warheads from the Russians and adapt them?”

“Perhaps,” Glass said. “However, I don’t know if they could be adapted. Russian tech is ... crude, to say the least. We might be better off constructing our own breeder reactors on the moon, at least in the long term.”

“We can work on that,” Steve said. He had never been irrationally terrified of nuclear power – the alien interface spoke of antimatter power plants and even stranger ideas – but he knew enough to treat it with extreme care. “And perhaps recruit some more experts from Earth to assist us.”

“Perhaps,” Glass agreed. “In the meantime ...”

He stopped as an alarm rang.

Steve checked the interface, then swore. “We have one contact, perhaps two, coming towards the solar system,” he said. Their time had just run out. “I think we’re about to be put to the test.”
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Chapter Fifteen

Shadow Warrior, Earth Orbit

Steve had spent days studying how the aliens waged war, only to discover that there were as many ideas on how to fight as there were spacefaring alien races. Only a tenth of known intelligent races, according to the database, had actually developed spacefaring technology on their own – and only a handful had developed FTL before they were discovered by someone else – but there were still quite a few ideas. The only reassuring note was that the Horde didn't seem to be very competent at space combat, no matter how capable they were on the ground. But with two starships – if there were two starships – coming towards Earth, they would definitely have the numbers advantage.

“Sound red alert,” he said, as he sat down in the chair he’d fabricated to replace the Subhorde Commander’s throne. “All hands to battle stations.”

Mongo smirked. “How long have you been waiting to say that?”

Steve glowered at his back, then linked into the interface, accessing the starship’s tactical systems directly. They weren't designed to actually fight the ship, he’d discovered, but they did handle issues that moved too rapidly for organic brains to comprehend. The two contacts were still racing towards the edge of the solar system, the gravity-waves announcing their arrival speeding out ahead of them. It would be nearly an hour, the interface noted, before the enemy starships arrived at Earth.

He disengaged, then looked over at Charles. “Bring the assault teams onboard and issue weapons,” he ordered. “And then prepare them, as best as possible, to board and storm another alien ship or two.”

“Understood,” Charles said. He hesitated, then leaned forward. “Are you going to alert the President?”

Steve hadn't considered it until Charles brought it up. Should he alert the President? But what could the President do? It would take days to bring the American military to full alert – and besides, it wasn't as if it posed any real threat to the Hordesmen. All they’d have to do was stay in orbit and drop rocks on any centres of resistance. After a few hours of constant bombardment, the remainder of the human race would be begging to surrender. No, there was nothing the President could do. But should he be told anyway?

It would be a gesture of trust, Steve knew; the President had wanted to be kept in the loop. But it would only worry him when there was nothing he could do ... and yet he’d be outraged if he heard, afterwards, that Earth had been in grave danger and he hadn't known a thing about it. No, he probably should be told. And, if Shadow Warrior was lost, he might be able to swear blind that he’d never heard of the ship or its human crew. Maybe the Horde would accept it.

Steve made a face. “I’ll talk to him,” he said, finally.

He keyed into the interface, then opened the link to the communicator they’d given the President. The Secret Service, those few in the know about the starship and the new colony, had been frantic with worry, pointing out that there was no way to prevent the President from being kidnapped from under their very noses. But the President had overruled them, showing more balls than Steve had expected from him. Or maybe he was smart enough to understand what had happened to the Taliban and deduce that Steve could easily do the same to him anyway, even if he didn't carry the communicator.

It was late night in Washington, he realised, a moment too late. But the President was probably used to being woken in the middle of the night. Besides, Steve’s first Drill Instructor had been confident that being woken late at night was good for the recruits character, the bastard.

“Mr. Stuart,” the President said. “What can I do for you?”

“There's one, perhaps two, alien starships heading into the system,” Steve said, quickly. “We may just have run out of time.”

He heard the President gulp. The man had only had ten days to come to teams with the reality of aliens and a group of former US servicemen in control of an alien starship and a growing lunar settlement. He’d been the most powerful man on Earth, but now Earth was merely a drop in the galactic bucket, a tiny and utterly insignificant world protected only by its isolation from any gravity point. And nemesis was fast approaching.

“You need to call a very quiet alert,” Steve said. He knew it would be useless, but at least it would convince the President he was doing something useful. “And pray for us.”

“I will,” the President said. “Good luck.”

“Thank you,” Steve said.

He broke the connection and returned his attention to the main display, now reformatted for human eyesight. The two contacts were reducing speed, slightly, as they entered the solar system, apparently trying to avoid the outermost planets and their gravity wells. From what Keith Glass and his theorists had deduced, partly from clues in alien fiction, the alien ships actually bent gravity around them and surfed through space at FTL speeds. A sufficiently large gravity well would break up the gravity waves and force them to return to normal space, if indeed they’d left it. Glass’s reports hadn't been too clear on that topic.

Perhaps we need to hire more theorists, Steve thought, coldly.

It burned at him that the Hordesmen, despite being primitive barbarians, had access to the technology of his dreams. But they’d bought, begged or stolen it for themselves. No wonder, Steve considered, they were trapped in cultural stasis. The gulf between them and the Galactics – or humanity – was simply too wide to cross easily. They’d have to change their very mindset to start making advances and that would be tricky, if not impossible. In many ways, they were simply too conservative for their own good.

“They’re not leaving a ship on the edge of the solar system,” Mongo commented. “You’d think they’d consider it a wise precaution.”

“They don’t think Earth is dangerous,” Kevin countered. “Remember just how casually they moved into the atmosphere and kidnapped us?”

Steve nodded, bitterly. Every year, thousands of people in the United States went missing, never to be seen again. Some of them had probably just wanted to vanish, others had been murdered and their bodies hidden beyond easy discovery ... and some of them might just have been abducted by aliens. God knew there were plenty of stories about alien abduction in the United States. Could some of them have been taken by other aliens? He hadn't seen anything resembling the tiny grey aliens of X-Files myth in the database, but that didn't mean they didn't exist. There were thousands of spacefaring aliens in the galaxy.

“No, they don’t,” he agreed. He leaned forward. “Do we have the decoy ready to go?”

Kevin smiled. “It's ready,” he said. “And they won’t be expecting it at all.”

Steve had to smile. As it to make up for being outnumbered, trawling through the files had revealed the security codes the Hordesmen used to assure one another that they were safe and not under enemy control. The latter codes, it seemed, were rarely used, as the Hordesmen preferred death to what they saw as dishonour. But, with some ingenuity, Shadow Warrior ought to be able to convince the newcomers that everything was fine until it was too late.

“We just got a message from Heinlein,” Mongo said. “They’re going dark now.”

“It won’t be enough,” Kevin said, grimly. “Maybe we should have fled after all.”

“No,” Steve said. He hadn't been able to abandon the ranch and he wouldn't be able to abandon Earth. It was home, despite its flaws. “We couldn't leave our homeworld and billons of people to burn.”

He sucked in a breath. There hadn't been a truly existential war in American history since the Civil War – and that had been against fellow Americans. The last time the American Republic had faced total defeat had been in 1812, when the British might have managed to tear the newborn republic apart and reabsorb it into the British Empire. Even Hitler or Stalin wouldn't have been able to land troops on American soil and occupy the country. The logistics of such an invasion would be staggering, utterly beyond comprehension ...

But they were fighting an existential war now, he knew. The Hordesmen wouldn't hesitate to bombard the planet into submission, reducing humanity to a wave of slaves ... slaves who might just take over, given time to learn more about their masters from the inside. No one on Earth, outside a tiny select group, knew about the coming engagement. But their lives depended on it. If Steve and his family lost, a nightmare would descend upon Earth.

Maybe Kevin was right, he thought. Perhaps we should have fled.

It had seemed a cowardly solution at the time. Shadow Warrior could easily carry a few thousand humans and their children to another star system and provide the base for a high-tech civilisation. Given time and alien medical technology, they could build up a massive population without needing immigrants from Earth, while the Horde would be faced with a disturbing mystery. Somehow, he doubted that lost Horde starships were uncommon ... and with no trace of Galactic technology on Earth, it would be hard for the Horde to blame humanity for the loss. But would that really stop them bombarding the planet into submission?

He pushed his thoughts aside as the alien starships drew closer. It wouldn't be long now.

“Picking up gravimetric fluctuations,” Kevin said, softly. “I think they’re decelerating.”

There was a ping from the display. “They’re dropped out of FTL,” Kevin added. “And they're coming our way.”

“On screen,” Steve said. He chuckled, dispelling the tension. “I thought of that one yesterday.”

“Keith was saying that Star Trek was a poor excuse for an SF show,” Kevin joked. “We should have gone with Babylon 5.”

Steve considered it. He’d watched all five seasons of Babylon 5 in Iraq, between patrols through dangerous cities and countryside. “Nah,” he said, finally. “I hated the fifth season.”

He looked up at the display as the two alien starships came into view. One of them looked to have been built by the same designers responsible for Shadow Warrior, as it looked like a large dagger ready to stick itself into its enemy’s heart. The other looked rather alarmingly like a giant crab, except it had three claws instead of two. With some imagination, it was possible to see how they might both be able to land on a planetary surface.

“Small ships,” Kevin commented. “But armed to the teeth.”

Steve had to smile. The smallest ship was over a hundred metres long, bigger than anything humanity had put into space. Were they so jaded that such a wondrous creation seemed tiny?

“Send them the distress call,” he ordered. “Let them think we’re in trouble.”

He watched as the holographic image of the Subhorde Commander’s second-in-command started requesting help from the newcomers. The original Subhorde Commander, according to their alien captive, would have killed himself out of shame, an act that would somehow allow his subordinates to remain blameless. Steve couldn't help wondering just what sort of society would insist on suicide for something that was hardly the person’s fault, but he feared he already knew the answer. The Hordesmen hated having to admit that they needed assistance from anyone else.

Just like us, he thought, remembering his grandfather’s stories about the Great Depression. The family had gone hand-to-mouth for years, but they’d never accepted government help or even local charity. We’re stubborn bastards too.

“They're altering course and coming towards us,” Mongo said. “Their weapons are charged, but they’re not targeting us – or anyone else.”

“Good,” Steve said. The ships might be smaller than his ship, but they packed a nasty punch ... assuming, of course, the Hordesmen knew how to use the weapons. Did they? It seemed impossible that they didn't ... and besides, he didn't dare assume so unless he had very clear proof of their failings. “Are our assault teams ready to go?”

“Aye, sir,” Kevin said. “Edward is ready to go; I’ve uploaded starship specifications into his combat implants, so he and his team won’t be lost.”

“Excellent,” Steve said.

“Picking up a response,” Mongo interrupted. “They’re demanding more details.”

“Tell our spoiled brat to start whining,” Steve ordered. The simulated Subhorde Commander wasn't any more intelligent or knowledgeable than the one Steve had killed. He wouldn't know what was wrong, any more than the rest of his people. They probably thought that kicking the equipment would start it working again. “And then request immediate transhipment of emergency supplies.”

“Enemy ships entering weapons range,” Mongo said. “I’m passive-locking our weapons onto their shield generators.”

Steve smirked. One idea that seemed to have come straight out of Star Trek was aligning the teleporter to beam its people through the shields, provided one knew the shield frequency. The Hordesmen probably didn't know it was possible, but the interface had helpfully provided details when asked. Once their shields were battered down, the assault would begin ... if, of course, they had to batter down the shields. As long as the Horde had no idea that Shadow Warrior was in human hands, they'd come in fat and happy.

“Keep passive target locks at all times,” he said. “If we go active, they’ll smell a rat.”

The seconds ticked away as the two starships converged on Shadow Warrior. “Enemy ships are entering teleport range now,” Mongo said. “They’re requesting permission to board.”

Steve checked the weapon at his belt, then keyed the alarm. Throughout the ship, the entire crew would be drawing weapons, ready to engage the aliens if they managed to teleport onto the ship. The human crew couldn't risk alerting the aliens, Steve knew; they’d have to wipe out the unsuspecting aliens as quickly as possible. At least they now knew how to configure their stunners to stun Hordesmen, rather than butchering them like animals.

He took a breath. “Grant it,” he ordered. “And prepare to lower shields.”

If the timing worked ... if the timing worked ...

“One ship has lowered shields,” Mongo reported. There was a grim note of frustration in his voice. “The other is keeping its shields in position.”

Steve gritted his teeth. The ambush, it seemed, was about to get bloody. “Beam the first set of assault teams to the enemy starship,” he ordered. “And then target the other ship’s shield generators and open fire!”

Mongo keyed a switch. “Aye, sir,” he ordered. “Phasers engaging ... now!”

On the screen, the second enemy starship was suddenly wrapped in a bubble of glowing light as the directed energy weapons burned into its shields. Its companion was already partly disabled – the attackers had beamed stun grenades and modified screamers as well as the assault team itself – but Steve kept an eye on it anyway. Maybe someone had been wearing a mask or a spacesuit, something that would provide enough protection for them to rally the troops and counterattack.

“Enemy ship is returning fire,” Mongo said. The starship shuddered a moment later as pulses of energy slammed into her shields. At least none of the consoles seemed inclined to explode as the starship was hammered. That always happened on Star Trek, but it was more than a little unrealistic. “They’re coming right towards us.”

Ramming speed, Steve thought. If the Horde Commander thought he and his crew were doomed, he might as well try to take the captured starship down with them. It would fit in with what they knew of the Horde’s Code of Honour, although Steve wouldn't have called it Honour. More like bloody-minded stupidity.

“Evasive action,” he snapped. It wasn't going to be easy. The smaller ship was considerably more manoeuvrable than the Warcruiser. He hastily checked with the interface and discovered that a small cruiser ramming a full-sized Warcruiser would almost certainly result in mutual destruction. “And continue firing.”

“Target their drives,” Kevin advised. “Slow them down!”

“It doesn't fucking matter,” Mongo snapped. He didn't look up from his console. “We either board them or destroy them or we’re thoroughly fucked.”

Steve cursed under his breath, feeling helpless as the smaller ship converged on his starship. They were evading, but the smaller ship was easily altering its course to ensure that it would still manage to ram the larger ship. Statistics raced up the side of the display, charting the damage to the enemy ship’s shields and the time to impact, when the two ships would collide.

I kept Mariko on the ship, Steve thought, with sudden bitter regret. He didn't mind risking his own life – it ran in the family – but risking the life of his partner and children were quite another matter. And, with Mongo and Kevin on the ship, there would be no one left to look after the children. All of their children. I’ve killed her.

Mongo let out a cry of delight. “Their shields are fluctuating ... one shield hexagon is down!”

“Beam the assault team onboard,” Steve ordered. The enemy commander was clearly no slouch, even if he didn't really understand the technology at his command. He was already rolling the ship, trying to put another shield hexagon between his ship and Shadow Warrior. But it was too late. “And then prepare fire support, if necessary.”

“Understood,” Mongo said. Shadow Warrior rolled again, evading the suddenly uncontrolled alien craft. Steve fretted for a long moment before confirming that the ship’s course would take it nowhere near Earth. “Assault team one reports that they have secured their target.”

“Good,” Steve said. With the Hordesmen stunned or dead, there would be nothing standing between the humans and control of the starship. “Have them take control of the ship, then steer her to the reception point. And continue to monitor assault team two.”
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Chapter Sixteen

Shadow Warrior, Earth Orbit

Jumping into a combat situation had always given Edward Romford the shakes, even before he'd been crippled and forced to face the fact that he'd never walk again. He was fine walking to the line of battle, or driving a Bradley towards the sound of the guns, but dropping from an aircraft and parachuting into the combat zone scared the pants off him. In that sense, the teleporter was actually worse, with a brief interval when the enemy could shoot at him and he couldn't even see them.

The silver light faded away, revealing the bridge of an alien starship. Like the first starship, it was a strange mixture of technology, with several pieces that might come from a previously unknown race. The aliens were already staggering as the stun grenades took effect, but several of them had managed to don masks before it was too late. Edward silently gave them points for earnestness, even though he hated what he’d read of the Horde. He’d hated wearing MOPP suits too.

He lifted his weapon as soon as he orientated himself and opened fire, spraying stun pulses over the entire compartment. The stunner was a fantastic weapon, he decided, as the remaining aliens hit the deck. It was easy enough to point and shoot, then sort everyone out afterwards. Indeed, he had a feeling that police departments across the USA would be trying to buy stunners as soon as they went on the market. But that would be years in the future.

Bracing himself, he stepped forward, hunting for the alien in charge. The starship’s commander had fallen off his throne, somehow; Edward couldn't help thinking of a spider that had been flipped upside down by a cruel human as he rolled the alien over and tried to remove the neural interface. It stubbornly refused to budge and, despite its apparent frailty, wouldn't come free when he pulled at it. As far as he could tell, it had merged with its owner’s flesh.

He keyed his communicator as the rest of the team spread through the starship, stunning the handful of remaining aliens. “Sir, I can't disengage the neural interface.”

There was a long pause. “I killed the last one,” Stuart said, grimly. “They don’t disengage unless commander or if their owner is dead.”

Edward gritted his teeth, then drew his knife from his belt and sliced open the alien’s throat. Foul-smelling green blood cascaded out, pooling on the already scarred and tainted deck, as the alien breathed its last. The interface hummed slightly, then withdrew from the alien’s skull. As soon as it was free, Edward felt an odd compulsion to take it for himself and place it on his head.

He fought it off as he picked the headband up and passed it to the volunteer. The volunteer took it and placed it on his head, then winced as the interface made contact with his brain. From what Edward had been told, the experience was painful, but the volunteer’s face looked as if he were on the verge of collapsing into madness. Eventually, finally, he brought the link under control.

“I think this one was made by different people,” he said, as he took control of the starship. “The operating system appears to be completely different.”

“I see,” Edward said. “Does that mean you can’t handle the ship?”

“I can handle it,” the volunteer assured him. “It just took some time for the device to adapt to a human brain.”

Edward nodded, then keyed his communicator again. “Target secured,” he said. “I say again, target secured.”

It had been easy, he knew, but the Hordesmen had suspected nothing until it was far too late for them to escape. If they realised that the Sol System was becoming a black hole for their ships, they’d either give the system a wide berth or send a much more formidable fleet to challenge Earth's defences. By then, humanity had better be ready to defend itself.

“Understood,” Stuart said. “Take the ship to the reception point. We’ll deal with the prisoners there.”

“Welcome to Alcatraz,” Graham Rochester said. “Our primary penal centre for alien POWs.”

Steve had to smile. Alcatraz was nothing more than a dome of lunar rock, covering an area big enough for a dozen football fields. The only way in and out was through an airlock that wouldn't open unless a modified shuttle or tractor had already docked there and exchanged security codes. In the unlikely event of the prisoners managing to force their way through the airlock, they’d find themselves breathing hard vacuum. If they weren't careful, the entire prison would decompress.

“We’ve included a sizable supply of their food,” Rochester continued. “Once they wake up, we’ll send a holographic projection into the prison and explain the state of affairs. I don’t think they can kill themselves with what they have on hand, but ...”

He shrugged. “Overall, given their honour code, they probably will try to end their lives,” he warned. “But we can't guard against that without keeping them stunned indefinitely, which will eventually kill them anyway.”

“Understood,” Steve said. On the display, the alien prisoners were sleeping peacefully. None of them had been particularly injured, but four had died when they’d collapsed at the wrong time. Their bodies had been shipped to a medical centre, where they would be examined carefully by human scientists. “Do you have any other concerns?”

“The Hordesmen don’t treat their prisoners very well,” Rochester said. “It occurs to me that we could try to convert some of the POWs to our side. They’d be killed if we sent them home, sir. They have to know it.”

“Bastards,” Steve said. What sort of idiot would blame someone for being taken prisoner when there had been literally no opportunity to resist? But there had been human cultures like that too, ones that had treated the prisoners they’d taken shamefully. “But if you can get it organised, feel free to try.”

“Yes, sir,” Rochester said. “I’d also like to get a few military policemen up here to help take care of the prisoners. We’ll treat them under the Geneva Conventions as much as possible.”

Steve looked up at him. “We cannot afford to allow them to send messages home,” he said. “That would be far too revealing.”

“Assuming that their bosses are interested in any messages from prisoners,” Rochester commented. “But apart from that, we will treat them fairly well.”

Steve nodded and turned away from the display. “On to more serious matters,” he added, “how are you getting along with Heinlein Colony?”

“Expanding faster and faster,” Rochester said. “The new supplies from Earth really helped, sir. But we are going to need more personnel soon enough. And some proper cooks.”

“I understand,” Steve said. “Just don't tell me you want to open a McDonald’s franchise up here.”

“It would be better than the crap from the food processors,” Rochester pointed out. Steve had his doubts, but held his tongue. “But I was thinking more of someone experienced in operating a small eatery, rather than a fast food place. Hell, get three or four of them and let them compete for customers. Of course, we’ll need a monetary system first ...”

He eyed Steve expectantly. “At the moment, we’re effectively operating a system where people work and we take care of them,” he said. “Alarmingly like communism, really. But that is going to have to change.”

“Another headache,” Steve admitted. He rubbed the side of his forehead, then nodded. “Perhaps we should just pay everyone in American dollars. Or gold.”

He smiled. His father had always gone on and on about the value of gold, but Steve knew that gold’s value depended upon having someone willing and able to purchase it. Gold would work, he suspected, if it were sold down on Earth, but if the bottom dropped out of the market there would be a colossal economic disaster.

“I was thinking a kind of Lunar Credit,” Rochester said. “We could pin it to the dollar, for now, but we don’t want something that is pegged by forces outside our control. That almost fucked Greece.”

Steve nodded. If nothing else, the economic troubles in Greece meant that the country had plenty of young men and women willing to emigrate to find work. He was sure that, once the public announcement was made, hundreds of thousands of them would apply to join the growing colony. The only difficulty would be training programs and those were just a matter of time. As the colony expanded, experienced men could start training inexperienced men, who would then train newcomers in turn.

And, as they set up more homes below the lunar surface, there would be room for people who didn't want to live on Earth, but couldn't work on the moon.

“I’ll work on that, along with a constitution,” he said. “Have you had any major trouble just yet?”

Rochester scowled. “One idiot with more initiative than common sense built himself a still and nearly poisoned a couple of workers with bootleg alcohol,” he said. “I clobbered him, then put the idiot on punishment duty for a couple of weeks. But we will probably face something more serious later on, as we keep expanding. We need some kind of law, sir, rather than just my fists.”

He waved a cyborg arm under Steve’s nose. “That could be very dangerous in the future.”

“It will be done,” Steve said. “Somehow.”

He shook his head. He’d seen more than a few attempts to rewrite the constitution or devise a completely new one, but they were either simplistic or excessively detailed, full of ifs, buts and exceptions. There were people who wanted to restrict the franchise to those who had served a term in the military and people who thought that only those who paid tax should vote. Both ideas sounded reasonable, but they had flaws that would become disastrous if the system suffered a serious breakdown.

And most of the other ideas boiled down to I should get a vote. Here is the list of people who shouldn't get a vote.

“Good luck,” Rochester said. He paused. “For the moment, we’re largely operating under Queen’s Regulations, with some exceptions for off-duty hours. But that will have to be clarified soon.”

Steve nodded, tiredly.

“Markus Wilhelm was talking about moving his factories up here, as soon as we have cleared space for them,” Rochester continued. “I imagine that other corporations will want to follow suit, particularly if our regulations are nowhere near as tight as the States. But that will cause problems too. What happens if we don’t over-regulate and we have an industrial accident?”

“All right, all right,” Steve said. He held up his hands in mock surrender. “You’ve made your point. I’ll speak to the alien, then go back to the ship and start working on a constitution. And then Kevin and Mongo can read through it and decide what they think of it. How long did it take the Founding Fathers to draft the constitution?”

“Around one hundred days, but it depends on just what you use as the starting point,” Rochester said. “Just try and keep the lawyers out of it. We don’t want a monstrosity like the European Constitution.”

Steve nodded. The Constitutional Convention had included lawyers – or at least people trained in the law – but they’d also been statesmen. He wouldn't have trusted any modern-day lawyer to draw up a Constitution to govern a kids playground, let alone an actual country. Hell, perhaps they should have a law banning lawyers from government altogether ...

“We’ll make it happen,” he said. Had Washington and Franklin felt so tired, even as their work came to fruition? “Somehow, it will happen.”

Cn!lss had fallen in love with the human laptop as soon as it had been gifted to him by one of the humans charged with watching him. It was clunky, compared to some of the computers he’d seen when he’d been trying to study Galactic technology, but it was also remarkably simple. He’d read through countless files on humanity, researched aspects that puzzled him ... and discovered that humans seemed to like nude photographs of themselves. When he’d asked, his guards had muttered something about human sexuality and changed the subject.

The more he studied humanity, the more impressed he became. Humans were ... odd, both a technological race and yet a divided race. Almost every Galactic power had unified their homeworlds before reaching out into space or shortly afterwards, when they discovered that they weren't alone in the galaxy. Even the Hordes had an overarching structure, although it was more symbolic than real. No Horde would happily accept the domination of another Horde indefinitely.

But humanity ... they'd come so far, despite so many different attitudes and cultures. Human religion was a strange mixture, utterly beyond his comprehension, while human government perplexed him. There were societies that reminded him of the Hordes – and yet they were technological – while there were others he simply couldn't understand. What sort of ruling family ruled indefinitely? What sort of society operated by giving everyone, strong and weak, a vote? Half the time, he would read one website and then discover that the next website contradicted it. If he believed all he read, the human race was in a permanent state of civil war.

He looked up when the door opened, revealing the human commander. Cn!lss pulled himself to his feet, then slipped into the Posture of Respect. Maybe the humans didn't really expect him to prostrate himself, but there was no point in taking chances. He hadn't seen any of the humans beheaded by their superiors, yet even the most brutish Horde Commander tried to keep such discipline away from Galactic eyes. After all, they might disapprove and suggest trade sanctions on the Hordes.

“Greetings,” the human said. As always, it was hard to read emotion on the alien face. They simply didn't have anything like the Horde’s range of expressions. “Two more of your ships have been captured.”

Cn!lss wasn't sure how he felt about two more ships falling into human hands. On one claw, two more Horde Commanders had been humiliated – and he hated his superiors with a passion he couldn't have hoped to convey to his human captors. But on the other claw, it suggested that the humans were steadily growing more and more powerful ... and, combined with their technological inventiveness, would soon be in a position to leave their star system and wage war on the Hordes. Would his entire people be exterminated?

“Good,” he said, finally. At least it didn't seem as if the humans would commit genocide against the Hordes. “Did you take prisoners?”

“Most of the crews,” the human said. “Do you wish to speak with them?”

“No,” Cn!lss said, hastily. “They would reject me as a traitor.”

“I expected as much,” the human said. “Our sociologists will wish to discuss them with you later.”

“I have nothing to add,” Cn!lss warned.

“We will see,” the human said. “And there is a second issue we would like to raise with you.”

Cn!lss waited, expectantly.

“We will be sending a trade mission to the nearest settled star,” the human said. “What do you think we could offer them?”

Cn!lss considered it. The nearest settled star to Earth, as far as he knew, was a multiracial colony on the end of a dangling chain of gravity points. There was almost no form of overall government, merely dozens of small settlements on the planet’s surface and asteroid belts. Indeed, it was commonly believed that, sooner or later, one of the larger galactic powers would eventually swallow it up. But, for the moment, its political insignificance was incredibly useful to the shadier sides of galactic society.

“Guns,” he said, finally. “And probably quite a few other things, if you give me some time to consider it. Or you could sell slaves.”

The human made a spluttering noise. “As nice as the idea of selling the” – he spoke a word the translator refused to handle – “into slavery is, I think it would be a very bad idea.”

“That may well be true,” Cn!lss agreed, reluctantly. Given the use some humans were put to by outside powers, they’d probably be reluctant to let more humans out of their control. “I think you could also offer mercenary groups. They are big business on the edge of galactic society.”

“We might have to do just that,” the human said. “I wonder what” – another untranslatable word – “would make of it.”

“Much of your technology is primitive, but so are many of the races along the edge of society,” Cn!lss offered. “It’s quite possible that they would be happy to buy technology from you, even though it isn't the best in the galaxy.”

“That would probably be a good idea,” the human said. “Anything else?”

“Rare metals would be useful,” Cn!lss offered. “But I don’t know what else.”

He paused. “And you would have to be careful. The other Hordes might realise you’re flying one of their starships.”

The human made the gesture he had come to realise meant agreement. “It’s a problem,” he agreed. “One final question, then. Would you be willing to accompany the mission as an advisor and native guide?”

Cn!lss hesitated. He was being trusted? The Subhorde Commander had never trusted him, not after he had studied the Galactics. Why, he might have been secretly intent on subverting the Horde and destroying its way of life! One word out of place and he would have been beheaded on the spot. But the humans were prepared to trust him?

“If you will have me, I will happily come,” he said. How could he refuse the chance to show his loyalty? “And I will be very useful.”

“Good,” the human said. “My people will speak to you soon.”

He turned and left the cell, closing the hatch behind him.
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Chapter Seventeen

Washington DC, USA

The world had changed. Gunter Dawlish knew it, even though he could never have put the feeling into words. It was as if something was just lurking under the world’s collective awareness, something big enough to leave hints of its presence even as it remained unseen. He knew it was there. But what was it?

He’d spent long enough as an embedded reporter to know when he was being fed a line of bullshit. Hell, his report suggesting that some kind of new weapons system had been deployed against the Taliban-held town had earned him some more enemies in official Washington. But the next set of reports were even stranger. The Taliban leadership had started dying in large numbers.

There was always someone, he knew, who had pulled the trigger. It was a media age, after all, and few things remained secret indefinitely. If a weapon was fired, someone had to have fired it and that person would want his ten minutes of fame. Hell, several of the SEALs who had gone after Bin Laden and killed him had talked, within the year. But there was no one talking about the sudden drop in Taliban leadership.

It puzzled him. If drones had been deployed in such vast numbers, there would have been an outcry from the Pakistanis. Gunter knew better than to believe the Pakistani Government gave a damn about women and children killed in the northern parts of their deeply divided country, but they would have to make a public statement just to avoid more unrest. But they’d said nothing ... and nor had anyone flying the drones. Or had the SEALs been sent over the border to slaughter their way through the Taliban leadership? It was a heartening thought, a display of nerve he’d thought missing from the President’s administration, but as far as he could tell no one had been placed on alert.

He finally passed through the TSA checkpoint – they always paid close attention to anyone coming back from Afghanistan and the Middle East – and headed for the taxi rack. The driver chatted endlessly about the latest baseball statistics as Gunter opened his laptop and skimmed his emails. As always, there were a hundred pieces of junk for every tip he received from his sources. Being a reporter meant that everyone and their dog felt they could feed him a line, whenever they felt like it. But he still went through every email. Watergate had started as a minor break-in, after all. Who knew where the next story of the century would come from?

He’d made it his business to cultivate relationships with a number of military officers in various positions, providing advice on handling the press and keeping them calm. In exchange, they sometimes fed him tips, although nothing classified. Asking for classified information was a good way to lose a contact altogether; they might not report him to anyone, but they certainly wouldn't want to risk their careers any further. After Snowden, the White House and the Pentagon had become more than a little paranoid over unauthorised leakers in senior positions. It was ironic – most of the leaks in Washington came out of the bureaucracy, trying to sway political opinion one way or the other – but unsurprising.

Four of his contacts claimed – and, with collaboration, he believed them – that a covert military alert had been called a day ago. Military bases across the United States had rushed to full alert status, recalling troops, launching aircraft and generally preparing for war. It looked like some kind of exercise – God knew that the military had been caught on the hop before – but if so, his contacts noted, there hadn't been a single whisper that it was coming from higher up. And there was always a tip-off from higher authority ...

“Here you are, man,” the driver said. “Long flight?”

“Very long,” Gunter said, as he closed the laptop. He’d stopped telling people he was flying from Afghanistan after several of them had eyed him suspiciously for the rest of the drive. “Thank you for the ride.”

He paid, then climbed out of the cab and walked up to his house. It was in one of the better parts of Washington, a gated community with a very effective security service. Part of him disliked the idea of having to hide behind a wire fence and armed guards, but there was little choice. Crime in Washington had been on the rise for years, with the police seemingly helpless to do anything about it. And there was almost no crime within the community. The owners screened all their new residents, ensuring that children could play in the streets freely without fear. Shaking his head, he opened the door and stepped inside, looking longingly at his bed. It still felt like late night in his head.

Instead, he sat down at his desk and continued going through his emails. Several more had arrived while he'd been paying the driver, including one odd report of a series of high-energy bursts in outer space, alarmingly close to the planet. From what his source said, civilian astronomers were going berserk trying to understand what had happened. Was it a solar flare or something like it ... or was it unnatural as hell? Gunter looked down at the dates and shivered, suddenly, as realisation struck him. The event in outer space matched the date and time of the unscheduled military alert.

But was there something really there? Carefully, he started to look though the rest of his files, all the tips shared between independent reporters who couldn't call on the vast resources and influence of the MSM. Over the last week, stocks and shares in companies that produced space hardware had risen, sharply. Someone was apparently buying enough of their produce to ensure their shares rose quite significantly. But who? NASA wasn't doing anything, as far as he could tell, and even the military space program had been cut back sharply. Or was there a program so secret that most government officials didn't know a thing about it?

There had been one odd whisper from a friend in Afghanistan. Apparently – and it could easily have been rumour – there had been a new black ops team inserted into the country from an unknown nation. And yet they’d had near-complete access to American intelligence and resources, something not offered to any nation. Maybe they’d been an American team, so secret that they’d been mistaken for foreigners, or maybe there was something else going on. Were they connected with the Taliban deaths?

Shaking his head, wondering if it was all the result of jet-lag and tiredness, he started to try to put the pieces together. But none of the results he got seemed to make sense.

The President looked haggard, Jürgen realised, as he stepped into the Oval Office. He had spent an uncomfortable night in the bunker underneath the White House while his wife and children were whisked away to an highly-classified location. Behind him, Craig Henderson looked concerned. He didn't think much of the President – Jürgen could read his body language, even if his voice was nothing but respectful – but he was still their Commander-in-Chief. And he’d spent the night wondering if Earth was on the verge of being destroyed.

“Be seated,” the President said, as the CIA and NSA directors entered, followed by two more officials Jürgen didn't know personally. “We have received a communication from the Russians. They know that something happened in orbit.”

Jürgen wasn't surprised. Whatever Mr. Stuart and his men used to keep their shuttles undetected by purely human technology – and he had some theories about how that technology worked – it hadn't managed to hide the brief and violent battle in orbit. NSA’s network of satellites had picked up the energy flashes, as had a number of civilian systems and – apparently – the Russians. There was no point, Jürgen suspected, in trying to cover the whole affair up. After all, there was nothing so conspicuous as a man ducking for cover.

“I received a very tart note from the Russians earlier this morning,” the President continued. “They out-and-out accused us of violating several treaties, including the one forbidding the deployment of nuclear weapons to orbit. Reading between the lines, they don't have the faintest idea of what actually happened, but they think we do.”

“The emergency alert,” Jürgen said.

“Yes,” the President said. “They know we called an alert before the fireworks started in orbit and they don't believe in coincidences.”

CIA nodded. “They won’t be the only ones, Mr. President,” he said. “There isn't another government in the world who knows about Mr. Stuart and his band of ... lunar settlers. They will all be demanding answers.”

It was funny, Jürgen reflected, how CIA could make settling the moon sound like a crime worthy of good old-fashioned hanging. But then, the CIA had been thoroughly embarrassed by the near-complete extermination of the Taliban leadership. They hadn't been responsible for it. If they had, the news would probably have leaked right now. No more than the DHS, the CIA needed a success to secure their position in the world.

“There will be others putting the pieces together,” one of the unnamed men said. “I’ve had several calls from various independent reporters, the ones willing to take chances on something ... a little out of the ordinary. So far, there’s nothing from the mainstream media, but I wouldn't expect that to last. There’s just too many sources of information for them to assume that someone is trying to hoax them into making an embarrassing mistake.”

“Not to mention the Russians threatening to lodge protests at the UN,” the President muttered. “So ... what do we tell them?”

“The truth?” NSA suggested. He smirked. “Let them lodge their complaints with Mr. Stuart?”

CIA eyed him, nastily. “There are two problems with that,” he said. “Either they would believe us or they wouldn’t. If the latter, they would assume that we were covering up something and take the whole affair public. If the former, they would believe that a group of Americans has taken over the moon and declared themselves an independent nation. They’d start panicking, then they’d start blaming us for the whole affair.”

NSA looked back at him. “How – exactly – can Washington be blamed for Mr. Stuart’s actions?”

“He’s American – or he was American,” CIA said. “Whatever, the Russians will have good reason to blame us. And if they decide that he’s acting completely without restraint, Mr. President, they are likely to do something drastic.”

“But if we lie to them,” the President said, “eventually the truth will come out and we’ll look dishonest.”

He snorted. “And what is to stop Mr. Stuart announcing himself to the world?”

“Nothing,” Jürgen said, simply. “They were planning a public announcement soon enough in any case.”

“And what,” the President said, “will happen when the news gets out?”

There would be panic, Jürgen knew. Maybe not over Heinlein Colony, but over the existence of aliens, aliens who had come alarmingly close to bombarding Earth. Hell, there was definite proof – now – that aliens had abducted humans from the planet and turned them into cyborg soldiers. There would be colossal panic right around the globe. And then ... who knew what would happen then? How would humanity cope with the thought of no longer being alone in the universe?

He recalled the files Kevin Stuart had given him to read. They were immensely detailed, too detailed for him to believe them a hoax. There were upwards of ten thousand intelligent races known to exist – at least, known to the starship’s designer – and most of them were far more advanced than humanity. At best, Earth was a tiny primitive tribe in a jungle, utterly unaware of the surrounding world. The shock of discovering just how badly humanity was outmatched would shake the world to its core.

He'd read some of the scenarios devised over the years concerning alien contact. The writers had been more than a little paranoid, pointing to the prospect of humans adopting alien religions or abandoning homebuilt tech and becoming entirely dependent on alien technology. Or there would be humans who would embrace xenophobia and attack everything alien, to the point they accidentally started a war, a war humanity couldn't hope to win. Even the most optimistic scenarios had been thoroughly ominous. The very foundations of human society were about to shake and shake badly.

The President cleared his throat. “I will speak with Mr. Stuart later today,” he said. “However, we need a contingency plan to release the information as soon as possible.”

CIA leaned forward. “I agree that we should level with the Russians and the rest of the world governments,” he said. “Or at least the ones we can trust to keep a secret. However, I do not believe we should tell the general public just yet.”

The President lifted his eyebrows. “You propose to keep it a secret indefinitely?”

“Mr. Stuart’s people have been hellishly effective against the Taliban,” CIA pointed out, carefully. “And most of the involved governments don’t have the slightest idea of what happened in Afghanistan. But if we reveal the truth, the Pakistani Government – among others – will tremble, perhaps fall. And they’re not the only ones.”

He took a breath. “Fusion power and super batteries, Mr. President, offer the chance to break the oil dependency once and for all. If that news leaks, we will see a sudden upsurge in trouble from the Middle East. Nations like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, nations dependent on oil revenue, will do whatever it takes to delay the introduction of fusion power. They will stroke the fires of anti-nuclear feeling, throw money at political candidates who will pledge to delay the introduction of fusion indefinitely and probably finance terrorist attacks aimed at Mr. Stuart and his people.”

The President smiled. “And your real concern?”

CIA smiled back, humourlessly. “Right now, we have a chance to exterminate the senior terrorist leadership all over the world,” he said. “I would prefer not to risk giving them warning of what we could do.”

The President looked at Jürgen. “Is that a valid point?”

Jürgen swallowed, nervously. He would have preferred not to take sides in a dispute between two people who were both immensely senior to him, but he had no choice.

“I do not believe the terrorists could escape the bugs,” he said, carefully. “And if they go underground, Mr. President, their ability to strike at us will be minimised anyway.”

“True,” the President agreed. He gave CIA a droll look. “Sorry.”

CIA shrugged, seemingly unbothered.

Craig Henderson leaned forward. “Mr. President?”

The President nodded, inviting him to speak.

“There will be panic, Mr. President, whatever we do,” he said. There was no doubt whatsoever in his tone. “I would suggest placing the military and police on full alert before making the broadcast.”

“We will,” the President said, grimly. “And how will your friend react to all of this?”

“People like him, Mr. President, believe in getting the matter over and done with as quickly as possible,” Henderson said. “He wouldn't pussyfoot around, but just tell the world and then let everyone work through their panic.”

He shrugged. “But we do have some encouraging news,” he added. “We did turn back the alien attack on Earth.”

“You mean Mr. Stuart and his friends turned back the assault,” CIA said. There was a sardonic tone to his voice. “The government isn't going to look very good, no matter what we do.”

“Then we may as well make it look as though we are cooperating with them,” the President said. “We can spin that to our advantage, if necessary. Congress will probably accept it, provided they don’t interfere with our affairs. And we can let the foreign affairs take care of themselves.”

On that note, the meeting ended.

Gunter fell asleep over the laptop and only woke up, several hours later, when one of his cell phones started to shrill loudly. Pulling himself upright, he reached for the phone just in time to miss the call. Cursing under his breath, he put the phone down and yawned; moments later, the phone vibrated. Someone – he didn't save numbers in the phone, knowing it could be confiscated - had sent him a text message.


Frowning, Gunter glanced at his watch. It was 1600 and he'd slept for over five hours. The laptop had placed itself on standby, conserving power. Unsurprisingly, he discovered when he moved the mouse, a couple of hundred more messages had arrived while he'd been sleeping. One of them insisted that the United States Government – or the Russians or Chinese – had been testing secret weapons in orbit. Another, a press release from a well-known researcher, stated that the whole event was nothing more than a series of zero-point energy releases. Gunter couldn't understand the technobabble the researcher had included, but it looked far too much like someone was trying to squash all opposition through scientific-sounding gibberish.

Shaking his head, he stood up and pulled off his clothes, then headed for the shower. There was just time, by his watch, to shower, shave and then call a taxi to take him to the White House. As an independent reporter, he might have some problems getting in, but if it was a global broadcast there would be little point in impeding him. There would be no exclusive scoop for anyone. It was irritating, yet it couldn't be helped. Besides, if there were any exclusives coming from the White House, they’d be given to the reporters who kissed up to the administration.

Or spend all of their time writing paeans to the President, he thought, as he turned on the tap and water cascaded down over his body. But how could I compromise my independence so badly?
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Chapter Eighteen

Shadow Warrior, Earth Orbit

“Smile,” Mariko said. “You're on television.”

“The President is on television,” Steve muttered. The President was welcome to it, as far as Steve was concerned. If he had to face a horde of reporters shouting inane questions, he might just have started screaming at them or ordering the Secret Service to turn their guns on the mob. He was all in favour of grace under pressure, but there were limits. “And he’s trying to spin this in his favour.”

He snorted. The President’s logic, when he'd called, had been unarguable. Too much had been seen for any sort of cover-up to work, the President had pointed out, and it was better to release the information while they could still control it to some extent. Steve would have preferred to wait until they had a working constitution and a legal code, but events had moved out of his control. They'd just have to grin and bear it.

“The planet was defended,” the President said. Mentioning the alien attack had worked a miracle. The reporters had been struck dumb. “And humanity is reaching out towards the stars.”

Steve rolled his eyes as the President came to the end of his speech. It wasn't a bad one, as political speeches went, but it glossed over quite a few details. For a start, the President had implied that Heinlein Colony was an independent nation, yet he hadn't quite come out and said it outright. And then he’d hinted the US Government had access to alien technology without suggesting that it didn't have complete control over alien technology. And he’d finished by promising that more information would be revealed soon.

“It could have been worse,” Kevin said, mildly. “Can I upload the data packet now?”

Steve nodded. In the time between the President’s decision to go public and the actual broadcast, Kevin had worked frantically to put together a data packet for the internet, starting with a brief overview of the whole story and ending with a statement about their plans for the future. Unlike the President’s broadcast, the data packet made it clear that Heinlein Colony was an independent state, as were the planned future colonies on Mars, Titan and the asteroid belt. He’d also included a great many photographs of Heinlein Colony and a number of other lunar sights, as well as selected data from the alien files.

“Make it so,” he ordered.

Kevin rolled his eyes, then sent the command through the interface. “It should be interesting to watch,” he said. “I rather doubt that most people will believe it at first, even with the President vouching for us.”

Steve shrugged. The politics in the US had grown poisonous long before the current President had taken office. Republicans wouldn't believe a word that came out of a Democratic President’s mouth and vice versa. Hell, most people assumed automatically that politicians lied whenever they started to speak. It was hard, given the number of scandals that had washed through Washington one day only to be forgotten the next, to fault anyone for believing that politicians were out for themselves, first and foremost, and to hell with the rest of the country.

“That isn't our problem,” he said, as he stood up. “Keep an eye on it; let me know if something happens that requires immediate attention. I’m going to work.”

Kevin lifted an eyebrow. “You are?”

“We need a constitution,” Steve reminded him. “And a legal code. It’s time I started writing them both.”

“Let me read it before you start uploading it,” Kevin called after him. “And make sure Mongo and a few others read it too.”

Steve nodded as he stepped into his office and closed the hatch. It had once belonged to the Subhorde Commander, although Steve had no idea what the alien actually did in his office when he was so rapidly anti-intellectual. If there had been Horde females on the ship, he would have wondered if he’d used it for private sessions, but there had been none. Females, according to the files, were restricted to the very largest ships.

He sat down at his grandfather’s old desk – he’d had it shipped up from the ranch – and activated the interface. Downloading hundreds of actual and theoretical constitutions hadn't been difficult, but he found himself returning time and time again to the Founding Fathers greatest piece of work. It had a simplicity that most later versions lacked. Pulling up Keith Glass’s recommendations, he read through them and then reached for a sheet of paper. He had been taught by his mother, while she was homeschooling her children, that something written down physically would last longer in his mind than something typed. Besides, it felt right to use pen and ink for the first draft.

It was a more complex task than he’d realised, somewhat akin to editing his writings, but on a far greater scale. The sheer weight of history – future history – pressed down on him. He wrote out the first section, then crossed it out completely and wrote out something different, asking himself if each and every human right had to be guaranteed by law. And yet, if the rights known to exist at the time were included specifically, would that automatically exclude any rights still to be discovered?

Carefully, he outlined the structure of government. Keith Glass had pointed out that small government was best – Steve was hardly going to disagree with that sentiment – but there was also a need for a unified government. Very well; instead of a handful of large states, there would be hundreds of small cantons. The Solar Union – as Glass had termed it, after a government in one of his books – would not be an entirely coherent entity. It would be more like the Culture than Star Trek’s Federation.

We’ll have to see how it works in practice, he noted, as he finished writing out the government design and sent it to Kevin and Glass for comments. It would have the advantage of allowing the local governments to remain in touch with their populations, but it would also take time for them to come to any decisions. In the meantime, the overall government would be responsible for defence and foreign affairs. We might have to modify the system later if it doesn’t work properly.

The Bill of Rights was simpler than outlining the government, he decided. Anything that took place between consenting adults in private, whatever its nature, could not be considered a crime. There would be a right to bear arms, but there would also be a responsibility to use them carefully. Everyone, no matter the offence, would have the right to a jury trial and/or the right to insist on being tested under a lie detector. There would be total freedom of religion for individuals, but religion could not be used as an excuse for criminal or terrorist acts. Extremists of all stripes would very rapidly find themselves removed from society permanently.

Defining a citizen was simple enough, he decided, as he wrote out that section. A citizen would be someone who had lived in a canton for two years, paid taxes and chosen to join its voting register. People could refuse to become citizens if they wished, but they would have no voting rights and no say in government. It struck him, a moment later, that some people would probably move between cantons regularly, so he rewrote to say that someone had to have a canton as his permanent residence for two years. There would be no joint citizenship of cantons. One person, one vote.

He was midway through drafting the legal code when Kevin called him. “There are some quite interesting responses,” he said. Steve glanced at his watch, then down at the sheets of paper. Had it really been three hours since he'd started work? “I’m afraid the Russians, Chinese and French have lodged protests at the UN and are demanding we turn the starships and the lunar base over to them.”

Steve snorted. “Them and what army?”

Kevin chuckled. “The UN is calling an emergency meeting to discuss the situation, scheduled for tomorrow afternoon,” he said. “They’re undecided if they want to treat us as an independent state or not, but we have been invited to participate.”

“I’ll think about it,” Steve said.

The thought made him grit his teeth. He hated the UN and considered it worse than the federal government. At least the feds could sometimes find their asses with both hands when they went looking. There was no war or natural disaster, no matter how unpleasant, that could not be made worse by the United Nations. Hell, the fighting in Libya might have ended sooner if the transnational ICC hadn't put out a warrant for the dictator’s arrest, making it impossible for him to back down.

But them, what could one reasonably expect from an organisation that didn't even have a majority of democratic states? The whole concept had been fundamentally flawed from the beginning.

“They’re also demanding access to the alien prisoners,” Kevin said. “In fact, they’re not the only ones – and quite a few of the others have been much more respectful.”

“They’re not going to be paraded around Earth,” Steve said. Quite apart from the violation of the Geneva Conventions, it would probably be considered cruel and unusual punishment. And it wouldn't help any attempt to convince the Hordesmen to join humanity. “But if there are scientists who feel they can add to the research program, see if they're worth recruiting.”

“Understood,” Kevin said. “By the by, did you read the report from the two new ships?”

Steve shook his head. He really needed to recruit more staffers. But maybe that was how bureaucracy had begun, back in days of yore. The guy in charge, unable to do everything himself, had recruited more and more people to help him do his work. And then the whole process had just snowballed out of control.

The bureaucrats will be held to account in the cantons, he told himself, firmly. They will not be permitted arbitrary power.

“We have four new fabricators and nine new shuttles, as well as quite a few other supplies,” Kevin said. “If we put them all to use, we should be able to double our output of fusion reactors and other vital supplies for the new colony. Keith thinks we might even be able to try to fiddle with one; we might even be able to unlock the command codes.”

Steve had to smile. Overcoming the restrictions on the fabricators would be useful, but it needed to be balanced against the risk of putting one of the fabricators out of commission permanently. The technology involved in producing one was far in advance of anything from Earth, although the researchers were starting to have an idea of how they worked. Duplicating one without a clear idea of what they were doing could take decades.

“Tell him to be very careful,” he said. “If nothing else, we can use the fusion reactors as bribes. Give them only to nations that recognise our independence and agree to respect our predominance in space.”

“The UN wants to talk to the aliens,” Kevin said, “but no one can agree on what message to send. If the Hordesmen come back, Steve, they’re going to be very confused.”

“Poor bastards,” Steve said, unsympathetically. As far as anyone could tell, the only time the Hordes bothered to be diplomatic was when they were facing vastly superior force. And even then, the Hordesmen who had made whatever diplomatic concessions were necessary were expected to kill themselves after making the deal. “But we won’t be bound by any promises the UN makes to the Hordes.”

“I’d like to set you up with a reporter or two,” Kevin added. “Like it or not, we have to shape the public relations battleground to our advantage ...”

“Why?” Steve asked. “What does it matter what sort of crap the reporters spew out about us?”

“I wasn't thinking of going to the MSM,” Kevin said. His voice tightened. “It matters, Steve, because we still need to recruit people from Earth. If they think of us as some new-age version of The Authority, they’re going to be fearful. We need them to consider us rational agents, not monsters. And if we can get public opinion on our side, it will make it harder for the governments to move against us.”

Steve scowled. He had to admit that Kevin had a point, but he didn't like it.

“Very well,” Steve said, finally. “But someone reasonable. I want to see the name before you make the arrangements.”

“Of course,” Kevin said. “And the meeting at the UN?”

“I will not be sucking their cocks,” Steve said. “You make it damn clear to them that if they treat us as naughty children who need a spanking we will simply walk out and to hell with the UN. We are an independent nation and will be treated as such.”

“They let the Libyan nut lecture them for hours,” Kevin said. “I think they can put up with you.”

He paused. “One other thing?”

Steve sighed. “What?”

“Take a break from trying to write the constitution in a day,” Kevin advised. “The Founding Fathers took over a hundred days. You cannot be expected to write a complete document for the ages in less than a couple of months. Frankly, you really need a carefully-selected committee and a complete absence of pressure.”

Steve snorted, but he took his brother’s point. “Read through what I’ve written so far, then let me know what you think,” he said. “And I’ll try to keep up with the news.”

“That’s definitely your face on television this time,” Mariko said, an hour later. She’d taken one look at his face and ordered him into bed, where she’d massaged him until he’d started to relax. “I think that's your photo from Boot Camp.”

“It is,” Steve said. He couldn't help noticing that the tagline claimed it was his High School graduation photograph, which was definitely a critical research failure. He'd never been to High School. “And I bet that reporter is coming down against me.”

“Or maybe he has a crush on you,” Mariko teased. “It's not that bad a photograph.”

Steve gave her a doubtful look. The photo had been taken four weeks into Boot Camp and he looked ghastly. His eyes were sunken, his face was pale and he looked suspiciously like a drug addict trying to resist the temptation to start taking drugs again. All things considered, it was a minor miracle Mariko managed to like it. But then, she did have strange taste in men.

He flipped through the channels, shaking his head. Both FOX and CNN seemed to have their doubts about the whole affair, suggesting their senior management hadn't quite decided which way to jump. The BBC reported the whole thing in tones that suggested that it was all a giant joke, despite the President’s speech, while Al Jazeera seemed to believe it was all a Western plot with dark motives. Online, some bloggers were tearing apart the President’s speech while others were pointing out the clear evidence of extraterrestrial life. It was a complete madhouse.

Turning back to the original reporter, it was clear that news teams were already heading towards the ranch. Steve had largely shut down family operations there, but there were still supplies moving towards the area for transport to space. Activating the interface, he sent orders to keep the reporters out of the ranch if possible – and, if not, to pull out completely and abandon the ranch. It would be painful, but he didn't want another incident. In hindsight, embarrassing the DHS so thoroughly might just have been a major mistake. There were already leaks from the Department, now the President had opened the floodgates.

He started to flip through channels again. A preacher he vaguely recognised was screaming about the End of Days, predicting fire, floods and nuclear disaster. In Washington, a crowd was gathering in front of the White House, although it was impossible to tell what – if anything – they wanted from the government. A handful of Congressmen and Senators were being interviewed, but it was clear that they knew little about what had been going on. Most of the comments included threats to impeach the President for not telling them about the starship and the existence of aliens.

“Business as usual, really,” he said.

Mariko nodded, then pushed him back on the bed and straddled him. “I’m a doctor,” she said, “even though I’ve felt as ignorant as a new intern over the last month or two.”

Steve nodded. Mariko had had to get used to using alien technology that did just about everything for the doctor, including mending old wounds and removing scars. It was so far in advance of human technology that all she really was in the ship’s sickbay was a button-pusher. Steve could understand her frustration with not really knowing what was happening when she used the technology, but there was nothing he could do about it.

“You are pushing yourself too hard,” Mariko continued. “You’re in the prime of health for a man your age – and the alien treatments will ensure you remain youthful for quite some time. But you are still pushing yourself too hard. The Head of Government cannot do everything on his own. You need to delegate more to your friends and allies.”

“I could appoint you Minster of Heath,” Steve said.

He gasped as Mariko poked a finger into his chest. “Be serious,” she said. “You’ve already had to hand recruitment over to Charles. Start handing over some other matters too. You won't do anyone any good if you work yourself into an early grave. Or don’t you want to give up control?”

Steve gritted his teeth. She was right, he knew. Part of him didn't want to give up control over the fundamentals of their new society. How could he trust anyone else to write the constitution? But, at the same time, he was pushing himself too hard.

“I understand,” he said. “I’ll see who I can find to help.”
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Chapter Nineteen

New York, USA

After some careful diplomatic negotiation, it had been decided that Steve could beam directly into the United Nations itself, rather than face the gathering crowds outside the building. All of New York seemed to have come to a halt as protesters, in favour of Steve or against, had descended on the city. According to the reports Steve had seen, the NYPD – completely overwhelmed – had called for reinforcements from all over the State and convinced the Governor to call up the National Guard. It was still proving hard to control the crowds.

The silver light faded away, revealing a UN staffer who looked rather shocked by what he’d seen. Steve smiled at him, noted the man’s nametag – KOMURA – and then allowed the Japanese man to lead him towards the waiting room. According to Kevin, who had slipped bugs into the UN after the emergency session had been called, several ambassadors had been replaced in a hurry by more senior representatives, while hundreds of deals were being struck under the table. But then, Steve acknowledged, they’d done the same themselves. His representatives had spoken to several democratic governments, offering fusion and other technological goodies in exchange for recognition. He had a feeling that the overall response relied upon the outcome of the coming session.

“The Secretary-General will summon you in ten minutes,” Komura informed him. He looked as though he wanted to ask a few questions, but held his tongue. “Nothing about this is normal, I'm afraid.”

Steve nodded and waited until the man had made his escape, then checked the bracelet at his wrist. The force shield should protect him from anything up to and including an IED, but he was grimly aware that human ingenuity might find a way to break through it. Light passed through the shield, after all, and a teleport lock could be blocked fairly easily, even with human technology. The Secret Service had already started to broadcast radio signals through the White House, ensuring that Steve couldn't kidnap the President if the whim struck him.

He rolled his eyes at the thought. Why would he want the President?

It was nearly an hour before Komura returned and invited him to proceed into the General Assembly Chamber. Steve, who had been monitoring Kevin’s observations of the diplomats, wasn't surprised at the delay. The Russians had already lodged a strong complaint with the Security Council, backed up by China, while they were trying hard to line up other backers from the rest of the Assembly. In the meantime, the French seemed caught between the Russians and the promise of fusion technology, while Britain and Canada were reserving judgement. From what the President had said, there was too much political strife in America itself to make any promises about which way the United States would jump.

Steve had grown up in the countryside and he had never been able to understand why New Yorkers chose to cram so many people into so small a place. The old hints of claustrophobia came back in full force as he stepped into the chamber and faced the stares of the gathered diplomats, ambassadors and world leaders. Part of him wanted to trigger the emergency signal and teleport out, vanishing in a haze of silver light. Surely, facing the Taliban armed with only his fists would be easier than facing so many hostile stares.

They can't do anything to you, he told himself, firmly. And they can't stop you either.

But somehow the thought didn't help.

The silence shattered with an angry demand from the Russian Ambassador in Russian. It took the interface a few seconds to provide a translation – the Russian was complaining about the violation of the Outer Space Treaty – and in the meantime several other ambassadors started shouting too. The Chinese Ambassador seemed to believe that Steve had undermined his country’s laws, something that puzzled him, while several African ambassadors were railing against the white man. But it was hard to be sure. Everything was just blurring together into a god-awful racket.

There was a loud banging from the General Secretary’s seat. “Order,” he snapped, as the room started to quieten down. “Mr. Stuart. You have been ... invited here to give your side of the story.”

Steve smiled. “You make it sound as though I am on trial,” he said, gathering himself. He wasn't naive enough to believe that the General Secretary had any real power. If the five permanent members of the Security Council agreed, they could do whatever they damn well pleased. “Might I ask what the charges are?”

There were some titters from the reporters, but the diplomats remained silent.

“It is our intention,” Steve said, when it became clear that no one else was going to speak, “to establish a new nation covering the solar system, one capable of defending the human race against alien threats and taking humanity to the stars. We do not intend to become embroiled in affairs on Earth, nor do we recognise the existence of treaties intended to limit the development of outer space.”

“Those treaties were signed by your country,” the Russian Ambassador bellowed.

“The human race is not alone,” Steve continued, ignoring him. “There are over ten thousand alien races out there, some of whom have already kidnapped humans from Earth and turned them into living weapons. Others will see us as a threat ... or a prize to be won. And, right now, Earth’s defences rest in our hands. There is nothing the massed might of the United Nations” – he fought down the urge to let loose an undiplomatic snigger – “can do to protect the planet, if one of the Galactics decide they want it.

“You speak of international treaties and accuse us of breaking them. The Galactics are not signatory to any of our treaties, nor should we expect them to respect our legal positions. We do not, yet, have the force necessary to hold our own. It is our priority – and it should be the priority of the entire planet – to build both that defensive force and a society capable of facing the galaxy calmly, but confidently. That is our task.

“We invite other humans, individual humans, to join us. Give us those who want to build a new world, those with the dreams that will take them to the stars, those who wish something more than the hidebound governments of Earth can provide. We will take all who are willing to fit into our society and work to defend Earth.”

He paused, long enough to realise that he had captured the attention of everyone in the vast chamber. “You have demanded that we hand over the ships and technology to you,” he said, looking at the Russian and Chinese representatives. “We must refuse to comply with your request. Quite apart from the grim awareness of just what you would do with the technology that has fallen into our hands, we have no faith in the governments of Earth. How could this organisation, an organisation that produces little beyond corruption and paperwork, hope to coordinate the defence of the entire world?

“We make you this offer. Recognise our right to exist, place no bar in the path of anyone who wishes to join us and we will trade technology to improve your lives. Fusion power will transform your societies, medical technology will help cure your ill ... there are no shortage of possible pieces of technology we can offer you. But we only offer it on the condition you stay out of our way.

“If you refuse, you will get nothing. We will not interfere with you. But we will not grant you our technology either.”

There was a long silence, broken – eventually – by the representative from Iran, who started ranting about American interference and infidel lies. This time, Steve understood; Wilhelm Tech had openly admitted their alliance with Heinlein Colony and Iran had banned the dongles, which hadn't prevented Iranians from smuggling them into the country. The Chinese, he realised, probably had the same concerns. Their firewalls, intended to prevent their citizens from plotting resistance to their rulers, had been neatly circumvented.

We will have to do something about their nukes, Steve thought, coldly. But it wouldn’t sit well with the pledge of non-interference. Or perhaps we should just leave the Middle East to them.

Komura beckoned to Steve frantically as the roar grew louder. UN security forces were rushing into the room, hastily preparing to separate the ambassadors if the threatening riot actually materialised. Steve hesitated, then allowed the Japanese man to lead him out of the chamber and into a small antechamber. Inside, there was a comfortable pair of armchairs and a small tray of expensive alcohol. Steve took one look, then dismissed it.

“There are some diplomats who wish to talk to you,” Komura said. “In private, I should add.”

He hesitated, then leaned forward. “Are you interested in recruiting a semi-professional diplomat?”

Steve turned to look at him. “And you're interested in being hired?”

“Yes,” Komura said. “Have you ever tried to work here?”

“No,” Steve said. He gave the young man a long considering look, then nodded to himself and produced one of Charles’s cards from his pocket. “Call this number, then go to the address they give you for pickup. You’ll have to undergo a security check first, but if you pass you’ll be welcome.”

Komura nodded. “And if I don’t pass?”

“Nothing bad will happen,” Steve said. “But you won’t get to see the stars.”

By the time he finally found time to move to the hotel and meet the reporter, Steve felt utterly exhausted. As he’d expected, several nations had attempted to strike private bargains with him, the French and Israelis being the most persistent. The latter had good reason to need Steve’s technology – they’d offered everything from diplomatic recognition to outright military support – but the former seemed to be playing both ends off against the middle in hopes of coming out ahead. It was a typically underhand dealing for diplomats in the UN.

Gunter Dawlish had started to report from Afghanistan after Steve had retired from the military, but his name wasn't unfamiliar. Steve had read a few of his articles before the attempted abduction, what now felt like years ago. He’d spoken to Craig Henderson and a couple of others he knew who had stayed in uniform and they’d all confirmed that Dawlish was a straight-shooter. Maybe not inclined to take everything said by the military for granted – Steve could hardly blame him for that attitude in an age of spin – but not an ideological or personal enemy of the armed forces.

“Mr. Stuart,” Dawlish greeted him. “Thank you for agreeing to meet me.”

Steve smiled. Before Dawlish had finally been accepted as the first reporter to get a private interview, Kevin had interrogated him thoroughly. The reporter had agreed to let Steve and Kevin read his article before it was posted, then make changes if any were suggested. Steve had agreed, in turn, that the whole interview would be recorded and the only changes would concern his own words, rather than the editorial slant. Later, the record would be released on the internet in any case.

“You're welcome,” he said. “And thank you for agreeing to meet something private.”

“I wouldn't do anything to risk this scoop,” Dawlish assured him. He took a seat and then motioned for Steve to sit down facing him. “First question, then. Where you responsible for events in Afghanistan?”

Steve lifted his eyebrows. “Yes,” he said, finally. “We were.”

Dawlish nodded, then changed tack. “How much of the official story is actually true?”

“Almost all of it,” Steve said, without going into details. So far, the President had managed to cover up most of the DHS raid and he wasn't going to broadcast the story unilaterally. “All you really need to know is that we were kidnapped by aliens, turned the tables on them and took control of their ship.”

“And that there really is an alien threat,” Dawlish said. “Do you believe we can build a defence in time?”

Steve met the reporter’s eyes. “I believe that if we don’t try, right now, we will never know,” he said. “Earth is small beans, by Galactic standards. Most of them don’t even have the faintest idea we exist and care less. But that is about to change. We will be ... protected, if we’re lucky, or enslaved if we’re not. Building a formidable defence is our only hope of salvation.”

Dawlish nodded. “There's been a lot of speculation on the internet about what kind of society you intend to build,” he said. “Some people have been expecting a redneck paradise, with only WASPs allowed, while others think you’re going to build a Objectivist dream, with you as John Galt. What do you really intend to build?”

Steve frowned, inwardly. The President had also mentioned John Galt. Coincidence?

Probably, he decided. “I don’t have time to explain all the flaws in Atlas Shrugged,” he said, after a moment. “Unless you want to turn the rest of the interview into a literary criticism session?”

Dawlish shook his head, hastily.

Somewhat amused, Steve went on. “The short answer is that we intend to build a democratic state,” he said. “Generally, anyone who is willing to accept the rights and responsibilities of being a citizen will be welcome to join us as a voting citizen. We don’t really give a shit – pardon my French – about age, race, sexual orientation or religion. As long as someone is prepared to uphold their rights and responsibilities, they are welcome.”

“That’s interesting,” Dawlish said. “There’s a preacher in Montana claiming you’re going to build a world without homosexuals, Jews, Muslims and Catholics.”

Steve shrugged. “I’m not a member of any church,” he said. “I can't be held responsible for a loudmouth who just happens to share the same state as myself. If anyone else thinks I should be ...”

He shrugged, again. “That’s their problem,” he explained. “Basically, we intend to uphold personal rights and responsibilities. You have the right to do whatever you please as long as you don’t hurt non-consenting adults. If you do, you will be tried by a jury and punished as the jury sees fit. We expect there will be some teething problems along the way, but that’s the basic idea.”

“Some teething problems,” Dawlish said. “I used to study the opening of the Wild West. Just establishing law and order took years.”

“We may well have the same problems,” Steve said. “I have several people looking at legal issues for homesteaders in the outer solar system. Upholding their rights requires a force capable of doing just that, but such a force could easily turn into a major problem in its own right. Just look at the federal government.”

Dawlish leaned forward. “Are you anti-government?”

Steve had expected the question, but it was still tricky to answer. “I believe that as long as humans are imperfect beings, we need some form of government,” he said. “A lawless anarchy might sound ideal, but it would rapidly devolve into the stronger picking on the weaker. At the same time, I believe that the government can grow too big and too powerful and become a bully itself. That, I think, is what has happened to our federal government.

“I could cite any number of cases where federal authority has been abused, without any recourse for the victim of federal mistreatment. There are farmers who have been raided for daring to sell untreated milk, small businesses ruined by pointless petty regulations, political correctness allowed to drive wedges between people, policemen abusing the general public, lives torn apart and people jailed because of the tiny difference between a legal and illegal weapon. And, if you look at the laws the right way, everything the government does is perfectly legal.

“But it sure as hell isn't right.

“I don't promise paradise,” he concluded. “Our hopes of creating a post-scarcity society have faded when we discovered the colossal power requirements for constructing matter out of raw energy. Building our society will be a long and bumpy road, but we have the experience of previous societies to guide us and help us avoid mistakes.”

“But you’ll create new ones of your own,” Dawlish commented.

“Oh, certainly,” Steve agreed. “But we’ll try to learn from our mistakes.”

Dawlish nodded. “How do you intend to relate to nations down on Earth?”

“Ideally, we won't have anything more than friendly trade relationships,” Steve said. “Maybe not even that, for non-democratic states. Our intention, as always, is to build an off-world society capable of facing the challenges of the stars. We have no intention of building an empire on Earth.”

“I’m sure the federal government is relieved to hear that,” Dawlish said.

Steve nodded, but said nothing.

“However, there are worse states than the United States,” Dawlish added. “Don’t you think you have a moral responsibility to deal with them?”

“I really hate it when people suggest I have a moral responsibility to do anything,” Steve admitted. “On the face of it, I suppose you do have a point. But let’s face it – we overthrew Saddam and, partly because of problems in the federal government, we wound up fighting a bloody war for six years. There’s still a striking lack of gratitude in large parts of the Middle East.”

He held up a hand before Dawlish could say a word. “I know, we didn't help them as much as we had hoped,” he added. “But it put me off future interventions even before we captured the alien ship. In future, our only interventions will be against governments that refuse to allow their people to leave their states and go to space.”

“I see,” Dawlish said. “I have quite a few other questions ...”

Steve grinned. “I’ve a better idea,” he said. “How would you like to see the moon?”

Dawlish grinned back. “I’d love it.”
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Chapter 14: No reason to perpetuate the tired "tasteless food" from processors sterotype. Such stuff would surely be better tasting than "real" food.

"…When they realise that someone can download a complete copy of The Avengers II in less than five minutes." First, "realize", not "realise." Secondly, with the tech as described, more than any one theatrical release could be downloaded almost instantly.

Chapter 16: "…Four had died when they’d collapsed at the wrong time." Clarification needed.

Chapter 19: If Steve knows John Galt had flaws, he'd also know not to want a democracy. Mob rule was anathema for the Founders, and if he is as well-versed on the Federalist Papers as indicated, he'd also know he was trying to build a Constitutionally-limited Republic. If his circle was sufficiently versed on Heinlein to name their base after him - he'd also know the right way to do voting a lá Starship Troopers.
Chapter Twenty

Heinlein Colony, Luna

Gunter Dawlish had never really wanted to be an astronaut. They did nothing, beyond flying to orbit and then landing back on boring old Earth. There was no drama in the space program, in his view, nothing particularly exciting. But now ... he took a step forward and gasped as he realised just how weak the gravity on the moon actually was. He could jump into the air and fly ...

“It gets everyone,” Rochester called after him. “We give new arrivals a few days to get used to it before we put them to work.”

“It's bloody fucking fantastic,” Gunter said. He knew he sounded like a kid and he didn't much care. “you could make a mint just letting people come to the moon for a few days.”

“We’re working on it,” Rochester assured him, as Gunter dropped back down to the ground. “Heinlein – the author – talked about people flying under the lunar dome. We’re actually planning to build a stadium for such games in the next few months. Maybe even build some form of antigravity broomstick and play Quidditch.”

Gunter snorted. “Just how big is the colony now?”

“Oh, we’re expanding all the time,” Rochester said. “We have some alien laser cutters to dig into the ground, then human technology to expand and keep expanding. One of our processors turned lunar rock into something we can use to line the colony edges, then we just build the rest of the structure up piece by piece. At worst, all we have to do is dig out a cave, install an airlock and Bob’s the bloke who buggers your auntie.”

He shrugged. “We have around two thousand people working here now,” he added, “with new chambers and living accommodation added all the time. Someone had the bright idea of installing a fish farm, so we’re hopefully going to get some better food in the next few weeks.”

“And we have millions of requests – literally – for places on the moon,” Steve Stuart said. “I think the colony will expand at terrifying speed. But it won’t be the only place.”

Gunter turned to him and lifted an eyebrow. “Where else?”

“We have plans underway to start terraforming Mars,” Steve Stuart reminded him. “And there will be thousands of asteroids to turn into small homesteads. The stars are the limit, quite literally.”

The tour of the colony took longer than Gunter had expected, but he couldn't help admiring just how much work had been done in just over a month. Rochester put it down to an absence of idiotic bureaucratic safety regulations and the skills of a dozen former combat engineers. They were very good at improvising, he explained, detailing some of the problems they’d had in adapting Earth technology for the lunar surface. Even trucks and tractors designed for very cold environments had needed heavy modification before they could be placed on the moon and put to work.

“That’s one of the few laws we have,” Rochester said, as they passed through a large airlock and into an underground chamber. He pointed at a sign on the rear of the hatch. “And common sense reigns supreme.”


“It seems rather blunt,” he said. “What do your people think of it?”

“They put it up,” Rochester said. He shrugged. “On Earth, you have idiots winning the Darwin Awards by sneaking onto railway lines and getting killed ... and then their relatives try to sue the train operators. Or criminals breaking in and then suffering an accident and trying to sue the person they tried to rob. Here ... if there genuinely is someone to blame, they will get hammered, but if it was a genuine accident or the victim’s stupidity we will learn from it and move on. We certainly won’t shut down the whole program for years while politicians beat their breasts and cry crocodile tears for a TV audience.”

He smiled. “We do take care to keep the children well away from the airlocks,” he added. “There aren’t many kids up here, but those we do have are supposed to stay in the lower levels without their parents or another adult accompanying them.”

Gunter looked over at him. “You have kids here?”

“This is a city, or it will be,” Rochester said. “You’d be surprised by just how many people on my team wanted to move their families here.”

He shrugged. “Setting up the school took some time,” he added. “But once we hired some decent teachers the kids started to settle down and study properly. And they love the low-gravity environment.”

“I recall at least one science-fiction novel where Luna-born children could never return to Earth,” Gunter said, slowly. “Is that actually going to be a problem?”

“It could be,” Rochester said. “We give everyone muscle-building stimulants, but someone who stays in Luna gravity long enough will have problems when they return to Earth. Ideally, of course, everyone should exercise frequently to keep building up their muscles, but some people will probably fail to keep up with it.”

He shrugged, again. “As we say, time and time again, you are responsible for your own behaviour,” he reminded Gunter. “If someone doesn't exercise ... well, the condition of their body is their responsibility.”

Gunter shook his head, then looked over at Steve Stuart. “What sort of taxes are you going to have here?”

“We plan to insist that no one is charged more than ten percent of their earnings,” Steve Stuart said. “Both personnel and business; if a business is based here, on lunar soil, it won’t be taxed more than ten percent either. We want to avoid the endless problems people have with filling in tax assessments back in the States. If you earn a thousand dollars, you owe one hundred dollars to the government.”

“I might move here,” Gunter said. “Would you take me?”

“We’d take anyone who was willing to accept the rights and responsibilities of citizenship,” Steve Stuart said. “If you wanted to be based here, you would be welcome. But I did have a different job offer in mind for you. I think I’ll need a press secretary.”

Gunter shook his head, quickly. “I hate dealing with the press,” he said. “Sorry.”

Rochester snorted. “You are the press.”

“And that’s why I hate it,” Gunter said. “Being a reporter can be fun, being someone who has to handle the reporters is far less ... interesting. But I would definitely like to move here.”

“We’ll let you know as soon as the first apartment blocks are up and running,” Rochester assured him. “Now, if you’d like to see the aliens ...?”

“Mr. Komura passed the test with flying colours,” Kevin said, when Steve returned to the starship. “He was something of an idealist when he joined the United Nations, but he isn't any longer. Apparently, actually dealing with the politicians and diplomats is bad for one’s hero-worship.”

“I’m not surprised,” Steve said. “Does he have any divided loyalties?”

“He’d probably have something to say about it if we moved against Japan,” Kevin said. “Other than that, he will be loyal enough to us, as long as he isn't mistreated. I explained the rules on working for us and he accepted them.”

Steve blinked. “We have rules?”

“He’s the first employee of our new State Department,” Kevin reminded him. “I would prefer not to start building a monster like the old State Department, one full of bureaucrats, leakers and people who know nothing taking the lead.”

He shrugged. “Anyway, most of the Western Governments are prepared to recognise us as being an independent state provided we share fusion technology and a handful of other technological advances with them,” he continued. “They’ve also agreed not to stand in our way as we recruit, but they’ve requested that we don’t go after serving military personnel. And they want us to buy supplies from them in bulk.”

“We’d have to do that anyway,” Steve pointed out, as he took a cup of coffee from the food producer. It tasted just right for him, but he knew there had already been plenty of complaints from civilians who were not used to military coffee. “Don’t they know that?”

“Of course they do,” Kevin said. “This is just their way of saving face. They can't stop us from doing whatever the hell we like, so they ask us for concessions we intend to give them anyway ...”

Steve rolled his eyes. “So it’s all playacting for the media,” he said. “Wonderful.”

“I seem to recall mom smacking you for deciding you didn't need manners any longer,” Kevin said, snidely. “Or have you forgotten her lecture?”

Steve felt his cheeks heat. Their mother had been strict, homeschooling her children in-between the hours they worked on the farm. Steve still recalled the thrashing she’d given him after he’d been unjustifiably rude to one of her guests ... and how she’d explained, afterwards, that manners were the lubricant that kept society together. If everyone said what they meant, all the time, society would break down. Or so she’d said. It hadn't been until he’d joined the Marines that Steve had truly understood what she’d meant.

“It's the same basic idea,” Kevin explained. “They ask for concessions, we grant them ... and it looks as though they got something out of the deal. It will soothe their pride.”

He paused. “I did have a set of private conversations with the President,” he added. “He’s having problems with the Senate. None of them are very happy about us just ... taking the starship and setting up on our own. A few have even threatened to revoke our citizenships.”

“Fuck them,” Steve said, sharply.

“It's a valid point,” Kevin said. “You might want to consider renouncing yours anyway, along with the rest of us. Just by being American, we cause problems for the American government, which gets the blame for our existence.”

Steve snorted. “I’m sure the British didn't get the blame for anything George Washington did after independence,” he countered.

“Washington was President of an independent America,” Kevin said. “He was no longer even remotely connected to Britain.”

He sighed. “Overall, the President thinks we’ll get recognition, as long as the US clearly benefits from the arrangement, but he would like a couple of other concessions.”

Steve rolled his eyes. “What does he want?”

“First, he wants us to continue the antiterrorist program,” Kevin said. “We would have done that anyway, I think, but this will make it official. Second, he wants us to send medics to the United States, armed with alien medical technology. If we helped people who needed it, we would build up a lot of goodwill.”

Steve made a mental note to check who the President wanted them to help, then nodded. “I think Mariko would chop off my balls if I refused,” he said. “Very well. We will give the President his bones.”

“An excellent decision,” Kevin said.

Steve eyed him darkly.

“The bad news,” Kevin continued, “is that almost all of the non-democratic states have been less keen to recognise us. China and Russia are taking the lead, but much of the Middle East is united in its disapproval and, between them, they might be able to delay formal UN recognition. The bigger nations are worried about the effects of the dongles, the smaller nations are worried about losing oil revenues. And then there’s the request for asylum we received.”

Steve blinked. “Asylum?”

“There’s a Christian in Egypt who is facing official displeasure,” Kevin said. “He wants out. And he won't be the last one, either. There are millions of people around the world who would want to get out of non-democratic states.”

“I see,” Steve said. “And they won’t let them go?”

“Not without being pushed,” Kevin agreed. “You will need to worry about that, Steve.”

They both looked up as the hatch hissed open, revealing a tired-looking Wilhelm.

“Good news,” Wilhelm said. “We’re in business.”

Steve smiled. “We are?”

“So far, we’ve got over two hundred companies, mainly small technological and computing companies like my own, applying to set up shop on the lunar surface,” Wilhelm said. “Some of them are actually quite big, really; placing their factories on the moon would give us a growing industrial base. A number of bigger corporations have also expressed interest in moving some of their operations to the moon, but they want more details of what we can offer them first. I think they’ll expect first glance at any unlocked alien technology.”

He paused. “But many of the smaller companies have hundreds of brilliant people working for them,” he added. “Some of those people are even on the list of people I want to recruit.”

Steve had to smile. “It will still take months to get them to the moon,” he pointed out. “And what about their personnel?”

“Oh, nothing is finalised yet,” Wilhelm said. “But they’re quite keen to move ahead.”

He hesitated, noticeably. “We’ve also had literally thousands of requests for server space,” he continued. “As the alien servers are capable of holding billions upon billions of terabytes, this isn't a problem. But it’s raised a whole new problem – two of them, in fact.”

Kevin smirked. “How many of those requests come from pornographic sites?”

“I’m shocked you could imagine using the internet for porn,” Wilhelm said. He looked down at the deck, irked. “Half of them, as it happens.”

Kevin’s smirk grew wider. “We could have some fun sampling it.”

Steve had a more practical concern. “Is this likely to prove a problem?”

“We have become, to all intents and purposes, a data haven,” Wilhelm said. “Quite apart from the porn, what happens when someone stores criminal or terrorist information on our servers?”

He shrugged. “I’ve copied the user guidelines from the servers I used to run in Switzerland,” he added. “Child pornography is completely banned. All other pornographic material is to be stored in one particular subset of the servers, so they can be excluded from search results fairly easily. Some of what we’ve been offered is ... sickening.”

Steve wasn't surprised. He’d served in Iraq and seen Iraqi businessmen offering American and British soldiers pornography that would have been shocking in America, let alone in what was meant to be a strictly Islamic country. There hadn't been anything remotely tasteful about it, insofar as porn could ever be tasteful. He’d never been sure if the Iraqis genuinely did like watching men having sex with animals or if someone was trying to sneer at the outsiders by selling them disgusting porn.

“Criminal operations – and I include mass spamming in this – and terrorist operations are completely banned,” Wilhelm added. “I’d prefer not to get into a legal tussle over what defines a criminal act, particularly as we don't have a working legal code yet, so everyone who sets up a website on one of our servers has to accept the user guidelines. Anyone who breaks them afterwards can get a hammer dropped on him.”

“Good work,” Steve said. “What else do we need to know?”

“There are millions of requests for lunar accommodation, if not citizenship,” Wilhelm said. “I’ve had to hire new staff just to work my way through them. So far, anyone who might be useful to help build the colony has been forwarded to Charles, while everyone else is being examined on a case-by-case basis. We’ve got several hundred requests from authors who wish to live on the moon and work there – and they can, as long as they have access to the internet. Once we have the accommodation blocks up and running ...”

“Quarters won’t be very nice, at least for a few years,” Kevin commented.

Wilhelm shrugged. “I don't think that matters,” he countered. “They want to be part of something great. And they also want to get their foot in on the ground floor.”

He smiled. “Speaking of which, we have several hundred thousand requests for tours of the Apollo landing sites,” he added. “If we charged them each ten thousand dollars, we’d have much more cash to spend on Earth. Hell, give us a few months and we would probably drag the world economy back out of the dumps.”

Steve understood. He hadn't been able to resist the temptation to go take a look at where Neil Armstrong had set foot on the lunar surface either. The human tech looked primitive, compared to the technology they’d captured from the Horde, but it had been built without alien assistance. That, according to the databanks, wasn't entirely common in the galaxy. A large number of races had bought or stolen spacefaring technology from other races. Not all of them had mastered it for themselves.

Us too, I suppose, he thought. But we will figure out how the technology works and how to improve it.

“Keep working on it,” he said. “Maybe we can detail a shuttle to transporting tourists to the moon.”

“We should,” Wilhelm said. “We need ready cash, Steve. Right now, we don’t have as much as we will need in the future.”

Steve rolled his eyes. By any standards, his government was the most powerful one in the entire solar system. But they were also among the poorest, at least for the moment.

“Kevin, I want you to work on Captain Perry,” he said. They’d renamed one of the captured starships, as its original name sounded thoroughly absurd to human ears. “Ideally, I want you ready to depart within the week.”

“I understand,” Kevin said. He sounded both excited and terrified. Steve couldn't blame him. Neil Armstrong had stepped onto the moon, but Kevin would be flying well outside the edges of the solar system. “I won’t let you down.”

“Just remember that you’re representing humanity,” Steve warned. “Don’t let any of us down.”
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Chapter Twenty-One

Captain Perry, Earth Orbit

“You don’t look a bit like Captain Kirk,” Carolyn Harper said.

Kevin rolled his eyes. A week of hard labour had cleaned out most of the starship and allowed the human crew to move in, leaving them all tired and irritable. Edward Romford and his men would provide a security team, but Carolyn and her fellow scientists had their own role to play. If they were lucky, they might be able to understand the theoretical basis of the alien FTL drive and then start working out how to duplicate it.

“That’s good to hear,” he said. “Who do I look like?”

Carolyn considered him for a long moment. “Truthfully, I'd be hard put to say just who you looked like,” she said, finally. “That fake Native American from Voyager?”

“Thank you,” Kevin said, crossly. He’d only watched a handful of Voyager episodes, the ones that had featured the Borg. Discovering that alien technology could easily create something like the Borg Collective had led to a few sleepless nights. “I don’t want to act like him.”

He snorted, then pretended to examine Carolyn. “You look like ...”

“Shut up,” Carolyn said, without heat. “I’m not the one playing starship commander.”

Kevin had to smile. Carolyn looked, in no particular order, young, pretty and nerdy. Her blonde hair was tied up in a shapeless bun, but he had the distinct impression that she would clean up nicely if she ever let her hair down. But from what he'd read of her file, she’d probably deliberately cultivated the nerdy look to ensure she was taken seriously at her former company. Like most of the others, she’d had one look at the alien technology and practically begged to join the team. It was the opportunity of a lifetime.

“I suppose,” he said. Perhaps, during the month they would be spending in transit, he would make a pass at her, just to see how she responded. Or maybe it would be unprofessional. It wasn't as if they didn't have plenty of other entertainments. “But you’re playing Mr. Spock.”

The banter came to an end as Commander Rodney Jackson entered the bridge. He was a Royal Navy submarine commander, recently retired after thirty years in the navy. Kevin, looking for someone with experience of long voyages in completely isolated ships, had snapped him up like a shot. Once Jackson had checked with the British Government, he'd accepted the post of XO without hesitation. It too was the opportunity of a lifetime.

“We have everything stowed onboard, sir,” he said. If he resented reporting to someone who wasn’t even a naval officer he kept it to himself. Like most submariners Kevin had met, he was short, stocky and permanently calm. “And the starship appears ready for departure.”

Kevin nodded. Like Shadow Warrior, Captain Perry’s systems were largely controlled through the interface, but there were also command consoles on the bridge. It was astonishing just how many training programs there were, programs that had allowed the human crew to practice operating the ship time and time again until they were far more capable than the Horde’s pilots. Kevin had long since lost his astonishment at just how ignorant the Horde really was of such matters. But it was an advantage the human race desperately needed. The Horde still possessed far more starships than their human enemies.

“Very good,” he said.

Choosing potential trade goods had been tricky. The alien captive – currently in a cabin on the lower decks – had recommended weapons, particularly ones that could be reconfigured for non-human hands, so Kevin had loaded the starship with hundreds of different weapon designs. They had also picked several items of human technology, various movies that might be worth selling and a handful of food and drinks. And they’d even taken several bottles of maple syrup.

But there was no way to know what, if anything, they’d be able to sell them for.

They had recovered some galactic currency from the Horde, but it was difficult to say just how much it was actually worth. The alien rate of exchange fluctuated constantly, while the more isolated planets seemed to prefer trade goods to currency that might be worthless by the time it was shipped to somewhere it could actually be spent. Kevin knew that, if they failed to make some sales, they might have to start offering human mercenaries, purely to build up a stockpile of galactic currency. But that offered its own risks. What if one alien power chose to take its irritation with the mercenaries out on Earth?

He grinned as his crew took their places. “Open hailing frequencies,” he ordered. “I want to speak to Shadow Warrior.”

It was nearly two minutes before Steve’s holographic face appeared in front of him. “Kevin,” he said. “Are you ready to depart?”

“Yes,” Kevin said, flatly. A week of intensive effort had left them all exhausted, but they would have a month to recover while the starship was in transit. According to the databanks, the risk of interception was very low. “We’ve said our last goodbyes, written our last letters ... we’re ready, sir.”

He sobered. Never, not since radio had been invented, had a human crew been so far out of touch. Sailing in a wooden ship had run the risk of simply never being seen again, but modern technology had removed most of those risks, even as it made it possible for politicians and bureaucrats to peer over the ship’s commander’s shoulder. It was quite possible, he knew, that Captain Perry could set out on her epic voyage and never be seen again. There were pirates out there as well as interstellar terrorists and great powers waging outright war against their opponents.

Perhaps Steve had the same thought. “Good luck, Kevin,” he said. “If you don’t come back we’ll all be very upset.”

Kevin had to smile. Where Steve had set out to build a new society, Kevin might well have taken the starship and vanished out into interstellar space. There was a whole galaxy waiting for the human race, after all. But he wouldn't be tempted to take Captain Perry on a long voyage of exploration. They needed to collect information and return it to Earth. If they failed, unlocking the secrets of alien technology might take longer than Earth had.

“We will,” he promised. “Or die trying.”

He took a long breath. “Give my love to Mongo and the others,” he added. “Goodbye.”

Steve raised his hand in salute. A moment later, his image vanished completely.

“Prepare the drive,” Kevin ordered.

“The drive is online and ready to go,” Jackson reported. “All systems appear to be in optimal working order.”

Kevin wasn't surprised. The Horde’s concept of basic maintenance was terrifying – he had a feeling that they lost at least one or two ships a year – but at least they’d stockpiled a reasonable amount of spare parts. Guided by the interface, the human crew had carefully replaced everything that had been threatening to break and then sent the damaged components to Heinlein Colony. Some of them, he hoped, would be duplicable by human technology.

“Good,” he said. He braced himself. “Engage!”

He hadn't been sure what to expect when the FTL drive activated. Some races suffered badly, according to the databanks, and needed to be sedated or held in stasis for the entire trip. Others seemed to find it exciting or felt nothing. Kevin ... felt a flicker of unreality for a long moment, followed by a strange kind of queasiness. And then everything seemed to return to normal.

But the display were black, showing the unblinking nothingness of FTL.

“We are currently heading away from Earth at several times the speed of light,” Jackson said, in hushed tones. “No man has ever been this far from Earth.”

“No human-crewed starship,” Kevin corrected. Aliens had taken quite a few samples from Earth over the years. God alone knew what had happened to their descendents. Some would have been turned into mind-burned cyborgs, but the others? Were there brothers of mankind out among the stars? “But we will not be the last.”

He settled back into the command chair. “We will run drills for the first half of every day,” he added. “And then we will spend the rest of our time researching the galaxy.”

The next two weeks fell into a pattern. They ran emergency drills every day, learning more and more about the sheer variety of threats in the galaxy, then researched the vast datafiles on the starship. Kevin was used to the interface by now, but even he found it hard to keep track of everything it had to show the human users. And then there were the little hints they found that might just suggest ways to duplicate alien technology. The official files might be long on elaborate superlatives and short on details, but there were plenty of hints elsewhere. But could they be turned into working technology.

It was astonishing just how used they became to flying through space in an alien starship. Boredom started to sink in rapidly after the first week, followed by a form of claustrophobia as the researchers realised that they were truly cut off from Earth. They could no longer email their friends and research partners, nor could they go elsewhere if they wanted a break from their work. Jackson, who admitted that half the trainee submariners felt the same way too, organised an endless round of games and contests to keep everyone distracted. On a submarine, he pointed out, there were far fewer distractions.

Kevin privately understood. Anything could be happening, back on Earth. The Horde could have attacked again, he knew, or terrorists could have successfully struck at Heinlein Colony or one of the recruiting centres on Earth. There were just too many people volunteering to go to the moon for them all to be screened, even with alien lie detection technology. All they could really do was make sure that no one who hadn't been properly screened got access to the starships or other pieces of alien technology. But his understanding didn't make it any easier to bear.

He spent a surprising amount of time talking to the alien. Cn!lss, once he’d overcome his slight fear of the utterly inhuman alien, was a strange conversationalist. On one hand, he seemed quite willing to share everything he knew with his human captors. But on the other hand, there were large gaps in his knowledge that seemed utterly implausible. If Kevin hadn't studied the records on the Horde so carefully, he would have assumed the Hordesman was keeping something from him. But ignorance of the greater galaxy seemed to be part of their worldview.

“The world we’re visiting will not twitch a claw at your presence,” Cn!lss assured him. “They are used to visitors who do not wish to share anything of themselves with strangers.”

Kevin nodded. He’d given serious thought to wearing something that completely covered their forms, but it seemed pointless. The human race wasn't that different to several other galactic races, including some who looked almost identical as long as they didn't remove their clothes. They’d be likely to be mistaken for one of those races, Cn!lss assured him, provided they didn't undergo a medical examination. That would have revealed their humanity beyond a shadow of a doubt.

“You have contacts,” he said, softly. “People we can talk to?”

“Quite a few who do business with the Hordes,” Cn!lss said. “They will sell to anyone, provided the price is right.”

“How very human,” Kevin muttered.

He sighed. It looked very much as though they would have to hire a local to help them sell their wares, giving the local a chance to cheat them out of half of their profits. If, of course, there were any profits. He couldn't help worrying about what would happen if their produce turned out to be completely worthless. Or, for that matter, if they were simply cheated so badly they wound up with nothing. It seemed alarmingly possible.

The thought still nagged at him as he walked into the research lab and met Carolyn. His half-hearted attempts to lure her into bed had failed, but she seemed friendly enough. Kevin had sighed and given up, more or less. Maybe she was just worried about bedding her ultimate superior on the starship.

“I think we have a rough idea of just how the alien drive works,” she told him, as she took her eyes off the screen. “It actually folds space around it, allowing the starship to cross large volumes of space almost instantly. Or at least we think that’s what it does.”

She picked up a sheet of paper and held it up in front of his nose. “Imagine you start here,” she said, pointing to one end of the paper. “You want to get to the other end, which is quite some distance away. If you have to walk normally, it will take you some time.”

Carefully, she started to fold the sheet of paper up like a concertina. “By folding the space around the starship, the FTL drive ensures that the distance the starship has to travel is much shorter than it seems. But ... the more space is folded, it seems to create gravity waves that allow the ship to surf towards its destination and ...”

She paused. “You’re not following this, are you?”

Kevin shook his head. He was, he knew without false modesty, pretty smart. It was why he’d gone into Intelligence in the first place. But Carolyn was far smarter than him, even though she had very little practical experience. As a theorist, she was first-rate. And yet ... could she actually turn theory into technology that would make FTL a practical reality?

“We know it can be done,” Carolyn said, when he asked. “The aliens can make it happen, after all. And we also know that chinks in space-time form naturally, allowing the aliens to expand through space without FTL drives. If we’d had one of those in our star system ...”

“I know,” Kevin said. “We’d have been overwhelmed long ago.”

He shivered. When he'd realised that there were over ten thousand intelligent races known to exist, he’d wondered why Earth hadn't encountered them openly centuries ago. The answer had finally emerged from the databanks, only to give rise to more questions. Galactic society preferred to concentrate on the gravity points, even though there was a working form of FTL drive. It was odd to realise that such a towering civilisation looked so strange, when viewed on a standard chart, but it did make sense. Earth had been ignored simply because she was too far from the galactic mainstream.

They don’t have infinite power, not yet, he thought. Without it, there are limits to how far they can expand without the gravity points.

It was odd. The aliens had all the tools to create a post-scarcity society, yet they lacked the power sources necessary to make that final jump. If they managed to gain access to an infinite source of power – zero-point energy, perhaps – they would be able to transform themselves into Star Trek’s Federation or the Culture or something even more powerful. But they couldn't, not yet. Humanity still had a chance to catch up.

Or do we? The thought was a bitter one. Humanity had fought wars that had claimed millions of lives. The Galactics had fought wars that had killed billions or trillions. They thought nothing of building starships large enough to carry an American aircraft carrier in their holds or of converting an entire star system into a warship production plant. Or they could use nanotechnology to enslave hundreds of millions of people ... no matter how he looked at it, humanity’s survival would depend, very much so, on keeping their heads down and not making any enemies. But they already had one merciless set of enemies in the Horde.

Carolyn elbowed him. “Penny for your thoughts?”

“Just thinking about how far we have to go,” Kevin said. The vast majority of humanity – at least in the West – had absorbed the reports from the moon ... and then gone onwards, living their lives as if Steve and his family had never existed. He rather envied their ability to stop thinking about what it all meant. “How long until you can produce a working FTL generator?”

“Probably years,” Carolyn admitted. She rubbed her forehead as she sat down. “I can see the bare bones of an FTL drive, but actually making it work would be tricky as hell. If we could open up the drive on the ships ...”

Kevin shook his head, firmly. The whole system was sealed, a sensible precaution where Hordesmen were concerned. Besides, it was fairly clear from the instruction manual that any attempt to open the drive section would almost certainly disable it permanently. They couldn't risk being stranded in interstellar space.

“I understand,” Carolyn said. She yawned, suddenly. “But it will be years before we make any real progress.”

“I know,” Kevin confessed.

“Tell you one thing,” Carolyn said. “We may be halfway towards artificial gravity and thus antigravity. It will take some work to produce enough superconductors, but once we have them we might be able to produce our own antigravity systems.”

Kevin smiled. The real problem with human spaceflight was lifting cargo out of Earth’s gravity field. Every piece of weight had to be accounted for, somehow. The giant rockets that had propelled Apollo 11 to the moon had been discarded as they expended their fuel and became deadweight. But if humanity could master antigravity technology ...

“Good luck,” he said. “Make it happen and you’ll be famous right across the world.”

“That’s tiny, now,” Carolyn said. “Do you think anyone is ever famous right across the galaxy?”

“I doubt it,” Kevin said. “The galaxy is really staggeringly huge. And besides, not all of the aliens share the same tastes. Who knows – they might actually like listening to the Screaming Singer of the Week.”

“Nah,” Carolyn said, after a moment’s thought. “They couldn't be that perverse.”
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Chapter Twenty-Two

Heinlein Colony, Luna

“Here he comes,” Mongo said, as the shuttle swept down towards the lunar surface. “Are you ready?”

Steve shrugged, unsure. Arranging the state visit had been tricky, to say the least. Every world leader who considered himself important – something they all seemed to have in common – had demanded to be the first to visit the moon. And it hadn't just been them, either. The Secretary General of the UN, the Pope and hundreds of other significant political figures had also demanded to be the first to visit. In the end, Steve had ruled that the American President would be the first, if the Secret Service let him come. They’d been horrified when they realised they wouldn't be given complete access to the colony, even though it was their duty to protect the President.

But the President had come. Steve had to smile at the thought. He had thought – and still thought – that the President’s politics were appallingly bad for America, but he definitely had to admit the man had balls. But then, what sort of politician would pass up on a chance to make history?

There was a faint flicker of energy around the shuttle as it passed through the force field and settled to the ground. The force field was keeping the atmosphere in, allowing Steve and the rest of the reception party to stand in the open without spacesuits. But part of him really didn't like being so badly exposed. One glitch with the shield generator and they’d be dead before they could hope to escape.

The hatch opened, revealing the President and his youngest daughter. She’d wanted to be an astronaut, Steve recalled; she was staring around the lunar surface as if she’d never quite expected it to be real. The Secret Service had thrown another fit at the thought of letting the First Daughter – one of them, at least – go with the President. But they’d been overruled, again.

Steve nodded to Mongo, who stepped forward. “Present ... ARMS!”

The small group of soldiers, armed with modified alien weapons, snapped to attention. Steve hadn't wanted a big ceremony, but he’d agreed – reluctantly – that some form of ceremony was probably required. In the end, they’d made it as simple as possible.

“Welcome to Heinlein Colony, Mr. President,” he said, as the President reached the end of the line. “And you, young lady.”

The President’s daughter looked up at him, eagerly. “Are we going to see Apollo 11?”

“We are,” Steve confirmed. Had he ever been so eager as a child? Probably. “But first we have to tour the colony.”

He allowed Rochester to take the lead as they stepped through the airlock and into the rapidly-growing underground colony. It had been a month since they’d make their public debut and the response had been astonishing. The lunar population had more than quadrupled, while several new factories had been set up on the moon and more were on the way. Indeed, with another starship at their disposal, they’d even started pointing water asteroids towards Mars to start the terraforming process. The protests from environmentalists on Earth had simply been ignored.

“This is an incredible place,” the President said, as they came to the end of the tour. “You must be very proud.”

“We are, Mr. President,” Rochester said. “We’ve built quite a community here over the last two months.”

They entered Baen’s Bar and sat down at a reserved table. The owner had operated a diner in Montana Steve had patronised, but he’d gratefully moved to the moon when Steve made the offer. It was growing harder and harder to run a small business in America these days, thanks to the bureaucrats. Steve knew there would be no shortage of recruits for the foreseeable future.

“Beef, chicken and other kinds of meat are expensive up here, at the moment,” Steve explained as menus were passed round the table. “We’re still working on setting up farms for animals, so we’re having to bring it up from Earth. But, on the other hand, there are fewer overhead costs for small businessmen.”

The President laughed. “Point taken,” he said. “And retaken. And taken once again.”

Steve shrugged. “I’m afraid the food isn't as fancy as you might get in a state dinner,” he added. “But it is very good food.”

“That will be something of a relief,” the President joked. “Do you know how difficult it can be to endure a ten-course dinner?”

The cook took their orders, then vanished behind the counter. Steve smiled to himself as the sound of frying burgers echoed over towards the table, then allowed his smile to become obvious as a young girl served the drinks. The President’s daughter had chosen a colossal milkshake, which had arrived in a weirdly-shaped glass that had been produced in zero-gravity. Unsurprisingly, the President had settled for coke.

“You’ve done quite a bit over the last month, if the reports are accurate,” the President said, as they waited. “Are you planning to slow down?”

“Not at all,” Steve said. “The first asteroid homesteading kits are being completed now, so we hope to set up the first asteroid mining stations within the next month. Despite the naysayers, we had an astonishing number of applicants volunteer to enter the training program, even though there are significant risks and a very real possibility of death millions of miles from home. And we’re placing orders for components that will be used to construct the first base on Titan ...”

He smiled. “We have a very long way to go.”

The young girl returned, carrying a large tray of burgers, fries and other unhealthy foods, which she placed on the table. Steve sensed more than heard Mariko click her teeth in irritation as he took one of the burgers and started to eat it, savouring every bite. It was a genuine burger, nothing like a piece of recycled cardboard from a global fast food company. The meat blended well with the cheese, mustard and catsup. And the fries were just perfect.

“My wife is going to be irked with me,” the President observed. “I’m not supposed to eat such foods.”

“It could be worse,” Rochester said. “You could be eating recycled food.”

“Most of the bloggers on the moon seem to complain about it,” the President observed. “You’d think they’d be able to produce something that tasted good as well as provided the right nutrients.”

“Some of our people have a theory about that,” Steve said. “The whole system is designed to encourage its users to either grow foodstuffs for themselves or work out how to reprogram the system to produce something tasty. We’re working on the first option.”

“Once we have a proper farming system set up here, our food will probably taste a lot better,” Rochester agreed. “It will probably do wonders for morale too.”

After they had finished the meal – the President insisted on thanking the cook and his daughters personally – they walked back to the airlock and boarded the very first lunar hovercraft. It had been a pain to have built on Earth because it was next to useless in the low gravity; eventually, once the truth had come out, the designers had promised to produce a far better version. The President’s daughter seemed to fall in love at once, running forward and sitting in the pilot’s chair. Mariko had to gently push her back towards the passenger seats, allowing Mongo to take the helm.

“This is actually a covered bus, allowing us to operate without spacesuits,” Steve explained, as Mongo started the engine. The hovercraft moved forward, balancing on a steam of gas, then inched out of the hanger. “And we added an antigravity generator, but apart from that the system is all human. We could have settled the moon years ago.”

Silence fell as the bus made its way through Heinlein Colony. There were few signs of habitation above the ground, but there were dozens of men in spacesuits and converted tractors, working to set up a mass driver. Given time, lunar rock could be shipped back to Earth for conversion into space stations – or HE3 could be shipped to Earth for the fusion power plants.

“That’s going to be the first aboveground apartment block,” Rochester said, pointing towards an excavation site. “Once its sealed, crews will install everything from plumbing to internet cables, then we’ll invite people to move into it. Half of the apartments have been marked down for long-term lunar residents, the other half will be sold to people who can support themselves on the moon.”

The President’s daughter looked up. “Could I have one?”

“Only if you come and work here,” Rochester said, not unkindly. “Or if you manage to put down the rather large sum we’re demanding from anyone who won’t be working for us.”

Steve nodded. Heinlein Colony simply couldn't afford freeloaders. People who could work anywhere – authors, artists, consulting technicians – could settle on the moon, even if they weren't working for the colony. Or people who were prepared to pay the down sum. But someone who couldn't work, or wouldn't work ... it was going to be a right little headache for quite some time to come.

“I will,” the President’s daughter said, firmly.

The President and Steve exchanged glances. Having the President’s daughter on the moon would be one hell of a publicity coup – and a practical nightmare. She was young enough to adapt, presumably bright enough to learn to live on the moon ... but if it became public, it would be extremely difficult for her. If nothing else, she’d be yelled at by men and women who disliked her father’s politics.

“We shall see,” the President said.

We should slip a bug into that conversation, the mischievous part of Steve’s mind commented. And see precisely how that goes.

He pushed the thought aside as the President looked over at Mariko. “I understand that you will be leading the medical teams?”

“I will,” Mariko said. “Now the whining has come to an end, that is.”

Steve winced. Mariko had been quietly furious about the endless series of delays, caused by her fellow doctors. The American Medical Association had filed complaint after complaint, questioning everything from the true nature of alien technology to the credentials of Mariko and her fellow doctors, even though the alien technology did all of the work. In the end, the AMA had only relaxed its opposition after it became clear that it was costing them politically and public opinion was turning against them.

And that people were threatening to sue them, Steve thought, cynically. A terminally-ill rich man won’t hesitate to sue when he thinks the AMA is standing between him and healthcare he desperately needs.

“Politics,” the President said. “And will you be offering treatments to all?”

Mariko tossed Steve an annoyed look. “Adults who can pay and children will get priority,” she said. “Adults who can't pay will have to wait in line.”

Steve winced, again. They’d come close to a screaming row after he'd insisted on taking paying customers first, even though the colony desperately needed the money. Mariko had objected, violently, to denying anyone medical care, even if they couldn't pay. He’d eventually given in on treating children, knowing that Mariko would practically strangle him if she wasn't allowed to help kids. It was necessary, he knew, but it didn't make it any easier for either of them to handle it.

“There will be hundreds of rich men waiting in line too,” the President said. “People are funny that way.”

Steve couldn't disagree.

“Here we are,” Mongo said, breaking into their thoughts. “Apollo 11.”

Steve stared out of the porthole as the sight came into view. The American flag was still standing, looking faintly uncanny; NASA had treated it to ensure it looked unfurled, even though there was no wind on the moon. Beyond it, the landing stage stood on the lunar surface, utterly unmarked by the passage of time. But then, there was no atmosphere on the moon either.

“We won’t be going any closer,” Mongo said, as the bus came to a halt. “I don't want to risk damaging the landing site.”

The President said nothing. Beside him, his daughter was twitching with excitement as she stared at Apollo 11. Steve felt an odd lump in his throat as he took in the magnificent scene before him. Americans had done that, he knew. Americans had reached for the moon and landed on the surface of another world. But would Armstrong and his fellow moonwalkers have imagined that mankind would fumble the ball so badly? That no one would set foot on the moon again using purely human technology?

They didn't know, Steve thought. They never thought that we would lose our nerve.

It was a purely human achievement, yet it was so trivial compared to what the Galactics had done. A single large starship, manned by competent aliens, could smash all three captured ships and overwhelm Earth's defences in a moment. Earth’s teeming billions would vanish without trace amidst the trillions upon trillions who thronged through the galaxy, never sparing a moment to think of a primitive blue world called Earth.

“This is a mark of what humans can do,” he said, out loud. “We built this on our own; we cracked the secret of producing rockets, nuclear fission, steam engines and so much more on our own. The Horde did not. We have the basics of scientific enquiry; the Horde does not. They have no hope of duplicating Galactic technology for themselves, we can and we will. And we will reach for the stars.”

“Fine words,” the President said. “Do you plan to stand for election?”

Steve gaped at him, then realised he was being teased. “I think we will be holding elections in two years,” he said. “That should give us a large enough population to make them meaningful, while giving us time to finalise the constitution and the legal code. I ... don't know if I will stand for election.”

The President leaned forward. “Who elected you now?”

It was an awkward question, Steve had to concede. But he had a rejoinder. “Who elected the leaders of over half the states with membership in the UN?”

“You need to hold yourself to higher standards,” the President said.

“There will be elections,” Steve said. “At that time, I will decide if I want to stand for office or gratefully retire to the moon. There’s a whole universe out there to explore, after all.”

He looked over at the back of Mongo’s head. “Can you take us back now?”

“Just a moment,” the President’s daughter said. She plucked a cell phone out of her pocket and started taking photos of everything from the bus’s interior to the view outside. Steve sighed as she took a photograph of him and the President seated together, then one of Mariko standing against the large porthole. “These will go on my facebook tonight.”

Steve rolled his eyes. He'd always disliked watching his children post their pictures on facebook – or anywhere else online for that matter. He was mildly surprised the President’s daughter was even allowed to use facebook. Quite apart from the threat of her being stalked, her posts and check-ins would pose a definite security risk. Terrorists would be able to follow the President and his daughter wherever they went.

“I’m sure you will get lots of likes,” he said, finally.

He waited until the bus had returned to the colony, then invited the President to join him in the secure room. “I need an update on weapons delivery,” he said. “Has the USAF thrown another fit?”

“Congress is making a fit instead,” the President said. “They’re not keen on transferring nuclear warheads to anyone.”

Steve snorted. Once, there had been a time when he would have adamantly opposed sending weapons to any country, at least unless it was a genuine ally. And nukes shouldn't go anywhere outside American control. But now he needed those nukes. The plan to set up a breeder reactor on the moon – or even out in space – was going slower than he would have liked. Most of the people with experience in producing modern nuclear weapons were unable or unwilling to leave their home countries.

“You need to make them listen,” he said, urgently. “Bomb-pumped lasers might be the only surprise we can produce before the Horde comes back.”

“I've already pushed things as far as I can,” the President said. “You do realise just how badly you shocked the world?”

Steve nodded, sourly.

“Congress isn't sure just where it will all lead and they’re getting mixed messages from their constituents,” the President continued. “And there are fears that it will change the demographic map of America permanently.”

Steve rather suspected they had a point. The culture wars had turned America into a deeply divided country. If all the conservatives or libertarians left to set up home on the moon, he asked himself, what would it do for the rest of America? They’d be talking about millions of people, but it was quite possible that there would be a major demographic shift. And what would happen then?

“It will definitely change the map if the Horde bomb America into radioactive ash,” Steve said, tartly. “And besides, maybe they should learn to think of America ahead of their own interests.”

“And exactly how,” the President said, “do you intend to ensure that your politicians put the interests of your ... colony ahead of their own affairs?”

“Carefully,” Steve admitted. “Very carefully.”

“Best of luck,” the President said, cheerfully. “And thank you very much for this tour.”

His expression softened. “My daughter really enjoyed herself, Mr. Stuart, and so did I.”

“Thank you,” Steve said. He couldn’t fault the President for pointing out the elephant in the room. How did one screen for integrity in one’s politicians? “And please tell everyone that it’s a good place to live up here.”
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Chapter 20: "...Bob’s the bloke who buggers your auntie." Must be a British parochial expression. I thought of the TV show "Bob the Builder", but it doesn't quite fit.
(02-19-2014, 06:46 PM)WmLambert Wrote: Chapter 20: "...Bob’s the bloke who buggers your auntie." Must be a British parochial expression. I thought of the TV show "Bob the Builder", but it doesn't quite fit.

'Bob's your uncle' is a british way of saying 'there you are.'

Chapter Twenty-Three

Captain Perry, Ying

“Ready to disengage drive,” Jackson said. “All stations are standing by.”

Kevin nodded, feeling tension running through his body. They’d prepared as best as they could for a month, but none of them had ever set foot on an alien world before. Even those of them who had experience with different human cultures had never experienced anything so completely alien. It was quite possible that they would make a very simple mistake and doom their mission.

“Disengage drive,” he ordered. He’d made the decision not to come out of FTL with shields up and weapons ready to fire, but all stations were ready to snap to alert if necessary. Who knew how the system’s authorities would react to a starship coming out of FTL at full battle readiness? And yet, there was no overall authority in the Ying System. “Take us out of FTL.”

There was a faint indescribable sensation and then the display suddenly filled with light. The stars didn't look too different to the stars from Earth, at least to Kevin’s untrained eye, but the system was crammed with starships and industrial stations. There were thousands of starships and spacecraft making their way to and from the system’s inhabited planets, while the entire system seemed to to be thoroughly developed. Each planet had at least a dozen habitable asteroids surrounding it, while countless more drifted in free orbits around the primary star.

Cold awe threatened to overwhelm him. This was the dream, a solar system so heavily developed that nothing could threaten to exterminate its inhabitants. The human race would be safe from all harm once the Sol System was as heavily developed as this one. And yet it was a very minor system by alien standards, their version of a free city, somewhere without an overall authority. Who knew just how heavily developed an alien core system would be?

“Send the locals our IFF,” he said. It had been carefully modified, although the alien had advised them that hardly anyone on Ying would care. “And request permission to approach the planet.”

He looked down at the display while waiting for the response. A stream of alien starships were making their way through normal space towards the gravity point, a tear in the fabric of reality. The aliens, masters of gravity and antigravity, had concluded that streams of gravity between stars created natural folds in the fabric of space-time, allowing spacecraft to hop from system to system without an FTL drive. Many of the oddities of galactic history, Kevin suspected, came from the simple fact that FTL was a comparatively recent invention. Before then, they’d been completely dependent on the gravity points.

“There’s no defences around the gravity point at all,” Edward Romford pointed out. “You think they don’t consider the system worth defending?”

“Or maybe they think it would be pointless,” Kevin said. “There’s no single authority in this system to coordinate a defence.”

He shrugged. Prior to the invention of FTL, the gravity points had provided a bottleneck that had forced any aggressor to appear in a known location if he wanted to attack. The defenders might be outnumbered, but they would be able to counter with fixed defences and minefields. But FTL had completely undone the defender’s planning and allowed the aggressor to appear from anywhere. It must have been an awful surprise, Kevin considered, for the defenders when FTL had first been invented.

But the whole system was yet another illustration of just how colossal the galaxy actually was, compared to Earth. Kevin had been in lawless cities, in places where enemies met and traded despite mutual hatred, yet they had always been isolated places where no outside power wanted to establish control. Here ... it was the same, but scaled up to a whole solar system. Part of him just wanted to collapse in horror, his mind unwilling to grasp what he was seeing. The rest of him just wanted to get on with the mission.

“They’ve assigned us an orbital slot,” Jackson said, shortly. “And they’ve sent us a full set of charges too.”

Kevin accessed the interface, then smiled. They weren't being charged for being in high orbit, but moving to low orbit would cost ... as would hiring a hotel on the planet’s surface or hiring a heavy-lift shuttle. He smiled at just how human it was, despite the inhumanity of the planet’s settlers. Planetary orbit might cost nothing, but everything else came with a pretty steep charge. He'd been on holidays where the flight was cheap, yet everything else was expensive as hell. The basic idea was the same.

“Understood,” he said. “Take us into orbit.”

It was easy to see, as they approached the planet, why no larger interstellar power had laid claim to Ying. The planet might have been habitable once, but it had suffered a massive ecological disaster centuries ago. If there was a native race, it had died out as the surface slowly turned to desert. Even now, sandstorms rolled across the planet’s surface, far more powerful than anything recorded on Earth. The planet’s authorities, such as they were, seemed reluctant to invest in terraforming their homeworld.

But it makes a certain kind of sense, he told himself. If they made the system more attractive, someone might come in and take it.

“Entering orbit now,” Jackson said. He grinned, nervously. “We’re here.”

“So we are,” Kevin said. An odd feeling gripped his chest. It took him a moment to realise it was nerves. He’d been in tight spots before, but this was very different. There would be no hope of rescue if the shit hit the fan. “The away team will gather in the teleport chamber.”

“Good luck, sir,” Jackson said.

“Don’t forget your orders,” Kevin said. “We’ll check in, every hour on the hour; if you don’t hear from us for over four hours, assume the worst. And if you don’t hear from us in a day, take the ship back to Earth. No heroics, Commander.”

“None will be taken,” Jackson assured him.

Kevin smiled as he walked through the ship’s corridors and into the teleport chamber. The alien was already there, standing somewhat apart from the five humans who made up the rest of the away team. Kevin nodded to each of them in turn, hoping and praying that they would be capable of maintaining their calm on the planet’s surface. None of them had any real experience with aliens, apart from the Horde. And the Hordesmen were hardly typical Galactics.

“All present and correct,” Edward Romford said. “And we’re all armed to the teeth.”

“Just be careful not to start something unless absolutely necessary,” Kevin warned. There were no gun control laws on Ying, but the humans would be badly outnumbered. On the other hand, from what they had been told, if they shot their way out of trouble no one would bat an eyelid. “Onto the pads.”

He stepped onto the final pad and activated the interface. “Energise.”

The world faded away in silver light, then reformed as something different. The heat struck him at once, a wave of warm air as hot as anything he’d felt in the Middle East, but carrying with it a whole series of unfamiliar scents. He felt his body start to sweat as he stood upright,, fighting against the planet’s stronger gravity. Despite the augmentations he’d had inserted into his body, he had the uncomfortable feeling that they were going to have real problems until they managed to adapt to the planet’s environment. It was nothing like Earth.

He looked around. They were standing in a small stone chamber, bright light pouring through two open windows. An alien clicked impatiently, motioning with one long tentacle for them to step off the pads and out of the room. Kevin stared at the alien for one long moment, then remembered his manners and led the humans past the alien and through the door. Who would have thought that an octopus-like creature could develop the ability to walk on land?

Outside, the smell was stronger, much stronger. Hundreds of thousands of aliens teemed through the city, moving between dozens of buildings that seemed to be built from stone, but in countless different styles. All of them seemed larger than life ... it took him a long moment to realise they were designed to accommodate all different races. A doorway sized for humans would have problems allowing a Hordesman to step through, he suspected. No wonder the Hordesmen had so disliked their starship. It hadn't been designed for their race.

Down one long street, there was something rather like a market. Here, aliens seemed to gather together in small groups of their own races, rather than mingling with other races. It struck him as odd until he recalled just how hard it was to find something that could be eaten by more than a handful of races. One race’s food might be another race’s poison - or worse. Here, where there were no laws to prevent accidental poisonings, it was well to be careful. Further down the street, there were stalls that seemed to be getting attention from everyone, even a handful of aliens that looked like giant spiders. Kevin couldn't see what they were selling.

“We’re going to need to get a hotel room,” Romford said. “Somewhere we can use as a base.”

“Yes, the alien chirped. “This way.”

Kevin had expected problems with getting a room suitable for human habitation. In hindsight, such fears had been completely groundless. The hotel managers wouldn't have any problems configuring their rooms to suit people from just about any race, from the walking lobsters to the giant spiders. Kevin assumed, as a matter of course, that the rooms were bugged, even though his check had revealed nothing. He rather doubted that the Horde had had access to up-to-date galactic surveillance technology.

Once they’d set up the room and sorted out how to use the facilities – the bathtub had clearly been designed for a much larger creature – Kevin, Romford and Cn!lss set out again, looking for the nearest library. It hadn't been too hard to find on the planet’s datanet – access, once again, cost a surprisingly high sum – but when they found it Kevin couldn’t help feeling disappointed. Instead of row upon row of books, there were a handful of alien computers and a librarian who looked like a giant monkey, complete with tail. It was silly to be disappointed, he knew, when countless races couldn't use human books. But it still felt disappointing.

Once they’d paid – again – the librarian paid them no heed as they accessed the terminal and started to hunt for tech manuals. Kevin had practiced endlessly with the interface he’d taken from Shadow Warrior, but it was still difficult to search through the sheer mass of data someone had uploaded into the alien system. It was nearly an hour before they managed to download a whole bundle of tech manuals the aliens probably considered primitive, too primitive to bother to classify. But then, would the United States try to classify the secrets behind producing a World War One-era dreadnaught? Or the secret of producing gunpowder? Somehow, Kevin doubted that anyone would bother.

We can work our way through the more primitive technology the aliens built, then use it to understand the underlying principles, Kevin told himself. The grave danger was becoming completely dependent on alien technology. But once humanity understood how it actually worked, they could start producing it for themselves – and maybe even improving on it. It was alarmingly clear that humanity would need to do more than just match the alien technology. They'd have to make improvements of their own.

He hesitated, then started the next series of searches. One of the concepts noted in the Horde databanks had been of cultural uplift, of a primitive race being helped to spacefaring status by a more advanced race. The Horde databanks hadn't actually gone into details – they’d certainly not been given any such assistance – but the library did have some files on the topic for anyone to see. Kevin copied them all, then sat back and waited while the information was transmitted to Captain Perry. If nothing else, they would have retrieved something the human race could use.

“We’ll have to come back,” he said, straightening up. The alien chair might have adapted to fit his posterior, but it still felt uncomfortable. “Carolyn and the others will have to go through it and see how the search can be adapted and improved.”

“Maybe we can establish a direct link from the ship to the library,” Romford suggested. “They could search the computer for themselves.”

“It would cost,” Cn!lss stated.

Kevin rolled his eyes.

He couldn't help feeling nervous as he followed Cn!lss through the streets, into what the alien had described as the premier trading ground for good and items that were illegal in certain parts of the galaxy. There were more and more aliens around, most of them carrying weapons and looking grim, while the skies were rapidly darkening as another sandstorm moved over the city. He looked up as sand started to pelt the city’s protective forcefield, causing flashes of brilliant lightning to glitter out high overhead. There was definitely nothing like it on Earth.

But the building they approached was surprisingly familiar, even though it was completely alien. Two guards, both monkey-creatures, eyed them suspiciously, then listened as Cn!lss explained they wanted to meet with the merchant. There was a long pause – Kevin’s interface warned him that they were being scanned – and then the door opened, revealing a darkened room. The two humans exchanged glances, then followed Cn!lss into the warehouse.

Inside, the cold struck him at once. There had to be a forcefield keeping it inside, he thought grimly, as he struggled to pull his clothes around him. The floor was covered with ice, as if the inhabitant of the building wanted to sleep on it. Slowly, the darkness receded, just enough for him to see the outline of a colossal creature sitting in the centre of the room. For once, Kevin had some problems matching it to anything on Earth. From what little he could see, he had a feeling he should be very glad he couldn't see the entire creature.

“Greetings,” a voice said. The creature shivered, very slightly. “You have items to sell?”

“Weapons,” Cn!lss said. “Very crude, but very effective weapons.”

There was a long pause. “You will supply details,” the toneless voice said. “Now.”

Kevin’s interface reported that it was being asked for a file. Kevin hesitated, then sent the file containing the weapons information and specifications. AK-47s, he had been told, were crude compared to Galactic technology, but simple enough for the Horde to operate without breaking them regularly. But the downside was that the Galactics would have no trouble in duplicating the weapons. A few hours with a fabricator would be all they needed.

“Primitive,” the voice stated. “But effective.”

“Yes,” Cn!lss said, quickly. “And they can be reconfigured as necessary.”

“Indeed,” the voice agreed. “How many can you supply?”

Kevin stepped forward. “We can supply a thousand weapons and ten thousand rounds of ammunition right now,” he said. “More can be produced later, upon demand.”

The negotiation process went backwards and forwards for nearly an hour, as the humans showed their wares and waited to see how the alien reacted. Kevin wasn't too surprised to discover that most of their wares were almost worthless, but the alien seemed oddly impressed by some of the alcohol and human artworks. Eventually, the alien made an offer, which Cn!lss turned down and countered with one of his own. It was clear, Kevin decided, that Cn!lss had been doing the bargaining for the Horde. Or maybe that he should have been doing it, if he hadn't been allowed to do it. Eventually, they came to an agreement.

“I’ll have the weapons shipped down to the planet’s surface tomorrow,” Kevin said. They’d have to hire a landing strip, of course. That too would be expensive. “You can pay us the remainder of the balance then.”

“I may take some of your cargo on spec,” the creature offered. There was still no hint of feeling in its voice. As it inched forward, Kevin had a sudden impression of claws – lots of claws. He had to fight the urge to jump backwards. “It may be worth something to others.”

Kevin nodded. The alien had a very good reputation, according to Cn!lss, for driving a hard bargain, but he didn't try to cheat his clients once the deal was made. Indeed, if he did manage to find a market for anything else the humans had brought, he could be relied upon to set up the deal ... taking a commission for himself, of course. Shaking his head, he bowed politely to the alien and allowed Cn!lss to lead him out of the building. The two guards nodded their heads as they stepped past. Clearly, Kevin noted, they’d moved from potential problems to valued customers.

Outside, it was as hot as ever, but darkness had fallen over the city. It took him a moment to realise that the sandstorm had grown stronger, strong enough to block out the sun. Most of the aliens seemed to have fallen back into their buildings, leaving the streets almost deserted. A cold chill ran down the back of his neck as they started to make their way back to the hotel. Something didn't feel right ... old instincts, honed in Afghanistan, sprang to life. Something was definitely wrong. Mentally, he started scouting for ways to evade possible enemy contact ...

Cn!lss let out a noise as four aliens, four very familiar aliens, stepped into view. Kevin froze as the Hordesmen lifted their weapons, pointing them right at the humans. Their eyes scanned the humans quickly, then there was a brilliant flash of blue light ...

... And then Kevin crashed down into darkness.
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Chapter Twenty-Four

Heinlein Colony, Luna

“Thank you for coming,” Rochester said.

Steve scowled at him. It had been 0300 on the starship when his interface had jerked him awake – and, for good measure, woken Mariko too. If it hadn't been an urgent call, he might just have given in to the temptation to go right back to bed. Instead, he’d taken the shuttle from Earth orbit to Heinlein Colony. If something had gone badly wrong, bad enough for Rochester to call him, it probably demanded immediate attention.

“You’re welcome,” he said, trying to remind himself not to snarl. Just because he was tired was no excuse for snapping at a subordinate. He’d heard plenty of stories about commanding officers who’d refused to allow their subordinates to wake them, even when the enemy forces were on the advance. It was one of the reasons Adolf Hitler had lost World War Two. “What happened?”

“A crime,” Rochester said, as he turned to lead the way into the colony. “Quite a bad one, I'm afraid.”

Steve winced. He’d been expecting something to happen ever since they started expanding the circle of recruitment wider and wider. Ex-military personnel tended to have some common sense, particularly the ones who had served in combat, but civilians could do some damn silly things from time to time. Or maybe it was an ex-military person. Some of them could be idiotic at times too.

“Shit,” he said. The legal code they’d devised was about to be tested, badly. “What happened?”

“From what we’ve put together,” Rochester said, “Daniel Witherspoon managed to get very drunk last night, probably from one of the illicit stills. While drunk, he started an argument with his wife that turned into a fight; he beat her pretty damn badly. And then his daughter tried to intervene and got beaten too. They’re both currently in the medical bay.”

Steve sucked in a breath. “How bad was it?”

“They would both have been sore for several days, according to the medics, if they hadn't been treated,” Rochester said. “The lack of any real damage is quite indicative.”

“Bastard,” Steve said. If Witherspoon had been so completely drunk he'd forgotten himself, it would have almost certainly resulted in considerably more serious damage. Instead, he’d managed to hurt both his wife and daughter without inflicting any permanent harm. Or, at least, without inflicting any permanent physical harm. Who knew how they would react after being beaten so badly? “Where is he?”

“In the cells,” Rochester said. “Jean is keeping an eye on him.”

Steve hastily accessed the interface and retrieved the file on Daniel Witherspoon. He’d been discharged from the army four years ago and, since then, had spent most of his time trying to hold down a succession of part-time jobs, while drinking heavily. Someone would probably claim, in hindsight, that recruiting him had been a mistake. But, looking at the file, it was clear that Charles had felt sorry for him. Witherspoon, out of the army, had had few skills that any civilian employers wanted or needed. He’d certainly never really tried to develop himself.

But there was no point in feeling sorry for him, Steve rebuked himself sharply. Maybe Witherspoon hadn't been able to get a break until now, but it didn't excuse beating his wife and child. Or ... had he turned aggressive because of his success? Steve had wondered, sometimes, what would have happened to him if he hadn't had the ranch? Would he have drunk himself into an early grave? Or would he have sucked in his pride and stayed with the military?

They reached the handful of holding cells and stopped. Jean D’Arcy looked up at them, then smiled. Tall, black, with hair cropped close to her skull, she looked formidable even without combat implants. And she’d held down a position of sheriff in Texas long enough to be utterly confident in her own abilities. When she'd been offered the post of Lunar Sheriff, she hadn't hesitated before accepting the job.

“It’s good to meet you at last,” she said. “I wanted to thank you for this opportunity in person.”

“We can talk later,” Steve said. “For the moment, I want your impressions of our friend in there?”

“He’s claiming to be totally repentant,” Jean said. Her mouth twisted with distaste. “He’s lying, sir.”

Steve lifted an eyebrow. “How do you know that?”

“I've seen it before,” Jean admitted. “Some guy goes and drinks himself into a madden state, then goes off and beats his wife. But the truly repentant ones act differently. This guy ... weeps and wails when he thinks he’s being watched, but goes quiet when he thinks he’s alone and unobserved.”

She shook her head. “And there’s also the injuries,” she added. “This was no maddened beating, sir. This was as deliberate as a spanking.”

“I thought as much,” Steve said. He hesitated, then asked the next question. “Have you spoken to the victims?”

“The wife is confused,” Jean said. “The daughter ... is torn.”

She shrugged. “Sir, when someone is married, when the relationship is still there, people are often torn between wanting the husband back and wanting to be rid of him,” she continued. “So far, despite the beating, Mrs Witherspoon hasn't reached the point where she just wants him out of her life. His daughter ... she wants her old father back, but she also wants to be rid of the drunken lunatic who’s taken his place.”

Steve gritted his teeth. One of his family’s friends had been in the National Guard, rather than the regular army. He'd been called up for service in Iraq, been wounded there and returned a broken man. Two years afterwards, following screaming fits and threats against his family’s life, he’d put a gun in his mouth and killed himself. His children had wondered, out loud, just what sort of devil had stolen their father’s body. The kind man they’d known had died in Iraq.

“I thought he would have been treated for alcoholism,” he said, sharply. “Did he evade the tests somehow?”

“No,” Rochester said. “But while we handled the physical need for alcohol, we didn't – we couldn’t – handle the mental addiction to drink. It's possible that even one sip of moonshine or rotgut tipped him back over the edge.”

“We will need to be more careful with our screening tests in future,” Steve said, darkly. “For the moment ...”

He turned back to Jean. “What would you advise we do with him?”

Jean met his eyes. “Right now, we have a legal code that is largely untested,” she said. “And we really need to make it clear that we are not engaging in arbitrary punishment, no matter how deserved. We can't use his fists any longer.”

Rochester clenched the fists in question. “This isn't one miner beating the shit out of another miner,” he said. “Nor is this a fight that broke out over gambling. This is this ... asshole deliberately beating his wife and daughter, without any cause I care to recognise. There is no bloody way this can be excused.”

He looked at Steve. “Give me five minutes alone with him, please.”

Steve was tempted. He was very tempted. Mariko would not have allowed him to lay a hand on her, not unless she wanted it. And his partner would be furious with him if he allowed the man to escape without punishment. A savage beating might teach him a lesson. But, at the same time, Jean was right. They needed to test their legal code.

“Select a jury,” he ordered, finally. There wouldn't be any lawyers; someone would have to speak with Witherspoon, then explain his rights under the legal code. “Make sure they’re people who don't know him personally, if possible. Let them be unbiased.”

“Show them the images and there won't be a single unbiased person in the colony,” Jean muttered. “The girls were quite badly battered, sir.”

“I know,” Steve said. “I know.”

In the end, he ended up explaining Witherspoon’s rights himself. The man seemed torn between repentance and a cold self-satisfaction that sent chills running down Steve’s spine, something that he was tempted to mention when the jury finally assembled. Pushing his feelings aside, he explained that Witherspoon could either admit to the charges or deny them and present a countervailing argument of his own. The jury would either accept his arguments or find him guilty. If the latter, they would also devise their own punishment.

“But I didn't mean to do it,” Witherspoon whined, when Steve had finished. “Really, I didn't mean to do it.”

“Then I suggest you tell that to the jury,” Steve said. “They’re the ones who will decide your fate.”

He had never been fond of lawyers – viewing them as a plague on mankind – but he was starting to realise they might serve a useful purpose. Someone would have to be appointed as the Public Defender, to advise suspects of their rights under the law and assist them in producing their defence. Someone else would have to sum up the case for the jury ... no, that someone might wind up leading the jury one way or the other. And there would have to be someone to present the case against the suspect.

The jury assembled in the largest available chamber in the colony, a room that had once served as a dining hall and then turned into a storeroom for supplies brought from Earth. A handful of colonists, including three lunar bloggers, took seats where they could see everything, then Witherspoon himself was brought into the court in handcuffs. Jean, who would be presenting the case for the prosecution, had pointed out that she really needed extra staff or a dedicated prosecutor. Steve had to admit she had a point, although it would raise problems of its own. What would happen when the prosecutor found winning more important than justice?

“The charges facing Daniel Witherspoon are serious,” Jean said. “The previous night, Witherspoon drank heavily, then went home to his chambers. There, he fought with his wife, which ended with him beating her quite heavily. When his daughter attempted to intervene, she was beaten too. Both women are currently in the medical bay.”

Witherspoon looked reluctant to speak when it was his turn. Indeed, he hadn't even attempted to suggest if he would be pleading innocent or guilty. Steve rolled his eyes, then waited, as patiently as he could, for the man to present his defence. He had hours, if necessary. There would be no attempt to cut his defence short.

“I was drunk,” he said, finally. “I did not mean to hurt either my wife or my daughter.”

Jean rose to her feet. “You inflicted no permanent harm,” she said. “That implies, very strongly, that you were in perfect control of yourself.”

She showed the jury images taken by the doctor. “As you can see, the bruises look very bad,” she continued. “But they would have faded, naturally, over the coming week if they hadn't been treated already. There would have been no permanent physical harm. But the scars you inflicted on their minds will never heal.”

Witherspoon offered no defence. Eventually, the jury withdrew to a secure room to debate Witherspoon’s fate. Steve watched them go, wondering if he was doing the right thing. A word from him could have condemned Witherspoon to death, or return to Earth, or a lifetime of hard labour. What if the jury took the view that no permanent harm wasn't as bad as something that did cause permanent harm? Or felt that they’d heard too much about mental harm from courtrooms down on Earth? It was so hard to prove that anyone had really suffered mental problems or depression from anything.

The jury returned, fifty minutes later.

“It is a principle of lunar law,” the foreperson said, “that a person is responsible for their own actions. If they should happen to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol, they are still responsible for themselves as they chose to enter a state of diminished rationality. As such, your attack on your wife and daughter was your responsibility.

“Furthermore, you have presented no excuse for your actions, no suggestion that they might somehow have been justified. Accordingly, we find you guilty of the charges brought against you.”

There was a long pause. “We debated sentencing for quite some time,” the foreperson continued. “Some of us felt you did not deserve to live, or that there was a strong possibility that you would reoffend. Others felt you simply did not deserve to live here. However, we have decided that you will spend four years at hard labour instead, assuming you wish to remain on the moon. If not, you may return to Earth.”

Steve wondered, absently, if Earth would take him. Witherspoon was an American citizen, technically, but the precise legal status of the lunar colonists was somewhat vague. It was arguable that they held joint citizenships, yet it was uncertain how it would all play out. As Kevin had said, it might be better if they all renounced their American citizenships. But Steve hadn't been able to bring himself to do that, not really. He still clung to the ideal of America in his heart.

Witherspoon, after being told that he had a day to decide, was marched out of the room and back to the cells. Steve sighed, then walked over to the bloggers, most of whom were just finishing their articles. As the first trial on the moon, it would set precedent for the future ... although Steve had no intention of allowing precedent to rule unchallenged. The jury would always have the final word on just what happened to suspects.

“Mr. Stuart,” Gunter Dawlish called. He'd moved to the moon, a decision that had boosted his popularity on Earth. “Do you have any comment on the case?”

“Justice has been served,” Steve said, after a moment’s thought. “The guilty man has been offered a choice between punishment or permanent exile from the moon.”

“Which is likely to be exile from his wife and daughter too,” Dawlish said. “Or will they be exiled too?”

“No,” Steve said. “They are not to blame for Witherspoon’s actions, so they will not be held to account for them. Should they wish to go with him, if he leaves, we will honour their request. If not, they will always have a place here.”

Another blogger stepped forward. “Don't you feel it was handled a little too fast?”

That, Steve had to admit, was an awkward question. “I think we had all the facts established,” he said. “If there had been a requirement for more investigations, we would have delayed the trial until they were carried out. If necessary, we would have used lie detectors to ensure that everyone involved was telling the truth.”

“But the prosecutor was also the policewoman,” another blogger asked. “Does that not create a conflict of interest?”

“She wasn't the one who passed sentence,” Steve said, with a shrug. The blogger had a point, but they didn't have a legal staff yet. One would be needed, sooner rather than later. The next trial might be far less open and shut. “And now, if you will excuse me ...”

He followed Rochester back to his office and sighed. “That could have gone better.”

“It went about as well as could be expected,” Rochester said. “Drink?”

Steve let him pour two cups of coffee, then took one gratefully. “Are there any other problems I ought to know about?”

“There’s one that may turn into a problem,” Rochester said, carefully. “You know we have a number of homosexual men on the moon?”

“I know,” Steve said. “So?”

“Two of them want to marry,” Rochester said. “Should we allow it?”

“What we want doesn't actually matter,” Steve said. “Let them call themselves husband and husband if they want. If they want to register a partnership, let them do that too. It’s not as if we give any incentives to married couples.”

Or disincentives, he thought, in the privacy of his own mind. One of the reasons he had never actually married Mariko was out of fear of what would happen if the marriage failed. Judges granted women all the rights in America these days, while leaving the man permanently tied to her. He'd known two retired Marines who had been unable to remarry or even have more children because their income was being garnished to keep the wife in house and home, while they could only see their children from time to time. He had just never felt like taking the risk.

He shook his head. “It doesn't cause any harm to the rest of us if they get married, does it?”

“Not really,” Rochester said. “Their teams will have to be resorted – I try to keep brothers apart, just to keep emotion out of the picture. But that isn't a problem now we have plenty of people on the surface teams.”

“Then let us not stand in their way,” Steve said. He couldn’t understand homosexuality, but he imagined they had the same problem with heterosexuals. Besides, everyone deserved a chance to seek happiness wherever they found it. “Any other problems?”

“The teachers want the kids to have more afterschool activities,” Rochester said. “They think the kids spend too long in VR worlds, so I'm planning to expand the sporting complex for them. But not all of the kids are interested in remaining in school. Some of the teenagers have even been caught roaming the upper levels.”

Steve sighed. “Give them another lecture,” he said.

“I have,” Rochester said. “I’ve even threatened to have the next teenager caught up there publically paddled. It doesn't seem to have done any good.”

“Of course not,” Steve agreed. “I was an idiot when I was a teenager too.”

He shrugged, expressively. “We’ll just have to keep playing with the problem,” he said. “And as we expand, the problem will solve itself.”

Rochester smiled. “And someone wants to set up a brothel,” he added. “She even has girls lined up and everything.”

“Best not to talk about it,” Steve said. “Mariko would kill me.”
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Chapter Twenty-Five

Ying System

It was a curious fact - Cn!lss attributed it to the stubbornness of the average Hordesman – that stunners didn't have quite the same effect on them as they did on most other races. They were immobilised, sure, but they could still hear and feel what was going on around them, even though they were helpless. He could hear the Hordesmen chattering as they picked up their victims and carried them off, then picked up Cn!lss himself.

An odd sense of fatalism fell over him as he was carried away. Maybe he hadn't been captured – recaptured – by his own Horde, but he had no reason to expect anything other than an inglorious death. Hordesmen who were captured were expected to kill themselves – and Hordesmen who didn't kill themselves were generally killed anyway by their captors. No one would seriously believe a Hordesman to know anything worth sparing their lives.

He listened, carefully, as they were carried through the city. He knew better than to expect rescue; part of the reason he'd recommended Ying in the first place was because it was almost completely lawless. No one would object to the humans scanning the libraries for information, but no one would move to protect them too. They were captives now ... where were they going? And why had they been targeted?

Cn!lss found it hard to believe, as he heard the sound of a door opening ahead of them, that the Hordesmen had been watching for humans in particular. Had they been watching for the missing starships? But they weren’t a part of Cn!lss’s Horde ... he pushed the thought aside and waited, feeling a brief spurt of pain as he was dropped on a stone floor. Moments later, his entire body jerked as someone zapped him with an shocker. His eyes snapped open, revealing five armed Hordesmen and a single small blue alien.

There was a groan from beside him. Cn!lss turned to see the human – Kevin, he reminded himself – sitting upright, clutching his head. The small alien snapped his fingers and another alien appeared from the shadows, carrying a bottle of water. A servitor, Cn!lss realised, someone from yet another race that had no hope of standing on its own two feet. He would be a servant all his life, just as the Horde were nothing more than brutish mercenaries, slaves to the races that could and did build their own technology. Would the humans, too, end up like that?

“I believe we should talk,” the small blue alien said, addressing Kevin. “We may have made something of an error.”

Kevin had been concussed once before, during a mission in Afghanistan that had very nearly been the end of him. It wasn't an experience he’d enjoyed. Now, he had to fight hard to keep from throwing up as the tall green alien offered him water to drink. The alien was oddly cute, pretty much a green-skinned alien space babe. But the genitals, if they were genitals, were completely different from anything human. Staggering slightly, he managed to pull himself to his feet and stared at the smaller alien confronting him.

He couldn't help thinking of a mutated Smurf. The alien was short, barely taller than Yoda, with bright blue skin, no hair and eyes that were as dark as the inky blackness of space. He – Kevin assumed it was a he – wore a loincloth and nothing else, revealing a bare and utterly hairless blue chest. He couldn't help thinking of the alien as a child, yet there was no doubt that he was the one in command. The Hordesmen clearly deferred to his authority.

The Horde are mercenaries, he thought. I'm looking at one of their masters.

“An error,” he repeated. Beside him, Romford was still stunned. “What sort of error?”

“It was our assumption that you were allies or slaves to the Varnar,” the alien said. “Their willingness to use your people as cannon fodder suggested the latter. We were therefore prepared to go to some distance to locate your homeworld and recover samples of your people for analysis. It simply did not occur to us to attempt to contact you openly.”

Kevin felt his eyes narrow. That showed an alarming awareness of events on Earth. Had the aliens hacked the starship database? Or was it simply a coincidence? Or a deduction?

“We maintained a watch for all traces of human life,” the alien continued. “When you arrived, you were noticed. The fact you had a Hordesman with you suggested that you took one or more of their ships.”

“Indeed,” Kevin said, feeling sweat pouring down his back. “And who, might I ask, are you?”

The alien leaned forward. “My name does not fit well into any galactic tongue,” he said. “I am called Master by the Hordesmen, but I hope you will come to think of me as Friend.”

“Right,” Kevin said, doubtfully. “I need to call my ship, Friend, and inform them that we are safe.”

Friend made an elaborate bow. Kevin hesitated, then reached for the communicator and tapped in a code to signify that they were alive and well, but the situation was as yet uncertain. There was a brief response, then silence. Kevin nodded, then turned back to the alien.

“We clearly have a lot to tell each other,” he said. “Why don't you start at the beginning?”

“We should move to a more comfortable location first,” Friend said. “This building is not entirely ... friendly.”

Kevin nodded, but allowed the aliens to shock Romford awake and then lead them through a set of twisting corridors into a large dining room. Everything seemed designed for children, he realised, as the alien motioned them to a table. One of the stools was barely large enough for an adult human man. Two more of the green-skinned aliens appeared from nowhere, carrying trays of food and drink. Kevin eyed it doubtfully, then picked up something that looked like a potato wedge, just to be sociable. It tasted rather like fish and chilli.

“I will start at the beginning,” Friend informed him, as he took a swig of something that looked rather like green beer. It smelt faintly unpleasant. “The Varnar were appointed” – there was a pause as the translator struggled to provide a translation – “satraps of this region of the galaxy, as the Tokomak didn’t care enough to do it for themselves. Since then, they have waged war on the remaining spacefaring races.”

He paused, significantly. “We believe that the Tokomak deliberately chose to start wars that would prevent us from becoming a major threat to their beloved status quo,” he admitted, thoughtfully. “The race they chose as their representatives didn't have the strength to do more than fight, rather than crush us all like bugs. Even if that wasn't their desired outcome, it was what they got. For the past” – another pause – “three hundred years, this sector has been locked in a bitter war.”

Kevin frowned. There hadn't been that much mentioned about the Tokomak in the datafiles they’d captured, apart from the fact they’d developed FTL and used it to bind large sections of the galaxy together. There was no hint they were an empire, let alone that they assigned other races to serve as their subordinates in certain parts of the galaxy. But then, given that the files had been intended for the Horde, it was possible that large parts of galactic history had simply been overlooked.

Friend scratched his right ear. It took Kevin a moment to realise that it was intended as a smile.

“Things have changed, recently,” Friend continued. “The Varnar have been deploying a new set of cyborgs, constructed from human brains, flesh and blood. Those cyborgs have proven distressingly effective on the battlefield, allowing them to finally start making gains against their enemies. In short, the war might be lost in as little as two hundred years.”

Kevin sucked in his breath. Humans had fought the Hundred Years War, but it hadn't been an endless series of military campaigns. Indeed, there had been long periods of peace between bouts of fighting. And besides, the technology for decisive advances and battles simply hadn't existed at the time.

But, on an interstellar scale, two hundred years was nothing.

“We decided we needed to recover samples of our own,” Friend admitted. “We chose to use deniable assets for various reasons.”

Ensuring that the Varnar didn't know you knew, Kevin guessed. The story did seem to match with what they’d been told, although he wasn’t sure how much of it they could take for granted. Friend might have his own reasons for telling a version of the story that wasn't entirely true. But he had to accept it, for the moment.

He leaned forward. “Why us? What makes our brains so special?”

“We believe, from what little intelligence we recovered, that the Varnar did not need to do much modification of your brain tissue to turn you into combat cyborgs,” Friend said. “It is possible that your race is unusually comparable with standard neural interfaces, or that that the Varnar performed genetic modification on the samples they captured and then force-cloned tissue from them. Or it is vaguely possible that they did something else and convinced us that your race was particularly special to hide what they’d done.”

“Humans would prefer to believe that,” Kevin said. The thought of seeing Earth turned into nothing more than a reservoir of genetic livestock was terrifying. Or destroyed. The Varnar, if they realised that humans were breaking out into space, might strike first. “Let us cut to the chase then, as we humans say. What do you want?”

“Your assistance,” Friend said. “We would like humans to fight with us against the mutual foe.”

“Human mercenaries,” Kevin said. There were humans who would volunteer to fight, he knew, purely for the adventure. Hell, if worst came to worst, he had authority to discuss the prospect of selling human military services. But this ... this would get them involved in a war they knew next to nothing about, even if Friend was being completely truthful. “And what would you offer in exchange?”

Friend pressed his fingertips together, then spread them out. “What would you like in exchange?”

Kevin took a breath. “Starships and technical support,” he said. “And help in developing a modern industrial base.”

There was a long pause. “You wish to become more than just soldiers?”

“Our race is very – very – inventive,” Kevin countered. “But we can only be inventive in your favour if we have the tools to do it.”

“So it would seem,” Friend said.

Kevin could understand the alien’s fears. They might be exchanging one enemy for another ... but, even so, it would take years for humanity to match the Varnar as a threat. The aliens had to know that, didn't they?

“We wish the services, then, of five thousand human soldiers,” Friend said, finally. “As a down payment, we will provide certain forms of support right now.”

He paused, again. “We will provide you with five large freighters, fifty shuttles and ten unlocked fabricators. And some technical advice you can use to start producing your own technological base. Would that be sufficient?”

Kevin gambled. “Twenty unlocked fabricators,” he said. How desperate were the aliens for human help? The longer they delayed, the harder it would be to stave off defeat. But would human help really prove decisive? “And we want some warships too.”

“We can extend you a credit line so you can buy older ships,” Friend said. “There is no shortage of vessels comparable to the one you captured. But we cannot sell you modern warships.”

“Understood,” Kevin said. “And the fabricators?”

“They will be provided,” Friend said. “In exchange for this, we want the humans on this planet within” – another pause – “four months, five days. Once they are here, they will be transported onwards to the war front. We will provide weapons, care and feeding.”

“They’ll want to be able to write home,” Kevin said. He couldn't help wondering what was he sending humans into. What sort of role would a mere five thousand humans play on the battlefield? Or were the aliens thinking that they would serve as shock troopers? “And go home from time to time.”

Friend blinked at him. It was a disconcertingly human gesture. “Why?”

“Because they need that lifeline to fight,” Kevin said. He gambled, again. “It will make them far more effective soldiers.”

“Then it will be done,” Friend said. He stood. “Your supplies will be delivered to your ship, while the promised starships will be sent directly to your star system. And then you will send the troops here.”

He turned, then walked out of the room.

After a moment, one of the green aliens motioned for them to walk out of the building and back onto the streets.

It isn't rude, Kevin reminded himself, as they started to walk back to the hotel. It’s just how they do things, really.

He said nothing until they were back at the hotel, where they stripped down and swept their bodies carefully for surveillance devices. Nothing was found, but as he reminded himself – again – that didn’t necessarily mean anything. The tools he'd used against the Taliban were primitive compared to the latest cutting-edge technology the Galactics deployed regularly. Grimly, he reminded himself to be careful what he said, then called the ship and made a full report.

“We will be sent the down payment,” he concluded. “I think we should spend several more days here, then head back to Earth.”

“We have to offload the other supplies anyway,” Jackson reminded him. “I’ve had to pay out quite a few bits of currency just to hire the shuttles. If we’d brought our own ...”

“We would just have been charged for the landing pads instead,” Kevin said, rolling his eyes sardonically. Somehow, he doubted that Ying would become a noted holiday destination for human tourists. Or maybe it would. People went on vacations to dangerous places all the time. Some of them never came home. “Finish offloading the goods, then keep an eye on things.”

He looked over at Cn!lss. “Are you all right?”

“They could have killed me,” Cn!lss said. It was always hard to tell, but the Hordesman looked miserable. “They could have ended my life right there and then.”

Kevin felt a flash of sympathy. He’d never been the weak and friendless nerd – growing up on a farm had given him muscles and homeschooling had allowed him to avoid the worst of High School culture – but he understood just how intelligence could isolate someone from the less fortunate. Steve and Mongo were hardly stupid, yet they had a directness about them that Kevin lacked. But then, that very directness had worked out in their favour more than once. Kevin wouldn't have had the sheer nerve to set up his own country, no matter how much he wanted it.

“They didn't, though,” he said. “They won’t hurt you, ever again.”

He had a sudden impression of what life must have been like for the alien techie. He was needed, desperately, and yet he was also disdained, because the Horde weren't smart enough to realise how much they needed him. It had never surprised Kevin that so many intelligence officers – particularly the lower-ranked ones who never left America – were so socially stunted and awkward. Or that they were easy prey for manipulation by outside intelligence agents.

They want to be part of something – anything – greater than themselves, he thought. But they lack the skills to make themselves part of that something, to pretend to blend in with the crowd.

He shuddered. It was impossible to be sure, but most intelligence officers Kevin had spoken to had believed that Edward Snowden was a Russian agent, no matter what he claimed to be. There were just too many KGB-style fingerprints over the whole affair to suggest otherwise, ending with Snowden’s fight to Russia. Had he chosen Moscow because he believed the Russians would never surrender him ... or had he been pushed into choosing it by his masters? There was no way to know.

The isolated children, the outcasts, had always been easy prey for manipulators. And it was far too hard to counter it in each and every specific case. He felt a twinge of bitter guilt. What, if anything, had they done to Cn!lss? They’d practically made him the same offer of a home where he didn't run the risk of dying because some Horde Commander was having a bad day. To him, it had to seem like an offer of paradise.

But it had to be worse than any merely human intelligence coup. Americans and Russians were human. Humans and Hordesmen were very different races. Cn!lss might never see his own kind again. He would never have a mate ... well, he probably wouldn't have had one anyway. Horde society assigned mates to the strong, not to the intelligent. And abducting wives was considered good sport.

“We will make a home for your people and change their society,” he said. “There will be Hordesmen raised in a very different culture, one that values intelligence rather than brute force and stupidity. And you will have a home there.”

“Thank you,” Cn!lss said. It was always hard to be sure, but he seemed unconvinced. “But my people do not change.”

Kevin had his doubts. The tests had suggested that most Hordesmen, like humans, shared the same basic level of intelligence. It was just stunted, quite deliberately, by their upbringing. Given a very different upbringing, there would be more Hordesmen learning to use their intelligence, rather than fighting their way through a finishing school that looked absolutely murderous. And who knew what they would become then? Perhaps, instead of building their own empire, the human race could build a United Federation of Planets.

He smiled. If nothing else, laying plans for the future would help to pass the time on the voyage home.
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Chapter 23: "Energise" is parochial. "Energize" is more acceptable.

Nice touch to explain why a hotel room was important. First stop was the bathroom.

“Some guy goes and drinks himself into a madden state, then goes off and beats his wife." A Texas sheriff would say, "...into a rage."

Chapter 25: (typo) "...zapped him with [a] shocker."
Chapter Twenty-Six

Near Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

The mansion had been designed to resemble nothing less than a desert tent, as if the occupants still clung to the lives of their ancestors. It was a lie, of course; the occupants enjoyed riches and luxuries the ancient desert clans would have found completely beyond their comprehension, when they weren't sneering at them. Oil wealth had warped Saudi Arabia’s society out of all recognition; social unrest threatened every time the government tried to reduce benefits to its population, while the unemployed and unemployable young male Saudis had plenty of time to consider both the finer points of Islam and their own royal family’s adherence to those values.

And now those thoughts will become sharper, the Foreign Minister thought, as he climbed out of the car and walked towards the mansion. His bodyguards fanned out around him, watching for trouble. The Pakistanis were loyal as long as they were paid, he knew. But how long could they be paid?

It might not matter, he knew. Part of their contract was an agreement they could stay in Saudi Arabia if necessary, along with their wives and children. Pakistan looked to be on the verge of civil war, even though large chunks of the Taliban leadership had simply been wiped out. But he didn't care to gamble with his family’s safety – and their grip over the country they ruled as a pirate fiefdom. It was already shaky enough after the Americans had started to develop new technology.

He gritted his teeth as they reached the doors and stepped inside. The American infidels didn't fool him, not really. They wanted – they needed – to break the oil monopoly, particularly now their country held an increasing hatred for Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. No matter the vast sums of money spent on shaping political and public opinion in the West, it was becoming increasingly clear that the flood of off-world technology would eventually shatter the monopoly completely. And once that happened ...

The Foreign Minister had no illusions about his family’s popularity. They were hatred, increasingly so, by the people they claimed to rule. Any step towards democratic government, no matter how slight, ran the risk of becoming disastrous, while they could hardly become more Islamic without risking an eventual takeover by the religious leaders. Hell, it would be damn near impossible to force his family to become more Islamic. Very few of them even bothered to fast on Ramadan, let alone honour the other tenets of Islam.

There was a long pause as the bodyguards met other bodyguards and exchanged glares, then the Foreign Minister stepped past them and into the meeting room. Three other men stood there, one from Bahrain, one from Dubai and one from Iran. He couldn't help wondering just what was going through the Iranian’s mind. Iran and Saudi Arabia hated each other so thoroughly that, absent the presence of Saddam and later the Americans, they would have gone to war years ago. But the Foreign Minister had no illusions about the military balance of power either. If the Americans stayed out of the war, Iran would almost certainly win within a year.

It was the age-old problem for any Arab ruler, he knew. If they actually trained their men to be competent soldiers, part of a much larger army, they ran the risk of being disposed in a coup. Allah knew there had been hundreds of coup plots over the last fifty years, some of which had come alarmingly close to being launched. But if they kept their militaries weak and divided, commanders fearful to talk to one another because of the risk of being taken for spies, they would lose all military effectiveness. If the Americans hadn’t protected Saudi Arabia for so long ...

He pushed the thought aside as he greeted the Iranian, reminding himself firmly to be diplomatic. The Iranian had been invited, after all, as had the other two. All four nations ran the risk of being completely marginalised, thanks to the influx of off-world technology. If they worked together, they might manage to save themselves. And if they didn't, they were all thoroughly screwed.

Perhaps I should start sending my family out of the country, the Foreign Minister thought, as he sat down on the rug. Getting Saudis and Iranians to work together will be like herding cats and dogs.

There was a pause as serving men appeared from the side doors, carrying trays of coffee, rice and meat, then – once they were gone – the diplomats started to eat. It felt oddly surreal to the Foreign Minister, who would never normally have chatted to an Iranian in such relaxed surroundings, but it was necessary. Leave it to the Americans to be blunt and direct. The Arabs had a different way of looking at the world. But then, he reminded himself, the Iranians were not Arabs. Indeed, they would find the claim they were rather insulting.

“We have a problem,” he said, when the meal was finished and their coffee was replenished. “The new influx of technology threatens us all.”

“It threatens you more than us,” the Iranian pointed out. “Our country is stable.”

Economically speaking, the Foreign Minister thought, he had a point. Iran had a self-reliance that Saudi Arabia would never be able to develop for itself. But if it couldn't export oil at all, it would still take a major hit in the pocketbook. The long-term results would be devastating.

“There is also the influx of new computer technology,” the Foreign Minister countered. “What is that doing to you?”

The Iranian glowered, then nodded. Saudi Arabia had had its own problems with the new dongles, despite a hasty religious ruling from the clerics that buying and using one was against Islamic Law. Getting that ruling had cost the family dearly, but it seemed to have had little effect. Several dozen dongles had been confiscated by the Security Ministry, while Allah alone knew how many others were drifting through the country, completely undermining the computer firewalls the government used to prevent its citizens from accessing large parts of the internet. Officially, the firewalls were meant to protect innocent minds from pornography, but everyone knew the truth. The firewalls were intended to keep people who might disagree with the government from talking to one another.

But the dongles were almost completely undetectable ...

No matter what the security forces did, this particular jinn was out of the bottle and wouldn't be put back in a hurry. Half of the religious police were illiterate morons whose sole claim to any form of piety was memorising the Qur’an. They probably wouldn't recognise one of the new dongles if they laid eyes on it, even without some computer genius taking off the plastic covering and installing the transmitter in his computer. It had already happened, in the West ... and Middle Eastern computer nerds had far more reason to hide. He would have been very surprised if the same problem wasn't happening in Iran.

“Not to mention other problems,” the Iranian continued. “Do you realise they sold Israel a working laser system?”

The Foreign Minister nodded. Iran’s long-term plan for war against Israel was a war of a thousand cuts, using primitive rockets and terror attacks launched by Palestinian groups to undermine the Israeli will to resist. The laser system from outer space – it sounded like the title of a bad movie – simply swatted the missiles out of the air, leaving nothing but dust to drift down to the ground. If nothing else, the whole affair exposed just how hypocritical the lunar settlers were. They claimed not to interfere ... and yet they protected a country many of their own people regarded as a menace to world peace.

But he had his doubts about the independence of the lunar settlers. The American Government could have stopped them, if it had seen fit, or simply impeded their operations on Earth. Instead, they seemed to be taking a hands-off approach, which suggested something rather more sinister to a conspiracy-minded thinker. The whole lunar settlement was nothing more than a false flag operation on a gigantic scale. Instead of being actually independent, the whole affair was an American plan to change the world, while the American Government escaped all blame.

A devilishly cunning plan, he thought. The President makes changes he desperately needs to make, all the time protesting his innocence. How very clever!

The Bahraini leaned forward. “We have agreed there is a problem,” he said. “But what do we do about it?”

“You should start thinking about running for your lives,” the Iranian sneered. “Your master may not be able to protect you for much longer.”

The Foreign Minister sighed. “We’re here to discuss possible courses of action,” he said. “I don’t think backbiting helps very much, does it?”

“No,” the Iranian said.

The Foreign Minister sighed. Bahrain was effectively under Saudi military occupation, even though few in the West were genuinely aware of it. The Sunnis might run the semi-island, but the vast majority of the population were Shia ... and they wanted change. And Iran, he knew, had been quietly fuelling the flames ever since the damned Arab Spring. It caused no shortage of headaches for their enemies, while making it harder for the West to take its normal sanctimonious approach to the problem. After all, the Royal Family of Bahrain were tyrants.

“Most of our normal tools seem to have been disabled,” the Foreign Minister admitted. “I think American public opinion is moving in favour of fusion power.”

He sighed, again. The environmentalist movement had been quietly funded by the Middle East, in the hopes it would prevent any move to energy independence for the West. They’d spread horror stories about nuclear power, coal power and oil fracking ... and now, with fusion power promising an unlimited supply of completely clean energy, the environmentalists had seized on it as mana from heaven. They might be useful idiots, but they weren't paid agents. It would be incredibly difficult to convince them that fusion power was just as dangerous as fission power.

And if they see our fingerprints, they will use it to discredit the whole movement, he thought.

The discussion raged backwards and forwards, but nothing was really decided, apart from the agreement that they did have a problem. If the lunar settlers truly were independent, pressuring the American Government would be pointless. And even if they weren't, the American government was big enough to make it difficult to pressure, particularly – as the Iranian pointed out – as Saudi Arabia’s influence was dropping fast. And there was the very real danger of picking a fight they couldn't hope to win.

But, if fusion power continued to spread, they were doomed.

The Foreign Minister had no illusions. American oil companies would be hurt, true, but Americans were incredibly adaptable. They would survive. His country, however, would not survive if they couldn't export vast amounts of oil. About the only other thing they exported in large quantities was Radical Islam and that was very much a two-edged sword. It was possible, he supposed, that the Chinese would want oil ...

“The Chinese have their own problems with dongles,” the Iranian said, sardonically. “They may not be able to take your oil.”

The Foreign Minister winced. He’d met several Chinese technicians, men working in Saudi Arabia for princely wages, and they’d been incredibly clever and inventive. He had no doubt that Chinese technicians would be able to use the dongles themselves, even though the Great Firewall of China was far more capable than anything the Arab states had built for themselves. And then the simmering Chinese unrest might come out into the open and start demanding open change.

But that only took them back to the final question. What were they going to do?

“We need to take decisive action,” the Foreign Minister concluded. “And we will need your help.”

Carefully, he outlined the plan they’d devised.

It was a measure of their desperation, he realised afterwards, that no one – not even the Iranian – raised a serious objection. If the current state of affairs continued, they knew, all of their nations were doomed. Iran might end up with a new government, with the previous government purged by victorious rebels, but Saudi Arabia would sink without trace. The mansions and cities they’d built required constant maintenance to keep them in order. If they couldn't afford to maintain them any longer, they would rapidly start to fall apart. Water supplies would come to an end. And then vast numbers of people would simply die.

“Desperate,” the Iranian said. “Desperate, but necessary.”

No one disagreed.

Washington didn't seem to have changed much in the two months since the UN debate in New York, Gunter decided. There were a large mob of protesters outside the White House – several different groups, according to the Washington PD – and lobbyists were still making their endless rounds between Congress and their corporate employers. The only big difference, according to his sources, was the addition of a force field generator to protect the White House, even though the President was no longer Terrorist Target Number One. That honour had been taken by Steve Stuart.

He smiled at the thought as he stepped into the lobby of the hotel and waited for security to buzz him through. Senator Cavendish seemed to prefer to use hotels, rather than establish his own home in Washington, although – as he was quite wealthy in his own right – Gunter suspected this worked out in his favour. He had room service at all hours, a discrete place to meet allies and enemies and a reasonable level of security. And, if someone didn't take a close look at his expenses, it looked more humble than buying a mansion in America’s most expensive city.

“Ah, Mr. Dawlish,” the Senator said, as the maid waved Gunter into the Senator’s suite. It was practically a luxury apartment in its own right. “Would you care for coffee?”

“Yes, please,” Dawlish said. He waited for the Senator to finish pouring two cups of coffee, then took a seat. “I was surprised you called me today.”

“I much prefer reading your work to that of the MSM,” the Senator said. “It's either endless abuse or crawling, depending on which side you're on. The bloggers are much more even-handed.”

That, Gunter knew, wasn't entirely true. Bloggers could have a political slant just as easily as a hired reporter. But when there were no editors, it was easier to see the political slant for what it was and disregard it. And besides, most bloggers certainly tried to be even-handed, even if it didn't quite work out.

“Thank you,” he said.

“I won’t lie to you,” Cavendish said, as he sat down. “Recent events have quite unsettled the GOP – and the Democrats too. Who knows what will be the end result of all this new technology?”

Gunter smiled. “A better world?”

“Perhaps, or a worse one,” Cavendish said. “What will happen to America if our best and brightest go into space? Would we be losing the talent we need to keep ourselves a First World nation?”

“Perhaps,” Gunter said. “Or perhaps we would be securing our future instead.”

He shrugged. Years ago, he’d read a research paper that asserted that Americans came from hardy stock. The first Americans – or at least the first settlers, seeing the paper didn't seem to recognise the existence of the Native Americans – had been willing to leave Europe and make a new life in America, even though there had been a very high risk of death. Their descendents had a fire, the author had claimed, that their relatives in Europe lacked. He'd concluded by asserting that America needed an improved immigration policy to ensure that only those with the drive and determination to succeed were invited into the country.

There was no way to know if the author was actually correct, but he’d heard the rumours winging their way through the political mainstream. Young men and women with the drive and determination to succeed were signing up for lunar settlement in vast numbers; the waiting list, he’d heard, already included millions of names. And these men and women wouldn't just be determined to succeed, they’d also be natural supporters of the GOP. The party was watching its natural voter base threaten to erode.

But it was likely to cause other problems too. What would happen, he asked himself, if he tax burden on the average American citizen continued to rise?

“The transition has to be carefully managed,” Cavendish said. “We must elect a new government that will guide America through the next few years.”

Gunter lifted his eyebrows. “Are you planning to run for President?”

“I think so,” Cavendish said. “But matters are undecided at the moment.”

“Because half of the GOP thinks that most of their representatives in Washington are RINOs,” Gunter said. “Or traitors.”

He sighed. It was another problem, one that bedevilled all political parties. At base, they were political consensuses, compromises between different attitudes and viewpoints that allowed them all to stand under the same banner. But when large parts of the organisation felt betrayed, they tended to make their displeasure felt. Even without Steve Stuart and the alien technology, the GOP would probably have had a few uncomfortable years. But then, it was probably true of the Democrat Party too. Hope and change had simply not materialised.

“I would also like to open up talks with Mr. Stuart directly,” Cavendish added. “His endorsement would be very useful.”

Gunter doubted that Stuart would offer anything of the sort. “I can certainly give him your number,” he said. “But he was pretty alienated from mainstream politics even before he started his own country. He might have nothing to say to you.”

“There’s no harm in asking,” the Senator said. “And besides, I have other plans for the future.”

Sighing inwardly, Gunter settled in for the long haul.
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Chapter Twenty-Seven

Shadow Warrior, Mars Orbit

“Back on Earth, there are people – know-nothings – protesting about what we are doing here,” Steve said. He hated giving speeches, but he had to admit there was a certain satisfaction in giving this one. “They think what we’re doing is morally wrong. They think that we’re the bad guys for slamming a few asteroids into Mars. They think we’re” – he held up his hands to make quotation marks – “damaging the environment.”

There were a handful of chuckles from several of his listeners. They'd all suffered at the hands of environmentalists or environmental regulations, regulations designed by bureaucrats who knew next to nothing about farming or anything else they sought to regulate. And the whole idea of opposing the terraforming of Mars, they all agreed, was absurd. Humanity needed more places to live.

Steve smiled and went on. “But we are the builders, the ones who make it possible for humanity to live,” he continued. “Mars is a dead world, utterly dead. There are no giant slugs or rock snakes crawling over the surface, nor are there any traces of a long-gone civilisation. What is the harm, I ask you, in turning Mars into another homeworld for mankind?

“There isn't any harm,” he concluded. “Let the protesters exhaust themselves shouting and screaming down on Earth. Let them bemoan what we’re doing, here and now, just as they bemoan our ancestors who settled America. But somehow I doubt they will refuse to visit Mars in the future, just as they don’t go home to Europe and abandon America. Today, the future belongs to those who dream and build a better world.”

He lifted his glass. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said. “I give you the future.”

On the display, seventeen asteroids tumbled towards Mars. They’d been carefully selected, then nudged towards their targets with nuclear bombs Steve had purchased from Russia. The environmentalists had howled about that too – nukes in space, they’d wailed – but the whole system had worked perfectly well. Mars would get its first infusion of water, the Russians would get a handful of fusion power plants and a number of nuclear weapons would be removed from Earth. The Russian weapons had been crude, according to the techs, but perfectly functional. And they’d been used to build rather than destroy.

But we’re going to need more of them, he thought. Talks with America over the production of additional nuclear devices – they’d been trying to stay away from the word bomb – were going nowhere fast. We’re going to have to set up breeder reactors of our own.

They did have several advantages over Earth, he knew. Nuclear waste – always a problem – could be simply launched into the sun, where it would vanish without trace. He’d actually offered to take the nuclear waste from various countries on Earth and dispose of it, although those negotiations weren't proceeding any faster. Fear of a shuttle accident, it seemed, was delaying the talks. Never mind that there hadn't been a single shuttle accident in three months ...

He shook his head, then looked back at the display. It did look destructive, he had to admit, but the icy asteroids would melt within Mars’s scant atmosphere and increase the water content of the dead world. The water would match up with seeds the terraforming crews had already scattered, starting the slow development of a breathable atmosphere. Brute-force terraforming, as the aliens called it, would still take upwards of a hundred years, but by the time it had finished Mars would live again. The only real problem was warming the planet long enough to develop a proper greenhouse effect.

I wonder if the environmentalists will stop screaming about the asteroids long enough to start screaming about the greenhouse effect, he wondered, nastily. That’s another evil buzzword for them.

But it was necessary, he knew. Mars was a cold world. The heat of the sun was already diluted by the time it reached the planet, forcing the engineers to develop an ozone layer to keep as much heat as possible trapped on the planet. There was a perfectly natural version of the greenhouse effect on Earth, after all, and it had worked very well for thousands upon thousands of years. Duplicating it for Mars was an urgent requirement.

The small crowd fell silent as the first asteroid plummeted into the planet’s atmosphere. Even though the atmosphere was thin, it left a fiery trail as it fell downwards and eventually slammed into the planet’s surface. Steve sucked in his breath sharply as the display pulled out, revealing the atmospheric patterns slowly spreading out over Mars. They were oddly beautiful, even though he knew that anyone within a hundred miles of the impact would be very unlikely to survive. He couldn't help wondering if they had created a new art form.

We should have learned from the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs, he thought, remembering one of Keith Glass’s impassioned anti-NASA rants. Nothing NASA could have done would have saved humanity, if a large asteroid had plummeted towards the Earth and smashed into the planet. Indeed, reading between the lines in the alien files, it seemed that asteroid impacts were often used to depopulate worlds, with everyone involved swearing blind that it wasn't actually deliberate genocide. Not that the victims would have cared by then, he suspected. Anyone lucky enough to survive the impact would die soon afterwards, killed by environmental change or the destruction of civilisation.

Hell, the environmentalists should have gotten behind NASA and pushed, he thought, dryly. Or is it only bad if humans are responsible for environmental change?

The second asteroid had a longer trajectory through the planet’s atmosphere before it finally struck the surface and exploded. Steve watched, staring in awe, as the next few asteroids slammed down in quick succession, each one adding more water droplets to the planet’s atmosphere. Time seemed to slow down as the atmosphere changed, great clouds of dust rising up into the higher levels, then slowly drifting back towards the planet’s surface. The engineers had predicted that, Steve knew, and they’d welcomed it. Dust in the atmosphere would help trap the heat from the explosions.

He heard a cheer as the final impact slammed home, then relaxed. He’d known that nothing could go wrong, yet he’d worried endlessly. Mars wasn't quite as important, economically, as the asteroids, but humanity needed a new home that wasn't dependent on life support. If the aliens came calling before Earth was ready ... he shook his head, dismissing the thought in irritation. They wouldn't stand a chance if someone more advanced than the Horde turned up, not for several years. If that happened, Steve’s only real option was to run.

Shadow Warrior could keep a small human population alive for centuries, if necessary. They could make their way to a far distant star system and start again, using the vessel’s technology to rebuild human society. They could make it ... but he didn't want to abandon Earth. It would be the ultimate failure of his long-term plan.

“The spectacular part is over,” he said, as the ripples from the last asteroid slowly faded away. “But, right now, it’s raining on Mars for the first time in eternity.”

He accessed the interface, then displayed the view from the sensors they’d placed on Mars. Droplets of water were falling from the sky and splashing on the ground, then slowly sinking into the planet’s soil. The drones were already deploying the first seeds, seeds that would take root and start producing oxygen as well as bringing life back to the soil. Given ten years, Mars would look green rather than red as the plants spread rapidly. But that would only be the start of the terraforming process.

Smiling, Steve looked towards the members of the Mars Society. They’d drawn up endless plans to colonise Mars, plans that had never been put into action ... until now. Steve had seen some of their work and admired it, even though he knew that alien technology and communications would fundamentally change some of their plans. But it would be interesting, he told himself, to see what sort of society developed on Mars.

It will still be decades before proper colonisation can begin, he told himself, as he stepped over to meet them. And by then, the world will have changed beyond all recognition.

“We wanted to thank you in person,” the leader said. Steve hated being mobbed, but the society members didn't seem to care. “What you’ve done today is remarkable.”

“Thank you,” Steve said. “And your work is pretty impressive too.”

“But not quite in the same league,” the leader said. “When can we begin actually settling the planet?”

Steve shrugged. “When we get more transport organised,” he said. The Americans, Russians and Europeans had started producing spacecraft for the Earth-Mars journey, they just needed to be lifted up into orbit. If some of the ideas about duplicating alien antigravity technology actually worked – and could be done with purely human engineering – the whole process would expand rapidly. “And then you can start organising the first colony mission.”

It would be a more controlled process, he knew, than the plan to settle the asteroids. Mars was a whole planet, after all. And there were more legal issues; technically, settling Mars was also illegal under the Outer Space Treaty. But Steve was not inclined to care about a piece of ill thought out legislation he hadn't signed ... and nor were the other developed countries, now. They were more interested in getting all they could from the lunar settlement and its monopoly on alien technology.

“We look forward to it,” the leader assured him. “And thank you for the space station.”

Steve had to smile. The space station in question was purely human technology – and inflatable, much to his private horror. Combined with a small amount of alien technology, however, it had rapidly proven a viable concept. The Mars Society would be able to maintain a watch on the planet and the automated sensors on the surface indefinitely. But if the Horde decided to use it for target practice, he knew, it wouldn't stand a chance.

“You’re welcome,” he said. Actually, all he’d done was provide transport. “And I wish you the very best of luck.”

He moved through the compartment, exchanging a few words with each of the people, several of whom had paid through the nose to be allowed to watch from the starship. It still perplexed him that people, even sensible people who had made their own fortunes, were willing to throw so much of it away on a whim, but he’d stopped complaining. If nothing else, it helped fund the endless demands of the lunar colony.

“I've got plans to move most of my plants to the moon, if you will have me,” one computer tycoon said. He’d built up several plants over the last few years, trying to ride the cutting edge of computer development. “We think we can use the lunar gravity and the planned stations in space to improve the technology remarkably.”

Steve nodded. It would bring more industry to the moon, which was always important, but it would also allow them to continue researching alien technology. One secret, at least, had already been cracked. It was incredibly difficult to produce a perfect room-temperature superconductor on Earth, but it was quite possible in zero-gravity. It was also possible to produce perfect diamonds, which were likely to cause their own problems. The diamond cartels would probably start hiring assassins when they realised that they were about to be fatally undercut.

Not that we would waste our time on it, he thought. We need the diamonds for industrial processes.

He smiled at the tycoon, then moved on to the next couple of viewers. One of them was an extraordinarily successful romance writer, who was a millionaire despite her books being – in Mariko’s opinion – little more than glorified pornography. Steve had taken a look, purely out of scientific enquiry, and decided the woman was a hack. But she got paid for it, so she must have hundreds upon thousands of fans. Maybe, the cynic in him added, the outfit she wore helped. It was supposed to be a spacesuit, he guessed, but it was so tight that he could see her nipples quite clearly.

“This is quite inspiring,” she gushed, as she took his hand and shook it, firmly. Steve was hard-pressed to place her accent. “I really feel someone could write an extraordinary story on Mars.”

“I’m sure someone could,” Steve agreed, deciding not to mention just how many writers had set books on Mars without actually setting foot on the planet. “Do you plan to move here?”

“I think I will stay on the moon, for now,” the writer said. “It has great atmosphere – and besides” – her face suddenly hardened – “the tax is minimal. And far less confusing.”

Steve couldn't disagree. Tax forms were one of his pet hates.

“But this is really romantic, in a way,” the writer continued. “Do you think your partner would be interested in an interview?”

“I’m sure she would,” Steve lied. He had barely seen anything of Mariko over the past week, despite the teleporter. She was busy with the medical clinic in New York. “Now, if you will excuse me ...”

“But there’s so much room for a story,” the writer said. “Just imagine it; two people find love and romance among the asteroids. Perhaps two people who hate each other have to mine an asteroid together. Or perhaps they’re trying to be together, despite their parents ...”

“I’m sure I saw a movie like that once,” Steve said. “But if you put two people who hate each other into the same tight space, they’ll probably wind up killing each other instead of falling in love.”

“But if they were smart enough to realise that they would only get arrested,” the writer said, “wouldn’t there be a chance then? There could be all forms of sex in it as they slowly grow accustomed to each other ...”

Steve felt his temper snap. “You can write whatever stories you like, provided they are about fictional people,” he said. “But I don’t think it would be very realistic.”

The writer looked offended. “I’m just trying to get ahead of the curve here,” she said. “I thought there were already applications for sex in zero-gravity. Or isn't it as good as it sounds?”

Steve glowered at her, then stomped off. He'd tried sex in zero-gravity with Mariko, but it hadn't been quite as interesting or exciting as space opera pornography had suggested. It was more of an exercise in orbital docking than anything else. But if someone wanted to try it ... the writer was right, he had to admit. There were no shortage of requests for private compartments in the planned space hotel.

He shook his head, tiredly, as he approached the porthole and peered down at Mars. The red planet looked tired and worn, not unlike how Steve himself felt. There were just too many things that needed his attention, even though he’d started to build up a staff and hand as many responsibilities to his subordinates as possible. Recruiting newcomers, placing orders for technology and supplies on Earth, keeping an eye open for possible trouble from the planet ... and ducking requests, pleas and demands that he share his technology with everyone. He couldn't help wondering if this explained why so many bad ideas had been allowed to enter the American system. The idiots who wanted them had just kept whining until the sensible people had given in. And then the ideas had been very – very – difficult to remove.

It had been much easier managing a ranch, he told himself, sourly. Or even commanding Marines in combat. Instead, he found himself signing papers, making deals with governments and corporations and trying desperately to find some time for himself. No matter how capable his staff was becoming, he was still overwhelmed.

Maybe this is why CEOs keep fucking their secretaries, he thought, dryly. They’re so stressed by their work that they really need the sex.

He let out another sigh, wishing that Kevin was back in the Sol System. But it would be another two weeks, at the very least, before he could return. Steve had no way of knowing what was happening outside the Sol System, or just what the Horde was doing. Were they considering another attack on Earth? Or were they still unaware that they’d lost three ships, instead of just one? There was no way to know.

Shaking his head, he strode back towards the bridge, avoiding the remainder of the guests before they could speak to him. Let them wait, if it was urgent; he didn't need more prattling congratulations. Did the President ever feel this way, he asked himself; did he ever feel like just walking away from the job? It would have seemed absurd, years ago, that he would have anything in common with the President. But he understood, now, the sheer weight of power that the President had assumed. It would be easy, far too easy, to make mistakes ... and then refuse to accept failure. When someone was so powerful, every little failure would feel like a complete disaster.

On the bridge, the sensor crews were monitoring Mars. Everything was proceeding according to plan, he noted. There might be a need for more asteroids in the future, but not for several months at least. They’d also have to unlock the water in the ice caps ...

His interface buzzed, reporting an urgent message from Earth.

“Steve,” Mongo’s voice said, “you have to get back here urgently. The shit has hit the fan.”

Steve blanched. It took seventeen minutes for a message to travel from Earth to Mars. Not long, by Galactic standards, but far too long by humanity’s standards.

“Take us back to Earth,” he ordered. The Mars Society was already onboard their space station, monitoring the planet below. “Best possible speed.”
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Chapter Twenty-Eight

New York, USA

Mariko had always wanted to be a doctor. It had been an obsession of hers ever since her father had introduced her to Doctor Who, even though she hadn't been entirely clear on what a doctor did at the time. As she grew older, her enthusiasm had refused to fade, even after she discovered that actually working as a doctor brought unpleasant risks in ligation-prone America. Sometimes, someone died, no matter what the doctor did to prevent it. And then the doctor would be sued by the grieving relatives. It had been a relief to leave the big cities for the countryside, where people were generally more sensible, and fall in love with a man who didn't mind her working as a vet rather than a doctor.

But she’d never lost her desire to help people. The alien technology worried her – an autodoc could become the most effective torture machine in history – but it also galvanised her to use it to save lives. She’d had to watch too many people die through untreatable injuries or incurable diseases, both of which could now be handled by alien technology. It did irritate her that she didn't have a clear idea how most of the technology worked, but in the long run she had faith in Steve and his friends to solve the mysteries. For the moment, all that mattered was that it did work.

The clinic had once belonged to a doctor who, like her, had abandoned the city in the wake of soaring healthcare costs and laws written for the benefit of the lawyers, rather than doctors or their patients. She hadn't been too surprised to discover that it had been shut down, rather than the city finding another doctor. It was just the sort of stupid decision that came from having more concerns about money than public health. Or control, for that matter. The medical authorities hated it when someone challenged their control.

She smiled to herself as she watched the next set of patients entering the waiting room and take a seat. Some of them were wealthy enough to pay the fees – she’d had bankers, lawyers and politicians pass through her clinic over the past two weeks – and others were children, unable to comprehend what was happening to them. Her heart broke a little every time she saw them and, despite the suggestions she should concentrate on paying clients first, she tried to make sure the children were healed quickly and efficiently. Few dared to complain, at least openly. The last time someone had, she’d ordered him flung out of the clinic and told never to come back.

“All right,” she called. “Send in the first patient.”

A young girl entered, half-carried by her mother. The AMA hadn’t quite finished running through its stockpile of delaying tactics, but it didn't really matter. Alien tech could scan a body quicker than Mariko could read a medical file, allowing her to both diagnose and cure the disease in one fell swoop. Mariko examined the girl, decided she was about eight years old, then motioned for her to climb up on the bed and lie down. Judging from her appearance, her father was either white of Hispanic. The mother was very definitely black.

“They said there was nothing they could do for her,” the mother said, tearfully. “She wasn't important or wealthy.”

Mariko looked at the scan results and nodded in understanding. The girl was suffering from AIDS, which suggested that one or both of her parents also had AIDS. A quick glance revealed no evidence of abuse, let alone rape; she gritted her teeth, then keyed the machine to produce the cure. Given the right treatment, AIDS could be held in remission indefinitely, but those treatments were expensive. Who was going to offer them to such a poor child?

“You’ll need treatment too,” she said. Up close, the girl’s mother didn't look very good either. “I’ll scan you too, then prepare treatment. What happened to her father?”

“I have no fucking idea,” the woman snarled. The hatred in her voice was overlaid by misery. “He just up and left. Doesn't even know he has a daughter.”

Mariko sighed. The woman could have requested help, but that would have resulted in a long series of intrusive questions from the administrators. Mariko had dealt with social workers before; some of them were good at decent people, doing their best for their charges, but others seemed to assume they had licence to pick apart their charges’ lives. Big Sister, with all the power and almost no accountability. Who were the poor and destitute going to complain to, faced with the might of the federal bureaucracy?

“No, probably not,” she said. She picked up a scanner and pressed it against the woman’s arm, then nodded as she saw the results. Her HIV hadn't yet become AIDS, but it would soon enough. “What do you do for a living?”

The woman glowered, but said nothing.

Prostitute, Mariko thought. She produced two pills, one of which she passed to the girl. She hesitated, eying it doubtfully, then swallowed. Mariko gave her a glass of water, then passed the other pill to the mother. It would, assuming that everything went well, cure her completely. But it would do her no good if she went out and caught it again.

“I’d like you both to wait two weeks, then take one of these a day for the next week,” she said, reaching into a cabinet to produce the immune boosters. “If either of you show any reaction to the first set of treatments, come back here at once. But you shouldn't.”

She looked down at the girl. They were always cute at that age, she knew, remembering her own daughter. But with AIDS it was unlikely – it had been unlikely – that she would have reached twenty before she died. And, given her circumstances, by then she would probably have slipped into prostitution like her mother. Mariko wanted to take her away from it all, but to where? She pulled the mask of dispassion over her face, refusing to admit to her feelings. Later, she knew she would curl up in bed and cry.

“Good luck,” she said, as she helped the girl off the table. “Come back if you have any problems.”

The girl hugged her, then followed her mother out of the examination chamber. Mariko took a long moment to gather herself, then called for the next patient. He was a balding middle-aged man, who seemed surprisingly dignified despite his illness. A quick check revealed that he had paid his fee without fuss, so Mariko scanned him quickly. He was suffering from a nasty form of cancer that would be hard for human technology to remove.

“Stay still,” she said, as she pressed a piece of alien technology against his head. “This will only take a few minutes.”

She shook her head in awe as the cancer was rapidly broken down into harmless debris, which would be expelled from the body soon enough. The man – he turned out to be a Wall Street Stockbroker – thanked her loudly, then offered whatever help she required to make the clinic a success. Mariko thanked him for the offer, then sent him out and called for the next client. The small boy who entered looked thoroughly miserable.

“He’s been behaving oddly all year,” his mother said. Her voice was frustrated enough to convince Mariko not to snap at her for bringing an undiagnosed patient to her clinic. “He won’t take a bath, he’s been throwing screaming fits whenever we go out and he’s ... well, he’s been trying to harm himself. I really don’t know what’s wrong with him!”

Mariko was starting to have a very nasty idea. The way the boy cringed away from her was worrying, despite her decidedly non-threatening appearance. And not taking a bath ... she could smell him from several metres away. Hell, that might have been why her receptionist had sent the mother and her son in as soon as possible. His smell would have been very unpleasant in small quarters.

“Let me see,” she said, and scanned him. There was surprisingly little overt damage, at least on the surface, but there were quite a few internal telltale scans. She carefully adjusted the scanner so it was covertly scanning the mother, then looked up at her. “Do you have any idea what might be wrong with him?”

“No,” the mother said. The scanner indicated she was telling the truth. “We wanted to take him to a psychologist, but they cost ...”

“You should take him to the police,” Mariko said, sharply. It was her duty as a doctor to report signs of abuse. If the woman didn't take her kid, Mariko would have to make a report herself. “Someone has been abusing him.”

The mother’s mouth dropped open. “But ...”

Mariko sighed. She'd seen child abuse before and quite a few parents missed the signs completely. The problems normally built up over time, so the parents overlooked them as they materialised, while an outsider saw them at once.

“He’s trying to make himself unattractive,” she said, bluntly. “That’s why he refuses to wash. Maybe that alone wouldn’t be significant” – she’d once come across a girl who’d read The Witches and refused to take baths for several months – “but there are other worrying signs. One of them are internal scars in his anus. Something forced a penis or a finger in there.”

She carefully copied her results onto a USB stick, then passed it to the stunned woman. “Go to the police,” she said, as she healed the damage. There would be a permanent record for the police, even though there would be no physical damage any longer. “Find out who did this to him and make them pay.”

It didn't sound like it was the father, thankfully, she noted as she called for an escort for the woman and her child. If the boy wanted to go with his parents, it suggested the real cause of the problem was the babysitter ... if there was a babysitter. A girl, perhaps; it was quite possible that the boy had flinched from Mariko because his abuser was also a girl. She watched them go, then sunk down on her chair and put her head in her hands. There were times when she really hated being a doctor.

“Poor bastard,” she muttered.

There were things she could do, she knew. She could offer to transport them to the moon, if the husband had skills the colony could use. Or she could erase memories from the boy’s mind, allowing him to grow up without having his development stunted. Or ... perhaps she could track down the abuser herself and ensure that Steve and a few of his friends administered some very real justice. But she knew she couldn't do any of them.

She stared down at her hands for a long moment, then stood and called for the next patient.

Abdul Al-Kareem had never really expected to get the call. He and his brothers had been inserted into America five years ago and told to be American in every way they could, as long as it didn't compromise their ability to do the mission when the time came. They’d opened an Iranian restaurant, introduced thousands of Americans to the joys of Iranian food and generally acted like model Americans. Abdul himself had a steady stream of relationships, while one of his brothers had married an American girl and the other had a steady relationship going that might turn into marriage. There had been no reason to expect that the world would turn upside down.

But it had. He’d seriously thought about refusing, when the message finally arrived, but he knew there was no escape. Agents had gone native before, he’d been told, and they’d always been betrayed. The lives they’d built for themselves would be shattered, whatever happened, and they’d never be able to resume them. All they could do was serve their home country and pray they managed to escape there before the Americans reacted.

He parked the van near the clinic and glanced back at his two brothers. Both of them had been trained intensely for covert operations and urban insurgencies – it would have seriously upset the Americans if they’d realised that all three brothers were veterans of the Iraq War, Iranians who’d fought on the other side – and knew just how to act. Besides, New York might take terrorists seriously, but America was still an open society. It would take time for them to clamp a ring of steel around New York and, by then, he hoped to have their target well and truly out of the city.

“God is Great,” he said, softly.

He saw the look in his brother’s eye and cringed, inwardly. They’d all been tempted by America, but Abdullah had truly fallen. His wife and children would not get out of the city, no matter what happened. They knew nothing about Abdullah’s past or his secret mission, but the American authorities wouldn't take it into account. Abdullah’s family would be very lucky if they didn't vanish into a secret prison where they’d be tortured, then murdered. It had happened before.

“Don't worry,” he said. It was a lie, but it had to be said. Somehow, he doubted Abdullah would ever see his family again. “We’ll get them out too.”

Abdullah eyed him nastily, then opened the case at his feet. It hadn't been hard to sneak the weapons into the city, let alone the high explosives they’d bought for the diversion. He’d thought about trying to purchase additional weapons from American sources, but there was too much chance of running into either a patriotic gun dealer or an FBI sting operation. That, too, had happened before.

It had surprised him, when he'd gone to look at the clinic two days ago, that there was almost no security at all. The Americans were truly a proud folk. But, given the capabilities of their new technology, perhaps it wasn't that surprising. They probably thought they could teleport their people out before it was too late. And if the Americans were right, Abdul knew, his team was about to expose itself and destroy their American lives for nothing.

He picked up the cell phone and pushed a button. “Open the doors,” he ordered. “Go.”

The explosions bellowed out in the distance as he jumped out of the vehicle, followed rapidly by Abdullah. Americans, New Yorkers with long memories of terrorism, scattered as he fired a handful of shots above their heads, then crashed into the clinic. He bellowed orders for the Americans to get down on the ground – better they believed it to be a simple hold-up as long as possible – and led the way into the inner room. The doctor was easy to recognise, thanks to the endless newspaper articles on her. She was Japanese-American, surprisingly short compared to her famous husband ...

And she was reaching for something at her belt. Abdul threw himself at her and slammed a fist into her face, knocking her to the ground. The device, whatever it was, fell and hit the ground with a sharp crash. Abdul searched her rapidly, depositing everything she was carrying on the ground, then picked her up and fled back into the waiting room, tossing a handful of incendiary grenades behind him. If they were really lucky, the assumption would be that the doctor had died in the fire, rather than kidnapped, although he wasn't holding out any hope. The Americans were experts at forensic science.

He’d feared Americans trying to stop them, but the explosions and gunfire seemed to have left the witnesses thoroughly unmanned. No one tried to bar their path as they jumped back into the van. Amir, who had kept the engine idling over while his two brothers raided the clinic, gunned the vehicle forward as soon as they slammed the doors closed. Abdul let out a sigh of relief, then carefully searched the doctor again, resisting the temptation to grope her small breasts. This time, he found nothing.

“Tie her hands,” Abdullah suggested. “And pray the van performs as advertised.”

Abdul nodded and bent down to secure the doctor’s arms behind her back. The delay had been caused by the need to prepare the van for its mission. If their intelligence was accurate, no one could teleport through a haze of electronic static – or, they hoped, spy on them. The Taliban leadership had relied on stealth rather than heavy shielding and paid for it. If the intelligence was accurate, they had a chance of getting away. But if the intelligence was inaccurate ...

“Poor little thing,” Abdullah suggested, as the van moved through panicky streets. They’d have to change vehicles before they headed down to the docks. The explosions might have shocked the NYPD, but it wouldn't be long before they realised they were nothing more than a diversion. “She doesn't deserve this.”

“That’s the American in you talking,” Abdul snapped. “Have you forgotten what we are?”

But they’d had to, he knew. They couldn't afford to comport themselves like strict Muslims, not when it would draw attention. They’d grown lax, relaxing into American ways, eating pork and drinking alcohol. But it was time to put such things aside and remember what they were.

He put his hand on his brother’s shoulder. “You are an elite member of a special unit, fighting an age-old war,” he reminded him. “I would suggest you kept that in mind at all times.”

The thought made him scowl. If their handlers realised that Abdullah was having problems, it would be unlikely he would ever be allowed to leave home again. Instead, if he were lucky, he would be permanently retired. And if he were unlucky ...

“Besides, we’re committed now,” he added. “But then, we always were.”
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Chapter Twenty-Nine

Shadow Warrior, Earth Orbit

“You should have been fucking keeping an eye on her!”

Steve glared at Mongo, feeling his hands clenching into fists. “Why the hell was she left so unexposed?”

Mongo somehow managed to keep his voice very calm. “She didn't want an army surrounding her,” he reminded Steve. “And she didn't want any form of additional protection.”

Steve stared down at the deck, feeling an odd helplessness he hadn’t felt since 9/11. Mariko was his lover, his partner, his wife in every way that mattered ... and she was missing, presumed kidnapped. Stave had no illusions about just how many enemies he’d made since he’d stepped up to the UN and rubbed their collective faces in their helplessness. One or more nations might well have decided to kidnap Mariko to avenge their humiliation, or to try to gain leverage over him, or ... merely to show that he could still be hurt. If the latter, he knew, it was unlikely that Mariko would survive much longer.

“They took her, right,” he said. “They didn’t kill her?”

“Yes,” Mongo said. “We have footage of her being yanked out of the clinic, before the grenades started to detonate. She’s a prisoner, Steve, but she isn't dead.”

Steve hastily reviewed the footage through the interface. The whole attack was breathtakingly simple, which was probably why it had succeeded. No attempt to sneak into the clinic, no attempt to pose as someone terminally ill, just a simple smash and grab. It was very professional, with all the variables cut down as much as possible. That, he decided, suggested that whoever was being the attack represented a country, rather than a terrorist group.

“Bastard disarmed city-slickers,” he growled. “Not one of them did anything.”

He cursed them under his breath. In the country, there would be someone with a gun, someone who would offer armed resistance to terrorist attack. But in New York, famed for restrictive gun laws, the entire population had been unmanned. It was unfair – and he knew it was unfair – but he found it hard to care. His partner was missing – and helpless. Her captors could do anything to her ... and Steve’s imagination filled in too many possibilities.

“Find her,” he growled. If only she’d agreed to have a tracking implant inserted in her body. But she’d declined. Steve would have declined too, if he’d had the option, but still ... he wanted to scream at her for refusing and at himself for not forcing the issue. She could have been found by now if she’d had an implant. “Whatever it takes, find her.”

He wished, desperately, that Mongo had gone to Ying and Kevin had stayed behind. His younger brother might not be a Marine or any other form of infantryman, but he was one of the smartest people Steve had met. Kevin could have deployed all the bugs and drones and taken out all the stops to find Mariko, then acted to recover her while everyone else was still dithering.

“And call on the NYPD,” he added. “Tell them we want them to put every effort into finding her.”

“They can't,” Mongo said. There was a bitter tone to his voice. “The explosions in New York saw to that, Steve.”

Steve gritted his teeth, feeling another wave of helpless fury. The terrorists had bombed New York, forcing the NYPD to divert resources to deal with the aftermath. Even if the dispatchers realised that the bombings were just diversions, they might still be unable to redirect their people. There were dead and dying on the streets of New York, once again. He wanted to call the Mayor personally and scream at him, but what good would it go? The Mayor could hardly refuse to tend to his own citizens.

“Then we take care of it ourselves,” he said, accessing the interface and staring down at New York from high overhead. The terrorists might have accidentally outsmarted themselves, he realised. Their divisionary bombings would have snarled traffic pretty thoroughly, which meant they would either go to ground somewhere within the city or be delayed as they tried to smuggle Mariko out. “Use everything we have and find her.”

He scowled, remembering kidnapped soldiers and the desperate manhunts American forces had launched when they realised the soldiers were missing. It was a race between terrorist and soldiers, he knew; the terrorists had to get their captives out of the zone before the soldiers had blockades and barriers in place to prevent them from escaping. Holing up somewhere within the zone was risky, even in a shithole like Iraq or Afghanistan. The searchers might not stumble across the hiding place, but the locals might well betray the terrorists, either out of hatred or simple irritation with American troops stamping around and disturbing everyone. New York would be even worse, from their point of view. Someone was bound to see something and call the NYPD.

They’ll want to get her out of the city, he thought, morbidly. But where will they take her?

Jürgen Affenzeller was no stranger to sudden, intensive demands for action, but this was something else. The nightmare scenario – a terrorist attack on representatives of a foreign power – combined with a sudden awareness that the foreign power might well blame the United States for the lapse in security. It would be unfair, Jürgen knew, but he also knew the world wasn't particularly fair. By any standards, Steve Stuart’s partner should have been given the same level of protection as the First Lady.

But the First Lady is about as useful as tits on a bull, he thought, as he hastily deployed the covert sensor apparatus to New York. The President had authorised it personally, even though there would probably be lawsuits and threats of impeachment afterwards. Steve Stuart’s partner is a doctor. She couldn't work with a small army surrounding her.

He brought up the footage from the security sensors and hastily scanned through it. The terrorists had not only hidden their faces, they’d worn dark ill-fitting clothing, just to make it harder for them to be tracked. It hadn't worked too badly, Jürgen had to admit, but it had its limitations. For one thing, their body language was still readable. And, for another, the van they’d brought could be tracked through the streets.

Few citizens really realised just how formidable a public monitoring system New York had built up in the years since 9/11. It was questionable just how much of it was actually useful for tracking terrorists and it did invade civil privacy to a truly disturbing degree, but when the time came to retrace the terrorist footsteps it allowed their movements to be backtracked across the city. The van itself didn't seem to have been rented – its plates suggested it was a rental, but a quick check revealed that the plates had been stolen in Washington – which implied that it had actually been brought into the city at one point. Carefully, he started backtracking through the records.

It took nearly twenty minutes for the cross-referencing program to find a match. Three brothers, all from Iran, refuges according to their DHS file. They’d made it over the border into Pakistan, then applied for settlement in the United States. Their relatives in America had vouched for them, so few red flags had been raised beyond their origins in Iran. The DHS had conducted an interview, decided there was nothing to worry about and then just let them vanish into New York. In hindsight, Jürgen suspected, the DHS was going to be blamed for allowing the terrorists to enter the country.

He placed a call to the NYPD’s anti-terrorist division and asked them to check up on the brothers. If he was wrong, he would find out very quickly – and innocent people would not be swept up in a police dragnet. But if he were right, he was confident the brothers would not be at home and, indeed, their wives and children would be wondering what had happened to them. Terrorists these days were advised not to confide in their wives and families, not after quite a few had been betrayed by their relatives, who didn't see death in the cause of jihad as a worthy aspiration.

While waiting, he uploaded the details of the van into the cameras and scanned through the thousands of eyes watching New York. Hundreds of matches came back at once, most of them wildly out of place; thankfully, the traffic snarl would have made it harder for the terrorists to make their escape. But which one was the terrorist van? Or had the terrorists already abandoned their vehicle? There was no way to know.

Not yet, he told himself.

The phone rang. “Yes?”

“This is Captain Aldridge,” a voice said. He sounded brisk, mercifully professional. “All three of the suspects are missing, sir.”

“I see,” Jürgen said. It wasn't conclusive proof of anything – the DHS had tracked men it had believed to be terrorists before, only to discover that they’d been having affairs – but it was suspicious. “Take their families into custody, gently. Have them interrogated, then explain to them that their menfolk may be in serious trouble.”

He winced as he put down the phone. Maybe the families did know what was going on, maybe they were guilty as sin – at least of keeping their mouths shut – but it was quite possible that their lives were about to be upended through no fault of their own. They’d be held as suspects, then treated as pariahs, idiots too stupid to realise there was something wrong with their relatives. As always, the terrorists left a trail of broken lives and shattered souls behind them.

Pushing the thought aside, he looked back at his computers. There had to be a clue somewhere, buried within the records. All he had to do was find it.

“Maybe put out a full alert,” he muttered. “Let the public know what we’re looking for.”

He shook his head, a moment later. A simple white van ... there were hundreds of thousands of the vehicles within the State of New York. They’d be utterly overwhelmed with false positives. The terrorists had played it smart, so far. But their flight would be frantic enough for them to make mistakes. And he’d be there to pick up on them.

“You will have my full support,” the President said. “We will do everything within our power to look for her.”

Steve nodded, bitterly. Mongo had told him, in no uncertain terms, to sit down, shut the hell up and wait. There was nothing else he could do, despite increasingly unpleasant suggestions concerning random bombing of terrorist-supporting countries. The NYPD investigation was proceeding slowly, far too slowly. They had too many other problems to deal with right now.

He wanted to take action, he wanted to do something, anything. But there was nothing to do.

“All traffic in and out of New York is being stopped by the National Guard,” the President continued. “The airports have been placed on alert. Everything will be searched, no exceptions. We’re working on inspecting shipping too, Steve. We will find her.”

Steve gritted his teeth. New York’s National Guard had been a military disaster until after 9/11, whereupon they’d managed to redeem themselves and perform excellent service in Iraq, but he had no illusions about the sheer difficulty of the task facing them. Searching every single vehicle that might want to enter or leave the city would be immensely complicated, while it would cause huge traffic jams and considerable bad feeling. Hell, he had a feeling the Mayor would find himself caught between the President’s orders and the very real risk of losing his job.

“Thank you, Mr. President,” he said. The cynical part of his mind wondered if the President was genuinely concerned or if he was worried about the looming diplomatic disaster. Or both. Meeting the President in person had convinced Steve he wasn't quite the liberal idiot Steve had believed him to be, before the world had turned upside down. “Everything you can do will be welcome.”

He paused. “Have you heard anything diplomatically?”

“Just a protest from Chad’s Ambassador to the UN,” the President said. “He wanted to fly out, but his plane was grounded in the wake of the bombings.”

An ass in ambassador, Steve thought. He’d met several diplomats on military service and most of them had been conceited assholes. Or was it something more sinister? Did the terrorists plan to sneak Mariko out on a diplomatic plane, relying on diplomatic immunity to keep her hidden?

“I want diplomatic planes searched,” he said, and explained his reasoning. “Feel free to blame us for the imposition.”

“It will be more than just an imposition,” the President said, after a moment. “It will be seen as an attack on diplomatic formality itself.”

Steve sighed. The President’s concern was understandable, but he wasn't about to let someone sneak away under the cover of diplomatic immunity.

“Make it clear to them, Mr. President, that we consider this an act of war,” he said, firmly. He had no intention of showing weakness to anyone. “If a nation or a group of nations is implicated in this act, we will crush them like bugs.”

In Washington, the President rubbed his eyes as soon as the connection closed, feeling suddenly very tired.

Few people truly realised it, but the power of the Presidency was hedged around with a series of checks and balances. The President was powerful – the most powerful man in the world – yet he was far from all-powerful. He couldn't bomb a country back to the Stone Age because he’d had a bad morning and wanted to take it out on someone. Nor could he grossly overreact to terrorist attack, no matter how vile. In the aftermath, he would have to deal with the mess.

But Mr. Stuart ...

The President honestly wasn't sure what to make of him. Power seemed to have matured the man, at least to some degree, as he tackled the problems in forming a government. But he still enjoyed a certain immunity from blowback, from repercussions from his actions. What would he do with the vast power at his disposal if he had definite proof that a foreign nation was behind the attack on his partner? The President knew what he’d be tempted to do – and he knew what the system would prevent him from doing.

But who would stop Mr. Stuart if he decided to take brutal revenge on the terrorists?

Abdul let out a sigh of relief as they finally made it down to the shipping company and pulled into the giant warehouse. He’d anticipated some delays, but he hadn't realised just how many Americans would act like headless sheep and drive somewhere – anywhere – rather than remain at home. The radio talked of martial law, of blockades on the roads and endless delays at airports. It was far too likely, he knew, that they would be caught even after changing the van.

He climbed out of the vehicle and nodded to the four men waiting for them. Like Abdul and his brothers, they were long-term sleeper agents, among the handful in the Greece-registered shipping company who knew it’s true function. Most of the workers were East European, men and a handful of women who provided cover through their sheer ignorance. They knew nothing they could betray.

“She’s in the van,” he said. He looked up at the giant shipping container sitting at one end of the warehouse. Inside, there were food, drinks, blankets, a portable toilet and a handful of books. “Remember to keep her under cover at all times.”

He watched grimly as the men carried the girl – she looked almost childlike in her current state – out of the van and into the shipping container. She would wake up soon enough, Abdul judged, just in time to discover that she would be spending the next few weeks in the company of all three brothers. By the time they reached their final destination, she would probably be suffering from Stockholm Syndrome.

Or perhaps she’ll hate all three of us, he thought, ruefully. His brothers and he had spent years together, but their captive wouldn't know them at all. But her feelings hardly matter.

Bracing himself, he stepped into the shipping container, followed by Amir and a reluctant Abdullah. His brother had gloom and misery written all over his face; Abdul silently promised the ghost of their dead mother that he’d take care of his younger brother. The last thing she would have wanted was for her son to be sent to a re-education camp.

“Make sure she’s secure,” Amir said. “We don't want her breaking loose.”

Abdul snorted, rudely. The American girl wasn't a superhero. Even if they released her hands, even if she managed to kill all three of them, she still wouldn't be able to get out of the container. Still, he cuffed her to the side of the container anyway, then braced himself as the hatch slammed closed. Inside, even illuminated by a powered light, it was still thoroughly unpleasant. They were going to be sick of each other by the time they reached their destination.

“You may as well get some sleep,” he said, as he inspected the girl. She would probably recover without problems, he told himself. If they’d inflicted permanent damage, there was no way to deal with it in the container. “We’ll be on our way, soon enough.”

Moments later, the container started to shake as it was transported towards the boat. Abdul shuddered, trying hard to keep his reaction under control. He’d had nightmares ever since he’d had his first trip in a container, nightmares where the crane broke and sent the container falling towards the ground ... or into the ocean. Or nightmares where the ship sank and they all drowned, helplessly.

He knew, all too well, that they could easily come true.
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Chapter Thirty

New York, USA

The break came forty minutes after the terrorists were identified. A vehicle fire had been reported in downtown New York, but largely ignored in the wake of the bombings. However, when it became clear that a white van had been deliberately set on fire, Jürgen became very interested indeed. Further checks revealed that the vehicle had been carefully parked out of sight of any CCTV cameras, ensuring that there was no footage of the van or whatever vehicle the arsonists had used to make their escape.

But that wouldn't stop him from identifying the vehicle.

He carefully went through all the records, working out the timing piece by piece. Logically, the terrorists would have left a timer on the van to ensure they had time to make their escape, but it would be a risky move. An abandoned van would attract attention, particularly now. It suggested that the terrorists had departed maybe five to ten minutes before the van caught fire, which meant ... he went through the records and identified a number of suspect vehicles, then set the system to backtracking them through New York. Three of them vanished off the grid, but the fourth had gone directly to a shipping company.

Clever, he thought. The airports might be closed, the roads might be blocked, but it was much harder to stop and search even a small container ship. One of the many nightmares plaguing the Department of Homeland Security was a terrorist smuggling in a nuclear bomb in a shipping container, secure in the knowledge that even the best detection systems would be unlikely to pick up any traces of radioactivity. And this time the container ship was heading out of the country, back to Greece.

It would not normally have attracted much attention, he knew. Greece wasn't on the list of countries to be viewed with deep suspicion, even though it was alarmingly close to North Africa and the Middle East. The ship might meet up with another ship during its voyage or simply move the container onwards when it reached Athens. And it wouldn't be noticeable unless the ship was searched from end to end.

He cursed under his breath as he realised the ship was already on her way out to sea. They’d clearly planned it for quite some time, assuming he was right. The ship wasn't leaving urgently, she had been scheduled to depart on this precise day for several weeks. There was simply nothing, other than a minor mistake, to use to identify her as a potential suspect.

Shaking his head, he reached for the phone. The Coast Guard would have to intercept the ship and escort her back into harbour, where she could be searched thoroughly. There would be complaints, he knew, and probably genuine ones too. Holding a ship long enough to be searched would be immensely costly to the shipping company. Ships simply didn't make money when they were at anchor. But there was no alternative.

Besides, there were no other leads to follow.

“Sleeper agents, it looks like,” Mongo said. He’d been following the progress of the interrogations, but they’d yielded little of interest. “People who blended so well into our society that they remained well below the radar.”

Steve nodded, feeling cold rage replaced with icy determination. The brothers had been model immigrants, pretty much. They paid taxes, took part in community activities and never went to any of the more dubious mosques. Hell, from what the youngest brother’s American wife was saying, they never prayed at all. But it had all been a lie. They’d waited until they received their orders, then moved into action.

And they carried it off flawlessly, he thought, bitterly. Damn bastards.

He looked down at the reports. Iran was probably the prime suspect, either out of a desire for revenge – he’d given Israel the laser defence system, after all – or out of a desire to influence the off-world development of space. The Iranians had a long history of training insurgents and sleeper agents, as well as meddling in Middle Eastern affairs and trying to undermine their rival governments. But they weren't the only suspects. The remains of the Taliban had good reason to want to hurt him, while the oil monarchies of the Middle East hated his guts. They’d spent billions of dollars at the UN, trying desperately to prevent the introduction of fusion technology. And they’d failed.

“Got something,” Mongo said. “A Greek ship – the Karaboudjan – may well be their getaway vessel.”

“Show me,” Steve ordered.

He looked at the image from the drone, then scowled. The Karaboudjan was a medium-sized freighter, large enough to carry hundreds of shipping containers. He remembered some of the rumours about the Al Qaeda Navy and shuddered, inwardly. Had New York been clutching one of those vipers to its bosom? Or had the Karaboudjan been serving as a perfectly innocent freighter up until now?

“The Coast Guard is calling for military assistance,” Mongo said. “I believe they’re putting together a team of SEALs now.”

Steve shook his head. “Tell them we want to scan the vessel first,” he said. “And if she’s on it, we can get her back quicker than them.”

He had no illusions about what orders the terrorists would have in the event of capture. If there was a strong risk of falling into enemy hands, they would first kill their captive and then kill themselves. Ideally, he knew, they would have to stun the terrorists, then sort out the mess afterwards. But if Mariko wasn't onboard the ship, he didn't want to attack it and cause another major incident. There would be enough repercussions from destroying the terrorist network and the country backing them.

Slowly, the nanotech drones started to search the vessel, their reports building up a holographic diagram in front of Steve. As far as he could tell, most of the crew seemed European and there were even a handful of women, something very unusual for a terrorist ship. But then, it could just be cover. If the vast majority of the crew were unaware of their ship’s true purpose, it would be harder to find someone willing and able to betray the rest of their comrades.

“Here,” Mongo said. “Those guys don’t look like shippers.”

Steve couldn't disagree. The six men in a lower room looked more like soldiers than sailors, although they were wearing civilian clothes. A quick check revealed that they had a small arsenal with them, enough weapons to stand off pirates or a commando offensive. Mongo checked the records and noted that the Karaboudjan often went near the east coast of Africa, where the pirates occasionally came out to prey on Western shipping. Armed guards and a willingness to shoot one’s way out of trouble were often the only true barrier to pirate attack.

“Soldiers or terrorists,” he mused. “Probably trained soldiers. Do we have any records of them?”

“They’re listed as armed guards from a Greek company, but nothing past that,” Mongo said. “Kevin would probably be able to dig up more information.”

“Probably,” Steve agreed. He watched as the drones started to enter the containers, rapidly scanning the contents. Most of them held pieces of technology or clothing that couldn't be found in Greece these days, from what he’d read online. Others were completely empty, something that puzzled him. Surely empty crates were inefficient? Or was more coming out of Greece than going into the country? “I ...”

He swore as one of the drones reported back, after entering yet another container. “Got her,” he said. “She’s there!”

Mongo peered over his shoulder as other drones converged on the container. Inside, Mariko was lying against one wall, her hand cuffed to the metal. Three men, two of them sleeping, were sharing the container; Steve felt his teeth clench in rage as he realised just how helpless his partner was, if one of her captors decided to have some fun. She wasn't a soldier, not even a combat medic. And she had never learnt to fight with her bare hands.

“Teleport her out,” Mongo urged. “Then the SEALs can take the vessel in peace.”

Steve checked the interface, then shook his head. There was just too much metal and electronic interference to allow a successful teleport. Mariko wouldn't thank him if she rematerialised with her head sticking out of her ass ... and that was only if she was lucky, he knew. Most teleport accidents, according to the files, were instantly lethal and there was rarely a body to bury. The quantum uncertainty principle would see to it.

“We need to stun them all, then board the ship,” he said. “The SEALs can have her afterwards.”

He stood up. “And I’ll be leading the mission in person,” he said. At least they had a strike team on alert, composed of a handful of augmented soldiers. “I will not ...”

“Steve,” Mongo said, sharply, “you shouldn't be leading the mission. You shouldn't even be there. You’re far too personally involved.”

Steve glowered at him. “And would you be happy if Jayne was on that ship and you had to remain behind?”

“No,” Mongo said. “But I’d accept it.”

He pushed Steve back into his chair, then headed towards the hatch. “I won’t let her get hurt,” he said. “And we will get her back to you. Just get ready to stun her captors upon command.”

Steve nodded, reluctantly.

Alannah Theodori stood on the deck and watched America fading into the distance. She hadn't been sure what to expect of her first voyage across the ocean, but she had to admit she enjoyed it despite the cramped working conditions and the sometimes crude language of the older sailors. But then, she knew there were only handful of jobs in the shipping industry and she was incredibly lucky to get this job. Besides, it was a stepping stone to greater things.

She took a breath, tasting the sea air, then turned to head down to the hatch. As always, there was no shortage of work for the crew, even when they were miles away from land. Her duties weren't difficult, but they were tedious and her supervisor got very snippy whenever she and her fellow crewmates got bored and started to play with their smartphones instead of working. But she couldn't blame him for that, not really. They had to keep everything shipshape onboard ship – he made the pathetic joke at least once a day – and slackness would be a grave mistake.

A funny feeling flickered through the air, as if they were about to be struck by lightning. She looked up and saw a strange silver light appear along the deck, rapidly growing into the shape of a man. No, several men. She stared, unable to quite believe what she was seeing, as the man came into view, all wearing black uniforms and carrying strange-looking weapons. And then one of them pointed a weapon at her ...

There was a flash of blue-white light and everything went black.

Mongo watched the girl fall, then keyed his communicator. “Have you got them?”

“Stunned them all,” Steve said. The tiny drones could stun as well as kill, thankfully, even though it had never been tested in combat. “Hurry up.”

Mongo nodded, then rapidly issued orders to his men. One group would secure the bridge, the other would go after the armed guards, then the hold. Anyone they encountered would be stunned without warning. Stunners had one definite advantage over automatic weapons; they could be used without fear of accidentally killing an innocent person. The safest course of action was to stun everyone on the ship, then transport them all back to shore and sort them out with the help of lie detectors and truth drugs. Afterwards, the innocent would be released and paid compensation, while the guilty went to the moon.

The six guards – or terrorists – didn't have the faintest idea the assault team was there until it was far too late. Mongo wasn't particularly surprised; if they’d hoped to hide their true nature from the crew, they wouldn't have been patrolling the decks in full armour this close to the United States. They threw a stun grenade into the room, then followed up as the terrorists dropped to the deck. Mongo checked them rapidly, then marked them down for later attention and moved down towards the hold. Unsurprisingly, the hatch was locked. A quick burst from his alien-designed weapon burned right through it.

It wasn't the first container ship he’d searched, but it was the first he’d actually known where to look for something. Deliberately or otherwise, the terrorists had placed their container on the second level, making it very hard to search. Mongo, undeterred, organised a set of ladders, then burned his way into the container. Inside, the air already smelt rank. He couldn't help wondering just how the terrorists had intended to endure at least two weeks of an increasingly foul stench.

They’ve probably been in worse, he thought. Back in Basic Training, he’d been pretty rank too. And he'd crawled through sewage in Iraq. It was astonishing, he knew, just what one could get used to if there was no choice. And Mariko wouldn't have been offered one.

He released the girl and carefully lowered her out of the container, back to the deck. Behind him, his team grabbed the three terrorists and moved them out too, using rather less care with their bodies. Mongo snapped at one of them who deliberately banged a terrorist head against the deck. He understood the impulse to just hurt the dishonourable bastards, but they needed evidence. Besides, it was unlikely that lunar courts would show any mercy to the fuckers.

“Steve, we got her,” he said, as he carried the girl back up to the deck. “Can you get a lock on her now?”

“Yes,” Steve said. “Are you coming up too?”

“Not yet,” Mongo said. In the distance, he could see a pair of Stealth Hawks flying towards the ship. Seal Team Six would no doubt be outraged that the crew had already been stunned, leaving them with nothing more than clear-up duties, but it hardly mattered. Once the ship was taken into a naval port, the SEALs would have plenty to do. “Let me hand the ship over to the newcomers first.”

He would never admit it, certainly not to the SEALs themselves, but they had always impressed him. Perhaps he would have considered trying to transfer if it had been possible, yet there were no guarantees. Outside cross-training, he would have had to enlist in the Navy and work his way through training a second time. And he’d been reluctant to do anything of the sort after Steve had left the military.

The SEALs dropped down from the helicopter and looked around, weapons at the ready. It was hard to tell – their faces were hidden behind masks – but they seemed to be rather surprised at the sight before them. Mongo grinned, then saluted the team leader. After a moment, the SEAL returned the salute.

“Everyone on the vessel is stunned,” he said. “We’ll be taking the terrorists with us, but everyone else should be treated gently. Most of them were not aware of any wrongdoing on this vessel.”

“Understood,” the SEAL said, gruffly.

Mongo nodded, picked up Mariko and triggered the teleporter. The world vanished in a shimmer of silver-white light.

“Is she going to be all right?”

“Physically, I believe so,” the medic said. He’d been in the French Foreign Legion before retiring and then applying to join the lunar settlement and he still had a faint French accent. “Mentally ... it is always questionable after such a shock.”

“I know,” Steve muttered. Mariko had been scanned, intensely, using alien technology. She had suffered no physical damage, apart from a handful of bumps and bruises. Mercifully, she hadn't been molested or raped. “Can you wake her up?”

“I’d prefer to let her wake up naturally,” the medic said, firmly. “These sort of injuries need to be watched, carefully. I understand how you feel, sir, but her safety should come first.”

“Understood,” Steve said, irked.

It was nearly forty minutes before Mariko opened her eyes and stared up at the ceiling. Steve was at her side instantly, unsure of how best to proceed. Should he take her in his arms or would that produce a panic attack? Or ... what should he do?

“Steve,” she said. “What happened?”

Steve hesitated, reminded himself that she was a grown woman and briefly outlined everything that had happened. “We tracked you down and recovered you,” he concluded, after detailing the desperate search. “And here you are, safe and sound.”

“Thank you,” Mariko whispered. She gave him a long look. “Is it always going to be like this now?”

“I plan to make sure it never happens again,” Steve said, firmly. “If you go back to the clinic, you’ll have a small army protecting you.”

Mariko nodded. Steve eyed her, worriedly. He’d never liked the idea of submissive girls, no matter how attractive it seemed. Mariko was certainly not submissive ... or, rather, she hadn't been submissive. But now, she was accepting his suggestions without argument, even though she’d refused them earlier. It didn't strike him as a very encouraging sign. What would she do, he wondered, if he ordered her to stay on the ship? Or the moon?

“You should take a few days to rest,” he said, instead. “That should give us plenty of time to rebuild the clinic.”

She nodded, again. Steve felt suddenly helpless. She hadn't demanded that she go right back to New York to help deal with the bombing aftermath or even that he stop treating her as an invalid. Had her spirit been broken by the kidnappers?

He ground his teeth together in silent fury. Whatever else happened, he was damned if he was letting the bastards get away with it. And heaven help anyone who tried to stand in his way.
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