Chapter 1

Joseph Michael Fanelli was not Sicilian, as his predecessor, his father-in-law, had been. He was, however, of Italian descent, and had married into the family. He hadn't known much about the family then, and, as it turned out, that was a good thing.

Joe relaxed into his high-backed leather-upholstered chair, and drew on a fine, Cuban cigar. He had reason to feel good about the way things were going, and even more reason to want to take a rest. He'd worked himself and nearly everyone around him very hard over the past several years, just to get the organization to where it was, and it had taken a toll, but now he, and all those who had helped him, would be reaping the rewards.

Few could have accomplished so much, in such a short time, starting with so little. There was no time to relish his success, though; his associates had already captured the next pawn, and it was time to proceed to the end game. He rose up, pausing to crush out the cigar and smooth the wrinkles out of the coat of his expensive Italian suit. It was time to begin negotiations with another powerful organization. This time, though, the prize wasn't money, power, or even the well being of the family. This time, the survival of Earth, itself, was at stake.

BGEN Raymond "Ray" Thompson awoke with a headache, to which stimulus he had the predictable reaction of raising his hand to his forehead. Only he couldn't. Opening his eyes, he discovered that there wasn't much he could move. He found himself seated in something that looked like a dentist's chair, except that it had built-in restraints.

The restraints made the chair appear somewhat like one of those ancient devices used to execute criminals using electricity. The room he occupied, however, looked nothing like an execution chamber. Indeed, except for the absence of the requisite large window, overlooking a million-dollar view, it bore a strong resemblance to an opulent office.

Another difference, he noted, was that there were no corners. The room appeared to be a cylinder, with its walls were covered by a rich tapestry. The ceiling was featureless, and emitted a diffuse, white light from its entire surface, and the floor appeared to be hardwood. The only other furniture in the room was a desk and chair — that is, if you didn't count the men standing near the tapestry on either side of him. He couldn't see behind himself, but he sensed a third man standing there.

The two he could see both faced him, eyes straight ahead, seemingly lost in thought.

"What am I doing here?" he demanded of the man on his right. The man ignored him. After a moment, he looked at the man on his left, and asked, "Is he deaf?" Again, no answer.

Just as he was about to give in to the urge to shout, the man behind him came into view. He was younger, and wore a lab coat. As he proceeded to take Ray's vitals, he spoke:

"They won't answer, and even if they would, they know very little that would help you anyway."

"Well, what about you? Will you tell me what's going on?"

The man in the lab coat grinned at him, and replied, "No, but have a little patience. Someone is coming who will tell you more than you really want to know." Ray kept trying, but the guy just grinned and went about his business.

Presently, he heard a door open behind him, and another man, older than the others and dressed even more formally, walked past him, and around the desk, and then sat down in the chair. He had an almost regal bearing, and the moment Ray saw him, he expected to hear mandolin music in the background. It was obvious that this man was a leader in organized crime. As he examined some papers — what appeared to be notes or an outline, as far a Ray could see — he spoke.

"Good morning, General. Please pardon our manners. I would normally greet you with a handshake, except that you are encumbered for the moment."

Ray was startled by the man's voice. He spoke in a rich baritone, devoid of any apparent accent. Recovering quickly, he replied, "I'm sure that you could remedy that, and then we could greet each other like gentlemen..."

The man barked out a bitter laugh. "Frank and Marco are good, but unlike you, they haven't been enhanced by nanites. We are all aware that you could probably take them out very quickly, even unarmed. What we have to tell you is too important to let your impulses for escape and retribution get in the way. Rest assured, my friend, you will be returned unharmed to your hotel room when this is over."

"This is going to be over pretty quick, I think. I'm sure that the AI's have already notified Command that I've been taken, and where!"

"Humor me, General. I am not worried about what your AI's may or may not be able to do, nor am I particularly worried about being found by your Navy. All will become clear, presently."

"Your funeral," Ray shrugged. "Give it your best shot."

"Thank you," the man replied. "First let me introduce myself. My full birth name is Joseph Michael Fanelli. My family, and most of my business associates, know me formally as Don Giuseppe. Outsiders, whose familiarity with cosche is limited to concepts present in ancient motion pictures, sometimes call me 'the Godfather.' My close friends call me Joe. You may also call me Joe."

"I had already figured out that you and your friends were criminals, gangsters, Joe. I just didn't realize that you were Mafia. I thought we had eliminated all you guys."

"Many have tried, many times. Always there is a remnant, and always, we come back. And now, we will continue to be when the Earth is dust." Ray shivered when he heard that.

"Yes Ray (may I call you Ray?), I am mafiusu, but I will not engage with you in a battle of name calling. The mafiusi don't care what you call them. They put the welfare of the cosca ahead of everything else, doing whatever is necessary to protect it, nurture it, and that is their principal crime. The so-called 'legitimate' governments of Earth, and now also the Confederacy, only wish they could get such loyalty, and they are jealous.

"None of that is relevant to why you are here, however, I promise you that, when you leave here with the information we have to give you, you will conclude on your own that the Confederacy are worse criminals than we are; and that its human military forces, indeed, your own Navy, is guilty of treason against humanity."

"Surely you don't subscribe to that pseudo-religious tripe that Earth First is spouting off!"

"You are correct. We don't subscribe to that. The leaders of Earth First are as stupid, in their own way, as many of my competitors were, when they attempted to force the Confederacy to lift them off-world. But, enough of philosophy, for the moment. Let get to the business at hand, and hopefully there will be time after that to talk of these things. We must arrange to return you to your hotel before your liberty expires. Even Brigadier Generals have to report on time."

Ray fell silent, Well, I guess they don't plan to just 'off' me! He was unwilling though, to believe that his Navy would leave him in this predicament long enough for these thugs to convince him of anything. Something kept nagging at him, though.

"How long have I been here?"

"Ah, you are perhaps wondering about when your Navy will rescue you?" Joe ventured, and Ray nodded, almost imperceptibly. "I believe it has been approximately sixteen hours since we, ah, invited you here."

"Sixteen hours!" Ray exploded. The nanites and his personal AI should have notified Command immediately when he was kidnapped, and a rescue/strike force should have been mobilized within two hours. Things weren't looking good. Joe watched the emotions play across Ray's face and nodded.

"You begin to appreciate the gravity of the situation," he said. "I hadn't intended to get into this right now, but I suppose I should be kind." He paused a moment, then went on.

"Your Navy will find you, but not until we are ready for them to find you, for two reasons. First, we have learned how to interdict communication between your AI's, as well as between your nanites and the AI's. How we got that knowledge will later become clear. Simply put, you have temporarily disappeared from the Confederacy's neural network.

"Second, you are now quite some distance from Earth, which is where they'll be looking for you. Where, and how far, I am not at liberty to say, because we may want to use this location again sometime. May we proceed now?"

"Uh, two more questions. What am I supposed to do with this information that you're going to give me, and if we're not on Earth, how did we get here?"

"As far as how we got here, that is part of the information we're going to give you. To answer your first question, we simply expect you to deliver the information to your Command, and convince them of its veracity."

"You kidnapped a Brigadier General, just to serve as your messenger boy? Where the hell do you people dig up the fucking nerve?"

Joe smiled faintly. "As I'm sure you are already aware, nerve is not usually in short supply among mafiusi. But to answer yet another question, we need the credibility that your rank provides. It would be all too easy for your Command to brush off a report from an enlisted man, or even a lower-ranking officer, as rubbish. When you tell them, you can make them believe."

"What if I don't believe?"

"Oh, you will, Ray. You are a man of exceptional intelligence, an educated man. We have seen your CAP scores. You will believe." Joe left his chair and walked back around the desk.

"We have used up much precious time already. It is now time for lunch. The good doctor will prepare you for your repast, and explain what is subsequently required of you. I'll see you in about two hours." he said, as he left the room.

The man in the lab coat then appeared in front of Ray. "You've probably figured out that I'm 'the good doctor.' Sorry about this," he said, as he lowered a large, opaque helmet, effectively blinding Ray to his surroundings. "I'm sure you'll understand that we can't let you gather unnecessary intelligence about us."

Ray felt his chair being moved, and eventually come to a stop. The helmet was removed, but all he could see was a bare metal wall. He heard a few mechanical noises, probably lock mechanisms engaging, then suddenly the restraints on his arms and legs popped open. The restraints hadn't restricted circulation, but he began rubbing his joints, as if they had. A few minutes later, he heard the doctor's voice over an intercom system.

"Hello General. If you will get out of the chair and inspect your surroundings, you'll find a number of amenities, intended to increase your comfort."

Ray did as suggested, and found himself occupying a nearly normal Navy officer's berth. Nearly normal, that is, save the absence of quite a few things. There was a bunk, a bookcase with a few books in it, a regular chair and a built-in desk. The only visible doorway led to an ensuite, with shower, toilet, and washbasin.

He found very little that he felt would be useful for an escape attempt. The bunk, bookcase, and desk appeared to be monolithic with the walls and floor. There would be no pulling them to pieces, without the aid of tools.

He could lift and move the chair freely, and perhaps if someone were stupid or unlucky enough to present him with a target, he could use it as a bludgeon; however, it too was a single piece of metal, and would require tools he didn't have for shaping into a more suitable weapon. He was considering using it to batter the walls of his prison, looking for weaknesses, when the doctor's voice came back.

"The walls are very thick, and titanium reinforced. There are a multitude of gas-exchange ports and video viewpoints embedded in all of the fixed surfaces. You are being watched constantly, and if we don't like your behavior, it is a simple matter to release a fast-acting anesthetic gas into your chamber. You might be able to hold your breath a long time, but we can wait even longer for you to pass out."

Ray grimaced. He was immobilized as effectively as if he were in a Navy brig. No, even the brig would have been easier to escape. He shrugged and looked at the ceiling — not because he expected to see anyone there, but just to have somewhere to look. "Okay, it seems you have me at a disadvantage. What next?"

"You have been inactive for a fairly lengthy period. I would suggest some exercises, calisthenics, perhaps. I'm sure your training has provided you with knowledge of how to maintain fitness in close quarters. You may wish to use the facilities in the ensuite, as well. You will be confined again, following the lunch period, and you should arrange for that confinement to be as comfortable for yourself as possible."

The doctor fell silent, and Ray thought about his situation. It was obvious that his captors could do pretty much as they wished with him, but he didn't have to like it. On the other hand, it made little sense to react in a way that would only make himself more uncomfortable, and at the moment, he could see no other end result from being uncooperative. They hadn't asked him to do anything that would compromise his loyalty to the Confederacy; they hadn't even tried to pump him for information!

He decided to go with the flow, for the moment, but to keep alert for any possible opportunity to escape, or perhaps even take control of his captors. In the meantime, he followed the doctor's advice. After a bout of vigorous physical exercise, he danced through a series of Tai Chi moves, and then, he availed himself of the ensuite.

Fresh from the shower, he emerged to find a uniform, cleaned, pressed, and folded, sitting on the bunk. He picked up the uniform, hoping that they might have overlooked something. That hope evaporated, however, when he discovered that, although the uniform was a close replica, it wasn't really his. Heaving a sigh, he dressed in the substitute uniform.

"If you will proceed to the desk, you'll notice a covered slot in the wall, its bottom edge level with the desktop," the doctor said.

Again, Ray did as suggested, and immediately saw the slot. It was not obvious unless you were looking directly at it, but it was about ten centimeters high, and a half meter long. As he was watching, the slot cover withdrew into the wall, exposing a cavity in which lay a cafeteria tray, with several dishes of food, as well as utensils.

Encouraged momentarily, he withdrew the tray from the cavity, marveling that his captors would provide him with metal implements that might be useful as weapons. Almost as if they were reading his mind, the doctor's voice returned again.

"General, I argued against it, but the Don felt it would be a sign of our good faith to allow you to feed yourself like a civilized man, and to allow you use of real eating utensils, instead of the weak, plastic ones we could have provided.

"We are not fools, however: remember, we are still watching, and everything we have provided you was inventoried. At the end of your mealtime, when requested, you will promptly return everything to the slot, after which it will be inventoried again. If anything is missing, we'll just gas you and take it anyway. Consider seriously whether you really want to wake up naked, and with another headache."

As much as he hated to admit it, Ray realized that it made sense. In their shoes, he would have done the same thing. Having reached that conclusion, he accepted the inevitable, and decided to enjoy his meal as much as possible under the circumstances. When his captors called for the return of the tray and implements, he complied, and when directed to return to the restraining chair, he did so.

As soon as he was seated and his limbs were properly positioned, the built-in restraints snapped closed, seemingly with enough force to cause injury, if one attempted to elude them. After a moment, the doctor re-entered the room and re-installed the helmet. Ray hadn't noticed the door during his inspection; for that matter, he still didn't know where the door was, since the restraint chair was deliberately placed so as to confound his effort to observe.

The end result of all this activity was that he found himself back in the office where he had met the Don. This time, though, the Don was waiting for Ray.

"I trust you enjoyed your meal, and found your quarters adequate?" Joe queried.

"For a jail cell, you mean? Yeah, they were great. The food was good, though," Ray responded dourly.

Joe favored him with another of those almost non-existent smiles. "I understand your unhappiness with the circumstances, Ray, but perhaps you can take comfort in the likelihood that you will have the last laugh." Ray looked at him in confusion. He continued, with a genuine smile:

"You have prospects for a much longer life than we do, aside from the consideration of combat. I alluded to it before: none of us are nanite-enhanced, and it is unlikely that we ever will be. We understand what we are giving up though, better than you understand what you gave up.

"Without the nanites we don't have access to many of the health-improvement and life-extension technologies that you have; on the other hand, we don't have spies for the Confederacy AI's flowing in our veins! Until such time as we develop nanite technology on our own, technology over which we retain control, none of my people will voluntarily become host to them. Any that do become so infested, will be lost to the cosche"

"I don't feel that having the nanites compromises my liberty at all!" Ray declared.

"As well you shouldn't," Joe replied. "You are doing exactly what they want you to do, and thus have no need to conceal anything from them. We, on the other hand, are not. We seek to find our own way in the cosmos, without the meddling of the Confederacy and its mechanical spies. But we digress. We need to get down to business, so that we can return you to your vacation. "Tell me Ray, how do you feel about the term UFO?"

Ray shrugged. "I don't think much about it. I mean, I know about the wave of sightings that swept the world in the 1940's, but any idea that they represented anything extraterrestrial was pretty much debunked, even then."

Joe arched his eyebrows, and asked, "Ray, are you saying that none of the sighting could have been legitimate reports of alien visitors?"

Ray nodded, "Yeah, I thought that was pretty well established..."

"Ray, who do you work for?"

"The Confederacy. What do UFO's have to do with any of this?" he demanded.

"I'm coming to that ... and what is the Confederacy?"

"It's a galactic civilization composed of many space-faring ... I see what you mean ... but the Confederacy didn't have that many ships operating in this area then. That was one of the first things we humans asked them about after First Contact. There's no reason to believe that the UFO craze was anything more than mass hysteria."

"Well Ray, I'm afraid that we've already proven you wrong — you just haven't seen the evidence yet," Joe paused. "Where do you think we got the technology to get off Earth, to avoid detection by your AI neural network, to kidnap you? Hmmmm?"

Ray frowned considering the question for some time, before responding. "I would have assumed that you somehow stole it from the Confederacy. Honestly though, I don't see how you could get past their safeguards, in the first place."

Joe grinned, "We didn't. By the way, I was surprised at your use of the Common Era dating method when I referred to UFO's. I thought everyone, at least humans, had started using the First Contact calendar."

"Oh," Ray responded, abashed. "I guess it's because I'm older than I look. I was already in my fifties when the Darjee showed up, and I'm used to thinking about events before that in the old dating system."

"Thank you for satisfying my curiosity. Now, let's put all that aside for the moment, and talk about something else. What do you think about the possibility that there may be space-faring races, other than the Sa'arm who are not part of the Confederacy?"

"I suppose that could happen. I know of nothing that would preclude it, but I've never heard of any such race."

"All right, but supposing such races did exist, what about the possibility that they might also be affected by the Sa'arm? And perhaps be on the run from them?"

"Well yeah, I suppose that could happen..."

Joe interrupted, "Ray, it did happen. And by the time you leave us you will know that in your heart. Let me tell you a story...

Sometime around 1940, CE, a battle began. This battle was taking place so incredibly far away, that the earthbound armies of humanity, occupied with their own hostilities, were completely unaware of it. On one side of that battle were the Sa'arm, doing their usual thing in their usual overwhelming numbers. On the other side, were the Hwee.

The Hwee are recognizably non-human, but their biochemistry and physiology, as well as their social structures are not dissimilar to our own. They breathed an oxygen-rich atmosphere. They used sound to communicate. They were even dioecious, gave live birth, and had recognizable family groupings.

Like humanity, somehow the Hwee managed to survive the discovery of nuclear power, as well as many other technologies with which they could have destroyed themselves. Unlike humanity, they kept their priorities straight.

Whereas human societies turned their vision inwards, commandeering science and technology so that a few privileged individuals could sequester the limited resources of the birth planet, the Hwee turned their eyes and their societal energies to the sky. They escaped the gravity well of their birthplace, and by the time of their first contact with the Sa'arm, they already had colonies in at least five star systems.

It is tempting to think that, were it not for the Sa'arm, humanity would have been able to achieve as much, on its own. That is unlikely, however, because humanity did turn inward, and in the process, gave up a greater destiny. Only the coming of the Darjee tipped the scales in favor of a human Diaspora. But back to the Hwee...

Being more like us than like the Confederacy, the Hwee did not assume that the nature of the cosmos was benign; unlike us, neither did they ignore it. They maintained a military, as well as very effective space-borne surveillance systems in all the systems they inhabited, and when the Sa'arm showed up, they were not surprised. When the destruction began, they were able to fight back. Unfortunately the outcome was never in question.

Both Hwee colonies in the first system the Sa'arm encountered were ultimately overrun, before the futility of fighting became clear. Fortunately, the remaining industrial base was adequate to provide ships to evacuate most of the population of the surviving colonies, and the home world.

The flight of the Hwee was, at first, terribly disorganized. Many small groups of ships left their homeports with no particular destinations in mind. Most of these probably did not survive. Presently, though, it was decided that the remaining groups should all proceed to a single rendezvous point, and await further instructions.

Like humans, some of the Hwee were braver than they were bright, and elected to stay behind and "defend the home planet." Never mind that they had neither the numbers nor the firepower to sustain that kind of effort. Even as their society acknowledged their rank stupidity, they were regarded as heroes. Their personal sacrifice did provide a delaying action, covering the departure of the last of the evacuees, but the loss of those individuals was nearly unbearable to those of their loved ones who elected to leave.

By the time the Hwee evacuation fleet assembled at the rendezvous point, the Sa'arm front had already swept well beyond their home world, and the fleet found itself completely surrounded by enemy forces. Strangely, those forces seemed to be neither interested in molesting them, nor even particularly aware of them. It seemed a forgone conclusion, however, that any further contact with the Sa'arm should be avoided at all costs. The problem was, where to go? The Hwee strategists had already concluded that the Sa'arm would eventually sweep the entire galaxy.

For a little while, the fleet puttered around, dodging the Sa'arm, while their scientists and engineers tried to figure out a likely destination. To be viable, a potential destination had to have habitable planets, of course, but also, at least for the foreseeable future, it had to be out of reach to the Sa'arm fleet. Using these criteria, the only viable destinations, obviously, lay in distant galaxies.

Four such destinations were identified, and after much deliberation, it was decided that part of the fleet would be sent to each destination, in order to maximize the probability of success for the whole race. There were adequate numbers of individuals available to assure a sufficiently diverse gene pool for each potential colony; and splitting the fleet effectively reduced the likelihood that any single event might completely annihilate the race.

Once the decision was made, the plan was quickly put into motion. Ships and personnel were reapportioned, insuring that each fleet had a fair share of the resources, and complete access to the technologies and skills, available to the race as a whole. At first, they tried to keep entire family groups together, but that had an unacceptable impact on genetic diversity for the fleets. Blood relatives had to be distributed among the fleets as much as possible, and as individuals and families began to comprehend a future without any chance of contact with some of their loved ones, that caused the expected amount of grief. Even those who grieved, however, knew it was for the greater good of all.

All the resources of their several planets still weren't enough to provision such long voyages, especially if the entire population were to remain awake and active during the passage. The conditions demanded conservation of resources, and when possible, reprovisioning along the way. Furthermore, even with hyper drive technology, the lengths of the voyages were so great as to ensure that no single individual lifetime would be enough to see it from beginning to end — and the Hwee live a lot longer than humans.

In order to conserve provisions, as well as to preserve their numbers, as much as ninety percent of the population of each fleet was to hibernate at any given time. Again, family groups were to be kept together, whenever possible, with one exception: post-pubescent juveniles would get longer waking duty cycles than fully mature adults, spending substantial time in training. The reasoning behind this was somewhat convoluted, but in essence, it was done in order to insure that there would be a large population of mature, skilled adults with which to build a new civilization, and to care for the very young, at the end of the journey.

The Hwee, unaware that the Sa'arm had no means to detect them in hyperspace, included evasive tactics in their escape plans. Each fleet hopped around the galaxy at random for a while, before making the final jump to their destination. If a random stop offered an opportunity to augment their stocks of provisions, they took the time to do so.

Sometimes they discovered another sentient species, and when they did, their heuristics determined what, if any, interaction took place. In general there was no interaction, but they recorded all that could be ascertained about those societies, and at times they collected individuals from promising species, in hopes of future benefit from social diversity. The individuals thus collected were all volunteers, and were only taken if sufficient numbers of volunteers could be found to ensure a minimum adequate gene pool.

Sometimes, while they were looking over a pre-space-flight society, they got a bit sloppy. A pilot with minimal experience would make a mistake and crash; and even an experienced pilot could misjudge the range and accuracy of a tactical missile, and take a hit. This didn't happen often, but when it did, the wreckage fell to the planet, unrecovered.

The Hwee weren't particularly worried; they didn't plan on being in the neighborhood long enough for the inhabitants to develop and use any technology they might salvage. In most cases, it didn't matter anyway; the wreckage mostly fell in places that were inaccessible to the native species, or hidden from them in some manner; but even when they were able to recover it, it was so alien that it was usually beyond their understanding, or so badly damaged that it couldn't be reconstructed.

On one such occasion, they came upon a small, blue planet circling a nondescript yellow star. The planet's inhabitants were not yet a space-faring society, but had developed technology sufficient for self-annihilation. They were fragmented into numerous factions, based on economic, philosophical, and religious beliefs, and the Hwee were fascinated. They decided to hang around and observe for a while.

Unfortunately for the observers, the inhabitants were also actively engaged in killing each other off in a global conflict, and were very alert and suspicious of strange activities. The Hwee lost a number of scouts, and in one case, a small, hyper drive-equipped cargo vessel that had been engaged in the reprovisioning effort. At length, reprovisioning was fully accomplished; and it was decided that further observation was too costly in lives and resources, so the Hwee moved on.

Joe paused, in his story. While he spoke, he had been pacing, his hands clasped behind his back, his eyes mostly unfocused, staring at the floor. He stopped and turned his gaze upon Ray.

"I must stop and rest for now, my friend," he said. "I expect that you have ascertained where the story is going, and that you already have many questions. I am tired, however, and there are several things I must do before the evening meal. I have arranged a treat for you: before you adjourn to your temporary quarters, you will see some proof that we have the technology we claim. The doctor will see to carrying out these arrangements. I hope you will be entertained, and I wish you a restful night's sleep."

With that, Joe turned and left the room.

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