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Opportunity Calls Chinavare's Find Book 1

[]Table of Contents

Title Page

Chapter One: Good-bye George.

Chapter Two: The Trouble With Sergeants . . . .

Chapter Three: Echo World

Chapter Four: New Beijing

Chapter Five: A New Challenge.

Chapter Six: Politics

Chapter Seven: I Shot an Arrow Into the Air . . . .

Chapter Eight: Targets

Chapter Nine: Conspiracy

Chapter Ten: Storm Clouds Gather

Chapter Eleven: Let’s Make A Deal

Chapter Twelve: The Deal.

Chinavare’s Find

Part One: Opportunity Calls

by M. A. Roberts

[*Chapter One: Good-bye George. *]

*Monday June 19th, 2045 *

Monroe, Michigan.

 

It was a warm summer evening. A group of young men gathered at the base of the statue of General George Armstrong Custer that faced northeast, looking out over the intersection of Elm and Monroe Streets. Custer, mounted upon his horse, fixed the streets of Monroe with a blank look, as he had done for the last one hundred and thirty-five years.

Many Monroe residents found it hard to shake the feeling that the statue of Custer had somehow become a metaphor for the city. Custer’s legacy was that of a man who often made rash, foolhardy decisions. His last decision had gone so badly wrong that it had earned Custer enshrinement in the history books.

Downtown Monroe bore the markings of a city that had once seen better days and better times, but was now fading. The city and its residents had been rashly, perhaps even foolishly unwilling or unable to adapt to the changing reality, choosing instead, to cling to the glories of the past. Like Custer, Monroe’s citizens had paid dearly for the decision.

Unlike the statue of Custer, which had sat upon his horse, unmoving and unchanged, Monroe, had been ravaged by the passage of time. As off-world development expanded, employers had left the city, one-by-one, and the local economy sank deeper into a funk. Now left behind by the changed conditions, Monroe seemed condemned to stagnate, watching helplessly as the city’s best and brightest continued to leave, drawn to the glittering promise of off-world adventures.

The young men gathered beneath the statue, eagerly discussed their posting orders. Enlistees in the Army of the United Nations, Ninth Air Cavalry Corp, their eyes gleamed as they talked about the adventures that lie ahead.

An older man approached the youths. One of the youths, a stocky young man named Toby Pickett, called out to him. “Mr. Hause, did you sign up too?”

The newcomer laughed and replied quietly. “Yes Toby, I signed up too.”

Toby continued. “Really? They’re going to miss you at the school.”

Hause chuckled and answered softly, “I doubt they’ll even notice Toby.”

Toby gave Hause a confused look. “Fat chance of that. Why are you leaving?”

“The same reason that you’re leaving. I’m looking for the opportunity to do something that matters,” Hause answered wistfully.

Toby studied his feet for a moment. “Aw man. We always thought what you did mattered.”

Hause’s eyes lit up and he smiled. “Thanks Toby. Coming from you, that means a lot. So what are you doing here?”

“We were just comparing orders. What’d you get Mr. Hause?”

Hause pulled out his orders and looked them over quickly. “OCS.”

Toby whistled and said, “An officer, cool.”

A taller, thinner youth named, John Thompson, spoke up. “They assigned Toby and I to artillery school, because we had good math scores.”

“I told you, math would be good for something, John,” Hause answered. The other young men laughed.

“Bill and me chose security. How’d you rate OCS, Mr. Hause?” A third youth, Steven Tucker, asked.

Mr. Hause frowned, but choosing not to correct his former student’s grammatical faux pas, he said instead, “I do have a college degree Stephan. When do you ship out?”

Toby answered. “Wednesday, at 7:30 in the morning.”

“Me too. I guess I’ll see you on the platform then.” Mr. Hause responded.

Stephan looked around and said. “I don’t know about you guys, but I feel a party coming on. What say we pick up some juice and get tagged? Hell, we’ve got less than forty-eight hours left.”

The four youths animatedly discussed the idea and agreed with Stephan, vowing a major blowout before leaving Monroe. Toby turned to Hause and said, “Care to join us? It’d be wicked to party with you.”

Hause laughed again and said, “I’d love to Toby, but I have some business to take care of, before shipping out.”

The young men headed south along Monroe Street, across the bridge over the Raisin River, and into downtown Monroe. Hause watched them leave, and then looked up at the statue of Custer, thinking, [_Well George, in two days, I’ll be heading for the frontier. I sure as hell hope I have better luck than you did. Funny how everyone remembers when your decisions go wrong, but no one remembers when they go right. You saved the Union’s bacon at Gettysburg, but who remembers that you were even there? _]

Hause turned, walked past the statue, down Elm Street, along the river, and deeper into St. Mary’s park. He headed for one of the park benches overlooking the river. He couldn’t help feeling sad. He was leaving behind a ton of memories, mostly, but not all, good.

Hause sat down on the bench, leaned back, and smiled as he looked across the river. The back wall of one of the buildings had been turned into an enormous billboard, advertising Reverend James Abbott. Reverend Abbott was the founder of a yet another ‘new’ fundamentalist movement.

No one can stop you now. Random thought as he grimaced, and sifted through the horrors. He remembered sitting in his tiny apartment, watching with dismay as the election results rolled in last fall. The political campaign of 2044 had been especially brutal. Dozens of candidates, all across the nation, had been forced to drop out of the running because of one scandal, or another. The candidates that dropped out all seemed to be opponents of candidates supported by Reverend Abbot.

Nearly all of the accused had loudly proclaimed their innocence, and most had produced copious amounts of evidence to support their claims. Those protests hadn’t mattered: the ‘attack media’ created telnet frenzy and simply shouted the accused down. Occasionally, the results had been tragic.

One of the victims, a young Christian business woman, running for Congress, had been accused of having an abortion at the age of fifteen and then secretly harboring a lesbian lover. Random could remember watching her press conference on telnet. She had tearfully presented clear and compelling evidence showing that both charges were bogus.

Her sincerity and her evidence hadn’t mattered. The coverage of the scandal continued unabated. To Random, it seemed like he had been the only one listening to her conference. He watched in horror as the young woman’s life publicly unraveled. She first lost her political backing, and then her business. Eventually, unable to take any more shame, she jumped out of a twentieth story window.

She hadn’t been the only victim that fall. There had been other suicides as well, during that horrific October, leading up to the election. The attack media responded to each tragic death with glee, flooding the telnet with reports that touted the suicides as further proof of the veracity of their reporting. By the first of November, Random felt that the America he had known, loved, and taught about, was a thing of the past.

Election night only served to confirm his feelings. He watched with growing apprehension as the Reverend’s party captured seven state legislatures, outright, and large minorities in six others. Nationally, the Reverend controlled one hundred seats in the House and twelve seats in the Senate. Random shook his head slightly, thinking, So much for the separation of church and state.

Election night seemed like a lifetime ago. The new year, 2045, began with a legal battle over censorship, as the local public radio organization fought to preserve its right to present the news without prior approval. Each new week seemed to bring another fight as one local government after another attempted to override constitutionally guaranteed freedoms, equal protection, and due process.

A man, who had suddenly appeared behind the bench, interrupted Random’s thoughts. The man’s eyes remained fixed on the billboard as he said, “That man gives me the willies.”

Where did he come from? There wasn’t anybody there a minute ago. Random wondered, and then replied, “He certainly seems to catch all the breaks. How can one man be that lucky?”

The man, dressed like a vagrant, gave Random an odd smile. “But it’s not just one man and I wouldn’t bet the farm on him being lucky either.”

What the hell did he mean by that? Random thought as he watched the oddly dressed man turn and walk away.

Random couldn’t help wondering about the odd man. It was obvious, to him, that the man hadn’t been all that much older than he, but had been dressed to look like an aged vagrant. Random also puzzled over what the man had said. The vagrant had made it sound like he knew for sure that Abbot was merely a pawn in somebody else’s game. Finally, Random couldn’t shake the impression that he’d seen the man before.

It’s been a rough year, Random thought as he looked down at his feet, chalking the man and his comments up as another enigma in what had truly proved to be a strange year. The highlights of the final semester of the second year American History course that he taught that spring, ran through his mind, especially, the lively discussions about America’s place in the world.

The course had always been controversial, largely because it dealt with America’s place in the modern world. His latest round of difficulties had begun several years ago, with the selection of a new textbook for the course. The number of available textbooks had expanded greatly with the advent of the telnet, but many of these new textbooks were undocumented, politically stilted, and unsuitable.

Random had carefully searched through each of the available texts until he found one that presented clear and balanced historical analysis, supported by readily verifiable evidence. He used the textbook to support his presentation of a logical explanation for modern America’s place in the world.

According to the textbook, during the 1990’s, one of the superpowers that emerged at the end of World War II, had simply faded away. The Soviet Union collapsed, losing control of Eastern Europe and the Baltic Republics. The nation of Russia was reborn. By the late 1990’s, internal conflicts, combined with economic chaos, threatened the new, old nation’s, existence. In fact, the new nation seemed to be ungovernable.

By the turn of the century, that situation had changed. A semblance of order had been established, but it was obvious to many that the Russian Mafia, many of whose members seemed to be ex-apparatchiks, was at least indirectly, in control, bad news for most Russians, but great news for those in position to take advantage. The Russian economy coughed to life and surged. As the economy surged, Russian nationalism began a resurgence that caused new headaches for the rest of the world.

The textbook had also detailed the Western European attempt at international government, which met with mixed results. Struggles with the issue of sovereignty derailed many of the planned initiatives. The authors of the text had used the struggles of the European Union as a cautionary tale about the dangers of world, or multi-national governments in general.

Even with the struggles, by 2007, many of the formerly communist nations of Eastern Europe had been integrated into this new European Union. The Baltic Republics applied for membership and were accepted by 2004. Russia, on the other hand, chose not to join the European Union. They opted instead, for the role of equal partner in its relations with the EU. Russia’s decision created tensions, especially after the energy price crisis of 2008 and the financial panic of 2009.

This year’s discussions, as they had in the years before, triggered fireworks. The real explosion began, as they always had before, when Random started talking about events on this side of the Atlantic. The cause of America’s economic meltdown had been the subject of several books and years of intense debate.

Before agreeing to teach the course, Random had meticulously researched the topic. The telnet had made it relatively easy for him to read and investigate most of books on the subject, and also to investigate the claims made in those books. The process was a tedious one, but not difficult. He found most of the books to be long on political polemic and short on facts and supporting evidence. He found that the various authors had tried, unsuccessfully, to paint one sinister conspiracy or another as the true cause of the financial crisis.

His own telnet research into the causes of the meltdown had led him to a different conclusion. The conspiracy theories were groundless. He found it easy to debunk each of them in turn. Instead, the evidence he found supported a much simpler explanation. America’s economic woes had been created by its people’s own hubris and unrealistic expectations. Random also knew that, despite the compelling logic and the readily available evidence to support that logic, the conspiracy theories had continued to spread. Taking on a life of their own, and seemingly becoming a matter of faith. He shook his head as he remembered the time he had spent, each spring, carefully explaining how the lack of credit had brought about the changed world that both he and his students, had grown up with.

Each year, armed with his own research findings and the textbook he had chosen for the course, largely because of its clear and logical explanation of the continuing economic crisis, Random had started his lessons about what had happened on this side of the Atlantic by systematically shooting down the popular conspiracy theories. He presented his explanations first, and then allowed for discussion afterward. By the time he was prepared to explain the true cause of the meltdown, the telnet was normally abuzz with angry comments.

Random expected the angry comments, just as he expected the heated exchanges during the discussion periods. This year, he shifted nimbly, as he had, each spring for the last decade, from the heated discussions, to a clear and logical explanation of the United States’ plunge into a sea of red ink. He began with the 2008 energy crisis and the ensuing financial panic of 2009, explaining that these events had hit the nation hard. The panic became the Great Recession, the name given to the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression of the 1930’s.

The author of the textbook had a wonderful explanation of why full recovery from the Great Recession, proved to be elusive, always seeming to be just around the corner. Random remembered having to explain the author’s logic. Explaining how bankers and investors, around the world, began to look at the economies of China, India, Russia, and Brazil, as the most likely sources of future economic growth.

Random explained that those bankers and investors believed that America’s days as the engine driving the world’s economy, had passed. As a result, international investment in America began to slowly tail off. The value of the dollar, which had stabilized in 2009 and 2010, began to falter once again.

He explained how the loss of international investment led to an expansion of the credit shortage that had rippled through the American economy. As credit tightened, more and more, and the nation’s economy slowed even further, investors lost confidence in their ability to make a profit. Still, America soldiered on. The credit crisis and declining dollar were painful, but not overwhelming problems.

As the years unfolded after the election of 2012, America’s continuing economic malaise convinced many central bank leaders around the world to make public their intention to stop acquiring new reserves of American dollars. Their decision resulted in a further tightening of credit. The continuing credit shortage effectively stifled any robust American economic recovery.

This spring’s lecture on the events of 2015 produced an uncomfortable meeting with Random’s principal and a group of parents. This year, despite Random’s carefully explained logic, and supporting evidence, the telnet calls from angry parents accusing him of spreading lies and filth about America, reached flood proportions.

At the meeting, the parents were determined to have Random removed from the school. They didn’t care that he’d given the same lecture for ten years, or that he had an abundance of supporting evidence that he’d gathered during his meticulous research on the topic. They insisted that Random be dismissed for spreading lies and being un-American. In the end, his principal chose logic over emotion and supported Random. The parents were unconvinced and vowed to continue the fight.

The gist of Random’s lecture was that in 2015, two major events occurred that reshaped the American economy forever. First, Mexico’s proven oil reserves finally failed. This wasn’t unexpected, and it should not have been a disaster. The Mexican oil reserves had been in decline for over a decade. In fact, observers had noted back in 2006 that Mexico’s proven reserves would be tapped out in ten years at the current rate of extraction. The experts had been right. The old reserves failed and Pemex had not been able to modernize and adapt quickly enough to bring new reserves to market.

Most American oil companies had already begun reducing their purchases of oil on the international spot market. The absence of Mexican oil threatened to force them to reenter the spot market, which would have led to higher fuel prices in America. This was process was offset by an upsurge in American domestic production, that had begun in 2010.

By 2015, the upsurge exceeded the amount of oil that had been supplied by Mexico. Unfortunately, the oil producers found more lucrative markets for their precious oil reserves outside of America. American oil producers cut refinery production in America and exported their excess product, creating an artificial shortage and elevated American fuel prices.

Logically, high fuel prices would encourage American entrepreneurs to develop alternative fuels to meet the need. Alternative fuel plants were built, some encountered ongoing technical difficulties, but many others ran afoul of a well-organized and well-funded anti-environmentalist movement. This led to increased efforts to develop domestic petroleum reserves. Oil production did expand, but nothing seemed capable of halting the slow, inexorable rise of fuel prices.

According to the textbook, the second event directly tied into the first. As the world’s central bankers examined this new economic reality facing the already stumbling American economy, most opted for caution. They decided to further reduce their bank’s holdings of American dollars. This decision resulted in a flood of American dollars into the international currency market. The flood triggered a near total collapse of the dollar.

The collapse was so complete, that for a short time, the American dollar had little or no value on the international currency market. Frantic actions by a collection of central bankers eventually stabilized the dollar, but at a drastically reduced level. The flow of foreign investment into America, which had been slowing, now ceased all together.

After the free fall and stabilization, most international credit markets closed their doors to American borrowers. Domestic credit remained available, but by the end of 2015, there was simply not enough credit available to meet the nation’s many needs. Random remembered explaining to his students, each spring, how the process worked. He explained that, prior to 2015; nearly all American businesses had traditionally operated on short-term lines of credit. They would borrow the money to make payroll, and then pay back the money when they had finished selling the product.

With credit greatly restricted, the cost of borrowing money rose dramatically. Businesses could no longer afford the short-term line of credit loans, and were forced to operate with the cash they had on hand. They had to learn to make do with smaller output and fewer employees. This new business model meant that job creation would slow, if not stop, and that millions of Americans would remain unemployed. As a people Americans now had to begin the painful process of learning to live locally and within their means.

This process was a gradual and painful one. By 2020, the American population had stopped growing, and in many regions, actually declined. The cause of the population change wasn’t hard to pinpoint. During the crisis, very few immigrants opted to come to America, and many who were already in America, opted to leave.

In this new economy, local agriculture became a driving force. Cities, especially in the northeast, had open space and abandoned buildings, so they consolidated neighborhoods, and created green space for parks and gardening programs, like Urban Harvest. In many cities, abandoned office buildings and shopping malls, were turned into multi-story greenhouses, and urban farms.

As it became more and more expensive to import raw materials, Americans turned to local sources. Everything was recycled. Landfills were mined for the raw materials they contained. More and more manufactured goods that had once been imported were now hand produced, by local craftsmen.

Even with all these changes, unemployment continued to be a problem. This year, as he had several times before, Random asked each of his classes if they knew of someone in their extended family who was unemployed. For the first time, this year, every one of his students, in each of his classes, had confirmed that a member of their extended family was unemployed. Unlike many of his coworkers, Random didn’t find it at all surprising that almost every one of his students planned to go off-world when they graduated.

Then again, Random recalled that things hadn’t been all that much different during his own junior year in high school, back in 2029. Nearly all of his classmates had made plans to pursue off-world careers. Many of them had already signed up with America’s Off-world contingent. Not Random. Oddly enough, he had applied and been accepted at Michigan State University, where he planned to study History and to become a writer.

Random remembered sitting on this same bench, on a warm April morning, in 2029, The back of the building, across the river had been painted differently then. An advertisement proudly proclaiming that the 2029 Ford Taurus would now be powered by an electric/Tesla Turbine engine hybrid. The Taurus was one of the oldest manufactured lines in America, and perhaps the last to switch completely over to the electric/Tesla Turbine engine technology.

Random remembered sitting on the bench, looking at the back of the building and talking with one of Monroe’s local legends, a man known as “Crazy Ike.” Ike was also known to frequent St Mary’s Park, tell very tall tales, and drink prodigiously. Random had spent a great deal of time talking with Ike, during his high school years, and had come to know that “Ike” was sober, more often than not, would listen when most people wouldn’t, and gave sensible, level headed advice, most of the time.

“I heard you didn’t sign up with that Off-world recruiter. Sounds like you’re not planning on going off-world,” Ike said as he and Random watched people walking by on the Riverwalk.

“Nope, I’m planning on staying right here,” Random answered.

“And people say I’m crazy,” Ike replied, chuckling in response.

“I don’t think you’re crazy, and I don’t think it’s crazy to want to study history and to preserve those things that make us who we are.”

Ike reached down and picked up a small stone and pitched it into the river. “Thanks kid. No, I don’t suppose that’s crazy either. Have you told your mother?”

Random looked down towards his feet. “No, I haven’t told her.”

“Why not? You know you gotta tell her son. It’s the right thing to do.”

“I know Ike. I’ll tell her.”

“When?”

Random shrugged and replied offhandedly, “Maybe, next summer.”

Ike glared at him and then retorted sharply, “Random Arthur Hause, that woman has poured her heart out to bring you up right. The least you can do is let her know what you plan on doing with your life. You know full well that she’s going to blame herself for your decision to stay here, on Earth.”

Random hung his head even further and responded, barely audibly, “I know. I’ll tell her Ike. I promise.”

Random kept his promise. He had gone home later that evening and told his mother about his plans. The conversation hadn’t gone very well. Just as Ike predicted, Mrs. Hause had blamed herself for Random’s decision to stay on Earth. Random had tried to explain that he was staying because he felt that someone should try and fix the Earth before everyone headed off to mess up new worlds. Mrs. Hause didn’t buy his explanations. In the end, they’d exchanged angry words.

Random didn’t want to admit it, but in a sense, his mother was right. A part of his decision to stay on Earth was his desire to be near his mom and his sister Deirdre. He realized that he had been trying to protect them for most of his young life.

Random drifted off into another of his memories. He supposed it started during the summer of 2020. In 2018, a consumer group had sued the state of Michigan because Monroe’s sewer system had repeatedly dumped tons of raw sewage into the Raisin River, seemingly every time it rained. As part of the settlement, in 2020, the state took control of the city’s sewage and storm drain operations.

Workmen had been hired to canvass the neighborhoods, inspecting the home – sewer links and the accessible portions of the sewer lines. Random remembered a man that had shown up at their house, banging on the front door. He remembered his seven-year-old self opening the door. The man had said, “Hello son. I’m working for the State of Michigan. They’ve asked me to investigate the sewer links in this neighborhood. Are your parents home?”

Random remembered frowning and saying, “You wait there. I’ll check.”

He had turned and walked back into the house, to his Mom’s office, a small room, off the dining room. He remembered just stepping into his mother’s office, when he heard the man open the screen door and let himself in.

Mrs. Hause, who worked from home for a local freight company, arranging for the movement of goods in and out of the Port of Monroe, and the Monroe City Airport, heard the door open as well. She had looked up and said quietly, “What’s up? Who’s at the door?”

“Some man. He says he’s working for the state and they’ve asked him to check out the sewer links in the neighborhood. I don’t trust the guy. I told him to wait there, and he went and let himself in when I walked back here,” Random had answered solemnly.

Random remembered Mrs. Hause standing and saying, “Grab the phone. I want you to call the police if there’s a problem.” Random had nodded and picked up the phone receiver from her desk. Mrs. Hause had picked up an old gnarled wood walking stick that had once belonged to her husband. She walked, with the stick, back into the front room.

The man stood in the entryway. He said, with a grin, “I’m here to check the sewer link into your home.”

“I don’t think so. You’re not inspecting anything, inside my house,” Mrs. Hause had answered back in a fierce tone, and then pointed towards the door with the walking stick. “You can just let yourself right back out.”

Random remembered the man looking Mrs. Hause up and down, and then saying, “Hey little lady, you don’t need that stick. I’m not going to hurt anybody.”

Mrs. Hause had raised the stick and then angrily took a step towards the man saying, “Get out of my house. Now!”

The man held up his hands and backed away. “Whatever you say lady. I’ll be back.”

“You’re not going to enter my home again. Tell your supervisor to send someone else and that he’d better come along himself.”

Random remembered the man laughing as he let himself out the front door. When the man had left, Mrs. Hause and Random quickly went around and made sure that the doors were all locked and the windows latched. When Random returned from checking the doors and windows, Mrs. Hause had sat down in the living room and asked Random to sit next to her. “Random, come here for a minute. I need you to do something for me. Do you remember Mr. and Mrs. Shepard?” she had asked.

Random remembered nodding and replying, “Yes. They live down the street. Mrs. Shepard teaches at my school and Mr. Shepard is a Sheriff’s Deputy.”

Mrs. Hause smiled. “That’s right. I want you to go down to their house and tell them about this man and what he did. I’m going to call the state office and report the man to his supervisor.”

Random had nodded, “Ok Mom.”

Random had hopped off the couch and let himself out the front door, making sure to lock it behind him. He remembered standing on the porch and looking around. He had seen no sign of the man, or his truck, so Random had ran down off the porch and up the street to the Shepard house.

Random had run up the steps to the Shepard’s porch, and then quickly stepped across and rang the doorbell. A few moments later, a woman, several years younger than Random’s mother, had answered the door. She frowned for a moment before opening the screen door. “Random, is there something you need?” she had asked.

“My mom sent me here to talk to you and Mr. Shepard,” Random had remembered replying solemnly.

“I see. Let me go and find Mr. Shepard then. You wait here.” Mrs. Shepard left Random standing in the entryway.

After what seemed to be an hour, to Random, Mr. Shepard had come into the front room, rubbing his eyes. Mrs. Shepard followed. Mr. Shepard blinked once or twice and saw Random, waiting in the entryway. “Mrs. Shepard says that your mother asked you to come and talk to us?” he had asked

“She did sir,” Random remembered answering politely.

“Well . . . . Ok. Why don’t you tell what this is all about?”

“Yes sir.” Random then told Mr. and Mrs. Shepard about the man and his behavior.

Mr. Shepard listened patiently. He had asked Random to repeat a couple of points to make sure he understood exactly what Random thought had happened. When Random had finished his explanation, Mr. Shepard had said, “This sounds serious. Definitely something that needs looking into. Let’s go down to your house, so I can talk to your mom and see if she has any more information.”

Random had replied, “Yes sir.”

Random and Deputy Shepard had walked down the street towards Random’s house. A white van was parked in front of the house. Upon seeing the van, Mr. Shepard had reached his hand out and touched Random’s shoulder, and said quietly, “Let me go ahead and go inside. You take a minute or two and check out all around the outside of the house. When you’re finished, come in and let me know what you find.” Random had just nodded.

Mrs. Hause had told Random about Deputy Shepard’s visit. She had told Random that the Deputy had stepped up onto the porch and checked the front door. It had been locked, so he rang the doorbell. A few seconds later, Mrs. Hause answered the door. When she saw Deputy Shepard, she had said, “Am I glad to see you.”

“Random told me about your visitor. Are you all right?”

“I’m Ok.”

Deputy Shepard nodded towards the white van. “Is he in the house?”

Mrs. Hause remembered shaking her head. “No. I wouldn’t let him in.”

Deputy Shepard’s face had taken on a worried expression. “Ok. I’m going to go and see if I can find out what he’s up to. You keep that door locked.”

Mrs. Hause remembered nodding and closing the door. She had watched through the window as Deputy Shepard waited just long enough to hear the door click before he bounded off the porch, headed in the direction Random had taken a few minutes earlier. It took him three strides to reach the end of the porch. He spun awkwardly as he rounded the porch, in an attempt to avoid running over the boy, who was rounding the porch from the other direction.

The two had passed each other, Random seated and skidding on the grass, Deputy Shepard tumbling head over heels. Deputy Shepard had looked behind him and saw Random laid out on the grass. “Are you all right?” he had asked quietly.

“Yes sir. I’m all right,” Random had replied without moving.

Random remembered Deputy Shepard standing, brushing himself off, and then walking back to where Random lay. He had looked down on the boy and asked, “Sorry about that. Did you see anything back there?”

Random remembered sitting up and answering solemnly, “Yes sir.”

“What’d you see?”

“I saw that man hanging out around my mother’s bedroom window sir.”

Deputy Shepard had then reached down and patted Random on the shoulder and said, “Thank you Random. You’ve done very well. I want you to wait here and keep an eye on his van, while I go out back. Can you do that for me?”

Random remembered nodding and replying, “Yes sir. I’ll get up on the porch and keep an eye on the van from there.”

Deputy Shepard had smiled. “Good thinking son. You do that. I’ll be right back.”

Deputy Shepard had not come right back. Random remembered waiting impatiently on the porch for the Deputy to return. His wait had continued until a City of Monroe police cruiser pulled up. The car door had opened and another officer stepped out. The second officer then asked, “Is Deputy Shepard here?

Random had nodded and said, “I think so officer. I think he’s around back.”

He remembered the officer smiling. “Thank you son. You wait here. I’m going to go back and give Deputy Shepard a hand.”

The City of Monroe police officer had closed his car door and then walked quickly towards the back of the house. Less than five minutes later, he and Deputy Shepard had returned, dragging along the man, who was now handcuffed.

While the man was being tucked into the back of the City of Monroe police cruiser, Deputy Shepard had come up to Random, saying, “Thank you for your help. This guy’s managed to get himself into all kinds of trouble. Tell your mom that he won’t be coming back.”

“Thank you sir. I will. What was he doing back there?” Random had felt happy and much relieved.

“Don’t worry about it Random. He won’t be back.”

Random remembered watching as the police cruiser drove off and Deputy Shepard walked home. He definitely hadn’t been satisfied with Deputy Shepard’s answer. He decided to poke around, behind the house. Especially near his mom’s bedroom window, where he had spotted the man.

Random remembered getting on his knees and gently parting the thick grass growing against the basement wall, underneath his mom’s window. A tiny sparkle caught his attention. The sparkle had been caused by an almond sized device, reflecting the sunlight.

Random remembered picking up the device. He had turned it over and over in his hand, studying it. He had been certain that he was looking at an electronic device. But what kind of device was it? he had asked himself.

He also remembered that his questions about the device had caused him to think about the man who had operated the computer repair shop over on Front Street. Earlier that year, he’d taken an old camera that his mom had discarded as broken, to the shop. He had asked the man if he could fix it. “And who do we have here?” the man had asked as he took the camera from Random.

“My name is Random Hause. I live over on Humphrey Street,” Random had answered honestly.

The man had smiled. “Do you now? Well my name is Mr. Jackson and this is my computer shop. How may I help you this morning?”

“Do you think you can fix that camera?”

Random remembered Mr. Jackson’s brows knit as he turned the camera over and over in his hands. After, what seemed like forever to Random, Mr. Jackson had scratched his chin and then answered back, “Sure, I can fix it. There doesn’t seem to be anything really wrong with it. Leave it here until Wednesday, and I’ll see what I can do.”

Wednesday had been three days away, a long time for a seven-year-old boy. Random remembered nodding and asking, “Um . . . . I guess so. How much is it going to cost?”

Mr. Jackson had looked down and studied Random for a moment. “That’s probably going to be problem, isn’t it? Tell you what, if you could spend an hour or two sorting through that junk under the window there, I’ll call it even.” He had nodded towards the window at the front of the store to emphasize his comment.

Random remembered turning and looking at what Mr. Jackson had called ‘junk,’ a jumbled collection of electronic odds and ends that Mr. Jackson had taken in at one time or another. “What is all of that?” Random had asked, sounding a little amazed.

“Things I’ve taken in over time. I planned on fixin’ ‘em up and selling ‘em on the auction sites, but it seems I never have the time to get around to it.” Mr. Jackson had given a half-hearted laugh.

“Sure, Mr. Jackson. I’d be glad help you sort through that stuff,” Random had continued to study the pile without looking up.

“We have a deal then. Before you get started though, you’d better go and tell your mom what you’re up to. She’ll probably want to come down here and talk to me about it. I look forward to meeting her,” Mr. Jackson had said as he turned back to the little hand-held computer he’d been working on when Random had entered the shop. Random rushed home to tell mom about his new job. Of course, Mr. Jackson had been right, Mrs. Hause did want to come down to the computer shop and meet Mr. Jackson. She and Random walked to the little shop and she had told Random sit outside while she went inside and talked to Mr. Jackson.

By the time Mrs. Hause emerged from the shop, Random had given up counting the blue cars that passed by on Front Street, and was now counting the yellow cars. He had looked up when he heard the door open and watched his mother approach.

He remembered her shaking her head slowly as if she didn’t believe what she was about to say. “Alright. I’ve spoken with Mr. Jackson, and we’ve agreed that you can come down to the shop tomorrow and Tuesday, at lunch time, and work for an hour each day.”

Random had stood and given her a hug and said, “Thanks Mom.”

Monday and Tuesday had passed like a blur. Random remembered feeling like Ali Baba, sorting through the treasure, as he went through the junk Mr. Jackson had collected. Finally, Random remembered going in to the shop on Wednesday morning to claim his camera. Mr. Jackson handed it to him and said, “It seemed like you enjoyed working with that stuff.”

Random had smiled and answered, “I did.”

“If I taught you how to fix the simpler stuff, you could sell it on the auction sites and we could split the profits.”

Random remembered his eyes growing wide. “Really? Wow! That would be ice.”

Mr. Jackson smiled. “Of course, you’d have to tell your mom about it.”

Random had nodded and hung his head. “Yeah. I guess I would.”

Random did go and tell his mother about Mr. Jackson’s suggestion. She hadn’t been pleased, but she agreed to go and talk to Mr. Jackson about it. Once again, Random found himself outside the shop waiting. He had counted blue cars, then yellow cars, and even green cars. Eventually, he gave up on counting cars and used his camera to take pictures of the people that passed by.

Mrs. Hause had come out of the shop to find Random engaged in a dispute with an older gentleman who didn’t want to have his picture taken, by Random, or anyone else for that matter. With a minimum of ear twisting, Mrs. Hause had convinced Random to apologize to the old man. “Ow, . . . . I’m sorry sir. I didn’t mean to be rude.”

The old man had nodded, muttered something unintelligible in return, and then turned and continued up the street. When he left, Mrs. Hause had turned to Random and said, “Random Arthur Hause, you know better than that.”

Random remembered looking down at his feet and answering quietly, “I know. I’m sorry Mom.”

Mrs. Hause had shaken her head slightly. “It’s a good thing you’re cute. I’ve agreed to let you come down for a couple of hours on Saturday mornings for lessons on repairing electronics.”

Random had stammered, “You . . . . did? Great. . . . . Thanks Mom,” as he was hugging her.

He remembered her looking down on him with a wry expression and brushing his hair. “What am I going to do with you?”

Later, Random had brought the almond sized device to Mr. Jackson and asked him to have a look at it. Mr. Jackson had picked up the device suspiciously and asked, “Where’d you get this thing?” as he had turned the device over and over in his hand.

“Some guy, who was nosing around the back of our house, dropped it,” Random had replied.

Mr. Jackson’s eyebrows had arched. “Is that the guy that the police hauled away?”

Random remembered nodding and wondering how Mr. Jackson knew about the police hauling the man away. “Yep. That’s the guy.”

Mr. Jackson looked at the device very carefully and his tone grew very serious. “This little toy is way too sophisticated to have belonged to an amateur.”

“What is it?”

Mr. Jackson had called Random over. He held out the little device and explained, “This is a spy tool. You see that little black bump?” Random had nodded, but didn’t respond. Mr. Jackson continued, “That bump is a camera. That little hole next to it is a microphone. This ridge here, that runs along the back, is an antenna capable of sending and receiving.”

“Who would use a device like this?”

“Not your neighborhood ‘Peeping Tom’, that’s for damn sure.”

“Should mom and I be scared?”

Mr. Jackson had smiled. “Maybe, but for right now, don’t worry about it. Let me hang onto this. I got an old buddy who might know someone in the trade. The buddy owes me a favor or two. I’ll ask him to look into this for me. If I learn anything, I’ll let you and your mom know. For now, I want to you go home and take a good look around and see if there are any more of these little beauties scattered around.”

Random had gone home and searched the house. He didn’t find any more of the devices. Random remembered asking about the device several times during the time he spent working at Mr. Jackson’s shop, but Mr. Jackson never told Random exactly what he did, or didn’t find out.

Random’s mind drifted to another memory. In the summer of 2022, the summer that Deirdre was to be born, another crisis developed. The State of Michigan had attempted to solve the raw sewage problem by spending six months upgrading Monroe’s sewage treatment plant. Unfortunately, the treatment plant had never actually been the source of the troubles. The real sources of the problems had been the outdated and inadequate sewage lines, storm drains, and water pipes.

During that first week of June, 2022, the water treatment facility developed a fault, one that required the system to shut down for forty-eight hours for repairs. Like most American cities, Monroe’s system of water lines was a mixture of old and new. Some of the lines were brand new. Others were as much as fifty years beyond their original expected life span. When the water pressure stopped, many of these older lines had simply collapsed.

When the old pipes collapsed, water could not be pumped through the system. Suddenly, a problem that might have been repaired in forty-eight hours was going to leave most of the city’s residents without running water for months. New lines had to be laid for whole sections of the city. For Random, and the people of his neighborhood, it had meant water rationing and picking up your water allotment every morning.

That first morning when rationing started, Random could remember getting up with the alarm at 6 AM. He had dressed himself and then made breakfast and coffee for mom. After they had finished eating, he and his mom had walked down to the truck, carrying their empty water jugs. They had waited patiently in line, until it was their turn. While they were waiting, Random had noticed his mom beginning to flush, but he didn’t think anything about it.

When their turn had come, Random held out each of their jugs, one at a time, to be filled. After the last jug had been filled, Random had picked up the first two of the filled jugs and his mother had picked up the remaining three. Together, they had walked slowly back towards the house.

They had walked along in silence. Random remembered that by the time they neared the house, it was obvious to him that Mrs. Hause was in some kind of distress. Random had asked, “Mom, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing dear. It’s just, with the baby, I don’t have the strength to stand in line and then carry the jugs all the way from the truck,” she had answered, her face bright red.

“You rest here. I’ll take care of it mom.”

Mrs. Hause didn’t argue. Instead she had nodded and smiled weakly as she set the jugs down. Then she sat down next to the jugs and waited with them until Random returned to carry the remaining jugs into the house.

After breakfast the second morning, Mrs. Hause had asked, “Let’s try something different this morning. Could you bring out that wagon that your uncle gave you?”

Random had nodded happily and replied, “The one we take when we walk to the market?”

“That’s the one.”

“Sure, it’s in the basement. I’ll go and get it when I finish eating.”

“Good. We can use it to carry the water jugs.”

“Using the wagon’s a good idea. We’d better hurry or we’ll be late for the water truck.”

Mrs. Hause had still been eating and working on her coffee when Random hurried off to fetch the wagon. Random remembered hauling the wagon out of the basement and bringing it around to the front of the house. When mom had finished eating, she came out the front door carrying an aluminum lawn chair. She placed the chair and the jugs into the wagon, and then she and Random, with the wagon, had slowly made their way to where the water truck was parked.

They arrived late, and tempers had already grown short. The people in the line, Random’s and his mom’s neighbors, were jostling angrily. There was some pushing and shoving. Finally, someone tripped over the wagon and fell.

The man had stood up and shouted angrily at Mrs. Hause, “You stupid fat cow. Get up off your ass and carry the water jugs yourself. You don’t need this stupid wagon here getting in the way.”

Random remembered stepping between the man and his mother and saying angrily, “She’s not a cow, she’s pregnant.”

The man had shoved Random back over the wagon, and then laughed as Random sprawled on the ground. He spat. “You better keep control of your brat lady. He’s likely to get himself hurt.”

Random had watched in amazement as several women from the neighborhood stepped between him and the angry man. He had listened, even more amazed as a grandmotherly old woman said, “Calm down Cliff. It’s hot and everybody’s on edge.”

The man had grudgingly backed down and the local women had made sure that there would be no repeat of the pushing and shoving that happened. The lines became quieter, safer, and much more civil. Random had been very grateful, but with the short tempers, it still turned out to be a long summer.

Many of Random’s neighbors also had a wagon or a cart of some kind that they used to haul their purchases home from the local market. By the third morning, nearly everyone in line had a wagon, or cart of some kind to haul their filled water bottles. A dozen or more people had also brought along lawn chairs to sit in while they waited.

Random remembered that it had indeed been a hot summer, with most days topping twenty-nine degrees. Some people had still allowed their own pressing needs to outweigh the requirements of common courtesy. While each morning’s wait in Random’s water line had improved, elsewhere around the city it had not.

Random remembered trying to put himself between his pregnant mother, and hostile neighbors at the market, the gardens, and other places in town. He had been knocked around a couple times, but he had remained undaunted. Still, listening to his mother cry at night had broken his heart.

The only respite from the madness that summer had been the Saturday mornings that Random spent at Mr. Jackson’s shop. Random had truly enjoyed learning how to repair the electronic components. He had quickly learned what was worth repairing and what was not. He had also learned what was worth salvaging parts from, and what was trash to be recycled.

The repaired parts never brought much on the auction sites, but Random was proud of his work, and he had earned enough to keep out of his mom’s purse. That summer, Random remembered spending his Saturday mornings at Mr. Jackson’s shop and his Saturday afternoons practicing soccer.

The start of school that September had complicated things. The truck had started arriving earlier in the morning, so that kids could carry home the water ration and still make it to school on time. About three weeks into the school year, Mrs. Hause had gone to the hospital to have Deirdre.

For Random, mom’s trip to the hospital had meant that he had to stay with the Shepards. Random had liked Mrs. Shepard but she was his teacher that year. As far as he was concerned, spending all day at school with her was more than enough time in her company.

Random had found walking down to the water truck with Mr. Shepard to be a very different experience. The people waiting in line had stopped jostling and there was no pushing and shoving while Mr. Shepard was there.

By Random’s fourth day at the Shepards, work crews finished laying in the new pipes and they began testing the new system. On the fifth day, they had running water again. After a week at the Shepard’s, Mrs. Shepard had broken the news that Random could go home after school because his mom would be waiting there with his new baby sister. Random had been so happy that he had difficulty sitting still for the rest of the day. Mrs. Shepard hadn’t called him on it, she had just reminded him, occasionally, that he was still at school.

Random remembered running all the way home after school, as he ran up Humphrey Street, he could see his mom waiting for him on the porch. Mrs. Hause had said, “I missed you so much,” as Random ran up onto the porch and into her arms.

“I really missed you too,” Random had answered.

“Do you want to see your new baby sister?”

Random stepped away from his mom for a second and wiped his nose. “Ok.”

He had followed his mom inside the house. She led him into the small third bedroom that had been empty before. Once inside the room, Random had noticed that the walls were pink. There were also two chairs, a crib, a changing table, and a dresser in the room.

Mrs. Hause had stepped across to the crib and gently gathered up a tiny pink bundle. She carried the tiny bundle to one of the chairs and carefully sat down. After she was seated, she had called Random over to her. “Come and see.”

Random had looked down at the bundle. He remembered seeing a tiny pink face peeping out from under the blanket. “She’s beautiful. What’s her name?”

Mrs. Hause had looked up at him with an odd expression. “I’m glad you think she’s beautiful. Her name is Deirdre. I named her after my mother.”

Random remembered reaching out and gently touching his finger to one of the baby’s tiny hands. “I’m very happy to meet you Deirdre. I’m your big brother and my name is Random.”

Monroe’s problems with its water pipes, sewer lines, and storm drains had not been unique. Throughout most of America, water pipes, sewer lines, and storm drains had always been poorly maintained. The economic troubles had made the problem go from bad to worse. Too often, it meant that these systems weren’t being maintained at all. By 2020, those systems had begun to fail, one after another, all across the country.

Fixing those failed systems had consumed, and then overwhelmed, the meager available resources of America’s state and local governments. The national government, hamstrung by debt, had been unable to help. The lack of funding had caused delays and project after project bogged down. In a few places, the problems had been so intractable, that people had chosen to abandon the town, instead of attempting to make the repairs.

In 2025, a new problem surfaced. The nation’s electrical grid had also been poorly maintained. President Obama had committed the nation to upgrading the existing power grid in 2009. This original plan called for a complete overhaul of the system, but the economic meltdown had short-circuited that plan.

What remained was a patchwork effort. In some places, the complete overhaul had been completed. In many other places, the new technology was simply grafted onto the existing system. In June of 2025, a cascading power failure swept across more than half of the country.

Throughout that June, efforts by state and local entities to restore power met with failure after failure. On July 4th, a massive protest was organized. The protesters called for the national government to immediately step in and solve the problem.

In Monroe, the protesters had gathered in front of City Hall, on First Street. Random and Mrs. Hause had joined the protest. They, like their neighbors, had suffered three weeks without power. That morning, three different speakers had stepped in front of the protesters and urged them to write their Congresspeople, demanding that they take action. Random remembered Mrs. Hause looking down at him during the third speech and saying quietly, “This is useless.” Random had nodded, not knowing what else to do.

When the speaker had finished, he called for questions from the audience. Mrs. Hause had stepped forward and said, “I have a question.”

The speaker had heard her voice and responded, “What’s your question?’

Mrs. Hause had stepped out in front of the crowd, dragging Random behind. “A letter writing campaign to our Congressperson, urging them to take action isn’t likely to do anything to get the problem solved. You’ll notice that even though we specifically invited our Congressperson to attend this meeting, the Honorable Ms. Laginess is not here.”

The speaker looked around for a moment, apparently gauging the mood of the crowd. “Granted, she’s not here. Do you have a better suggestion?”

“Yes I do.”

“What do you suggest then?”

“Let’s inform our Representative that she has until the 15th of August to take action directed at solving this problem, or face a recall campaign. I would then contact every other community in Michigan, without power, and urge them to follow the same course of action.”

“What makes you think that plan would have any greater chance of success?”

“If, during the next forty days, we can get our message to every household in the district, and convince a few other districts to do the same, we will get some action.”

Mrs. Hause’s suggestion was then put to a vote by the gathered protesters. A quick show of hands was all that had been needed to convince the speaker and other organizers to approve Mrs. Hause’s plan. Their first step to implement the plan had been to draft Mrs. Hause as lead contact person.

The cause of the blackout still remains shrouded in mystery. Some have speculated that hackers sabotaged the system. Others have suggested that the older sections of the grid simply couldn’t handle the increased load. Whatever the cause, the power remained out, over a large section of the country.

For Random, the blackout had meant, keeping a little wave disk engine/generator running, and looking after Deirdre, while mom had manned the telnet. The wave disk engine had been the easy part. It was hooked up to the gas line, so all he needed to do was flip a switch. Deirdre had been a bit more demanding. Random eventually gave in and wound up taking her, pretty much, everywhere he went.

About the only place he hadn’t brought Deirdre, was Mr. Jackson’s shop. He had tried bringing her there once, and spent the entire time making sure she didn’t put things in her mouth and then reorganizing the things that Deirdre had moved about. He hadn’t gotten angry because he realized that Deirdre was just trying to help.

Later that day, he had explained to mom that he wouldn’t be able to get anything done at the shop if Deirdre was there with him. Mom had listened patiently. When he had finished, she had laughed and agreed that it would be best if she kept Deirdre at home while Random was at the shop.

Random’s reveries were interrupted by the arrival of another person. “I hear that you’re leaving us,” Meyer Levine, another, much older, teacher and coworker at Random’s school said as he sat down on the bench next to Random.

Random nodded and replied, “I am. I’ve signed up with the Off-world AUN.”

Levine frowned. “I thought that incident with Mr. Waddell had been resolved.”

Random looked down at his feet. “I thought it had too. During my contract renewal interview, Assistant Dean Masserant informed me that the board felt my coaching duties were too stressful, and that they would be reassigned to another teacher.”

“Oh, but your team won a state title last year.”

“They did, and I’m extremely proud of what those boys accomplished. They’re a special group.”

Levine nodded and sat quietly for a moment before he asked, “What exactly happened between you and Mr. Walker Waddell?”

Random looked up at Levine and then answered, “Walker wanted me to give his son, Travis, more playing time.”

Levine chuckled. “Travis. I’ve watched that boy at some of your practices. He throws like a girl. Couldn’t outrun a turtle. Couldn’t catch a cold, and couldn’t hit beach ball with a broom.”

Random smiled. “Yeah, that about sums it up. Supposedly the kid is lights out at lacrosse, but he’s hopeless at baseball.”

Levine looked at Random for a moment before asking, “Ok. So what actually happened?”

Random shrugged and answered, “Waddell kept pestering me to put Travis in the line-up. He said that college scouts were watching the boy. At first I asked him to come and watch Travis practice. Waddell said he didn’t have time for that nonsense. He certainly had time to come round after the games and give me hell about his kid not playing. I kept telling him no. I told him that the team had a chance to accomplish something special and that wouldn’t happen if Travis were playing,” Random responded.

Levine asked, “So, why did you keep the boy on the team in the first place?”

Random shook his head slowly and replied, “Politics. The board called me in for a closed door meeting. They told me that Waddell was a big contributor and that he wanted his son on the team.”

Levine grunted. “That’s what I thought was going on. They did the same thing to the football coach a few years back.”

“I know. I was here, remember. I also remember that the football coach leaving at the end of that school year,” Random gave a half-hearted laugh.

“I remember. So what happened when you said no to Mr. Waddell?”

Random grimaced. “He lost it. He said that I was costing his kid a scholarship and then he took a swing at me.”

“And you hit him back?”

“Not exactly. I ducked the swing, but I bumped him with my shoulder in the process. When I bumped him, Walker lost his balance and fell over a desk. When he didn’t get up immediately, I called the paramedics.”

“I thought he hadn’t been hurt?” Levine shook his head.

“So did the judge. He sided with the school and tossed Waddell’s lawsuit. He ordered Waddell to pay all of the school’s legal expenses.”

“So why did Masserant give you the push?”

“Because Waddell and a couple of other wealthy backers pulled their kids out of school. I think they promised to bring them back if I was no longer coaching.” Random sighed.

Levine and Hause sat quietly for a while, watching the people pass by on the Riverwalk below. Finally Levine broke the silence by saying, “We’re going to miss you. The school won’t be the same without you.”

Random smiled and said, “Thanks Meyer. I’m going to miss having you just down the hallway.”

Levine’s expression turned thoughtful. “Keep your head down out there. Things are getting less and less stable with each passing day.”

“Why do you say that?”

Levine suddenly became very serious. “This economic funk hasn’t just hit Americans. Around the world, people have been living pretty close to the ground for the last twenty years. Many of them blame America and Americans for their problems. We haven’t exactly been the ‘Good Samaritans’. Keep in mind that over the last twenty years, millions of immigrants, legal and otherwise, have opted to leave America and to return to their home countries. Some left for economic reasons, but a lot left fearing for their own safety.”

Random nodded. “I remember the ‘good riddance’ signs popping up around the neighborhood. I can also remember the surprise and anger around here, when the U. N. rejected our bailout request.”

Levine nodded and sat quietly for a moment. “People like Reverend Abbot have been able to use that anger and these hard times to build their power base. That Reverend’s a special one.”

Random nodded in agreement. “Don’t I know it.”

Levine stood and said, “You take care then. You know how to contact me, if you need me,” as he extended a hand for Random to shake.

Random shook his hand and said, “I’ll keep in touch if I can.”

Random watched Levine turn and walk away. A short distance away an older man also watched Levine walk away. Unnoticed by Random, Andrew Eicherman, people called him Ike, sat at a cafe table, on the opposite bank of the Raisin River. The basement of the building that sported Reverend Abbot’s portrait had been converted into a night club with outdoor seating adjoining the Riverwalk.

Ike looked up from his meal, across the river to where Random sat on the park bench. “Tell me again, why am I following this guy?” he said quietly.

Ike heard a sigh and then a rather sad voice come over his telnet connection:

“Back in 2013, I was leading a cave exploration in the Guiana Highlands. We were inside a very deep quartzite cave looking for the remains of a tribe that had used that cave for religious ceremonies in ancient times. I had been in the cave once before and brought back some artifacts. The carbon dating on the first set of artifacts I pulled from the cave showed them to be thirty thousand years old. Well, nobody was willing to believe that, so they put together a group of experts and sent us back down there.

One of the experts was a paleoanthropologist named David Walter Hause II. He was a weird bird, but we all thought he was a great guy anyway. In any case, during the exploration we came to a spot where the cave divided into four branches. Since there were three of us, we decided to each take one of the unexplored branches. Hause heads off into his branch, I head off into mine, and Dr. Ortiz takes the third branch.

A short while later Ortiz and I returned to the place where the cave branched and found no Dr. Hause. We waited for hours. When he didn’t show, we decided to go looking for him. Ortiz and I had just set off down the branch that Hause had followed when we saw this terrific flash of light and heard this bone shaking noise.

Ortiz and I rushed down the cave, thinking that Hause had triggered some kind of gas explosion. Instead, we found a room carved out of the natural rock. It looked like some kind of shrine, with a pedestal standing in the center of the room. The air in the shrine had an odd smell, like just after a lightning storm. Ortiz and I tried for hours to figure out what had happened to Dr. Hause. We even tried to shift the pedestal, but it wouldn’t budge.

Eventually we hiked back to the cave junction and rested. We debated sending someone out to get help, but even under the best circumstances, it was going to take days for any kind of help to arrive. In the end, we decided to wait at the cave junction.

We waited for what must have been the better part of two days. Suddenly the flash of light and the horrific noise returned. Ortiz and I rushed back towards that shrine. When the sound stopped and the flashing light stopped, out stepped Dr. Hause holding this little metal box. We asked him what happened and he told us that he had come across some kind of shrine with some very odd runes carved into the wall. He said that this box was sitting on a pedestal in the middle of the floor.

Hause told us that suddenly a man had appeared and spoken to him in a strange language. He said he was certain the man had to be hologram. Hause said he tried to talk back to the man, but the man gestured for him to stop and, instead pointed to the box.

Hause said he stepped up and touched the box. As soon as he touched the box, he said he could understand exactly what the hologram was trying to say to him. Hause said the man explained to him that that the box was a device used to access the multi-verse.

The good doctor spent the next hour-and-a-half explaining to us how the box was to be used. When Hause was finished, he sat down, fell over and went to sleep. He didn’t wake up for two days after wards. When he finally did wake up, he couldn’t remember anything about the box or where he had found it.

Ortiz, Hause, and I returned to the shrine that Hause had described but there was no sign of the hologram or an energy source to create one. We did manage to transcribe the runes that were carved into the wall, but we were sensible enough not to show them to anyone.

When we returned to the States, Hause went home to Monroe, Michigan, back to his pretty wife and fathers a child, but there was something wrong. The doctors never were able to figure out what was wrong with him. Mrs. Hause noticed the change. She said he was still a great guy, but he wasn’t the man she had married. Fifteen months later, when Random was six months old, Dr. Hause died of a massive stroke at the age of thirty-two.”

Eicherman sat and chewed on his cigar. “That device he found was the same one that you showed to the UN back in 2020,” he said.

“No, not exactly. A couple of days later, we went back to the shrine and started tinkering with the device. We ended up opening a flashover to another long abandoned cave. This cave had a machine that used the raw materials around it to build those devices. Based on what Hause told us, we knew we would need more of the devices because you need two of the little boxes for each flashover you want to use on a regular basis, one for each direction. We never saw any sign of the man that Dr. Hause had talked about,” the sad voice, Almond Chinavare’s voice, responded.

“You helped her raise that boy didn’t you?”

“Yeah. I used my money and resources to make sure the boy was well looked after. You’ve done the same for some of the kids who were orphaned after our Step Four expedition.”

“Yeah, yeah, we’re both heroes. So why am I still following this guy?”

“Do you remember the Elora?”

“Sure, I remember. They looked kinda like Tolkien’s elves.”

“Right. More like Peter Jackson’s elves. When we visited their settlement on that Step Four world, their leader told me that Random was something special and that I should help him along.”

“I see. So that’s where I come in then. Helping him along,” Eicherman snorted.

“Precisely.”

Back across the river, Levine’s reference to Reverend Abbot had triggered another of Random’s memories. Random activated his telnet and drilled down to his collection of information on the ‘good’ Reverend. He had been storing every piece of information that involved the Reverend that he had come across.

Random skimmed rapidly through the folder. He had read most of the articles, multiple times and could remember much of what was in them. In many of the articles, the various authors had reported that Abbot had always been better at gaining and using power than he was at inspiring the faithful. I suppose he could always hire someone to do the “grunt” work, Random thought.

Random remembered that the author of one of the articles suggested that Abbot had learned a valuable lesson about power as a young seminary student. Random found the article and scanned back through it quickly.

According to the author, the young Abbot had watched as the Methodist Church went through its meltdown over homosexuality in 2007. The author stressed that Reverend Abbot had been dumbfounded as he watched a single issue, one that seemed somewhat meaningless to him, nearly dissolve a major denomination.

Random opened another article. This author reported that in 2010, after graduation from the seminary, Abbot was able to become a Pastor’s Assistant in a backwater town in Illinois. The author pointed out that this position was not nearly good enough for someone as ambitious as Jim Abbot. The author said it took five years for Abbot to engineer a jump to a bigger stage. In 2015, the Reverend successfully finagled an assignment to mission work in Africa.

The author explained that it was in Africa that Reverend Abbot cemented his move into the big time. It took three years of meticulous planning for Abbot’s patience and persistence to pay off. In early 2018, Abbot was appointed to a UN commission that was looking for a way to resolve the many violent conflicts that swept the continent. The commission, largely through the Reverend’s efforts, was able to bring peace to most of western Africa. A star was born.

According to the author, while everyone praised the Reverend’s results, nobody seemed to pay attention to the rumors about the dark methods that Abbot supposedly used to achieve those results. Random flipped through several more obscure articles about Reverend Abbot’s methods, which included, if one believed the rumors, bribery, blackmail, intimidation, and at least one assassination. Main stream news outlets appeared either, not to care, or to actually work to discredit the rumors. Success, it seems, creates its own compelling argument.

Random sped through to another article that explained how Reverend Abbot had used the profits from his first success to purchase a controlling interest in a mega-church in the Dallas area. There were several additional articles under this same sub-topic. All of them observed that there always seemed to be profits from the Reverend’s ventures.

With success, the Reverend was much in demand. His UN commission was invited to South Asia, to look into the conflict between Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists. Eventually, he was invited to Russia to look into the conflicts there.

According to the reporters, everywhere the Reverend went, he seemed to be successful. The authors also pointed out that everywhere the Reverend went; he left behind a network of allies and co-conspirators. The Reverend’s operations also produced an amazing string of profits that he channeled into franchising his church across the South. By 2020, Reverend Abbot had become a force to be reckoned with.

Random closed his file on Reverend Abbot. Levine’s warning about the world growing more dangerous continued to puzzle him. He knew that the massive American economic cramp had indeed rattled the economic stability of the rest of the world.

In Japan, once a dominant global economic power, the economic changes had hit especially hard. Competition from the other nations in the Pacific Basin began to erode Japan’s export markets. The Japanese had struggled to rebuild their economy, but an aging population coupled with the declining American economy set off shock waves that shook the Japanese economy to its knees.

The Japanese people watched impotently, as China and India became the economic powerhouses driving the global economy, shoving Japan aside like a worn out toy. In a desperate effort to stave off marginalization, Japan’s slumbering military machine awoke. Japan rearmed, and like a century earlier, Asia once again teetered along in an uneasy peace.

The future had certainly looked very bleak in 2020. A massive showdown loomed in Asia. Leading economists around the globe had predicted war. But Chinavare’s announcement changed all that.

Random pulled up the history surrounding Chinavare’s announcement. According to the U. N.‘s historical record, on the day after New Years, before a full session of the United Nations, a man named Almond Chinavare announced his discovery of a device that allowed access to the multi-verse. He also presented to the UN, twelve Step One worlds that were ready and waiting for exploration and colonization. Many different sources reported that the floor of the United Nations assembly hall went stone silent. Chinavare then announced that he would demonstrate how the device worked in Iron Mountain, Michigan on January 9th, at 10:00 am.

The record described the meeting, a week later, in Iron Mountain, as a three ring circus, with every media outlet imaginable there for the show. Every nation represented at the UN had a delegation in town.

According to the record, at exactly 10:00 am, local time, Chinavare had appeared in the center of town and instructed people to follow him. He then climbed into a waiting truck and slowly made his way out of town. A few miles outside of town, the truck turned off into an isolated valley and drove out into the center of a clearing. Chinavare then waited patiently while people parked their cars and walked over to where he was standing.

The record reported that Chinavare laid the device on the ground and switched it on. Several sources identified in the report testified that the sounds produced by the machine rattled your teeth and made the bones in your spinal column dance. People clapped their hands over their ears. Some fell to the ground shaking.

A few moments later, the report continued, a black hole had appeared like a gateway hanging in the sky. Light and energy flickered around the edges. Chinavare then invited the crowd to step through the gateway with him and onto the surface of a new world. Once he finished his invitation, he stepped through the gateway, followed closely by his truck. It took a few minutes, for a few of the people in the crowd to work up the courage to follow him.

According to the record, Chinavare kept the device active for a full week, that first time, and he provided helicopter tours to those who were interested. By the end of the week, the Discovery Corporation had been born and a charter established giving the corporation rights to explore and bring to market new worlds. The United Nations was given possession of that first new world as a condition of the Discovery Corporation’s charter.

In another report, the U. N. record stated that the first new world, the one that Chinavare had let people explore, was named Echo World because of its amazing resemblance to an Earth without people. According to this U. N. report, exploration proceeded very quickly. Within two years, development contracts had been issued for each of the eleven other Step One worlds. By 2035, some fifty additional worlds had been explored and development had begun on twenty of them.

The UN data on Chinavare’s device was more than a little sketchy. According to the records, the device allowed access to the multi-verse through dimensional weak points with the use of a bizarre combination of radio signals.

The UN had documented many people who had tried to produce copies of the machines over the years that followed, but the machines, so far, had proven impossible to duplicate. In the latest UN reports, scientists currently believe that the reason the machines have been so difficult to duplicate is that the radio signal patterns required are, not only complicated, but also ever changing. The pattern that opened a gateway today would probably fail to open the same gateway tomorrow. Chinavare’s Discovery Corporation, now known as DBX, still remains the only known source for the devices.

According to the UN records, Chinavare named these weak points flashovers after the flash of light produced when the gateway is opened, and each time something material passes through. The discovery of the multi-verse opened new worlds to be explored and exploited and changed the focus of economic activity on Earth. Iron Mountain went from being a relatively obscure skiing resort, to a massive mag-lev passenger terminal, freight rail terminal, and air cargo terminal, with thousands of new workers.

In article after article, by 2025, the economic changes on Earth had been little short of miraculous. Products, that hadn’t been available for a decade or more, began to appear on the shelves in the markets across the Earth. Products like virgin cut, hardwood furniture, hand crafted metal, and hand crafted glass items were suddenly available from a number of sources. Wild ocean caught seafood, and abundant supplies of grain also became available. A multitude of cargoes poured through the Ironwood terminal every day, headed mainly for the markets of Earth.

In 2025, a UN commission was formed to study how the new worlds could best be utilized to benefit the peoples of Earth. Reverend Abbot made no secret of his desire to be appointed to the new commission. After five years of maneuvering and arm twisting, Reverend Abbott got his wish. In 2030, he secured an appointment to the UN commission.

Within a month of his appointment, Abbot was designated chairman of the commission, after the original chairman mysteriously took gravely ill. Several articles hinted at foul play, but none had any real evidence that linked back to the Reverend.

Based on reports in the UN record, Abbot set about changing the focus of the commission to include the administration of the new worlds as well as the study of utilization. As people began to focus on the glittering new off-world jewels that Chinavare had presented, tensions on-Earth seemed to evaporate. The prospect of World War III faded into the background and the citizens of the world breathed a collective sigh of relief.

[_So why did Levine tell me to keep my head down? _]Random wondered. He pulled up the major stories, involving Reverend Abbot, that he had collected during that he had collected during the period following his graduation from MSU in 2035. The first of these stories was Abbott moving to seize control of the new worlds in 2035.

Perhaps Abbot’s most important decision, that year, had been to turn the Iron Mountain terminal site into an international enclave, administered by the UN. The enclave became a very profitable toll booth, collecting transit fees for every cargo and every passenger that passed through the port. The revenue collected from the Iron Mountain enclave gave the UN a stable and reliable funding source.

The US acceded to the creation of the Iron Mountain enclave because Abbot made sure that they would receive a portion of the income generated by the terminal’s usage. The remainder of the income allowed the UN to finally become an independent political entity, capable of enacting and pursuing its own agenda. Once control of the Iron Mountain terminal had been secured, the Reverend’s UN Utilization Commission was now in position to dictate most, if not all, decisions about the new worlds.

The next major story involved the UN itself. Control of the Iron Mountain terminal and the resulting income also transformed the UN itself. The loosely run organization began to take on the structures and functions of an actual government. The Security Council became an upper branch of legislature. Each member nation was given one seat on the new Security Council. Delegates to the Council were to serve ten year terms. No nation was given veto powers on the new Council.

The General Assembly was turned into a representative body with one thousand seats. The seats were apportioned according to each nation’s population. Each member nation was guaranteed at least one seat. Member nations were required to hold elections every five years, to select that nation’s delegates to the General Assembly.

The membership of each body elected its leaders from within its own ranks. The various UN commissions each became ministries, under the direction of a Secretary General who was elected by the members of the General Assembly. A special election was then held to fill the vacant Assembly seat.

According to the record, Abbott, as chairman, or Secretary of the Ministry of Utilization, now became the most powerful voice in the assignment and development process. The Reverend discreetly sold his influence, and used the funds to further build his fundamentalist movement on an international level. Many reporters believed that Abbot’s “secret agenda” was a plan to reestablish the Church, his Church, as an organ of secular power, in addition to its role as religious authority.

Several reporters suggested that, like a balloon in a vacuum, Abbott’s movement swelled enormously, and rapidly gained clout on an international level. While expansion was slow in Western Europe, the Reverend’s churches spread like wild fire across Eastern Europe, the Philippines, and South America. The Reverend’s political clout expanded along with his churches as he simply moved in to fill the political void.

Random noticed a trend in many of the minor articles. Report after report indicated that nations which had mothballed much of their military firepower after Chinavare’s announcement in 2020, were now quietly rearming. In addition to rearmament, trade disputes had begun to blossom, once again.

While the elections of 2044 had convinced Random that it was time to leave, he had long been troubled by the Reverend’s growing political muscle. Random was also troubled by Abbot’s claim that man was unique. The Reverend’s claim had been supported by a lack of evidence to the contrary. On all the worlds explored, some sixty to date, no provable evidence of sentient life had yet been discovered.

Abbott used this lack of evidence as proof that man was indeed unique. As the Reverend’s power grew, he began to flex his muscle to drive non-believers into hiding. On a more subtle level, unknown by Random and the rest of the world, the Reverend also quashed research into the question of sentient life. Smiling Jim wasn’t about to let some two bit archaeologist destroy his kingdom. Many had once challenged Abbott’s most powerful message, that man was God’s unique creation. Few now did so publicly.

Yet, with all that power, Random wondered, Could someone be ‘playing’ the Reverend? Whatever the answer to that question, one thing seemed certain; Levine was right. The Earth was in danger of becoming unstable again.

The thought of sentient life triggered a different memory for Random. He remembered another discussion in the park with “Ike.” This discussion took place during his senior year of high school. Random knew that “Ike”, one of Monroe’s local legends, frequented St. Mary’s park. He also knew that for a drink, “Ike” would launch into tales of his adventures with Almond Chinavare.

Everyone, except Random, believed the old man to be an incorrigible liar. Everyone, except Random, referred to the old man as “Crazy Ike.” Random used to enjoy listening to “Ike’s” tales. He found them fascinating and didn’t care if they were lies.

One night, in exchange for bourbon and cigarettes, Crazy Ike launched into one of his wildest tales. The memory came back as clearly as if it had happened that afternoon. Random and a friend had settled back to listen. Ike had begun. “I was traveling with Chinavare for about a year. We just finished surveying some place he called Beguilement, when he packs up the lot of us and hauls us all the way back to Echo World. I told you about Echo World, didn’t I?”

Random nodded. “Yeah, you said it was just like Earth, only without people.”

“Yeah, that’s right. Good lad. Pass the whiskey here.” Random handed him the bottle. The old man drank deeply. “Ah, good stuff that is. Anyway, Chinavare schleps us all back to Echo World, only this time he takes us to a new place. Some place down near Georgia, I’d guess. When we get there, sure as I’m sitting here now, there was a freighter in that harbor waiting for us. Can you believe that?”

Random’s friend laughed and said something about finding some female companionship. Random wished his buddy well and urged Ike to continue. The friend shrugged and wandered off muttering something about one being as crazy as the other.

Ike had watched the boy wander off. “Good riddance, that boy has no imagination. Now let’s see. Oh yeah, we all loads up on this freighter and set sail. We sailed south for two weeks, until we came to the mouth of what had to be the Amazon River.”

Ike paused for a moment while he sipped some whiskey. “I’ll be damned if Chinavare didn’t sail us straight up that god forsaken river. We covered thirteen hundred kilometers through uncharted rain forest before Chinavare stops the ship and says there’s a flashover dead ahead. Now, how the old boy knew there was a flashover at the mouth of the River Negro, I’ll never know.”

Ike continued. “The next morning Chinavare triggers the flashover and then he runs that freighter straight into it. We’d all crossed flashovers before, but never on a freighter. The crew nearly mutinied. It was Chinavare’s iron will that held us steady. Hell we made it through just fine.”

Ike had fumbled in his pockets. “Got a cigarette lad?” Random handed Ike a cigarette. “Thanks. We come out on the other side and it was like we never left. Same river, same rain forest. It took a while to notice that something had changed. Everything was backwards. The current flowed in the wrong direction, and the Negro entered from a different angle. Chinavare tells us not to worry.” Ike shook his head slowly and began muttering to himself.

Random remembered drifting along, lost in Ike’s story. A moment later, Ike began again, “We’d crossed over to a step two world. Next morning we set sail downstream to the mouth of the river and then south along the coast.” Ike paused to drink and belch.

“We came to this enormous bay. Pure wilderness, but we all felt eyes on our backs. Chinavare guides us up into the bay some five hundred klicks to the mouth of another huge river. He stops the ship and tells us there’s another flashover ahead.”

Ike takes another swig of whiskey. “Half the crew would have bolted during the night, if there was anywhere to go. Next morning he triggers that flashover and we sailed into it. I don’t mind telling you lad, I just hung on and prayed.”

“The freighter comes out in this narrow canyon. Red rock wall, three hundred meters high on either side. Chinavare shoots the canyon like it was an old friend. By lunch time, we reached open sea. We sailed west for nearly four days. Three thousand klicks across a wave tossed wasteland until we reached another set of mountains. A small, navigable river flowed out of them mountains. Chinavare told us the last flashover was just up that river. I don’t mind tellin’ ya’, most of the crew got good and drunk before we sailed.”

Ike drinks again. “We come out on the other side of the mountains, inside this enormous bowl. The river had changed. It wasn’t a river anymore. It was a canal. That bowl had fields. Something lived there. We followed the canal east. Right up to this huge mountain. We docked the freighter at the foot of the mountain. It was weird. There was docks and a loading platform already there, so we started unloading the junk off of the freighter.”

Ike drained the bottle. “It was then that I saw them.”

“Saw who?” Random asked.

“I’m getting to that boy, be patient. Any more whiskey?” Random took out a second pint. Long stories always took more than one pint. Random had picked up the bourbon and cigarettes at a local store earlier. Alcohol and cigarettes were getting hard to come by, not many people smoked or drank anymore. Instead, most people used the various types of stimtabs.

“You’re a life saver lad.” Ike took the bottle and drank. “They wasn’t human, but they was close. Tall and thin, with blond hair and gray eyes, just like them elves in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. So that’s what I calls ‘em. Elves.”

Random looks at Ike and shakes his head. “Come on now Ike. I’ve never heard of anything besides people out there.” He said incredulously.

The old man leans forward. “Don’t imagine you would have. Some of the boys come back and started talking about them elves. The Reverend’s people went and wiped ‘em out.”

“What people, and what do you mean by wiped out?” Random asked.

“Killed, dead. Don’t you trust that Reverend, son. He’s a liar and a thief. That much everybody knows, but he’s also a murderer and he’s building a secret army that he calls the Hand of God. Now, where was I?”

“The elves,” Random answered.

“Oh yeah.” Ike took another drink. “The leader of the elves spoke to us. He spoke English! Just like a frigging Limey blue blood. We was in shock, but there was Chinavare, telling us not to be afraid. We followed the elves up onto that mountain. They had this enormous city, carved right out of the mountain.”

“Got another cigarette?” Random handed him a cigarette. “It wasn’t built, it was carved. Incredible, the place was huge. As far as you could see, nothing but carved white rock. They put us in a palace. The place could have housed a couple hundred men, easy. I can remember walking along the roof of the palace and looking out over the city. That was the weirdest city I’ve ever been in. Clean, and almost no noise, weird, it was unreal man! Pass me the whiskey lad.”

Random handed him the bottle. Ike took a swig and continued. “Thanks lad. The one thing I’ll never forget about that city was the women. I’ll tell you this. You haven’t seen nothing until you’ve seen an elven girl. There was something special about them. It was more than just good looks, they had looks in spades, it was something I can’t describe. When one took a shine to you, you couldn’t live without her.” Ike drifted into silence.

After a few minutes, Random spoke up. “What happened?”

Ike sat up with a start. “Oh, sorry about that. I was just remembering one of them girls. We stayed there for a month. The happiest month of my life. Most of the guys decided to stay on when Chinavare packed up to leave. The rest of us got back on the freighter and shipped out. We were all gung ho, to do some more exploring, but Chinavare dropped us off on Echo World and vanished.”

“Where did he go?” Random asked.

“I don’t know son. I don’t know. It was three years after he’d given his speech at the UN. The Reverend’s boys were already making it very difficult for Chinavare to stay on Earth and they were in the process of making it difficult for Chinavare to live above ground Off-world as well. In any case, after that he disappeared again. I’d be willing to bet he went back to the elves. I wish I’d stayed there.”

Ike drifted off again. Random tried to prod him into telling more, but Ike had fallen asleep. That night was the last time anyone saw “Crazy Ike” in Monroe. Random was convinced he had gone in search of Chinavare. Random tried to check out Ike’s story, and ran into a stone wall. Very soon after, SSF officers showed up in Monroe, asking about Random. Later those officers had shown up at Random’s home and questioned him about Ike. Random decided not to look any further.

A bell tolled in the distance, interrupting Random’s reveries. He did a quick check on his telnet. It was five. He hadn’t intended to spend the entire afternoon sitting on the bench thinking about his past. He decided that it was long past time to head home and get ready to ship out.

[*Chapter Two: The Trouble With Sergeants . . . . *]

*Wednesday June 21st, 2045 *

Mag-lev Station, Dearborn, Michigan

[* *]

Random stood on the mag-lev platform, along with at least a hundred other young men. The only thing he could think about was; What am I doing here?_ _He had always loved Monroe. It was only a small city in a rural county, but his family had been there for generations. South-Eastern Michigan was his home.

Random did love Monroe but, he was unhappy. Disillusioned might be a better term. He had gone to Michigan State University and earned a dual major degree in the Education of History and English. After graduation, he went back to Monroe and wormed his way into the local parochial school as a teacher.

Teaching, the noble profession. Random laughed bitterly. He had given fifteen years to the career and had almost nothing to show for it. He had long ago stopped dreaming of futures that held promises of better times.

One of Random’s dreams had always been of being on one of the colonist trains that left Earth each day. He had turned down the recruiters, coming out high school, and wondered if he’d made a mistake. He dreamt of wandering some unknown world, of making some incredible discovery, of going, like in the old Star Trek movies, where‚ no one had gone before. Unfortunately, the directors of the colonization programs seemed to only be looking for farmers and technicians. History teachers didn’t fit the bill.

That had changed this summer. Random met an AUN recruiter at the county fair. The recruiter offered to let him join the Off-world Army of the United Nations Ninth Air Cavalry Corps as an officer candidate. Random seized the opportunity like a drowning man clinging to a life ring. That damn degree has some use after all. Anything was better than dying of boredom here in Monroe, right?

All that led back to the mag-lev platform. Random looked around feeling a sense of loss. What am I doing here?_ _The mag-lev pulled into the station. The recruits, including Random, were herded in. Without delay, the train slipped away from the station.

Across from the mag-lev station at a public data access kiosk, a middle-aged man spoke to his telnet, “He just boarded the train. I saw young Goldman there watching our boy as well.”

An ocean away, in a darkened room, behind a massive oak desk, an older, and grayer, version of Ike answered. “Excellent. Then it begins. You’ve done well Hansi.” Ike closed his telnet connection and walked to the windows and flung them open. Sunlight flooded the room. He stared north out the window, as if he expected to see the mag-lev, roar past.

The old man sighed. He didn’t want to leave his comfortable home, overlooking Moray Firth. He returned to his desk, activated a terminal because some communications were just too sensitive for telnet. When the terminal activated, Ike said, “Hello, Al, this is Ike.”

Ike listened for a moment as a barely audible voice responded. When the voice had finished speaking, Ike responded, “The boy just boarded the train.” Ike listened again, over the years he had grown accustomed to this quiet, secretive voice, Almond Chinavare’s voice. When the voice finished speaking again, Ike shook his head and replied, “New Beijing?” then he muttered to himself about useless backwaters.

The voice began speaking again, cutting off Ike’s complaints. Ike listened and then replied, “If you say so boss. I’m on my way. Hansi said he saw young Goldman at the station, also watching our boy.” Ike listened again, and then said. “That’s all he said. That young Goldman was there watching our boy.” Ike listened for a long while, and then answered. “Ok, I’ll put the best people we have available out to watch Goldman.” Ike listened a little longer and nodded his head. “Yeah, I wish I knew exactly what he was up to, too. We’ll keep our eyes open.” Ike answered as he closed the terminal connection.

It was a five hour journey to the training base, located near Ironwood, Michigan. Random fell asleep soon after the train began moving and didn’t see another thing until he was awoken by a loud whistle as the train rolled into the station that served the Ironwood Training Base. He stretched and then looked out the window. And I thought Monroe was rural. Compared to Monroe, the Ironwood Training Base was indeed a lonely bit of wilderness.

AUN Off-world uniformed personnel boarded the train and herded the recruits off the train. Once outside the train, the recruits were separated by posting orders. Random was placed with a group of college graduates, hoping to become officers. Once separated, each group was then marched off towards the Ironwood training camp. It had been very warm in Monroe, but here in Ironwood, the air felt crisp and cool, more like early fall than early summer.

Random’s group covered the two-mile march from the rail station to the main barracks. Upon reaching the training camp, Random’s squad got to meet their new Drill Sergeant. “Ok gentlemen, my name is Sergeant Pike. For the next six weeks, I am going to be your mother, father, judge, jury, and executioner.”

Pike began reading off the names of the recruits. As the first was read, the recruit responded “Here, Sir.”

“Don’t call me sir, asshole. I’m not an officer. I work for a living.”

Pike continued listing off names, and grunting as the recruits responded, until he reached Random’s name. “Random Arthur Haws?” he said with an air of uncertainty.

“It’s pronounced house sir. Like the one you live in.” Random answered helpfully.

“Random House?[_ _]What the hell kind of name is that? Some kind of joke?”

“Yes sir. It’s no joke, sir. My mother named me after a character in a book she read.”

“I thought I told you not to call me sir, boy?”

“I’m sorry. Ah. What should I call you?”

“Try Sergeant, wise ass. I don’t know about you, boy, but I would have that name changed.”

“I thought about changing it Sergeant, but to be honest, I kind of like it. I mean, it could be worse. She could have named me something horrible, like Algernon.”

Sergeant Pike stiffened and his face turned bright purple. He shouted, “Ok wise ass, you’ve just earned yourself a three hour trip through the PT course.”

Random looked at the Sergeant in disbelief. It was then that he noticed that the Sergeant’s name tag read:

Sergeant A. Pike.

Random grimaced and thought, _Well asshole, you really stepped in it this time. _

“Don’t just stand there boy, march.”

Random handed his bag to another recruit and followed the Sergeant to the physical training course. When they arrived, Pike said, “I’ll make it easy for you this time. Just run the track.”

Random took a quick look at the track. It looked like a standard, eight lane, two-hundred and twenty meter oval. He nodded and replied, “Yes Sergeant,”

Pike nodded down the track and Random started running. As he continued running, he thought about his mother:

A small boy sat on a kitchen chair. He was crying and his nose was bloody. He said, “They said my name was stupid, so I told them they were stupid. I just had to fight ‘em.”

A young woman, the boy’s mother, looked down from her cooking and said, “My poor little prince, I named you after one of the Princes of Amber. Do you remember Amber?”

The little boy’s eyes gleamed. “Yep, and you named baby Deirdre after a princess.”

“I did, but I also named Deirdre after my mother, that was her name too.”

“I wish I had gotten to meet Grandmother,” Random answered solemnly.

“I wish you had too. She was a wonderful woman.”

Random grinned and asked, “Are you gonna read to the baby too?”

The young women laughed and hugged the boy. “I sure am and you can listen, if you want.”

“Great, I’ll get Deirdre.” The little boy said as he hopped down from the kitchen chair and ran out of the room.

Tears came to the mother’s eyes as she watched the boy run. “My poor little prince, I love you so.” She said to herself as she finished preparing the meal and went off to find her copy of Roger Zelazny’s The Nine Princes of Amber, her son’s favorite story.

Random laughed to himself as the memory faded. The name Random Arthur Hause had certainly created difficulties for him over the years, but he wasn’t about to have it changed. I still love you, Mom. Somehow, thinking about Mom, made the PT course bearable.

Luckily, as a baseball coach, he had managed to keep in shape. Even so, four hours later, Random staggered his way through his medical exam and outfitting. He managed to make his way back to his cubicle before he collapsed. Mom tried to tell me my mouth would get me in trouble, he thought, as he drifted off to sleep.

Basic training began in earnest the next morning. The daily routine went as follows:

0530. Shower and dress.

0600. Breakfast.

0630. Four hours of physical training. (Lovingly called, PT.)

1030. Morning hypno-lesson.

1200. Lunch.

1230. Four more hours of training, including marching, weapons, military etiquette and other essentials.

1630. Afternoon hypno-lesson.

1800. Dinner.

1830. Free time.

2000. Lights out.

Every day was scheduled to be the same. Seven days a week, for the next six weeks.

One thing quickly became apparent, throughout basic training; doctors would be plugging Random, and each of the other candidates, into one sort of monitoring device or another. After each workout, each meal, each hypno-lesson, even after each sleep period. Random didn’t want to know what most of the gadgets and gizmos did. He didn’t really care.

Random did make an effort to dutifully pretend to listen to the witch doctor’s explanations. He submitted to the poking and stroking of, what seemed like an ever increasing array of devices. He was certain that the routine would continue for the entire boot camp.

The next morning, Random got a real taste of what his boot camp experience was going to be liked. At 06:30, right after breakfast, Sergeant Pike gave a snap inspection of his new squad. The sergeant made his way along the line of recruits, commenting about the state of the uniforms. When he got to Random, he stopped and said, “This uniform doesn’t meet standards. It’s missing a unit insignia. Extra laps for everyone until Private Hause has taken care of the problem.”

Random glanced quickly at the other soldiers in the squad. Only two of them had unit insignias. He noticed that the man standing behind him was wearing tennis shoes. Random wondered, [Why am I the only one he’s singling out for a uniform violation? _]but he had enough sense to eat his question.[ _]

Pike led them off to the PT course. He introduced them to an assortment of obstacles that they needed to conquer to complete the course. When the sergeant had finished, he climbed up to a platform at the top of the climbing wall, where he could view the entire field. The course staff lined up the soldiers in Random’s squad and set them to running the course.

Pike, for the most part, stood on his platform and shouted words of encouragement like; “Good job Miller,” and “Keep climbing Parker. I know you can climb this tower.” Random even heard Pike tell one soldier, “Back on your feet Dawkins. You’re not going to let a face full of mud stop you.”

By comparison, Pike had no encouraging words for Random. His first comment was, “Are you sure you’re running Hause? I’ve seen turtles move faster.” Later, when Random struggled climbing the tower, the first time, Pike had shouted, “Just give up boy. You don’t have what it takes. Who do you think you’re kidding anyway?”

When everyone in the squad had completed two laps of the course and been given their times, Pike turned to Hause and said, “You owe me another lap soldier.”

Random didn’t argue. Instead he nodded and said, tersely “Yes Sergeant Pike.”

Pike looked up as if he expected a further comment from Random. Random refused the bait. Choosing to turn and head back to the course. Pike shrugged and led the rest of the squad off to their morning hypno-lesson.

Random finished the penalty lap at 11:00, which made him half-an-hour late for his hypno-lesson. The hypno-lesson ran into lunch time, with the result that Random arrived late for his afternoon training program. Pike had snarled, “You’re fifteen minutes late Hause. The training program began at 12:30.”

“I’m sorry Sergeant. It won’t happen again,” Random said trying to catch his breath after running all the way from the cafeteria.

“Damn straight it won’t. Get out there. You owe me another lap tonight, after dinner. That insignia had better be on your uniform tomorrow morning,” Pike shouted.

“Yes Sergeant,” Random answered glumly and headed out to join the rest of his squad in training.

Perhaps, for Random, the most difficult part of the entire boot camp came that evening, after dinner, and after Random had completed his penalty lap. Sergeant Pike escorted the soldiers in his squad to the medical unit. The medical unit staff then collected the soldier’s telnet devices.

For most of the soldiers, including Random, this meant removing a clip that had been ‘permanently’ attached to the ear lobe, painful and messy, but not dangerous. The same couldn’t be said for the two remaining soldiers. Their procedure required the removal of surgically implanted chips.

For Random, that first night after the removal, without the telnet, was rough. The telnet, and the world that it accessed, had been his constant companion since he was in elementary school. Without it, like most recruits, Random felt truly alone, exposed, and blind.

When lights-out came, he lay in his bed, eyes wide open, unable to relax and sleep. Most of his fellow candidates also suffered through a sleepless night. The following day, Random and his fellow candidates stumbled through the day’s routine in a daze.

At the end of the day, Sergeant Pike led his soldiers back down to the medical unit. The medical staff then outfitted each soldier with an official AUN Off-world telnet device. The new devices were permanently affixed to the ear lobe, often in the same place as the devices they replaced. The AUN Off-world devices had security coded access to the AUN Off-world network, but access to the greater telnet was restricted.

In practical terms, this restriction meant that Random could send and receive messages like e-mail, but he was unable to make direct voice and video connections. Having the restrictions lifted during free time, to allow direct contact, was a privilege that soldiers could earn. By this time, Random knew full well that his chances of earning that privilege were slim and none.

Random wasn’t completely isolated. He continued to receive e-mail messages from his mother, sister Deirdre, and former co-worker, Mayer Levine. He also knew, because of the long delays, that someone else was reading his e-mail before sending it on. In an effort to reduce complications, he shared his suspicions with his correspondents.

Random’s run-in with Pike would be the first of many. If he had a little more patience or wisdom, that first day with Sergeant Pike might well have been the worst, but Random had never been one to walk away from a challenge.

While Random may not have understood why Pike had decided to make his life miserable, for Pike, the answer was obvious. In the sergeant’s eyes, Random, at thirty-two, was too old, too short, too dumpy, and too slow. The recruit was certainly not what Pike considered to be good soldier material, much less, officer material.

Pike may well have been satisfied with making Random’s life miserable, but Random just refused to buckle under. The sergeant grew increasingly infuriated because Random kept adding fuel to the fire with a seemingly endless list of infractions. These continual infractions drove Pike to make it his mission to force Random out of the AUN. He vowed to ride the OCS. candidate like a rented mule.

Random soon learned that if there was anything out of line with the squad, he would end up taking the fall for it. After two such incidents, he reluctantly decided that if he was going to be blamed and punished for everything that happened, he might as well get punished for things he’d actually done.

Random began to subtly fight back by deliberately drawing Pike’s ire. He started with, what he considered to be an insignificant uniform violation. He removed his unit insignia, and sewed it back five millimeters to the left. He told everyone in the squad what he was up to, and went so far as to take wagers on how long it would take Pike to notice.

It took Sergeant Pike two days to notice the change. When he did, he read Random a riot act in front of the squad and then assigned Random to extra laps on the PT course. The next week Random aimed a little higher. Pike punished Random for talking during a parade drill. Unknown to Pike, Random hadn’t just been talking; he had actually been doing a very unflattering impression of Sergeant Pike. Random’s squad mates had somehow managed to not explode into laughter until free time that evening

During the third week, Pike wrote Random up for causing yet another disturbance. This commotion developed during a contest to name the cockroaches in the mess hall. Several soldiers were arguing loudly about what to name a very large and particularly ugly roach. Some insisted that the roach be named ‘Algie,’ others argued for ‘fat bastard,’ both were derogatory references to Sergeant Pike.

Pike had finally blown his top in the fourth week, when he caught Random helping to smuggle a keg of beer into the barracks to celebrate. Everyone in the squad had completed their PT requirements. The entire camp knew that a celebration was in the works. Each of the other squads in the training class had similar celebrations when they had completed their PT requirements.

Looking back on when boot camp started, Random had been sure the PT was going to kill him. He couldn’t remember anything hurting so badly. Three weeks into the program, Random began to feel like he could handle all the PT the Sergeant could throw at him, if he could only get some decent sleep.

Random had never been an ‘athlete.’ Five foot four and dumpy for most of his adult life, his running speed could best be described as glacial, but he had not given up and no longer was the last man to finish the course each day. Instead of breaking, Random slowly improved until he was able to meet the PT qualifications. This, of course, infuriated Pike even more.

Random quieted down after the keg incident. He could smell the end of boot camp and his release from the clutches of Sergeant Pike. Pike also knew the end of boot camp was near and he scaled up his efforts to provoke Random.

During the fifth week, Pike finally crossed the line. He spent an entire day harping about what kind of stupid, fat cow would go and name her child Random Hause. By the end of the day, Random was seeing blood, but he wasn’t about to give Pike the satisfaction of a direct response.

Random desperately wanted to retaliate, but he needed an angle. The hypno-lessons seemed to present the perfect opportunity. The hypno-lessons had always left Random with splitting headaches. During the last week or so, in addition to the headaches, the lessons were now making him nauseous and causing his vision to go blurry for hours at a time.

Random knew that Pike couldn’t stand shirking. He also knew that a trip to the medical ward would take most of the afternoon. This would cause him to almost certainly miss his afternoon training program. Something Pike simply wouldn’t tolerate.

Random decided to bring up the subject of his problems with the hypno-lessons during lunch break. “Permission to speak, Sergeant.”

Pike looked up from his lunch. “What the hell do you want, Hause? It had better be good.”

“The hypno-lessons are making me sick, Sergeant.”

Pike almost spit up his sandwich, laughing. He said between guffaws, “Aw, ain’t that too bad. Why the hell are you telling me, candy ass? Tell the damn doctor.”

“Yes, Sergeant.”

Random turned on his heel, trying desperately to suppress a grin as he marched out of the mess hall. Pike went back to his sandwich, promptly forgetting about Hause. The sergeant was oblivious as Random left the mess hall.

Random went straight to the medical building. He spoke to the NCO at the front desk, “Corporal, my Sergeant told me that I should speak to the doctor.”

The Corporal stared at him and said, “What seems to be the problem soldier?”

“The hypno-lessons are making me sick.”

“Is that so? Wait here.” The Corporal answered as he got up from his desk and went into the doctor’s office. He returned a few moments later, saying, “The doctor said to go on in.”

Random hesitated before walking into the doctor’s office. He was certain that more of the same wasn’t the answer to his problem. Once inside the office, the doctor motioned for him to take a seat and asked, “What seems to be the problem, son?”

“The hypno-lessons are making me sick, sir.” Random answered.

“Do they? Explain what you mean by sick.”

“Well at first the lessons gave me splitting headaches. Now, in addition to the headaches, my vision is screwed up for hours at a time and I’m spending half of the day feeling nauseated sir.”

“Interesting,” The doctor replied as he took out a folder, opened it on his desk, and keyed a code into his terminal.

Random sat quietly as the doctor mumbled over the terminal. The image of a sorcerer casting a spell crept into his thoughts. Finally, the doctor looked up and said. “I’ll be damned, sounds like resonance.”

“Resonance, what’s that sir?”

“Resonance is a rare condition that is caused by the hypnotherapy running into an already established pattern. Have any strange dreams lately?”

Random shook his head and answered. “It would be really strange if I actually remembered a dream sir. I never remember my dreams.”

“Never?” The doctor asked incredulously.

“Never, sir.”

“Well now, that[* is*] unusual. I think we’re going to have see if we can record a couple of your dreams so that we can see what’s going on in there. Go to the treatment center and see Nurse Johnson. I’ll be with you in a few minutes.” The doctor turned back to his terminal and began hurriedly keying in commands.

Random walked into the treatment center. Nurse Katie Johnson was waiting for him. Nurse Johnson was one of the few females on the base, and as far as Random was concerned, by far the cutest. He adored her. “Hello Random, the doctor tells me the hypno-lessons are making you feel sick,” she said.

“Yes ma’am. How’d he tell you? I just left him.”

“Terminal.” She pointed to the terminal in the corner.

“Oh, ok.” Random looked away, feeling stupid.

“Dr. Carter wants to put you under, and then record one of your dreams. Hopefully then we’ll be able to see what’s going on in that head of yours.” Nurse Johnson stepped over to the terminal and began reading from the screen, saying, “Lie down on the table please. Well, let’s see. He’s also ordered a pain relieving program to see what we can do about those symptoms,” over her shoulder.

Random climbed up on the table. A few moments later Nurse Johnson stepped over to him. She was carrying a warty, steel skullcap, which she proceeded to strap to his head. “Now don’t you worry about a thing, Random, this program should, at least, clear up those headaches.”

She deftly strapped Random to the table. [_How? It’s because of the programs that I’m having the headaches, _]he wondered. He looked up at her and said, “You’re the best looking woman on base, ma’am.”

She smiled. “Thanks love, so you keep telling me. The doctor will be here in a moment.” Nurse Johnson bent down and kissed him on the forehead quickly. “Don’t you worry, the doc will fix you up, just fine.”

Nurse Katie turned and left as the doctor came in. Dr. Carter picked up where the nurse had left off, plugging even more leads into the skullcap’s warts. The doctor chanted off the numbered pairs while plugging them in. To Random, the effect of the chanting was hypnotic. His mind began to drift. Visualizing an ancient film image of a witch doctor, Random half expected the doctor to pull out a rattle and blow smoke on him.

The doctor managed to finish making the connections without the rattle, or smoke. Random felt vaguely disappointed. Just then, the doctor then reached over to a king sized tape recorder, and flipped the switch.

The recorder looked very much like the machine they used in the old movie Brainstorm. Random loved those ancient movies. He could remember spending whole days watching one after another with his mom.

Click! As soon as the tape started playing, Random’s mind went blank. It wasn’t like somebody turned out the lights. It was more like somebody turned out the world.

Random woke up two hours later feeling like someone had set off a grenade inside his head. The first sight that greeted him was Sergeant Pike’s face. “Mind telling me what in the hell you’re doing in the medical building, boy?” Pike shouted.

“Wha?” Random said as he looked about groggily, trying to get his eyes to focus.

“Don’t give me that shit, boy. I asked you a question.”

Random still hadn’t broken the surface. “That’s nice. Who the hell are you?”

Pike clenched his fists and his face went from red to bright purple. The sergeant wanted desperately to strangle Random. Instead, he turned and shouted at the NCO who had come into the room. “Corporal, put this insolent shit in the cooler. Twenty-four hours of brig time.”

The Corporal was trying to drag Random to his feet when the doctor returned to the room. “What in god’s name are you doing, Corporal?” the doctor asked, an expression of alarm on his face.

“The Sergeant told me to take this man to the brig, sir,” the corporal responded.

“Sergeant, I trust you have a good explanation for this?”

Pike spun and faced the doctor and answered coldly, “This is none of your business, sir. This is a discipline issue.”

“I’m sorry Sergeant, as long as this man is in my medical building, it is my business. Now perhaps you’ll answer my question before I have you charged with insubordination.”

Pike stood for a moment, trying to gather himself. “This man is two hours late for weapons training. When I asked him why, he was insolent.”

“Sergeant, this man has just had four hours of hypnotherapy. He probably couldn’t tell you, where he is.”

Random started to come around, and as if on cue asked. “What’s going on? Where am I?”

Pike jumped in shouting, “You’re two hours late for weapons training. That’s where the hell you are.”

Random looked around for a moment. “I came to tell the doctor about the hypno-lessons making me sick like you told me, Sergeant.”

“I told you nothing of the sort, boy.”

“But you told me to tell the doctor, Sergeant.”

“Bullshit and I certainly don’t recall hearing you ask for permission to skip weapons training.”

The doctor cut off Random’s reply. “Did you, or did you not, tell this man to come and ask for help with his feeling sick?”

Pike looked around angrily. “Yes, I told the little twerp to come and ask you about his ‘feeling sick,’ sir.”

“Thank you Sergeant. That will be all.”

Pike looked at the doctor in disbelief. “But what about my man, sir?”

“I said that will be all Sergeant. For the time being, your man will be under my care.” The doctor replied firmly. Pike stormed out of the medical building. He had lost face and Random knew for certain that Pike would make damned sure that Random would pay for it.

Random spent the rest of the day in the medical building, being tested. The next morning he was back with his squad. His brain still scrambled from the tests. Pike singled him out during morning line-up. “You owe me, four hours of PT, boy. You can start right after dinner.”

“Why do I owe you four hours of PT, Sergeant?” Random asked.

“You shirked afternoon weapons training, boy.”

Drop dead, bitch_, _Random thought, then replied quietly, “Yes, Sergeant.”

Pike smiled. “Boy, you are becoming a real pain in the ass, so from now on your name will be hemorrhoid. Is that clear?” Chuckling to himself as if he’d come up with something clever.

“Yes, Sergeant,” Random replied through clenched teeth. He couldn’t remember hating anything as much as he hated Sergeant Pike at that moment.

“Good, you’ll start right after dinner. Got that, hemorrhoid?” still chuckling.

“Yes, Sergeant.” Random felt tears of rage burning in his eyes.

After dinner Random and Pike walked to the PT course. Random carried a full pack and loaded M-10. “Ok hemorrhoid, I want you to run this course for the next four hours carrying that pack and rifle. Understood?” Pike said as he gloated over the prospect of Random suffering.

“Yes Sergeant,” Random replied calmly. What I wouldn’t give to, “accidentally”, blow that bastard away. he thought as he headed out onto the course and began running.

At first Random passed time by thinking about home. Slowly, his body disappeared, as his mental conditioning allowed him to float along with his thoughts. His conditioning slowly faded because his stay at the medical unit had left him physically and emotionally fatigued. The day’s activities had prevented him from recovering before he started running the course.

Only grim determination and a flat refusal to let Pike claim victory, kept Random running after the first hour. The body has limits however, and even will power and hypnotically reinforced mind control, won’t work forever.

About halfway through the fourth hour, the conditioning failed and Random’s body simply quit. He had long since given up watching where he was going. Rounding the last turn on the course, he tripped and fell, landing on his rifle. As he rolled, a dozen rounds ripped off.

Random staggered to his knees, amazed he wasn’t hurt. Something burst into flames alongside the course. From down the track, he heard a voice screaming bloody murder. He looked around, trying to regain his bearings. It took a moment for him to realize that the voice belonged to Sergeant Pike.

Pike barreled down on Random. He was screaming because: First, one of the bullets had grazed the sergeant’s arm on its way to igniting a fuel tank. Second, there were four other fuel tanks close to the one that was burning.

When Pike reached Random, the Sergeant punched and then kicked him, knocking him to the ground, shouting, “You dirty little bastard. You’re going to be in basic training for the rest of your natural, if I have anything to say about it,” while striking Random.

Random looked up from the ground. The world was spinning. “Yes, Sergeant.”

“Don’t just lay there asshole, get over to those storage tanks and help put out that fire before all five tanks are burning.”

“Yes, Sergeant.”

Random staggered to his feet and scrambled off in the general direction of the storage depot. He joined a fire-fighting team and worked unconsciously. It took another four hours of desperate firefighting to put out the flames. Random didn’t see any of it. He stumbled along, blind with pain and exhaustion.

After the fire had been put out, Random collapsed on his way back to his barracks. MP’s found him a couple of hours later, checked his breath for alcohol, and then deposited him in the medical building.

Random woke two days later, uncertain of his whereabouts. The doctor came in after Random had been awake for a while and asked, “Why does that Sergeant hate you son?”

“I don’t think I’m his idea of good soldier material and he thinks my attitude sucks, sir.” Random answered.

“Well, does it?”

“Does what sir?”

“Your attitude,” the doctor responded.

“He’s been trying to drive me to quit, sir, but I’ll die before I give him that satisfaction.”

“Excellent. There’s nothing wrong with your attitude son. We could use a few more young men with your determination,” the doctor replied sounding pleased. “Still, we’d better get you healthy again because you’ve got a fight ahead of you. Pike isn’t going to take this one lying down. Did I tell you we found some very interesting stuff on those dream tapes that we recorded?”

Random looked around, unsure. “What do you mean by ‘interesting’ sir?”

“Stuff that isn’t usually part of people’s dreams. Would you like to see them?”

“Well. Ok, I guess I’d like to watch them sir.”

“Good. Then why don’t we try and set that up this afternoon. It will be interesting to see what happens when we feed the dreams back into your mind,” the doctor replied tapping his pen on his notebook

Random looked at the doctor for a moment. “Is there a risk involved sir?”

“I don’t think so, but I can’t say no for certain.”

That afternoon, Random walked back down into the treatment center. The doctor was waiting for him with a couple of much simpler looking skull caps. These new caps had only six leads each.

Once inside the treatment center, the doctor had Random sit in a reclining chair and then lean back. He then placed one of the caps on Random’s head. He placed the second cap on his own head and then sat back on another reclining chair. After checking to see that Random was comfortable, he switched on the machine.

The world in front of Random blanked out for moment and then was replaced by a setting that was strangely familiar. Random was standing, his hands resting on a carved white stone railing. He looked out over a city of carved white stone.

Upon closer inspection Random could tell that the stone of the railing was old and weather-beaten, but the city in the distance gleamed in the sunlight. It was a strikingly beautiful place. He could smell the sea in the breeze and feel the smooth, cold surface of the stone railing. He heard footsteps on the stone floor behind him.

When he turned, he saw a stunning woman walking across the white stone towards him. Her movements were flowing, like water in a stream. She glided smoothly to him, and stood alongside him at the railing. After a moment, she turned to him and said, “We cannot be here when you arrive.”

Suddenly, Random knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that he would be traveling to find this city and this woman. “Where will you be?” he asked.

“We will have retreated to a place of safety. It isn’t time yet, for us to meet.”

“Why not? I mean you no harm. Who has decided that it isn’t time for us to meet?”

“I eagerly await our meeting my love, but the implications of this meeting are troubling. Conditions must be just right before you and I will be allowed to meet. My people’s oracles have proclaimed that a mistimed meeting would be disastrous, both for humans, and for my people.”

She’s not human, he thought. “When will it be the right time?”

“Soon, very soon. Be patient Random, we will meet again. Soon enough, we will be able to meet outside of the dream. For now I must be rejoining the others,” she said as she turned and walked away.

For the rest of the dream, Random searched through the streets of the city, running between carved white stone buildings, one narrow street after another, looking to find the woman. All he found was a beautiful, but deserted city. Eventually, he gave up the search, accepting that she had indeed gone.

The recording ended and he returned to his body. Random sat there in stunned silence. He knew that woman, but yet he didn’t know her. It was all very confusing. The doctor tapped him on the shoulder. “See what I mean. Strange stuff. Who was that woman, and where was that city?”

“I don’t know exactly. I feel like I know her, but I’m certain that I’ve never met her. Who could forget a woman like that? The same goes for the city. I feel like I know it, but I’m certain I’ve never been there.”

“Interesting. I need to look into some things. You will need to stay here for a few days and rest.”

Random spent most of the next three days in the medical building. During that time, a formal inquiry was conducted to determine the cause of the fire. Random was called in to testify.

Based on Random’s testimony, the testimony of the doctor, and that of a host of other witnesses, Sergeant Pike was found guilty of gross negligence and abuse of personnel and sentenced to three weeks in the stockade. Random was found guilty of an uncontrolled discharge of his weapon and given the extenuating circumstances, sentenced to a week in the stockade.

The squad finished basic training with a new Drill Sergeant. Random served out his sentence and then rejoined his squad, but to the members of his squad, Random never seemed to be fully himself. He seemed distant and distracted.

Upon his return from the stockade, Random soon found that the new Sergeant intended to continue Pike’s efforts to goad Random. Random truly wanted to respond. In fact, he wanted to kick the new Sergeant’s ass, but pain, mental fatigue, and the certainty that if he screwed up again, he’d either be kicked out or forced to go through boot camp over again, blocked those impulses from his mind. He focused on the knowledge that he was in the final ten days of his training program. A program he desperately wanted to finish.

The end of the six weeks program arrived quickly enough. By that time, Random felt more than ready to shove the entire Ninth Air Cavalry Corp up either one of his Drill Sergeants’ asses. Unfortunately, the end of the program didn’t mean graduation for Random. He was assigned to an extra ten days of individual training to make up for the time he’d missed.

Compared to boot camp, the individual training felt like paradise to Random. He was assigned a list of tasks to complete each day, and required to report in after he’d completed each task. On most days either, a sergeant, an NCO, or occasionally an officer dropped in to monitor and verify that Random was indeed completing the tasks, but no one was there harping over his shoulder, harassing him for every fault.

The ten days seemed to fly by. When they had passed, much to Random’s surprise and relief, the powers that be, decided that he had learned all he was going to learn from basic training. The base commander graded Random as acceptable, and pronounced that he had completed the course.

Sergeant Pike learned of the decision from his CO. The good sergeant immediately took his objections to the base commander. The base commander listened patiently to Pike’s complaints, and then calmly informed Pike that the decision to certify Random’s completion of the course had already been made.

The commander’s announcement seemed to send Pike around the bend. He began to shout and berate the commander, making wild accusations about the commander’s motives and threatening to ruin the commander’s career if he didn’t immediately rescind Random’s orders. The commander listened to Pike’s histrionics for about five minutes, and then called security to remove and detain the poor deranged sergeant.

Pike didn’t wait for security. He stormed out of the base commander’s office, desperately wanting to break every bone in Random’s body. The base commander, not being a fool, anticipated Pike’s anger, and had already completed arrangements for Random to be quietly transported.

The base commander made certain that the order for Random to be loaded onto a mag-lev and off the base was issued before letting Random’s status change be known publicly. While Pike was crossing the base for his meeting with the base commander, a pair of MP’s collected Random, and his things and escorted him to the mag-lev station. The MP’s made sure that Random boarded the train bound for Echo World without incident.

After watching Pike’s behavior, the base commander ordered Pike to take a rest. He arranged the sergeant’s transfer to a desk job. The transfer was only temporary, but Pike wanted nothing to do with it. Within a week, the sergeant had submitted his resignation.

[*Chapter Three: Echo World *]

*Monday August 17th, 2045 *

Mag-lev Station, Ironwood, Michigan.

 

The officer on board the mag-lev told the men to buckle up and prepare to cross the flashover. Random took a window seat and buckled up. He watched as the train accelerated out of the station.

As Random continued looking out the window, he saw an enormous black hole, with light flickering around its edges, open in front of the train. The hole wasn’t on the ground, where it should be. It hung in the air, right in front of the train. What a frigging joke. There’s no way you can prepare for this. Random thought as the train rocketed towards the hole.

Random watched as the train plowed straight into the hole. Everything around the hole lit up with a flash. [So that’s where Flashover comes from, _]he thought, as he tightly gripped his arm rests.[ _]The hole didn’t flash. It stayed black, and the train just disappeared, as it roared into the blackness.

Then it was Random’s turn. There was a huge flash of light, and then everything vanished. He couldn’t see anything, hear anything, smell anything, or feel anything, absolute nothingness. Roller coasters are scary. This is just plain crazy.

After what seemed like an hour, the lights flashed on again. Almost everything was back to normal, except now there were clearly visible signs of fall. The train had crossed over onto Echo World. Random looked out the window again and thought,[_ Ike was right. It does look like Northern Michigan._]

He continued watching as the train rolled westward. One other difference became glaringly apparent. Except for the train line, and some very occasional road junctions, there was very little evidence that man had ever been there. It felt eerie.

Random could hear what sounded like the voice of a tour guide on the train’s intercom system. According to the commentator, the train would be cruising at four hundred k.p.h., on the journey from the Ironwood Flashover to Albuquerque Station.

The commentator explained that the stations had so been named because of their corresponding locations on Earth. Random continued to watch out the window as the train passed through an occasional road junction and a pair of places that actually looked inhabited, but he didn’t see a farm or ranch on the entire journey.

According to the commentator, which Random assumed had to be an AUN Off-world officer, the line actually continued southwards from Albuquerque Station to Campeche Station on Echo World’s Yucatan Peninsula. The flashover at Campeche Station was the exit point to Delhi II, the second of the Main Line worlds.

The first inhabited area that Random saw on his trip to Albuquerque Station was the rail junction, which the tour guide labeled Omaha Station. When the line they were on turned to the west, Random noticed a second branch that headed off towards the southeast. To Random, the southern branch looked as if it hadn’t been used in twenty years.

Random could see that a good sized town had built up around the Omaha Station rail junction, including a large convention center and some pretty impressive office buildings. According to the commentator, this settlement was the home of the UN Off-world government, and the headquarters of the AUN Off-world Ninth Air Cavalry Corps.

An hour or so later, a second sign of habitation came into view. The tour guide labeled this Denver Station. Unlike Omaha Station, Denver Station appeared to be an obviously functioning airbase. In addition to the hangers and fuel depots, Random saw three or four collections of row houses, and a large structure that had to be the PX.

From Denver Station, the mag-lev line turned south to follow the eastern edge of the E (E. for Echo World) Rockies. This was a dry country, with few trees, and miles and miles of brown grassland. Based on the view from the train window, it was obviously summer on the plains, but Random could see signs of snow high in the mountains. To Random, the pine forested mountains, to the west, looked far more appealing, than did the dry plains to the east.

Just outside of Albuquerque Station, the train slowed and turned onto a branch line. A few minutes later, the train rolled to a stop at a platform in the middle of a lightly forested, dust colored, wilderness. If this were Earth, the train should have been in the middle of Albuquerque. Instead, a single mono-rail line snaked to the east, connecting the mag-lev platform to the inhabited portion of Albuquerque Station.

Random and the other soldiers were herded onto the mono-rail and trundled thirty miles to the east, to the headquarters of the Seventh Division of the Ninth Air Cavalry Corp. Supposedly; Albuquerque Station had a large and thriving commercial district with nearly fifty thousand inhabitants. None of that was visible from the Seventh’s base.

At the base, Random was sorted into a training unit to complete his OCS training. OCS had some definite advantages over boot camp. For starters, he actually had a room on Echo World, complete with a bathroom and closets. [_What luxury, and it’s warm. A definite improvement over Ironwood, _]Random thought as he unpacked.

Random had made very few friends during boot camp. There were a couple of reasons for this. First, at thirty-two, he was by far the oldest member of his unit. Eight years older than the eldest of his colleagues. Second, his colleagues quickly became aware that befriending Random was a sure ticket to Pike’s doghouse. Random hoped OCS would be different.

To his delight, Random quickly found that at OCS, he wasn’t the only candidate in his thirties. In fact, two of his colleagues were his age and also former school teachers. The first was a former Los Angeles public school teacher named Caitlyn Conner. She had taught high school English for eight years, before giving it up in frustration.

Caitlyn was five foot eight inches tall, thin, muscular, with short, pale blond hair and glasses. Her face had sharp and attractive features. Random thought she’d be a real looker if she actually tried.

The second was Eldon Bethea. Eldon had taught math in a Charleston private school until he had been forced to resign under a cloud of scandal. Eldon was the same height as Caitlyn, with deep brown skin and very short, curly, black hair. He was also vain about his appearance and worked hard to keep himself fit and trim. Random soon discovered that Eldon shared his views on Caitlyn.

Random noticed another difference between Boot Camp and OCS immediately. Some of the restrictions on his telnet had been removed. He spent the afternoon after his arrival on base, talking with his mother and sister. Both were well and Monroe was still Monroe, but after nearly eight weeks, Random was very happy to hear their voices again.

That evening Random found out that their first assignment was to be flight school. He spent most of that evening looking through the course materials. He called up the text on his telnet and began flipping through it, learning quickly that the AUN would be training him to learn to fly their combination electric/propfan heliplane.

According to the text, the development of ultra-light, plastic batteries and, ultra-high temperature superconductors, revolutionized the old electric motor. The new batteries and superconductor had indeed revolutionized the entire world. Random remembered when the heliplane became an economically viable design, replacing the comparatively inefficient helicopter.

Random also remembered when the last major light vehicle producer switched to one form or another of the plug-in electric vehicle design. Relying on combustion engines like the wave disk engine only to power recharging devices. [The world is a different place. So much has changed in so little time. _]Random chuckled and thought, _More gifts that we can thank Chinavare for.

The next morning, Random discovered that heliplanes are a royal pain in the ass to learn how to fly. He also discovered why his training officer kept a large supply of antacids on hand. It didn’t take long. Thirty minutes into Random’s initial flight, he nearly drilled the heliplane into the ground. Only his training officer’s quick reactions averted a crash.

Random was certain that he was going to be drummed out of OCS after the incident. When he asked the training officer about it, the training officer surprised him by answering, “Why on Earth would I want to have you dismissed. You’re one of my better students.”

After that first flight, Random kept antacids handy as well, but he was a quick learner. By his third flight, he could keep the damned thing airborne, unaided. From that point on, the heliplane became a dream to fly. Flight time became Random’s favorite time of day. This didn’t preclude the training officer from keeping a ready supply of antacids because Random was also a bit of a dare-devil.

Random began to study the course material with a purpose. He wanted to learn everything he could about the heliplanes they were flying. The combination of technologies fascinated him. He spent most of his free hours on the telnet pouring over any materials related to the technologies that he could find.

During his studies, he learned that the heliplanes were powered by a Tesla Turbine engine that drove a bevy of alternators to recharge the batteries. The batteries provided power for an extremely high performance induction motor to spin the rotor for lift.

In addition to the rotor, the heliplane also had two small alcohol burning propfan engines, which also utilized Tesla Turbine technology, top-mounted on stubby wings. The propfans provided forward propulsion. With the propfans the heliplane had a top speed of eight hundred kilometers per hour.

In addition to powering the high performance induction motor that drove the rotor, the batteries also provided power for a staggering array of electronic devices. Surprisingly, at least to Random, the aircraft was armed to the teeth. Air-to-air missiles, recoilless rifles with laser designated rounds, twenty millimeter chain guns, and an impulse laser. These heliplanes, more commonly referred to as helis, had more collected fire power than Random had seen in his entire life. Why they needed that much firepower on Echo World was a mystery.

Random found the heliplane’s reconnaissance systems just as impressive. They included: A three hundred and sixty degree infrared and video scanner that could pick up and track a rabbit, eighty kilometers away, and an aura-scan device with a range of two hundred kilometers. The aura-scan could single a person out of a crowd and track him to the edge of its range.

To round out the package, the heliplane was also equipped with a complete defensive package that included: Infra-red suppression and jamming. Radar suppression and jamming. Laser suppression and aura-scan suppression. [_All-in-all, an incredible machine, _]Random thought. _ _

Random, Caitlyn, and Eldon soon became fast friends and began spending most of their free periods together, reviewing the day’s classes. Caitlyn hated flight training and very seldom had anything nice to say about her flight instructor. Random, on the other hand, loved flying and thought his flight trainer was top notch. Eldon tried to stay noncommittal. He may have enjoyed flying, but he thought his trainer was a bit of a loon. Then again, Eldon suspected that anyone who would willingly get into a heliplane with a trainee pilot, had to have misplaced a few of his marbles.

When he wasn’t studying, Random wanted nothing more than to fly his heliplane. He couldn’t get over how deserted Echo World seemed, and how limited his flight range was. AUN security declared everything east of Echo World’s Mississippi River and west of Echo World’s Rocky Mountains, off limits. That left the E Great Plains for Random to explore.

Random also discovered that he loved flying at NOE, or nape of the earth, which meant just above the treetops, watching the prairie flash by underneath his feet, on his explorations. Several times, he followed the rail line north to Omaha Station, with the speeding mag-levs and empty roadways, being the only evidence of man. On other explorations, he followed several of the roadways out until the flight controller back in Omaha Station told him that he was out of bounds and ordered him to return to base.

Caitlyn looked up from her seat under one of the few trees near their apartments and said, “Would you believe that absolute idiot had me flying so low I thought we were going to leave skid marks.”

Random chuckled and replied, “Barton’s had me doing that for a week now. He says the heli handles best there.”

Eldon shook his head and said, “Don’t get me wrong, Random, but zipping along at four-hundred klicks with fifty feet or less between me and oblivion, and me with less than eighteen hours of total flight time, isn’t my idea of a good time.”

Random nodded and replied, “Point taken.” He turned to Caitlyn and said, “I wish there was some way that I could help you learn to enjoy flying.”

Caitlyn gave him a wan smile and replied, “So do I.”

“Are you going to be able to do the NOE stuff for the final?”

Caitlyn shrugged, “Yeah. I’ll be able to do it, but I’m not going to do it again, unless I’ve got no other choice.”

“Sounds reasonable to me.”

Random learned the hard way that the flight controller meant business. On one of his solo flights, he took off to the north, following the eastern edge of the E Rockies. He heard the signal to return to base as he crossed over the E Denver airfield, but he ignored the controller and continued north following the roadway to an unlisted military base where Fort Collins should have been on an Earth map.

When Random returned to base, he was grilled for two days by the SSF agent in charge of security. His base commander stripped his flight privileges for a week and a half. No flight privileges and the extra classwork assigned to fill in the time seemed like Purgatory to Random. He decided that there was a time and a place for risk taking. That time wasn’t now, which meant heeding the instructions of his flight controller.

“I heard you got grounded,” Caitlyn said from her familiar spot under the tree.

“Yeah. Ten days,” Random answered glumly.

“What happened?’

Random hung his head, “I kept on flying when the flight controller told me to turn around.”

Eldon, who had been studying his notes on the telnet, looked up and asked incredulously, “What the hell did you do that for?”

“I wanted to know where the road went,” Random answered sheepishly.

Eldon shook his head, “Dumb ass. It’s a wonder they didn’t put you in the brig,” as he returned to his notes.

There was silence for a moment, and then Caitlyn asked, “So, what’s out there?”

Random smiled and answered quietly, “There’s an army base north of Denver Station. It looked like Air Cav.”

“But they already have Air Cav stationed here and at Omaha Station, why would they need another base?” Eldon responded with a puzzled look on his face.

Random shrugged and replied, “No idea, man.”

According to his course materials, over a million people lived on Echo World. Supposedly, most of them lived on Echo World’s East Coast of North America. Random had seen evidence of maybe a hundred thousand of them.

Random studied all the Echo World maps he could find on telnet, especially the maps of AUN installations on Echo World. He didn’t see anything on the E East Coast, in E North Africa, or in the E Pacific Basin area. It was obvious to Random that they weren’t being given a complete picture of activity on Echo World. [_Somebody is hiding something, _]he thought. His discovery of the unmarked base north of Denver Station only served to confirm his suspicions.

Unfortunately, flight school lasted only eight happy weeks. Much too soon for Random’s liking, the course came to an end. He, Caitlyn, and Eldon all passed the course with flying colors.

Their next assignment was classroom learning. Random, Caitlyn, and Eldon gathered under their tree and called up the new course materials on the telnet. The stuff looked and read like the stuff that Random had been covering in the History of the Multiverse course that he had been teaching every other year.

“This is going to be fun,” Random said glumly.

“Why?” Caitlyn asked.

“I’ve been teaching a course on this stuff every other year,” Random replied grumpily.

“Shouldn’t be much of a challenge then,” Eldon observed.

“No. Dead boring though,” Random responded.

They went back to looking over their texts. A few minutes later, Random interrupted the quiet study by saying, “Damn it! That’s just sloppy thinking.”

“What’s sloppy thinking,” Caitlyn asked.

Random highlighted a section of text, “Take a look at the page I’ve highlighted. I’m not certain I buy the infinite part, but I’ll admit they’ve discovered a hell of a lot of different worlds out there.”

“How do you quantify infinity?” Eldon asked.

“Exactly,” Random answered.

“It should say ‘theoretically’,” Caitlyn added.

“It doesn’t though,” Random replied grumpily.

“No, it doesn’t,” Caitlyn agreed.

That next morning, they had to sit through the lecture on flashovers. The instructor started off with, “We have discovered that alternative universes can be accessed through dimensional weak points, called flashovers. These flashovers are divided into two categories. The first, called stable flashovers, access only one point in one alternative universe and the connection is always available. So far, all of the stable flashovers that have been found have led directly to the surface of another world. It is possible to build communications and transport links across these stable flashovers, if the gateway is kept open continuously.”

The idea of dimensional transfer had been mind boggling to Random in High School. After crossing the flashover to Echo World it was a lot easier to accept. No kidding. I mean hell, we rode a mag-lev from Earth to Echo World,”[_ _]Random muttered quietly. Eldon and Caitlyn both chuckled in agreement.

The instructor grimaced and began lecturing again, “Thirteen worlds are linked by stable flashovers. The twelve colony worlds, from Echo World to Nova Lagos, are known as the Main Line and also as Step One worlds. Earth is known as the Home World. On Earth and Nova Lagos, the first and thirteenth worlds in the Main Line, only one stable flashover has ever been found. On each of the other Main Line worlds we have found both an entry point and an exit point.

“Mag-lev train lines, heavy freight train lines, and fiber optic communications lines have been built to link the Main Line worlds. These projects were completed in 2035. Fiber optics is used because those signals are able to cross the flashover through the fiber optics lines without distortion. Every other information carrier that has been tried has displayed some form of distortion.

“Unfortunately, only a minute fraction of flashovers are stable, the rest are classified as unstable. An unstable flashover can access a multitude of different universes, a multitude of different points in the same universe, or both. Since the destination points within an unstable flashover change, it is impossible to build communications or transportation links across them.

There are two main types of unstable flashovers. The first type has regular, repeating destination points with a recognizable and predictable pattern. The second type has no discernible pattern of destination points. For obvious reasons, the second type is useless. It isn’t very productive, or profitable to be able to cross a flashover, if there is no way for you to return to where you came from. For this reason, regularly repeating flashovers are the only ones that can be developed.”

Random shook his head slowly and muttered, “No shit. What kind of idiot doesn’t know that?” He looked around. Most of his classmates seemed to be of the same opinion. Eldon and Caitlyn both struggled to keep a straight face.

The instructor cleared his throat and continued, “Ahem. Two major problems have to be overcome before a flashover can be developed. First, many of the destination points access empty space. Of course empty space might be better than accessing a sun, or even the interior of a planet.” The instructor chuckled and paused for a moment, looking around at his audience, seemingly waiting for them to laugh at his joke.

When no one did, the instructor shuffled his papers for a moment, then continued, “Nearly two thirds of the access points that had been discovered and reported exit either, underwater, underground, or in the dense clouds of a gas planet. For obvious reasons, these points aren’t very useful either. The remaining points access either the surface of a world, or above the surface of the world. These are the usable points.

“The second major problem to overcome is the limited amount of time available to cross a flashover. If the destination point within the flashover changes too quickly, you don’t have time to cross safely and return, or even to cross safely.” The instructor looked up from his notes and said, “Let’s finish this topic tomorrow. I will expect each of you to have read the text on the classification of worlds.”

Random deactivated his telnet and headed out of class. He had a PT program to complete before lunch. Eldon and Caitlyn caught up with him on the walk to the PT course. “Dude, do you like having the instructor hate you?” Eldon asked as he caught up to Random.

“Why?” Random responded.

“You upstaged him. Your comments were funnier than his jokes,” Eldon answered seriously.

“I’m sorry, but that guy is just dead boring,” Random replied.

“He is, but it’s his class and we have to pass it,” Caitlyn interjected.

Random looked down at his feet and said, “Yeah. Ok,” with a sigh.

Random discovered that his OCS PT program was a lot like the one he had worked on during his individual training period at boot camp. He was given a list of tasks to complete each day, and a time limit to complete each task, and then left on his own to complete them.

After lunch, they had their lessons on military science and protocol. These lessons included everything from chain-of-command protocol to, military strategy, to unit tactics. According to the instructor, the lessons they learned in these classes would be tested in the field. Random took the warning to heart since they had already played a very elaborate version of ‘capture the flag’ that pitted them against another unit of candidates during the flight training program.

The next morning, Random showed up for his history lecture. Eldon and Caitlyn were already seated and waiting for him. “What took you so long?” Eldon asked as Random sat down.

“I had to help Sergeant Pilton clean up the mess,” Random answered quietly.

“What the hell for?” Eldon asked suspiciously.

“Don’t know man. He told me it was ‘my turn’,” Random replied. Caitlyn just shook her head and glanced at the ceiling.

The instructor waited until the class had settled into their seats and then began, “The classification of worlds depends on their relationship to a Main Line world. The first category, Step Two worlds, has direct access to a Main Line, or Step One world. The transportation limitations between a Step Two world and a Main Line world create a major barrier to development. Imports and exports are generally limited to what can profitably be carried by air transport.

The second category, Step Three worlds, has direct access to a Step Two world. Once again, because of transportation difficulties, Step Three worlds are primarily colonization worlds. With their limited industrial production, if any used mainly for domestic consumption. The problems caused by transportation place a very strict limit on imports and exports. In practice these limits have meant that; imports were restricted to very light machinery, and exports were primarily high value craft industry products.

The third category, Step Four worlds, have direct access to a Step Three world. No Step Four world has yet been developed. The transportation difficulties are, simply, too, great.”[* *]

[_I’m not about to tell my instructors about “Crazy Ike” and his elves. They’d probably run me out of the Corp, _]Random thought.

The class was given a test on flashovers and instructed to look over the materials for the basic history portion of the course. After dinner, Random, Caitlyn, and Eldon retired to their favorite tree to begin reviewing the material on the telnet. “How do you think you did on the test?” Eldon asked.

“I think I did really well. That test was stone easy,” Random answered.

“I agree. I knew the answer to every question, and the essay was straight out of our notes,” Caitlyn agreed.

Random snorted and said, “Let’s start looking over the history then.”

The next morning tests were returned and three of their classmates were called to the front of the room and given an assignment to a remedial class to be held during their free periods. Random looked at his paper. He had scored ninety-five, missing one question. A quick comparison showed that Eldon and Caitlyn had received similar scores. “Damn! How did anyone fail this test?” Random whispered.

“No clue,” Eldon whispered back.

The instructor stepped to his podium and sorted his papers. The class quickly settled down, and the instructor began, “Almond Chinavare discovered the first flashover on May‚ Fifteenth, 2015.”_ _

Chinavare has always been one of my heroes,” Random whispered quietly.

The instructor looked up and said, “Do you have a comment candidate Hause?”

“Chinavare has always been someone I admire sir,” Random answered sheepishly.

“There’s much to admire about Almond Chinavare. He has changed the way we live. Do you have any other comments or observations that you wish to share?” the instructor responded.

“No sir,” Random answered quietly.

“Thank you. Then I’ll get back to our lesson,” the instructor replied.

The instructor began speaking again, “By December of 2015, Chinavare reported that he had crossed all the way to the world we now call Nova Lagos. He then returned to Earth to found his Discovery Corporation. The Discovery Corporation quietly began setting up links between Earth and Nova Lagos. How Chinavare managed to keep his discovery and construction secret until his announcement of January 2nd, 2020, remains one of the great mysteries of modern time.”

Random drifted off, noticing that several of his classmates were also drifting. Random had always been puzzled by the fact that no one had discovered these weak points before Chinavare discovered his machine. He couldn’t remember ever having gotten a satisfactory answer to that one, and he’d asked a lot of people.

At the end of class, Random decided to try once more. He asked his instructor, “Sir, why didn’t anyone discover these weak points before Chinavare discovered his machine?”

His instructor had shrugged and responded, “No idea.”

That isn’t an answer. Certainly he has some opinion on the subject, Random thought. He opened his mouth to press the issue, and then thought better of it. Even if it didn’t seem any more insightful than Random’s students had been, back in Monroe, there was no point in calling this instructor out.

The next day, Random and his companions returned to class. Once more the instructor waited for everyone to settle down before stepping to the podium. He shuffled his papers, and began, “In 2022, Chinavare announced two discoveries that made exploration of unstable flashovers possible. The first was the Aura Spectrographic Scanner, now known as aura-scan. The second was the fiber optic guided missile surveillance system, known as fog-m-s, or fog-m’s.

“The fog-m’s were an old, apparently abandoned technology that Chinavare was able to resurrect and put to effective use. His revival of the system also led to renewed interest in the use of fog-m’s on the battlefield. The aura-scan devices receive and classify the distinctive energy patterns each substance emits. Living things emit the most recognizable patterns.

To scan an unstable flashover, a scanning device must be placed within the flashover and focused along a directional vector. Each of the destinations along the vector can then be scanned as they scroll into focus.” The instructors stopped here and used an old fashioned roll-o-dex to illustrate the principle.

When he was satisfied that everyone understood the concept, he continued, “An unstable flashover can have as many as six directional vectors, each with destination points. The aura-scan cannot provide an actual visual image of the points it scans, but it does return useful information about the area surrounding the flashover point on the new world. Fog-m-s can then be used to provide an economical and expendable means of gaining actual visual reconnaissance. Unlike people, fog-m’s don’t object to suicide missions.” The instructor paused here, seemingly waiting for people to laugh at his joke.

When no one did, he used another old analogy to illustrate the problems involved in crossing an unstable flashover. He pulled an old fashioned fan out of closet and removed its safety shield. He turned on the fan and then took out a pencil and said, “If you stick your finger into a moving fan, one of two things will happen. First, if you’re very lucky or dead solid perfect, you’ll stop the fan. Second, and most likely, you’ll lose the finger.” The instructor pushed his pencil into the fan. Eventually, the spinning blade caught the pencil and flung it across the classroom.

The instructor looked around. When he was satisfied that no one had been hurt and that everyone understood the analogy, he continued, “Trying to cross an unstable flashover produces the same kind of result, with about the same odds of success. Only a fool, or a suicide case, would attempt to cross an unstable flashover, blind. Even if you managed to survive the crossing, you would most likely not be able to return.” The instructor gave a quick look around and said, “I think that will be enough for today. Read through your materials, especially the technical data on the fog-m and the aura-scan devices.”

[_I notice that he doesn’t explain how Chinavare managed to cross them and return. _]Random thought. He wasn’t about to bring up the issue in class. “Sounds like a quiz tomorrow,” he said quietly to Eldon. Eldon looked up with half a smile and nodded in agreement.

Caitlyn leaned forward so she could see around Eldon and asked, “The old tree after dinner again?”

Random nodded and said, “Sounds like a plan.”

As expected, the next history class had begun with a quiz on the fog-m and aura-scan devices. Random breezed through the quiz. When he looked up, he saw that Eldon and Caitlyn had finished as well. A quick glance around the classroom was enough to confirm that more than half the class was still working. Random looked back down at his own paper to see if he’d missed something. Nope, he’d even answered the extra credit question. “What can they be working on?” he wondered.

Random saw the instructor studying the class with a concerned look. He watched as the instructor studied his watch for a moment, then tapped pencil loudly on the edge of the podium and said, “You have five minutes to finish the quiz.”

After the quizzes had been collected, the instructor stood at the podium again, shuffled his papers once more and began the day’s lecture, “When Chinavare presented the twelve new worlds during his announcement to the UN, the UN floor, not surprisingly, erupted in chaos.

Within six months, the old economic order on Earth simply ceased to be. The world’s economic engine completely shifted gears and the focus turned to the prospect of exploring and developing these new treasures. Rivalries over Earth based assets melted away as people dreamed of the untapped riches awaiting them off-world. Instead of worrying about reducing population, countries began to worry about how ship their excess populations out.

The survey of and administration of the new worlds quickly fell under the sway of the Reverend Abbot’s Utilization Ministry. A new order emerged after the establishment of the UN Off-world government center on Echo World. This center became the final arbiter of off-world exploration and development.”

“Yeah, and good old Smiling Jim led the charge. Sweeping everything into his pocket as he went.” Random muttered quietly. The instructor grimaced.

Caitlyn elbowed Random in the ribs and said, “Shhh.”[_ _]

The instructor looked back down at his papers, shuffled them a bit, and began again, “All newly discovered flashovers were supposed to come under the control of the Utilization Ministry for survey. After 2030, the rush was on. Every organization, with the means to do so, financed a UN survey party to explore the new worlds. The exploration parties also began searching for new flashovers.

Small conflicts broke out on Earth and off-world as each organization jockeyed for a dominant position. The chaos undermined the stability of an already unsound, financial community. Humanity teetered again on the brink of disaster. World War III suddenly appeared possible

The Utilization Ministry, led by Reverend Abbot acted quickly. Seizing control of the exploration process by establishing an auction procedure to determine which worlds would be surveyed and when. The focus of the battle for control of the new worlds shifted to the floor of UN.”

[_“With good old Jimmy glorying in the role of ringmaster.” _]Random thought.

The instructor continued, “The whole world, led by Reverend Abbott, blamed Chinavare for unleashing the chaos. The UN issued an order for his arrest, and seized his Earth based assets. Somehow Chinavare escaped the dragnet and vanished, presumably off-world.

With Chinavare out of the way, the Utilization Ministry quickly expanded its power to regulate and police the development of the new worlds. Echo World became the base for all UN Off-world operations and the center of UN Off-world governance. The Ministry then proclaimed the power to re-market any ‘failed’ colonies that it found.

Abbott refused to compensate Chinavare for the theft of the worlds he discovered.”

“Of course he did. The bastard used the money to subvert the foundering democracies in Eastern Europe.” Random whispered under breath.

The instructor didn’t seem to notice and continued the lecture, “The UN declared the Discovery Corporation illegal and used its assets to form the DBX Corporation, but DBX was unable to seize control of the manufacturing process for the flashover devices. This failure hamstrung DBX and derailed the Reverend’s planned conquest. In the end, the UN and Chinavare quietly came to a compromise solution with Chinavare somehow still in control of much of DBX’s assets, but bound to deal only with the UN.”

[_“I bet that left a bad taste in Smilin’ Jim’s mouth. Then again, it probably didn’t make Chinavare very happy either.” _]Random whispered.

The instructor looked down at his watch and then said, “I think we’ll stop here for today. I will expect you to have gone over the materials for this lesson, paying special attention to the DBX Corporation.”

Eldon nudged Random with his elbow and said, “Another quiz?” furtively.

“I wouldn’t bet against it,” Random replied as he stood to leave class.

“I can’t do the tree tonight guys. We’re having a birthday party for Lisa,” Caitlyn said as she stood and prepared to leave the room.

Eldon shrugged and said, “Just you and me then?”

Random nodded and replied, “Looks like.”

Random was startled to see the instructor standing right in front of him. “Sir, may I help you?” he asked.

The instructor smiled faintly and said, “May I have a word?”

Random nodded and said, “Sure. I mean, yes sir.”

The instructor walked slowly towards the back of the classroom. He waited until he was certain Random was following, and then said quietly, “You seem to know a lot about this course?”

“Yes sir. I do. I apologize for interrupting,” Random answered sheepishly.

The instructor smiled and said, “Don’t worry about that. I doubt your classmates, other than Mr. Bethea and Ms. Conner, heard you. Tell me, how is it that you know this course material so well?”

Random grinned and replied, “That’s not hard sir. I’ve taught this course every other year for the last decade.”

“They teach this in the public schools then?”

“No sir. This was an elective that I taught at a small private school.”

They walked quietly for a few paces before the instructor asked, “I see. I noticed that you don’t care much for Reverend Abbot.”

Random looked up at the instructor, and then said, “No sir. I do not like Reverend Abbot.”

The instructor stopped and turned to face Random before saying, “I won’t lie to you. I don’t have much liking for the Reverend either, but I urge you to be cautious.”

Random studied the instructor’s face for a moment and was convinced the man was being serious. “Why do you urge me to be cautious sir?”

“The Reverend has eyes and ears throughout the AUN. He can make your life difficult,” the instructor answered with a look of disgust.

Random nodded, “Thank you for the warning sir. I’ll keep it in mind.”

The instructor smiled, “You’re welcome soldier. I’m sure you will.”

There turned out not to be a quiz on the DBX Corporation the next morning. Instead, the instructor stepped to the podium, shuffled his papers and began the lecture, “Early in 2031, the Ministry created a new entity to carry out its mandate. The United Nations was given the power to raise and maintain its own military forces. The new Army of the United Nations was allowed to recruit, train, and deploy its own units.

In the summer of 2031, the new AUN was divided into two branches. The first branch was named the UN Special Security Force. The Special Security Force was supposed to provide intelligence and covert capabilities to the UN so that it could address issues threatening the security of the off-world community.”

Random shook his head and whispered,[_ “Off world people compare the SSF to Hitler’s SS_].”

The faintest hint of smile crossed the instructor’s face before he continued the lecture, “The second branch is named the Army of the United Nations or simply the AUN. The backbone of the AUN was to be the Air Cavalry Corps. It would be the Air Cav who would be responsible for police, regulation, and exploration duties. To carry out this mission, the UN organized, assembled, and deployed an Air Cavalry Corp on each Main Line world, plus an additional Corps, Thirteenth Corps, was created to serve as a recruiting and training unit.

The UN originally assigned the Thirteenth Air Cavalry Corp to Earth and gave it the responsibility of recruiting and training for all Fourteen Corps. First Corp, based on Echo World along with Ninth Corp, operated and maintained communications and transportation on all main line worlds. First Corp took over training and recruiting duties when the UN transferred Thirteenth Corp to Nova Lagos to deal with an uncontrollable insurrection.

The Corps assigned to Main Line worlds were responsible for exploration, patrol, and regulation of the Main Line world. In addition, they were responsible for exploration, patrol, and regulation of the Step Two, Step Three, and Step Four worlds that accessed that Main Line world. As a consequence, most of a Corp’s troops are deployed on non-Main Line worlds.

The survey of a world is a big operation. A full Air Cav battalion and a flight of transports represents a normal commitment. The battalion is expected to establish a functioning community on the new world. Think of taking a city of five thousand people, loading the people and nearly everything they own onto heliplanes, and moving the whole mess across the country. _ _

Monitoring a world, on the other hand, is normally assigned to a platoon. Remotely Piloted Vehicles, known as rpv’s, do the actual surveillance. They fly from a centrally located base. Heliplanes are only used to arrest a lawbreaker, rescue and relief operations, and providing taxi service to visiting VIP’s. Monitoring duty is always quiet, if reinforcements have to be called in, two things are certain. First, there is trouble, and second, the reinforcements will be seeing action. Neither prospect is pleasant to think about.”

The instructor picked up his papers and stepped out from behind the podium and asked, “Are there any questions?” When no one answered, he continued, “I take it that you’re all ready for your finals then.” Random felt ready for the final, but he wasn’t about to say anything. When the room remained silent, the instructor said, “All right then. Finals will be on Monday. I’ll see you then.”

“Monday’s almost a week away,” Caitlyn said happily.

“Don’t get too excited. We’ve got that exercise this weekend,” Eldon said firmly.

“Spoilsport,” Random chided.

[*Chapter Four: New Beijing *]

*Monday November 13th, 2045 *

*Albuquerque Station, Echo World *

 

The history final proved to be easy enough. Eldon, Caitlyn, and Random each passed with over ninety percent. The practical field exercise was more of a challenge, and caused Random to spend some real time studying the tactical advantages and weaknesses of each weapon system. His side had won the exercise, but he had been unsatisfied with the tactical options his commander had allowed him to employ.

None of that really mattered. After the exercise, Random found out he was to be assigned to the Ninth Corps’ Seventh Division, based on Echo World. Caitlyn and Eldon were assigned to Second Corps’ Fourth Division, based on Delhi II. In a few days their little group would be breaking up and moving on to their new assignments.

The graduation ceremony came and went. A full scale blow out followed the ceremony. The officer’s club rocked with a hired band. Rentable talent, male and female, circulated among the young officers.

Instead of enjoying himself, Random was restless. To him the talent looked cheap and tawdry. He felt something was missing. Caitlyn and Eldon shared Random’s misgivings. They were also not satisfied with the available talent. The three of them decided to take the monorail into Albuquerque Station’s business district. Random, at least, was on a quest to find whatever it was that was missing.

The business district looked like downtown Las Vegas, casinos, bright lights, girls, and more casinos, and all of it for sale. Random and his companions wandered from one casino to the next, searching. Eventually, first Eldon, and then Caitlyn wandered away from the search, each having found something to hold their attention.

At 04:30, Random sat at the roulette wheel of Le` Grande Casino, exceptionally drunk, still searching. His friends long since departed. Nothing felt right. His reveries were interrupted by a soft female voice that asked, “Are you all right soldier?”

Random replied, “I’m fine,” without even a glance in her direction.

The woman sidled up next to him, “You should turn in. You’re going to be shipping out in the morning.”

Random glanced over at the woman. He noticed that she was a very buxom brunette. “You’re right. I should pack it in for tonight.”

The woman glanced down coyly, “It’s a lonely world out there. I would enjoy some company this morning.”

Random awoke at 09:00, to a ringing phone and an aching head. In a room he didn’t recognize, next to a girl he couldn’t remember. He rolled over and fumbled for the phone.

“Hello,” he said.

A voice boomed over the phone, saying, “Good morning Lieutenant Hause, this is Major Anton Tupelov, your new Battalion Commander. Your posting just came in off the wire. You ship out at 12:00. I’ll meet you on the tarmac of the HQ airfield at 11:30. Don’t worry about going back to the base. Your stuff has been packed and sent to be loaded onto the plane already. Is that clear?”

Random stared at the phone, in a daze, still drunk from the night before, something still seemed to be missing. “Yes sir. How did you know where to find me?” he asked.

“You used your ID to sign in. Say good-bye to the hooker, you haven’t much time.” Tupelov answered cheerfully.

“Yes sir,” Random replied. “[_I’d kill for an aspirin and a cup of black coffee,” _]he thought.

Random hung up the phone and staggered into the bathroom. A shower and a shave later, feeling marginally better, he stumbled back into the bedroom. The lady watched. “Leaving so soon?” she asked.

“My commanding officer called. I’m shipping out at noon.” Random replied as he tried to get dressed.

“That’s too bad, I had a nice night. Sure you can’t stay for a while?” sounding very sultry.

Random nodded as he struggled into his uniform. “I’m sure. Could you help me with this?”

She sauntered over to him. “Men don’t usually ask me to help them get dressed,” in the same saucy voice. Random laughed, and then held his head as the room started to spin. She rubbed his chest and whispered into his ear. “It’s too bad you have to leave. I meant what I said about having a nice night.”

Random groaned as the caress awakened pleasant sensations. “I wish I didn’t have to put it on, but I really have to go.”

“Soldiers never have time. Where are you going?” she asked, sounding hurt.

“Why? Want to come with?” Random responded.

“Perhaps.”

He smiled, “No idea. When I find out, I’ll tell you, if I can.”

“Ok, sit still a second.” She picked up her purse from the floor and took out a pen and paper. She wrote something on the paper quickly. “This is my address. Don’t lose it.”

Random looked at the address and pocketed it. “Till next time, then?” “[Why in the hell is she giving me her address?” _]he wondered.[ _]

She kissed him on the cheek. “Till next time love.” then turned and went into the bathroom. Random checked his uniform in the mirror and left. He felt confused; he wasn’t used to girls paying obvious attention to him. He’d normally had to work to get their attention and was more often than not ignored.

A few momnets later, he stood in the hotel lobby thinking, This is impressive. I’ll have to check this place out the next time I’m in town. He walked slowly to the doors leading outside, taking in the grandeur and then, once outside, down the street to the monorail station.

The ride to HQ seemed slow. As he rode, he stared out the window at the passing scenery, and then drifted off to sleep. He jolted awake as the train lurched to a stop at the HQ station, Random decided to duck into the officer’s mess and grab breakfast before going to the airfield. He hurried off the platform and caught a shuttle to the officer’s mess.

When he’d finished breakfast, Random hurried outside and caught another shuttle to the airfield. As promised, Tupelov stood on the tarmac when Random arrived. He took one look at Random. “Son, you are a mess, must have been one hell of a night. How was breakfast?” he asked.

Random, still in a fog, stiffened to attention. “Yes sir. Sorry sir.” He did a slow double take. “How did you know I stopped for breakfast?” he responded.

“Too late to worry about that now, your bags are on the aircraft, here’s your shipping orders. Now, get on that plane and get some sleep. That’s an order.”

“Yes sir.” Random took the shipping orders and started towards the plane.

Tupelov smiled and shook his head and said, “Hold on a second Lieutenant, you’ll need these transport papers. Hand them to the pilot when you board the plane, and wipe the egg off your tie.” The major laughed softly.

Random walked back to the Major and took the transport papers and tucked them into his uniform. “Sorry sir,” he answered as he saluted and stumbled across the tarmac, trying to wipe breakfast from his tie. Once on the plane, as ordered, he found a comfortable corner and passed out.

Sometime later, the plane sat on the ground. The windows were fogged over so Random couldn’t see much outside. He opened his posting orders. His new assignment was CO-97A1CA. In English, Commanding Officer of: Ninth Air Cavalry Corp, Seventh Division, Alpha Regiment, First Battalion, Charley Company, Alpha Platoon.

He picked up his briefing and began reading through it. According to the briefing, Alpha Platoon transferred to New Beijing a week ago. Upon arrival, the former commanding officer had retired suddenly, after twenty years of service.

It seemed like an incredible stroke of luck for Random to be given this command. He looked at his duty roster. They were hard hats; nine out of ten were lifers. Most of them had seen action on Nova Lagos. The Platoon also had more than its fair share of hard cases. [_This is going to be a rough crew to work with. At least I know where I’m going. Now all I need to know is where I am, _]he thought as he peered fruitlessly out the window.

Random staggered towards the cockpit thinking, My hangover should be gone by now. Why can’t I walk?

A tiny, blond officer turned from her terminal and looked up at him. If Random had been paying attention, he would have noticed, from her stripes, that she was a Second Lieutenant. He would also have noticed that her last name was Turner, from the name embroidered on her pocket. “Can I help you soldier?” she asked, smiling sweetly.

Random tried to return the smile. “Are you the navigator?” he asked.

“Yes sir, soldier,” she kept smiling.

Random liked the smile but he started to wonder if he’d missed something. “Good, you’re just the fly girl I want to see. Could you tell me where I am?”

“No problem, this is the lower landing deck of Akagi,” still smiling sweetly.

Random looked at her for a moment. He thought, The Akagi was a Japanese World War II aircraft carrier. No way. “I’m afraid that doesn’t help much.”

She flashed the same sweet smile. “I didn’t think it would, soldier. Akagi is the Step Two world between New Beijing and Echo World.”

[_Oh! Ok, that makes sense. Why is she smiling at me like that? _]he wondered. “What are we waiting for?”

“The flashover to New Beijing won’t be open for another three hours. Until then, we sit. Anything else you want to know?” still smiling sweetly.

Random couldn’t handle the smile any longer. “What’s so damn funny, fly girl?”

She started laughing. “Easy soldier, you look like you just crawled out from under a rock. Besides, your fly is open.”

Random turned and zipped his fly quickly, nearly losing his balance as he turned back. “I feel like I’ve just crawled out from under a rock. How did you know where I was going?” he asked.

“That part was easy; this plane flies the milk run between Echo World and Akagi. This time out, orders came through that we were flying all the way to New Beijing. When you showed up, we knew why. That and the Captain asked me to get your transport papers out of your jacket pocket last night to verify our destination,” still smiling.

“Oh. How long did I sleep?”

“About fourteen hours. Feeling better?”

“Wow. Not really. I’d kill for an aspirin, black coffee, and a bite to eat.”

The blond officer’s hand disappeared behind her terminal for a moment. Random heard water pouring. A moment later she magically produced a tray. “At your service. Aspirin, black coffee and a couple of jelly rolls. Will this do?” she asked.

He wanted to kiss her. “You’re an angel, fly girl.”

“I do my best. When you’ve finished with this, there is a restroom over there where you can wash up,” still smiling

She handed him the tray. Random downed the aspirin and used the rest of the coffee to wash down the jelly rolls. He felt like he hadn’t eaten in a week. The fly girl looked at him slyly while he ate. “I also found this in your jacket pocket. Is it important?” she asked.

Random looked up. She was holding the hooker’s address. He could feel his cheeks flushing, again. “That all depends on how you look at it,” he replied cautiously.

She smiled. “I’ll bet. Do you remember her name?”

He had a momentary urge to dump his coffee on her. “No.”

“She must not have been that important.”

The fly girl handed him the address. “Pricey address, she must have been expensive,” she added coyly.

“Can we find another subject? What can you tell me about this place, and New Beijing?” Random felt embarrassed and wanted to change the subject.

She smiled, “Sure, no problem, soldier. Akagi is a small planet, half the size of Earth. It has a high proportion of heavy metal so its gravity is two thirds Earth normal. Still takes some time to get used to the difference though.”

“And I thought it was my hangover. No wonder I can’t walk. Um, excuse me a minute. Where did you say the restroom was?”

The blond officer laughed and pointed to the door of a cubby on the far side of the plane, “Be careful, it’s a little cramped.”

Random stumbled off across the plane. After a couple of tries he succeeded in opening the door and disappeared inside. A few moments later he walked much more solidly back to where Second Lieutenant Turner was sitting. “Thanks. That feels much better.”

Second Lieutenant Turner looked sideways at him, laughed quietly and said, “Glad to hear it, I guess. You wanted to know about Akagi. A Sino-Japanese venture began mining Akagi in 2030. The development package included a multi-lane expressway between the Echo World flashover and the New Beijing flashover. They constructed an airfield at each flashover site and labeled Echo World’s flashover’s airfield the Upper Landing Deck. New Beijing’s flashover airfield is called the Lower Landing Deck.”

“Ok. I guess that makes sense.”

“Glad you think so. Here, on Akagi, the weather is pretty predictable. There are two climatic zones. From the equator to forty-five degrees, the climate is tropical. From forty-five degrees to the poles, the climate ranges from subtropical to temperate. The tropical zone is nearly all rain forest. The subtropical and temperate regions are about fifty percent rain forest. In general, the whole planet is damp and unpleasant.”

“Sounds wonderful. Are there any cities?”

“One, Akagi City, it’s a hell hole. The Triads run the place. Nothing but hookers, pimps, drugs, and gambling dens. The miners love it. Too rough for my taste. Miners only seem to be interested in two things there, sex and booze. Not a nice place for a single female.” She sounded disgusted.

“I guess not. Why doesn’t the government step in?”

“Who do you think owns the Triads?”

“Oh.” Random replied gaining a better understanding of the situation.

“This plane normally carries hookers and saki from Echo World and returns carrying platinum and gold. Today we’re hauling explosives, mining equipment, and you. You should feel lucky. The pilot only agreed to carry you because he owed Major Tupelov a favor.”

“The more I hear about Tupeolov, the less I like him. This place sounds like shit. What about New Beijing?”

“Lots of people feel that way about Tupelov. He’s not really a bad guy though. Keeps his word. New Beijing’s an entirely different kettle of fish. It’s a colonization world; quiet as death. The capital city closes up at 16:30. No bars, one or two hotels, and only a half dozen piss poor restaurants. Boring.”

“Sounds like a real thrill.”

“Oh yeah, but it’s not all bad. The scenery is breathtaking. Some incredible mountain ranges. A few of the peaks top fifteen K. I’d love to be able to go horseback riding in those mountains, but the colonists aren’t keen on outsiders. Outside of the capital, the place is pretty much a closed shop,” she said wistfully.

“Maybe I can do something about that. I’m the new commanding officer of Alpha Platoon.”

“You poor bastard. The Governor tried to have the commanding officer of Bravo Platoon boiled in oil. Hope things go better for you. If you do manage to swing a horseback riding trip, I’d be eternally grateful.” She flashed her sweetest smile.

Random looked at her for a moment before asking, “Um, what about the Platoon?”

The smile disappeared. “Don’t know. This lot hasn’t been there long. The Captain said he’s dealt with them before, on Nova Lagos. He doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with this platoon. He says they’re a tough bunch, but they’re good soldiers. Of course he said that about the last bunch, too. He thinks the problem is the maintenance people left over from the last platoon, but then I guess you’ll find out for yourself soon enough,” she answered flatly.

“Great, just great.” Random replied more to himself than to her.

“Listen soldier, we call this the shit run. Nothing but trouble. We never used to fly all the way through to New Beijing, but the last couple of months we’ve been making regular stops at the central airport. We never bring anything in, just load stuff up to take out. Strange. Something bad is going on down there. Good luck.” She sounded like she meant it.

“Thanks for the warning fly girl. My name is Lieutenant Random Arthur Hause. If you give me time to get settled in down there, I’ll see what I can do about that horseback riding trip.” Random offered her his hand.

The smile returned as she shook his hand. “Nice to meet you Lieutenant Hause, I am Second Lieutenant Carol Anne Turner. Next time we’re in New Beijing, I’ll give you a call.”

Random walked back to his corner, wondering, [_What the hell am I walking into? _]_ _

[*Chapter Five: A New Challenge. *]

*November 13th, 2045 *

Central Airport, Chiang River Valley

New Beijing

 

Random decided to spend what remained of the layover checking his telnet. He activated the device and found he couldn’t access anything locally. He abandoned the local connection and called up his messages and found his message queue empty.

What the hell? he wondered. He understood that as a Step Two world, Akagi didn’t have a streaming connection to Echo World, and Earth, but he should still have recorded content. It was the equivalent of people leaving messages on an answering machine.

He walked carefully back to the front of the aircraft and sought out Lieutenant Turner. He found her intently studying something on a reader. He cleared his throat to let her know he was there, and then asked quietly, “I’m sorry to disturb you Lieutenant Turner, but can I ask you a few questions?”

Lieutenant Turner looked up from the reader, smiled very warmly, and replied, “Certainly. How can I help you Lieutenant Hause?”

Random found a clear surface to sit on and then began, “I was trying to use my telnet and I ran into some difficulties.”

Turner laughed softly, “I’ll bet you did. Akagi doesn’t use UN Standard telnet equipment. They’ve got some sort of understanding with the folks on Echo World. It’s kind of a live-and-let-live arrangement. To be honest, you can tune your AUN device to monitor their communications, but I wouldn’t recommend it.”

Random studied her for a moment and then replied, “They’d at least want to know what I was doing and why I was doing it.”

“Exactly.”

Random frowned for a moment and then asked, “Isn’t the AUN required to monitor the communications for security purposes?”

Lieutenant Turner shrugged. “I’m sure that someone is monitoring those communications, somewhere.”

“What about the AUN channels?” Random asked.

“Only the AUN platoon stationed here uses UN Standard equipment.”

“Does anyone interfere with the AUN signals?”

“Oh, hell no. The Triads know that the surest way to trigger a full SSF clampdown would be to tamper with AUN communications.”

“I think somebody is interfering with my messages,” Random said quietly.

Lieutenant Turner’s face suddenly became quite serious. “Be very careful soldier. If someone is messing with your messages, it would be the AUN, most likely, on Echo World.”

Random nodded and replied, “Thank you Lieutenant Turner. You’ve been very helpful.” When he had finished, he walked quietly back to the back of the plane, lost in thought. He decided that he was going to have to rely on written e-mail to maintain communications.

Hours later, the transport taxied to a stop, outside of a small, unfamiliar terminal. A pair of impressively uniformed men waited for the passenger to disembark. “What does your briefing say about the new man?” the Director of Security said.

“He’s a new recruit, fresh out of training. This will be his first command,” the Governor responded.

“We lose face coming to greet such a duckling.” The Director of Security sounded disgusted.

“True, we lose face, but I need this duckling to succeed. We are in desperate need of a miracle.”

“What did Eicherman say about him?” the Director of Security asked.

“Eicherman said he’s a good man and he’ll do the right thing.”

“The right thing. What the hell kind of answer is that. It doesn’t tell us anything,” the Director of Security said angrily.

“On the contrary, it tells us a great deal. It means that he has character and the backbone to stand up for his convictions. Our difficulty is going to be convincing him that satisfying our needs is the just, equitable, and fair solution to the problem.”

The Director of Security cleared his throat and spat. “Some savior. You expect an awful lot from this fledgling. How can you be sure that he isn’t as big a thief as the last vulture they sent us?”

“We can start by teaching this fledgling to fly before the other vultures tear him apart.”

Moments later, Random walked down the ramp towards the two officers. Second Lieutenant Turner walked along with him. She spoke quietly and quickly to Random as they walked. “The taller Eurasian is Governor Li Zhaoyang. He is showing you great honor by meeting your plane in person. The Asian is Director of Security, Wu Feng. Honestly, I didn’t expect either of them to be here.”

“What does it mean?” Random asked.

“Hard to say, but I’d guess that things are very bad if they’re both here to greet you,” Carol Turner said pessimistically.

“Thanks love. Anything else encouraging?”

“I expected to see your Platoon’s Section Leaders here, but they’re not. I can’t begin to tell you why.” She furtively looked around.

“Alright. Looks like I’ll have to wing it, for now. Anything else?”

“I would guess the Governor needs a huge favor. You may be able to turn that to your advantage.”

Random nodded, “I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Good luck soldier,” Carol Turner said as she headed back towards the transport.

Second Lieutenant Turner returned to the airplane, leaving Random alone on the tarmac. He stepped up and introduced himself to the two uniformed men by saying, “Good day gentlemen, I am Lieutenant Random Arthur Hause, the new Commanding Officer of Alpha Platoon.”

“Good day Lieutenant Hause. I am Governor Li. I have requested a private audience with you.” Li responded.

“That would, presumably, explain why my section leaders are not here.”

Governor Li nodded and answered, “That is correct Lieutenant Hause.”

Random studied the governor for a moment and then said, “I see. How may I help you, Governor?” His voice showed concern.

“Your predecessor has left my colony in desperate shape. I hope to be able to work with you to repair the damage.”

“That sounds quite serious. I’m going to need some time to review the records and to evaluate the situation before I can commit to a course of action.”

“Understood. To help that process along, I have taken the liberty of preparing a balance sheet for you. I encourage you to compare my numbers with your records. I have also planned a tour of the colony. It is my wish, that you would accompany me on the tour.”

[Pushy bastard. _]Random thought, then answered,[ _]“I would very much like to tour the colony with you, Governor, but first, I would like some time to review my men.”

“I anticipated as much. I will have a heliplane waiting for you at the Command Center in the morning. That should give you ample time to review your men and to review the records. Is that agreeable to you?”

[_If Carol’s right, I’m going to need this guy’s help. No time like the present, _]he thought. “That sounds fine to me. I’ll be waiting.”

Governor Li smiled then handed Random a sealed disk and said, “Excellent, this is a copy of the balance sheet that I have prepared. I am sure you will find it quite illuminating.”

Random bowed politely to Governor Li and replied, “Good day, Governor, I must review my men.”

“Good day, Lieutenant.” The governor replied as he bowed slightly.

Meanwhile, an older man sat at a table overlooking the Echo World version of the Missouri River. The UN Off-world tower loomed behind him. He had an optical sitting on the table in front of him. The man said quietly, “Plekhanov’s in for quite a shock. I was able to capture all of his records and restore them to the computer.”

On the other end of the connection, Almond Chinavare laughed softly and said. “Good work Ike. Random is going to need all of the help we can give him to skate through this one. What about the Han girl?”

“The Governor picked up her contract, just like you said he would.” Ike signaled the waiter and ordered a drink, then asked, “What about my other little project?”

There was silence on the line for a moment, and then Chinavare continued, “You have about eighteen months to get that card ready for prime time. All indications are that she will make the perfect yin for our young officer’s yang.”

Eicherman listened, and then said, “You really think she can help us?”

“Yes, damn it. I wouldn’t have told you to collect her if I didn’t,” Chinavare cursed loudly.

Ike winced, then answered, “Ok, Al, ok, she’ll be ready.”

Chinavare chuckled. “Good. Have you seen either of our SSF friends?”

“They were both at the airfield when Random shipped out. Goldman followed me back here to Omaha Station. Schoenfeldt stayed down there. Hopefully our men can get some idea of what he’s up to before they lose him.” As he disconnected, he muttered, “I hope that crazy bastard knows what he’s doing. At least, I get to go back to Inverness, for a while.”

Back on New Beijing, after the governor and his security director had left, Random stopped and looked around. Lieutenant Turner had been right about one thing. The scenery was breathtaking. There were mountains to the north and south. Thick, dark green forests appeared to climb halfway up the mountain slopes. Above the forests, there was a narrow, lighter band of green that Random took to be alpine meadow. The upper slopes were bare rock, or snow covered. The air was warm and heavy. Feels like late summer, Random thought.

To the east, Random’s view was blocked by the control tower and hangers. He could tell that the valley continued eastward, until it blended into the mountains. A vast lake lay to the west of the airfield. Turning to the south, Random guessed that the lake continued along the southern edge of the main runway. Amazing, Random thought as he took in the panorama.

After enjoying the scenery, Random walked over to the central airport’s control tower. Inside, he found the platoon’s section leaders waiting for him. Three men saluted as Random entered. The most senior of the three officers then stepped forward and said, “Under Lieutenants Jones, Hawkins, and Weaver reporting for duty, sir.”

Random returned their salute and looked over the three men before saying, “Good day gentlemen. I am Lieutenant Random Arthur Hause. I am the new CO of Alpha Platoon. I have to say that I was disappointed when I didn’t see you out on the tarmac when I arrived. Shall we begin?”

The senior officer responded, “Good day, sir. I am Senior Second Lieutenant Weaver. I apologize for not being on the tarmac sir. We’re not the most popular people on New Beijing right now and I was hoping to avoid antagonizing Governor Li any further. Where would you like to begin?”

Random listened to Weaver’s explanation. “Bravo Platoon’s records will do for now. After that, I want to review the maintenance records.”

“Yes, sir, we can access whatever records are available on this terminal. If you’ll step this way?” Weaver sounded stressed, as he led Random towards a terminal.

Random sensed the tension in Second Lieutenant Weaver’s voice. “Is there a problem Second Lieutenant Weaver?”

Weaver looked at his shoes. “Well yes sir. Bravo Platoon didn’t leave us much in the way of records.”

Random sat down at the terminal and began reviewing the records. Alpha Platoon had replaced Second Battalion’s, Bravo Platoon a little over a week ago. A quick scan showed that Bravo Platoon’s records were a mess. Strangely enough, at first glance, it appeared that more loaded transports left New Beijing, than arrived.

By comparison, Alpha Platoon’s records were pristine. Although, judging by the annotations in the margins, someone was having a difficult time trying to complete a thorough inventory of all supplies and materials on New Beijing. Alarm bells went off in Random’s head. It should have been possible to use Bravo Platoon’s records, such as they were, to prepare an accurate inventory.

Random decided to hold his questions. He loaded Governor Li’s balance sheet into the terminal and compared it with Alpha Platoon’s inventory. What he found shocked him. The amount of missing supplies and materials was staggering.

Random began underlining the items that the Governor claimed were missing. After cross referencing the items against Alpha Platoon’s inventory, Random then tried to cross reference them against Bravo Platoon’s records. A handful of the missing items showed up on the inventory, most did not.

Holy shit, are we in trouble, he thought and then said over his shoulder, “Under Lieutenant Weaver, I am placing you in charge of tracking down these missing items. Is that clear?”

Weaver, upon hearing his name, walked over to the terminal. He stared at the screen, in shock. Finally saying, “Where did those records come from sir?”

Random looked back at the screen, puzzled. “The Governor gave me this balance sheet.”

Weaver stammered, “No, no, not the New Beijing records. The Bravo Platoon records, sir. They, they weren’t there this morning.”

Random looked at Weaver, then at the screen, then back at Weaver. “What do you mean, weren’t there?”

Weaver answered nervously, “That’s just it sir. Those records . . . . they weren’t on the system this morning. I swear this is the first time I’ve ever seen them.”

“Where were they then, Second Lieutenant?”

“I don’t know sir. We did a thorough scan of the system when we got here. Someone had completely wiped all of Bravo Platoon’s records. I filed a complaint with the field office on Echo World and was politely told to piss off.” Weaver sounded angry.

Random looked at Weaver, then at the screen again. “Well shit. They’re here now.”

Weaver looked at the screen and whistled quietly. “Yes sir. I can see that. My god, no wonder the Governor wanted a private meeting.”

“Needless to say, the Governor is really pissed. We’re going to be in a world of hurt if we can’t sort this out.”

“Yes, sir. Can’t say that I blame the governor. If we can’t track these supplies down, there’ll be trouble.”

“I am aware of that, Weaver. I want you to do an in depth review of these records. I am giving you full authority to access any files and question any people you deem necessary to resolve this.”

“Thank you, sir. I may need your approval in writing to pry loose some of this information.” Weaver began notating missing supplies.

Random turned back to the terminal and prepared a command form giving Second Lieutenant Weaver the powers he had outlined. He printed the form off, signed it, and handed it to Weaver. When he had finished, he turned to Second Lieutenant Jones and said, “Second Lieutenant Jones, I am authorizing you to make a full on-site inspection of all facilities on New Beijing. I want complete information on every facility and site in the colony. Use as many men as you need. I’d like this information as of yesterday, is that clear?”

“Yes, sir.” Jones responded as he came to attention and saluted.

As Jones turned to leave, Random turned to Hawkins and said, “Second Lieutenant Hawkins, you will be responsible for day-to-day operations until these tasks are completed.”

“Yes, sir.” Hawkins said as he saluted and pulled out his notebook to begin managing the Platoon’s duty roster.

“Good, the sooner we can clear up this mess, the sooner we can begin normal operations.”

Random moved to another terminal and began reviewing Bravo Platoon’s records more closely. It didn’t take long for him to be convinced that Carol Turner had been right. Something was going down on New Beijing. If the records he was looking at were correct, not only had Bravo Platoon badly botched its job, but someone within the unit had been running a black market on materials desperately needed by the colonists. Random mused, This is going to get ugly. New Beijing will become a political embarrassment, if this information ever sees the light of day.

Random decided that CYA should be Alpha Platoon’s, and his, first priority. He made three disk copies of the records. He included a side by side, cross referenced comparison with the records given to him by Governor Li, highlighting the missing items on each of the disk copies. I’m going to need help on this if I hope to avoid becoming the sacrificial lamb. The problem is; Who can I trust? he thought as he dropped the copies into his pocket.

Random next opened the maintenance records. They appeared to be equally disgraceful. Based on the records, New Beijing’s transport capacity teetered on the verge of collapse. Six of twenty C-130K transports remained operational. Eight of forty MH-47G transport heliplanes were operational. The remainder of the aircraft needed repairs. All of the aircraft were long overdue for a complete refitting. There didn’t appear to be any record of a parts inventory.

The first thing I have to do is overhaul this maintenance system. The colony can’t function without air transport, he thought. The personnel records from the maintenance staff were also missing. [Not good, _]he muttered.[ _]

Random spent the rest of the day reviewing personnel records and preparing for his tour with Governor Li. He knew that his most pressing problem would be to bring the maintenance staff into line. Without an effective maintenance staff the colony was doomed.

Random had a sinking feeling that overhauling the maintenance staff would be problematic, at best. They were civilian employees. He wouldn’t be able to court martial civilians. [_I can fire them, _]he thought.

The next morning, Random found Governor Li waiting for him out on the tarmac. After exchanging pleasantries, they boarded the heliplane and set out on their tour of the colony. The first stop was to be an hour’s flight to the southwest, following the river.

The heliplane lifted off and flew westward, over the lake, along the Chiang River Valley. Moments later, the heliplane flew over the dam, out of the mountains, and out over the foothills. The aircraft continued, mostly westward, as the heavily forested foothills gave way to a lightly forested, grass covered plain.

A little over an hour later, some four-hundred-and-fifty kilometers south and west of the central airport, the heliplane hovered over a construction site, near the delta of the Chiang River. Random could see what looked to be easily one-hundred workers struggling through, hip deep, mud. “We have a thousand new immigrants a month. We have to build ten villages every month, just to house them,” Governor Li said flatly as Random watched.

Random turned around and asked, “Bravo Platoon’s records showed delivery of construction equipment. What happened to it?”

“I don’t know Lieutenant. The equipment never reached my people. All construction has to be done by hand with whatever tools we can salvage from Akagi’s scrap. In the meantime the number of people waiting to be settled grows rapidly,” Governor Li responded in the same flat, emotionless tone.

Random just nodded. He needed to say something but he was sure that the governor had been lied to by the AUN enough already. Finally, he said, “I won’t lie to you. I can’t promise that I’ll be able to fix this problem.”

“Can you help me to find a way to cope with this problem?”

“I can promise that we will offer you whatever help we can.”

“Excellent,” then he turned towards the front of the heliplane and instructed the pilot to move on to their second stop.

The second stop was the relatively mineral rich, Liao River Valley, a three-hour flight north and east of the Chiang River Delta. Random watched out the window as the heliplane flew northward, over the plains. During the flight, Random and Governor Li discussed settlement patterns on New Beijing.

“Most of New Beijing’s colonists have settled along the Chiang River Valley and along the southwestern coast of this continent,” Governor Li explained.

“Why is that Governor?” Random asked.

“As I’m sure you’re aware, Earth based clocks and calendars aren’t very useful here on New Beijing. It takes thirty-six hours for New Beijing to complete one rotation around its axis and eight years to complete an orbit of its sun.”

“So your seasons actually last for two Earth years?’

“That’s right. Currently we are in the second half of the summer season.”

It was quiet for a time as Random watched the plains pass by below. Eventually, he asked, “Can I ask you a question, Governor Li?”

Governor Li looked up from where ever his thoughts had taken him and replied, “Certainly, Lieutenant Hause, how can I help you?”

“How long did it take you to get used to the thirty-six hour days?”

Governor Li chuckled. “It seemed like months, at the time.”

“Do you have any advice to make it easier?”

Governor smiled wistfully. “Not really, no. I survived for months on midnight workouts and short naps during the day. I still work out very early in the morning and take a nap around dinner time. Everyone has to find their own way of coping. I know that some people have never gotten used to it, even to the point of returning back to Earth.”

“Thank you for answering my question, Governor.”

Random went back to watching the terrain pass by below. About an hour-and-a-half into the flight, they approached another major river system. “This isn’t the Chiang?” Random asked.

Governor Li glanced out of the window and said, “No, this is the Huong River. Your monitoring station is upstream from here, in the mountains.”

“The forests are thick here.”

“Yes, very thick, for a hundred kilometers on either side of the river. North of that, the forest thins into a treeless steppe country, and then tundra. Our destination, the Liang River Valley forms the boundary between the steppe and the tundra.”

“It must get pretty rough up there in the winter time.”

“Late fall and early spring, too.”

“That seems like it would make it difficult to maintain settlements there.”

Governor Li nodded and said, “Indeed. Settlements would have to be able to survive four Earth years without a harvest. It’s been challenging enough building settlements that can survive two Earth years without a harvest along the Huong River Valley.”

“The Chiang River Valley isn’t affected by the long winter?” Random asked.

“Not exactly. We’re able to harvest each season, but different crops have to be grown in different parts of the cycle. In the summer season, the first half of fall season, and the second half of spring season, we grow rice. In the remaining portion of the fall and spring seasons, we grow corn, oats, or sorghum. In the winter, we grow wheat.”

Random nodded and returned, once again, to watching the terrain pass by underneath. He noticed the change from the dense forests along the Huang River, to the open steppe. The steppe looked empty and desolate. The only trees he could see grew along the many small streams that made their way down from the mountains.

An hour later, the heliplane hovered above a wide mountain valley that was covered by a boreal forest. A large, powerful river raged wildly down the center of the valley. “An industrial project was planned for this valley, but the machinery needed to complete construction vanished. Need forced us to shift the workers to village construction. To the left there, you can see the foundations of the unfinished buildings,” Governor Li said.

Random looked down into the valley. The gaping foundations stared back, looking like open sores. “What were you intending to produce here?” he asked, trying to get a grip on his anger with whomever was responsible for this waste.

Governor Li glanced out the window and then responded, “Consumer goods mostly, the types of things that we now struggle to import.”

“Tools and small appliances. That kind of thing.”

Governor Li nodded. “Exactly. If we can bring down our import costs, it will be easier for us to balance our trade.”

The Governor’s reply was a logical and well thought out response to, what seemed to be an impossible situation. Sounds like he understands the basic economics of colonial survival, Random thought and then said, “That sounds like a reasonable plan. We may be able to work together to help get this colony up and running.”

The heliplane then followed the Liao River, for an hour-and-a-half, down to the sea. Random watched the terrain pass by below. He could see a nearly mature boreal forest growing along both sides of the river. Beyond the forest, he saw desolate, windswept, treeless plains.

As the coast crept into view, the Governor said, “We seeded the oceans with fish in 2030. This northern ocean teems with fish. Our colony could make an impressive profit exporting processed fish to a hungry Earth, if we had a fishing fleet, processing facilities, and transport.”

Random nodded and replied, “What about your ambassador on Echo World? Surely, he has reported these conditions to the UN.” There’s nothing wrong with old boy’s logic, he thought.

“We have reported them. The UN Off-world has chosen to dismiss our reports as fabrications.” Governor Li responded in a flat, emotionless tone.

Random shook his head and muttered under his breath, “Bastards.”

Governor Li looked up. “Did you say something?”

Random shook his head. “It was nothing, Governor just talking to myself.”

After a quick sweep out over the ocean, the heliplane headed back inland and landed near the mouth of the Liao River. The Governor’s staff quickly set about preparing a meal. Random hadn’t eaten since breakfast, and the smell of cooking food started his stomach rumbling.

By the time the meal had been prepared, a tarp had been set up over a long, low table. Cushions were set up around the table so that the governor and his guests could sit comfortably around the table. “Come, let’s eat. We can talk more about the future of the colony after we’ve eaten,” Governor Li said, quietly urging Random take a seat.

Random glanced around quickly and thought, I’m not family, but I am an honored guest. He moved to the side of the table on the Governor’s left hand, sitting on a cushion near the head of the table.

Governor Li smiled warmly when Random had taken his seat and asked, “Are you familiar with our culture?”

“Not really, Governor. I’ve read that guests should be seated to the host’s left, while family should be seated to the host’s right,” Random answered sheepishly.

Governor Li nodded. “A Mongol custom, but one that will serve here as well.”

A stunningly beautiful Eurasian girl placed small soup bowls in front of each of the people seated around the table. A young, Asian boy followed behind her, placing a soup spoon next to each bowl. Governor Li noticed that Random was watching the girl and said, “She’s beautiful, isn’t she?”

Random looked up with a guilty expression and answered, “Yes, she is.”

Before Random could say anything else, an older man and woman appeared, the man carrying a large soup tureen, and the woman a ladle with a long handle. The couple worked seamlessly around the table, serving soup to each of the guests and then the governor.

When the governor had finished his soup, the bowls and spoons were picked up. Steaming plates of rice, and steaming plates of a meat and vegetable mixture were placed on the table. At the same time, a small plate, a fork, and chop sticks were placed in front of each person seated at the table.

The room went silent and Random waited a moment. He was uncertain about what should happen next. The people seated around him didn’t wait; they plowed right in, scooping rice, meat, and vegetables onto their small plates, and then eating with gusto.

Random scooped a small portion for himself. He chose to use the fork, rather than the chop sticks to eat with. He took a bite. The food tasted wonderful and he suddenly remembered how hungry he actually was.

When the governor had finished eating, and the table had been cleared, people began talking again. Governor Li asked, “Did you enjoy your meal, Lieutenant Hause?”

“It was wonderful. I didn’t realize how hungry I was,” Random responded.

“Excellent. I’d like to take some time to discuss the future of the colony, if that is acceptable to you?”

“What did you have in mind?”

“I have a Sit screen on board the heliplane. I’d like to use that to display what developments have been completed, and what developments we can complete with the current conditions.”

Random nodded and said, “That sounds reasonable.”

Random and Governor Li got up from the table and walked back to the heliplane. The two men walked up the loading ramp and made their way to the forward bulkhead. The Sit screen, which was mounted on the bulkhead, activated as Random and Governor Li approached.

“Take a seat, Lieutenant,” Governor Li said as he indicated a row of seats directly in front of the screen.

“Thank you, Governor,” Random responded as he moved to one of the seats and sat down.

Governor Li introduced the first series of photographs by saying, “We’ve done fairly well with the limited resources that were available.” An aerial reconnaissance photograph appeared on the sit screen. After a moment, the image expanded to fill the screen. “We tried to follow the same construction pattern for each village, adapting to local terrain, when necessary. Each village contains a small commercial district.” A red dot appeared on the screen, pointing out a collection of buildings at the center of the village. “Mostly craftsmen like blacksmiths, woodworkers, and market stalls.”

“The roads in town appear to be paved,” Random observed.

“The process for making paving stones is fairly simple and the raw materials are readily available. The roads linking the villages to the rail stations are mostly improved gravel.”

“Why?”

“The paving stones can’t stand up to the truck traffic.”

Random studied the village carefully. He could see no obvious indications of wealth, but neither could he see any obvious indications of poverty. “This village seems to be reasonably prosperous,” he commented.

Governor Li nodded and said, “It is, reasonably prosperous. The villagers work hard and are rewarded for their efforts.”

“How many other villages are there?” Random prodded.

“There are thirty villages, along the south coast, like this one,” Governor Li responded.

“Are they all this successful?”

“Yes. Let me bring up the images. I know that you can’t learn much from these images, but you should be able to tell that these villages are doing reasonably well.”

The image of the first village faded, and was replaced by the photo of a second village. The photo quickly expanded to cover the entire screen. This second village appeared to be laid out on the same plan as the first. Random could see enough differences in the pattern of housing, and street layout to know that this wasn’t simply a different view of the first village.

The image of the second village faded and was replaced by the image of third and then a fourth village. All of which were laid out following the same plan. After the fourth village, Random said, “These villages are all laid out the same.”

“Yes, we followed the same pattern, as much as possible. It was a way to get the most out of inexperienced construction crews and limited resources,” Governor Li agreed.

“I noticed that most of these villages have access to the sea.”

“Yes, they do. What I wouldn’t give to have the craftsmen and the resources to begin making fishing boats.” Governor Li sounded wistful.

“If that industrial site were completed, you could build the tools and hardware . . . .” Random said, thinking aloud.

“Exactly. You see the predicament we have.”

The two men spent the next several hours reviewing the settlements along the south coast, the Chiang River, and along the Huang River, including Xi’an, the colony’s capital city. From everything Random had seen, the villages looked prosperous. The people of New Beijing had done very well under trying circumstances.

When they had finished the review, Governor Li had his staff prepare an evening meal. After the meal, the expedition set up camp for the night. Because of the full, busy day, the night passed quickly.

The next morning, the craft flew south to one of the villages in the Chiang River system. The Governor wanted Random to visit a few villages. During the visit, the villagers impressed Random. They demonstrated how they were able to convert scrap metal and broken machinery, from Akagi, into farming equipment. Food didn’t appear to be a problem and the villagers seemed more than willing to share what they had.

Governor Li confirmed to Random that food wasn’t a problem. New Beijing was self-sufficient in food production. In fact, he said, the colony produced a surplus, but there was no way to bring this surplus to market. This lack of exports is the major problem facing the colony. We need exports to generate the income required to repay our development loan,” Governor Li said with a hint of anger.

“I bet those poor devils on Akagi would pay nicely for your surplus crops,” Random replied, more voicing his own thoughts than answering Governor Li.

“They would. They’d pay even better for whiskey and wine, which we could produce in abundance, if we had a market,” Governor Li agreed. He was quiet for a moment, and then continued, “Our creditors hound us to repay the development loan. Even now the leeches are filing law suits demanding the UN remove New Beijing’s charter. The UN’s Security Council listened to our claims that the development contract had been violated, and they rejected it. Instead, their financial office threatens us with punitive action.”

“Did they send anyone out to investigate?” Random asked incredulously.

“Yes, a representative from the loan company. He froze my personal assets.”

“Why?”

“He claimed that I must have stolen the missing materials and sold them for personal profit.”

“Did you?”

The Governor glared at Random for a moment and then said, “No, I did not. My assets amounted to less than ten thousand credits.”

Random shook his head. “Have your assets been released?”

“No.”

“Bastards.”

Random listened carefully to the Governor and the villagers. He sympathized with them, but he told the Governor that all was not well with his own command. He explained his problem with the maintenance staff. The two men struck a deal. Random would help the Governor save the colony, if the Governor would help Random clean up his command.

During the tour, a C-130K transport, loaded with immigrants, crashed in the mountains, killing seventy immigrants, and the flight crew. Second Lieutenant Weaver filled Random in on the details of the incident when he returned from the tour. Weaver said, “She just dropped out of the sky sir. They didn’t stand a chance.”

“Do we have any idea why she crashed?” Random asked.

Weaver grimaced and looked around. “Officially, no sir. Unofficially, those aircraft are in such poor repair, it’s a wonder that any of them can still fly.”

“Is there a problem?”

“Yes sir. That maintenance chief has been around a long time, and he’s got well-connected friends back at Omaha Station.”

Random watched Weaver’s expression for a moment or two before he responded, “You know, by now, that the maintenance crew is involved in criminal activity.”

Weaver looked down at his feet and then replied quietly, “Yes sir. I know.”

“We have to go after them.”

“Yes sir,” Weaver answered, still looking at his feet.

Random watched Weaver for another few seconds before he said, “Then let’s do it. I’m ordering all of the C-130K’s grounded until they can be given complete overhauls. I’m also ordering the maintenance crew to flight test each aircraft and then certify that they’re flight-worthy before the planes can be put back into service.”

Weaver looked at Random, with an expression of grim determination. “Yes sir. We’ll put those orders in action right now.”

Weaver walked to the terminal and contacted the other officers in the command. He issued Random’s orders to each, in turn. By morning, the maintenance crew had refused to comply with the new orders and, instead, staged a general strike. They vowed not to return to work until Random was replaced. They then petitioned the Governor and the UN for Random’s removal.

On Monday November 20th, 2045, a week after Random’s arrival on New Beijing, just two local days after he had officially taken up residence at the AUN Monitoring Station in the Huang River Valley, he was scheduled to meet with the maintenance chief.

Random decided to fly his own AH-6J Command/Escort heliplane to the meeting, which was to be held at the Central Airport’s control tower. Random asked Second Lieutenant Weaver to accompany him as an additional set of eyes and ears.

Weaver agreed, and the two men set out. After a routine flight south from the Monitoring Station, Random gently touched the C/E heliplane down on the tarmac. As Random and Weaver climbed down out of the aircraft, they noticed a group of men dressed in blue dungarees lounged in front of the tower.

The men seemed to be waiting for Random to approach. “Good morning gentlemen. My name is Lieutenant Random Hause and I’m the C.O. of the AUN mission on New Beijing.” Random said as he drew near.

“Random House, is that some kind of joke?” one of the men asked in a smarmy manner.

“Nope, afraid not. Now who’s in charge of your section then?”

“That would be me, cupcake.” a second, particularly surly man responded.

“Do you have a name?”

“I don’t see how that’s going to make any difference. This is how it’s gonna be cupcake. We’re gonna go back to business as usual or else we ain’t working. Ya’ got that?” the surly man snarled.

Random nodded and then responded calmly, “I’ll give you two weeks to get these aircraft repaired, tested, and certified for flight. If that doesn’t happen, you leave me no alternative but to terminate your contracts and to hire a replacement crew.”

“Ooh. Big words coming out of a little blow hard. Listen cupcake, we been at this game a long time. Officers come and go, the maintenance crew never changes. You’ll be gone long before we will, mark my words,” the surly man said, jabbing his finger at Random’s nose. Then he turned to Weaver and added threateningly, “I thought you knew better. You better bring this whelp to his senses.”

Weaver said nothing. Later on the flight back to the Command Center, he said, “May I speak sir?”

“Certainly,” Random responded.

“I know that you’re doing the right thing sir, but you’re treading a dangerous path. I’ve seen too many young officers chewed up and spit out, trying to do the right thing.”

“Do you think I should have backed down?”

“No sir. You had to challenge those insolent bastards, but that doesn’t mean that the UN authorities won’t eat you up anyway. There’s too much money going into too many pockets.”

“Thank you Lieutenant Weaver. Sounds like I shouldn’t get too comfortable.”

Weaver shrugged and replied, “I’m sorry sir. Like I said, I think you’re doing the right thing. I just hope it doesn’t cost you a career.”

Random and Weaver flew the rest of the flight in silence. When they finally returned home, the tension in the Command Center was almost visible. Everyone in Random’s command waited for the shoe to drop.

The first hint that Random’s gambit might work came from Governor Li. Sensing that his colony’s moment had come, Governor Li, sided with Random. He rejected the striker’s demands and declared that the strike violated local laws. The governor also ordered the maintenance crew to return to work.

Once the Governor had made his decision, the conflict shifted to Omaha Station. The UN Off-world Council listened to the maintenance crew’s complaint, and then listened to New Beijing’s response. After hearing and debating the two arguments, the council decided that the strike was an internal problem, to be dealt with on New Beijing, and referred the matter back to Governor Li’s office. With the UN Off-world Council abstaining, the Governor and Random were now free to move against the maintenance crew.

If the members of the maintenance crew were worried about the Governor’s, and the UN Off-world’s response to their petitions, they didn’t show it. The strike continued unabated. For Governor Li and Random, the daily negotiations with the leaders of the maintenance staff, quickly became an exercise in futility.

By the end of the second week, Random was forced to ground the MH-47G transport heliplanes as well. Random ordered his Platoon’s heliplanes into service to take up the slack, but Alpha Platoon’s UH-60N transports proved inadequate to carry the load. They were simply too small. Local transportation on New Beijing slowed to crawl. Round one appeared to be, at best, a draw.

Second Lieutenant Hawkins provided the opening for round two. On Wednesday of the third week of the strike, he requested permission to court martial two of his men. They had been caught allowing unreported, night time flights through New Beijing’s flashover. “Sir, I think if we squeeze really hard, these two will sing,” Hawkins said fiercely.

Random nodded and said, “All right, see what you can make of it. I just wish there was a way to flush all of the rats out of the system.”

That afternoon, Random and Hawkins flew to the flashover to interview the men. Random sat back and watched as Hawkins conducted the interviews. Random could tell that Hawkins knew the two men could care less about being court martialed.

Hawkins may not have been a master interrogator, but he taught Random a valuable lesson. People are much more cooperative, if you can give them or help them protect something they want. Random watched as Hawkins barely mentioned the court martial and instead focused on the one thing the two men did seem to care about; making a life for themselves on New Beijing after the AUN.

The ploy worked, and by the time Hawkins had finished his interviews, Random had a clear view of the size and scope of the smuggling operation on New Beijing, and the role that these two men played in that operation. He charged each man with being a member of an organized criminal activity. He also granted Hawkin’s request to begin court martial proceedings.

Both of the men knew that a conviction for being a participant in an organized criminal activity would mean dishonorable discharge from the AUN and expulsion from New Beijing. In the hope of avoiding expulsion, they both agreed to help set up a sting operation. The two men became informers.

With his new informers, Random was able to set up an elaborate sting. Forty-eight hours later, Random’s troops were, once again, waiting at the flashover to intercept a second pair of transports. The new pair of transports were intercepted, then escorted to the Monitoring Station airfield and searched.

The search answered a lot of questions. Random’s men pulled an impressive stack of equipment and valuables out of each plane. All of it was contraband that was being smuggled out of the colony. Facing certain conviction, the pilots of the transports and the two men who had helped set up the sting, were more than willing to point fingers and name names.

Armed with the stack of smuggled goods, and the testimonies, Random was now in position to move against the rest of the maintenance crew. He wasted no time issuing orders for the arrest of the crew’s leaders and the dismissal of the rest of the maintenance staff. Random then ordered his men to impound all of the transports as evidence.

Governor Li, who seemed surprised and delighted by the decisiveness of Random’s actions, lent a platoon of his security force to escort the dismissed members of the maintenance staff off New Beijing. The leaders of staff were incarcerated and charged with smuggling, treason, and participation in an organized criminal activity.

In what appeared to be an effort to match Random’s swift, decisive action; the leaders of the maintenance crew were put on trial in Xi’an, New Beijing’s capital, forty-eight hours later. The trial took another two days. The prosecution was able to present overwhelming evidence of the crew leaders’ involvement. With such overwhelming evidence, the crew leaders were unable to mount any sort of effective defense. Each of the crew leaders was found guilty and the court handed down long prison terms to each of them.

The leaders appealed their convictions on Echo World, claiming they had not received fair trials. After a thorough review, the Off-world Supreme Tribunal upheld both the convictions and the sentences. The Tribunal also mandated a thorough investigation into conditions on New Beijing.

The next month passed peacefully. Random’s was able to hire an entirely new maintenance crew to replace the old one. Even so, life on the colony didn’t immediately improve. The new crew was still hampered by the lack of spare parts needed to begin making the necessary repairs on the grounded aircraft.

As the days passed, the mandated UN investigation simply never happened. Random realized that while he may have shut down the smuggling operation on New Beijing. The real thieves, those running the operation, had escaped unharmed.

Delegations from other Off-world colonies began arriving on New Beijing. Ostensibly to establish trade ties, but secretly to get pointers on how to deal with smuggling and fraud on their own worlds. Governor Li could have easily taken all the credit for the success on New Beijing; instead he insisted that Random be included in the process.

Governor Li’s inclusion puzzled Random, but he decided to roll with it. By the end of his fourth month on New Beijing, he had become comfortable with the role. While he and the governor were meeting with foreign delegations, it became painfully obvious that the colony continued to struggle. There still had been no mention of the promised Tribunal review.

Random decided that the time had come to arrange a meeting with, Major Anton Tupelov, his battalion commander. He had no intention of grilling Tupelov, he merely wanted to find out the status of the review process. Random told his section leaders that he needed to return to Echo World and that he would be gone at most seventy-two hours.

He found it fairly simple to arrange transport to Akagi’s Lower Landing Deck. He was able to use one of the three newly repaired C-130K’s, that the new aircrew had been able to make airworthy by cannibalizing other aircraft. Those three planes were now running daily cargo flights between Akagi and New Beijing. Random booked passage on one of the cargo flights and also made arrangements, by messenger, to book passage on the regular AUN flight between Akagi and Echo World.

On the AUN flight he hoped that he would have the opportunity to meet Second Lieutenant Turner again. They had been communicating by e-mail and voice message, but Random really wanted to see her again; One, because he enjoyed her company, and two, because he had the feeling that he was going to need an ally.

The flight over to Akagi’s Lower Landing Deck proved to be uneventful. The New Beijing transport left him on the tarmac as it was being taken off to be unloaded and then reloaded. As always, the weather conditions at the Lower Landing Deck were wet and steamy. After about an hour of skipping small stones across the concrete surface of the runway, Random saw the huge AUN transport being towed in his direction.

A few moments later, Random was on board the transport talking to the Captain. “Captain sir, I am Lieutenant Random Hause and hopefully you’re expecting me,” Random said as he stepped up.

The Captain smiled and said, “Yeah, we’ve been expecting you Lieutenant. Stow your bags in that cubby right behind the cockpit over there, the one just in front of the privy. I’ve got to go and do a systems check on this thing before we can reload this crate and head out. I’ll tell Turner you’re here; she’s been waiting to see you.”

Random went to the cubby that the Captain had pointed out. Inside he found stacked bins that apparently were being used as lockers. Random found an empty one and stowed his gear. He was closing the door when he heard someone behind him clearing their throat. “Ahem, Lieutenant Hause, been very busy have we?” Carol Turner asked.

Random turned around to look at her and said defensively, “Well, yes. I’ve written you.”

Second Lieutenant Turner rolled her eyes and tapped her foot. “Three times in three months! What’d they do, have you strapped to a rack?”

Random shrugged, “I’m sorry. I don’t write that much. I’ve only written my mother and Deirdre twice since then.”

“Who’s Deirdre?” Carol Turner asked in an odd voice.

“My . . . little sister,” Random answered with some hesitation.

Second Lieutenant Turner gave Random a huge beaming smile. “Wow, you wrote more often to me than you did to your mother. I feel honored. It’s great to see you again.”

Random smiled as well. “It’s great to see you too. I’ve missed you.”

“I can tell, what with all that writing, and all.” She grinned slyly. They both laughed and went off to find a seat and catch up on events.

Random told Carol Turner about the problems that he had run into on New Beijing. When he got to part about uncovering the smuggling ring, Second Lieutenant Turner interrupted him. “Random, the Captain was in on that smuggling ring. He was flying some of the goods back to Echo World and delivering them to a company called the Hand of God Importers, at Omaha Station. They have a small hanger and warehouse at the Omaha Station airfield.”

“Hand of God, that’s Reverend Abbot’s outfit isn’t it?” he asked, sounding stunned.

“It gets worse. I went and checked out your hooker,” Random glared at her. She winced and continued, “I know. I’m sorry. I should have asked first. Turns out, she’s not a hooker. She’s the office manager for that importing office.” Carol sounded defensive.

Random sat there for a minute, stunned. Not knowing whether to be angry at Second Lieutenant Turner for prying into his personal business, or to be thanking her profusely for her detective work. “I, . . . Ah, . . . Um, thanks Carol. That . . . . helps to explain why she was so interested in seeing me again. Who was it that said there was no such thing as coincidence?” Random replied. After a moment of silence, he continued, “So now that I’ve helped to break up his smuggling ring, does the Captain hate me?”

Carol Turner laughed and answered, “Oh heavens no. That old river rat had a new deal in place before we left Akagi. He’s hauling high value machine tools back to Echo World now, making a greater profit too. He says you’re a good egg.”

The talk turned to other off-world events. Second Lieutenant Turner told him the fighting continued on Nova Lagos. She said there were now two AUN Air Cav Corps committed there, and there were rumors that a new Corp was to be created and sent there.

Life on the other worlds in the Main Line seemed to be prospering. Trade back and forth between the Earth and rest of the Main Line seemed to be expanding daily, and the number of colonists crossing from Earth to Echo World boggled the mind. Random wondered how all of it was able to fit through the one flashover point.

They passed through the jarring emptiness of the flashover linking the Upper Landing Deck to Echo World and emerged in darkness. The sun came up as they flew eastward across the E Mojave Desert, and the E Colorado Plateau. From there, their path took them around the around the southern edge of the E Rockies, near Albuquerque Station. At this point, the transport had angled, mostly northward across the E Great Plains. Even at altitude, Random could tell that it was winter on the plains.

Random and Carol Turner discussed the obvious signs of winter and winter activities, as they both watched the terrain passing by below. By the time they reached Omaha Station on Echo World, they had set up a date to go fishing for next day, after his meeting with Major Tupelov.

Random found the idea of going fishing in the middle of the winter, an odd one for a date, but he didn’t actually mind. Fishing was one of the things he’d loved to do back in Monroe. Thinking about Monroe reminded him of Mom and of Deirdre. He had been right about the relative reliability of written e-mail, but he had been somewhat lackadaisical about writing. He vowed to write them more often, and to visit them as soon as he could arrange leave time.

Random continued to think about Mom and Deirdre as he watched the terrain during the transport’s approach to Omaha Station. Much of the countryside was snow covered. Only the areas near the river appeared to be snow and ice free.

Stepping out of the plane and onto the tarmac at Omaha Station was a brutal reminder of the seasonal differences between Echo World and New Beijing. The cold hit Random like a slap in the face. It had been mid-summer on New Beijing. It was mid-winter here on Echo World.

His meeting with Major Tupelov was set for the next day, Monday February 19th, 2046. Random and Miss Turner decided to spend the rest of Sunday wandering through the shops in Omaha Station’s commercial district. She was so easy to talk to, and he was so comfortable with her that, before he realized it, the afternoon had melted away.

Random noticed the street lights coming on and nervously checked the time on his telnet. “Damn!” he said quietly, “I didn’t realize how late it was getting. I’m sorry Carol, but I’m going to have to call it a night.”

She smiled sweetly and said, “I’ll see you tomorrow, after your meeting.”

Random returned her smile. “Definitely.”

Random checked into his hotel and tried, unsuccessfully, to go to sleep. His body clock was still stuck on New Beijing’s cycle. He spent a fruitless night before the alarm had gone off. He rolled out of bed and stumbled through his morning routine in a fog. Somehow he managed to make his connection at the train station, boarding the southbound train leaving Omaha Station at 04:00, to make his 09:00 meeting.

Random arrived at AUN Seventh Division’s headquarters at Albuquerque Station about an hour before the meeting. Coffee was helping to keep him awake, but it was giving him a sour stomach. He didn’t think it was a good idea to have any more. So Random sat there, drifting in and out of sleep until a Staff Sergeant came out and got him for the meeting at 08:45.

Random walked into Major Tupelov’s office, saluted, and said, “Sir, I would like to thank you for taking the time to meet with me this morning.”

“At ease Lieutenant. What’s on your mind?” Tupelov asked casually.

“A couple of things sir. First, I’d like to inquire about the status of the review that was ordered by the Supreme Tribunal. Second I’d like to place a parts requisition for the aircraft and electronics equipment on New Beijing. Their equipment is old and much of it is beyond repair without a major influx of new parts and supplies.”

Tupelov tapped a pen on his desk for a moment. He seemed to be deciding what to tell Random. Finally he said, “Officially, the inquiry has been kicked over to the SSF. Unofficially, the inquiry has been quashed by Marshal Agostinyak and by a higher-up in the UN on Earth. Somebody very important wants this whole business to go away.”

Random sighed exasperated. “Sir, a crime has been committed. How can we sit back and do nothing? What kind of message does that send?”

“A very bad one, I’m afraid. We’re telling, whomever cares to watch, that crime and corruption are acceptable practices. I am formally advising you to be careful. You’ve made some enemies. Until we can sort this out, keep your head down and don’t take any unnecessary risks. Somebody has their heart set on control of those two worlds and I don’t think they’re going to let a little thing like the law get in their way.”

Random nodded and replied soberly, “Yes sir. I’ll keep that in mind. What about the parts and equipment requisition?”

“I’ll put it through channels, but I wouldn’t expect anything to come of it.”

“Thank you sir for your patience and your honesty. I would like to be able to check in with you again to monitor the status of these things.” He stood and saluted and then turned to leave.

“Feel free to check in with me any time you feel you have need to Lieutenant. I only wish I’d been able to give you better answers.” Tupelov answered as Random left his office.

Random met Carol Turner early in the afternoon. “So, what did you think of Tupelov?” she asked as he approached.

Random shrugged and said, “He seems all right.”

Second Lieutenant Turner grinned. “Good. Let’s head down to the waterfront. I’ve got something to show you.”

She led him to a small man made marina that had been built where a creek had created a natural opening in the bluffs lining the river. A small basin had been dug out and lined with docks. They huddled together as they walked because the weather was very cold, but the marina was ice free.

There were a handful of small boats docked there. “I found out about these boats a couple of months ago. You can charter one to go out on the river. I’ve picked out that blue one down there,” Miss Turner said as she led him down to the boats.

“You’ve been planning this for a while then?” Random asked.

“A couple of months, anyway,” Carol Turner answered cheerfully.

Random studied her for several paces and then said, “So, take me to this secret fishing place.”

Random and Miss Turner loaded stuff onto the boat, untied from the dock and headed out into the river. After about an hour, Second Lieutenant Turner beached the boat on a narrow sand island that had formed in the river’s channel. She led Random around to a shallow, peaceful cove and told him to set up camp while she went and got the rest of the gear from the boat.

Random had finished setting up chairs and fishing lines, when he started to wonder what had happened. Suddenly he heard a loud crack. He quickly headed back towards where the sound had come from and found Carol Turner lying face down in the sand. Fearing the worst, Random dropped on his knees and began to check if she was hurt. “I’m fine,” Second Lieutenant Turner said after a brief pause.

“What happened?” Random asked.

“I tripped over a piece of driftwood. I thought I saw another boat coming down the river, but when I went to look it was gone. That’s when I tripped on the driftwood.” She didn’t mention hearing a gun shot.

Random helped gather up the gear she was carrying and brought it down to their fishing site. Together they built a warming fire and then sat fishing. Random told her about the warning Tupelov had given him and that he thought he’d heard a gunshot, while they fished. Carol Turner looked over at him and said, “I think the sound was an engine backfire, but Tupelov’s warning sounds serious.”

Random shrugged and half nodded, and then replied, “Yeah, but I’m not certain what to do about it.”

“Keep your head down for starters.” She looked around warily.

By about 20:00 hours, they had managed to catch several bluegill and a pair of decent sized bass. They decided that it was time to make dinner. While Random put up the gear, Carol began cleaning the fish.

She sent Random to gather more wood for the fire. Admonishing him to keep his eyes open and walk carefully. By the time he had returned, the fish fillets had been placed in pockets of aluminum foil with some cut up onions, carrots, and potatoes that had already been steaming in aluminum pockets on the fire.

Random and Second Lieutenant Turner then settled back and allowed the mix to finish cooking over the coals. Even with the fire, it was a cold, clear night, so they huddled together to stay warm. Random looked up at the totally unfamiliar star field above. “Have you ever wondered what constellations our ancestors would have made out of these stars?” he asked.

She leaned back, laying her head against his shoulder, and looked up at the stars. “I have,” she answered, but didn’t elaborate.

After dinner, just before midnight, Second Lieutenant Turner brought out a very large sleeping bag and laid it out before the fire. Random looked at her quizzically, but didn’t say anything. Carol saw the expression on his face and said, sounding a little wistful, “There’s more than enough room for two people to sleep comfortably without feeling like they have to make love.”

Random just looked at her and said, “Um . . . .”

Carol took that as a yes. She walked over to Random and led him back to the bag. She climbed into the sleeping bag and Random followed, without hesitation. Once tucked into the bag, they talked for a while, cuddled a bit, and eventually went to sleep.

The next morning, they packed everything up, including the trash, and headed back to Omaha Station. Their flight out left at noon and they had to hurry to be there on time. “The next time we do this, soldier. We need more time,” Carol said sulkily as they went to the airport.

“Yes ma’am. We need more time,” Random replied.

By the time Random arrived back on New Beijing, the new mechanics had proved themselves to be a god send. They were able to restore nearly half of the transports to air-worthy status. In addition to vastly improved transport on the colony, New Beijing now had a thriving export business, selling alcohol and food to very willing consumers on Akagi. The income from the export business allowed New Beijing to begin making payments on its development loan, which lifted the colony out of default status.

As good as the news was, transport wasn’t Random’s only problem. His engineers and technicians were working double and triple shifts trying to keep the tracking and monitoring equipment functioning. The chief engineer finally declared the equipment terminal.

Judging by the maintenance records, Random had to agree with him. Tupelov had been right about one thing, the AUN was definitely dragging its feet on filling New Beijing’s parts and equipment requisitions. To make up for the missing spare parts, the repair crew had begun commissioning parts from the machine shops on Akagi. The electronics proved to be far more difficult to come by. Random and his technicians had feelers out all along the Main Line, looking for replacement components, but they found very little.

Governor Li had a small problem of his own that he needed to unload. At about the same time that Random had arrived on New Beijing, Echo World security had arrested his niece, Cynthia Han, on drug smuggling charges. The evidence had been quite convincing and the Tribunal had convicted her.

Even Off-world, Drug smuggling is a very serious offense, so Miss Han received a life sentence. The Off-world community however dealt with criminals differently than on Earth. Most non-violent Off-world criminals were auctioned off as indentured servants for the length of their sentence. Only those deemed sociopaths were actually housed in prisons.

The court classified Miss Han, who had been caught acting as a courier for a big time dealer, as harmless and placed her on the auction block. Family loyalty forced Governor Li to purchase her contract. After all, she was his niece.

Miss Han’s conviction damaged the governor’s family name. To the governor, she was beautiful, but expendable. Being family, she made an unacceptable concubine and Governor Li didn’t really care to find any other honorable use for her. Presenting her as a gift to Random seemed to be a perfect way to provide for her, and to provide the governor with eyes and ears within the AUN base.

The governor summoned Random to the capital city of Xi’an for a conference. At the conference, Governor Li presented Miss Cynthia Han to Random. Random recognized the girl immediately. He had seen her before. She had been the serving girl on the tour that he’d taken with Governor Li.

Random wanted to turn down the governor’s gift for a whole host of reasons, but primarily because he didn’t believe in slavery. Prudence prevented him from doing so. Turning down the gift would have been a grave insult to the governor. Random didn’t feel that he could afford to be isolated.

Random felt that the girl deserved a better fate. He also realized that accepting her as a gift might be the only way for her to avoid a very unpleasant future. He was fully aware that if he rejected the offer, the governor would still find a way to unload Miss Han, family or not.

The governor had, in fact, not so subtly hinted that there were less desirable alternatives available. During an earlier visit, Governor Li informed Random that he had already received inquiries from the Akagi underworld. The thought of putting the young woman to work, on the Akagi described by Carol Turner, turned Random’s stomach. He chose to accept the governor’s offer.

The next morning, Sunday December 9th, Random was awake early. He found Cynthia asleep on the couch. “Miss Han,” he said quietly. Cynthia shifted but did not wake. Random lightly touched her shoulder and repeated, “Miss Han.”

Cynthia stirred groggily. She rolled over to look at him. “What sir?” she asked.

“Well, first we need to find you some better sleeping arrangements.”

“Why sir? This couch is quite comfortable.”

“It would make me feel better if I knew you had your own space.”

Cynthia sat up rubbing her eyes. “Like a bedroom sir?”

“Yeah, something like that.” He looked around for a moment then said, “I’m sure we can put something together. The next question I have is what do I do with you?”

Cynthia looked him over shyly. “What exactly do you mean sir?”

Random rubbed his chin and decided to tread cautiously. “What skills do you have?”

“I’ve got a BA in business from UCAL Berkeley. I can cook, sew, and clean, though those are not my favorite activities sir. I can also dance and perform three different types of massage,” Cynthia responded matter-of-factly.

“Well. I’m impressed. Can you run an office?”

“Yes sir.”

“Then that’s settled. I will employ you as an office manager. You’ll get a salary that you may do with as you will, just like any other AUN civilian employee. I’ll keep in mind the dance and massage too. Can’t have too much comfort,” Random replied, grinning sheepishly.

“So, I’m to be an office manager, a dancer, and a masseuse, sir?”

“Yes. Is that a problem?”

“No sir. I was just making sure of my role.” She sat quietly for a moment. “Sir, who will be doing the cleaning and the cooking?”

“A village girl comes through twice a week and does the cleaning. I normally do the cooking. I’d be willing to share that task if you really want to.”

Cynthia laughed and said, “No sir that is quite alright. I find very little joy in the kitchen.”

[*Chapter Six: Politics *]

Monday March 19th, 2046

Command Center, AUN Central Monitoring Station

Huong River Valley, New Beijing

Random long ago decided that adjusting to life on New Beijing was a royal pain in the ass. The planet had a thirty six hour period of rotation. Each day had twelve extra hours. The extra hours had played hell with his sleep cycle. Like most people, the thirty six hour days actually wrecked the sleep cycle he had developed on Earth.

Unable to sleep normally, he began to feel sick, all of the time. He found out from his staff, that it wasn’t unusual for new immigrants to New Beijing to opt to return home in the first six months. For those who have been on New Beijing for a while, a newcomer surviving the first six months was reason for celebration, kind of a badge of honor. Random was grimly determined to hang on and earn his celebration, at the end of April.

After five Earth calendar months, he had still not gotten used to the New Beijing calendar. He kept both an Earth calendar and a New Beijing calendar open. The same had applied to the time. His telnet was set to Earth time, but he kept a wrist watch set to New Beijing time.

The changed days, continued to be troubling, but Random had found a way to cope with the changes. He was finally comfortable with the twelve hour work day. The idea of a twelve hour sleep period had seemed to be an incredible luxury, when he first learned of it, but, in reality, had turned into anything but. After five months, he still couldn’t force his body to sleep for twelve hours and often woke up in the middle of the New Beijing night. Much like the Governor, he had come to depend on a one to two hour siesta at the end of his work cycle to help him get through the busy day.

Along with the thirty-six hour day, New Beijing took eight years to complete an orbit of its sun. This meant that the planet had four seasons, just like Earth, but each season lasted for two Earth years. Summers grew hotter and hotter, and winters went from freezing to outright dangerous. Living in a temperate climate could prove very dicey during a two year long winter.

The fact of New Beijing’s extended seasons was made even more real to Random. He had just received a telnet message from Deirdre that she had sent sometime in January. She had included pictures of a snow covered Monroe in the message, along with pictures of his home filled with Christmas decorations. It was late summer at the Monitoring Station, on New Beijing, where Random was posted. Cool, crisp mornings and warm, lazy afternoons.

Deirdre’s message had said that she and Mom had managed to get through the holidays, without him, and that life went on in Monroe, much as he had remembered it. She didn’t have to say how much she and Mom missed having Random around. From the pictures she included, he could tell that she missed her big brother. He missed having Mom and Deirdre around as well. After his outing with Carol, Random made an effort to write home more often, but few, if any of his posts seemed to be going through. His messages to Eldon and Caitlyn didn’t seem to be going through either. He submitted an inquiry request to Major Tupelov. Tupelov promised to look into the matter, but he had also hinted that Random shouldn’t expect much to come of the inquiry.

Largely cut off from family and friends, Random focused on the difficulties facing New Beijing. The original colonization plan to use New Beijing as supply colony for Akagi was still fundamentally sound. The implementation of that plan had been complicated by the fact that the New Beijing that the Chinese had purchased was a lifeless ball of rock and water.

Random was pretty certain that no one had given a great deal of thought to the consequences of transplanting life onto the surface of the barren planet. After all, how would life adapt to this new world? As he had suspected, even Governor Li had no answer to that question.

New Beijing’s Security Director, Mr. Wu, sent over a team to brief Random on the issues surrounding the colony’s development. The team began with a quick lesson on the colony’s history. They showed Random the initial UN survey report of 2025. He read where the survey team had classified the planet as unsuitable for habitation. In fact, the survey team reported that the planet was a lifeless ball of rock, with salt water oceans.

Mr. Wu’s team then showed Random the initial Chinese survey of the planet. This survey reported that New Beijing’s land mass was divided into nine island continents, with widely scattered archipelagos. The land mass covered a total of thirty five percent of the surface. The remaining sixty five percent was covered by ocean. A slightly lower percentage of ocean than that of Earth, or Echo World.

The Chinese survey reported that the planet was 1.25 times the size of Earth, but its gravity was only ninety five percent Earth normal. The leader of Mr. Wu’s team explained that in practical terms, this meant that compared to Earth, everything seemed bigger on New Beijing. The size of the planet’s mountains confirmed this. Random knew that there were several mountains that topped fifteen kilometers. The highest known peak on the planet measured in at fifty one thousand and eighty seven feet, on the old American scale, or fifteen point five seven kilometers.

Both the initial UN survey and the Chinese survey reported that the low gravity was also likely an indication that New Beijing was mineral poor. Mineralogists confirmed New Beijing’s mineral poverty when they decreed the planet unsuitable for mining in 2026. In spite of the scarcity of minerals, the Chinese developers still believed that the planet presented an ideal opportunity for a colony.

The colony’s planners believed that developing agriculture and tourism on New Beijing would seem to be the perfect complement for the mining and industrial development planned for the Step Two world, Akagi. To implement the plan, the planners purchased New Beijing for a record low bid of one million euros, a bargain basement price for a Step Three world. Especially when compared to the standard minimum bid of five million euros drawn by most other Step Three worlds.

The planet had two assets the Chinese developers coveted. First, after the mineralogical survey, the planet’s commercial value dropped to less than nil. Second, the developers had just entered into negotiations with the Japanese over the development of mineral rich Akagi, New Beijing’s Step Two connection to the Main Line. Development on New Beijing began in earnest in 2027, with the completion of the negotiations.

Random understood that because of the limits on transportation capacity, machinery is often a rare and expensive commodity off-world. Because of this limitation, non-precious metals, from any source, would normally be difficult to come by. Any cargo transported between New Beijing and Akagi would have to be carried by transport aircraft. This complicated the commercial trading of machinery, metals, and bulk food.

However, even with all of the limitations, when coupled with the development of Akagi as a mining colony, New Beijing should have been able to generate a working profit by exporting food to the miners. In return, the colony on Akagi should have been able to increase its profits by marketing its scrap metal and used machinery to New Beijing. The plan was a logical, smart, and effective development program. Both colonies would benefit. The smuggling operation had truly thrown a monkey wrench into the works.

According to the developer’s report, the Chinese purchased a squadron of used C-130K transports in 2027. The Chinese used the transports to seed the land masses with grasses, ferns, mosses, conifers, and the bacteria necessary for soil formation. Later that same year, they seeded the oceans with plankton and kelp. Luckily for the developers, 2027 was the beginning of New Beijing’s spring cycle. This meant that the plant life had four years to establish itself before the cold of winter set in.

In 2028 and 2029, the Chinese repeated the seeding operations. They seeded the oceans with fish in 2030 and established small herds of animals on the land masses. A UN environmental survey team declared the biosphere viable in 2035. Colonization began in 2036.

The Chinese wisely chose a centrally located continent in the northern hemisphere for development. They did not seed the two polar continents, and for obvious reasons, the polar continents were not considered for colonization. The continent chosen for colonization measured, roughly, four thousand one hundred kilometers from east to west, and two thousand five hundred kilometers from north to south. It bore a striking resemblance to Australia. Unlike Australia, a five hundred kilometer wide chain of mountains ran, like a spine, from north to south, dividing the continent into eastern and western halves.

The southern rim of the continent ran about ten degrees north latitude. The northern rim ran about forty degrees north latitude. The Chinese chose to set up shop along the southwestern edge of the continent, centered upon the Chiang River System.

A thick layer of volcanic ash covered nearly the entire planet’s land mass. Once seeded and stabilized, the resulting soil was quite fertile, perfect for an agricultural colony. All-in-all it was a very good colonization plan, Random thought. The development package was generous. New Beijing should have been a successful colony, if not for the monkey wrench.

The leader of Mr. Wu’s team told Random that as of 2044, the northern half of the continent was still uninhabited, although, an industrial complex was planned for the relatively mineral rich Liao River Valley. The AUN established its Central Monitoring Station in the Huong River Valley. Central is a misnomer because nearly the entire population was over one hundred and sixty kilometers to the south. Random thought as he listened.

Planetary population, as of January, 2044, totaled ninety thousand. As many as one thousand new colonists were arriving each month, needing to be settled. Planetary exports were minimal, because of the persistent transportation problems, and what could only be described as the out-and-out theft of development materials. As an example, the development agreement had called for four hydro-electric stations. Only two had been completed. The equipment and supplies for the remaining two had vanished.

After the classes, life on New Beijing continued. By the end of April, the slowly deteriorating condition of the transports and communications equipment on New Beijing forced Random to submit another massive requisition for materials. This requisition created quite a stir on Echo World because someone had managed to broadcast the request to all of the delegations of the UN Off-world Assembly. Within a few hours, the entire UN Off-world Assembly was calling for a formal inquiry into the development industry.

Governor Li and Mr. Wu informed Random that a very high percentage of the colonies with development contracts were now reporting irregularities. A problem that the UN Earth, believed to have been quietly swept under the carpet, suddenly exploded into a full-blown crisis. If the UN Earth was to revisit the New Beijing problem, it would now also have to deal with the across-the-board irregularities being reported to the UN Off-world Assembly.

According to Mr. Wu, a dozen colonies had already conducted sweeping crackdowns on smuggling, and many more were in the works. The press on Echo World had taken to calling the crackdowns “hause cleaning operations,” an obvious reference to Random’s role on New Beijing.

As the scope of the fraud became more apparent, many delegations in the UN Off-world assembly began calling for full autonomy from UN Earth and for direct control of the development process. An awful lot seemed to be riding on how the UN Earth responded to the situation on New Beijing and whom it found to be the responsible party or parties. The system-wide theft and black marketing of goods designated for development threatened to create an irreparable rift between the UN Earth and UN Off-world.

On Echo World, Andrew Eicherman sat at an outside table looking out on Omaha Station’s Convention Center. His optical was set up on the table in front of him. “Did you get the package I sent you?” he asked.

On the other end of the connection, Almond Chinavare answered, “Yep. It’ll be burning through the news here on Earth by tomorrow morning. How did it go over on Echo World?”

“Broadcasting that requisition to all of the delegations was a stroke of genius. It’s really set the cat among the pigeons. This morning the delegations should each be receiving a hard copy of the requisition request in their post. The off-world community may never be the same.” Eicherman sounded smug.

“Don’t be too pleased with yourself. We still don’t know how Abbot and his cronies are going to respond to this. I don’t think he’ll be able to just sit back watch it unfold.” After a second Chinavare added, “How’s our young officer doing?”

“He seems to be fine. I think he might have a thing for that fly girl though.”

“What fly girl? And how’s your pet project doing?” Chinavare asked nervously.

“Don’t worry about the flygirl, Almond. As for the other project, also good. She hasn’t threatened to kill me in a while and she’s quit trying to run away. She actually enrolled on-line to finish up her degree in computer science at the University of Edinburgh.”

“On-line? Your choice or hers?”

“Hers. She’s still pretty shook up about her time with the SSF and doesn’t want to risk being caught. I think she’s coming along just fine.”

“Ok. I’m going to need you in two places at the same time, on Echo World to help Random deal with the backlash that’s coming, and on Earth to work with your pet project. Don’t forget to keep an eye on our SSF friends as well.” Chinavare chuckled.

“Aw gee thanks. It might be funny if I knew you were kidding. I’ll keep in touch,” Eicherman answered as he closed down the connection, looking up in time to catch a glimpse of Goldman heading toward the mag-lev station.

On New Beijing, once the full scale of the scandal unfolded, Random discovered that an SSF officer would be arriving with the requisitioned items. He was convinced that the AUN meant to destroy the evidence in order to prevent a political bloodbath. After all, if there were no evidence, there could be no crime, and no need for further investigation.

Random began making plans to make sure that the evidence would survive the SSF. He arranged for the AUN transport to Akagi to make an additional stop at the Central Airport on New Beijing. While the transport was being refueled, he met with Carol Turner and with the Captain.

After a brief discussion, they both agreed to help Random carry out his scheme. Random gave each of them a pair of disks. He asked the Captain to deliver his disks to the British Prime Minister on Earth and to the Chairman of the UN Off-world Assembly in Omaha Station. Then he asked Carol Turner to deliver her disks to the AUN Inspector General’s Office on Earth and to his mother. When the Captain and Lieutenant Turner had departed, Random then made three additional copies, keeping one on his person. He placed a second one in his safe. He gave the third copy to Governor Li.

A second plan involved Miss Han. Random called her into his office, “Cynthia, I need to speak with you for a moment.”

Cynthia Han stepped into Random’s office and answered, “Yes sir. What is it?”

“They’re sending an SSF officer here to investigate. I think it would be best if you were back in Xi’an while that officer was here.”

Cynthia Han nodded. She stood silently for a moment before speaking, “That may seem to be the safest approach, but I feel that it would be better if I were here when the officer arrives.”

Random looked troubled. “How so?”

Cynthia smiled, looking visibly relieved. “First, if I am here when the officer arrives, it won’t look like you are trying to hide me away. Second, if I am here when the officer arrives, it will allow me to observe and evaluate this officer. Third, my uncle expects me to help insure that both he and the AUN are able to accomplish their missions on New Beijing.”

Random scratched his chin for a second, and then answered, “I see. Then it’s settled. You’ll be staying here when the SSF officer arrives.”

A few days later, on the tarmac of the Monitoring Station’s airfield, Random stood waiting as an SSF officer disembarked from his transport. “Good day Lieutenant Hause. I am Colonel Martin Goldman, SSF-Echo World,” the officer said as he extended a hand to Random.

Random shook his hand and said, “Good day Colonel, sir. I thought that you would be bringing in spare parts and equipment when you came?”

“No. The SSF wanted me to evaluate the situation before they made a decision on honoring your requisition.”

“I see.” A moment later he continued, “Where would you like to begin sir?”

“I would like to take a look at the records, if that’s alright with you?”

“Yes sir, we can access the records from a terminal in the Monitoring Station.”

Random began walking towards the Monitoring Station. Goldman didn’t follow. He stood transfixed, staring up at the mountains rising up on either side of the base. “How tall are they Lieutenant?” he asked.

Random, some distance ahead, turned to ask Goldman how tall what was. He noticed that Goldman was still on the helipad. He began walking back towards Goldman. “How tall are what, sir?”

“The mountains. What’d you think I was talking about?”

“Oh, the peak on the south is about ten K. That northern peak is about twelve K, sir,” Random stated as a matter of fact.

“Thirty-nine thousand feet. That’s incredible.”

“Farther up the valley, some of the peaks top fifteen K, sir.”

Goldman shook his head and whistled. “Damn! You’ll have to show me sometime. How about those records then?”

“Yes sir. If you’ll follow me?” Random led the way into the Monitoring Station.

Goldman walked up behind Random, muttering absentmindedly, “Random Arthur Hause.”

Random cast a sideways glance at Goldman, looking at him closely for the first time. “Well, yes sir. You were expecting someone else?” he asked. [Wait a minute! I’ve seen this guy before, _]he[ ]thought.[ _]

Goldman chuckled softly. “The way father goes on about you, I was expecting more.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever met your father. Why would he be talking about me?” [_This is just too damned creepy. _]Random thought.

“I don’t know. You’d have to ask him. He sometimes obsesses on the strangest of things,” Goldman answered with an air of finality.

Both men walked silently to the Station door. What the hell was that all about, and where have I seen this guy? Random wondered as he opened the door for Goldman and waited, then followed him in. “Who in the hell is that?” Goldman said pointing towards the terminal.

A pretty, little, Eurasian girl looked up from the terminal. “Good day gentlemen. Who is our visitor, sir?” she said to Random.

Random turned to Goldman and said, “Colonel Goldman sir, this is Cynthia Han, an indentured servant, and a gift from Governor Li. I have employed her as the Platoon’s office manager. She’s very good.”

Random turned to Cynthia and said, “Miss Han, this is Colonel Martin Goldman. SSF-Echo World.”

Goldman’s eyes flashed dangerously. “Lieutenant, non-military personnel are prohibited from working in a Monitoring Station.”

“I know that, sir, but she was a gift from the Governor. To return her would have been an insult. She’s a damned good office manager, and since she was a personal gift, I have employed her here in the Station. Major Tupelov has already approved my actions.” Then it dawned on him. He knew who this Goldman was. The vagrant! This man was the vagrant in the park.

“Look, son, I don’t care if God approved your actions. Non-military personnel are prohibited from working in a Monitoring Station. She’s probably a spy. Do I make myself clear, Lieutenant?”

Random, felt a little indignant. “Yes sir, but this is a dirt-poor colony. The UN has nothing to hide here.”

“I’ll be the judge of that. Get rid of her while I look at the records. When I’ve finished with the records, we can sit down and determine her fate.” Goldman leered at Cynthia.

“Yes sir,” Random said as he turned to Miss Han.

Cynthia cut off his comment. “It’s all right, sir, I heard the Colonel. I’m going to go horseback riding. “

“Enjoy. The Colonel and I will be trapped in the office for a while.” Random sounded wistful.

“That’s too bad; I’ll see you later, sir.” Cynthia got up from the terminal and walked out of the Station.

Goldman, who had been eying Cynthia appreciatively as she walked out, turned to Random, and asked, “What do you mean, she was a personal gift to you?”

“New Beijing uses the indentured servitude system sir,” Random replied.

“I understand indentured servitude. Why did he give her to you?” Goldman inquired.

“I didn’t ask sir,” Random replied.

Goldman shook his head and said, “You should have. She looks like a very expensive gift. He’ll expect a favor in return.”

“I’m aware of that sir,” Random replied.

“That doesn’t bother you?” Goldman asked incredulously.

“No sir,” Random answered.

“Then you’re a fool. I shall have to include your cavalier attitude in my report,” Goldman said angrily.

Random shook his head and replied, “Feel free sir. Major Tupelov has cleared all of my actions with our chain of command.”

Goldman spat as he said, “Aach! Tupelov’s an abomination. He should have been executed last year. How can you consent to being part of this? You’re an American.”

“I wasn’t given that choice, sir. Besides, the UN Supreme Tribunal on Echo World upheld the legal status of indentured servitude several years ago. The contracts are nearly universally honored, off-world,” Random replied calmly.

“It’s still slavery and I find it distasteful,” Goldman answered, still sounding angry.

Random decided to change the subject. He said, “You wanted to look at the records, sir?”

Goldman sat down at the terminal, accepting the change of subject. “Yes I did,” he answered as he began paging through the files.

Random watched the screen as Goldman read the listings. “Lieutenant, these records indicate that the materials for construction of four power stations have been delivered, yet your files show only two stations to have been completed. The materials for the other stations seem to be missing. Can you explain?”

“No sir. The southernmost power stations have been completed. The two northern sites remain untouched.”

“What happened to the missing materials Lieutenant?”

“I don’t know sir. My men scanned the entire continent with no results. I am certain that those materials are no longer on New Beijing.”

“Indeed, that’s if they ever were on New Beijing, Lieutenant.” Goldman sneered.

“Yes sir that thought crossed my mind as well.”

“We shall have to examine those northern sites. What else is in here?” Goldman continued to scan the records.

The maintenance records for New Beijing’s air transports scrolled up onto the screen. “Sweet Jesus, according to these records, they replaced the entire air transport component within the last year. Why are all the aircraft down for repairs?”

“The aircraft were never replaced, sir. Whomever filed that report, lied. The colony’s aircraft are in very bad shape. The C-130K’s are at least a dozen years old and the helis look worse.”

“What happened to those replacement aircraft, Lieutenant?” Goldman accused.

“I don’t know, sir.”

Goldman looked at Random for a moment, and then said sternly, “Lieutenant, there seems to be a lot of things that you don’t know. I want an aircraft ready for flight as of five minutes ago. We have some checking to do. Do you realize how serious these charges are?”

“What charges sir?” Random sounded confused.

Goldman shook his head. “Right, just get that transport, son.”

Random leaned over the terminal and opened a channel. A Sergeant’s face appeared on the screen. “Sergeant, I would like my heliplane prepared for flight immediately.”

“Not to worry sir. We’ve got a heli on the pad now. Second Lieutenant Hawkins is starting the engines,” the sergeant responded.

“Not my heli?”

“No sir, the batteries failed on your heli again.”

“Crap! By the way, eavesdropping will get you in deep trouble, Sergeant.”

“I wasn’t listening to your conversation, sir. Cynthia told me you would want the heli.”

Random laughed and said, “That will be all, Sergeant.”

He switched off the terminal. Goldman looked at him and said, “Do your men normally follow Miss Han’s orders, Lieutenant?”

Random answered without hesitation, “Only when they make sense, sir. Miss Han doesn’t give orders, she’s a civilian. She makes suggestions. Most of the time her suggestions are reasonable and logical.”

Goldman growled angrily. “Let’s take a look at those aircraft, Lieutenant.”

Random and Goldman exited the building and headed out to the helipad. A very beat up looking heliplane purred quietly on the pad. Goldman looked at the heli. “Is that thing flight-worthy?” he asked.

“It’s as flight-worthy as anything else on New Beijing, sir,” Random answered.

Goldman hesitated before climbing into the heliplane. “Judging from those records, son, that’s not very reassuring.”

Random climbed into the heli. “No sir, but she’ll make it to the airport.”

“Good, let’s check out the transports then,” Goldman sounded a little reassured. He slapped his hand against the door panel. The panel rattled and shifted visibly. “Damn, this is a piece of junk.”

“Yes sir. Can’t be helped. The mechanics are working full time, trying to repair the colony’s MH-47G transports. The Platoon’s helis will have to wait.”

“Good Lord, I had planned on visiting the power station sites as well. They’ll have to wait till later. I’m not risking my neck in this crate. Just get us to the airport.”

“Yes sir.”

Random climbed into the pilot’s seat and started the turbines. While Goldman climbed into the co-pilot’s seat, Random checked to make sure that the internal Tesla Turbine engine was running. It was, but not smoothly. He didn’t really need the internal turbine engine until it was time to charge the batteries, but he knew that this machine’s engine had been acting up and he didn’t want to chance it not starting. The whine of the propfans drowned out the clatter of the injured turbine engine.

A UH-60N was bigger than an AH-6J, but its performance was similar. To Random, the heli seemed like an old friend. He toggled the joystick and they lifted off smoothly. Once airborne, Random engaged the propfans and the aircraft glided up and forward. He could hear the propfan jet engines whine fiercely, as they drove the heliplane forward, while the stubby wings and the rotor provided lift.

At two hundred meters, Random leveled the heliplane out and opened the throttle. The heli shot forward, pressing the two men back into their seats. Random allowed the aircraft to drift down a little as they accelerated.

Random leveled off again at one hundred and fifty meters. He banked the heliplane sharply to the south. Within moments, they had built up sufficient speed for Random to disengage the rotor drive, allowing it to free-wheel. Goldman squeezed his hand grips. “What are you doing, Lieutenant?” he asked.

“Releasing the rotor, sir. Why?” Random answered sounding puzzled.

Goldman’s grip loosened, when he realized the heli wouldn’t crash. “Oi, these things can really accelerate. I’ve never gotten used to heliplanes,” Goldman shouted through clenched teeth.

“I’m sorry sir. They’re a gas to fly though. At speed they turn into a rotary-wing jet.” Random tried to sound reassuring.

“I’ve never liked the idea of a, free-wheeling, rotary-wing jet,” Goldman replied, not reassured.

“It does take a little getting used to sir.” Random slowly dropped the heliplane to NOE and skimmed along the treetops on the eastern edge of the mountains.

Goldman’s knuckles grew white again, as he watched the trees rocket past. “Do you always fly this low?” he asked.

“Yes sir, I feel the heliplane reacts better at NOE. Would you prefer to fly a little higher?” Random answered sensing Goldman’s distress.

“Just a little, if you please. I have no desire to achieve unity with nature, just yet.”

Random smiled. “Nor I sir.” He pulled back gently on the stick and the heli climbed two hundred meters.

Colonel Goldman still looked white but he was breathing again. “I feel like my stomach is still down in those trees. I wouldn’t mind a little more altitude.”

“I’m sorry sir. I’ll lift us up a little further.” Random gently pulled back on the stick. He heard a cough from the left propfan and suddenly the heli was listing to the left and decelerating.

Random quickly looked down at his gauges. The left engine was only producing about forty-five percent thrust. He idled both engines down until they both seemed to be running smoothly. The heliplane slowed noticeably, but didn’t lose any more altitude.

Goldman looked at Random, fear clearly showing in his eyes. “Is there a problem Lieutenant?” he asked.

“Yes sir. The left engine is not running properly. I’m afraid it’s going to take us a little longer to get to the airfield,” Random answered. Goldman stared at Random, a look of horror in his eyes. He didn’t respond.

Random flew south along a valley that separated the foothills from the actual mountains. The foothills disappeared abruptly, north of the Chiang River, revealing vast plains, rolling off to the south and west. Goldman gasped as he looked out on the seemingly endless plain. “I thought this place was all mountains and hills,” he said.

“Nope, most of this continent looks like that plain out there, sir,” Random answered paying attention to flying the heli. He angled the aircraft further to the west, out over the plain.

“I thought you said the main airport was in the mountains?”

“It is, about ten miles up that river sir. The tracking system won’t be able to pick us up if we come in along the mountains.” Random glanced eastward, along the Chiang River, back towards the mountains.

Goldman nodded. “Ok, just get us there in one piece.”

“Yes sir.” Random banked the heli sharply, to follow the course of the river. He quickly leveled off and followed the river into the valley.

“Why did they build an airport in the valley, Lieutenant?” Goldman asked as the heliplane swept into the mountains.

“The engineers recorded two-hundred-and-ten kilometer per hour winds out on the plains, before the trees filled in sir. I wouldn’t like to land a motorized box kite, like a C-130K, in that kind of wind,” Random answered.

Goldman shook his head. “The more I hear about his place, the more convinced I am that it was a mistake to grant the colonization permit.”

“Isn’t it a little late to reconsider the permit, sir?”

“It’s never too late to remove a permit, son,” Goldman answered with finality.

The heliplane flew into the ten mile wide canyon known as the Chiang River Valley. Sheer walls, a thousand meters high, rimmed each side of the valley. The mountains climbed up from the walls. Beyond the walls, mountains climbed to peaks often topping ten kilometers.

Goldman stared at the canyon walls, then up at the mountain peaks. “I feel like a gnat,” he said.

Random nodded, concentrating on flying the heli up the canyon and replied, “The main hydro station is up ahead sir.”

A massive, concrete wall, two hundred meters high, stretched across the valley. The dam was eighty meters across at the top. On top of the dam, a four lane road ran from one side of the canyon to the other.

Goldman looked at the dam and the road and whistled. “How much power does that puppy make?” he asked.

“I don’t know sir. I would guess that it’s more than the colony needs,” Random answered.

Random pulled back on the control and the heliplane rose above the dam, and then flew out over a vast lake that lapped quietly below. The water stretched back into the mountains, out of sight. Three kilometers above the dam, a second five kilometer wide gap opened on the eastern wall of the canyon. Random banked the heli to fly directly into this gap.

Up close, the gap turned into a side canyon slicing away to the east. The main airport sat on a large shelf that formed the base of this side canyon, a hundred meters or so above the shore of the lake.

A small river tumbled into the lake, near the southwestern corner of the airport. As he approached the runway, Random engaged the rotor motor and backed off on the propfans. The heli slowed and then glided gently down in front of the terminal.

The airport looked abandoned. The aircraft barns were sealed and the terminal was dark. As soon as the heli touched down, Goldman unbuckled. He was up and out of the heliplane before Random could finish shutting down the engines. Random quickly finished shutting down the engines and then scrambled out of the heli after Goldman.

When Goldman heard Random clamber out of the heliplane he looked back and said, “Don’t get me wrong son. You’re a hell of a pilot, but I’d rather take the bus. I don’t like heliplanes, and I never will.”

The two men walked quickly to the control tower entrance at the front of the aircraft terminal. Goldman looked around for a minute and asked, “Isn’t the scanning system limited by the mountains?”

“Theoretically, no, the mountains would hinder radar and aura-scan from ground level, but the scanning equipment is located on top of one those mountains,” Random said as he pointed to the mountains lining the southern rim of the side canyon. He added, “That big sucker on the end, I think.”

Goldman shook his head. “Why only theoretically?”

“We’ve never been able to run proper tests sir. The equipment is in constant need of repair. I’ve had to maintain a crew of technicians up there, full time. They’ve been able to jury-rig an old radar system, but the other systems are non-functional. We’re relying on that substandard radar at the moment.”

Once inside the tower, the two men quickly climbed the stairs, to the observation deck. Goldman stepped across to a terminal and seated himself. “Do you mind if I review the operational records?” he asked.

Random, who was looking out the window, scanning the tarmac, replied, “No sir, please feel free.”

Goldman returned his focus to the screen and said, “Computer, status of tracking equipment, please.”

The screen displayed a status report for the three scanning systems:

  1. {color:#00000A;}
    p{color:#00000A;}. Aura-scan disabled. Main scanner failure, May 17th, 2045.
  1. {color:#00000A;}
    p{color:#00000A;}. Rpv tracking system disabled. Tracking device failure, August 24th, 2045.
  1. {color:#00000A;}
    p{color:#00000A;}. Side band radar disabled. Scanning device failure, December 19th, 2045.
  1. {color:#00000A;}
    p{color:#00000A;}. Main array radar 60%. Scanning device damaged, December 12th, 2045. Repairs in progress.
  1. {color:#00000A;}
    p{color:#00000A;}. Infrared\video tracking system 40%. Scanner failure, January 9th, 2046. Repairs in progress.

Goldman whistled, and then said, “My god, Lieutenant, why haven’t these systems been repaired?”

“We’ve tried to repair them, sir. But there are no replacement parts available.”

Goldman turned back to the terminal. “Maintenance records and parts inventory please.” The screen switched to a listing of maintenance records. Each system listed daily entries beginning in November, 2045. “You’re working those engineers to death, son.”

“That’s what they tell me, sir.”

Goldman shook his head slowly and said, “Inventory list, please.” The screen displayed a blank listing. “What happened to the spare parts?”

“You’re looking at what Bravo Platoon left us with, sir. The AUN has rejected my requests for new materials.”

Goldman got up from the screen. “I’ve seen enough,” he said. Then he turned to the enlisted man assigned to monitor the equipment and asked, “Is this your shift, soldier?”

The soldier looked at Random. “Answer the question, soldier,” Random instructed.

“Yes sir, this is my shift,” the soldier answered.

“Did you track our heli?”

“Yes sir, I tracked your heli for about thirty kilometers.”

“Is that all?”

“Yes sir, the mountains limit the radar’s range.”

“Wow! I guess so. In a perfect world, our friend, Vladimir Illych Plekhanov, would have some fancy explaining to do. Instead, Plekhanov’s buddy, General Von Francois, just promoted good Vladimir to company command.” Goldman sounded angry.

“What connection does the General have with Plekhanov, sir?” Random asked.

“Damned if I know, son. Rumor has it that the General is grooming him for Regimental command. General Von Francois likes to pack his command with ass kissers. The Brass at SSF Echo-World are getting a little worried,” Goldman answered.

“That doesn’t seem right, sir. Major Tupelov has more seniority.”

Goldman shrugged and answered, “I know son. Tupelov doesn’t want a Regimental command, and the General hates him.”

“Why does the General hate him, sir?”

“The same reason everybody else hates him. Tupelov doesn’t play the game, and he doesn’t kiss ass. Back to business. It’s time to check out the aircraft,” Goldman said dismissively.

“Yes sir. What did you mean by the perfect world comment sir?”

“It’s frustrating knowing that Plekhanov, Von Francois, and Agostinyak are all likely to skate on this.” Goldman sounded angry again.

“I see sir,” Random answered quietly, suddenly lost in thought.

The two men exited the command tower and walked toward headed the aircraft barns. Neither man spoke, both walked, absorbed in their thoughts. Goldman slid open the door to the main barn. Twenty gutted out C-130K transports sat quietly. Mechanics swarmed over the hulks, looking like flies on carcasses.

Goldman entered the barn and began inspecting each aircraft carefully. Random found a seat and waited for Goldman to finish. It was a long wait as Goldman seemed intent upon inspecting each aircraft carefully.

An hour later, Random tired of waiting and went looking for the Colonel. He found Goldman at the back of the barn with the chief mechanic. “Did you find what you were looking for, sir?” Random asked.

“No. I found twenty disabled aircraft that should have been decommissioned two years ago,” Goldman replied.

“The mechanics have been killing themselves trying to get a couple of these old birds back in the air, sir.”

“Don’t hold your breath son.” Goldman looked back at the aircraft. “Do you believe in God, Lieutenant?”

“Why, sir?”

“Because, you’re asking these mechanics to work miracles.” Goldman smiled but his voice sounded serious.

“You’re certain they can’t be repaired?”

“Don’t get me wrong, this is a good crew and they could probably keep about half of these wrecks in the air. Honestly son, these aircraft are spent. These god-forsaken crates have been through hell. The lot of them should never fly again. I’ve seen enough. This mechanic has informed me that the MH-47G transports are even worse. Is that true?”

“Yes sir.”

“Good lord, what happened, son?”

“Old aircraft, heavy demand, and no spare parts, sir,” Random answered honestly.

Goldman nodded and said with an air of finality, “I’m approving your requisitions, Lieutenant and I’m adding some things to the list. Not that it will help you any. Let’s get out of here.”

As the two men headed for the exit, Goldman began speaking again, “For the meantime, I am setting up an office in the control tower here to oversee the delivery and installation of the new equipment.”

“Yes sir, I will see to it that your gear is shipped here,” Random responded.

Random saluted the Colonel. “If you don’t need me, sir, I have some errands to run before I return to Central.”

“No, Lieutenant, you’re free to go. I will be in touch as soon as the material arrives,” Goldman answered absentmindedly.

Random headed for his UH-60N. He waited until he was out of earshot before he burst out laughing. [Goldy may never fly in a heliplane again, _]he thought,[ _]remembering Goldman’s reaction to the heli flight.

He also remembered the heliplane’s cough. He returned to the hanger and asked the chief to look over the engines. While he waited for the chief to look over his machine, he considered the heads up that Goldman had given him. They’re setting me, and anybody associated with me, up to take the fall for this fiasco. Well, if I’m going down, I’m sure as hell not going to go down without a fight. Hopefully I can take some of the sorry bastards with me.

The chief mechanic inspected the engines and then came over to talk to Random. “She’ll fly sir, but I’d limit her speed and be very careful landing. That internal Tesla Turbine engine is running rough, which is a bad thing. Normally you can switch to one of the propfans to drive the generators in an emergency, but your propfans aren’t running very well either.”

“I need it to get me to the Monitoring Station by tonight. Will she make it?” Random asked.

“I don’t know sir. It’s in better shape than anything we have in the hanger, but that’s not saying much. I think she’ll get you there Ok, but I’m not going to be the one flying her.”

“Ok chief. I’ll be very careful.”

Random stepped over to his heliplane and checked over his fuel levels. He then made sure that all of the external systems were intact. When he was finished, he climbed into the cockpit.

Once seated, he reached over started the Tesla Turbine engine. As the engine ran, he felt a faint vibration, and he heard an equally faint grinding noise. The chief engineer was right. That engine is running rough. He gave it another few seconds to warm up before he engaged the alternators.

With the alternators engaged, the heliplane’s systems began to power up. After thirty seconds, the systems reached full power. He studied the gauges for a moment, and then ignited the propfans. Both engines responded, but the left engine was only generating about sixty percent power. [_She’ll fly, but it’ll be a long slow flight home, _]he thought.

Random powered up the electric motor and engaged the rotor. After a few seconds he lifted the heliplane smoothly into the air and began to glide forward. Random powered both propfans up to about fifty percent and then engaged the prop blades to generate forward thrust.

He pulled back on the stick and the heliplane climbed gently and slowly up to one hundred meters. As his forward airspeed climbed above one-hundred-and-fifty, he disengaged the electric motor, allowing the rotor to spin freely. Random remembered Goldman’s reaction when he’d disengaged the rotor earlier and laughed, releasing the tension that had gripped him since Goldman’s arrival.

The heli responded sluggishly to his commands. One look at his output gauges sobered him. The gauge for his propfans was climbing slowly, too slowly. Damn! Come on old girl. One more flight. I’d better take it easy. It’s a good thing Goldman isn’t aboard on this flight. Flying a wounded bird is tough enough without a skittish passenger to worry about, he thought as he looked at the propfan output gauges again. The gauges confirmed what his ears already told him. He had a problem. His left propfan was running at less than fifty percent.

[More than enough power to fly if I’m very careful, _]he thought.[ A long, slow flight, but I’m not about to wait for another aircraft to be sent down from the Station. One morning with Goldman was enough. If I wait, I won’t get out of here until tomorrow. By that time, I may never get the opportunity to complete my plans._]

Random flew slowly down the side canyon and glided towards the main valley. The craft slowly accelerated to two hundred kph. The heliplane skimmed across the lake and past the dam. He decided to keep the extra two hundred meters he’d picked up flying over the dam as he glided down the valley and out onto the plains. The Tesla Turbine engine sputtered.

[_There’s no way I’m flying this bird up the slot on the way back, _]he thought as he swung the heliplane out over the plains. Sixty minutes later, out over the plains, south of the Huong River, the turbine engine stalled. The electronic systems on the heli began to crash as Random frantically tried to restart the engine.

Choke, sputter, cough, gallop, miss, gallop, miss, hummm, the engine returned to life and the electronics slowly recovered. [She’s never going to make it to the Monitoring Station. Have to try for some place closer, _]he thought.[ _]

He checked his altimeter. It indicated two hundred and seventy meters. The heli had dropped thirty meters during the stall. His air speed indicator still showed two hundred kph, but the power output on both propfans had dropped to thirty percent. [Can’t risk trying to fly over the dam back to the main airport. I’m only thirty meters above the dam now and the old girl doesn’t have the power to climb. If she stalls again . . . ., _]his thoughts trailing off.[ _]

His thoughts continued to drift as he guided the aircraft northward. [The Monitoring Station is four hundred klicks due east. Half an hour at top speed, closer to two hours at this speed. _]Random looked at his gauges again.[ She’s never gonna make it. The capital city of Xi’an is two hundred klicks west along the river. She just might make it there. Besides, Governor Li will want to talk to me about Goldy._] Random banked the heli to the west, and began following the course of the river.

Three harrowing hours later, the capital city of Xi’an crept into view. Random’s heliplane had dropped speed and altitude the entire time. He switched on the electric motor about forty minutes out from the capital, hoping to generate enough lift to keep from flying into the ground. With the electric motor running, he checked his gauges again. The first gauge indicated that his speed was one hundred and thirty kilometers per hour. The second gauge showed his altitude to be sixty meters and slowly dropping.[_ Not much room for error, _]he thought.

Nightfall approached as the heliplane swept up a wide avenue, leading to the capitol dome. Xi’an was not a populous city, but it covered a sixty kilometer square. As usual, the streets were deserted. Large areas of the city served as temporary housing for newly arrived colonists, so barracks-like structures lined most of the streets, isolated from the permanent residences by high stone walls.

Below, a solitary police cruiser followed Random’s heliplane down the avenue. Random saw the outer wall of the capitol compound come into view. He aimed for a low spot, between two towers, pulled back on the stick and prayed.

The heliplane arced, gracefully, up and over the wall, and then died, slamming to the ground. Inside the compound, sirens began sounding and emergency lights flashing. Uniformed security men rushed to the rescue.

Minutes later, a medical team climbed into the heliplane and examined Random. The team removed him from the wreckage and placed him on a stretcher. Mr. Wu directed the stretcher party into the capitol’s medical center where a doctor began a thorough examination. Mr. Wu looked on and asked, “Well, will he live?”

The doctor looked up from his patient and answered, “He should be just fine. Nothing broken. Could you hand me that vial?” The doctor pointed to a small bottle.

Mr. Wu picked up the vial and opened it. “Whew, smells horrible. What is it?”

“Ammonia crystals, smelling salts to you. It should smell bad. Bad enough to shock the patient into consciousness again.”

The doctor took the vial and held it under Random’s nose for a moment. Random shuddered and pulled his head away from the bottle. “Don’t try to move, Lieutenant. You’ve had a nasty knock on the head.”

Random opened his eyes and the room swam. He closed them and settled back. “Where am I?” he asked.

“The Capitol’s medical ward. How do you feel?” the doctor asked.

Random didn’t answer for a moment. “Like shit. Everything hurts. How did I get here?”

“Mr. Wu brought you. Your heliplane crashed on the grounds.”

“My compliments to Mr. Wu. How’s the heliplane?”

Wu shuffled his feet for a moment, and then answered, “The aircraft is a total loss. My men are trying to keep the wreckage from burning the palace.”

Random groaned. He remembered the engines stalling as the heli clawed for altitude to clear the wall. He also remembered the heliplane tipping forward as it glided silently into the ground. “I didn’t mean to make such a dramatic entrance.”

“The governor will be pleased to hear that you are unharmed. Personally, I wish it had been that SSF Colonel in the aircraft.”

Random laughed, and then groaned in pain. “The governor is worried about Goldman then?”

“Who isn’t?”

Wu turned and left. Random settled back on the bed and thought, [_Wu is right. Who isn’t worried about Goldman? _]The doctor gave Random a pain reliever and a sedative and ordered him to sleep.

Much later, Random stood on a balcony, overlooking the city. The Chang River sparkled, in the distance. The southern horizon glowed, a baleful red. [With the volcanic ash, sunrises and sunsets are spectacular, here, _]he thought.[ _]

Someone opened the door behind him and Random turned to see a servant with a tray entering the room. The servant placed the tray on a table and stepped out onto the balcony. “How are you feeling this morning, Lieutenant Hause?” he asked.

“Much better, thank you. What’s happening out there?” Random asked as he looked out over the city.

“The city is quiet this morning. The Akagi consul sends his sympathy and hopes you will recover soon and Mr. Wu would like to speak with you.”

Random shrugged and answered, “Let the Akagi consul know that I am grateful for his well-wishes, and tell Mr. Wu that I would be glad to speak with him.” The servant bowed and left.

A few moments later, Mr. Wu entered the room and said, “I have been informed that you feel ready for company.”

Random stepped back into the room and replied, “As ready as I’m going to get.”

Wu inspected the tray. “A good breakfast. Do you feel ready to discuss business?”

Random stepped over to the table. “After breakfast. Care to join me?”

Wu looked uncomfortable. “Perhaps, a little, I have eaten already.”

The men seated themselves at the table. Breakfast consisted of; steamed trout fillets, boiled pheasant eggs, and fresh wheat bread. Mr. Wu proceeded to stuff generous portions of each into his mouth. [Healthy appetite for a man who’s already eaten, I wonder what he had for breakfast? _]Random thought[._]

Wu wiped his face and leaned back. “A marvelous breakfast. The governor and I would like to hear about Colonel Goldman.”

Random chuckled. “I knew you would. Shall we go?”

Wu nodded, then stood up and led the way out of the room. As always, Random was amazed by the grandeur of the Capitol building. Minutes later, they stepped through a set of double doors, into a vast audience chamber. The governor greeted them with, “Welcome. Come in, we have much to talk about.”

Random bowed politely and answered, “Good day, Governor.” Servants brought chairs for Random and Wu.

“What can you tell us about Colonel Goldman, then?”

Random looked at the floor for a moment. “Goldman’s a good man, a bit of a zealot and a prude, but a good man. Oddly enough, he let slip that his father has been thinking about me.”

“His father? That is strange. I’ll look into it. Other than that strange comment, do you trust this Colonel?” Li raised his eyebrows.

“I trust the Colonel to follow his orders to the letter. If the SSF orders him to lie, cheat, and steal, he will do so, without qualms. On the flight down to the airport he talked about removing New Beijing’s charter.”

Governor Li drummed his fingers on the desk top. “That would mean war. Does this Colonel want war?”

“I really don’t think it matters what Goldman wants. It won’t be Goldman making the decisions.”

“But Goldman will be carrying out the orders.”

“Yes. That’s true. I’m not certain what Goldman personally wants. He seemed like a decent chap with an unpleasant job to do.”

Mr. Wu spoke up, “What do you feel the SSF will want, Lieutenant?”

Random looked at Wu. “New Beijing has become an embarrassment. The SSF will try to eliminate the problem. I’m certain that they’re setting me up as the fall guy. I’m not certain about who else they plan on dragging down as well, but it’s for sure the real criminals are going to get a walk,” he replied with a trace of bitterness.

“I see. What will you do, Lieutenant?”

“I will obey the law.”

“Your superiors might not like that.” Wu responded. Random nodded in agreement.

The governor began, “What will Goldman do about the records?”

“The SSF will order him to destroy the records. No evidence, no crime.”

“That would be a criminal act.”

“Yes, sir. I’m aware of that.”

“You seem unconcerned about the consequences of such an action.”

“On the contrary, I am very concerned about the consequences. I can assure you that I will not be the one destroying evidence.”

There was an uncomfortable pause before the Governor asked, “Does Goldman know about the copy of the records that you have given to my staff?”

“I doubt it. If he did, I might well be dead by now. His superiors, and mine for that matter, would likely consider turning the records over to you as treason. If he suspects that I have given you a copy, he will stop at nothing to make sure that it is destroyed,” Random replied.

“Treason or no, Lieutenant, if those records are destroyed, you will not leave New Beijing.” The Governor’s response had an air of finality.

“I’m aware of that Governor.”

“Very well, then. I shall enjoy speaking with this Colonel.”

“I will arrange a meeting.”

The governor cut him off with, “Don’t trouble yourself. My security men will deliver the summons. Let’s move to a more pleasant topic. How is Miss Han working out?”

Random chuckled. “I don’t think Goldman will take kindly to being summoned. As for Miss Han, she is proving to be an excellent office manager.”

“Office manager. Pah, a glorified secretary!” the governor smiled. “Most men on New Beijing wouldn’t waste her charms behind a terminal, but I forget your western upbringing.”

Random laughed and thought. Bullshit, you old weasel. I doubt you forget anything. “I’ve considered other uses for her talents, Governor, but somehow it just doesn’t seem right.”

The Governor smiled. “Americans have such limiting mind sets. Her contract is safe then?”

“The contract is safe. I will honor it. Mainly because of my respect for you, as well as for her.”

“I’m glad that you understand honor, Lieutenant. Not many westerners do.” Governor Li sounded satisfied.

“Thank you Governor,” Random replied.

The Governor looked at Wu before he continued, “How long will it be before our transport capacity is restored?”

“Count on two weeks, sir,” Random answered honestly.

Governor Li’s eyes narrowed and he gazed intently at Random for a moment before answering, “I will refer this meeting to my UN delegation on Echo World. I am unsatisfied with the answers you have given me.”

Random stood and answered, “Please do Governor. I am unsatisfied with the answers I have to give. Perhaps your delegation will have better luck.”

The Governor looked up. “You have faced difficulties trying to rectify the situation?”

“Ever since I arrived, the AUN has stone-walled me. Now they send out this SSF colonel to bury me,” Random answered with a touch of anger. He knew that Governor Li was fully aware of the AUN response to the steps that Random had taken to rectify the situation.

The Governor listened patiently then stood and walked to where Random was standing. He took Random’s arm and said, “Walk with me, back to your quarters.” Random nodded and began walking with the Governor. “You must remember to be careful. Even in the palace, the walls have ears. Tread very gently, Lieutenant. Someone is hunting dangerous game and you’re being set up as the Judas Goat.”

“Staked out as bait for the tigers and getting badly mauled in the process. Thank you Governor, I understand the reference. Why are you warning me? I’m not family?” Random sounded a little puzzled.

“I like you, Lieutenant. For an American, you are a very honorable man. Besides, I have my niece to consider.” Random laughed. After a moment, the Governor continued, “Take every precaution, to protect yourself. Don’t be afraid to use Miss Han, she is both reliable and trustworthy.”

The two men walked in silence awhile before Random responded, “I will have to contact my superiors before I can officially release the records.”

“Then do so. They will, of course, deny the request.”

“I’m certain of it.”

They reached the rooms where Random was staying. “Do not continue to avoid me. It appears we can be of use to one another, and it would be a foolish thing to antagonize a potential ally. I don’t envy you Lieutenant. The road ahead of you is difficult enough. Try not to make it impossible.”

“I understand Governor. Thank you for the advice. I shall definitely keep it in mind. If that is all, I will wish you a good day,” Random bowed and answered. He couldn’t recall any previous attempt to avoid meeting Governor Li.

“Good day Lieutenant Hause.” The governor slightly tipped his head.

Chapter Seven: I Shot an Arrow Into the Air . . . .

*Saturday April 14th, 2046 *

Xi’an, New Beijing.

 

Random looked out over the city of Xi’an. The sun sat low on the horizon, colorizing his view with another spectacular New Beijing sunrise. The mountains in the distance glowed red and gold, with reflected color.

A few minutes later, he scanned the horizon again, hoping to see a heliplane approach. The heli wasn’t due to arrive until nightfall, but Random couldn’t wait. He started anxiously pacing the balcony once again. He had been pacing the balcony since his meeting with Governor Li.

Random wanted no part of the sacrificial lamb role, only time would tell whether he had found a way to keep the tiger from mauling him. He turned the situation over and over in his mind, wondering whether he was doing the right thing, whether he should have contacted his superiors with his evidence, before going to the public.

Random carefully considered his chain of command for, what seemed to be the hundredth time, Whom could I have trusted? Goldy is just doing his job. Tupelov seems like a good man, but trusting him would be dicey, at best. My regimental commander, Colonel Simpkins is a non-entity. I’m absolutely certain that he wouldn’t lift a finger to help. My division commander Von Francois and Company Commander Plekhanov, seem to be in league on the scandal and would surely protect one another. That leaves me with corps commander Field Marshal Agostinyak. Could he be trusted? Based on Goldman’s assessment, I doubt it. That rules out the AUN and leaves me with Governor Li. At least he’s an honest cutthroat.

Random scanned the horizon again. Life is very complicated, at the moment, _]he thought. A noise distracted him. [_Engines! I hear engines, but it’s, too, early for the heliplane from the Station. Random thought as he looked to the west, into the rising sun.

A red C-130K moved in the distance, back lit by the sun. Random watched until the Capitol blocked the plane from sight. I wonder who that is. I suppose I’ll find out soon enough. He began pacing the balcony again.

At the capital’s airport, Colonel Martin Goldman stepped off the transport, very agitated. He was not used to being summoned and he didn’t like it. Especially at 04:00. Perhaps the prospect of being mortal frightened him. He had planned, too carefully, too precisely, for something to have gone amiss so soon. He had been certain that a bunch of yokels and a naive Lieutenant couldn’t have moved so quickly.

“Colonel Goldman, I am director Wu Ping, head of New Beijing Security. You will follow me,” Security Director Wu Ping said authoritatively.

Goldman gaped at Wu. He decided to bring this yokel to his senses, saying, “Listen, I don’t care if you’re Mao Tse Tung reincarnated, you have no authority to drag me away from my office. Especially at 04:00.”

Mr. Wu smiled evilly. “You will find, Colonel, that on New Beijing, I have the authority to do precisely as I wish. You will follow me please.” Acid dripped from his voice.

Goldman blanched momentarily and said uncertainly, “I’m not going anywhere until I have an explanation.”

Wu didn’t feel like explaining. He turned to his men and said, “Escort the colonel. If he resists, carry him.”

Wu turned and walked towards the compound gates. After a brief struggle, Goldman followed, bristling with rage. No one accosted an SSF officer, but Wu didn’t seem to care. Instead, he led Goldman to the same set of double doors that Random had passed through earlier.

Upon reaching the doors, he turned to Goldman and said, “Governor Li is waiting for you inside, Colonel.”

“Good, he’s got some fancy explaining to do,” Goldman snarled. Wu flexed his evil smile again. Goldman chose to ignore the smile and went through the doors.

Inside, Governor Li sat on a raised dais at the far end of the room, discussing something with a man in uniform. Goldman cleared his throat and began, “Governor Li, I demand an explanation.” Li ignored him.

Goldman’s face flushed and he shouted, “Do you know who I am?” Again there was silence. Goldman’s fists clenched and he raged, “I am an SSF officer. SSF officers are immune to planetary laws.” More silence. Goldman had enough. He strode angrily towards the governor. “You’re making a huge mistake, Governor.”

Li looked up from his conversation with a steely smile. He made a small gesture and a pair of burly security men stepped forward and prevented Goldman from advancing further. The Governor addressed Goldman calmly, “Colonel Martin Abram Goldman, recently posted to First Security Division, New York Hub, Echo World. Please be seated. Your outbursts bore me.”

Goldman sat in the chair provided, stunned. After a moment he said, “Your intelligence is very good, Governor. For all the good it will do you. Explain your actions immediately.”

The Governor looked at Goldman sadly. After a moment he said, “Colonel, you have been brought here to explain irregularities in the AUN’s fulfillment of New Beijing’s development contract.”

Goldman looked about warily. “What irregularities Governor?”

Li’s eyes narrowed. “Please Colonel, don’t be a fool. A crime has been committed against the people of New Beijing. What I want to know is what you’re going to do about it?”

Goldman looked away from Li’s stare and slammed his fist against the arm of the chair. He muttered “Hause, that little bastard will pay for this.”

Li interrupted with an icy voice, “You have not answered my question, Colonel.” Goldman sat back in his chair and stared at the floor, in silence. Li continued, in the same icy voice, “Very well then, this morning, my embassy on Echo World filed a criminal complaint. I have just received confirmation that UN Off-world Security Service has ordered all records of UN activity on New Beijing be turned over to me, immediately. Failure to do so will be a criminal act with at least a twenty five year sentence for those responsible.”

Goldman looked around; suddenly this yokel appeared to be more than capable of interfering with his plans. The concept of spending the next twenty five years as an indentured servant on this backwater played at the edges of his mind. He decided to play for time. “I will have to contact my superiors before I can take any action on your request.”

Li shook his head sadly. “I understand Colonel. I had hoped you would make things easy and turn over the records now, but I am willing to wait.”

The interview appeared to be over. Goldman stood and said, “Good day Governor.”

“Good day Colonel,” Li answered dismissively as he watched Goldman stalk out of the room. He spoke quietly to the shadows, “Do you think I pushed him, too hard, Ike?”

A gray haired man in a rumpled army overcoat stepped from the shadows and chuckled. “Not at all Governor, I think you set the hook very well. Let’s just hope Hause can reel in this fish without getting swallowed, eh. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go and set some people to finding out what old Ephraim Goldman is up to.” Both men sighed and watched the double doors.

About half an hour later, back in his suite, Random heard the outer door of the suite slam. He stepped off the balcony. “You’re a fool Lieutenant,” Goldman spat icily as he strode into Random’s room.

Random looked at Goldman, frowned, and answered calmly, “Please come in. Bad day, sir?”

“Cut the bullshit Hause. I’ve just come from a very unpleasant meeting with Governor Li and I think I know where he got his information, or at least part of it.”

Random looked at Goldman for a moment, and then answered, “Sorry to hear that sir. Believe it or not, I had much the same meeting with Governor Li last night. He knew all about Plekhanov’s activities, and he ordered me to release those records.”

“And did you?”

Random walked over to the dry sink and poured himself a glass of wine from the pitcher that had come with his dinner. “Care for some wine, sir?” Goldman spat in response. Random shrugged and continued, “No I didn’t give him the records. I didn’t have them to give, but it really didn’t matter. He already had all of the information he needed.”

Goldman shook his head slowly. “What did you tell him?”

“I told him that I would seek approval to release the records from my superiors, sir.”

Goldman stared at Random, trying to dissect him. “Do you have any idea of what kind of trouble those records will cause on Echo World?”

Random replied calmly, “Holy terror, sir.”

“You understand then, that those records can never see the light of day.”

“Yes sir. I also understand that in the name of justice, those records must be published.” Random sipped his wine.

The two men faced each other. After several moments, Goldman began, “Right! The sad thing is that I agree with you. Those records need to come to light so we can flush the real cockroaches out of the system, but it’s never going to happen. Where are the records now, Lieutenant?”

“On the computer back at the Station, sir,” Random replied.

“You’ve made no copies then?”

“None, sir.”

Goldman laughed. “I don’t believe you’re that stupid, son. In any case, whatever happened here was big. Too big for one man, it took a large and efficient organization to carry it off. I find it odd that there were records left at all. It’s like somebody wanted to be found out.”

Random found a chair and sat. “Perhaps it’s a ruse, something to draw us off course.”

Goldman walked over to the dry sink and poured himself a glass of wine. After a sip he nodded and said, “That’s an interesting possibility. Let me contact my office before you contact your superiors.”

Random took a drink and replied, “Yes sir. I was just wondering whom I should contact though. I mean, if Von Francois is protecting Plekhanov?”

Goldman chuckled. “True enough. Leave it for now.”

“No problem, sir.”

Goldman shook his head and chuckled softly. He muttered, “A fool and his money,” as he sipped his wine and then stared at the floor for a moment. “How reliable is Governor Li?”

“He’s an honorable man Colonel. If he has given his word, he will keep it. He definitely won’t sell out his people.”

“What about his Security Forces?”

“What about them sir?” Random sounded puzzled.

“How well organized are they?”

“Oh. Well enough, they don’t have state-of-the-art equipment, but they’re damned persistent.”

Goldman chose a course of action. “Good enough Lieutenant, It’s going to take me a day or two to clear things with my superiors. I’ll see you then. Replacement equipment should begin arriving,” he looked up for a moment, checking his telnet, before continuing, “this evening. I’ll expect most of your systems to be back on line within seventy-two hours.”

“Great, B Section will be assigned to surveillance duty at the airport.” Random turned and headed back for the balcony.

Goldman interrupted him, “By the way Lieutenant, what all do you have under your command?”

“A full platoon plus a detachment of engineers and ten UH-60N’s. One went down last night.”

“I saw the wreck on the helipad, outside. Just take it easy and don’t get any strange ideas, Ok, Lieutenant?” Goldman didn’t wait for a response. Instead, he turned and exited the room.

Random watched Goldman walk out of the room before he returned to the balcony to continue pacing. A short while later, he watched as the C-130K that had brought Goldman to the capital lifted off and faded into the distance. [_I don’t know if I’m ready for this. Teaching high school doesn’t prepare you to play this kind of hard ball. It’s definitely too late to turn back now. _]Random thought as he chuckled quietly.

[Meyer always said I was a cynical bastard. I bet even he’s never seen treachery on this scale. _]Random stared wistfully into the distance as he thought,[ What I’d give to be sitting in the school cafeteria and talking to that old goat._]

Random was still sitting out on the balcony in the moonlight, trying to plan a safe resolution to his scheme, when he heard the heliplane approach. He stood, gathered up his goods, and ran through the palace, then out onto the grounds, to the helipad.

When he reached the pad, Random jumped on board the new craft as soon as the propfans had shut down. Sensing Random’s agitation, the pilot swallowed the questions he wanted to ask. As Random buckled in, the pilot fired up the engines, and lifted off almost immediately, setting off for the Monitoring Station.

It was a long quiet flight back. The two men sat in silence. Random focused on the terrain passing by beneath, the pilot focused on his gauges and flying the aircraft. After a little more than an hour, the heliplane drifted in softly for a landing, outside the Monitoring Station. Random unbuckled and jumped from the cockpit before the blades had stopped turning. Once outside the heliplane, he immediately ran inside.

The Station was deserted. [_Good. I won’t have to order them out. _]Random thought as he gathered up his copies of the records and sat down at his terminal. A message light was flashing. Random tapped a key, calling up the message. Cynthia Han’s face popped onto the screen. “Hello sir, a Second Lieutenant Turner wired from Akagi. Her plane is due here tomorrow morning. She’s looking forward to her horseback riding trip.”

Carol Anne Turner, I wonder if she’d been able to make her deliveries. Random wondered as he punched up Cynthia’s personal code. Moments later she answered the call. “Cynthia Han speaking. Oh! Hello sir.” She sounded worried.

“I need you back in the office, Cynthia. Where did Second Lieutenant Turner get the idea that we were going riding?”

Cynthia looked down for a second, and then answered shyly, “I suggested it, sir. I’m sorry if I was out of line. I can be back in the office in twenty minutes.”

Random shook his head. “You’ve nothing to be sorry about. In fact, you’ve done exactly what I wanted. I need to speak to Ms. Turner. I’ll see you in twenty minutes.”

Random switched off the call and began issuing orders. Section A to the flashover, Section B to the Main Airport, Section C to the Monitoring Station, and the Engineer detachment to begin a structural analysis of the two completed power stations.

Random also included a proviso on each command. All outside requests had to be cleared through him before being complied with. He knew that the proviso could possibly be interpreted as treasonous, but it was too late to worry about the fine points of the law now.

Random checked on the copy of the records he had placed in the safe. He also found the copy of the records that he had stashed in his gear. With both copies in hand, he sat down at the terminal and made another copy.

He placed this new copy into a diplomatic pouch bound for the Prefect of New France’s delegation on Echo World. Random hoped the pouch left New Beijing without being molested, and that the diplomats on Echo World wouldn’t toss out the core before checking its contents.

Cynthia arrived within twenty minutes, as promised. She strolled into the outer office just as Random was coming out to meet her. She looked at Random and frowned. “What’s the problem sir?”

Random stared at her for a second, before plunging in, “We have to talk. Want to go horseback riding?”

“Is Uncle in trouble sir?” She looked concerned.

Random hunched his shoulders and pushed his hands into his pockets and answered, “We’re all in trouble.”

Random followed her out to the stables. Two horses were saddled and waiting. She smiled. “I thought you might want some privacy sir. The gray has a sat phone in the saddle bag if we need it.”

Random laughed softly. “You think of everything, don’t you?”

Cynthia shrugged. “I try sir,” she answered cheerfully.

Random and Cynthia mounted the horses and then rode west, into the valley. As they rode, he told her about Goldman. Random also told her about the favor he had asked of Carol Turner. Cynthia stopped her horse. “Was she able to do it sir?”

“I don’t know. It was a dangerous task.”

The next morning, Second Lieutenant Carol Turner sat on her horse looking very sure of herself. “Piece of cake. I gave one copy to the Inspector General’s Office and I gave the second copy to your mom. She says she’s fine, by the way, and wishes that you’d write more often. The Captain delivered the third copy to the Prime Minister’s office at number ten, Downing Street, and then he delivered the fourth copy to the office of the Chairman of the UN Off-world Assembly,” she said, proudly.

Random looked down at the ground, feeling ashamed, and he answered, “I’m sorry to have put you through that. It was dangerous and I put both of your lives at risk. I know it sounds lame, but it was the only way I could see to get some protection from the storm.”

“Don’t be sorry. It was fun. The Captain and I loved it. We’ve been doing the milk run for ages; it felt good to have a little thrill.”

“I still feel bad for putting you both at risk.”

Second Lieutenant Turner rode ahead. When Random caught up with her she stopped again and asked, “You’re still in trouble aren’t you?”

Random looked at her for a moment and nodded. “Yes. The SSF is going to set me up to take the blame for everything that has gone wrong on New Beijing.”

Carol Turner tousled her horse’s mane and said, “No. That’s just wrong.” She looked at the ground for a moment then continued, “Ok, so what are we going to do about this?”

Random released his breath audibly. “If those copies got through, then I think you’ve done enough for now.”

She looked at Random incredulously. “No way, if this is as explosive as you say it is, I want to make sure that the damned fools read it.”

Random looked at her, surprised by her determination. “I can’t think of any way to make sure those files are read. What had you in mind?”

Carol Turner smiled wickedly. “Don’t you worry about that, soldier. Just make sure you keep your head down. Speaking of unnecessary risks, did you know that your ‘hooker’ has been moving heaven and earth, trying to have you recalled?”

Random looked at her, his eyes wide open. “You’re joking, right?”

Second Lieutenant Turner laughed and answered, “Not a chance. What have you stumbled into anyway?”

Random felt numb and he wondered, [_Carol was right. What have I stumbled into? _]He studied her for a moment, and then asked, “What possible basis could she have for trying to have me recalled?’

“She claims to be with child.”

“She what? . . . . Well, I . . Um . . suppose it’s possible, but to be honest, I don’t actually remember any of that taking place.” Random was truly surprised.

“Seems like you’d remember that kind of thing doesn’t it?” Random nodded in reply.

As Random and Carol Turner rode, they explored the upper reaches of the Huong River Valley. They talked a little, but mostly just enjoyed their time together. Above the three river junction, the valley turned to canyons. Narrow, twisting, and strewn with boulders. Beautiful scenery, but Random couldn’t shake the feeling that it was also perfect country for an ambush. It was perfect country for hunting as well. Random brought down a deer on the first day. They dressed the deer out, keeping enough aside for the next day.

Once the deer had been dressed out, he and Carol quickly bathed in the icy river and dried and warmed themselves by the fire. Random prepared roast venison and wild onions for dinner. After dinner, feeling well fed, but cold, they bundled into the giant sleeping bag and snuggled together to keep warm.

The next morning, Random called the Monitoring Station on the sat phone that Cynthia had left in the saddle bags. He asked for a heliplane to come out and pick up the deer. The men in C Section would have fresh venison for dinner. After the call, Random and Carol broke camp and headed further up river.

At midday they stopped along the river and ate a packaged meal. “This isn’t anywhere near as tasty or as fresh as the fish and venison we’ve been eating,” Carol groused.

“True enough. It’s hard telling exactly what this stuff is supposed to be,” Random replied. After a moment, he continued, “Have you decided what you’re going to do?”

She smiled at him sweetly, “I said, don’t you worry about me soldier. Have you ever thought about packing it all in and just going native?”

“I have, but that wouldn’t solve the problem. The only way to solve the problem is to force the UN to deal with the scandal. I can’t do that by going native.” Random sounded determined.

Second Lieutenant Turner gripped his arm and held him to her tightly, “Then I can’t sit back and watch it happen either. You’re one of the few people I actually care about. For sure, you’re the only man I actually care about.”

Random looked at her, not knowing exactly what to make of her last comment. “What about the Captain, or your father?”

Carol was quiet for a long time. Then she answered, “I work with the Captain. I don’t care for him that way and I would certainly never do something like this with him.” She waved taking in the valley.

“And your father?”

Second Lieutenant Turner grimaced. She sat quietly, for a long time, before she answered, “I’m not real comfortable talking about dear old dad. Mom found him putting the moves on my older sister. She ran his ass out of the house. After that, it was real easy for me to operate under the assumption that all men were scum. I’ve found them easy to work with, but I couldn’t ever really form a relationship. It’s always been easier for me to form relationships with women.”

Random looked at her even more puzzled than before. “I’m confused.”

Carol looked at him with an odd mixture of tears and joy on her face. “Yeah, me too.”

Random and Second Lieutenant Turner spent the rest of the afternoon marveling over the spectacular scenery as they rode. Near sunset, they made camp, built a fire, and prepared to cook an evening meal of venison and wild onions.

As the sun set, Random pulled Second Lieutenant Turner aside and together they watched the blazing glory that was a New Beijing sunset. “Why didn’t you show me this yesterday?”

“We have a better view today.”

“Oh. Is it always like this?”

“No. some nights are more special than others.”

“Is tonight special?” Random just grinned in response.

They sat quietly, enjoying the sunset. When it had passed, Carol asked, “Are you cooking tonight, or am I?” Random didn’t answer immediately so after a moment, she said, “I’ll cook tonight. I’m glad we met Lieutenant Random Arthur Hause. I think I’m feeling a little less confused.”

“I’m glad that I could be so helpful Second Lieutenant Carol Anne Turner,” Random answered not feeling any less confused. After dinner, they again spread out the huge sleeping bag they had first used on Echo World and climbed in. Once again, they talked, cuddled for a while, and went to sleep.

Random saw Carol Turner off at the central airport the next afternoon. Three days had passed since his morning meeting with Goldman. Random felt like he had been run through a wringer, but he was oddly at peace. [_What was it that Doris Day used to sing, “Que sera, sera? Whatever was coming was coming, I’ll just deal with it. _]he thought.

Chapter Eight: Targets

Wednesday April 18th, 2046

AUN Monitoring Station, Huong River Valley

New Beijing

 

Random awoke to a loud pounding on his door. C Section’s non-com shouted to reinforce the pounding, “Lieutenant Hause, sir, two people are here to see you. Colonel Goldman and Director Wu Ping. What should I tell them?”

Random groaned loudly. He wanted to tell the non-com where his two visitors could go. He had been having a pleasant dream about setting up a company to run riding expeditions into the valley and he really didn’t want to wake up and face whatever Goldman and Wu Ping wanted to talk about. “Tell them that I’ll be out in ten minutes. Get me some very black coffee first,” he shouted.

The Corporal stopped banging on the door and said quieter, “Yes sir. I could bring you a wake up tab if you’d prefer.”

Normally Random avoided the synthesized protein tablets, but with both Wu and Goldman waiting outside, he needed to be fully alert. “Corporal, get me a tab and some coffee.”

The Corporal paused for a moment then replied, “Yes sir, immediately sir.”

Random rolled out of bed and began to fumble for his clothes. He wondered, [What in the hell were Goldman and Wu doing at the Monitoring Station at 06:00? There was, definitely, no _]good[ reason for them to be there._]

A few moments later, the Corporal returned with the coffee and the wake up tab. Random ushered the Corporal out of the room and downed both coffee and tab. It didn’t take long for the two to begin their work.

Fully dressed, he strolled into the main office of the Station. Goldman and Wu were waiting for him. Goldman began immediately, “Good morning Lieutenant Hause. I trust you slept well. Where in the hell have you been? SSF-Echo World forwarded instructions to me yesterday morning, and it is urgent that we discuss them. Your office kept telling me you were out of touch all day yesterday. We need to discuss those instructions now. Privately please?”

Random turned to Mr. Wu and said, “Would you object to my meeting with Colonel Goldman before we conduct our business Mr. Wu?”

Wu smiled at him and then at Goldman, like a shark eying its prey. “I have no objections Lieutenant. My business concerns both of you.”

Random bowed slightly and turned to Goldman. He wondered, What the hell is he up to? “We can discuss the instructions in the inner office. If you’ll follow me sir?” Random walked towards the inner office. Colonel Goldman followed.

Inside the office, with the door safely closed, Goldman began, “You haven’t answered my question, Lieutenant. SSF has instructed me to destroy all documentation of Plekhanov’s misdeeds. They have also instructed me to charge you with treason if those documents fall into the wrong hands.”

Random began pacing. “What you’re proposing is insane. At the very least, you’ll drive the Governor into revolution.”

Goldman shrugged, and then nodded his head in agreement. “Nevertheless, I have been instructed to personally oversee the destruction of those records. The big brass is closing ranks on this.”

Random stopped pacing. “And I’m supposed to graciously take the dive for this?”

Goldman smiled. “You got it kid. You’re being hung out to dry for spilling the beans to the Governor.”

“What’s to prevent me from going over to the other side?”

Goldman looked at the floor. He looked like he felt truly sorry for what he had to do to Random. “Nothing, it really won’t matter. You’re going down. It won’t matter if you lay down, or if you fight. You’re still going down.”

“Bastards,” Random spat, then continued, “Plekhanov’s gonna skate free and clear on this isn’t he.”

Goldman spoke calmly, “That’s right. Don’t get in the way when I destroy the records. They made it perfectly clear what I’m to do if you interfere.”

Goldman walked over to the terminal and called up the records. A few quick commands later and the records vanished. He paused for a moment, and then erased all of the AUN records.

He turned to Random. “Where are the copies?”

“What copies, sir?”

Goldman drew his pistol and pointed it at Random. “Don’t be a fool Lieutenant. I know you’re not that stupid.”

Random pointed to the safe. “You’ll need my ID.”

“Good job boy. Now carefully toss the ID to me. I knew you weren’t a complete idiot.”

Random took the ID from his pocket and tossed it to Goldman. The Colonel backed to the safe and opened it. After a moment, he pulled out the disk copy. “No more copies?”

Random looked at his feet. “No more copies, sir.”

Goldman smiled happily. “Excellent. Now let’s go find out what that arrogant little barbarian, Wu Ping, wants. It will feel good to bring him down a few pegs.” Goldman casually tossed the chip into the shredder and headed for the office door.

The machine made a horrible noise as the two men opened the door and stepped out into the main office. Wu Ping was no longer alone. A squad of security men stood at attention. Mr. Wu began, “Good day gentlemen. I have a subpoena for all of the AUN records relating to New Beijing. If those records are not turned over, I am authorized to arrest both of you for contempt of court. Is that clear?”

Goldman laughed nervously. “What records? If you wish, we can search this office. You will find no record of AUN activities on New Beijing. The records you speak of do not exist and, in fact, have never existed. Since nothing remains to be subpoenaed, I assume we are free to leave.”

Wu Ping chuckled. “Not bloody likely. You leave me little choice Colonel. If you claim the records do not exist then you must have attempted to destroy them. I am placing you under house arrest for forty-eight hours. You will have that time to produce the records. Do not attempt to leave.”

Wu turned to Random and asked, “And what about you Lieutenant?”

Random looked first at Goldman, then at Wu. Talk about your Catch 22 situations. This is gonna turn out ugly. “All of the AUN records concerning New Beijing have been destroyed. I will place my entire command at your disposal to assist in apprehending the culprit. I also personally assure you that I will do everything I can to cooperate with your investigation.”

Wu looked smug. “A fine speech Lieutenant, considering that you are a prime suspect. Still, my office will look favorably upon any contributions that you can make.”

Wu turned back to Goldman. “Will you turn over the records?”

Goldman scowled. “As I have said before, Mr. Wu, SSF does not fall under colonial jurisdiction. You would be a fool to attempt to detain me.”

“So you keep saying Colonel. I advise you to cooperate with this investigation.”

Goldman glared at Wu. “Don’t make threats you cannot back up. You haven’t the power to prevent me from leaving.” His voice rippled with contempt.

“Very well,” Wu Ping replied quietly. He turned to Random and said, “Lieutenant Hause, I formally request your assistance in preventing the Colonel from leaving New Beijing until this matter has been resolved.”

[_I’s down to kill or be killed. Choose, _]Random thought. Considering his options, it wasn’t really that difficult a choice. “My men will seal the flashover until this investigation has been concluded. Only personnel with a pass signed by the Governor and countersigned by me will have access. My men can take no part in the Colonel’s arrest.”

Wu bowed politely. “Thank you Lieutenant. That is more than I expected. If you will issue the orders please.”

Before Random could reach the terminal, Goldman shouted, “If you issue those commands, you will be signing your death warrant. Without the records, you don’t have a leg to stand on.”

Random shrugged. “By now the Inspector General and the Chairman of the UN Off-world Assembly will have had at least forty-eight hours to go over the records. At least I won’t be going down alone.” He switched on the terminal and contacted his officers. Each of them accepted the orders without question.

Goldman looked stunned. After a moment he muttered, “You smarmy little son of a bitch. One of these days, I’m going to make you explain to me how you managed to pull that off. You realize, of course, what you’ve done,” Goldman was shaking with shock, rage, and disbelief.

Goldman’s hand clasped and released the grip of his pistol. He turned to Wu, barely able to control his voice. “I assume that my house arrest will be at my temporary headquarters at the central airport control tower.”

“Certainly. Remember Colonel, forty-eight hours,” Wu replied calmly. Goldman didn’t respond. He turned and stormed out of the office, followed by a troop of New Beijing Security officers.

After Goldman left, Wu turned to Random and asked, “You have created some powerful enemies. May I ask why?”

Random looked at the floor and spoke calmly, “I didn’t have a great deal of choice. The SSF seems intent upon setting me up for a big time dive. I don’t like swimming alone. Maybe this way I can stay alive long enough to drag a few of those bastards down with me.”

Wu nodded, smiling. “A dangerous game, but then these are dangerous times.” Random shrugged and the two men bowed politely.

That afternoon, the equipment that Goldman promised, began to arrive on New Beijing. The first shipment was a flight of brand new C-130K’s. Each fully loaded with electronics equipment and spare parts.

The next morning brought in a flight of MH-47G’s, also loaded with spare parts. By evening, all of the aircraft had been unloaded and set into the flight rotation. The Central Airport bustled like never before.

At the center of the bustling airport, Colonel Goldman holed up in his temporary headquarters, able to do little more than play solitaire on his telnet. The frustration at not being in control of his life wore on his nerves. As far as he was concerned, the forty-eight hours couldn’t pass quickly enough.

Colonel Goldman needn’t have waited. The same afternoon that the MH-47G’s landed, both the Inspector General and the Chairman of the UN Off-world Assembly held press conferences. Each announced that their office would be looking into the evidence of massive fraud in the off-world development industry. The attempted cover-up that had sent Colonel Goldman to New Beijing suddenly became part of a much grander show. The wedge between UN Earth and UN Off-world was now firmly set.

On Earth, the BBC News ran a huge investigative report detailing the scandal, naming names and revealing details. Any hope the UN had of controlling the crisis vanished like smoke before the breeze. The BBC never revealed where their information had come from, but Random was praised as a hero in the report, for standing up to a corrupt system and trying to help New Beijing survive the criminal actions.

[*Chapter Nine: Conspiracy *]

Monday April 23rd, 2046

AUN Monitoring Station, Huong River Valley

New Beijing

 

A week passed quickly, after the arrival of the new equipment and new transports. By Friday, all of the new surveillance equipment was in place and returning mountains of information. Regular trade between New Beijing and Akagi was reestablished and running smoothly. The steady income stream began filling the coffers of both colonies and soon they would be able to do more than simply make payments on their massive debt.

On New Beijing, the construction crews building new settlements now actually had machinery to work with. The future looked very promising. There was one glaring problem, Goldman was still sitting, cooped up in his temporary office, in the Central Airport control tower.

Random decided it was time to take positive action. He called Miss Han into his office. “Cynthia, I need to ask you some questions,” he said as she came into the room.

“Yes sir Lieutenant Hause. I will answer them if I can,” she replied.

“Can I trust you to follow instructions exactly?”

She looked at him for a moment. “I will not betray my people sir. Other than that, I will follow whatever directions you give.”

Random considered the limitation for a moment, and then accepted it. “Good. I want you to arrange delivery of a package for me. The package is to be delivered directly to Mr. Wu, and I want it to appear that the package was given to you by Colonel Goldman. Under no circumstances should anyone be able to trace the package back to me. Can you do it?”

Cynthia thought for a while. “Difficult, but not impossible. The Colonel will be suspicious. Security should be less difficult to fool.”

“Granted, but hopefully we can keep Goldy off balance for a while. The package is very important. You are to allow no one but Mr. Wu to see it. Mr. Wu will be very grateful for the package and he will know what to do with it.”

“Very well, I will do as you request on one condition.”

Another condition? Random thought as he asked, “That being?”

“You will owe me one favor. I will decide when the debt has been paid.”

Damn it. I owe enough favors as is. To trust or not to trust. He chose. “Very well, I accept the condition. I’m placing a lot of trust in you Cynthia Han.”

Cynthia smiled. “You will not be disappointed Lieutenant Hause. Cynthia Han will serve you well.”

Random gave her a small package containing a copy of the records and the side by side analysis that he had completed. She accepted the package and left the office. Afterward he buried himself in the mountain of paperwork that was building up on his desk.

The sun had nearly set, Random was restless. Cynthia had been gone for hours, and he’d heard nothing. His felt a faint buzzing on his earlobe and heard a quiet tone sound in his head at the same time.

Random activated his telnet, setting up his opticals as he did so. He brought up a visual display and hesitated a moment before answering, “Lieutenant Hause, Alpha Platoon AUN Monitoring Station.”

Mr. Wu responded from the other end of the connection, “Good day Lieutenant Hause. You may rescind the orders for Colonel Goldman. The records have been delivered to me and he is free to go.”

Random breathed a sigh of relief. “I’m glad the situation has been resolved. I will cancel the orders immediately.”

“Very well, I’d like to thank you for the assistance you’ve given us during this trying time. Governor Li is quite pleased. He is forwarding a very positive report to our UN Off-world representative. Keep in touch,” Wu looked and sounded pleased.

“Tell the Governor that I greatly appreciate his help and that I will definitely keep in touch.”

Random issued the orders as soon as Mr. Wu had closed the connection. [_Perhaps they’ve bought it, _]he thought as, the telnet chimed and buzzed again. Random activated the new incoming signal, and said, “Lieutenant Hause, Alpha Platoon AUN Monitoring Station.”

Colonel Goldman’s face appeared on screen as he spoke, “Hello Lieutenant, either Governor Li has finally come to his senses or you’ve pulled a fast one. In any case, I’m being permitted to leave New Beijing. Is there anything you’d like me to say at your court martial hearing back on Echo World?”

Random thought that Goldman sounded pleased with himself. [Drop dead, _]he thought before answering cheerfully, “No sir. Just tell them the truth. Have a pleasant trip.” Random switched closed the connection, chuckling to himself as he thought; _I hope the bastard has to fly out by heliplane. [_ _]

Random’s ploy seemed to work like a charm. Goldman left New Beijing without bothering to look back. He had arrived on Akagi before the ink was dry on his release from New Beijing. The first hint that Goldman had of how completely he’d been screwed came with his arrest at the Echo World – Akagi flashover. Goldman was charged with treason and dereliction of duty, then taken to Omaha Station and imprisoned.

On Echo World, General Von Francois seemed determined to have Goldman shot. SSF be damned. Within twenty-four hours, the shock waves had bounced all the way back to New Beijing.

That Wednesday, Random, Mr. Wu, Governor Li, and Cynthia Han each received a summons to testify at the UN Off-world Supreme Tribunal at Omaha Station. They were given forty-eight hours to appear. The summons warned that failure to appear would mean contempt of court and obstruction of justice charges. It seemed to Random, that the Supreme Tribunal meant business.

Thursday morning, the four summonees boarded a brand, spanking new, red C-130K that had recently been added to the New Beijing transport pool, courtesy of Colonel Goldman. The four joked that Goldman had done at least one good thing for the colony. Random couldn’t help feeling a little sorry for the SSF Colonel.

Feeling the need to relax, Random took a sleep tab and passed out, soon after takeoff. When he woke, the aircraft was silent. The plane was on Akagi’s Upper Landing Deck, and was waiting for Echo World to come into focus.

Cynthia was curled up, on a pile of blankets, near his side. Why do I find it so easy to trust you with my life? He wondered as he watched her sleep. A short time later, he felt the engines as they fired back to life. The familiar whine of the propfans brought back pleasant memories of flight school.

The plane rumbled down the runway and headed for the flashover. As the plane flew, Random remembered his instructors’ assurance that he’d get used to flashovers. He didn’t believe it. Those few moments of nothingness, inside the flashover still rattled him. He was still thinking about how to prepare when there was a flash of light, and then nothingness.

Just as suddenly as it had entered, the plane shot out of the flashover, into brilliant sunshine. Random watched as Echo World’s Pacific Ocean passed underneath. The E California coast shimmered in the haze some forty miles to the east.

It was a long quiet flight. The plane crossed the E California coast and turned northeast. Random watched as the Coast Ranges passed by. He continued watching as the plane headed inland and out over the E Mojave Desert.

As the E. Mojave passed by underneath, Random remembered that he had flown this route several times during flight training. He knew that soon the pilot would be banking north and east towards Omaha Station, some seventeen-hundred kilometers away. Less than four hours of flight time if all went well.

A magazine lying on the floor caught Random’s attention. He picked it up and began to skim through it. He drifted along as he read. His attention alternated between reading and looking out the window.

Out the window, the E Rocky Mountains looked very impressive in the afternoon sun as they passed by. The day seemed to be passing too quickly for some reason. [_Only a twenty-four hour day here, _]he remembered. He had gotten so used to the longer day on New Beijing, that the day on Echo World now seemed incredibly short. By the time he could see the plains opening up in front of them, it was nearly dark.

Compared to Xi’an, Omaha Station seemed enormous. From the air, Random could see the UN Off-world building. He could tell that it was surrounded by what looked to be at least a thousand residency compounds. He could also see the mile long corridor that made up the business district. Along the corridor, he counted at least seven resort hotels, complete with access to a pair of thirty-six hole golf complexes. The corridor also housed a mammoth shopping mall that he knew held one-hundred-and-thirty-two different shops. In short, Civilization, he thought.

Looking to the east of the commercial district, Random could see the UN Off-world Assembly and governmental center building. He could see more residential compounds clustered along the low bluffs overlooking the E Missouri River. In the middle of these residential compounds, the UN Off-world Supreme Tribunal building sat square and ominous. The building had all of the architectural wonder of a prison.

Random knew that, in fact, a large part of the building was a prison. The north wing of the building served as an auction block. Prisoners were sold into indentured servitude from its stages. He knew that the middle floors of the building were taken up by administrative functions and kitchens. The top three floors of the building were the courtrooms and the offices of the Supreme Tribunal itself. Compared to the rest of the buildings in Omaha Station, the Supreme Tribunal building was truly massive, at least one hundred meters wide by three hundred meters deep.

The C-130K landed at a small airfield near the Court. Random looked at the building with apprehension and awe. He, Governor Li, Security Director Wu, and Cynthia Han were escorted into the building and up to the top floor. Along the way, Random discovered that the hearing was to be held before the entire Tribunal.

Upon entering the actual court room, Random could see the nine members of the Tribunal seated behind a raised bench, each member looked down on the courtroom impassively. Random could also see at least two hundred spectators jammed into the courtroom. Nearly half of the spectators appeared to be reporters from various news agencies. Goldman was nowhere to be seen.

The four witnesses were ushered into a small antechamber and instructed to wait until summoned. Moments later, Random was the first witness to be summoned. He followed the court officer out to the witness stand.

Once Random was at the stand, the officer began, “Name?”

“Random Arthur Hause.”

“Present position?”

“Lieutenant, AUN Platoon Commander, Alpha Platoon, assigned to Monitor Duty on New Beijing.”

The Chief Justice began the questioning, “Lieutenant Hause, you have been brought here to provide testimony concerning your role in the happenings on New Beijing.” He held up a thick document, and said, “This is an annotated paper copy of the records of AUN operations on New Beijing. I would like you to examine it.”

A court officer carried a copy of the transcript to Random. Random picked it up and began leafing through it, scanning it quickly. The Chief Justice continued, “Are these the actual records of AUN activities on New Beijing?”

“They appear to be your honor.”

The justices conferred for a moment. “You’re not certain then?” the Chief Justice asked.

“I believe these are the records your honor, but I would need to study them in much greater detail to be absolutely certain.”

The Chief Justice nodded, seeming to accept Random’s explanation. He continued, “According to sworn statements admitted prior to this hearing, the original copy of these records was erased from the AUN computers on New Beijing. Did you erase these records?”

[_That’s a slam dunk, _]Random thought. “No your honor, I did not.”

“Who did erase the records then?”

“I watched Colonel Goldman erase the records your honor.”

The justices conferred again. This time the Chief Justice asked, “Why did the Colonel erase the records?”

“The colonel told me that he had been ordered to destroy all records of AUN activities on New Beijing by his superiors here on Echo World. He also told me that he had been ordered to kill me if I interfered, your honor.”

The Chief Justice scratched his chin for a moment. “I see. Then where did these copies come from?”

“I don’t know your honor. I made a disk copy of the records and kept it in the safe at the AUN Monitoring Station on New Beijing. Colonel Goldman took that copy and fed it into the shredder after he wiped the records from the AUN computers. There were no other copies that I knew of.”

The justices conferred for a considerably longer time. Finally, the Chief Justice smiled and said, “Thank you Lieutenant Hause. You may step down now. Please stay in the courtroom until after we have heard from all of today’s witnesses.”

“Yes your honor.” Random stepped from the stand and then found a seat.

A few minutes later, Cynthia Han was led up to the stand. Once she was at the stand, the court officer asked her, “Name?”

“Cynthia Han,” she answered.

“Current position?”

“Permanent indentured servitude, under contract to Lieutenant Hause.”

The Chief Justice began, “Did the Lieutenant purchase your contract?”

“No your honor, my contract was given to Lieutenant Hause as a housewarming gift,” Cynthia answered.

The Chief Justice raised his eyebrows. “An awfully expensive housewarming gift, don’t you think?”

“I guess so your honor, but the Governor has many indentured servants. I was expendable because I am family and because I am also half-caste. These issues made me unsuitable for the roles the governor wanted me to fulfill.”

The justices conferred for a couple of minutes. “I see. Miss Han, who gave you the copy of the records?” the Chief Justice asked.

“Colonel Goldman gave them to me your honor, although I didn’t know it at the time,” Cynthia answered.

“Why didn’t you know it at the time?”

“Because they were in a sealed package your honor, I didn’t know what was in the package until Mr. Wu opened it. After he had opened the package, he extracted a document and a memory chip. Mr. Wu looked over the document and then ordered me to remain while he reviewed the contents of the chip. When he had finished, he thanked me for my service, told me I had performed my job admirably, and said I was to report back to Lieutenant Hause.”

The Chief Justice listened patiently and then asked, “How did Mr. Wu react when he saw the records?”

“Mr. Wu seemed to be delighted to see the records your honor.”

The justices conferred very briefly. “Did Colonel Goldman tell you why he was giving you the records?” the Chief Justice asked.

“Not exactly your honor. He did mention that he had no intention of spending twenty-five years in indentured servitude on New Beijing because he failed to produce the records.”

The justices conferred again. “Thank you Miss Han that will be all, you may step down now. Please wait in the courtroom until all of today’s witnesses have testified,” the Chief Justice said.

“Yes your honor.” She quietly stepped down from the stand.

Cynthia came over and sat next to Random. As she sat, Random exhaled and nearly toppled over. He had been holding his breath, unconsciously waiting for the slip-up that would cost him his freedom and Cynthia her life. It hadn’t come. Cynthia had played her part perfectly.

Random and Cynthia waited and listened as Mr. Wu and Governor Li each testified. Each verified the story that Random and Cynthia had told. After the Governor’s testimony, the four were allowed to leave the court room. Questioning seemed to be finished for the day. The court officer gave them orders not to leave Omaha Station without permission.

When Random and Cynthia finally arrived at their hotel room that evening, Random found a small package taped to the door. He held out his arm, cautioning Cynthia not approach any closer. While they studied the door, he activated his telnet and pulled out his optical to transmit a clear image of the door and its suspicious package.

Random contacted the local AUN security office and submitted his visual display. Within minutes, a security officer was standing there next to Random and Cynthia. The officer said, “Step back a little folks. Give me some room while I carefully check this package.”

Random stepped back as the officer opened the package. Cynthia pressed up behind him. She looked around his shoulder and asked, “What’s in the package sir?”

“I don’t know. He hasn’t opened it yet,” Random answered. She rolled her eyes in response and then stepped back.

The officer carefully peeled the package from the door, he then delicately peeled open the package. When it didn’t explode, he showed the contents to Random and Cynthia. “A package with a dead rat in it sir,” Cynthia observed.

Inside the package was indeed a dead gray rat. Underneath the rat was a note. The security officer took a photo of the note then handed it to Random. The note read:

Hello Hemorrhoid,

I know where you are now. The base commander thought he could pull a

fast one when he smuggled you out of camp. It won’t work. I left that

chicken shit outfit and joined another outfit that is based on Echo World. I

fully intend for you to meet the same fate as that rat. I’ll be waiting for you.

This time there’ll be no base commander to come riding to your rescue.

Until we meet again.

Algernon Pike

Jesus H. Christ and I thought my life was complicated before. Now I’ve got to keep my eye out for a homicidal maniac, Random thought as he finished reading. Without a thought about his surroundings, he opened the door and stepped into the suite. The security officer followed Random and Cynthia into the hotel suite. The officer did a quick scan of the rooms. Random didn’t really seem to notice.

Moments later, the security officer stepped back to where Random and Cynthia were standing. He asked for the note back, “May I have that? My C. O.‘s gonna want to see it. Do you know this Algernon Pike character?”

Random handed him the note. “Oh yeah, I know him. Officer, Pike was my drill sergeant during boot camp.”

The security officer looked at Random skeptically then said, “Um . . . . Ok, we’ll contact the AUN and see if we can get some more info on this guy.” The security officer then bagged up the remains of the package so it could be sent to the lab and examined for evidence.

The hearing dragged on for another week. When not in the court room, Random and Cynthia used the remainder of their time to wander the commercial district. They found clothing and gear that simply wasn’t available on New Beijing. Because Cynthia was an indentured servant, she was not allowed to have a bank account under her own name on Echo World, so Random took her to his bank and opened a debit card under her name on his account.

The bank imprinted her aura-scan on the card for safety, and linked it to Random’s card. The link gave Random final approval for any purchases made with the card. The link proved to be unnecessary as Cynthia turned out to be a very wise shopper.

Cynthia seemed to be in heaven, wandering the womens’ stores. She seemed much more than capable of picking out her own clothes, so Random left her on her own. He began pricing kayaks and camping gear.

Eventually, an indictment was returned listing Lieutenant Victor Plekhanov, Colonel Martin Goldman, and Strella Jones, the office manager of the Hand of God Importer’s office in Omaha Station. The Chief Justice wasn’t satisfied. He was certain that the AUN and UN were deeply involved in the massive fraud.

The Chief Justice had already been searching for a case to expose AUN and UN violations of development contracts. Colonial governments had filed grievances by the dozens, charging the AUN, the UN Off-world, and UN Earth with failure to fulfill development agreements and outright fraud. Up until now, each time a grievance had come to trial, records would mysteriously vanish or a key witness conveniently disappeared, or died.

This case was different. The records had miraculously survived and four witnesses lived to testify. Chief Justice Clarence Osgood, was an Old Earther. He had spent years fighting corruption in American courts before his appointment to the Supreme Tribunal. With this case, he could sense the old battle cry sounding.

At last, Osgood had real criminals to go after. Nothing stirred his blood faster than bashing the military and ferreting out corrupt government officials. This case promised plenty of opportunity to do both. He knew the people currently facing charges were small timers, pawns being sacrificed to protect more important pieces, but with the proper leverage, Osgood felt certain he could shake loose bigger fish to fry.

As they had been for the entire hearing, Random and Cynthia, along with governor Li and Mr. Wu were seated at the back of the courtroom observing the proceedings. Random and everyone else in the courtroom knew that the prosecution’s chances seemed to depend on cracking Colonel Goldman. If Goldman spilled the name of the person responsible for the attempted destruction of the records, the whole ugly scam would unravel.

Osgood recalled Colonel Goldman to the stand. When Goldman was in place, Osgood began, “Colonel Goldman, we have reliable testimony stating that you followed orders from your superiors when you attempted to destroy the records. Who gave those orders?”

Martin Goldman looked tired and drawn as he replied, “I cannot remember the officer’s name, your honor.”

Osgood began again, “I appreciate your loyalty to your superior officer, but you must answer my question. If you refuse, you leave me with little alternative. You will be jailed for contempt of court. I also will charge you with obstruction of justice and evidence tampering. Is that clear Colonel?”

Goldman looked at the floor and breathed deeply. “Yes your honor, I understand. I cannot remember the officer’s name.”

Osgood slammed down his gavel and said angrily, his voice growing louder, “Quit playing the fool Colonel. Your superiors will not be grateful for your self-sacrifice. In turning over the records to Mr. Wu, you exposed a nasty little secret they wanted to keep hidden.”

Goldman glared at Osgood. “When will you realize that I didn’t turn over those records? Miss Han and Lieutenant Hause have set me up.”

The justices conferred for a moment. A junior member of the court picked up the questioning, “Your insolence and lack of cooperation make it difficult to accept your story Colonel. In any event, the records reveal illegal operations on New Beijing. Who controlled those operations?”

“Lieutenant Victor Illych Plekhanov, your honor,” Goldman answered.

“Did Plekhanov operate independently?”

“No, your honor.”

“Who controlled Plekhanov?”

“I don’t know your honor.” Goldman sounded dejected. It was painfully obvious to everyone in the courtroom that this witness and these justices had been over these points again and again and again.

The justices conferred for a moment before the junior member began again, “Surely, you investigated the illegal activities?”

“No, your honor, I did not.” Goldman responded forlornly.

“Then you simply ignored the crime?”

“Yes, your honor.”

The justices conferred again. Osgood began, “You are aware that ignoring a crime is also criminal activity. We call it obstruction of justice.”

“I am aware of that, your honor,” Goldman replied in a flat, emotionless monotone.

“Then why did you do it?”

“I was following orders, your honor,” Goldman replied in the same monotone.

“Who issued those orders?”

“I cannot remember the name of the officer, your honor,” Goldman answered once again in the same monotone.

Osgood looked over the court for a moment, appearing to be exasperated. Random could see Osgood struggling to retain his composure. Finally, the Chief Justice said, “Get him out of here. We’ll see if a couple of weeks in isolation will jog his memory.”

A court officer led Colonel Goldman out of the court room. He escorted the Colonel to the bottom level of the Tribunal building and placed him in, a five foot by five foot, sensory isolation chamber. The door slammed shut, sealing Goldman, inside.

By this time, even Random could sense that Chief Justice Osgood wanted blood. If Goldman wouldn’t talk, Plekhanov became the next logical target. As expected, Osgood summoned Lieutenant Plekhanov to the court.

The interview with Plekhanov mimicked Goldman’s interview, with Osgood and the other justices firing away, and Plekhanov steadfastly refusing to identify those who had issued the orders. In the end, Osgood rewarded Plekhanov’s obstinate silence by placing him in the isolation chamber next to Goldman’s.

After Plekhanov had been led from the courtroom, Chief Justice Osgood summoned Strella Johnson to the stand. Under Osgood’s questioning, Strella Johnson acknowledged that her company dealt with used materials but she steadfastly denied that she had knowingly purchased stolen merchandise. This testimony earned Ms. Johnson her own berth in a slightly less onerous isolation chamber in the womens’ section of the prison.

Two days later, Osgood tried another tactic. He had all of the accused assembled in the court and said to them, “Colonel Goldman, Lieutenant Plekhanov, and Ms. Johnson, each of you stands accused of serious crimes against the citizens of the Off-world community. Without mitigating testimony, each of you is looking at spending the rest of your life as an indentured servant on some desolate backwater. I ask each of you, is what you’re protecting worth the rest of your life?”

Goldman, Plekhanov, and Johnson exchanged glances, and then each nodded in turn and replied, “We understand your honor.”

“I’m sorry you feel that way. Officer, return these people to solitary confinement.” Osgood instructed sounding dejected.

On the following day, Osgood decided to up the ante. The justices dragged General Von Francois in to testify. Von Francois denied having any knowledge of the operation on New Beijing.

It was obvious that Osgood believed that Von Francois was lying. Hell, everyone in the courtroom knew that Von Francois was lying, but Osgood had no actual proof. The Chief Justice wanted to toss Von Francois into a five-by-five right next to those held by Goldman and Plekhanov, but the lack of evidence prevented him from doing so. Reluctantly, he ordered Von Francois released.

Osgood and the other members of the court poured through the AUN’s records and the records that the SSF had been willing to supply. Everything regarding New Beijing, Lieutenant Plekhanov, or Colonel Goldman had been conveniently excised.

The cover up was so blatant, that it was obvious, even to Chief Justice Osgood that the corruption went all the way to the core of SSF and AUN operations on Echo World. Everyone who had been following the case knew that the three people that had been charged couldn’t possibly have carried out the massive fraud on New Beijing by themselves, but with no witness testimony to indicate a culprit and the suppression of all of the relevant records, Osgood was left without evidence, and powerless. Frustration threatened to drive the Chief Justice insane. He needed something to break.

The Tribunal charged Goldman with obstruction of justice and evidence tampering. Plekhanov was charged with fraud, racketeering, and evidence tampering. Miss Johnson was charged with trafficking in stolen property. All three faced long sentences. Osgood didn’t want to nail Goldman, Plekhanov, and Jones. They were small potatoes. He wanted the brains behind the operation.

On the evening that formal charges were placed, a small van parked on a side street, near the Supreme Tribunal building. A pair of men climbed out of the van, each carrying a small bag. The two men talked for moment before heading into the Supreme Tribunal’s parking structure.

Elsewhere in the city, a scruffy looking older man sat watching the two men on a monitor. He was sitting in what appeared to be a hotel room, packed with electronic equipment. He clicked on a microphone, “Did you see those two. They have ‘suspect’ written all over them.”

“Yeah, I see ‘em Ike. Do you want me to interrupt whatever it is they’re trying to do?” a tired sounding male voice answered.

“I think so Hansi. Try to take them alive if you can.”

“Ok. I’ll take care of it,” Hansi answered as he closed the channel on his end.

In another hotel room, equally packed with electronics, an oddly uniformed SSF officer spoke into another microphone, “It looks like Eicherman is going to take care of those two assassins Colonel. What are your instructions?”

“Leave this one to Ike. Keep the situation under surveillance for now. I don’t want some crazy bastard wrecking our plans.”

“What about Colonel Goldman, sir?” the officer in the monitoring room answered.

“They’re going to lock him up for now. I’m trying to pull as many strings as I can to make sure he’s released as soon as this thing has blown over.”

Based on all available reports, the case was busted open by a complete fluke. A pair of hired thugs badly botched an attempt to assassinate Osgood. There was no mention, in any of the many reports on the incident filed that day, of the two surveillance teams that had actually thwarted the assassins’ plans.

Not only did Osgood escape the attempt unharmed, but his security managed to capture the stunned, failed assassins, alive. The bomb the assassins thought they had affixed to the fuel tank of Chief Justice Osgood’s car, mysteriously detonated underneath their own van as Osgood drove by. Luckily for all involved, no one had been seriously injured

The Tribunal charged the two men with attempted assassination. On Echo World, as in most of the Off-world community, the sentence for attempted assassination is public execution. One of the two failed assassins objected to the, deep down, steam cleaning, that awaited him and decided to sing.

The thug claimed that Reverend Walker T. Reid, an upper level commander in Reverend Abbott’s movement and a close personal friend of Field Marshall Agostinyak, hired the two men. The thug turned over the secret account numbers that, he claimed, Reid created to pay them. The accounts turned out to contain large sums of money and the computer staff was able to trace the funds directly back to Reid’s personal accounts.

The computer staff also provided the second break. They traced the financial transactions of everyone involved with New Beijing. Many of those transactions followed long convoluted paths that eventually led to Field Marshall Agostinyak’s office. The staffers had been unable to tie the transactions to a single individual, but the evidence screamed that someone in Ninth Corp’s HQ had directed the massive shell game. This was racketeering on a truly grand scale.

Even though the evidence didn’t single out an individual, it was strong enough to implicate Agostinyak and his entire staff. Osgood dialed up some old fashioned heat and applied it liberally to the Field Marshall and his staff. The Tribunal sequestered Agostinyak’s personal files and records, froze his assets. They upped the ante by sequestering and seizing the personal files and records of the Field Marshall’s entire staff. Finally, the Tribunal seized all records of the Ninth’s activities. Once the records had been seized, the Tribunal also began a full audit of Ninth Corp’s finances.

These new tactics worked. Agostinyak’s staff began to crack under the heat. The leaders of the AUN realized that it was only a matter of time before things began to unravel. The senior UN leadership grew increasingly uncertain of the AUN’s ability to hold off the investigation.

The AUN’s lawyers were instructed to plead with the Tribunal to settle the issue out of court. Osgood wanted no part of a negotiated settlement, he still wanted blood. The eight other members of the Tribunal thought otherwise. They chose to avoid a bloodbath and overruled Osgood’s objections, voting instead, to accept the AUN’s settlement offer.

With Osgood’s lust for vengeance derailed, the AUN agreed to negotiate a settlement with New Beijing. The agreement also stipulated that the UN use the settlement as a basis for resolving all future cases of breach of contract.

With the crisis over, the Tribunal released Colonel Goldman into the custody of SSF Echo-World. The SSF promptly demoted Goldman to the rank of Captain and assigned him to a desk job on Earth. The Tribunal then converted Plekhanov’s sentence to extended probation.

Miss Jones was unceremoniously deported back to Earth with the admonition that she never return to Off-world. For all intents and purposes, the entire affair seemed neatly tucked back into the closet, with no one truly held accountable. All that remained was to force a settlement upon New Beijing.

[*Chapter Ten: Storm Clouds Gather *]

June 4th, 2046

Huong River Valley, New Beijing.

 

Random gasped, staring in awe. The sight of the valley bathed in the red, orange, and purple of sunrise took his breath away. The Huong River carved a five kilometer wide, five hundred kilometer long valley through the Altai Mountains. The valley floor rested two kilometers above sea level. The mountains towered eight kilometers above the valley floor. A handful of the surrounding peaks topped fifteen K.

The Chinese had spent the last seventeen years importing vegetation from Earth to fill the valley. Because of this, by 2046, a combination of Ponderosa Pine, White Pine, and Douglas Fir covered the mountain slopes. This dense conifer forest ended some five kilometers above.

“Mr. Hause sir, the horses are growing restless,” Cynthia said from behind him.

“Cynthia, when are you going to start calling me Random?” he asked.

She looked at the horses shyly. “To call you by your Christian name would be disrespectful, sir.”

“Aagh,” Random groaned in frustration then said, “This isn’t Xi’an. I’m not Chinese, and strictly speaking, neither are you.”

“I am aware of that, sir,” she answered saucily with her hands on her hips. After a moment she continued, “To be disrespectful would dishonor my ancestors sir. I have dishonored my ancestors enough for one lifetime.”

Random felt a sudden urge to slap her; then again, slapping her wasn’t quite what he wanted either. He really wanted to toss her into the swaying buffalo grass and make love to her. “I wish I had your uncle, Governor Li’s, detachment. There are times I’d love to roll you in the hay,” he mumbled.

Cynthia smiled and tossed her hair. “I wish you had his detachment too sir. I’m certain I would find a roll in the hay with you, very pleasurable.”

Her openness floored him. Unsure of how to respond, he took out his binoculars and focused on the alpine meadows, above the tree line. Cynthia took the horses for a walk, suppressing a grin.

Alpine grasses thrived above the tree line forming a lush green carpet. The Chinese had introduced flowering plants and bees during the last spring season. As a result, this spring, the high meadows sparkled with color.

Red, yellow, blue, white; the whole spectrum shimmered in the sun. The effect was stunning. We’ll eat breakfast here, he thought as he put the binoculars away and watched her lead the horses.

It’s impossible to argue with her. The bad part is I may be falling in love with her. She’s incredibly beautiful, he mused. He continued to watch her as she brought the horses back. As she approached, he said, “I still wish you’d call me Random,”

Cynthia came over and sat in the grass in front of Random. She smiled and broke into pidgin English, “So sorry sir, no can do. Have no desire be disrespectful.” Random doubled up with laughter. They both had a good laugh.

Random managed to stifle his laughter and sat quietly for a moment. “Do you resent being a servant?” he asked.

“Not anymore, I’m content now, being your servant sir. Perhaps if I were somebody else’s indentured servant, I would feel differently,” Cynthia responded.

“I see. We make a good team then?” Random replied making a question of his statement.

“We do sir. So let’s enjoy our time together, while we have it,” Cynthia replied dreamily.

“Are you leaving?” Random asked sounding surprised and alarmed.

“No sir, but the old soothsayer in the Xi’an has told me that this time will pass and that we will be separated,” Cynthia replied in the same dreamy tone.

She paused for a moment then continued, “Que sera, sera. Whatever will be, will be. Life is short, let’s enjoy our time together.”

“Wouldn’t you like to be free again?”

“According to the soothsayer, that too shall come to pass. I’m not holding my breath waiting for it sir,” Cynthia replied happily. After a moment she added, “Honestly sir, I was free before, and I was very unhappy.”

“You place an awful lot of faith in this old soothsayer.”

“I do. I know it sounds silly, but in all the time I’ve known her, I’ve never known her to be wrong. Sometimes her counsel doesn’t make any sense until afterward, but I’ve never known her to be wrong.”

“Don’t you miss being able to come and go as you please?”

She looked at him for a moment and asked, “Can you come and go as you please sir?” Random started to answer then fell silent. She continued, “I am happy now sir. I paid a great price because of my freedom and I have no wish to pay that price again. To be honest, I am more free now, bound to you, than I ever was on my own.”

Random sat quietly, lost in thought, his cherished concept of “freedom” dispersing like smoke in the wind. After a while, Cynthia looked up at him and asked, “Are you going to invite Carol Turner to come riding again sir?”

“I had thought about it. I like Carol Turner,” Random answered honestly.

Cynthia smiled. “I know you like her sir, and she definitely likes you. Actually, she’s in love with you.”

Random reached down and lightly squeezed Cynthia’s shoulder. “Are you sure about that? I think she may be gay.”

Cynthia reached up and held his hand for a moment. “Yes sir. Positively. She told me that she thought she might be gay, too, but that you made her feel something she’s never really felt before. The feelings she described didn’t sound gay to me. I think she’s just a little confused.”

“Yeah, that’s what she said,” Random answered, thinking, [_I wonder what else they’ve talked about? _]“Should I make love to her?”

“I think so sir. It would clear up a lot of confusion.”

“Whose? Hers or mine?” Random was doubtful.

“Both, sir.”

Random chuckled. Cynthia paused for a moment and then added, “In any case. I like Miss Turner too sir. She’s a good person and fun to be around. I could think of worse people to share a household with.”

“Then it’s settled. We will invite her on more of our outings.”

With that Cynthia got up and walked over to the fire they had made and prepared breakfast. When she had finished, the two ate quietly, looking out over the valley. The Chinese had seeded the valley floor with buffalo grass during the initial seeding. This summer, the buffalo grass carpeting the valley, was waist deep.

The addition of bees had made pollination possible and this summer cycle, clumps of fruit and nut trees sprang up, above the grass, clear evidence that the bees had been at work. Along with Pinyon Pines and assorted hardwoods, wildflowers poked through the grass in odd places adding splashes of color to the green carpet of buffalo grass. [_This place could be paradise, _]Random thought.

Random began walking around the edge of camp. A flash of movement drew his attention to the south. A White Tail! The Chinese had established a small herd of White Tail Deer in the valley during the last spring season. The deer flourished and spread quickly. Governor Li had granted Random and Alpha Platoon limited hunting rights in the valley. In return, Random had agreed to help spread the deer to other parts of the continent.

Random had promised to bring home a buck for A Section’s dinner. Half the section volunteered to help him hunt. Random had turned down the help, but the idea of rewarding the men by allowing a small group to bring home a deer occasionally looked like a definite winner. “Cynthia, bring the rifle. There’s an enormous buck over by that clump of Pinyons.”

Cynthia came quickly, handing him the rifle. “Where, sir?” she asked eagerly. Random handed her the binoculars and pointed to the clump of Pinyon pines, three hundred meters to the south.

Random raised the rifle, using the scope to locate the buck. “Amazing! He’s incredible, sir! The biggest buck I’ve seen in this valley.”

“Ten points, at least,” Random agreed as he loaded the rifle and focused on the buck.

Once the animal was in his sights, he squeezed the trigger and the rifle fired. A second later, the buck reared and appeared to tumble to the ground. “Great shooting sir, I didn’t see him run,” Cynthia said loudly as they packed up the horses. Random nodded distractedly, trying to keep the spot where the deer had fallen in his sight.

Moments later, they headed across the valley, towards the distant clump of Pinyons. When they reached the trees it became obvious why they hadn’t seen the buck run. “That’s why we didn’t see him run.”

Random and Cynthia sat on their horses next to the clump of Pinyons which sat on the edge of the valley floor, looking out over the flood plain below. The buck had tumbled down the bank, to the flood plain, and then run along the river, leaving a trail of blood behind.

Random and Cynthia skittered carefully, on horseback, down the bank. They followed the blood trail for two kilometers along the river’s edge. The trail finally ended thirty meters from the river bank. “I didn’t realize he was that close to the river,” Random said.

“I didn’t either, sir. At least he didn’t run into the river. We would have lost him then,” Cynthia answered.

As usual, Cynthia was right. If the buck had fallen into the river, he would have washed downstream and been lost. The Huong is a big river. Up here, it was seventy meters wide and three to four meters deep.

By the time the river reached the Monitoring Station, at the valley mouth, it swells to one hundred and fifty meters wide and nine meters deep, more than navigable. In the late fall cycle and the early spring cycle, the river flooded. The river didn’t change much during the rest of the New Beijing calendar cycle.

Engine noise! Random could hear a heliplane coming up the valley. His heart sank. [_Monday morning, time to return to work. The UN negotiator arrives today. _]Random thought and he wasn’t thrilled by the prospect. The last thing he wanted was some UN muckity-muck screwing up his delicately balanced understanding with Governor Li. He had spent months developing a working relationship with the Governor and a misguided UN flunky could destroy all of that in an afternoon.

“The heliplane is coming Cynthia, are we ready to return to base?” Random asked.

“No . . . . Yes sir, we’ve packed everything. We’ll need help loading the buck and it should be dressed before we reach the Station,” she said, a look of sadness in her eyes.

“Good point. I forgot about the buck. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

“I don’t know either, sir,” she said laughing, and then continued, “I hope you don’t have to find out anytime soon.”

Random glared at her, and then he realized she wasn’t kidding. This could be their last afternoon together. He didn’t want to lose her. “So do I. It may be difficult to keep the UN from taking you.”

They grew quiet as the MH-47G hovered closer. The transport touched down in front of them and a group of soldiers tumbled out to load the horses. The soldiers shouted happily when they spotted the buck.

A pair of the soldiers loaded the horses, while the rest of the soldiers picked up the buck and Random and Cynthia’s gear. While that was happening, Random and Cynthia walked quietly into the heliplane and found seats near the observation ports. The soldiers volunteered, happily, to dress the buck on the flight back to the Station.

Random gazed out the window, as the heli lifted off and headed down the valley. Cynthia seemed to know that Random loved the valley more than anything else on New Beijing. She let him gaze out the window in silence.

Random wanted to comfort her, but he knew she was worried about the meeting with the negotiator. He knew that the possibility of change frightened her, it frightened him as well. Earlier, she had told him that she had grown comfortable in her position with Random. As permanent as it had seemed then, it was now tenuous at best.

Cynthia gazed quietly out another window. She knew that she was really happy and she didn’t want things to change. She also realized that an overzealous UN negotiator could declare her UN property and take her to Echo World. The idea shook her to the core. She shuddered. Leaving this life was unthinkable. She would rather die.

Somewhere along the way, she realized that she’d fallen in love with this strange American. For the first time since her arrest, she felt like there was a reason to live, even if he didn’t sleep with her. Her sense of apprehension continued to grow as the heliplane approached the AUN Monitoring Station.

Below them, an unfamiliar C-130K sat on the airfield, next to the heliplane barns. Apparently the negotiator had arrived. Random looked back at Cynthia sadly as they walked towards the main building. Cynthia set her jaw and walked stiffly behind him, determined to keep her dignity, regardless of the outcome.

Cynthia followed him into the Station. Inside the station, a stunning brunette was talking to Lieutenant Weaver. A small cry of surprise escaped from Cynthia’s mouth as she gazed at the brunette. The brunette turned and looked Cynthia up and down, appraising her.

The brunette whistled softly and said, “Well, aren’t you going to introduce this gorgeous creature, Lieutenant Weaver? She’s beautiful. I wouldn’t mind taking her home myself.”

Weaver looked at Random. When Random nodded his approval, Weaver said, “Miss Cynthia Han, this is Mrs. Sara Von Francois, the UN negotiator. Mrs. Sara Von Francois, this is Miss Cynthia Han. Miss Han is the indentured servant of my commanding officer, Lieutenant Random Hause.”

Sara Von Francois continued to eye Cynthia. “You’re a lucky man, Lieutenant. Now, my daughter, my staff officer, and I require accommodations for our stay here. I would like to stay here at the Monitoring Station, if possible.”

Random cleared his throat. “We have accommodations here, but I’m afraid it’s mainly barracks for the men. It gets pretty rugged out here and the men are not used to having a lady around. There are much finer accommodations available for you at either the Central Airport or the capital.”

Mrs. Von Francois spun to face Random and tapped her foot angrily. She was, obviously, used to getting her own way. “What’s the matter Lieutenant, trying to get rid of me? Afraid I’ll find out about your little set-up?”

Random shrugged. “Not at all ma’am, just concerned about your comfort. While you’re on New Beijing, if you choose to stay here, you will be welcome to use my quarters.”

“Good. Then you had better take whatever steps are necessary to assure our safety because we will be staying here where I can keep an eye on you. You know that my husband, the General, will be extremely unhappy if anything happens to me or my daughter.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Random replied then he turned to Second Lieutenant Weaver. “You heard the lady, make it so.”

Weaver saluted. Saying, “Yes sir,” as he spun and left the room. Random heard him mutter something about pushy bitches under his breath. He agreed with him, but he’d have to caution the officer to keep his comments to himself.

Cynthia turned to Mrs. Von Francois and asked, “Mistress, do you intend to negotiate with the Governor alone?”

Mrs. Von Francois glared at Cynthia with a ‘how dare you speak to me’ look. “Of course. Why do you ask?”

“Governor Li is from ‘Old China’, and he has some fairly provincial views.”

“What, may I ask, does that have to do with anything?”

“The Governor would find negotiating with a female, demeaning. He would feel that by doing so he was losing face. Quite simply, he won’t allow that to happen. Whatever that makes you feel, I advise you not to force the issue. You’ll only make him angry. The governor can become quite dangerous when angered.”

“Come on now. You can’t be serious. This is the twenty-first century.” Sara Von Francois sounded haughty.

“Granted, but the governor has never accepted the equality of sexes doctrine.”

“Well, it’s time he started. I have very little tolerance for antediluvian mentalities, and I will not allow some back water yokel to dictate to me.” Sara Von Francois stood firm with her fists planted on her hips.

“Yes mistress.” Cynthia bowed and left the room.

Mrs. Von Francois watched Cynthia leave the room with an expression on her face that Random couldn’t quite identify. Then she turned to Random and challenged, “My dear husband informed me that Miss Han could be considered UN property. I would like to have her. Do you object?”

“Strongly, Miss Han is not part of any settlement you are here to arrange.”

“I see I’ve touched a raw nerve. Good, my husband doesn’t think too highly of you. I, however think it’s possible he may be mistaken.”

“That’s nice to hear.”

“Don’t take me wrong, I agree with him on many things. We both believe that you’re a traitor, and deserve to be punished, but I don’t think you’re completely without honor.”

“Yes ma’am. Thank you.”

“These negotiations need to go well soldier. The UN doesn’t take well to being strong armed. Life will become very unpleasant for you, if these negotiations fail.”

“The settlement will be costly, the Governor and his people are very angry, and rightfully so.”

“It will be your job to make sure they are not costly, Lieutenant. The UN authorized me to make a generous offer. Far more than these yokels deserve. You must make sure they accept,” Mrs. Von Francois said with finality.

“I will need to see the Governor’s demands first. A fair offer will address his wishes as well as those of the UN. The people of New Beijing have suffered enough.”

“You have a bizarre sense of loyalty, Lieutenant. It could prove hazardous to your health,” Sara Von Francois advised calmly.

“My feelings have nothing to do with loyalty, Mrs. Von Francois. Like you said, it’s a matter of honor. This colony has been swindled. Honor requires me to do what I can to see that the colonists are justly compensated.”

She laughed quietly. “You’ve been here too long. You’re beginning to sound like a native.”

“Yes ma’am. If you’ll excuse me, I have to see to your accommodations.”

“Not so fast soldier,” Mrs. Von Francois interrupted. “My daughter and I will be staying here. Where will my staff officer be staying?”

Random stopped and looked around for a moment, then asked, “Is your staff officer male or female?”

Sara Von Francois smiled cunningly. “Female. You know her, I think. Lieutenant Caitlyn Conner.”

Random stood, momentarily stunned, then he asked, “Caitlyn?”

Mrs. Von Francois’s smile grew a little wider and more wicked. She said nonchalantly, “Yes. She said you were in OCS together.”

Random nodded. “Wow! We were. It will be good to see her again. She’s going to have to stay here with you and your daughter. Unfortunately, the platoons stationed here on New Beijing have been all-male for quite some time. We really have no facilities for female soldiers or visitors.”

“I’ll leave you to your preparations then,” Mrs. Von Francois said airily as she turned and left the room.

Random watched her leave then followed her out the door to seek out the soldiers in his command. When he caught up with them he held a long discussion on being very careful about what was said within earshot of Mrs. Von Francois, her daughter, and her staff officer. Random also talked about the fact that both Mrs. Von Francois, and her fourteen year old daughter Lorraine, were definitely out of bounds. Random listened to the grumbling and sympathized. Then he pointed out that there seemed to be no shortage of ‘available’ local women.

After speaking with his men, Random sought out Lieutenant Caitlyn Conner. She didn’t prove all that difficult to find. He found her in the first place he looked, the unfamiliar looking C-130K that had been on the tarmac when he and Cynthia had arrived.

Random looked around for a pilot, outside the plane, and didn’t find one, so he climbed up the loading ramp and into the transport. Lieutenant Conner was apparently completing an inventory of a small mountain of gear. Random cleared his throat and asked, “Ahem. May we be of assistance?”

Caitlyn turned to look at Random with a joyous expression on her face. Her expression quickly changed to one of caution and she looked around nervously to see if they were alone. When she was certain they were, she ran the few steps to where he was standing, and upon arrival, hit him with a tackle-hug that nearly knocked him flat. “God, I am so happy to see you,” she said joyfully.

Random returned the hug. “I’m glad to see you too.”

“Eldon and I have been getting some of your e-mails, but we’ve both been so worried about you,” she said in a rush.

“I’ve missed you too, and I wish I could have come to see both of you.”

Caitlyn disengaged herself from Random, straightened her uniform, and then asked, “What the hell has been going on out here?”

Random gave her a confused look. “What do you mean? I thought I put most of that stuff in my e-mails.”

Caitlyn shook her head sadly. “Oh, Random, you didn’t know. How could you have?”

Random frowned. “Didn’t know what?”

“Everything coming out of New Beijing, including your e-mail has been censored for months. Eldon and I may have been getting your messages, but by the time we got them, they were weeks old and almost entirely blacked out.”

Random was silent for a time, and then his gaze hardened and he said angrily, “That means Carol, Mom, and Deirdre have no idea what’s been happening.”

“None.” Caitlyn smiled and then said, “I’ve met your Carol Turner. She’s a hell of a girl.”

Random looked up and smiled mischievously. “I’m glad you think so. Where’d you meet her?”

“She and her captain have been transferred to the Delhi II – Harappistan run. An old friend of yours asked Eldon and I to look in on her when she arrived on Delhi II.” Caitlyn sounded nervous.

“An old friend of mine?”

Caitlyn nodded. “Yeah, an old gray-haired guy who went by ‘Ike’.”

Random could swear the plane had just shifted under his feet, at least he felt like it had moved. Well shit! I guess he’s still alive. He could have contacted me, Random thought as he decided to play for time. He steadied himself and changed the subject by asking, “How come I haven’t heard anything from either you or Eldon?”

Caitlyn shrugged and answered, “We’ve been trying to contact you, but our messages and inquiries keep coming back. Have you gotten messages from anybody else?”

Random shook his head. “A few. I think I’ve gotten two from Carol, about that from Mom, and only one from Deirdre.”

Caitlyn looked around for a moment before saying, “I’d love to find someplace where we can sit and catch up on what’s been happening, but right now, I have to make sure that all of this stuff gets stowed in our quarters. Can you get me some help to lug this stuff over to where we’re staying and then get it stowed away?”

Random sighed and said, “Yeah. I’ve got just the man.”

He stepped away from Caitlyn and activated his telnet. He didn’t bother with the opticals. He contacted Second Lieutenant Weaver and waited. A few moments later, he heard the second lieutenant respond, “Weaver here. How may I help you sir.”

“I need you to assemble a team and bring them here to the UN Representative’s transport. You and your team will carry the representative’s gear to their new quarters. Then I want you to help get their quarters set up to their liking,” Random instructed sternly.

“Yes sir. We’ll be on our way in less than five minutes.” Weaver answered resignedly.

Weaver and his crew arrived in less than ten minutes.[* *]Under Caitlyn’s direction, the men carried the small mountain of gear into the Monitoring Station’s main building. Caitlyn, Weaver, and his crew spent most of the afternoon subdividing the Main Building into three smaller living spaces. In the process, most of the station’s communications equipment had to be relocated from the Main Building to an outbuilding. Random and Miss Han relocated to the outbuilding as well.

By dinnertime, Random decided that things were as sorted as they were going to get. He and Miss Han walked back to the Main Building to meet Mrs. Von Francois and her party and escort them to dinner. “So, you know this woman’s staff officer?’ Cynthia asked while they walked.

Random nodded and replied, “I do. We were best friends in OCS.”

Cynthia walked along for a step or two, and then without lifting her eyes to meet Random’s. “Do you think this Mrs. Von Francois knows this?”

Random stopped, reached out and took Cynthia’s hand, forcing her to stop as well. As she turned to face him, he said, “I’m sure of it. Why else would she be here?”

Cynthia smiled briefly and then added, “Mrs. Von Francois must be expecting to gain some kind of advantage by having her here.”

Random nodded thoughtfully. “She must, but what kind of advantage is she expecting?”

Cynthia shrugged and suggested, “Were you and Lieutenant Conner romantically involved?”

Random felt like he’d been blindsided by the question and he stammered, “Um . . . . Well . . . . No. Honestly. I didn’t think Lieutenant Conner was all that interested in men. Actually, I thought our friend Eldon was more interested in men than she was.”

Cynthia looked Random up and down for a moment with her lips pursed before she responded, “You seem to have peculiar taste in women.”

Random smiled and nodded. He answered sheepishly, “It does look that way. Doesn’t it?”

Chapter Eleven: Let’s Make A Deal

*Monday June 18th, 2046 *

AUN Monitoring Station, Huong River Valley

New Beijing

 

Two weeks had passed since Sara Von Francois first arrived on New Beijing. Today, she was storming around Random’s office at the Monitoring Station, shouting, “I have never been so insulted in my life. That arrogant bastard continues to have the gall to refuse to speak to me. Can you believe it? The son-of-a-bitch still directs all of his questions to my secretary. I tell you the man is a pig.”

Random, seated behind his desk, answered calmly, “We tried to warn you.”

Sara Von Francois glared at Random. “Fuck you.” She began angrily pacing again, and resumed shouting, “The pig refused to present his demands to me. He refused to allow me into his court. He had the nerve to insist that I need a title to enter his court. Pah,”

Random spoke quietly. “If you had asked me before charging in, I could have told you this would happen.”

“Piss off. I need a drink.”

Random fought hard to keep from laughing at her. He couldn’t help feeling the arrogant woman had gotten exactly what she deserved. He hoped his understanding with the Governor wasn’t being damaged. “Ah hem,” she cleared her throat and demanded; “I said I wanted a drink.”

“Alcohol is not allowed inside the Monitoring Station,” Random answered.

She stood still, looking at Random with disbelief. “Are you trying to piss me off, soldier?”

“No ma’am, alcohol is not allowed inside the Station.”

She pointed to the terminal. “Do you know how to operate that thing soldier?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Turn it on. I need to speak to Field Marshall Agostinyak immediately.”

“Can’t be done, Mrs. Von Francois.”

She glared at him. He could tell his calm was beginning to get on her nerves. People normally jumped when she gave an order. “What do you mean, it can’t be done?”

“This is a Step Three world ma’am. We don’t have a direct communications link with Echo World.”

“How long will it take to set one up?”

“It’s not a question of time. It’s a matter of physics. It’s not possible to set up a direct communications link.”

She stomped her foot and raged, “That’s it, I’ve had it. I’m not putting up with another day in this slime pit. Order your men to take the capital and arrest the Governor.”

“No.”

“Are you refusing a direct order soldier?”

“No, Mrs. Von Francois, you’re a civilian. Under the AUN Charter, civilians can’t give orders to military personnel.”

“Refusing an order is treason. I am removing you from command.”

“I think not. Refusing an order from a superior officer is insubordination, not treason. But there is no regulation that compels me to obey a civilian, especially if the civilian orders me to do something daft.”

“Daft! How dare you! I am going to report your behavior to the Marshal.”

“As you wish, the next cargo plane leaves in three days. Do you want me to book passage for you?” As an answer Sara Von Francois turned on her heel and stormed out of the room.

That evening, Mrs. Von Francois sat next to Random, for dinner. “I apologize for my behavior this afternoon. My temper got the best of me,” she said demurely.

Random looked at her. “I accept your apology. I take it, my men confirmed what I told you,” he said.

“Yes, and they all enthusiastically lined up to support you. What do you suggest I do now?” She sounded frustrated and annoyed.

“Make the deal, whatever the price, make the deal.”

“How do I go about making the deal if he won’t speak to me?”

“Try an intermediary.”

That evening, Random sat alone in his quarters. Cynthia had gone off to her seer, leaving Random to his own devices. He still hadn’t been able to figure out exactly why Mrs. Von Francois had brought Caitlyn Conner to New Beijing.

He remembered asking Caitlyn about it a week ago. They had been sitting in front of the outbuilding that was now Random’s office, enjoying the early morning breeze. “Do you know why Mrs. Von Francois wanted you to come along?”

She had responded with, “Not really.”

“Well. What did she tell you?”

“She told me that she was looking for someone who knew you. Eldon and I both volunteered, but she chose me.”

“Then I guess she’s been talking to you, about me?’

Caitlyn looked at Random and shrugged, then answered, “I was worried about that too, but she hasn’t. Hell, as long as her tea’s on time and the right temperature, she’s ignored me.”

“That doesn’t make any sense. Why have you along at all?”

“No idea.”

Random remembered puzzling over what Caitlyn had told him for a while. He had decided to change the subject by asking her about Eldon, “So, how is Eldon?”

Caitlyn had smiled and said, “Believe it or not, Eldon and I got married a couple of months ago.”

“Married?”

Caitlyn had laughed. “Yes. I know. Who’d have thunk it. But we’ve been very happy.”

“I wish I had known. I could have come for the wedding and given you a gift.” Random felt truly remorseful.

“We know, Random. We’re not worried about it. In fact, we’re looking forward to seeing more of you when this thing finally blows over.”

Another month passed. Mrs. Von Francois stubbornly made eight more attempts to meet with the Governor. Each new attempt was steadfastly refused. Random just watched as her frustration grew. Finally, on Monday, July 16th, Mrs. Von Francois walked quietly into Random’s inner office at the Monitoring Station. “Lieutenant, I think the time has come for me to change tactics. How can I force Governor Li to accept me?” she asked.

“You cannot. He will not negotiate directly with you,” Random answered.

“Because I’m female.”

“Well, yes, among other things.”

Mrs. Von Francois walked around to where Random was seated and tugged gently on his arm. “Come now. There must be another way. I refuse to let some yokel, clever or not, force me to admit defeat. Perhaps you could speak to him?”

Random smiled and answered calmly, “I have spoken to him and confirmed Cynthia’s original diagnosis. He will not negotiate directly with you.”

Mrs. Von Francois pulled a second chair close to Random’s desk and slumped into it, dejectedly. “That’s enough, my daughter and I will be on the next plane, out. New Beijing can go straight to hell, for all I care,” she said sounding as defeated as she looked.

Random looked at her. He knew the importance of these negotiations, and of the final settlement. He also knew that if he didn’t act quickly, something as simple as a personality clash might trigger a revolution. “Please don’t, it would be a grave mistake. May I make a suggestion?”

Mrs. Von Francois shrugged and responded, “What the hell. Why not?”

“Allow me to act as an arbitrator.”

Sara Von Francois looked at him incredulously. “You, what the hell can you do that I can’t?”

Random smiled. “Well, for one, I can talk to the Governor. For another, he won’t have to be negotiating directly with a woman. Besides, I think he trusts me.”

Mrs. Von Francois stared at the floor for a moment, and then asked, “That’s all fine and good, but can I trust you?”

“Have I lied to you so far?” Sara Von Francois shook her head indicating no. Random continued, “Will you make a fair offer?”

“Who determines what’s fair?”

“Cynthia and I.”

“What does the girl have to do with it?”

“She’s the Governor’s niece. She knows the needs of New Beijing better than anyone else and I trust her.”

“What if either of you decide the offer’s not fair?”

“Then we’ll advise you to make changes.”

“I’ll have to think about it. What do you do for relaxation around here?”

“Not much. Cynthia and I go horseback riding, up valley, on weekends.”

Sara Von Francois’ face lit up and she responded eagerly, “That sounds like terrific fun. May my daughter and I come with you this weekend?”

Random didn’t know exactly how to respond. The riding weekends were a special time. “I’ll have to ask Cynthia. Riding’s always been something special for her.”

“For an indentured servant, her opinion seems to count a great deal around here.”

“Let’s just say, it matters to me.”

“If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were in love with that girl.”

“The possibility exists. I’ll talk to her. Do you want me to arrange transport to the capital today?”

“Not today, I would like to wait until after our outing this weekend,” Sara Von Francois said happily.

“As you wish, if you’ll excuse me, I must go and find Cynthia,” Random excused himself.

Random went and found Cynthia. The discussion took time. Cynthia did not want to include Sara Von Francois and her daughter Lorraine. She enjoyed being alone with Random and made it very clear that she didn’t want their company. She also made it clear that she knew how important these negotiations were and that she wanted them to succeed.

Eventually, Cynthia reluctantly consented to including Mrs. Von Francois and her daughter. Random made arrangements for a party of five. After talking to Caitlyn, he changed the arrangements to a party of four. Caitlyn was going to be busy drawing up the UN’s official proposal to New Beijing.

Random also set up a meeting to discuss the possibility of acting as an arbitrator with Governor Li. The Governor responded enthusiastically. He was certain, that with Random as arbitrator, the negotiations could smoothly proceed to a resolution.

Friday came and Random, Cynthia, Sara Von Francois, and Lorraine Von Francois piled into a MH-47G transport. They flew four hundred kilometers up valley to Random’s favorite site. Setting down where three large streams converged to form the Huong River.

The riding party disembarked. It took half-an-hour to sort everything out. When they had finished, Random took the lead. Sara Von Francois and Cynthia followed behind. Lorraine Von Francois lagged along, bringing up the rear. Mrs. Von Francois’ daughter seemed very unhappy about being dragged along, on the trip.

By lunch time, Lorraine Von Francois had decided to make the best of it and was in front riding alongside Random. He had the unpleasant feeling that the girl had the hots for him. She hung on his every word as he pointed out the gray and blue giants, towering over the valley.

The continued attention was beginning to make Random uncomfortable, so he broke trail and prepared to make lunch. Cynthia came over to help. “Miss Von Francois seems to like you sir.”

“I’ve noticed. What have you and Mrs. Von Francois been talking about?”

Cynthia shrugged then replied, “Mistress Von Francois has been grilling me about the needs of the colony. I’ve been honest with her, so far. Have I done the right thing sir?”

Random thought for a moment. “I’m not certain, but I think so. How is she taking the information?”

“Great sir, she seems honestly concerned, and appalled by conditions here.”

“Do you believe her?”

Cynthia hesitated a moment before answering. Then nodded and said, “I think so. Is she a lesbian, sir?”

Random looked up from what he was doing, surprised. “Um, I have no idea. Where did that come from?”

Cynthia smiled. “She looks at me with that same hunger in her eyes that I have often seen in the eyes of men sir.”

Random shook his head and chuckled. “Well that’s interesting. Are you sure?”

She blushed and replied, “I know the look, sir. Do you wish me to sleep with her?”

Random dropped the pan he was stirring, stunned. “Why are you asking me? I don’t think I would ever order you to share your bed with anyone. I don’t wish to control your sex life.”

“I often wish you would, sir.” Random was flabbergasted. Unable to respond, he turned and finished making lunch.

After lunch, Sara Von Francois rode alongside Random. Displacing her daughter, who didn’t seem to be overly surprised, or upset by the changed arrangement. “May I call you Random, Lieutenant?” Mrs. Von Francois asked.

“If you wish, Mrs. Von Francois, I’d prefer it that way.”

“Good, please call me, Sara. My daughter seems quite taken with you.”

“I’ve noticed. It’s very flattering. Cynthia tells me, you’ve expressed an interest in New Beijing.”

“Do you find that so hard to believe?”

Random was silent for a moment, and then answered, “A little, yes. Have you thought about using me as an arbitrator?”

“Yes, and I must admit that the idea makes sense. We should wait to discuss the details until after we’ve heard Governor Li’s proposals. Will he be fair?”

“Not at first, but I’m certain he can be reasoned with, given time and patience.”

Sara Von Francois nodded, seemingly accepting Random’s statement, and then looked around. Changing subjects, she asked, “Why are there no birds here?”

“The Chinese considered birds non-essential to the biosphere. Besides, birds require a food source. They’re one of the things that they wish to add to the biosphere as soon as possible,” Random responded.

“I see, what about industry?”

“A few cottage industries, food production and settling new colonists tie up most of the available resources. Manufactured goods and metals come, second hand, from Akagi. Xi’an badly needs metal workers and metal to work.”

“Are there any exports?”

“Food, whiskey, and wine, to the miners on Akagi, nothing else. It will be enough to pay their existing debt, but with very little left over.”

“This colony isn’t in immediate danger of failing then.”

“No, but they are in danger of stagnating.”

“That sounds true enough. Based on everything I’ve been able to uncover, the colony currently feeds itself and generates more than enough power to satisfy its own needs. That alone, should be enough to offset the motion to revoke the colony’s charter. However, records indicate that the southernmost power station will have to be shut down soon for structural repairs. One of our priorities must be to make sure that other facilities are available to offset the loss of that power station,” Sara Von Francois observed.

After a moment she continued, “Thank you for being honest, Random. I’ve changed my mind. Between what you’ve told me, and Cynthia’s information, I’m certain that I will be able to shape an attractive package for Governor Li. Do you care to hear the package I plan on offering?”

“Yes. If I am to serve as arbitrator, I must know the details,” he answered.

“Good,” Mrs. Von Francois said and began outlining the proposal she wanted to make. It included: A tourist facility near the main airport to generate currency. Expanding the biosphere. Small scale industrial development to provide goods needed for the colony’s survival. “The colony will still need additional exports, and to be honest, I don’t have a handle on that yet. I’m open to suggestions, if you have any.”

“I do. The ocean teams with fish and Governor Li wants to establish a commercial fishery and cannery to process the catch.”

“That sounds like an excellent solution. I’m sure we could make that work,” Mrs. Von Francois answered.

Random listened patiently. It wasn’t a bad plan, but he thought it had one glaring weakness. “I don’t think the old fellow is going to go for it. In all the times I’ve talked to him about the colony’s future, he’s said consistently that he wanted nothing to do with tourists and he had expressed skepticism about industrial development.”

“Governor Li sounds like a pig headed fool,” Sara Von Francois said dismissively.

Random laughed and answered, “Whatever else Li Zhaoyang may be, he is no fool and he is still governor of this colony.”

“Perhaps it’s time he was replaced.”

“Several people have already tried and failed. I would advise against trying to replace him. Besides, the entire Off-world community is paying very close attention to these negotiations.”

Sara Von Francois shuddered and said petulantly, “Thanks for reminding me. This is insanity. If he refuses to cooperate, then the process is doomed.”

“Agreed, but before we condemn Governor Li, let’s hear his vision for New Beijing. He may have something valuable to offer.”

Mrs. Von Francois was quiet for several minutes before she asked, “You place an awful lot of faith in this yokel. Is he worth it?”

“I believe so. Li is one of the craftiest bastards I have ever met. I am certain he has a plan for developing New Beijing. I’m willing to bet that his plan will probably be better suited to local conditions than anything we can develop. Remember, he does have more experience with this world to go on than we do,” Random answered.

Sara Von Francois nodded and then said coyly, “Good enough, I’ll listen. Let’s drop the business and enjoy ourselves. Ok?”

“What had you in mind then?”

“If we’re going to work together, I feel we should get to know one another.”

Random nodded. This could get dicey, he thought as he and Mrs. Von Francois rode together talking about the valley. Random actually enjoyed pointing out the tallest peaks and identifying the different trees and plants.

Later, Random and Sara Von Francois dismounted and watched a small herd of White Tail Deer with Random’s binoculars. While they watched Random listened and commentated sparingly as Mrs. Von Francois talked about her life on Echo World. Finally, Mrs. Von Francois sighed and said, “I don’t suppose I should complain. It’s not like my life has been difficult.”

“But it also sounds like it has not been what you were hoping for,” Random observed.

“No, it hasn’t. I have a university degree, I’m from a family of strong-willed women, and I’m married to one of the most powerful men in the Off-world community. I could be so much more than the ‘trophy wife.’”

“Is that why you came to New Beijing?”

“Yes. I wanted to show that thick headed fool that I could be an equal partner, more than just eye candy.”

“I’m convinced. Shall we continue riding?”

Mrs. Von Francois nodded happily. Instead of mounting her own horse, she tethered it to Random’s horse and then climbed up in front of him, to ride double on his horse. The look on her face cutting off any objection he might have wanted to make.

They rode together, still talking and enjoying the scenery. His senses were flooded with the warmth of her body, the softness of her skin, the line of her chin, the curve of her breasts, the scent of her hair, and the smell of her breath.

At 18:00, Random decided to break trail again and to begin laying out a camp for the night. Cynthia came to help. “You certainly seemed to enjoy yourself with Mrs. Von Francois, this afternoon sir,” she said tartly.

Random looked at her, surprised and asked, “I guess I did. Do I detect a hint of jealousy?”

“Yes, damn it. This is supposed to be our time together, sir.”

“I know love, but until these negotiations are completed, we’re in danger,” Random replied, trying to sound reassuring.

“You didn’t have to enjoy it quite so very much sir.” Cynthia sounded petulant.

“Sorry. Let’s make dinner. We can talk about it after every thing’s settled in for the night.”

“If I’m with you tonight, I don’t plan on leaving until morning sir,” Cynthia stated defiantly.

“Ok. I think I’d like that a lot, tonight then?”

“Tonight then, definitely sir.”

Dinner went smoothly. After everything was set up for the night, Mrs. Von Francois sent her daughter Lorraine to bed. She walked circuitously over to Random and Cynthia and said, “Miss Han, could you help me? I have trouble falling asleep on this world.”

Cynthia leaned over and whispered to Random, “I’m going to try and speed up the negotiations a little bit sir. Don’t wait up for me.”

She stood up and walked to Mrs. Von Francois and said, “I’d be delighted to help you, Mistress.”

Random watched her walk away, dumbfounded. Well I’ll be damned, he thought. Sara Von Francois smiled coyly then asked innocently, “I hope I’m not interrupting something?”

“Plans are made to be changed mistress,” Cynthia replied cheerfully.

Mrs. Von Francois led Cynthia off towards her tent. Random felt more than a little anger. He realized that he was jealous of Sara Von Francois. [_Nothing to be done about it now, I left the decision up to her and she made it, _]he thought.

Much later that night, Random heard the tent flap snap open. He looked out from under his blanket, cautiously. Cynthia undressed quickly. Her eyes glowed. Her cheeks flushed, and her small breasts heaved, everything about her screamed sex.

[_God, she’s beautiful, _]he thought. An angelic smile was fixed on her face. Random ducked his head back under the blanket, as she crept silently towards him. He feigned sleep, while she lifted the blanket and snuggled her body next to his.

Cynthia fell asleep, almost immediately. He lifted up on his elbow and looked at her face. Gently brushing the hair back from her face, he kissed her forehead, thinking, Face it. It’s hopeless boy. You are definitely in love with this girl.

The next morning, Saturday, seemed like the Twilight Zone to Random. Mrs. Von Francois positively glowed. Random watched, as she bustled about the camp, preparing to ride. “Did you sleep well?” he asked.

Sara beamed as she replied, “Marvelously, I haven’t felt this refreshed in years. I’m ready to take on the multi-verse.”

“Good. This weekend seems to have been a good idea then?”

“A wonderful idea. Thank you for sharing this beautiful valley with us. Have you ever considered going into business. I can assure you that riding and rafting tours of this valley would be a hot ticket.”

“Never thought about it, really,” Random fibbed.

He went to prepare the horses. Cynthia hustled to pack up the remaining camp supplies. Her eyes were still glowing. She smiled shyly when she noticed Random watching her.

The riders ate breakfast and broke camp, setting out along the river. Random watched the two women covertly, trying to sense a change. They no longer seemed hostile to one another. A definite improvement, but something didn’t add up. Both women seemed to be openly focusing their attentions on him, which left Random confused.

They broke camp at 09:00 and rode for two hours. Three hours, Earth time, once you adjust the Earth clock to New Beijing’s thirty-six hour day, _]Random remembered. During the ride, Random felt like he was riding a merry-go-round, gone berserk. He was stuck in the middle of a four way conversation. It became increasingly difficult for him to remember who had asked the question he was trying to answer. Not for the first time, he found himself wondering, [_What in the hell is going on?

By the time Sunday morning arrived, Random felt hopelessly confused. He needed space to sort out what happened. The flight back came as a god-send. Random was able to spend the flight, up in the cockpit with the pilot. Mrs. Von Francois and Cynthia had changed, but the change didn’t make sense. [_I need an interpreter, _]he thought.

The pilot briefed Random on the weekend’s activities on New Beijing. The newly repaired surveillance equipment continued to provide mountains of information to absorb. Two things stood out like a pair of sore thumbs. Survey teams were operating in both the Liao River Valley and the Chiang River Valley. Random listened quietly and wondered, What in the hell is Li up to now? The old schemer must be planning something.

The flight back was too short for Random. When they arrived at the Monitoring Station, Random begged off. He still had a mountain of material to study and he hadn’t been able to make sense of Cynthia and Mrs. Von Francois mysterious behavior. He wished Mrs. Von Francois and her daughter Lorraine a good day and hurried off to bury himself in work.

A short while later Cynthia joined him. He and Cynthia spent the rest of the day plowing into the mountain of surveillance data. By dinner time, Random couldn’t control his curiosity any longer. “Did you enjoy the weekend?” he asked.

Cynthia looked up shyly. “I had a marvelous weekend, sir. Allowing me to go to mistress was a wonderful gift sir,” she said quietly.

“Gift! What gift? You went to Sara Von Francois on your own.”

Cynthia looked hurt and said, “Whether you admit it or not, you own me. What I do with my body, I do with your permission sir. I went to mistress because I felt you wished me to speed up the negotiations.”

Random was flustered. “But . . . ah . . . never mind. Are you angry with me for sending you to her?”

Cynthia looked surprised. “Why would I be angry, sir? The experience was very pleasurable and I served my master’s wishes. What could be better?”

Random felt very confused. “I’m sorry Cynthia. I just don’t think I’m ever going to understand.”

Cynthia smiled. “Don’t worry, sir. I will preserve your honor.”

Random laughed softly and answered, “Again, what would I do without you?”

Random turned and began sorting surveillance reports by location. Nearly all activity revolved around the Chang River system, which made sense. Ninety five percent of colony’s population lived within the Chang drainage basin.

Random pulled out his maps of New Beijing. The Yunnan Mountains continued southward beyond the southern edge of the continent, forming a Philippines-like archipelago. A Jamaica sized island lay at the southern end of the archipelago. Random knew that the Akagi-New Beijing Flashover was located on that island.

The Chinese had named the island Panay. Random double checked his reports. The surveillance equipment had detected, what looked like survey crews on Panay. Random showed the photos to Cynthia. “Did the Governor mention an interest in Panay to you?” he asked.

“I don’t remember him ever talking about it sir,” Cynthia responded, looking at the photos with interest.

Random shook his head and put down the photos. He looked into Cynthia’s eyes and said, “I’ll have to ask him about it later. One thing still puzzles me. What about Mrs. Von Francois? What did she think about the arrangement?”

“Mistress assumed that I was a gift. She is very impressed with you. She may well be as in love with you as I am sir,” Cynthia answered.

Random shook his head, trying to clear the confusion. It didn’t work. “I could kill for a cup of coffee. Why would she be in love with me, when she was sleeping with you?” he asked.

Cynthia laughed and said, “My poor confused American. I was only serving as your surrogate sir. It would have been highly improper, and potentially dangerous, for mistress to sleep with you.”

[_Why do I feel like the straight man in a comedy sketch? Who’s on first? _]he thought. “In other words, Mistress and I slept together, through you.” Random was still trying to puzzle out the arrangement.

“Yes sir, and since I was obeying your wishes, Mistress served as your surrogate to me. All in all, a very satisfying arrangement.”

Random tossed down the rest of the data. “Let’s call it a night. I don’t think I can take any more of this.”

“Yes sir. Would you like to complete our arrangement for Saturday night?” Cynthia asked coyly.

Random grinned slyly. “I don’t know if I’ll be up to it. After all, I’ve spent the last two nights sharing my bed with two women.”

Cynthia threw a stack of photos at him. “I promise to go easy on you sir.” They fell to the floor together, laughing. After picking up the surveillance data, they wandered off to his quarters. He no longer felt the slightest bit guilty about sleeping with her. New Beijing could wait until morning.

Even with New Beijing’s long night, Monday morning came too quickly. Random finished his morning routine, dressed and met Mrs. Von Francois at the airfield. She gripped his arm as they boarded the heliplane and she didn’t let go. She and Random spent the flight, arm in arm. Sara Von Francois drummed the fingers of her free hand on his arm while she briefed him frantically on the materials available for the settlement.

At the Palace, Security led Random into the audience chamber. Mr. Wu sat at the head of a long table. The security man held out a chair at the other end of the table. Random took his seat. Wu took out a scrolled document and began reading New Beijing’s demands. Random listened patiently. When Mr. Wu finished reading, he passed the document to Random.

Random started to speak, but Mr. Wu held up his hand and said, “This is not the time to negotiate. You have forty-eight hours to prepare a response to these demands. When you have responded, then we will negotiate.”

Random smiled and nodded. “Very well, I will see you on Wednesday morning then.”

“Until Wednesday morning, Lieutenant Hause.”

The two men rose and bowed formally to one another. The negotiation session had ended. [_Great, just great, I could have been a potted plant. No dramatics. Nothing, just straight dictation. At least the process is started. _]Random thought as he went back to the aircraft. Mrs. Von Francois stood when he entered. “Well, what happened? Are the demands reasonable?” she asked.

“Surprisingly enough, they are very similar to your proposal. Here, take a look,” Random answered as he handed her the document.

Mrs. Von Francois read the demands quickly. “He wants six power stations here?” she asked incredulously.

“Electricity is a valuable commodity,” Random answered.

She looked up at Random. “He’s planning on putting one in your beautiful valley.”

Random shrugged and answered, “It’s not my valley. This is their world.”

“What possible use could he have for six power stations?”

“He thinks big,” It was the only answer he could think of.

“I guess. How extensive a road system does he want?”

“The settlements are widely scattered. Land communication is tenuous at best and new settlements are being constructed every month.”

“Without roads or rails?” Mrs. Von Francois inquired, in disbelief.

“Without roads or rails.”

“Impressive, but that still doesn’t explain why they need six power stations.”

“No. It doesn’t. Would you like me to ask on Wednesday?”

“Honestly? No. His request falls within the parameters of what I have available for settlement. If this is what he wants, I think we can make it happen.”

Mrs. Von Francois studied the proposal for a little while longer, and then said, “I told you, an industrial center and a tourist facility wouldn’t be out of the question.”

“I wish I knew what the old devil had in mind. He’s been dead set against industry and tourism up to now. Change just isn’t his style. Did you see that bit on Panay?” Random asked.

Sara Von Francois scanned the document again. “A tourist resort, a marina, and a harbor, plus power connections to the mainland. He’d be able to develop the whole archipelago. Looks like a sound development plan to me.”

“A little too sound, if you ask me.” Random was dubious.

“What’s the problem? This proposal is in line with ours and I think we can make it work. We need to prepare an answer to each of his items. Are you ready to get to work?”

“What. Now?”

“I can’t think of a better time.” Random shrugged his shoulders and sat down with her to work.

[*Chapter Twelve: The Deal. *]

*Monday July 2nd, 2046 *

AUN Monitoring Station, Huong River Valley

New Beijing.

 

Three negotiating sessions later, the agreement took shape. The final version nearly duplicated Governor Li’s original demands. All that remained was the formal signing ceremony. At the ceremony, the document would be signed first by Mrs. Von Francois, and then passed by Random, to Mr. Wu, to be signed by Governor Li. The process thoroughly insulted Sara Von Francois and she spared no effort to let Random know how she felt.

Random sat with his head in his hands, looking exasperated. “There is nothing I can do about it, Sara. You said it yourself, ‘Li is a stubborn old fool.’ Nothing you or I say now will change that,” he said.

“I am very tempted to tear up the agreement and throw it in his face,” Mrs. Von Francois responded petulantly.

Random urged her to accept the deal, “Please Sara, just sign the document. It has taken seven weeks to reach this point. The agreement is complete. Let him have his little quirks.”

“Screw him and his little quirks. I am a UN official and I deserve to be treated as such. Why are you taking his side?”

“What side? I’m only counseling patience. Once the agreement has been accepted, you can do as you please. If you remain here to oversee implementation of the agreement, you will be dealing with lower level officials. They wouldn’t dare treat you like the Governor did.”

Mrs. Von Francois threw up her arms. “Alright, alright, let me sign the damn thing and get it over with.”

Random handed her the documents and she signed both copies. He carried the signed documents to the capital building and handed them to Mr. Wu. Moments later, Mr. Wu returned with the documents. He and Random verified the signatures. The deal was final. Random and Mr. Wu each kept a copy of the documents.

The terms of the agreement were:

  1. {color:#00000A;}
    p{color:#00000A;}. The original four power stations to be completed and made structurally sound within eighteen months.
  1. {color:#00000A;}
    p{color:#00000A;}. A fifth run-of-the-river power station to be located at the mouth of the Huong River Valley.
  1. {color:#00000A;}
    p{color:#00000A;}. A sixth run-of-the-river power station to be completed at the mouth of the Liao River Valley.
  1. {color:#00000A;}
    p{color:#00000A;}. A road system linking the three valley systems with the settlements in the south.
  1. {color:#00000A;}
    p{color:#00000A;}. A passenger and freight rail system, to parallel the road system.
  1. {color:#00000A;}
    p{color:#00000A;}. An industrial and mining center, established within the Liao River Valley.
  1. {color:#00000A;}
    p{color:#00000A;}. A commercial fishing operation established at the mouth of the Huong River.
  1. {color:#00000A;}
    p{color:#00000A;}. Expansion of the biosphere.
  1. {color:#00000A;}
    p{color:#00000A;}. Agricultural advisers provided to help with the development of exports.
  1. {color:#00000A;}
    p{color:#00000A;}. Mechanized equipment for constructing new settlements. The equipment to be maintained and operated by the AUN. Directed by the government of New Beijing.
  1. {color:#00000A;}
    p{color:#00000A;}. A duty free port, marina, and tourist facility to be established on the island of Panay.
  1. {color:#00000A;}
    p{color:#00000A;}. Tourist facilities to be established within the Chiang River Valley at the main airport.
  1. {color:#00000A;}
    p{color:#00000A;}. One billion credits to be placed in the Central Bank of New Beijing to encourage investment.
  1. {color:#00000A;}
    p{color:#00000A;}. New Beijing is to be absolved of all debts relating to the original development contract.
  1. {color:#00000A;}
    p{color:#00000A;}. All additional workers, needed for construction on New Beijing, are to be drawn from Oriental populations on Earth. Preferably Chinese.

Random realized that the agreement would be unpopular, as well as difficult and time consuming to implement. UN – Earth officials realized this as well. They fobbed off any further involvement on their part, in the unpleasant situation, by extending Mrs. Von Francois’ stay on New Beijing until all the projects were under construction.

Lieutenant Caitlyn Conner wasn’t staying. She was already on her way back to Delhi II. Before she left, Random found her seated on her luggage at the edge of the tarmac, as she prepared to ship out. “What happened? Why haven’t you returned my messages?” he asked as he approached.

Caitlyn, who had appeared to be studying the tarmac, looked up and gave Random a weak smile and said, “Her Nibs wanted me off the planet with as little fanfare as possible. She forbade me from telling you about it.”

Random turned and looked angrily at the Monitoring Station’s main building and asked, over his shoulder, “Why?”

Caitlyn shrugged and replied, “I . . . . I didn’t want to play ball with her.”

Random wheeled and faced Caitlyn. “What the hell does that mean?” he asked, struggling to control his temper.

Caitlyn looked him straight in the eye and then said, “Don’t be angry with me. She wanted me to sell you out and I refused. She would have gotten rid of me earlier if her pride hadn’t gotten in the way.”

The angry look slid off his face and was replaced by a pained expression. “I’m sorry. I never intended to cause you trouble.” Random shook his head sadly.

Caitlyn smiled, a little less weakly, and then answered, “You’ve got nothing to be sorry about. I came out here because I was worried about you and I wanted to find out how you were doing.”

“But you had to go through all of this.”

“You didn’t put me through any of it. I came here because I wanted to. Her Nibs is responsible for any unpleasantness I’ve had to endure.”

Random sat down on the tarmac next to her and asked, as he picked up a small stone to skip across the pavement, “Are you sorry you came?”

Cailtlyn looked at him as if he grown an extra ear and said, “Oh hell no! Listen soldier, I learned that you were fine. I also learned that you are more than capable of standing up to tyrants like Sara Von Francois.”

Random dropped the stone he had been prepared to skip and stared at Caitlyn, dumbfounded. Caitlyn watched him for a second and said, “Why are you looking at me like that? You have to know that most of the Off-world community has been quietly pulling for you for months now.”

“What are you talking about?” Random looked around nervously, very confused.

Caitlyn chuckled and shook her head and muttered, “I guess not.” She studied Random’s face for a while and then said, “Believe it or not, people throughout the Off-world community, at least those that interact with the AUN on a regular basis, are talking about you and what you’ve done.”

Random was speechless. The two sat quietly until the transport that was to carry Caitlyn off of New Beijing was wheeled over to where they were waiting. Random helped the flight crew load Caitlyn’s gear on the aircraft. When they finished loading, Random and Caitlyn embraced. He wished her well and a pleasant journey, and promised to write as often as he could.

The transport rumbled down the runway and then lifted gently into the air. Random continued to watch it as it banked to follow the Huong River out of the mountains. It had been amazing to hear that the Off-world community was talking about him, but at the moment, none of that mattered. The AUN had assigned Random to monitor the implementation of the agreement. His stay on New Beijing was now likely to be much longer than Mrs. Von Francois.

Random felt pride at being assigned to supervise such an important project. He realized that his one year tour of duty on New Beijing had now stretched to at least two-and-a-half years. He also understood that it was entirely possible for him to be marooned on New Beijing for the rest of his AUN career.

Strangely enough, right now, the prospect of ten years, or more, on New Beijing, didn’t sound all that bad, to Random. The men in the Platoon didn’t seem upset by the news either. Most of them had unofficially taken native wives, and had quietly started families. Random knew for certain that nearly all of his men would soon make their family arrangements official and opt for permanent assignment. Much like the ancient Roman Legions, the men would simply assimilate into the local population.

Looking back, he realized that during his stay on New Beijing, the three AUN bases on New Beijing had increasingly begun to resemble small towns as the men abandoned the barracks in favor of individual housing units. Each base now had a market place and a bank. Schools and churches probably wouldn’t be that far behind.

One of his senior engineers had gone completely native. He had cashed in his retirement and settled in a new agricultural settlement with a beautiful native girl. Random had met the girl. He wasn’t surprised.

Governor Li seemed to go out of his way, to encourage the AUN people to stay. This didn’t surprise Random either. The colony needed the education and skills of the AUN men.

Random quickly discovered that monitoring the implementation would require him to travel extensively to each of the various work sites. Too much travel for him to effectively remain in command of the platoon. Forty-eight hours after the formal signing of the agreement, Random met with his officers. Together, they decided that Lieutenant Weaver should assume the day-to-day operation.

After the meeting with his officers, Random met with Governor Li, Mr. Wu, and Major Tupelov. The four of them also quickly agreed that Random was going to be too busy to effectively command his platoon. Based on this decision, Major Tupelov approved the elevation of Lieutenant Weaver to acting platoon commander. He also hinted that Random’s current assignment was unlikely to be permanent. Random found this idea to be welcome, but troubling.

Within seventy-two hours of the formal signing of the agreement, construction teams fanned out across New Beijing to begin implementation. Random and Cynthia made plans to check in on the various teams. One of the new MH47-G’s was kitted out as their mobile operations base. Once on the move, they soon discovered that it was better to fly between the camps, and then actually move in and out of the camps on horseback.

The demands of the new job were great and time passed swiftly. The agreement had been signed for a month and Random and Cynthia had been on the road for nearly all of it. This morning, a very tired Random, wearing a rumpled work uniform and a heavy AUN jacket, sat on his horse, looking out over the plains north of the Huong River. The horse, a gray Arabian, shifted impatiently.

Below him, on the plains, Random could see a work crew pounding out the rail link between the capital Xi’an on the Huong River and the industrial center that was being built in the Liao River valley. If you looked carefully, you could see both Random’s and the horse’s breath. Fall set in early on these northern plains.

The horse stirred, Random glanced down and said, “I see her, Strider. She’s just going to set up camp.” The horse snorted and shook gently in response. “Oh all right,” Random said as he nudged the horse gently with his knee, urging it to follow Mrs. Von Francois’ horse down the backside of the hill to where she and Cynthia were supposed to be setting up camp. The horse turned and began to gingerly follow the path Mrs. Von Francois had ridden.

Moments later Random rode into camp. Cynthia and Mrs. Von Francois, both also dressed for the cool weather, were already at work setting up the large traveling tent they had been using on this excursion. The two women looked up when they heard Random’s horse enter the clearing. “How quickly are they moving?” Mrs. Von Francois asked as he drew near.

“Based on the progress we’ve been recording, they should have the link completed in the next ninety days,” Random answered as he prepared to dismount.

“What is it exactly that they’re building sir?” Cynthia asked.

“This crew is building a heavy rail link. There’s another crew a few days behind this one that is building a road link,” Random responded.

“What about the mag-lev link, sir?” Cynthia asked.

Random looked south, into the trees and hillside, thinking before he responded, “The mage-lev is going to have to wait until the run-of-the-river power stations on the Huong River are completed.”

“It’s going to be at least a year before those are on-line,” Sara Von Francois interjected seriously, looking back over her shoulder to where Random and Cynthia were talking.

“I know. From the looks of it, the heavy rail and road net will be up and operating long before the mag-lev’s are laid down,” Random answered.

Mrs. Von Francois nodded, stood, and then walked back towards Random and Cynthia, asking as she approached, “What did you want to ask me about while we were still on the hill?”

Random chuckled and said, “Nothing really.”

Mrs. Von Francois frowned and chided, “None of that now. I’ve worked with you long enough to know that if it had truly been nothing, you wouldn’t bother to ask. Now what was it?”

Random stared at her for a moment, nodded once, and then said, “I wanted to know why you brought Lieutenant Conner along.”

Sara Von Francois sighed and gave Random a wan, half-smile, and answered, “Alright. I owe you an honest answer. I brought Lieutenant Conner along to keep you distracted and off your guard. It didn’t work. I could see that it wasn’t going to work as soon as I met Miss Han.”

Random frowned. He thought for a moment. His brows knit as he thought. “So why didn’t you send her home?”

“Vanity. I didn’t want to give off the impression that I’d miscalculated.” Mrs. Von Francois looked down at her feet.

“So why didn’t you try to remove Miss Han?”

Mrs. Von Francois chuckled and then she responded, “Believe me, I thought about it, but I didn’t dare, especially not after I met with Lieutenant Weaver. He made it completely clear that AUN Off-world’s headquarters were far away and that I was completely on my own out here.”

Random looked to the south again before asking, “Did he threaten you?”

Mrs. Von Francois shuddered and then answered, “No. He didn’t threaten me, but he did scare the living daylights out of me.”

Random studied Mrs. Von Francois and then looked southward again. “I think I need to have a word with Lieutenant Weaver.”

Mrs. Von Francois gave a half-hearted chuckle. “I hope you have several, but it’s a little too late dress him down for his behavior.”

Random studied Mrs. Von Francois for a while longer, and then responded, “Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t about to dress him down for his behavior towards you. I am going to give him a dressing down for failing to share with me when someone is trying to bypass my authority.”

Mrs. Von Francois’ eyes opened wide and her mouth opened slightly, but to her credit, she didn’t say anything. After a moment, she asked, “You still don’t trust me?” sounding hurt.

“Let’s just say that I still verify what you tell me.”

Sara Von Francois didn’t respond. Instead, she returned to her equipment, and was quiet and businesslike for the rest of the day. Later that evening, inside the tent, Cynthia spoke sternly with Random, “I realize that you were being honest, but you have to be careful. We still need her.”

Random turned to look at her. His shoulders sank. He knew she was right. “Should I go and apologize to her?”

Cynthia glanced over towards the area of the tent that had been partitioned off as Mrs. Von Francois’ quarters. She shook her head slightly and replied, “I don’t think that she’s going to be in any mood to hear an apology, just now.”

Cynthia stopped talking and sat quietly. Random came over and sat down beside her. “What we need right now is a plan,” she leaned over and whispered.

“You have something in mind?” Random whispered in return.

Cynthia smiled and said quietly, “I think I do, and it doesn’t involve you having to throw yourself on her mercy.”

Random chuckled and he replied quietly, “I wasn’t too worried about the ‘throwing myself on her mercy’ part. I mean I can grovel as well as anyone. I just don’t want to sleep with her.”

Cynthia looked skyward and shook her head and muttered, “Is that all you think about?”

Random replied, “No,” defensively.

After a moment, Cynthia said, “Good. I agree. While you’re sleeping with her might seem to be an obvious solution, it would introduce way too many complications. We need something less complicated.”

“Like what?”

“I’m working on it.”

“It’s getting late, and we’ve got to be up early tomorrow.”

Cynthia nodded and replied absently, “You go. I need to work this out and I think best alone.” Random sighed and headed off into the part of the tent that had been partitioned off as his quarters.

The next day, he, Cynthia, and Mrs. Von Francois dropped down out of the hills and traveled the rest of the day with the work party. A very large banquet was planned to celebrate the work crew’s accomplishments. The banquet included a rich feast of roast bison, vegetables, copious amounts of wine, and traditional dancing.

The meal was marvelous. After eating, Random sat back with the crew foreman and watched as the other members of the work crew began performing the traditional dances. Eventually, Cynthia whispered to him, “Maybe we don’t need a plan,” then stood and joined the dancers. Later, with much encouragement and a few glasses of wine, Sara Von Francois was persuaded to join the dancing as well.

Random sat back and enjoyed the beauty of the two women, as they moved among the dancers, Cynthia, with a transfixing, precise, grace and fluidity, Sara, with a reckless abandon that was intoxicating. As he watched, he imagined they were performing just for him. He felt disappointed when the two women eventually left the banquet tent, leaving him alone with his thoughts.

The morning after the banquet, Random, Sara, and Cynthia rode back up into the hills to check out a promising, protected site for a village. Sara, riding to Random’s right, stood in her stirrups, to get a better look at the passing countryside. “This vale is beautiful. It seems perfect for a dairy farm, but can they survive four years of brutal winter?”

Random stopped his horse and then looked around for a full minute before answering, “Life would be a challenge, probably seasonal in nature, but they could survive here. With the right land management, they could likely make a comfortable profit.”

“That’s what it’s all about then? Making a profit?” Sara sounded dubious.

Random smiled and then replied, “Not exactly, but making a profit can make enduring hardship more appealing.”

“Is that why you continue to put up with me?” Sara asked coyly. She flashed Random a dazzling smile as she sidled her horse closer.

Now that’s a loaded question, Random thought. He decided not to take the bait and replied, “You’ve kept your word and stuck to the agreement. I’ve enjoyed working with you, most of the time”

Sara stopped edging her horse closer, the dazzling smile faded, a forced smile remained, and she answered, “Fair enough.” They spent the remainder of the day discussing the features of the small, protected vale and how those features could best be used by prospective settlers. The conversation was pleasant, but all business.

By the time they returned to the Monitoring Station, Random knew that things had changed. The cold, haughty Mrs. Von Francois that he had first met, and the coy, flirtatious Sara that he had come to know were both gone now. The woman that remained was cold, distant, and professional.

The prospect of spending the next several months traveling with this woman, mostly on horseback, all across the continent, monitoring the progress of the various construction crews, promised to be a challenge. That challenge increased when Mrs. Von Francois informed him that her daughter Lorraine would be accompanying them on these trips. It was too late to change things now, the die had been cast.

There was so much work to do. Random barely noticed as the next two months passed. Following the various work crews kept he and Cynthia on the road. Luckily, Mrs. Von Francois chose not travel with them, instead relying on the reports Random submitted. On the rare occasion when she did join Random and Cynthia, the excursions became tense, and the riders irritable.

To Random’s delight, Carol Anne Turner devoted whatever free time she could spare to exploring the continent on horseback with Random and Cynthia. Over seven different weekends during those two months, the three of them rode the entire length of the Huong and Liao river valleys, and the region between the Huong and Liao River systems. On two of those trips, Sara Von Francois and her daughter Lorraine had joined them.

Random thought that things had gone so smoothly, up until now. This weekend’s expedition had gotten off to a rocky start. He and Cynthia had quarreled over the preparations. Their argument, on the morning of departure, had been cut short by some kind of huge blowout between Sara Von Francois and her daughter up in the Monitoring Station’s main building.

Lieutenant Carol Anne Turner, who was also joining them on this outing, arrived on New Beijing and found her traveling companions tense and somewhat surly. “Is everything all right?” she asked Random as the horses were being unloaded from the MH-47G transport.

Random shrugged and said, “I don’t know. Cynthia and I argued about the preparations this morning. Our argument was cut short by some kind of blowup between Mrs. Von Francois and her daughter.”

Carol looked at Random with a puzzled expression and said, “Why would you be arguing about preparations, you’ve been planning these things for months?”

Random shook his head and replied, “I don’t know. Cynthia had some kind of bug in her ear about not leaving until midday.”

“Did she tell you why it was so important?”

Random shook his head and answered unhappily, “No. She didn’t tell me anything.”

Carol looked from Random, to Cynthia, to Sara Von Francois and sighed. “This is going to be a pleasant trip.”

Of course Carol had been right. The flight from the Monitoring Station was mercifully short. Once the heliplane had departed, the riders broke camp in a prickly silence. They then pushed eastward, upstream, following a branch of the Huong River, further into the mountains. Well after midday, the riders crossed over a broken ridge that towered above the headwaters of this branch of the Huong River.

Coming down the far side of the ridge, they entered into an alpine valley with a small lake at its center. A stream flowed east across the valley floor. Aside from the stream, the valley floor was covered in grasses and wildflowers. The air in the valley was cold, so the riders moved quickly, Heading eastward along the stream.

Mrs. Von Francois rode next to Random. “Is this the first time you’ve crossed the spine of the mountains and headed down the east side?” she asked.

“Yes. We’ve flown rpv’s over this place, but I’ve never set foot here,” Random answered.

Mrs. Von Francois stood in her stirrups and looked around her, and then stopped. “I know what this formation is,” she said with apprehension.

Random wheeled his horse around to where she had stopped. “What do you see Sara?”

When he rode up to her, she said, very quietly, “This isn’t a valley, it’s a caldera. This used to be the inside of a great volcano. Look at the rim rock formation around you.”

Random stopped his horse and looked around him. Now he could make out the rim of the crater rising above them on three sides. The fourth side, the eastern side, had probably been washed away when the original lake had over topped it. The stream they were riding along was the remains of the channel that vast lake had cut when it washed away the eastern rim.

He could see no signs that the caldera was active today, but the lake did have a very peculiar shade of blue. And it looked like there was a small island near the center. “I think you’re right Sara, but from the looks of it, that all happened quite some time ago,” Random said.

Cynthia and Carol Turner rode up. “What are you two looking at?” Lieutenant Turner asked cheerfully.

“We’re riding on the bottom of an ancient caldera,” Sara Von Francois answered.

The four of them looked around with some apprehension. “Let’s get down to the stream. I’d like to stop for lunch where it heads off this floor,” Random said as he began to lead the way down to the stream bed. The others followed.

The riders reached a small lake that had formed behind a lip of rock. The stream poured out over the lip and down the mountain side. Random maneuvered himself so that he could look over the edge of the pool, down the waterfall. Alongside the waterfall, and beyond, along the stream, he saw a narrow track that appeared to have been cut by rocks tumbling down the slope.

Random studied the track for a while. It would be a difficult descent. They would definitely have to walk the horses for a couple of miles because the track was too steep and narrow to ride, but he was certain they could continue, if they wanted to.

The riders set up on a flat outcrop of rock near the lake and made sandwiches and then passed around fruit and nuts to eat when they’d finished the sandwiches. “How old is this caldera?” Cynthia asked.

Mrs. Von Francois looked around for a few moments then answered, “This is old. The remains of the cinder cone are gone, eroded away. Look at how much the rim rock has been eroded. The explosion that created this crater happened thousands of years ago.”

“Maybe we should check out that water?” Lieutenant Turner asked.

Random walked over to the water’s edge with Carol Turner. He could feel warmth and he saw a hint of steam on the surface. He put his fingers in the water. It felt warm, much warmer than the surrounding air. “Hey this water feels warm. Like a hot bath,” he said.

Mrs. Von Francois looked up surprised and asked, “What’s it smell like?”

“It smells like well water. A little bit of a mineral smell. No sulfur though,” Carol Turner answered.

“Sounds like a hot spring. There may be several of these as we make our way down the mountain,” Mrs. Von Francois answered sounding mildly excited. “If we can find one that’s in a more enclosed space, it could make for a very nice spa.”

Random nodded and said, “Good thinking. Let’s get packed up and head down that trail, alongside the stream. Keep our eyes open for another of these springs then,” He turned and gathered up his horse. When everyone was ready, he led the others over the edge and down the steep, narrow track along the edge of the stream.

With Random in the lead, the small party picked their way along the stream. The path was steep and the footing was unpredictable. It took all afternoon for the riders to reach the canyon floor. Shortly before sunset, they found another secluded spring. This spring was actually a series of pools with the upper one too hot to bathe in and the lowest one cold and emptying directly into the stream, which had continued to grow bigger and stronger as they moved downstream.

The riders gathered firewood from the small trees that grew in the area and made a campsite in the protected hollow surrounding the spring. Carol and Cynthia prepared a meal, which the riders ate quietly. After dinner, they bathed in the warm, middle pools.

After bathing, Random and Carol Turner returned to the campfire and found a quiet place to sit and enjoy the fire. “Are you enjoying this trip?” Random asked.

“Surprisingly, yes. We started out a little rough and the trail has been tougher and more rugged than the others, but I’m enjoying myself,” she answered.

Random put his arms around her and she snuggled close to him. He kissed her tentatively. She returned the kiss, turning to him as she did.

They kissed again, passionately. Random cupped her breast in his hand. Carol whispered in his ear, “I thought you’d never ask. Let’s find an out of the way place to lay our bedding.” They moved off together and a few moments later, Carol brought out the huge sleeping bag and they tumbled in, making love well into the morning.

Something was tugging at his shoulder. Random turned and looked up groggily. [_If this is some kind of predator, we’re dead, _]he thought. Cynthia stood over him. “Wake up Random. Oh please, wake up,” she said sounding frantic.

Random sat up trying to focus his eyes. “What happened? What’s the matter?” he asked.

“Sara is missing. She left during the night,” Cynthia said.

Random was awake now. “Damn!” he said as he woke Carol and dressed quickly. When everyone had dressed, he got out the sat phone, stepped out into the main canyon, and called the Monitoring Station.

Random told the soldier manning the system to get rpv’s up and into the valley to look for Sara Von Francois. After that he went down into the valley to see if he could figure out which direction she had gone.

A few moments later he was followed by Cynthia and Carol leading the horses. When they reached him he said, “I’ve found her tracks heading down the valley. I would like you to follow behind me. When we find her, let me go ahead and talk to her. I get the feeling that this is somehow my fault anyway.” Cynthia looked at him as if she was going to say something, but she held her tongue.

“We’ll keep out of sight soldier. Go and find her,” Carol answered, Cynthia nodded.

Random rode ahead, slowly following the tracks left by what he hoped was Mrs. Von Francois’ horse. This valley was very different from the ones in the west. This was dry country. Mostly clumps of grass, sand, and rocks with a few trees wherever water collected. The plants that New Beijing had been seeded with barely clung to life here. The valley had also opened up considerably, and was now easily more than mile across.

Random followed the trail until midday. Ahead, he could see where his stream, now a small river, joined with a much larger river coming down from the north. Near the conjunction, the tracks led away from the stream, and towards an outcropping of rocks along the southern slope of the valley.

Random found Mrs. Von Francois up in the rocks along the edge of the valley. She had found a sheltered spot in the rocks and was sitting in the shade. Random rode up to her slowly. “Stay the hell away from me,” she shouted as he drew near.

“I can’t leave you out here alone Sara,” Random answered as he continued to come closer.

Mrs. Von Francois picked up a large stone and threw it at Random. The stone glanced off of his shoulder. “I’m going to come up Sara. I’m sorry that I’ve managed to hurt your feelings, but I can’t see any way to fix the problem until I know for certain why you’re angry,” Random explained as he got down off of his horse and climbed up onto the rocks.

Sara Von Francois looked away from him and refused to make eye contact. [_At least she isn’t throwing any more rocks. _]he thought as he sat next to her and said, “Please Sara. Tell me what the problem is.”

Mrs. Von Francois snorted. “You weren’t so worried about me last night,” she said sullenly.

“What? . . . . When wasn’t I . . . . Oh. I didn’t realize . . . .,” Random answered, both confused and embarrassed.

“No, of course not, you felt free to hop in the sack with that flygirl, but you’ve never once put the moves on me,” Sara Von Francois expounded angrily.

“I . . . Ah . . . Well, I guess I did. I’m very sorry Sara. I’ve always considered you off limits because you’re married to someone else. Besides until yesterday, you’ve frequently had your daughter with you,” Random tried to explain.

“Married. When the hell did that ever stop anyone?” she demanded angrily.

“Well . . . . um . . . .True enough, but I just didn’t think it was the right thing to do,” Random answered.

As they sat in silence, Random looked around studying the rocks before continuing, “Speaking of your daughter, what was that row about yesterday morning. I noticed that she didn’t come with us on the trip.”

“No she didn’t come with us,” Sara Von Francois answered angrily.

Mrs. Von Francois’ anger seemed to dissipate as she changed subjects. “I caught her sneaking out for a rendezvous with one of your soldiers. During our little shouting match, she let me know that she’d been doing it for the past six weeks, waiting until I was asleep and then sneaking out. Anyway, I bundled her onto this morning’s Echo World transport. Let her father deal with her,” Mrs. Von Francois said with finality.

“Son-of-a-bitch. Who was the soldier? I’ll run his ass up on charges so quick he’ll wish he’d never been born,” Random replied with more than a touch of anger directed at the unknown miscreant soldier.

“No, Random, it’s done. I don’t blame the soldier. Lorraine is young, pretty, and definitely making herself available. Just let it go,” Sara Von Francois urged, then continued, “It also means I’m going to have to return to Echo World to try and sort out the problem. Heaven knows my dear husband won’t be able to.”

They sat together in silence. Finally, both stood and made ready to ride back to the others. Before Random could step off the rocks, Mrs. Von Francois grabbed a hold of him and kissed him passionately. “Before I leave, I expect a little attention from you soldier. It’s only fair,” she scampered down off of the rocks and got onto her horse. Random stood there for a second feeling like, once again, he’d missed something. After a moment he climbed down off the rocks and onto his horse as well.

That afternoon, the riders set up camp where the two rivers met in a crashing whitewater. Random called in the MH-47G to pick them up and carry them back to the Monitoring Station. Everyone seemed to be normal, but Random knew that his world had suddenly become more complicated.

The heliplane arrived shortly after dinner and the small party was bundled aboard. The flight back to the Monitoring Station was a quiet as the flight out to the valley had been. In the days that followed their return to the Station, Random made sure that he paid “attention” to Mrs. Von Francois as discreetly as he could, while still keeping the relationship platonic.

The time that Mrs. Von Francois spent on New Beijing had been one of the happiest periods Random could remember. Even so, all things must come to an end, and shortly after returning from the valley, Sara Von Francois carried through on her decision to leave New Beijing. She had duties to return to on Echo World and she still had a trying daughter to deal with.

After Mrs. Von Francois’ departure, the developments on New Beijing still proceeded ahead of schedule. The main road from the power station in the Liao River Valley to the main airport in the Chiang River Valley would be completed in less than a year. A branch road, running along the northern edge of the Huong River Valley, to the new power station, also neared completion. A brand new roadway was being cut through the mountains to link the eastern and western halves of the continent. The new road way was to follow a pass north of the Huong River.

New Beijing was much changed. Musk oxen and caribou herds had been transplanted to the northern plains. Bison and White Tail Deer could now be found roaming the Central plains, along the Huong River. Birds of many different kinds could be heard all around the colony.

The entire continent was finally mapped and expeditions had set out to the other continents to begin mapping. As the end of Random’s first Earth year in the AUN approached, the industrial center in the Liao River Valley also neared completion. Soon it would be turning out, much needed, machinery and goods.

The fishery at the mouth of the Huong River also neared completion and would be processing tons of fish for domestic use and for export. The development plans for the tourist community on Panay had grown to seven resort developments, along with an extensive list of Off-world banks. Panay attracted the banks with a liberal taxation policy, but even with the liberal tax policies, Panay promised to generate an enormous amount of income for the government.

With all the workers, the population of New Beijing quickly swelled to one hundred and fifty thousand people, including thirty members of Random’s platoon who had requested and received permanent assignment. With the planned developments scheduled to be completed far ahead of schedule, a bright future for the colony seemed to be falling neatly into place.

Random and Cynthia used the little free time they had setting up a company to lead horseback and rafting expeditions into the uninhabited sections of the colony. To their mutual surprise, the company was immediately successful. Within a month, they had waiting lists of people who were more than willing to spend big money for the privilege of roughing it in the wilderness. They soon discovered that the company could have as many as twenty crews in the field at any one time, and still not meet the demand.

Then the news came. Out of the blue, Company Commander, Gregory Townsend, announced his retirement. Random, based on his new reputation as the ‘Savior of New Beijing,’ was promoted to fill the vacancy. The promotion came as a total shock to Random. In spite of what Tupelov had hinted at earlier, he assumed his career to be forever halted on New Beijing. He was fully aware that he had made powerful enemies on Echo World and was sure that those enemies intended to keep him permanently sidelined.

Once again, events proved him wrong. Someone on Echo World pulled heavy political strings and Random was promoted, over the objections of his superiors. Of course, Random knew nothing about the string pulling, or about his reputation as the “Savior of New Beijing.”

Reluctantly, he began making preparations to leave New Beijing. The first thing that he had to do upon hearing of his promotion and posting to Echo World was to put his personal affairs and those of Alpha Platoon in order. He spent a week making sure that Alpha Platoon’s records were complete and in good enough shape to leave for a new CO. Random had no intention of leaving his command in the same condition as when he found it.

While all of that was going on, Random’s Second Lieutenants and Cynthia planned and assembled a grand going-away party. The party was to be held in the palace. On the night of the party, everyone was dressed in their finest. Random’s soldiers in their dress blues’, his maintenance staff in suit and tie, the Governor and Mr. Wu in fine ceremonial uniforms. Random wore his finest dress blues.

The party was a grand affair, but Random wasn’t happy. Seeing all of those people reminded him of what he would be leaving behind. This is what he had come off-world to do, to make a difference. [_Now that I’ve done it, do I really want to leave it all behind? _]he wondered.

Elsewhere in the crowd, Governor Li and Mr. Wu separated themselves off from the rest of the party after the dinner tables had been cleared away. “Where did you manage to find formal dresses for all of those women,” Mr. Wu asked.

“Ask Cynthia. Honestly, I didn’t know we had this many beautiful women on New Beijing,” Governor Li answered.

“You need to get out more old friend,” Mr. Wu answered with a chuckle. Then he continued, “I’d ask Cynthia how she finagled all of these lovely dresses, but I don’t think I want to hear the answer.”

“She’s a very talented woman,” Governor Li smiled.

“Exactly, and her talents scare the living daylights out of the Security Director in me.”

“Well, Mr. Wu, did he do the right thing?” Governor Li changed topics as the two men watched the people dancing from the sidelines.

“Yes he did. Right now I wish I had ten of him on my staff, but I’m certain that there’d come a day when having one of him around would be too much.”

The two men heard a cough behind them. An older gray-haired man stepped out of the shadows. “That boy is definitely a loose cannon. I didn’t think he could pull this one off. Hell, he even surprised Almond,” Ike said as he joined the two men.

“I see you got our invitation,” Governor Li said cheerfully.

“I wouldn’t miss this for the world. I’m sorry to have to take your hero away, but we need him on Echo World. Big things are coming. Be careful, remember we’ve won the first round, but this isn’t over yet.”

Governor Li nodded. “What does Chinavare think is coming next?”

“Almond seems to think there’s going to be some kind of showdown on Echo World. He says that Random needs to be right in the middle of it.”

“A battle for independence?”

“Perhaps. I don’t know yet. All I know is that Almond thinks Random needs to be in the thick of it.” Ike looked at the dancing crowd. “Think anybody would notice if I went down and picked up one of them pretty ladies out there?”

“Just make sure that you’re not trying to pick up somebody’s wife or girlfriend,” Li answered.

“Why? Are your lovely wives out there?”

“Ahem,” the Governor cleared his throat. “Believe it or not, my wife insisted that she had nothing to wear. I fear that I may be sleeping alone for a few nights,” Governor Li answered wistfully. Mr. Wu grimaced and just grunted.

The decision to accept the promotion was a difficult one for Random. Things were going very well on New Beijing and he was happy. He faced an uncertain future on Echo World. Cynthia made the decision much easier by making it clear that she wanted to go to Echo World with him.

She and Random arranged for the tour company to be incorporated. Cynthia turned over her share of the company to Governor Li. At Cynthia’s request, the company’s profits were to be split fifty-fifty between Random and the governor. Finally, with the company in the Governor’s capable hands, there was nothing left binding them to New Beijing, so Random and Cynthia, climbed aboard a C-130K transport and headed towards a new “wilderness”.

At that same time, on a mountainside, on a world unimaginably distant from the one Random and Cynthia were leaving, but one that was just as inextricably linked in this version of the great game, stood a lone woman in flowing robes, her hair swept back by the fresh sea breeze.

The woman stood on a white stone patio, gripping a weathered, white stone railing, looking out over a gleaming white stone city, far above the sun splashed ocean, lapping the edge of the mountain, a thousand meters or more below her feet. The woman stood silently with tears streaming down her face. Just as she turned to leave, you could hear her say, “And so it begins.”


Opportunity Calls Chinavare's Find Book 1

Opportunity Calls is the first title in the Chinavare's Find series. Random Arthur Hause, a history teacher/baseball coach trades in his teaching career and sets out on a quest to do something meaningful. The road to Hell may be paved with good intentions, but Random soon finds himself following a road that someone else has built, where everything happens for a reason and even his dreams are not his own. Random builds an odd collection of friends, including an indentured servant named Cynthia Han. Together, Random, Cynthia, and friends save the colony of New Beijing. What do you do when you discover that you have taken on the role of the blue touch paper? The trigger of a massive upheaval in the world order. Lisa Corson created the beautiful cover art for Opportunity Calls. You can see more of Lisa's creations at Homespun Heritage.

  • ISBN: 9781497750753
  • Author: M. A. Roberts
  • Published: 2017-08-07 22:50:17
  • Words: 82306
Opportunity Calls Chinavare's Find Book 1 Opportunity Calls Chinavare's Find Book 1