Chapter 04: "Quarantine"

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ALL of them?”

“Well we’ve not had enough time to count ALL of them sir, but… yes, it looks that way.”

“Well, what does it mean?”

Major Bartlett’s expression contorted into the open anguish of somebody completely at a loss. “Every single star in the sky suddenly becoming eight percent less luminous? The only scenario I can think of that would explain that one scares the shit out of me, sir.”

General Tremblay folded his arms. “Well? Don’t beat around the bush, brief me.”

Bartlett straightened slightly. The general was an easy-going and relaxed man who ran an easy-going and relaxed unit: The rebuke had been mild but it carried a lot of weight, coming from him. “Well, the only scenario I can think of which would explain a uniform decrease in luminosity from our perspective of every star in the sky would be if we had become encased in an almost transparent shell of some kind.” he explained.

“‘We’ meaning…?”

“The whole planet sir. Maybe the whole system. It depends on whether the outer planets have undergone a similar drop.”

“Find out.” Tremblay ordered, and Bartlett spun away to comply. “Somebody get Nadeau and whoever he thinks is his team’s premier expert on these electrostatic fields up here. And get me the defense minister.”

“He’s already on the line sir. He called you.”

“About this?”

“Yes, General.”

“How in the fuck did he find out?” Tremblay demanded.

“Apparently it’s all over the news, sir…”

++

The Abductees listened to the radio in silence for several hours. So, it seemed, did everybody else.

For those few short hours, for the first time ever, a subject commanded the entirety of the human race’s attention. Humanity forgot its wars and differences. Prejudices were set aside, wars ceased to rage. Across the globe, people gathered around radios, television sets and any device with Internet access as the world’ media collectively sifted, ground down and filtered the facts from the speculation.

There was much, much more of the latter, than of the former.

The same questions circled the globe, gaining just a little more force and passion with every repetition until, even if the individual humans may not utter the word aloud, the communication networks of an entire planet thrummed with one collective outraged cry:

“Why?”

Only a handful of people on the whole Earth knew the answer to that question. Most thought they were alone, and kept the answer to themselves. Some few were part of a convoy that had temporarily paused at a campground in Wyoming.

In San Diego, one withdrew a slim smartphone from his dapper, tailored suit and, by activating a very modern app, enacted a very old contingency plan.

++

The galaxy’s interest in the Sol system reached fever pitch with the news of the Enclosure. Official footage released by the quarantine fleet showed the experimental containment generator being established. It was an alarmingly small and unassuming little edifice - a metal ball scarcely larger than the average being, three or four meters in diameter, with an utterly featureless mirrored surface. It was guided into place by the tractor fields aboard a Confederate corvette, injected into a smooth orbit between the seventh and eighth planets of the Sol system, well inside the outer cometary cloud, and then, without fanfare or ceremony, was activated.

The only sign that this had happened at all came in the form of a few ghostly streamers of turquoise energy as the solar wind and energy output briefly battled with the field boundary, until they reached a stable equilibrium. Only scientific equipment could detect that the brightness and albedo of every object on the far side of the field edge was reduced by a small amount.

Aboard the Observatory, which had used its jump drive to relocate to orbit around Neptune, one Krrkktnkk A’ktnnzzik’tk, Councillor for the Vzk’tk Domain, gave a brief and passionate speech angrily denouncing what he proclaimed as a “miscarriage of justice against a young and vibrant species, unfairly and illegally sentenced without trial to indefinite imprisonment for the simple crime of being who they are.”

His words did not pass without support. Far from it - protests erupted all across the galaxy, and the interstellar communications grid practically locked with messages, videos, sensory recordings and essays condemning the move.

But a good third part of the traffic pointed out that if the Hunters had been similarly quarantined upon their discovery, their gruesome and horrific meat-slave raids and farms would never have happened. These messages pointed out that here too was a species that consumed the meat of even quite intelligent fauna species on their homeworld, whose history was one of ceaseless warfare, and whose physical durability and prowess in the field of violence would render them completely unstoppable should they prove to be hostile.

Footage circulated of a lone, unarmoured human slayinging Vulza with nothing but a fusion scythe, authenticated by reports from troopers who had seen the event first-hand. An expert witness - a Corti researcher with a particular interest in human biology - declared that the human in that footage showed clear signs of malnourishment, lack of exercise, and fatigue, meaning that he was operating considerably below peak efficiency. The same witness produced reports on a family of Vzk’tk who had required stasis at a class 10 experimental hospital for more than a standard cycle before they were finally able to be cured of the diseases that they had caught from only a few seconds’ contact with one escaped human specimen, and that these disease specimens had required immediate destruction lest they fall into the wrong hands and be used to engineer a viral superweapon. One brief video showed a human accidentally breaking a being’s medial spine with a single hearty slap: the contextual information revealed that the crippling gesture had been intended as a friendly one.

Countering these damning accounts came footage from elsewhere in the galaxy. A human giving her life to vent a hazardous materials spill into space and save the station she was aboard and its thousands of inhabitants, wading through radiation that would have fried the nervous system of any other being in moments. Footage of a human calmly holding down a struggling Vgork alpha male in Musth who had tried to enter a creche. The survivor account of one young Kwmbwrw who asserted that a human had carried her on his shoulders for three local days across the tundra of the planet V’chnbritz, delivering her nearly [120 kilometers] to a hospital after the passenger transport they had been on had crashed, before guiding rescue workers back to the crash sight. A Gaoian matriarch who passionately attributed her survival and liberty to a human.

Talking heads from all species tossed these facts and accounts back and forth between them, circling but never quite approaching a conclusion on whether the Enclosure had been the wrong thing to do. In the background, various governments quietly lined up alongside the Guvnuragnaguvendrugun Confederacy and congratulated them on their foresighted action.

Brooding in his office aboard the Observatory, Kirk received a message. He read it three times. He was still considering its implications when he received a second one. This, he read only once.

Then, cybernetic hand shaking, he tendered his resignation.

++

++

♪♫The good guys dress in black, remember that, just in case we ever face-to-face and make contact…♫♪

Terri had set her phone to play Will Smith’s “Men In Black” whenever her mysterious client called her. It had seemed appropriate given the nature of the job. Now, as some of the nearby Abductees gave her a strange look, she slightly regretted it. They had heard that song on the radio a LOT lately.

She walked away from the group a little way and answered.

“Terri Boone, it’s a pleasure to hear from you, ‘Mr. Johnson’.” she carefully pronounced the quotation marks around his alias. She wasn’t naive and at times like this the chance to prove it was welcome.

“And from you, Miss Boone.” Mr. Johnson had a curiously accentless voice. Just a hint of clipped British, just a pinch of DC politician, just a touch of Hollywood star, a whole lot of anywhere in the English-speaking world. “I think you’ll understand if recent events have made me eager to learn how your commission is going.”

“It’s… well, it’s gotten a little out of hand, to be honest.” Terri admitted.

“I hoped that it would.” Johnson said. The confession was made perfectly level and calm. “In what way?”

“I think we’ve picked up every genuine Abductee east of the Rockies.” she reported. “There’s some kind of a pilgrimage going on here, and I don’t quite know what its objective is. They all seem to be singing from the same hymnbook, but I don’t know the words.”

“Very religious.”

“I’m Catholic.”

There was a pause. An unnatural one - Terri realised she couldn’t even hear Mr. Johnson breathe, or laugh, or whatever he was doing. She almost jumped when he spoke again.

“Miss Boone, I think I consider your commission in the matter of finding the Abductees to have been satisfactorily completed. If you would care to leave the contact details with which I provided you in the care of whoever seems to be in charge, I have another situation in San Diego which requires your attention. Oh, leave them the credit card I gave you, too.”

“You don’t want to meet them?” Terri asked.

“I had an inkling that they would behave like this.” her client explained. “Your ‘pilgrimage’ was just waiting to happen, all they needed was somebody to set it in motion. If you could relay to them that their destination is a town called Scotch Creek, in British Columbia, then I think they will have all that we need.”

Terri shrugged. “You’re the man with the money.” She said, internally noting the “we” rather than a “they”.

“It’s always a pleasure doing business with a professional, Miss Boone. Please, call me once you’re back in San Diego and have taken a night’s rest.”

“Wait, I’m supposed to leave them the credit card AND get back? How am I going to pay for gas and motels?”

“Given that your commission has been completed,” said Johnson “you should find that your bank balance is replete. There’s even a bonus in there for travel expenses. I assume you have your own cards?”

“Well, yes, but…”

“Very good. I would prefer if you could fly back down, Miss Boone. Time may not be of the essence, but the sooner you are here, the better we can maintain our momentum.”

“I’ll… see you ASAP then.” Terri said.

Bon voyage, Miss Boone.”

Johnson hung up. Terri stared at her phone for a minute, and then made use of the campground’s wifi to check her bank account. It was the first time she had ever looked at it and seen six figures before the decimal. And such a large six figures, too.

She glanced up at the sky, thinking. Whatever was going on up there was a mystery. Terri hated mysteries, and she could sense that the answer was wrapped up with the Abductees somehow. Was that kind of money really so important now that galactic forces had apparently taken an interest in Earth?

But then again… the world hadn’t actually ended, yet. And in light of that, it seemed probable that it would continue to not end. Mr. Johnson’s second project was clearly important enough to leave the first unsupervised, and if he had paid so well for the first, well…

A sensible, frugal woman could satisfy her curiosity all she wanted on that kind of money, well invested.

++

Perfection was a prosperous Class Three planet that had been granted independence from, and protection by, the four species whose territory encroached on the volume of space around it. Originally it had been simple neutral ground, but the Perfection system’s Platinum-rich asteroid belt and the verdant ecosystem of the planet Perfection had both contributed to making it wealthy. Interstellar trade conglomerates had taken an interest and the system was now, after several consecutive hundred-cycles of growth, a thriving commercial and industrial hub, the most densely-populated planet for some considerable distance in any direction.

The system capital city, Idyll, had long since ceased to live up to its name. Admittedly from a distance its gleaming skyscrapers, spun in glass and ultratensile steel that smouldered in the sunset, were breathtaking and the wealthy citizens who could afford to live in those buildings that caught the sun for an appreciable fraction of the day lived at the pinnacle of luxury.

But Idyll was as notorious for its festering streets and ghettos as for its glittering prosperity, and that squalid underbelly of Perfection was Kirk’s destination.

Given that his resignation was still echoing around the news channels as another act in the unfolding drama over Earth and the Humans, he had elected, rather than take a public or diplomatic shuttle, to splash on buying a new ship of his own. It had taken a bit of money on such short notice, but he had acquired an expensive star-runner that was little more than a bed, ablution cubicle and control seat bolted to the front of an enormous Domain fusion plant and the latest model of Corti black-box FTL engine. It was incomprehensibly fast, and about as safe as space travel could get: it could just outrun any interception.

Flash starships in most of the Idyll sprawl were prime targets for theft, but not where he was going. There was one specific block, he knew, where even the most expensive and rare collector’s-item ship could land and be completely safe, because the kind of beings who parked there had a reputation. He exploited that reputation to its fullest, wearing a full-length black coat with a privacy field generator in the hood. The most any witness might tell would be that they had seen a Rrrrtktktkp’ch.

Those witnesses would all know where he was going - none of them would tell. He passed a similarly cloaked figure and they exchanged anonymous gestures of recognition, and parted ways. The Contact kept to a mechanically precise timetable.

The Contact was a Corti. This particular Corti sat politely at a desk behind a modest computer terminal, and welcomed him with insincere warmth as Kirk entered.

“You are punctual. I like that in a new client.” she said.

“If only I were a new client, Vakno.” Kirk said. He lowered his hood, and the privacy field shut off. Just for a second, her composure slipped, and he allowed himself a little moment of private triumph.

“Officer A’ktnnzzik’tk. I had not expected to do business with you again.”

Kirk allowed her a tight smile. “We didn’t do business, Vakno, I arrested you.” He said. He enjoyed the way she winced as he speared her with her real name.

“Would it be too much to ask how you knew where to find me?” Vakno asked him. She waved a slender-fingered hand through the control field of her computer and it went dark.

“It would.”

The Corti hopped down from her chair and a door hidden seamlessly in the wall slid open, revealing a rather more comfortable suite of rooms hidden behind the office. “And here I thought I had learned not to underestimate you.” She said. “Please, come in.”

“Your schedule?” Kirk asked, joining her.

“On hold. When the most notorious Councillor in the galaxy walks into my office, I give him my fullest and most special attention.” She replied, a little too smoothly in Kirk’s opinion. “Are you here to arrest me again?”

“Are you trying to smuggle virus programs onto my station again?”

“You can plainly see that I am not.”

“Then you’d be outside my jurisdiction even if I was still a member of a station security force.” Kirk said, dismissively. “Just between us, and considering that the case is long-since closed and you did your time for it, what would those have actually accomplished?”

Vakno affected an air of wistful regret. “Oh, they would have got me the passwords to the private communicator belonging to a Xarx actress who was laying over on your station shortly after my visit. I had reason to believe it contained incriminating footage of her satisfying her mating urges in the company of a litter of Kwen siblings. Lucrative data, as I’m sure you can imagine.”

“And you wonder why the galaxy considers Corti to be morally bankrupt.” Kirk said.

“No, I don’t. Please, shall we get to business? I assume you didn’t visit just to reminisce?”

Kirk agreed, and sat down. “Humans.” He said.

“Ah, of course. What other subject would you be interested in right now?”

“I want to know how many of them the Directorate abducted.”

Vakno delivered the Corti equivalent of an, again, insincere and disdainful little laugh. “You think I have access to that kind of information. Your sense of humour has improved over the cycles, it seems.”

“The only thing that gets a Corti kicked out of the Directorate is directly acting against the interests of the Corti species as a whole. I KNOW you have access to that information.” Kirk retorted. “But all I want is to know how many humans are outside the containment field. That seems benign enough, doesn’t it?”

“Where humans are concerned there is no such thing as ‘benign’, Councillor A’ktnnzzik’tk. Every time one of them has escaped our zoological teams, or was released by well-meaning animal welfare officers, the results have been unpredictable and alarming.” Vakno displayed intense emotion, her grey skin flushing decidedly blue around the mandible. “The Directorate’s officialy policy regarding that species is ‘Do not underestimate them.’ Lone humans have changed the course of wars, infected whole cultures with strange new ideas, even triggered the development of whole new exotic technology branches.”

“All the more reason to keep tabs on the ones not quarantined on Earth, then.” Kirk said.

“What’s that charming expression of theirs? Bullshit, Councillor. Don’t expect me to believe that the same being who was loudly proclaiming how this quarantine is a travesty and a, quote: “Violation of their rights as a sentient race” end quote has suddenly had a change of heart and intends to help us enforce it.”

“And if I could pronounce that ‘charming expression’ I’d repeat it back to you. The Directorate doesn’t stand to profit if that field stays up. You’re the ones with all that hard-earned technology, all those products you’re ready to sell to the human market if and when it becomes available. You don’t stand to gain a damn thing by enforcing that quarantine. Quite the reverse, that’s a lot of investment written off.”

Vakno dismissed that. “Affordable.”

“Why accept an affordable loss at all when there’s a lucrative opportunity to be had? I buy that information off you and… well, we shall see where it leads. As you say, Humans are unpredictable.” Kirk paused. “Of course, being unpredictable could equally mean that they might breach that shield on their own. If and when that were to happen, don’t you think it would be more lucrative to be counted among the species that advocated and contributed to their freedom?”

“I don’t have that kind of authority and you know it.” Vakno snapped.

“No Corti does, I know. That’s not how your species works.” Kirk agreed. “But if the Directorate haven’t got plans to play both sides and put a positive spin on it when they turn out to have been on the winning side all along, well, then you’re not the pragmatists that I know you are. Especially you personally, Vakno.”

He settled back and played his best card. “Or of course I could spread the word that The Contact wasn’t able to help me…”

There was a long, chilly pause, and then Kirk’s personal implants acknowledged receipt of a file transfer.

“Just so you’re aware, A’ktnnzzik’tk, I will be notifying the Directorate to amend our official policy.”

“You will?”

“Oh yes. It seems we shouldn’t underestimate Humanity’s allies, either. Get out.”

++

“Faster-Than-Light travel.”

“Yes, General. Technically, a variant on the Alcubierre warp drive.”

Tremblay stared blankly at the report. Much of it was incomprehensible physicist jargon and blocks of arcane mathematics. “Alcubierre?”

“Miguel Alcubierre Moya, a Mexican theoretical physicist. He proposed his warp drive ideas in ninety-four, but there are some… issues with it that kept it purely theoretical.”

“Spare me. This is a variant on his design?”

“Well, it was never technically a design as such just the mathematical…”

Major.

Bartlett paused, and the rebuke finally got through the intellectual haze that he had been swimming in from the day he had first laid his hands on the alien technology.

“Sorry, sir. Uh… effectively, yes. In layman’s terms, sir… It’s kind of like walking on the moving walkway at an airport. You might be doing five kilometers per hour, but if the walkway’s doing that too in the same direction then you wind up travelling at ten KPH, right?”

“I’m familiar with the phenomenon.” Tremblay said. “So that’s what this warp drive does?”

“Kind of, sir.” Bartlett’s tone of voice suggested that the analogy was far from adequate, but he forged ahead. “The principle hinges on expanding and contracting spacetime around the ship. Some of the tech in those alien pods that shot through the arena roof held the key.”

“The key being…?”

“Well, they’re so fragile, how the hell would they survive slamming through reinforced concrete at that kind of speed? We wouldn’t, and it looks like humans are much tougher than those aliens were.” Bartlett consulted his own notes at this point. “The report has it that the pods contained devices which temporarily suspended the flow of time inside the field they generate.”

“And that led us to faster-than-light travel somehow.” Tremblay finished for him, and examined the report in front of him. “Something to do with space and time being the same thing, it says here.”

“Spacetime, yes. And if you can stop time, you can stretch space. And once you can stretch space then you can stretch it so that your spaceship-on-a-walkway is going faster than light.”

“How much faster?” Tremblay asked him.

“That depends on how much juice you give it, sir. More power, more speed.” Bartlett said. “I couldn’t give you exact numbers, that’s going to take a lot of experimentation.”

“I think we can take my okay for a working warp drive as read, Bartlett.”

“Thank you sir, but it isn’t quite that easy. We can’t test it down here on Earth. If we want to go ahead with this, it’s going to have to go up to the ISS.”

“Why?”

“Because if we get it only mostly right the resulting explosion would be like a nuke going off.” Bartlett wobbled his head. “Plus, you know, we’re testing an FTL drive here. You need a lot of room to work with just to measure the results.”

Tremblay sighed. “I guess it was only a matter of time before we started having to share this stuff outside of NATO. I’ll contact the Defense Minister, pass the buck to him and the PM. Any other crazy surprises come out of those pods that I should know about?”

“Not today, sir.”

“Right. Carry on, Major.”

“Sir.” Bartlett left, poring over his notes as he went. For the first time in several days, Tremblay suddenly found himself with a spare and quiet moment. Robbed of anything to distract him from it, the fatigue of the last few days hit him at full force and he sat back, rubbed his face, ran his hands back across his scalp and stretched in his seat, resolving to take ten hours to sleep tonight rather than reading base reports in bed for a few hours.

He must have dozed off anyway, because he woke with a snort when there was a sharp knock on the door. He stole a glance at the wall clock as he cleaned himself up and straightened his clothes - “Come.”

Tremblay had worked with Sergeant Ramsey, the base’s chief of perimeter security, for years, and the only thing stopping the two men from being good friends was the demands of professionalism. They still played poker with a few other senior staff every Sunday though. For the duration of those games, they were just Steve and Martin. Right now though, Ramsey ripped off a salute.

“I thought you’d want the buck passed on this one, sir.”

Tremblay stifled the urge to yawn. He trusted Ramsey’s judgement, implicitly, and so simply replied “Okay, pass it.”

“We’ve had a… I guess the best word is “convoy” show up, sir. About thirty cars, vans, all civilian. They’re staying on a field down in town, but one of them delivered this to the gate guards.”

He placed a plastic binder on the general’s desk and stood back, watching as Tremblay flipped it open. A few wide-eyed seconds later, Tremblay looked up.

“I want to talk to the man who delivered this.”

“Yes sir. He’s at the gatehouse. He said his name is Jenkins, sir.”

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