Chapter 9 – Stirring the Ants Nest
The French Minister of Intelligence tossed the security file onto his desk. “Sacre bleu. We managed to get the space probe reprogrammed and launched just in time.
Wearing one of his nondescript black suits, the Chief of Espionage was frowning. “I assure you, Sir, it was the Chinese who leaked the information to the opposition party.”
“I do not expect that you are wrong, my friend. Your counter-espionage group eradicated the spy cell?”
“Yes,” the Chief said, mollified. “A bright lining to the clouds. The Chinese will not make that mistake again in the near future. We are tracing the cell backwards to outside sources. It is possible that we will have actually damaged the Guoanbu’s espionage capability in southern France for some time to come.”
“Yes. It is unfortunate that it has caused a scandal that will likely cost the President of France his job.” The Minister looked very thoughtful, “We will have to do a good job on that spy network to avoid more serious fallout from this issue.”
“Another bright lining, Monsieur,” the thin Espionage Chief smiled. To the Minister his smile made him look cadaverous. “This is proof that the Chinese are aware of our alien friends.”
“Now we must reconsider our situation and decide how to proceed. Has the American’s search found anything else?”
“The American security is embarrassingly easy to circumvent. Our intelligence service has had a field day. They have upped their estimate of alien craft to two hundred. But, a number that large is ridiculous. We suspect, sir, that the entire episode has either been fabricated. One of our French physicists claims that the data may equally be the discovery of a new asteroid belt or comet cluster in that area. He feels the Americans are showing their ignorance again. Either way, it appears likely the Americans are about to have egg on their faces.
“So…possibly a mistake. Hmmmm. One that our Miranda probe is about to reveal to the world.” The Minister laughed. He cherished this moment. To embarrass the Americans would surely overshadow his agency’s failure in not preventing the Chinese leak. “So, whether we find aliens first, or just a bunch of undiscovered rocks, we will be successful. Mon Ami, we are on top of this game suddenly.” He twirled his small sharp mustache and grinned.
“Oui. A cause for celebration, sir.”
“Yes. Send for the servant to bring us a cognac. There is little chance of competition now. Although our President forbade sharing any of this with the rest of the European Union, we should consider how to craft our own leak to embarrass the Americans in their folly.” He laughed again. After the past few days of stress over the Chinese leak, he was inordinately pleased now. He knew that, but did not care today. Vive la France, he thought.
“Sir? Can you share with me the Miranda probe’s scheduled arrival time?”
Ah, he rubbed his hands, another reason to be pleased. “With the new Ariane 6 rocket and a new way to slingshot about the Earth, it will arrive in about a month. But we should be seeing something in just a week or two. They are already playing with the cameras and looking. You know it has the latest in camera technology. It will be able to see as good as the biggest land based telescopes within a week and better every day after. French technology at its best.” Suddenly the Minister looked thoughtful. “How old is our information from the Americans?”
“Let me assure you that what we have is no more than a week old by the time we get it.”
“Can we get the info sooner? We are playing a catch up game. The Centre National d’Études Spatiales, has clear instructions to call me, even before our President. And do you know what makes me feel the best?”
“No, Monsieur What is that?”
“That the Americans must already know where our probe is headed, and that we’ll be there well ahead of them.”
“Mr. President.” The President looked up from the buffet table with a plate of shrimp and scampi. Around him hundreds were in attendance at the New Reformed Republican Party’s annual fund-raiser.
“Hello, Bob. Try the shrimp. It’s good. You know my wife is allergic to it and attending these black-tie dinners is about the only way I can get seafood.” He laughed, “Unless I’m on a tour of cities, I almost never got any back in DC. I think I’m actually starting to like these grueling trips.”
His Chief of Staff put his arm on the president’s shoulder and glanced about the room. “Can I talk with you Mr. President? Now?” Bob’s look conveyed a seriousness that made the President reluctant to set down his plate. With a sigh, and a longing glance, he surrendered to the inevitable and set his plate down.
“I suppose you have already found us a place here where we can have this talk?”
Bob smiled briefly. “Of course I have. This way, sir.” With that His Chief of Staff threaded briskly through the crowd to a large double door along one side. The movement of the President and his bodyguard of CIA across the room was catching a lot of attention. Some looked nervous or worried. The President forced a large smile on his face and waved slowing his walk to a more discreet pace. He even paused to shake several hands and say some short hellos and thanks to people along his route. No sense causing a panic. Everyone remembered President Clark’s assassination just two terms back and if it looked like he was hurried, people could bolt. The Minority Whip of the House would never forgive him if he crashed the party tonight.
When he finally reached the double doors, Bob was there waiting for him. Two men in dark suits stationed on each side of the doors opened them for them. “Mr. President. Mr.Farrington,” one of them murmured.
He walked though the doors followed by Bob and his small contingent of guards. The two on each side of the door stayed put, but pulled the doors shut behind them. This was a large library. The Minority Whip had a very large mansion and his library of collected rare books was well known. Two of his guards crossed the room to a side wall where another door was set in the wall between the books.
Bob grabbed his elbow and led him into one corner. The President waived his body guards to stay back. He asked, “What’s so important, Bob?”
Bob smiled and said, “One minute.” He set a device like a computer tablet on the shelf beside them and pushed an ominous red button on its top. “There. That will scramble any audio or video channels in this room, in case the Whip has some security built-in here that we haven’t already found.“
The President folded his arms across his chest and said, “Out with it. What’s the deal?”
“There are even more of them than we suspected, sir.”
At first it didn’t register on him who ‘them’ were. Then it did. “How many?”
The President felt a sinking feeling in his stomach. “Hundreds? As in, more than 200?”
“A lot more. And we have a report on size. One of the astronomers, Amad Hazzarian at Mount Graham, figured out some complex way of measuring the speed of a ship as it occulted a star. Based on what they tell me is actually rudimentary geometry, some of those ships are ten times the size we originally estimated.”
The President felt his mouth fall open. “Ten times the size of the Pentagon?”
“And all its parking lots.”
“My lord. That’s big.”
“And,” Bob’s voice dropped in volume. “There are probably a thousand of them, of all different sizes apparently. I’m told that before, and after, one of the big shapes crosses the star, that often a number of smaller objects, moving very fast, cross the same star. Also, some stars lie close together in the sky. Often a big shape seems to have smaller ones swarming around it. They’re no longer certain how many of these there are out there. They’ve lost count.”
“What are those things? What purpose is there in that many ships?”
Bob put his hand on the President’s shoulder. “The Military analysts are talking loud and fast. They say that anything that big was meant to carry something pretty darn big around inside it. Of course that goes without saying, I suppose. But, the only thing the Military staff can conceive of that would be needing that much size and space . . . ” He paused, “. . . is a military force. They think we have an armada out there.”
“Surely that’s not possible?” The disbelief was palpable. “Who would conceive of conquest over such distances? It couldn’t be economically worth it! Who could fight across the distances between stars?” Then, as an afterthought, grasping at straws, “What about the theory that advanced races would outgrow the need for conquest?”
“I don’t know, Mr. President. Someone or something has crossed those distances. I was also told to point out that conquest was the first thing on the conquistadors’ minds when they crossed the ocean to the new world. Of course, the theory I just shared has been hotly criticized by most of the other non-military analysts.”
“I should think so.” Rubbing his brow, the president looked flustered.
“One of the physicists suggested that we may have just encountered a nomadic race. One that takes their whole civilization with them as they travel between stars. He said that a race like that may not care if they take several hundred years to travel between stars because everyone they need or know is traveling with them.”
The President was quiet. Then, “Pass the word back to the Pentagon, and everyone else, to drop all this bullshit about a possible threat for now. If we get a leak to the press about our “little green men”, and I don’t want it complicated with some panicked bunch of UFO freaks, who think we’re being invaded, and stirring up trouble. You got me?”
“Loud and clear, Mr. President.”
“Let’s talk about this tomorrow on the plane back.”
“You know Bob, I didn’t think I’d ever feel this way, but suddenly I’m not interested in the seafood any longer.”
Veta grimaced. The canteen was a noisy and the intoxicant she was nursing had a harsh metallic taste. She had been talked into trying it by her grounder buddies. “Nectar of Galeta” is what they had said. Nectar of a subjugate septic system was more like it. She considered having a container of rocket fuel to clear her taste buds. Even that should taste better than this stuff. She should have stuck with the pernt. It tasted better and was carbonated besides.
The canteen wasn’t normally her choice of places to be, especially after her last binge with her grounder friends. But Veta was avoiding her cubicle for a few cycles, hoping Enet would calm down. The canteen was the easiest place to kill some time. But she was having a tough time keeping her friends from getting her intoxicated again. It was crowded in here as well as noisy. Veta ducked as Gredi went by waving her appendages wildly, involved in a pantomime game of some kind. Jardin was yelling guesses that were lost in the crowd’s noise. Why is the canteen is always so full between shifts, Veta wondered sourly?
“Veta.” Turning her head, she saw Daehir, her GM, had appeared. “Why the sad face?
“Enet.” One word says all, Veta thought.
“Still? Galeta!” Daehir exclaimed. Veta winced at the irreverent use of Galeta’s name. Rough language was natural for Daehir, who thought nothing of it. “For a pleasure-clone, she’s not giving you much pleasure.”
“She’s a Tech,” Veta defended her.
“Ahhh. So? Get a new one. Or get a real pleasure-clone. There is a real vision of beauty I know who could make you forget all about Enet.”
Veta shook her head. “How many pleasure-clones does this make that you know? Three-eights? Or eight times that many? You play around with so many. How can you say you really know any of them?”
Daehir laughed. “And you know Enet? I think not. Pleasure-clones don’t think like us Warriors. Just take your sex-stims and go have fun. How old are you?” She suddenly demanded. “Two-eights? You have a lot to learn about relationships. “
Defensively, Veta replied, “Three eighths and four. Old enough. This is my fourth Flight.”
“And eight Flights will teach you all about pleasure-clones? I think not.” Daehir looked around the crowded canteen. “In your mood, you need to talk not drink. Hungry? Let’s go to the food hall. It’s quieter there. My credit.” Veta nodded appreciatively. Enet had her credit-chit and she wasn’t likely to get it back soon. Getting up, they threaded their way out the door and down the corridor to the food hall. Grabbing a tray, they each selected items that Daehir waived her chit for. Then they found a table in the corner on the far side of the hall where there were few others.
As they sat Daehir, struck up the conversation again. “I’ve been in cold-storage, but you’re off the Bridge. Jump-Controller, weren’t you? What are we doing out here in this spiral arm? We’re a long way from the Hive.”
Veta sighed. “You’re not alone in asking. Yes, I was Jump-Controller for our ship, then for the Flight after the ambush.”
Daehir nodded. “Slept through that one in the tanks. That’s the trouble with cold-storage, you go in, but you don’t ever know if you’re coming out. A lot of Grounders go out that way, without a chance to fire a shot.” Daehir shook her head sadly. “Galeta have mercy, but that’s hardly fair for a Warrior.”
“Yeah,” Veta commiserated. They sat there for a few seconds somber. Loss was always there, Veta reflected. “Ship-Mother said that the Drones would tell us the mission when we got closer, but they were all lost with Bruel. May Galeta give them rest. If they told her or the original Flight commanders, we’ll never know now.”
Veta looked across the food hall, where an attractive clone was sitting with her friends. Maybe Daehir was right. It wouldn’t take a stim to get her interested most of the time, but she really felt like she owed Enet something. Turning back to Daehir, she continued, “All I ever saw were the coordinates. That was our target. When we Emerged, Blessed be the Act of Adulation, the first scans showed the third planet was populated with mid-tech-level subjugants. Faylon decreed that was the target world. She ordered preparation for subjugation. What else would we have been sent for?”
“We’re a long ways from Hive space to be taking a new subjugant world,” Daehir muttered dryly. “Have they thought about how they intend on holding it? ‘The Enemy is everywhere’.”
“And, ‘Everywhere is the Enemy’, Veta answered maxim with maxim. The old truths admitted the reality, as depressing as that was this far from safe space. “I heard Faylon tell Malen that the Mother must be planning a new Hive.”
Daehir was suitably impressed. “A new Hive! It’s been what? Four-eight’s of cycles since a new Hive was founded? Well, for me four-eights.” She looked at Veta questioningly.
“Eight-eights and half again, Daehir.”
Looking stricken, Daehir whispered, “So long. Who’d have known?” She looked up meeting Veta’s eyes. “I wonder how old I am? I mean, real-time. I’ve spent so long in the tanks.”
Veta touched Daehir’s arm. “All time is real time for Galeta.”
Daehir gave a halfhearted smile at the quote from the Forms. “Sure. It’s just a long time for mere clones. You said earlier this was your fourth flight. It’s my eight-and-seventh.” Daehirr took a long drink from her intoxicant. Maudlin from the drink, Veta decided. Daehir never appeared intoxicated no matter how much she drank.
“That’s a lot of Flights,” was all Veta could think of to say.
Daehir nodded morosely. “Still, a new Hive? So far from the others? Where’s the sense in that? How do you defend it?”
Veta shrugged. Maybe Daehir was right. “I don’t know. Without the Drones and their communicator, we haven’t contacted the Hives to ask. You know the protocol for enemy space.” She knew she didn’t have to say, ‘run silent’. “Maybe The Mother wanted something that this world has. We should find out soon. We’ve never failed a subjugation.”
At which, Daehir nodded and smiled. “Take comfort in small things.”
There it is, Tommy’s. The narrow old style brick frontage belied the larger inside he knew, but he could see a lot of people were in there. He hadn’t been there in years, and now at happy hour the joint was jumping. He pushed his way in though an ancient brass door. Part of the ambiance, he thought. It was even more crowded inside. The old saloon bar-counter took up one whole wall near the front. It was and
Watching carefully in the dim lighting for Linda, he headed towards the back. There the owner had torn out a portion of the back brick wall and expanded his business into the shop behind. The whole area was full of tables, and full of people with servers passing back and forth. Boy, this could prove a challenge. He scanned the side tables before turning to the back wall.
There she was. Linda waived at him from across the room. Garret took a deep breath to calm down. He felt like he’d run the whole way from the subway and his nerves weren’t helping him. He hurried around the café tables to where she sat. As he approached, he admired her again. She was taking advantage of the spring weather, showing a lot of leg below her skirt and a light lacy white top that drew his eyes there as well. Typical male, he thought disparaging himself. I need to act better than this. Here I am, fired and unemployed, and all I can think about is seeing her. Oggling her, actually.
“Hi,” he managed as he came to her table. Linda flashed him a bright smile that made him forget about his problems briefly. He grinned back, hoping it didn’t make him look like an idiot. “I’m glad I found you in here. This place is packed.”
“Sit down, Garret. Don’t stand there staring at me. I was about to give up on you.”
Oops, he thought. “I’m sorry. You see, I was..”
“Shhhh. Garret!” Linda leaned forward close and kissed him on the lips. Staring into his eyes, she said, “Relax. I would have waited for you all night.” Getting a mischievous look in her eyes, she added, “At least until some stud picked me up.”
He knew she was teasing again, this time, but she was beautiful enough to have had plenty of studs coming around trying to make it with her. Determined to tease back, Garret said, “Your stud is here, madam.” He spoiled it with a blush when she burst out laughing, covering her mouth. She pointed behind him. He blushed worse when he turned and found a waitress standing there looking amused. I guess she heard that last.
“Well, stud. Buy me a drink and loosen me up,” Linda said brazenly. “Gin and Tonic, please.”
The waitress took it down and looked at Garret. “What’ll it be for you, stud?”
“Uh, I’ll have a whiskey sour. Thank you.” He could hear Linda laughing again. Damn. He was messing this up royally. He looked at Linda chagrinned.
“Garret. Please relax. I am a terrible tease, and whether you’ve noticed it or not yet, quite forward.” She paused. “I’m used to men trying to pick me up all the time. I’m not usually interested in them. But you’re different. You’re hard working, sweet, and innocent enough to be an easy mark for my humor,” Linda smiled at that. “And, you’re man enough to punch out Jeremy Rudstein.”
“I guess I am, ” he admitted cautiously.
“Let’s just pretend that I’ve just picked you up, instead of the other way around. That you’re here to take me to dinner and show me a good time. After that, since I picked you up, I’m going to have my way with you before the evening is done. Sound OK?”
“Uh. ” He swallowed, not sure what to say. He was certainly interested in staying with her, and she was so incredibly assertive that he knew couldn’t resist. “OK.”
She reached over and took hold of his tie, pulling his face close to hers. “I like being in control in my relationships. And I’m thinking that you like me being pushy about it. Don’t you…stud.”
Garret was speechless. He’d never thought a beautiful sexy woman would drag him into her bed. The evening was starting to appear to be more of a fantasy come true than he’d ever believed possible. He closed his mouth, realizing it was open still, cleared his throat and managed to say, “I like it very much.”
Chiang Heung gazed at the approaching Singapore shoreline. The ferry had taken forever to cross the straight in rough weather. Now, he was queasy and more ready to disembark than he had been earlier. The Guoanbu had recalled him to the mainland leaving him with some trepidation about it. His uneasiness was as much from the recall, as in the manner it was signed. His place in the hierarchy was under Chairman Tiew, but the message had Zhou’s name on it. Zhou was the oldest of the triumvirate and, by reputation, the most to be feared.
Once again he considered whether it was wiser to just disappear and take his chances. In his line of work, there weren’t many retirees. Nor many who died a natural death. When he came out of the slums in New Taipei, he hadn’t cared if this work would kill him. It would feed him and take him away from that life. He had never looked back. He never intended to go back.
Chiang had amassed a small fortune. Discretely. Quietly. And hidden it away where either he would be the one collecting it, or no one. That was his retirement. It was waiting for him. He had no other “attachments”. Xue, the one they thought was his wife, was simply a whore who was more than happy to take his money to say she was his wife. Funny he thought, for a whore to have a given name that meant snow, or purity. She was bearable enough, and even serviced his needs happily, and well, he admitted to himself. If he ran, he would have to leave her, but he had always intended to. And she had always expected him to go away and not return, over and over, every trip away. Each trip he had returned however, and her payments continued. He was not sure that, after all these years, she did not actually consider herself to be his wife.
Singapore and its airport were drawing nearer. He would have to choose his path soon. Up to this point, his path was the same as one obeying orders. From here, that would change. He had came out onto the car deck. Between being queasy and the smell of sick passengers, he would much rather be outside. The wind gusted across his face, chill and wet. The hurricane was still a long ways off, but its weather effects were strong. Hurricanes had grown stronger since he was a child. From global warming he supposed.
His thoughts returned to the Ministry of State Security. The MSS had quietly wrangled within itself behind the scenes for years. Infighting. Betrayal. There was always a struggle going on for position and power. It occurred at every step of the Guoanbu, all the way up. The chairmen themselves engaged in it heavily. Tiew and Woo currently were siding together. Chiang felt that old Zhou was about to be “managed” out of the agency. Talk was everywhere that there would be a move soon. He frowned. That didn’t make Zhou any less dangerous, especially to someone low in the Ministry like himself.
He sighed. He was tired. Always on guard. Always watching over his shoulder. Yes. It was time to retire. Time to disappear as he had planned. Maybe he would even bring his whore, Xue, with him. After all, she had made a good wife. Yes. He shouls plan a new path for them both now.
When the ferry had docked, he made his way to the boarding ramp. As he stepped off the ramp, he heard his name. He turned and there was a man there in a dark suit. “Chiang?” He said again.
Behind him a second man stepped up, and put a bullet in his brain.
The closed conference area had the top ranks of the Flight in it. Faylon looked at them with pride. These clones were her sword. One, by Galeta’s grace, she wielded to the purposes of the Hive. “Before we begin this meeting, I hear we have collected a trinket from our goal. Recon-mother. Can you enlighten us?”
A brown-suited clone stood, Recon-mother Banelet half bowed and began to speak. “First. In our recon of the second gas giant, my daughters have collected a primitive vehicle which appears to have been sent to reconnoiter the outer planets for this species. The technology is, as I said primitive, and the speed slow. It must have been sent at least eight-and seven solar cycles ago. Amazing enough, this primitive technology was still functioning and beaming rudimentary transmission back to it home world.”
“Appreciation Recon-mother Banelet. Galeta blesses those who watch.” Flight-mother Faylon said intoning a minor Form used by scouts.
Banelet bowed to Faylon and then turned back to the small assembly. “Second. Our extended scouts are in orbital positions already. They have released the geosynchronous orbital recon platforms and have begun locating cities, industrial areas, and most importantly, military installations. They will have a comprehensive list prepared shortly so we can begin battle planning.” Banelet continued with a stream of information until finally she said, “Galeta’s watchers are ever fruitful.” Faylon smiled at the subtle brag. Banelet was certainly proud of Recon’s preparedness and fast deployment. Faylon added khree to her by nodding in agreement. Prestige is always such a fragile thing, she thought.
Faylon surveyed the small group of senior mothers before her. Malen was there, of course, as were the two Fleet-Battalion-mothers, and the four Grounder-Battalion-mothers. Behind them was the Senior Med-mother and the Psych-mother. Banelet had rejoined them. This small group formed all of this Flight’s Central Command now that the Drones and the Protocol-mother were gone. All the Drones would have crowded the room had they been here. Having only eight-and-two and none of those the overbearing Drones made this much more pleasant she reflected.
Faylon decided she may as well break her most disturbing news to them now. “I have a series of video transmissions, compiled by the early Recon staff. I request the senior mothers review this with me. The need to observe these transmissions will become apparent rapidly. Please hold comments until the end.” Touching her controller, the large vid screen on the wall came to life. The silence in the group deepened as the transmissions played one after the other until they were complete.
When the vid screen ended. The room erupted in confusion.
“Silence!” Faylon glared around the room. The cacophony of noise ceased. “We will maintain khree. Remember, ‘Khree above all’. You have all just now seen the video transmissions from the planet. I want to remind you all that no word of this is to leave this room.” Some murmuring began again.
“It is of paramount importance to this mission and to the Flight that the appearance of these humanoids does not create rumors or flights of fancy among the crew. Science-mother Devery. Come forward.” Faylon paused to give Devery time to reach the front of the room. “Tell us what you can about these creatures.”
Science-mother Devery looked nervously out at the crowd of officers. “We don’t know much. The appearance of these subjugates is disturbing, but should be of no consequence to the flight. Until we land and can collect specimens we would only be guessing. It is possible the drones had some information on this race. Since they are no longer with us, they cannot tell us what they may have known. Our linguists are working on the planet’s languages. There are many on this planet. But luckily, while there are several main languages that are in the transmissions, there is one that seems to be the most common. As usual we may not be able to communicate with these creatures until after subjugation.”
“What is the possibility of a connection with these things?” Came a voice from the back.
Faylon answered for the Science-mother, “Across hundreds of light-years of space there does not seem to be any chance of a connection. How could there be?” Flight-mother Faylon’s logic and confidence seemed proof enough. “We have never failed a mission. This is no time to risk it on unfounded fears. Our warriors will not need more doubts and concerns than necessary on their minds while they subjugate this planet. Therefore no discussion of this is to occur outside of this room and my presence.”
“Why don’t we delay until we can discover more about these creatures?” Came the lone voice again. Faylon looked to see the source and saw Ship-mother Rayhk staring back at her. Rayhk was ever a thorn in her side. She couldn’t seem to just follow an order without questioning it.
“We haven’t that luxury, Ship-mother Rayhk. Let me remind you. We are in Enemy space. It was only a few jumps back that we had contact with the Enemy. Very costly contact. Our mission is to subjugate this world. Once subjugated, we will need to send a messenger back to the Hive so that any wormhole transmissions are not detected. Then the Mother can send us reinforcements to hold this world. May the All-Mother, Galeta, be with us to strengthen our arm in battle.”
“Blessed be Galeta,” came the response.
Chapter 5 – Pursuit of Wolves
Feyt awoke to the toe of a heavy boot kicking him.
“Get up, boy,” Muroc ordered. “You got five minutes to eat.” With that, he was gone.
Ohhh. Feyt rubbed the sleep from his eyes. It was still completely dark. They were not kidding about an early start! He quickly climbed out into the frigid air, pulling his clothing on and snatching his parka. It is going to be cold until I get moving. The past few days, I just got up with the light and counted on catching up with them each day. This is harder, he complained silently.
Muroc sent the twins out ahead, then he stomped back by where Feyt and the others were still chewing their breakfast of cold jerky. He glared at them all with his one eye and growled, “I told Dokara and Seelus the rest of us would follow. Hurry up and grab your packs before they get too far ahead.”
Everyone began to snatch up whatever wasn’t packed, stuffing it into their packs. Feyt saw everyone had light packs like his, and there were two larger packs of food. Someone will have to carry an extra load, he thought.
Muroc came back by, grabbed one of the heavy packs and thrust it at him saying, “Here. Make yourself useful.” He paused, expectantly. Feyt could tell Muroc was daring him to say something. When he just set the pack with his own, Muroc grinned, picked up his own small pack, and moved to the head of their column. Feyt could see Gairet was picking up the other large pack.
Silently Feyt tied his pack on top of the big one and shouldered it with a grunt. Good grief! These men either eat too much or they’re planning to be out here till spring! Haven’t they ever heard of living off the land?
Muroc started at a brisk pace in the dark pre-morning air. They threaded between the low bushes and widely spaced spruce trees that dotted the landscape here, winding over ridge after ridge. It was not long before Feyt opened his parka to lose some heat. He did not want to get sweaty. That will bring a bone chilling cold later. At this temperature, once you were damp, it took forever to dry out, and the cold would start to seep in. Hypothermia is always a threat out here.
The sun was finally about to clear the horizon to their right when Muroc stopped suddenly in an area thicker with trees. Dokara had appeared out of nowhere. He whispered something to Muroc and was gone again. Muroc slung off his pack and turned around, motioning the others to keep silent. Aterius quickly dropped his pack and the others followed suit as well.
Something is happening. It has to be the ice wolves. Feyt fumbled with his straps and set his large pack on the ground, thankful to feel the weight slide off his shoulders. He found he was trembling from a sudden case of nerves. Man, you would think I was making my first kill all over again, Feyt admonished himself. Buck fever, they call it. He saw Tauras unsling his big crossbow and fit an arrow to it. He realized Tauras had been carrying it cocked, but unloaded. Aterius and Gairet both had javelins they had been using as staffs, but now they brought them to the ready.
Muroc motioned Aterius to the right and Gairet to the left. They disappeared behind the trees to each side. Muroc’s sword was out and he signaled Feyt to follow him. As Feyt did, he drew his own long-knife. This is all happening so fast, he thought feeling slightly disjointed from the immediate events. I wish I had Selise’s recurved bow. Or even better, I wish she was here herself. She would not miss. He felt a pang at the thought of Selice and how she would be upset and worried that he had snuck away.
Muroc stopped behind a downed tree. Looking over his heavy shoulders, Feyt could see the ice wolves beyond. They were spread out across an opening in the trees. In spots, the wolves had pawed away the snow in the sparse grass and made beds for the night. Only a couple had already gotten up yet this morning, leaving round bare spots where they had lain all night melting the snow.
Feyt swallowed. There had to be twenty of them. Maybe more! He felt more than just a case of nerves now. A little shiver of fear tickled his back, making his gut knot up. Then, he saw his wolf.
It was bigger than the others were, and it was in the middle of the pack, standing, looking away with its ears up. Does it hear us? He could see the freshly scabbed slash that ran across its right eye. He felt again the guilt.
Mum. Serente. My fault. I was not there. With the guilt came his hatred. The fear went away. I am going to kill this one.
Muroc looked at him and nodded. He nodded back. Muroc whistled once loudly.
At the sound, half the wolves sprang up. Feyt heard Tauras’s crossbow twang and one of the wolves in the middle of the clearing went down. Muroc was already charging forward silently, racing for the nearest wolf. It stood with its back to them. Feyt charged forward himself, his long-knife over his head ready to slash down. Across the wolves, he saw Aterius throw his javelin, and heard a yelp. On the far side, Dokara and Seelus’s white furred figures were rushing forward as well. He heard their yells. Gairet’s javelin flashed as it flew into a wolf to his right.
Muroc’s blade descended on the first wolf. Everything else blurred as Feyt focused on his own target. Sprinting forward, a snarling wolf suddenly appeared from his left and he brought his long-knife down hard, stabbing. Yelping it fell and he stumbled over it.
He righted himself and kept running. He saw his wolf was looking straight at him. Its eyes were intelligent and malignant. It curled its lips and snarled. He charged it, his knife back up. Blood ran down his arm unnoticed.
It whirled and leapt away. No! No! It cannot get away! He struggled harder to run faster in the snow, but the crusted snow slowed him, impeding his feet. Suddenly a dark furred body crashed into his side.
He heard and felt his parka tearing as he went down with it. He rolled and thrust with his knife. It slid along the wolf’s flank, raking fur and leaving a bloody line. It yelped, but was not hurt badly. Feyt threw his arm up in time to block as it lunged again. The teeth grazed his cheek. He felt its hot breath on his face as his forearm held it back. He plunged his long-knife into it, but it snarled even more fiercely and doubled its efforts to sink its teeth into his throat. Now his knife was stuck. The struggling wolf wrenched it out of his hand.
Feyt grabbed a handful of fur in his now empty knife hand, holding its head back. It was as big as he was and he felt its claws tearing his parka more. It shook its head and tore itself loose from his grasp. Oh, God! Now I’m in trouble. As its snarling jaws lashed at his face again, something flashed across his vision. Suddenly the wolf above him was missing its head. It flopped onto him and he pushed and kicked it away. His face was sticky with its blood.
Sitting up, he saw Muroc grinning at him, his one eye glinting. His sword was dripping fresh blood. “You make good bait, boy!” Then he was gone, charging after the wolves.
Feyt struggled up, staggering. The clearing was mostly empty. He could see the retreating forms of a few wolves. As he watched them loping away, he saw Tauras take aim and loose a last bolt. Lowering his crossbow, Tauras looked around and saw him. He waved and yelled excitedly. Feyt could not tell what he said. He looked around dazedly. There were several wolf bodies strewn about. A couple were thrashing or trying to crawl away. He heard their whines and yelps.
Dokara and Seelus were dispatching the living wolves as they made their way across the opening. Looking down, Feyt saw his long-knife protruding from the wolf at his feet. He reached down, and yanked. It was still stuck. He put his foot on the corpse and pulled harder. It came out suddenly and he staggered again. He stood there staring at it.
Feeling a hand on his shoulder, he looked up. Aterius stood there. “Are you hurt?” He could see the concern in his eyes.
“Hurt? Uh… No.” Funny question.
“You sure?” Aterius frowned.
“Yeah. I’m fine.”
“Let me see you face.” Aterius raised his hand to touch his face.
“Ouch. Watch it!”
“Not hurt, huh? It’s shallow. You’re going to have a nice scar there though,” Aterius grimaced. “We’ll wash it up and take a better look in a bit.”
Feyt touched his hand to his head where Aterius had been. Ow. That is tender! When did that happen? His hand came away bloody. He looked down at his parka, its front hung torn from his neck to his waist, and the one side had several smaller rips. From the wolf’s paws, he supposed. I knew the hunters were getting close to the ice wolves, but I did not know we would catch them so soon. Catch them… My wolf! Feyt looked around quickly.
He did not see any bodies that looked like it had a slashed eye. The cursed thing has gotten away! I missed my chance! How could I let it get away when… when it was my fault it killed them. My fault it got away, too. He felt his anger rising. I should have been faster. I should have thrown my knife. I should have done… something. I cannot go back without killing that monster. Feyt felt sick in his gut from his anguish.
Muroc called from across the clearing. “How many?”
Gairet answered back from the far side, “Eleven. There are at least two blood trails, maybe three. They’ll stiffen up in a few hours and we’ll catch up with them if we’re lucky.”
Catch up? “We’re going on? We’re not letting them go, right?” Feyt could not keep the eagerness out of his voice.
“Let them go? Of course not! We only got half of them. There is still a good size pack to hunt.” Aterius was wiping his javelin. “You’re keeping score aren’t you? You’ve got two.”
“One!” Muroc corrected. “I had to take the head off the second one.”
“Hey! Bait gets some credit,” Gairet said laughing. “One-and-a-half, then. All in favor?”
Feyt heard several “Ayes” echo across the clearing.
“This isn’t a democracy, regardless of Aterius’s high ideals,” Murac growled, but Aterius only grinned widely. “Go get your packs, the real chase starts now. Now, they know they’re being hunted.”
Feyt did not see the twins the rest of the day. They ranged out in front, scouting, while the rest of them slogged along behind. Carrying the large pack, Feyt was soon concentrating on just keeping moving. He struggled along placing one foot in front of the other in the thick snow. Before they resumed the chase, Aterius had wrapped a strip of cloth around his head and promised to “sew” it when they made camp. That had stopped the seepage of blood from getting into his eyes as he sweated. He was generating so much heat from carrying the packs that he left his parka wide open to cool down, which worked since most of the buttons were torn off anyway. He was hot enough as he walked along that he was not too upset about the coat. Yet. I will be when it gets cold tonight though, he reminded himself.
Gairet had cut the tails off the eleven wolves they killed and, after flourishing them about for an hour or so, put them into his pack when he grew bored of the game. Taurus kept complaining he had lost five of his crossbow bolts. “I only brought forty. Do you know what those things cost?” he asked a number of times. Finally, Muroc assured him he would get them replaced out of the money the village leaders promised to pay.
Feyt had not known Swornson had agreed to pay the hunters. Something about being paid to do what honor demanded rankled him just a bit. Then it dawned on him. These guys are bounty hunters. I’ve heard of such men, but I never knew anyone who could say they ever met one before. Some of the Freebriers are supposedly bounty hunters. Only, they hunted men for their bounties. That brought a shiver to Feyt’s spine. I wonder if Muroc and his band normally hunt men? Maybe it is better I don’t think about that.
Muroc did not push them as hard through the afternoon as he had when they first started this morning. The hunt’s success made him talkative for once. “They are hauling their tails fast right now,” he said. “We’ll give them some space; make them think we’re done. If we do not push them hard, they will slow down in another day or so. Then we’ll hit them again.”
That made Feyt feel much better. I am glad to be among bounty hunters, he decided, however bad they may be; if that is what I need to get my revenge. Suddenly, he could visualize his sister’s, Serente’s, face smiling at him. He shook away the tears that tried to form and pressed on. I am going to kill them, Serente. For you and Mum. You’ll see.
Just before dusk, Dokara came back with two more tails and a crossbow quarrel. He handed the tails to Gairet and the bolt to Tauras. Gairet laughed and began to try to guess which of them should count the two extra kills, but Tauras looked a little sad.
When pushed by the boisterous Gairet, Tauras complained, “I know Muroc. He will not replace what has not been lost. I’d have been better off with a brand new quarrel than an old worn one.”
“Let me throw that one away for you, then,” Gairet offered.
Taurus, however, became very protective of it, saying, “No. That is all right. I have grown fond of it, you know. I mark each kill on each bolt. See? This one has six kills.” He rapidly put it away to keep Gairet from absconding with it.
“Hah. So, you’re counting kills too. How many misses though?”
“No one counts misses,” Taurus retorted.
“How do you know when you’ve used it up then? It has to be worn out sometime right?”
Disturbed, Tauras muttered, “Used it up? How do I know? That is not fair, Gairet. Misses don’t use them up. Do they?”
“Oh, yeah,” Gairet turned his head and winked to everyone else. “Once they’re used up, you can’t hit anything with them. I bet that one is used up.”
Tauras mumbled and complained quietly for a while, but he would not return the “used up” bolt and assured Gairet repeatedly it was still good. He changed the subject when Gairet laughed and asked, “How do you know for sure?” one more time.
That night, when they made camp, Aterius sat Feyt down by a larger fire than normal and took out a needle and some thread. “This is not thread, it is sinew,” he insisted. “Thread isn’t good in a wound.” Feyt sat in front of him with the cut side of his face turned into the firelight.
“Ouch!” Feyt exclaimed, eliciting laughter around the fire. “That hurts!”
“It’s going to. Grit your teeth.” After that, Feyt bit his lip and other than a few grunts said nothing until Aterius finished the stitching.
Seelus, from across the fire, said, “Feyt-bait. Good job today. You got two. Not bad.”
Dokara nodded. “Yeah, not a bad job. Word of advice though, you charged right out into the middle of them. What were you after? That big one in the middle?”
“Yeah. The big one.”
That surprised, Dokara. “Really? The big one? Looking for a trophy?”
“He’s the bait remember,” Gairet laughed. “He wanted to feed the big one.”
“No.” Feyt drew a deep breath. “The big one is the one that killed my mum and sis.”
The silence around the fire was thick. It lasted until Gairet said, “Hey, Feyt. I am sorry. I didn’t mean anything. I was just funning. You know.”
“I mean something though.” All heads turned to Muroc. He looked around the group solemnly. “Feyt is officially one of us now. He is a full member. He gets his share of the bounty. Any disagreements?” Tauras looked like he wanted to complain, but held his tongue.
Muroc went on. “And that big ugly wolf is his. He gets first shot at it. If anyone else kills it, you bring it to him. It is his by right. Got it? Good,” he said as heads around the fire nodded. He tossed a bottle of something to Tauras, who was closest to him. “Here, pass this around. We had a good start to the hunting today. But everyone needs to know, we were lucky. Those things did not know there was anyone after them. Now, they are going to be skittish. We put the fear of God in them.” That brought some laughter and agreement.
God? Is he a believer in the One God like my mum and I?I wonder…
Muroc went on, “Tomorrow, we start closing the gap on them again. With luck, we’ll hit them good again tomorrow afternoon, worst case, by the day after.”
“We better,” Aterius said dryly. “Weather looks like it may be changing soon. Feels like a storm is coming. If not by late tomorrow, I’d guess the day after.”
“Not sure how you tell, Aterius, but I won’t argue. Enjoy the drink, men. Tomorrow we push hard to catch up again.” Muroc walked away with Tauras, who had come up to him with another complaint about something.
Gairet laughed at their backs and leaned over to Feyt. “For Tauras, every silver lining has a cloud attached.”
“Here, Feyt,” Aterius nudged him. “Let’s sew up your coat now that your head is mostly held together. This needle has twine. Know how to sew?”
“Yeah. My mum taught me. We did all our own repairs. If I came home with my coat torn up like this, she’d make me stitch it back together to teach me to take better care of my things.” Thinking of his mum made his eyes misty briefly. Clearing his throat, he went on, “Not like we could afford to barter for a new one.”
“Hmmm. Where I am from, I never learned anything about tracking, or hunting, or just plain living, until I ran away to become an adventurer. My parents were wealthy. When they disinherited me for becoming an adventurer and a bounty hunter, I was forced to learn a great number of things I had to do on my own. Count yourself lucky to have learned your skills so young. I was less fortunate.”
I suppose his being a prince explains his fancy clothes back in Caernall. And why he acts different from everyone else. Sophisticated, Feyt pronounced it slowly in his mind. He looked at the black man differently now. Born wealthy, and I bet he can even read. Now, here he is with a band of bounty hunters. I thought my life wasn’t fair.
Feyt shrugged out of the parka. He emptied its pockets so he could pull the fabric straight as he sewed. As he did, he found the medallion in the pocket where he had placed it. He had forgotten he had it. It seemed like the horror of his Mum and Serente’s murder had occurred weeks ago, instead of just four days ago. He lifted the necklace up and peered at it. Doing so reminded him of his mother’s words. About the wolf and how it had talked. With her dying breath, she said it wanted the medallion. Crazy talk, or… was it really a demon? Feyt examined the round metal more closely, rubbing one face with his thumb.
How could something as dull and plain as this have any value, let alone be something some demon would be searching for? It made no sense. Mum was probably out of her head. He started to drop the medallion back into the bottom of his pack, but he paused. If some wolf demon does want it, I should hide it. Smiling, Feyt slid it into the linings of his parka. Sewn in, it would not be easy to find, or easy for him to lose either. A gust of frigid air reminded him, he had better hurry and finish, or he would freeze out here as he stitched. Thinking that, he shivered, feeling the icy sting of the night air more strongly.
He hurried along at his task, stopping once when he pricked his finger with the needle. He sucked on the throbbing finger as Gairet laughed at him.
“Stick the coat, not the finger. Ha ha.” Gairet grinned widely. He shook his own hand back and forth as if he had stuck himself.
Feyt scowled, and then laughed back. Gairet was always cheerful. He was glad to have met him. They are all good mates, he realized as he thought about it. As good as my best friends back in Caernall at least. That made him think of Jolen and Selice, and his other friends too. I miss them. Feyt sighed, I am thankful to have these new friends to be with, now that my family is gone.
Family. The last memories of my mum and sis already feel like they are fading. Feyt felt guilty for this lessening of his grief. I owe them my grief. After all, it is my fault they died. My fault, he reminded himself again.
Chapter 8 – The Silence (before the storm)
Garret picked up his coffee mug and tossed it into the box with all the rest of his stuff. He remembered getting that on a Company business trip to New York years ago. His office hadn’t held a lot that he needed to take with him. He straightened up and surveyed the bare desktop as if he could make another item appear to delay this. Watching him from his office door, were two of the Company’s goons, security guards from downstairs. They were there to make sure he didn’t take any of the company’s property or designs with him.
Seeing that he was looking at them one spoke. “Are you done? We still have work to do, Mr. Sawyer, and we have to walk you out. You know how it is.” That statement says it all, Garret thought. I’ve known how it was here for years and still I stayed. Too comfortable for his own good, even when he knew it wouldn’t last. Well, he knew it wasn’t their fault.
“Yeah. I guess so.” Garret gathered his last box up and headed out. The guards let him pass, then fell into step behind him. As he walked along he could see other employees looking at him. Of course, they’d all know he was fired. Word got around fast in the office. Some probably had some sympathy for him, but to most he was just one of those engineer-types who they only saw now and then. I should have gotten out of my office more, he thought. At least I’d have a few more folks here that I’d miss.
Funny, as he went down the hall to the elevator, he never remembered it was such a long walk. Man, I sure screwed up with that prick, Jeremy. I was probably headed to this anyway, he consoled himself. At least I got to punch Jeremy. The guards looked at him sharply as he barked a short laugh. Yeah, it had felt good to hit him. Especially now that he’d found out that Jeremy had stolen the credit for his work. He almost regretted making it so good. The stupid gadget worked better than any of the old ones had before. And Jeremy took all the credit. Garret shook his head as they stopped in front of the elevator. Jeremy probably would have gotten the credit anyway. If he’d complained it would have just left him looking like he was not a team player. He knew how it worked here.
The elevator opened up, but it was going up. There was only one person inside. Garret could see it was Linda McBride getting out with her usual armload of files and paperwork. Her eyes caught his. He could see the sympathy in them. He smiled, but it was a little crooked. She paused as she went by and whispered, “I’m sorry, Garret.” She looked away trying not to cry, then looked back up into his face.
“I am too, Linda.” He felt a few tears welling up. He cleared his throat. He wasn’t going to get soft here. Not in front of the guards.
“We still have a rain check to cache. Call me?” Linda smiled up at him.
Surprised, Garret smiled at her. “Sure. I will. I’d like that.” Damn, he felt like he was babbling. But she’d made him feel so much better. He watched her walking away. She still looked good no matter what.
“Get in,” one of the guards ordered interrupting his thoughts. He saw the guard was holding the door open to prevent its closing.
“But, it’s going up.” Garret complained.
“Naw. We’re going to pre-empt it. It’s empty now that she got off. We just have ta get you outa the building, Mr. Garret. Nothin’ personal.”
“Of course not,” Garret replied. It never is, he thought bitterly to himself.
Malen checked her data plate again. They were coming in slow, taking their time. The lead ships of the flight were inside the orbit of the last gas giant. There was a minor asteroid belt ahead, but the rocks were so widely scattered that there was little chance of a conflict. And in any event they would detect any possible collision well in advance. At this slow speed there was plenty of time to alter course and miss it, or send a mining vessel to deflect it.
She looked over to the bridge conference table where Faylon was busy with the latest Recon findings on the planet. Faylon had plenty to do between the ships of the flight, the wasp-fighters, and the landing groups. She would have her hands full until the subjugation was accomplished. Malen smiled. With Faylon completely absorbed in planning, it gave her plenty of opportunity to prepare her own ship for the assault.
And there was plenty to be done. The stresses of jumping through worm space had a way of loosening bolts and straining seams. And they had deferred maintenance for several jumps now due to the Enemy and their need to put distance between them. Her mechanic clones were going over every portion of the ship starting with its hull and engines, followed by weapons systems, before working their way through the decks. Malen was finding the slow approach to be a luxury that she was determined to take every advantage of.
Her weapons crew had already made sure the ionized metal powder and the pulse flares, used to confuse enemy targeting weapons, were loaded into their ejectors. She’d had the crew set the electromagnetic pulse bursts to low instead of high. The plan was to disable their electronics, not melt them down. Despite orders to the contrary, she had authorized keeping one thermonuclear device prepped and ready. Malen always kept an ace in the hole.
“Galeta forgive me if I am intruding, Ship-mother,” came a voice.
Malen frowned. Whoever was, was interrupting if not intruding. She turned to see Recon-Mother Banelet standing to one side. Startled Malen responded, “‘Galeta forgives all who ask’. You are not intruding, Mother.”
“Your response is proper, Malen, but I am intruding. There is much to do,” Banelet said. “And so little time to do it.”
“As you say… there is much to do. How can I assist you, Mother?” Malen was curious. Recon seldom had much interaction with her. Banelet ‘s attention indicated that something would be requested.
The Recon-mother stepped closer. “Faylon does not wish to hear more about these subjugates, but I am concerned about them.”
“Your concern is in the nature of your function,” Malen responded noncommittally. “As my concern, and my function, is for this ship.” She hoped Banelet would take the hint.
But instead, Banelet went on as if too preoccupied to notice Malen’s answer. “These creatures are almost frenetic in the pace of their society. There is currently at least in oct-tillian different goals being pursued down there. The chaos is palpable and one can almost discern order in it.” The Recon-Mother was clearly disturbed, but Malen was not sure of the cause of her disturbance.
“The Flight-mother has directed us to not discuss these subjugates until we have secured the planet. My khree would suffer if I did not honor that. I suspect we are jumping in that direction.”
Banelet getting the hint look alarmed. “Galeta knows this is not my intended course.” She looked across the bridge to where Faylon was planning strategies as if to confirm she was beyond earshot. “You have your ship to tend to. My duty and function is to study these creatures in preparation of subjugation. I cannot put them from my mind,” with a look of appeal, she rubbed her forehead.
Malen felt some sympathy. “I do not think I can assist you in your quandary.”
“I appreciate your ear. I have a bad feeling. Without the drones, who knew the mission, or the Psych-clones we lost with them, there is no one trained in pacification. Generally, I would not worry excessively. Subjugates are subjugates… but, with these creatures…”
Malen nodded thoughtfully. “I see your reasoning. Let us hope Galeta reveals to us our course before a die is cast that cannot be retrieved.”
“They have a confirmation of still more black-body ships, Mr. President.” The Secretary of State looked frazzled. “De Havland thinks there’s two dozen or so ships out there, but keeps saying there could be more. I’d have said they were using too many inexperienced students, but the Graham Binocular Observatory in Arizona has similar findings. They say there could be a hundred. Amad Hazarian’s in charge there. Remember him? He disproved Stephen Hawings theory on black-holes and replaced it with his own. He says there are as many as a hundred ships out there.”
The President sighed loudly, “Somewhere between 25 and 100 alien ships out there. Two dozen of these “non-reflective” ships makes me nervous. A hundred makes me scared. You know, a few days ago, I thought it was easy to understand visitors having a lone exploratory vessel, maybe even two or three. Columbus had three. I thought it made a certain sense that they may be doing some scientific exploration of a nearby solar system that they had spent years preparing and paying for. But two dozen ships, or a hundred? They’d have to have resources beyond what we can conceive of. It makes you wonder. Any feedback from the analysts on that?”
Bob scratched his head. “Yes sir. The analysts are all over it. They suggest it may be a survey team. You know, scouting the area, recording detailed information on our system and, I expect, on us. Our TV and radio stations are broadcasting 24-7 into space. They may be watching us, literally, right now. Those signals could be what drew them here in the first place. That leads me to another possibility. This could be a planned and organized long-term diplomatic mission. A hundred ships could give them the resources to establish a space station in orbit with an embassy. Or they could land a ship in the capitals of most of the major nations in the world. We need to expect them to have the resources to stay for years and get to know us pretty well. Maybe even a permanent embassy.”
“A permanent extraterrestrial embassy? Sounds like something off a science fiction show on TV. I expect they are watching our video broadcasts though. I wonder what they make of us?” The President became quiet and introspective, thinking. Almost a minute passed in silence.
“Sir?” When the President looked at him, he went on, “The military analysts are cautioning that these aliens may have motives that are not in our best interests. This many ships could be prospecting for resources. Or . . . scouting for a later military action.”
The President laughed nervously. “A military expedition? Are they serious? What kind of sense does that make? No, I can’t believe that. Coming all this way for resources? I don’t know. I’d think that every solar system has plenty of resources without trying to ship ore across the galaxy. Every other system out there must have at least several planets and hundreds, or thousands, of asteroids that could be mined. ”
“I see you’re well informed on our latest discoveries about the planets around our neighboring stars, sir.”
“Informed? Maybe. I still can’t believe that this whole thing isn’t some elaborate hoax.”
“NASA JPL informed us that the last probe they were sending to the outer planets has been reprogrammed. It’ll be looking with all its instrumentation. It is just past the orbit of Jupiter and is going to pass quite a ways away, but it’ll be as close as we’ll get. You know . . . There is the possibility that they may just leave as quietly as they arrived.”
“Ha,” The President laughed again. “Considering that explosion, they didn’t arrive quietly at all. I’d hope they’d leave quieter.”
Chertok had found her again. When he showed up, she’d insisted Peta show him into the library. He began as usual, abruptly. “Madame Prime Minister, we have verified the data I gave you earlier today. The Wise Observatory confirmed what the both the Americans and Russians are seeing is there. Once they knew where to look, they were able to fairly quickly see the evidence the Americans saw at Atacamba and Graham Observatories.”
“They are certain? We cannot have a mistake in this.”
“Yes. They are certain. The astronomers we have verifying the data are very experienced. Just so you know, Prime Minister, Tel-Aviv University has been using pictures taken by the orbiting Kepler space telescope ostensibly to find earth-sized planets in the habitable-zone around other stars. But those pictures have had a second purpose. The university astronomers were also scanning those photos for eclipses of stars by objects in the Oort Cloud and Kuiper Belt. It was simple to shift their study to the area the Americans are focusing on. Their first review of photos showed exactly what the Americans were seeing in Chile.” He positively gloated at this announcement. Yes, she thought. She did not like him. Shalda took an interest in astronomy and already knew that for years now, the university scientists had been using the data from those pictures to chart well over a thousand objects in the outer system. Their goal had been to determine more precisely the extent and size distribution of both the spherical Oort cloud and the more planar Kuiper belt. It was to provide support in preparation for an Israeli mission to those areas that was intended to leap frog the other major space exploring nations.
“A good astronomy lesson, Chertok”, Shalda replied dryly. If he hadn’t done his homework on her interests, she was certainly not going to inform him. “So they used these photos from the Kepler telescope to find our aliens?”
“No. Your pardon, Prime Minister. Let me explain better. The pictures from the Kepler could not help us because the instrument is pointed in the wrong direction at the time of the flash. But using the same procedures that they have perfected to an art, and then quickly looking through the Wise Observatory here in Israel, they found many identical eclipses to the ones the Americans are seeing occurring inside our solar system.”
“Eclipses of stars that mean space ships and aliens . . .”
“Yes. Well over a hundred ships are estimated by our astronomers.”
“But no visible pictures of these ships? Surely we have the technology to see small planets around the near stars. But inside the orbit of Neptune we should see these aliens waving to us through their windows. Why can’t we see what the Americans are claiming is there?”
To her pleasure, she saw discomfort on Josiah Chertok’s face. Defensively he said, “We are told the ships are stealth. The astronomers call them black-bodies. Non-reflective. Camouflaged.”
“Camouflaged?” Shalda snorted. “That means they do not want to be detected.” It was a statement, not a question. Chertok nodded solemnly. The Prime Minister was disturbed. Too many years of too many wars. Was she just being paranoid? Jehovah knew she deserved to be. Israel deserved to be. Aliens hiding from us within our own solar system. Shalda shook her head, “Is there any idea how long they have been there?”
“As near as we can tell from searching old photo records, they were not eclipsing stars prior to the explosive event recorded by the Americans.”
“So,” Shalda rationalized, “These aliens have not been here for long conducting an observation of us. They would only have time for a shorter term reconnaissance while camouflaged and maintaining a radio silence. I take it they are still ignoring all attempts by the Americans to communicate?” Chertok nodded again. That did not make her feel good at all. Her stomach churned again as it always did now days when she was stressed. She mused, maybe she was being paranoid. Maybe… Maybe not. In Israel, they lived in the middle of their enemies continuously. Paranoia was a survival trait.
“So . . . What does Mossad say?” She asked suspecting she already knew.
“We find ourselves nervous of their intentions. We recommend preparedness. If they go away or make peaceful contact, no problem. It’ll make a good exercise. Otherwise, we will be better prepared for potential trouble. Though with their technology, I am not sure how we will fare. But we have driven off vastly superior forces repeatedly in our past. Jehovah is with us. We are not afraid.”
“Can we continue our surveillance of the aliens quietly? We do not want this getting out to the public or to our Arab neighbors.”
“Wise Observatory is located on a high plateau in the central part of the Negev desert. It is 5 km west of the town of Mitzpe Ramon, which is about 200 km south of where we are in Tel Aviv and 86 km south of Beersheva. Basically, it is in the middle of nowhere. Yes we can continue our observations without any leaking of information on our part.”
“Good. As you know, with four Arab armies massed at our borders in their latest threat, we are already on the brink of being an earthly war. The Syrians are in their newly annexed Lebanese Golan Heights; the Egyptians are sitting on the Suez Canal where the 2021 War left the border; and then there are the Jordanians who are now on the West Bank with the Palestinian army. At least that one was split between the Gaza Strip and the West bank. Be glad Iran is no longer a credible threat these days, or they’d have troops here, too. Tell me what the current assessment is should they launch a surprise attack.”
“It will be a poor surprise,” he retorted. “But if they strike first, they may gain an advantage of momentum in the first 6 to 12 hours. The IDF, our Israeli Defense Force, will suffer serious casualties. This will not be a Six-Day War, Shalda. But neither will it be as bad as in 2021. We may lose all of Jerusalem again, and certainly good portions of the Sinai in the first week, before we can bring their advance to a halt in perhaps the second week. They’re using older Russian Ka-50 attack copters and T-90s tanks, both were new in the early 2000s, but are dated and aged equipment now. But they have a lot of them. The last modernization of the Russian military dumped a couple of hundred Ka-50s and 500 T-90s into our adversaries’ hands. This does not take into account several more hundred older tanks and hundreds of older helicopters.
They will have a split command, which helps us, but the T-90 and Ka-50 has given them an increase in firepower, mobility and armor. Our own latest Merkava series tanks will be fighting at odds of 3 to one as well. Our Apache Longbow 2’s and Super Cobras will also be outnumbered, but we will be clearing the air of fighters and air-threats by the third day at latest. Surface-to-surface missiles will be a nuisance, but our latest generation anti-missile defenses should reduce that threat to just that. A threat.” Chertok paused for air.
Then he plunged on, “Our technological advantages have been marginalized by the French supplying sophisticated missile systems into the T-90s. They will have a number of smart missiles and will pose a threat even to our aircraft. We will be forced to fall back these first critical days because we cannot afford to trade tanks in a war of attrition. They would win.”
“Two weeks… ,” the Prime Minister muttered. “
“Mossad recommends retaliatory strikes on their cities within the first twenty-four hours to dishearten their public. We expect that by the end of the second week, our infantry with the new mini-stinger shoulder-fired AI-missiles will have reduced the T-90s to wreckage. Isn’t artificial intelligence a great invention? That will allow us to begin to move our Mervakas forward again. We anticipate the IDF will have suffered a thirty percent casualty rate by the end of the second week.” Chertok almost sounded cheery with all this bad news.
Shalda paced the floor, her drink left behind on a table. “Thirty percent! We will still be viable?”
Chertok responded with some pride, “Yes, we project the IDF will have 53% of it’s tanks and copters and 68% of the fighters still operational. The bright side is that the combined Arab forces are projected to have a nearly seventy percent loss of hardware and troops by then. The tide of war should turn and we will mop them up in another two weeks, perhaps three. Unfortunately, overall civilian losses are expected to possibly top twenty percent.”
Twenty percent of the entire Israeli nation! Shalda stared at him. “Not acceptable”, she declared. “What is Mossad’s prognosis if we go for a first strike?”
“At your direction we have been reassessing that scenario every 4 hours. The last projection was that in the first twenty-four hours, we will eliminate 54% of their tanks and 80 percent of their airpower. Incoming surface to surface missiles will be stopped with our defenses. If we attack first we will be able to use planes we would otherwise have lost to run long range air strikes. We will neutralize all the missile launch sites in 48 hours at most. Mossad still encourages the first strike option.”
“Intervention is a possibility if we succeed too well”, Shalda warned. “But these aliens may give us just the distraction we need. If the superpowers are focused on them, we will not have to fear any outside involvement until the matter is resolved.”
“True. Should we arrange to leak the news of aliens to the American press and create a public outcry?” Chertok raised one eyebrow. Shalda suddenly remembered why this habit of his seemed familiar all these years. The old 2-D actor Sean Connery used to raise one eyebrow just like that in his James Bond movies. She wondered if Chertok practiced it in front of a mirror at night.
“No. Our populace will suffer from the same distractions. It would be hard to keep the country motivated to fight a war if you knew that superior beings were landing on your planet. No. Prepare our forces now, but quietly. Quietly,” she reiterated. “If Mossad has any indication the Arab armies are moving, we launch our attack. Otherwise, we wait until the first public broadcasts of the sighting of the aliens. Then, we strike.”
Garrett stared at the phone trying to decide if he should call or not. Linda would be off work in less than an hour and he was dying to see her. He didn’t even have her home number yet. What should I say? Hello, I was fired today. She knew that. What a way to try to start a relationship! He was ashamed that he’d been fired, but glad he’d hit Jeremy. Taking a deep breath, he called her work number.
“Hi, Linda. This is Garret.”
“Garret! Oh, gosh. I am so sorry you got fired!” She sounded so concerned, it made him want to just hug her.
“It’s OK. I think that was coming for a long time.”
“Don’t sound so sad.” She laughed. “I heard you really decked Jeremy. As much as I wish you weren’t the one who hit him, I am glad he got slugged. He deserved it.”
“He did,” Garret laughed back. She was already making him feel better. “It would be worth getting fired, except I won’t be seeing you at work anymore.”
“Well, who says we can’t see each other after work? I seem to recall that I have a rain check to cash in.”
“You sure do.”
“How about you meet me at that little bar by work? You know the one? Johnny’s? No, Tommy’s, right.?”
“Right. Tommy’s. Uh, sure. When?”
“Well,” Linda looked at the clock. “I’m off in just over 30 minutes. How about right after work?”
Shoot! He was in his apartment and it would take all of that to get there across town. “No problem. I’ll be there.”
“Good. I’ve been looking forward getting to know you much better. We’ll have all night. I have a sitter. This is your chance to impress me. Remember Frecheta’s? Take me someplace we can have some fun.”
Fun? Talk about pressure. “Absolutely, Linda. You’ll have a great time.”
“We’ll have a great time, Garret. I guarantee it.”
“I’m on my way. Bye.” With that, he almost lost his cell phone as he ran to his closet to change shirts. Oh man. I need to hurry now. This is just too good to be true. I sure hope I don’t wake up before the dream’s over.
All the discussion in the boardroom ceased as Carter Hilton walked in through the glass door separating this grandiose conference room from the outside offices. A half-dozen, “Good morning, Mr. Hilton’s were offered to which he merely nodded. He brusquely sat at the head of the table and opened his chrome briefcase to take out some folders. The dozen others in the room sat immediately. They all watched Carter Hilton. What they saw was a man in his mid-forties, born to wealth and power, who took it all for granted. He was dressed for this corporate boardroom and wore a pair of $1,200 Gucci shoes. His hair was jet black and his clean-shaven face was all business this morning as usual.
After laying out his folders, Carter looked up. “Good morning.” Everyone at the table replied making a jumble of “good mornings” for the second time. “Steve, let’s go over our takeover of Merc-Rydell, shall we?”
“Yes sir,” one of the men at the table stood and began to speak pointing at a chart that had been on the side of the room. Carter Hilton seemed to ignore the subject and everyone there. When will he finished, Carter nodded and said, “Finish the acquisition and bring me a list of who we’re firing once we own it. Margaret, you’re next.”
Margaret stood up about half way down the table and began to explain how the latest crop failures in India were creating an opportunity to expand into the New Delhi manufacturing of magnetic resonance devices. There was an Indian firm whose Hindu owner was selling its assets s to cover food for the country. Margaret showed how his act of charity provided an opportunity to buy into an otherwise closed market. When she was done, Carter looked up and said looking around the table, “We don’t have to feed them to buy them. Go ahead Margaret. I want to see that firm in our hands in a month.”
A third speaker stood up to make a presentation, but a young man rushed into the room and whispered in Mr. Hilton’s ear. Carter looked up at the people at the table and said, “Thank you all. That will be all today. And I’ve got it backwards I want to see all the progress and budget reports by Friday.” With that, they all stood and gathered their own folders and notebooks and left. When they had gone, Carter signaled to the young man who had rushed in. The young man opened the glass door and gestured to a small crowd of dark suits outside. They all hurried in.
Once they were all in the room, the young man exited the door and closed it firmly behind him. Carter gazed at the new group. They seemed an unlikely group. Several academics, a pale thin quiet man, three who looked to be likely military, uncomfortable in their civilian dress suits, and a well dressed young woman in a dark pant suit. “Kyle, tell me what you have so far.”
Kyle Gentry was one of the uncomfortable military types. He sported close cropped hair and a uniform dark tan over his face that spoke of time in the field. Kyle stepped forward and said, “Mr. Hilton. There are at least a dozen governments who are aware of the arrival of the alien ships. Russians and Americans have taken over all the available observatories and at first were spreading stories that they were looking for an asteroid on a near miss course with earth. The Americans started that story and the Russians jumped on the bandwagon saying they were assisting in the search in a spirit of cooperation between nations. Then recently they changed their story to include a missing space probe. Neither will call the other a liar and both are scrambling to locate the aliens and contact them.”
“The funny thing is that NASA’s last interplanetary probe actually has stopped functioning rather mysteriously and appears to no longer be travelling on course. Their lie about a missing probe appears to now be a reality. There is even discussion that the aliens have disabled or collected the probe for their purposes. The French are launching their latest and greatest Arianne rocket and with their newest probe. The final stage will be driven by an ion drive for speed and a nuclear power source for its energy. The target of their probe and the use of a nuclear reactor are not yet widely known. They are sending straight into the center of the area being searched for the ship. The launch is sure to create tensions since the use a nuclear power source in space is forbidden by the final Helsinki accords in 2023.”
“It could cause tensions if the aliens feel threatened by the Earth sending a nuclear power source in their direction.”
“Maybe, sir. But the size and duration of the flare of light indicates our little toy is probably not going to concern them.”
“Ok. What else?”
“Israel has been on alert for months. As you know, the Arabs are trying to pressure them with their combined armies into pulling out of East Jerusalem. That was one of the areas they refused to secede to Hamas when they formed the permanent Palestinian government after the Iranian War. Private sources in our government have indicated to us that Israel is seriously considering a first strike against the Arabs. If that happens it is going to destabilize the region, again.”
“OK. So another money making opportunity arises. Other than Israel, none of that is particularly new information, Kyle,” Carter Hilton said calmly.
“This is. Our astronomer friends here,” he gestured towards the academic looked pair, “have some new proof that the alien ships are more than 200 and are moving towards the inner system slowly. There is also some indications that they are spreading out and that they are headed straight towards us.”
Carter watched the professors nodding vigorously behind Kyle. He idlely said to the group, “It would appear that the aliens are either intending to make contact, or they are planning a pretty intensive inspection of the Earth. In either case, they are probably here for the long term.” He watched for a response from the professors at his words.
Surprisingly, Kyle spoke. “I don’t think so, sir.”
Carter blinked. “Are you expecting them to cruise right by us and keep going?”
“No, sir. Not that either. There is the possibility that they are here for a purpose detrimental to our planet’s welfare.”
“How so? Are you expecting them to turn out to be the invaders from Mars?””
“No, sir. Not Mars. Most likely, they’ll make contact and then they’ll look to maximize their gain. We expect that they may try to throw their weight in with one or more planetary governments, to buy bargaining power.”
“Bargaining power for what?”
“Now that, as Groucho Marx used to say, is the $64 thousand dollar question.
Carter Hilton rubbed his chin before saying, “Well, we need to study which of the world governments we think they’ll contact. Then we’ll want to make as many connections as we can as high as possible. Our ability to stay on the top is going to mean we need to be ready to move our allegiance to whichever country the aliens pick.”
“Any more enlightening news?” Carter asked. “All this good news is making my digestion suffer.”
“Nothing else, sir.”
“Ok then. Get back with me as soon as you hear anything. I suspect that events are about to start happening faster.”
As the rest of the group shuffled out, Kyle stepped up to Carter Hilton and shook his hand saying, “The President sends his regards, Mr. Hilton.”