Raymund Eich

Invasion 2132 (The False Flag War | Book 2)

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They came in war for all mankind. The sequel to Exploration 2127 (The False Flag War | Book 1).

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“”

A powerful alien ship. Heading to Earth. Intent unknown. Bad: mission control lost contact with the interstellar explorers on Concordia.

Worse: mission control detects an unknown ship leaving the Alpha Centauri system. Heading to Earth at relativistic speeds. Driven by engines more potent than anything humans ever built. Silent about its purpose. Its crew unknown.

Leclerc, head of mission control, knows what he must do. If the ship comes to conquer or destroy Earth, the planet has only one chance. Its rival factions must set aside their cold war. They must turn their weapons of mass destruction to the common good. They must come together to prepare a mutual, desperate defense. But powerful alien technology tempts insiders of both factions. Instead of peace through cooperation, some seek peace through conquest. Leclerc must do more than find common ground with his former foes. He must face the lust for power of shadowy figures on his own side.

The fate of the world hinges on what one man does… and what he discovers about the crew of the alien ship.

Find out in the second volume of the False Flag War duology.

Sample of “Invasion 2132 (The False Flag War | Book 2)”

1

Sol System | Earth | France

7 January 2132

Predawn gave light but not color to the rolling hills on either side of the superhighway. The gray illumination made fields of crop stubble and little woods of leafless oaks look like photos of the region from two centuries past. Snow from the storm on New Year’s Eve still clung to the ground on north-facing slopes where the low winter sun hadn’t reached for a week. The rustle of sporadic traffic carried through the frigid air.

In his boxy sedan, Denis Leclerc leaned forward. He rubbed his hands in the flow of tepid air straining out of the vent under the bench seat. Yet another repair? Or finally time to scrap the old car and buy one more reliable?

Sybil would nod and agree. To pay for it, they could cut back this year’s vacation planning. Forget Mauritius, Martinique, some tropical island with white sand beaches, where the service personnel and their robots all spoke French. Instead, a week on the shore, perhaps near Dunkirk.

Leclerc rubbed his hands again. He’d rather go someplace tropical, with the only chill coming from an iced cocktail in his hand, and his wearable computer declining incoming calls from his Humanist bosses or his Traditionalist collaborators at Concordia mission control. He could afford a repair on the sedan’s heater. The unneeded luxury of a new car could wait.

A tractor-trailer rounded a bend on the oncoming side of the superhighway. Blue-white headlight beams splashed color across the sedan’s cabin.

Leclerc squinted, not used to being on the road so early. And on a Monday. Coming in to deal with the weekend’s snafu.

His hand groped inside a mesh pocket under the bench seat, near the vent. He leaned farther, until his fingers found the grommets holding the bottom of the pocket in place.

He leaned back and grimaced. Forgot to fill an insulated bottle with coffee before leaving his drafty old farmhouse. Forced to drink the charred swill coming out of the coffee machine in the break room? Bah, even most of the Americans knew it was garbage. Both Humanists and Traditionalists.

At least they had one piece of common ground.

The sedan slowed itself and turned on its right blinker. Tick-tick as the car took the exit ramp. Lights on the toll gantry above the lane blinked as he passed.

Two-lane country roads led Leclerc past villages and more fallow farmland. Between brightening twilight and the glow of his headlights, color tinged the world. Yellow-brown stubble of dead stalks waiting to be plowed under. Farmhouses showed red roofs.

Good country people. Most of them barely aware that data from the planet Alpha Centauri Bc, nicknamed Bravo Charlie until the science bureaucrats from both sides could compromise on an official name, flowed through Leclerc’s facility not ten kilometers away.

None of them aware that Concordia had found an alien facility buried in Bravo Charlie’s vast desert.

Officially, he too was unaware.

The ship’s comms officers never spoke of intelligent life in their chatter on the line. None of the crew’s personal messages to their friends and family mentioned aliens, though if one took careful note of the edits in the video, one might infer an omission. The gigabytes of data transmitted by the science teams only related to native lifeforms, from viroids and bacteriods to the pinnacle of local evolution, small, mute, and tool-less six-legged creatures. Their descendants might develop intelligence in a hundred million years.

But of intelligent aliens, Leclerc had no doubt. Remembered sunlight of a summer afternoon, streaming through tall mullioned windows, warmed him. A meeting more than a decade earlier, with the steady electric hum of thousands of cars bubbling up three storeys from the streets of Paris, and the broad oak conference table with legs carved into nymphs and dryads. Senior members of the Humanist Alliance’s science agencies, most in from London or San Francisco; him from mission control; and Sandford, the coarse and vain British woman just appointed to be Concordia’s Humanist co-commander.

An abstract pattern faced Leclerc. A two-dimensional surface of solid white, crossed by straight black lines walling off a few rectangles of bold color, floated in the air over the center of the table. A virtual object, generated by his wearable computer from data shared by one of the science bureaucrats and projected into his vision through projectors like tiny warts stuck around each of his eye sockets. Everyone in the room saw the same pattern, oriented so each person saw it straight on.

Aggarwal, lean and swarthy, with bushy black eyebrows and a California accent, spoke. Despite his breezy demeanor, he held the power to make and break careers. “In your transmissions back to us, it’s like, always use backdrops like this one.”

Sandford peered down her narrow nose. “Abstract art?”

“Art in the style of Piet Mondrian reflects, you know, the international and cosmopolitan values of the Humanist Alliance,” Aggarwal said. Whether he was a true believer or simply deft at parroting official Humanist ideology, Leclerc couldn’t tell.

After ten years of sporadic interactions with the man, he still couldn’t tell.

Leclerc shivered as more recollections came.

Sandford tossed her head, sending a ripple down her white—pardon, platinum blond—hair. “Still bloody ugly. Doesn’t mean a damn thing.”

“That’s why you’re going to use it to send coded messages. Like, this one, with three red rectangles at the top? Use that if you find signs of intelligent life.”

In her tuneful voice, still high despite her being of middle years, she said, “There’s none on Four Freedoms.” The official Humanist name for Bravo Charlie. Leclerc only called it that when he spoke to higher-ups like Aggarwal. Sandford, on the other hand, used it every chance she got.

“Like, we don’t know that. There might be some today who aren’t sending radio transmissions or lighting up cities at night or emitting infrared from industrial processes.” A mechanical hum came from the ductwork and cool air spilled out of the vents.

Aggarwal raised his voice a touch. “Maybe they did, some time in the past. You know, they had high tech and lost it? Or maybe they died off and, like, left some high tech behind? Use this backdrop if you find any sign of intelligent life. Leclerc will pick it up and let us know.”

Aggarwal caught him smoothing down his narrow brown mustache. Leclerc lowered his hand and nodded. “I will do that.” The English words tasted like sand.

The science bureaucrat swung his brown-eyed gaze back to Sandford. “If you find aliens, tell that fool Varanathan that it’s best to keep it out of the main data feed. If personnel at a relay station, or an amateur with a good setup in his backyard, pick up a transmission talking about aliens, it could cause social and cultural upheaval. Better to tell senior personnel on Earth in person after you get back, so they can figure out how to release the news.”

Sandford smiled. “Even better. I’d get Varanathan—” Her counterpart, Concordia’s co-commander from the Trad side. “—to believe keeping silent about it was his idea.” She tossed her head enough to ripple her white hair. Still thinking she had the looks to twist a man around her finger. A woman her age had better tools than mere beauty to do that, if she cultivated them. Sandford clearly didn’t.

A grin from Aggarwal. “That fool won’t know what hit him. And when the ship gets back, like, neither will the Trad leadership.”

Leclerc’s brow crinkled. “I don’t follow.”

Aggarwal’s bushy eyebrows jumped. “I’ll bet a week on the beach at Santa Monica that the Trads aren’t making this kind of contingency plan. They think God or Vishnu or Whatever made humankind in His or Her or Its own image.”

Leclerc had his doubts, but kept them to himself.

Thus, a decade later, almost six months ago, across 4.37 light-years, the message had come. Sandford talked about innocuous personnel matters in front of a backdrop with three red rectangles high up. Late July last year, just in time to scramble Leclerc’s family vacation plans to Rio and São Paulo, forcing him into frequent international travel for meetings with Aggarwal and his ilk.

Subsequent messages used other coded backdrops discussed in that long-ago meeting. The aliens who’d left the signs had died off. At least on Bravo Charlie. The knowledge had potential for immense benefit, to whichever of the Humanists or the Traditionalists could monopolize it.

Presumably it could also benefit all humankind, though Leclerc knew better than to bring that up with Aggarwal.

And immense benefit might mean immense risk.

Why had Concordia stopped transmitting two days before?

Pallid blue now tinged the eastern horizon. A tall mesh fence, topped with cameras and coils of concertina wire, came into view to the right of the two-lane road. Every fifty meters, a ground-level floodlight shone up at a sign bolted to the fence. International Interstellar Exploration Agency, in French, German, and English. Unauthorized entry prohibited.

Inside the fence, a path of crushed granite followed the perimeter. One of the younger workers jogged the path, in thermal leggings, long-sleeved sweat-wicking shirt, and a cap with flaps down over her ears. A six-wheeled robot in official colors trundled onto the frost-laden grass to yield the path to her.

The sedan slowed, then turned in at the main gate. He told the car to wind down the window as it stopped under a swooping metal canopy. Frigid air spilled in. Robotic arms reached through the open window and administered the usual procedures: retina scan, voice, and DNA taken from skin cells absorbed by the fingerprint scanner.

The guard came out of his hut. Thinning brown hair with gray at the temples and a belly lapping over the waistband of his navy blue trousers. A drip off the canopy splatted at his receding hairline.

As he approached, Leclerc’s wearable popped up a virtual data panel on the guard. It hovered over the sedan’s rear-facing front seats and gave the guard’s name as Granger. Almost seven years with the agency, with two children, his youngest son aged fifteen and a skilled midfielder….

“Good morning, M’sieur,” the guard said through the open window. His voice sounded like he’d been on his feet for most of a day, even though he’d been on duty only since six, with most of those two hours sitting in the hut. “A surprise to see you here so early.”

“A leader is on duty twenty-four and seven.” Leclerc pulled his overcoat closer to his body. “How is your son doing with the junior club?”

Granger gave a little bow. “Quite well, M’sieur. He has already been scouted by major clubs. Not just FC Metz, but internationally. Eintracht Frankfurt and Fulham. He will go far.”

“We’ll see him in the Champions League final one day, no doubt,” Leclerc said. He crossed his legs and looked at his uppermost thigh, as if reviewing a virtual document projected there by his wearable. Feign an interest in your subordinate’s lives, mildly encourage their unlikely dreams, but of course, don’t let them unburden their hearts to you.

A bong sounded inside the guard hut. Granger glanced at some private virtual displayed to him above the roof of the sedan, then backed a step away. “The formalities are clear, M’sieur. Please enter.”

Leclerc gave an idle wave. Through a subvocal command, picked up by muscle sensors on the sides of his throat, the window rolled up.

The gate lifted. The sedan went forward, along a winding asphalt lane flanked by spaced oaks. Their bare limbs looked brittle, as if a stray touch would shatter them. Five hundred meters on, the view opened up to the nearly empty parking lot, and mission control.

The building dated back God knew how far, to some era when architects pretended there was beauty in thick concrete, tiny windows, and lines that did not meet at right angles. For almost two centuries, it had always served some international purpose, for cooperating with Germans, Europeans, or Traditionalists.

IIEA took possession of it during the planning stage of the Concordia mission, now almost fifteen years ago. Yet the agency’s presence there seemed ever temporary. The ugly, domineering design made mere human lives an afterthought, like insects living in the cracks of some alien artifact.

Such as the explorers on Bravo Charlie?

Leclerc sucked in a breath.

Such as Concordia?

Oblivious of his worries, his sedan found its spot nearest the front door. He climbed out and hurried along the footpath. The soles of his black leather lace-ups clacked louder than usual in the chill morning.

The front door seemed another afterthought, tucked into the bottom of a wall sharply angled to the path. Visitors had wandered for minutes along the front lawn trying to find it.

He repeated the security procedures at a kiosk, followed by stamping his feet waiting for the green light. Finally, he went in.

The cavernous lobby had warmer air, but little other comfort. He always thought of the First World War-era pillboxes and defensive works half-buried in the countryside around. One shell powerful enough could collapse the ceiling or smother the exit with tons of dirt. His footsteps on bare concrete echoed off the double-height white paneled walls. An image dominated one of them, and provided some relief from the austere and forlorn space.

A mural, an artist’s rendition of Concordia orbiting Bravo Charlie, painted while the ship’s specs underwent debate and before the planet had been mapped in detail. Only five pods ringed Concordia’s central spine, not six, and below, an archipelago of islands instead of a single supercontinent.

No matter. Minor features might be wrong, but the artist had captured the spirit of adventure and cooperation held forth as the mission’s ideals.

Maybe something good for all humankind would come from it, after all.

Bright video monitors glowed close to the floor near the mural. An installation of a hundred and fifty video loops in a grid fifteen wide and ten high, one for each member of the Concordia mission, offering goodbyes and well-wishes recorded before their departure a decade past.

A chill ran over him, and not from the building’s inefficient heating system. The ship and all its personnel, crew and scientists, Humanist and Traditionalist, should now be over halfway home.

If they had departed the Alpha Centauri system on time.

2

Sol System | Earth | France

7 January 2132

He trudged up a slightly curving stairway, wide metal treads and open risers. The treads flexed under each of his steps. He shucked his overcoat in his office and retrieving a ceramic cup, a souvenir of a mountain gorilla preserve in Rwanda, he stopped by the break room for what passed for coffee, then went down the hall to the command center.

Though as cavernous as the lobby, the command center always felt lively, as if a decade of the best and brightest working for a common goal had softened stiff walls and lines. As tall as the building’s lobby, a mass of video displays filled the command center’s front wall, opposite the door he took. He entered on the second level, onto a wide gantry ringing the room’s other three sides.

His gaze always ran over the video wall when he came in, looking for anomalies. Easy to spot, this time. The largest display, in the center, always showed Concordia’s view of the planet below. Not now. Deep black, with yellow text in the foreground. No signal. Retrying.

Smaller screens, usually showing internal views from the ship’s control room, or live data from operations on-planet at the official base camps, Glenn and Yang Stations, also turned up blank.

Normally, coming in on the gantry evoked happy times. The desks and sitting area tables up here, all geometric lines and golden-brown, lacquered wood, reminded him of the university library decades ago. But now, at the workstations set in back-to-back pairs, as many people played solitaire or browsed the web as processed backlogged data. At least the first time-wasters looked embarrassed when he approached, and the farther ones scrambled to cover their tracks. Which only gave themselves away.

At the head of the stairs, Leclerc looked down and paused.

Faces at the central station turned to him, fearful, angry, hopeful.

He descended the stairs, taking stock. The central station, shaped like the letter U, had eight screens and keyboards deployed around its inner arc, tucked under a wooden ledge running along the station’s perimeter. Everyone called it the horseshoe.

A stuffed chimera, eagle head and lion body, drooped on the ledge, its iridescent eyes staring at the dark screen. Someone years ago called it the mission mascot and the tradition stuck. The curved end of the horseshoe pointed at the video wall, like an observation post peering forward, past the front lines of ignorance, an enemy to be pushed back a little further each day.

Today’s enemy, though, looked to be dissension. Two of his people huddled together at the open end of the horseshoe. Lanky blond Evans, who must have every tanning salon within fifty kilometers on speed dial, and Wojniakowski—Woj to the vast majority of personnel on both sides who couldn’t handle his tongue-twister of a Polish name—who really needed a more flattering haircut. Woj, the Humanist watch officer on the overnight shift, had technically gone off duty three minutes before. Evans would take over for first shift.

Normally they would talk, of course, during the shift change, but not with their backs turned to their Trad counterpart and their bodies blocking her in the horseshoe.

Yasmina Khan sat on a black mesh swivel chair as if rebar ran up her spine. Her brown eyes studied Leclerc from under a beige headscarf that complied with the letter of a law that her thickened lashes and artful eyeshadow denied in spirit. Her snug turtleneck sweater and tailored pants added to the effect.

She studied him, plainly trying to figure out which side he’d take.

Leclerc paused next to his people with his posture open to her. “Bonjour, good morning. Ms. Khan, you will get overtime pay because your relief is late?”

Her back remained stiff, but her eyes softened a touch. “Please suggest that to Hagerty.”

Evans pivoted smoothly to face Leclerc. “Morning, chief,” he said. He had a California accent, like Aggarwal, but less slangy. And Leclerc would much rather hear him speak English than his atrocious French. He angled his tanned face and pomaded sweep of blond hair toward the darkened main screen. “You see our problem.”

Leclerc sipped his coffee and winced at the charred roast and the cloying one-note taste of artificial sweetener. “We lost contact as I got into my car on Friday?”

Woj spoke up, eager to please. “Not quite that late. Second shift. 1916 hours.”

“Announced or unannounced?”

“Announced,” Evans replied, “but with less than five minutes lead time.”

“And Concordia comms estimated six hours,” piped up Woj. He glanced to the side, to something projected into his vision by his wearable. “Not over sixty.”

“Unusual.” Leclerc sipped more coffee. The char and the artificial sweetener clashed on his taste buds, the worst of both worlds. He smiled despite the foul taste and said to Yasmina Khan, “Since you’re the only one working right now, would you replay the downtime announcement from Concordia?”

She mashed her red lips together. “Mr. Leclerc, with respect, I ask that we wait till Hagerty and Broaddus arrive.”

Evans’ breezy expression masked a barbed comment. “They are running late, huh?”

Leclerc gestured toward glass walls under the stairway. A sitting area for breakout sessions and other informal conferencing. “Gentlemen, a word?”

Evans shook his head. “You remember protocol, chief? One authorized member from each side has to be in the horseshoe all the time.”

Leclerc’s gaze darted between the two men. He reached over and patted Woj on the shoulder. “You stay here. I will cover your overtime pay, be assured. Evans, with me.”

The sitting area held chairs and couches made of steel, black leather, and straight lines. The cushions were thick enough under rump and back, at least. Serving as a coffee table, an art object dated back to the building’s construction. A glass box containing at the bottom a chessboard in midgame. Brass and steel pieces made from the iron harvest, twisted fragments of shells and military materiél unearthed from the nearby battlefields. From the current position of the chess game, supposedly the best line of play for both white and black was a massive exchange of pieces. There would not be a winner, just one side would lose a bit less than the other.

Leclerc bade Evans sit. With a few finger swipes at the air, Leclerc turned the glass walls smoke-gray as seen from the outside. Green icons in the corner of his vision showed all the countermeasures against bugs and other eavesdropping techniques functioned fully.

He went in and shut the door. A twisting gesture locked it.

After setting down his coffee, he settled in a chair. Traces of steam rose from his cup like smoke from an explosion. “What’s got you mad at Khan?”

A sullen toss of his head swung Evans’ gaze up to Leclerc. The Californian leaned forward. “The Trads are up to something. Here, I’ll show you Connie’s last transmission—”

“I’ll watch it with Hagerty and Broaddus.”

“They’re in on it too.” Evans flicked his hand toward the doors. “They’re usually here by now. You know that.”

“Perhaps they’re running late from teleporting to Concordia to turn off its transmitter.” Leclerc fixed Evans with a reproving gaze. “What could they do? Drop the relay from one of their ground stations to here? That might last for an hour, until our next station gets line-of-sight.”

“Sure, chief. But they’re up to something.” Evans looked over Leclerc’s shoulder, to one of the doors on the ground level. “Now they can tell us…. What the hell’s she doing here?”

Leclerc twisted in his seat. He froze except for a sudden pounding of his heart.

Three people came into the main room, in a V formation. At the point, Hagerty, head of the Trad contingent at mission control for the past five years.

Five years? It seemed so, so much longer.

Strands of auburn hair failed to hide Hagerty’s bald crown. Stubble covered his jaw. He wore a rumpled blue sweater and baggy khaki pants. Transparent video glasses instead of eye socket projectors, presumably because he thought it made him look distinguished.

Not with that combover.

Leclerc ran his fingers over his own head, bald above the tonsure of hair over his ears. Better to accept your fate gracefully than try to hide it and fail.

Hagerty looked at the video wall. A bright reflection shot across his glasses. Then at the horseshoe. Then at the opaque glass box, where it remained as his feet shuffled to a stop.

A word from the woman behind him, and Hagerty veered his path toward the glass box, walking a little faster. A ripple of raised heads and whispers flowed away from them to the personnel in the farthest corners of the room.

Of the people approaching, one Leclerc knew well. Broaddus, a tall African-American. A short haircut faceted his head, and a three-piece suit in chalk-stripe gray clad his long limbs. A gold clasp held down his bright orange tie. Voted best-dressed man at mission control three years running.

The other person Leclerc knew much more by reputation. Guo, a woman from one of the Chinese successor states. She looked harmless, with a floral-printed yellow dress and a pageboy haircut of glossy black curling toward her narrow chin. A silver chain held a small pendant, green jade and milky-white porcelain in a yin-yang symbol.

Leclerc knew she played some role in the Trad science bureaucracy comparable to Aggarwal’s in his. She only showed up in times of crisis, and got as many nervous looks from the Traditionalists around the room as from Leclerc’s people.

The three Trads approached. Leclerc swallowed down his misgivings at seeing Guo. He led the way out of the glass box, then waited and extended his hand as the Trads approached. Evans followed, a clouded expression troubling his California surfer looks.

Hagerty’s video glasses partially concealed the bags under his eyes. They did not hide the sullen edge in the man’s American voice. “You’re here early, Dennis. Coming to fix the blame on my people?”

Leclerc broke off the handshake. He had to look up a couple of centimeters to meet Hagerty’s eye, but neither that nor the Americanized pronunciation of his given name phased him. “I wanted to get to the bottom of this. Just like you, yes?”

“You watched the last transmission?”

“Ms. Khan asked me to wait for you and Broaddus.” A nod to him, then Leclerc turned to the Chinese woman. “A pleasant surprise to see you again, Dr. Guo. I hope you didn’t fly in from St. Petersburg just for this?”

The Russian city, jewel of the Baltic, with canals and summer months without full night. As equally off-limits to his family vacations as the city named after it in Florida.

Guo spoke English like it was a privilege to be allowed to. “It happens that before Christmas I scheduled a visit for this week.”

Unease flickered across Hagerty’s face. Confirming she lied.

And confirming the Trads believed Concordia’s loss of contact was not routine.

The bitter coffee turned sour in Leclerc’s stomach. Should he have called in Aggarwal?

Too late now. Even by a private plane, two hours to come from Humanist headquarters in London. “Welcome. Shall we?” Leclerc extended his hand toward the horseshoe.

Inside the U, Evans and Broaddus took their seats as shift officers at the control boards. Hagerty and Leclerc stood shoulder to shoulder, each behind his own man. Near the exit, Woj and Khan leaned and peered to see what the current shift officers did at the boards, and what popped up on screen. A faint perfume scent came to Leclerc each time Khan leaned forward.

On the far side of Hagerty, Guo leaned one hip against the desktop’s edge. She crossed her arms with a rustle of silk sleeves. Her dark eyes regarded the empty main screen as if she already knew its secrets.

Broaddus’s fingers worked the control board. “Replaying main feed from Connie comms.” He twisted in his seat. “How far back before transmission loss you want to go?”

“Start with a minute,” Hagerty said, his voice muffled by his fingers tugging on the skin between his upper lip and nose. An uncommon gesture.

Guo said nothing, but her eyes, gimlet sharp, darted for just a moment at Hagerty.

Leclerc said, “We can look at more later. Proceed.”

The main screen flickered to life. Someone on the gantry clapped, three or four times, before the time stamps in the corner showed receipt time was last Friday at 1915. Transmission date, 23 August 2127, in the reference frame of Earth. After time dilation from the relativistic speeds of the journey, on Concordia, the transmission date was 24 October 2125.

In a fish eye lens, Concordia’s comms station was the size of closet. A European closet, not the room-sized affairs Sybil swooned over when watching American or Australian interior design shows. Gray foam like egg crating covered the walls. Some sort of acoustic material to break up echoes. Adhesive stuck a few still photos and handwritten cards to the door in the background. Comms personnel’s mementos of friends and family on Earth. The desk under the camera held a control panel, a microphone stand, and a lidded tumbler of coffee. All normal.

Except for the crewman filling up the screen.

3

Sol System | Earth | France

7 January 2132

The frozen frame showed broad shoulders, wide cheekbones, a crewcut like a wheat field cut to uniform height by a laser. Kuzmich. A Russian, one of Concordia’s shift officers, one level below the co-commanders in the ship’s hierarchy.

A Traditionalist.

Leclerc drew in a breath. He owed Evans an apology. “Kuzmich doesn’t normally work comms.”

Evans pointed to the stamp of Concordia subjective date and time, then twisted in his seat. “More than that. He doesn’t normally work anywhere this shift.”

Hagerty tugged at his upper lip again, then stopped and looked at his hand like it had done it of its own accord. “Everyone’s cross-posted to two or three jobs. Varanathan and Sandford spend half their time shuffling schedules.”

“Not Kuzmich’s,” Evans said.

Leclerc waved his hand for silence. “Play. Normal speed. Sound here only.”

Broaddus worked the controls. On screen came, Kuzmich to life. His icy blue eyes angled to something presumably visible in a private virtual. His gruff voice came out of speakers mounted underneath the horseshoe’s ledge.

“Big dish diagnostics look odd.” Kuzmich raised a finger to swipe and pan virtual data. “System recommends maintenance protocol number three. Will implement. Waiting to clear outgoing science data buffers before taking offline.”

Kuzmich eased back from the camera and waited, like a blond stone. Some Russian wrinkle in the training of national service conscripts, perhaps. A tough man to play poker against.

Broaddus popped up an overlay window. Incoming data rates synced with the time stamp on the big screen. Certainly looked like a burst of science data.

Kuzmich looked up and left at some virtual data, then bobbed his chin, a single slow nod. “Outgoing data buffers clear. Estimated time to renew contact, six hours. Going offline now. Concordia out.” He worked the control panel. Buttons and switches sounded click, click, snap.

The main screen went black. Broaddus froze the error message in place.

Hagerty pulled his hand away from his upper lip. “Clearly Concordia ran into trouble implementing maintenance-three.”

An EVA—extravehicular activity, colloquially, a spacewalk—to work on the main transmission antenna. “That seems the simplest explanation,” Leclerc said. “Occam’s razor, yes?”

Evans peered at a random spot on the ledge, with a distracted air showing he dealt with a virtual message.

Leclerc mashed his thin lips together. You’d best be fielding a personal call.

Evans spun his black mesh chair and gave Hagerty a gotcha! look. “Did Kuzmich start the shift at comms?”

“I know as much as you.” Hagerty blinked. LEDs in the high ceiling glimmered on fresh sweat on his forehead. “Probably less. Khan?”

Yasmina shuffled forward a step. Her right shoulder, facing Guo, stiffened and hunched forward, twisting her upper body away from the Chinese woman. “Ferguson started the shift. Kuzmich came in to relieve him.”

Leclerc sucked in a breath. Ferguson. From Great Britain.

A Humanist.

Expelled from the comms room in favor of a Trad.

Evans regarded Khan with heavy-lidded eyes. “When?”

“I don’t have the exact time. I must check.” Khan tapped and swiped the air. Her sweater sleeve clung to her toned arm. “1837.”

“About forty minutes before Concordia stopped transmitting,” Leclerc said. He shifted his weight toward Khan. “What grounds did Kuzmich give to relieve Ferguson?”

“Routine blood work came back from Medical,” she said. “The physicians found numbers far out of range. Protocol demanded he go immediately for further testing.”

“I’d like a look at Kuzmich’s relief of Ferguson.” Leclerc raised an eyebrow at Hagerty.

The taller American scowled. “What’s that look for? You think I’d say no?”

Behind him, her gaze still on the dark screen, Guo made a faint tsk.

Hagerty stiffened for a moment. “Do it,” he said to Broaddus.

The main screen jumped back. Ferguson had ruddy cheeks and bulging brown eyes. Other than possible thyroid issues, he looked hale and hearty. He pattered in the audio channel while he pushed packets of ship systems data out the big dish. Leclerc had a weak ear for his dense Scots accent. Something about jokingly asking for soccer highlights.

Leclerc cocked his head in thought. Ask to see the transcription in subtitles?

Subtitles that would block part of Ferguson’s body language? No.

Onscreen, a light flashed on the comms console. Moments later, Ferguson said to the camera words that might have been, “Wait a tick, got a visitor.”

Ferguson unlocked the door from his console. Kuzmich must have heard the lock disengage. He opened it and stood framed in the doorway.

Subtitles might block part of Kuzmich’s body language, too.

Leclerc watched the two men. Kuzmich, stolid. A person of average build walking into him would bounce off. Ferguson worked through all the stages of bad news. A dismissive wave, crossed arms and legs, drooping shoulders. Kuzmich stayed calm through it all, except for the fingers of his right hand. Though he hid his hand in his pocket, his drumming fingers flexed the jumpsuit fabric.

Finally, Ferguson trudged to the door. Kuzmich said, “Is nothing,” and a moment later, “I’m sure.”

“Let ’em poke me again and get rest of shift off?” Ferguson lifted his chin and smiled. “Nothing to complain over.”

Kuzmich raised his hand to stop Ferguson, then spoke over the Scot’s shoulder to the camera. “Kuzmich, relieving Ferguson, comms, 1837.”

Ferguson looked over his shoulder and gave the corresponding line, then left.

Kuzmich came all the way in and closed the door. And turned the knob for the manual lock before heading to the console.

“Stop there,” Evans said.

The screen rolled on. Kuzmich took the only seat and faced the camera with his usual stony expression.

“What are you doing? Stop.”

Broaddus made a warding-off gesture with one hand. “Easy, easy. Working on it.” He lowered his hand to the controls. The video soon froze with Kuzmich caught in mid-blink.

Evans spun in his chair. “Hagerty, how do you explain all that?”

Hagerty stopped tugging his upper lip, then turned to Leclerc. “Dennis, you need to remind your people to use good manners.”

Leclerc crossed his arms and gave Hagerty a jaundiced look. “I strive to uphold the mission’s ideals by encouraging civility between both our sides. But don’t use that to pretend we have no grounds for mistrust.”

Voice loud and high, Hagerty said, “I don’t follow←”

“Why did Kuzmich manually lock the comms room door? Ferguson hadn’t done so. Why did Concordia Medical send Kuzmich to tell Ferguson he had to undergo more testing, rather than send a message directly? Something’s quite suspect….”

Ice pooled in his gut. He hid the feeling behind a wry smile at Guo. Heart pounding but voice calm, he asked, “What coded messages has Varanathan sent you?”

She pretended the words were directed at Hagerty. Her gaze remained on Kuzmich’s broad Slavic cheekbones.

Leclerc raised his voice. “Come now, Ms. Guo. We are both people of the world.”

Guo turned at that. The curled-in ends of her hair bobbed with the motion. Her face lacked guile. “I don’t know that figure of speech.”

“You don’t need to. Again, I ask, has Varanathan sent you coded messages?”

“Mr. Leclerc, we both know that mission protocol requires all messages to be transmitted in the clear. The Traditionalist Coalition has always abided by that protocol.” She looked disappointed. “Has the Humanist Alliance done the same?”

Evans leaned forward in his seat, eyes scanning her like a radar beam. Woj stepped closer to Leclerc, closing ranks with his boss.

Leclerc chuckled. “You need not play this game. Yes, Sandford sends us coded messages. Just as Varanathan does to you.”

A strangling gasp came from Evans. Woj widened stunned eyes at Leclerc.

Yes, yes, Alliance secrets, as if the Trads hadn’t already guessed they existed. If not outright cracked the code. He ignored both his subordinates. His gaze stayed locked on Guo. A crinkle squeezed mirth from his eyes.

“How does Varanathan do it?” he asked. “Cricket references? Runs, outs, overs, unders? Or does he not actually read all those classic books he claims he does? Either one would suit him.”

The expression on Guo’s face matched the set of his own features. “I cannot confirm or deny that Varanathan sends us messages in secret codes. But you admit Sandford sends coded messages to you?”

Leclerc rolled his eyes and gave the air a backhand swat. “We know what Concordia found on the planet.” Him and Evans, at least. The secret of the alien base had been denied even Woj and the other shift officers, let alone the rank and file working around the lofty chamber. “You know it too. We can keep it off the record, but we should at least acknowledge it among ourselves.”

He looked up. Around the room, the dozen department heads and their aides stared at the horseshoe with curious eyes. Their gazes shied away from his like men scrambling for cover from incoming fire. Leclerc’s voice boomed, echoing off the concrete walls. “Get to work, all of you!”

With the roll of chair wheels and a murmur of conversations, the workers bent their heads to their tasks. Not much to do in the silence coming from Concordia, and they would strain their ears toward the horseshoe soon enough. It bought him a few seconds, at least.

Leclerc turned back to Guo. A frown sent a single crease across her forehead. She spoke with the voice of innocence, while her lips curled up, gloating in some guilty knowledge.

“I do not know what Concordia found on the planet. You do? And did not share that with us?”

Gooseflesh crawled up his neck. She knew Concordia had found an alien legacy. And if that legacy looked powerful enough, she knew Varanathan would try to seize it for the Traditionalists alone. Just as Sandford would try for the Humanists.

His gaze darted to the main screen, to Kuzmich’s image. And to the comms room door locked from the inside.

Coup and countercoup? A civil war in the corridors of the ship and in the exploration camps on the planet below? It would take little to damage the ship beyond repair, or destroy it utterly….

He shuddered. Damn Varanathan and Sandford both. Knowledge powerful enough to fight over would be powerful enough to bring all of Earth into a golden age.

And Guo would try to spin it in some game of power politics between London and St. Petersburg, Alliance and Coalition, Humanist and Traditionalist.

Leclerc willed vigor back into his voice. “We both have a guess what’s happening on Concordia.” He jabbed out his palm to cut off her next lie. “Neither of us will know the outcome until she recommences transmission.” He put extra weight into his next words. “If ever.”

Guo blinked at that. She knew the risks as well as he did, no matter how much she might deny it.

“We have nothing more to do but wait.” Leclerc turned away from her. “Evans, Broaddus, the shift is yours. I’ll leave you in peace. Assuming Hagerty and our guest will do the same.”

Hagerty avoided his gaze.

Guo smiled sweetly. “A fair suggestion. We will leave the staff to do their jobs.” Her expression clouded. “As you say, Leclerc, what happened on Concordia is out of our hands.”

4

Sol System | Earth | France

7 January 2132

The distorted square of sunlight from the solitary window crept across the wall beside Leclerc’s desk. He had one of the two largest offices in the building, with padded carpet laid in for his middle-aged feet and a dry bar boasting a two-bottle wine chiller.

Like so much else about the mission control building, he hated his office. The air circulation pooled all the heat around his desk. The door hid in an alcove. The LED panels in the ceiling glowed with too much blue. Full natural solar spectrum? Please.

In summer, he took breaks outside, at the picnic benches under the oak visible if you stood tiptoe at his office’s recessed window. In winter, as today, he drank a yellow-green emulsion of vitamins D3 and K and rested his eyes on the distorted square of sunlight, while daydreaming of his family’s August vacation. Hard to tell which tasted worse, the artificial banana flavor of the emulsion or the coffee from the break room.

By five in the afternoon, the square of sunlight slipped away, leaving only the blue tinge and an impending headache. From eyestrain, in part. Exacerbated by the ship’s silence and his sparring with Guo in the horseshoe. Compounded by last week’s department reports still to review and a summary still to write for senior Humanist officials in London and the tech directorates in Silicon Valley. After sending the summary upstairs, he would compose his thoughts for a private call to Aggarwal, where he would share what he’d learned in the past week about the alien discoveries.

Sybil made a running joke of his working late on Mondays. She would raise an eyebrow. Another tryst with your mistress Uranie? The muse of astronomy. Her voice would grow husky. When she leaves you for a richer man, I will still be here.

Leclerc looked at the virtual pile of paper in his inbox. Dwindled, but not empty. He sighed and reached for the next report. Assessments of Humanist crew morale from personal messages home, cross-compared with psychology reports from on-board.

The final swig of his vitamin emulsion. He shuddered. It tasted worse after warming to room temperature. He flipped open the virtual folder and read the summary on page 1, then started skimming. Annike Ingvarsson, the Humanist psych officer on Concordia, had fallen farther behind schedule in transmitting reports to Earth—

A knock on the door roused him. A break from this drudgery, but also an added delay before he could head home. He rubbed the bags under his eyes and said, “Enter.”

The door creaked open. Evans came in and stopped at the corner of the alcove. His grim face clashed with his summery tan and thick blond hair. “Chief, we need to talk,” he said. Noises of shuffling feet and breathing came from someone out of sight.

Leclerc waved him a few steps toward a sitting area, a round conference table of red-brown wood and four black ergonomic chairs. “I assumed you left hours ago.”

Evans started forward. “Yeah, chief, about that….” He looked over his shoulder.

The person at the doorway came into view. Brownish skin and thick eyebrows, low and knitted despite a social smile exposing teeth like a picket fence. A navy blue suit cut to a lean frame. Aggarwal.

Leclerc felt punched in the gut. He labored inside to make light of the bureaucrat’s visit. “Good evening. And a pleasant surprise. Safe travels from London?”

Aggarwal strode to the dry bar. He faced Leclerc and put his hands on his hips. Over his shoulder, he said, “Evans, get the door.”

The other Californian stalked on slow steps to the alcove. The bolt snapped home like a rifle chambering its next round.

Leclerc rose, gut churning. “Care for a drink?”

“Scotch all around.”

Foul stuff, flavored like the dirt used to filter it. Leclerc his thoughts behind a neutral expression. “I’ll pour—”

“Evans, set us up three glasses.”

Aggarwal shifted out of the way. Evans went to the dry bar with a grin on his face. The grin faded a little until he passed out of Leclerc’s full view. Currying favor. His star rising.

Leclerc beckoned toward the round table. “Sit, please.”

Aggarwal angled his head from side to side. “Sure.” He rolled one of the chairs away from the table. He palmed the top of the backrest.

Evans set down a glass of dirt-brown liquid in front of him, then returned with two. He put Leclerc’s glass down opposite Aggarwal.

Leclerc raised an eyebrow at Evans. The lanky Californian avoided his gaze.

Inwardly, Leclerc fumed. If you want to play the game of office politics, play it without apology. Don’t act like an American and try to have it both ways, winning the war while claiming to feel bad about it.

The LED panels glared worse over his glass than anywhere else on the table. Leclerc sighed and took the hot seat. He took a sip and clamped down on his shudder. The other two men sat and faced him.

“Again, safe travels?” Leclerc asked. He expected a minute of chit-chat, about heavy London traffic getting to the airport, or the gloomy rural landscape between the airfield near Verdun and here.

Aggarwal spoke. “You’re wondering why am I here?”

Leclerc blinked, once. “I’m not wondering at all.” One more sip. “Evans went behind my back. Over my head?” Maybe Aggarwal would fire him on the spot, and he would never have to speak English again.

“Yeah.” Aggarwal drew out the word. “But, like, why would he do that?”

“I said the thing everyone knows. Both Sandford and Varanathan send coded messages home about the alien presence on Four Freedoms.” The hours spent working on reports to his superiors had primed him to call it by the Humanist name instead of Bravo Charlie.

Aggarwal squinted at him. “That’s not what Evans told me. You admitted to Guo and the other Trads Sandford sends secret messages to us. Guo didn’t say a damn thing about whether Varanathan sent his own secret messages to her.” He took a long swig of his Scotch, then clunked the glass heavily on the red-brown table.

Leclerc gave Evans a cold smile. “All three of us know he does.”

Evans studied the tabletop’s wood grain. Aggarwal spoke. “No, we don’t. It’s like, they’re Trads, you know?”

Evans kept his blond head down rather than agree with such a foolish statement.

Leclerc slid his mostly-full glass away from him, exposing more of himself to Aggarwal’s gaze. “I took a risk to try extracting information from them.”

“And failed. You know, you left me with a hell of a damn mess to clean up. The Trad secretariat has already delivered a note alerting us they’re, you know, going to lodge a formal protest under the IIEA Treaty. A formal protest! I’ve got to answer to people high up in London for this. Yeah, we’ll stall the Trads for a week or two, but we’ll have to eventually turn over everything Sandford sent us, you know?” A hard edge surrounded Aggarwal’s brown eyes.

Leclerc’s hand on the tabletop wanted to curl into a fist. He willed it flat. “Which costs us nothing. Everything Sandford sent us, Varanathan sent them.”

Aggarwal threw up his hands and scowled across the table. “Goddam, I keep telling you, they aren’t smart enough to have set up coded messages. If Trads were smart, they’d be Humanists, you know?”

Blunt words wanted to come out of his mouth. Why not? Aggarwal’s unexpected visit meant he was fired anyway. “Only fools underestimate their rivals.”

The bureaucrat blinked. “The Traditionalists aren’t our rivals. They are reactionaries clinging to the wrong side of history.” He recited the lines by rote.

Leclerc switched angles of attack. “Even if the Trad leadership on Earth doesn’t know what Sandford knows about the aliens, Varanathan does.”

Aggarwal narrowed his eyes and leaned back. “So?”

“Sandford told us the aliens are not from Br—Four Freedoms, yes?”

“Yeah. And?”

Sweat dewed on Leclerc’s bald crown. Was Aggarwal obtuse? Or did he just act that way to make his subordinates talk too much? “To get to the planet from their homeworld, they must have possessed technology at least as powerful as particle spin magnets and Bussard ramjets. At least.”

“What’s your point?”

“A powerful propulsion system can be used as a powerful weapon.”

Aggarwal’s eyes grew both dreamy and aggressive, like a man eyeing an exotic dancer writhing on a table in front of him. “Yeah. I see that. But it still doesn’t justify you giving away our secrets.”

Drying sweat turned Leclerc’s scalp clammy. “Why did Kuzmich work his first comms shift in years? Relieving a Humanist? Locking the door from the inside? And then comms go down for ‘routine maintenance’ that lasts, what, three days too long? So far? Varanathan attempted a….” Leclerc groped for English words, but only a French phrase came to him. “A coup de main—”

Aggarwal grinned. “‘Cooter mane?’”

Hand half-ringing his Scotch on the tabletop, gaze on a ripple of light in the dark brown liquid, Evans said, “A killing blow.”

A nugget of tension broke apart in Leclerc’s chest. Evans might play politics, but he was not a fool. “Precisely. Varanathan found some evidence of powerful alien technology and made a play for it.”

Aggarwal scrunched up his nose. “Sandford would have made a play too.”

“Whose man shut down comms from the ship?”

Aggarwal leaned back. He propped his left cheek on his fist, elbow planted on the arm of his chair. With his right hand he swirled whisky in his glass. “I see what you’re saying.”

Abruptly, he sat straight and drained the last of his Scotch in three swallows. He thumped the glass to the tabletop. “Which means you put us, like, even further behind the eight-ball. Goddam! I was going to ask for your resignation, and if you said no, promote you to head of the ground station on Diego Garcia. But now?”

A miserable fly speck of an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, housing a radio antenna array and little else. No tropical cocktails. No service personnel speaking French.

No families.

Leclerc drew in a breath, like a man expressing a final defiance before the firing squad blindfolds him. Do your worst—

A bright red police siren icon popped into his vision in the notification area to his lower left. The siren sounded in his earbuds, a long rise and fall out of some old American cop show.

He turned his head, eyes wide, the thin ice under his career suddenly forgotten.

Code Red-2.

Anomalous data from the Alpha Centauri system. Not from Concordia.

Evans mirrored his gesture. “What the hell?” he muttered. “Concordia back online?”

“Like, what’s going on?” asked Aggarwal.

Tunnel vision narrowed Leclerc’s attention to the siren. “Something serious. Excuse me.” He rose, drink forgotten, Aggarwal ignored. His tunnel vision widened enough to take in the alcove. Adrenaline turned his hand into a thick glove. He fumbled with the knob before finally gripping and turning it.

He strode down the concrete hallway, toward the entrance to the gantry. LED panels on motion sensors lit up for him. Over the blood rushing in his ears came the sound of loping footsteps trying to catch up.

Evans spoke in his terrible French. “Did they get comms back from Concordia, chief? No, the guys in the horseshoe wouldn’t push this alert for that.”

Still striding, Leclerc said over his shoulder, “Wait with Aggarwal and measure new drapes for my office. I’ll take care of ops.”

“Hey, chief….” Evans increased his pace and finally made it abreast of Leclerc. “What could trigger a Red-2?”

Leclerc ignored him. Evans hesitated and fell a step behind.

The doors to the gantry opened. Leclerc stalked toward the stairs. His gaze went to the main screen.

His feet slowed, shuffled, stopped.

The main screen compiled visible light and infrared data from arrays of satellites deployed around the Solar System, all watching the planet Bravo Charlie. Despite all the tricks of interferometry, 4.37 light-years blurred most details. Someone in the horseshoe could blend in detailed maps previously transmitted by Concordia with a few keystrokes, but no one had done so.

Normally, from only near-Earth observations, Leclerc could tell at a glance day from night, or whether the slowly-turning planet showed its hemisphere of supercontinent or its hemisphere of ocean. Enough color came through to show the supercontinent’s three concentric bands of biomes, deep green along the coasts, yellowing further inland where fewer rain clouds could reach, turning to the central desert, red as Mars and almost as dry, five thousand kilometers from the ocean.

What the screen showed now was not normal.

Two-thirds of the supercontinent, off-center low and left. To the left of the terminator, the line between day and night, Alpha Centauri B tinged the landscape with its orange rays. Just after sunrise in the red desert.

Where a second sun glowed on the surface.

Small. Guessing the scale, a few kilometers wide. But shining bright enough to fully saturate the handful of pixels. A text box overlay gave the glowing point’s temperature of 8133 K.

Leclerc descended the stairs. Conversation fragments drifted up to him.

“…volcanic eruption?”

“No, way too hot…”

The ones and tens digits ticked around. Now 8145 K. Either way, more than hot enough to melt rock. Hotter even than the photosphere of the planet’s orange sun.

Conversations dried up. The faces of the evening shift watch officers turned to him. Tung, a slender man with a thick head of black hair, had risen as far as the Humanist hierarchy would allow for a native of the Chinese successor states. His Trad counterpart, Randolph, towered over Tung. An avuncular white man from the American South, white-haired and wrinkled, Randolph could dial his honeysuckle accent up or down at will.

As they stood in the center of the horseshoe, both watch officers looked at him like characters in a sports movie. Nervous rookies looking to the limping veteran for leadership, with all the day’s politics and suspicions gone.

“One good thing comes of working late on Mondays. I’m still in the building.” Leclerc put on a little smile. He entered the horseshoe with his gaze on the hotspot of light. “Can you tell me anything more than what’s showing?”

Tung spoke. “It started about fifteen minutes ago.” American English, barely accented, and with the tone a loyal dog would use if it could speak to its master. Common among the generation of young Chinese who’d done everything they were supposed to, to overcome the genocidal hegemony of their forefathers, and still were denied the fair deal promised to them. “We’re reviewing geology data for pre-indicators for volcanic activity. Nothing so far.”

“I have my doubts we’ll find anything,” Randolph said. His words had only a whisper of a Southern American accent. “Connie doesn’t have any personnel within two thousand miles, three thousand kilometers.”

Leclerc put on a blank look. In one of Sandford’s transmissions, she’d squeezed a stress ball of two colors, one hemisphere blue and the other green. Her fingernail had gouged out some of the foam near the middle of the green hemisphere. Site of the alien presence, and the third ground expedition that only a dozen people on Earth knew about.

On the Humanist side. Double that to get the real number.

If the green hemisphere in her stress ball were a map of Bravo Charlie’s supercontinent, the gouge marked a spot not far from the zone of hellish light and heat.

Leclerc swallowed. The location could not be a coincidence. What had the third ground expedition stumbled upon? “Is Concordia safe?” he blurted, and regretted it.

“Still radio silence,” said Tung. “Over seventy-two hours now. But we have reason to expect it is. Its projected orbit has it over the far side of the planet.”

Randolph played up his accent by a notch. “Is there a reason Connie wouldn’t be safe?”

Feigning ignorance to lure Leclerc into saying something he shouldn’t. A ploy that worked well on others. Leclerc did not fall for it. “Could a volcanic eruption with that much energy propel small rocks into orbit?”

“I have to say, that seems unlikely….” Randolph turned his attention back to the screen. The light caught long hairs growing out his nostrils. “8148 K? If it were a volcanic eruption, maybe it could.”

Footsteps, multiple sets, approached the back of the horseshoe. Leclerc’s gaze remained on the hotspot. “If it is not a volcanic eruption, what else could it be?” he asked Tung and Randolph.

A soft female voice sounded, with an accent thicker than Tung’s. “I hoped you could tell me.”

5

Sol System | Earth | France

7 January 2132

Leclerc turned from the crescent planet and its glowing hotspot to the entrance of the horseshoe. “Ms. Guo, what a pleasant surprise.”

“Surprise?” She looked as demure as before. Her dress looked as pressed as it had when she’d walked in that morning. She stood with her arms folded and her gaze on the screen.

“I had assumed your routine, pre-scheduled trip would have ended, and you’d be flying back to St. Petersburg.”

“I was leaving for my hotel when the alert about this—” She looked at the hotspot. “—came through from Randolph and Tung.” Behind her, Hagerty’s eyes had deeper bags under them than usual, and strands of his combover were out of place, like tracks merging in a railroad switchyard.

Meanwhile, Aggarwal waited in Leclerc’s office, undoubtedly drinking more whisky. His respect for Guo bumped up a notch. So too did his dread of the thin ice under his career. Picking his words, he said, “I don’t know anything more than you.”

“You think this anomaly is a volcano?” she asked.

“Don’t you?”

“The temperature is far too high,” she said. “The hottest known terrestrial volcano never reached 2000 K, let alone 8000.”

“I did not know you were a vulcanologist.”

“I’m not.”

Leclerc hooked his thumb over his shoulder, toward the screen. “Regardless, the hotspot isn’t terrestrial.”

“Perhaps,” said Guo. “There is nothing else that might cause such a thing?”

“You speak as if you know the answer.”

A smile teased her lips. Her gaze returned to the main screen. “I don’t know anything more than you.” Then voices burbled around the vast room and her smile drained away.

Leclerc twisted around. The hotspot extended a tiny blob. False color showed it was even brighter and hotter than the main body. The blob flickered on and off the screen. A glitch in the data? The interferometry array sometimes coughed up artefacts like that.

As he watched, the blob broke free. It moved away from the hotspot, flickering for a few moments, until it stayed lit. A single, actinic point. The hotspot extended another blob after it, more diffuse and much dimmer and cooler than the main body.

But the second blob could not catch up. The single point of light moved away from the hotspot.

Gaining speed every moment?

Leclerc’s five-o’clock shadow stood up on his jaw and cheeks. A clammy feeling ran down the front of his neck. “Tung, show us the velocity of that moving point.”

“Yes, sir.” Tung hunched forward and worked the controls. A text box popped up and crawled across the main screen, keeping pace with the pinpoint of light. 1837 m/s showed first. A moment later, the numbers jumped around. “It is difficult to measure.”

“Do your best,” Leclerc said. He rolled his lips in and out while his gaze stayed on the screen. Though the numbers fluctuated, the trend soon broke 1900. 2000.

“Tung, the acceleration as well.”

Tung turned, face tight. “It is very difficult, sir. The velocity readings are too poor in quality to accurately calculate the derivative. Please do not expect correct numbers.”

Hand at his side, Leclerc’s fingers clawed the air. “I won’t,” he said, more sharply than he meant. He’d rather get imperfect data than no data at all. Then he turned to Randolph. “What was that?”

Randolph had watched the screen and muttered for a few seconds. “…seven mississippi, eight mississippi.” He turned to Leclerc and Hagerty. “Velocity went up about 250 meters per second in about eight seconds. Give or take. That’s an acceleration of about three gees.”

The text box showed 2214 m/s for an instant before the number fell back into a blur of digits. Tung hit some key with an emphatic clack and the text box grew, adding a line below. 31 m/s². “Proper calculations are in line with Randolph’s guess.”

Guo stepped forward with a swish of her dress. The reflected glow from the main screen filled her dark eyes. “The extremely bright object is accelerating?”

“Yes,” said Hagerty and Leclerc at the same time.

“Thank you,” Guo said over her shoulder to Hagerty, “but I asked Leclerc.”

Hagerty made a strangled noise. He shuffled backward to the horseshoe’s opening, and tugged on his upper lip as if it were made of pallid rubber.

Guo swung her gaze to Leclerc. “Volcanic ejecta could not do that, could they?”

Leclerc’s mouth felt dry. “No.”

Deadpan, she said, “Then it must be Concordia, mustn’t it?”

It couldn’t be. If their calculations were accurate, the ship would be on the other side of the planet. Even if they were badly wrong, and even if Concordia happened to pass through the line of sight between the hotspot and Earth, nothing about the pinpoint matched. The ship would orbit with a higher velocity and no acceleration.

If it couldn’t be Concordia…. “Perhaps one of the landing craft,” Leclerc managed. He wished he could hide for a moment and dab sweat off his scalp.

“I have no record that any landing craft was deployed to the middle of the supercontinent,” Guo said. “And even at full thrust of their chemical rockets, the light and heat of a landing craft launch would not generate enough signal for our arrays to pick up.”

Leclerc cast his gaze around the room. Concerned looks aimed everywhere, as if they ricocheted off the double-height walls. At the pinpoint on the main screen, speed now 3 klicks per second and rising. At Leclerc and the others inside the horseshoe. At a new arrival, coming in on the ground floor.

He pivoted. Just inside the main doors strode Aggarwal. His brown eyes showed no regard for the anomalous energies glimpsed across a chasm of light-years. Instead, he scowled at Leclerc.

“Let us talk privately,” Guo said, voice solemn. She gestured toward the glass-walled sitting area under the stairs, at the back of the chamber.

“About?”

“About the thing we both know but have not admitted to one another.” She didn’t wait for a response, instead, set off. Hagerty took a step after her, but she halted him with a curt wave, without breaking stride. Next to her chin, the ends of her pageboy cut bobbed with each step.

Leclerc followed. Nothing seemed real. Energies neither nature nor man could unleash. Guo opening to him.

Aggarwal stopped athwart Guo’s path. She stopped short. Leclerc halted next to her. His superior’s bushy eyebrows bunched over his eyes like man-eating caterpillars preparing to strike.

“Goddam, what’s this?”

“Mr. Leclerc and I are preparing to discuss this unexpected situation from Bravo Charlie. Would you care to join us?”

Aggarwal’s scowl hardened. “I would, but Leclerc might feel he can’t say too much.”

“If you so choose,” Guo said. She took a step along a path around him. Walking more quickly than he’d ever seen before. Leclerc avoided Aggarwal’s gaze and moved after her.

“Hey, I was kidding. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.” Aggarwal hurried to catch up.

At the sitting area, Leclerc stepped past Guo and held the door open for her. Aggarwal pushed his way through after her. Leclerc opaqued the walls, pulled the door shut, locked it. Checked for security, then nodded to the others.

They already sat. Aggarwal slouched in one of the chairs, left ankle on right knee. The cuff of his pants leg gaped, showing a glimpse of a dark sock with worn elastic. He gave Leclerc a gimlet eye.

On the other side of the art installation, Guo sat alone on a sofa, back straight, knees together. Her weight barely dented the cushion. She glanced down and at an angle, studying some shell fragment or lost bit of a dead man’s kit inside the glass box.

Leclerc took the chair to Aggarwal’s left. Guo broke off from looking at the art installation and faced the two men.

“I am prepared to admit that the Traditionalist Coalition has received coded messages from Varanathan on Concordia,” she said. “The messages pertain to the discovery of an alien presence on Bravo Charlie.”

Aggarwal said nothing. Leclerc responded. “In exchange for what?”

“”

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Writer

Raymund Eich

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