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Author: James L. Cambias
Publisher: Tor, 2015

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Military SF
Hard SF
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In the early 2020s, two young, genius computer hackers, Elizabeth Santiago and David Schwartz, meet at MIT, where Schwartz is sneaking into classes, and have a brief affair. David is amoral and out for himself, and soon disappears. Elizabeth dreams of technology and space travel and takes a military job after graduating.

Nearly ten years later, David is setting himself to become a billionaire by working in the shadows under a multiplicity of names for international thieves, and Elizabeth works in intelligence preventing international space piracy. With robotic mining in space becoming a lucrative part of Earth's economy, shipments from space are dropped down the gravity well into the oceans.

David and Elizabeth fight for dominance of the computer systems controlling ore drop placement in international waters. If David can nudge a shipment 500 miles off its target, his employers can get there first and claim it legally in the open sea. Each one intuits that the other is their real competition but can't prove it. And when Elizabeth loses a major shipment, she leaves government employ to work for a private space company to find a better way to protect shipments. But international piracy has very high stakes and some very evil players. And both Elizabeth and David end up in a world of trouble.




JUNE 6, 2030; 05:20 GMT

Captain Black the Space Pirate sat on a king-sized hotel bed in Thailand and watched for his next prize. The name on his real passport was David Schwartz, but it was Captain Black the Space Pirate who had five fan sites on the Web and at least as many highly secure law enforcement sites devoted to tracking him. He was the absolute gold-anodized titanium pinnacle of the techno-badass pyramid. He was twenty-eight years old.

On his laptop screen he saw a tiny bright dot rising above Mare Smythii on the Moon: a booster carrying four tons of helium-3. A treasure ship worth two billion Swiss francs on the spot market. It was a Westinghouse cargo from the Japanese–Indian–American base at Babcock Crater, on course for the Palmyra Atoll drop zone. "Ship ho, me hearties!" David whooped.

His pirate ship lurked at the L1 libration point, balanced between Earth and Moon. Officially, it was a "Lunar resource satellite," which was true in its own way, and the owner of record was a perfectly legal company incorporated in Eritrea. David uplinked to it through a commercial antenna farm in Northern Australia and set up a burn that would match speeds with the helium payload just after it finished climbing up from the Moon and began falling toward the Earth.

Having done that, Captain Black the Space Pirate went out for lunch. He was currently commanding his pirate sloop from the Shangri-La Hotel in Bangkok. It had good network connections, a nice restaurant, and an abundant supply of Western women looking for a little adventure on vacation. David ate grilled squid with his pad open on the tabletop, reading updates on the progress of his pirate ship. He had an iced coffee with condensed milk and introduced himself to a pair of leggy tanned women from Australia, but didn't get a phone number from either of them.

Thirteen hours later, the helium treasure ship had climbed to within fifty kilometers of his pirate satellite, and Captain Black was in full battle gear. He sat propped up in bed on pillows in his hotel room, wearing only shorts, a pair of VR goggles, and a pair of white gloves so his computer could see his hand gestures clearly. The system was running a really cool interface that used images from his favorite pirate shooter game. The helium payload was represented by a galleon flying the Westinghouse flag, and he was on the deck of a pirate sloop with guns, loyal crew, and a big spoked ship's wheel--all available at the touch of a gloved hand. He had told his backers the setup was essential for fast reactions in a crisis, but in fact, he mostly used it to play games.

"Testing, testing," he said over the voice mike. "You there, Barnacle Bill?"

"That got tiresome a long time ago," said Bill Benedict's voice in David's earpiece. Benedict wasn't his real last name, either. Bill was Captain Black's copilot, working from an "undisclosed location," which David had pinpointed shortly after they first teamed up.

David didn't really need a copilot, but Benedict was his connection to the people backing this venture. On his first two pirate exploits, David had been hired help, working for a flat fee that was generous but not spectacular. This time, he'd leveraged his reputation into a share of the profits. When this voyage was done, his scattered bank accounts would have enough zeros to keep David living in first-class hotel rooms for the next three or four decades.

"Ahoy!" said David. "Crowd on the canvas!"

The helium payload was practically crawling now, at the top of its long climb up from the Moon, just before going over the hump and falling to Earth. Its velocity was a miserable two meters per second, about as fast as a car in a traffic jam. His own vehicle could go from zero to sixty in twenty seconds. He used up half the sat's remaining fuel to match velocities with the helium payload.

"Barnacle Bill? Better call up the lawyers and liquidate." This was the same as running up the Jolly Roger. Until that moment, if the Americans, the Japanese, or the Indians tried to intercept his pirate vehicle, the maneuver would be a hostile act against a sovereign nation in international space. There was a sizable bloc of countries in the UN that would happily condemn that sort of behavior.

By liquidating the shell company, he was revealing himself as a Rogue Entity. Fair game. His deniable black-ops government patrons would be shocked, shocked to learn of this criminal activity. Anyone investigating the newly defunct Rogue Entity company would find that it owned nothing but a post office box in Djibouti and an empty bank account.

David turned the ship's wheel a notch to close with the target, and one of the animated pirates filling his vision said, "Burn complete, Cap'n."

"Um, Captain Black? There's something--," Bill began over the phone link, just as another animated figure on David's imaginary pirate ship called down from the masthead. "Sail ho! A man-o'-war coming up astern!"

* * *

Captain Elizabeth Santiago lived off-base in Fountain and bicycled to work every morning except when it was snowy. A good tough ride up the mountain in the early morning air made up for a lot of hours spent in the Pit, living on commissary pizza and Coke.

But although it was an absolutely perfect spring day, Elizabeth barely noticed. She left her apartment an hour early, nearly beat her record time getting up the mountain, and waved her ID at the gate guard as she shot through the checkpoint. Today was the day. MARIO was going to war.

Down in the bowels of Cheyenne Mountain, she changed into her duty uniform and got an extra-large double-strength latte before heading for the Pit. The Air Force had reactivated the place and spent millions refurbishing and cleaning the old Cold War bunker, but the air always felt clammy and mildewy. A hot drink helped.

The Space Control Center was a lot more crowded than usual. Elizabeth wasn't the only Gold team member to show up early, none of the White team wanted to leave, and there were even some of the Blue shift hanging around. She glanced up at the big board. There was MARIO, a bright blue circle moving along its orbit plot. Two hours until the stabilizing burn to park it at L1. Then things would get interesting.

Elizabeth conferred with her White counterpart, Richard Lee. "Status?"

"Everything's go so far. Power's good and we did the yaw maneuver at 0300."


"The Eritrean one is still on course to intercept Westinghouse 32, and the Singaporean one just did a station-keeping burn. The rest are just sitting there, acting innocent."

"Do you think they're all pirate sats?" Elizabeth looked over at the smaller display showing the half dozen or so vehicles at L1.

"We know the French one isn't, and the Brazilian one probably isn't. But the others--who knows? Another one launched today."


"Yep. Called 'Lunar science observer.' A real Model UN--sea launch off Venezuela, Chinese booster, payload's flagged Liberian--"

"Always a good sign."

"And the ownership's Laotian."

"Because Laos has so many big space investors. Jesus. Why don't they just say it's a helium pirate sat?"

"Then we'd have to quit calling MARIO a 'resupply and inspection orbiter.'"

"Fine with me. I always preferred 'space superiority fighter' myself." She showed her teeth as she smiled.

A chime rang to announce the 0800 shift change. Whites gave way to Golds, and Elizabeth slipped into the command chair. It was going to be a busy day.

For the rest of the morning, the Gold team busied itself getting MARIO parked and stable at the L1 point. Their bird was an aluminum box very much like a two-drawer filing cabinet with long photovoltaic wings stretching out on either side. Its ion motor could take it almost anywhere within the Earth–Moon system, so long as you weren't in a hurry.

The MARIO series' ostensible purpose was entirely benign--inspection and resupply of other satellites. Elizabeth's bird, MARIO 5, was a bit more aggressive. In the bay where previous MARIO orbiters had carried new components or fuel supplies to their satellite customers, MARIO 5 carried a weapon.

It was a curious sort of weapon, though. The VIGIL CORE Electromagnetic Interrogation system literally couldn't harm a fly, unless you felt like using a billion-dollar piece of electronics as a swatter. It was nothing but a very fast and sensitive wireless data handler, capable of reaching past most emission shielding to let a skilled operator read and manipulate a satellite's computer memory. A rather staggering sum had gone into developing it so that the Air Force could separate the law-abiding payloads from the pirates lurking among them, and trace the buccaneers to their lairs on Earth.

* * *

David eyed the newcomer through the crappy little camera aboard his pirate ship. He knew what it was, of course. He'd been reading about MARIO 5 and VIGIL CORE on Jane's Defence Weekly for nearly a year, and had even watched the launch live via webcam.

United States Orbital Command had decided to get tough, and lined up diplomatic cover and poll numbers to support the mission. Washington wanted to boost its revived "global cop" credibility going into the 2030 midterm elections, and remind pals like India just who was the senior partner in the alliance. Cracking down on space piracy was popular at home and abroad, and best of all, there'd be no wailing Third World village women or flag-draped coffins in the news feeds.

The billion-dollar question right now was, would ORBITCOM actually make a move? Or were the blue-suit boys hoping that just parking their orbiter at L1 would be enough of a deterrent? Captain Black the Space Pirate wasn't going to give up his prey. If the Air Force wanted to fight him for it, he'd give them a real battle.

His satellite picked up a tight-beam transmission from Goldstone, and a yellowed parchment unrolled in front of him, warning him of "potentially unsafe proximity." A shot across his bow. But they didn't have any cannonballs.

"I've got tracking data from our partners," said Bill. "Forwarding it to you." A second scroll appeared. It matched what the pirate ship's own radar was telling him. One kilometer to the helium payload. When he looked through his spyglass, he could see it now--a fat gumdrop-shaped reentry vehicle with a little booster and guidance package stuck to the round end. The treasure ship was maneuvering, trying to get away. But it just didn't have the fuel for major velocity changes after struggling up from the surface of the Moon. It was wallowing and heavy-laden while his pirate sloop was fast and deadly, with a half a kilometer per second still in the tank.

David checked the status of all his weapons and systems, each represented by a different pirate icon. When he finished, his satellite was moving toward its target again. ORBITCOM had given up on proximity warnings.

"MARIO's making a move," said Bill. Another screen opened in David's field of view, with tracking data. The Air Force bird was closing the distance, vectoring toward his own pirate ship rather than the payload.

"Arr, Barnacle Bill!" crowed Captain Black the Space Pirate. "Battle stations!"

* * *

By noon MARIO was nearing its first target, the mysterious Eritrean bird whose owners had liquidated just a few hours ago. It was getting dangerously close to Westinghouse 32, ignoring all warnings.

"Two hundred meters and holding," said Lieutenant Cameron from the Flight console.

"Right. Keep it there. Arm, I want a visual inspection, please."

The camera on MARIO 5's manipulator arm came live, giving them a look at the suspect satellite. It was a simple aluminum can with a thruster nozzle at one end, a manipulator and a big clamp at the other, an antenna sticking out of one side, and some surface photovoltaics. Elizabeth could barely make out some logos on an exposed patch of the vehicle's skin.

"Zoom in on those, please, and let's get a record."

The camera could resolve the logo of the former owners of record, the remarkably generic Space Satellite Company. Four flags, which (with the help of Wikipedia) Captain Lee identified as Latveria, Grand Fenwick, the Klingon Empire, and (of course) the Jolly Roger. Next to the flags was a mission-patch logo of a square-rigged ship steered by a grinning peg-legged cartoon character. There was something written underneath it in grease pencil.

Elizabeth enlarged the image of the words on her screen until it was like a mosaic, filtering over and over to squeeze more resolution from the camera. The hair was standing up on the backs of her arms. "What does that look like to you?" she asked Lee.

He leaned over her shoulder and peered at the screen. "SS... Scabby Whore? Cute."

Captain Santiago didn't say anything.

JUNE 7, 2030; 02:15 GMT

Two hundred meters now. The helium carrier gave one last futile spurt of its motor; then the Westinghouse ground team decided to separate, maybe hoping to confuse him. The payload module began drifting away from the booster, just beginning the long fall to Earth.

Idiots. Now they had no way at all to evade capture. They needed their maneuvering thrusters to hit the drop zone. David reached for an Altoids tin sitting on the bedside table, took out a drug patch colored bright magenta, and slapped it to the side of his neck. In just seconds, he could feel his heart rate accelerating, and the image in his goggles suddenly looked slow and grainy.

He began tapping keys, setting up a burn to grapple the payload. "Prepare to board!"

"Air Force bird is closing," said Barnacle Bill.

On the horizon, David could see another sail approaching--a fast frigate flying the winged star emblem of the Air Force from the masthead. Its guns puffed smoke as invisible electronic fingers reached out to probe his pirate satellite. Instead of capturing the Westinghouse payload, he was in danger of losing control of his own vehicle.

"They're using electronic interrogation," said Bill. "I just got a message from Ashgabat--they want to abort."

"Strike my colors?" David yelled aloud. "Belay that! I have not yet begun to fight!" He typed a command and one of the animated pirates threw a sputtering round bomb at the Air Force frigate.

* * *

"VIGIL CORE on line," said Sobieski. "Reading target's memory--Hey!" He looked with dismay as the screen in front of him changed from orderly lines of text to a mass of gibberish.

"Tell me what's happening," said Elizabeth, clicking frantically between screen windows as she tried to figure it out for herself.

"Bastard set off some kind of high-intensity pulse. Overloaded the detectors. VIGIL CORE is off-line for the moment."

"Okay, wise guy," said Elizabeth. "Two can play at that game. Legal: I'm calling that an attack on a United States spacecraft. We're responding with appropriate means under the provisions of the 2024 Space Treaty." She looked up at the board. "Flight, we need a close rendezvous with that vehicle. Zero meters. Arm, be ready for a resisted capture." She beckoned Lee to bend close again. "Tell Command that unless I receive orders to the contrary, I'm going to catch that bird."

Two o'clock came, and early arriving Blue controllers pulled up spare chairs next to Gold ones. A few switched seats, when the Blue operator was more experienced than the Gold. John Adamski, the Blue director, took a folding chair next to Elizabeth, feeding her reports from Air Force Intelligence and NRO. Lee was still on duty, acting as her link to Command and the legal people. The back of the room had filled up with a lot of oak leaves and eagles. Even a star or two.

"Bogey has docked with Westinghouse 32," said Flight.

"Visual confirmation, hard dock," said Lieutenant Kraus at the arm control.

If the pirate followed the same script they'd used on a dozen previous payload hijackings, the bogey would start boosting soon, pointing the stolen payload at a new drop zone.

"Sobieski, I need VIGIL CORE on line again now."

* * *

David was in his element, multitasking smoothly, coding and calculating orbital dynamics on the fly. His manipulator arm was plugged into the payload's guidance antenna bus, and his goggles displayed a furious sword fight on deck as his hand-coded decryption software battled the data security on the helium payload. Somewhere far away, his body sat on a bed, but David himself was at the L1 point, having the time of his life.

The Air Force bird was now just fifty meters away, demanding his surrender. "Captain Black, we've got to abort now," Barnacle Bill repeated.

"Wait for it, wait for it...," David muttered. His pirate probe separated from the payload and backed off with a blast from the steering jets. He typed a message to send en clair. DONT SHOOT IM COMING OUT.

"Are you insane?"

"Shut up and let me work, Bill." David was controlling two spacecraft now. He backed the pirate probe away from the payload, keeping it slow and steady as a streetcar on rails. Meanwhile he was taking control of the helium module, rapidly overwriting its command codes and guidance with his own versions. It helped that he'd politely emailed an engineer at Westinghouse six months earlier, using his old MIT address. The earnest student's questions had been complicated, so the helpful engineer had sent him copies of some of the technical documents. So much of high-tech piracy depended on being able to lie convincingly.

The galleon's deck was red with blood, and her flag fluttered down. Down in Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania, some Westinghouse engineers were probably staring in horror as their billion-franc payload stopped doing what they told it to.

"Okay, Bill, I'm putting the payload on course for the drop zone."

"We've got a problem. They want you to move the zone." A map unfurled with the new drop zone in red.

"WTF?" David said aloud, but he did the math. Two hundred kilometers north. "Okay. I can do that."

He used the last of his propellant to aim the payload at its new destination. When that was done, he told it to shut off its antennas and ignore all new instructions. That would stop the ground controllers but not the Air Force bird's fancy wireless unit. He had something else in store for that.

His orders left the payload on course until just before reentry. Then it would take a dive, falling short into the Celebes Sea. Real pirate waters, and real pirates with boats and guns would recover the cargo. The helium-3 would find its way to market through several layers of cutouts and shell companies. The whole scheme rested on the simple fact that helium atoms don't have serial numbers.

"And now for those meddling kids."

* * *

"Five meters," said Flight. Elizabeth couldn't tell if it was Adams or Thibodaux. "Four, three."

"Arm?" she said, maybe a little more nervously than usual.

Lieutenant Kraus didn't answer. Her eyes were locked on the screen showing the fuzzy black-and-white image from the arm camera, and her hands held the two control joysticks in a precise fingertip grip. "Come on come on come on come on come on--Yes!" She pumped both fists into the air. "Hard capture!"

Elizabeth grinned at that and made a note to send Kraus something nice when the mission was done. Maybe some flowers or a box of chocolate truffles. "Flight, vector us away from that payload before--"

She never finished, because the camera image suddenly flared bright white and then went dark. The master alarm sounded and red lights appeared on half a dozen consoles around the room. Her own screens showed sudden catastrophic failures in backup power, gyros, radar, and cooling.

"You bastard!" she yelled aloud. Everyone knew whom she was talking to. Captain Black's pirate probe had just blown itself up. "Okay, status, everyone. What have we got?"

"Ion thruster looks good, photovoltaics are at... fifty percent, we've still got telemetry, VIGIL CORE's good, fuel pressure's steady. What we don't have is any sensor or attitude control."

"Fuck," said Elizabeth. With no way to steer, MARIO 5 was following the helium payload's intended course, heading for a rendezvous with the Pacific Ocean. A billion dollars down the drain.

"Tracking, what's the helium cargo's trajectory?"

"No change yet."

Elizabeth let out a breath. Maybe they'd saved it. It was expensive to trade Air Force vehicles one-to-one for pirates, but if the helium got through to the hungry fusion power plants on Earth, it was worth it.

* * *

David pulled off his goggles and whooped. "Captain Black is the awesomest!" he shouted.

"Abort confirmed," said Barnacle Bill. "Looks like the Air Force bird is a mess."

"Nobody fucks with Captain Black! Tell the suits the helium's going to drop right where they want it. And now I'm going to log off, get drunk, and get laid. Arr!"

David called room service for a pitcher of Bloody Marys and a masseuse. Maybe later he'd see if those two Australian girls were still around. While he waited, he did a little calculating. Once the money laundering was done, his share of the loot would be about ten million Swiss. He could invest it and enjoy a six-figure income indefinitely. Or he could just spend it--even pissing away a quarter-mil a year, he'd be old enough to collect a pension by the time it was gone. He had beaten the Air Force in single combat. Life was good for Captain Black the Space Pirate.

* * *

Sixty hours later, the helium payload diverted to a drop zone off Mindanao. By the time the Philippine Navy got there, the pirates and the helium were long gone. MARIO burned up over Timor about the same time. When Elizabeth got the news, she knew what would happen next.

General McEwan called her in for a private meeting two days after that. His office was aboveground, with a view of Colorado Springs down the mountainside. The sunlight streaming in was extremely yellow and bright after three days in the Pit.

McEwan was wearing camo, which was neutral for him. Golf clothes were a good sign. A blue suit would be very very bad. He did not offer coffee.

He read from a prepared statement written on a legal pad. Bad. "Captain Santiago, your performance as mission director on the MARIO project has been entirely satisfactory, and my reports will emphasize that. Our vehicle was destroyed by enemy action, not through any fault of yours or any other Orbital Command personnel."

But..., thought Elizabeth.

"But I think it would be a good idea to shift you to other duties. The stress of the past few days has been hard on everyone here, you most of all. You need a break."

"I'd like to remain part of the MARIO team. You could put me back at Flight, or Systems."

McEwan looked up and his tone sharpened a bit. "You know perfectly well that wouldn't be a good idea. You'd be breathing down the mission director's neck."

She didn't argue. McEwan was right. But... she wanted another shot at Captain Black the Space Pirate. She wanted revenge!

"Will I be part of the antipiracy initiative?"

The general looked a little uncomfortable. "No. Captain--Liz--you're a good officer, but you're too much of a fighter. This whole project is ultimately a law enforcement mission. We want evidence leading to prosecutions, not shoot-outs in space."

"But I know who Captain Black is. His name's David Schwartz. I passed that on to FBI--"

"And they can't find anything about this person. He's got no paper trail at all after elementary school."

"That proves it's him! If he were innocent, he wouldn't have zeroed himself so completely." Even as she said it, she knew how crazy it sounded.

McEwan waited for a couple of agonizing seconds before continuing. "As I said, that's for law enforcement to handle. Not your concern anymore. Now, here's the deal: There's a group down in Titusville working on a propulsion system that could have some good applications. They need a mission control director, and since we're putting up half their money, I want an Air Force officer in the seat. Do a good job there, and you can probably come back in a year or two."


"I don't lie to people, Captain. Think of this as a résumé-building opportunity. Spend a little time in Siberia, and you can come back fully rehabilitated, ready to wave at the tanks on May Day."

She took a deep breath. "Yes, sir," she said.

He extended a hand across his desk. "It's been a pleasure serving with you, Captain."

Somehow she made it home to her apartment without getting run over. She ate something, showered, and got into bed. It was just past sunset, and she couldn't sleep. After fifteen minutes of staring at the ceiling she got up, mixed herself a mojito and wandered out onto the balcony in her sweatpants. It was a clear evening, and the stars of the Summer Triangle were peeking through the purple sky in the east.

"Damn you, Captain Black!" she yelled into the twilight. "This isn't over yet! From hell's heart, I stab at thee!"

A family having a cookout by the pool stared up at her. She finished her mojito and went back to bed.

* * *

Anne Rogers pulled over to the side of the highway. Around her, Oklahoma farmland stretched to the horizon, interrupted here and there by a donkey rig pumping oil. She looked in the rearview mirror.

A hundred yards behind her, a pale turquoise boat sat on a trailer, just inside the corner of a fenced pasture. Anne backed up slowly until she was right next to the boat. It was a nice-looking boat--not that she knew much about boats.

The sheet of plywood attached to the fence in front of the boat had 4 SALE BEST OFR scrawled on it in spray paint. Below that, a phone number in reflective stick-on digits from the hardware store.

Anne looked at the big manila envelope on the passenger seat. It was stuffed with papers, but the top one was a bank check for a quarter of a million dollars.

Scott William Rogers worked hard. He spent ten-hour days broiling himself in the summer sun, installing roofs. He built new houses and fixed up old ones. He spent his vacation time and weekends picking up properties at tax auctions, bringing them up to code, and selling them. When tornadoes came roaring down Cyclone Alley, he worked sixteen-hour days repairing damage.

When his wife left him, Scott dutifully paid his alimony and child support, and let her keep the home he had built for her. After that, he lived in whatever house he was fixing up at the time.

About half of Anne's childhood memories involved the smell of sawdust and fresh paint, and sleeping in a sleeping bag on the floor of empty, echoing rooms in houses her father was working on. But one weekend when she was twelve, her father took Anne and her sister to an enormous boat show at the convention center in Fort Worth.

"Are you buying a boat, Daddy?" she asked him, trying not to be bored.

"Well, Annie, I been thinking about it. I got some money saved, and I figure when you and Sarah finish college, I might just retire. Sailing around on a boat sounds nice, don't it?"

"Where would you sail to?"

"Oh, I don't know. Around the world, maybe."

Anne was halfway through her second year at Oklahoma State when her father died of a stroke at the age of forty-eight.

Parked beside the highway, she took out her phone and called the number on the sign. "I want to buy your boat," she said.

* * *

In a windowless room in a city on the edge of the Eurasian steppe, six men sat around a table drinking tea and smoking cigarettes. A seventh man stood by the door with an automatic rifle to make sure they were not interrupted.

"We are in danger of becoming irrelevant," said the oldest, a scholarly looking man who had spent his younger days teaching eager volunteers how to build bombs. "Oil is no longer the world's lifeblood. Which means the great powers no longer care to involve themselves in our affairs. No secret arms shipments, no bags of cash, no leverage."

"The Indians care," said a younger man. "They've got ships from Africa to Singapore now, and their drones and planes go as far as Russia."

"I'd love to know what idiot planned the Delhi operation," said a third man. "It did nothing but give the Hindus a justification for doing whatever they please."

"Never mind about that," said the oldest man. "What is done cannot be changed. We must look to the future."

"The future looks bad," said the youngest and fattest of them. "Our people are getting old. The birth rate keeps dropping, and the cleverest go off to Mumbai or Texas. Our economy has been stagnant for half a century now. It's not just Christians and Japanese--even Africans are getting richer than we are!"

"I see the rot spreading," said the fifth man. "The parliament is a lost cause. Every election brings more secularists, more 'reformers.' They will demand constitutional changes soon. I'm not sure we can count on the Army, either. They might side with the politicians."

"It is time for a bold stroke," said the last man. "Time to show the world we cannot be ignored."

"You have a suggestion?" asked the oldest.

"I do. The Americans and Indians think they can turn their attention away from us by mining the Moon. The United Nations lets them do it. The Russians are too busy selling rockets and fusion reactors to complain. China is falling apart."

"What do you propose?"

"I want to show them we can strike anywhere, even beyond the sky. I want to hit their lifeline in outer space. We can disrupt the supply of helium-3, frighten the great powers into concessions, and inspire a new generation of fighters."

"They can strike back," said the third man. "Who would object?"

"They cannot strike back if they don't know which enemy to hit. We won't send a rocket plastered with flags."

"How, then?"

"Pirates. The perfect deniable asset. The corsairs of the Maghreb once claimed tribute from every kingdom in Europe. We can do that again."

The argument lasted another hour, but in the end, the six men agreed.

Copyright © 2015 by James L. Cambias





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