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A Learning Experience
#1
This probably requires a little explanation.

Two friends of mine devised a story that they later abandoned. I thought the story had potential and requested permission to rewrite it myself, which they gave. Learning Experience – I kept the name – is the redevelopment and continuation of their story. For fans of that story, I do hope to stay close to their work, but it may not be as they plotted or styled.

As always, comments, suggestions and error-spotting are very welcome.

Enjoy!

Chris
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#2
Prologue

Fnfian Horde Warcruiser Shadow Warrior
Earth Orbit

“You are sure this is the correct planet?”

Alien Savant Cn!lss barely refrained from clenching his clawed maniples in irritation at his superior’s doubt. Subhorde Commander Pr!lss wasn't remotely qualified to serve as anything other than an expendable warrior, at least in Cn!lss’s opinion, preferably one sent to charge over barren ground towards an enemy plasma cannon nest. It would have improved the genetic reserves of the Fnfian Horde considerably if Pr!lss got himself blown away before he had a chance to sire children. Unfortunately, the universe being what it was, Pr!lss happened to be related to the Supreme Horde Commander, a qualification that had ensured his promotion to Subhorde Commander. It wouldn't have galled Cn!lss so much if he hadn’t been convinced that his superior’s arrogance would get his entire crew killed one day.

He hastily bent into the posture of respect when his superior’s claws started to twitch, threatening immediate violence. Cn!lss was one of the few Hordesmen to understand, on more than an abstract level, just how far advanced the rest of the universe – or at least the significant part of it - was over the Horde. Indeed, one of the reasons for his commander’s near-constant irritation was the simple fact that Shadow Warrior had been designed for creatures of a noticeably different build. The Tokomak Warcruiser had had most of its original furnishings stripped out, but most of its bulkheads and internal passageways couldn't be replaced. If the Hordesmen tried, it was unlikely they would be able to put the ship back together again.

“The data we recovered from the Varnar was precise, My Liege,” Cn!lss said. “This is the origin world of their damnable cyborgs.”

He allowed himself a faint smile. Years ago, the Varnar had started deploying a whole new force of cyborg warriors onto the battlefield. Their enemies had been driven from a dozen worlds before they had finally realised that the cyborgs were derived from a whole new race, rather than any of the known Galactics. And it had taken months before the Horde had been hired to track down the homeworld of the new aliens and kidnap samples that could be turned into new cyborgs.

“This is a primitive world,” the Subhorde Commander snarled. “They don’t even have fusion plants, let alone a proper space program!”

Cn!lss shrugged, clicking his forelegs together. There was no law against trading technology to primitive alien races – it was how the Horde had acquired their first starships – but it was clear that the Varnar hadn't bothered to share anything with their human slaves. Indeed, it looked as though they’d never attempted to make open contact with the humans, even though they’d taken humans from their homeworld. But then, given how effective their cyborgs were, it was quite likely the Varnar wouldn't want to do anything to draw attention to the human race. If the laws against genocide hadn't been the only laws to be universally enforced, he suspected that Earth would have met with a fatal accident years ago.

“This is their homeworld,” he repeated. He could have pointed out that the Horde was still primitive and yet they flew starships, but it wouldn't have impressed his commander. Like most Hordesmen, the Subhorde Commander sneered at the Galactics, rather than admitting that the Galactics were centuries ahead of the Horde. “All we have to do is capture a few samples and take them back for study.”

He looked down at the torrent of information flowing into the computers. For a primitive world – and one that seemed to be caught in a socio-political trap that had prevented them from settling their solar system – there was an impressive amount of electronic noise flaring away from the planet. The computers could translate the signals, but the tiny fraction Cn!lss had reviewed made absolutely no sense. It seemed as though the human race was completely insane.

“This section of their homeworld is the most developed,” he commented, tapping one large land mass on the display. “It will serve as a rich source of educated slaves.”

His commander clicked his maniples in disgust. Education wasn't something that most Hordesmen took seriously, not when they could be drinking and fighting instead. And besides, most of them had an unspoken inferiority complex when they considered what the educated races had done. It didn't stop them taking and using educated slaves whenever they had the opportunity. Indeed, Cn!lss had to admit there was great potential on Earth, once they taught the humans who was boss. A few strikes from orbit and the humans would be forced to surrender.

But, for the moment, they had other priorities.

“Find me some humans,” the Subhorde Commander ordered. “And then dispatch an assault shuttle to take them onboard.”

Cn!lss bowed his head in obedience.

It honestly never occurred to him, or anyone else on the Horde starship, that the information they’d obtained had been more than a little incomplete.
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#3
Chapter One

Montana, USA

“Absent friends,” Steve Stuart said.

His friends nodded in agreement as they sipped their beer. It had been a long walk from where they’d left the van to their camping site, but Steve had to admit that it had been worth it. Instead of going to one of the state parks, they’d chosen to walk out into the wide open spaces of Montana and set up a campsite of their own. Now, they sat around the fire and watched the flames flickering as darkness fell over the land.

“Absent friends,” his friends echoed back. “May they never be forgotten.”

Steve sighed, feeling – once again – the pain of loss. It had been seven years since he’d quit the Marines, seven years since he’d put his uniform away for good, but the memories refused to fade, no matter what he did with his life. Death was a part of military life, for good or ill, yet there was a difference between losing a soldier to enemy action and losing a soldier because politicians had tied the military’s hands. It would have been easier to take it, he suspected, if the enemy had simply killed his friends in honourable combat.

He forced the depression away and looked around the campsite. His brothers Mongo and Kevin, both taller than him, but possessing the same fair heads and facial features as himself, almost to the point where their faces could have been mistaken for triplets. Beside them, his oldest friends Charles Edwards – another former Marine – and Vincent Hastings, a retired Navy SEAL.

Military service ran in the family. The Stuarts had served the Kings of Scotland, then migrated to America and joined George Washington’s army, then fought in almost every war since the United States had won its independence. Hell, there had been Stuarts fighting on both sides during the Civil War. But now ... in truth, Steve wasn't sure if he could advise his sons – or his daughter – to go into the military. Defending the United States was important and there were few higher honours, yet ... was it worth making such a commitment when one’s political leaders were worse than the enemy?

“He’s brooding again,” Mongo said. “Someone poke him, please!”

Stuart smiled. He could always rely on Mongo to cheer him up. “I have a gun and I’m not afraid to use it,” he said, quickly. “And I am not brooding. I am merely thinking deeply contemplative thoughts.”

“A likely story,” Edwards said. “Don’t you know contemplative thoughts are strictly forbidden in the Wolfpac?”

“Yep,” Kevin put in. “We wrote a ban on them into the charter.”

Stuart rolled his eyes. He’d started the Wolfpac – a band of amateur rocket scientists – as something to do after his retirement, but it had grown into a hobby. Building rockets and firing them into the air was surprisingly fun, even though they had never come close to their dream of building a manned rocket. But then, even if they had, somehow he doubted the government would have allowed them to launch it. It was bad enough when federal agents came sniffing around to determine who was purchasing rocket components and why. They never quite seemed to believe that the club was completely innocent of anything other than trying to have a good time.

“Then we should have barred you,” he said. Kevin was the black sheep of the family; he’d gone into combat intelligence, rather than the fighting infantry. But long experience in Afghanistan had taught him that HUMIT could be just as important as raids and roadblocks when it came to countering an insurgency. “You think too much.”

Kevin made a one-fingered gesture, then poked the fire meaningfully. “You think too little,” he said, as Stuart passed him the marshmallows. “These days, thinking men are required to win wars and rebuild societies.”

Vincent snorted, rudely. “We may be doing it in America soon enough,” he said. “Did you read the email from Tony?”

Stuart nodded. Tony, like Stuart and the rest of the Wolfpac, had left military service and gone back to the civilian world, but unlike them he’d opened a grocery store in Chicago. And then there’d been a riot – the food stamp system had broken down for several days – and Tony’s store had been robbed. Worse, he’d been threatened with arrest for attempting to defend his property with a shotgun and a bad attitude. It wouldn't be long, Stuart suspected, before Tony abandoned his store and migrated to a state with a more robust attitude towards lawlessness and self-defence.

But it was something that nagged at his mind, whenever he let it. He’d been in Iraq, Afghanistan and several countries it would have surprised American civilians to know their troops had been operating, yet his country sometimes felt more alien to him than any of the foreign nations he’d visited. The old values, the ones he’d imbued with his mother’s milk, seemed to be fading away. Duty, honour and loyalty were just words, self-reliance a joke ...

“Brooding again,” Mongo snapped. “Tony will be fine. He always is.”

Stuart shrugged. He had his doubts. Fighting the enemy had been simple, fighting the bureaucracy that was slowly strangling America to death was almost impossible. He’d once planned to open a gun store, but the paperwork had been too much for him.

“Look up in the sky instead,” Kevin suggested. “I think that’s the International Space Station.”

Stuart sighed as he watched the speck of light making its way across the darkening sky. He’d once had dreams of being an astronaut, perhaps of being the first man to set foot on Mars or Venus, but his dreams had been blown away by cold hard reality. NASA hadn't gone back to the Moon, let alone the rest of the Solar System, while the Space Program had become a political football rather than a viable project. There were no dreams any longer for humanity, no Wild West waiting to take the restless and dispossessed. Instead, there was a decaying society. And, in the distance, he could hear the howl of the approaching wolf.

“That’s a satellite,” Vincent said. “I think NSA is peering down at us right now.”

“Probably,” Stuart said. “We’re a bunch of males out on a camping trip. Of course we’re a subject of interest.”

He sighed. He’d had enough experience with combat surveillance systems to know that they were terrifyingly good. He would certainly have hated to be on the receiving end. Technology had its limits, he knew, but when the United States cared enough to send the best the results could be remarkable. Plenty of insurgents hadn't learned how to cover themselves before it was too late.

“Could be worse,” Kevin said. “Did I tell you what we saw in Afghanistan?”

Mongo elbowed his brother. “You mean what you saw while you were sitting in a comfortable armchair, sipping cappuccino, while we were slogging over the mountains?”

Kevin ignored the jibe. “There was a bunch of Afghani men making their way towards the base, walking cross-country in pitch darkness,” he said. “Then they stopped. We thought they were setting up a mortar, so we focused sensors on them and primed the guns on the base to return fire. And then there was an odd heat source on the ground.”

He paused. No one spoke.

“And then there were five more, lying together,” he continued, after a long moment. “There we were, all puzzled, trying to figure out just what the hell they were doing. Were they laying IEDs for us? But we didn't normally patrol that area. Or did they intend to lure us into a trap of some kind?

“And then we realised what they were doing,” he concluded. “They were having a communal shit!”

Stuart laughed, despite himself. “And to think I thought intelligence pukes had exciting lives,” he said. “Wearing black suits, chasing and screwing women, diving out of high buildings ...”

“James Bond isn't real,” Kevin interrupted. “Although there was this time in Bangkok ...”

“You banged your cock?” Vincent asked, innocently.

“Oh, shut up,” Kevin said, as the group chuckled. “But I won’t deny that intelligence can get a little hairy at times. There was this village we visited ...”

“We’ve been to Afghani villages too,” Mongo pointed out.

“Yes, but you went in full armour and had a whole squad of tough buddies beside you,” Kevin countered. “I was alone, unless you count two more intelligence officers, one of whom was wearing a full veil.”

“And no doubt invited to marry one of the locals,” Vincent said. “Was she?”

“She talked to the local women,” Kevin said. “We told them I was her husband.”

“Poor girl,” Stuart and Mongo said together.

“Guys,” Charles said, suddenly.

Stuart looked over at him, feeling alarm shivering down his spine. The last time he’d heard Charles use that tone, they’d been under enemy fire seconds later.

“Look,” Charles said, pointing up towards the sky. “What’s that?”

Stuart looked up. A glowing light was making its way across the sky, its course erratic. “A satellite?”

“Too large,” Charles said.

“Maybe it’s a UFO,” Mongo said. He snickered. “Do you think they’ve learned everything they can from anal probes?”

“Always knew you were a pervert,” Kevin said. He stuck out his tongue in a remarkably childish manner, then looked back up at the sky. “But it must be a plane, I think.”

“A plane that’s coming closer to us,” Charles said, before Mongo could muster a rejoinder. “Why?”

Stuart stared. The glowing light was growing larger, coming down towards the campsite at terrifying speed. Instinctively, he reached for the pistol at his belt – he never went anywhere without it, no matter what the law said – as the light started to take on shape and form. It couldn't be a helicopter or a plane, part of his mind insisted; there was no noise, not even a faint clattering sound. But he knew there were some helicopters, designed for commando operations, that were almost completely silent. And yet ...

Why would such a helicopter come after us? He asked himself. His imagination could produce a few ideas, but none of them were actually likely. What do they want?

“It’s not a helicopter,” Charles said. He sounded more than a little alarmed. “Look at it.”

Stuart half-covered his eyes as a bright light seemed to shine down on them. It was hard to see the shape of the craft through the light, but it looked to be a crude spacecraft rather than the smooth UFO he’d been expecting. Indeed, it was little larger than a small executive jet, yet it hung in the air with effortless ease. The floodlight swept over the campsite, then started to fade slightly as the craft slowly lowered itself towards the ground.

It couldn’t be human, Stuart realised, feeling a sudden lump in his throat. The others were silent, lost in their own thoughts. There were VTOL fighters and tilt-rotor aircraft, but nothing as large and capable as the craft facing them. As far as he could tell, it didn't have any exhausts or anything else that might have suggested how it worked. It might as well be magic. But, as the light faded away, he realised that the hull was scorched and pitted. Cold ice ran down his spine as old instincts awoke. Alien the craft might be – and he was convinced it was far from human – but it was a warship.

“Shit,” Vincent said, breaking the silence.

There was a dull crunching sound as the craft touched down. Stuart shook himself, then concentrated on observing as much as possible. There were no landing struts, as far as he could see; the craft had just settled down on the soft ground. For a long moment, all was still ... and then the craft’s hatch opened. Bright light spilled out, illuminating strange alien creatures.

Stuart caught his breath. He’d expected, he realised now, tiny grey aliens. Instead, he found himself fighting the urge to panic as the aliens came into view. They looked like eerie crosses between humans and spiders, perhaps with some crabs worked into the mixture too, as if someone had stuck a human torso and head on top of a giant spider and merged them together. Each of the aliens had six legs, greenish-red skin and dark eyes set within an armoured head, as if they had no skin covering their skulls. They’d have difficulty walking on uneven ground, Stuart suspected, although as they pranced forward it became clear that they were more limber than he’d realised. It was impossible to determine their sex from their appearance. Or, for that matter, if they even had the concept of males and females.

He’d seen countless aliens on television and movies, ranging from men in bad makeup and poor suits to marvels of CGI. There was no reason, he was sure, that Hollywood couldn't produce aliens as strange and inhuman as the ones facing him. But somehow he knew they were real. There was something about them that utterly destroyed any disbelief he might have felt, a sudden awareness that they were very far from human. Besides, he had a feeling that even a small human couldn't have fitted into an alien-sized suit.

The sense of danger grew stronger as he realised what the aliens were carrying. Four of them were carrying silver tubes that seemed to be made for their hands, the fifth was merely holding a silver box in one clawed hand. He also had a silver band wrapped around his skull, perhaps a badge of rank. The silver tubes were weapons, Stuart was sure, even though they were nothing like any human-build weapon. But there was something odd about the way the aliens were holding them, as if they’d never used them before. And yet ... that was absurd, wasn't it?

Mongo leaned forward as the aliens spread out. “This is real, isn't it?”

“Sure looks that way,” Charles said.

Stuart nodded in agreement, his mind working frantically. What was this? An attempt to make First Contact without trying to fly into the secure airspace surrounding the White House and the Pentagon? Or was it something more sinister? He found it hard to believe that any alien race invading Earth would bother with a handful of campers ... unless, of course, they intended to dissect Stuart and his friends. Or interrogate them on the state of the planet’s defences ...

Kevin took a step forward. The aliens chattered suddenly – a high-pitched clattering that only added to the sense of inhumanity – and raised their weapons. Whatever they were actually saying, the meaning was all-too-clear. Kevin froze as the aliens aimed their weapons at his chest.

Part of Stuart’s mind noted, dispassionately, that the aliens might not intend to use headshots – and, given their armoured heads, that might make sense. Or, for all they knew, the alien brains were actually located in their torsos, rather than their skulls. But it didn't matter, he realised. The aliens weren't acting friendly. Stuart had been at enough meetings in Afghanistan between Coalition troops and local villagers to understand what compromised a healthy respect for security ... and what was outright paranoia. The aliens were acting more like they intended to take prisoners than talk to the humans facing them.

The unarmed alien – Stuart cautioned himself not to assume the alien was actually unarmed – lifted the silver box to his lips. There was another burst of alien speech, followed by a dull masculine voice coming from the box – a translator, Stuart realised. He felt a flicker of envy – a portable translator would have been very helpful in Afghanistan – as the alien voice grew more confident. It spoke in oddly-accented English.

“Do you understand me?”

“Yes,” Stuart said, when it became clear that no one else was going to speak. Perhaps the aliens would have tried French or Russian next if they couldn't make themselves understood through English. “We understand you.”

There was another chattering sound from the alien. “You will board our craft,” the alien said. It – he, Stuart decided – pointed one clawed hand towards the hatch. “Step through the hatch and into the hold.”

“Wait a minute,” Vincent said, shocked. “Where are you taking us?”

“That is none of your concern,” the alien informed him. He indicated the craft again, his claw flexing open and closed. “You will step through the hatch.”

Vincent reached for the pistol at his belt. There was a flash of light so bright that Stuart moved to cover his eyes instinctively. Vincent’s body fell to the ground, a smoking hole in his chest. Stuart stared in horror; he’d seen wounds from gunshots, IED strikes and even training accidents, but he’d never seen anything quite like this. The damage would have been instantly fatal, the dispassionate part of his mind realised; Vincent had been dead before his body hit the ground.

He balled his fists, then forced himself to relax. The lessons from a dozen Conduct after Capture courses rose up within his mind. There would be an opportunity to escape, he told himself firmly. He saw the same understanding in the eyes of his friends. The aliens would relax, sooner or later, and they would make mistakes. And, when they did, their human captives would be ready. The aliens might have advanced weapons, but advanced weapons didn't mean anything in close-quarter combat. No one knew that better than the soldiers who had fought terrorists and insurgents for the last twenty years.

Be a good little captive, he told himself, as the aliens motioned for them to walk forwards, into the craft. Vincent’s body was simply left on the ground. Part of Stuart’s mind wondered if it would be discovered before it decayed. What would a autopsy show if any traces were left when it was found? He pushed the thought aside and concentrated on observing the aliens. Bide your time and wait.
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#4
Hey, Chris. The beginning shows promise. There is a natural tendency to say it is a little simplistic - but so what? Not so smart aliens with a negative personna propped up by borrowed tech vs. human militants with a wait and see attitude. Also hints that the aliens bit off more than they can chew.

If Vincent didn't have a hole in him, I might expect a humorous Harry Harrison-esque story. As it is, it can go anywhere.

One thing I don't quite get is any logic at all for the need to study the life forms that cyborg warriors were designed from, and what possible edge that would give a non-tech race.
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#5
Chapter Two

Fnfian Horde Warcruiser Shadow Warrior
Earth Orbit

The interior of the alien craft was oddly disappointing. Stuart had been expecting something thoroughly ... alien, but instead it looked more like the interior of a military transport aircraft, one of the planes that moved US troops from one trouble spot to another. There were no seats, no portholes ... the aliens motioned for the humans to stand up against the bulkhead, then stepped backwards, keeping their weird eyes firmly fixed on their captives. Stuart watched them back, feeling a cold burning hatred burning through his mind. There would be an opportunity to strike ...

An odd sensation washed over him as the craft shuddered slightly, then faded away into nothingness. A faint whine echoed through the cabin – he looked towards the far bulkhead and noted the hatch there, which he assumed led to the cockpit – but there was no other sound. In some ways, it was better than any of the transport aircraft he’d endured in his long military career. But the whining sound might prove to be more irritating, in the long run, than the roar of an aircraft’s engines.

“No acceleration,” Mongo muttered, through clenched teeth. “Are we actually moving?”

Stuart thought back to all the science-fiction books he’d read. Logically, if the craft was flying back out into space, there should be some sense of acceleration. But they weren't being pushed down to the ground by an irresistible force. It suggested the aliens had some form of internal compensation protecting the craft’s passengers, which made a certain kind of sense. The interior of the craft certainly didn't look as though it was designed for spaceflight without a compensator.

“I think so,” he said. Any doubts he might have had about the experience being real had faded with Vincent’s death. No TV producer would kill someone just to add extra realism to a TV show. The very thought was sickening. “We must be going up to the mothership.”

“Or maybe this is their starship,” Kevin suggested. “For all we know, this is their version of a Hercules.”

Stuart shrugged, then looked back at the aliens. They looked oddly uncomfortable – he had to remind himself, again, not to read anything human into their movements – as the craft powered away from Earth. Their legs moved and twitched constantly, their eyes blinking rapidly; he couldn't help wondering if they were used to flying. There were strong men who whimpered when their transport aircraft hit a particularly nasty patch of turbulence, yet surely the aliens had plenty of experience with their spacecraft. Or was he misreading them completely. It wasn't as if most humans could remain still indefinitely.

The craft shuddered slightly, the gravity field – something else they had that humans lacked – growing weaker. Stuart looked at the aliens, noted how they seemed more comfortable and wondered if they had evolved on a low-gravity world. Their spider-like appearance probably couldn't have evolved on Earth, where there were very real limits to the size of spiders and crabs. Or maybe the aliens were the products of genetic engineering and splicing. Someone with the right science and not enough scruples might manage to create their very own warrior race. It was the theme of a dozen SF television shows he’d watched.

A dull thump ran through the craft, then the faint whine faded away to nothingness. They had arrived at their destination, Stuart realised, but where were they? A mothership? The moon? Another star system entirely? If he’d been invited to come with the aliens, he knew he would have accepted without a second thought. The chance to see another star system was not something he could have let pass. But instead they were prisoners.

The hatch opened and, for a moment, the aliens were distracted. Stuart moved without thinking, all of the tension in his soul unleashing itself in one smooth moment. His brothers and Charles followed as he lunged into the aliens. One alien weapon fired, scorching the bulkhead, but the others were unable to fire before the humans were on top of them. Stuart lashed out with all his strength, aiming for the thin alien necks. One by one, the aliens were overwhelmed and killed. The unarmed alien was the last to die.

“Interesting,” Mongo said. “Look.”

Stuart followed his gaze. The silver band on the alien’s head had detached itself and fallen to the deck. There was something about it that called to him; he found himself reaching for the band without being quite aware of what he was doing. It tingled when he touched it, as if it carried a faint electric charge ...

“Grab their weapons,” Charles snapped. His voice brought Stuart back to reality, back to the fact that they were trapped in an unknown location. In hindsight, they might have picked the wrong time and place to fight back. “Come on!”

He led the way through the hatch. Stuart followed, one hand still gripping the silver band. Outside, there was a large shuttlebay, crammed with a dozen craft identical to the one that had taken them from Earth. A handful of aliens milled about, staring at the humans in disbelief. Some of them started to reach for their weapons, others ran for the hatches or dived into their smaller shuttlecraft. Stuart couldn't help noticing, as they fired on the armed aliens, that there was something odd about the hatches, as if they hadn't been designed for their alien enemies. They were too narrow for the aliens to move through comfortably. Coming to think of it, he realised as he opened fire, the hatches were tall enough for a creature twice as tall as the average human.

“So,” Mongo said. “Where now?”

Stuart laughed. “Fucked if I know,” he said. There was another electric tingle from the band, which had wrapped itself around his wrist. “I ...”

“So we go onwards,” Charles said. He led them towards the largest hatch, weapon in hand. “We’ll find a way out of here somehow.”

There was a third tingle from the band. Stuart stopped, staring at it, then felt an irresistible compulsion to put the band on his head. Slowly, not quite aware of what he was doing, he followed the compulsion. A stab of pain flashed through his head, then ...

“Connection established,” a cold voice said.
***
“They broke free!”

“Yes,” Cn!lss said. It never failed to amuse him just how many of his superiors felt the urge to point out the obvious. But then, most of their subordinates were so stupid it probably needed to be pointed out, time and time again. “They are currently expanding out of the shuttlebay into the lower levels of the ship.”

The Subhorde Commander slammed his claws against his carapace, a gesture of fury – and maybe just a little fear. “Send two hordes to intercept and exterminate them,” he ordered. “We can take other subjects from their homeworld afterwards.”

Cn!lss understood the fear. The Varnar cyborgs were devilishly effective on the battlefield, striking fear into the hearts of their enemies. Everyone had assumed that the cyborgs were programmed to be so effective – primitive races were not protected against the meddling of their superiors - but what if such fighting prowess was natural to the human race? If that was the case, the Subhorde Commander was in real trouble. He’d taken a group of deadly warriors onto his starship!

And if he lost the ship, all of his family connections wouldn't save him from savage punishment.

“You’ll have to send the orders,” he reminded his superior. “They don’t listen to me.”

***
“Connection established,” the voice repeated. “Species 8472; designate human. Direct neural link activated. Awaiting orders.”

“Awaiting orders?” Stuart repeated. “What orders?”

Kevin turned to face him. “Stuart? What’s happening?”

“I can hear a voice,” Stuart said. He reached up to touch the headband and discovered that it seemed to have merged permanently against his skin. It felt weird, yet somehow natural to the touch. “Can't you hear it?”

Kevin shook his head. Further down the corridor, Charles took up a defensive position, backed up by Mongo, and prepared to hold their position against a charging line of enemy warriors. They didn't seem very experienced, part of Stuart’s mind noted; they were charging towards the humans as if they were unaware that the humans were armed with their own weapons. Even the Taliban had eventually leant the folly of mass human wave attacks. But it added yet another piece of the puzzle concerning the aliens. Stuart just wished he understood what it meant.

“What are you?” He asked, touching the headband. “And what’s happening to me?”

“This unit is a direct neural interface linked to the current starship’s computer nodes,” the voice said. “The interface has currently linked into your mind, providing direct access to the computer systems.”

Stuart blinked. “What?”

“This unit is a direct neural interface linked to the current starship’s computer nodes,” the voice repeated. There was no hint of patience or impatience, merely ... a complete lack of emotion. “The interface has currently linked into your mind, providing direct access to the computer systems.”

“I see, I think,” Stuart said. “Why did the link interface with me?”

“You donned the neural link,” the voice said. “The link activated automatically.”

“I felt compelled to put it on,” Stuart said. There was no response. For a moment, that alarmed him, then he realised he hadn't asked a question. “Why was I compelled to wear the neural link?”

“The device is designed to attract attention from cleared users,” the voice informed him. It was an alarmingly vague answer – how was the attention actually attracted? – but he had a feeling he wouldn't be able to get much more out of the system. “You were the closest to the neural interface when it separated itself from the previous user.”

“Wait a second,” Stuart said. “I’m a cleared user?”

“There is no specified list of cleared users,” the voice stated. “All compatible mentalities may claim full access to the control systems, should they don the link.”

Stuart fought down an insane urge to giggle. All of a sudden, it made sense. “They didn't build this ship, did they?”

“Clarify,” the voice ordered.

“The aliens who kidnapped us,” Stuart said, more carefully. “They didn't build this ship or their weapons, did they?”

“Affirmative,” the voice said. “This starship was constructed by the Tokomak and passed though seven successive owners before finally being purchased by the Horde.”

Stuart shuddered. The Horde. Even the name conjured up bad impressions.

The deck shook, snapping him back to reality. He was dimly aware of the neural interface retreating into the back of his mind as he looked around and realised that the next group of aliens charging at them were proving smarter. They were hurling grenade-like objects down the corridor ahead of their charge. He lifted the alien weapon, found the firing stud and pushed it, hard. The weapon had no recoil, just flashes of deadly light. He couldn't help wondering just what operating principles it used as he fired. Plasma? Laser? Directed energy? Or something unimagined by humans?

He shook his head. There was no way to know.

Or was there? He had the neural interface.

“We’re going to have to fall back,” Charles shouted. An alien howled further down the corridor, then fell flat on his face. One of his fellows shot him in the back, then kept charging towards the human position. “We can't stay here!”

“No, we can’t,” Stuart agreed. But they had nowhere to go. Once they were back in the shuttlebay, they would be trapped ... “Unless ...”

He accessed the interface again, watching with some alarm as the real world started to gray out around him. “What sort of access do I have?”

“Complete,” the voice said.

“All right,” Stuart said. “Are there any measures we can take against life forms on this ship?”

There was a pause. “All direct measures will exterminate all life forms,” the voice warned. “It would not be advisable.”

Stuart swore, mentally. “How can we remove the non-human life forms from this ship?”

“Teleporters can remove non-human life forms from this ship,” the voice informed him. “Do you wish to use them?”

“They have teleporters?” Stuart said, out loud. “Why didn't they just beam us up from Earth?”

“Unknown,” the voice stated.

Stuart gathered himself. Whatever he was talking to, it sounded more like a glorified user interface than a genuine AI. The wrong orders could easily get them killed along with their alien enemies. And he wasn't sure if the whole system was actually what it claimed to be too. What sort of idiot let a direct link to their computer nodes fall into enemy hands? But it wouldn't be the first time a primitive civilisation had purchased something without ever quite knowing how to use it.

“I want you to teleport all non-human life forms into open space,” he ordered. He couldn’t resist the next word. “Energise.”

“Teleport safety protocols need to be disengaged,” the voice informed him.

“Disengage them,” Stuart snapped.

“Teleport safety protocols disengaged,” the voice said. “Teleport sequence activating ... now.”

Stuart looked up, just in time to see the horde of charging aliens dissolve into silver light and vanish. He felt his mouth drop open as he realised just what had happened ... and just how simple it had been to remove all of the aliens. And easy ...

“The world just changed,” Charles said. He sounded as shocked as Stuart felt. “What happened?”

“One moment,” Stuart said. He linked back into the neural interface. “Have all of the aliens been removed?”

“Negative,” the voice said. “One alien remains.”

“Then point us to his position,” Stuart ordered.

***
Cn!lss had had bare seconds to react when the teleporters had activated. He’d grabbed the terminal that was his badge of rank – and his curse, when the warriors were sharing lies about their glorious exploits – and activated its transmitter, praying desperately that the starship’s designers had been as paranoid about safety as they usually were. The signal had disrupted the teleport lock, preventing the teleporters from snatching him off the bridge and depositing him ... somewhere. None of the others on the bridge had been so lucky. The Subhorde Commander had been the first to vanish in silver light.

What a shame, part of Cn!lss’s mind insisted. He’d hated his commander, even though he knew it could easily have been worse. But the human intruders, the humans who were clearly born warriors where the Hordesmen were brawlers, had not only managed to take control of the ship, they’d wiped out all but one of her crew. Would they be worse than the Hordesmen? Or would they see the value in keeping Cn!lss alive?

He carefully pranced away from his console and waited, in the centre of the bridge. It took longer than he’d expected for the humans to appear, stepping through the hatch weapons in hand. Cn!lss couldn't help noticing that they held the captured weapons as if they knew how to use them, even though they wouldn't have even seen them until bare hours ago. The humans were true warriors, he realised now; they’d adapted far quicker than any of the Horde when they’d first been confronted with advanced technology.

They were staggeringly ugly creatures, he decided, as the humans closed in on him. Two legs, soft pale skin, tiny little eyes ... and yet they’d managed to overwhelm seven Hordesmen in unarmed combat. Carefully, he raised his maniples, hoping they were civilised enough to take prisoners. The Horde rarely took prisoners. It was one of the reasons they were utterly unwelcome on most civilised worlds.

One of the humans growled at him. It was several seconds before the translator provided a translation. “Keep your hands where we can see them.”

Cn!lss obeyed, shaking. Human hands poked at his carapace – they were stronger than he’d realised – and carefully removed everything from his terminal to his badge of rank, such as it was. For a moment, he was convinced they were actually going to pull his shell apart, but they relaxed and let it go when they realised it was actually part of his body. The humans, it seemed, wore protective clothing at all times. But what else would one expect from born warriors?

“If you cooperate, you will be treated decently,” one of the humans said, finally. “If you try to escape, you will be killed.”

“I understand,” Cn!lss said, quickly. It was better than his treatment in the Horde. “I will cooperate.”

“Good,” the human said. “But for the moment, we will put you in a small cabin and hold you there.”

***
Stuart looked around the bridge and knew that he’d been right, even before the neural interface had confirmed it. The aliens hadn't designed the ship themselves; hell, their consoles were clearly designed for a humanoid race, rather than a six-legged crab-like race from Hell. They must have found it more than a little uncomfortable, he decided, as he strode over to the central chair and looked down at it. That, at least, had been designed for the aliens. It looked absurdly like a throne suitable for a crab.

He sniffed the air, experimentally. There was a faint stench of rotting meat in the air, but nothing else. As far as he could tell, the atmosphere was breathable, although he made a mental note to check that as soon as possible. And to explore the rest of the ship ... his ship. He found himself grinning as he realised what they’d done. They’d captured an interstellar starship and the way to the stars lay open, right in front of them.

“Well,” Mongo said. “What do we do now?”

Stuart sighed. There was work to be done. “We research,” he said. They’d have to find several more neural interfaces, although he suspected they needed a rule that barred more than one or two people from using them at the same time. “And then we make plans.”
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#6
Chapter Three

Fnfian Horde Warcruiser Shadow Warrior
Earth Orbit

“You know, my mother used to believe that aliens would come one day and show us a whole new way to live,” Charles commented. “I never believed she was right.”

Stuart smiled as they made their way through one of the alien sleeping compartments. He’d been in barracks inhabited by ill-disciplined soldiers, American and foreign, but this was far worse. Great piles of meat and drink lay everywhere, creating a stench that would have to be dealt with sooner or later, while tiny creatures ran across the deck. They seemed to be crosses between crabs and cockroaches, Stuart had decided, and they were as hard to kill as the latter. The entire ship would have to be fumigated before they did anything else. It was probably a breeding ground for disease.

The ship itself, according to the neural interface, was four hundred metres long and designed to serve as a Warcruiser. Reading between the lines, Stuart had a suspicion that the entire ship was outdated as far as the aliens who had built it were concerned, although the neural interface was a little vague on such matters. He hadn't been able to determine if he was asking the wrong questions or if the system was designed not to provide exact answers to such questions. If he’d been designing a system for primitive aliens, he would have been careful what he programmed it to do too.

But it was clear that the aliens – the Hordesmen, the interface had called them – hadn't even had a vague idea of just what their ship could do. They reminded him of training missions to Arab countries, where no one dared admit ignorance, even if it was manifestly obvious they didn't have the slightest idea of what they were doing. Their weapons were clearly modified from weapons designed for other races, the advanced technology was partnered with a technology more primitive than any available on Earth and ... and they’d kidnapped a group of humans without even bothering to secure them. Such carelessness made little sense.

They don’t have any real conception of technology, he decided, as he peered into another alien cabin. It was oddly barren, in some ways; there were no books, no electronic readers, no computers ... not even anything that resembled porn. The thought made him smile – did the aliens even have a concept of pornography? – but the cabins testified to an odd bleakness in their lives. Or a complete lack of concern from their superiors. He’d seen both in human societies around the globe.

He pushed the thought to one side as he accessed the neural interface again. The aliens had placed their ship in high orbit, using a masking field to hide their presence from Earth’s defenders. Not that they’d had much reason to worry about Earth’s defenders, Stuart had already concluded. They could simply have thrown rocks from a safe distance until humanity rolled over and surrendered. Their point defence could have shot down every ICBM on Earth without breaking a sweat. No, the whole alien operation simply made no sense. It was almost as if they’d wanted the humans to capture their ship.

“We should probably talk to our new friend,” Kevin said, when Stuart commented on his suspicions. “Do you think he’ll be open with us?”

Stuart shrugged, expressively. Humans showed a wide range of behaviours when taken prisoner, from defiance to outright collaboration. The alien – his name was a series of clicks and hisses that was beyond humanity’s ability to pronounce – seemed to tend towards the latter, but there was no way to be sure. All they could do was keep a sharp eye on him, then find somewhere to stick him well away from unknown technology. For all they knew, he had his own way of accessing the computer nodes even without a visible neural interface.

“You can put together a list of questions for him,” he said, finally. “And we can collaborate what he says with what we pull out of the computer systems.”

“Yeah,” Kevin said. “About that ... are you sure the connection is safe?”

“It saved our asses,” Stuart reminded him. The neural interface had insisted the process was safe, but – once again – it hadn't gone into details. “Does that mean you don’t want one for yourself?”

“At least one of us shouldn't use one,” Kevin said, firmly. “Mongo has enough common sense to tell us when we’ve pushed it too far, I think.”

Stuart didn't bother to disagree as they worked their way into the next set of compartments, which were crammed with all sorts of pieces of technology. Almost all of them were completely unrecognisable, save for a handful of devices that looked like the silver box the unarmed alien had carried down on Earth. Two of them might be the alien versions of laptops, he decided, others might have been weapons or sex toys. Short of asking the interface, there was no way to know. The next compartment held a line of vehicles that looked like small, almost toy-like tanks. They looked too small for the aliens to use comfortably.

“Maybe designed for another race,” Stuart speculated. He linked into the neural interface and asked. “Yep, built for another race and stolen.”

“Scavengers,” Charles said. “It might explain why they were so fucking careless.”

Kevin paused, then rubbed his stomach. “Is there anywhere to get something to eat here?”

“The alien food is classed as incompatible,” Stuart discovered, querying the neural interface. “But the food processors can produce something suitable for human consumption.”

“We’d better get back up there and find something,” Kevin said. “And then I think we need to start asking more questions.”

“There’s a spare neural link up on the bridge,” Stuart said. From what little the voice had said about itself, handing two or even several hundred users at once was well within its capabilities. “You might as well put it to use.”

“Just be careful what you do,” Charles warned. “You don’t want to accidentally beam yourself out into space.”

Stuart nodded. The teleporter had dropped the aliens into open space and Earth’s gravity had done the rest. By now, the remains of the alien crew had burned up in Earth’s atmosphere and vanished. Part of him regretted slaughtering so many without a second thought, the rest of him knew there had been no alternative. The aliens wouldn't have hesitated to kill their former captives, now they’d seen just what they could do.

If all the aliens are like them, he thought, humanity will rule the galaxy in years.

But he knew it wouldn't be that easy.

They made their way back to the bridge and entered the dining hall. Every time he saw it, Stuart was reminded of the depictions of Norsemen partying hard after a successful campaign of looting, raping and burning. They’d cleared away most of the mess – it seemed the aliens liked living in squalor – but it still disgusted him. He’d checked with the neural interface, only to discover that the cleaning robots had been removed, along with several automated maintenance systems. The sellers had clearly anticipated getting rich by selling spare parts and basic maintenance to the Hordesmen.

He activated the neural link as he stopped in front of the food professor, a slot in the bulkhead that remained sealed until the food was ready. “Please produce something suitable for human consumption.”

There was a long pause as the device hummed to itself. “You’d think they could produce matter directly from energy,” Kevin commented. “If they have teleporters, surely they could produce food and drink ...”

“Or duplicate a living person,” Charles muttered. “I saw a Star Trek episode where someone was duplicated accidentally ...”

Kevin snickered. “You’re a secret Star Trek fan?”

“We ran out of Doctor Who episodes to watch,” Charles confessed. “And we had a lot of fun pointing out the problems ...”

“A likely story,” Kevin said.

Stuart ignored them, concentrating on the neural interface. Most of the technobabble it produced was way above his head – it was suddenly harder to blame the aliens for being unaware of the potentials of their technology – but it seemed to be impossible to actually duplicate a person through teleport malfunctions. Furthermore, direct energy-to-matter conversion, while quite possible, was actually extremely uneconomical. It was far simpler to reprocess biomass to produce something humans could eat safely.

“There won’t be any more of you running around,” he said, finally. “It doesn't seem to be possible.”

“What a relief,” Kevin said, dryly.

There was a ding from the food processor. The hatch opened, revealing a plate of steaming ... something. It looked rather like grey porridge. Stuart eyed it doubtfully, then removed it from the processor and placed it on the table. There were no knives or forks, so he had to use his hands. It tasted of nothing, as far as he could tell. Just ... nothing at all.

“We will have to bring some proper food up here,” Kevin said, as he tasted the glop. “And a small horde of cleaners.”

Stuart nodded. “I’ll get you an interface,” he said. “And you can start asking questions.”

He finished his share of the glop, then ordered the machine to make another portion and something suitable for one of the aliens. Mongo would be growing hungry too, as would their alien captive. Stuart wished that he dared trust the alien enough to ask questions, but a long interrogation session would have to wait. Maybe Kevin – a trained interrogator, among other things – would be able to get more answers out of the computer network.

Shaking his head, he walked back onto the bridge, found the second interface and took it back to Kevin. “There’s a stab of pain as it configures itself, then you’ll be fine,” he assured his brother. “And good luck.”

Kevin nodded and placed the silver band on his head. “No pain,” he said, after a moment. “I guess you were the unlucky bastard who got the brunt of the reconfiguration.”

“So it would seem,” Stuart said. He picked up the food and headed for the hatch. “Charles, keep an eye on him.”

“Yes, sir,” Charles said.

Mongo was, as Stuart had expected, glad to be fed. “When are we going to get some more people up here?”

“Good question,” Stuart said. Their wives and families, naturally, but who else? And what could they do, in the long term, with such a starship? “As soon as possible, I think.”

“Just teleport them up,” Mongo suggested. “Mariko would love it.”

“Go do it to Jayne first,” Stuart countered. His partner wouldn't love being taken by surprise. “I dare you.”

Mongo shrugged, then conceded the point.

***
Kevin was in heaven.

None of his family had been dumb. They’d been homeschooled by their parents and found, when they were finally tested against children from the state-run schools, that they were far in advance of their peers. Their mother had been a stern taskmistress, watching her children like hawks while they were studying and enforcing quiet where necessary. But Kevin had always been more intellectual than his siblings, even though the very word was a swear word in the mouth of their father. He’d wanted to know and know and know ...

The neural interface was brilliant. From what Stuart had said, he'd accessed only the very basic level. Kevin was swimming in data. It flowed into his mind, each file opening itself in front of his eyes and entering his mind. He couldn't help comparing it to surfing the internet, only the data was far more complete than anything he’d seen online. And even a random thought was enough to activate search algorithms that assisted him in his search for raw information.

But there were very definite limits to what he could access, he discovered. The data files were brimming with information on what the starship – it was called Shadow Warrior – could do, but they weren’t very specific on how it actually worked. There was an FTL drive that seemed to bend local space around it, as far as he could determine, yet the theory was completely isolated from the technology that made it work. It might as well be black boxes, he realised, as he made another mental note. The designers had sealed the technology to prevent it being duplicated.

The thought discharged another torrent of data into his mind. Stuart had been right, he realised; the Hordesmen were nothing more than scavengers. They’d barely entered the Bronze Age, if that, when they’d been discovered by older, more advanced races, and introduced to the surrounding galaxy. Some of them had been taken as slaves, others had been serving as mercenaries ... none of them had built a significant galactic power base of their own. As far as the Galactics were concerned, the Hordesmen weren't even a minor headache. They were just gnats to be swatted aside when they got too irritating to tolerate for a moment longer.

But what did they want from Earth?

There were no answers in the databanks, he realised slowly. The Hordesmen had never bothered to keep logs, either because they were too primitive to care or because they’d worried about the security of their systems. There was nothing to show why they’d come to Earth or why they’d adopted such an absurd strategy for abducting humans. Hell, maybe they had been interested in anal probing after all. Given how little data there was in the computers, it was as good a theory as any.

Not that it matters, he told himself. If they decided they wanted to invade Earth, they could.

Images flowed through his mind from the databanks, triggered by his thoughts. There was no Prime Directive, no law preventing advanced races from overwhelming primitive races ... just as the Hordesmen themselves had been overwhelmed. Hundreds of worlds had been invaded by their more advanced neighbours, then enslaved ... or merely forced to pay tax. Earth had been lucky. The handful of aliens who had visited the solar system hadn't been particularly interested in the human race or anything in their star system. But there had been other visits ...

He poked the databanks, but details were scarce. Or perhaps he was simply asking the wrong questions, no matter how closely he scrutinised the data. There was no way to know.

Instead, he started to ask about the technology on the ship. The sheer size of the response sent his mind reeling in disbelief, as if the data was too much to handle. He felt a dull pain at the back of his head as he tried to process what he was being shown, then tried to distract himself by asking more questions. The Hordesmen hadn't even bothered to scratch the surface of the ship’s full capabilities.

He felt a sudden burst of awe, mixed with terror. If Shadow Warrior was something the Galactics felt comfortable about selling to a tiny scavenger race, what did they have at their disposal? Was the starship, for all its wonders, merely the counterpart of an AK-47? Were the odd gaps in the datanet’s explanations intended to prevent the Hordesmen from developing their own starships? Or were they merely placing some limits on exported tech to prevent it from being turned against them?

The sheer potential of the technology stunned him. It would be easy, almost as easy as breathing, to reach out and download the entire human internet into one of the starship’s memory cores, even the millions of pornographic sites. The 30TB portable hard drive his friend had been so proud of producing was a laughing stock compared to the alien ship. And no security protocols could keep him out of a human system. He could download the secrets of the Pentagon, the Kremlin ... every top secret base on Earth.

It terrified him. As an intelligence officer, a system like the one in front of him would be a dream come true, but it was also a nightmare. The most advanced human surveillance system in the world wasn't capable of tracking everything, no matter what the designers claimed. This could ... and it could do more. Complete and total monitoring of millions of people, at all times, was well within its capabilities. Kevin shuddered at the thought. Privacy would become a joke.

Or worse, he thought. He’d retired from intelligence work after the field had become increasingly politicised. He had never admired Edward Snowdon for defecting from the United States, but he’d understood the impossibility of blowing a whistle when the most senior men and women in the nation were involved. I don’t think we dare hand this over to the government.

The question brought another stream of data into his mind. He welcomed it, even as he fired more questions back into the databanks. How were the aliens governed? Who were the major interstellar powers? What might they do to Earth if they discovered humanity?

They already knew about us, he corrected himself. It was humbling, but unsurprising. From the point of view of the Galactics, Earth wasn't even a microstate. They just didn't care enough to try to take us into their system, even as slaves. We had nothing to offer them.

Something clicked. As an intelligence officer, he knew how to put pieces together to form a coherent picture. Now, looking at the data, he understand why some aliens had been interested in Earth ... and why the Horde had followed in their wake. Humanity might be significant after all ... and that thought, too, was terrifying. Frantically, half-convinced he had to be looking at a false Earth-centric picture, he fired off yet more questions. The datanet struggled to respond.

There was a sudden surge of data, followed by a stab of pain so intense he couldn't help screaming. He dimly heard Charles calling his name, felt someone shaking his body ... and then he fell down into darkness.
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#7
Chapter Four

Fnfian Horde Warcruiser Shadow Warrior
Earth Orbit

Stuart stared down at his younger brother, helplessly.

“What happened to him?”

“Subject overloaded the neural interface,” the interface informed him. As always, there was no trace of emotion in its tone. “Subject’s brain shut down to allow time to recover.”

“I ... see,” Stuart said. “Will there be any permanent damage?”

“Unknown,” the interface said. “Place the subject in a medical tube for a more detailed analysis.”

Stuart listened to the instructions, then Charles and he carried Kevin’s body down to the sickbay and placed it inside a transparent tube. The sickbay wasn't like anything he’d seen in real life; instead of beds, there were a dozen medical tubes, each one big enough to carry a human, but too small for a Hordesman. It might explain, he decided, why the sickbay looked far cleaner than the rest of the ship. The Horde had simply had no use for it. But if the alien medical technology was as advanced as the rest of the starship ...

He shook his head as the medical tube went to work, scanning Kevin’s body. “Minor feedback curves from the neural interface,” the system reported. Stuart silently prayed the system was smart enough to realise it was operating on a human, rather than an individual from any other race. “Compensating ... note; subject also has numerous genetic flaws that can be corrected, if requested.”

Stuart frowned. “Genetic flaws?”

He listened, in some disbelief, to the explanation. Again, most of it was well above his head, but it was clear that there would be long-term problems for Kevin – and the rest of the family, if they weren't handled. Kevin, in particular, was at risk of losing his sight in the very near future, something that bothered Stuart more than he cared to admit. Death was one thing, permanent disability quite another. And then there were the whole string of suggested enhancements ...

“He’ll never forgive you if you don’t give him a bigger cock,” Mongo commented. Charles had replaced him on guard duty once they’d moved Kevin to the sickbay. “Nor will his wife.”

Stuart rolled his eyes. Sexual enhancements weren't the only suggested possibilities. Kevin could be given enhanced strength, coordination and longevity – even intelligence – and remain roughly human. But he could also be turned into a cyborg. The suggestions ranged from implanted weapons to actually removing his brain and inserting it into a combat unit. He accessed the interface and saw a handful of images, then shuddered. If he’d had to face something like that on the battlefield ...

“I think we’d better concentrate on repairing the mental damage,” he said, firmly. “Other enhancements can come later.”

He watched, feeling utterly out of his depth, as the alien autodoc went to work. It seemed much more efficient than any human doctor, although the potential of the system to do great harm as well as ill chilled him to the bone. Moments after it started, Kevin’s body jerked and his eyes opened. Stuart hastily opened the tube and welcomed him back to the world.

“Idiot,” he said. “What were you thinking?”

“I was downloading a considerable amount of data,” Kevin said. He paused, thoughtfully. “That’s interesting; I still seem to have the data.”

“Good,” Stuart said, impatiently.

“And we may be in some trouble,” Kevin added. He clambered out of the tube, brushing the proffered hand aside. “The entire world may be in deep shit.”

He led the way back towards the bridge, seeming to find his way effortlessly through the alien corridors. Stuart watched him carefully, wondering what else the alien system had done to him. Had it turned him into a spy? Or merely overloaded his head with data because it wasn’t bright enough to realise the danger?

“These guys” – he indicated the alien commander’s throne with his foot – “are scavengers.”

“I said that,” Stuart objected.

“You were right,” Kevin agreed. He sat down on one of the uncomfortable chairs, then turned to face his brothers. “From what I have been able to determine, they literally know almost nothing about how their technology works; they didn't build it, they can’t mend it and they certainly cannot duplicate it for themselves. They barely had fire when they were discovered by an elder race and brought into the galaxy.”

He shrugged. “They weren't here to invade – at least, not yet,” he continued. “I think they wanted samples of humanity for their employers.”

Stuart narrowed his eyes. “Why?”

“This is where the speculation begins,” Kevin warned. “One race clearly took some humans from Earth years ago and turned them into slaves – no, cyborgs. Soldier cyborgs. These cyborgs have been hellishly effective. Our captors were employed, I suspect, to find humans who could be turned into other cyborgs.”

Mongo sucked in a breath, clearly remembering all the options for enhancing Kevin. “Do you think that was the fate they had in mind for us?”

“I believe so,” Kevin said. “Given enough samples of human DNA, they could simply clone as many human brains as they needed and then go on from there.”

He paused. “The problem is that, sooner or later, the other Hordesmen will realise this ship hasn't reported back,” he explained. “And Earth might be targeted by their employers.”

“Shit,” Stuart said. He looked down at his hands for a long moment, then back up at Kevin. “How long do we have?”

Kevin shrugged. “Unknown,” he said. “Travel time between star systems that don’t have gravity points ...”

He stopped. “I ...”

“Kevin,” Stuart snapped. “What are you doing?”

“It’s weird,” Kevin said. He was hyperventilating between his words. “I didn't know that and yet I did.”

He shook his head, brushing off their fears. “It might be a few months or it might be a year,” he said. “But we will run out of time.”

“Yeah,” Stuart said. “And I think we need to decide what to do with our ship.”

“And our prisoner,” Mongo said.

“Lock him in one of the cabins, then deactivate the computer terminal,” Kevin said. “He’ll be safe enough for now.”

***
Once the alien prisoner was securely locked away, they gathered again on the bridge.

“This is the situation,” Stuart said. “We have a starship, we have a surprising amount of technology ... and we have a desperate need to move quickly to protect Earth. The question is simple. How do we proceed?”

“We could call the government,” Charles pointed out. “They’d be needed to get behind this and push.”

“Hell, no,” Stuart said. The sheer force of his reaction surprised even him. “Do you really want to give this ship and all of its technology to the government?”

Bitter memories welled up in his mind. He forced them down, savagely.

“There’s no way we can trust the current government to do the right thing,” he said. “The best we can hope for is that they will drop the ship into Area 51, give us all a pat on the ass and classify everything to the point where no one knows a thing about it. And then they will exploit it for petty political reasons while ignoring the looming threat from outer space.”

“Except for the fact there’s just four of us,” Charles said. “Five if you count the alien.”

“We have friends,” Stuart reminded him. “Men and women who can be trusted to keep a secret and join us, people who would leap at the chance to escape the morass our country is becoming.”

“Or we could take over,” Kevin mused. “We have the technology to do it now.”

Stuart shook his head. “I’m not interested in taking over the federal government,” he said, bitterly. “I’m interested in getting away from it. And in protecting my homeworld.”

He smiled, rapidly pulling together a plan. “We reach out to people we know and invite them to join us,” he said. “In the meantime, we start work on expanding our capabilities, unlocking the secrets of the alien technology and establishing a settlement on the moon.”

Kevin considered it. “We’ll need money,” he said. “Some of the tech would have to be sold.”

He paused. “You know we have four fabricators, right?”

Stuart frowned. It had been mentioned, but he hadn't had the time to follow up and work out what they actually did. He checked with the interface and discovered that they produced items according to saved specifications, provided enough raw materials were provided. That wouldn't be a problem, he decided. All they had to do was start shovelling in material from the lunar surface.

“There are some limits,” Kevin said. “They cannot reproduce themselves, for example, nor can they produce certain kinds of technology. But there should be quite a few examples of tech we can sell ... we’d just have to be very careful how we inserted it into Earth’s economic network. Something that appeared completely out of nowhere would raise eyebrows.”

“You’re in charge of finding something we can use,” Stuart decided. “And of finding a way we can ... insert our new technology without raising too many eyebrows.”

“There are thousands of possibilities,” Kevin offered. “I was going to suggest fusion power and computer technology. The former, in particular, should be very lucrative.”

“But would definitely attract government attention,” Charles said, softly. “Computer technology might pass under the radar for the moment.”

“Work on it,” Stuart ordered. “What else do we need?”

“Food,” Mongo said, immediately. He snorted. “Food and human tech we can use on the moon.”

Stuart gave Mongo a puzzled look, so he explained.

“The problem with getting into orbit is getting into orbit,” he said. “Getting something the size of the space shuttle into orbit costs a shitload of fuel. But we can bypass that problem with the shuttles we have, which will allow us to start using human technology on the moon without needing to place extra demands on our fabricators. Hell, we've had all the tech we needed to set up a lunar settlement for years. All we lacked was the ability to get there in the first place.”

“Fucking politicians,” Stuart muttered.

“Tell me something,” Charles said. “Are we seriously considering setting up our own country?”

“Yes,” Stuart said.

He wondered, briefly, if his friend – a natural conservative – thought they were moving too fast. But time was of the essence. Quite apart from the alien threat, they needed to be well-established before secrecy slipped ... and he knew, from bitter experience, that nothing remained secret indefinitely. Missing people would be noticed, strange new technology would be noticed ... all in all, eventually someone would put the pieces together and realise the truth. And, at that point, there would be trouble.

The federal government hated it when people tried to move outside its sphere of control, no matter the reason. It was incapable of leaving people alone, even if they weren't causing trouble or doing anything more than keeping themselves to themselves. And the technology Stuart and his buddies had lucked into would reshape the world. The federal government would want it, very badly,

And they'd really hate the idea of someone setting up an independent state on the moon.

He pushed the thought aside and looked at Charles. “I want the three of us to put our heads together and work out a list of people who might be suitable recruits for our new society,” he said. “Mainly military veterans, but feel free to add people who haven’t served, but might still be useful. Ideally, people more than a little disenchanted with the government.”

“Don’t go for anyone on active service,” Kevin offered, “Too much room for divided loyalties.”

“Understood,” Charles said. He held up a hand before Stuart could say a word. “What do we do if someone turns down our offer? Because someone will, soon enough. Either because they don't want to leave their comfortable homes or because they have patriotic objections to setting up on our own.”

Stuart swallowed. The thought of killing someone who knew too much was sickening, yet they might not have a choice. Unless they intended to take prisoners ...

He paused. “Could we wipe their minds?”

Kevin hesitated. “Perhaps,” he said. “But the techniques are unreliable.”

“We’ll deal with it when it happens,” Stuart said. He knew he was pushing the problem back until they actually had to confront it, but he saw no alternative. “It depends on the exact situation.”

Charles gave him a knowing look, but said nothing. Instead, he changed the subject.

“You do realise we’ll need a constitution and everything, soon enough?”

“Soon,” Stuart said. “Or maybe we could just crib the one we already have.”

“You’d better go chat to Mariko,” Mongo said. “And I should go chat to Jayne.”

Charles swore out loud. “And Vincent! What do we do about him?”

Stuart felt a sudden spurt of hope. “Could the alien tech reanimate him?”

Kevin shook his head. “Not now his brain has been dead for too long,” he said. “But we could bury him on the moon.”

“Except someone would notice he was gone,” Stuart said. Vincent hadn't exactly been unpopular. His wife might not be expecting him back for another week, but she was expecting him. They’d have to tell her something, preferably the truth. “We can fake his death in an accident that wipes out all traces of anything ... inhuman.”

“Have to be a pretty nasty accident,” Charles said.

“Vincent was always modifying those old cars of his,” Mongo reminded them. “It wouldn't be too hard to rig one so it exploded, burning him to death and wiping out the evidence.”

“We could probably fix up his body too, a little,” Kevin added. “Or we could simply report that he disappeared on our camping trip.”

“Or we could simply disappear completely ourselves,” Stuart mused. “Wives, children ... all gone to space. Nothing left for anyone to find.”

He shook his head. “I want to speak to Mariko,” he said. It wasn't fair to leave his partner out of it, particularly as she shared his disdain for the federal government. “But we should work out a list of likely contacts now, while we explore more of what this ship can do.”

It was nearly an hour before they had a list of forty possible names. The arguments waxed and waned over some of the more controversial additions; Kevin had wanted a handful of intelligence specialists to help go through the ship’s databanks, while Charles and Mongo wanted more Marines and Rangers respectively. There was a general agreement against head-hunting any of the USAF’s fighter jocks, but some heavy transport pilots – and CAS – specialists – would be very welcome. And then Kevin had another brainwave.

“There’s always Ed,” he said. “What about him?”

Stuart gave him a sharp look. Edward Romford had been badly wounded during the flare-up in Afghanistan and then, thanks to the VA’s incompetence, hadn't received medical treatment in time to save his spine. He was currently permanently installed in a residence home near New York, trapped in a wheelchair that he hated. Stuart liked Ed – they’d shared some fun times together – but it was hard to face him after he'd been permanently crippled. The sight of the wounded veteran was a reminder that Stuart could have easily joined him.

He smiled, slowly, as he realised what Kevin meant. “We could save his legs, couldn't we?”

“Or make him an enhanced soldier,” Kevin added. “Humanity’s very first cyborg.”

“Why not?” Stuart asked. “You start working on a plan to get him out of the residence home without raising too many eyebrows.”

Kevin smirked. “Daring commando raid?”

“I was thinking more about offering to take him into the ranch,” Stuart said, patiently.

“Or we could just beam him out of the residence,” Mongo offered. “Maybe give one of those bitch nurses a heart attack.”

“Something more subtle than that,” Stuart said, warningly. He stood up. “Unless anyone has any objection, I intend to beam down and collect Vincent’s body, then proceed to the ranch and explain everything to Mariko.”

“No objections here,” Mongo said. “Just make sure you bring her up here before Jayne sees you. She’ll want to know what happened to me.”

Stuart smirked. “I’ll tell her you’re several thousand light years away.”

“I hate you,” Mongo said, without heat. “And so will Jayne, if you don’t let me tell her first.”

Stuart nodded and accessed the user interface. After what had happened to Kevin, he was reluctant to submerge himself in data; instead, he asked questions and listened carefully to the responses. The teleporter – he had to remind himself to stop thinking of it as a transporter – seemed to work along the basic Star Trek principles. It was just a little dodgy to use it without a proper matter buffer at one end of the teleport.

“Find a science-fiction author we can recruit,” he said, after losing himself in the technobabble once again. “Someone who speaks fluent Geek. Hell, we probably need someone to come to grips with just what combat in space actually entails.”

“I’ll find one,” Kevin promised. “Good luck, bro.”

“Just don’t let yourself be seen materialising,” Charles warned. “One of your kids might be sharp enough to realise he wasn't seeing things.”

“They probably would,” Kevin agreed. “And think how much smarter they will be once neural interface technology enters the educational system. They’ll be able to imprint information into their minds.”

“Not with the teachers unions,” Charles commented.

“There won’t be any on the moon,” Stuart said. He smiled as his dream unfolded in front of him. “It will be a land of individualists, with no collective responsibility for anything.”

“Really?” Charles asked. “Even defence?”

“It may take us a while to work out a political theory,” Stuart admitted. “I’ll beam down now, folks. Have fun in my absence.”

“We’ll try not to crash the ship into an asteroid,” Mongo called.

Stuart gave him a one-fingered gesture and walked out the hatch.
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#8
Chapter Five

Montana, USA

The Stuart Family Ranch wasn't that large, not compared to some of the huge ranches in Montana. Situated between two mountain ranges, it consisted of three barns, five fields and a large pond Steve had fished in, when he was a younger child. His ancestors had made it a point of pride that their somewhat isolated ranch rarely needed to hire outside help. The family could handle it for themselves, they’d decided, although they’d had problems doing both that and fighting for their country. But it had bred a self-reliance in them that had kept the family going through thick and thin.

Steve gasped as he materialised under the trees, some distance from the ranch house. The whole sensation of being teleported felt eerie, although not as bad as he’d feared. It felt as if every atom in his body had been tickled as the world dissolved into silver light, then reformed around him. As he’d expected, no one was close enough to see his arrival. The apple trees that surrounded the family cemetery hid him from outside view.

He caught his breath, suddenly very aware of his heartbeat pounding inside his chest. The experience was profoundly alien, raising all sorts of questions in his mind. Had the real Steve died when he entered the teleporter, only to be replaced by a completely identical copy that thought it was the original? Or was the teleporter sophisticated enough to duplicate a soul as well as a physical body? Somehow, he was sure that scientists and theologians would be debating the issue for centuries to come. But did it really matter?

Shaking his head, he looked down at himself. Everything seemed to be where it belonged, so he reached up and touched the silver band around his head. He’d worried about walking outside the network interface’s range, but the interface had told him that he would have to be several light-seconds away from the starship before it started to have problems maintaining the connection. Even then, it could send data packets back and forth, even if it couldn’t maintain a teleport lock. Bracing himself, he walked forward until he pushed through the apple trees and headed down towards the house.

“Hey, Uncle Steve,” two of Mongo’s children called. “You’re back early!”

Steve smirked. They didn't know the half of it.

“I’m back, yes,” he said, instead. “Where’s my partner?”

They pointed towards the ranch house. Steve nodded to the two boys and strode past them, up to the door. Up close, it was clear that certain members of the family were more than a little paranoid; the door was painted to look like wood, but it was actually solid metal. But then, it would be hours, at best, before the law enforcement forces got out to the ranch if the owners called for help. Taking care of themselves was practically bred into them. Tapping the door, he opened it and stepped inside. Mariko looked out from the kitchen, surprise written all over her face. She hadn't expected to see him for several days.

“Hi, honey,” Steve said. “I’m home.”

Mariko flowed forward and wrapped him in a hug. She’d surprised Steve when they’d first met – the city girl who’d become a doctor and then a vet, purely because she wanted to get out of the city – and continued to surprise him, every few days. They might not have married – Steve had his suspicions about modern marriage – but he considered her his wife in every way that mattered. And they’d had four children together.

“So,” she said, after a brief kissing session. “What’s that?”

Steve smiled as she pointed to the headband. “It’s a long story, honey,” he said. “You’d better be sitting down.”

Mariko lifted her eyebrows, but did as she was told. She was a slight girl, in many ways, her Japanese features seeming out of place in the ranch house. And yet there was a strength around her that continued to impress him, even after twelve years of partnership. She might not have been born into the ranch culture, but she belonged there now.

“You see, we were abducted from the campsite,” Steve began. “By aliens.”

Mariko listened, her face clearly doubtful, as Steve ran through the entire story, from the alien craft to the moment they’d decided to set up a new nation for themselves. Steve wasn't in the habit of lying to anyone, certainly not his partner, but the entire story was more than a little unbelievable. And then she leaned forward and took a closer look at the silver headband.

“It’s grown into your flesh,” she said, sharply. Her fingers poked and prodded at where the headband met his skin. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Steve allowed his smile to widen. “You believe me now?”

“... Maybe,” Mariko said. She stood up. “Show me the starship.”

“Of course,” Steve said. He’d already planned where he wanted to take her first, once she was onboard the ship. He stood and took her arm. “Try to relax, honey.”

He sent the command through the interface. Moments later, the entire room dissolved into silver light, only to reform as a teleport bay. Mariko staggered against him as soon as the teleport beam let go of her, clearly badly shocked. Steve felt a moment of regret – had he moved too fast? – then shook his head, mentally. He had to show her the truth before she decided he was playing a joke on her – or that he'd gone mad.

She muttered something in Japanese as he led her out of the compartment and down the stained corridor, into the observation blister. The Hordesmen hadn't seemed like tourists, but the ship’s original designers had been firm believers in placing windows and portholes in their starships. Steve rather understood how they felt. He’d been in submarines twice and both of them had been rather claustrophobic. The alien ship was larger than any submarine or spacecraft humanity had ever built, but the crews might well face the same problem. They needed to look out of the craft from time to time.

Mariko clutched his arm tightly as they entered the observation blister. Ahead of them, Earth glowed in the darkness of interplanetary space. Steve shook his head in awe as Mariko stepped up to the edge of the blister and pressed her fingertips against the glass – if it was glass, Steve told himself. It might as well be transparent aluminium.

“It’s beautiful,” she said, her eyes shining as she turned to face him. “It’s ... fantastic!”

“It is,” Steve agreed. It was suddenly very easy to take her in his arms and kiss her. “It's the dawn of a brave new world.”

He held her for a moment longer, then sobered. “There’s something – someone – I’d like you to take a look at,” he added. “Although I’m not sure if you will be wearing your doctor’s outfit or your vet’s coat.”

Mariko snickered, then stared up at him. “You captured an alien?”

“Yes,” Steve said, simply. For a doctor, the chance to study a completely non-human life form had to be the Holy Grail. But they needed the alien techie alive. “Please don’t dissect him.”

“I won’t,” Mariko promised.

Steve led her through the maze of corridors, back up to the cabin where Mongo was on guard. “You can go speak to Jayne now,” he said, to his brother. “Bring her up here after you’ve told her the truth.”

He scowled. “And then we have to prepare Vincent’s body for disposal,” he added. “It can't look even remotely damaged.”

Mariko looked up at him. “When are you going to tell his wife?”

Steve winced. “After this,” he said. “Will you come with me?”

Mariko nodded, wordlessly.

***
Cn!lss had never really expected to be taken prisoner. As a rule, the Horde rarely took prisoners, not when resources had been very limited on their homeworld. The only times they took prisoners were when the captive could be ransomed back to their Horde or when the captive might know something useful. In the latter case, the captive was taken somewhere safe and brutally tortured until he gave up his secrets, then executed as soon as he had surrendered everything. It wasn't as if his fellows would want him back.

But the humans seemed to be remarkably considerate captors. They’d refused to give him a terminal or anything else he could use to work, but they had given him food, water and a certain amount of privacy. Compared to what he’d had to endure under the Subhorde Commander, it was almost paradise. Those who actually tried to understand alien technology got no respect from their fellow Hordesmen.

He looked up as the hatch opened, revealing two humans. It was hard to tell the scrawny bipeds apart, but one of them wore a neural interface, suggesting that he’d been one of the original captives. The thought made him clack his feet against the deck in frustration. It was clear, now, that the Varnar hadn't engineered fighting abilities into their cyborgs. They were natural fighters, even when taken by surprise and transported into an utterly unfamiliar environment.

The second human took a step backwards as Cn!lss came into view. It was hard – again – to be sure, but the protrusions on the human’s chest suggested a female ... unless the humans were radically different from the other biped races. Not that that meant the female would be subordinate, he reminded himself sharply. There were races where one sex was clearly superior and races where both sexes were equals ... and races where swapping sex was as natural as breathing. For all he knew, he was looking at the Queen of Earth.

“I greet you,” he said, dropping into the Posture of Respect. Whatever she was, he had a feeling that rudeness to her would not go unpunished. “I am Cn!lss.”

There was a long pause as the translator worked through his words. “Hi,” the human female said, in return. “I am ...”

Cn!lss cocked his head, unsurprised, as the translator failed to provide any translation for the alien name. Unlike concepts such as technology, basic names and superstitions were hard to translate, no matter how capable the computers operating the system. Besides, one race’s religion and naming conventions were another race’s source of endless amusement.

“I would like to examine your body,” the human female said. “Would that be permissible?”

“Yes,” Cn!lss said. Compared to the torture he’d been expecting, a medical examination wouldn't be too bad. “I would not object at all.”

***
Steve had been reminded – again – of just why he'd fallen in love with Mariko. She'd stopped dead when she’d seen the alien, as if nothing she’d seen up to then had been quite real, and then she’d gone forward and started a conversation. Now, she was poking and prodding at the alien’s body, all the while bombarding him with questions about how his body actually worked. Not all of the answers seemed to make sense, but at least they were learning something.

“They're egg-layers,” Mariko said, afterwards. They left the alien in the cabin and walked out to a place where they could talk. “And they’re real.”

“They sure are,” Steve said. “What else did you find out?”

“He’s quite ignorant of how his body works,” Mariko said. “I’d need a proper laboratory to do more research, but I think he knows almost nothing. It seems odd.”

“These guys seem to have been kept in ignorance,” Steve muttered. It still seemed absurd to him that the aliens didn't even begin to comprehend the potentials of their own systems, but he had seen human groups with similar levels of ignorance. He straightened up as Mongo and Jayne walked past, the latter looking completely stunned. “Welcome to our new ship.”

“Thank you,” Jayne stammered. Unlike Mariko, her family had been ranchers for the last two hundred years and had no intention of leaving their land. But that might have changed now, Steve knew. The children, in particular, would be fascinated by the starship ... and the chance to live on the moon. “This is ... this is ...”

Steve sighed, inwardly. Mariko was adaptable, Jayne ... was not. But it was hard to blame her; she’d grown up in Montana, never gone to college or anything else that might have taken her out of the state and married a man she’d known since they were both children. It was a comfortable marriage, Steve considered, but it wasn't exciting. Or maybe he was completely wrong. Both he and Mongo were gentlemen. They didn't kiss their wives and then compare notes.

“Something new,” he said. Would Jayne refuse to join them? Would they have to decide what to do about someone who wanted out sooner rather than later? “And it’s one hell of an opportunity.”

“Yes,” Jayne said. She wrinkled her nose. “It also stinks.”

Steve watched Mongo lead his wife further into the ship, then nodded to Mariko and led her back towards the teleport compartment. Mariko bombarded him with questions about how the system worked, questions that produced little or no useful data from the interface. It was quite happy to teach them how to teleport into a high security zone – it crossed Steve’s mind that he could simply beam into the White House – but it still wasn't prepared to tell them how the technology actually worked. Steve made a mental note about hiring scientists who might be able to start unlocking its mysteries, then set their destination coordinates as close to Vincent’s home as he dared. Living on the edge of a town, Vincent had far more neighbours than Steve and his family.

“I wonder,” Mariko said, as she eyed the teleporter, “what happens if we merge with something else that’s already there.”

Steve queried the interface. “Apparently,” he said after a moment, “the compensators push everything out of the way.”

He paused, considering it. The system would make one hell of a weapon, if used properly ... or they could simply teleport bombs onto enemy ships. No, somehow he doubted that was possible. If a relatively small terminal could mess up the teleport lock, it was certain that a more advanced race had ways to block teleport signals. They certainly wouldn't share the technology with a band of barbarian scavengers if they didn't have any way to defend against it.

Mariko held herself very still as Steve joined her on the pad, then sent the signal. The starship faded away around them, to be replaced by the edges of a small farm. Steve glanced around quickly, wondering if they had been seen by one of Vincent’s hired hands, then led the way towards the farmhouse. Mariko followed, her face surprisingly pale. It was clear that she didn't like teleporting, no matter how efficient it was. But Steve suspected she wouldn't be the only one who had her doubts about the system.

He smiled as he saw Vincent’s small collection of older cars parked in the yard. Vincent could have expanded the farm several times over for what he’d paid for the vehicles, to say nothing of the difficulties he faced in keeping them running. But Vincent had always been a little paranoid about new technology, pointing out – when they’d teased him – just how often it had failed on the battlefield. When the Chinese dropped an EMP bomb on the US, he’d said, they’d be glad of his cars then. And, until then, they were a hobby.

Poor bastard, Steve thought, as he reached the farmhouse door and knocked. You deserved so much better.

Vincent’s wife opened the door and peered at them, alarmed. Steve cursed, inwardly; normally, carefully-trained officers were sent to inform wives and families of their death of their husbands and fathers in combat. It was never a duty he'd wanted, nor was it one he’d ever had to do until now. And he didn't know what to say.

“Ginny,” Mariko said, taking the lead, “can we come in?”

Ginny paled, but led them into the sitting room. Vincent had decorated half of it with paintings and drawings of vintage cars, Ginny had decorated the other half with paintings of flowers and her family. She was quite a talented artist, Steve had often considered, when she had time to paint. Normally, the life of a farmwife consumed all of her time. He felt an odd lump in his throat when he saw a painting of Vincent himself, then one of Mariko from years ago. There was something almost waiflike in her face that had faded over the years.

“I'm afraid we have bad news,” Steve said. He hesitated, watching her rapidly paling face. What did one say to a wife who’d just lost her husband? And a wife who would have to help fake the conditions of her husband’s death to avoid attracting attention? “Vincent ...”

“Is dead,” Ginny finished. She shook, suddenly. “What happened? And why?”

Steve took a breath and explained everything.

“Impossible,” Ginny said, when he had finished. She didn't sound as if she believed them. “He can't have died like that, surely.”

Steve wondered, suddenly, what she was thinking. He hadn't been as close to Vincent as he was to Mongo, so he had no idea how strong his friend’s marriage had been. Did Ginny think that Vincent had run off with a younger woman and convinced Steve to tell his wife a cock-and-bull story to explain his disappearance? But surely no one would come up with such a story and expect it to be believed?

“It’s true,” Mariko said. She held out a hand as Ginny started to cry, then wrapped her into a hug. Steve watched, awkwardly, as the two women held each other tightly. Female tears had always embarrassed him. “We’ll take you to see the body.”

“Yes,” Steve said. He send the instructions through the interface. “Brace yourself.”

Once again, the world dissolved into silver light.
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#9
Chapter Six

Virginia, USA

Kevin parked the car outside the house, then took a long breath. Making contact with potential sources had always been part of his job as an intelligence officer, but it had also been fraught with danger. A source might turn out to be a double-agent or nothing more than bait in a trap. And now, even with the headband hidden under his cap, he couldn't help fearing what would happen if his target took what he said to the government. Bracing himself, he walked up the path and knocked firmly on the front door.

A middle-aged man opened it, lifting one eyebrow. Kevin felt an odd spurt of hero-worship – he'd grown up reading the man’s books – which he firmly suppressed. There would be time to ask him to autograph his copies later. Instead, he held up the faked ID card and waited for the man to examine it.

“I’m Kevin, Kevin Stuart,” he said. “We spoke briefly on the phone. Mr. Glass, I presume?”

Keith Glass nodded, stoking his beard as he studied the card. “That is I,” he said. “What can I do for you, Mr. Stuart?”

“Just Kevin, please,” Kevin said. “My ... employers have a proposition for you.”

Glass nodded and turned, leading the way into the house. Kevin followed, keeping his hero-worship under control. Keith Glass had spent ten years in the USN before retiring and starting a new career as an author. His work might not have won any Hugo Awards – they were delightfully politically incorrect – but they had a loyal fan base which grew larger every year. It had crossed Kevin’s mind that recruiting Glass might put a dampener on new novels, yet they needed someone with military experience and a libertarian bent. Glass seemed to fit the bill nicely.

Once they were in the study – he couldn't help admiring the computer and the massive shelves of books – he opened his briefcase and produced a piece of paper. “I'm afraid we have to ask you to sign this before we can bring you onboard,” he said. “It’s a standard security agreement.”

Glass ran his eyes down the agreement. “This isn't standard,” he said. “I would be surprised if it was even legal.”

Kevin shrugged. “Consider it a standard government-issue non-disclosure agreement,” he said. “There are no protective safeguards because there is nowhere else you could acquire the data which will be disclosed to you. Should you break the agreement, for whatever reason, the consequences would be dire.”

“I see,” Glass said. He placed the contract on the desk and looked up, meeting Kevin’s eyes. “Why should I sign this agreement?”

“Because this represents an opportunity that will never come your way again,” Kevin said. He’d targeted Glass first because he admired the man’s writing skills ... and his innovative approach to old problems. But there were other science-fiction writers. “This is a chance to join a working group that will have a decisive effect on the world.”

“I was told that before, back in 2003,” Glass said. “If we had any effect on the world, beyond wasting thousands of valuable trees to print out our reports, I didn't see it.”

Kevin scowled, inwardly. Glass had other qualifications than just being a writer used to considering the possibilities of space combat. He’d been involved in the Bush Administration’s attempts to light a fire under NASA’s collective hindquarters and get the human race heading back out into space, then a civilian attempt to work with commercial space developers to establish bases on the moon. All of those attempts had failed, killed by bureaucracy and the simple shortage of money. The experience had left all of those involved more than a little bitter.

“This is different,” Kevin said. He leaned forward, throwing caution to the winds. “I tell you, sir, that this is one opportunity you won’t want to miss.”

He tapped the agreement. “Should you sign, you will be told the full story,” he continued. “If you don’t want to be involved after that, which I highly doubt, you will be free to go as long as you keep your mouth shut until full public disclosure. After that ... you will spend the rest of your life wishing you’d made a different decision.”

Glass met his eyes. “Alien contact,” he said. “A crashed UFO?”

Kevin merely smiled. “Sign the agreement,” he said. “Sign the agreement and all will be revealed.”

Glass picked up a pen and signed it with a flourish. Kevin took it back, stuck it in his briefcase, and produced a cell phone. Glass eyed it, puzzled.

Kevin flipped it open, unable to resist. “Scotty,” he said. “Two to beam up.”

“You have got to be fucking ...”

The world dissolved into silver light, then reformed.

“... Kidding me,” Glass finished. “I ...”

Kevin smiled. “Welcome onboard, Mr. Glass,” he said. “We have a lot to show you.”

***
“It seems to have worked,” Mongo said. “The cops haven’t raised any awkward questions about the accident.”

Steve smiled, humourlessly. Mariko had used the medical kits on the starship to repair the damage to Vincent’s body, then they’d placed it in one of his old cars and deliberately crashed it off the road. The body had been discovered several metres from the crash site, having been hurled right out of the car and into the ground hard enough to break his neck instantly. With nothing suspicious about the corpse, it would be soon handed back to Ginny and cremated, just to make sure there was nothing left for a later investigation.

“Glad to hear it,” he said, finally. One day, the world would know that Vincent had been the first casualty of a war that threatened all of humanity. Until then, people wouldn't raise too many different questions. Everyone who’d known him knew about his hobby of driving old cars. “And Ginny herself?”

“She seems to be coping,” Mongo said. “Jayne’s staying with her at the moment.”

Steve nodded. Once the wives had been told, they’d brought in the children and a handful of relatives. They’d all agreed to keep the starship a secret, although not all of them had wanted to travel to the moon – or anywhere else, for that matter. Steve had accepted their word, then put the newcomers to work scrubbing the decks. The starship needed to be made safe for human inhabitation.

He looked up as Keith Glass stumbled into the compartment, a faintly pole-axed expression on his face. Steve smiled at him, then held out a hand and waited. Eventually, the stunned writer noticed and shook it, firmly.

“Welcome onboard,” Steve said. “Will you be joining us?”

Glass nodded, frantically. Steve smiled, inwardly. Kevin had been right. What sort of science-fiction writer worthy of the name would refuse such an opportunity?

“Then let me tell you what we have in mind,” Steve said. “Kevin, are you ready to proceed with stage two?”

“I think so,” Kevin said. “There shouldn't be any unexpected surprises.”

“Keep a teleport lock on you at all times,” Steve warned. “But try not to hit the panic button unless there is no choice.”

Kevin nodded and left the compartment. “We're planning to found our own nation,” Steve said, turning back to Glass. “Are you willing to help us?”

***
The Ashcroft Residential Home was, in Kevin’s droll opinion, a testament to the failure of the country to stick up for its wounded veterans. Some had been able to get the best of medical care, others had had no families or friends willing to assist them in overcoming their conditions and returning to civilian life. Kevin felt a chill run down his spine as he walked up to the doorway and stepped into the lobby. If he'd been wounded in combat – or Steve or Mongo – he might well have wound up in a similar place.

No, he corrected himself. Steve and Mongo would never leave me here.

The receptionist – a pretty black woman – looked up at him and smiled. “Can I ask your business?”

“I'm here to see Edward Romford,” Kevin said. “It's concerning a possible placement for him in the outside world.”

“I see,” the receptionist said. “I’ll have to ask you to fill out these forms.”

Kevin sighed – there were four pages to fill in – and cursed the bureaucracy under his breath. He'd never had to rely on the VA for anything, but he’d heard horror stories about wounded ex-soldiers struggling with the paperwork or being penalised for simple mistakes that would have gone unnoticed in a more decent era. Patiently, he filled them in with his cover story and handed them back to the receptionist, who didn't even bother to look at them. Instead, she pointed him towards one of the gardens and waved goodbye.

He rolled his eyes as he walked through the building, noting just how boring it had to be for the wounded veterans. There were televisions and DVD players, but there were also large signs forbidding smoking, drinking and gambling. He had a strong suspicion that the latter two were completely ignored, provided the veterans could get their hands on money and cards. Someone sympathetic might well have smuggled them both into the complex.

Outside, the garden was depressingly morbid, despite some attempts to cheer up the veterans with flowers. A handful of wheelchairs were parked on the grass, evenly spaced around the garden, making it harder for the veterans to even talk to one another. They ranged in age, he noted; some of them were younger than him, others were old enough to be his father. He caught sight of the man he wanted and walked forward, coming to a halt in front of his chair.

Up close, it was clear that Edward Romford was no older than Kevin himself – and crippled, crippled beyond the help of human medical science. According to the reports he’d downloaded from the residence home’s computers – their security was laughable, although they had no conception of the threat facing them - Edward Romford would never walk again and, without a family to take him in, he had simply been abandoned at the home. But how long would the home be able to look after him?

“Sir,” he said. “I come with a proposition.”

“Married already,” Romford croaked. He wasn't, Kevin knew. His ex-wife had left him long before he’d been wounded, yet another marriage destroyed by the strains deployment placed on it. “Fuck off.”

He paused. “Unless you have alcohol,” he added, in a softer tone. “Bitch over there says it destroys our brain cells. Why else would we want to drink it?”

Kevin smiled. “You seem to be mentally sound,” he said. “Listen carefully.”

He leaned closer. “There’s a new residence home for veterans, in Montana,” he said. It was the cover story they’d established, after they’d worked out that there were no relatives who could simply take Edward Romford away without permission. “They’re pioneering a new treatment. You may be able to walk again.”

Edward Romford looked up, torn between hope and wariness. He’d long since lost hope of being able to walk again, let alone have a full life. Kevin understood just how easy it would be to give in to despair and just waste away, no matter how carefully one was treated by the nurses. Now ... Romford had to wonder if this was real ... or if it was just a trick. But there was no motive to trick him or anyone else.

“You can come with me, now,” he added. “Or you can stay here for the rest of your life.”

Romford smiled. “Take me away,” he said. “Hell, just take me outside the walls and leave me there. I can get away from there on my own.”

Kevin winced in pity. The residence home was hardly a prison, provided the inhabitants could walk. As it was, they couldn't get up the steps or out past the gates without help. To someone who had once walked all over Afghanistan, it was a prison, made worse by the fact the nurses were genuinely trying to help. Or were they? Kevin was a cynical person at the best of times and he couldn’t keep himself from wondering if the veterans in the garden were meant to catch cold and die. It would take a burden off the residence home’s nurses.

“Just don't say a word,” he said, as he took the handles of the wheelchair and pushed it forward, back towards the house. “I’ve already cleared the paperwork.”

Somewhat to his disappointment, no one tried to bar their path as he pushed the wheelchair through the building and down to the van. Finding a van designed for a wheelchair had been surprisingly tricky – it seemed that there were additional requirements to drive one – but he’d found one eventually. He helped Romford into the vehicle, secured the wheelchair in place and then clambered into the driver’s seat. No one shouted in outrage as they drove out of the car park and onto the road.

“A daring commando raid,” Romford observed. He chuckled, harshly. “Bitches never let us leave, even with an escort. I used to pray for terrorists or even muggers, just to put us out of our misery.”

“I’m sorry,” Kevin said. He felt another pang of bitter guilt – and rage. Surely their country could do better than this for their wounded veterans? No wonder Romford had prayed for death. Given the complete absence of security at the residence home, it was a minor miracle that terrorists hadn't attacked the building already. “But it’s nearly over now.”

He parked the van – they’d been warned against trying to teleport away from a moving vehicle – and then sent the command to the interface. The world became silver – he heard Romford yelp in shock – then resolved, revealing the starship’s sickbay. Romford gasped and choked, then coughed violently as Mariko ran forward and caught him. Kevin watched, grimly, as she ran one of the alien scanners over his body.

“You’re an angel,” Romford said. He sounded dazed. “Am I in heaven?”

“You're in a starship,” Mariko said, softly. She looked up at Steve. “I think he’s of reasonably sound mind, but there’s a lot of damage.”

She hesitated. “And I’m not sure about the ethics of some of the proposed treatments.”

Kevin could understand. Healing someone was one thing, but taking out their brain and inserting it into a cyborg frame was quite another. He wouldn't have wanted to give up sex and the other pleasures of being human, yet if he was facing certain death would he still make the same decision? And besides, Romford wasn't quite on the verge of death.

Romford produced a croaking sound, drawing their attention. “What sort of treatments?”

Kevin opened his mouth to respond, but Mariko beat him to it. “We can heal you, to some extent,” she said. “Or we can transform you into an inhuman cyborg. You would no longer be completely human.”

What an elegant sales pitch, Kevin thought, sourly. But did they really want cyborgs?

Romford hesitated. “You can heal me?”

“You’ll be able to walk again, yes,” Mariko confirmed. “It may take some time for you to get used to it, but you’ll be able to walk again. And we can fix the other damage at the same time.”

“Then please do so,” Romford said.

Kevin watched as Mariko helped him into the tube – for all her slight build, she was surprisingly strong – and activated the medical system. There was a long pause, long enough to make Kevin wonder if something had gone wrong, then the system came to life, scanning Romford’s body. He shook his head in awe. Even under the best circumstances, no human treatment could eradicate the effects of those wounds. But for the alien autodoc it was all in a day’s work.

“There would be people who would pay millions for this kind of treatment,” he said, softly. “We could approach them and ...”

“We will,” Steve said. “But the vets come first.”

“Yes, sir,” Kevin said. After seeing the residential home, it had become clear that they needed to reach out for other suitable candidates. With a little effort, and some computer hacking, they could create a whole charity intent on transferring wounded veterans to the ranch, where they could be teleported to the starship. “But there are others we also need to recruit.”

“You’ll be off to Switzerland next,” Steve said. “Don’t forget your passport.”

Kevin snorted. He’d have given his right arm for the teleporter while he’d been in intelligence, if only to avoid border controls and hazardous journeys across bandit-infested mountains. Maybe the Marines and the Rangers did more fighting – it was hard to argue that – but the intelligence officers were often in more danger. Kevin had been in places where a single word out of place would have ensured his death.

But Switzerland was a reasonably peaceful country.

“I won't need it,” he said. “How’s Keith settling in?”

“Reading as much as he can download,” Steve said. “I think his fans are going to be a little disappointed this year.”

Kevin sighed. “They’ll tar and feather me if they ever find out,” he said. Glass’s fans were quite faithful. They wouldn't forgive one of their own for taking their writer away from his work. “Did we get a few samples produced from the fabricators?”

“They’re ready,” Steve said. “Have fun. And just think of all the air miles you’re racking up.”

“You mean teleporter miles,” Kevin corrected. “And I don't think they really count.”

“Probably should,” Mariko said, from where she was watching the medical treatment. “Have you considered the long-term effects of having your body broken down to energy and then put back together again?”

“No,” Kevin said.

“Nor as anyone else, as far as I can determine,” Mariko said. “If it were up to me, I’d have the teleport restricted as much as possible.”

“We need it,” Steve said, quietly.

Kevin nodded and left the compartment.
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#10
Chapter Seven

Bern, Switzerland

Kevin had always liked the Swiss. They were a mountainous folk, like some of his own family, and they had a robust attitude towards personal freedom, gun ownership and maintaining their independence despite being surrounded by stronger and often hostile nations. Indeed, they actually were more democratic – for better or worse – than much of the Western World.

They also maintained a largely-secure banking system, despite the pressures of the War on Terror. Their reputation for discretion was everything, even though it worked against the forces of freedom and liberty as much as they worked against dictatorships and tyrannies. An African despot could have a Swiss bank account, crammed with as much foreign aid funds as he could loot from his benefactors, but so could his opponents. And they had far fewer pesky laws on technological transfer than the USA. Quite a few small computing businesses had moved operations to Switzerland in the last few years.

He stopped outside the building and smiled to himself. Wilhelm Technology was a very small firm compared to the giants, but it had operations in both Texas and Switzerland. On the surface, the technology they produced was made in Switzerland, allowing it to avoid export restrictions and government interference. If nothing else, the internet made it much harder to hide when something existed the government didn't want its citizens to have. And then they could simply order it from overseas.

Idiots, he thought, sourly. Small innovative firms like Wilhelm had once been the lifeblood of the American economy. Now, they were often forced out of the market by paperwork and regulations that the bigger industries could simply pay lawyers to avoid. Maybe some of the regulations made sense, maybe they didn’t ... but they collectively strangled the life out of the small businessman. In desperation, some of them had even started to outsource their production facilities to other countries. Many of the major industries were already gone.

He stepped inside and smiled. There were few people working in the offices; Wilhelm Technology’s factories consumed much of their manpower. The receptionist looked at his card and waved him to a seat. He’d expected a wait – most corporate big-shots preferred to keep people waiting, just to make their inferiority clear – but he was met within seconds. But then, he should have expected no less.

Markus Wilhelm had been a USAF Geek when Kevin had first met him, years ago. He’d never flown an aircraft and never would, not even one of the Predator drones, but he’d been extremely important, none the less. The fighter pilots might sneer, yet in an age of increasing technological development and deployment, the computer geek was often more important than the pilot. After he’d finished his first term, Wilhelm had taken his expertise and founded a company of his very own. And he’d seen moderate success since then. It would have been more, Kevin knew, if he’d been able to find additional capital.

“Kevin,” Wilhelm said. He was a tall, but slim man, the very picture of a geek. The glasses he wore, he had once claimed, were the same style as Bill Gates had worn before he’d become a billionaire. “It's good to see you again.”

“Likewise,” Kevin said, as Wilhelm led him into the office. He couldn't help a trickle of nervousness. All the other people he’d contacted for Steve – and the ones Mongo was collecting – were people who could disappear, if necessary, without being missed in a hurry. Wilhelm, on the other hand, would be very noticeable if he vanished. People would ask questions. “I was wondering if you would be interested in a business proposition?”

Wilhelm turned and frowned at him. “You are offering me a business proposition?”

“Something like that,” Kevin said. “There is a piece of ... technology we wish you to market for us. We would split the profits.”

“And who,” Wilhelm asked, “are you working for?”

Kevin nodded, mentally. He’d expected the question. Unlike the others, Wilhelm had good reason to be suspicious of any offer, particularly with an unverifiable source. The CIA had turned more than one American business into a front operation over the years, doing serious damage to American interests when the truth finally came out. Wilhelm was hardly interested in turning his company into a cover for the Company, particularly given the pressure on his operations from the NSA.

“Someone new,” Kevin said, evasively. He reached into his briefcase and produced another NDA. He’d rewritten it for Wilhelm, his wife and any of his employees he felt like inviting into the secret. “Someone who needs your assistance in selling his waves.”

Wilhelm’s eyes narrowed. “Tell me,” he said.

Kevin had considered several cover stories, but most of them would be easily to disprove, given enough incentive to ask questions. And Wilhelm would definitely have such incentive.

“Sign,” he said, instead. “And then we will discuss matters.”

After a long moment, Wilhelm took the paper and sighed it.

***
“Let me get this straight,” Wilhelm said, after he’d been teleported to the starship and given a brief tour. “You’re founding your own nation and you intend to sell technology to finance your operations?”

“Basically, yes,” Steve said. He found himself liking Wilhelm on sight, but it was hard to trust anyone who hadn't seen the sharp end of war completely. “We have various ... gadgets we intend to sell, through you if you're interested in helping.”

“A case could be made that your actions are treasonous,” Wilhelm said, after a long moment. “What do you make of that?”

Steve put firm controls on his temper. “I understand that you are having your own problems with the government,” he said. “What do you make of our desire to avoid the government?”

Wilhelm nodded, slowly. Steve smiled, recognising he’d scored a point. He wasn't sure he fully understood Kevin’s explanations of precisely why Wilhelm Technology was having problems, but he was sure it was because of government interference. Besides, if Wilhelm had been completely committed to the government, he would have stayed and worked for them on a very low wage.

“We’ll have to claim they came out of the factory near Bern,” Wilhelm said, finally. “We were ramping up production of the new hard drives in any case, so it isn't completely implausible. Not being able to file a patent, on the other hand, might raise some eyebrows.”

“You can file a confidential patent,” Kevin pointed out.

“The government would still have access,” Wilhelm reminded him. “But it might not be a bad thing if another company eventually cracked the secret of how the technology worked.”

“No, it wouldn't,” Steve agreed. The devices they’d intended to suggest were advanced enough to be noticeable, at least ten to twenty years ahead of Earth’s finest technology. It was depressing to realise that the alien starship designers probably considered them nothing more than toys. “How quickly could you start selling them?”

Wilhelm considered. “Maybe a month or two,” he said. “We could claim that the whole project was so secret hardly anyone knew about it – that isn't uncommon in the computer world – which would allow us to start selling in two weeks, but that would probably raise eyebrows. Few secrets remain secret indefinitely.”

Steve smiled, tiredly. “Are you interested, then?”

“I’d be very interested,” Wilhelm said. “But I’d also be interested in relocating to the moon once you have a colony established. What sort of laws do you intend to have covering commercial operations?”

“We haven’t thought that far ahead, yet,” Steve admitted.

“Better get thinking about it,” Wilhelm said. “There are quite a few possibilities that don’t include alien technology, if you have free access to outer space. Zero-gravity production, for one thing, would allow us to produce all sorts of improvements on current technology and machined components. And then there would be no need to worry about pollution.”

He paused. “You do realise that setting up a lunar base probably convenes the Outer Space Treaty?”

“I didn't sign it,” Steve said. “And nor did the aliens.”

Wilhelm blinked. “I beg your pardon?”

“There are thousands of alien races in the galaxy,” Steve said. He learned forward, meeting the younger man's eyes. “As far as we have been able to determine through searching the alien database, the only law that is actually enforced regularly is a ban on genocide. And even that may be a bit iffy.

“We cannot rely on the aliens blindly accepting our laws when they enter our solar system,” he added, coldly. “The galaxy appears to operate on the principle that might makes right – and they are far mightier than ourselves. If we’re lucky, the best we can hope for is to become a protectorate, just like a newly-discovered tribe of natives in some godforsaken jungle lucky enough not to live near something a more advanced nation wants. If we’re unlucky, we will be enslaved or crushed beneath an alien boot heel. We need to make this work, Markus, before we run out of time. And we cannot rely on the government to do anything other than impede us or smother the effort under countless studies of how to do it quickly.

“To hell with absurd treaties, to hell with charges of treason. I want to win, I want to safeguard humanity’s future. And the only way to do that is to use this opportunity as ruthlessly as possible.”

Wilhelm studied him for a long moment. “Very well,” he said, finally. “I will join you.”

“Excellent,” Steve said. He nodded to Kevin. “My lovely assistant” – Kevin snorted, rudely – “will work with you to determine what would be the most ... productive items to enter the market.”

“I could advance you a loan now,” Wilhelm offered. “I may not be Bill Gates, but I do have quite a bit of money stashed away.”

“That would be very helpful,” Kevin said, before Steve could say a word. “We’re sitting on the largest gold mine in human history and we have barely a cent to our names.”

Wilhelm smiled. “It will be done,” he said. “Can I see one of the aliens?”

“Our sole captive,” Steve said, standing. “Come with me.”

“They don’t seem very clever,” Wilhelm observed, as he followed Steve through the alien corridors. “To let you take control of their ship so easily.”

Kevin smirked. “How many people do you know who use ADMIN as the username and PASSWORD as the password?”

“Point taken,” Wilhelm said. “Half the problems I handed while I was in the service were caused by someone neglecting basic security precautions. One idiot actually took a USB stick he’d found in the trash into the Pentagon and inserted it into his computer. The Chinese must have laughed their heads off when they realised how it had happened.”

Steve turned to look at him. “The Chinese?”

“They’re constantly poking the edge of the electronic fence,” Wilhelm said. “You won’t believe just how much crap they’ve tried to pull, from inserting spyware into almost every computer produced in China to paying officers to obtain passwords and admin permissions for them. There was a whole flurry a few years ago about a remarkably nasty computer worm that might well have come straight from China. We never really got to the bottom of that, no matter what we did.”

He shrugged. “Or it could be the Russians,” he added. “Asymmetric warfare is their thing.

“But it still seems odd for aliens not to notice the dangers.”

“This race seems to be permanently trapped in the Dark Ages,” Steve said, as they reached the alien’s cabin. The cleaning effort hadn't quite reached this part of the ship; he saw Wilhelm wrinkle his nose as he smelled the decomposing alien meat in the air. “Just like some human groups, for that matter.”

“True,” Kevin agreed. “You know we used to offer laptops to schoolchildren in Africa? The idea was that they would develop their talents and join the global information age.”

Wilhelm lifted his eyebrows, but said nothing.

“We did a survey, a year after we donated the laptops,” Kevin explained. “Only a handful of children ever managed to learn how to use them properly. The remainder were either junked or turned into portable lights for the women who cook. They – the laptops – were just so far outside their experience that they had no idea what to do with them.”

“And these aliens are the same,” Wilhelm mused. “You know, we could probably sell some crap to the aliens if that’s the case.”

Steve nodded. “Something to think about, if we live that long,” he agreed. He opened the door to the alien’s room. “Meet ... the alien.”

He smiled as Wilhelm gasped in shock. It was a familiar reaction by now; men who took the teleporter in their stride found themselves caught short by the mere presence of the alien. A couple who happened to be deathly scared of spiders had recoiled when they’d seen the alien, then had to be given alcohol to calm their nerves. But then, after meeting deadly spiders in Iraq and Afghanistan, the fears were actually somewhat logical.

“Let me know when you come to an agreement,” Steve said to Kevin, then left the compartment. “I have to check up on Edward.”

He made his way down to the medical bay, then smiled. In a handful of hours, Mariko had turned it into something more suitable for human use, scrubbing the decks clean and installing a couple of beds she’d had brought up from the ranch. The older kids had helped, captivated by the thought of learning from alien computers and neural interfaces rather than at their desks, along with the rest of the children in the region. He smiled as he saw Edward, lying on one of the beds.

“I feel fine,” Romford protested. “But she threatened to cuff me to the bed if I tried to leave.”

“She’s the boss in this sickbay,” Steve said, firmly. “How are you feeling?”

“Well, I can feel my legs and my groin,” Romford said. “That’s ... very definitely an improvement. And I can actually walk, when she lets me.”

He paused. “Does she have a sister?”

“She never talks to her family,” Steve said. He wasn't surprised by the question. If he’d lost the ability to have sex and then regained it, he would have wanted to have sex as soon as possible too. “But there will be other women coming up here.”

“Or there will be shore leave, I hope,” Romford said. He sat upright, looking down at his hairless chest. “She says the hair will grow back in its own sweet time.”

“She’s probably right,” Steve said. Romford was certainly sounding a whole lot better. The croak was gone from his voice, for one thing. “What else did she say?”

“She said he ought to stay in bed,” Mariko’s voice said. Steve turned to see her standing behind him, her hands on her hips. “I know this autodoc is likely to put us all out of business, but I would infinitely prefer to have you lying down until I am absolutely sure it does what it says on the tin.”

“Yes, boss,” Romford said, reluctantly.

Mariko caught Steve’s hand and pulled him into the next compartment. “I don’t tell you what to do on the ranch,” she snapped. “Don’t tell me what to do in my sickbay!”

An angry retort came to Steve’s lips, but he forced it down. “What’s wrong?”

Mariko sighed. “I checked him carefully,” she said. “I did every test I could think of with the equipment I brought up from the ranch. And you know what I found?”

Steve shook his head.

“Perfection,” Mariko said. “His spine has been repaired, several gunshot wounds are no longer detectable, a small problem with his heart has been fixed, even the excess fat he gained since being forced into the residence has been removed. The autodoc did a perfect job, well beyond anything the best surgeon on Earth could do.”

She sighed. “This thing will put all the surgeons on Earth out of business,” she added. “And there are quite a few other things it can do. Do you realise that we could start producing cancer cures now? Or a modified virus that could destroy AIDS? Or ... hell, Steve, I want to improve the kids. What sort of mother would I be if I let this opportunity pass me by?”

“Improve the kids?” Steve asked. “How?”

“All sorts of little genetic tweaks,” Mariko said. “They’d have perfect eyesight for the rest of their lives. They’d live at least two hundred years with minimal age-related decay. They’d be completely immune to everything from the Common Cold to AIDS. They’d never really put on weight or lose their muscle tone; hell, I think even their mental agility can be modified and improved. And this ... thing just did it! I asked for a list of options and it provided them, almost at once.”

She looked up at him, plaintively. “Steve, honey, this scares the hell out of me.”

Steve frowned. He didn't understand. “Why?”

“One thing you learn as a doctor,” Mariko said, “is that, on average, there are no real differences between different races – different human races, I should say. But with this technology ... it wouldn’t be long until people start creating superhumans, men and women who are smarter, stronger and just plain more capable than the rest of the human race. Or you could start creating slaves, people who really are good for nothing more than grunt labour, people who are always obedient to those they know to be their masters because servitude is engineered into them.

“This is Pandora’s Box, honey. And once you open it you can't stuff the contents back inside.”

She hugged him, tightly. “That’s why I’m scared,” she admitted. “This is going to change the world. Everything will change.”

Steve nodded, hugging her back. Now, he was scared too.
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#11
Chapter 4: ...have a chat with - not go chat to...

Chapter 5: Why not ask the interfaqce if Vincent couild be saved from death?

Chapter 6: If you want Keith Glass to appear snobbish and effete, the use of the predicate nominative form "That is I" is fine. For all speech and casual writing, "That is me" is correct. Grammarians say the "That is I" may only be acceptable for a short time - it has lost its acceptance. Since "That's me" is normal, The more stuffy "That is me" is sufficient to get across a desired image of snobbish effetism.

Chapter 7: "...selling his wares?" "Waves" makes no sense.

...All in all, the first few chapters have been enjoyable, but i must restrain myself from over-critical analysis. I would've used the interface for a lot more help in research and data-mining. These guys want a Constitution? Have the ship look at what the human race has come up with to date, throw in some qualifiers and see what comes out.

I've gotta tell myself that perhaps one of the subplots may be the humans being little better than the hordesman at using the technology available. If so, I see the need for fearing the simple usage of tech - but don't like the logic.
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#12
Owing to a family crisis, chapters have been delayed. Hopefully, they will be resumed tomorrow. Thank you for your time and patience.

Chris
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#13
Chapter Eight

Lunar Base, The Moon

“Now this,” Steve declared, “is impressive.”

“Glad to hear it,” Graham Rochester said. “And glad you decided to look in on us.”

Steve smiled. Rochester had been a British Army Combat Engineer before being seriously wounded in Afghanistan and sent back to face the tender mercies of the British National Health Service. He’d been as badly crippled as Romford – perhaps worse – and the offer of a new life had been too much for him to refuse. Unlike Romford, he’d decided to become an outright cyborg. One of his arms had been replaced by a cyborg arm that whirred and clicked at inappropriate moments, his eyes had been replaced by sensors and his skin had been coated in a material that allowed him to survive in vacuum. He claimed it was far better than mere humanity.

“I was taught it was always a bad idea to let subordinates think I didn't care about them,” Steve said. “But you’ve done wonders in a single month.”

“That’s what the Royal Engineers are for,” Rochester said. “You should see some of the bases we had to put together in Afghanistan at a moment’s notice. Compared to that, this is a snap.”

Steve nodded, his gaze sweeping across the surface of the moon. It looked oddly dirty, with modified human vehicles and mining tools scattered everywhere. The foundations of Heinlein Colony were under the lunar surface – it would provide additional protection and camoflarge for the colony – but enough was visible for him to know that work was proceeding smoothly.

“We had to set up the living quarters first,” Rochester continued. “Not everyone wanted to become a full cyborg, after all. Once they were done, we started to expand the base and look for sources of raw materials. Once we found ice ...”

He smirked. “This base is well on the way to becoming self-sustaining,” he added. “So much for NASA’s little fears, right?”

Steve nodded. As soon as Heinlein Colony was ready to take a small number of settlers, he’d had two of the fabricators and their alien prisoner moved to the settlement, along with half of the supplies the Hordesmen had gathered over the years. Added to the supplies they’d purchased from Earth, Heinlein Colony would definitely be capable of feeding itself indefinitely soon enough, while continuing to expand under the lunar surface.

“We’ve actually got a couple of people who think we can terraform the moon,” Rochester said, as he led the way through the airlock. “There’s quite a bit of ice at the lunar poles; they think we can use it to create a thin atmosphere, then build up plants on the soil that will eventually thicken the atmosphere to the point humans can breathe normally.”

Steve shook his head in disbelief. “Really?”

“Sure,” Rochester said. “It's definitely theoretically possible, but it would also be extremely visible.”

Steve scowled. One disadvantage of having to keep everything secret was the very real danger of being spotted from Earth. Heinlein Colony was on the far side of the moon, permanently out of sight, but the shuttles and modified tractors they used often went to the near side, where they could be seen. Fortunately, he doubted anyone would believe a word of it unless there were hard recordings of the observation. But who knew what would happen if someone on Earth did observe their presence? Maybe they’d think it was an alien settlement.

Inside, he couldn't help thinking of the abandoned mines near the ranch in Montana, the ones his father had forbidden him to go near on pain of a thrashing. The tunnels were cut from the lunar rock, carved out with automated tools then left bare and almost unmarked. Someone had carved a handful of corridor references into the crossing points, but nothing else. It would need to be made more hospitable, Steve decided, as they walked down under the lunar surface. Some of the kids would have to be hired to draw or paint pictures for the walls.

“We’ve set up the barracks in here,” Rochester said, as they paused in front of a solid hatch. “I didn't want to take any risks with our sleeping personnel, so the barracks is actually a self-contacted survival room in its own right. Should there be an atmospheric leak outside, the barracks will seal itself.”

He keyed a switch and the hatch hissed open, revealing another airlock. Steve waited patiently until the first hatch had closed, then smiled as the second hatch opened, allowing him to see into the barracks. It looked, very much, like a military barracks, complete with metal bunk beds and a handful of showers at the far end of the room. The only real difference was the row of laptops on a desk along one wall and the rubber on the ceiling.

“We had quite a few people bang their heads because they weren't used to the lunar gravity,” Rochester explained. “So we ended up putting rubber on the roof to ensure they wouldn't be seriously hurt. It does help, a little. I’ve insisted that no one gets to actually do any work for at least a week after their arrival, giving them time to get used to conditions here. We had some accidents when we were trying to use the tractors on the moon because they were designed for Earth.”

He gave Steve a challenging look, as if he expected to face disagreement. Steve merely nodded. Rochester was the man on the spot, after all, and he'd accomplished miracles in barely a month. There was no point in disagreeing with one of his decisions, particularly one that was clearly suited to their current conditions.

“Morale is generally high,” Rochester said, when it was clear Steve wasn't going to say anything. “The only real complaint comes from the unmarried men, who wish there were more women up here. Most of them are newly rejuvenated and want to put their dicks to work somewhere other than the shower.”

Steve had to smile. If he’d been in his late seventies and then been returned to his early twenties, he’d start chasing women too. “Have there been any real problems?”

“No, but there will be,” Rochester said. “So far, the few unmarried girls we have here have earned a lot of attention. But hormones and men and tight conditions are asking for trouble.”

Steve scowled, remembering some of the stories from Afghanistan. Everyone knew someone who knew someone who had a friend who’d got into trouble with a woman on one of the bigger military bases, one of the places where it was impossible to believe that one was in the middle of a war zone. Despite all the rules and regulations, hundreds of women had been sent home for falling pregnant. The coldly practical part of him knew that brothels for the troops would have been a great idea, but it wasn't something the government could ever allow. There would have been an outcry from their more progressive factions if they’d tried.

But Steve didn't have to worry about that, did he?

Mariko might have a few things to say about it, he thought, a moment later. And so might Jayne.

“We’ll have to give some thought to starting a brothel,” he said, finally. “But it won’t be as easy as finding veterans and space enthusiasts to work on our colony.”

“Plenty of desperate young women out there,” Rochester said, as they turned and walked back through the airlock. “And the guys here will behave. I’ve already threatened to tear off the testicles of anyone who sexually harasses one of my people.”

Steve nodded in agreement. “Any other problems?”

“Not really,” Rochester said. “There were some grumbles over restrictions on internet use at first, but we eventually overcame them once the system was properly set up. However, sooner or later, there will be a leak. Someone will say something they shouldn't on an open system.”

Kevin thought it wouldn't matter, Steve recalled. They’d discussed the issue several times, when it became apparent that the alien database wouldn't be enough to distract everyone from demanding access to Earth’s internet. Kevin had pointed out that there was so much fantasy online that no one would believe a claim that someone was talking from the moon. If someone could claim to be a time traveller, or a man could pretend to be a teenage girl, few people would believe the truth. Besides, sooner or later, it would no longer matter.

He leaned forward. “You have the system completely secure?”

“Oh, yes,” Rochester assured him. “Everything going to Earth and back again goes through one of the alien systems. If someone wants to hack into our computers they won’t get any further, at least not with human-level tech. We’ve also developed a system for scanning all files for potential problems before allowing them to move through the buffers. Standard precautions, naturally, but you won’t believe just how much trouble carelessness has caused in the past.”

Steve smiled. Two years ago, one of the kids had downloaded a pornographic video from the internet that had turned out to have a nasty virus attached. Kevin had had to fix it, while Steve delivered a sharp lecture on the dangers of downloading anything from the internet without taking proper precautions. And then they’d had to have the Talk. The thought of having to have it again with grown men was definitely cringe-worthy.

They stopped outside another airlock. “The alien is inside,” Rochester said. “He’s been quite helpful, but he’s also quite ignorant. The sociologists think he truly has no idea of the depth of his own ignorance.”

Steve, who had met a great many people with the same problem, nodded. “What sort of precautions have you taken against escape?”

“The room is shielded, then held on a separate system from the rest of the colony,” Rochester said. “If the sociologists or anyone else wish to speak with him, they do so with guards monitoring everything that takes place inside the cell. He can’t take a piss without us knowing about it.”

“Good,” Steve said.

“He also seems to have developed something akin to Stockholm Syndrome,” Rochester added. “The sociologists think he expected to be killed as soon as he was captured, perhaps after interrogation. Instead, we’ve taken fairly good care of him. I’ve seen similar patterns among captured Iraqis and Afghanis.”

Steve nodded. A distant cousin of his, an MP, had been charged with guarding prisoners in the wake of the invasion of Iraq. The prisoners had almost collapsed in fear when they’d been told to dig latrines, even though they were desperately necessary. It had taken some time before the MPs had realised the prisoners thought they were being asked to dig their own graves. Once the prisoners had realised they weren't going to be shot out of hand – their former leaders had told them the Americans would kill anyone they captured – they’d relaxed a great deal. Some of them had even gone on to lead successful careers in the new Iraq.

“Monitor me,” Steve said. “I’ll call when I want out.”

Inside, the alien’s chamber was hot and moist, as if he’d stepped right into a sauna. There was a faintly unpleasant smell, like rotting meat, in the air. The alien himself was squatting against one wall, one clawed hand tap-tapping at an Ipad and trying to play a game. It – he, Steve reminded himself – had requested access to the internet, or a terminal with a translator, but Steve hadn't been willing to allow either. But the alien was learning to read English, even if he would never be able to speak it. They just weren't designed to speak human tongues.

“Greetings,” the alien said, through the translator. The security officers had suggested taking it away when the alien wasn't talking to anyone, but Kevin had argued against the suggestion and Steve had accepted his arguments. “Thank you for visiting me.”

“You’re welcome,” Steve said. He found it hard to understand what the alien must be feeling – there were no other aliens in the colony – but he couldn't help feeling sorry for the creature, no matter what its superiors had intended to do. “How are you coping with living here?”

The alien produced a spluttering noise. “I am not being hurt or killed,” he said. “But not all of your people believe what I say.”

Steve had to smile. The sociologists Kevin had recruited were sensible people, men and women who had actually done field work rather than learning everything from politically-correct books. But, from some of their reports, even the most sensible of them had great difficulty in wrapping his head around what passed for culture among the Hordes. What sort of race could live like that, he’d asked, when there was so much potential in the galaxy?

But being poor often leads to a stubborn pride, Steve thought. Or perhaps to a helpless despair.

It seemed fitting, he suspected. The Horde knew, at a deep level, just how inferior they were to races that actually produced starships and weapons for themselves. They were dependent on those they considered their soft social inferiors, so dependent that a sudden withdrawal of support would leave the Hordesmen to fade away and die. But, at the same time, they did nothing to overcome their dependency. It would be a tacit admission that their lives were far from perfect.

“You’re the first non-human they’ve spoken to,” Steve said. The alien interface had noted that there were almost ten thousand intelligent races known to exist, a number far beyond Steve’s ability to grasp emotionally. Compared to the sheer number of aliens out there, humanity’s eight billion souls weren’t even a drop in the bucket. “We have no experience with anyone outside our own race.”

“You have been lucky,” the alien stated. “Open contact might well have destroyed you.”

Steve nodded. It still might, even if humanity avoided a military invasion or becoming a protectorate of a more advanced power. The sudden discovery that there were thousands of intelligent races in the galaxy, almost all of them far more powerful than humanity, would shock the entire planet. Some would see the presence of aliens as a challenge, Steve knew, others would quail away from the stars. What was left for humanity to achieve, they’d ask, if the aliens had done it all first?

“It might have done,” he agreed, finally. “Is there anything we can do to make your stay more comfortable?”

The alien spluttered again. “These quarters are perfect,” he said. “You do not have to improve them for me.”

“If you need anything, just ask,” Steve said. He glanced into the bathroom. The alien had requested a bathtub large enough for several humans to share, rather than one of the showers in the human barracks. From the reports, the sociologists were still arguing if the request constituted luxury or a simple necessity for alien life. “We are quite happy to provide.”

“In exchange for answering questions,” the alien said. “Why are so many of your people unwilling to believe that I am telling the truth?”

Steve hesitated, trying to put it into words. “There are some people, no matter how smart, who have a view of the universe that is focused on us,” he said. “Nor just humanity, a subset of humanity. They have problems coming to terms with the fact there are groups of humans who refuse to behave as their models suggest, let alone non-human life forms such as yourself. And when theory comes up against reality, some of them even think that reality must be wrong.”

“Like one of our Horde Commanders,” the alien said.

“It certainly sounds that way,” Steve agreed. “Thank you for seeing me.”

“I wish to learn more about your people,” the alien said, as Steve turned back to the airlock. “Can you not provide me with information?”

Steve hesitated. Part of him wanted to restrict what the alien knew, part of him suspected that if they lost Heinlein Colony, they would have lost everything. But he didn't want to provide the alien with any non-human technology. It might have an unexpected sting in the tail.

The answer struck him a moment later and he swore, inwardly. “I’ll have you provided with a device that will provide information,” he said. There were computers for the blind, computers that read information to their users. One of them would suffice for the alien. In hindsight, they should have thought of it earlier. “It should help answer your questions.”

He stepped back through the airlock, then waited until it closed behind him. “Have them dig up a computer for the blind,” he ordered. “But no internet access, nothing that can possibly provide a security risk.”

“Understood,” Rochester said, gravely. “Do you wish to see the Theory Lab now?”

Steve nodded. “Yes,” he said. He was looking forward to hearing what Keith Glass and his band of researchers had come up with to expand their operations. They’d already proposed several ideas for making more money on Earth. “It should be interesting.”

“Very interesting,” Rochester said. “Do you realise we can make diamonds in orbit? There is an endless demand for diamonds of certain specifications and we can produce them, very cheaply. And then there’s the supplies of raw materials from the asteroids, once we start mining them. They’re even working out a Homesteading Kit for anyone who wants to set up as an asteroid miner. Once we get them out to the asteroid belt ...”

He broke off as Steve’s communicator buzzed. “Steve, this is Mongo,” Mongo said. “You need to get back to the ship. We may have a serious problem.”

Steve looked up at Rochester. “I’m sorry to cut this short,” he said, “but I need to go.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Rochester said. He gave Steve a smile that looked somehow inhuman on his modified face. “Give them hell.”
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#14
Chapter Nine

Washington, USA

“That’s odd,” Jürgen Affenzeller muttered.

It was a largely unacknowledged fact that the Department of Homeland Security kept an eye on military veterans. The rationale for the policy had never been fully codified and, indeed, had started out as a sop to political correctness. Besides, veterans were trained in using weapons, they often had experience in urban combat and they sometimes suffered from PTSD and other problems after their service. It was just common sense, the DHS had argued, to keep an eye on them.

Jürgen had never really believe in the logic, if there was any logic in the decision. Indeed, it made much more sense, to him, to keep an eye on radical Islamic groups operating within the United States. But the simple truth was that any hint of racial profiling would cause a political shitstorm, while veterans had far fewer people willing to go to bat for them. It made little sense, but politics rarely did. Besides, he had a wife and two small daughters to feed and raising a stink about it would have cost him his job.

He’d never seen much of anything to convince him that there was a real danger. Sure, some veterans were politically active, proud members of the Gun Community and very opposed to any threats to the Second Amendment, but few of them seemed dangerous. Indeed, veterans were often stanchly patriotic, unwilling to consider using violence against their own countrymen. Compared to some of the noises coming from radical groups – and they had expanded rapidly in the wake of the economic crisis – there was no strong reason to worry about the vets. But he didn't seem to have any choice.

But now there was something odd flowing into the system.

It was hard, almost impossible, to move around the United States without leaving some kind of electronic trace. The DHS – and NSA and several other government organisations – monitored human traces, looking for patterns that might signify trouble. It was, in many ways, a flawed replacement for having men and women out on the beat, but it did have the advantage of causing almost no disturbance at all for the suspect to pick up on. Quite a few criminal cases had been blown, Jürgen knew, because the suspect had seen the FBI agent shadowing him and panicked.

He looked down at the list of reports, trying to put them together into a coherent whole. His instincts told him there was a pattern, even if he couldn't see it clearly. But what did it signify?

A large number of veterans claimed benefits of one kind or another from the government. Over the last three weeks, a surprisingly high number – over three thousand – had stopped claiming benefits. It was an odd pattern, made all the odder by the simple fact that most of those veterans seemed to have vanished. They weren't dead, as far as he could tell; they’d just dropped out of sight. And then he’d cross-referenced the data and discovered that half of the veterans in the list were crippled. They had been unable to return to a normal life.

So where had they gone?

A call to a handful of residence homes revealed that the men had been transferred, without notice, to another residence home in Montana. Jürgen had frowned, then checked with Montana and discovered that there was no such residence home. But when he did yet another cross-reference, it became clear that the veterans who weren't crippled had also gone to Montana. And then they’d dropped off the grid.

He shook his head in disbelief, then started poking around the data. A man called Kevin Stuart had visited thirty of the nursing homes, then he’d been replaced by several other men ... all of whom were included on the list of disappeared veterans. And veterans weren't the only ones. Keith Glass, a writer of military science-fiction, had also vanished ... and so had a large percentage of the Space Settlement Society. Some of them were vets, others were civilians who had been very involved with NASA and civilian space programs ... there was a pattern, Jürgen was sure. But what did it all mean?

Shaking his head, he put a brief report together and emailed it to his superior officer. Maybe there was nothing going on, maybe it was just a false alarm. But he honestly couldn't see how nearly four thousand men, some of them crippled, could fit into a relatively small ranch. They wouldn't have anything like enough water, for starters, or food ... unless they were shipping it in by the truckload. But why would anyone do that?

Five minutes later, he received two emails in return. The first one, from his boss, ordered him to cooperate with the second email. Puzzled, he opened the second email and discovered orders to report to Fort Meade, ASAP. The NSA? It made no sense to him at all. What would a number of missing veterans have to do with the National Security Agency?

***
“Thank you for coming,” the NSA agent said, when he arrived at Fort Meade. He hadn't bothered to give his name. “Your investigation has crossed paths with one of our investigations and we need to share information.”

Jürgen kept his opinion of that to himself. The NSA wasn't known for sharing information with anyone, unless someone with real authority got behind them and pushed. It was far more likely, he knew, that they'd take what he’d found and then order him to keep his mouth shut in future. It would annoy his boss – the Department of Homeland Security desperately needed a big win, something they could use to justify their existence – but crossing the NSA was considered inadvisable. They could end his career with a word or two in the right ears.

“For the moment, you are being seconded to my team,” the agent continued. “You’ll be given papers to sign later, but for the moment keep your mouth shut outside the team, understand?”

“Yes,” Jürgen said, tightly. “I don’t suppose I have a choice.”

“No,” the agent agreed. “You don’t.”

Jürgen gritted his teeth, then followed the agent down through a series of security checks and into a SCIF facility deep under the building. It was less impressive than he’d expected, he decided, as he looked around; there was a large table, a handful of comfortable chairs and a simple projector and computer terminal. But it would be secure, he knew, as he took the seat he was offered and waited. No one outside the room would be able to eavesdrop on them, nor would any recording devices work within the room’s field. It was as secure as human ingenuity could make it.

“We will be briefing a handful of very high-ranking officials on the progress of a monitoring program,” the agent added. “Say nothing until I call on you to speak, then stick to the facts alone.”

Jürgen sighed, then pasted a blank expression on his face as the officials filed into the room and made themselves coffee before sitting down. Two of them wore military uniforms, the remainder civilian suits; he discovered, not entirely to his surprise, that he recognised a handful of the civilians. But then, the National Security Advisor was a well-known political figure. And yet ... why was he here?

“Over the past month, there have been several investigations into odd technology appearing from overseas,” the agent said, opening the briefing. “Our investigations eventually collided with a DHS investigation, which made the entire problem considerably more worrisome.”

He tapped a switch, activating the projector. A picture of a USB stick-like device appeared in front of them. “This, gentlemen, is a Wilhelm Tech Wireless Internet Dongle,” he said. “The devices were introduced two weeks ago in a low-key manner, mainly through internet forums and tech sites, then sold from Switzerland through mail order. On the surface, these devices are nothing more extraordinary than any other form of internet connection system. However, they have various ... attributes that made them potentially very dangerous.”

Jürgen frowned. An internet dongle? How was that related to missing veterans?

“The dongles have what is probably best described as an extreme range,” the agent continued. “To put it in perspective, they are capable of reaching any wireless server located within thousands of miles of the dongle and logging on. Once they have logged on, they have a very high rate of transmission, allowing downloads to be completed faster than ever before. Finally, the signals they use are almost completely undetectable except at very close range.”

He paused for effect. “What this means,” he said, “is that anyone using one of these systems can browse the internet without being traced or monitored by our systems.”

“Anyone,” one of the unnamed officers said.

“Anyone,” the agent confirmed. “The packaging claims a considerable degree of improvement over previous designs, but some tests have revealed that the claims are ... well, understated. Heavily understated. But the geek communities have already figured out how to use the dongles to surf the internet without any restrictions at all. The results have been interesting – and quite worrying.”

“I see,” the National Security Advisor said. “Where are these things coming from?”

“Wilhelm Tech,” the agent said. “They’re a small company, incorporated in both the States and Switzerland, with a good reputation for producing pieces of advanced technology at reasonable prices. We’ve asked the Swiss to investigate, but they’re stalling. They see no reason to enforce our laws for us, nor to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. By being incorporated in two places, they evade most of our laws governing technology transfer.”

He hesitated. “Something like this should have been born secret,” he said, referring to the government’s rule that certain pieces of technology, no matter who produced them, were automatically considered classified. “Instead, the news is out and spreading.”

One of the unnamed civilians leaned forward. “Can’t you duplicate the technology?”

“Not so far,” the agent admitted. “So far, we have acquired two dongles and tried to take them both apart. They both shattered on the table, leaving us with a pile of debris and a mystery. But we can tell you some odd things about the tech. For a start, while Wilhelm Tech is on the cutting edge of computer software, these devices seem an order of magnitude more advanced than anything known, even to us.

“This led to an investigation of Wilhelm Tech,” he continued. “We discovered that they purchased a considerable amount of supplies from various produces in the States ...”

“That’s a good thing, isn't it?” The civilian asked. “It’s far better to plough the money back into the States than send it to China.”

“It may be,” the agent said. “But their shopping list is rather odd ... and it’s all being shipped to a ranch in Montana. The same ranch as a number of veterans.”

He nodded to Jürgen. “Tell them what you told us.”

Jürgen took a breath. He’d never had to brief such a high-ranking group before; hell, he’d never had to brief anyone more senior than his boss. His throat felt dry, but there was no time to take a sip of water.

“To summarise a complicated issue,” he said, “a large number of veterans, some of whom should have been unable to move, have transferred themselves to the Stuart Ranch in Montana. Since then, there has been no trace of their existence on Earth, nor does there seem to be enough facilities on the Ranch to take care of them. We have been unable to determine what might be happening there.”

He sat down. The agent stood again.

“We researched the ranch extensively when we realised that it was involved in the growing mystery,” the agent said. “There were some worrying signs. Steve Stuart, the current owner of the Ranch, resigned from the Marine Corps in 2013, following an ... incident in Afghanistan. Since them, he has been a regular commenter on conservative and liberal blogs, arguing in favour of the Second Amendment, small government and consistent law enforcement. He was involved, politically speaking, in a successful attempt to recall a local politician and force him to stand for election.

“Furthermore, his uncle was actually the target of an ATF investigation in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing. Apparently, he and his family knew McVeigh personally, although the investigators concluded that they'd known nothing about the plot. The uncle in question was an army explosives expert, who would have made sure to produce a proper bomb that would have taken out the whole building.”

There was a pause. One of the civilians finally broke it. “Has Steve Stuart himself come to ATF’s attention?”

“Not directly,” the agent said, “but he’s on a watch list.”

Jürgen sighed. Anyone who supported the Second Amendment publically was on an ATF watch list. It didn't matter how they supported it, or how many guns they possessed; hell, there were pro-gun campaigners who owned no guns who were still targeted for observation.

“He isn't a member of the NRA, for what it’s worth,” the agent said. “He was a member, but resigned two years ago, claiming that the organisation had allowed politics to impede its primary purpose for existence. Some of his family are members, however, while others are members of other pro-gun groups. One of them is even a member of Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership.

“He’s also a licensed instructor in small arms, particularly concealed carry, with an enviable safety record. So far, we have been unable to locate any complaints against him, save a report that he insisted on someone using a gun more suited to her hand. It never went any further than grousing.”

The agent looked from face to face. “But we are faced with a disturbing mystery,” he said. “We have a large number of men, experienced with weapons, who have vanished off the face of the Earth. We have pieces of technology that could easily be used against us, seemingly connected to the disappearing men. And we have a ranch owned by someone who cannot be counted a wholehearted friend of the government. I believe, sirs, that we should act quickly to counter this threat.”

But you don’t even know there is a threat, Jürgen thought. He had to admit it was odd – where were the men going? – but it didn't necessarily mean it was a threat. Maybe there was a retirement home on the ranch for the veterans. Or perhaps there was a perfectly innocent explanation, one that might be lost if the DHS troopers charged in like stormtroopers and started a fight. Somehow, he doubted the ranchers would come quietly. There were too many horror stories about ATF task forces shooting the wrong people for anyone to be complacent about surrendering themselves to their custody.

He listened as the debate surged backwards and forwards. None of the senior officials seemed inclined to rule out a raid, even though a couple of them suggested talking openly to Wilhelm Tech first. After all, maybe a deal could be made. The technology could be controlled or put to work serving the government, if enough money was made available. But instead they seemed inclined to stampede towards a fateful choice.

They need a win too, he realised, suddenly. NSA had been entwined in scandals for the last five years, ever since Edward Snowdon had fled the USA for Russia, carrying with him a whole series of uncomfortable revelations about the NSA’s domestic spying program. If NSA couldn't keep itself relevant, Congress and the Senate might load new restrictions on its activities ... or they might simply close the agency down altogether, throwing out the baby as well as the bathwater. No, whatever was going on with Wilhelm Tech and the Stuart Ranch – and the missing veterans – they couldn't afford to talk. They had to be seen to be taking action.

***
“The Department of Homeland Security will be supplying the SWAT team,” the agent said, afterwards. “You’ll be riding along with them, as will I. We’ll drop a mass of troopers on top of the farm and take everyone into custody, then sort them out later. The warrants are broad enough to allow us to hold them for weeks, if necessary.”

Jürgen stared at him. “Is this even legal?”

“We have a search warrant for the ranch, based on the information you supplied,” the agent assured him. “We even took a look at it through satellites and discovered no trace of any veterans. Indeed, there was hardly anyone in sight, apart from a handful of ranch hands. No kids, no women, no nothing. Between you and me, this is starting to look very sinister. It could even be another Branch Davidson compound.”

“Maybe,” Jürgen said, doubtfully. “What religion are these people?”

“Nothing registered, as far as we have been able to determine,” the agent said. He reached out and slapped Jürgen on the shoulder. “Whatever is going on, someone is trying to keep it a secret and that generally means trouble. And I really don’t like the presence of that advanced technology.”

He strode off towards the small jet that would be carrying them to Montana. After a long moment, Jürgen followed, gritting his teeth. What the hell had he started? Armed stormtroopers were about to crash into a ranch on suspicion of ... what, exactly? They could have poked around the edges of the compound, sent in a couple of agents, or even walked up to the door and asked, keeping the SWAT team in reserve. Instead, they were about to attack with loaded weapons. It was far too possible that innocent civilians were about to be caught in the crossfire, further undermining the reputation of both the DHS and NSA.

The NSA will blame it on us, he thought, coldly. If this goes to shit, it will be our fault and our fault alone.

And he couldn't escape the feeling that they were about to make a very big mistake.
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#15
Chapter Ten

Montana, USA

“All right,” Steve said, as he strode into the starship’s makeshift CIC. “What do we have?”

“Nine helicopters,” Mongo said. “Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, to be precise.”

Steve swore. Black Hawks had been designed for the military, but they were also used by both the FBI and the DHS. “They’ve found us.”

“They’ve found something, all right,” Kevin agreed. “I checked the records. They’re DHS helicopters.”

“Right,” Steve said. Clearly, operational secrecy had come to an end. Somehow – and they’d figure it out later – the DHS had cottoned on to something. There was no time to worry about it now. Instead, they had to get everyone out of the ranch and then prepare a reception. At least they had a rough contingency plan for discovery. “Send the emergency signal and recall everyone on the ranch, then prepare the combat team for deployment.”

He gritted his teeth. Abandoning the ranch would be the simplest solution, but it was part of his family’s history. He couldn't let the DHS goons – or anyone – just take it from him, no matter the cost. And besides, he had heard more than enough horror stories about how the DHS treated veterans and their families. Giving them a taste of their own medicine would feel sweet.

Kevin looked up. “You do realise that whatever we do will almost certainly be noticed?”

Stuart nodded. He’d hoped for months, perhaps a year, before they were discovered, but it was clear that there had been a slip-up somewhere. One month ... at least they were on their way to establishing Heinlein Colony and preparing plans for Mars and the asteroid belt. But it would ensure a rougher meeting with the federal government then he would have preferred.

Perhaps we should have gone ahead with the plan to introduce a fusion reactor, he thought, sourly. But there was no point in crying over spilt milk. Instead, it was time to mop it up.

“I’ll be taking the lead down there,” he said. The combat team needed to see him in command, just in case they had doubts about firing on fellow Americans. Sure, they were DHS stormtroopers, but that didn't make them the enemy. “Maintain teleport locks on all of us. If things go badly wrong, yank us out of there.”

“Understood,” Mongo said. “And good luck.”

Steve nodded. They were going to need it. Not to dispose of the incoming helicopters – it would have been childishly simple to destroy them before their pilots knew they were under attack – but to push them back without actually killing anyone. Dead pilots and stormtroopers would make it harder for the government to come to terms with Steve and his buddies. They’d have to react harshly against such an overt challenge to their authority.

Shaking his head, he made his way to the teleport chamber. One way or another, the world was about to become very different.

***
Jürgen cursed under his breath as the helicopter rocketed southwards. He’d never been in a helicopter before and the experience was killing him, by inches. It didn't help that the remainder of the team, men wearing black suits and carrying assault rifles, seemed to find his near-panic hilarious. Every few seconds, the plane rocked violently, stabilised and then rocked again. He was starting to wonder if the pilot was deliberately crashing them through the worst of the turbulence.

“Just hold on in there,” the NSA agent called. Despite sharing a flight, he still hadn't shared his name. “We’re almost there.”

Jürgen nodded, keeping his eyes firmly closed. It made it easier, somehow, if he didn't see the ground below the helicopter. Almost there? They’d been saying the same thing ever since they’d landed at the airfield they'd turned into a staging base and then transferred to the helicopters. He reached up and covered his eyes, adding to the darkness. Maybe that would make it easier still.

The helicopter rocked again, violently. “Whoops,” the pilot called, in a thick southern drawl. “Hit a nasty spot there!”

Jürgen silently cursed him to hell.

***
“All present and correct,” Edward Romford said.

Steve nodded, inspecting the first combat team. They were all veterans who had been repaired and rebuilt by the alien technology, then trained endlessly on captured alien weapons. There was still some roughness in how they acted, Steve saw, but they were getting there. It was just a shame they didn't have many combat cyborgs or powered combat suits. The ones they did have were designed for creatures the size of preteen children. God alone knew what the Hordesmen had been doing with them.

“Try not to kill anyone,” he warned, once he’d finished his inspection. “You have your shield bracelets and teleport locks. If worst comes to worst, we will beam out and leave the bastards scratching their heads. Any questions?”

Romford smirked. “Phasers on stun?”

“Definitely,” Steve said, rolling his eyes. The alien stunners worked surprisingly well, although the results tended to vary. A strong man might be out for a few minutes, while a weaker man or a child might sleep for nearly an hour. He still wished he’d had them in Afghanistan, though. They could have stunned everyone and then sorted the innocent from the guilty afterwards. “We don't want to kill anyone.”

He ran through the tactical situation as the helicopters came into view, their rotor blades chopping through the air. It looked as though they intended to try to hover over the ranch and rappel down to the ground, a tactic that did make a certain kind of sense if they expected a hot reception. Or, perhaps, they wanted to surround the ranch and then move in. It didn't really matter, he told himself. They were in for a very rude surprise.

“Launch the screamers,” he ordered, quietly.

***
Jürgen heard the alarms as the helicopter shook, more violently than ever before. What was wrong? Even the strong men were starting to panic as the shaking grew worse, followed by a faint crackling sound that left the air feeling ionised. There was a series of loud bangs from underneath the helicopter, then she dropped like a stone.

“We’re going to have to make an emergency landing,” the pilot said. He no longer sounded amused by his own daring. Instead, he sounded almost fearful. “Brace for impact!”

“They’re all going down,” another voice said. It took Jürgen a moment to place it as the team’s commander, a smug man who’d laughed while Jürgen had been trying not to be sick. “Every last helicopter is going down ...”

The noise of the craft’s engines grew louder, then stopped. Seconds later, there was a thunderous crash as they hit the ground. Jürgen’s eyes snapped open, revealing two of the stormtroopers forcing open the hatch and jumping out of the craft. The agent caught his arm and dragged him forward, practically throwing him after the stormtroopers. He landed badly, but there was no time to hesitate. The entire craft might be about to catch fire and explode.

“My God,” the agent said. “What happened?”

Jürgen followed his gaze. All nine helicopters had crash-landed, their passengers spilling out onto the grassy field. Some of them were smoking slightly, their pilots ordering the men to run for their lives. Others seemed almost intact, utterly undamaged. It was impossible to tell what had happened to them. There had been no reason for all nine helicopters to suffer the same fault at the same time.

“I don't know,” he answered. But he thought about the dongles and wondered, grimly, just what else might have been invented in secret. Something to take down helicopters? “I ...”

“ATTENTION,” a voice boomed. Jürgen turned to see five men starting on a grassy knoll, holding unfamiliar-looking weapons in their hands. “Discard all weapons, then proceed away from the helicopters into the field behind you. I say again, discard all weapons and then proceed into the field behind you. Resistance will not be tolerated.”

The team’s commander purpled rapidly. “You are under arrest,” he shouted, lifting his rifle. “Put down your guns and surrender, you ...”

“Discard all weapons and proceed into the field behind you,” the speaker repeated. “There will be no further warnings.”

“No,” the commander said. He lifted his rifle and fired, once. The bullet glanced off the speaker in a flash of blue light and vanished somewhere in the distance. “I ...”

The speaker returned fire. There was a flash of blue-red light and the commander dropped to the ground like a puppet whose strings had been cut. Jürgen stared, then leaned forward to examine the body. As far as he could tell, the man had simply been knocked out. There were certainly no physical wounds. Moments later, the speaker lifted his weapon and discharged a brighter shot into the ground in front of the DHS team. There was a colossal explosion, which cleared rapidly to reveal a small crater, smoking like a volcano. Jürgen gulped – just what the hell had they stumbled into? – and then obeyed orders. The rest of the team discarded their weapons and followed Jürgen into the next field.

***
“Pussies,” Romford sneered. “Big and tough when it comes to picking on unarmed men and women, but useless when their target fights back.”

Steve privately agreed. In his view, the view he’d been taught by his parents, the truly brave men went into the infantry, where they matched themselves against the enemy infantry. It was true that policemen were brave too, but it wasn't the same. And the sort of people who would crash in like stormtroopers when they thought they had a cause weren't worthy of any respect at all.

“Keep them covered,” he ordered. The DHS team looked thoroughly cowed, but appearances could be deceiving. Steve had seen prisoners move from cooperative to riotous within seconds in Afghanistan. “Secure their weapons, then find out who’s in charge of this bunch of monkeys.”

He examined the stormtroopers as his men moved to obey. They looked professional, too professional. Steve doubted his Marine platoon had looked anything like as good while they’d been in service, except perhaps when they’d been on parade. But, as Steve had been taught more than once, it was possible to look good or to be good. Few units managed both at once.

Perhaps we should have let them rappel down to the ground, he thought, snidely. We could have seen just how well they fucked it up.

He shook his head. There was no time for delay. The helicopters might not have managed to get off a distress signal before the screamers brought them down, but someone might well have noticed that all nine transponders had vanished. These weren’t the lax pre-9/11 days. The vanished transponders would bring some sort of reaction, probably fighter jets intent on searching for prospective terrorists. And they would probably have some ground forces in the area too. Steve had done the same in Afghanistan.

Romford returned, marching a pair of men ahead of him. Neither of them looked particularly professional; one was clearly an analyst, while the other was a Washington suit. Steve saw the simmering anger, mixed with shock and terror, in the latter’s eyes and smiled inwardly. A shocked man was a man who could be drained of information, then used as a messenger.

“Good afternoon,” he said, with mock politeness. “And who do I have the pleasure of addressing?”

The Washington man swallowed, then looked down at the grass. “Cyril Dorsey,” he said reluctantly. The man beside him let out a sound that sounded like a choked-off giggle. “I’m from the NSA.”

Steve lifted his eyebrows. “The NSA?”

“Yes,” Dorsey said. He railed, either through grim determination or through a sudden awareness of his companion’s amusement. “And you are in a boatload of trouble.”

“Try saying a shitload,” Steve advised. “It sounds so much more dramatic.”

He sighed, fighting down the temptation to start yelling at the damned bureaucrat. “What are you doing here?”

The analyst glared at him. “What are you doing with the veterans?”

Steve was momentarily nonplussed. The veterans? And then it clicked. Someone had noticed that a number of veterans were disappearing, then tracked it back to the ranch and realised that the trail ended there. Hell, he wouldn't have given the NSA the time of day, but perhaps the analyst had good reason to be concerned about the veterans. For all he knew, they could have been sacrificed to the dark gods.

“The veterans are fine,” Steve assured him. He briefly considered introducing Romford, then decided against it. The veteran looked young enough to be his own son. “But you have trespassed on my property.”

“We have a search warrant,” Dorsey insisted. “And you attacked us!”

“Technically speaking, this is an embassy, which you attacked,” Steve said. Did it really count as an embassy if the host country didn't know about it? But it didn't matter. If nothing else, the mere suggestion that it was an embassy would cause no end of panic in the corridors of power. Storming a foreign embassy was pretty much an act of war. “However, we are prepared to forgive your trespass in exchange for a few minor considerations.”

Cyril Dorsey started to splutter again, his words tumbling over themselves so fast that Steve couldn't even begin to follow them. Instead, he waited for the man to shut up and then continued.

“You will go back to your superiors and inform them that this ranch is an embassy of another power,” he said. “Furthermore, you will tell them that we expect a meeting with the President one week from today, at a location of his choosing. He may bring one companion to the meeting, if he wishes. Until then, this ranch is to remain isolated. If any federal elements are sighted within ten miles of the ranch, they will be fired on without further warning.”

“Now, look here, you son of a bitch,” Dorsey snapped. “You can't make threats like that!”

“Oh, those poor bastards,” Steve said, looking over at the troopers. “What did they do to deserve having a fool like you in command?”

He looked back at Dorsey, dropping his facade of politeness. “Let me be clear on this, you fucking idiot,” he snapped. “You are massively outgunned and you and your men are at my mercy. And, as you proposed to raid, with live ammunition, a ranch that holds my wife, children and relatives, I am not feeling very damn merciful! You could have knocked on the damn door and asked about the vets!”

Resisting the temptation to shake the man, he instead leaned closer until their faces were almost touching. “You will go back to Washington and deliver the message I gave you,” he snapped. “And then you will resign, retire from federal work and go live somewhere else, somewhere where your stupidity won’t risk lives. Or I will fucking hunt you down and kill you!”

The man cringed back. Steve was unsurprised – and unimpressed. He’d met too many paper-pushers who had no real awareness of the world surrounding them. Washington produced the idiots by the bucket load, then put them in charge of making government policy actually work. They never seemed to realise that they could push people too far and that, one day, their house of cards would crumble into dust. Or that their mistakes could cost lives.

“There’s one thing I want you to see,” Steve said, very quietly. “Turn around.”

Dorsey obeyed. Steve smiled, then activated the interface and sent a single very specific command. For a long moment, nothing seemed to happen ... and then a beam of red light struck down from high overhead, burning a hole into the ground. Dorsey let out a strangled cry as the ground shook, almost toppling over in horror, just before the beam snapped back out of existence, leaving a glowing crater. It was far worse, Steve knew, than the smaller weapon he’d used to make his earlier point. And it would be visible on every observation satellite in position to see it. Maybe Washington wouldn't believe Dorsey’s tale, but they’d believe the satellites.

“Strip,” Steve ordered. He raised his voice, addressing the rest of the assault team. “All of you. Strip.”

He waited until the team was naked, then pointed towards the road leading down to the nearest town. Naked as they were, it was quite possible that the team would be arrested for indecent exposure. By the time they managed to convince the local police of who they were – or make a phone call to Washington – they would have undergone one hell of a lot of humiliation. Steve felt a moment of grim satisfaction – he hated the regular humiliations at the hands of government bureaucracy – then turned his attention back to Dorsey. Somewhat to his surprise, the man had remained on his feet.

“Remember the message,” Steve said. He paused, significantly. “And remember what I said about any federal forces near the ranch. Go.”

The men fled. Steve took a look at the helicopters, then silently marked them for disassembly and conversion into something Heinlein Colony could use. If nothing else, now the secret was out, they could order whatever they wanted openly. But recruitment was going to be far harder in future. The government would try to slip a few of its own agents into the system.

“You could have handled it better,” Kevin said, though the communicator. The intelligence agent sounded doubtful. In his world, there was no such thing as a dead enemy. “They’re going to be pissed.”

“It had to be done,” Steve said, shortly. There was no way he would have passed up on the chance to humiliate the bureaucrats. “Washington is like a bull. Sometimes you have to hit the bastard in the nose just to make it pay attention.”

“Yeah,” Kevin said. “And how many idiots who try that get gored by an angry bull?”
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#16
Chapter 8: "...It might have done." This is a very parochial usage, Normal vocabulary would just say : "It may have." (This is in response to the idea that "...open contact might well have destroyed you." Otherwise you could have said: "It might have done that." The understood object of the thought was getting destroyed.

Chapter 10: Okay so now the title makes sense. The Montanans will learn, the bureaucrats will learn, and somehow the thousands of alien civilizations will learn. The focus will come as the protagonists learn - but the bigger picture, too.
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#17
Chapter Eleven

Washington DC, USA

“Let me see if I have this straight,” the President said. “We have a high-tech militia in Montana that has declared itself a foreign power and has the technology to back it up?”

Jürgen swallowed as the President’s gaze moved over and fixed on him. He’d never been to the White House before, certainly not as a participant in a very high-level meeting. His boss wouldn't have gone to the White House under normal circumstances. That would have been the responsibility of the DHS Director and his subordinates, not low-level analysts.

“That appears to be the only explanation that fits the facts, Mr. President,” he said.

The President nodded, very slowly, then moved his gaze to Dorsey. “There are times when I wish,” he said, “that I could just order someone hung. Might I ask what you were thinking when you encouraged DHS to launch a million-dollar raid on very scant evidence?”

Dorsey looked, if anything, even worse than Jürgen felt. “I ... I believed that we had a serious problem that needed to be resolved,” he said. “I ...”

“And now we have a far more serious problem,” the President said, cutting him off. “General?”

Lieutenant General Alvin Houseman, Director of the USAF Foreign Technology Division, frowned. “We picked up the blast on satellites all over the area,” he said. “Our analysts worked the data and believe it was an immensely powerful directed energy weapon, fired from somewhere in low orbit. We don’t have a clue what actually fired the weapon.”

“A high-tech militia,” the President said, softly. “What sort of militia could put an orbital weapons platform into orbit without being noticed?”

Jürgen winced, inwardly. Getting something up into orbit without being noticed was pretty much impossible. American satellites monitored every inch of the planet, watching for the tell-tale heat signature that marked a rocket launch. No rogue state could hope to put something in orbit without it being detected and marked for destruction if necessary. And yet, there was no disputing the physical evidence. Somehow, Steve Stuart and his men had put an orbital weapons platform in position to fire on American soil.

“I don’t know, Mr. President,” the General confessed. “The weapons system is years ahead of our best work, literally.”

The same, Jürgen knew, could be said about the dongles ... and whatever they'd deployed to bring down the helicopters. And the weapons they’d used. Technology that was out of this world ... the thought caught at his mind, holding him still. What if the technology was literally out of this world? What if it was alien technology? But he knew that he would be committed to a mental hospital if he said that out loud.

“So we seem to have a major problem,” the President observed. He looked over at the fourth man in the room. “Colonel? What can you tell us about Mr. Stuart?”

Jürgen turned to look at Colonel Craig Henderson. He was a short black man, with hair cropped close to his skull, wearing a Marine uniform. From what Jürgen had heard, he’d been at Camp Pendleton when he’d been urgently summoned to Washington. It must have been alarming, Jürgen knew. What sort of offence called for a chewing out from the President personally, rather than his senior officers. But he’d been briefed and hadn't said a word since.

The Colonel cleared his throat. “Steve ...”

He swallowed, then started again. “I knew Steve when we were both going through Basic Training,” he said. “He is tough, determined and often very blunt. His family has a long tradition of military service and the honour code that goes with it. When he was sent out to war, he did as well as anyone and better than most. He might have been as fearful on the battlefield as I was, during my first engagement, but he sucked it up and kept going. By the time he was promoted, he looked certain to be a lifer in the Corps.”

There was a pause. “And then came Afghanistan.

“It’s hard to explain to a civilian, but I will do my best. The military code, Mr. President, can be summed up as you fighting for your buddies, rather than your country. You have to be able to rely, completely, on your buddies ... and, in a modern army, that can be far more than just your platoon. On deployment, you have to rely on air support, intelligence officers and the logistics officers in the rear to keep going. And you also have to trust that your political leaders won’t simply abandon you when it becomes embarrassing.

“Steve and his men were caught in a Taliban ambush, Mr. President,” Henderson said. “They needed fire support to get out of it, so Steve called for help. Instead of immediate assistance, they were told that the ROE prevented either long-range guns or air support from engaging the enemy. Steve was practically begging for assistance that wouldn't, not couldn't, come. In the end, he managed to lead his men out of the trap, leaving four bodies behind. We never recovered one of them. Steve retired soon afterwards and went back to the ranch.”

The President leaned forward. “So ... what’s your impression of him now?”

“I have no idea where he got his hands on advanced technology,” Henderson said. “And I have no idea if it is really him calling the shots. But if it is, I think we may be in some trouble. You would have someone with a good reason – several good reasons – to resent the federal government allied with technology that could do real damage. Steve’s attitude, the attitude of his whole family, is that of someone who wants to be left alone. You didn't leave them alone.”

Dorsey was spurred to respond. “They were flouting laws,” he snapped. “And ...”

“And you sent more helicopters than we often had in Afghanistan to storm their ranch,” Henderson snapped back. “Tell me something, sir. What would you have said if Steve and his family had been accidentally killed by your people?”

“I would have demanded a full investigation,” Dorsey said, weakly.

“And would that investigation,” Henderson demanded, “actually have ensured that someone was punished?”

He took a breath. “Over the last five decades, there have been a whole string of incidents where people have been harassed, arrested, injured or even killed by federal law enforcement agencies, often on very flimsy grounds,” he added. “And how many of those feds have been punished for it?”

The President slapped the table. “Enough,” he said. His gaze moved to Dorsey, then to the DHS Director. “I shall expect your resignations ... no, you’re both fired. And if you leak, I’ll personally see to it that you spend the rest of your lives in jail.”

He looked back at Henderson. “Mr. Stuart has offered to speak with us,” he said. “Do you feel we should talk?”

“Talk, yes,” Henderson said. “But I would advise against trying to threaten him.”

“Then we won't,” the President said. He looked over at his National Security Advisor. “You were at the meeting where the raid was ordered, weren't you?”

The man paled, but nodded.

“Then consider yourself on probation,” the President said. There was a pleasant tone to his voice that in no way masked the ice underneath. “And if this turns into a political disaster, I’ll want your head on a platter too.”

He paused. “And what, so far, has leaked out?”

Houseman was the only one to speak. “So far, nothing apart from rumours,” he said. “Several bloggers in the town posted notes about naked federal troopers, but most of them seem to believe that it was a practical joke rather than anything more serious. We’re pushing that forward online, helping to bury the truth under a mountain of bullshit. However, there may well be international trouble. The Russians may believe that we were testing an advanced weapon and demand answers.”

The President winced. “Then we make the call and talk to Mr. Stuart sooner, if possible,” he said, firmly. “I’ll go, personally, even if the Secret Service objects. We need to know just what we’re dealing with before we make any long-term plans.”

Jürgen nodded in agreement. Clearly, the President had more steel in him than he’d suspected. And balls too, if he was going to meet Mr. Stuart in person. Jürgen would have liked to be a fly on the wall at that meeting.

***
Kevin smiled to himself as he listened to the President. Dorsey had no idea that he and his men had carried nanotech bugs with them back to the White House, or that one of those bugs – now hidden on the ceiling – was monitoring the conversation in the White House. And yet, despite his amusement, Kevin was terrified. The sheer potential of the technology was staggering and horrific. Given enough time, the entire world could be monitored endlessly by computers. There would no longer be any privacy at all.

He looked up as Steve entered, the hatch hissing closed behind him.

“We need to talk,” Kevin said, before his older brother could say a word. “Sit.”

Steve sat, his face twisting. Kevin didn't give him any time to muster a response.

“Tell me,” he said. “Just what were you thinking when you humiliated them so badly?”

Steve’s eyes flashed. “I was thinking they deserved a little humiliation!”

“And you might be right,” Kevin conceded. “But you just committed something that is arguably an act of war. You can hardly declare the ranch to be the embassy of a foreign power and then expect them to recognise it when they have never even heard of us!”

He went on before Steve could say a word. “You have just terrified everyone in Washington,” he snapped. “Scared people do stupid things! We need them to stay out of the way, at the very least, not work to find ways to impede our plans for the defence of Earth! And what will happen to our small community if it does come down to a shooting war? Do you expect everyone to go along with it?

“Yes, you terrorised a bunch of DHS cowboys and rightly so, but what happens when they send Marines or Army Rangers or SEALS? How many of our friends will side against their country? Or would we have a mutiny on our hands at the worst possible moment?”

Steve glared at him. It was the look, Kevin remembered, that reminded him strongly of their father, before the old man had passed away. The look that said, quite clearly, that his children were crossing the line and heading towards disaster. But the old man had never had the sort of power that sat, now, at Steve’s fingertips.

“This isn't a game,” Kevin said, lowering his voice. “Military service didn't prepare you for being the leader of a new nation. Not everything is a nail that needs to be hit with a hammer.”

“It worked for George Washington,” Steve objected.

“Washington didn't build a new nation completely from scratch,” Kevin countered. He’d read history, all history. Steve had focused on its military aspects. “There was Congress and the State Governments and quite a bit of infrastructure – and he still fucked up the slavery issue. Here ... you have to build everything from scratch. You’re out of your depth.”

He took a breath. “I understand the urge to just hit back at the feds,” he added. There had been endless talk – so far, just talk – about greeting federal agents with loaded weapons, but Steve had made it real. No matter the justification for the raid, Steve’s actions were likely to have unpleasant repercussions. “But we handled the whole affair very badly. Right now, we have to look like Washington's worst nightmare. A group of irrational thugs with advanced technology and a bad attitude.”

Steve looked down at the deck, then back up at Kevin. “You would have preferred to abandon the ranch?”

The hell of it, Kevin knew, was that Steve had a point. They – and Mongo – had grown up on the ranch. They’d run through its fields, climbed the mountains nearby, swum in its lakes, courted their first girlfriends in the haystacks ... it was their home. And it was home to generations of Stuarts, ever since they’d first settled in Montana. The thought of federal agents swarming through the ranch, breaking furniture and searching their vast collection of books was appalling. If Kevin had been the one in charge, he didn't know if he could have coldly abandoned the ranch and set up another base elsewhere.

“I would have sent them away with their dignity intact,” Kevin said. “Look, Steve, what sort of nation do you want to build?”

“A decent one,” Steve growled.

“Then act decently towards other nations,” Kevin said. “Particularly the nation that raised and trained most of our manpower – and the one to which many of us swore an oath.”

“We swore one to protect the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” Steve pointed out. “What about the domestic enemies in Washington?”

“We’re leaving them behind,” Kevin said. “Or would you rather wage war on the United States?”

He paused, then pushed on. “Let’s bomb Washington, right now,” he said. “Zap the White House from orbit. Smash the military bases! Blow up the Beltway! Burn Langley to the ground! Oh, and let’s make enemies of the entire American population while we’re at it.”

His voice softened. “I saw this before in Iraq,” he added. “And so did you. Destroying Saddam’s regime was easy; rebuilding a decent Iraq was hard. How many people resisted us because we destroyed their livelihoods, exposed them to their enemies and shattered their grip on power? How many others resisted us because they trusted Iran more than they trusted us? How many people fought because it was the only way we’d left them to make a living ...”

Steve slapped his hand on his knee, hard. “Point. Taken.”

“This isn't a fantasy any longer,” Kevin said. “This is as real as reality gets.”

He waved a hand at the console he’d set up, with the help of his interface. “This technology scares me,” he admitted. “We have spy probes in the White House itself! It wouldn't be hard to blanket Afghanistan with bugs and track down the terrorist networks, then start obliterating them one by one. Or we could disable Iran’s nuclear program, North Korea’s nuclear missiles ... hell, we could cripple China and Russia in an afternoon, without them ever realising what happened to their weapons. But all of those options are destructive.

“Steve, if we’re going to build a new nation, we need something constructive.”

Steve nodded, ruefully. “Very well,” he said. “What do you propose we offer?”

Kevin had to smile. Steve had been right about one thing. Sometimes, you just had to hit the bull between the horns to make it pay attention, even if there was a risk of being gored by an angry bull.

“Most of what Keith suggested,” Kevin said. “We have a handful of small portable fusion reactors, enough to supply the entire country’s requirements. We have superconductors that would allow them to make steps forward in producing laser and other directed energy weapons. We have medical kits and cures for diseases, including some that have proven incurable by current human technology. Hell, we have quite a few other pieces of technology we could offer them.”

“And we could offer assistance in going after the Taliban,” Steve commented. “Do you think they’d like it?”

Kevin shrugged. Afghanistan was a major headache for the government. They couldn't commit the troop levels necessary to keep the country stabilised, which ensured that any gains made by American and local troops were often reversed when the foreign troops moved onwards to the next region. And yet the government didn't dare try to pull out completely, having built up Afghanistan as the Good War. Kevin had a private suspicion that Afghanistan would end up just as badly as Somalia, with the added complication of American SF roaming the countryside, wiping out small pools of Taliban wherever they found them.

And besides, the debt for 9/11 had never been fully paid.

“They probably would,” Kevin said. He smiled, then met his brother’s eyes. “We have a week before the scheduled meeting, unless they want to meet earlier. God alone knows what might happen in the meantime. So far, there hasn't been a leak, but that will change. And maybe we should ask to meet earlier, if we can. The sooner we start mending fences, the better.”

Steve nodded. It was one of their father’s sayings.

“Once they call, set the meeting up as soon as possible,” he ordered. “I’ll speak to Keith and a couple of others, then ... then try to make nice with the government.”

He paused. “But we won’t be surrendering our independence,” he added, firmly. He tapped his knee to make the point clear. “That is not on the table.”

“Nor should it be,” Kevin agreed.

Even with the best will in the world – and he had never believed that all government was "disgusting" – it was unlikely that the US Government could put together a plan to defend the Earth in time to save it. The Horde would notice they’d lost a starship, sooner or later, and send another one to investigate. By then, they had to be ready to take the starship out – ideally, they had to be able to capture it. A second starship would be very useful. If nothing else, it would allow them to send trade missions to the nearest inhabited star system and pick up alien tech and, more usefully, alien user manuals.

“But we do have to mend fences,” he repeated. “We cannot afford having the US government trying to either impede us or even just refusing to cooperate. The consequences could be disastrous.”
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#18
Chapter Twelve

Joint Base Andrews, USA

Steve disliked having to admit that he’d been wrong, but his father had taught him – more than once – that it was worse to cling to something he knew damn well wasn't true. He didn't trust the government – he would never trust the government – yet Kevin had been right. He’d allowed his hatred to drive his actions, rather than sober cold rationality. Perhaps it was time to mend fences.

Mariko had agreed, when he’d gone to her and confessed everything Kevin had told him. She’d listened, then pointed out that men had their pride – and the more powerless a man felt, the more he would cling to his pride. Steve had humiliated the government and the government would want to push back, if only to maintain its position. But perhaps, if they talked openly, there was a chance to come to an agreement.

He smiled as he drove the van towards the gatehouse. Joint Base Andrews, the home of Air Force One, was one of the most secure locations in Washington, designated as a Presidentical bolthole if the shit hit the fan. The armed Marines stepped out of the gatehouse, weapons raised, as he pulled the van to a halt. Steve couldn't help feeling a hint of nostalgia as he saw them, followed by a flicker of approval. These men were genuine combat troops, alright. They knew better than to let an uninspected van anywhere near them, not when a VBIED could do real damage. Steve waited until one of them came up to the window, then removed his sunglasses.

“My name is Steve Stuart,” he said. “I’m here to meet with the President.”

They’d argued endlessly over how Steve should approach the base. Mongo had proposed teleporting into the base itself, but with the Secret Service on the lookout – and probably already paranoid after events in Montana – it had struck Steve as a very bad idea. Besides, as Kevin had pointed out, the idea was to try to mend fences, not rub the government’s face in its technological inferiority. Eventually, one of the vans had been transported to a point near Washington by a shuttle and Steve had driven the rest of the way.

It was nearly twenty minutes before he was cleared through security and allowed to drive up to a nondescript building. There was nothing, apart from a handful of snipers on the rooftop, to suggest that anyone important was inside, something that Steve thoroughly approved of. The simplest way to avoid being targeted was to act as though there was nothing worth targeting in the area. He parked the van, then opened the door and climbed out. It felt oddly good to be standing in a military base once again.

“Steve,” a droll voice said. “What have you been doing?”

Steve smiled when he saw Craig Henderson. They were old friends; he would have recruited Henderson, if he hadn't remained on active duty. As it was, it would be nice to have someone on his side in the meeting – or at least willing to help build links between the two parties, when the talks got heated.

“Something extraordinary,” Steve said. He smiled, then jerked a thumb towards the van. “I brought a gift. You’ll need to assign a team of loaders to unload it, then transport it to somewhere secure.”

Henderson paused. “And what is this gift?”

“All will be explained,” Steve said. He inclined a hand towards the door. “Shall we go inside?”

The building was surprisingly luxurious inside. Henderson kept up a running commentary about how the building was often used for secret low-key meetings between the President and foreign representatives. It was, apparently, as secure as possible, although none of the precautions seemed to block Steve’s link with the starship. However, if they started to broadcast more static into the air, it might well prevent a safe teleport. He kept his expression blank as Henderson led him into a small, but comfortable room. The President was sitting on the sofa, waiting for him. He rose as Steve entered the room.

“Mr. Stuart,” the President said. He held out a hand, which Steve awkwardly took and shook, firmly. “I’ve heard a great deal about you.”

Steve nodded, feeling himself lost for words. This was the President, the duly elected Head of State and Government, the most powerful man in the world. He’d been brought up to respect the office, even if he had been taught that the men who sat in it were human and therefore fallible. His father hadn’t spoken favourably of any President since Reagan, condemning Clinton in one breath and George W. Bush in the next. And he’d died midway through Bush’s second term.

“All exaggerated, I suspect,” Steve said, as the President released his hand. “Particularly the story about the Swedish woman’s swim team.”

The President smiled. It was a genuinely friendly smile. Up close, Steve had to admit the man had charisma. It shouldn’t have been important in a Presidential election, but it was. And the man had balls. Faced with what had to look like a villain straight out of James Bond, the man had picked a meeting place and come to the meeting, without giving into the temptation to cower under his desk.

He sat down on the sofa facing the President and waited until the Navy Stewards had poured them coffee, then withdrew. Henderson stood behind the President’s sofa, clearly ill at ease. Steve didn't blame him. Craig Henderson had always been ambitious, but he’d never wanted to become involved in political battles. Few military officers cared for bureaucratic engagements.

“Well,” the President said. “Shall we get right to the point?”

Steve nodded and started to speak, outlining everything that had happened from the abduction attempt to the capture of the alien starship and the start of a new nation. The President listened, his face curiously expressionless; behind him, Henderson didn't even try to hide his astonishment. Steve wondered, as he came to the end of his story, just how much of it the President had guessed beforehand. After all, significant advances in technology didn't come out of nowhere.

“I see,” the President said, when he had finished. “And that is all true?”

“Yes, Mr. President,” Steve said.

“And you intend to found a new nation, while defending the planet,” the President mused. “An interesting endeavour – and quite a worthwhile one. Might I ask how you intend to proceed?”

Steve had expected a demand that the ship and technology be instantly turned over to the government. Kevin, however, had doubted it. The government would hardly risk exposing its own weakness by making a demand it knew would probably be rejected outright. Instead, Kevin had predicted, the government would try to come to terms with the new nation.

“We intend to continue recruiting – more openly, now – and purchasing supplies and raw materials from Earth,” Steve said, carefully. “Given enough time, we should be able to put together a working defence network for the planet, particularly as we unlock more and more secrets of alien technology. Eventually, we plan to settle the entire solar system and reach for the stars.”

“Ambitious,” the President commented. “Perhaps we can be of assistance?”

“We would prefer to do our own recruiting,” Steve said. “If this became a US Government project it would cause problems with other nations, problems we would prefer to avoid.”

“I would have thought that NASA might have some ideas,” the President said.

Steve snorted. “If NASA had been led by men of vision, Mr. President, we would have hotels on Titan and Mars would be halfway to being habitable,” he said. “Instead, trillions of dollars have been wasted on pretty artwork and feel-good diplomacy, while the Russians, Chinese and Indians move ahead with their own space programs. We don’t even have a working replacement for the Space Shuttle.”

He shook his head. “We will recruit people who we believe can help us, then open the floodgates to immigration,” he added. “But we will deal with people as individuals, not as groups or nations. Let everyone have a chance to stand on their own two feet.”

For a moment, he thought the President would ask him to explain, something Kevin had warned him to try to avoid. Ranting at the President would have been rather less than constructive, no matter how much he wanted to tell the President exactly what he thought of some of his more damaging polices.

“We have never forbidden emigration from the United States,” the President said. “And, if your new nation is no threat, we will certainly not start now.”

Steve nodded. “We have a great deal to offer you,” he said, “in exchange for your cooperation and assistance, when we need it.”

The President leaned forward, interested.

Steve allowed himself a smile. “There are three different gifts in the van, Mr. President,” he said. “One of them – the large box – is a portable cold fusion reactor, capable of putting out ...”

The President’s jaw dropped. “A nuclear reactor?”

“It’s perfectly safe,” Steve said, with some amusement. He had to be the first person to smuggle a nuclear reactor onto an American military base. “As I was saying, the reactor is capable of putting out ... well, it’s capable of putting out the same amount of power as the nuclear reactor on an aircraft carrier. Anything built with purely human technology would cost at least nine billion dollars and take years to complete, assuming it wasn't politically sabotaged along the way. A handful of them would suffice to meet all of America’s power requirements, without any pesky nuclear waste, political problems or even terrorist threats.”

“I don’t believe this,” the President said, shaking his head. “A nuclear reactor the size of a small van?”

“Smaller than that,” Steve confirmed. “But you don’t have to take my word for it. The FTD will have fun experimenting with the power systems and figuring out that it does what it says on the tin. And there are two other items we brought along.”

He paused, then went on. “There are a number of room-temperature superconductors,” he continued. “They have quite a number of interesting applications, but the important one right now is that they can be used to build very effective batteries. One of them could be used to power a car for weeks, replacing gas ... which would sharply reduce the West’s dependency on Middle Eastern oil. We could meet the requirements of the United States and our allies from local production, once the batteries were used to replace gas everywhere.”

“There would be political problems,” the President said, sourly.

Steve wasn't surprised. The wealthy oil corporations and Arab states had worked hard to ensure that possible alternatives to oil were marginalised or simply disregarded. Introducing the fusion reactors and the batteries would have a whole series of effects on American society, perhaps even knocking over the oil corporations, which would render millions of people unemployed. It was unlikely that they would all want to go to space.

“We will not interfere in your decisions, Mr. President,” Steve said. “Or those of your successors, as long as they don’t threaten us.

“The final item is a set of medical treatments designed to eradicate cancer,” he added. “We can only produce them in small quantities so far, so if the CDC or someone else manages to figure out how to duplicate them we would be very pleased. Again, you don’t have to take my word for this. You can take the gifts, all of them, and test them freely, as you see fit. And how you use them is up to you.”

The President gave him an odd little smile. “You don’t have political ambitions?”

Steve hesitated, trying to put his thoughts into words. “Mr. President, I was raised to be independent, to live my life without support from outside the family,” he said. “My family’s motto might as well be Live and Let Live. Ever since I became politically aware, I realised that both the Republicans and the Democrats were intent on expanding the government’s authority, without expanding the political oversight. Politicians in Washington were acting more and more like untouchable aristocrats than elected leaders of our nation. Both parties were pushing for laws that divided society and turned Americans against one another.

“I was taught that everyone deserved a chance to seek their own place in society and to be considered on their own merits. The best and brightest would rise to the top, Mr. President, but that is no longer true in America. Every single person claims to be a victim now, claiming to face discrimination when they don’t get a job or when someone is mean to them or they see something that offends them. I could give you a hundred examples of policies put forward by politicians, from Affirmative Action to DADT, that have only undermined the positions of groups they were intended to help.

“But why have groups? Why insist that two people are different because of skin colour, gender, race or religion? Why not just have individuals?”

He paused. “We’re not interested in waging war on America, Mr. President, nor are we interested in attempting to reform the United States. I simply don’t believe the country can be reformed. Instead, we’re building a new society where those who wish to join us and live life on their own merits can do so. An escape hatch, if you like, from a society that is rapidly becoming intolerable.”

The President pressed his fingertips together. “You know, when I was younger, I used to read Atlas Shrugged. A guy I knew, a few years older than me, actually tried to set up a Galt’s Gulch of his own. It lasted barely a year, then fragmented.”

Steve nodded. “Why didn't you go?”

“Because the system Rand suggested was unsustainable,” the President said. “She admired the men who spearheaded the production of goods to trade, but thought little of the men who made it work. The machinists, the factory workers, even the floor sweepers. All of them had their own role to play in making the production work.

“And my friend wasn't the only one who tried to set up his own little commune. California is littered with the remains of such places. The only ones that succeeded, that achieved any measure of success, were the very low tech ones. And life there was hard.

He paused. “How do we know that your grand society is going to be different?”

Steve considered his answer carefully. Two days ago, he would have angrily denied that could ever be a possibility. But now ... the President did have a point. Their society had already trembled, as tiny as it was, in the aftermath of the attack on the ranch. Another shock like that could destroy the nation he was trying to build.

“We don’t, Mr. President,” he admitted. “It is possible that our society will come apart. But unless we try, we will never know. We have high technology, we have a stream of recruits and we have plenty of ideas for expansion. And if we fail ... at least we will have tried.”

“True enough, I suppose,” the President said. “Do you intend to go public?”

“I was hoping to remain secret a while longer,” Steve confessed. In hindsight, embarrassing so many federal agents might not have been a bright idea. Rumours were already spreading rapidly. “Why do you ask?”

“I would prefer to try to manage how the information is released to the public,” the President said. “We’re talking about the entire world being turned upside down.”

“True,” Steve agreed. He paused. “There is one other card we would like to put on the table.”

He leaned forward. “I understand that you are preparing one final push in Afghanistan,” he said. “We have some ... devices and personnel that might be of assistance.”

“I believe that should be coordinated through the military,” the President said. He looked up at Henderson. “Colonel Henderson will act as the liaison officer between us, at least for the time before there is any public announcement. Colonel, I’ll get you high clearance and whatever else you need to get the job done properly.”

He stood. “It's been an interesting meeting, Mr. Stuart. And if things were different, I might have joined you myself.”

Steve doubted it. The President was a professional politician, born into the political class and never experienced life outside it’s charmed circle. He had no idea what it was like to live, literally, on less than a dollar a day. Or how hard it was to struggle with government bureaucracy. Would he really have tried to make a go of it on his own?

But he kept the thought to himself. Kevin was right. There was no point in making enemies for no good reason. And the President could help them get everything they needed to succeed.

“I’d like to see your starship, one day,” the President added. There was an oddly wistful note in his voice. “My eldest daughter keeps talking about becoming an astronaut.”

“She’ll have her chance,” Steve said. He had a sudden mad impulse to teleport all three of them to the starship, to give them the grand tour. But he forced it down ruthlessly. If blocking the DHS raid had had unpleasant repercussions, what would kidnapping the President do? “They’ll all have their chance, if they are willing to try.”

He watched the President go, then turned to look at his old friend. “Ready to see a whole new world?”

Henderson nodded. “Are you ... is all of this for real?”

“Have the van taken to somewhere safe for the FTD to examine,” Steve said. It would be brilliant if the FTD did figure out how to produce their own reactors. The interface had been far from helpful about how they worked. “And then I will take you somewhere that will really blow your mind.”
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#19
Chapter Thirteen

Shadow Warrior, Earth Orbit

“This ship is really unbelievable,” Jürgen Affenzeller said. “And you can do so much from up here?”

Kevin had to smile. He rather liked Affenzeller, even if he had been the person who’d seen through the cloak of secrecy and realised that something was up. It was a pity he worked for the DHS, yet with some careful nurturing perhaps Affenzeller could be convinced to switch sides and join the growing lunar settlement.

“Yes, we can,” he said, keeping his doubts to himself. “And just wait until you see some of the stuff the aliens can do.”

He tapped a switch, accessing the live feed from thousands of nanotech drones scattered across Afghanistan. The level of access was just unbelievable, so much so that he doubted he could even begin to analyse it all, even with the help of the ship’s computers. Each of the Taliban fighters lying in ambush in yet another mid-sized Afghani town had a tiny drone firmly fixed to his head, without any clue the drone was there. Even the larger models were far too small to be seen with the naked eye.

Piece by piece, they were putting together a picture of the enemy network that had simply never existed beforehand. Couriers were identified, tagged and tracked as easily as tracking wild animals in the jungle. Each of their conversations were recorded, then scanned for incriminating keywords. When certain keywords were used, a second flight of drones would be dispatched to tag the next group of insurgents and continue the process. It had only been two days since Steve and the President had come to an agreement, of sorts, and the Taliban were already on the verge of defeat. But they didn't know it yet.

He made a face as he looked down at some of the other reports. There were local policemen who weren't Taliban, but preyed on the people they were meant to protect without even the fig leaf of religious justification used by the Taliban. Some of them were simple thugs, others were drug addicts, rapists or even paedophiles. Kevin shuddered at one particular memory, then silently blessed the Hordesmen who’d brought the starship to Earth. The new settlement would never have to compromise with "disgusting" just to make progress.

And they hate us because we support one set of their enemies while claiming to fight the other set, he thought, bitterly. No wonder the Taliban sometimes looks better than the alternative. They actually have a nose for government, even if it is harsh and brutal.

It was worse, he knew. The Afghani Government was corrupt, so much so that nearly half of the foreign aid poured into the country had vanished into Swiss bank accounts. Most of the ministers were put into office based on who they knew, rather than the results of any election, and were more interested in feathering their own nests than helping to fight the Taliban. No wonder half of them were left carefully alone by their enemies. They were better advertisements for the Taliban than anything the insurgents could do for themselves.

Affenzeller coughed. “Sir?”

“I got distracted,” Kevin confessed. On the display, the drones had also carefully marked the positions of over five hundred IEDs. “Are they ready to proceed.”

“Craig says so,” Affenzeller confirmed. “He’s with the front line, ready to advance.”

Kevin nodded. Over the past two months, Coalition forces had steadily surrounded the nondescript town, trapping over three hundred insurgents inside the net. Naturally, the insurgents had prepared themselves for war, using the civilian population as human shields and press-ganged labour while they rigged their homes for demolition. And, with the human shields preventing the Coalition from simply bombing the town to rubble, the insurgents had an excellent chance of killing a few American or British soldiers.

Or so they think, he reminded himself. Let’s see how this goes.

He checked the location of the civilians again, carefully. The insurgents had pushed veiled women and children forward, using them to shield their positions. Kevin shuddered – if the women survived the engagement they would almost certainly be killed by their menfolk afterwards – and then keyed a switch. One by one, the drones attached to the insurgents reported back. Everything was in position, ready to move.

“Remote controlled warfare,” he muttered. “The dream and the nightmare.”

He cleared his throat. “Tell the Colonel that we will trigger the drones in ten minutes,” he said. “And then he should advance with care.”

***
Almena was fourteen years old and terrified out of her mind. Once, her life had revolved around cooking, cleaning and trying to learn as much as she could from her schooling, after the old restrictions on girls going to school had been removed. Now, she was a helpless prisoner, caught in the arms of a strange male. The school had been destroyed, her teachers had been killed, her brothers had been taken away and her life had become a nightmare. All she wanted now was for it to end.

She twisted, slightly, in the man’s grasp. He was older than her, wearing flowing white robes that were badly strained with something, perhaps human blood. He’d already told her that they would be married, once the battle with the infidels was over. Almena knew that he could make his promise – his threat – come true. She’d always known, from the moment she knew the difference between males and females, that one day her father would decide a suitable match for her. Her opinion would barely have been considered. But now ... her father had lost his power to someone even worse.

He muttered something in a language she didn't recognise, then slapped her head. Almena saw stars and almost threw up, only swallowing the urge out of fear of another beating. The man snickered unpleasantly, then pointed a finger towards the edge of the town. Out there, the infidels were gathering. Almena was almost as scared of them as she was of the men who had taken her town and destroyed her family. Even if she survived, what would happen to a girl without a family? The younger girls had whispered dark stories about girls who were thrown out into the streets. Almena had never wanted to discover if any of them were true ...

The man holding her jerked, then let go. One hand clutched his forehead, then he staggered and hit the ground. Almena jumped backwards, almost tripping over the edge of her dress, unable to take her eyes off the twitching man. He convulsed once, violently, then fell still.

She looked up. All along the line, insurgents had fallen, their captives pulling themselves free. It was a miracle, as if the hand of Allah had swept down from the heavens and wiped out the infidels who were holding them prisoner, the infidels who would have forced the girls into loveless marriages for their own pleasure. Moments later, she heard the first explosions in the distance and scrambled for a place to hide. Maybe the infidels were coming anyway, but it no longer mattered. They could hardly be worse than the insurgents.

Finding a hole, she crawled into it and closed her eyes to wait.

***
Steve heard a faint whine as the drones moved forward, searching for IEDs. The quickest way to get rid of one was simply to detonate it in place, so the drones were vibrating the ground to trigger the weapons. Those that refused to detonate were marked down for later attention, while the advancing troops were steered around them. Inch by inch, the troops moved closer to the occupied town.

It looked fairly typical for the region, he noted, as they closed in on the edge of the defences. A large number of primitive huts and hovels, a handful of more modern buildings in the centre and a single stone mosque, rising above the buildings and gleaming in the sunlight. It had been used as an Observation Point by the Taliban, Steve knew, trusting that the American infidels wouldn't fire on the mosque. But the ROE hadn't saved the men inside. The drones had killed them the moment the command was given, leaving their lifeless bodies on the ground.

A chill fell over him as he realised what was missing. No one fired at them as they entered the town, not even a single shot. Most of the human shields looked to be in shock as they stared down at their former captors, others had probably grabbed weapons and fled for their lives. The Taliban had told them, Steve guessed, that the American troops would kill the men, then rape the women and children. They’d told the same story everywhere, hoping to encourage the locals not to cooperate with the Coalition. And, given the behaviour of some local policemen, the bastards might even have a point.

The chill grew stronger as he looked down at one of the bodies. There was a tiny hole in the side of his head, smoking slightly. His AK-47 lay beside him, abandoned and useless against an attack they hadn't even seen coming. Kevin had been right, Steve told himself, as he looked up towards the mosque. The world had changed and he could no longer be the person he had been, when he had nothing to worry about but the ranch.

“Dear God,” Henderson said. “What have you done?”

Steve shook his head as he looked back at the body. “Opened a whole new world,” he said. “And a whole can of worms too.”

“You never spoke a truer word,” Henderson said. “Have you grown up a little now?”

Steve shrugged.

The afternoon was almost surreal. Normally, evicting the Taliban from a mid-sized town would take days of hard fighting, particularly if the ROE refused to allow close fire support for the advancing troops. But now, all that remained was carting out the bodies and then clearing out a handful of homes that had been turned into massive IEDs. The locals looked to have been reduced sharply by the insurgents; civil affairs teams spoke to the handful of male survivors and discovered that most of the men had been butchered as soon as the siege had begun. Steve wasn't too surprised. The insurgents had only had a limited supply of food and the town’s menfolk, watching their wives and children starve, might have turned against the Taliban.

He watched a platoon of Royal Marines transporting bodies towards the mass graves, then looked up at the sun setting in the sky. Life in the village would never be the same again, even if the ones who had fled in time to escape being taken captive managed to return. The whole district had been traumatised, first by the Taliban and then by the Coalition’s counter-attack. Maybe they should just offer to take the women and children with them, maybe offering them a place to live on the moon. But it would be a problem when there were no quarters available for them.

“You’d better make yourself scarce,” Henderson warned. “The media is on the way.”

Steve sighed. At his request, the media had been kept away from the front lines, in hopes of keeping the secret a little longer. But they’d finally broken through the bureaucratic cordon and convinced the officials to allow them to move up to the town. Hell, with resistance crumbling so quickly, it was quite possible that they thought the Taliban was finally on the verge of breaking and wanted to be there when it did.

And it will break, Steve thought, bitterly.

But most of the men who’d died today weren't the true monsters. They'd been pushed into fighting, either out of religious conviction or because they simply didn't have anywhere else to go. As always, the true brains behind the terrorists and fanatics had remained out of battle, hiding on the other side of the Pakistani border. But not any longer, Steve told himself. The network of drones was already picking its way through the networks, isolating the true monsters at the heart of the Taliban. They were all doomed. They just didn't know it.

He caught sight of a young girl, staring at him from the darkened entrance to a tiny hovel, her face no longer hidden behind a veil. It was hard to guess her age; in America, he would have confidently guessed that she was still preteen, perhaps ten at the most. But in Afghanistan, where so many children were malnourished and treated badly, she might well be old enough to marry by local standards. Her face was bitterly pale, her eyes fixed on his face. Steve felt a wave of pity, tinged with bitter helplessness. It was girls like her who had borne the brunt of the war, massively oppressed by the Taliban and then caught in the middle of savage fighting as the Coalition fought to shatter a grassroots insurgency. Somehow, he doubted she would survive the coming winter.

I could take her, he thought. It would be simple enough; walk over to her, take her arm and teleport them both to orbit. But what would happen then? But I couldn't take them all.

He keyed his communicator. The girl vanished into the shadows as soon as she saw it, perhaps assuming it was a weapon. They’d recorded footage of the Taliban shooting their weapons randomly, purely for giggles. Or perhaps it had been intended to convince their prisoners that they were too irrational to be negotiated with.

“Kevin,” he said. “Round up a few volunteers for medical services, if you can find them, and send them down here. There are people who need help.”

“Understood,” Kevin said. There was an odd note in his voice. “Do you think that any of them are likely recruits? We could find space for a few dozen, if necessary.”

Steve swallowed, understanding – finally – the guilt he’d dismissed as a liberal delusion. He had so much and the locals had so little. He lived in peace; the locals lived in permanent war. His wife and daughters were safe; the women and children here might be married off against their will or simply raped, if the town fell to the wrong occupation party. And the American government, despite its flaws, was far better than anything the locals had produced or had designed for them. It was hard not to feel guilty.

“I believe some of them might be suitable,” he said. It was hard to know when everyone in the town had almost no practical schooling at all. “But others ... others are unlikely to fit in.”

He sent a command to the interface. The teleporter activated and the world faded away in silver light.

***
Gunter Dawlish had had enough run-ins with the military bureaucracy to know when he was being fed a line of bullshit. As one of the veterans of freelance journalism – it was a point of pride that he didn't take any regular pay from any newspaper or TV broadcaster – he’d heard enough spin to have a nose for it. And where someone was trying to sugar-coat a shit sandwich, it generally meant that someone had something to hide.

But what?

Gunter had gone to a great deal of trouble to be embedded with the 1st Marine Division. It did have a certain element of risk – reporters had been killed in Afghanistan – but it also allowed him to earn respect from the soldiers, who were the true heart and soul of the war in Afghanistan. But without respect, they wouldn't talk to him and most soldiers regarded reporters as the enemy. It was very hard to win their respect. Not being linked to any established part of the MSM did help, he knew, but so did bravery.

He jumped out of the AFV and looked around. It should have taken weeks, at best, to reduce the town’s defenders to the point where the Coalition could just walk in. Instead, it had taken barely an hour to take the entire town. There hadn't even been a major battle, his sources had whispered, and the only causality had been a soldier who’d triggered an undiscovered IED ... it just didn't make sense.

The town’s remaining inhabitants were gathered at one end of a field, being tended by a group of medics and Civil Affairs specialists. For once, there seemed to be no attempt to hide the women, something perhaps encouraged by the shortage of males in the group. Indeed, the more Gunter looked, the stranger it seemed. The defenders seemed to have been wiped out ... or had they fled? Had the military, having laid its plans for a great battle, discovered that its enemy had retreated and then claimed victory anyway? Or ...?

He followed the soldiers out towards the mass grave and swore, sucking in his breath as he saw the bodies. The defenders had died, he realised, and clearly no one in the local community had felt like burying them, a clear rejection of their ideology. But what had killed them? Most of the bodies seemed strangely unmarked. Indeed, there seemed to be very few insurgents who’d died conventionally. It just didn't make sense.

His imagination went to work. Gas? Something new and untried? But how could it have left one group untouched while others died?

Shaking his head, he removed his small camera and started to take pictures, then uploaded them to his storage sight through the dongle his assistant in New York had procured for him. Sending messages through the military internet was always risky, particularly if they were trying to spin something into a victory. But the dongle seemed to allow him to bypass all of their precautions. And maybe a few people he knew might have an idea what happened to the bodies.

By the time they were escorted back to the base, he had half of his story already written in his head.
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#20
Chapter 11: "...honour code" should be honor code. This is a description of a U.S. marine, so the American version is the only one permitted.

...Same thing with "romours." These are DC bureaucrats speaking at the White House. "rumors" is more appropriate.

Chapter 12: "...favourable." How about spell checking everything and getting rid of a few superfluous "u"'s?
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