Van Childs, a former Navy pilot and aerospace engineering consultant and now the guardian of humanity, was sitting at his desk in his Mars Base quarters. He was antsy and getting tired after spending hours looking at the latest production reports from the Earth Federation and from Guardian Force. He started making calculations on his tablet, twisting his neck to relieve the growing pain as he went. Then he stopped. He didn’t move. Then, he slammed his hand down on his desk with a loud, explosive bang! “Shit!” was all he could say for a few moments. Finally, he stood up so fast his chair went flying several feet away.
He paced back and forth in his cabin the way he did when he was worried or angry. In this case it was both. He rubbed his hand through his hair as he paced and then stopped.
“Harry, get in here now!” he yelled both out loud and through his communications implant.
Harry was the name he had given to the AI the Galactic Host had left behind to help the guardian make humanity ready for the coming of the Arkon. The Host called the AI “Heuristic Artificial Remote Intelligence.” Van just called him Harry. Over time Harry had taken on a mechanized android form.
There was a knock on Van’s door, then Harry opened it and stepped into the cabin, closing the door behind him.
“How can I help you, Commander?” he said in his traditional calm, emotionless manner.
“We’re screwed, Harry!” Van stopped his pacing to face the AI.
“How are we screwed, Commander?”
“We can’t get there from here!” Van started pacing again.
“I don’t understand, Commander.”
“Have you read the latest shipbuilding reports from the Federation and Guardian Force?”
“I scanned them last night when they came in, Commander.”
Van stopped. “And what did you conclude?”
“I fail to understand your question, Commander.”
Taking a deep breath, Van calmed himself a little, picked up his chair, and sat back down facing Harry.
“Sorry, Harry. What I meant was, when we first started down this path you suggested it could take up to one hundred years for the Arkon to make their first appearance, probably in just their scout mode. At the time, that appeared reasonable, and preparation seemed doable. But now the Arkon have shown up unexpectedly early—and the whole time line has to be shortened.”
“That is possible, Commander.”
“Yes, it is. And if so, that means we have less time than we thought to produce the number of ships and crews that will be necessary. How many ships can the Arkon bring against us when they finally come in force?”
“That is hard to say with any degree of certainty, Commander, but a thousand could easily be the answer based on what the Host faced,” Harry said calmly.
“Ouch! Even more than I thought,” Van said with dismay. “How long to reach that number given what we have to work with now?”
Harry responded immediately. “We will need numerical superiority or at least parity to be successful against the Arkon in force. In the last two years we have manufactured one cargo ship, one destroyer, two frigates, and one corvette. The other assets were given to us by the Host. The Federation has produced many shuttles but has yet to complete a warship, even on Moon Base. They are close but not done yet. If we add all that up, including ships we or the Federation have in progress, it comes to about ten ships in close to four years or two hundred fifty ships in one hundred years at that rate. As you supposed, that would likely have been enough for the initial Arkon probe, but not enough to battle a large Arkon follow-on force successfully.”
Van put his head in his hands while staring down at the cabin’s deck. “That’s what I thought. The math suggests that to get to a thousand ships at the current rate, it should take about four hundred years, at which point many of those early ships would be falling apart and the Arkon would have been victorious and our work unsuccessful.”
Looking up at Harry, he continued, “So, with regard to capital ships, we have to get much better and faster at building them. We, you and I, can still help improve manufacturing processes by digging deeper into the Host database. Similarly, we can still contribute to a variety of technical improvements from the same source. But I still don’t see how we can get there from here. Unless. . .”
“Unless what, Commander?”
Nearly a minute passed as Van searched his thoughts, staring at the cabin overhead and stroking absentmindedly at his chin. Then he stopped and turned to look directly at Harry again.
“Unless we can find help.”
“I am not following you, Commander. Where would we get such help?”
“Outside our solar system, Harry. Given that we exist, the Arkon exist, and the Host existed or may still, might there also be another race in the galaxy that can help?”
“My data does not suggest the existence of life forms beyond Earth other than the Arkon. However, given the size of this and other galaxies, the probability is high. But space is large, larger than most humans can imagine. Such life forms could be difficult to find.”
“Difficult? Perhaps. But that may be our only hope to actually win a major Arkon confrontation.”
As if not recognizing the enormity of their discussion, Harry said, “I am supposed to remind you of a staff meeting in fifteen minutes, Commander. We should leave now to be there on time.”
“Of course, Harry. I was so caught up in the moment here, I nearly forgot. Let’s go.” But Van couldn’t stop thinking about this new problem.
The conference room adjacent to the Mars Base Ops Center was large relative to all the other Guardian equivalents on Earth or the Moon. This one, in fact, was arranged in theater style with integrated seats and desks rising in steps one above the other from the center briefing podium to the highest tier nearly halfway up the room’s rear walls. Whoever had designed it had decided to keep the natural Martian rock walls and, in fact, had used careful lighting to highlight the various stratums of color and shade. It was impressive. Yet the beauty of the place did not detract from its purpose. Van had seen only one thing like it, though it wasn’t a conference room. Henry VIII’s wine cellar buried under the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall, London.
For this meeting, however, only the first row was filled, including just the senior staff.
“A good Mars morning to you all,” said Van, smiling and taking center stage next to the podium. “Based on briefing material passed to you several days ago, you should all be up to speed on Guardian Force status as well as that of the Federation.”
He stood dressed in the dark gray uniform of the type left behind by the Host. On his left shoulder was a small colorful patch displaying the words “Guardian Force” pierced by a stylized silver spaceship passing through three stars on a background of blue. A golden sunburst adorned each side of his Nehru-collared jacket, which he’d chosen to represent himself as the commander of Guardian Force. His audience was dressed similarly but with no rank markings.
Stepping away from the podium, Van continued, “We’ve seen good progress in the past two years. The Federation is poised to stand up its first FSF crews and warships. We have been and continue to be providing the training necessary for them to be efficient in their first large commands, as well as the infrastructure guidance they need to create larger, more capable ships and, at some point, the first fully operational space station. But as Harry and I have just realized, none of this will be enough.”
This caught everyone by surprise. Things were going well on every front. What could possibly be wrong?
“While we and the Federation are growing, it isn’t fast enough. Harry will share the details with you later, but we need more help. Personally, I would hope that the Host would help if they were in a position to do so, but given that they are not here—for whatever reason—we have to look for other sources. I believe that our next level of growth lies outside our solar system. Therefore, it’s time for us to take a more detailed look out there. We would be looking for one or more races that are possibly aware of the Arkon threat and, in any case, willing to help us grow faster.”
“Commander,” said Stan Walters, a former Air Force pilot and now the deputy Mars Base commander, “you really believe that there are friendly people. . . or beings. . . out there who can help?”
“Based on Harry’s analysis, yes. Finding them will be the challenge.”
“But how do we do that if we have no idea where they are?” asked Danny Ramos, also a former Air Force pilot and now the chief pilot for Guardian Forces.
“Good question, Danny, but I’ll let Harry answer that. Harry.” Van yielded the floor.
“Thank you, Commander. Our plan is to start with the closest possible habitable environment. Many of you know that the closest star systems are those associated with Alpha Centauri A and B. However, the Kepler space observatory mission and discoveries by the European Southern Observatory, or ESO, suggest that the third star in the system, Proxima Centauri, might be the best choice. The ESO has identified a planet in the habitable zone that is only four point two five light years from Earth. Currently the planet is called Proxima b, and that is our initial destination.”
“But we aren’t exactly true representatives of the human race on Earth. We’re humans, of course, but we’re not the Federation. In the end, it will be the Federation that will actually represent Earth and its ability or desire to ally with others—if that’s what you are proposing,” said Rosantina Ramos, the Guardian Force chief medical officer. Rose was Danny Ramos’s sister and a doctor. She had once applied for the astronaut program back on Earth but had not been selected. She was also beautiful and had captured Van’s attention.
“A great point, Rose,” said Van. “That’s why I intend to invite a few FSF officers and a representative from the Federation Ministry of Space to go with us. Any other comments or questions?”
Stan spoke up again. “When do you suggest we depart on this venture, and how many ships do we take?”
“I’ll turn the question back on you, Stan. When can you have two ships ready to go?” asked Van.
“We can have two ready in a week, but I’d like two weeks to be at our best.”
“Then two weeks it is. If there are no more questions, plan to meet as necessary for preparation, but certainly for a detailed mission brief in twelve days. That’s all. Let’s get to it.”
Everyone departed, leaving Van and Harry alone again.
“One more thing, Harry. I want to pay a visit to Moon Base and would like to have General Anikin there to talk with.” General Dimitry Anikin was the Federation’s first and current minister of space and technology. He was also a trusted friend of Van’s.
“I’ll make that arrangement right away, Commander.”
Two days later found Van and Harry at Moon Base.
“It seems so small now when compared to Mars Base, Harry.”
“It is small by comparison, Commander.”
“Yes I know, Harry. It was just an expression. Has General Anikin arrived yet?”
“He is in the Ops Center conference room waiting for us, Commander.”
“Good, let’s not keep him waiting.”
The Ops Center had changed. It was now bigger than before to accommodate the increased number of people from various countries represented by the Federation. It was also filled with more consoles and computer stations. In a way it had taken on the appearance of the NASA Mission Control Center in Houston, Texas. That made it even more crowded and noisier. Thankfully the conference room next door was designed to be private and quiet. The two pushed open the doors and entered.
Van was taken aback. He’d expected to see only Anikin, but another man was there as well. Both men stood as Van entered.
“Commander, how good to see you!” said the enthusiastic Russian as he grabbed Van in a surprise bear hug that nearly took Van’s breath away. “Look at you! You never change.” Anikin released Van from the embrace and then held him at arm’s length to get a better view of his friend.
“Thank you, Dimitry. It is good to see you as well. How are the women in your life?” Van said, taking a step backward with a grin.
“My lovely wife is more beautiful every day. My oldest daughter, Lucya, gave up on her billionaire boyfriend and married my old aide, Mikhael Vavilov. Little Nina is still in school and driving the boys crazy. And you?”
“I’m too busy to get involved in romance, Dimitry,” said a blushing Van.
“That’s not what I heard. I heard that a certain doctor has claimed you for her own.”
Van was looking for a way out of this conversation when his eyes fell again on the other man in the room. “Who is this, Dimitry? I thought we would be alone.”
“Ah, yes, of course. Commander Childs of Guardian Force, may I present Ambassador James Harris of the Federation?”
Van shook the stranger’s hand while his eyes took in his appearance. An older man in his late fifties or early sixties, the ambassador was about five feet ten, with graying hair and brown eyes. Seems in shape for an older man, and a politician at that, thought Van.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ambassador Harris,” he said as he finished the handshake.
“It is more of a pleasure to meet you, Commander. Your fame, it seems, is universal.”
“Maybe, but not by choice.” Van turned back to Anikin, leaving a puzzled look on Harris’s face. Assuming a formal mode, he continued, “Minister, I had some delicate thoughts for our conversation. First, however, can you tell me why you brought the ambassador with you?” He motioned for everyone to be seated at the conference table.
“And well you should ask, my friend. As you know, there has been a growing, ah, difference of opinion within the Federation for many months.”
“You mean about me and my role as guardian,” Van said, staring directly into Anikin’s eyes.
“Yes, in part. But it is going deeper than that. The Progressives are slowly getting to be a majority, and, as you know, they believe that Earth’s future is best left to the people of Earth . . . meaning the Progressive cadre of the Federation. It is the old desire for power creeping back into government. Originalists like myself and the ambassador here are fighting a battle we may not win, but we continue. The reason I have brought the ambassador is to provide you with a friendly connection to the Federation government.”
“I thought that’s why we had you, Minister,” said Van, not knowing exactly where all this was going.
“True, true,” Anikin said as he ran a hand through his thinning gray hair. “But I may not be part of the Federation for much longer.”
That stunned Van. Anikin not the minister he himself had suggested? Then it hit him. “The Progressives are looking to get rid of you because of our relationship?”
“Exactly.” Anikin nodded and tapped an affirming finger on the table.
This sucks, Van thought. “And you trust this man?” he asked, looking at Harris.
“Yes, I do. Our good relationship is not well known, but we have known each other for many years. He has, in fact, been my secret eyes and ears into the core of the Federation lately denied to me. To shield the relationship, the two of us have been falsely feuding publicly for months. Generally, we have been successful in making it appear that the good ambassador is more a Progressive than an Originalist. In fact, when I got your request to come here, the ambassador managed to convince the leaders of the diplomatic corps that it wasn’t safe for me to come alone. It was best, he said, that he come along to keep an eye on me. So here he is. But there is more.”
“More than telling me you are about to be kicked out of the Federation and the Progressives are winning?”
This wasn’t good at all. “OK, tell me.”
“The Federation wants the ambassador to leave here and go with you, wherever you go.”
“As a spy?”
“They would say to ‘assist’ you in every way possible in support of your good work,” Anikin said, ending with a false smile.
“Like I said, a spy.”
“You are being crude, but yes.”
Van’s face was getting red, a sure sign he was getting angry. Then he calmed himself and turned to the ambassador. “Ambassador Harris, what do you have to say?”
“Nothing that the minister hasn’t already said.”
“And how do you expect to be of help to me thousands or millions of miles away from Earth?”
“Contacts,” was all the ambassador said.
Normally, Van liked short statements of fact, but this was just too cryptic. “Explain!” He glowered. Two can play at this game.
“I have contacts not only officially with the Progressive side of the Federation who think I am one of them, but also with other Originalists in important places.”
“And what would you officially be ambassador of?”
“‘Ambassador plenipotentiary without portfolio’ is the term.”
“Meaning what?” Van was losing patience again.
“Fortunately, just about anything I want. Basically an ambassador with full powers of the government, but not in a single specified location. It is temporary, but there is no actual time limit.”
“And why would I, or more accurately, we need one?”
“The Guardian Force does not fall under the Federation, nor has it been recognized as a sovereign state. But it is important nonetheless. So here I am.”
“Commander, Van,” interjected Anikin in an effort to calm things down. “It is the best we can do given the circumstances. In addition, I think you will find the ambassador’s experience and knowledge of great value in the months and even years to come.”
Van thought about this. He didn’t like it, but Anikin was probably right. And he trusted Anikin.
“OK. I’ll accept this for now. But if I get even the smallest hint, Ambassador, that you are not who or what you claim to be, you’ll be gone!”
Turning back to Anikin, Van took a breath and filled the minister and the ambassador in on the talk he and Harry had had about the shortfall in ship production and the planned solution.
When Van was done, the other two humans in the room sat in silence, not knowing what to say, or even think. Harry, as usual, just stood by in silence. Except, Van thought, did I see him twitch a little? Maybe not.
It was Anikin who recovered first. “You want to go looking for help outside the solar system?”
“Yes. That pretty much covers it,” said Van with a smile.
“And there is no other way of getting ready for the Arkon?” asked the ambassador.
“None that I can think of. Unless, of course, you have something better.”
“No, no. This is your area of expertise, and I have to admit you make a good if pessimistic case. But the project seems nearly hopeless.”
“It may be, but we have to do something. Meanwhile, things will go on as usual: getting ready as fast as we can in every area.”
“Every area except things like FTL, ZPE, and a few other advancements,” said Harris.
“Yes. As I have consistently said, the Earth just can’t use all the technology available. The manufacturing and support structure won’t allow it . . . yet. As far as FTL and ZPE and things like more-advanced weapons are concerned, the divided nature of the Federation you two just described only confirms my view that the Earth isn’t ready for or, more precisely, can’t be trusted with some things yet. Current build plans that Harry has provided are designed to quickly adapt the more advanced capabilities later. Just not now given what you told me.”
“That will not make the Progressives happy,” said Harris with a smile.
“Tough,” was all Van would say to that.
“Well,” Harris mused, sitting back in his chair with his hands steepled in front of him, “that will make my job more interesting if we do find other life out there.”
“Yours and everyone’s, Ambassador,” said Van, getting more annoyed.
Anikin interrupted the two other men before the discussion could escalate. “By the way, Van, I hope you won’t mind, but I have arranged for some assistance for Ambassador Harris as well as some representation from my office that I hope will be of help to you. They are already en route to Mars Base.”
Van was about to say something like “thanks,” but he stopped when he saw Harry twitch again. “You OK, Harry?”
“Yes, Commander. But I just got a strange signal.”
“Signal from what or who?”
“From the Chad computer, Commander.”
The two other men in the room could not help but see the dramatic and concerning change that came over Van at Harry’s statement.
“What is the Chad computer?” asked Harris.
Anikin knew about the computer, but few people outside of the Guardian Force did. Harris deserved an answer—but not the whole story. Not until Van knew him better.
“The Chad computer, Ambassador, is a Host computer we thought lost in the crash of a shuttle stolen by a man named Peter Meier two years ago. Meier, if you don’t know, was actively seeking to stop us from making technological advances on Earth unless he was involved, and of course for substantial profit. We didn’t agree. Meier died in the crash, and we couldn’t determine positively that the computer was destroyed as well. We couldn’t find a trace in the wreckage.”
“But now it seems to have resurfaced?” Harris asked.
“Yes, and we need to find it.”
But there was more to the Chad computer than even Van or Harry knew.