Chapter 9: Gains and Losses
Three years and one month AV
500 West Hotel, San Diego, California, United States of America
”…in a prepared statement, the President of the Russian Federation declared that his country would have no part in what he called “the Western monopoly” on space travel, A sentiment echoed by the People’s Republic of China in their own statement just three hours later.”
“Meanwhile the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, JAXA, announced today that the first atmospheric test-flight of their own space plane, codenamed “Inazuma” has been a success, and that the new craft will be attempting to make orbit in a flight scheduled for next week.”
“With rumours abounding that several South American nations are in talks to form their own unified space agency, not to mention the fledgling private endeavours of Virgin, Red Bull, Mitsubishi, Google and BAE Systems, It seems that the second Space Race has begun in earnest.”
“Joining me on the show tonight is British science fiction author…
♪♫WOOOP WOOOP that’s the sound of tha police! WOOOP WOOOP that’s the sound of tha beast! WOOOP WO-♫♪
“Terri Boone. Good afternoon, detective.”
She’d taken an immediate liking to the homicide detective who’d attended the scene. Gabriel Arés, a by-the-book type who was packing quite a lot of wiry strength into his short frame. The man was shorter than Terri, and Terri was only average height at best. but he’d ran a practiced eye over Terri’s apartment and immediately declined to arrest her so long as she kept the SDPD informed as to her whereabouts.
“Good afternoon, Miss Boone. I thought you’d want to know that the department is satisfied you acted in self-defense and seeing as you’ve obeyed the terms we set, we won’t be prosecuting.”
“Good, because I was getting antsy sitting around in a hotel when an organisation I’ve worked for is trying to kill me.” Terri pulled the towel off her hair and started to shrug into her jacket one-handed. She had no intention of staying in the hotel a moment longer than necessary.
“Yeah… look, Miss Boone, we simply have no evidence that this guy ever worked for anybody other than himself.”
“You checked his office?”
“The landlord of the address you gave swears that the guy who attacked you was the sole user of that office except for business guests. No other registered employees, and we can find no evidence of any business associates. If he’s a member of some conspiracy or organisation, then there’s just no evidence pointing to it. I’m sorry, but without any evidence I can’t turn department resources to investigating your claims. We’ve done everything we reasonably can.”
“That doesn’t strike you as odd that a guy who describes himself as a “business network consultant” didn’t have any easy-to-follow business associates?”
“It strikes me as a lot odd, yeah. But it’s not enough to launch an investigation over. Lo siento.”
”…Fine. You’ve got enough to worry about.” Terri knew that the way she phrased that could be construed as bitter, but she honestly wasn’t. Fortunately, Detective Ares seemed to either be good enough at judging tone of voice via phone call to get that, or jaded enough not to care.
“You’re a P.I., right?” he asked.
“Go ahead and investigate this on your own terms. If you turn up anything solid, you’ve got my number, and… Well. Stay safe and let me know how you get on.”
“De nada. Stay safe, Miss Boone. Hasta luego.”
Terri grabbed her bags and took the stairs down to the reception desk. The outcome had been pretty much exactly what she expected, so all she was left with now was the question she had been mulling over for five days.
<+Why on Earth would a list of alien abductees be worth killing over?+>
Three years and three months AV
Bulford ECTC, Salisbury Plain, England.
They did so, instantly. Every man in the unit was a volunteer, taken from all around the English-speaking world without regard for their previous unit. Every single one was special forces.
“Today marks your first session training for combat in prevalent extraterrestrial conditions. We’re going to start slow with an obstacle course, and work our way up to live-fire over the next week. By the end of this training program, you will have gained the skills and knowledge useful in moving effectively in low-gravity environments, and will have learned to identify and react appropriately to the catalogue of known potential nonhuman contacts. Completing this training will certify you for off-world missions, some of which will be of indefinite duration. If anybody wishes to back out, say so now and it will not be held against you.”
None did. They had all already gone through far worse just to get where they were, and taken far more dangerous assignments during their careers. Their instructor waited a moment or two before nodding his approval, and then gave a thumbs-up to the control room mounted high along one of the tall inside walls of the ECTC hangar.
He flexed his knees and absorbed the sudden change in gravity with practiced familiarity, resisting a smirk as the spec-ops veterans all staggered, swayed or exclaimed aloud at the difference.
“Line up! When I blow my whistle you will run that obstacle course, best time!”
Several minutes, bumped heads, scraped elbows and bruised egos later, the last of the veterans flew off the end of the last rope and trotted to a halt awkwardly, instincts undone by the lower gravity. While all had, to their credit, managed exceptional times, not a single one had completed the course with their dignity completely intact.
That was okay.
“This first run was planned to destroy any illusions you may have had about knowing what you’re doing.” the instructor said. “You have spent your life training for Earth’s gravity, which is thirty percent higher than the off-world norm. That thirty percent makes a surprising difference, as you have just learned. Every instinct you have about how to move, how long you have to react and what you can achieve is wrong. Forget them and start over. Any questions?”
There were some, which were promptly answered to everyone’s satisfaction.
“Right! Back to the start: we’re going again and if any man here fails to beat the time he just set, the whole unit is doing a hundred pushups in double gravity! Move!”
To his grudging satisfaction, no pushups were necessary. But they still had a long way to go.
Summer was coming. Over the years, Julian Etsicitty had learned to view summer on this hellscape the same way winter might be viewed back home—the good times were over for another year. Soon—too soon—he’d be out of the season of plenty, where hardy nuts and roots and hibernating animals were easily dug out from beneath the snow and frozen ground, and into the season of explosive growth.
Back to mornings and dusks spent lurking under two layers of mosquito netting. Back to checking his boots for venomous biting things that had found a nice dark place to make their nest and spawn a new generation of tiny monsters. Back to spending his days desperately slashing back at the encroaching greenery around his camp, doing nothing but keeping back a wall of vegetation that grew so quickly you could see it.
Hopefully, at long last, there would be no bombfruit bushes this time around. He thought he had killed them all: It was hard to tell, when the fruit literally exploded and sent its seeds flying everywhere. He had been very lucky indeed to survive the woody shrapnel of his first encounter with bombfruit, and the scar down his right forearm was a constant reminder not to take anything on Nightmare for granted.
Sure, calories and vitamins weren’t hard to come by in the summer months, so there was that saving grace. It was a wonderful time to prepare jerky by the fire for the rest of the year, to dry fruits to ward off scurvy until the next growing season. There was a lot of work to do in the summer, all of it physically demanding, and all of it in sweltering heat.
He was determined to enjoy the last few quiet weeks of snow and silence while he could, so had made himself a warm fruit juice when the sound rolled over the forest and hills: the unmistakable noise of a sonic boom.
he paused, tense, and then rushed to his hut and grabbed, from its special stash above the bed, the “rescue potential” kit. A flare gun, a shaving mirror, the solar-charged two-way radio.
He emerged into the clear ground around his camp not a moment too soon. A teardrop of steel and matte black was just emerging from behind the peak he’d named “Mount Fuck You” for the way it stood much taller than the three mountains that flanked it.
He raised the gun, and shot the flare high into the sky over the forests.
He almost collapsed with relief when the ship immediately changed course toward him.
“Hello, Julian. Welcome aboard.“
“Uh… hello.” He replied, nonplussed at the absence of a welcoming party on the door.
“I’m sorry for not greeting you in person, but I suspect that standing in your presence right now would prove fatal for me. You’re setting off a lot of biohazard alarms up here…“
“I’m afraid so. Decontamination won’t take long, fortunately, and the good news is you’ll feel thoroughly clean once we’re done. Would you be so good as to dispose of your clothes in the incinerator to your left?”
Julian practically rushed to comply. The thought of feeling clean for the first time in who-knew how long was incentive enough.
He paused at the idea of throwing away the predator-tooth necklace he’d made, though. or the carved wooden beads that were on it. He had worked long and hard on those, they were unique.
“If there are any items you wish to keep, there is an autoclave on the front wall.” the voice said.
Having heard that, Julian needed nothing more, and was soon standing naked in the middle of the chamber, a little surprised at how unselfconscious he was about it. “What now?”
A device—little more than a black dome mounted in some kind of white frame on the wall—glowed blue at him for a second.
“Checking… okay, you’re good to proceed into the next room.” The door slid into the floor, revealing a slightly less sterile-seeming room on the far side. The threshold had a strange golden haze to it, but Julian didn’t let that bother him.
“Wow!” he exclaimed, coming to a halt as soon as he’d passed it.
“It did.” His teeth were abnormally clean, the crawling, itching sensation in his hair and beard to which he had acclimatized was gone, the hair and beard themselves were clean and soft and his skin felt scrubbed. His body odour suddenly became conspicuous in its absence.
“You had rather a lot of parasites. They’re gone now including, you’ll be happy to know, the ones that were threatening your liver function. There are clean clothes in the nanofactory’s dispensary hopper to your right.“
They were a strange, neutral kind of cut—little more than a T-shirt, tracksuit pants and a pair of remarkably generic-looking boots—but they fit him perfectly, and they felt so very, VERY good.
“So… who are you?” He asked to the walls as he put them on.
“Most humans call me Kirk.” the voice said. “And yes, I’ve watched Star Trek, so I understand the joke.”
“I never did.” Julian confessed, noting the most humans bit. “We didn’t have a TV.”
“Yes, I’ve read your file. The Directorate wanted a wilderness survival expert who was low-profile enough to be missed: a remarkably rare thing to find in any civilization.“
“You should be proud. You’ve set a record for surviving on Nightmare that nobody else could have.“
“Can I go home now?”
“…I wish I could. I truly to. But there have been… complications.“
“I don’t like the sound of that.”
“I knew you wouldn’t. Nobody ever does. Why don’t you come up to the common room, and I’ll brief you?“
“And after that?”
“After that, I’ll be asking for your help.“
Three years and four months AV
Cape Canaveral, Florida
“Here she comes…”
Pandora’s engines were a low rushing sound like waves breaking against distant cliffs as she passed low over the facility. They went completely silent as she circled briefly and then set down on the concrete, lifting herself only on the shaped fields of her ESFALS module until her wheels kissed the hardtop. She was promptly surrounded by technicians who began the laborious checklist to ensure that she would be worthy to fly again.
Rylee Jackson took the ladder and patted the aircraft fondly before she strolled over towards the waiting entourage, stripping off her gauntlets.
“So you’re the new… oh, Danny! You made it!”
Danny Cho smiled at Rylee. The pair of them had served in the same wing over the middle east, and firm though sporadic friends, both married more to their jobs than to actual people.
“sure did.” he said. “I’ll be flying Ariadne.”
Rylee shook hands with him then shared introductions with the other four pilots: Carys Davies, formerly of the RAF, flying Niobe, Steve Hogan formerly of the Royal Australian Air Force, flying Medea, and James Carter and Adam Kosinski, both ex-USAF, flying Electra and Danae respectively. Collectively, Odyssey WIng. Another wing of five Lockheed TS-101s—the vehicle for which Pandora herself had been the prototype—was being delivered to Europe to form the foundation of Edda Wing—Baldur, Dagur, Freyja, Magni and Skadi, but they wouldn’t be ready for another few weeks yet, and there was talk of establishing a wing in the southern hemisphere called Tāwhaki Wing.
Between them, the Russian, Chinese and Japanese efforts, plus private campaigns, Rylee suspected that her sky was going to start filling up before long. It was a bittersweet thought.
“Did you hear Red Bull got their prototype up?” Danny asked, as they walked in a loose group to the hangar.
“Too busy swapping notes with an alien raccoon?” He teased.
“Hey, he’s a friend, lay off. But Red Bull? Seriously? I would have thought Virgin Galactic or SpaceX…”
“Red Bull had their eye on space ever since they sponsored Felix Baumgartner.” Davies said. Rylee decided that she liked her accent, which was soft and melodic, but still had a bit of workmanlike grit. “And things have got cheaper since then thanks to ESAFS. I think after that crash Virgin had a few years ago they’ve been playing things very carefully.”
They stepped through the slightly ajar hangar door and Rylee couldn’t suppress her smile at seeing five more Pandoras waiting inside.
Except not quite. On closer inspection, they were just a little more polished: Less prototype, more production model. Her girl was still unique.
“Did they go FTL?” She asked.
“Yep! just a little jaunt out to Ceres and back.” Danny told her.
“Think they’ll set anything up out there?” asked Kosinski.
Davies scoffed. “Somebody needs to, or we’re never going to get the property laws sorted out.”
“I guess we should just be glad that the whole “no weapons in space” thing was repealed,” Rylee mused.
The thus-far silent Carter raised an eyebrow “How d’you figure?”
“Well, you realise that the barrier’s a casus belli, right? The GRA’s been pretty clear that they consider the demilitarization of space to be short-sighted in view of some of the threats that are out there.”
“Makes sense, I guess…” Carter conceded. “Not sure I like it.”
“Get used to it, wagon.” she teased. “Because getting some weapons in place up there is going to be Odyssey Wing’s first mission.”
Three years and six months AV
Scotch Creek Extraterrestrial Research Facility.
“And the jammer is… live.”
Nobody in the room needed to be told that. Every single one felt, rather than heard, a highly pitched keening that seemed to bypass actual sound and become an immediate feature of their audible world.
“That… puts my teeth on edge.” Martin Tremblay declared.
“It’s fine, Major, just get this demonstration underway.” Tremblay ordered. Bartlett nodded and swiftly complied.
“Simple enough, we open a wormhole and….” he looked across to his colleague on the other side of the laboratory as the vacuum chamber in front of him became a visibly distorted knot of isolated spacetime distortions, bending the light that passed through it in disconcerting ways. “Anything?”
“Not a whisper.” the scientist reported.
Bartlett shut the jammer off and everybody in the room untensed just a little.
“At less than ten meters, and that was a stable connection without any harmonic damping.” He announced. “We’ve cracked it: deploy one of these on any ship with a jump drive, and it’ll be able to use that drive immune to detection by out-of-system scanners. If we stick it on a warp-capable minisat, we’ll be able to completely block the detection of any FTL or wormhole activity inside the volume of effect, while the field itself will notify us of any that happens inside its ambit.”
He shut down the wormhole generator and the abused spacetime inside the test chamber sprang back into shape.
“Good, because without that, WERBS would have been a one-shot advantage.”
That comment came from Major-General Gregory Pierce, Tremblay’s superior and the man most directly responsible for deciding which of the Scotch Creek facility’s incredible discoveries were Canadian national secrets, which were shared among NATO members, and which went global.
“As you say, sir. But now that we’ve got this, a test run shouldn’t be difficult.” Bartlett agreed.
“Not in Sol.” Tremblay said. “Jammer or not, we should be careful.”
Pierce considered this. “Cimbrean?”
“We don’t even know if that colony is still alive, and even if it is we really don’t want WERBS linked to a human organization, especially not one that officially doesn’t exist, sir.” Bartlett said. “There are plenty of uninhabited systems out there, we just need a beacon to get to one of them.”
“This isn’t one I feel comfortable sharing outside of the Treaty nations, gentlemen, and the Agent works for the GRA.”
“Well, it’s either that or WERBS goes untested.” Bartlett said. “Heaven help us if we have to rely on an untested weapon for real, eh?”
”…I’ll see what I can do. In the meantime, you’ll be pleased to know that the dragon’s teeth microsats have been successfully deployed. Edda Wing got the last canister up this morning.”
“That’s step one, then.” Tremblay said. “How did the Asians take it?”
“Russia condemned the move, obviously.” Pierce told them. “In private, though: Thankfully they weren’t stupid enough to publicly condemn us and leak what Dragon’s Teeth actually does. The Chinese are yet to officially comment, but the scuttlebutt there is that they understand the practicality of the Dragon’s Teeth system but would have preferred to play a more active role in its deployment.”
“Gracious of them.”
“Eh, leave the politics to the politicians.” Pierce said, dismissing the sarcasm. “You’re doing good work round he- damn.”
He paused as the office phone rang. Tremblay answered it, listened for a second, and then wordlessly handed it to his superior.
“Pierce.” This was followed shortly by “…what.”
Those two words set the general tone of a three minute conversation that ended with the general hanging up and looking thoroughly angry.
“The Russian Federation just declared for the Celzi Alliance.” he said.
Tremblay frowned “They can do that?”
“Apparently they’ve not only done that, but they’ve been giving practical support to the Alliance in the form of a Spetsnaz team.” PIerce said. “I should get back. We need to move fast and sound out the PRC before they make their own declaration.” he shook his head. “If I were the Ambassador, I’d be livid.”
Doctor Anees Hussein was, in fact, actually quite pleased about the situation, though he affected an air of disappointment as he stepped into the ambassadorial debate chamber aboard E-172.
The usual formalities were completed soon. The aliens were as keen to get started as he was.
It was the Kwmbwrw ambassador who spoke first: “Ammbassador Hussein, This is grave news indeed for us. It would seem that your political blocs are not behaving obediently.”
“I did warn you.” Hussein replied, calmly unfolding his reading glasses to examine a sheet of paper. “Let’s see… yes, my exact words were that “the GRA acts only as nominal representation of the nations of Earth who will undoubtedly plot their own courses by their own values if they do not see what benefit the GRA brings them”
He set the paper down. “By which, gentlebeings, and in case I was not adequately clear when I said that, I meant that ANY nation, treaty, alliance or other one of our political entities might decide the same. The GRA does not rule, it represents by consent, and could be dissolved overnight if the nations so chose.”
What he left unsaid, but knew would be snaking treacherously through the gathered Ambassadorial minds, was the implication: If Russia might do that, what’s stopping the rest of us?
That implication alone was enough for most of the Ambassadors, and he settled back to steer the slow collapse of their resolve. As ever, they assured and reassured him of just how much of the Dominion’s vast resources might be owed to Earth.
Much of which, in fairness, had already started to arrive. Solar collection forcefield technology was on the cusp of revolutionizing Earth’s energy industry in ways that all other solar power tech had only hinted at. The last piece of the quantum-computing puzzle had been a collective headslap for the experts in that field. The Corti Directorate had—reluctantly and with bad grace—been strong-armed into revealing the secret by which the human immune system could be tricked into tolerating the presence of foreign cybernetic implants without weakening.
This last concession had particularly irked the Directorate’s ambassador. He in particular was a nut had persisted in being more difficult to crack than the others, and became more so with every meeting.
Doctor Hussein was beginning to suspect that the Corti wasn’t even bothering to remain unemotional any more. In fact, he suspected, the Corti was gladly simmering in a building resentment of, and hatred for, the whole of the human race.
He watched as the little grey being examined a message that had apparently just arrived for him, and then met Hussein’s eye. Anees decided that the expression on the ambassador’s face was that of grim satisfaction, as if an obstacle or irritation had been dealt with.
They were beginning to enter some dangerous territory. It would not do to be too aggressive from here on out.
Date Point: 3 years and 6 months AV
San Diego, California, USA, Earth
brrrrrp. brrrrrp. brrr-
”-Detective Gabriel Ares.”
“Ares, it’s Terri Boone here. Remember me?”
“Sure do. Que pasa, how’s your investigation getting on?
“long and dull, I’m sure you know how they are…”
Terri shouldered the door open, wishing not for the first time that she could linger in the air-conditioned office building just a little longer. The air in the courtyard parking space out back felt hot enough to bake bread.
”…I’ve found something interesting. A law firm called Grey, Stanton and Friedman.”
“They’re not criminal or business lawyers or I’d know them.” Ares said.
“No, they’re civil rights lawyers, but their finances—don’t ask me what I had to do to track this down—are handled by the same firm that did accounting for Johnson. I just tried to look them up—and that wasn’t easy—and their address doesn’t rent to a company by that name, never has.”
Terri sighed as she fumbled for her car keys in an awkward, one-handed and one-elbowed manoeuvre familiar to any woman who ever simultaneously tried to operate both her phone and her handbag.
“Detective, They tried to kill me over a list of alien abductees still extant from Earth. Stanton Friedman is a UFOlogist who was the original investigator of the Roswell incident and “Grey” is-”
Mr. Johnson stepped around the corner. It WAS him, there could be no doubt, right down to the neatly tailored suit and the suave facial hair. He was holding an assault rifle.
“Fuck!” she yelled, and dove for the cover of her car. Johnson opened fire, winging her with a round through the calf.
“Boone! Where are you!” Ares yelled, loud enough to hear despite the phone being on the ground next to her. She shouted the address at it as she dug through her handbag for her m1911, cowering against the engine block as Johnson emptied the magazine.
<+How? How the FUCK?! I KILLED him!+>
He stopped firing, and she hauled herself up and around to shoot back, only to be confronted with an awful truth.
The assault rifle had a grenade launcher on it.
This revelation arrived only a shaved instant before the grenade itself turned her car into a fireball and a blizzard of steel shards.
Terri was thrown halfway across the lot. She tried to get up, to keep fighting, amazed to be alive, and looked down for her gun.
There was so much less of her than there should be. There was so much more of her than there should be, pieces that God had never intended to see the light of day.
It was a sad, desperate thought, and it was her last one. When Johnson walked up and calmly fired a round through her skull for certainty’s sake, Terri Boone’s corpse didn’t even twitch.