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.