The sun broke over the edge of Earth, bringing with it a slender blue-white sickle of dawn that encroached on the expanse of darkness that was the planet's nightside as seen from low orbit. The Orbital Command-and-Control Station's viewport polarized against the glare.

But, thought Colonel Michael Roark, there was still plenty of light to see despair by. The swarm of spacecraft that had no business being there were in visual range, although their daunting massiveness was reduced to the dimensions of iron filings by the distance, and the sun glinted on them.

He shifted uncomfortably in his pressure suit. They'd all been wearing the things, rather than the usual blue jumpsuits with U.S. Air Force Orbital Command shoulder flashes, for almost twenty-four hours. That was how long it had been since those impossible ships had appeared, effortlessly matching orbits with OCCS, and they'd gone to Red Alert status. Since then the uncharacteristically rigid military routine had been armor for their sanity in the new world of unreality they'd abruptly entered. Still, eyes constantly wandered toward the viewport, and Roark wasn't inclined to reprimand anyone for it.

At least the aliens—Lokaron, they called themselves—hadn't kept them in suspense. They'd responded to the Station's hails at once, with a lengthy message to be transmitted to the U.S. government. Roark had patched them into the satellite net as requested—a process which had given him access to the message. He hadn't shared it with his personnel, for they would be just as able as he was to foresee the governent's response . . . and the likely consequences for themselves.

Roark shifted position, moving with the ease of one long-practiced in the art of walking in zero gravity on a metal deck with magnetic soles. Drugs counteracted the effects of long-term weightlessness on the human skeleton and immune system, but nothing could prevent the loss of muscle tone. I'll be weak as a kitten down there at first, he thought . . . then laughed silently at himself. Unless he was very wrong about his probable future, he didn't need to worry about anything pertaining to his return to Earth.

There was a sound of awkward movement by his side. Sidney Kazin, PhD, wore the same USAF issue as everyone else on the station, but he couldn't conceivably have been mistaken for any kind of military man, even on the Orbital Command's relaxed standards. He lacked zero-gee experience, and had been miserably uncomfortable since a shuttle had brought him up to run tests on some quirky new instrumentation. That discomfort had been forgotten the moment the strange craft had appeared, as had everything else.

"Anything new, Colonel?"

"No, Doctor." Not in the last five minutes, Roark didn't add. "Our latest word from Cheyenne Mountain is to sit tight and await further orders. And the . . . Lokaron still haven't been inclined to chat with us."

"But they've told us quite a lot, you know . . . just by the way they arrived." Kazin's eyes glowed behind his Coke-bottle glasses, and his frizzy hair and beard formed a weightless aureole. Roark smiled at him, and wondered what the ecstasy of scientific curiosity was like. "In the first place, their message was in English. They've obviously been around a while for their computers to have cracked the language."

"But maybe not as long as we might imagine," Roark demurred. "After all, we don't know the capabilities of their computers. Besides, nobody's seen them conducting any studies."

"Come on, Colonel! Remember how they just appeared out of nowhere, without being tracked until they were practically entering orbit?" Kazin laughed nervously. "Big surprise! We're dealing with a technology that can beat the lightspeed limit and send a major expedition—not just some half-assed little robot probe—across interstellar distances! Unless they want us to detect them, we won't detect them."

"Funny the UFO cultists in the last century, with all their alleged photos and radar sightings, didn't think of that," Roark mused. "But why do you assume they came here faster than light? Granted, interstellar travel slower than that would take a long time. But it doesn't violate any physical laws, which faster-than-light travel does."

"Oh, I'm not saying they can actually break through the lightspeed barrier. You're right, that's a mathematical absurdity. But they must be able to get around it in some way." Kazin pointed out the viewport. "Those are too small to be STL interstellar ships."

"Small? You call those things small?"

"Colonel, anything designed to keep a crew alive that long would have to be humongous! I don't care what it's using for propulsion. And that's another thing," Kazin went on, words practically tripping over themselves. "What does make those suckers move? They didn't perform any magic feats while matching orbits with us—they've obviously got to play by the rules of inertia. But they've got nothing that could possibly be exhaust nozzles or anything like that. They have something that isn't a reaction drive—something Newton didn't allow for. Something we can't even theorize." An uncontrollable shiver ran through the young scientist, and he hugged himself to contain the trembling. "Dear God! The things we'll be able to learn from them!"

Roark felt a wave of sadness wash over him. He knew the type. Kazin was considered politically harmless, or else he wouldn't have been sent up here. Indeed, he was a member of the Earth First Party . . . under constant suspicion, and as blissfully unaware of that suspicion as he was of the philosophical contradictions between his work and the Party's antiscience doctrines. It wouldn't last forever, of course. Sooner or later, he'd be told he couldn't publish something because his findings were ideologically unacceptable. Like the innocent he was, he would voice his indignation openly . . . and there'd be yet another mysterious disappearance, officially blamed on "reactionary elements" and used as an excuse for still further encroachments on the civil liberties Americans would once have missed.

Presently, Kazin went below to his tiny cubicle. It was no accident he was staying at OCCS; it was the only manned installation in orbit. The Orbital Command's weaponry—and most especially the fusion-pumped X-ray lasers that waited to die that they might yield up ultrahigh-energy pulses at the moment of death—were unmanned. All the rest of the Command's personnel were dirtside. Only Roark and a few others were actually in orbit to oversee America's remote-controlled defenders. Defenders against what? he wondered in prudent silence. The continent-sized slum that is Russia? Or whatever generalissimo is currently top snake in the snake pit that used to be China? Nobody else was in space at all.

Roark's eyes strayed to the bone-white crescent of Luna. Men had set foot there, more than fifty years ago. The science-fiction writers of his grandparents' generation had imagined a lot of things in connection with the first moon landing . . . but not that humans would attain that ancient dream and then simply drop the ball. Such idiocy had been beyond even their powers of imagination.

We turned our backs on the universe. Roark's gaze swung back to the alien ships. But the universe didn't take the hint.

"Colonel?" The comm technician's voice, charged with an odd mixture of diffidence and tension, broke into his thoughts. "It's Cheyenne Mountain, sir. Top security."

"Of course," Roark sighed. So soon? I'd hoped to have a little longer. He turned to the comm console, where General Harris' face looked out of the screen, as haggard as Roark felt. The image, like the sound, was carried on waves that were scrambled into meaninglessness and reconstituted only at this console, with no appreciable delay. The Lokaron wouldn't be able to intercept anything useful.

"Colonel," Harris said heavily, "the Lokaron demands have been reviewed at the highest level. The decision has been made to implement Case Gamma, effective immediately."

Roark heard the muttering around him in the cramped spaces. Everyone present knew what that meant. He ignored it. "General, you realize of course—"

"Those are my orders, Colonel—and yours!" Harris' voice cracked.

In a detached sort of way, Roark wondered at his own despair. This was, after all, merely what he'd expected. "General, we have a civilian here—Doctor Kazin. I feel uncomfortable about putting him at risk. I respectfully request a delay so that we can send him down. A shuttle can be made ready in—"

Another Air Force-uniformed figure pushed Harris out of the pickup. The new image in the screen had only one star to Harris' two. But that didn't matter—Roark recognized him as the Orbital Command's resident political officer. "Doctor Kazin is a member of the Earth First Party, Colonel," he snapped. "As such, he—unlike, it seems, certain others—will recognize the necessity for this action. He will be glad to place himself in the front line of defense—a defense of everything America has achieved in the last two decades under the Party's progressive, enlightened guidance! Everyone's behavior in this crisis will be subject to later scrutiny. Everyone's, Colonel. Do I make myself clear?" With a final sneer, he turned away.

Harris moved back into the pickup. "Carry out your orders, Colonel," he said firmly. Then, with a sideways glance as though to make certain he was alone, he spoke in a different voice. "Good-bye, Mike."

"Good-bye, sir," Roark replied . . . but to a blank screen, for astonishment had rendered him speechless until after the general had cut the connection.

He set to work briskly, allowing himself to think of nothing save the series of orders he needed to give. Those orders went out, and at various points in various orbits, weapons began to ponderously realign themselves on a single target, or rather a cluster of targets. The personnel of OCCS moved just as mechanically, performing a task about which they dared not brood.

That task was about done when Kazin's head appeared in the hatchway, wearing an expression brewed from alarm and disbelief. Roark smiled. The rumor mill worked quickly in a small, enclosed environment like this.

"Colonel, what's going on? I've got clearance, you know. What are you doing?"

Roark heard a robot speaking for him. "You have the requisite clearance, Doctor Kazin, but not the need to know. I must ask you to go below, as you are a civilian and we are about to enter a war footing."

The scientist's expression took on a new element: desperation. "So it's true! You're going to attack them! But you can't! I mean—"

"It's hardly my decision, Doctor. I'm acting under orders."

"But . . . but. . . . " Kazin clambered up to face Roark, and tried to speak calmly. "Colonel, this is crazy. Do you have any idea what you're dealing with? Just imagine . . . well, no offense, but imagine a bunch of Civil War guys going up against the U.S. Air Force!"

"I repeat, Doctor, it's not exactly my idea. However, I have no choice but to follow orders."

"In a pig's ass you don't! We're all going to die here, Colonel! And for absolutely nothing. Can't you understand that? You've got to tell those shitheads down there that—"

"Doctor Kazin!" The bullwhip crack of command in Roark's voice stopped the scientist's rising hysteria dead. "This is an Air Force installation, and you are under military jurisdiction. You will control yourself, or I will order you placed under restraint." He leaned forward into the stunned silence and spoke in a murmur only Kazin could here. "Come on, Sidney. Nothing I could tell them would make any difference. You know that."

Kazin's lower lip trembled, and his eyes grew red. "But . . . why? Why are they doing this? I don't understand."

He really doesn't understand, Roark realized. But why should he? The only reason he's an Earth First Party member is because he has to be to get funding. "You saw the Lokaron message, Sidney. I shouldn't have shown it to you, but I did. They're demanding trade concessions. They want to sell us advanced technology. Stuff beyond anything we've got. And the Party can't allow that. It rode the antitechnology hysteria of the late twentieth century to power. It's committed to freezing even our `dehumanizing' homegrown stuff at an arbitrary level. How do you expect them to react to this?"

Kazin didn't collapse—people generally didn't in zero-gee. Instead he hung, a limp vessel of despair attached to the deck by his magnetic soles, as Roark turned away and murmured a query to the comm technician.

"Affirmative, Colonel," was the reply. "All targeting solutions are locked in. And the groundside system's prepared to coordinate with us on a time-on-target basis."

"Very good." Roark straightened up. He glanced out the viewport at the sunlit slivers of the alien ships, here within visual range, with OCCS under whatever they used for guns. "Commence countdown."

From behind him came Kazin's broken voice. "It won't even matter, you know. After they've brushed off whatever you can do, they'll go ahead and get their trade concessions anyway. So what's the point, Colonel?"

Good question, Roark admitted silently. But you wouldn't understand the answer, Sidney. I'm obeying these stupid, futile orders from a government which publicly despises me and everybody else in uniform because if I don't obey them my life will have meant nothing.

I'm not even sure I understand it.

It was, he thought with a touch of guilt, relatively easy for him. Unmarried, with his parents both dead, he had no immediate family that he'd never see again. No family at all, really . . . except his younger cousin, Ben Roark. Even at this moment, his lips twitched upward in a smile at the thought of the ribbings he'd given Ben, now in his early thirties, over his career choice. A spook, for God's sake. What a disgrace!

The smile died aborning. Kazin was probably right. Ben would live in a world where the Lokaron would be a fact of life—something new under Earth's sun. What will that world be like?

The countdown ticked on.


Title: Eagle Against the Stars
Author: Steve White
ISBN: 0-671-57846-4
Copyright: © 2000 by Steve White
Publisher: Baen Books