MOONSTRUCK Part 3
Sequel to Moonstruck Part 2
by Tom Anderson
ALL I ASK IS A TALL SHIP
Admiral Chris Nuttall stepped onto the bridge of the Voordijk. Without consciously realising it, he paused for a moment to take a long, deep breath, almost as though he was sniffing out his surroundings. Meanwhile, his other senses were also doing their parts, searching out the vast control room that befitted the enormous vessel.
It was far larger than the bridges of smaller Astroforce capital ships, even proportionately speaking. Blair Class battleships had been designed to serve as flagships for the most powerful non-carrier forces, and the bridge reflected that: as well as the usual array of screens, consoles and holoviewers to manage the workings of the ship itself, there was a vast holoviewer devoted to fleet tactical manoeuvres and a complex communications centre for staying in touch with other fleet elements.
Most of that would be unneeded here: only a handful more Astroforce ships had come through with Luna, and right now they were all being worked with individually. Eventually a fleet movement might be required, but for now the ships were move valuable as single mission platforms.
The Voordijk’s bridge was populated by about twenty officers, far more than your usual bridge, and six of those officers were assigned to fleet coordination: Nuttall made a mental note to have them transferred to Luna, where they could put their skills to some use in sorting out the new orbital arrangements – unless they could demonstrate an ability to switch to another job here.
Of the rest, there was a smattering of ensigns, sublieutenants and lieutenants, and then two lieutenant commanders (sensory and communications), one commander (gunnery) and the ship’s XO, Captain Zhang Ji-cai, who now offered Nuttall a salute. "Admiral, sir," he said. His voice betrayed no trace of bitterness at being passed over for command; he was young even for his present position, and could be expected to rack up at least another five years before being considered, even if he was a prodigy.
That is, back in the Union, Nuttall reminded himself. Out here, now…given some ships, Zhang could be an admiral tomorrow, so limited was their pool of Astroforce personnel.
"Captain," he said, formally returning the salute. "It’s…a pity about Admiral Homachudhury," he said, with typical British understatement, "but I’m glad to be here."
"Very good, sir," Zhang said neutrally.
Nuttall glanced from the main screen (currently showing Luna below) to the huge holoviewer, then nodded to himself. "Captain Zhang, if you could arrange a senior staff meeting in ten minutes," he said.
Zhang inclined his head: the order was hardly unanticipated. "Yes, sir," he said.
The Voordijk’s intended purpose also meant it had no shortage of well equipped conference rooms located close to the bridge, in the very centre of the central command hull. Zhang rounded up the staff, including a few of the senior night shift officers – who, suspecting Nuttall would order something like this, had postponed their sleep – and about fifteen officers faced the admiral in the conference room, ten minutes later.
He licked his lips and plunged straight in. "Gentlemen, I know my appearance here is not for the most fortuitous of reasons," he said. "I did not ask for Admiral Homachudhury to vanish, or rather for us to vanish and leave him behind." He sized the officers up carefully, his eyes sliding from one to the next. "However, I shall do my best to stand in his stead in this strange new world in which we find ourselves, and I expect you to do no less. A lot is counting on us; maybe everything."
Nuttall glanced at Zhang. "We have a number of priorities," he said. "Though our mission is presently undefined, it seems probable that we shall be assigned as the ship for the scientific mission that Ambassador Canizzarro proposed to the contemporary Humans."
"We’re the most impressive-looking," Zhang said dryly. "It makes sense."
"Quite," Nuttall agreed. "There are other possible future missions in the pipeline, as well, but for now I want some things to be clear.
"As of yet, we have no guarantee of any new antimatter supplies for the colliders. Although the ambassadors are supposed to be talking with the contemporaries about deuterium, Luna has too few conversion plants to possibly supply even this ship alone." He paused. "For now, then, we shall be travelling at sublight speeds except in emergencies, and we shall conduct our business in power conservation mode."
The officers glanced at each other, sharing a mental grown. Power conservation mode was the bane of any officer: dimmed lights, energy-intensive recreational activities unavailable, computer capabilities impaired. "I don’t like it either," Nuttall said, answering their unvoiced question, "but we don’t have a choice. And I fully expect the contemporary Humans to cheer you up with their ‘you call this deprivation?!’ speech." One or two officers grinned at that.
"Secondly, I don’t want any trouble with the contemporaries. No beating anyone up because they will be destined to take part in one of the World War III massacres," he added with a faint smile. "In fact, there’s something else that I was authorised to tell you just a short while ago – it may be hard to accept, particularly since we’ve only just gotten used to the idea of being thrown back in time itself, but still…"
It took them a while to understand, but they were trained Astroforce officers and quick-witted. "So this isn’t even our past?" asked the gunnery officer, a redhaired woman from Europa Nova named Pekka Reikonnen. She sounded wondering.
"It’s pretty similar, though, which is why we didn’t notice at first," Nuttall clarified. "The divergence seems to have happened quite recently, but it doesn’t seem to be anything to do with the er event. In any case, just another reason not to go beating people up for what they might or might not have been destined to do."
The officers nodded in acquiescence. "In summary, then: I know this is a new and challenging environment, but you are Astroforce officers, the best of the best even in the world we left, never mind the one we face now where you have no competition. I warn you that I will not let that translate into becoming complacent. Your edge will remain finely honed, and I expect no less of myself, either."
He allowed himself a faint grin. "Also, at least this time we have a man in government with his head screwed on right." He let a faint trace of his bitterness bleed into his voice, but it was gone almost before it emerged. Years of cynicism and hopelessness were fading away as the realisation dawned: he had thousands of expertly trained crewers and a supremely powerful ship to command. That would have been something to be proud of even back in 2350: here and now, it was almost embarrassingly impressive.
"For now, continue with the repair schedule," he ordered. "Dismissed." The officers left, some of them with an obvious spring in their step: evidently he hadn’t quite lost his touch for oratory. The Voordijk’s repairs, all relatively minor things that had been damaged by the event, would be over within a couple of days. Then…then they could leap to anything Garrows assigned them. If the First Consul had asked them to fly to the galactic core and bring back a cupful of exotic matter, right now he’d have it within the week.
Nuttall glanced down at a datareader displaying details of the reapirs, then abruptly realised that one officer was still there. He looked up. "Commander He’gAmmj?" he asked politely.
The Culvanai gave an exaggerated nod, a dead giveaway of someone who’d had to learn Human conversational conventions from scratch. Nuttall wondered idly if the contemporary Humans, like the original explorers who should have come a hundred years from now, would be oddly disappointed when they finally contacted real aliens. The Culvanai, like nearly all races that had been encountered, looked embarrassingly like Humans wearing alien makeup. No-one had ever managed a satisfactory explanation of why this most unlikely occurrence was so, though there had been plenty of theories based on common ancestry or some strange factor in the ecosystem of habitable worlds that favoured bipedal humanoids.
Like all his people, He’gAmmj had yellow skin, his a rather pale shade that betrayed his coming from a Culvanai colony world with a cool sun rather than tropical Culvana proper. His eyes, nose and ears were all rather smaller than those of a Human, but this was more than compensated by for by the bunches of sensory bristles that protruded from the oddest locations all over his body – cheeks, elbows, the backs of his hands, and many more. Towards the back of his head the bristles gradually blended into human-like hair; like all Culvanai males, both bristles and hair were a vivid green. Upon his forehead was tattooed a symbol, detailing his parent Cluster Ammj, and its colour was beige: he was of the Builder vocation-caste, or had been before running away to join the Astroforce.
"Sir," he said, interrupting Nuttall’s musings. His accent – the Culvanai had some regional variations, but they all sounded the same to his Human ears – tended to click the K-sounds and slur the S. "I think you ought to know…" his expression was that of a Human who’d smelled something nasty, but Nuttall knew that to a Culvanai it was that of someone faced with a dilemma, "…there is talk in the fleet among the Culvanai who came through the event."
His bristles quivered in a wave pattern – Nuttall didn’t know them in that much detail, but he recognised that warring emotions were at work. "How many Culvanai did come through?" the admiral asked mildly. He was genuinely curious.
"About two thousand, all told," He’gAmmj said. "Around half of which were with the Astroforce, and most of the rest were attached to the embassy on Luna."
Nuttall winced; he’d forgotten about the embassy. Edgily, he wondered if Garrows had too… "That’s more than I’d expected," he admitted. "What sort of talk?"
He’gAmmj looked uncomfortable again. "You realise that right now, on Culvana," he said urgently, "Ja’rIckra, the grandmother of Ky’lIckra-" he rolled his eyes violently, the equivalent of spitting, "-is expanding her formerly second-rate Cluster to the point which it has a serious chance of becoming the Overcluster. And we all know where that goes."
Nuttall nodded seriously: everyone knew how the Culvanai had been heading for disaster, the unscrupulous and oppressive Ickra Cluster attempting to take over subversively, before a Human exploration vessel under Gareth Henderson had shown up and helped the loyalists defeat the Ickra. Idly, he wondered what would have happened if Henderson had never shown up…
He’gAmmj was obviously following his thoughts. "We can be Henderson before Henderson ever was," he said earnestly. "Think of the lives that could be saved if we stop the Ickra now – all those anti-male pogroms avoided, all those assassinations stopped, all that hatred gone before it ever was."
Nuttall slowly nodded. "You do make a persuasive case," he said. "I think I will raise this with First Consul Garrows. A mission may indeed be in order, once we have the fuel to spare." He leaned forward and steepled his fingertips; He’gAmmj reflexively drew back and Nuttall abruptly remembered that was an aggressive gesture to the Culvanai. He laid his hands flat instead. "However, I hope that you were not implying that the other Culvanai would be gallivanting off on this sort of mission by themselves."
"Of course not," He’gAmmj said, sounding studiously relieved. Only the slight wagging of his bristles, invisible to all non-Culvanai but the most well-informed, revealed the addendum ‘whereas, if you’d said no…’
He’gAmmj left, leaving Nuttall to stare at the ceiling for a few moments. Then he left a message for Garrows, and returned to the bridge of the ship.
"How about now?" General Stawes asked.
Colonel Davidson gave him a thumbs-up and nodded to Prof Bone. The Hawaiian scientist cautiously flicked a switch on his latest device. A brief beam of translucent light snapped on, striking the steel block and provoking a tongue of molten fire, before flickering out. Bone cursed and began fiddling with the device again.
"Looks like the crystal burnt through again," Bone grumbled. "Not surprised, really, though; I still don’t understand how that process from the database is supposed to work."
"Still pretty impressive," Davidson said, cautiously poking the devastated steel block with a probe. "Never mind shooting down missiles, that thing could pierce a bunker."
Stawes nodded. The bulky device looked nothing like so flash as the discrete lenses set into the surface of the shuttle, the ones that let fly with the deadly point-defence laser beams, but it was arguably more impressive: it was built entirely from current technology, using the techniques described in the database. The unique industrial runs and prototypes were costing the Government millions, but so far money was being thrown at what Chambers had whimsically dubbed Project Shed Men. And now they had something to show for it, at last.
"Hard to believe it’s only been three – no four – days," Stawes murmured. On the other hand, they didn’t seem to have slept for much of that time, working around the clock to get this built.
"Even when we get it working reliably, it won’t be as good as the original," Bone warned. "This is a 2070s design, the farthest ahead we could achieve with our current tech. Trying to duplicate the ones on the shuttle would be impossible, and that ain’t a word I like to use much."
"It’s still pretty impressive," Stawes repeated. "All right. I think we can hand this part of the project over to someone with a slightly less high forehead: Professor, you can go back to searching the database."
Bone looked half-annoyed, half-pleased: on the one hand he wanted to see this project through, but on the other he was eager to see what else the database concealed. After yet another cup of black coffee – an American workers’ staple that the Shed Men scientists had all enthusiastically adopted – he was back out there fiddling around in the cockpit.
Stawes stared. The cockpit had now been totally remounted inside the shuttle, with all the connections – or at least all the ones they could find – reattached. The grey goo had been cleaned out and was currently being studied: the database said it was a nanotech-based safety foam that dissolved after it was unneeded. Stawes made a mental note to ensure Prince Charles never saw that report
According to some of Bone’s fellow scientists, in theory they could try and fly the shuttle right out of here now. Stawes wondered what Chambers’ face would look like if they did: he was guessing something between a beetroot and a TV detective’s boss.
"It’s progressing," he murmured to himself. "Every hour we’re learning more than we could have done in a year before. No matter what Garrows and Canizzarro give the world, we’ll stay ahead." It was the dream, and it was the reality.
He scowled to himself. The only fly in the ointment was the disappearance of the shuttle’s mysterious pilot – the name in the computer files was Eliza Wilks, but it had been entered fifty years ago and so might not be that of the current pilot. Not only would possessing he/she greatly assist Prof Bone’s investigations, but if she/he was out there, managed to contact Garrows…
"They could bring all of this crashing down. We’d be worse off than before; no-one would trust us, and the Moonies would exclude us," Stawes realised. He shuddered. Anything, anything he could do to prevent such a horrible fate…he would.
ONE STALL SMEP
The President of the United States was feeling defiant, which over the past few years had rapidly become his default mood. It seemed not a day went by when he wasn’t under siege, both at home and abroad, with every decision almost reflexively rejected by foreign nations, U.S. political bodies, the UN, and the media. Idly, he wondered what all those hate-filled bloggers were doing since the Internet was still down, and whether that, without a suitable outlet, they had by now choked on their own bile. He chuckled at the image, and it never entered his mind that the equally large body of American bloggers who supported his every whim, might suffer a similar fate…
At least now, maybe, he could do something about it. He glanced up sharply at the Secretary of State. "It’s intoleratable," he said, then frowned. That didn’t sound quite right.
"I agree, sir," the Secretary quickly replied. "It’s one thing to act through international bodies for the look of the thing, but a snub like that, on our own soil-"
"And now even the Men in the Moon have joined the ranks of those who yell out in disbelief that I’m the President," he scowled, then shook his head slowly and dismissively. "I wouldn’t be surprised if those damned Europeans rewrote the history books to say Al won in 2000. They have the determination to pretend I ain’t President right now!"
The Secretary nodded diplomatically. "The Ambassador – and she was an American, sir, or a ‘USA-an’, she called herself-" they exchanged grins, "-seemed convinced that Mr Gore really did win in 2000. She went into some detail, too – her tongue seemed to be loosened by the shock of finding out you were President-"
"Thanks," he said with a rueful smile.
"Sorry, sir," the Secretary said, though she couldn’t hide a grin of her own. "Before she clammed up, this Dooley – and her assistant Chenier, seemed to be some history fangirl related to Garrows’ deputy – they said something about a war in Saudi Arabia that they said should be happening about now, and an intervention against Venezuela around 2011-"
"That might actually happen," the President said seriously. "You know we can’t tolerate Chavez turning himself into another Castro."
"Yessir, but that’s beside the point. According to the history these people learned, what’s happening now is WRONG. They said there was a civil war in Iraq in 2012 between Uday and Qusay when Saddam bit the bullet! We know those two are already dead – I’ve seen the pictures of the bullets! And according to them there was never a second Gulf War at all!"
"Revisionist history?" the President suggested, but his heart wasn’t in it. "Nah, it’s too detailed for that. And they couldn’t get away with resurrecting dead figures to be in a civil war…" he shrugged. "What’s the alternative?"
"The alternative IS an alternative, sir," she replied.
The President looked confused, but at least in this case he had an excuse. "Wanna run that by me again?"
The Secretary talked briefly about the idea of alternate futures. The President nodded after a while. "Yeah, I know watcha mean. Sliders and all that stuff. But for real?" he shook his head slowly. "Hard to believe."
"What was it Sherlock Holmes used to say?" the Secretary pointed out.
"Pass the syringe?" the President suggested wryly. "Never mind. So their history diverged from ours before now? My head hurts."
"Yours isn’t the only one, sir. Even the future people seemed a bit shellshocked by the idea."
The President frowned. "Well; one thing seems clear from what you’ve told me: the USA suffered some kinda fall from grace, not long from now. Maybe that wouldn’t happen anyway, if our history’s already different, but either way, I ain’t gonna let it happen on my watch."
The Secretary diplomatically neglected to point out that there were plenty of people who would say that already had happened on his watch – indeed had BEEN his watch.
"Make no mistake, I’m not gonna let them sideline us," he said decisively. "And I reckon I know how. I’ve been speakin’ to NASA."
He outlined a plan. The Secretary raised her eyebrows in surprise: it had all the hallmarks of one of his plans, all audacity, and damn the expenses. But if it worked…
"They’ll be people who say it’s a waste of money," she said finally.
The President grinned. "Didja hear those reports, the ones about all that amateur radio traffic between here and the moon?" he asked obliquely. "Some anti-space nut from down here got into a major-league flamewar with a guy from the Moon who said that, if his lot had had their way, Earth woulda been destroyed in two hundred years by some alien invaders."
He shook his head again. "Aliens. That’s another thing. But anyway – thing is, I don’t care about impressing those folks down here. I wanna make a statement to those guys up there."
The Secretary nodded. "Very well, sir; I’ll ask John to address the UN about it."
"Good," the President allowed. "I’m not gonna let the US sink into decline, you betcha ass. Whatever," he said portentously, "I’ve gotta do."
General Stawes wasn’t surprised that discipline was breaking down among the Shed Men. After all, they were working all hours with little sleep, having to constantly integrate new people into the team as the blinded and deafened Government belatedly recruited them, and most of the team were scientists rather than military men. Even he, normally a stickler for such things, had given up and stopped trying to wear his uniform regulation-style.
Still, there was a world – and a moon, he added wryly – of difference between that and Gregory Bone’s idea of casual. With an audacious disregard for fulfilling the stereotype, which under other circumstances Stawes might have admired, Bone had abandoned his lab coat for a Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses – ostensibly because he was staring at blinding laser beams all day. The general shook his head in wonderment.
"Coffee, sir," said Davidson. He’d taken off his uniform jacket and didn’t seem too annoyed about being effectively relegated to tea boy.
"Thanks," Stawes said, gulping his. When he drank coffee, which was rarely except on sleepless assignments like this, he drank it black, or ‘neat’ as he called it. As far as he was concerned, coffee was just another nasty-tasting performance enhancing drug, one that you shouldn’t make a song and dance about.
Prof Bone had a rather different approach, to put it mildly. From Davidson’s tray, he took a cup doused with enough sugar and cream to send even a Teletubby into a diabetic coma. He claimed it help him think straight. Stawes didn’t know about that, but it was certainly giving HIM a headache just looking at it.
"Anything new?" Stawes asked, his usual question. He still felt fairly useless, barely able to understand half of what the scientists excitedly told him about the shuttle’s technology. He’d have felt even worse if he hadn’t been quietly certain that the scientists understood little more of it themselves.
Mercifully forestalling the imminent doubling of his blood sugar levels, Bone put his cup down. "Well, still no go on the laser crystals," he said gloomily. "It must be the manufacturing process, you know – we just can’t make it accurate enough yet."
"And the others?" Stawes pressed. The colourful – now literal as well as metaphorical, thanks to his shirt – Prof Bone had become the de facto spokesman for the whole scientific team.
Bone shrugged. "Yeah, there’s some stuff," he said. "The dudes on the historical research front seem a bit confused, though, you know? Say there are some names and stuff that don’t tally with what we know. Still, it’s not exactly the most detailed database on that thing."
Stawes nodded. They already knew that, and it was damned frustrating; he was half certain that Bone’s faulty laser crystals were thanks to an incomplete overview on the shuttle’s database. Mentally, he thought of giving a copy of modern Encarta or Britannia to Leslie Groves in 1942…yes, it would help straighten some things out, but the treatment of nuclear weapons would be so vague that they couldn’t just build one straight away…
But that was just what Bone and his fellow scientists was attempting to do – and with more success that Stawes’ cynical mind had expected.
"What about other technologies?" he asked.
"We-ell, thanks to Sir Chris, we’ve got confirmation that the Moon dudes’ super duper FTL drive and their magic shields and artificial gravity are all part of the same shebang," Bone said. "It’s down to those weird crystals we found embedded over the hull – y’know, you remember the ones? The ones that made our X-ray spectrometer think it was in the Twilight Zone?"
Stawes nodded. He had been a bit surprised to find that unusual crystalline structures seemed to play a big part in the future technologies. It seemed a bit…Japanese computer game-y, cheap sci-fi-y. Or Uri Geller-y for that matter…
"Well, dude, we know we can only make them in space, and their effects are only really felt in space," Bone continued.
"Yes, we went over all that with the Minister," Stawes said patiently. In the sleep-deprived environment, people were starting to repeat things to each other.
"But we found something new," Bone said enthusiastically. "This shuttle’s not designed to do FTL stuff! The little crystal pod things are too small! They’re just made for shielding and gravity and stuff!"
"How does THAT help us?" Stawes asked, raising his eyebrows. He suspected Chambers would not be pleased by this revelation, even if they could never have launched the shuttle into space anyway without giving the fact of their possession of it away.
"Well, dude, it helps explain some of our dodgier calculations," Bone said. Sensing more was needed, he hastily continued: "If we can get a scientist on that mission Canizzarro mentioned, maybe the Moon dudes will let us study it in zero G – and then he can come back here and help us get more info out of this thing." He slapped the side of the shuttle affectionately.
"Who do you have in mind?" Stawes asked dryly. "Yourself, by any chance?"
Bone shook his head regretfully. "No can do, dude. This is an astrophysics mission, I think Canizzarro meant, and that’s not my background." He paused thoughtfully. "Anyhoo, I’d rather stay here and keep workin’ on this thing. I found it out – ‘cause the pods are small, the shields are weak – and that means the hull’s tough even for a future ship!"
"Military applications?" Stawes mused. "Anyway…who DO you have in mind?"
"C’mon, dude sir," Bone said, gesturing. "I’ll introduce you to him."
The U.S. representative to the UN smoothed his moustache and offered the eleven ambassadors a glare. Canizzarro and Dooley met his gaze: they’d had enough practice over the last few days. The Usan – no, American – seemed to embody the sheer arrogance and bloody-mindedness of a pre-Third World War US that everyone back in the twenty-fourth had thought to be a legend or an exaggeration.
"Let me get this straight," he said. "You’re sending a massive ship, but you’re only taking twelve of our scientists?"
"We don’t want to confuse the issue," Dooley said.
"And eef ve took many more," Lopatin added, deliberately exaggerating his accent for effect, "you vould accuse us of attempting to decapitate your knowledge base."
There were a few nervous laughs and even the American allowed himself a small grin, half hidden by his moustache. His paranoia was legendary, but he reckoned it healthy in the modern world.
Maybe more so, now.
"Twelve’s a good number," Canizzarro concluded. "It’s the number of most Earth councils back home, though then one member is usually from Luna."
The American stared levelly at them. "And you want one scientist from each area that corresponds to a supra-nation-" judging by the way he rolled the term, he disliked it, "in your future. That seems a tad…arbitrary."
"It’s as good a way of dividing up the world as any," Ho Tran said.
"I think some of my friends might disagree," the US representative said laconically. He offered sideways glances to the representatives of China, both Koreas, and Japan. Information had leaked out that in the future, they were all member states of a supranation, and all were democratic. But right now there was considerable bad blood between the four, and Taiwan – which, being officially unrecognised, wasn’t represented at the UN.
"Regardless, any other division will meet objections, some rightful," Canizzarro said. "We have to contend with outcries from our own population, as well as yours."
The American inclined his head in acknowledgement. "Very well," he said. "But I would like to put forward a proposition from my government." Murmurs of surprise ran throughout the room. The representative met Canizzarro’s eyes. "The Earth shall indeed send twelve scientists as you suggest," he said, "but the Earth SHALL send them, not leave them around to be picked up."
The murmurs now sounded curious. "We’re not just going to lie back and let you do all the dirty work," he said. "We want to pull our weight. Maybe we’re hundreds of years behind you, but that doesn’t mean we’re helpless."
"Mr Representative, I don’t think anyone’s accusing you-" Dooley began.
"To that end," the American continued, "my government offers the use of the Space Shuttle Atlantis in order to convey the scientists from the surface to low Earth orbit, whereupon they can be picked up by your vessel."
It didn’t quite reach an uproar, but the murmurs were crashing like waves on a rocky shore. "Enough," Canizzarro said. "This is…unusual. And unnecessary. We know how much a shuttle flight costs you. It would be more convenient-"
"The United States will foot the bill," the American said sharply. "And my fellow nations need not worry that their scientists be space trained: NASA has developed a new supplemental crew compartment, mounted in the shuttle’s cargo bay, designed specifically for non-space-trained mission specialists to be safely conveyed into space at short notice."
That was a bit of a lie; they did have such a project, but it was far from finished, and some space expertise would probably be necessary. The American knew it didn’t matter, because the nations would play it safe and send space-trained scientists anyway.
And the space-trained scientists happened to be the ones who’d worked with US personnel on the ISS and tended to be friendliest towards US interests…but that was purely coincidental, of course.
The representative was glad his moustache hid his secret smile.
Canizzarro looked frustrated. "Very well," he said finally. "It’s a waste of money, but if you insist, it shall be done." He glanced up. "The scientists shall be picked from the supranation-equivalents by you," he said, "if you can’t narrow down a shortlist, it’ll be chosen by lottery."
The American looked at the European representatives, already itching to begin squabbling with each other, and allowed himself another grin.
No, the US wasn’t ready to lie down and die just yet.
THE PEACE OF MANOEUVRE
"You realise, I do have to take something back to the Oversight Committee," Chambers scowled. "The PM’s been washing his hands like Pontius Pilate playing Macbeth’s wife in a public lavatory. I need something to show the provisions are justified."
Stawes nodded and winced. The PM had, reluctantly, invoked the Defence of the Realm Act over the Shed Men project, with the result that they could now requisition whatever they wanted, whenever they needed it. And everything was classified for, well, as many years as they could get away with.
Just as well, the general mused. He thought of the public outcry if the population ever learned that people had died because some resources had been devoted to this project, rather than helping to repair the EMP damage to the country’s public services, and he winced.
"We do have a few things, sir," Stawes said, returning with a bump to Earth (or is it? he thought wryly). "Professor Bone has completed his work on the point-defence laser and handed it over to another team." Bone was an ideas man, prone to short bursts of frenetic, inspired brilliance; once he’d extracted all he could from a project, it was handed over to the slower and steadier research scientists. "The crystal is still posing a problem, and it seems that it’s another material that can only be made properly in zero G."
"Dammit. Space Crystals – what is this, Superman? Star Trek?" Chambers muttered. "Still, at least we get a few shots before they burn out. Could give us a reliable missile shield, mean we don’t have to suck up to the Yanks so much."
"Yes, sir. Of course, the question is whether the threats will remain the same, now that the Selenites-" Stawes had started using the proper word, "-have changed everything."
"Mm. Still, it’s a start," Chambers said. "What else, anyway?"
Stawes beckoned Prof Bone over. As always, the scientist looked irritated to be interrupted from his latest project. He was holding an isomantle and three sets of pliers; what task could he possibly need those for?!
"What’s your latest update, Professor?" Stawes asked.
"I’d probably get more done if you didn’t keep stopping me to ask for status reports," Bone grumbled. "But right now, we’ve got people looking at fusion."
Chambers brightened. "Fusion? You can reverse-engineer the engines?"
"Not those, dude – er, sir," Bone corrected himself. "They’re based on technologies that’re based on theories a couple-dozen refutations ahead of our current thinking," he said with an embarrassed grin. "The mechanism of subatomic catalysis alone breaks at least twelve of the laws of physics…"
"So you’re better than Scotty," Chambers said sarcastically. "What HAVE you been looking at, then?"
Bone put down his isomantle and plucked a much-folded sheet of paper from a pocket. It was a digital camera photo of the shuttle’s holographic display – no-one had figured out how to get printouts from it, or even if you could. "Look at this article one of our guys found. It’s about fusion reactors from the twenty-first century, from now until about 2060…we don’t think we could duplicate ’em past then."
Chambers studied the photo with interest. It was hard to make out some of the floating, glowing words – the camera had hardly been designed to take pictures of holograms from the future – but the implications were clear. "Hey, don’t I recognise that one?" he asked, pointing at a diagram in the upper right hand corner. "That’s ITER – Candler is always banging on about it when the green debate comes up."
Stawes grinned inwardly; Chambers’ rivalry with the Energy Minister was well known. "It’s ITER or something very like it, sir," he said. "With all the bugs worked out. But we can do better…Professor Bone has high hopes for this," he pointed to another diagram, of a larger and more advanced-looking reactor.
Chambers squinted at it. "What IS that?" he asked.
Bone grinned. "Cold fusion."
"Now hold up one moment," Chambers said, waving a hand theatrically. "I may not be Albert Einstein but I know cold fusion is impossible."
"Yes and no," Stawes said; he’d been reading up on the subject. "Room temperature fusion, which is what we usually mean when we say cold fusion, is impossible, yes…well, we haven’t searched all the files yet," he amended with an embarrassed grin. "But this, this is REALLY cold fusion. Minus…a lot of degrees," he said vaguely.
"It’s muon-catalysed fusion," Bone clarified enthusiastically. "There’s already been a lot of work done on it over the last few years, but they’ve never made it energetically profitable – this design, though, would be amazingly efficient! It works by switching the electrons in the fusing atoms with heavier but short-lived muon particles and-"
"Spare me the technobabble," Chambers said, cutting him off. "You can bore Candler to death with it, he deserves it. But you’re saying this can be built now? Ahead of its time?"
"Absolutely," Stawes said. "Give me the budget and the resources, and heck, we could start tomorrow."
"What about dangerous waste products?" Chambers asked, worrying the question as though he were trying to dislodge a particle of food from between two teeth.
Stawes looked at Bone and exchanged a shrug. "Couldn’t tell you for sure, sir," he admitted, "the muon sources may result in some radioactive by-products. I tell you for sure, though, sir – it’ll definitely produce less dangerous waste than conventional nuclear fission."
"As well as being about a million, billion, trillion times cooler," Bone added with a wink. "And I don’t mean in terms of temperature."
Chambers shook his head ruefully. "All right. The PM will like this, and that doesn’t AUTOMATICALLY make it a bad thing," he said, shocking a brief burst of embarrassed laughter out of Stawes. "Ought to please some parts of the green lobby. Others will be outraged, of course, but then they’d get bored if they had nothing to be outraged about."
He shrugged. "I’ll talk to Candler-" his tones implying it was some great personal sacrifice, "and see if we can push this through. It’s worth putting the pedal to the metal on development. You’re saying we’re just working to the plans here, no R&D needed?"
"Pretty much," Stawes said. "The plans aren’t that detailed, but it’s close enough to our time that we can safely guess the rest – it’s not like building that laser."
"Fine," Chambers said. "I’m still going to recommend you build it a good long way from civilisation. Islington sounds about right."
Before Stawes could try and find a reply to that, Davidson suddenly rushed in, waving a printout. "Sir! Sirs," he corrected, seeing Chambers. "It’s through – the UN debate-"
"And?" Chambers said expectantly.
Davidson grinned. "The Yanks pulled it off. The Europeans got behind them."
Stawes laughed. "If summer were spring / And the other way 'round, / Then all the world would be upside down," he quoted.
"We’re not surrendering to the Americans, so shut up," Chambers said without rancour. "Still, this is good news. The Yanks got another of their men on the mission?"
Davidson nodded. "The Selenites gave way when they found out that the East African countries were going to sell their place on the mission to the Americans for a hundred million dollars. They said they’re adding two more places to the mission – another American place, and another European place. That’s European in inverted commas," he added.
Chambers laughed harshly. In the future Earth of the Selenites, several nations were part of the EU that felt no particular connection to it right now – Canada, Australia and even South Africa – and they had all protested at having to compete with the populous European countries for one place. "So the Moonies gave up on their utopian egalitarian plans," he said with a faint smile. "Welcome to reality."
"Still looks like we could miss out, though," Stawes said gloomily. "The Continentals will blackball us out of any chance of getting the current-EU place."
Chambers tapped his nose confidentially. "All in hand, General Stawes," he said. "All in hand."
Rachel had been glued to the TV set all week, and what with her monopolising it and the still mostly non-functional Internet, Luke had almost been forced to donate some of his time to schoolwork. Still, he didn’t seem to mind too much; he spent a lot of time asking her questions about the future.
"They don’t have money? Sounds kinda Star Trek," he said.
Rachel glanced at him, away from the rolling BBC ticker banner. It amused her that it was still present in the past, though in her time it was a circular banner that rotated around the bottom of the cylindrical projection from a holoviewer. "We have money," she said, "it’s just mostly consolidated either electronically, in the Home Systems, or in real commodities, like ores and agricultural products, out in the Colonies. We don’t go around jingling coins in our pockets, though." It had been a bit of a learning curve for her: she could have coped with a credit card all right, but of course she couldn’t apply for one with no previous history of ever existing…
"Funny. Cool, though," Luke said. "So do they still have the pound in your future Britain?" he asked; the media had been going through another of its periodic Europhobic spates, this one inspired by an attempt to revive the moribund EU constitution.
"Think so. I don’t live there, though," she said. "I visit Cambridge a fair amount, but that’s about it. And I’ve been to London once or twice, seen the sights. Too crowded for me, though, and – drampt – it’s even worse in your time, of course. Now, I mean." That still pained her a bit.
Luke’s brow crinkled. "London is more crowded NOW than in your time?" he asked puzzledly. "That doesn’t make sense."
"Of course it does," Rachel said absently, looking back at the TV screen. It seemed the Usans had got their way. It was still strange to think of Usa as being such a tight-knit nation with a dramatically dominant geopolitical position…she kept thinking of it as being the looser federation and third-greatest power of her time’s Earth. She shook her head and went back to the question. "London, like the UK and the whole Earth, was depopulated in the twenty-second century – the Diaspora."
Rachel dredged up the figures from her early school education. "The Earth’s population peaked at about eleven or twelve billion in around 2100," she said. "But Seth Graham invented a safe faster than light drive in the 2090s, and then he self-financed a colonisation mission to the nearest Earthlike planet – Planet Graham, we call it now. Then," she corrected herself, wincing.
"When that succeeded, pretty soon everyone was at it. The Earth’s population crashed down to five billion by the 2160s, everyone leaving for better prospects on cheap colonial voyages, and then there was a Vároto attack on Earth in 2174, during the first war…that scared a lot more into leaving. I think it got down to two billion at one point. There was a massive recession and a world war, although it never really blew up into a big killer."
"Whoa," Luke said. "No-one ever thought UNDERpopulation would be a problem in the future."
Rachel shrugged. "Earth’s population’s back up to four billion, or it was when we – er – left," she said. "It’s more evenly distributed now, though. And there were a lot of Steward movements years ago to tear up some of the more recent city suburbs and give the land back to Nature – half of your greater London will be back to idyllic green and pleasant land in my time."
Luke shook his head in disbelief. "Stewards…they’re like the Greens, you said?"
"Think so," Rachel said again. She’d seen a little about the various Green Parties, mostly in the BBC reports about the European Parliament (and she’d been shocked by how much the contemporary UK seemed to ignore that institution). They seemed broadly similar to the Stewards, but seemed to have a higher than average proportion of antiprogressive contrarians, too. In her time, most of them had jumped ship to the Sess Libs or the Theocrats, arguing for a simpler age and ignoring the fact that the only way to get there would be for everyone to agree to do the same – including the aliens with the big guns.
They watched the TV together for a while. "EU got another one, too," Rachel said eventually. "I see the Cissians – I mean the Russians – tried to veto it…no surprise there…so did the Chinese, hmm, of course they’re more powerful here…"
"What d’you think they’ll find out there?" Luke said, staring upwards as though he could see all the way to the moons of Jupiter through the ceiling.
"Rocks. Dust. Hydrogen. Primitive life on Europa. Maybe, that their current scientific theories are all bunkum," Rachel said with a grin. "O’course, if someone from 2700 had come to our time, he could have done the same for ours."
"Life on Europa? Cool," Luke repeated. "And d’you think it’ll lead to greater, you know, international cooperation?"
Rachel smiled again. "Take another look outside," she said teasingly, "Luna isn’t blue."
Garrows’ face was now known to all of Humanity. Chenier was on every holoviewer arguing for the cause of the non-Selenite Humans who’d been caught on Luna at the time of the shift, and there as well because of his daughter’s connexion with the diplomatic team. Rodriguez, though theoretically senior, had almost vanished. But now he was conducting the business of a president in the Union of Humanity mould: dealing with aliens.
"Thank you for seeing us, eventually," said Ambassador Je’tEnnck, with a careful smile. She’d made a great effort at learning Human facial and body language when first assigned as a junior attaché, years ago, and now was well versed enough that one could almost forget she wasn’t Human.
Rodriguez nodded, but didn’t apologise. "We had a lot on our minds," he said. "To be honest, the fact that you ambassadors came with us slipped from our notice for a while – I still remember the shock when I recalled that the Twelve must have come with us!"
Je’tEnnck laughed, and despite years of training, it didn’t sound quite Human. Too wet, too rattly. "But you’re here now," she said seriously, "and we have things to discuss."
Rodriguez nodded again, and glanced around the conference table. Along with Ambassador Je’tEnnck of the Culvanai Clusterate, there was Ambassador Yiv Risibly of the Miradi Conclave, and Consul Magarlar Suwel to represent the Stentyrrean protectorate of the Conclave. The two were typical examples of their races: Risibly was a tall, reptilian being whose whole upper body was shaped something like a cobra’s head and neck fan, with relatively stubby arms and legs peeping out from the folds. His elongated, toothy snout and pupil-less eyes were at first threatening-looking to a Human, but once you got to know him, you’d find that he was a cultured, intelligent being with a wicked political sense.
Suwel looked much more like a Human, but with a rather thicker body plan and puffier, bright orange flesh. Though female, like all Stentyrreans she proudly sported a thick black beard but no hair elsewhere on her head. Two faintly silly-looking antennae poked from beneath a ceremonial hat of office. The Stentyrreans were one of the more enigmatic races, often appearing almost Human on the surface and then revealing strange, alien depths. Their home planet was a ‘steampunk’ world where digital technology had never been discovered, and they had a complex history with the Miradi.
Rodriguez then looked at the two empty seats at the table, and scowled. "I see Ambassadors Pflen and Dorol are not planning to accept my invitation," he said.
"Unsurprising," Risibly hissed: for all his efforts, he couldn’t eliminate that sibilance from his Interplanetary English. "They’re probably planning how to subvert the situation right now."
"Aren’t we all?" Je’tEnnck laughed. "After all, that’s what I, at least, wanted to talk to you about."
Rodriguez glanced at a datareader. "I’ve had reports from…sources," he said diplomatically, not naming Admiral Nuttall. "They say that the Culvanai that came with us – or some of them – want to try and get a ship to Culvana to stop the Ickra ascendancy."
Je’tEnnck nodded. "Of course," she said. "The Ickra did untold harm to all our people, not just the males, either. You’re going to try and stop your Third World War from happening, aren’t you?"
Rodriguez belatedly realised that he hadn’t told them about this not being the past of their own timeline. He decided to leave that aside for now. "Probably," he admitted half-truthfully. "Look, Ambassador, I don’t disagree with your intentions, but it’s too early. We haven’t even sent a ship out of this system yet. Once Admiral Nuttall completes his shakedown cruise, then we can think about sending ships to, I don’t know, Graham? Maybe get the colony up earlier, if we mass produce the ships?" he shrugged. "But Culvana? Not for a year, at least."
Je’tEnnck looked irked. "You can’t just-"
"It’s not a case of can, but must," Suwel injected. "Even if you could get one ship there, how much could one ship – even with modern technology – affect your history?"
Je’tEnnck gave a practiced Human scowl. "They could kill the damn Ickra."
"Shoot the Ickra and prevent the war, but they’ll be another one along in a minute," Risibly said portentously. "And if you kill her too…pretty soon YOU will be the Ickra, near enough."
Je’tEnnck recoiled at that thought, but after a moment nodded reluctantly. "All right," she muttered. "I suppose a few months or a year won’t make much difference, anyway."
"Better to send a properly equipped mission later than a half-hearted effort now," Rodriguez agreed, glad he’d got his way. "Right. Next item?"
"Related," Suwel said. "I understand the problems are even worse for getting to my world, but there are issues…the war against the Miradi is still going on."
Risibly’s nictitating membranes flicked. "Please don’t call them Miradi," he hissed. "A few bands of barbarians who grabbed some marooned Sahdavi ship in the dark ages and managed to steer it to your world-"
"Nonetheless, the war is continuing," said Suwel. "It won’t be over for another five year. Also, remember that we destroyed that Sahdavi ship afterwards, except for those five váront weapons that were turned into the Frameshift platforms." She glanced at Rodriguez, who nodded: everyone in this room had a high enough clearance to know about the secret Frameshift superweapon, none of whose platforms had come along with Luna. "If we can get to that ship first, and save it – we’d have more Sahdavi technology than FedCom’s archaeological engineers ever dreamed of."
Rodriguez thought of the old, frustrated dream, of finding ancient Sahdavi uber technology and using it to vanquish all the foes of Humanity forever. Whether it were recovered from the dangerous Stellionic Expanse, or finally bequeathed to Humanity by the obtuse Obvians, it would have had a tremendous effect on galactopolitics back in the twenty-fourth.
Now…now, it could hand Earth the galaxy on a silver platter.
"You have a good point," Rodriguez said. He glanced from Suwel to Je’tEnnck. "All right. I’m making missions to Stentyrrea and Culvana-"
"And Miraddus," Risibly interjected.
"And Miraddus," Rodriguez agreed, "a priority. We could even create FedCom ahead of time. Strange, but it could work."
Suwel made a nod as practiced as Je’tEnnck’s. "But FedCom was built as a bulwark against the Vároto," she said. "What will happen to them now? Or the Rómidi?"
Rodriguez looked at the empty chairs, and shivered. "I wonder if we’re the only ones considering that question..."
The days passed since what everyone was beginning to call the Shift. It was amazing, Janet reflected, how humans could assimilate such a shocking new event and then act like it was the most normal thing in the world – or just outright ignore it.
The papers were spread across the sofa: traditional news sources had got a sudden surge in circulation since the Internet went down, even though now it was slowly coming back up as a certain critical mass of servers had been repaired. Luke had even gone on his beloved forum, to find that of the members who could access it, most spent all their time discussing the ‘isot’ and the rest kept repeatedly stating it was implausible or impossible in progressively louder shrieks.
Janet put down the Times, glancing at the cover again. The broadsheets were still reporting almost exclusively on stories about Luna and about the chaos from the Shift EMP on Earth. The tabloids were their usual eclectic, quirky mix of rightwing rants about illegal immigrants from the Moon (she rolled her eyes) and some human-interest studies related to the event. She had smiled at the one about the Iranian ayatollah who’d attempted to declare a fatwah on the Selenites for desecrating the holy crescent moon with a cross, even though that story was probably apocryphal.
Others were a bit more serious. Some people had been shocked to find that the histories from the future said they would do unspeakable things in the coming years, or die young. No matter how much the Selenites and the governments told them that that history had now been avoided by the intervention of the Shift, the panic kept spreading. She read of a man who’d shot his wife because a footnote to one future historical story had mentioned a family of their names in an infidelity case…and afterwords it had turned out to be a coincidence, and entirely different family. She winced. Human stupidity was unconquerable, and the stories that had leaked out of the Moon suggested that the same was still true in the future.
Andrew stepped into the front room and nodded to her. "I’ve put my name up," he said quietly. "It’s not very likely I’ll be accepted, of course. But if it can help her get home…"
Janet smiled. Intellectually, she knew that Andrew would have put his name down anyway just for the thrill of it, and he wanted to get Rachel out of their house at least as much as he wanted her to get home for her own sake. Still, there were some good intentions there.
"Thanks, love," she said, pulling his chin down to her seated position
for a quick kiss. "This means a lot to her."
"And it might avoid us being locked up," Andrew grumbled. "I hear they’ve invoked DORA now! What is the world coming to…I shall write to my local MP," he joked.
"He’s a Lib Dem, and they’re already protesting about this," Janet said. "Still, at least we know why they’ve invoked DORA. The population at large…"
Andrew shrugged. "I don’t think there’s much more that can shock them, after this lot."
Janet nodded, but at the back of her mind, she wondered if that were true.
General Stawes hadn’t left the Shed Men bunker for two weeks, and in that time he had let himself fall into the ‘slovenly intellectual’ bad habits of Professor Bone and his fellow scientists. Smartening himself up for this meeting had been a trial, but he had accomplished it: clean shaven, wearing a dress uniform with a collar so sharp it could be used as a lethal weapon, he was ready.
Pete Chambers faced him over the desk. Behind him, the window – reinforced by a discreet gridwork of bars, and using bulletproof glass – displayed a fine view of central London. "Glad you could make it," Chambers grunted; conversational pleasantries were to him a halfhearted ritual.
Stawes managed a smile. "Wouldn’t miss it for the world, sir."
"Hmm," Chambers said noncommittally. He glanced at several printout sheets covered with notes in blue and red biro. "Well, as you know, ‘our European partners’," he sarcastically mimicked the PM’s voice, "have stabbed us in the back over the scientist affair, and the present EU will be represented by Professor Steffen Auerbach of Germany."
Stawes nodded. Auerbach had been a compromise candidate even for the continental Europeans, with France – having seen a recent upsurge in nationalism, at least economically – being blackballed almost to the same extent as Britain. The small EU countries were determined to try and get a candidate who would bring his revelations to the whole Union, and Auerbach seemed the best of the nominated candidates for that.
"However," Chambers said, quirking a grin, "the non-present but future EU has nominated Professor Mick Saunders. And, as it happens, the countries corresponding to the future ‘Midafrica’ have decided on – with a little financial greasing – on Dr. Paul Nganga."
Stawes grinned. "Are we talking desalination plants or fighter aircraft here?"
"That’s Kenya’s choice, and the rest," Chambers said shortly. "Anyway – time to meet them." He pressed a button on his intercom. Immediately, a pair of doors opened and an aide showed in the two scientists.
Saunders was a rangy man from Melbourne, with a subtle, slightly upper-class Australian accent. He was primarily an astrophysicist, as were nearly all the Contemporary scientists being sent, but also had some qualifications in biology.
Nganga, on the other hand, had his background in engineering as well as theoretical physics, a consequence of the scientific priorites of his Kenyan homeland. He was a studious, soft-spoken gentleman whose skin was particularly dark even for a Kenyan.
One thing connected them, though: a hidden loyalty to Britain.
"Professor Saunders, as you know, was born in this country, and continues to travel here quite often, though he is an Australian citizen," said Chambers.
Saunders inclined his head. "My wife’s an Englishwoman as well, if you want any more handles on me," he said with a touch of sarcasm.
Chambers acknowledged the hit with a nod. "Dr. Nganga was educated at Oxford and is a respected figure in the academic community of the UK," he continued.
"I thank you," Nganga said, steepling his fingers. His speech had mostly been hammered into RP by his Oxford education, but still carried some of the vowel sounds of ‘Af-ree-cah!’. "However, I trust you realise that our primary loyalty is still to those nations which the world believes we are solely representing."
"Too right," Saunders agreed. "I’ll help you, but don’t think I’ll betray Australia."
"Or I Kenya," Nganga said.
Chambers nodded. "We’re not asking you to do that, gentlemen," he said. "But we all agree that Britain has the technology-" even with these two, he avoided giving too many specifics, "and that you could not obtain it for your countries without revealing it to the world as a whole."
He got a pair of reluctant nods. Stawes picked it up: "But if you help us to understand the technology better, then behind the scenes we will share it. You must be quiet at first, of course – no building giant magical reactors on Ayers Rock," he said, glancing at Saunders with a smile.
"Uluru," Saunders corrected boredly.
"As the PM would say, there is more to unite us than to divide us," Chambers said. "Do we have an agreement?"
Saunders and Nganga exchanged glances, then turned back to Chambers and extended their right hands. Chambers shook each one in turn. "A pleasure to be working with you, gentlemen," he said, sounding sincere.
"I hope so," Saunders muttered.
Pierre Chenier’s visage flickered in front of them. "Hello, Genevieve," it said; she just had a couple of Divergence Colloquy friends with her, and so it was all right to refer to her in such a familiar fashion. "Are you sure your two other friends want to remain behind on Earth?"
Genevieve nodded. "They’re sure." Those two were the professional historians, Wendy Streichman and Sanjiv Kartarpuri. "They say there’s a lot more strange and new things to see here than there are in a bunch of dead rocks out in the outer system."
"It’s not like there’s that much going on out there in our time," Chenier laughed: the old Inner System contempt for those who lived beyond Mars. "But you’re going?"
She glanced from side to side. "Bruno, Jack and I want to help the contemporary scientists adapt," she said. "We’re used to thinking in the twenty-first century mindset, at least theoretically: I don’t know if the Astroforce people could be too er…"
"Abrasive?" Chenier suggested. "Well, I can’t say you’re wrong." He glanced down, obviously checking a datareader. "This would be Bruno Lombardi and Jack Gunn?"
"That’s right, sir," Lombardi said, sounding slightly nervous. His colleague, Gunn, seemed much more relaxed: the huge, dark-skinned Selenite was in fact reading whilst the call went on.
"Good," Chenier said. "You seem to check out fine. If you can help them adapt, then that’s all to the good." He glanced at his datareader again. "Next thing – you want to make a copy of the entire contemporary er…Internet?"
Genevieve glanced at Gunn. "It was Jack’s idea," she said. "Now that the Internet is coming back online, we want to take a snapshot of it so we can run it through our search computers back here on the ship – or on the Voordijk, or on Luna. If nothing else, it might help us find out when this world diverged from ours, and why."
Chenier sighed. "This is giving me a headache," he said. "But let’s do it." He looked over toward Gunn, who looked up from his reading. "Good work, Mr Gunn."
"I thank you, sir," Gunn said, blinking his eyes once and slowly.
"Is there anything else you might need?" Chenier asked.
"There is the issue of disease," Lombardi said. "I know we were checked out before we came here, but there may be contemporary diseases-"
"You lot seem to be fine so far, but your point is taken," Chenier said. "Not to mention I have no idea how the non-Human crewmembers will react to twenty-first century Human diseases."
"Or twenty-first century Humans for that matter," Genevieve murmured. "Or, more to the point, vice versa."
"Well, that’s your job," Chenier said with a faint smile. "Congratulations. Now, begin this Internet upload project as soon as you can. We’ll have to update as more of their er…" another glance down, "servers come back up, but we ought to have at least a preliminary snapshot."
"Thank you, Father," Genevieve said formally. "Jack, do you want to get started on that? And while you’re at it, Bruno and I will start reading up on this scientists we’ve got to babysit."
Gunn nodded. "I will begin."
"Good work – Chenier out," said the Second Consul, and his hologram vanished.
Genevieve looked towards Bruno. "We might as well go and find one of those public terminals we were using at the library," she said.
Bruno nodded. They’d acquired some contemporary clothes so they didn’t stand out, and besides it was much more exciting than just sticking around here and waiting for Jack to configure his link into their system.
The pair left, leaving Gunn behind. After he was quite sure they had left, and made certain precautions concerning the security cameras, he indeed began.
Downloading the Internet was not difficult, not once you’d worked out a suitable conversion protocol – and some computer history enthusiasts up on Luna had already dug up some that had been made for archivists accessing old data. Some data might be corrupted, but the majority should be fine.
It was frustratingly slow, but that was a measure of the contemporary system’s machines rather than his own. Still, it should be done within a week at the most.
He took a disk from his pocket and slipped it into the machine. On the face of it, it was nothing particularly malignant: no virus or worm or trojan, but merely a translation programme for an ancient dead language. From some student’s dissertation, if he recalled correctly.
It won’t be perfect, he thought. This wasn’t designed for twenty-first century English, and it’s not THAT similar to the modern Interplanetary Standard variety. And the student, of course, hadn’t totally understood the ancient language.
But it should be close enough.
He smiled to himself, then let the Human gesture fall away and flexed his elbows instead. Pleasure, with overtones of glee. Most virtuous vices.
He wondered what the reactions would be when those files were read…
Soon, he thought. Soon.
According to what future records had leaked out, Cape Canaveral would be destroyed in the next few decades, but for now it was a proud celebration of both America’s can-do attitude and its ability to spend as much money as possible while doing it. The enormous Vehicle Assembly Building towered over the land, so large that clouds formed there on particularly humid days. And this was Florida, when a DRY day would have counted as muggy elsewhere…
Crowds always gathered to see a rocket launch of any kind, a shuttle launch even more so. This one had the largest in history, dwarfing that of Discovery last year when NASA had put a shuttle into orbit for the first time since the Columbia tragedy. NASA had planned to use all remaining shuttle flights purely to complete the assembly of the ISS, but now history – and President Bush – had forced their hand.
It was fortunate that Atlantis had been planning to launch just three days after the Shift anyway, and the modifications had been rapid, with the extra passenger seating in the cargo bay (which kept getting expanded, and now stood at fifteen). The new module for the ISS was rotting in a corner, all the care taken in clean rooms going for naught. Why bother, when the Moonies could probably just beam it into orbit or something?
NASA was of course even more interested in the Selenites than the average man in the street, and the crew roster for Atlantis had been almost as hotly competed for as the list of scientist passengers. But they had a crew now, a relatively skeleton crew of just five. No mission specialists for this. Colonel Tim Hucknell was a relative veteran, having been on two previous shuttle flights and one Soyuz during the Columbia-inspired interregnum. Prior to that he’d been a USAF pilot, as so many shuttle personnel were, serving in the first Gulf War.
It was over an hour since the pad had rolled out of the VAC at its stately speed of one mile per hour, the massive construction of the Atlantis and its brand new fuel tank and boosters sitting on top. As always, the crowd was awed. You could draw diagrams and graphs all day explaining how the shuttle was an expensive waste of money, but like the Saturn V, that didn’t stop it being a pretty bloody impressive expensive waste of money.
Hucknell and his crew were already seated in the cockpit, at 90 degrees to the most comfortable position, facing upwards. The scientists were strapped in in the crew compartment: he’d read that the new passenger module allowed them a more natural seated position for blastoff, but doubted it. He couldn’t see the crowds, and wouldn’t have spared them a glance if he could. Checklists assaulted him from all directions.
He had learned in 1991 that the old aphorism about war was true: it really was long periods of boredom punctuated by short periods of excitement (euphemistically). The same was true of spaceflight: endless preparation and then a relatively brief voyage out of this world.
At least I know we won’t sit here for three hours dying for a pee and then be taken straight back again, he thought grimly. That had happened to too many shuttle flights, particularly since Columbia: bad weather stopped play far more often than it did in those cricket matches Major Hind liked to watch. But not this time. The US had set a promised date, and ‘make no mistake’, as the President liked to say, they would keep it.
They still sat on the pad for two hours, and Hucknell consoled himself by thinking of how the scientists must be feeling. Despite what the Selenites had said, they were wearing orange flight suits, and had posed for the crowd beforehand, as had the crew. Hucknell nervously pondered how similar that pose had been to the ones that had later lived in infamy: the crew photos of Challenger, and Columbia…
He brushed the thought aside. He had a chance to see a future human spaceship. He wasn’t going to screw this up, or he’d never forgive himself.
Finally, the last checklists went through. "We are go for launch," he said, unconsciously imitating the Houston-we-have-a-problem voices of the 1970s astronauts of his childhood.
"Finally," Major Frank Hind said cheerfully. His sleeve and passport bore the Stars and Stripes, but he was as English as a village fete. Hucknell forgave him, though, and had learned to rely on him: he was almost as experienced as Hucknell himself, and had served for long periods on Mir and the ISS.
"Those scientists will learn what it’s like soon enough," murmured Lieutenant Francesca Ibanez. "They’ll wish that Canizzarro guy had insisted the Moonies take ’em upstairs."
"Maybe," Hucknell said. "But I think the Prez is right: we’ve got to make a statement to these Moonies that we’re not just gonna build an altar to them and beg for future tech. We’ve got to assert what we can do, that we’re not helpless children."
"Sure, chief," Ibanez said, "but I guess those scientists’ stomachs might disagree with you."
Hucknell grinned. "Okay. To business."
Another round of checks, after the supposedly final ones. They’d continue all the time, he knew. The big digital clock board outside was counting down, the crowd’s eyes flicking between it and the shuttle itself.
Finally. The voice resounded over the crowd, as well as through the astronauts’ earpieces. "Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six." No five, for historic reasons: on 1960s radios it had sounded too similar to ‘fire’. "Four. Three. Two…"
and overlapping, "we have ignition of main engines…"
"One. And we have liftoff of the Space Shuttle Atlantis – enroute to the future!"
Applause from the crowd, or so Hucknell assumed. He never heard it, they never did. The feeling of disorientation, when the shuttle’s terrific solid boosters lifted it off the ground and for one split second it was hovering drunkenly, oscillated around even his experienced stomach. As always, the pictures of rockets malfunctioning on launch and slowly collapsing down into themselves, detonating like the Dark Tower at the end of Return of the King…they played through his mind.
Then the balance was tilted. An elephant sitting on your chest was a cliché, but it was a cliché because it was accurate. Hucknell winced, and wondered how the scientists felt. After all, no amount of padding and straps could change that tremendous G force – though he wondered about the future technology…
The blue sky in front, visible through the cockpit windows, began to darken. The clouds left them behind rapidly, though he knew their vapour trail would be a new column of cloud for the crowds to wow at. The solid boosters jettisoned automatically, to land in the sea and be recovered later for reuse – or not, maybe, this time. Everything had changed.
He imagined he could feel the fuel tank slowly emptying with a gurgle, feeding fuel relentlessly to the shuttle’s three main and two auxiliary engines. He distantly heard Ibanez swearing in Spanish and Hind swearing in equally incomprehensible British. They might be experienced, but it was a ritual they all went through. Heck, he might be doing it himself right now.
The fuel tank finally emptied, and detached. Radio communications went back and forth with Cape Kennedy, with Houston, with NASA’s other sites all over the world. Radio communication was established. He was told that the cockpit and cargo cameras were showing (very bad) pictures of the crew and scientists to the whole world. He could have done without knowing that: he suddenly felt an annoying itch on the inside of his nose.
The shuttle’s jets oriented itself into the correct orbit, with the Earth ‘above’, visible from the cockpit windows. As always, Hucknell took a moment to take in the majestic vistas, deep blue oceans, brown and green land, white clouds. A few patches of grey showed human interference, but so few…it made you wonder if mankind really had so much impact on nature as everyone thought.
"Colonel Hucknell," Hind said formally. "The radar –"
Hucknell glanced at it, and whistled. "Unless there’s an extinction level event asteroid heading towards Earth, in which case we are royally screwed, that’s them."
"Inititiating manoeuvres," Ibanez said. The shuttle’s RCS jets fired again, putting it into a new orientation. Still an orbit, but now it should align right with the flight path of the…what was it called again? Some Dutch name…Voordijk, that was it.
And then it appeared over the horizon.
Even from a hundred miles away and more, it was visible. It made the ISS look like a Christmas decoration.
"Holy…sh…" said Hucknell, but he was so taken aback, he couldn’t even complete the sentence.
It had to be a mile long, maybe more. Spotlights illuminated the exterior, unnecessary in this sunlight, but banishing any shadows. It looked like one big cylinder surrounded by – six? – smaller ones, all held closely and melded together. The front and the rear were both made of conventional looking materials, metals painted shades of grey and white, with the occasional line of text or logo in colour.
But the interconnecting sections were eight cylinders of some unearthly, vaguely crystalline looking material that glowed like some piece of Gadget Shop 70s kitsch. Currents of colours seemed to move within them, from blue to gold to green to white, to some colour that no-one had ever named…
The radio crackled and Hind flicked it on. "Welcome," said a voice, with an odd-sounding, indescribable accent; the connection was good but there was an annoying whine in the background. "Please acknowledge."
"Colonel Timothy Hucknell, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, United States of America," he said tersely. "We’ve brought the scientists agreed upon to further the cause of cooperation between our peoples." He’d learned it off by heart.
Something that might have been a chuckle sounded over the radio. "And I’m Admiral Christopher Nuttall, formerly of the Federate Commonwealth of Associated World Joint Astroforce, currently of what seems to have been settled on as the Selenite Astroforce and Something…" Hucknell smiled, "and it says here I’m supposed to greet you in the spirit of…ah…cooperation between our peoples, apparently."
"We’re on worldwide TV, you know, Admiral," said Hucknell.
"Vode! I get to be an interplanetary party pooper!" said the admiral’s voice with a laugh. "Very well, Colonel," he continued in more serious tones. "Prepare to initiate docking procedures."
"Thank you, Admiral," said Hucknell.
"I wonder if that has any innuendo potential?" Hind muttered to himself.
"Shut up," Hucknell said without malice.
The Selenites didn’t make them do much, apparently not having much faith in the precise manoeuvring ability of a shuttle. Instead, the vast Voordijk gently aligned with them, putting the orbiting shuttle to the right of one vast hangar bay. The bay’s doors slid aside as he watched, concertina’ing like any garage door. He also fancied he saw the flicker of a forcefield being deactivated…
"Now what, Admiral?" he asked via the radio.
"Hold on tight," Nuttall said mysteriously.
Hucknell opened his mouth again, but then WHAM! WHAM! the shuttle shook with two impacts. "What the hell was that?" he barked. "Any hull damage?" The tiles of Columbia flashed through his mind.
"No hull breaches," said Hind, who knew a lot about them from personal experience on Mir. "External cameras show that two cables have just shot out from the Voordijk and have hit us on the port side…seem to be magnetic clamps or something like that."
"Fine. Next time, they can tell us first," Hucknell muttered.
Gently, the cables began retracting, tugging them in sideways on. The shuttle seemed frozen with respect to any forward motion, an artefact of the fact that both they and the Voordijk were orbiting Earth at the same velocity. Finally, their starboard wing moved past the hangar doors, and they began to slide closed again.
More cables shot out, but Hucknell was ready for the twin clangs this time. The shuttle was carefully manipulated, slowly lowered towards the deck. As they had previously arranged, Ibanez extended the landing gear and the shuttle gently touched down, its wheels kissing the painted metal of the deck.
Hucknell breathed a sigh of relief, then started as he felt gravity slowly increasing. This gradual surge wasn’t anything like he’d seen before. "What the-"
It reached Earth standard and stopped, mercifully. He’d never sat in this position in a shuttle cockpit under gravity except when they landed the thing and the mission was over. It was a shocking idea to do it mid-mission.
"They’re repressurising this bay," Hind said. The bay was about five times larger than it had to be to take the Atlantis, with a couple of futuristic-looking craft in the corner that were around three quarters of the shuttle’s length. "And they’re opening a door…"
An airlock opened and a small crowd of people entered, preceded by technicians who were manipulating what appeared to be a self-proelled exit stairway. Hucknell sighed and nodded. "All right," he said. "Get ready to open the cargo bay doors, and come on, let’s drag those scientists out of the pools of their own vomit."
It didn’t take long. The scientists had held up better than he’d expected; evidently the stuff about the new crew module wasn’t entirely hyperbole. They’d all met a few days previously, but were still quite stiff and formal with each other. In particular, the Kenyan and Australian guys seemed not to be speaking at all.
"Let’s go," Hucknell said. Ibanez opened the cargo bay doors – there was a hiss of pressures equalising – and the Selenites somehow manipulated their stairway…it looked disturbingly ‘fluid’…to extend into the bay. Hucknell shrugged, nodded to the scientists, and stepped onto the first stair.
Followed by the others, he took one step after another until he had risen to the height of the shuttle’s hull. He paused for a moment to glance around the huge bay, then began the flight downwards to the deck.
A number of people in pale grey faintly naval-looking uniforms stood there to greet them, with several technicians manipulating the stairway. Hucknell had seen a hasty picture of the one leading them: a man who looked to be in his mid-fifties, sporting a short beard with some white flecks. His sleeve stripes showed him to be a full admiral, though, oddly, in the British style.
Hucknell wasn’t sure to salute and elected not to. "Admiral Nuttall, I presume?" he asked.
Judging by Nuttall’s frown, he had trouble following Hucknell’s accent. "Indeed," he said eventually, and Hucknell found it about as hard to follow his in turn. "Welcome to the Pieter Voordijk. As we arranghed, your vessel shall remains here for now, and when you returns to Earth, you may usay it or our transport as you wishay." Though he was making an effort, he kept slipping into different – future? – verb forms.
"Thank you, Admiral," Hucknell said, speaking slowly and clearly. "May I introduce you to my crew and passengers, the scientists chosen from Earth…?" he went through the introductions. Judging by Nuttall’s expression, he’d already read up on them.
When it was completed, Nuttall replied: "I thanks you. And in return, Il presents our historical advisors, who willay helps you adapts-" he gestured to three nervous-looking figures in civilian clothing. Well…the woman and the Mediterranean-looking man looked nervous; the black guy looked bored. "Genevieve Chenier, Bruno Lombardi, and Jack Gunn."
"A pleasure to meet you," said one of the scientists – Professor Saunders of Australia, Hucknell recalled. He reached out and shook the hand of the nearest historian.
Gunn took the hand. "A pleasure indeed, sir," he said neutrally. "A pleasure indeed."
They exchanged a few more words with Admiral Nuttall, banal pleasantries for the most part. They would have been forgotten in a heartbeat had it not been for the eye of history; there’d doubtless be students pondering over the inflection of every word in a few years’ time. The admiral promised dinner at half past eight ship’s time, which seemed to have been purposefully synched to the day/night pattern that the scientists had gotten used to in Florida over the past couple of weeks.
Then Nuttall and most of the officers left, leaving the three young amateur historians and a young female lieutenant who introduced herself as ‘Corollary Warwick’. "We’re supposed to take you to your assigned quarters and then give you the tour," she said brightly. She was obviously better at forming twenty-first century English than Nuttall was, but had an odd mode of speech, running on continuously without apparent rhythm to the sentence.
"That ought to be fine," Saunders ventured. He glanced over the group, who he’d hastily gotten to know better over the last few days’ rapid training with NASA. Nganga, of course; he deliberately did not let his eye rest on his improntu partner in crime for very long. Ying Liwei, an unpersonable astronomer from the People’s Republic; the Chinese had taken advantage of the Japanese and South Koreans vetoing each others’ candidates on the ‘Eastasia’ slot. Fernando Lopes, a not unrenowned Brazilian professor representing ‘Olas’; Steffen Auerbach, the other "European" representative, a dour but idealistic man; and the others…
"Pardon me, Lieutenant, but will we be lodging in the same area as the scientists?" Colonel Hucknell asked.
Warwick wrinkled her brow, apparently having trouble with Hucknell’s accent. "We?" she repeated.
"We, the shuttle crew," he clarified.
"Oh – yes, of course. You’ve all been located in the same block. Diplomatic quarters, section C25. Thataway," she added helpfully, pointing towards the left hand side of the bay.
"Good. I suppose we’d better go there first, then," Hucknell said. "As you requested, we haven’t brought any supplies or spare clothing – used the spare mass to transport more scientists," a few nervous laughs, "so how is that going to work?"
"Come on, and I’ll explain on the way," Warwick said. "You should come to me with any questions about the running of the ship, and the drei kamaraden here for anything about er…cultural problems."
Saunders gave the three another once-over and allowed himself a faint smile. Chenier and Lombardi seemed to be having about as much culture shock as any of the twenty-firsters, staring around in surprise at things. He wondered why. Gunn seemed pretty unflappable, though…
Warwick led them to a reinforced airlock doorway and through what appeared to be a clean room. "Will you be requiring us to submit blood samples?" Ying volunteered. His English was fluent but heavily accented.
Warwick understood him well enough, though. "I don’t think so," she said. "We subjected your shuttle to preliminary scans on the way in and they didn’t catch anything. Don’t usually bother with that kind of invasive procedure." She paused for an inordinately long time. "The sensors get everything."
That provoked a number of murmurs, particularly among those of them who specialised in spectroscopy. Theoretically of course you could take an MRI or something similar of the whole human body and isolate signals corresponding to foreign species within it, but for that to be a reality…
They were out of the airlock now. A hatchway slid back and let them into –
Saunders lifted his eyebrows. "My, my," he said mildly.
He wasn’t sure what he’d expected: deep down, he thought with a grin, maybe the wide, spacious, pastel-shaded corridors of the Starship Enterprise. The reality was quite different. These corridors were narrow, constrictive, of bare metal save where there was the occasional control panel, and hexagonal in shape. Structural strength, he remembered belatedly: the honeycomb.
"Keep close and don’t get lost," Warwick streamed cheerfully. Easier said than done: another aspect in which the corridors differed forom Saunders’ mental image in that they were jam packed with personnel, not deserted save for whatever extras could be rounded up that day. All of them seemed to be on some urgent errand, usually waving one of those plastic clipboard things, and few even gave the novelty of twenty-firster humans more than a cursory glance. This was a working ship, he realised, and – when he saw the first obvious weapons on people’s belts – a military ship.
"It should get better the Admiral has asked the corridor traffic to be reduced in this section," the lieutenant continued in a single burst. "It’s not usually quite as bad as this but the ship was in drydock during the Shift and so we’re basically on a shakedown cruise." She paused again, glancing back at the tail of scientists and NASA crew following herself as the cometary head. "So it’ll take a full ten hours to get to Mars as the Admiral is taking it slow my apologies."
Virtually all the twenty-firsters nearly stopped dead at that. "To Mars in ten hours?!" said Will Spencer, one of the two scientists the US had managed to get on the mission. "That’s…"
"Entirely expected?" Oleg Kuznetsov said dryly. Russia had been annoyed at only having one place, but they were determined to milk it to the full. "What did you expect? This is future technology, and we already know they have faster than light drive!"
"I know, I know," Spencer muttered, a bit embarrassed. "But it’s quite another thing to actually do it for yourself…"
"He’s got a point," Auerbach volunteered. His eyes were shining with excitement. "Mars in ten hours? That’s what…er…how far are we from perihelion…?"
"Rather fast, anyway," Nganga said.
"Here we are ladies and gentlemen," Warwick said, as they reached a part of the ship where the corridors were a bit wider and much less crowded. "On the same level for convenience but I’ll be showing you how to work the lifts." Long pause. "If you’d line up here I have the keys to your rooms."
They shrugged and formed a rough queue. Saunders happened to be up first. He extended his hand, expecting Warwick to drop something like a futuristic keycard into it. Instead she pulled out what looked a bit like a staple gun and, before he could say anything, fired it into the palm of his right hand.
There was a very faint stab of pain, something between an insect bite and a pinprick, and then nothing. Saunders brought his palm up and stared at it; he couldn’t see any entry wound, or any signs of anything unusual at all. "What was that?" he asked, sounding a bit taken aback.
"Oh sorry didn’t realise," Warwick said apologetically. "It’s a er how can you put it for them Ms Chenier?"
Genevieve stepped up and looked at the staple gun, then back at Saunders nervously. "It’s…I don’t know what you’d call it…a nano-chip?" she hazarded. "Very small computer device that broadcasts your identity to the door locks and opens them."
Warwick stared at his hand again. "Nanotech?" he said out loud. Although he mostly felt ashamed at it – he was no Prince Charles – the idea of being injected with nanobots turned his stomach a little.
"You might say so, but it’s not active," said Genevieve. "Perfectly harmless and easily removable afterwards."
"Everyone else?" Warwick asked, brandishing the staple gun with a cheerful smile.
The group was so diverse that Saunders more than half expected someone to pull a religious or cultural objection, but all submitted. He guessed that they didn’t want to risk kicking up a diplomatic fuss, whatever they happened to think themselves. "And what, we wave it in front of a reader or something?" he asked.
Genevieve shook her head. "All built in," she said. "The doors just open as you approach. The chips are designed to let you through most public access doors in the ship, though some have been restricted," she said apologetically.
"Understandable," Kuznetsov said. His tone, though, suggested that he’d try and beat the system at the first available opportunity, just to see if he could. Saunders wondered wryly if there was anyone among them who didn’t have a hidden agenda.
"If you want to go into your rooms for a little while to get acquainted with them then we will have the tour afterwards," Warwick streamed.
Saunders nodded along with the rest. He found his room easily enough; his name had been printed on the door on what looked like a permanent plastic label, but he guessed was actually a reprogrammable display. Room C25/S21, he thought for future reference. As Genevieve had said, the door opened as he approached; he spotted one of the other scientists try and walk into the wrong room, and the door remained steadfastly closed. The doors slid back, but with an audible sound of motors, and their thickness suggested they could provide an airtight barrier in case of hull breach. Shaking his head, Saunders walked in.
He raised his eyebrows again. The room was much larger than he’d expected, and obviously the diplomatic suite that Warwick had mentioned. It was clearly divided into four parts with partial partitions: a living-room, with a pedestal thing in the corner that he recognised as a hologram projector; a…kitchen? Workspace? It was hard to tell when the appliances were so unfamiliar; what was more obviously a bathroom, with a separate door; and a bedroom in the corner. He heard the door close behind him, and decided to explore further.
The bed was comfortable but supportive, and seemed to effortlessly mould to the contours of his body. He couldn’t find a control panel, but he suspected it might be built into a central system. Next he looked at the ‘kitchen’, which he decided was more probably a workspace. There was a big…computer terminal? with a desk and boxes of what looked vaguely like futuristic data disks. Ironically they resembled floppies or zips slightly more than they did CDs.
The bathroom was a mystery, and he wondered if it was possible to ask about it without getting embarrassed. The bath/shower itself was disappointingly conventional, apart from the fact that there was a tap for ‘soapy water’ rather than using separate soap. The WC itself, though, looked more like some sort of VR chair, which he eyed nervously. "Three seashells all over again," he said out loud with a laugh.
Finally he came to the living room. It seemed centred around the hologram projector, which he managed to turn on after a few attempts. He watched in fascination as glittering photons rose from the pad and coalesced into a coherent image, complete with sound that seemed to come from every wall of the room evenly. He figured out the interface, realising that he had to wave his fingertip through a 3D space rather than push it in like a 2D button. He flipped through the channels, most of which seemed to be currently just static; he did find what seemed to be a future version of BBC News, though, and a couple of more Moon-centric ones. He watched for a few minutes, marvelling at the three-dimensional images, and wondering what would happen on Earth when this media form was introduced…
Meanwhile, outside Lieutenant Warwick was speaking with the three historians. "We’re not planning to give them free reign with our databases for obvious reasons," she said pensively.
Genevieve nodded. "No use them finding out who committed massacres in WW3 or anything," she said. "Especially since it wouldn’t have happened like that anyway."
"My brain hurts," Lombardi muttered. "But how exactly are you planning to uh…censor them?"
Warwick frowned. "The admiral asked me to look into it," she admitted. "Their computer terminals aren’t enabled until we figure it out."
"You couldn’t use an AI: too risky," Lombardi mused.
"It’d have to be one of us," Genevieve said. "Us Divergence people – only we know enough about twenty-first century history to know what would and wouldn’t be…unfortunate for them to find out."
"But it’d also have to be someone who knows the Astroforce computer systems," Warwick protested.
Lombardi grinned and turned. "Jack…"
Gunn bowed. "Of course I’ll do it. It’s a great opportunity," he said with a smile. Humans! The concept of the truthful lie was still far beyond their mental horizons…
"And this is one of the observation lounges," Warwick said as they entered the next room. "We can stop here for a while if you want."
"I’ll say," said Spencer. "I’ve had enough marching up and down this ship for one day. Y’know, in the future they should just be able to beam you back and forth," he joked.
"We have teleportation but it’s very dangerous – and impossible under gravity," Warwick said seriously.
Saunders raised his eyebrows. Teleportation? Interesting…
The party had shed several members during the tour, with a number of the scientists staying with Lombardi in the Observatory, what Saunders had mentally dubbed "Stellar Cartography", and Gunn going off on some mysterious errand. He’d stuck with it, though, reckoning he might learn something important.
He turned his attention to the lounge. It wasn’t particularly large, but was less crowded than the corridors, with a bar and a number of tables. Giant windows showed awe-inspiring vistas of stars, many more visible than from even the least light-polluted parts of Earth. The Milky Way stretched across one part of the sky, an effervescent glow that seemed to conceal mysterious and wonderful secrets.
Mentally, Saunders knew the windows were really just screens – the ship had no external windows for safety reasons, Warwick had explained – but it felt like he was just a breath away from the vastness of space. It was more than a little humbling.
He sat down at the bar with Warwick, Hucknell, and Spencer, but kept staring at the windows. As he watched, someone reconfigured one to show the view behind the ship. And there it was: Earth, slowly receding, little more than a crescent’s worth illuminated now that they were heading away from the Sun and towards Mars. He felt a dull ache of homesickness within him.
The barman came up to them.
Well; I say barMAN…
Saunders blinked. He was…unlike anyone he’d ever seen before. Yellow skin – not East Asian, but literally canary yellow, with green hair and odd, pine-needle like bristles in bunches on his face and arms. His body bulged in unfamiliar ways and his eyes were reflective silver. Yet, in every other respect, he looked human. Genetic modification?
"What ck’an I get for you, gentlemen?" the barman asked. His accent snapped at the hard K sounds. "Ru’ckEllj’s the name, but you can call me Ru’ck." He winked at them, slowly and deliberately.
"Hello Ru’ck," Warwick said, exchanging a nod; they clearly knew each other. "How about a nalc Levitt for me I’m on duty – and for my friends from the past…" she smiled at them.
Saunders swallowed. "Um, just sparkling water, please," he managed. The last thing he wanted was to lose his wits now.
"Same again," Hucknell said slowly, eyeing up Ru’ckEllj.
"Eashily done," Ru’ckEllj said cheerfully. "And you, shir, what do you want?"
Spencer was staring at him in a mixture of disbelief and – oddly – frustration. "Who are you?" he said. "What are you?" he added, sounding disoriented.
"Sorry Ru’ck," Warwick said hastily, glaring at Spencer. "He’s-"
"A pasht one, oh yesh, I know," said Ru’ckEllj. "Well, my friend," he said personably, "I’m a Ck’ulvannai – eih – Culvanai you would shay. From Culvana, you know."
"It’s a planet about twenty thousand lightyears thataway," Warwick said helpfully, pointing.
"Wha – you’re an alien?" Spencer said sceptically. "You can’t be an alien! You’re just some guy in a rubber suit!" Suddenly, for no obvious reason, he reached out and grabbed at Ru’ckEllj’s arm, pulling at it.
Ru’ckEllj let out a definitely inhuman hiss and pulled back. "He nearly damaged one of my ckresvae!" he cried.
But Spencer had already let go and was staring at his hand, which had gone bright red. "You’re boiling!" he said, half to himself. "That has to be over fifty degrees C! There’s no way any human could survive that!"
"That would be because Mr Ru’ckEllj isn’t human," Hucknell said icily. "And I suggest you apologise, Professor."
"But – but – he can’t be an alien," Spencer repeated uselessly. "Different planet – different selective pressures – difference abundance of elements –"
"Oh God, it’s Henderson all over again, but turned up," Warwick said bemusedly, exchanging a glance with Ru’ckEllj, who was keeping his distance from Spencer. "Let’s pull some random theory out of our arses and then scream to the gods when surprise surprise reality doesn’t match up."
"Shame kind of planet. Shame ansheshtry, maybe, even," Ru’ckEllj muttered.
"It might be best to approach this with an open mind," Saunders ventured. He gave Ru’ckEllj a more measured look. "Do all alien species look like variations on humans?" he asked.
Warwick answered. "Not all but a lot," she said. "The Pheag don’t – they’re big bugs-" and Spencer let out another insane shriek of the elitist confronted with the suggestion that the populists had it right all along, "-but the Rómidi and the Vároto and the Stentyrreans and the Ke’kakkans and the Ucasa…"
"Interesting," Hucknell said. "Our apologies, Mr Ru’ckEllj," he said, giving a side glare at the still incoherent Spencer. The colonel lifted his glass. "To avoiding culture clash?"
Warwick grinned. "And all her ships at space."
The Observatory was a very large, spherical room with a series of complex computer workstations in the centre, reached by a bridge. It was capable of projecting flat or three dimensional maps of space throughout every spectrum ever thought of, and was an invaluable tool for navigation. The rumours that the staff used it as a cinema to show 2230s B-movies after dark were obviously unsubstantiated.
"This is a map of the Union of Humanity as it was – will be – would have been," Bruno Lombardi said haphazardly, fiddling with a datareader. The holograms reconfigured, displaying the whole Galaxy, then highlighting a sausage-shaped portion of the Orion spiral arm, with the sun over to the right hand side.
Kuznetsov craned his neck to look. "Impressive," he allowed. "How many planets is that?"
"Major inhabited worlds, about seventy," Lombardi said. "But our territory included over a hundred million star systems, mostly dead ones only useful for mining and as staging posts. Total human population of around seventy-four billion."
"Impressive indeed," Ying agreed. He looked over the names of the colony worlds that were floating in space beside the little spheres representing the worlds themselves. "What is this one – Taikuo?"
"That’s the common shortened form of the name," Lombardi said. "It’s the Eastasian colony world – that’s joint Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Sakhalinski and Manchurian. Uh," he added as he remembered that Ying was from a communist China opposed to Japan and Korea, and which currently thought of Manchuria as being an integral part of its territory.
But Ying seemed to let it pass. "Fascinating," he said. "So do all nations have offworld colonies?"
"I think so," Lombardi said. "Usa has New America, Britain and the other Anglophone nations has Albion, the rest of Eu has Europa Nova…"
"And there’s this – Novorossiya," Kuznetsov added, pointing.
"Ah yes, it was one of the focal points leading up to the Fourth World War," Lombardi said carelessly, then added "forget I said that," when all eyes turned on him. They didn’t press him, but they didn’t forget, either.
"What of the other powers in the galaxy?" Kuznetsov asked.
Lombardi highlighted two more areas, one to the left of the Union, and one to the right and ‘above’, closer to the Galactic Core in the Sagittarius Arm. "These are the Miradi and the Culvanai, our two major allies," he said, "and the Miradi government includes the Stentyrreans."
"What about enemies?" Ying inquired softly.
Two more areas highlighted, one at the far left over the Orion and Perseus arms, a smaller one at the far right just over the Perseus arm, farther out toward the edge of the galaxy. "The Vároto Primacy and the Rómidi Domain," Lombardi said grimly. "Powerful enemies, but we have managed to overcome them so far – though never to defeat them totally."
Kuznetsov exchanged a glance with Ying and the Indian representative, Dipesh Choudhary. "So now that you’re back in time, you have a chance to stop them before they can ever get started?" he murmured.
"Um – well – er – I don’t have the ear of the First Consul," Lombardi managed, but the implications were clear. Kuznetsov gave the other two a microscopic nod. Most interesting indeed…
The door slid aside and light from outside flooded in, spoiling the holograms. They spun around to see Saunders and Hucknell leaning around the door, looking somewhat the worse for wear, with the sound of raucous singing in the background. "What’s going on?" Lombardi asked.
Saunders and Hucknell exchanged weary glances. "There was a bar, Spencer insulted an alien, and Lieutenant Warwick got them both drunk to stop an incident," Saunders explained. "And then it just kind of snowballed…"
A small crowd of Astroforce officers and men poured past the doorway, having hoisted both Spencer and Ru’ckEllj – who both looked dead drunk – on their shoulders. They were singing a tune which the twenty-firsters vaguely recognised as a British patriotic song, but the tune was jauntier and the words had changed:
Come cheer up my lads, it’s to glory we strive
To add something more to this wonderful life!
For none are so free as the sons of the Void!
Heart of Oak are our ships!
Heart of Oak are our men!
We always are ready!
Steady, boys, steady!
And then they were gone.
"Bozhemoi," Kuznetsov sighed.
What with one thing and another, Jack Gunn was forgotten, which was the way he liked it.
It didn’t take him long to sort out the safe databases for the past visitors, and it gave him an excuse to tinker with all sorts of sensitive data – couldn’t let any of them accidentally get hold of it, could he?
He smiled, and didn’t bother trying to make it look like a Human smile.
It took him rather longer to make up the file he wanted, and then to compress and encrypt and cut it down until it was a manageable size. He wished he had more detailed information, but he had to work with what he had, and the Human databases were it.
Finally, the file was ready. He pulled the disk out of his pocket and ran the programme again, carefully ensuring he did so on a system not attached to the ship’s network. The file was translated within an hour, and then everything was ready.
He opened a communications channel to the Moon. No use of his native language now; that appearing on a military channel would raise all sorts of automatic flags. He stuck to English.
She appeared. Dark skinned, bald, the same contact as before. "What?" she said without preamble.
"Ready," he said simply. "You?"
"More time," she muttered. "Red four." He mentally translated that to a week and a half, and cursed. But still – that would make it even more likely that the message would get through…
"Understood. Awaiting further instructions," he said, and signed off. He couldn’t even risk giving the traditional salute.
He didn’t want to have to deal with the past Humans again too soon – too much opportunity for a slipup. Instead, he opened his translated file and started checking everything had translated accurately.
He paused for a while on one blueprint, and thought of the irony. That had originally been in a more modern form of the language, then translated into English by the Humans, and now he had translated it back into an ancient form.
Irony had to be treasured, he knew, but the Humans did not always appreciate it. Pity for them; soon they would have it in spades.
DOWN TO EARTH
"You’re what?!" Rachel cried.
Andrew Stillsby grinned. "It wasn’t easy, and I had to pull all the strings I could grab," he said modestly, "but I managed it."
He spread an arm and waved it expressively. "The Government had agreed to let me be one of the advisors being sent to the UN." He grinned. "The Selenites seem to be determined to talk with us contemporary historians – get the perspective, I suppose…"
Rachel opened and closed her mouth. "You’ll get to talk to President – uh, Ambassador – Canizzarro?" she whispered. "Without your government hearing of it?"
"That’s not all," Andrew said cheerfully. Then he adopted a more serious tone: "Rachel, I’m honestly worried about you here, and not just because it could land us in the clink too. Our secret services aren’t stupid, we already know they’ve been looking for you around here…"
Rachel nodded. Janet had told them about the police teams sweeping through Cambridge and the surrounding towns, ostensibly as part of the rebuilding effort from the chaos of the Shift, but…did that really require so much scanning equipment? God knew what they were looking for to single her out…
"That’s why," Andrew continued, "The Government has agreed to give me three additional free tickets for guests!" He beamed at them.
"For free?" Janet said suspiciously, sitting down beside Andrew. "Turn down the ego, Captain History, I don’t think you rate that highly."
Andrew shrugged. "No-one wants to fly right now," he admitted. "It’s like September the eleventh cubed." And Janet noted that no recognition passed over Rachel’s face. Well…it would be ancient history to her, she supposed. "They’re giving away tickets like hot cakes just to keep the airlines afloat."
"Well, that makes things easier," Janet mulled, "but what about the fact that Rachel doesn’t have a passport?"
Andrew tapped his nose. "I thought of that," he said.
"This isn’t one of Luke’s forum ideas, does it?" Janet asked suspiciously. "Does it involve hiding in lead lined suitcases?"
Andrew laughed. "Nothing of the sort," he said. "You might say it’s hiding in plain sight. You see…some of the people the various governments have put forward as historical advisors…the Selenites insisted on sending some of their own people, ambassadors’ aides, to check them out and then fly back with them."
Rachel nodded. "Probably people who would have committed dodgy acts in the future," she said.Then her expression changed. "Oh no. You mean-"
Andrew beamed. "Surely," he said. "As it happens, the Selenites thought I was boring enough not to bother sending anyone to check me out, but British and U.S. customs don’t have to know that. You do have some future ID, right?"
"I’ve got a card as well as the usual chips, yes. But-"
"One look at that and they’ll go all gooey," Andrew said optimistically. "Everyone’s tiptoeing around you Selenites, they don’t want any diplomatic incident to make your Garrows quirk his eyebrow dangerously."
Rachel couldn’t help laughing at that. "It still seems risky, though," she said.
"Not as risky as staying here," Andrew said seriously. "Janet, you tell her what you found out."
Janet nodded. "People have been disappearing," she said, then added "no, I don’t mean like that," when she saw Rachel’s expression. "Scientists, mostly physicists and chemists, and engineers. Just vanished without trace. Suddenly on sabbatical, going to work on some new project that’s just a paper shadow on the Internet…it’s all very dodgy. And most of these new projects are in the UK – but none are in the Cambridge area. And none are military."
Rachel wrinkled her nose. "Well?" she asked. "What does that mean?"
Janet smiled. "If all of these people really were taking on new projects at British universities, the odds against not one of them coming here to Cambridge are pretty unlikely. None of them having military connections, even more so. So why haven’t they? Answer: because someone decided that none of the cover stories should have even the faintest connexion with reality."
Rachel wondered vaguely whether Janet was somehow part Vároto, to delight in these complex conspiracy theories. "Look, even assuming that’s right, what does it all mean?" she protested weakly.
"Simple," Andrew took up. "There’s a major project in Cambridge, or at least has something to do with it, and it’s a military project, which usually means a Government project."
Rachel cottoned on. "My shuttle," she breathed. "They’ve got people working on my shuttle."
"We knew it had to happen," Janet said. "They could hardly have missed it."
"Was it repairable?" Andrew said anxiously. "Even forgetting reverse-engineering, could they have got in flying again?"
Rachel shrugged. "I was unconscious when it crashed," she reminded them. "But I guess at least some systems should be repairable, even with your lower tech."
Andrew exchanged a glance with Janet. "So they might have access to your more advanced sensors?" he asked quietly.
Her face slowly paled as she considered the consequences. "I see," she said quietly. "In that case, I guess we’re all off to Old New York."
A little colour came back. "Listen, I want to thank you two – and Luke too, for that matter – for all this you’ve done for me. If I listened to what my school tutors said about this time period, I’d have expected you to do me in on the spot and steal all my possessions."
Andrew quirked a smile. "It’s governments that do that sort of thing."
"I couldn’t just leave you," said Janet, and it was true, no matter how much parts of her mind had regretted rescuing Rachel since. She’d still do it over again, unless she wanted to never be able to meet her gaze in the mirror again.
"All right," Rachel said with a faint smile. "I just hope I can repay you one day."
Andrew yawned and glanced at his watch. "You could start by arranging to have us beamed back home," he grumbled. "I do not like plane flights, even if we’re not too likely to be sat next to the fat plebby woman with the diseased baby."
"Andy," Janet warned. "But we should turn in. When do we fly?"
"Two days," he said.
She raised her eyebrows. "That’s not long to get ready. What about Luke?"
"Well; consider the alternative – his expression if we were to leave him behind…"
According to the records, her name was Sheila Carney. She was a dark-skinned woman who shaved her head, with slightly disturbing, penetrating eyes and an unplaceable accent. Hide in plain sight…
She sat across the table from two Culvanai. At least, to the world they were two Culvanai. The table was in a busy public café in one of Umbria City’s biggest shopping precints: people were still panic-buying food and other amenities, and Garrows’ speech about being dependent on Earth’s charity hadn’t exactly helped matters.
To them, though, it made an ideal space for a surreptitious meeting. Perhaps the most advanced surveillance tech could have distinguished their voices from the hubbub, but it would have been confounded by the cancellation devices they all carried. The devices would have stood out like a Ucasa at a birthing ceremony under normal circumstances, but now the hubbub helped hide their static-producing effects too.
"You’ve considered our proposal," Sheila said. It wasn’t a question.
"Of course," said one Culvanai, whose name was We’qUlla, at least on paper. He was a male, though oddly broad across the chest for one, and his sensory bristles moved in a faintly odd way even to Sheila’s inexperienced eyes. She mentally put the back of her wrist to her forehead, the equivalent of a Human shaking her head in disbelief. The Cousins had always been bad at infiltration, for all they banged on about stealth. Disguising yourself as a Culvanai on a world of mostly ignorant Humans might sound like a good idea…until you ran into a real Culvanai.
Like now. The other Culvanai was yellow beneath as well as on top, and she was a female, named Mu’rKlungs. Her silver eyes watched We’qUlla suspiciously, telling Sheila everything she needed to know: if she couldn’t even let go of her hatred for ‘uppity males’ even when she knew perfectly well that this one wasn’t a Culvanai, there was no hope for her.
But she could be a useful tool…
"We do not negotiate with…your sort," Mu’rKlungs said flatly, "much less his," she added, glaring at We’qUlla.
Suspicious because he’s from your race’s old enemy, or just because he looks like one of your males? Sheila thought amusedly. But she decided to humour Mu’rKlungs. "Do you really want the Humans to pull a Henderson over a century early?" she asked, narrowing her eyes with a conscious effort. "You came close to seizing power in the original history. This time, you’ll never get close. In fifty years, Culvana will be Sulvyu, and so will every other world that Culvanai will ever set foot on."
Naming the hatred liberal colony world put Mu’rKlungs’ hackles up, literally. But she wasn’t ready to lie down just yet. "The Humans won’t interfere this time," she protested. "They’ll have enough on their plates, with you two," she said, flicking a finger at first Sheila and then We’qUlla.
We’qUlla gave a throaty laugh that wasn’t quite Culvanai. "Quite the opposite, my prominent friend," he said, quite an insult among his true folk. "The Humans managed to win against them," he flicked a finger at Sheila, wryly imitating Mu’rKlungs’ motion, "the first time, not least because they acquired shielding technology from the Culvanai. What makes you think they won’t try it again this time?"
"But they already have shields!" Mu’rKlungs said. "This Moon-"
"You’re not seriously suggesting the past Humans could duplicate a modern shield?" Sheila asked. "But a contemporary Culvanai particle-shield, that…"
Mu’rKlungs looked like she’d eaten something that disagreed with her. "Regardless of how unpleasant the Humans may be to us," she said, "I wonder if a galaxy ruled by you two would be any kinder to the Culvanai."
The ‘right-thinking’ Culvanai, Sheila mentally corrected. What with Mu’rKlungs’ lot’s idea of social engineering, the Culvanai would probably manage to destroy themselves without any help from her folk or We’qUlla’s. But she gave a more soothing answer: "We certainly have no interest in your space, Attaché Mu’r. It lies outside our historic and rightful zone of influence." For now. "As for, aha, Mr We’q’s people…"
"No," We’qUlla said. "All we want is to be left alone, and for our supremacy over the uh…" he remembered where he was, "the Perseus Arm to be acknowledged and unchallenged. You can overrun the Orion for all we care; before, we only cared about that space as forward defensive positions."
Mu’rKlungs was obviously not sure whether to trust them, but was weighing it up against the alternatives. "Modern technology," she murmured to herself. "Enough to defend ourselves against any Human interference? Maybe. And better maybe than definitely not."
She stood. "All right," she said quietly. "Me and mine will work with you. I don’t like it, but I like any other likely outcome less. There shall be no Henderson in this history, no Pa’rOnnv. Anything else that happens is minor compared to that."
Like the self-destruction of your entire race, Sheila thought amusedly. But now Mu’rKlungs was where she wanted them. We’qUlla was in, too, she realised: the Cousins were more cunning than Mu’rKlungs’ deluded band, but they could still easily be stabbed in the back easily enough. It didn’t take a genius to start a civil war among the Cousins; it barely took a sentient.
"Given where we are, shall we shake on it?" Sheila asked wryly, then smiled at the looks of horror the other two gave her. "To celebrate the fact that this custom will never, ever, be even heard of on any of our homeworlds."
They returned her smile, or the equivalent, and shook hands. "To the downfall of Humanity," We’qUlla said melodramatically.
Sheila shook her head slowly. Typical Cousin. "To the ascendancy of we and ours," she corrected him. I and mine, she amended mentally. First and Foremost, it was always I and mine.
Aldrin Garrows felt like a man trying to balance a set of scales with a series of weights, none of which added up in the right combination for a lasting balance. No; make that a dozen sets of scales. Still, it seemed to wobble along as long as he kept running. Never trip, never hit the wall, just keep running…
"What’s next?" he asked tiredly.
Felicity Renwick consulted her datareader. There was still plenty of bad blood between her and Chenier – the Second Consul wasn’t attending this meeting – but Garrows got along well enough with her. He’d found the former Reactionary leader to be a fearsome political presence, particularly in the areas of defence and managing the economy. He found it very likely that she’d be re-elected in the provisional elections in two months, and wondered with some worry whether he’d have to face her in opposition.
"The contemporaries want to send some people here – to Luna," Renwick said. "They want to take a look around, see what we can offer."
"Eventually," Garrows said. "Not yet; it would short-circuit our approach with the ambassadors, doling out what we can give in little bits. Don’t let them see everything at once – we’d lose all our trump cards."
Renwick nodded. "That’s what I thought."
"Any objection?" Garrows asked the cabinet.
"Not so long as it does happen eventually," said Jiro Takehashi. "I don’t want the contemporaries to think we’re little tin gods on high."
There were no other comments, so Garrows dismissed it and moved on. Next issue. Defence. Stephanopoulos was his usual sceptical self, having the Theocrats’ seemingly congenital contempt for the people of this era. "I don’t think we have to worry about a few firework rockets armed with school science projects," he said flatly.
Garrows sighed, but let Renwick explain. "The contemporaries’ capabilities are far from that," she said. "VANCOMYCIN is designed to stop this sort of thing, but if, say, the president of Usa decided to attack us – we could be facing over three thousand nuclear missiles, at the top estimate! If even one got through – the consequences could be catastrophic."
Stephanopoulos snorted. "Very unlikely. In any case, we would be able to utterly annihilate them in exchange."
"I don’t think that’d be any comfort for those melting in what used to be Umbria," Renwick said acidly.
"Enough," Garrows said, raising a hand. "All right. The contemporaries may pose a credible threat, and that’s enough to justify a full examination of our defensive capabilities."
"It’ll make things more difficult," warned Sienna Pardenne. "It’s already difficult to try and incorporate the other mishmash defence forces into the Astroforce…" she left the sentence unfinished, but everyone saw the words ‘especially with that idiot Nuttall in charge’ floating in midair. "If you try and overhaul everything at the same time-"
"It’s got to be done," Garrows said. "We’re more vulnerable to natural impacts, as well – history records that we barely missed a major asteroid hit on Luna, it happened a few months before now."
That sunk in. No patrol forces out in the asteroid belt and the Oort Cloud, redirecting the asteroids comets centuries before they could even pose a threat. "What about the Rockbusters?" Pardenne asked. "Are there not some based on Luna?"
Garrows nodded. "Four, for emergencies. But I’d rather not use them at that sort of range – even with VANCOMYCIN to protect us, the radiation damage…"
"And it would overplay our hand to let the contemporaries know we have interplanetary antimatter cruise missiles capable of blowing Greenland into geosynchronous orbit," Takehashi said, a bit sourly. He’d consistently been taking the side of the contemporary Humans, even though he’d never met one.
In the end, the cabinet reluctantly agreed on a full review. Nuttall’s ship would have to wait until it returned, though. "And when will that be?" Pardenne asked.
"They’ll be at Mars in a few hours," Renwick said, consulting the itinery. "Six days planned there, five at Jupiter, three at Saturn, and then a short jump back here to test the flux engines. They’ll be back before the elections," she said with a veiled threat. Nuttall would be a hero by then, and probably all too willing to badmouth Pardenne’s Radicals on behalf of the Reactionaries or the Sess Libs.
"Enough," Garrows said again before a major argument could erupt. "Very well. Next item?"
The Voordijk mission did not enter the cabinet conversations again for a while. And it was not spoken about with any real urgency until, well…it happened…
THE CHANCES OF ANYTHING GETTING TO MARS…
It was red.
Not, perhaps, as red as his childhood of watching old fifties B movies and reading Dan Dare comics had led him to believe. It was not the blood red of the illustrator’s paint box, no. But compared to Earth…it made the reddest Australian desert look like a washed-out pastel shade.
"Mars," Saunders breathed, his eyes wide, drinking in the view. Intellectually he knew it was just another screen – no windows on the Voordijk – but it overwhelmed him in a way no indirect image ever had. To know that he was standing just a few hundred miles from the surface of that alien world, on the brink of one of mankind’s greatest dreams…
"Impressive," said Kuznetsov, beside him. The Russian was staring at the planet almost wistfully: it was the Soviet Union, and then the Russian Federation after it, that had always had the greatest ambitions for Mars – and the least success. Perhaps ironically, the Red Menace had never managed to land a probe on the surface of Mars, bizarrely so given that they’d accomplished the much more difficult feat of landing on Venus. They just seemed to have bad luck…
Until Lieutenant Warwick exploded that illusion for them. "Mars’ geomagnetic field is more complex than your current theories account for," she said in her customary rush; Saunders had learned that it was a characteristic of the way people from her homeworld, Cancy, spoke. "No-one knows for sure but historians believe that many early Mars probes failed due to not taking this into account."
Kuznetsov scowled. "There was little we could do to anticipate that. How could we study it if we couldn’t get the probes there in the first place? Like trying to open a box with the crowbar inside!"
"It’s not like the Yanks had that much luck either in the past few years – or the British," Saunders agreed. "For every successful landing, there seems to be at least one foul-up."
Warwick frowned. "The British?" she repeated.
"Beagle-2," Saunders explained. "This probe that was built on
a shoestring in England by some yokel named Pillinger. Got here and immediately
Warwick raised her eyebrows. "I…see," she said. Pulling out a datareader, she tapped out a quick note. "Most interesting…"
Had Saunders not been absorbed with drinking in the Martian vista, he might have wondered about that. Surely it was down in the Selenites’ historical records if Warwick wanted to go and have a look…but he was absorbed, and that was all there was to it.
Ying Liwei broke the silence. "Shall we be landing?" he asked.
"If you mean the whole ship no," Warwick said with a smile, "but we shall be sending shuttles down." She paused for a slightly uncomfortable length; Saunders had learned that ‘Cancies’ had to consciously break up their speech to make it more comprehensible for other Humans. "You are all on the teams of course."
Kuznetsov rubbed his hands gleefully. "Ochen dobro. We shall see the Red Planet for ourselves at last."
Further along the observation deck, Paul Nganga stood beside Genevieve Chenier and Bruno Lombardi. "I imagine this is all old news to you," he said, not looking away from the magnificent Martian landscape as he spoke.
"Oh no," Genevieve replied; indeed, she was staring at the desolate redness almost as intently as the twenty-firsters were. "Back up in our time, I used to come to Mars quite often – it’s only a half hour trip from Luna, even using public transport. But now…" she shuddered. "It’s strange, disturbing, to see it unpopulated after you’re used to seeing the cities and towers and Stairways. It’s like…like…"
"It’d be like seeing the Americas before they were ever colonised, if you were already familiar with all the landmarks," Lombardi suggested.
Nganga nodded. "Yes, I can see that." He gave Mars another glance. "Where are these cities, anyway?"
Genevieve pointed at the big, ugly scar of Valles Marineris that stretched across the face of Mars. "Many are built into the sides of the Mariner’s Vale. Not only is the gravity slightly more comfortable down there, but it makes it easier for transport between them via airship."
"You’ve got to have airships," Nganga said amusedly. "What about Utopia Planitia? It seems to be populated in just about every sci-fi story back home…"
"Hardly," Genevieve said. "Sparsely populated, still pretty desolate. They have the main Astroforce training academy there; take the recruits on suited marches through that lot every day. Even with the low gravity, I’m told it’s a killer."
"I can imagine," Nganga said. "What about the ice caps? Are they still there?"
"Not as much as they are here," Genevieve replied, staring at the small white splashes at the north and south poles. More of Mars was becoming visible as the planet rotated majestically, far beneath the Voordjik. "A lot of it was melted down for water in the twenty-second century." She fiddled with one of those electronic clipboard things – Nganga had learned they were called ‘datareaders’, and handed it to him. "It was one of the first proper attempts at controlled planetary engineering – uh, terraforming, I think they call it now."
"That’s right," Nganga said. He stared at the datareader, comparing the image of Mars upon it to the one visible out of the screen/window. The planet was much less red, covered in faint patches of green and with the occasional dark sea of water. Still, it wasn’t exactly Kim Stanley Robinson. "Was it considered a success?"
Genevieve laugh. "When we, er, left, they were still saying it was too early to say."
Nganga chuckled along with her. "All right," he said, "so when do we get to walk on it for ourselves?"
"Not for a while, I’m afraid," Lombardi said regretfully. "Dinner with Admiral Nuttall, remember?"
The scientists gave him an annoyed look; they were all dying to step on the soil of Mars. But then, with almost comical synchronicity, they all remembered that one of their primary purposes here was to get in with the Selenites, and their anger visibly subsided. "Black tie?" Saunders asked with a wink.
"Formal wear’s been provided in your quarters," Warwick said. "You’ll be expected there at twenty past eight."
"We’ll be there," Saunders said, as though there was any doubt.
Professor Ying Liwei lay down on his bed and allowed himself to find his centre. It had been a long and tiring day. Still, he thought to himself with an inward smile, at least now I won’t get annoyed by people mistaking my name for that of China’s first taikonaut: now I have matched his feat and far exceeded it.
After a few moments, he sat up. He had to be at the dinner in a few bare moments. But this could not be put off.
He was a scientist, he was an astronomer. He even had a doctorate. He wasn’t a professor, though, and his chair was a fictional post at an obscure university. For Ying Liwei had had no time for such a post, when his primary interests had lain in…other things…
It was hardly unexpected, he knew, and he would be very surprised if the Selenites didn’t know. He’d be even more surprised if the party of twenty-firsters included any scientists who were really, well, just scientists.
He didn’t know if there were hidden cameras or other sensors in the room. The Selenites would be fools not to have them, but perhaps they were worried about being found out and provoking a diplomatic incident. If they were, they needn’t have: Ying couldn’t see any giveaway clues. He smiled at the circular reasoning.
Still, no reason to take risks. He ducked under the covers of his bed, ostensibly to take a quick nap. In reality, he pulled out his…special PDA and began fiddling with it. He knew there was a real possibility that the Selenites had sensors trained on him that could see through the covers, but it was a risk worth taking.
He sorted through the records he’d taken. The directional microphones were doubtless primitive compared to what the Selenites could field, but they worked. A most interesting record of what Warwick, Lombardi, Chenier and the rest were discussing in lowered voices, thinking they couldn’t be overheard by the others. Particularly that about Beagle-2…now what could that mean? He frowned. He understood every word, yet together they made no sense. Still, perhaps one of his superiors would know: if there was one thing the People’s Republic was not short of, it was…people.
He went through a few more records. Mostly dull stuff, Chenier and Lombardi worrying over any potential culture shocks, and Warwick complaining about the scene that American, Spencer, had made in one of the lounges. Nothing of interest…
Then Ying developed another frown. He played the file again. It was Jack Gunn, the third historian, the one who they’d barely seen, as he was off doing things with computers most of the time. Something muttered under his breath, as he was walking away…
Ying listened to it again and shrugged. Well; he was not the most well-travelled of people, and he couldn’t really trust his own judgement on this. Still, he’d flag it for his superiors. And maybe take a little research on his own…
Saunders adjusted his tie and examined himself in the ‘mirror’, which was really another flatscreen that most of the time did duty as his window. He grinned, glad he’d learned how to work it. The Selenites had finally unlocked their computer connections to the ship’s network, too, stating just-repaired damage from the Shift. He wasn’t fooled; he knew they had to have been hurriedly deciding which things to censor.
Perversely, he almost wanted to go over to his terminal now and hunt through the databases, searching for something they didn’t want him to see. But now was the time to eat.
He studied the suit again. It wasn’t too far removed from those that he’d worn back on Earth, though a bit simplified. The fabric was comfortable, but didn’t feel quite like anything he’d ever worn before: the label said it was some kind of polymer, but it felt far more natural than any synthetic fabric he’d ever worn. The tie was built into the suit, and he’d learned to his delight that there was a little computer in it that let him pick the pattern of his tie. He’d chosen something suitably awfully loud and clashing for tonight. Play up the backwards country bumpkin angle, he thought to himself with a smile. Make them see you with contempt, give away things they’ll later regret…
Satisfied, he waved his arm cursorily at the door and it opened. It wasn’t really necessary, he knew, but he was still getting used to the nanochip. He stared at the palm of his hand and frowned as he stepped through the door: the idea of nanotech was still unsettling to him. The Selenites had probably got a tracker in it, too, and the libertarian in him disliked such an idea. But right now it was a game of ‘I dare you’ with fourteen participants, and no scientist wanted to let his nation down by refusing to submit to any Selenite gesture that might poison future relations.
A few other scientists came out of their rooms as he did. They’d already learned when Nuttall’s officer’s dining room was, and soon made their way there. They used a lift, too: he’d learned it was magnetically powered, with a little gravity generator in the bottom of the lift carriage but none in the shaft, so it was nearly impossible for the lift car to crash. The gravity generators intensely interested him – and he knew perfectly well that the schematics for one would make Professor Bone wet himself with excitement – so he’d marked that down as a priority.
The lift didn’t talk to him, which he found rather disappointing. Even twenty-firster lifts talked to you, albeit in an impersonal phone answering machine voice. Don’t these people know what the future is supposed to look like, he thought amusedly. Everyone in Bacofoil outfits with household robots and smart homes…
But he had yet to see anything he could class as a true A.I. He’d tried to broach the subject with Warwick, who’d given him a look as though he’d just suggested she really ought to put more effort into catching venereal diseases. It had left the slightly more open minded Lombardi to explain to him why: "There were a lot of scares in the late twenty-second and the early twenty-third about them – A.I. ships going rogue, doing the ‘cleanse myself of the meat beings’ thing."
"Sounds like something out of a science fiction novel," Saunders had remarked.
"Probably," Lombardi had agreed, "but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t really happen, either. Most people think it’s the fact that they’re intelligent but they don’t really have souls, you know – can’t live with themselves."
"So no A.I.s at all?" Saunders had asked, disappointed.
"Oh no," Lombardi had said. "A ship like this has at least three Turing IV class A.I.s, but they’re all located in one of the computer labs and carefully isolated from the main computer network. Admiral Nuttall has no intention of the Voordjik becoming another Ramachandran." Lombardi said that name as though it were the Titanic.
And now it was Admiral Nuttall himself that Saunders was facing. They were standing at their places at the great oak(?) table, Nuttall at the head, a few of his senior officers, Warwick, the three historians, and the fourteen twenty-firster scientists. About twenty-five people, all told. Seating seemed to be random, but Saunders happened to find himself quite near to Nuttall.
They remained standing as Nuttall said grace over the meal, and that was another thing that didn’t quite fit into Saunders’ naïve perception of the future. Then they sat, awkwardly getting into position, the twenty-firsters wondering urgently if the rules of etiquette had changed in the last few centuries.
Saunders flopped out his intricately folded napkin to put on his lap, feeling faintly guilty at such a mindlessly entropic act. But given that this was the future…acting on instinct, he tapped a corner of the napkin twice in quick succession, and laughed in triumph as the fabric refolded itself into the shape of a peacock, or a flower, or whatever it was.
Nuttall spotted him doing it, and smiled. "Don’t have those materials yet, I suppose," the admiral ventured.
"Not quite, though there are some metals with memory," Saunders said. He glanced down at his place setting; his placemat doubled as a datareader, displaying the menu. It was quite extensive, but not unlimited. He could bring up a flat picture of each dish, though there were no hologram projectors. Some of the dishes were familiar, others were new but made up of familiar parts, and a few were wholly alien – literally so, he noted with shock as he read the backstory of one of them. Originated on Culvana…first duplicated using Earth materials by Jean-Baptiste Ducos in 2212…
He picked something fairly conventional looking, a chargrilled beefsteak of…he fiddled with the datareader/placemat, altering the measuring system from metric to imperial…fourteen ounces. He selected the medium-well option and hit the button marked Send.
Around him, most of his fellows seemed to still be struggling through the system. He wondered with a faint hint of worry if he might be implausibly good with future tech, a result of Professor Bone giving him a quick tutorial with the crashed shuttle systems…but no, surely not.
He turned to Admiral Nuttall and struck up a conversation. "How do you arrange all of this, anyway?" he asked, waving vaguely at the menus.
"What do you mean?" Nuttall asked.
"I mean – do you, you know, have machines where you can just press a button and the meal just flashes into existence, or…"
"Good God no," Nuttall said with a laugh. "The budget for that sort of thing would be about five hundred times more than the logistics of arranging fresh food. No, we manage on a mixture of fresh stuff taken from the nearest supply post, and these awful protein pastes made by the bacterial cultures down in the F Sections. Not exactly my idea of fun, but they help keep us going, and the fresh stuff takes the taste away."
Saunders nodded. "No bacterial pastes on for tonight, then, eh?"
"No, no," Nuttall said. "We worried you might be insulted."
"Intrigued, more like," Saunders said. "Well, maybe some other time."
Doors opened and a pair of discrete waiters – apparently junior officers, wearing the same black dress uniforms as Nuttall’s senior staff were – came out with trays. Saunders marvelled again, his mind half expecting flying trays, or at least robotic waiters. His meal was set down in front of him: a rather fine-looking ribeye with a selection of sauces, chips and vegetables. He examined them in turn: all tasted as fresh as if they’d just been pulled out of the ground, far from the reclaimed rubbish common in too many modern eating places.
The steak was even tastier, as though they’d shot the cow just outside; he gave an involuntary chuckle as he remembered the suicidal food beast out of Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. "This really is very good," he remarked to Nuttall, who was managing on a chicken breast and a stack of what looked like garlic bread. "How on Earth – or the Moon, haha – do you get it so fresh?"
"We have very good preservation techniques," Nuttall said. "Don’t need to worry about chemical preservatives or freezing anymore: we have safe irradiations and all sorts of things. Even then, though, we like to use up the fresh stuff within a month or so of getting it." He frowned. "Of course, the Voordijk was resupplied from Lunar supplies just a few days ago…the fresh stuff will be running low now." He sighed. "I hope the Selenites on the ground don’t get to hear about us feasting away while they’re managing on bacterial paste."
That almost turned Saunders’ stomach, but the steak was just too good. "Well, hopefully this mission will help us set up an, er, gravy train," he rationalised.
"Not bad," Nuttall allowed. "Yes, I certainly hope so. Of course, we’ll have to rebuild one of the Stairways – uh, orbital tethers, you know, space elevators," he added to Saunders’ questioning glance. "We’d never do it if we had to keep sending shuttles back and forth all day; we’d burn more in deuterium than we’d ever get back in food…"
"I understand," Saunders said. "We’ve been planning space elevators for years, but the expenditure…"
"Shouldn’t be too bad," Nuttall said optimistically. "Luna has lots of spares to repair their own network, including a load of nanotube cables. We should be able to build a Slingshot in a few weeks, and an accompanying Stairway shouldn’t take much longer." He narrowed his eyes. "Assuming, of course, you lot will let us built the groundside platform."
"I think we’ll be fighting over who gets it," Saunders said truthfully. "Ground-based?"
"No, floating sea platforms," Nuttall explained. "In the first history, the first one was built off the coast of Kourou-Guiana," Saunders guessed he meant French Guiana, "and I don’t see why we can’t do that again."
"The Americans won’t like it," Saunders said, glancing at Spencer, who was being incredulous at his meal; he’d ordered something alien, apparently still refusing to believe that the Culvanai weren’t humans in funny costumes.
Nuttall smiled. "We can compromise," he said. "But the Usans and the Euans certainly have the biggest food surpluses, and that’s what we have to deal with right now, despite all of Canizzarro’s high-minded ends." He snorted.
"You don’t like Canizzarro?" Saunders ventured.
"Very good," Nuttall said, "drive a wedge between the civilians and military." He smiled to show there was no malice in his statement. "Canizzarro? Well, I’m still an Englishman first, even though I haven’t been back to Britain for years, and I don’t like the way he was running Eu. Too much like Ohlmarks or Timoshenko, you know – ultrafederalist and burn anyone who disagrees with them at the stake."
Saunders didn’t ‘know’, and was mildly aghast to find that the British in-or-out Europe debate would still be going strong in the mid twenty-fourth century. But one thing overruled the others: "He was running Eu – er, the EU? I knew he was a former president…"
"They all are, those ambassadors," Nuttall said, pouring himself some red wine (2296 vintage, Saunders noted amusedly). "They were the current presidents of Earth’s eleven supranations when the Shift happened – they were on Luna for a meeting. Didn’t you know?"
Saunders whistled. "Well, that explains a lot," he admitted. "No wonder they’re all so forceful. What do they think about having to deal with their ancestors in what they think are their positions…?"
"Nothing good," Nuttall grumbled, then shook his head. "No, that’s uncharitable. Dooley seems to want the best for her people, and Ho Tran’s a good enough sort – he’d done good things for Oceania before the Shift. But Canizzarro’s too big for his boots, and Lopatin..." Nuttall shook his head. "Off the record I think he’s a little too happy to find Vladimir Putin still in charge of Cissia. Uh, Russia."
Saunders didn’t bother asking. Even now, people were becoming suspicious of Putin’s dictatorial ambitions. Instead, he changed the subject, deciding to fulfil his primary purpose. "You know your gravity generators…" he began.
The meal passed well enough. Nganga spent most of the meal speaking to Genevieve and Jack Gunn, who’d made a rare appearance at the table. He ordered something Stentyrrean and picked at it throughout the meal, answering Nganga’s questions in monosyllables. He seemed to have a lot on his mind, but then who didn’t?
Finally, after a rather pleasant dessert involving chocolate, ice cream, and some bizarre small blue strawberry-like fruits that Saunders didn’t want to inquire about, they rose. Nuttall proposed a toast, his twenty-second century red wine gurgling in its glass. "Ladies and gentlemen," he said, "to the Human Race under God!"
They clinked their glasses and drank. Saunders mentally smiled; Nuttall could have toasted Hitler and Stalin’s honeymoon for all the difference it would make – no-one would dare make any sort of faux pas with such an important Selenite.
The group broke up, most of them making their way back to their rooms. Saunders got to his, stifling a yawn, and waved his hand vaguely. The door opened and –
A hand came onto his shoulder. He spun to find Nganga there, his eyes startlingly white again his dark skin, and wide with worry. "May I…" he murmured.
"Of course," Saunders said, holding his hand so that the door stayed open as Nganga came in. Mentally, his mind was dragging itself out of its drunken half-stupour and racing. He was furious. Stawes and Chambers had drilled into them again and again that they were to act standoffish towards each other, give no indication that they were working together for the same ends…
"What is it?" he hissed once the doors had closed.
Nganga looked down at the floor. "I thought you ought to know," he said. "Professor Ying came up to me after the meal…"
"Like he’s a real Professor," Saunders said with caustic humour. "I’ve seen better forged certificates on Jeffrey Archer’s website. Go on."
Nganga sighed. "He came to me because he thought ‘we west Africans’ wouldn’t make common cause with the evil white oppressors," he said, rolling his eyes. "He may be good, but he don’t get out much. But still…"
He shook his head. "He’s been bugging people," he said. "Ying’s been planting microphones when he thinks he can get away with it – mostly on us, rather than on the Selenites – and using directional ones when he can’t.
"And so?" Saunders asked. "Like that really surprises anyone. I’ve found two already on me, and at least one of them wasn’t his."
"Me too," Nganga said tiredly. "Look! He wanted to tell me that he heard something very odd from Jack Gunn the other day, while he was walking away."
"Gunn?" Saunders repeated. "What about him?"
Nganga hesitated. "He said he was muttering to himself in some very strange sounding language."
"Oh for crying out loud, Paul, he’s from the bloody future," Saunders snapped. "Even if he’s just an African, like you-"
"Thank you," Nganga said dryly.
"-you know what I mean – there are dozens of languages that sound ‘very odd’ to anyone who hasn’t heard them before, which sure as hell includes Mr Ying." He shook his head. "It’s nothing, Paul."
"Maybe," Nganga said, "but the People’s Republic wouldn’t send an idiot to represent – and spy for – them. If Ying thinks this is important, it may well be."
He shook his head. "He said he was going to look into it. I’ll try and speak to him in the morning, anyway."
"Mars in the morning," Saunders reminded him, feeling a bit of excitement course through his slightly inebriated veins. "It’ll have to be later."
"You’re right – later," Nganga said. "’Night." He left.
As it turned out, though, Nganga was unable to speak to Ying later, because he lacked the necessary spiritual and psychic qualifications…
DEATH ON MARS
Saunders reflexively looked behind him, even though he could just readjust his own personal screen to give a rear view. It worked either way, though; there was a screen at the back of the shuttle simulating a rear window. He watched the Voordijk falling away, marvelling again at the sheer size of the ship, its advanced complexity, the unknowable glow in its crystalline central section.
Still, the ship couldn’t hold his attention for long. Quickly, he switched the view forward again, and savoured the view of the Martian landscape zooming up towards them as the shuttle dived into the atmosphere.
It was barely noticeable; Mars’ atmosphere was notoriously thin. Saunders managed to convince himself that he felt buffeting, though. Looking on the radar – or whatever it was – he saw that the second shuttle was off to its assigned landing zone not far from the second Viking landing site. He grinned at the memory of Spencer resolving to break open the probe and find out if those 1970s tests really were all that inconclusive. He’s still desperate to find some alien life that fits his own elitist preconceptions, Saunders thought with a grin.
The party had been split up between the two shuttles, with this craft – named the Palmer – carrying he, Ying, Kuznetsov and Lombardi among others. Nganga, Gunn and Chenier were with the other craft – they’d arranged it between themselves to split up, meaning that Shed Men would get the input from both sites. Saunders personally couldn’t see what relevance Mars would have to the project, but he didn’t care: he was about to walk on the surface of a virgin world!
The Palmer’s nose tipped up as chemical retros fired. Elegant wings extended impossibly from tiny compartments, elongating to ridiculous lengths. Saunders nodded: in Mars’ thin atmosphere, they’d need them. Slowly but surely, the Palmer began to slow down, until finally the pilot – Warwick – gave a nod and the shuttle was gliding.
All eyes were on the screen-windows. The shuttle was still fighting to stay upright in the almost imperceptible currents, but below them the majesty of Valles Marineris stretched out. It was too big to take in. Saunders remembered seeing the 3D wall diagram at Cape Canaveral that compared it in size to Earth’s Grand Canyon, and that great American landmark was barely a crease beside the giant gaping wound of the Mariner’s Vale.
"My God," he breathed to himself. "A magnificent desolation."
"Plagiarist," joked Sally J. Ryder, the other American assigned to the team. Unlike Spencer, she at least seemed to spend her time on… (Saunders laughed; he’d nearly thought ‘Planet Earth’).
"You can’t say it’s not true, though," he pointed out. "Hard to believe that one day it will…would have been…home to all those cities you showed us pictures of," he nodded to Lombardi.
Before the future man could reply, though, Kuznetsov cut in: "I disagree. The redness makes it seem like fertile soil, even though that is a fallacy. Yet I can see the cities of steel growing tall from this iron oxide soil, up here." He tapped his temple.
"Very poetic," Ryder said, "but can we get out and see for ourselves?"
"Momentarily," Warwick said through her teeth. "It’s not exactly Crevasse Spaceport out there you know……ah here’s a flat area…"
The shuttle landed like a Harrier, using downward-thrusting jets. There was still a bit of a clunk as even the carefully engineering landing gear touched down. Saunders couldn’t care less. He was already hitting the button that automatically unstrapped the complex webwork of safety belts surrounding him. "Let’s go!" he said.
Warwick shook her head and stood, then walked to the back of the shuttle and turned to address them. "Suits on," she said, "just like we rehearsed." Long Cancy pause. "Remember the controls don’t be afraid to ask for help if you get stuck and let’s make history."
"Well said!" replied several scientists in a chorus. Saunders got hold of his suit and began to put it on over his existing clothes, a shipboard ‘civilian uniform’ which was half jumpsuit and half shirt and trousers. The spacesuit at least looked futuristic – in fact it didn’t look like a spacesuit at all, lacking all the usual bulky packs and gloves and helmet. Instead, it looked more like a wetsuit, jet black and slightly reflective, with a transparent patch over the face. It seemed loose and baggy as he pulled it on, but as soon as he pressed the button that sealed it, it conformed easily to his form. Not tight – it stretched effortlessly when he needed it to – but form-fitting.
He amused himself for a moment watching the suited Ryder bending over to pick up a dropped datareader.
"All ready?" Warwick asked, getting a show of radioed ‘yesses’. "Then here we go!"
She tapped a control on the wall and the airlock door opened. They crowded into the airlock and she closed the inner door, evacuated the airlock – Saunders was relieved to find he didn’t notice the absence of air: his suit was fine indeed – and, finally, hit the button that opened the outer one.
The outer door, armoured and barely perceptible from the outside, slowly slid downwards. Below, it began to telescope into one of the mysterious stairways like the one they’d used to get off the Atlantis. Impressive though this feat was, though, no-one watched it. All eyes were on the Martian landscape: a distant hill, a nearby boulder, the edge of the Vale itself. The surface looked like God’s cutting block, scarred and scratched, truly a wonder of the universe.
"So…" Ying finally began. "So who gets to step on it first?"
"As we arranged," Warwick said, with a smile barely visible behind her slightly mirrored ‘faceplate’. Saunders noted, to his amazement, that her suit had even moulded itself to her blonde ponytail, which now flopped behind her as a black tentacle – she looked like one of those aliens out of Star Wars, he thought. Far more comfortable than a helmet, he thought, gingerly touching a suited hand to his suited head.
As they had arranged. The stairs touched the ground at last. Linking arms for safety, they walked down the stairs together as though they were in some cosmic musical. Finally, they all stood on the last step and waited. Warwick looked at what seemed to be a watch, but was actually some sort of communication device. "Synchronising with the other team," she said. "And…three…two…one…"
In perfect synch, they all jumped forward and landed on the Martian terrain, promptly banging into each other and going sprawling on the ground. Saunders let out a laugh, and his was far from the only one. "One small cockup for man, one giant flamingo-up for mankind!" he crowed.
"Plagiarist," Ryder said again with a smile, rising to her feet. Like the rest of them, her suit was now coated in reddish-brown iron oxide dust.
"So," Saunders said, rubbing his suited hands together and marvelling at the friction. "Let’s see if there’s life on Mars."
"If we haven’t just crushed it," muttered Kuznetsov, picking himself up.
The second shuttle was named Hieronymous and its landing went much the same. Paul Nganga’s mind was divided between staring at the Martian landscape and chattering with his ‘new friend’, Genevieve, but there was still a small sliver left devoted to worrying about the Ying business. A pity he couldn’t speak to him now, but he and Saunders had had to arrange to be on separate shuttles, and as it happened Saunders had ended up with Ying. Nganga shook his head. Saunders wasn’t taking it seriously: he hadn’t been there, he hadn’t seen how worried Ying had been. It took a lot for him to show emotion, and then he had been emoting in spades. Whatever this was, it had worried him. Nganga wondered if he’d had a chance to look at those records he’d been talking about…
"There it is!" Genevieve called, pointing. Nganga nodded, his heart racing. Surely, on the plains before them, there was the Viking II, arguably one of NASA’s most successful probes, yet one whose results had always been frustratingly vague.
"Someone hold Spencer back," Nganga said to her dryly, using a private radio channel. The controls weren’t exactly intuitive – a mixture of head motions, verbal commands, and the tongue – but he was catching on fast.
The lander sat before them, looking absurdly primitive even to the twenty-firsters’ eyes. It was hard to believe that it could ever have gotten here in one piece all the way from Earth. But here it was, an object of metal and plastic, made by human hand, though now covered in a thin layer of reddish dust.
"I’ve seen it before, in a museum," Genevieve said in awe. "But then it had been all cleaned up and restored, of course. Now…"
"Now, it’s…dormant," Nganga agreed. On impulse he reached out and touched the metal of the lander, shivering, though his suit blanketed out the coldness of the metal. Outside, it was coming up to noon, and it was about fourteen degrees Centigrade: chilly for anyone save Canadians, Russians and so forth. "Almost…dead," he said, staring at the Viking.
"At least there’ll be no walking jellyfish around to hit it with a spear," Steffen Auerbach said, obscurely. He took a long look at the lander, then looked away and began examining a rock formation a few metres away. "Little change from the original pictures," he said. "When I think of us traipsing through here, disturbing rocks and dust that have stood like this since the 1970s…"
"It makes me feel liberated," Nganga argued. He lifted a small rock and hurled it like a cricket bowler, marveling at how far it went under the weaker Martian gravity. That had taken some getting used to, too: it was nothing compared to zero-G, of course, or even Lunar gravity (as Genevieve told him), but it was only about half as much as Earth’s.
They watched the rock sail away. "What do you mean?" Auerbach asked eventually.
Nganga smiled, his white teeth showing up in startling relief against his dark skin, even through the faceplate. "I mean that we’re not in that NASA mindset anymore, trying desperately to extract every iota of data from a few scans by a robot probe." He picked up another rock and tossed it from hand to hand – awkwardly; the different gravity was still throwing him off. "No mapping and naming every tiny pebble in a square metre: if I want to study this rock, I’ll damn well take it back to the ship and stuff it under a microscope. But I won’t, because this one doesn’t look very interesting." He tossed it away.
Auerbach nodded to show he got the point, but he still looked a bit sulky: he’d been a lifelong proponent of unmanned missions. Spencer, on the other hand, was practically hopping from foot to foot. "Please can I crack the probe open now?" he asked.
"Very well, but be careful," Genevieve said reluctantly. The expression on her face was not unlike that of Auerbach’s, but for a different reason: to her, the Viking was a precious, fragile museum piece that should be preserved. Here and now, though…
Smiling, Spencer got to work on the Viking. "I don’t know why he’s bothering," Genevieve said to Nganga over the private channel. "We know there’s no native life on Mars, and probably never was…there’s a few simple things on Enceladus and Europa, and a couple of other outer system moons, but nothing here."
"Odd that, really," Nganga said. "You’d think the cold...but then those outer planet moons are warmed by geothermals and gravity squeeze, aren’t they." He looked at Mars. "This place seems pretty dormant, though."
"For now, yes," Genevieve said. She bent down, getting red dust on her knees, and searched through the dust on the ground. Nganga joined her, surprised: he’d have expected someone from her era to balk at that sort of hand’s-on work, preferring to use a scanner at arm’s-length.
She finally produced a pebble. "Not a bad one," she said. "Almost pure iron oxide. There’s a lot of it about here."
"I’d noticed," Nganga said dryly, gesturing dramatically to the red sand, red sky and red rocks.
Genevieve nodded and blushed, so she matched everything else. "I meant that this kind of rock is the one commonly used by the ore extraction plants here in my time."
Nganga slowly nodded. "But how do you extract iron without oxygen?" he asked.
"There are some ways," Genevieve said slowly, "but we can get the oxygen from water – uh, what do you call it…"
"Electrolysis," Nganga supplied. "At least, that’s what we call it now. So this whole planet will become a major steel producer?"
"Not all of it, and not usually pure steel," Genevieve corrected. "Very uncommon in my time to find it except in an engineered alloy. But that sort of thing, yes."
Nganga stared at the plain, imagined a hundred Pittsburghs or Sheffields built upon it. The image wasn’t exactly pleasant.
"Anything?" Auerbach said in the background.
"I think I’ve got my hand caught inside a mass spectrometer," Spencer said faintly, his whole torso inside the Viking lander.
Interesting as the plain was, Saunders was itching to go and look at Valles Marineris, and he wasn’t the only one. He knew that billions of people back on Earth were watching this live, via the camera feeds from the suits being sent up to the Voordijk and relayed, and he was certain that they wouldn’t want them to grub around in the dust all day.
"All right," he said, cupping a hand to his mouth theatrically as he was communicating by radio anyway. "We’ve got enough rocks for study between us. Now how about we take a look at the Vale?"
"At last!" Warwick said with a smile; she’d been sitting there bored for ten minutes. None of this was new to her, Saunders realised.
"How precisely do we get down there?" Ying Liwei inquired.
"As I said before these suits contain repulsors in the boots," Warwick said, pointing. "Not very powerful but more than enough to break your landing after jumping a long distance." Pause. "To be safe, there are also small chemi-jets built in."
"How do we operate them?" Kuznetsov asked. Judging by the way he was standing rigidly and twitching his face behind the faceplate, he was working through the control menus.
"I’ll explain on the way," Warwick said, "but it’s quite simple. Pretty hard to do anything wrong, really…"
They walked from the shuttle to the edge of the canyon; it was about a mile, but they bounced along with strides over two metres long in the Martian gravity.They slowed to a halt with a good distance to spare. Then, cautiously, they crept up to the edge itself. Saunders caught himself humming "With Cat-Like Tread" from The Pirates of Penzance, and told himself to shut up.
Then the edge was there, and before them…
It telescoped away from the vision like nothing he had ever seen before. It seemed inconceivable, but the bottom of the canyon was over six miles away. He was standing at the top of a cliff higher than the summit of Mount Everest – and on a smaller planet, too, which only added to the effect. The sci-fi fan in him mentally inserted six Imperial Star Destroyers into the gap, and he whistled slowly.
Of course, the bottom was also a good distance ahead of them; it would take all day to hike there. If they dropped straight down from here, it’d only be a few hundred metres to the bottom of the first lip, part of the Ius Chasmata. And that seemed to be what Warwick was planning. She turned to Lombardi: "Bruno, want to show them how it’s done?"
Lombardi grinned. "I love skydiving." And he jumped.
All eyes were on him as the lithe Albionian gently turned in midair, positioning his feet downward, his arms in the ‘Crucifixion Position’ as he’d referred to it in the briefing. He moved them slightly, adjusting his path. Though they were almost directly above him now, they could just about see the tiny chemi-jets from his boots, and the odd wobbly distortion – like heat over a radiator – of the repulsor field.
"Is it like your shields?" Saunders had asked, and been told that no, this was an older Culvanai-derived technology that worked in gravity, but wasn’t much use for military purposes. The Janvier-Graham shields only worked out of a gravity well, but were much more powerful. Professor Bone would be interested indeed.
But now he brushed the thought aside and stared at Bone. Even this short drop was equivalent to jumping off the CN Tower on Earth, and even only under half Earth gravity, it should be fatal.
Agonising seconds as Lombardi dropped. Saunders switched his own vision to look through Lombardi’s lenses and saw the air rushing towards ‘him’, heavy with pink dust, the indistinct ground below slowly rising. And then –
Saunders hastily switched back before impact. But then that was it – Lombardi was there, just a dot on the landscape unless you zoomed in, and then he was grinning broadly, waving at them and blowing silly exaggerated kisses.
"Well, he’s done it," Kuznetsov murmured. "And we…er…"
"Can’t let the side down," Saunders said in a comedy British accent. There were a few bursts of nervous laughter. No-one liked doing this, but no-one dared not take part in anything the Selenites suggested.
"All right," Warwick said peremptorily, "I’m with you now. On the count of three, we shall jump. Remember the controls are on menu three, but the emergencies should cut in either way – though that’ll be a rougher ride. Are you ready?"
"Of course not," Saunders muttered, then switched to the public channel and answered bravely in the affirmative.
"Then we shall jump! One! Two! Three!"
Warwick pushed them, of course, or they would have stood there all day dawdling and staring. Saunders felt the ground fall away beneath him, the air rushing around him as he turned over and over in the air, adrenalin rising to squeeze his heart and inject panic into his veins. His own frantic panting echoed in his ears. Mars, the sky, Mars, the sky…they whirled around and around him, threatening to black him out…
No. He wouldn’t let that happen. He concentrated on an image, that of Australia winning the Ashes in 2005. It was an image that had been imprinted on his mind all the more strongly for the fact that it hadn’t actually happened. Warne raising the Ashes, the distraught Poms for yet another year…Ah. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, then, ignoring the flickering light and dark redness outside, reached for the third menu and took control.
Disorientation took him again for a few moments as he compensated, but then he had it. He opened his eyes.
He was standing upright, the repulsorfield wobbling around his feet and making him feel vaguely like he had pins and needles, the little chemi-jets firing from his boots. He felt like a really crap superhero, not quite able to fly. But it was still an exhilarating experience, watching the dust-laden air rush up from below, almost blocking the view of the first lip floor below. He turned and looked at the cliff face, saw layer after layer of strata that an exogeologist would give his right kidney for, all whizzing by in a split second.
It took seconds, but it seemed longer. By the time they were actually approaching the ground, he’d managed to steer himself over to the others, who were now falling in a group. Ying and Kuznetsov seemed to have got the hang of it with their customary casual ease, while Ryder had taken a little longer, but was now being held by Warwick while the lieutenant spoke instructions to her on a private channel. Sparks flew where their feet were knocking together and the repulsor fields were interacting. Finally Warwick let go, expertly flapping her arms to twist her away, and Ryder was managing on her own.
Saunders nodded to himself, and tried to avoid the image of the repulsors overcompensating and bouncing him back up to the top like a ball of Silly Putty.
Now they were three hundred metres away…two hundred…one hundred. "Ready," Warwick said on the secure channel. Below them, Lombardi was visible even without zoom, still grinning and waving.
Saunders flicked to the menu, made sure the automatic cut-in was enabled. He knew it was virtually impossible to turn off, but the obsessive in him wanted to make su-
The jets intensified, slowing them. He smiled, looked at Ryder and Warwick, noted they were all being decelerated in turn. Kuznetsov, a few of the other scientists…
There was a gap in the circle. Saunders blinked, looked up, then looked down.
Ying was still falling at the same speed.
No; he was accelerating.
His jets had completely cut out, and the telltale flicker of repulsors had vanished from his feet. He was waving his arms desperately, incidentally upsetting his trajectory, but there was nothing on radio. Saunders cut in his own instead. "Lieutenant Warwick!" he shouted. "Professor Ying-"
Warwick turned to him, then to the empty space where Ying should be, then up, and then down.
She caught sight of him just as he hit.
He bounced, but not like Silly Putty. He bounced like a doll thrown from a block of flats, or…or a man leaping off the CN Tower. He hit on his feet, miraculously, and his legs shattered under him. The bounce could have driven his femur into his heart, it seemed powerful enough. As though in slow motion, Saunders saw Ying’s faceplate suddenly turn red as blood splashed up from within. His stomach turned.
"Liwei!" he called, uselessly. He barely noticed as he and the others dropped to the ground harmlessly, their repulsors lowering them gently and perfectly. As soon as he touched down, he raced over to the broken form of the Chinese professor, the others behind him.
Lombardi was already there, his normally swarthy face pale. He shook his head before Warwick could even ask a question. "He’s…he’s gone," Lombardi said in disbelief, feeding the signal from the suit’s own lifesign readings to the rest. Everything was in the red. "The shock stopped his heart, and some bone was…" Lombardi’s voice broke, "driven into his brain."
Warwick’s face fell. "I’ll get the shuttle down," she muttered, fiddling with a remote. But it was she, not the shuttle, that was on autopilot. No amount of twenty-fourth century miracles could save Ying Liwei now.
Saunders stared at what had so recently been a man, thought of what Nganga had said, and shivered.
DUM, DUM. "Tragedy hits the mission to Mars – Chinese representative Ying Liwei has died in an unexplained accident. The Chinese president is to issue a statement at three o’clock." DUM, DUM. "On the Moon as on Earth, calls have been made for Selenite leader Aldrin Garrows to provide an explanation for the event." DUM, DUM. "Protests are sparked worldwide, many protestors claiming that the Selenites have a hidden agenda." "I’m live in New York, where a mob has surrounded the United Nations headquarters and is demanding that the Selenite ambassadors leave Earth." "All this and more, on the BBC." Boop, boop, boop, boop…
Rachel turned away from the giant video screen and shuddered. The BBC and the other news services had displayed the camera feed from Ying’s horrific death as it came through, and now was repeating it every few minutes. Even here in central Cambridge, the crowd looking up at the public screen were murmuring with discontent. People – and not just the usual conspiracy theorists – were beginning to openly suggest that Ying had been bumped off by the Selenites for learning something of their dark ulterior motives.
She tried to ignore the thought at the back of her mind, the thought that said ‘what if these people knew YOU were a Selenite’. She had a graphic imagination.
Shaking her head, she entered the small, crowded city centre supermarket and glanced around. She’d lived here, in twenty-first century Cambridge, for more than two weeks now. She’d walked the streets, with Janet and on her own, buying items with archaic coins and notes, exchanging small talk with shopkeepers and trying hard not to show her accent, browsing through bookstores and finding priceless volumes of Purged books selling for £1.50. That was going to be some racket when some bright spark on Luna discovered it…
Assuming of course that the Earthers would even knowingly let a Selenite set foot on their planet again.
She shook her head again. She knew she was overreacting. It was right after a traumatic event, and event that had been broadcast live around the world. Not the assassination of JFK, not even the ’04 Martyrdom could compare to this: every eye had already been watching the live footage from Mars. Opinion of the Selenites had gone in a millisecond from a surge of favour to one of wrath.
Rachel paused for a moment and examined the newspaper headlines on the rack. She still found them archaic – there were equivalents in the twenty-fourth century, but not cheaply printed with that poisonous ink on disintegrating thin paper. She’d learned enough recently to know that at least half of the headlines had an obvious political point to make: the Telegraph dazedly carried a non-quote from David Cameron about the Ying affair, whilst the Guardian had dredged up some statistics on how the Blair premiership had misjudged foreign states’ intentions over the years. She smiled at one tabloid, which – amidst all the anti-Selenite sensationalism – carried a little story saying that some Humans remained decidedly pro-Selenite: Sir Patrick Moore was even now demanding to be on the first voyage to the Moon.
She bought a few items, having already made the bulk of her purchases. Going to America required some more clothes, though at least she could wear her one set of comfortable future clothes on the plane. Posing as herself…Andrew could think like a wuttufing painkiller, she reflected with a chuckle. She picked up an apple, looked at it critically, and then put it back when she remembered what Janet had said about U.S. customs being so strict on such things.
Finally she collected everything she wanted, waited impatiently in the queue, and ended up speaking to a cashier with a broad Essex accent she couldn’t quite understand. Using Emergency Backup Plan #1, she imitated the contemporary twangy Usan accent as best she could, which was a get out of jail free card. They all assumed that foreigners, and especially Usans – Americans, she mentally corrected herself – could be excused any degree of ignorance or incompetence.
In some ways, she reflected wryly, the British hadn’t changed at all.
Clutching the nonbiodegradable bag gingerly, she left the shop and began to walk back, pausing as she passed through the town square to look up at the giant video screen.
She almost wished she hadn’t. Garrows was on it, giving a speech, appealing for calm, she guessed. It had to be a guess, because she couldn’t see his face very clearly behind the splatters of rotten fruit that the crowd were throwing…
Rachel shivered, and resolved once again to leave this world forever.
"Dammit, Chris!" Garrows yelled at the hologram. "How in the Union could this have happened?! I know those suit designs – there’s no way in hell this Ying could have disabled the safety by accident – it’s all hardwired!"
Though the real thing was several million miles away, the hologram leaned back nevertheless like a tree bending to the wind of Garrows’ tirade. Nuttall looked tired and, beneath it, bubbling with a quiet fury of his own. "I agree, First Consul," he said formally. "It’s simply impossible that the suit failed by accident; the only time I’ve ever seen it happen is when they were shot to pieces by Rómidi boarders in the Struggle. This one was new, untouched, and just tested. It worked fine when Ying tried it on before."
Garrows paused, Nuttall’s logic slowly penetrating his anger. "And you’re sure it was the same suit," he said.
"Positive," Nuttall replied. "It was a grisly business to get uh…what was left of Professor Ying out of the suit, but we’ve examined it, and it’s definitely the same one. We’re going over the circuitry now, but my scientists have eliminated the possibility that it was a direct mechanical failure or a bug in the repair nanobots."
Garrows frowned. "What’s that leave? Software failure?"
"Could be, but it’d have to be damned specific to override the built-in hardwired safeties," Nuttall said thoughtfully. "Maybe if it was programmed to pull a Newton Effect…but I’m getting sidetracked. My computer people are going over it now, but it’ll take a long time to go through the code."
Garrows sighed. "But it wasn’t an accident." It was a statement.
"Like you said, sir, no way in hell," Nuttall said worriedly. "Which means we’ve got a…saboteur on board."
The two men glanced at each other, or at least each others’ holograms, and then looked away with a mutual shudder. On that ship was an individual – maybe more than one – who could not be trusted. The spacer’s old nightmare, and it was affecting Garrows as well.
"It couldn’t have been from before the Shift," Garrows said flatly. "Not a random industrial sabotage by one of the nutter groups. Not if Ying tested the suit earlier on and it worked."
"Not unless it was only supposed to activate on the second use,
specifically to avoid being found out by tests like that," Nuttall pointed
out, "but I think we can assume it was here and now. Unfortunately."
They paused for a moment, shuffling their notes. "Who do you think?" Garrows asked abruptly.
"I’ve got my suspicions," Nuttall said heavily. "You need motive and ability. The contemporaries have motive: whoever wants Eastasia or China not to get the same advantage as everyone else. But they don’t have the ability to hack our systems like that. Okk – what about others?"
Nuttall narrowed his eyes. "Did I tell you about the Culvanai on this ship?" he asked quietly.
Garrows blinked. "That’s a serious accusation, Admiral. And President Rodriguez is addressing their concerns."
"Nevertheless, we know that at least one group is willing to go against us for their ends," Nuttall said. "Maybe not them – but maybe some radical Miradi or Stentyrrean…or, before I sound like a Christforcer, I can’t trust the Humans either. Could be some fanatical Sess Lib or a Rodinan, want to wipe out the Union before we can rebuild it…"
"It’s a mess," Garrows agreed. "All right. I’ve already issued one statement, but it’s not helping matters much."
"What about the Eas – uh, the Chinese?"
"Their president was coldly polite and only demanded an inquiry. They still don’t dare antagonise us. I’ve promised him we’ll be copying full copies of the data to them and giving them more places on future missions. No," he continued, "the problem is the people."
"The Chinese?" Nuttall said in surprise. "I thought they were a communist dictatorship-"
"They are. They only let the people protest when it quietly reflects their own opinions, the ones they don’t dare voice. Like now," Garrows added grimly. "And it’s just as bad elsewhere, especially Europe and Usa – the UN building is being attacked by protestors baying for Canizzarro’s blood."
Nuttall obviously forced down a snide smirk at that thought. "Sir, what can we do to help?"
"Firstly I’m throwing more incentives at the contemporaries, though I don’t know if they’ll pick them up," Garrows said. "I got Canizzarro to offer to build a 2100-era fusion reactor for anyone who’ll send us a certain food quota…but the British delegate at the UN, a Sir Christopher Morgan, made a speech about it all being a sugarcoated cyanide pill."
"The British delegate?" Nuttall said, shocked. "I didn’t think we were that paranoid, even then – now…"
"Doesn’t matter, Admiral. It’s all realpolitick." Garrows sighed. "Look, I need someone to blame for this whole affair. Or something, if you can’t find someone. And do it fast, or…"
"Or said someone will be me," Nuttall said humourlessly. "Okk. I knew the risks when I took on the job. It can’t be worse than flying a desk, I said."
Garrows ignored him. "Stick to the mission schedule, don’t let it hold you back. And try not to clamp down on the contemporary scientists, even if you do suspect one of them."
Nuttall nodded. "I’ll get right back to the investigation now. Nuttall out." The hologram vanished.
The First Consul sighed. Would that all his problems be dismissed so easily…
Nuttall was back in the computer lab within moments. "Anything?" he barked.
Ying’s suit, still crumpled and coated in an awful mixture of Martian dust and dried blood, sat on a sterile table with its access ports plugged into the diagnostics computer. Two computer scientists – he hadn’t learned their names yet – glanced up at him. "We’ve gone over everything on a first level scan and nothing seems amiss," the male one said.
"There bloody well IS something amiss, unless you can produce a walking talking Ying from your back pocket," Nuttall thundered; the tech shrank back. "Go over it on a second level scan, and a third, and a fourth. It may be well hidden, but find it." He shuddered.
Behind him, a door ground back and two figures emerged; Nuttall spared them a glance, instantly recognising them as Jack Gunn and Genevieve Chenier. His eyes were drawn back after their cursory glance, for this was Gunn as he had never seen him before. Gone was the disinterested smooth operator of before: his eyes were wide and tearing, his hands shook. Genevieve, not looking her best herself, was walking along behind him and, judging by the way she kept tugging at his arm, trying to dissuade him from doing what he was about to do.
Gunn stopped before Nuttall and gave a hopeless civilian imitation of a military salute. "Sir…" he began, his voice cracking.
"Glad you’re here, Mr Gunn," Nuttall replied. "We could use your help-"
"Sir," Gunn repeated, hanging his head, staring at his boots. "Sir, I killed him. It was me. I was the one who programmed the suits. I must have made a mistake. I might as well have plunged a knife into his heart and had done with it. I killed him." He gabbled the words in a dull, emotionless tone, as though the shock had burned all the enthalpy out of him.
"Mr Gunn!" Nuttall said sharply. Gunn looked up, startled, and came to something approaching attention. "I do not need an instant martyr, just add water! That may be what Garrows wants, but I’m damned if I zap an innocent man! There was no way in hell a simple programming mistake could have caused this, it would require a full invasive Newton Effect virus programme! Now get over there and help those two runners-up find out what the hell went wrong!"
Gunn’s eyes bulged, he rocked back on his feet, but then the shock seemed to burn through his guilt. "Sir…sir, you’re right," he murmured. "It must have been a deliberate sabotage…I’ll…" he wandered over to the two computer scientists and dazedly joined in the discussion.
Genevieve, meanwhile, stared at Nuttall in horror. "A deliberate sabotage?" she repeated. "Here, now?"
"Can’t be anything else, like I just told your friend," Nuttall grunted. "I don’t like it any better than you do – worse, in fact – but it’s got to be said. We’ve got someone on board this ship who isn’t quite what they seem."
Genevieve drew back. "That’s…horrible."
"Worse," Nuttall repeated. "The nightmare of every spacer. Out here, you need to know that you can rely on anyone you meet, it’s the only way we’ll survive. Infiltrators and traitors…we had it bad in the Struggle, you know…now that was hell..."
Even in her shocked state, Genevieve knew better than to let Nuttall ramble on with one of his ‘During the War…’ stories. "S-sir, what can we do about it?"
"We can bloody well find a head and stick it on a pole to appease the baying masses of Earth – and Luna for that matter," Nuttall said baldly. "This could badly wound our efforts to cooperate, maybe even kill them."
"But what’s the alternative?" Genevieve protested. "We need food, and-"
Her hand went to her mouth as she caught on. "Oh."
"Quite," Nuttall said grimly. "I heard that one of the radical Christforce factions – that Jerzewicz guy, the nutter, you know – has said that we should invade Earth and take what we need by force. Claims they’re not real Humans because of their different belief systems in this period."
"That’s…dangerous," Genevieve said.
"Interesting, in the sense Professor Ying’s people use it," Nuttall said caustically. "Even Wen’s denounced that one, but there are still a few mobs in the streets on Luna…small ones yet, but if we don’t crush this before it starts…"
Their eyes met, the worried young politician’s daughter and the cranky old admiral. They shared the same thought.
"Then that’s what we must do."
Saunders had had an instructive day. For one thing, he had learned the Kenyan for "I Told You So."
He sighed, and resumed his lookout post. He was standing just around the corner of the corridor on which all their rooms were sited, in a position where he could keep an eye on all of them. There was Ying’s room, the door standing open and the indicators around it recoloured to a shade of yellow that meant quarantine. Investigators had already been in there to look around, apparently to see if Ying had been reading up on the suits enough to somehow upset his own. They hadn’t seemed to find anything, though they’d refused to tell Nganga when he’d asked.
Now, Nganga had suggested to the team that they should get together for drinks in one of the lounges and talk the situation over. The idea had been greeted warmly by the shaken team, and now they were all over there, toasting Ying’s memory over futuristic cocktails and trying to stop Spencer from assaulting the aliens.
But Saunders was here, having given an excuse which Nganga had made a big thing about: keep up the impression that they didn’t get along. He’d have to be there in a moment, but for now he had a few minutes…
He turned the corner, inched down the corridor, glanced from side to side, and ducked into Ying’s room.
He knew the Selenites could well be tracking him by the chip in his hand, or have sensors in the room. He didn’t care. If they really had arranged Ying’s death because he learned something dangerous, what were they going to do, kill him too? He’d already heard the news from Earth; they couldn’t afford another death.
The logic wasn’t complete, but he didn’t let it go any further lest it persuade him out of doing this again. He sat down at Ying’s computer and, after a few false starts, found the equivalent of the history file, where it told him what he’d been looking at on the database. He glanced at the timestamps, starting at the beginning. Most of the early stuff was about technology (as Saunders’ own had been) and history, which several articles on China – most of which seemed to have been blocked by the Selenites’ filters. Not surprising; the rumours that had leaked out said that China would have been heavily involved in the Third World War.
He moved on. More esoteric topics mixed in among the technology stuff, things about the different alien races on board, something about a colony planet named Taikuo, and then…
Saunders blinked. There were ten or twelve articles with timestamps together, and the first was on languages.
He selected it and glanced at the article. It was a very general overview of all languages, Human and alien, including historical ones. He found what he was looking for at the bottom: a programme that let one put in a sample of voice and the computer would identify the language.
He couldn’t resist trying it. Hitting record, he said ‘J’aime allez á la plage.’
It came up: 98.5% PROBABILITY: EARLY 21st CENTURY SCHOOLBOOK PARISIAN FRENCH, AS SPOKEN BY INDIVIDUAL WITH MODERATE EARLY 21st CENTURY SOUTH-EAST AUSTRALIAN ACCENT.
Saunders whistled. "You’re good!" He let his fingertip drift over a menu, looking for more options, momentarily having forgotten his quest-
Then he saw the menu for ‘recent files…’
He selected it. There was his sample, and one other. He selected that.
It was a crackly, buzzing, echoey recording of someone – he thought he recognised Jack Gunn’s voice – muttering to himself. First in English, and then seguing into some very guttural, hissing language. A Slavic tongue maybe? Saunders wasn’t sure. Soon find out, he thought. He hit the prediction button again.
He stared at the results for a long moment. The computer warned that there was only a 68% chance that its conclusion was correct, thanks to the poor quality of the recording. But if it was correct…
Quickly, he glanced through the rest of the articles Ying had checked out afterwards. Their titles…individually innocuous, perhaps, the product of someone interested in the history of the future beyond Earth itself. But taken together…
Ying had decided to believe the predictor’s conclusion too.
And now he was dead.
"And there was me thinking this was the twenty-first century," Rachel grumbled. "Seems more like the eighteenth, from where I’m sitting."
Andrew laughed. "I know what you mean," he said, "but the choice was one seat in first class, or four in economy…"
"I’m sure you made a great sacrifice," she muttered. As things had turned out, she and Andrew were squeezed into two of the tiny economy seats together, and Janet and Luke were stuck in two identical ones further back. Andrew had optimistically predicted that the plane would be near-empty, given the fear of flying that had sprung up after the Shift, but there just happened to be one exception to that: planes flying to New York.
The 747 was filled with two groups of people: hippie types with bags full of ‘Welcome Future Dudes’ signs, and angry contrarians with bags full of ‘[Insert Name Here] = Hitler’ signs. There’d been a few of those on the flights even before the Ying tragedy, but now the world was quick to start blaming all their problems of Garrows and the Selenites. Accusations were now flying that the Selenites had even deliberately caused the chaos of the Shift.
Rachel had flaunted herself as a Selenite at Heathrow, wearing her one future suit, but now she had hidden it beneath a twenty-first century overcoat of Andrew’s. The last think she wanted was this crowd of hate-filled whackjobs filleting her for the unforgiveable crime of being caught at the wrong place at the wrong, hah, time.
She deliberately turned away and peered out of the window: a small, much-scratched, dusty thing, but she could dimly make out the clouds below, and the dark blue-grey waters of the Atlantic. It looked so different from this knee-height of just a few thousand metres; she was used to seeing it either from orbit, or from the mere hundred metres or so of an aircar. This, though, was almost a different world: far below them, she could see ships on the ocean, but only as specks accompanied by the white trail of their wakes.
She pointed one out to Andrew, who peered over to look, then nodded. "We must be getting close to New York," he said. "Hold on, I’ll switch over to the map."
This airline helpfully provided a live map showing where the plane was at any time. Andrew flicked off the film he’d been watching – an execrable Usan comedy that Rachel suspected she’d have found unfunny even if she’d gotten the contemporary pop-culture references – and switched his little screen over to the right setting. The map appeared: blue sea, green land, and the little logo of their plane, accompanied by a red trail.
"Remember, we’re landing at JFK," Andrew said. He was apparently a jetsetter, travelling fairly often to Usa’s eastern seaboard for conferences. Rachel was glad of it: she’d have been caught flat-footed if she’d dared to navigate the confusing and hectic world of twenty-first century air travel alone.
Rachel glanced over, noted the time counter. "Just another half hour," she muttered. "Eight hours! Eight hours just to get from Britain to New York! What is the world coming to," she added with a faint grin. "Don’t you even have supersonic passenger liners yet?"
"Not…anymore," Andrew said awkwardly.
Rachel gave him a puzzled expression, then went back to the map. After a few more minutes, the city of New York appeared in the window, and she was able to get a good look at it. "It’s…huge," she breathed.
Andrew quirked an eyebrow. "I would have thought that it’d be even bigger in your time."
Rachel shook her head; her dark hair, which she’d pulled back into a simple ponytail, brushed against the tired old fabric of the seat’s headrest, and she felt rather unclean. "It was destroyed and rebuilt, with fewer skyscrapers and more parks, more spread out," she said. "More dramatically even than London, as the whole place was levelled and they had to start again from scratch. And look at Manhattan! In my time you’re not allowed to build skyscrapers there."
Andrew shook his head in disbelief. "That’s like not being allowed to plant apple trees in an orchard."
"I suppose it must seem that way, to you," Rachel murmured. She stared again at the city. "How many people must live there now…"
"Depends where you draw the line at what constitutes NYC. Eighteen million? Maybe more." Andrew pointed. "Here we go. Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty…and I think I can just make out the UN, over there…"
"Really?" Rachel asked, following his finger. "I thought it wasn’t big enough to see from here – oh."
She understood what he meant now. He wasn’t pointing at the UN building itself, but the vast crowd of protestors filling all the streets around it.
Rachel shivered, and pulled her overcoat tighter around herself. The sooner she was off this world, the better.
The President of the United States stared down at his notes again. Things weren’t looking good. The Ying incident had ignited a torrent of anti-Selenite feeling, which didn’t bode well for any attempts to work with them – and he knew all too well that he had no choice but to work with the Selenites, if he wanted the US to remain a world power. The President had made a career of not caring too much about world opinion, but now the opposition was raging within his own country too, and amongst some of his own supporters. He felt squeezed in a vice. "I guess this is what Tony has to put up with about the EU," he muttered to himself. Something that was detested by a large percentage of his population, yet vital for the survival of the country’s power…
Something stirred in the Oval Office. The President creased his brow in annoyance and looked up, expecting to see an aide who’d somehow managed to get in without alerting the staff.
Instead, he saw…possibly the last person he’d have expected to see. Certainly not in his top one hundred people he’d expect to see there.
"Good afternoon, Mr President," said Aldrin Garrows. "I think we have much to discuss."
The President recovered quickly. "First Consul Garrows," he said slowly, rolling the vowel sounds. "To what do I owe the…pleasure of this visit, hmm?"
Garrows smiled and took an uninvited seat. The President considered hitting his security button, decided it would do little good if Garrows had managed to get past them in the first place. "Mr President," Garrows said, "we have a problem."
The President raised an eyebrow. "You have a problem, sir," he said. "Whether we do-"
"Don’t give me that," Garrows warned, narrowing his already slanted eyes. "You know as well as I do that you can’t afford not to work with us."
The President sat back in his chair and gave Garrows a measuring stare. "What if all the nations of the world agreed to a boycott of you?" he said slowly. "You need our food and other supplies. You would have no choice but to be more open with us – or try and take it by force."
Garrows nodded slowly. "All of which are options that my cabinet members have seen fit to inform me of," he muttered, "but you know as well as I do that the situation is impossible. There will always be one country, or a dozen, or a hundred, that is willing to flout world and popular opinion in order to gain the long-term advantage of our favour. And one of those countries might well be able to feed us just by themselves."
The President inclined his head, an acknowledgement of a political point scored. "Kyoto all over again," he muttered to himself. "Very well, Mr Garrows. I reckon there’s a reason why you’re here, and not in, say, Number Ten or the Kremlin or Tiananmen Square."
"Yes?" Garrows said.
"You’ve discovered that you can’t go through with your Wilsonian claptrap about all nations being equal," the President said, his voice hard. "A laudable goal, maybe, but you can’t just ignore the facts on the ground."
He gestured to a world map. "Here and now, Mr Garrows, we could kick the asses of every other nation on this planet, maybe twice over. Hold on to ’em, no, but beat ’em? Sure. And you can’t afford to ignore that."
Garrows shrugged. "That’s not relevant to this discussion, Mr President. The main reason why I am here is that the UN happens to be located in your country, and I must be there. I must address the nations myself. And to get there, I need your help."
The President raised his eyebrows. "You got in here okay," he said, "and without alerting any of my Secret Service men. Why do you need my help now?"
Garrows hesitated, then nodded decisively. "It would somewhat undermine my point…if I tried to make a speech about Luna not being a threat, after I’ve just used our technology to bypass all that security," he said. "And it wouldn’t be so easy to get through all those people as it would just to get through your few bodyguards."
"Hmm, well I wouldn’t know how your tech works," the President replied. He wrinkled his brow in thought. "A lot of folks there, sure," he said, glancing down at one of his reports. "Over fifty thousand, they say. That’s pretty swell going for just ten hours since the story broke."
"I hear they’re burning me in effigy at the corner of Fifth and Third."
Bush extended a hand, as though to shake Garrows’, and grinned. "Join the club, my friend."
Garrows laughed. "But you see how I must do something now, before this goes any further."
The President nodded. "Oh, I see it. Whether you can really accomplish anything by addressing the UN – well. That’s your business." He set his hands flat on his desk. "All right. So I get you in. What’s in it for me?"
"World peace?" Garrows suggested, grinning glassily. "All right. What do you think?"
"How about most-favoured nation status?" the President suggested. "My esteemed predecessor," he winked, "saw no problem conferring it on the People’s Republic, and whatever the media may say, we’re not as bad as that."
Garrows chewed it over. "Nothing on paper," he warned. "We can’t afford that now, particularly considering the Ying incident. We need to smooth things over with the…uh…the People’s Republic."
"The fact that you hesitate to remember communist terms, is gratifying to my heart," the President remarked.
"But," Garrows continued, "yes, we may be able to work out an
arrangement. In any case, Usa – sorry, the United States – has the best
developed space facilities of any contemporary nation. That makes you the
natural first choice to host our redevelopment programmes. We’ll need
Stairways to Heaven – uh, space elevators, I mean – Slingshots, and new
"The NASA guys will think they died and went to heaven," the President said dryly. "And it suits me, too. But this has to be a two-way street, you know. Y’all will have to reciprofacate with the technology; we’re not gonna just be your drawers of wood and hewers of water."
"A two-way street?" Garrows repeated. "In the twenty-fourth we just say: like a Stairway. An, uh, space elevator is only energy neutral if you send down as much stuff as you bring up. And we’ll keep to that."
The President nodded. "In that case, sir, you have a deal."
This time, they shook hands for real.
Jack Gunn was sweating, and now it wasn’t feigned. He wondered if, given time, it might even begin to break down his disguise. He suspected he wouldn’t live to discover if that was true…
Yes, his deception had momentarily thrown Nuttall off, but the admiral was a canny sort and wouldn’t be fooled forever. Not even the Truthful Lie was foolproof. Suddenly everything was a race against time…
He wondered whether dealing with Ying had been the right thing to do. It had begun a countdown to his discovery, but if he hadn’t acted, then he might have been discovered then and there. He’d learned an important lesson: the contemporary Humans weren’t stupid. If anything, they seemed more correctly devious than their twenty-fourth counterparts…
All to the good, he reflected. They will make much better servants if we can take them now. And we shall. First, and Foremost, we shall.
He was stuck in the computer lab where Nuttall had assigned him, together with two of the Voordijk’s computer techs; Ahmed al-Wamys and Chemyse Rouge, their names were. They only entered his thoughts in that, whilst they were there, he couldn’t act.
At least, not overtly…
His fingers flickered through the holographic displays, using all his skill to try and cover his tracks, to delete Ying’s search history. It was probably futile, maybe even worse: the investigative teams would already have looked. But he had to play every card, as the Humans said…
"Chemyse," he said out loud. The Quebecois woman glanced over at him. "Could you take a look at the maintenance log at oh eight hundred, five weeks ago?" That was before the Shift. "I think there might have been some…irregularities…when the drydock office quartermaster went over the suit registries…"
Chemyse nodded and went over to another console. There was, of course, nothing of the sort, though Gunn had had time to plant a few suggestions that there might be. The important thing was to keep her occupied while he did his main work.
No open transmissions. Not even encrypted ones. He had to have surveillance on him now, even if the ship’s usual Orwell system was still malfunctioning from the aftereffects of the Shift. No; this would have to be the most basic signals.
He used a twenty-second century revision of Morse code, encrypting what he typed using a complex algorithm that turned it into what appeared to be random cosmic static. He didn’t use a computer to perform the encryption: his brain alone was capable of it, when no Human cranium could have held the power. It was unsurprising, really; he had been designed that way.
Finally he had his message. He flicked a switch that pulsed it out from an antenna, towards Luna – and Earth. Hopefully, if he remembered the schedule correctly, they should be in place. This was far from the elegant scheme of "Plan A", but if they pulled it off, it might still do.
He’d covered his tracks as best he could, but sooner or later they’d trace that antenna’s signal back to his console. Well; now the countdown had quickened. He didn’t have much time, and there was a lot to do.
Gunn waved al-Wamys over. "Ahmed," he said, "I think I may have something – but it’s got a very high-level encryption. I think we might need an A.I. tie-in."
Al-Wamys frowned. "You need command-level authorisation for that."
"Well, then…" Gunn said, carefully creasing his brow into a supplicatory expression. It had been a hard one to learn, for there was no direct equivalent in the Painwreakers’ body language.
Al-Wamys nodded. "I’ll see to it."
Gunn smiled, and his Human expression was reflected by a similar one, deep within…
Sheila Carney glanced at the large yellow paper-book she’d found next to the communications device. It contained descriptions of most of the local trades around here, but the one she was looking for remained elusive. Humans, she thought disparagingly, so vulgarly direct, and yet so annoyingly circumspect…
She heard a beep. It wasn’t the pure, faintly mechanistic beep of a contemporary Human device. It came from her bag.
She opened it, already half-certain of what it would be. Sure enough; she pulled the comm out, stared at the screen. One message waiting. Well, who could that be, she wondered sarcastically.
The message appeared on the screen. Dots and dashes, and then block capitals. They seemed like a random stream, but her brain easily deciphered the code:
DISASTER. HAD TO MOVE QUICKLY. MUST COMPLETE WITHIN HOUR. YOU NO TIME FOR LOCAL TALENT MUST COMPLETE SELF. ALERT COUSINS, IDIOTS. PLAN 34. FIRST AND FOREMOST.
"First and Foremost," she murmured to herself automatically, then cursed. He had to mess it up, only the most important mission possibly ever. But – no, he was right. It might require her to sacrifice her life, but what was that in the grand scheme of things?
She nodded to herself. An hour? It was possible. She flicked the comm over to another setting, ready to alert those on Luna. As she typed the concise, abrupt message, she glanced out of the window, saw that even this distant street was now filling with the contemporary protestors, laughed to herself. Even Gunn’s mistakes paid dividends. The Humans of this era were ready to shoot themselves in the foot, and the Painwreakers were more than willing to help them do it.
Nothing would stop them. Nothing at all.
Admiral Nuttall glanced at his watch as he pelted down the corridor, Lieutenant Warwick and two security men – one a burly Stentyrrean – following. Garrows was right, damn him: he needed to find a culprit, and fast. But Nuttall’s honour wouldn’t let him foist the blame off on a scapegoat…that would make me no better than Pardenne, he thought grimly. The real killer had to be found before the task was taken out of Nuttall’s hands.
"So what do you conclude?" he panted, aiming the question at Warwick.
Warwick seemed to be coping with the hurry much better than Nuttall himself, he thought enviously; from the frontier world of Cancy, she was used to living an out and about lifestyle, and was younger to boot. "I don’t think we can rule any of them out," she said in the characteristic Cancy rush. "But ottoh, none of them struck me as having more of an agenda than the others..." she let out a long, deliberate pause, "and I don’t think they would bump each other off like this the risks far outweigh any temporary advantage gained."
"I agree," Nuttall muttered. "Besides, none of the other contemporaries would have the skill to reprogramme the suits…anything on that, buttuw?"
Warwick shook her head, her blonde ponytail flicking from one shoulder to the other. "There are a hundred or more techs on board with enough skill to do it."
"Botheration," Nuttall said. "Well; I’ve put them together in small groups, randomised their usual shifts, and put them to the task of going over the databanks. Hopefully they won’t be able to act with two or three others looking over their shoulders, and they can’t ALL be plotting to sabotage our mission…"
"Might it not simply be a fear of the current Chinese regime?" Warwick asked perspicaciously.
Nuttall considered it, but shook his head. "I talked it over with Captain Zhang," he said. "Our Eastasians don’t like the communist regime – look what it got them in the original timeline – but they wouldn’t kill a man just because he belongs to it."
The admiral looked ahead, and shivered. "At least…I hope they wouldn’t."
His comm beeped and he answered. "Nuttall."
"Sir?" It was Zhang’s voice. "One of our computer people – al-Wamys – says he thinks he may have found a trail in the computer records. But it’s been well covered, he says, and he needs an A.I. tie-in to solve it."
Nuttall hesitated. "Can you vouch for al-Wamys?" he asked. An A.I. tie-in was a highly unorthodox and dangerous operation, but then desperate times called for desperate measures. And if it would vindicate Garrows the sooner, before the fiery tempers of contemporary Earth had a chance to fully ignite –
"I can, sir," Zhang said. "He’s been on the ship for a number of years and never given me a reason to doubt his proficiency or motives."
Nuttall nodded. "All right, then. But keep an eye on him."
"Orwell system’s bust, sir," Zhang reminded him.
"Then send some guards down," Nuttall snapped. "But move ahead with this! And quickly!"
Al-Wamys glanced up from his comm. "We have a go," he said.
Gunn looked up and nodded. "Good," he said neutrally. "I’ll begin." His fingers flew over and through the holographic controls.
Al-Wamys studied the civilian tech, Chemyse Rouge coming up beside him to look also. "You seem rather…proficient with that routine," al-Wamys said. "It’s not exactly a common one."
"I used to work in an A.I. lab for United StarCo," said Gunn. His fingers flicked out again. No need to work too hard on this cover story, he reminded himself. Now…
It was scarcely a new idea. His race and many others had used it against the Humans before. At first, they had actually tried releasing A.I.s into the Human ships’ command circuits, but that had been a damp squib; for all the Humans’ fear, ninety-nine times out of a hundred the A.I.s didn’t do anything harmful, and willingly went back into their boxes when the Humans asked.
But for that one percent of the time when they decided to cleanse ‘their’ ship of the meat creatures, or went mad and plunged the ship into a star…the Humans feared that outcome enough that they designed their ships with dozens of safety features and overrides, all against the possibility that an A.I. could seize control.
Gunn could use those against them. The A.I. itself was almost superfluous.
Carefully, casually, he inputted a few parameters incorrectly. Just enough to trip one of the firewalls, to engage the safety protocols, in a domino cascade that would ripple throughout the whole ship as the Human-designed systems overreacted against the fear of an A.I….
SLAM. SLAM. The emergency bulkheads crashed down over the computer lab’s doors. All through the ship, they were doing the same. You could override them by manually punching in a code, but to get from, say, the bridge to here, you’d have to bypass a couple of hundred doors.
Al-Wamys whipped his head around. "What?!" he exploded. "Safety protocols – Gunn, you fool, you did it wrong!"
Rouge sat down at the console beside Gunn. "Don’t worry," she said in her Quebecois French accent. "If I catch it quickly I can undo this easily enou-"
She suddenly gasped, her eyes bulging. "Tabernac!"
"Chemyse?" al-Wamys asked, leaning over.
His eyes widened. There was the hilt of a knife protruding from under her ribs, casually sliced up and under them into her heart by the cold skill of a trained assassin.
And the hand on the hilt of the knife was that of Jack Gunn.
"Gunn!" al-Wamys yelled. His hand went for the alarm button. It never got there. All he felt was a stinging pain, and then a creeping darkness that began in his torso and slid up into his brain. His last thought was: how could any man move so FAST?
Gunn looked down dispassionately at the two bodies. A sloppy job, by his standards, but it had done the trick.
He lifted the knife, studied its serrated edge, still dark with red Human blood and the little scraps of flesh it had torn out. Deliberately, he licked the blade, savouring the exotic, iron taste.
Next, he raised his comm and spoke into it. "Genevieve?" he said, and from his voice, no-one would think that anything remarkable had occurred. "Something’s come up. I think one of the contemporaries has managed to set off a safety system. Come join me in Computer Lab 41; I need your help, I don’t understand this contemporary language."
A pause, then, "On my way," in Chenier’s breathless voice. She was obviously hurrying. Good. Gunn had timed this well; she’d only be about a half-dozen doors to gimmick away from the computer lab.
That still gave him enough time to do his business.
The disk went into the computer. He began the programmes; with the A.I. safeties in place, there was nothing the bridge could do to override any communications signal: the Humans were afraid that an A.I. could stop the crew of a possessed ship signalling for help.
After a few moments, it was running by itself. He nodded, picked up his knife again, turned to the two corpses.
He didn’t have much time, and properly he should have done this while they were still alive. And then he’d have to leave time to hide them before Genevieve arrived…
His eyes alighted on the small cargo teleporter pad in the corner of the room. It wasn’t rated for living cargo, so it couldn’t be a mode of escape for him, and besides, he had to see this through: here was the only place where the transmission could be stopped. But it would help him dispose of the remains…
Grinning to himself, Gunn raised the knife and looked to where he imagined the western sky was. "O great Sahdavi, who Wrought the Race of the Wreakers of Pain, let your favour rest upon this unworthy One, as I offer this sacrifice to your irrevocable Memory."
The knife was plunged into the still chest of the first – the woman, Chemyse Rouge. Not much time, so it’d have to be a rush job. But then, he had a lot of experience with this before.
He began to cut.
The man looked Human, and he called himself Seamus Flynn. A hasty disguise and a hasty alias. His role here on Luna had been as a Liar to Foreigners, or diplomat as the Humans termed it in their circumspect way, not an undercover agent. But here and now, he had run out of options. The ambassador of the Painwreakers would not be welcome here after the plan succeeded.
He glanced at his two companions and stifled a laugh. Dorol-wekh, the Cousins’ ambassador, or Daryll Wick as she had hastily styled herself, and an apparent Culvanai named We’qUlla. Truly, of course, he was another Cousin, his real name being Wakal-la: all the real Culvanai involved were elsewhere. They would play their part, the fools.
"You’re ready?" he asked.
"Ready as anything, Ambassador Pflen," said Dorol. Flynn – Pflen – winced at the man’s total ineptitude. But then, being sent off far from his homeworld to be among the Humans was considered a punishment among his folk, rather than a reward for deviousness as it was among Pflen’s.
The reinforced door stood before them. The place was unmanned, they’d made sure of that. The Humans were fools, but then they couldn’t afford to spare a man right now: everyone was working to get orbital facilities constructed so that the food supplies on Earth could keep up with demand. Still fools, Pflen thought. They focus on the short term and ignore the long.
Pflen slid the keycard into the socket. It was a strangely archaic means of entry, but it would have been too difficult for "Gunn" to obtain a nanochip, and this was the LDC technicians’ emergency override that was easier to pass from one tech’s hand to another. Anyway, it worked. The doors hissed open, revealing an airlock beyond. Pflen wished he had enough people to leave one outside as a guard, but, as the Humans said, beggars couldn’t be choosers.
The trio entered the airlock, closed the first door and opened the second. And there it was before them: the Rockbuster. The Rockbuster, and the manual control station.
Pflen took a step into the room and looked around him. It was a huge, vaguely egg-shaped cavity, designed to take the giant missile at its centre and leave enough room for safety inspection teams and the backblast suppressor. There, behind a hasty shield at one side of the room, was the control station. Decisively, he walked over there and began studying the rather archaic controls. Unsurprisingly, Dorol and Wakal were still gawping like Ucasa primitives at the giant silver missile. Amateurs, he thought to himself. This is what I have to work with?
At least the controls were simple enough. Launching the Rockbuster would be simple. Doing what he wanted was a little harder…
"Are you in place?" he asked.
Wakal nodded. He’d opened an access panel on the side of the Rockbuster missile and was fiddling with the paraquantum boards within. "Should be easy enough, Amb – uh – Seamus."
Pflen shook his head in despair. "Time? My man should be activating the transmission in just a few minutes."
Wakal fiddled with a few things, pulled an entire circuit board out, threw it aside; it went bouncing down the sides of the launch chamber with a series of clangs. "Done!" he said, closing the panel again.
I hope so, or we are, Pflen thought grimly. "Then get behind here!"
Dorol and Wakal joined him hurriedly; he knew they were half expecting him to lock them out and leave them to burn in the backblast of the missile. Of course, no true servant of the Sahdavi would be anything like so vulgar…
Pflen flicked a switch that slid shut the doorway, sealing them in. "And here we go," he said. He held down the buttons that overrode the safety checks: he wanted an immediate launch, and be damned to the consequences. Then he hit another few switches in quick succession: open the launch bay doors. Prep sequence one…
The launch bay doors, at the top of the ovoid chamber, irised open to reveal stars beyond. Stars, a few of the satellites orbiting Luna…and the Earth.
He grinned to himself. "Target locked," he said. The target was not the Earth – the computers would not allow that – but an imaginary point in space on the other side of the planet. The missile would hit the planet just as well, assuming it got there. It didn’t make that much difference in the long run whether it did…
"Fire," he said, and hit the final switch.
The missile lurched as its relatively primitive fusion engine flared. Blue-white light fanned from the base, carefully adjusted into the optimum stream by the neutronium-dusted manoeuvring fins. And then…
It rose, like a vast ungainly phoenix, yet growing in speed all the time, rising out of the Lunar gravity and towards the Earth. Carrying a cargo of two hundred tons of prime ExStat Jove-4 antihydrogen, sealed in an oh so fragile magnetic field. Designed to annihilate asteroids that threatened Earth, it would now steal the asteroid’s job description as well.
The sight was impressive, so impressive that Dorol barely glanced down as he felt the knife punch through his major heart. Pflen spun to find that Wakal was raising a weapon of his own: for a Cousin, he wasn’t stupid. But he wasn’t fast, either, and Pflen’s knife cut through both his carotids even as Wakal’s knife barely scraped against Pflen’s torso.
Pflen stared at the bodies. They had served their purpose. He muttered the prayer of sacrifice to the Sahdavi, then opened the airlock and made his exit. The LDC would be here soon, but if he kept the Sahdavi’s favour, today might not be the day to sacrifice his own life.
As it happened, both José Rodriguez and Pierre Chenier were in Lunar Defence Central when the alarms blared. They’d been here to discuss a matter of defence with Felicity Renwick and collecting Brigadier General Xhosa on the way. But now all thoughts of political discussion left their minds.
"Report!" Xhosa snapped, her sharp eyes scanning the holograms.
"Uh – unauthorised launch of one Rockbuster antimatter missile, ma’am!" a lieutenant reported. "Target – appears to be –" he gulped, "the Earth."
"Send the disarm signal!" Xhosa ordered, as the three politicians strode up behind her.
"No go, ma’am," the lieutenant said. "Missile’s comm antenna appears to have been disabled."
Xhosa cursed richly in a vowel-heavy African language. "Then-"
"General, if I might make a suggestion?" Renwick said. "The Rockbusters are slow…one of the, ahem, stations might be able to get there before it leaves orbit…"
Xhosa stared. "That’s…drastic."
"No, the right honourable lady is right," Chenier said; Renwick looked at him in surprise. "There’s no other way. And VANCOMYCIN-" he said the word, "-can stop the radiation from the blast hitting Earth. We are protected against it; the twenty-firsters aren’t."
Xhosa looked from one to the other. "Mr President?"
"I agree," Rodriguez said, his voice hard. "Desperate measures. Do it!"
Xhosa nodded. "All right! All available VANCOMYCIN stations, apply lateral thrust to be placed in the path of that rogue Rockbuster! Apply polyhedral cage if possible! First priority is the protection of Earth, defence of Luna is secondary!" Officers at control stations hurried to obey. "And get someone down to whichever Rockbuster launch bay fired that damn thing! I’ll have someone’s head for this!"
"As will we, General," Renwick said, coldly staring at the missile with its payload of death. "As will we."
The Rockbuster missile was indeed relatively slow. It was supposed to take down asteroids, which travelled at a leisurely pace, not zip around attacking flux-capable enemy warships.
But then, the Earth was a big target, and it wasn’t going anywhere.
Two hundred tons of antimatter, in the form of antihydrogen ions – antiprotons, in other words. Slightly more than one hundred billion trillion trillion moles of antiprotons, a truly unimaginable number. The initial annihilation, of course, would just be a small mountain, or a few city blocks, their very matter removed from the universe and converted into energy as they collided with the antiprotons. But the energy released…
The twenty-third century makers of the missile knew that Einstein’s famous equation was merely an approximation, but it would do. E=mc2; the energy released would be the mass – double the mass of the antimatter, for it also included the matter of the Earth that would be annihilated – times the speed of light…300 million metres per second…squared.
The energy released would be 3.6 thousand billion trillion joules, 36 zettajoules if you prefer. In terms of tons of TNT, the contemporaries’ measure of the explosive force of an atomic bomb, it was equivalent to slightly less than ten yottatons, or ten million trillion megatons. Rather more than one trillion times as powerful as the entire nuclear arsenal of the United States.
Pflen hadn’t cared too much about precise aiming, and it would hit somewhere in the Arabian peninsula or India, maybe even the ocean. It mattered little. The force of the blast would kill a billion or two, bite a serious chunk out of the planet, but the radiation would get all of them in the end. The Selenites would be protected, of course, but with no planet left to provide them with their desperately needed food supplies…
A most elegant plan, the ambassador had thought.
But now the missile had something in its path. Its tiny computer brain, already frazzled from Pflen’s attempts to make it ignore the Earth in its path, didn’t bother trying to avoid it.
The LDC had scraped together a half-dozen VANCOMYCIN satellites. Jetting away on fusion and chemical propulsion, they assembled into something approaching a pentagonal-based pyramid, combining their powerful shield projectors into a dome whose convex face was aimed at the Earth, and concave face aimed at the missile. For this was the secret of VANCOMYCIN: the network of disguised satellites concealed shield projectors so powerful they could protect Luna from almost any external attack. But now it was not Luna they were protecting, but Earth: poor, backward, vulnerable Earth.
"Do we have time to cap it?"
A sigh. "Then Luna will just have to bear the brunt of it."
The missile, apparently indifferent to the barrier before it, trundled on under its underpowered engines, rose further, until all but its rear was enclosed in the shield dome.
Then its nose kissed the edge of the VANCOMYCIN shield, and it detonated.
The magnetic field failed on cue. The antiprotons first touched the tanks that had held them for so long, and annihilated the matter there, then proceeded to annihilate the rest of the missile. Perhaps ten tons worth of lightweight superstructure there: still enough to release an energy burst that dwarfed any contemporary weapon. But the powerful shields took the brunt, caught the gamma and zeta rays, rebounded them off the dish-like face of the combined shield, and bounced them down – towards Luna.
The halo of radioactive particles and rays was faintly visible as a rather lovely aurora, an aurora that would have killed everyone on Earth in an instant. But Lunar dwellings and buildings had been shielded against such rays, of which plenty hit them on a regular basis as they lacked the protection of an atmosphere.
The VANCOMYCIN shields held. When the radiation had cleared, there was a…globule of antimatter left there, bouncing from one shield to the next, unable to reach any matter to annihilate with, sparking with the occasional zeta or gamma ray as it touched a particle of interplanetary void hydrogen.
A sigh of relief. "It’s done. Damage report?"
"Some extremely angry phone calls from Umbria and the surrounding cities, sir." A laugh. "But we’re alerting the hospitals. Shouldn’t be any permanent radiation poisoning."
"Good…good. And that antimatter can be dealt with?"
"The shields will keep it in, and we’ll have a cleanup crew with a
tanker there within the hour."
"Excellent. Are you sure that’s everything?"
"Oh – well – that radiation has momentarily fried all our interplanetary comm systems, the Shift all over again. But we’ll have that repaired within a few hours."
"Good. Well, that’s their plan – whoever THEY are – foiled…"
"Everything is going to plan," Gunn said as he watched the reports coming in from Luna. "The Ambassador did well…"
The door bulkhead slid into the roof to reveal a frightened-looking Genevieve. "Jack! What’s going on?"
"Don’t worry," he said, offering her a reassuring smile. "Everything will be okay. I just need your help…"
He felt the edge of the still-wet knife, buried deep in his pocket, and his smile broadened.
THE BLOODY LINES
Aldrin Garrows took another glance at his surroundings. From what he’d seen and read about the contemporary Usans – Americans, he mentally corrected himself, this wasn’t quite what he’d expected.
To be sure, the wheelcar was a black limousine, with blacked-out windows and hidden armour. But there were no little Usan flags flying from its wings, no presidential numberplates, nothing at all to betray the fact that the car carried the most powerful man of Earth and that of Luna.
The President misinterpreted his curious looks. "I suppose you don’t have automobiles like this, in the future?" he inquired.
Garrows shrugged. "Not in the Home Systems – uh, that’s the Sol system and the two oldest colonies. They’ve got a full maglev system built into the roads, so the cars float everywhere…but they still use wheelcars out in the Colonies."
"I see," the President replied, steepling his fingers. "And what solution is found for the problem of fuel? Hydrogen? Bio-ethanol?"
"Some combinations of those, and various new solutions," Garrows said distractedly, glancing out of one of the one-way windows. He saw the crowds of protestors, held back by a line of scary-looking contemporary Usan police. Their looks of anger, even though they didn’t know this car held him, were chilling. "One of your – er – one of the presidents of the United States, back in the other history, almost ruined the country by relying on oil up until the last moment, and then being forced to cut spending on almost everything else, when the oil supplies ran out."
"Ran out?" the President repeated. "You mean, as in drilled dry?"
"Not quite. Various revolutions in the oil producing countries, boycotts, wars…I’m not an expert on this period," Garrows shrugged. "Hopefully none of that will come to pass now."
"I sure hope so," the President agreed. He joined Garrows in looking out of the window, and shivered at the sight. "Still, most of the real major league assholes are on the other side of the building."
"How did you manage that?" Garrows asked.
The President laughed. "We have our people infiltrated into that crowd, as we have all over the world. It’s the work of a moment to spread a rumour that you, or me, or whichever other personal Antichrist that’s the flavour of the month, is coming in from the other side."
That startled a laugh out of Garrows. "Well, hopefully once I’m inside, I might be able to avoid becoming such a figure of hatred."
"Good luck," the President grunted. He glanced at Garrows’ three companions. "Want to introduce me to your associates?"
Garrows nodded. He had two bodyguards, wearing grey Astroforce Special Forces uniforms and carrying discrete weapons, and an advisor for the nitty-gritty of the deals he wanted to push through. That advisor – Garrows couldn’t remember his name offhand – was busy with his nose stuck in a datareader. He seemed to want to work himself to death; apparently he’d lost someone, left behind away from Luna after the Shift. "This is Mr Schmidt and Ms Gao," he began, gesturing to the bodyguards.
"Nice touch," the President said, nodding at Gao. The Eastasian woman’s eyes, like those of Schmidt’s, were hidden behind a rather futuristic-looking visor that apparently gave her an extended range of vision through various sensors – very Star Trek, the President reflected. "I guess you want to reassure the Chinese?"
"That’s one reason," Garrows agreed.
The President gestured to his own bodyguards, three Secret Service men wearing their not-quite-uniform of dark suits and sunglasses. "My associate Mr Johnson here will guide you through the building; you’ll understand that I can’t be seen entering the UN beside you."
"It’s mutual," Garrows said with a faint grin. He felt the wheelcar hit the bump that said they were pulling into the underground car park. "Okay. Let’s do this."
It was a couple of seconds after they were undercover that the blossom of white light, like a second sun, briefly appeared in the sky halfway between the distant, ghostly daylit Moon and the Earth. All eyes outside turned to it, but within a few seconds it had vanished. And soon they would have more pressing matters to attend to…
"It’s not a laughing matter, Colonel," Zhang Ji-cai said with a frown to the hologram of Colonel Hucknell. The contemporary Usan had, along with the rest of his flight crew, returned to their space shuttle – ostensibly to make repairs, but there seemed little doubt it was a calculated insult against the Selenites by ignoring their hospitality. "You understand, no-one is above suspicion. None of us and certainly none of you."
"I see," the hologram said icily. Hucknell looked theatrically at his watch. "Well, I’ve got plenty of time. Want to list all those reasons why I’d feel like bumping off Professor Ying, by tampering with future tech that I wouldn’t know how to turn on properly?"
"Don’t give me that," Zhang snapped. "As I said, no-one is above suspicion. You contemporaries may not have the ability, but you potentially have the motive…"
"That is a very serious accusation…Captain," Hucknell said. "In fact, I am tempted to…"
Zhang felt rather than heard it. The sudden blaring alarms were ultimately secondary to the shudder that ran through the ship, the shudder of thousands of emergency bulkheads slamming down, sealing the ship into compartments against the will of a vengeful A.I. to open them to the vacuum of space. "Shit," he muttered to himself. "Al-Wamys screwed up."
"What?" Hucknell’s hologram asked.
Zhang turned away from him without another word. "Report!" he said sharply to the bridge crew. "What’s going on?"
"Computer system has locked down: illegal A.I. incursion," reported the computer officer, Lt. Commander Jiv Tavasly. A reptilian Miradi, she studied her displays with sharp, unblinking eyes. "Usual protocols have gone into effect."
Zhang cursed again. He knew what ‘usual protocols’ meant. All control via the computer system of vital systems, such as communications, engines and weaponry, was now locked out until it could be rebooted. All the emergency bulkheads had come down – he’d heard them himself – slicing up the ship into sealed portions. All of it could be reset, eventually, but only by getting to the manual controls located in two positions on either side of Engineering. And that would take time… "Alert Engineering to trigger the reset," he said.
"Aye-aye sir," said Commander He’gAmmj, sensors and communications. On a fleet flagship like this, the post necessitated a higher rank than usual. "One moment…yes. Commander Macfarlane reports reboot should be completed within twenty minutes."
Zhang muttered to himself. Another unfortunate consequence of the over-cautious anti-A.I. systems. Everything had to be reset via controls that an A.I. simply could not operate – not just manual rather than computer controls, but ones arranged in such a way that an A.I.-controlled maintenance drone or a hostage-blackmailed crewman couldn’t use them. And that added time…
"Captain," He’gAmmj said again, looking puzzled in his Culvanai fashion. "Sir, I’m reading a surge of energy through one of our external fluxcomm antennas – no, two. Three. They seem to be…beaming out some sort of transmission."
"Did someone send out a distress call?" Zhang asked sharply. That would normally be the first action upon an A.I. incursion, and a panicked crewman might have done so now, even though there were few other Astroforce ships to alert.
"Nossir," He’gAmmj said. "I’m not sure where it came from. No, wait…hang on…" he flicked away at his holographic controls for a moment. "Yes – one of the computer labs, I can’t tell which one. Tracks covered. It seems to be some sort of encrypted data transmission, or three rather…"
"Where is it being beamed to?" Zhang asked urgently. Peripherally, he saw that the Hucknell hologram was still watching, his arms folded, listening with interest. He resisted the urge to turn the hologram off: now it was too late.
"Doesn’t seem to be targeted at anything insystem," He’gAmmj said puzzledly.
"Then expand to other star systems," Zhang said, his breath catching in his throat. "Extrapolate."
"But there’s nothing there," He’gAmmj protested, but obeyed. He tapped the relevant holo-buttons, and an image formed on the main tactical holoviewer, larger than the one that currently supported the image of Hucknell.
The hologram showed the Earth, the Moon, and the Voordijk out at Mars. There was the asteroid belt, and Jupiter, and at the other side of the diagram, the Sun…and there were the transmissions, three bloodred lines arcing out into space…not touching any of the planets, only touching asteroids or Kepler bodies by chance, it seemed…spiralling on out of the Sol system…
"Extrapolate," Zhang repeated, as the image zoomed out. There was the Graham system, and the Conurbation, and Emnoneea and all the barren mining systems; further still, Europa Nova and Albion and Novorossiya, and then New America and Taikuo, and Cancy and Terminus…
And then the entirety of what would have become the Union of Humanity stood before them, and still the three red lines continued outward, out beyond the border, out into the night –
And they terminated, each one perfectly correlating to a single planet far outside the would-be Union’s borders. Three planets. Two of them the homeworlds of Humanity’s deadliest enemies; the third, the homeworld of the race that had – by a narrow squeak – become their closest ally rather than yet another enemy. In the original timeline, that is.
Zhang let out all his breath in a single rich Mandarin curse, then gasped for breath. "Stop those transmissions now!"
"Sir, all communications control is locked out by the A.I. incursion safeties –"
"Yes, of course. Damnation." Zhang was sweating. "Jam them?"
"Also locked out."
"It would be. Okay, this system’s set up so we can send a distress signal, right? Well signal Luna and get them to set up a jamming field – that’ll overtake the signal…"
"Good thinking, sir," He’gAmmj said. He flicked away at his controls, then frowned. "Sir…no response. I’m reading a massive explosion in Lunar orbit – seems to have fried all the comms systems there – I don’t think their jammers would work even if they could hear us-"
"Christ!" Zhang let out, sweating. "Well…manoeuvre the ship so that the dishes aren’t pointed at the planets!"
"Engines locked out, sir, lest an A.I. dive us into a star-"
"For hell’s sake! Then shoot the antennae off!"
"Weapons are also gone sir-"
Zhang let out what was almost a shriek of frustration. "Then what DO we have?!"
He’gAmmj shrugged, glanced at Pekka Reikonnen at gunnery. The Finn mirrored his action. "Sir, I don’t see what we can do – except maybe stick some guys in spacesuits on the outer hull and get them to blast the dishes off with hand weapons."
"I like it!" Zhang said, snapping his fingers. "But we’ll have to get our marines to the external bays, unlocking each bulkhead on the way, and collect their suits…" his face fell. "It’ll take too long."
"Ahem," said an archaically accented voice. Zhang spun around to find the hologram of Hucknell, still listening. "Captain Zhang, I’m rated to use weapons and tools while suited up," he said, "and I’m already in an external bay with my suit – don’t need to bypass any bulkheads."
Zhang hesitated. It went against every fibre of his being, and yet… "You don’t know how to use our weapons."
"Point and shoot," Hucknell said, blasé. "And your Lieutenant Warwick talked me through some of the settings on your ergrifles the other day."
Did she now, Zhang thought to himself. But now that was a blessing, not a curse. "All right. Against my better judgement. You’ll need to put one man on each dish. You have datareaders? You can look up the coordinates there. It’s transmitters 11B, 14C and 17C. And hurry!"
"Story of my life," Hucknell said dryly. His hologram vanished.
"You think they can deliver, sir?" Reikonnen asked.
"I think I don’t have any choice, Lieutenant," Zhang said grimly. "And Commander He’gAmmj – inform Admiral Nuttall of this."
He stared forward at the de-powered stations, locked out against an A.I. incursion. "This mission is going to hell."
"Understood, Captain," Nuttall said grimly, flicking his comm off. He glanced at Warwick: he, she and the two security men had unlocked their way through a dozen bulkheads in ten minutes, making slow progress. They were heading for the section where the contemporary Humans were quartered, reckoning that was as good a lead as any –
Warwick dialled the next bulkhead and it slid up. Then she gasped and made a retching noise, struggling to hold it back. The implacable security men gaped at the sight. Even Nuttall, who’d seen such things in his youth, winced at the unexpected sight.
There were two officers he’d known, not well, but he had known them: the computer officers Ahmed al-Wamys and Chemyse Rouge. Their bodies lay there in the middle of the corridor…or what was left of them. Their eyes had been gouged out, in a workmanlike fashion, by someone who knew what he was doing with a knife. Their uniform shirts had been roughly torn open, and on the bare flesh beneath, the assailant had ripped his knife in three harsh slices, the slivers of flesh at their edges telling of a serrated blade.
Three slices. Two formed an elongated V shape, the other a horizontal line below it. Slowly drying blood stained the whole area around the cuts and the uniforms themselves, but someone had conscientiously wiped the blood away from the cuts themselves, to make them clearer. Wiped it…or licked it away. Nuttall shuddered.
He knew that symbol, of the V about a horizontal line. He knew enough to know that it was not, in fact, a V, but a crude representation of a dagger blade stabbing down into the horizontal line that represented the flesh of an innocent. It was the symbol of Humanity’s deadliest foe, a symbol he had hoped he would never see again.
"I…" he began, then realised there was no oath even in his impressive repertoire that would encompass this. "It appears…we have a guest. A-"
Before he could finish, the next bulkhead along slid up into the ceiling to reveal two figures. Two of the contemporary scientists, he realised suddenly. The Midafrican, Nganga, and the Euan, Saunders…
The two saw him, opened their mouths to speak, spotted the terribly mutilated corpses of the computer scientists, and stopped. Nganga’s eyes bulged, and Saunders was heartily sick onto the floor. Nuttall nodded; the situation almost ensured that they could have nothing to do with these deaths, but this confirmed it for him.
"What are you doing here, gentlemen?" he asked.
"We’ve been trying to get to you, Admiral," Nganga said urgently. "We think we may have found who killed Ying."
"And – these poor buggers," Saunders managed, his voice thick with bile.
Nuttall frowned. "Really? But-"
"Look at this," Nganga said urgently, shoving a datareader under Nuttall’s nose. The admiral automatically read what was upon it, blinked, replayed the sound file for himself, then nodded grimly. "Dammit! I remember now. He was the one who I put in the lab with these two! I thought they’d keep an eye on each other! But if he’s one of THEM – a regiment of marines couldn’t have kept an eye on him!"
"What is it Admiral?" Warwick asked.
"A painkiller," Nuttall said grimly. "A sodding painkiller. Here, of all places! Let’s just hope we’ve got time to stop this before it goes any further."
He ran his mental map of the ship through his head. "The computer lab is that way," he said, pointing at a bulkhead. "And come on!"
Jack Gunn was unsurprised when he heard the bulkhead slide up behind him. It was almost a relief: Genevieve Chenier might not be the brightest slave in the harem, but she was beginning to suspect that his "attempt to restore computer functions" looked a lot more like maintaining control of an outgoing transmission.
He acted instantly. One arm into his pocket to grasp the knife. The other spun around with parahuman speed, knocking Chenier out of her chair, but not letting go of her. The Frenchwoman was stunned as he abruptly stood, his strength dragging her with him, until within one second, he was leaning back against the console, standing upright, one arm holding Chenier in a headlock, the other gently kissing a knife to her throat. It was almost superfluous to glance up at his would-be captors as they charged in.
Chenier’s eyes bulged. She stared down at the knife in horror, saw its serrated edge, the still-drying blood upon it. "Jack?" she said in a terrified voice.
"Not exactly," he replied, allowing a grin to spread across his face.
The captors, of course, foolish Humans, hadn’t caught on. Warwick was still halfway through her pointless warning. "GENEVIEVE! GET AWAY FROM HIM! HE WAS DECEIVING ALL OF US – HE’S A VÁROTO!"
"Have you finished?" Gunn said mildly, once Warwick had halted, staring in horror at Chenier’s prone position. "To save time, I will be rather vulgar and refrain from employing the usual deceptions. It matters little now." He gestured with his head alone, his arms not moving a micron from their position. "You can’t stop me now."
"We know about your transmission," Nuttall said, his eyes blazing with fury. "We know you’re sending all that future tech data to Vároton, and Rómid, and Culvana."
"Oh, good," Gunn said. "Well, then, why don’t you shut it off? Oh – of course. To get to the console you’ll have to get through me first. And to get through me…" he gestured, again only with his head, to Chenier. "I suspect your Prime Minister, aha, even though he’s been downgraded to a mere Second Consul, would not like it too much to see his firstspawn so…damaged."
Nuttall opened and closed his mouth. Humans! Gunn thought to himself. Scarcely even worth the challenge! It never entered into his head to wonder why, then, his race had lost every war they had attempted against them. In any case, that was all irrelevant now. In this new history, things would go as they should.
"You were sloppy," said a Human – Gunn belatedly identified him as one of the contemporaries, and dismissed him immediately. "Ying overheard you speaking whatchamacallit – Vároto. Not exactly the finest bit of undercover work there from you."
"Your pronunciation is atrocious," Gunn said, not taking his eyes off Nuttall’s. "You must work on it: when you are in one of our slave gangs, your master will not be so forgiving as I am."
"Why, you-" Nuttall began, but Gunn tutted casually and flicked his knife a little closer to Chenier’s throat, drawing a few drops of blood. The girl whimpered with the pain, tried to kick at his legs; he just ignored her.
The two security goons with Nuttall raised their gastasers and Nuttall pulled an ergpistol, but Gunn gripped his knife again with new purpose. "I think not," he said. "Need I remind you that my reflexes are three times faster than yours? They were made that way, by the holy Sahdavi. Perhaps I shall still meet one of Them, in the flesh," he mused. "What an experience that would be."
"I wouldn’t bet on it," Nuttall snarled.
"But, you see, it is still a possibility," Gunn said cheerfully. "There is no way you can attack me before I can land a fatal blow on Ms Chenier. Therefore, I may well be able to hostage-bargain my way off this ship. It’s a secondary objective, of course…"
Nuttall hesitated. He had been given that rarest of things, a second chance. And now it came down to it, the fate of all H umanity.
And he could not think of one damn thing that he could do about it.
SHOOT THAT POISONED ARROW!
"Crowded," Rachel muttered out of the corner of her mouth.
"Can say that again," Andrew agreed. They were both seated in a rather haphazard collection of ‘emergency chairs’, which even the UN seemed to require, to one size of the main collection of seats where the representatives sat. There was the podium, the podium where Canizzarro and the other Selenite ambassadors had spoken for the past week and more.
But now Canizzarro’s team stood back, their hands folded behind their backs, their faces putting on at least a semblance of respect. Canizzarro and Zhang Mei-yi had tried to smooth over the Ying incident, with something less than success: the twenty-firster Chinese representative had accused Zhang of being biased against the current regime. Sketchy rumours about the Third World War had been flung about: Garrows hadn’t managed to silence all the Lunar amateur aldradio enthusiasts who were still exchanging gossip with their terrestrial counterparts. Canizzarro had protested that their information was incomplete and misleading – putting his foot in it, as several countries then signed a petition to have the details of WWIII revealed to them.
It was an ugly mess. But if one man could solve it, it was Aldrin Garrows.
And maybe, Rachel thought to herself, while he’s at it, he can solve the mess that my life has become.
She took another look around the enormous room. The arrangements were as they had been since the ambassadors had arrived, with the fan of seats for the Earth representatives and their accompanying translators and aides, the discreet guards, the network of lighting fixtures overhead. She’d seen it all on the ‘television’ back in Cambridge.
But now she was here to see it herself, she and Andrew; Janet and Luke were back at the hotel, watching the live broadcast and hoping to catch a glimpse of them. She spotted a few other Selenites in the collection of chairs, real examples of what she had pretended to be, helpers sent down by Garrows to vet the historians who would be assisting the dialogue. She wanted urgently to talk to them, but didn’t dare, with all the twenty-firsters around. It would have to wait…find Canizzarro alone, or…
The PA system crackled. "Ladies and gentlemen," said a voice, with a heartbreakingly familiar twenty-fourth century Lunar accent. She looked up, startled, and murmurs ran through the ranks of the twenty-firster contemporaries. "An unscheduled appearance, but don’t hold it against him-" the announcer sounded more like a cabaret compere than someone narrating a historic diplomatic event, "-please welcome the First Consul of the Consulate of Luna – ALDRIN GARROWS!"
There was a shocked silence. One or two of the representatives began to clap ironically, taken up by the showmanship of it all. And then-
From a shadowy doorway at one side of the podium, a figure emerged. Tall, slim, Caucasian skin with Oriental eyes, a Ming the Merciless moustache. There was no mistaking him.
The murmurs became louder as Aldrin Garrows stepped up to the podium. He adjusted the radio microphone – old-fashioned even for now, Rachel had learned – inexpertly, but finally cottoned on. Behind him, two figures followed: one wearing the dark suit and sunglasses of a U.S. Secret Service man, the other an Eastasian woman in the equivalent grey suit and sensory visor of an Astroforce SpecOps officer. Rachel had been learning to live in the twenty-first century world, compartmentalising her former life, and now the anachronistic juxtaposition almost made her brain hurt.
Two more figures hung back, just visible in the shadow of the door – more bodyguards, she supposed. The woman coolly adjusted her visor, sweeping the whole room with terahertz, infrared, UV, everything. She apparently turned up nothing unexpected, as she gave Garrows an infinitesimal nod. The First Consul turned his penetrating gaze on the representatives, somehow managing to look all of them in the eye at once, and began.
"People of Earth, I have come to you to express my most heartfelt sympathies for the loss of Professor Ying Liwei of the…People’s Republic of China. I know that many accusations have been flying, both ways, and those cannot be unsaid. But…"
Garrows waffled on. He was hitting the spot, Rachel guessed, but she couldn’t be certain, for his speech was aimed at the contemporaries rather than a twenty-fourther like herself. She let her mind wander, occupied with fantasies of how she might collar Garrows afterwards and spill her whole sorry tale to him…perhaps he might still be sympathetic? She had made a bad mistake, but so might many people confronted with the Shift…
She’d been sitting here in this cramped little emergency chair for a while; it was almost as bad as being stuck in Economy on that antique flight again. Now she relaxed, tried to get as much legroom as possible. She stretched out her legs under the seat in front, being careful not to tangle them with the twenty-firster academic seated in front of her, and let her head loll back, staring at the ceiling-
She blinked. What? Her eyes were telling her things that her brain could not accept. Her mind woozily changed gear, adrenaline flowing through her system once again. She’d seen that before – well, just over a hot radiator? No – it wasn’t quite the same – her memory treacherously served up the incident in question – not something in real life, as such, but a documentary Piotr had once been watching on one of the military history holochannels –
"Drampt," she breathed to herself. "No-"
Her chair crashed over beneath her as she struggled to her feet. "Firstest Consullor!" she screamed, scared back into colloquial Selenite. "Gets down! Someone uppy wi holocloak!"
Garrows stared at her, his sentence dying away, blinking in surprise, and his gaze – along with that of everyone else in the room – tilted upwards.
There were the lighting fixtures, on the usual mess of scaffolding. There were the spotlights. And there, just visible in the backglow of one such lamp, shimmering not quite like hot air over a radiator, was a man-shaped blur of discontinuity.
Not quite accurate. A man WITH A GUN shaped blur.
A gun pointed at the podium.
Garrows reacted fast. He threw himself to the floor even as the first shot rang out BANG – a contemporary projectile gun, Rachel realised in shock. Too fast even to see the bullet zip through the air, but she saw the hole appear in the wall behind him, at the height of where Garrows’ head had been a bare second before.
Then the First Consul was on the floor, and rising. A second BANG and a hole appeared in the floor, again, where his head had been a bare moment ago. The grey-suited Eastasian woman grabbed him and began to hustle him towards the door, as the contemporary Secret Service man pulled out his own projectile pistol and fired two carefully aimed shots into the ceiling. A spotlight detonated with a burst of light and, with a SPANG, another shot deflected off a scaffold and zipped down to strike somewhere in the midst of the UN representatives. There were shouts of alarm – no-one seemed to have been hit, but the Secret Service man set his jaw and lowered his weapon slightly, scanning the ceiling for the unseen assailant.
And then Rachel saw him, the man-shaped blur, still there, clinging to a scaffold, the blurry cylinder of the gun slowly tracking on Garrows.
Garrows was halfway to the door.
He wasn’t going to make it.
A million plans whirled through Rachel’s mind, none of them feasible.
And then the two figures burst out from the doorway. Rachel saw it as though in slow motion, had time to wonder why only one of them was another SpecOps man dressed in grey, why the other was wearing a twenty-fourth civilian business suit –
That man, the second man, intercepted Garrows, grabbing him and pushing him through the door –
A bloody hole appeared in the business suit. The man staggered and fell. Behind him, Rachel caught a brief glimpse of a bullet embedded in Garrows’ shoulder.
The Eastasian woman spun, her visor directed at the ceiling, as she went through the settings to cut through a holocloak. A technology none of them had expected to face here.
"Hai!" she cried, raised her ergrifle, and fired even as one last shot rang out.
A bolt of golden fire leapt from the nozzle of her weapon towards the ceiling. A thousand mouths let out cries of surprise as the golden light briefly illuminated a man-shaped silhouette, a corona glow surrounding that empty space.
And then the empty space was suddenly filled as the energy burned through the holocloak. The figure appeared, already unconscious from the ergarc, and fell from its perch on the scaffold. The beam snapped off: one or two of the representatives looked down and gasped in horror as they saw the Chinese-looking woman fallen to the floor, with a bullethole in her temple and her head in a pool of blood.
But most of the eyes were on the figure as it descended, turning end over end, filling everyone’s gaze.
And then it hit the floor with a very final CRUNCH.
Rachel rose to her feet, along with just about everyone else, as they surrounded the broken body. A woman, dark-skinned, now lying in a slowly expanding crimson lake of blood…
Wait. The edge of the lake was crimson. But now, as more blood wept from arteries sliced open by broken bones, it turned deep purple. A purple not found in any Human’s bloodstream, healthy or no.
Rachel stared at the violet blood in indescribable shock. "Vároto," she breathed to herself. "VÁROTO!"
"So that explains it," said a hard voice, cutting through the uproar. Heads turned to find Garrows, once again at the podium, but on his knees. Together with the contemporary secret service man and the surviving Astroforce guard, he was examining the body of the Eastasian woman. He shook his head sadly. "Get them to send an ambulance down, Schmidt, but I don’t think there’s much that can be done for Ms Gao." A tear, and even that seemed measured and considered, was permitted to flow from the corner of Garrows’ left eye. "But my advisor can be saved. Damn fool for not wearing his armour."
"Yessir," the officer said. He turned around. "Zobodin!"
Rachel’s blood froze. How the hell could he have known she was here? Here, and now? And-
But then she caught on. Schmidt wasn’t looking at her, but at the fallen man in the civilian suit.
And now she put the clues together, the clues her unconscious mind had filed away but the hectic last moments hadn’t given time to conclude upon –
The fallen man’s haircut and hair colour, what she could see of his profile, the way he dressed.
And now, his name.
She let out a strangled cry. "PIOTR!"
Colonel Tim Hucknell and his crew had trained to put their spacesuits on as quickly as possible. Major Hind had once even had to do it while a hoary old Russian space station was decompressing around him. So it was only a few minutes later that he, Hind and Ibanez stood, fully clad in their suits and wielding the ergrifles that Zhang had hastily told them how to get out of the locked hangarbay weapons compartments, upon the brink of the bay. The doors were opened, after some inventive overrides by Zhang’s people, and now the majestic vistas of space were visible, with the reddish surface of Mars below. He shivered.
His twenty-first century radio crackled. "Good luck," Zhang’s voice said indistinctly. "Hope those antiques hold up. You have the coordinates?"
"Yes…sir," Hucknell said. He supposed he’d been drafted into Starfleet or whatever the Selenites called it. "One for each of us." He nodded to Hind and Ibanez. "Frank, target two. Francesca, target three. I’m taking the biggie."
"As always," Hind said sardonically, flicking through the settings on his ergrifle.
"Then let’s go," Hucknell said.
They pushed off, drifted outward. Hucknell adjusted the controls of his MMU – thanking his stars that he had enough experience to put on the bulky backpack so quickly – and managed to trigger a gentle jet that sent him racing over the surface of the Voordijk’s hull, towards his target.
His mind gabbled in awe once again at the sheer size of the vessel: a mile long, and even just the forward hulls were huger than his mind could really comprehend in a space context. It was more like being some superhero who could run up the side of a skyscraper, or six skyscrapers fused together. The hull, shooting past a few feet beneath his – well – feet, seemed relatively featureless. No windows, little signeage, just a whole lot of access panels and depressed bays filled with sensors and comm equipment.
Like that one. He nodded. "Captain Zhang, this is Hucknell – target one is in sight."
"Do your duty, like we discussed," Zhang replied.
Hucknell nodded. While they had been hastily putting on their suits, Zhang had talked them through what to shoot and what not to. "Don’t go for anything in the base," he had said, "you could hit a power conduit and blow the whole section out – oh, and kill yourself, incidentally. They’re very sensitive things, this fluxcomm antennae, especially over a long distance transmission. Even the slightest blow to the main rectenna will throw them out. Use your best judgement."
"Handwasher," Hucknell muttered to himself. He adjusted his MMU controls, applying a counterthrust to bring him to a halt relative to the Voordijk. The hull slowed and then came to a halt. A more precise adjustment brought his feet into contact with the hull and he tried to stand there without pushing off again.
There was the antenna. It stood out less than he’d expected: it was simply the largest of three or four in the depressed trench, aimed at some distant target. From what little he’d gleaned by eavesdropping on Zhang’s swearing competition, he knew that it was beaming military secrets out to some distant enemy of mankind. That was all he needed to know.
He wielded his rifle, facing the dish, imagined it to be some guy with a ridged forehead, pointy ears and glowing eyes. "Take this, ya alien scum," he said in a passable Sigourney Weaver voice.
Aiming carefully, he fired. A faint golden beam – the weapon was set to a low setting – lanced out and hit the point of the rectenna. He held it there, maintaining the beam, as an energy he couldn’t understand flowed from the gun in his hand and poured into the dish, breaking molecular bonds, disrupting electronic traffic…
Finally he took his finger off the trigger, and nodded. The rectenna was half melted, drooping like the Before picture on a Viagra advert. There was no way in hell that thing could still be beaming out data. "Captain Zhang, mission accomplished," he said.
"Good work," Zhang replied, sounding relieved. "Our people on
this end say the thing has malfunctioned."
"I should think so," Hucknell laughed. "Frank? Francesca?"
"Done and done," Hind said, sounding satisfied. "I’ve made my name patching holes, now I get to make one!"
"Mission accomplished," Ibanez said a moment later, cool as always.
Hucknell nodded to himself. "All right," he said. "Captain Zhang, I think this could be the beginning of a bee-yoo-tiful friendship."
"Don’t push it," Zhang said, but Hucknell could picture his sardonic smile. "Get your airses back in here before those museum pieces burst on you." There was a crackle suggesting that Zhang had metaphorically slammed the phone down.
Despite it, Hucknell smiled. "Houston, we have a solution."
The comm pulsed in Nuttall’s palm. The admiral’s expression did not change as he looked into Gunn’s eyes, but he shrugged his shoulders in a certain way. Nganga, Warwick, Saunders and the two security guards all took note. Mission accomplished: Gunn had just lost all his cards.
Except one. Genevieve Chenier was still caught in his iron grip, her eyes bulging in a fashion that would have been comical had the situation been less serious. A few trickles of dried blood showed brown on her throat, and the way Gunn held his serrated Vároto knife, he was itching to make a few more.
"You won’t get away with this," Nuttall said flatly.
"Very original, Admiral," Gunn said brightly. "Care to expand upon that? The formulaic script tends to make my knife hand a little twitchy…"
"Certainly," Nuttall muttered. "Okk, so you send some
blueprints to Vároton. So what? Your folk are just as primitive as ours are
"Thank you, Admiral," Saunders said pointedly.
Gunn ignored him. "And we do not have twenty-fourth century people around to give us hands-on assistance, your point is?"
"That, and the fact that you won’t have any actual examples of the tech you’re trying to duplicate," Nuttall said.
"Ah. But, you see, my people have…individuals a long way BEYOND the twenty-fourth century," Gunn said pleasantly, "and a little tech to go with it…and my gift will allow them to gain far more."
Nuttall quirked an eyebrow. "You mean-"
"Oh yes," Gunn said, still sounding like a cheerful uncle as he
ground the knife once more against the whimpering Genevieve’s throat.
"Right now, the Sahdavi, the blessed Sahdavi, still walk among us. A
remnant only of their once great empire, of course, but still far greater than
any of us shall ever be…"
"They have their tech," Gunn continued. "Most of it is non-functional; even they, the poor blessed ones, have forgotten half of what they need to operate it. I have merely…reminded them. All the archaeological work that has been done by the Vároto Primarchate of Disinformation and Propaganda over the past three hundred years…now they have it."
His smile broadened. "They can defeat their remaining foes, get off my world, and regain their technology elsewhere."
Nuttall thought about the fully functional Sahdavi ship still sitting on
Stentyrrea, and shivered. "But," he began again, "if you give the
Sahdavi their technology back again…they will be immortal once more, just like
the Obvians say they were during their golden age."
Gunn spat at the mention of the Obvians. "Traitors! Yes, they will be immortal, as it should be."
"But then there will never be a Primacy. Your people will never rule themselves. They will be slaves to the Sahdavi forever."
Gunn nodded slowly. "And that is the way it should be, the way it should have been. I only lament I may not see it myself-"
Nuttall’s eyes widened and his jaw muscles slackened. He knew now that there could be no negotiations with this man. Some Vároto were amenable to reasoned debate, but Gunn was one of the many who was not.
Just like Humans really.
There was a loud bleep in the background and Gunn nodded again. "Ottoh, perhaps I shall," he said. "That was the end of my programme uploading. Now," he continued, still pleasantly, "lest you get any ideas, Admiral, you and your goons shall lower your ergweapons and place them on the floor, unless you want to see a Chenier shishkebab."
Nuttall’s eyes hardened. "Touch her and-"
"She’ll die," Gunn said. "Whether I die as well is somewhat superfluous, don’t you think?"
Genevieve managed to get her lips apart. "Jack…?" she said. "What…?"
"No!" Gunn said with sudden anger. "I shall not be known to posterity as Jack R Gunn!"
He whirled around, facing Nuttall again, his knife biting into Genevieve’s throat. "I am Dzakh Yarghûn," he said, in a deadly, breathy voice. "Now. Drop your weapons and she may live."
Nuttall’s face looked like a map of Pangaea splitting, but, with a bitter slant to his mouth, he lowered his gun, then allowed his fingers to open. It fell on the floor. He nodded to Warwick and the guards. They too dropped.
"Good," Gunn said. "I see you have no concealed weapons," he winked at them, "which is fortunate, as my enhanced vision would have detected the energy signature, and I would have had to respond with a little…example upon Ms Chenier."
"Never mind what ifs," Nuttall said, his voice hard.
Gunn laughed in a startlingly Human way. "But I am an honourable member of the Divergence Colloquy!" he protested, then gave a sidelong glance at Genevieve. "Though I have a feeling that I may be banned for this…"
"Get on with it," Nuttall snapped.
"Oh, if you insist. You Humans have no sense of humour, ha ha," Gunn said. "You will walk with me to the nearest hangar bay," he said, suddenly businesslike. "There you will fit me out with a shuttle, and then I shall turn Ms Chenier over to you. I need no guarantees about not firing on me once I have left: thanks to my handiwork, you cannot."
Nuttall ground his teeth, but it was true: the A.I. lockouts still prevented the weapons from working. "All right," he muttered. "I don’t have much choice, do I?"
"Oh no," Gunn said, "you don’t have ANY choice."
Suddenly, he swept forward, dragging Genevieve with him. "Come!" he said pleasantly. "Let us-"
Maybe he saw the slight nod from Nganga to Saunders. But he had ignored the twenty-firsters from the start, only considering Nuttall, Warwick and the guards to be threats. He did keep an eye on THEIR facial expressions…but none of them could betray anything, for none knew what Nganga and Saunders had planned.
Nganga’s and Saunders’ pockets were suddenly blown away, revealing the hard metal muzzles beneath.
Simultaneously, twin holes appeared upon Gunn. One on the left side of his chest. The other in his right shoulder. Instinctively he tried to twitch his knife, to kill Genevieve, but his arm muscles were sliced through. Genevieve seized the opportunity and pulled away, kicking him as she fell into Nuttall’s arms.
It made little difference. Gunn straightened up, his right arm falling uselessly to his side, blood – first red, and then purple – leaking from his wounds. He looked more astonished than angry. "Now that IS unexpected," he murmured.
Had he been uninjured and fully lucid, he might still have been able to grab an ergpistol before Nuttall did. He still had those engineered Vároto reflexes. As it was, the admiral got there just in time, turned the muzzle upwards into Gunn’s snarling inhuman face as he dived for it, and fired.
The golden beam hit Gunn between the eyes. The energy burned his face away in an instant, revealing for a brief moment the purple skin hidden beneath, before that too melted away. Nuttall held down the trigger as the golden fire spread over his skin, his clothes flaming to sooty smoke, steam hissing from his flesh as the water boiled away.
"Never mind wreaking pain," Nuttall said through gritted teeth. "How about taking it for a change?"
A second later it was all over.
All that remained of the man whom they had known, falsely, as Jack R Gunn, was a wisp of oily smoke. Even that seemed to curl into a mocking twist before it dissipated.
Nuttall let his pistol fall. He realised how slick with sweat he had become, how much adrenaline had coursed through his system. He glanced up, saw Genevieve Chenier, still shaking and staring in horror at where Gunn had been, but otherwise intact, saw Warwick and the guards blinking at him in surprise, saw Nganga and Saunders…
He paused. "Nicey job, yal two," he said, stress impairing his ability to use the Interplanetary English they understood better. "But I wonders how yal manajèd to sneaks thos things on board."
Saunders stared at his pistol. "Um," he said, glancing at Nganga. "We…guessed that your scanners wouldn’t read them as weapons…"
"Good guess," Warwick said coldly, looking up from helping Genevieve. "Because I know for a fact that our scanners only fail to pick up on metal projectile weapons IF you’ve coated the casing in a specific mix of hydrocarbon oils……because then they think they’re a certain component of a type of motor…"
"Not the sort of thing you’d do randomly, is it?" Nuttall mused, his gaze hard on Saunders and Nganga.
"We had…a little inside information," Nganga admitted.
"DID you," Nuttall said. "Well-"
His comm beeped. "Admiral?" It was Zhang.
"Yes, Captain?" Nuttall replied. His look told Saunders and Nganga: this isn’t finished.
"We have a report on those antennae," Zhang replied. "We managed to get them non-functional – well – actually it was Colonel Hucknell and his shuttle crew," he admitted reluctantly.
Nuttall raised his eyebrows. "Well – well done them, then. But-"
"There’s something else, sir," Zhang said, and his voice turned grim. "We worked it out. The main dish, the one pointed at Vároton…"
A sigh. "Sir, Hucknell moved as fast as he could, but at least seventy-five percent of that datastream got through."
Nuttall stared at nothing. He felt the bottom dropping out of the universe.
"All that," he whispered to himself, "and we failed."
It was three days later, at the UN.
To the untrained eye, things looked much the same. Once again, Aldrin Garrows stood upon the podium, facing the assembled representatives of twenty-first century Earth. Just a few things looked different: Garrows’ arm was in a sling, for one thing; his shoulder had been fractured, though his suit’s ablative protection – and the fact that the bullet had passed through Piotr Zobodin before hitting him – had limited the damage.
Of course, by now the nanotech in his blood had healed the injury, but he wasn’t above milking the sympathy vote.
Outside, he knew, the protestors were still there, but they had been joined by others. Just as with the Ying tragedy, footage of the assassination attempt had been broadcast live all over the Earth as it happened. All had seen the assassin unmasked as an unquestionable alien. And all had heard at least sketchy reports about more dark goings-on aboard the Pieter Voordijk. The world was watching, and what it saw this day, it would remember for a very long time.
Garrows opened his mouth and coughed. He’d got himself a proper portable radio mike this time. "People of Earth," he said once more. "I wish I could speak to you in happier circumstances. But that is not my choice, nor yours."
He paused, marshalling his thoughts. In the background, Zhang Mei-yi and Alice Dooley dragged in the giant holoprojector that Canizzarro had used to dazzle the UN at their first meeting. It was only a couple of weeks ago; it seemed like years.
"Tragic events have occurred," Garrows continued. "You all know of the death of Professor Ying Liwei. I can now reveal what we all suspected: foul play was to blame."
Murmurs ran through the representatives – and, doubtless, all around the world. Garrows pressed on: "But that foul play was not due to one of Professor Ying’s fellow scientists, nor a member of Admiral Nuttall’s crew." He paused. "It was, in fact, instrumented by an agent of a foreign power, an enemy we had hoped we had left behind in the twenty-fourth century. The Primacy of Vároton.
"But now we know that the Vároto had agents infiltrated among our people on Luna. As did Humanity’s other great foe, the Monarchy of Rómid. It was these agents who orchestrated what I am forced to admit was an audaciously planned and executed operation, particularly since they seem to have put it into play so soon after the Shift.
"None of those agents survived their machinations for us to question, so I cannot speak with certainty as to what that plan involved. But I can make some educated guesses. They knew we had been thrown back to this time. And, like me, they saw this as potentially a great danger – and a great opportunity. They knew that, sooner or later, we would help you into space, and mankind would spread out over the stars earlier than in the original history: too early. We would be able to bottle up their races before they ever began their reigns of conquest and terror.
"So they acted to, as they saw it, even the playing field. Their chief agent, who went by the alias of Jack Gunn-" and intake of breath among the representatives, "-yes, he who stood here beside my ambassadors not too long ago – he created a compressed datastream, including an overview of our technology base, and your Internet, so that his people would know what the current situation was." Garrows hesitated. "Unfortunately for us, his plan was an almost unqualified success.
"He successfully rigged the Voordijk to transmit this datastream to Vároton, to Rómid…and to Culvana. Culvana is a planet which would eventually have become an ally of Humanity, but in this time, there is a fascistic matriarchal faction, the Ickra, gaining power. There remain many neo-Ickra supporters hiding among the modern Culvanai…as we have discovered." Garrows shook his head grimly. "A number of the staff of the Culvanai Embassy on Luna have vanished, together with a small but long-range ship. They seem to have used the chaos caused by the detonation of the Rockbuster missile – another incident perpetrated by Gunn’s allies – to escape, and seem to be on their way to Culvana. They want that Ickra faction to win, and that will make them an enemy of Humanity, indeed of all free peoples.
"Admiral Nuttall’s crew, and the NASA crew piloting the Atlantis, acted valiantly to try and thwart Gunn’s plot, even though he had a hostage. They did their best, but we estimate that around seventy-eight percent of the transmission got through." More murmurs. "There are a lot of ifs for the Vároto plan – that’s a very long distance they’re transmitting across, with no relay stations here and now, and there’s no guarantee that there’ll be any equipment on the other end capable of picking it up. But if he did succeed…we are in trouble."
Garrows glanced over the UN representatives once more. "You will doubtless want to know of the Vároto, why they are such an enemy," he said slowly, and got a lot of nods. "Well; we do not know all that much of the Vároto of this era, obviously, but I can tell you of what they were like in my time:
"The name Vároto means Wreakers of Pain. They are a servant race, genetically engineered from pre-intelligent beings by an ancient, powerful race named the Sahdavi, on the planet now called Vároton. Their engineered status means they are often superior to us in matters of strength and, also, to some degree, intelligence. Notably they are far better than us at complex stratagems and diplomatic ploys; however, they can sometimes be caught flat-footed by a set-piece battle, because they try to over-analyse everything and would never expect what we would consider to be an obvious action.
"Some have called them amoral. In fact, they are a very moral race, it is simply that their moral code is the EXACT REVERSE of our own, a consequence of the degeneracy of the remnants of the Sahdavi whom they worship as gods." Garrows paused, letting his words sink in. "Vároto parents would actually be punished and scorned if they did NOT sexually abuse their children. They consider assassination to be a legitimate method of ascending the ranks in their military service. Slavery is not merely acceptable but mandatory. They have enslaved many members of another race, the Ucasa, and would do the same to others if they could. Including Humanity."
Garrows gave them a measuring stare. "You must understand, here and now…they might be able to do that."
The murmurs became an uproar. Garrows waited until the shouts had died down, which took a while. Then he continued: "There may be some Sahdavi left on Vároton now. They MIGHT be able to duplicate our technology quite quickly.
"But I know that there is one thing we can do to defeat them. I know it will work, because it worked before, in the other history, three times.
"We must UNITE."
The uproar returned for a while. The American representative finally managed to get his voice heard. "You are advocating a world government?" he challenged, his sandy moustache flaring in disgust at the phrase.
"Not at all," Garrows said. "In my history, our attempts at a world government fell apart once the external threats had retreated. But I do ask that we work together against this challenge, or face annihilation. Myself and the Selenites no less than you.
"You are probably aware that it was also one of Gunn’s people who attempted to assassinate me three days ago. I can only thank the Vároto for their compliment as to my importance," and there were some laughs, "and mourn the loss of my faithful assistant Ms Gao Da-wei. I will not forget her. At least my assistant Piotr Zobodin is making good progress and should make an eventual recovery." Another exaggeration: Zobodin had got out of his hospital bed yesterday, his injuries healed by his blood nanotech.
"But I renew my call for us to work together. Put aside our differences. I know that sounds corny, but it’s what we must do if we are not to face attack by the Vároto – or the others." Garrows frowned at them. "We were always planning to share our technology with you, but now it is absolutely vital that we do so.
"Our priorities are several. We must work quickly to give Earth a working network of Stairway to Heaven space elevators, and the accompanying Slingshots to interface with our own Lunar system. This will both allow Luna to be fed more easily by Earth produce, and will make it easy for us all to build items on Earth and launch them into space.
"We must quickly design and build some flux-capable – uh, faster than light – starships, for exploration, colonisation, and defence. Our few Astroforce vessels are not up to it. These new ships will be necessarily less advanced, of course, but numbers will tell. And, of course, they will not be crewed entirely by Selenites." Garrows glanced from one end of the room to the other. "We want volunteers. From your militaries, and from your civilian populations – sometimes your contemporary military practices must be unlearned, I’m afraid. We shall build a new Astroforce, for the defence of Earth, and Luna.
"But our top priority is to send vessels aysap to those planets that Gunn managed to contact." Garrows paused. "We have calculated that it will take one to two weeks for his messages to get there. Under normal circumstances, one of our ships could make that journey in a month or two. As it is, with no refuelling or repair stations…We will have to lay out a support network before we can begin.
"Vároton is the most dangerous of our new enemies, but it is also the most distant. We have little prospect of getting there in less than a year, more than enough time for the Sahdavi and Vároto to get into a good position in space. We know what they will be aiming for: there is advanced technology on the planet Stentyrrea –" Zhang and Dooley adjusted the holoviewer to show a map of the Galaxy showing the relative locations of the planets, "as well as potential slaves," Garrows added grimly. "So I will do everything in my power to get our people there first. That will be the eventual job of the Pieter Voordijk, our longest ranged craft.
"Rómid and Culvana are closer, though Rómid lies behind a difficult navigational hazard. We must get to Culvana before those Ickra supporters can do too much damage. I am detailing the cruiser Charles Ingram for that task. The rest of our ships shall stay here, serving as training vessels for the recruits from your populations. I had hoped this could wait, but we must build an army. We have no choice."
Garrows gave a long paused, watching the UN representatives. "I know you will be feeling suspicion at this," he said. "It may seem rather convenient, if I had an agenda to co-opt your people or seize control of Earth. But I assure you I want nothing of the sort. I face elections in little more than a month, and that sort of thing tends to turn off the voters." A few chuckles. "So it may not be me who continues this work, but that’s not important. The important thing is that the work IS continued.
"We will be entirely open with our technology. At first we had our reservations, I admit, but now we cannot afford them. And I am sure that your people will be most competent in reverse-engineering our technology for your capabilities."
Sir Chris Morgan, the British UN representative, felt oddly that Garrows had looked straight at him as he said this. With a lifetime of diplomatic duty behind him, his expression remained unmoved, he failed to twitch or shiver. But…surely the man couldn’t know…?
"So," Garrows continued, "I know that there is one thing in particular that I have been accused of withholding." He paused dramatically. "The events of the Third World War, the World War that should have happened fourteen years from now.
"We have in fact discovered that this is an alternate past, with a divergence in 1980, so these events wouldn’t have happened anyway," Garrows said. "And if you’re confused by that – well – join the club." He thought of the President, and smiled to himself. "But I present it to you anyway, because there is an important message there. Ms Presidents?" he addressed Zhang and Dooley.
They nodded and flicked a switch. On cue, the lights dimmed and the massive holoviewer flickered into life.
The Earth stood before them, slowly, majestically, turning, and a deep narrator’s voice began to speak.
"The Third World War. As it was named by European Union President Blair after the culmination…for this was both the Third of the World Wars, and the War which ultimately ended the idea of the Third World. It was the War after which all men were truly equal, the War in which so many assumptions burned upon the atomic pyre."
Old archive footage began to play, interspersed with maps featuring countries slowly colouring in. "Many saw it coming. Many more scoffed at them. Yes, China had become powerful after the fall of the Soviet Union, and the United States was facing envy and hatred from all over the world, but so what? Were the Chinese going to sacrifice their rising economic ascendancy for a trifle like regaining control over Taiwan? A nuclear war seemed more distant than ever. Only a madman or an idiot could turn that situation into an armed conflict.
"The problem is that there are so many of them around. Dictatorships are very good at producing madmen, and democracies are very good at producing idiots. This one took one idiot in the United States, one madman in China, and a whole load of madmen in the Middle East.
"Even now, no-one really knows what started it. We know that the Russo-Sino-Indian Coalition, instigated as a counterweight to the United States, began to break apart after the Chinese regime’s decision to support Islamic extremism in the Middle East as a useful disposable tool. We know that the United States retreated into isolationism after the catastrophe of Gore’s Oil Wars during the Islamic revolution in Arabia. We know that Gore’s successors were forced to slash the US defence budget in order to pay for the rapid conversion to a non-oil fuel economy. And we know that the Chinese unwisely agreed to finance projects by the Islamic Emirate of Arabia government, where the money never seemed to end up where it was supposed to…
"Even now, no-one knows WHO started it. We just know that, one day in 2020, a slab of rock in the Canary Islands fell into the Atlantic Ocean and created a tsunami that devastated the United States, the Caribbean, and parts of Europe and Africa. But it didn’t fall. It was pushed, pushed by a nuclear device constructed from Chinese engineered components, somewhere in the desert of the rub’ al Khali.
"After that, after the deaths of tens of millions of people, who can say who nuked whom first? We only know that San Francisco, and Seattle, and San Diego, and Los Angeles, all vanished under Chinese nuclear pyres, at about the same time as Beijing and Shanghai and Harbin and Guangzhou and countless other cities vanished under American ones. We know that somehow the Chinese engineered the Yellowstone supervolcano to erupt in America, possibly by a Thor weapon, and this caused even more deaths. We know that the European-backed regimes in Libya and Algeria collapsed as Arabia spread the revolution. We know of the terrorist attacks that deleted Madrid and caused thousands of deaths in London, Paris, Moscow, Berlin and Stockholm. We know of the nuclear retributions, the destruction of Israel and the counterstrikes that obliterated almost every city in the Middle East.
"Look at these death figures as they mount up." (And indeed they did, the graphs of skulls stretching to infinity). "At the end of the war, the nuclear destructions, the tsunami, the eruptions, the gas attacks, the conventional warfare, the fallout…the death toll was more than one billion people.
"It died and died and died.
"In the aftermath, we knew that truly we were equal. The old first world lands – the United States, Europe, and Russia – were devastated. They less fortunate, sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, were almost untouched. Parity was finally reached, albeit by the bloodiest means possible. There would be no more talk of a Third World, or a First.
"Humanity had looked into the abyss, and knew that they had a choice: to continue killing forever, until the whole planet was a smoking shell, or to finally practice what they preached, put aside their differences and join together. It took a century and more for the damage to be healed, but in that time, great breakthroughs were made. Faster than light travel was discovered, and by the twenty-second century, the first out-of-system Human colony was founded. Soon afterwards, we found allies, and enemies. But we remained united, and the disasters washed upon our shores. The attempt of the Vároto to ignite a Fourth World War was a damp squib. We knew what that meant, and we would not forget.
"We will always remember.
The holograms faded. The lights came up. Garrows walked forward to the podium, spoke into the stunned silence.
"Just a Discovery Channel documentary, I’m afraid, but I hope it answers your questions. Between you and me, I’d rather unite than perish."
Garrows stood down from the podium and walked back to his Ambassadors.
The silence persisted, though murmurs began to break through like the proverbial finger in the dyke.
"Nice going, First Consul," said Dooley, and sounded like she meant it.
"Most concise," Ivan Lopatin agreed.
"By the way," Zhang Mei-yi continued, "where is President Canizzarro?"
Garrows grinned at them. "I had a…little job for him."
"I don’t like this," Pete Chambers grumbled as he walked alongside General Stawes through the security gates at the edge of the warehouse complex. "Nganga and Saunders stopped reporting in after that bad business on the ship. I wonder if…"
"You wonder correctly, Mr Chambers," a voice said pleasantly as they entered the main warehouse.
Stawes and Chambers spun to see the owner of the voice. He stood before the reassembled shuttle, surrounded by what appeared to be armed guards in futuristic grey uniforms, with a man and a woman standing behind him. Prof Bone, Captain Davidson, and the other scientists all stood against the walls, their hands held above their heads; Davidson gave Stawes a rueful head-shake. The speaker had a Mediterranean skin tone and hair, and a face they all recognised from the news.
"Well," Chambers said, and for once he seemed lost for words. But he recovered quickly. "So you’ve found our little science project," he said sardonically. "What do you intend to do about it?"
Canizzarro laughed. "I could sue you for property theft," he said, inclining his head to the dark-haired woman, who looked at them nervously. "Ms Zobodin here is the rightful owner of the S.S. Wildfire. On the other hand, you seem to have done a nice job of putting it back together for her."
"Great, now I’m an intersteallar Kwik-Fitter," Stawes grumbled.
Chambers ignored him. "Very droll," he snarled. "What about salvage rights?"
"The situation is a little…unprecedented," Canizzarro said dryly. "But there’s enough benefit of the doubt for my dear friend Aldrin not to blow your whole country into orbit."
"I bet you don’t call him that to his face," Chambers muttered. "Then what DO you intend to do, hmm? Cut us out of all the technological data you’re giving everyone else? Release those compromising pictures from the future of Tony with the Prez?"
Canizzarro chuckled. "I’d like to meet President Blair," he mused. "Though his career seems to have been a bit more blotchy in this timeline than the original one."
"Whatever," Chambers said. "Answer my question."
Canizzarro nodded. "We…intend to ignore you."
Chambers raised an eyebrow. "Clarify."
"We’re not going to officially admit you got hold of this shuttle, never mind get so far as you did with reverse-engineering it – which I wouldn’t have believed." In the background, Prof Bone formed a cheesy grin at the compliment. "But your project – ah?"
"Shed Men," Stawes supplied.
"Very appropriate. The British all over. Yes, Shed Men…you’ve been running virtually since the Shift. Aldrin wants teams like yours from ALL the contemporary countries to pore over our data and work out what you can reproduce with your level of technology. If you come and help us now, we – and you – will have a head start."
Chambers chewed that over. "And if we don’t?"
"Um, then we DO blow your whole country into orbit," Canizzarro said, a little apologetically.
Chambers nodded. "An offer we can’t refuse, eh? So be it." He gestured sarcastically to the whole warehouse. "This Shed, and the Men in it, is at your disposal. Lord knows Tony would only have turned it all over to the Yanks anyway."
Canizzarro laughed. "You don’t understand. You need to watch Aldrin’s latest speech – it should be going on about now, I think. We’re facing an external foe. Aliens. We need to work together, all of us, or we’re toast. All Humanity needs to be one."
Chambers hesitated. "Well – I suppose when you look at it – aliens would be the ultimate foreigners…" he mused.
"That’s the spirit," Canizzarro said ironically. "And I’m here to bring you your two new liaisons. You’ll find they know this ship rather well, as it’s theirs. Piotr and Rachel Zobodin."
The contemporaries studied them. "Didn’t you take a bullet for Garrows?" Stawes asked of Piotr.
"Showoff," Chambers muttered.
"I didn’t do it on purpose," Piotr protested in his not-quite-Russian accent.
"Capital," Canizzarro said breezily. "Well, I suppose you’ll get on like a house on fire."
He nodded to one of the grey-suited guards, who produced a bottle of champagne and popped the cork, which pinged off one of the pieces of contemporary equipment: Prof Bone winced. "You’ll like this, it’s the 2214," Canizzarro said conspiratorially.
"Future wine, sounds like something out of Terry Pratchett," Chambers grumbled, but he accepted a flute.
"To the Shed Men!" Canizzarro offered the toast.
They clinked glasses. "And all her ships at sea," Chambers added with a wink.
THE WORLDS TURN
His name was Celoun.
He was almost nine thousand years old, and that made him old even among his people. He had lived as a young, eager apprentice, uplifted from a primitive folk by his own gods, they who called themselves the Grigóri and were now long vanished from this universe. He had lived as a proud, powerful warlord in the era in which his race had been the dominant one in this Galaxy.
And now he lived as a two-bit religious icon on a planet that he once would have scorned as a mere backwater, and was now the only planet he had known for over a thousand years. The planet Yenapa, as its primitive folk, the Yenapo, called it. They were a simple race, faint purplish skin, wide adoring eyes without much of a thought process going on behind them. Typical really of the primitives that his race, the Sahdavi, had pledged to uplift, to continue the work that their Grigóri predecessors had begun.
And we all know how well THAT turned out, Celoun thought to himself sourly with a mutter as he looked out over the majestic landscape. The soil roundabouts was a dark shade of brown, though interrupted by the huts and stone structures that the Yenapo thought constituted a city. Even his palace here, despite its sweeping architecture and its proud marbled towers, would not have been a worthy outdoors toilet back during the glory days of the Sahdavi Empire.
But that had been before they rebelled. The races they had invested so much in, the Obvians and the Ucasa, had turned on them even at the close of the great Thousand Year’s War against the heretical ol’Banedt, those who practiced a dark alternative version of the Grigóri’s teachings. Those two wars had obliterated the ol’Banedt but ruined the Sahdavi, as well. Now there were just a few of them, hanging out on a half-dozen isolated planets. Just a couple of thousand left on Yenapa now. In a hundred years, Celoun knew, there would be none. Their life-extending technology was long gone. Soon he would have to go to meet his Grigóri masters in the beyond, and hang his head in the shame of failure.
I cannot blame the Obvians or the Ucasa, he thought. We created them, or engineered them from primitives at least. A bad workman blames his tools, especially when they come around and bite him on the backside.
Celoun sighed. Even now, he and his few comrades on this world were still engaged in a conflict, a conflict that had ranged for hundreds of years. Three-quarters of the planet was controlled by the native Yenapa and their Sahdavi masters, but the rest was under the bootheel of the Ucasa who’d been on the planet during the wars. The Obvians had long vanished, all gone back to their homeworld apparently, but the Ucasa were everywhere, and they were a potent foe. We made them that way, Celoun reflected with a touch of misplaced pride.
He looked out over the horizon again. Somewhere beyond those majestic purple mountains, the Ucasa leaders were plotting their next move. He knew from sheer numbers that the Sahdavi-led Yenapa would eventually win, particularly considering the enhancements they were now experimenting with. One third of the Yenapa population had been enhanced, turned into efficient killing machines with powerful tactical brains and a hardwired loyalty to the Sahdavi. We will get it right this time, he thought, but sighed. Perhaps he and the others would live to see the final defeat of the Ucasa here. They would never live to see the Yenapa become a great power in their turn, or to see the interstellar revenge they were grooming the Yenapa to enact: the enslavement of all Ucasa everywhere, payback for their betrayal.
Still; if he could see the Ucasa here defeated, and the Yenapa set up well for their mission, he’d go to the beyond satisfied…
"Master Celoun!" a voice said. It was slightly hissing, obsequious, guttural. Without turning around, he knew it was not the voice of a mere basic Yenapa, but one of the third that they had enhanced into killing machines. The third that lived to wreak pain upon the Ucasa, and any other foe of the Sahdavi, and proudly wore that raison d’être as their name.
A Vároto, in other words.
Celoun spun around, pulled the crop from his belt, struck the snivelling creature on its shoulder. A flicker of purple blood, and then the wound closed up. We designed them well, he thought with pride as the creature shrieked from the pain. "What is it, unworthy?" he asked. His voice was melodious, almost angelic, fitting well with his appearance. Like all Sahdavi, he was over six feet tall, humanoid, but with long flowing golden hair, pale, almost glowing skin, and sharply pointed ears. Long ago, his folk had inspired tales of fairy folk on worlds far away, the sort who were beautiful and terrifying at the same time.
The Vároto threw himself on the floor again a gesture of obeisance. "My master – one of the ancient wonders! It speaks once more!"
"What?" he said, his ears pricking up in excitement. Surely the foolish creature was mistaken, and yet…
What if a group of his people, perhaps one surviving ship from the glory days, had finally found them?
"Take me to it. Now!" he barked, kicking the Vároto in its genitals. The creature whimpered. It was a powerful killing machine, could break his aged body with one blow, but it was hardwired to never even consider that such a thing could happen. He was its god, just as the Grigóri had been his.
The Vároto, with a bowed, skipping gait, made its way through the marbled corridors of his palace, Celoun following. He paused to admire one of the wall mosaics, celebrating a victory over the Ucasa one hundred years ago or so – a long time to the Yenapa, scarcely an eyeblink to him. He smiled at the crude representation of the Ucasa prisoners being slowly lowered into that tank of molten metal: the artist hadn’t managed to capture the looks of terror on their face, but it didn’t matter – he remembered the real thing well enough, for he’d been the one lowering them.
Finally he reached a room deep in the palace where he kept the few bits of technology from the Golden Age he’d managed to salvage. Most of it was useless, now, underpowered rubbish. With just one working váront, he could destroy this whole planet, but he didn’t have one. Just some bits and pieces he wouldn’t have given a second look at in the glory days…
The Vároto gestured excitedly at one item. "Here, my master! Here!"
Celoun boredly kicked the Vároto until he shut up, then picked up the item. A communications device, as he’d suspected. Careful not to waste the little power left in the thing, he powered up the holoscreen and examined what had come through.
It took him a while to understand it, for it had been translated into the wrong dialect of Sahdavan, and badly at that. But the implications were clear. He read the opening paragraph, the introduction and explanation. His mind boggled as he considered the future that was outlined, and why that future could never be allowed to come to pass. He gave the rest of the massive datafile a cursory glance, recognised a few things, felt an old thrill run through him.
"By the Grigóri!" he cried. "This will save us!"
He stared out of the window at the distant mountains. The first part of the file was a set of historical records, military data learned after the fact, every single plan and secret base that the Ucasa foe had at the present.
He smiled to himself. A few moments ago, he’d wondered whether he’d even last to the end of this pitiful, pathetic war. Now…now the war would be over in a week.
And then, the stars…and he would no longer have to worry about dying.
"Vároto!" he barked. "Summon the others! We must begin as soon as possible!"
The Vároto crawled to its feet, purple blood running down its body. "I hear and I obey, my master," it mumbled, its hands over its face in a crude defensive measure.
Celoun studied it and nodded. "Truly it is the finest strain we have yet produced," he murmured. "Most of them die after that level of treatment."
"Although…" he pondered to himself as the Vároto dragged its pitiful form away, "I wonder what we might do with this race called…Humanity…"
President José Rodriguez glanced out of the window and saw the Earth glowing in the dark Lunar skies above. "Just six weeks ago, eh, Pierre?" he asked without turning around.
Chenier nodded. "Six weeks ago," he said, "and we were worried about an invasion by the Darbjj, remember?"
"I’d forgotten about them. I wonder if they’re here now? Probably a long way off, from what we’d learned." Rodriguez sighed. "But we’re still worried about an invasion. Only one by pre-modern Vároto being ordered about by surviving Sahdavi!"
"It sounds like the plot of a bad sci-fi novel," Chenier agreed, "but it’s all too real." He looked down at the Earth again. "Do you think Aldrin will get what he wants?"
"I should think so," Rodriguez said. "He usually does."
They exchanged grins. "Do you ever feel like we’ve been sidelined?" Chenier asked.
"Probably," Rodriguez said. "But I’m okk with that. Plenty of jobs to go around sooner or later, for better or for worse." He brightened. "One day I’d like to be the governor of some sleepy colony, like-"
"Conurbation?" Chenier suggested, and they laughed. It was strange to think of that vast urban world now being an untouched natural vista.
"D’you think we’ll still be around, after the elections?" Rodriguez asked.
"You will be. The people like you. As for me – well – Moderates are usually avoided in wartime cabinets."
"You needn’t be a Moderate. A lot of the old parties are breaking down."
Chenier nodded. "There may be something in that. I think Felicity’s going to be rising, though." He said it without rancour.
"She does have a certain charisma, doesn’t she? I wonder what might
have become of her in the other timeline, eventually."
"No sense in dwelling on what ifs," Chenier said with a smile. "Whatever my daughter may say. And I just thank God that she’s still alive, after that whole mess."
To fill the subsequent silence, then both stared out of the window, drinking in the peaceful sight of Earth. It was a fallacy, of course: there were little wars still raging here and there, though the Selenites were doing their best to help stop them. No effort could afford to be wasted. Even now, around the Earth there was a frenzy of activity as carbon nanotube cables were run up into space elevators. Nation was arguing unto nation as to where the elevators would be sited, and in the interests of compromise, it seemed likely that Earth would get a lot more than the twelve space elevators it had ended up with in the other timeline.
So be it. They would have a lot to bring up, and to set down.
"Do you reckon we can beat them, when they come?" Rodriguez said after a while.
Chenier turned to him. "We have to," he said. "Divine intervention has saved us once. But twice?"
Rodriguez nodded. "Still; we have almost seven billion people to draw upon, and an existing technology base. They don’t have any of that."
"And we have Aldrin Garrows," Chenier reminded him.
The President stared out into space. "In our timeline he might have gone to his death as just another obscure first consul of Luna," he murmured. "And now it seems he’s the saviour of all mankind. Funny how things work out."
They watched the Earth turn.
TO BE CONTINUED?
YOU DECIDE! :)