I'd like to thank Mulligan and Steve T for their assistance in turning this into a better story than my initial effort, any errors remaining are of course mine.
The majority of the highly polished tables were arranged in four rows, the two centre rows were set up so that the sixteen seats were facing each other in two equal rows, seats for sixteen very important people. Each position had a high leather backed chair and a set of gold writing implements next to a blotter pad. Alongside these desktop accoutrements stood a cut glass jug complete with matching tumbler, the jug was freshly filled with chilled water and a slice of lemon if the drinker had that preference.
The outer tables may have been physically the same but their purpose was not as high profile. The chairs were not as luxurious and there were twice as many of them. These tables were already crowded with folders and laptop computers, notes and writing implements were scattered haphazardly about.
A fifth table was positioned across the head of the two centre rows of tables, a position of authority, the most important of all the important seats. It too carried the same trappings of power, only its position setting it apart.
With barely a whisper the double height double doors at the end of the room swung open and the first of nearly a hundred men stepped into the room. He and his partner scanned for anything untoward and then dropped back to guard positions flanking either side of the entrance.
Satisfied that all was well another man, this one in the long flowing robes that made up the traditional dress for a Gulf Arab entered the room. Without any undue hesitation he strode to the right hand table and took the first seat, his two advisors had followed him into the room and scurried to the table behind him.
Quickly after that the remaining fifteen positions of importance were filled, the noise level grew as people passed comments to one another concerning mundane things, many of them glancing towards the head table as they spoke.
The noise abated as soon as the single door behind the prominent chair began to open, by the time the man who entered had reached his place the room was deathly silent. Like the others he wore the white robes of an Arab but unlike many of them he didn't look out of place. His dark eyes looked out from a weathered face; his large hooked nose more like a beak than anything that could be described as delicate. Beneath this protrusion was a hard mouth, the compressed lips unused to smiling for any reason.
He lowered his mature body into the seat and glanced from side to side of the room. With prayers over it was time to resume the meeting. He indicated the first man to his right; "You have a progress report for us, Ali."
Ali bin Ahmed bin Saleh Al-Fulani rose to his feet. He was a minor sheikh from the area known as the United Arab Emirates but for this council he held a far more important position. He was the leader of Project Salah al-Din, described by those who knew of it as the last great hope for Arab kind.
He bowed slightly to the head of the table. It was always wise to keep in with Bahir bin Jamil bin Abdul Rahman Al-Sa'ud, as it was with any other member of the Saudi Royal family, no matter how tenuous that connection might be.
"Salah al-Din is on schedule and just as importantly on budget," he began, "The majority of the key stages have been implemented and are progressing well." He glanced down at his notes, not really needing them but it did give a pause to his speech. "We have been able to identify several systems that contain planets suitable for human habitation and have earmarked three that we believe are ideal for our project."
"What makes them ideal?" asked a voice from down the table.
Ali was unable to identify who had spoken, concentrating as he was on the head of the table. When Bahir raised an eyebrow, he answered the question.
"Going to a planet that isn't fit for human habitation would be pointless." He actually thought stupid but didn't want to imply that anyone around this table was such a person even though he had heard rumours that someone was pushing forward a system based solely on its name being one of those used by the Prophet, praise be upon him.
"Of the habitable planets available," he continued, "it had to be one that the infidel's Confederacy had no plans to use as we are not yet in a position to oppose them militarily. It took us time to determine their preferences."
He glanced down the tables and was greeted by blank looks; no one took up the challenge of denying their military inferiority. Two Gulf wars and the continued existence of Israel had proved that beyond doubt, thought the fact that the Jewish state found itself in a similar position to themselves did seem to provide a certain level of justice.
"The third factor governing our choice of system was the expected axis along which the Sa'arm would be advancing," stated Ali. "Colonising a planet they are likely to reach in a short space of time would simply be to provide them with a different variety of food, a task I am not willing to perform."
"After a great deal of consideration we have settled on three possible options." He held up a finger. "The first is the third planet of the star Valderon. It is a G two star similar to our own sun and the third planet has a slightly larger orbit than our own. Conditions at the equator would be similar to those in Norway and as such our people would feel that it was cold."
He raised a second digit, "The second option is the only planet of the star Proxima Regulus. This is a G nought star and the planet is at the very inner edge of its habitable zone. To be honest my own personal thoughts are that it would be too arid even for us. It does have the advantage of being at the very extremity of Confederacy space.
He raised his third finger, "The third option is the F six class star, Escardis," he said. "Again the target is the third planet of the system. This one is a little large than Earth and would require our colonists to work under a gravity that is ten percent higher than they are used too. The biggest changes of note are that the planet is nearly two hundred forty million kilometres from the star; it will look very small in the sky compared to our sun. That distance also gives the planet a very long year, in the order of six hundred fifty days." He glanced down the row of tables, "This will allow us to plant at least two full crops each year," he carefully didn't mention how long the winters would be.
"This is your preferred option?" asked Bahir from the head table.
"It is unless new information comes to light before we depart," replied Ali.
"Continue," responded Bahir with a casual wave of the hand.
Ali glanced down at his notes, this time needing to re-establish the order of his report. "A selection process has been underway for the last two years to choose those men who will be part of the crew. Their training has been in progress for the last three months and has generally gone well. Drop-out rates have been very low."
Again Ali found his statement being interrupted, this time by Zubair bin Isa bin Abbud Al-Khalifa, the member of the council representing Bahrain. "These people represent a security risk, what is being done about them?"
Ali turned to the man, "Whilst we are not as well equipped as the Darjee are with their mind compulsions we do have methods that ensure our security. You can take it that none of the people who fail to reach the required standard will present a security risk," he paused for a moment, "ever again."
Zubair bowed his head in understanding and hoped that any members of his family didn't disgrace him.
Ali picked up the thread of his report once again. "The modular design we have gone for on the ship means we are planning on sending between a thousand and two thousand of our finest young men to establish the colony."
Ali looked up and down the two tables; "We will be providing the maximum number of wives for each of our men when the time is right."
No one questioned where these women were coming from or whether they would have any choice in the matter. After all, the Confederacy kidnapped whoever it wanted to support their 'volunteers.'
Ali took a sip of the cold water and drew a deep breath before continuing. "Working with our allies in several of the former Russian Republics we have managed to gain access to the raw materials required to build the interstellar craft. That material has been transferred using launch facilities provided by the Russian Federation, albeit at considerable expense."
"Currently we have sufficient material floating in orbit to complete the basic vessel, the habitation zones and the two synthetic farms that will provide the colonists with food, oxygen and various other essentials." He glanced at his notes and frowned, now comes the bad news.
"The actual construction is going to be difficult and will depend greatly on the Russian space workers we have on contract and the Pakistani immigrants they have agreed to train." A murmur went through the hall as Ali mentioned the immigrants. Calling them immigrants was a misnomer to say the least. They had been forcibly detained when the Middle East had closed its borders to the rest of the world, especially the Western portion of it. Anyone working within its borders at that time was 'invited' to stay indefinitely.
Only the fact that the majority of the Western world was so caught up in the Swarm panic had prevented an escalation to all out war, world war three for want of a better description. As it was, their own economy had practically collapsed under the strain and only the fact that the economies of Russia and Africa had gone down the tubes at the same time had enabled them to continue to operate.
The defunct US dollars they held had been able to buy them raw materials from all over Africa, including uranium. Solid gold had been the currency of choice when dealing with Russia and it had been fortunate that it had been available in such large quantities.
"The estimated completion date is in seven months time," he scowled, "a more realistic date will be twelve months from now and that presupposes one very important fact."
He took a deep breath before he committed himself. He'd thought about this for a long time. If they went with the technology they had available, the solar sail and its associated systems, the best they would be able to manage was a velocity in the order of point six 'c.' A mere dawdle when compared with the distances involved. Even if everything worked and there were no problems it would still take their colony ship nearly two hundred years to get to Escardis.
"We need details, no not details but hard facts, concerning a faster than light drive," he glanced around and was greeted by blank stares. "The Confederacy ships would make this trip in a month or two even allowing for their reduced performance when carrying colonists. No matter how well we plan and train our people they will not be the ones landing on the colony unless we can gain access to a hyperdrive system."
"Are you saying that we will fail if we do not have this information?" asked Bahir.
"No, your eminence," replied Ali, "But our chances of success would be much enhanced if we had that propulsion system. We would not only get there with the people we've trained, they would also be able to return and collect more colonists. Given sufficient time we would be able to evacuate the majority of our people." Ali knew that was so much claptrap, the Sa'arm would be here long before they ever got close to evacuating everyone but he was getting desperate, without an FTL drive he felt he was sending people to their deaths needlessly. That they had no other choice was down to the damned infidels in the West.
He looked down the length of the two tables, taking in the various members who gazed back. More than one of them had links to the various intelligence services; surely they could get him the information if they wanted to?
He sat down slowly, his shoulders sagging after the effort he'd just made.
"Ali bin Ahmed bin Saleh Al-Fulani, you are aware that we are doing what we can to discover the information that you need," said Bahir coldly from behind his desk. "However you need to proceed on the assumption that they will not be available."
Ali closed his eyes and bowed his head, accepting the rebuke silently. He offered up a prayer for the souls of those in his care and a shorter prayer for deliverance.
With almost painful slowness the two massive, metal structures drifted closer to each other, simple inertia moving the third nuclear power plant that was to equip the colossal ship towards the farm dome it would be supplying. At various distances from the operation men watched on with differing emotions, those emotions ranging from the total indifference exhibited by some of the Pakistani construction workers who'd been pressed into service up to the barely concealed euphoria of the Arab engineers for whom the project was the pinnacle of their careers so far. This was the last of the farm modules that were to be fitted to the ship and this was the last major item to be fitted.
The power plant began to slow as the kinetic energy ropes attached to the rear of it began to absorb its forward momentum. This was the part the engineers were nervous about, if they'd got their calculations correct there would be no problems but if they were wrong then the reactor would crash into the farm module with catastrophic results.
The computer controlling the operation judged that the forward movement had come to a halt and released the anchoring cables thereby removing the risk of the reactor being snatched back from its position. As soon as the ropes were released men in powered spacesuits shot forward to secure the reactor to its new home, taking care as they did so to avoid the ropes as they were recovered until they were needed again.
In the master control room, a Russian engineer turned to his Arab colleague and nodded, "Well, Shihab, do you think the sheikh will be pleased with our progress?"
The Arab engineer grinned widely at his Russian mentor, "I'm sure of it, Gregori, sure of it." Shihab waved his hand through the armoured window encompassing the two completed farm modules and the habitat module that was nearing completion. "What we've achieved here is nothing short of miraculous, Praise be unto Allah, and soon we will be free to escape the Swarm." He nodded to the bright lights of a smaller construction area off in the distance, "and you will be free also."
"You say soon," responded Gregori, "but the command and propulsion modules haven't been started yet and let's be honest just amongst ourselves, I wouldn't want to put my life in the hands of an ion drive."
Shihab nodded slowly, "True," he said, "but the idea is sound and the test engines we've built have worked."
"But only at about eighty percent of what was predicted for them," replied Gregori. "Those stars," he said indicating the sharp, diamond white lights hanging in the black sky, "are an awfully long way off at the sort of velocities that you are going to be able to generate with that propulsion system."
It was Shihab's turn to agree. "You're right and that is one of the reasons I'm glad I'm unlikely to be making the trip on the first ship."
Current planning was for three of the big colony ships but the second two were just paper exercises so far, both men secretly felt that this was a one shot operation. It had been difficult for Shihab to work as though the following ships were real but to do otherwise was to court a deep depression he didn't want to face.
"Those commercial replicators are going to save us months of work," said Gregori, steering the conversation towards safer ground.
"I'm surprised that the Confederacy allowed them to be used by anyone," said Shihab.
"You mean the Americans," said Gregori. "The way I hear it the aliens made the Americans spread the machines world-wide to avoid the possibility of war."
"War?" asked Shihab in surprise.
Gregori nodded, "Yes. If you think about it, most of the surplus grain in the world is produced in North America and regardless of what the old communist regime in my country said, a lot of the world would starve without their help. With a lot of their farmers heading for the colonies the amount of grain would fall and it would be places like Africa and even Russia that would suffer. Who would they blame? America of course so it was only common sense to ensure that the world was fed."
"I'd always thought that the aliens had passed out the replicators as gifts before the Americans were able to influence their decision. Faced with that they decided it was better to make a profit out of the business rather than try to get them all back." Shihab frowned, "either way it doesn't matter. We've got them and they will be used to build the Salah al-Din."
The two men were interrupted by a klaxon call and all work outside the window ceased.
"Another bloody sightseeing trip," stormed Shihab as a Confederacy shuttle drifted slowly through the construction area. Around the shuttle men scrambled to get out of the way and work stopped out of necessity. To date no one had been injured by these nuisance visits but to both Shihab and Gregori it was only a matter of time.
"Your people ought to do something about that," railed Shihab shaking his fist at the window.
"I've asked for some assistance," replied Gregori with a shrug.
"And?" pushed Shihab.
"They've promised action," said Gregori, "but my boss planet-side said I'd probably not like what they were going to do any better than I liked the flybys."
"Did he tell you what they planned?" asked Shihab.
"No," said Gregori, "and that has me worrying even more."
The two men stood and watched as the Confederacy shuttle rolled in attitude and started to drop towards the planet below.
The young woman allowed her long, dark hair to fall forward, the ends tickling the neck of the seated man before her. He rolled his head away from the touch of her hair and sighed, "Emmy, do you have to?"
The girl chuckled throatily in his ear, "I can stop if you want me to," she said before pressing her more than ample breasts into his back. Dressed as she was in the current fashion her nipples were covered by an opaque layer that would have made a bee's wing seem coarse.
Edward Harlington the Third simply felt two hard, hot objects touch his shoulder blades and begin to rotate. His head dropped back and he groaned, reminded again just how lucky he'd been when Emmy entered his life five months ago.
The research assistant had given up hope of attracting a woman even in the new permissive age that abounded since the announcement that the Sa'arm were coming. His diminutive stature, he was only five foot seven tall, allied with his hooked nose and heavy glasses put him firmly in that group that relied on ugly girls or the exchange of money to achieve any sort of sexual congress. His CAP score of six point three was merely the icing on a very bitter cake, emphasizing as it did his inability to reach the required grade.
He held a master's degree in ecology and was an integral part of the research team looking into ways to improve on the terraforming process but this didn't mean anything to the available females who were looking for a ticket off the planet.
Then he'd bumped, literally, into Emmy in the corridor one day and his luck had changed.
The administrative assistant had bullied him into taking her to lunch to pay for knocking her drink from her hand with his clumsiness and she'd been part of his life ever since. Interested in him as a person and what he was doing, encouraging him to talk about what he achieved, no matter how little it appeared to the outside world.
Just like now, she wasn't nagging him to leave the terminal alone when he had work to do.
Behind him and unseen Emira bint Faris bin Saleh Al-Fulani looked at the screen as it scrolled slowly upwards. This was something new; not just the information but also the whole setup. Although her degree was in electrical engineering she'd been employed by the university on a completely fictitious set of documents and so had to act a part.
Now her curiosity was aroused, "What's this you're looking at anyway, Eddy?" she asked, her hands now stroking his shoulders to add to his distraction.
"It's something new the AI's have set up," said Edward. He shrugged carefully, not wanting to disturb the girl's wonderful hands. "It seems we were all asking the same questions, repeatedly so they've put together something like the old Wikipedia only it's full of all what they call redundant knowledge."
"Redundant knowledge?" asked Emmy, "Why would they make redundant knowledge available?"
"Redundant is their word for it, not ours," he smiled at Emmy before returning his attention to the screen. "We'd probably describe it as historical knowledge, the background stuff for what is happening now. I mean, take a look at this," he said flicking back several pages in the article he was speed-reading.
"This is the way they used to terraform planets," he explained. "It includes everything they used, the nannites, the procedures, even where they obtained the raw materials to begin the process." He chuckled, "We could actually use this method to terraform Mars if we wanted too."
"We could?" she asked excitedly, giving his shoulders an enthusiastic squeeze.
"Yes," he said, "It wouldn't be as good as what is being used now, or as good as what we are hoping to achieve but it's all there."
She leant forward, her breasts crushing against his back as she did so; "Does this wiki just cover terraforming?"
"No," he replied, "It's got everything they've released to us on Earth." Although he didn't say it, he was acknowledging the fact that the Darjee had been very selective in the information they'd passed along to the semi-barbaric humans they were using to fight their war.
"Can you show me?" she asked.
"Sure," he replied minimizing the window he was reading. "See, it's been configured just like the old Wiki, type in what you want to know about here and it'll display the top level for that subject. All you do then is burrow down."
He grinned at the dark skinned girl, "What do you want to know about?"
"Is it just science subjects," she asked carefully, "or does it cover the arts as well?"
"Everything as far as I know," he replied. "Go on, pick a subject?"
"History," she said, "I've always been interested in history."
"We'd better narrow it down," said Edward, "History is a pretty big subject." He glanced around and saw an old copy of Science Illustrated on the sideboard. "How about space stations?" he asked waving at the front cover.
"Go on then," said Emmy enthusiastically looking at the image on the magazine, "I'm sure they've got something better than the old International Space Station."
"I'm sure they have," he agreed. He typed in the query and a string of links appeared.
"Have they got pictures?" asked Emmy
Edward chuckled, "I'm sure they have but don't you want to read all about them?"
She nudged his shoulder and he had to try hard to contain himself. He'd be much more interested in the technical descriptions but Emmy was only a girl. He clicked on the link to display the images and slid to one side, "Go on, you have a look, I'm going to get a coffee."
He glanced back from the door as Emmy slid into the seat he'd just vacated; "Do you want one?"
"Please," she replied as she clicked on the first of the images.
By the time Edward returned Emmy had a technical drawing up on the screen.
"It said it was a plan," she moaned, "but this doesn't tell you where anything is."
Edward looked over her shoulder, "That's because it's a blueprint of the whole station," he said. "Here take a look at this," he pointed at a link to an overview of the station.
"That's one of the problems with this system, there is so much information you can often get lost trying to find anything." He pointed to a pile of shiny disks by the side of his computer, "That's why I'm going to make a copy of the data I want on those things and study it in my own time."
She looked at the disks, "Will it all fit on there?" she asked.
"Oh, yes," he replied, "These are the new terabyte disks that the Darjee told us how to make." He pointed to a stack of unopened boxes, "I've got enough to down load the entire science section if I need to, or so the AI informs me."
"How long is that going to take?" whined Emmy.
"Don't worry, I've got all week to do it," said Edward, "I've taken a week of my leave just so that I can do this while you're at work."
"You want to keep the evenings free for me?" she asked taking hold of his hand.
"Of course I do," he replied not resisting the pull.
"Oh, goody," she said spinning him around and pointing him towards the bedroom. With a gentle push she headed him in that direction, "It's the evening now," she added in a sultry voice, "I'll close this down and you take our drinks in there." He glanced over his shoulder and she added, "I'll join you in a minute."
She giggled, "And then I'm going to blow your brains out."
Emira gave praise to Allah as she silently dropped the thin wrap that covered her body and Edward turned and headed in the direction of the bedroom. The young lady switched off the screen and naked as the day she was born followed Edward who grinned happily, little realizing that he was entering the room for the last time.
"Lima One One you are clear for launch, wind is minimal from zero two zero degrees, there is no other traffic in the vicinity."
"One One roger," replied the pilot of the Bengal transport shuttle as he guided his craft off the ground and towards the heavens.
The trip up to the flagship of the Confederacy Task Force established in Earth orbit was as routine as the daily shuttle flight that travelled from London to New York, and in most cases just as exciting. The only difference to normal was the passenger in the cabin, the United Nations Special Envoy to the taskforce. Normally the man would have been travelling with all the pomp and ceremony that accompanied a high official on any journey but this was a private visit. He was heading for a short meeting with his son who was in the middle of a training rotation through the system.
The Envoy had prevailed on his friends to get him up to the taskforce with the minimum of fuss, hence the fact that he was riding in the control room rather than in the cargo bay.
They'd been travelling for thirty minutes or so when the Envoy pointed out of the screen, "What on Earth is that?"
The pilot glanced out of the window before answering, "That's the Saladin," he said, "The colony ship the Arabs are building with the help of the Russians."
The Envoy was wide-eyed, "I've read the reports on it but I've never seen it, it's huge."
"It needs to be," said the pilot. "The way they're planning to do it they're going to need all the room they can get and I still wouldn't give them a cat in hell's chance of making it."
"You think their chances are that slim?" asked the Envoy.
"I'm just a pilot so I don't know much but a few years back I worked in subs and I know how we got after we'd been at sea for a couple of months." He shuddered in his seat; "The thought of being stuck on a ship for centuries does nothing for me, nothing at all."
The Envoy looked from the pilot and back to the ship, "Is there any chance of getting a closer look."
The pilot shook his head, "Not any more," he said, "unless you want to start playing dodge with a bucket full of nukes."
"Nukes, they've got nuclear weapons on her?" exclaimed the Envoy.
"Not on her, just around her," said the pilot. "That area is strictly off limits to all Confederacy craft these days."
"Can they do that?" asked the Envoy in surprise.
"Legally?" replied the pilot, "You tell me, I just know that we've been told to keep well away from the place."
The co-pilot joined the conversation for the first time. "Rumour is that they blame us for the Confederacy's refusal to deal with them and given the way things have panned out you can't really blame them. They also got annoyed at the number of sightseeing trips that passed through their construction area."
"But the West had nothing to do with who could and could not be approached," declared the Envoy picking up on the co-pilot's original comment, "that was all down to the Darjee."
"You and I believe that but they don't and regardless of the right and wrong of things they have threatened to greet anyone from the Confederacy with a nuke," said the man.
The pilot nodded, "So that whole area is a no go area and we all keep well clear of it." He looked at the ship that was now receding in the distance, "You've still got to feel sorry for the poor bastards who are going to be locked up in that thing."
"Amen," added the co-pilot before they turned their attention to the approaching flagship, it wouldn't do to run into that.
In the street outside the campus apartments two police cars were parked side by side, the second one to arrive was a city unit and had its lights rotating on the roof, bathing the area in a blue strobe effect. A police officer in the brown tunic of the University police force stood by the outer door refusing access to all except other law enforcement officers.
On the first landing a door stood open, beside it stood another officer, this one dressed in the blue of the city force. He, like his colleague was professionally silent as he guided those who needed access towards the open door.
Inside the flat two people had spent considerable time surveying what was now a crime scene and in drawing their own conclusions. Now they were standing in quiet contemplation, the only sound to be heard coming from the occasional vehicle that passed by on the street outside.
"So what do you think happened here?"
The man asking the question and breaking the silence was detective sergeant Don Gunn of the homicide division, his was the man dressed in blue outside the apartment door. He was speaking to Sergeant Ann Sommers, who was with the University's police division and her colleague was the man standing outside the building.
"Let's see," said the woman, "the victim is naked and laid out on the bed, there's no sign of a struggle and he's been killed by a single, small caliber weapon from very close range." She pursed her lips, "My guess is it's a professional hit or he pissed off his girlfriend in some way."
"Both of those options do seem to fit the known facts," agreed Don Gunn. "Especially when you add the belief that his live-in girlfriend has disappeared as well."
"I suppose she could have been kidnapped," said Ann Sommers.
"That's possible, I suppose," said Don not sounding convinced, "but you'd have thought there'd have been some sort of struggle if that had been the case."
"True," agreed Ann looking at how neat the apartment was.
"So let's confirm the details on our victim here," said Don. "He," he pointed at the body, "Is Edward Harlington the Third and he worked at the University as a research assistant."
"That's right," agreed Ann holding up the man's CAP ID card as additional confirmation.
"He's been on leave and was due back at work this morning," said the detective sergeant. He glanced at Ann, "When he didn't appear you were dispatched to check up on him," he frowned. "Is that the normal procedure?"
"Not for everyone but he'd been working on some sensitive project and it was due to reach completion today. He'd have been certain to contact the department if he couldn't make it in. So when he didn't appear by mid-morning they sent me over here to check up on him."
It was Ann's turn to shrug. "When I didn't get a response I had the authority to override the automated lock and after the place was opened I took a look inside and that's what I found," she said waving her arm at the naked body.
"What do we know about his girlfriend?" asked Don.
Ann looked at her PDA, "Emily Fulanni, twenty-five, worked as an administrative assistance in the Ecology Department. She'd been with the university for seven months and had been seeing the deceased for five months. Other than the data on her application form there's nothing else."
"So she's either a very good girl," said Don Gunn with a frown, "or she had a reason for giving a false name when she applied for the job."
"I'll check up on her previous addresses," said Ann, "I'll make out I'm just doing the routine security check on a new employee, just in case."
"You're suspicious?" asked Don.
"I wasn't," said Ann, "but something doesn't smell right."
Don nodded, "You're right, this place is just too clean." He frowned, "OK, let's treat this as something important until we find out anything different." He looked around the apartment; "I'll get a full forensics team in here and give the place a good going over. Let's see if they can find anything that'll shed some light on events."
Ann nodded and headed for the door. It was still early afternoon and if she hustled she could get most of her work done before the shift finished. Behind her Don Gunn rubbed the side of his nose, like Ann he didn't think this was as simple as it looked, as he'd just told Ann, everything was just too neat and tidy.
Emira shifted the bag into a more comfortable position and tried to relax. Her flight to Italy had already been called and she was past the security checks so really there was nothing to fear. As long as she didn't do anything to attract attention she would be safe.
Getting the contents of her bag and the rest of her luggage back home was the most important thing she'd ever done.
Killing Edward had been easy in the physical sense. The small pistol had been safely tucked away in her bedside table from the day she started living with him. Getting him to turn his head so that she could kiss his neck had been simplicity itself.
He hadn't suspected a thing, not even flinching when she'd placed the barrel of the automatic against his temple before she drew it back an inch and squeezed the trigger.
The noise in the confined space of the bedroom had been ear shattering, totally drowning out any noise that Edward made as the hollow point magnum round drilled through his skull, turning his brain to so much mush as it passed through.
She'd sat there in stunned silence as the bedclothes soaked up the blood and gore.
Without any warning she'd felt her stomach heave and then it had been a mad dash to the bathroom before the contents of her stomach lurched out and into the bath. She'd sat there on the floor hanging onto the side of the enamelled tub for what seemed like an eternity, her stomach churning over an acid and fumes.
Eventually she'd forced herself to stand and start working, a task that, as she got into it, served to settle her stomach.
For hours she'd toiled away at the terminal, marking up articles and copying them to the disks. Reading snippets as she went she discovered a little of the history of interstellar exploration and the growth of the Confederacy.
Imagine her surprise when she discovered just how small a part the Darjee had played in the creating of the Confederacy. That other races had gone before, grown and become civilised before they had handed on the flame of exploration to newer, still adventurous members of the growing empire.
Then came the shock that the plans she was downloading were for systems that were one hundred thousand years old. She nearly stopped what she was doing at that stage. Would taking this data back really be worth what she had done to get it? Not just the fact that she had killed Edward but the lies and deceit she'd been forced to endure, the use of her body as a means to satisfy their lusts just so that she would be accepted.
It had to be!
Her hopes of making a quick escape from this country and heading for safety had gone by the wayside when she'd started the copying process, it just seemed so slow. And for what she was doing it was, but she was used to copying megabytes or at most gigabytes and now she was dealing in terabytes. Any system that interfaced with a human designed and built computer was limited by that machine and no matter how many processes it ran in parallel it was going to take time to accomplish this task.
In the end it took five full days to get the information she wanted onto the disks. Five days in which she did little but stare at the machine after she'd packed the few belongings she was taking with her. She was almost out of the door before she realised that nobody she knew would have a machine that could read the disks she'd spent so long copying.
If the doors had been any thinner, or their neighbours any more attentive they'd have heard her groan of despair as she returned to the machine that had been the centre of her existence for so long. Opening the computer case she was astonished to see that the device plugged into a simple expansion card which in its turn slotted into the normal white sockets she'd seen an her own computer motherboard.
Removing the two items and the cable between them took only moments. Finding something to pack them in that wouldn't look out of place in her luggage took a couple of hours and even then she had to improvise.
The previous weekend Edward had taken her to New York to visit a restaurant that apparently everyone was raving about. It had turned out to be extremely good and they'd ended up begging the chef for two huge portions of one of his most famous dishes. The brioche bread pudding was an improbably delicate calorie bomb made with bananas, bacon-infused maple syrup and bacon brittle. In the restaurant it was served with soft homemade vanilla ice cream.
When he'd filled up two, for want of a better word, pizza trays with the dessert he'd passed a nice comment about how slim Emmy was and how much damage this was going to do to her figure. She'd smiled in return but her thoughts were more on the pork she'd been forced to eat as part of the dessert than the number of calories involved.
Now one of those boxes held a card in a plastic bag surrounded by bread pudding and the other held the drive itself, both of the boxes just fit inside an old biscuit tin. If anyone asked Emira would explain that the two boxes were a gift to her family, whom she'd explain 'didn't believe that America had anything to offer that truly compared with grandma's special dessert.'