Ace and Dot looked around their new accommodations on Earth, an impressive penthouse apartment reserved for visiting dignitaries in the part of the capital hyper-city known as Diplomat Lane. Only the fabulously rich and well connected went to the many nightclubs and bars in this area to mingle with powerful people over ridiculously expensive drinks or small and equally ridiculously pricey meals. To get the human elite a step closer to making deals with the Nation, every member of Ace’s crew was given an apartment in the Lane and an astronomical expense account to go out and enjoy the nightlife.
The 42nd floor suite slated for Ace and Dot had a very open, sunlit feel, an effect achieved with minimalistic décor, large works of art on the walls and huge, floor to ceiling windows. The furniture had sleek, polished shapes of brushed metal that fused with equally sleek pieces of high tech fabric or old fashioned leather wrapped around a foam that could change its softness or firmness on command. The three sprawling rooms had beds big enough to comfortably accommodate a small battalion.
“Not bad at all,” said Dot after she finished her inspection.
“Yeah,” confirmed Ace. “Very nice place.”
“Glad you like it,” said Grey who was standing behind them. “If you need anything, just call for the concierge and you’ll have whatever you need take care of, from food, to cleaning, to entertainment reservations. They’ll also send up a small wait staff for the evening…”
“Wait staff?” asked Dot.
“Well of course,” exclaimed Grey. “You don’t think we’d leave you here without someone to wait on you? You’re dignitaries, guests of the Council with all the perks that go along with it.”
“We don’t mean to be rude,” frowned Ace, “but we’ll pass.”
“You won’t even notice them,” assured Grey. “They’re expertly trained to serve diplomats and they’ll respect your privacy.”
“No, it’s not that,” said Ace.
“It’s just that we’re not used to be waited on,” interjected Dot.
“Right, that’s exactly what I was going to say,” joined in Ace.
“Is it taboo in the Nation to be waited on?” asked Grey.
“Well, somewhat,” replied Ace. “You see, it’s just that as soldiers, we’re used to doing things for ourselves and it would be um… very culturally awkward to have servants running around us. A little help here and there is fine, but…”
“Of course,” nodded Grey. “I’ll call and arrange for a chef only.”
“Thank you,” smiled Dot.
As promised, Grey arranged for only one helping hand, a very friendly and very portly private chef who eagerly shook hands with Ace and Dot as he promised to prepare the finest gourmet meals known to humans in order to make up for the centuries they’ve been away from Earth. He immediately started to prepare a dinner of fresh duck.
“Say, you don’t happen to be… vegetarians?” he asked, cringing a little as he uttered the last word before he started cooking.
“Do these teeth look vegetarian?” Ace laughed as he flashed his gleaming canine fangs and razor sharp rows of fused teeth.
“My teeth are the same way,” seconded Dot.
Leaving the chef in the enormous kitchen to prepare a dinner fit for alien overlords, Ace and Dot proceeded to the living room, had a seat on the couch and sighed in unison.
“Well, here were are…” said Ace.
“… back on Earth…” continued Dot.
“… for phase two…”
“… ready to be hounded by everybody. So, what do we do?”
“Go out. Talk. Interact. Sitting inside this house isn’t going to do anything for us. We have to talk with all the bigwigs, figure out what the dynamics are and which levers to push.”
“Do we know if the bigwigs will talk to us?”
“Of course they will Dot. We’re a powerful alien race that could have everything they want or need in some magical drawer on some planet far, far away as far as they know. And if humans didn’t change completely in the last millennium and a half, they’ll probably also believe that for the right price we’ll deliver it in a few days in a non-descript brown envelope, no questions asked. Just the fact that we’re here, on Earth, within earshot, living in Diplomat Lane will be a wonderful reason for them to talk to us. I’m sure that shady deals being made behind closed doors is perfectly normal for a place like this.”
“All we need to do is figure out how they’ll pay us.”
“That’s Nelson’s job. Tomorrow, we’ll have it all set up.”
“How? What’s going on tomorrow?”
“The astro is going to be traded on the global money market. When our money becomes a hard, convertible currency on Earth, every big economic block on the planet can easily buy anything it wants. So all that any bigwig will need to do to make a deal with us is name the right price.”
“And what is unhinging the astro going to do to our economy?”
“The astro is going to shoot sky high on the first day of trading.”
“Well you sound confident.”
“Again, the rich alien race card. A clean, transparent economy, low-tax environment for interstellar business… We’re going to boost our total wealth by at least 30% as the market settles down. It’s a win-win every way you look at it.”
Dot thought about Ace’s word for a bit.
“All right Ace,” she finally said, “I’m impressed. So when do we go out and start mingling?”
“Tomorrow,” replied Ace scratching his chin. “Tonight we relax, recuperate and get mentally prepared. We have a lot of work to do.”
“Yeah right,” scoffed Dot placing her hand on Ace’s thigh. “You just want to stay in tonight because you wanna have a little fun.”
She slowly slid her hand down to Ace’s inseam and stopped with a devilish smirk on her cute face.
“See, I didn’t think you’d mind,” winked Ace.
Behind them with a knock and a quiet cough the chef appeared.
“Sir, ma’am… Your dinner is ready,” he announced.
“Let’s go eat,” said Ace and got up. “I don’t know about you, but I, for one, am dying for some nice, fresh food cooked on Earth. Five months of MREs is way too much.”
Dot joined him and they went into the dining room where a table with fine silverware was set for a three course meal and a fresh roast duck just out of the oven filled the room with a delicious aroma. As they started eating, they informed the nervous chef that he did a great job and that the dinner he made was fit for alien royalty.
“But we’re going to eat it anyway,” joked Ace as the relieved and satisfied chef bowed and left them to enjoy their meal, smiling at the fact that his food was now appreciated on an interstellar level.
Christine and Steve were driven to their suite by Tina, who asked them seemingly endless questions about the Shadow Nation and how they were treated by the cyborgs. The jet black, cube-shaped car with smoothed ages for improved aerodynamics drove itself on spherical wheels that followed the complex patterns of maglev strips embedded in every road on Earth. Most of these car pods could be summoned at will and deliver humans to their destinations. This opulent one was reserved strictly for dignitaries and diplomats, and for an ordinary civilian to trick it, or others like it, into deviating from its routine was a crime that always carried steep fines.
“I’m sorry Councilor Grey couldn’t be here,” apologized Tina as she checked her list of questions. “He had a commitment he couldn’t cancel or postpone.”
“That’s fine, he has things to do,” replied Steve.
“You know,” started Tina, “your adventure is probably going to make you very famous. Defenders of Earth, our watchful eye on the enigmatic alien empire… You’ll be heroes to hundreds of millions.”
“They’re not aliens,” corrected Christine. “Technically, they’re cyborgs so they’re still human. I just had the conversation with Ace as a matter of fact.”
“Very true,” agreed Tina, “but they’re aliens to the public.”
“Someone is going to need to set the record straight then because it’s a very, very big difference,” said Steve.
“Ok… How would you like to set the record straight on a global television network? Would you mind appearing on a news show with a firsthand account of your experience?”
“I don’t see why not,” mused Christine. “Steve, do you think it’s a good idea? Just as long as we don’t go into military secrets or some other sensitive topic I think that Ace and Nelson won’t mind.”
“I don’t know,” frowned Steve. “I don’t want some jackass with something up his sleeve to make us into a freak show. ‘Hey look, the survivors of alien torture! Their story tonight at 8! Dum-dum-dum!’”
“Oh, I can vouch for the anchor on this show,” smiled Tina. “I’m sure that you’ll love her. Very nice lady who’d never make you into some kind of freak show.”
“What about her competition?” asked Steve.
Tina frowned and dropped the act.
“Guys, here’s the thing. This year we have a hyper tense election season. Shit is flying everywhere and we’re trying to show that there isn’t some sinister plot in the Nation. You were there, you fought for our safety, you know what the Nation can do. We don’t want you to act or lie, but since you had such a good experience with the Nation, we just want you to say that it’s all good, the cyborgs are human and all they want is to buy some food and sell us some stuff to make their economy grow. I mean, isn’t that the truth?”
“As far as I know,” confirmed Christine. “But I don’t feel that I can go on global TV and talk about the political side of it. I’m just a soldier and I’m going to be out of my element there.”
“That’s fine, that’s fine, that’s perfectly ok,” said Tina. “Just talk about your experience fighting side by side with the Nation.”
“Well you know,” thought Christine aloud, “we do have enemies in common. The Rexx, the other aliens who were involved there… If the enemy of my enemy is my friend, the Nation are definitely some of the best friends we could have right now.”
“Perfect,” smiled Tina with relief. “But be aware that the whole neo-traditionalist front is blasting their fans as traitors, and them as perversions of the natural order and so on and so forth. Their typical tactics. They’ll try their best to smear you and insult you.”
“Lady, I’ve ripped out an alien’s nut sack,” growled Steve, sick of the conspiratorial tone of the conversation. “I can deal with some assholes who get their jollies off by smearing everything they don’t like.”
Tina looked at Steve with horror. She coughed nervously.
“I wouldn’t tell them about the alien nut sack part,” she said. “It might not go over so well… Kind of a disturbing mental image.”
The car approached one of the residential towers in Diplomat Lane and parked in front of a heavy and very imposing gate, sliding sideways on its rotating wheels.
“Well here we are,” announced Tina with a fake smile. “Let me give you the grand tour and your money cards. Just like everybody in the Nation’s fleet, you’ll have a pretty much unlimited account paid for by the Council. Just part of your promotion. We’ll talk about everything else when you relax, get some sleep and feel ready.”
Meanwhile, in another dark, sleek car, Nelson was being driven to a nearby mansion with Councilor Newman who glared at him with obvious distaste. Nelson looked back at Newman with a cold, sadistic smirk. He knew that the man sitting across from him hated him. He could sense it in the cold, sullen way Newman greeted him at the spaceport. But it didn’t matter, thought Nelson. The narrative is already in place here. An ally from the stars who personally got his hands dirty helping to keep Earth safe, roughly speaking with a little stretch of the facts, against a career politician who’s sacred of spacecraft he hasn’t personally seen before.
His taunting smirk, piercing gaze, and relaxed, confident demeanor irked Newman. With an almost imperceptible scowl, Newman turned to a window, losing this stare down. Nelson quietly chuckled and turned his sights to the city that flew by the car.
Dominated by rough, jagged skyscrapers and high rises, many of them clearly built or updated by the Nation’s technology, this hyper-city stretched in all directions until in the far distance it slammed into the mountains and an ocean of crystal clear blue water. On the shoreline, a massive port in which giant cargo ships were loaded and unloaded, sprawled for miles. Connected to it was a giant spaceport with long magnetic runways for small hypersonic planes stretching almost a mile into the ocean. Sparse patches of vegetation appeared in this maze of concrete, carbon and plastic, planted in neat rows or gathered in small parks. It may have been December on the calendar, but this city was in the tropics, its weather always warm and its flora always lush.
Nelson wondered what it would look like after the Nation’s work on this planet was done. Earth was humanity’s cradle, and it would only be fitting that it continues to play an important role in the future.