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The Trojan Horse

Discussion in 'Survival Reading Room' started by ChrisNuttall, Oct 23, 2011.

  1. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter One<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:smarttags" /><st1:place w:st="on"><st1:City w:st="on">Washington</st1:City> <st1:State w:st="on">DC</st1:State></st1:place>/Virginia
    <st1:country-region w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">USA</st1:place></st1:country-region>, Day 1

    “Holy ****!”

    Jason Lucas stared down at his screen. It had seemed like a routine day at SETI, monitoring the heavens for some sign of extraterrestrial life. Interns like Jason joined SETI, worked for a few months or years as technicians and computer geeks, and then left the foundation when it became clear that no alien message was going to be forthcoming. He’d expected to go back to college and concentrate on something more practical, something that would look better on his resume...

    He couldn’t believe his eyes. A signal was flooding in on the hydrogen band, a frequency that all of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence’s experts believed would be the one most likely used by another intelligent race. It was almost perfect, almost exactly what they’d expected to find. Jason felt a strong sense of excitement flooding through him, tempered by caution. SETI had been mistaken – or hoaxed – before and no one would thank him if he alerted the media and then discovered that he’d picked up signals from a forgotten Russian satellite or a top secret military spy satellite high overhead.

    But all the computer programs geeks like Jason had devised to verify the origins of any unknown signal all agreed. The signal was coming from the Lagrange Point between the Earth and the Moon, precisely balanced at the point where the gravity fields created by such huge objects were perfectly balanced. A space station could have been positioned there, if NASA had gotten off its ass and actually done something apart from sucking up tax dollars and providing employment for lobbyists and political pork for congressmen. There was nothing up there, as far as Jason knew; even the long-rumoured Chinese lunar mission had failed to get off the ground. He keyed in a final set of commands, verifying the findings through the network of radio telescopes that SETI monitored on a routine basis. By now, others would be aware of the signal. It wouldn’t be long before the news got out.

    For all of his life, Jason had dreamed of travelling in space. He’d been told that by the time he reached his teenage years, mankind would have space stations in orbit around the Earth and colonies on the Moon and Mars. But the dreams created by Robert Heinlein, Doc Smith and other science-fiction writers had never come true; by the time Jason had left high school, NASA had shut down the space shuttle program and the economic recession was sweeping the country. There was money for everything, it seemed, apart from space travel. An angry visionary had drifted into SETI in the hopes of touching some of the wonder he’d dreamed of in the past, yet knowing that alien contact would change the world forever. The Native Americans had encountered advanced beings who might as well have come from a whole new world. They hadn’t survived the experience.

    The computer results all agreed. There was a signal source where no signal source should be. Jason felt growing terror overriding his excitement. SETI had always expected to discover alien civilisations light years from Earth, civilisations that could pose no serious threat to the planet. Unless someone discovered a means of travelling faster than light, only the most hardy of space travellers would seek to cross the interstellar void and pay a call on Earth. And yet, the signal was definitely coming from nearby. There was an alien spacecraft near the Earth.

    He reached for his phone and dialled a number. It was early in the morning and the Director, Daniel Crenshaw, didn’t get in until late, but the protocols for any form of verified encounter were specific. Jason – or whoever was on duty – had to report the contact to his superiors at once, who would then start alerting others – and probably calling the media, the cynical side of his mind added. SETI had been having problems raising funds and a genuine alien contact would ensure that they received all the funding they needed to keep watching for alien life.

    “Sir,” he said, when a tired voice answered, “I think you should listen to this.”

    The Director didn’t believe him at first, which wasn't surprising. SETI had been hoaxed before, after all. But once Jason had convinced him that he was telling the truth, the Director left into life. Jason left the matter in his capable hands and turned back to the computers. Perhaps, just perhaps, he could decipher the message before the world’s scientific community came in and buried the whole issue under a series of studies about how to decipher the message. He didn’t have high hopes. It was hard enough to learn a human language, let alone one from another world. SETI had all kinds of programs that should allow them to establish a common understanding with an alien race, but they’d never been tested. It should have been impossible to decipher the message.

    He succeeded on his very first try.

    “I’m sorry, Mary,” Colonel William Sanderson (retired) said. “I wish you were still alive.”

    He stood below the rising sun, looking down at the two gravestones in a private part of his <st1:State w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Virginia</st1:place></st1:State> farm. His wife and eldest son lay below the ground, his wife dead in childbirth, his son dead in the wars. The Sanderson family had a long and proud tradition of military service; there had been a Sanderson with George Washington when he crossed the <st1:State w:st="on">Delaware</st1:State>, a Sanderson with Grant and Sherman as they marched on <st1:City w:st="on">Richmond</st1:City> and put an end to the slave-holding Confederate States of <st1:country-region w:st="on">America</st1:country-region>, a Sanderson in the Spanish-American War, the World Wars and <st1:country-region w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Vietnam</st1:place></st1:country-region>. The Colonel had served in Desert Storm when the <st1:country-region w:st="on">United States</st1:country-region> had first waged war against Saddam and his evil regime; two of his children had fought in the liberation of <st1:country-region w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Iraq</st1:place></st1:country-region> a decade later. And one of them had fallen there.

    “I don’t know how to cope with Toby,” he told his dead wife. “I feel as if I failed him – I failed my son. Did I blame him for your death…?”

    The memories rose in front of his eyes, memories that neither military service nor drink could keep from his mind. Mary had been slight for her age and the doctors had warned that she might have difficulty bearing children, but she’d given birth to five healthy children without apparent difficulty. The Colonel had been delighted when she’d told him that she was pregnant again, yet it had been the beginning of the end. His memories took on a nightmarish hue that none of his memories of combat matched, even when he’d been on the verge of capture by enemy forces during a mission that had never been officially acknowledged. Mary’s pale face, the blood, the crying child…and the face of the Doctor as he admitted that they hadn’t been able to save the Colonel’s wife, despite all of their knowledge. The Colonel had tried not to blame Toby for his mother’s death, yet there had always been a rift between the Colonel and his youngest son. And then Robert had died in action.

    Toby had loved Robert, his eldest brother. They’d all loved Robert. The Colonel had expected him to serve his time in the military and then return home to take over the farm. Instead, he’d been killed by an IED on the streets of <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Baghdad</st1:place></st1:City> in the days before the government admitted that there was an insurgency underway, his death the result of blundering by the planners who should have prepared for chaos in the days following the fall of Saddam’s regime. Toby had taken it badly and a series of bitter arguments between father and son had blossomed into a deep and apparently permanent rift. He’d rebelled against his family’s traditions and disappeared into <st1:State w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Washington</st1:place></st1:State>. They hadn’t spoken since.

    The Colonel rubbed his eyes. His father had told him that death was part of life, that everyone died eventually. All that mattered was how well a person lived. The Colonel liked to think that his family had lived well, even the Sanderson who had fought beside General Lee in the Army of Northern Virginia. But Toby had been at just the right age to be influenced by the death of his brother and he’d rejected the family.

    “I’m sorry, Mary,” the Colonel said, again. He’d come to terms with his wife’s death, but he’d never found anyone else to fill the gaping void in his heart. Or, perhaps, to serve as the mother-figure for his daughters, who’d been still children when their mother passed away. How could they help being tomboys, even if they had found good matches and were raising the next generation of the family? “I wish things were different.”

    His cell phone shrilled.

    The Colonel straightened up in annoyance. His private time with his wife and son was private time. The others on the farm – his children, his grandchildren and the summer hands who worked during summer holidays – knew not to disturb him unless it was truly urgent, yet there shouldn’t have been anything urgent. They had had nothing planned for the morning, except the endless work that went towards keeping the farm up and running. Countless generations of his family had lived on the farm and worked the land and the Colonel had no intention of being the last.

    “Sanderson,” he said, shortly. The caller ID identified the caller as Robin Greenhill, one of his older friends…even if he had served in the United States Navy rather than on land. “What is it?”

    “Colonel,” Greenhill said. He sounded excited – and terrified. “Have you seen the news?”

    “I’ve been busy,” the Colonel said. What had happened in the few hours since he’d glanced at CNN while eating his way through breakfast? There hadn’t been anything particularly important in the news. The President was due to give another speech on the economic depression, something that might make good comic relief; there was yet another flare-up in Palestine between Israel and the Palestinians; the Chinese were making threatening noises over Taiwan and the presence of an American carrier battle group in the region; the Russians were sounding off about the dangers of European military preparation…nothing to interest the Colonel, not now. “What is it?”

    “Go see CNN,” Greenhill said. It was almost an order. “It may be time to panic.”

    The Colonel frowned as he started the walk back to the farmhouse, passing the small orchard of apple trees he’d harvested since he’d been able to walk. One of the farmhands was picking apples for cooking now, preparing for the winter years to come; another was chatting urgently about something while holding the ladder. The Colonel ignored them as he tramped into his house, removed his boots – one of the few arguments he’d had with his former wife had been over dirty boots in the house – and walked into the living room. He disliked CNN on principle – it was too inclined to take statements from enemy countries at face value for his tastes – but he had to admit that it was often the first to sound the alert if anything changed. The internet was quicker, yet the level of fact-checking online was often very poor. He picked up the remote and flicked the television on.

    “…Command has verified the presence of seventeen alien spacecraft in orbit around the Earth,” the newsreader said. The Colonel stared in disbelief as the newsreader, a blonde bimbo with breasts that kept threatening to break out of her blouse, kept reading from her teleprompter. “The aliens have so far not attempted to communicate with the government, but official sources in <st1:State w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Washington</st1:place></st1:State> have confirmed that the President will be remaining in the White House. We go now live to SETI headquarters in Washington…Director Crenshaw, how does SETI feel about this momentous event?”

    Crenshaw’s face appeared in front of the Colonel, a balding lobbyist with a characterless face. “Well, Gillian, we’re all very excited,” he said. Sweat was shining on his forehead as he spoke, suggesting that he was either unused to being interviewed or that there had been no time for makeup and other preparations. “This is a time of great change for the human race. We always wondered if we were alone in the universe. Now we know that we are not – that we have cousins from beyond the stars. The world will never be the same again.”

    Gillian’s face reappeared on the screen. “Do you feel that this…ah, First Contact poses any danger to the planet?”

    “The aliens have so far shown no signs of hostility,” Crenshaw said. For a moment, he looked hesitant. The Colonel, used to watching Intelligence Officers from the CIA hide information they felt couldn’t be shared with the lowly soldiers who actually had to put their lives on the line, realised that he was hiding something. “They haven’t opened fire or done anything to threaten us…”

    The Colonel muted the sound and picked up his cell phone, calling Greenhill. “I saw,” he said. “I think its time to gather the clan.”

    “I’ll start calling people,” Greenhill said. “Everyone who’s seen Independence Day will want to get out of the cities.”

    The Colonel nodded in agreement. His family would be safe – except for Toby. Whatever else could be said about the lad, he was as brave as anyone else in the family; he’d stay in <st1:State w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Washington</st1:place></st1:State> beside his President. And besides, he would be as safe there as anywhere else in the nation. If the aliens didn’t come in peace…they wouldn’t have to fly giant flying saucers into the atmosphere to wreck havoc. A handful of asteroids pushed down towards the planet would do the job nicely…

    But they’d know that in <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:State w:st="on">Washington</st1:State></st1:place>, wouldn’t they?

    The Colonel and his family had been survivalists long before the word had been coined. They’d always known that they could never count on the government coming to their aid in a crisis; the government might not be evil – although some of his friends and allies believed that the government was always out to increase its power at everyone else’s expense – but it took time to respond. There would be a time between any disaster and the government’s response, a time when those who were prepared for disaster would live and those who frittered away their time would die. The Colonel had no intention of being among the dead.

    And if the aliens were hostile, the survivalists might be the only ones to survive long enough to fight back.

    The underground bunker under the White House was as luxurious as money could buy, outfitted in a manner designed to conceal that it was, at heart, a bomb shelter. A terrorist or rogue state could detonate a nuclear warhead in <st1:State w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Washington</st1:place></st1:State> and the occupants of the bunker would be perfectly safe. The displays scattered along the walls showed the live feed from a handful of military intelligence satellites in orbit, showing the positions of the alien spacecraft. It hadn’t taken a brief message from NORAD to warn the President that the aliens were out of reach of any weapon from Earth. They were positioned quite nicely above the gravity well.

    “Ladies and gentlemen,” the Sergeant at the doors said, “the President of the <st1:country-region w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">United States</st1:place></st1:country-region>.”

    Toby Sanderson, Special Assistant to the President, rose to his feet along with the rest of the politicians and military officers in the bunker. The Vice President was already on his way to an undisclosed location, while contingency plans to disperse Congress and the Senate around the country were being put into operation. There was no plan, as far as Toby knew, for alien contact or invasion, but thankfully some of the contingency plans could be used to fit the unanticipated circumstance. It allowed the government to feel that it had some control over what was going on.

    President Patrick Hollinger was in his early sixties, a man who had been in politics for much of his adult life. Oddly, he had had few scandals dogging his name as he wafted upwards in politics until he finally made a run for President. His detractors had pointed out that he had never taken a position on anything, but he couldn’t be blamed for that. In an era where unfortunate remarks made during childhood could come back to torpedo political careers, who could blame a politician for wanting to keep his thoughts and opinions private? The politicians had turned mediocrity into a virtue. The greats – Lincoln, Roosevelt, Reagan – would never be elected in the modern era.

    Besides, Toby thought, as the President motioned for them to be seated, none of them would have taken my advice.

    His career had been an odd one, to say the least. He’d gone into politics to spite his father, only to discover that he was surprisingly good at understanding and shaping public opinion. He had no desire to run for office himself, but he had helped push Hollinger into the Presidency – and Hollinger would be good for the country. Four years of boredom would be better than endless scandals. And while he had never served in the military, his family background had given him the ability to understand it as well as anyone from the civilian side of the tracks could understand it.

    “This will be brief,” the President said. He sounded as firm as he ever did. “I will be addressing the nation in one hour, perhaps sooner. General?”

    Toby watched as General Elliot Thomas, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, rose to his feet. Thomas was a beefy black man who’d served in almost every conflict in the last twenty years before finally reaching the highest uniformed post in <st1:country-region w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">America</st1:place></st1:country-region>. There were some who tipped him as a prospective presidential candidate for the next election, but Toby doubted that Thomas would run. He had no sense of compromise, of the give and take that kept politics moving reasonably smoothly. A virtue in a military officer became a liability in politics, which was – at heart – a popularity contest.

    “There’s little to say,” Thomas said. His eyes swept the room, passing over Toby in a manner that reminded him of his father’s insightful stare. The General didn’t approve of political advisors and resented Toby’s near-constant presence next to his President. “Orbital monitoring stations have confirmed the presence of seventeen alien starships near the Earth. Several of them are occupying the gravitational balance points between the Earth and the Moon; others appear to be drifting in very high orbits around the Earth. There may be others, but we have no way of detecting them past a certain range.”

    There was a long pause. “They have so far shown no signs of hostility,” he added. “If it does come down to war, however, they would have little difficulty in stomping us flat. They could just roll asteroids at us until we surrendered.”

    “There’s no need to assume hostility,” Jeannette McGreevy, the Secretary of State, said. She was ambitious as anyone Toby had ever met, with a coldly ruthless streak that contained more than a hint that a sociopath hid behind her smile. “They may come in peace.”

    “They may,” Thomas rumbled, “but their mere presence has caused chaos on Earth.”

    Toby nodded to himself. Barely an hour after the news had leaked into the public domain and there was already chaos. Hundreds of thousands of people were fleeing the cities, buying guns and stockpiling ammunition, while others weren’t averse to using First Contact as an excuse to loot. The various state governments were already calling up the National Guard and all police leave had been cancelled. They’d heard nothing from other governments on Earth, but Toby would have been surprised to discover that the other nations weren’t suffering their own version of the chaos.

    “In fact,” Thomas continued, “we are naked…”

    There was an urgent knock at the door, which opened to reveal a harassed-looking officer carrying a portable laptop. “Mr President,” he said, his face showing the strain of speaking directly to the most powerful man in the world. Under normal circumstances, anything new would be passed up the chain of command until it finally reached the President. “We picked up a message from the alien ships. They say that they represent the Galactic Federation…and that they come in peace.”
    Opinionated, Cephus and STANGF150 like this.
  2. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Two<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:smarttags" /><st1:place w:st="on"><st1:City w:st="on">Washington</st1:City> <st1:State w:st="on">DC</st1:State></st1:place>
    <st1:country-region w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">USA</st1:place></st1:country-region>, Day 1

    “We beat you to it!”

    Jayne Rowling allowed herself a half-smile as Gareth Robertson smiled triumphantly at her. The veteran reporter had never adapted very well to the increasingly digitalised world of media production, distribution and occasionally manipulation. He would have been comfortable working in a newspaper office from the early 1950s – back when women knew their place and served only as secretaries – but the internet, blogs and even cell phones increasingly confused him. What kind of world was it, he’d wondered to her once, where just anyone could post their facts and opinions online for the whole world to see? And what kind of world was it where an embarrassing media mistake could be made on Monday, exposed by Tuesday and often forgotten on Wednesday? Too many careers had been terminated by online experts pointing out the mistakes of veteran reporters.

    Robertson wasn't even correct! True; CNN had been the first major media distributor to discover that alien starships were orbiting the Earth, but the internet had been buzzing with rumours ever since the first alien message had started to be picked up on the planet below. It had only avoided general distribution through the more reliable blogs and online websites because few of the reputable commenters had been willing to risk their reputations by adding their imprint to the impossible disclosure. The downside of the new media environment was that any number of distortions, conspiracy theories and outright fabrications could be given the same weight as an official broadcast from the American Government. And there were those who believed that nothing the government said could be treated with anything, but extreme scepticism.

    Jayne herself tended to consider herself a reporter first, a commenter second. As a young student, she had found herself at the forefront of the new age of media distribution, a position that had allowed her to parlay her considerable experience with computers and online networks into a position in one of the foremost media corporations. It hadn't lasted; she’d discovered that seniority was the rule and only a handful of the most talented newcomers could hope to climb their way to the top, toeing the official line as they served the organisation’s owners. Jayne had seen how both left and right-wing corporate owners had insisted on pushing forward one point of view while burying others...and then simply carrying on, trusting the public’s short attention span to ensure that any mistakes were quickly forgotten. The uncritical support her employers had given to a single presidential candidate had sealed her urge to go independent and she’d found herself working as a freelancer for the newly-formed Blogger Association Network. Individual bloggers were often frozen out by the big corporations; a network of bloggers, a vast distributed smart mob, was a much more formidable opponent. And online, where facts could be checked and rechecked by millions of independent experts, the BAN had rapidly earned a reputation for honesty, fairness and integrity. There had been mistakes, of course, but they had all been admitted by the network. Few media corporations would be so quick to confess error.

    She settled back and surveyed the White House Press Room. It was heaving with reporters, with a handful of camera crews in the back filming everything that transpired and beaming it out live to the entire world. The media corporations had hated the thought of streaming their product onto the internet for free, but they’d rapidly discovered that the world was moving ahead anyway, despite their protests. Everyone would be sharing the same material, editing and reloading it for themselves. This time, however, the entire country would be watching the unedited live feed. The President was going to address the nation.

    Covertly, she glanced down at her Iphone and scanned the latest updates from a handful of social networking sites. The number of followers of the raw material had gone up into the millions, heading towards a billion. More and more would be signing on to watch, or sitting down in front of the television to watch on CNN and Fox as the President addressed the entire nation. Someone had already downloaded, transcribed and uploaded the entire text of the alien message onto the internet. A hundred experts had already confirmed the existence of the alien ships and started to speculate on how they might have crossed the vast gulf of space to reach the Earth. Warp drives, wormholes or even alternate dimensions seemed to be the favoured possibilities.

    The Washington Press Corps was known for being rowdy – years of media manipulation and spin had turned most reporters into hardened cynics – but this time there was a sense that they were staring at historic, even world-changing events. Jayne had been a child when the planes had hit the Twin Towers, yet she still remembered the shock that had consumed her parents, teachers and other adult acquaintances. No one had known what was going to come next; no one had known that the terrorists couldn't launch a second strike within days. This was the same; whatever else happened, the Earth would never be the same. The internet talked of hundreds of thousands of people suffering from shock – or disbelief – as they digested the news. And the experts kept bringing up examples from the past; the Native Americans, the Aztecs, Imperial China, Imperial Japan...

    They own the stars, Jayne admitted to herself. We’re nothing to them.

    In her youth, Jayne had been a Star Trek fan, but she’d never understood the Prime Directive’s logic. The UFP had surrounded countless worlds less advanced than the Federation, worlds with civilisations that would find themselves constrained by the Federation’s dominance of the surrounding star systems, civilisations that would never be able to build interstellar empires of their own. And now, however she looked at it, humanity was in the same position. The stars seemed to hem the human race in, confining her race to a single star system...

    The room hushed rapidly as the President’s Media Aide appeared from the side of the room. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, his voice picked up by the tiny microphone at his neck and broadcast across the room, “the President of the United States of America.”

    Jayne had never been quite certain what to make of President Patrick Hollinger. On one hand, he was a quiet, almost studious man, a candidate no one had seriously expected to reach the final stages of election, let alone win. On the other hand, she could see how such bland, almost characterless traits would recommend him to the general public, a public that had become increasingly sick of political scandals, extremism and the sheer poison boiling through the political. Hollinger was no great man, but then...the public had chosen to reject those who claimed to be great men. Time would tell if it had been a wise decision, or if it had been one of many mistakes that had placed an unsuitable candidate in the Oval Office.

    “My Fellow Americans,” the President said. His voice was firm, at least, the voice of a friendly headmaster or family attorney. He could convince people that he was there to help, even if he couldn't be inspirational; he could help them to lead without seeming to lead himself. But Jayne wasn't too impressed. The measure of a President lay in how he responded to crisis...and Hollinger had found himself confronted by the single most shocking event in human history. “This is a momentous day for our world.”

    He looked directly into the cameras, a skill practiced by every modern politician. The reporters might write favourable reviews of his speech or they might pour scorn on his words, but their opinions weren't the important ones. Research had long shown that a President’s position in the opinion polls often depended more upon how he approached the average voter, rather than the reporters. Quite a number of promising political careers had been terminated by playing to the reporters, rather than the watching population. And the politician who accidentally allowed his contempt for the voters to show would find his career coming to a messy end.

    “We have asked ourselves for years if we are the sole form of intelligent life in the universe,” he continued. “We have looked up at the stars, realised that they are suns just like the one that gives light and heat to our world, and wondered if they harbour their own worlds with their own intelligent races. The question we have wondered about for centuries has been answered. We are not alone in the universe.”

    A low mummer ran through the reporters. Many of them, Jayne knew, had wondered if it was a hoax, or the first step in a cunning plan to reshape the world. The internet had a vast number of people who – already, in the first few hours after First Contact – had produced a vast range of conspiracy theories, ranging from the US having built and launched the starships in secret, to a mad plan from the scientific community to convince the world to declare a truce, destroy all of mankind’s weapons, unite the world and accept peace forever more. Hearing the President, a man globally respected if not always loved, telling the world that the aliens were real put an end to any real doubts among the audience. The world had changed forever.

    “Seventeen alien starships have come to Earth,” the President said. “I have been assured by my military chiefs that they have posed no threat to our world. They have made no signs of hostile intent. Indeed, they have broadcast messages of greeting to the human race and invited us to join the Galactic Federation. A new world has been born today and we are the lucky ones who will bear witness to humanity’s entry into a wider galactic community.

    “There are those who have greeted the arrival of our visitors with fear and terror. There are those who believe that the aliens do not come in peace, that they come to conquer the human race. And yet I must say to the world that there is no sign that the visitors have hostile intentions. A new day has dawned and I ask only that we greet the new world with the confidence and maturity that it deserves. There is no need to fear the changes the aliens will bring to our world. The human race will survive and prosper.

    “The aliens have requested a meeting with the United Nations,” he concluded. “I will be present in New York, as will many of the world’s leaders, even those who would normally be considered pariahs in the global community. Together, the human race can meet any challenge; we can walk into the future with our heads held high.”

    He bowed his head, slightly. “Thank you for your time,” he said. “Goodbye – and God bless America!”

    Jayne watched as the reporters scrambled forwards, shouting questions. The President’s Press Secretary had warned them before they were invited to the speech that there would be no time for questions, but that hadn’t stopped any of the more obnoxious reporters. There were no answers from the President; instead, the next speakers waited for the hubbub to die down before they started to reassure the country – and indeed the world – that there was no danger. Shaking her head, Jayne settled back in her chair and produced her palmtop from her handbag. She’d have a preliminary blog message up within the next thirty minutes, with her comments and insights on the President’s speech for her followers. One thing stuck in her mind. The President had seemed pretty certain that the aliens came in peace.

    She smiled, recalling the thrill of the chase. Was there a reason for his certainty?

    Back in the offices that made up the heart of the federal government, the President looked a great deal less certain and reassured. Toby presented him with a cup of hot coffee and watched while he sipped it gratefully. The President worked far harder than anyone outside the Cabinet and his aides understood and anything Toby could do to lessen the stress, he would. He really needed sleep, but that wasn't likely to come. It wasn’t a coincidence that almost every modern President saw their hair turn grey while in office.

    “We had almost total media saturation,” Toby said, once the President had taken his seat and placed his elbows on the desk. The vast array of military and civilian advisors and subordinates had their orders. In a way, there was nothing for the President to do, but worry about the future. “Ninety percent of the public will have watched your speech.”

    “Good,” the President said. It was very rare to interrupt the non-news channels on television, let alone try to steam a single message onto all of the entertainment channels on the internet. That, if nothing else, would ensure that the President’s speech was watched, if not always believed. Toby’s father, he thought, wouldn't be reassured at all. He and his friends had been preparing for the collapse of government and society for years. “How are we standing on the economic front?”

    Toby made a show of consulting his secure palmtop, although he’d already memorised the last update from the Treasury Department. “The New York Stock Exchange is looking shaky, but the experts believe that it will remain fairly stable for the next few days, barring a sudden change in the global situation,” he said. “There’s been increased demand for stock in corporations that manufacture weapons, bomb shelters and camping gear – public demand has gone off the scale. I think that we will see increased absenteeism at work for the next week, but as long as there is no sudden change it’s quite likely that everything will return to normal fairly soon. And the holiday trade has seen a massive spike in activity. Everyone who can rent a place to live outside the cities is doing precisely that, Mr. President.”

    “A great many people are nervous,” the President said. “Do you think that I reassured them today?”

    “I believe so,” Toby said. There was no way to know for sure. The world was still reeling from the concept of aliens visiting the Earth. Everyone had seen movies, TV serials and even novels detailing a thousand different alien plans to conquer the Earth. Independence Day had seen massive flying saucers floating over cities and burning them to the ground; others, like Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, had shown a more subtle form of invasion. There were far fewer movies centred around peaceful alien contact – and many of them, like The Day the Earth Stood Still, had implied that evil forces within the government or military would seek to harm the alien visitors. “I think the sense of distance is lending some enchantment. It would be a different story if the aliens were hovering over our cities.”

    The President nodded, thoughtfully. “And the meeting in New York?”

    Toby smiled. Once the alien message had been picked up, the government-operated transmitters that normally served the nation’s network of spy satellites and military communications systems had been used to contact and establish a link with the alien ships. Reluctantly, the NSA had allowed representatives from a handful of other governments to monitor the transmissions, but little had been forthcoming from the aliens. They’d simply stated that they came in peace, that they were emissaries from the Galactic Federation and requested a meeting with world leaders. Surprisingly, they hadn't attempted to suggest a location or even a time and place. They appeared content to allow the human race to handle matters without further pressure. Toby wasn't sure if it showed a willingness to show respect for the human race, or if it was a very slight insult. Or maybe it was simple ignorance. The aliens presumably knew little of how the human governments operated.

    Or maybe not. We come in peace. Take us to your leaders. How long had they studied humanity to know those terms? They could have been watching and monitoring the Earth for hundreds of years...

    “The military will be establishing a no-fly zone over the city,” he said. The USAF had actually wanted to keep substantial forces in the region – backed up by carriers from the Navy – but the politicians had insisted on keeping a low profile. “We’ll use unarmed aircraft to escort the alien landing craft to the city, while the NYPD and National Guard will ensure that there is a secure perimeter around the landing site. There’s still some confusion over security within the UN itself, but we think we’ll have it sorted out by the time the aliens actually land.”

    The President snorted. Nearly every world leader of consequence – or considered himself to be of consequence – would be coming to the landing. The Secret Service – responsible for the protection of the President and his family – would be coordinating their efforts with British, French, German, Russian, Chinese and even Iranian security personnel. Only strict orders from their political masters had ensured some degree of cooperation, although as the deadline drew closer, Toby fully expected the various security teams to start picking fights with one another. The whole situation would have been unthinkable only a day ago.

    “And everyone wants to know our position in the talks,” Toby concluded. “The Cabinet would like to schedule a formal meeting to discuss the issue tomorrow.”

    “That won’t be an easy task,” the President said. “They’ve told us almost nothing.”

    He didn't mean the Cabinet, Toby knew. The Galactics – the term had started on the internet and spread around the world within hours – had told their human hosts almost nothing about the Galactic Federation, or what membership in it actually meant. How could anyone bargain with the aliens when no one even knew the rules of the game?

    “Yes, Mr President,” Toby agreed. “The analysts have already prepared a list of possibilities...”

    The President smiled. “Possibilities,” he repeated. “And what are the odds of even one of them being right?”
    Cephus, Sapper John and STANGF150 like this.
  3. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Three<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    Near Mannington, Virginia
    USA, Day 3

    The alien ships hung against the inky darkness of space. They were illuminated only by reflected earthlight, hinting at rather than revealing their alien contours. The Colonel studied the latest images from orbital satellites with interest, noting that technology had clearly improved since he'd left the military, but also that the aliens had positioned themselves just far enough from Earth to limit the amount of detail that could be picked up by human cameras. Every telescope on Earth was tracking the alien ships, yet little detail could be put together. The alien ships were massive – the smallest was easily two kilometres long – but there was something oddly unimpressive about them. They were blocky misshapen forms, rather than the more elegant ships humans had designed long before they had the ability and will to build them.

    And there was something about them that worried the Colonel. It wasn't something he could have put into words, yet it nagged at the back of his mind. On one hand, the mere presence of any alien starships in orbit around Earth was worrying; they portended vast change in the near future, even if the aliens didn't come with bad intentions. On the other hand, he wasn't sure he wanted to encounter any culture that considered the blocky starships to be the highest expression of their artistic skills. But then, he reminded himself, Imperial Japan or the Ottoman Empire had produced quite remarkable buildings...and he wouldn't have freely chosen to live in either country. The aliens might have a reason for the strict utility of their ships...

    It clicked, suddenly. A car might be designed to look elegant – the Colonel still fondly recalled the Dodge Viper he’d bought years ago – but a military tank was designed for function over form. Anything built for the military had to do the job first and look spectacular second – a very poor second. The A-10 Warthog might be an ugly airplane when compared to the F-22, another military aircraft, but the Colonel knew which one he would have preferred to be flying over him when he was on the ground, with enemy troops closing in from all directions. The aliens had built their ships along military lines. It was possible – he reminded himself firmly – that they might just have nothing reassembling a human sense of aesthetics, but yet he couldn't escape the thought that he was staring at alien warships.

    He clicked the remote and the channel shifted to another program. A presenter – a dark-skinned woman with a brilliant smile – was interviewing a set of religious types, all wearing their chosen faith’s clothing. The Colonel counted several Christians, a Jew, a Muslim and a Hindu, the latter three seemingly less comfortable than the former. Or perhaps he was just imagining it. No one with any sense liked being interviewed, even by a friendly interviewer.

    “And what,” the woman was asking, “does the Church make of our new visitors?”

    “Well, we’re very excited,” the priest said, in a strong Irish accent. He had short white hair and an affable smile, although it was clear that he spent most of his time behind a desk, rather than in the open air. “We have always known that there are other entities out there – angels and devils, for example. Wouldn't it be wonderful if the aliens shared the same belief in the Lord Jesus Christ, or in the death and resurrection of the Son of God? Would that not prove that the Church was granted access to a fundamental truth that transcended religion and politics?”

    The interviewer frowned, and then smiled brilliantly. “I assume, then, that you don’t agree with the Witnesses?”

    “I cannot claim to be an expert on the claims of Erich von Däniken,” the priest said, with some irritation, “but I find it hard to believe that the Galactics meddled with our genes to create the modern human race. The only father our world has is God.”

    “Precisely,” the Mullah injected. “The Prophet Jesus was a real historical person. His existence is not disproved by the claims that he was the Son of God. God was the only one to create life – we must accept that he created the aliens as well as ourselves.”

    The Colonel rolled his eyes as the discussion turned acrimonious. Years ago, when he'd been very bored, he’d read one of Erich von Däniken’s books claiming that ancient alien astronauts had created the human race. The claim had never been proven – extraordinary claims required extraordinary evidence – and indeed it was fairly easy to refute most of them without resource to specialist knowledge. He would have sooner snoozed his way through Atlas Shrugged than pick up another book about ancient space gods from the stars.

    But some people did believe his claims, as if the absence of any real proof only illuminated the truth hiding behind the falsehoods. They’d taken the arrival of the Galactics as proof that there were benevolent space gods watching over the human race, taking it for granted that the Galactics had arrived at Earth to introduce a whole new post-scarcity society. The Colonel hadn't watched many science-fiction serials on television in his life, but even he had heard of the utopian United Federation of Planets, or the ultra-advanced Culture. There was just no proof that the alien Galactic Federation intended to bring anything to Earth, or that their gifts – if indeed they brought gifts – would be helpful. Introducing any new technology risked upsetting the previous applecart, an excuse that had often been used to retard development.

    The television picture changed to a live feed from New York. There were still two days to go before the aliens landed at the UN, but the city was already buzzing with life. A massive crowd of teenagers – hippies, the Colonel thought in disgust – had gathered at the edges of the security cordon, screaming out a welcome to the alien diplomats. The cynical side of the Colonel’s mind wondered if the NYPD had allowed the protesters so close because they might have shouted themselves out by the time the aliens finally arrived.

    He scowled as the camera focused on a group of youngsters – and middle-aged men wearing long hair and handmade clothes – bearing signs proclaiming the aliens to be gods. It seemed absurd, to him, to claim that the aliens were anything other than another tribe, although one a little different from most. The Witnesses – many of whom claimed to have been granted visions of aliens long before the starships had arrived – were inviting others to believe as they did. New York being New York, other groups had arrived to protest their blasphemous claims. The camera focused in on a punch-up between a group of Witnesses and a handful of locals, with NYPD cops moving in to separate the two groups and impose order.

    Irritated, he clicked the channel again. “...Arrival of the aliens has caused some unrest within the Middle East,” a different announcer said. “The belief that the aliens were a Western hoax has faded, with mass marches on the streets of Cairo, Riyadh and Baghdad demanding that the Middle East be fully-represented in talks with the aliens. Official statements from Middle Eastern Governments have failed to quell the protests, but it is notable that terrorism and violent unrest has actually fallen sharply...”

    “Colonel,” a voice said, “they’re ready for you.”

    The Colonel nodded, smiling up at his youngest daughter. Susan was in her late thirties, but still a beauty, so much so that he’d worried every time a neighbouring boy had come around to ask her for a date. He’d made a point of polishing an assault rifle on the kitchen table, reminding the young hopeful that he wouldn't wait for the cops if he believed that his daughter had been hurt. And then he’d had to resist the temptation to kick young Albert in the shins as he escorted Susan down the aisle to give her away. Albert might have been a Marine, but he was a good man. And their children were lovely.

    “Thank you,” he said, with the unfailing courtesy he always showed to the fairer sex. “Have you heard from Albert?”

    Susan was from a military family. She’d known what it was like to wait at home while her father and brothers went off to war before she married Albert. Even so, she couldn't conceal her concern – her fear for his safety – from her father. Albert’s unit had been stationed near Helmand in Afghanistan and he’d been due to rotate home for leave, but no one knew what was happening now that the aliens had arrived. All military personnel had been called to duty and there were even stories that the reserves would be called up, although so far nothing had been made official. The politicians were still too worried about making the wrong impression to the aliens. They wouldn't want to convince the Galactic Federation that humans were too violent to be trusted in space.

    “Nothing since his last email,” she said. “They were saying that they might be redeployed stateside, but nothing concrete...”

    The Colonel nodded. Rumours spread through the military faster than anything else, but very few of them were reliable. But then, if the balloon did go up, Albert and his unit would be isolated and unable to return home. The aliens would bombard their positions from orbit, if they bothered themselves with a handful of American troops on the other side of the planet. Afghanistan had been unimportant to the United States for decades, before the Russians had invaded; how much less important would it be to aliens who had crossed uncounted light years to reach Earth?

    “I’m coming,” he said. “Tell Jennie to send in the food in an hour or so.”

    “Of course, Father,” Susan said, sardonically. “I hear and obey.”

    “You’re not so old that I can't wallop you,” the Colonel said. He started to walk out of the room, and then paused. “Tell Albert that we are thinking of him and praying for his safe return.”

    Shaking his head, he walked down into the common room. He had no idea what the farm’s original designers had intended for the room, but it served as a convenient place for the group to meet. They’d never given themselves a name or a purpose. It had suited them better to remain an anamorphous group with no official standing of any kind. Official positions meant that they would be noticed and notice meant trouble. It hadn't been that long since another survivalist group had run into trouble by possessing weapons that were – technically – illegal. The fact that the difference between legal and illegal weapons was minor hadn't impressed the judge. Colonel Sanderson loved his country, but if there was ever a long period of civil unrest he would take unholy delight in shooting down some of the agents of the federal government. Didn't anyone ever read the Constitution anymore?

    There were seventeen men and five women in the room. Each of them was the head of a family, either elected by his family or simply the oldest and most experienced man in the group. Like the Colonel, they mostly were ex-military, with only two exceptions; a former cop from Chicago and a former officer in the CIA. The Colonel was not generally inclined to trust the intelligence services – there had been too many incidents of imprecise or outright inaccurate information served up to allow him to feel any respect for the CIA – but he made an exception for Bob Packman. Packman had quit the CIA when the Agency had become infected with the disease known as political correctness, where restrictions handed down from Congress and an untested President had crippled the Agency’s ability to react to foreign threats. The entire country had paid a price for their foolishness on 9/11.

    “Thank you for coming,” the Colonel said, as they rose to greet him. It struck him as slightly absurd, but as the one who had shaped their little group, they tended to give him considerable respect. “Please – be seated.”

    It struck him, sometimes, that he had shaped something not unlike the insurgent cells that proved such a bane to American and European military and police forces. The group didn't share the same farm; that would have been absurd. Those who didn’t farm were positioned in Mannington and a handful of other towns, with little apparent connection between them. The outer edge of their families barely knew anything of the group. Toby hadn't been the only youngster to abandon the farming life for the bright lights of the city.

    “I got a dozen or so friends staying with me,” he said, once he had opened a can of beer and took a swig. There would be more serious drinking later, but any discussions would be had without more than a can or two of beer. This was no time to drink himself senseless. “How many did you all get?”

    He smiled at their responses. They all had relatives who lived in the cities – and had fled, following the arrival of the alien ships. Some of their relatives provided money for the farms without ever understanding the true purpose of the survivalist group and had a fair claim to stay, provided they worked on the farm. Others had no real claim, but couldn't easily be turned away. Family was family. They all knew that.

    “I think we won’t bring them into the group,” he continued. “Does anyone see a problem with that?”

    There were none. Those relatives who had had military training and experience had already been recruited, apart from a couple with suspect political views. The Colonel respected a man’s right to make his mind up about anything he liked, but if someone had a political view that the Colonel found suspect – communism or transnational progressivism – he wouldn't allow them to know anything about the group. He knew what he would do if he discovered someone planning an attack on America – being a patriotic American was part of what he was – and someone who truly believed in communism, or that the federal government was always right, would follow their own conscience. They might not be bad people, but they couldn't be trusted.

    “Vanessa may be a problem,” Lucas Dawlish admitted. He was the oldest in the room, a Ranger who had served in Vietnam as a young man, before returning home to raise children and farm his parent’s farm. “I think she truly believes that the aliens are here to help.”

    The Colonel winced. Vanessa Dawlish had been a charming child and a beautiful young woman, with enough intelligence to enter any university in the United States. She’d plumbed for Berkley, in California, right on the other side of the country. And there the trouble had started. Like so many other young girls, she’d fallen under the spell of a radical professor who had taught her that communism – however disguised – was the only path to a fairer new world order. Her parents hadn't known what to do and – given her willingness to lecture her family and friends on her new beliefs – they’d been devastated when she’d decided to move in with her former teacher. Professor Cavendish had, in just three days, earned himself a place in the spotlight as one of the foremost supporters of the Galactic Federation. The fact that no one knew much about the Galactic Federation – beyond the fact that it existed – had largely passed unnoticed.

    “I think that we would be wise to deny her entry, if she returns to Virginia,” the Colonel said. Even as he spoke, he knew it wouldn't be easy. Dawlish wouldn't be keen on abandoning his grandchild and her parents might be willing to take her back in, as long as she wasn't escorted by her lover. There was no way that anyone as impractical as Professor Cavendish could be trusted. Besides, with at least two wives in the past – one of whom was still, legally, his wife – his morals were highly suspect. “If she does...”

    He looked around the room and briefly outlined his conclusions about the alien ships. “I may be overreacting,” he concluded, “but I think we have to prepare for trouble. They may simply intend to demand our surrender in New York...or they may be overtly friendly.”

    Some of the group looked puzzled, so he hastened to explain. “They may not mean us harm, but what happens if they give us...oh, I don’t know – perhaps a way of producing synthetic oil? It sounds great – we’d finally be free of the ragheads – until we realised that most of the oil companies would go out of business. The economic effects would put millions of Americans out of work. Businesses would go bust, banks would crash, ordinary people couldn't put food on the table...it would be nice to believe that the Galactics would wave a magic wand and all our problems would be solved, but can we rely on it?

    “We founded this group because we all believed that a crash was coming,” he added. “We disagreed about why the crash was coming, or what form it would take, but we all knew that something would shake the foundations of the entire world. And now we have been confronted by the existence of alien life. The Galactics may be hostile, they may be friendly, yet their mere presence is going to shake us worse than anything else in recent history.

    “And we’re the ones who prepared. We may end up fighting an insurgency against the aliens, or merely struggling to survive while the world is reshaped into something adapted to the post-Contact world. I need to ask; will you all stay with the group, bearing in mind that we didn't prepare for this?”

    “I reckon we didn't prepare for anything specific,” Packman said. “I’m in.”

    The Colonel didn't relax afterwards, not during the dinner prepared by his daughters or during the brief drinking and swapping lies session that followed. At base, survivalists worked to survive; they would emerge from their hiding places and remake the world after the crash had been and gone. Not very brave, perhaps, and maybe not very patriotic...

    But against the Galactics, against a race that could build starships over five kilometres long, it was all they had. And no one really knew anything about Earth’s visitors. What did they really want?
  4. rgkeller

    rgkeller Monkey+

    Excellent as always.

    Your stories continue to have gripping openings that establish the main characters and provide the promise of a fascinating story line.
  5. workhorse

    workhorse Monkey+

    Awsome just keep it coming[aiw];)
  6. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Four<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:smarttags" /><st1:place w:st="on"><st1:State w:st="on">New York</st1:State></st1:place>
    <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:country-region w:st="on">USA</st1:country-region></st1:place>, Day 5

    “What is that they’re playing?”

    Jason Lucas had to shout over the racket. The police and National Guard had kept the throng of spectators and protesters back from the landing site near the UN Building, but the roar of the crowd had merged with <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:State w:st="on">New York</st1:State></st1:place>’s most popular orchestra to produce a deafening racket. Everyone in the city and for miles around wanted to see the aliens land. The NYPD had reported that thousands of people were flooding into the city, not all of them with friendly motives. <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:State w:st="on">New York</st1:State></st1:place> had been seeing something of a crime wave as criminals took advantage of the confusion to raid empty houses and steal whatever they could find.

    “It’s the theme from Close Encounters,” one of the SETI scientists shouted back. As the official Discoverer of the aliens, Jason had been guaranteed a place on the reception committee; SETI’s other members had had to depend on the luck of the draw. Local politics, Jason had heard, had influenced the selection process, despite its seemingly random nature. SETI drew researchers in from all over the world and the scientists included in the reception party included men from Europe, <st1:country-region w:st="on">Japan</st1:country-region> and even <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:country-region w:st="on">China</st1:country-region></st1:place>. “They picked it because of its positive implications of alien contact!”

    Jason had to smile. New Yorkers had turned out to welcome the aliens, with their famously independent Mayor Hundred leading the parade. There were hundreds of people wearing facemasks and posing as science-fiction characters from Mr Spock to Chewbacca. The fact that most of the aliens portrayed in human culture tended to be unfriendly had seemingly escaped most of the greeting party, including the dozens who wore grey face masks. Jason had even heard a rumour that victims of alien abduction had been gathering together to file a class action lawsuit against the Galactic Federation, although as far as he knew there was no proof that alien abductions even existed, let alone that the Galactic Federation was somehow involved. It beggared belief that there were two such disparate societies within reach of Earth, but the human race knew nothing about FTL travel. The Galactic Federation might span the galaxy, or even beyond.

    Silence fell as the official loudspeakers hummed into life. “We have just received word from the military,” Mayor Hundred said, his famous voice booming out over the crowd and even silencing the musicians. “The alien craft has just entered the atmosphere and is heading towards <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:State w:st="on">New York</st1:State></st1:place>. Their <st1:stockticker w:st="on">ETA</st1:stockticker> is twenty-seven minutes.”

    Jason felt a new rising tide of anticipation. The average American wouldn’t understand just how remarkable – and advanced – alien technology had to be. Even the Space Shuttle – before it had been withdrawn from service – had needed a long runway to land; the aliens, it seemed, had developed technology to land in the midst of the city as casually as one of the helicopters flying high overhead. It was awesome – and terrifying. The human race would have nothing to offer the aliens, no technology, no scientific knowledge…perhaps they were doomed to be a perpetual <st1:place w:st="on">Third World</st1:place> state in space. Or maybe not; the Japanese had mastered Western technology before they could be crushed and colonised by the West.

    Sure, the darker side of his mind reminded him, and then they were crushed after picking a fight they could not win.

    SETI had long puzzled over the strange silence from the heavens. If aliens existed, they had reasoned, and if they had possessed technology similar to humanity’s, the human race should have detected some sign of their existence. And yet nothing – apart from a single signal that might have been nothing more than an unexplained natural phenomenon – had ever been detected. Quasars, once thought to be alien navigational beacons, had proved to be entirely natural in origin. The aliens, if they existed, appeared to be too far away for their radio signals to reach Earth without being lost in the background noise.

    There were other theories, of course. Some said that no aiens existed, that the human race – created in the image of God – was the sole form of intelligent life in the cosmos. Others said that the aliens had simply failed to break through the technological barrier to developing high technology and eventually heading out to the stars. Still others said that there was no means of travelling faster-than-light, sharply limiting a race’s ability to colonise other stars, or that races evolved beyond the need for colonisation sooner rather than later. And some speculated that the first alien race to develop was stamping out other alien races before they could become a threat. It was the theory that kept a handful of SETI experts awake at night. The human race could not survive if any alien race arrived intending to exterminate the human race.

    And then there was the final theory. The aliens intended to allow Earth to develop at its own pace, preventing any of their people from visiting Earth and contaminating the native culture – and ensuring that no signs of their presence reached Earth before the human race was ready to welcome the aliens. He looked over towards a small crowd at one end of the massive space, the Witnesses. They believed that the aliens weren’t just friendly; they believed that the aliens had actively interfered to help shape human development and were – effectively – gods, the creators of the human race. It said something about the degree of credulity in humanity’s nature that – for an internet meme that had existed slightly less than five days – they already had hundreds of thousands of followers. They were ready to welcome humanity’s patrons – to borrow a term from David Brin – but Jason was much less sure of their grounds. There was a reason ‘patron’ was the root of ‘patronise.’ The world-famous science-fiction writer had understood that perfectly. It was unlikely that the Witnesses shared his understanding.

    “Ten minutes,” the loudspeaker boomed. “They’re coming!”

    Part of Jason’s mind braced for disappointment. He’d read stories where the world had been hoaxed into believing that the aliens were about to land, for all kinds of motives. SETI had wanted to check and recheck the data before making any kind of public statement, if only to avoid being turned into a laughing stock by being hoaxed again. But now…the crowds around him seemed to share his anticipation as the alien craft slowly came into view, followed by a trio of F-22 Raptors. Rumours on the internet suggested that the fighter jets were unarmed, merely providing a deterrent to any media aircraft that might fly alarmingly close to the alien craft. The aliens, as far as SETI was aware, hadn’t offered any objection to the military escort. Indeed, they seemed to be bending over backwards to avoid panicking the inhabitants of planet Earth. That, the general consenus of SETI agreed, was a very good sign. The aliens didn’t have to be kind to the primitive humans, who were staring at their craft as the Aztecs or Incas must have stared at the sailing ships that had brought the Europeans to the <st1:place w:st="on">New World</st1:place>. It had been a sight beyond their comprehension.

    The media had speculated loudly on what an alien landing craft might look like. They’d pulled up hundreds of fanciful designs from science-fiction, ranging from flying saucers to the Starship Voyager. The alien craft was almost a disappointment; it was little larger than a large truck, an ugly craft shaped almost like a brick. Two glowing lights appeared at the stern as the craft tilted over <st1:State w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">New York</st1:place></st1:State> and started to slow to a hover, flying without the aid of wings or rotor blades. The human race had built far larger aircraft, even heavy-lift helicopters used by the military, but none of them could hope to reach orbit. For all of its ungainly bulk, the alien craft seemed to float through the air with the greatest of ease. The aliens had certainly not specified that they needed a runway long enough to take the Space Shuttle.

    A dull whine, just high-pitched enough to be irritating, echoed over <st1:State w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">New York</st1:place></st1:State> as the alien craft sank gracefully towards the ground. Dogs started howling and scrambling away as the sound tore into their far more sensitive ears. The band played louder as the alien craft touched down, the whine fading away to a duller note before it finally vanished. There was a dull clunk as the alien craft reached the ground, suggesting that their shuttle, for all its tiny size, was actually quite heavy. Jason felt excitement spinning through his mind. The complete lack of wings on the shuttle suggested that the aliens could control gravity itself; they might even be able to produce an antigravity generator. It would revolutionise spaceflight if the human race mastered the same technology. The bottleneck had always been lifting a cargo out of the Earth’s gravity well, a task requiring extremely powerful boosters which had to be capable of boosting the mass of their fuel into space along with the cargo in the nose cone. If the aliens taught humanity how to develop antigravity...nothing, absolutely nothing in the entire world was too high a price.

    The crowds surged against the lines of policemen holding them back from the alien craft. On the surface, there was something oddly mundane about the alien ship, despite its origins. A second whine echoed through the air briefly as a hatch began to open, rising up like an aircraft hatch and revealing an illuminated interior. The aliens seemed to like similar lighting to the human race. And then a figure began to step out into the bright sunlight…

    Jason stared, forgetting everything, but the alien. Even the band had stopped attempting to play a suitable tune for the first meeting of humans and aliens. And as soon as he saw the alien, he knew that it was no hoax. The alien was very alien. The similarities between his – or her; there was no way to tell – physical form and the human form only added to the sense of unreality. It was almost surreal. The silence grew longer, as if no one – human or alien – dared to break it.

    Jayne Rowling watched from the press pool as the alien stepped out into the light. She’d been trained to observe and report on what was actually happening – as opposed to what people thought was actually happening – and even as part of her mind gibbered in shock, the rest of her focused on the monumental event in front of her. The alien was humanoid, yet utterly inhuman. Her mind couldn’t quite process the surreal scene in front of her.

    Television producers had faced inevitable logistical problems when creating aliens for the hundreds of science-fiction shows produced for the domestic and international markets. An utterly inhuman alien was hard – and expensive – to produce. Mr Spock had been little more than pointed ears and tinted skin, a tribute to the skill of the actor who’d played him. No matter how optimistic or pessimistic the TV serial, the vast majority of the aliens had been almost human. Even <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Babylon</st1:place></st1:City> 5 had been forced to use humanoid actors for most of its vast array of alien life. The number of non-humanoid aliens could be counted on the fingers of two hands.

    The alien was humanoid, but there the resemblance ended. He – she decided to think of the alien as a male until proven wrong – was tall, standing almost two meters in height. His skin was a mass of green scales, almost like a snake’s skin, which seemed to move and flex over his weirdly-angular legs. No human could have worn such a costume; there simply wasn't room for human legs. The alien’s legs appeared weak, almost spidery, flexing oddly as he moved forward, down the ramp and onto the soil of Earth. His eyes reminded her of the pet hamster she’d owned as a kid, but the alien’s eyes were a dark red, almost seeming to glow. He moved with a gait that almost suggested a bird, hopping forward on the ground and preparing to peck seeds up in its beak.

    He wore a white tunic that covered his chest and upper arms, leaving his legs bare for human inspection. There were no decorations, apart from a single glowing device just below his inhumanly thin neck. His mouth opened into what might have been intended as a smile, but it was immediately clear that his mouth was nowhere near as flexible as any human mouth. Behind the half-smile, sharp white teeth glittered in the sunlight, suggesting that the alien was used to eating meat – perhaps even suggesting that they were as omnivorous as the human race. That made sense, according to the science-fiction writers who had been writing blogs about their creations and how aliens might exist in real life. The human race was the most adaptive species on Earth – with the possible exception of the cockroach – and it was only logical that any other intelligent race would be equally adaptable. She doubted that the aliens would possess superpowers – unlike Superman and other comic-book aliens – and it was quite possible that they were, on average, just as intelligent as the average human.

    A second alien appeared at the hatch, followed by a third. Jayne almost winced as they inched their way down the ramp and onto the soil of Earth, watching their legs bend and flex in a manner that would have resulted in broken bones if any human attempted to copy their mannerisms. She found herself glancing at their chests, wondering if the slight bulges she could see under their tunics were breasts, suggesting that the aliens were actually female, before abandoning that train of thought. There was no way to know for sure. Human societies tended to be male-dominated – men were, on average, stronger than women – but the aliens might be female-dominated, or they might have more than just two sexes. There were just so many possibilities.

    The first alien stopped in front of the small welcoming committee. Jayne had heard reports that the United Nations had practically turned into a war zone over who should greet the aliens first. There had even been a suggestion that the Pope should join the greeting party, a suggestion that had been howled down by representatives from almost every other religion on Earth. Some of the Witnesses – she could see them at the far edge of the field – had suggested that the aliens would inform the human race that their religions were nothing more than nonsense, dreamed up by men who had wanted power over their fellow men. She could just imagine the social upheaval that would be caused by the aliens discrediting the world’s major religions.

    In the end, seven people had been chosen to greet the aliens first. The Secretary-General of the United Nations had taken the lead as the only person with even a tenuous claim to represent the entire human race. Beside him, Mayor Hundred had bullied his way onto the greeting committee by fair means and foul, having waged a skilful media campaign that had won the support of <st1:State w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">New York</st1:place></st1:State>’s population and the backing of the Federal Government. A representative from the European Union, the <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:placeName w:st="on">Russian-dominated</st1:placeName> <st1:placeType w:st="on">Commonwealth</st1:placeType></st1:place> of Independent States, the African Union, the Organization of American States and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation completed the welcoming committee. The Arab League had wanted to put forward their own representative, but infighting over which country should have the honour of sending the representative and vigorous opposition from <st1:country-region w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Israel</st1:place></st1:country-region> had defeated the proposal.

    The Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kareem Choudhury of <st1:country-region w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">India</st1:place></st1:country-region>, stepped forward. He was an elderly man with a neat goatee, wearing a simple black suit; an experienced diplomat holding down a job that required nothing, but diplomacy. Jayne was familiar with the fears that the UN was somehow a supranational organisation that was bent on subverting freedom and democracy, yet common sense proved that the UN was nothing more than a talking shop, a forum to air grievances and issue largely-unheeded resolutions that were rarely enforced by concentrated military action. And without force backing up the resolutions – and the absence of will to use military force – the UN was useless. It was something that galled those who believed in international development even as they sought to raise more and more money for development plans that went nowhere.

    “In the name of the United Nations of Earth,” Choudhury said, very calmly, “I welcome you to our world.”

    The glowing device on the alien’s chest sparkled as the alien spoke, his mouth moving in odd twitches that suggested that the alien couldn’t quite form human words. Jayne had seen portable translators before, but she’d never been very impressed with even the best of them, not when local dialects and even basic structure could produce widely disparate translations that made little sense. But it stood to reason that the aliens would have better translation technology and their messages had proven that they could speak English. Conspiracy theorists had had fun coming up with all kinds of theories – the one about the government having known about the aliens since <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Roswell</st1:place></st1:City> was very popular – but Jayne suspected that the real explanation was simpler. The human race had been beaming transmissions into space for over a century and most of those transmissions would have been in English. And some of them had even been intended to teach English.

    “I am Ambassador Haffash of the Galactic Federation,” the alien said. His voice was flat, almost – but not quite – atonal. There were few hints of emotion, something that puzzled Jayne until she realised that the alien computers were almost certainly checking, rechecking and updating their language databanks. The alien sounded…pleased? It was impossible to tell for sure. “In the name of the association of intelligent beings that have formed our unity, I welcome the human race into the galactic community. May you find friends and cousins among the stars, as so many have done before you.”

    The crowd burst into cheers. Jayne watched as the alien turned and waved at the crowd, one oddly-jointed hand passing through the air. Just how closely had they studied humanity, Jayne wondered, to know what that gesture meant?

    Once the remaining members of the welcome committee had greeted the alien – the other two aliens were not introduced, something that puzzled Jayne – the Secretary-General of the United Nations invited the aliens to follow him into the UN Building. The aliens, who were still looking at the crowd, turned and followed, their necks twisting oddly in a way that would have proven fatal to any human neck. As they passed the press pool – the reporters, for once, were silent, staring at the aliens in front of them – Jayne caught a whiff of scent from one of the aliens. He smelled hot and spicy, yet something about the scent made her hair stand on end. She told herself that she was imagining it. Who expected an alien to smell pleasant?

    Puzzled, uneasy despite herself, she followed the aliens into the UN Building.
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  7. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Five<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:smarttags" /><st1:place w:st="on"><st1:State w:st="on">New York</st1:State></st1:place>
    <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:country-region w:st="on">USA</st1:country-region></st1:place>, Day 5

    The wallflowers – the collection of aides, secretaries and mistresses that followed their masters everywhere – stood pressed against the walls of the General Assembly Hall, watching their political masters from a distance. They were joined by the Ambassadors to the United Nations, who had been displaced by their respective Heads of State, and hundreds of unarmed security staff, who universally shared a horror at the possible danger to their charges and their outrage at being ordered to come unarmed. Toby understood their fears, but there was little choice. The last thing anyone needed was an incident when the Ambassador from the Galactic Federation was shot dead on Earth. It was the kind of event that tended to start wars.

    He looked around the room, and then fixed his gaze on the alien Ambassador. The General Assembly Hall had a seating capacity of 1800 and it was full to bursting, creating a fire risk that had – inevitably – added to the fears of the security officers. Above the podium, the UN emblem glittered in the light, a reminder of the hopes of those who had founded the UN – hopes that had been brutally dashed by reality, just like the <st1:place w:st="on">League of Nations</st1:place> before the Second World War. The alien didn't seem impressed, but it was impossible to read the alien face. For all they knew, an alien ‘smile’ could really be a frown. There was no reason why an alien race had to share the same visual cues as an American-born human.

    The Secretary-General returned to his place in the Assembly as the alien slowly mounted the podium. It was clear that they’d studied the UN; the alien escorts – or maybe they were aides, or security personnel – didn't show any sign of surprise or confusion. Toby risked a quick glance at his palmtop and wasn't too surprised to see that the latest electronic detection gear developed by the NSA couldn't tell if the aliens were exchanging secret messages or not. The chances were that the Galactics would possess technology centuries beyond human science, although perhaps not beyond imagination. One resource the human race most definitely possessed was years of science-fiction writing to study for ideas and inspirations.

    Just for a moment, Toby caught the bright red eyes of the alien Ambassador. They were almost hypnotic, seeming to draw him towards the alien and yet refuse to reveal anything about the alien’s motives, or purpose in visiting Earth. The alien briefly revealed his sharp teeth and Toby shivered. There was no way to avoid the conclusion that the alien was a predator. They would have been on top of the food chain on their planet, just as humanity sat at the top of Earth’s food chain. And anyone capable of getting into space would be intelligent, powerful – and willing to use that power in their own interests. Who knew what the Galactics really had in mind for humanity?

    It wasn't uncommon for speeches at the UN to be interrupted with shouts and walk-outs. Only a few years ago, a lengthy speech by an Iranian delegate claiming that the Holocaust had never taken place had resulted in a mass walk-out by Western delegates. Toby had a feeling that no one would walk out of this speech, no matter what the aliens said. The CIA’s analysts had wondered if the alien desire to meet with humanity’s leaders represented a determination to talk to whoever really made the decisions on Earth, or was a subtle slap at Earth’s population. Ambassadors were expendable; they could be ordered home, their careers destroyed, without starting a war. It was much harder to avoid a diplomatic incident if a Head of State had started it. And the alien, as exotic as he was, was only a mere Ambassador. But God only knew how the Galactic Federation would respond to any mistreatment of their representatives. They might not be as willing as President Carter to allow an insult to go unpunished...and they had seventeen starships orbiting the Earth, a silent reminder of their power.

    Silence fell as the alien opened his mouth. The voder – it couldn't be anything, but a translator and speaker – started to blink as the alien spoke. There had been no way to slip a microphone near the podium without alerting the UN’s security force, but some of the cameras at the rear of the chamber were actually designed and operated by NSA technicians. If they were lucky, they might pick up samples of the alien language and start humanity on the long road towards deciphering their words. Being dependent upon alien translators was a dangerously insecure position.

    “In the name of the Galactic Federation, thank you for welcoming us to your world,” he said. The voice seemed to becoming more natural as the voder – there had to be a hell of a translation program buried within the small device – adapted to Earth’s conditions. “It is always a delight to encounter another intelligent race. There are many hundreds of races within the Federation, yet they all add something unique to the melange of cultures shared by the sentiment races of the galaxy. You have wondered if you are truly alone in the universe. Know now that you are far from alone. The stars wait for you.”

    There was a long pause. “The translation program we have developed is adaptive, but it can make mistakes,” the Ambassador added. “We apologise for any confusion caused by the translation. We will not take offense if you wish clarification of any matters raised during this meeting and we hope that you will extend us the same courtesy. The Federation has extensive experience in contacting new races and welcoming them into the fold, but each race poses its own problems which require individual solutions. We look forward to the day when your race joins us in the endless quest to seek out new worlds and civilisations, boldly going into the endless unknown.”

    Toby thought fast. The aliens had admitted a weakness, which was odd. There were human cultures that saw admitting weakness as somehow intolerable, as if it hurt their pride to be thought less than perfect. And yet part of him admired the aliens for being willing to admit that they were far from all-powerful. Or...had they warned of translation errors to allow them to claim a mistranslation if humanity took offense at their words? He looked up at the unreadable red eyes and shivered. It was easy to believe in friendly aliens in the abstract, but in person...there was something about the Galactics that alerted every ancient sense in his mind. The aliens were dangerous.

    And their words sounded suspiciously like Star Trek’s central credo...

    “There are two ways in which we can encounter a new world of friends,” the Ambassador said. He had the attention of the entire chamber. Everyone was paying attention to his words, calculating how they offered advantages and threats to their particular nation. No matter how anyone looked at it, the aliens would change the entire world. Nothing before – not Korea, not Iraq – had ever matched the sheer significance of First Contact. The world would never be the same again. “We can encounter them in space, when they have developed starships to cross the gulfs of space and reach worlds that belong to the Galactic Federation. They have no difficulty in being integrated into the Federation, if that is their choice. The Federation has never had to force a member to join. All join willingly, convinced of the benefits of membership. Access to our vast database of knowledge about the galaxy, about the hundreds of races that flower out into space, is the least of it.

    “Or we can discover them before they make the climb into space.”

    There was a second pause, more chilling than the first. “In normal cases, a world is left to develop on its own until its natives start building starships for themselves. We have discovered that contact between an advanced civilisation and a primitive race, one unaware of atoms, or that their planets orbit stars, is utterly devastating for the primitive race. Everything they might have brought to the Galactic Federation – knowledge they might have developed, understandings they might have shaped, contributions to art and crafts...everything is lost forever. They become, at best, shadows of what they might have become.

    “Your race has seen a similar process, although on a much smaller scale. Contact between the Native Americans, or Australian Aborigines, and the Europeans proved devastating for the weaker side. They were crippled by disease, by technology and – above all – by a worldview they could not match. The Galactic Federation has long determined that all contact between the advanced civilisations that make up the Federation and the primitive races that have not yet discovered the building blocks of science and technology is to be forbidden. This is the most powerful edict of our culture. We do not contact races below a certain level of technology.

    “In rare cases, we discover a race that has developed a level of technology without advancing into space, or is on the verge of destroying itself with technology that it has not yet developed the maturity to handle safely. In such cases, it is the responsibility of the discoverers to attempt to guide the discovered through the bottlenecks that can destroy an entire race, removing its potential from the galaxy forever. Your race is unusual in that it has both failed to move into space in any meaningful way and has failed, as a society, to develop the maturity that would allow you to avoid being destroyed by your own technology. We have observed you long enough to know that the only thing that prevented you from destroying yourselves before we made contact was sheer luck.

    “There is much we do not understand about your race. You are lucky enough to live in one of the most blessed solar systems in the galaxy, yet you have been almost childishly lax about moving into space. You could have started mining asteroids and the gas giants and placing your heavy industries in space, but instead you choose to continue polluting your planet and poisoning your environment. We will show you models that will illustrate the true danger of the situation you are facing. Total environmental collapse may well be possible within decades. You have even failed to produce defences in case of a natural disaster from space; there are asteroids orbiting near your world that may eventually intersect with your planet, slamming into it with a force that would shake your world.

    “Put bluntly, your race is isolated on a single vulnerable world. You have been risking extinction for centuries...and not just through natural disasters or your polluting of your own environment. You pose a very real threat to yourselves.

    “By the time most races reach your level of technology, they have developed governing systems that span most of their homeworld’s surface. They develop political systems that allow them to concentrate their efforts on reaching into space and ensuring their own survival. You have chosen to fragment your world into many disparate countries, each one scrabbling with its neighbours; the rich choosing to exploit the poor, the strong choosing to oppress the weak. You fight wars over religion, over skin colour; in over half of your countries, you allow your females to be brutalised by an oppressive male patriarchy that weakens their ability to contribute to the whole. Your governments have shown a sickening hypocrisy in allowing short-term national gains at the expense of long-term planetary development. Your global system has been trending towards disaster – an event that would shatter the foundations of your world – for the last four decades. Our models predict disaster within the next ten years, an upheaval of such power that it would dramatically reduce your population and destroy your governments.”

    The Ambassador seemed to pause for a long moment. He was lecturing the Assembly, not debating with them, yet no one seemed inclined to object. Toby suspected that he understood; the alien, isolated from global politics, might be seen as a neutral observer rather than someone pushing a view for their own purposes. Or perhaps they were reluctant to risk the alien’s ire. If half of the speculated benefits from joining the Federation happened to materialise, angering the aliens could result in the benefits to their countries being lost – permanently.

    “There are those among us who wonder if your race is...sick,” the Ambassador said. “Not seventy of your years ago, one of your nation-states attempted to exterminate millions of humans because of their religion, or ethnic origin, or merely because they wanted living space. The survivals of that terrible period have gone on to oppress others, who in turn have chosen to oppress themselves rather than learning to live with their fellow humans. Your race has produced some of the most evil regimes in the galaxy and yet many of your worst acts come from absent-mindedness rather than outright evil. There are even some amongst us who have considered establishing a permanent blockade of your world, fearful that you carry a mental disease that would spread into the galaxy. You are xenophobic to a degree we find alarming and almost unbelievable. How will you act if unleashed upon the universe?

    “And if left to your own devices, you will cripple yourselves – perhaps even destroy yourselves – within decades.

    “The Galactic Federation has made the decision to try to help you. We will provide you with technologies that you lack – technologies you could have developed for yourselves, had you chosen to spend the effort you spent on developing weapons on developing ways to improve your lives instead. We will assist you in escaping the bottleneck that threatens your race; we will guide you towards a point where you will be mature enough to enter the Galactic Federation without posing a threat to your cousins among the stars. Over the next few weeks and months, we will enter into talks with your political and economical leaders that will attempt to ensure that the level of disruption caused by our technology – our mere presence – is kept to a minimum. But we must also issue one word of warning.

    “Every race must decide – for itself – if it wishes to grow into a mature race, or fall backwards into barbarism. We cannot make that choice for you. The contact between the Galactic Federation and Earth may well result in political and social disaster for your race. And if that happens, we will watch without interfering. You must choose for yourselves if you wish to develop the ability to survive and reach into space – foresight, understanding and tolerance – or if you want to wallow in barbarism. It will be your choice.

    “We do not come to bring advantage to one nation-state, or an alliance of nation-states, over the other nation-states on your world. We regard your political fragmentation as one of the prime causes of your headlong rush towards disaster and we will endeavour to avoid worsening the situation. Our gifts will be distributed carefully, with the focus on preventing disaster. Do not seek to misuse our gifts, or exploit us for your national ends. We will not tolerate such abuse of our presence.”

    The Ambassador gave the Assembly one of his strange near-smiles and then stepped down from the podium. Toby watched as the Secretary-General struggled to find something to say, even as the aliens swept out towards the exit and the crowds outside. The political leaders were starting to chatter nervously, as if they didn't quite believe what they’d heard – or as if they feared the effect on their populations. Toby knew that almost everyone in the USA would be watching as the aliens departed, glued to their televisions or computers. The other modern states would have the same problem; even China or Russia, which had powerful tools to censor international media broadcasts, would still have to confront the fact that much of their population would know exactly what the aliens had said.

    Toby found himself reeling as the last alien exited the chamber – and the other wallflowers were clearly just as stunned. The alien Ambassador had lectured the Heads of State of almost every nation in the world as if they were nothing more than children...and their political masters had just accepted it. Shock would turn to anger soon enough, Toby expected, except everyone would fear losing access to the technology the Galactics had promised. And much of what the aliens had said was true. The human race could have spent the past fifty years developing the solar system. It might have earned humanity a little more respect.

    He glanced down at his palmtop. Over the last two decades, political advisors and spin doctors had developed powerful tools to monitor public opinion, knowing that the winner of any election would be the politician who trimmed his sails to ride the winds of public feeling. Already, mere minutes after the aliens had returned to their craft, the internet was buzzing with anger and an almost feverish excitement. The aliens hadn't pulled any punches – and neither were the commenters on the internet. They were making their opinions known...and governments were getting the brunt of their anger. The politicians who had turned NASA into yet another pork barrel for the distribution of political largess were taking the worst of it, but almost every political leader was being hammered. Toby knew that people were braver in cyberspace, where opinions and sentiment didn't always blur over into the real world, yet it was hard to escape the feeling that the alien speech was about to set off a political earthquake. Entire governments could fall within the next few days.

    The President was already being escorted out of the chamber by his security team, his face pale and drawn. He wasn't the only Head of State to look shocked. The Chinese Premier, famous for his stereotypical inscrutability, looked as if he had been drinking. How would China’s population – increasingly angry at the old men who ran the country according to their version of communism – react to the alien speech?

    And there were countries that had no tradition of peaceful changes in government...

    Toby shook his head, remembering the brief moment when he’d glanced into the bright red eyes. The Galactics had crafted their speech very neatly, aiming it at the wider human population. And no one would want to be left out of the bounty they offered to the human race. After today, the Galactics would be embraced by most of the world. Toby wondered, as he rose to his feet to meet up with the President in a secure location, if he was the only one to be worried by their words.

    He couldn't escape the impression he’d felt when he’d met the alien eyes. The Galactics were predators. And what did that mean for Earth?

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  8. lassiesma

    lassiesma Monkey+

    A very thought provoking chapter.
  9. PAGE90LX

    PAGE90LX Monkey+

    Great chapter.
  10. Great writing. I hope we don't ever have to go up against aliens. This story reminds me of the novel, "Childhood's End." Similar aspects as this story (with the advanced aliens coming to earth to guide us, maybe).
  11. goinpostal

    goinpostal Monkey+

    Excellent story so far!! I can hardly wait to see how this one plays out.
  12. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Six<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    Near <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:smarttags" /><st1:City w:st="on">Mannington</st1:City>, <st1:State w:st="on">Virginia</st1:State>/<st1:place w:st="on"><st1:State w:st="on">New York</st1:State></st1:place>
    <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:country-region w:st="on">USA</st1:country-region></st1:place>, Day 6

    The Colonel disapproved of TV dinners. In his opinion, one of the many reasons for the decline in American communities was the ability to park the entire family in front of the television while stuffing their faces with some mass-produced foodstuff that – just maybe – bore a passing resemblance to food. He’d eaten MREs in the Gulf that had tasted better than some of the slop served up in brightly-packaged containers; it stunned him that people could actually buy and like the quasi-food. But then they knew no better. The decline in home cooking had convinced an entire generation that fast food was actually edible.

    But no one was going to miss the alien landing. Sure, there was never any end to the tasks on the farm, yet he knew better than to insist that everyone worked during the single most significant event in all of human history. One military rule that applied to civilian life was simple; never – ever – give an order you know won’t be obeyed. It weakens respect for commanders among their subordinates. And besides, the Colonel wasn't going to miss the landing himself.

    As always, the media had surrounded the incident site with thousands of cameras. The raw footage was, in many ways, more affecting than the edited footage that would probably be streaming onto the internet by the end of the day. He studied the alien craft with considerable interest, feeling an odd kinship with the ship’s designers. It was impossible to escape the feeling that the boxy design of the craft – and a total absence of frills – indicated that it had been designed by or for the military. The aliens seemed to have a military mindset in both their starships and their smaller craft. And then there was the aliens themselves. There was something about them that made it impossible to believe that they were faked. Their movements were utterly inhuman, their bodily proportions chillingly different. They were real.

    He listened to the alien speech in numb disbelief. The Colonel had never had any time for the UN, even though he’d never embraced some of the wilder conspiracy theories about the UN’s role in the world. And yet watching the alien leature the world leaders – including the President – made his blood boil. Who were they to come and tell humanity how they should take care of themselves? The Colonel had grown up in a tradition of self-reliance, of knowing that the government couldn’t be relied upon to take care of oneself; the aliens seemed almost to be suggesting that they were here to take over – for humanity’s own good – and expected the human race to accept without demur. They were almost intergalactic social workers.

    The thought made him scowl. His children had been deployed overseas, working near non-governmental organisations that tried to improve the lives of the poor and hungry in countries that owed much of their misfortunes to their own governments. Very few of the NGOs had succeeded in having a lasting effect; they didn’t understand the locals, they didn’t realise that their interventions could have negative effects as well as positive – and they often made their plans without any awareness of local realities. The thought that Earth might be a <st1:place w:st="on">Third World</st1:place> state by Galactic standards shocked him, although some of the alien comments were alarmingly valid. One of the many scenarios they’d discussed for disaster had been an asteroid impact. No one had any faith in NASA’s ability to deflect an asteroid from Earth.

    He watched as the aliens turned and left the chamber, allowing CNN to switch to yet another of its endless stable of talking heads. They’d been interviewing experts ever since the alien starships had been detected, experts who often knew little more than the interviewers. The Colonel suspected that they would have no trouble finding experts to confirm or deny the alien claims, depending upon their ideological backgrounds. It was easy to see how vested interests might manipulate the data to ensure that it supported their conclusions, suggesting a universal trait of the human race. What was the truth when vast amounts of money were at stake?

    “Well,” he said, finally. “That’s us told.”

    The sitting room was packed, loaded with his friends, family and workers. They’d all watched the show, not daring to speak for fear that they might miss something. On the screen, a talking head was discussing the dangers of global warming, something the Colonel knew to have been disproved scientifically – a fact that escaped the governments meddlers who thought that a degree and a lofty title allowed them to dictate to <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:country-region w:st="on">America</st1:country-region></st1:place>’s farmers. In fact, the Earth was actually getting slightly cooler, a point that portended other global changes. The aliens had been right to point out, in effect, that the human race had all of its eggs in one basket. A single worldwide disaster could exterminate the human race.

    He stood up. There would be time to return to the television – or the computer – later. For the moment, he needed time to digest what he’d seen and try to think of what it meant for him personally. At least the aliens hadn’t launched an immediate attack on Earth; he’d once watched Mars Attacks with Mary and the seemingly-psychotic aliens had declared war by slaughtering the Senate. The cynic in him told the Colonel that they’d probably aided the human war effort. It seemed that there would be no immediate disaster from space.

    “Time to get back to work,” he said. The small collection of food could be tided up later, once they’d dealt with the endless series of chores that had to be done on the farm. “We can talk about it at teatime.”

    With that, he walked out of the door and onto the farm. There was much work to be done.

    Jeannette McGreevy, ever since she had grown old enough to understand what politics actually was, had been consumed with a single thought. She would be President one day. It had been an ambition actually encouraged by her father and her grandfather, who had served in politics for so long that the clan could no longer consider a life outside <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:State w:st="on">Washington</st1:State></st1:place>. They might not be as famous as the Kennedy Family, or the Bush Family, or even the Clinton Family, but that worked in her favour. The family had far fewer skeletons in its closet than any of the more famous clans, something that had helped ensure that only the Bush Family could boast two Presidents in their line. Jeannette intended to be the first of her clan to sit in the Oval Office and be addressed as Madam President.

    She smiled to herself as she walked towards the alien chambers. Her appearance had been – like everything else – carefully calculated for maximum effect. She wore a stiff suit, one that made her look businesslike, and had her hair tied up in a tight bun. Margaret Thatcher, one of the few women to wield supreme power, had served as her idol. A President had to appear impassive and approachable, capable and yet vulnerable. It wouldn’t be long until the next election cycle, when she would attempt to knock President Hollinger off the ticket and run for President herself. Her aides had already started the long process of securing contributions and support prior to the nominations. The family’s long service in <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:State w:st="on">Washington</st1:State></st1:place> gave them a network of allies and clients and she had no intention of wasting them. She would be President, the first female President in <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:country-region w:st="on">America</st1:country-region></st1:place>’s history. No one would ever forget her name.

    Her aides buzzed around her, each one competing to provide her with the latest update from her corps of political monitoring personnel. The winner in any political campaign would be the one who understood the national trends in public opinion and Jeannette had no intention of being behind the curve. Reaction seemed to be mixed, but there was a general trend towards an admiration for the Galactic Federation – and a drop in support for the government. Even those who might be counted upon to be patriotic seemed inclined to condemn the government – a condemnation that would fall on the head of the sitting President, even if the trends they condemned had started long before his administration. Jeannette listened with a practiced ear as the results of the latest polls were shoved in front of her, before dismissing her staff. She would make the walk to the alien chambers alone. As always, it was a carefully planned political gesture; the aliens had walked into the heart of human society without fear and she intended to visit them just as openly.

    The aliens had requested a set of chambers within the UN complex for their personnel use and the UN had scurried to comply. Jeannette knew that every other ambassador, special representative and even some of the world leaders still in <st1:State w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">New York</st1:place></st1:State> would be scurrying to secure a private interview with the aliens. The promise of alien technology and a change in the global balance of power was irresistibly attractive. Jeannette knew that the nations with the least to lose – debtor nations that felt as if they were exploited by the West, fairly or unfairly – would be the ones most inclined to buy into the promise of a brave new world order. At worst, they would be no worse off than they already were…and they would have the satisfaction of seeing their tormentors brought down to the same level.

    A UN security guard waved her through into an antechamber, where she encountered what had to be an alien version of a security guard. The alien waved a device over her body, checked the results and – apparently satisfied – allowed her to proceed into the next chamber, where the alien Ambassador rose to greet her. Up close, the alien was utterly inhuman; his eerie body moved in a manner that sent chills down her spine. She reminded herself firmly that this was another intelligent being and – more importantly – had the backing of seventeen starships in orbit. The aliens could not be taken lightly.

    “Thank you for receiving me,” she said, as she took the chair the alien indicated. He seemed to show no inclination to sit down at first, and then perched himself on a stool. Jeannette wondered if it was a deliberate sign – either a gesture of respect or a deliberate slur – before realising that the alien wouldn’t find a human chair very comfortable. “It is my hope that we can proceed together towards a mutually-satisfying dialogue that will respect the needs and inclinations of both our peoples.”

    The aliens had to know that she could only speak for the <st1:country-region w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">United States</st1:place></st1:country-region> – no one could really claim to speak for the world – but they’d allowed her to be the first to visit their chambers for a series of private discussions. That had to mean something, she told herself; the aliens talked a good game, but if they wanted to work with the human race they’d have to work with the most powerful nations on the planet. Jeannette was more than familiar with the high ideals and lofty blether of politics – and how rarely the words of political leaders translated into any form of great and lasting change.

    “We welcome you,” the alien said, in a whispery tone. “There is much we must discuss.”

    Jeannette leaned forward, careful to keep her face impassive. There was no way of reading the alien’s body language, but the aliens might be capable of reading human body language. They’d been intercepting transmissions for years and many of those transmissions would have been educational, intended to teach a human audience about everything from the economy to basic biology. They might have even determined how to read human expressions, or monitor internal physical reactions that could indicate if a person was trying to lie…there was just no way to know the limits of their capabilities.

    “Of course,” she said. “I would be very interested in hearing what you have to say.”

    “They’re offering us what?”

    Toby sat in one corner of Air Force One’s Presidential Lounge, listening carefully as the President, Jeannette McGreevy and Albert Demeter, the Director of the CIA, discussed the alien’s offer. The Vice President’s face could be seen on one of the screens; he’d been told to remain in a secret underground bunker until they knew for sure that the Galactics came in peace. General Elliot Thomas should have been included, but he’d had an urgent appointment elsewhere.

    “They’re offering us ten fusion power units,” McGreevy said. Her hawkish face – Toby distrusted her and had ever since she’d tried to bribe him away from the President – was flushed with excitement. “According to the figures they’re offering, they would be able to power the entire nation alone, without the need for any fission power plants, wind farms or any other means of producing power. They’re clean and environmentally friendly…”

    The President twitched. Bare hours after the alien speech, the environmental lobby was already pressing their political representatives to start reducing pollution sharply – never mind the fact that most global production came from <st1:country-region w:st="on">China</st1:country-region> and the <st1:place w:st="on">Third World</st1:place>. The price of rapid growth and the development of heavy industries was pollution, a price that dictatorial governments willingly paid to ensure that they became more independent of the free world. No one knew for sure just how badly the <st1:country-region w:st="on">USSR</st1:country-region>’s government had polluted <st1:country-region w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Russia</st1:place></st1:country-region>, but what had leaked into the public domain was horrifying. The former <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:country-region w:st="on">USSR</st1:country-region></st1:place> might be the most polluted country on Earth.

    “They’ve also offered to start licensing certain items to our industrial firms,” McGreevy continued, seemingly unaware of the President’s concern. Her ambitions were an open secret in <st1:State w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Washington</st1:place></st1:State>, but few were prepared to challenge her openly. “From what they’ve offered us, we can produce advanced batteries that will allow us to become energy-independent of the <st1:place w:st="on">Middle East</st1:place>, medicines that will allow us to cure most diseases and hundreds of other devices that will improve the quality of life all over the world. And all they ask in exchange is some land.”

    Toby frowned. The aliens had asked for only one thing; a small area of territory within the Continental United States that they could make their own. It wasn't an unreasonable request, but there were sticking points. Galactic Federation law, which no one on Earth knew anything about, would govern the territory, effectively granting the aliens extraterritorial rights and freedom from American law. It struck him that the Chinese must have felt just as stunned and offended after the Opium Wars, when the Westerners had demanded the right to create enclaves in <st1:country-region w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">China</st1:place></st1:country-region> that were not responsible to Chinese authorities.

    The aliens hadn’t threatened anyone. They hadn’t pointed a gun to the government’s head and given them a choice between surrender or dying bravely. What they’d done was far more subtle – and dangerous. If the President refused to accept the alien technology – refusing to allow the aliens to establish an enclave on Earth – the <st1:country-region w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">United States</st1:place></st1:country-region> would be cut out of the technological advances that would blossom all over Earth. Toby knew that fusion power could change the world – and refusing to accept such a boon would be political suicide. The President’s impeachment would be a foregone conclusion.

    “Tell me something,” the Vice President said. “Did they have anywhere in mind?”

    “They said we could choose,” McGreevy said. Toby knew that there would be an immediate political catfight over the location of the alien base. Some Congressmen would want it for their states; others would fear the consequences of having the aliens so close to their constituents. “They have a list of requirements, but none of them are particularly onerous.”

    Toby glanced at the list. The aliens wanted fresh water, a certain degree of isolation and an airport capable of taking human aircraft. An old military base would serve as an ideal location, one that could be controlled. After all, as soon as the aliens were established, the Witnesses would be on their way to picket the alien base and welcome the star gods to Earth.

    “True,” the President agreed. “Have they made the same offer to the other nations?”

    “It’s impossible to tell,” the CIA Director admitted. It was an open secret that the CIA – and every other intelligence agency in the world – spied on the UN. “We had the room bugged, but something happened to the bugs – we have no independent record of what took place during any of the meetings. I think we have to assume the worst.”

    We don’t know what the iron bitch and the alien really said to one another, part of Toby’s mind added, silently. McGreevy had refused to carry a recorder into the chamber, pointing out that the aliens might consider it an unfriendly act. It was logical enough, even believable, but Toby suspected that it hadn’t been her only motive for refusing. The woman was simply too ambitious to be trusted.

    “I think that we can find a suitable patch of land,” the President said. He looked around the small compartment. Despite all of it’s mystique, Air Force One was still only a jumbo jet, with the limited carrying capacity of its fellows. “And then we will have to see if their promises really come true.”

    Toby scowled, thinking hard. The Native Americans hadn’t just lost because of smallpox; they’d lost because they could never duplicate the technology owned and used by the Europeans. Gunpowder had been a mystery to them until it had reached <st1:country-region w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">America</st1:place></st1:country-region> and they’d never been able to develop their own industrial base. And then the Europeans had simply waged war from a playbook far more advanced than any known to the local civilisations.

    “Yes, Mr President,” he agreed. He already knew who would be placed in charge of finding a suitable patch of ground. At least they’d have the opportunity to monitor the aliens as they set up their base. They needed data and what little data they had was patchy, almost impossible to fit into a greater picture. “I’m sure that we can find something suitable.”
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  13. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Seven<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:smarttags" /><st1:State w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Nevada</st1:place></st1:State>
    <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:country-region w:st="on">USA</st1:country-region></st1:place>, Day 12

    The heat slapped Jason in the face as he scrambled out of the air-conditioned aircraft and down towards the tarmac far below. He winced as his hands touched the railing; it felt hot enough to cook eggs, or burn exposed human flesh. The sun beat down on them from high above, mocking the puny humans making their way off the plane and heading towards a handful of buses waiting at one end of the runway. In the distance, the silvery towers of the alien base rose up against the skyline.

    “Papers, please,” a policeman said. There were a number of armed policemen waiting at the buses, carefully checking the papers carried by the visitors. The alien base had already become a favoured destination for travellers – the curious, the worshipful and even the hostile – and the local police force had found itself overwhelmed as it struggled to try and keep the unwelcome guests from scrambling over the fence and slipping towards the alien base. “I need to check your papers.”

    Jason produced his ID – his SETI card, the letter that had invited him to the base and the security card he’d been issued by a government minder – and waited for the policeman to check it, cursing the sun under his breath. The heat seemed to grow every stronger – sweat was trickling down his back – as he waited; it seemed like hours before the policeman finally returned his ID and motioned for him to enter the bus. It was cool inside, thankfully; he stumbled to a seat and collapsed in front of one of the windows. He’d never faced such heat in his life.

    The bus lurched into life and started driving down a road towards the alien base. It had been constructed near a former USAF base for heavy-lift aircraft, allowing the Federal Government a high degree of control over the surrounding area. The airfield was separated from the alien base by a network of fences and armed guards, but hardly anyone came to visit the former base unless one of the alien shuttles came to land on the field. They reserved their attention for the aliens. Nearly a week since the aliens had made their speech at the UN, they were still a source of endless fascination to the inhabitants of Earth. Every alien base on the planet existed under the same state of friendly siege.

    He winced as the bus neared the second layer of fencing. There was a much stronger police presence there, along with a number of pro-alien and anti-alien protesters. The policemen had separated the two sides when they started fighting, according to the driver, and left them sitting by the side of the road, their hands cuffed, until a police transport could arrive to take them away for processing. God alone knew what would happen to them after that; Jason had known a couple of arrested protesters while he’d been at college and all they’d received had been a caution. He looked away from one crying girl and up towards the alien base. They built remarkably quickly.

    Inside the fence, the alien base rose towards the sky. Jason had seen videos of the aliens landing components on the ground and then assembling them into a single set of structures. They’d moved with remarkable speed; some commenters on the television had pointed out that only a military unit could move with such speed and skill. Their prefabricated structures looked oddly simplistic for a star-travelling society, although he did have to admit that the human race had no benchmark to measure the aliens against any other race. Perhaps simple designs were a constant among the Galactics.

    The base was composed of large angular structures, reminding him of the Pentagon to some extent, although the exact number of sides seemed to vary. Their featureless metal walls seemed to glow of their own accord, although it could merely be a trick of the light. He caught sight of the bus’s reflection as it parked beside one of the larger buildings and waited for the aliens to open the doors. When the building finally opened up, Jason was among the first to scramble for the door. There was no way he was going to pass up on the opportunity to see an alien base from the inside.

    Inside, the alien base was something of a disappointment, although it was clear that it hadn't been built with humans in mind. The proportions were odd to his eyes, casting a faint air of unreality over the entire scene; the lighting was bright, almost bright enough to hurt. It smelled strange to his nose, something almost familiar, but he couldn't place his finger on the precise scent. The aliens who had arrived to serve as silent escorts beckoned them forward whenever they started to fall behind, as if they were impatient to begin. Jason found himself struggling to contain mounting excitement as they were finally shown into what was clearly a lecture hall. It was large enough to hold almost two hundred humans.

    He smiled as he took one of the seats and waited patiently. The Galactics had offered to give information sessions to humans – and Jason, as the Discoverer, had found it easy to get a place. He felt as if he didn't belong among the gathering of political leaders, businessmen and even a handful of religious representatives, but it hardly mattered. How could he have refused the chance to actually ask questions of beings who had seen what awaited the human race in space?

    An hour later, he was feeling much less optimistic. The Galactics – they all seemed to be the same race, almost indistinguishable from one another – had opened with a brief session that repeated what they’d said at the UN, and then followed up with a series of blandishments that were long on optimism and short on detail. They seemed happy to answer some questions in great detail, but other subjects seemed to draw imprecise answers – or even a simple refusal to answer at all. It galled him as much as it puzzled him; they’d been promised answers, yet all they’d been given were bland statements that were devoid of any actual content.

    Impatiently, he raised his hand. The alien standing in front of them – wearing a black unmarked tunic and a hood that almost seemed to cover the alien face, but not the bright red eyes – looked at him, inviting him to speak. SETI had primed him with any number of questions about the universe, yet so far he hadn't had an opportunity to ask any of them. And now that he did, he wasn't sure if he wanted to ask after all. The answers might not be forthcoming, or he might not want to know...

    “You’ve told us that there are many forms of intelligent life among the stars,” he said, without preamble. SETI had picked up on one thing about the Galactics that really didn't make sense. For a multiracial society – in the truest possible sense – they seemed to all share the same racial origin. “Why haven’t you introduced us to other forms of intelligent life?”

    There was a pause as the alien appeared to consider. Jason had once attended a political rally where the candidate had made the mistake of too-obviously depending upon prompts from his political manager, waiting in the wings and using a concealed earpiece to advise his master. The alien seemed to be doing the same, although it was impossible to tell for sure. They might be simply checking and rechecking the translation. There had been a number of confusing utterances made by the aliens that had been blamed on translator error.

    “Your race is unprepared to encounter more than one other form of intelligent life at present,” the alien said, finally. They hadn't been given any names, or any other way of telling the aliens apart, something that bugged Jason and everyone else. “You must understand that while there are many races that are humanoid, there are many others which have almost nothing in common with your race. We were chosen to meet with you as we share a superficial similarity in form, but no biological similarity that might open the risk of a disease passing from an alien race to your own.”

    Jason frowned. He’d read The War of the Worlds in grade school and he’d been disappointed by the ending. SETI, however, believed quite firmly that germs and viruses from another ecosystem would not be able to make the jump from alien into human – or vice versa. The idea that the aliens might be so close to humanity as to allow cross-contamination seemed implausible – but then, alien life itself seemed implausible. And SETI had never really had any data to prove or disprove its theories.

    “That is a valid concern,” he acknowledged, after a moment. “However, you have been reluctant to tell us anything about the other members of the Federation. What kind of beings are they and when can we hope to meet them?”

    There was a second pause. “All such information is being restricted until your race develops the political and social maturity to handle such information,” the alien said. The voice was as inhuman as ever, but Jason was sure that he detected a note of...irritation behind the cold dispassionate tone. “We do not wish to cause political turmoil on your world that might upset the schedule for your entry into the Federation.”

    One of the other visitors, a famous writer of military science-fiction, interrupted before Jason could say anything else. “And you don’t want to tell us anything we could use against you,” he said. “After all, we might not join the Federation.”

    The alien looked at him, bright red eyes pulsing with an unreadable emotion. “That is a concern,” he admitted. “Your race’s xenophobia may lead you to challenge the Federation itself.”

    “Now see here,” the writer said. “That’s the bit I don’t get. How can you possibly feel threatened by us?”

    “When one race joins the Federation, it alters the pattern of Federation affairs – even if the race in question is harmless,” the alien said. “Over the years, the Federation has never been threatened by another race, but we have learned to embrace change brought to us by new arrivals. And yet your race has a level of xenophobia beyond anything displayed by any other known race. We fear what you might do if introduced into our society.”

    “Interesting,” the writer said. “Does that mean that the Federation doesn't fight wars?”

    This time, there was a very long pause. “The Federation has not fought a war in generations,” the alien said. “We do not need to fight when the benefits of cooperation are so clear to almost every race. There is an unlimited bounty of resources out among the stars, enough for everyone. Your race worries us because you may prove dangerous to others.”

    The subject changed rapidly. “As you are aware, we have already started distributing fusion generators to your nations,” the alien said. “These generators produce enough power to handle all of your projected energy requirements for the next four decades before they will need to be refuelled. By then, we expect that you will have made the switch to a fusion-based economy and started cleaning up your homeworld...”

    Jason sighed and settled back in his chair. At least they’d learned something about the aliens, if only that they were clearly reluctant to share certain kinds of data with Earth. And that puzzled him. He could have understood the aliens refusing to share designs for weapons – they would have made humanity much more dangerous – but surely information on the Federation’s member races couldn't be harmful. The human race had had nearly two weeks to get used to the concept that they were surrounded by thousands of other intelligent races. They surely could handle seeing visual depictions of other aliens; what were they - Cthulhu?

    “I have another question,” the science-fiction writer said. “How is the Federation actually governed?”

    The alien seemed to hesitate again, before answering. “The Federation is organised along democratic lines, with each race being given a vote in the government,” he said. “Our government is run by consensus, with all proposed laws requiring a majority vote to pass into law. Each race has internal autonomy within the Federation, but is expected to respect other races while in space...”

    Jason jumped in, quickly. “So there’s no shared sense of ethics...?”

    Oddly, the alien didn't seem to mind the question. “You must understand that different races have different ways of living,” he said. “We have races that have one intelligent sex and one unintelligent sex. Those races do not have any concept of equality between the sexes – and why should they? Other races are telepathic, capable of operating a perfect democracy; they have little need for the complex governments designed by less capable societies. There are races that breed in manners that would sicken you – and races that regard the human interest in sexual acts as barbaric. Any attempt to force a united code of conduct on the Federation would result in disaster.”

    He looked around the room. “As I was saying, the importance of fusion power...”

    Joseph Buckley had never hidden the fact that he’d served in the United States Navy during the early stages of the War on Terror, although he’d never seen anything reassembling real action. Indeed, he’d been discharged from the Navy in 2010 and had turned his service experience into a series of best-selling science-fiction novels. He’d invented his own science – a system involving a network of concentrated gravity streams, allowing transit from star to star – but he’d based the fictional space navies on his own experience in the USN. The critics had loved them and he’d become moderately wealthy. He’d even had a film planned out that had become stuck in development hell.

    He’d been surprised when his application to visit one of the alien bases had been accepted so quickly. A series of telephone calls to various other writers he knew had revealed that the aliens seemed to be biased in favour of fantasy and fantasy-SF writers, and against those who took the care to develop universes in line with understandable scientific concepts. His puzzlement had deepened until he’d realised that a woman who wrote trashy romantic fiction about a young teenage girl who rode a giant unicorn from star to star would be unlikely to discover anything that might actually provide a clue to how the Galactics science actually worked. Writers with strong military or scientific backgrounds had been barred; writers who made up their own crap had been prioritised. One didn't have to be Fox Mulder to get a sense that something was badly wrong.

    After the alien presentation was finally finished – the only thing saving it from terminal boredom had been the presence of the alien himself – Joseph remained behind after the aliens escorted most of the humans out of the room, saying that he had to go to the washroom. The aliens accepted it, leaving him alone for long enough to allow him to take an unsupervised look around the chamber. In a bad novel or TV series, he would have discovered the secret plans at once. Instead, he found almost nothing. The chamber seemed to be little more than a movie set.

    Puzzled, he slipped out of the door, purposefully choosing to head in the wrong direction from the tour group. Silently researching excuses in his head, he walked down the metal corridor, noting the strange proportions as he passed a handful of sealed doors. An attempt to open them resulted in nothing, apart from a sore hand. The alien locks seemed unbreakable – at least without revealing his presence. He was on the verge of giving up when he discovered a door that was half-open and slipped through it before he had a chance to think. The door slid closed behind him and he swore under his breath. There was no way to retreat back to the relative safety of the tour group.

    He paused – and realised, for the first time, that the slightly unpleasant scent that seemed to accompany the aliens was noticeably stronger. The lighting, too, was different, seeming to blaze down on his bald skull. Nervously, wishing he’d been able to carry his handgun into the alien base, he kept walking down and paused at the corner, peering around into a vast chamber. Two aliens stood in front of him, their backs turned, studying a set of images that flickered in and out of existence in front of them. Some of the images seemed to be human television channels, others appeared to be jumpy, as if they were carried by an amateur cameraman. One of the aliens seemed to twist in a manner that reminded him of his grandfather’s pet snake, his sinuous neck snaking outwards towards a single set of displays. They showed a handful of humans within what looked like an operating facility...

    Joseph must have gasped, for both aliens spun around with startling speed. It was already too late to retreat. He was still inching backwards when something stuck him in the back and he crashed down to the cold metal floor. The smell grew stronger as a third alien loomed over him, picked his paralysed body up with apparently effortless ease, and carried him down another corridor. His mind, already spinning under the influence of whatever they’d shot him with, started to blur; he spun in and out of awareness. A whole series of flickering images seemed to flash across his mind; an alien, looking down at him; something being extended towards his neck; a brief sense of almost intolerable pain...

    And then everything seemed to fade away into nothingness.

    Jason looked up as the science-fiction writer was escorted back into the chamber. “I just got lost,” he mumbled, as if he were drunk. “They pointed me back here.”

    “Good for them,” one of the other visitors said. “Isn’t it lucky that they were here to help?”

    STANGF150 and Cephus like this.
  14. bad_karma00

    bad_karma00 Monkey+

    Nice. I'm hooked again. Great work as always!
  15. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Eight<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:smarttags" /><st1:place w:st="on"><st1:City w:st="on">Fort Meade</st1:City>, <st1:State w:st="on">Maryland</st1:State></st1:place>
    <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:country-region w:st="on">USA</st1:country-region></st1:place>, Day 17

    “If you’ll follow me, sir...?”

    Toby followed the NSA staffer with some irritation. The call to <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:placeType w:st="on">Fort</st1:placeType> <st1:placeName w:st="on">Meade</st1:placeName></st1:place> – the headquarters of the National Security Agency, responsible for intercepting enemy messages and protecting American communications security – had come out of the blue. It was true that he was overdue for a routine security check and lecture, but his life had been really quite alarmingly busy. Unlike many of the government staffers, Toby didn't hold security in absolute contempt, yet it could be irritating at times. He was cleared for almost everything, after all.

    He’d expected a pleasant office, like the ones that had been used on his prior visits. Instead, he found himself led down a long corridor and into a sealed examination room. He was still puzzling over this when the staffer vanished out of the door and the room sealed behind him with an audible thump. A moment later, a stern voice came out of nowhere.

    “Remove all clothing and personal possessions,” it ordered.

    Toby bit down the comment that came to mind and slowly undressed. Coming from a large family, he had few taboos about being naked in front of strangers – and besides, he could be reasonably sure that the NSA would only have male officers peering at him. The thought wasn’t much reassurance as he removed his pants and boxers, dumping them all into the marked tray at one side of the room. They would be held in storage for him once he returned from the bowels of <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:placeType w:st="on">Fort</st1:placeType> <st1:placeName w:st="on">Meade</st1:placeName></st1:place>, he assumed. There was no way that they could charge him with anything, for the very simple reason that he hadn’t done anything. It still made him feel slightly guilty.

    A door hissed open at the other end of the room. “Proceed through the door and lie down on the table,” the voice ordered. “Lie on your back.”

    The cold air wafting through the doorway didn’t help Toby’s nerves. Unexplained security procedures were always bad news. “What are you going to do?” He asked, as he entered the second room. It looked like a medical examination chamber, although it was surprisingly bare, with only a small set of equipment in one corner. “Stick fingers up my butt to prove that I’m not hiding anything there?”

    The voice, not surprisingly, failed to rise to the bait. Instead, a man wearing a protective suit appeared out of yet another door, his face hidden behind a mirrored surface on his mask. Toby braced himself as the man pressed what looked like an oversized hypodermic needle against his shoulder, expecting to feel the needle entering his skin. Instead, there was a brief sucking sensation and then the masked man stepped back, apparently satisfied. He slipped out of the door before Toby could sit up, the doorway closing and vanishing amidst the room’s white-painted walls. Toby knew the door was there and yet he couldn’t pick it out from the wall.

    A third door opened at the far end. “Proceed through the doorway and dress yourself,” the voice ordered. “You will be met once you have cleared the sterile environment.”

    Toby scowled, but did as he was told. A small pile of clothing awaited him; a simple military-style tunic, with a pair of underpants. There was nothing else; his original set of clothes would have to wait until he left the building. When he had finished dressing, a final door hissed open, revealing a small waiting room. Four people stood there, waiting for him. Toby was surprised to realise that he recognised three of them; the fourth was a complete stranger. But in hindsight, it should have been obvious. Someone was clearly taking security very seriously.

    Director Nimitz of the National Security Agency was a tall thin man, with a pale face and sallow features that had led some of his subordinates to whisper that he was a vampire. He was renowned for having no sense of humour, but then he’d reached his present post as the result of a complete failure in intelligence that had cost his predecessor his career. The NSA was the most secretive of government agencies and the thought of actually revealing their – much-hyped – capabilities to the great unwashed, which included every other intelligence agency in the world, was anthemia to its officers.

    Toby spared a smile for the person standing next to him. Gillian Baskin was a blonde woman with an unbelievably perky smile, which concealed the sharpest mind Toby had ever encountered. They’d been pushed together when the President had ordered Toby to handle liaison with the intelligence communities – something he found uncomfortable – and Gillian had been assigned to brief him. Toby had asked her out to dinner a couple of times, but their relationship had remained strictly professional. He couldn’t really blame her. The operatives who served in her position couldn’t risk even the slightest hint that they might have been compromised.

    The <st1:stockticker w:st="on">CIA</st1:stockticker> Director opened the meeting, once they’d walked into a small conference room and been served cups of steaming coffee. “Mr Sanderson, this is Sir Charles Hanover, the Deputy Director of MI5,” he said. “I’m sorry for the cloak and dagger routine, but we needed to talk under strict security. We may have a serious problem on our hands.”

    Toby nodded, taking a sip of his coffee. There were few places that could be deemed absolutely secure – particularly to TEMPEST standards – but <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:placeType w:st="on">Fort</st1:placeType> <st1:placeName w:st="on">Meade</st1:placeName></st1:place>’s underground complex was one of them. So were the White House Situation Room and a number of other facilities, some of them so heavily classified that Toby was barely even aware of their existence. The experts in the NSA had staked their reputations that the complexes – and their computer systems, light years ahead of computers in the public sector – were absolutely secure. It was impossible to signal out of a secure room – and any attempt to do so would be detected.

    “Over the past three days, our counter-surveillance systems” – he didn’t go into details; some of them were so highly classified that even the President had no need to know – “picked up a number of disturbing transmissions from <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:State w:st="on">Washington</st1:State></st1:place>. Gillian?”

    Gillian’s cool voice echoed in the silent room. “I’ll spare you the technical details,” she said. “Suffice it to say that the transmissions were focused on a very high frequency and ultra-compressed; each transmission lasted little longer than a microsecond. Our first assumption was that we had stumbled over a nest of foreign spies within the capital and started attempting to track them down, while analysing their signal transmissions in the hope of understanding how it was done. It didn’t take more than a few hours to determine that the transmissions were utterly impossible to crack.”

    Toby sucked in his breath sharply. The NSA had dropped most of its objections to commercially-owned encryption programs, secure in the knowledge that most of them could be decrypted by the NSA, even without a copy of the secure key used to encode the message before it was sent. Everyone knew that the NSA intercepted transmissions from all over the world, cracking Russian, Chinese and even European encryption schemes and giving the American intelligence community unprecedented access into the minds of their potential opponents. The network of quantum computers held in <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:placeType w:st="on">Fort</st1:placeType> <st1:placeName w:st="on">Meade</st1:placeName></st1:place> could decrypt anything, if only through brute force decryption. No one on Earth possessed more advanced computers than the NSA.

    His blood ran cold. On Earth…

    Gillian nodded, following his train of thought. “It was surprisingly easy to locate the sources of the transmissions,” she said. She tapped a control pad hidden on her side of the table and a slide appeared on the wall. Toby frowned. It was a pinkish background, with a tiny silver object on top of it. The detail seemed almost blurred.

    “That is pretty much the maximum magnification we can give it,” Gillian added. “We removed that device from your arm.”

    Toby looked down, remembering the oversized needle that had been pressed against his skin. There hadn’t been anything there, had there? But then, diseases and germs were too small for the human eye to see…and they could be lethal. He hadn’t had the slightest idea that anything was there.

    “I see,” he said, as calmly as he could. Inwardly, he was reeling. “How big is it?”

    “Just a hair or two above true nanotechnology-size,” Gillian said. “I don’t think I have to explain just how dangerous this could be.”

    No, Toby knew; she didn’t have to explain. If the devices – the bugs – were so tiny, they could be taken anywhere by the unwitting host, turning loyal Americans into unknowing traitors. How long had it been on his arm? Toby was cleared for everything, a silent observer of secure briefings covering everything from defence to the ongoing economic crisis. He was loyal and yet he’d betrayed his country. And if there had been a bug on his arm, how many others were carrying their own unwanted guest?

    “The transmissions,” Toby said, finally. “What did they say?”

    “We don’t know,” Gillian said. “The real problem is simple. They cannot have come from Earth.”

    “The Galactics,” Toby said. The conclusion was inescapable. So were the implications. “They’re spying on us.”

    “So it would seem,” <st1:State w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Hanover</st1:place></st1:State> said. The Englishman leaned forward. “MI5 has been tracking a worrying series of meetings between the Galactics and people from…shall we say vested political interests? As far as we can tell, the Galactic bases in the EU have been seeing the same curious pattern of behaviour. There’s good reason to suspect that they’ve been holding such meetings in <st1:country-region w:st="on">Russia</st1:country-region> and <st1:country-region w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">China</st1:place></st1:country-region> as well.”

    He sighed, deeply. “Who are they meeting? Political leaders – often those with the least stake in the establishment; businessmen with interests that may be harmed or helped by alien technology; media editors and newspaper men…and what are they saying in those meetings? We don’t know.”

    Toby scowled. “You don’t do follow-up debriefs afterwards?”

    “Not everyone is willing to talk,” the CIA Director admitted. “We cannot force American citizens to disclose details of confidential discussions – it hasn’t been that long since the Cancer Drug scandal. But connected with these alien…bugs, it poses a worrying question – what are the Galactics truly playing at? What do they really want?”

    Toby remembered the brief moment he’d locked eyes with one of the aliens and shivered, feeling cold. “Another question,” he said. “How many of these bugs are there?”

    Gillian shook her head, slowly. “It’s impossible to tell,” she said. “They’re very hard to detect – we only knew you’d been bugged because the device was transmitting at the wrong moment, when it was too close to one of the sensor stations we positioned throughout the White House. If we assume that each of the transmissions we’ve picked up comes from a separate bug, we could be looking at upwards of five hundred devices within <st1:State w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Washington</st1:place></st1:State> alone. The real number could be much higher.”

    His father had often lectured Toby on the value of good intelligence. Given a series of nearly undetectable bugs, the Galactics could snoop into almost anywhere they wanted to go. Their long list of guests at one of their bases was a cross-section of American society, the movers and shakers who made <st1:country-region w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">America</st1:place></st1:country-region> work. The Galactics would know everything the American Government knew before too long. And then – what would they do with the information?

    “We carried out a set of checks on government databases as well,” Gillian added, dourly. “There’s always been a hacking threat from <st1:country-region w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">China</st1:place></st1:country-region> and other rogue states – and our own stable of hacking anarchists who think that information should be free. There is some real proof that a number of secure government databases have been hacked, but we have been unable to track down the perpetrators. In several cases, the FBI thought they’d finally gained evidence to convict known hackers, but they always had alibis.”

    “One attack came out of <st1:country-region w:st="on">England</st1:country-region>,” <st1:State w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Hanover</st1:place></st1:State> added. “We checked it out and found…we found a woman who barely knew anything about computers. She couldn’t have hacked into her own computer, let alone the most sophisticated computer security system in the world.”

    “Someone hacked into her computer and turned it into a remote platform for further hacking,” Gillian said. “It’s not an uncommon hacking pattern, but this one seems to stop dead at her computer. The level of technological sophistication in these attacks is light years ahead of anything we’ve got, or anyone else for that matter.”

    “Apart from the Galactics,” Toby said, bitterly. He looked up as a thought struck him. “Did they stick a bug on the President?”

    Gillian’s blue eyes seemed to refuse to meet Toby’s brown eyes. “We don’t know,” she admitted. “We can only really detect the bugs when they’re transmitting, unless we put someone through a full security check. And even then it’s patchy. If we hadn’t known that you were bugged…”

    Toby could complete the sentence for himself. “I would have walked out of this meeting and the aliens would have known at once,” he said. The thought refused to fade from his mind. “Do they know we know?”

    “We don’t know,” Gillian said, when her superior seemed disinclined to answer the question. “Their hacking attacks weren’t completely subtle; their bugs may have been removed naturally…”

    “I think we have to assume that they do know that we found the bugs,” the CIA Director said. “It would be too much of a coincidence to lose a bug on one of the few people with direct access to the President.”

    Toby swallowed hard. “But what do they want?”

    Despite himself, it came out as an almost plaintive cry. His throat felt dry; his palms were sweaty. He’d been there when the President had been briefed on the nuclear weapons at his command, the weapons that could wipe out a good percentage of the planet and contaminate the rest for thousands of years. The President had been shocked, but Toby hadn’t understood – until now. There were things so big as to be almost impossible to grasp until they slammed into one’s head.

    “We don’t know,” the CIA Director said. “One; they mean everything they said to us and they’re monitoring us to ensure that they know what we’re doing with their gifts. Two; they’re hostile and they want to monitor us to ensure that we don’t catch on to what they’re doing before it is too late.”

    Toby shuddered. “They’re spying on us, covertly,” he said. “That doesn’t suggest friendly intent.”

    “It would seem so,” the CIA Director agreed. “At the very least, they don’t trust us – we’re naked before them, almost defenceless, and they’re still spying on us.”

    The thought was almost impossible to grasp, despite his fears over the true intentions of the Galactic Federation. But then – the aliens had been very careful in what they’d said to the human race. Very little of it was actually useful and they’d presented almost no technological data. The fusion plants they’d provided for the <st1:country-region w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">United States</st1:place></st1:country-region> were sealed units, with human scientists barred from studying them. A handful of other gadgets had yielded little more information.

    On one hand, it was easy to understand a certain caution in dealing with the human race. The Galactics had pointed out many issues that suggested a certain insanity surrounding the human race, everything from fouling the environment to cheerfully committing mass murder and even genocide over trifling issues such as religion. Who knew how the human race would behave if given access to the stars? Even a society that had renounced war might be concerned by the possibility.

    But, on the other hand, there was a sense of…shiftiness surrounding the Galactics and how they dealt with the human race. They had been careful to withhold details, even details that could be of no conceivable military use, from their human questioners. No one even knew how many of them there were, or…

    “All right,” he said. “What do we do about it?”

    “That is the question,” the CIA Director said. “Can we take this to the President?”

    The NSA Director had a different question. “Do we dare take it to the President?”

    Toby opened his mouth to argue, and then saw his point. There might be other bugs within the White House, ones that might be lying dormant, recording everything they heard before transmitting it up to the alien starships. If Toby – having lost his bug – sought a private meeting with the President, any other bugs would certainly be ordered to listen in to the conversation…who knew just what the aliens were capable of doing?

    And the President, the most powerful man on Earth, would certainly be a target for alien surveillance…

    “We can’t,” he said, bitterly. The unanswered questions made it difficult, almost impossible, to think of a viable counter-strategy. And even if they did…there were still seventeen starships in orbit around the Earth. The Galactics – if they came with hostile intentions – could certainly bombard the planet back to the Stone Age. But given their technology, what could they possibly want with Earth in the first place? All the reasons human nations had attacked other nations were meaningless to the Galactics. If they were so scared of competition, why hadn’t they simply nudged an asteroid or two in towards Earth?

    Slowly, very tentatively, an idea began to form in his mind.

    The intercom buzzed before he could start outlining his plan. “Director,” a female voice said, “Mr Sanderson has been summoned back to the White House.”

    Toby felt his heartbeat start to speed up. The moment he stepped out of the secure building, the aliens would know that he was no longer under surveillance. And then…what would they do? His family’s dead heroes might have been calm in the face of danger, but they’d understood the dangers of Japanese kamikazes and German Panzers. Toby found it impossible to come to grips with the alien threat – if indeed it even was a threat.

    “I’ll be on my way,” he said. His voice sounded weak, even to his ears. “Did they say why?”

    “The aliens have completed their negotiations,” the female voice said. “They are prepared to tell us what we need to do to join the Galactic Federation.”

    Toby looked over at Gillian, who looked just as nervous as Toby felt. “It’s starting,” he said. But what was it? “Pray for us.”
    STANGF150 and Cephus like this.
  16. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


    <B>Chapter Nineffice:eek:ffice" /><?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com[​IMG]ffice:smarttags" /><?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com[​IMG]<st1:City w:st="on">Washington</st1:City> <st1:State w:st="on">DC</st1:State></st1:place>
    <st1:country-region w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">USA</st1:place></st1:country-region>, Day 18

    Jayne allowed herself a tired smile as she sat down in front of her laptop, using the tip of one finger to turn the machine on. It had been a gift from the BAN after she’d received the required number of points to qualify as a Senior Blogger, a person whose written words were read all over the world. Unfortunately, the position came with obligations as well as rewards – and one of them was keeping her finger on the pulse of blogger opinion. Peer review wasn’t the greatest system for monitoring public opinion, but in the words of Winston Churchill, it was so much better than all the others.

    The BAN had devised a fairly simple system for monitoring the conduct of the bloggers who signed up to the BAN. Each blogger was required to make a political declaration, outlining their positions on any number of contemporary political issues, before defining themselves as left, right or centre. Their readers would in turn rate them, with the effect that several bloggers who called themselves centrists were actually rated as extreme left or right-wing posters. Bloggers were only human, of course, and they could make mistakes, but outright lying was not tolerated. A number of bloggers had been removed from the BAN after being caught out. Jayne still remembered the blogger who’d claimed to be an Army Ranger; in fact, he’d never served in the military and the closest he’d come to military service had been a few years in a radical militia in Kentucky. The irony was that even if he had told the truth, the BAN wouldn’t have ejected him. There was room for all political beliefs in the community.

    Jayne rolled her eyes at some of the hopeful posters – bloggers who hoped to be invited into the BAN – before moving down to read one of her favourite blogs. The writer was rather extreme, but he was always funny to read. He’d kept most of his life hidden from his readers, even though he participated on the BAN’s online forums and community groups. People either read his blog or they didn’t. He had thousands of followers, so Jayne assumed it worked for him.

    Greetings folks; it’s Arnie Pie here – no offence meant, whoever is producing the umpteenth season of The Simpsons. It’s been a radical week two weeks out here, hasn’t it? We learn that there actually IS life out there and guess what? It isn’t very impressed with us. That isn’t too hard to understand, is it? IMFFHO we vote for dumb-ass politicians who would sooner spend your tax dollars on pork instead of space programs that might actually get us off this rock. Find out who cut money to space programs, my dear readers, and start hounding the bastards. Remember, you voted for them.

    But enough of such pleasant sarcasm – there are more important matters at hand. We have been told that there is a Galactic Federation out there and we may be invited to join. It’s an exciting prospect, isn’t it? Countless thousands have been thronging to Washington to demand that Congress starts immediate steps towards joining the Galactic Federation – and if that means cutting industry down to the bare bone and actually trying to cut back on consumption…well, that’s fine by them. After all, who really benefited from the economic crash we had in the last decade? Bankers, businessmen and fat pigs in Congress, eh? **** the lot of them, right?

    Except…there is a slight problem. What do we really know about the Galactic Federation? You may have seen the video on YouTube of a kid asking one of the Snakes – pardon the racial slur, but we don’t even know what they’re called – what the Galactic Federation actually is? And what was the alien’s reply? The Galactic Federation is the Galactic Federation. A perfectly honest answer that actually answers nothing – and an answer like that suggests either stupidity or that someone has something to hide. I mean, consider it; what is the <st1:country-region w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">United States of America</st1:place></st1:country-region>? The <st1:country-region w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">United States of America</st1:place></st1:country-region> – perfectly true, but it’s not actually helpful. ROTFLMAO.

    What do we really know about the Galactic Federation? Almost nothing – and all we think we know comes from the Snakes. And that raises another question; if the Galactic Federation consists of thousands of different races, why have we only seen one? What would it matter if we knew what the other races in the Federation even looked like? Your humble writer cannot think of any good reason to conceal even the features of other aliens in the Federation. And that raises a worrying question – do those races even exist?

    We have been told that there are vast benefits from joining the Galactic Federation, but what are those benefits? Your humble servants in Congress – particularly the ones so fecklessly bent on wreaking the country that they will never be offered a chancy to run for President – have been telling us all kinds of New Age dreams. There will be a redistribution of wealth – an idea human history tells us is a dumb idea – and countless other benefits. They have even been talking about a national healthcare system that won’t be a colossal drain on government finances. Except – what have the aliens themselves said?

    And they haven’t. Their words consist of vague promises and grim warnings about a possible political, social and economical crash in the near future. But the media is choosing to portray the aliens as friendly allies, beings who will help us – but for what? Altruism, you think? Let’s be clear on this point. The NGOs in the <st1:place w:st="on">Third World</st1:place> are supposed to be altruistic. Maybe many of the workers in the field are genuinely bent on helping the locals – I won’t diss people like that. But their offices are filled with people who insist on massive salaries, luxury treatment and produce entire rainforests worth of paperwork saying that we can beat poverty, famine and death – if only we make a massive commitment. They do well by doing good, don’t they? And that raises the question of just what the Snakes get out of helping us?

    What? You can’t think of anything? Neither can your humble servant. We have been told that they will take us to the forbidden barn where we will all board our intergalactic vehicle and head off to new, perfect lives on Blisstonia - well known for its high levels of bliss. And yet…what have they offered to prove their case? And let’s face it. There is nothing to be found in alien speeches to back up the more extreme claims made by the Witnesses. They seem delighted to welcome our new overlords.

    What have they actually done? They have provided us with fusion generators – already, there are calls to decommission every remaining fission reactor within the continental <st1:country-region w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">United States</st1:place></st1:country-region>. Have we forgotten so quickly why we couldn’t give the House of Saud the thermonuclear spanking it deserved? We were dependent upon their control over oil to maintain our economies – and our oilmen in the style to which they had become accustomed. Should we be so quick to become dependent upon them?

    At base, we know nothing about them. And that is worrying. What do they want from us?

    The basic problem with any government-provided service is that it is, ultimately, beyond accountability. There are thousands of stories about ordinary hard-working Americans who have had their lives ruined through government incompetence and found that they are unable to gain any recompense for what they have suffered. And believe me, there are worse sins carried out against Third World citizens by the so-called disinterested partisans of international aid. They have wreaked local farms by moving in food supplies from the West. They have destroyed local industries by insisting that they source their requirements from politically-favoured industries in the donor countries. And they have carried out the most terrible abuses against the local population – rape, paedophilia, slavery – through ignorance or deliberate malice – and then they have tried to cover them up, hoping to save the tattered shred of decency that they hide behind.

    Even if the Snakes have decent motives, should we be so quick to accept their promises of aid? We might find that we had become forever dependent upon them, or discover that we were at the mercy of planners thousands of light years away. How can we trust them when we cannot hold them to account?

    Jayne shook her head. It was impossible to escape the sense that the writer had a few good points, and was then burying them under a paranoid fantasy. She knew that many of the charges against the government and the aid agencies were true – one of the many reasons that government agencies hated the BAN was that it put the people in contact with genuinely disinterested experts – but there was no way of knowing if they applied to the Snakes. And yet...it was hard to dismiss the core of his argument out of hand. The Snakes had promised little; their supporters had promised much.

    Sighing, she clicked on the rebuttal from another blogger.

    There is much to be ashamed of in humanity’s long history. We have never been very kind to our fellow humans and we have treated the environment very badly. How many different kinds of animal have been driven to the verge of extinction – or even over the edge – by humanity? We don't know. The blunt truth is that the Dodo is far from the only creature to exist only in museums. We tell ourselves that we are aware of the dangers of destroying countless other creatures, yet we do far too little to save them. Every year, rhinos are hunted for their horns, which can be ground down into a folk medicine to boost male stamina in the bedchamber. The fact that such treatments simply don’t work doesn't seem to stop the trade.

    Nor can we excuse our treatment of our fellow humans. We allowed Saddam to rule Iraq for far too long. When we removed him from power, we did very little to protect the Iraqi people from the predicable chaos that emerged in the sudden power vacuum within Iraq. Our measures to remove dictators from Libya and a dozen other nations were half-hearted at best. We consider Saudi Arabia – a state that treats women and minorities worse than Iran, our sworn enemy – a friend and ally, despite the fact that the Saudis fuelled the terror network that eventually smashed the Twin Towers. The record of man’s inhumanity to man, stained in blood, is not one to be proud of.

    Now consider yourself an alien looking down on Earth. Would you consider the human race civilised, or would you wonder what might happen if those barbarous savages, too stupid to realise that they’re fouling their own nest, advanced into space? And even if you were optimistic, would you be quick to give those barbarians the technology that would allow them to reach your worlds?

    The Galactic Federation doubtless has considerable experience in dealing with new races. Their mere presence in space points to a mature political system, unaffected by wars and dogma that hold us back on Earth. The selfishness that dominates human politics has no place in a multiracial community that has access to the boundless wealth of space. What – exactly – do they have to fight about? There is enough living space to satisfy even Hitler.

    We must, I feel, understand and accept that the Galactics will be very careful when it comes to handling our world. They will not trust us to act in our own best interests – because humanity’s record of acting in its own best interests is non-existent. We are children under the gaze of mature adults, too wise to allow their anger to affect their judgement, but unwilling to evade the responsibility to pass judgement. They have promised us that they will help us mature, yet we must accept that this will be a slow process, one that will require the development of trust on both sides. And really – what do they have to gain by waging war on us?

    Consider; what are the motives of humans at war? Land – there is an endless supply of land in space. They’re certainly advanced enough to terraform worlds like Mars and turn them into gardens. Given enough time, they could break down an entire solar system and create a Dyson Sphere. Slaves – what could human slaves do for them that machines couldn’t do better, without the threat of a slave rebellion? Breeders – we’re unlikely to be sexually compatible with them. And really; how many humans find a Snake sexually attractive? I ask again; what do they have to gain by waging war on Earth?

    I think we will have to accept, right now, that they do know better than us. And I think that we should take this priceless opportunity to learn from a race that is far more politically and socially mature than our own. The concerns of those who fear losing control, or profit, or anything else should be dismissed. We will build a brave new world, one for humans mature enough to live in the Federation as equals. And if there are those who refuse to join us, let them isolate themselves. In the end, they will lose – and they will have no one to blame, but themselves.


    The man who called himself Arnie Pie stretched and stood up from the computer monitor. It had been a long day on the internet, where posting a single article on the BAN could generate thousands of responses, ranging from thoughtful rebuttals to angry semi-coherent flames that were rapidly squashed by the site’s moderators. Arnie knew better than to allow himself to be dragged into a flame war – as a listed blogger, he was expected to show a high level of decorum – but there were times when the sheer level of stupidity on the internet drove him insane. Anyone could pose as an expert on the internet and false information was rife. And then flame wars broke out because trolls made it impossible for anyone to back down.

    Shaking his head, he started towards the kitchen for a can of soda. It was nearly time for him to leave the computer for the night and go to work in the 7/11. He disliked the job intensely, but it had been the only one he’d been able to get, despite his qualifications and status as an accredited BAN blogger. Personally, he blamed Congress; instead of funding prioritising getting Americans back to work, they rewarded incompetence and bailed out banks that should have been allowed to fail. And hard-working Americans paid the price for their failures, while up on the Hill, Congress debated how to hand the nation over to a force from outer space.

    He would have liked to believe the silken promises offered by the Galactics and their supporters, but he didn't dare. In the real world, no one did anything for nothing – and some took their payment in feel-good feelings. The thought that they had done something to help pleased people; the fact that giving money to a homeless druggie only helped the druggie to keep doping himself seemed to have escaped their notice. Even if the Galactics meant well, that didn't mean that they would actually do good.

    The knock on the door was loud and firm. He scowled as he changed course and marched towards the door, mentally cataloguing anything incriminating that might be in sight. His apartment had been raided once before when the Washington PD had got the wrong address; they’d damaged his computers, confiscated anything that even looked significant...and refused to pay any compensation. They hadn't even admitted that they’d screwed up and raided the wrong apartment. And the mainstream media hadn't cared enough to send a reporter to make the whole thing public.

    He peeked through the peephole and blinked in surprise. Instead of a pair of uniformed policemen, there was a single man standing outside the door. He was black, with dark stubble on his cheeks and a short, almost military haircut. The dark coat he wore concealed almost everything else. He looked official, maybe a Fed; Arnie wondered, grimly, what he might have done this time. It was well known that the Feds kept an eye on the BAN after the network had been used to distribute official papers proving that the government had been economical with the truth.

    The door clicked as it opened. “Yes?”

    “I’m Federal Agent Davenant,” the black man said, holding up a card. Arnie made a show of studying it, but in truth he wasn't sure precisely what a FBI card looked like. “I’m investigating a case at the moment; are you alone in the apartment?”

    Somehow, he’d moved forward enough to block the door. “Yes,” Arnie said. “Do you have a warrant...”

    He never completed the sentence. The man lunged forward and slammed the palm of his hand into Arnie’s neck. Arnie was barely aware of a crack before darkness loomed up and swallowed him whole. He was dead before his body hit the ground.


    Moving with a speed that belied his bulk, Davenant swooped down on the body and dragged it into the apartment. Closing the door behind him, he carted the body over to the sofa and dumped it out of sight. The research had said that the blogger lived alone – there was no girlfriend at present – but there was no way to be entirely certain. Once the body was hidden from casual view, he went into the next room and looted a drawer of cash and a handful of small items that could be fenced easily. By the time the police found the body – it would start to smell soon enough – it would look like a robbery that had turned into a murder.

    Smiling to himself, he looked around the apartment one final time and then left, closing the door behind him. No one saw him leave.
  17. kom78

    kom78 OH NOES !!

    getting interesting can't wait to see where it goes thanks :)
  18. weegrannymush

    weegrannymush Monkey+

    Darned good read, Chris.....can't wait to see what happens next....
  19. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Ten<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    Near Mannington, Virginia
    <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:smarttags" /><st1:place w:st="on"><st1:country-region w:st="on">USA</st1:country-region></st1:place>, Day 20

    “I wonder,” Toby asked himself silently, “if I’m doing the right thing.”

    It had taken several days to set up the meeting. He could have just picked up a phone or emailed, but he had to assume that the aliens were monitoring cell phone conversations – and he was already a target for their attentions. In the end, he’d had to send a friend to speak to his father and trust his father not to ask too many questions over an open line. Luckily, Colonel Sanderson was just as paranoid as his son, although for different reasons. He had arranged the meeting without comment.

    He followed his father into his study, feeling old memories crawling up into his mind. The bookcase, containing his father’s collection of manuals from his military service, books he’d studied as a child. The desk, a heavy wooden object that had been passed down from the first Sanderson to buy the farm and raise a family in <st1:country-region w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">America</st1:place></st1:country-region>; his father was the only one allowed to use it, at least until he passed the farm on to his children. The leather chair, the one he’d bent over for a thrashing after a schoolboy prank had gone horrifyingly wrong…the room’s smells asailed his nostrils, bringing back memories from the past. And the two pictures hanging on an otherwise plain wooden wall; Mary Sanderson, Toby’s mother, and Robert Sanderson, his elder brother, the one he’d looked up to as a child. They were both long dead.

    There were nine people seated in the room, waiting for him. They were all ex-military, mainly from the infantry, although one of them was a Marine. The Colonel had no truck with those who argued that the Marines weren’t real soldiers, not after he’d fought alongside the Marines in the Gulf. He did have a prejudice against the politicians in uniforms who fought wars to please the media rather than concentrating on actually winning, but Toby wouldn’t have disagreed with that sentiment. Ten years in <st1:State w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Washington</st1:place></st1:State> had left him with few illusions about the true nature of politics. For every Senator and Congressmen genuinely devoted to the country – or even to their state – there was a dozen devoted to nothing more than their own power.

    His father opened the meeting with the Pledge of Allegiance, a reminder that they all served – or had served – the <st1:country-region w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">United States of America</st1:place></st1:country-region>. Toby, who had heard his father’s rants about businessmen who refused to feature the pledge at their annual meetings, echoed their words, even though he wasn’t sure how much it meant. Doing the right thing for the country required careful consideration of what the country actually needed, rather than knee-jerk reflexes from both sides of the political divide. There were men in his father’s clannish network that would happily ban abortion and yet refuse to teach children about sex, ensuring that the number of teenage pregnancies continued to rise. Toby had never been impressed with either side of the argument.

    “Very well, Toby,” his father said, finally. Toby thought that the old man had been pleased to see him, but it wasn't in his nature to slaughter the fatted calf and welcome his lost son home – at least not at once. “You wanted this meeting. Here we are, waiting on you.”

    Toby nodded, slowly. He knew five of the men; old friends of his father, dangerous men with a sense of honour, the sense that separated warriors from the barbarians warriors fought to keep away from the civilians. The other four were strangers. It was a good thing, in a way; if he was taken and interrogated, he wouldn’t be able to betray all of them to the aliens – or to the FBI. The Federal Government disliked what it chose to call right-wing militias and devoted a vast amount of effort to tracking them down and maintaining surveillance over potential targets. And the aliens would presumably have access to all of their files…

    “Before we begin, there is something I need to make clear,” he said. He was nervous, but his voice sounded steady. It helped that he had known most of them since childhood; Blake Coleman, a massive black man, wasn't too intimidating to the kid he’d bounced on his knee or carried on his shoulders across a river. The sudden childhood memory almost made his voice catch. “The information I will impart to you is – at least partly – covered by any number of regulations governing national security. The Federal Government has chosen to assert that civilian possession of this information will threaten national security. If you listen to me, you may face legal action; if anyone wants to leave now, please do so.”

    “Respectfully suggest,” one of the strangers grunted, “that you quit insulting us and get to the point.”

    Toby nodded. “It has been just under three weeks since the starships arrived in Earth orbit,” he said. “They have already turned the world upside down, but until now we didn’t know the terms for Earth’s provisional membership in the Galactic Federation. We do know now – and they are disquieting. The aliens say they come in peace, and that they mean us well, but the evidence doesn’t back up their claims. Among other things, they have been telling different things to different people.”

    He scowled. It had taken a covert international effort – sharing information from <st1:country-region w:st="on">Britain</st1:country-region>, <st1:country-region w:st="on">France</st1:country-region>, <st1:country-region w:st="on">Russia</st1:country-region> and even <st1:country-region w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">China</st1:place></st1:country-region> – to put together a picture of what the aliens were telling the different nations. The aliens had visited almost every nation in the world, even the ones that were abominations on the face of the planet. They condemned human nations that were built around a religious ideal – one that served as an excuse for oppressing their own people – and yet they hadn’t hesitated to visit <st1:country-region w:st="on">Saudi Arabia</st1:country-region> and <st1:country-region w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Iran</st1:place></st1:country-region>. Their presence in the <st1:place w:st="on">Middle East</st1:place> had worried the CIA, even the analysts who hadn’t known about some of the more suspicious alien actions. The arrival of fusion power threatened the <st1:place w:st="on">Middle East</st1:place> oil states and a number of Islamic terrorist groups had issued threats against the aliens. No one knew what the Snakes would do if one of their people was shot, or kidnapped, but no one wanted to find out.

    “Their terms are alarmingly simple. First, they want a global government that the Galactic Federation can actually treat as speaking for the majority of the planet. The UN just won’t cut it. They want us all to sign up to a global supranational government, one that will have a great deal of authority and the clout to ensure that its mandates are heeded by the individual nation-states. Any state that refuses to join and contribute to the global government will be frozen out of any trade and technological deals with the Galactic Federation.”

    “Hell,” Coleman said. “Why don’t they just call it the Global Community and have done with it?”

    Toby smiled, recognising the reference. “Second, they want us to largely disarm. States are to cut their military forces back by at least ninety percent – and all nuclear weapons are to be dismantled. The global government – whatever form it takes – will handle Earth’s security and the Galactic Federation will provide whatever support is required to ensure that the states that don’t join the global government are unable to threaten the new status quo.

    “Third…they want us to work on fixing our own mess. The global government will have a very powerful oversight role over businesses and industrial production sights. They will have the clout to close polluting businesses without facing centuries of legal battles in the courts. Among other things, most of the weapons industry across the world will be dismantled and the world will switch to a wholly fusion-powered lifestyle. Further, they will control the banks and work on fixing the debt mess that caused the economic crisis in the last decade…”

    “It sounds,” Coleman observed, “as if they wish to take control of the entire world.”

    Toby nodded. “From what we’ve been told,” he said, “the Galactic Federation is actually a three-tier structure. First, you have races like us; races that have to be helped into space. Second, you have races like the Snakes; races that made it into space on their own. And finally, you have races that have actually helped another race into space. The Snakes have confided in a handful of their more persistent questioners that they desperately want the status that comes with helping another race into the Federation and that’s why they’re so determined to help us, even if we don’t want to be helped.”

    “How very human of them,” the Colonel observed. “Do you believe them?”

    Toby hesitated, and then shook his head. “No,” he said, flatly. “There are too many holes and inconsistencies in their story. And then there’s the other evidence.”

    He ran through a brief outline of the nanotech bugs the NSA had discovered, and then went on to a different – even more alarming – matter. “There have been a number of deaths recently,” he added. “Nine people who have publicly questioned the Galactic Federation’s motive in visiting our world have wound up dead over the last four days. Six of them were killed in what looks to be muggings or robberies gone bad; one of the women was apparently knifed to death by a would-be rapist and one is dead of a heart attack.”

    “I’m not sure that proves anything,” Coleman pointed out, mildly. “A **** of a lot more than nine people drop dead every day from unnatural causes.”

    “True,” Toby agreed, “and so far the police appear to agree with you. But I spoke to a friend at the FBI and he pulled up the case notes – and there are a lot of odd things they have in common. Apart from the fact that all of the dead were alien sceptics, the forensic teams found no traces of DNA evidence that might lead to the murderers – even the attempted rape scene was clean.”

    “That’s absurd,” one of the strangers said. “A rape – even a failed rape – always leaves evidence.”

    “I know,” Toby said. “My view of the situation is that all nine of them – with the possible exception of the heart attack victim – were killed by professional assassins. I have been reluctant to draw this matter to the attention of the FBI; I think we must assume that all government databases have been compromised by the aliens. And I don’t think that the deaths prove that the aliens have good motives. They’re the only ones who benefit from the deaths.”

    The Colonel held up a hand. “This is all very interesting,” he said, “but let’s go back to the matter at hand. I can’t see the President accepting the terms the aliens are offering…”

    Toby scowled. “The President may not have much choice,” he said. “The Galactic Federation has told us that if we refuse to join the global government on their terms, we will be frozen out of all agreements – and tech transfers – with the Federation. You have to understand what that would mean for American businesses. Every overpaid lobbyist in <st1:State w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Washington</st1:place></st1:State> is currently banging down doors and making it clear to their tame Congressmen that if the government refuses to accept the alien terms, they can forget about having any more contributions to their campaign funds.”

    He shook his head. “And that doesn’t include a hundred other lobbies,” he added. “The environmental lobby is demanding that we close down all of the remaining nuclear plants and switch to fusion – which the aliens provide – at once. They have millions of supporters who will back the candidates who agree to the Federation’s terms. And then there are the millions of people who have seen their lives ruined by the depression while the government flounders and Wall Street’s big bankers walk away with huge payments and untroubled lives. Those people had lost their hope; the aliens returned it. The foreign aid lobby looks towards the resources that could be put to use eliminating poverty across the world, the peace lobby thinks how wonderful a world we would have without a military…everyone who just knows that the world would be a better place if we all agreed to just get along has signed up to support the Galactic Federation.

    “Some…friends of mine in <st1:State w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Washington</st1:place></st1:State> have been tracking the visitors to alien bases. We know of political leaders who have agreed to support the aliens; protesters and political lobbies…the aliens are building up a power base on Earth. And they’re doing it everywhere; there are now alien bases in almost every major country and they’ve even been buying human buildings and refurbishing them for their use in the capitals. I think they’ve even been quietly manipulating the stock market and placing orders for components with human firms, just to ensure that they have an incredibly strong bargaining position.”

    The Colonel frowned. “I remember when people were paranoid about the Japanese buying up everything,” he said. “That didn’t last forever.”

    “This is different,” Toby said. “The worst-case scenario is that the aliens have been quietly muscling their way towards controlling interests in everything from heavy industry to the media. Some of their allies are known stockbrokers with years of experience, or political lobbyists who have plenty of skills and no scruples. And one thing keeps echoing through my mind.

    “They want us to get rid of the army – every human army on Earth. And that makes no sense; surely, if they were telling the truth, human armies would wither away soon enough without encouragement. Even if we kept a million men under arms, what possible threat would it pose to the Galactic Federation? One asteroid on our heads and it’s bye-bye Earth.”

    “They want to invade,” the Colonel said, flatly. “You don’t destroy an army unless you fear that it will be in a position to oppose you.”

    “And the only way the army could oppose the aliens is if the aliens came down to Earth,” Toby finished. “And I am telling you, right now, that the odds are seventy-thirty in favour of the aliens getting what they want, or claim to want. The <st1:country-region w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">United States</st1:place></st1:country-region> will sign the treaty forming a global government and we will lose ninety percent of our armed forces – and all the nukes will be gone.”

    The Colonel nodded, slowly. “And you want us to do what about it?”

    Toby gathered himself, meeting his father’s eyes. “They have access to all of our databases,” he said. “I have a few allies working on options, but without the President’s authority there are limits to what we can do – and they’re keeping a very close eye on the President. The NSA sent a team through the White House and there are at least seven tiny bugs monitoring the President. And if we remove them, they’ll know that we found them. And then God knows what will happen.

    “I need – the country needs – someone off the grid,” he added. The irony was almost killing him. He’d called his father a nut more than once, a man convinced that the government was permanently on the verge of grabbing all the guns – just before returning the vast majority of the country’s population to debt-peonage. And he wasn’t even the craziest of the bunch. There was a guy who believed that driving licences were illegal and unconstitutional, as if the Constitution recognised a driver’s right to get others killed through bad driving. “We need to prepare for the worst.”

    “Invasion,” the Colonel said.

    “More like a slow takeover,” Toby said. “Each step will be presented as logical and reasonable; each step will be rewarded…but each reward will make us more dependent upon them. And one day we will wake up and discover that we’re nothing more than slaves.”

    One of the strangers leaned forward. “But slavery is uneconomical for pretty much anything apart from sexual favours,” he said. “Why would they want us ugly bastards as slaves?”

    Toby had wondered about that himself. If the aliens had merely wanted the Earth, exterminating the human races wouldn’t pose any problems for their advanced technology. A handful of abductions would give them the knowledge required to tailor a virus to humanity’s DNA, which could then be dropped on the planet with a suitably long gestation period. And then the entire human race would drop dead and the aliens would land, once the bodies had decayed and the stench became tolerable. No; the only answer that made sense was that the aliens wanted slaves – and that suggested that they were interested in securing humanity’s industrial base. But it was primitive compared to theirs…why would they want it?

    “I wish I knew,” he admitted. He looked up at his father. “I won’t mince words; there is a very real danger that they might have followed me here. I may have just put your lives in terrible danger. And yet we have no reason to think that they might know about you. Your country needs someone capable of resisting them when they take over…”

    “Or someone capable of taking the fight to them now,” the Colonel said.

    ”Someone expendable,” Bob Packman said. The former CIA officer met Toby’s eyes. “And someone completely deniable…right?”

    Toby didn’t attempt to lie to them. “Yes,” he said. “If something goes badly wrong and the whole plan is blown, the government will swear – largely truthfully – that it knew nothing about you. We cannot risk tapping much in the way of available resources from the government or the CIA or anyone who might be watched by the aliens…”

    “I understand,” the Colonel said. He looked, just for a moment, as if he were proud of Toby. Toby tried hard to conceal just how much that meant to him. “I will speak to some of my friends and start putting a second network together. You go back to <st1:State w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Washington</st1:place></st1:State> and keep us informed.”

    “Yes, sir,” Toby said. “And thank you for everything.”
    STANGF150 likes this.
  20. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Eleven<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:smarttags" /><st1:place w:st="on"><st1:City w:st="on">Washington</st1:City> <st1:State w:st="on">DC</st1:State></st1:place>
    <st1:country-region w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">USA</st1:place></st1:country-region>, Day 20

    “I’m afraid I can’t let you go any further.”

    Jayne nodded at the policeman as she halted in front of the tape someone had thoughtfully stretched across the doorway. POLICE LINE – KEEP OUT it read, as if anyone would just run past the burly policeman and into the cramped apartment. From her vantage point, she could see a handful of stuffed bookcases, a sofa that had clearly been dragged halfway across the room – and a chalk outline on the ground where the dead body had fallen. A handful of police photographers were wandering around, taking photos with monotonous regularity, but little else seemed to be going on. <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:State w:st="on">Washington</st1:State></st1:place> had too many murders per month and not all of them, whatever the Washington PD claimed, were solved.

    There was little spectacular about the death of Albert Grossman, honours student at Caltech and current wage slave in a company that cared more for brute labour than it did for the hopes and aspirations of the young men and women who were entering the job market. Jayne was honest enough to admit that under ordinary circumstances, she would never have given the murder a second thought – but Albert Grossman was also Arnie Pie of the Blogger Association Network. His murder was odd enough, but a handful of bloggers had checked the details and raised a disturbing question. What were the odds of at least eight anti-alien personages being killed within the same few days? Six bloggers, a newspaper reporter and a fact-finder for CNN’s website had all died within days of one another – and the only thing they had in common was that they had all raised concerns about the Snakes.

    She looked up at the policeman. He wasn't someone used to the streets, really; he’d admitted that he was more of a glorified dispatcher. Someone who owed the BAN a favour had arranged for him to escort Jayne to the murder scene; Jayne had been privately amused to watch his eyes straying from her breasts to her rear end, as if he’d never been given any training in how to interact with the media. Not that she cared, really; if he was attracted to her, he might be more willing to answer her questions.

    “He didn’t deserve to die,” she said, bluntly. It was easy to inject a note of sorrow into her voice. Death was never amusing, even when the person in question deserved to die. And who was she to make such a judgement anyway? “Do you know who did it?”

    She hoped that it would be taken for a naïve question. “I’m afraid we have little to go on,” the policeman admitted, finally. “No one saw anything; no one knows anything; no one is prepared to admit to anything without a lawyer. This is one of the places where everyone minds their own business and doesn’t speak to the police, which turns it into a very satisfactory place for anyone engaged in criminal activity. There are at least ten druggies in this area, along with five prostitutes and at least one suspected robber. But we can’t pin anything on him and if we rounded up the prostitutes, they would be replaced within the day.”

    Jayne nodded. She’d covered human interest stories back in the days when she’d been a cub reporter. Even the honest and decent folks living in poor areas tended to view the police as their natural enemy, tools of a shadowy government that was prepared to interfere in their lives, but not to do anything to actually help them. There were a dozen theories as to why that was the case – Jayne believed that it had something to do with low sentences and lack of discipline – yet it hardly mattered. The bottom line was that the murderer would probably go unnoticed.

    “He worked for the BAN,” she said, changing the subject slightly. Most policemen loved the BAN; hell, a number of bloggers were policemen. That was technically a violation of their service agreements, but they’re done excellent work exposing the stupidities of rules and regulations imposed by men who never walked the streets while wearing their uniforms. “Would we be able to get access to his computer files?”

    “I’d have to check,” the policeman said. Jayne moved, just slightly, to show him another centimetre of cleavage, but it didn’t change his mind. “The stiff left behind no will; we wouldn’t even have known about his death if he hadn’t left a key with his former girlfriend. She came to pick up some of her stuff from his flat and found his dead body. I’m afraid that she had hysterics and we had to remove her to a hospital. I think his parents will wind up with his gear; perhaps they could let you have access…”

    Jayne thanked him and walked away, heading down the stairs to the streets below. It was a blustery cold day in <st1:State w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Washington</st1:place></st1:State>, with hints of rain falling from the sky to the ground. She shivered and pulled her coat around her as the wind blew stronger, pushing against her. As a child, she’d feared the wind; now, she looked up into the gloomy sky and wondered what was lurking high overhead. The observatories said that the alien starships could be seen with the naked eye, but <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:State w:st="on">Washington</st1:State></st1:place> was too bright a city for anyone to have any hope of picking out a single light high overhead.

    Every reporter dreamed of stumbling onto a story that would make their names famous over the entire world. Journalists still studied the Watergate story, where a team of journalists had discovered a trail that led all the way back to President Nixon himself. <st1:country-region w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">America</st1:place></st1:country-region> had lost her innocence that day, Jayne considered; the day when they’d discovered that even the highest in the land could be brought low by the media. It had been the day when the media had started to shift from reporting the truth to scrutinising everything the government said, convinced that the government had to be lying to cover up dark intentions…

    There was no conspiracy, she knew. Nine times out of ten, there was no conspiracy; the government truly was as incompetent as it had seemed. And yet people still believed in the most insane conspiracy theories, from the American government having known about the 9/11 plot and doing nothing to the American government actually carrying out the bombing itself. It seemed to her that the people who chose to believe such insane theories were actually looking for a kind of reassurance, a sense that even if something had gone wrong, someone was still in control. The idea that screw-ups happened anyway terrified them.

    But maybe there was a conspiracy after all. A number of people who happened to hold anti-alien views were dead – and no one had been arrested or seemed likely to be arrested for the crime. And that suggested that the killers were professional assassins, trying to disguise the murders behind simple ‘robberies gone wrong.’ And who benefited from that? Only one answer came to mind.

    Stepping into a shop entrance to escape the wind, she pulled her cell phone out of her pocket and called an old friend. He was curious, but agreed to meet her without asking any more questions. If she was right – and if cell phone networks were being monitored – saying the words out loud might just make her the next statistic in a murder investigation.

    They met at Kent’s Bar and Grill, a deafeningly loud eatery that catered to Washington’s students and junior workers. It was difficult to hold any kind of civil conversation over the music, but it should have the effect of making it very difficult for anyone to overhear their words. Besides, there were enough distractions in the crowded bar to make it very difficult for someone to peer into their corner without being blindingly obvious.

    Vincent Felt had shared a journalism class with her, back before they’d both graduated and he’d gone to work for the New York Times. He’d always had a little crush on her, which Jayne had exploited ruthlessly from time to time. The BAN might be growing, but it didn't have the same level of access possessed by the Grey Lady – and besides, many people thought that the internet wasn't quite real. He was a tall man tending towards obesity, a trend encouraged by the large plate of nachos and salsa he was devouring while talking to her.

    “The word’s come down from on high,” he said, as he held out a dripping nacho for her. Jayne took one look at the cheese oozing off it and shook her head. She’d contented herself with fries and a coke. “The aliens are friendly and the human race should commit themselves to the Galactic Federation.”

    Jayne scowled as she took a sip of coke. Most of the deaths also had one other thing in common; almost all of the victims used modern media like the internet, rather than old-fashioned print media or even television. She’d expected more interest from the newspapers, but it seemed as if the fix was in already. Reporters didn't get anything like as much freedom of action as the public generally assumed. Only a complete fool of a reporter would push a story forward knowing that his editor – or senior management – would disapprove. The stories the public were told might bear only a slight resemblance to the truth, or might ignore the truth altogether. It was very rare for a story to be reported with the emotional detachment that was the key to true reporting.

    “I see,” she said. “And who issued the order?”

    “It came down from senior management,” Felt explained. He swallowed another nacho and burped contently. “The editing staff weren't too chuffed about it, I can tell you. They normally get to decide how to slant the story themselves.”

    Jayne nodded. “Is there anyone in the political field being pushed forward?”

    “Not as far as we can tell,” Felt admitted. “We have orders to promote the causes of politicians who have verbally committed themselves to supporting the Galactics – and mankind’s efforts to get into their Federation. Those who refuse to support the Galactics...”

    He didn't need to finish the sentence. They both knew that a carefully-placed story, just one hair short of libel, could destroy a political career. There were plenty of politicians whose only fault had been irritating the media – and discovered that their side of the story was being presented with a magnifying glass held over his flaws. A written story always had more influence than the internet, although that might be changing. The newer generations were far more comfortable with the internet than their parents – and why should they allow editing staff to decide what they wanted to watch?

    “Clever,” Jayne said. She was starting to have a very bad feeling about the whole thing. Part of her was tempted to bring Felt into her confidence, but one of the reasons he would never make it into the BAN was because he hated to question authority. Anything she gave him would end up in front of his superiors – where, if she were lucky, it would merely be dumped in the waste paper bin. “Thank you for your help.”

    She spent just long enough with him to allay any suspicions that all she’d been interested in was knowing who might be trying to shape public opinion, and then escaped the racket. Walking down the streets towards her apartment, she made a handful of phone calls to a number of trustworthy bloggers. Two of them were her mortal enemies online, but she knew that they could be trusted to stand up for themselves. The truth was out there and – these days – bloggers did more for exposing it than any other part of the media. She was still smiling at the thought when she froze. An alien was standing at the bottom of the street.

    They did look like humanoid snakes, she realised, as she found her legs shaking with tension. The alien moved on as if he hadn't seen her, accompanied by a pair of uniformed soldiers and someone wearing a nondescript suit. He was smoking like a chimney, despite the health risks – or had the aliens promised a cure for cancer among their other miracles? And what were they doing near her apartment? Terrified, she spent nearly twenty minutes – after the alien had gone – telling herself that it would be safe to return home, before she headed to a nearby guesthouse and paid cash for a single night’s stay. Cold logic told her that the aliens wouldn't have shown their hand so blatantly if they wanted to assassinate her – and they might not even have realised that she was on to them – but cold logic provided very little reassurance. As soon as she was in the rented room, she lay down on the bed and found herself shaking helplessly. She had never felt so threatened in her entire life.

    It almost made her want to give up and vanish into the country, but the thought of the great reporters like Woodward and Bernstein forced her to carry on. Somehow, she managed to take a shower and head back outside towards her destination, the Spandrel Caravan. It had been founded as a place for bloggers to meet in person – an experience that was often disappointing – and served as neutral ground for the BAN. Jayne admired the idea behind the eatery, not least the meeting rooms, which had been secured with the most advanced technology in the public domain. Rumour had it that the CIA had sealed a lock on a story by outfitting the meeting rooms themselves and ensuring that no one could spy on the bloggers. She’d asked twelve of her comrades to meet with her; not entirely to her surprise, only eight turned up.

    “Thank you all for coming,” she said. They were all reporting bloggers, rather than political analysts and commenters. Most of them had real journalist experience that they used to ensure that their reports were as clear and factual as possible. “I won’t mince words. I’m onto something that could be the biggest story in the entire history of journalism, but it could also get us all killed. Those of you who agree to work with me won’t just have non-disclosure agreements to worry about – this could be more dangerous than Jonny Russell’s scoop four years ago.”

    She watched as it sank in, slowly. Jonny Russell had been an investigative reporter in California who’d discovered that the Governor of the state had close links with a Mexican criminal organisation that had been terrorising Northern Mexico and Hispanic regions in America. He’d nearly been killed four times before the FBI put him in a secure witness protection program; the story had ended the Governor’s career and gone a long way towards cleaning up California. And if he had been just an inch less lucky, he would have died and no one would have known the truth.

    “We will have to assume the absolute worst,” she added. “There will be very powerful vested interests out to stop us. We may well end up dead – or worse. Do you have any objections to this level of danger? If so, you may as well walk out now. Nothing will be disclosed without your agreement.”

    She’d carefully picked friends without families, without anyone dependent upon them. One left, a man she knew to be courting a girl at the office; the others remained where they were. It was the closest she’d get to agreement, she knew. Bloggers rarely trusted one another too closely. Besides, any official agreement might be detected by the aliens. The dead blogger’s name and address had been stored under tight encryption at a data haven in England and the aliens had still tracked him down. They had to assume the worst – and that meant that anything placed in a computer might be read by unfriendly eyes.

    “I believe that someone is manipulating the world,” she said, and outlined everything she’d dug up over the past hour. The suspicious deaths, the media slant, odd trading on the stock market...and alien technology being hyped as the cure for all mankind’s ills. “And that someone may not be from this world.”

    There was a long aghast pause. “My god, Jayne,” one of her friends said, finally. “Are you sure about this?”

    “As sure as I can be,” Jayne admitted. “We need to do a hell of a lot more grunt work before we have anything more than suspicions – and then we need to decide what to do about it. Until then, no one is to put anything on computers; we’ll go back to the days when we used real notebooks and pencils. I want you to remember how the NSA hacked our computers last year; the aliens could be a great deal worse.”

    “My sister’s kid loves the aliens,” one of her older friends said. She sounded stunned, as stunned as the rest of them. They had all read the posted blogs, they all knew about the discrepancies in the alien statements, and yet...learning that they might all be lies was shattering. “He was talking about joining the Witnesses after they set up a recruitment booth on campus.”

    “I suggest you don't say anything to your sister,” Jayne said, firmly. “This is what we’re going to do. We’re going to follow the money; we’re going to find out who is benefiting from the alien presence and why. And then we’re going to try and figure out what they actually want on Earth.”

    It had only been a few decades since the Soviet Union had tried to manipulate the Western media into convincing the West to let down its guard. Jayne had been a child when the Berlin Wall fell, but she’d heard about it in the years she’d studied journalism. So many had been profoundly shocked when Communism had fallen apart and its moral bankruptcy had been exposed for all to see. And so many had refused to believe the truth.

    “And then...”

    She shook her head. “God knows what we will do.”
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