Chapter Three

"The Nuclear Attack: Day Two. Beijing denies responsibility; its Emperor is in seclusion."

"As Norway licks its wounds, its citizens are wondering why... and getting no answers."

"In Lourdes, the French government reconvenes, and calls for war."

"And in Washington, D.C., confusion: The President's veto."

"This is CNN Nightly, with Anne Elkins."

"Good evening."

President Marquez watched the newscast dispassionately. Elkins got more of it right than he expected. Congress was in session, and the minority party was raising holy hell. Marquez took the unusual step of sending his Vice to the Senate to actually preside. Larry called him back during a break and told him it wasn't going well. Even the majority leader felt the pressure, but there weren't yet enough votes to break the filibuster Marquez had requested. The House was much further along than the Senate, though...

But Elkins missed something. "How's our eye in the sky?" Marquez asked.

Richie laughed. "More like an island, now. They had an unplanned shutdown at the same time everybody else did. Well, everybody not running on hydro power, anyway. Portland is still in the running for the Super Bowl..."

Marquez didn't laugh with him. "Get up there, Philemon. Check up on our people. I don't want a close encounter of the fourth kind."

Six hours later...

Colonel Hitler (no relation to the World War II dictator) strode into the room, flanked by several men of his regiment. He was an Air Force senior officer, but not one in line to get his star. His career was over, and he had accepted that. The room was filled with FBI agents. The mission was itself unusual; FBI agents usually didn't need armed escort.

They usually didn't work in foreign territory, or near a battle front, either.

He waited for the Special Agent in Charge for Honolulu to finish giving the FBI brief. He'd met with SAC Michaels earlier. Then Michaels introduced him.

He strode up to the podium, dispensing with the usual flair of getting their attention. In his full camouflage uniform, he already had it.

"Gentlemen, the President of the United States has ordered us to go with you. The Chinese government welcomes our assistance, and after a stop at Kadena Air Force Base, we'll be flying into Chinese airspace, directly to the alleged launch base."

"As you know, we're going into a hot combat zone. Let me repeat that: a hot combat zone. The alleged base is near the Russian-Chinese border, and is considered a valid objective for the Russians. My men are detailed specifically to protect you and the alleged base from any sort of contamination. This is so you boys can do your job."

Hitler sighed. "I've commanded a military police squadron before. I know how important it is to keep a crime scene intact. But if the Russians come after us, I don't see how I'm going to keep a Russian bullet out of the crime scene. Or a thousand bullets. Or an aerial bomb." He noted with satisfaction a few eyeballs opening up. "You heard me right. Despite what the media says about our military, we're not invincible. Things can get out of hand very quickly. Anyone wants out, I'll see to it it doesn't mark your government records."

A couple FBI agents nervously raised their hands. Hitler smiled. "Gentlemen, you probably have more brains than the rest of us." He came forward and shook their hands, and waved them to the door.

"All right, listen up! For the duration of this mission, every one of you will be in camouflage gear and armed. If we give the order to evacuate, you may have no more than two minutes to beat it to the airstrip. I mean two minutes, not three, not two and a half, two. Four hours after our arrival at the alleged base, we'll have a meeting with all of you to update you on our evacuation plan. We've seen charts of the facility, but those charts are from intelligence, not the Chinese government. That means they may be unreliable, and we have to secure and identify every possible threat to you outside the buildings. Going into the buildings, you'll be relying on your own FBI training. The Chinese have assured us we are welcome, that none of them will interfere in our operations. We will have a Chinese major acting as liaison and translator between us and them. If you get anything less than full cooperation from anyone there, let me know immediately. At the first sign of trouble, we're gone and the olive branch we've extended will be cut off. Is that clear?"

"Our job is to keep the Russians and anyone else who gets a bit hotheaded off your backs. That includes the Chinese nationals. We're not at war with China, but if we screw this up, we may very well be. And they still have the largest land army in the world. Do not screw this up."

"Your job is to the truth. If the Chinese are responsible, the President wants proof. Proof you could take to a jury and get a conviction on. If the Chinese are not responsible, the President wants proof of that too. Unlike the rest of the world, the President believes in law and order, in trying the right persons."

"Finally, we don't have a lot of time to get that truth. Congress is debating a declaration of war. If that comes -- and make no mistake, gentlemen, it probably will -- we will evacuate immediately. We will not fire on the Chinese defending that location unless we are fired upon by the Chinese. Collect all the evidence you can, and ship it out. Kadena will run flights out of the base every two hours, weather and combat permitting. Our priority is to get that evidence, certify it as uncontaminated, and move it. Here in Honolulu, the lab will do the detective work. So no heroics, understood? Heroes get left behind, and heroes die."

"The flight leaves at 1200 hours. Join us at the mess hall at 1100: you'll enjoy Air Force hospitality. It'll probably be the best food you'll get for a while. Good day, gentlemen."

Leaving the room, Hitler smiled. He'd bring a crew from Kadena's support squadrons with them: the FBI boys wouldn't be too uncomfortable. He only wished he could bring his own MP's with him -- but that was against the rules of engagement. ROE, indeed! The Pentagon used military terms even for semi-military situations, and it gnawed at him.

His sister, Linda, was an aide to a U.S. Senator. The Senator in question was a junior one, in his third year in the Senate. Linda e-mailed him, letting him know a "distinguished gentleman from Utah" in the minority party was filibustering the declaration of war. He and a few others in the Senate would buy them time.

But in the end, that's exactly what it would be: buying time. In the same e-mail, Linda told him the rumblings on the hill pointed towards a war. Pointed very loudly. They might be heading back to Kadena before they ever set foot on Chinese soil.

Hell, it doesn't even matter, Hitler thought. The Chinese did this anyway. All we're doing is twiddling our thumbs and giving our boys a chance to mobilize. What a stupid idea. NORAD had ordered DEFCON THREE, and with Congress bearing down on the Commander-in-Chief, they might not have long to wait before DEFCON TWO: war imminent.

Or DEFCON ONE. Christ.

He realized belatedly that DEFCON ONE, with the Chinese or with the Russians, might actually mean Christ for him. On arrival at Kadena, he tracked down the base chaplain.

"That's odd," Barb muttered. But the code was right there -- and it didn't have the drill countersign attached. "Oh, hell." It was an American-flagged code, indicating a launch from Canaveral to Luna on final -- and fast -- approach. With a little extra gee-force for good measure. They'd be aboard in a matter of minutes. Now she knew why they'd been so quiet.

Twenty-six years ago an asteroid came on close approach to Earth -- too close. Its course took it near the Earth and her moon, Luna -- and literally no one knew what would happen. It was right down the gravitational centerline between the two masses -- it could have fallen into Earth orbit or Lunar orbit, or chaos could've taken over and sent it on a slow downward spiral to crash into either body. Hit the moon, and you'd have debris floating into low Earth orbit, maybe a "nuclear winter" effect. Hit the Earth, and...

Earth decided it didn't want to take a chance. They guessed at the mass of the asteroid, manipulated a little gravity (microfusion had wonders no end, they'd discovered) and nudged the asteroid a wee bit to the right. Or left. Or up, or down, or whichever way you happened to look at it. They knocked it off course, a couple hundred meters. Just enough to be sure by the orbital track and the computer that it would safely orbit in a figure-eight pattern between both bodies.

Chaos mathematics to the rescue. Cory, Scribe, wrote home about the incident -- she seriously doubted the Arion Empire could've done that. They'd've blown it up out of spite, and let the pieces of rock land wherever they'd land. Terran technology wins again. But no one on Earth was supposed to know about that... not officially. So Earth acquired a new moon, Hercules. And pretty quickly, the Americans put people on it. It was that little boost Earth needed. They were finally talking about lunar missions again. And Barb... Barb was in charge!

Cory was even more excited about that. Barb and Cory were friends in the station's hair salon, and even Scribes wanted to schmooze with a high official now and then -- especially a woman. Men never gave her that level of gossip... or got it. They'd been friends since Grandpa died some thirty years ago.

Yep, good old Grandpa Peters, FBI gee-man in charge. Cory never did like him, Barb knew. But his son was a sight for Cory (and hundreds of girls from high school to mid-forties) to behold. Barb teased Cory more than once about having something to do with her own birth. Cory, ever the lady, only smiled and winked. Now Barb looked a lot older than Cory, and the jokes aged as gracefully. Cory had even taken a few stories Barb had written about Miri and Carrie and Junior and...

Barb's face fell. Miri. Barb had her connections, the same ones Cory had in case of disaster. So far, the only survivors to check in were Carrie and Junior.

It didn't take a microfusion engineer -- or even a rocket scientist -- to see the connection between the cities and the Vels. But why weren't Carrie and Junior caught too? And were Miri and the others all right?

And how the hell had it shut down the m-f things? Even Barb called the reactors that on occasion, an old joke that was no longer funny. Barb sweated that one cold. Losing one microfusion reactor on the station was bad, but easily manageable. Losing both of them simultaneously... it took what little reserve power they had left to re-establish the magfield. When Reactor Two fired up, they cheered. One came on with the seed power from Two. But another three minutes and they wouldn't have had the power. Three minutes longer and they would have frozen to death on Hercules.

American intel knew she knew the Velorians, and she knew Intel knew. They'd let it slide so far, raising an eyebrow and then filing it in a drawer somewhere. With the bombings, that drawer could easily be opened and braced open. Heads could be rolling now, hers included. Dammit, she liked her job, and this wasn't her fault!

The shuttle docked. A small puff of air from the shuttle filled the airlock. Station air was rare enough, while the shuttle could import it from Earth. So on docking, the station provided the lock, and the shuttle provided the air. She waited in the control room and watched the camera feeds. Her eyes bulged when she saw who came out.

A three-star Navy admiral and entourage. Including an entire platoon of Marines! What the hell was going on here?? Not just any admiral, she realized: Vice Admiral Philemon! Her boss's boss. Oh, shit.

"Mr. President? The President of France is on the hot line."

Marquez grumped. That could mean only one thing. Wearily, he said, "I'll take it." Cognizant of the time zones, he greeted his counterpart. "Good evening, President Riboche. What can I do for you today?"

"Monsieur President, you can assist me by fulfilling the terms of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The Chinese have attacked us, and we request under NATO that you come to our defense."

Marquez began to sweat. "President Riboche, we are aware of the situation. Our Congress is currently debating a resolution for war against China, and although our forces are mobilizing, we will not have a significant defense force available to you for some time."

"Then why will you not support us in the United Nations?!?"

Marquez allowed a little firmness into his tone. "President Riboche, the NATO alliance does not determine votes on the UN Security Council. I have given our ambassador explicit instructions in this matter, and I assure you we will do the right and proper thing."

"Monsieur President! I cannot believe..."

Marquez cut him off. "President Riboche, we are already dispatching emergency rescue support to your country and to others afflicted." He looked up to his FEMA advisor for confirmation; the man nodded. "Beyond that, I must wait for Congress to declare war. At this time, the Chinese have not declared war on you, have they?"

"This is outrageous! How many times have you Americans fought an undeclared war on the orders of the Presidency? How many times, including your own Pearl Harbor and World Trade Center, have you been attacked before a declaration of war was issued? How long must we wait before you will come to your senses?!?"

"President Riboche, " Marquez began soothingly, "I understand you are new to this position, as a result of the tragedy in Paris. Let me say it once more: we need a little time to clear the bureaucratic hurdles to war. The United States is committed to her allies, I assure you. If and when the Congress passes a declaration of war against China, we will act in accordance with that declaration."

The French president muttered an extreme oath and hung up. As Marquez started placing the handset back on the cradle, General Thomason, chief of staff for the Army, remarked, "He's right, you know."

It was way out of line. It was a remark that in Washington D.C. would get the general fired. Thomason had been NATO Supreme Commander before, however, and understood the fragile situation better than even Marquez. Without a United States response in NATO, the consequences could be dire. No one would declare war on the United States, of course, but French-American relations would be permanently damaged. Without NATO, the United Europe nations could decide the Americans were ill-suited to lead the world. A new nationality, a new superpower could arise from that viewpoint. Marquez let the comment pass.

Philemon entered the control room without knocking, much to Barb's annoyance. "What the hell are you doing here, Richie? We've got enough problems without you and the Marines showing up!"

Vice Admiral Richie Philemon was all-smiles, belying the true fears he spoke to her. "We're just watching out for you. Fact is, the world isn't very happy with the US right now, and they're even less happy with China. I'm sure you've been following the news."

Barb nodded unhappily. "You think somebody's going to come knocking?"

Philemon shook his head. "But it's best to be prepared."

"The Marines stay out of the way, all right? Did they bring their own food?" Philemon nodded. "Good. What with the reactor failures, hydroponics lost a little ground. We're all right, but it's going to be tight for a while."

"Have you heard from your friends?"

Barb sighed. "No," she lied. Well, it wasn't a lie if Philemon meant since this "incident" started.

"Well," Philemon said, matching her thoughts, "I know you care for them. But even so, I think this whole crisis may be more than they can handle."

Neither of them had any idea just how right he was.

On Earth, no less than fourteen nations had formally declared war on China. Over a hundred were debating declarations of war.

The President of the United States of America finally dragged himself to bed.