Home - Contact Joe
STORIES FOR EVERYONE by joe
romance - crime - comedy - spy/thriller - space opera - short reads - long reads
CHILDREN OF EARTH AND BEYOND

Can World War II alien abductees and their descendants save the Earth from an alien invasion?

 

CHILDREN OF EARTH AND BEYOND

 

by Joe Reister © 2017

 

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: One Small Step

Chapter 2: Homeland Security

Chapter 3: Top Guns

Chapter 4: Political Science

Chapter 5: Prey in the Dark

Chapter 6: Home Front

Chapter 7: Game Theory

Chapter 8: Taking A Stand

 

Chapter 1: One Small Step

 

Space is not the final frontier, not even close. 

Lieutenant Benjamin Juarez stood on an alien shuttle and smiled at the blue dot two hundred million kilometers away.  He had lived in Washington, DC, until his fourth birthday, but spent his formative years playing soccer and getting ignored by girls on a human colony fifteen light years from Earth.  A mostly benevolent alien confederacy set up the colony 70 years ago worried that humanity would destroy itself with the invention of nuclear weapons.  Now Juarez looked forward to working with humans again, maybe even playing soccer and getting ignored by women on Earth, and most importantly removing the environmental suit he had worn for the last three years on an alien dreadnaught.  It itched.

“Be careful, Lieutenant,” Commander Tem said into his earpiece.  “Commander Sun and Lieutenant Commander Zaitsev lack your positive attitude about the Ya’neth and other Confederate sentients.  They escaped justice for the deaths at Ericson, but they were as surely responsible for that disaster as anyone else.  I would strongly recommend that you keep a safe distance from them.  You have a bright future in the Confederacy, and I would not want it darkened because of an unfortunate posting.”

Kachung.

The shuttle’s airlock sealed loudly to a space cruiser and created a sizzling atmospheric bubble, blending together the two different environments.

“You are welcome to return to the dreadnaught Quasar any time, Lieutenant.  I would welcome your presence again on my team.”

A hissing sound came from the airlock. 

“Thank you, Commander Tem,” Juarez said, smiling and raising his hand in an awkward, but traditional Ya’neth salute.  “It’s been an honor to serve with you, sir.”

The hatch opened to a haze separating the Ya’neth shuttle from the space cruiser that was Juarez’s new posting.

“It has been my honor to serve with you, Benjamin Juarez,” Tem said as a part of his body extended to just centimeters from Juarez’s hand.

Three bubbles of light peeled off from Tem’s body and tickled Juarez’s fingers, sending a spark up his arm and through his body.  He shivered but held his hand up for ten seconds as he had several times a day every day for the last three years.  Then he bowed, took a slow step forward and headed through the mists that bridged the two ships.  He looked over his shoulder to see Tem’s extension still raised in salute and smiled.

Two women and a man waited for him at the edge of the cruiser’s airlock, and Juarez’s face tightened as he cocked his arm up in a more traditional salute to the older of the two women.  “Second Lieutenant Benjamin J. Juarez, reporting for duty, ma’am.”

“Commander Sun Qiao Hui, Lieutenant,” she said, returning his salute.  “Welcome to the Confederate space cruiser Rising Star.  It’s good to have you aboard.”

Juarez lowered his arm.  “My pleasure, ma’am,” he said, standing stiffly at attention.

“These are first Lieutenants Mae Parks and Sean Prescott,” Sun said.  “Lieutenant Parks is my pilot and Lieutenant Prescott is the tactical officer replacing you on the dreadnaught Quasar.”

Juarez exchanged salutes with the lieutenants. 

“Why don’t you take off your suit and relax a little, Lieutenant,” Sun said.  “I don’t want you to strain yourself too much on the first day.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” Juarez said, letting out his breath.  He tapped a few buttons on his wrist, causing his environmental suit to let out a loud hiss, shrink several centimeters toward his body and peel away the protective material around his hands and head.  He managed to wait long enough to take off his helmet without damaging the suit and took in a deep breath.

“First time out of your suit in three years, Lieutenant?”

“Just about, ma’am.”

“I remember the feeling,” Sun said and looked at Juarez.  “Do you call that a goatee or a van dyke, Lieutenant?”

He swallowed and tilted his head back for a second before he reached up and touched his face.  “Sorry, ma’am.  I forgot I had the goatee.”

“So, that’s what you call it, Lieutenant.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Juarez said and returned to attention.  “The um, the Ya’neth didn’t mind or notice that I had grown facial hair during my time on the Quasar, and it was difficult to shave with the environmental suit.”

Sun kept looking at him.  “Your cheeks seem clean, though.”

“Yes, ma’am.  Sorry, ma’am.  I’ll shave it first thing.”

Sun’s eyes didn’t leave his face.  “Speak to Lieutenant Commander Zaitsev, and see if he feels we can live with your desire to stand out in a crowd, Lieutenant.”

Juarez bit his lip.  “Yes, ma’am.”

Sun nodded and turned to Prescott.

“How is the Quasar, Lieutenant?” Prescott said.  “I’ve heard that the living can get a little rough.”

Juarez shrugged.  “It’s not as bad as they say, Lieutenant.  The ship’s pretty well equipped for humans, and the worst thing about my three years was getting used to wearing the suit.  The Ya’neth go out of their way to make their human crew comfortable, and the Quasar’s got a decent group of humans on board who will make you feel at home pretty quickly.  Lieutenant Rowe has already set things up for you and he’ll meet you when you arrive.”  He looked back at the Ya’neth shuttle.  “It takes a while to get used to things, sure, but I learned a lot on the Quasar and everyone watches your back.”

Prescott nodded, adjusting the controls on his environmental suit.  “That’s good to hear, Lieutenant.”

“And feel free to reach out if you have any questions.  The Quasar is staying in the system for another six months or so, and I’d be glad to help in any way I can.”

“Sounds good,” Prescott said, winking to Sun and Parks.  “And feel free to contact me if you have any problems here.”

“Don’t scare Lieutenant Juarez just yet, Sean,” Sun said.

He smiled.  “No, ma’am.”

Sun saluted him crisply.  “Don’t be a stranger, Lieutenant.”

Prescott held the salute.  “Thank you for everything, Commander.”

“And tell Chris Rowe I expect him to take good care of you,” Sun said, and touched Juarez’s arm, nudging him away from the airlock.  “Why don’t I show you the controls to the recycle unit, Lieutenant?”

Juarez noticed Prescott look into Lieutenant Parks’ eyes.  “I’m sorry, ma’am, what?” 

“You can leave your helmet and the outer suit in one of the recycle units here, Lieutenant,” Sun said a little louder.

Juarez turned away slowly from Prescott and Parks and followed Sun, putting his suit in the recycle container.

“Your quarters are set up if you want to get settled, Lieutenant,” Sun said.  “I remember that after my five year tour on a Ya’neth destroyer I could barely remember what a shower felt like.”

“Five years, Commander?”

“Times were different when humanity was first pulled into space, Lieutenant,” Sun said and turned to Juarez.  “I’d like you to report to the bridge after getting situated.  I assume you reviewed the Star’s specs and other information that we sent you.” 

“Yes, ma’am,” Juarez said.  “I can put the shower off for another day if that’s all right.  I’d like to get started as soon as possible.”

Sun breathed in deeply and shrugged.  “I guess they make the suits better than they used to, Lieutenant,” she said, gesturing to Parks, who watched Prescott walk through the airlock’s haze to the Ya’neth shuttle.  “Lieutenant Parks will bring you to the bridge in a few minutes.  I need to go thank your former commanding officer for delivering you to the Star and find out if he needs any further updates about Earth.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Juarez said and snapped off a salute as she disappeared behind the airlock’s inner doors. 

“You can breathe again, Lieutenant.”

Juarez turned around.  “Lieutenant Parks?”

“It’s nice to meet you, Lieutenant Juarez.  Hopefully we can get over the awkward conversations sooner than later, huh,” Parks said and shook his hand before he could salute her again.  “The Rising Star is a pretty small ship, with a crew of only 125.  Few have serious rank, so most of us are a little more informal than what I imagine you experienced on the Quasar.”  She let out a small smile.  “Still, you’ll be given a test next week to see if you know everyone’s name.  Make sure you pass it, okay.”

Juarez half smiled back.  “Um, I’m glad to hear that, Lieutenant.  It was friendly like that on the Quasar, at least with the humans on board.  Of course, there were only ten of us out of a 1,500 crew.”

“They were good people?”

“Most of them.  You always get one or two jerks.”

Parks looked back at the closing airlock.

“You can bet that Lieutenant Prescott will be given a warm reception by even the jerks, though, Lieutenant, and by the Ya’neth and others on board too.”

“He’d better.”

Juarez looked at Parks for a moment.  “Lieutenant Prescott will be all right.  Chris Rowe will be the first person he sees on the Quasar, and his immediate superior, Commander Tem, was so eager to meet him that he’s flying the shuttle.”

Parks studied Juarez’s face.  “So Sean will get a nice reception from the Ya’neth?”

“Yes.  They’re always happy when a new human officer comes aboard, and on an individual basis they can be very friendly.”

“That’s surprising since they didn’t invest five minutes in us at Ericson.

“No,” Juarez said with a frown.  “But I think they’re trying to do better since then.”

Parks turned back to Juarez.  “That’s what I’ve heard,” she said and gave him another small smile.  “Sorry about that.  I’m just going to miss Sean.

Juarez nodded.  “I understand.  Don’t worry, though, I was serious about him getting a warm reception.”

Parks shrugged.  “I’m sure he’ll just punch out any of the jerks you mentioned.”

“It took me a while to figure out who they were.”

“So, at least the first few days will be good for him.”

“Oh, it took me months,” Juarez said with a laugh.

Parks nodded.  “So, do you want to see your quarters?  We’ve fixed them up with some extras, and I imagine you’ll want some decent food too.”

“Thanks.  That sounds good, but I was hoping to get started as soon as possible.”

Parks sniffed the air.  “I guess the environmental suits are better than I heard,” she said and waved for him to join her.  “Come on, I’ll take you to the bridge.”

Juarez followed her down the narrow corridors, nodding to people as she did.  “It’s just like the specs you sent,” he said rounding a corner and heading up the stairs.

“Commanders Sun and Zaitsev like people to jump right in.”

“That’s good.

“It is.  They’ve been great to serve with.  Both commanders have more experience than anyone I know, and they’ve taught me to look at things from a different perspective and think laterally about everything.”

“That’s their reputations.”

“That all?” Parks said, looking at him.

Juarez stopped and looked back at her.

“I didn’t say we’d get over the awkward conversations just yet, Lieutenant.”

Juarez shrugged.  “The Ya’neth did not have a lot of nice things to say about what Commanders Sun and Zaitsev did at Ericson, Lieutenant.  But Lieutenant Rowe and some of the others on the Quasar told me that the Ya’neth had a pretty screwed up perspective.”

“I imagine.”

Juarez nodded, gesturing to move forward.  “The bridge is down that corridor, right?”

“Right,” Parks said, not moving a muscle and nodding to a sergeant who walked by.  “I wouldn’t take what the Ya’neth said about Sun or Zaitsev too seriously, Lieutenant.  Despite the official line, the Commanders weren’t responsible for what happened at Ericson.  Sun and Zaitsev didn’t even arrive there until after everything hit the fan, and then they mounted a rescue operation that made sure there were at least some survivors.”

Juarez nodded again, not saying a word.

Parks didn’t take her eyes off him.  “We’re glad you’re on board, Lieutenant.  From what I hear, Commander Sun requested your transfer, and she wouldn’t have brought you over if Lieutenant Commander Zaitsev didn’t at least think you were up to the job too.”

“That’s good to hear.  I’d hate to think they were forced to accept my transfer request.”

Parks smiled.  “I don’t think they’d do that, even knowing who your parents are.”

Juarez looked at her.

“Be yourself and you’ll be fine,” she said, looking right back at him.  “You can learn and do a lot here, a lot more than you did with the Ya’neth.”

“That’s what I’m hoping for.”

“Good, and don’t worry too much about the tests that start tomorrow.”

Juarez blinked.  “What?  What tests?”

“Come on.  They’re waiting for us,” Parks said, heading to the bridge and not looking back.

Juarez took in a breath and followed Parks onto the bridge, nearly running into the first officer standing at the hatchway, waiting for him.

“Lieutenant Juarez, nice goatee.”

Juarez stopped in his tracks, blinking for a second before saluting crisply.  “Lieutenant Commander, sir.”

Lieutenant Commander Zaitsev looked him in the eye.  “Lieutenant Juarez,” he said, returning the salute and extending his hand. 

“Commander,” Juarez said and shook Zaitsev’s hand.

“You can keep the goatee, Lieutenant, but I hope the rest of your person is ship shape.”

Juarez swallowed.  “Yes, sir.”

“Good enough.  Why don’t you take your station next to Lieutenant Parks since you’re so eager to start?”

“Yes, sir,” Juarez said and slid in next to Parks.

“Nice introduction to the bridge, Lieutenant,” Parks said.

Juarez’s cheeks turned pink and he adjusted his console’s settings and looked at the three large monitors in front of him.  “Thanks,” he finally said, his focus in front of him.

Parks smiled at him as Commander Sun entered the bridge.

“At ease,” Sun said as Juarez turned and started to stand.  She glanced at Zaitsev and rolled her eyes in Juarez’s direction.  “Glad to see you found your station, Lieutenant.”

“Thank you, ma’am.”

“Tell me about the Dwanem freighter that just crossed onto our side of the asteroid belt, Lieutenant?”

Juarez looked down at his monitors and felt his face tighten.

Parks looked over her shoulder and caught a nod from Sun.  She flipped two switches on her right and the Rising Star accelerated toward the freighter.

“What are they doing here?” Juarez said to himself, examining his monitors and instruments for several seconds.  “The Dwanem are headed for Earth, ma’am.  Their holds are empty.”

“I figured that, Lieutenant.”

Juarez frowned and searched his left monitor.  “The freighter has 24 Dwanem on board, Commander.  They have minimal weapons, limited defense and camouflage systems, two shuttles, and can reach a maximum quarter light speed,” he said.  “They can also elude any of Earth’s detection systems and at their current speed will reach Earth orbit in a little less than fifteen hours.”

Sun stared at her own monitors, watching the space freighter.  “Lieutenant Parks, see if you can get in their way.”

“Real close, Commander?”

“Like we practiced. Lieutenant.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Parks said and twisted the yoke with her left hand while her right worked five switches in quick succession.

The freighter came up quickly on Juarez’s central monitor as Parks twisted her yoke to the left and right, and then eased back on it. 

Juarez’s eyes darted to Parks’ face and then he looked again at his left monitor.  “We’re 30,000 meters from their nose, Commander, and holding steady.”

“Show them a little more love, Lieutenant Parks,” Sun said.

Parks’ mouth turned down as she pushed the yoke forward.

Juarez’s eyes went wide as the Rising Star pulled right up to the freighter’s nose.  “One thousand meters, ma’am, well beyond the safety guidelines,” he said, turning back to Commander Sun.

She stared at her own instruments, not paying any attention to Juarez.

“They’ve come to a stop, Commander,” Parks said.

“Good, Lieutenant.”

“And they’re trying to talk to us, ma’am,” Zaitsev said.

“Well, let’s see what they have to say, Commander,” Sun said.

A broad, almost human face appeared on each of their monitors.  “This is Captain Sel Triam of the Dwanem freighter Venture.  Do we have a problem here?”

Juarez stared at Triam’s mouth and noticed that the Captain’s words weren’t being translated.  He spoke flawless English.

“Is your ship under duress, Captain?” Sun said.  “You’re in a no fly zone as dictated by Confederacy policies regarding less technologically advanced sentient species.”

Triam’s eyes narrowed.  “I’m sorry, do we have a problem here?” he said again and shook his head.

“You’re on the wrong side of the tracks, Captain.”

Triam looked straight into the monitor.  “I’ve paid the usual duties to be on this side of the asteroid belt, Captain.”

“It’s Commander.”

“Fine, Commander, whatever.  I’ve been on this side of the asteroid belt more than once in the last 75 years, and I’ve never had any problems before.”

“You should have, Captain.  No ships other than authorized Confederacy military vessels are allowed on…”

“Are you new to the job, Commander?”

Sun eyed the screen.

“The Dwanem have been harvesting bio materials on Earth for the last 2,000 years, before the Confederacy even had a policy in this system, and later with Confederate approval,” Triam said and smiled.  “That’s why I speak English so well, plus Mandarin, Arabic, Span…”

“Humans may have been to their moon a few times and flown some primitive shuttles, Captain, but that doesn’t mean they’re ready to interac…”

“I’m not here to interact openly with humans, Comm…”

“You’re not on the inner side of the asteroid belt to interact with anything at all,” Sun said.  “You’re taking the Venture back to at least the Jupiter system: Captain, farther if you like.  I know that would certainly be my preference.”

Triam’s face tightened and he issued an unheard order to someone off screen.  He looked back into the screen.  “I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

“They’re reengaging their engines, Commander,” Parks said, pulling back on the yoke.

Juarez took in a deep breath as the Rising Star backed off to avoid the advancing freighter.

Sun pushed her monitor to the side.  “Lieutenant Juarez, power up the absorption units and forward guns and target the freighter’s bridge.”

“Ma’am?” Juarez said, looking back at Sun.

“Charge up the guns, Lieutenant,” Zaitsev said.

Juarez turned back to his monitors and fumbled with the weapons’ and defensive systems.

“If you go any further, Captain Triam, I assure you that I will severely damage if not destroy your ship,” Sun said, pulling her monitor back.

“This is unheard of, Commander,” Triam said.  “We are simply harvesting some simple marine bio forms for the Ya’neth Corporate Counc…”

“I don’t care if you’re going to Earth for the Confederate high council and the Ya’neth Plutarch.  You’re defying a policy that protects innocent sentients.”

Triam took in a breath and sighed.  “I’ve been coming to Earth for the last 75 years, Commander.  I don’t need a lesson on protecting lesser sentients, and I think you know that.”

Sun smiled at him.  “I know of your record, Captain, but that’s not relevant,” she said and turned to Juarez.  “Can we survive the backlash at this distance if we empty the guns, Lieutenant?”

Juarez took a moment, punching up some numbers on his monitors.  “Yes, ma’am.  We’ll overload one of the front absorption units, but we won’t suffer any other serious damage.  The freighter’s bridge and 35 percent of its front section will be vaporized.”

“Chicken is a nice game, Commander, but I’ve played it before,” Triam said and smirked at Sun.  “I’ve played it more than once on Earth.  And you know that.”

Juarez looked at Sun whose face showed nothing.  She glanced at Zaitsev, who nodded that Juarez’s calculations were correct.

“You didn’t tell me your name, Commander,” Triam said.  “I’m sure that the Ya’neth and others in the Confederacy hierarchy would be interested in knowing who the upstart is who thinks she’s the new sheriff in town.”  He smiled.  “The human commander who aims weapons at a loyal citizen of the Confederacy and an innocent and authorized trader of the Ya’neth Corporation.”

Sun laughed very softly.  “I doubt the Confederacy or the Ya’neth would know what a sheriff is, Captain.”

“I’ll explain it to them, Commander…”

“Sun, Captain.  You know who I am.”

Triam smiled into the monitor.

“Commander Sun Qiao Hui, and my first officer is Lieutenant Commander Alexander Zaitsev,” she said.  “Would you like to meet the rest of my crew to make it even more official and on the record, Captain?  They have names I’m sure you’ll know sooner than later the way this conversation is going.”

Triam looked at something or someone off screen for a moment and then looked directly into the monitor again.  “Sun Qiao Hui and Alexander Zaitsev,” he said and his smile grew bigger.  “Fallen stars of New Plymouth and scapegoats of the Ericson disaster.”  He laughed.  “Killed any innocents lately, Commander?”

Sun’s mouth tightened, but only for a second, and she didn’t say anything. 

“Or are you still sucking up to the Annak, and attempting to prove what humanity can do if given the chance?”  Triam laughed again and gave another unheard order to someone off screen.  “Those hierarchical bugs might rule the roost for now, Commander, but the Ya’neth are moving up along with the Dwanem.”

“I hope you just ordered your pilot to reverse course and head back to Jupiter, Captain,” Sun said. 

“Yes,” Triam said and shook his head.  “You know, Commander, humanity has been given a lot of rope in the last seventy years, but other than exploding the atom and going to their moon a few times, the people of Earth have little to show for it.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really.  I know.  I’d wager I’ve lived on Earth longer than you, Commander.”

Sun smiled.  “The Dwanem’s return to Earth 300 years ago, Captain?”

“You know your history, Commander.”

“As much as you do, Captain.”

“Then I wouldn’t count on the people of Earth or the humans on New Plymouth advancing much further into space,” Triam said, his grin stretching between two bulbous ears.

“And I’d count on ending your smuggling of Earth’s resources today, Captain.”

Triam shook his head.

“Humanity has been shown to catch up pretty quickly,” Sun said.  “That’s why the Annak have faith in us, why the humans of New Plymouth have been integrated into the Confederacy so quickly and why we’ve been allowed to safeguard our homeworld against smugglers like you.”  She smiled.  “Didn’t it take the first Dwanem colony thousands of years to earn that privilege?”

Triam’s face turned into a scowl.  “Well said, Commander.  I forget that you had quite an impressive life before Ericson,” he said and pulled his lips up into a grin.  “We’ll see how long it takes humanity to hang itself with all of that rope it’s been given.”

“We can talk about that another time, and on the other side of the asteroid belt, Captain,” Sun said and flicked off the channel.  “Lieutenant Juarez, are they leaving town?”

He turned all the way around.  “I’m sorry, ma’am?”

“What’s the Dwanem’s position, Lieutenant?” Sun said with a sigh.

Juarez looked back at his monitors.  “They’ve turned and are heading toward Jupiter, ma’am.”

“Lieutenant Parks, track them to the edge of the asteroid belt.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Parks said.

“Well?” Sun said, and Juarez turned around again.

Zaitsev looked up from his instruments.  “I think you’ve just shown Triam that there’s a new sheriff in town, Commander.”

Sun repressed a smile.  “I’m not sure if our reputation from Ericson paid off there or not, Commander.”

“Me either, ma’am,” Zaitsev said.

Sun rose from her chair.  “Nice job, Lieutenants,” she said and patted Juarez on the shoulder.  “I don’t usually have my new officers aim our guns at freighters in the first hour, Lieutenant.”

Juarez nodded and kept his eyes on his monitors.

“I noticed that you had a sticky hand on the weapons’ systems, though, Lieutenant.  I hope we won’t have to send you to sickbay about that.

“No, ma’am,” Juarez said, looking up at her.  “Just took a few minutes to adjust to the new ship, Commander.”

Sun sat back down.  “I heard good things about you on the Quasar, Lieutenant, and I expect better things from you on the Star, just like I’ve come to see from my entire crew.”

Juarez nodded again, not saying anything. 

“You’re here like the rest of us, Lieutenant Juarez, to officially protect Earth and its inner solar system from the less respectable members of the Confederacy.  And to ensure that Earth doesn’t hurt itself too much before it reaches out to space on its own, joins the New Plymouth colony and becomes a player with the rest of the universe.”

“I’m on the Rising Star to help, ma’am.”

“That’s exactly what I expect of you, Lieutenant.”

Juarez turned back to his monitors.  “Yes, ma’am,” he said and adjusted the instruments.


 

Chapter 2: Homeland Security

 

“You’ll be fine, Lieutenant.”

Benjamin Juarez remembered smiling when Commander Sun said those words five hours ago.  Two weeks before he had been assigned to her command on the space cruiser, the Rising Star, and he still didn’t know what to expect from her.  Sun had a reputation for taking charge and getting a lot out of her crew, and he didn’t know if he was making the grade. 

Still, he welcomed the change that his new commander brought.  For the last three years he had basically lived in an environmental suit aboard a Ya’neth dreadnaught working every day in the same section of engineering.  The Ya’neth were powerful aliens who tolerated him and human beings for political reasons, but after his first three months they were baffled that he wanted a more challenging assignment and a fresh breath of air.  In stark contrast Sun had already ordered him to train the Rising Star’s guns on a smuggler pillaging Earth’s biomaterials and he was now breathing fresh air on Earth as he tried to recover a stolen supply of Russian plutonium.  He would be still smiling except that a bearded man in dirty fatigues and a robe trained an AK-47 at his chest.

Juarez took in a deep breath, held it in his lungs as if it was his last, and looked at the pistol pointed at the head of his mission leader, Lieutenant Commander Zaitsev. 

“It’s not just a job, Lieutenant,” Zaitsev said in English.  “It’s an adventure.”

Juarez’s eyes narrowed on Zaitsev’s slight smile and then he took in everything.  The two of them stood in the back room of an abandoned building in northern Tajikistan with two angry men pointing guns at them and two more ready to.  He looked into Zaitsev’s eyes and wondered if the best his mission commander could say was that ‘it’s an adventure’.  “Excuse me?”

“It’s an American expression,” Zaitsev said.  “Their army used it as a recruiting slogan.  Now they say ‘an army of one’.  You hear me?”

Juarez stopped from scratching his head.  “I thought they switched it, sir.”

“When was the last time you were on Earth, Lieutenant?”

“Three years ago, sir.”

“Well, I think have a little more recent experience.”

“Shut up,” the terrorist with the pistol screamed in Russian, and another man raised his gun and advanced toward Zaitsev.

He frowned at the terrorists and held up a briefcase with 10 kilograms of plutonium in it.  “If you don’t want our ten million dollars then take it back,” he said in Russian and let go of the briefcase.

It banged hard on the floor and everyone but Zaitsev flinched.

The pistol at the base of Zaitsev’s skull clicked.  “You’re dead, American.”

“I’m from Siberia,” Zaitsev said.  “And if you keep this up you’re not going to see tomorrow.”

The man with the pistol smiled.  “You’re not in any position to be making threats,” he said and punched Zaitsev in the gut.

Zaitsev’s face tightened, but he didn’t move.  He looked into Juarez’s eyes.  “Now would be a good time to show me what you can do, Lieutenant.”

Juarez nodded, closed his eyes for a second and then slapped aside the AK-47 pointed at his chest.  A half second later he jammed his boot into the neck of the man threatening Zaitsev. 

BAM.

Zaitsev ducked as the pistol went off.

Juarez ignored the shot and threw himself into the man with the AK-47.  The rifle flew across the room and they tumbled to the floor, the terrorist twisting in midair and landing on top of Juarez.

“I’ve never killed an American before,” the man said, reaching for the throat.

Juarez grabbed the man’s wrists and pulled, but that didn’t help.  The man had fifteen kilos on Juarez and it was all muscle.  “I don’t want to die like this,” he said.  “I haven’t kissed a woman in three years.”

The terrorist pushed his thumbs into Juarez’s windpipe.

Juarez gasped for air and jabbed his index and middle fingers into the man’s right eye.

“Ow.”

Juarez yanked down on the man’s beard and tore the man’s thumb out of its socket.

“Oww.”

“I’m not American, either,” Juarez said, pulling a pistol from the man’s belt and slipping out from under him.  

The terrorist grimaced, holding onto his hand and trying to catch his breath. 

Juarez kicked him in the face.  “My parents lived in Washington for a while, though,” he said and turned to the rest of the room, raising the pistol high. 

Zaitsev held up his hands in surrender with three terrorists unconscious at his feet.  “I’m glad you didn’t forget all of your combat training while stationed with the Ya’neth, Lieutenant,” he said and smiled.  “That was some nice dirty fighting too.  I liked the fingers in the eye.”

Juarez wiped the sweat from his forehead.  “How did you take those three down so quickly, sir?”

“Practice, Lieutenant.  I’ve been doing this kind of thing since before you were born.  Plus, it’s easy to take on a couple of thugs when you’ve got advanced combat technology,” Zaitsev said, pocketing a small baton.  “Of course even the technology wouldn’t have stopped a bullet in the head.”

Juarez nodded.  “Is the plutonium secure, sir?”

Zaitsev pointed to the metal case sitting on the floor.  “You need to pay better attention, Lieutenant,” he said, picking up the case and walking out of the room.  “Let’s go.”

“Yes, sir,” Juarez said and followed behind Zaitsev.

“Not used to the adventure yet, Lieutenant?” Zaitsev said and glanced back.  “I’d thought you’d be excited about doing something worthwhile and getting a breath of fresh air.”

“Yes, sir,” Juarez said, hurrying to catch up.  “How did you know about the fresh breath of air?”

“It’s the thing I wanted most after spending five years of breathing recycled air with the Ya’neth, Lieutenant,” Zaitsev said and stopped in the front room, looking out the front window.  “When you breathe ammonia you don’t have an appreciation for human pleasures.”

“You did five years with the Ya’neth, sir?”

“Almost everyone in the first generation did, Lieutenant.  Seventy years ago it was the only way for us to get into space,” Zaitsev said and searched for any movement outside of the building.

“Really, sir?”

Zaitsev laughed and opened the front door a crack, looking out onto a field with four buildings in view.  He sniffed the air.  “Let’s get out of here, Lieutenant.  I have a feeling that the good guys are on their way.”

Juarez shut his mouth.  “I thought we were the good guys, sir.”

“You didn’t know, Lieutenant?”

“I mean,” Juarez said and stopped.  “Who else would be the good guys, sir?”

Zaitsev looked at him.  “Well, I would guess those terrorists thought they were the good guys, Lieutenant,” he said and stopped, closing the front door and taking a close look out of a side window.  “Who I meant, though, were the Russian and American special forces who are no doubt on their way to secure this plutonium.  I’m sure they’d like to keep it in their hands as much as we would.”

“Yes, sir.”

“They don’t know that we have safer hands than they do, Lieutenant.”

“Right, sir” Juarez said and Zaitsev smiled.

“Sir, you’ve got company coming up fast,” Lieutenant Parks said through an open communication link. 

Juarez backed up a step from the front door and looked behind him.  “They might come through the back room, sir.”

“I doubt it, Lieutenant.  There’s no door and that room only had small windows,” Zaitsev said, keeping his eyes in front of him.  “How many are there, Lieutenant Parks?” he said, adjusting a control on his sleeve.  His and Juarez’s appearance matched that of the men lying unconscious in the back room.

“Twelve, sir,” Parks said.  “The Russians and Americans made better time than we thought they would.  Seven of them are almost on top of you.”

Zaitsev looked at the display that lit up his wrist and backed away from the front door.  “Okay, they have a man to the left…”

BAM BAM.

Two bullets slammed through a wall and into Zaitsev’s chest, dropping him to the floor.

BAM BAM BAM BAM BAM BAM BAM BAM.

Juarez dove to the floor and covered his head.

“Commander, two helicopters just came over the horizon,” Park said.  “It’s worse than we thought.”

“You think?” Juarez said, staying low and trying to catch a look at Zaitsev.

Instead he saw a light brown haired woman dressed in American fatigues pointing a pistol in his face.  “Don’t move.  Don’t even bre…”

Juarez grabbed her arm and pulled her to the floor.  She flipped him over, hard, rolling on top of him and sticking the gun in his face.  “You’re lucky we want one of you alive,” she said in Russian.

Juarez smiled.  “Lieutenant Benjamin Juarez, New Zealand special operations,” he said in English.  “How you doing?”

Her eyes narrowed on him when six soldiers, two American and four Russian, burst into the room, swarming around them.  Two soldiers looked over Zaitsev and then joined the others in securing the rest of the building. 

“That’s not a New Zealand accent,” the woman said to Juarez, not taking her eyes off him.

“It’s not?”

“Is he under control, Locke?” one of the American soldiers said.

“Yeah,” Locke said, not looking back.  “He’s secured.”

“What’s your first name, Miss Locke?” Juarez said.

“Team two, you need to find out what that truck is doing outside,” one of the Russian soldiers said into his radio.

Juarez tried to look out the open front door when Parks voice came through his communication link.  “Great, now I’ve got to deal with these punks too.”

“Who is that?” Locke said, jamming her pistol into Juarez’s cheek.  She turned to the rest of the special forces team.  “Let team two know that truck is expecting them.”

“Ow.  You want to get that thing out of my face?  I don’t want to get sho…”

“Shut up.”

Juarez smiled despite the gun.  “What’s your first name?” 

“Shut up.”

Juarez looked right into her eyes.  “Sorry, I haven’t talked to many pretty women lately...”

“The New Zealand military’s keeping you busy?”

“You smell nice.”

Locke took in a deep breath and managed not to pull the trigger.  “Enjoy it while you can because you’re going back to prison.”

“I’ve never been to prison.”

“Uh huh.  That’s why you haven’t seen a woman in a while?”

“I was serving on a remote outpost.”

“Uh huh, and you’re not buying a few pounds of plutonium?”

“It’s cesium,” Juarez said.  “We took it off of those Tajiks, and New Zealand wouldn’t have to get involved if your Russian friends had cleaned up this mess in the first place.”

“Whatever, you’re not a Kiwi.  I’ve been to Wellington and you don’t look or sound the part.”

“I’ve spent a lot of time in the States.  That’s where my great grandmother was born.”

“Yeah, well you’re going back there, except this time you’re staying in a small, dark cell.”

“I doubt it.”

Locke shook her head.

“Americans aren’t the only ones who can make the world a safer place.”

“I think we have reason to get involved.”

“But no one else can help out?  You’d think that America would want as much help as it could get.”

“Shut up.”

Juarez looked into Locke’s eyes.  “Look, I’m sorry,” he said and stopped when all but one of the soldiers returned from the back room.

“Can’t you keep this guy quiet?”

Locke looked up with a frown.  “What did you find?”

“It looks like these guys could fight,” the American soldier said.  “Sergeant Moriarty is wrapping up four bad guys for extraction.  The Russians think they’re Chechens.”

“They’re Tajiks,” Juarez said.

The soldier frowned at Locke.  “You know, Special Agent Locke, you need to do your job if you’re going to come on these missions.”

Locke bit her tongue.

“I like how you handle a pistol.”

Locke glared at Juarez.  “Shut up.”

The soldiers shook their heads.”

“Check out the other one,” Locke said and pointed to Zaitsev.

Two of the four Russians gave her a look, but walked over to Zaitsev.  He was lying face on the floor, not moving.

“Why isn’t he bleeding?” one of them said.  “And where did that uniform come from?”

Zaitsev’s dirty robes and thick coat had been replaced with a uniform identical to the Russian soldiers.

“What’s going on?” the first Russian soldier said and took a step back.

Zaitsev sat up suddenly.  “I could say the same thing to you, Sergeant.  I didn’t think Russia’s elite Spetzna and America’s famed Delta Force were dumb enough to shoot an undercover Russian agent.”

All of the soldiers froze, and Locke looked up at a healthy Zaitsev.

“I shot you dead in the chest,” the second Russian soldier said.  “Twice.”

“You missed,” Zaitsev said, touching his chest and pulling a steel baton from his jacket.  “And you can thank God you did or you’d be digging ditches in Siberia tomorrow.”

The first Russian soldier raised his pistol at Zaitsev’s head. 

“You’re making a mistake, son,” Zaitsev said, not moving a muscle.

“Maybe, but the people we shoot don’t get up,” the first Russian soldier said and grabbed Zaitsev by the wrist.  “Now, get your hands…”

The first soldier collapsed to the ground. 

Zaitsev pulled back the now glowing baton and leapt at the second Russian.

The second soldier fell on his face.

Zaitsev smiled.  “Boo,” he said and flicked the baton forward, whipping out the tip two meters to take down another soldier.

“Jesus Christ,” the American soldier said.  “What is that thing?

Zaitsev rushed the remaining soldiers. 

“Shoot him,” Locked said.

The two soldiers raised their rifles as Zaitsev kicked the closest in the chest.

Locke turned back to Juarez. 

He grabbed her wrist and dug his thumb into it, holding it tight.

Locke punched him in the face.

“Ow,” Juarez said and pulled hard on her wrist, shifting all of his weight to the left.  They tumbled over, arms flailing against one another, and Locke kneed him in the ribs.

“Ow.  Cut it out,” Juarez said, ignoring the pain and twisting Locke underneath him.  He threw himself down and knocked the wind out of her. 

“Oof.”

Juarez reached for Locke’s fallen pistol and raised it in Zaitsev’s direction.

“Relax, Lieutenant,” Zaitsev said with another smile.  “I handled the commandos.”  He looked down the hall and flicked the baton at the last American soldier, taking him out.  “Not bad for a 95 year old man, huh?”

Juarez stared at Zaitsev and frowned.  “How did you…”

“This time it was surprise, Lieutenant,” Zaitsev said and picked up the briefcase of plutonium.  “That, and those years of experience.”

“The novacane?”

“What else?” 

Juarez shook his head and felt for his own baton/whip, the so-called ‘novacane’ that could knock out anything on Earth.  He had been told not to reveal the weapon to anyone except in an emergency, but Zaitsev had used the device so quickly that Juarez doubted any of the soldiers knew what hit them.

“Can we get out of here, Lieutenant, or do you want to ask her to dinner?”

Juarez blinked and Locke shifted under him. 

She looked into his eyes.  “You won’t get away with this,” she said.  “We have helicopters that will shoot you down before you’re a mile away.”

“And possibly contaminate the atmosphere?” Zaitsev said as he checked the suitcase.  “I doubt it.”

“They will shoot you down.”

“Only if they don’t have any other options.”

“Even if you get away, you won’t attract any followers with nuclear weapons or dirty bombs,” Locke said.  “That’s crossing a line too fa…”

“You’re right, and if we were terrorists we would be making a huge mistake,” Zaitsev said and looked her in the eye.  “Anyone using radioactive, biological or chemical weapons, including you or the Russians, would be opening up a can of worms that would make this planet uninhabitable.”

Locke blinked, staring at Zaitsev as Juarez got off her.

“Why do think New Zealand is so concerned about Russia’s unsecured radioactive materials?” Zaitsev said and rolled his eyes at Juarez.  “If you took a closer look at Kiwi policy then you’d know that we’ve opposed the misuse of radiation for the last 40 years.”

“What happened to your clothes?” 

Zaitsev held Locke’s stare as a small smile crept over his face.  “What do you mean?”

Her face tightened.

“Sir, we’ve got to leave; the big guns are coming,” Parks said over their communication link.  “Those helicopters are nearly here.”

Locke started to get up.

“Don’t,” Juarez said, pointing the pistol at her. 

Zaitsev grabbed Juarez and pulled him out of the building.

One hundred meters away three Russian and two American soldiers lay unconscious in front of an old, Russian army truck.  Parks stuck her arm out the truck’s window and waved, and Zaitsev and Juarez raced toward her.

“What happened, Lieutenant?” Juarez said to Parks, pointing to the fallen soldiers as he and Zaitsev neared the truck.

“Shut up and get in, junior” Parks said, looking over two out of place monitors and a control yoke.

Juarez frowned at Parks, but Zaitsev shoved him into the back.  “Let’s go, Lieutenant.  I’d prefer not to deal with those helicopters if we can help it.”

“I don’t think that’s an option, sir,” Parks said and gunned the truck forward.

They headed east, away from the small group of buildings on the edge of a forest and down a road toward a group of hills a few kilometers away.

“You know, this wasn’t what I imagined when I joined the Confederate military,” Juarez said, strapping in and turning to a series of instruments that also didn’t belong in a Russian army truck.

“Yes, Lieutenant, everyone says that, but it wouldn’t be an adventure if it was what you expected, would it?” Zaitsev said and turned to Parks.  “You’re clear about the route and when to get stealthy, Lieutenant?”

“Yes, sir,” Parks said, her eyes on the road and her left hand on the yoke.

Zaitsev turned back to Juarez.  “I don’t know what you’re complaining about, Lieutenant.  We get three meals a day, have advanced technology and we’re actually doing something good for Earth.”  He smiled.  “I would say you have the easy life.”

“Compared to fighting Nazis, sir?”

“Yes, Lieutenant,” Zaitsev said with a nod.  “During Stalingrad I was happy to have a rifle.  If I had had a bulletproof holographic suit and just a few other nifty gadgets, I could’ve won the Great Patriotic War in a week and saved millions of people from Hitler’s and Stalin’s insanity.”

Juarez didn’t say anything.

Zaitsev turned all the way around.  “Getting punched, kicked and even shot at is a cakewalk in comparison, Lieutenant.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Can we worry about those helicopters, Commander?” Parks said, pointing to the two Apache attack choppers that just zoomed over the horizon.  She turned the truck off road and cut through a field.

Zaitsev turned to a monitor in front of him.  “I’m surprised it took them this long to get here, Lieutenant,” he said and pointed to the left and the rapidly approaching hills.  “Head for that tunnel.”

“I know, sir,” Parks said and nodded to some approaching trees.  “We’ll likely knock down some branches.”

“The tug can handle it, Lieutenant,” Zaitsev said.  “Lieutenant Juarez, figure out if your girlfriend is spotting for the helicopters.”

Juarez flicked on a monitor and focused on an image of Locke using binoculars and a radio.  “She’s in contact with the pilots, sir,” he said, adjusting his earpiece.  “She’s telling them where we’re at and where we’re headed.”

BUDADADADADADADADADADADADADADADADADAD

The lead Apache opened fire with its main guns, tearing a gouge into the earth in front of them.

Parks turned the truck hard to the right, passing under a tree and knocking off two high branches.

Locke flinched on Juarez’s monitor.  The branches were at least three meters above the truck but had been torn from the tree as if they were twigs a meter off the ground.

“Sir, I think my girlfriend just noticed that things are fishy.”

“I should’ve hit her with the novacane, Lieutenant.”

“Sir, what do you want me to do?”

“Keep watching her, Lieutenant.”

“And one of the Apaches is preparing to launch missiles, sir.  They’re not taking any chances.”

“They will be if this plutonium is released into the atmosphere, Lieutenant,” Zaitsev said, his eyes on the road and the tunnel still two kilometers away.

“Commander, does the US military know that we’re carrying a briefcase of plutonium?” Juarez said.  “Because they’re talking about taking us out.”

“The pilots and your girlfriend probably think we have cesium since that’s what you told her, Lieutenant, but it doesn’t matter.  They’re going to assume we have plutonium and they’re not going to let us get away with...”

“Sir…”

The lead Apache released a missile and Juarez closed his eyes. 

BOOM.

A crater opened up ten meters in front of them and Parks smiled.  The truck passed right over the hole like the ground was straight and level.

“They’re going to notice that, sir,”

“The pilots are too busy flying, Lieutenant.”

“Maybe, sir, but she noticed,” Juarez said, watching Locke look up from her binoculars.  “The helicopter is preparing to fire more missiles, sir; both helicopters.  They’re aiming right for us.”

Zaitsev nodded, watching the first of the two helicopters zoom in low in front of the truck, trying to slow them down.

Parks raced forward even faster.

“We could disguise a pulse wave to look like a launched missile and take that chopper down, sir,” Juarez said, flicking two switches to initiate the wave.  “The crew should survi…”

“Take your hand off the trigger, Lieutenant,” Parks said.  

“Sir, these tugs have never actually been field tested against an actual missile strik…”

“Keep your eyes on that woman, Lieutenant, and tell us what they’re saying.”

The helicopter near the ground pulled up.

“Do you want their telemetry jammed, sir?”

“No, I want you to…”

“Incoming, sir,” Parks said, her hands tightening on the yoke.

Two missiles streaked from each Apache and Juarez held his breath.

BA BA BA BAM.

The missiles hit the truck within half a second of each other and a fireball mushroomed out from the truck.

The Apaches rode the force of the explosion, waiting to circle back and fire again.

Boom.

A second, smaller explosion ripped through the air, seemingly from the truck’s gas tank, and a metal heap tumbled to a halt.

Parks’ face lit up.  “Camouflage field engaged and I left the garbage behind, Commander,” she said after the truck shimmered and became seemingly transparent.  She drove straight for another hundred meters and then pulled back on the yoke.

The truck lifted off the ground, flying high and banking to the left of one of Apaches, just missing its rotors. 

Zaitsev smiled at Parks and looked back at Juarez.  “I told you four of their missiles wouldn’t damage the tug, Lieutenant.”

Juarez looked at him.  “I thought we were only sure that a tug could survive a hit from two missiles, sir?”

“It looks like it can survive more than you calculated, Lieutenant, but why don’t you see if the tug’s all right, anyway.”

Parks turned the shimmering, nearly invisible flying truck/spacecraft up and away from the helicopters and looked back at Juarez with a smile.  “Nice first mission, junior.”

Juarez nodded.  “No obvious damage to the tug, sir,” he said to Zaitsev.  “The missiles’ force and energy were reflected away from the outer hull and the secondary explosion we caused mimicked that of a real exploding truck.”  He stopped and listened into his earpiece, looking at the image of Locke.

“What is it, Lieutenant?”

“The pilots and the spotter are hoping and praying that the briefcase we stole could survive a missile strike, sir.”

“Did you release the cesium into the air, Lieutenant?”

“Yes, sir, right on the mark.  They should detect that in the next hour or so and determine that they weren’t exposed to much more radiation than you get by flying in a plane.”

“That should fool them into thinking that they successfully stopped terrorists from getting their hands on radioactive materials, Commander,” Parks said, turning the tug toward a high orbit around Earth.  “And we can make sure this plutonium is safe and sound.”

Zaitsev nodded but noticed Juarez’s tight expression.  “What’s the problem, Lieutenant?”

Juarez looked up from his monitor.  “I think that woman, her name’s Sara Locke, sir, that somehow she saw us take off after the missile strike.”

“That’s impossible, Lieutenant,” Parks said.

Zaitsev looked at Locke’s image on one of his own monitors.  Her lips jutted out as she searched the sky around the tug.

“Our camouflage technology should be reflecting blue skies and clouds off of the tug’s hull, Commander,” Parks said.

“That can produce a shimmering effect, Lieutenant,” Zaitsev said.  “It’s not perfect.  Sometimes it’s seen through.”

“And it looks she saw through it, sir,” Juarez said, switching his communications link to the tug’s speakers.

“…are you sure you guys didn’t see something take off out of that explosion?” Locke said to the Apache pilots.  “I could’ve sworn that I saw a hazy object six or seven times the size of a Russian truck rise out of that fireball and fly away.”

Locke got static for a few seconds.  “No, Captain, we didn’t anything,” one of the pilots said.  “We had turned away from the truck when the missiles hit it, but from up here it doesn’t look like there’s anything left but a burning truck.   Maybe when we get a closer look…”

Zaitsev turned off the link.

“That could be a problem, sir,” Juarez said.  “We’re not supposed to show off our technology to anyone on Earth or leave any evidence behind that we exist.”

“And we didn’t, Lieutenant.  People see hundreds of unidentified flying objects every day and very few of them are real,” Zaitsev said.  “We did fine.  Everything is under control.  In about an hour they’ll have detected the cesium, assume that’s what the Tajiks were trying to sell us, and go home happy.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Lieutenant Parks was right, Lieutenant,” Zaitsev said.  “Your first mission on Earth was a success.  Congratulations.”

Juarez smiled and Commander Sun nodded in agreement from 1,000 kilometers above Earth as she listened to their conversation from the space cruiser Rising Star.  She looked up at Commanders Nelson Mbeki and Sylwia Ostrowski who sat across from her at a small conference table.  Behind the two commanders all of Asia could be seen through an observation monitor.  “It looks like the mission to secure the plutonium from an old Soviet base was a success, Commanders.”

“I never thought Lieutenant Commander Zaitsev lost his edge, Captain,” Commander Mbeki said. 

Sun nodded.  “That’s why I made him my first officer, Nelson, and remember that that I’m a commander just like you.”

“Sorry, Commander, it’s just that…”

“Don’t worry about it,” Sun said and smiled.  “From what I hear you’re next in line for a promotion, and you deserve it with all the work you’re doing here.”

“If the Confederacy discovers what we’ve doing on Europa I doubt there will be a human captain in this generation.”

 “Well, no matter what the Confederacy says, I’m impressed with the work you’ve done there.”

“Thank you, but Sylwia deserves most of the credit.  She’s headed up most of the construction efforts.”

“You’re too kind, Nelson,” Commander Ostrowski said.  “But it’s easy to put things together when nobody in the galaxy cares about what you’re doing.  We could destroy Mars tomorrow and I doubt anyone in the Confederacy would notice.”

“Do you think interfering with Earth’s internal matters will get their attention, Sylwia?”

Ostrowski shook her head.  “No, Commander.  I don’t think the Ya’neth or Dwanem will care about what we’re doing on Earth.  In fact they both might encourage your contacts since they want to start commercial relations with Earth and then take advantage of the planet’s biological resources.”  She looked at the display of Asia.  “I think that the Confederacy’s human diplomatic and espionage corps stationed on Earth won’t be too happy, though.”

“I’m thinking of having a conversation with them soon.”

Mbeki and Ostrowski nodded.

“How is your new recruit adjusting to the Rising Star,” Mbeki said.  “Richard and Christine’s son?

“Lieutenant Juarez?” Sun said, and turned to the monitor showing the tug’s progress.  “So far I think he’s done well.  He’s still nervous, but he enjoys being stationed with humans again and his eyes lit up when I asked him to go on this mission to Earth.  We can ask him if you like.”

Mbeki nodded.  “Okay.”

Sun hit a switch on the monitor.  “Lieutenant Juarez, I don’t want to put you on the spot, but how was your first mission to Earth?”

Juarez’s image popped up on the monitor and he blinked, getting his bearings.  “It was fine, ma’am,” he said.  “Things got a little hairy there for a second, but everything worked out.  Lieutenant Commander Zaitsev really knows how to get things done.  We have the plutonium and we should be back to the Rising Star in a few minutes.”

“Good,” Sun said and looked at Mbeki to see if he wanted to say anything.

He shook his head ‘no’.

Sun turned back to Juarez and smiled.  “I told you everything would be all right, didn’t I, Lieutenant?”

Juarez smiled back and let out his breath.  “Yes, you did, ma’am.  You did.”

“Good, Lieutenant,” Sun said and cut the link, looking at Ostrowski and Mbeki.

“Very good,” Ostrowski said and Mbeki nodded in agreement.

“We’re moving forward,” Sun said.  “One step at a time.”

“Yes, Commander,” both Ostrowski and Mbeki said.  “One step at a time.”

Chapter 3: Top Guns

 

A nearly invisible spacecraft coasted through space 157 kilometers above the Earth heading toward the South Pole.  Lieutenant Parks eased the yoke down, taking the tug out of orbit and toward a tiny black dot in the middle of Antarctica’s midday sun.  “That it?”

“Yes,” Lieutenant Juarez said, looking at his monitors.  “The carbon dioxide scrubber broke down and nobody can figure out why from the Star.  It’s been malfunctioning for the last week, still sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere, but not burying it underground any more.  My team ran a remote analysis on it yesterday, but we can’t determine what’s wrong.  It’s like someone climbed inside and took a hammer to it.”

“And they couldn’t rule out the hammer theory based on internal visual records?”

“No, unfortunately, not.  The station’s communications systems and internal scanners are down.”

“So someone could have used a hammer and gone to town?”

“It’s possible.”

“But unlikely.”

“Very unlikely, Lieutenant.”

“Nicely said, junior, very by the book.”

“Still need to prove myself, huh?”

Parks looked at Juarez and smiled.  “You did pass the name all 125 crew members test, but yes, three weeks isn’t enough time to get out of probation; particularly since you messed up three names.”

“I don’t get credit for getting beat up last week?”

“Why?  That was by a girl who isn’t even part of the Rising Star’s crew.”

“She was a highly trained American secret agent who shoved a gun in my face and nearly squeezed the trigger.”

Parks shrugged.  “Still a girl.”

“You’re a girl.”

“Yes, so I’ve noticed for the last thirty years.  My husband’s happy about it too.”

“You’re married?”

Parks’ face scrunched up and she turned to look at Juarez in the co-pilot chair.  “Yes.  That’s what people do as they mature and grow older.  They get married, have kids, raise a family.  It’s how you got here thanks to your parents.”

“Whoo.  Good to know.”

“Why do you think I escorted Sean to the transfer shuttle and had a long, dramatic goodbye?”

“I thought you were just friends or dating or having a fli…”

“No.”

Juarez looked at her.  “Okay,” he said, holding his hands up.  “Sorry.”

Parks shook her head as she turned back to the controls.  “Some of us want to do more than hook up with whoever’s nearby and has breas...”

“I want more than that, Lieutenant,” Juarez said.  “That’s why I’m so happy to be on the Star where I can meet new wo…”

“Right.  Word is you met Ensign Hussein three times last week.  Although I don’t think Marian is looking for something long term.”

“What are talking about?  How do you know…”

“It’s a small ship, junior, and word gets around super-fast.”

“Why is that anyone’s business but Marian’s and mine?”

“Because adults cling to their adolescence.”

“Great.”

“Is it working out?”

“What?”

Parks gave him a smirk.  “Palson in Engineering has a thing for her and asked me to ask you.”

Juarez frowned.  “You do know we’re hanging out.”

“Hanging out,” Parks said and laughed.  “Okay, sorry.  I didn’t think Marian mattered much because you have a thing for that girl secret agent we met last week in Tajikistan.  You know the one who kicked your butt.”

“Sara Locke?”

“You know her name?”

“She told me her name,” Juarez said with a shrug.  “And she didn’t kick my butt.”

“Just beat you up?”

“No.”

“That’s not what Commander Zaitsev said.”

Juarez took in a breath.  “Yes, well he is our superior officer, so I guess what he says goes.”

“Yes, that’s how it works.  And I figured since you learned 122 of 125 crew’s first and last names you wouldn’t have time for one more.”

“I know the other three now, and those last three weren’t as pretty as Locke and didn’t knock me to the ground.” Juarez said, turning to Parks.  “You know, I didn’t get to spend a lot of time with pretty women on my last tour.  There were only ten of us the Quasar and everybody but me and a lonely Sergeant were coupled up.”

“Gay?”

“Yes.  Plus, when would I ever see Locke again?”

“You never know.  She’s an American secret agent.  Maybe she’ll get tasked with tracking down UFOs.”

“That’ll happen.”

“It doesn’t matter because you’re in love with Marian Hussein.”

Juarez looked at Parks and shook his head.  “Didn’t you just say I was in love with Locke?  Plus, I don’t know about Marian.  Maybe there’s something there.”

“Yes, maybe.  Maybe not.  Word is that Marian hasn’t been too impressed.”

“What?”

Parks smirked again.  “Well, you know…”

“No I don’t.  Tell me,” Juarez said when his monitors squawked. 

“Lieutenants, can I please have a situation report?” Commander Sun said, her image appearing on their monitors.

Juarez clicked on his monitors.  “We’re ready, Commander.  One minute to touch down.”

“Good, Lieutenant.”

“Everything all right up there, ma’am?” Parks said.

Sun tilted her head on the monitor.  “Bored, Lieutenant?”

Parks bit her lip.  “No, Commander.  I was just…”

“We’re fine without you, Lieutenant Parks,” Sun said and smiled.  “The smuggler’s camouflaged, but doesn’t know we know he’s there.  We’re waiting for him to come to us, using him to work out the kinks in the new warning system, which seem to be many.”

“Yes, ma’am.  Again, my apolog…”

Sun nodded.  “We’ll see you in a couple of hours, Lieutenants.  Make sure you figure out what’s wrong with that station.  I don’t want to send down another tug any time soon.  We’ve got other things that need to get done.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Commander Sun flickered from the monitor.

“She’s not too happy about the scrubber unit?” Juarez said.

“We’ve got a ridiculous schedule and the scrubber’s not even close to a maintenance check.  It should run smoothly for another five years according to its specs.  But we’ve got to go fix it since it’s leaving a giant black spot in the middle of Antarctica.”

“You think anybody on Earth’s noticed yet?”

“I don’t think many are looking, but you have to figure that NASA or the European Space Agency or maybe the Chinese would notice something.  That’s a pretty strange spot.  But we’re here to fix it, so let’s get it done.” 

Juarez looked out the canopy at the scrubber unit, but nothing seemed unusual except the giant black spot.  Suddenly, the monitor to his right displaying Earth and the space out to the moon went white with a giant energy burst where Commander Sun and the Rising Star orbited a thousand kilometers above the planet.  His eyes opened wide as his hands went to the controls and refined the instruments to focus on the Rising Star and its nearby space.  The smuggler’s freighter then decamouflaged and turned toward the Rising Star.  He turned to Parks who looked right back at him, and clicked on communications to contact the Star.

“Commander, this is Lieutenant Juarez.  Is everything all right up there, ma’am?”

They heard and saw nothing but static.  The freighter decelerated rapidly as it approached the Rising Star, covering hundreds of kilometers in seconds but appearing to move in slow motion on the screen.

Parks pulled up on the controls of the tug, halting its descent one hundred meters above the Earth, hovering above the scrubber unit.  “What’s going on, Lieutenant Juarez?” she said, looking at her own monitors.

Juarez pulled his main monitor closer and touched the screen to reexamine the burst of energy that just exploded from the Rising Star.  He started to analyze specific information from the energy burst as the freighter slowly approached the Star’s port airlock.  “Is the freighter docking with the Star?”

“No,” Parks said her eyes growing large as the freighter pushed very slowly into the lifeless Rising Star’s port side, then accelerated quickly to 4,000 kilometers an hour as it pushed the Star downward for several seconds before pulling away.

“It knocked the Star out of orbit,” Juarez said, watching it fall in a straight line toward the Earth 1,000 kilometers below.

“Tell me what just happened,” Parks said and pulled the control yoke hard to the right and up, pointing the tug straight toward the Rising Star. 

Juarez looked at his instruments, watching the Star fall as the freighter headed directly to the Indian Ocean.  He touched his controls, examining the energy released by the explosion.  “I’m not sure.  I need more time to…”

“Give me a good guestimate right now, Lieutenant.” 

Juarez looked at Parks and then back at his monitors, rewinding the automatic scans of the Star’s position from the last three minutes. 

“Lieutenant?” Parks said, her hands playing over her own instruments.

Juarez swallowed.  “I think that a small, camouflaged, asteroid or meteor hit the Star and scraped a hole through the outer hull.”

“That wouldn’t do very much damage.”

“No, absolutely not.  The only thing that could suck out the Star’s energy would be…”

“An electromagnetic pulse.”

“Right, a pulse exploding anywhere between the primary, secondary or tertiary hulls would bleed the ship’s reactors and batteries dry, sucking all the energy out in seconds,” Juarez said and turned to Parks.  “But they’re illegal.”

“No kidding.  So is smuggling.  So is pushing a military cruiser into a destructive free fall.”

“If we’d had that detection grid in place the Star would’ve caught the…”

“That’s why the smugglers hit us now.  Before we get a real lock on spotting and stopping all illegals from getting to Earth.”

Juarez looked at Parks.  “What do we do?” 

Parks flicked three last switches and flung open the gravity engine.  The tug hit Mach 5 and kept accelerating.

“Someone is probably going to see that.”

Parks focused on her own monitors, plotting a course for the falling Rising Star.

“NASA might not have noticed that giant black stain in the Antarctic, but they’re definitely going to notice a 500 kiloton spaceship light up the sky.”

“And that won’t make any difference if a 96,000 kiloton alien military cruiser crashes in the Pacific Ocean for the whole world to see,” Parks said, adjusting the yoke to stay on course to the falling Rising Star.  “We’re going to rescue them,” she said, looking at Juarez.  “And stop the smugglers too.”

Juarez looked at Parks.    “That sounds like a great idea, Lieutenant, but how are we going to grab a 96,000 kiloton military cruiser in mid-air and stop its plunge through the atmosphere and into the ocean.  It’s already lighting up the sky, and we only have about ten minutes until the friction eats through all three hulls and turns the entire ship into a leaking radioactive husk: a husk that’s going to hit the Earth about a minute after that and leave a giant hole in the ground.”

Parks turned back to her instruments. 

“The impact is going to create a giant tsunami that will hit every continent except Europe with a five-to-ten meter high wave,” Juarez said. 

“That’s not helping,” Parks said, examining a multitude of information on her monitors and adjusting the control yoke again to take them past the Rising Star’s path. 

“What will?’

“Calculate the Star’s trajectory and spin ratio, determine the increase in the hull’s temperature, particularly around the tug ports, and determine how much the changing gravity relative to the Earth and the increasing atmospheric density is going to affect the tug when I link it up to the Star.”

“You’re going to land in the tug port?” Juarez said, beginning to pull up all of the requested information.

“You got a better idea?”

Juarez’s head tilted to right, his hands feeding the needed information to Parks’ monitors.  He narrowed his monitor’s focus on the Rising Star, seeing it shaking at an increasing speed.  “Um.”

“Yes?” 

The tug zoomed past the Rising Star’s trajectory and curved around the Earth nearly 1,200 kilometers over the Pacific, hovering for a few seconds before slingshotting back straight toward the Star.

Parks twisted the yoke and adjusted the tug’s speed to zoom in on a path toward the Rising Star with the Earth on their port side, parallel to them.  “We’ll hit them from the side.  That way if we miss the Star we won’t run into the Earth.”  

The Rising Star twisted and spun randomly below them, increasing in speed as it closed in on the Earth.

“We have to watch out for the increasing gravitational pull from the Earth,” Juarez said.

“No kidding.  But all we need to do is hook up to the tug port.  Something we do every time we land.”

“You know that’s like shooting a spot on a larger bullet with a smaller bullet while the larger bullet is spinning and tumbling in a random pattern that changes every other second.”

“You’re full of good news, but I don’t hear any better ideas.”

Juarez’s eyes narrowed.  “The crew could reactivate one of the energy absorbing units, use the heat from the free fall and jumpstart one or more of the fusion reactors or the gravity drive to push themselves back into orbit.”

“And what power source would they use for the initial jumpstart?

“Their own bodies.  Their personal nanotech is shielded by the EMP with flesh and blood.  They could jumpstart the absorption units with…”

“That’s a leap, even assuming that anyone is conscious to come up with the idea, able to move despite the increased gravity on the falling ship and then access the right controls?”

“Um,” Juarez said.

“Not likely right?”

“No.”

Parks studied Juarez’s data, allowing the tug to compensate for gravity and the changing heat and hull integrity of the Rising Star. 

“So your plan sounds pretty good,” Juarez said, looking at the same information as Parks. 

“Particularly since we don’t have any other options or anywhere to go if the Star is destroyed.”

Juarez nodded, frowning at the monitors of information.  “We could hook up with one of the other Confederate cruisers an…”

“Keep your eyes on that data, Lieutenant,” Parks said, twisting the yoke and adjusting the controls.  “We need to get this right to the centimeter or things are going to get very messy.”

Juarez focused on his monitors as the tug approached the twisting and now burning Rising Star.  “Yes, ma’am.”

Parks stared at the twisting cruiser as the tug slowed to 15,000 kilometers an hour.  “The plan is to zoom up near the Star, and then slow down to a matching speed at about 500 meters,”

“About?”

“And then land ourselves into the tug port so they barely know we’re there.”

Juarez swallowed.  “Got it,” he said, looking at a close up view of the ship.  “The damage doesn’t look as bad as I thought it’d be.”

“How can you tell?”

“It’s still intact.” 

“Great,” Parks said and yanked on the controls to reverse the tug’s momentum as the tug came within five kilometers of the cruiser.

Juarez let out his breath.  “Okay.  You’re doing it.”

“Shut up,” Parks said, not taking her eyes off the monitors or her hands off the controls.  She eased the tug forward covering the remaining kilometers in ten seconds with only 500 meters remaining.

SWOOSH.

The tug lurched forward without warning, flashing past the Rising Star with meters to spare. 

“Son of a b...”

“AAAAAHHHHH,” Parks said, her hands off the controls as the tug’s artificial gravity failed.  She and Juarez flung back with eight g’s pushing them into their seats and the tug flying up and out of the Earth’s atmosphere to a low orbit. 

“What, uggghh, is happening?”

“The safeties kicked in.  Uggghhh.  The tug’s artificial intelligence took over,” Parks said, her face a giant wrinkle as she grabbed back the yoke, turning it hard to the right and jamming on the gravity drive.  The tug shot forward, lighting up a trail across the night sky as it fled the Earth’s gravitational field away from the Rising Star.  Out of danger the artificial intelligence restarted the artificial gravity.

Parks and Juarez took in a deep breath as they pulled away from their seats.

“The safeties?” Juarez said, shaking his head to focus on his monitors.  “The AI overrode your rescue attempt because it was too dangerous?”

“You just lived through it, Lieutenant, so don’t ask,” Parks said, her focus returning to her monitors and controls.

“You knew this would happen?”

“I’m not surprised.”

Juarez turned to her.  “Are you crazy?  We almost died.”

“But we didn’t,” Park said, looking at him with a shrug before turning back to her monitors.  “And we won’t.  We have less than four minutes left before the Star is destroyed and creates all kinds of problems.  So, calm yourself down and get me new specs on the gravity and atmospheric fluctuations, Lieutenant.  We’re going to have to deal with Earth’s weather now too.” 

Juarez stared at her as Parks looped the tug in another short arc, hovered for a second and then aimed it straight for the Rising Star and the Earth below it.  She pushed the drive forward and the tug roared even faster toward the Rising Star.

“We’ve got three minutes to make this work so double check that I pulled the safeties.  In fact, shut off the tug’s AI just before we get to the Star so there’s no chance of me being overridden again.”

Juarez looked at her for a moment, and then turned to his monitors, preparing to shut off the tug’s artificial intelligence.  “Lieutenant, I don’t mean to show you any disrespect, but…”

“But what?” Parks said, cutting him off without taking her attention away from the monitors and instruments.

Juarez took in a breath.  “If the AI shut us down and doesn’t believe we can’t hook up with the Star, then what chance do we have of getting this to work?”

Parks nodded.  “All we have to do is compensate for the changing effects of gravity and the increasing effects of Earth’s atmosphere to reconnect to the Star’s airlock and then use the tug’s power to get everybody back into orbit.”

“Yes, I know.  We just tried to do that and the ship overrode us.”

“It’ll be harder this time because of the turbulence and the slowing of the Rising Star due to friction.”

“And because we’re diving straight toward the planet this time.”

“So I guess we can’t miss,” Parks said, focusing on the Rising Star’s trajectory, altitude and spin.  “Unfortunately, that can’t be helped.  Plus, you still need to find the smugglers’ channel while you help me guide the tug in.”

Juarez rolled his eyes.  “Of course.”

“I did worse when I was the lead kamikaze pilot for New Plymouth, you know.”

“I didn’t know you were married until ten minutes ago, Lieutenant.”

“You should try harder to get to know the people you work with.”

“You need to keep watch on that storm front, Lieute...”

“I see it.  The gravity drive will more than compensate.”

“We’re 100 seconds away from contact.”

“Yes.  Anyway kamikaze pilots have to line up their drones to hit with pinpoint accuracy on hostile targets moving at thousands of kilometers or more a second,” Parks said, squinting at her monitors.  “You miss the right seam or angle of an enemy ship and you’ve just wasted your only shot of success and survival.”  Her hands relaxed on the yoke as she took in a breath.  “This should be easy in comparison.”

“I guess we’ll know in 90 seconds.”

“Did you find that channel?”

Juarez didn’t look away from his control panel.  “I’ve got it.  Sounds like they’re harvesting some aquaculture.  You’re on, Lieutenant.”

Parks’ mouth tightened.  “This is Lieutenant Mae Parks of the Rising Star.  You are in violation of Confederate law for attacking a military cruiser with an outlawed electromagnetic pulse weapon and entering a quarantined sentient system without authority,” she said and then waited five seconds for a response that didn’t come.  “You will leave Earth immediately without any cargo and report to the Jupiter station to wait for arrest by Confederate authorities.”

A slight laugh came over the open line.  “No.  I don’t think so.”

Parks heard the words, but turned off the channel, keeping her focus on her instruments and the now white hot Rising Star. 

“That voice sounded familiar.”

Parks nodded, watching a tiny red stream of smoke that started coming out of the Star.  “Shut off the AI,” she said, loosening her hold on the ship’s controls while still maintaining a firm grip.  “All of it.”

Juarez nodded at Parks’ now monotone voice.  “Yes, Lieutenant,” he said, repeating his commands to the ship as it automatically warned of their dangerous and likely suicidal actions.

“Get ready to brake.  We shouldn’t have the increased G’s this time since the safeties are off line and we can maintain the artificial gravity.”

“We might crash into the Star, though,” Juarez said, looking at the spaceship.

“Or make a hole in the Earth if we miss,” Parks said, grinning a little.  She opened the communications line again.  “Smugglers, this is your last warning.  I will find you and make your lives worse than whatever Confederate law will do if you don’t get off the Earth and surrender to authorities right now.”  She flicked off the switch.  “Let’s brake without breaking.”

Juarez found a grin too.  “Yes, ma’am.”

Parks eased off the drive and altered their motion with a flick of another switch.  The tug’s engine strained suddenly and lurched with a groan as the ship’s speed dropped from 15,000 kilometers an hour to fifteen.  Their monitors flashed multiple warnings about deteriorating external structural integrity and high internal engine temperatures, but neither she nor Juarez felt any physical effects on the inside of the tug due to the artificial gravity. 

The Rising Star kept spinning randomly and glowed even hotter as smoke started blowing out of the ship. 

Parks could see the bare outlines of a town or city on an approaching Pacific island behind the Star.

“They’re going to burn up and explode in about 30 seconds, Lieutenant,” Juarez said, his eyes flying over his monitors.  “The friction’s killing them, and I’m not sure if I can figure out the differences in our approaches and positions to make a clear path happen.”

Parks focused on the Rising Star’s melting tug port and pushed the yoke forward.  “That’s all right, junior.  I’ve got it.”

The tug nudged forward, covering the remaining 1,000 meters to the Rising Star much more quickly than was safe as Parks tried to match the tug’s speed and spin to the Star’s. 

Juarez turned to her with twenty seconds left as the four corners of the Star turned bright yellow without warning.  “What’s that?” he said, looking back at his instruments.

Parks eyes narrowed into tight slits as she jammed the tug into the Star’s tug port.

CRRRRUUUUNNNNCCCCHHHH.

The tug smashed into the Rising Star’s port.  It didn’t fit well, but the tug connected enough to join the Star’s chaotic descent and spin toward the Earth.  They were now 90 kilometers above the Earth and hadn’t stopped spinning and falling.  They didn’t feel the movement, but the temperature inside the tug started rising.

Parks tapped the gravity drive as she focused on the joint spin of the Rising Star and the tug.

“Wait,” Juarez said into the silence.  His eyes didn’t leave his monitors as he studied the spin and the level of atmospheric turbulence.  “Now.”

Parks pushed the drive forward slowly.

Two more seconds passed as the temperatures skyrocketed inside the tug.

“We’re moving out of the spin and we’re still alive,” Juarez said, noting that the tug had pushed the Star up and eased her spin a little.  “Again.”

Parks opened up the drive and the tug and Star slung away from the Earth despite a continuous crunch coming from between the ships.  She pulled the yoke up and to the right heading away from the Earth, watching her monitors to ensure a stable flight path that led to a low but safe orbit. 

The temperatures began dropping as they continued to rise away from the Earth.

Juarez let out of laugh.  “You did it.”

Parks laughed too.  “Yes, we did.”

A loud burst of static erupted from Juarez’s monitors that turned into a BZZZ.  He flicked a switch and saw Commander Sun’s face with Lieutenant Commander Zaitsev behind her.  Both had bruised faces and were covered in sweat.

“Nice job, Lieutenants,” Sun said.  

“Thank you, ma’am,” Park said.  “Are you all right?”

“We’ve been better, Lieutenants.  We just got the ship restarted and were able to get communications back,” Sun said.  “Where is that smuggler?”

Parks looked at Juarez who looked at his monitors.  “They’ve stopped their descent, and I think they’re pulling up stakes, Commander.”

Sun nodded as Zaitsev said something to her that they couldn’t hear.  “Good.  Make sure you record everything you can on them, Lieutenant Juarez.  We’re going to have a conversation with them once we get things back to normal.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Juarez said as he turned back on the artificial intelligence and adjusted his instruments to take a full scan of the freighter.

“And Lieutenant Parks.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Keep asking questions,” Sun said with a nod.  “I’ve never been happier that I chose you as first pilot.”

Parks let out a smile for one second.  “Thank you, Commander.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant.”

Juarez smiled too as Sun disappeared from the monitors.  “Does this mean I can stop jumping through hoops, Lieutenant?”

Parks laughed.  “No,” she said, getting out the pilot’s chair.  “Now let’s get out there and help the rest of the crew.  We’ve still got a lot of work to do.”

Juarez shook his head as he unstrapped himself from the co-pilot’s chair.  “Yes, ma’am.”


 

Chapter 4: Political Science

 

A broad smile took over Ambassador Warren Hull’s face when he saw Commander Sun with Lieutenants Parks and Juarez.  Sun stepped into the nearly empty restaurant with a smile as Parks and Juarez followed with wide eyes at the luxury of the rooftop terrace and view of the White House. 

“What did I say?” Parks said.  “We’re going to eat well tonight.”

“What are you talking about?”  Juarez said quietly.  “I told you that.  My parents used to take me to places like this when I was growing up.”  He pointed to one of the tables.  “They have fancy napkins and multiple forks.”

“Rough childhood, huh?”

“That’s right.”

“I hope we’re making up for it now.”

“Not tonight,” Juarez said, adjusting his tie and smiling as they followed Sun to Hull’s table.

His smile hadn’t faded as he stood up to meet them.  “Sun Qiao Hui, it’s been too long,” he said, giving her a hug and nearly smothering her in his giant arms.  “You look as beautiful as the day you rescued me all those years ago.

Sun rolled her eyes, but hugged him back.  “I’m not sure that’s as charming as you think it is, Warren.”

Hull let her go with a look of mock horror.  “Do I look that much older?”

“It’s still nice to see you, Warren,” Sun said, shaking her head but smiling.  “Washington is treating you well?”

“The fancy napkins and multiple forks don’t hurt,” Hull said, turning to Parks and Juarez.

Sun glanced back to see them straighten to attention.  “Yes,” she said.  “Let me introduce first Lieutenant Mae Parks, my senior pilot and second Lieutenant Benjamin Juarez, my tactical officer.”  She shook her head, but smiled.  “They’re apparently newer to the fine art of diplomacy than I thought.” 

Hull laughed.  “No need for introductions, Qiao Hui,” he said, shaking Parks and Juarez’s hands in quick succession.  “I’m glad Commander Sun was able to find some free time in your busy schedules.”

“It’s a pleasure, Ambassador,” Parks said.

“Yes, sir,” Juarez said.

Hull laughed again.  “The pleasure’s mine, Lieutenants.  It’s not every day I meet the heroes who prevented the Rising Star from crashing into the Earth and saved millions of lives.”

Both lieutenants nodded, but shifted on their feet with awkward smiles. 

“Thank you, Ambassador.  We were just doing our job,” Parks said.

“I think you were doing more than your job, Lieutenant.  I don’t know another pilot who would shut down the artificial intelligence and then be able to land a tug into a burning port less than 100 kilometers above Earth.”

“I was just following procedures, sir.”

“Really?  I didn’t know there was a procedure for that.”

Parks smiled tightly.  “I couldn’t have done it without Lieutenant Juarez’s help, sir.”

Hull turned to Juarez and smiled again.  “The report highlights your skills too, Lieutenant.  You did a tremendous job.”

“Thank you, sir.  I was just doing what I could to help Lieutenant Parks.”

“You have a modest crew, Qiao Hui.”

“Thank you, Warren.”

Hull turned back to Juarez, examining his face for a few seconds.  “I doubt you remember, Lieutenant, but we’ve met before.  Your parents had me and my family to dinner 25 years ago at their Georgetown brownstone.”

Juarez nodded, not saying anything for a moment.  “I’m sorry, sir, I don’t remember that.  We left Earth when I was about four.” 

“You were three years old so I’m not surprised, Lieutenant.  You had on a dog costume, and licked my hand a few times.”

Parks laughed and Sun let out a smile. 

Juarez blushed.  “I imagine it was during Halloween, sir.”

“You’d think so, but no,” Hull said.  “I think it was in the summer, and very hot outside.  I thought you were roasting in the suit, but your parents said they couldn’t get you out of it.”

Juarez’s eyes went wide.  “Um…”

“My kids did the same thing, Lieutenant,” Sun said.  “It’s called being three.  My youngest wore a cat costume for nearly a year.  He used to ask for a bowl of water and then get down on the floor and lap it up.”

“And you’ve come some way since then, Lieutenant.  Your family must be impressed with your recent tour with the Ya’neth dreadnaught.  Commodore Belk certainly was.  He told New Plymouth that you helped build even better bridges between our races.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“It’s nice to see your husband continuing that role, Lieutenant Parks,” Hull said.

“Yes, sir.  Sean is learning a lot from the Ya’neth, and enjoying his new assignment.”

“And the Ya’neth were also very impressed with your flying skills, Lieutenant,” Hull said.  “Of course, it’s just another notch in your impressive career as a pilot and flight instructor.”

“Thank you, sir.  Of course none of that would have been possible if you and some of the other original scientists on New Plymouth hadn’t built the first human starship.”  Parks said.  “And again, I’m not sure I deserve all the credit you and the Ya’neth are giving me.  Commanders Sun and Zaitsev were about to pull the Star out of its free fall and back into Earth orbit when we crash landed in the tug port.  According to the ship’s logs they had jump started an absorption unit, diverted some heat from the atmospheric friction into the gravity drive and….”

“I read the complete reports, Lieutenant.”

“Then you know that…” Juarez said.

“…our crashing into the tug port probably did more damage than not to the ship,” Parks said.

“You did exactly what you needed to do, Lieutenant, and I don’t know another pilot who could’ve pulled it off,” Commander Sun said. 

“But you and Lieutenant Commander Zaitsev had…”

“I appreciate the support, Lieutenants, but it’s not necessary.  The ambassador and I have known each other since 1944 and he’s aware of my record, both the good and bad parts.”

“I had a crush on you when we first met,” Hull said.

“I know, Warren.  We all knew.  You had the biggest puppy dog eyes.  If I hadn’t gotten married, you never know….”

“Oh, I know, Qiao Hui, and so do you.  Nobody was going to compete with Zheng for you.”

Sun’s cheeks turned pink.  “You have a good memory, Warren.  I still think about him every day.”

Hull blinked, looking quietly at her for a moment and then turned to Parks and Juarez.  “Don’t worry, Lieutenants, I have the highest respect for Commander Sun,” he said.  “She and Lieutenant Commander Zaitsev have done more than you know for New Plymouth and Earth, not to mention saving 900 lives on Ericson on what should have been an avoidable disaster.  I owe her my life and the lives of three of my sons.  None of us would be sitting here today without her influence on New Plymouth and in the Confederacy.  So, please don’t take my compliment of your flying skills as an insult to her or her accomplishments, Lieutenant Parks.  I simply and sincerely meant that you and Lieutenant Juarez did an incredible job with a nearly impossible task, and deserve all of the credit you get for saving the Rising Star: even if they may have saved themselves.”

Sun let Hull’s words sink in.  “Kind words, Warren.”

Hull looked at her with yet another smile.  “They were deserved, Qiao Hui.”

Sun smiled back and looked across the table to a man and woman who had taken in the conversation without saying a word.  “Who are your guests, Ambassador?  I thought you gave up bodyguards ten years ago.”

Hull turned to his two fellow diners with wide eyes.  “My apologies, Commander, I was so excited to see you that I forgot basic social etiquette.  Please let me introduce Agents Ruth Kim and Michael Gallagher.”

The pair nodded.  “It’s our pleasure, Commander, Lieutenants,” they said together.

“They’ve served with me for the last three years, straight out of school, and have done an excellent job of blending into the local environment while quietly getting some of the hardest jobs done,” Hull said.

They both nodded again. 

Parks suppressed a frown.  “I heard you two only use Earth tech.”

Kim and Gallagher gave the slightest of shrugs. 

“I suppose so,” Kim said.

“Don’t need anything more,” said Gallagher.

Parks gave a side glance to Juarez. 

“Seems like a waste of resources,” Juarez said. 

The agents looked at him and Parks, but didn’t say anything.

“They are quite good in the field,” Hull said.

Sun nodded.  “Careful with their words, I see.”

“Don’t want to stick my foot in my mouth, Commander,” Gallagher said, and both agents smiled at Sun.  “Did that the last time we met a Confederate official, and felt foolish.”

Sun smiled back.  “I’m glad to see you’ve embraced your assignments so well.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” Kim said.

Hull called over a waiter who had wine ready to be served.  “When was the last time you were here, Qiao Hui?”

“I was in New York in March visiting Bo,” Sun said.  “But I haven’t done any business on the ground in years.”

Hull touched his glass, but didn’t pick it up.  “Bo’s well?”

“Very.  I plan to come back for his birthday next month.  It’ll be his 75th and he’s not looking a day over 50.”

“Good genes,” Hull said with half a smile and looked past Sun for a moment.

She turned to Parks and Juarez.  “The sweet talk is about to start.”

“You remember all of my tricks and tics?” Hull said with a wink.

Sun winked back at him.  “The food is supposed to be very good here.”

“It is,” Hull said.  “How is Alexander?”

“He’s well: working 24/7 like the rest of the crew to get the Rising Star flying again, but he sends his regards and was sorry he couldn’t accept your dinner invitation.”

“He’s still mad about…”

“Yes, but he had looked forward to coming.  He wanted to say ‘hello’, and eat a meal that wasn’t emergency rations.”

“Rations?

“Yes.  They are better than you remember.”

“I had hoped to make amends.”

“I’ll send him your best, but I don’t think he’s looking to dredge up the past.”

“Some things never change.”

“Not easily.  You have to work hard for real change.”

“You do,” Hull said and his mouth tightened.  “Along those lines you know the Rising Star has made some waves since you returned to Earth’s system.  And not just with the Dwanem smugglers: some of our own on New Plymouth are keeping a close eye on you too.”

“It’s nice to see people care,” Sun said, easing back into her chair.  “Are the Ya’neth concerned too?”

“With money involved, yes.  Anyone with an interest around Jupiter and Saturn has their backs up right now.”

“So, the Ya’neth, the Dwanem and a few on New Plymouth?”

“And a lot on New Plymouth, Qiao Hui.  Even the Annak sitting in their nexus conduits wonder what’s going on.” 

“Hmm.  I guess that’s the nature of change, Warren, although I’m surprised anyone’s surprised.  We’re simply enforcing Confederacy law as was discussed ad nauseum between all of the concerned parties before we took over this system’s guardianship from the Dwanem.”

“They still aren’t thrilled about us protecting their homeworld.”

“And yet they agreed to that very condition in the Jupiter Treaty,” Sun said.  “You led those negotiations.  Everyone, and particularly the Dwanem, gave us their blessing.

“Things aren’t that simple, Qiao Hui.  You know that.  A lot of specifics were never worked out, and a lot was purposely left out so that the status quo would stay untouched.”

“That’s an interesting perspective from anyone who’s read the treaty.”

“Yes, but nobody reads the treaty, and Confederate politics has never been that straightforward or transparent about humanity’s place in the universe.  We’re low man on the totem pole.  You know that.”

“I do, but that doesn’t mean smugglers can start using illegal weapons and almost kill my crew.”

“No, but smugglers were given more leeway to harvest Earth’s biomaterials before you and the Rising Star arrived.”

“And before the treaty was signed?”

“Yes.”

“You do know that I warned off the smuggler who nearly destroyed my ship.”

Hull closed his eyes for a second and frowned.  “Yes, but we can’t confirm that it was Captain Triam, Qiao Hui.  If we could, he’d be in custody.”

“Yes.  I’m shocked that so much has been done to the smuggler who killed three of my crew and nearly revealed the presence of UFOs and aliens to the entire population of Earth.”

“I know it’s frustrating.  I’m sorry.”

“Triam is the one who will be sorry once I catch up to him.”

Parks smiled. 

“I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that, Qiao Hui.”

“How very diplomatic, Ambassador,” Parks said.

“You’re right, Lieutenant, how very diplomatic,” Hull said and turned to Parks.  “Of course, that’s my chief responsibility on Earth and within the Confederacy, and has been so for the last 25 years, with multiple renominations by New Plymouth and the eager approval from the Confederacy and its members.  And the reason I’ve kept my job for more than two decades is because my diplomatic skills and understandings of both Earth and Confederate politics has kept the peace and increased the prosperity for Earth and New Plymouth.”

“Yes, sir.”

“We’re outgunned on all sides even by the Dwanem as shown by your recent troubles, Lieutenants,” Hull said and almost frowned.  “My diplomacy and the quiet, delicate policies of New Plymouth have kept humanity innocent and protected from outside alien influence.  That same diplomacy allowed humanity to take the old Dwanem colony on New Plymouth seventy years ago so we could use the Dwanem’s outdated technology to build up our business and political interests and then stand up within the Confederacy.  Diplomacy and those quiet policies allowed us to start our own colony on Ericson, saved us from tragedy that followed and allowed us to return to the Confederacy’s good graces in less than 25 years.  It’s why the Rising Star can now protect the Earth from the less savory elements within the Confederacy and even New Plymouth.  And I see no reason to stop that very successful diplomacy and those very successful policies simply because you don’t feel it serves our interests.”

“Absolutely, sir,” Parks said, her eyes on Hull’s.  “And that diplomacy did wonders on Ericson, Ambassador.”

Hull’s mouth tightened and Sun leaned forward.  “Lieutenant Parks…” she said.

“Ms. Parks, I don’t need a Lieutenant, five years out of school who doesn’t know when to keep her mouth shut, tell me anything about what happened on Ericson: particularly when you were still in diapers with your family safely on New Plymouth learning to farm wheat and corn.”

“My parents’ wheat and corn saved the Ericson survivors when they returned to New Plymouth without even the clothes on their backs, sir.” 

Hull took in a breath and found his smile.  “And I’ve always been thankful for that, Lieutenant, but diplomacy convinced the Ya’neth to let the Ericson survivors return to the New Plymouth, and allowed your commanding officers to remain alive and free after their rescue efforts.”

“Which saved you, sir,” Parks said. 

“And much of my family, for which I am forever grateful.  Then we used the tragedy and something like Ya’neth guilt or sense of honor to secure New Plymouth further technological and business concessions.”

“Which enabled New Plymouth to rebuild itself as a more vital part of the Confederacy, sir,” said Juarez.

“That’s right, Lieutenant,” Hull said.  “You know your history.” 

Parks frowned at Juarez.  “Unfortunately, Lieutenant, that’s when the Dwanem stopped supporting New Plymouth with economic and political support and technological assistance, and became the Ya’neth’s new lap dog.”

“Yes, the Dwanem turned away from New Plymouth and Earth to focus on improving ties with the Ya’neth, Lieutenant,” Hull said with a look at Parks.  “And I can’t blame them, with the Ya’neth growing more powerful every year.”

Parks’ mouth tightened, and Hull leaned forward.  “The internal and external politics of the Confederate members are not nearly as simple as their respective governments pretend, Lieutenant, particularly the growing relationship between the Dwanem and the Ya’neth.  Ericson made the Dwanem reconsider their long term guardianship and support of humanity after your commanders gave the Ya’neth a very black eye.  Suddenly, the Dwanem had to decide whether to support a new, barely space-faring race that shared a common ancestry versus supporting a millennium-old and technologically superior culture that had obvious ambitions within the Confederacy, and can very obviously further the Dwanem’s own objectives.”

“And after Ericson the Dwanem really think that the Ya’neth don’t have their own motives, sir?” Parks said.

“Of course the Dwanem realize that the Ya’neth have their own motives, Lieutenant, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t or shouldn’t take advantage of the Ya’neth’s current generosity.  The other Confederate members are certainly not as generous, and the Dwanem would be fools not to take what they can get from the Ya’neth, even if that hurts their ties with New Plymouth and Earth.”

“Even with our shared history, sir?”

“That shared history is not even a century old, Lieutenant.  Do you think our 70 years compares to the 35,000 years since the Dwanem were pulled off of Earth, or the thousands of years more that the Annak, the Ya’neth and the Kirblee have been in space.”

Parks nodded and looked away from Hull’s stare.

“I’m sorry, Lieutenant, but humanity barely rates in the universe.”

“For now,” Sun said.

Hull turned to her and nodded.  “Yes, for now, Commander.”

Juarez took in the moment between Sun and Hull.  “If we’re such small potatoes, sir, then why does anyone in the Confederacy care what humanity does?  Can’t we just fly under the radar?”

“Not since Ericson,” Hull said and turned to Juarez.  “Ericson showed the Confederacy, and particularly the Ya’neth, that humanity could make a difference.  That we can punch above our weight class” 

“But not too much above our class, sir?” Parks said.

“Not yet, Lieutenant,” Hull said.  “Not yet.”

“And where do you think that leaves us, Warren?” Sun said.  “We have three cruisers patrolling the Earth’s solar system based on the recent treaty that restarted New Plymouth’s relationship to the Confederacy, and we’re making gains with the other sentients who do seem to care about humanity.  I’d hate to think that all of our recent efforts were nothing more than just spinning some wheels to make everyone forget what happened at Ericson.”

Hull nodded, turning to Sun.  “I think we need to stay on our current path, Qiao Hui: keep our heads low and move slowly forward.”

“So we’re supposed to put a target on our chests for every angry smuggler who wants to steal resources from Earth, sir?” Parks said.

Sun ignored Parks, her eyes on Hull.  “Maybe it’s time to chart a more active, positive path forward for New Plymouth, Warren.  Maybe that’s why the Confederacy sanctioned the recent treaty and put Earth under New Plymouth protection from the less virtuous elements in the universe.”

Hull’s mouth tightened, and he didn’t say anything.

“Particularly since the Rising Star just lost three of her crew,” Sun said.

“Do you truly believe that we are up for that challenge, Qiao Hui?” Hull said with a wave of his hand.  “I’m all for standing up for ourselves, but we seem completely outgunned.  Is it even possible to stand up for ourselves, much less protect Earth?”

Sun looked at him.  “I admit I got caught with my pants down, Warren.  No doubt about it, but we’ve got the new microsatellite warning system up and running around Earth now so we’ll see everyone coming, camouflaged or not, and Lieutenant Commander Zaitsev made some hull adjustments and added internal shielding to prevent another EMP attack.”

“That’s the least of what can be used against you.”

“I know.  We’ve a few ideas on how to counter their other offensive capabilities.  I believe the balance is going to shift a bit toward us very soon.”

Hull glanced at Juarez who didn’t notice the look, but Parks did. 

“And the Shooting Star hasn’t had any issues with smugglers since we got hit,” Sun said.

“I know, but the Annak aren’t thrilled that the Shining Star is splitting time patrolling the Pluto nexus conduit and the Jupiter and Saturn systems while the Shooting Star takes over patrolling the inner solar system.”

“Yes, I know that the Annak like to have a local cruiser on standby for the nexus conduit’s protection.”

“They are very particular.”

“I also know that the Annak have enough firepower and other assorted weaponry on the conduit to protect themselves and destroy every ship in this system, including the Ya’neth dreadnaught and the three new Dwanem cruisers around Jupiter and Saturn.  The Shooting Star is just for show.  They know that and we know that.”

“You’re right, but the Annak still expect us to meet our diplomatic obligations.”

“And the Ya’neth and Dwanem?’

Hull laughed.  “I think they prefer the Shooting Star’s absence from Saturn and Jupiter.  But they’d like you, the Shooting Star and the Shining Star to all be somewhere else too.”

“Of course.”

“But the Annak…”

“…are particular,” Sun said and smiled.

Hull shrugged.  “What can I tell you, Qiao Hui?”

“I explained the situation to the Annak, and they seemed surprisingly agreeable to the temporary reassignments of the Shooting and Shining Stars while we finish our repairs.”

Hull’s eyebrow went up.  “Really?  I thought all Annak diplomatic communication with humanity in this system came through my office, Qiao Hui.”

“They should, Warren, but the Annak contacted me directly and by name.  I wasn’t going to tell them I couldn’t take their call and refer them to you.  It didn’t seem like the smartest option at the time.”

“I,” Hull said and paused for a second.  “I’m surprised they reached out to you individually.”

“The Annak were very supportive and seem to want to deepen their rapport with humanity.”

“You think they want us to succeed?”

Sun shrugged this time.  “I hope so.  Otherwise I’ve wasted a lot of time and money on recent diplomacy and all that we’ve done here in the last twenty years.”

“Hmm,” Hull said.

“I apologize for not telling you sooner about the Annak contact.  We’ve been busy getting the Star back up and running, and it got lost in the general mayhem.  You are certainly the primary contact with them, and I will defer to you in the future.”

Hull smiled tightly.  “Of course,” he said and leaned back in his chair.  “How much longer before the Rising Star is up and flying?”

“We’re running the final diagnostics today.  We plan to be in space and on patrol tomorrow.”

“Really?” Hull said, sitting back up.  “I thought you had another month of repairs.  How did you get all of the reactors back up and running, not to mention the gravity drive?”

“Alexander worked wonders, and the crew has performed beyond my highest expectations.”

“Still, less than four weeks?”

“I was surprised too.  I guess I have some reserves you didn’t know about after 70 years.”

Hull smiled, looking at her.  “I don’t doubt it, Commander.”

Sun looked back at him. 

Hull kept smiling.  “I expect that you and your crew won’t need to return Earth side anytime soon then?”

Sun straightened up, but smiled, looking into Hull’s eyes.  “Did you read my report on the Tajik incident yet?” ‘

“Not yet.  It must have been lost in everything that’s happened.”

“It must have.  I’ll send you another copy today.  Of course you heard about it through your Pentagon or Kremlin contacts.”

“I did.”

“Your network is as excellent as ever, Warren.”

He nodded with a bigger smile.  “We’ve managed to bury any investigation into the disappearance of 10 kilos of plutonium.  The Russians and the Americans bought the cesium story, but the New Zealand connection was almost too much of a stretch.”

Parks frowned at Juarez, who kept his eyes down and away from Sun.

“That’s my fault, sir,” Juarez said.  “I was the one who claimed we were New Zealand secret agents.”

Hull didn’t even glance at Juarez.  “Yes, I didn’t see Lieutenant Commander Zaitsev thinking up that kind of cover.”

Sun smiled sweetly.  “Yes, that’s not Alexander’s style.”

Hull laughed.  “One of the American agents, Locke I think her name is, tried to raise a ruckus over the unusual wreckage and the Kiwi strangeness, but the Pentagon and Kremlin have other things to worry about.”

“I should’ve knocked her out,” Juarez said.

“Except you love her,” Parks said with a giant smile and Juarez rolled his eyes until Sun glanced their way and they both straightened up.

“Ms. Locke is impressive if she saw through our subterfuge and even glimpsed a bit of the truth,” Sun said.  “I’m surprised you haven’t tried to recruit her.  I’m tempted to.”

Hull nodded.  “I considered it.  She’s smart, tough and incredibly well connected for someone so young.  But she might just be too curious and idealistic, and I haven’t been able to figure out a good angle to approach her while keeping her in the dark about what we’re really doing.”

Sun shrugged, not saying anything.

“Plus, right now she’s in Antarctica.”

Parks and Juarez turned to Hull. 

“What?” Parks said.

“You’re kidding me?” said Sun.

“Unfortunately, not.  She appears to be connecting a few more dots than I would like.”

“What’s NASA’s take on us nearly crashing into the Earth?” Sun said.

“I’m sure you read that they’re calling it an exploding asteroid.  What they can’t figure out is how that asteroid made some loud, bright and theoretically impossible flight paths through and beyond the Earth’s atmosphere even after my agents wiped out their records.”

“So the Americans are sending some agents to where the tug started its rescue flight?”

“My apologies, Ambassador,” Parks said.  “I thought…”

“You didn’t have another choice, Lieutenant,” Hull said.  “But unfortunately, it’s too late to destroy the fuzzy surveillance photos of the CO2 scrubber without putting my agents in a real danger of discovery.”

Kim and Gallagher nodded.

“So we need to put the cat back in the bag,” Sun said, ignoring them.

Hull also ignored his agents.  “I know you just swore off sending your crew to Earth, but it would be easier if you could send down a tug to check out what’s wrong with the scrubber.  You can get there a lot faster than we can, and probably beat Locke and her team.”

“And clean up the mess.”

“Yes.”

“So, you don’t mind if we help a little more Earth side.”

Hull shrugged.  “We could it do it, Qiao Hui, but it would be a lot harder for us than the Rising Star.”

Sun nodded.  “We’ll do it, of course.  That’s one of the reasons we’re here.”

“I know.  And I hope you know I support you and the Rising Star, Qiao Hui.  I helped write the treaty…”

“I know.”

“It might be good, though, if you didn’t come down so hard on the smugglers.  They’ve been visiting the Earth for millennia.”

“You’re not suggesting we stop standing up for ourselves are you, Warren?”

“No.  I’ve always thought we should for ourselves, Qiao Hui.  That’s what New Plymouth has always done no matter what it looks like and why we put the recent treaty together.”

“I’m glad to see you remember that New Plymouth has influenced events on Earth before.”

“Of course I do.  I just don’t want us to get in over your head, and set back things again.”

“Like after Ericson.”

“Yes,” Hull said and frowned.  “Do you think we can recover if something like that happens again?”

Sun looked into Hull’s eyes.  “I don’t think we have a choice if we want to protect New Plymouth and Earth, Ambassador.”

Hull took a sip of wine, looking at the table for a moment before returning her gaze.  “So do you need any help with Antarctica?  I’m sure Kim and Gallagher would enjoy a trip south if you need anything.”

Sun glanced at Kim and Gallagher’s tight expressions.  “I’m sure we’ll be fine, right Lieutenants?”

Parks and Juarez found their smiles.  “Yes, ma’am,” they said.

“We know the way, Commander,” Parks said.

Hull laughed.  “Great.  Now what about figuring out the schedule for…”

“Why don’t we order something to eat before we move onto your next agenda item, Warren?” Sun said, picking up a menu.  “Like I said, we’ve lived off of emergency rations for the last month, and I promised these two a decent meal for their heroic efforts.  I figured you wouldn’t mind.”

Hull’s cheeks turned pink.  “My apologies.  We should have ordered as soon as you came in.”  He raised his hand for the waiter.  “We can finish off these matters after you’ve tried the lobster macaroni.”

Parks looked at him.

“It’s an appetizer on Earth,” Juarez said.  “Low in calories or at least that’s what I’ll tell you.”

Parks frowned.

“Yes, let’s embrace the fun side of diplomacy and have a good meal that’s too expensive,” Hull said.

Sun raised her wine glass for the first time.  “To the future then,” she said, smiling.

“Of course,” Hull said, returning the smile and clinking his own glass against hers.  Their eyes remained locked on one another’s. 

The others joined the toast, Juarez looking at Parks with a raised eyebrow.  She nodded just to him, and they each sipped their wine noticing the strange look between Sun and Hull.

Chapter 5: Prey in the Dark

 

“It’s high noon, 65 degrees below zero and nearly pitch black outside,” Lieutenant Parks said.  “The joys of an Antarctic winter, huh, junior?”

Lieutenant Juarez double checked the thermometer and frowned.  “You’re a regular ray of sunshine, Lieutenant.”

Parks grinned, and they stepped out of the tug and into the darkness, feeling the wind push against their protective uniforms.  They glanced at each other and then looked out at the bleak white landscape that stretched to the horizon.  Behind them a giant circle of black soot stretched out 110 meters from the dome that housed the alien scrubbers that secretly removed CO2 from Earth’s atmosphere.  A giant tracked vehicle stood parked with its engines off 55 meters in front of them inside the circle of soot.  The hatches to the dome stood wide open beyond the vehicle.

Juarez tapped unseen controls on the sleeve of his snow white overcoat and shook his head at Parks.  ”Nothing is working outside of the tug either.”

She nodded, checking her own sensors.  “Something in the dome is jamming anything electronic out to a few hundred meters.  I’m surprised that snow crawler was able to drive this close.  Our sensors aren’t working beyond a meter or two and communications seem to be down.”

“We’re lucky the tug and the suits work.”

“I doubt whoever’s doing this expected anyone with our level of tech.”

“Really?  We’re the ones maintaining the scrubbers.”

Parks shrugged and flipped on her night vision.  “We can still see in infrared.”

Juarez did the same and pointed to the snow crawler.  “Someone’s injured by that snow mobile.”

“And the entrance,” Parks said, pointing to a man half way out of the hatch.  “I think he’s bleeding.”

They both frowned, and Parks reached under her coat for her plasma pistol.

Juarez pulled out his novacane and flicked it on.  “You know I really didn’t think I’d be on Earth so much when I got assigned to the Rising Star,” he said, walking into the soot, leaving a trail of footprints and Parks about four meters behind him.  “Thought there’d be a lot more time on the ship doing routine stuff like my assignment with the Ya’neth.”  He looked around at the bleak landscape again, his eyes resting on Parks.  “Maybe I should ask Commanders Sun and Zaitsev to keep me on board the Star a little bit more, although I could live with having more four course meals with the Confederate ambassador you know.”

“Right,” Parks said, opening her face guard to the frigid air, but letting her voice carry farther without the benefit of electronic communication.  “Partnering with you has been a blast for the last two months.  Nothing like getting shot at, crash landing a tug and having to explain who everyone is and how everything works.”

Juarez stifled a laugh, opening up his own face guard and surveying everything between him, the snow crawler and the dome.  “You didn’t like the fancy meal?”

“I did, but we got that because of me, not you.  Yes, the Ambassador remembered you when you were a kid, but we had dinner with him so he could congratulate me on my flying skills, not your childhood love of pretending to be a cat,” Parks said, backing up toward the tug, but keeping her eyes on Juarez and everything in front of him the whole time. “You warm enough?”

“My cheeks feel a bit nippy, but the overcoat and extra batteries are doing their job.”

“And you got your weapons ready?”

Juarez stopped and held up his novacane.  “Pistol’s loaded too.”

“This situation is mucked up.”

“I noticed.  The jamming field, the dead snow mobile and the injured or dead people just lying around in subzero darkness gave it away.  It makes you wonder what horror movie we just walked into.”

“Yes, I’m glad nothing gets by you,” Parks said and started tapping instructions onto the display that appeared on the sleeve of her coat. 

“It’s not every day I can feel my heart beating so hard.  Kind of wish we had fixed this problem a month ago when there was daylight, less soot and no bodies lying around.”

“You think?” Parks said, touching the tug and activating a link between the spaceship and her suit.  “I’m calling for backup.  You think your marines are up for some dark and cold adventures?”

“They’ll get here in thirty minutes once you give them the word.”

“Right.  I’m using the tug’s emergency rocket beacon to get past the jamming field and call for help.”

“No complaints from me, Lieutenant, but don’t you think the beacon will alert anyone else who’s out here.”

“I think that ship sailed when we landed the 500 ton tug.”

The rocket blasted off from the back of the tug, quickly accelerating up and into the atmosphere and a low Earth orbit.

“I’m glad that worked.”

Parks nodded and tapped a few buttons on her helmet and goggles.  She took a few steps away from the tug and crouched in a defensive position, her pistol pointed past Juarez.  “Regulations say that we should wait for backup, but we need to take a look at those people and see if they need any help.  That work for you, junior?”

Juarez nodded.  “You bet.”

“I’ve got you covered,” Parks said, looking through the screen in her helmet at the 360 degrees of emptiness around her.  She crouched lower.

Juarez stared straight ahead at the snow crawler and his face tightened.  He took one step with a large crunch that he heard for the first time and looked down at the soot covered snow and the tracks he was making.  He turned back to Parks.  “I’m going to hoof it.”

Parks nodded, her finger brushing the trigger.  “Go.”

Juarez took off in a sprint, the novacane leading the way as he dashed in loud crunches across the barren, black landscape.  He ran for six seconds before sliding in front of the prone body next to the snow crawler.  He switched the novacane to his left hand and whipped out this pistol, turning around to Parks and pointing it in her direction, providing her cover.

She kept her pistol pointed in his direction.  “Use your helmet cam,” she said in a whisper that carried across the distance between them.  He waved in agreement, flicking it on, and she leapt up running forward.  “I am not going to be the black woman who dies first in this horror movie,” she said between deep gulps of frozen air.  Then she slid next to Juarez, pistol still out, her eyes on the snow crawler.

“Good to see you,” Juarez said his back against hers.  “What do you think?”

Parks looked over the snow crawler and the space immediately around them before turning to the woman lying at their feet.  “I think your girlfriend gets around.”

Juarez looked at Sara Locke, blinked, looked at Parks and then turned to Sara Locke again. 

“Ambassador Hull knows his stuff,” Parks said.  “Check her out.  She’s bleeding badly from the right leg.  Probably has or is getting hypothermia too.”

Juarez holstered his pistol and novacane.  “I can’t believe this,” he said, pulling out a medical kit from under his coat and bending down to look at Locke’s leg.

“Me either,” Locke said, her eyes half opening up and her own arm reaching under her parka and pulling out a pistol.

“Watch it,” Parks said.  “She’s awake.”

BAM BAM.

Juarez grabbed Locke’s wrist and slammed it to the ground without resistance.  “What are doing?”

“You’re under arrest.”

Juarez sat on her, taking away the pistol and staring into her eyes.  “Are you crazy?  We’re in the middle of Antarctica and you want to play cop.  You’re lucky you’re alive and luckier I’m helping you.”

Locke didn’t move; didn’t even try.  “You lost your accent.  I thought you were from New Zealand.”

Juarez blinked.  “Shut up.  You just announced we’re here with those gun shots.”

“Like your rocket plane didn’t make enough noise.”

Juarez stared at her.

“Stop the bleeding, Lieutenant,” Parks said behind him in a terrible New Zealand accent.

Juarez took in a breath and nodded, pulling a translucent film from his medical kit.  “What happened here?” he said with his own terrible accent, taking the film and wrapping it over the open wound in Locke’s lower leg.

“Aow.  Is that supposed to hurt?”

Juarez shook his head, looking at three six inch gashes and covering them gingerly with the film as Locke tried to pull away from his touch.  “No, but it should warm you up a little and stop the bleeding. I’ll give you something for the pain once we’ve got your wounds sealed.”  He pressed the film into her wounds as saw it expand to fill in the gashes with new skin and tissue.

“I couldn’t feel anything before.”

“You have frostbite,” Juarez said.  “The film will help with that too, and we’ll get you warmed up too.  He took out a vial from his kit.  “What did this to you?”

Locke stared blankly past him and shook her head.  “I don’t know.  Some thing came out of nowhere when we went into that building and tore my team apart,” she said, taking in deep breaths all of the sudden.  Her eyes went wide.  “Am I supposed to be breathing this hard?”

Juarez nodded.  “It’s normal.  Don’t worry.  You’re going to be all right.  I promise.”

Locke caught her breath for a moment, not looking at him.  “Whatever it was jumped us before we’d taken two steps into that building, throwing us around like rag dolls.  It hurt two of my agents before we knew what was going on.  Grayson and I got out the door, but he got mauled right outside of it, and I lost a chunk of leg before I pulled away and made it to the snow tracker.”

Juarez nodded, pulling more film from his medical kit.

“The tracker died when we got here, and my radio won’t work.”

“There’s a jamming field,” Parks said.

Locke looked at her.  “What’s going on?” she said.  “How do you know this and why are you here?”

Parks nudged Juarez, who jammed Locke with the vial from his medical kit.

“Don’t knock me out,” Locke said as her eyes closed.

Juarez checked her leg and felt her forehead, looking at a display of her vital signs on his wrist.  “She’s too cold.”

“Not a shock.  I’m surprised she’s alive, much less awake.”

Juarez took off his overcoat and wrapped it around the unconscious Locke.  He adjusted the controls on the coat and it sealed itself around her, leaving a small opening around her face.

“You cold?”

Juarez adjusted the controls on his jacket.  “The batteries will last for the next few hours, assuming we don’t run into any problems.”

Parks nodded, not saying anything, looking at Locke, then at Juarez and then at the entrance and the body in front of it.

“What do you think is going on, Lieutenant?”

She turned back to Juarez.  “I don’t know.  Something from the Confederacy must have destroyed the scrubber unit and took out Locke and her agents.  Something bad.  Locke’s capable from what we’ve seen and look what happened to her.  Nothing from Earth could do that, not with this cold and in the middle of nowhere.”

“You think mechas?”

“What else?” Parks said, swallowing, her eyes still on the body in front of the entrance to the scrubber unit.  “You think your marines can take out some mechanical security drones?”

Juarez followed Parks’ stare to the body in the dome’s hatch.  “Yes.”

Parks looked back at him.  “Let’s hope so.”

“Yes, let’s,” Juarez said, mostly to himself.

Parks gave him a few seconds to take in the situation.  “We’ve got to check that other person,” she said.  “You cover me, okay?”

Juarez looked at her and the body in front of the entrance again.  His shoulders shivered for a second and he readjusted the controls on his uniform again before pulling out his pistol.

“Make sure you use the 360 degree cameras.”

“I know,” Juarez said and crouched down, pointing his pistol toward the scrubber unit.  “I’d run, Lieutenant.”

“I will,” Parks said, taking in a deep breath.  “Ready?”

“Go.”

Parks took off in a sprint, crossing the distance between the snow tracker and the scrubber unit in nine seconds with loud crunches in the snow and more tracks in the soot before sliding next to the man half way out of the scrubber.  She forced herself to look quickly at him before turning and leveling her pistol at the entrance.  She stared unblinking at the darkness beyond the scrubber’s hatch, not seeing, hearing or smelling anything, and then noticed strange markings in front of the scrubber.  She looked at them with a frown, and shifted her focus between the markings in the soot and the hatch for another minute before turning back to the downed man. 

The man lay in the soot and snow with a pool of blood still expanding beneath him.  Parks signaled for Juarez to stay where he was, and then holstered her pistol under her overcoat and yanked out her medical kit.  She ripped it open, pulling out the clear film sheets that Juarez had used on Locke minutes ago.  She turned the man over to see a gaping, red, bubbling hole in his abdomen and flinched.  She bit her lip at the sight of the wound, but began wrapping his entire mid-section in the healing film.  It took her a few minutes, but after wrapping him in her overcoat the man’s breathing stabilized and he stopped bleeding.  She wiped some blood off the instrument panel on her wrist and saw they had at least twenty minutes before reinforcements arrived.  She looked back at Juarez.

He stared at her and the blood all over her uniform, his mouth half open and his face very tight.

Parks pulled out her pistol and turned on her 360 degree camera.  “It’s going to be all right,” she said, swallowing again as her voice carried through the silent distance between them.  “Let’s go,” she said with a nod.

He nodded back and took in a deep breath, looking calmer.  He let the breath out, took in another and sped off toward Parks, sliding in front of her and then quickly jumping up with his novacane ready and pointed to the scrubber’s open hatch.  “You don’t like the novacane?”

“I figured the pistol can handle anything far away or up close and I never got the hang of the cane.”

“Too bad, it’s more convenient than most people think.”

“Well, hopefully I won’t need to use it,” Parks said, turning around to face the hatch.  “You all right?”

Juarez bit his lip.  “Terrific.  You?”

Parks stared at the door for a moment.  “Been a weird day,” she said and turned back to the snow crawler.  “Let’s get this guy back to their vehicle, and wait for…”

“Help.”

Parks whirled, her pistol aimed at the hatch.

“You heard that?”

Parks frowned and focused on the 360 degree camera in her helmet.  “I’m not seeing anything.”

“But you heard that?” Juarez said.

“Hard not to,” Parks said, touching the injured man at her feet, rechecking his vital signs on her screen.  “This guy’ll probably live if we can survive the next twenty minutes.”

Juarez looked at her.  “We’re going in?”

“You have any better ideas?”

Juarez let out his breath.  “No, ma’am.”

Parks smiled and reached for her novacane.  “I’ll take point.”

“I’ve got it,” Juarez said.

“No, Lieutena…”

“You just told me you can’t use the novacane to save your life, Lieutenant.  I’ll take point.  Just make sure nothing bites me, okay?”

Juarez took a step forward, and Parks grabbed his arm.

“Wait a minute,” she said, hitting the console on his wrist, adjusting the color of his uniform and making it nearly invisible.  “Let’s be smart.”

Juarez pulled over his face cover and looked at the wrist console.  “The batteries can handle this for only about six minutes and then the heaters will kick off.”

“Hopefully, whatever’s in there won’t see through the suit’s camouflage,” Parks said and peeled off a battery pack from her belt, handing it to Juarez.  “That should give you a few more minutes.”

Juarez took the battery pack.  “Great, now you’ll freeze too.”

“Backup will be here soon,” Parks said. 

“Help.”

They both turned to the hatch again, and then looked at each other.

“Let’s go,” Parks said.

“Right,” Juarez said and headed through the hatch, leaving a trail behind him.  “You can see me, right.”

Parks smiled.  “Goggles work.  No worries.”

“Good,” Juarez said and took a step into the scrubber, leaving behind his tracks. 

Parks followed him in, keeping her eyes on Juarez, but also scanning the scrubber’s interior, her pistol at the ready.  “Nothing looks damaged, although it’s hard to tell in the dark and with the night vision being useless in the cold.  I see one man right there and another through the bank of individual units.  Both are down and bleeding.  The farther one may be dead.  His body’s pretty cold.”

Juarez walked slowly and gingerly to the man moaning about ten meters into the scrubber.  He had three wounds that Juarez could see, but he didn’t touch him.

Parks’ face tightened.  “Whatever did this must be camouflaged too,” she said and pulled off her helmet, goose bumps rising immediately on her neck as she turned around to compensate for the loss of the 360 degree camera.  She stopped moving and listened. 

She could hear the man moaning and saying, “Help,” again, his faint voice carrying beyond the scrubber, and could hear Juarez’s footsteps despite his attempts to be quiet.  She held her breath and turned her head, shivering without her helmet. 

Drip.

Parks whirled into a crouch, her pistol pointed at the drip.

A five limbed, star-shaped machine with glistening skin stood a meter and a half high and ten meters to her left, dripping from the center of its body.  It was not from Earth and Parks had never seen anything like it before.  The machine crouched on four of its limbs, the fifth pointing toward Parks, shifting in the air, examining her.  It took one step forward when another of the limbs jolted up toward Juarez.  Parks fingered the trigger on her pistol as the machine’s surface turned black and disappeared.

Parks let go of a shot that crashed loudly and violently into the wall behind where the machine had been.  “Juarez, cover.”

He turned to see a flash clanking toward him, and dove to the ground, springing back up with his novacane pointed at the barely visible machine.

The machine stood on top of the down man who had cried for help, pressing noticeably into his chest and legs, but barely visible in the light.  It stepped off the man and disappeared.

“It’s camouflaged.  I can’t see it,” Juarez said, flicking the novacane rod into a whip and twirling it into the air.  He pulled off his helmet to listen, ignoring the cold.

Parks pulled off her goggles for a second, but put them back on when she saw even less.  She kept her pistol pointed in the direction of where the machine had last been, and where she could hear it walking slowly forward.  “It’s coming toward you,” she said, heading toward Juarez’s position.

Juarez backed up, keeping the spinning novacane between him and the footsteps of the machine.  “What do we do?”

Parks stopped, aiming her pistol at where she thought the machine was and fired.  The shot hit the wall on the other side of the scrubber.

“That’s not helping,” Juarez said, shifting his novacane to his left and the sounds of the skittering machine.  He edged back toward the open hatch. 

Parks lowered her pistol, her eyes darting behind her goggles.  She took in a sudden breath and touched the instrument panel on her sleeve.  A second later her uniform flared up, lighting the entire scrubber in an even glow.

The machine stopped, an obvious shape of black in the harsh white light, and turned to Parks.

She raised her pistol and fired five quick shots.

The machine stumbled back, three of its limbs coming together to form something like a shield.

Parks kept firing, walking toward the machine as she emptied the pistol’s remaining eight shots onto the creature until it fell down with its five legs bound together and scarred from the explosive bullets.

Juarez stopped and retracted the novacane.  “Nice trick, lighting up your suit like that.”

Parks nodded, dumping the pistol’s cartridge of plasma bullets and reloading a new one.  “Lucky,” she said, stopping three meters from the machine, putting herself between it and the man behind her.  “We need to check out that second man, and make sure that’s the only mecha here.”

Juarez nodded, looking around the lit up space and seeing the rows of scrubbers that could hide one or a dozen more mechas.  “Let’s get that guy out of here and wait for backup to clear out the scrubber.”

Parks nodded, turning back to the first injured man when she heard the creature scrape against the floor.  She whirled back to see it standing up as if it hadn’t been shot.  “Come on…”

SNAP.

Juarez hit the machine with the novacane, and immediately lost it.  The machine grabbed the extended weapon with one of its limbs and yanked it out of Juarez’s hand.

He blinked and then reached for his pistol. 

Parks leveled her pistol at the machine but it launched itself toward the center of the scrubber unit, dashing between two widely spaced banks of machinery and to the second man.  The machine scooped him up with two of its limbs, shielding itself from Parks and Juarez’s lines of fire.  Parks focused her aim on the machine’s central hub that linked its limbs together when the machine pulled off the man’s head in one quick snap.

Parks and Juarez froze. 

“Son of a b…”

The machine dropped the rest of the man in a heap and started toward Parks.  She blinked and then raised her pistol, adjusting the settings to release all of the bullets with one pull of the trigger.

“Don’t do th…”

“Get down,” Parks said, leveling her pistol.

Juarez dove behind a row of scrubbers.

BABABOOM.

The entire structure flashed and the machine burned in a violent, fiery explosion, the blast throwing Parks against the bank of scrubbers that protected Juarez.  She hit the scrubbers hard and slumped to the floor softly, her body protected by her uniform, but her head singed and her hand burned from the backlash of her shot.  She did not get up.

Juarez groaned and picked himself up, leaning against the scrubbers.  He blinked in the dark, hoping to regain his sight.  He tapped the control panel on his sleeve and realized he wasn’t blind.  “Okay,” he said, his jaw tightening as he hit another switch and his uniform flared, lighting up the entire structure.  He blinked again, adjusting to the light and standing up looking for Parks and the machine. 

It lay seventeen meters away, quivering, its legs moving slowly to get up, but not succeeding.  It lurched to center itself, its legs very slowly steadying themselves.

Juarez head turned to the left and right searching for Parks when he saw her on the other side of the scrubbers.  He scooped her up and headed back behind the scrubbers, laying her down gently and listening for the machine.  He heard it scrape itself up as he quickly ran his arms up and down Parks’ body, making sure she had no major injuries.  He looked at her hand and pulled out his med kit and the last of the translucent film when the scraping from the machine became a tap.  He wrapped Parks’ hand in the film and then pulled out a syringe.  He yanked down the collar of Parks’ jacket and pressed the syringe to her neck, injecting two normal doses of adrenaline into her veins.

Parks’ eyes flashed open and Juarez covered her mouth, motioning her to be quiet.  She nodded and he pressed the syringe into his own neck.  His eyes went wide and she covered his mouth, sitting up and facing him.  They stared at each other for a second and she pulled him in a close embrace.

“That adrenaline shot is for emergencies only,” Parks said into Juarez’s ear.

He leaned in closer.  “I think this qualifies, Lieutenant.”

Parks smiled even as she heard the machine speed up.  “I think it’s time to get out of here,” she said, pushing Juarez up and grabbing her novacane. 

They heard the machine walk toward the scrubber’s hatchway and then back toward them.

Parks nodded to Juarez who pulled out his pistol and they both stared at the machine, which stood still with two of its limbs pointing at them.  They faced each other for a minute, not moving.

“You think this’ll go on long enough for the backup to arrive?”

“No,” Parks said, not even looking at the chronometer on her sleeve.  She fingered the novacane and saw her breath in the air.  “The longer we wait the less chance we have with the cold and that thing.”  She took a step forward.

WAHYAH.

Both of their faces dropped at the growl from the machine as it rushed toward them.

Parks’ eyes narrowed as she crouched and raised the novacane.  “Run.”

Juarez didn’t move, pointing his pistol at the floor and squeezing the trigger six times.  The floor exploded in front of the machine, chunks flying as it toppled into the new hole.  Juarez pulled the pistol to the ceiling, adjusted the setting and unloaded the remaining bullets all at once, exploding a large section of the ceiling onto the machine and burying it.

Parks pushed Juarez back as the ceiling continued to fall.  They stared at the spot where the machine had been.  “Are you crazy?”

“You just emptied a full cartridge of bullets in a contained environment, and you’re asking me if I’m crazy, Lieutenant?”

“I am.”

Juarez somehow smiled.  “It worked.”

“And nearly trapped us beneath a pile of rubble.”

“It worked,” Juarez said again, replacing the pistol’s cartridge.

“Maybe not,” Parks said, pulling Juarez through a path clear of rubble and pointing to the debris shifting off the machine.

Juarez’s eyes narrowed and he swallowed, running behind Parks who turned at the end of the row of scrubbers and toward the hatchway.  She looked at the distance to the hatchway and listened to the machine behind them.  She turned left, away from the hatchway and down a much narrower passageway between two banks of individual scrubbers, dragging Juarez with her. 

The machine stopped at the narrow opening between the two banks of scrubbers, examining them halfway down the passageway. 

Parks turned back and slowed down, Juarez with her.  She took in a breath with her eyes on the machine.  It extended its two limbs toward them again.  Parks pushed Juarez behind her.  “Keep going.  Let me know when you’re ready to sprint out to the tug, wait there and then bring in the cavalry when they arrive.”

Juarez stopped behind her as the machine retracted its limbs, narrowing its body so that it could move through the narrower passageway.

“Go.  You’re not dying on my watch.  Commander Sun would kill me.”

Juarez took a step forward and so did the machine, coming right toward Parks.

“I said go,” Parks said and stepped toward the machine.  She jammed the novacane into its raised, clawed limb, and caught the novacane in its mouth like opening.  It pulled the novacane and Parks forward when Parks released the novacane’s entire charge.  The creature reeled back as Parks fell to her knees.  She looked up to see it writhe on the floor next to her, but then it stopped, a limb steadying itself.  She stood up, staring at another limb pulling itself up when Juarez grabbed her arm and pulled her away.

“Let’s go.”

“I told you to get out of here.”

“Right.  You did.  Sorry.”

Parks followed him.  “We don’t have much time.  I thought the novacane would do more.”

“I’ve got an idea.”

“Great.  Keep running.”

They ran down the passageway, not halfway to the end when the creature rose and started after them.  Parks shoved Juarez forward as he adjusted the settings on his pistol.  They got to the end of the passageway and Juarez turned right and stopped.  Parks ran into him, and Juarez threw her behind him.

“Duck.”

Juarez thrust his hand and pistol into the edge of the passageway, squeezing the trigger with his thumb holding the safety.  “This is going to hurt,” he said as he squeezed his eyes shut and threw his left hand over his face.

“No,” Parks said.

The creature took off his hand in a flashing gulp.

BABABOOM

--

Juarez opened his eyes and saw Lieutenant Commander Zaitsev staring at him.  “I’m alive.”

“Yes,” Zaitsev said with half a frown behind a small smile.  “Although once we have a chat about what just happened, you might not want to be.”

Juarez smiled despite Zaitsev’s words, tone and expression.

“I’m glad the pain killers are working, Lieutenant.”

“Yes, sir.”

Juarez was lying covered on a stretcher but moving through the cold air as marines carried him forward to the hatch.

Zaitsev shook his head.  “I’ll yell at you when the sedatives have worn off, Lieutenant, and so will Commander Sun, but next time remember to follow procedure and not take stupid chances.” 

“Yes, sir,” Juarez said and kept smiling as Parks appeared above him and next to Zaitsev.  She had burn marks on her uniform, red blotches on her face and slightly singed hair, but her eyes were bright and alert. 

“It was my fault, sir,” Parks said.

“No argument, Lieutenant,” Zaitsev said.

Juarez raised his hand to protest and his eyes went wide at the stub in its place.  He stared at it for a minute.  “What happened?”

“You blew it off taking out the mecha,” Zaitsev said.  “That’s one of the things we’re going to talk about.”

Juarez nodded, unable to wipe the smile off his face.

Zaitsev shook his head again.  “The docs assured me they’ll be able to grow you a new one in a week or so.”

“That’s good,” Juarez said and then tried to sit up but failed.  “What happened to Locke?”

Zaitsev smiled again and Parks laughed behind him.  “We’re taking your girlfriend and her friends who are still alive back near the Amundsen-Scott station, where the Americans can make sure they’ll survive.  They’ve been drugged to forget about this, although some of them were so messed up when we got here that I doubt they’d remember much anyway.”

Juarez smiled more.  “That’s good.”

Zaitsev turned to Parks who smiled at him, and he shook his head.  “Let’s get him loaded up and back to the Star.  We still have to destroy any evidence that the scrubber unit was here.”

“Sir?” Juarez said.

Zaitsev turned to him.

“I’m happy to do whatever you ask of me, sir, but I’d be happy to do some more shipboard assignments for the next few weeks, sir.  If you’d like, sir,” Juarez said. 

Zaitsev stared at Juarez for a moment.  “This will all seem fun twenty years from now, Lieutenant,” he said and laughed, ruffling Juarez’s hair before walking away.

Parks stared at him.

Juarez looked at her, the drug induced smile still on his face.  “What happens until then?”

“It’ll suck,” Parks said with another laugh and then her mouth tightened.  She looked into his eyes for a long moment.  “Thanks for saving my life, Lieutenant.”

Juarez looked back at her, his smile still there, but smaller.  “Yes, ma’am,” he said and closed his eyes, falling asleep.


 

Chapter 6: Home Front

 

Commander Sun’s bright face darkened as the last tile hit the table.  “Are you kidding me, Yu-Lin?” she said shaking her head at the older woman who looked just like her.  “I thought you had at least some standards, but to give Alexander the game just so you could undercut me is low even for you.”

Lieutenant Commander Zaitsev held his hands up in surrender.  “I can only play the tiles I have, Qiao.  And you wouldn’t want me to throw the game, would you?”

Sun closed her eyes and shook her head.  She opened them and glared at Zaitsev who flashed a grin.  “Why did I invite you to visit my family again?” she said.  “This happened the last time you were here too.”

“And the time before that, and the time before that,” Yu-Lin said, smiling sweetly at Sun.  “Some things just won’t happen in this lifetime, grasshopper.”

“Don’t grasshopper me,” Sun said, her glare now a smile as she turned to Yu-Lin.

“Auntie, please, this is a family party,” the fourth player said with a toddler in his arms.  “And it would be nice if my favorite aunt and only mother could play one round of mahjong without acting like thirteen year old girls.”

Sun reached over to grab the little boy and hugged him in her arms.  “Bo,” she said to the man who had her eyes and mouth.  “There is nothing I would like more than your mother to start acting a little closer to her age.”

“Oh grasshopper,” Yu-Lin said.  “I’ve played mahjong since our father and mother sat us down in the grass and showed us these very tiles 85 years ago, and I’ve kept playing with hundreds of Chinese and Americans since then, but I have never, never ever, played with anyone as bad as you.”

“Mother,” Bo said and Sun looked at him, still smiling.

“You can take the perfect set of tiles and turn them into a winning hand for even the stupidest opponent.”

“Mother,” Bo said, nearly yelling, and Sun held back a laugh.

Yu-Lin laughed and Sun did too as she gave the child on her lap a peck on the forehead and put him down. 

“You are the worst hostess,” Sun said.

“It’s not my party,” Yu-Lin said and smiled.  “Blame my son if you’re not having a good time.  I’m too old for all this work.”

“Auntie, when will you two stop this nonsense?”

“When will you stop asking such foolish questions?” Yu-Lin said, slapping her son’s hand.  “Deal,” she said, looking at Zaitsev.  “I can’t win another game if you won’t give us the tiles.”

Zaitsev eyed Yu-Lin and she eyed him right back.  He laughed and starting mixing up the tiles. 

“Just make sure you shuffle them this time,” Sun said, jabbing her finger at him.

Zaitsev laughed some more and took the last sip from his glass.

“Let me get you another, Alexander,” Bo said, waving to a teenage girl. 

“Thank you, Bo.  You have excellent scotch,” Zaitsev said, mixing the tiles some more and gathering them together again.

“I noticed you’ve given up vodka.”

“A while ago, not that I ever drank that much.  I actually haven’t been to Russia in more than twenty years.  Although, I did a day trip to Tajikistan a couple of months ago, right Ben?”

Lieutenant Juarez looked at Zaitsev.  “Yes, sir.  It was a very productive trip.”

Zaitsev stared at him and laughed some more.  “Try to relax and have some fun, will you?”

Juarez nodded.  “Yes, sir.  I will.  Are you winning, sir?”

Zaitsev winked as Sun turned around with a scowl. 

Yu-Lin and Bo laughed as Juarez looked away, fiddling with his right hand. 

“Deal,” Sun said to Zaitsev who started handing out the tiles. 

“Weren’t your parents diplomats?” Sun said.

“Yes, ma’am.  Still are: sort of,” Juarez said, looking up at Sun, still holding onto his hand. 

Sun’s eyes narrowed as she looked at Juarez’s hand.  “Is it all right?”

“Yes, ma’am.  Maybe a little stiff.”

Sun stared at him for another moment.  “That’s normal.  Are you having a good time even with the new hand?”

Juarez looked at Sun and found a smile.  “I’m having a good time, ma’am.”

“Are we going to play or what?” Yu-Lin said.

Sun turned back to the table and her big smile returned.

Juarez let out his breath and looked over Sun’s shoulder at her tiles.

“Did you do something to your hand,” a voice said behind him.

Juarez turned to a woman a little younger than him, one of Sun’s numerous relatives at the party.  “Hi.”

“Hi.”

“I’m Ben.”

“Susan.  We met about three hours ago, one of dozens of the family members you’ve been introduced to at the party,” she said and shook his hand, holding it and examining it with both of her own.

Juarez looked at her with a raised eyebrow.

“Oh, sorry.  I’m a first year surgical resident, and I couldn’t help myself.”

Juarez smiled, his shoulders easing down.  “No problem.”

“What did you do to it?” Susan said, still poking his hand gently.

“Hmm.  I, um, sprained it biking, believe it or not.  Fell off and caught myself before scraping my face all over the road.”

Susan nodded.  “You have a good doctor.  There’s no sign anything happened to it.  Your hand feels brand new.”

“It feels brand new to me too.”

Susan let go of Juarez’s hand and nodded at Sun.  “So, you’re Auntie’s new assistant?”

“Um yes...  Yes, I’ve been working with Mrs. Sun for the last couple of months.  Um, it’s been a great job.  I’ve learned a lot in a very short time.”

“Auntie goes through a lot of personal assistants it seems.  I feel like I just met…  Oh what was her name?”

“Mae Parks?”

“Yes, what happened to her?  She was really nice.”

“Hmm.  I guess you’re right.”

“You don’t think she’s nice.”

“No, she’s all right.  She’s just been giving me a hard time as the newbie.”

“That sounds normal to me.”

“I guess.  She’s been nicer lately, actually.  Since I hurt my hand she’s been great.”

“That’s good.”

“It is.  Anyway, she’s minding the home office while we’re here.”

“She doesn’t get rewarded with family gatherings anymore?”

“I think minding the store was her reward.”

Susan looked at Juarez with a smile.  “Well I’m sorry she’s not here.  She and I had a nice chat about Pixar movies of all things.  She said ‘Up’ makes her cry every time she sees it.”

“Really?” Juarez said with a smirk.  “That’s interesting.”

Susan’s eyes narrowed on him.  “You’re not going to give her a hard time are you?”

“I didn’t plan to but that sounds like a good idea,” Juarez said and laughed until he noticed her look at him.  “But I guess I don’t have to.”

Susan glared at him.  “I think that would be a good idea.”

Juarez smiled, but Susan looked away from him.  “Can I, uh, get you a drink?”

“No thanks,” Susan said.  “I’m driving home soon.”

Juarez shook his head.  “Um, okay,” he said when a ruckus rose up behind him.

“Are you kidding me?” Sun said loudly and suddenly from behind Juarez.

He turned to see large smiles on Zaitsev and Yu-Lin’s faces.

“Mother,” Bo said.  “I can’t believe you did that.”

Yu-Lin looked at Bo, still smiling.  “This happens every time.  Your aunt has never won at mahjong, Bo.  Never.  Why would it surprise you now as opposed to all of the other times she’s lost?”

“You gave him the game,” Sun said, pointing to Zaitsev, who looked pointedly down at the tiles and started to gather them together again.

“This happens every time,” Susan said to Juarez.  “They are worse than I am with my sister.  Granny will never let Auntie win?”

“What did my sister promise you?” Sun said to Zaitsev in Russian.

“Nothing,” Zaitsev said and smiled.  “No wait, she offered me a bottle of Blue Label if you lost.”

Sun shook her head with half a frown and half a smile.  “I should bust you down to ensign.”

“I’ll share the bottle with you.”

Sun looked at him.

“Auntie, it’s not polite to make threats in a language nobody else understands,” Bo said.

“Ben knows what I said, and they weren’t threats.”

They all looked at Juarez, who took a step back.  “No, sir,” he said, shaking his head.  “They were not.”

“They should have been, though,” Sun said.

“Please,” Yu-Lin said, raising a hand in protest.  “Help me up, Alexander.”

Zaitsev winked at Yu-Lin and stood up.

“Mother, let me help you.  Our guests shouldn’t have to…”

“It’s the least he can do after I gave him the game and match.  Particularly after the horrible tiles he gave me.”

Bo shook his head, but couldn’t hide a quiet laugh.

“See?” said Sun.  “She admits to it.”

Yu-Lin waved her free hand as Zaitsev helped her get to her feet.  “I admit to nothing.”

“You just did.”

“Pphht.  You’re hearing things.”

“I am so sorry you have to see this display, Ben,” Bo said.  “We usually don’t let out the family laundry in front of our guests, particularly first time visitors.”

Juarez smiled.  “No problem, sir.  My brothers did much worse the last time I was home.”

“Good, then come and talk to me about yourself, young man.  I want to learn a little about you,” Yu-Lin said, grabbing Juarez’s arm.  “And stop flirting with my great granddaughter.”  She looked at Susan.  “You can do better than Qiao’s personal assistant, tiny cricket, even if you’re only trying to make your parents angry.”

Juarez’s face dropped a bit, but Susan just smiled.  “Bye,” she mouthed with a wave as Yu-Lin led Juarez away, all the while using him to help her walk.

Juarez smiled politely as they passed many family members who cleared a path for them.

“She deserves to give her parents a rough time.  They were too hard on her growing up,” Yu-Lin said.  “Still, she can do better.”

Juarez bit his tongue.  “Um, yes, ma’am.”

“Knock that ma’am stuff off,” Yu-Lin said, stopping the two of them in a quiet spot toward the front of the house away from everyone else.  She looked up into his eyes.  “Are you having a good time?”

Juarez smiled and his shoulders hunched up.  “I am.  Yes.  Thank you.”

Yu-Lin nodded at him.  “How long will Qiao live?”

Juarez coughed and nearly took a step back but Yu-Lin held him close. 

She smiled.  “Your boss looks exactly like my little sister, Li Qiao Hui who was born in January 1921 in Jiangsu province near Nanjing, China.  I don’t remember her being born, but I remember my mother being fat with her, and I remember not being able to sleep with my parents anymore because of her.”

Juarez blinked, not saying a word.

“Qiao and I grew up in a good, rich home where our parents were able to shield us from the worst of Chinese life, and Qiao followed me everywhere like a puppy dog, doing everything I did and listening to everything I said.  We were lucky to be so happy then, because of all of the wars, and were luckier still when our parents arranged marriages to kind husbands from good, local families.  Even after we married, we lived near each other and our parents, and so when Qiao had the first baby we were all able to be there for her.  Then I got pregnant not long after Bo was born and she was able to be there for me.”

Juarez looked across the room at Bo and Sun laughing together, and then looked back at Yu-Lin.

“Yes.  Life then was good like it is today, or so we thought in our very little world.  Most Chinese would have disagreed with us, but then most Chinese had to deal with the horrors of the warlords or Communists or the Nationalists or the Japanese when all we had to do was figure out how to have and take care of babies.”

“The outside world didn’t really affect us until Qiao’s husband, Enlai, was drafted into the Nationalist army and was hurt when the Japanese took over Shanghai in 1937.  Even that didn’t seem so bad since Qiao could bring him food and make sure he was getting better.”

“But then things got worse, much worse.  Qiao was visiting her husband when the Japanese swept suddenly across Jiangsu toward Nanjing and destroyed our world.  We thought they would be happy with Shanghai, but they couldn’t resist attacking Nanjing.  It was the capital, and I guess my parents did know better.  Our family had a plan in case that happened, and my father had prepared to go west in front of the Japanese to Henan, but Qiao was still with Enlai.  We waited until the last second for her.  I remember seeing a Japanese tank come up through the river valley when our father picked up baby Bo, and ordered us to go.”

“Life got worse then for several years, and we discovered how the rest of China had lived while we were spoiled children.” Yu-Lin said, looking at the floor for a long moment.

“That must have been terrible.  I can’t imagine…”

Yu-Lin quieted Juarez with a look and took in a breath.  “We thought…” she said, but then stopped for a moment.  “We knew that Qiao must have died in the wave of Japanese slaughter that flooded across Jiangsu and Nanjing.  Everything that we heard was about a hell that I couldn’t imagine, but survivor after survivor described.  A village elder who had fled through Nanjing saw Enlai, Qiao’s husband, murdered by the Japanese.  They cut off his head with one of their swords.  And while we never got confirmation of Qiao’s fate, we had to assume she was dead.  After hearing all the horrors, we nearly prayed that she was dead.  She must have been.  Qiao knew that we had family in Henan and would have gone there if she could.  And if we weren’t there she would have kept looking for us and Bo until she found us.”

Yu-Lin wiped her eyes. 

“We did hear a rumor a few years after Nanjing, after running and scraping whatever life or death we could from the war.  A friend, a former associate of our father, found us in Wuhan and said that he saw a woman who looked like Qiao in Henan, except healthier than she’d ever been as a girl and pregnant again too.  He said that she was with a new husband and seemed strong and healthy in spite of the war around us, but that was impossible to imagine.  Too many terrible things had happened to us by then for us to afford a trip to Henan.  Both of our parents and my husband and daughter had died by then.  It was just Bo and me at that point, and we had a hard enough time staying alive, much less traveling to find a ghost.”

Yu-Lin took in a deep breath. 

“The funny thing is that woman probably was my little sister.”

Juarez swallowed.

“I returned to my village in Jiangsu with Bo after the war and found the house where I grew up still standing somehow.  It had survived although Bo and I were the only ones in our family who could return to it.  We couldn’t reclaim it, of course, because others had taken it over, but Qiao had also come to the house after the war.  She was still looking for us or some memory of us, and that’s where we saw each other across the street from one another.”

Yu-Lin smiled and looked into Juarez’s eyes. 

“I can’t remember a happier moment or more fulfilling feeling in my life.  Qiao stood frozen, somehow still pregnant and with a man who held a child that looked so much like Bo.”

She touched Juarez’s cheek for a moment.

“We held each other for a very long time, and Bo didn’t know what to do or who this healthy looking woman was.  I think it was the best and worst moment of Qiao’s life.  Her sister and son were alive, but she learned that the rest of our family had died, and that her son thought of me as his mother.  It broke her heart, but brought her more happiness than she has probably ever felt.”

“Qiao and her new husband, Sun Zheng, and their daughter stayed with us then until she had her third baby.  We got our house back, and Qiao and Zheng somehow restarted our father’s store and helped rebuild our village in the months that she was with us.”

A moment passed between them as Yu-Lin smiled at Juarez.

“She visited once or twice every year for a few years after that, never saying where she was going or what the rest of her life was like, but always making sure that Bo and I were safe and comfortable, and that Bo got to know his ‘cousins’.”

Yu-Lin took Juarez’s hand and looked deep into his eyes.  “I always wondered how she survived and where she lived now with her new family, but Qiao wouldn’t tell me.  She said she couldn’t.  Then the Communists took over all of China and everything changed.  I learned the truth about the universe beyond China, beyond Earth.  Qiao wanted to bring Bo and me into space, into this better life that she lived far from our home, but I said, ‘No’.  I had run too much in my short life and I didn’t want to leave my home after finding it again.  I thought Mao and his Communists would be no better or worse than Chiang and his Nationalists, no matter what Qiao said.”

“I was wrong, of course.  Qiao moved us and my new husband and our two children to Taiwan in the 50s and then we left for America in the 60s where we’ve lived ever since.”  Yu-Lin said and smiled.  “It only took a generation to find our real home, and I know that’s lucky compared to when so many others never found even a little bit of happiness.“

“By then Qiao was pretending to be my much younger niece since she looked like she stopped getting older in her late thirties.  It didn’t fool anybody, not even my younger ones or grandchildren who didn’t know her as well.  We played along, though.  If she wanted to pretend to be her own daughter or whatever it didn’t matter.  We were happy and that’s all we cared about.”

Yu-Lin nodded again and took in another deep breath.

“We did get worried when we didn’t hear anything for a few years in the 80s.  We thought she may have died in one of the amazing adventures here or in outer space that she would tell me about as if she was making up some crazy story with aliens and other worlds.  But then after three years, Qiao returned to us one day, happy to see us, but with an obvious sadness about her that I hadn’t seen since the war.  She explained that something bad happened at a place called Ericson: something that took away her husband, her oldest daughter, five of her grandchildren and her youngest son.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“And I’m sure she wouldn’t want me to talk to you about it.  So don’t say anything.”

Juarez nodded.

“Good.  Now I told you all of this because I want to know if my sister and the other humans who live out there,” Yu-Lin said, pointing out the window to the sky.  “Are you immortal?  Will you live forever?”

Juarez looked at her.  “Ma’am, I…” he said, but couldn’t hold her stare.  “I don’t know.  No one does.  I don’t think anyone’s reached a limit yet, but…  I don’t know.”

Yu-Lin turned away from Juarez to look at Sun and Zaitsev.  “I wouldn’t want to live that long, or even much longer than I already have.  I’m ready to move on when I die.  I’ve seen enough and lived enough, and I know I’m leaving a good family and enough memories for others to treasure even if my little sister keeps going for another thousand years. 

Juarez looked at her, not saying anything.

Yu-Lin smiled, but not at Juarez.

Sun smiled back.  “I’m not interrupting anything am I?” she said, handing her sister a glass. 

“You are.  Why else would I want to talk to this boy?” Yu-Lin said, taking the glass with a frown.  “Go away.”  She took a sip, frowned again and gave it back to Sun.  “Too much sugar.”

“It’s just the way you like it.  Now are you finished with all of your questions for my young Mr. Juarez?”

Yu-Lin took another sip.  “Not really.  He’s too quiet so far.”

“He talks more the longer you get to know him,” Sun said, tapping Juarez on the arm.  “I’m starting to worry I won’t be able to get him to shut up soon.”

Yu-Lin looked at Juarez.  “Well, then he and I should talk a little more.”

“I didn’t say it was a good thing,” Sun said, giving Juarez a wink.

“Mother.”

Yu-Lin and Sun both looked at Bo.

“Do you mind if I borrow her, Auntie?” he said.  “I want her to meet someone from the office.”

“Of course,” Sun said with a tight smile.  “I was just trying to save Ben from revealing all of my secrets.”

“Ma’am,” Juarez started to say as Sun squeezed his arm hard.

Yu-Lin reached up and grabbed Sun’s free hand, squeezing it and looking her right in the eye. 

Sun leaned in toward the older woman, and their foreheads touched. 

Bo smiled at them.

“We’ll finish this drink after I’m done meeting Bo’s latest protégé,” Yu-Lin said and smiled.  “Everyone is bringing people by to impress me.  Who knew I was so powerful.”

Sun watched her sister walk away slowly, and then turned to a wide-eyed Juarez.

“Ma’am?”

“Come on,” Sun said, pulling him forward.  “Let’s have a talk on the porch.”

They walked outside to the relative privacy and fresher air.  Sun let go of Juarez’s arm and looked over the city from the second floor porch.

“Commander, I’m sorr…”

“You don’t have to apologize for anything, Lieutenant.  You’re not the first person to be cornered by my sister, and I’m sure you won’t be the last.  Yu-Lin backed Lieutenant Parks into a corner the last time we came to a family reunion, and Commander Zaitsev has had many private conversations with her, and they’ve all told her one thing or another that the Confederacy would prefer to keep quiet.”

“I didn’t te…”

“My husband gave her the whole story more than sixty years ago,” Sun said, turning to Juarez with another tight smile.  “Of course, that was a different time and place.  China was falling apart, the Confederacy didn’t have a very firm policy about Earth, and Yu-Lin was smart enough to empty a half a bottle of scotch into Zheng.”

“Ma’am?”

“Zheng was my husband,” Sun said, her eyes drifting away from Juarez to Yu-Lin.  “She knows about us, New Plymouth, the Confederacy and most of my other dirty secrets.”  She shrugged.  “Sisters, you know?”

 “I only have brothers, ma’am.”

“That’s too bad for your mother.”

“That’s what she used to say.”

Sun laughed.  “How is your hand?  Does it feel as good as the old one?”

“To be honest with you, ma’am, I really can’t tell the difference from the old one,” Juarez said, rubbing his wrist.

“Still playing with it, though, I see.  That’s normal.”

Juarez let go of his wrist.

“Are you really enjoying the party, Lieutenant?”

“Yes, ma’am.  It’s nice to see how much your family loves life.”

“Hmm,” Sun said, her eyebrows going up.  “I’m not sure about that, but I’m glad you’re having a good time.  I didn’t expect your first few months with the Rising Star to be so hectic, even if you did stick out your neck needlessly in Antarctica.”

“Yes, ma’am.  I won’t…”

“I’m sure you will, Lieutenant.  You’re young and I wouldn’t expect anything different.  My sons did the same thing.  Daughters too.  That’s something every young officer goes through no matter what their commanding officers say.  Just be careful and try not to do anything too stupid.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Juarez said and looked back at her.  I’ll do my best.”

“Good.”

They could hear Zaitsev laugh through the glass door, and they both turned to see him talking with Bo and Yu-Lin and a third person and laughing some more.

“Lieutenant Commander Zaitsev is having a good time, ma’am.”

”That’s good.  He needs even more R&R, although I can’t spare him just yet.”

Juarez turned to Sun.  “You have a very nice family, ma’am.”

Sun looked back at him.  “Thank you, Lieutenant.”

“I’m hoping to see mine soon.  My parents are talking about a trip to Jupiter station next year.”

“That’ll be nice.  I owe your father some Colombian coffee.”

“Ma’am?”

Sun watched Zaitsev with her sister and son again.  “I’ll let your father explain it to you if he wants.”

Yu-Lin pointed to Sun and waved.

Sun waved back.

“You look like you’re having a good time, ma’am.”

Sun turned to Juarez again and smiled.  “I am, Lieutenant.  I visit my family on Earth as much as possible, as I’m sure my sister mentioned when she interrogated you.  Usually I’m able to bring some of my children or grandchildren or even great grandchildren from New Plymouth to these parties, but our schedules didn’t line up this time.”

“I guess next time then.”

“That’s the plan,” Sun said and was quiet for a long moment.  “I imagine my sister’s not going to be with us much longer, even with the youth treatments I’ve slipped her occasionally over the years.”  She turned away and looked back over the city skyline again.  “I’d like her to see her nieces and nephews again, and so would she.  I’ve kept up the family connection for the last 70 years and I have no intention of letting it go.”

Juarez nodded, not saying anything for a moment.  “She wanted to know if you would ever die, ma’am, or if you, Commander Zaitsev and everyone on New Plymouth could live forever.”

Sun nodded and looked back at Juarez.  “What did you tell her?”

 “I told her I didn’t know.  No one does.”

Sun’s mouth turned up slightly.  “And she told you that she didn’t want to live forever, right?”

Juarez looked out at the skyline.  “Yes, ma’am.”

Sun nodded again and they stood there for a minute looking at the Statue of Liberty, not saying anything as a car pulled up across the street. 

Juarez watched the car just sit there for a minute and then his mouth fell open as Sara Locke opened the door and got out.

Sun stared right at Locke with a small smile on her face. 

Locke looked around, not seeing them as she checked out the street.

“Ma’am, that’s Sara Locke,” Juarez said, stepping back from the edge of the porch, getting a little more out of sight.

“I know, Lieutenant.”

“She doesn’t live in New York, ma’am.  She lives in Washington.”

“Funny you know where she lives, Lieutenant.”

Juarez turned to Sun who kept watching Locke.

She walked up to the house to their right and rang the doorbell.

“I wanted to see how good Agent Locke was, Lieutenant.  I left her some clues that you might be in this neighborhood, and even might live next to my son, wondering if she’d be interested in finding the man with the terrible Kiwi accent who’s gotten under her skin in the last couple of months.”

Juarez’s face scrunched up.  “Ma’am?”

“I’ll fill you in on the details when you need to know, Lieutenant.”

 “Yes, ma’am.”

“Why don’t you go find Commander Zaitsev and tell him we should probably be leaving soon?”

Juarez looked at Sun again.  “Yes, ma’am,” he said and opened the door.

Locke rang the doorbell again and looked through the windows of the front room.

“Can I help you?” Sun said, walking to the edge of the second floor porch.

Locke turned around, her head tilted to the side, trying to figure out who was talking to her.

Sun waved with Juarez watching her from out of sight.

Locke nodded to Sun, her eyes darting between her and the street.  “I’m… I’m looking for the family that lives here.  The Lees”

“They’re not home.”

“I see that,” Locke said, glancing back and then looking again at Sun.  “Do you know when they’ll be back?”

“A few weeks,” Sun said and a grin crept over her face.  “They’re in New Zealand.”

Locke squinted at Sun, blinking.  “New Zealand?”

“Yes, they’re visiting family, I think.”

Locke glanced at the house and then back at Sun.

“You look surprised.  Is there something I can help you with?”

Locke stood staring at Sun.  “No.  I just thought they’d be home.  I…  I guess I mixed up the dates.”

“Yes, that happens with New Zealanders all the time.  They’re a surprising people.”

Locke eyed Sun, half a frown on her face.

“Would you like me to leave them a message, miss?”

“No, I’ll… I’ll call or email them.”

Sun smiled and waved.  “Well, have a nice day.”

Locked looked closely at Sun’s face.  “You too,” she said and headed for her car.

Sun turned, winked at Juarez and then glanced back at Locke.  “See you soon,” she said under her breath and motioned to Juarez to return to the party. 

Chapter 7: Game Theory

 

Lieutenant Commander Zaitsev checked his monitors and sat up a little straighter in the command chair.  “Ensign Hussein, what is our position to the Shooting Star?”

Marian Hussein adjusted her monitors for a second as the Rising Star decelerated at the inner edge of the asteroid belt where the cruiser Shooting Star drifted, its remaining heat and energy seeping into space through a giant gap that exploded out of its hull.  “We’re 45,000 kilometers away, sir: a little more than three minutes at our current speed.”

“Take us into a wide orbit of the ship, keeping us away from that Dwanem cruiser and freighter,” Zaitsev said, glancing at his monitors.  “Any idea whose freighter that is, Ensign Werner?”

“It’s registered as the Venture, sir, one of Sel Triam’s freighters,” Katarina Werner said, looking back at Zaitsev from the tactical station.  “It just sent a shuttle to the Shooting Star with thirteen Dwanem on board, eleven heavily armed based on the energy readings.”

“That’s not a surprise.”

“Sir, my visuals also confirm that it was an internal explosion that ripped open the Shooting Star’s hull,” Werner said, examining the data.  “It must have been sabotage.  There’s no way they would’ve done that themselves, sir.”

Zaitsev nodded.  “Thank you, Ensign.  Keep your eyes on the cruiser and freighter and let me know if they do anything at all.  Anything.  We’ll investigate the specifics on the Shooting Star explosion soon enough.”

Werner’s mouth twisted down.  “Yes, sir,” she said as her monitors flashed in front of her.  “The Dwanem cruiser is hailing us again, sir.”

“Patch it through this time, Ensign,” Zaitsev said and smiled at his central monitor.

A handsome face smiled back.  “It’s about time you answered, Qia …”

Zaitsev laughed and both ensigns turned to him in surprise. 

“This is Captain Lawimh Housan of the Confederate cruiser, Virtue,” said the face.  “But you know that already, don’t you Alexander Vissarionovich Zaitsev?”

“I do, Captain Housan, I do,” Zaitsev said and winked.  “How are you, Lawimh?”

Housan laughed.  “I’m less than thrilled that I’ve had to hail you ten times to get you to pick up the phone.”

Zaitsev shrugged.  “It’s a new ship?”

“Un huh.  Where’s Qiao Hui?”

“Commander Sun is busy at the moment,” Zaitsev said.  “I hope I’ll do.”

“Of course, it’s always good to see you.”

“That’s good to hear.  I’m surprised to see you.  I’d have thought captaining a cruiser was a little below your pay grade at this point.”

”It’s a strange time, Alexander,” Housan said, his smile fading.  “I thought I might be most useful near our homeworld, and my admiral agreed.”

“So, the Dwanem are interested in Earth and New Plymouth again?”

“You know the Dwanem have a long history with humanity, and a lot has been going on since you took over Earth’s protection,” Housan said and shrugged.  “The Virtue has been patrolling the Jupiter system for the last twenty days to keep an eye on things. 

Zaitsev nodded, but didn’t say anything.

“I do wonder why the Rising Star came out to the asteroid belt when it is supposed to be keeping a close eye on Earth.”

Zaitsev’s mouth tightened.  “We’re here to investigate the explosion on the Shooting Star.  We got their automated distress signal, and became worried when they wouldn’t answer our calls.”

“So you expect people to answer your calls?”

“Like I said, Lawimh, we’re still working out some kinks.”

Housan rolled his eyes.  “Yes, we also got their distress signal, and came here as soon as we could.”

“But Triam beat you, Captain?”

“The Venture was closer, Commander, just minutes away actually.”

“That seems strange, Captain,” Zaitsev said and the two looked at each other for a moment.

“Based on your recent experience with Captain Triam, I can see why you’d say that, Commander.”

“I’m not surprised that Triam sent a heavily armed gang to recover the Shooting Star, Captain.”

“Captain Triam was the first here and so is the first to respond to the Shooting Star’s situation, Commander.  I imagine he’s just being cautious.”

“You didn’t feel the Virtue could do a better job, Captain?”

“Triam’s team should be able to handle the situation, Commander.  We’ll assist or back them up if needed, and he knows that.”

“So will we.  I planned on sending a tug to the Shooting Star, Captain.”

“I think the situation is well in hand here, Commander.”

“You do have more experience with these situations, Captain,” Zaitsev said and tilted his head to the right.  “But you’re not the man going to the Shooting Star right now, are you?”

Housan’s eyes narrowed on the monitor.  “Who’s protecting Earth while the Rising Star joins this crowded recovery, Commander?”

Zaitsev pulled his lips up in a smile.  “We’ve had no smuggling issues at all since a freighter that bore a striking resemblance to the Venture tried to crash the Rising Star into the Earth 104 days ago, Captain.  I imagine you know that, though, since you’ve no doubt reviewed our daily reports to the Confederacy.”

“I have, Commander.”

“I also imagine that since Triam is here, Earth has never been safer, Captain.”

Housan’s mouth twisted down, but he didn’t say anything.

Zaitsev shrugged.  “I left a tug in Earth orbit just to keep an eye on things.  I figured with our remaining tug we’d take charge of the Shooting Star’s recovery and investigation and make sure that her crew were treated with the proper respect.”

Housan took in a deep breath.  “I appreciate your position, Commander, but I’m keeping a close eye on what Triam is doing here, and your presence just complicates things.”

“No doubt, Captain, but I don’t think I can just leave things as they are.”

“Really?  And what do you have planned, Commander?”

Zaitsev looked straight at the monitor.  “Nothing more than I’ve already said, Captain.”

“Even outclassed in a smaller, weaker cruiser, without refraction field technology, and knowing I’d personally supervise the recovery and investigation of the Shooting Star, you still feel you need to be involved here, Commander?”

“Based on our experience together, Captain, how do you think I am going to answer that question?”

Housan’s mouth tightened into a small frown.

“I’m hoping you won’t try to stop me, Lawimh,” Zaitsev said, and tapped a button, prompting Ensigns Hussein and Werner to reach for their monitors. 

“Do you think I’m going to let you interfere just because we have a personal history, Commander?”

“I’m not sure, Captain.  A lot has happened since we last talked.  I know a couple of decades ago you would have invited me to take over the rescue.  Now why…”

“It has been a busy few decades, Commander, and things have changed.”

“How so, Captain?” Zaitsev said and hit another button.

Housan straightened his shoulders as he listened to someone unheard and off screen.  “Wanting and doing aren’t the same thing, Commander.”

Zaitsev nodded, but turned away from the monitor.  “As planned, Ensigns.”

Hussein twisted the control yoke, and the Rising Star launched itself straight for the Shooting Star.

“Commander?” Housan said through the monitor.  “You’ve been warned.”

Zaitsev looked into the monitor.  “What?” he said, shaking his head as his hand went to his ear.

Housan sighed and issued an unheard order.

The Virtue immediately moved toward the Rising Star and fired five plasma shots, hitting it three times and leaving a trail of debris and energy.  It stopped accelerating, but continued toward the Shooting Star.

Hussein and Werner reached quickly for their controls.  “Sir…”

“Wait,” Zaitsev said, examining his monitors before turning to them.  “Yes, Ensigns?”

“Sir, they’ve taken out our aft starboard energy absorption units and the gravity drive automatically shut down,” Werner said, her eyes on her monitors. 

“And?” Zaitsev said, standing and looking over her shoulder.

“And the tug is safely away, sir.”

Zaitsev failed to suppress a grin.  “Ensign Hussein?”

“I’ve nudged us to cover their flight path to the Shooting Star with old fashion thrusters, sir.  The tug should be screened from the Virtue for a more few seconds.”

Zaitsev pulled up his monitor and looked back at Housan.  “I think we both made a mistake there when my communication system went staticky, Captain,” he said.  “Confederacy ships don’t shoot at one another, do they?”

Housan turned back to his monitor and nodded.  “I think you’re right, Commander,” he said, looking off screen and giving another unheard order.  “My apologies.  Can I offer you any assistance?”

“Give me a minute and I’ll let you know if we can handle things on our own, Captain,” Zaitsev said, frowning as his monitor showed two shuttles launching from the Virtue. 

Commander Sun smiled at the monitor displaying Zaitsev on the Rising Star’s bridge as the two Dwanem shuttles appeared on her second screen.  “What a waste, Alexander,” she said to herself.  “If you had commanded the Shooting Star, this wouldn’t have happened.”  She studied the second monitor and frowned at the two shuttles, the Shooting Star and her tug in between them.  “We’re going to need to change plans if we want this to work, Lieutenants.  Get us to the starboard side of the Shooting Star, opposite of Triam’s shuttle.”

Lieutenants Parks and Juarez shared a quick glance and turned back to their own monitors and instruments.  “Yes, ma’am,” they said.

“Don’t jinx us, Lieutenants.”

“Yes, ma’am,” they said as the tug streaked to the Shooting Star.

Sun shook her head.

“Can I have a few seconds?” Juarez said, pulling up the Shooting Star’s information on his monitor.

“You’ve got about three,” Parks said, frowning at the one shuttle coming straight toward her and the other hanging back but surging with energy.  “These guys are impressive.  I can’t believe they took out the Rising Star with one volley.”

“Lawimh Housan is the best captain in the Confederacy, and it helped that Commander Zaitsev wanted to be hit,” Sun said.  “You have a new path figured out, Lieutenant?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Juarez said, his hands darting over the controls, erasing the Shooting Star’s schematics and bringing up the shuttles’ likely trajectories on his and Parks’ monitors.

“That second shuttle is about to fire at us,” Parks said without looking up.  She twisted the yoke hard to the right and heard a “Whoa,” from the fifteen marines behind her as they lurched violently in the tug’s hold.

Sun righted herself and frowned.  “You turned off the AI and artificial gravity, Lieutenant?”

“Couldn’t be helped, ma’am,” Parks said.  “They’re firing.”

“I’m on it.”

“Hey,” said a marine in the hold as a red hot spot appeared above him.  “What the…”

“We know,” Juarez said, his eyes narrowing on the monitors as his hands slid across the controls.

Sun scowled back at the fifteen marines now sitting at attention.  “Lieutenants?” she said, turning to Parks and Juarez, the tug lurching again, this time to the right. 

“Sorry, ma’am,” Parks said, jamming the yoke down this time, causing the tug to lurch up as it veered away from the firing shuttle and toward the pursuing one.  “They want to trap us and steer us away from the cruiser.”

“Of course, Lieutenants, and?”

“And we think we can take the hits and get enough time to land on the Shooting Star if we rotate the hull and fly like crazy, ma’am,” Juarez said, manipulating the controls and turning the tug’s cockpit and hold sections relative to the engine pylons. 

Parks nodded to him.  “I need just two minutes, Ben.”

“Hey, we’re going to get sick,” someone said in the hold.

“Beats dying, Sergeant,” Sun said and turned back to Juarez.  “Turn on the artificial gravity, Lieutenant.  That’ll keep the marines a little healthier.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Juarez said he rotated the hold to spread out the plasma damage to the hull.

Parks turned the tug down and to the right to avoid fire as she avoided the first shuttle and got closer to the Shooting Star’s port side.  “We need a refraction field.”

“That would be nice,” Juarez said, his focus on his monitors and instruments.  “Watch out for…”

“I know,” Parks said.

Sun’s monitor flashed a hail and she flicked on her control panel to see Lawimh Housan’s face. 

“Commander Sun,” Housan said.  “It’s good to see you.”

Sun frowned.  “I wish I could say the same, Captain.  What are you doing here, Lawimh?”

“I was going to ask you that, Qiao Hui,” Housan said and frowned back.  “You’re interfering with the recovery of the Shooting Star.” 

“By Sel Triam?” Sun said.  “Who magically appeared first on the scene, less than an hour after the Shooting Star exploded?”  She shook her head.  “Really, Lawimh?  You believe in that level of coincidence?”

Housan took in a breath.  “Captain Triam…”

“Trader Triam.”

Housan’s face tightened.  “I don’t disagree that Captain Triam isn’t above suspicion, Qiao Hui, but now is not the time to investigate his actions; not when he’s already sent a shuttle to the Shooting Star to begin the recovery and investigation operation.”

Sun looked at him.

Housan shook his head.  “Do you expect me to recall Triam just so you can recover your sister ship?”

“I’m not against it.  We should have the damage assessed and the ship recovered by the best people available: not the first ones who arrive right after the explosion.”

“And you and your crew are the best ones for the job?”

“We did build that ship.”

“With Dwanem technology.”

“That we improved upon.”

Housan looked at her.   “I’m not going to stop someone who’s trying to help the Shooting Star just because they don’t live up to your standards, Qiao Hui.  Not in defiance of standard Confederate practices and customs.”

“Triam is doing what he’s always done, Lawimh, and you know it.  He wants to make a buck or improve his position with whoever is holding the best cards.  If he does the right thing it’s by accident, not choice.  He’s never been more than a pirate and you know it.”

“I don’t see how that matters in this situation, Qiao Hui.”

“You don’t?  Are the Dwanem still so focused on themselves that they can’t remember how they shepherded humanity into space 75 years ago, and that the Confederacy has bigger concerns than worrying about standard procedures?”

“Things aren’t that simple, and you know that.”

“I know you, and I know you’re better than that.”

“That doesn’t mean I can do much about it right now.”

“Meaning what?”

“Meaning I think the dynamics are turning again for the Dwanem, the Confederacy and New Plymouth.”

“And?”

“And that means you should back off to let events play out; that we should have a longer conversation about what both our sides are doing, and that we should do it when nobody is listening.”

Sun looked back at Housan.  “I’m not sure when or how that’s going to happen, but…”

KACHUNG.  The tug landed hard on the Shooting Star.

Sun kept her eyes on Housan and a second later Juarez and 15 marines behind her unbuckled their flight restraints, and started loudly gathering up their weapons and equipment. 

“Commander?” Juarez said.

Housan’s eyes widened.  “Qiao Hui…”

“I’m sorry, Captain.  Another time.”

“There might not be another time…”

“Then we might have more serious problems than I think,” Sun said and cut the link.  “Sorry.”  She stared at the blank screen for a few seconds and then nodded.  “And I hope I’m wrong.”

“Ma’am?” Juarez said, looking at her.

“Get your marines to the nearest interface and power it up, Lieutenant.” Sun said, her eyes right on Juarez.  “Then figure out if we have time to fire up one of the fusion reactors.  We could use the power.  Either way, set up a welcome reception for the traders.  That’s your main priority.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Juarez said, looking at her for a second too long. 

“Go, Lieutenant.  Now.”

Juarez nodded and moved forward, keying open the airlock and leading the marines into the darkened cruiser. 

Behind him, Sun rose from her seat, fastening her overcoat as she looked down at Parks.  “Use the tug’s engines to angle the Shooting Star toward our Star and push us toward her, Lieutenant.”

“I’m on it, ma’am.”

“Nice piloting, Mae,”

“Thank you, ma’am.”

“We’ll be back in twenty minutes.”

“I’m not going anywhere ma’am.” 

“I hope not,” Sun said, checking her helmet’s seal and following Juarez and the marines through the airlock and onto the cruiser.  She walked down the Shooting Star’s dark corridors, lit by only emergency lights and the equipment on her own suit.  Two marines left behind by Juarez trailed her, their rifles drawn and pointed down until they passed two dead women from the Shooting Star’s crew.

“Relax, Sergeants,” Sun said, and walked through another corridor before stopping at a computer interface where Juarez and another marine were unhooking a portable generator. 

“We charged the interface and plan to use the generator to restart the closest fusion reactor, ma’am,” Juarez said.  “Hassan and Tran are already checking out what kind of condition it’s in.”

“Good, why don’t you three go help them reignite the reactor, Sergeants?”

“Yes, ma’am,” the three marines said and headed down the corridor with the portable generator.

“Lieutenant, tell me again how many marines are going to meet Triam and his thugs.”

“Ten total, ma’am, just as you ordered.”

The interface lit up and Juarez backed away as Sun stepped forward and checked the temperature gauge on her sleeve: minus 90 degrees centigrade.  “This is going to be chilly,” she said and peeled back the palm of her glove on her right hand, pushing it onto the interface with a shiver.  The monitor lit up and wires from Sun’s suit connected to the Shooting Star’s computer system.  “The Shooting Star’s system contains information that could compromise the Rising Star and her remaining sister ship, the Shining Star, Lieutenant.  It can’t fall into the wrong hands.”

“Like Sel Triam’s, ma’am?”

“Yes, Lieutenant.”

“Or Captain Housan’s, Commander?” 

Sun blinked and shook her head.  “I don’t know,” she said before turning back to the screen and hitting a few more buttons.  “This is going to take longer than I thought, Lieutenant, and I need to make sure it’s done right.  You feel confident intercepting Triam by yourself?  Your marines aren’t going to start shooting because this is their first time in action?”

“We’re ready, ma’am.”

“I want to keep casualties to a minimum, so try not to shoot anyone unless you have to, Lieutenant.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Good,” Sun said and looked at Juarez.  “What I’m about to do might be considered a little underhanded by some of the Dwanem and you don’t need to get into trouble, Lieutenant.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Juarez said, but didn’t move.

Sun waved him away.  “It’ll be all right, Lieutenant,” she said.  “I want you to make sure our welcome will be all right too.  So, go.  There’s not much time left.”

Juarez nodded.  “Understood, ma’am,” he said and followed the marines.  He didn’t look back as he walked through one compartment, then another and finally into a wide corridor that ran the width of the cruiser.

“Lieutenant, behind you,” a voice said in Juarez’s earpiece, and he turned to see a marine raise a decamouflaged hand. 

“Gutierrez.  Is everyone set up?”

“We’re good, sir.”

Juarez flicked the controls on his sleeve and the images of ten well hidden and electronically camouflaged men and women spread out over a dozen meters of corridor appeared on his helmet’s internal screen, half with rifles pointed at him.  He hit another switch.  “Good positioning team, but remember to aim those guns at the bad guys, okay?  I don’t want any friendly fire.”

“Sorry, sir,” one voice said and all of the rifles turned to the port hatchway.

“And remember nobody, and I mean nobody, fires unless Commander Sun or I say so.”

“Yes, sir,” ten voices said simultaneously.

Good,” he said with a nod and crouched down in the spot left for him.  “Remember to be the walls and floors and not get stepped on or make a sound.”

Ten marines said nothing.

“Nice quiet,” Juarez said and cut the link, crouching even lower near the starboard hatchway.  He tapped on his wrist controls and disappeared into a camouflaged darkness.  Then he adjusted his faceplate and saw the ten pinpricks of red light that showed his marines’ positions and eleven more yellow dots two compartments over that indicated the Dwanem party approaching in a bunched up formation.  He smiled again and pulled out his plasma rifle, unfolded its stock, adjusted its settings and pulled it into his shoulder, leveling it on the port hatchway.

The marines waited.  Nobody moved or made a sound in the corridor, but Juarez could feel his heart beating faster and sweat pooling between his eyebrows when the first three Dwanem entered the corridor through the port hatchway.

The rest of the Dwanem lumbered in after them, mostly in pairs, swinging their weapons wide, looking for trouble and failing to find any as the marines placed multiple invisible markers all over their armored bodies.  Juarez smiled as the Dwanem stayed together, the markers following them across the corridor.  He lined up on the last two Dwanem that entered the corridor, switching his rifle’s position from the second man who didn’t carry a weapon to the first who carried just a pistol as they walked forward surrounded by the other nine Dwanem.

“The bridge is one level down and two compartments over, Captain Triam,” the Dwanem with the pistol said through a translation program.  Juarez had his rifle pointed at him with multiple marks on his chest 

Triam stopped in the middle of the corridor and looked around, checking a small monitor in his hand.  “Where are Sun’s people?”

“They’re still attempting to reignite the forward starboard fusion reactor, sir.”

“That’s mighty nice of them.  I thought we’d have to do that ourselves,” Triam said, looking again at the monitor and then motioning to the rear hatchway.  “Let’s get to the bridge.”

Commander Sun stepped through the starboard hatch as they started forward.  “Sel Triam,” she said.  “I wish this was a surprise.”

Ten Dwanem heads snapped up as their guns whirled onto Sun.

“Wait,” Triam said and raised his hand for his men to lower their weapons

“No,” Juarez said to the marines, itching the trigger on his own rifle. 

Sun stood still and smiled.

“Commander Sun Qiao Hui, what a shock to see you interrupting our recovery and investigation efforts,” Triam said and smiled broadly back at her.  “I am truly, truly, surprised to find you here in defiance of standard Confederate procedures.”

“I doubt Commander Ostrowski would like seeing you and your band of pirates on the Shooting Star no matter what Confederate procedures say.”

“Probably, but it’s hard to know since she’s dead.”

Sun’s eyes narrowed on Triam.

“We’re here to investigate why one of your famed, New Plymouth cruisers just exploded out of the blue,” Triam said, waving a hand at the entire ship.  “I thought these things were meant to last forever and its crew was well trained.”

“They are and they were.  We’re here to find out what went wrong.”

“Strange, since Confederate regulations clearly give precedence to first responders in any recovery operation,” Triam said, taking a step toward Sun and reaching for his holstered pistol, but not drawing it.  “I think that means you shouldn’t be on this ship, Sun.”

“The spirit of the law is a little broader than that,” Sun said.  “I felt our presence might be helpful.”

“I’d say it’s a little late for that.”

Sun’s face tightened, her eyes on his.  “That’s your second attempt at a joke, Triam.” 

“I’m not trying to make you laugh, Sun.  It’s a simple fact that you’re too late to help.  This ship is dead and so is its crew.  Neither you nor I can do anything about that.”

“I can clean up the mess and find out what went wrong.”

“We already beat you to that,” Triam said and looked past her and then around the entire corridor.

“Looking for something?” Sun said.

Triam looked right at Sun.  “I know you wouldn’t come here alone and unprotected, Sun.  Where’s your backup or secret weapon or whatever you have up your sleeve.”

“I think we’re done here,” Sun said, drawing her pistol so casually and quickly that it took a moment for anyone to react.  She leveled it at Triam’s face.  “Surrender your weapons and get off this ship.” 

All of the Dwanem raised their guns at Sun and Triam smiled again.  “That must be some secret weapon.”

“No,” Juarez said again as he shifted his aim from the unarmed Triam to the Dwanem next to him with a pistol.

Sun didn’t move a muscle, her aim still on Triam’s head.

“What if we don’t?” the Dwanem next to Triam said with a wide smile.

BANG.

The Dwanem’s chest exploded as fragments flew from his body armor, flickering down as his body hit the floor with a whump.

Sun turned her smoking pistol back to Triam’s face.

“Or that,” Triam said, his own face now visibly very tight, his mouth slightly open.  “Nobody move.”

“Good idea,” Sun said.

All of the Dwanem kept their rifles on her.

Sun smiled at them as her pistol remained on Triam’s right eye.  “You’ve got a second left to keep your sight.”

“Stand down,” Triam said and turned angrily to his own men.  “Put.  Down.  The.  Rifles.”

The Dwanem lowered their weapons. 

Hull turned back to Sun with a tight smile.  “You can’t shoot us all.”

“I can shoot you.”

Triam blinked.

“But I don’t need too. Right, Lieutenant?”

Juarez stood up, his camouflage dissolving as he jammed his rifle into the side of Triam’s head.

Triam raised his hands and muttered something under his breath.

“Show them your sights, marines,” Sun said, holstering her pistol as the other marines decamouflaged and multiple pinpricks of visible light suddenly covered the remaining Dwanem from head to toe. 

They frowned as nine rifles clattered to the floor.

“They’re smarter than I thought.”

“I knew you’d have backup.”

“And yet you didn’t do a thing about it.”

“I will next time.”

“There won’t be a next time.”

Triam laughed.  “You’re going to kill us?”

“Is that what you would do?”

Triam stared at Sun.  “I’m not as bad as you think, Commander.  In fact, if you thought about it at all, you’d realize we’re not all that different.” 

Sun frowned.

“You’ve been high on your pedestal for the last seventy years about how you’ve always represented the best of humanity, the best of Earth, and you’re the best at preserving its cultures and defending it and New Plymouth to the death if need be.  But in the process I noticed you and your dead husband managed to magically build up the largest human corporation and take control of humanity’s relationship with the rest of the universe, didn’t you?”

Sun’s eyes locked onto Triam’s.

“You’re onto something big.  I know it.  I can smell it,” Triam said, looking back.  “That’s why you’re protecting Earth and why you personally came to the Shooting Star.  You don’t want anyone to know about your big plan so you just destroyed whatever secret information was in the Shooting Star’s systems, didn’t you?”

Sun just stared at Triam, but Juarez blinked in front of her.

Triam noticed and his mouth turned up.  “Yes, we’re both just looking out for own interests, Sun, just like always.”

“Are we?”

“We are,” Triam said and snickered.  “You know I would have returned the Shooting Star and its crew to you.”

“Once you checked out those records?” Sun said.  “And taken anything of value that hadn’t been destroyed?”

“That’s right.”

Sun kept her eyes on Triam’s.  “You know, it’s hard to believe you became a successful trader after sounding that stupid.”

“That’s funny coming from the woman who let the Rising Star nearly crash into the Earth a few months ago.”

Sun blinked and her face hardened.

“Didn’t seven of your crew die because of that mistake?”

“Three,” Sun said.

“Not too smart, Qiao Hui.”

“That’s Commander Sun,” she said and pulled out her pistol.  “And it’s time for you to leave.”

Triam faced her head on.  “Good thing you brought along your gang of bodyguards.”

“Good thing for you.”

BANG.

Triam fell hard to the floor, screaming as he cradled his knee. 

“They and my respect for Confederate law are the only reason you’re still alive.”

Juarez and the marines turned to Sun, not saying a word.

Sun looked into the eyes of the closest Dwanem who had all taken a step away from her.  “Take your captain and your other downed man and get off this ship if you want to see tomorrow.”

The Dwanem didn’t move for a second, but then as a group just nodded and picked up Triam and their other downed man.

Sun walked up to whimpering Triam, looking into his now glazed eyes.  “I heard you’re planning to return to the Confederate military, Triam.”

He turned away from her, not saying anything.

“It’ll be a nice change to work together to protect Earth,” Sun said and turned her back to him, heading to the starboard hatchway.  “You can shoot them if you have to, Lieutenant.  Just make sure they’re off the Shooting Star in the next ten minutes.”

Juarez nodded.  “Yes, ma’am.”

Sun watched Juarez and the marines line up the Dwanem, hands on their heads, and start marching them back to their shuttle.  She smiled as one marine nudged the largest Dwanem back in line.  “Good job,” she said.

“Thank you, ma’am,” Juarez said.

Sun nodded.  “This just might work,” she said and smiled as she went through the hatchway.

“Ma’am?”

“You’ll find out soon enough, Lieutenant.”

Juarez looked at her, not saying a thing.

***

Of course the adventure continues.

Read how Sun heads off the Dwanem's attempt to take over the Rising Star's mission, how Parks and Juarez recruit Agent Locke to their cause, and how Sun and Zaitsev face down the Ya'neth's desire to save humanity from itself.

Just email Joe at joe@joestories.com and he will get the rest of Children of Earth and Beyond to you.

 

All material copyrighted by Joe. Please contact him at joe@joestories.com if you have any comments, queries or questions.
Home - Contact Joe