Excerpt for The 13-Month Turn by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

The 13-Month Turn

Harvey Stanbrough


the Smashwords Edition of

a novel from

StoneThread Publishing


To give the reader more of a sample, the front matter appears at the end.

The 13-Month Turn


1

Six years after he married Rose Fenton, Will strode confidently into the company office at Lunar Excavation, Inc.

The place always smelled the same. Dusty gypsum mixed with the aroma of stale coffee and the ever-present Houston humidity.

He glanced at the receptionist desk. “Hey, Marcie. Bob in?”

She looked up and smiled past the small bud vase on her desk. It held a single red rose, a gift of her attentive husband. “Yep. Is he expecting you?”

Will grinned as he stepped past her desk. “He will be.”

It was a game he and Marcie played, enhancing the significance of the site manager.

Bob Wilson was always in to anyone who wanted to stop by, and especially to Will, his best foreman.

When he reached the open door to Bob’s office, he rapped on the door jamb. “Hey Bob, got a minute?”

Wilson looked up and put down his stylus. “Oh, hi Will. What can I do for you?”

Will grinned as he entered the office. “It’s more like what I can do for you, Bob.” He stopped in front of the desk. “Still looking for 13-month SETters?”

“Always. You know that. Who’d you have in mind?”

Will tapped himself on the chest and grinned broadly. “None other than yours truly.”

Wilson frowned and wrinkled his nose in that annoying way. “You?”

Will’s grin faded. “Of course, me. Why not?”

“But aren’t you and Rose signed up to colonize?”

The grin returned. “Yep. In fact, we were the third couple. We got in early because—”

Wilson held up his hand. “I’m happy for you, Will. But you can’t do a 13-month turn.”

The grin disappeared. He arched his eyebrows. “What? But why? With my skill set and what you guys pay me, I thought—”

“Sorry. It can’t be done.”

Will frowned. Then a grin formed on his face again. “Okay, you got me. But seriously, I’m ready. I talked with Rose and she’s good with it. So let’s do it already before I get cold feet.”

But Bob shook his head. “Sorry, Will, really. It’s against company policy.”

Will frowned again, and this time it stuck. “You’re serious? But the company routinely approves requests for 13-month turns. Especially for men with my skill set. Isn’t that what you told me awhile back?”

Bob nodded. “It is. But this isn’t a routine request. This isn’t like a trip to another state or even another country. Lunar transportation costs real money, and you and your wife have already been approved and slated to colonize. You have reserved seats on the ship.” He shook his head. “Sorry, but we have to cut costs where we can.”

Will moved to the corner of Wilson’s desk and leaned his left hip against it. He crossed his arms. “I guess I don’t follow.”

Patiently, Bob said, “If you’d come up with this four or five years ago, earlier in the construction, it wouldn’t be a problem. But we can’t foot the bill to send you now, bring you back at the end of a 13-month turn, then turn right around and send you and Rose both back a few months later. It’s too much out of the same budget for one man.”

“But Rose and I already—”

“Sorry.” Bob paused. “Well….” He tapped his chin with a forefinger for a moment, then shook his head. “Nah, never mind. It won’t work.”

“What won’t work?”

“Well, there’s one way you could pull it off—maybe.” He looked at his desk and shook his head. “But I really doubt Rose would go for it. And I wouldn’t blame her.”

Will crossed his arms. “Damn it, Bob, let me worry about Rose. So what’s the plan?”

Bob sighed. He put his stylus down and leaned back in his chair. “If you want to work on AC2 and then live there, you and Rose would have to make the move all at one time. Of course, that would extend your stay. You’d work the 13-month turn and then you’d still have the 3-year turn to do. Plus a few months between the two more than likely. But you’d have to leave just over three weeks from now.”

What? Why so soon?”

Bob shrugged. “That’s when the flight’s scheduled. That’s the beginning of the next 13-month turn.”

Will looked at the floor. Quietly, he said, “Three weeks.” He thought about that for a moment. Bob was right. Rosy probably wouldn’t go for it. She needed time. Wasn’t that what their whole discussion was about last night? Then he snapped his fingers. “Wait. What about if Rosy flies up on her own with the other colonists? I’m sure she’d go for that.”

Bob shook his head. “Yes, she probably would, but the company wouldn’t. All dependents have to be accompanied. You know that. Sorry, Will, but it has to be this way or no way. And the truth is, this wasn’t even my idea, or the company’s. Three other couples have already asked to do this.

I turned them down. But as you say, with your skill set— Well, no guarantees, but let’s just say I’d be willing to at least push your request upstairs. And I think there’s a good chance they’d approve it.” He paused again, then picked up his assignment pad and his stylus. “So whaddya say? Is it a go?”

Will sighed. “I appreciate that, Bob, I really do. And if it were only up to me, it would be a go right now.” He shook his head. “But I’m going to have to talk with Rose about it first. Can I get back to you in the morning?”

Bob arched his eyebrows. “Are you sure?”

Will shrugged. “Can’t be helped. The 13-month turn was even Rose’s idea. She was going to put things right with her family and friends down here while I was gone, then join me in a little over a year. But going this soon— No, this has to be her decision.”

Bob put down his stylus and his assignment pad and leaned forward. Quietly, he said, “Between you and me, word of this gets out, there are some upstairs who think a man who wouldn’t jump at a chance like this might not have the right attitude in the first place.”

Will flushed. “Well, I’m not gonna say anything Bob, and I don’t see anyone else in the room.”

Now look, Will—”

But Will quickly raised one hand. “Sorry. I’m just saying, it’s only you and me in the room, and we’ve been friends a long time. But if the word did get out somehow—” He shrugged. “You know, they have a right to their opinion, that’s all.” Will leaned forward, pressing his fingertips against the boss’ desk. His fingers went concave under his weight. “So I guess that leaves me with needing to know what you think, Bob. You’ve known me longer than anyone. Do you think I don’t have the right attitude?”

Bob leaned back in his chair. “Now don’t get carried away, Will. I’m sure we can work out something that will satisfy—”

Will straightened, then nodded. “Thanks. That won’t be necessary. Rose and I will either do the 13-month tour plus the three-year turn or I’ll withdraw my application.”

All right. But just so you know, the cost-cutting thing. It goes to familiarity with the facility too. If you decide not to work on the project, they might not let you colonize.”

Will nodded, but he knew a last-ditch effort when he saw one. After all, he and Rose were already approved as colonists and “they” didn’t know anything about him requesting a 13-month turn. And Bob wouldn’t say anything to anyone. Plus, no way would those at the top of the company put themselves through having to vet another couple to replace him and his wife.

But he said, “Well, I’m sorry to say that doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. I guess they’ll have to do what they think is right. Anyway, I’ll let you know our decision first thing in the morning.” Then he turned and walked out of the office.

He wasn’t in the mood to work. He could barely even think until he got this settled.

* * *

What Bob said was true.

Will and Rose already had signed up and were approved to be among the original colonists in the new colony. Rose would work somewhere in the administration offices. Will would continue in his capacity as a heavy equipment operator. He would aid with what the company called “Sublunar Excavation and Terraforming (SET).” In other words, he would be a miner.

But the colonization was still over a year away.

Each evening, Will stood in the front yard, gazing up at Luna and wishing away time.

Rose, on the other hand, was patient by nature, and her patience was enhanced by her personal philosophy that one should grow where one was planted. That philosophy extended beyond physical location to include any given situation.

And the current situation was that they had to wait a year before they would be allowed to fly off and help colonize the moon. So she seldom looked at the night sky at all. And when she did, she wasn’t thinking of it as a frontier to be explored or even the moon as an eventual destination.

One evening as they gazed heavenward together, she lightly squeezed Will’s hand. “Isn’t it lovely, hanging there so delicately in the night sky? It almost looks as if you could reach up and touch it.”

Without looking away from Luna, Will said quietly, “We will touch it. But not for another year. Well, over a year.” Then he looked at her. “Aren’t you excited at the possibility? Just think, Rosy! A whole new world!”

But she frowned. “Yes, I’m excited. But it’s only a little over a year, Will. And that is as it should be. The delay will give us time to say a proper goodbye to our extended family and friends.”

Will understood. She needed that time.

But he didn’t. His own family—other than Rose, of course—were why he became interested in space travel in the first place. And most of his friends—again, other than Rose and a few old hangers-on at the Earthworks of Lune Inc.—were already up there.

His fingers still interlocked with hers, he looked up at Luna again. Under his breath, as if respectful of the silence draped over the evening sky, he said, “I was meant to be there, Rosy. I can feel it.” He shrugged slightly. “I guess that’s why I’m so impatient. I was meant to be there.”

Quietly, she said, “I know, sweetheart. I know.” Then she squeezed his hand again. “Have you considered doing a 13-month turn?”

That got his attention. He jerked his head around to look at her. “What?”

“They have those, don’t they? A 13-month turn? I think that’s right.”

“Yes, but they’re unaccompanied. “

“I know. But it would get you up there sooner. And I would still have time to get accustomed to the idea. I want to go too, Will. But I’ll be saying goodbye to everything I know. I really don’t mind the wait like you do.”

“And you wouldn’t mind me going on ahead?”

“I’d rather have you here, of course. But throughout history men have gone ahead. Pushing back the frontier, or whatever they call it. And then the wives followed.” She laughed lightly. “You’re the historian. You know a man on horseback always precedes the wagon train. You’ll go ahead and enjoy the adventure of making things ready. Then I’ll come along and add the finishing touches. It’s what we do, Will. If you think about it, that’s what we’ve always done.”

He beamed as he held her close. Through her hair, he whispered, “Do you have any idea how much I love you?”

The next morning he awoke early, showered, shaved and made breakfast for both of them.

They talked of routine, mundane things through most of breakfast. But an uneasy silence underlay their topics of discussion.

Toward the end of breakfast, she picked up a piece of toast. She put one corner near her mouth, then said, “So will you ask them today?”

And she bit the corner off the toast and chewed slowly.

Without looking up, Will nodded. “I thought I would,” he said and paused. Then he looked across the table at her. When he continued, he struggled valiantly to hold his excitement at bay. “I mean, there’s no reason to delay it. Is there, Rosy?” He held up one hand. “If you’re sure, of course. Only if you’re sure.”

Rose swallowed the bit of toast and laid the rest of the slice back on her plate. A smile played at the corners of her mouth as she glanced up at him.

He looked so innocent and anxious, sitting there with his eyebrows raised. He probably didn’t even realize he was doing it. It was like a puppy waiting for a treat or a boy awaiting confirmation that he was actually getting a real pony.

She laughed quietly. “Yes, I’m sure.” She leaned forward and reached across the table to thumb away a crumb of toast from the corner of his mouth. “I understand, Will, and it’s all right.”

Will could hardly believe his ears. But one thing about Rose—once she made a decision, she stuck with it.

So a half-hour later he walked into the offices of Lunar Excavation, Inc. and rapped on his boss’ door jamb.

And now this.


2

On his way out, Will stopped at Marcie’s desk. “Log me out with a vacation day, would you?”

She frowned. “Something wrong?”

“Nah, nothing like that. I just need a little time.” He turned away. Over his shoulder, he said, “Thanks, Marcie.”

Then he fretted all the way home. How in the world was he going to convince Rose this was a good idea? It was the opportunity of a lifetime for him. Even the longer stay seemed more a bonus than a punishment.

But for her it would be a major inconvenience.

Should he even ask her? He could easily tell her he’d made the request for a 13-month turn and it had been denied. After all, the company typically allowed only unmarried men to do the 13-month turn.

And the seventeen burials at space—the company’s cost-saving version of the old burials at sea tradition—launched from the moon over the past four years provided ample reason. There was little or no expense involved when the company sent a body out into space as a lasting testimony to human frailty. But it cost a great deal to ship the body home to a loved one for burial.

Then again, he could tell Rosy he’d simply changed his mind. That he’d rather wait here with her for the 3-year turn instead of wandering off by himself. That might even earn him a few good-boy points.

But that wouldn’t work. She knew how badly he wanted to go. And going early to set up a good home for her was certainly part of the deal. Besides, she herself had suggested it.

When he turned into the driveway, he still wasn’t sure what to do. Maybe honesty really was the best policy, at least in this case.

As he turned off the engine and his two-seater sub-compact hover car settled, he decided that’s what he would do. He would be honest. He would simply tell Rose that he had requested the 13-month unaccompanied and that he’d been denied. No need to mention Bob’s counter offer.

As he exited the car, his plan was firmly in mind and settled. But by the time he crossed the lawn and grasped the front door knob, another thought occurred. He hesitated.

Telling her he’d been denied wasn’t exactly honest either.

He had been all but denied. That was the actual truth.

If he wanted to be honest, he would have to tell her of Bob’s—the company’s—counter offer. Of course, telling her that part was only a formality, but a necessary one if he really wanted to be honest. And he did.

At least then it would all be out in the open.

And she would say no, absolutely not.

It wasn’t fair of him even to ask her, really. After all, she couldn’t accept. If she accepted, she would lose the opportunity to enjoy her family and friends before moving almost 300,000 miles away. And he couldn’t ask her to do that.

Could he?

No, of course not.

He would just tell her, that’s all. She would say no, and that would put the matter to rest.

Then they would spend the balance of his bonus day off doing whatever she wanted to do. In fact, that’s probably why he took the day off anyway. At least that would compensate her for whatever mental anguish the proposition might cause. And it would serve as a proper apology for presenting her with such a ridiculous notion in the first place.

And when it was all over, he would call Bob. He wouldn’t even wait until tomorrow morning to tell him face to face. He’d call him at the office with their decision so Rose could listen in.

And that would be that.

Yes, that’s what he would do.

So it was settled.

As he clung to the door knob, his shoulders sagged slightly. He looked over his shoulder and up into the sky, where the moon had been last night when he and Rose had last talked. For the next year and a half or so, he would gaze at the moon each night, wonder and wish.

But it would be all right.

Nothing for it but to just lay it on the line, let Rose say no, and get on with the celebratory day off.

He gathered himself and opened the door.

The air that wafted over him was cool and drier than the outside. That perfume Rose liked scented it lightly. He stepped in and called, “Honey, I’m home.”

She came in from the hallway. “So I see.” Then she stopped, frowned and crossed her arms. “What’s going on, Will?”

His eyebrows knitted together. “What? What do you mean?”

She shifted her stance from one foot to the other. “I mean you look like a whipped pup. What happened?”

He closed the door behind him quietly. “Oh. Nothing. I talked with Bob. You know, what we discussed last night. He turned me down. Well, the company turned me down. Seems they want mostly unmarried guys doing the 13-month turn.”

He winced at the sound of his own voice. C’mon, Will. Honesty, remember?

Rose’s frown deepened. “They what?”

He managed a wry smile. “Well, they didn’t turn me down flat so much as make a counter offer. But they might as well have turned me down.”

“Oh?”

He shrugged. “No big deal. I mean, you and I have already talked. We already decided what we want to do, right? Last night, I mean. Me going ahead, you following when the colony’s ready, all of that.”

“Yes. So?”

“Ah, well, Bob said we couldn’t do that.”

“Why?”

He wagged one hand in the air. “Something about money, budgets, all that. From what I gather, expenditures are locked in for the next two years at least. That’s how it sounded.”

“Uh huh.” She turned and walked toward the kitchen. “Come here and sit down, Will.”

When they were both seated, she leaned forward and clasped her hands together on the table. “Okay, now, I heard what you said. Budgets and all that. But I don’t understand. What does any of that have to do with us?”

“Well, for example, they’ve already budgeted for you and me to go as colonists. On that flight, you know. So sending me now, then bringing me back—both of those would be unbudgeted extra trips.”

“Okay, I can understand that. So what was the counter offer?”

“Hmm?”

“You said they made a counter offer. What was it?”

“Oh. It’s not important, really. It’s nothing we’d be interested in.” He leaned back and jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “You wanna go get some lunch? I took the rest of the day off.”

“Will, it isn’t even ten o’clock yet. And it seems to me we’ve had this talk before. Instead of keeping the information to yourself, why don’t you share it and let me make up my own mind which side I want to come down on?”

“But Rosy, I—” His shoulders sagged a bit. “Well, when you’re right, you’re right. Okay, here it is. Bob says we can go—we can go—in about three weeks if we want to.”

Rose straightened in her chair. “Three weeks?”

“Will nodded. “But there’s a bigger catch than that. We’ll have to stay through the 13-month turn plus the regular 3-year colonization turn after that. So that’s something around four and a half years, by the time you add the interim between the 13-month turn and the 3-year turn.”

“Okay.” She paused, then shrugged. “Is that all?”

He felt his own eyebrows arch. “What? What do you mean, is that all? Isn’t that enough?”

“I thought you were going to say we’d have to get an administrative divorce or something.” She laughed lightly as she stood and moved past him toward the counter. “You want some coffee?”

He follow her with his gaze. “I’d rather have iced tea if we have it. You mean you’d actually consider leaving that soon? And going for that long?

She poured herself a cup of coffee, then retrieved a glass from the cabinet. She opened the fridge and held the glass beneath the spigot on the tea jar. “I don’t see it as a major problem, Will. I mean, I’ll have to rearrange a few things, but I see no reason why we shouldn’t go ahead.”

Will frowned. “Are you sure? I thought me doing a thirteen-month turn would give you time to warm up to the idea, say goodbye to your friends and family, all that.” He shifted in his chair. “And I’m almost sure I can make them listen to reason.”

She nodded and set a glass of iced tea in front of him, then went to the counter for her coffee. She set it on the table, then pulled out her chair and sat. “That would be nice, dear, but it isn’t essential.”

“Really? It sounded pretty essential last night.”

She wagged a hand at him and sipped her tea. “Don’t be silly. Visiting, saying goodbye, all those things are wonderful, but they’re also temporary. You know what I mean. They’re things that don’t require a particular amount of time.”

She leaned forward. “But what we have is not temporary. I know your spirit, Will, and I know how important it is to you to put your stamp on this second colony. I don’t want to risk that. The first one was built practically before we were born, and they might or might not ever build a third.” She sat back and shrugged as she took a sip of her coffee. “If we need to go early, we’ll just go early.”

“Are you sure?”

She smiled. “Sweet Will—have you ever known a time when I wasn’t sure?”

He laughed. “No. It was a silly question, wasn’t it?”

The next morning, Will visited with Bob Wilson in his office. He signed a contract for a period not to exceed five years from the date of liftoff and grinned for the rest of the day.


3

Bold Information Services, the private sector successor to the 21st century Central Intelligence Agency and the 22nd century International Intelligence Agency, was housed in a sleek black granite office building located less than a half-mile from the space port.

Employees and operatives often required quick trips to various locations both on and off the earth. BIS kept its own small fleet of atmospheric and extra-atmospheric shuttles. The location also enabled them to monitor the comings and goings of other shuttles when they deemed surveillance necessary.

On the twenty-fifth floor, the elevator sluiced open. The sole occupant, a tall, narrow man in a dark grey suit, stepped out. As was his habit, he glanced tentatively both ways along the hallway. Like every room on the top floor, the hallway was covered with a rich, mottled grey carpet. The ceiling was of grey acoustic panels and the walls, also of acoustic panels, were a calming light orange. A pair of soft lighting fixtures were inset every twenty feet overhead.

When he was certain the hallway was empty, he proceeded to the heavy carved-mahogany double doors across from the elevator. Two thick brass placards were inset in the doors. The left one read Bold Information Services. The right one read Simon Bold, CEO.

To the left of the doors in a diamond arrangement were framed photographs of Mr. Bold with the leaders of four of the seven nations on Earth: President Agabwe of United North America, which extended from the Panama Breach north to the pole; President Gonzales of The Union of South American Nations; Premier Choi of SRIA, the Sino-Russian-Indian Alliance; and President Smith of the United African Congress.

To the right were similar photographs of him with leaders of the other three Earth nations: President Heinrich of the European Union; Prime Minister Heath of The United Republic of the South End of the World; and President Qadafi of The United Inter-Arab League. Beneath them, completing the diamond arrangement, was a photograph of him with Administrator Owens of the Domain of Luna.

The man in grey opened only the right door and slipped through.

The same carpeting and color scheme filled the outer office. To the immediate left and right of the doors were identical seating areas, each with a grey leather couch, two grey leather easy chairs, and a small cocktail table. A live rubber plant grew from a massive terra cotta pot in each corner. Those two areas constituted the waiting room.

From her mahogany desk, which was centered in the room several feet beyond the seating areas, a young, petite woman glanced up.

The name plate on the leading edge of her desk read Melanie. Her smile was bright, perched as it was beneath a small nose and bright blue eyes and framed within her dark pixie haircut. Her dress was a pleasant green imprinted with dozens of minuscule flowers. “Mr. White, he’s expecting you.” She gestured over her shoulder with the stylus in her right hand then returned her attention to the computer pad on her desk. “Please go right in.”

But Mr. White hadn’t even slowed as he passed her desk.

As he opened the door, Mr. Bold himself, a heavyset man, looked up from his high-back grey leather desk chair across the room. “Well, hello there, Mr. White.”

Mr. Bold and his chair were situated behind a massive mahogany desk. It looked as if someone had lain one of the entrance doors across a pedestal.

Before him on the desk was a traditional blotter housing an oversized calendar. A yellow legal pad lay at an angle on the leading edge of the blotter. Around it, there was a handwritten note on almost every date of the calendar.

His face was large, round and bordering on pink, as if he were continually embarrassed. His silver hair was conservatively cut and swept back from his receding hairline in an obvious attempt to deny the fact that he was balding. He also thought it made him more closely resemble his charges, all men of action. But he was only an administrator, albeit a very good one, who had inherited the company from his father.

Behind Mr. Bold, a thick glass pane served as the west wall of his office. Long slats of vertical blinds hung from the ceiling and were gathered at either side of the window. The window overlooked roughly half of Houston.

Another man, a broad, tall man with wide shoulders and dark, short-cut hair, stood in the right corner behind Mr. Bold’s desk. His jacket hung open, his arms folded casually across his chest.

His attention still on Mr. White, Mr. Bold lay his antique MontBlanc pen on the legal pad and leaned back. “And how are you today?”

Mr. White, his voice deep and sonorous, but halting and almost mechanical, said, “I ham gud. Thangs you.”

Then he turned his back and watched the door carefully, his attention riveted to the hinges, top, then bottom, then top again. He seemed to marvel as the door slowly sighed shut, controlled by a hidden pneumatic device. When the latch finally clicked, he gestured toward the door. “Dis think—id works gud.”

He turned and momentarily glanced in the direction of the man in the corner. That one could be a danger. Then he started toward Mr. Bold’s desk. He unwrapped the grey cloth from around his neck and jaw, letting it hang from his shoulder down the front of his coat.

A dim golden glow emanated from his lower face and throat. He removed his right glove and brought a golden hand with very slim fingers to his throat. “De—” He paused and lines drew away from the corners of his eyes. “Hair?” He waved his other hand in the space beside him.

Mr. Bold nodded and smiled. “Air, yes.”

“Yes, hair. De hair iss nize. Id fills gud on my—” He paused, then tugged at the skin on the side of his neck. “On dis id fills gud.”

Mr. Bold nodded again. He smirked slightly as he cast a sidelong glance at the man in the corner, then looked at Mr. White again. “Skin. In our language, that is called skin.”

“Yes. De hair, id fills gud on my skins. Thangs you.”

“Well, I’m glad.” Mr. Bold adjusted himself in his chair. “What can I do for you, my Stirchian friend?” He gestured toward the grey leather chair next to his desk. “But first, please, have a seat.”

“No, bud thangs you. No foldink right now. Coold.” To illustrate his meaning, Mr. White crossed his arms over his chest, grasped the sleeves of his coat, and trembled in an exaggerated fashion. “Ant I muss liff closer to dis now.” He pointed toward the floor.

Liff? “Ah, okay. You have to leave. So you can’t stay long. Well, all right.” Mr. Bold frowned. “But I assume things are going well on Luna?”

Mr. White nodded carefully, trying to imitate Mr. Bold’s action from before. Then he glanced at the man in the corner again. He gestured toward him as he looked at Mr. Bold again. “Dis one mans—he muss liffs pliss.”

Mr. Bold arched his eyebrows. “What?” He looked at the man in the corner, then back at Mr. White. “No, I’m sorry. Tony is my bodyguard. He must stay.”

Mr. White glanced at the man again, then back to Mr. Bold. “Hiss okay?”

Mr. Bold nodded. “Yes. Yes, he’s okay.”

A third time, Mr. White glanced at the man.

The man didn’t move and didn’t seem overly concerned. He merely met Mr. White’s gaze, his face expressing indifference.

Mr. White hesitated, then said, “Thinks iss goink—gud.” He looked at Mr. Bold again. “Very gud. Bud dere will be a—chanche.”

A chanche? Mr. Bold frowned. A chance? Ah. “A change? What sort of change?”

“Relagen, the main one— Relagen iss—wid nurfs. Iss nurfus.”

“He’s nervous?”

Mr. White bobbed his head and spoke carefully. “Iss nurfus. Iss for spid up—mek more chips—more closer to back den.” He pointed over his shoulder toward the door.

Mr. Bold attempted to translate. “He’s nervous so he speeded up production?”

“Yes. Like dat one. Mek more chips more closer—to back den.”

“Closer to back then? So he’s making more ships sooner?”

Patiently, Mr. White pointed toward the door again. He said, “More chips closer to back den.” Again, lines traced away from the corners of his eyes. “I thing you say bee for. I thing.”

“He’s already made more ships? Past tense? I mean, before?”

Mr. White bobbed his head. “Like dat one. Ant de tyum—de day of lanting—iss more closer to dis now.” Again he pointed toward the floor.

“Wait. Wait a minute.” Mr. Bold rolled his chair back from the desk and stood. He stared at Mr. White. “Let me understand. More closer to this now?” He frowned. “You mean sooner? So the Stirchians—you’re going to land before you said you were?”

Again Mr. White carefully bobbed his head. “Relagen sess—on de udda side—too much pipples. Sess too much pipples mi’—see? Somethink like dat one. Mi’ see. Too much pipples my know.”

“Too much people? On the other side of Luna?” He raised his hands out to his sides. “But those people are busy. They don’t see anything. They don’t know anything about you.”

“No. Sure not know. Relagen sess too much pipples mi’ know. Mi’ make too much pipple dies.”

Mr. Bold frowned. “He’s afraid if the people know, they might say something and more people will have to die?”

Mr. White bobbed his head. “Like dat one. Hiss afray. Too much pipple knows—den too much pipples dies.”

“But they don’t know, Mr. White. We’ve kept them from knowing. And you can’t come sooner. Or earlier. It’s too soon.” He shook his head. “I’m sorry. It’s simply out of the question.”

“Relagen, the main one. Relagen sess work iss gud. More gud. No rissen wait more. He sess we go here more sooner to now.” He pointed to the floor.

Mr. Bold frowned. “But he can’t, I tell you. You can’t land sooner. I’m not ready. I mean, we’re not ready.”

Again Mr. White pointed to the floor and bobbed his head. “We go here more sooner to now.”

Mr. Bold cast a quick glance at the man in the corner, then looked at Mr. White again. “If I say all right—and only if, mind you—how more sooner? I mean, how much sooner?”

Mr. White extended one long golden finger. “One times aroun’ Earth.”

Mr. Bold frowned. “One time around— Wait. You mean one month?”

Mr. White nodded. “One times aroun’ this one earth. All be ready.”

“But I won’t be ready. I can’t be ready in a mon—”

“All be ready. You be ready.” Mr. White wrapped the ends of the scarf up around his throat, then tugged at it with his fingers to pull it up over his cheeks. “Or you go with more pipples.”

“I go with more people? Where?”

“Like sliffs.”

“Slaves?”

Mr. White bobbed his head. Then he did an approximation of a shrug, one shoulder at a time. “Mebbe fud. Mebbe sliffs. Or you be ready so be boss.”

Mr. Bold paled. He sat heavily in his chair. “Maybe food? Did you say maybe food? But you didn’t say anything before about—”

Mr. White bobbed his head again. “Mebbe fud. Mebbe sliffs. Mebbe boss. All sess when you be ready.”

Mr. Bold sighed and nodded. “I understand. One month. I’ll be ready.”


4

After the door closed behind Mr. White, Simon Bold sat for a long moment, staring at his desk.

When the silence had almost become embarrassing, the man in the corner quietly said, “Mr. Bold? Are you all right?”

Simon continued to stare at his desk.

The bodyguard frowned. “Mr. Bo—”

Without looking around, Simon said quietly, “Did you hear what he said, Tony? Did I hear him right?”

What’s that, sir?”

Did he say if we weren’t ready, we could actually become food?”

Tony suppressed a smirk. “Yes sir. I believe that’s what he said.” Actually, he said you could become food.

Although the Stirchian had acknowledged Tony’s presence a few times, it was always with a wary eye. He was definitely talking specifically with Mr. Bold. He wouldn’t dare say such a thing to the massive bodyguard.

He actually said you could become food or a slave, sir. Or a boss. I think the intimation was that—”

Bold spun to the left in his chair to face the bodyguard. “Damn it, man, I know the intimation! If I’m ready—that is, if we’re ready—I’ll be a boss in the coming world. If I’m not, then—” He stopped rather than repeating the other two possibilities again. They were too horrible to imagine.

The corner of Tony’s mouth twitched.

Bold stared at him, his eyebrows arched. “Do you think that’s funny, Mr. Waters?”

Sir? Oh, no sir.”

Then why the damn smirk?”

Oh, no sir.” Tony reached up and touched the left corner of his mouth. “I wasn’t smirking, sir. I had a tickle. Sorry sir.”

A tickle?”

On my mouth, sir. It wasn’t a smirk. Just something touched my mouth and—”

The messenger on Mr. Bold’s desk buzzed. “Mr. Bold, Mr. Jack Reynolds is here to see you.”

Bold glared at Tony, then reached for the call button. “Very well, Melanie. Show him in, please.” Then he turned to the bodyguard and gestured toward a small door in the side wall. “You will excuse me, please Tony.”

Yes sir.” He hesitated. “And sir, I really didn’t—”

Bold wagged one hand. “I know you meant no disrespect, Tony. The Stirchian just rattled me.”

Yes sir.” He turned, crossed the room, and disappeared through the door.

A short moment later, the front door to the office opened.

The trim, fit man who strode through the door smiled beneath a neat, thin, dark moustache. He exuded confidence in a white linen suit with a brown fine-leather belt and shoes. Beneath the white suit coat was a light orange shirt and a white linen tie. In his left hand was a matching white linen fedora. His dark brown hair reached his collar in the back and was neatly combed back along the sides.

His soothing baritone voice carried a hint of Old Spain. “Simon! Simon, my dear friend, how are we?”

Bold glanced up at him. “Shouldn’t that be how are you, Jack?”

Ah, but I know you are well, as you always are. After all, look at you!” He gestured and laughed, then held up one finger. “However, speaking as a majority shareholder and silent partner, how we are is never quite certain, is it?” He laughed again.

Actually, I might be in a bit of trouble. In fact, we might be in trouble.”

Reynolds frowned as he adjusted the chair next to Bold’s desk and sat. He crossed his left leg over his right and placed his fedora on his left knee. “How so?”

I made a deal—a very lucrative deal, to be sure—with some folks. But I think I might have bitten off more than we can chew.”

Oh?”

Bold swiveled away. “Never mind.” He wagged one hand. “Just a revised timeline. That’s the only problem, really.” He stared at his desk again for a moment. An image of Mr. White moved through his mind, and as if he were alone in the office, he said, “Of course, I’ll be ready.” He paused, then looked up at Reynolds again. “We’ll be ready. We have one month to be ready. We should still have six months to prepare as it was counted down from a year ago, but we have one month from today. But I’ll be ready.”

Reynolds cocked his head. “What are you talking about, Simon? What deal was this? Is it something I knew about?”

Bold frowned. “I think so. Maybe.” He shrugged. “Maybe not. But boy we’re in it up to our ears.”

Reynolds leaned forward, a slight crease on his brow. “In what, exactly?”

Bold looked at him for a moment, then tapped the desk with his fingertips. “All right. Around six months ago, I was contacted by—well, aliens.”

Reynolds sat back, obviously relieved. He grinned. “Aliens? But there are hardly any borders anymore. Surely you aren’t worried about—”

Bold held up a hand. “No, not illegal aliens like from another country. Aliens, Jack. Like from another planet.”

Reynolds looked at him for a moment, then burst out laughing and slapped his hand down on his thigh. “Ah, you really had me going, there, Simon!”

But Bold wasn’t laughing.

Reynolds stopped laughing and frowned. “Simon, what’s going on? Really.”

Really, truthfully, Jack. Aliens. In fact, one of them was in this office a half-hour ago.”

In this office? Here?”

Bold nodded.

In this chair?” Reynolds looked down, started to rise.

No, no. I offered, but he said it wasn’t time to ‘fold’ just then, whatever that meant.”

Really?”

Yes, Jack, really. And for the rest of this to make any sense, you have to believe that part.”

Reynolds adjusted himself in the chair and recrossed his legs. “All right. Please, continue.”

Six months ago, they contacted me. At that point, it was in my mind.”

Reynolds grinned. “It sounds as if it still is.”

Bold held up one hand. “Please, Jack.”

Reynolds nodded. “Yes yes, please, go ahead. Sorry.”

Well, they contacted me six months ago. This was around 11 p.m. on a Friday night. At first I thought it was a dream. They asked if I was the person in charge of Bold Information Services. And I had a sense, sort of a feeling, that they knew we handle all the intelligence services on Earth. Like that was why they contacted me.

Anyway, I verified that I was the same Simon Bold and they asked for a meeting. So still thinking it was all a dream, I said sure, that would be fine and they should contact my office. Perhaps we could meet on Monday. Of course, since I thought it was all a dream anyway, I also thought that would end it.”

Reynolds arched his eyebrows. “But it didn’t?”

Bold shook his head. “They said they would meet me in my living room in precisely ten minutes and would I please be dressed.”

What happened?”

I thought it was the strangest dream I’d ever had. I was already in my pajamas, of course, so I slipped on my robe and walked into the living room. I noted the time on the clock, then sat on the couch and waited. And exactly ten minutes later, as I was getting up to go back to bed, my front door opened and Mr. White walked in.

Bold leaned forward, staring at Reynolds. “The door was locked, Jack. It was chained and deadbolted, but he just walked in. Understand?”

Jack nodded.

Well, the guy introduced himself, said he represented the Stirchian kingdom, and they wanted to land on Earth in one year. One year to the day.”

So why give us warning? Why didn’t they just land on their own?”

Bold wagged a hand as he leaned back in his chair. “Something about things not being ready yet. They had to construct a fleet and so forth. They brought Stirchian Warrior pods with them. They would build their invasion fleet and—”

Invasion fleet?”

Bold nodded. “Then they would populate it with these Warrior pods.”

Jack shook his head as if trying to understand. “And what are those?”

From what I gather, they’re something like seeds. It was a convenient way to bring millions of soldiers with them without having to feed them and so on because until the time was right, they were just seeds. Anyway, that isn’t important.”

I don’t mean to sound argumentative, but it seems important to me. Millions? Plural?”

Yes, but let me finish. The gist was, they needed a partner here on Earth to get things ready.”

But you aren’t making sense, Simon. Why would an overpowering invasion force need a partner? And what sorts of things?”

Oh. Yes. Well, they don’t want to kill off the resources. Humans. They want to take over, use humans for work.” He held up one hand. “Before you ask, they didn’t say what kind of work.” He lowered his hand.
“But that makes sense, right? The fewer humans they kill, the more they have in the work force.”

I suppose. So what sorts of things were you supposed to get ready for them?”

Oh. For instance, several beacons and relay stations built to exacting specifications in specific locations. And my help—well, the help of BIS—when it came time to transmit their message. Things like that. I think when they transmitted their message, they wanted to be sure as many people could hear it at one time as possible. Less resistance that way, maybe.”

He shrugged. “And with what they offered me— Jack, I’d have land in Cuba, plenty of workers for the plantation I would build there, a sea-going yacht and so on. And that’s all in addition to a much larger fee than we usually get, so—well, I guess I lost my head. I guess I skipped over the ‘invasion’ part and the fact that I would be their partner in a way.”

So you agreed?”

Bold nodded. “Yes. Yes, I agreed.” He paused. “But you have to understand, it all seemed like some kind of a dream, Jack. Some kind of a wild, wonderful dream. And all I had to do was keep their secret and get those minor things ready for them.”

Reynolds uncrossed his legs and leaned forward in the chair. “Minor things? To you these are minor things?”

Bold said, “Easy now, Jack. Anyone—well, anyone with half a brain—would have done the same in my position. I mean, if I hadn’t chosen to benefit from this collusion, someone else would have. And I—we—would have been on the receiving end of whatever hell they’re going to unleash.”

Reynolds sat back. “That’s true enough I suppose.”

Bold leaned forward again. “You do understand that, don’t you, Jack? If I had refused, the planet would still be in the same position. Exactly the same position. Only with someone else as the helm, that’s all.” He paused for a moment and a glimmer came to his eyes. “But maybe this isn’t all bad. Come to think of it, who better than the world’s premier information services company to keep an eye on them?”

Reynolds frowned. “I’m sorry, what?”

Oh, I was just thinking, who’s better suited than we are to keep an eye on them?”

I’m sorry, my friend, but you’ve lost me.”

Don’t you see? BIS provides information, Jack. And we provide information to all comers for a fee. We spy on the Sino-Russian-Indian Alliance for United North America and vice versa. We spy on The United Inter-Arab League for the United African Congress, and vice versa.” He splayed his hands wide. “Hell, we spy on everybody for everybody.”

Yes, yes, I know all that. But what does that have to do with this?”

Think, Jack. Why we can’t provide information to Earth governments regarding Stirchian activities just as we provide information about humans and Earth governments to the Stirchians?”

You don’t see that as a dangerous, potentially fatal double cross?”

How do you mean?”

Jack arched his eyebrows. “For one thing, we don’t know their capabilities, do we? Have they told you anything about their weapons systems? Or even specifically what they plan to do?”

Again an image of Mr. White flashed through Bold’s mind as he delivered his warning about being ready. But he shook his head.

Reynolds said, “Look, Simon, I’m just saying, we know well what all our other current clients can and cannot do. And maybe more importantly, for the most part we know what they will or will not do. If I remember right, for example, you have never allowed BIS to become involved with an unstable regime.”

Bold nodded. “Yes, that’s right. And?”

Reynolds held up one hand. “The various Earth governments also know what we are doing. And because of that, they also know none of them have an unfair advantage over the others. Isn’t that true? So in a way, we are keeping them honest.”

Again, Bold nodded. “Ah, good point, good point. I never thought of it in quite that way before. But I still don’t see how—”

Again Reynolds held up one hand. “The fact is, BIS operates on a foundation of mutual mistrust among nations and with equal respect for all sides. In short, we can’t afford to take sides.”

Realization came over Bold’s face and he seemed to settle deeper in his chair. “Yes. Yes, I see what you mean. Maybe. So with the Stirchians….” He allowed the sentence to die and looked at his friend with a question in his eyes.

These people—these Stirchians—are an unknown value, Simon. We have no idea of their capabilities or what might set them off. They’re an entirely different kind of problem. Plus, BIS is allied with them.”

Bold frowned. “I don’t follow.”

Here, on Earth, BIS is involved with entities that desire to keep little technological secrets from each other. And collectively, we are paid to learn those secrets on behalf of other nations. Really, that’s all we do. But tell me this, Simon. Do we ever accept payment to keep secrets on behalf of one nation? To hide technologies? Or perhaps to spread false information on behalf of one nation?”

No, of course not.”

Exactly. Because BIS is not allied with any of these nations. We work with all of them under contract, but there are no alliances and no preferences, no leaning to one side or the other. With the Stirchians, though, we are allied.” He paused. “And we are allied with them against our own people. Against Earth. After all, you have known their intent from the beginning.”

Bold leaned forward. “I have?”

Unless you were telling me of an actual dream, Simon, their intention is invasion. They’re going to take over our entire planet, and—well, I suppose we don’t know what they’re going to do after that.”

Bold finally got it. He slumped in his chair stared at his friend. Quietly, he said, “You’re right, of course. Jack, what are we going to do?”

But Reynolds uncrossed his legs and stood. He put his fedora on his head, then tugged it lightly into position and looked down at Bold. “I’m sorry, my friend, but the question you should be asking is what you are going to do.”

Me?”

Reynolds nodded. “When I leave here today, my first act will be to divest myself of all of my BIS stock.”

What? But you can’t do that, Jack! It will ruin us!”

Oh, I can do it, believe me, my friend. I can and I will. Ruining BIS is not my intention, Simon, but I believe we are already ruined. Within minutes after I leave here, I will no longer own so much as a single share.”

Bold lowered his head to look at his desk. In the leg well, with his right knee he pressed a small button.

Reynolds said, “But because of our long acquaintance, as a final bit of counsel I recommend you decide whether you want to go through with this. If you do,” and Reynolds shrugged, “I suggest you have their requirements fulfilled within the one month. They sound like very tough customers.”

He paused. He waited. Finally he said, “And do you want to know what I suggest if you decide not to go through with it?”

Bold was still looking at his desk. He shook his head slowly. Quietly, he said, “I had no choice, Jack. I had no choice.”

Reynolds nodded. “Ah, I know that feeling well, my friend. Nor do I have a choice. Good day to you, Simon. And good luck.” He turned and crossed the office.

As he reached for the door knob, Bold looked up. “Wait.”

Reynolds stopped and turned around. “Yes?”

What would you suggest if I decide not to go through with it?”

Quietly, Jack said, “Suicide, Simon. You have betrayed your company and your country. You have betrayed your planet.”

The smaller door in the side of the office opened and Tony came in. “Yes sir?”

Bold gestured toward Jack Reynolds. “Kill him, please.”

Tony turned, drew his weapon, and put a neat hole in the center of Reynolds’ forehead.

Reynolds’ head slapped back against the door, then bowed forward and he crumpled to the floor.

Bold looked at Reynolds’ body for a moment, then stood. “You will tidy up?”

Yes sir.”

I’ll take the elevator down from the anteroom.”

Yes sir.”

But halfway to the small door, Bold stopped and looked back. “I’m curious, Tony. What do you think of all this?”

Sir?”

You have an opinion, don’t you? Surely you have an opinion. What do you think of all this?”

Of what, sir? You mean the Stirchians coming earlier, or—”

Bold looked at him for a moment, then said quietly, “Of course I mean their coming earlier. What did you think I meant?” Then he arched his eyebrows again. “You thought I meant of my—our—collusion with them, didn’t you? Very well, what do you think of that?”

Tony held up one hand. “Sir, I think you pay me a good salary to watch your back and tidy up messes. I don’t have any opinions beyond that.”

Yes, yes. That’s an excellent answer, but really, do you think less of me? Do you look down on me?” He held his arms out. “After all, I run the biggest network of spies on Earth, yet I’m not a spy myself. My organization is filled with men of action, men of adventure, yet I’m not such a man myself. So I wonder, what would such a man do in my place? What would you do, for example?”

As I understand the facts, sir, the Stirchians are coming sooner than expected.” Tony shrugged. “It is what it is. I would deal with it and be ready.”

Of course, of course. And as to the other?”

Sir, you do what you do and I do what I do. I honestly have no opinion either way as to how you live your personal life.”

Meaning it’s all right if I live it as a coward?”

Tony locked his gaze on Simon. His voice grew deeper and quieter. “No sir. Meaning I have no opinion.”

Bold tried to meet his gaze for a moment, but soon he averted his eyes. Quietly he said, “And regarding my friend—” He gestured toward Reynolds again, then sighed. “No, never mind.” Still looking at the floor, he moved toward the anteroom door. Quietly, he said, “I really had no choice, you know.”

Yes sir.”


5

Some 3600 kilometers—a little over 2200 miles—from Arzachel crater, across the south end of Luna and on the far side of the moon, Orthan guided his ship to a perfect landing. It settled on a small unobtrusive pad near the north edge of a minuscule impact crater. Manipulating the craft wasn’t easy. The earthian clothing was restrictive on his otherwise fluid joints.

He exited the tiny craft carefully, again bowing to the restrictions of the heavy clothing, as the ship assumed the appearance of the surface of the crater. As he walked north, he gazed at the only external entrance to the complex. It was such an unassuming, small opening to such a vast and wondrous place.

* * *

When the Stirchians settled on the lunar surface, their first order of business was to build the complex that would house their necessary offices, living quarters, and the primary purpose of the complex itself: the manufacturing and living areas.

The Stirchian overlords had ordered Relagen to complete and store the invasion fleet beneath the lunar surface. But Stirchia was a long way away and this was Relagen’s operation. When the day came for the invasion, he wanted to raise the massive fleet into the lunar sky impressively, as one. He almost hoped the silly humans chose that day to send a probe around to the far side of the moon. If they did, they would be impressed.

Besides, storing the fleet beneath the surface made little tactical or strategic sense. To do that, he would have to design a way to remove roughly three hundred meters of lunar crust quickly. And it would have to be some sort of lift. Certainly they couldn’t simply atomize the material. Such an explosion would draw attention even from Earth.

And designing and implementing such a lift would be both costly and time consuming. So he decided instead to store the fleet on the surface. After all, when they were completed and the reflective camouflage masking compound was added, the warships would take on the appearance of their surroundings. So even should an earthian probe pass directly over the plain, the fleet would be undetectable even sitting out in plain sight.

The adjustment shaved a great deal of time off the preparatory work his men had to do. They had only to construct several elevators to raise completed ships to the surface as they were finished. As a result, they were able to begin construction on the fleet months ahead of schedule.

They built the complex beneath a vast, pockmarked plain that lay just north of a small and inconspicuous impact crater. The complex itself measured six kilometers in diameter. The central core took up most of that space at over five and three-quarters kilometers across and almost half a kilometer deep. The outer rim that circled the core contained three levels.

The bottom level contained living quarters for those who worked in the central core and eight feeding stations. All of those opened directly onto the floor of the central core, the better to focus their efforts. When they were not eating or sleeping, they were working.

The second level consisted solely of four nurturing stations and the attendant engineers’ combination quarters and offices. In the nurturing stations, millions of warrior pods were sheltered, fed and carefully nurtured to maturity. Each of the four offices were shared by six nutrition and growth engineers who supervised the pods in each station.

On the third level, evenly spaced around the northern arc, were the six engineering offices: Structural Integrity, Powerplants, Weaponry, Shielding, Life Support and General Technology. Three engineers were housed in each. The two construction supervisors’ offices, one on either side of the core, were located at the south ends of that same arc.

In the southern arc, side by side at the center, were the Commander’s Quarters and the Second’s Quarters, the front of which opened onto the conference room. To either side of those, three on each side, were the Esteemed Generals’ quarters. All of those quarters doubled as offices.

The entire third level opened onto a narrow walkway, along the interior of which was a railing. In the northern arc, eight ramps led at regular intervals from that walkway down to the floor of the central core. From the southern arc, the officers could either access the same ramps to the floor of the core or they could witness the goings-on beneath them from the railing along the edge of the path.

Above the third level was over a third of a kilometer of the lunar crust.

It took almost a month to excavate and construct the complex. Then everyone moved in and started work. Around two weeks later, the first set of ships, ten of the massive troop-transport cruisers, were placed on elevators, raised to the surface and moved into position.


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