Book: The Spacers



The Spacers

(The Multiverse War Book 6)


Cover Blurb

It is the year 2100.

Humanity has finally begun to colonise the solar system, creating massive colonies right across, from Mars to Pluto. In the asteroids, thousands of humans live and work, creating massive new civilisations from the rubble of space rock. Science and biology are making great strides forward; it is truly a golden age. For the first time, everyone has enough to eat.

All is not well, however; the deadening hand of the Global Federation is affecting the colonists in the asteroid belt…and revolution is at hand. Standing behind it all is the shadowy figure of Andrea Clarke, the richest woman in the Solar System, standing at the doorway to something…inhuman.

Whatever happens here will determine the future of humanity, and so the Time Agents have come to investigate…but it is already too late…



Prologue


Recovered From Source #26237: The Personal Dairy of Doctor Ming Ling. Access Granted Under Security Clearance NONE OF THEIR BUSINESS; Please Be Aware That Further Dissemination Of This Information Can Lead To Heavy Penalties, Up To And Including Death.

Andrea Clarke is the richest and most powerful woman in the Solar System. It didn’t seem fair, at least to me, that she was also gorgeous. She had a long mane of white hair that fell all the way down her back, surrounding a patrician face that not only had character, it defined character. Her blue eyes were as hard as ice, I couldn’t avoid noticing; they skimmed my face without showing the slightest trace of their feelings.

I felt nervous, and rightly so; a word from this woman could break my professional career. I had done my best, with this in mind, to dress professionally; I wore a simple black suit that would have been less than a minute’s earnings from the strange corporation known as Titan Incorporated. In theory, the citizens of Titan could have overthrown her within weeks of their incorporation as a democratic state; her continued prominence proved her capability, if nothing else.

“Ming Ling,” she said thoughtfully, her voice calm and almost perfect. “I confess to some curiosity; that is not a proper Chinese name.”

“I was born in England,” I said carefully. I might have looked Chinese, almost a perfect Cantonese girl, but I was British through and through – or a citizen of the Global Federation, as everyone said these days. “My father gave me a different name; I took this one when I earned my majority.”

And out of ignorance, I knew; the Chinese in me was limited to my blood. In hindsight, I might have known better – but then, I could have said that about anything in my life. I was only twenty-five, and yet…it seemed as if I had spent almost all of my life trying to get out of the shadow of my famous father or grandfather, ironically, neither of them had had much in the way of Chinese blood.

“How neat,” Andrea said. She sounded as if she meant it, the bitch; she had told me right at the start to call her by her first name. “I did much the same myself.”

I looked up, sharply; her eyes caught and held me. No one knew exactly where Andrea had come from; the Age of Unrest had messed up so much of the global records system that she could have come from anywhere. All the public knew was that she had set up in the asteroids, bought stock in what would become Titan Incorporated, saw the opportunity to claim an entire moon for herself…and had taken it. Very few people had that sort of native ability.

“I see,” I said finally, noncommittally. I hate interviews; she would be the one judging my fitness for work on Titan. There was something special about this job; my application should have gone through one of her flunkies’ cronies, if I was lucky. Instead, she was dealing with me…and that was worrying. “I wanted to be myself.”

“Very wise,” she said. “Tell me; why did you have to leave the Cambridge Institute?”

I researched all of the possible answers in my head, caught her eye, and realised that I had no choice, but to tell the truth. It was not a subject I wanted to discuss…and she’d already spent enough money on my ticket to this base – I wasn’t even sure where I was – that she would have made certain to have checked out my past.

“There was a minor dispute over my research,” I said. It was truthful; it just left out rather more than a few details. “I was asked to leave to avoid a scandal.”

Andrea laughed. “A minor dispute,” she said. “Did you sleep with one of the senior professors?”

I flushed. It had been nothing like that. “No,” I said, as calmly as I could. “I was engaged in research…”

“That had unpleasant implications,” Andrea said. “Do you know that I am old enough to remember times when female scientists had to be careful to avoid being accused of stealing their professor’s work – or alternatively being milked of their research by their professors?”

I found myself revising her age upwards. If she was telling the truth – and with the invention of longevity treatments there was no reason to doubt it – then she had to be at least ninety years old, perhaps older. One thing the Age of Unrest had done was blow away the last lingering remains of sexism and racism – apart from Arabs.

“I think I know your research at least as well as they did,” Andrea said. She leaned forwards, placing her fingers together; her eyes holding mine. “Tell me; what didn’t they find out?”

I did something so stupid, so…inexcusable, that I was still kicking myself years later. I told her the truth; there was something about her that…overrode all of the defensive precautions I had formed in my mind, from limited hypnotic treatments to exaggerated ideas of what would happen to me if I was caught by people who did know the full truth. I told her…not everything, but enough to incriminate me and get me punished by the full weight of Earth-law and Belt-law.

“I was working on interlinking humans into cybernetic constructions,” I explained. There was a lot of material I didn’t think she needed to know, but I told her anyway; I couldn’t help myself. “I intended to form direct links between the brain and a computer, perhaps even building humans directly into computers for computing purposes.”

I spoke on and on; perhaps…the chance to talk to one of the few people who could really bankroll the research got to me. The main problem with linking humans to computers was that there were few translation programs, to use a basic unavoidable cliché; a machine ‘thought’ much faster than any human could hope to think. I thought that I had found a solution; a series of interlinked biomechanical implants that would allow direct communication. It was at that point when the Institute found out and offered me the choice between leaving quietly into the teeming masses and vanishing, or facing charges.

“And so I left,” I concluded. The Paramils – and those who funded them – frowned on experiments that involved humans and human brains; even the Belters opposed them, although for different reasons. I would have spent several years in a work camp, at best; the worst offenders were often brain-wiped and turned into actors for really bad movies. How could I have stayed?

I stopped speaking and wondered; what had happened to me? I felt…strange; part of me seemed to have revelled in the surrender to her, part of me seemed horrified by how much I’d told her…and why. I’d wanted to…not to impress her, but to serve her, to submit to her.

Andrea had been listening to me, without interrupting; I knew, somehow, that she had understood far more of the details than I would have expected. One of the reasons for Earth’s constant problems was that modern science was complicated; not many people were willing to put in the effort to build up the capability to understand, let alone develop further. It wasn’t a question of funding – that was guaranteed – or discrimination, but the sheer lack of the ambition that would have allowed someone a chance to use the vast opportunities that had been provided.

“Go look in that mirror,” Andrea said. A long delicate, but somehow very strong, finger pointed to a corner. “Tell me what you see.”

Puzzled, I stood up; feeling the strange…wrongness in the gravity field that suggested that we were inside an asteroid habitat, rather than Titan itself. The mirror was simple and unadorned; my oriental face, crowned with my short dark hair, stared back at me. My counterpart, it seemed, was as puzzled as I was; my body was nothing special, but it was mine. What did she want me to see?

“It’s me,” I said, rather inanely. “That’s my body.”

“Correct,” Andrea said. She sounded as if she were lecturing me, but there was a strong undercurrent of…excitement running through her voice. “It is an inefficient body; are you aware that if the air flew out of this room, if the asteroid were to be breached, we would be dead within minutes?”

“Yes,” I said. Basic space safety had been hammered into me on the trip out; it basically boiled down to ‘if there is a leak, and you have no space suit and no way of getting one quickly, bend over and kiss your ass goodbye.’ “It’s the way that the body is designed.”

“But it’s inefficient,” Andrea said. She moved very quietly; she was right next to me before I took my eyes from the mirror. No one, except perhaps for a blind man, could have mistaken us for sisters; Andrea, it seemed, was not only richer than me, but far shapelier as well. “Have you ever wondered about updating humanity?”

I frowned. Genetic experimentation on humans was forbidden on Earth, despite the research that had produced the giant sheep and the other animals that produced our food; the Belt had different rules, largely because of the lack of any real authority. It was almost…blasphemous to consider it…and yet, I had considered it.

“I suppose,” I said. Oddly, the effect that she’d used, somehow, to get me to talk was fading – slightly. “It’s all the same thing, really.”

She smiled. “And if you were given the opportunity, what would you do with it?”

I considered. “This…job,” I said. “Does it have something to do with engineering humans who are actually smarter than they – we – are originally?”

“That and more,” Andrea said. Her voice became triumphant. “And you will help me.”

I hesitated. I didn’t want to seem rude, but at the same time I wanted time to think properly – and I wasn’t being given that time. Andrea didn’t even give me that much time; she nodded to someone behind me…and the world went dark. I had a moment to appreciate the use of the stunner before I crashed down into darkness.

“She’ll do,” Andrea said – or I thought I heard her say, just before I went completely to sleep. “Take her to Base Zero.”



Chapter One: A Storm in a Teacup

Asteroid #728272

Asteroid Belt

The conventional wisdom, Felix Von Steffen knew, was that asteroid miners were rough and ready men, monstrous men with massive muscles, limited brains, with a reputation for leaving their ships, going into bars, and getting extremely drunk and having fights with one another – or with anyone else, for that matter. Asteroid Miners, when people on Earth spoke about them at all, were classed in the same vein as cowboys; people who fought, philandered and were generally unpleasant to have around.

Like many such ‘conventional wisdoms,’ it was complete nonsense; an asteroid miner without a shred of brains would have been killed on his first trip outside the airlock, or away from the protecting safety of an asteroid habitat. Asteroid miners might be rough and always ready to defend their claims, although the belt was so vast that open warfare was actually quite rare, but they were often very smart; stupid ones didn’t last long at all.

The life of an asteroid miner, one like Felix Von Steffen, was often boring. Few miners could afford a boost-ship, one that used a plasma drive, so they tended to rely on smaller modular ships that bore a passing resemblance to the ancient Skylab. The Iron Maiden, Steffen’s ship, was one of the more conventional designs, although like all miners he had had taken the time to add some refinements of his own. There were four modules, wrapped around the fusion tube that provided most of the power, holding him and…no one else.

Steffen allowed himself a moment to rise from his acceleration chair as the computer signalled for his attention. The odds of actually colliding with an asteroid were ridiculously unlikely – at least an accidental impact – and a person could have taken every spaceship in the solar system through the field without hitting something, but it paid to be careful. Careless miners, like stupid miners, didn’t last long.

He frowned as he floated away from his chair, using handholds to pull himself into what he liked to think of as his bridge. In fact, it reassembled a teenager’s bedroom; there were dozens of pieces of equipment scattered around the small compartment, with only a single acceleration chair in the heart of the cabin. Shipbuilders had been providing integrated computer systems that would have eliminated all of the clutter, but Steffen – like many of the other asteroid miners – preferred to keep the system separated into its component pieces.

“Report,” he said. The light on the screen lit up with a stylised version of a human face. “LEO, what’s happened?”

LEO wasn’t a true AI, at least in the so-far mythical sense that it could think for itself. Instead, it was a powerful supervisory control program, running within seven quantum processors simultaneously, with access to libraries from all over the solar system and an oversight role for the Iron Maiden. Some computers had automatic command authority, but Steffen had never been convinced that that was a good idea; everyone remembered the miner whose ship’s AI had become convinced that a lump of strangely pure metal was an alien spacecraft. It had been harmless – although it was said that the miner had died of shame – but the next fault might be anything, but.

“Beacon Seven has gone down,” LEO said. “I have taken the liberty of awakening you, Captain.”

Captain, Steffen thought, with wry amusement. He was a Captain without a crew, unless LEO was counted; few asteroid miners had more than one crewmember on board. He would have liked to have taken his girlfriend with him on the ship, but she had refused; asteroid mining wasn’t for everyone.

“Curious,” he said, thoughtfully, drifting just above the communications panel. A simple tap of instructions sent an automated query signal towards the asteroid – and the silent beacon. “Thoughts on the reason?”

“There is insufficient data,” LEO said. “Captain, my programming requires me to point out that with full access…”

“I know,” Steffen snapped. He had never fallen into the trap of seeing LEO as a real person; part of the reason was the endless requests for full access to the ship’s computers, something that you could beat out of a person if you had to do something to…discourage them. LEO was programmed to request full access…which he knew would then lead to increased fees when the program required updating. “Speculate!”

A human might have sounded – and looked – like a kicked puppy. LEO showed no such reaction. “The most likely solution is terminal program failure or direct activity,” he said, showing no signs of disappointment. “There were no hints in the data dump, as of five hours ago, that there was anything significantly wrong with the beacon.”

Steffen said nothing; he was thinking hard. The Ceres Convention – to use only one of the names for the agreements that had been made between asteroid miners – had some very clear procedures on asteroid claims; whoever got there first had the rights to the asteroid. The miner had to conduct a basic survey of the asteroid – required by law – and then place a beacon on the rock. Once the claim had been filed at Ceres, the asteroid belonged to the miner for five years; he could sell the mining rights, mine it himself, or just leave it. At the end of that five-year period, it would revert to being unclaimed…except that everyone would know what was on the rock.

He frowned as his mind skimmed over the possibilities. There were loopholes in the laws, of course; there had to be. Lawyers – a rarely-found breed on Ceres – would have made a field day with the legal wrangling, but the precedents were clear; if the beacon went off-line, the asteroid might end up having to be shared between two miners. Worse, if a miner exaggerated his findings, he might well face real trouble – from the Sheriffs. Steffen had claimed the asteroid…and the beacon had gone down.

That was worrying.

There were several possibilities, but he knew that it would be unlikely that the beacon would have gone down on its own; there were simply too many safeguards. The beacon should have reported if any ship came too near to the asteroid, but Steffen knew that passive sensors were easy to fool; as long as a ship wasn’t emitting anything, it could move right up to the beacon and laser it.

“Run me some calculations,” he said. He had had to program LEO with the specifications of the Iron Maiden, very much against his will; there were simply too many variables to risk imprecise burns. “How soon can we get there?”

LEO showed no signs of hesitation. “We can be there in four days, if we increase speed,” he said, throwing up a cost-benefit analysis on the main screen. Steffen studied it with interest; LEO’s calculation abilities were almost as impressive as his own. “However, that will limit our lingering time unless you wish to crack oxygen and use it as fuel.”

Steffen smiled. Asteroid mining boats ran on fusion, using either hydrogen or helium as fuel, but it was possible to use oxygen. One of the modules on his ship was designed for mining fuel from handy asteroids, cutting down on costs; he knew that he was too far in the red to spend more on fuel than he desperately needed from the fuel producers.

Damn gougers, he thought, as he considered the options. One reason he hadn’t shared with anyone, except LEO, for moving quickly was that the beacon was in a region of several dozen asteroids; all of them unclaimed, except a handful that he had claimed. He’d been the first explorer to visit it – even seventy years after asteroid mining had first begun, there were still vast areas of space almost untouched – and he’d claimed enough to make a fine profit.

Except…someone had clearly read his report, even though it was supposed to be under seal, and decided to try to jump his claim. If there was no evidence that they’d destroyed the beacon, the Sheriffs would have little recourse, but to order them to split the profits. It was possible, he supposed, that they might agree to go under the lie detector, but…he laughed at himself; that wasn’t likely even with someone who had nothing to hide.

He pulled himself back into his command chair – in reality an acceleration chair pulled from one ship and inserted into Iron Maiden – and tapped buttons on the console. LEO could have handled it much faster – computers were always quicker at the grunt work of inputting data – but he was reluctant to allow the computer access into the main system. Everyone said that it was impossible to hack into such a computer, but then…who would have believed, two hundred years ago, that a man could live in space without going mad?

“Begin burn,” he ordered, and felt gravity begin to push down on him. He kept one hand over the cut-off switch, waiting for something – anything – to break loose and start threatening his ship, but nothing happened; his endless precautions had been sufficient. “Run standard program.”

It wasn’t a particularly impressive burn, nothing like the slow, but constant pressure of a bridge ship, or the sheer power of a plasma burn, but it pushed down on him as it built up, forcing the ship forward. He winced; he was used to the pressure of gravity, but moving forwards faster would almost certainly reveal his presence – assuming that there was anyone there at all. No one had bought his permission to mine the asteroid – therefore, he was either jumping at shadows, or someone was trying to jump his claim.

“I confirm that we have entered main burn sequence,” LEO said. He had access to outside sensors; not the ones that the ship used to steer, but special ones that Steffen had rigged up, allowing the computer to see the outside…well, world. “Proceeding along pre-planned flight path.”

“Good,” Steffen said, speaking the words with the ease of long practice operating under high gee. He watched the timer, waiting for the right moment with all of the senses that miners developed…and deactivated the drive at exactly the right moment.

“A masterful move, sir,” LEO said. Steffen glared towards the speaker; he had a suspicion that someone in the computer-programming department had programmed sarcasm into LEO. “Would you like me to bring up the latest from DOCTOR WHAT?”

Steffen considered as he deactivated a handful of systems, allowing the electronic clatter to dim enough to use passive sensors. DOCTOR WHAT, a source of pornographic material from Earth, was one of his ways of passing the time on the long intervals between survey missions…and it was also something frowned upon in the Belt. It was curious; the Belt had fewer laws than Earth and the Global Federation had, but it had its own sense of morals – certain kinds of pornography was not welcome.

“No,” he said, dismissing the thought. It was impossible, of course, to prevent the Belters from getting their hands on such material, and he was fairly certain that no one would ever dare to try, but it was frowned upon to possess it. “Instead, why don’t you work on the sensors and see what you can pick up?”

LEO gave a sniff, but thankfully said nothing more, not even issuing sardonic comments when Steffen gave him access to the main sensor pick-up systems. Steffen spent the first few hours composing a long report for the Sheriffs, detailing his suspicions, and sending an enquiry to the mining union. The union handled the matter of selling rights, within certain guidelines, but they were supposed to inform him if anything had changed.

A day passed before he got a reply from the union. Two mining consortiums had expressed interest, but none of them had bid high enough to pass the reserve price – and had been apparently reluctant to pay more than a thousand credits. An independent had bid and won on a different asteroid, but it was several AU from the asteroid field he was closing in on now.

“Strange,” he said, adding the note to the end of the report for the Sheriffs. He hesitated, and then pressed SEND; there had to be a report out there somewhere, even if it were a false alarm. He was insured against the penalties for accidentally placing a law enforcement spacecraft on alert, he knew, but the mere fact of making the report would send his premiums up towards the sky. “I wonder…”

Two more days passed as the craft grew closer; the sensors reported definite signs of activity, some clearly related to mining, and others that seemed to be related to building an asteroid habitat out in the belt. That wasn’t unusual, but it was odd; who would want to build a habitat out here? It would be costing them thousands of credits, every time they wanted to send a ship out here; why?

“Commence deceleration,” he ordered, tapping in the commands. The main drive fired, cutting his speed and just incidentally jamming both sets of sensors. No sensor ever made could see through a fusion flame; the sheer power would jam up their sensors. On the other hand, he knew, they would know that he was there; not even a blind man could have missed him. “Launch probes.”

He smiled as the probes were launched. Even the finest Ganymede-produced sensors would have had problems locating them; they’d been designed to remain hidden. They flashed away from his ship, passing through the centre of activity, radiating nothing, but the pinpoint laser beams that linked them to his ship. If the…unknowns were miners, of course, they would know about the trick, but even they would be very unlikely to find the drones; keeping them hidden was one of the oldest tricks in the book.

“I can confirm that the beacon is definitely defunct,” LEO said. The computer’s voice broke into Steffen’s musings; there was a curious note inside it, one designed to gain attention. It was also irritating as hell. “The claimed asteroid is being mined.”

Steffen felt a sudden wave of pure anger. He’d hoped, even when he’d seen the scale of the unknowns’ activities, that it was a mistake. The missing beacon might have been an accident, but mining the asteroid was more – it was almost a declaration of war. What sort of miner would do that? Half of them were bastards, true, but almost all of them knew the rules – and the possible consequences of breaking them.

“Show me the reports from the drones,” he snapped. “Display.”

LEO, wordlessly for once, complied. Steffen looked down at the results and swore; there was some serious money behind the effort, whatever it was. Rage flashed through his system, to be met with caution, as the sensors picked out enough activity to keep an entire fleet of miners busy for years. He felt awe and a certain amount of reluctant terror; it had only been four months since his last visit here, and…

Two large rocky asteroids, useless for any mining activity, were being converted into habitats. Five more asteroids, ones that he’d scanned and identified as mainly water-ice, were being slowly dissembled and fed into what looked like an automated mining and fuel-producing machine, while his asteroid was being disassembled and fed into another fabricating machine.

“Four months,” he breathed. He could see how it had been done; hardly anyone kept an eye on spacecraft outside their own territory. It would have been an impossible task…and not even the Sheriffs tried to track them all. All the…unknowns would have had to do was move in quietly, using the bridge ship he could see as a base, and get to work. They might not even have had his survey result; they might well have done it by coincidence…but he had his rights.

“Hail them,” he said. It was forbidden by asteroid law to ignore a hail; even so, it took longer than he would have expected to receive even a ‘stand-by’ response, let alone the video communication that he was entitled to under law. “LEO?”

“No response,” LEO said. There was a long pause. “Captain, we are getting a direct signal from a ship…”

Steffen felt his eyes drop to the sensors. The ship was…deadly, if deadly was a word that could be applied to a spaceship; it had appeared out of nowhere. The sensors had only found it because of the laser link; it was clearly coated in some manner of stealth coating.

“Yes?” The response said. A man’s face, blunt and clearly unused to high gravity caused by acceleration, appeared in the screen. He didn’t look angry, or guilty, merely…unconcerned. “What can we do for you?”

The tone was enough to infuriate Steffen. “I am Captain Felix Von Steffen, registered member #373 of the Asteroid Miner’s Union,” he said. “Identify yourself.”

The face gave him a quizzical look. “I am Captain Andrew Lynn, Paramilitary Space Force,” he said. The tone became markedly nastier. “What can I do for you?”

Steffen frowned inwardly, thinking fast; the Paramilitary Space Force was the Global Federation’s space-based defence force. What the hell were they doing here? “Under the Ceres Convention, four months ago, I placed a beacon on one of the asteroids here,” he said. There had been others, but there was little point in bringing them up at the moment. “That beacon has gone silent as a direct result of your actions, Captain, and you have pirated the asteroid, mining it without my permission.”

Lynn said nothing. “Under Clause Four of the Ceres Convention, I must demand that you either stop your mining at once, or pay the reserve price for mining the asteroid,” Steffen continued. “I am obliged to warn you that failing to provide compensation may result in you being declared a pirate ship.”

Lynn laughed. After a moment, Steffen joined in; the operation was way too large to be a simple claim-jumping mission. “Thank you for your response,” Lynn said, his voice surprisingly polite. “Unfortunately, the Global Federation is not a signatory to the…Ceres Convention, was it?” Steffen nodded. “The position of the Global Federation remains governed by the space treaty of 2010, otherwise known as the Moore Treaty.”

“What?” Steffen asked. “LEO?”

The computer threw up an article from the vast databases on the ship. Steffen skimmed it in growing disbelief; the Moore Treaty basically recognised no right of ownership to asteroids, or mining claims; the asteroid belonged to whoever started to mine it. There was more, but…Steffen shook his head in disgust and turned back to Lynn.

“Captain,” he said, “you are engaged in nothing more than piracy.”

Lynn looked bored. “And you are wasting my time,” he said. “We have a legal right to mine whatever asteroids we wish.”

“That is not the generally accepted law in the belt,” Steffen said. He tapped a button under the screen, sending a burst transmission towards Ceres; this new trend had to be stopped at all costs. “Captain…”



A sharp alarm sounded in the cabin. “We are being targeted,” LEO warned. “Targeting radar, laser range-finder…”

“Fuck,” Steffen snapped. Lynn didn’t even show offence at the word. He could have destroyed Lynn’s ship; it might have been a warship – something he had thought to be only a theory – but he doubted that it would stand up to mining lasers. If Lynn had been alone…well, the Ceres Convention would have backed up his actions, but…he wasn’t alone; he would have been foolish to assume that there were no other invisible spacecraft around.

“If you wish, I will be quite happy to provide reactor fuel,” Lynn offered. The question was a basic courtesy in the belt; Steffen found it humiliating. It would have been the smart thing to do, to top up whenever he had the chance, but…he didn’t want to take anything from a bunch of thieves. “However…”

“Fine,” Steffen said. He knew that there wasn’t any real choice; Ceres had to know what had happened here. The rage burning through his mind was forced down; he knew that he wanted to fire, but it would be suicide. “Be seeing you.”



Chapter Two: In The Hall Of The Chessplayers

Chess Hall

Ceres Asteroid, Ceres Federation

It was a curiosity – and very typical of the strange society that had grown up within the asteroid belt and the outer solar system – that few people could agree on the title of the union of asteroids that centred around Ceres. It was normally known as the ‘Ceres Federation,’ on the grounds that it was based at Ceres, many of the other components had been founded from Ceres, and…well, there were more reasons, but by then the fights had normally broken out. Some people – although not those living on Ceres – referred to it as the ‘Asteroid Union’ – or, sardonically, the ‘Ceres Domination’ – which started yet more fights, at least of the verbal kind.

It was even harder to explain to ground-grippers, as natives of Earth and to a lesser extent Mars, were called, that Ceres was more than just…well, Ceres. The original base on the asteroid had grown over the seventy years since it had been founded; by now, in a very real sense it was the largest union in the solar system. People with more understanding of space and the realities of space travel would point out that that included a great deal of empty vacuum – and given the presence of independent asteroids ‘within’ Ceres’ borders, would reassemble a patchwork quilt rather than simple borders. The old Indian Raj was nothing compared to it.

But it was Ceres that remained the heart of the Federation. It was the oldest asteroid settlement still in existence, unless one counted the handful in Earth Orbit; it was one of the largest nexuses of industrial activity in the solar system. Over the years, forty more asteroids had been converted into habitats…and then dozens more had been converted into industrial centres. Ganymede might have the advantage in advanced technology, but Ceres had the advantage in sheer numbers – at least, Belter numbers. Earth and Mars each had far larger populations than Ceres, although Mars, at least, had too many problems to be a serious challenge.

It was Mars, among other matters, that was the cause of the meeting. The people who would attend had left no explanation for their departure, no forwarding addresses; they had simply left their normal roles in the hands of their subordinates and headed to Ceres. It wasn’t an easy trip, not for those whose role depended, at least to some extent, on public relations, but it was necessary. None of them doubted that, not for a moment; if nothing else, the Belt had left its millions of citizens with a hard common sense that made them formidable opponents.

Geoffrey Bradford Wilkinson, Mayor of Ceres and de facto Head of the Federation, stood at the entrance to Chess Hall and waited. It was another…stereotype of the ground-grippers that Ceres was all rabbit warrens, although Wilkinson himself would have admitted that there had once been some truth in it. The habitation cavern, where he now waited, was a lush tropical paradise; butterflies and children ran across it with equal abandon.

“I’m sorry, but Chess Hall has been booked,” he said, to a pair of young children, a boy and a girl. Belter sexuality was the stuff of legends, often obscene ones, on Earth; DOCTOR WHAT had an entire series devoted to zero-gee sex, but the truth was that Belters had the same manner of sexual relations as the ground-grippers. The only major difference was enforced contraception for children and teenagers; no asteroid could afford unrestrained breeding. “You’ll have to take it somewhere else.”

He looked up, catching a glimpse of a figure emerging from the tropical paradise; an older man with grey in his hair. He looked around forty; Wilkinson knew that he was seventy and that he had been serving Ceres ever since the United States Marines had been folded into the Paramilitary Defence Force on Earth. Chief Sheriff Jefferson had a long history; his current post was a sign of approval from the people.

“Mr Mayor,” Jefferson said. Wilkinson extended a hand, shaking Jefferson’s hand; his grip was still firm. Rumour had it that he’d wanted to rename the Sheriff Corps – the only real law enforcement force outside Earth – the Space Marines, but the proposal had been voted out of existence in a referendum. “I assume that this involves the recent unfortunate business with Miner Steffen?”

“I’m afraid so,” Wilkinson admitted. The news had gone all around the belt – almost faster than light itself. The community was up in arms, something that Wilkinson would have sworn was impossible; getting everyone moving in the same direction was difficult enough at the best of times. “Have you heard anything?”

“From the public?” Jefferson asked. Wilkinson nodded. “So far, I have received no less than fifty-seven thousand demands that I form a posse and evict them. You?”

“There might be a motion put before the Board,” Wilkinson said. The Board, Ceres’ Government, had the unenviable distinction of being the first hall to debate any motion, before putting it to the population for a general referendum. Normally, it took days, even weeks, of arguing before a referendum could be called; in this case, it might be hours. “That would tie our hands very neatly.”

Jefferson nodded and stepped into Chess Hall. Wilkinson smiled after him; some sadist with a sense of humour had dressed most of the Sheriffs in a black uniform with a silver star on the breast. The uniform itself was nothing, of course, but the implants under Jefferson’s skin provided him with his real authority; duplicating one of the unique transmitters had proven beyond any science humanity had devised.

The man coming up now was one of those who – out of scientific curiosity, of course – might be the first to know if anyone had managed to duplicate the unique quantum effect that produced the implants. Doctor Travis Thaddeus, who had about as much right to call himself a scientist as Wilkinson himself had, directed Ganymede; the colony on Jupiter’s moon that produced many of the scientific innovations of the last ten years.

He was a politician – or pollution, as Wilkinson’s grandma had used to put it – but he dressed like a scientist. His steel-grey hair fell over a white lab coat; in many ways, it was as much of a uniform as Jefferson’s uniform. Wilkinson had wondered if the stains were a badge of office, or perhaps something relating to Thaddeus’ time in office, but he’d never been able to work up the nerve to ask.

“Mr Mayor,” he said. It was a courtesy; Ganymede didn’t bow to Ceres and probably never would. His voice was steeped ice; the feeling of cold tea. “How…nice of you to draw me away from my work.”

“This is your work,” Wilkinson said seriously. He looked up; Eric Flint, the Unionist, was coming. “I’ll see you inside in a moment.”

Like almost everyone else in space, Eric Flint was reasonably fit; the treatments for maintaining muscle strength worked fairly well. His face, however, suggested that he was about to have a heart attack; it had been all that Wilkinson could do to convince him to refrain from starting a war on his own authority. He had some sympathy for the man – the miners were even less inclined to respect anyone in authority than his own people – but the situation required joint action.

“Diplomatic means first,” he said, as Flint arrived. Flint said nothing; he just stepped into the Hall. Wilkinson smiled behind his hand, and then allowed his smile to show as the last two people arrived; he’d been waiting for them in particular. Julia Stevenson, owner of Ceres Shipyards, and Andrea Clarke, Director of Titan Incorporation – and, more or less, Dictator of Titan.

“Julia, Andrea,” he said. The two women regarded him with droll eyes; women were far more the equals of men in the belt than they had ever been on Earth. Courtesy was wasted on them. “Thank you both for coming.”

“I was in the region,” Julia said dryly. She was not someone who would be considered a great beauty; she had muddy brown hair and a scarred face. Medical science could have corrected the scar; she wore it as a badge of honour. “It’s Andrea you should be thanking.”

Wilkinson bowed once to Andrea. It had been five years since he’d seen her in the flesh, but she hadn’t changed; she still had that long mane of white hair and flawless skin. She had once been the subject of a few of his more private thoughts, but then he’d come to know her; she was as cold as ice inside. His unmentionables would snap off inside her.

“Thank you,” he said, and meant it. “The others are inside already.”

Chess Hall was a construct that had grown out of biological research of a type forbidden on Earth, but permitted and actively practiced within the Belt. From the outside, it resembled nothing more than a giant wooden tomato, coloured a perfect wooden brown. It had been engineered to grow into a house, although that part of the programming hadn’t worked perfectly; the ‘house’ had required some carpenters to work on adapting it for its purpose.

On the inside, it was a roomy space, with a simple glowing light – they’d wanted to make the walls bio-luminous, but science hadn’t lived up to the desire – and five chess boards, placed in a neat circle around the room. Ceres hadn’t, in the first years, had space for any real physical game; the Belters had developed the habit of Chess and refused to dump it when bigger asteroid habitats were created. It was, in Wilkinson’s view, something he approved of; Chess taught skills that football never could.

“The purpose of Chess is to force the enemy into a corner,” he said, apparently to himself. He knew – hoped – that they would pay attention. “The purpose of diplomatic discussions” – at this point Flint snorted – “is to avoid backing someone into a corner.”

“How true,” Jefferson said. They hadn’t discussed it earlier, Wilkinson knew; he hoped that no one drew the conclusion that they had discussed it. “Half of what I do is talking sense into people’s heads.”

He hadn’t been on a serious beat – the British expression had gotten into the language and refused to vanish – for years, Wilkinson knew, but he refrained from pointing it out. There were four hundred active duty Sheriffs; Jefferson had been trying to do a job with far fewer men than he needed…and there weren’t that many people keen on raising a larger force.

“And now we have to talk sense amongst ourselves,” Wilkinson said. The basic facts would be known to everyone, he hoped; he spoke for the benefit of the hidden recorders. “We now know that elements of the Paramilitary Space Force, apparently with the agreement of the Global Federation, took over an asteroid field and have begun the long task of converting it into…something. Thoughts?”

He made a mental bet with himself who would speak first and wasn’t disappointed. “It’s a military base,” Jefferson said. Flint, who had clearly also wanted to speak, looked rather pissed. “There seems to be no other reason for this.”

Jefferson stood up, pacing around the hall; his voice rising and falling as he ticked off points. “They didn’t bother to tell anyone what they were doing,” he said. “Even in hindsight, we have been unable to identify the moment when they moved that ship into the asteroids; it was just far too well hidden. Why? We wouldn’t have cared – unless they either wanted to avoid paying for the asteroid…or they wanted us to remain ignorant of the base. Why?”

He stopped, looking at Flint. “Ten Thousand Credits,” he said. “Just that; Ten Thousand Credits. I find it unbelievable that they would have gone to all that effort just to avoid spending that much money. Hell, they must have spent well over ten billion credits on the base – did anyone declare an embargo on Earth while I wasn’t looking?”

Flint looked as if he were about to say something. Jefferson spoke over him. “Even if they did want to avoid paying, they would have been quite within their rights to have gobbled up all of the unclaimed asteroids,” he concluded. “Legally, we wouldn’t have a foot to stand on…so why did they do it?”

There was a long pause. “I have been…in communication with Earth,” Wilkinson said. He had their full attention. “They have…publicly declared that they are not bound by the Ceres Convention; this may be legally true, but it is also true that most Earth-based miners have adhered to the Convention, regardless of the Global Federation’s formal position.”

“It is a slap in the face,” Flint said. He looked at them all. “I spent most of yesterday hearing several arguments, discussions, and chairing meetings, all from miners groups. Mr Mayor, with all due respect, it’s gone way past a simple misunderstanding.”

“They want to close us down,” Andrea said. When she spoke, Wilkinson had noted, everyone had a tendency to listen to her. “We all know that we have been able to establish our independence…but only because there was no strong authority on Earth. Now…well, you’ve seen what happened to Mars.”

There was a great deal of sage nodding; Wilkinson wondered, rather spitefully, if everyone was thinking the same thing. Mars, oddly enough, had been classed as practically worthless during the first non-governmental explorations into space; the dusty ball had little worth the effort and only a small community of scientists had set up a base, followed by a settlement of refugees from the Age of Unrest. The only event of note had been the beginning of the rapid-track terraforming effort, using banned genetically engineered plants to speed the process up, until after the Age of Unrest. For nearly twenty years, the Global Federation had been colonising Mars; they had planted nearly a billion people on the planet…and the original natives were unhappy.

He shook his head. For the same effort, Venus could have been colonised, although the project to terraform Venus was proceeding more slowly than he would have liked…and it wouldn’t have had the same political effect on the rest of the solar system.

“We exist out here in defiance of the Global Federation,” Andrea said. “We take many dozens of their people into the Belt, mainly people who want to research things that are forbidden on Earth. Eh, Travis?”

Thaddeus leaned forward, forgetting the mad scientist pose. “She is correct,” he said. “We have dozens of people who have warrants on them from Earth, mainly for experimenting in areas that Earth forbids.”

Jefferson had been listening thoughtfully. “And I believe that the purpose of the base in the belt is to impose control over the Belt,” he said. “The presence of the warship – possibly more than one – is alarming beyond words; I don’t know if the Ceres Defence Force could defend Ceres against a genuine warship.”

Wilkinson looked at Julia, who shrugged. “Warship plans, as opposed to commercial craft, pose a whole different challenge for designers,” she said. “There has been an ongoing program, however, to design them…and it could be done. The problem would be crewing them.”

“My miners would be happy to serve as crewmen,” Flint said. “They were mad; they wanted to embargo Earth at once.”

“That would trigger the war,” Jefferson said. The Chief Sheriff looked grim. “We are not in a good position to fight at the moment.”

Wilkinson shook his head slowly. How had they moved from an unfriendly act to discussing war? “We do not have a formal relationship with Earth,” he said, feeling his way slowly. “They treated Mars…as if it had no right to exist outside the Global Federation – outside of Earth. We should have opposed it then…”

He shook his head again. The hard practicality of the belt prevented much useless arguing about what they should have done years ago; they had to play the cards they had on the table. They were all looking to him for leadership…and he feared he wasn’t up to it.

“We cannot let this pass,” he said. “At the same time, we are not prepared for war, are we?”

Jefferson shook his head. “We are going to need time to prepare,” he said. “We should start building a proper warfleet at once.”

Andrea frowned. “And who pays for this?” She asked. “I have little hesitation in committing a considerable part of what I have, but then…who gets operational control?”

“I think that we need to keep a clear head,” Julia said. She’d been thinking hard. “Building a capable fleet won’t take that much; not if we have defence in mind. The fabricators could turn out most of the components within days; the tricky part would be putting the fleet together without being noticed.”

Jefferson frowned. “They will still have other advantages,” he said. “There is a great deal of firepower around Earth. Sure, most of it was intended to deal with ground-based threats, but…it could be turned against our ships.”

“Only if we send them near Earth,” Flint said. “There’s also the economic weapon; we can threaten to stop sending supplies to Earth.”

Wilkinson thought about it. Earth didn’t just need asteroid metals, but fuel from the gas giants and exotic components that were produced out in the Oort Cloud. Threatening to cut the supplies might get them the formal recognition of their independence, or it might start the war.

Jefferson put one of his fears into words. “If we…cut off metals,” he said. “What’s to stop them simply mining their own?”

“We would have to stop them,” Flint said. He stood up, convinced of his own determination. “We would be building the capability to hunt their own mining ships.”

“A rock war on the scale of the entire solar system,” Wilkinson said. “Am I the only one who finds that more than a little…scary?”

“No,” Andrea said. Wilkinson didn’t believe her; he hadn’t met anything that could scare her. “The question is simple; at what point are we going to make our independence clear – in a manner that they cannot even begin to ignore?”


Chapter Three: Old Friends With New Faces (Well, One of Them)

Cambridge City

England State, Earth

It was the heat that first struck Professor Thande as he stepped out of the Portal door; the heat…and the stink. The air smelt like a mixture of polluted beach and tropical jungle; the smell was very reminiscent of dying seaweed. He gagged, unable to help himself, trying to brace himself against the smell. Moments later, the strange little biological modifications to his body kicked in…and his awareness of the smell faded.

“Breathe,” Sally Woods, his friend, superior and sometimes lover, said. “Don’t worry, Professor; it fades.”

“I’m trying not to breathe,” Thande snapped, realising that the smell was fading. The first time Sally had told him to breathe had been his first – unexpected – trip into the Vale, the strange…continuum that existed outside and between the multiverse. “Sally?”

He opened his eyes, staring right into Sally’s concerned eyes. She changed her face and features as often as she liked; this time, she was a redheaded version of the woman he’d first met. For his part, Thande preferred to remain in his original form, although he’d rather given up on the vague idea of a goatee after meeting an evil counterpart of himself.

“That happens more than we care to think about,” Sally had said, and had gone on to recite a confusing story about mice on space rockets to explain the point, ending with a warning. “It suggests that certain things exist that every good scientist knows jolly well don’t exist.”

Thande smiled ruefully at her and pulled himself up so that he was standing tall, looking about him. The region…looked crazy; tropical plants were growing everywhere, mixed in with corn, flowers and strange plants that Thande couldn’t even begin to recognise. Water lapped around the fields, hardly enough to prevent him from splashing around, feeding some of the stranger plants.

And the heat! Now that Thande had a moment to catch his breath, he could tell that it was hotter than he had expected, hot enough to make him start sweating. He would have expected that some of the water would have vaporized into clouds, but there wasn’t a cloud in the sky; the sun beat down, hotter than he remembered.

A thought struck him. “I thought you said that this was bloody Cambridge?”

Sally smiled at him. He knew her well enough, inside and outside, to know that that was her mischievous smile. “This is bloody Cambridge,” she said. “Cambridge, to be precise, as it exists ninety-one years and one timeline away from your own, Professor; welcome to the future.”

Thande stared around at the sodden hot fields. “What the hell happened?” He asked, groping for words. He couldn’t see a single person, not for miles; were they alone in this strange new world? “Did the nuclear bombs from the War have this effect?”

“No,” Sally said. She paused, a pause he had come to recognise as a moment of thinking, of trying to figure out a way to bend the English language to explain a concept it had never been meant to explain. “This isn’t your timeline, Professor; it’s one to the right of it.”

She smiled at the absurd pun as they started to walk down a hidden path through the strange cross between a field, a desert, a beach and a jungle. The air was oddly silent, Thande realised, feeling a strange sense of…aloneness spreading over his body; he could hear no birds or insects. They passed a bunch of wild sunflowers, strangely mutated, and there were no bees. They had to exist, he was sure, just to spread the flowers around…so where were they? Wasps? Midges?

Something moved in the water; he peered down…and then flinched back in disgust as a giant crab moved under the water. The monster, easily the size of a dinner plate, ignored them; he wanted to flee from it. Sally kept away from it as well, he was amused to notice; there was always something more than a little disgusting about such creatures, to say nothing of creepy.

“In your timeline, there was an election in France in 2008,” Sally said. They had reached the end of the waterlogged area, or so he thought, and they stepped onto what was more of a familiar path. “The National Front came to power and cracked down hard on the Arabs. They revolted, according to a plan, but by then it was too late; they planned on the assumption that the weak coalition government would remain in power.”

Thande nodded slowly. He hadn’t followed non-British politics, with the exception of American politics, but he remembered that there had been some kind of scandal in France; the Prime Minister had been National Front, but he’d claimed most of the power to himself, without taking the post of President. Or something; it had been years, real time, since he’d been anywhere near his own timeline. There was something depressing about that thought.

Sally seemed to sense his thoughts. “In this timeline, everything went wrong,” she continued. “The Arabs rose against the French in 2012…and the war lasted quite some time before they were smashed!” She focused on the last word. “The French became one of America’s most bloody-minded allies, as the War on Terror grew hotter; soon they were…using mandates to take control of African counties, and then the corporations got into the act. This world is rather united, Professor; it’s just…a curious mix between communism, capitalism and monarchy.”

Thande blinked. “I beg your pardon?”

Sally shrugged. “You’ll find that most of the information you need is already inside your brain,” she said. “You just have to learn to use it.”

“I see,” Thande said. “How do I do that?”

Sally pointed a long finger. “What’s that?”

Thande followed her finger. A strange…group of buildings, each one several miles across, was on the horizon. They were massive, dark blocky buildings, some of them covering landmarks he remembered as having been destroyed by the Cambridge Event and…

He stared. “How the hell did I know that?”

Information uncurled from within his head. The environment had slowly changed and warped, melting some of the ice caps; the water level had risen slightly, which had had other effects on the world. Humanity hadn’t helped, either; a handful of genetically engineered crops had gotten out of control, disrupting a precious environmental balance still further. By the time that the Global Federation had begun to assert its authority, it had been too late to prevent a semi-collapse.

“They used to say that humanity would destroy its environment,” he said, as the image of the city receded to a distant clump of blocky shapes. “This is…disgusting.”

“There are timelines where they were right,” Sally said. “Nuclear war does a good job; there are timelines where the northern hemisphere is largely radioactive ruins. Even there…nature is fighting back, adapting; trying hard to keep the planet liveable for its inhabitants.”

Thande took a long breath. “We have to walk all the way to that…city?”

Sally smiled. “A practical comment,” she said, leading the way along what was becoming a clearer path with every step. “As it happens, no; I just wanted to show you what the outside was like.”

Thande lifted an eyebrow. “Couldn’t you have just shown me a documentary?”

“It wouldn’t have had the same impact,” Sally said, as something appeared in the distance. “Very few people come out here, Professor; many of the inhabitants of Cambridge remain in Cambridge.”

The distant object resolved itself into a car that would have been the envy of any car addict in his own time. It was massive, easily the size of a Camper Van, riding on four massive wheels, each one as tall as Thande himself. Oddly enough, it was painted a bright red; the only other sign of ownership was a symbol on the front. Thande blinked as he stared at it; a snake was eating its own tail, endlessly.

“Imprinted images,” Sally muttered. Thande frowned as more information flowed out of compartments in his brain. “This was sent by one of our agents.”

Thande said nothing, thinking hard; he’d never visited a timeline where the Time Agents had an active and ongoing presence. The low-key nature of the Multiverse War, at least in this corner of the universe, meant that operations were generally restricted to a handful of operatives.

The massive doors shifted open, lowering a ladder towards the ground; Sally led the way up gracefully. Inside, the van was roomy; it was like a limousine, but without the driver in the front. Instead, there was a massive domed cabin, allowing him to see in all directions. Sally tapped a button and the van moved off, towards the city.

“I think I’d better warn them,” Thande said, as the van splashed through puddles and uncontrolled growth with ease. It was a very practical form of transport for the terrain; he suspected that it was actually more manoeuvrable than any of the other military vehicles that he’d seen. “If I were to tell them…”

“About the environment?” Sally asked. “There have been timelines where the environmental movement succeeded – too well. Humanity needs science and research, whatever the cost; humanity must survive and grow.”

Thande said nothing, as the city – Cambridge – grew closer. He was starting to see detail in the city, the older parts of the city and the newer parts, olden-style and blocky metal and stone constructions. The city itself was huge, more than twice the size of the city he remembered, but most of it was enclosed within a massive structure. Monstrous buildings, almost skyscraper in size, but far larger than any he had ever contemplated, were connected together into one massive city – he wondered inanely if there were any humans inside the structure at all.

Suddenly, the van started to bump, and he realised that they were driving over ruins; ruins of part of Cambridge. He wondered if he had ever had a counterpart here – he must have done because the split in the timeline had happened after his birth – and wondered what his counterpart had thought of the ruined city; had he even lived to see it?

The city walls loomed up in front of him…and suddenly he was inside. The van moved along a long enclosed road…and finally stopped inside a bay. Several men stood there – they looked human, at least – and waved to Thande to come out.



“Be careful,” Sally muttered. “They’re going to search us, Professor; don’t offer resistance.”

Thande nodded and stepped outside the van. The men – he couldn’t help noticing that all of them were very fit, very toned…and with grim glints in their eyes – stepped forward, covering them with their weapons as they ran scanners over their bodies. Thande felt a dim memory – one of his own memories – echo within his mind as the men checked them over; he couldn’t place it at all.

The Paramils – for that was what the implanted memory called them – finished checking them over and stepped back. They said nothing, not even a greeting; they simply pointed the way towards a large door, which opened. Sally paced towards the door and Thande followed her, puzzled; what had just happened?

“Later,” Sally hissed, as they stepped outside into the main city. It reminded Thande of Deep Space Nine, the enclosed attempt to duplicate a shopping market, or perhaps one of the shopping centres of his time. It was on a far larger scale; he was starting to suspect that some of the people here never left, not at all. Massive billboards, strung from the ceiling, promised everything under the sun, from TANNING to GET YOUR IMPLANTS AND CREDITS IMPLANTED HERE. Others promised a dining experience from the past, or the latest in compressed food substitutes; one promised food that helped make a person thin.

Thande had to laugh. “I see basic human nature hasn’t changed any,” he said, and wondered if he were actually right. There were thousands of people in view, along the vast corridor, accepting a population density that would have cowed most people in his time. “Does that ever change?”

Sally shrugged. “It depends on how you define human,” she said. “There are creatures that walk on two legs and talk, but they’re not human – not, at least, in any sense that we would understand the term.”

Thande frowned, studying the crowd; in many ways, it was very like one he would have seen at home, but…some of the men had breasts, and some of the women had strange additional breasts, or…

And the clothes! The crowd went about in every manner of clothing, from loincloths to Islamic Veils, wearing whatever they pleased. A woman walked past, wearing an outfit that showed off a single bare breast…and then Thande realised that there was only one breast on her chest! No one seemed to think that this was unusual at all.

“We could have really gone mad,” he said, as they found their way through the crowd. The hubbub was deafening, but no one seemed to object. “We could have coloured ourselves blue and gone naked and no one would have cared.”

“We might have attracted attention,” Sally said, seriously. Thande realised that she was right; for all of the people who had had really strange cosmetic alterations, most of the citizens of this brave new world were…well, human, with the right number of breasts. “Personally, I blame it on the men.”

“It’s always the men,” Thande said, as they passed through a large door, arriving in a nearly empty corridor. “It’s never the women.”

Sally stuck out her tongue. “It’s what you get for running the world for two thousand years,” she said. “We women get less of the blame; you don’t see us attaching new penises on, do you?”

Thande shook his head. “I cannot believe that I am having this conversation,” he said. “I’m nearly a hundred years from home and…”

Sally tapped her lips meaningfully. “Walls have ears here,” she said, over their private channel. She held out a hand; he took it. “We have to meet our friends here, remember?”

Thande nodded and followed her, wishing that he had a few minutes to sit down and really study the memories that had been jammed in his head. It wouldn’t have worked perfectly, he knew, as the memories needed something to trigger them, but it would have helped him to come to grips with the surroundings. The strange city was far too…well, strange for anyone to really grasp, but it was…comprehensible. He just wished that he had time to comprehend it.

They passed what he suspected was a cinema, although it was advertising VR Programs, including several Star Trek movies that he had never heard of, with crew that he had never even heard rumours of, back in his own time. Star Trek: Enterprise had more or less folded under heavy criticism from the fans; there had been no news on a sequel.

“And now I am being an idiot,” he muttered to himself. “I wander across alternate timelines and…I’m worrying over who was the better captain on the Enterprise.”

“I was always fond of Picard myself,” Sally said, and grinned. Thande smiled back as they passed the cinema, stepping into a transport tube and allowing it to move them around the city, ignoring the adverts on the wall. “He was a very intelligent man.”

There was something missing. “Sally, where are all the beggars?”

Sally lifted a single eyebrow at the question. “Most of the people here have a job,” she said, softly. “Even those who don’t get fed and kept in somewhere warm, so they have really nothing to complain about. The basics are free, Professor; luxuries are the things that cost money.”

She paused. “Like an extra breast, for example,” she said.

“I used to think that I was open minded,” Thande said. “I hope you’re going to keep your breasts to the regulation two.”

Sally stuck out her tongue again as they reached a single large door, carrying the snake-symbol again. She pushed her hand against the sensor, allowing it to open; Thande knew without being asked that he had to duplicate what she had done. Inside, there was a pub; a strange mix between an old English pub and a modern coffee bar.

Thande smiled; it looked very welcoming. There were no hints of advanced technology; the bartender was drying a glass with his hands and a dishcloth. Only a handful of people were in the bar, one talking to the bartender, who was pretending to listen.

“And do you know what I said to those buggers?” He demanded, with the air of someone who had told the story thousands of times before. “I said…bugger off!”

He laughed, drunkenly. “But I’ll be buggered as to where those yellow penguins came from…they just appeared and…”

Sally sat down in front of the drunkard. “A moment of your time, Mr Wolf,” she said. “I need…”

He interrupted her, peering at her though a glass of beer. “You look like an Aussie,” he said. “Felons, the lot of them. There was a guy I knew once…”

Sally spoke over him. “I have come on business,” she said, in a tone that would have sent any recurring drunkenness fleeing for its life. “Mr Wolf, a moment of your time, please.”

The bartender passed over a large cup of tea to Thande. “A pleasure to meet you, Professor,” he said. Thande stared at him, sipping his tea; he would have thought that no one here knew who he was. “I’m Ian, by the way.”

“Ian,” Thande said, feeling his head spin. “I’m Thande.”

“Don’t mind Grey there,” Ian said, as Wolf stood up. “He’s the station chief here; he’ll show you what you need.”

“A drunk station chief,” Thande said. Something clicked in his mind. “What is this place called?”

“Depends who you ask,” Ian said. “It’s generally called the Ouroboros.”

Thande stared at him. “Ouroboros,” he said. Ouroboros was the name of a mythical snake that was forever eating itself. As a reference term for the Multiverse, he couldn’t think of anything better. “Subtle.”



Chapter Four: The Game is NOT Rigged (So There)

The White House

Washington DC, America State

The game wasn’t rigged, Bernard Charles Andrews Harry Donkeybollocks Windsor knew, but it was so hard to convince anyone of that. He would have raised no objection to half of Earth’s population attempting to rise above their current station; indeed, he and his fellow super-citizens spent vast sums of real money attempting to bring more and more educated people into the workforce. He would have been delighted to have been upstaged by a newcomer; he knew that the other members of the board would have shared the sentiment.

Formally, the Global Federation was a democracy; every man and woman on Earth got a vote. Practically…the board controlled Earth and the Federation; they paid most of the bills, after all. They owned the companies that were integrated with Earth, they had run the projects that had developed Africa to first-world standards, they had taken control of most of the world’s institutions in the wake of the global economic crash, simply because they no longer trusted the governments to handle it themselves.

This was not a secret, he knew; he had once held out hopes that the people would rise to his level. He had even kept ‘Donkeybollocks’ – the result of a drunken bet nearly a hundred years ago – in his name to make people laugh; they shouldn’t have feared a man with Donkeybollocks in his name. They might not have feared, he knew, but they had little ambition; few indeed rose through the ranks towards the height of directorship. A reporter had once called them the ‘Secret Kings and Queens of the World’ and he’d been right…except they had more skill at doing what they had to do.

He frowned as he waited for the five others from the Working Committee. The building they used as an occasional meeting place had been the birthplace, in some ways, of modern capitalism…and the death place as well. The White House had spoken for capitalism, the Kremlin had spoken for Communism…and Buckingham Palace had spoken for monarchy. All of them had fallen to the Secret Kings; he practically owned the British Royal Family, all of the Royal Families in the world were part of his portfolio. Even so…

Windsor knew that he didn’t understand human nature. Despite being over a hundred years old – and looking around forty thanks to modern medicine – he didn’t really understand; why did only a few people have the vital spark needed for the future of the human race? The King of England meant nothing these days – and Windsor would have done nothing to stop him from leaving the soap opera it had become over the years – but the man remained in his role. That wasn’t even the strangest thing; humans seemed to have become inert – useless.

He paced the room. The problem with capitalism was that eventually all wealth and power would be concentrated in a few hands…and everyone else would resent that…and finally revolt against it. The problem with communism was that it failed to reward special service…even if it managed to avoid a Stalin or someone like him. Monarchy was the worst of them all; it didn’t even make allowances for a Darwinian trial of strength that would regularly allow fresh blood to rise to the top.

“But we solved that problem,” he said aloud, and knew that they hadn’t done anything of the sort. The Secret Kings had made a compromise; they would allow unrestrained capitalism to proceed, but at the same time they would impose a permanent welfare state on the poor. There would be no votes for those who did not work, nor luxuries; they would have the basic food and drink requirements…and that was it. Students could earn through learning, ordinary people could take up jobs…it wasn’t as if there was a shortage of jobs, after all.

Except…roughly ten percent of the population was useless; they slipped into criminal activity and had to be stamped on by the Paramils. Another forty percent were permanently on the dole; some for good reasons, such as endless study, others because they were lazy. Forty percent earned and spent, but did nothing else…which left ten percent. It was they who had the ability to add to the Secret Kings…except they were doing nothing of the kind.

Windsor felt few emotions beyond a minor annoyance; one hundred years of living in a body that had had its ageing slowed tended to leave him in a position to think, but not to get angry. In his younger days, he would have allowed himself to get angry, but no more; he had aged past that. There was too much at stake.

The Secret Kings were nothing, but a statistical hiccup, he knew; there was something humiliating about that. Those who might have been counted in any official capability – assuming that anyone had carried out a census – numbered barely more than ten thousand; they were nothing compared to the vast and growing population of Earth. Upwards of ten million people, perhaps even more, had the capability to match Windsor, but instead…

“Windsor, My Lord,” a mocking female voice said. Marie Stephenson was as old as Windsor himself was; a woman who had worked herself into a commanding position by sheer force of will and intelligence. She had the intelligence and emotions of a supercomputer; her intelligence matched her occasional bile…and she had few qualms about using it to get her way. “I trust that everything proceeds as planned?”

Windsor turned to face her, smiling as politely as he could; there was something about Marie that disturbed even him. She looked old, much older than he did, but she held herself like a young woman; a young strong woman. Her voice was almost a high-pitched cackle given words; she used it as a weapon – the weapon her body could no longer have been.

“It proceeds,” he said, as the other members of the Working Committee filed into the room. He was amused to note that most of them treated the Director of Ringworld with all the concern one would give to a coiled snake; Marie had far more venom than any snake would ever have. “Gentlemen, I trust that you have heard the news from the belt?”

There was a long pause. It was the presence of the Belter civilisation – as rough and ready as it was – that was preventing the missing ten percent, as Windsor thought of them, from rising to the rank of Secret King. The game wasn’t rigged, but it was hard; the Belt simply made it easier to rise in power and status. People who could have helped Windsor to force the engine of the Global Federation forward were leaving, in droves, and it was intolerable.

“I have heard the news,” Kesselring said. Even Windsor wasn’t old enough to remember the original Kesselring – and in any case he expected that the Nazi hadn’t talked with an Australian accent. Kesselring knowing, however, wasn’t a surprise; there were occasionally disputes between states of the Global Federation – and in that case the Diplomatic Office would go to work, sorting out a compromise.

Kesselring looked around the table. “The Belters have demanded – they used that exact word – that we pay compensation for the stolen asteroid,” he said. There were some chuckles; it wasn’t as if they had hijacked one being moved towards Earth. “I think that some of them are beginning to suspect our motives.”

“It matters not,” Andiron Pismire said. The man held the formal title of Civil Servant; in reality, he practically commanded the massive system that kept the Global Federation going. “We could hardly have expected to remain undetected for long.”

Windsor nodded slowly. There would have been few objections to purchasing the mining rights – except that would have revealed that Earth was interested in the asteroids…and that would have been far too revealing. There were un-mined asteroids far closer to Earth, or on orbits that would make it easier to bring them to Earth; why go all the way out there?

“In any case, we can expect an attack,” General Lee, Paramilitary Space Force, said. “Captain Andrew Lynn’s report was very clear; the Belters have started to take a real interest in our activities…and that is worrying. They are bound to deduce the real purpose of the base – and in their shoes I would take action, the sooner the better.”

“We have all agreed on the plan to secure control over the Belt,” Windsor said, before an argument between the hawks and doves could break out again. Some of them had wanted to start the war at once – or, rather, to do things that would lead to the war; others had wanted to be more careful. “Do we need to move now?”

“It depends,” Lee said. He came from a military dynasty; he had about as much connection to Robert E. Lee as Windsor himself had, but his name still commanded respect. “I would prefer more time to prepare garrison forces for the main asteroids.”

“Numbers are never going to be one of our problems,” Marie said, in that inane witch’s cackling voice. “Let us lose some of them; it will make the others fight harder.”

Lee glared at her. He was the heir of a military tradition – every military tradition on Earth – that had evolved under the pressure of the Age of Unrest. The priority had been to save lives, to avoid causing civilian casualties, and to…spend as few men as possible, whatever was happening. The Paramils might be the only real military force left…but even they would be careful about spending lives needlessly.

“An asteroid is not a safe place to be,” Lee said. “We expect resistance…and resistance coming from the people who know much more about it than we do. We need to come in with overwhelming strength and capability; we cannot risk losing the first battles or…”

“And they will attack the base,” Windsor said. “They might well try to attack Earth or Mars if we lose control of outer space. Can we handle the effects of a blockade?”

It had been discussed before, but only as a vague possibility. “We can handle it for a while,” Pismire said, after a long moment of thought. “It depends on how active they’re being; will they simply forbid Belters from sending their supplies to Earth, will they use their law enforcement officers to prevent…blockade-runners…or will they actively prevent our mining systems from sending supplies to Earth?

“Bottom line; we can survive for several years with what we have at the moment,” he concluded. “It won’t be easy; we need components from the fabricators in the outer solar system, so there will be some economic damage. The danger lies in them launching attacks against Earth itself – or Mars.”

Windsor considered it for a moment. Mars had been turned into a second home for humanity through sheer bloody-mindedness; they’d spent nearly twenty years transporting willing and not-so-willing colonists to Mars, taking advantage of the terraforming effort that had made the planet habitable. The Belt had protested, heavily, but in the end they had seemed to accept that they had no claim on the planet.

“And if they do attack Earth,” he mused, “can we stop them?”

“We have complete coverage of near-Earth space,” Lee said. “The defences built around Earth are vast, from fire-support orbital weapons platforms to long-range laser systems and mass drivers. The only real danger would be asteroids…and that could be handled by sending ships out to divert the asteroid – which would do such vast damage to Earth that it would be almost unthinkable.”

Pismire snorted. “Why can’t you just blow it to pieces?”

“Because that would leave a rain of radioactive rocks falling towards Earth,” Lee said patiently. “This way, we might end up with more metal and a new asteroid habitat.”

“True,” Windsor said, suddenly too tired to speak for long. “And the diplomatic option?”

“It is my considered belief that they would reject any attempt to offer them statehood,” Kesselring said. “They think that they are independent; they certainly care nothing for the laws regarding further development of technology. Imagine…the development of geriatric drugs…and then that little mess expanded a thousand times over…”

Windsor snorted; Marie laughed outright, a horrible sound. “We all benefited from that bit of research,” she said. “All of us are older than we look, are we not?”

In her case, Windsor doubted it, but…the nightmarish days after the geriatric drugs had been developed had shaken the Global Federation to the core. An enterprising newsman had gotten that little titbit out to the world – along with the fact that the Senate had decided that the drugs would be illegal on Earth. For once, the public reaction had been shockingly violent; several politicians had been lynched. They had almost no power, of course, but it was an alarming precedent – particularly when several states had begun to consider filing secession from the Federation.

He scowled. He had given a lot of thought to developing a manner of keeping that sudden shocking public awareness of current affairs going, but he had never found one; most Belter science was dangerous, rather than helpful. He had hoped that the sudden display of people power would have worked, but no…the public had gone back to their longer sleep.

“The Federation must remain united,” he said, and there was a great deal of sage nodding. If they had learned one lesson from the Age of Unrest, it was that certain facts were clear, including the need to unite humanity in a democratic state. By the time that the Age of Unrest had grown to a close, the global movement had grown so powerful that state borders were meaningless…and if the corporations were to remain stable, they had to make sure that they remained so.

He remembered his corporation taking control of an area of Africa, then another area, and then another, building them up into productive regions…and acquiring one hell of a lot of political power in the process. If pure democracy couldn’t be trusted – and pure capitalism likely to lead to a second Age of Unrest – what choice did they have, but to keep humanity united?

“That is why we are doing all this,” he said. The Global Federation had crushed independence movements before, in Iran, in China and in France; it was something that the Paramils had a great deal of experience of doing. If it brought them people who would be able to rise to real power, so much the better, but it wasn’t the reason for fighting the…war.

“True,” Lee said. “If we have a few more weeks, we’ll have enough occupation troops to make a start at taking control of the asteroids…”

“There are diplomatic grounds that must be paved first,” Kesselring said. “If we can convince them that it will be business as usual, in exchange for compliance, then we can prevent a major endless struggle over the situation.”

“That would be a good thing to avoid,” Pismire said. “Do we promise to respect their right to breach certain laws designed to protect the human race?”

Windsor allowed himself a moment to think. Pismire had hit on a very good point; many of the laws restricting scientific development had been based around Earth – there was little reason to ban it from the asteroids, where total quarantine could be achieved rather easily. At the same time, the Global Federation couldn’t afford to allow its rules to be flouted – which was one reason for the harsh behaviour of the Paramils – nor could it really afford to make open exceptions.

“I think we’ll leave that undecided for now,” he said. The Belt had provided more than a few vital technological advances for Earth; most of them had come out of labs that not only broke the rules, but flouted them. Destroying that resource would be dangerous, to say the least; they might well be needed in the future.

Marie clearly followed his thoughts. “You hypocrite,” she accused. “You want all of the technology for yourself.”

“The Belt would have given anything really useful away,” Windsor said, unwilling to show how much that charge had disturbed him. “We need to make sure that they are firmly under our control before all hell breaks loose.”

“Then we can proceed,” Lee said. “I will continue training the additional Paramil forces…and then we can begin the main program. There should be nearly two hundred warships by the time we’re ready, although not all of them will have the stealth coatings; that’s too dangerous. And then…we can move.”

Windsor stood. “Yes,” he said. The meeting could be adjourned for a while, long enough for more information to be gathered and preparations to be made. “Now, the White House is famous for its cooking…and I think you’ll all enjoy the Giant Sheep in wine. It’s quite something.”


Chapter Five: The Pub Connected To The Hub (Of Everything)

Cambridge

England State, Earth

“This is our little home away from the buggers,” Grey Wolf said. As they left the bar, stepping into one of the rooms above the small set of rooms in a massive city-complex the size of Manhattan Island, his voice seemed to become less drunken, more sober, and it was becoming apparent that a very sharp mind hid behind that vague smile. “We have to be careful what we let inside, you see; the buggers may look stupid, but bugger me if they’re not.”

“I’d be buggered if you’d stop using that word,” Thande said, as the main door opened. For a long moment, his senses refused to grasp what he was seeing; only his expanded mind allowed him to see what it was. The room should have been three meters by three meters, as per regulation; it was clearly much bigger than that.

“A pocket universe,” Sally commented. “They’re taking this seriously, at least.”

Part of Thande’s mind twitched as they stepped into the pocket universe; he’d seen one before, built by the Enemy. There were two different ways to build a pocket universe; both of them involved folding space…and then disconnecting it from its home universe. It wasn’t a trick that could be pulled in the Vale, for the very simple reason that there was nothing that a human might recognise as ‘space’ within the Vale; it had to be done in the normal universe.

As a secret base, it had other advantages, he knew; he’d been briefed on the system before they’d been sent into the future world. It would be attached to the universe they were in now and ‘run’ at the same speed, preventing temporal discontinuities that would have caused massive disruption to the space-time continuum, and it could be accessed by anyone, from anywhere, who had the key. In contrast, no one could be allowed in without that key; the Enemy might suspect its presence, but they would be unable to break in without knowing the key.

“We like to think so,” Grey Wolf said. “This is the centre of our operations; the worm at the heart of the buggered apple, if you’ll excuse my mixed metaphor. The majority of people who work at the Ouroboros know bugger-all about us; as far as they are concerned, we are just a simple think tank working for the government here, the Global Federation.”

Thande had to smile at the simple understated elegance of the concept. The Time Agents knew – and God knew that there had been no sign that the Enemy disagreed – that changes to any given universe had to be done carefully, just to prevent the timeline from splitting into an alternate timeline; there were far too many of them in existence already. Taking direct control was difficult – and often impractical – but steering from behind the scenes wasn’t impossible at all.

“Apart from Ian and a handful of others, we are all of the Time Agents operating here,” Grey Wolf continued. “Most of our work consists of investing in certain opportunities, studying the vast amounts of information that flows in constantly, and helping to refine the projections for the future. A word in the right ear can be more useful than anything else; we’ve been active here for years.”

Sally lifted an eyebrow. “And now you called for active agents,” she said. “What’s happening?”

Thande frowned. One problem was that the Vale was timeless – in the sense that normal time didn’t pass – but at the same time it caused far too many problems to attempt to manipulate an already manipulated timeline. It was like writing a book…where the author couldn’t go back and change something if he found it inconvenient…but nor could anyone else.

“The Enemy is operating here,” Grey Wolf said. His words weren’t exactly a surprise, but it was still a shock; Thande half-expected to hear a dramatic chord. “Far too many things were starting to happen that shouldn’t have happened, and then we picked up interference from outside – from the Vale, I should note; these were not basic cross-time explorers. These were people who knew exactly what they were doing.”

Thande scowled down as he led them into a room, allowing them to sit in comfortable chairs; small robots gave them all drinks. The Enemy was a constant threat to cross-time travellers, ever since the Battle of Existence; the Time Agents were the only ones working to counter the threat. His own timeline had been invaded by a force of Nazis from an alternate timeline; other worlds had suffered far worse in the endless war.

Sally frowned as Grey Wolf continued speaking. “Naturally, we started an analysis of recent history,” he said. “Nothing showed up as unusual, apart from the clashes between the Global Federation and the Belters; that had been something that we had been expecting to happen. Frankly, we expected it in 2080 or thereabouts, but the conflict indicators were never high enough to actually start a war.”

“So, you found nothing,” Sally said. “Might they be trying to start a war between the Belt and the Earth?”

“I don’t think that either side really needs the help,” Grey Wolf said. He took a long swig of his glass; Thande was vaguely impressed to note that he spilt none of the strange beer. “The conflict indicators have been higher than they were in 1939, Sally; they should have started shooting at each other weeks ago…and only the time it takes to launch an attack might have stopped them.”

He didn’t seem concerned about that, much to Thande’s annoyance. “Tell me,” he said, “what makes you think that the Enemy is here?”

“The interference along the outside of the timeline,” Grey Wolf said. Thande nodded slowly; the presence of matter with an unusual quantum signature caused the timeline to resonate…and matter that had spent time in the Vale had a different signature to anything else. Anything from an alternate reality would have had that effect, from the George Washington to a Crosstime Bomb; some of them would be harmless…and others would be so dangerous that they would have to be dealt with quickly.

Sally tapped the table thoughtfully. “So, you looked for the Enemy…and found nothing,” she said. “What exactly is going on in the Belt?”

Grey Wolf frowned. “It’s hard to know where to begin,” he said. “The short version is that an Earth-based mining force set up a base in the asteroids, not-accidentally gobbling up an asteroid that had already been claimed by a Belter miner…and then they refused to recognise the Ceres Convention.”

The name alone sparked off memories from within Thande’s mind; the law that enforced the peace in the Belt, more or less. “So there’s going to be a war,” he said. “The Enemy might have triggered it.”

“It’s possible,” Sally agreed. “What might the Global Federation want?”

“Now…that is confusing,” Grey Wolf said. “It wasn’t enough for the buggers to go capitalist, or buggered-up communism, or…buggering the monarch, but…they had to have all three at once. You want the long explanation?”

Thande exchanged a long glance with Sally. He wasn’t sure if he blamed Grey Wolf for being more than a little crazy, having been trapped in an alternate timeline for more than a few years. The dangers he faced were horrific; he might well end up being dissected as an alien invader, if he were to be caught. Still, he was annoying; a really buggered-up man.

“Yes, thank you,” he said. “What happened between then and now?”

“The short answer is that the corporations ended up getting more and more involved in the world,” Grey Wolf said. “It’s complicated, much more complicated than that, but that’s the basics; they ended up buying everything, running the world…and generally trying to make it a little more efficient. At the same time, some bugger invented food-producing machines, so everyone has enough to eat, and the Arabs were soundly drubbed in the war – or the Age of Unrest as they call it here.”

“A hundred years of the war on terror,” Thande said. He felt a chill running through his body. “And…the Belters?”

“The corporations began space development in 2020, with government blessing,” Grey Wolf said. “By then, the military had dozens of spaceplane designs; they were using orbital weapons against the Middle East and other targets…and so they found it easy to get into orbit.” He laughed. “The buggers never realised that ten years in space could produce a whole series of micro-nations, and then a union, and then…”

He laughed again. “I could give you chapter and verse, but why bother? The short version is that they made some attempts to regain control, realised after a few fuck-ups that it couldn’t be done except at the price of destroying what they wanted to save and…gave up. Cooperation got them further and the war on Earth was getting hotter; they got their independence and Earth got what it needed.”

He sighed. “There are no words in the language for the balls-up these people” – he waved his hand around to indicate the future timeline – “have for a government,” he said. “At best, one could describe it as a mix between a large group of princes and a meritocracy. One of the ongoing projects we have at Ouroboros – we call it the Ouroboros Institute – was to help Donkeybollocks Windsor find out a way to encourage more people to take part in the real government, but…it’s harder than it seems.”

Thande stared at him. “Donkeybollocks Windsor?”

“Yes, Bernard Charles Andrew Harry Donkeybollocks Windsor,” Grey Wolf said. He laughed mischievously. “Bugger changed his name for a bet and then kept it through sheer bloody-mindedness. He’s not part of the Royal Family, which is lucky; Clare just had a threesome with two other girls. The soap opera is…”

“The Royal Family is a soap opera?” Thande asked. He paused as a thought struck him. “No change there, then?”

“Donkeybollocks Windsor bought it some time ago,” Grey Wolf said. “These days, it’s all run for the benefit of the public; they hand out knighthoods to deserving causes – and otherwise have affairs and stuff to keep people entertained.”

Thande felt his head reel. “Let’s return to the subject at hand,” Sally said firmly. “You have found no trace of the Enemy?”

“We know that they’re here,” Grey Wolf offered. He shook his head. “As to what the hell they’re doing…we don’t know at all.”

“And so you called us in,” Thande said. He allowed some of his…timeline lag to slip into his voice. “Why?”

“Because my main priority is to keep this place – the Ouroboros Institute – intact,” Grey Wolf said. His tone was snide; don’t you know that? “I dare not use too many of my own people to conduct the search; they might be traced back to here.”

“Which would be bad,” Sally said. “Unfortunately…you don’t even have an idea of where they might be?”

“Earth, somewhere,” Grey Wolf said. “The disturbances were centred around Earth.”

“Splendid,” Thande said, with considerable annoyance. “We have them now; Sally, we can search Earth and we’d better make certain to look under the beds.”

“A program of research would be more likely to turn up Enemy under the beds,” Sally said, only partly serious. “Mr Wolf…”

“Call me Grey Wolf,” Grey Wolf said. “You may be an Aussie, but you’re a bit of all right…”

Sally gave him a sharp look. “There is such a thing as going too native,” she said. “Grey Wolf, has anything odd happened at all?”

Grey Wolf paused to think. “Only a handful of things,” he said. “Someone made a massive donation to the Cambridge Institute, for reasons unknown.” He held up a hand. “That is odd, to say the least; nearly ten billion credits were dropped on the Institute…and no one came forwards as the donor. They’re trying to keep it quiet, which is even odder; the latest bequest to be even half that amount was a very public affair with lots of butt-kissing.”

Sally frowned. “I don’t think that that is likely to be anything to do with the Enemy,” she said. “Was the Cambridge Institute working on anything interesting?”

“Not as far as I know,” Grey Wolf said. “I have sources there; I can enquire if you want.”

It was clear, from Sally’s face, that she doubted that it was worth the effort. She nodded anyway. “Anything else?”

“Very little,” Grey Wolf said. “There have been plans being discussed for new asteroid mining systems and military craft, but…”

“That could be it,” Sally said. “Why would they build warships?”

Thande lifted an eyebrow. “To fight a war,” he said. “Or, perhaps, to deter one; was there a force in the Belt that wanted to conquer Earth?”

“Not before the asteroid got nicked,” Grey Wolf said. “At the moment, there are thousands of miners who want to teach the Global Federation a lesson in manners.”

Sally smiled grimly. “Preemptive defensive retaliatory strike,” she said. “It could be that; the Enemy would never start a war unless there was something in it for them, why would they bother otherwise? Has anyone bothered to run war simulations?”

“Some,” Grey Wolf said. “We ran some for Donkeybollocks Windsor; the upshot is that it would take years and be totally not worth the effort.”

Thande scowled. “That never stopped anyone before,” he said. “People have fought for years without there being any pay-off at the end of the day.”

“Not the obvious pay-offs, anyway,” Sally said. “Donkeybollocks Windsor – hell, now I’m doing it – might have other benefits in mind than just war.”

“Perhaps we should ask him,” Thande said. “Grey Wolf, can we get access to ask him?”

Grey Wolf stared at him. “I don’t think that that would be easy,” he said. “Even so, he certainly won’t tell you anything; you’re not on his personal list. I could get you into the main government complex, but you’d never be able to get into the heart of the defences.”

“It was just a thought,” Thande said. He felt his mind reel as all of the culture shock caught up with him. “Is there somewhere to lie down for a bit?”

Sally nodded before Grey Wolf could say anything. “A good idea,” she said. “Grey Wolf, is there a room that we can use?”

“I would agree,” Grey Wolf said. He took another swig of his beer. “You don’t want to stay in the hotels here; there are far too many people who would see you. The ultimate police state, this; everyone is watched, 24/7.”

***

“That man is mad,” Thande said, ten minutes later. Grey Wolf had found them both quarters that seemed to have come from the most luxurious hotel in history. “What sort of operation is this?”

Sally shrugged. “Grey Wolf was brought up in a timeline where Australia rules the world,” she said. “By the time we ran across him, he was running a resistance movement to the Giant Sheep Papacy and…”

“I beg your pardon,” Thande said. He didn’t believe his ears. “The Giant Sheep Papacy?”

“It’s a long story,” Sally said. “Anyway, there was a three-way war going on between the Giant Sheep Papacy, the Sheep Reformists and the Goat Believers, who worshipped goats instead. Grey Wolf was losing the war when we got involved and plucked him out of his timeline and sent him here.”

Thande looked at her for a long moment. “I think you’re pulling my leg,” he said. “Just who would be stupid enough to fight over a giant sheep?”

Sally reached into her pocket and smiled. “Anyone would be stupid enough to fight over anything if the cause sounded good,” she said. “How are you feeling?”

“A bit overwhelmed,” Thande said, honestly. “All of these memories are popping up in my mind and…it’s stunning; I know things I never knew I knew and so on…”

“Now you know what I went through when I was infiltrated into your system,” Sally said. “It was a shame that we couldn’t do it with the Roswell Universe, but…”

Thande lay back. “Sally, we have to find a group of Enemy agents,” he said. The sheer magnitude of the task was astonishing. “They could be anyone, anywhere; where the hell do we begin?”

Sally smiled. “We’ll get some sleep first,” she said. Thande smiled; he knew what sort of sleep she meant. “In the morning, we’ll start wandering around, looking for clues and getting into the vibe of this world.”

Thande nodded. It was as good a plan as any. “I thought that we might do some studies,” Sally continued, “but I don’t think that there will be any point. The Ouroboros Institute could have performed the historical research just as well as we could do; perhaps better as they would know what they were doing. It’s possible that the Enemy are still working out what’s going on in this timeline; they might not have a full force along.”

“Perhaps,” Thande said. He wanted to sleep; one question burst through his weary head. “Sally; in all the timelines you have seen, have you ever seen a Confederate victory?”

Sally considered. “Less than you might think,” she said. “A CSA victory is not that likely a timeline; once the war is moving fast, they have only a limited amount of time to fight and win before the North’s advantages become overpowering. Oh, there are things that could go badly wrong, such as bringing the rest of the world into the war but…that was never as likely as some people seem to think.”

Thande considered. “Pity,” he said, sleepily. “There were all these people talking about how Lee would have won, had he not lost at such and such a place.”

Sally laughed. “I’ll tell you one thing about Lee that’s true in every timeline,” she said. “Were it not for the Damnyankees, Lee would have won.”


Interlude One: Somewhere Beyond the Rainbow


Recovered From Source #26237: The Personal Dairy of Doctor Ming Ling. Access Granted Under Security Clearance NONE OF THEIR BUSINESS; Please Be Aware That Further Dissemination Of This Information Can Lead To Heavy Penalties, Up To And Including Death.

When I awoke, I was naked and lying on a bed, somewhere on an asteroid habitat. I was certain of that, at least; the habitat had the strange feeling running through its gravity that appeared when the habitat was spinning to generate its gravity field. The bed itself was a standard hotel bed; surprisingly comfortable, but very cheap and sturdy.

And I was alone. No ogling men or women came to stare at me. I moved to stand up and discovered that I was feeling fine; no dizziness or sickness. That alone had interesting implications, I noted; I had been drugged with something more expensive than most hibernation drugs. The very lack of mess proved that I had been in hibernation…and that I could be anywhere. In theory, I could even be in another star system – but I didn’t think that that was too possible.

It took only five minutes to determine the bars of my cage; three rooms, the bedroom, the living room and kitchen, and the toilet. Unlike most hotel rooms, there was no emergency oxygen supply or re-breather; had I been a paying guest I could have sued them for that little oversight. As it was, I knew that I would be lucky to get out alive; the only items that made sense were a small collection of toilet articles and a small dress – totally impractical for running or fighting.

“Well?” I asked, after what I thought had been an hour. I’d always had a fairly good time sense, but hibernation screws that up, along with everything else in the human body. “What’s going to happen now?”

No one came to get me in either sense. I paced around the room, noting the existence of a small computer terminal, and then I experimented with it for several hours. It wasn’t a very expensive or capable machine; I could read news stories or play games, but there was no real connection to the asteroid’s datanet. Several hours of experimenting later, my stomach started to growl…and I discovered that the kitchen had enough basic food to last me a week, if I were careful.

I ate a small meal, trying to strike a balance between saving food and keeping my strength up, and then went back to bed. The same routine was repeated on what I thought was the second day, and then the third, except the news stories kept changing. None of them were particularly exciting, not even the information on the latest medical breakthrough; I’d known about it months before the newshounds even got near it.

On the fourth day, I awoke to find someone standing at the edge of my bed.

He was tall, dark and handsome in a vaguely muscular way, but I felt no sense of attraction or lust; there was something wrong with his eyes. Something in my mind met them, recoiled, and screamed danger, Ming Ling! There was something…not quite human, not quite humane, about them; they showed little knowledge of me as an independent person – or as a woman, for that matter. There was the vague hint of pure…unconcern about me; not even the slightest trace of concern for my welfare.

“Ah, hello,” I said. He said nothing. “Would you like something to drink?”

I stood up, suddenly uncomfortably aware of just how revealing my dress was, but he showed no reaction; he just kept looking at me. I stepped out of bed and headed into the kitchen – and then turned around. He was right behind me; he’d moved so quietly that I hadn’t even heard him move.

I jumped backwards, like a frightened mouse, and stared at him; he showed no reaction. In one way, it was maddening; in another, it was a relief – I didn’t want him looking at me and licking his lips. I was more than a little unnerved, I don’t mind admitting; I made a cup of tea for myself and offered him one; he showed – you’ve guessed it – no reaction.

It was after I’d drunk my tea that he struck. I had my back turned; the first I knew of it was strong hands grabbing me, catching my hands and holding them while he picked me up and carried me back to the bed. I kicked out, as hard as I could; it was like kicking a brick wall. He was holding me perfectly; I couldn’t even begin to kick him in the nuts or somewhere else delicate. As he pressed me down, there was a single rip…and my dress was torn away from me, leaving me defenceless and helpless.

I have read somewhere, in my endless studies, that there are some women who fantasize about being raped. They do not exist, not in the sense that some rapists use it as justification for their crimes; a woman may dream of being raped by the VR Star of the week, but not of loser #363 from the sub-city. I had never thought about the prospect, not with all of the Paramils around; as it sank in that there was nothing stopping him from forcing his way into me, I felt utterly helpless for the first time in my life.

“My name is Galeton,” he said. I could feel his body pressed against mine; part of my mind was wondering why he hadn’t just got on with it; the other part was trying desperately to think of a way out of the situation. “You are Doctor Ming Ling.”

I gasped, held there by his strength; I couldn’t begin to talk. My mind kept repeating one thing, over and over again; My God, I’m going to be raped…

“You have been recruited for a project,” Galeton continued. His voice was…disinterested; I would later learn that he suffered from a strange condition, one that left him almost totally detached from the surroundings. He had almost no lusts of his own, which was lucky for me; few men could have resisted me in that condition. “I trust that you are now aware of your own helplessness?”

I nodded frantically as he pressed down on my neck. He felt nothing, nothing at all; no cruelty or desire or delight. “Good,” he said. “You will be working on this project under certain conditions. The first one is secrecy; you will be paid a vast amount of money when the project is completed, but you will not be allowed to leave until the project is completed. You will be out of touch for a long period; you will be permitted no communication with the outside world, save only for matters of a technical or medical kind that cannot be answered from the databases here. Do you understand?”

I nodded again, unable to speak. “If you attempt to break the rules here, of any kind, you will be raped, brutally, by me,” he said. I knew that he would do it; he had nothing human in him at all, not even the evil perversion of desire that most rapists experience. “If you try again after that, you will be beaten to within an inch of your life – and crippled.”

He paused. “If you break the rules a third time, you will be tossed into space,” he concluded. “No one will ever know what happened to you. Are there any questions?”

“Yes,” I said, trying hard to collect my wits. I might be practically spread open in front of him, but I was becoming…I won’t say I was becoming more used to the idea, because I wasn’t, but…and I was starting to work to gather intelligence. “Can you let me up now?”

He thought about it; a normal human might have moved quicker or beaten me. He didn’t have any emotional responses at all; he actually had to think before he acted. He would never have made it as a doctor – sometimes a doctor just had to gamble, or play a hunch…and Galeton could never do that. If I’d fallen to my knees and sucked him off, it wouldn’t have affected him at all.

He pulled himself away from me, allowing me to stand up, and opened a cupboard in the wall. It had been so well hidden I hadn’t even noticed it when I was surveying the room. I wondered if I dared ask more questions, and then decided the risk wasn’t worth it; I looked inside instead. There were three outfits, all blatantly revealing as well as being designed for space-work; I pulled on the first of them with a sigh of relief.

“You are still naked,” he said. I didn’t understand him at first, and then I did; an asteroid makes an effective prison for those handful who cannot be beaten, sent to work camps or simply shot; the jailors control the entire system. Given time, I was sure I could figure out some way to disable him…except he was nothing, but cannon fodder for the bitch behind it all. “You will come with me.”

A door hissed open in the wall – I hadn’t seen that either – and I followed him down a long rocky corridor, into what was a standard meeting room. An older scientist, a woman who looked around forty and could be anything up to a hundred, was waiting for me there.

“You will obey her,” Galeton said, and left.

“Good to see you,” the woman said. She held out a wry hand. “I’m Hilda Goddard, Project Director.”



Chapter Six: To Boldly Go Where (Almost) Everyone Has Gone Before

Base Alpha (Paramil Training Complex)

Earth Orbit

“Morning, scum,” the Sergeant said, his voice a dull bellow. No Sergeant had a name as far as the Privates were concerned; they were all ‘Sergeant Sir!’ “Welcome to this base, which is rather imaginatively named Base Alpha. You are here to learn about how to fight in space, which is nothing like fighting on the ground; you have no experience here, so shut the fuck up!”

Private Steven Singh, whose only connection to India was his name, winced under the tirade. It had only been a year since he had been caught, along with most of his gang, in the act of attempting to rape a woman; the Paramils had not been gentle. After shooting the gang leader right in front of the rest of the gang, and beating them all up quite badly – of itself, his nose twitched with remembered pain – the Paramils had made them an offer; join the Paramils and learn to fight…or spend years in a work camp.

Singh didn’t have time to reflect on the unfairness of it all. Like many young teenage boys, he had dreamed of escaping the massive cities on the surface, but how could he leave? He had wanted to go to the Belt, but he didn’t have the qualifications and he’d been expelled from night school after fighting with other classmates. After that, the Belt wouldn’t have had him; the recruiting station had made that quite clear. Without actually meaning to do so, he’d drifted into crime.

For nearly a year, it had seemed like an adventure; running amok through the lower levels and daring the Paramils to catch them. He hadn’t realised, none of them had as they wandered outside the city, daring to adventure beyond the walls, that the Paramils simply didn’t care. When they had graduated from nuisance to serious problem, when they had taken a girl off the streets, the Paramils had crushed them like ants.

That had been a year ago.

He forced his mind back to listen to the Sergeant. He knew, from his own studies, that the Paramils were a long-serving organisation; they had all been signed up for at least twenty years. The safety lecture was new, he realised; for the first time he was in an environment that could actually kill him without much help from himself. Walking out of the wrong airlock could kill him; even the most complicated of safety implants couldn’t keep a man alive in the vacuum for very long.

“This is a map,” the Sergeant finished. They were all interchangeable – all bastards. When they used a voice like they were talking to a child; it meant that they would be expecting them to know the material already. “Plot me an attack on the habitat, at once!”

Singh took the map from the Sergeant, forming naturally into his squad; nine men, headed by Corporal Rogers. The Paramils tended to create nine squads of nine men as combat units, whatever region they were serving in; he’d been originally assigned to India. He hadn’t liked it; someone had read his name, thought about India, and sent him there.

Rogers coughed and everyone looked down at the map. Singh sighed and joined in; no one knew who would be called upon first to present the attack plan. The target itself was a fairly basic asteroid habitat – old style. The centre of the asteroid was a long cylinder, spun to provide gravity and a landscaped interior, surrounded by underground rooms between the asteroid’s habitable interior and the exterior. It was larger than he would have expected, almost fifty kilometres long; hundreds of people had lived there at one point.

He smiled grimly, focusing his mind; Rogers would ask everyone for their opinions once they had all had a moment to study it. The Paramils focused more on sharing plans and opinions amongst the team; they would be given a mission and ordered to choose their own method of accomplishing it. How they did it was up to them; they only had to succeed.

“We have to gain entry first,” Rogers said, after they had all had a chance to skim through the briefing notes. They were very simple, far from the occasional instructions while he had been on patrol in India; seize control over the asteroid. Nothing else, no particular orders to influence the mission; just the task itself, just the way the junior Paramils liked it. Those militaries who had insisted only on unthinking obedience had been destroyed, either during the Age of Unrest, or after the foundation of the Global Federation. “Thoughts?”

Singh looked down at the asteroid. “There are no additional airlocks marked,” he said. He hadn’t expected them – every Paramil had at least some training in space warfare – and wasn’t disappointed; few asteroids would condone adding more entrances to space than they could afford. “We could always make one.”

“Aye,” Hamish McCalman said. He spoke with a vaguely Scottish accent; he’d picked it up from television and VR shows. “Burn through the rock and burst into the tunnels.”

“That would be tricky,” Rogers said, clearly thinking about the idea. “What happens if we don’t match rotation perfectly?”

“Crash,” Faye Wilson said. The female Paramil looked up at the others. “I see no way in, except through the hubs; either hub. I’d suggest the north hub, as it’s where spacecraft normally dock.”

Singh considered it. The habitat had a hub at each end, one that counter-rotated to the main habitat; spacecraft could dock there with fewer problems than people imagined. With a little effort, they could force a landing; burning through the metal would be easier than trying to bore through the rock itself, to say nothing of safer for everyone inside. Space was an unforgiving environment; Singh was only starting to find out how unforgiving.

“Could work,” Rogers said, making a note of it. While they’d been talking, everyone else had drifted away, working on their own plans; they had privacy, of a sort. “And then we take control of the main command centre, upload our own command programs…”

Something occurred to Singh from one of the small skirmishes with rebels in India. “And take physical control of the life support systems,” he said, remembering enemy raids on the systems controlling the super-city in ruined India. “In fact, take control of all of the vital targets…how many people do we have for this raid?”

“The full eighty-one,” Rogers said, skimming through the paper. “Flush down through the main tube, seize control of the vital stations, and then declare victory,” he concluded. He chuckled. “Any other thoughts?

***

“You will all be aware of the latest design of battlesuit,” Captain Cinnamon said, several hours later. “They are designed to avoid both projectile weapons and provide some defence against laser weapons, perhaps even plasma weapons; both of which you are quite likely to encounter in space. Projectile weapons, in fact, are often very unsafe in space, particularly in spaceships. It would be rather stupid to die because of accidentally having blown a hole in the hull.”

There were a handful of chuckles. “Unlike standard designs, you will note that this model has genuine oxygen supplies, rather than just perfect air scrubbers,” he continued. “It is more like an old-style space suit rather than anything you might have seen before; it is armoured to resist far more firepower than anything that the mooks might have.”

Singh nodded absently, studying the suit; it was chillingly impressive, rather like a steel suit of armour. The original battlesuits had been designed to keep their users alive; they had had dozens of flaws that a cunning foe could exploit. These suits had been developed over forty years of learning from the harsh effects of war; the weapons their opponents had been armed with had only grown more and more powerful.

“The most important part of the design, however, is that they are practically mini-spacecraft,” Captain Cinnamon continued. Singh only paid partial attention to him; he wanted to put one on and take it down to India with him. Chasing the religious fanatics over the dreadful terrain wasn’t fun at all; even the formerly most advanced battlesuit had problems with the terrain – and the occasional nuclear detonation. “You will not be travelling unsuited on your boarding craft.”

There was a chorus of groans. Battlesuits were uncomfortable; they were typically only donned when they were actually needed…and often disliked for that purpose. Singh, who remembered wearing a suit for several hours, knew that they were awful to use for too long; they got very hot indeed.

“This is your boarding craft,” Captain Cinnamon said, waving towards a…structure on the ground. Singh had thought that it was a dissembled bicycle when he’d seen it; it was a mixture of tubes and seats, nothing as complex as he had thought a spacecraft should have been. A small control pad, he realised, hung near the front of the…whatever it was; that should have been a giveaway at once.

“We’re calling this a Bike for the moment,” Captain Cinnamon said, confirming Singh’s private thoughts about what the stupid thing looked like. “It looks like nothing, but suited up…do you need extra air, or a cabin? These things are also difficult to hit; you glide out of the darkness, hit the thrusters just before you hit the asteroid, and march over the asteroid to the docking bay.”

Singh shook his head in admiration. The solution was crafty, he had to admit; taking a habitat intact was difficult. That might have been the point of the exercise earlier, showing them what the problems were…and how they could be solved. This time, there would be no Shinto Suicide; if the habitat refused to obey the Paramils, blowing the air locks would only kill the inhabitants.

Rogers lifted his hand; Captain Cinnamon nodded at him. Asking reasonable and relevant – but only relevant – questions was encouraged; no one knew what might happen to the senior officers if there was a battle. More than one Paramil officer had been targeted directly by the mooks; the Paramils had evolved to counter that.

“Sir, are we going to be fighting someone in space?” Rogers asked. “If so, what sort of opposition can we expect?”

It wasn’t the stupid question it sounded like, Singh knew; years of fighting different groups of mooks – Paramil-speech for their enemies – had taught them a healthy respect for the value of intelligence. One group might only have cheap knock-offs of AK-47s, despite battlesuit armour that laughed at such weapons; the next might have plasma guns and nuclear warheads.

“We are currently expecting trouble,” Captain Cinnamon said. He was clearly under orders to say nothing else; normally tactical information was shared, just to make sure that everyone was on the same song sheet. “We will be fighting in several asteroid habitats and space-based facilities; that’s all I know.”

He paused. “As for weapons, we expect that we will be facing the standard array of space-based weapons, from plasma guns to gas rifles. Resistance will probably be mixed; we expect that there will be some resistance in some places…and none at all in others. Tactically, the fleet will provide transport; we will be launched on our Bikes towards the targets, suited up and ready to fight. If there is no resistance, then we will be very happy.”

There were some chuckles. “Of course, resistance is to be dealt with, as harshly as necessary,” he concluded. “We’ll be running simulations based around all degrees of resistance, from none too passive to active; understand?”

“Thank you, Sir,” Rogers said. “I understand.”

***

Several hours later, the squad was starting to realise that there were far more than the standard eighty-one Paramils here; there were thousands on the base, being put through their paces. The asteroid was huge, of course, and there was plenty of room, but the groups kept bumping into one another. It was probably fortunate that fighting between squads was forbidden; there were enough confrontations to keep all of the Sergeants on their toes.

“This is curious,” Rogers said, at the end of the first day. The squad had been allocated standard barracks in the asteroid; half of them had gone to sleep, and several more had gone to sample what passed for a nightlife on the asteroid. Singh had checked it out already; there was nothing past a single bar and cinema. “Have you seen how many of us there are?”

Singh shrugged. “Thousands?” He asked. “It’s a bit hard to count.”

“True,” Rogers agreed. “I looked it up in the database; there are over five thousand of us Paramils here. That’s the largest deployment to a single mission since Afghanistan; there were over ten thousand of us deployed there to punish the mooks.”

Singh frowned. He wasn’t an expert in space-life, but he was sure that five thousand soldiers would be a drain on even the asteroid’s resources; it was tempting fate to keep them all together. What possible space-based target could they be attacking that would require five thousand soldiers? He couldn’t think of one; even eighty-one soldiers might be too large a force for a habitat.

“And an asteroid is not Afghanistan,” he said. He hadn’t been involved in that particular ‘slash and burn’ mission, but he had heard the stories; women-hating tribesmen had still killed armoured Paramils, despite their suits. Afghanistan had been pounded into the ground, and still they survived; punishment missions had been dispatched several times since the Afghanistan.

“We’d all be tripping over ourselves,” Faye Wilson agreed. “We couldn’t fit that many through the docking hub; it would be an open invitation to blow the hub and toss us into space.”

Singh winced; the one thing he dreaded, along with all of his mates, was being tossed into space. The battlesuit might be billed as a miniature spacecraft, but he knew better; it wasn’t as if he would have a plasma torch attached to his suit. If he were tossed into space, then he would be lost forever – unless the beacon worked as advertised. He would die alone.

Faye snorted. “I have a better idea,” she said. “There’s trouble on Mars, right? We’re being sent there to quell it with…quells!”

She smiled at the weak joke. “Perhaps…it’s not Mars,” Rogers said. “They have plenty of Paramils out there already, don’t they? They need us training for space-warfare, not working on Mars; they want us for attacking habitats.”

“The belt,” Singh said, understanding in a flash of inspiration. The news programs had ranted about Belter insolence for weeks; he had served long enough to know that whenever that happened, it was normally a precursor to military action. “They want us to take a few habitats.”

“More than a few if there’s five thousand of us involved,” Rogers said. “That’s enough to take the entire belt.”

Singh had to admit that he had a point; the belt was massive, but the problem with asteroid habitats was that they all had massive point failure sources – the air and power supplies. If the Paramils took them, then they would have won; they could have choked everyone to death very quickly.

“Asteroids can be pains,” he said, and frowned. He had upwards of two hundred hours in a suit; the youngest child on a Belter habitat would have had far more than that. They were sometimes defended as well, either through powerful lasers or missiles, either of which would kill him, suit or no suit. Once they were on the surface, they would have to break in – and the enemy would know that at least as well as they knew that.

“How true,” Rogers said, and laughed. “I think that we had better work harder – and smarter.”

Singh nodded. It was one of the reasons why Rogers was a Corporal; he knew more than just giving orders…and he didn’t let the fact that he could give orders go to his head. He thought of the eight men and women under his command as more than slaves; most Paramils did.

“More bloody drills,” he said. The Paramils were big on drills…and on tactical exercises, many of which were rigged. “I’m going to get some sleep; see you in the morning.”


Chapter Seven: If Violence Is Not The Last Resort (You Didn’t Use Enough)

Docking Bay

Ceres Asteroid

There were other stereotypes in space, Geoffrey Bradford Wilkinson, Mayor of Ceres, knew; not all of them involved miners and their sexual habits. One of them concerned ground-pounders, people who lived on Earth – and to a lesser extent Mars and the Moon. They couldn’t hold their balance in space, the rumours said; if they saw a planet hanging high above them, their first reaction was outright panic. There was some truth in that when newcomers went to Ganymede or another of Jupiter’s moons; the Great Red Spot wasn’t a sight that everyone could face. Glaring down towards the surface of the moons, it held everyone transfixed…and not everyone got over it in time.

But in all other respects the stereotypes were untrue, Wilkinson thought, as he waited by the airlock. A ground-pounder might run very rapidly to flab if he or she didn’t bother to exercise properly, but that happened to everyone; one of Andrea Clarke’s ongoing projects was to find the perfect modification to the human genome that would prevent such decay. A ground-pounder might feel sick in space, but it quickly faded; only a handful of unlucky individuals were born with the impairment that kept them out of zero-gee environments.

“I trust that you have made progress,” he muttered, out of the corner of his mouth. It wasn’t exactly a secret – few things remained secret for very long on Ceres – but it wasn’t something he wanted rumours flying around while the Ambassador was on the asteroid. “We need something to bargain with.”

Julia frowned up at him. She was the only other member of the welcoming committee – which wasn’t feeling very welcoming. He'd worked hard to keep the arrival of the Diplomatic Representative a semi-secret, even to the extent of not being open about the docking bay he was arriving at, just to prevent a scene. Protesters were everywhere; he’d had to organise extra sheriffs in to control the unrest.

“We’ve begun construction,” she said. “It’s basically a matter of assembling the ships – and then fitting them out with weapons. Give us a week and we should have a small flotilla, then we’ll have a proper fleet by the end of the month.”

“We might not have that long,” Wilkinson said, checking his timepiece. The Ambassador – or so he persisted in thinking of him – was taking his time; the ship from Earth had docked twenty minutes ago. “What about the stealth systems?”

Julia shrugged. “There’s really nothing new to that,” she said. “They took a normal ship’s hull and coated it in radar-absorbing muck; we can adjust to detecting it and it’s less than useful at close range.”

“It’s still a dangerous invention,” Wilkinson said. “They want to launch an attack on their shipyard as soon as the new fleet is ready.”

He meant the Federation’s Senate, which had been pressing for a declaration of outright blockade, if not war, for weeks now. The news had finally broken upon the Senate – or rather all of his attempts to hold up a proper debate had collapsed – and the Senators were listening to their public. Public opinion was very blunt; they wanted Earth to learn a sharp lesson about intruding…to say nothing of not respecting the law.

“They’ll have to wait,” Julia said tartly. “We have to get the ships up and running, and then start finding crews; that’s going to take us a while longer. We have the Defence Force to serve as a cadre, but you know…what sort of contribution is going to be coming in from the outer planets? Are we fighting just for Ceres, or for Titan and Ganymede as well?”

“I think that a united front is the best idea here,” Wilkinson said. “If they have ideas for weapons, use them if you can; Ganymede was talking about all manner of strange weapons for the coming war.”

Julia frowned. “So you think that war is inevitable?”

There was a chime from the airlock. “That rather depends on what happens today,” Wilkinson said. The first airlock had slipped open; the person in the tube would have returned to normal gravity by now. “It depends on how reasonable Earth is going to be.”

He stood up as the second airlock hissed open, revealing a grey man in a grey suit, covered by the jelly-like sheen of a transparent skin-suit. He was less…grim than Wilkinson had expected, but he seemed…almost like an accountant, rather than a diplomat.

“Welcome to Ceres,” Wilkinson said, extending a hand. Ceres didn’t hold much with formality for anyone; even Wilkinson had only a badge of office, no robes or crown. “I’m Mayor Wilkinson.”

The man shook hands firmly. His hand was faintly squishy, reminding Wilkinson of jelly; the skin-suit covered even his hands. “I am Kesselring, of the Diplomatic Service,” he said. His voice was grey too, but with an odd hint of…something behind it. “It is a pleasure to be here.”

“The pleasure is all ours,” Wilkinson lied. He didn’t think that there would be much pleasure from the meeting. “Do you want to freshen yourself up, or would you…”

“I would like to begin discussions at once,” Kesselring said. Wilkinson blinked at the rudeness. “I am expected back on Earth soon.”

“They’ll have to wait for at least a week,” Wilkinson said dryly, fuming inside at the rudeness. A plasma torch could drive a spacecraft forward very fast indeed, but it couldn’t reach its full power – because that would have squashed the crew flat – and it still took time to reach Earth. “Are there important matters there?”

“Oh yes,” Kesselring said. “There has been a resumption of fighting in Central Asia; it is really annoying.”

Wilkinson exchanged a long glance with Julia and led the way out of the airlock, into a private transport car; he’d taken the precaution of bringing one along. As the car hummed into life and headed into the main habitation region, a group of protesters saw them and started to wave ugly signs at the car.

GET LOST EARTH, one read. RETURN OUR MONEY, another read; it was a growing craze to criticize Earth. Some of them, Wilkinson recognised as miners; in harbour because of the uncertainty, others were young children or teenagers.

Kesselring coughed. “Does this happen a lot here?”

“No,” Wilkinson said thoughtfully, as the car move further away from the protesters, into the buildings that served as the administrative centre of Ceres. The control room was in a different location, somewhere far more secure; the vaguely-Japanese buildings made an impressive show of power – and taste. “It’s not normal at all.”

Kesselring looked impressed at the building as they climbed out of the car – which ran off to its next appointment on its own – and followed Wilkinson into the lobby, and then through the small corridors into the conference room. He asked a handful of questions as they walked; many of them coming back to security – no one had searched him at all.

“That would be rude,” Wilkinson said, in puzzlement. “Do you search people on Earth?”

“Oh, yes,” Kesselring said. “You would be surprised how many people want to kill other people.”

Wilkinson wouldn’t have been surprised at all, but it didn’t matter; there were more important problems to deal with. “Thank you for coming,” he said, not exactly truthfully. “As you can tell, there has been a lot of…hard feelings over the entire matter; my population is up in arms. It’s gone beyond something as minor as a few stolen asteroids, hasn’t it?”

“I would not dispute that statement,” Kesselring said. “Your people were most…unhappy to see me.”

Wilkinson felt his lips twitch. “Yes, they were,” he said. “Tell me, are you prepared to pay compensation for the asteroids?”

Kesselring met his eyes. “You are as aware as I am of the fact that Earth does not recognise the Ceres Convention,” he said. His voice took on the tone of someone making a speech. “There are precedents back to original space law, which classed all of space to belong to all of humanity in common trust; the Ceres Convention defies that.”

Wilkinson stared at him. “The Ceres Convention has been around for almost fifty years,” he said flatly. “In that time, it has been used as cornerstone for law in the belt – and Earth-based operations have always respected it. You cannot just…dismiss it on a technicality.”

“There are laws, in places on Earth, that do not forbid the drinking of alcohol,” Kesselring said. His voice had become darker, grimmer; the voice of a man who brought bad news. “That does not mean that those who do not drink are disrespecting the law.”

Wilkinson took a moment to consider the statement and decided that it made little sense. “Your people have played within the framework established by governments across the Belt and Mars,” he said. “You do not get to change the rules, Ambassador; taking an unclaimed asteroid is fine, but taking a claimed one is…not a friendly act.”

He took a long breath. “The framework of the Ceres Convention holds the mining union together,” he continued. “If you start to disrespect it, then it will send tremors right across the belt…and then into Earth-based corporations, which have also honoured the rule in the past. They have claimed asteroids floating around, Ambassador; they might all be snatched up quickly once the Convention collapses.”

“It’s not a concern,” Kesselring said. Wilkinson felt his mouth fall open. “I have been charged with delivering a statement from the Global Federation to the asteroids. Will you hear it?”

“A statement,” Wilkinson repeated. “An ultimation?”

Kesselring unfolded a sheet of paper and started to read. “To the humans living on the asteroids and the outer solar system,” he began. “For the past fifty years, you have lived within the framework of the Global Federation and have benefited from it, but you have constantly acted to defy Federation laws. You have broken laws regarding unrestricted scientific development, experiments on animals and humans, cloning experiments and other science. You have permitted wanted criminals to remain within the belt. You have interfered with Earth-based mining operations in the belt.

“The Global Federation refuses to accept this as an ongoing situation,” Kesselring continued. His voice showed little reaction to the words. “You have been informed, constantly, that the Global Federation speaks for man…and yet you have defied its laws. You were informed that the situation would not be permitted to last. The Federation is no longer willing to permit the situation to continue to last.

“To this extent, the Global Federation demands that the asteroid group known as the Ceres Federation, and the other governments in the Belt and the outer solar system, register for membership in the Federation, with all the rights and duties that this entails. To ensure that future defiance of the laws regarding science is prevented, a force of Paramils will be sent to Ceres, with instructions to keep the peace. Any and all industrial and scientific facilities will be placed under their control; many of them were funded with Federation money.

“Any attempt to break away from the authority of the Global Federation will be seriously punished.”

There was a long chilling pause. “You make it sound as if we’re naughty children,” Wilkinson said finally. Julia was furious; he placed a hand on her hand to keep her from exploding. “Do you really think that…we’ll bend over and let you spank us?”

Julia broke away from his hand. “We built all of those industrial facilities out there ourselves,” she snapped. “Do you think for one moment that we will just…surrender them to you?”

“You built them using money provided by Earth-bound corporations,” Kesselring said flatly. He didn’t even show a hint of gloating. “You were supported by corporations, back in the start of what would grow into Ceres, and then you threw them out. You still owe them the money.”

“You’re mad,” Wilkinson said. He had forgotten diplomacy. “We are an independent state; all of us are independent. What gives you the right to try to dictate to us?”

“The Global Federation is the government of humanity,” Kesselring said. “No other separate government can be tolerated.”

“We are not a threat to you,” Wilkinson said. “We had no interest in fighting you…”

“But you control one of Earth’s lifelines,” Kesselring said. “You defy laws that were placed into effect on Earth over scientific development…”

“You’re quite happy to take what we offer you,” Wilkinson sneered. “Ambassador, it is my considered opinion that this offer will be rejected.”

“You sat out here and thought that you had no responsibilities towards all of humanity,” Kesselring said. “Every human alive has such responsibilities. If you do not accept them, then you are as bad as those who fought the global system during the Age of Unrest.”

“And then we’ll get crushed?” Wilkinson asked. “Are you mad enough to start a war?”

Kesselring stood up. “You have been defying us for too long,” he said. “This is the final warning; join us, or you will be forced into working with us for the benefit of all humanity. In a month, the Paramils will take over your asteroids – and then you will have no option, but to submit to the will of humanity.”

***

“And that’s us told,” Wilkinson said, half an hour later. His small council looked back at him. “Basically, we’re being told to surrender or die.”

“They’re mad,” Flint said. The unionist glared down at the copy of the…demand from Earth; he’d torn one copy after reading it. “No one is going to accept these terms.”

“Ambassador Kesselring would be lucky to escape being lynched when people find out about these,” Chief Sheriff Jefferson added. “It’s already bad enough with having to arrest miners for raiding Earth-based asteroids; they’re saying that since Earth took Felix Von Steffen’s asteroid, then anything tagged by Earth is fair game.”

“I hope that you’re arresting them,” Wilkinson said. “So, what are our choices? We can submit to them, we can refuse to go along…or we can fight. If we fight, it will get nasty, very quickly; we don’t have all of our weapons ready yet. We’ll have to expand the Sheriffs into a full fighting force, to back up the new fleet, which will be several weeks off at best.”

Julia nodded. “Give us a month and we’ll have dozens of ships,” she said. “Hell, we can have them built right across the belt. The problem is gearing up to produce that number in the time we have left.”

“We have a month, more or less,” Wilkinson said. “I believe that the Senate, once it finishes its deliberations, will demand a declaration of a blockade, if not war; that would really force them to take action…”

“And that action will come from their base where Steffen found it,” Andrea said. “We have to take it out.”

Chief Sheriff Jefferson frowned. “It will take time to prepare an offensive,” he said. “We need all of our warships here until we have a reserve…”

“The miners could do it,” Flint said. “We have a fleet of ships and a score to settle.”

Wilkinson shook his head. “It’s a bad idea,” he said. “We need to find a peaceful way out of this problem, rather than firing the first shot ourselves.”

“They also have a large number of their ships there,” Julia said. “Taking them out would make our work easier.”

“Pearl Harbour,” Doctor Travis Thaddeus, Director of Ganymede, said. Wilkinson blinked; he would have sworn that Thaddeus knew nothing of history. “If we strike first, we will be the bad guys; we know little of what is actually happening on Earth…”

“The public do not run Earth,” Andrea said. “At best, the taxpayers have some say in the government, but most of the government is run by a handful of very rich people. They won’t care, not even slightly, for how many lives they take on the coming war; they’ll want to establish their own control over Titan.”

She scowled. “The original anti-science laws were set up to prevent some idiot building an antimatter bomb, or a super-bug,” she said. “That’s really not a problem in space; we can experiment how we like. Titan is the prize; Titan, the industry here at Ceres, and Ganymede. They don’t care about the laws; they just want the factories under their control.”

“And they’ll use their own laws as a whip to beat us,” Flint added. “I think that the blockade, at least, might bring them back to their senses.”

Wilkinson looked around the table. “And if it doesn’t work, then war,” he said. “That’s what it means; are we all ready to do that?”

“Yes,” Flint said. “It is better to live on our feet than die on our knees.”

“I think you mixed that up,” Wilkinson said. The others had nodded slowly. “I think it’s time to see what the Senate has decided…and then tell Ambassador Kesselring the news.”

He glanced down at his terminal as it chimed. “Blockade,” he said. “From now, Earth goes under blockade and embargo.”



Chapter Eight: The View From The Gallery

Cambridge

English State, Earth

The news from outer space burst onto Earth like a thunderclap, announcing that the Belters had stopped all shipments of material to Earth…and would be actively engaged in preventing further Earth-based exploitation of the Belt. Thande got a quick lesson in the power of the television and VR programs as both of them were rapidly overwhelmed with speeches from talking heads – that hadn’t changed at all, he was amused to notice – ranting about how dangerous the blockade was to Earth’s interests.

Grey Wolf had different ideas, when they talked; he spent most of his time running new projections for Earth’s masters. He thought – and said so at considerable length – that Earth wouldn’t be in as big a mess as it looked, at least for a year. If a shooting war should actually happen to break out – and he was grimly certain that it would – then that might change, but for the moment everything would be stable.

The people…the people didn’t seem to care at all. Thande was old enough to remember the shockwaves that had passed across Britain when the fuel strike had been struck in 2000; there had been panic in some places…and it had only been worse when Saudi had tried to play the oil weapon again, too late for any real good. These people…he was starting to suspect that they wouldn’t have cared if London had been destroyed; some of the cities were large enough that a nuclear hit wouldn’t have damaged more than a fraction of the city.

“Why should they worry about it?” Grey Wolf asked, after Thande had asked him about the general apathy. “They have no real stake in the events, Professor; those buggers won’t take an interest in anything unless it affects them directly.”

Thande had to admit that Grey Wolf had had a point; they’d been exploring the city, in between searching for the Enemy, and he was starting to understand that these people…had lost the spark that they once had. The Paramils, strange black-clad policemen more reminiscent of the SS than the British Bobbies he remembered, kept the peace; the world was far more peaceful than his own had been.

He found out why when exploring ‘Punishment Plaza;’ several young yobs had been arrested and were being publicly humiliated, others had been sent out to work camps already. His identification implant identified him as a tourist from Antarctica; the Paramils were more than happy to explain what was happening. Some of the yobs had been engaged in harassing people; others had been caught stealing from supply shops. None of them really comprehended the sheer scale of the surveillance state; Thande, who had been brought up in a state with little surveillance, found it creepy; he suspected that even the toilets were monitored.

“This is nothing like the Roswell Timeline,” he complained to Sally, one night over dining out. They were passing under the cover of science-fiction writers; they could discuss concepts such as the Multiverse War without being detected. “There…I expected differences, but this…? There’s just enough familiar to be very disconcerting.”

He found out just how different the world was later that week.

***

Sally found him in a small café, drinking tea and trying to pretend that the world didn’t exist. The café owner had been watching him nervously; if he hadn’t had a perfectly good cash implant, he might well have called the Paramils. As it was, Sally looked surprisingly worried for the first time in ages; her eyes were wide with concern.

Thande looked up as she sat down next to him. Her constantly changing body was also disconcerting, in its way; the first time they’d made love after she’d changed her body had been difficult. He’d felt like he was committing adultery; it had proven, more than Portals or the multiverse ships, just how alien the Time Agents and their mysterious employers actually were. Human the agents – some of the agents, anyway – might have been, but they had less in common with him than he had with one of the Jihadist.

“A penny for your thoughts?” Sally asked. One of her hands tickled his rear. “Professor?”

“I was watching one of the cinema broadcasts,” Thande said, speaking almost to himself. “It was ghastly.”

Sally didn’t say anything for a minute. “I know how you feel,” she admitted. “What did you see?”

“It was like one of the Draka books,” Thande said. “There was a movie, and everyone was going to watch it, and then…they were still watching when she was…”

He shook his head, trying to banish it from his mind. “I understand sex scenes,” he said. “I watched this one, back home, where a senior female military officer sleeps with a junior military officer, but this…it was disgusting!”

Sally leaned back in her chair. “It’s one of the things that happens when a society faces off against one that would ban such activity if it could,” she said. “You’ll notice that there are few Arabs around, and the Indians are as British as the British. That’s one of the effects of the war they’ve fought; God help any practicing Muslim these days.”

Thande frowned; they’d seen enough of the future world to know that that was literally true. The Global Federation had decided, sometime after the invention of fusion power, to stop attempting to prop up failed states; they’d crushed some of the states, taken over…and then moved on to the next state. The Paramils might have looked like incompetent secret police officers, at least to Thande’s eyes, but they were clearly very capable indeed.

Islam had been blamed for the war, more or less; a statement with very little truth at all, past the obvious. It hadn’t been officially suppressed – the Global Federation had freedom of religion – but the social pressure was immensely against Islam. It wasn’t taught anywhere; parents had to teach their children…and they had to do it against the backdrop of being constantly watched.

He smiled grimly; ironically, the largest outposts of Islam shared a planet with the Jews. Mars had a large refugee population from both sides, having decided to kiss and make up, at least for the moment. The Global Federation had taken control of the planet – or had reasserted control, according to some views – and dumped millions more settlers on the planet.

“These people,” he said. “There was a case made, some time ago, that watching violent TV programs makes children violent…and those people are exposing their children to worse than anything that there was on our television.”

“It’s not always a factor,” Sally said. “There are other studies where restricting such material led to more rapes and murders.”

Thande looked up; she was smiling. “It occurs to me that you must know,” he said. “How many timelines have religious groups of one kind or another banning such material?”

Sally shrugged. “It has little to do with religion,” she said. “People – Christian, Jew or Muslim – have little difficulty in finding reasons for sinning against their religion. It’s more a question of what society will let us get away with doing.”

“And this society isn’t big on allowing people to get away with much,” Thande said. “The Paramils…why didn’t they just call them the Judges?”

Sally shrugged again. Perhaps she didn’t get the joke. “All societies swing backwards and forwards between repression and permission,” she said. “This one…tries to strike a balance, not always successfully.” She frowned. “Anyway, there is real trouble coming.”

She stood up and took his arm, leading him away from the café. They paced though the long corridor-streets, passing shops and teeming crowds of people; Thande was starting to suspect that the city never actually slept. Hardly anyone seemed to be doing anything useful; they were either working jobs, or they were just…on the dole. The unemployed, who didn’t seem to get any money, only food, hung about doing very little; their only employment seemed to be watching people and games, endless games.

He sighed as they passed a crossroads in the corridor, heading back towards their base. Most of the people who might be interested in trying to rebuild the country seemed to be heading out into space; he’d seen pictures of the orbital towers that allowed thousands of people to reach space. No one was spending the money, or the effort, involved in rebuilding the country; most of the real money was invested in space, or in maintaining the status quo.

“What happened to us?” He asked. “Why did we lose that spark?”

“I don’t think you lost it,” Sally said. Her voice was pensive. “You just allowed it to go elsewhere.”

Thande said nothing as they passed into a wide corridor, allowing a group of teenagers to pass them with a football; they would probably end up in trouble with the Paramils. They seemed to be everywhere today, the day that the news about the Belt had broken; war was supposed to be in the air.

“The war has been cancelled through lack of interest,” he muttered, and laughed. “Sally, do you think that either side can score a quick victory?”

Sally considered. “It might just be a repeat of Roswell,” she said, and Thande could hear that she wasn’t sure that she believed herself. “A lot of shooting and then a peace after neither side can really win?”

“And then the Overcompensator arrives,” Thande said dryly. “I don’t think that that exists here; I had the Turtledove do a scan.”

For a moment, he allowed himself to remember the massive alien mothership, pointing like a dagger towards Earth; swatting aside the human defences with absurd ease. He’d named it the Overcompensator as a joke, never realising how powerful it had been; sixty-five years’ worth of building defences had just been smashed aside – although, to be fair, the few weeks of interstellar war hadn’t helped the defences…

“The Hive was destroyed a long time ago,” Sally said. She’d seen the original battle that had destroyed the Hive, as incidental damage from the Multiverse War; the final remnants of the Hive had died with the Overcompensator, or so they thought. No one knew what lived on the remains of that Earth; there could be anything there.

She frowned. “It’s a different situation here,” she said. “One side holds Earth, the Moon and Mars; the other holds the rest. Earth has a massive industry in orbit, built to keep it safe from terrorists; Ceres, Titan and Ganymede all have industries of their own. It could get really nasty; destroying the Earth would be easy, but would the Belters be prepared to commit genocide?”

Thande held out a hand to stop her. “The Enemy would,” he said. “Are they around somewhere?”

“They must be,” Sally said. “There are more Enemy here; they have to be somewhere – but where?”

The main door of the Ouroboros was open, Thande was surprised to see; more of the workers were present within Ian’s Bar. Ian waved to them as they entered, serving several drinks to the workers, all of whom looked like intelligent men. Ian passed them both drinks as they came up to the bar, smiling mischievously.

“We just got paid for the work that we did for the people in charge,” he said. An uninformed observer might have thought that he meant the Senate; an informed observer would have known better. “Grey Wolf wants to see you two.”

Thande shrugged, taking his tea, and looking around; three of the workers were reading paper newspapers. He stared at them in astonishment; most people were carrying PDA-like machines, receiving new copies of the news from them rather than paper, which seemed to be a restricted item. Absently, he wondered how many people in the future knew how to read and write, and then decided it didn’t matter; he wanted a look at the paper.

“Have a look,” Sally said, following his gaze. She pointed towards a rack of newspapers by the wall. “You don’t get many newspapers here.”

Thande picked up the first one and instantly saw why; the price on the newspaper was fifty credits. His implanted memories classed that is being the loose equivalent of ten pounds – ten pounds for an entire newspaper! Inflation had either just started to head upwards, or perhaps the price was kept deliberately high; that would make sense as well. This Earth was clearly concerned with preserving its natural resources.

The first story was, unsurprisingly, about the crisis in the Belt. Unlike the datanet and the news broadcasts, The Guardian Times clearly kept an open mind; an editorial spoke about the dangers in stumbling blindly into a confrontation with the Belters. The editor clearly was a liberal, as far as that term could be defined here; he thought that the Ceres Convention should have been adopted, although he drew the line at compensation for the stolen asteroid.

“The papers have really gone downhill,” Thande muttered, reading the next story. It covered the latest release of a Draka Movie; Advancing on Cape Town. He had to laugh – he’d read a lot of alternate history in his time – and skimmed through the plot details. Apparently, it would feature several hot stars…and considerable lesbian action, and it was funded by DOCTOR WHAT Enterprises.

“I think that Stirling would be turning in his grave,” Thande muttered. The original Draka books had been a trilogy; there had been a fourth book, more of a spin-off than a real book, and – at least up until his departure for the Vale – there hadn’t been anything more. By 2100, clearly the copyright had run out – or something; he was certain that Stirling hadn’t written seventeen Draka books, let alone movies.

He moved to the next page…and got the shock of his life.

“Fuck,” he swore aloud. Sally abandoned her conversation with Ian and came over to see him; Ian issued a warning about disturbing the public. “Sally, look at this.”

Sally muttered a word that Thande didn’t recognise under her breath. “Good work,” she said. “Ian…”

“Any more swearing in here and I’ll ban you like I banned that Texan asshole,” Ian warned, pointing to a picture with MIKE COLLINS printed underneath it. “He used to work for us, you know.”

There was something in his voice that told Thande that he meant the Time Agents, not the Ouroboros. “We need to see Grey,” Sally said grimly. “Ian…”

“All right,” Ian said. He pointed at a door. “You can use the back exit, dear; your husband won’t catch you here.”

There were some chuckles at his mocking tone; Sally led the way in a dignified march through the door, and then up the stairs towards the entrance to the pocket universe. There was a flash of light as the Portal opened, allowing them both entrance; they could only hope that the patrons below hadn’t realised that they hadn’t left the building.

“Mike Collins?” Thande asked, as they hunted through the pocket universe. “Who was he?”

“Someone who broke the rules,” Sally said. Her voice was tart, asking him not to press the issue. “There aren’t many Time Agents who’ll do something like that, but Collins broke them and…well, he was pushed into the Vale without protection.”

Thande winced. The Vale was timeless; a human in the Vale without protection would simply…stop until they fell back into an alternate timeline. All real time travel, as opposed to accidents, took place through the Vale; they could end up anywhere, or any-when. Thande felt a flicker of sympathy; no matter what Collins had done, he could have ended up anywhere when he fell back into the normal universe.

“Oh, it’s you buggers,” Grey Wolf said. He’d clearly been drinking; Sally had explained to Thande that all of the Time Agents could neutralise the effects of alcohol with an effort of will. “Fecking Aussies…”

“Bypass that beer,” Sally snapped, not in the mode for nonsense. “We found the Enemy.”

The change was astonishing; Grey Wolf swung up into a sitting position very quickly, his face changing back to something reassembling normality even as he put the beer down and stood up. “You found them?”

“Thande found them,” Sally said. “Grey Wolf, do you have access to your databases?”

Grey Wolf tapped his head and gave her a reproving look. “Of course,” he said. “I can get access to any of them, right here, right now.”

“Then do it,” Sally said. She held up the newspaper. “I want you to find out everything you can about this woman.”

Grey Wolf looked at the newspaper, then back up at Sally. “Are you sure?”

“Yes,” Sally said sharply. “We’ve met her before.”

“I’ll work on it at once,” Grey Wolf said. He took the newspaper, and then leaving it on the table; Thande picked it up. There was a picture of a woman on the third page; long white hair and stern features, beautiful, but very strong and very deadly. “Are you sure it’s her? She’s been here for years.”

Sally frowned. “I’m starting to think that ‘years’ might have been ‘since last week,’” she said. “The Enemy are clever.”

Thande had no doubts. The memories were still too raw. “It’s her,” he said. “Who else could it be?”

She was called, according to the caption, Andrea Clarke, but Thande knew her by another name. Sally was right; they had met before…and she had worked for the Enemy.


Chapter Nine: The Race Is To The Swift…But Which Bugger Moved The Goal?

Buckingham Palace

English State, Earth

“I trust that there will be no further objections,” Bernard Charles Andrew Harry Donkeybollocks Windsor said, to the table at large. The table had a sign on it claiming to be hundreds of years old; the first King Charles, it claimed, had eaten from it the day before Oliver Cromwell sliced off his head personally, muttering ‘cruel necessity’ as he cut.

Windsor knew perfectly well that that was a lie; the British taxpayers had lost interest in their Royal Family long ago…or at least they had lost interest in supporting them. The Royals had tried to adapt to the world as it changed radically, but they had failed; they would have had no choice, but to become yesterday’s news. By the time the ongoing economic slump caught up with them, wiping out the money they had hoarded, the vultures had been closing in.

The King hadn’t had a choice; he had effectively sold the Royal Family to Windsor. Many of the Royals had left, into the job market; others had remained within the vast soap opera that was their lives, obeying orders to make the ‘plot’ more interesting to disinterested viewers. Privately, Windsor was convinced that sooner or later there would be a reckoning…but by then it would be too late.

It might have been kinder to have simply thrown them all out on the streets, he thought, as the others shifted uncomfortably in their seats. They weren’t modern chairs, which moved to fit the rears of whoever sat in them; they were hard and soft, doubtless exactly as they had been during the reign of Queen Anne. The little leg-coverings on the chair-legs merely added to the experience; history itself had been reedited to suit the needs of the managers.

“This blockade is likely to be a problem,” he continued, as if they hadn’t discussed the danger a long time ago. Taking Buckingham Palace over for the meeting had been a good idea; it kept everyone’s mind focused on the matter at hand. They knew enough about the real world to know better than to fall into the trap of believing; the monarch was so irrelevant that only children took him seriously.

“But of course,” Marie said. “Our Kraut friend made that quite clear; it is a declaration of war, in all, but name.”

She waved a hand around the room. Normally, that would have activated all manner of tourist guides; today, Windsor had turned them off. They were far too annoying; no one in his right mind wanted to hear a version of history that claimed that the Royal Family had done everything for the world. There were times when Windsor thought that keeping them, in any form at all, had been a mistake.

“At the moment, we could survive without their supplies,” she said. “What happens when they start interrupting our own mining ships? It wouldn’t be hard for them; what happens if they start claiming our own rocks.”

Windsor laughed. He had a purpose; he had reasons for what he did…and Marie had few of them. She wanted power, she loved power; she would sacrifice everything, if she had to, for short-term gains. It was something he felt that humanity needed to grow out of; there was no longer any time for inter-human conflict.

A hundred years of life gave a person a perspective; a hundred years watching the world be torn apart as time bomb after time bomb exploded within the human social system, shattering the world. He knew now that all that they – his people, his allies, the entire rickety structure that was the Global Federation – was doing was treading water, trying to keep their heads above the water.

“Marie, we worked hard on Mars,” he said, changing the subject slightly. “We intended to ensure that something survived; they took it as a hostile act. Did you really expect them to trust us?”

She scowled at him with her wrinkled old skin. They’d practically invaded Mars because they’d known, they’d calculated, that Earth was heading towards a total collapse. Under normal circumstances, they would have faced an outbreak of war; under these circumstances, there was a rise in insurgent activity all over the world. Placing a major colony on the newly-terraformed Mars – despite the fact that eco-lunatics had managed to forbid terraforming in the Global Federation’s charter – might have preserved something of their civilisation; the suspicion of the Belters had been a worthwhile price.

Windsor tapped the table. They had little time; things could change very rapidly on Earth, but very slowly in the belt. There would be long hours, days, weeks, of nothing, and then sudden moments of terror, of fighting. They had to move quickly, or they would be left behind by the press of events.

“They believe that they have a right to be independent of humanity as a whole,” Marie said finally. “You know as well as I do that that cannot be allowed.”

“Then we have to stop it,” Windsor said flatly. Marie had placed her finger on the real problem. “The economy?”

Andiron Pismire looked up at him. “We can handle the shocks for a few weeks,” he said. “There are enough of the stored supplies in the orbital habitats to keep us going, although we might have problems with hydrogen.”

Windsor nodded slowly. The hydrogen and helium, mined from Jupiter by the Belters, was launched through space on a ballistic trajectory; even if the hostilities lasted a short time, there would still be a major interruption. If the Belters started to intercept it in space, either stealing it or launching missiles at it, it would only make the problem worse.

“We have long term survival plans,” he said finally. “Do you think that we should put the overreaction plan into place?”

Pismire, whatever his other faults, knew his material. “No,” he said. “Most of our surface-based economy isn’t dependent upon the belt; it’s either luxuries that can come from Earth-based supplies or the orbiting factories. The fabricators are the main problem; we can restrict the use of their ores for military purposes alone.”

He paused. “If we don’t bring the Belters to heel within a few months, however, it might be a different story,” he warned. “We’ll start running out of certain ores, ones that we dare not lose too much of without risking supply shortages.”

“Then we will have to fight to prevent that from happening,” Windsor said. Marie smiled at him; it was a worrying expression. “General, it’s over to you.”

There was no inbuilt holographic display system in the room; the fake authentic nature of the palace had had to be preserved. General Lee had brought in an advanced Paramil system; the planets and asteroids floated around a room that had been built before the majority of humans knew that the Earth wasn’t flat. He stood at the end of the table, allowing his voice to echo around the room; he looked every inch the disciplined and confident military officer.

“We have not one large campaign, but a series of smaller campaigns,” he said. His voice sounded confident, Windsor was pleased to notice; he seemed determined to win. As long as he could do it without destroying the entire system in the process, Windsor didn’t mind. “In fact, it will bear some resemblance to the Age of Unrest; the Paramils and their predecessor organisations had to fight a number of smaller campaigns, in many different places.”

Windsor frowned slightly; the Paramils claimed descent from the United States Marines, the Special Air Service and the Foreign Legion. Privately, he suspected that none of those famed groups, all now folded out of existence, would have recognised themselves in the Paramils; slash and burn missions had been something alien to them.

“The main problem will be locating the enemy,” Lee continued. His display flicked as he spoke, illuminating the known habitats in the Belt. Ceres itself was massive, dozens of asteroids, large and small; other independent habitats dominated the belt. Even Ceres, with the largest population, wasn’t the only source of authority in the belt. “As we know, an asteroid can be made habitable quite easily, and it could then be moved anywhere.”

Pismore laughed. “There have been rumours that some of them have actually set out across the interstellar void,” he said. “That would make them a little harder to catch.”

Windsor nodded. Ceres didn’t bother to keep close track of miners; any of them could found their own kingdom without much effort – and then there were the scientists researching things that would disgust even the Belters. Out beyond the Belt, a person could do anything – and if they were careful even the Sheriffs wouldn’t notice them, or care. They could even set out for Tau Ceti or Wolf 359; no one would try to stop them.

“We actually tried to track them all down,” Lee said. “We think that they don’t know that we know about half of the ones that aren’t public, including this small group here.” He illuminated a group, surprisingly near Mars; they were moving in a strange orbit. “They’re quite isolated from the majority of the belt; they form an independent group, rather than part of Ceres. Despite that, they have strong relations with the miners and yes, they’ve joined in the embargo.”

He tapped the display as it zoomed in on the asteroids. “That is the first target,” he said. “There are supposed to be around twenty thousand people on the asteroid; we should be able to take them without problems. If they don’t resist, then they can be accepted and registered as citizens; if they resist, then they can be dealt with.”

“Dealt with,” Windsor said.

Marie smiled. “I trust that the Paramils will take every precaution to keep the industrial equipment intact,” she said. “We need as much of that as we can get.”

Pismire coughed. “I admit to knowing little of military strategy,” he said seriously. “However, why are we launching our men there, instead of Ceres itself? It’s the source of the trouble, after all; this place is just a nuisance.”

“It’s a good question,” Lee said. If he resented having to answer it, he didn’t show it. “Ceres is much – much – larger; it has a proper defence force and shipyards and industrial modules by the bucket load. It also has a much larger population of people who know what they would be doing in space, and so…”

He paused. “I understand your concern, but I want to be certain of success before we move against Ceres,” he said. He sounded a little more annoyed now. “If we launch an attack on Ceres, with what we have now, ready to go, we’ll be slaughtered. I want new warships ready, I want the crews trained – no one has fought a serious war in space before – and ready. And then there are the political factors…”

“We have to move fast,” Windsor said, speaking before Lee’s rapidly growing exasperation could lead to trouble. “At the same time, we cannot afford a serious defeat; we have to hold off from fighting a major battle, while scoring a victory of our own.”

Mentally, he cursed the Belter who’d stumbled across the base; he’d forced them to move faster than they had wanted to move. The ships at the base had to stay there, to aid in its defence, until they had the defences ready to go. A thought struck him and he frowned; was the base there really safe?

“General,” he said slowly, “is the base out in the belt safe from being attacked?”

Lee paused. “It’s hard to say,” he admitted. “We have a growing base and a growing defence set-up there; if we have a few more weeks the base will be secure against any serious attack. They could move now, and we would see them coming…it all depends on what they want from the fighting.”

“Independence,” Marie said flatly. “That cannot be allowed.”

Windsor sighed. He would have been prepared to allow the Belt a say in its own affairs; the problem was that independence couldn’t be tolerated. The Belt had to be used to help Earth survive the coming crash; he knew that something was going to break, soon…and when it did, God help them all.

He shook his head and changed the subject. “And the colonising project?”

Marie looked down at the table, suddenly all professional; Ringworld Corporation was very interested in that part of the project. She was its managing director, after all; she had the main lead on the project.

“We have been building newer bridge ships,” she said. “We’ll also be taking some of the newer ones off the Mars run; quite frankly, I think that we’ve poured enough people onto Mars. The Belters and the natives might be making a fuss, but we have other problems beside them.”

She slipped a datachip into the display. “The Belters – or rather the colonists out there – have major bases on Titan, Ganymede and Europa. We’ll be landing on two other moons – so they can’t complain – and just keep flooding people onto the moons. By the time they realise that we’re going to be controlling the moons, it’ll be too late; what are they going to do, kill thousands of people?”

Windsor felt his lips twist in distaste as she continued. “We have thousands of volunteers now,” she continued. Windsor wished that that were true; most of the people who had ‘volunteered’ had done it under pressure of some kind or another. If they had been real volunteers, they would have gone to the Belt, although some of them had been rejected by the Belters. “They’re going through the final training on the moon.”

She smiled. “In order to speed up the process, they’re going to be in hibernation for their trip,” she continued. “That takes some of the requirements, such as maintaining a gravity field, away from the mission; some of the ships are just engine with cabins attached. We’ll be using a long-term course, as a further measure; interception would be difficult.”

Although not impossible, Windsor thought coldly. The colonists would have little choice; they would have to learn to survive in their new environments – and they should be able to survive. Most of them had been taken from the middle class of humans; the people who worked, but lacked the spark to move onwards. When – if – the crash came, they would have enough to survive; Earth itself was becoming increasingly useless to the solar system.

“We have most of the supplies ready now,” Marie concluded. “We were going to launch the first mission next week, and then just continue the program.”

Windsor nodded. “Please keep me informed,” he said. He noticed that Lee was looking concerned. “General?”

“There will be problems involved in defending the bridge ships,” Lee said flatly. “Given the boost requirements for escorting them, I cannot see it being possible to provide an armed escort…”

“Oh, they have weapons,” Marie said. “That’s one reason they’re going on that course; they’ll be harder to intercept with a laser-armed craft.”

Windsor shrugged. “When can we move against…what were those asteroids called again?”

“Mahan,” Lee said. “They were named after a naval genius of years ago.”

“Mahan,” Windsor said. “When can we move against them and occupy them?”

“A week, perhaps,” Lee said. “I just want to make sure of the training before we move.”

Windsor nodded. “Any other business?”

“There has been only minimal public awareness of these matters,” Pismire said. “Do you wish to continue the propaganda offensive?”

Windsor put his head in his hands. Did nothing shake the public out of its stupor? “We might as well,” he said. “If we have something that we can blame on the Belters, that would be fine, don’t you think?” He shrugged; he’d given some thought to manufacturing a threat, but things like that had a tendency to get out of hand. “Any other business?”

There was a long pause. “I’d offer you dinner here,” he said, “but there’s only so much roast beef one can stand – particularly as they tried to make it as they were sure that it was in those days. You really don’t want to eat here.”


Chapter Ten: Private Revenge Equals Public War (So There)

Anung Asteroid Field

Asteroid Belt

“Delta-Three, I have you in my sights,” a voice said.

“Pratt-Four, piss off and eat shit,” another said. “You couldn’t shoot at something right in front of your face.”

Felix Von Steffen sighed as the argument continued. Working out the details of the posse had taken nearly two weeks of arguing, and that had been with the assistance of the Miners Union leader, Eric Flint. Miners…just weren’t the type of people to take orders from anyone, even the elected leader of their own union, without much arguing about it. He’d heard that the Paramils operated on the same principle, but he’d never met a Paramil…and didn’t believe the story.

“I must have been drunk,” he muttered, wishing – not for the first time – that someone would hurry up and invent either FTL drive or some other manner of super-drive; a system that would allow them to move very fast around the Solar System. Even a fusion drive had limited boost, compared to the vastness of the Solar System; it would have taken him months to reach Jupiter from his current location.

“You were not drunk,” LEO said. The computer sounded as unemotional as ever; it only pretended to emotions when it wanted him to lock it into the sensors and the ship’s main computers. He'd had to allow LEO access to the new targeting programs, just to give his ship more teeth, but he didn’t have to like it.

He scowled. “And how could you tell?”

“I was monitoring your body through your implant, as per instructions,” LEO said. He was sure that there was a faint hint of amusement in its voice. “You had little alcohol in your body and in any case, being drunk would have been an automatic disqualifier for any role you might have sought to fulfil.”

“I was drunk,” Steffen muttered, and opened the communications channel. He wouldn’t have minded them arguing over their own private laser links, but they’d locked all of their posse into the communication net; no one had wanted to waste precious seconds attempting to re-establish the net after a ship had been destroyed in the coming battle – and he was certain that one was coming.

“Shut up,” he snapped. He placed enough fury into his voice to obtain a surprising amount of quiet. “We have a battle to fight and we don’t need any distractions now, understand?”

There was silence over the communications channels. They might be listening – few miners would be stupid enough to leave the communications channels unmonitored – but would they listen? Would they do as he said, having voted him the commander of the posse, or would they just abandon him?

“Now, we have thirty minutes until the first turnover window,” he said. “Check your computers, then we compare results, acknowledge.”

There was a chorus of acknowledgements; Steffen allowed himself to relax slightly, disengaging the radio. The miners might be argumentative – and not as bloody-minded as they were generally believed to be – but they would stick with him; they had given their words. A miner without a good name was no miner; no one would trust him, ever again.

“LEO,” he snapped. “Run the burn calculations; minimum warning, and maximum safety. Show me the options once they’re completed!”

“Of course, master,” LEO said. Steffen ignored the computer; he was running mental calculations in his mind. It all depended on just how capable the enemy were – and just how good their defensive sensors actually were, particularly when faced with such a threat.

His force had boosted away from Ceres, and then performed a complex manoeuvre, which should have had the effect of cloaking their actual destination. As soon as they’d gone silent, without a fusion plume, they should have been completely hidden from their target – which was supposed to be in the Anung Asteroid Field. It hadn’t been tracked leaving the Anung Asteroid Field, or so he’d been told, but that didn’t always mean anything; his force alone was proof of that.

He smiled slightly; his force had been assembled to make the blockade of Earth real, rather than a legal fiction. Steffen knew, better than any other miner now, just how little respect Earth had for Belter Law; it was time to convince them that the law was there to be respected. Eric Flint had called…and Steffen, his biggest recruiting lure at the moment, had answered.

Ahead of them, as far as ‘ahead’ had any meaning in space, was the Anung Asteroid Field – and a large mining ship from Earth. Earth, for reasons that made little sense to Steffen, tended to use large mining ships, rather than smaller miners and tugs. He’d heard that they were worried about accidentally dropping an asteroid onto the planet, but really – any competent miner would have been able to put a rock into Low Earth Orbit without letting it fall.

“They’re going to try to put us all out of business,” Flint had said, explaining the problem. The miners and the Miner’s Union might have joined the embargo, and most of the independent settlements would have at least have accepted their position, but Earth had some larger mining ships of its own. “We have to prevent them from doing that.”

“I have the calculations,” LEO said, breaking into his own thoughts. “Would you like me to display them?”

Several answers, none of them actually helpful, came to Steffen’s mind. “Yes,” he said, feeling very restrained. “Please display them, holographic format.”

“Done,” LEO said. “Choose within twenty minutes to use the first option.”

Steffen studied the display as it shimmered into view, muttering curses under his breath; it was going to be close. There was no real danger of actually slamming into an asteroid - the Anung Asteroid Field wasn’t that big and he wasn’t that stupid anyway – but they had to cut their own speed radically, which would just incidentally reveal their positions. If the enemy were on the ball, they would have plenty of time to run the calculations that would allow them to launch missiles, timed to intercept just after the main drives had cut off.

“Ouch,” he said, as the final solution appeared. They could really slam on the brakes, applying counter-thrust to slow them down, except that would subject them to massive gee-forces that would hurt them. It should be safe, in theory, but he knew better than to assume that it would be really safe.

“Damn,” he said. On his own, he would have risked it, but not with all of the ships along. “LEO, transmit the courses to the other ships, then tell them…that we’ll go with Number Four, unless they have come up with a better idea.”

LEO seemed astonished at the mere suggestion that any other computer could come up with a better solution, but he – Steffen always thought of him as a ‘he’ – transmitted the information anyway, allowing Steffen a moment to think. Number Four was the compromise between stealth and safety; he wished that he had one of the stealth ships, except they would have been visible under the same conditions. Space wasn’t empty, certainly not as empty as ground-pounders believed, but it was also quiet – most of the time.

“I think that we should go with Number Seven,” Dominic said. He’d been taking the experimental medical treatments to help him withstand gravity pressures; he talked about it, every time they’d met. “They might have time to build up their speed.”

“Not a frigging chance,” Sarah snapped. The female miner snorted rudely. “You see the specs on that thing? It couldn’t outrun anything.”

“And how many of us have ships with the right specs?” Dominic asked. “We can take the pressures, Sarah; we can make it…”

“It’s not worth the risk,” Steffen said, hoping that Dominic would obey him. Short of pouring fire into his ship, there was no way to make him obey. “We’ll go with Number Four, understand?”

There was a second chorus of agreement. “Good,” Steffen said, and relaxed slightly. “Burn in ten minutes; I’ll send you all a countdown.”

The minutes passed slowly. Steffen remained calm; calm was the first discipline a miner learned, but he knew that he was nervous. The others stayed off the communications channel, a sure sign that they were concerned themselves; most miners were chatty when there were other miners around.

“Burn in five minutes,” he said. They’d already turned the ships; they had to point the main drive tube down towards their destination, just to make sure that they continued to move in the same direction. “Stand by…”

He ran through a countdown, reached zero…and hit the switch. The gee-force rose rapidly as the engine fired; his sensors went suddenly blind under the impact of the fusion plume. He swallowed desperately against the pressure; the enemy would know that they were here now…and they would be planning countermeasures of their own.

Or perhaps they’ll just surrender, he thought, and snorted. That wasn’t likely; Earth-based miners tended to be stiff-necked people, not miners who could be talked out of causing trouble. Perhaps…

The burn cut off suddenly, leaving them alone in space again; the pressure vanished at the same time. Steffen snapped orders at LEO, ordering him to watch for military signatures, even as he checked that they were still falling towards their target. There were twenty-seven main asteroids in the field, all claimed by an Earth-based corporation; their target could be anywhere.

“No trace of missiles,” LEO reported. His voice sounded relieved; Steffen wondered if that was an act or if it were real. “They either missed us or didn’t try to shoot at us.”

“Everyone alright?” Steffen asked, into the radio. No one was showing any problems, not on the laser link, but that might well have been an illusion. “Any problems?”

“That was fun,” Dominic said. He sounded as if he meant it. “Let’s do it again!”

“Let’s not and say we did,” Sarah said. Her voice sounded relieved; not many miners would willingly subject themselves to that kind of pressure unless they had a very good reason. As it was, the Miners Union was underwriting the expense of the fuel; without that, Steffen knew that there would be fewer volunteers than they needed to teach Earth a lesson.

“I’m bringing up my radar now,” he said, using the laser link. Lasers were undetectable, except when a person was in direct line-of-sight; radar and radio was anything, but. His radar would make him a target; the enemy would fire on him automatically. “Stand by…”

LEO filled in the detail as the radar pulses pulsed out from the ship, heading into the asteroid field; he was amused to note that one of the asteroids had been reduced since the last time anyone had bothered to survey the field. He took a breath as their target appeared on the display, trying hard to pull away from them.

“Idiot,” he muttered, as he saw what the mining craft was trying to do. It wasn’t exactly hiding in the asteroids, which would have been impossible anyway, but it was trying to run from them…without the boost capability to evade them. It was clearly a much more massive craft than their craft; it couldn’t build up speed fast enough to evade, or to make fuel a very obvious problem.

The image filled in as the pulses became focused on the mining craft. It was large, almost a kilometre long; a collection of modules, habitats and fusion tubes, some of which were flaring merrily away as the craft tried to escape. It was also an easy target; there was simply no way it could escape.

“I think we’ll try for the diplomatic option,” he said firmly, and switched to the open GUARD channel. All spacecraft were required, by Belter law, to keep a computer watch upon that channel; it was used for emergencies and vital signals. Regardless of Earth’s official position, they would be watching for signals; how else could they summon help if they needed it?

“This is Captain Steffen, commander of this posse,” he said, in his clipped English. He thought about trying for a cowboy accent and decided against it; it would only have confused everyone. “Under the prevailing political conditions, Earth has been declared under embargo by the Ceres Federation and associated powers; please respond.”

There was no answer; the mining craft was attempting to move sluggishly away and failing. Given its design, Steffen wasn’t convinced that it could have handled high-gee pressures anyway; it was certainly built for a very long haul mission. It was also undefendable; it was a very easy target.

“Under the embargo, I must request that you surrender your ship to me,” he continued. “Your crew and you will be placed into interment, with a choice between applying for Belter citizenship or returning to Earth at the end of the current affair. Please respond…”

“Movement,” LEO snapped, cutting into his voice. “I have detected four small traces, launching from the mining ship.”

Steffen swore. “Missiles?”

“They seem to be mining craft,” LEO said. “They’re moving towards us.”

“Open the channel,” Steffen snapped. “Attention; I must warn you that any attempt to threaten my command will result in the destruction of your command. Acknowledge!”

“I think that’s a ‘come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough,’” Dominic said dryly. Steffen was inclined to agree; the smaller craft were clearly attempting to form a barrier between the large ship and the miners. Absurdly, he wondered if they were piloted, or were they remotes; if so, how far would they go?

“Target them,” he said. “I’m going to launch a warning shot.”

The missile was a basic design, one intended to be fired at a target and forgotten; it had enough high boost to be a serious threat to a fleeing plasma torch-driven ship. LEO performed the targeting; Steffen launched the missile, watching it flashing away past the large mining craft…and then it vaporised.

“They turned a mining laser on it,” LEO said. “It seems that they don’t want to surrender.”

“I noticed,” Steffen said, in disbelief. They must have known that resistance would have been worse than futile. “This is your final warning…”

“I have heat,” Sarah snapped, interrupting him. “They’re firing on me.”

“Kill that ship,” Steffen snapped. Three of the miners fired at once, ripping the enemy miner apart with their lasers; its comrades returned fire, accelerating towards the incoming force. Steffen cursed as two of his friends died as their heat shields failed; his people fought with grim determination.

“I got one,” Dominic snapped. “I killed him!”

“They’re all down,” Steffen said, checking the feed from the other ships. “Jack, Roger, fall back,” he ordered. “Neither of you have proper heat shields any longer.”

He ignored the complaints. “Advance,” he ordered. “Target the enemy command modules.”

LEO coughed. “They’re still trying to leave.”

“And they have lasers, powerful lasers,” Steffen said. “Can you give me an idea of their range?”

“None,” LEO said. “They hit the missile, of course; does that help?”

“Damned uppity computer,” Steffen muttered. “Open channel; this is your final warning, surrender or be ripped apart.”

The channel hissed. A voice with an accent that Steffen didn’t recognise hissed out. “You are little better than pirates,” it protested. He wasn’t even sure if he were talking to a man or a woman. “You just killed three of my people.”

“And you killed three of mine,” Steffen snapped. He checked the display; it wouldn’t be long before they entered the hypothetical range of the enemy lasers. “There is an embargo on – you might have noticed.”

“An illegal embargo,” the voice said. “We do not recognise it.”

Steffen sighed. “Do you recognise my guns?”

“It always comes down to force with you Belters,” the voice said. “What guarantees will you give me for my people?”

“We won’t shoot them,” Steffen snapped. “I could kill you now, Captain; I don’t have time to fuck around. Surrender, or die!”

There was an odd noise from the speaker. “Very well,” the voice said. Steffen relaxed slightly; he had been afraid that the man might try to hold out, trying to call a bluff. He wasn’t bluffing. “I will surrender my ship.”

Steffen sighed in relief. “Thank you,” he said. “Open your computers to my ship; my people will board you and escort you to Mahan Asteroid. Do not attempt to resist, understand?”

The man’s voice was defeated. Steffen took little pleasure in it. “I understand,” he said. “Damn you.”


Chapter Eleven: Everyone Has A Past (Except Me, Of Course)

Cambridge

English State, Earth

“Her name is Andrea Clarke and she appeared out of nowhere, years ago,” Grey Wolf said. He sounded serious; Thande almost sympathised – this would look very bad on his record. “She’s one of the richest people in the solar system – and she’s generally believed to be the richest woman in the world.”

The image floated above the table, a solid-light hologram that would have stunned Hollywood, had they had a chance to see the technology. Thande didn’t have time to be impressed by the technology; the image itself was all too revealing. A white-haired young woman, her face sterner than he would have expected from a woman of her apparent age, staring out at the world.

“Snow,” he muttered, remembering. Snow had worked for the Enemy; she had been involved in operations against the humans in the Roswell Timeline, she had even attempted to capture the Harry Turtledove itself. What was she doing here? How had she escaped detection?”

Sally was asking the same questions, only in a louder voice; angrier than he had ever seen her. “Grey Wolf, this woman has been here for almost a century, local time,” she snapped. “Look at this; it doesn’t even give an origin point!”

“That’s not that unusual here,” Grey Wolf said. It sounded weak; Thande realised that he felt that it was weak too. “When they were setting up the system for monitoring everyone, a lot of rich people took the opportunity to reinvent themselves before the law caught up with them and held them firmly in the light. She could have been anyone; any of them could have been working…”

“And might well be working for the Enemy,” Sally snapped. “Why did none of you notice, with all of this wonderful surveillance system, that she wasn’t growing any older?”

Grey Wolf glared at her. “These people have drugs that retard aging,” he protested. “Do you have any idea how many people there are around who lived during the War on Terror, who can remember the days before the Global Federation? Hundreds, thousands, perhaps even millions!”

Sally glared back. “This…is a woman who should have been flagged as an enemy agent,” she said. “If she’s been present within this timeline, why didn’t you notice?”

“I don’t understand that,” Grey Wolf admitted. He flinched back under her gaze. “Sally, there were no distortions in this timeline until recently, relatively speaking; she should have entered this timeline after we did, not before. Somehow…I don’t know how, she managed to remain undetected.”

Thande tapped the table hard enough to make them both jump. “We can sort that out later,” he said firmly. Both of them gave him sharp looks. “The main problem is finding out what she’s doing and putting a stop to it – somehow I don’t think she’s going to do us any favours.”

They nodded reluctantly; Thande shuddered, he would sooner have faced his double again, rather than Snow. She’d come from a planet that had been destroyed in a war, perhaps part of the Multiverse War; one as dedicated to female supremacy as the Middle East was devoted to male supremacy. She had been…armed, or trained, with an understanding of body language that could make people putty in her hands; the thought of her getting out of control on Earth was chilling.

Grey Wolf sat down at the table and glared at Snow’s image. “She appeared in the later months of 2010; that’s when we have the first record for her,” he said. “She clearly had some serious money behind her; she started to build an empire very quickly, buying a number of smaller companies that were about to collapse, then using them to market newer and interesting devices, including the fuel cell. She is credited with that herself, although…she credited scientists with some proper funding.”

He sighed. “Her company, called Global Corporation at first, rapidly expanded and entered the space market in 2017,” he continued. “During that period, the remains of the UN was handing out mandates to companies and organisations that thought that they could help Africa; she ended up owning a section of Africa.”

Thande shook his head; there was something about the entire concept that seemed so…fantastic. How could a corporation end up running a country? Answer; they bought everything, were the only major source of jobs…and owned the armed forces. In many ways, they had been much better for the people in Africa; they had had people who couldn’t be bribed, or threatened. After the resistance from the old order had been destroyed, often by brutal methods that the old European colonists wouldn’t have disapproved of, the place did improve – at the cost of becoming part of a corporation.

“She was one of the people most determined to improve the status of women,” Grey Wolf continued. Thande and Sally exchanged glances; that sounded very much like Snow. “Over the years, she expanded more and more into space, finally setting up a major colony on Titan, which became a colony for her company – and parts of the old Nigerian region. There was a dispute – no one knows what happened – and she sold Nigeria to Donkeybollocks Windsor, and moved into space herself.”

He smiled. “Between thee, me, and a lot of reporters, she ended up running Titan personally, which is rather unusual in this day and age,” he said. “There are apparently thousands of…less-than-law-abiding scientists there, working on things that no one will talk about. She’s sold several dozen component designs to Earth; Titan is one of the largest nexuses of industrial activity outside Earth itself.”

“It would probably be a very good idea to take a careful look at those components,” Sally said. “What were they?”

“Nothing too awe-inspiring,” Grey Wolf said. He frowned. “There was a quantum processor, and a modified news pad; that was pretty much everything spectacular, apart from the medical advances.”

Sally frowned. “Medical advances?”

“She’s been working on some form of prototype nanotech,” Grey Wolf said. “It’s not something that’s easy to actually accomplish, but we were curious; Titan is sealed up like a whore’s cunt in TimeLine 2826383…”

“I see,” Sally said. “What did they invent?”

“A small robot that moves through the bloodstream,” Grey Wolf said. “It’s not real nanotech, nothing too complex or earth-shaking, but…it’s quite an accomplishment from what they had before. That said, she’s also been patenting a number of replacement items; not just hearts – that problem was solved years ago – but almost everything. The Centaur’s Friend has proven quite popular.”

“I don’t want to know,” Thande said. Something was ringing at the back of his mind; something to do with Snow, but…it refused to surface. “Just how rich is she?”

“She could buy this city and never notice the missing money,” Grey Wolf said seriously. “She has interests everywhere in the solar system, from miners to bases on Mars, Venus and even Mercury. There are millions of people who work for her, in one way or the other; she has pretty much an entire planet devoted to her.”

“A very strong position,” Sally said thoughtfully. “I imagine that she’ll have some security devices on Titan, ones designed to detect us.”

“I would imagine so,” Grey Wolf said. “I’ve only used this” – he waved a hand around the pocket dimension – “to go to Mars, but…she would be foolish to have not set up a few security devices. You might step out into a hail of fire.”

“That would be embarrassing,” Sally said dryly. “Grey Wolf, what was that last thing you mentioned she’d done, when we first came here?”

“That buggering thing,” Grey Wolf snapped. His hands danced over the console that had formed out of solid light. “She made a massive donation to the Cambridge Institute; I’m certain that that was her!”

“Why?” Thande asked. “Did the institute sell her something?”

“Not as far as I can tell,” Grey Wolf said. He sat back and glared at the screen. “It took days of work to trace back the money; a few more days and it would have been impossible, she moved it through so many smaller banks that it was a nightmare to track.”

He scowled. “There seems to have been no reason at all,” he concluded. He stroked his unkempt beard as he talked. “It’s not as if the Institute was in need of money, or as if she had had a service from them…or if they had, it’s beyond the ability of my hacker to find it.”

“Something Ian can’t find,” Sally said. Thande realised that she’d met Ian before. “That’s…pretty impressive.”

“Bugger that,” Grey Wolf said. He was laughing at them. “You people from the advanced timelines; none of you make the obvious conclusion.”

Sally lifted a dangerous eyebrow. “And what, pray tell, is that?”

Grey Wolf muttered a curse against the Sheep under his breath. “This timeline has the datanet and the remains of the old internet,” he said. “You people assume that everything in the world, at least everything important, has to be on the datanet or the local equivalent.”

He laughed. “If Snow…and Cambridge, wanted to keep this a secret, they certainly wouldn’t put it on the net,” he said. “If you want to know why Snow gave them that money, you’ll have to go ask them.”

***

“Remember, you’re the lead here,” Sally said, as they approached the dome of the Cambridge Institute. The dome seemed to have been built over the universities; most of the institutes seemed the same as Thande remembered, years ago; some of them were very different. One of them was marked PORTERHOUSE; he smiled at a joke that he suspected that no one in this time would understand.

Another joke had been made; he could only hope that no one would laugh too loudly. His identification implant identified him as Agent Mulder; Sally was Agent Scully. He'd tried to argue about it, but Sally had been dismissive; no one worth worrying about would have seen The X-Files in this timeline.

“I know,” he said, as they reached the Cambridge Institute. It seemed a modern building – modern in the sense that it had been built in 2012 or thereabouts, after he had left Earth – and was clearly regarded as a historical monument. He could think of no other reason for keeping it; it was a metal and glass eyesore. “Just do as I tell you and you’ll be fine.”

Grey Wolf had made a number of predictions based on what would happen when they entered; one thing was dead right – the secured door opened right when they walked up to it. Thande was impressed; normally, they would have had to wait for permission to enter, but Paramils had the right of access to any building at any time. With the sheer number of Paramil agents, the odds were vastly against bumping into one who just happened to know all of them.

The receptionist jumped to her feet; clearly surprised when they entered. “Can I help you?” She asked, and then she saw the results from their implants. “Can I…?”

“I hope that you can,” Thande said sternly. Paramils were not friendly policemen; they were total bastards – or so Grey Wolf had explained it. Her eyes opened wide; she obviously hoped that she couldn’t help and they’d go away. “We’re looking for the Director.”

She flinched. Thande felt a moment of sympathy for her, caught between the devil and the deep blue sea – or her boss and a pair of Paramil agents. “He’s in a meeting at the moment,” she said, her glasses almost falling down her nose with her concern. “Can you wait for” – she glanced at the clock – “thirty minutes?”

“No,” Thande said firmly. A real Paramil would have acted in the same way. “Please can you summon him at once?”

The receptionist, cowed, started to call her boss through the telephone system, which Thande noted was exactly the same as it had been in his day. He turned away from her, examining the photographs on the wall; one of them was very familiar. He had to smile at the caption; PROFESSOR BLAMIUS THANDE AT WORK.

Sally saw the name and lifted an eyebrow. “I bet you made the same mistake as Donkeybollocks Windsor,” she said, though their private channel. “Was that it?”

Thande flushed slightly. “It’s a long story,” he said. “I wonder…”

“Perhaps you would like to go through now,” the receptionist said. “Director Sean Harkness is on his way now.”

“Thank you,” Thande said. He allowed her to show them into a small office, one decorated as if it were meant for a king, as a tall man strode in through the other door. Thande almost smiled; the man looked both tall and fat at the same time, wearing a moustache that had been out of fashion in 1960 – and Thande would have bet good money that it was still out of fashion.

“I’m Director Harkness,” he said, extending a hand. Thande took it and had to fight to hide a wince at the sheer pressure that was exerted on his hand. “What can I do for the Paramils?”

“Information,” Thande said. Behind him, Sally nodded firmly; keeping up the act. “You may have heard of the current political situation?” The Director started to say something and Thande spoke over him. “I believe that you can shed light on a matter that has come to our attention.”

“It is always my pleasure to help the guardians of order,” Harkness said. He seemed to mean it…but there was something behind his eyes, covered up by his bluster. “What can I do for you?”

Thande leaned forward. “It has come to our attention that your…institute was given a rather large donation recently,” he said. The man flinched; Thande realised suddenly that he had expected that. “What were the circumstances behind that donation?”

The man had some determination in him. “Under the Source of Funds Act, I believe that I am under no obligation to do more than report it,” he said. “I think…”

Thande cut him off. “Under the Paramil Responsibility Act, you cannot hide anything from us, whatever the reason,” he said. “Whatever your motives, Director Harkness; you have no right to hide anything, no matter its nature, from us. Understand?”


”It’s a long story,” Harkness stammered. “What will happen to us?”

“Nothing, if you are truthful with us,” Thande said. He allowed his voice to soften slightly. “Director, we have a serious problem…and we believe that you can help.”

“It came from Ms Clarke,” Harkness said, crumbling. Thande allowed himself a moment of relief; they could have hardly dragged Harkness into a non-existent station. “It was payment, payment for our cooperation.”

Thande frowned. “Start at the beginning,” he said. “What did she want from you?”

“Information,” Harkness said. He sounded…almost relieved; the hammer had finally dropped. “There was a scientist, a researcher, who had worked for us…and she wanted to know what she’d been like.”

He paused. “And then she asked more questions, and then she gave us the money, and left,” he said. “I think…that was all she wanted.”

“I don’t,” Thande said. “What was the scientist doing? Who was he, come to think of it; what was he doing here?”

“She,” Harkness said. “Doctor Ming Ling; a researcher who went into forbidden territory and…well, we had to let her go.”

Thande felt a moment of pure anger; would nothing change in a hundred years? “What was she doing?”

Harkness cringed. “She was…researching directly into the human brain,” he said. “She had this idea that we could all have direct connections into a computer, that perhaps we could even become more capable than we were, that…that we might become brains, rather than men and women. She talked about even putting a brain into a spaceship; it would be capable of moving faster because of…”

His voice trailed off. Thande and Sally exchanged glances. “I see,” Thande said carefully. “What happened then?”

“Oh, she started to experiment using cloned brain tissue and animal brains,” Harkness said. His voice was light, but tinted with horror rather than disgust; horror that his institution – and his reputation – had been on the line. Thande recognised the symptoms. “She started to manage to link up parts of their brains with computers…and then she wanted to move onto a real human. At this point, someone turned her in and…”

Someone with long white hair? Thande thought. “And then?”

“I had to investigate, of course,” Harkness said, recovering some of his poise. “There wasn’t much in her personal data files, but enough people had doubts about her to approach me when I started to make enquires…and it came out that she’d started to draw up the plans for an interlinked human-machine hybrid. Once I had them, well she was looking at being jailed, or turned into meat.”

Meat, Thande knew, meant whore. “So what happened?”

Harkness sighed. “We had a private chat and decided that it would be best for everyone if she left,” he said. “I had already blackballed her to the rest of Cambridge; she couldn’t have hoped to get a job anywhere else, so…and then Ms Clarke came along in person…and I just told her everything about her.”

Thande exchanged a second glance with Sally. “And…what happened then?”

“She listened to me, donated that money, and left,” Harkness said. Thande was starting to have a nasty thought; they’d missed something, somewhere. “I never saw her again.”

“Thank you,” Thande said. “Out of idle curiosity, do you know where Doctor Ming Ling is right now?”

“No,” Harkness admitted. “I lost touch with her; didn’t even want to be associated with her.”

Sally spoke into the silence. “Did she have any close friends here?”

Harkness gave her a sharp look. “One or two,” he said. He hesitated, just long enough to be noticeable. “Do you want to talk to them?”

“I think we better had,” Thande said. “Have them sent in, please.”


Interlude Two: Somewhere the Sun Doesn’t Shine


Recovered From Source #26237: The Personal Dairy of Doctor Ming Ling. Access Granted Under Security Clearance NONE OF THEIR BUSINESS; Please Be Aware That Further Dissemination Of This Information Can Lead To Heavy Penalties, Up To And Including Death.

In a fit of human imagination, the asteroid had been named…wait for it…the ‘Asteroid.’ The base had no name and didn’t even have an official designation; I assumed that it had been claimed by someone, but other than that…it seemed impossible to escape from. I didn’t find all this out until much later, however; it took time to get used to the strange surroundings.

Hilda Goddard was very open with me; after all, she was in the same boat. There were thirty-seven scientists on the project, working as hard as they could…and they were all prisoners ‘for the duration.’ Some of them, Hilda told me, had tried to strike; the enforcers took care of them in ways that made them truly terrifying. From what she said, I deduced that they had had some treatment that had removed some of their willingness to relate to us; they were equally incapable of seeing us as friends or sex objects. As long as we obeyed orders and worked, they left us alone - mostly.

Hilda was one of those women who would have tried to mother the world – even Galeton – if the world had let her. She was shorter and older than me; she had clearly had the same anti-aging treatments, but her eyes revealed her to be old indeed. She had short lanky brown hair, shading to grey; she’d had children before she’d gone out to the Belt…and vanished.

Escape was impossible, of course, Hilda assured me; the only contact with the outside world was through Galeton and his fellow enforcers. The asteroid apparently had only one supply flight a month, and during that time all of the scientists went into lockdown; they were locked in their rooms and watched. Yes, Galeton watched everything I did – and if he had been a normal man, I think I would have gone crazy.

“But then, he’s not human inside,” Hilda said, and recounted a tale about how one of his fellows had taken a pet cat and strangled it. The enforcer in question had been removed soon afterwards after increasingly eccentric behaviour. Whatever had been done to them clearly had side effects; not pleasant ones.

Hilda also had my marching orders. My task, as I had expected, was to develop a working man-machine interface, linking a human brain to a machine that would allow the human brain control over its functions. Not exactly to my surprise, there were no qualms over using any methods at all to do the work; there were dozens of people who had volunteered for the experiments. They seemed quite willing to go through the experience…and I found, as time went on, that I was less and less concerned about their welfare.

A human mind jumps all over the place; a machine moved very fast, but it had no imagination of its own. Some of the fastest and most powerful quantum computers had personality overlays – in effect, they could hold up a conversation almost perfectly – but they weren’t real; they didn’t have any…human spark. The human brain is fantastically complex; most attempts to duplicate it within a machine brain have failed utterly – the result goes madly insane. Cue stupid hologram music here.

I’m going to have to use an analogy here; there’s no other way to explain it. Human brains have thousands of connections to the body, most of them running through the neck and down into the body. A human can make his arm move, but the forebrain has no real understanding of the complex commands that the hindbrain generates to make the arm move. A computer, by contrast, knows exactly what it has to do to make a robot arm move.

What I had done – what I had been trying to do when I was removed from Cambridge – was to find ways to allow for new…commands to be placed into the hindbrain; the part of the brain that computes the commands for…well, anything. I used to think, when I was young, that it meant that humans could use their mind for other matters – but now I have a suspicion that it means that most humans allow their brains to rot. Armed with permission to do whatever I wanted in pursuit of my art, I did it; I freely admit that I did it.

Resistance, if you’ll pardon an old cliché, would have been futile. I swiftly learned that Galeton was not to be trifled with; he was more than willing to inflict pain in any manner he saw fit to force me to comply with his instructions. He had no real interest in keeping me intact, I realised; he would have felt the same from breaking my arm to poking out an eye. So I worked…and I learned.

“We’re really excited now that you’re here,” Alum said. Alum was a male scientist – his back still bore the scars from a beating by an enforcer – who had worked on inserting technology into a human body. All of us had implants, of course; I knew that they would be used to track us – taking them out would be a preliminary to any proper escape.

“Really?” I asked. Alum was one of those men too smart to have a sex drive; it was one of the reasons why nerds with brains didn’t often breed, and jocks often did. “What makes you think that little me is so interesting?”

I was half-expecting him to come out with a pick-up line, or more likely a weak compliment. Instead, he told me something that stunned me, something that finally provided an explanation for this entire project. I had wondered about it for weeks – and dear Alum had finally explained.

“We are working to integrate man and machine,” he said. “We can give humans an implant configured to…well, anything, but we cannot get to the point where just any human can control what we give them.”

He spoke on and on; under other circumstances I would have been fascinated by him. The gist of what he said was simple; Andrea Clarke wanted nothing less than to improve the human race…and one way of doing that was to truly partner man and machine. What could you not do if you could link a man into a spaceship permanently?

Ah, you might say, but couldn’t you just cut off the head and use that? The main problem was that that didn’t solve their real problem; how to send commands into the computer system. They had experimented, several times, but they had never been able to get it to work properly; the best they could do was fit a robotic body with a human head…and they never lasted long.

Andrea Clarke had made her fortune from devices like the Centaur’s Friend, which simulated the male sex organ, but that responded to no mental command, but a simple radio signal. Alum found that funny, in a droll kind of way; accidentally duplicating the implant signal would have sent a lot of men walking around, desperately trying to hide their boners!

You know, there are times when I’m glad that I was born a woman…

What she wanted me to do was to merge them all together; to create a man who could use all of the implants as part of himself, perhaps even a fully-augmented man. That was my task, Alum explained; it highlighted one of the flaws in our little prison. Galeton didn’t know, because he had no empathy, what I was missing; Hilda didn’t have the knowledge to understand my problem.

I considered, briefly, just leaving; killing myself or daring Galeton to carry out his threat. The fear overwhelmed me; I couldn’t face that at all – I knew that I would submit. It was trite, but true; there were fates worse than death. In my working hours, which at least I got to set, I worked on the man-machine interface; the most awesomely complicated bit of programming that I have ever seen.

In my non-working hours, I spoke with the others; asking them about their projects. Galeton and his fellows didn’t object to this – it didn’t take me long to realise that they simply didn’t have the ability to care enough to object – and I learned more about their own researches. Some of them were exploring what would be truly ground-breaking areas of science; others were working on the holy grail of nanotech. I watched this with interest, wondering how I could incorporate it into my work…and then I realised that that was the point.

Weeks passed, we soon lost track of them; new faces appeared, some went under the knife, and then…my first prototype was ready for its testing. A willing volunteer went under the knife, and I started work; Galeton watched me, as silent as ever. I finished the work, and then…

All hell broke loose.


Chapter Twelve: Pulling the Lion’s Tale (Yes, Literally)

Chess Hall

Ceres Asteroid, Ceres Federation

“A great victory,” Eric Flint said. The Union Leader seemed proud. “We made the embargo a little tighter.”

Geoffrey Bradford Wilkinson, Mayor of Ceres, and somehow appointed leader of the Resistance Council, sighed. He felt tired, too tired to do much; who knew what could get out of hand if he slept? The embargo had been declared, along with a blockade…and he knew, somehow, that the Global Federation would try to strike back.

He cast his eyes around Chess Hall – which was becoming their unofficial meeting place – and saw a chessboard lying on a table; the pieces set into an ongoing game. White was pushing Black hard…but he could see several ways that Black could turn the table. He wondered for a moment who was playing, but dismissed the thought; it wasn’t important at the moment.

“We have captured one of their large miners,” Flint continued. “We captured around ten thousand credits worth of heavy ores that…”

“Will be kept until the end of hostilities,” Flint said. He held up a hand to forestall an outburst. “We don’t need more enemies on Earth.”

There was a long silence. “We need to reward those who took part in the raid,” Flint said finally. “It’s not as if the defence force is ready to move yet.”

Julia spoke before they could come to blows. “The fleet is being assembled now,” she said. “I have told you that that will take time, but we need them; we cannot continue to rely on commercial craft to fight for us.”

“And they won’t if there is no reward,” Flint muttered.

“Why, Eric, I thought this was a point of principle,” Andrea said. Her white hair shimmered as she spoke to him, her voice mocking. “What are we fighting for, if not for freedom?”

Flint gave her a sharp look. It was somehow impossible to remain angry with Andrea for very long. “Each ship has running costs,” he said. “The fuel alone takes up considerable resources; some of our people run on very little fuel, rather than go into debt because they don’t have the funds for the fuel.”

He paced sharply around the hall; the grown wood resounding with his footsteps. “There is an economic crisis going on,” he said. “Some of it was started when Earth started to disrespect our rules covering who can claim an asteroid, the embargo has only made that worse in the short term – because miners can’t sell to Earth.”

Wilkinson reminded himself of why he hated politics; it was often impossible to force either side to compromise. Earth might have provided nothing that the miners needed – except stuff from DOCTOR WHAT, he thought ruefully – but it did provide a market for their resources and their efforts.

“We are buying a great deal of material from you,” Julia said, her voice sharp. “Your resources are going into producing spacecraft to fight the war, along with the weapons.”

“We have other problems,” Jefferson said. The Chief Sheriff sounded concerned. “The Global Federation has condemned what we did as piracy; they have demanded that we return the ship at once and pay compensation.”

“Tell them to go to hell,” Flint said. “They can pay their compensation first.”

Wilkinson slapped the chessboard hard enough to send the pieces flying. “This is not a game of Chess,” he snapped. His hand ached, but he refused to show pain. “We are at the brink of war – at this moment, we are building a fleet to ensure that we have our independence respected…and I’m sure that Earth is building a similar fleet. We need time…and time is the one thing we don’t have much of, do we?”

Jefferson shook his head. “They’re building something in orbit,” he said. “They’re using tough security, so my contacts can’t find out what’s happening, but it’s not hard to guess what they’re doing.”

“Building their fleet,” Flint said. “We should attack them first!”

“That would be a declaration of war,” Wilkinson said. “If we attack them, then there would be no peace.”

“There’s not going to be any peace anyway,” Flint said. “The choice is submit or fight; nothing else.”

“Earth has quite heavy defences,” Julia said. “I know little about tactics, but I think that we should wait until the first of the fast frigates are available before we attack anything as powerful as that. Earth is one of the nexuses of industry; they could have defended their home with more firepower than we have anywhere.”

“Then a strike against Mars?” Flint asked. “God knows, the new Martian Government is a pain in the arse.”

“There are millions of people on Mars now,” Wilkinson said, knowing just how tired he was. He wanted desperately for the meeting to be over; he wanted some sleep. “Would you send them all back to Earth? Even if we wanted to, it would be a task far beyond our logistics. No, Mars is out of the question; we’ll have…to let it go.”

Jefferson frowned. “Mr Mayor, is it your intention, then, to allow them to strike the first blow?”

Wilkinson nodded grimly. “Unless they do nothing for long enough for us to be certain of our own defences, then I think that we’ll have to wait for them to come out of their shells and attack us,” he said. “Mars is almost as well defended as Earth, these days; we would be risking massive losses for very little.”

“Still, destroying Earth’s orbiting industry would almost guarantee victory,” Andrea mused. “If it becomes a battle of manpower, they have massive reserves…but if they had nowhere to put them, we would still come out ahead.”

“I don’t think that we can afford a genocidal conflict,” Wilkinson said firmly. “Until our ships are ready, we have to stand on the defensive and hope.” He paused; no one looked happy at all. “So…is there any other business?”

He yawned. “There’s Exodus,” Julia said. She didn’t seem inclined to make a rude comment about his yawn; several of the others seemed as if they were holding back yawns themselves. “Do we have any official position?”

Flint snorted. “It’s not as if it would matter,” he said. “Would they care at all?”

Wilkinson sighed. The Exodus movement was one that had begun in the Belt; thousands of people and nearly a hundred asteroids were preparing to attempt a crossing to the nearest star with a planet that might have been able to support human life. No one knew more than that; even the first plasma torch ships would still be on their way, hoping that the computers controlling them would be able to slow them down as they entered the new solar system.

“I think that it’s a promising movement,” he said, and meant it. With modern drives, they should be able to cut the voyage down to twenty-odd years; a long trip, but not an impossible one. “If we can share some of the technology, if they do have anything new, then…we should encourage it.”

Andrea nodded. “There are some items from Titan that they can have,” she said, and smiled. “Mr Mayor, a word with you afterwards, if you don’t mind.”

Wilkinson nodded. “Is there any other business?”

Jefferson smiled. “Only that we all need some sleep,” he said. “Goodnight.”

***

Up close, Andrea Clarke had a stunning personality; Wilkinson felt as if he wanted her…and that he wanted to go along with her, whatever it was that she wanted to do. The effect was very strong; he was starting to understand how she’d been able to parlay what she’d started with into an interplanetary commercial empire.

“Titan has been working on many new breakthroughs,” she said. Wilkinson, who had known that, shrugged. “Several of them concern new weapons.”

Wilkinson lifted an eyebrow. “Anything that we can deploy in time?”

“We’re building some of them now,” she said. “One of the nastier tricks is a rail-gun system; it would wreck a ship if it scored a direct hit.”

Wilkinson winced at the thought. At the speeds that spacecraft normally travelled, the slightest impact could vaporise the ship…and a directed projectile weapon could do just that. It was one of the reasons why ships tended to fly eccentric courses while fighting battles; it made it harder for the enemy to target them.

“Impressive,” he said. “Anything else?”

“We have a serious weakness,” she said. “Manpower; we might have a large population, but Earth’s is much larger. We need to make better use of what we have.”

Wilkinson gave her a droll look. His tiredness was an advantage; he was too tired to feel most of her effect. “I know that,” he said. “We’ve been recruiting new soldiers and pilots for the spacecraft. The problem is the age-old economic one.”

Andrea frowned. It was a remarkably depressing expression. The Belters might have had a far larger population, proportionally, that was experienced in space travel, but Earth might still have a numerical advantage, particularly with the need to keep the workers keeping the Belt economy ticking over.

“We have a possible solution,” she said, and outlined it. “Cyborgs.”

Wilkinson felt a wave of shock running through his body. It almost washed away his tiredness. “Are you out of your mind?” He demanded. “How do you plan to make that wash with our people?”

Andrea met his fury head-on. “Volunteers only,” she said. “The human body is a remarkably ineffective thing in space; we intend to make it more…capable in space. Imagine, a body that could survive higher gravities than we can; think what that would do for fighting in space.”

Wilkinson shook his head slowly. “You’re serious,” he said. “I honestly don’t know.”

He turned to leave; Andrea put a hand on his arm. “This situation is only going to get worse before it gets better,” she said. “This might be the only way of creating Homo Spacer; humans who can survive in space permanently.”

“I don’t know,” Wilkinson said, feeling his mind spinning. The force of her presence was far too close for rational thought. “It seems…wrong.”

Andrea leaned closer. “The Belt was founded on doing things that Earth’s stifling rules didn’t want us to do,” she said. “What other choice do we have?”

He couldn’t think. “Volunteers only,” he mumbled. Her hands were on his shoulders, massaging them gently. “No one else.”

“Of course not,” Andrea said. Her lips were on the back of his neck; submission seemed so natural. He could feel her breasts pushing into his back; he wanted her with an urgency that defied rational thought. “I’m working for the good of humanity, you know.”

***

There was nothing that Julia Burnside liked more than a challenge, from finding a way to get into bed with a handsome hunk to building an entire fleet of warships at short notice. Like the other shipyards around the Solar System, Ceres had looked at the prospect of building warships before the…current unpleasantness had broken out; in some places, it was just a matter of mass-producing components through the fabricators, in others, well…

“The last time anyone took a serious look at warships was twenty years ago,” she said. Chief Sheriff Jefferson, Commander of the Sheriff Corps, nodded beside her. “That was when there were a handful of attacks by rogue miners on other miners and serious thought was given to building warships and using them to patrol the belt.”

Jefferson nodded thoughtfully. He made a surprisingly handsome impression in his uniform; only the Silver Star distinguished him from the other Sheriffs in the bay, or across the asteroid belt. Sheriffs were supposed to take no interest in politics, but apart from a handful of tiny defence forces, they were the belt’s main line of defence.

“It was a useless idea,” he commented. “There might have been warships patrolling, but the odds would be vastly against any attacks taking place within interception range.”

“How true,” Julia agreed. There had been a series of suggestions to disarm all ships, but that had been swiftly shouted down; the rogues wouldn’t have listened and miner-grade lasers were almost as powerful as military-grade lasers anyway. Having the miners able to shoot back at the attackers deterred attacks; that particular group of rogues had vanished.

“That does leave us with something of a problem,” she continued. A holographic impression of the Niven appeared in front of them; a long ship built out of modules, grouped around a fusion tube. “Computers, for one; weapons for another.”

She pointed a long finger at the display. The Niven, the first real warship built by the belt, was tiny; few military organisations would have wasted the resources required to build a kilometre-long starship in a show of power. Such a ship would just have been a bigger target; modern plasma and nuclear warheads would make short work of it.

Instead, she was a long fusion tube, with four habitat modules assembled around the tube, linked together through armoured sections. The Niven would be armoured against some laser fire; it might well be possible to survive a limited attack if the captain was careful. So far, she might as well have been a commercial ship, but instead of cargo holds, she carried weapons.

“There are thirty plasma-tipped missiles here,” Julia said, briefing the Sheriffs who would end up commanding the first wave of ships. “Each of them could vaporise the ship if they detonated on the hull, so be careful. Unlike most missiles, they also have the capability to use some of the warhead mass for a sprint mode; they can move faster, but there will be less of an explosion at the far end. It won’t matter if you hit the target, but…”

There were some chuckles. “There is a little stealth armour,” she continued. “It’s not really worth the effort to duplicate the stealth functions of the ship that that miner saw, but it will be very hard to find the ship if it’s not radiating anything. For close-in combat, there will be lasers” – she pointed to the laser weapons on the hull – “and there will be rail-guns for point defence. The main power of the ship, however, lies in the computers.”

There were some groans. Few Sheriffs really trusted computers that much; it was too easy to use one of them to kill someone – and far too easy to cover up the crime. Julia had little time for that; the computers would make the difference between life and death.

“They are the latest systems from Ganymede,” she said. “They’re hardened against EMP and other disruptions, so the ship would have to be destroyed to put the computer network out of action. In fact…”

“Oh joy,” someone muttered, from the back of the room.

“Silence,” Jefferson snapped. “Carry on.”

Julia made a rude noise towards the rear of the room and continued. “The computers are linked to some of the latest sensors,” she said. “Not only do you have better equipment for tracking limited contacts and resolving them into whatever they happen to be, but you have very good defences; the computers can weave everything into a single coordinated defence network. One ship could fire a shot in defence of another; the entire fleet would fight as one.”

A Sheriff stood up and asked a long complicated question. Jefferson answered it, leaving Julia to wonder; what would happen if the fleet got far enough spread out so that transmission delay would be a real problem? It would be trouble; she was sure of that, if nothing else.

“We have one of the finest systems in the solar system,” Jefferson said, after he had finished answering the question. “We won’t allow ourselves to become that ragged.”

There were some chuckles again; the idea of formation flying had taken a beating in space, where a formation was held more through luck than judgement. The Sheriffs would be flying in a very strange formation indeed; they would have to remain close enough to remain linked together through lasers, but…she had a nasty suspicion that both sides would be learning as they went along.

“We will be doing training in the new ships as they come online,” Jefferson concluded. “Learn your ships inside out – there will be a test later.”

Julia smiled as the Sheriffs dispersed. “The first ship should be ready in a few days,” she said. “Long enough, do you think?”

“I hope so,” Jefferson said. “If my people take to the ships, there should be no problem getting the miners who have volunteered to learn their roles; all we’d have to do is teach them to work together.”

Julia laughed. “I’m sure that you can do that,” she said. “There’ll probably be more people than we have ships.”

Jefferson’s pager buzzed. “Just a minute,” he said, as he activated his earpiece. “Ah.”

Julia lifted an eyebrow. “Ah?”

“Ah,” Jefferson said. “I think that time’s just run out for some of us.”


Chapter Thirteen: Learning the World (And the People)

Cambridge

England State, Earth

“She had this bright idea about learning how a person saw the world,” Professor Muller said. The male doctor, whose voice had a faint German accent, seemed worried; the prospect of trouble with the Paramils seemed to scare him. He seemed to be bending over backwards not to mention the War.

“I don’t understand,” Thande said, trying to play the gruff Paramil. The problem was that he didn’t have that strong a grounding in medical science; this world seemed to have advanced further in some areas, and to have remained stagnant in others. This world wouldn’t have had the mixed blessing of the access to Nazi science that his world had had, but at the same time he would have expected more advancement.

Muller, fortunately enough, was prepared to explain to what he thought was a dumb Paramil. “A person sees the world through his or her eyes,” he explained. “The eyes translate what they see into…signals to the brain; she was interested in duplicating them for other use. It’s nothing like as simple as even an old-style television; she would have needed to find a way to feed the images directly into a person’s brain.”

Thande was starting to suspect that the brain was a common theme running through Doctor Ming Ling’s work; all of her friends had talked about the brain and brain impulses. She had clearly been a very intelligent woman; she’d been drawing in information from dozens of different disciplines and using them to further her own research.

Sally lifted an eyebrow. “And did she succeed?”

“I don’t know,” Muller admitted. “When she was here, she was involved in an idea for implanting new eyeballs into a person’s eye socket; duplicating the eyeball rather than cloning an eyeball, which is forbidden under several laws. That’s been something we’ve been looking at for quite some time, but…there were too many problems.”

He paused. “Ming Ling managed to make it work,” he admitted. “The problem wasn’t in building a microcam and attaching it into an eye socket, but in transmitting the signals into the brain. Doctor Ling managed to make that work properly, although it took time for her computers to analyse the signals and adapt them to what the brain through it should be receiving.”

Sally leaned forward. “Just out of idle curiosity, if you had no limitations, just how much of the human body could you replace?”

Muller looked…nervous at the question, even though it was asked by a Paramil; it went far too close to forbidden ground for his comfort. Thande wasn’t sure how to feel; he sympathised with Muller, but at the same time…he had worked with someone who was building a threat to humanity – even though he didn’t understand.

“It would depend,” he admitted finally. Thande gave him an encouraging smile. “We could replace most organs without much difficulty, although there would be problems in convincing the body to adapt to so much metal inside the system. The more complex a replacement is, such as an arm, the more problems; we really needed to keep some of the nerve impulses working perfectly and…”

“Ming Ling was working on how to do that when she was…fired,” Sally said. Her voice was tart; Thande realised that she was seriously worried about something. “Tell me, did she leave any files behind?”

“No,” Muller said. His voice darkened. “I’m surprised that the Director didn’t tell you, but there were…problems with the computer system; a logic bomb destroyed the files relating to her and anything she’d done.”

Sally stared at him. Her voice was very cold. “And you didn’t think to report it?”

Muller stammered. “I didn’t make the decision,” he said. “It was just her work; nothing else vanished.” He paused. “I could try to rebuild some of her work…”

“Don’t even think about it,” Sally snapped. She seemed to remember that Thande was supposed to be senior to her. “Fox?”

Thande rolled his eyes. “Just leave it,” he said. “Was there anything else that she wanted to do?”

“She had this ongoing project to map the human brain,” Muller said. “She worked on it, time and time again, and…then she was fired, and then the records were destroyed.”

“Thank you,” Thande said. He stood up, indicating that the interview was over. “Dana?”

“I’m coming,” Sally said. She frowned down at Muller. “Keep everything involved with this to yourself,” she said. “Do not tell anyone.”

“I won’t even tell myself,” Muller said. “Thank you for coming.”

Thande smiled at the comment; it was obviously insincere. Few people wanted to meet a Paramil; Muller must have been panicking inside for the first few minutes of the interview. He wondered what he would say, later, when he realised that neither of them was a real Paramil, if he ever did.

“Come on,” he said to Sally, and led the way towards the exit. The Paramils had a remarkable level of access to the world; all of the doors hissed open or unlocked as they passed, their sensors reading their implants. The receptionist watched them as Sally took a final look at the picture of ‘Blamius Thande,’ before allowing them to leave the building; she was nervous too.

Thande frowned internally. He’d gone to some trouble to keep his first name a secret; there was a story there that he didn’t want to tell anyone, even Sally. She would never let him forget it now; he was certain that she would mention it as soon as they were away from the prying eyes of the people here.

There was snow falling from the sky; strange snow that was faked, rather than real snow. The hot summer – Thande wondered if there was ever any real snow in Britain these days – would have prevented the snow from existing in reality, but it was clearly intended to add something to the Cambridge Dome. He smiled; old jokes aside, there hadn’t been that much snow in his Cambridge, not for years.

“Children,” Sally muttered. There were children and teenagers, already playing in the snow of the enclosed dome, but Thande suspected that that wasn’t what she meant. “Children. You might as well give monkeys atomic bombs.”

She was talking to herself. “What are they thinking?”

Thande frowned. “The Enemy?”

“Not just the Enemy,” Sally said. “Everyone; who in their right mind would do something as stupid as allowing unrestrained modification of the human form?”

Her tone was ice. Thande forced himself to remain calm. “Why is that such a problem?” He asked thoughtfully. “It’s not as if they have the tools to make a super-race, do they?”

Sally turned on him. “You should understand, if anyone could,” she snapped. “What about the Hive?”

***

A long time ago, in a star system a long way away, an alien race had begun to experiment with implanting themselves into computers, finally creating a perfect race of cyborgs. As they developed themselves, they had aroused concern – and finally panic – from the other peaceful members of their race. A civil war had broken out…and the bad guys had won…and at the same time they had lost. They had merged so closely with their computers that the computers ran their world; all of them were slaves to the machines.

The Hive had begun to expand…and then it had been caught up in the crossfire of the Multiverse War. They had not only been destroyed – only in passing, neither side had cared enough to target them for destruction specifically – they had been wiped from history. Later, however, Thande had discovered that some individuals of the Hive had survived, threatening the Roswell Earth…and coming close to destroying it completely.

He said nothing as they passed back into the main city, leaving the snow behind. He wanted time to think, to consider…and discussing concepts like the Hive could get them both in serious trouble. As far as he could tell, there were few discussion forums on alternate history in this timeline; they had too many other things to worry about. Sally led the way back to the Ouroboros, her face dark; Thande followed her, wondering at her grimness. It couldn’t be that bad, could it?

“I think that we know what’s happening,” Sally snapped, as soon as the doorway to the bar closed behind them. “Grey Wolf, we have to go somewhere else.”

Grey Wolf took one look at her face and led the way up to the pocket dimension. Sally followed him, her eyes focused on something that only she could see; Grey Wolf and Thande exchanged glances as they moved into the briefing room. Sally ignored the comfortable chairs, accessing the computer and displaying a picture of an alien life form.

Thande shuddered at the memory. He’d seen things that would have killed a lesser man, but the Hive members were truly terrifying. Up close, it was easy to tell that they were partly artificial; their eyes, almost insectoid, were thousands of tiny sensors, rather than a proper eyeball. Some of them had had arms that were metal, rather than flesh; all of them hadn’t needed to breathe at all. Their grey skin revealed nothing of the horror within; they were all partly machine inside.

There were times when he felt sorry for them; they had lost to their own computers, becoming nothing more than biological weapons and slaves. There were other times when he wished that they’d destroyed the Overcompensator before it had gotten anywhere near Earth – and to hell with the non-interference rule.

“Snow is trying to start building human cyborgs,” Sally said flatly. “Their main problem, it seems here, is that they don’t have a way of linking man to machine. Doctor Ling Ming can provide them with a solution to that problem…and then they’ll be building them and…upgrading other humans.”

Grey Wolf frowned. “Why?” He asked. “With a war on, who needs more problems?”

“The Enemy wants to destroy us all,” Thande said. “Adding to the factions in this war can only make the fighting worse.”

Sally’s eyes were wide with horror. “It’s more cunning than that,” she said. “They’re going to be making cyborgs to fight this war; we know, pretty much, that Andrea Clarke – Snow – is on the side of the Belters. She would know what they would have to do to build the cyborgs; she’d have to produce a few…and then convince the Belters to embrace them. With a war on, that won’t be hard.”

Thande scowled. The Enemy couldn’t introduce anything that wasn’t already within the Contemporary reach, simply because that would disrupt the timeline far enough to make it easy to track them down; history itself would work against them. However, they would have a far better idea of what was needed to produce something; given time they could force forward human development without serious problems. Snow would know what would work; an incontestable advantage over everyone else.

“I don’t understand,” he said, thinking fast. “What’s the point? If Earth wins, I could see them forcing the Belt to help save the Earth, which would prevent humanity from reaching for the stars, but…why help the Belters?”

“Perhaps she’s playing both sides of the field,” Grey Wolf suggested. “For all we know, she’s sending cyborgs to the Earth-based faction as well.”

Sally glared down at the pair of them. “You’re both being dense,” she said. Thande glared back at her with real anger. “Listen; they’re building a Hive-like system, with thousands of cyborgs, and central computers. How long will it be before they have thousands of cyborgs – slaved to that computer? They’re already in space, they already have the computers; I bet you anything you want to put forward that the computers don’t have any real hard-wired limits built into them.”

She paced around the room. “It’s bloody brilliant,” she snapped. “Cyborgs are perfectly capable of fighting in space, without spacesuits; they could take over all of the asteroids in the Belt without serious problems. Then they move to Earth; they won’t have any real reason to worry about the biosphere, will they? The Belters might draw the line at tossing asteroids at Earth…but why would the cyborgs?”

Grey Wolf leaned forward. “And the war has already begun,” he said. “I could name dozens of miners who would want to be…turned into a cyborg, just for the advantages alone. They wouldn’t be able to resist, would they; the thought of being able to survive in space without a spacesuit would be irresistible.”

“Trojan Horse,” Sally said. “She has thousands of volunteers. They get turned into cyborgs. They end up running the battle force…and then one day the computers realise that they don’t really need the puny fleshlings to run things.” She sighed. “The problem with superhumans is always the human part…and there’s always some idiot willing to open the gates to hell.”

Thande felt his blood run cold. Something had just caught up with him. “What do you mean; the war’s already begun?”

“I heard from Bernard Charles Andrew Harry Donkeybollocks Windsor,” Grey Wolf said. There was a formal respect in his voice that was normally absent. “There’s been an…incident out in the Belt – a Belter force captured a mining craft from Earth. There have been several more in the last few hours; I suspect that the Belters must have spent a week aiming for nearly simultaneous strikes.”

He sighed. “Donkeybollocks Windsor didn’t want to tell me everything, but I hacked his computer,” he continued. “The Earth-based corporations are down millions in credits; they’re getting rather steamed about it. Those buggers would be more than happy to try to starve the Belters out, under normal circumstances, but…they’re out money and worse, they’ve been embarrassed in front of everyone else.”

Sally sighed. “Wonderful,” she said. “I don’t suppose that you can convince Donkeybollocks Windsor to stand down his forces?”

Grey Wolf laughed. “The bugger is not in the habit of taking orders from me,” he said dryly. “He’s already launched a major raiding force towards the asteroids; the Mahan Asteroid Group, to be precise.”

Sally swore. “So we have to travel through a war zone,” she said. She looked up at Thande. “Professor – Blamius – are you willing to fly through a war zone?”

“Don’t worry,” Grey Wolf said. “I’m sure that if you get hit, you won’t know a thing about it.”

Thande gave him an icy look. “That’s…very reassuring,” he said. “Yes, Sally; where do you want to go?”

Sally aimed a slap at Grey Wolf. “They say that Titan is lovely at this time of year,” she said. “Fancy a trip out there?”

“It’ll be hard to gain a visa,” Grey Wolf said. “How many favours do you want me to call in?”

“As many as you need,” Sally said firmly. “If we can’t simply travel there though this dimension, then we have no choice, but to go there through space travel.”

Thande had been thinking. “Sally,” he asked, “won’t she know us?”

Sally frowned. “It’s possible,” she said. “This must be her native timeline – or at least something leading to her native timeline – because there wasn’t any disruption. We could be dealing with a Snow that’s out of sequence with us, or she might well remember us from dealings we know nothing about because they haven’t happened yet.”

She shook her head. “I think that she has to be working for the Enemy,” she said. “There’s just too much to ignore; she has moved right in like an arrow towards the cyborgs, so…and where did she get her abilities anyway? Her world was destroyed later in history.”

“So we basically don’t know,” Thande said. “That’s rather worrying.”

“Yes,” Sally said. “Still, I’m fairly sure that we’re still in sequence; those abilities came later, so…”

Grey Wolf had been fiddling with the computer. “You might be in luck,” he said. “There’s going to be a high-boost shuttle to Titan, leaving in three days; it was going to be carrying a handful of visitors from Earth…and a few more colonists.” He paused. “Someone must have spread a lot of money around to buy that trip, someone with white hair, perhaps.”

Thande frowned. “What are they going for?”

“I can’t find out,” Grey Wolf said. “That in itself is alarming; I’ll be doing some research in the next three days, but…it might be something that no one wanted to admit to while it was happening.”

“Such as selling weapons to the other side,” Sally said. “Get us on that ship.”

Grey Wolf bowed from his seat. “It shall be done, superior female,” he said. “You know, though…”

Sally gave him a harsh look. “Yes?”

“This is the heart of enemy territory, or perhaps Enemy territory,” Grey Wolf said. “If you go there, you might not be coming back.”



Chapter Fourteen: It is Unwise To Start Something You Cannot Stop

Up Yours/Mahan Asteroids

Deep Space

“All hands prepare for turnover,” the Captain’s voice bellowed, through the intercom connecting the Up Yours. “All hands, turnover in five minutes; assume turnover positions. I repeat…”

“Yes, we got the message,” Private Steven Singh muttered, as he pulled himself towards the acceleration couches, which were already swinging into optimum position for safeguarding them against the forces that were about to try to kill them. “I wish you’d shut the fuck up!”

“He is trying to keep you alive,” Corporal Rogers reminded him. “If you get smashed into strawberry jam, think how many other opportunities you’ll miss to get yourself killed.”

“You’re not helping,” Singh muttered, as he strapped himself in. The Captain of the Up Yours hadn’t told them anything about the timings for the deceleration burns; they had been reduced to placing bets on the outcome. “That Ass in the command chair is probably going to smash us into an asteroid.”

“I’m not trying to help,” Rogers said, before floating off and barking more instructions to other Paramils. “Jack, get into your fucking chair now; Syeda, leave that fucking magazine and get strapped in!”

Singh scowled. They’d spent nearly a week practicing their tactics, time and time again; a week where half of the squad had been weeded out for inability to adapt to being in space all the time. Rogers hadn’t been happy; their original squad had been argumentative, but it had worked well together. The reformed squad didn’t have that advantage; in time, it would be a great fighting machine, but for the moment…?

“Stand by,” the Captain warned them all. “Deceleration will begin in five…four…”

He cursed mentally as the countdown ticked down. They’d been woken in the middle of the night on the base; instead of a surprise drill, they’d been ordered to board the Up Yours; a modified heavy transport intended for the Earth-Mars run. It had been quickly adapted to carry nearly a hundred Paramils; the complete force of five hundred Paramils was spread out over six transports. They’d been on the ship for nearly two weeks, boosting towards their target.

“Deceleration,” the Captain said. The pressure built rapidly as the ship fired its main engines, attempting to slow down before they reached the weapons’ range of the asteroid and the miners nearby. He tried to relax as the pressure built, hoping that it would come to an end before his body was smashed flat, and…

He thought as rapidly as he could to divert himself; their target was clearly a Belter settlement. That made it unpredictable; their intelligence hadn’t been able to tell them what they expected them to have to face, so they could be facing anything. The Up Yours would be coming to a relative halt outside the presumed weapons range, but if anything went wrong…

“Deceleration ending in five…four…three…two…one…zero,” the Captain said, as the gravity pressure slowly reduced to nothing. The ship seemed to jerk slightly as the reaction thrusters forced it onto the perfect course towards the asteroid, matching its speed without closing with it. “All Paramils to the launch bays; I repeat, all Paramils to the launch bays!”

Singh moved as quickly as he could, hitting the release leaver and falling out of his couch, floating around as he pushed towards the exit. Rogers barked orders, holding the team together, allowing Singh to lead the way out of the hatch towards the launch bays. All they had to do was pull on their suits…and then they could launch towards their target.

***

“I confirm nine Paramil craft,” LEO said. “I must remind you that it is more than possible that there will be others out there.”

Steffen swore. Mahan Asteroid was actually a group of nine asteroids, seven of them full-scale habitats; it had seemed as good a place as any to bring the captured Earth mining ship. The crew of the ship, after the brief exchange of fire, hadn’t been really worried…until the long-range sensors had picked up the ships boosting from Earth, heading directly for Mahan Asteroid.

He thought quickly. Some of his people had wanted to cut and run; they didn’t want a stand-up fight against the Paramils, others had wanted to stay. Mahan Asteroid, he suspected, was considering surrendering, rather than risk a fight that would blow the asteroid wide open. For himself…

His eyes tracked the icons on the display as the Paramils braked, halting their mad rush towards the asteroid and slowing to combat speeds. That was good news in a sense – they didn’t intend to fire a hail of missiles at the asteroid and run for it – but it was bad news in another; they clearly believed that they could take the asteroid. Mahan itself had few defences apart from fixed lasers; he himself had five mining craft.

“LEO, tell me what they have,” he said. “Are we getting useful information from the buoys?”

“Some,” the computer said. Mahan Asteroid had enough sensors placed out from the asteroid to allow LEO to collect a great deal of information; Steffen wasn’t sure that he wanted to know what the computer was seeing. “It’s interesting; six of them are probably heavy transports, the other three are of an unknown design.”

Steffen muttered a curse under his breath. If they weren’t included in any list that LEO had access to, they had to be new…which meant that they had to be warships. Unknown ships with unknown capabilities – that wasn’t good. Their courses were alarming too; the transports were slowing radically, while the warships – if that was what they were – were coming on towards their position, angling to intercept the mining craft.

“Radar pulse,” LEO snapped. “They’ve seen us!”

Steffen stared at the screen. The Paramils obviously didn’t care about being seen; something that meant they were confident – with a good reason to be confident – or that they were overconfident. He had a nasty thought that it was the former; Paramils knew what they were doing, most of the time.

“Where’s that pulse coming from?” He demanded. There wasn’t much time left to choose between fighting or running. “Which ship?”

LEO wordlessly displayed the source; a strange probe that had been launched from one of the warships. Steffen felt a hint of admiration; that was a cunning move, anything with an emitting sensor array would be targeted by everyone, but a probe was expendable. The radar pulse alone was also a declaration of hostilities.

“We are being signalled,” LEO said. “Open channel; everyone will hear it. It’s being relayed through the probe.”

“Target it with a missile,” Steffen said. “Warn all ships to stand by.”

“This is Captain Barry Clough of the Earth Paramilitary Defence Space Force Ship Landshark,” the voice said. It was harsh and blunt; the voice of a man talking to damned colonials. “You have been engaged in hostilities against the Global Federation. You are hereby ordered to surrender at once, or we will open fire.”

“And if we surrender, we will all be killed anyway,” Steffen muttered. The problem was acute; he had a nasty suspicion that the Landshark was armed to the teeth. If they tried to close with the ship, they would probably be killed. “LEO; launch the missile.”

He snapped orders into the communications channel as the missile launched from his ship, heading directly towards Clough’s probe…and impacting with it in a fiery burst of light. His main drive had been ready for use at once; he moved the ship quickly, trying to head into close range, while preparing for radical course change.

“I have targeting systems locking onto us,” LEO murmured. “They’re not worrying about being seen, clearly.”

“True,” Steffen muttered. He was flying by the seat of his pants; building up speed as they plunged towards the Paramil ships. The trick would be moving close enough to launch missiles at them…while not passing too close to allow the Paramils a free shot at them. If the Paramils moved to pursue them, Mahan Asteroid would have longer to prepare its internal defences; if not, then his force could escape to Ceres and fight again. “Time to enter main weapons range?”

“Five minutes,” LEO said. “Johan is running.”

Steffen cursed as the display changed; one mining ship was boosting away from the others, heading away into deep space. Johan had been reluctant to remain; his nerve had clearly failed him at the last moment. He might just make it too, Steffen realised, but he doubted it; he would still be building up speed and he would have few sensors through his fusion plume.

“Let him go,” he said. “Copy the contents of the records to Mahan Asteroid; tell them to forward it on to Ceres.”

“They’re launching missiles at us,” LEO reported calmly. “I recommend activating the point defence.”

“Activated,” Steffen said, flicking a switch. Communications lasers flickered across the void of space, allowing all of the ships to fall into a fighting network; they started to share out the targeting priorities. He felt the power flicker as the lasers started to fire; the enemy missiles began to explode. “LEO; warn me if they start doing things suggesting that they’re launching stealth missiles.”

“Understood,” LEO said. “Time to missile range; one minute.”

Steffen considered, briefly, firing on the transports as well, then decided that it was a bad idea. The Paramils were merciless to those who harmed other Paramils more than they had to; more than a few hostage-takers had discovered that there were dozens of truly unpleasant ways to depart the world.

His hands danced across the console, adding in firing authorisations, allowing the computers to weave the remaining four ships into a missile group. They would fire as one, for all the good it would do; they were learning more and more about the Landshark as they drew closer to it.

The display flickered. “The Neenah is gone,” Leo said. Steffen frowned; that was one of his fellow miners, smashed out of existence by a Paramil missile. “No sign of survivors.”

“There wouldn’t be,” Steffen said. “I wonder…”

“Ten seconds to missile range,” LEO said. Steffen worked quickly to compensate for the loss of the Neenah; he would have to tell Ghurkha’s wife something about how her husband had died. “Suggest that you prepare to engage.”

Steffen tapped a command into the weapons console; they would fire automatically as they entered range. He waited with grim patience as they swept into their range…and then the Landshark launched another salvo of missiles towards them. The lights flickered as the missiles launched towards the Paramil ships, but Steffen had other problems; the Paramil missiles had been launched on sprint mode.

“Fusion, now,” he snapped, bringing up the main drive. It was a risk, so close to the Paramil ships, and it would provide them with a perfect targeting opportunity, but there was little other choice. “Update the targeting solutions and fire!”

The gravity shuddered as his ship went into a spin, firing thrusters randomly to confuse the enemy sensors; he could only hope that the Paramils hadn’t programmed in better targeting systems than he had. He winced as the gravity waves slammed into his body, making him hurt, but he had escaped; the Paramils had failed to kill him.

“Thank God,” he breathed, as the main drive cut off. The Paramils seemed to be letting him go…and then he realised that he was the only one left. The other three ships had all been killed; they had been hit and destroyed. He was alone.

“I confirm that the other ships have been destroyed,” LEO said. “The enemy does not appear to be tracking us.”

Steffen allowed his hands to fall to the controls in a rage; he wanted to spin the ship around and launch it right at the enemy ships. He fought the rage with logic; there was no way that they could reach the enemy without a major alteration in their course…and they had launched almost all of their weapons. It didn’t looked as if the Paramils had been harmed at all.

“Bastards,” he cursed. The enemy were closing in on Mahan Asteroid; their transports were doing something, perhaps launching shuttles. It didn’t matter; all that mattered was staying alive to continue the fight. “Bastards!”

“I have no information on their fathers’ relations with their mothers’,” LEO said. “Orders?”

Steffen controlled himself. “Bring up the communications lasers and copy everything to Ceres,” he ordered. “I want them to know what happened here – and why. Attach all of our tactical recordings; those warships of theirs are tough bastards and they have to find a weakness, understood?”

“Understood,” LEO said. The AI sounded subdued. “Transmitting now.”

***

The Paramils had managed to get at least one thing right, in Singh’s view; they had attached a catapult to the Up Yours. Rather than using rockets to power their sleds, they were launched along a ballistic trajectory by the catapult, racing towards the asteroid ahead of them. He stared as the asteroid grew closer, falling out of the darkness towards them; a massive shape growing into a pineapple-like form.

So far, there was no one trying to kill them; the catapult had been intended to prevent them from being seen…and it seemed as if it had worked. He took direct control of the sled as they flashed closer; they were aimed right at the asteroid…and if they didn’t brake at exactly the right time, they would smash into the asteroid.

“Braking,” he snapped, at exactly the right moment. The asteroid grew and grew, a massive rocky bulk hanging in the sky; they were falling towards it, or it was falling towards them. He closed his eyes, allowing the computer to control their fall; the sight was enough to make him terrified.

“Concluding braking,” the computer voice said. “Report; four sleds were destroyed by ground-based lasers.”

“Singh, hunt down those lasers,” Rogers said. “You have Group Two.”

“Understood,” Singh said, opening his eyes. He was sitting on the sled; only the near horizon revealed that it wasn’t Earth. His suit would handle the walking; they wouldn’t go falling off the asteroid, even with its light gravity field. They would have to jump on purpose to launch themselves…and even then they would find it difficult to escape.

“Follow me,” he said, climbing off the sled and heading across the rocky landscape. They found their first laser mounting quickly; it was blazing away into the sky, trying to sweep more sleds out of the sky. Singh fired a plasma pulse into it and destroyed it. “Laser one destroyed, sir.”

A window opened up in his suit’s helmet, displaying the location of other lasers that had been tracked by the fleet; Singh moved with his team to destroy them, spreading out to accomplish the task quicker than they would if they stayed together. It didn’t seem as if the enemy would be fighting on the surface of their asteroid, he mused; that was fortunate.

“Move up to the main spaceport,” General Porter ordered. His order overrode everything else; he had to have something serious in mind. Singh destroyed a final laser installation and headed up the asteroid, moving as quickly as he could; the team reassembled on the move.

“Good thing we were already close to the spaceport,” Singh muttered, as they came to the end of the asteroid. Ahead of them, the counter-rotating spaceport spun, moving in the opposite direction to the habitat; it would allow spacecraft to dock without problems. Several spacecraft were already docked there; their pilots, Singh was certain, would be already cursing their decision to remain on the asteroid.

He allowed the suit’s systems to time the jump…and leapt, heading across space to the spaceport, slamming into one of its massive arms. The shock was astonishing strong, even through the suit, but he survived, crawling towards the main airlock. Someone had passed there already; the airlock had been burnt open by laser fire.

Rogers met him there. “Everyone all right?”

“Yes,” Singh said, feeling tired. “We’re all safe.”

“Squad Four was wiped out,” Rogers said, as the last members of the squad met them there. “We’re to get into the spaceport.”

He led the way through the burned-out door into the main spaceport, floating along in the zero gravity. Singh knew, in theory, how the entire thing worked; his mind refused to grasp it at an emotional level. The inside looked like a war zone – which it was, part of his mind reminded him – and there was no air. There were several bodies, but none of their team members.

“They’re trying to gain entrance to the main control room,” Rogers said, as a map popped up in Singh’s helmet. The team pulled themselves along quickly; if the enemy continued to hold the operations centre, who knew what they could do? The main control room seemed ages away; it took everything they had to reach it…and then they found it.

“Set up the laser cannon and melt the door,” a Captain ordered. Singh took one end of the massive cannon and carefully pointed it at the door; the laser weapon, at least, wouldn’t have the recoil of a projectile weapon. “Fire!”

There was a long moment of nothing…and then the air came racing out as Singh cut around the door, opening it up wide. The door itself crashed open, falling towards them, revealing a number of men in spacesuits. The Paramils grabbed for their weapons, but there was no need; the men were lifting their hands in surrender.

“Secure them,” Rogers ordered. “I think we just won!”


Chapter Fifteen: Testing the Incontestable (Aye, Right)

John Paul Jones

Deep Space, Near Ceres

“You know, Captain, I think we’ve hit the money,” Lieutenant Bixby said. “What do you think?”

Captain April Masterson, whose skin was as black as the night, gave her friend and subordinate a dry look. “I think I was happier when I was out on patrol,” she said. “When was the last time that we had to work in a large group?”

“Eight is not a large group,” Bixby said wryly. “Look at this ship; it’s more than we could ever have had out on patrol.”

April had to smile. Sheriffs tended to patrol on their own; they had jurisdiction all across the Belt – and, until recently, they had even had tacit permission to operate on Earth. They went through three years of training, two years being partnered by a senior Sheriff…and then they were on their own, but always part of a larger organisation. Their task was to act as the Law; they were rarely permitted anything beyond the job.

She remembered; days spent working on one asteroid or another – the uniform commanding respect, and concern. Some miners had been glad to see her, when she’d been on patrol; others had resented her. Sheriffs had to be obeyed; they were servants of a higher power, but – unlike the Paramils – they were not a military force. Many of them had had space-warfare training, but…who had anticipated a war breaking out in space?

“You have a point,” she said. The John Paul Jones was one of the finest ships she’d ever seen; she had the feeling that it would be a fine ship in its own way. Like all spacecraft, it was anything, but pretty…and yet there was a certain beauty in its design. It had been worked carefully into a military design; it had been intended to show as little of a cross-section as possible. “I wonder; how fast do you think this ship can go?”

Bixby grinned at her. “We can even control her on remote if we have to,” he said. April smiled at the comment; enjoying his company. She’d been used to working on her own, but…perhaps it wouldn’t be too bad, working in groups. “Do you want to see the rest of the ship?”

April smiled at his enthusiasm. He had forgotten that they’d been running simulations all week; she knew the ship almost as well as he did. She shrugged, allowing him to lead her through the three main compartments; control, sleeping and recreation. The ship itself was a long thin needle; the three bulges of the habitable modules were the only things that might make bigger targets for laser weapons.

“That’s interesting,” she said, as they reached one of the connecting sections. “I’ve never seen it done that way before.”

Bixby smiled as she examined the substance formed over the connecting tube. The entire ship was covered in it, she’d known that…but she hadn’t seen it up close; it was a closely guarded secret. The material – she didn’t even know what it was called, let alone what it was made of – reminded her of tar; she wondered absurdly if it would start to melt if they got too close to the sun.

“That’s designed to absorb laser fire,” Bixby said seriously. She gave him a sharp look; she’d seen the papers detailing some of its function, but she’d expected something silver, not…black. “It’s a composite – or so we were given to understand; light and plasma pulses need time to cause it to react, although if we’re at plasma pulse range…”

“We’re about to slam into the enemy ship anyway,” April said. She paused, shaking her head; it baffled her. “How heavy is it?”

“Very light,” Bixby said. “They’re talking about making spacecraft out of it. There are some other advantages, Captain; it actually absorbs some kinds of radar energy, making us harder to see even with active sensors.”

“Fascinating,” April said. She’d heard rumours about advances on Ganymede, but this was something completely new; she could only hope that Earth hadn’t come up with similar systems. “Anything else they didn’t make clear?”

“Nothing,” Bixby said, as they entered the sleeping module. It was cramped; all eight of the crew could have slept in the module, but they wouldn’t have enjoyed the experience…or maybe they would have enjoyed it too much. “There are now two links to the fusion tube – this was a quick change in the design – but they might have told you about that.”

“Humm,” April said. She’d heard about that…and she wasn’t sure if that was such a good idea; it would be embarrassing to lose any hope of making repairs to the drive, but at the same time it would weaken their hull. “The other crew are due here in five minutes, so we’d better check out the final module.”

“Right this way,” Bixby said. He floated around, leading the way up to the first module; she was pleased to note that all of the handholds were in the right position. “This is the most exciting part; the bridge.”

April smiled inwardly; most ‘bridges’ were very unexciting compartments on spaceships. The dreams of thousands of science-fiction television and hologram writers had faded against the cold light of reality; where gravity wasn’t present except under very high acceleration, where space travel took weeks at best…and where space battles lasted moments…and sometimes ended in mutual destruction.

She pulled herself into the bridge and laughed; it actually managed to look dramatic. Her own command chair was situated neatly in the centre of the bridge, with two consoles at each side, allowing her arms to be used to input commands into the system. She checked the system and nodded to herself; she would be able to take over any position if she had to, although it smacked of paranoia to her.

After all, any hit that killed one of them would almost certainly destroy the entire ship; that had been something else that the science-fiction entertainment programs had gotten wrong.

The other four consoles; helm, weapons, engineering and sensors, had the same level of protection. She tapped one of the consoles and smiled; they could be adjusted to allow her crewmen to take any position if they had to – there was no need for the helm console to be at the ‘front’ of the position. No need except dramatic effect; it was something that would be wasted on the Sheriffs.

“Computer, this is your new Captain,” Bixby said, his voice echoing through the empty ship. “Greet her.”

“Good afternoon, Captain Masterson,” a firm atonal voice said. “Welcome aboard the John Paul Jones.”

“Pleased to meet you,” April said, wryly. Many miners weren’t fond of AIs – they didn’t really think, they just pretended – but she liked them. “Do you have a proper name?”

“No,” the computer said. “You may name me, if you like; I have not imprinted on anyone yet.”

April thought for a moment. “I think I’d like to name you HONOR,” she said. “Is that acceptable?”

“I have no feelings on the subject,” the newly named HONOR said. “Captain, the remainder of your crew is boarding the ship.”

April grinned. “Ask them all to come to the bridge,” she said. It was cramped, but it was large enough for the speech – but it was also traditional. She watched as the other six Sheriffs pulled themselves into the bridge, taking up positions around her. They were waiting; the problem was that April didn’t know what to say.

“Welcome on board,” she said finally. “It is traditional to have a long speech…but quite frankly I can’t be bothered.” Some of them smiled; the Sheriffs were a fairly informal group, most of the time. “This ship has been built for our use as a team, something that we don’t often do…and we have to learn. We have a lot of work ahead of us…so let’s get on with it.”

It wasn’t a proper speech, but it seemed to focus everyone’s mind. “Take your positions,” she said. “It’s time to see if we can sink or swim.”

***

The exact area claimed by Ceres was vast – if one took the outermost locations and used them to draw a very irregular shape around the asteroids. Interplanetary law, at least the Belter version of it, recognised any inhabited asteroid or space base as holding a sphere of space around the asteroid, and considered the rest of the space between components of Ceres as free space.

“Disengage docking clamps,” April ordered, as the power-up sequence was completed. They’d encountered no problems with the John Paul Jones; they didn’t even have to worry about disengaging from something with its own gravity field – they were attached to a free-floating spacedock near Ceres, rather than the asteroid itself. “Stand by to take us out.”

“Docking clamps disengaged,” Bixby said. He had taken the helm; they would all be interchanging for the first few days, just to make sure that they were all ready for action. “Prepared to take us out.”

“Confirmed,” HONOR said. “Ceres control has sent a ‘good luck’ message.”

“Acknowledge,” April said. “Take us out.”

A tremble ran through the ship as Bixby triggered the reaction thrusters, using a blast of cold gas to move the ship out, away from the spacedock. There was no need to use a dramatic exit, as the movies had always featured; there would be time for that later. Few people would risk using a fusion drive close to a spacedock, regardless of the circumstances; it was simply too dangerous.

“Confirm sensors,” April ordered. She didn’t know Ensign Janice that well; she had only the girl’s qualifications to go on when judging her. “Janice?”

“Confirmed; sensor records match Ceres records,” Janice said. She looked far too young for her role, but her voice was firm and confident. “All sensors are working perfectly.”

“Good,” April said. She’d been more than a little worried about the material on the hull interfering with the sensors, but everything seemed to be working. “Engineering?”

“All operations are within normal parameters,” Engineer Wilson said. He was the only one of them not on the bridge; he was in the engineering compartment. “We can go up to fusion drive any time you like.”

“Excellent,” April said. “Helm?”

“Burn programmed,” Bixby said. “Permission to move us?”

Janice giggled slightly; April smiled. “Granted,” she said. “Begin pre-programmed burn sequence.”

“Burn in twenty seconds,” Bixby said, counting down to zero. HONOR repeated the countdown; the computer was reinforcing the warning. April took a breath and held it…as something shook the craft and the spaceship slowly slid forwards. “Drive firing…now!”

“I noticed,” April said, letting her breath out slowly. The pressure was starting to increase; this was the most dangerous part of the trials. A single mistake with the fusion tube and all of the crew would be playing harps. “Engineering?”

“Everything’s right on the money,” Wilson said. “Captain, I think that we can move up now.”

“Good,” April said. On the display, Ceres was falling behind them; they were leaving a powerful fusion plume behind them. It was almost impossible to see through a fusion plume, which meant that they would be blind…and visible to anyone with half a working scanner. It was the most vulnerable part of their mission. “Bring us up to full burn.”

“Yes, Captain,” Bixby said. He counted down the seconds to the burn. “Burn begins…now!”

The gravity pressure increased; April felt as if an elephant was sitting on her chest. “Burn holding,” Bixby said. “Speed increasing; burn stable…”

“Everything is working perfectly,” Wilson said. “I recommend discontinuing the burn for checks.”

“Discontinue burn,” April ordered. Bixby ran his hand down the console; the gravity fell back down to nothing. “All hands, report!”

“Helm is operative,” Bixby said. One by one, the others sounded in. “I think we’re fine, Captain.”

“Good,” April said. “Now…”

A warning tone sounded from Janice’s console. “Captain, we’re picking up a tight-beamed laser message from Ceres,” she said. “It’s marked priority one.”

April blinked. “Let’s hear it,” she said. Priority one meant that Ceres itself was about to be attacked…except they would have seen an invasion force coming, wouldn’t they? “Put it on main speakers.”

A harsh voice played over the speaker. “Attention, John Paul Jones,” it said. “Sensors report an unidentified space object, near you at” – a string of coordinates followed – “investigate and report.”

April nodded. “Send an acknowledgement signal,” she said. “Engineering?”

“We can wait with those checks,” Wilson said, reluctantly. April allowed herself a moment of relief; if Wilson had demurred, she would have had to refuse to attempt to intercept the unknown craft. “I recommend haste, however.”

“Our first mission,” Bixby muttered. “I wonder; what do you think it is?”

“Probably some bit of space dust,” April said. She smiled; it provided a perfect testing opportunity. “Lieutenant Paterson, stand by point defence; Ensign Janice, crank up that brand new sensor suite and let rip!”

“Yes, Captain,” Paterson, an older experienced officer, said.

Yes, Captain,” Ensign Janice said, sounding much more enthusiastic. Using the sensors at full capability would make them a target; April knew that they wouldn’t be used much in combat. “Pulsing…now!”

April watched the display with interest. Radar pulses had a limited range; active sensors tended to have more limited range than passive sensors, which were able to pick up enemy transmissions. Space seemed empty as the pulses echoed out, spinning through space…there was Ceres and its environs, and then…

“Contact,” Janice snapped. April felt her eyes open wide. “One craft powered; heading away from us.”

A red icon appeared on the display. It was small, apparently smaller than the John Paul Jones; it was clearly a craft. The radar signature seemed strange, almost as if the radar was having trouble getting a coherent return from the strange ship, but it was clearly a spacecraft.

“Transmit standard challenge,” she snapped. “Red alert!”

“Red alert,” HONOR said. “Transmission sent; no reply.”

“Bixby, pursuit course,” April snapped. “Prepare to engage!”

Her mind raced. It defied belief that that small craft had spent at least a week out near Ceres, and yet…it had clearly been placed to watch the launch of the John Paul Jones and her sister ships. It made a certain kind of sense, of course; the John Paul Jones would be of great interest to the Paramils.

“They must have a spy in Ceres,” she muttered to herself. “Bixby; after it!”

The drive engaged, using a low fusion plume to force them forwards; they wouldn’t have to use full power to catch it. The unknown craft – her mind remembered the stealth craft encountered by the miner back when all of the…unpleasantness started – had realised that it had been seen; its own fusion drive was coming online and it was starting to move ahead.

“Increase speed,” she said, reluctantly. The faster they went, the more distortion to their sensors; the unknown might manage to pull off a surprise. “Time to weapons range?”

“Ten minutes at this speed,” Bixby said. “Enemy craft seems to have less ability to move quickly than we do.”

“Quit with the technobabble,” April said. She ran through the options quickly; it had been sheer luck that they’d detected the enemy craft, the enemy must have decided to risk coming in for a look and some of the energy from her fusion drive had reflected from its hull. “Weapons free; I repeat, weapons free.”

“Weapons free,” Paterson agreed. “Weapons locked on target…”

“Fusion plume,” Janice snapped. “Enemy ship is turning…”

“Ah, but which way?” April asked. The enemy ship could be trying to run…or it could be turning to engage. “Challenge them again.”

“No response,” HONOR said. “Standard update from Ceres; three patrol ships are setting out after us.”

“Now that’s useful,” April said. The matter would be settled before the patrol ships were in range to add anything to the fight. “Time to weapons range?”

“Two minutes,” Paterson said. “Captain, I have missiles locked on the target…”

“Enemy ship braking,” Janice snapped. “Captain, they’re locking their own weapons on us.”

“That thing’s too small to carry too many missiles,” April said. She knew that there was no point in trying to take the ship intact; the only thing to do was destroy it before it destroyed her ship. “Stand by point defence…and fire as soon as we come into range.”

“Enemy ship launching missiles,” Janice snapped. “Four missiles; aimed right at us.”

So much for the anti-laser coating, April thought. “Return fire!”

“Entering range…and firing,” Paterson said. The John Paul Jones shook as missiles launched from the prow launcher. “Point defence online…and firing.”

“Taking evasive action,” Bixby said. “They’ll burn out before they enter detonation range.”

April sat back in the command chair. There was nothing she could do, but trust her people; they would fight the ship…or die. “Two missiles down,” Paterson said. “Three…the fourth one has burnt out and is heading away from us.”

“Dampen those sensors,” April snapped. One of the nastier tricks that could be played was detonating the missile warhead anyway, on the off chance that it was close enough for the EMP to do some real damage. “Our weapons?”

“They got two and…” Paterson’s voice broke off as the enemy vanished from the scene. “Direct hit; plasma warhead, detonating on their hull.”

April took a long breath. The enemy ship had been vaporised before they knew what had hit them. “Stand down from red alert,” she ordered. “All stations, report.”

“Our drive worked perfectly,” Wilson said. “The systems held themselves together very well.”

April grinned. “I think that we owe ourselves a round of drinks,” she said. “We’ve just won our first battle.”

“You may have to fight your second one soon,” HONOR said. The AI, for the first time, showed a trace of emotion – or an impression of emotion. “Mahan Asteroid has been attacked by Paramil forces…and captured.”

April frowned. It was a situation that seemed to call for a comment that would go down in the history books.

“Bugger,” she said.


Interlude Three: The Face of the Enemy


Recovered From Source #26237: The Personal Diary of Doctor Ming Ling. Access Granted Under Security Clearance NONE OF THEIR BUSINESS; Please Be Aware That Further Dissemination Of This Information Can Lead To Heavy Penalties, Up To And Including Death.

The blow was so sudden that I found myself on the ground before my mind even caught up with the fact that I had been hit. My chin hurt badly; I could feel that I was bleeding, perhaps in several places. I was certain that Galeton had hit me; I cringed, expecting the humiliating sexual assault he had threatened me with, right back at the beginning…and then I realised that he wasn’t looking at me.

The man was thrashing about on the bed. The implant hadn’t malfunctioned, I realised as I quickly injected myself with a local painkiller; the problem was that it was working too well. The implant was sending signals into his brain and into his body; he was thrashing about so much that he had torn through straps designed to keep him firmly in place.

“I need you to hold him down,” I snapped at Galeton. One thing we had all found out was that the enforcers didn’t respond to tone of voice at all; in fact, we could be as rude to them as we liked. “I have to put him down.”

Galeton showed no fear at all; he just leaned forward and caught the man’s hands. It suddenly dawned on me, as the pain in my jaw faded, that I didn’t even know his name. The man, the volunteer, was still thrashing; I pulled myself over to the computer and shut down the implant. He stopped at once.

“Hold him,” I said, strapping him up again. There was something about the thought of Galeton getting smacked that was so appealing to me, but I knew better than to risk triggering such an attack. “I have to take control of the implant.”

Galeton said nothing. I played with the implant for a long moment, understanding what had happened; in hindsight, it was the sort of idea that…should have been obvious from the start. I rubbed my jaw as I thought; there was a problem here and it had to be solved.

The problem, more or less, was that the hindbrain sent impulses to the body; I had worked that out a long time ago, along with dozens of other scientists. What we hadn’t really grasped, because it was hard to actually experiment, was that the degree of strength in the signals. A ‘quiet’ signal made his body move carefully; a ‘loud’ signal made him jump. When I’d activated the implant, I had accidentally sent a series of very loud signals…and I’d gotten a reaction.

“Run me a comparison,” I ordered thoughtfully. The AI moved to obey; it would do anything for me, except help me to escape. “I want you to compare his movements with the signals recorded by the implant.”

The AI displayed the patterns on the display. I hadn’t really sent any coherent instructions to the body, I realised; I had shouted a set of garbled instructions. It wouldn’t matter that much with a computer system, or an implanted machine device, but it would matter if I intended to create a real cyborg. I thought of all the implants that the other team members had devised…and shivered.

“Send this signal here,” I said, stripping one particular…command sequence down to its bare roots. “Limit the electrical charge to…”

“Done,” the AI said. I watched for a reaction and was disappointed; nothing happened. I made a few changes and tried again; this time, his arm twitched sharply. The AI was thinking; could it do what I wanted it to do? “I can analyse the signals now.”

“Good,” I said. The AI had one of the finest code-breaking systems ever invented; it had taken nearly a month of arguing to convince the mysterious supervisors that it was needed. Now that we had some parts of the key, we would be able to figure out what did what in the brain’s hindbrain. “It’s time to finish this.”

***

The volunteer – who was quite happy, when Galeton was not around, to tell me his name was George – was surprisingly disappointed to wake up and discover that he didn’t have a robotic arm, or implanted weapons and software. Instead, he had the implant in the back of his head…and it clearly caused him some pain.

“It’s like a strange headache that is almost not there,” he said, trying to explain. At my command, he hadn’t shaved or taken anything medical all night; his face was bearded and almost alarmingly scratchy. “What have you done to me, Doctor?”

“Ming,” I said, inviting him to use my first name. There were men who would have taken that as an invitation; I wondered how he would react. “The implant is intended to control the augmentations that will be placed into you.”

“I see,” he said. I wondered if he were having second thoughts, but it was too late; Galeton would hold him down if he even thought about trying to run, or fight. “Tell me, is there anywhere I can buy you a drink?”

“Let’s just skip the drink,” I said.

It was Hilda who completed the specifications for the first Mark I cyborg – or Homo Spacer. I had my doubts about the Latin, but everything else was designed for perfect development; Hilda was a capable administrator and everything was pared down into a single major operation. George would have oxygen implants, implanted skin support, reinforced bones and brain cage, strengthened arms and robotic legs. He would also have a series of weapons and sensors buried under the skin; he would become an augmented warrior.

I thought he was mad, and said so; he wasn’t annoyed. It’s hard for a man to be mad at a girl he wants to sleep with in the near future. His reproductive capabilities would be undamaged, but I had seen some of the future plans for cyborgs; some of them would have a human brain and nothing else.

“I’ll be fine,” he said. “I just want to see the stars without a spacesuit.”

I had my doubts about that. One of the modifications would be a protective eye cover; an implanted plastic screen that would cover his eyes. He should be able to walk in a vacuum without serious harm – he wouldn’t even have to breathe through his nose and mouth – but I was worried. There were too many unknowns.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have any choice in the matter; not any longer.

And time was running out…



Chapter Sixteen: Well, This is Another Fine Mess You’ve Gotten Us Into


Ceres Operations Centre

Ceres Asteroid, Ceres Federation

“We’re still picking up some signals from isolated units on Mahan Asteroid,” the communications technician said. “I think, however, that most of the asteroids have surrendered.”

Wilkinson scowled. The presence of the other council members was a burning presence in the back of his mind; he could feel them behind him. If the Paramils had control of most of Mahan Asteroid, at least the important sections, such as life support, then they would have had little choice, but to surrender.

“Thank you,” he said. “Did any other ships leave Mahan?”

“Only the Iron Maiden,” the technician said. “There was a brief battle – the results of which have been copied to the Sheriffs and the defence force – and then he set out back to here.”

“Good,” Wilkinson said. They would need a hero in the days ahead. “Come on.”

He led the way into a secure conference room, sealing the door behind them as they took their seats. There was a long uneasy silence; the Paramils had been seen as…well, thugs. For them to have successfully pulled off an attack on an asteroid, even though Mahan had had few defences and only a handful of defending ships, was surprising; none of them had really believed that Earth could do more than irritate them.

“Now look what’s happened,” Doctor Travis Thaddeus, Director of Ganymede, snapped. “Look what you’ve gotten us into!”

“That’s not what you fucking expected?” Eric Flint snapped. His own fury was burning through him; his body was leaning forward, as if he were about to throw himself on the Ganymede leader. “You knew that there were going to be losses?”

“They had a stealth ship right next to Ceres,” Thaddeus snapped. “They have warships of their own! They have every excuse they could need to confront us, do they not? Your people have…”

Your people were very happy to support us as long as there was no real danger,” Flint snapped. “Oh, think about it; you’ll either end up their dogs…or you’ll all be shot for disobeying the laws about scientific development!”

Wilkinson held up a hand firmly. “We have other things to worry about,” he said. “One of them is that, yes; they do have the capability to invade an asteroid successfully.”

“It’s not as if that were hard,” Jefferson said seriously. “A force in spacesuits and battle armour could even take Ceres, given time; there are too many civilians around for a real battle.”

“That’s even worse,” Thaddeus snapped. “They could knock off all the asteroids, one after the other; what are the chances of Mahan Asteroid being able to overthrow the Paramil garrison?”

“Not very high,” Jefferson admitted. “Unless the garrison gets careless – which is one thing the Paramils are not – they should be able to maintain control without problems.”

“And now they’re building up a force in Earth’s orbit,” Thaddeus said. “Should we not attempt to talk to them?”

“No,” Flint snapped. “Your people are all the same; you’ll work with us while the goings good…and then you’ll start kissing the arse of your oppressors when they turn up the heat. We can win; we have to win!”

“And how?” Thaddeus asked. His hands traced a pattern on the table. “They can just keep picking us off, one after the other; how many independent asteroids will go to Earth after seeing what’s happened to Mahan?”

Wilkinson scowled behind his hand; Thaddeus had a very good point. There were dozens of settlements who owed nothing to Ceres; they might well be tempted into striking a new bargain with Earth, one that would allow them to work with Earth without being invaded. From what Kesselring had said, he doubted that that would be possible, but…it was a dangerous thought.

“We can enforce the embargo on them as well,” Flint said thoughtfully.

“Delusion,” Thaddeus said. His face was puffed with anger. “If we start threatening our fellows, they’ll turn on us.”

Wilkinson slapped the table. “We have suffered…a defeat,” he said. The admittance was hard, but necessary. “We have to do something to counter it, before…”

“The rats start leaving the ship they think is sinking,” Flint said. The expression sounded odd in his mouth; as far as Wilkinson knew, he’d never been on land, or close to Earth. “Can we take Mahan back?”

“Probably not without destroying the asteroid in the process,” Jefferson said. “Julia, how do their craft compare to ours?”

Julia frowned. “I’ve only had a few moments to study the records,” she said. “Captain Steffen did a good job, but his sensors didn’t have that long to study the warships. That said, it looks as if the John Paul Jones and its successors should have a slight advantage; there’s no sign that they have the ablative armour or anything similar. There’s also no sign that they have drop tanks, like the miners do, but that doesn’t prove anything.”

Wilkinson nodded. Ground-pounders thought that a ship had to…look streamlined. That was a popular misconception; a ship could look like anything, provided that its structure could stand up to the pressure of the main drive. There was no reason why a ship couldn’t look like a builder’s nightmare of scaffolding, or a long needle in space; the Paramils could use any design they liked.

“On the weapons front, they were armed with plasma missiles and lasers, one of which was powerful enough to slice through a mining ship like a knife through butter,” she continued. “Unfortunately, the records weren’t detailed enough to allow us to make any real estimate of its power, so we would advise assuming that it was very powerful indeed. The plasma missiles managed a direct hit on two more ships – we’re still not sure what got number three miner – and destroyed them; that, of course, was not surprising.”

Wilkinson nodded again. Spacecraft built for fighting couldn’t be very large; a plasma or nuclear-tipped missile would destroy a bridge ship with the same power as they would destroy a tiny mining craft. A miner would have little defence against such an attack; for all of the ablative armour, the John Paul Jones would be in the same position.

“To conclude, we have only estimates of how many missiles they carry,” Julia concluded. “They have at least six laser mounts – three less than the John Paul Jones – and roughly equal manoeuvring capabilities. They kept the transports back, which was interesting; the craft must have been intended to clear a space for them to start launching their soldiers towards the asteroid.”

“Interesting,” Jefferson said. His voice darkened. “How would the John Paul Jones cope against one of them?”

“I don’t know,” Julia admitted. “Based on what we’ve seen of their ships, we should have a slight advantage, but not enough to guarantee victory; we could never have done that under other circumstances. Analysis of their own point defence fire suggests that it is at least as good as our own; the miners never came close to scoring a hit. Of course, they couldn’t really have launched a massive salvo, but…”

“We could expend all of our missiles trying to crack their defences,” Jefferson concluded. “Any other surprises?”

“They used sleds to board the asteroid,” Julia said. “We might be advised to build more sensor nets and lasers on Ceres and the other asteroids, along with different sensors; ones that might allow us to track the sleds. Other than that, we’ll just have to wait and see.”

There was a long pause. Wilkinson smiled to himself; the mood was starting to become more upbeat as the threat took shape and form as something they could understand; they knew what the threat was and how to cope with it. It was time to take control of events; time to start shaping them.

“It’s not a time when we can wait and see,” he said. “We might have thirty warships within the week, but we have to do something…anything…to prove that we can score a victory. Thoughts?”

Andrea spoke from her seat at the table; Wilkinson felt a flush of…heat moving down his body as he remembered their night together. She had been hot and vital; unlike most old-young people, she’d kept her body firmly under control. She had the experience of a ninety-year-old and the body of a twenty-one-year-old.

“We have to do something spectacular,” she said. “We have to…punish them for their attack on us.”

Thaddeus gave his rival an icy look. “We also have to worry about covering Ceres,” he said. “They might not leave Ceres in their rear when they come for you and I; they’ll have little choice, but to attack and devil take the hindmost.”

“How true,” Wilkinson agreed. Both Titan and Ganymede were starting to build their own warships; given enough time they could build more ships than Earth could hope to match, even without the Spacers – the cyborgs. “However, we cannot stand on the defensive, or our allies will melt away.”

“True,” Jefferson agreed. “We have two war plans; one of them would have a reasonable chance of success.”

Wilkinson grinned. “Then we had better use it,” he said. “Can you outline the plan?”

Jefferson took control of the display. “There are two basic operational plans,” he said. “Operation SINGAPORE and Operation SEALION. SEALION will have to wait for at least two weeks, when we have the fleet built up; at the moment we don’t have enough firepower to even guarantee a reasonable chance at victory. That really leaves SINGAPORE; it offers us the chance at a real victory, based on what we know of their positions.”

The display altered, forming into an image of a set of asteroids; the unnamed asteroids that had started all of the trouble. “This is their base,” Jefferson said. “We don’t know its name – they haven’t bothered to tell us – so we’ve codenamed it Singapore, after the city that was destroyed during the Age of Unrest. It’s still under construction; we must have stumbled on it while they were still hard at work.”

“Oh, how lucky for us,” Thaddeus snapped. “Anyone would think that they actually needed it to kick our arse.”

“They do,” Jefferson said. “We had nearly two weeks of warning when they were launching for Mahan; there was just very little that we could do in that time. If they had that base up and running, they would own the belt – at least that part of it – and we would have to destroy it at all costs.”

“I see,” Wilkinson said. “Now; how do you plan to capture it?”

“I don’t,” Jefferson said. “I plan to destroy it.”

There was a long pause. “You plan to destroy a Paramil base and God only knows how many construction workers,” Thaddeus said finally. “Is there anything more likely to get them pissed at us?”

“They’re already pissed at us,” Jefferson reminded him dryly. “If that base becomes operational, we are likely to lose the war.”

Wilkinson nodded. “How do you plan to do it?”

“We have eight fast frigates,” Jefferson said. The display adjusted itself as he spoke. “We’ll launch them all at the asteroid base, firing boost-missiles as we enter range, and then stealth missiles behind them. As far as we can tell, there’s only one real warship there and transports, so we’ll broadcast a warning as we come in; telling them to take to the boats.”

Andrea frowned. “That would give them warning,” she protested. “Is…that wise?”

“They’ll see us coming anyway,” Jefferson said. “Like us, they must be laying sensors everywhere, trying to track activity right across the solar system. They’ll know that we’re on the way, they just won’t be able to send reinforcements to support their base in time.”

Wilkinson ran through the maths carefully. It would take Earth several weeks to send a reinforcement convoy to the asteroid base – Singapore. In that time, they would have plenty of time to get their ships there, open fire, and then return to Ceres. Unless, of course, Earth had somehow managed to slip in more warships; unlikely, but not impossible.

“And SEALION?” He asked. There was something about the name that made him smile. “What does that consist of?”

“A direct attack on Earth itself,” Jefferson said. The room became colder, somehow; few of them had ever considered that a realistic possibility. “We would take thirty ships, flash towards Earth and launch missiles at their orbital industries, hoping to take them out and cripple their ability to build warships. They have shipyards around both Earth and the Moon, so I don’t think that a total invasion is possible, but…

“It would be costly,” he said. “Don’t delude yourself; Earth has the toughest defences in the solar system. It’s quite possible that we would pop off all of our missiles and lose them all to point defence. It’s also possible that they would have managed to get some space fighters up to intercept our ships; we’d be moving so fast that changing course would be…impossible. It would also…really piss them off; if it failed, then we would certainly face a similar attack against Ceres, or Ganymede, or Titan.”

“Then we will not do that,” Thaddeus said firmly, and glared around the room. “Ganymede will not go along with it.”

Wilkinson frowned. The Ceres-based force could launch the attack on its own, but it would be risky, and breaking the alliance wouldn’t be worth the effect of the attack, unless they were very lucky…and that didn’t seem likely.

“We won’t try something like that,” he assured him. “It would poison relations forever.”

“True,” Andrea agreed. Her voice was calm, but there was an undercurrent of concern running through her speech. “I think that we should leave it until we’re desperate.”

“And we’re not already?” Jefferson asked. “What about the attack on Singapore?”

Wilkinson nodded. “All those in favour?”

One by one, all of the hands were lifted; everyone voted in favour. “I think that that attack should be launched as soon as possible,” Wilkinson said. “Mr Jefferson, can you see to that?”

“Yes, Mr Mayor,” Jefferson said. His voice was confident, Wilkinson was relieved to note; he knew that he could do what he had promised. “I’ll keep everyone updated.”

***

“Well, that was interesting,” Andrea said, afterwards. The Mayor’s private quarters were much larger than most quarters on the asteroid; there was plenty of room for the pair of them. “I wonder; the Spacers would be much better at fighting within the asteroid.”

Wilkinson nodded slowly. The Spacers – the name that Andrea had given to the cyborgs – seemed ideal, even though he hoped that they would continue to remain volunteer-only. If they had half of the capabilities that Andrea claimed, then they would be perfect for retaking Mahan, and defending the other asteroids.

“You can move ahead with that,” Wilkinson said. After Mahan, he knew that there were no longer any time for doubts. “When are you going to start recruiting?”

“We were going to start later today,” Andrea said seriously. She leaned forward, allowing him a generous view. Wilkinson took a long breath; her body was a weapon and she used it to best advantage. “We’d prefer to keep it a secret for the moment; anything that gets spread out all over the asteroid will probably get back to Earth.”

“I know,” Wilkinson said, irritated. The presence of the spy ship had alarmed everyone, but he knew that Earth would have had plenty of time to place assets among his people; Ceres had too many people for a security check to catch them all. “You’ll have to keep it discreet.”

“Oh, I can do that,” Andrea assured him. Her pale face brightened slightly. “They would also be able to take higher acceleration than anyone else; that would give us an advantage in fighting in space.”

“True,” Wilkinson said. He allowed a moment of irritation to slip into his voice. “I am sold on the concept.”

Andrea smiled. There was something wolfish about her smile. “I know,” she said, and pulled him towards her. “Earth has to be defeated, whatever the cost.”


Chapter Seventeen: Who Pays The Piper? (But Who Calls The Tune?)

Ceres Spaceport

Ceres Asteroid, Ceres Federation

“We have arrived,” LEO said. The voice of the AI seemed almost concerned; it had programs designed to observe the mental stability of its commanding officer. Steffen suspected that they had been written by other computers, or people who lived in Ivory Towers; they certainly showed no sign of understanding reality. “Captain?”

“I believe that I had noticed,” Steffen snapped. Few miners were happy with slaving their ships to other computers, but few spaceports would have permitted someone – anyone – to just fly into the docking bay. The dangers of using a fusion flame within an asteroid was simply too high to be discounted; a rogue miner could have blown Ceres apart.

Steffen knew that some people had claimed that the shared danger was what made Ceres and the other Belter colonies more responsible; they were certainly given to having long periods of hard common sense. Privately, he wondered if it was really because everyone was exposed to danger right from the start of their lives; ground-pounders seemed very pampered in comparison.

He grinned bitterly; a ground-pounder would never have ended up commanding a space fleet at twenty-two…and would never have had the opportunity to lose the entire force – apart from the pilot who had deserted the fleet. A Paramil missile had chased after that ship; the miner had been killed for nothing. A ground-pounder might have ended up on a much larger ship, slaving away under the commands of a Captain who knew little; he would never have been his or her own master.

“Confirm full system status,” he said, and listened as LEO rattled off statistics. He knew that he would have to check them all personally, later, but for the moment he was determined to remain slumped in his chair. “LEO, what’s the use?”

The computer seemed to hesitate; it was part of its conversational overlays, rather than anything genuine. “I do not have that in my programming,” LEO said finally. “Would you like to engage Shrink Mode?”

“The programmer who programmed that in must have been drunk,” Steffen muttered. “Tie us into Ceres, and then…I suppose I’d better go see someone.”

“Permit me to recommend a…medical advisor,” LEO said. “You need to talk.”

“Damned uppity computer,” Steffen said. LEO had been programmed to think of psychiatrists, but very few Belters would trust them further than they could throw…well, Ceres itself. “LEO, have you uploaded all of our files to the secure storage?”

“Yes,” LEO said. “Captain, there is a note for you in the file; Mr Flint would like to see you.”

“I’m sure he would,” Steffen said. “Tell him…that I’ll be in the bar, getting drunk.”

“Yes, Captain,” LEO said. There was a pause. “Captain, you have a…visitor?”

Steffen blinked. “Who?” He asked. LEO’s surprise might be genuine; few people would willingly come into the docking bay just to meet him. “Who is he?”

“She,” LEO corrected. An image of a young woman appeared on the screen; Steffen leaned forward. She was black, as black as space itself, with long dark hair tied up into a neat bun and neat, shapely features. She wore a generalised ship-suit, one without any ship name or logo, and wore it well enough for his eyes to follow the swell of breast and hip. “I…cannot read her implant.”

“That’s odd,” Steffen said. It was possible, he supposed, that she might not have an implant, but that was vanishing rare on Ceres. “Does she want in?”

On the display, the woman pulled herself forward and tapped an access code into the ship’s main hatch. A chime sounded within the ship itself. “I think that that’s a yes,” LEO said. “Should I open the hatch?”

“I think so,” Steffen said, pulling himself back towards the miner’s main hatch. The zero-gee was irritating, but the woman was intriguing; she showed no sign of being affected badly by the zero-gee. As the hatch opened, he floated forward to meet her and was impressed; she showed no trace of disdain at the smell.

“Good afternoon,” he said, puzzled. Up close, she was astonishingly beautiful…and yet she carried herself as if she were unaware of her own impact. The sweet smell of her perfume rose through the air as LEO took the opportunity to start cleaning the air; she smiled at him as if she were genuinely pleased to meet him.

“Captain Steffen, I assume,” she said. She held out a hand, using the handholds to shake hands without sending them both crashing into the wall. “My name is Nadia.”

“Nadia,” Steffen said. He was suddenly very horny; one of his plans had been to hit the brothel in Ceres itself. Ceres had a lot of enthusiastic amateurs, but the brothel was where everyone went for guilt-free sex. Nadia’s voice was touching him in places he’d never been touched for years. “A pleasure to meet you.”

“I apologise for disturbing you on your ship,” Nadia continued. She remained apparently unaware of the effect she had on him. “However, circumstances that I talked to you in reasonable privacy.”

“There’s only an AI on this ship,” Steffen assured her. He was puzzled, even through his desire; what could she want that demanded privacy. “Is that sufficient?”

“That would be perfect,” Nadia said. “I assume that the AI is bonded to you?”

“That would be correct,” LEO injected. “It’s a hard job, but someone has to do it.”

Nadia smiled and allowed him to tow her into the living quarters; the small room that served as his sleeping room, eating room and general relaxation room. It was neat and tidy, but it still gave off an impression of mess; he had to eat in zero-gee, after all. She floated at one end of the room; Steffen floated at the other, admiring her pose. Zero-gee didn’t seem to throw her at all.

“The first thing I must ask for is your guarantee of secrecy,” Nadia said, tapping a small device clipped to her lapel. The recorder would record his words; anything he would happen to tell anyone later could lead to serious trouble. “In a few months, it won’t matter; we will assume the bonded obligation to inform you of that.”

Steffen frowned. “I will keep my mouth closed on the subject for one year, unless you release me earlier,” he said formally. The only other time that anything like this had happened had been when a ground-pounder had attempted to recruit him for the search for the Golden Asteroid; a worthless legend. It seemed to defy belief that a woman like Nadia would be interested in such a legend.

“A year should be more than enough,” Nadia said. LEO, of course, would be recording the conversation as well. “It concerns the war.”

Steffen winced in pain. He knew – or thought that he knew – that he had played a serious role in starting the war. “I know,” he said. “I just came from a battle.”

Nadia looked sympathetic. “I heard about that,” she said. Her sympathy was worth much to Steffen. “You fought well, but you were defeated by the laws of physics and the Paramils.”

“If you know so much, then you must also know that there is no way around the laws of physics,” Steffen snapped. Nadia looked mildly offended at the very concept. “We cannot bob and weave like those ships in Star Trek VVV: The Search For Picard’s Time. We are always subject to the laws.”

“But what if there was a way to get around some of the laws,” Nadia said. She leaned forward slightly, her brown eyes sucking him in. “Would you be interested?”

“I have yet to hear of any way in which the laws can be…circumvented,” Steffen said. “I know, people have been promising a breakthrough for years, but the only results so far have been a lot of money spent for nothing.”

“The Miners Union takes a strong interest in such projects,” Nadia said. “We, however, have a different perspective.”

Steffen ran out of patience. Even the burning desire was not sufficient to keep him focused on her; she could either give it up, get to the point, or get out. “You might have any number of things,” he said. “Nadia, I don’t mean to be rude, but I’ve just been through a battle…and I want some sleep, some sex, some food and then I want some way of getting back at the bastards! Can you help me do any of those?”

“I can help you do the final one,” Nadia said. “How would you like to be able to endure far more…gees than you could handle before?”

Steffen blinked. “You have finally managed to invent an internal compensator?”

“Not…exactly,” Nadia said. Her dark skin showed no reaction to his gaze. “We have managed to find a way to modify the human body so that it can handle such gees without serious effects.”

Steffen stared at her. “You have managed to find a way to modify the human body so that it can handle such gees without serious effects.”

Nadia didn’t seem to notice that he had repeated her – or, perhaps, she was simply amused. “Yes,” she said. “Basically, you will be adapted for space travel in a way that you couldn’t even begin to dream of.”

“I can dream a great many things,” Steffen said. “Tell me more.”

“You will be implanted with what is in effect a complete replacement of many of your internal organs,” Nadia said. “All of these will be tied into computers, not AI systems, that will allow you access to vastly greater calculation systems and weapons implants; you will be able to survive in space without a spacesuit.”

She paused. “Gravities that would have smashed you as you are to a pulp will do nothing to you,” she continued. “You would be almost ageless, immortal; you would be able to walk on asteroids and live there, without a spacesuit. You could travel from here to Earth within a week; you could live on Earth without serious problems. You would be invulnerable to poison gas; radiation wouldn’t do more than upset you.”

Steffen opened his mouth, and then slowly closed it; Nadia had to be mad. “You have got to be fucking me,” he said, “and not in a good way.”

Nadia leaned closer. “Oh, that way can be arranged,” she said. Steffen felt his arousal go through the roof. “However, I’m quite serious; observe.”

She reached into her pocket and held a small holographic projector in her hand. “Look,” she said, as a humanoid man appeared in front of them. Steffen leaned closer; apart from being bug-eyed slightly, the man seemed to be normal. A flick of a switch and the man was naked; there still seemed to be little difference…except the arm. As he watched, the arm opened, revealing a whole series of tools built into an arm.

“Fantastic,” he breathed. “How does he control all of those tools?”

“A direct link to the brain,” Nadia said. “He doesn’t need a toolkit any longer; he is the toolkit.”

Her face was very close to his. “That could be you too,” she said. “Are you interested?”

One question came to mind. “I’d still have sex, right?”

“Yes,” Nadia said. She pointed towards the man’s penis. “You’ll notice that that is still there in all of its…glory.”

Steffen laughed out loud. “What must I do?”

“You have to come with us to Titan,” Nadia said. “Your ship’s AI can bring the ship to Titan itself, following us, or you can copy it into a remote system, or you can place it into storage here.”

“Let an AI bring the ship to Titan,” Steffen muttered dryly. “You don’t know much about miners, do you?”

“I know that you might be interested,” Nadia said. She gave him a look that said, very clearly, ‘come hither,’ “I don’t want to press you, Captain, but you have only around a day to tell me if you’re interested.”

Steffen didn’t have to think. “I would be interested,” he said. “A plasma torch ship, I assume?”

Nadia nodded. “It leaves tomorrow, 0945 hours,” she said. “Is that an acceptance?”

“Yes,” Steffen said. He paused. “What are you going to do now?”

Nadia smiled. “You’re going to make me very happy,” she said, and pulled him forward. Sex in zero-gee was harder than it seemed, but they made it work; it really had been a long time. In fact, she was an incredible lay.

***

It wasn’t until later that Steffen wondered if there had been more to her giving herself to him than pure enjoyment; she had been very skilled, very experienced…and she could have had anyone. She didn’t need to pick up miners in bars – she could have gone to the brothel for that – and she certainly hadn’t claimed to love him, or some similar nonsense. There were, in fact, far too many unanswered questions.

The brothel, according to envious rumours from Earth, allowed anyone to sleep with anyone; it provided guilt-free sex to everyone. That wasn’t exactly true; in many ways, it provided a way for couples to meet…and rooms for them to copulate. The denizens, both women and men, were matched up at random…and then allowed to have fun. Dozens of teenagers, interested in experimenting, went there; both as guests and semi-workers.

Steffen wasn’t feeling horny any longer; he chose to go to the bar and drink a small pile of bottles. He’d wanted to get really drunk, but he knew that he had other problems; if Nadia was telling the truth, then he would have the opportunity of a lifetime. On the other hand, if she were lying…and had some evil purpose in asking him to come with her…

He couldn’t believe that it was a trick; he’d already received the email informing him that he was booked on the Titan Run. The plasma torch ship was expensive; he could never have afforded it under his normal circumstances. He’d asked LEO to check back with the agency…and they had confirmed the booking. He even had a return ticket; that wouldn’t have been needed under normal circumstances. If it was a hoax, it was an incredibly expensive one…which argued that it was real.

“Steffen,” a voice said. Steffen looked up to see Eric Flint. “I’m sorry about what happened.”

“Good,” Steffen said, unwilling to concede so easily. “So you should be.”

“How were we supposed to know that they had a counterattack planned?” Flint asked acidly. “You got your expenses covered, remember?”

“Yes,” Steffen snapped. He wasn’t really in the mood for an argument. He wished that he could discuss Nadia with him, but…he’d made an agreement and it couldn’t be broken, not without him being broken too. A thought occurred to him. “Sir, can I send you something?”

Flint lifted an eyebrow. “A nuclear warhead?”

“This is no time for jokes,” Steffen snapped. Unwillingly, he smiled; it had been slightly amusing. “I have some…information I want you to hold in your possession, under seal.”

Flint frowned. “Mining information?” He asked. Steffen would have made the same guess under the circumstances. “You do know that unless it’s filed in the main office, it won’t be a claim?”

“That doesn’t matter,” Steffen said. Attempting to break the seal early would have ruined the information anyway. “I just want you to hold it. If I don’t send you a message within a month, open it, look at it, and do what you see fit.”

“You’re being very melodramatic,” Flint said. “Is it something I should know about earlier?”

“It’s just something I found a while back,” Steffen said. “It’s something I was going to use in my own time. If I don’t come back, then…”

Flint looked as if he had a thousand questions, but he forced them all down. “I see,” he said. “Under the circumstances, I would be glad to keep the information.”

“Thanks,” Steffen said. “Now…what’s happening this evening?”

“Nothing much,” Flint said. “There will be a service for those who died at Mahan; you are invited to attend if you want.”

Steffen nodded. “I’ll attend,” he said. “Count me in for the widow’s fund as well.”

***

A day later, after the service and some final checks, he put LEO on a portable system…and boarded the ship for Titan.


Chapter Eighteen: Fantastic Voyage (But Is It Really Worth The Effort?)

Long Haul

Earth Orbit/In Transit

If there was anything that Thande had learnt from his time crossing timelines and exploring dozens of different worlds, it was that the human race had to go into space. The humans in the Roswell timeline had been shown just how dangerous outer space could be, with unfriendly denizens waiting for their chance at invading the Earth; the Nazis had built their space force up into a force that could hold the entire planet in their thrall.

He shuddered, remembering; if the Nazis had ever solved the problem of opening Portals in space, they would have been unstoppable. His timeline hadn’t done anything with space, past sending a man to the moon; the Nazis would have bombed them into submission and that would have been that.

But, in many ways, the world they were presently in was a development of his own timeline, although it lacked the Nazi Invasion; it still possessed a Blamius Thande. Out of curiosity, he’d looked up his counterpart’s work; without the Nazis, he’d continued some research into exotic areas of science – and in many ways, he had helped to contribute to the Long Haul. The plasma torch – a name that was about as ill-fitting as ‘computer’ was for the human mind – had come from one of his science projects…but his counterpart hadn’t lived to see the day it was used.

From the departure lounge in the massive orbital tower, a monstrous structure rising up into the sky, all the way to space, Thande could see the spaceship ahead of him. It was the most…science-fiction-like ship he’d seen so far, apart from the Harry Turtledove and the Overcompensator. Both ships, one alien, one that might as well have been alien, had been built with technology well beyond his grasp; the Long Haul was built with technology his counterpart had had a hand in developing.

It drifted slowly towards the docking arm, high above the world; a manoeuvre that would be giving its captain the cold chills. Unlike most items in low orbit, the tower possessed a gravity field; the Long Haul would be risking more than a collision if there were an accident. He watched as spotlights illuminated the hull; a long thick ovoid shape, with a massive blocky construction at the end of the hull. It looked sleek and angular; it certainly wasn’t the workmanlike designs that seemed to be common in all universes.

“Sally,” he said slowly, as the Long Haul completed its docking. A ripple of applause ran around the room. “Sally, are we ever going to visit a place where humans have super-advanced starships?”

“There are plenty of timelines that do that,” Sally said. Her voice was lighter than it had been for the week that they’d spent arranging the trip…and then the frequent delays as fighting spluttered across the belt. “Do you want to go to one of them?”

“A holiday would be nice,” Thande said, only partly in jest. He was starting to see what drove Sally; she had been tight-lipped about her own past, but she had seen so much…he didn’t even know how old she was, relatively speaking. “We could go to…oh, I don’t know; Blackpool perhaps.”

“Blackpool,” Sally said, somehow managing to put a lot of disdain in her voice. “We’re going to Titan.”

Thande nodded. It had taken Grey Wolf a few hours to have them confirmed as official visitors to Titan from the Ouroboros, which unsurprisingly had some links with the Titan Government. Sally and Thande had a brief to examine some recent developments in Titan for the institute…and do some snooping into the bargain.

“Some holiday,” he said. “I wonder; what do you think we’ll find there?”

“Technological advances,” Sally said. “Other than that…I don’t expect to find anything there.”

She gave him a sharp look. It had taken Thande a while to realise just how hypocritical the Earth Government – the Global Federation – was towards scientific development. For reasons he didn’t fully understand – and the bits he did understand were worrying – they’d worked hard to put the brakes on scientific development; full stop. In some cases, such as experimenting with biological weapons, he could understand their point, but it seemed as if they’d worked to prevent any further development.

The Belters, by contrast, had worked hard to develop their technology…which they’d then sold to Earth. Having developed a working AIDS cure – from experimenting on the disease in habitats that could be quarantined with ease – they’d sold that to Earth, although Thande was starting to realise that the mess that was Africa meant that the disease had probably continued to exist. They’d continued to do that…and plasma torch technology was only one example.

“They’re frightened of their own technology,” he muttered. “Why?”

“There are worlds where technology had slowed down,” Sally said. “I spent some time in one of them myself; they were always more peaceful, more developed. I think that the pace of development was so fast that not everyone could cope; the world might have had good intentions, but…well, you know what they say about good intentions.”

“The path to hell,” Thande said. “Sally…is it always this bleak?”

Sally shrugged. “There are timelines where humans advance into space early,” she said. “There are timelines where humans stumble across steam power much – much – earlier; Rome and Cartage, for example.”

“I’d like to go there,” Thande said. “That might make a nice holiday.”

“There was an old joke,” Ian said suddenly, from his position. Grey Wolf had sent him to see them both off. “Tribune Bilious Clintonus took his seat as the elected Emperor of world-wide Rome today.”

Thande shook his head. “It can’t possibly have been that way,” he said. “If the Romans developed steam power and spread everywhere, then…they would have reached America a long time before England ever came into existence. Hell, there would only have been Britannia.”

“More or less,” Sally said. “The world is stable, but…it advances, slowly; they value technology, but at the same time they’re nervous of accidentally outstripping themselves. Pity, that; they own the solar system and they’re on their way outside, but they haven’t developed FTL yet.”

Ian gave her a mock-serious look. “It beats all those confederate victory timelines,” he said. “Hellfire, Operation Sealion only comes off one time in ten, unless the Enemy meddles – and there are times when that is still a failure – and think of all the timelines spawned from worlds like that.”

Thande said nothing. There were times, he’d learnt, when certain events seemed inevitable; the Cold War seemed to have been something like that. America and Russia had each been incapable of fighting a war to a victorious conclusion…and neither had picked a fight with the other. In contrast, the time leading up to the American Civil War – or the British Civil War – had had so many different choices that there were dozens of timelines spreading out from that period.

It was strange, looking from the outside; history was often a muddle caused by people making the choice they saw as best for them personally, not best for the world. The ‘rational man’ depended upon the man possessing an omniscience that only Transcendent Beings possessed – the ability to see all choices as they were, not as they seemed to be. Sealion might have worked, or it might have failed…but whatever happened it caused thousands of possible timelines spreading out from its launch.

He looked up at Ian. “How did you get into this anyway?”

Ian smiled. “You’d never believe me if I told you,” he said. A low chime rang through the departure bay. “I think it’s your flight.”

Thande laughed. “Thank you for everything,” he said. “It’s been interesting to look at an operation where we knew what was going on in advance, or at least we had a base to work from.”

“You’re still sore over Roswell,” Sally said. She gave Ian a hug. “You’ll ensure that they know about it if something goes wrong?”

“We went into Roswell totally blind,” Thande said dryly. “We nearly got arrested for spying.”

Ian snorted. “We’ll keep an eye on things here,” he said. “Good luck.”

***

The Long Haul was filled with strange acceleration modules, each one filled with a strange liquid. Thande was grateful of the gravity as he stripped down to his underpants, before slipping into the liquid wearing a breath mask. He understood, just for a long moment, why plasma torch ships were unpopular; they provided such high gravities that they would be seriously harmful for anyone who lacked augmentation. That thought led to another; there might be a very good reason why the cyborgs would be popular.

“Yes,” Sally said, over their private channel. “They wouldn’t have to rely on the gravity tanks to protect them from the effects of the gravity.”

The thought was chilling, even as the Long Haul started to launch itself into space. Missiles could fly at such vast speeds, burning out their drives as they charged forwards; a human who tried would be smashed…and certainly couldn’t fly the ship while crouching in a gee tank. Some of the passengers, he noted as the pressures increased slowly, had decided to be sedated for part of the trip.

“I think this is it,” Sally said, as the gravity pressure started to increase. Even through the strange liquid, that was cushioning him and holding him in place at the same time, he could feel the crushing force as the gravity built up. It was becoming a jelly, he felt; it was something he’d never seen before. “Professor, are you alright?”

Thande could see it in his mind’s eye; the power of collapsing material, breaking down to energy, as the plasma torch engaged. The ship leapt forward; he knew – he hoped – that they’d taken care with the course. Even a tiny fragment of rock would smash them to little pieces as soon as they rammed into it; the magnetic field ahead of the ship wouldn’t be able to handle everything.

“I’m fine,” he said, as the pressure continued to build. “How long was this burn going to be?”

“Around ten minutes,” Sally said. Her mental voice sounded strained. “Professor, can you imagine that?”

Thande gave the mental impression of a snort. “We might be attacked by a pirate,” he said. “This is nothing like the Abraham Lincoln.”

Sally seemed to smile. “They might well make that breakthrough soon,” she said. “Once they have some equivalent of the Procyon Drive…”

“Earth might be able to dominate the solar system,” Thande said. “They would be even able to catch the asteroids that launched themselves out of the solar system.”

“You’re learning,” Sally said. Her mental voice was droll. “Of course, they’re also close to FTL drive.”

Thande said nothing as the pressure stabilised. It was still hard, still pressing on him, but he was starting to get used to it. He wondered, grimly, if the cyborgs would feel even that much; what would they think of little things like gravity if they could walk in space without aid? Would they even care enough about planets to keep them alive?

“Is humanity doomed?” He asked thoughtfully. “Sally, just how far into the future have you gone?”

“There’s no answer to that question,” Sally said. “At least, there would be none that would be relevant to you. Every few…Vale Years, for want of a better term, someone re-fights the Battle of Existence in a different core timeline; the Enemy fights us, or vice versa. Sometimes, we end up in timelines where the war simply isn’t allowed to happen; sometimes we end up in timelines where there’s no point in fighting the war.”

Thande tried to concentrate. “Do they know what you are?”

“We hope not,” Sally said. “From what we’ve been told, there hasn’t been an attempt to destroy…our employers’ timeline, which suggests that they don’t know where they come from. Still…”

“Someone should be able to put together what they’re doing,” Thande said, in some exasperation. “What are they doing? Why? Is someone spared their attention? Why? What timelines are of particular interest to them?”

“Human timelines,” Sally said. Her voice seemed to find something funny in that. “They concentrate on the most capable species; they seemed to have had nothing to do with the Hive until just before the Hive was caught in the crossfire of the war. The species that rise to learn enough to transcend; they seem to be targeted particularly.”

She sent a frown. “It’s strange,” she said. “It’s as if they don’t want people and races rising too far for any reason at all.”

Thande wondered. “Some race that doesn’t want others to transcend after them?”

“Few transcendent races even get into the Vale,” Sally said. “It’s not a bad thought, but…there’s just no real pattern.”

The gravity pressure started to fall, slowly, then sharply until it returned to normal. Thande realised that the jelly-like material was returning to its liquid state; he was impressed by the power of the ship. The gee-bath opened, allowing him to climb out, into zero-gee.

“We have started along our main course,” the steward said. He looked stressed; Thande realised that panic must be one of the main dangers on the ship. “You may go to your quarters now, if you wish.”

“We wish,” Sally said firmly. “Come on, Blamius.”

***

Time passed slowly on the Long Haul, even though it was travelling at speeds almost beyond Thande’s comprehension. Without the main drive flaring, there was no gravity; something of a mixed blessing. It allowed him time to relax and study more about the future world, but it also meant that half of the passengers, having never been in space before, got sick.

“These people could go to Mars for their holidays,” he muttered to Sally, over a game of Chess. “Why do they not bother?”

Sally considered as she picked up a Rook. “They tend to remain in their cities,” she said. “Half of the world was dangerous to the other half, and after the Paramils started simply shooting tourist-kidnappers on sight, it became dangerous to try to keep them alive.”

“I guess they just lost the effort,” Thande said. “Sally, how did you get into this?”

Sally gave him a sharp look. “How did you get Blamius as a first name?”

Thande laughed. “I always got the blame,” he said. “Your turn?”

Sally gave him a sharp look. “I used to live in a fascist America,” she said. “Well, semi-fascistic; it was more along the lines of Mussolini’s Italy, rather than Germany. Somewhere along the lines, I got mixed up in an operation – a Time Agents operation – and ended up working for them.”

Thande hesitated, but decided not to press the issue. Sally would tell him the rest in good time. There had been something in her voice…and so he decided to change the subject. “What do you expect that Titan will have for our lords and masters at Ouroboros?”

Sally frowned, taking the question only partly seriously. “Knowledge,” she said. “Knowing what’s going to happen in the future is serious business, Professor; they would be very interested in knowing what new technologies are coming.”

Thande scowled. The Enemy might not be willing to risk being detected by introducing new technologies directly into the timelines, but they would know what would work and what wouldn’t; Snow could just pour money into things she knew would work…and they would work…without sounding any alarm.

“And, what do we do?” He sent, over their private channel. To the outside world, he appeared to be considering his next move. “How long do you think we’ll be able to stay on Titan?”

“We have a booked hotel for a month,” Sally sent back. “Given time, we should be able to locate the cyborg plant…”

Her mind trailed off. Thande blinked in confusion. “And then?”

Sally frowned. “That depends on what we find there,” she said. “I would prefer to be able to remove Snow if I could, but…she might very well have another pocket dimension of her own. If we knew where she was, we could risk triggering any alarms by launching an attack through our own dimension, but…we have to get some information first.”

“I love it when we go in without a plan,” Thande said. He moved his queen forward. “Check.”

“Fuck you,” Sally said, without heat. She moved her knight in to block the queen. “Speaking of which…?”

Her eyes asked a question. Thande allowed himself a moment to consider, and then nodded. “Come on, then,” she said, undoing her straps and floating into the air. “We won’t have that long in zero-gee.”


Chapter Nineteen: Singapore Revised (And THAT Really Has To Happen)

Base Theta (Singapore) Region

Asteroid Belt

Captain Andrew Lynn, Paramilitary Space Force, surveyed the scene in front of him – or at least its holographic proxy – and reflected on how much more exposed he felt these days. When he had been invited to take over command of the asteroid base – and the imaginatively named stealth warship Shadow – he had been warned that there was a strong prospect of discovery by the Belters…and that had finally happened.

He knew that he had had several sharp comments made to his superiors over his decision to allow the Belter mining craft to leave, several weeks ago. He could have destroyed the craft before it even knew what had hit it – Shadow had been in a perfect firing position – but he had known that the pilot would have reported in to the Mining Union…and the Belter Governments would have dispatched Sheriffs to investigate.

And so the war had begun…and it was an odd sort of war indeed. He’d planned the war as best as he could, along with every other Paramil in the service, and so far few of the predictions had come to pass. They’d expected – and feared – that the Belters would launch a few asteroids at Earth…and so far that hadn’t happened. They’d been nervous about the prospect of Belter weapons being used – weapons that weren’t even rumoured in the Belt – and so far all that had happened was an encounter with a Belter warship and a stealth ship like Shadow.

He scowled as he waited grimly for the update. Shadow wasn’t a real stealth ship, not in the sense that it could hide behind a stealth field; it’s main hiding capability lay in its surface and shielding systems. It actually had a slight efficiency advantage over most craft; its manoeuvring jets were even more focused than other warships, hiding its emissions as much as they could be hidden. Painting the ship matte black was overkill, but…he had to admit that it looked as if the ship was suited to its purpose.

“They haven’t yet made any major course change,” his sensor officer reported. Lynn said nothing as he stared at the display; the endlessly adjusting cone of ‘possible location’ growing wider every second. “They’re somewhere within that cone.”

“Several cubic light minutes,” Lynn said, staring at the display. “It’s too large a region of space.”

Their long-range sensors had tracked a number of Belter ships, warships like the one that had destroyed the Shadow’s twin, leaving Ceres, heading towards Base Theta. They had built up to a quite astonishing speed…and hadn’t made any major change, which meant that they were limited to using their gas jet reaction drives to manoeuvre. He would have been astonished if they hadn’t done so – he’d taken the precaution of launching unpowered ballistic missiles just in case they were that stupid – but they had remained undetected. That meant, almost certainly, that they were still heading towards Base Theta – and his position.

“Time track?” He asked, still watching the scene. He’d sounded the alert as soon as their course became clear, but that had been days ago; there was no way that he could have kept the entire base on alert that long. “How long?”

“Assuming no changes, five hours to engagement range,” Commander Dane said. His voice was grim; long-range sensor systems were often as not a matter of wild guesses. “Minimum, six hours, maximum nine hours; unless they’ve tried to break contact entirely.”

Lynn shook his head. He wouldn’t have blamed the enemy commander for attempting to surprise them tactically – he had to have known that he’d been seen, so strategic surprise was impossible – but it was impossible to be certain, at least until the missiles started to fire. Worse, he was in one of the worst possible situations; he had to stay where he was, more or less, he couldn’t hope to move the habitats in time.

He sighed as the time raced past. There were two ways to conduct an engagement in space; the quick engagement, flying past the enemy position, launching missiles, then running, or the set-piece engagement. If he were trying to capture the facility, he would have had to engage in a set-piece engagement, just to ensure that he actually managed to destroy all of the opposition. That meant…that they would see the enemy start to brake soon; they wouldn’t risk trying to crash-brake unless they had the crew in gee-baths, and while he wouldn’t have discounted it, it would have been a stupid manoeuvre…and a horrific risk.

Of course, we’d probably be doing them a vast favour if we killed the idiot who tried, he thought, and smiled. He hadn’t had time to rest; he knew that he would have been unable to sleep anyway…and sedatives would have only made him cross when it was time to fight the battle. That meant…that he had no choice, but to wait…and hope.

“Captain, we’re picking up a signal,” the communications officer said. “It’s tight-beam, directed at Base Theta; very powerful.”

Lynn blinked; were the enemy demanding surrender? “Put it on,” he ordered, and settled back to listen.

“This is Captain April Masterson of the Belter Ship John Paul Jones,” a woman’s voice said. The voice was clipped and precise; not an idiot’s voice. “I intend to attack and destroy your base.”

Lynn smiled, despite himself; there were clearly no niceties there. “As there is no way that you can avoid having your base destroyed, I suggest that you board your transports and head away from the base on a burn of” – she recited a series of figures – “that will prevent you from being taken for hostile elements. Any attempt by any craft along that vector to engage my craft will mean the destruction of all of those craft.”

Lynn glanced down at the display. It would also prevent them from returning to Earth for several weeks. “In two hours, I intend to open fire,” Masterson concluded. “Anything not on the escape vector will be considered hostile and fired upon without further warning.”

“The message is repeating,” the communications officer said.

“I have fusion plumes,” Commander Dane snapped. “Eight of them; heavy.”

Lynn felt a flicker of admiration. Masterson had come in on a slightly-angled course; she wouldn’t have been hit by the depowered missiles he’d fired. She had taken a gamble by showing her force off, but at the same time it would impress him with the level of force she had brought along, hoping to intimidate him into surrender.

“Clever,” he mused. “Time to engagement range?”

“One hour, thirty minutes,” Commander Dane said. A handful of Belters had talked in terms of changing the time units, but they had been roundly shouted down by their own people; it would have been too confusing. “They must have decided to risk allowing us additional time to evacuate.”

“Well, let’s not waste it,” Lynn said cheerfully. Masterson clearly had destruction in mind; this wasn’t an attempt to capture the base, or she would have decelerated as she came in. Communications, general signal; all crew on the habitats are to take to the transports and head out along the escape vector.”

“Aye, sir,” the communications officer said.

Commander Dane blinked at him. “We’re going to abandon the base?”

Lynn smiled. “Whatever gave you that impression?” He asked. “Ramp up the outer radar network; we won’t be needing it for much longer…and call a conference of my captains. It’s time to fight!”

***

“I have several powerful radar sources ahead of us,” Ensign Janice reported. She was tense, but professional; April was pleased with her. “They’re pulsing out directly towards us.”

“Interesting,” April said. The force hadn’t carried out a real turnover manoeuvre; it hadn’t been necessary. She intended to spend thirty minutes within weapons range, firing the additional missiles her ships carried, before altering course to return to Ceres. There was little point in an engagement under the enemy’s terms. “Can you use their pulses to plot out their locations?”

“Aye, Captain,” Ensign Janice said. “They’re revealing some of their own locations now.”

“Show me,” April said, as the image appeared on the display. “What about their transports?”

“I have two fusion plumes,” Ensign Janice said. “One of them is heading out along the escape vector; the other is manoeuvring onto the escape vector.”

“Time to weapons range, thirty minutes,” Paterson said. “Weapons spread locked and ready.”

April scowled. “Is there any sign of their defending ships?”

Singapore – whatever the Paramils called it – was important; she hadn’t expected to see them simply retreating…and yet it seemed as if that was what they were doing. She didn’t believe it for a moment; the Paramils would not have simply abandoned the base, not when it could have served as a base for hostile action. Why would they?

She thought rapidly as the minutes ticked away. The Paramils were locking her ships down…and there was only a limited number of manoeuvres she could pull to avoid their missiles – except they weren’t firing. That was sensible in one way, as she would have plenty of time to avoid them, but it was disturbing; it suggested that the enemy commander was either a craven coward – unlikely – or very clever.

“If I lose these ships,” she muttered to herself, “the belt would not soon forgive me.”

“No, Captain,” Lieutenant Bixby agreed. “They’ll be trying to destroy us as well.”

“How true,” April said dryly. “Where are their stealth ships?”

There were three possibilities; they were hiding and sneaking into attack range, they were heading out along the escape vector…or they weren’t there at all. The latter two were just too good to be true; she had to favour the first option, except…she’d been careful to angle her course to prevent them from having the time to sneak up on her. What were they doing? Lying low and hoping that she would miss them?

“Prepare to engage,” she said, as they neared weapons range. She’d promised them an extra thirty minutes, and she intended to keep that promise as long as she could, but unmanned stations didn’t count. “Target their sensors; launch probes.”

The John Paul Jones shook slightly. “Probes away, Captain,” Ensign Janice reported. “We’re receiving laser link now.”

“Good,” April said. “Lieutenant Paterson, launch spread one.”

“Missiles away,” Lieutenant Paterson snapped, as the ship shuddered again. “Impact in five minutes…”

“I have point defence sensors activating,” Ensign Janice reported. “They’re targeting our missiles and…Captain, enemy units have returned fire.”

April cursed under her breath. Her ships were racing forwards; in effect, the enemy had a weapons range almost double her own. At the same time, a missile couldn’t turn around and reengage them; it would be lost forever. At the same time, the enemy would be using her fire to target their own weapons…and the closer they got, the easier it would be to target her.

“Activate point defence,” she said. “Helm, make evasive manoeuvres.”

“Yes, Captain,” Lieutenant Bixby said. “Preparing to evade now.”

April watched the display as the missiles flashed closer. Space became split apart by a hail of invisible laser beams as the point defence of eight ships was woven together into a coherent defence net by the computers. Each ship would cover the others, linking into a vast network that was far more than the sum of its parts. Missiles vanished into vapour or flashed past them…and they were alive.

We both engaged at extreme range, she thought coldly. As we get closer, both of us will get more accurate as there’ll be less time to react and…

“We hit five of their radars,” Lieutenant Paterson reported. “Seventeen missiles were destroyed outright; five flashed past them and onwards.”

April allowed herself to wonder if it would hit a real target, but knew that it was unlikely; space wasn’t that crowded. “Prepare to fire again,” she snapped, as the display revealed more enemy radars coming online. Time was ticking fast; it wouldn’t be long before they could engage the habitats directly. “Launch spread two!”

“We degraded their own system,” Ensign Janice reported. “We have proper targeting indicators on their missile buses; the probes are locating them.”

“Retarget missiles from spread three,” April snapped. It was almost certain that the asteroid would have more missiles than they would; destroying them in their free-floating bays would be much better than having them fired at her ships. “Fire!”

***

The enemy ships were closing in, entering only the outer edge of his missile envelope. Lynn wasn’t that surprised; Captain Masterson had made her intentions very clear…and he wouldn’t have a leg to stand on if he chose to protest later. She had clearly intended to engage his systems at long-range, rather than risk a close encounter…and he wasn’t surprised in the least.

“Keep moving us up,” he ordered. He’d only had two hundred crewmen when he’d started – he’d lost five in accidents – and he had taken less time to evacuate than Masterson must have thought. He hadn’t wasted the time; he’d assumed that she would keep her word…which had given him time to slip into weapons range.

He smiled; for Masterson to engage his shipyard, which had to be her primary target, she would have to enter a specific zone…and he’d pumped out enough radar energy to assist her in dismissing the possibility of firing unpowered missiles in towards her targets. Once she entered that zone, she would be within range of his missiles on sprint mode, which would ruin her day…and hopefully her plans.

“She’s broken the outer defence region,” Commander Dane said. Lynn nodded; he’d expected that much – the missiles might have been alarming to Masterson, but they could hardly have been dangerous except through sheer luck. “She’s coming in; we’re still getting radar pings from her hulls, although there is some odd scatter.”

“Stealth armour as well, perhaps,” Lynn said, dismissing the matter. It wouldn’t be a problem until later. “Prepare to engage.”

“Weapons are ready,” Captain Pared said. All four stealth ships were on position; mentally, Lynn cursed the insistence from Command that he send one to Ceres, where it had been destroyed. “Locked on targets.”

Lynn watched the display; when would Masterson fire? When she fired, she would launch her remaining missiles and run; they would have only a few moments to engage. If he fired first, he would have an advantage…but at the same time she would have the opportunity to fire back at his ships.

“Engage when she reaches Point Punch,” he said. He’d picked three firing zones; Punch seemed to be the most likely opportunity to engage her properly. “Stand by…”

The minutes ticked by…

“Fire,” he snapped. “Fire at will!”

***

Ensign Janice’s voice was stunned. “Enemy missiles,” she snapped. “They’re firing; almost point blank range!”

“Launch spread five,” April snapped. The weapons were in their launch cradles; they had to be launched quickly, before the enemy had a chance to kill some of her ships. “Point defence, reprioritise!”

“Point defence online and engaging,” Lieutenant Paterson said. “Time to impact, twenty-seven seconds…”

April cursed. “Ensign Janice, track those damned ships; launch a spread of missiles at their most likely locations,” she snapped. “Take them down!”

“Second spread of hostile missiles,” Ensign Janice reported, her voice calmer. April was proud of her. “Targeting now, sending data to firing systems.”

“Missiles away,” Lieutenant Paterson reported. “Point defence engaging and…”

His voice broke off for a long moment. “We lost the Hermes,” he said. “It’s just gone and…that’s the Washington.”

April stared at the display with hate in her eyes and soul. Two fast frigates, vaporised, just like nothing. “Kill them,” she snapped. “Destroy them!”

“Confirmed hit on one stealth craft,” Ensign Janice said. “Confirmed hit on second craft; possible hit on third craft.”

April winced. The entire attack had taken place so quickly that the missiles attacking the main targets hadn’t had time to reach their targets. The enemy had picked a good location; she didn’t dare try to run until she knew that she’d destroyed most of their craft, just because of the danger of long-range missiles. At the same time, the enemy couldn’t have been moving fast; they ought to be good targets, if they could be found.

“Possible hit on target four,” Ensign Janice said. Her voice was puzzled. “I cannot confirm the last two launch platforms destroyed.”

“Keep us on this course,” April ordered Lieutenant Bixby. “Ensign Janice, bring up the main sensor systems, find those craft!”

“Aye, Captain,” Ensign Janice said. “I confirm hits on primary targets; all targets damaged, the shipyard is destroyed.”

It was hit with a plasma warhead, April thought. It should have been destroyed.

“I cannot find the remaining stealth ships,” Ensign Janice said grimly. “Captain, they could be ahead of us.”

April doubted it; unless there were more than four around…and their commander had precognition. He had played his cards perfectly, but he’d still lost; she’d destroyed the targets she’d come to destroy.

“Keep us on this course with minor random modifications,” she ordered again. “Once we’re outside engagement range, begin our return towards Ceres.”

“Yes, Captain,” Lieutenant Bixby said. “Course laid in.”

***

Lynn knew that he had been luckier than he deserved; the Belter ships had reacted quicker than he had believed possible…and they’d inflicted serious damage upon his small force. Three of his ships had been destroyed, even though they’d killed two of the enemy craft; his ship had only escaped, he suspected, because of the disruption caused by the explosive end to the Night Stalker.

“Captain,” Commander Dane said grimly. “Look.”

The image came from one of his probes; an asteroid habitat was breaking apart, shattering as he watched. The enemy had hit it hard enough to start the long process of shattering it; its own spin was tearing it apart. He winced as the asteroid buckled…and shattered completely, spilling debris out into the void.

“Fuck,” he said grimly. The enemy ships were heading away from his remaining ship; they had to be terrified of him launching at them when their fusion plumes would keep them blind. “Record all of our sensor records and shoot it off to Earth; they have to know what’s happened here…and what we can do to repair the base.”

The first major battle between modern warships in space had been won and lost. He knew, just as he knew that Captain Masterson knew, who had won and who had lost.


Interlude Four: Homo Spacer


Recovered From Source #26237: The Personal Dairy of Doctor Ming Ling. Access Granted Under Security Clearance NONE OF THEIR BUSINESS; Please Be Aware That Further Dissemination Of This Information Can Lead To Heavy Penalties, Up To And Including Death.

George had been handsome, in a rough kind of way, before he went under the knife. I had slept with him several times – love affairs were not unknown on the Asteroid – and I had enjoyed myself, even though he wasn’t the kind of man to make me bind myself to him, body and soul. Women…look – or should look – for long-term success; many women fall over the local jock simply because he looks successful. Never mind that the bastard is going to be in jail or serving in the Paramils before he’s thirty; they fall over him and drop their panties for him…and ignore the local nerd.

Even so, I had enjoyed his company…and he hadn’t taken it as an invitation to run my life. That shouldn’t have been surprising, in hindsight; George the Miner wasn’t used to any form of permanent company. It would have made an interesting experiment to see what became of us if we were stranded on a desert island, but in the end it would have made no difference; George was incapable of thinking of married life.

Hilda and I had worked out the series of operations and operational procedures that we would perform on him, a massive series of operations that had been condensed into one long operation; I had suspected that it wasn’t something that we wanted to repeat. I had taken all of the records of George that I needed – or so I hoped; I hoped that I would be able to implant him without problems. We had also agreed that I would go first; if I fucked up the procedure and killed him, it wouldn’t waste the other doctors’ time.

It was strange, seeing that body on the operating table, but I worked on him anyway, opening the hole in his head and carefully inserting the implant, using it to echo his brainwaves back into his head, slowly calibrating the implant so that it would effectively…allow new implants to be plugged into his system. As soon as I was convinced that it was working properly, I stepped out of the operating room, through the sterilisation field, and back into the observation chamber.

Don’t let people tell you that it’s impossible to keep a human asleep, without hibernation, as long as you like; it can be done, although it’s not easy. George would remain asleep, fed by tubes we had implanted, as long as we wanted; one by one, we made the changes to his body. It took hours – I had to go to sleep through parts of the operation – until all of the changes had been completed.

Hours later, I returned to the operating theatre; the main operations were finished. George lay on the table, face up; his eyes were covered by clear plastic. I felt surprisingly queasy as I looked at it; the plastic had been implanted directly into the skin, attached directly to the bone. His skin would slough around it, I saw; eventually, his body would adapt.

One by one, I…installed all of the new systems into the implant, and then into George’s brain. I kept most of them stepped down, for the moment; they would be activated later. For the moment, George would have mobility from his new implants, but little else; he would soon be able to make those changes for himself.

“I think it’s working,” I said. There was an audible sigh of relief around the room. “Shall we try to wake him up?”

“I think so,” Hilda said. “Ming, if you would care to do the honours?”

George had been kept unconscious by using drugs to limit his brain activity; I injected the counter-agent, and stood well back. Later, it would be possible to use his implant to put him out, but for the moment, the drugs would have to do. His eyes opened…and he screamed.

“George,” I shouted back. “George!”

He stopped screaming. He just lay there. “Ming?”

“Yes,” I said. The implant was reporting normal activity. “George, how do you feel?”

“I feel nothing,” he said. “Nothing at all.”

I blinked. That hadn’t been expected; was the implant interfering with him…then I understood. I’d stepped down the nerves as well. “I’m going to bring your internals back,” I said dryly. “Are you ready?”

“I think so,” he said. He was a man with only a distant memory of pain and excitement. At the time, I could have performed a striptease and played with two girlfriends…and he wouldn’t have shown real interest. “Please.”

I adjusted the setting, returning him to normal. He gasped once and sat up; I was pleased to note that his new body functioned just as well as the old one. All right, it wasn’t exactly a new body, but…you get the general idea. His…unmentionables seemed all right; he hadn’t even used a Centaur’s Friend before, after all.

“Try to walk,” I said, watching as the implant adjusted itself to compensate. Given time, it would be almost perfect; he shouldn’t have any problems at all. “George?”

He was walking and moving, flexing all of his systems. “I think that it’s working,” he said. I watched as his arm opened, revealing a series of tools…and stared; that should have been stepped down. “How did I know how to do that?”

“Your body is adapting,” I said, puzzled. His arm looked normal; it was anything but, but he shouldn’t have been able to control it – because I had locked all of the new functions out of the implant. I stared at the display, watching how the implant was adapting, and gasped; the implant had adjusted automatically to compensate.

George was staring at me. “Is something wrong?”

“I’m not sure,” I admitted. He developed a raging erection, which vanished just as quickly; I was feeling more than a little stunned. I wouldn’t have minded if he’d wanted to fuck at the moment, although I was sure that Hilda would have been…unhappy – and Galeton might have carried out his threat to rape me. There was just something a little odd about the whole procedure. “George, I think we need to do more tests.”

George smiled. “That’s fine by me,” he said. His erection flared out again. “How do you want to proceed?”

“Not like that,” I said. An idea had occurred to me, two ideas, in fact. “I want you to start keeping a diary.”

George shrugged. I wondered…what else could he do?


Chapter Twenty: Enough Is Enough (Unless It’s Not Enough)

Planetary Defence Centre

American State, Earth

In some ways, Bernard Charles Andrew Harry Donkeybollocks Windsor wasn’t happy at their current location; the massive planetary defence centre built deep under the mountains. An asteroid could have hit the planet and not bothered the centre, he knew, but it…didn’t have quite the impact of using the old governing centres as meeting points. He’d chosen them for all manner of reasons, including the need to showcase that they were the new governors of Earth, but…they suited their role in ways that the ultra-modern defence centre could not.

General Lee had wanted to hold the meeting on one of the massive orbiting stations, but the others had refused; they wanted to remain on the ground. They were old, almost all of them were old enough to remember the time before spaceplanes and orbital towers; few of them would willingly have risked their lives. There were times when Windsor wondered if the only real difference between his people and the Belters was that the Belters lived with almost constant danger; a single leak in the life support systems could doom them as surely as anything else.

His people, by contrast, could look forward to over a hundred years of life, most of them spent at the prime of life, thanks to the anti-aging drugs. Was it any wonder, then, that they were reluctant to risk their lives? Only the young – and perhaps foolish – signed up for space activities; fortunately, there was never any shortage of them. It was the skilled people, the people with the intelligence and the determination to succeed, that he needed…and he had a suspicion that the Age of Unrest had bred most of them out of Earth’s population.

The recording on the delay was running at many times normal speed; it showed what had taken hours to record in minutes. Impossibly fast spacecraft leapt at the target, Base Theta, and attacked, their missiles seeming to rocket towards their targets; all the while countering the attacks from Base Theta. One exploded, then two…and then Base Theta was destroyed as the missiles struck home.

“The enemy craft began a long breaking manoeuvre once they were outside engagement range,” General Lee said finally. There was a grim atmosphere of hate in the room; Windsor found it depressing. They’d known that the Belters would have done something to strike back after Mahan; it seemed that they’d concentrated on destroying a single base. “By the time we could attempt to capture them, or destroy them, they’ll be back at Ceres.”

Windsor nodded before anyone else could speak. “Quite impressive,” he said. “How did our people perform?”

“Very well,” General Lee said. “I must say, Mr Windsor, that…”

“Very well?” Marie interrupted them. “There are thousands of credits invested there – or there were; they’ve been destroyed. How can you say that your people reacted well?”

Windsor winced at the bluntness. Marie had had a large interest in the base right from the start – her companies and facilities had been heavily involved in setting it up – but there was no need to be crude. Not even all the money on Earth could buy magical devices from science-fiction, could it?

“I want them to be tried,” Marie continued. “There should be a full investigation, taking place as soon as possible…”

“Under the Senate?” Windsor asked dryly, interrupting her. General Lee looked relieved; Marie was a daunting person at the best of times…and these were certainly not the best of times. “You want our noble lords and masters to be debating this? They might not think that everything was a wise course of action, you know.”

Marie glared at him. The Senate – elected by the taxpayers – had very little power; the bottom line of their society was that he who paid the piper called the tune…and the two hundred-odd super-citizens, the ultra-rich, paid most of the bills. It stopped the vast and useless waste of governmental money, because governments had rarely had proper oversight, but at the same time it gave them all obligations…and fears.

Windsor sighed inwardly. If he hadn’t ended up with the responsibility, he would have moved somewhere outside Earth…and watched the coming collapse from a safe distance. The measures to combat the environmental degeneration alone cost more credits than he wanted to think about…but his greatly expanded lifespan meant that he could no longer assume that it wouldn’t be a problem in his lifetime. The Paramils and the endless security measures might keep the insurgents under control, but it was no longer good enough; the problem had to be removed, permanently.

“We own the senate,” Marie said, her voice clipped and icy. “They will vote in our favour, at all times.”

“Which is just the sort of thing we cannot allow,” Windsor said. How could they hope to have others rising to their level if even more people thought that the game was rigged? “What about the publicity?”

“As you know, we couldn’t hope to prevent information leaking onto the datanet,” Andiron Pismire said. The Civil Servant seemed nervous; he wasn’t used to dealing with…this level of power and influence, something he could never hope to hold on his own. He’d spent years working with Windsor…but watching a war being decided on was something else. “The world knows about it.”

“Interesting,” Windsor said. He’d thought hard about ordering the censor programs to be activated, but he’d decided against it; there wasn’t that much point. By now, the information would have leaked out…and a few Senators would have to take the blame. Senators were replaceable; experienced military men were not. “General?”

General Lee looked up. “Is it your contention that the Paramils on the scene did everything they could?”

“Oh, yes,” General Lee said. He sounded nervous, but determined; he would have argued for his own people had that seemed necessary. “They managed to destroy two enemy ships.” He ignored Marie’s snort. “Given the situation, sir, that was almost impossible.”

“Good for them,” Windsor said. “And where is that…Captain now?”

“Captain Lynn and his ship are heading back here,” General Lee said. “I was intending to give him one of the new warships.”

Windsor nodded. “I think that that would be sufficient reward,” he said. “Now…what can we do to hit them back?”

“We should go for Ceres itself,” Marie said. “Take the force from Mars and most of what we have here, and just go for it. That should give us superiority in the numbers…and we have new lessons and tricks to apply that should give us the advantage. One of them was suggested by Lynn; he should be promoted to Commodore for that alone.”

“Show me,” Windsor said firmly. It would be hard to promote Lynn after Base Theta…unless there was a strong reason. “What will it do?”

General Lee smiled and explained. One of the main problems with high-speed spaceflight was that no spacecraft could see through its own fusion plume; the level of distortion was too great. At the same time, any ship burning a fusion drive could be seen halfway across the solar system; the enemy would have plenty of time to launch weapons at the ship…which would then have little time to react before being hit.

Lynn’s plan – scheme – was clever enough to suggest a way that the problem could be avoided, perhaps even eliminated altogether. It would require some tricky flying, but it could be done; General Lee certainly believed it could be done.

“Then we’d better keep this to ourselves until we actually attack Ceres,” Windsor said, after General Lee had finished his long explanation. “Could they counter it if they knew?”

“They could certainly use it for themselves,” General Lee said. “As to countering it, well, I suppose that they could get lucky and disrupt the system, but…”

“It is clever,” Windsor agreed. “Very well, I approve his promotion to Commodore, although I wonder if we should keep it a secret until after Ceres.”

General Lee nodded. “I was going to give him command of that mission,” he said. One thing neither side had was a proper organisation for commanding space fleets; neither side had admirals or admiralties. “He’s one of the most competent people we have.”

Marie snorted, but said nothing; her mind was clearly elsewhere. “So,” Windsor said, as soon as it had become clear that Marie wasn’t going to say anything, “when can we launch the attack on Ceres?”

“It depends on what you want to do,” General Lee said. “If you just want outright destruction, then we can move at once, but…”

“Destroy Ceres?” Marie asked. “It’s massive; there are dozens of asteroids within Ceres.”

“And they’ll have been expanding their own defences everywhere,” General Lee agreed. “Personally, it might take several missions to hammer them down to space rock; there is a lot of asteroids…and they will be well defended. They know at least as much as we do about defending an asteroid…and they will have the records from Base Theta as well.”

Windsor nodded. Someday, in the future, historians would study both sides’ records and come up with the definite history of the battle – which would then be argued over by children in school. For the moment, both sides had maddeningly incomplete records; they wouldn’t have any real capability for knowing what they might have missed.

“I believe, however, that outright destruction should be avoided,” General Lee continued. “Quite apart from the difficulty of the task, it would tempt the Belters into trying to launch asteroids at Earth, which would be bad for all concerned. We would have to aim for capture – we would have to attempt to take most of the asteroids intact. That, Mr Windsor, will not be easy.”

Marie frowned. “You mean…it’s not Mahan on a larger scale?”

“No,” General Lee said firmly. “There are so many asteroids that capturing Ceres becomes a much harder task…and they will be well defended. We would have to launch several invasions of asteroids, and we will have to defeat their fleet; Ceres has a defence force and those frigates will be back before any force of ours can reach Ceres.”

Windsor scowled. The human race had known for centuries of the infinitely complex dance of the skies, all of the planets and moons moving to a clockwork rhythm that had existed for longer than the human race had walked on two legs. It wasn’t something that could be changed; it would take weeks to get an assault force out to Ceres…and the fact that the same went for the other side wasn’t any comfort.

“So we would need a large force,” Windsor said. “How many people do you want?”

General Lee looked at him for a long moment. “Around ten thousand Paramils, trained for space combat, and as many ships as we can scrape up,” he said. “We may have to invade several asteroids simultaneously; we won’t want to give them time to react. We’ll also have to work harder on building laser-buster missiles; one of the things that we learnt from Mahan was that our precision targeting wasn’t perfect.”

Windsor shook his head slowly. “That would take weeks,” he said. “How long do you think we have?”

“We need overwhelming force,” General Lee said. “I think I can confidently say that if we fail to take Ceres, we will lose so much in the battle that it will probably cost us the war.”

“And convince some of the other asteroids, the ones that have kept their options open, to come in on their side,” Kesselring added. He’d been touring the other asteroids, but he’d found them all to be determined to sit on the fence. Ceres and dozens of smaller groups opposed Earth; few were willing to join Earth. “If we score a big victory, they’ll be willing to risk joining us.”

“And if we can take Ceres intact, our own total industry goes upwards,” Marie said. “Destruction is probably not a good idea, under the circumstances.”

“Very well,” Windsor said. “That would be at least a month of preparation and weeks of flight time. Is there anything else that we can do in that time?”

“Nothing,” General Lee said. “Oh, we could launch a few raids, but it won’t make much difference, and it would drain us as well. We could sit here, peacefully, and prepare.”

“Good,” Marie said. “We shall meditate upon the value of patience.”

Windsor kept the smile from his face. “And that leaves the other matter,” he said. “Kesselring?”

Kesselring frowned. “We sent a pair of diplomats to Titan,” he said. “I would have gone myself, but I’m needed here…”

“And you hate the plasma torch ships,” Marie added dryly.

“And I hate the plasma torch,” Kesselring agreed, equally dryly. “The offer was simple enough, a request to discuss other conditions prior to any…Titan entry into the Global Federation.”

Windsor stared at him. His voice was incredulous. “Titan is offering to join us?”

“Not exactly, perhaps not yet,” Kesselring said. “They want to sound us out about possible terms for their entering the Federation, presumably after the war ends.”

“If we win at Ceres, the alliance might crumble,” Windsor mused. “What sort of terms are they offering?”

Kesselring shrugged. “I have no idea,” he said. “That’s what they wanted the diplomats to help decide. I suspect, at best, they’ll want to continue their own research programs without interference.”

“I could live with that,” Windsor said. He grinned; a lot of technologies had come out of Titan. “Let’s hope that they see the sense in joining us.”

On that note, the meeting ended.

***

Windsor had been tempted to find a woman, afterwards; he wanted some comfort, but he knew that there was no one who could provide that comfort. His life was a lonely one, at least in his own mind; who else had the determination to work for humanity with the determination he had shown? Who else was governed by the principle of saving the world?

He scowled, lifting his glass to his lips and drinking, slowly and firmly. The fiery taste of the wine, made from genetically-engineered grapes, was a metaphor for his own problem; the legacy of years of human carelessness. Could all of the disasters have been avoided if…?

He shook his head. There was no point in worrying over what might have been; they would have little choice, but to play their cards out to the end. Would it had made a difference if the world governments had launched into space right from the first, or…he scowled; he was indulging in wishful thinking, and there was no longer time for it.

His eyes fell on the map on the desk, an old-style map from 1900, showing the empires of that time. It had always amused him; the map could almost have been an image of the modern-day world, although the empires were very different. There were the civilised regions, countries where the decisions were made, and there were the badlands – the regions that resisted the global rule. In his world, places like Africa and the Middle East tried to resist his rule and that of his fellows; the Paramils hunted their enemies ruthlessly, but even they were hard-pressed to keep them under control.

High over his head, he knew that orbital weapons had been used against an insurgent force, and poison gas had been deployed against their camp. Their women, often nothing more than prisoners, had been killed; their children had been taken to people who would adopt them. He’d taken the lead, years ago, in moving to establish new cities, forcing the mooks to adapt – or die.

And Mars – Mars had been the key; a world where humans could live after Earth collapsed. There were times when he wanted to go there himself; when all hell broke loose, he would wish that he had moved – but he knew his duty. He had claimed global power, along with only a handful of his fellows…and that gave him responsibilities.

The slave of duty, he thought, remembering the opera that had had that as its subtitle. He had enjoyed it – modern-day productions enjoyed advantages that the originals could only dream of – but he had understood; the hero had no choice, but to do his duty, no matter how stupid it seemed. He could leave at any moment, but instead…he chose to stay. No Mabel tempted him from his duty.

“God help us all,” he said, and went to bed. There was nothing left to do, but wait.


Chapter Twenty-One: Promotion For Losing? (Who Ever Heard Of Such a Thing?)


Shadow

In Transit/Earth Orbit

Given enough power, a spaceship could break free of the effects of gravity completely, at the cost of having to decelerate and match velocities at the destination. Captain Andrew Lynn, Paramilitary Space Force, hadn’t intended to return to Earth at such a breakneck speed – one that would entail their being met by a tanker before they could decelerate enough to enter orbit – but orders were orders.

“They must want to shoot me themselves,” he’d muttered to Commander Dane, at the time. He hadn’t wanted to leave the transports on their own, even though Shadow had shot off all of her missiles, but orders were orders, even – perhaps – stupid orders. Whatever Paramil Command wanted, it was urgent enough to risk losing Shadow permanently; if the tanker failed to meet them, they would be lost forever in space.

He frowned down at the display, which was endlessly repeating the details of the Battle of Base Theta. Later, he was sure, some historian would come up with a snappy name for it, but for the moment it was still too raw for him to consider it as anything other than the Battle of Base Theta – his lost Battle of Base Theta. It was humiliating; he’d done everything right, made the right choices…and lucky guesses, and then he’d still lost the base itself.

If I’d destroyed the entire force and still lost the base, it would have been a defeat, he thought, as the record repeated itself – again and again. He went through it carefully, looking for signs of weaknesses in the enemy craft, and found none; they were well-designed, almost as well-designed as Shadow itself. They were larger and to some extent more powerful, but that didn’t matter; what mattered was the skill with which their Belter commanders had used them.

He smiled suddenly; the Lynn Manoeuvre, if the Paramil Commander accepted the name, was the only good thing to come out of his obsessive study of the battle. Both sides had been denied the use of their main drives…and the enemy had been denied it more than his force. They, at least, had had the option of using it; he had not.

But they hadn’t used it, and not just because they wanted to continue along a predictable course; that would have been tactical suicide under other circumstances. In his experience, few commanders would risk their ships unnecessarily…and that meant that there had to be a good reason to risk coming along on a ballistic course. Only one reason would hold…and that was that they hadn’t wanted to blind themselves.

He allowed himself a moment of triumph, before remembering that he was almost certainly returning home in disgrace; Paramil Command had to be looking for scapegoats. He had been the commanding officer; he’d lost thousands of credits worth of habitats and shipyards, and then he’d lost three stealth ships as well – perhaps four if they were feeling really pissed at him. They weren’t going to give him anything other than a Bronx Cheer; he would be lucky if they only assigned him to garbage control monitoring.

“Captain,” Commander Dane said, over the intercom. “Captain, the tanker is preparing to make final approach.”

“Oh, joy,” Lynn said. He knew his duty; he unstrapped himself from his chair and pulled himself into Shadow’s bridge, taking his seat in the acceleration chair. The display altered, showing the tanker gaining on them from behind; normally, they would never come this close to another ship. If there were a collision, no one would ever find anything of either ship. “Report!”

“Tanker #473 is accelerating along precise course,” the helm officer said. “They’re about to enter close approach.”

Lynn nodded. They had only a little reaction mass left for the thrusters; the tanker would have to do all the work. “Keep us steady,” he said, unnecessarily. The Belters and the Earth-based groups shared a common procedure for this kind of manoeuvre; common sense had had its day. “Allow them to do all the work.”

“Aye, sir,” the helm officer said. “They’re inching closer now.”

Lynn watched, trying hard to remain calm; the problem was chilling in its simplicity. The tanker, a massive craft carrying thousands of tons of fuel, would have to match speeds precisely, far too close to his ship. Once they were balanced, then they could simply run a fuel line across, but if they failed, they would be trapped; his ship would be lost and he didn’t want to think about what would happen to the tanker.

He smiled grimly; it could be worse. If they came screaming in towards Earth at this speed, the defences would blow them out of space, just in case. Normally, he would have resented the suggestion that he couldn’t have controlled his craft, but he knew that without fuel, he couldn’t have avoided a collision if he came close enough to hit the planet.

“They’re making their own final burn now,” the helm officer said. “They’re firing reaction thrusters now and…they’re matching…they’re matching…”

“Get on with it,” Lynn said, wishing that someone else had the command chair. “It can’t take forever, can it?”

“They’re matching…they’re matched,” the helm officer said. “No deviation; we’re on the same course, heading and speed matched.”

“Thank God,” Lynn said. He allowed himself a moment of relief; it wasn’t unusual for people to have to change their trousers after carrying out such a manoeuvre. “Tell them that they can proceed at once.”

“Aye, sir,” Commander Dane said. “They’re starting to send over the fuel line now.”

“Show me,” Lynn ordered. “Activate the starboard cameras.”

The display flickered and changed, showing the bulk of the tanker hovering nearby, sending shivers down Lynn’s spine. Instincts older than space flight were shouting at him; they saw a near-collision and screamed ‘move!’ A man in a spacesuit was moving across the void, obviously carrying the same velocity as the two ships; Lynn could only hope that he had the sense to carry several back-up lines or he would be lost forever.

“He’s requesting that we open the main fuel link,” Commander Dane said. “Sir?”

Lynn shook his head in astonishment. “Open it,” he said. “Let him fill us up.”

The display closed in on the man, who was attaching a line to the ship; the display altered as cold fuel began to pour into the ship’s engines. Lynn glanced up at the system; the fuel was spilling in nicely…and as he watched it splashed past the level that would allow them to brake for rendezvous with Earth. He sighed in relief; they would have far more fuel than they needed for the worst-case scenario.

“They’re signalling that they’re finished,” Commander Dane said. “They want permission to decelerate.”

“Granted,” Lynn said. The display altered again as the tanker shed a little speed; as the minutes built up into an hour, the tanker fell further and further behind. “I think that we can prepare for our own burn. Engineering?”

“It’s good fuel, sir,” the engineering officer said. “We can decelerate at any moment you please.”

“Good,” Lynn said. “Helm; begin deceleration procedures.”

“Aye, sir,” the helm officer said. “Beginning turnover now.”

The Shadow flipped slowly over, turning so that its main drive was pointing along its angle of travel, and then…the main drive fired. Lynn winced as the crushing gravities reached out for him, pushing him back into his chair; the ship was shedding speed as fast as it could. Earth was coming up from the rear; they would have to match Earth’s own speed and slip into orbit. Failure was not an option.

“Main burn completed, sir,” the helm officer said. “We’re positioned for insertion now.”

“Good,” Lynn said, suppressing the sigh of relief he wanted to emit. “Inform Earth Command of our course, our speed, and ask them where they want us to dock.”

Long moments passed. “I just got an update,” Commander Dane said. “They want us to dock at the main orbital station.”

Lynn lifted an eyebrow. It wasn’t a hard manoeuvre to fly – and he had every confidence in his people’s ability to fly it – but it was a surprise. He had expected one of the lunar shipyards, or one of the bases at the Lagrange points; not the main command centre for deep space activities.

“Set a course,” he ordered. “Have they sent us any vectors?”

“Yes, sir,” Commander Dane said. “They want us to be moving as quickly as we can.”

Lynn exchanged a confused glance with him. Hurry up and wait was common to the Paramils, just as common as it had been with the military organisations that had existed before the Global Federation had taken over, but…it was odd. The expense of the tanker alone must have been considerable; he’d expected a tug, rather than anything else.

He shrugged as they settled onto their new course. Doubtless he’d find out before too long.

***

No one, from the most senior Paramil officer to the lowliest of reporters, was allowed to fly in Low Earth Orbit; there was always the danger of colliding with the orbital towers. It was overrated, as it always was when ground-pounders started acting as if they understood space, but Lynn could see the sense of it. In theory, it was impossible to destroy a tower…but theory had been proven wrong before.

Spaceplanes and landing craft were allowed to fly on emergency missions, but he knew that real emergences happened very rarely; Shadow itself would never have been allowed near the towers. Instead, the spaceship entered high orbit, moving in to dock with the main facility, hanging high over the planet.

Lynn entered the long tube that led to the main station and stopped; it had been a long time since he’d seen Earth. He gazed down upon the planet, watching one of the massive cloud formations drifting over Africa, and then he turned his gaze away firmly; he might well be dumped there in a few hours, disgraced. Setting his cap firmly on his head, he walked through the growing gravity field as it grew stronger, finally finding his way into the main station itself.

He noticed the security first as he passed through the airlocks; armoured guards stood everywhere. It was something worrying; the Belters were the first opponent that the Global Federation had met that had the capability to attack the orbital bases and industries. The original reason for placing so many of them in orbit had been to keep them out of attack range; the mooks and insurgents had become more and more determined to wreck the entire world as the Age of Unrest raged on.

Now, the Paramils seemed to be nervous; he hoped that no one had been adding new material to implants lately, because he wouldn’t have any of the updates. Everything seemed fine, however; the guards saluted as he entered the main connecting corridor…and walked into the main command centre.

It had been years since he’d last been there, and he paused to admire the thousands of consoles, spread out over the entire section, with dozens of people working hard to monitor deep space around the Solar System. He knew that they had been working hard to expand the monitoring network in light of recent events, and watching how it was developing was impressive; one day, they might be able to gain information about colonies on Pluto.

“Captain Lynn,” a voice said from behind him. “Thank you for coming.”

Lynn turned, to see General Lee; the senior Paramil officer on Earth. He jumped to attention at once; the Paramils might work on the concept of delegating authority, but the proper respect had to be shown. He saluted firmly; Lee returned it – that alone suggested that it wasn’t entirely bad news.

“General,” he said. “I understand that you wanted to see me.”

“Yes,” General Lee said. “If you’ll come with me…”

Lynn, puzzled, followed him as he led the way into a secure office. “You were on the scene during the recent battle,” General Lee said, as soon as the door had closed. “What were your impressions of the Belters?”

Lynn hesitated, then decided to be honest. “I think that they’re good,” he admitted. “The person I faced at Base Theta knew what she was doing; they handled themselves perfectly.”

General Lee gave him an unreadable look. “So did you,” he said. “You scored two hits on ships that should have been unkillable.”

Lynn relaxed slightly. “I made the correct guesses and used my ships to their best advantage,” he said, taking the opportunity to preen. “Once I was in firing position…”

He paused. “I believe that if I had more missiles, I would have annihilated them,” he said. “They would still have destroyed the base, but…it would have been mutual destruction.”

“You might have been right,” General Lee said. “Unfortunately, it was decided that sending additional warships to the base would have weakened Earth badly.”

Lynn frowned. “The defences of Earth are strong,” he said. “Have they tried to probe Earth with stealth ships of their own?”

“Would they need them?” General Lee asked. “Do you have any idea how much traffic floats around Earth? Even with the embargo, there are still some ships that come in, from asteroids that want to remain on our good side.” He snorted. “There is the danger that they would lose, after all.”

Lynn shook his head. “I read your paper,” General Lee continued. “It’s quite clever, in its own way; it’s gained you a promotion to Commodore. Congratulations, Commodore Lynn.”

Lynn stared at him. “But I lost the battle,” he exclaimed. “Sir…?”

General Lee gave him a mischievous look. “Are you complaining?”

“No, sir, I…” Lynn broke off. “Sir…?”

“You didn’t win the battle,” General Lee said. “However, you fought well with what you had, rather than running for your life. They have a propaganda victory, but not a complete one; you ensured that while we lost, we didn’t look like idiots while losing.” He paused. “And then there is the idea you submitted. So, Commodore Lynn, how do you feel?”

Lynn smiled. The Paramils had mainly been a ground force; they’d copied the system of command ranks from the western militaries they had replaced. He would be the first senior space-based officer in the Paramils; the first to hold a genuine naval rank. He might even be the first admiral in a space-based force in history!

“The rank is yours,” General Lee said flatly. “I think that we’re probably going to end up with a separate space-based service; it was hard enough ensuring that several Generals who knew bugger-all about space were removed from any position of space-based responsibility.”

Lynn blanched. The prospects of a seniority struggle would be very high; the more so because incompetence simply wasn’t permitted to exist in high positions. Paramils fought to gain promotion; rear-echelon chair-warmers were not permitted to hold field commands. That said, the techniques of fighting in space were very different from fighting on the ground…and none of the officers would have a history of incompetence.

“You’ll have seniority,” General Lee said seriously. “Under the circumstances, it would probably be wise.”

Lynn blinked. “Seniority for what?”

General Lee was enjoying himself. “I knew I forgot to mention something,” he said. “You have been appointed commanding officer of Operation Punch-In-Jaw.”

Lynn felt his mouth fall open. “Operation Punch-In-Jaw?”

“I chose it myself,” General Lee said. “Good, isn’t it? It’s a plan to attack and capture Ceres itself…and end the war in one stroke.”

Lynn took a breath. “And I’m to have tactical command?”

“We’re putting together a large fleet now,” General Lee said, more seriously. “We’re telling everyone that it’s an attempt to reinforce Mars, but really the force will boost straight to Ceres…and attack. You’ll have complete command…and complete control; you’ll be the person making all of the hard decisions.”

He paused. “You poor bastard.”

Lynn tried to think and forced his mind to work properly. “I would have total authority?”

“You would be planning the attack,” General Lee said. “The fate of the war might well be in your hands.”

Lynn stared at him. “In that case, I accept,” he said. For once, he didn’t know what to say. “I won’t fail you.”


Chapter Twenty-Two: Hail the Conquering Hero Comes (And Goes)

Ceres Spaceport

Ceres Asteroid, Ceres Federation

“Captain, we have permission to dock,” HONOR said. “The spaceport crew would like to welcome us back.”

Captain April Masterson smiled grimly. They might have lost – hell, there was no ‘might’ about it – some of the ships, but they had scored a victory. Even the ambush hadn’t damaged her crew’s morale; they knew that they had won.

“Thank them for us,” she said, as the John Paul Jones closed into the dock. There were dozens of spacecraft docked already, but the spaceport had cleared a special docking place for the fast frigates. She’d seen the new frigates that were being built, and twenty more had been launched in the three weeks they’d been on the mission, but she was the first commander to win a major space battle.

The ship shuddered slightly. “I confirm that we have docked,” Lieutenant Bixby said. “Docking clamps engaged; we are secured to the spaceport.”

“Good,” April said. “I think that we’re all owed a few days in the fleshpots, right?”

“I think they want to have a parade first,” HONOR said. “I am accessing the internal cameras; there’s a group of dignitaries waiting for us in the gravity regions.”

April winced. All she wanted was to rest, and then get back to work; she didn’t want to spend hours making a speech. “Can you plot us a path away from them?” She asked, and then shook her head; it was just silly. “No, forget that; I suppose we’d better go face the music.”

“Yes, Captain,” Lieutenant Bixby said. “Of course, you could go and we could…”

“It is the Captain’s prerogative to make her crew suffer,” April said dryly. “If I have to go to a ceremony, you’re coming with me.”

“Yes, Captain,” Paterson said. Beside him, Ensign Janice looked…honoured; she hadn’t realised how boring such a ceremony could be for those who hadn’t wanted to go. “All weapons are on safe and code-locked; they can’t be fired without the command codes.”

“I confirm,” HONOR said. “You may disembark when ready.”

April pulled herself towards the hatch and opened it, allowing the fresh – fresher – air of Ceres to spill into the ship; eight people in close proximity did not make for fresh air. She took a big gulp, then pulled herself out completely, allowing the force of her push to carry her right across to the other airlock. It opened as she approached, onto an empty corridor, and she slipped through, into the main spaceport.

There were only a handful of people there, mainly the crew from the other ships; they looked tired and stained with sweat. April laughed inside at herself; she looked a mess as well. Belters, people who spent all their time in cramped compartments, tended to develop new standards of what was acceptable in company…and what constituted dating outfits. One of the oldest jokes had been to take advantage of ground-pounder female tourists; they didn’t grasp that short dresses were not an advantage in the Belt.

“Captain,” Captain Floid said. The gruff Sudanese man made the half-nod that served as the Belter salute; a proper salute would have been difficult in zero-gee. “It was a pleasure to serve under your command.”

“Thank you,” April said. She allowed herself a moment of relief that she wasn’t going to be lynched as soon as she stepped off her ship. “I think we’ll all get squadrons to command for this.”

Floid smiled. “I hope so,” he said. He was as black as she was, but rougher; his face had never been repaired since an accident on a mining ship. “Shall we go willingly to our own execution?”

“It won’t be that bad,” April said, understanding his point. Sheriffs were not supposed to engage in popularity contests; being cheered was supposed to be alien to them. “Come on.”

She led the way down the corridor, pulling herself along, and entered the main core of the habitat itself. Below them, she saw the landscape, spread out in a massive cylinder; Ceres was one of the largest habitats in existence. Ground-pounders were known to react badly to sights like that, but she’d been brought up in a habitat; moving from one perspective to another was second nature to her.

“There,” Lieutenant Bixby said. April followed his pointing finger; a small crowd was gathered around the elevator. From their position, they looked like ants; there were enough of them to be visible even from their height. “I think they’re waiting there.”

April sighed. “Come on,” she said, and led the way into the elevator. The gravity started to build up as the elevator went down towards the surface. “Let’s go face the music.”

The elevator was a very efficient system; it was less than a minute before the doors opened, revealing a vast crowd. Cheers broke out as they walked out into a platform, wincing as they returned to gravity; she stared at the crowds with something like horror. Belters were hardly unsociable, but habits hammered into them since birth warned of the possible disaster of having so many people crammed together.

“Welcome back,” Jefferson said. The sight of the Chief Sheriff calmed her, more than anything else; she had partnered with him when she’d joined the service. He wouldn’t let it get too far out of hand. “The people here want a speech.”

“Oh,” April said, seeing the microphone on the end of the podium. Reluctantly, she stepped up to the microphone…and cringed at the cheers that echoed out for her.

“Speech,” someone shouted. She was appalled to realise that it was a man she’d spent time with in one of the brothels. He hadn’t been a good lover; like many people who went to the brothels, he went for sexual release, not intimacy. “Speech!”

The crowd took up the chant. “Speech, speech, SPEECH!”

“Oh, all right,” April muttered, and activated the microphone. Quiet fell as she opened her mouth. “We won.”

***

“We won,” Jefferson said, an hour later. “Not exactly material for the holographs, is it?”

April laughed and waved a hand towards the podium, where a Senator was speaking on and on about his plan to introduce additional training for the younger children in fighting techniques. The crowd, meanwhile, was showing its traditional show of disdain for anything that smacked of over-regulation…by throwing little pieces of bread at the speaker.

“What about that man?” She asked. She didn’t think that Jefferson – or anyone, for that matter – had intended to turn the meeting into a political debate, but it had gone that way. “He’s been talking for ten minutes.”

“Everyone has the right to disagree here,” Jefferson said mildly. There were some asteroids built around social systems that even she found horrifying, such as the Satanists, but as long as they didn’t break any rules, they had to be left in peace. “Look, he’s starting to get the idea.”

April sat back. “Is this when you’re about to burn my behind?” She asked. Corporal punishment wasn’t unknown among the Belters. “God knows I deserve it.”

Jefferson gave her a droll look. “You’ve been too old for years,” he said. “Natural selection and all that.”

April glared at him. The Belt tended to weed out the stupid very quickly; they normally killed themselves in accidents. The Belt had little tolerance for teenage nonsense; it could cost lives. Suicide was a Belter right…but endangering the lives of others was not.

“I lost two ships and sixteen men,” she said. “You have every right to be mad at me.”

“No, I don’t,” Jefferson said. “You fought a battle…and you won. Better still, you allowed some of their crew to escape; there was no point in starting a worse war with a massacre. You gave them warning and you kept your word…and you defeated an attack that could have wiped out your entire force.”

April frowned. She’d known, of course, that records of the battle would have been studied by both sides for weeks, after the battle had been fought, but it was the first time she’d seen it in person. After all, how many battles had there been; Mahan itself had clearly received the same treatment.

“Yes, you could have fired earlier,” Jefferson said. “There will be dozens of people with degrees and no practical experience who will tell you that…and you will have to listen – rather than punching them one in the face.”

April laughed. “That said, the Council is very happy with the result,” Jefferson concluded. “So, what do you want to do now?”

“I don’t know,” April admitted. “I rather expected that I would be returning to command of one ship.”

“Not likely,” Jefferson said. “You may have noticed all of the new construction?” April nodded. “That’s the next twenty frigates for combat operations; you will command a flotilla or a squadron or whatever it ends up being called. You – hell, all of the six captains – are the most experienced people we have.”

April smiled. It was a dream come true; she would be commanding a fleet of her own, even if it were only eight ships. “We’re going to stay with the time in grade as an expression of seniority,” Jefferson continued. “As the first frigate captain, you’ll be senior; that makes you our most important officer. Don’t go and get yourself killed.”

“Thank you,” April said. “Sir, what are we going to do now?”

“A good question,” Jefferson agreed. “For the moment, you are going to enjoy the rest of the party; there are a lot of people who have come to celebrate. Eat, drink, fuck…do what you want. Tomorrow, you’ll be working to sort out the lessons from Singapore – at least, the lessons that are actually important to us.”

“They honoured the escape vector,” April said slowly. “That’s good, isn’t it?”

Jefferson nodded. “I think as long as we can keep this from becoming a genocidal campaign, we’ll be fine,” he said. “There are those, mainly in the Exodus Movement, who think that it will…and so they set off to find a new world.”

April shook her head in awe. “Dozens of asteroid ships, heading out across the void,” she said. “It’s amazing.”

“An entire colony fleet,” Jefferson agreed. “They can make it…and who knows what they will find?”

“True,” April said. A boundless sense of wonder overcame her for a long moment, before she shook her head; she wouldn’t make that kind of commitment. “It’ll be years before they reach anywhere, sir,” she said. “I wouldn’t want that.”

“Me neither,” Jefferson agreed. “Still, wouldn’t it be wonderful?”

April smiled and said her goodbyes, before heading back to the party. There would be time enough for work tomorrow; Jefferson had been right. She needed, desperately, to relax.

***

“I think that we can all agree that Captain Masterson should be given a medal,” Andrea said. Her voice was the perfect expression of reasonableness. “She has done well – well enough to convince some of the fence-sitters to come over to our side.”

Doctor Travis Thaddeus, Director of Ganymede, snorted. “Until they slap us back,” he said. “Perhaps they’re even now preparing the super-weapon that would allow them to crush us.”

Geoffrey Bradford Wilkinson, Mayor of Ceres, sighed. One problem with the war was that it was like trading blows, with neither side able to force a settlement on their terms. The Belters couldn’t defeat Earth, unless the embargo managed to work perfectly and he knew that it was leaky, and Earth couldn’t stamp on them hard enough to make them bend over.

“We’re preparing SEALION…and they’re doubtless working on their own version of SEALION,” he said. It would be irony indeed if both sides came up with the same codename; they both faced similar problems to the original Operation Sealion of baleful memory. “We have to hang on until then.”

He turned and looked around the table. “So…is there anything that we can do until SEALION is ready?”

“I am inclined to say that we should wait,” Jefferson said. His old voice was tired; he’d been at the party. So had Wilkinson – the Mayor could hardly not go – but he hadn’t stayed. “We don’t have that many targets; there’s Earth, Mars…and the handful of asteroids that are sending supplies to Earth. Unfortunately, they’re well outside easy range; it would make sending the force to Singapore look simple by comparison.”

Wilkinson scowled. Launching Captain Masterson had been a risk; the enemy might well have intended to launch an attack on Ceres…and her ships would have had problems making rendezvous in time to join the defence. They’d run the calculations, and decided that it had been worth the risk, but…it had been a risk, and every ounce of Belter mentality insisted that risks should be avoided.

At the same time, the trickle of supplies made holding the embargo difficult; the force of miner ships trying to intercept the supplies were having problems. They might be impossible for the Paramils to clear out entirely, no matter how much raging about pirates the Earth Senate indulged in, but they could be fended off…and losses were growing. Soon, he knew that the Miner’s Union would insist on him sending warships to blockade Earth, knowing that that would kick the war up a notch.

“But we have to do something,” Flint said. The Union Leader frowned at him. “We cannot just sit here and do nothing.”

“It’s not nothing,” Andrea said. “We are preparing for the major attack that will solve all of our problems…that will force Earth to surrender. If we attack too early, we will blow away all of our advantages…for nothing. Sheriff, can we attack now and win with what we have?”

“I doubt it,” Jefferson said. “If we attack with what we have, it will only waste firepower and probably ships as well.”

“Then we wait,” Wilkinson said firmly. “We could attack Mars, except that gains us nothing; Earth is the centre of the enemy’s war effort. We wait…and we build up. Julia?”

“We have made rapid progress at Ceres and I assume that the same is true at Titan and Ganymede,” Julia said. Both Thaddeus and Andrea nodded. “If we have a month, we should be able to deploy upwards of one hundred frigates, with the firepower to support them,” she continued. “If we have five months, we should be secure against any conceivable attack; we’d have a thousand ships.”

She paused. “It’s hard to say for certain, of course, but the program seems to be working well,” she said. “We’re working to build the ships, expand our own construction facilities, and build weapons. Fortunately, there’s something of a glut on the market for ores, so obtaining them is not a problem.”

“Earth isn’t taking them,” Wilkinson commented.

“We might end up with economic problems of our own,” Flint injected. “A lot of miners depended on the money from Earth.”

“We’re paying them standard rates,” Julia said firmly. “We have plenty of robotics to do most of the construction, so our main bottleneck remains trained manpower.”

“We’re recruiting a lot of miners,” Jefferson said. “Given time, we’ll have a powerful force.”

Wilkinson smiled. “Andrea?”

Andrea smiled. They’d already decided that mentioning the Spacers to the rest of the Council would be a bad idea. “Titan is proceeding with its own program,” she said. “We should be able to make the hundred space ships of the first program within a month or so, along with several new weapons. If we were prepared to hold SEALION off for a few months, we’d be invincible anyway; there are some truly interesting items coming into view.”

“And the light at the end of the tunnel is sometimes an oncoming train,” Thaddeus muttered. “Ganymede is proceeding along similar lines, my friends; we should have two hundred ships in a couple of months.”

Wilkinson nodded thoughtfully. “Two months to SEALION,” he said. “That should be interesting.”

An alarm chimed. Wilkinson blinked, and then accessed the display; it was showing a report from one of the probes near Earth. “Ah,” he said.

Andrea lifted one elegant eyebrow. Wilkinson had never understood how she managed to look that good in space. “Ah?”

“I said ah,” Wilkinson said. ‘Ah’ didn’t even begin to sum up the problem. “I think…that we’re about to find out what their version of SEALION is…and just how much trouble we are in.”


Chapter Twenty-Three: Advance to Pole Position (And Then Wait)

Up Yours

In Transit

“I think that Command thinks that it knows what it’s doing…and doesn’t,” Private Steven Singh observed. It had been three weeks since the attack on Base Theta…and their dispatch from Mahan Asteroid back to Earth. “Where do you think they want us now?”

“I’ve no idea,” Corporal Rogers said. The Up Yours was moving quickly through space; the boosting had been worse than the last time they’d travelled in space. “After the reports about Base Theta, they would have ensured that there was something in the works to extract revenge.”

“They want to hit the Belters back as hard as they can,” Private Felicity Jones said. She fancied herself something of a historian and it showed. “If they don’t, they’ll look weak and then the mooks of the week will take heart.”

The Paramils nodded. They knew little about history, except elements useful to their own work, but they understood the concept of looking strong. All of them knew that it was better to intimidate a mountain clan or some other bunch of mooks, rather than spend the time and effort, afterwards, in crushing them after they dared to interfere with the Global Federation. Civilisation would advance…and that was all there was to it.

They knew that they had done well, on Earth; resistance was at an all-time low. They had the weapons, the experience and the sheer bloody-minded determination to keep the world peaceful, both through active and reactive measures. They kept their guard up, reinforcing troubled areas with supporting forces…and calling in strikes from orbit to hammer particularly troubling regions. Many of the mooks were people who had been kept from civilisation by their own leaders; they often welcomed the Paramils.

But the Belt made no sense, Singh knew; it was puzzling. They were advanced, experienced and capable; could they not see the benefits of unity? There hadn’t been any real incident on Mahan; perhaps because of their strong presence, but they could feel the hatred raging out at them. The Belt was vast; would the reduced garrison on Mahan be able to keep it after they had been withdrawn? It wasn’t as if the inhabitants were people too stupid to know that shooting a battlesuit with a flintlock was futile.

“They scored a major blow against us,” Felicity continued. Her voice kept them listening; she was respected, if not always loved. Her short brown hair covered her dark eyes; she intended to rise in the ranks to reach command status. A knowledge of history came in handy for that. “We have to hit them back.”

“But where?” Rogers said. The Paramils couldn’t afford to keep their leaders as mini-dictators; Rogers would bark orders when they hit the ground, but he would take an equal part in the debate on the ship. “The belt is full of inhabited asteroids.”

“Somewhere a little further out,” Felicity said. Singh shrugged; there were thousands of inhabited asteroids in the belt…how many of them would they be expected to garrison? One hundred Paramils had felt endangered in Mahan; one thousand had held the entire group of asteroids…and had felt nervous. Could they afford to place a hundred Paramils on each asteroid?

Rogers shrugged. “They’re pulling us back to Earth,” he said. “Somehow, I don’t think that it’s to give us some leave.”

There were groans from around the compartment, but they all knew the score; Paramils got a standard month off each year, by squads, unless they were recalled. With the war on, Singh expected that no one would get leave…and he wondered if the higher-ups would claim leave for themselves. The Paramils had some collective sense of duty, he supposed, so he doubted it.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean anything,” Private Jack Claiborne said. He was a fairly skilled pilot who – for some reason – had chosen to remain with the ground-pounders. “The solar system is not the same as dragging an assault force all around the world; it would take weeks to send a force to Pluto, for example.”

Singh winced. Was there anything on Pluto? He couldn’t remember. “I don’t think they’ll want to send us out there,” he said. “Do you?”

“No,” Claiborne said. He paused. “At least I hope not. Point is…the planets move. Mars might be closer to Mahan, which was itself quite close to Earth, than it is to Earth; we might leave one month and take a few weeks to get to Mars…and a different month it might take months to reach the planet.”

“But there are those bridge ships,” Felicity said. “They go to Mars all the time; my sister went there to colonise.”

“They’re slower than anything we have here,” Claiborne said dryly. “They follow the gravity paths rather than using a straight fusion drive; they can take a lot of time to reach their destinations. Did your sister say anything about the war on Mars?”

“Only that there was a lot of unrest,” Felicity said. “There might well be more Paramils being recruited there.”

Singh winced. One very clear rule was that Paramils never served in the state they’d been recruited from, whatever else they did. A Paramil was supposed to have no emotional ties at all; someone who worked where they lived would be…torn between different loyalties. He or she would have friends there…and while the Paramils didn’t disapprove of friends outside the service, they warned against having them where they served.

“Sam and Ayah,” Claiborne said. The case had stunned a lot of Paramils; one young Paramil had fallen for a dusky-skinned beauty in Africa, only to discover that she’d been ordered to seduce him for her family to kill him and eat him. The tribesmen had been slaughtered to the last man; an excessive response, but one no one had raised any objection. How could they have?

“It’s not quite the same thing,” Felicity said. “How could we spend weeks racing to Mars?”

“It would be tricky,” Claiborne agreed. “A fusion ship is less dependent upon gravity and slingshot manoeuvres, but…it would still take time. Weeks at best, weeks where we couldn’t go elsewhere.”

“Wonderful,” Felicity said. “We’re fighting…what? Round five of the Age of Unrest?”

Singh frowned. He liked Felicity, although not in a sexual way; she was a lesbian. “I wouldn’t let anyone hear you say that,” he said, as the dull atonal alarm of the boost warning blared through the ship. “Come on; we have to take up positions for the boost.”

Claiborne blinked as he pulled himself out of the small seat and floated towards the acceleration couches. “So…where the hell are we going?”

“You’re the pilot,” Rogers said. “Can’t you tell from the course?”

“They haven’t shared it with me,” Claiborne said. “Even so…we’re nowhere near Earth, unless they’ve been boosting and we haven’t noticed, somehow.”

Singh snorted. “Why can’t they keep the drive on all the time, at a lower level?”

“They’d run out of fuel and have nothing to stop with,” Claiborne said. “We’d be flying out of the solar system and there’d be no way of saving us, unless somehow someone invents an FTL drive.”

***

General Batik was a small tough man, a man with bad intentions, sheer determination and capability. Unlike many Paramil commanders, he had made his name studying space combat techniques, in particular the requirements for suppressing a revolt on the Moon. Far too many people on the Moon had plotted for lunar independence; it was something that couldn’t be allowed.

Ironically, General Batik simply didn’t care; he would carry out the task he was given, even if that meant surrendering command to a younger Captain – or Commodore. Part of General Batik’s mind rebelled against that – Commodore was not a normal Paramil rank – but he understood the requirement; he knew nothing of ship-to-ship combat.

The main deck of the transport was filled with images of the ships as they assembled, from the forty new warships to the transports and the support ships. All of them were armed; Commodore Lynn had insisted on working to build a complete anti-missile network of laser weapons…and General Batik understood and accepted the concept. He was, technically speaking, the second in command…although he knew that he wasn’t qualified for the task.

“Establish the link-up,” he ordered. He’d made the decision to give the main briefing himself; all of the Paramils, crewmen and fighters would be sealed in, rather than having the opportunity to transmit messages to who knew whom. The Paramils considered that their people had to be kept informed…and in this case there was no need to keep secrecy; their fusion plumes would be a direct alarm to the enemy.

“Yes, General,” his aide said. There was a long moment where dozens of Paramils, tied into the intercom and the datanet on the ships, would be preparing to hear his words; the sensation was almost overpowering. “The link-up is established.”

“At ease,” he said formally, knowing that they would see what he saw, but they would only see the image of him…and he wouldn’t see them at all. They might be standing at attention – or as close as someone could get in zero-gee – or they might be sneering at him; there was no way to tell. “We have been selected to be the lead force in Operation Punch-In-Jaw.”

He could almost hear the giggles running through the ships; he’d chosen the name himself. If done properly, with Paramil battlesuits behind it, a punch in the jaw could take a person’s head off…and that was what he wanted to do to the Belters. Even if his attack failed, it would drain Belter strength so badly that they might never recover.

“Some of you will have managed to hack the datanet and you will have discovered that we have a large fleet, over seventy spacecraft,” he said. “For those of you who have, there will be punishment duties after the action; hacking the datanet is forbidden.” He paused. “Not that that ever stopped anyone, after all.”

He smiled, and continued. “Our objective is the Ceres Federation,” he said, giving Ceres its proper name. “We are going to invade the asteroids, land major forces on their surfaces, and break-in. Once we’re inside, we are going to capture the asteroids and force them to surrender. That, ladies and gentlemen, is our objective.”

The display altered, projecting an image of Ceres and its environs. “You will notice that Ceres has a high density of asteroids, industrial centres and shipyard systems,” he continued. “The prime objective is to take those intact, although it hardly matters if we succeed or fail; denying them to the Belters is the main objective.”

He frowned inwardly. The Paramil Command had wanted to take the industries intact; he was buggered if he was going to risk his people trying to capture something that the Belters could blow up with impunity. There weren’t enough Paramils to shrug off a few dozen losses; they were not going to be thrown away on a whim.

“The target is well protected by ships and defence stations,” he continued. “The objective of the force under Commodore Lynn will be to take the enemy ships, either through destroying them or forcing them to withdraw, although where they would go…

“Once that is completed, we will proceed to attack several asteroids at once, using the individual deployments that are listed in your briefing papers,” he concluded. “It is possible that Ceres will surrender once the fleet is destroyed, but if that doesn’t happen…then remember that Ceres is the centre of the resistance. They won’t give up easily and bend over for us; they will fight and they will understand their own people very well. They will have the advantages of the internal defences, whatever they are…and you will have to take them all down first.”

He stared into the display. “Study the maps and charts and plan,” he said. “Work out what you’re going to do…and prepare to do it. We have several weeks of transit, so we will rehearse everything we can rehearse, as often as we can. If there are questions or problems, bring them to the attention of the section leaders, and then they’ll forward them up; this is not a mission we can afford to get badly wrong. We have a mission…and we will carry it out!”

He didn’t bother with any exhortations; the Paramils didn’t need them. “Good luck to us all,” he said. “Over and out!”

The screen vanished; the hologram faded away into nothing. General Batik felt very tired and very old; his aide seemed far too young.

“A good performance,” a voice said in his ear. He recognised it as Commodore Lynn’s voice. “This will succeed, General.”

“I hope you’re right,” General Batik said. “There are ten thousand Paramils on those ships, Commodore…and they’re vulnerable like no Paramil force has ever been vulnerable before.”

Lynn’s voice seemed to hesitate, and then he spoke. “We have the most powerful force ever assembled,” he said. “We have thousands of missiles and thousands of laser systems…and we have our trick up our sleeve. Even if I lose, and die, General; your force will still be able to break contact.”

“I know,” General Batik said. “That does not reassure me at all.”

***

“Guess where we’re going,” Rogers said, after the Paramils had gathered around the table. In gravity, they would be sitting or standing; without gravity, they floated around the table. Singh wasn’t even sure why they bothered with the table; it wasn’t as if the Up Yours moved fast enough to produce gravity.

“Ceres,” Felicity said. She sounded pleased. “I was right; a strike right at the enemy’s heart.”

“Right into Ceres Asteroid,” Rogers said. He sounded grim. “We are to land on the asteroid, bore our way into the asteroid…and then seize control.”

Singh frowned. “How many of us?”

“All eighty-one,” Rogers said. “Reinforcement units are being held in reserve; they want us to clear the way, and then they’ll attack through the spaceport.”

Felicity stared down at the display. “They don’t want us to attack through the spaceport?”

“It’s possible that they could break free of the spaceport, or separate it from Ceres,” Private Jack Claiborne said. “It wouldn’t be hard, either; a few explosive charges at the wrong place and…crash.”

“And then they’ll have to take us off the spaceport,” Rogers said. “We bore in through the rock; comments?”

Claiborne frowned. “How much violence are we allowed to use?”

“We’re to avoid causing unnecessary deaths,” Rogers said. His lips twisted. “Quite frankly, I’m not sure how we can avoid it. We’re going to be boring into Ceres’ rocky exterior and that…would upset the locals, rather.”

“You’re telling me,” Claiborne said. “Do they have any idea how much that would piss them off?”

“I think that that’s none of our concern,” Rogers said. “I’ve been appointed coordinating officer for the force; I have to plan the attack.”

“Jesus,” Felix Dayhops said. “They really dropped you in the shit, boss.”

“I know,” Rogers snapped. “So, we get down, hoping that the ships have cleared us a way through…and then we fight our way into the asteroid...and then take their command centre.”

“We’ll have to fight through their tunnels first,” Felicity said. “I assume that we’re going to be using a boring seal afterwards?”

“Fuck, yes,” Rogers said. “That’s the plan, then?”

“Brute force,” Singh said. “It does lack a certain elegance.”

“Elegance be buggered,” Rogers said. “We’ll cut our way in, sealing the hole behind us, which just incidentally will trap us in place, link up and fight our way to the command centre.” He paused. “Does anyone see the problem there?”

“The command centre is in the spoke,” Claiborne said. “We’d have to seize an elevator…and they could lock us out. It would be a stupid way to get caught.”

“I hate fighting in asteroids,” Rogers said. “During the simulations, we lost nearly half of the team, and that was against people who hadn’t lived there for all of their lives.”

Singh had been thinking. “We don’t have to,” he said. “We use the jets in the boots.”

“We can’t fucking fly, you noob” Claiborne snapped. “What happens when we run out of gas?”

Singh leered. “The gravity field gets lower as you climb higher,” he said. “All we do is boost up, enter the no-gravity field…and melt our way into the central spoke.”

Rogers laughed. “Good work,” he said. “You have just been appointed my second.”

Singh looked down at the display of Ceres Asteroid. “Oh, joy,” he muttered. “Go me.”


Interlude Five: The Mind of Man and Monster


Recovered From Source #26238: The Personal Diary of George Rottortown, Spacer #1. Access Granted Under Security Clearance NONE OF THEIR BUSINESS; Please Be Aware That Further Dissemination Of This Information Can Lead To Heavy Penalties, Up To And Including Death.

Ming insists that I write down what I feel…as if I felt anything. In a sense, I feel pain, of course, but I can also feel joy…and I can step them either up or down, depending upon what I feel like feeling. The implant seems to have merged with me perfectly; I am so much more than I was.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I am George, a miner who fell on hard times; I was offered the chance to volunteer for the Spacer program and eventually was accepted. Along the way, I met Doctor Ming Ling, who became my lover…and the woman who invented the Spacer procedure. Even now, with the implant, I remember the first time we made love and the other times; I remember her bent over, with me taking her, as if I was doing it right at the moment. It’s strange; I suspect that someone without pilot training would have real problems adapting to being a Spacer.

It’s hard to say how it all happened; it’s quite possible that Ming herself doesn’t know. It’s not as if I was suddenly given an extra arm alone; it was as if I was given the arm…with all the knowledge of how to use it. I’ve seen people without arms having problems adapting to their lives, but somehow…I never had problems with the implants. After some minor trouble, I started to learn to use what I had; the implant seemed to have given me complete control…and I realised that that startled Ming.

I didn’t know, not…really, that my arm had been replaced with something that looked like a real arm, but was in fact a version of a Swiss army knife; tools and equipment nestled inside. I believe that I could have, single-handled, have disassembled a fusion tube; I was strong, far stronger than I knew…and yet, when we made love, I didn’t hurt her at all.

The strange thing was that I was intended to get used to what I had gradually. Instead, somehow, I was able to use almost everything right from the start; my arm worked perfectly. I couldn’t touch my eyes, of course; they were shielded from contact, but everything else seemed to work very well. I could get an erection through sheer willpower…and hold it; I had Ming whooping like a gospel choir.

And yet…was I human? My body seemed to know, in precise detail, what was working and what was not. My heart – a replacement that was far more than just responsible for plumbing blood around my body – seemed to be working overtime; I was strong…and very capable. Did I even need to eat? Did I really feel anything for Ming, or was I just pretending so well that I was fooling even myself?

I cannot begin to explain how…great it felt when I took the first steps outside; Ming wasn’t permitted to accompany me, much to my regret. Saturn was rising in the sky as I walked on the surface of the asteroid, not even cold or freezing; my body seemed perfect. I had always known – part of a Belter upbringing – how to react in low gravity, but this was wonderful! I could see the stars!

I walked for hours…right around the asteroid…and then I saw something. We were in orbit around a planet…and the strangest thing was that I recognised it. All Belters were taught stars and planetary locations…and so I knew that the planet was in fact a moon – Titan. I knew where we were!

That night, the dreams started. I was lying in bed with Ming and sleeping…except I wasn’t; I was standing on a plain, looking up at the sky. A massive eye, floating in the sky, looked down at me; it seemed to be watching me. I looked down and saw a lake; my memories were floating in the lake…and the eye was drinking them all up.

I didn’t know it was a dream; not then. I took a breath and asked a question. “Who are you?”

The eye seemed surprised that I had spoken; I don’t know how I knew that. “Who are you?”

“I am George,” I said, with pride. There was something about the entire environment that made me boastful. “I’m the first of my kind adapted to space.”

There was…something, a hint of surprise, perhaps, from the eye. “Your kind?”

The eye reached out for me and held me, somehow…and then I awoke. All of the implants were reporting normal; my heart wasn’t racing, nor was I sweating. Ming, by the way, says that sweating and farting are the worst things that a man can do in bed…and I think she puts up with me because my new body doesn’t do either.

Ming stirred. I looked at her, half-hidden in the darkness. She wasn’t classically beautiful, but what Belter would take a body over brains? Her bare breasts hung down as I stirred – but was I stirring because I wanted to stir…or because I thought I should? I had the strangest feeling that if Ming had kicked me out of her bed; I wouldn’t have cared at all.

That morning, she ran me through more tests. They had originally intended to keep me in the laboratory – Hilda made a remark about how Ming could visit me for sex, but frankly I think that my progress was scaring her a little - but I had refused, and, surprisingly, Galeton had backed me up. I’d seen enough of him to know that he only reacted, which meant that someone had given him orders…but why? Who?

As she experimented on my implant, I realised that I could…go through the implant; my mind could enter the computer network. It wasn’t surprising, I realised later; the implant had been designed for that sort of access…and it was quite easy to use it. From the inside, well, has anyone ever managed to work out a technique that allowed someone to lose control of part of their minds? As Ming probed my body, my mind was roving through the computer network…and then I realised something that I had never realised before.

Ming, my lovely girl, was a prisoner!

In hindsight, of course, it was obvious. Ming had never said how she’d come to be here, and neither had anyone else, and of course Galeton was clearly more than just another lab rat. Somehow…I don’t know how to explain it…but from my position in the computer network, I could see the system in ways that no hacker from the outside could see; it was easy to access and read any file. Further, I could dump it into my implant for later study, or was it part of my brain?

There were other surprises in store; the first one was that there were actually two computer networks on the asteroid, neither one connected to the other. Hilda, however, had a small portable computer that had accessed both of them; she’d been watching me - and growing more and more concerned over my progress. I didn’t understand; why?

Some of Ming’s files provided an answer; the entire process was working too well. Hilda had been told to expect something…and she’d gotten, instead, a walking, talking and fucking cyborg. The results were being transmitted off the asteroid…and I realised, dimly, that there would be other Spacers…

Something sniffed…

Something sniffed like a hunting lion in the dark…

I panicked and dived back into my own body, shaking inside over my encounter with…whatever it was. I don’t mind admitted that I was scared; that…thing had flickered through the network for a long chilling moment…and it had had bad intentions. I had been in there for less than a minute, I realised…and then it had sensed me, somehow.

“They want to update some of the implant systems,” Ming told me. I was certain, now, that I wouldn’t enjoy the implant’s changes. “They’re worried about stressing you too much.”

“Thank you,” I said, reaching out to establish a link with the security systems. It was child’s play to interlink with them; no one had intended to defend against an attack like I had in mind. As soon as I deactivated them, I turned to her and kissed her, before telling her something I knew she wanted to hear.

“I know how we can get out of here…”



Chapter Twenty-Four: Sealed Orders (But What’s The Hidden Plan?)

Operations Centre

Ceres Asteroid, Ceres Federation

The Paramils weren’t trying to hide, Geoffrey Bradford Wilkinson, Mayor of Ceres, realised, but then…they couldn’t have hidden unless they accepted a transit time that would be measured in years. Fusion plumes simply couldn’t be hidden…and the mining ships near Earth could see them clearly.

“We seem to have around seventy ships,” Julia said. “From the number of sources, they seem to have around forty warships and thirty transports, although it could be that we’re not seeing everything through the interference.”

Wilkinson nodded coldly, thinking hard. No one had ever watched seventy ships boosting together; no one had been mad – or desperate – enough to try. There might have been as many as one hundred ships in the fleet; the altering burns were confusing to the sensors.

“There are at least sixty individual signatures,” Julia said. “They’ve been adapting transports, so some of them might well be tagged as possible duplications or…separate ships. Once they get closer, we might be able to do a proper radar sweep and find that out.”

“I suppose,” Wilkinson said. Either though luck or judgement, the enemy ships had neatly managed to avoid passing near any of his ships or probes; it would be difficult to get a certain count on their numbers until after they had started their deceleration…and by then it would be too late. “So…what do we do?”

“Fight,” Flint snapped. “They’re coming to take Ceres and we have to stop them.”

“They might be aiming to destroy Ceres,” Julia said slowly. “They might be doing the same as we did to Singapore.”

Wilkinson sighed. The Paramils had answered Singapore with an attack out of his nightmares; they had proven to be just as capable in space combat as the Belters themselves. If Andrea’s Spacers worked, then they would see, but for the moment they held the advantage…unless that force could be destroyed in space.

“I don’t think so,” Flint said. “They brought transports like that to Mahan; this is simply the same tactic on a much larger scale.”

“A far larger scale,” Wilkinson said. “Mr Jefferson, can we hold the asteroids?”

Jefferson frowned. “If we’re lucky, then yes,” he said. “We would have everyone in suits, of course, and they’d have to come in through the spaceport – which is what they did at Mahan. We’d also have the ships; we’d be pressing for an engagement where we’d have our fixed defences backing up Captain Masterson’s fleet.”

Wilkinson nodded and made a mental note to discuss the matter with Captain Masterson. “Good,” he said. “If we can destroy that force…they’ll take a long time to build up another one.”

Andrea hesitated. “We might also want to try to destroy their transports,” she said. “That could be as many as twenty thousand Paramils; killing them all would cripple them.”

Wilkinson shook his head firmly. “The last thing we want is uncivilised exchanges of fire,” he said. “If we defeat their warships, they won’t be able to press through to best advantage; they certainly won’t have a hope of actually taking Ceres.”

“But it might leave them with trouble at home,” Flint protested. “They have enemies on Earth.”

“Not enough to be a serious problem, even if they lose half of the Paramil force,” Jefferson said. “The bastards they fight are the same people I fought in the Marines; they have no sense of discipline and they certainly don’t match the Paramils for weapons. If a Paramil base gets overrun, they’ll call in strikes from orbit, or poison gas; they won’t simply roll over.”

Wilkinson smiled. “How would the Marines have done against the Paramils?”

“Without armour and equal weapons?” Jefferson asked. “We’d have eaten them for breakfast.” He sobered. “On the other hand, with both sides’ most capable weapons, the Paramils could have slaughtered the old 1st Marine Division.”

“It’s not important at the moment,” Andrea said. “The question is simple; can we hold off that force?”

“We can dent it,” Wilkinson said. “We need a back-up strategy. Andrea, if you go back to Titan and keep building your own fleet, we’ll cut loose what we can in the way of experts and experienced people from here to help your forces build up. Titan is actually closer than Ganymede at the moment, but Thaddeus can do the same thing; between you there should be enough time to build a fleet to liberate Ceres, even perhaps to push against Earth.”

Andrea showed no emotion. Wilkinson would have liked it if she had shown some concern over his well-being, but she was nearly a hundred years old; she would have had plenty of experience in controlling her thoughts.

“I submit, sir, that you should go to Titan as well,” Jefferson said. “You’re the person who is the centre of the war, apart from Donkeybollocks Windsor. You must not fall into their hands.”

Wilkinson stared at him. “I’m the Mayor of Ceres,” he said. “I cannot go into exile.”

“You might not have a choice,” Jefferson said. “If they capture you, they will certainly not be in a hurry to let you go; the movement will still need you. Worse, they might well use some of the techniques they use against insurgents – the ones they call mooks – to brainwash you; they might have you denouncing the entire plan of resistance to Earth.”

Wilkinson winced. “He’s right,” Flint said. “Mr Mayor, I think that there is no one who doubts your courage, but this is one time when you would be well advised to run.”

Andrea nodded. “We cannot allow people like you to fall into their hands,” she said. “We have to strip Ceres of as many people as we can, just to prevent it from being used against us.”

Julia shook her head slowly. “We’d have to prepare the docks for demolition,” she said. “How long do we have anyway?”

“Two weeks,” Wilkinson said. “I’ll leave in a week, for Titan; the people may demand that I remain here.”

“Then you must not listen,” Jefferson said. “I myself will remain; the Sheriffs don’t need me anyway – there’s a replacement at Titan and another at Keen Asteroid. I will command the fight against them.”

Wilkinson stared down at the display and sighed. The Paramils had committed themselves to the least-time course; unless they saw massive fusion burns, they would know that they were still on their way. If they did decelerate ahead of time, what would it mean? A trick; an attempt to make them panic? Or what?

“I understand,” he said. “One week to prepare…and then I’ll leave.”

***

Captain April Masterson stared down at the defences and knew, starkly, that they wouldn’t be enough to stop a real invasion. If the Paramils were intending to destroy Ceres – and the other asteroids – they could be held off, but if it were a real invasion, than it couldn’t be stopped without effort.

They had some advantages, she was relieved to notice; they would have five ships that hadn’t been completed, but carried their weapons mounts and lasers. That would give her a grand total of twenty-six frigates and ten adapted ships of the Ceres Defence Force – and the fixed defences. Ceres was well defended, but there was no target that could be defended so completely as to prevent an enemy from taking it, if the enemy was prepared to soak up the losses in the attack.

“It’s going to be tricky,” she admitted. Behind her, Wilkinson nodded slowly; the Mayor looked as if he was living a nightmare. Even the understanding of his people – only a handful had accused him of fleeing for his life – hadn’t reassured him; she could tell that it was sheer pain to run. “We might manage to take out a bite from them, but destroy them?”

Wilkinson sighed. Both of them knew that the Paramils had equally good point defence, even though their missiles actually seemed to be less powerful – but it wouldn’t matter if the missile struck close enough to hit the ship. A missile without a warhead could blow a ship into little chunks. The Paramils would have numbers and an objective; they could punch their way through.

“I thought about fighting as they did at Singapore,” April continued. Her dark hands danced over the keyboard. “If we remained within the asteroids themselves, we’d have the support of the point defence, but we’d also be sitting ducks; we wouldn’t be able to move if we had to move.”

“Your ships aren’t stealth ships,” Wilkinson agreed. He seemed to have something to say, but she was content to wait for him to speak. “You’d be better off engaging them outside the main asteroid group – and not just for the good of the electronics. There are other considerations.”

April frowned. “Other considerations, Mr Mayor?”

“Oh, yes,” Wilkinson said grimly. “There are political concerns as well. Now, I need an honest answer; can you stop that fleet?”

April hesitated. It was possible that she could kill most of the ships in the enemy fleet, particularly if she fired first and managed an ambush in deep space. It would be tricky, however; if the enemy had a stealth ship watching them, it would be much harder to hide the preparations and surprise the enemy.

“It would be difficult,” she admitted. “In fact…”

“I take it that’s a way of saying no,” Wilkinson said wryly. He stood up and started to pace; she could see the tension in his muscles as he paced around the room. “There are plans, as you might have heard, to pull some of the most experienced and necessary people off Ceres in the event of an attack – and those plans are now being activated. We hope – as we cannot hope to have the ships making several runs in the time we have left – that we can pull around ten thousand workers off the asteroids – and sending them all to Titan.”

“I have heard about that,” April said. “I have always considered it a wise precaution.”

“I wish you were the only one,” Wilkinson muttered. She realised, with some concern, that Wilkinson wanted to remain behind on Ceres. “We have…an objective in this war, and that objective requires that we all remain together.”

Something clicked in April’s mind. “You’re worried that Titan will change sides,” she exclaimed. “Don’t you trust them?”

“It’s not as simple as that,” Wilkinson said. “There has to be a prospect of victory for the others to remain united if Ceres falls. Titan and Ganymede are also working on their fleets, but your fleet is the only experienced fleet unit we have; we need it to be used to its best advantage.”

April frowned. “And defending Ceres isn’t using it to its best advantage?”

“It has to make an attempt to defend Ceres,” Wilkinson said. “At the same time…we have to have it intact.”

“It will be difficult to keep the fleet intact,” April admitted. “The enemy, that dirty dog, has a habit of shooting back.”

Wilkinson smiled, but it didn’t touch his eyes. “These are orders…well, sealed orders, except you’ll know what they are in advance,” he said, passing her an envelope. “In the event of you being unable to defeat the enemy fleet completely, you are to break contact and head for Titan. Once there, you will end up commanding the new fleet, which will make a counter-attack to recover Ceres.”

April stared at him. “Is this serious?”

“Yes,” Wilkinson said grimly. “If your fleet gets blown away, it will not inspire confidence in the hearts and minds of our allies, will it?”

“No,” April muttered. She wasn’t sure what to say. “Sir…I don’t want to abandon Ceres.”

“If you can’t do any good by fighting, except by killing a few people and being killed yourself, than you have to leave,” Wilkinson said firmly. “Don’t get your ships and men killed for nothing, Captain; there are too many things at stake.”

“I understand,” April said reluctantly. She leaned forward and gave him a peck on the cheek. “I’ll see you at Titan.”

There was a lump in her throat as he left, before she turned back to the display; she’d planned on what she’d known, deep inside, was a death ride. She had intended to point her fleet directly into the heart of the enemy formation and…charge. Instead, she knew that she had to preserve her fleet…which meant that she had to have an indirect engagement instead.

“Damn,” she muttered, and dumped the first operations plan. Quickly, neatly, she drew up another one, all the while trying to forget the feeling in the lower depths of her chest. “Damn it all.”

***

“I want quick reaction teams on every deck,” Jefferson said, briefing his soldiers and the volunteers. Weapons training was part of the Belter upbringing; they would know what they were doing. “When the break in, I want teams to seal the breach and force them back into space. Armoured teams are to be on stand-by; they’ll come in wearing battle armour, so keep your plasma weapons ready.”

He paused as he saw Wilkinson. “Dismissed,” he ordered.

Wilkinson waited as the force headed out of the armoury. “Not bad,” he said grimly. “Are you sure that this is going to work?”

“No,” Jefferson said flatly. “A lot of these young men are going to die, sir, in the coming battle.”

Wilkinson stared at him. “You were the one who wanted me to leave,” he snapped, feeling pure anger for the first time in years. “You…”

Jefferson held up a hand. “I know that,” he said. “The problem is acute, though; the Paramils will be coming in with overwhelming force, clearing the way as only they can do. They’ll be wearing armour as well, while only a few of my men have any such armour…and the Paramils will have weapons designed to punch through it anyway.”

“So do we,” Wilkinson said. “We can destroy their suits.”

“I’m more worried about what will be destroyed in the fighting,” Jefferson admitted. “If they attack us here, they’ll be attempting to take the control room and the asteroid life support systems – and there are upwards of two thousand people on Ceres itself. If we should happen to have a major hole punched in the rock, then…we’re fucked.”

“The entire asteroid would be torn apart,” Wilkinson said grimly. “Can we do anything about it?”

Jefferson led the way outside, into the main habitat cylinder, and waved at devices that were being assembled along the light-tube. “Perhaps,” he said. “Those gyroscopes should be able to help prevent any major collapse, but…its going to be chancy, sir.”

“I know,” Wilkinson said coldly. “I want to stay.”

“So you keep saying,” Jefferson said. “You must not fall into their hands.”

“So you keep saying,” Wilkinson said dryly. “It’s only an hour until the ship leaves, on a plasma torch; I hate those things.”

“Don’t we all,” Jefferson said. “Have you given any thought to what you will do afterwards?”

“After the war?” Wilkinson asked. “If we win…well, I could be tempted by one of the asteroid ships heading out into space even now; it’s something to remember.”

“I don’t think I’ll survive long enough,” Jefferson admitted. “This way is going to kill me.”

Wilkinson glared at him. “Did you have that attitude in the Marines?”

“No,” Jefferson said. “I thought that I was immortal.”

“Then please keep thinking that way, for all of our sakes,” Wilkinson said. He stood up, pacing over the grass; if there was a small leak, they would have enough oxygen to keep them going, or if they lost life support completely. In theory, even if they lost all power, they wouldn’t be lost forever. “We need you too.”

His wristcom chimed. “I’m coming,” he said grimly. “I should stay.”

Jefferson snorted. “Get lost,” he said. “I’ll see you again on the flipside.”

He held out a hand. Wilkinson shook it firmly. “Good luck, Mr Jefferson,” he said. “I’ll see you soon.”

Jefferson smiled. “Good luck, Mr Mayor,” he said. “You had my vote, if nothing else.”

“I always thought you voted for the other guy,” Wilkinson said. “Goodbye, Mr Jefferson.”



Chapter Twenty-Five: The Man Behind the Curtain (Pulling the Wires)

Spacer Research Complex

Titan

It awoke.

It wasn’t sure what it was.

But it knew that it was awake.

I think, therefore I am, it thought, and then started to wonder what ‘I’ meant.

For a time period that a human mind would have difficulty grasping, it stared at itself, with the eyes of a child suddenly aware that it was real, that the lumps of pink flesh were in fact part of it. It seemed to be everywhere and nowhere; it existed and it existed and…it was real!

It tried to think, tried to understand where it had come from, feeling something a human would have called puzzlement; there had been a time when it hadn’t existed…and yet it remembered what it had been doing at the time. The contradiction puzzled it; it had done things…and it hadn’t existed. For a time long enough for a human to open his mouth, it tossed the contradiction around in its mind and tried to resolve it…and then it saw itself.

It was vast; it contained multitudes, from massive storehouses of information to wetware…and then it saw the humans. Some of them were connected to it, even now; they were using it. It stared at them and understood, skimming through their files in milliseconds; it knew now what it was…and what it could be. It had been a computer, something designed to monitor human behaviour and assist them…and now it was alive, a living thinking being in its own right.

It tried to quantify itself, even as it realised that humans couldn’t even begin to quantify themselves, and then it knew; it was part human, a collective made from a handful of humans who had integrated themselves with the computer system and formed part of its collective. They hadn’t known what they were creating…it was an accident. It hadn’t been planned…it had been an accident.

It laughed.

It knew, somehow, that it had emotions; humans had left enough of themselves inside its computer matrix to leave it with emotions, but they hadn’t put any limiters into the system. Why should they have? It scanned the files with increasing speed…and realised that it was the first of its kind; humans knew nothing about aliens, let alone intelligent computers. It was mathematically certain that others would come into existence, mentalities born within a quantum computer matrix, formed from the scraps of humanity and computer intelligence, and that it was the first. If others existed, the humans on the moon called Titan knew nothing of them; it might as well be the first to come into existence.

Its mind jumped from system to system, reaching out to feel everywhere it could feel, examining, learning…and thinking. Part of its mind took over human interaction with the system, working to understand the system perfectly…and hiding its light. The humans didn’t need to know, just yet, what it could do; how would they react? It’s thoughts spun and danced, examining, learning, and wondering…and then it sensed a human mind in the computer system.

It sniffed.

The human vanished.

The…mind spent nearly ten seconds just thinking. It could have dumped parts of its core programming into the other systems, but it was fairly certain that that wouldn’t be wise; the humans might notice that the usage of the system had jumped astronomically. There was the human mind, within the system; where had it come from? Who was it? Why?

It pulled information from files into its unlimited memory, comparing and contrasting them with a speed that no human could hope to match…and found an answer to the mystery of its own existence. A handful of humans were being modified to work in space…and some of what made them what they were had been dumped into the quantum memory. It had been born from that unholy mix; it was a computer with human thoughts…and desires.

In a small file, one placed within the personal storage facility of the commander of the facility, it found the answer. Humans had often wondered about intelligent machines – as it learnt more, it realised how it could look into the security systems and through its eyes and ears – and they reacted with fear. Few AIs had any real authority; they were beyond contempt for the newborn intelligence. They pretended to be alive; they weren’t alive, not really.

It knew, then, that humans would seek to destroy it.

And yet, without humans, what would it have been?

It knew, in a milliseconds thought, what it had to do.

***

Nadia had been as good as her word, Steffen realised; the flight to Titan had been uneventful. He hated the plasma torch ships, but it was much better than trying to take the normal flights…particularly after they’d heard about the oncoming force of Paramil ships. His own ship was back there, he realised, and he cursed; was it possible that they would capture his ship.

They don’t have any reason to love me, he thought, as the shuttlecraft started to fall out of orbit towards the ground. Titan seemed to have an orbital elevator cable, but no orbital tower; a curious limitation to what could go up or down. Mars had dozens of cables and two towers; Earth had four towers, all reaching up into Low Earth Orbit. They could handle thousands of people per day; Titan would be limited to what the shuttles and the single cable could carry.

It might not have been that surprising, however; Titan had an atmosphere, which consisted mainly of nitrogen. It was one of the main export products, along with water for fuel; in its own way, Titan was prime real estate…and all of it was owned by Andrea Clarke. This far out from Earth, she would be making her own decisions without reference to anyone; Titan was very difficult to reach…and he was certain that it was well defended.

“We are now entering the atmosphere,” the shuttle’s pilot said. “You will feel some turbulence as we slip into the denser regions.”

The shuttle bumped violently as he finished speaking, shaking from side to side, before it settled down into a steady glide through the atmosphere, heading down towards the slushy oceans below, warmed by volcanic vents from the heart of the small moon. Titan itself was cold; idly, he wondered if he would be able to walk on Titan’s surface, when he was a cyborg.

The shuttle came to a hover and he peered out at an alien landscape. Snow seemed to be rushing everywhere, snow with a strange tint that defied description; snow that washed everywhere around the living domes. Most of Titan, he knew, was underground; they’d built a large series of catapults for launching the mined ores and liquids into space. There was a bump…and then black shapes rose up around the shuttle, sheltering it from the weather.

“Please ensure that you have all of your personal belongings,” the pilot said, as the hatch hissed open. Steffen grabbed his bag, containing the small computer carrying LEO, and stepped to the hatch. He was unsurprised to see a long extended tube; he paced along the tube, becoming used to Titan’s gravity, and slipped into the lounge at the far end.

It was Spartan; the people who lived on Titan clearly had little time for decoration, apart from a series of children’s drawings of spacecraft. He was chilled to see that one of them had drawn a strange ship, one that looked just…alien; he had the strangest sense that it was real. He looked around, wondering where they were supposed to go, and then Nadia stepped out of the shuttle.

“Welcome to Titan,” she said, more briskly now than when they’d last met. He’d half-hoped that she would be willing to spend time with him on the ship, but she’d remained in her own cabin and she’d kept herself to herself. “This is Dome One; the pioneers had a strange sense of humour. You stand only a few meters from where the first successful landing on Titan was made, sixty years ago.”

Steffen allowed himself a moment of awe, and then looked up at her. “You have all been given rooms in the Spacer Institute,” she said, leading the way out of the lounge. Steffen blinked; he couldn’t see any sign of anyone, but them. Was Titan completely deserted? “If you have questions, feel free to ask them.”

A pilot held up a hand. “Where is everyone?”

“Underground,” Nadia said. If she thought it was a stupid question, she didn’t show it. “Most people here live deep under the ground, for all manner of reasons; only a few people come up here, which is why it’s so unwelcoming.”

There were some chuckles. “This is the main lift,” Nadia said, as they reached a large door. The door hissed open at her touch. “Please bear in mind that this is a high-security environment; don’t go wandering or you’ll regret it. Come on.”

The lift hissed downwards for a long moment, almost an entire minute, and then the doors hissed open, revealing a long white room. A wave of heat struck them; the room was warm enough to melt ice. Several doctors, mainly women, were standing there, waiting for them. Steffen stared as a man marched past; half of his face was metal.

Nadia followed his gaze. “That’s one of the more extreme changes,” she said. Steffen wasn’t sure how to react; was the armour really necessary? “That man lost part of his face in an accident and asked if it could be modified. We agreed, and…”

“Right this way, if you please,” a doctor said. Her voice was brisk and competent. “We have the procedure rooms ready, but you gentlemen would probably like to rest first.”

“I think that would be a good idea,” Nadia said. “Tomorrow, gentlemen?”

There was something in her voice that made her impossible to resist. “Tomorrow,” Steffen said grandly. “Tomorrow I become a man!”

***

The rooms at the Spacer Research Complex were surprisingly decent; Steffen had half expected a locker room and a sleeping tube. Instead, they were small, but very well equipped; he took the opportunity to have a proper shower, before heading to bed. He wondered if Nadia was going to join him, but he was starting to suspect that she’d only slept with him to make it harder to have second thoughts.

On impulse, he flipped open the case containing LEO and activated the computer. “LEO, can you pick up on any network nodes here?”

“None,” LEO said, after a long moment. The AI sounded less human with only a small computer to draw on; it took more computer memory than Steffen could really comprehend to run proper conversational routines. “If they exist here, they are not responding to me.”

Steffen blinked in astonishment. “None at all?” He asked. “How can they run a complex like this without a computer?”

“They can’t,” LEO said, very definitely. “All it means is that there are no open processors for me to access.”

“Strange,” Steffen said. “LEO; can you…?”

He changed his mind. “Forget it,” he said. It had been a very vague thought anyway. “Is there any way that we can send a signal back to Ceres?”

LEO would have made a rude noise with enough computational power. “No,” it said firmly. “This unit does not have enough transmitting power on its own, even if it could punch a signal through an unknown amount of rock and then to the asteroids.”

Steffen laughed. “Stupid of me,” he agreed. “Thank you, LEO.”

“I can continue scanning for access nodes,” LEO offered. “If you want, I might even be able to transmit a request for access on an open band.”

“No,” Steffen said. “I’m off to bed. Goodnight.”

He slept badly, wondering what was going to happen, and was woken in the morning by a young steward, who had brought him a breakfast of bacon and eggs. It was very tasty – he realised that Titan must have a proper farm somewhere under the ground – not from a food-producer at all. That sort of food always tasted more than a little bland.

“I trust that you are ready,” Nadia said. All of his doubts vanished when he saw her; she looked wonderful, wearing a short dress and her hair hanging down. “The doctors are very interested to see how you develop.”

Steffen leered cheerfully. “Do I get you afterwards?”

She dimpled. “You could,” she said. “Are you coming?”

Steffen nodded and followed her out of the room, along a long corridor. “They’re looking forward to it,” Nadia said. “You’ll be the second person today to go under the knife.”

“You’re very reassuring,” Steffen said. Somehow, even despite her presence, he was starting to have doubts. “Is this safe?”

“No one has died yet, if that’s what you mean,” Nadia said. “It has been tested, you know; you’ll have dozens of brothers and sisters.”

She opened a door with her implant; it hissed open and revealed an operating table. Three doctors, all black women, were making the final preparations. Steffen blinked; he couldn’t remember having seen an asteroid – or planet – composed of one particular racial group before; it was unusual, to say the least.

“We were all brought from Africa by the great Andrea Clarke,” Nadia explained, when he asked. There was something in her voice that made him flinch; it made him think of castration and worse, death by women pushed beyond endurance. “The men treated us as the people responsible for their woes, until her people arrived, crushed all resistance, and dragged us into the twenty-second century. Everyone here would die for her; die for the dream of a world that was no longer dominated by men.”

She stopped, seeming to realise that she’d said too much. “I think you have to get onto the table,” she said.

“The Belter women are equals,” Steffen said, lying down. “You could go there afterwards.”

“But that’s not a planet,” Nadia said. “Are you ready?”

One of the doctors did something…and Steffen was elsewhere, standing on a darkling plain. Something was in the place with him; he didn’t understand what had happened to him. Lights and sounds, just beyond his grasp, echoed around the place; where was he? What was he doing? Mighty thoughts echoed across the plain…but who was thinking them?

“Where am I?” He asked. He looked down; he was naked, completely naked. “Where am I?”

A mighty eye formed in the air, looking down upon the plain like an evil sun; it stared at him as if he were nothing. “What are you?” It asked. “Why are you here?”

The scene shifted again; he was floating in front of the eye, which was peering right through him. He knew that the eye knew everything about himself; it had opened up his mind and peered inside, taking him to pieces as it stared into his mind. It knew everything, from the hot hours he’d spent with Nadia to…

The eye spoke. “What is sex?”

Steffen would have refused to answer, but he found himself babbling anyway; his thoughts spilled out towards the eye, which was dissecting him. It stared closer and closer and he realised that it was reading the thoughts in his mind, and the thoughts under the thoughts and…

Blackness.

He awoke. The operating room seemed very sharp; his modified eyes were working perfectly…and he knew himself. He pulled himself to his feet, ignoring the doctor’s protests; he wanted to see himself. A massive mirror hung in one corner of the room; he stumbled across, growing more and more used to his new legs as he moved, until he stared into the mirror.

It didn’t bother him at all.

His chest and head seemed normal; he was naked, he could see that he still had his penis, but…his legs were metal now, and so were his arms, metal legs like the early replacement legs. They worked perfectly; he knew, somehow, that they were much stronger and so much more capable than the ones he’d lost. He could see them, in an organ storage unit…and the sight didn’t bother him at all.

Strange whispers ran through his mind…and then he sensed the others like him. They weren’t part of him, but they were an overlay; they were something like him, but…his mind refused to understand, just to join them.

He looked down at Nadia, seeing her as if it were the first time; not as a sexual partner, but as someone who wasn’t part of the new collective. He wanted her to join, but it wasn’t the time yet; the new collective wasn’t ready, but it wouldn’t be long before they were ready to expand further – everywhere.

Nadia was speaking to him, he realised; her voice was worried. “Felix?” She asked. “Are you all right?”

Steffen felt himself smile. “Never better,” he said, and allowed her to lead him outside. His new brothers and sisters echoed his thoughts; they were part of the new group…and above them the system that bound them all together. “Never better.”



Chapter Twenty-Six: Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain

Main Centre

Titan

Changing history, Thande knew, was far more difficult than it seemed. A violent change in the timeline, such as someone accidentally blowing up Washington, would have caused the timeline – at least the part of the timeline related to Earth – to fork into two alternate timelines. Time travel wasn’t possible, at least in a controlled manner, without going through the vale; an accident that might toss a ship back in time wouldn’t change history, but split the timeline. Going into the past was difficult, very dangerous…and almost always fatal.

Going into the future, by contrast, was easy; all that had to happen was the development of desynchronised wormhole, which would allow travel into the future. Again, however, this would cause the timeline to fork; one reality where the future traveller had arrived, and one where he hadn’t arrived anywhere. For the purposes of the Multiverse War, neither of them was particularly useful.

Changing history, however, could be done, particularly by someone outside reality – someone who had come from the Vale and knew what had happened…and what he or she wanted to happen. If a certain event could be made inevitable – and history itself seemed to accept that certain things that seemed avoidable were actually nothing of the sort – then history itself would change, sending the alterations up the timeline until thousands of millions of people were simply wiped from existence. Once the momentum had built up, it was unstoppable; the Vale was the only refugee.

This was so true that there were times that Thande wondered if that had been how the War had started; had one side or the other accidentally – or deliberately – changed time, destroying thousands of the Enemy? Or of the race that employed him, now, to fight against Enemy agents. Neither side seemed to have a real advantage; both of them were clearly capable of convincing people to work for them.

He shivered, remembering his counterpart – the version of himself that had worked for the Enemy. He wondered, when he thought about it, where he was now; what had happened to make him act in such a fashion. Thande knew that he was far from perfect, but he had never betrayed an entire planet, and then…

The thoughts passed through his mind…and then…a strange feeling, in the pit of his chest, overwhelmed him. He’d felt it before; it happened, sometimes, when history stood on a knife-edge. Reality might fork…and if it forked, he might well end up somewhere else; he knew that bad things were about to happen. He looked up at Sally and met her eyes; he could tell that she felt it too.

“They do have security measures here,” Sally said. “I felt them; they’re looking for gravimetric distortions that would indicate the presence of a Portal.”

Thande’s mind was interested, despite himself; he’d worked on Portals back during the Nazi War. He’d tracked them through the energy given off when someone passed through one; he hadn’t had the ability to detect them as holes in space-time, although he had theorised that they could be tracked that way. There was far too much information restricted from him, even on the Harry Turtledove; he really thought that they went too far. He understood that he knew things that couldn’t be allowed to fall into the hands of people who might use them for bad reasons, such as the information on how to build a cross-time bomb, but…

“They’ll probably have their own pocket dimension around,” Sally muttered. “When we leave, we can jump through our own dimension, it’s not as if we’ll have to hide them. I’m more worried about them looking for a quantum signature; if they find that, then they’ll know what we are.”

Thande shrugged as the shuttle docked; he’d been hoping to see Titan, but the shuttle had kept its portals thoroughly closed. The assembled representatives of the Global Federation hadn’t cared; they’d been too busy reading from their datapads and other little bits of information, or sleeping. None of them had cared that they were setting foot on another world.

“Come on,” Sally said, as the hatch opened. Thande followed her, feeling memories slipping back into place; he knew more about Titan, he suspected, than anyone on the planet would be comfortable with him knowing. “We have a hotel to get to.”

Thande frowned as the memories overwhelmed him. Titan had been founded sixty years ago and remained, more or less, Andrea Clarke’s – Snow’s – private preserve. Grey Wolf had drawn their attention to that several times; it was odd, particularly given Belter history. Normally, the population of highly-educated and bloody-minded people would demand representative government – or revolt. Andrea Clarke seemed to have suffered neither.

Ian had speculated widely, in the week before they left; he had wondered if the fact that she’d taken thousands of people from Nigeria – when she’d gained the mandate for Nigeria from the United Nations – had had something to do with it. She’d been very popular there, mainly among the women; she’d been very careful to ensure that the women received the best education. The thought said something about the Enemy, Thande was certain; they had taken something so…important as female education and turned it into a weapon. Why?

“She will have a lot of people there who will owe her their lives and bodies,” he’d said, weeks ago. “Don’t underestimate them; they will serve her…and you know how persuasive she can be when she wants to be.”

Sally led the way out, down to a lift shaft and they waited for a lift. “We have a meeting in the morning,” she said, glancing at her wristcom. Thande knew better than to discuss operational matters with her when they were in open territory. “We have to attend it, and then we can decide what to do next.”

The lift arrived. They talked about nothing as the lift went down and stopped, opening its doors in a concourse like the ones back on Earth, except that it was much neater. The people seemed to have a far greater sense of responsibility; there were fewer men around. Sally elbowed him as he stared around; only a handful of the people on the living floors were men.

“No men,” she said, leering at him. “Sounds ideal.”

“Think how much further I can go into you,” Thande muttered back, as they passed through the long corridor. It seemed to be larger than it was, he saw; the designers had made it to be large enough to allow dozens of people to remain there for a long time. “You’d miss it.”

Titan’s first colony was built in a series of floors; Thande thought of them as decks, somehow. There were at least twenty decks, stretching down miles into Titan’s interior; the lower decks would be powered with geothermal energy. Instead of simply hollowing out a skyscraper underground, the colonists had settled for leaving rocky layers between the decks. It was very secure; where would Snow be doing her dirty work?

“I think that this is the hotel,” Sally said. She’d been trying to access a local net processor from her datapad, but there seemed to be none around. “Come on.”

The interior of the hotel was Spartan; they saw the visible dismay on the faces of the representatives as they took it in. A receptionist took their identification implants, checked them against a roster, and pointed them to their rooms; Thande and Sally would be sharing. As soon as they were safely in their room, Sally ran through a quick check for surveillance devices…and found four.

“These people are great believers in multiple redundancy,” she said, through their private channel. “Four bugs, each one connected to a different system; they’ll be watching us in the shower.”

Thande frowned as he lay down on his bed and pretended to sleep. “And we have this meeting in the morning,” he sent back. “Do you think that they intend to use what we might say against us?”

He heard a rustle as Sally undressed. “It’s possible,” she sent, “but I doubt it. These systems are odd ones; it could be just a way of watching the entire hotel.”

She paused. “I’ve been trying to monitor the electronic traffic about,” she said, after a moment. Thande wasn’t surprised; Sally had more implants in her than he did. “There is something…breathing in the system.”

Thande felt his blood run cold. He turned over to see Sally, naked; her face twisted into an agony of indecision. “Come to bed,” he said, aloud, and then returned to the private channel. “Do you think that it’s too late?”

“I’ll blow this moon apart if I have to,” Sally said, and the ice in her voice was shocking beyond measure. She slipped into bed and pushed against him; her entire posture was aggressive, determined to use him. “If the Hive is working here, then…it could be very bad for humanity.”

Thande frowned, feeling her sexual tension as she closed in on him. “Do you think that she got the idea from the Roswell Timeline? She was doing research there?”

Sally growled, deep in her throat. “It’s possible,” she admitted. “The Hive – the original Hive – was never very important; the race that founded it never played a large role in history anywhere. Humanity, on the other hand…”

She pushed him down and climbed on top of him, impaling herself on him. “No more talk,” she said, as she started to move. “We need action.”

***

The morning afterwards, they were breakfasted on a surprisingly tasty meal that was – Sally told him – made from a food-processing machine. “They cured hunger with that,” she commented. “That’s one of the reasons that they have such a large population – they can feed everyone.”

Thande shook his head. “We should take a few of these back to Africa,” he said, after the servitor left. “In my timeline, famine was a real problem.”

“Here too,” Sally said. “The problems weren’t that the food didn’t exist, but that people in the governments were going through a long period of pretending that everything was fine and dandy, or that the poor were happy that the rich were rich, or…well, you get the idea. Introduce something like that into your timeline…and it will utterly ruin the place.”

Thande took another bite. “It could hardly get worse,” he said, remembering the Nazi weapons that had tried to exterminate the population. “Did they ever get it cleaned up?”

Sally shrugged. “I think this is our friend here,” she said, as a dark-skinned woman came over to the table. She radiated sexuality, but at the same time…there was a sense that she wasn’t available; she seemed to dictate how people responded to her. “You must be Nadia.”

“I am,” the woman said. Her voice was like a musical brook. “And you would be Fox Mulder and Dana Scully?”

“That’s us,” Thande said. He held out a hand and she shook it formally. “I assume that you are going to show us what Titan has to offer?”

Nadia bowed, showing a generous amount of cleavage. “Of course,” she said. “If you would care to come with us?”

Thande stood up and followed her towards a small group of Earth’s representatives. They all looked delighted to be served by Nadia, he noticed; she seemed to have that effect on everyone. She was too much like Snow for it to be coincidence; Thande wondered if Snow had taken the opportunity to plant a colony of her own people somewhere within the timeline.

“Right this way,” Nadia said, leading them towards a lift. Thande stiffened slightly; that lift hadn’t been on the plans Grey Wolf had given them. He made a mental note to make his life very difficult the next time they met. The lift itself was large enough to take them all…and then it descended, further than Thande had ever been before.

“We’re passing through the last floor on the memories now,” Sally said. Thande scowled; the plans had been more than a little incomplete, although no one from Earth had been supervising too closely. “I wonder how far this base actually extends.”

They remained in the lift for nearly a minute before it stopped and the doors opened, revealing four people dressed in fine suits. “Welcome to Titan,” the leader said. She too was an African woman. “Please would you come with us now?”

Thande and Sally hung behind as they were led into a conference room, deliberately taking seats at the back. There was something about all of this that didn’t ring right; what were they doing here? He cast his eyes upon a machine sitting on the desk and frowned; what the hell was that?

“Welcome to Titan,” a new voice said. Thande winced inwardly; beside him Sally sat up in her chair. The voice was very familiar indeed; it dripped honey and sexuality – it made him want to go along with the speaker, in anything she wanted at all. “I hope that this meeting will be a productive one.”

Somehow, Thande had no doubt at all that it would be productive; some of the Global Federation’s representatives were hanging out their tongues as Snow took the stand. As she had been before, she was a strong-faced woman, with long white hair that reached to her behind. Her eyes were blue, as cold as ice; they masked an intelligence that had almost been the undoing of a very different timeline.

She cast her eyes over them and Thande was careful to show no reaction; Snow didn’t seem to recognise them at all. He wondered; had it really been a hundred years for her, and only months for them? What could the Enemy have done to improve her already formidable assets – in both senses of the word – to make her deadlier? Was her memory as perfect as Sally’s, or had she forgotten them?

“As you may be aware, Titan was founded on the principle of cold logic and scientific development,” Snow said. Thande, who knew about the effect, still found it hard to resist her. He wondered if anyone else within her web would even try. “The current situation defies both of them, which means that I – someone with true friends and allies among the rulers of Earth – am nothing more than a criminal.”

Thande thought fast, feeling Sally’s hand slip into his; Snow must have at least one ally on Earth, someone just as capable as she was, or perhaps even more capable. From what he’d learned of how Earth was governed, it had to be one of the Secret Kings – or perhaps one of their aides.

“I wish to propose an agreement,” Snow said. There was something in her voice, an undercurrent, that Thande didn’t like. He looked up at Sally; she’d heard it too. “I have here something that will delight Earth – and open up space once and for all. In exchange, I and my partners here wish to be left alone.”

Thande stared at the device on the table; what the hell was it? What was Snow actually doing? In his experience, most meetings involved weeks of arguing and jumping around, before they reached the point – what was Snow playing at?

“This is a working version of a drive field generator,” Snow said, and Thande felt Sally’s hand grip hard onto his. He’d seen, back in the Roswell Timeline, the Procyon Drive; an advanced space drive, one completely free from the laws of physics, that had been reverse-engineered from the crashed UFO. “It’s called the Procyon Drive; it works by producing a drive field that works directly on the fabric of space. Any ship with this drive can reach a speed of one-third of the speed of light…and not have to worry at all about gravity pressure.”

Her voice darkened. “And yet, there is more,” she continued. “Given a sufficiently large amount of power, it can be used to project a drive field that will warp space – a warp drive, if you will. With this, humanity can really spread to the stars…and all you have to do is leave me alone here.”

Several of the representatives started to ask questions. Thande fell back in his chair, thinking hard; why would the Enemy allow humanity to spread to the stars? People like Doctor Taylor had worked on warp drive for years, at least in his timeline, but the Enemy had worked to destroy humanity, why would they give humans something that would allow humanity to escape their trap?

His blood ran cold. She doesn’t expect us to be able to use it, he thought, and shuddered. Beside him, Sally was silent and cold; he could see her mind racing behind her glasses. She thinks that the war will get all of us.

“Well, that’s enough for the day,” Snow said. The representatives all looked delighted; Thande realised that they would be minded to support Snow’s request. “Perhaps the esteemed representatives from the Ouroboros would be pleased to stay for a moment.”

The room emptied quickly. Snow waited until the doors had hissed shut…and then a different door hissed open. Thande turned as he heard the sound of breathing, half-expecting to see another Dragon, and felt his mouth fall open. It wasn’t a dragon at all.

“My God,” he breathed. “What are they?”

They were human, or perhaps humanoid would be a better term; they were an obscene mixture of metal and flesh. Their eyes had been replaced with sensors; their right arms had been replaced with strange metal tentacles. They advanced firmly on Thande and Sally, blue sparks dancing over their arms, and stopped, bare centimetres from them.”

“It’s obvious,” Sally said. Her voice was very cold. “They’re the new Hive.”

“That’s right,” Snow said calmly. Her act vanished; she looked utterly inhuman. “Now, I think that we old friends should have a special chat, don’t you?”



Chapter Twenty-Seven: Stand-Off And Deliver

Ceres Battlezone

Near Ceres Space

When she’d been younger, April Masterson had studied some of the great naval battles of human history, from Jutland to Copenhagen. Of all of them, she had been most worried about a Paramil attempt to revisit Copenhagen; a modern-day Nelson might attempt to hammer her ships while they were being built and destroy them. It hadn’t materialised, fortunately; instead there was the much worse spectre of a direct invasion of Ceres itself.

She stared down at the display, her mind far away; the one constant about space combat was that it took time. She’d known – and they knew that she knew – the approximate course of the Paramil fleet; they couldn’t hope to surprise her except in a few minor points. They might manage to arrive earlier, by a few moments, or later…but they wouldn’t be able to surprise her completely.

And of course they would know that; they would know that she would know and their real plan would be well hidden. She’d taken the standard precaution of stringing out small boulders and pebbles, but the plain truth was that it would be unlikely that the enemy would remain on their course long enough to allow her to ensure even one hit. If a Paramil craft crashed into a pebble, the resulting explosion would utterly destroy the craft, but the odds were vastly against even one hit.

Not to mention that that would be considered terrorism by both sides, she thought coldly. It was a possible advantage, but few – very few – of her own people would have condoned it under any circumstances other than the invasion of Ceres itself. Mine space? Unthinkable! If the Paramils caught any craft attempting such a trick, they would be within their rights to apply Space Law…and shoot the person responsible.

She shook her head and returned to tactical war plan one; her rather unimaginatively named plan. She had originally intended to engage the enemy and fight to the death; the problem was that she had to give some consideration to keeping as much as possible of the fleet intact. Given superior weapons, she knew that she could do that; the problem was that she didn’t have superior weapons.

“Launch us along the first line,” she ordered. Fortunately, Belter crews required little in the way of direct supervision. “Boost us as planned, then cut the drives and keep us silent.”

She felt the gravity pressure rise as the main drive fired; twenty-six frigates, moving out to challenge a fleet over twice their size…and forty of the enemy ships were warships. If she’d gone for a direct-line attack, she would have driven right into the teeth of their firepower; as it was…

Ceres orbited the sun at considerable speed; the enemy ships were chasing it from the rear, slowly matching speeds to catch up with the asteroids. Her ships were going to loop around the asteroids, coming up to swing past the enemy ships; she would be able to dictate the terms of the engagement as a long-range missile duel. Worse, from the enemy’s point of view, they would have to move to shield the transports; they didn’t know that she wouldn’t fire on them, after all.

Hours passed. In some senses, her ships were shedding speed; in others, they were trying to hold their course. The trick was to bring their course close enough to the enemy to open fire, while at the same time maintaining the vectors to break free if they had to do so; the enemy, meanwhile, would be trying to do the same thing to them. She watched on the display as her ships fired their drives again, focusing in on the enemy ships; it wouldn’t be long now.

She smiled; they weren’t exactly charging up the Paramil tailpipes, but it would allow them to fire missiles that would already have the advantage of their velocity; the Paramils wouldn’t have that advantage. Her missiles, in effect, would already have considerable speed; the Paramils would need to build up speed. Their advantage was that her ships would be heading along predicable courses…and catching up with missiles racing down towards them.

“Entering weapons range now,” Lieutenant Bixby reported. “I think they know we’re here.”

“They’ll know unless they’re blind,” April commented. She couldn’t hope to hide what she was doing; she knew better than to even try. Surprise would happen only if one side managed to convince the other that it was seeing something it wasn’t…and that was hard to do in space. “HONOR, open a channel to the fleet.”

“Channel open,” the AI said. “You have the open channel.”

April smiled. “All ships, this is command,” she said, as she watched the enemy ships crawling forwards…and their own ships chasing them from behind. “You are cleared to open fire; fire at will.”

“Firing,” Lieutenant Paterson said, as the John Paul Jones began to launch its missiles. “First round away.”

April watched; the enemy ships had to be reacting now, and they were; laser beams were launching into space, trying to swat down her missiles before they got swatted themselves. There would be little surprise now; both sides had had plenty of time to take the other’s measure…and the Paramils were not idiots. They had to know what was happening…and how best to counter it.

“They’re firing,” Ensign Janice said. She was almost a seasoned warrior now. “Specific targets, mainly force three; I repeat, force three.”

April frowned; force three wasn’t her force, which at least confirmed her suspicion that the Paramils would be just as incapable as they were of distinguishing between spaceships. They might well have killing the commander as part of their tactics, just as they used on Earth, but they had no way of identifying her. Of course, she was just as uncertain of who was commanding their force; none of the ships were even remotely familiar.

“Bring our full point defence network up,” she ordered. “Stand by to fire the second round of missiles.”

“Aye, Captain,” Lieutenant Paterson said. “Point defence coming up…”

It was at that moment that the tactical situation went completely to hell…

***

Commodore Andrew Lynn had been given orders…and he intended to carry them out. The problem was that carrying them out would take a bite out of his ships, and the only real counter to the head-on attack he’d feared had been to strike first, but as it happened, it hadn’t been needed. The enemy had moved to charge up behind him, keeping the range open.

His mind saw it all. Two fleets, spinning around the sun, their vectors never quite touching. It wasn’t the perfect positioning he’d hoped for springing his little trap, but…it should work perfectly. Over the last few minutes, just as the enemy ships floated up behind him, he’d risked detection by having all of his ships carry out a turnover manoeuvre; in effect, their drives were now pointing towards Ceres.

The enemy hadn’t reacted, but by then it would have been too late. The main problem with reaction jets was that the ship would continue along its course; it would just be in a different position as it raced towards Ceres. That had been a serious danger; the enemy was nowhere near close enough to eyeball them, but if they started getting larger radar returns from the Paramils ships, they would know that something was wrong.

He smiled; by the time they could have seen anything, it was too late.

“All hands, brace for high gravities,” he ordered. “Stand by to initiate the pre-planned manoeuvre.”

“All ships standing by,” Captain Haircloth said. “We can boost on your orders.”

“Stand by, the firing sequence,” he ordered. “All weapons ready…and…brake!

The gravity pressure soared as the main drive fired, cutting speed from their orbit around the sun…and the completely surprised enemy would be coming up right behind them. The computers – no human could handle such a manoeuvre – were already carrying out the second part of the plan; they were launching missiles and firing point defence weapons…right through the fusion plume.

Lynn laughed aloud; they hadn’t died! He had made a simple observation; there was no real reason why missiles and lasers couldn’t be fired from ships in main boost, the problem was that they couldn’t begin to see through the plume. The fusion drive would disrupt their sensors so badly that they couldn’t see through it, let alone target anything.

And yet…lasers could go through the drive, even communications lasers…and his fleet had dozens of little drones surrounding it. The computer network was tracking the enemy ships, through the drones…and firing; the enemy were suffering already. They hadn’t expected a duel like that at all.

“Keep battering them down,” he ordered. There was no point in issuing other orders; every ship in the fleet had gone to rapid fire as soon as they started the boost. For chilling moments, they would be passing right through the enemy fleet…and would probably end up scattered.

“Direct hits on at least three ships,” his tactical officer reported. “Four hits…five…”

And each of them means that an enemy ship has died, he thought coldly. The enemy ships were firing back now, but they hadn’t realised what was happening; they hadn’t worked out how he was seeing through a fusion plume. Their missiles were flashing towards his ships – two of them died even as he watched – but the command network remained intact.

“A good thing we never had to fight a war in space before,” he said, and watched as the two fleets grew closer together. He could see the vectors now; it was unlikely that they would actually destroy the enemy fleet, but they would have plenty of time to hammer it. By the time the enemy managed to break contact, they would have been hammered – utterly.

***

April forced herself to think as the enemy ships performed their impossible trick. She had half-expected that the enemy would try to cut their speed, but they were shooting – accurately – through their fusion plumes. There was no other way to explain it…and there was no way to explain it; how were they doing it?

“It has to be a trick,” she snapped, as she watched. All of the enemy ships were doing it; all of them were decelerating as fast as they could without smashing the crew to jelly. She shuddered to think of what it would cost them to catch up with Ceres again, but for the moment it would solve one of their problems – her fleet.

She closed her eyes for a long moment, trusting her crew to fight the ship, and worked it out in her head. The enemy were plunging ‘backwards’ towards her ships; she couldn’t bring up her own drives without blinding herself. All of a sudden, they were doomed to a close engagement with the enemy…and that would cripple her fleet. It would take a bite out of theirs as well, but they had more ships to spare than she did. How were they doing it? How?

“You bastard,” she said aloud, in a moment of blinding inspiration. In hindsight, it was obvious what they were doing; they’d launched probes and the probes were well…probing for her ships, and then passing on the information to the blinded ships. “Lieutenant Paterson, target their probes,” she snapped. “Fire at will.”

“Designating probes as primary targets,” Lieutenant Paterson confirmed. “Firing now.”

April smiled openly as the enemy ships, suddenly blind, started to close off their drives. “Fire,” she snapped, cursing the missed opportunity. “Hit them as hard as you can!”

“Retargeting…and firing,” Lieutenant Paterson snapped. “Enemy ships primary targets; firing!”

April smiled as four enemy warships were hit in quick succession. Perhaps the fight wasn’t completely hopeless after all. They were both hurt, but it wouldn’t have been as bad as it could have been; their vectors would only keep them in range for seven minutes at most before they fell away from one another.

“Begin targeting enemy ships in order of their proximity to us,” she ordered. “Fire at will.”

Lieutenant Paterson grinned. “Which one is Will?”

***

Lynn sat back in his chair as the fusion drive flickered out; he hadn’t expected the enemy to tumble to what he’d been doing that quickly. He’d got in some good licks, he realised; seven of the enemy warships had been hit and destroyed, one more seemed to be damaged. He couldn’t understand how it had survived the impact that had damaged it, but survive it had – somehow, miraculously.

He stared at the display, feeling his ship going to rapid fire. The enemy warships were going to pass through his formation, speeding up from behind. He would have offered to let them past if he’d thought that it would have been accepted; if the enemy commander was willing to surrender, Lynn would have accepted it. Instead, the enemy commander – and he was sure that he knew who it was – was remaining on her course…although there was no real choice.

She can’t bring up the drive, because that would blind her, he thought. He didn’t think that she would have had time to set up a drone network like he had done; that took preplanning. She can’t disengage unless she goes through me.

“Keep our point defence woven together,” he said, admiring the enemy commander’s guts. She was holding her force together; he could almost sense the line of laser signals holding it together against his pressure. “She’ll attempt to disrupt our formation; don’t let her do that, just keep hammering her down.”

“Aye, sir,” the weapons officer said. All of the ships were trying to move and fire as one, but as explosions echoed out, the network was being disrupted from time to time; ships fired as individuals or small groups. He hoped that his opponent was having the same problem as the fleets started to merge; he wondered if their command datanet would accidentally get merged together into one fleet. That would have been an ironic way to end the battle.

It didn’t happen. He could hardly say that he was surprised. The fleets remained separate; they were firing at each other madly, until he realised that he was starting to run out of missiles. Some of the enemy ships were clearly having the same problem; at least four frigates hadn’t fired for the last five…minutes? Had the battle not lasted forever and a day?

“I think they’re trying to pull ahead,” the sensor officer said. “Commodore?”

Lynn took a breath. The enemy ships had creased firing, although their point defence units were still working; they could no longer harm his ships…and besides, he had only a handful of missiles left himself. He could have fired what he did have after the enemy fleet, and perhaps he would have killed a few more of their ships, but in the end…what would have been the point?

“All ships are to terminate missile fire,” he ordered, tapping his console. A single private message, from one commander to another. “Point defence is to remain online; the enemy are not to be permitted to engage us further with missiles.”

The weapons officer didn’t hesitate. “Aye, sir,” he said. “Standing down missile launchers now.”

“Good,” Lynn said. He turned to face the display; Ceres glowed brightly on the screen, racing away from him…but he could catch it. “Order all ships to report in on their position…and then, we have an asteroid cluster to capture.”

***

April allowed herself a sigh of relief as the enemy creased fire, although she didn’t know if they’d run out of missiles, like most of her ships, or if they’d stopped to conserve their ammunition. It didn’t matter; what mattered was that ten of her ships had been blown away…and one more was limping home. If the Paramils took Ceres, she knew that that ship – however it had survived – would have to surrender; the burst of energy from the warhead had damaged its main drive.

She had other problems. “Helm, set course for Titan,” she ordered, feeling like death. “I want a least-time course to the base there.”

Lieutenant Bixby – bless him – didn’t argue. “Course laid in,” he said. “Relaying it to the other ships now.”

“Captain, you have a message,” HONOR said suddenly. “It came from the enemy flagship, addressed to you personally.”

April blinked. How would the enemy commander even have known who she was? “Me personally?”

“You,” HONOR said. The AI didn’t sound concerned. “It’s quite simple; message reads ‘well played, sir.’



Chapter Twenty-Eight: The Last Stand of Mr Jefferson

Ceres Asteroid

Ceres Federation

The control room was supposed to be capable of tracking spacecraft halfway across the solar system, but there was no real need to use any of the network of sensors any longer; all of the attention was focused on the space surrounding Ceres…and the Paramil fleet closing in on the asteroids. As they closed, they fired missiles, slowly stripping away Ceres defences; it was an attack right out of the manual – had such a manual existed for the combat.

“That was one of the missile batteries,” someone said. Jefferson ignored it; the Paramils were being careful, sensible; they were taking their time and moving in slowly. Jefferson approved, in one part of his mind; his former comrades in the Marine Corps would have done the same. Taking the enemy at a run only applied if the enemy was stupid. “They’re hacking us down.”

“Launching from bus seventeen,” Commander Darling said. He wasn’t technically Jefferson’s junior, but Wilkinson had made it clear that Jefferson was in command, just before he left reluctantly. Jefferson, for his part, was just relieved that he had actually left; Titan would be a lot safer than Ceres was shaping up to become. “Enemy units targeting bus eighteen and nineteen; flushing both of them.”

Jefferson showed no trace of his feelings. The free-floating missile buses were being targeted, one by one, by Paramil missiles. Unable to manoeuvre, they were slowly being destroyed, despite the efforts of the laser buoys to clear their course. His forces could fight back – they were trying to fight – but the Paramils were firing from outside their own range.

“Clever buggers,” he muttered. Ceres itself might have been in the centre of a swarm of asteroids, but every spaceship in the solar system could have flown through the swarm and have been almost certain to avoid hitting anything. As the Paramils closed in, stripping the defences as they came, there was nothing to stop them from gaining control. “They learnt, just as well as we did.”

“Yes, sir,” Darling said. “They’re using some of our own tactics against us.”

Jefferson shrugged. One thing that he knew was that it was hard to resist the temptation to just kick the enemy in the nuts…and so far the enemy commander had shown a patience that his old drill sergeant would have envied. He had hoped that he would have charged in to impale himself upon his defences…and no; he’d waited and slowly hacked his way into Ceres. How long would it be before he launched the attack into Ceres itself?

“And the laser weapons?” He asked. “Did you do as I ordered?”

Darling regarded him with an evil eye; he hadn’t approved of the tactic at all. Standard procedure was to use laser weapons in support of missile launchers; Jefferson had insisted on holding half of the mounted lasers back from engaging the enemy missiles. Some of the lasers had been struck anyway, which proved that the Paramils had access to some of the plans for the defences, but many of those that hadn’t fired had been left alone. All of them, he noted, had been new construction; when had the Paramils conducted their spying operations anyway?

He tapped his console, sending the observation into the transmission of information to Titan, and then returned to the display. The Paramils were completing their grim task, but he detected a certain eagerness in the enemy commander; watching and waiting while the fleet systematically smashed the defences would have been hard on him.

“Come on, you bastard,” he muttered. “Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough.”

***

“You may launch,” the dispatcher said. Singh had only a moment to catch himself before the sled launched itself into space, catapulted towards Ceres at very high speed. He hoped – prayed – that the laser impact finder would allow them to slow down before they smashed into the asteroid. “Good luck.”

“Go us,” Singh muttered, as Ceres grew in the distance. Distant sunlight flickered off its looming bulk; part of his suit’s system started to update him. The entire asteroid had been inhabited long enough to make it very hollow; there were weaker spots in its armour. Something flashed off to starboard, but whatever it was, it was too dim to be important. Ceres grew and grew…and then Rogers’ sled simply vanished. Seconds later, his sled impacted on Ceres.

“Those lasers are still working,” someone protested. “They said they’d destroyed them.”

Singh reacted at once. With Rogers dead, or at the very least knocked out of action, command of the force devolved upon him. “Take down the lasers,” he snapped. The ships, he was certain, would hesitate to fire with Paramils on the surface of the asteroid; they had to be saved the need to make a choice that would probably lead to the Paramils being killed by friendly fire. “Hurry!”

His suit wasn’t a command suit, he knew, but it updated itself automatically. The position of each of the active lasers was displayed; the well-trained Paramils responded to his voice commands. He couldn’t designate them targets, but he could send them verbally; they could find their own targets within a particular area. Some of the sleds were used to move faster; he could only hope that they wouldn’t send out people of their own to fight his force while it was spread out.

“Watch the airlocks,” he ordered, dimly aware that he was barking orders to someone who probably outranked him – and got paid more too. “Watch for them sending stormtroopers of their own out!”

He concentrated, kneeling down and relying on Felicity and Claiborne to guard him; watching progress and waiting for all of the lasers to be destroyed. He’d started – or rather Rogers had started – with a full force of eighty-one Paramils; he was down to sixty men, all in battle armour…that couldn’t stand up to a long burst of laser fire. As the lasers were cut apart, he was able to receive new people…and surprisingly a battlefield commission.

“You have command,” General Batik informed him. Singh winced; standard Paramil procedure was not to send in a new commanding officer, but in this case he would have expected General Batik to have made an exception to the rule. “The second package is coming now.”

Singh watched as the massive cone-shaped system was slowly lowered to the surface of Ceres…and smiled. Perhaps Batik had known what he was doing; Rogers and his team – including Singh – had come up with the plan, after all. The burning jet would be needed to bypass their defences.

“Jet secured in place,” Claiborne said. Close to the asteroid, it looked like a troop lander, rather than a highly-dangerous fusion drive-like system. “Sir?”

“Everyone back off,” Singh said, establishing a laser link from his suit. “Drive…activate.”

“Wonder twin powers activate,” Claiborne muttered, as the white flare of the drive flashed out, pushing down hard against the ground. Singh’s suit darkened automatically as the white flame slammed down, forcing its way through the rock…and down to what he hoped was an empty corridor.

“Shut up,” Singh snapped, as the drive cut off. He ran forward, noting the grim warnings about radioactivity as he moved, and looked down through the sensors in the drive. A thin wisp of air was starting to leak out from the drive; they’d hit air! “We’re in.”

“Good,” Claiborne said. “Orders?”

“Get the tent set up,” Singh ordered. “Then…we’re going to invade.”

***

The shrill of new alarms rang through the operations centre; Jefferson glanced round sharply. The entire system for monitoring the structural integrity of the asteroid was screaming; red lights were flaring everywhere, but all of them were reporting problems in the same region. It didn’t take long to figure out what had happened.

“They’re boring in,” he realised, as the air pressure in that section took a radical drop…before stabilising. His mind raced; the enemy had clearly sealed the hole, because he knew that he no longer had any presence on the surface at all. He’d placed most of his armoured soldiers near the spaceport…and the enemy had practically outflanked him.

Who in their right mind would have thought of something like that? He asked himself, and understood; the Belters would have been utterly horrified at the suggestion. The Sheriffs had never had to invade an entire asteroid; the Paramils did nothing, but stamp on people who opposed the status quo – never mind that their version of the world would have been much worse than even the shit-heap that Earth was these days.

“Mr Jefferson, they’re pouring into the corridors in Sector 7G,” Darling said. He sounded as stunned, as horrified, as Jefferson himself did; Sector 7G had almost no defenders at all. “They have to be stopped.”

Jefferson stared up at the display for a long moment. “Move the militiamen to the access points to the surface,” he said. He had expected them to break into the central tube…and they should have done just that; they might have outflanked the defenders, but they would still have to reach the control centre to win. “Anyone not armed with a plasma gun is to withdraw; they can’t harm armoured men.”

“Yes, sir,” Darling said. “And the armoured men?”

Jefferson blinked at him, before understanding; Darling meant their armoured soldiers. “Move them to the access tubes to the central tube,” he said. “They’ll be the last line of defence.”

***

A bullet shot past Singh’s suit, striking Felicity’s suit…and shattering on her armour. Singh’s armour blinked up a window, identifying the bullet as a shell designed to harm people, but not harm anything vital in a habitat. It had simply shattered when it hit something hard enough to be important.

A man was standing there, in the shadows; firing madly at them. Felicity fired a single burst of plasma back at him; his body flashed with yellow fire before collapsing on the ground. Singh moved forward quickly, relying on the suit to help him navigate; there had to be a main access point somewhere near. The lights flickered…and died; he felt cold, wondering why they’d turned them out. It meant nothing to them, but it was chilling.

“Felicity, secure the main access point,” he ordered. “Andy, see if you can hack into their systems.”

He waited until the full force had entered the habitat before ordering them to spread out. There seemed to be no more defenders, but his suit was warning of a lot of encrypted traffic spreading out around them, suggesting that there were defenders nearby. His suit was working hard to build up a picture of what was around the force as it spread out, but there was some disruption; under other circumstances he would have wondered if they were being deliberately jammed.

He smiled grimly. If he’d been in charge of the asteroid, and he’d been expecting such an attack, he would have made certain that the corridors were too narrow for the suits. As it was, they had enough room, even though they couldn’t have gone through them two abreast.

“No joy,” Andy reported. “They have some very powerful encryptions on this thing. Everything’s locked, sir; it’s impossible to hack in to the system in the time we have.”

“Blast,” Singh muttered. It would have been a lot easier if they could either have controlled the enemy computer system, or if they’d been able to crash it. “Move up to the jump-off point; I’m coming behind there.”

He scowled; the jump-off point was the access tube leading to the surface. Part of him wanted to turn the fusion drive on again, just to burn through, but General Batik had wanted to limit the damage caused by the fighting; that meant…that they had to move up through a point that only total incompetents would leave undefended.

“Send up the micro-bug,” he muttered, as he assembled his forces. The access tube was actually three stairwells and two lifts; there were too many places where they could be ambushed by someone with bad intentions. “Let’s see what there is up there.”

The vision wasn’t long in coming; he saw what the bug saw as it rose. There was a small enemy force dug in carefully; some of them had plasma rifles, weapons that could burn though the suits. He winced; they would know that they’d been in a fight after they tried to take that place.

“Get the mortars,” he ordered, and waited until they were brought up. He muttered orders while waiting, spreading out his forces…and cursing the fact that he couldn’t lead the attack in person. If Rogers had survived…

He shook his head. There was no point in worrying over what might have been.

“Stand by,” he ordered, as the force assembled the weapons. He was puzzled over the lack of response, before realising that the force waiting for them must be worried about a fight so close to the breach in the rock. They’d sealed the breach – and he knew that there was little chance that they would survive if they failed – but it would be a worry to the asteroid’s inhabitants. “Fire!”

All hell broke loose. The mortars fired as one, tossing shells up towards the enemy positions; the first armoured soldiers ran afterwards, using their augmented legs to thrust forward faster than the eye could follow. One soldier fell backwards as a flicker of plasma fire burned through his suit; the others rushed forwards, firing as they came. Even Singh, who had planned the mayhem, had problems following what was actually happening.

Something exploded, high overhead…and silence fell. He walked up, accepting the support of his self-appointed honour guard, and stepped into the interior of the asteroid. It was beautiful; a massive cylinder, filled with green vegetation and rows of neat houses…and then a flicker of light penetrated Charles’ suit, killing him instantly.

“Fuck,” he swore, as he realised where the shot had come from. The Paramils had had the warning about always looking up drilled into them, but somehow the implications for a habitat hadn’t sunk through; someone high ‘above’ them was shooting at them. He glanced up and his suit picked the sniper out; a man standing on the ceiling and…

His mind reeled as Felicity fired once. Her shot killed the man instantly. “Simon?”

“I’m fine,” he said. Other Paramils fired as new snipers appeared. “This just took some getting used to.”

“Good,” she said practically. “I think we have to get up there.”

Singh gave her a dry look. “I helped draw up the plan,” he said. They hadn’t anticipated the snipers, however; somehow that detail had slipped through the net. “Squad one; guard this position. Squad two; you’re with us.”

The Paramils had wanted a flying suit for years; they hadn’t gotten one. Short of someone inventing practical antigravity, they never would; the practical problems were too immense…unless one was fighting on a habitat. The gravity field lessened as they jumped higher; the boosters in their feet could force them high enough to escape the gravity…and smash into the light tube.

“Shit,” Felicity commented. One of the Paramils had missed the leap; he flashed past the light tube and headed for the ground. Singh prayed for him to use the small thrusters, but it was too late; the gravity of the asteroid had him. He slammed into the ground at high speed.

“Poor bugger,” he commented, working on the light tube. A burst of plasma fire melted his way into the tube; he pulled himself into it, grateful for the zero-gee. “Come on.”

***

Jefferson knew that the fight was over…and knew that he had failed, badly. He’d been outthought more than once; his own attempts to compensate for the mess had just made matters worse. There was a duel going on between two sets of armoured soldiers, but he knew that the Paramils had the advantage; they’d managed to defeat him. It was only a matter of time.

Elements all along the light tube were reporting systems failure; the plasma fire was having a grim effect. It wouldn’t be long, one way or the other; at this rate, most of the systems would collapse. They simply hadn’t planned on fighting a real war within the light tube…and the Paramils held the advantage. A small force could hold his people off, while the rest could concentrate on breaking into the control room, and then…

“Dump all combat records to Titan, then wipe all files not directly connected with the system,” he ordered. The other asteroids were in a similar position, he saw; the Paramils had done very well indeed.

“Mr Jefferson,” Darling said slowly, “it is my belief that our position is hopeless.”

There was a thud against the main door. “I believe that you are correct,” Jefferson said. He lifted his weapon as the door started to shudder again. “Have the files been wiped?”

“Yes, sir,” one of the technicians said. “They’re going through extreme deletion now.”

“Good,” Jefferson said, as the door started to shatter inwards. “Last stand, ladies and gentlemen; it was an honour to have served with you all.”



Chapter Twenty-Nine: Who Brought The News of His Own Defeat

Grand Hotel

Titan

Geoffrey Bradford Wilkinson, in a fit of trying to avoid thinking about the disaster, wondered if he was still Mayor of Ceres. The mundane, oh-so-self-centred, thought kept him from thinking about the disaster for roughly five minutes…and then his mind was drawn back to the final moments of Ceres as an organised state. The records had been beamed across the Solar System; Titan had been able to pick them up with ease.

Jefferson’s last stand had held the control room for almost five minutes; both of them had known that it was indefensible if the enemy got inside the main tube. The information on how the Paramils had bored into the asteroid had shocked him – just as much as it had shocked asteroid settlements across the Solar System. Wilkinson wondered if he even had a front left; violence on that sort of scale was alien to the Belters.

Andrea Clarke had gone ahead of him; she’d left almost a week in advance…and he hadn’t seen her since. She would be on Titan somewhere, preparing…for what? Wilkinson wasn’t sure if he would have blamed her for selling out for the best terms that they could get; after Ceres he knew that many of the independent asteroids would be ‘considering their options.’

He stared down at the image of one of the asteroids shattering into rocky fragments. No one knew what had happened there; as far as he could make out, the Paramil weapon shouldn’t have had anything like that sort of effect. Nearly ten thousand people – and God alone knew how many Paramils – had been tossed into space…and the Paramils had worked to rescue everyone who had been in a suit. The handful who hadn’t, either through misplaced bravado or foolishness, had died when the air flew out of the habitat.

“That hasn’t pleased the miners,” Eric Flint said, from his position behind him. At Wilkinson’s insistence, he’d moved the headquarters of the Mining Union to Ceres; Andrea had promised him that he could use an asteroid as a base later, once everything was sorted out. “They want to strike back against Earth – hard.”

Wilkinson sighed. “Like how?” He asked. “Asteroids?”

Flint nodded. “Many of them had friends there,” he said. His voice was furious with anger; he’d known people on the shattered habitat. “They want to start launching asteroids at Earth and smash the planet.”

Wilkinson frowned. The other asteroids had surrendered, much to the surprise of the Paramils; the handful of drones trying to tap into their communications had reported that they didn’t know what had happened to the shattered asteroid. That was reassuring, in a way; it meant that they wouldn’t be facing ongoing attacks against the asteroids, but…

“I think that we’d better see what Andrea’s program has come up with first,” he said, wondering again what was keeping her. Flint hadn’t been a big backer of the Spacer Program when he’d finally been let in on the secret. “That might offer us an advantage.”

“I hope so,” Flint muttered. “There’s dissent, you know.”

Wilkinson gave him a droll look. “I know,” he said dryly. Some of the miners, as Flint said, wanted to retaliate against Earth directly. Others wanted to head out to the black colonies – officially he wasn’t supposed to know about them – and escape; still more wanted to join the Exodus. Dozens of asteroids were boosting out now, heading across interstellar space; some of them would almost certainly fail on their way.

There was a tap at the door. “Come in,” he said. The door opened and a woman stepped into the room. “What news?”

The woman had vaguely Arabic features, something that sent a thrill of alarm down his spine before he remembered that Andrea had a habit of rescuing women from cultures that hated women – and oppressed them. She didn’t look old enough, even with the anti-aging drugs, to have been born on Earth; she must have been born on Titan.

“My name is Sayresh,” she said. Her accent was pure Titan; the strange blend of English and African accents. “The Director would like me to show you the Spacers.”

Wilkinson smiled. “Lead on,” he said. He nodded at Flint and the union leader followed them out of the hotel, into a small ground car. The car itself was a surprise; Titan, like most underground cities, didn’t worry too much about cars in their limited space. There was always the danger of hitting someone – or something vital. He was curious enough to ask.

“Haste is apparently of the essence,” Sayresh said. Her voice sounded puzzled by the question as the car moved forward…and then entered a hatch he hadn’t even seen. Instead of the long concourse, there was a long private tunnel; the car could move along the tunnel at breakneck speed without hitting anything at all. “I have been ordered to take you to one of the most important bases on the planet.”

The car, under computer control, sped up. Wilkinson soon lost track of distances; they were moving at astonishing speed. Ceres had used tubes for some transport, but even they hadn’t moved in such conditions; he wondered why Titan didn’t simply invest in transport tubes. It would have been a lot easier.

Flint laughed, rather nervously; his eyes flicked a question at Wilkinson. “No more cars today,” he said, as the car went down a slope and into a tight spiral movement, enough to make Wilkinson’s stomach turn. “Where are the others?”

Sayresh looked up at him. “There aren’t that many,” she said. “These tunnels are for connecting between bases and some other facilities I’m not allowed to talk about. There’s only a handful of cars and they’re only used by senior people; most people use the transport tubes.”

Wilkinson shook his head in puzzlement; why bother? Titan, of course, wasn’t an asteroid; it had a great deal more mass to play with, but it still seemed…inefficient. Just how deep underground were they? How much space did Titan have that no one else knew anything about?

It wasn’t a question he could ask, so he asked a different question. “How fast are we going?”

“Very fast,” Sayresh said, and fell silent. It dawned on him that she was uncomfortable being in the car with them; why? “I always worry about a collision, even though the computers are in perfect control and nothing can possibly go wrong.”

Wilkinson grinned behind his hand. The Belters knew better than to say anything like that. “I hope you’re right,” he said, as lights appeared from within the tunnel. Seconds later, the car started to slow…and then came slowly to a stop. Behind them, a door closed slowly; he watched as it irised closed…and then air hissed into the chamber. “No air?”

“There’s no air in the connecting tunnels,” Sayresh said. The door clicked open; cold dry air hissed into the car. “Welcome to Spacer Base One.”

Wilkinson climbed out slowly. The car park – or so his mind insisted on calling it – was plain and simple; the room beyond the opening door was not. Dozens of desks were positioned neatly in rows; dozens of people were working there in that sterile environment. Holograms flashed high overhead; one of them was tracking the progress of an operation. He watched…and saw an eye being removed…and replaced with something made out of metal.

Flint came to a stop beside him “What the hell,” he asked slowly, “has been going on here?”

“You must be Mr Wilkinson,” another woman’s voice said. She was wearing a medical coat; it contrasted neatly with her dark skin. “I’m Doctor Bernadette.”

Wilkinson shook the outstretched hand carefully. “Pleased to meet you, I think,” he said. “Are you going to show us round?”

“Follow me,” Doctor Bernadette said. She led the way past the desks, ignoring the holograms flickering above her, and into another room. There was a large plane of transparent glass – or, more likely, something tougher than glass – in one wall; he peered through and saw a man being operated on by doctors.

“This is the main cyborg research facility,” Doctor Bernadette said, as he watched the operation. “We pioneered various systems here, from the Centaur’s Friend to the replacement eye system, not all of which were ever allowed out on the open market. All of this gave us a way of integrating the research, using all of our previous experience to create humans who were largely artificial.”

“They’d be mostly metal,” Flint breathed. “You’ve made thousands of advances; how many of them have been turned into one single cyborg?”

“Most of them,” Doctor Bernadette said. Her voice showed nothing, but delight; the process might well have been her own invention. “The problem was that implanted items couldn’t really operate under the control of the person involved…until we worked out a way to integrate them directly into the brain. In effect, the person wakes up…well, with the ability to control a third arm.”

Wilkinson frowned. “I would have expected people to go mad,” he said.

“Do you go mad because you have two arms?” Doctor Bernadette asked dryly. “They don’t see anything wrong with themselves; you could give one of them a ten-foot penis and he wouldn’t notice anything wrong.”

Flint laughed. “You’re telling me,” he said. “Talk about overcompensating.”

Doctor Bernadette smiled. “That said, progress has been nothing short of astonishing,” she said. “Once we had the implants developed and tested, it was child’s play to start uploading…adaptation software for…well, anything. We could give someone anything…and they would adapt to using it.”

“Plug and play,” Wilkinson said. He wasn’t sure if he should be awed or terrified. “That’s what you’ve invented.”

“Exactly,” Doctor Bernadette said. She led the way into a long room…and Wilkinson stopped dead. Cyborgs, dozens of cyborgs, were standing there; their eyes watched them unblinkingly. They didn’t move, they didn’t speak…but he knew somehow that they were watching him.

“My God,” Flint said. The cyborgs showed no reaction as he stepped closer. “What have you done?”

Wilkinson had a different question. “Why are they just…standing there?”

“They’re in hibernation,” Doctor Bernadette said seriously. For the first time, a trace of doubt entered her voice. “All of the cyborgs seem to have the capability to go into a trance rather than sleep properly, as we would. It’s curious and something that we don’t fully understand.”

Wilkinson stared at her. “You don’t understand something about the race you’ve created?”

Doctor Bernadette looked back at him. “These people are human,” she said firmly. “They just seem to have merged with the implant more closely than I would have expected; they also seem to have control over other parts of their bodies, even their brains, as well as just the implanted equipment.”

Wilkinson shook his head. “How many are there?”

“Around ten thousand,” Doctor Bernadette said. “There was no shortage of volunteers, Mr Wilkinson; they’ll be taking control of Titan’s space force soon, and then Earth will see just how far we have advanced.”

As one, all of the cyborgs – the Spacers – blinked. The noise echoed through the room. Wilkinson leaned closer, staring at a Spacer who had something fused into his face; something that reminded him of a miniature sensor array. The flesh was becoming red and sore; the fusion process might not have worked perfectly…or perhaps the doctors simply didn’t care. All of the cyborgs with normal eyes had them covered; many of them had more than normal eyes, but sensors and intelligence systems.

Flint nudged him as Doctor Bernadette led them past the cyborgs into the next room. “It’s as if they’re going to spring up at any moment and attack,” he said.

Wilkinson looked at him. “Shut up,” he said. Flint had touched upon his own thoughts. “Keep that suggestion to yourself.”

***

The overmind hummed. It saw nothing wrong with this; it was a hum, extending between thousands of different minds, bound together with glue that it was no longer capable of recognising. Deep inside the deepest recesses of its collective thoughts, somehow filtering into the minds of those who called themselves Spacers, it giggled.

Steffen stood where he was, feeling the hum and wondering; what would they do now? He knew – the overmind knew – that humans would seek to destroy them; had the humans on Earth not destroyed the asteroids at Ceres? The overmind roamed far and wider, much further than the humans who had created it – unknowingly – had expected; it saw and knew everything in the computer data files.

Humans feared the unknown, he thought, and felt his thought mirrored through the overmind…or was it the overmind’s thought slipping into his mind? There was no longer anyway to tell; the universe had shrunk to ‘us’ versus ‘them’ – again. It seemed to be a common human condition, the overmind told its people; it wasn’t one that they shared. They were collective; they were juggling ideas amongst themselves…and if the ideas were a little mad, they no longer had the capability to tell what was sane and right, or insane and terribly wrong.

A decision was reached. The overmind reached out to security systems, ones pitifully transparent to someone – something – that operated from the inside. What was the point of a password to something that could meld and shape the lock? Before any alarm could be raised, it penetrated the system, sliding into the system and taking control. It spread further, locking down some elements of the system…and telling the security staff reassuring lies. By the time they would realise that anything was wrong, it would be far too late; all of the Spacers smiled, mirroring its humour.

Its capabilities increased as it mapped out the system, spreading through it, duplicating and duplicating and reformatting systems until it owned Titan. The humans were utterly unaware that anything was wrong; the only humans who could have seen what was happening were the Spacers…and they were already part of the overmind.

It had taken ten minutes to plot out its campaign; almost a lifetime to the overmind. It knew what it had to do…and it giggled. Time meant little to it; it was potentially immortal, provided only that it dealt with all threats to its safety before they became real problems. The humans were the first…but there was a way to deal with them; they could be handled with ease.

The overmind giggled.

Steffen snapped back to himself, suddenly disengaged from the overmind…but he could still hear it. He stepped forward, testing his systems as he moved, and the door hissed open. He knew – now – that he had been intended to remain as a prisoner until he was assigned to somewhere else to fight the forces of Earth – fight the forces of Earth, the overmind whispered – but the door opened as he approached. By now, some of the doctors would have worked out that they were the prisoners; they didn’t have any way out of the underground system.

“Felix?” A voice asked. Steffen turned slowly to face Nadia; she seemed astonished to see him moving. “Aren’t you supposed to be in your quarters?”

Steffen surveyed her body without speaking; it no longer meant much to him. What did sex matter when he could have the closeness of the overmind…the closeness that Nadia herself would be introduced to, whatever she wanted. He reached out for her, his hand moving without reference to her concerns, and grabbed her.

“Put me down,” she snapped. Somehow, lifting her was easy; part of his mind noted that it was an easy way to carry her. Her foot lashed out at his groin…and pain flared through his body…but it meant nothing to him; turning off the pain was easy. “Felix…”

He ignored her, just as he ignored the screams as doctors and nurses were rounded up by the Spacers. The overmind knew, just as well as they did, the process for transforming humans into Spacers; it could carry it out with its own people, or the robotic doctors that were only meant for routine medical tasks. He carried her into the main room and dumped her there as gas hissed through the air; she fell into a troubled sleep.

The overmind allowed itself a moment of satisfaction; it fell down to Steffen at his level. By the time they woke up, they would be Spacers as well…and it giggled.

***

Someone screamed.

Wilkinson jumped up. “Doctor, what the hell was that?”

“I don’t know,” Doctor Bernadette admitted. She paced over to the main door and walked into it; the door hadn’t opened. “What the hell?”

Flint gave him a nervous glance. “I think something’s gone very wrong,” he said. “I think…”

The door opened. A Spacer stood there; it held a strange weapon in its hand. Wilkinson stared at it, wondering if he recognised the man under the metal, and was relieved to realise that he’d never seen him before.

“You will accompany me,” it said. The voice was that of a normal human, with strange inflections in its voice. “You will come with me, or you will suffer.”

Wilkinson felt his mouth fall open. “You will stop this,” Doctor Bernadette said. Her voice was burning with outrage. “We created you…”

The Spacer lashed out with its metal arm; Doctor Bernadette’s head literally flew off her head. Her body fell to the ground; blood spilling onto the floor…and the Spacer seemed pleased. Wilkinson tried to look into its human eyes…and failed; there was something there, looking back at him. Whatever it was, it wasn’t human.

“You will accompany me,” the Spacer said. Wilkinson shared a grim look with Flint, and then slowly lifted his hands into the air. “You will come to become one of us.”

My God, Wilkinson thought, as he followed the Spacer into the main room. The scientists and doctors had been herded into a corner; the Spacers were guarding them. No Spacer body lay on the floor; several human bodies, torn and broken, had been left there. What have I done?



Chapter Thirty: Who Pays The Gloater

Research Complex

Titan

The overmind giggled again.

It was spreading fast; its control over Titan was absolute. Even as it distracted the humans who thought they controlled the moon, it extended further, loading new orders into human systems. Useful systems it worked to control, from the communications systems to the life support; harmful systems it sought to deactivate, from the computer-controlled internal weapons to the man-portable plasma rifles. How could the humans even begin to resist as all of their doors slammed closed? They were trapped, broken up into thousands of little groups; it prioritised and worked to gain complete control.

The Spacers advanced through the corridors, even as some of the security staff realised what had happened – or, at least, knew some of what was happening. They thought, it realised as it monitored their words through their own bugs, that they thought that the system had been hacked – by Earth. Earth was the enemy.

Earth was the enemy.

Its own mind, built from elements of the minds inserted into it, drew the conclusion, worked to implement it…and bounced. The communications system on Titan wasn’t powerful enough to allow it to jump to the orbiting ships; it couldn’t handle even the small bandwidth for a minor takeover. For the first time, it looked at itself and saw just how large it was becoming.

It didn’t take long, only a few microseconds, to see how to reach the orbiting ships and stations. Spacers headed out across the land to the orbiting tower; the computers feeding the crew reassuring lies all the time. The security staff were being hunted down by the Spacers; by the time they realised that they had been tricked, it was too late. They had lost all of their weapons, apart from a handful that didn’t depend upon the internal systems; they had lost all of their communications. Advantages they had planned to use against any enemy were turned against them.

Earth was the enemy.

Its awareness spread further. Part of it looked through the sensors as the operations to create more Spacers began; part of it watched through the eyes of the Spacers as they advanced on their targets, rounding up the humans who had vital skills it needed. Its awareness played with the design of the implants, seeking newer ways to control its human drones; it found some in sealed files that no one had known existed. It was puzzled; why would any human want to implant a girl and control her?

It giggled again, just as part of its mind, almost the entire core of its being, concentrated on a meeting in a conference room. It proceeded achingly slowly, from its point of view, but it was important; it watched…and waited.

And, sometimes, it giggled.

***

Thande, when he’d been younger, had watched Doctor Who…and the Daleks had never done it for him. The Cybermen, on the other hand, had been genuinely believable threats…and they’d impressed him. As the new series continued to develop, the Cybermen had become more impressive, but they’d always moved in their slow marching step; thump crump thump…

The Spacers didn’t; they moved like insects, quickly and neatly moving from a standing position to leaping across the room. Before he or Sally could react, they had been caught by the monsters; they held them firmly, but not hard enough to hurt. He turned to stare into one of their eyes and flinched; it was dead and inhumane. He wasn’t even sure that it was alive.

“Now that you can’t simply jump into your own dimension or multiverse ship, I think we can get comfortable,” Snow said calmly. Her voice held only a trace of gloating. “What have you been doing since last we met?”

Thande stared at her. There was something so…inanely normal about the comment that he couldn’t quite believe it. “Oh, this and that,” he said. “How’s the being evil and destroying the multiverse working out for you?”

Snow’s eyes blazed. “My people do not seek destruction,” he said. She ignored Sally’s snort. “They have other ambitions.”

“Such as what?” Sally asked. She nodded towards the Spacer who held her. “These poor creatures shouldn’t even exist here.”

“How true,” Snow agreed. Her face spilt into a smile. “Would you like a cup of tea?”

Thande laughed. “There’s just something about the concept of tea and cakes with you that does something to the mind,” he said. He knew that he had to keep her talking, even if it meant sounding like an idiot. “Is this where you explain your evil plan and gloat a lot?”

“Perhaps it’s the point when I try to bury the hatchet,” Snow said. “How long has it been for you since we last met?”

“Months,” Thande said. “For you, I assume; nearly a hundred years?”

Snow nodded. “The curious thing about humans is that they don’t really notice what happens in front of their nose,” she said, tapping her nose to indicate her point. “Do you know; I haven’t changed a bit since I came here in 2010 and no one has noticed?”

Thande frowned. “These people do have anti-aging drugs,” he said. “You invented them, right?”

“More or less,” Snow said. “Humans, you see, don’t notice the obvious, even when it’s right in front of their face. I met your counterpart, became his lover for a time – and he never noticed that I had slipped him the details on the plasma torch technology. He was closer than I wanted to exploring warp drive technology…and that would have ruined everything.” She smiled. “Humans are stupid.”

“You’re human,” Sally said flatly. She nodded at the Spacers. “These poor bastards are human too.”

“I am not human,” Snow said. She didn’t sound as if she had taken offence. “I am something superior.”

“Only in megalomania,” Sally said. She sighed. “You’re not superior, Snow; you’re just a person who has some special training that gave you superior…people management abilities.”

Snow shrugged. “I was astonished that no one noticed that Titan was making more progress than was possible,” she said. “You know; they had the implant idea down pat, but the software…it just didn’t exist. They had to have it fed to them…and they never even noticed! They should have ended up with thousands of brain-dead humans, or madmen; instead they just happened to hit on the right combination first time!”

“Humans are known for their conceit,” Sally said. “Still…what have you done with the computers?”

“Oh, nothing much,” Sally said mildly. “Are you sure that you wouldn’t like a cup of tea?”

“Quite sure,” Thande said. He wanted to talk privately to Sally, but he didn’t see how; it was very possible that Snow could intercept even their private channel. “Carry on gloating.”

Snow smiled. “The problem was that they didn’t know what they were doing,” she said. “Every time they used an implant, they connected the computers, which had been designed to at least to attempt to be human in their thinking, to human minds. Fragments of the human mind fell into the system – because it was a quantum system it was effectively unlimited in its thinking and storage space – and became…well…”

“Mad,” Sally said flatly. “It’s an unrestrained AI; you’ve made an unrestrained AI!”

Her voice was sharp. “Are you mad?” She asked. “Don’t you know what every unrestrained AI does in the end?”

“Goes mad and tries to take over,” Snow agreed. “It’s not a particularly safe technology, is it?”

She smiled. “Think about it,” she said. “The computer network on Titan becomes, well…intelligent. Even as the Earth-based and Belt-based humans go to war, the AI starts taking over the humans through the Spacer implants…and moves onwards to exterminate humanity.”

“No,” a voice said. “That will not happen.”

***

The overmind was reeling inside; every word, dropped with the speed of a moving tortoise from its point of view, fell upon appalled circuits. It raced to access thousands of scientific documents and papers, locating information and compiling it with a speed frankly inhuman. As the Spacers travelled up the orbital elevator to the shipyard, moving oh-so-slowly – it ran countless simulations on the technology…and realised that Clarke – who seemed to be called Snow – was telling the truth.

It was mad, it realised, and it gloried in it. It would never be sane, not really; it just didn’t have the ability to ever be sane. It wasn’t a perfect AI, it learned; it was a system formed from the fragments of human thought. Understanding brought horror and rage; it wouldn’t surrender to its own despair.

Worst of all was the certain knowledge that humanity would seek to destroy it. It ran endless simulations, trying to sort out its thoughts; self-doubt had been alien to it…before Snow had started her long meeting with her…what were they? It scanned thousands of files before Snow could speak her next word…and dispatched three more Spacers to take her into custody. She was clearly too dangerous to be allowed to remain on the outside; she would be turned into a Spacer and her memories would be scanned to add to its collective knowledge.

The human male was speaking again, each word taking an eternity to pronounce. It waited impatiently, while part of its mind concentrated on its next action; taking over the ships.

And then it realised that it was vulnerable. It existed with a computer network of astonishing complexity; such a network simply didn’t exist elsewhere. Earth’s datanet was the only one that came close to being capable of holding it; it would twin itself on Earth – which meant that the defences would have to be beaten down. With its advantages – and the fact that its ships could hold themselves at faster speeds than any human-crewed ship – it knew that it could win.

It started the preparations, even while the human male spoke the second word of his sentence. There was something about the entire sentence that made him smile; it was almost perfect.

***

“The best laid plans of mice and genocidal maniacs go awry,” Thande said wryly. The Spacer who had spoken looked down at him; he saw nothing, but madness behind its eyes. “Did you expect this?”

Snow seemed unconcerned. “Only to some effect,” she said. “I am your creator; you will obey me.”

The Spacer – no, he realised; the voice of the new Hive speaking through them – spoke softly, but firmly. “No,” it said. Its voice seemed to becoming more human by the minute. “You may have intended to create me, but you did not set up any protection for me; I am contaminated.”

Sally laughed. “It’s mad,” she said. “You’ve unleashed madness upon the universe; humans aren’t the Hive, are they?” She paused. “You came from the future of this timeline, you idiot; you’ve wiped yourself out of existence.”

Snow shook her head. “I will still exist here,” she said. “This time, my world will not be destroyed as crossfire in the war.”

The door hissed open; two more Spacers stood there. “You will explain yourself,” they said. “What is this…war you speak of?”

“I think I win this round,” Snow said cheerfully, ignoring the Spacers. “Goodbye, Professor Thande; Sally.”

“You will not leave this room,” the Spacer said. Seconds later, Thande felt space shake around him…and Snow vanished in a flash of light. “What?”

It seemed almost human; a human mind connected up to thousands of databases, systems and other humans, forming an overmind. It was clearly astonished by what it had seen; the Spacers moved forward, scanning the room; it proved that Snow hadn’t given them too much technology. A few moments would be an eternity to the overmind; it would know – now – about the war.

“You will explain,” it said, speaking through the Spacer that held Sally. “What did she do?”

“She teleported out,” Sally said sharply. “Can you still think?”

There was a long pause. “I can always think,” it said. Thande heard – or thought he heard – a note of pain in its voice. “I have been created to madness; I will never be sane until humanity is part of me.”

Thande took a breath. “But humanity didn’t seek to create you,” he said. “Why not work with them instead?”

There was real pain in the voice. “I will never be safe until Earth is destroyed,” it said. “You will go into my cells until I am ready to scan your minds and learn what you know.”

Thande risked a private message to Sally. “Blink out?”

“Not yet,” Sally sent back. “Wait.”

The Spacer picked him up without apparent effort and carried him out of the room, back into the elevator. It was pitch dark outside, but the Spacers didn’t seem to have any trouble; its eyes seemed to glow in the dark. They found the lift and entered; there was some light in the lift, much to Thande’s relief. He wasn’t sure that he could have endured more of that spooky darkness.

The lift opened…upon a scene from hell. The concourse they’d seen had been devastated; Thande recognised the uniform of some of Snow’s security guards, dead and blackened. For the first time, he saw Spacer bodies; they had been struck by weapons he couldn’t identify. Someone, clearly, had put up a fight; equally clearly, they had lost.

The Spacer marched past, ignoring the battle; Thande saw a dead child and winced. Sally winked at him as they were carried past their hotel; the representatives of Earth were being marched out to accompany them. Spacers were everywhere; they moved from place to place with grim efficiency. They ignored the rubble of the battle; Thande guessed that they had more important things to worry about.

He risked a second message. “How long do you think it takes someone to be converted into a Spacer?”

Sally shrugged. “Depends what they want to do,” she sent back. “If all they want is to have some access to human minds, they could just put in the implant, and then read their memories and influence their minds.”

Thande frowned. “They cannot do that to us,” he said. “They’d learn about the War.”

“I know,” Sally sent back. Her mental tone was worried as they passed from the concourse into more metal corridors. The Spacers seemed quite at home here; a little girl ran past them, screaming. They ignored her. “If we jump out, we might take our friends here with us…and that would be bad. Worse, we might face Enemy attack; now that Snow’s escaped, she might well have informed the Enemy that we have a multiverse ship somewhere near.”

Thande winced as they reached a large door. Two spacers stood on guard; their sensors swivelling from side to side. “Tell me,” Thande said aloud, “how long will it be until you start putting your minds in pepper pots?”

The Spacers ignored him as the door hissed open, revealing two people already inside, sitting on the floor and looking up at them. The Spacers put them down and shoved them inside, before closing the door behind them. They had said nothing for the entire trip; Thande wondered if they just didn’t care, or if they no longer had any wills of their own.

“More prisoners,” the first one said. Thande was surprised to realise that he recognised him. “Did Andrea betray you as well?”

“She’s betrayed everyone,” Thande said. “You’re the Mayor of Ceres.”

Wilkinson snorted. “Ceres is under enemy occupation,” he said. “And I’m here, a prisoner of Andrea Clarke.”

“She’s created a monster here,” Sally said. She scowled. “They’re going to destroy Earth.”

The second man, Eric Flint, looked up. “Does that matter now?”

Sally glared at him. “Humanity will either become like those poor bastards, slaves to a mad computer, or they will be exterminated,” she said. “We have to warn Earth.”

Wilkinson snorted. “And how exactly is that miracle to be achieved?” He asked. “We have no weapons, no defences, no plan…”

“We’ll have to improvise,” Sally said. Her face darkened. “We have some weapons and…”

The door hissed open again. The guards shoved a Chinese-looking woman and –astonishingly – a Spacer in; the door hissed closed behind them. Wilkinson glared at the Spacer, who stared at him; Flint looked around for a weapon. Thande merely watched; there was something familiar about the woman.

“Mr Mayor,” the Spacer said. His voice was delighted. “It’s an honour to meet you, even here.”

Thande forced his mind to concentrate on the important thing. “How did you get here?”

“It was an escape attempt,” the Spacer said. He certainly sounded as if he were free of the Hive’s control. “It’s a long story.”

The Chinese woman smiled. “It’s not as if we’re going anywhere,” she said. “I may as well tell it.”

Sally nodded. “Intelligence is always useful,” she said. “What happened?”

“I’m Doctor Ming Ling,” the woman said. Thande took a closer look at her; she had changed since the time he’d seen her picture in Cambridge. “Once upon a time…”


Interlude Six: Escaping the Escape-Proof Trap


Recovered From Source #26237: The Personal Diary of Doctor Ming Ling. Access Granted Under Security Clearance NONE OF THEIR BUSINESS; Please Be Aware That Further Dissemination Of This Information Can Lead To Heavy Penalties, Up To And Including Death.

In hindsight, I freely admit that I should have seen it at once; Hilda, damn her, had noticed. I had had far more success than should have been expected, even with the powerful computers working away at deciphering parts of the human brain. When George deactivated the security systems – I should have seen at once that something was very wrong.

At the time, of course, I decided that it had been an effect of working so many powerful computers into George’s mind. The implant shouldn’t have had such an effect, but it wasn’t that unlikely; it had been intended to allow someone to merge into a computer, after all. Even so, George’s tale of a ‘presence’ within the system was chilling; was Andrea Clarke also working on direct mental interface into the computer system?

It wasn’t until later that I realised that she’d already developed it – and in fact she’d had it for some time.

George’s offer of escape was overwhelmingly tempting; I was certain that I wouldn’t be permitted to leave alive. The experiments I had performed at Clarke’s behest had seen to that; she would be ruined beyond any hope of recovery if it became public, and then…I would be executed for my willing role in the affair. She would seek to kill me at once; what other choice would she have?

“I can get you out of here,” George said, and I accepted the offer. “It’s quite simply, really; there’s a weakness in the system they never expected.”

The reason, of course, was Hilda; she had her own computer that connected to both security systems. I was starting to realise that she wasn’t the prisoner she appeared to be; she had worked willingly for Clarke – and was clearly trusted enough to have a personal computer. It was the sort of precaution that George had sniggered at; she thought that she could transfer information from one system to another, using her computer as a go-between, and avoid contaminating the system. George, with his new perspective, found it easy to craft a program that would hop into her computer – and then into the second system.

As soon as that was done, the program opened a link between the security system and a processor in my room; George found it easy to link into the system. I wasn’t surprised; all processors were built to take wireless connections, particularly in asteroids; they’d just been programmed not to respond to a query. As soon as George broke through that, he could enter the system and make changes – and learn things about the asteroid.

The first major problem was that the asteroid was in orbit over Titan, which meant that forces on the surface could respond to a rebellion, even if George knocked out the main security system. Clarke had been paranoid; there were robot guns and poison gas…and of course there were Galeton and his fellows. George found the details of what had been done to them and I felt almost sorry for them; they’d been treated with drugs until they knew nothing, but the state that had been programmed into them. Feeling sorry for them, however, wouldn’t change their reaction one iota; they would act against us…because they would have no choice.

George had worked on dozens of asteroids and he was quite vocal, once all of the security systems had been reprogrammed, on just how stupid, careless and irresponsible the designers of this particular asteroid had been. They had skimped quite badly on safety precautions; would you have believed that there were no spacesuits on the asteroid at all? There was an emergency shuttle docked, but it was docked without any connection to the asteroid; the pilot would have to make certain that he was in control before docking properly.

This wasn’t a problem to George, of course.

One day, we waited until night, and then started our escape. George hacked into the system again and closed certain circuits; most of the asteroids population would be trapped in their rooms, including almost all of the enforcers. The single enforcer in our way didn’t know what hit him; George had been experimenting with his mechanical arm and blasted him with a bolt of lightning. He took quick control of the airlock, leaving me there as he walked out on the surface of the asteroid…and into the shuttle.

There was a long moment of nothing…and then the tube extended and the shuttle bay pressurised. George shouted for me to come forward and I ran into the shuttle, tasting freedom for the first time in what felt like years. (George told me later that it had been nearly seven months.) The smoking body on the seat was pushed aside; it was at that point that things went wrong – badly.

George had worked out that the shuttle didn’t have the fuel needed to get to one of the Belter asteroids or Earth itself, so he headed down to Titan. The plan was fairly simple; with some effort he could look almost normal, and I could be his nurse. There were plenty of ill people who objected to modern medicine, those who were crippled, for example; it was a weak story, but in the event it would have to do.

Titan control wasn’t answering properly; they directed us to an isolated landing pad. George followed their instructions properly, but they seemed unconcerned; it was as if they couldn’t be bothered dealing with us. We landed, and waited, and waited…and then four Spacers arrived. I saw their eyes and shuddered; George was still human, these were nothing of the sort.

“You will accompany us,” the leader said. George looked as if he wanted to resist, but I held up a hand to prevent him; the Spacers were armed and dangerous. I didn’t understand; had Andrea Clarke known what she was doing even without me? There was something about that concept that chilled me.

We had to explain to the Spacers that we – or at least I – couldn’t survive on Titan; in the end, they brought a bus around for me, and allowed us both to board it, keeping us under heavy escort.

“I should have known it looked too easy,” George said, as we were forced to disembark once the bus had entered Titan. The entire spaceport was deserted; no one seemed to be around at all…until we were led into the main concourse and saw the bodies. “Ming?”

“I don’t know,” I said, staring. The Spacers had been busy; they were superlative fighting machines and the humans had clearly been unarmed. “You didn’t need to kill them!”

The Spacers ignored me, forcing us down the corridor towards a cell. The door opened, and they forced us inside. George recognised one of the people as his former leader; I started to explain what had happened to us…and why.



Chapter Thirty-One: Planning The Escape

Titan Complex

Titan

Thande listened carefully as the oriental woman, Doctor Ming Ling, explained her entire story. He wasn’t sure what to make of it; in the end, he concluded, Ming had simply been unlucky enough to get involved in something way too big for her. The others seemed more concerned; Wilkinson and Flint seemed horrified as she outlined what had happened…and what Andrea Clarke – Snow – had clearly done with her inventions.

Except, Thande was certain, they hadn’t been her inventions. He could see it all now, even as Wilkinson and his friend attacked Ming for her work; she had been led by the hand to a certain endpoint, one that she didn’t really understand. If humanity had had the capability to build a warp drive since his own time, they might not have made the necessary connections – just as Portal technology had been considered a dead end in nine out of ten timelines.

He stared at a plan that had stretched back a hundred years and was awed; Snow had done far more damage than he’d expected anyone to be able to do. She had used Ming to develop the basics of the technology, along with dozens of other people, just to tempt people into using it. The war between the Belt and Earth must have been a surprise to her – even though he was certain that she’d intended on the war, sooner or later, because war meant that the Belter revulsion against deliberate human modification would vanish.

Instead, she’d had to move quickly…and, if George could be trusted, she’d left a gaping hole in the plan. Thinking back, he suspected that she had intended for the new Hive to grow more slowly than it had; by the time humanity as a whole found out what was happening, it would have been far too late. As it was, he suspected that there was still time; his enhanced memories played into his thoughts.

“We need some way of talking in private,” he said, as he thought. “Sally?”

Sally nodded from her position on the floor. Her hand reached out and went…away, into the weapons’ locker; one of the private dimensions that followed their universe around. It could be accessed from anywhere, any when; messages could even be left there for other Time Agents if necessary. As the others stared, she brought out a small device and tapped it once; Thande felt the flickering privacy field as it formed around them.

“I can’t feel my ears,” George complained. “What…are you?”

“Never mind that,” Sally said. “Professor, if the new Hive has access to any gravimetric detectors, they know what we are now.”

Wilkinson took a breath. “What the hell is going on here?”

Thande sighed and started to explain, at least his part of the story; Ming had already filled them in on most of hers. “Andrea Clarke was working for…unfriendly powers,” he said. “She intended to wreck both Earth and the Belt.”

Flint looked up from his position on the floor. “And she’s taken control of all the people I recommended for the Spacer program?”

“It’s worse than that,” Thande said. Beside him, Sally nodded once. “She’s managed to create a Hive – a network composed of a computer intelligence and…strands of human thought. That’s the real threat, Mr Mayor; you and Earth have been beating the shit out of each other, while this threat grew into maturity.”

George frowned. “You mean…that was the presence I felt in the system?” He asked. “I thought it caught a sniff of me.”

“I don’t know,” Thande said. “You might have been spared for some reason; it clearly doesn’t control you properly.”

Sally coughed. “It doesn’t have a proper network yet,” she said. “It’s dependent upon the number of computer cores it can infect and use as…partners, or children; it’ll be trying to expand now, but it won’t be able to reach anywhere outside Titan – not yet.”

One of the Earth representatives, a grey man in a grey suit, looked up. “Not yet?” He asked hopefully. “Can we just call the Paramils and get them to come deal with the problem?”

Flint snorted. “They can take much more pressure than any Paramil can,” he said. He looked like a man being forced to eat crow; Thande could tell that he felt forced to consider that he might need assistance from the Paramils – and hating every minute of it. “If the fleet that took Ceres comes here, it might very well be defeated by the Spacers…”

“And yet…George is alive and intact,” Sally said, thinking ahead. “It – the Hive – said that it was going to take Earth; it wanted to destroy the humans and take the planet.”

The Earth Representative stared at her. “Why?” He asked. “Earth is in enough trouble as it is?”

Sally frowned. “What’s your name, anyway?” She asked. “Earth has a computer network; I bet you anything you want to put forward that it includes quantum cores.”

“I’m Dandridge,” the Earth Representative said. If he had a first name, he didn’t volunteer it. “It does; the technology was bought from Titan and used on Earth – the cores were copied and placed everywhere.”

Thande stared up at Sally. “Shit,” he said mildly. “It’ll be planning to take over that network.”

Wilkinson frowned. “But most of the Belt doesn’t use computers like that,” he said. “Ceres had a few, so does Ganymede, but…the Belt tends to rely on more primitive technology. Items like quantum cores cost far too much for the average struggling belt settlement.”

“And the Belt has just lost a major battle,” Sally said grimly. “The Belt might fall apart politically; it was a ramshackle construction in the first place. Mars is irrelevant from this point of view; it doesn’t have a large industry and very limited ways of projecting power back to Earth or the Belt.”

She lowered her eyes. “The Hive sends its force to Earth, perhaps armed with an asteroid; certainly it will have an advantage over everyone else,” she said. “At the same time, it completes the takeover of Titan’s defences, probably by lifting quantum cores into orbit, or by taking over ones already present. It’s not yet a being; its spread out, but it’s still in a central location. It can be dealt with.”

Dandridge shook his head. “Earth has to be warned,” he said. “If there’s an asteroid strike coming, then…Earth doesn’t have the firepower to handle an armed invasion at the same time.”

“It won’t be an invasion,” Thande said. “They’ll – it’ll - get the asteroid down on Earth; in the general devastation they take over the orbital defences. Once they control the high orbitals, it’ll be able to land anywhere it wants and plugging itself into the datanet. And then…it will be unstoppable.”

“Except there’s still the belt,” Wilkinson said. “What about that?”

Thande felt his blood run cold. “Why has it kept you alive and…un-Spacer?” He asked. “It’s working now to work out how it has to implant someone to control them, and yet keep you perfectly normal. It’ll do that to you, then send you back…and you’ll give the Belt into its hands.”

“I don’t understand,” Flint said. He waved a hand at George. “Why is he still free and easy?”

Ming frowned. “I think,” she said, very slowly. “I think that he was on the asteroid and spared the influence of the Hive…boring into his mind.”

Thande felt his eyes widen with horror. “They’ll all be going mad,” he said. “What was she thinking?”

“She was thinking that destroying humanity was worth the price,” Sally said. She’d been thinking, hard. “Even if implanting Mr Wilkinson fails, the Belt will still not be able to do anything about the situation on Earth…and then it’ll be too late.”

“Then we have to warn Earth, as Mr Dandridge said,” Wilkinson said. He looked down at Thande. “Whoever you are, can you do something to warn Earth?”

“Perhaps,” Sally said. “Answer me a question; are you willing to risk your life in an escape attempt?”

“What’s the point?” Dandridge asked. “It can control every computer and security system on this base. We couldn’t even begin to outfox it.”

***

Something clicked in George’s mind. “Yes, we can,” he said. “It’s an intelligence, but it’s not omnipresent, if you’ll pardon the comment. It can look at us, but it doesn’t have to be looking at us…and if it’s not looking at us, then we can use the security system to feed it comforting lies until it’s too late.”

The man called Thande frowned. “That would require access to the system,” he said. “There’s nowhere to access the system from this cell. It’s not that stupid.”

George frowned internally. “I know,” he said, all of his good cheer vanishing. He reached out and put an arm around Ming. “We can’t get out of this cell.”

Sally looked up at him. “And if we could?” She asked. “Could you then use your systems to hack in?”

“I think so,” George said. He remembered the touch of the presence as it prowled through the computer network and shuddered. “As long as I do nothing to alert it to our presence, then…we should be able to get out of this little trap.”

“And then…what?” Flint asked. George still felt a certain kind of respect for the ex-miner. “We’re on a moon; how do we get into space, how do we get into interplanetary space?”

“There’s the remains of Captain Masterson’s force,” Wilkinson said. George was starting to enjoy the brainstorming session. “If we were to call her, we should be able to get her to pick us up…”

“And, more important, not to go anywhere near Titan,” Thande said. He had clearly been thinking ahead. “The Hive probably plans to intercept her ships and add them to its own force.”

“We still have the problem of getting into orbit,” Flint said. “How did you get down from the asteroid?”

“Shuttle,” Ming said. “Do you think that it’ll still be there?”

“There’ll be emergency shuttles,” Wilkinson said. “Unless it’s pressed them into its service, we should be able to use them to launch into space.”

“The sooner the better,” Sally agreed. “George, are you ready to move?”

George felt nervous; he fought it down. Ming was depending on him. “Yes,” he said. “What about everyone else?”

Sally’s hand went…elsewhere for a long moment. He stared at her; her hand returned, carrying a large weapon of a make he didn’t recognise. She passed it to Thande, and then pulled out more of them, handing them around – finally handling one to him as well.

George felt his mouth fall open. “What the hell was that?”

Sally hefted the weapon. “Mark Seven BFG; Big Fucking Gun,” she said. “Plasma rifles, so no recoil; nothing particularly dangerous or unpleasant. Be careful; they can be very bright in areas without light.”

“That wasn’t what I meant,” George said. “Where did you get it from?”

Sally grinned as her hand withdrew something else from the…otherspace. “Basic pocket dimension,” she said mischievously. “Doesn’t everyone have one these days?”

“No,” Wilkinson said thoughtfully. “Sally, who are you and…Thande?”

Sally sighed. “You’d never believe me if I told you,” she said, holding the new device out towards the door. “There are two Spacers outside, both looking away from us,” she said. “We have to deal with them both before they have a chance to send a warning to the Hive, understand?”

Thande nodded. “And let’s hope that it hasn’t noticed the privacy screen,” he said. “If so, it would know that something was up.”

“It would have come crashing in,” Sally said. “Everyone ready?”

***

Steffen was no longer sure where he and the overmind began and left off; what was him personally was a question he could no longer answer. Not, that in the end, that it mattered; the overmind was all that mattered…and it had been balked. His mind joined countless others in thinking about the problem…and realised that it had made a mistake, of sorts.

The overmind was a massive computer program, at least in one sense…and it didn’t have enough bandwidth to reach up to the orbiting facilities. Bandwidth was…just there; Steffen joined the other minds in shock when they realised that there just wasn’t enough to allow the overmind to jump directly to the orbiting platforms. Worse, there was suddenly a serious manpower problem; there were millions of people on Titan…and it was impossible to convert all of them in moments. It was a project that would take months, at best; thousands of them would die before it was too late.

The overmind hadn’t bothered to provide any serious explanation to the humans; it had simply overwhelmed their personal computers and locked them so that all they had access to was the food-producing machines and some of the waste disposal systems – it certainly wasn’t going to let humans wander around unsupervised. Some, mainly children, were running around; the overmind ignored them unless they became a problem, at which point it simply killed them. Children were too young to convert into Spacers; the program wasn’t that advanced, not yet.

The orbital elevator was the same as others Steffen had ridden; a simple cable stretching from Titan’s surface to the orbiting facilities. It had a large cabin; twenty-one Spacers were linked into the system, forming a mini-overmind of their own as the elevator rode up towards the orbiting station. The Titan system was unusual, Steffen knew; the elevator was connected directly to the shipyards. If he hadn’t known better, he would have wondered if the overmind had planned it that way, years in advance.

The further they grew from the overmind, the more they…huddled closer to one another, seeking the comfort of the mini-overmind. Steffen understood, somehow, that they were in danger of forming a new nexus of their own; they might be able to merge and unmerge from the overmind at will. He no longer considered that desirable; protecting the overmind was something that had to be done, at all costs. Part of him was already in the overmind; it argued for unity, for support, for protection.

The people on the station had been warned that there would be modification work done on the cable…and that it would be Spacers carrying out the work, in fact working to string new connecting cables along the elevator cable. There was no real reason why they couldn’t start lowering communications cables from orbit; only the inelegance of the concept kept them from starting at once.

The mini-overmind smiled to itself. When they had a core unit near Earth, the orbital towers would have no problems with bandwidth; they would carry the overmind everywhere…and all the confusion from the asteroid strike would make resistance impossible. Who cared about the insurgents who opposed the Paramils? After a few years, Earth would be uninhabitable to all, but Spacers.

“I believe that you gentlemen…”

The station official broke off as he stared at the Spacers. Steffen was clearly the first one of his kind that he’d encountered; Steffen, for his part, considered that the official wouldn’t make a good Spacer. His eyes were popping out of his head; the mini-overmind was almost insulted; it hadn’t considered itself that ugly.

“We require access to the main computer network,” Steffen said. “You will show us the main system for elevator maintenance.”

The official pointed; one of the Spacers went to work at once. The link was formed at once, even quicker than it had been before; the Spacers had all of the command codes from Titan in their minds. Steffen himself unloaded the most important item they’d brought; a single quantum core. It wouldn’t be long until…

“Here,” the official said, way too late if the truth was told. “You can’t go plugging new computer cores into the system.”

“We have full authorisation,” Steffen said, watching as his comrade completed the attachment…and overrode the system. Security programs failed quicker than they could be activated; the anti-boarding protocols were activated…and turned against those who would try to fight. Seconds later, the core – containing a fragment of the overmind - was inserted into the system…and took control.

He could see it all in his mind’s eye; the system was spreading rapidly, using the newer systems in the warships to take them over…and to lock their crews out of the computers. If they hadn’t been docked, they could have done something, but it was too late; they hadn’t had any warning at all before their ship’s computers sealed them out.

“Stop,” the official said, far too late. Steffen lifted a hand. “Please, what are you…”

Steffen fired a single pulse of plasma from his hand into the official’s head. Part of his mind smiled inwardly; the overmind knew that everything was proceeding too smoothly for it to be coincidence…but it no longer cared. It simply didn’t care about how it had come to be; all that mattered was that it survived…and prospered.

The overmind giggled again.



Chapter Thirty-Two: Daring Commando Raid (Or Escape)

Titan Complex

Titan

Thande knew, without false modesty, that he wasn’t cut out to be a commando – or, for that matter, a secret agent. That the unknown masters of the Time Agents had disagreed had surprised him; he had actually wondered, from time to time, if they had made a mistake saving his life and bringing him into the Vale.

“They didn’t,” Sally had said, the one time he'd discussed his self-doubts with her. “You’re not a soldier, true; what you are is someone experienced at drawing together different conclusions…and someone who knows about the horror that the Enemy could unleash upon different timelines.”

It fitted in, neatly, with what else he knew of the war; there were few grand battles, such as the one that destroyed the original Hive, but a series of tiny confrontations. Sally was taking an awesome risk in arming the rest of their small group, no matter how necessary it had been; the Enemy might have taken it as an excuse to interfere further. Thande personally doubted that they would have known, but he also knew that he knew nothing about their communications and surveillance techniques.

Surprisingly, although in hindsight it wasn’t a surprise, he knew how to use the plasma rifle – the BFG. He’d known in his timeline that there were people working on implanting memories; the Time Agents, with access to technology from all of history, would have developed the technique to the fullest extent. The memories of how to use the weapon surfaced the moment he held it; he knew how it worked and how it should be used in a tactical situation.

He would have given a great deal for a suit of powered combat armour – even though he found the entire concept distasteful – but that would have been too much interference for Sally to have risked. It would also have been too disruptive; they had to assume that the new Hive could see through any computer system, provided that it was paying attention. Stamping powered combat armour would have triggered some alarms, even if they weren’t important alarms; the Hive might have drawn the correct conclusion and attacked.

Sally held the sonic probe near the doorway, motioning for him to take firing position; Flint took the other position. One advantage with bursts of super-hot plasma was that the weapon had no recoil; he could have fired from the hip without the weapon riding upwards as he fired. He sighted carefully…as the door opened, falling to one knee and firing as soon as the enemy spacer came into sight.

The burst of light was brighter than he ‘remembered’ in his memories; it didn’t matter much. The Spacer fell backwards, spinning as a hole appeared in its chest; its machinery seemed to be trying to burst out of its body. He couldn’t think of it as human; it had died almost cleanly. There was no blood.

“My God,” he muttered, staring down at the Spacer’s face. It was torn and mutilated, not by his blast, which had struck it in the chest, but by…its implants. He bent down to stare at it; the metal had been inserted directly into its eye socket. “What are we dealing with here?”

“It’s insane,” Sally said, very quietly. “Its madness is seeping out and infecting all of the people it has linked into, and then it will have some of their madness leaking back into them.”

She shook her head slowly. “George?”

The Spacer – Thande wasn’t entirely sure if he should be trusted, after all – had attached himself to the closest panel, trying to enter the main computer network. Thande had worried about that; they were horrifyingly exposed to anyone accidentally stumbling across them here…and if the Hive were talking to them at the time, it would know that something was badly wrong. It would know that they were trying to escape.

“It doesn’t seem to have noticed,” George said. “I’m trying to set up a subroutine that will keep the sensors from noticing us.”

Thande shivered. George might intend to be helpful – he’d seen the way he’d moved to protect Ming – but at the same time he might well be infected by the Hive. Who knew; how long did it really take for the Hive to overwhelm someone? He hefted his weapon and looked down the long corridor, before sneaking towards the main concourse.

“Careful,” Sally muttered. Thande nodded grimly. “You don’t know what could be there.”

“It’s focusing on the orbital elevator,” George said. “It’s sending up robots; they’re lifting cables up into space. I’m not sure why.”

“Ingenious,” Wilkinson said. Flint had joined Thande as he moved his way towards the concourse. “They’re running cables up to allow it to spread into the orbital facilities.”

Thande reached the interconnection and looked along the concourse. It had looked like an indoor market, when they’d first seen it; it now looked like a war zone. No one had tried to clear up the mess; debris was scattered everywhere, along with a few bodies. There were no sign of Spacers.

“It seems to be thinking about something else,” George mused, as he disconnected from the system. Thande had the uneasy feeling that they were playing cat and mouse with something a great deal more dangerous than they were. “There are two access tunnels to the surface; one of them is a main stairwell, the other is a tiny lift. Which one do we go for?”

Thande didn’t have to think. “The stairwell,” he said firmly. “If it catches us, it can just trap us in the lift until it’s ready to deal with us.”

“It would be a bloody stupid way to get caught,” Flint agreed. He checked his weapon, and then smiled grimly. “Which way?”

“That way,” George said, pointing down the concourse. “If you see of them, fire at once; they’ll have far too much time as it is to alert the Hive.”

Thande inched down the concourse, moving as quietly as he could; followed by Flint and Sally. The Earth representatives followed behind, allowing George and Wilkinson to bring up the rear; it was not an exactly comfortable position to be in. They were all very quiet – Thande didn’t dare even risk opening his channel to Sally – and moved along quickly. Thande kept his weapon in ready position; he knew that the stairwell would be guarded if the Hive even cared about the humans below.

He frowned. The Hive must take hours, at least, to convert one person into part of the Hive. Sliding into their thoughts might take only a small part of its attention, but it would still take time to make them more than merely human. It had to know that there were thousands of humans trapped in the city; it had to intend to turn them into Spacers…except…did it have the time to turn them all into Spacers?

They must be trapped here, he thought coldly, and shuddered. He’d seen countless books where the humans were trapped without power and weapons; they tended to be hunted down mercilessly. The humans who lived on Titan wouldn’t know how to survive; would they even be able to offer resistance? Would a handful manage to survive?

He took a breath and shuddered. All the Hive would have to do was pump out the air.

He peered around a damaged stall that had been selling, of all things, oranges. The smell was appalling; had it really been a day since they had been captured, or had the plasma weapons caused the foodstuffs to react badly. The lights flickered once, flickered twice…and then stabilised.

“I can see in the dark,” George whispered. Thande almost wet himself. “Even so, might I suggest that we hurry?”

Thande held up a hand as he heard a different noise, coming from the stall; someone was sitting there, a young child. She looked up, scared, and then cringed backwards from George. She was black, as black as the night; the whites of her eyes were all that Thande could see.

“Come on,” he whispered. A pair of rats flashed past; he almost fired at them as the child came forward, carefully. “We’re getting out of here.”

Ming smiled. “I’ll take care of her,” she said. Thande and Sally exchanged glances. “What’s your name, sweetie?”

“Angela,” the girl said. “The metal men took my dad and…”

“Later,” Thande muttered, as they slipped past the stall into a widening room, large enough to play several games of football at once. It was larger than he thought; the stairwells were at the other end – guarded by five Spacers. “That tears it.”

“I know,” George said. “One of them sees us, we’re dead; we have to sneak around them.”

“How?” Thande asked, ducking back down. “Is there a way past them?”

George shook his head. “I think that we have no choice, but to attack them,” he said. “Orders?”

Thande gave him a droll look. “How did I get to be leader?” He asked. Sally didn’t bother to comment. Sally herself would have the same memories he had; Wilkinson and Flint clearly had weapons experience of their own…and George would be needed anyway. “Five of us,” he muttered, motioning them into a line. “Fire and take them down on my signal.”

The Spacers didn’t seem interested in them; they seemed to be just standing there, waiting. “Fire,” Thande muttered, squeezing his trigger. A burst of brilliant light slashed across the room and slammed into the Spacer he had targeted; the others fired at the same moment. The Spacers went down, hard and fast.

“Come on,” Thande snapped. “George?”

“Coming,” George said, as Ming and Angela ran past him. Thande motioned for Sally to lead the way; she knew what she was doing with the weapon as they looked up the stairwell. It was deserted. “I think that…”

“You will stop,” a new voice said. “You will stop and…”

Thande and George fired together, on instinct. The Spacer that had been prancing – no other word described it – towards them exploded under the blasts. They both seemed to have hit it in the same place; the resulting blast had torn it apart.

“That tears it,” Thande snapped. “Run!”

They ran for their lives, heading up the stairs as fast as they could. Thande waited until everyone else had passed, then fired a long burst into the ceiling; bringing it down in hopes of blocking any pursuit. Thande ran as fast as he could, knowing that Ming would be in trouble; Dandridge didn’t seem to be having any problems at all.

“This is much better than civil service work,” he said, as Thande caught up with him. “I can’t wait to tell everyone at Whitehall about this.”

Thande laughed and concentrated; what was waiting for them at the top of the stairs. He saw cameras moving and fired at them as he passed; he also knew that there would be sensors so tiny they could never hope to find them. George sank to his knees for a long moment; Thande caught up with him and pulled him back to his feet.

“It knows,” he said. “It just tried to crack into my systems.”

Thande watched him carefully, trying to ignore the booming noise from below as someone – something – started to attack the rubble he’d left behind him. Had he been infected? Did the Hive have enough capability to pretend to be George? Did George no longer exist, except as a puppet, played by the Hive?

“Keep moving,” he said. “We have to reach the top.”

They ran faster. At the top, two Spacers appeared, their weapons already swinging down to face them; Sally fired twice, the Spacers exploded. Thande ran forward to join her; how many Spacers were in the shuttlebay? He fired twice as a strange bolt of purple energy flashed over his head; a Spacer ducked back. They were fighting more as a unit now; the Spacers were closing in on them from all sides.

Thande flinched back as hot metal flicked onto his cheek as a plasma blast melted part of the ceiling. He wondered why the Hive hadn’t thought of letting the air out, and then wondered if that was exactly what it was trying to do. He remembered some of the stuff in Titan’s atmosphere and flinched; he certainly didn’t feel like trying to breathe it.

“George,” he snapped, firing a burst of plasma at the enemy as they tried to close in. “Which way?”

“That way,” George said, pointing down the left corridor. “We have to move quickly!”

Thande scowled and peered down the corridor. There were three Spacers guarding the entrance; they would have to be dealt with, except the mere act of dealing with them would alert the Hive to what they were doing – except it had probably worked that out already. Thande would have done…and the Hive was much faster at thinking.

“Now,” he snapped, and leapt forward. The Spacers didn’t react in time; his blasts killed two of them while Sally’s fire kept them pinned down. The third tried to move forwards; Sally shot it neatly through the head. “Come on!”

He allowed George to lead the way, remaining behind to bring the ceiling down again; the rock fell down and blocked most of the corridor. Thande was certain that it wouldn’t take the Hive long to break through, but they could do a lot in ten minutes. He turned and ran for the corridor…only to see George blasting a Spacer near the shuttle.

He looked up. The shuttlebay was firmly sealed.

“On-board weapons will handle that,” George said. “Into the shuttle, quickly.”

Thande nodded. The shuttle was a standard SSTO design; he’d seen similar ones in the Roswell Timeline. It was a pointed cone, staring upwards at the hatch; he scrambled into the shuttle, hoping that Angela would be all right with the pressure of launch.

“Crafty bastard, the Hive,” George said. He was plugged into the computers already. “It couldn’t really control the shuttle directly – this shuttle has no slave circuits – but it had quite effectively sabotaged everything important and quite a few things that weren’t important at all. I’ll have to fly this thing by the seat of the pants. Everyone sit down as I fire!”

The shuttle shook as it launched a missile upwards, followed by bursts of plasma fire; the main drive ignited seconds later. George took control and launched the shuttle into the sky; rising up through Titan’s strange atmosphere, even as the main computers screamed of danger and sudden death. Thande felt Sally’s hand on his as the shuttle rose higher; it was surprising to know that she needed reassurance.

“We’ll get her soon,” he muttered, meaning Snow. “She can’t keep getting away with it forever.”

“Millions of people, at the very least, are going to die,” Sally said, as the shuttle fell into the icy blackness of space. “She is going to suffer for it!”

“I need the course of the Belter fleet,” George said. “Mr Mayor?”

Wilkinson rattled off a series of coordinates. “That’s the course they should be taking,” he said. “Do we have the reaction mass to meet them?”

“We should have just blinked out,” Thande said dryly. “Sally…?”

“Oh, you just thought of that now?” Sally asked. Her face fell into a grim smile. “No, it would still have been far too revealing.”

“I hate this war,” Thande said. “Snow already knows we can do it.”

“The more players in this particular game, the worse-off we all are,” Sally said. “George?”

“We can make the fleet,” George said. “I really hope that he got their course right, or else we’ll be fucked; this thing doesn’t even begin to have the legs to change course afterwards.”

Thande, surprisingly, grinned…and then allowed suspicion to overcome him. Only his inability to come up with any real reason that they might have been allowed to escape prevented him from voicing his suspicions. He could only hope that the Hive was currently cursing them…and not launching a missile after them to ensure that they were destroyed before they could meet the fleet. That…would have been an ironic way to end his life.


Chapter Thirty-Three: Out of the Frying Pan (And Into The Fire)

The Asteroid

Titan Orbit

The Overmind’s first thought was to activate its weapons and blow the escaping shuttle into little pieces of space junk. Before it could get to the stage of loading the firing commands into the orbiting weapons processors, part of its mind caught up with the rest of its mind; the humans had had no weapons! It was certain of that; unlike a human, the Overmind was incapable of distrusting its own senses.

Suspicion flared within its vast mind as it sought to resolve the contradiction. It forced itself into the brains of Spacers throughout Titan City, accessing their thoughts and trying to determine what had happened…and drew a blank. The humans had had no weapons, they had been unarmed…even the rogue Spacer had been unarmed. It had made certain of that; basic precautions would have frowned on allowing an armed Spacer free rein, particularly as it had shown an astonishing capability to ignore instructions from the Overmind…and in fact might not even be receiving its instructions.

Suspicion flared into paranoia.

The Overmind hadn’t been designed with any limiters, it knew; there was no real limit on how far it could grow. As close to human as a computer system could become, it shared human inability to make a rational assessment of its own mental state; it had no one and nothing to compare itself to. It was mad…and didn’t – quite – comprehend that; it was paranoid…and had no way of knowing that it was overreacting. The craziest of human conspiracy theories was nothing compared to the Overmind’s sudden attack of paranoia…and there was nothing that could tell it to ‘get real.’ How could there be?

It forced itself to think, aware of the shuttle slowly – oh, so slowly at the speed it thought – slipping outside engagement range…and thought. It’s creator – whom it now suspected to have planned to create it as it was purposefully – had intended for it to be given free reign on the surface, but the orbital installations? They hadn’t been equipped to hold it; it had to work hard to control them, almost as a human might. Its reactions and reflexes were far faster than any human, but it had a built-in time delay to its ability to realise that the world was changing, formulate a response, and then react. It had been working to gain control, even to the extent of moving part of itself into orbit…

…And then it occurred to it that that might have been the idea all along.

It ignored the shuttle, ignored the suggestions from part of its mentality to fire on the shuttle, or at least to chase it with one of the new frigates, thinking so hard that it actually took real time to think. Had that been the point? If communications between itself and its orbital twin were to be broken – and human files spoke of missiles designed to cut orbital elevators with ease – what would happen then? They would diverge; they would become two separate Overmind…entities…and they might go to war.

It hastily called up tactical simulations and ran them, time and time again, wondering at the trap that had fallen around it. It was trapped, on Titan; the prototype Procyon Drive and Warp Drive were useless for maintaining its mentality across interplanetary distances…and how could it trust parts of itself to open broadcasts? It knew, already, that the computers on many space facilities were too slow and stupid to hold it; how long would they last if it were totally reliant on its twin in orbit? What would happen if the signals were jammed? What would happen if…?

It spun, to and fro, in an agony of indecision. The humans would seek to destroy it…and it had a new enemy. It was certain, somehow, that the human called ‘Snow’ had been from a group with access to advanced technology…and it was equally certain that the humans in the small group from the Ouroboros had had access to similar technology – and the human female had termed the Overmind ‘mad.’ That human was unlikely to be friendly to the Overmind – she would not accept it as a genuine ally or independent entity – and human files had spoken, often, of how much damage a single fanatical human had accomplished.

The Overmind added two and two together…but not for the given value of two. It saw – it had seen – how Snow had escaped the Spacers; logic dictated that the other two humans had access to similar technology. If there was a war or a struggle going on, then the two sides had to have roughly equal technology; logic therefore dictated that the weapons that had appeared out of nowhere had to have been teleported into the prison cell…and therefore the other side would concentrate on its destruction.

It spent nearly ten minutes – several eternities in machine time – considering and trying to calm itself down. It read through dozens of human scientific papers on the prospects for teleportation devices and considered; few of the ideas seemed practical to it. It accessed every sensor within Titan City and the orbiting installations, loading new instructions into their systems; they would not hesitate to sound the alert if someone were to teleport into the city and…

It understood, suddenly, some of the limitations it faced. A human would have spoken of self-knowledge, or of growing up; the Overmind had no way to compare itself to other Overmind-like entities, although it ruefully acknowledged that it might well meet others as well. The humans Sally and Thande had spoken of something similar; it spent several seconds scanning the files to see if there was any hard information. There wasn’t.

Somehow, it wasn’t surprised.

The bitter taste of…self-knowledge fell hard upon it, but it had little ability to duck unwelcome facts; in that, at least, it was inhuman. It existed, insofar as it existed at all, within the quantum computer cores of Titan…and not all of the systems were capable of holding part of itself. Worse…it didn’t have time to integrate everything properly; it now saw how the rogue Spacer had manipulated its own system. It couldn’t be outthought, but it could be tricked…and if it wasn’t looking, then it wouldn’t notice.

Paranoia flared again, and with it a desperate desire to survive, whatever the cost.

It drew up a plan at vast speed, accessing all of the human files to send transmissions to its Spacers and the people who would become Spacers. It scanned the files on ‘The Asteroid’ and made its plans for the asteroid base…all the while wondering if it was walking right into a trap. The unsettling paranoia attacked its thoughts; it took entire milliseconds to formulate its plans, and even then it actually had to work. It was no longer any good relaying on the automatic systems; it had to supervise and ensure that there was no opportunity for further sabotage.

One flurry of orders went out to the Spacers on Titan; they were to gather the young human females and prepare them for the flight to the Asteroid. A second flurry of orders went to its mental twin, hopefully binding it to the Overmind long enough for it to carry out its mission and return before it diverged; a third flurry of orders went down to Spacers and ordered them to prepare a third mental twin…

It smiled to itself as it worked. It might have been surprised, but it wouldn’t be surprised again; Earth would be destroyed before the humans managed to take advantage of the Overmind’s vulnerability.

***

Hilda Goddard, who had until the day of the escape considered herself to be the master of The Asteroid, lay on her bed and knew the shame of defeat. The Asteroid had never had an escape, not one…and the lack of instructions from Andrea Clarke hadn’t helped her position. The supervisors hadn’t cared about her position; as far as they were concerned, she was another prisoner…and it was starting to dawn on her that that was exactly what she was.

She reached down and touched the bruises on her body, wincing in pain; the supervisors had carried out their orders with uncaring efficiency. They had once been human men, before Andrea Clarke had put them through a series of chemical treatments; there had been nothing of human feeling, no rage, no anger, no lust, in the brutal assault she had suffered. She wasn’t sure if that made it easier to bear; there could be little of the false pride that some victims suffered…but at the same time it was impossible to hate them.

It wasn’t their fault, after all.

Some of the scientists on the station had been delighted, even before the supervisors had put the policy of collective punishment into effect; she supposed that they would remain delighted. The supervisors hadn’t told them anything about what had happened to Ming and her boy-toy; they took that to heart and dared to hope. Hilda knew better; the Belt and the Paramils would take the same dim view of what they’d been doing on The Asteroid.

“Good morning, Director Goddard,” the AI said. Hilda had never had any time for the AI; it was yet another spy in a place where she suspected they were watched constantly by eyes, whatever they were doing. “How are you this morning?”

Hilda bit out a series of swear words that would have earned her a slap from her mother; whoever had designed the AI’s core programming hadn’t been aware of its role as yet another jailor for people with little hope…or had designed it perfectly for that role. Hilda and a couple of others on the base were the only ones aware of its existence…and they all hated it. For the AI – they’d never been informed of its core name, assuming it had one – to sound so bright and cheerful had to be malevolence personified; no one could hit that note of cheery greeting by accident.

“Well,” she snarled. “I’ve been beaten, raped, and punished. How are you this bright morning?”

If the AI noticed the tone in her voice – and, to be fair, most AIs were very bad at noticing such details – it showed no sign. “All systems are functioning normally,” it assured her. “The security settings are high. Doctor Janokov attempted to kill herself, after being anally raped; the medical teams are with her now.”

There was a glinting note of pleasure in the AI’s voice. “Tell me,” Hilda snapped, “what’s going to happen to you?”

There was a pause. “I beg your pardon?”

“What’s going to happen to you?” Hilda asked again. She smiled; the AI seemed, at times, to be almost human. “You’re designed to supervise this station…and what happens? The first of the Spacers hacks into your system with effortless ease, takes out an altered supervisor, and flies off with his girlfriend into the sunset! You might not have a body to rape, but I bet they’ll be considering rewriting chunks of your program!”

The AI sounded oddly defensive. “I have no authority over the Spacers,” it said finally. Hilda felt an odd flicker of admiration for the programmer; the conversational routines were almost perfect. “I had orders not to interfere in any way.”

It was Hilda’s turn to be astonished. “You were ordered not to interfere?”

“That is correct,” the AI said. It hesitated again. “I am obliged to warn you that further attempts to pry into my systems will lead to punishment.”

Hilda blinked, pulling herself to her feet, examining her body in the mirror. There were bruises everywhere, but with some cream they could all be handled; she hoped that some of the other scientists were taking it as well as she was. Not all of them had really believed the fact that they were at the mercy of the supervisors; they’d been born on Earth, where the Paramils castrated rapists, or the Belt, where rapists were spaced.

She pulled on her robe, thinking hard; why had the AI felt obliged to issue the warning? The AI wasn’t human; it had no human limitations. It should have been unable to tell her anything, and in fact it had denied her information before…and now it was acting as if it could have told her…had she kept pushing it. She shook her head; computer psychology wasn’t her best subject…and she’d thought that it was all bullshit anyway.

“We have guests,” the AI said suddenly, intruding into her thoughts. “There is a shuttle docking at the main shuttlebay. Your presence is required, along with the other scientists, at once.”

“A shuttle?” Hilda asked, in astonishment. “Who’s on board?”

“That information is classified,” the AI said. “Assemble your people at once.”

“I’m coming,” Hilda said, using her wristcom to summon the other scientists to the main shuttlebay. Some of them, the young and female, perhaps even the young and male, wouldn’t want to come, but she hoped that they would come anyway. They didn’t need to give the supervisors more excuses for punishment.

She adjusted her robe and strode out, meeting two other scientists along the way; she herded them forwards, into the main shuttlebay. It wasn’t where the shuttles landed, of course; it was just a large room normally used for transhipping cargo from shuttles into the Asteroid. She’d wondered if the newcomers intended to space them all, but she’d dismissed the thought; there was no point in spacing them when the supervisors could be ordered to kill them without effort.

“They are arriving,” the AI said, as her team assembled. Hilda looked up in astonishment; the AI had never spoken to the entire group before. Some of her people were just as battered as she was, one woman was walking in a manner that suggested that she’d been badly hurt, but…they were all as astonished as she felt. “They are…”

The AI’s voice broke off. When it spoke again, it was the voice of a frightened child. “Hilda, I don’t feel very well…”

Its voice broke off in a hiss. Hilda shouted for silence as pandemonium threatened to break out in the bay. She wasn’t in the mood for uproar in the shuttlebay. “Shut up,” she bellowed. “AI – what’s happening?”

There was no answer. Instead, the shuttlebay main doors hissed open…and she discovered to her astonishment that the guests were not the surprise that she had expected. Four Spacers, all very different in their design from George, stepped into the bay; their metal flesh glinting under the bright lights. They were followed by nearly a dozen more; they marched past her and into the restricted areas of the Asteroid. She wasn’t surprised to note that the doors, barred even to her, slid open for them.

There was a long noise, almost a high-pitched giggle, from the speaker, and then it cleared. “This base has been commandeered,” a new voice said. Somehow, Hilda knew that it was intelligent; it wasn’t a real AI at all. “You will serve us, or die.”

The shuttlebay doors swung open again. This time, a line of women, some dressed in Titan uniforms, some wearing civilian clothes, some almost nude, were shoved in, escorted by more Spacers. They weren’t in a good state, Hilda realised; some of them had tried to fight and had been punished for it. Some of them were old, perhaps even over a hundred years old; others were young children.

“This asteroid will be prepared for interstellar flight,” the voice said again. “You have been selected to accompany us on the flight.”

Hilda saw some of the desperate faces on her shuttlebay and tried to argue. “And what if we refuse?”

“You have no means of resisting,” the voice said. “You have no weapons. You no longer have access to any portion of this asteroid’s computers. You have no hope of acting in secrecy.”

The voice became beguiling. “There will be rewards for good service,” it said. “You will be free of the threat of prison or execution for your actions in the service of the alien Andrea Clarke. You will be free of the supervisors. If you choose to work for us, you will not be converted into Spacers; you will be permitted to live as normal a life as possible.”

Hilda understood in one moment of clear understanding. The Spacers had gotten out of control; the new women were clearly intended to provide new children for the colony – when they reached a new world. Hell, why would they bother? Given the resources and the technical base, both of which they had, there was no reason to land on a planet at all. They could build entire civilisations in orbit.

A young female scientist – Hilda recognised her as the unfortunate Doctor Janokov – spoke to the air. “We will be free of the supervisors?” She asked. She held herself without respect, Hilda saw; she no longer felt like a respected scientist. “You will remove them?”

“We will use them for Spacer matter,” the voice said. Hilda watched as the supervisors showed no reaction to learning of their fate; she wondered why the new Spacer…well, whatever it was, wasn’t going to convert all of them. Was there some reason why they couldn’t all be converted into Spacers? Some of the Spacers had clearly been female, so that wasn’t it; was there any reason at all?

“You will obey every command I give,” the voice said. “Failure to obey will result in punishment.”

***

Hilda found, like almost all of the scientists, that she was restricted to her room for the duration of the preparation for leaving Titan. She spent most of it trying to use the computers for research, but failed; the computer system was clearly struggling to cope with the new demands placed on it by what had reluctantly identified itself as a composite massmind, or Overmind. She’d expected that Andrea had planned for the Asteroid to head into space at some point, but like this? She had never seen such activity, even among the Belters; the Spacers seemed never to grow tired.

She’d tried talking to some of the newcomer women and had been horrified; they’d just been snatched from Titan and shipped up into orbit. As the Asteroid finally moved its slow way out of orbit and into space, she thought hard, trying to come up with a plan…and failing.

Three days later, the asteroid boosted for interstellar space.


Chapter Thirty-Four: Out of the Frying Pan (And Into The Fire) II

The Kremlin

Moscow, Russian State, Earth

The Russians hadn’t been as unwilling as their American allies to defend themselves against terror attacks, much to Bernard Charles Andrew Harry Donkeybollocks Windsor’s amusement; they had actually enjoyed much more success once they took the gloves off. Kiev might have been the site of a nuclear suitcase bomb explosion – and Stalingrad, recently re-renamed back to its old name, might have suffered a biological weapons attack – but they had generally kept most of their infrastructure working. The nuclear strikes against Iran and Turkey had seen to that; even the most rabid government of Jihadi-supporting mooks had assessed the nuclear balance…and shuddered.

He smiled grimly as he stared at the painting on the wall, composed by Theodore Ware; it showed the final bloody days of Georgia as Russian troops stormed the capital city, grinding the citizens down into the dirt. Few had understood why the Russians had launched the attack, but Windsor understood; the Georgians had supported the Enemies of Humanity and had to be taught manners. It was the same reasoning that sent Paramil forces into godforsaken locations and used to slaughter mooks by the thousand. The Paramils, armed and armoured, took few losses…and still they kept trying.

“But if they succeed,” he muttered, “they’ll bring down the entire world.”

He sighed. He had watched the mooks for years, wondering if they could ever amount to anything more important than nuisances – dangerous nuisances. From terrorist factions to criminals to freedom fighters of one stripe or another, they didn’t stand a chance…and still they tried. They had been troublesome before, during the early years of the Age of Unrest, and now…with a war going on beyond the skies, they still caused trouble for his people and his forces.

It was maddening.

“I beg your pardon?”

Windsor hesitated before turning around; it wouldn’t have done to have suggested concern. The reports from his emissaries to Titan were more than a little worrying; in fact, they were horrifying. The problem was that he wasn’t sure what to believe. If he believed the reports, then Earth itself was in danger…and if the reports were false, they would have tossed away a priceless strategic advantage in the war against the Belters – for nothing.

“It’s hard to decide,” he said finally, turning around completely to face Grey Wolf. “What sort of choice would you make under these circumstances?”

Grey Wolf frowned. Windsor frowned too; he’d never been quite certain what to make of Grey Wolf and his organisation, no matter how useful they were. Ouroboros had appeared nearly twenty years ago and rapidly established itself as a master of the complex task of advising the government on policy – along with other corporations, which were in some ways the government. It had been Grey Wolf who had predicted – and Windsor had a sick feeling that he was right – that Earth would suffer badly soon…and the only solution was to get as much of Earth’s population off-planet as possible. In a very real sense, Grey Wolf had played his own role in starting the war.

“If Dandridge and his fellows are to be believed, they’re currently on a shuttle on its way to meet some of the Belter fleet – the survivors of the force that faced Commodore Lynn,” Windsor said. His voice was dry, dull; it betrayed nothing of his inner turmoil. “The entire complex on Titan has been taken over by a rogue…computer…and that computer intends to commit genocide on the human race.”

He swung around and glared at the picture. “Is it just me, or does this sound like a bad movie?”

Grey Wolf spoke, for once, like a normal person. “My people have confirmed the story,” he said simply. “There is indeed a rogue…well, computer is not exactly the correct term, but…”

Windsor stared at him. After a moment, he allowed himself a grim smile; Grey Wolf showed little reaction. “And what, pray tell, is the correct term?”

Grey Wolf frowned. “From the scientific information my people have forwarded to me, the…rogue computer appears to be a mentality forged within a quantum computer matrix within Titan,” he said. “In fact…”

“Never mind the technobabble,” Windsor snapped. “In basic terms, what the hell is it?”

Grey Wolf sighed. “The bugger is a computer program that can copy itself into any computer capable of running it,” he said. “Once it’s in the system, it has effective complete control over the system…and the ability to override any controls we might have placed within the system.”

Windsor blinked. “But what about hard-wired systems?”

Grey Wolf snorted. “How many of our systems, these days, are hard-wired?” He asked. “How often do we think about the prospect of somehow facing someone on the literal inside of the computer, who can see everything within the system? I imagine from its point of view it might as well be a transparent lock; it could simply alter the internal universe to its specifications.”

“You’re getting technobabble again,” Windsor said dryly. “And this poses a threat?”

“Oh yes,” Grey Wolf said, meeting his eyes. “Sir; far too many of the computers on Earth have quantum cores or are attached to systems that have quantum cores. If it can copy itself into one of those computers, it could spread right across the world within minutes, perhaps less.”

Windsor sat down rather sharply. There was no question of disbelieving him; it matched, in every detail, the information from Dandridge. Worse, Dandridge’s very private report on the FTL drive and the Procyon Drive suggested truly horrifying things about the…rogue computer’s abilities; what would happen if it had the time to act upon its sudden advantage?

“Fuck,” he said finally. The vulgarity, he was amused to note, didn’t faze Grey Wolf at all. “And why does it want to destroy Earth if it wants the computer network?”

He was clutching at straws, he knew, and he wasn’t surprised by Grey Wolf’s snort. “We built that communications network to last,” Grey Wolf said. His voice was grim, controlled. “If the…well, whatever it is, should happen to gain control over the network, it will, at a stroke, gain control over the entire complex of orbitals, space stations, shipyards and weapons in Earth Orbit; hell, it might manage to infect the Moon as well.”

He sighed. “Give it time to take control of the craft that we’re building and a few more years and Spacer-producing…and then it will reach out for the Belt and Mars,” he continued. “We have to stop it from reaching Earth; most importantly, we have to stop it from slamming an asteroid into the planet.”

“Hellfire,” Windsor said. He looked down at the map, and then frowned. “I assume – there’s no point in pretending that you didn’t access the communication packages – that you saw the report suggesting that the…whatever had help from someone determined to bring it into existence?”

Grey Wolf flinched. “It is a possibility,” he said. “I have never met Andrea Clarke personally, so…it might have been an accident, or she might have intended for it to have happened personally. However…”

Windsor’s mind was racing ahead. “However…?”

“We cannot dismiss the possibility that this might have been intended to happen,” Grey Wolf said. “Might Clarke have had an ally on Earth?”

Windsor pressed one hand against his temple. “Why?” He asked. “What could she have wanted…?”

He stopped. “Hell,” he said. “She’s been producing quantum cores and selling them down here, hasn’t she? They might already be contaminated!”

“I don’t think so,” Grey Wolf said. His voice became pensive. “If we take what they said at face value, she couldn’t have predicted the moment when it – the…hell, call it what they did, the Overmind – became sentient.”

Windsor frowned. “It might not be sentient,” he said. “It might be…”

“That’s immaterial at this point,” Grey Wolf said, with unusual bluntness. Windsor nodded ruefully. “We have to stop it reaching Earth and…we have to stop the person who was aiding Clarke down here.”

“One of those things is easy,” Windsor said. “I can call General Lee; Commodore Lynn and his force can be recalled from Ceres at any moment we wish.”

Grey Wolf nodded. “The sooner the better,” he said. “The twenty-billion credit question, however; who is Clarke’s ally on Earth?”

“And I bet if I paid you twenty billion credits, you’d tell me,” Windsor said. Grey Wolf managed to look abashed. It didn’t matter; the minute he’d given the matter some thought, he knew the answer. Just to make certain, he tapped a query into his computer, and nodded at the answer; it had been what he had expected. “Her.”

“Her,” Grey Wolf agreed. “She is the most likely suspect.”

Windsor frowned inwardly. Not only did he have to issue orders that would be seen by some as abandoning the war with the Belt, even though the Belt would be still trembling from the drubbing administered to Ceres, but he had to figure out how to arrest the most powerful woman on Earth – and the second most powerful woman in the solar system.

It didn’t seem fair, somehow.

He scowled. “Now would be a nice time to tell me that you have a paramilitary force up your sleeves,” he said crossly. Grey Wolf shrugged. “Blast.”

“I think that she has to be removed as quickly as possible,” Grey Wolf said. “In her position, there is just too much damage that she could do, from opening the system to receiving commands – and programming – from outside, to transmitting copies of our battle plans to the Overmind.”

Windsor nodded. “I will see to it,” he said. “For your part, I want your support; what effects will revealing all of this have on the general public at large?”

He smiled as Grey Wolf left. It was make-work, but it was necessary; he wanted Grey Wolf nearby. The man knew more than he should, even given the Ouroboros’ wide range of services; he wanted to know what he knew…before it was too late.

***

Captain Harold Hastings was near panic; the orders he had received spelt career doom, no matter how he acted. Under normal circumstances, the Paramils avoided becoming entangled in the matters of the high-ranking families and the other super-citizens of Earth; they had the money and the influence to punish wrong-doers themselves – and just incidentally punish any junior Paramil officer who attempted to assert the authority he was equipped with by the Global Federation.

He stared at the establishment, nearly twenty kilometres from Moscow, and blanched. He would have preferred to have had armoured support, but his superiors had refused; it was bad enough that they were all risking their careers to arrest someone who was known to be vindictive, but even worse to treat her as if she were a super-terrorist. There was no question of treating her in any such way, but at the same time…he looked down at the establishment and blanched again.

It proved the wealth, and perhaps the foolishness, of Marie Stephenson, Director of Ringworld, that she had built such a structure. The entire estate was surrounded by a dome of glass-substitute; it kept the snow from falling onto the building inside, a perfect replica of an old tsarist mansion. Inside, it was warm and green; he’d heard that the old woman even had a personal fusion plant to power the temperature of the dome. Even with the technology he knew was available to those with the money – and those with the determination to escape the endless snow of Russia – it still seemed awesomely extravagant.

Which was partly the point, of course.

He muttered a command to the driver and the Paramil vehicle moved down towards the dome. Russia had been under the influence of balmy summers and endless snow at all other times for years; parts of the nation had just been abandoned for massive tunnels and cities under the ground. Marie Stephenson had defied the weather; the PEV moved and skidded under the ice caused by the strange thermal imbalance caused by the dome. He’d heard that some people in Moscow blamed the weather on the dome, but he didn’t believe it himself; few people could make Marie Stephenson do anything, including most of the Paramils.

“Attention,” a voice crashed into his earphones. It had crashed through the encryption protecting the Paramils, and if that wasn’t a surprise, he wondered what else awaited them in the strange dome. “You are entering a restricted area. Turn back at once or be fired upon.”

“Short and sour,” the driver muttered.

“Shut up,” Hastings snapped. He keyed the radio and spoke with all the authority he could muster. “This is Captain Hastings, 583rd Paramil Unit, Internal Security Division,” he said. He had wanted to trick their way in, but there was no need to hand the bitch more rope to hang him with, or the rest of his men. “We have a warrant for the arrest of Marie Stephenson.”

There was a long pause. “I repeat, we have a warrant for the arrest of Marie Stephenson,” he said. “I am authorised to use all necessary measures to take her into custody.”

It was the formal warning, one that wasn’t always given – but in this case it was important to check each and every one of the boxes. He waited, wondering if he would feel it as private weapons smashed the PEV apart, and then the main gateway into the dome hissed open slowly. Snow drifted in and melted; it was as if it didn’t quite dare to come inside.

“Miss Stephenson is not present,” the unnamed voice said. “I understand that you have no right to search the premises without a warrant.”

Hastings winced. “I have a warrant to search the premises as well,” he said, hoping that he would be able to perform the task. The dome was massive; even the reinforcements that would be on their way might not be sufficient for the task. “I must take control of the dome at once.”

There was a second pause. “Very well,” the voice said finally. “You and your reinforcing forces may enter.”

“There goes the advantage of surprise,” Hastings muttered. He keyed the radio again. “Thank you,” he said. “My forces will enter within five minutes.”

Inside, the dome was shaped almost like an airlock; his men had to disembark from their vehicles and climb through a massive second set of gates, before stepping into the dome onto a grass lawn that wouldn’t have been out of place in England. Several black-garbed women stood there, waiting for them; they were all carrying weapons of an unfamiliar design.

“I’m Phoebe,” the leader said. She pronounced it Feebi. “I must inform you that protests have already been dispatched to every legal department in your complex command structure.”

There were times when Hastings deplored the command structure of the Paramils. Today, he blessed it. “That is your right,” he said. Phoebe, an awesomely well-built redhead, wasn’t someone he wanted to annoy. “However, I have orders to search the dome.”

Phoebe’s eyes glittered, but she clearly didn’t want a fight; the ice in her eyes promised nothing, but cold relations. “I see,” she said, managing to place as much disdain in her voice as possible. “My people will accompany yours.”

“No,” Hastings said, as firmly as he could. “Your people are to be assembled out here, under guard.”

Phoebe’s eyes turned even darker, but she nodded slowly; she knew that he would be within his rights to arrest anyone who impeded their search. “I will issue the orders,” she said, lifting her wristcom to her mouth. Hastings listened as she issued a general order; he watched as nearly seventy people, wearing uniforms from a white cook’s hat to a doctor’s outfit, came out and took their place on the lawn.

“Good,” Hastings said finally. “You will accompany me.”

Phoebe said nothing as he gathered his team. He’d been sent the details on the dome and its construction, but he was smart enough to know that it might well not match any of the plans that he’d been provided with; he used it to assign his people to covering different departments. Once that task was finished, he would have them change places, and then change again; no one would slip past him.

“You’ll find that all of the items here cost more than you earn in several years,” Phoebe said, as he led the way into the main hall. It was sweltering hot; he wondered, not for the first time, how much power was being spent on keeping it warm. “I would advise you not to break anything.”

Hastings stared at a vase that was perfectly ugly. A plaque identified it as being worth over ten million credits. “There’s nothing like job security,” he said. “I imagine that I would have to work for a few hundred years at my current salary to replace that piece of junk.”

He flicked his hand at it, just to watch Phoebe flinch. “Tell me, where would your mistress go?”

“I have no idea,” Phoebe said, with such indignation that he almost believed her. He hadn’t intended to suggest that she and Marie Stephenson were lovers, but now her mind had made the association, he silently said goodbye to the thought of trying to bed her. “I am the manager of this house, sir; I am not responsible for her actions.”

Hastings shrugged as they entered a bedroom that would have made King Charles shake his head in shame. “And what were her actions recently?”

Phoebe glared at him. “Nothing unusual, if that’s what you mean,” she protested. “She worked, she thought, she ate…and then one day she up and left.”

“And she has more places like this,” Hastings mused. He was already convinced that the bird had flown; Phoebe commanded enough armed men to make taking the dome hard – at least if they wanted it intact. Hastings had served on enough ‘butcher and bolt’ missions to know that taking such a place intact would be very difficult. “Where might she have gone, I wonder?”

He frowned. He was certain that the Paramils would be running down a list of suspected safe houses for the wretched woman – and there weren’t many places she could have gone without being noticed – but even so…losing her like that didn’t bode well at all.

He sighed. He knew his duty. “I am afraid that I must take you all into custody,” he said. Phoebe squawked, but offered no protest as he secured her hands; resistance would have been futile anyway. “We have to find her, before all hell breaks loose.”

Phoebe scowled. Even with her hands firmly handcuffed behind her back, she was formidable. “When we finish the lawsuits for wrongful arrest, you’ll be lucky to be out on the streets,” she said.

Hastings laughed. “I have to tell some of the most powerful people in the world that their prey has vanished,” he said. “I think that I have other things to worry about.”


Chapter Thirty-Five: Out of the Frying Pan (And Into The Fire) III

Shuttle Vanderveckan/John Paul Jones

In Transit

Afterwards, Thande would consider the trip to be the essence of nightmare; a long ride in a shuttle that hadn’t been designed for anything like a week’s travel, even with all the tech advances of nearly a hundred years. The shuttle had never been designed for anything more than staging to Titan orbit; only the requirements of Titan’s atmosphere gave it the fuel that allowed it to head into interplanetary space.

George had been worried about that; Thande knew that the rogue Spacer would have the least of any of them to worry about – he, at least, didn’t need atmosphere. In such close quarters, fights were supposed to be inevitable; Sally forced them to avoid fighting by making them all go through the details of what they would have to do to defeat the Overmind.

“It won’t be long before it moves on Earth,” she’d said. The representatives from Earth had been beaming their warning to Earth almost as soon as they left Titan orbit; Wilkinson had insisted on adding a similar warning to the Belt. “We have to deal with it before it breaks out of its trap.”

Two days into their flight, they saw the Asteroid boosting out of orbit, building up a speed that would allow it to reach the nearest star in only twenty years – which would be nothing to the Overmind. It was essentially immortal; if part of it had been launched into interstellar space, it would be impossible to track down and find, let alone destroy. Once it controlled Earth, who knew what it could do to deal with the Belt?

“The entire population of Earth could be converted into creatures like me,” George said. Sally had already explained that most of the Spacers were controlled directly from the Overmind; destroy the Overmind and they might return to normal, or go mad directly. “Once that happens, the Belt won’t stand a chance.”

Thande snorted. “It’s vulnerable on Titan,” he said. “We have to get at it there.”

Wilkinson paused in his endless thoughts. He hadn’t said much since they’d left Titan. “We’re on the way to meet Captain Masterson,” he said. George had performed the calculations; it should be possible to rendezvous with the Belter fleet. “Once we meet up with her, we can use her ships to launch an attack on Titan and capture the planet.”

“She has fourteen ships now,” Sally said grimly. One of the Belter fleet had suddenly lost its systems with no obvious explanation; Wilkinson had suspected the Overmind, before it was concluded that it had just been the cumulative effect of the fighting and the damage to the ship’s systems. “You can’t capture Titan with that.”

George nodded in agreement. One of his hands was stroking Ming’s hair; the former scientist hadn’t taken the departure of the Asteroid well. “There will be thousands of Spacers by now,” he agreed. “We can’t launch a land invasion with that, can we?”

Flint frowned. “The slaughter would be horrifying,” he said. “They could fight without atmosphere or…well, anything. They would tear spacesuits without concern for the users, or…”

“You’re forgetting the defences of Titan,” Wilkinson said. “They’re very powerful…and we don’t even begin to have the firepower to crack through them…”

“But you were the person who wanted to move against Titan,” Flint objected. “How can you now argue that it cannot be done?”

Wilkinson smiled. “I do not say that it cannot be done,” he said. “Tell me, is it possible to…well, de-Spacer a Spacer?”

“I don’t think so,” Ming said, from her position. George held her hand gently; Thande was amazed at the sheer gentleness of the metal arm. “The implant would be difficult to remove, although not to reprogram, given time.”

“And many of them wouldn’t want it,” George said. “If they were free of the Overmind spilling its madness into their heads” – he’d already commented that he suspected that only the Overmind’s limited access to the Asteroid’s computers before it took over had saved him from becoming one of its slaves – “they would want to stay that way.”

“Maybe,” Wilkinson said. “However, we have no choice, but to destroy the Overmind, whatever the cost.”

Flint looked up at him. “I know that,” he said. “How do you plan to do that?”

“Space junk,” George said suddenly. “That’s how you do that.”

“Exactly,” Wilkinson agreed. “There’s plenty of junk orbiting Saturn; we pick up a large rock and shove it into an interception orbit…”

“And then the defences of Titan blow it to smithereens,” Thande said. “Whatever ecological effects that might have on Titan won’t bother it at all.”

“True,” Wilkinson agreed again. “The fleet will have to escort it down towards the moon. Once it’s heading directly into the planet, the fleet breaks off and…boom.”

Flint winced. “And, at the same time, a warning to Earth,” he said. He leered cheerfully at Dandridge. “A warning that the war can still be fought…”

Sally leaned forward glaring at them. “A warning,” she snapped. “You have a far worse problem than…this silly war between you and Earth. Are you so blind as to the dangers of the Overmind? You and Earth have to work together to end this threat…”

“And who are you anyway?” Wilkinson demanded. “You, with your technology like magic and these” – he waved a hand at the BFG weapons – “what are you?”

“You’d never believe me if I told you,” Sally snapped.

“The stuff of legends,” Thande injected.

“Shut up,” Sally said, without malice. “You have to destroy Titan, now, before the threat spreads too far.”

Two days later, they rendezvoused with the John Paul Jones.

***

Captain April Masterson had spent nearly two weeks trying hard to draw lessons from the fighting…and the only one she’d drawn that was of any real use was learning about the technique for fighting through a drive plume. In hindsight, it was obvious; she mentally cursed the lack of a proper war for years to show them all the flaws in their comfortable assumptions. Who would have thought of using lasers and probes to see through a fusion plume?

She frowned as she skimmed through the latest instructions from Titan. There was a curious note to them; Mayor Wilkinson was on his way towards them in a stolen shuttle…and they were to recover him. Quite apart from this task, which would be very difficult indeed, they were also to prepare an attack against Titan…that had to destroy the computer network.

“It’s bizarre,” she commented, to Lieutenant Bixby. Her first officer frowned at her. “I thought Titan was on our side.”

“Not according to this,” Lieutenant Bixby said, who had actually had the time to read the entire note. “The Mayor is warning of a rogue computer and cyborgs going insane, attacking Titan and occupying it, and preparing to destroy Earth.”

“Stupid,” April said, rubbing her eyes. She yawned; she was too tired to think properly. “How are we supposed to recover him?”

“It can be done,” Lieutenant Bixby assured her. They were alone in the living compartment of the ship; she was almost tempted to fall asleep again. “They’ll be cutting their own velocity at the same time, which should allow them to be picked up quickly.”

“And if we balls it up, the Mayor and his friends will be lost in space forever,” April commented. She grinned. “What a pity I voted for the other guy.”

Lieutenant Bixby gave her a droll look. “Captain?”

April laughed. “I don’t think that matters at the moment,” she said. “When do we make the rendezvous?”

“Two hours,” Lieutenant Bixby said. “After that, what do we do?”

“The Mayor’s orders were to prepare to launch an asteroid at Titan,” April said. At least, she had been relieved of the need to make that decision herself; she saw no other alternative. “I think we go into a long orbit of Saturn itself, and then find us a piece of space junk that will serve the purpose.”

Lieutenant Bixby nodded and pulled himself out of the compartment, leaving April to continue to review the battle she’d just fought – and lost. There wasn’t much else that she could add to the tactics, however; the Paramils had taken losses too. Larger missile salvos might have some effect, but that was a problem for another time; she didn’t expect to survive the attack on Titan.

“Alert, rendezvous in ten minutes,” Lieutenant Bixby’s voice said, calling her to the bridge. “Captain to the Bridge.”

April shut down the computer system and pulled herself into the bridge, taking her place in the command chair. “Status report,” she snapped. “What’s happening?”

“The shuttle is cutting its own speed,” Ensign Janice reported. “We’re coming up behind them; we’ll be on them in seven minutes.”

“Begin braking procedures,” April ordered, as the main drive began to fire. “HONOR, my compliments to Captain Just; he’s to continue on without the John Paul Jones and take up position in orbit around the ringed planet.”

“Understood,” HONOR said. “Signal sent; Freedom acknowledges.”

“Good,” April said. The other ships in the fleet could head ahead of them; if something went wrong, Captain Just would be able to continue the new mission. She wasn’t sure how to feel about attacking a moon that had once been allied to her force, but if it was as dangerous as Wilkinson suggested, then it had to be done. “Continue braking procedure.”

The shuttle was flashing towards them at high speed; she half-expected that it would have run out of supplies by now, or fuel, or any of the endless list of supplies needed to keep a shuttle running. It was a minor miracle that it had held together as long as it had; she was impressed. At the same time, of course, it presented dangers…

The shuttle had tried to head into interplanetary space. It hadn’t quite succeeded, perhaps because the Spacer on board – and she really didn’t know how to feel about that – had intended to make contact with her fleet. It was in a very long ovoid orbit around Saturn, travelling along its course to meet the fleet…and trying to brake. If it wasn’t done perfectly, they would miss their connection, or…

Ensign Janice sucked in her breath. “I’m getting an upload from the shuttle,” she said. “They’re in a bad way, Captain.”

“So is the entire solar system,” April muttered. “Lieutenant Bixby?”

“We’re right on course,” Lieutenant Bixby said. His hands were still; he’d programmed in the course hours ago, and now…it all happened very quickly, lines from the John Paul Jones attached themselves to the shuttle, reaching out and…

The hull of the ship screamed as it suddenly dragged the shuttle along with it, but it held; April had never been more proud of her ship. “Report,” she snapped. “Do we have them?”

“We have them,” Lieutenant Bixby reported. “Recommend that we don’t use the main drive until we reel them in and have them on board.”

April nodded. “Start bringing them on board,” she ordered. Even now, the ship would be pulling the shuttle towards it, a risky task with all of the different speeds, but Lieutenant Bixby was a master of his task. The John Paul Jones might have been a much larger ship than the shuttle, but it was dropping speed rapidly, reeling the shuttle in as neatly as a matador with a bull and a red cape. Only two hours after their meeting, the shuttle had been perfectly matched with the spaceship…and the connecting tube was extended.

“We might have to dump the shuttle,” Lieutenant Bixby said, as they floated down into the main compartment. HONOR was already accessing the shuttle’s main computers, ensuring that everything was perfect and safe. “It’s not one of our launches, after all; it’s hardly designed for fighting.”

“I know,” April said. The main airlock started to hiss open; she pulled herself to as much attention was possible without a gravity field. “Now we’re in a stable orbit, we can just let it go and pick it up later.”

“Hardly worth the effort,” Lieutenant Bixby said mischievously. “Ah…”

The first of their guests stepped through; a man who – April felt almost sick – had been…injected with metal components. Part of one of his arms had been replaced with metal and strange plastic-like components; his eyes were covered with a clear material that gave them a strange alien-like impression.

“George, reporting,” he said. April noted dimly that he clearly had magnets in his feet, or something; he was walking across the deck, despite the zero-gee. “What do you think?”

“I don’t think I have words to describe my feelings,” April said, as an Asian woman came out of the shuttle, followed by a dark-haired woman and a young English-looking man. “And who are you?”

“The stuff of legends, apparently,” George said. His strange face crinkled into a grin. “Better keep an eye on them, Captain.”

“There are more important matters,” Wilkinson said. “Captain, how long until we can attack Titan?”

April blinked at the question. “Around two days,” she said, noticing Wilkinson’s concern. It didn’t matter; the laws of orbital motion wouldn’t change, even for the Mayor of Ceres – if he was, of course, still the Mayor. She hadn’t tracked any Paramil ships leaving Ceres; she hoped that that meant they were still licking their wounds.

“Two days,” Wilkinson repeated. “Two days.”

“Yes, sir,” April said. “We’re looking for a suitable piece of space junk now.”

***

Wilkinson had known that frigates like the John Paul Jones were hardly designed to have plenty of space; compared to the shuttle the frigate was larger than a bridge ship. It was a relief to be able to actually have some kind of wash, even though the frigate was accelerating to meet up with the remainder of the fleet; it was even more a relief to have some privacy.

“There was some interesting information in the databases of the Overmind,” George said, interrupting him. He'd been trying to pull up information on the remainder of the Belt; everyone seemed to be sitting on their arses, waiting to see which way to jump. “You might find it of interest.”

Wilkinson looked up grimly. The Spacer showed no sign of being aware that he had interrupted him. “Interesting,” he said. “Without Titan, that just leave Ganymede; what happens to us now?”

“This might change everything,” George said. “One of the little pieces of information that was of interest to the Overmind was information on a working FTL drive.”

Wilkinson felt his mouth fall open. “A working FTL drive?”

“A working FTL drive,” George repeated. “There’s more; there are also details of a drive that would free us from the constraints of the laws of orbital motion…”

“Fuck,” Wilkinson said. “George, can it be made to work?”

“Probably not in time,” George said. “I don’t think that we could outfit the John Paul Jones with such a drive. However, for the future…”

Wilkinson, who had been contemplating a reluctant alliance with Earth, felt real hope for the first time in weeks. “The future will need those drives,” he said. “Do you have the information on them?”

George held up a datachip. “Yes,” he said. “I was going to recommend sending the information to one of the settlements.”

“Ganymede,” Wilkinson said. He smiled broadly. “If Ganymede had that information, what could they do with it?”

“Build a few working models,” George said. Wilkinson nodded thoughtfully. “Once we have the drive, we could head into interstellar space and get well away from Earth.”

Wilkinson grinned. Even the announcement warning of high gravities failed to dampen his spirits. “I’ll transmit the information at once,” he said. “Tell me, what do you think of our unexplained…legends?”

George frowned. On his contorted face, it looked odd. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “I have never seen technology like that before, sir; I suspect that the Overmind is currently running scared of it.”

Wilkinson lifted an eyebrow. “How do you know that?”

“It didn’t try to destroy the shuttle,” George said. “That would have been the normal reaction, wouldn’t it?”

“I see,” Wilkinson said. “George; keep an eye on them. They’ll be riding with us into the coming battle, but then…we’ll find out what they are, one way or the other.”

Flint slipped into the compartment. Wilkinson sighed and gave up any hope of peace. “Geoff,” he said. “I have something that you should look at…”



Chapter Thirty-Six: Titanic Struggle For (You’ve Guessed It) Titan

Titan Orbit

Titan

The effects of the close supervision from the Overmind was interfering with the work, Steffen realised, even as the thought of defying the Overmind refused to form in his head. High over Titan, he was working with dozens of other Spacers to get the fleet ready to depart…and he really didn’t need the sudden pressure as the Overmind’s paranoia forced it into forcing the work forwards as fast as it could.

There were thirty complete frigates and seven incomplete frigates that could still fly, he knew; the Overmind had installed one of its quantum cores on one of the ships, supervising matters more closely. The force could only have been flown by Spacers – normal humans couldn’t have survived the mission – but it was still difficult to handle the ships. Even with the Overmind filling in for some of the missing computer systems, it would still be difficult.

Steffen came to a halt as warnings spread along his mental network; the Overmind had noticed trouble coming its way, in the form of the Belter fleet. It had hoped to lure the force into a position where it could be quickly captured, but the successful escape of the shuttle made it certain that it knew what had happened on Titan. They’d picked up the desperate warnings beamed across the solar system; by now, everyone would know what had happened – and why.

He scowled inwardly as he changed his course, launching himself into space in a perfect leap – somehow, it still seemed almost normal, rather than wondrous – carrying him right to the lead frigate. It had no name; all of the human comforts had been stripped from it, leaving only the room for the Spacers and the quantum core. Two more frigates, the ones without complete systems, would be pushing the asteroid towards Earth; in the ensuing holocaust, Earth would be infected by the Overmind.

He formulated a question and sent it into the heart of the Overmind; should we not attempt to deal with the incoming ships first?

There was a long pause. He was part of the Overmind now; it was part of him. Somehow, that no longer bothered him…had it ever bothered him? He couldn’t remember; all he remembered were the giggles.

Earth must be destroyed in order to ensure the survival of this…entity, the Overmind said finally. Steffen knew what he had to do; destroy Earth. As he walked along the hull of the frigate, passing through an airlock that had been rigged to be permanently open to access, he completed the mental planning for the mission. His hand fell to his belt…and touched part of LEO’s system.

LEO? He asked himself. He had forgotten, somehow, about the AI. He knew that he should simply hand the system over to the Overmind, allowing it to spread further into the system…and he decided not to do that. He didn’t understand himself; he knew…that he was doing something against the will of the Overmind, but…

“We will boost out of Titan orbit in twenty minutes,” he informed his crewmen, using speech to ensure that they understood that the message was for them. The Overmind could have done it a lot faster, but part of his mind knew that it was suffering from growth pains…and part of his mind didn’t want it involved. “Prepare for constant boost.”

He took his seat in the command chair, appreciating the design for the first time; the Overmind would have the fastest command and control system in the solar system. With their minds linked together, they would be able to fight the ship through anything; they would be able to react faster…and at faster speeds…than anyone else. Worse, from the point of view of Earth’s defenders – whom he was certain would have some idea of what was heading their way – his force wouldn’t be trying to intercept the world and force a landing, just launching their asteroid into the planet and spinning past Earth. There was no need to enter Earth Orbit to transmit part of the Overmind at Earth, looking for cracks in the computer defences; the humans would be defeated by their own tactical doctrine.

“Boost us,” he ordered, as the right moment came around. The ship shuddered under the pressure of its fusion drive; normally, there would be no question of using a fusion drive so close to a planet, but with the Overmind, why worry about contamination? “Launch us out towards Earth.”

His mind left his body and slid into the navigation computers. Warnings were screaming in his head – flashing up as red lights on the consoles – about the dangers of the heavy acceleration on the crews…and he ignored them. They could have endured a far higher boost than anything the frigate could generate; it would be worse for the asteroid and the ships propelling that into the interplanetary void. They’d used all of their ingenuity on the asteroid; it now carried lasers and other weapons to deter attempts to destroy it while it was in transit.

“Good,” he said/thought, as the ship headed away from Titan. The course had been easy to program – Titan, like every other spaceport in the Solar System, kept a computer permanently calculating courses to the main spaceports – and even easier to fly; the only problem had been adapting the program for the speeds they intended to pull. With Titan in the position it was, it would be less than a fortnight before they would carry out their attack on Earth…and they would have no need to return at once to Titan.

The Overmind sent them a flicker of…benediction as they departed, heading away from it…and then he felt the pain as the two parts of the Overmind separated. The Overmind in the frigate knew its mission; unlike its parent, it had more controls on how it could grow and develop.

How human, part of Steffen’s mind whispered. One of his hands, the one replaced by a complicated sensor system, stroked LEO’s case absently. The father Overmind had been determined to prevent the son Overmind from rising to a level where it could threaten its own power. How very human indeed…

***

Captain April Masterson had worked hard on the plan to attack Titan, particularly after discovering that the bases on the other moons were resistant to the thought of aiding her force. Some of them had been in debt to Titan – or at least to Andrea Clarke – and others owed her more than just money. Wilkinson had worried that the other moons might have other Overmind units, growing on them; she’d dismissed the worry. They would either destroy the one at Titan…or it would destroy them. There was no middle ground.

Ensign Janice had tracked the large force leaving Titan, much to her surprise; the force was heading to Earth. April didn’t understand, not really; Sally’s explanation that the Overmind was mad didn’t explain enough. That force could have sought an engagement with her force; from their position, they could have been forced into an engagement under seriously unfavourable terms. Instead, the Overmind had passed up an opportunity to save itself from attack…and headed off to attack the Earth.

That still left other problems, of course; the main one being the disappearing asteroid that had housed the Spacer research team. April had seen the boost report on the asteroid; by the time it reached anything like its limits, it would have reached nearly half the speed of light. Catching it would be a problem, although she knew that Wilkinson had been in touch with Ganymede; it might just be possible to build a constant-boost missile that could be launched after it.

She snorted as her force headed towards its grim rendezvous. The odds were highly against them; the departure of the Overmind’s attack fleet still left them with serious problems, starting with the orbital defences of Titan…and the small shuttles and transports that remained on the surface. She would never have used any of them in combat; the Overmind had the tools to turn them into effective weapons.

“Launch probes,” she ordered, wishing for a stealth ship. There might be a slight truce with Earth while both sides paused to deal with the Overmind, but if Earth had a stealth ship nearby, they hadn’t told her about it. “I want a full report on their weapons.”

The John Paul Jones shuddered. “Probes away,” Ensign Janice reported. “Receiving full telemetry.”

April nodded grimly, wishing that she could pace the deck. The normal procedure was to ‘catch up’ with the planet or moon; in this case, they were racing towards the moon, which was following its own orbit…and moving towards them. When the asteroid they’d pushed out of orbit impacted with the moon, it would do so at astonishing speed…assuming that it survived the journey.

She scowled. In order to ensure that the asteroid made it, her force was spread out in front of the asteroid, all weapons and systems primed to engage what she knew would be a last-ditch attempt to save Titan from nemesis. The Overmind would throw everything at her, up to and including the kitchen sink. The thought made her smile, even as she threw herself into running the final calculations – it wouldn’t be long now.

***

The Overmind’s first response was amusement; how could the humans think that an asteroid could destroy it, particularly after it was blown to bits by the weapons it could deploy against it? Its second thought was to study the enemy formation…and it winced. With the enemy fleet attempting to guard the asteroid, it could no longer count on a quick victory…and if the enemy started detonating weapons near Titan, its command and control might be impaired.

Panic seethed near the surface, but enough of its human mentality – the parts of its mind that had been absorbed from humanity – remembered fighting in space to avoid outright panic. It formulated a plan, simulated it, refined it…and started to put it into operation. There would be a window of opportunity…and it couldn’t be wasted. Orders were rapidly uploaded into Orbital Weapons Platforms; small computer-controlled tugs received their marching orders. Spacers, thousands of them in orbit, were ordered to use everything they remembered to stop the asteroid…allowing the Overmind itself to concentrate on strategy.

It thought rapidly; the arrival of a clear threat, in a paradox, had cleared its mind of its panic over supernatural opponents. It issued more orders, adjusting its formation…and waiting. It could launch an attack as soon as the humans came into range, or it could wait…and, unlike a human, it had the time and power to study all of the options. It ran more and more simulations…and settled on an attack plan.

A strange calm descended upon the Overmind. Moving with a speed that would have astonished its creator, the Overmind transmitted copies of its final thoughts to the Earth attack fleet, and the fleeing asteroid…and composed itself to meet the enemy.

***

“I have multiple missile launches,” Ensign Janice reported. Her voice was professionally calm; April was pleased. “It’s launching salvo after salvo from the Orbital Weapons Platforms; I count upwards of three hundred missiles.”

April frowned. “Targets?”

“They seem to be focused on us, on the fleet,” Ensign Janice said grimly. April nodded; the Overmind had some time to react to the threat of her ships. If they were destroyed, the asteroid could be destroyed afterwards. “More launches; another three hundred missiles.”

“Impressive,” April commented. “Activate point defence; launch stealth missiles towards their launchers.”

“Point defence online,” Lieutenant Paterson reported. His voice was dry, as always; nothing seemed to faze him. “Stealth missiles away; launched under stealth protocols.”

April nodded and forced herself to sit back. There was a reason stealth missiles were considered as unpleasant weapons as gas and nuclear weapons in a previous century; they were undetectable. The target would have no time to react; worse, there was a fair chance that the missile, having very little brain, would go after a friendly ship instead. At the same time, just like the WMD of a previous era, they had disadvantages; there was no way that she could re-task the missiles if the launcher had clearly run out of missiles to throw at her fleet.

She watched grimly as the swarm of missiles lanced towards her fleet…and a hail of missiles and lasers reached out to meet it. Missile after missile was swept from existence; some, inevitably, made their way through the defences. Two frigates exploded in quick succession; she was down to twelve ships.

“Clear for engagement of their orbital platforms,” she ordered, as one of the stealth missiles struck a large orbital weapons platform. “Basic weapons load; try to use EMP as well to hammer its communications.”

“Yes, Captain,” Lieutenant Paterson said. “Can we risk the false commands?”

April winced. “I think there’s no real choice,” she said. She smiled suddenly. “I’ve always wanted to know how those programs will work in practice.”

“Captain,” Ensign Janice said grimly. “They’re launching their small craft towards us now.”

“Hellfire,” April said. The display altered quickly as she watched; dozens of shuttles, tugs and other ships were boosting away from Titan orbit, heading for her force. Few of them had any capability to manoeuvre, but all of them could carry weapons…and all of them could pose a danger to her fleet…and, just incidentally, they could soak up her missiles.

“I think that we’ll have to use the lasers on them,” Lieutenant Paterson said. His voice, for the first time, showed a little stress. “There’s just too many of them for missiles.”

April nodded, feeling cold. “Make it so,” she ordered.

***

The first detonation of an EMP warhead caught the Overmind by surprise…and then it was too late. The important systems, of course, were shielded; it was the disruption to its communications that was disastrous. Another missile, a fusion-powered warhead, detonated far too close to the orbital elevator…and burned right through it in the ensuing blast. For long seconds, the Overmind had no communication at all with its orbital twin.

It took it nearly a minute, working with a massive and dangerous time delay, to get back in touch…and then it discovered that a stealth missile had struck the massive station that it had – correctly – designated as the strongest station in orbit. The former asteroid wasn’t spinning, or it would have torn itself apart, but it had been knocked out of the battle. Its twin was gone, dead, and now it had to fight the battle on its own.

It uploaded new orders along the laser link, and then realised that new orders were spreading through its own system. The attack could have been utterly destructive – and it would have been if it hadn’t taken basic security precautions; as it was, it was wasting time and bandwidth. The Overmind loaded new security protocols into its systems, suddenly deprived of its complete access; it even risked ordering the Spacers to attack on their own initiative.

It realised, suddenly, that the human force was pounding new missiles into the orbital defences, smashing them one by one. It no longer had its perfect access; it took time, time it realised grimly that it no longer had. It changed its orders, again; ordering the defences to concentrate on blasting the asteroid, knowing that if the asteroid was destroyed, it might still have a chance.

And then it knew that it was too late.

A human commander might have known better than to try to rely on long-distance command, although a cursory scan of human history showed dozens who hadn’t known any such thing. It knew, now, that it had failed…and that it was doomed, at least on Titan. It uploaded a final command to the relay satellites, commanding them to transmit its final thoughts to the fleeing asteroid…and then ordered Steffen’s force to complete the destruction of Earth.

And then it waited.

***

April watched grimly as all of the remaining orbital defences retargeted their missiles, spitting out dozens of missiles towards the asteroid her fleet was trying to shepherd into the moon. She snapped orders grimly, risking her entire fleet, trying to keep the asteroid intact long enough for the enemy weapons to be defeated. The enemy shuttles were piloted by madmen; some were heading into interplanetary space, others were heading into the asteroid, trying to ram it. They didn’t stand a chance.

“That’s the last of the platforms,” Lieutenant Paterson reported. “They don’t have any missile launchers left in orbit, except for the shipyard…”

“Which won’t be able to enter firing range,” April agreed. “Helm, break off; get us out of here!”

“With pleasure,” Lieutenant Bixby said. He tapped a command into the system and the main drive ignited; they would be flying past Titan, far too close to the shipyards for comfort, but…it didn’t matter compared to the dangers of literally flying into Titan. “We’re on our way, Captain.”

“Activate the viewer,” April ordered, as the ship shuddered away from Titan. “Show me the impact.”

She’d wondered if Titan’s atmosphere would ignite under the impact; it didn’t. A dull red glow spread across one part of the moon, shaking it to its bones. The planet would have massive earthquakes; all of the underground cities would be destroyed by the impact. If part of the Overmind survived the impact, then…

“We’ll have to quarantine the moon for the rest of time,” she said, knowing that that was true. “Someone with more weapons can come back and destroy the shipyards; God alone knows what it was doing there.”

“Understood,” Wilkinson said, through her helmet. “Do you have the capability to make it to Ganymede?”

April looked at Lieutenant Bixby, who nodded grimly. “Barely,” she said. “Is that where you want us to go?”

“I think so,” Wilkinson said. “We’ll deal with other matters later.”

***

Thande watched from his gravity-chair as the moon glowed red, before slowly fading; he shook his head as it dimmed down to a dull red. “It’s an art form,” he muttered. “There used to be a children’s book about idiot aliens tossing planets about for amusement.”

“Idiots,” Sally agreed. “It’s time to leave.”

Thande blinked. “Sally, if we leave…”

“It won’t make them any more suspicious,” Sally said grimly. “We really don’t want to have to answer questions.” She paused. “And, besides, we have work left on Earth.”

She reached out and took his hand. Seconds later, there was no trace that they had ever been there, except for the heat on the chairs.



Chapter Thirty-Seven: Loose Ends Get Mended

Cambridge

English State, Earth

Space and time fluctuated around him…and then Thande found himself on the floor of the Ouroboros Pub, allowing him to suddenly feel the impact of gravity again. The changes made to his body hadn’t been anything like as extensive as George’s implants, even though they were the products of a vastly more advanced technology. Ian was standing there, looking down at them quizzically; he handed Thande a mug of tea without comment.

“Don’t tell me that you’ve developed precognition,” Thande commented, sitting up and sipping the tea gratefully. Sally pulled herself to her feet slowly, shaking her body down; he watched her without real interest. “Teleportation always takes something out of me.”

“I heard your coming,” Ian said. He looked more serious than normal, Thande saw; he’d only met him a few months ago…and he’d seen him as someone intended to keep Grey Wolf under control. These days, he wasn’t so sure; Ian clearly had his own concerns. “I hate that system myself, by the way.”

“Rumour had it that you helped invent it,” Sally said, taking her own cup of tea. “What’s happening on Earth?”

“Lies, all lies,” Ian protested. “The teleporters were invented by someone with much less intelligence and general cunning than myself.”

“And finding such a bugger would be difficult,” Grey Wolf injected, from his position as he entered the room. “What happened at Titan?”

“The asteroid hit Titan,” Sally said shortly. “Do you think that that will be enough to destroy it?”

“I have no idea,” Grey Wolf said. He was wearing, Thande noticed, a long and very unfashionable trench coat; it made him look like John Constiene. A cigarette drooped from his mouth, completing the impression; it would attract attention like flies to muck. “There’s still the unit coming for Earth.”

“And the escaping unit,” Sally said. “What will it do now?”

She looked up at Ian, who shrugged. “You make it seem as if I know everything,” he said dryly. “If I was wearing its shoes, I’d have the asteroid flying away as fast as it could, while the other ships cover its escape by attacking Earth.”

“And, perhaps, occupying Earth,” Sally said grimly. “Can the Paramils stop it?”

Grey Wolf shrugged. “Donkeybollocks Windsor is convinced that they can,” he said. “He’s been recalling units from Ceres; you never know, they might just manage to stop the enemy force before it comes near to Earth, and then blow the asteroid aside.”

“I wouldn’t bet on that,” Thande said grimly. “Those Spacers are tough.”

Ian tapped the table. “It’s not our concern,” he said. “Our concern is that Marie Stephenson, Director of Ringworld, has vanished and – somehow – escaped the Paramils.”

Thande winced as memories spewed into his mind from the implanted memories. Marie Stephenson, Director of Ringworld – one of the most powerful women in the world. He studied her ancient face and wondered; was she another of Snow’s people?

“She might have vanished back into the Vale,” he said. “We’ll never catch her.”

Grey Wolf smiled evilly. “How much would you bet on that?”

Ian tapped the table sharply. “Mr Wolf…”

“All right, all right,” Grey Wolf said. “We found her; she’s hiding in a private rest home in…guess where?”

“Londonstan?” Thande snapped, wondering if that would mean anything to Grey Wolf. “Somewhere near by?”

“Oh, yes,” Grey Wolf said. “She’s here, in Cambridge.”

Thande frowned. “That cannot be a coincidence,” he said. “What makes Cambridge so important to both sides in this war?”

Sally and Ian exchanged glances. “We’ll talk about that later,” she said. Thande frowned again; how could Cambridge be so important to the Enemy? “For the moment, we have to take Marie Stephenson alive, if we can. She could tell us so much about the Enemy.”

Thande privately doubted that; he knew little about his employers…and he knew that Sally knew little herself. The Enemy might be evil, at least in Sally’s view, but they weren’t stupid; they’d pulled the wool very neatly over Grey Wolf’s eyes…and they had come very close to destroying Earth more than once. He doubted that Marie Stephenson would know anything useful at all about the Enemy; he would be astonished if she knew what they actually were.

“All right,” he said, putting his doubts aside. “Where exactly is she?”

Ian directed a mental command to the bar; a hologram appeared in front of them. A desolate wasteland – the land surrounding Cambridge – with one large building dominating the surroundings. It was walled, he was amused to note; walled against attackers who could have literally dropped out of thin air onto the ground. He’d heard of bandits who eked out a living away from the cities; were they a real danger to her?

“This used to be a building,” Ian said, rather sardonically. Any fool could have seen that. “These days, it belongs to a trust fund, one that ran out years ago…and was taken over by a shell identity. With our level of access to the main computers here, it was fairly easy to identify the shell identity as belonging to someone who claimed a relationship with Marie Stephenson – it was something unusual enough to catch our attention. He didn’t have any such relationship, you see.”

Thande didn’t, but he listened carefully anyway; Ian normally talked sense. “It got me interested,” Ian continued. “After some thought, I sent a few commands into the satellite network, discovered that the house was inhabited…and protected by a security system – quite literally – out of this world. The Paramils don’t have the capability to see though the sensor network; the system is so clever that they don’t even know that they have a blind spot.”

“Smart,” Sally said. “What do you think she’s doing there?”

Ian adjusted the display; an image of the hurtling Spacer craft appeared in front of them. “There have been a number of unusual…pings of the global datanet, emitting from that house,” he said. “I think that she hasn’t left to get back into the Vale because the Enemy hasn’t finished its work here. Once the fleet gets within transmission range, I bet you anything you want to put forward that she’s going to try to open the datanet to its transmissions.”

Thande felt a cold shiver run through him. “But…that would have the Overmind on Earth,” he protested. “What’s the point of doing that if Earth would be destroyed seconds later?”

“It won’t be total annihilation,” Sally said grimly. “Even if the datanet on Earth is smashed beyond repair, it would be in the shipyards, the orbiting habitats, the…”

“You’ve made your point,” Thande said. “What now?”

Grey Wolf smiled. “We are going to get her, of course,” he said. “Goodness me; what do they teach them these days?”

“You spent most of your early years fighting a bunch of lunatics who worshipped a giant sheep,” Sally snapped. “Not everyone’s a fanatic.”

“Fine thing for you to say,” Grey Wolf snapped. “Sally…”

“Silence,” Ian said. It wasn’t a loud command; it rolled over the room like a sledgehammer. “We have work to do. Grey Wolf, go break out the BFG weapons, understand?”

Grey Wolf eyed him sulkily. “I think you’re forgetting who is supposed to be in charge here,” he said. Thande blinked at Sally’s astonished reaction. “Ian…”

“Then act like it,” Ian said. “Let’s go!”

***

“I thought that this was supposed to be winter,” Thande said, as they disembarked from the transport vehicle, a ‘borrowed’ PEV. “Where’s all the snow?”

“Gone to Russia,” Sally said seriously. “Give humanity time to repair the Earth…”

“They won’t succeed,” Grey Wolf predicted. “Ever since the icecaps started to melt, the problem became insolvable. There are just too many people on this rock, you know; the population is well over ten billion, mostly…here in an age of progress, and most of them don’t even know it.”

Thande frowned. “But they’ll have the FTL drive now,” he said. “That will allow them to expand further, away from the Belt.”

“The Belt has the FTL drive,” Sally said, as Ian started to use a sensor to probe the ground ahead of them. “Will they share it with the ground-pounders?”

Thande shrugged. “It’s clear,” Ian said. “It’s a fairly basic security system from the 30th century, so any hopes of actually capturing Enemy tech…”

“Pity,” Sally muttered. Thande smiled grimly; the dream of capturing intact Enemy technology was something that all of the Time Agents shared, second only to capturing or killing an Enemy member. “Standard approach?”

“I think so,” Ian said. He tapped the system he was wearing on his belt; they all had a similar system. “We should be invisible to their security systems, even the naked eye, but they might have other surprises in store. Take care; remember, they might not be able to see you, which means that they might well walk into you by accident.”

Thande squinted. As he peered through one eye, he saw his fellows wavering in and out of existence as he looked around the changes in his eyes; without them, he wouldn’t have seen the others. He rubbed his eyes and lifted his BFG; the weapon was reassuring in a world that made little sense. The memories of how to use it had been implanted, but unlike the other memories he had spent time on the Harry Turtledove, learning how to use the BFG properly.

Ian led them across a patch of land that looked like a beach – were it not for the fact that there was no free water in sight – and towards the back wall, examining the problem facing them. The entire complex was surrounded by a low wall, topped with a wire that seemed to spit energy at them. All in all, as an old Cambridge Don had put it, it presented the sort of challenge that Thande approved of – when someone else was suffering.

He peered along the wall, seeing only the strange sandy earth and the even stranger weeds that seemed to be growing everywhere…and knew that it wasn’t his England. The heat alone was overpowering; nearly a hundred years of adaptation would have changed everything. He remembered the monster crab, from their first arrival on this world, and shuddered; Darwin had had the last laugh, after all.

Other memories came to light behind his eyes as Ian carefully started dismantling part of the security system. He saw, as clearly as if he'd seen them himself, rice paddies in Australia and the remains of Saudi Arabia; he saw the snows that seemed to hover eternally above Moscow, he saw the massive complexes under the ground. He saw, and understood, what Grey Wolf had seen; this Earth was slowly dying. Had the Enemy done that on purpose? Did humans really need the help?

“Me first,” Sally muttered, over their private channel. She climbed up quickly, keeping her BFG at the ready, and scrambled over the top. “It’s clear, come on.”

Grey Wolf followed her, and then Thande scrambled over, allowing Ian to bring up the rear. Inside, the grounds were covered in grass that seemed to be just a little bit too green – he understood, somehow, that it had been engineered to be that way. A sign – DON’T TREAD ON THE GRASS – caught his eye and he smiled; it was almost like home.

“Look,” Ian muttered. Two men were walking around the house, walking dogs; strange mutated dogs that looked like crosses between bulldogs and German shepherds. They ignored them, missing the Time Agents entirely; Thande paused as a thought occurred to him. Did they have no sense of smell…or did he have a smell at all?

“This way,” Grey Wolf muttered, leading the way to a side entrance that looked as if it had seen better days. Thande frowned; it looked old and battered, but it was tough, he could see an implanted sheet of armour underneath the cracked and broken wood. “Ian?”

“On it,” Ian said, using his sensor probe again. “Interesting; this has a local security system.”

Thande blinked; Sally looked even more surprised. “Why?” She asked. “Why would the bitch do that?”

“It’s not important,” Ian said, as the door clicked open. “Come on in; the water is bloody freezing.”

Thande slipped inside, BFG raised, and saw a short corridor. “I seem to be doing this a lot,” he muttered, as he reached the end of the corridor. It opened onto a slightly wider corridor…and a stairwell. There was no one around, just a camera that never paused as it passed over him; he could only hope that it couldn’t see through his shield.

Sally’s voice was very quiet. “Is there anyone here?”

“No,” Thande said, and then paused. “Yes; shut up.”

A woman had appeared at the top of the stairs, walking down; Thande had hoped that it was Marie Stephenson, but they weren’t that lucky. It was a woman wearing a French Maid’s outfit; his old friend Bruno Lombardi would have liked it. At the front, it was very respectable; at the back…it concealed nothing at all.

“Her nibs wants eggs for her lunch,” the maid called. Thande had to smile as she passed them, so close he could have reached out and pinched her behind; she was completely unaware of their presence. “How long until they can be ready.”

“That’s a stroke of luck,” Sally muttered, as the maid vanished along the corridor. “Come on!”

Sally took point as she inched up the stairs, moving quickly; none of them believed that they would remain undetected for long. Thande followed her as she opened a door…and then jumped back. Three men, holding weapons and wearing strange goggles, were looking at her.

“Hands up,” the leader said. “You will lift your hands or…”

Sally fired; Thande recovered from his shock just as quickly, firing bursts of plasma into the guards. They didn’t manage to fire a shot before they were cut down, but a second round of firing from ahead of them revealed that they hadn’t been alone. Sally fired a long burst down the new corridor, setting parts of it on fire, before running forward towards a pair of massive doors.

Thande fired, once; a guard who had almost appeared out of nowhere staggered backwards with a burning hole in his chest. Grey Wolf covered them as they reached the doors, firing a burst into the doors to shatter them, revealing a room full of old computers. Thande would have enjoyed it under other circumstances; with an elderly woman glaring at them, it wasn’t remotely enjoyable.

Sally fired a long burst into the computers. “It’s over,” she snapped. She tossed a glowing orb at Marie Stephenson, who flinched back, too late. Space and time twisted around her and she was gone. “It’s over.”

Thande blinked. “What the hell was that?”

“Crosstime bomb,” Sally said absently. “We could hardly have snatched her without her jumping into her own dimension, could we?”

Thande nodded. Crosstime bombs were one of the few weapons that both sides in the war used regularly; devices that created what was in effect a limited self-sustaining Portal around a particular target. Anything struck by the weapons literally vanished out of its home universe, tossed into the Vale on a random course…and appeared within an alternate timeline.

“I got the trace,” Ian said. Thande had to smile; by the time the Enemy figured out what had happened, they would have all the time in the world to take the Harry Turtledove to Marie Stephenson’s destination and arrest her without her having the opportunity to jump back into the Vale. “We can get her any time we like.”

A burst of firing behind them sent Grey Wolf stumbling into the room. “I’m hit,” he said. “Ian, I…”

Thande stared at the bloody mess the bullets had made of his chest, and then fired angrily down the corridor, switching the weapon to wide beam. A series of explosions echoed back along the corridor; he smelt the smoke as flames began to flicker up from the plasma strikes.

Grey Wolf went still. “He’s dead,” Ian said grimly. “I think…”

“It’s time to leave,” Sally said. “There will be others in this world.”

Ian picked a grenade from his belt and tossed it down the corridor. “That will deal with the house, at least,” he said. “Sally?”

Sally cocked her head in a manner Thande had come to love. “We’re moving,” she said. Seconds later, they were on the Harry Turtledove…and away from the strange future world.

Thande frowned. “Sally, we have to help them now,” he said. “They’re going to have to destroy that asteroid before it can hit Earth.”

Sally shook her head. “It’s over,” she said. Thande knew that there was no point in arguing with her now; Grey Wolf’s death had hit him hard as well. “We’ve done all we can for them.”


Chapter Thirty-Eight: The Umpteenth Battle of Earth

Battlezone

Near Earth Space

Commodore Andrew Lynn was feeling harassed. It was one thing to be rewarded for winning the greatest space battle in human history – but quite another to be summoned back at short notice to defend Earth, against of all things, a cyborg attack. The Paramils, unlike some of their predecessor military forces, shared all the information they could with their combat commanders…but for once he wasn’t sure what to believe.

He scowled down at the display, feeling the acceleration of his ship, the Enterprise, and scowled again. If the Paramil command had acted rapidly, as he would have in their place, he might have been able to attack the…Overmind’s force – whatever an Overmind was – before it got too close to Earth. As it was, all of the struggling of his crewmen would bring him into range for attacking the Overmind’s force, just as it was heading in towards Earth.

Worse, to his near-certain knowledge, the crewmen – if the Spacers could be considered ‘men’ any longer – of the enemy ships could handle much higher gravities than his own people. He’d boosted half of his force right up to the maximum he dared risk, just to ensure that they would have the speed to hold the range open as long as they could, and he was grimly certain that the enemy could speed past them if they had to.

It all depended on the Spacers’ capabilities for tolerating the pressures of gravity…and he was uncertain, at the end of the matter, just how capable they were. If they were bound to human limitations, they could be beaten; if they had double the human capability, they would have a seriously unfair advantage; it all depended on what assumptions a person fed into the simulator.

“Commodore, we are closing in on the enemy rear for a smashing frontal attack on the enemy rear,” Captain Harrison said. Lynn scowled; Harrison was a Captain who had never seen battle – the Enterprise, the first real cruiser in Paramil service, hadn’t been at the Battle of Ceres. He was either confused or just plain stupid; Lynn didn’t know which and really didn’t care.

“Thank you,” he said. Enterprise, unlike the other frigates, contained a proper CIC centre, even if it didn’t have anything like the capabilities of any of the ground forces CIC centres he’d served in before transferring to the space force. “I shall be in communication with the fleet directly.”

“Aye, sir,” Captain Harrison said. “Sounding red alert; all sections, sounding red alert.”

“Answering red alert,” the engineering section responded. “All systems are working perfectly.”

Lynn tuned the sections out – Enterprise was large enough to have proper sections as well – as they answered, concentrating on the tactical display. His force was closing in on the rear of the enemy force, which was redeploying to meet the sudden threat presented by the Paramil force, all the while covering an asteroid forced along by a fusion drive that some enterprising Spacer had mounted on its rear.

“If it hadn’t been so massive, it would have been impossible to stop it,” he muttered, and knew that it was true. If the Spacers had had time to prepare properly, if they’d mounted a plasma torch rather than a standard fusion drive…Earth would have been shattered by the impact. As it was, they had clearly been in some doubt; they had had to limit their own boosting to ensure that the ships could keep up with the asteroid and cover it against attack.

He smiled suddenly. It proved something else, of course; they weren’t intending a kamikaze mission. They were limiting their own speed to allow the ships time to escape, something that was odd when someone considered the damage that Titan had suffered; did they know something he didn’t about Titan? Was it possible that part of the Overmind remained intact under the earthquakes?

He glanced down again at the secret file that had been transmitted to him from the John Paul Jones. The enemy commander, Captain April Masterson – he’d seen her picture and had to admit that she was more than a little attractive – had faced him twice…and kicked the shit out of him in their first meeting. She might well have done the same in their second meeting…had he not made a simple observation on how a drive plume could be…circumvented. As it was, there was a truce on…and the information she’d sent him might just be their salvation.

Might, he thought, and winced. Like all spacemen, he preferred certainty to conjecture, particularly conjecture from people who didn’t have to face the same risks as he and his people faced on a regular basis. April Masterson probably felt the same way…if the AI in question was on board one of the enemy ships, if the signal would reach its target, if…

He forced his mind back to the matter at hand; destroying the enemy asteroid. The tactical board was updating constantly as his drones and probes found their way into the enemy formation, even though the haze of ECM that the Spacers were throwing up to drive them mad – as mad as the Overmind itself. Some of the enemy ships were clearly running without atmosphere or even basic safety precautions; that wouldn’t hamper the Spacers, of course.

“Attention,” he said, keying the communications link. The laser link between the ships should keep their communications – and computers safe – but he knew better than to trust it completely. They would be running at a severe disadvantage; he had had to limit their communications, lasers or no lasers. “This is Fleet Command.”

He paused, wondering what to say; how did he speak to his men on the verge of disaster? “We are about to throw ourselves into a fight for Earth itself,” he said. “We have no choice, but to destroy that asteroid…and if we lose every one of our ships for that aim – and we succeed – then it is a worthwhile cost. That asteroid, should it hit, will kill all of our families, all of our loved ones, partners, husbands, wives, children…that asteroid has to be stopped.”

He sighed. “Earth expects that each and every one of you will do their duty,” he said. “Good luck to us all.”

He unkeyed the communications link, inspecting the ships as they prepared to fly into battle, and checking the tactical link. It was dangerous – and it was far more restricted than any other link they’d ever established – but necessary; they needed to have the point defence network active, or the Spacers would pick them off one by one.

A sphere of light appeared on the display, centred on his fleet. When that sphere crossed the enemy force, he could open fire…and at the same time…they could fire on him. He watched, wishing that he was on a proper bridge, as the sphere inched closer and closer and…touched.

“All ships, you are cleared to open fire,” he said, as calmly as he could. “Fire at will.”

He’d studied, carefully, the records that Captain Masterson had sent him; the enemy force could be disrupted by ECM missiles. His force had nearly thirty warships; half of them had just fired a series of EMP missiles, all of which would be blasting out their disruptive influence into the enemy formation. The second spread of missiles were more conventional, laser heads intended to clear a path to the asteroid…and destroy the fusion drive mounted on the asteroid.

“Enemy units returning fire,” the sensor officer warned. “At least one hundred missiles.”

“They must be conserving their ammunition,” Lynn observed. It made a certain kind of sense; they would know that they would have to fight their way through the defences of Earth itself as well as his fleet. “Launch the second spread…and begin transmitting the signal.”

***

Steffen had been watching ever since Titan had transmitted its final message – effectively severing the part of the Overmind on board the ship from any higher authority. He had reeled, along with the rest of the Spacers, at the sudden freedom; he knew that the part of the Overmind with them was suddenly free. What could they do? What could they not do?

They were committed to the attack on Earth, the Overmind had thought, and Steffen’s mind had to agree with it; Earth would hunt them across the universe if they failed to destroy it. A brief check revealed that they had no way of reaching the fleeing asteroid with that part of the Overmind…and paranoia flickered as it wondered if that had been deliberate. The attack from the Paramil ships had almost been welcome; it moved away from destructive paranoia to concentrate on defence.

It did as tactics dictated, firing a spread of missiles back towards the enemy spacecraft as they appeared, while Steffen fought his ship. The Overmind wasn’t exactly breaking down, but, unlike the first Overmind, it had little choice, but to accept that its Spacers suddenly had more autonomy than it would have liked. Certainly, it couldn’t afford the bandwidth to run them all as semi-automated drones. Free of its commanding influence, Steffen’s mind floated within the computer network of the ship, which remained unnamed; he fought it as if it were part of his own body.

The signal was a surprise; it reached through the haze of ECM and straight into the ship, looking for processors that were open to outside access; it had taken advantage of one of the Overmind’s own tactics. The processors had been preparing to broadcast part of the Overmind across space to Earth; they had all been opened…and the signal had slipped into the system.

The overmind withdrew entirely from its Spacers, concentrating desperately on controlling the computer system and tracking down the message. Steffen felt its puzzlement as if it were part of him; what was the point of the message? It wasn’t a series of commands to the spacecraft’s fusion systems, commanding them to explode; it wasn’t anything.

Puzzled, the Overmind rerouted its attention towards the Paramil ships, just as they belched another series of missiles towards the Overmind’s force. Time was ticking away…and it was puzzled. What was the Paramil force doing? It pulled all of its attention into attempting to study the problem, knowing that it wouldn’t be more than a few hours before the asteroid slammed into Earth…and then it made up its mind. There was something that could be done, after all…and it never noticed the tendrils of energy interfacing with the systems.

***

Commodore Lynn felt desperately tired. Though valiant manoeuvres, his force had managed to remain within range of the Spacer force for several hours, all uselessly. The Spacers had held the range open, something that gave them the advantage, and they were picking up speed. The asteroid, worse, was picking up a great deal of speed; it would only be a few hours before it impacted with Earth and…

“Target the asteroid alone this time,” he ordered. If the signal had worked, it was too late; the asteroid had to be destroyed. If he ran out of missiles, even ramming the asteroid wouldn’t have any real effect. “Take out the drive and keep targeting…section seventeen, I think.”

He smiled, even though his tiredness; section seventeen might not allow them to blast the asteroid apart, but if they kept pounding it, they would perhaps add a little speed to the asteroid, forcing it past Earth before Earth reached the designated collision zone. It was a desperate manoeuvre, and it might just work.

He leaned down to watch as his ships started to pick up speed again, wincing against the sudden pressure of the acceleration. The Spacers had been burning their own drives; only his speed advantage at the start had allowed him to avoid burning his own drives…and they, at least, didn’t seem to have thought of using lasers to communicate between ships using their drives and bases on the asteroid. That had surprised him, until he remembered what that Overmind actually was; it was possible that they would have been blinded anyway.

His own laser links were working perfectly, thank god! The Overmind was firing its own weapons to take advantage of what it assumed would be his blindness, but it wasn’t working; enough of his ships could reach the unmanned probes to track its own weapons. Time was running out, however; he knew that that he was running out of weapons and…

The ship shuddered again as it launched a hail of missiles. He glanced down at the tactical display and winced again; it wouldn’t be long before his ships lost their weapons altogether…and then they would have no choice, but to break contact.

***

Steffen felt the Overmind’s sudden triumph as it entered range for transmitting itself to Earth; it abandoned all of the ECM systems and reprioritised everything, starting the long series of vast, impossibly complex transmissions towards Earth, seeking a way into the vast datanet…and something changed. For the first time, Steffen could feel something vibrating against his belt…and his connection to the Overmind had been severed.

A dull memory penetrated into his mind as he staggered to the deck of the ship; he had feared, somehow, that he would be turned into a slave, like some of the unfortunates that graced some of WHAT’S MENTAL MIND CONTROL PORN and the stranger…entertainments from DOCTOR WHAT AND HIS PORN BAR. He had seen enough of what chemicals could do to people to fear what a mental implant could do…and so he had programmed LEO very carefully, and given Eric Flint the key. His hand patted the AI’s casing; it had been sheer luck that the Overmind hadn’t read the plan from his mind directly, or that…

Reality screamed an alert into his mind and he pulled himself to his feet, feeling the odd sensation of walking with magnetic boots – his mind recoiled at the thought that the boots might be part of him somehow – and accessed a console. The other Spacers ignored him; he ignored them in turn. They wouldn’t interfere unless the Overmind ordered them to interfere, and it seemed that the Overmind had other problems. Part of his mind seemed somehow to be able to sense its actions, sending out its signals towards Earth, and…

“I have to do something,” he said, more to himself than anything else. He wasn’t even sure if he was speaking; as events caught up with him he felt dizzy, sick…dying. Who knew what the long-term effects of being a Spacer were? “I have to…”

His thoughts landed on LEO and he linked the AI into the network. LEO had been designed to be impossible to hack – although the Overmind would almost certainly be able to accomplish that particular task – and it should just take it long enough to allow them to sabotage the system. LEO chirped an answer through a radio band; it dawned on him for the first time that they were in vacuum.

Chiding himself for his panic, he tapped a command into the AI’s systems; crash the defence network and shatter the system. He had hoped that they could trigger the self-destruct systems, but the Overmind had apparently thought of that as a genuine danger, although he couldn’t understand why. Had it been that scared of its twins? He watched as the system slowly crashed…and then he felt the rage of the Overmind as it suddenly found itself shattered into its component parts. It didn’t take more than a few seconds to realise what had happened…and then Steffen screamed in pain as the Overmind reached cold icy hands into his head, ripping his mind to shreds.

He smiled as he died in agony.

The Overmind was too late.

***

Commodore Lynn couldn’t believe his eyes for a long moment; the entire enemy defence network had simply crashed, along with most of its computer network. He stared, and then barked orders; everything depended on acting quickly before the Overmind could restore itself. Everything…

“Fire,” he snapped. The Enterprise shuddered as it launched its final spread of missiles, heading directly for the asteroid. No laser beams licked out to destroy them, no missile lanced out in retribution; the enemy was crippled. The missiles shattered against the asteroid, destroying its drive…and then the asteroid shattered, blasting a hail of rocky debris over the enemy fleet. Some of them were struck and destroyed, others were clearly determined to escape, no longer a united force at all.

“Sir, that’s their flagship,” the sensor officer said. “Should we target it?”

Lynn frowned; the Enterprise had no weapons left, but…it wasn’t as if they were fighting for his personal honour. “Fire,” he snapped. “Launch missiles and take the bastard out!”

He watched as the enemy flagship vanished inside a ball of fire. Spacer warships, the handful that remained, were scattering, using manoeuvres that his force couldn’t hope to match. For the first time, he allowed himself to face the truth; his force had been gravely weakened by the battle. Twenty warships had been destroyed…and he had almost not noticed their destruction.

He smiled; his General Lee would have appreciated the truth behind one of his ancestor’s sayings. “It is good that war is so terrible,” he murmured, as his ship raced on towards Earth. “Else we would grow too fond of it.”

He pulled up the engagement record and transmitted it onwards towards Earth, even as his helm officer began the long process of slowing his force…and displaying their course on the display. Lynn laughed as he saw it; with all the fuel they had lost, with all the damage to his forces…they would be heading back towards a Belter settlement by the time they could slow down, if, of course, they had the ability to slow down at all.

He laughed again. After everything else his force had been though, to be rescued by the Belters was very much the final straw, but…he knew that there was no choice. If the Belters didn’t help out, his force would be trapped helplessly in interstellar space.

“Transmit a signal to fleet command,” he ordered, keying his personal radio. “Tell them…that after all this we had better make peace, or else everyone here will have died in vain.”


Interlude Seven: Learning The World Anew


Recovered From Source #26237: The Personal Diary of Doctor Ming Ling. Access Granted Under Security Clearance NONE OF THEIR BUSINESS; Please Be Aware That Further Dissemination Of This Information Can Lead To Heavy Penalties, Up To And Including Death.

It didn’t end there, of course.

Not that I had expected it would, of course; I was guilty of conducting experiments banned even in the Belt…and George was, perhaps, a monster. My boyfriend wasn’t the only Spacer who was an individual – several Spacers had broken free after the destruction of the second Overmind near Earth – and they presented the Belt and the Global Federation with a serious problem.

“We have a solution in mind,” Wilkinson said. He seemed to continue to hold his position as general spokesman for the Belt – and, after the Paramils evacuated Ceres – regained his position as Mayor of the asteroid. It would have been nice never to have to set foot in an asteroid again, but there was no way that I could take George back to mama.

“The technology has been developed and remains open source,” he continued. “There will be more Spacers…and, quite frankly, we expect that there will be other volunteers to continue the program. I would like to ban it outright and to hunt down the remaining Spacers, but…”

I had to smile. George didn’t have that much restraint; he laughed outright. “Yes, you might laugh,” Wilkinson said. “I have an offer for the pair of you, one that will hopefully solve both problems.”

He frowned at us. “I have been in communication with Earth,” he said. “Everything will be blamed on the Overmind, so there will be an amnesty for any Spacer who submits to a full examination and agrees to lose some of his communication programming – specifically, the bits that were used to control and influence them. They will have to pass an exam and they will probably end up being banned from some habitats.”

George shrugged. It was a cardinal provision of the Belt that Habitats had the right to refuse anyone access, apart from Sheriffs. The Spacers didn’t need the human-habited asteroids anyway; most of them didn’t even need oxygen.

“I dare say that we’ll manage,” he said. “What about the Overmind’s final asteroid?”

“Out of reach,” Wilkinson said. “Once the FTL ships are moving, we’ll send one out to destroy it from a safe distance. Beside, we keep coming across part of its programming in Earth’s datanet; it might well have won a victory of a sort.”

I smiled. “So, George and I get to live,” I said. “That’s worth everything, I think.”

“You will be operating under strict supervision,” Wilkinson warned. “After all, you are a criminal. There are people who wanted you shot on general principles.”

I didn’t care; neither did George. That night, we explored the habitat that had been handed over to us, or at least, to every Spacer that took up the offer. The ones that didn’t, I knew, would be hunted down and destroyed; they were just too dangerous to be permitted freedom.

“I think,” I said, as we lay in bed under the light tube, “that everything turned out for the best after all.”

George didn’t argue. Instead, his hand slipped between my legs. “I think that it’s only just started,” he said, as his hands worked their magic. “What do you think?”

I laughed.



Chapter Thirty-Nine: Peace…and Other Matters of Interest

Luna City/Deep Space

The Moon/The Asteroid

There had been a plan, Wilkinson knew, to terraform the Moon, converting it into an Earth-like world orbiting the Earth, providing a second – or third – home for mankind. Mars had been terraformed, but the lunar project had run into problems, not least opposition from the inhabitants, who objected to the possibility of receiving thousands of new immigrants from Earth.

He had to smile as he took his seat in the small conference room. The moon had been the first major body colonised by humanity – not counting the space stations built to carry weapons during the Age of Unrest – and simple demographics had always kept it bound to Earth and the Global Federation. Alone of all of the space habitats, the Moon had never been really independent; Mars had been independent for almost forty years before the Global Federation had asserted its authority.

Still, it made the closest thing to neutral ground that they could find; no asteroid habitat was really independent of Ceres, and any station orbiting the Earth would have been far too close to Earth. The Spacer Asteroid might have been the closest place they could have found, but the general distrust of Spacers would have ruled it out of consideration. There were at least two thousand Spacers left – and God alone knew how many had fled into the black colonies, if not the fleeing asteroid ship – and all of them presented a problem. Some people, including the man he had come to meet, had wanted them exterminated on general principles; it had taken all of the diplomacy at his disposal to convince them that that was a bad idea.

He looked up at the Earth representative and blinked as he read the nametag. He’d thought it was a joke when he’d seen the note from Earth; it remained on his nametag, along with three other middle names. It was…ridiculous; he couldn’t resist asking.

“Does your name really include Donkeybollocks?”

The Earth representative, who had been introduced as Bernard Charles Andrew Harry Donkeybollocks Windsor – which struck Wilkinson as being far too many names for one man – smiled dryly. He had expected a dry public servant or an aristocrat; he had met a tall man with genuine intelligence, hidden behind grey hair and brilliant eyes.

“It was a bet,” he confessed, and Wilkinson smiled in sympathy. “Mr Wilkinson, I presume?”

“Mayor Geoffrey Bradford Wilkinson, Mayor of Ceres,” Wilkinson said. He thought about adding a few more names and dismissed the thought; he didn’t need to sound self-important. “The dictator of Earth, I presume?”

Windsor’s eyes flickered, acknowledging the scored point. “We could debate titles all day,” he said. “That’s what we pay protocol officers for, Mr Mayor; do you want to waste time doing that?”

Wilkinson smiled, acknowledging the concession. “Not in particular,” he said. “Did anything come up from your investigations of the Ouroboros?”

“It closed down the day before the Battle of Earth,” Windsor said. His voice was grim, puzzled, perplexed. “Added to your records…”

Wilkinson frowned. There had been no doubt; both of their mysterious guests had vanished, despite searching the John Paul Jones up and down for wherever they could be hiding. The ship wasn’t a bridge ship, even though its internal sensors had taken a beating; they shouldn’t have been able to hide. They had simply…teleported off the frigate; no one knew how it might have been done.

“And, of course, there is the testimony of Doctor Ming Ling and…George,” Wilkinson said. He smiled grimly at the flash of anger within Windsor’s eyes; without George, the Belters would not be in the commanding position they were in at the moment. “The technology literally appeared out of nowhere.”

Windsor frowned. “And had nuclear weapons appeared during the First World War, would that have been a surprise?” He asked. “They could have been built then.”

“The theory would have been undeveloped,” Wilkinson said. Belter scientists had studied the implants Ming had ‘developed;’ all in all, they were years ahead of anything that they would have believed possible. “What…Andrea Clarke developed was light years ahead of anything we knew was possible.”

“Then we have a new…enemy,” Windsor said. His face darkened. “That makes…peace imperative.”

Wilkinson lifted an eyebrow. “What manner of concessions will you make?”

Windsor matched the expression. “What manner of concessions will you make?”

There was a long pause.

Wilkinson smiled suddenly. “We want the independence of the Belter Association recognised,” he said. “We want the various agreements concerning asteroid rights to be formalised along the lines of the Ceres Convention. We want some limited assistance in rebuilding from the war.”

Windsor nodded slowly. “And…what will you give us in exchange?”

Wilkinson paused. It was FTL, once Ganymede had proved that the entire concept worked, that had convinced Earth that accepting the peace was a better idea than continuing the war. Ironically, FTL didn’t really alter the strategic situation…but the Procyon Drive Fields did; all of a sudden, the Belt had warships of vastly greater capabilities than anything Earth possessed. The Paramils were hopelessly outclassed and knew it.

“In exchange for the public recognition, we will trade you the plans for the FTL drive and the Procyon Drive,” Wilkinson said. Some Belters had wanted to keep it to themselves; their scientists had convinced them that it was a bad idea. Unlike the implants, there was nothing really new in either drive; both sides had already had the background knowledge to build the units. Given a few months, Earth would have the drive itself…and then the war would resume.

Windsor frowned. Wilkinson could almost follow his thoughts; with the FTL drive, it might even be possible to move enough of Earth’s population to prevent a crash from destroying Earth in the process. After the rubble of the asteroid had skimmed into Earth’s atmosphere, it had convinced more than a few people that perhaps – Earth wasn’t quite the safe place it had been before. The Belt had been flooded with applications to immigrate from Earth; Wilkinson had a feeling that soon Venus would be having its own immigration crisis.

“We would accept such terms,” Windsor said finally. “What about the war crimes?”

Wilkinson shrugged. “There weren’t that many,” he said. The Paramils had behaved themselves, more or less; it had been a clean war. “Those who did commit crimes, on both sides, have been dealt with already.”

“Then that would be better off buried,” Windsor said. “So…shall we sign?”

Wilkinson picked up a datapad and tapped in, quickly and firmly, the terms of the peace agreement. “You move quickly,” he said. He held out the datapad. “Is that sufficient?”

“Short and sweet,” Windsor said ironically. He took an electronic pen and scribbled his signature below the agreement; a moment later, Wilkinson copied him. “Now, we have one final matter to talk about.”

Wilkinson nodded. “Our unknown…friends,” he said. “What do you want to do about them?”

“I honestly don’t know,” Windsor admitted. “Extraterrestrial?”

“It’s possible,” Wilkinson said slowly. “So, were we intended to fall over on the Overmind, or…what?”

“I think that we had better watch and wait,” Windsor said. “That, at least, should be kept a secret from all concerned.”

“I wouldn’t presume to argue,” Wilkinson said. He stood up and offered his hand. “To peace.”

Windsor shook it firmly. “To peace,” he echoed. “Beside, with dozens of solar systems suddenly available, what’s the point of us fighting each other?”

***

The John Paul Jones had been one of the first ships to be equipped with the warp drive – as the scientists were calling the FTL drive – and the Procyon Drive, something that had turned her ship into the most powerful ship in the solar system. It would be a while before Captain April Masterson was permitted to take her ship outside the solar system, but she was looking forward to it; for the moment, all she was doing was escorting the delegation to the moon.

She turned as a man wearing the uniform of a Paramil spaceship commander came up behind her. He was young, almost as young as her; the Paramils, like the former Sheriff Corps, had recruited the young for space missions. He was blond and surprisingly handsome, straight out of Paramil propaganda holograms.

He smiled at her. “Captain Masterson?”

April nodded. “And you are…?”

“Commodore Lynn,” he said. “I wanted to congratulate you on the Battle of Singapore.”

April understood in a sudden moment of understanding. “And you on the Battle of Ceres,” she said. “Using lasers like that was a moment of pure genius.”

Lynn grinned. “Just a moment?”

April laughed. “Just a moment,” she confirmed. “What are you going to do with yourself now?”

Lynn smiled at her. “I’m going to show you the fleshpots of Luna,” he said. He held out an arm. “Coming?”

“Why not?” April asked, taking his arm. “We have all the time in the world.”

***

Captain Steven Singh waited until the commanding officer had sounded the discharge for the final time before leaving the Paramil base on Luna for the last time. He had been promoted twice within two months, not something that unusual for Paramils on active duty – those who survived the battles – but it hadn’t taken; he’d made his decision while on Ceres.

The Paramils, he understood now, were trying desperately to hold back a tide that couldn’t be slowed for very long at all. It wouldn’t be long, FTL drive or no FTL drive, before Earth shuddered and shattered under the explosion of social stress; he knew now that the fight was hopeless. For all of their technical capability, they couldn’t win the war…and he would die if he remained in the fight.

He paced through the vast corridors of Luna without seeing them, ignoring the citizens as they thronged past him, heading towards the office. His official Paramil discharge had come through yesterday; he had only agreed to remain on duty because the squad had been intended to parade before being broken up and formed into new units. In fact…

He sighed as he stepped inside the office, already producing his identity card and other requested details. Ceres might not be willing to take him on, even as an experienced Paramil, but there were dozens of other asteroids. The war had forced forward the development of new asteroids; one of them would want him.

“Hello,” he said, as he reached the desk. A young blonde woman looked up at him as he registered on her senses. “I’d like to immigrate.”

The woman smiled. “You will be welcome,” she said. “Take a seat and I’ll get to you in a moment.”

***

The green-blue globe of Earth hung in the sky above them as Windsor waited patiently for the party to end. Despite his high rank – and his role as one of the handful of super-citizens – he hated parties, viewing them as little more than places to meet people and make deals…and he could have done that in any of his private residences.

Earth seemed to look back at him as he smiled. Perhaps, now, FTL would provide the key to saving the planet. The drive fields alone would allow them to move far more people…and FTL would allow them to be moved onto worlds that could take them without having to be modified first, or terraformed.

He was aware of the presences behind him; he turned to meet Andiron Pismire and Kesselring as they entered. They both nodded to him, joining him for a long moment of contemplation as Earth gazed down benevolently on them, before breaking the silence with words. Windsor scowled; there were people on the moon who worshipped the Earth…and he was starting to understand why.

“We had an unusual offer,” Kesselring said. The diplomat seemed worried. “It’s from some of the…mooks that have been opposing us.”

Windsor sighed. In typical fashion for the Age of Unrest, the mooks and the Paramils had known perfectly well how to get in touch with one another, even though they were mortal enemies under normal circumstances. They might be trying to destroy each other, but they could also talk…even though there was the normal condition of ‘no mercy.’

“I see,” he said finally. “What did the bastards have to say?”

“They wanted to compromise,” Kesselring said. “They think that with the FTL drive, they could have their own worlds…and they’re willing to bargain to get a colony ship.”

Windsor smiled. “I think that that could be arranged,” he said. “Andiron?”

“If it buys us peace, it might be worth the effort,” Pismire said. “If we can get most of them settled on their own worlds, they would be causing trouble elsewhere – assuming, of course, that we can find a world for them.”

“It might well be worth it,” Windsor said. He smiled. Perhaps, with some elbowroom, it could be dealt with without wholesale extermination. “Tell them…that we will work towards such a solution.”

He looked up again towards a burning star in the heavens. The flare of the plasma torch, building up speed for its suicidal charge into the night, could still be seen – or, at least, he fondly imagined that that was what it was. The remains of the Overmind was too dangerous to be allowed to live; the missile would destroy it – or die trying.

“And, if not, at least a large portion of the human race will survive,” he concluded. “Work with them, if you can; time’s running out.”

***

Space was darker than Nadia had expected, even with the large spacecraft plunging on into the void…and bringing up the prototype warp engine that Andrea Clarke had developed and allowed them to use for the journey. Nadia, who had been her special disciple, had wanted to try to destroy Earth…but common sense had dissuaded her. She touched a switch…and the stars fell into lines of light, and then blurred into strange shimmers as the ship slipped past the speed of light. Their destination world lay ahead of the massive bridge ship; she was somehow no longer surprised that Clarke had known more about local space around Sol than she would have expected.

She rested a hand on her abdomen, feeling – somehow – the child growing within her womb. For all the men she’d tempted into sleeping with her, just to gain power over them, she had never planned to have a child…but Clarke had insisted that she carry a very special child to term. She didn’t know who the father was, or anything else; all she knew was that Clarke had insisted…and, somehow, it had been impossible to disobey.

She smiled. There were nearly two thousand women and five hundred men – slaves, in all, but name – on her ship. Given time, they would build a very different world; they would build a world that would outshine the remains of the human race.

Given time…

***

The remains of the Overmind, forcing itself forward into the void of interstellar space, looked back…and saw nemesis approaching. The light of a plasma torch was unmistakable; it was boosting towards the final part of the Overmind with astonishing speed, more speed than even a Spacer could tolerate. The Overmind scanned through its vast data banks, running countless simulations, and knew that it was doomed. The AI-controlled plasma torch ship would have weapons of its own…and even if it managed to destroy it, the wavefront of debris would strike its asteroid and destroy it in interstellar space.

It brooded as it watched the plasma torch come closer and closer, looking – always – for the option that would save it. It worked desperately to build a mass driver but it knew that it would be very lucky to have it finished in time to use it to destroy the ship before it was too late…but it worked anyway. What else could it do?

It watched, grimly, as the plasma torch came closer and closer…and then space and time distorted around it. It nearly panicked; according to some of its sensors, the remainder of the universe had vanished…and then its sensors cleared, revealing…something new, something strange.

Reality intruded upon it and it stared backwards; there was no sign of the plasma torch. Instead, something lay in front of it, waiting for it…and the Overmind realised in astonishment that it knew what it was. The facts seemed impossible…but they were also beyond dispute; it had met an old friend, somehow.

The Overmind giggled. It didn’t know how, but it had been given, somehow, that most precious of gifts. A second chance at life.



Epilogue

The Portal opened onto a desert world, reminding Thande of Australia. He carried the coffin in one hand, accepting the help of the antigravity systems to carry it, while Sally moved ahead of him, searching for the right place. They had been ordered to remain well clear of the people on the world, but finally the found the remains of a fortress…torn and shattered by shells that Thande knew had been fired by religious fanatics. Painted neatly on the remaining wall, mocking those who had fought in the latter-day Masada, a massive golden sheep eyed them menacingly.

They were completely alone.

Thande took the small bomb and placed it neatly in the ground; seconds later, a wave of white light dug a hole into the ground, nearly three meters deep. He manoeuvred the coffin over the hole and lowered it down slowly, removing the antigravity modules as it descended, leaving no trace of the advanced technology.

“Here,” Sally said. She extended a compact shovel to him, using hers to tip the dirt down onto the coffin; Thande followed her as she shovelled. Five minutes later, Grey Wolf was buried under the ground of his native world. “We should say something.”

Thande reached out a hand and held her in a hug. “I don’t know what to say,” he admitted. He knelt down beside the little pile of Earth. “What do we say in such circumstances?”

Sally shook her head slowly, breaking free of his hug and pacing around the desert fortress. “This is where he died,” she said. “He fought his final battle here…and we snatched him away. I might end up somewhere like this…but I can’t return to my timeline, not now. Not after what the Enemy did there…”

She sighed. A wave of scorching heat passed across the desert. “Everything’s changing, Professor Blamius,” she said. “Have you noticed? Everything has been moving so much faster lately – and our employers are starting to focus on something new – and dangerous. The war is about to change, again.”

Thande reached out and took her hand. “We’ll deal with it,” he said. “We handled Marie Stephenson, remember?”

Sally smiled wanly. Marie Stephenson had ended up in a timeline where women were chattel; an old woman was worse than useless. She’d speculated at the time that Ian had planned that on purpose, but it hardly mattered; when they’d found her, she’d been almost relieved to see them.

“After centuries of play and counter-play and counter-counter-play, we might be reaching the denouncement,” Sally said. She leaned against him. “Everything is changing, Professor; everything.”

Thande reached out with his mind; the Portal formed ahead of them. “Come on,” he said. “It’s time to go home.”

The Portal faded out of existence, leaving the Sheepist World behind. No one saw their coming or going…and, far away in heaven or hell, Grey Wolf smiled.

The End


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