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Species 5319: Arrival

By Dalton S. Hendra

Copyright 2018 Dalton S. Hendra

Smashwords Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication use of those trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.


"To confine our attention to terrestrial matters would be to limit the human spirit." - Stephen Hawking


To an untrained eye the scattered blue dots on the holographic projection that filled the huge room were random specks amidst a sea of gray, with no identifiable pattern. That problem was solved by the trackers, a species that lived within subspace for part of their lifespan and were uniquely able to detect artificially-created subspace particles. Replicating their innate biological ability had proven impossible despite the massive resources poured into the project, which forced them to rely on the stubborn, slow creatures.

A huge pair of mandibles clashed together in frustration as a line slowly etched across the screen. Cycles had come and gone as they had traced the blue dots from star system to star system. Now they were finally at their destination and the crude, square abomination was in sight, at the very edge of their sensing ability. A little more patience would be required as the full force of the armada was assembled before they could accomplish their mission and eliminate the threat the small, pathetic-looking vessel posed.

Chapter 1: Northern Turkey

The black-clad man tried to control his racing heartbeat as he anxiously peered over the dark, still waters of the Black Sea. Moonlight glinted off of small ripples racing across the surface, but otherwise it was still and calm, a perfect night for the mission. He stole a quick glance at his watch, which confirmed that the shipment was about half an hour late. A small cloud erupted from his mouth as he exhaled, grinding his teeth in frustration and rubbing his hands together in an attempt to keep warm in the cold, dark night.

It wasn't cold enough for frost to form on the old wooden dock he was pacing back and forth on, which was a small blessing from Allah. Any kind of accident, such as slipping on the worn wooden pilings, would imperil the mission and, more importantly, harm the cause. He had invested in a pair of brand-new boots just in case, the organization certainly paid him enough for his services to afford the expense and maybe it was the difference between ending up in a Turkish military prison, or worse. 'Where is the damn shipment?' he raged as he scanned the bay with his binoculars, blood pounding through his ears as his brain came up with endless scenarios about what could have gone wrong.

He was just about to take out the disposable phone he had been assigned for the mission and call the emergency number when the signal finally came. Far off in the distance, a small light flashed twice. 'Praise Allah!' he thought as he took out his own flashlight and returned the signal. The muffled sounds of the boat’s motor soon became audible as it approached the dock. Adrenaline surged through him as he glanced at the pallets he had positioned on the dock, the pallet jack sticking out like the neck of an animal.

He grabbed the mooring line a deckhand tossed him as the dull grey fishing boat drifted towards the strong, tall posts of the dock. With a soft thud the large tires on the side of the boat, which rose about three feet above the dock, came to a stop. He quickly tied off the mooring line just as he had been taught as another of the crew jumped onto the dock and tied the rear mooring line. The burner phone suddenly buzzed angrily and he took it out and stared at the text message, glancing at the two men who were impatiently waiting for his reply.

His hands shook so badly he had to re-type the reply code he had been given three times before it was correct. Sweat beaded on his brow as he berated himself for not practising on the phone's small buttons, which were very different than the Blackberry he had been previously assigned. The code was quickly confirmed as the two men standing a few feet away on the dock sprang into action, one climbing back on board as the other moved one of the pallets closer. Two more men appeared on the sloping deck of the ship, both carrying the familiar heavy boxes with rope loops at either end.

One of the men handed him a wooden box, which was about half a foot wide and a foot long, his muscles straining despite the relatively small size. As with the other shipments he had received, the boxes were secured with multiple metal loops and had no markings or labels on them. Nobody told him what was inside and he knew enough not to ask, although he didn’t need to. Faint traces of a foreign language, which looked like Russian to him, or maybe Ukrainian, confirmed his speculations. 'Only Allah, praise be his name, knows all,' he thought as he gently placed the box in the centre of the pallet and turned to grab the next one, this one larger and heavier.

It took 32 minutes for the shipment to be loaded onto the pallets, five minutes longer than last time. His employer was always interested in those sort of details for reasons he didn’t understand. The men immediately boarded the boat and left as soon as the last box was unloaded, leaving him to wrap the pallets, which were about six feet tall, and carefully load them into the back of the truck. The wide rubber wheels of the pallet jack bumped over the slats of the dock as he manoeuvred them, careful not to jostle them too much. The strange assortment of boxes seemed securely packed, but there was no sense tempting fate.

Two pallets with legitimate cargo were the last to be loaded on the truck. If he was stopped by a policeman who didn’t take a bribe, a rare feat in his country, then they would probably be enough to get through a cargo inspection. The back door slid shut with a satisfying thud as he released a long breath and rolled his sore, tired shoulders, which a long, hot shower would fix. He hopped off the end of the dock and walked to the cab, yawning as a wave of exhaustion suddenly swept over him. He made sure his seat belt was on and his shipment papers were ready before he popped the top of an energy drink and drained half of it.

The diesel engine started as soon as he turned the key, a good sign that the truck was as eager as he was to get home safe. The roads were empty this early in the morning, which meant he was able to make good time instead of wasting time in traffic. Despite the deserted roads he carefully followed every law, well aware that getting caught meant a long term in prison away from his family and, even worse, damage to the cause he worked so hard to serve.

Besides the fact that they paid well, he didn't know very much about his employer. His pay came through an intermediary and he wasn’t supposed to know the real source. Here and there he had heard enough snippets to put together the full picture, however. His family might not understand why he was working for them but the cause was something that he believed in with every fiber of his being. For centuries his people had been oppressed and denied a future and thanks to the will of Allah that was about to change.

The truck bounced over a speed bump as he turned into the deserted parking lot and stopped in the designated space. He texted the code confirming the delivery was complete before he locked the truck and walked towards the loading ramp next to the warehouse. A quick glance confirmed that he was alone as he knelt down and pressed on the small black rock embedded in the concrete. He dropped the key into the small compartment along with the phone and made sure it was closed before he stood.

His little girl had choir practise tomorrow which meant he would only get a few hours sleep. That was a comparatively small sacrifice for the cause and one he was more than willing to make. The engine of his small, black Honda purred to life as he turned on the motor and immediately switched on the heat to drive away the night chill. He didn’t notice the cameras tracking him as he left the parking lot, the tracking chip covertly installed in his car flashing red as his every movement was logged. All the stress and anxiety drained away as he lay down next to his wife, instantly falling into a deep, dreamless sleep.

Chapter 2: CNN News, New York City, New York

“And leading the news this hour, new reports confirm that the economy continues to shrink, leading many experts to predict that a double-dip recession may already be upon us.” The grey-haired news anchor paused and gave the camera a stern look. “For more on this story, we turn to Megan Grant, reporting live from Wall Street.” An equally serious blonde-haired reporter, standing in front of the iconic New York Stock Exchange building emblazoned with a massive US flag, nodded as his voice was transmitted into her ear piece.

“That's right Tom, according to the US Department of Labour the unemployment rate has reached 9.7% as another 250,000 jobs were lost last month. This comes on top of the consumer confidence index report showing Americans are feeling less confident about the health and strength of the US economy and a report showing that manufacturing here at home has dropped again, hitting new record lows. American consumers are feeling the pinch, spending less on consumer goods which is hitting corporate profit margins and increasing calls on the administration to increase economic stimulus.

“Economic news out of Europe is equally grim as the recession gripping most of the continent gets even worse. Stock markets continue to drop and GDP numbers from France and the UK show the recessions gripping those two major economies have no end in sight. The only country that has not been hit as hard is Germany, but they are heavily dependent on other countries buying goods produced by their massive industrial sector. Governments have been responding with economic stimulus programs, spending billions to try and halt the economic damage and in the process adding to their record levels of government debt.

“All of this economic gloom and doom has led to yet another 500 point loss on the Dow Jones, with jittery Wall Street investors pulling money out of banking and financial stocks and waiting to see if things are going to get worse, as some predict, or if this is just a bump in the road. Most economists expect the situation to get worse before it gets better without any glimmer of an economic recovery for years to come.” She gave a tight smile as the anchor nodded, a pensive look on his face.

“And what is the White House saying about this? Surely this must be having an impact for the Democrats as the midterm election race continues to heat up.”

“The official White House line is that we are experiencing a bump in the road, that the economic fundamentals are strong and we're going to see the recovery continue. Here's what President Wallace had to say earlier today.” The broadcast changed to the Commander in Chief, a finger raised as he spoke to a large audience.

“What we need to keep in mind with these statistics is that no economic recovery is smooth, it's not a straight line,” he said, gesturing with his right hand. “The reality is there are bumps in the road, and that's what we're seeing today. America's economic fundamentals are strong and, thanks to my leadership, we're headed in the right direction. Despite what you hear on the news we’re beginning an economic recovery and we're going to continue to recover, to create good-paying jobs and create prosperity that all Americans will enjoy, both today and for future generations to come.

“A lot of folks have focused on the jobs number, and it’s a big one. 250,000 jobs lost in a single month.” He gave his head a small, rueful shake as he looked at the teleprompter on the left side of the podium. “That's a big number, and it's in the wrong direction. More importantly, it means a lot of families are wondering how they are going to put food on the table or pay the bills. But it's less than other months, and certainly less than we saw during the depths of the recession. The economic stimulus package that I signed into law, thanks to the hard work of Democrats in Congress, is working, we are seeing jobs created and critical infrastructure built across this great country to support economic development and growth for decades to come.

“We have a plan in place and I'm here today to tell you that we're going to stick to that plan. I know how tough it is in places, I've been to small towns and big cities alike and have seen the pain firsthand. My administration is going to do everything we can to help all those folks looking for a job, and we're also going to provide help to employers, to the hard-working entrepreneurs who are creating jobs. Under my leadership, the economic recovery is going to continue, jobs will be created, bridges and roads will be built and together we're going to make sure that the American economy continues to grow and create opportunities for everybody!” He nodded approvingly as the audience applauded, the camera returning to the news studio.

“Opinion polls, meanwhile, continue to show weakness for Democrats ahead of the November Congressional elections. Republicans appear set to regain control over the House, meaning the race to control Congress is down to a handful of Senate races. The Democratic majority in the Senate looks set to be challenged, especially if Americans blame Democrats and the White House for the current economic situation. That will make it much more difficult for President Wallace to get his agenda through Congress.”

“So another recession, a double-dip recession, could seriously hurt the Democrats in November then?” The anchor asked as Megan nodded emphatically.

“Oh, absolutely. The fortunes of the Democratic Party are largely linked to the economy, a point the Republicans have been reinforcing through a new wave of attack ads. They are claiming Wallace's economic stimulus plan, which saw hundreds of billions poured into job creation and infrastructure projects across the economy, is actually making the situation worse due to deficit spending and increased borrowing costs to the US Treasury. The rise in unemployment is being used as evidence that his economic stimulus plan has failed and that a Republican package of tax cuts and cutting red tape will work to boost the economy.”

“And what about the Federal Reserve? Has Chairman Bernanke made any comments about today's developments or forecasts for the future?”

“No he hasn't Tom. In the latest minutes they did express concern about the decline in economic growth in the US but seem to be optimistic that another recession isn't on the way. Many experts, however, say the Fed is basically powerless, they've already reduced interest rates to record lows and have very few options left to address the situation. Those minutes also warned about the massive amounts being borrowed by the US every year to finance budget deficits, which was over a trillion dollars last year. The White House is countering by saying this heavy borrowing is temporary and that tax cuts will just increase the deficit even further. Back to you, Tom.”

“Thank you. That was Megan Grant reporting from Wall Street, New York City.”

Chapter 3: Governor's Mansion, Austin, Texas

“Alright Jack,” Governor Scott Kinley said with a slow nod as his Chief of Staff, Jack Demper finished updating him on the economic statistics that had been released that morning. Texas, unlike the rest of the country, wasn’t doing all that bad, all things considered. Job growth had slowed but was still positive, which was good enough for his key campaign message. “So, uhh, how is the budget looking?” He frowned at the stacks of papers and reports scattering his desk, which meant another late night. Jack deftly plucked a summary from the desk as he replied. He had realized long ago that it was easier for Jack to give him the highlights rather than read through all the thick, impenetrable reports.

“It's looking good, the budget was balanced in April, not a big surplus, but good enough, and the year-to-date is looking good as well. Let's see, uhh, revenues are about 2% higher than projected, which more than covers the emergency costs for the hurricane.” 'Thank God!' the Governor thought as he nodded and looked around his office. It was just him and Jack, as it had been since the beginning. Usually these kinds of briefings would be handled by some dry accountant from the budget office who would suck up an hour of his time, but that wasn’t the way he dd business, either before politics or now in the Governor’s Mansion.

He had first met Jack in school, quickly recognizing the small, shy man’s formidable intelligence. Together they had founded Servico, which grew to provide maintenance services for energy firms throughout the country. It had been his idea to lease expensive equipment rather than purchase it, reducing their risk and growing their profit margins. They had started on the weekends with a truck and space in his parent’s garage, quickly expanding through skillfully negotiated deals and leveraging bank loans in the middle of an energy boom to switfly grow into a large company, employing over 10,000 people at its peak.

After a while it had gotten boring and he had been convinced to sell, bank his millions, and try his luck at politics. Jack’s formidable skills transferred seamlessly to politics and a string of scandals among his opponents along with excellent timing had been enough to win his first election and bring him to power.

'So now what?' he wondered as he stared at the wall opposite his desk. As always, it didn't hold any answers. Being Governor had been exhilarating at first, but he was quickly getting bored. Every year was the same thing, the same budget fight, the same issues, even the same crises. One hurricane blended into the next and a new flood was just the same as the old one. Giving a speech, a press conference, shaking hands, kissing babies, surveying a disaster scene, it was all the same. And he had mastered it, all of it, and was on track to win again in November.

'Four more years of the same old,' he thought as he glanced at a picture of his wife and kids. He was giving his trademark politician's grin, reassuring everybody that everything would be just fine under his leadership. According to the media he was considered handsome, a description his wife agreed with. 'So, should I, or shouldn't I?' he asked himself for the millionth time, his heart beating a bit quicker as he considered the question, the fingers of his right hand beating steadily against the desk.

“Scott?” He looked up to see Jack frowning and realized he'd been ignoring his close friend. “You OK?”

“Yeah, I'm fine. Mind wandered for a moment.” He grinned and rubbed his forehead. “You were, uhh, talking about the education bill?” 'Or are we still on the budget?' he wondered as he tried to replay the last few minutes in his head.

“It's going to pass, the unions don't like it, they're giving it a rough ride, but it's going to get through. We stay on track, we keep pushing the message that this bill will make the system more efficient and save money, and the new curriculum is going to mean smarter kids in the future.” Jack paused for a moment to see if he was really listening this time.

“Right, so emphasize that teaching kids about business and stuff is essential, blah blah blah. This is going to be in the speech at the rally in two days, right?” Jack nodded as he picked up a summary of the bill. He couldn't care less about education reform but it made for good politics and was an easy sell. Making business courses mandatory made good sense and fit his re-election theme of jobs and the economy. “Any new polls recently?”

“Yeah, two showing that you have a strong advantage but that's against a generic Democrat candidate, they haven’t picked a candidate yet. 65-35 in one poll, 66-34 in another. Good numbers for this early in the game.”

“This ain't our first time at the rodeo.” Jack nodded, glancing up from the tablet computer constantly in his hands as Scott laughed at his own lame joke. His first win in 2006 had been easy compared to 2010, when a dozen Republicans came out of the woodwork to force a fierce nominations battle. He had won handily in the general election, but getting there had taken a toll and forced him to cash in a lot of favours.

“So, education bill's going through and the protests will run out of steam. Great. Time to talk about the re-election campaign? We need to hammer down a platform and all that.” His Chief of Staff nodded and frowned briefly as if considering what he was going to say next. 'You're the master strategist, so let's hear it,’ he thought as he waited impatiently for the brilliant plan that was about to come. Even in the Servico days Jack had been the real brains behind the operation who did everything he could to keep out of the public arena.

His wife Jessica jokingly referred to them as a married couple, and it felt that way at times. Jack had the connections, he knew all the business leaders, the donors who funded his campaigns and the media to give him friendly interviews and write glowing articles. As long as Jack was on his side and working with him than there was little they couldn’t accomplish. A lesser man would probably feel resentful at deferring so much power to someone like Jack but he wasn’t that type. At the end of the day they had achieved great things, and that was all that really mattered.

“A lot of it is boilerplate, jobs, economy, your record so far, managing the budget, keeping government small, more tax cuts, smart on crime etcetera. There's going to be a few additions to keep things fresh, starting with right to work legislation.” The Governor nodded slowly as he waited for his friend to continue. Even after all these years he still had trouble determining what Jack’s actual opinions and beliefs were, everything seemed negotiable as long as it achieved their mutual goals. For all he knew, the diminutive man standing across from him could actually be a raging socialist, although it didn’t seem likely.

“Remind me what right to work is again?” The name was familiar but the details eluded him for a brief moment. He snapped his fingers as it came to him “Yeah, yeah I remember that now. Wisconsin, wasn't it, didn't someone up there propose it? It's the, uhh, freedom to work without being unionized, the union-busting bill?”

“Yes, that's right. It will play well with the base, especially if Frank wins the Dem nomination. He's a union organizer, in bed with all the big ones and this kind of thing will push him to extremes. We market this as a freedom issue, liberating workers from the union stranglehold. The ads write themselves, anecdotes of punitive union dues, salaries of overpaid union bosses, the downtrodden masses. I have studies showing the economic benefits, job creation and all that. It’s going to be controversial but it’s going to work.”

“Can we pass the bill?” Anything to do with legislation frustrated the hell out of him, especially politicians with their hand in the trough demanding earmarks and bribes for votes. He’d made more than a few enemies by publicly sharing his frustrations at the process which meant Jack was responsible for getting bills through along with other behind-the-scenes work.

“We’ll get it through.” Unlike others he had worked for Jack didn’t bullshit him, which was probably his best quality. When his Chief of Staff said something, he meant it. Truth was the rarest of all commodities in politics and something he had come to value above everything else.

“I guess you have a plan for the union stuff at Servico? You remember that, they're going to bash us from here to Alaska for that.” The local branch of the AFL-CIO had tried to start a union drive that he and Jack had quickly and ruthlessly shut down. It had already provided ammunition to his political opponents and was certain to come up again in this election. They hadn’t done anything illegal, of course, but politics was all about perception and a scandal could be invented from any situation.

“It’s a known risk, we’ve dealt with it before and we’ll deal with it again. There’s other parts of the platform that we can emphasize if the focus groups are wrong on this one.” Focus groups were usually right but they had their biases and could make mistakes, as they had learned the hard way. Confirmation bias was one of the most difficult hurdles to overcome in politics and meant that getting outside of the power bubble was key to success.

“OK, good. What's next?” Jack tapped on his computer as he began an update on a bill winding its way through the House. Scott nodded, allowing his mind to wander again. He had come to this job as an agent of change with the goal of leaving the people’s corporation in better shape than before. It was a well-trodden path and some days he even allowed himself to think that he was succeeding. Fundamentally the job was to help people and make their lives better, something that government had a difficult time doing on a good day. A few government services were actually critical, like police, fire and national security, but everything else government did was a waste of unending amounts of blood and treasure.

Nothing government did came close to the efficiency of the private sector. Capitalism was the only system that worked, centuries of war and death had proven that over and over again. And yet millions denied that fundamental fact, demanding more government and what amounted to a nanny state. If the only thing he accomplished was to chip away at the layers of red tape and bureaucracy and leave the system a bit better than he had found it, then all of this would be worthwhile. ‘Maybe you do need another term in office,’ he thought as he locked eyes with the portrait of a former leader of his country.

Chapter 4: BBC News, London, United Kingdom

“Good Afternoon and welcome to the BBC News World Report at 10. My name is Dana Travers.” The reporter smiled and paused as her co-anchor continued the introduction.

“And I'm John Daniels. Leading today's coverage are the dramatic events unfolding in Thailand. Following weeks of massive street protests in Bangkok and other cities against the current government, which is condemned by many of the protesters as a front for former President Thaksin Shinwatra, the Thai Army has overthrown the government in a coup d'etat. At least forty casualties have been reported following massive clashes that rocked Bangkok and other major cities as soldiers move in to occupy key government offices.”

“Hundreds of legislators and other key figures of the former government have been arrested,” Dana Travers continued as images of massive protests ringed by Army tanks and angry-looking soldiers carrying assault rifles filled the screen. “All have been charged with treason and corruption, although the exact charges have yet to be filed with the court. We are also receiving reports that the Thai King is in favour of the coup and has called for fresh elections to be held in order to break the political deadlock that has crippled the nation’s finances.

“World leaders have been quick to condemn the coup, with Prime Minister David Cameron calling it an affront to democracy and American President Jeffrey Wallace denouncing the military's action and calling for free and fair elections to be held as soon as possible. As with the last coup, it's likely that most of the arrested politicians will be banned from political office for decades. Meanwhile analysts predict that pro-Thaksin Shinwatra forces are likely to form another political party and are in a strong position to win in the next election under the current constitution, setting the country up for yet another coup.

“The economic reaction has been swift, with the main Thai stock market falling over 30% before being closed for trading. Other regional markets, including Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore, are also down sharply in response to the continuing political instability in a key regional trading partner.” She paused and gave the camera a tight smile before continuing. “We'll keep you updated on events in Thailand as they continue to unfold.”

“Turning to other news making the headlines this hour,” John Daniels said as several images of large crowds filled the screen. “Riots over the rising cost of food in India, Indonesia and several other countries are continuing for a second straight week. Staple goods, such as rice, wheat and soybeans, have doubled in price over the last year despite hundreds of billions in government subsidies in many countries. Some experts point to poor weather and climate change while others claim commodity price speculators are driving up prices. The coup in Thailand is expected to exacerbate the problem as Thailand is a key exporter of rice.

“Whatever the cause, anger continues to boil over in countries around the globe. Crowds in New Delhi reached over a million yesterday as citizens vented their frustration and today’s protests are said to be even larger. Martial law has been declared in some areas as looting and violence spread with an estimated 50 killed in confrontations with police in the capital city. The opposition Congress Party has blamed the government for not doing more to fix the nation’s inefficient food distribution system, where farmers must pay bribes to get their produce to market and an estimated 40% of food spoils before it reaches markets. Government leaders are promising to increase the food subsidy yet again, which will further strain the nation’s finances.

“The situation is similar in Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh as huge crowds demanding change confront armed police and, in some cities, soldiers. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund will be meeting soon to discuss the situation and discuss a global response to the threat of food insecurity. In a response to repeated requests from the BBC, the White House and 10 Downing Street defended calls on the West to do more to alleviate the crisis by pointing to their existing foreign aid budgets.” The reporter looked at his desk as the background image changed.

“South Korea has released a report following their joint investigation with the United States into the mysterious sinking of the ROKS Cheonon near a disputed sea border the country shares with North Korea.” The young reporter paused as an image of the broken remains of the ship sitting in a drydock flashed up onto the screen. “The report confirms initial speculation that the ship was struck by a torpedo launched from a North Korean ship, leading to 41 casualties and a serious diplomatic row between the nations. Backed by allies China and Russia, North Korea has strongly condemned the report, insisting that it’s evidence of a plot against the country by the United States.

“Both North and South Korea have increased their military readiness in response to the report and have allegedly moved troops and artillery to their shared border. The joint industrial site at Kaesong has been closed by North Korea in response to what they deem hostilities and aggressive actions by the west. The two countries are technically still at war after the Korean War and there have been isolated military clashes since. Upcoming military drills between South Korea and the United States are likely to further increase tensions with North Korea expected to respond with further missile and nuclear tests.

“Finally we turn to economic news. The unemployment rate in Greece has topped 25% and millions have joined in nationwide strikes, adding to the problems facing the governing coalition. Two more ministers have resigned in protest, threatening the government’s fragile majority in parliament. Opinion polls show that far-right, anti-EU parties could gain significant support in a snap election. The neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party has led some polls and is promising to default on Greece’s massive debt and withdraw from the EU and Euro currency. That would send shockwaves across Europe and could lead to other countries following their lead.

“Spain and Italy are also reporting sharply higher unemployment rates, with Spain hitting 20% and Italy nearing 18%. Support for Silvio Berlusconi's government in Italy has plunged to record lows as massive protests grip Rome, Milan and other cities. Borrowing costs in many countries, including Ireland and Portugal, are skyrocketing and many investors are simply refusing to buy any European government debt. Spain, Portugal and Ireland are all negotiating with the World Bank, European Central Bank and International Monetary fund for bailouts to prevent a debt default, likely based on the Greek model.

“Economic data from the US shows the world’s largest economy has now gone through one complete quarter of negative economic growth. One more quarter of negative economic growth would officially signal another recession and bring about the double-dip recession many economists are predicting. Other information from the US confirms the economic situation is rapidly deteriorating, including sharply lower consumer confidence levels and industrial manufacturing output. Stock markets in the US, as in other nations, have lost at least 20% so far in 2010 and show no sign of turning around.

“The economic downtown in the US and Europe have hit their trading partners hard, especially in emerging economies like China, Brazil and Russia. Newly released figures show that India and Russia are officially experiencing double-dip recessions and Brazil is on the verge. Reports from China indicate the real estate sector, which has boomed in recent years, is softening, with prices declining for the first time in years. Manufacturing output is sharply reduced as well, a major source of jobs for the most populous country in the world.”

Chapter 5: Fallujah, Iraq

'They cannot do this!' the shopkeeper raged as the rough concrete floor pressed against his knees. His wrists ached, the steel handcuffs biting into his skin as the American troops continued searching and ransacking his shop. Their interpreter, an Iraqi traitor and collaborator, had demanded to know where the terrorists were and what they were planning to do next, information he neither had nor wanted to have. A loud crash behind him made him wince and mutter under his breath. As usual, the invaders could do whatever they wanted and would never face justice for the many brutalities imposed on his people and country.

“I am a shopkeeper, a businessman trying to feed my family, to buy bread and milk for my children,” he said in a low, quavering voice as he warily looked at the two soldiers keeping guard over him and his young assistant. They both stiffened as he spoke and lifted their weapons slightly, as if his words alone presented a threat that needed to be eliminated. As it was, he barely made enough in a month to feed his family, but the infidels didn’t care about that.

“You know the terrorists, the militants, you must know them. Tell us who they are!” The Iraqi traitor demanded from somewhere behind him.

“I don't know anything about that, I am a simple shopkeeper! The invaders are destroying my shop, my goods, everything I have!” A loud crash behind him confirmed the losses from this raid, the second this month, were going to be even higher than the last. Like most in his country he tried to avoid everything to do with politics, which included the terrorist groups.

“You lie, you pay protection money to them, all of you do. Tell us their names and we will leave!” It was tempting to give them names, any names, just to get rid of them, but he knew what would happen if he did. Being marked as a traitor was the worse offense imaginable, he and his family would be ostracized and thrown out of their homes, if not killed on the spot by their neighbours.

“I pay taxes to the government, that is all.” Based on his accent the traitor was from the south where life was better than this dusty, miserable city. Even in his homeland to the north things were better. He'd come to Fallujah at the urging of his uncle to try and expand their family's business. If he'd had any idea just how awful conditions were here he never would have agreed to come, although it was far too late to turn back the clock.

“Shall we take you to the American base and question you further? Or pass you along to the special police?”

“No, you cannot do that, I am innocent, I haven't done anything, I am a shopkeeper!” His heart raced at the threat as the dreaded name lingered in the air. Controlled by the Ministry of the Interior, the special police were above the law, which was barely respected and upheld by anybody in the country. The brutal thugs were essentially a private army that routinely arrested people for no reason, tortured them endlessly for information they didn't know and kept them in filthy, horrible prisons without a trial. It was more likely that they would kill him and dump his body somewhere, leaving his wife and children to guess at what had happened.

“You are? Then prove it, show us your books, your receipts!” He nodded, relief sweeping through him as he realized that the ordeal might be over soon. The bribes were recorded as an advertising expense and he had copies of real advertisements to show them if they demanded it.

“May I stand and retrieve the records?” The traitor's reply was cut off as the four Americans who had been ransacking the back part of his shop hurried into the front area of the small shop. He didn’t understand a word of their rapid-fire English but it was clear they were stressed about something, probably another terrorist attack. ‘This is it!’ he thought, his bladder threatening to empty as one of them walked over. Relief surged through him as the tall man quickly removed the handcuffs, his hands tingling as blood returned to them.

“We will return later, you are to remain here and not leave.” The traitor looked at him for a moment and smirked slightly, knowing he was going to do the opposite. The shopkeeper frowned as he whispered something and pointed north before he left the shop, following the infidels outside.

“Are you OK?” His assistant asked, the young boy scrambling to his feet to help him up as the door slammed shut. He grunted as he struggled to his feet on aching knees, another unwelcome reminder that he was getting old.

“Yes, I am fine,” he said with a long breath as he looked around and surveyed the damage. The Americans were better than troops from his own country at least, they just demanded answers and made a mess. Iraqi troops, on the other hand, would have beat him, stolen or smashed everything they could and demanded a fat bribe he couldn’t possibly pay. “I am fine. Did you understand what he said, the traitor, when they were leaving?” His young assistant blinked at him for a moment before slowly nodding.

“I think he said ‘escape’ and pointed that way. Is that the mosque he was pointing at?” The massive house of worship was only two streets over but it didn’t seem like a place of refuge and safety.

“I don't think so, I think it was something else. I think he was warning us, telling us to leave in that direction.”

“You mean Mosul? Or Kirkuk?” Both cities were relatively safe, although safety was rare in his country. The shopkeeper just nodded, his mind racing as he thought of all the things that needed to be done. They had to pack what they could and leave, and do it before the roads closed or bombs started falling. ‘Praise Allah,’ he thought, saying a quick prayer as he realized how fortunate he was to receive a warning. Before the war he had never taken religion that seriously, going to the mosque like everybody else but not really believing. Like so many other things that had changed as the occupation continued.

“Yes, I think so. Do you have family in the north? Would you like to come with us?” He forced his mouth shut before he made any more promises he might not be able to fulfill. Their small van could barely hold his family for the long, dangerous journey, never mind other guests. His assistant didn’t respond for a moment, a long, empty look on his face as he slowly shook his head. “What is wrong? Are you OK, Majid?”

“I don't have a family,” he muttered in a low voice. The shopkeeper blinked in surprise. He had known the young man for several months now but suddenly realized he didn't know much about him.

“What do you mean? What happened?”

“A car bomb, all of them, my mother, father and sister, all dead. My brother, he killed himself, he couldn't take it, couldn't take knowing they were all dead. I, I left, I came south to start over.” The words poured out of him in a torrent, like water being released from a dam. A tear slid down his cheek before his hand swiftly removed it.

“Who did it? Who planted the bomb?” He just shook his head in reply as the shopkeeper realized it was a stupid question. Not even the Americans knew exactly which group planted which bomb in most attacks. “You must come with us.” This time there was conviction in his voice, which sparked a glimmer of hope on his assistant’s face. He clapped a hand on his bony shoulder as if to seal the deal. A car horn blared loudly, startling him out of the moment and into action. After retrieving money and important papers hidden in a few places of the shop they locked the door and headed out into the intense heat of the day.

“What is it? Why are you home so early?” His wife demanded as he quickly closed the door of the small home they rented three blocks away. 'Praise Allah!' he thought as he noticed their four children were all home from school and playing in the kitchen. She strode over, a concerned look on her face as she stared at his assistant, who was awkwardly standing behind him. “What is he doing here? What is happening?”

“You remember my assistant, Majid?” She nodded and gave him a stern look, her arms crossing over her chest as she looked at him with a mixture of anger and concern. Like most woman she couldn’t help but speak her mind, and he let her but only to an extent. He was a man, after all, and that meant he had to preserve his place in the world and defend his honour when necessary. “Please wait here a moment, I need to talk to my wife,” he said to his assistant as he gestured toward their bedroom. She walked in, stomping her feet on the carpet to show just how annoyed she was at the uninvited guest into their home.

“I will explain everything, but you must listen to me first.” Her lips pursed as she gave him a curt nod. “The Americans came to the shop today, six of them with an interpreter. They ransacked my shop, demanded to know if I knew the terrorists, Al-Qaeda, the same as last time. Do not worry, I am not hurt, but we need to leave right now. We need to pack everything we can and get out of this city and go. We cannot stay here anymore.” Shock, horror and finally fear swept through her still-beautiful face as she processed what he was saying.

“And you paid on time? Did you give them enough?” He had wanted to keep the fact he was paying protection money to local militants a secret from his wife, but that hadn't worked when they had both dropped by his shop at the same time one day. She had been upset about the waste of money until he explained that it was normal and kept him safe from thieves and probably earned more than it cost. The protection extended to local police and judges but not to the American invaders, of course.

“Yes, of course, but that is my concern, not yours. I do not know why they came again, but I know we need to leave. The interpreter told me,” he said, explaining his whispered message and what his signal meant. He could tell her mind was racing as he finished talking and stared at her, hoping he had sounded convincing. One brief nod was all he needed as they launched into a flurry of packing and preparations. In 30 minutes they were in the van and moving north towards the first checkpoint. He glanced at Majid, who was staring out the window with a blank expression on his face, and wondered what his future would hold.

Chapter 6: Situation Room, The White House

“The two Russian submarines shadowing the Lincoln battle group have left, the last bearing had them heading north towards the Japanese coast,” the stocky, black general said in his rich, gravelly voice. “These are two of their newest ballistic nuclear submarines and we think they were testing us to see if we could detect them. As ordered, the battle group commander didn’t change his course, even with the positive ID. We are confident that they don’t know that we were able to detect them. Our intelligence indicates they likely believe it was a successfully surveillance mission.”

“Can we confirm that through assets in the Kremlin?” President Wallace asked as he stared at General Mack Draper, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Like many in the Pentagon he was a relentless defense hawk who was constantly pushing for more resources, assets and missions and there was little love lost between the two men. If he had his way, the US timeline to fully leave Iraq would be extended by several years and the world’s only superpower would be spending blood and treasure fighting several other conflicts besides.

“We're working on that, Sir, we'll let you know as soon as we hear something,” the Director of Central Intelligence said with a nod as an aide typed on a laptop, recording everything in case political cover was needed one day.

“The training exercises are going to last another week and we have assets in the area on high alert in case the Russians try something else.” The General paused and looked at the President, who was looking at a map on one of the huge television screens mounted on a wall. “Turning to Israel, there have been three additional rockets launched from Gaza, but they didn't hit anything. Iron Dome stopped one and two others exploded in the desert. Israel retaliated and destroy a suspected Hamas training facility. There are demonstrations in Gaza against the Israeli strikes and political pressure growing on the Israeli government to do more to stop the rocket attacks. The attacks by Hamas are likely being orchestrated by the Iran regime to distract from the growing unrest and protests in that country.”

“The Green Movement, right? Are the protests getting that much worse?” Iran had exploded in protests after the latest election results, which had been rigged in favour of the hardliners and re-elected an extreme anti-American populist as President. Reformers were taking advantage of the situation, calling millions to the streets to demand more freedoms, lower food prices and fair elections.

“Yes they are, Mr. President, economic issues seem to be turning the tide against the regime. So far their Republican Guard is maintaining order in key cities but only barely. We estimate at least two dozen casualties from yesterday’s events and that is bringing yet more protesters to the streets. The regime’s control over the country is, in our opinion, slipping and that could present an opportunity.” He paused, glancing at the grim faces around the table. “Our options are limited, however, due to recent intelligence from verifiable sources that Iran is closer to their first nuclear weapons test than we had anticipated. That gives them significant leverage and severely limits our possible responses.”

A deafening silence fell over the room as everyone's heads snapped up. The General forced himself to maintain his neutral expression as he watched the President’s reaction. As terrifying as the information was, it proved what he had been warning about for years was a legitimate threat. For years the political fools who occupied the White House had ignored Iran, paying lip service to the growing threat while taking no action. Now, finally, he had concrete evidence that should be enough to tip the scales in favour of neutralizing the threat and dealing the enemy a blow that could be enough to sweep away their pathetic little regime.

“As you know, Iran has advanced rockets, some of which can reach Europe,” he continued as he pointed at another screen showing their estimated ranges and possible targets. “They are also working on a project that we believe may be an ICBM, a ballistic missile that theoretically could reach American soil. It's under the disguise of their space program and we have limited information, but it could mean they could have the ability to launch a nuclear weapon at an American city in only a few years’ time. The design and schematics were likely provided by North Korea, but we can't confirm that yet.”

“But they haven't conducted the test yet? How close are they?” It was a question the President had asked before, and everyone in the room knew the answer would be the same.

“We think within six months, and we think it will be at this underground facility.” A satellite image of a mountain range sprang into view with a disguised road and entrance highlighted. “Like the North Koreans, they are probably going to do an underground test to minimize detection and fallout. We know that this facility is a former mine, but we don't know any specific details about the site. We do know the Iranians have brought a number of new uranium enrichment sites online, but not how many or where. At this time we don’t have an estimated yield.” He paused and looked down at a piece of paper in front of him, frowning and pursing his lips as he debated his next words.

“So, we know Iran is getting closer to testing a nuclear device and they're working on missiles that could reach American soil. Do you have a suggestion on next steps? Are more sanctions in order? What about direct talks?” The National Security Adviser asked in a slightly high-pitched voice, betraying the fear coursing through her. She was tapping her pen on her notepad as she spoke, making a soft thumping sound that reverberated around the room.

“It's the opinion of the Joint Chiefs that direct talks would not provide results. We've been trying low-level talks through the Swiss and Norwegians for years and that's gone nowhere.” His voice had a barely detectable hint of disdain at the concept that negotiation could resolve the intractable issue. “Diplomacy has gone nowhere. Increased sanctions are an option but we’re already squeezing them hard and we do not have cooperation from Russia and China. That means Iran is effectively able to bypass the sanctions we do have in place.

“We've been talking to the Israelis who, as you know, are keen to attack and disable key Iranian nuclear sites.” Another map flashed onto screen showing highlighted targets, nuclear sites marked with with yellow barrels of uranium and launch sites with rockets. “Bombing and disabling these 11 sites would effectively end their ability to strike Israel, Europe or any other target. We have come up with a plan to neutralize their air defense networks in place around these sites. Aircraft could be based from several sites, including ...”

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