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A Learning Experience
Chapter Thirty-One

Shadow Warrior, Earth Orbit

“Going by the latest reports, Steve, New York suffered fifty-seven dead, ninety-five wounded, some critically,” Mongo said. “All that for a fucking diversion.”

Steve nodded, unsurprised, as he stared at the terrorists through the one-way force field. “I think we can arrange for the wounded to be treated in one of our clinics,” he said. “They were injured in an attack on us, after all.”

Mongo nodded back. “We scanned them all pretty thoroughly,” he continued. “They all had suicide capsules in their teeth, ready for immediate use. We removed them before we woke the bastards up, Steve, and they all tried to go for the capsules. These guys are pretty damn hardcore.”

“I know,” Steve said. “And the ship’s crew?”

“All innocent, according to DHS,” Mongo said. “They used the lie detectors we provided – as far as everyone knew, apart from the Captain, the terrorists were just a hired security team. The Captain was the only one who knew the truth ...”

Steve looked over at him for a long moment. “And the truth is?”

“They’re Revolutionary Guards, Steve,” Mongo said. “The attack came from Iran.”

Steve gritted his teeth, remembering briefings on the Revolutionary Guard during his military service. They were partly a Praetorian Guard, charged with keeping the Mullahs in power, partly a terrorist group and partly a business in their own right. Like the KGB and other security organisations with a complete absence of public accountability, they had acquired land, businesses and countless other interests in their name. By now, they were probably – directly or indirectly – one of Iran’s major employers.

They’d done worse than just hold ‘death to America’ marches too, he knew. Iran’s fingerprints had been found on weapons and explosives in both Iraq and Afghanistan, with the country trying to ensure their chosen tools gained control in both regions. And, for that matter, to bleed the Americans white. Steve recalled one Marine wondering out loud if the Mullahs hoped their more fanatical followers would go to Iraq and get killed by the Americans. It was so hard to balance a theocratic regime with the compromises that had to be made, just to keep the country on an even kneel.

But there was something about the whole affair that puzzled him. The Mullahs were careful poker players, never overplaying their hands. So why had they risked losing everything in this manner? Iran would suffer, badly, as fusion tech became more widespread, but they were in a far better position than Saudi Arabia or the tiny oil kingdoms dotted around the Middle East. Or were they convinced that Steve would one day turn his attention to them?

Or maybe they were afraid of losing power, he thought. They wouldn't want their own people to start questioning their values.

“Start the interrogation,” he ordered, wishing – again – that Kevin was with them. He could have handled the whole affair without fuss. “I want to know everything they know.”

It was nearly an hour before they had some clear answers. The guards on the ship were there to serve as a security team, but they were also there to provide support to terrorist groups and sleeper agents at the ship’s ports of call. Steve made careful notes of the details they provided, intending to pass them on to the various security forces. If nothing else, the whole affair would lead to the uncovering of a number of sleeper cells.

The kidnappers themselves were long-term sleeper agents, intended to remain in reserve until the United States finally attacked Iran. Steve listened to their conversion carefully; one of them seemed genuinely repentant, the others seemed more sorry they’d been caught than anything else. But the repentant one had had the wife and children in the United States.

Steve shrugged. Even if he were freed, it was unlikely he would ever see his wife and children again. They’d be interrogated once more, than probably put into a witness protection program. They hadn't known about what was coming, but it wouldn’t stop people blaming them for it.

He turned and strode out of the room, back to the CIC. After a moment, Mongo followed him.

“Iran is going to be destroyed,” he said, flatly. He activated the interface, bringing the ship’s weapons online. It wouldn't be too difficult to destroy Iran. A handful of large kinetic warheads would smash most of the cities, while smaller missiles would take out the military bases and oil installations. “They’re all going to die.”

“No,” Mongo said.

Steve blinked in surprise. It was Kevin who would have argued for mercy – no, not mercy, a more subtle revenge than mass destruction. But Kevin was light years away.

He leaned forward. “Why not?”

Mongo met his eyes evenly. “Do you remember Jock Hazelton?”

Steve nodded, puzzled. Jock Hazelton had been a young lad living near the ranch, only a year or two younger than Mongo. He’d been a quiet, withdrawn child, so no one had suspected him of being responsible for a series of thefts and pieces of vandalism all over the countryside. Steve still recalled the angry interrogation from his father when he, as one of the rowdier children, fell under suspicion. It hadn't been until he’d been caught in the act that everyone had realised that Jock Hazelton had been to blame for all of it. His embarrassed family had left the region soon afterwards.

“Do you remember,” Mongo demanded, “how we were all blamed for it?”

“Yes,” Steve said. It had rankled; the threats, the sharp eyes following them wherever they went, the awareness that their father had come far too close to thrashing all three of his sons on suspicion. By the time the truth had come out, distrust had seriously damaged the community. “I remember.”

“So tell me,” Mongo said, “how you can hold the entire population of Iran to blame for what their leaders have done?”

Steve took a breath. “They didn't overthrow the government,” he protested. “They ...”

Mongo snorted. “I seem to recall you spending most of your time bitching and moaning about the feds,” he said. “But you didn't take up your rifle and go Henry Bowmen on them.”

He pushed on before Steve could say a word. “You know that life in Iran isn't comfortable,” he said. “But you also know that Iranians are held in terror by scumbags like that lot” – he jerked a thumb towards the holding cells – “and any resistance is severely punished. How can you blame them for not rising up when resistance seems futile?”

Steve glared at him, trying to think of a response. Nothing came to mind.

“I hate those bastards as much as you do,” Mongo snapped. “But is it right to destroy their entire country, taking out millions of innocent people, just because you’re angry at the fuckers in charge? You have the power to punish those who are truly guilty, to hold them to account for their sins, yet you intend to flail around like the idiots who never suspected poor little Jock!”

He took a long breathe. “Steve ... you’re building a government here,” he said. “The last thing you want is to convince everyone that you’re a power-mad monster on a scale worse than Hitler. Because that’s what you will be, if you slaughter everyone in Iran.”

“Our Great-Grandfather died fighting Hitler,” Steve said.

“And what,” Mongo demanded, “do you think he’d make of you?”

He sighed. “Steve, you need to think about more than just revenge,” he said. “I know you’re hurting, I know you're angry and I don’t blame you for being either. But you have to think about the future too. What sort of impression does it give the rest of the world if you commit genocide?

“The tech monopoly will slip, sooner or later,” he added. “There are already plans to produce more superconductors with purely human technology. Then there’s the guys who think they can produce a primitive fusion reactor. Antigravity might not be too far away, thanks to the theorists – and if they do manage to master superconductors, they can probably produce antigravity too. What will happen if the world governments fear and hate us instead of agreeing to work with us? Your dream will die!”

Steve fought to keep himself calm. His love for Mariko demanded revenge; his love for what he’d created agreed with Mongo and insisted that something more subtle had to be done, instead of mass slaughter. But would it be enough to make the point that acts of terrorism would not go unpunished?

“Yes,” Mongo said, when he asked. “Kill a few thousand soldiers and evil bastards like the theocrats of Iran won’t give a shit. They’re just chattel to them. But kill the leaders, show them there’s no place to hide, and they will be scared. And, while you’re at it, destroy Iran’s nuclear program once and for all. Let the world see what we can do without bombing a country into radioactive dust.”

Steve took a long breath, suddenly feeling very tired. “Make the target selections,” he ordered. “I want the entire government wiped out.”

“I was going to suggest taking them as prisoners,” Mongo said. “We can find some hard labour for them to do, once we've finished interrogating them. God alone knows what else we might find out along the way.”

He paused. “And who knows what Iran will become without the Mullahs holding them back?”

Gunter Dawlish had spent most of the afternoon trying to get a read on just what had happened in New York. There had been explosions, he knew, and over a hundred people were dead or wounded, but there were also thousands of rumours flying around. A ship had been boarded, the crew had been captured, and Iran was involved somehow. The internet, source of millions upon millions of rumours, had even suggested that the explosions in New York were the first steps in a war between America and Iran. But there had been no other military moves as far as he could tell.

His cell phone rang. “Mr. Dawlish,” Steve Stuart said. “Would you care to join me?”

“Of course,” Gunter said. He might be a lunar citizen now, but an invitation to Mr. Stuart’s flagship was still a rarity. “What can I do for you?”

“I’m bringing you up now,” Stuart said. “Brace yourself for teleport.”

Dawlish closed his eyes. When he opened them, he was standing on a teleport pad, facing Stuart. The man looked as if he had aged ten years overnight, although Dawlish wasn't sure where that impression came from. It was hard to be certain, but Stuart had always looked to be in his late thirties.

“Come with me,” Stuart said.

He didn't say another word until they were in his cabin, looking at a holographic image of Earth. Small icons moved around, each one – Gunter realised slowly – representing a ship, an aircraft or a satellite. He couldn't help admiring the sheer detail of the image, even as it started to focus on Iran.

“I want you to pass on a message,” Stuart said. He sounded in control of himself, but Gunter could hear the edge of rage underneath his words. “The Government of Iran launched the terror attacks in New York City as a diversion, so they could kidnap ... kidnap one of my people. With the assistance of the American Government, we tracked down our missing person and captured the kidnappers. We have clear proof that they came from Iran and that their mission was ordered at the very highest levels.”

Gunter sucked in a breath. “Do you have proof of this?”

“We will give you full access to the recordings,” Stuart said, “but understand; we are not asking you to judge. Nor are we asking the United Nations for permission to go after the bastards who killed fifty-seven American citizens and kidnapped one of my people. We are going to go after them right now.”

He looked Gunter in the eye. “Right now, the senior government ministers of Iran are being taken from their country,” he said, “along with their entire council of religious leaders. They will be interrogated; the results of their interrogations may lead to the identification of others who need to be taken into custody. Instead of a full-scale invasion and the deaths of countless Iranians, the guilty – men who have held their own government in a state of tyranny since the revolution against the Shah – have been removed. They will be tried for their crimes and, if found guilty, executed.”

Gunter hesitated, unable to take in the sheer scope of what he was being told. “You are kidnapping the entire government?”

“We are taking its senior leadership,” Stuart said. He nodded to the display. “We are also eradicating every last trace of Iran’s WMD program. Their nuclear sites, their chemical weapons stockpiles and even their small selection of biological weapons are being removed and destroyed. The scientists will also be taken. They will not be permitted to return to Iran.

“Given what we could have done, in response to an outright act of war, this is a comparatively mild response,” he concluded. “But we want you to take a message to the world.

“Over the last seventy years, it has been extremely difficult to hold rogue states accountable for their actions. Their leaders don’t give a shit about random bombing raids or cruise missile attacks; no, they use them as propaganda to make us look like the bad guys. It took a full-scale invasion to hold Saddam to account for his actions, which forced us to fight a bitter insurgency in the country for eight years. Now, we have determined the best way to proceed, one that genuinely does hold the leadership of such states to account.

“For every attack we can trace back to a country, we will go after that country’s leadership,” he concluded. “We’re not interested in trying to force them to surrender, we’re not intent on claiming land for ourselves, we’re merely interested in punishing them for supporting terrorism. None of the arguments against sparing a country’s leadership will hold any ice with us. Such attacks will be avenged.

“There are those who will say, perhaps out of fear, that we are overreacting. But really, is our way not better than slaughtering thousands of innocents?”

“It certainly seems that way,” Gunter said, finding his voice. “But I know many governments will disagree.”

“Of course they will,” Steve said. “It isn’t sporting to go after your fellow leaders. It might give the bastards ideas.”

He paused, then went on. “This attack killed over fifty American citizens, citizens who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he added. “Does it seem right to let it go unavenged?”

“I don’t think so,” Gunter said. “But I think you’ve opened up one hell of a can of worms.”

“I know,” Steve said. “But we couldn’t leave it hanging either.”

“And that’s all that happened,” he concluded, as he sat next to Mariko. “The government is being interrogated now, while the rest of Iran seems stunned. They’ll react, sooner or later, but not for a while.”

He paused. “Am I a hypocrite?”

Mariko considered it for a long moment. “I don't think you preached against war and devastation while unleashing war and devastation, so you’re not a hypocrite,” she said. “It's no sin to change your mind or even admit that you might have been wrong.”

“I’m not good at that,” Steve admitted. Flexibility might be one of the watchwords of the Marine Corps, but he knew they couldn't be too flexible. “I was prepared to burn Iran to ashes before Mongo ...”

“Gave you a speech telling you that you were being a damn fool,” Mariko said, without heat. “And he was right.”

Steve sighed. “Whatever happened to girls that always supported their men, no matter what?”

“They only existed in fevered male imaginations,” Mariko said, dryly. “And besides, wouldn't you prefer me to tell you when you’re being an asshole?”

“I suppose,” Steve said.

They sat for a long moment in silence, then Steve opened his mouth. “I didn't really think through what I was doing, did I?”

“There comes a time when you have to act, rather than think,” Mariko said. “I’ve handled operations when the plan, as detailed as it was, suddenly went to hell and I had to improvise on the spot. And you're very good at reacting to the unexpected.”

She paused. “But you’re also in a position where you have ample time to stop and think about what you’re doing,” she added. “And that is what you will have to do from now on.”

“I’m not going to run for President,” Steve said, suddenly. “After we hold elections, I’m going to find a place to set up a homestead and stay there. Someone else can take the reins for a while.”

Mariko reached out and touched his hand. “Wherever you go, I will be with you,” she said, softly. Her hand felt very warm against his coarse flesh. “Why don’t we set out as traders?”

Steve had to admit he was tempted. There was a whole universe out there, after all, and starships that could support a small number of humans indefinitely. They could take a small amount of trade goods and move from system to system, selling their wares. No one would know or care about their lives on Earth, assuming they cared about Earth at all. Instead, they’d just be two aliens among uncounted trillions.

“We could do that,” he said. But there were other problems, other issues. Did he have the right to take even a small trading starship for himself. “Once Earth is ready to defend itself, we could leave.”

“Oh, Steve,” Mariko said. She shook her head slowly, then reached out and pulled him towards her for a kiss. “You’ll never allow yourself to put down your work.”
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Chapter 27: Why dump radioactive waste into the sun? It is a resource and can be easily recycled. France recycles its waste, The Heinlein Colony should at least be as advanced as France.

Chapter 29: ...“Why the hell was she left so unexposed?” Either she was exposed or unprotected.

...“Bastard disarmed city-slickers,” When did the Bastard disarm them? Maybe you need an adverb rather than a noun?
Chapter Thirty-Two

Captain Perry/Shadow Warrior, Earth Orbit

Kevin couldn't help feeling nervous as Captain Perry returned to Sol. They’d been away for over two months and anything could have happened in that time. The Horde could have launched another attack, another alien race could have arrived ... or all hell could have broken loose on Earth. It was a colossal relief, when the ship finally slipped out of FTL some distance from the moon, to exchange signals and counter-signals with Shadow Warrior and confirm that everything was fine.

He looked down at his display as the ship entered orbit around Earth. A number of dead satellites and pieces of space junk were gone, plucked out of orbit and taken to the moon to serve as raw materials. In their place, there were a handful of inflatable space stations and a couple of odd-looking spacecraft. It took him several moments to realise that they were intended to transport large numbers of colonists to the asteroid belt. And they were built with purely human technology.

Smiling, he keyed his display. “All hands will need to go through debriefing before starting shore leave on Earth,” he said. “Please don’t try to leave before then, as you also need to be briefed on conditions on the planet itself.”

He looked over at Jackson and nodded. “You have the bridge.”

“Aye, sir,” Jackson said. “I have the bridge.”

Kevin stood, walked through the hatch and down towards the teleport chamber. Flying back to Earth had felt quicker than travelling into unknown space, although he knew there was no real difference. Perhaps it was the effort of digging through the vast quantities of data they’d recovered from the alien world. The scientists had barely been seen outside their cabins and research compartments, where they had been working their way through technology the aliens considered primitive and pre-contact humanity would have considered incredibly advanced. In the meantime, Edward Romford and his staff had been working out the details for hiring troops from Earth. They seemed to believe there would be no shortage of volunteers.

He paused outside Carolyn’s door – they’d become closer on the return flight, although he still hadn't managed to talk her into bed – then shook his head and walked on until he stepped into the teleport chamber. Inside, the teleport operator was already inspecting the system, as if he knew precisely how it worked. Kevin nodded to him, stepped up onto the pad and sent the command directly through the interface. The silver haze rose up around him, then faded away, revealing Shadow Warrior’s teleport bay.

“Steve,” he said. His brother was standing by the hatch, a grim half-smile on his face. “It's good to see you again.”

“You too,” Steve said. “Quite a bit has happened since you left.”

Kevin eyed him, worriedly, as Steve turned and led the way out of the compartment. His brother looked ... tired, as if he had been working far too hard. Normally, Steve was brimming with energy, ready to do whatever he thought he had to do. But now ... he was acting as if he had no energy at all. But Steve said nothing more until they were back in his cabin and the hatch was firmly closed.

“Take a beer from the fridge,” he said. “And pass me one while you’re at it.”

Kevin opened the fridge and discovered a handful of bottles of beer, rather than the cans he’d been expecting. Each of the bottles was marked with an image of the moon, etched into the glass, and a name he didn't recognise.

“They were produced on the moon,” Steve said. “One of the moonshiners I knew from the ranch asked permission to set up a small brewery. I gave it to him and ... well, those are the first results.”

“Lunar beer,” Kevin said. He opened his bottle and took a swig. It tasted faintly nutty, but it was better than most of the canned beer he'd drunk in his life. “A very small brewery?”

“For the moment,” Steve said. “He’s actually been talking about expanding his operations and trying to sell lunar beer on Earth.”

“I’m sure it would be a hit,” Kevin said, taking another sip. “Do you get free beer as his patron?”

Steve snorted. “I forgot to write that into the contract,” he said. “All I get is a dollar or two off the price.”

Kevin chuckled, then put the beer down on the table. “All right,” he said. “What’s been happening since I left?”

“I almost destroyed Iran,” Steve confessed. “And Saudi Arabia.”

Kevin stared at him. “What?”

He had no love for either country, although – if pressed – he would have had to admit that he preferred Iran to Saudi Arabia. The Iranians might hate America, but it was a honest hate, while the Saudis were torn between covert hatred and a desperate attempt to maintain the balancing act between the United States and their own religious fundamentalists. He knew just how much Saudi money had gone to support terrorists over the years ... and lobbying efforts in Washington. The Jewish lobby was utterly overshadowed by the sheer power of the Arab lobby.

“They kidnapped Mariko,” Steve said, morbidly. “We tracked her down, took her back and dealt with the terrorist filth.”

Kevin held up a hand. “Wait,” he said. “Start at the beginning.”

The story didn't seem to make much sense at first. According to the Iranian officials who had been captured, they’d worked with Saudi Arabia to counter the introduction of new Galactic technology on Earth. It seemed to make little sense – the Iranians were not given to gambling, no matter how fanatical their regime seemed – but Kevin had a feeling that they knew they were risking substantial unrest in the very near future. And besides, they’d believed they could count on the Saudis and the other Middle Eastern countries to prevent American retaliation. They simply hadn't taken Steve and his new country seriously.

And the Saudis might have expected them to take the fall, Kevin thought. That would be just what they would consider ideal.

“So they sent kidnappers after Mariko,” Kevin said. They clearly didn't know Steve very well. He might not have been married to his partner, but she was his wife in all the ways that mattered. Steve would move Heaven and Earth to find her – and he had the technology to take a ghastly revenge for any harm they did to his lover. “And you found them?”

“We had a bit of help from the DHS,” Steve confessed. He looked down at his bottle of beer, then back up at Kevin. “I never thought I would be grateful for the bastards.”

He shrugged. “We found the ship, raided it and took her back,” he added. “And then we kidnapped the governments of all of the involved nations.”

Kevin couldn't help it. He giggled.

“Funny,” he said. “And what happened to them?”

Steve smiled. “You won’t believe what turned up in the interrogations,” he said. “Quite apart from involvement in international terrorist activity and suchlike, we caught quite a few war criminals the ICC never bothered to charge with any crime. A few of the Iranians were responsible for the violent purge of pro-democracy activists, one of them was responsible for ordering his men to fire into gathered crowds ... the Bahraini officials we captured were responsible for selling their country out to the Saudis. Naturally, we put all of the evidence on the internet.”

Kevin smiled back. “And how did you reach people whose opinions actually matter?”

“I think we did just that,” Steve said. “There’s almost no support for them on Earth, apart from a handful of pro forma protests.”

Kevin nodded in understanding. Whatever nations might say in public, it was very rare for dictators or religious theocrats to be held accountable for their crimes. Their subordinates could die like flies, if necessary, but it was rare to go directly after the dictator. Maybe there was some logic to it – the dictator was the only one who could actually surrender – yet it had always struck him as sick. Why kill the men who were forced to stand against American troops or carry out ghastly atrocities when the dictator himself remained immune?

It was the age-old problem, he knew, for anyone serving a dictator. Carry out the dictator’s orders and commit war crimes, wipe out entire villages, kill the men, rape the women and children ... or take a suicidal stand against him? The moralists in the West expected the latter, but Steve knew better. Why would a random soldier in the Iraqi Army have refused an order to kill Kurds in job lots when he knew that Saddam would kill him and his entire family, while the West was unlikely to hold him to account? People willing to stand up and say no were very rare. Most of them did it from a safe distance.

Often a very safe distance, Kevin thought. He remembered Trotsky and shuddered. But sometimes not far enough.

“I see,” he said, finally. “And what’s happened in those countries now the leaders are gone?”

“Bahrain’s remaining government has been overwhelmed,” Steve said. “So far, they’re still arguing over the composition of their new government and eying both the Saudis and Iranians nervously. Saudi itself is having major problems with riots in the streets, Iran seems to be in a state of shock. Thankfully, as they are a much more established nation, the loss of the senior government hasn’t crippled their ability to feed their population.”

“Good,” Kevin said. “And what about yourself?”

Steve met his eyes. “I came far too close to obliterating half the Middle East,” he said. “What sort of monster does that make me?”

Kevin shrugged. “Do you know how many times I dreamed of something that would exterminate the population of Afghanistan?”

He stood up and started to pace. “I had this romantic vision of tribesmen sweeping majestically across the mountains, even though I knew it to be nonsense,” he admitted. “I lost it very quickly, when faced with a people who seemed to consider deception second nature. Everyone lied to us; civilians lied because they feared Taliban retaliation, soldiers lied because they didn't want to admit they didn't know what they were doing. It wasn't long before I was thoroughly sick of the sheer hypocrisy underlying everything they said and did.

“Rape is illegal, but they force girls into marriage that is rape by any other name. Prostitution is illegal, yet the Taliban was quite happy to run brothels for its fighting men. Homosexuality is illegal, but catamites and outright male rape are common throughout Afghanistan. Drug abuse is illegal, yet they grow poppies to produce opium to help fund their war. Oh, there were times when I would have gladly slaughtered the bastards in job lots.

“But I didn't, and you didn't,” he concluded. “Having the thought doesn't make you evil, it’s carrying it out that would take you across the moral event horizon. How many times have you considered homicide and never actually done it?”

Steve nodded, wordlessly.

“It’s good that you’ve learnt some of the limits of power,” Kevin added, returning to his seat. “But I don’t think you’ve crossed the line into outright evil.”

“Mongo chewed me out,” Steve said. “If he hadn't ...”

“Mariko would have done it,” Kevin said. “Or Charles. Or Vincent’s ghost would have risen from the grave to condemn you for committing genocide. Instead ... you removed the guilty and gave their victims a chance to take the freedom they deserve.”

“Or plunge into civil war,” Steve said. “Saudi really doesn't look good these days.”

Kevin smirked. “Fuck the bastards,” he said. “Now ... my turn.”

He braced himself, then started to give a complete report of everything that had happened since they’d left Earth. Steve leaned forward, interested, when Kevin reached the section about the meeting with Friend and the deal to send human mercenaries to fight beside the aliens. They’d considered the possibility, ever since realising that humans had been abducted and turned into warriors by one alien race, but it was still an unpleasant surprise. Steve took a copy of the agreement, read through it very carefully, and then looked up.

“This is better than I expected,” he said. “Is there a sting in the tail?”

“As far as I can tell, there’s nothing wrong with any of the supplies or technical support they gave us,” Kevin said. He wasn't blind to the implications of the aliens producing so much so quickly. From their point of view, it had to be a relatively small payment. “And we will progress much faster if we have help.”

He paused. “The teams and conditions are part of the agreement,” he added. “They’re not bad at all, at least from our point of view. I think they’re desperate.”

“It certainly looks that way,” Steve agreed. He looked up, suddenly. “But would the introduction of a handful of humans turn the tide? It sounds like the plot of a bad space opera.”

“It actually makes a certain kind of sense,” Kevin said. He'd downloaded texts on interstellar warfare from the alien database and read through them on the way home. “Their major planets are heavily defended, Steve. They have planet-based energy weapons, heavy force fields and plenty of other surprises. Taking the high orbitals would be tricky, to say the least; they’re forced to land troops and take out the planetary defence centres on the ground.”

He shivered, remembering some of the records they’d found on Ying. Invading a heavily-defended planet was incredibly difficult – and bloody. It made the greatest battles of the United States Marine Corps look like minor squabbles ... which, from the alien point of view, he supposed they were. A race that counted hundreds of stars amid its empire wouldn't be too impressed by either America or Japan. Why, even the British Empire at its height had only claimed a quarter of the world’s surface.

“But it also explains, I think, why we were left alone for so long,” he added. “The major powers in this part of the galaxy are involved in a long slow war.”

He’d read through the political notes too, although he had his doubts over how complete they actually were. One major power, backed by a far distant empire, was trying to dominate the rest of the sector, which seemed to be set to keep the wars going indefinitely. Kevin’s original thought – that the far-distant power had set out to create an endless war deliberately – seemed to have been right. As long as the minor powers were fighting, they weren't threatening their far-distant power.

“Which leaves us with the problem of which side to support,” Steve mused.

Kevin slapped the table, hard. “Steve ... these races ... even the smallest of the interstellar powers is far more powerful than all of humanity put together,” he said. “Our best bet for survival, I think, is to ally ourselves with the side that hasn't been force-cloning human tissue and use the time to build up our own position. We are, at best, a microstate. The major interstellar powers will laugh at us if we try to hold any pretensions to power.”

He shrugged. “Hell, the Horde has more starships than us.”

“I know,” Steve admitted.

Kevin sat back in his chair. “I propose we send them the mercenaries – or, rather, humans who are trained in observing and learning as much as possible from their surroundings,” he said. He’d spent a lot of time considering the practicalities on the flight home. “They come back to Earth for leave, we debrief them and learn everything they know. In the meantime, we use this the money we will be paid to build up our own forces. Eventually, we will be able to take the risk of stepping openly onto the galactic stage.”

Steve frowned. “There’s one problem with this,” he said. “Once the Varnar realise they’re facing human soldiers, and they will, they will attack Earth. Destroying our planet would cut off the supply of human troops.”

“That’s the risk we have to take,” Kevin said. He paused. “But we can use one of the ships we’re being sent to set up an isolated colony far beyond the edge of galactic civilisation. The human race will live on, even if Earth herself is destroyed. And we will come back for revenge one day.”

“I hope you're right,” Steve said. He paused. “We could probably round up five thousand experienced soldiers, but if it’s going to be more than that we will need help from the planetary governments.”

Kevin nodded. “They’d want to have some involvement,” he agreed. “But I think we have very little choice.”

He stood. “There is some good news,” he admitted. “Between what we discovered on the trip out and the alien files we downloaded, we might be able to start mass production of human-built antigravity units within a year or two. And then the solar system would lie open in front of us.”

“The Mars Society will be delighted,” Steve commented. He grinned. “Assuming, of course, they stop arguing over the political structure of Mars to actually take note.”

Kevin smiled back. “Is Mars going to be one of the cantons?”

“I suspect we will end up with several cantons on Mars,” Steve said. “The real problem is dealing with the prisoners. Perhaps we can find them some hard labour on Mars.”

“I’m surprised you let them live,” Kevin commented.

“Oh, the ones who were truly guilty are dead,” Steve said. “As are the ones who committed foul crimes against their own people. But the others ... finding them something to do is a little harder. Maybe we should just have them breaking rocks.”

“Good idea,” Kevin said. He smiled at the thought of fundamentalist clerics actually forced to work with their bare hands. “Make the bastards work for a living.”
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Chapter Thirty-Three

Washington DC, USA

The Secret Service had objected, strongly, to someone teleporting into the White House, even with permission from the President. They'd compromised, eventually, with an agreement that Steve could teleport into the Treasury Department and walk though the underground tunnels to the White House without being seen by the protesters gathered outside the building. Steve couldn't imagine why they honestly thought they were doing any good – he wasn't about to stop the terraforming of Mars, no matter what they said – but the President had felt it was best to keep his visit low-key. And he was probably right.

It wasn't the first White House, he knew. That building had been burned by the British during the War of 1812 and then replaced with the structure that had represented the heart of American government ever since. It was an impressive building, Steve had to admit, but it was grander than he felt the government should have wanted. Successive Presidents, each one almost a prisoner within the Whitehouse, would have developed delusions of grandeur, perhaps even dreams of absolute power. Perhaps a smaller building would have served the United States better.

A log cabin, perhaps? He asked himself, sarcastically. Or a simple farmhouse?

He couldn’t help looking around like a yokel as they came out of the tunnel and walked up towards the Oval Office. The White House was like a palace, at least in the parts that were used to impress foreign visitors. He couldn't help wondering if some of the odder First Ladies had been warped by living in the house, both mistresses of the building and, at the same time, prisoners of their husband’s career. But then, it was only recently – comparatively speaking – that women were expected to be more than just wives and hostesses.

The President rose to his feet to greet Steve as he stepped into the Oval Office. Steve held out his hand and shook it firmly, then sat down facing the President’s chair. The sofa was sinfully comfortable, he decided, as the President sat down. Perhaps he should buy a few for the moon.

“The world seems to have turned upside down yet again,” the President observed. “But at least people seem supportive of your decisions.”

Steve nodded, shortly. The capture of Iran’s government had been greeted with cheers in the streets of America, particularly after the blame had been placed for the bombings in New York. A handful of politicians who had openly questioned Steve’s actions had been hit with a colossal backlash from the voters and several of them looked likely to be recalled or lose the next election. The rest of the world had been a little more cautious in their responses, but it was hard to argue against the evidence. Some of the clerics had been shaming their religion in ways Steve had always considered only theoretically possible.

But the entire world seemed to be holding its breath, waiting for the next change in the global situation. God alone knew what would happen next.

“My brother returned from an alien world,” Steve said. In the five days since Captain Perry had returned to Earth, the news had leaked and spread widely. Everyone wanted to interview the commander and crew of the captured starship. Kevin had given a handful of interviews, but mainly kept himself out of sight on the moon. “Among other things, he obtained several more fabricators and plenty of alien tech manuals.”

“Allowing you to unlock the secrets behind alien technology,” the President said. Once, Steve would have suspected the President had actually read his briefing notes. Now, he knew the man was far from stupid. “How long do you think it will be before you produce your own fabricator?”

“Probably several years,” Steve admitted. “Reassembling molecules is a little more complex than producing fusion power or even antigravity. But the new fabricators will allow us to expand by leaps and bounds. Unfortunately, it comes at a price.”

He paused, then explained about the alien demand for mercenaries.

“We don’t seem to have much else to market,” he concluded. “And we need your help.”

The President frowned. “I believe that much of your population is made up of ex-military personnel,” he said, after a moment. “It was one of your criteria for early recruitment.”

Steve nodded, remembering how the DHS had seen vanishing veterans and panicked over nothing. But then, he would probably have asked a few hard questions if he’d seen veterans disappearing without explanation.

“It is,” Steve said. “Their first request is for five thousand soldiers, Mr. President, but we believe they will want more. Hundreds of thousands more.”

The President’s eyes narrowed. “You want to borrow American military units.”

“Yes, Mr. President,” Steve said. “Maybe not for the first deployment, but certainly for others.”

“I have a feeling Congress will not be pleased,” the President said. “There was a reason mercenaries became so popular in Iraq.”

“Cowboys,” Steve muttered. The government had been worried about the effects of losing troops on American public opinion, so they’d hired mercenaries to fill some of the gaps. But the mercenaries had ranged from genuinely competent to idiots and they’d caused a lot of political problems for the government. He didn't blame the Iraqis for wanting to prosecute some of the former mercenaries. They’d killed people without any good cause. “But we’re going to do better than that, Mr. President.”

The President sighed. “And if I refuse?”

“We intend to recruit anyway,” Steve said. “But we won’t recruit from serving formations.”

He left unspoken the simple fact that quite a number of serving soldiers would consider moving to the mercenary force rather than reenlisting in the United States military. There were soldiers who had enlisted for adventure, rather than anything else, and what better adventure than fighting on a whole different world? And there would be a high rate of pay, generous benefits and other advantages, even if most of the alien currency they earned would be taxed heavily to help fund Earth’s expansion into the galaxy.

“I was also planning to buy up one of the private training complexes and turn it into a recruitment and training depot,” he continued. “But if you think that would cause political problems ...”

“It would,” the President said. “Unless, of course, we got something in exchange.”

Steve leaned forward. Now the bargaining could begin. “What do you want?”

The President studied him for a long moment. “Assistance in producing our own fusion reactors,” he said, simply. “And superconductor batteries.”

“American firms are already involved with the research efforts,” Steve pointed out. “And some of the components cannot be manufactured on Earth.”

“Then we would want additional supplies of both,” the President said. “And some military assistance.”

Steve lifted his eyebrows. International terrorism was reeling, both under the sudden loss of their leadership cadres and their financial backers. For once, the War on Terror had come genuinely close to being won. But there were growing problems in the Middle East and Pakistan, which was experiencing a terrifying level of civil unrest. It was quite likely, Steve knew, that the Pakistani Government would fall soon enough. And it wasn't the only major headache.

“What sort of assistance would you like?” He said, finally. “And why?”

“We believe that North Korea is undergoing severe economic problems,” the President said, softly. “Their Chinese patrons have been distracted and the Russians aren’t interested in feeding them these days. It is quite possible that their government will consider making a lunge for South Korea, unleashing a bloody war.”

Steve scowled. He hadn't seriously considered Korea, but he had to admit the President had a point. “We could wipe out their leadership too,” he said. “And yet that would certainly result in civil war.”

The President shook his head. “We would like some military assistance if the North Koreans do start attacking the South,” he said. “And we would like their nuclear program destroyed.”

Steve nodded. “Very well,” he said. “It will be done.”

“An approvable decision,” Romford said, four hours later. “Getting rid of North Korea as a nuclear power will definitely make the world safer.”

“I suppose,” Steve said. He looked around the training complex. It was surprisingly impressive, reminding him of Camp Pendleton. “These guys didn't miss much, did they?”

“I believe they were retired Marines,” Romford confirmed. “The training program had its limits, but it certainly did a good job at turning out cohesive teams. And they proved themselves in combat.”

Steve nodded. International Warriors had been one of the large private security companies in the world, recruiting soldiers from all over the world and hiring them out as everything from bodyguards to local police forces. Steve had met a couple of their recruiters back when he retired from the Marines and he had to admit that he had been seriously tempted. If he hadn't had the ranch, he might well have signed up and been deployed to Africa or the Middle East as part of a private bodyguard team.

But that might have gotten me killed, he thought. The last report from Saudi Arabia had suggested that a number of hired bodyguards had been slaughtered by the Saudi National Guard. No one was quite sure why. Or I might never have seen the starship.

He looked around the training complex, thoughtfully. The owners had designed it to simulate every possible field of combat, from house-to-house fighting to jungle or naval combat. It wasn't too surprising, he knew. They’d supplied guards for freighters cruising near the coast of Africa as well as private security teams. The former Marines or SEALs who made up such teams wouldn't want to let their skills slip. Besides, lacking the endless government bureaucracy, the company had been able to adapt, react and overcome quicker than some aspects of the Pentagon. Rumour had it that they even paid bonuses for soldiers who spoke foreign languages.

“So tell me,” he said. “Is this suitable for our purposes?”

“More or less,” Romford confirmed. “We can run basic medical checks here, give everyone a translation implant, then start running through training cycles until we get used to working as a team. We’ll probably run into problems when we start recruiting people from outside the United States, but we will overcome them. It will help, I think, that we won’t give a shit about political correctness.”

Steve nodded. The agreement with the President, which was currently being examined by a select group of American politicians, would effectively turn the training camp into a private fiefdom. As long as the soldiers entered willingly and signed the right contracts, they could be put through the most intensive training possible without worrying about bureaucratic rules and regulations. Knowing the dangers of abuse, Steve had been careful to hire training officers he knew and trusted ... with the private thought that he could do almost anything to a training officer who failed his trust.

Something lingering in boiling oil, perhaps, he thought. Or maybe simple exposure to hard vacuum.

“Give us a couple of months, I think, with the first volunteers,” Romford added. “Then we can start recruiting others. But we’re going to have to experiment a bit with the training programs.”

“True,” Steve agreed. This wasn't a standard military deployment, no matter what it looked like on the surface. The soldiers would be travelling to alien worlds and fighting there. “It wouldn't do to recruit an xenophobe.”

“Or someone with a deathly fear of little blue men,” Romford agreed. He smiled, brightly. “Anyone who read Green Lantern will probably be very suspicious of our ... noble benefactors.”

Steve gave him an odd look. “I would never have fingered you as a comics fan.”

“There was a kid who came to see his granddad in the damn residence,” Romford said. “I think he was bored out of his skull, so he used to show me the comics and try to read them to me. The last few issues had the Guardians creating a Borg rip-off and sending them to turn the entire universe into thoughtless monsters. And then they all died.”

“A likely story,” Steve said. It wasn't uncommon for soldiers to enjoy reading comics as a form of escape from their lives. Hell, he’d been a great fan of Doctor Who for precisely that reason. The episodes were unrealistic, but that was the point. War movies would have been a bit too close to home. “I think you bought them for yourself.”

Romford looked away. “Anyway, we will be watching for people with an adverse fear reaction,” he continued, changing the subject rapidly. “Part of the training program will include holograms of many of the nastier-looking alien races, particularly the ones that look like spiders or movie monsters.”

“Exposure will probably help,” Steve said.

He winced at the memory. He’d once been deathly scared of scorpions, to the point where he hadn't even been able to look at the creatures. Iraq and its legions of deadly scorpions had cleared that right up, even though he still found them creepy. Hell, they’d spent the boring days before crossing the border capturing scorpions and watching them fight each other for entertainment. But what if there were soldiers who literally went to pieces when confronted with alien life forms?

“Let us hope so,” Romford said. He smiled, suddenly. “We’ve also started constructing a holographic training room, where we can test people to the limit. A few more days and we should be able to start offering training that is as close as possible to reality.”

“Good,” Steve said. He took one last look around the training field. “They’re willing to sell?”

“They’ve been having legal and financial problems lately,” Romford said. “There’s some problems with operating a mercenary company these days – and the UN really didn't help, when it bitched and moaned about guards doing their damn jobs. And yet, everyone in an unstable place wants trained bodyguards to watch their backs.”

He shrugged. “They’re willing to fold themselves completely into us,” he added, “or continue to operate, as long as they can base themselves on the moon. Our taxes are lower and our regulations pretty much non-existent.”

“It will do,” Steve said. The more businesses that had interests on the moon, the harder it would be for Earth-bound politicians to interfere with the settlers. “What about recruitment?”

“I will be going,” Romford said, shortly. His tone didn't invite disagreement. “I’m building an army here, sir. I’m damned if I won’t lead it into battle.”

“Or at least some elements of it into battle,” Steve commented. The aliens hadn't been too clear on what they actually wanted from their human mercenaries. Reading between the lines, Steve had a feeling they didn’t know themselves. “We still don't know precisely what they want from us.”

“Shock troops, I suspect,” Romford said. “I’ve studied recordings of enemy cyborgs in action, Steve. They’re hard to kill – they’re amazingly durable – but apart from that there doesn't seem to be much about them that an unaugmented soldier with intensive training couldn't duplicate.”

Steve frowned. “Implanted weapons and neural links?”

“The former we can match with handheld weapons, the latter we may not need,” Romford disagreed. “They also don’t seem to be long-term thinkers. I suspect they’re programmed to be instinctive fighters, but not to think past the current battle. Which could cause us problems, sir. They don’t seem to have any concern about committing small atrocities.”

Steve winced. “And we will get the blame?”

“Perhaps,” Romford said. He looked thoughtful for a long moment. “Or at least we will be considered tainted. But how much freedom of choice do they actually have?”

“Maybe too much,” Steve said, remembering just how close he’d come to committing genocide. “Or maybe they're just not programmed to give a damn about civilians in their way.”

The thought made him shudder. Someone who grew up in a brutal and ruthless society would probably become brutal and ruthless himself, but there would always be an element of free will. The cyborgs, on the other hand, might have certain fundamentals hardwired into their heads. They might not be able to question their orders, or hold doubts about the justice – or even the expediency – of mass slaughter of innocent civilians. Did that made them guilty? Or was it the aliens who bore the guilt? How could one blame a gun for firing when it was its user who pulled the trigger?

Didn't stop people being afraid of guns, he thought, cynically. Or trying to ban them ... and hanging out their own people for slaughter.

Romford cleared his throat. “We have two thousand volunteers so far from people who applied to join the lunar society,” he said. “Charles has sent out a general request to the other people waiting in line, with the promise of lunar citizenship for them and their families if they accept. Quite a few old-timers have accepted in exchange for rejuvenation treatments, so I’ve authorised them. I’ve limited recruitment to Americans, so far, but I would like to change for the second batch. There are quite a few potential recruits in other NATO countries. After that ...”

He shrugged. “We’ll have to start inviting Russian, Chinese and Indian soldiers,” he added. “And probably soldiers from quite a few other countries. There will be problems.”

“I know,” Steve said.

“But we’re not the UN,” Romford concluded. “Anyone who causes minor problems will be booted out – and sent back home, if they have been real assholes. And anyone who breaks the ROE will be interrogated, then summarily shot if they fucked up badly enough.”

“Just make sure you devise a sensible set of ROE,” Steve advised.

“The aliens might devise them for us,” Romford said. “But as long as we have a say in the decision, we shouldn't have a problem.”

Steve nodded. “Keep me informed,” he ordered. “I want to know about any problems as soon as they appear.”

“Understood,” Romford said.
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Chapter Thirty-Four

Heinlein Colony, Luna

“You do realise,” Kevin said, “that this is still quite distressing.”

Steve looked unsurprised. He'd grown up a little in the last few weeks, Kevin noted, even though he was still being far too casual about his decisions. But at least this would should cause fewer immediate problems. The nanotech had hunted down North Korea’s stockpile of nuclear warheads and casually disarmed them. It would take a careful inspection to reveal there was a problem and, somehow, Kevin doubted the North Koreans would dare to report any problems if they found them. The Dearest Leader was far too fond of lopping off his subjects heads for them to dare to face him with bad news.

Idiot, he thought, as he stood up. If you kill the messenger, the only thing you get is less mail.

“But it’s done,” Kevin said. “The North Koreans will be unable to fire nukes in all directions, should war break out.”

The President had been right, he’d decided, after catching up with the torrent of information from Earth. North Korea was starving, there were threats of revolution and the Chinese were completely distracted. Why wouldn't the Dearest Leader gamble? Better to go out in fire than be torn apart by one’s own people. But now, between the nanotech and the handful of automated weapons platforms deployed to a position over North Korea, any major offensive across the DMZ would become a squib.

And countless North Koreans will die because of their leader’s madness, he thought. It would be simple, almost too simple, to remove the Dearest Leader too. But it would almost certainly result in outright civil war and hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing into the south. It could not be risked until war actually broke out. At that point, the Dearest Leader’s lifespan would be numbered in seconds.

He smiled, then led Steve through the network of corridors into the small factory complex. Building it up had required the dedicated use of four shuttles – and he was so glad they’d been able to obtain more shuttles on Ying – but it had been completely worthwhile. Now, they could start putting together a handful of nasty surprises for the next Hordesmen to come calling at Earth.

The nuclear techs looked up from their work, then nodded. Most of them had worked for the American government in one role or another, before being invited to come to the moon as part of the joint weapons research program. Not all of them were lunar citizens – they were still loyal to the united states – but as long as they worked on joint defence, no one actually minded. Besides, the more people involved in the theoretical part of the program, the greatest the chance of a significant development.

“These were backpack nukes,” Doctor Quinn said. He was younger than Kevin had expected a nuclear scientist to be, with a face that was surprisingly handsome. Some of his female research assistants were absolutely stunning. “Thanks to our modifications, they’re now bomb-pumped lasers.”

“Excellent work,” Steve said. “How do you propose we use them?”

“At the moment, I was going to suggest using them in minefields,” Quinn explained. “Our missiles are nowhere near as capable as Galactic-level weapons ... and even Galactic missiles are slow, compared to point defence systems. We would need to lure the enemy towards the mines, rather than anything else.”

He paused. “The good news is that we can start mass-producing these weapons very soon,” he added. “And, with a little reprogramming, the fabricators can actually turn out the nukes.”

“Pity about the missiles,” Steve commented. “But I see your point.”

Kevin nodded in agreement. The fastest spacecraft built using purely human technology crawled, compared to Galactic missiles. But even they couldn't outrace the warning of their arrival, allowing point defence systems to engage them before they entered engagement range. Keith Glass and his partners had several ideas for adapting humanity’s concepts to give the aliens a nasty surprise, but most of them were completely untested. The Galactics, it seemed, had the concept of Superiority, even if they had never read the book. They didn't dare throw too much of their resources into scientific development out of fear of being overwhelmed by their opponents.

But you’d think they wouldn’t have a choice, he thought, as Quinn kept talking, explaining the number of minor improvements they’d made. Their enemies are slowly gaining on them in any case.

He waited for Quinn to finish, then led Steve into the next section, where Carolyn was waiting for them. Kevin smiled at her and allowed himself a moment of relief when she smiled back, rather than the odd expressions she'd given him on the ship. He introduced Steve quickly, then looked expectant. Carolyn didn't disappoint.

“We have successfully unlocked the secret of basic antigravity,” she said. “I could give you the technobabble” – both Steve and Kevin shook their heads – “but the important part is that we can produce a limited antigravity field on command. We don’t have the sheer proficiency of alien technology, at least not yet, but we do have a way to get large amounts of cargo off Earth and into orbit without messing around with booster rockets. The downside” – she paused, significantly – “is that the system isn't particularly stable and requires careful monitoring.”

She smiled at their expressions. “But, overall, it's one hell of a step forward,” she added. “And we are working on unlocking more of their older secrets. For example, antimatter is actually quite simple to make, once we fabricate the right equipment.”

Kevin had to smile. The Galactics had never realised just how many clues their tech manuals, particularly those for technology they considered primitive, could give to the younger races. Maybe they couldn't instantly duplicate Galactic technology, not now, but they could start understanding the underpinnings of the more advanced technology and inch towards mastering the best of Galactic science. And if they got some help, perhaps they could advance further forward than anyone dared to dream.

They’d programmed the fabricators not to produce antimatter-prediction systems. But the unlocked fabricators had no such restrictions. Given time, the human race would be able to produce vast amounts of antimatter too, which could be used as a weapon or converted into another power source. But it wasn’t something that could ever be used on a planet’s surface. The risk of disaster was too great.

“We could find quite a few uses for antimatter,” Kevin mused. “And it would create some interesting problems for anyone who wanted to attack us.”

“Good,” Steve said, briskly. “How long until we can start mass-production of antigravity units?”

Carolyn considered it. “Give us a few months to produce a finalised design, one attached to a computer specifically designed for monitoring and adjusting the field if necessary,” she said. “And then we can start churning them out on demand.”

“By then,” Kevin put in, “Markus thinks we will have quite a few orbital stations in place to start producing whatever we want.”

He shook his head in awe. He’d never realised just how quickly the high-tech firms would move to capitalise on the promise of space-based industries, now space travel had become almost routine. American, European and Japanese firms were scrambling to win contracts and request factories on the moon, while the rest of the planetary economy was struggling to come to terms with the chances wrought in just a few months. Given time, Kevin suspected, most of the planet's industry would be in space. That, he hoped, would please the Greens.

And once we start fitting antigravity units to cargo aircraft, he thought, we will soar into outer space.

They wouldn't be able to control it, he suspected, past a certain point. But they wouldn't have to.

“Very good,” Steve said. “But how is it compared to Ying?”

Kevin sobered. “Very poor,” he said. “But Ying has been colonised for over a thousand years.”

“By a handful of rogues, criminals and refugees,” Steve said. “And yet they have a much more advanced industrial base than Earth.”

“I know,” Kevin said, flatly. “But we have to start somewhere.”

He watched Steve’s back as he moved from section to section, exchanging words with the researchers and discussing the future with the more personable scientists. If Kevin hadn't known better – and he wasn't sure he did know better – he would have said that Steve was depressed. Why would Steve be depressed? He was on the verge of making his dream real!

But he also knows how close he came to damnation, Kevin thought, glumly. That isn't good for anyone.

They reached the section monitoring the alien POWs, where they were met by a handful of sociologists and psychologists. Steve listened with apparent interest as they told him how some of the POWs had started to show cracks in their mental conditioning, but Kevin knew better. Steve was only pretending to be interested; the rote responses he offered to their words only confirmed it. Kevin was rather more interested in the long-term implications if they did manage to humanise the Hordesmen, but Steve seemed unconcerned.

He needs a holiday, he thought, as they left the section. But where can he go?

“Steve,” he said, finally. “You’re working too hard.”

Steve gave him the look he’d always given his younger brother, back when Kevin had been old enough to talk, but not old enough to tell the difference between a really good idea and a recipe for disaster.

“I think I have too much to do,” he said, waving a hand around to indicate the lunar colony. “And where would I go, anyway?”

“Find an isolated desert island and go there for a few days with Mariko,” Kevin advised. “I think the Maldives have places for millionaires who want to be completely away from the rest of the world. You could book one, then go there and relax.”

“I could try,” Steve said, “but how could I leave this untended?”

Kevin sighed, inwardly. His brother had never been good at simply abandoning his responsibilities, which was at least partly why he’d had to leave the Marines. He could be stubborn, thick-headed and generally idiotic at times, although he was genuinely devoted to his friends and the ideal of his country. But it also made him unwilling to delegate authority more than he had to.

Or, Kevin thought, to take a holiday he desperately needs.

“You have created a staff,” he said. “Edward will handle mercenary recruitment, Charles will handle all other recruitment, I will handle intelligence, Rochester will handle the colony ...”

“You’ve made your point,” Steve snapped.

“If something happens that requires your attention, you will be called back to the ship,” Kevin added. “Until then, you can just relax and take it easy for a few days.”

“I don’t notice you doing that,” Steve muttered. It was the tone he’d used when his brothers were right and he knew it, but he was unwilling to say so out loud. “What about you too?”

“I rested on the flight,” Kevin said. On the starship, he’d been completely isolated from the concerns facing Steve and Mongo. “You, on the other hand, have always been monitoring your work. This is the time to take a rest.”

He said nothing else until they were in one of the offices and sitting down comfortably. “I think we’re going to have to base a permanent team on Ying,” he continued. “Both to hunt for starships we can buy, but also to keep track of galactic affairs. Maybe not an embassy, in the usual sense ...”

“A spy mission,” Steve said. “But do you think the Galactics will notice?”

“I don’t think they care,” Kevin said. He shrugged. “Would we be really worried if the Maldives set up an operation in New York?”

Steve paused, clearly consulting his interface. “The Maldives are an Islamic nation,” he said, after a moment. “We might be worried if they opened a consulate.”

“Then use Andorra then,” Kevin said. “Somewhere so minor it barely registers.”

He shrugged. “We’d need a long-term presence there,” he continued. “And probably one in several more nearby star systems. And probably human traders, once we have more starships to use as independent ships.”

“I was daydreaming about becoming one,” Steve mused. “It would be something different ... and it would be something away from Sol.”

Kevin nodded. Like it or not, Steve had effectively ruled as a dictator. Either he ran for election, when they finally bothered to hold elections, or he stood aside ... but either way, he was going to cast a long shadow over Heinlein Colony and the planned Solar Union. It would be better, far better, if he disappeared from the solar system after the elections, leaving a clear field for the new government. A trading life wouldn't be quite a return to the ranch, but Kevin had a feeling that was no longer a possibility. Steve wouldn't be happy on the ranch after seeing the boundless immensity of space.

“It might be a good idea,” he agreed. “But for the moment, you need a break.”

He smiled. “I’ll sic Mariko on you if you don’t agree now,” he threatened. “I’m sure she’ll force you into it.”

“I’d like to see you try,” Steve countered. “I dare you to tell her she needs to take a break.”

Kevin stared at him, puzzled.

“She went back to New York as soon as we got some proper security in place,” Steve explained. “I couldn’t talk her out of it.”

“Oh,” Kevin said. Mariko might be small and slight, but she could be as intimidating as hell when she wanted to be, like pretty much every woman who lived on a ranch. And she was devoted to her medical work. “But ...”

Steve smirked at him. “Be brave,” he said. “Don’t worry about a thing. Little boy with big job to do ...”

“Oh, shut up,” Kevin said.

Steve sighed. “I’ll convince her to come away with me this weekend, all right?”

“If you’re brave enough to try,” Kevin said. “But really, you need to take a week.”

Steve opened his mouth to answer, but his communicator shrilled before he could say a word.

“Sir, this is Tom in Tracking,” a voice said. “We’re picking up twenty-five separate starships heading towards Earth at FTL speeds. Estimated ETA is five hours from now.”

“Those will be the ships Friend promised,” Kevin said. “The first down payment for human mercenaries.”

“But not warships,” Steve mused. “That could be a problem.”

“It could,” Kevin agreed. “But I think beggars can't be choosers.”

Steve jumped to his feet, suddenly galvanised. “Sound the alert,” he ordered, as he made preparations to return to the ship. “I want the entire solar system on alert.”

Kevin frowned. “Why ...?”

“Two reasons,” Steve said. He ticked them off on his fingers as he spoke. “First, we need to know just how well the alert system actually works. And second, you might be wrong and these aliens might not be friendly after all.”

He was right, Kevin knew. Twenty-five starships were more than enough to overwhelm Earth by an order of magnitude. But he knew Friend’s best interests lay in cooperating with the human race. Human slaves would be far less useful than human allies.

“Good thinking,” he conceded, reluctantly. He stood, too. “I’ll come with you.”

The next few hours passed very slowly. On Earth, military bases were alerted and reserves called up, but there was no formal public announcement. Kevin wasn't too surprised, no matter how much he hated the Government’s willingness to defend itself while leaving the civilian population to burn. If there was a widespread panic, there would be absolute chaos and thousands of people would be hurt even if the aliens weren't hostile. Besides, what difference would it make if the aliens deployed antimatter bombs? The entire planet would be cracked open like an egg.

“They’re coming out of FTL now,” Mongo said. “I’m reading ... twenty-three freighters of various designs, one warship and one starship of indeterminate purpose.”

“They’re hailing us, sir,” the communications officer added.

“Then reply,” Steve ordered. Left unsaid was the notion that one warship, commanded by a capable crew, might be a match for all three human ships. “Let’s see who they are.”

There was a brief pause, then a familiar blue-skinned face appeared in front of them. “Mr. Stuart,” Friend said. Clearly, he'd been studying the data he’d been sent on humanity. “It is a pleasure to see you again.”

“And you,” Kevin said, swallowing. “These are my brothers, Steve and Mongo.”

“It is a pleasure to meet them too,” Friend said. “However, we cannot wait. We will merely give you these starships and leave.”

“I understand,” Kevin said. The aliens wouldn't want to draw attention to Sol if they could avoid it. “But we will meet again soon.”

“Indeed we shall,” Friend said. “We shall see you at Ying.”

He paused. “We have loaded the freighters with goods you might find useful,” he added. “We give you these freely, without obligation. You are welcome to them.”

Moments later, his image vanished from the bridge.

Kevin pursed his lips. Was the free gifts a bribe ... or a simple consideration ... or a display of just how wealthy the aliens actually were? If they could provide so many ships so quickly, just how many did they have in total? But there was no way to know. For all he knew, the aliens had spent a few hours with a fabricator and churned out everything they thought humanity might want – or need.

“Interesting person,” Steve observed. He didn't sound too impressed. “Doesn't he want to stay for tea?”

“I think he fears us being noticed,” Kevin commented. On the display, flashes of energy were being detected as the freighter crews were beamed onto the unknown starship. “And if Earth became noticed, the results might be dire.”

Steve didn't bother to disagree.
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Chapter 33: "so I’ve authorised them." "...authorized." Guys from Montana don't do the British "s." I'm trying to stay away from being overly sensitive on the s vs. z thing, and haven't flagged every occurrence - but by this time - they jump out at me.

Chapter 34: “Doesn't he want to stay for tea?” Although the attempt here may be to paint Friend in a British image for some reason, a Montana guy who lived on service coffee while enlisted would say, "...stay for coffee." This little byplay actually calls attention to an author writing about American protagonists from the other side of the narrow sea. Your call, but if you choose to write in the British idiom, it should be done on purpose and not by accident. The image painted here is Friend as a little old lady with her pinkie up in the air as she sips daintily from a tiny cup.
Sorry about yesterday - headache.

Chapter Thirty-Five

Deep Space

“And there has definitely been no sightings?”

“No, Most Supreme Lord,” the messenger said, banging his head against the deck. “They went to Earth and were never seen again.”

Horde Commander Yss!Yaa cursed under his breath. The messengers were of no Subhorde, something that made them absolutely trustworthy, for his successor would purge them if he managed to take over through assassination or outright coup. But they could also be publically blamed for the message, if someone needed to be a scapegoat. Being a Horde Commander was sometimes more about making sure that someone took the blame than actually leading the Horde.

Three ships, one of them a valuable Warcruiser, had gone missing. It wasn't unusual for the Horde to lose starships, but to lose three of them in the same place suggested enemy action rather than the normal incompetence of his subordinates. The reports had started that Earth’s odd-looking inhabitants, the human race, had no starships of their own, but the Horde Commander knew all too well just how much nonsense, misinformation and outright lies made their way through the galactic mainstream. It was quite possible that humanity had a small fleet of starships of their own.

Or the Varnar are protecting them, he thought, morbidly. They would worry about the source of their cyborg slaves.

Being a Horde Commander sometimes meant admitting that there were battles that couldn't be won. It was something that would have shocked the vast majority of his followers, who would have preferred death to dishonour. But the Horde Commander understood just how much their nomadic life depended on the more civilised Galactics. If galactic society as a whole decided to eradicate the Hordes, they could do so simply by refusing to sell their wares to the nomads or exterminating them outright through military force. There were times when it was wiser to back down than risk a fight they couldn't win.

But this was something different. The humans either had support from one of the Galactics or they were becoming an interstellar power in their own right. Either way, they had to know the truth – and they had to know what had happened to the missing starships. And they had to do it before the humans found too many allies among the stars. If one or more of the major powers backed them, the Horde would have no choice, but to swallow the insult and return to their wandering ways.

It wasn't something many of his subordinates would have understood, he knew. The Horde Commander, they thought, spent half of his time enjoying the perks of his position. He had the finest cuts of food, the best-looking women and the right to have as many children as he wished. But he also had to swallow his pride, while manipulating events so someone else took the blame. He couldn't show weakness in front of his followers or they would start sharpening knives, largely unaware that the Hordes were weak, compared to the Galactics

They dreamed of pillaging their way across the stars, looting and ransacking whole planets. But the Horde Commander knew the truth. They were, at best, scavengers, scavengers utterly dependent on the Galactics. There was no way they could ravage the entire galaxy.

But they needed to know what had happened to their missing starships.

He looked down at the messenger, who had remained in the Posture of Ultimate Respect, extending his head for the sword, if necessary. The Horde Commander felt a pang of ... pity, almost regret. He knew just how futile it was to kill the messenger, yet he also felt the same lust for adventure, reckless adventure, that his subordinates shared. Wouldn't it feel good, he knew, to throw caution to the winds and just pillage the nearest worlds? But he knew they would never escape the Galactics when they retaliated.

“Inform my slaves,” he said. His subordinates were his slaves, as long as he remained strong. But then, slaves had to be constantly reminded of their place. “We will go to Earth.”

He watched the messenger crawl out of the compartment, then turned to look at the holographic display. Thirty starships, five of them ten kilometres look, looked an impressive force, but he knew just how many starships the Galactics could deploy. And to think he ruled one of the larger Hordes. The Galactics could have built a fleet an order of magnitude larger than his own without raising a sweat.

Go to Earth, find out what happened and back off, if necessary, he thought. He clicked his claws in irritation. It would be easier if I went alone.

But that wouldn't be possible, he knew. No matter what orders he gave, the entire Horde now knew they’d lost three ships. They would demand some kind of retaliation, perhaps against a completely innocent target. And if he didn't give them their retaliation, they might well try to overthrow him and take power for themselves. The Horde could not afford a major power struggle in interstellar space. Rumour had it that one Horde had managed to destroy itself through a civil war in their starships, opening them to the vacuum of space.

And if the humans were innocent ...?

He snapped his claws together, then turned and walked towards the hatch. It didn't matter, he knew. Someone had to pay. And why not a race that couldn't fight back?

“This,” Mariko said, “is the life.”

Steve shrugged, then smiled. He had honestly never considered leaving the United States after he retired from the military, but he had to admit that Mariko was right. The unnamed island, one of thousands that made up the Maldives, was genuinely beautiful. There were shimmering white sands, patches of jungle and a couple of huts on stilts above the water, looking both primitive and modern. Inside, there were beds, a fridge and a small stockpile of microwavable food. There was no one else on the island at all.

He leaned back in his deckchair, allowing the sun to beat down on his exposed chest. It had taken weeks of nagging, from Mariko as well as Kevin, to convince him to take a holiday, but he'd definitely needed it. Relaxing, taking the time to charge his batteries and consider the future without worrying about the present, seemed to have done him a world of good. It helped that he trusted the people he’d left in charge while he was gone, he decided. He made a mental note to insist that Kevin, Mongo and the others took holidays once he returned home.

The thought struck him, suddenly. When had the starship become home?

He couldn't help feeling that he'd betrayed the American Stuarts. His family had built the ranch, after all, and contributed to the town that had grown up nearby. They’d placed great stock in the ranch, relying on it to serve as a training ground for generation upon generation of Stuarts. But he’d practically walked away from the ranch, converting it into an off-world embassy and then a recruitment centre for prospective lunar settlers. He’d never even been able to consider leaving the ranch before.

But Earth felt small and oppressive compared to the boundless vastness of interstellar space.

There are cousins, he thought. Several of them had gone into hiding – or travelled to the moon – when the reporters had started sniffing around, trying to score interviews on the subject of Steve’s family life prior to joining the military. The others had sniffed at the very idea of leaving Montana, certainly leaving the state permanently. One of them could take the ranch, if Steve’s children – or Mongo’s children – didn't want to take it for themselves. As long as it stayed in the family, Steve suspected, the ghosts of his ancestors wouldn't care.

He made a mental note to ask his children about it, then stood and looked over towards the shimmering blue waves. There was something about the gentle lapping of water against the sand that was almost relaxing, even though it also reminded him of crawling through the marshes at night, years ago. Pushing the thought out of his head, he walked towards the water and allowed the waves to wash over his feet, slipping and sliding as the sand shifted under his weight. Bracing himself, he stepped further into the water until he could swim properly, then started to swim around the entire island. It was small enough that he could circumvent it in less than ten minutes.

It wasn't a challenging swim, something he found mildly disappointing. But the island had been billed as a private resort, a place where someone would have to be very stupid or unlucky to get themselves killed. Compared to some of the training he’d done, it was pathetic. But it was fun to relax, just for a while. Maybe, he told himself, he'd swim out to sea later and see what happened out there, past the barrier reef. If worst came to worst, he still had the interface. He could signal for emergency teleport if necessary.

Mariko waved to him as he came back into view, after swimming around the hut and coming back into the lagoon. Steve sucked in his breath, then powered through the water towards where she was standing, at the very edge of the water. She looked timeless, somehow, utterly beautiful despite the straightness of her body. Steve didn't care about the size of her breasts, or the boyish hips, merely the essence that was her. He came charging out of the water and ran towards her.

Afterwards, they returned to the hut and hunted through the fridge for something tasty. Steve hadn't expected much from the microwave, but the pre-prepared foods were actually surprisingly nice, far better than any of the TV dinners he’d eaten on leave. It had puzzled him until Mariko pointed out that most people who visited the island would be wealthy enough to afford the best, as well as absolute privacy. Steve didn't want to think about how much they were spending, even if it was cheap compared to the constant flow of money in and out of the lunar colony. He hadn't been raised to spend money excessively.

He smiled at the thought. His grandmother would have sneered at the very idea of going on holiday. To her, fifty or sixty miles from the ranch was foreign territory. God alone knew what sort of infidels lived there. But then, she’d been the daughter of a soldier, married to another soldier and mother of yet more soldiers. Most of her opinions of the outside world would have been shaped by their stories of the less-pleasant parts of the planet. Wars, after all, seldom showed places to their best advantage.

“I read the guidebook,” Mariko said. She nodded towards the plastic containers. “None of this is remotely local.”

Steve wasn't too surprised. Some people travelled to experience, but others merely went somewhere – like him – to recharge their batteries. The latter wouldn't want strange foreign food when they could have American-style meals shipped in from the United States. Steve wasn't too sure what to make of it. He’d eaten some strange things in Iraq – and he had to admit there was comfort in the familiar – but why go halfway around the world to eat food they could have found anywhere at home?

“Maybe we should go to Mali later,” he said. They did have a speedboat, after all, or they could simply teleport to the city-island. “See what we can find that’s more local.”

Mariko shrugged as she placed the trays in the microwave and turned it on. “I don’t think I’d like it,” she confessed. “The whole island is one giant city.”

Steve nodded in agreement. It was odd, but most of his memories of large cities were marred by war. He’d spent more time in Bagdad and Fallujah than he’d spent in Washington or New York. Why would anyone, he'd asked himself as a child, choose to live in the cities when they could live in the countryside instead? But most people, he knew now, couldn't afford to live in the country. And, when they did, they started trying to change it to fit some ideal they’d gleaned from watching bad movies and reading junk science.

He smiled at the thought. That was one thing Heinlein Colony – and the smaller Wells Colony on Mars - had already experienced, although from people on Earth rather than settlers on the moon. They whined about terraforming the planet, they whined about mining for water and HE3, they whined about setting up farms ... as if they could afford to import food from Earth indefinitely. Didn't people have enough troubles of their own to keep them busy?

Mariko cleared her throat, drawing his attention back to her. “What do you want to eat?”

Steve hastily replayed her words in his mind. She'd asked if he wanted curry or microwavable burgers. “Curry,” he said, quickly. Like most women in his experience, Mariko got annoyed if she thought she was being ignored. “It will make a change.”

“And you make better burgers of your own anyway,” Mariko teased. “Far better than anything you get in the cities, right?”

Steve nodded. Her skill at reading his face was remarkable.

He stood and walked towards the balcony as she put the food in the microwave, staring out over the endless blue sea. In the distance, he could see waves breaking over the barrier reef that shielded the island from the ocean and tiny lights where other inhabited islands were preparing for darkness. They had sometimes heard planes flying overhead, but apart from the boat that had brought them to the island they’d seen no other boats. The resort owners kept all traffic away from their islands, jealously guarding their right to ship travellers to and from the resorts.

And make sure they collect as much money as they can, Steve thought, cynically. The Maldives had been largely isolated from the Middle Eastern economic depression, but they'd once had Arab Princes coming to the islands for a holiday away from public observance of Islamic Law. Officially, the islands were Islamic, but money talked louder than the Qur’an, particularly when the area was dependent on tourists. But now, there were few Arab Princes who had the funds to spare for a holiday. The smarter ones had already fled the region for Europe. There, at least, they would be safe from their vengeful populations.

There was a ding from the microwave. Steve turned, just in time to see Mariko pull the containers out of the machine and pour the contents onto the plates. She picked them both up and walked over to the balcony, passing Steve his plate as she walked through the door. A cool wind was blowing over the sea now, something of a relief after the heat of the day. Steve sat on the steps leading down to the water and smiled at her. After a moment, she joined him and sat down to eat.

“This isn't too bad,” Steve said. Compared to some of the curries he’d eaten in Iraq, it was downright mild. The Marines had joked that the Iraqis deliberately made the curries hot as a test of manliness. Steve, however, recalled the medic saying that the meat wasn't always the best, which explained outbreaks of the dreaded D&V. The spice often helped cover up the poor quality of meat. “It could be worse.”

Mariko elbowed him. “It could be better too, couldn't it?”

Steve shrugged, placed his empty plate on the floor and put his arm around her as the stars began to come out. High overhead, the stars competed with the reflected light from humanity’s vastly expanded presence in space. Two fast-moving glints of light were almost certainly inflatable space stations, while others might well be the freighters Friend had sent them or one of the captured warships. Steve smiled, unpleasantly, as he contemplated the freighters. Human ingenuity, matched with alien technology, had started preparing a few nasty surprises for anyone who wanted to invade the Sol System. He had no illusions about the outcome if the Galactics really wanted Earth, but the bastards would have to fight to take the planet. And, even then, parts of humanity would be free.

He smiled, remembering just how many men and women had gone out to the asteroids over the past month. The MSM had called them everything from dupes to suicidal fools, but Steve knew better. They understood the risks, yet they were prepared to chance everything to make a new life for themselves in the new Wild West. Many of them would die, Steve knew, but they would make history. And hidden colonies among the asteroids would help ensure the survival of the human race.

The thought made him smile. A year or two would allow him to produce a generational starship, one that could be launched out into the galaxy at STL speeds. If something really bad happened to Earth, the starship would survive and – hopefully – set up a new colony somewhere else. And, when they had more FTL starships, one of them would convey a colony mission well beyond the edges of galactic space.

They stayed outside until the moon began to rise, then stood up and went inside. Steve kissed her on the lips, then pulled her towards the bed. Mariko smiled, then kissed him back. Steve gently reached down to her bikini and started to undo it, kissing his way down to her nipples and enjoying the taste of her in his mouth. And then the interface buzzed.

“Steve, it’s Kevin,” a voice said. Steve bit down the urge to swear virulently. Kevin didn't have any idea of what he’d interrupted. “We have a political problem.”

“I should have known,” Steve commented. He reached for his dressing gown and pulled it on. Beside him, Mariko did the same. “I relax and look what happens.”

He sighed. “Two to beam up,” he added. “And this had damn well better be important.”
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Chapter Thirty-Six

Shadow Warrior, Earth Orbit

Kevin had been trained, long ago, in reading the subtle signs of their body language. A person pretending to be annoyed, his tutors had taught him, tended to overact as badly as a child actor and start shouting in outrage at the drop of a hat. Body language wasn't entirely universal – it hadn't been universal even before the humans had first encountered the Galactics – but there were plenty of points of similarity. And all of his training was telling him that Steve was very definitely annoyed.

He looked at Mariko. Unlike Steve, she was more composed, but there was a faint flush to her face that told Kevin precisely what they’d been doing when he’d interrupted them. Kevin sighed, inwardly, silently cursing their bad luck. If the whole affair had waited a few more days, Steve could have dealt with it without having to deal with sexual frustration too. Or, perhaps, nipped it in the bud before it got out of hand.

“This could become a major problem,” Kevin said, once they were seated in Steve’s cabin. “And it needs to be handled carefully.”

“No one has ever accused me of being subtle,” Steve commented, dryly. “Why didn't you handle it yourself?”

Kevin sighed, out loud. “Because this requires your personal attention,” he said. “Because it could have a major long-term effect on our relationship with Earth’s various governments. Because ...”

Steve held up a hand. “All right,” he said. “What – precisely – has happened?”

“We’ve had a request for asylum,” Kevin said.

“Oh,” Steve said. “Another one?”

Kevin scowled. The previous requests had been from men and women fleeing political, economic, religious or sexual persecution. They’d all been given the same chance to make it on the moon, with an added note that they would not be permitted to interfere in the affairs of their former home countries. Quite a few of them had accepted the warning, one or two had tried to steer events back home from the moon before they’d been given a sharp rebuke for breaking the terms of their citizenship. But this was different.

“Thomas Flynn,” Kevin said. “Have you ever heard of him?”

Steve shook his head. Mariko nodded.

“He was accused of rape and murder, wasn't he?” She said. “I remember reading about it a year or two ago.”

“He’s an American citizen who studied in Germany for some reason,” Kevin said. “While he was there, he was accused of raping and murdering a German girl. There was no certain proof, but he spent two years in a German jail before being allowed to go home – and now the Germans want him back. He went to us and requested asylum.”

Steve leaned forward. “Is there a chance he will be sent back to Germany?”

“More than I’d like to admit,” Kevin said. “Right now, relations with Europe aren't very good. They’re blaming the federal government for us, believe it or not, and there’s a strong field of thought in Europe that thinks the Americans are going to get away with it again. So it’s a political and diplomatic nightmare.”

“I see,” Steve said. “Why do I have the feeling that he was allowed to flee to us?”

“I have no doubt,” Kevin said tightly, “that the Europeans will raise precisely that issue.”

Steve rubbed his forehead. “I don’t see this as being a major problem,” he said. “Tell him that we will take him in, under the same conditions as everyone else, if he agrees to undergo a lie detector test. If he’s innocent, we will inform the German Government and insist that they abandon their pursuit of him. If he’s guilty, he will be judged under our law.”

“If he’s guilty, he would be a fool to insist on pushing us,” Kevin observed. “Rape and murder ... they’re among the worst crimes a person can commit.”

He smiled at the thought. Lunar justice, having the ability to definitely separate the guilty from the innocent, was not soft. If found guilty, Thomas Flynn would be introduced to the joys of breathing hard vacuum. But if he was innocent ... Kevin shook his head, remembering just how much trouble the DHS had proved over the years. Wasn't anyone smart enough, these days, to realise that admitting failure wasn't the same as suicide? But he wasn't too surprised, sadly. Success often went unrewarded, but failure always drew fire from politicians out for a few soundbites. The German police probably had the same problem.

“Yes, he would be,” Steve said. “But this isn’t the only person who came to us with a criminal record.”

Kevin nodded. In the long run, he suspected, perfect lie detectors would change society as much as anything else. Why bother with an expensive trial when a suspect could be interrogated, then either jailed or released? But it would cause problems too, he knew. What was to stop someone from being interrogated on just about any subject? Like so much else they’d pulled from the alien databases, lie detectors were very much a double-edged sword.

He scowled, inwardly. There were several people on the moon talking about forming a canton of their own, a canton where everyone would wear personal lie detectors at all times. If anyone lied, it would sound an alarm and the speaker would be gravely embarrassed. There were some advantages, Kevin had thought, to such an arrangement, but they would also cause very real problems. What would happen if someone lied without knowing they were lying? The lie detectors could only pick up on deliberate lies?

Maybe it would prove that the liar didn't intend to lie, Kevin thought. Or maybe it would create another set of headaches because they misunderstood the difference between a lie and a mistake.

“I’ll take your message to him,” Kevin said. “And do we want to do the same in future?”

“If people are being persecuted by governments, then yes,” Steve said. “But we must always reserve the right to issue punishment if they are guilty.”

“Which leads to another problem,” Kevin pointed out. “What do we do if the person is guilty by their laws, but not by ours?”

It was easy to imagine quite a few possibilities. There were no laws restricting gun ownership on the moon, although there were dire punishments for anyone stupid enough to threaten the integrity of the lunar settlement. Nor were there any laws on self-defence, drug abuse or quite a few other issues that were criminal matters on Earth. Kevin could imagine several problems if drug abusers sought out the right to live on the moon. He didn't give a damn if someone wanted to drug themselves into a stupor every day, but if they posed a threat to anyone else ...

Mariko smiled. “We can offer to take them in, while their home country can cancel their citizenship if they wish,” she said. “And we can warn them that what laws we do have are not to be trifled with, not lightly.”

“True,” Kevin agreed. One problem with letting juries decide everything – including the simple question of if the criminal act was actually a crime – was that the results could be somewhat variable. But, as they built up much more case law, he had a feeling that problem would slowly resolve itself. “Steve?”

“Make it so,” Steve said.

Kevin rolled his eyes. The discovery that Gene Roddenberry hadn't been too far wrong about the development of technology had given the Star Trek franchise a new lease on life. There were even suggestions that humanity’s first starships should be modelled after the USS Enterprise or even Voyager. But, apart from the Defiant, there were few Star Trek starships that were actually practical as warships.

Still, we could build an Enterprise-D and call it a long-range exploration ship, he thought, dryly. But may God help her if she runs into someone smarter than the Horde.

“I’ll see to it,” he said. “And I’m sorry for interrupting your vacation.”

“I bet you are,” Steve growled. “Just you wait until you take a vacation.”

Kevin swallowed. Steve was far from cruel, but he did have a nasty sense of humour, despite their mother’s stern lectures. But then, he did have good reason to be annoyed. If Kevin had known just what they’d been doing, he would have let them finish before calling and requesting that they join him on the ship. Maybe that would have made them both feel better.

“I’ll rest on the ship,” he said. The first group of mercenaries were midway through their basic training, according to Romford. They’d be ready to leave Earth within two weeks; Kevin knew he’d be going with them. They needed to gather more intelligence and set up a permanent base on Ying, after all. And then they needed to set up other bases on other inhabitable worlds. “No rest for the wicked.”

“And to think we always thought you intelligence officers spent the days making up shit and the nights trying to get into someone’s pants, so you could betray her to the MSM,” Steve teased. “You actually did serious work?”

Kevin nodded, expressively.

“Oh,” Steve said. He smiled. “Seeing we’re here, what’s the current status with Mars and the other colonies?”

“The new ships have helped us move several thousand volunteers to the Red Planet,” Kevin said, “now we have the bare bones of a colony to hold them. So far, there's been no major trouble, apart from a handful of rainstorms. General reports suggest that the engineered plants are taking root, but it’s far too early to be sure. We may need to insert more water from Titan or a few more asteroids in the near future.

“Titan Base is slower, but coming along now we’re training up hundreds of new workers to start laying the foundations of a colony,” he continued. “The plan to establish the mass driver first seems to be working, which will allow us to use Titan as a base for water collection and distribution. But it will be several months before we’re ready to proceed. Until then, Mars is going to be dependent on asteroids.”

He shrugged. “And the plans for terraforming Venus are being finalised,” he concluded. “But it will be a harder chore than terraforming Mars.”

“Well begun is half done,” Steve said. “And there will be plenty of room for humanity when it is finished.”

Kevin smiled. Despite the very best of human and alien medical science, it was unlikely that any of them would live long enough to walk on Mars or Venus without protective gear. But Steve hadn't let that stop him start the terraforming process. Their children would thank them, even if the current generation was more interested in the asteroids than the uninhabitable worlds. Besides, the Mars Society was already trying to create its own canton.

“Politically, Mars wants to move ahead to internal self-government,” he added. “I think it’s a little early, but they’re determined.”

Steve hesitated, then smiled. “They’re still going to be dependent on us for a long time, aren't they?”

“Yes,” Kevin said, flatly. “It will be years before Mars develops an industry of its own.”

He shook his head. Neither he nor Steve had really grasped just how much effort the Mars Society had put into planning the settlement of Mars. Their ten-year plans might not have been tested, but at least they had a framework to use for settlement. Heinlein, on the other hand, had been pretty much an ad hoc affair. In the long run, it would be interesting to see which vision of the future prevailed.

“Then tell them that as long as they abide by the terms of the Solar Union Treaty, they can have their political independence,” Steve said. “We don’t want to rule them indefinitely in any case.”

Kevin nodded. There were only two real rules for the Solar Union, the planned association of cantons that would make up humanity’s interplanetary government. They had to allow free access to the datanet and free emigration, if their settlers wanted to leave. In the long run, decently-run cantons would do much better than cantons that were run by oppressive governments or outright tyrants. The tyrants would, eventually, find themselves ruling over empty asteroids.

Or planets, he thought, morbidly.

He had his doubts about the wisdom of allowing the Mars Society completely free rein, but if people could leave at will it probably didn't matter. Planning was important, yet he knew from bitter experience that plans rarely lasted when confronted with reality. If the Mars Society insisted on sticking to its plans, the results were unlikely to be good. But it was their task now, if they wanted it. And if their people didn't like it, they could always leave.

And that is one right we will enforce, he thought, bitterly. Nothing else, but that.

“Very good,” he said. “Do you want to return to your holiday?”

Steve glared at him, then sobered. “I think we’ll come back to the ship in a day or two anyway,” he said. “I’ve relaxed for far too long.”

“Mongo can take the island in your place,” Kevin said. “I think Jayne and he probably need a break too.”

“Good thinking,” Steve said. “And how is Carolyn?”

Kevin flushed. “She's fine,” he said. “And working on the first antigravity system.”

“That wasn't what I meant,” Steve said. “Have you and her ...?”

Mariko elbowed Steve, hard. Kevin concealed his amusement behind a blank face. He’d taken Carolyn out to dinner every time he’d visited the moon, but their relationship hadn't gone much further. It was both frustrating and tantalising; the more he thought about her, the more he realised that she was almost an ideal partner for him. But did she feel the same way?

“Not yet,” he said, tightly. “But we shall see.”

“What a shame,” Steve commented archly, “that you don’t get to walk around with a suit, a gun and girls on each arm.”

Kevin snorted. “When I get my hands on the man who invented James Bond,” he said, “I'm going to strangle him.”

“You’ll have to hold a séance,” Steve countered. “He’s been dead for years.”

“Men,” Mariko said. “Kevin, if you’re genuinely interested in her, give it time. And if you’re not, stop messing around and get back to work.”

Kevin nodded, then watched as Steve and Mariko made their way out of the cabin. He shook his head, ruefully, then accessed the interface and called Komura. There was political work to do.

“I’ve spoken to Mr. Flynn,” Komura said, an hour later. “He’s willing to undergo the lie detector test if we swear we’ll take him.”

Kevin resisted the temptation to snort, rudely. Teenagers. Didn't they have any idea just how many people gave their solemn word in one breath and broke it in the next? Actually, they probably did ... but if Flynn was innocent, he probably wasn't feeling much trust in adults and any sort of government official at the moment. And if he was guilty ...

“Good,” he said. “Make it clear that he will suffer our punishment if we discover he’s guilty.”

He couldn't help wondering if that would cause more of a diplomatic incident than anything else. The Germans presumably wanted to punish him themselves, even though they wouldn't kill him or do anything more than lock him up for a number of years. They might not even insist he served his full sentence, too. Liberal justice systems, in Kevin’s mind, often ensured that the punishment did not fit the crime. But then, they also often had skewed ideas of what was a crime.

It was nearly another hour before Komura got back in touch with him. “He’s innocent,” he said, shortly. “He didn't kill the girl, he doesn't know who did and he hates the German government.”

“Not our problem,” Kevin said. “Have him moved to Heinlein – he can go into one of the basic introductory courses until we know where he will fit in. And make sure that full copies of the interrogation record are placed online. Let the Germans download it and see that they nearly jailed an innocent man.”

He sighed, inwardly. In the long run, the Germans had badly damaged their cause. How many others, threatened with extradition, would use this as an excuse to delay or cancel their departures from American soil? And, for that matter, what would happen when a real criminal requested extradition?

What a fucking headache, he thought.

Shaking his head, he walked over to the console and started to tap in orders. The bloggers on the moon could start the ball rolling, ensuring that they got as much good publicity as possible. He had a feeling they were going to need it. Given time, the Germans might use the whole affair as an excuse to meddle with the new world order.

Or perhaps they will learn something from the whole affair, he thought, instead. If nothing else, the real killer is still unidentified. He must be laughing his ass off at the Germans – but not at us. Now the mistake is known, it can be fixed.

He sighed, again. The technology they had could be used to prevent all crime. A few billion nanotech surveillance drones, a handful of powerful computers to monitor their take ... and crime would become a thing of the past. But the price would be a total loss of privacy and freedom. No one would be able to do anything without being observed. It would become a nightmare even if there was no Big Brother watching everyone. The entire human race would become neurotic.

But isn't that the promise and threat of the future, he asked himself. The eternal balance between good and ill, between freedom and slavery, between the ideals of the future and the curse of the past?

In truth, he conceded, he had no answer. All he could do was wait and see.
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Chapter Thirty-Seven

Montana, USA

“Earth’s 1st Interstellar Regiment,” Romford said. “Reporting for duty, sir!”

Steve had to smile. Seven thousand men, most of them former American military officers and personnel, had passed through the training camp; five thousand, six hundred had graduated. Romford’s reports made interesting reading – there had been soldiers who had been unable to face the aliens, officers who thought they should automatically be given command positions – but in the end the really bad ones had been weeded out. Future officers, he’d quietly promised himself, would follow the Marine concept of rising from the ranks, having served as riflemen first. It helped ensure they knew what they were doing.

“Good,” he said. He stepped forward and up onto the podium. He’d never reviewed troops before, but he’d taken time to cut the ceremony down to the bare minimum. It was always irritating to have to stand for hours while some politician pontificated on a subject dear to their hearts. Most of the time, it considered of meaningless words and phrases. Bracing himself, Steve keyed the mike. “I won’t waste your time.”

A thin ripple of amusement ran through the assembled ranks of soldiers. Steve concealed his own amusement and continued.

“Many have said that you are mercenaries,” he said. “Many have accused you of going off to shed alien blood in alien wars. Many have accused you of being nothing more than guns-for-hire, men and women who are paid to fight whoever the paymaster wants you to fight. But those people do not understand the true situation. You are going to fight beside aliens we desperately need as allies. And you are going to fight for Earth.

“Make no mistake. Barely a year ago, we knew nothing of affairs out beyond the edge of Earth’s atmosphere. Now, we know that great interstellar powers wage war constantly, with human slaves serving in their armies. Now, we know we need to prepare for the coming struggle for a place in the universe, for independence, for survival itself. You are the ones who will learn about the universe and bring your lessons back to us, to help us prepare for the oncoming storm.

“I wish I could promise that it would be easy. I wish I could promise that each and every one of you will return, one day, to Earth. I can make no such promises. But what I can promise is that Earth will never forget you. History will enshrine your names for the rest of time – and Earth’s survival will be your legacy.”

He paused. “I’m not very good at making speeches, am I?

“I want you to know that you have my gratitude for volunteering and that, one day, you will have the eternal gratitude of Earth. And that’s enough speechifying from me. See you at the spaceport in a week.”

There was a brief cheer, then the soldiers started to scatter. Most of them, Steve knew, would head for the nearest town for food, drink and women, the last they would see of anything remotely human for several months at the very least. A handful would head home, if they were willing to use the teleporter, or stay on the base and write their wills. Some of them simply didn't have anywhere to go.

“No,” Romford agreed, breaking into his thoughts. “You're not a very good speechwriter.”

Steve flushed, then shook his head. “At least it wasn't faked,” he said. “Not like a political verbal orgasm.”

“True,” Romford agreed. “I assume you have a shipping plan?”

“Yes,” Steve said. “Two of the freighters will carry you and your men to Ying, where you will meet up with our allies. At that point, you should receive the supplies they promised; if you don’t, or there are problems with the supplies, work with them to fix it.”

He sighed. The aliens had promised everything from cybernetic enhancement to suits of powered combat armour. Given the sheer productive might of their fabricators, they could afford to fabricate literally millions upon millions of battlesuits – or anything else the human race might need to arm its soldiers. And, if there were problems with the first batch, they could easily put together another set of equipment within the first few days.

“And if they turn out to be a real problem,” he added. “Use your own best judgement.”

“I will,” Romford said. “These men, Steve, will not be wasted.”

Steve nodded. The soldiers were a diverse lot; soldiers, sailors and airmen from America, joined by a relative handful of retired soldiers from other English-speaking countries. Some of them had been old, on the verge of death, or badly crippled like Romford before they’d been recruited. Most of the ancient veterans would have signed away their souls for a chance to return to the battlefield one last time. Retraining them on Galactic-standard equipment had been one hell of a mission. But it had been done.

“Good,” Steve said. “Have there been any major problems?”

“Had a few thousand protestors at the fence for a week or two,” Romford said, “and caught a number trying to sneak into the base. They stopped doing that after we put them to hard labour for a few days before releasing them. Oh, and we’re being sued by their families.”

Steve snorted. The agreement between Heinlein Colony and the United States agreed that the training camp wasn't – legally – part of the United States, just like an embassy. Anyone who crossed the fence was entering a territory where the laws were different – and, if they crossed the fence in any case, they were breaking and entering. There were no legal grounds to sue Steve and his people for arresting intruders, or for giving them a small punishment before they were released.

“Not much of a problem,” he said. “And the men themselves?”

“We weeded out most of the idiots and glory-seekers within the first week,” Romford assured him. “Most of our discipline problems were handled at the same time. Right now, I have faith in both the selected officers and NCOs. If there's one advantage of giving our allies more soldiers than they asked for, it’s that we can rotate officers and NCOs back to Earth to give lessons to newer recruits.”

Steve smiled. “And are there newer recruits?”

“A surprising number,” Romford said. He shrugged, expressively. “It could be the lust for adventure or the extremely generous benefits, but we have more volunteers than we have space to train. So far, we’re giving priority to men and women with genuine military experience from the Western countries, although we have quite a number of qualified candidates from Russia too. The Chinese, on the other hand, seem quite reluctant to allow any of their personnel to sign up with us.

“Given time, I suspect we will have thousands of potential recruits from poorer parts of the world too,” he added. “But that will cause other problems.”

Steve nodded. Americans and other Westerners were generally well-educated – and they could all speak English. Working with soldiers from other parts of the world had convinced him that the foreigners had their own way of doing things, not all of them remotely compatible with the American Way of War. But there would be no need to humour or tolerate the locals, not now. Those who failed to make it through the training program would have no opportunity to embarrass the human race in front of the Galactics.

“Just make sure you exclude the ones who can't make it,” Steve said. “What about expanding the camp?”

“I think we will have to lease somewhere else,” Romford said. “Right now, the American Government is cooperating, but that might change. We are, after all, training mercenaries here.”

Steve rolled his eyes. The American Government had been training mercenaries, rebel armies and foreign soldiers for years, although not all of the students had gone home brimming with love for America. There was little point in the political objections, he knew, save for a desire to look good in front of the voters. But politicians rarely changed their spots when confronted with reality.

“Start looking for somewhere else, then,” he said. “It will be years before Mars or Venus is ready to serve as a training camp.”

“I've been making enquires,” Romford said. “Panama is a possibility – quite a few of my team have great memories from Panama – but we’d have to pay out a shitload in bribes. I don’t see anywhere in Europe accepting us, at least not without a fairly hefty quid pro quo – maybe additional fusion reactors. Right now, if we are restricting ourselves to democracies, we may be restricted to Australia. They’re quite interested in hosting one of our camps.”

Steve gave him an odd look, so Romford explained.

“They’re nervous about troubles spreading over from Indonesia,” Romford explained. “If we want to put a camp there, they will be quite happy with it in exchange for assistance if they need it. There will be a few basic rules, but no real difference from what we have here.”

“I’ll speak to Komura,” Steve said. “He can open discussions.”

He shrugged. “Have we had any problems that might give them pause?”

“A couple of bar fights,” Romford said. “One of our guys was called a baby-killer, so he hauled off and punched the bastard ... and everything went down from there. Another guy was set upon by a group of thugs and defended himself admirably. Other than that, no major problems. I have made it clear that American law runs outside the fence and if anyone gets into trouble with the law we won’t get off our asses to do anything about it if they’re guilty.”

“Good thinking,” Steve said. “We don’t want another rape case.”

His father, he recalled, had ranted about a rape case in Okinawa, where an American serviceman had raped a local girl. The bastard should have been strung up by his testicles, Steve’s father had thundered, or handled over to the locals as soon as his guilt had been established. No matter the outcome, it had discouraged the locals from wanting to keep the American military presence.

And if one of my men do something like that, Steve thought, coldly. He’d damn well pray that the local government gets to him before me.

“Quite,” Romford agreed. “Not that that will be a problem, Steve. There are four new brothels in town.”

Steve snorted. “Why am I not surprised?”

“The men have their new immune boosters,” Romford said. “They can fuck an AIDS-infested whore from Tijuana and they won't be in any danger of actually catching anything. Or pregnancy, for that matter. We’ve given just about everyone – particularly the women – contraceptive implants, just to make sure there’s no risk of pregnancy. But we may want to set up a brothel on Ying or another alien world.”

“Maybe,” Steve said. “What do the aliens think of it?”

“I went through their contracts,” Romford said. “I don’t believe they would have any objections, as long as it didn't interfere with military matters. We have quite a lot of freedom to determine how best to handle our affairs.”

Steve nodded. If two different human cultures could have different requirements, how much harder would it be for two alien races to live by the same rules? There were races where one sex was unintelligent, races that had more than one sex, races that laid eggs and didn't have sex as humans understood it, races that had sex anywhere and everywhere they could ... and that was only one tiny aspect of the whole. What would happen when there were different religious requirements? Or food and drink? At least food professors could produce something edible to humanity, even if it didn't always taste nice. But that was just a matter of programming.

“Make sure you don’t compromise our combat effectiveness,” he said. “Other than that, make whatever arrangements you like.”

He accepted an invitation to walk through the combat simulator and marvel at just how perfect a simulator it actually was. A combination of holographic images, force fields and gravity wave producers allowed the system to reproduce almost any combat environment, from urban-style warfare to operations in outer space. And the simulator computers tracked the whole system so perfectly that there was no need for proper umpires.

“We actually programmed the teleporter to yank anyone out if they’re recorded as dead,” Romford explained. “In high-intensity operations, anything tough enough to burn through a suit will very definitely kill the person inside. Low-intensity operations are probably not going to be part of our work, but we train for them anyway. One major problem is that we have little room to deploy medics. And even if we did ...”

Steve winced. Humans were humans under the skin, but aliens could be very alien. Perhaps that explained why the aliens had produced autodoc systems and other automated forms of medical care; there weren't any doctors who were capable of moving from a patient of one race to a patient from another. The movie where an alien had been dissected by a vet might have been quite realistic after all.

“We should try to avoid such operations,” he said, although – not being a politician – he had no illusions about the prospect of switching from high-intensity combat to low-intensity in a heartbeat. “If we do, try to keep civilians out of the fighting as much as possible.”

Romford gave him a sharp glance, then nodded.

Steve reviewed the rest of the base, then teleported back to the starship to catch up on his briefings. Heinlein had expanded rapidly, to the point where two hotels had been constructed and regular tours were running from the colony to the various tourist attractions on the moon, while other tourists were being lined up for trips to Mars. Each of them was paying a substantial price for their tickets, which was going right back into the economy.

“We may well have solved the economic crisis,” Wilhelm said, after he’d finished talking about the new technology he’d introduced on Earth. “Right now, literally trillions of dollars worth of currency is moving around the world, thanks to us.”

“Good,” Steve said. International finance had always been a closed book to him, but he was prepared to accept Wilhelm’s word that move money moving around was a good thing. “Are there any problems? Or are we causing any problems?”

“It depends,” Wilhelm realised. “You know there’s a shortage of plumbers?”

Steve shook his head, not seeing the point.

“Space habitation involves a lot of plumbing,” Wilhelm said. “So we’ve been hiring plumbers – and other outfitters – at a terrifying rate. The net result is that we have driven down the number of plumbers available elsewhere.”

“Oh,” Steve said.

Wilhelm shrugged. “We’ve got several training camps up and running for newcomers, so I think this problem will eventually restore itself,” he said. “We may also have solved the education bubble.”

He snorted. “We don’t care about professional qualifications,” he explained, when Steve looked puzzled. “So we've been taking college-age students, exposing them to some proper training, then selecting the best. Our wages are high, so they can start paying off their debts in good order. Given time, maybe we can defuse that particular problem before it actually explodes. On the other hand, we have quite a few idiots who majored in Women’s Studies trying to learn which end of a screwdriver is the one they shouldn't stick in an electrical socket.”

Steve frowned. “And are they actually learning something useful?”

“Oh, yes,” Wilhelm said. “We came up with some pretty graphic training videos to make it clear to them that mistakes would be harshly punished by the universe. And we made them all read The Cold Equations and write essays explaining how a series of minor bureaucratic oversights led to tragedy. Quite a few of them quit after reading the story.

“Overall, there will be quite a few bumps, but I think that most Western governments will quietly abandon any opposition to us within the next ten years,” he concluded. “We're just too damn useful. And we’re taking potential troublemakers away from them. The rest of the world ... not so much.”

Steve nodded. “Russia still irked at us?”

“I’m afraid so, even though we’re buying a lot of crude technology from them,” Wilhelm said, dryly. “I think they might well have real problems in the non-too-distant future, between the dongles and the introduction of fusion technology. Their public might start asking too many questions. China, on the other hand, might just adapt once again to the change in the world.”

“We shall see,” Steve said. He had no love for Red China, but he had to admire how the Chinese had adapted and just kept adapting as the world changed around them. And, somehow, the Communist Party had remained in control. Would that change, he asked himself, when their people had total freedom of communication? No matter what the government did, dongles were still slipping into China. “We shall see.”

The communicator buzzed. “Steve,” Mongo said, “we’re picking up a number of starships approaching the solar system. They’re completely unscheduled. Estimated time of arrival is five hours from now.”

Steve shared a long look with Wilhelm. There was no such thing as a schedule, but they weren't expecting any visitors. It was possible that Friend could be returning to Earth, yet the alien had agreed to meet the human troops at Ying. No, he realised. It was far more likely that the newcomers were unfriendly.

“Deploy the automated defences,” he ordered. It was time to use a precaution he'd hoped never to have to use, at least for quite some time. Even now, if they lost Earth, something of humanity would survive. “And then order the Mayflower to leave orbit.”

“Aye, sir,” Mongo said.

“I’m on my way,” Steve said, straightening up. “And you’d better warn the governments below. The shit is about to hit the fan.”
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Chapter 35: Typo? "...Thirty starships, five of them ten kilometres look, looked an impressive force," ...ten kilometers long ...looked like an impressive force.

Armor - not armour. Armour makes Vienna sausages.

Chapter 37: "...The Cold Equation." Book titles should be in italics.
Chapter Thirty-Eight

Sol System

“Earth’s governments have been alerted,” Kevin said, quietly. “They’re standing by.”

Steve gave him a sidelong look. “For what?”

“For what little they can do,” Kevin replied, evenly. “And for civil defence, if necessary.”

“True,” Steve said. He looked back at the display. Thirty incoming starships, some of them clearly very large. If they wanted to take Earth, Earth would be taken. “And maybe they can swear blind that they have nothing to do with us too.”

He thought, briefly, of Mariko. She’d flatly refused to go down to Earth or board the Mayflower, even though the latter would have given her an excellent chance of survival. Instead, she’d insisted on staying on the Warcruiser, despite the certain knowledge that the giant starship would be badly outmatched. Steve cursed himself, mentally, for not marrying her when she had the chance, even though he had no intention of leaving her at some later date. It would have shown just how much he cared.

Angrily, he pushed the thought aside. Earth’s time might be about to run out. He shouldn't be thinking of anything but fighting to defend his homeworld, the world he loved. And he did love it. In the end, Earth was worth fighting for. But did he have enough tricks up his sleeve to save the planet?

“The ghost squadron and the Q-ships are in position,” Mongo called. “They’re ready to deploy.”

“Hold them in place,” Steve ordered. They’d run through countless simulations, trying to think of all possible contingencies, but the universe had presented them with overwhelming force. They could do everything right and still lose Earth to the enemy. “And inform everyone that Earth expects them to do their duty.”

Kevin snorted. “Couldn't you think of a better quote to steal?”

Steve shrugged. “The old ways are still the best,” he said. “Besides, I couldn't think of anything from Doctor Who that fitted the bill.”

Mongo chuckled, then glanced at his console as the enemy ships dropped out of FTL quite some distance from the planet. “Steve,” he said, quietly. “They’re here.”

Horde Commander Yss!Yaa kept his body absolutely still, betraying no emotion at all, as the fleet brought its journey to an end. His subordinates were intent on rushing forward to stake their claims to scoring victory, but he’d issued strict orders for them to stay in formation and wait for him to evaluate the situation. It was yet another problem with the Horde, he knew, as the display started to fill with data. He couldn't supervise his commanders from another ship, which allowed them to contemplate independent action – and get away with it, if they succeeded. A lucky warrior enjoyed the protection of the gods.

There was nothing particularly interesting about the human star system, but the sheer level of development in less than a local year was staggering. The humans, according to the information they’d been slipped, hadn't even had a serious space program. Now, they had a large base on their moon and there were radio sources scattered across the star system ... and traces of terraforming operations on the fourth planet from their star. Earth itself was surrounded by space stations, free-floating industrial nodes and a small fleet of starships, most of them clearly passed down from the Galactics. Had the Varnar actually come to terms with their human allies?

“Scan the system,” he ordered. “Are there any major warships in the sector?”

He waited as his staff ran the scan, silently cursing their incompetence under his breath as they worked. Once, having the strongest warriors move up the command chain had seemed a good idea; now, as their commander, he had other thoughts. The ones who were capable of operating a scanner were often not the ones who won fights, either in duels for command positions or outright challenges of honour. But it wasn't something he could change, he knew. If he told mighty warriors with more brawn than brains that they were being held back in favour of wimps who preferred brain to brawn, he would be overthrown. And then the brainy ones would be purged on suspicion of being dishonourable bastards who plotted to overturn the natural order of things.

“Three warships,” his officer said, finally. The Horde Commander was uncomfortably aware that any of the major Galactics would have the answer almost at once. “One of them is definitely a Class-VIII Warcruiser.”

Just like the one that went missing, Yss!Yaa thought. The humans had clearly taken it, presumably killing the crew in the process. He wondered, absently, just how long it would take his officers to draw the correct conclusion, if he gave them time to think. But there was no time. He had to win the battle before one of the major Galactic powers intervened. It was quite possible that the whole system was a trap.

If he could, he would have withdrawn. But his subordinates would never have tolerated it in the absence of a major threat.

“The homeships are to hold back,” he ordered. Bringing the entire Horde had been a risk, but it looked like it had paid off. Earth could support them for generations to come, once they’d taken the high orbitals and poured fire on any resistance from the ground. “The remaining ships are to fall into attack pattern and prepare to advance.”

He ignored the grumbling from the homeships as the fleet shook itself into formation. It still bemused him how someone could have lasted long enough to be rewarded with command of a homeship and yet refuse to accept the simple fact that their starships were not designed for interstellar warfare. No, their task was to carry the women and children from star to star, just incidentally making it easier for the Horde Commander to reward the officers and crew he wanted to reward. They had absolutely no place in a dedicated line of battle. But he'd had to bring them with him just to ensure he maintained control.

The human fleet didn't look that dangerous, he told himself, firmly. Natural warriors or not – and even he wasn’t prepared to concede that there was anyone more dangerous than the Horde out there – they simply didn't have the numbers to hold him back. They could stand and fight – and die. Or they could run for their lives, leaving the planet exposed. Either one, he knew, would suit him.

But it wouldn’t suit his people. They wanted the fight.

“Take us forward,” he ordered, quietly. “And remind everyone to stay in formation.”

Steve watched, expressionlessly, as the enemy fleet slowly shook itself down. And it was slow, he noted, compared to what the Galactics showed in the data records. It looked as though each Hordesman regarded his ship as an individual weapon, rather than part of a greater whole. Steve couldn't help thinking of some of the fighter jocks he’d met, but even the most obsessive fast-jet pilot had never been as undisciplined as the Horde. Given some luck, his plan to defend Earth might actually work.

And they were definitely Horde ships, he knew. If the ragtag nature of the fleet – and clear signs of poor maintenance – hadn't proved it, the images the drones reported stencilled on their hulls would have made it clear. The Horde seemed to like naming their ships openly – Tongue Ripper, Lie Killer, Savage Guardian – and practically daring the Galactics to take offense. Perhaps he would have been scared, if he had time. Instead, he had to concentrate on the coming battle.

“Five of the ships are staying back,” Mongo reported. “The remainder are coming towards us at a slow steady pace.”

Steve nodded, accessing the torrent of data through the interface. The five colossal starships had once been bulk freighters, according to the files, something that staggered him. What sort of trading community needed a starship that was over ten kilometres long? But they were now homeships, home to the Horde’s women and children. He couldn’t imagine why anyone would bring them into the combat zone, not when a stray missile might easily find the wrong target and slaughter helpless civilians. Wouldn't it make more sense to leave their homeships at the edge of the star system? If the battle went badly, they could simply retreat.

Maybe it’s a pride thing, he thought. Or maybe they’re just stupid.

He dismissed that thought, angrily. Assuming his enemy was stupid was the greatest mistake a commander could make. Instead, he looked down at the display, silently contemplating the alien formation. It looked crude as well as inelegant, he realised, without even a hint of showmanship. In many ways, it suggested, very strongly, that he’d been right. The Horde was simply unused to any form of coordinated action.

“We will proceed with defence pattern alpha,” he said. “The ghost squadron is to remain in place. On my mark, the rest of the fleet is to begin falling back.”

“Understood,” Mongo said.

Steve winced. He was about to send fifty men, volunteers all, to certain death. He’d told them, back when they’d started planning the operation, that it would almost certainly be suicidal. But they’d accepted the mission, regardless. Their courage put him to shame.

“And prepare to transmit the planned signal,” he ordered. “I want to make them mad.”

“Cowards,” someone hissed, as the humans started to fall back.

Yss!Yaa had his doubts. The humans knew they couldn't face the massed might of the Horde in open battle, so they were falling back on the defences orbiting Earth ... if there were many defences orbiting the green-blue orb. Some automated weapons platforms had been spotted, but there were hundreds of other stations in orbit around the planet, most of which were completely unrecognisable. A Galactic scanner crew might have been able to identify them, he knew, yet his crew could only mark them as unknown. All he could do was take them out from a safe distance.

And the humans had left five freighters behind. It was ... suspicious.

“The humans are to be engaged as soon as we enter range,” he ordered. If it was a trap, his best bet was to spring it before his fleet was fully committed. Even the most zealous Hordesman would accept that retreat was the best option if they ran into something they couldn't handle. “And then ...”

“Incoming signal,” one of his officers snapped. “Sir, it’s a challenge!”

Yss!Yaa listened to the tidal wave of invective and knew he’d lost control. The humans had definitely been studying ... and they’d probably had the help of one or more Hordesmen when they’d crafted the message. If even he felt the outraged desire to forget caution and simply charge the enemy, his lesser subordinates would lose complete control of themselves. One by one, the Horde starships picked up speed and arrowed directly towards the enemy formation. The formation Yss!Yaa had carefully outlined came apart within seconds.

“Take us after them,” he ordered, clicking his claws in anger. Not at the humans, but at his fellow Hordesmen. If they had been something different, they wouldn't have had to worry about the results of the challenge. But any show of weakness could be disastrous. “And prepare to engage the enemy.”

“I think we made them mad,” Mongo commented.

Steve nodded. In Iraq and Afghanistan, they’d sometimes lured the insurgents into a suicidal charge by screaming out challenges and insults. The insurgents, largely made up of young and therefore foolish men, had taken the bait more often than they should, much to the irritation of the older and wiser terrorist leaders who wanted their deaths to actually serve the cause. In that sense, at least, the Horde was no different, with the added problem of a system that rewarded promotion by assassination. The strong survived, the Horde believed, while the weak perished. But it sometimes meant that the new holder of any given position was nowhere near ready for it.

“Very mad,” he said. “Tell the ghost squadron to engage on my command.”

Daniel Featherstone had once had cancer, a particularly vile form of the disease that had been on the verge of killing him when he’d been recruited to the lunar colony. As a former seaman on a United States Navy submarine, he’d adapted well to Heinlein ... and then to the alien freighter, when he'd been offered a chance at command. Swearing loyalty to Heinlein instead of the United States hadn’t been hard; he’d given the United States one life, after all. He could give his second life to someone else ...

But now it looked as though his second life was about to come to an end.

John Paul Jones was no warship, certainly not by galactic standards. She was an interstellar freighter, so primitive that she didn't even have a teleport bay of her very own. The whole idea of putting her in the line of battle was absurd. But human ingenuity had gone to work and outfitted the freighter with plenty of weapons, provided her crew didn't mind the risk of near-certain death. When he’d heard about the mission, Daniel had volunteered at once. He owed the lunar colony.

“They're coming into range now,” Christian Lawson said. She was a thin hatchet-faced woman, her face twisted into a permanent scowl. And yet she was also a good technician, good enough that Daniel had tried to talk her out of going on the mission. But she’d refused to budge. “I have weapons lock on five targets.”

“It seems as good as we are about to get,” Daniel said. Their weapons were impressive, by human standards, but they were all one-shot wonders. “Link into the other ships, then prepare to fire.”

The Hordesmen came closer, their weapons charging as their sensors locked onto the freighters. Daniel wondered, coldly, why they weren't firing already, then he realised they were being macho idiots. Just like a particularly idiotic biker gang, he decided, they wanted to play chicken. Accidental collisions in interstellar space were rare, according to the datafiles, but deliberate collisions quite easy. The incoming ship had to be vaporised completely to prevent it doing real damage.

“We have permission to fire,” Christian said.

Daniel sucked in a breath. Life on a submarine hadn't prepared him for deep space warfare, not really. And it hadn't convinced him that he might have to make a last stand ...

“Fire,” he ordered.

For a long moment, Yss!Yaa simply refused to accept what he was seeing. The freighters had fired ... and nine Horde starships had simply been blown out of space. Their weapons had burned right through the defence shields and chewed right into their hulls, ripping them open effortlessly. It was impossible. And yet it had happened.

He watched, helplessly, as the advancing starships opened fire, their directed energy weapons slicing through minimal shields and then cutting deep into the freighter hulls. And then there was another colossal series of explosions. The entire command network crashed under the tidal wave of radiation. He swore out loud, then demanded answers from his staff as they worked frantically to reboot the system. The entire fleet was vulnerable until they managed to get the command network back up and running ...

It was impossible, part of his mind insisted. But it had happened, somehow. And a number of his ships had been destroyed by a far inferior foe. How?

“Antimatter,” the sensor officer said. “They crammed the ship full of antimatter and just waited for us to destroy it.”

Yss!Yaa silently gave him points for brains. Yes, it was obvious now. The humans had mass-produced antimatter and turned it into a weapon. It was one hell of a risk, but it had paid off for them. The Horde had lost nine starships, at least. Piece by piece, the command network shuddered back into existence. Two more starships, it seemed, had vanished in the blasts.

But they’re resorting to trickery, he thought. The Galactics rarely bothered to be subtle when they were pruning the Hordesmen down a little. They can't be very strong.

“Keep us heading towards their world,” he ordered. He would need to do something to make it clear to his subordinates that he was still in command. They couldn't be allowed to think of him as weak, not now. He knew, all too well, that none of his subordinate commanders would be able to handle the battle. “And prepare for long-range bombardment.”

Steve heard his crew cheer as the enemy ships were struck, then the antimatter explosions slapped the Hordesmen back. The idea had been simple enough; they’d mounted dozens of bomb-pumped lasers on the freighter hulls, giving them an unexpected advantage over their opponents. As overconfident as they were, the Horde had clearly never expected the freighters to be turned into traps – and then bombs. The whole tactic had clearly caught them by surprise.

He watched the remaining Horde starships, trying to get a handle on what his opponent was thinking. In their place, Steve knew he would have backed off, particularly if his women and children were also on the line. But the Hordes seemed to be composed of prideful asses. If their leader thought better of the attack, it was quite possible that his subordinates would overthrow him and then continue the charge. The volley of insults Steve had fired at them probably didn't make it easier for the aliens to be coldly rational.

“Prepare the fallback position,” he ordered, softly. On the display, the Hordesmen were finally overcoming their shock and advancing once again. “And warn the Mayflower to run.”

“Aye, sir,” Mongo said. “The Q-ships are in position, as are the mines.”

All right, Steve thought, as he looked at the display. Oddly, he found himself wishing he knew who he faced. Maybe the knowledge would have provided an insight into the Horde’s plans. If you want Earth, you bastards, we’ll claw you good and proper as we go down.
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Chapter Thirty-Nine

Sol System

“They’re approaching the minefield,” Mongo said. “But they’re also sweeping space very carefully.”

Steve gritted his teeth. The Hordesmen had been fooled once – and it was clear that they didn't want to be fooled again. Their advance was odd – it seemed to be a cross between a reckless charge and a careful approach to the enemy – but there was a strong possibility they’d pick up the minefield before they entered attack range and the mines went active.

“Contact the fleet,” he ordered. “We will prepare to advance and engage the enemy.”

He ran through the odds quickly in his head. Eleven Horde starships were gone and four more were significantly damaged, but that still left ten warships in reasonably good condition. He had three warships and a handful of modified freighters. The odds were not good. He could delay the Horde, perhaps distract them from going after the mines, but he couldn't stop them. Only the minefield could do that, he knew.

We should have asked Friend for a war fleet, he thought. But that would have compromised our independence too badly.

“We will advance on my command,” he said, grimly. If they could keep the enemy from looking for threats, they might just be able to pull off a victory. “I say again, we will advance on my command.”

“Stay in formation, damn you,” Yss!Yaa roared at one of his subordinate commanders. “We need to stay in formation!”

He cursed again as it became clear that it was a futile effort. His subordinates wanted blood, human blood, and they all wanted the honour of landing the first blows against Earth. His formation was a formation in name only, now that several of his officers had recovered from their shock and were advancing rapidly towards Earth. And, despite the best he could do, he couldn't keep them focused on the possibility of another trap.

“The human world is coming into range,” his weapons officer reported. “Human defences might be insufficient to stop our missiles.”

“Good,” Yss!Yaa said. “Open fire.”

“They’ve started to launch missiles,” Mongo reported. He sounded puzzled. “Missiles?”

Steve shared his puzzlement. The Galactics rarely used missiles, knowing that any halfway capable point defence network could simply swat them out of space. Even antimatter warheads wouldn't cause much damage unless they impacted directly against a target’s shields. It was unusually stupid, even for the Horde. They didn't gain anything by giving the human ships free targets ...

His blood ran cold as the truth sank in. “They’re firing on Earth,” he whispered. Unlike a starship, a planet couldn't dodge ... and Earth’s defences were puny compared to any Galactic world. The best he'd been able to set up was a handful of point defence weapons and sensor networks, enough to take down any human missile launch, but nowhere near enough to tackle a swarm of Galactic-level missiles. “They want to kill us all!”

Kevin swore out loud. “We have to stop them!”

Steve gritted his teeth. The missiles would pass through the outer edge of the fleet’s engagement envelope, but only for a few seconds. In hindsight, the missile trajectories were obvious clues as to their targets. It was vaguely possible, he knew, that the Horde might be shooting at the planet's orbital industries, but a miss would be absolutely disastrous in any case. The missile would fly onwards and strike the planet ...

But if they altered course to engage the missiles, they’d run the risk of being unable to cover the minefield. And they’d lose their best chance to stop the enemy dead in their tracks.

“Continue on our current course,” he ordered, harshly.

Mongo looked up, sharply. “Steve ...”

“We don’t have a choice,” Steve snapped. He hated himself for saying the words, but he didn't have a choice. The entire world would hate him ... yet they’d be alive to hate him. It was better than a dead or enslaved world. “If we don't stop them, here and now, we lose everything.”

Yss!Yaa watched, dispassionately, as the missiles passed through the human engagement envelope – five of them being picked off before they made it out again – and roared towards the human world. Whatever the odder structures in orbit actually were, he noted, relatively few of them had any kind of point defence. Seven more missiles were picked off; three more were redirected by their smart warheads to take out the automated orbital weapons platforms and clear the way for the second salvo. The remaining missiles plunged into the planetary atmosphere and sought targets. Seconds later, nuclear detonations flashed into existence for long seconds before fading away, leaving devastation in their wake.

“Twelve human cities have been destroyed,” the weapons officer reported. “Should I fire a second salvo?”

“No,” Yss!Yaa said. They were getting far too close to infringing the convention against genocide as it was. The Galactics might cheerfully ignore any law that couldn't be enforced effectively, but almost every power would assist in hunting down the Horde, if they were publically charged with genocide. “Concentrate on the human warships.”

He smiled. On the display, the human ships were growing closer. He wouldn't underestimate them again, he vowed, but he couldn't see how they could hope to match his firepower, no matter what they stuffed into a freighter hull. This time, he told himself, it would be different.

“New York is gone,” Kevin said, flatly. “Manchester, England; Paris, France; Warsaw, Poland; Moscow, Russia ...”

Steve barely heard him. The devastation was simply impossible to imagine, the death rate even more so. New York alone had over eight million people. Between all eleven targets – one missile seemed to have plunged into the water, triggering tidal waves across East Asia – there might well be a hundred million dead. But it was beyond his ability to grasp. The aliens had slaughtered so many humans that they might as well be nothing more than statistics.

No wonder we rarely react when we are told so many thousands have died, the morbid part of his mind whispered. We simply can't grasp it.

“Enemy ships coming into range,” Mongo reported. “They’re locking weapons on us.”

“Fire at will,” Steve ordered.

The Hordesmen kept coming towards the small human fleet, firing as they came. Steve watched, dispassionately, as bursts of energy flared through the void, some slamming into his shields while others pulsed onwards and faded into the darkness. The Horde, it seemed, was showing off, while the human ships were more careful with their fire. One Horde ship exploded as she was caught in a crossfire, another rolled over and came to a halt as she took major damage. But the remainder of the Horde ships were closing in.

“Slip into evasive pattern delta,” Steve ordered. Most of the Horde ships were smaller than Shadow Warrior, but that didn't make them ineffective. Instead, they were firing savagely and weakening his defences. “And inch us back towards the minefields ...”

The display bleeped, a low mournful sound. “Vincent Hastings is gone, sir,” Kevin reported. His voice was very calm, too calm. They’d named the Q-ship after their dead friend, but they'd known she wasn't a real warship. The only advantage she had was sheer mass and it wasn't enough to keep the Horde from killing her. “I don’t see any lifepods.”

“If there were, the Horde would get them,” Steve muttered. “Continue firing!”

The Horde pressed closer, as if each of them were eager to put an end to the human fleet personally. They were, Steve realised grimly; they all wanted the glory that came from taking out the human ships. And it was working in his favour; from time to time, one of the ships would deliberately block another’s path, just to try to prevent them from scoring a decisive blow. He smirked as he imagined the enemy commander’s feelings, then concentrated on the battle. They needed to keep inching backwards ...

“The minefield is active,” Kevin reported. “A few more minutes and we will be ready to give them such a blow ...”

“Let us hope so,” Steve muttered.

Yss!Yaa watched, powerless to affect events, as his ships danced around the human vessels, firing madly into their shields. It was insane! They should have been able to overwhelm the humans with ease, but they simply weren't cooperating! At least one starship had been lost through another starship nudging it away ... right into human sights. It was absolute madness ... and yet he knew he wouldn't be able to call a halt. His people were angry; they wanted blood. Worst of all, he knew, he wouldn't even be able to penalise the idiots after the battle, because they would look like victors!

I wonder if the humans have these problems, he thought, savagely. He clacked a claw against the side of his throne as a human starship slammed several pulses of energy into his ship’s shields. Unlike his people, the humans seemed to have mastered rotating their shield generators to provide additional protection, damn them. And if they don’t, why not?

But he knew the answer, even if it wasn’t something he could admit outside his own head. Everyone who might push for change had a strong incentive to keep matters precisely as they were ... and everyone who didn't had no real power to force change, not even him. He might be their leader, but there were limits to his power.

“The enemy is retreating,” the weapons officer said. “They’re trying to pull back.”

Yss!Yaa sighed. “Then take us after them,” he ordered. “Let us put an end to this.”

Steve watched grimly as the alien ships gave chase, pushing forward recklessly to try to claim the kills for themselves. They’d stealthed the minefield as best as they could, using a mixture of human and alien technology, but he had few illusions about just how long the cover would work if the aliens started to really hunt for them.

“The mines are active,” Kevin reported. “I’m supplying them with targeting data directly.”

“Good,” Steve said. If the mines had started to use active sensors of their own, the Horde would have known they were there at once. But by broadcasting targeting data from the starships, the mines could remain passive. “Do they have total lock?”

“Yes,” Kevin said, after a moment. “They’re locked on all remaining Horde starships.”

Steve sucked in a breath. “Fire,” he ordered.

“Energy spike,” the sensor officer snapped. “All around us!”

Yss!Yaa opened his mouth to shout orders, but it was already too late.

The mines were simple enough. Nuclear bombs had been taken from Earth and converted into bomb-pumped lasers, each one capable of stabbing out one single blast of ravenous energy. Unlike a conventional nuclear blast, which would have largely been deflected by a starship’s shields, the needle-like laser struck the force fields and burned right through them.

“Mines detonated,” Mongo said. “Steve, I think we got them.”

Steve nodded. Only two Horde warships were left, both heavily damaged. One of them seemed to have enough motive power to start crawling towards the planet, the other seemed to be completely stranded. Given that it was leaking atmosphere from a dozen hull breaches, it was quite possible that the crew was already dead.

Because they don’t bother with spacesuits or even light protective gear, he thought, shaking his head at the sheer unfairness of the universe. How had a bunch of primitives barely entering their Iron Age been allowed to obtain interstellar starships? But then, they’d never understood the ships they operated or how to actually produce more technology to replace what they’d bought, begged or stolen from the Galactics.

“Start deploying combat teams,” he ordered. “I want those ships secured as quickly as possible.”

“Aye, sir,” Mongo said.

Steve nodded, then looked over at Kevin. “Contact Edward,” he added. By now, the soldiers who should have gone to Ying would have assembled at their training base. “I want him to send five companies of space-trained soldiers to serve as reinforcements, just in case.”

“Understood,” Kevin said. “Sir ... what about the homeships?”

“I would have expected them to run,” Steve commented. But all five homeships were still there, sitting in interplanetary space and waiting. “But we can secure them too.”

He looked down at his display as his subordinates got to work, silently counting the cost. Shadow Warrior hadn't taken any major damage, but two of her shield generators were gone and three more probably needed urgent replacement. Enterprise had been badly damaged; looking at the reports, it was a minor miracle that the Hordesmen hadn't managed to finish the job before they were defeated. Only Captain Perry had escaped almost completely. Steve wondered if the starship led a charmed life ... or if the Hordesmen had wanted to recapture her rather than simply blow her out of space.

The other ships hadn't done any better. Five q-ships had been destroyed, three more were completely beyond easy repair. And the older ships they’d turned into the ghost squadron had been destroyed, of course. But they’d taken more than their fair share of enemy spacers with them. All things considered, Steve told himself, they’d been very lucky.

But it wasn't true for the civilians on Earth, he reminded himself, sharply. Eleven cities wiped out by long-range missiles, several coastlines pounded by tidal waves caused by the final missile. The death toll would be in the millions and rising fast as people died through lack of health care and other provisions. Handling such a global catastrophe would push even the most competent government to the limit.

“Deploy as many of the shuttles, surveillance gear and fabricators as can be spared to assist with the rescue operations,” Steve ordered. Mariko would kill him if he didn't try to help – and besides, he certainly wanted to help. “Clear it with the local governments, then spread our assistance as far as possible.”

“There’ll be bitching if we don't put New York first,” Kevin commented. He sounded calmer now, but there was still an undercurrent of rage in his voice. “Lots of us have emotional connections to the city.”

“But we have a global responsibility,” Steve said.

“Picking up a message from the boarding parties,” Mongo said, suddenly. “They need someone who can talk to the Horde women in their own tongue.”

Steve frowned. “Call Heinlein,” he said, finally. “Tell them to send our alien friend.”

Cn!lss had never really expected to set eyes on a woman of his kind, not after he’d effectively joined the human race. Even if he’d stayed with the Horde, it was unlikely that he would ever have been able to breed. The stupidest warrior was still strong enough to take any woman from him, no matter what he said or did. And besides, the women themselves were reluctant to breed with someone who wasn’t considered a hero.

But he held up his claws in greeting as the teleport dropped him onto the homeship bridge, where the bodies of the male crew lay where they’d fallen. Instead of running, the honour-bound idiots had killed themselves. In their place, a handful of women stood there, waiting for him. Their eyes never left his body as soon as he appeared. It was no expression of lust, he knew, but caution. They wanted to know what would happen to themselves and their children.

“The humans have agreed to take us all in and build a better way,” he said, once he’d introduced himself as the senior surviving Hordesman. Those who had been broken down by human psychologists had abandoned their former ranks, those who hadn’t had been isolated from their fellows and left to work their own way towards salvation. “You are more than welcome to join us.”

He took a breath, then went on. “Imagine an end to our wanderings,” he said. His words tumbled over one another as he struggled to get them out before they could do something stupid. “Imagine, instead, that we develop a world of our own. The humans are prepared to ally with us and work towards the future. This is not the end, but a beginning.”

There were other changes coming, he knew, if the women agreed to join the other outcasts in building a new world. The warrior culture would be eradicated. Instead, the Horde would start using its brains and become true members of galactic society. Some of the humans even talked about a grand alliance between different races, with all of them standing as equals before the universe. Long history said it was a pipe dream, but Cn!lss had hope. And besides, if the women joined as equals, the new society would be far more stable than anything else the Hordes had ever built.

He watched the women talk in low voices. They were in an odd position, according to the human sociologists who had attempted to understand the Hordes, both chattel and independent agents at the same time. Looking in from the outside, the women didn't have much choice about who fathered their children, but they had absolute authority over their own affairs. There were no human-style families, save for the greatest of warriors. And even they lasted only a few years before breaking up.

The women had nowhere else to go. He hoped they understood that, because they would never be allowed to leave. And even if they did leave, where would they go? The other Hordes would only return them to their familiar status, without giving them any room to grow.

“We will join you,” the leader said, finally. “As long as our children are safe, we will join you.”

“Welcome,” Cn!lss said. He clacked his claws in the Pattern of Greeting Between Equals, then bowed his head. Few Hordesmen would offer such honour to their fellow warriors, let alone mere females. “And your children will be safe from both internal and external threats.”
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Chapter Forty

New York, USA

“Dear God,” Steve said. “What a fucking mess.”

New York was gone. The alien warhead might have left little or no radioactivity behind, but it had utterly flattened Manhattan. Piles of rubble that had once been mighty skyscrapers lay everywhere, while – in the distance – he could see damaged towers that had been struck by the dissipating blast. Millions of people had died in the first few seconds, caught in the open by the fireball, while others had died as the shockwave toppled buildings and crushed them below the rubble.

The President nodded in agreement. “But it could easily have been worse,” he said. “Your people served well.”

Steve shrugged. He would always wonder, he knew, if he’d made the right decision. If they’d intercepted the missiles instead ... but there would never be any way to know the truth. All that mattered was that Earth was safe again, for the moment. And that, with the destruction or capture of an entire Horde, the remainder wouldn't be inclined to attack Earth in future.

“And the population has gone mad with rage,” the President added. “You’ll have all the support you could possibly wish.”

“I know,” Steve said. “But will it be enough?”

It was victory, of a sort, but it tasted like ashes on his mouth. The world’s population had been shocked, horrified and outraged by the slaughter. There would be no quibbling about the lunar colony now, or the desperate need to establish human colonies on countless other worlds. Humanity had been given a sharp lesson in the true danger of ignoring the universe.

Now, there would be no objections to placing weapons in space. But, compared to what the Galactics could produce, Earth’s weapons were almost laughable. And yet, used properly, they’d given the Horde a very hard time.

He sighed. The first batch of soldiers were on their way to Ying, accompanied by Kevin, who had orders to purchase as many additional starships as he could. In the meantime, the Horde homeships were being converted for human use; they’d take a large human population out of the Sol System and somewhere well beyond the reach of the Galactics. Given time – and the information they’d obtained from Friend – they’d be able to set up a whole new civilisation. The human race would survive.

But at one hell of a cost.

“Let us hope so,” the President said. He paused. “What do you intend to do with the captured Hordesmen?”

“They’ll live on Mars, for the moment,” Steve said. The sociologists might swear that the captured Hordesmen and women posed no real threat, but Steve wasn't inclined to take chances. Besides, if they were placed on Earth or Heinlein Colony there was a very strong possibility of revenge attacks. “And, if they grow into something we can respect, we can welcome them into our new union.”

“We shall see,” the President said. “Alien citizens of Earth?”

Steve smiled, humourlessly. “A century or two ago, the idea that the black man or the Native American could be an equal citizen would have sounded dangerously absurd,” he pointed out, dryly. “It wasn't that long ago that Japanese-Americans like my partner were regarded as potential spies or people who would commit acts of sabotage. Why not aliens joining the United States as citizens?”

He paused. “Or the Solar Union,” he added. “We will accept aliens, if they wish to join.”

“Good luck,” the President said. “After the battle, it may be a long time before humanity is prepared to accept aliens as equals.”

“That might be a bad idea,” Steve said. “There are races out there far more powerful and dangerous than the Hordes.”

It was a bitter thought. The Hordesmen had been dangerously incompetent and prone to acting like single warriors rather than fighting as part of a team, but they’d bombarded Earth and come alarmingly close to outright victory. If Steve hadn't cheated and manipulated the aliens, the battle would have ended very differently. A smarter alien race, one that had actually developed its own technology or successfully copied technology from another race, would be a very different problem. Steve had no illusions. A battle squadron from any of the major Galactic powers could overwhelm Earth within hours, if that.

“We will need allies,” he added. “And friends. And we must never forget where we came from when we get our hands on more Galactic technology.”

“True,” the President agreed. He held out a hand. “It's time to bury the dead.”

Steve nodded. The ceremony was private, even though there were hundreds of thousands of people who had wanted to attend. Only the President, a handful of selected guests and Steve himself. New York had been sealed off, after the troops had searched the wreckage for survivors, in the hopes of preventing looting. The complete absence of people lent a surreal atmosphere to the remains of one of humanity’s greatest cities.

He caught sight of Gunter Dawlish and winced, inwardly. The Mainstream Media had promptly blasted Steve and his men for failing to defend New York, triggering off a series of flame wars online as bloggers took sides, some agreeing with the MSM and others pointing out that Steve had had no choice. Steve found it hard to argue; cold logic told him he'd done the right thing, emotion told him he’d fucked up badly. The cynical side of his mind asked, nastily, if he would have been so upset if New York had been spared. No other missiles had fallen in North America.

At least Gunter thought before passing judgement, Steve thought, sardonically. Some of the bloggers forgot to engage their brains before putting mouths in gear.

The sense of being among ghosts suddenly grew stronger. Steve staggered, wondering absurdly if the dead of New York wanted revenge. Or if they wanted to tell him to stop feeling sorry for himself and get back to work. There was no way to tell. It was quite possible, he knew, that he was imagining it. And yet the devastated island seemed full of ghosts.

“I'm sorry,” he found himself whispering. He’d sworn an oath to defend the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. By any standards, he'd failed. The vast power he’d acuminated only made it worse. “I’m sorry I failed to protect you. But it won’t happen again.”

Kevin lay in his bed on Captain Perry, staring up at the ceiling and listening to Carolyn’s deep breathing as she slept beside him. The sudden change in their relationship had come as a shock; he’d gone to her, intending to share dinner as usual, and she’d practically dragged him into bed. But quite a few new relationships had sprung up in the wake of the battle, he’d heard, either through people wanting to celebrate being alive or merely waking up to the fact that they might well end up dead, soon enough.

He was worried, more worried than he cared to admit, about the future. One attack on Earth had been barely staved off, another might be far more successful. And there were powers that wouldn't want humans to enter the galactic mainstream. And then there was Steve ...

Kevin shook his head, tiredly. He worried about his brother too. Part of him had just ... folded in the wake of New York’s destruction, even though it was a victorious battle and humanity had survived. No man should acquire so much power so quickly without restraints, Kevin considered, even if Steve had had good advisors in Mongo and Kevin himself. And Mariko, Kevin added. In the wake of the battle, Steve had finally proposed. Kevin just hoped they’d get back to Earth in time for the wedding.

He sighed, then closed his eyes. Steve could leave, if he wanted, and become an interstellar trader. It would solve a great many problems if he did. And it wasn't as if he hadn't left a legacy behind. Given five years of uninterrupted development, the Solar Union would become more than just a name. There would be the start of a human-built space fleet, a growing network of defences around Earth, and both mercenaries and traders out in space, learning more about the universe.

And there would always be Stuarts, ready to defend their homeworld; Steve and Mongo had already had children, while there was plenty of time for Kevin to have children of his own. If he had them with Carolyn, he considered, they would definitely be smart. And the family had a long history of defending their rights and their homes. Earth would be in good hands.

The future would take care of itself. It always did.


“Welcome home, Steve.”

Steve smiled as he saw Kevin, a little older, waiting for him in the teleport chamber.

“It's good to see you again,” he said, as he wrapped Kevin up in a hug. “It's been ... what? Four years since I saw you and the kids?”

“I’m just glad you got here in time for the memorial service,” Kevin said. “In the five years since the Battle of Earth, you only ever attended the first ceremony.”

“You know the dangers of dwelling on the past,” Steve said, irked. “How far would we have come as a family if we’d kept blaming the English for kicking us out of Scotland?”

Kevin smiled. “I think it was the charge of being drunk and disorderly that really got to our ancestors,” he countered. “But we also have to remember the past.”

Steve shrugged. “Mariko and I went quite a bit further this time,” he said. “I sent back a handful of reports, but I’ve got a complete one here. So far, the war seems to have remained firmly stalemated. That may change though, soon.”

“Because of us,” Kevin said. He took the chip Steve passed him and dropped it into his pocket. “We could do with another few decades before the galaxy as a whole realises we exist.”

“We may not have that time,” Steve admitted. “It all depends on which way the lizards choose to jump.”

He shook his head. “But enough of that,” he said. “You’re the Director of Solar Intelligence, so give me some intelligence.”

“That would require brain surgery,” Kevin pointed out.

Steve snorted, rudely. “How are things in Heinlein these days?”

“Oddly bureaucratic, despite the best intentions of our laws,” Kevin conceded. “It seems natural that we develop government, then the government starts growing out of control.”

“I’m not surprised,” Steve said. He took the beer Kevin offered him, then sat down. “But you know what? There's a whole universe out there. Anyone who doesn't fit in here will be able to go outwards, if they wish. And the problem will take care of itself.”

“As long as the Galactics don’t take care of us,” Kevin said. “One day, one day soon, they will notice. And then the shit will really hit the fan.”

“Give us time,” Steve said. “By the time they notice, we will be ready.”

The End
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My writing process is fairly simple. I write three chapters a day, post them on various forums and then read the comments, insert corrections, etc. (God bless everyone who sends in a typo-note, as there’s no such thing as a minor correction in the writing world.) Sometimes, I get genuinely interesting responses from people who disagree with me – or, rather, with the characters.

I had reached about twelve/thirteen chapters into A Learning Experience when I noted an interesting trend on a couple of discussion forums. People were commenting on what they saw as foolish and/or unrealistic actions by the main characters, the US Government and just about everyone else. A couple of those comments verged into ‘mistake the author for his characters’ territory and were duly ignored. The remainder struck me as interesting – and, in some respects, the inevitable result of commenting on an unfinished book.

As both Kevin and Mongo pointed out in the text, not all of Steve’s actions and thoughts are wise ones. He could have avoided the ‘skirmish’ with the DHS, he could have found less dramatic ways to make his point and he came alarmingly close to committing outright genocide. But such is character development. Characters who are perfect are not only boring, they are unrealistic. A character who grows and develops, on the other hand, is a representative of the whole human condition.

Steve starts out heavily political; he’s alienated from his country’s government, he doesn't trust those schmucks in Washington and he has more or less withdrawn from society. He chooses to spend a large amount of his time dwelling on a government betrayal and grumbling about the sad state of near-future America. And then effectively limitless power (at least on Earth) is simply dropped into his hands. Steve, as several characters point out, could attack Washington and take power for himself. Instead, he chooses to set up a new Wild West and invite anyone who feels like him to reach for the stars.

Over the course of the story, Steve grows to realise – truly realise – that vast power doesn’t solve everything. Nor can he hope to handle everything on his own. Very rapidly, his plans for a libertarian state are challenged by the need for a staff to handle things, for an effective system of government and a plan to defend Earth and all of humanity against an alien threat. Steve, who is armed with technology that makes wiping out large chunks of the Taliban and various global terrorist networks an easy task, comes to realise that it isn't as easy as it looks to rule a state. It sure as hell isn't easy to set the course of the future.

This is a common problem, in and out of both fiction and real life. Every election campaign, politicians make vast promises that, when they are forced to come face to face with reality, they find impossible to actually fulfil. One promise might be impossible to keep through lack of funds, another might be impossible to keep because there are international treaties underpinning the promise and removing them may open up other cans of worms, still more promises may be made when the politician was unaware of certain factors that mandated that the promise had to be broken. It isn't as simple as you might think to become a global leader – or to act as one, once you reach such a position.

These are not the only problems, of course. A single issue might be easy to handle if the President (or Prime Minister, or whatever) concentrated on it to the exclusion of all else. However, very few issues can receive that degree of scrutiny from the Head of Government. It is far more likely that smaller issues will be handled by the head’s subordinates, who may butcher the job or simply decide it isn't politically important. And, naturally, when (if) this blows up in the Head of Government’s face, it’s always his fault.

This represents a major problem with our governments that, as Steve says in elaborate detail, is a major headache for the future. As politicians become more and more interested in looking good, rather than actually looking to the future, we find it much harder to respond to problems caused by the lack of accountability. In their place, colossal government bureaucracies set out to regulate society – with almost no accountability at all. Worse, the departments become more interested in preserving their own positions than doing their jobs.

Does this sound insane? Imagine you work in the Department of Homeland Security. If Congress were to become convinced that your organisation wasn't doing its job, you might lose your job. Your incentives would lead you to find work for your department even if there wasn't anything. You wouldn't say there was no terror threat. Instead, you would ask for more resources to track down the terror threat you need to justify your existence.

I do not believe there is a single government department that is free of the taint of bureaucracies struggling to secure and expand their paper empires. Consider, for example, Britain’s UKBA (United Kingdom Border Agency). The forms prospective immigrants are meant to fill in are outrageously complex (applying to join the army is considerably easier), the requirements are often absurd (how many people really bother to make exact notes of when they moved from country to country a decade or so ago?) and the screening process frankly insulting to one’s intelligence. (How many terrorists would admit to it when filling in their forms?) Or various defence departments around the globe, concentrating more on defending their bureaucracies than defending the soldiers who fight and die in constant wars?

And if you were given a way to establish a society away from all that, what would you do?

Reasonable readers may disagree with Steve’s actions. I would quite agree that some of them were stupid and dangerous. But I don’t think they're unrealistic.

Your mileage may vary, of course.

My intentions with this series are to follow the next generation of Steve’s family by skipping forward fifty years, then another fifty. If you want a sequel, of course, please don’t hesitate to contact me and let me know.

And if you liked the book, please leave a review on Amazon.

Christopher G. Nuttall
Manchester, 2014
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Chapter 39: ..."it was quite possible that the crew was already dead.

[...]Because they don’t bother with spacesuits or even light protective gear..."

Put an ellipsis before the sentence fragment to link it to the preceding thought.

Afterward: My major advice is to take a page from Isaac Asimov, and learn an important lesson. He wrote at a time when computer technology was just beginning, and although he had a good vision of its importance, he misread its capability. He had hand-sized computers, like we have today, but he placed them a thousand years in the future. He also forsaw computers that were so smart that people needed interpreters to understand their results. That is exactly what I see with the Galactic technology in the story.

Steve and Kevin both are as unlearned as the Hoarde in their use of technology to correlate information and utilize its capabilities. I understand Galactics restricting some data - but using the comnputers to help with basic R & D is missing. They use the limited Galactic technology, but only in anachronistic ways.

Otherwise, it was a fun read.

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