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Sequel to Moonstruck


by Tom Anderson




First Consul’s Office, Luna

August 12th, 2006

A man sitting at a desk writing. Not that remarkable, one might think. Although eyebrows might be raised at some of the facts: the oak tree that had been cut down to provide wood for the desk hadn’t even been planted yet, indeed the planet on which it had grown had never been touched by Earth vegetation. Furthermore the man wrote on a sheet of what appeared to be transparent plastic, but upon which text and pictures danced in animation, and used a pen which scorned ink in favour of circuitry. Neither of which were due to be invented for a hundred years.

In short, the man dripped with anachrony. But, by now, he at least was beginning to get used to it.

"Mr Garrows?" said a voice. The man’s – Garrows’ – remarkable brain immediately analysed its characteristics: female, intelligent, slight Selenite accent layered on top of what was probably a New American drawl? A match was found: his new secretary, Fiona Adams.

Garrows glanced up and offered her one of his measured smiles. His previous secretary had been sadly offworld when the Shift happened, and thus was lost somewhere in that other timeline. Though Juan had fulfilled his job excellently, though, Garrows wondered if he’d have been up to the far greater task now that Garrows was no longer merely the First Consul of sleepy, bureaucratic Luna, but virtually the leader of all Humanity – or at least the part that thought of itself as being twenty-fourth century. He himself occasionally let his thoughts dwell on how on earth – or Luna – he’d managed to pull that one off, but he didn’t allow them to rest on it for too long. He might go all philosophical and decide it was impossible, in face of all the evidence.

And that would be an irresponsible act for a man that that irreverent British defence minister had dubbed ‘Our last best hope for peace. Or victory. Or possibly both.’

He became aware that he’d let an awkward silence stretch out. "Sorry, Ms Adams," he said, allowing his words to take on an apologetic tone: not one he used very much in his political life. "You were saying?"

"Yes, First Consul," Adams said formally. "A few matters for your immediate attention…" she handed him the datareader.

Garrows scanned it. More than a few; some of these were too important to be decidedly unilaterally, though he hardly relished the thought of trying to unite his national-unity cabinet on a subject. He almost looked forward to the elections in five weeks’ time, despite the Gunn catastrophe.

He scowled at the thought. It was now a week since the man who called himself Jack Gunn had fried in the beam of Admiral Nuttall’s ergpistol, but not before he had managed to pull off an almost admirably audacious plot. At least Garrows had survived the co-timed assassination attempt from Gunn’s comrade "Sheila Carney"; but right now, he wondered if that was truly a blessing. Certainly his job – not exactly easy before Gunn’s little escapade, had now increased exponentially in difficulty.

"Hmm," he said, tapping item after item with his datapen. "We’ve covered most of the groundwork for these few in our Cabinet meetings. I’ll still need confirmation on one or two – and a couple of them will require consultation with our friends downstairs-" the new half-affectionate nickname for the twenty-firsters "-but I can certainly sign off some preliminaries."


Garrows tapped the first item. "Top priority is getting one Stairway and one Slingshot into operation. Hard part will be getting the twenty-firsters to agree on where it’ll be. So we’ll say we’re starting a half-dozen. It’ll be true, too, but we need to get one of them working aysap."

"For the food supplies."

"And other matters, Ms Adams: the…changed situation means we’ll be sending a lot more downstairs than we’d planned. Helk, we might have to bring up more food than we need, just to keep the energy balance."

"I see, sir. And the next matter?"

Garrows scanned it. "Nuttall’s got the right idea, but he’s not thought out the logistics," he said. "We do need a space fleet aysap, and his suggestions are fair…but we need an antimatter supply first." He frowned. "After the Voordijk has completed its checks, I want to send it out to Jupiter to set up one of those self-assembly antimatter stations. I think we’ve got one our new-old factories building them?"

"That’s right, sir." Adams effortlessly turned to the right page (metaphorically speaking) on another datapad. "The first three units should be ready by the end of this week, though they’ve had to cut out some of the quality control. Our factories are just too old to incorporate the relevant steps."

"It’ll have to do," Garrows said, "now we’re on a race against time."

Adams nodded. "You don’t think anything to what Mr Stephanopoulos argues?"

Garrows almost scowled. "Mr Stephanopoulos is entitled to his opinion," he said neutrally, almost as if Adams was a reporter trying to imply friction in the cabinet. "Privately, though, I think he’s got it wrong. He still underestimates the twenty-firsters, and the Vároto as well. He doesn’t believe the Sahdavi they have with them can uplift them fast enough to be a serious threat."

"But if they couldn’t manage it in the – er – original timeline…"

"Have you seen that file Gunn sent them?" Garrows asked sharply. "Not only a copy of the twenty-firsters’ Internet, not only a concise assortment of our history and technical files, but a particular emphasis on the plans for early Vároto spacecraft, First War vintage." This time he did scowl. "Plans which our special forces spent decades getting hold of, and now Mr Gunn has sent them straight back to the bloody Vároto before they were even designed in the first place! How’s that for a fercucking temporal paradox!"

"I think the irony is lost on us all, sir," Adams said dryly. "But your point is that Gunn has set his friends up as well as we are?"

"Better," Garrows muttered. "Because all they need are some decent fluxships and they can get to Stentyrrea. It’s only eight, nine thousand ell-why from Vároton. Or whatever it’s called these days. Whereas it’s over twenty from here."

"And on Stentyrrea is that intact Sahdavi ship," Adams said. "I see."

"That’s the race," Garrows said. "Whoever wins it may well win the war. And there will be a war, mark my words there will. A war at arm’s-length."

He gazed into an unseen distance. "A war in which, I fear, our knuckles will be blooded indeed."


Outside Oueaua, capital city of Ucasa territories, Yenapa

November 27th, 2006

Celoun laughed, a long, loud laugh that almost reminded him of how he had sounded in his youth. Before him, Aeo Uea was hurled to the ground by two overzealous Vároto; had it been upon the marble floor of his palace rather than this soft earth, they might have broken some of his bones.

And Celoun didn’t want that. Not yet, anyway…

"So," he said, allowing his old facial muscles to twist into an expression of gloating triumph. "The rebellion is finally crushed. The rightful order of things is restored."

Aeo Uea looked up, his brilliant lime-green eyes burning with hatred. "Well done, Celoun," he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "You’ve managed to take back one whole world."

He lunged at the Sahdavi, but was knocked down again by the two Vároto. "But among the stars my people are spreading," he panted, "and we will certainly outlast you decrepit old maniacs!"

"May we terminate him, Master?" one of the Vároto guards asked in a flat voice.

"No," Celoun said firmly. "That is what he wants."

The Sahdavi gestured – wincing as he felt his joints creak – to the city behind him. Oueaua. A name which had been a bane for all Sahdavi on Yenapa for centuries. But now no longer. The city was in flames, those parts of it that were still intact after the nuclear attack.

"Your city is gone," he said. "Your lands in flames, no less. Your people are dead or enslaved. In short, you have nothing left to live for. You wish to die.

"And therefore, I will not let you. A just punishment for one who tried to subvert the natural order of things, who tried to come too far too fast. In time, perhaps, you and the Obvians might have been our inheritors, had you waited as the faithful Yenapa did. As it is…you shall burn. But not all in war, for that is a merciful death. In centuries, millennia, of slavery."

Aeo Uea opened and shut his fish-like mouth, blinked his eyes, his green skin tone betraying a look of utmost horror. This had been his nightmare, and Celoun had identified it and was making it a reality.

But he rallied. "Whereas you were so faithful to a timescale?" he sneered. "You and the ol’Banedt and the Exxen Líq? That must be why you spent a thousand years in brotherhood and peace, not tearing each others’ guts out."

Celoun’s golden eyes flamed: Aeo Uea had touched a nerve. "The failings of our traitorous so-called brother Immeri is not your concern," he snapped. "It is above your level, and always was, just as I would not question my Grigóri masters about why they split from the other Dawntiders."

"Perhaps you should have done," Aeo Uea. And his voice was more weary than taunting. "Perhaps if you had, then none of this would have come about."

Celoun smiled thinly. "And you would be some primitive in a swamp back on Undul," he said nastily. "If you existed at all."

"I’m beginning to wish I was."

Celoun let out one harsh bark of laughter. "Come! You two, you know what to do. I shall break him, something I have often dreamed of, and he shall be my slave, far below you two faithful servants, worthy inheritors."

The Vároto bowed, and roughly dragged him upright. But Aeo Uea had one last dig. "One of those who brought me in…said you had found a way to regain your immortality treatment," he said at length. "You intend to use it?"

"Of course."


Aeo Uea turned, tiredly, to the two Vároto with their hands upon him and expressions of faint disgust upon their faces. "What is the use of being worthy inheritors if your masters never die and bequeath to you their inheritance."

"I will die in my time," Celoun said sharply. "But only after I have arranged the universe as it should be, as the correct inheritance to my children."

"Must you go, Master?" one of the Vároto said, pleading like an infant dragged away from an amusement park. "Why cannot we serve you forever?"

Celoun smiled, both at the Vároto’s words and at Aeo Uea’s horrified expression. "You see, Aeo Uea, we learn from our mistakes. The Vároto will never betray us as you did.

"And the knowledge from the future has testified to our work! The Vároto have performed well. They could not overcome every obstacle, but they suffered from many disadvantages. Not least having to fight another fifty years to defeat you traitors and wipe your scourge from this planet.

"Now we’ve corrected that mistake of history, and we’re about to correct a whole lot more. The Primacy of Vároton shall come to pass, under our initial guidance and stewardship. And before its time, it shall spread out, retake what is rightfully ours, what should be part of the inheritance of our children…and it will triumph."

Aeo Uea opened his mouth, but not even that formidable leader among the Ucasa could come up with a snappy rejoinder. Celoun allowed himself another smile of victory as the two Vároto dragged him away.

Vároto. A success, he thought to himself again. The future had vindicated him, against those critics in the Sahdavi remnant that had spoken against another attempted uplift. This time, they had done it right.

And what you do right, you repeat.

"All of the Yenapa shall become Vároto," he murmured. "Faster than before. No longer shall this world be known as Yenapa."

He looked to the sky, thrusting forward an arm, backlit by the glow of the mushroom cloud over Oueaua. "Instead, ahead of time, first and foremost, now and forever…this is VÁROTON!"

"VÁROTON!" yelled the armies, pausing mid-rape and pillage to thrust their own fists high. "VÁROTON!"

The glow from the cloud darkened to a deep crimson, turning the golden skin on Celoun’s outthrust hand to a deep, bloody red.


[SIZE="4"]Chapter One


Florida Stairway Station, Earth Orbit

September 24th, 2006

Aldrin Garrows pulled out the huge pair of scissors and looked at them critically. It was a good thing he’d practiced with them, he thought, or he might end up cutting off the end of his archaic tie. Or some of his fingers.

"I declare this Stairway – open!" he said to the crowd, reached out, and cut the red ribbon. The two halves drifted lazily apart, the tension released. But they did not drift towards the floor. And Garrows, slightly misjudging it as he withdrew the arm holding the scissors, was sent turning head over heels and slamming into the opposite walls.

There were a few chuckles in the crowd, but one or two cheers as well. Garrows picked himself up, brushed himself down, allowed himself an embarrassed grin. Even that was calculated. Cold competence in all things didn’t sit well with the voters.

He glanced to one side, out of the polymer window, and smiled. The window was oriented ‘downward’, towards the Earth, though in this zero-gee environment it hardly felt that way. Far below, he could see the shape of Florida, ‘shaped like a bit stuck on a bigger bit’, as one author had it, half covered in clouds. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon down there, and all he could see was bathed in sunlight. The new Stairway was powering itself mostly off solars, far more potent and efficient than anything the twenty-firsters could dream of, so much so that they could just be layered on the exterior hull rather than requiring massive, ugly panels.

The new Stairway. Garrows shook his head in disbelief, trying not to send himself flying again from the recoil. Partially eclipsing the Bit of Florida was a carbon nanotube cable. Thick as a house. Hundreds of miles long. Equipped with self-healing nanotech, so its pristine, almost frictionless structure would not be spoilt by cosmic rays or micrometeorite impact. The cable stood out, gleaming oilily in the light of the Sun. Soon it would be in use: Luna would no longer have to fear starvation, and the twenty-firsters would take their first tentative steps toward life in space.

If only they could be tentative. Garrows scowled. This was a magnificent achievement, only three months after the Shift, but it was only what was necessary to face up to a possible Vároto threat. Still; now Admiral Nuttall’s famous spacefleet could be something more than a pipe dream. The Stairway opened doors.

Garrows just hoped it would be him who would be able to go through them.

One of the reporters apparently read his thoughts. "Mr Garrows – Mary Carmichael – BBC – er – that is to say – the current BBC –"

Garrows recoiled from the machine gun fire of hyphens. "Thank you, Ms Carmichael," he said. In fact he’d already surmised that she was from the twenty-first century: certain details of her clothing, as well as her archaic-looking equipment, betrayed her. Reporters from the Earth below, as well as those from Luna, had been ferried up here by shuttle for the big event. "Your question?"

"Thank you. Mr Garrows, are you concerned about your prospects in the impending Selenite election?"

The First Consul inwardly frowned. A twenty-fourther reporter would be unlikely to be so blatant, but then the Earth people knew little of Selenite politics – yet. "I am confident that my people will choose the candidate best suited for the job," he said neutrally. "Next?"

Another twenty-firster. "Bill Collins, CNN," he said in that contemporary American (not Usan) accent that Garrows had trouble following. "What do you have to say about Mr Chenier choosing to step down in favour of Miss – er – Ms? Renwick?"

"M. Chenier has chosen to spend more time with his family," Garrows said, and wondered why that inoffensive statement caused half the twenty-firster reports to burst out laughing. "He has decided that he can better serve our cause by assisting the process of cross – er – time relations."

It wasn’t entirely true: Chenier had been pushed, though he’d agreed to it fairly readily. In order to have a chance at winning this election, Garrows – politically a Lunar Moderate, although the old party structures were breaking down – had to have the support of Felicity Renwick and her Reactionaries. The Selenite people, like most of those in the vanished Union, thought of the Reactionaries as being the most competent party to handle a war. Garrows was still popular, despite the Gunn snafus, but he couldn’t rely on that alone.

And besides, Renwick had been a powerful and helpful part of his shaky interim Cabinet, surprisingly conducive to working with those formerly from opposing parties: not like the snarky Sienna Pardenne of the Radicals, or the curmudgeonly Panayiotis Stephanopoulos of the Theocrats. "Those two about deserve each other," he muttered under his breath. Fortunately, the Radical and Sess Lib causes had virtually collapsed after the Union was lost, and the Theocrat vote seemed to be going to the evangelical Christforce instead. But Christforce itself was being split by the actions of the far-right faction of Casimir Jerzewicz, who had fallen out with the centrist leader Wen Ch’ai-ling.

Yes, he could win this election, but only if the former Reactionaries were on side. And to do that, he needed Renwick, whose price for that alliance had been the ejection of Chenier and the promise that she would be Second Consul. A devil’s bargain, maybe, but Garrows had accepted it.

"Mr Garrows?" Another voice startled him out of his reverie, this one with a comfortingly familiar twenty-fourth century Selenite accent. "Will Schulbert, BBC – erm – twenty-fourth century BBC, that is. When will the Stairway come into operation?"

Garrows nodded. Finally, a relevant question. Will wonders never cease? "All tests have been completed and the first real loads will be active within the hour. Some of you might wish to stay and see the Stairway in action."

"And what will those loads be?"

"Coming up, food supplies, mostly from Usa – the United State – given the location of this Stairway. Going down, technical equipment; M. Chenier in action, you might say," he said with a smile.

Uplift, Chenier called it, though not in public for fear that the twenty-firsters might take offence. Some of the powers down there were doing better than others. Britain, of course, had its Shed Men, and had rapidly outstripped the rest of Eu – the EU – despite Roberto Canizzarro’s attempts to get them to commit to a unified project. But, of course, if Britain had its own programme, then France wanted a national one, as well, and so…

The United States was doing well; it might not have had Shed Men, but it did have slightly more money than God, plus ready and willing industries, and since the incident at the UN, their President had been persuaded that his country needed to throw all its effort into the project. It was not least for these reasons that the Florida Stairway had been completed first, a divergence from the order in which they’d been set up in the original timeline. Then, it had been the one at Kourou-Guiana that had risen first, but in this time Kourou-Guiana was still French Guiana, and Canizzarro’s headaches had spread over here too.

Then there was China. It too had a powerful manufacturing economy, and its Selenite-detested government was making moves in the same direction as Usa – but too slow, too cautious! Garrows reflected that part of Jerzewicz’s platform was a promise to use the Selenites’ superior military tech to unseat the Chinese government ‘and any others we don’t like the look of’, and replace them with some friendly democracies that could get a move on with things.

Jerzewicz was a fool, of course, but Garrows would be lying if he said his subconscious didn’t occasionally agree with him.

"Mr Garrows." Another question, another twenty-fourther. "Natasha Komanova, Eastcast – er – what was Eastcast…"

Garrows nodded. Eastcast had been one of the premier news agencies in the eastern part of the old Federate Commonwealth, catering mostly to worlds to the east and north of Earth, including the Culvanai. Its Luna station had been quite peripheral, part of Eastcast’s mission statement about not being Earthcentric and focusing on Eastern issues. But Komanova and co. had come through with them regardless, and they were still collecting information for viewers that hadn’t been born yet.

"Mr Garrows," Komanova repeated, "what of the upcoming state visit of President-" only a slight pause as her hazel eyes flicked down at her notes, "-Bush of the United States?" At least she didn’t hesitate over the country’s name, as Garrows still, to his annoyance, found himself doing.

"President Bush will be joining m – the First Consul," Garrows corrected hastily, to a couple of titters, "one week from now, travelling via this very Stairway and the accompanying Slingshot." The Slingshot had been declared operation five days earlier: it had been an easier project, not requiring any wrangling with the twenty-firsters. "Any further questions can be put to – er – them then." He nodded. "Thank you."

And he left through the Obligatory National Leader’s Unobtrusive Exit, which some thoughtful Stairway designer had included in the conference room.

Garrows shook his head as he walked through the narrow corridors, sniffing in the newly-machined scent, followed by a couple of bodyguards in grey. Ever since the attempt on his life – despite the fact that it had resulted in the death of Gao Da-wei – they had treated him with an almost stifling protection. At least these corridors meant they couldn’t surround him on all sides.

His comm beeped and he raised it to his lips. "Garrows. Speak," he said perfunctorily.

"Sir." It was Adams. "A memo from Admiral Nuttall about the spacefleet project-"

Garrows laughed. He might have known. "Inform the Admiral that his call is important to us," he said, a phrase that he’d learned of through meetings with twenty-first politicians. "And I want reports on his Generic Space Academy Thing project."

"I don’t think that’s what the acronym is supposed to stand for, sir," said Adams, and he could almost imagine the wry smile on her winsome Celtic face. "We have those reports as well," she added, sounding more serious. "The first crop of recruits is…mixed…but there do seem to be some good results."

"There had better be," Garrows grunted. "We need crew for the Admiral’s planned fleet, and we sure as helk can’t recruit all of them from Luna. Like it or not, we need people from Earth."

"I’m sure he understands that, sir."

"Of course," Garrows muttered. "I’m sorry, just a little stressed what with one thing and another." Some euphemism.

"The possible war across thousands of ellwhy and the election," Adams translated. "Well, I do have the most recent exit polls."

"I don’t believe in polls," Garrows said.

"They say that you and Ms Renwick are looking to take seventy-six percent of the popular vote."

"I believe in polls," Garrows said.


"Generic Space Academy Thing", Umbria City, Luna

September 24th, 2006

Colonel Tim Hucknell surveyed the first batch of recruits. Well, the first apart from himself and the rest of his shuttle crew, anyway. After they had helped foil Jack Gunn’s plan – at least a little – their use had been requested by Admiral Nuttall and, to his surprise, Captain Zhang. And the President had been delighted to let American NASA people be the first to learn how to operate a twenty-fourth century spacecraft…

Hucknell himself hadn’t been too unthrilled with the idea, either.

To himself, he wondered what had happened to the Atlantis. The shuttle was hopelessly outdated now, of course: Bush had formally announced the roll-up of the old space programme, though NASA’s resources would be channelled directly into the Americans’ Shed Men-analogous project out at – Bush did have a sense of irony – Area 51. Hucknell hoped something good would come of it, but for now, he and his four crewmen were vital to America’s space interests.

They had been there for six weeks now, learning how to use Selenite tech (which they’d already, surreptitiously, begun to study whilst on the Voordijk), learning how to operate in zero-gee (which, it turned out, they already knew more about than their Selenite so-called instructors), and learning the science behind the weapons, engines and other technology of the future.

It had been illuminating. A lot of it had whooshed over their heads, of course, but he got the impression that most of the Selenites didn’t really understand it, either, any more than the twenty-first man in the street can tell you how his microwave oven works. But he understood the relevant facts about Janvier-Graham crystals. To put it in Star Trekky terms, they change the laws of physics. Though apparently most of them weren’t laws to begin with, just…local trends.

The J-G material, which some of them whimsically called "Hawkingite" (and Hucknell wondered if the living Professor knew), could do many things if you ran energy through it in the right way, and you weren’t in the gravity well that impaired its functions. Most obviously, it could warp spacetime so that faster-than-light travel…or something that was indistinguishable to all but the keenest observer…was possible. It could create artificial gravity, of a sort.

And it could project an energy shield, a shield almost completely impervious to kinetic projectiles and barely scratched by nuclear detonations. Antimatter bombs were useless, too, because they just rebounded off the shield and couldn’t get to the matter in the hull beneath. The only way to break through the shields was by the use of either matter-antimatter annihilation weapons – which the Selenites called ‘mapulse’ – or directed-energy ‘ergweapons’, which Hucknell remained uncertain of the principles behind.

He did know that ‘future space stuff’ as Frank Hind liked to call it, looked an awful lot more like the exciting shows from the Sixties and Seventies than the godawfully dull stuff of recent years, with its mass drivers and kinetic projectiles and rotational-gravity spacecraft. Who’s got the last laugh, eh? Roddenberry, Lucas and their goddamn lightshows, that’s who.

Now they had graduated, if such a word was appropriate, and he stood before the first crop of recruits with a critical eye. They’d been recruited from all over the world: plenty from the United States, both from the military and from interested civilians who fulfilled the health checks; a good crop from China and the rest of the Far East, mostly military; a number from Europe, Canada and Australia, mostly non-military; large stocks of people from India and Russia; and a few sent from Latin America, Africa and the Middle East, largely at the insistence of Pierre Chenier. They’d already had problems with an Israeli Air Force colonel clashing with his counterpart from Iran.

Hucknell sighed. Chenier, and Nuttall, and even Garrows, all seemed to think that if they acted like Earth was the unified, peaceful place they knew, it would somehow metamorphose into it now. "Well, it ain’t going to happen," he muttered to himself.

Still, there was one great equaliser: none of them dared risk anything too dodgy, less their home nation lose out on having people among the new space fleet. That was still the Selenites’ ace in the hole, but Hucknell knew that it had to be used wisely.

He cleared his throat and addressed the crowd of 250 or so. "Welcome to the Moon," he said. Most of them spoke good English; a few had his words translated by compatriots sitting nearby. "You’re privileged to get a look at some of the technology that the Selenites are giving to us. You’re going to be some of the first Humans of our time to help crew the Selenites’ space fleet – Astroforce – when it gets off the, aha, ground."

He paused. "Your instructors will be me, my former NASA crew," he gestured vaguely to the four of them, and Hind risked a cocky wave, "and these ladies and gentlemen from Admiral Nuttall’s crew." He gestured to the twenty or so instructors who’d helped train him. Most were specialists in technology or combat, but among them were Genevieve Chenier and Corollary Warwick, who between them were an expert in helping twenty-firsters adapt.

"We hope you’ll all serve your nations – and the human race – well. This is a time to push out, stretch the limits of our knowledge, break the barriers." And break a few Vároto heads, he added mentally. The mainstream Earth population knew something about the Vároto threat, from Garrows’ UN address, but most of them still took it as a big joke, or something not quite real. There were plenty of political figures claiming the whole thing was an excuse for Garrows to clamp down and steal their scientists and military people, apparently ignoring the fact that Garrows’ arsenal could kill everyone in the world – and leave all the buildings standing – if he so desired it.

If Garrows was re-elected, that was.


January 12th, 2007

Maghlar, Vároton


The historical records said that the Vároto would have chosen this city as their capital. Celoun decided that their judgement had been sound, though part of his decision was based on an amused desire to replicate the events of the original timeline, earlier on. It was the sort of delicate amusement that pleased the soul of such an ancient being, like trying to keep a prisoner alive and conscious for as long as possible as you slowly removed one organ after another.

That brought him back to the present. He smiled as he surveyed the room. It, like the whole of this new palace that was going up, made his former one look like a shabby hovel. The Yarghûn file had provided much useful information on how to exploit the resources of Yenapa – no, Vároton. The architectural data, too…obviously the Sahdavi had long surpassed such minor titbits of knowledge, and thus had forgotten them – to their cost when they were stranded on this primitive world.

His ears, still keen after all this millennia, heard the noise behind him. It was a shambling, trailing gait, a being propelling itself along by force of will more than anything else. Celoun turned and smiled. There was Aeo Uea, but not the proud Ucasa leader of a few months ago. Now he was bowed, prematurely aged, his bare back thick with the thin pale green lines of whip marks. He was dragging a broken leg that Celoun had refused to let him set. Only his eyes still burned with the fire of rebellion. And he would stay alive until Celoun managed to extinguish that fire.

Aeo Uea opened his mouth, his voice slurred from where Celoun had extracted one of his teeth and replaced it with the Agonist. "They’rrre here."

Celoun raised his remote with a smile. Such a tiny piece of technology, a mere trifle! Yet he had missed it so much. The Vároto machine he held was less sophisticated than the ones he’d been accustomed to using in the Glory Days, of course, but it did the job.

"They’re here, master," he corrected softly.

Aeo Uea hesitated, then spat at Celoun’s feet.

Celoun sighed and pressed the button on the device. Aeo Uea’s eyes were flung open wide as the Agonist stimulated the sensitive nerves in his jaw. He fell to the marble floor with a cry that heightened in pitch and intensity as he jarred his broken leg. His hands reflexively scrabbled at the Agonist in his jaw, but to no avail. He knew, just as Celoun did, that removing the device would stimulate a pain so immense that it might kill him. Emphasis on might.

The Sahdavi walked up to his fallen slave, dispassionately watched him writhe, kicked him on the broken leg with interest. Aeo Uea passed out from the pain. Celoun scowled: he was out of practice, and his old muscles didn’t respond so faithfully as they once did. Either that or it was the primitive Agonist. Time was, he could keep a slave fully conscious through indescribable pain with just a few well-placed blows of his own limbs. Well, he’d have to do something about it…

What was it the slave had said? They’re here. Ah, yes.

"Enter," he said in lordly tones. And they did.

Twenty of them, no, thirty. All quite young, their purple skin still with a pale pink tinge to it, their yellow eyes open, wide, trusting, adoring him. They bowed before him, incidentally chucking the tortured heap of Aeo Uea out of the way. "You are our Master," they intoned.

"Did I give you permission to speak?" he said sharply. He always enjoyed this.

The great childlike yellow eyes flew wide open in horror. "We die for you, Master!" one cried, reaching for his dagger.

Celoun’s arm whipped around and knocked it from his hand. "Silence!" he roared. "You do not serve me dead!"

He paused, knowing that in various locations throughout the city and the planet, his fellow Sahdavi were doing their own jobs. He was the de facto leader, and had sent those who disagreed with him off to the occupied Ucasa territories. Let them have fun with their rampaging bloodbaths and cold exterminations! Celoun had a more refined soul.

He, like so many others, faced the group of Vároto. And they were Vároto: no unenhanced Yenapa among them. "The records of the Yarghûn file spoke of you as the ancestors of great lineages," he said. "Many of your descendants would be great leaders among the Vároto, some even rising to be your Diktat Primate, the one who had to command you in our absence." He paused. "Happily that will not be necessary for the present."

A wordless, adoring wall of sound from the kneeling Vároto.

"What those records said has been confirmed: you all fought well against the traitors." Celoun whipped a thumb at the broken shape of Aeo Uea; in turn, several of the Vároto spat on the unconscious form. "So you will be elevated. You shall be the first commanders of your brethren, leaders under us. And you shall breed bountifully, making many more like you, while your less able brethren are sterilised and sent to do less important tasks." Celoun frowned; he’d have preferred to just exterminate them as a bad job, but they couldn’t spare the numbers. According to the Yarghûn file, these enemy ‘Humans’ had twice their numbers.

Then we shall just have to be twice as good, he thought. At least.

"Males shall be first," he clarified. "Already the rape-partners are being selected. Females, you are too valuable to be taken from the front lines of our struggle for dominance. Instead your ova shall be transferred to those less important: the technology will be ready soon, within a month."

"Whatever you say, Master," they said.

He nodded. "Dismissed."

One of them – his name was Wrais – dared to speak up. "For the Sahdavi, our gods, First and Foremost!" he said shrilly.

The others paused, staring at him in horror.

Celoun smiled. "That’s what I like," he said, "Initiative."

The others hastily joined in.


Chapter Two


Shed Men Project, Lincolnshire

September 26th, 2006

The huge flatscreen showed, as it had for the last several hours, the BBC’s latest anchorman. "The reality has not quite lived up to the exit polls, but nevertheless, the position of the new Union Coalition is secure," he said. "Aldrin Garrows’s party has won a historic majority of 140 in the new Selenite Parliament, which currently has 302 seats. It is widely believed that, in return for bringing her supporters into the Coalition, Felicity Renwick will be rewarded with the Second Consulship as well as continuing her current role as minister for defence. The incumbent Second Consul, Pierre Chenier, has been reassigned to the development portfolio.

"The remainder of the vote was divided between the Christforce-Theocrat Alliance, the Radicals and Stewards – who are also reported to be considering such a merger – and the ‘Real Christforce’ faction of Casimir Jerzewicz. It’s thought that none of these can muster enough vote to be an effective opposition to the Union Coalition.

"The Selenite presidential election, which ran in parallel, has returned a 67% popular vote for the incumbent President José Rodriguez, with the remainder being divided between Casimir Jerzewicz and Sienna Pardenne, who also ran – successfully – for constituency seats. However, it seems their bids were doomed by the conventions of the – er – the Selenites’ future, in which Presidential candidates were expected not to have held any other elected office before running.

"Mr Garrows issued this preliminary statement-"

Pete Chambers turned away from the screen. "Funny old world," he mused. "Bloody Moon appears from the future, and then a couple of months later, the BBC are using their usual fill-in-country historic election speech for them." He laughed harshly. "The ability of people to get used to the unprecedented never ceases to amaze me."

"Or me, sir," General Sir George Stawes said hastily. It didn’t do to contradict Chambers when he was in one of his moods, which was, er, almost any time.

Chambers snatched up a sheaf of notes and speed-read through them. "You’re making good progress," he said reluctantly. "I’m almost satisfied." He quirked an eyebrow.

"What about the PM, sir?" Stawes dared.

Chambers snorted. "The PM thinks whatever I tell him to think," he said. "He may generally favour this kind of thing, but Shed Men is way over his head. Mine too, to be honest," he admitted, "but at least I know it."

Stawes nodded. "Thank you, sir. Are there any other areas you’d like us to be concentrating on, in particular."

"I don’t think so. Now we have the Moonies-" Chambers seemed to refuse on principle to call them Selenites, "-on side, their idea of a priority list is probably a lot better than ours. Remember, we’re just one part of their grand plan to get the Earth running up to speed as a factory of the future."

Stawes wondered idly if Chambers had nicked that phrase from one of his earlier New Labour speeches. He’d know for sure if he started talking about local job creation…

"You’re right, sir, of course," Stawes ventured, "but I think we’re quite an important cog. The Americans are the only people who seem to be anywhere near us."

"Bloody colonials," Chambers said, his usual knee-jerk response whenever the transatlantic cousins were mentioned. "Still, at least they can get their act together." He smiled. "Does me a power of good to see that Canizzarro have to eat humble pie over in Brussels."

"Yessir," Stawes said cautiously, "but, I mean, we are all facing the same enemy now, aren’t we?"

Chambers wagged his finger. "That’s no reason to abandon our longseated prejudices and rivalries," he said in tones so solemn that Stawes wasn’t sure if he was joking or not. "Anyway. I’ve got to go and make another report to the Commons Select Committee on Paperclips for how the Selenite tech can revitalise the public transport infrastructure." He snorted again. "I’ll be seeing you."

Stawes watched as the enigmatic minister left, flanked by a pair of bodyguards – not that they’d be too much help if the Selenites decided to bump him off. From the start of this project, the general had felt like the sword of Damocles was suspended above his head, but now the Selenites were ‘on side’ as Chambers put it, there was also someone standing there with a pair of scissors to the thread.

He sighed. "You can come out now," he said.

Another door opened and several people emerged into the conference room. Piotr and Rachel Zobodin, who he’d gotten to known quite well over the past few weeks – the slight embarrassment of the Shed Men disassembling their shuttle had been got past – and a family of three, who he only recognised from intelligence reports and a brief feature on the news. "General Stawes?" Piotr said in his not-quite-Russian accent, "If I could introduce you to Andrew, Janet and Luke Stillsby?"

Stawes shook Andrew’s hand – a firm grip – and nodded to the others. So this was the family that had taken Rachel in, rescued her from the shuttle crash, and hidden her for weeks while his secret services were searching for her. In the long run, he reflected, probably a good thing. If she had fallen into the hands of the Government, it was unlikely that Canizzarro would have been so forgiving when the project came out…

Still, no sense in dwelling on what ifs. "Pleasure to meet you," he said. The boy, Luke, he reflected with amusement, was staring in a mixture of fear and rapturous joy at Stawes’ uniform’s military insignia. All three of them wore Visitor’s badges, at first appearing to be the usual plastic ID badges common to any Government establishment, but they concealed nanochips borrowed from the Selenites. No sense in taking chances with what was possibly the most important installation on Earth.

Andrew Stillsby seemed about as Stawes had expected. Liberal academic, but not totally head-in-the-clouds; though now a professor of history, he’d started out as a journalist, including in some minor war zones. Quite a forceful personality, coming out in his challenging stare and handshake: no wonder that he’d pulled off that audacious coup of hiding Rachel in plain sight on the flight to New York. No, not a man to be underestimated.

Janet, his wife, looked a little overtaken by events, though not overwhelmed. She was still attractive, Stawes reflected, crowned by a curtain of dark blonde hair and with incongruous, but enchanting green eyes. Also an academic, he reminded himself. Background in medicine, now more of a theoretical biochemist. Still, at the moment she seemed to be more playing the role of overprotective mother. Not that you could say Luke Stillsby didn’t need it, Stawes thought with a grin.

"General…" Rachel began. Her voice was still touched by the unplaceable Selenite ‘future English’ accent, but in terms of vocabulary she had become fluent in contemporary English. Piotr, on the other hand, was struggling a bit; he hadn’t been learning it for so long, and after all, it was his third language. "General, would be it okk – uh – okay for us to give our friends a tour of the facilities."

Stawes nodded. "That’s why we issued you the passes," he said. "Try not to disrupt anything, but by all means go and take a look. It’s always good to get a fresh view of the proceedings.

"In fact," he added, rising from his seat, "I’ll come with you."

Judging by Rachel’s hastily concealed expression, this wasn’t quite what she’d had in mind. But she shrugged – her chest moving rather interestingly, Stawes thought guiltily – and nodded. "Okk – aargh! – okay, General."

They left the office and made their way across the tarmac towards the main warehouse complex, the one that still housed Rachel’s ship, the Wildfire as Stawes had learned it was named. Rather outdated by modern Selenite standards, it seemed. It still seemed an almost Clarkean advanced technology to Stawes.

The guards at the doors – now equipped with Selenite gastaser stun guns as well as their usual SA-80-2 rifles – conscientiously checked their badges and waved them in. Stawes took a moment to sniff the air, and nodded. Never mind that the Wildfire had been built in an era of molecular surface engineering that removed the need for lubricants. You could still trust Prof Greg Bone to find something that would leak engine oil all over the floor.

The reassembled ship still sat in its cradle, a series of arms and brackets and braces that had grown up around it, almost organically, since the beginning of the project. The Shed Men had long since extracted any useful information from its technology, and now it was kept on hand just for its database; though Garrows had given them a superior one, Stawes and co. had gotten used to using the Wildfire’s computer. Perhaps, being older, it was marginally closer to what they had previously thought of as computing. Stawes was in his early fifties, and had already been overtaken repeatedly by the advance of information of technology just in his own lifetime.

There he was: rising, his lab coat inevitably stained by a half-dozen unidentifiable substances. Prof Bone offered them a grin. "A-OK to see you," he said. "You’ll never guess what we’ve just found in that stuff that Garrows sent us last week, dudes – er – sir –"

"Thank you, Professor," Stawes said resignedly. Bone was a hard man to get along with if you were accustomed to military levels of discipline. Still, during one of his nosy parker sessions (as Colonel Davidson called them), Stawes had uncovered a letter to Professor Bone from the American government, offering him twice his current salary to come and work at Area 51. He’d found it screwed up in a bin. Since then, he’d felt more respect for the Hawaiian-born technology expert.

Bone nodded again. "You know that we’ve got that point defence laser thingummy working reliably, now, sir," he said.

"Yes," Stawes said, shuddering with the memory. If he was in the facility at the time – which he invariably was – Chambers always insisted on testing Bone’s new weapons himself. Sometimes it took days to patch the holes in the warehouse.

"Well…sir, I’ve got something else as well," he said with a grin. He pointed to a workbench beside him, where a large metallic device sat. It looked vaguely like an upright vacuum cleaner turned on its side, and had clearly been put together out of parts. The obligatory sparking cable extended from one side to the other.

Stawes looked at it with trepidation. "And this is…?"

"Gastaser, dude! – sir," Bone hastily corrected himself. "You know, like the Selenites use? We managed to duplicate the design – well – sorta."

Piotr walked up to it and examined it with interest. "A bit bulky," he pointed out.

"First prototype," Bone said dismissively. "But it works. Puff of gas, electrical discharge conducted through it to your target, and zap! you can go around shouting Exterminate."

Stawes rolled his eyes. "I thought you had trouble synthesising that special conductive gas the Selenites use."

"I did, but we found something in those archives – an older gas mixture that works almost as well, and is a hell of a lot easier to synthesise – uh – pardon my French. Try it!" This last addressed to Piotr.

The future Russian raised the enormous weapon, straining under the weight, pointed it at a target that someone had pasted on the wall, and pulled the trigger.

There was a terrific PFF-ZAP! sound, but nothing emerged. Piotr stared at the weapon in suspicion. "Professor-" he began.

"Luke!" Janet shrieked. The fourteen year old, still crackling with a faint hint of the electricity, was falling to the floor. She intercepted and caught him, wincing at the static-like shock. "What did you do?!"

"Ah," Bone said. "Perhaps I should have put a ‘this is the business end’ sticker on it, y’think?"

Stawes slapped his forehead with the back of his hand.

"Luke!" Janet repeated, her hand propping up his head.

His eyes flashed open. "Mum, that was like totally cool!" he breathed. "Can I be electrocuted again?!"

Janet sighed and rolled her eyes.

"Hmm, the effect wasn’t as long lasting as I’d hoped," Bone said, sounding disappointed.

"Look, I’ll go and get a medical team, better make sure everything’s all right," Stawes said, and left. Bone shrugged and went back to his workbench.

Leaving the Stillsbies alone with the Zobodins.

"Good work," Rachel said tightly. "Nice trick with the gun, Piotr. Knowing the Prof, I bet they bought it."

Piotr nodded. "Hope you’re okk, Luke," he intoned.

"Not too bad," Luke said, his eyes still shining. "That was unbelievably – er – what’s that word you use in the future? Vode?"

"Now," Andrew interjected, "while we’re alone?"

Rachel nodded. "All right. How are things?"

The Stillsbies looked like they’d eaten something sour. "We’ve got Selenite guards surrounding the house," Janet said.

"And the only reason they’re there is because we’ve got MI5 surrounding them," Andrew muttered.

Rachel stared. "You don’t think the Government is still holding a grudge over you protecting me?"

"It’s called treason, Rache," Janet said tiredly. "Had I known at the time…"

But, mercifully, she let that go. "What are we going to do?"

Rachel glanced at Piotr. "We may have a solution, of a sort," she said cautiously.

"Does this involve coming here to work with you?" Andrew said suspiciously. "Because that’d be worse. Uh, no offence, I mean working under Pete Chambers’ nose would be."

Rachel nodded with a shudder. "That man scares me. But as I was saying. No, there’s somewhere else you can go where the Government certainly can’t reach you."

Janet caught on first. "You mean-"

Piotr nodded. "President – er – Bush’s state visit to Luna will be the first flight there via the new Stairway. But there’ll be plenty of people from Earth going there, mostly academics like yourself to help with these projects on the other end. Foster past-future relations, you might say."

"And no-one on Earth has more experience with Selenites than you," Rachel pointed out quietly.

Andrew exchanged glances with his wife. "Well, we always said we’d move one of these days," he said half-jokingly.

"But our jobs at the University!" Janet protested.

"Love, you know that they’ve already put us on indefinite furlough. Bit hard to give a lecture if you’re being stalked by MI5 and the Selenites together." Andrew sighed. "No, we need a change. And you can’t get much more of a change than another planet. Moon."

"But what about-" Janet began, turning to Luke.

Suddenly he burst out with: "Oh, Mum, Dad, say we can! I want to see everything Rachel told us about! The cities! The people! The, the aliens!" His eyes were shining once more.

Janet sighed. "I can’t pretend I don’t want to see them, either," she said. "I just wish it were under better circumstances."

"So do we all," Rachel said, putting a hand on her shoulder comfortingly. "But perhaps things will have died down after a few months."

She looked into the distance, and shivered. "We’ll have more important things on our minds."


Maghlar, Vároton

February 12th, 2007

Wrais had a name now. A name beside Wrais, that is. Because there would be many more Wrais-es from his bloodline in the future, and so he needed a name to distinguish himself from them. His name was Ehred.

Wrais had a job. He was in charge of one of the new factories that were making the materials that the gods had just learned of. Someone might have suggested to him that, if they were gods, how could they learn of anything new? But to Wrais it wasn’t even a meaningful question.

He stared down from the catwalk at his workers and slaves. His fellow Yenapa – though the gods had told him not to think of them that way, and so he didn’t – and the Ucasa, captured during the recent victorious war against them. He still found it hard to believe, that after so long, the planet Yenapa – no, Vároton – was finally united under the benevolent rule of the gods. For so long, they had been at war with the treacherous Ucasa, and now, now they were no more.

But individual Ucasa were, and would be until Wrais worked them to death.

He smiled at the huge extruder as the new material – the god Celoun had told him it was the same stuff that formed the beautiful diamonds of Dzenraz, though he couldn’t see how it could be – was pulled out in long, long strands. They would be woven together, by new methods he couldn’t guess at, in another factory. He didn’t care; that wasn’t what the gods had chosen for him to know. He did know, though, that these new ropes would somehow allow them to reach into the stars. Not merely the little rocket-launches that had seem them put seeing-eye satellites over the Ucasa for the past twenty years. This would be something new, and different, and wonderful.

He smiled down at the hellish interior of the factory. The Ucasa had all been assigned to the more dangerous jobs, of course, of which there were many. But the fire of rebellion hadn’t been extinguished from them yet, as the gods’ new information apparently said it would have been. Would have been? Wrais didn’t bother trying to understand.

Ehred Wrais wondered whether he should try his pet project again. He knew the gods would be delighted if he could drop the more troublesome Ucasa into the huge machines, and end up with part of them imbued into the resulting ropes. Cemented with traitors’ blood, that was a powerful sign. But so far every attempt had met with inferior ropes, and he couldn’t let the gods down that way. He contented himself with using some of the less consistent strands to whip a few Ucasa to death.

He watched the production lines again. The gods said that this was only the first step to spreading their dominion throughout the stars, and so, of course, it would be done.

He couldn’t think of anything in all the worlds he’d rather be doing.

Chapter Three


First Consul’s Office, Luna

September 28th, 2006

Committees. On balance, Garrows decided, he liked them. Certainly they ate up resources, but hey – Luna had no shortage of superfluous conference rooms, and what with the new food shipments finally coming in from Earth, there was no shortage of doughnuts either. And it was worth paying for what was effectively a quick way of making problems vanish.

"First Con-sssul! Our group, the Alliance of Resolute Selenite Eastasians Hoping to Overthrow the Leftist Empire, demands that you sever all relations with the illegal contemporary Chinese communist regime!"

"First Connn-sul! We, the Malcontented Olasanos Righteously Organising Neutrality, demand that the Usan twenty-firster government retreat from its stance on immigration!"

"Firsht Ck’onshul! We, the Culvanai Liberators Instigating for a Transition to Organised Recognisably Identical Status, demand that you send all your ships to Culvana immediately to foil the Ickra’s plans, by killing everyone if necessary!"

Lesser men would have balked, or even tried to reason with them. Garrows just handed them the key to yet another disused conference room, then gave out a comm number that happened to route via a satellite which had been left behind with the Shift. Doughnuts for making problems go away, simple economics. A pity that they didn’t use paper documents, as many of the twenty-firsters still did, or he could install a Lavoisier burner and recoup some of the doughnut costs by incinerating all those reports the committees sent him.

But not all the committees were wastes of space, Garrows reminded himself. He turned over a datareader and nodded as he read. He glanced up at one of his window/flatscreens, which was now permanently configured to show a map of the Earth, with the contemporary nations delineated; electronic ‘pins’ marked the locations of the Stairways under construction, and also the improntu embassies that his people had established.

The original ambassadors, the Eleven, had now dispersed to their home supranations, or what would have become them. Some nations, such as the Euan states that were presently not part of "the EU", had had further ambassadors sent, and Garrows eventually hoped to put someone in every individual country. If nothing else, it might be another place to send some of his more irritating new coalition partners…

He sighed. He had no regrets, but this coalition was…difficult. Not only was it divided between former Moderates and Reactionaries, but there was a more important division, that between Members who had previously stood in the Union Parliament and those that had stood in the old Consulate Legislative Assembly. There were even a few newcomers, Selenites who’d been moved to enter politics by the Shift. Most of them were standing for local or crackpot causes, though, and hadn’t joined his coalition.

At least for now the opposition remained fragmented. Christforce, the only real contender, had absorbed the Theocrats but then shattered when a disgusted Jerzewicz pulled his rightwing faction out to form a rival party. The Sess Libs were annihilated: now there was nothing for them to secede from. Garrows was thinking of giving the disenfranchised Jiro Takehashi a position as ambassador to Japan; he was both a sympathiser for the twenty-firsters, and sufficiently annoying to be preferable a long way away. Perfect.

"I have a mandate," Garrows said out loud. "Now I must not waste it. Never stop running, never trip, never hit the ground."

The door to his office opened and Fiona Adams entered, bearing a datareader and an apologetic smile. Garrows matched it. "What is it?" he asked. Adams wouldn’t bring him a personal report unless it was classified information.

"A few things," she replied, handing him the datareader.

Garrows’ slanted eyes flicked up and down the text. He raised his eyebrows. "I see what you mean," he murmured. "They really found that many terrorists and assassins?"

"According to Colonel Wilkinson, yes," Adams said, pointing out the relevant section. "The Usan president does not seem to be a popular man."

Garrows nodded slowly. "Well, it’s just as well we have Wilkinson on the job then, isn’t it?" If only we’d had him before. The colonel – he’d been a major before the Shift – was the highest ranking member of the Astroforce Intelligence Corps who’d come with Luna. Unlike most of the Astroforce divisions, Intel was de facto headquartered out on the secret No Such Planet, and thus relatively few Intel men had been on Luna when the Shift happened. It’d taken weeks to unearth (or un-Moon) them all and put together a serious Selenite intelligence service – by which time "Jack Gunn" had already pulled his little trick.

The First Consul looked down at the datareader again, and let out a slow whistle. "Fantastic array of groups here…Stewards, or their current equivalent rather…socialists…Venezuelans, Cubans…helk, is there any group he hasn’t managed to piss off?" Garrows smiled. "Oh, and these err…Iz-lamic? terrorists…?"

"That last group are the worst, sir," Adams said. "Most of the others are just the pour-paint-and-point protestors. They actually want to see him dead. Er, and probably us as well. And anyone else they don’t like the look of."

"Right. Iz-lamic?" Garrows repeated to himself. "One moment while I whicky it…" he tapped at the floating holographic controls of his desk’s main computer display. "Oh, Islamic. Seems to have been transcribed wrongly. Of course, I should have realised…"

"You have been sent numerous reports on it by the relevant committee, sir," Adams said pointedly, gesturing at what Garrows euphemistically referred to as his secondary Out tray. It had a pedal operated lid.

Garrows shrugged. "I can’t read everything. That’s your job," he deadpanned. Certainly, Adams took a great deal of interest in her work, so much so that the perpetually suspicious Wilkinson had repeatedly suggested she might be a spy. For whom, he wasn’t saying.

"Well, sir, I think there’s a link on page three of this report…"

"Right, I see." Another pause while Garrows read. "H’m. Interesting. Well, I think I see a possible solution."


Garrows put the datareader down with a decisive slap. "The USA," he carefully pronounced each individual letter of the acronym, in the twenty-firster fashion, "is the contemporary world’s premier military superpower, right? And they have both comparatively advanced technology and a serious industrial capacity, right? Plus they have the most advanced current space programme, and the Stairway attached to their territory was the first to be completed, right?"

"More rights than Jerzewicz’s new party, sir, but what’s your point?"

The First Consul smiled at that. "We need the USA. It’s one of our most important contemporary partners, both now and in the future. I have a good working relationship with President Bush, but he remains unpopular with a large part of the rest of the world, and we also need the rest of the world. Realpolitick can’t fill all the gaps. Also, it might be a good idea to give conditional support…"

"But what support can we give them – him – more than we’re already doing?" Adams asked puzzledly. "We can’t afford to hold anything back from anyone now, not with the Vároto threat to deal with – that’s why you brushed off those East Asians-"

"Put in a committee," Garrows corrected, waving a finger. "Well, there’s support that makes little difference to us, not directly, but something that could save the President’s bacon if we play it right – and give him one helk of a favour to repay to us." He smiled, a bit evilly, Adams thought.


Garrows tapped away on a datareader for a few minutes, pausing to glance at the report a couple of times. Once he used a datapen to drag several words from one reader to the other; they followed the pen tip as little holographic flickers in midair, then converted back into words on the page as the tip touched the second datareader. Adams caught a glimpse of a few of them: English transcriptions of Arabic words that Garrows couldn’t be bothered to copy out?

Finally, he handed the datareader to her. "For Colonel Wilkinson," he explained. "Classified, direct courier please. And make sure he doesn’t try doing it himself; that’s missing the point."

Adams scanned the short note – she was cleared to do so – and her eyes widened. "Sir, that’s…that could be…"

"Brilliant?" Garrows deadpanned. "As per usual, then. Wait and see if it works first."

Adams nodded and left. The First Consul smiled, sighed and went back to his In Tray, which was an actual genuine tray. The next report was something about the infamous new Can’t Even Agree On A Project Name Astroforce Vessel Design Project, while the one after was an update from that twenty-firster, Hucknell, on the Generic Space Academy…


Fluxship Project Offices, Tranquillity City, Luna

September 29th, 2006

Admiral Chris Nuttall was itching to be back where he belonged, on the bridge of the Voordijk. But the ship was still under repair in Luna’s biggest orbital drydock, in fact right where it had been during the Shift. Gunn’s computing tricks had been relatively simple, though agonisingly effective; still, Colonel Wilkinson rightly insisted on a full check to ensure there were no more little alterations. As he had put it, "The last thing we want is for you flyboys to get to Vároton and then have your torpedo launchers fall off."

And so the Voordijk was detained. Nuttall had stayed on board for a couple of days, pacing back and forth until he’d practically worn a groove into the bridge carpet, only leaving for when he was called to an improntu court martial tribunal over the Gunn affair. The whole thing was fortunately a damp squib: sponsored by his old enemy Sienna Pardenne, it had met with considerable opposition and finally collapsed when Pardenne failed to win a seat at the election.

It wasn’t that he hadn’t screwed up by failing to see through Gunn’s disguise. He had. But so had everyone else.

Though exonerated, relatively speaking, there wasn’t much he could do back on his ship but get under the feet of the Intel and Engineering people – which Captain Zhang was already doing quite enough of, to hear Wilkinson talk. So, instead, he was here, at the Unnamed Project to Design a Fluxship Sort of Thing.

It had consumed many of those working for a general uplift of twenty-firster technology to meaningful levels. The Shed Men of Britain were heavily involved – Mick Saunders represented them, corresponding with Paul Nganga who had returned to work with Professor Bone. Both Nganga and Saunders eventually wanted to return to their home countries and help share what they had learned through Shed Men and this project, but for now they knew that they could do more to benefit Humanity as a whole by remaining in place here.

A half-dozen of Garrows’ infamous "committees" were also taking part. A few of them even had meaningful suggestions. And then there were the people from the various colloquies, like the Divergence Colloquy, who specialised in military history. There were people there who would tell you the precise width of the rivet heads on the Mark One Beagle and how precisely it differed from those on the IA, IB, II, III, and IVB. Whether you wanted them to or not.

That was bad enough, but now the head of all the uplift projects had got involved. Someone who was used to running an entire Union, and was a former member of one of those colloquies. Pierre Chenier.

"I don’t see why we can’t," he was halfway through saying. "It’d be a relatively simple matter to organise the Firsters-" the term twenty-firster was getting worn down, "with the metallurgy required for this. It’s not that far beyond what they’ve got."

"Perhaps," Saunders said cautiously in his archaic, almost Albionian-like Firster Australian accent. "But it’s not so much the alloy work with the titanium as actually extracting the damn stuff in the first place. You know our techniques for that are not what you’d call economic, and when I looked at yours-"

Chenier hesitated. "Not my area of expertise," he admitted.

"It is mine," said one of the committee members. "Certainly, our current techniques for the extraction of such metals are far beyond the capabilities of our brethren below," he sniffed. Saunders shot him a glare and he hastily continued: "However, there are sufficiently superior methods which do remain within easy reach – for example, the Dzhyung Process pioneered in the 2060s, which was the groundwork for the original Beagle project-"

Nuttall tuned out as the man waffled on. He let his gaze travel through the window/screen currently showing a magnificent view of the outskirts of Tranquillity City, the grey landscape beyond spotted with domed-over craters and sealed routes pushed through the desolate wilderness. He looked upwards, through the faint fuzz of an almost-atmosphere, bypassed the VANCOMYCIN satellites and a passing drydock, far smaller than the one that held his Voordijk, and saw the Earth…

We have to reduce the gap between them and us, he thought. And we’ll have to tool down as well as them tooling up. No other choice, or we’re – what’s that old Kuhnian word? Incommensurable? And that path leads to doom.

"Admiral Nuttall? Your opinion?"

Chenier’s voice startled him out of his reverie. "I beg your pardon?" he asked, slightly haughtily. His heart quivered a bit at doing so to a former PM, even if he was a Frenchman, but experience taught him that there was no better way to react to such a faux pas than to act as though it was the other’s fault.

Chenier frowned, but clarified: "The project name. What do you think?"

Nuttall shrugged. "The new design is based on the Beagle-class fluxship, yes? Earth’s first real attempt at a long-range exploration and defence craft?" The first Beagles had been built in the 2090s, and some were still in use sixty or seventy years later, albeit with serious enhancements and modifications to the design enroute. The design was simplistic by modern standards, but still a classic, and within reach of Firster construction capabilities if they were given a bit of a leg-up. "Why not just call it the Beagle again, even if you have made some changes and enhancements to the original design based on what we know now?"

Chenier worked his jaw. "You know why the first Beagle was so named?"

"Why, yes: it was after that pioneering Mars mission, masterminded by uh, what’s his name, Colin Pillinger," Nuttall said. "Why?"

Chenier glanced at Saunders, who replied: "Admiral, in…our timeline, that mission failed."

Nuttall opened and closed his mouth. "Oh."

"You understand the problem, then?"

"Right. Well…" the admiral searched his memory, "how about…Unity? You know, that ESA Moon mission? Bloody appropriate if you ask me."

They glanced at each other. "Works for me," Saunders said, "though you might get a few raised eyebrows from those people complaining you’re trying for a world government."

"That’s not my worry," Chenier said. "Christforce are going to crow over this. They’ve always wanted the Beagle name to be expunged, you know, the whole adaptative development business…"

"Whatever," Nuttall interjected. "Some of their nutjobs and some of our nutjobs will be offended. Maybe they can club together and buy their own madhouse. We’re not going to avoid that any which way."

Chenier smiled a little. "All right." He raised an imaginary glass in an imaginary toast. "To the Unity Project!"

Saunders and Nuttall looked over the assembled committee members, and exchanged glances. "A breach of the Trades Descriptions Act, methinks?"

"Search me," Nuttall replied. "But I’ll have to take my leave. Places to go, people to see…"

He hurriedly left the room as the inevitable argument began. One problem at a time. Still, it wasn’t a totally fake excuse: he was due to visit the Generic Space Academy Thing. It was located in Umbria City, which just happened to be on almost the exact antipodeal position on Luna to where he was standing.

Nuttall elected to use public transport. He was enough of a VIP to get himself a personal shuttle, but he wasn’t exactly in a rush, and he didn’t want to be raked over the rods for wasting fuel at a time when it wasn’t exactly a cheap commodity.

It took him a few minutes to make his way through the building the Project was using, a fairly modern cuboidal structure rather than an old-style dome. A few more transit corridors – packed with people on some committee or another, excitedly waving datareaders – and he was at local station for the bolt train. He bought himself a first class non-stop ticket by waving his hand vaguely over the appropriate holo; the nanochip within it registered the purchase and okk’d it with the central bank. The Shift had wrecked Luna’s economy, but then it had done the same to Earth’s as well. As it happened, the two seemed to be growing together to form a new, united system as they recovered: the cheap labour on Earth and the new technology on Luna were changing paradigms by the second.

Nuttall waited for a few moments, reading a newspaper. He flexed the cheap, reusable broadsheet datareader, magnifying a few of the stories. He chuckled at the one about some group on Earth demanding that Garrows turn off the big illuminated cross-in-circle on Luna, claiming it might be offensive. It’s only the most bloody universal symbol of Humanity, he thought, but knew that wasn’t fair. The Firsters didn’t know of the extra symbolism of it representing two orthogonal forces coming together and uniting, or of it standing for a pair of crosshairs aimed at the Earth, reminding everyone of the constant external threats. The admiral knew that Garrows had, in fact, been meaning to switch it off soon anyway, to save energy. But now he betted that the First Consul would leave it on a bit longer…

The bolt train arrived, slowing from a couple of thousand mph to zero in a ridiculously small space of time. Luna was good for bolt trains: the weak gravity meant that Janvier-Graham inertial compensators worked better here than on Earth, so the rapid accelerations and decelerations were possible without turning the passengers into chunky salsa. It also meant the magnetic float required less energy, and the lack of atmosphere seriously reduced any friction.

Nuttall took a step forward, cursing as his feet left the ground a little too sharply and he ended up floating most of the way over to the train, banging into a couple of more experienced commuters. Most of the major Selenite cities had decent artificial gravity; if you focused enough J-G beams on a planet, you could do it, though they’d exponentially lose their effects as the planet’s own gravity increased. Luna, small and occupied by a large percentage of fussy rich people, was where the numbers met. But the train stations were all carefully positioned at points unaffected by the J-G satellites; no sense in giving the maglevs more than they needed to fight against.

Nuttall whispered a few quick apologies and took his seat. The train started shortly afterwards; the acceleration was no more strenuous than that of a Firster subway train, though within thirty seconds they were travelling three times as fast as Concorde. The trip took about forty minutes, during which they were whisked rapidly through several other cities without stopping, passed through a few Brunellesque tunnels dug in the sides of the more annoying mountains and craters, and traversed the boundary to the far side. The boundary was debatable thanks to Luna’s orbital wobble, but Nuttall got a good guess at it when the seas petered out and it was craters all the way.

They passed into shadow about three hundred miles from Umbria; the Moon was currently a crescent as far as Earth was concerned. Nuttall read his newspaper, barely glancing up as the far more sparsely populated far side whizzed past. Finally the train shuddered to a halt within thirty seconds, the deceleration again a fraction of what it might have been. The admiral rose, along with his fellow passengers, and exited as the doors slid aside. This time he remembered, and didn’t embarrass himself in the low gravity. He thanked the Lord for the clamps that held the trains in place when they were parked, as otherwise the train would wobble sickeningly on its maglevs as people disembarked.

It took him another quarter hour to make his way to the series of buildings and warehouses that had been taken over by the Generic Space Academy Thing. Once he had assured the security guard that he was in fact Christopher Nuttall, he took a deep breath and entered the main lecture hall.

No-one looked around as he came in. The attentions of the two hundred odd Firster students within was riveted on the stage. Nuttall looked for the Firster Colonel, Tim Hucknell, but he was off to the side, making notes of his own. Instead, the lectern was occupied by two figures: one a grey-haired female academic he didn’t recognise, the other – he stiffened slightly – Colonel Geoffrey Bradford Wilkinson.

What the helk is he doing here? Nuttall thought. From what he’d heard, Wilkinson was busy enough trying to sort out his fledgling Selenite Intelligence organisation. But, nevertheless, here he was, addressing the rapt Firsters as they inexpertly scribbled away with anachronistic datapen and datareader.

"In summary, don’t underestimate them," Wilkinson was saying. His musical accent betrayed that he was an Usan, an honest to God Fourther Usan. "It’s easily done. I don’t mean forget that they’re a race specifically genetically engineered for killing, with a physical and mental capacity that – in some areas at least – exceeds ours. No-one forgets that. I mean that, after you’ve seen the evidence of some of their predations-"

"And emptied your sick bag," the academic said dryly.

Wilkinson raised an eyebrow. "Thank you, Dr. Dominguez," he muttered, "yes, when you’ve seen the evidence of their predations, and their attitudes…you begin to think they’re a monolithic bad guy race who exist only for the brave Human good guys to defeat." He smiled unpleasantly. "Anything but, I’m afraid. Always remember that they think exactly the same thing about us. They find our social practices just as disgusting as we find theirs. Monogamy, say, is as repellent to the average Vároto as incest or paedophilia is to us."

The audience stirred uncomfortably. Nuttall took a seat near the back and wondered whether Wilkinson had got out a slideshow of Vároto depradations. He remembered the ones General Ward had shown them at the real academy, in his own youth when the Wide War was still commonly in living memory. He seemed to recall thinking that they’d have won the damn war a whole lot faster if they’d have just unleashed the general and his slide projector on the Vároto…

"Don’t underestimate them," Wilkinson repeated. "Sometimes they may do extremely stupid acts, or acts which seem extremely stupid to us. But we do the same to them. I’m not saying we should respect our differences and get along, because we know where that leads," he added grimly, "but do respect them, even though we detest what they do. If you let your contempt of their ways spread into contempt of them themselves, then bang! you’re dead!"

Wilkinson drew back; the lecture seemed to be concluded. Hucknell took the podium, gesturing to he and Dominguez. "I’d like to thank Colonel Wilkinson and Dr. Dominguez for taking the time out of their busy schedules to speak to us," he said, and his drawling contemporary Usan accent was quite the contrast to Wilkinson’s. "Hopefully, they’ll have provided more background for you on our enemy – and why they’re the enemy. I know they have for me," he added grimly.

The audience applauded. Wilkinson gave a quick, businesslike nod, straightened his silvery Intelligence uniform – the actual signature colour for Intelligence was transparent, but that might be a bit embarrassing if implemented for the whole outfit – and left. Dominguez paused to answer questions from individual audience members as they began to rise and break up. Nuttall rose and took a few steps forward, intending to speak with Hucknell about the GSAT programme.

But then he caught a glimpse of something out of the corner of his eye. He double-taked, then nodded as he fixed on it again. Only a slight resemblance, but it was there…and the patch on the man’s cadet jumpsuit was that of the contemporary Union Jack…

"Excuse me," he said, wading through the cadets towards the individual. Some of the cadets glanced at him angrily, then belatedly saluted when they recognised him. Nuttall ignored them, finally laying a hand on the man’s shoulder. He turned, recognising Nuttall almost immediately, and offered a salute. The admiral noted from his precise bearing that he had probably transferred from a Firster military, as indeed many of the cadets had.

"Sir?" the Briton asked; his Firster accent made him sound vaguely like an Albionian, certainly not like what the Englishman Nuttall thought of as the accent of his own country. "Admiral…Nuttall?" there was only a slight pause.

Nuttall nodded. "Sorry…er…Cadet…?"

"Gregory, sir," the man replied. "Kenneth Gregory."

Nuttall raised his eyebrows. "I thought so," he murmured. "I suppose you’re from Keswick, then?"

Gregory looked surprised. "As a matter of fact, I am, sir," he said. "How did you know that? My file-"

"Nothing to do with that," Nuttall waved a hand dismissively. "I recognised your face. I knew your – umm…" he hesitated, "descendant."

Gregory’s facial muscles worked as he digested that. Up close, Nuttall saw that there wasn’t that much of a resemblance, but the lines of the cheekbones were there, and that was what had called attention to his brain. "That’s…a bit spooky, sir," the Englishman said finally. "Particularly since there’s no way he’ll even be born now that you’ve changed the, uh, timeline."

Nuttall nodded. "Weird is becoming the order of the day around here," he said dryly. "But if it’s any help, your descendant was a good bloke. Harold Gregory. Was a big fighter against the Vároto as it happens. Key in their defeat during the Ziynan War."

Gregory whistled. "Looks like I have a lot to live up to," he said, then frowned, "sort of. A bit strange trying to beat your great-great-etc-grandson who won’t even exist."

But the admiral wasn’t listening. "Ken Gregory?" he repeated. "I think I’ve heard of you. Harry and his son Pat used to talk about you. You were an admiral during the Third World War. Commanded the Royal Navy detachment that landed at what was left of Lisbon in 2022."

Gregory raised his eyebrows. "So I have to beat myself as well," he said with a faintly weirded-out smile. "I was just captain of HMS Kent before I signed up for this, you know."

"You gave up command of a ship to go back to being a cadet?"

"Well, how relevant is the modern – er, contemporary – Royal Navy going to be in this new era?" Gregory pointed out reasonably. "I’ve worked my way up once before, I’ll just do it again."

"That’s the spirit," Nuttall said, clapping him on the back. "Keep that attitude and you might even beat your grandson, the fellow who was the military commander for the first Graham Expedition."

"You’re just making them up now, aren’t you?" Gregory said.

Nuttall laughed, gave his farewell and went off to speak to Hucknell. But Kenneth Gregory continued to stare at his retreating form as he mulled over what the admiral had told him. He decided to take another look at those encyclopaedias they’d been given access to…

Chapter Four


Maghlar, Vároton

March 2nd, 2007

Ehred Wrais impatiently brushed past a pair of mere Yenapa as he strode proudly into the brand new building. The Yenapa, of course, genuflected in apology at impeding him. They knew their places. Superior to the Ucasa slaves, of course, for they had kept the faith and never turned to treachery, but their time was past. The gods’ new revelation told that the future belonged to the Vároto, the Vároto who would surpass the achievements of the gods’ earlier, traitorous servants, but never turn aside from the true path. So the days of the unenhanced Yenapa were literally numbered.

More Yenapa staffed the interior of the building, which was an ugly concrete monstrosity hastily thrown up by the new construction authorities. Its aesthetics offended even Wrais’ eye, and artistic appreciation had never been high on the gods’ priority list for aspects to enhance. But it served its purpose for now, and there would be plenty of time later to replace it with something superior.

Much like the Yenapa themselves, then.

Wrais boredly stood in line, flicking through one of the reports from his factory. It was printed on simple adzlra hide, the food animals providing the majority of the high quality printing media among the Vároto. Some of his fellow factory leaders had begun using Ucasa hide instead, desiring to please the gods who had decreed that all Ucasa must suffer for their crimes. Wrais scorned that approach. Why waste the life of a slave that could be used more profitably? Let the slave work in misery, producing whatever the gods demanded, and then when its life was expired let its body be used to supply useful products.

He glanced at the report. His carbon ropes had reached the quality required by the gods, and now he was focusing on churning them out at the greatest rate possible. He felt it necessary to prove to the gods that the favour they had granted him was not misplaced. Wrais knew little of the purposes for which his ropes would be employed, but he was determined that they would not fail on his account.

"Sahdavi-blessed Wreaker of Pain, Wrais, Ehred," one of the Yenapa clerks said finally. He sounded properly respectful, but otherwise almost bored. Wrais gave him a quick, dismissive nod, then stood and pushed past a small queue of his fellow Vároto and went through the door that the clerk pointed to.

He passed through a couple of empty rooms, turning corners, before finding the chamber he wanted. Like the rest of the building, it was a bleak, hastily put together room of concrete blocks and cement, no paint on the walls and a roughly finished floor. Unlike the other rooms, the floor was coloured. But those stains were not of paint…

The middle of the room was occupied by a restraint table, one of the newer ones of chromed steel and highly finished adzlra leather, Wrais noted approvingly. Nothing but the best for the Sahdavi-blessed Vároto. To one side, two muscled Yenapa guards stood, holding between them a female Vároto who thrashed and struggled in their grasp. Purely theatrically, Wrais knew; like him, she possessed enhanced strength capable of easily defeating even these two trained and experienced bog-standard Yenapa. She was as willing a participant in this as he was, for she too was honoured by the Sahdavi. But, as the poets said, it just wasn’t the same if they didn’t fight back.

He glanced back at the restraint table, smiling as he saw that the usual steel chains had been replaced by some of the offcuts from his own carbon-rope factory, strands too thin or short to be used for the gods’ main purpose. "How do you find them?" he asked one of the Yenapa.

The guard looked quizzical; it was unusual for a Vároto to speak directly to him in this situation. "Sahdavi-blessed, they are most capable. Stronger than steel chains and lighter too." As he spoke to Wrais, the female got in a left hook on his jaw and he fell against the wall, looking dazed. Realising she’d hit him too hard, the female hastily misjudged her next move and let the other Yenapa restrain her.

"Begin," Wrais said. He did not speak to the female. He wouldn’t mind knowing her name, but that too would spoil the properly impersonal form of the ritual.

The Yenapa nodded, the struck one recovering and shooting the female a dirty look. Within seconds, they had stripped off her clothing, expertly managing to present a suitably ‘ripped away’ feel to the whole affair without actually doing that much damage to the clothes – or her. Wrais mentally sighed; he knew the gods had decreed that even clothing must be carefully rationed and hoarded now that all resources were turned towards meeting this new enemy, but this sort of thing rather undermined the spirit of the ritual. Still, in real life I’d be unlikely to have a couple of friends just stand there and hold her down, would I? Such was wartime life, even for a Sahdavi-favoured Vároto.

Wrais looked the naked female up and down. The Yenapa did likewise, and didn’t seem too impressed. Compared to the standard Yenapa female, the Vároto form had denser musculature from birth and the sexually-related organs, as on the male, had been minimised so as to prevent fewer vulnerable spots for an enemy to exploit. To the Yenapa, she seemed overly masculine and thickset. To Wrais, though, she looked most desirable.

"Restraints," he said.

The two Yenapa – again, purely theatrically – roughly threw her face-down onto the restraint table and rapidly affixed the various clamps and cuffs. Wrais walked up to the head of the table, lifted one of the carbon ropes, toyed with it. "Indeed," he murmured to himself.

The female looked up at him, her vivid yellow eyes burning with feigned hatred. She spat at him and let out an incoherent stream of anger, then gave him a quick wink. Wrais nodded in return, held out a hand without looking; one of the Yenapa hastily passed him the sticky-backed gag and he roughly slapped it over her mouth.

He walked around to the other side of the table and let the lower part of his own outfit fall. He didn’t completely undress, for that too would have spoilt the feel of the ritual. "I begin," he said.

The two Yenapa pulled the rape-partner’s legs apart and averted their own gazes. They were faithful to the gods, but unlike the specially engineered Vároto, lacked the ethical sense to appreciate this sort of thing. Wrais smiled contemptuously, grabbed a buttock in each hand, and thrust.

It was over relatively quickly, again in accordance with the ritual. Yet he felt somehow unfulfilled as he pulled up his undergarments and the two Yenapa – now out of character – helped the female out of her restraints. More out of habit than anything, Wrais absently rubbed his elbow on the other threes’ shoulders (the equivalent of shaking hands) and left.

Why? Why did he feel that way? He pondered the question as he left the building and returned to the vehicle park, another recently laid out expanse of featureless concrete. Though he hated to admit it, he’d felt much the same way about the other two rape-partners he’d "serviced" earlier in the week. Yes, it might be under the gods’ direct orders, but somehow it didn’t feel as pleasurable as his usual sex life. He remembered what he’d been getting up to in the campaign against the Ucasa, a few months previously, and sighed in remembrance.

Wait. Maybe that was it. He frowned as he finally reached his own hovercar, a modern but workmanlike job that favoured fuel economy over speed. Maybe, he thought as he unlocked the door and got in, it was all because this was under the gods’ orders. He was faithful, of course, but the gods themselves said that the proper display of intimacy must be spontaneous as well as without consent. These scheduled rapes with willing partners violated both of those criteria. Oh, Wrais knew that they were necessary to provide the superior children that the gods wanted, but there was no wonder that they failed to feel entirely…right to him.

Wrais stroked his chin meditatively as he drove the hovercar, silently of course, across the city suburbs. The Yenapa were perhaps the only race to have never invented the wheel, as the gods had been with them from the beginning, and they had had the "magnetic" hover technology for centuries. That was the name the Humans had given it back in the other timeline, and perhaps indeed it was based on a superior, Immeri, understanding of the force of electromagnetism. Whatever it was, though, the Humans had never managed to duplicate it. Some had even speculated that only the Vároto’s…unique…mindset could cope with the twisted interpretations of theory required to construct such devices. As for Wrais, he didn’t care as long as it worked.

The hovercar worked almost equally well on any reasonably flat terrain, and so the Yenapa had only paved those areas where the cars were lowered to the ground for parking. There were no strictly delineated roads through or between the cities, which meant that Yenapa urban planning was…unorthodox. Wrais almost ran over a couple of Yenapa pedestrians on his way back to his own dwelling; he muttered under his breath as they dodged aside with bleated apologies. Such was the wartime situation that the gods had decreed, he’d even have to avoid running over Ucasa now. He would obey, of course, but he didn’t have to like it.

The car smoothly glided to a halt outside his house, and he let it gently descend on the patch of land outside paved for that very purpose. The house was newly built, again of bleak mass-produced concrete, but in his increasingly scarce free time Wrais had tried to impose some personality upon it. At least he had some help now, so he could issue decrees and then return home at the end of the day to find that they had been implemented. Like now, for instance.

He got out of the car, locked it and – ever so quietly – opened the door to the house. Softly closing it behind him, he glanced at the main living room and slowly, reluctantly, nodded approval.

Rather than bothering with a full carpet, the floor had been daubed burgundy and then covered with a large rug, in a shade of red that would clash horribly to Human eyes but looked like a rather nice colour combination to Wrais’. The walls were lime green and the ceiling and the doors had been painted pale blue.

The window was no longer a crude gash in the wall, but had had been outfitted with that glass he’d specially requested from an acquaintance who was running a silicon-engineering plant. It showed a fine view of the interior of Maghlar city, looking down from the gentle rise on which the suburb containing the house rested. The suns were setting now, and the lights were slowly coming on; Wrais knew that by midnight, the city would look like a brilliant nest of glowmites. Unlike the mites, though, the Vároto and their less fortunate Yenapa predecessors were guided through life by a more potent leadership than a mere queen. The gods themselves.

He turned away and looked at the room again. The furniture was utilitarian, again mostly mass produced, but adequate. A sofa in fine Ucasa hide (he’d relented for that one special purchase, and besides, there was plenty of it going around after the recent war), a basic cabinet of cheap amczra wood for the vidradio, and an arch-shaped mantelpiece of local marble for the methane fire. Upon its two flat ends sat the skulls of his father and mother, beautifully finished in a violet dye and decorated with gold leaf. He smiled, looking into first one pair of eye sockets and then the other, remembered the mingled sadness and pride of the day when he’d finally euthanised them.

He knew that he was a superior generation of Vároto, of course, but it had still been a pity to have to say goodbye to his illustrious predecessors.

Wrais sat down in a simple amcrza and canvas chair, feeling disappointed. His instructions had been obeyed to the letter. He had no excuses, then.

Well, he didn’t need any. He was a Vároto, and she…

"Slave! Here! Now!" he bellowed. He heard a sudden shriek from one of the other rooms and the sound of a pile of plates being dropped. Once, such a trick would have resulted in shards everywhere, but these days the plates were of tough carbon polymers and bounced harmlessly upon the kitchen’s concrete floor. Progress moves on, he thought a little ungrammatically.

One of the pale blue doors creaked open, hesitantly, and he smiled as the breathless figure beyond was revealed. Uia Eou was his ‘help’, his slave, a Ucasa he had captured during the recent campaign. Some of his comrades had deliberately taken slaves of the former Ucasa state’s upper classes, delighting in breaking them down to the same level as their former peasants, but Wrais didn’t care for such things. First and foremost (as they were saying these days), he was a utilitarian, and for a period at least such arrogant former Ucasa toffs would be unruly, disobeying orders, committing sabotage. Eventually he might break them of it, but Wrais didn’t care for ‘eventually’. He wanted everything now.

No, Uia Eou was of peasant stock. Her eyes, a lighter shade of green than her skin or hair, were filled with a hopeless resignation. She had been poorly treated by her superiors of the same race, and now she was being poorly treated by the Vároto. It made little difference to her. Wrais was vaguely offended by that, and resolved to change it.

He let his eyes cover the rest of her. She was a typical female Ucasa, more Human-like than the Yenapa (though of course the comparison could not occur to Wrais). Like Humans and unlike Yenapa or Vároto, she had hair, though it started further towards the back of her head to give her a long, sloped forehead. It was a shade of dark forest green and currently tied back in a bun so as not to interfere with her household duties. Two almost seam-like ridges ran from the corners of her forehead, across her cheeks, down her neck and vanished beneath her clothes to continue all the way to her feet.

She wore a simple shift, much stained with paint and the redzon urine that the Yenapa industrially refined to use as a cleaning solvent. It couldn’t quite conceal the body beneath, which was more curvaceous than that of a Yenapa and certainly more than a Vároto’s. Her figure again looked not unlike that of a Human female’s, though the biological purposes of those bumps and lumps didn’t quite match up with those of a Human’s.

Uia Eou also wore a nervous expression. "My…lord?" she quavered, her Oueaua accent, offensively working class to other Ucasa, sounded almost exotic to Wrais. "Is…everything to your satisfaction…?"

"Ye-e-es," Wrais said at length, reluctantly. "You have fulfilled my instructions well."

As her shoulders slumped and her eyes betrayed relief, a realisation struck Wrais. He hadn’t, had he? Of course. Well, it hadn’t been very high on his priority list. Now, though…he smiled in a relief of his own. Here was a way to regain his sense of fulfilment while still obeying the gods’ instructions.

"And so," he continued, "you are finally worthy to receive me."

He guard went back up immediately; Uia Eou wasn’t a fool. "My – lord?" she asked cautiously, her brain visibly running through a worst-case scenario. Wrais resolved to make the actual one worse still.

"You know what to do," he said, his voice harsh. He stepped over to the methane fire and lifted a poker, then stuck it in the heart of the blue-green flame. Here was one thing that the new carbon materials did not excel at, and the poker was of chromed steel. Uia Eou’s emerald eyes followed the tip of the poker as it glowed first red, then white-hot. They widened in fear and horror, her lower lip quivering as Wrais gave her the equivalent of a smile. "Unless…?"

Shaking, Uia Eou’s hands slowly moved towards the bottom of her shift and she began to pull it over her head. "Stop there," he ordered, and she froze at a point where the bundled-up shift blocked her sight. "Fall backwards. Now!"

Without sight, she collapsed back onto the sofa and winced at the touch. Wrais smiled; he wondered how she felt, feeling the dead skins of her compatriots against her own living one. And for how long?

Decades probably. But she wasn’t to know that he couldn’t afford to waste a Ucasa, particularly not one who’d shown such competence.

"Remain in that position," he said. He thrust the poker back into the stand to cool. Too damaging, at least for now. Let’s just stick to the conventional approach.


Wrais pulled the dagger from his pocket and admired its serrated chromed steel blade, turning it so that the light gleamed on its edges in a kaleidoscope of reflections. Every Vároto carried one as his or her mark of favour from the gods. Some said that it would even become the symbol of the Vároto as a whole. And every Vároto was always careful to keep their knife sharpened and, where possible, clean.

That would be vital now. Wrais nodded to himself. For reasons he didn’t care to speculate about, the Vároto male organ was rather too wide at its base for him to make a successful penetration of a Ucasa female’s more restrictive anatomy. Unless, of course, he indulged in a little…creative surgery.

"Remain in that position," he repeated, and brought up his knife.

Later, he realised that he was right. Troubling though it might be, the spontaneous, unwilling rape was far more fulfilling to him than the one the gods had ordered. Something to think about, he reflected.

In the meantime, he’d better see about repainting the floor. And how precisely did you clean one of those Ucasa hide sofas? Wrais sighed, picked up his telecommer, and looked for the number for those specialist cleaning outfits.

Even if she had had the expertise, Uia Eou wouldn’t be able to do any more cleaning for him for quite a while…


GSAT, Umbria City, Luna

October 2nd, 2006


"Head’s-up!" Hucknell’s voice snapped in his ear as Ken Gregory threw himself to the floor. Just in time. The red energy blast hurtled overhead, passing through the space where his head had been a second before. Gregory hastily dragged himself back behind the nearest piece of rocky cover. "Sorry, sir," he grunted.

"Don’t do it again," Hucknell muttered. The NASA colonel, like the rest of them, was dressed in a lightweight Astroforce uniform of green fabric that could change its colour to various camouflage schemes. The rest of them still standing, that was. Gregory risked a glance over towards no man’s land. Plenty of the cadets, on both Red and Blue teams, had opted for those suits of powered combat armour that had been provided as an option. Now each and every one of them was lying, deactivated, in no man’s land with little flags hovering over them that meant they were officially dead. The flags even offered details of how they had died, and some were rather gruesome.

Gregory smirked to himself. It had paid to read ahead and look through those historical articles. The thing about a suit that could enhance your own muscular strength was that it could also work against it, and crush your body to a pulp if an enemy blast managed to make its computer go crazy. It had taken the Humans off in ‘that other timeline’ decades of horrific deaths before the power armour fanboys had finally been shut out of the military design departments. Gregory had no desire not to learn from history.

But…‘that other timeline’. If possible, it had been bothering him even more than the other cadets. Yes, the others might take ghoulish fascination in learning that their hometown would have been nuked in the Third World War, but their names were rarely mentioned specifically in the histories. The only exceptions apart from Gregory were an Israeli major and an Iranian colonel who had learned that, as generals in 2020, they would have led armies against each other. The atmosphere in the break room that day had been a little…tense.

But it wasn’t the macabre feeling of alternate death that was haunting Gregory. Rather, he was stuck with having to live up to not merely his other-timeline descendants, but his own self. An admiral and war hero? How could he trump that? Particularly given that he’d had to start from the bottom again as a cadet.

Shaking the troubling thoughts away, Gregory risked another glance over his piece of cover. There! He brought up his fake ergrifle and fired, a burst of blue ‘energy’ lancing out and striking the Red Team cadet on his shoulder even as he tried to duck. Though it was only a glancing blow, Gregory had dialled up the setting on the weapon, and the holographic flag above the enemy cadet said that he had indeed died, a large portion of his bodily mass just vaporised. The cadet sulkily rolled over and played dead. Gregory smiled and fought on.

It was another half an hour before the wargame was completed. The Blues eventually won, just, perhaps at least a little thanks to Gregory’s actions. Colonel Hucknell shook hands with Major Hind, who’d been commanding the Blue Team. Then he fumbled with a control panel and restored the training area to its usual state, a simple room of duranide and plastic blessed with holographic projectors that could transform it – at least at first glance – into a generic wartorn deserty zone sort of thing.

Hucknell turned to address the cadets. "Well, one side won," he muttered, "but casualties on both sides were too great." He glanced at the cadets who’d chosen powered armour, who mostly looked embarrassed, although one or two looked sulky and defiant. "Some of you need to read your training manuals a little more carefully, or at all," he said dryly. "Others need to realise how tactics must change in this era of warfare. A few of you, too few, have received commendations for your actions, which are in your private files. Any questions?"

Two of the powered armour fans raised hands and argued petulantly for a while, claiming that the exercise was rigged or something. Hucknell shut them up by threatening to have them ejected from the programme. Another cadet more sedately asked a question about the holo room’s operation. "I don’t know how it works," Hucknell admitted. "I just know that, unlike practically every other holographic simulation thingummy I’ve ever heard of, it doesn’t go wrong in a variety of potentially dramatic ways."

A few laughed at that. Gregory raised his own hand. "Colonel Hucknell?"

"Yes – Gregory isn’t it?"

"Yessir. Sir, may I ask how relevant these exercises are? We’re basically practicing using twenty-fourth century war technology, which won’t be available to us. Wouldn’t it be more relevant to use something like late twenty-first or early twenty-second century stuff? That’s more like what we’ll probably end up with…"

"A good point, Cadet," Hucknell said. "At the moment, our use of this exercise is simply because we don’t have access to any more appropriate ones. However, apparently those delightful people," he coughed meaningfully, "at the Divergence Colloquy have been reviving some older wargames and cleaning them up for our use. Mr. Lombardi tells me that they might be ready for some preliminary exercises within the week. That answer your question?"

"Yes sir, thank you," Gregory said.

Overlapping, though, came, "So does this mean that powered armour will work, then?"

Gregory shook his head and turned away as the argument began again. Stepping out of the simulator room with most of the others, he pulled a datareader from his pocket and accessed his private data files. How had his performance been in that exercise? Well, he hadn’t got himself killed, at least…

He whistled. He’d received a commendation! Admittedly for being one of the best of a bad lot, to use Hucknell’s words, but at least it was something. Smiling, he put the datareader away and hummed to himself as he walked towards the canteen. Maybe he might live up to his other self’s record after all.

Chapter Five


Edison Groundside Station (U.S. Space Elevator), Atlantic Ocean off Daytona Beach, Florida

October 12th, 2006

"There it is!" Luke Stillsby said excitedly – as though anyone could have missed it.

Janet nodded, her eyes wide as she struggled to take in the sheer size of the structure. "My God," she breathed. "And in only three months? Even with the future technology…"

Andrew inclined his head in agreement. Even he, "Basingstoke’s Mr Unimpressable 1972", was taken aback. "I just hope they didn’t cut corners in the rush to get it going."

"Thank you, Andy," Janet muttered to herself.

It sat, like some latter day Atlantis, in the warm blue waters of the Atlantic, just off the coast of Florida. A bewildering mix of contemporary and future technology, it had the rough form of a gently sloped pyramid, about half a mile across the base, with dozens of landing pads and docks extending from the edges. Resting upon a series of mass-produced flotation units, their glaring orange fluorescence peeping out from under the dark metallic superstructure, it was a truly remarkable achievement. And yet it was nothing more than an anchor for the enormous, house-thick, endless cable of carbon nanotubes that extended from the very pinnacle of the pyramid.

As the shuttle moved closer, Janet realised that was a fallacy: there was a large circular gap surrounding the summit of the pyramid, with the cable disappearing into the hidden interior. Nevertheless, it was an awe-inspiring image. Thick and unearthly as it was, the cable was clearly just that, a cable. It even swayed a little, a very little, under air currents, and Janet winced– it had the same sort of ponderous, titanic, unstoppable motion that she associated with toppling skyscrapers or natural landslides.

But the cable remained upright. The base-station’s position, floating on the ocean, meant it could easily drift a few miles in any direction and ensure that the cable never moved into a dangerous level of tension – or lack of it. That was how Rachel and Piotr had explained it to them, anyhow. Here and now, Rachel had a hard time convincing herself of it.

"It reminds me more of the Tower of Babel than a pyramid," Andrew commented. "Disappearing up into the clouds like that, you get a feel of ‘what’s holding it up?’,"

"Could you please use historical comparisons that don’t involve massive disasters?" Janet said stiffly. "Next thing, you’ll be comparing this shuttle to the the Titanic…"

The self-same shuttle glided nearer to the base-station. It had to contend with crowded skies – there were only one or two other Fourther shuttles there, but there were plenty of Firster helicopters and planes. Also, the docks surrounding the floating base were packed with Firster ships, mostly civilian freighters but with one American guided-missile cruiser (Ticonderoga class, as Luke informed them). A couple of supertankers drifted a little way off, too large to park at even the most generous docks of the station; helicopters and smaller ships tirelessly conveyed their cargo across for loading.

"Garrows wasn’t kidding," Andrew murmured. "Those look like food shipments to me."

Janet nodded. "I just hope there’ll be enough capacity to feed them all."

"Rachel told me they’re close to feeding themselves now," Luke contributed. "The first shipments from Earth, you know, the ones in the shuttles – dead wasteful of fuel of course, but they kept them afloat for long enough. They’re supposed to be setting up edible ration factories, you know, bacterial cultures and stuff-"

"I spoke to Rachel, too," Andrew said. "You can live on those rations, but from what she said, you wish you hadn’t." He smiled. "No, they’ll still want regular shipments of fresh food from Earth, probably forever."

Janet glanced at him. "And that still gives us a bit of a handle on them?" she asked, sotto voce; the silent pilot, sitting only a few feet away, was a Selenite.

Andrew shrugged. "To be honest, Jan, I’m not sure who ‘they’ and ‘us’ are anymore. Call it what you like, but we’re practically seeking asylum on the Moon as it is. But regardless of all that," he continued, "I don’t like to see anyone have too much power in the world."

Janet nodded. He’d held similar views before the Shift about America, and had occasionally got into arguments with his American counterparts about it: it wasn’t that he disliked the country, far from it, but he just worried about a world dominated by one superpower. And the Selenites were much further ahead of Earth than America had been of the rest of the world…

"We’ll be landing presently," the pilot said, putting the number of words he’d spoken to them up into double figures. Andrew and Janet exchanged glances, then sat up a little self-consciously. These shuttles didn’t have safety belts that you fastened and unfastened – the restraints automatically came on and off – so they felt a little uncomfortable at not being able to do anything to prepare for landing. Glancing around, Janet noticed that the other dozen or so passengers had similar expressions; they too were Firsters, people recruited from around the world to visit Lunar universities and industry. Most of their tasks were relatively incidental to Garrows’ new urgent priority list – linguists comparing how English and other languages would have developed in the other history, for instance – but you never knew where an unexpected development might pop up. Just look at how the bluest of blue-sky fields, an area of physics that smacked almost more of philosophy than science, had produced the most powerful weapon of the twentieth century…

The shuttle came down, aiming at a landing pad. It looked more like a contemporary helicopter pad than anything from the future, and indeed some identical nearby pads did hold helicopters, big twin-rotor cargo machines. People bustled over all the pads, and the nearby docks, some of them operating cargo-moving cranes or carrying small, valuable pieces by hand; others, like the Stillsbies, were transporting themselves as cargo.

The shuttle landed, using its VTOL jets. For all the wonders of the future, these were little more than a (spectacularly refined) version of the sort of thing found on the contemporary Harrier jumpjet. From what Rachel had told them, Humanity had never managed to duplicate the effortless "magnetic" hover technology of the Vároto…

The landing was a little…uncomfortable. Unlike the takeoff, which had been perfectly smooth, the pilot and computer couldn’t get everything quite right because the pad beneath was swaying slightly with the movements of the rest of the station. It happened to come up a few centimetres – a big wave front? and the shuttle landed with a bit of a clunk. The pilot apologised, but the Stillsbies had experienced far worse on contemporary jet flights.

The doors were opened and the passengers rose, their restraints unfolding themselves. The Stillsbies were near the doors, having been one of the last groups to embark; the shuttle had travelled throughout the world, picking up people, and for some reason Britain had been the last major country to be visited. Andrew and Janet blinked in the sudden glare of the Floridian sun as they stepped down the steps – morphed, by some inexplicable Clarkean means, from the door itself. Luke, on the other hand, eagerly stepped forward and almost tripped as the concrete-like material of the pad lurched gently upwards to meet his foot.

"We’re here, then," Janet said. The jetlag stung her a bit; it was evening back home, but here it was early afternoon. Still, we won’t have to put up with it for long – and then it struck her. What in the world would the jetlag be like travelling to the Moon?!

"Well, I suppose we’re going to find out," she murmured, and a little of Luke’s youthful adventurism was reawakened in her own heart.

A uniformed Fourther met them at the pad, issuing identity badges that included the Selenite nanochips (apparently plenty of Firsters had objected to them being implanted bodily). His speech was heavily laced with future colloquialisms and local rather than Interplanetary English verb forms, making him hard to understand. Janet realised that they’d gotten used to Piotr and Rachel, who of course had been altering their speech to be more comprehensible as they learned more contemporary English from the Stillsbies and the Shed Men.

"And iv you could just steps ti’ way," the Fourther said, ushering them frantically towards one of the entrances. "Civilian passengers are uh locashy Section Fiff. Seyat noh on bad-guh. Have a neece flig."

"Did you understand any of that?" Andrew muttered as the confused mass of Fourthers stepped through the doorway into a bustling corridor.

"A little," Luke replied unexpectedly. "Piotr’s been teaching me some of the local English they used. I think he said we’re in Section Five and the seat numbers are on our badges."

Janet checked hers and nodded. "Looks like it."

"Well done," Andrew said, ruffling Luke’s hair; his "Excellent Adventure" expression momentarily shifted to a teenage scowl. "I suppose we’d better get over there, then!"

It took them a while to navigate their way through the base-station, which they soon learned had been named after Thomas Edison, as had its counterpart in the other history. The corridors were full of shouting Stairway operators, both Fourthers and a few American Firsters that were being trained up, plus plenty of confused crowds of Firster civilians and cargo movers. Eventually, though, and with the assistance of the maps that had been hastily slapped all over the walls, they found their way to the centre of the structure – and by now, the rest of the shuttle passengers were following them.

Finally they emerged into the central hub of the station. Awed gasps were heard as they got their first glimpse of the Stairway’s operations.

The hub was a giant, circular arcade that surrounded the middle of the station and the Stairway itself. Filled with entry and exit gates and interspersed with shops and restaurants – most of which still under construction – it looked rather like a contemporary airport terminal. But instead of discharging to many planes, all the gates led to one place: the centre.

Enormous windows in the arcade – only a few of them as yet installed, the other still blocked up with some plastic-like material – revealed the workings of the middle. There was the main cable, anchored by unknown means further down and out of sight. Surrounding it were, they counted, eight building-sized metallic monstrosities. Each was shaped like a thick wedge of cheese, but with the sharp end pointing towards the middle clipped off, and each had its curved outer edge docked to one of the sets of entry gates.

"I see how it works," Andrew said as he cast his eye over the setup. "Those eight pod thingies must come together to form a central torus that rides on the cable."

"That’s right, dad," Luke said, with a hint of teenage reluctance to admit one’s parent could be correct about anything. "And number five must be ours."

Janet nodded, pointing to a large number emblazoned above one of the gates. "That’s two, and that one over there is three, so…"

"We go clockwise," Andrew said. He turned to the crowd of other Firsters who were, half-embarrassedly, following them about as no-one else seemed to know where they were going. "This way!" he said, pointing dramatically.

Janet sighed. "If you show the slightest sign of turning into ‘Captain A.G. Stillsby, Space Adventurer…"

"I promise to behave," he replied with a wink. "Come on, let’s get settled in."


On the other side of the hub, in Number Seven Pod, with no regard for good taste or avoiding the obvious, the President of the United States was humming "Fly Me To The Moon."

Glancing out of the window of his rather generous diplomatic stateroom – as usual, it wasn’t truly a window, but merely a screen programmed to look like one – the President looked down at the hustle and bustle of the hub outside. "Busy opening," he commented. "Let’s hope nothing goes wrong."

"I’m with you there, sir," said Johnson, the head of his Secret Service bodyguard detachment. What with attempted assassinations and threats to the future of mankind, no-one had gotten around to complaining that he had – accidentally – almost injured several UN representatives when he had tried to shoot down the invisible Vároto assassin Tjilakh Ahrni. Although the U.S.’s own UN representative had wanted to give him a medal, it was rumoured…

The President sighed and opened his briefcase, going over the papers therein. It reminded him of another irregularity of this trip: for the first time in his administration, he wasn’t taking the briefcase with the nuclear codes with him on an overseas trip. They’d decided it was too uncertain whether they’d even be able to get communications with Earth, both due to the difference and all the Selenites’ own comm traffic. So the key to the potential destruction of the Earth had been entrusted to the VP. Let’s hope he doesn’t go the next stage and ‘accidentally’ nuke a lawyer or two, the President thought macabrely.

A voice echoed through the PA system, or future equivalent. It was a good contemporary U.S. English voice, probably that of one of the Firster trainees. "Ladies and gentlemen, could I have your attention please? The Stairway will be in operation in five minutes. Please recall your safety briefings, and have a nice flight."

"Finally," the President muttered. The Stairway made even contemporary airline services look positively speedy when it came to all the preliminary safety checks. On the other hand, it was the very first non-test flight. And at least the check for bombs and stuff was over in about five seconds, he added. The Selenites’ sensors meant that any potential terrorist might as well carry around a neon sign with ‘Arrest Me’ on it. That, at least, was reassuring…

The countdown passed, and a little more time while stewards went through all the compartments and double-checked that everyone on board was meant to be there. The President was oddly relieved to find that the Selenites didn’t rely blindly and unquestioningly on their technological solutions, as they so often seemed to do in speculative stories about the future.

Then each pod was undocked from its corresponding gate with a tremendous CLUNK. Everything shook a little, but nothing went flying. The President watched with interest, one of his aides adjusting the window/screen to show a wide view of the whole business, as the Stairway went into operation.

Just as Andrew Stillsby had guessed, the eight pods were transported, using massive cranes, inward to the central carbon cable. As they neared each other, their edges linked together – with less terrific CLUNKs – and they locked into a single giant torus, with the central hole wrapped around the cable. Bush realised there was no direct connection between any part of the torus and the cable itself. "Wonder how it works," he muttered.

"Magnets, I guess," Johnson offered.

The President shrugged. "Just as long as it does work, I guess."

The torus was in position. A sudden…thrill ran through the whole thing and the lights momentarily flickered as the magnetic field was engaged. The torus rose slightly, just a few feet off the cranes and support armatures, and then it was floating in space.

"We have a successful flow," a voice said over the PA system. "Go for alpha-two, T minus eleven seconds…" and, after the time had passed, the torus began to climb the cable.

Awed murmurs spread throughout the group of aides and guards in the President’s stateroom, and probably throughout the other five thousand-odd people on board. Only two and a half of the pods were devoted to passenger space, the others being pure cargo. Some were bits of technology and prototypes brought up from Area 51, the Shed Men, and similar groups for further testing and refinement by Garrows’ teams, while the majority were bulk food supplies and occasionally ores or other materials that the Selenites lacked enough of themselves to feed their factories.

Bush flicked the window/screen back to its default setting and nodded as the cloudy Floridian sky zipped past outside, faster than seemed possible. "Speedy," he commented. "What was our ETA again?"

"Three and a half hours," Johnson said, awed. "To the Moon! And some of the, uh, Fourthers told me that in their time, that would be pretty slow for one of these."

"I dare say," the President muttered. "Enough time to look at the paperwork, anyhow."

The torus rose further into the sky, floating without friction on the cable, and soon the blue began to darken towards black, the stars becoming visible. Johnson watched as they slowly went from twinkling gleams to hard, dead points of light as the atmosphere peeled back. Soon they were approaching the station at the top of the elevator, the one Garrows had opened only a couple of weeks ago. Bush put down his paperwork for a moment, muttering something about titanium tariffs. "So this is that changeover stuff you were all telling me about?"

"Yessir," said Johnson, who didn’t really understand it himself. But the American scientists and engineers were in one of the other compartments. "We get transferred to that Slingshot thing, which puts us on another elevator coming up from the Moon…"

"Worth watching," the President pronounced.

The torus reached the station, which, they noted, was designed so as to allow a ring-shaped object to pass through its interior. "Here we go," Johnson said. His hands reached out and tugged at the armrests of his seat. He didn’t fear much, but disliked having his fate out of his control.

"Holy – uh – heck!" the President said, impressed, as they zipped through the interior of the station. Through transparent viewing windows – on the inside of the station’s hub, there was no danger of micrometeorite impact – they caught a brief glimpse of the people manning the station. Some of the toruses in the coming days would stop at the station and transfer their goods to starships docked around its edges, much as the sea- and aircraft were at Edison, but most would go straight on to Luna.

Via the Slingshot.

Johnson blinked as they approached the bare end of the cable. "Uh – sir – my God – we’re running out of line-!"

"Guess we are," Bush said. "Well, I guess it’ll all be sorted out. I trust Garrows." He shrugged. "Well, sorta."

The torus shot straight off the end of the cable – a few people called out in horror, probably echoed hundreds of times throughout the eight pods. But then there was another cable, its tip rising towards them, guided by a set of thrusters arranging its position to the last micrometer –

There was no sound as the torus intercepted the second cable and slid onto it. There was just a faint…wobble, with the floor shaking a bit as the new magnetic field interacted with the torus’s. The torus moved slightly as the interaction guided it into a new position, then accelerated.

"This must be why they call it a Slingshot," Johnson commented.

They sped down the cable for a few moments, getting faster and faster, then were flung from its tip and hurtled out into the space between the Earth and the Moon. They watched in awe as Luna, not the dark and desolate world they knew, but covered in the glitter of cities and the giant cross and circle that Garrows had re-illuminated to quash all disbelievers. "It’s one thing to know it’s got people on, and another to actually see it," the President said, and his aides agreed (an act which they had a lot of experience with).

The torus flew, if that was the right term, through space for about an hour, the Moon growing before them. Then, there it was, slightly blotting out the Lunar surface behind it: the accompanying Slingshot.

Just as before, and despite the greater speed, the computer-controlled thrusters effortlessly directed the end of the cable to thread through the eye of the torus. Now the magnetic field slowed the craft, decreasing its speed to a relative crawl. A little later, they left this second Slingshot, and were flung off at a sedate pace towards the Lunar Stairway.

It looked different to everything else they’d seen so far. The Earth Stairway and both Slingshots had been hastily hammered together by Selenite and contemporary engineers in the past three months. But the Lunar Stairway had come with them from the Shift, and so rather than being composed of new gleaming metal and plastic, it was a bit battered, a bit hard-worn, having transported hundreds or thousands of torus craft rather than just one.

But it worked well enough for one more. There was another stomach-unsettling changeover as they met the new cable, passed through the top station – which looked larger and more complex than the new one at Earth – and headed towards the surface far below.

"Well," the President said, "that was an experience."

It took just another twenty minutes for the torus to slide down the cable to the Lunar surface. More gasps rang out as people caught a glimpse of the Lunar cities surrounding the surface station; unlike as on Earth, of course, the Selenites couldn’t put the anchor station floating in the ocean. The cities were sprawling, with few tall towers, and gleamed with a silvery, pearlescent effect: radiation shielding, one of the aides guessed. There were plenty of domes as well as cuboidal buildings, all connected through a bizarre array of pipework, and the overall effect was like a city built by a disturbed child out of a combination of Lego, K’Nex and bubblewrap.

The torus descended into the Lunar anchor station, which did not look dissimilar to the Earth one. Not floating, of course, and the hole in the middle was correspondingly bigger – maybe it was designed to be able to take bigger torus craft? Or was it just to provide a bigger margin for error, given that the anchor station couldn’t be moved around as the Earth one could?

The Lunar landscape rose up to the horizon, and then vanished as they dropped into the pyramid. Using the screen/window to look down, Johnson saw that they were dropping onto a similar array of armatures and supports as they’d risen from on Earth. It was all over quite quickly, just another CLUNK, and then the voice of the…pilot? over the PA system again: "We have a successful landing…welcome to Luna, ladies and gentlemen." Cheers, some of them a bit ragged from the scares of the trip, rang out.

It took nearly half an hour to get the torus’ pods detached and join them up to the gateways on the Lunar end which, of course, they had never been tested with, and were considerably more worn from use than the torus’ connectors. But eventually it was done, and disembarkation commenced.

The Presidential party finally stepped through the appropriate gate, being immediately stopped by a group of guards in grey uniforms who briefly scanned them with handheld devices. Johnson looked askance at his President whether to verbally protest, but Bush shook his head. It was a little insulting, but they couldn’t afford any potential…incidents. Not here. Not now.

Another party was waiting there to meet them, in a room that was evidently designed for such a purpose: a first-class lounge, a diplomat’s lounge even. Garrows was not present; it was led by a red-haired woman whom the President belatedly recognised as Garrows’ new deputy, Felicity Renwick. Well, ain’t that interesting…

"Welcomuh to Luna, Mr President," Renwick said, shaking his hand. "My appa-logghies foh thuh little affair back theh, but ‘you know how it is in this day and age’…"

Bush reeled back a little at her accent; it reminded him a little of the stereotypical New Englander’s, but wasn’t too easy to comprehend. "It’s great to be here," he said shortly. "Pardon my asking, but when shall I be meeting the First Consul?"

From Renwick’s expression, the President guessed she was a little disappointed. "Fuhrst Cons’l Garrows is waiting in his oh-fice," she replied peremptorily. "He thuht it best not to meet yuh in person…" she shrugged. "Politics."

"Politics," Bush agreed. He understood: Garrows still wanted to be portrayed as treating any envoy from Earth equally, and he couldn’t meet them all in person. It still hurt a little, though. He resolved to smooth things over in person.

"If yuh cuhd step this way, then," Renwick said, gesturing.

The President nodded. "Let’s go hammer out some business."


Chapter Six


First Consul’s Office, Tranquillity City, Luna

October 12th, 2006

"Good to meet you again, Mr President," Garrows said as he shook Bush’s hand firmly. Behind them, their two sets of bodyguards reluctantly filed out of Garrows’ office and took up their positions outside.

"George, please," the President replied. "Let’s not stand on ceremony when it comes to deciding the fate of mankind."

Garrows blinked a little at that. "All right…Aldrin, then," he said after a pause. It was obvious that he wasn’t used to going by his first name.

"OK. By the way, did you know that he’s still alive?" Bush took his seat as Garrows dropped into his own chair behind his desk.


"Buzz Aldrin. That is who you’re named after, right?"

Garrows blinked again. "Well, yes," he murmured, a bit taken aback. "It never occurred to me…we’re used to thinking of the First Pioneers as belonging to a much earlier generation than this current Earth…I’d like to meet him, one day."

"That can be arranged, perhaps," Bush replied. "And now I’ve got you off-balance," he smiled, "it’s time to get down to business."

"Quite," Garrows said. "Well, it looks like we both have an agenda," as Bush withdrew a stack of papers from his briefcase, "so who wants to go first?"

"Go ahead. It’s your office."

Garrows nodded. "Okk, err, okay then."

"Your English, I mean, this-time English, is very good," Bush offered. "Though, between you and me, your Ms Renwick could use a few more lessons. And this is coming from me," he added with a wink.

"Oh, I agree; Felicity hasn’t been down to Earth yet." He frowned. "Though I’ll be making sure all my ministers do so. We can’t afford an ivory tower mentality."

"I’m glad you think so," Bush said carefully.

"Well – anyway." Garrows pushed a datareader, what looked like a simple sheet of transparent acetate but danced with moving text and images, over to Bush. "Frankly, Mr President, er George, we want to help you."

The President raised an eyebrow. "Well, that’s most neighbourly of you," he muttered, "but why? and how?"

Garrows smiled. "Mr – ah – George, the Yew-knighted States," he pronounced it carefully, "has been our most profitable partner down on Earth so far. Your teams and ours have completed your Stairway first, while many other groups are still arguing about where to site it. And your Area 51 team, although not yet up to the standards of the UK’s, ah, "Shed Men", is making admirable progress. My own people have told me, off the record, that they’re…surprised that they’ve been able to adapt our earlier technologies so quickly."

"Well, we’re flattered," Bush said, "but it’s partly because most of the others you’re working with aren’t single nations. Tryin’ to get the EU to agree on something is like herding cats, or so Tony tells me."

The First Consul blinked at that. "Odd to think of it ever being that way," he murmured. "Well – anyhow – like I said – we want to help." He frowned. "Frankly, George, though your nation and your administration has worked well with us, it’s not exactly Mister Popular down on the planet. And we can’t afford to polarise the world that way."

Bush’s eyes narrowed. Oh, he knew of the opposition that existed to his administration, and even the United States in general, throughout the world. How could he not? But it was irritating to have it slapped in your face by the man in the moon. "What is your point?"

Garrows shrugged. "We want to change that."

The President laughed. "How? You know a lot of it is just top-power jealousy. Nothing will change that except maybe more superpowers." He didn’t vocalise it, but his tone carried an addendum: which ain’t gonna happen if I can help it.

"A lot, yes, but not all." Garrows looked down at one of his datareaders. "They tell me that you’re facing criticism because your forces haven’t managed to track down this man, er, ‘Usamah bin Laden’-" he pronounced it wrongly, "-who perpetrated the, er, nine-eleven attacks on Nyc. Nyc?"

"New York City," Bush supplied. "Well, yeah, that’s true. Trouble is, the CIA reckon he’s holed up in some of the tribal areas of Pakistan, and we can’t go barging into one of our allies."

"I think the fact that Pakistan is your ally is responsible for another block of opposition," Garrows said dryly. "But could you get away with one single strike, if you knew beyond a doubt that it would bring him in? And his cronies?"

"Sure, we could justify that," Bush said, "but how the hell would we know it’d be so successful? Dammit, we thought we definitely had him a half-dozen times during Enduring Freedom, but he didn’t show up."

Garrows smiled. "Take a look. He pushed the datareader into Bush’s hands.

The President blinked at it. He’d used the future technology only a handful of times. Still, playing with the window/screens on the Stairway torus-craft had improved his understanding of the basic interface principles. Tentatively, he tapped it a few times. A map, a map of South Asia, focusing on the Afghan/Pakistani border. It looked vaguely like a satellite map, but different. Almost…more detailed…

There were a series of coloured tags ‘protruding’ from locations in the mountains near the border. Bush tapped one and drew back in surprise as it blew up into a large ‘speech bubble’. Within was a perfunctory paragraph of text, and a photo which he recognised all too well.

"Mullah Omar," he muttered. "Leader of the Taliban regime. He escaped us too."

"If you say so," Garrows said cheerfully.

Bush’s eyes narrowed. "These locations aren’t just from historical records, are they? Because-"

"Lord no, half of them aren’t still alive in our original history," Garrows said. "Look, we found your CIA’s list of wanted terrorists and handed it over to Colonel Wilkinson, our new head of Intelligence. He used a lot of different scanning techniques – I don’t understand the details to be honest – and now he’s found them all. If you pan over to Iraq," he added, "there’s some guy called, er, al-Zarqawi too."

"My God," Bush said as he tapped tag over tag, saw the names coming up. "If we can bring them all in, al-Qaeda is finished."

"Exactly," Garrows replied. "You get the kudos – though some of our forces will participate if you want – we get our ally more popular with the rest of the world – and we get rid of one of a distraction from the real enemy. Mr P…George, we want to try and bring all Man-on-Man conflicts to an end."

"That’s a tall order," Bush murmured absently, still staring avariciously at the datareader. "What about those threats from rogue states rather than terror groups? Iran, North Korea, y’know?"

"We’re working on it," Garrows said. "If a war actually breaks out, we can probably shoot all the missiles out of the sky from here, to be honest. Though we’d like to avoid that kind of thing if possible."

"Yeah, getting off your ass and doing something is a capital offence in the modern world," Bush muttered to himself. "I heard your man Sarboulier is trying to fix Africa’s problems," he added.

"Him and Mbuto, yes," Garrows said. "We can’t afford to ignore Africa, either. The disease problems are solvable with our technology, the agriculture will take a little longer." He frowned. "It’s dealing with all those petty dictators that takes the biscuit."

"Amen to that," Bush said. "Maybe we can work together on those problems in the future."

"I hope so," Garrows replied. "For now, how about an item on your agenda?"

"Sure," Bush said, glancing down. "Fuel. Yours and ours. I remember you saying that you had a problem with your, uh, dooterium?"

"Deuterium," Garrows corrected. "It’s in hand. Basically we need to put a gasdiver station or two out at Jupiter." He tapped a large window/screen on the wall and it reconfigured to show a computerised image of the station in question. It consisted of a large orbital hub, with docks for tankers to load up from, with a Stairway-like cable protruding from the bottom. On the end of the cable was a massive pod which was effectively dragged through the Jovian atmosphere, simple drawing in gas by impact and magnetism. Once full it was hauled back up to the orbital station and the gas drained, then separated into deuterium, protium (ordinary hydrogen), and others, and transported to where it was needed by the tankers. So Garrows explained it, anyway.

"Looks like a major project," Bush commented.

"The problem’s not building it," Garrows said. "We’ve got two already, 2200s vintage, disassembled here on Luna in a warehouse – God knows why. And it should be easy enough to get some of our old factories producing more." He frowned. "The trouble is getting it through the asteroid belt." He adjusted the graphics to show the whole solar system. "We just transport them by Slingshotting the whole station out to Jupiter. It takes a few weeks, but it’s more economical than trying to drive it there under power."

"I see," Bush said. "But I’m sure my NASA have put probes around Jupiter through the asteroid belt.

"Smaller and slower moving," Garrows explained. "One of our stations, travelling at an appreciable fraction of c – uh, the speed of light," he added, when Bush looked uncomprehending, "is almost certain to smack into something."

"OK. So what are you doing about it?"

The First Consul gestured. "In my time, we had dozens of ships and…specialist weapons to clear safe paths through the asteroid belt," he said. "Here and now, I’ve just got the Charles Ingram and the Bohemia out there doing it. Helk, at least it gets them some more shakedown cruise. But it’ll be a week or more before there’s a safe enough path cleared to authorise the slingshotting of the gasdiver stations."

Bush frowned. "You’re just blowing up asteroids?"

"That’s right," Garrows said. "Why?"

"I think there might be some groups on Earth that might object," Bush said. He winced. "Or even here on the Moon…"


Tranquillity Stairway 3 Groundside Base Armstrong, Luna

12th October, 2006

"It’s – absolutely – completely – totally – unacceptable!" the elderly man pronounced, his voice firing words out like a machine gun. "It does not matter – that – the asteroids are over – two – hundred – and – fifty – million miles away – their composition may well have proved to be verry – verry – interesting – indeed!"

Janet shook her head and turned away from the two Selenites trying to placate the ancient astronomer. "I see Sir Patrick has made his impression."

"From what I’ve heard, a lot of the Selenites treat him like our Yanks would Columbus, or Amerigo Vespucci at least," Mick Saunders replied. His Aussie accent was a comforting reminder of the contemporary world, in this strange and alien place. "Would you like to come this way? Our project is based in Umbria City, on the other side of the world, er, moon."

Andrew nodded. "Pleasure to meet you," he said neutrally. On paper, they were coming to Luna to offer insights to the Unity Project and the GSAT. Of course, after they’d done that, the Moon was their oyster…

"Look at the people!" Luke said, his eyes shining as they stepped out of the Stairway base and into the equally bustling transport hub outside. "The things!"

"The things are also people," Saunders quoted. "Listen, you’ll have plenty of time to look later. Let’s get you settled in. We’ve found a decent suite for you in Umbria, not far from the GSAT offices. The Unity Project is based here in Tranquillity, though. Expect a lot of commuting."

"And here was me hoping to have left that behind on Earth," Janet said dryly.

Saunders laughed. "If I remember correctly, our grandfathers in the Thirties thought that we’d live lives of leisure thanks to automation," they exchanged grins, "so don’t make the same mistake about the Fourthers. They may be more advanced technologically, but they’re still human. Well most of them, anyway."

Andrew nodded as Saunders led them to a maglev train that would take them across the Moon. And, finally, even he began to feel the thrill of the adventure.

"I wonder how Rachel and Piotr are getting on back home," he muttered.


Shed Men Project, Lincolnshire

October 12th, 2006

The Shed Men’s military canteen was about as bad as the Zobodins had expected it to be. Piotr had served in the Colonial Militia when he was younger, and Rachel knew of it by reputation. The Firsters’ military were no different. Still, at least they couldn’t provide those tasteless mass-produced bacterial pastes that delighted the quartermasters back in the Fourth. They didn’t know how. Not yet.

"You know, I still can’t get over it," Rachel said as they faced each other over some rather deflated breaded cod. "The chances of you leaving Earth without telling me, and just arriving in Lunar orbit when the Shift happened…"

"I told you," Piotr said, inexpertly spooning baked beans into his mouth, "I got off early on that LaFromagerie gig. That moron Entwhistle decided to go with an advertising campaign from GFC. What do they know about Home Systems marketing?" he grumbled.

"Never mind," Rachel said, putting a hand tenderly on his forearm. "It means we’re together, even though we kept missing each other."

Piotr nodded. "When I reached the house and found that you and the Wildfire were gone…it ripped my heart out," he said quietly. "I volunteered to help Garrows just because I needed some work to stop me contemplating…well…suicide."

Rachel looked away, trying to hide the tears forming in her eyes. "I felt the same way," she said.

They ate the rest of the meal in silence. Then, at the end, Piotr ironically raised his aldglas tumbler of horrible Lincolnshire tap water and pronounced "To the devil’s uncle with Entwhistle! He’s stuck back up in the Fourth!"

Rachel laughed and clinked her glass to his and they drank, then grimaced with comical simultaneity. "To the devil’s uncle with this water, as well," Piotr muttered.

"Mind if I join you dudes?" said a well remembered voice. They turned to find, of course, it was Professor Greg Bone, still in his lab coat. With him was Colonel Davidson, who looked rather less military these days. While Stawes still had to keep up a façade of discipline and protocol for the outside world, Davidson had literally rolled up his sleeves and thrown himself into the project full-tilt.

"We were just leaving, actually, but sit down," Rachel said. The two joined them. Bone in particular seemed rather disgusted by the military fare, while Davidson bolted his food without a word.

"How are the replacement satellites going?" Piotr asked, making conversation.

"A-OK, my man," Bone said brightly. "And working tons better than the originals. All our satellite communications are back on track!"

"Now the masses can go back to their daily diets of repeats, reality TV and bad American sitcoms," Davidson muttered. "We’d have done better to leave them."

"Oh, don’t be such a wet blanket, Mister Colonel," Bone said, playfully punching him on the arm and then wincing and clutching his hand; Davidson had fought in the War in Iraq and worked out to keep his combat physique.

"What about your Internet?" Rachel asked.

"That’s all functioning again, as well," Davidson said. "For better or for worse." He shrugged.

Piotr exchanged a glance with his wife. Davidson wasn’t usually this sullen. "Is everything all right, Polkovnik Davidson?" he ventured.

Davidson shrugged. "Just a little burned out, I guess." He pulled a sheaf of notes from his pocket. "Prof Bone’s famous laser worked well on the tank trials, but Chambers always wants more."

"How did the trials go? I didn’t hear," Rachel asked.

Bone grinned. "We shoved it on a Challenger-2 and the damned thing shot every shell and bullet out of the air!" he crowed. "Unstoppable! Chambers wants to deploy them to Iraq now!"

Davidson winced. "Chambers wants everything now. Those alternative fuels, for instance…"

Piotr frowned. "Alternative fuels?"

"For us, I mean," Davidson clarified. "To replace oil and gas. It’d be kudos for him and this government if they finally cracked the emissions problem. And it might mean we don’t have to barge into the Middle East every five minutes, too."

"All fine and good," Rachel said, "but we have more urgent priorities now. We’re facing an enemy in a race for the fate of – well, could be everything."

"I know that and you know that, but does Chambers?" Davidson sighed. "To be honest, half our politicians don’t really believe in your Vároto. Oh, they know they exist," he said, raising a hand to forestall Piotr’s outraged comment, "but they don’t know if that wanker Gunn’s message actually did anything. It seems like a long shot even to me," he admitted.

"Maybe," Piotr replied, "but two hundred years of history have taught us that you shouldn’t underestimate the Vároto."

"Yeah, maybe if there was a way of showing everyone that they’re a threat," Bone interjected, then paused. "Is there?"

"I wonder…" Rachel said, her mind working like Stentyrrean clockwork. "I wonder…"


Chapter Seven


23rd November, 2006

GSAT, Umbria City, Luna

Ken Gregory stared up at the stage. Today, it was a far cry from its usual haphazard self, strewn with lecture note datareaders and the remotes for complex projection systems that no-one, Firster or Fourther, really understood. No, today it was spick and span, and decorated with discreet ribbons in the Astroforce colours of blue, white and gold. At the back of the stage, the flags of all Earth nations stood, with the pre-Shift Lunar Consulate flag in the centre: the black void of space, the white Moon decorated, like the real thing these days, by a cross and circle, and with a stylised Apollo-11 Eagle lander on the top.

The usual occupants of the stage – Colonel Hucknell’s NASA Firsters, Admiral Nuttall’s Fourther Astroforce training personnel – were seated off to the side, among the audience of cadets. Instead, standing upon it was Aldrin Garrows and, via a number of flatscreens hooked up to cameras down on Earth, as many national presidents and prime ministers as they’d been able to scrape up. Gregory felt a little uncomfortable at their stares, even though he knew that his would be one imperceptible face among many.

"Ladies and gentlemen," Garrows began, "without further ado, I wish to congratulate you on your graduation from the, ah, the GSAT." He smiled thinly. "You were all volunteers," he said, which was technically true, although there’d been a fair amount of shoving from some national governments. "Your names shall live in history, this new history. The first cohort of Astroforce men from an, er, a Firster background." Gregory marvelled at how the man had, over the past few months, become casually fluent in contemporary English; Nuttall was still notoriously haphazard, often dropping into incomprehensible future aphorisms.

"You’ve completed the two month basic training schedule that was required, back in my time, to become a non-commissioned officer in the Astroforce," Garrows continued. "Officer training normally takes at least two years, often three or four depending on your background and specialisations." He paused. "Unfortunately, we don’t have the leisure of free time here. Thanks to the actions of the talented Mr. Gunn," he said bitterly, "we are facing a race against time."

Gregory glanced away from Garrows, looking at the faces of the electronically assembled world leaders. Most of them had their political poker faces on; quite a few, though, seemed politely sceptical. But they would never denounce anything Garrows said, not publicly. They were all terrified of being potentially cut out of the golden trail of technology from Luna. Everyone was mindful of the news from a few brief weeks ago, when the Americans had managed to find and capture just about everyone on the CIA’s list of public enemies, ‘in cooperation with our Selenite friends and allies’. Right.

"Furthermore," Garrows continued, "I cannot countenance a new Joint Astroforce made up of Firster men led by Fourther officers: the concept leaves a bad taste in my mouth." The world leaders didn’t seem too thrilled, either. "To that end, then, you will not all be graduating as noncoms."

Gregory raised his eyebrows. That[/i[ was unexpected. Murmurs spread through the audience.

"Those of you with the highest scores in your simulations and exercises have been assigned officer rank as brevet ensigns," Garrows continued over the noise. "Only the top ten percentile will make it. I won’t embarrass anyone right now, but the information is available on your datareaders later."

Admiral Nuttall stepped onto the stage beside Garrows, apparently playing the role of bad cop. "I warns you that these ranks are indeed brevet and, should yal demonstrate that our confidence in yal is misplaced, they will be withdrew," he said; as usual, the Firster struggled to keep up. "However, I hope that yal will be able integrates into our existy Fourther officer corps without too many problems…"

"And the same goes for those of you that will be made noncoms," Garrows said diplomatically. "Don’t worry, you’ll have the opportunity later to sit the required tests for officer candidacy. But right now we need all the people we can get."

"I also wants a small number of yal to stay on at the GSAT, albeit briefly, and helps the trainers," Nuttall grunted. "I knows yal want to get off and see the stars, but we wants to knows how we can improves the training programme."

"We won’t be asking for volunteers right now," Garrows said with another smile. "Anyway, for now, may I present you with your graduation papers!"

Ushered by their tutors, the Firster cadets rose from their seats and stepped towards the stage in an unnecessarily complex pattern: some things didn’t change. Gregory was about halfway through the list, but by the time he got to Garrows, the First Consul wasn’t noticeable tired- or bored-looking. Garrows shook his hand with a firm grip, gave him a perfunctory "Well done", and handed him a datareader.

As soon as he had stepped off the stage, Gregory flicked the datareader on and began greedily scanning the previously classified records of his performance. Of course, everyone else had the same idea, and so the improntu ushers struggled in vain to get them back to their seats in any kind of order.

Gregory finally reached his seat again and whistled. His scores were higher than he’d thought, certainly higher than his perfectionist trainers had given him the impression of. He flicked to the last page, the papers themselves.

He blinked. ‘With the provisional brevet rank of Ensign’?

He didn’t yell out in triumph or punch the air. He was English. He smiled to himself, and nodded.

Silly, really, he thought to himself. A few months ago, I was a captain, and now I’m pleased as punch to be an ensign again.

"But an ensign on the bloody Starship Enterprise," he muttered to himself.

Finally the last datareaders were handed out. Garrows spoke again. "Once again I thank you for your volunteering and your hard work," he said. "You shall make your home nations proud."

"And the Astroforce," Nuttall added sharply. "Never forgets that now, just as in my time, you gives up your national and supranational identity. You serves the Astroforce first, and the Astroforce serves Humanity first. All of Humanity."

The national leaders looked a bit put out with that, but Gregory had already resigned himself to it. He suspected that commitment was worth more on paper than in reality, anyway. Nuttall still carried the odd-looking future Union Jack on his shoulder patch, after all, along with the future EU flag and that of the Union of Humanity. It seemed the flag triad of nation, supranation or planet and racial government was worn by all Astroforce personnel, demonstrating the prongs of their loyalty.

"Go in peace, and prepare for war," Garrows said grimly. "Good night!"

The newly minted Astroforce officers and men filed out of the auditorium. Inevitably, some couldn’t wait to compare their new ranks, and equally inevitably, there were disagreements and a few minor scuffles, most of them igniting as soon as they were safely out of the eyeshot of Garrows and, more to the point, their own national leaders. Gregory shook his head and moved on. He wasn’t a loner but, equally, he wasn’t particularly close to any of his fellow students. He was at the older end of the spectrum and there weren’t that many senior Royal Navy officers there. Oh, he’d learned to work with them as a team, but that didn’t mean they got on outside working hours.

He scanned through his papers again as he walked through a corridor. Yes, it was all there. Wait…

He frowned. At the end, an addendum, listing assignments. As Garrows and Nuttall had said, there was an option for staying on at the academy and helping the trainers improve the programme. Although Gregory knew that was ultimately an essential task, he reflexively said ‘sod that’ and moved onto the next.

There were several more exciting-looking assignments, including those attached to the Pieter Voordijk and its fellow capital ships, which were currently scouting out the new/old colony worlds and planting new comm relays. Now that holes had been cleared through the Asteroid Belt and the gasdiver stations were being set up, more of those too were being built in Selenite – and, increasingly, Terran – factories, and soon the fleet would be able to begin constructing fuelling stations in other systems. Gregory knew that they’d have to build a chain of them towards the Vároto space in order to get a fleet over there. He was vaguely aware that there was more urgency than you’d might expect in getting there; something about preventing strategic planets falling into Vároto hands, or something.

But at the bottom there was another mission, unrelated to the others. The Charles Ingram…preparing for a voyage to the planet Culvana, apparently to head off a group of fanatics who’d launched themselves in that direction during the confusion of the Gunn incident.

He wrinkled his brow in thought. Switching the datareader to public channels, he called up the encyclopaedia, turned to the entry on Culvana, and began to read…


Celoun’s Palace, Maghlar, Vároton

14th April 2007

Celoun let a flicker of a smile cross his aged, angelic face as he stalked through the lines of cowering Vároto. Occasionally he cracked the new whip that had been made from him, from cutoffs of the carbon nanotubes he’d set them to making. It had been a Vároto who’d thought that one up, not him. Truly, they were most promising indeed…

"You are the chosen ones," he intoned. "You are the ones whom our information from the future said would spawn great dynasties of warriors and architects and industrialists."

He spun around, his blue, blue eyes narrowing. "In some cases that confidence was misplaced," he bit out. He nodded to the guards at the door: more Vároto, but of a more stolid, unimaginative breed than these. "Some of you have failed to live up to the reputation that the future held for you…and the weak shall not survive to pollute the strong."

With his nod, the guards surged forward, plucking Vároto from the crowd seemingly at random. In reality, though, they had been coached previously by Celoun on which of the candidates had failed. The unlucky Vároto didn’t need the guards hustling them away; they followed their god’s orders with a glazed expression on their faces.

"Had you succeeded, as these others had, you would have cowed your charges," Celoun continued. "As it is, let your failure be its own punishment!"

The guards dragged the unresisting failures to the balcony of Celoun’s new, grand palace. In the plaza below, glorious in that new fake marble, hundreds of poor Yenapa workers were gathered. No Ucasa, for their torment must be unadulterated. But let the Yenapa have their share of revenge. They had remained loyal in times of trial, after all, even though they were now being superseded.

With another nod from Celoun, the guards hurled the failures from the balcony to the baying crowd below. It was only a couple of stories, and the failures were still Vároto: their enhanced bodies managed to survive the impact with only a broken bone or two. As the mob of Yenapa closed in, brandishing their harvesting scythes and welding torches, the failures would regret that…

Celoun turned away, letting the screams fill his delicately pointed ears like some marvellous, organic symphony. "The rest of you have shown that the confidence we gave to you was not misplaced," he boomed. The remaining Vároto make another proskinethesis towards him. "You shall continue to serve the Sahdavi as captains of industry."

He narrowed his eyes again. "But now the great time of building is past," he said. "Some of you shall remain in your posts, and help to train more of your brethren to operate the factories and work the fields. But others, the ones among you who demonstrated that our trust was not merely fulfilled but exceeded…"

Celoun’s long, delicate finger lashed out, pointing at a dozen of the Vároto, then a dozen more. "Stand," he said, pointing at others too. In the end, he selected around fifty, about one-hundredth of those left assembled.

"You are the elite," he said. "You demonstrated commendable initiative, whilst never deviating from your loyalty to the Sahdavi. This is the true Way, and you shall be its trailblazers."

There were murmurs along the lines of ‘We are not worthy’. Celoun ignored them, as a lifelong fisherman might ignore the sound of a wave crashing upon the rocks. That was the natural order of things. It would be remarkable if it wasn’t there…

"Furthermore," he continued, "you also demonstrated in the war of revenge that you are fighters. This combination makes you ideal for our new programme…"

Celoun stepped back and nodded to one side. Two more stolid Vároto guards came out, dragging between them an ancient piece of Sahdavi technology. One of the piecemeal scraps that Celoun and his comrades had salvaged when they had been trapped on this Grigóri-forsaken planet, at the end of the war against the ol’Banedt and the great betrayal by the Ucasa and the Obvians. It had stood dormant, unrepairable, for centuries. But now, thanks to the archaeological information from the one named Yarghûn, it had been repaired with contemporary technology.

The device projected a gigantic hologram, filling the entire room. The Vároto looked up in awe: to them, the Sahdavi artefacts had always been holy relics, opf course, but now they were actually seeing one live up to that claim. The hologram spread throughout the room, filling it with light, and then with a final actinic flash, the watery shade of the room seemed to vanish.

When the light faded, they were…somewhere else. The Vároto looked around in surprise. Ehred Wrais, one of those standing up as the chosen elite of the elite, looked with them. He was dazed from the unexpected favour that the god Celoun had placed upon him, but his wits were nevertheless still about him.

The walls had vanished. They seemed to be in the open air, in a pink sky with few clouds. Below them, the floor too had gone, and instead there was an expanse of fine, reddish sand. Scattered around and amongst the Vároto were little, gnarled shrubs and cacti, toughened against the harsh desert environment. Both suns were in the sky, and the larger, Mav, seemed particularly bright and glaring. Even the engineered Vároto had to narrow their eyes under the light.

Wrais scratched at the sand with his foot. He uncovered a little pit, which almost immediately began to refill with the powdery sand. But he persevered and found that his foot struck a hard, unyielding layer. He risked a glance down. He hadn’t hit rock. Indeed, his toe seemed to be prodding against what looked almost like more sand pressed under a sheet of glass.

Or perhaps just a picture of sand…

"Who can tell me of what this device has done?" Celoun boomed, patting it with one hand.

A non-chosen risked a suggestion: "Blessed Sahdavi Celoun, it has magically transported us to a new land!"

Celoun lashed his carbon whip and the Vároto sprawled in the sand, bleeding purple from a new shoulder wound, though it rapidly closed up and healed. "Wrong," the Sahdavi said unnecessarily. "Anyone else?"

Wrais gulped and opened his mouth. "It is an illusion," he said. "The sand does not go all the way down. There is a solid layer, the original floor. Everything else is…" he shrugged his shoulders in an ‘I cannot describe it’ gesture.

"Correct," Celoun said, favouring Wrais with a nod; the Vároto had to look away as emotions overwhelmed him. "This is a solid hologram. The sky you see is merely a projection on the walls of my chamber. The sand and the plants are but collections of photons and magnetic forcefields. And, indeed, the floor is still there beneath them."

He turned away. "The power of the Sahdavi is great," he said, "but it is not incomprehensible. This is technology, not magic. Remember that, if you want to be worthy to inherit it. With understanding comes power."

Wrais acutely felt a lot of accusing eyes on him. Of course, his fellow Vároto would obey Celoun, for they knew no other possible course of action. But just because Wrais was right, they didn’t have to like him.

Celoun gestured around him. "The device shows us what things are like, right now, out in the Great Qenaed Desert, near Shaa," he continued. Wrais nodded to himself: he thought he’d recognised the terrain. This arid land had never fallen under the tyranny of the Ucasa, for the green-skins originally came from a tropical world, and could not easily survive in what they saw as a bleak, lifeless wasteland. But to the Vároto, Qenaed was as much a part of their planet’s heart as any fertile farmland or great city.

The Sahdavi pointed to something on the horizon. At first Wrais thought it was the outpost-city of Shaa itself, but it didn’t look quite right. Perspective was tricky in the glaring light of the suns and the featureless dunes, but it didn’t look big enough. And it was humped, almost as though it were built on a hill. Shaa, on the other hand, was nestled under a rocky ridge that served as a natural windbreak, helping to deflect the scouring sandstorms that afflicted the Qenaed. And what was that strange construction as the summit?

Celoun turned back to the device. "Closer," he commanded. "Switch to view from satellite 24."

Satellite; Wrais knew the word, of course. An artificial moon of sorts. The Vároto-Yenapa had been putting them into orbit for decades, as had the Ucasa, trying to gain some sort of advantage. But there as on the planet, stalemate had ruled, with spy satellites rendering an equal advantage to either side, and missile platforms being shot down by each others’ space-capable fighters. That had only come to an end with the new revelations. While Wrais had been managing his rope factory, other Vároto had been putting more satellites into space for the Sahdavi, he was vaguely aware. It hadn’t occurred to him that the two might be linked until now.

The device sent out another pulse of light that flickered across them – Wrais briefly saw the light outline the edges of the invisible room, and felt pleased with himself – and then with a second flash, they were elsewhere once more. The terrain looked the same as before, but now the…whatever it was…was much closer, barely half a mile away.

The Vároto gasped in surprise and awe. Celoun smiled.

It was the size of a small city. Shaped like a flattened cone, surrounded by massive docks and cranes, many of which were busy offloading cargo from heavy hover conveyors, it rose from the face of the desert.

No; it floated above the desert. Wrais gasped as he realised that the whole…thing was held up by magnetic hoverpads. He’d heard of individual buildings being occasionally fitted with them before, for quick and easy transport to new sites – particularly useful when they were military factories – but this?

The magnetic field flattened the sand beneath the – city? and a short distance outside it, demolishing dunes into a homogenous flatness which the city then drifted ponderously, magnificently across. Oddly, it didn’t look as if it was on its way to anywhere: its movement was slow, hesitant, almost random, continuously changing direction or pausing.

Then Wrais looked up.

He gasped. "My rope!"

"Indeed," Celoun said, not condemning Wrais for speaking out of turn. "You have all contributed to this achievement, but few of you knew how your constituent parts were put together. And the whole is greater than the sum of its parts."

He paused. "Faithful Vároto, this is a space elevator. It transports heavy cargoes from the surface into orbit, and vice versa. If the two loads are carefully balanced, it requires almost no energy input. Far more efficient and elegant than those firework rockets we were reduced to using before."

Mumbles of ‘magnificent!’ and ‘glorious!’ Celoun smiled. "Your hard work under our guidance has made this possible," he said. "And those among you who I have chosen…"

He whipped around. "At the top of this cable stands a space station," he said. "From it, and others being built across the world, we are constructing more stations. Shipyards. The designs we…were provided with are well within our reach. Again, you shall work under our guidance to build spacecraft capable of traversing the stars, of carrying the war of revenge against the traitors to the very ends of the universe."

He smiled once more, a little distantly. "And then you shall command those ships of war. We shall branch out, take back what is rightfully ours, and rebuild the Sahdavi Empire in all its glory. Your inheritance shall not be wanting."

The mumbles were awed but discontented. "Great Celoun, why must you speak of such things?" one Vároto protested. "Why cannot you stay here forever and command us?"

Celoun smiled sadly. "That is not our way, and nor should it be yours," he said. "No; the universe moves on. The cycle continues.

"And this time," he added to himself, staring up at the elevator as it hovered above the plains, "I won’t let anyone put any spanners in the wheels."

Chapter Eight


Admiral Nuttall’s Office, LDC Command, Tranquillity City, Luna

24th November, 2006

"It’s not acceptable," the hologram said stuffily.

Nuttall sighed and put down his datapen. He looked up from his desk at the shimmering, insubstantial form of Captain Marka Stjepanovic. Unfortunately, her glare was transmitted as faithfully through the void as her words.

"Captain, it’s only fifty-five," he said patiently. "We need more Astroforce-trained personnel to help with the GSAT and the Firsters’ Shed Men projects."

"Fifty-five key personnel," Stjepanovic objected, crossing her arms. "Including my first officer. That’s a serious shakeup, Admiral, particularly coming on the back of the Shift itself."

Reluctantly, the admiral nodded. The trouble was, that was true. He’d seen the chaos caused on the Voordijk when a new commander – himself – had been drafted in to replace the absent Admiral Homachudhury. It didn’t matter how earnest or competent the replacement was, it would still take them time to learn the procedures and idiosyncrasies of an unfamiliar ship and a resentful crew.

"It’s noted," he said, avoiding her gaze. Stjepanovic was in her late forties, but liberal Neogen use meant she looked perhaps five years younger than her true age. Her slightly greying blonde hair was tied back in a bun, despite the fact that the Astroforce had succumbed to various cultural pressure groups and relaxed the rules decades before. Her steely-blue gaze reminded Nuttall uncomfortably of his college librarian when he’d been at Cambridge, the one who seemed to regard the act of removing or even looking at the books as some sort of sacrilege.

"And?" Stjepanovic interjected, disturbing Nuttall’s reverie. "Sir, I particularly object to having to take on a first officer who clearly has his own agenda."

Nuttall set his teeth. Unfortunately, that was true as well. "Nevertheless," he said, "Commander He’gAmmj must take his place. Politics," he added, making it sound like a four-letter word.

Stjepanovic nodded. "Politics," she agreed. "And if it’s not the Culvanai, it’s the Firsters."

"It’s only thirty-five of the new graduates," Nuttall protested. "They need to get experience somewhere, Captain."

"Of course, but on a long-haul mission to a planet none of them have heard of? It seems a little drastic, sir," Stjepanovic said.

"We have to run before we can walk. We have no other choice, thanks to Mister Gunn. That’s what the First Consul says," Nuttall replied.

Stjepanovic hesitated. "The First Consul," she repeated. Nothing more, but there didn’t really need to be. Nuttall had already suspected her to be a Theocrat voter – hah, a Christforce-Theocrat Alliance voter now – but that confirmed it.

And he thought he knew why. "Captain, we all have issues with the Firsters," he said gently. "Particularly given the problems associated with the alternate timeline-"

"I doubt they are quite as painful as mine," Stjepanovic said tightly, then hastily added, "sir. Whether the career of your legend is not the unblemished series of triumph after triumph you knew it to be…unsettling, perhaps, but it’s not on the same scale as what…we have to put up with."

Nuttall sighed. "Captain, just because things are different here-"

"Your homeland is not on the urge of complete disintegration!" Stjepanovic said, her voice finally rising beyond control. "Have you read the reports from down there? Never mind Montenegro or the Bosniacs, Vojvodina is pushing for independence!"

The admiral shrugged. "Calm yourself, Captain," he said sharply. "In any case, the future history of this world need not be what it might have been. Er. You know what I mean."

Stjepanovic let out a breath. "Yes. I’m…I apologise, sir. That was insubordination."

"Perhaps. Understandable under the circumstances, I daresay," Nuttall said, adding, "…this once."

"Yes, sir."

Nuttall studied the hologram. Stjepanovic’s Balkan features were overlaid with a terrible tiredness. Just the stress of the Shift and this shakeup, and of the long days her crew had been pulling, clearing safe lanes through the asteroid belt?

Or something deeper?

"Perhaps," he said gently, "it’ll be just as well for you and your ship to be out of the Home Systems for a while."

Stjepanovic nodded. "I see, sir. Well. I’ll just have to hold things together, I suppose."

"Only unity will save us all," Nuttall said with a faint smile. "Remember that."

The captain laughed. "Of course. Charles Ingram out."

The hologram faded away to a flicker. Nuttall let himself sag back into his chair. For that matter, it’d be a relief for him not to have to deal with the hotblooded Serb for a while.

"Leaving me more time for the overexcited Chinese and the alarmist Russian," he muttered, turning over a datareader and reading the manifests for the next couple of missions. Culvana was ultimately a distraction, though potentially one that might bear fruit. Now that the gasdivers were in place at Jupiter, it was time for the Unity project to move ahead – with the assistance of Commander Erlicht, Stjepanovic’s detached first officer. Soon they would have to finalise the design and begin the construction process. And then they could move on to Garrows’ great design, the Grand Spinward Corridor…

The admiral sighed once more. The problem with Garrows’ administration was that problem solvers were rewarded with more problems. And who’s going to solve that problem?, Nuttall wondered wryly.

But, once again, there was no other choice.


Hadley Rille, Luna

24th November 2006

"I’ve made up my mind," Andrew said quietly.

Janet stared at him, or at least at the suit. "You’re sure," she said, her voice dull. The twenty-fourth century radios were so good that it felt like they were speaking to each other normally, their words transmitted through an atmosphere of air.

In reality, they were standing on the lip of the Hadley Rille, a magnificent Lunar canyon almost as large as the Grand Canyon on Earth. Thirteen hundred feet deep, it opened up before them as, 35 or 379 years previously (depending on how you looked at it), it had for the crew of Apollo-15.

But that crew had found it hard to judge the size of the canyon, indeed almost overshooting the lip and having an accident, for the colourless Lunar landscape had played havoc with their terrestrial sense of perspective. Andrew and Janet didn’t have to worry about that, at least: all the bustling tourist information centres threw the landscape into a sharp, multicoloured relief. Niagara Falls, Andrew thought sadly.

"I’m sure," he said, turning back to his wife. He marvelled at the design of the future spacesuit, which seemed from the outside to be a skintight costume, yet allowed them full freedom of movement. But it conformed to the body to such a degree that even Janet’s curtain of hair flopped free of the rest of the costume, wrapped in its own extended fan of black suit-material. It made her look almost as though she was wearing a Darth Vader helmet, Andrew thought.

"Andy…" Janet sighed. She moved closer to him, putting a suit-clad hand on his shoulder and drawing him to her, forcing him to look through the transparent face-piece of the suit and into her eyes. "We’ve only just got here. And there’s no way Chambers and his ilk can get to us here. There’s no need to go running to the other end of the galaxy."

"You think that’s why I want to do this?" Andrew replied, risking a smile. "Love, this Moon is a fascinating place, and I could spend my life here, just marvelling in the, well, the marvels," he added, winking. "But this is a once in a lifetime opportunity, even now. How many Firsters do you think are going to Culvana any time soon?"

Janet shrugged, and in the lighter Lunar gravity – there were no orbital Janvier-Graham enhancement beams out here in the ‘countryside’ – Andrew noted anew how interestingly her suit-clad chest moved. "Well, there’s all those cadets from the GSAT," she said, "and all those ambassadors from Earth-"

Andrew laughed. "You know what I mean," he said, then put his arm around her. The suit material seemed to recognise the gesture, and warmed itself over Janet’s back as though to simulate him touching her. "Love, it won’t be for long. Six months at the top. You and Luke can stay here, see the sights, enjoy yourselves.

"But I’m a historian," he concluded, "and I want to see history in the making."

Janet let out a breath, audible through the radio link, and nodded. Looking through her face-piece he saw that her eyes were tearing, but so were his. But in those eyes, he saw a certain resignation that he’d learned to recognise, when she had realised that he’d got a mad scheme going that she’d never be able to talk him out of. It had happened before, though admittedly not on an interplanetary scale.

"Don’t worry," he said reassuringly, as she hugged him to him. They couldn’t kiss, not through these suits, but it was a comforting gesture nonetheless. "It’ll be okay. Or okk as they say up here."

Janet nodded once more. "Just make sure you come back," she whispered.

Amidst all the tourists – the Selenite traffic had naturally fallen off, but there were quite a few Terrans coming up here now, what with one thing and another – they shared a moment of tenderness.

And, fulfilling his job description, Luke shattered it. He appeared over a nearby ridge and waved excitedly. "Mum! Dad!" his voice sounded loudly in their ears. "Come and look at this – at the middle of this memorial they’ve preserved the original lower section of the Apollo-15 lander!"

Janet and Andrew looked into each others’ eyes, wondered whether to laugh or cry, then settled on a shrug. And followed their son into the past, trying to avoid thinking about the future.


Stairway Port 3, Serenity City, Luna

1st December, 2006

Advent calendars aren’t on the agenda, Gregory reflected as he crowded into the room. This segment of the torus-craft was devoted to cheap, mass seating that reminded him of economy-class flights back home. As NCOs and junior officers, the thirty-five GSAT graduates assigned to the mission were stuck here, along with numerous original Ingrams of equal rank who’d been given a few days of shore leave.

Understandably, there was something of a cold air between the two groups. No-one had quite insulted anyone else’s ancestry yet – especially since said ancestors might well be in the other group, Gregory thought with a laugh – but there was definitely tension in the air. Hopefully, the senior officers on the Ingram would be able to sort it all out, Gregory thought optimistically.

Finally the torus-craft was loaded, and began to rise up the Stairway to its destination. Like the other Firsters, Gregory had already used a Stairway a couple of times before, on the journey from Earth, and by now wasn’t too surprised by anything. The Fourther crew seemed a little disappointed that they couldn’t act all superior towards panicky primitives, as the script apparently called for.

Glancing out of the window/screen, Gregory watched the surface of the Moon fall away. It had been an experience, he thought to himself, even though he’d spent most of it cooped up in the GSAT. One day he’d like to come back and see the sights properly: the only time they’d seen the outside world on this trip had been on the suited-up training runs outside in the low-G. The Neil Armstrong jokes were wearing thin now even for the Firsters, and of course the Selenites had heard them all before…

The light side of the Moon had mostly turned away from the Sun, leaving a thin crescent Moon visible from Earth, and all the light-side cities were picked out in brilliant lights. The great cross and circle outshone them all, though. Gregory wondered what effects that was having throughout the world. Oh, governments couldn’t really kick up a fuss, as a break with the Selenites was, in the long term, national suicide. But the man in the street might well wonder…

He glanced aside to another row of seats, where former Colonels Micah Shalom and Ali Ahmed were busy in a hushed conversation. After their bust-up at the GSAT, they’d been thrown together by an angry Hucknell, and had eventually become grudging comrades. It had helped when one of the Fourther historians – Perks? – had explained to Ahmed that, while Israel had indeed vanished from the map in the future, the 2350 version of Iran was about as far removed from the present day version as the 2350 Holy Land Free State was from Israel. The two former colonels seemed to get on these days mostly by mutual grumblings about what might have been, and what would be.

Elsewhere, the other Firsters were having their own conversations, pointedly turning away from the Fourthers and exaggerating their contemporary accents to exclude them from the conversation. Gregory had got used to speaking half with an accent like Admiral Nuttall’s, and himself found it a relief to go back to modern Cumbrian. The group of Firsters consisted of around fifteen from Europe, the USA, Australia and Canada – Gregory was the only Briton – a further fifteen from Russia, China and India, and the final five from assorted Third World countries. Despite their present divisions, though, they seemed to have no problem with banding together against the threat of the Fourther crewmen.

Cynically, Gregory wondered if that might be the point…

There. The orbital linkup station loomed before them and the torus came to a shuddering halt, separating into its sections and opening its entryways. Gregory rose to his feet when the message resounded through the intercoms, and along with the others – amidst much pushing and shoving – exited.

They stood in a confused mass within the huge airlock attached to the station, looking around for directions. Unsurprisingly, it was the Fourthers who caught on first, walking purposefully towards one corridor. The Firsters followed, trying to avoid looking embarrassed.

And finally, there it was in front of them.

"My God," Gregory muttered to himself. It was one thing to read about it on the encyclopaedia, but to actually see it…

The Charles Ingram stood before them, floating in space, its great four-fused-cylinders shape dominating the sky. Support tendrils from an outthrust arm of the Stairway station wrapped around it, almost as though they were stinging it into submission, but they failed. The ship’s great fusion engines glowed with a dull red light, and its Janvier-Graham crystals, though running at low power, nevertheless gleamed with the fairylike shimmer of unclear physics.

The ship, silhouetted against the dark shape of Luna behind it, was almost nine hundred metres long. Gregory was suddenly acutely aware that his thirty-five would dissolve into a crew of over three thousand. And the journey would take months…

He shouldered his future-designed carry bag. "Bring it on," he muttered under his breath.

Chapter Nine


Charles Ingram, Hangar Bay 1

December 2nd, 2006

"You must be Kenneth Gregory," the tall young woman said in a rush as she reached out to shake his hand.

Gregory nodded. "Ensign, at least on paper. Well, datareader anyway."

The woman let out a sharp bark of laughter. "Lieutenant Corollary Warwick." She paused for so long that Gregory had opened his mouth to speak in return, then added, "I’ll be your superior here on the Ingram I’m afraid……although in chronological terms I may be several years your junior."

"I see, ma’am," Gregory said evenly. He’d already decided that he needed to get used to that, although a few of the other Firster graduates of his generation were finding it difficult to be ordered around by people half their age. Although sometimes they only appeared to be younger…

He frowned slightly as a few items bubbled up in the percolating coffee pot of his memory. "I’m sorry, did you say your name was Warwick? Cor – er –"

"Corollary," the lieutenant said, then added in explanation: "The unorthodox name for female kids is kind of a tradition on Cancy."

"I – see," Gregory said again. "But I’m sorry, I’m sure I remember seeing your name as assigned to the Pieter Voordijk…"

Warwick’s face darkened, though not in any anger aimed at him, Gregory guessed. "I transferred," she said neutrally. After another inordinately long pause, she continued: "Anyway I thought you might want to see what your duties will be here."

"Of course, ma’am," Gregory replied. He glanced around the enormous hangar bay. Intellectually, of course, he knew that it wasn’t anything like so large as the ones on the Voordijk, but he was still awed by it. From an engineering standpoint, the sheer size of the ship itself was underlined by the dimensions of the empty spaces within it.

"This is the forward topside hangar which is reserved for shuttlecraft," Warwick said as they walked across the deck. Despite the getting-ready-for-departure hurry of the Ingram in general, this bay was almost deserted save for a few technicians looking over some of the shuttles. They seemed to be mostly noncoms, and a few offered salutes to Warwick, which she returned. "The lower one at the fore end of the ship is for fighters and bombers……the situation is reversed at the aft end of the ship."

"Thank you, ma’am, but respectfully, I already know all that," Gregory said dryly. "I have just completed the academy courses."

Warwick smiled at him, momentarily dazzling him with a set of teeth that seemed perfect without being the horrid artificial bone-white of the contemporary American superstar. "I’m sorry Ensign," she said, "to be honest I wasn’t sure if the courses had been going long enough to be any good."

"A fair point," Gregory conceded. "Well; I suppose that’s what I’m here to find out."

Warwick laughed again. "Indeed."

They approached one shuttle, which sat a short distance away from the others. Gregory ran a practiced eye over it. Not large enough to be a Mark-VIII StarCod or a Kohl-type cargo shuttle; not sleek enough to be the Cordiale executive model…"Raleigh v1.2?" he hazarded.

Warwick turned to him, looking impressed. "Version 1.3 as it happens but how did you know?"

Gregory shrugged. "The courses weren’t that bad, and I did my research."

In fact he’d invested in an electronic copy of Jane’s Complete Guide to Human and Alien Spacecraft, and had spent hours of free time poring over schematics. He’d done that sort of thing back on the Kent, when the potential enemy might be a Russian surface cruiser or a Chinese hunter-killer submarine, and had been amused to see how little the format had changed in three hundred years and more. He hadn’t stuck only to Human spacecraft, either; though he intellectually knew that the contemporary Vároto were hardly going to be able to field the 24th-century design battle starships Jane’s described, he was convinced that looking them over might give him some sort of psychological insight into the foe…

So far, he hadn’t really improved on the impression he’d already got from Colonel Wilkinson and Dr. Dominguez, which could be summarised as ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’.

"Well you ought to fit in well here," Warwick said with a smile. "As a matter of fact I’m one of the pilots on for tomorrow……do you want to come along and test your knowledge of the controls?"

Gregory quirked an eyebrow. "Of course, but shouldn’t you be ordering me about?"

Warwick laughed again. "I’m sorry it’s just that it’s hard to think of a Firster as being one of us – no offence," she added hastily. "And you remind me that you are one every time you open your mouth."

"Mm, so my accent’s not completely gone then," Gregory said, exaggerating his contemporary Cumbrian tones. Like many of the Fourthers, the GSAT Firsters were these days working in an odd mixture of contemporary and future English forms, but the Selenite accent was rapidly beginning to influence pronunciation, even among the non-native Selenite Fourthers.

"Come on," Warwick said, "to make it up to you I order you to accompany me to the officers’ mess."

"Aye-aye, ma’am," Gregory said with a faint smile.


Station 4, in orbit of Vároton

17th June 2007

Ehred Wrais still found the sensation…strange. He had got used to the Sahdavi’s towers into the sky, had even coped better than most with the unpleasant cognitive paradox of looking down on his gods on the planet below. But he would never get used to weightlessness.

"Bless the merciful Sahdavi that our work will not suffer from such problems," he muttered to himself. Due to the mystical means by which they were powered, the new star-vessels would have gravity of a sort. It gave him yet another incentive to ensure that his work was good enough to fix him a place on one of those vessels.

He gulped a few more times, biting on air, and his gorge seemed to settle for now. But it was never far away, not when both his stomachs felt like they were trying to climb into his throat.

Wrais stretched out one of his arms and grasped the nearest handhold. It was reassuring, giving him an impression of solidity and strength. It was a physical counterpart to the rock-hard faith in the Sahdavi that he always carried deep in his hearts. Swinging along, he grasped the next handhold, and soon had the right rhythm going. If he let go, inertia would keep him flying along, but he failed to do so for three reasons: it would make him feel sick again, his arms needed the exercise to stop his muscles from deteriorating, and he wanted to set an example to the crew. There’s already been enough incidents of them colliding in crossroad corridors when both participants were flying along too far away from handholds to stop in time.

It didn’t take him long to climb up – down? – through, he decided – the tube. The skeletal drydock was large enough that it took him a couple of hours to climb/fly from one end to the other, but he was finally here.

He smiled as he drifted into the temporary control centre. It was a haphazard place, full of coordinators shouting into radio headsets and rapidly scanning printouts of graphs as they poured forth ceaselessly from the computer banks. It was crowded, too, and drove you mad if you spent too long there. Fortunately, solitude was easy enough to find, what with all the corridors, and of course the view…

Wrais looked at one of the screens. It was contemporary technology, cathode ray tubes, not one of the precious new technologies that the gods had revealed to them recently. All of that was being reserved for the vessels themselves…still, even this screen showed a wonderful view of the starfield outside.

There were the two suns, Ranf and Grel, and the planet itself, turning majestically below them, one half bathed in light, the other deep in shadow. The terminator line was more blurred and confused than that of a planet with only one sun, as first one sun and then the other dipped beneath the horizon.

Yenapa – no, Vároton now – was a relatively pleasant and diverse world. On average it was warmer than Earth, with only very small ice caps and snow on only the highest of mountains. But, as well as glorious tropical rainforests and arid deserts such as the Qenaed, there were plenty of fertile temperate regions where great fields of crops were tended, where enormous cities towered over the plains. Vároton did not have continental plates, and earthquakes and volcanoes were almost unknown. There was only one, vast, continental highland which stretched all around the planet. The seas were not inconsiderable in size, but they were surrounded by land rather than the other way around.

It was a beautiful planet, Wrais reflected, one worthy of the care of the servants of the Sahdavi. In some ways, he would be sad to leave it. But he had his duty, he thought with a sigh…and there were compensations.

Smiling, he turned away from the screen and looked the other way. This was a real window, for it looked inside the drydock where there was no risk of micrometeorite impact. In some ways it was a conceit, particularly when all of this had had to be lifted up from the surface by rocket or the new elevators, but it also served a real, valuable purpose. For if any of the coordinators tired, all they had to do to remind themselves what they were working towards was just to look up.

It sat in the centre of the great drydock, an enormous mass of dark metal. Far from complete, the skeletal superstructure still showing in many sections as the compartments were lowered into place, spacesuited workers swarming over it, it was a beautiful sight. It was a starship, a real starship, one that would bring the name of the Sahdavi to new worlds beyond.

"You’re doing good work," he said absently to his subordinates. A few of them nodded a quick acknowledgement of the compliment, then turned back to their work. He nodded to himself: as the gods had recognised, he was adept at choosing a competent and motivated team and managing them well. In fact, he rarely had to intervene at all these days; most of the deadwood had been weeded out long ago.

Which gave him a fair amount of free time…

Wrais smiled. He turned to one of the coordinators, waiting patiently for him to finish his latest feedback report to the construction workers. Business before pleasure. When the report was complete – something about the thermal stress of forward nuclear engine 3 being well within tolerance levels – Wrais spoke. "Send out a code 25, if you please," he said.

"A code 25? Yessir," replied the subordinate, reaching for the knobs and faders on his comm board.

Wrais stepped out of the control centre and, with a sigh, pulled himself down another tube. It didn’t’ take him long to reach one of the junctions and, not without a few private reservations, he took the route leading inwards.

The vessel was far from complete, of course, but large parts of it had already been sealed and made airtight. Vároto engineering, both contemporary and, evidently, future, was designed in series of compartments, usually in tens, which were then assembled together but could always be cut off again for damage control. As of now, three out of the ten sections of the forward mushroom were operational, and Wrais went for the centre of them.

He stepped over the airlock threshold and winced. He’d half expected to find gravity in the ship, as he would once it was completed, but of course the strange crystals had not yet been installed. They were still being created, by a process not he nor any other Vároto, it seemed, really understood, at a station out orbiting one of the gas giant planets – Alkra, he reminded himself. Well, it mattered not right now, just as long as they were ready in time not to delay his ship’s final completion.

He let himself drift through the empty corridors, still emitting the brash stink of new paint and scratched metal. This was worse than the drydock, because there were no handholds here. But he managed, and soon he had reached the rendezvous. As of yet, it looked no different from any other of the featureless rooms, but one day it would be an executive officer’s quarters…

Perhaps even his own.

"My lord?" a voice said, echoing oddly through the open blast doors and off the unfurnished floor.

Wrais smiled again. "You are here on time," he said. "That’s good."

Uia Eou drifted forward into the light of the room’s fitful emergency bulb, the only illumination until someone hooked up the power transfer conduits to the drydock’s main reactors. The Ucasa woman seemed less bothered by the zero gravity than Wrais himself, though that could be just because she had become emotionally numb in so many ways…

Whenever Wrais saw that look of hopelessness and despair in her solid emerald eyes, he felt a hint of guilt seeping up through his vicarious pleasure. He continued to find his sessions with Uia Eou more enjoyable than the targeted rapes that the gods had given to him for the purpose of improving the species. What is wrong with me? He resolved, as usual, to take it out on Uia Eou herself.

"Come to me," he muttered.

She managed to propel herself forward, one hand always remaining on her shift, trying to prevent it from drifting upwards in the zero-G. The fool, Wrais thought kindly. As though there’s anything of hers I haven’t seen…

They’d been having sessions frequently enough that he no longer needed to perform surgery to allow the act to take place. And at least with a Ucasa rape-partner, he had no need to worry about unfortunate offspring. It was one thing to sire them for the good of the Sahdavi, when they were safely taken a long way away, but quite another to provide a family environment where he faced the ever-present threat of patricide. And as for the scandal – some of his fellow Vároto had taken Yenapa rape-partners, and mating between the two subspecies was still possible – but forbidden, as the Yenapa gene pool was supposed to be assigned for extinction now that the Sahdavi had decided that the Vároto experiment was a successful improvement on the species. Half-Vároto, half-Yenapa children were destroyed at birth, usually along with their parents.

"Let us indulge," Wrais said, managing to make his way over to her and placing a hand on her leg. She felt oddly cold to him, as all her race did, and he found it an exotic interest.

Uia Eou muttered something, very softly, in her own language. Wrais didn’t speak it, of course, but he would have put money on it being something along the lines of ‘you mean, let you indulge,’.

"Of course," he said, half to himself, and began. One day before long, this ship too would make hit-and-run raids, diving in and raining down a torrent of orbital fire before escaping retribution. It seemed an appropriate means of consecration.

"Although I can’t claim to be unbiased," he added to himself, as Uia Eou let out that delightful scream of hers.


"Most people hog the fresh stuff at this stage," Warwick said, looking at Gregory’s plate and raising one of her blonde eyebrows.

Gregory laughed. "This stuff is still new and exotic to me," he said, gesturing to it. As well as a few pieces of fresh cold meat, cheese and fruit, his plate held a number of the brightly coloured bacterial pastes that the Fourthers used for emergency rations and to help bulk out tastier foods. He dipped a spoon into one, which on the face of it looked rather like strawberry angel whip, and tasted it. He’d been told by Fourthers that they found the tastes of the pastes harsh, one-dimensional, artificial, but to him it seemed almost indistinguishable to the taste of the real thing, in this case some sort of high quality meat paste. He supposed it must be being used to the very simplistic artificial flavouring principles used on Earth at the moment.

"Funny thought," Warwick said as she tucked into her own meal. "How are you getting used to everything?"

"It’s okay," Gregory said, then corrected it to "okk" when Warwick looked puzzled. "I was a captain down on Earth, you know, but the conditions here aren’t too bad – certainly better than they were when I was an ensign the first time," he added with a laugh. "This is haute cuisine by those standards," he said, pointing to his plate again.

"You were a captain?" Warwick said, raising both her eyebrows this time. "I didn’t know…"

"Well, I was a ship CO," Gregory amended, "although my actual rank was only lieutenant commander. I was the captain of Her Majesty’s Ship Kent, in the Royal Navy of course…"

"Of course," Warwick said with a nod. "I knew someone once – vanished now with the Shift of course," she added sadly, "who was in the RSN but-"

"RSN?" Gregory repeated.

"Royal Star Navy," Warwick replied. "It was – will be – would have been – uh – one of the local defence forces for the Home Systems……Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand……closely affiliated with but separate to the main Joint Euan Rapide Reaction Space Forces."

"I see," Gregory muttered. He’d neglected that side of things in his studies, focusing on the Astroforce. It was nice to know that the tradition he served would be continued in the future…or would have been.

"Her Majesty’s Ship," Warwick repeated. "Funny to hear that again."

"Who’s king or queen in the future, then?" Gregory asked.

"Queen Victoria III," Warwick said. "I think Admiral Nuttall met her once a few years ago when she was still crown princess under George X-"

"Of course, Admiral Nuttall is British, isn’t he," Gregory thought out loud. Then he looked her in the eyes. "Lieutenant, if I may…"

"Of course." Warwick returned his gaze with a pair of steady blue eyes.

Gregory hesitated. "Why did you really leave the Voordijk?"

Warwick abruptly broke her gaze. "I…"

"Don’t answer if you don’t want to," Gregory said hastily.

"No – no – it’s all right," she said, blinking back tears. "I’m afraid that I couldn’t face the other staff after all that time……having worked around that Gunn man and never having suspected a thing-"

Gregory nodded. "Dr. Dominguez was very smug about how she would have spotted him for a Vároto infiltrator immediately-"

"Hah! I don’t doubt it," Warwick muttered. "I’m sure she would have……I mean he only fooled an entire shipful of people many of whom had prior experience with the painkillers-"

"The painkillers?"

"Astroforce nickname," she told him. "Because they call themselves Painwreakers……it’s what the word itself means."

"Hmm," Gregory said to himself, thinking about it. "Well, in that case, if he fooled everyone, why-"

Warwick let out a sigh. "I just think I’d rather spend some time at the other end of the Commonwealth……not that there is one any more," she added dolefully, looking down.

Hesitantly, Gregory put his hand on one of hers. "Perhaps there will be again, one day," he said.

She nodded, and managed a small smile as she met his eyes. "Perhaps. And perhaps tomorrow we can make the first step towards that."

"Tomorrow?" he said, his eyes widening. "What’s happening tomorrow-"

"You didn’t know?" Warwick said in surprise. "They can’t have informed you Firsters yet……well, anyway, tomorrow we’ll be flying to Planet Graham to plant the flag there."

"Planet Graham," Gregory murmured. "That’s extra-system, yes?"

"Of course it is," Warwick said. "So we’ll be using the flux drive..." she trailed off. "Oh, I see."

"I’ll be one of the first people in the world to travel faster than light," Gregory said out loud. He grinned. "Does it hurt?"

Warwick returned his grin. "Only if you don’t like M.C. Escher."

Chapter Ten


Ministry of Defence, London

December 2nd, 2006

"Are you sure about this?" Colonel Davidson protested as they sat down in the anteroom. "I don’t know whether we should all have left the project right now – I think Dr. Temple’s team were about to make a breakthrough with that new engineering technique for the Selenite alloy-"

"Then Dr. Temple’s team can break it through on their own," General Stawes said mildly, adjusting his razor-sharp collar. As always, returning to normal military standards of discipline after a long stay with the Shed Men was a trial for him, but an even greater one for Davidson, who half the time acted like he was one of the savants himself. And speaking of which…

"Yeah, I think the colonel has a point, sir," said Professor Bone, who managed to make a Savile Row suit look like Sir Patrick Moore’s gardening clothes. No matter how you dressed him up to meet politicians, he nevertheless exuded an air of the chaotic brilliance that made him both a significant asset for the Shed Men project, and incredibly irritating to work with.

Stawes raised a finger. "Nevertheless, the Zobodins have a point," he said. "You know as well as I do that reactions to the…situation all over the world are anything but…optimal."

Davidson nodded ruefully at the euphemisms. Oh, world governments were cooperating well enough with Garrows’ agenda. No-one wanted to say the wrong thing and miss out on the Fourther tech that was even now working miracles. None of the big powers wanted to be militarily outmatched by their competitors, and none of the poorer countries wanted to be deprived of the uplifts that were transforming their entire regions.

Take Iraq, for instance. Oh, things were never as simple as one would like. The…insurgency had not vanished overnight just because Garrows had helped the Americans cut off all its myriad heads. But things were changing. Selenite sensors could detect and isolate items as relatively ubiquitous as stashes of ammunition and the old artillery shells so beloved by the insurgents as IEDs. The Selenites even had reliable stun weapons capable of taking down a suicide bomber without setting off his payload. The security situation had become…confused, and very active, but far from the hellhole it had been just a few weeks previously.

Oh, give them time, and maybe the insurgents would adapt, just as humans had been doing for centuries. Selenite tech was beginning to flood the global market now, and for every miracle weapon or sensor there was a miracle armour or jammer. Yes, give them time to level up and for new ringleaders to emerge, and the situation would revert to the hopelessness everyone was disgustingly familiar with.

But they wouldn’t have that time. The Selenites’ ambassador from the Arab world, the League as they called it, Yusuf az-Zubayri, had plans. In the history he had learned, Iraq had just been another sea of glass and fire in the nuclear wasteland that the Middle East had become in the Third World War, yet it had nevertheless recovered to become something different and wonderful. Zubayri intended to bypass the apocalypse step and go straight to the paradise.

Already the satellite pictures were becoming unrecognisable. For the first time in centuries, since the destruction at the hands of the Mongols, the Land Between the Rivers was green. Irrigation canals, dug with Selenite technology, were returning the nation to Biblical Babylon, a rich and fertile land that would one day be capable of supporting far more than its current population of twenty million or so.

But these waters would do more than merely vivify the land, they would be a source of hydroelectric power. And all of these projects were creating jobs by the thousands, jobs that were no longer threatened by random bomb attacks. This was just as well, because the country’s former major industry remained moribund. The oil facilities had been shut down.

Stawes glanced at an enormous map upon the nearest wall, showing Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. It dated from the early twentieth century, as evidenced by the still-sprawling Ottoman Empire. What will the Middle East become when oil is no longer used as a fuel? he wondered. Oh, it would remain a valuable commodity, useful as precursors for the plastics industry and so forth, but no longer would global transport depend on the precious black gold.

It was already beginning. In the United States, their President – perhaps ironically, given his background in oil – was pushing hard for Selenite alternate fuel technologies to be adopted. Efficient and inexpensive hydrogen fuel cells and genengineered biofuel crops, all perfected in the 2060s of that other history, were springing up everywhere. Meanwhile, researchers in Japan, the US and elsewhere were trying to duplicate the wonderful energy storage devices – batteries for want of a better term – that meant many modern Fourther vehicles could travel with no other external source of energy.

The bottom was already dropping out of the oil market, despite the fact that the vast majority of vehicles were still running on petrol or diesel – it was early days, after all. But everyone could see which way the wind was blowing. Including the assorted presidents-for-life and ayatollahs who stood to lose out…

The secretary glanced up from her desk. "Mr. Chambers can see you now," she said neutrally.

Nodding to the girl, Stawes stood, straightened his uniform, and strode forward into the office. Davidson and Bone followed him with rather less ceremony.

Pete Chambers was seated behind his desk, as usual, but he was leaning back on his richly upholstered chair and staring up thoughtfully at the Edwardian ceiling. On the desk before him sat both a contemporary laptop and a stack of the transparent-plastic-like Fourther datareaders.

"General Stawes," the Secretary of State for Defence said in his neutral, unapologetically Northumbrian tones, "to what do I owe the pleasure of this doubtless essential visit?"

Stawes glanced at Davidson, then back to Chambers. "Sir, this does not directly involve the Shed Men project, but-"

Without warning, Chambers suddenly lashed forward, his chair shooting back into position behind him, and was poised over the desk, staring coldly at Stawes. "Then it had better be good," he said quietly.

The general gulped. "Yes, sir. Sir, I believe yesterday in Parliament you fielded a question from the leader of the Respect the War Coalition…"

Chambers scowled. "I trust the BBC Parliament channel may have censored my reply?"

"On the repeat, yes, sir," Stawes replied. In fact, Chambers hadn’t used any language that, in the abstract, might be considered objectionable. It was quite admirable how he had managed to tell the irritating Scotsman ‘to administer himself a colonoscopy as his head was evidently already in the required position’ without getting anything more than a warning from the Speaker.

"Well, what of it," Chambers grunted. "At least in this country we don’t have anyone like Webster." He spat the word.

Stawes nodded. Ryan Webster – who, the Selenite histories recorded, would have been instrumental in the mismanagement of America prior to the Third World War – had become a demagogue in the States claiming that the appearance of the future Moon was all a lie told by the US government. What was worrying was how many people seemed to believe him…

"Sir, one of our advisors has suggested there may be a way to bring home just what we are facing," Davidson said. "The Vároto and-"

"But how?" Chambers barked. "It’s not as though any of them are left alive on Luna – or at least there had better not be!" he added. "The only way we can prove they’re a threat is for the Moonies to fly there and actually look – which is what we’re trying to get the damned unity over in the first bloody place!"

The Shed Men leaders nodded. In order to fly even the Voordijk, the longest-ranged of all the future ships that had a chance of actually doing something when it got there, to the Vároto end of this spiral arm, it would take a vast network of refuelling posts and sites. So many, in fact, that Selenite industry alone couldn’t cope. They needed new Terran factories to begin producing the lower-technology components of the gasdiver stations and so forth, so their own limited industry could focus on the more advanced parts. But this would require a considerable leap of faith on the part of Terran governments, to host enormous new factories, and questions were being asked…

"There is one other way, though, dude, uh, sir," Bone said.

"What?" Chambers asked perfunctorily.

Stawes slid a datareader across the desk. "Look at this, sir."

"I’m a busy man," Chambers muttered, but quickly scanned the datareader. Stawes noticed that his eyes flicked back up and reread a few paragraphs, and then widened. "Interesting…" was all he said.

The general nodded. "Sir, during the first war with the Vároto in that other history – the 2150s, I think – a Vároto force managed to penetrate all the way to Earth, on an attempted suicide attack using bioweapons. Fortunately it was destroyed enroute, but one ship survived long enough to swing past Luna on the way to Earth, at which point it was shot down and crashed on Luna. It was reworked as a war memorial by some millionaire, years later, but, sir…"

"It’s still there," Chambers breathed. "And no-one can argue with that."

"And now that two Stairways are operational-" the Guiana one was online now along with the Florida one, and the Hainan one wasn’t far behind, "-we can bring up to the Moon almost anyone we want, sir."

"Very interesting," Chambers said, scanning the report again. "Verrry interesting…"


Charles Ingram, Outer Solar System

December 3rd, 2006

"This isn’t how it’s always portrayed in the films, you know," Ken Gregory said dryly as he watched the big holographic display. Several others in the officer’s lounge were also doing so – he recognised some of his fellow Firsters from the GSAT. Most of the Fourthers were already inured to this experience, but for the Firsters, it was one of the most exciting things imaginable. Faster than light…!

"What do you mean?" Corollary Warwick asked in her customary Cancy rush.

Gregory shrugged. "In all the sci-fi opening sequences, you always head out from the Earth, go past Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and so forth…"

"Oh no," Warwick said with a laugh. "It would be much more difficult if we exited in the plane of the solar system……then you have to contend with all the asteroids and the dense Kuiper belt of icy objects beyond Pluto."

"So instead we go up?" Gregory asked, staring at the hologram.

"Of course," Warwick said. "Then we have to blast through the minimum amount of Oort objects to exit the system……of course back in the twenty-fourth there were special holes maintained aimed at the other major traffic systems and a squad of drones to ensure they were kept clear."

"Maybe one day," Gregory said as the vaguely prismlike shape of the Ingram changed position slightly at the centre of the hologram. The hologram always kept the ship’s relative orientation the same, facing towards one side of the lounge, which meant that on the small inset map, the Sun, Earth and all the planets were ‘behind’ them. Meanwhile, the dark, icy Oort cloud objects were beginning to appear at the edge of the hologram area…

"Watch," Warwick said cheerfully. "In a moment we’ll see-"

The holographic Ingram changed. A trio of glowing dots shot out from it, heading towards the largest Oort cloud objects near by, each one the size of Manhattan –

Gregory squeezed his eyes shut as, even on the hologram, blazes of white light shone out. "What the heck were they?" he muttered.


"Pure-antimatter missiles," Warwick told him. "Nothing better for annihilating an unshielded target……but useless against shields of course, you need a direct energy release for that."

"Like matter-antimatter pulse or the ergblasters?" Gregory asked as the light faded. The three Oort cloud objects were completely gone, and several more nearby had been melted or blown to dust by the energy release from the annihilation with the antimatter in the missiles.

"Exactly," Warwick answered him. "Here we come about again…"

Gregory switched to a video feed after a while, using one of the window/screens around the side of the lounge. He saw the antimatter missiles speeding out, almost invisible except for the faint trail of propellent behind the matte missile casing, and the terrific annihilation explosions, which the window/screen diplomatically darkened lest they destroy his vision.

It took a couple of anticlimactic hours to clear a pathway, but in the end, the Ingram was clear of the Oort cloud. A ragged cheer was raised around the room. Gregory switched to a rear view and gasped: the nearby parts of the vast Oort cloud gleamed slightly in the light of the aft nuclear engines, except for an almost perfectly round black circle where they had blasted their way through – though even now that was becoming more indistinct, as other icy objects randomly drifted in to take their place. And in the exact centre of the empty circle, the Sun gleamed, nothing more than a bright yellow pinpoint at this distance, far farther out than the orbit of Pluto.

He couldn’t tell the Earth from the background stars, if he could even see its hemisphere at all, but he imagined he could. "Goodbye," he murmured. For how long?

"Here we go Ensign," Warwick said, sitting down beside him with a pair of drinks. "As my grandfather used to say ‘get ready to moon at Einstein!’"

Gregory gave out a startled laugh and, in that instant, they jumped.

It was a surprisingly long-winded process. The Janvier-Graham crystals suddenly began to glow far more brightly than their usual subdued, Seventies-disco flicker. A wave of purple-gold energy flowed out from each and every crystal, slowly spreading across the entirety of the ship, joining up and fusing until the Ingram was protected from the ravages of twisted spacetime within a cocoon of light. Gregory looked out of the window/screen and saw a brilliant curtain of energy, something between an aurora, a waterfall and a mist, standing between him and the only indistinctly visible stars beyond.

The gravity beneath their feet jumped unpleasantly as the crystals struggled with the task of providing both that and the fluxfield, but quickly settled down. For a split second longer, the Charles Ingram simply sat there in space, cut off from the rest of the universe.

And then it hurtled off into speeds far beyond the human imagination.

Gregory hadn’t known what to expect – a bizarre feeling in his stomach? A headache? In fact, aside from residual queasiness due to the fluctuation of the gravity, he felt…nothing.

"Not so bad," he said cheerfully to Warwick. Then he looked out of the window again, and threw up.

"Don’t worry," Warwick said as the bartender came over with extremely bad grace and a bag of devourer bacteria to deal with the mess. "It takes us all like that the first time. You get used to it."

Gregory avoided looking at the window. "I’ll take your word for it," he said thickly, the regurgitated hydrochloric acid scratching over his throat. "Not exactly a lovely streaking stars effect, eh?"

"Some people think it’s quite beautiful," Warwick said, "although they tend to be quite strange people," she admitted.

The gravity twinged again, doing nothing for Gregory’s stomach, and then there was a flash from the window. He risked a glance and saw that the stars had gone back to their usual reassuring points of light (though he wondered if he could ever hear ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ again without screaming) and the curtain of purple energy remained interposed between he and them. As he watched, though, the light split up into portions and they fed back into the crystals, which reverted to their usual dim glow. "Is something wrong?" he asked.

"Wrong? No," Warwick said, "we’re here."

Gregory blinked. "You mean to say we just travelled, what? Eighteen light years in five minutes?"

"Well we couldn’t get up to full speed," Warwick said apologetically. "That would burn too much fuel and we’re in a war economy right now."

"But still…" Gregory murmured. Then something occurred to him. "Shouldn’t we be getting ready with the shuttle, if we’re here?"

Warwick laughed. "Don’t be silly. It’ll take us another two hours at least to cut through the Graham system’s Oort cloud."

Gregory blinked. "Oh yeah."


On to Volume 2


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