There was a new ship in orbit around Earth, although it was actually a small asteroid with glowing red engines, each of them ten times the size of a destroyer. It carried what looked like a city of sleek, sharp claw-like spires, suspended spheres, rounded towers, and various domes. The city warped into orbit with another massive fleet of destroyers, a small clutch of transport ships, and several massive orbital factories designed to repair damaged destroyers and rebuild lost fighters and bombers.
These factories were truly immense ships with hexagonal bays big enough for a destroyer to enter. Inside, a cavernous chamber capable of holding up to twenty destroyers at a time was home to an army of machines that cut away damaged or fused sections of wounded ships to replace them with new, fresh nanobots.
But as impressive as the factories were, the transport ships got far more attention from the press on Earth because they were massive replicas of the very first human craft designed for interstellar travel. The cylindrical design, the sleek engine covers, the huge dust shield, all preserved and faithfully duplicated in these craft which served as the backbone of the Nation’s interstellar shipping lanes. Like all of the Nation’s ships, they were armed to the teeth and could make short work of almost any attacker. Needless to say that space piracy wasn’t one of the problems the Nation worried about since few alien species out there were stupid enough to attack their transports and those who were, rarely made the same mistake twice.
As the humans may have guessed, the space city came with such an imperial entourage because it carried VIPs, mainly four members of the Child High Council. Their quarters and offices abroad were in one of the ten claw-like towers built on the city’s edges. Connected to this tower by a long passageway was a simple dome made of dark, translucent materials, marked with a red alien rune at the top. Space planes from Earth buzzed all around this space city and its guards, the footage streamed to every television set on the planet below as anchors of global news shows and wire services told the Shadow Nation’s story to hundreds of millions of viewers watching at home, in offices and in the middle of the streets on huge screens mounted onto skyscrapers facing major highways, parks and public squares.
Work stopped. Traffic ground to a virtual halt. For the next few days the entire human species was frozen in front of the nearest TV or computer. Aliens were just a few thousand miles above them and an interstellar war came to their doorstep, which meant that everything else could wait. Intermixed with the news was high definition footage of the combat between the Rexx and the Nation, finally explaining the strange lights in the sky for the last few days and the odd, fuzzy pictures uploaded by amateur astronomers. Next came the images of Ace, Dot and other representatives of the Nation, official photos provided by the Child High Council and the High Command to acquaint the humans with the cyborgs’ major players.
The headshots of the commanders and government figures were set against blank backgrounds and watermarked with the Nation’s seal. None of the cyborgs smiled, their firm expressions and attentive eyes meant to communicate power and knowledge in stark contrast to the smiling and cozy pictures of Earth’s leaders used in official reports from the Council for many a century. The ages and resumes of High Councilors and top commanders seemed surreal. Most had close to a millennium of experience in their fields. Only a few were under 800 years of age.
News articles swept the internet like a tsunami, using the just declassified images of the Nation’s worlds, temples and outposts in included slideshows and photo spreads. The first impression of the cyborgs was exactly what the High Command hoped it would be. The Nation was portrayed as exotic, enigmatic, and powerful. Politicians welcomed the cyborgs as potential allies and trading partners since behind the scenes, the High Council already indicated that it was open to the idea of trade with the humans. The arrival of the Nation was proclaimed as the beginning of a new era and a very likely catalyst for a sudden resurgence in space travel and exploration now that the technology to casually hop from solar system to solar system might be within easy reach. The media could barely contain their excitement while drowning viewers and readers in new facts.
“The spaceships now in Earth orbit traveled over 60,000 light years to reach us,” a news anchor gasped with excitement, “coming from a planet the Nation calls Abydos, in a binary star system in the Southern constellation Norma, on the edge of the Carina-Sagittarius galactic arm…”
“One of the things that kind of amaze me is a lack of variety in their machines,” opined a famous aerospace designer on another show, “but you know, I can see where they were going with this. They have to manufacture units on an enormous scale, tens of millions of everything, so they settled on a few robust, general purpose designs they can just pop off the assembly line in these batches of hundreds of thousands. And they need to be pretty simple, so fewer things can go wrong in operation.”
“And they’re not made from conventional metal alloys or inflatables, right?” asked the host.
“No, not at all,” the designer jumped in reply. “They actually use smart nanoparticles and a squishy gel that’s kind of like an artificial muscle so they can withstand wear and tear almost like living things. Again, it makes sense why they’d do that. They’re leaving robots on other planets for years at a time to explore, patrol, and so on, and if they kept getting dented and worn out, they’d have to replace them almost as often as they would in combat…”
Meanwhile, in the space city, the VIPs from the High Council prepared for the next step. First contact was successful. Trade negotiations were scheduled to begin soon and the Nation’s top companies were straining at their leashes to flood a brand new market with their wares. To both the humans and the cyborgs, this was a start of big things. Really big things.
In one of the large, claw-shaped spires overlooking the central dome of the space city, Christine and Steve sat in the large and very comfortable living quarters of the cyborg responsible for Earth’s defenses. He was a charming, laid-back Child named Leo. A student of Ace’s, he specialized in defensive strategies. Ace, Dot, and other top commanders frequently used his expertise on key missions to invade capitol worlds and defend strategic outposts. Their specialty lay in how to unleash the Nation’s considerable firepower with the most lethal effect. Leo’s advice helped them refine their battle plans to counter the defenses of their targets.
Like all Children, he had a young face even though he was some 760 years old. He also wasn’t a cookie-cutter cyborg like Steve and Christine were expecting. In fact, as they found out, none of the Nation’s inhabitants were. If they were converted as humans, the prominent features of their faces were kept. If they were created with a blend of extremely sophisticated synthetic gametes and real DNA, they would have the face that genetics would likely select for them set in dark carbon gel.
While Ace and Dot excused themselves to prepare for a major meeting with some of the Nation’s rulers, Leo agreed to entertain and educate the humans. He did so by introducing them to more of the commanders in the Nation’s fleet, giving them the grand tour of the space city and by graciously tending to their every need. Steve and Christine finally started to relax around the cyborgs. Rather than being handled as an unnecessary burden at best, or spies at worst, as they had feared when accepting their assignment, the two were treated like ambassadors. After the tour, Leo brought them to his living quarters and had his robotic assistants make the humans something to eat, carefully checking what items from the Nation’s rather bizarre cuisine might be safe for them to consume.
“So what do you think of the Nation so far?” he asked, leaning back in his chair.
“We’re very impressed and somewhat overwhelmed,” replied Christine. “It’s been a very interesting few days.”
“Oh I’m sure. And again, I hope you don’t mind dealing with me while Ace and Dot work with the High Council. No offense but as I’m sure you understand, some meetings just have to be confidential.”
“Of course, of course,” agreed Steve. “As I understand it, Ace is something like an advisor to the High Council in addition to his military duties, right?”
“He’s what we call a high commander,” clarified Leo. “It’s not a rank really, it just means that he’s in command of a fleet, the Sixth Expeditionary Fleet to be exact. His actual rank is general, and his current full time job is to be an intelligence advisor to the High Council.”
“Kind of like the Deputy Councilor of Defense on Earth, right?”
“Yes… I suppose that’s a good way to describe it.”
“What about yourself Leo?”
“I’m a commander with a colonel rank right now, in charge of a wing. At some point, I might make it to high commander if the Council decides I actually have what it takes. It’s really not easy to get your own fleet. It takes centuries of service, and you have to rack up a lot of accomplishments. I believe that Dot is probably next in line to rank up to that.”
“And who is under you?”
“Officers, specialists, and enlistees. The actual hierarchy gets somewhat complicated with education and time served. Then there are special ops certs that create sub-branches, and so on.”
“Does having a mostly robotic army change anything in terms of ranks?”
“Not really. We just have very few commanders. Each one of us has a wing of 50,000 destroyers, out of a fleet of 500,000, not including capitol ships like this one. Each wing has squadrons of 5,000 called MRDGs, or multi-role destroyer groups, and a fleet typically has 80 squadrons of destroyers that fight only in space, and 20 squadrons of destroyers that carry ground units and troops. Mostly we just watch the overall strategy for our wings and make sure everything is going according to the battle plan which is carried out by officers, and the specialists and enlistees they command. Each ship’s AI chip does the rest. But the catch is, and it’s kind of an important catch, that…”
Leo continued the lecture in acronyms and proper Nation military lingo for hours. Much like Earth’s armed forces, the people designing their weapons really liked their acronyms and weren’t exactly devoid of humor. The vaunted destroyers, as it so turned out, were nicknamed Dragons, and so the huge slugs of carbon propelled at relativistic speeds they fired at distant enemies were called Dragon Fangs, the robotic troop carriers shaped like rounded off barrels were called Dragon Eggs, and their commanders were frequently known as “dragon tamers.”
The traveling space cities were known as Shoguns with a wink and a nod, and fearsome, planet-destroying superweapons were not so subtly referred to as Death Stars, of pop science fiction fame.
The humans couldn’t get enough and asked question after question. Meanwhile, the High Councilors and their top advisors were gathering in the central dome below to discuss their future plans for the little blue planet below.
In the main room of the space city’s central dome was a round table with a brushed aluminum color scheme designed to seat twelve people in sleek, rounded chairs. The panoramic window around the circular room looked out on the Nation’s fleet and the Earth, setting the mood for the meeting.
Sitting at the round table were three of the Child Councilors, Ace and Dot. The two commanders were in their duty uniforms as they always were during official meetings. The Councilors wore dark cloaks with silver tribal designs around their edges and a silver seal of the Nation emblazoned on their chests. They politely chatted with Ace and Dot, waiting for the Senior Councilor to appear.
“So sorry to keep everybody waiting,” said Thomas Nelson as he walked into the conference room with a sigh, the black chrome door softly sliding shut behind him. “Typical bureaucratic junk on Abydos. That’s it, next cycle, I’m cutting all this busy work out.”
He sat down next to Dot as was his custom. As a Child he looked much younger and as with all Children, the distinguishing features of his face were perfectly preserved in carbon gel.
“So where were we?” he asked.
“Just waiting for you,” replied Cynthia, a fellow Councilor and Nelson’s second in command.
“Thanks,” nodded Nelson. “Before the end of the week, we should be able to finalize trading rules with Earth. Right now, we were thinking about selling household technology and planetary construction services for starters. What do you think?”
“I’m sure someone will want weapons too,” noted Dot.
“They don’t need our weapons,” grumbled a High Councilor. “I’m not sure it’s a good idea to give them even more ways to kill themselves.”
“They’ll get weapons Alex,” said Ace. “And they’ll get them because they want them and because it’s going to be one of our most lucrative business lines. It’s been this way for thousands of years and they haven’t killed themselves yet.”
“Ok, then what about a lunatic general using our bombs and missiles around on us? How do we counter that?”
“That hypothetical lunatic general will have an interstellar drive in a few years,” noted Dot. “If we’re not going to sell humans weapons, they’re going to take their shiny new ships to someone who will. We bought weapons and weapon components from aliens a few times so they’ll certainly figure out how to do that.”
“Then it would be a snap for someone to take them out,” added Ace. “Who knows what they might bring back from a shopping spree in deep space? Some vulture might decide to save a lot of effort and sell them a weapon designed to backfire and destroy their whole world or cripple their military.”
“But what about an off world inspection point?” asked Nelson.
“Just as bad. These devices can have an AI chip which would lie in wait until the device is on the home world or a significant military base or it’s being used in combat. It goes off when it can do the most damage to its owners’ fleet. The guys who sold them this device just took out their potential competition with minimal effort and got paid for it. Or at least didn’t have to spend a lot of time or resources to do a lot of damage.”
“Sounds like you’ve done this before Ace,” guessed Cynthia.
“Eh… once or twice,” admitted Ace with a guilty shrug.
“So, any bright ideas?” asked Nelson. “Cynthia?”
“Sell them a lower powered version of our stuff?”
“Hmm… What about you Ace?”
Ace scratched his chin for a moment.
“You know Nelson, let’s sell them everything short of the heavy artillery. You know… no IGFs, GRBGs, DSDs, etcetera. They’ll still be one of the best armed races in the galaxy, but they won’t have the kind of weapons that could take out the whole system. When things really get underway, we’ll sell them whatever they want, just jack up the price to control how much they buy.”
“And since we’re right here…” continued Nelson, “there’s little incentive for them to wander off to another world and look for a new supplier… Not bad. Not bad at all.”
“Well, as long as they don’t blow themselves up,” sighed Alex.
“That’s where we come in,” winked Dot. “They’ll need our help to learn how to use the weapons safely.”
“Very well,” nodded Cynthia. “I’ll put all this into the agreement and we should have it in a few hours. We’ll just need the humans to agree to it, but with what we have to offer, I’m sure they will.”
“How do they pay us until we go to phase two?” asked Ace.
“Genetic data,” replied Cynthia, “tritium and deuterium.”
“Genetic data as in blood?”
“For now, yes.”
“Won’t somebody figure out what it’s for and have a shit fit on global TV, scaring everybody half to death?”
“They’ll have a shit fit faster if we give this stuff away. We need the blood for research in the first place to make sure we can add two more base pairs.”
Ace nervously tapped his fingers on the table.
“Politics isn’t my area of expertise so I defer to you,” he lied.
“So what are we going to do about the Rexx?” asked Nelson.
“Kill them of course,” replied Ace nonchalantly, as if Nelson just asked him about how he liked his tea. “Frankly, we can’t afford to permanently move the bulk of the Sixth Fleet out here and that’s what we’ll end up doing if we don’t go on the offensive. Besides, we need to send the Dark Gods a message by severing whatever they’re using to control them.”
“They’re prolific bastards, aren’t they?” asked Nelson.
“Their queens produce a thousand Rexx every day.”
“If we took a nicely sized fleet out of here to neutralize the Rexx and left just a small detachment and a few probes I think it would relax Earth’s armies,” finished Nelson.
“Coming with us Nelson?” asked Dot.
“You bet. Just after we finish up this trade deal. Oh and Ace… what’s the plan with Steve and Christine?”
“I’d like to take them with me. They’re fast learners and they did quite well yesterday. Besides, we might need allies when we’re back and have to sort out whatever humans will end up doing to their home world with our machines that’ll inflame the… shall we say… more politically aggressive occupants of the planet.”
“There’s no such thing as too many allies,” agreed Nelson and directed his attention to the rest of the Councilors. “Ok everybody, meeting adjourned. Let’s get the formalities out of the way so we can get to work.”
As the Councilors went back to their offices, Dot and Ace called Leo to start the slow withdrawal of the destroyer fleet. In a few days, just a few transports and a token squadron of warships would be left in orbit. Deeper in space, long range probes would watch over Earth, locking on to any enemy signal.