Chapter 1

Rajata was late. As she dodged quickly into a small side street, she grinned to herself, thinking that, for an anarchist, actually being on time might be seen as letting the side down, somehow. Then, emerging back onto the main road, cutting through a random shop, she lost the smile: She was late because security was becoming a real pain. Well, security – the State's security, her security, the group's security – had always been a challenge – for a revolutionary that was a given – but lately things had been becoming almost impossible. OK, so the Confederacy people didn't seem to be taking that much interest in local (planetary) politics but they were taking an interest in Earth First and such like. And that was a problem, given that, to the Official Mind, one radical was pretty much like any other – Raja could remember being caught up in a sweep against neo fascist groups a few years back, and however ironic that might have been it was still unpleasant, to put it mildly. So, even if she wasn't planning to disrupt any Extractions or blow up any CAP testing centres any time soon, she knew she had to be ever more careful in going about her business.

Which, for the moment, involved getting safely to – and from – the group meeting she'd called. Which required trust – her own route here had been sufficiently convoluted and circumspect that she was pretty sure she hadn't been followed, now she had to hope that everyone else had been as careful.

She sighed, resignedly, respecting the commitment of her fellow activists even as she recognised their complete, practical ineptitude...

The group had, at least, assembled and the anonymous venue they were using appeared not to have attracted any untoward attention. Obviously, no-one quite knew what the Confed's AIs were capable of – rumours ranged from scary to terrifying – but there wasn't a lot they could do about that. So she discretely let herself into the room and, unobserved, became an observer herself.

They were discussing bombs. And not just any bombs – these were ... well, they were explosive devices, true, with some very novel chemistry providing the bang and some exquisitely designed engineering delivering the payload. Which, she learnt as the discussion went on, was tattoo ink. These bombs were not designed to kill, or to disable. Using some complex geometry and not-so-simple ballistics, they would propel ink coated particles on very precise trajectories ... and tattoo some appropriate message across any exposed body parts of their victims. As to how they would be delivered ... well, no ... they hadn't thought much about that, yet, nor – she shuddered, despite herself – had they considered the likely consequences of exposing themselves and their capabilities in order to deliver what amounted to a student prank. But then again, she thought, listening to Tiff and Johann expanding on their designs, it might be a bloody stupid idea but it was an exceptionally elegant and technically extremely clever one.

But, still, things were moving on and she hadn't risked getting them all in one place to give their wilder fantasies a chance to flourish quite like this. So, she let her bag drop onto a table with a conspicuous thud and, thus announced, watched the group reorganise itself around her. It was sad, really, but it was a fact: Whatever their principles, however interminable the debates, and however poisonous the resulting disputes, they did all tend to look to Rajata for direction. Or as they would have vehemently argued, for suggestions, for input into their mutual decision making. She grinned to herself, remembering a hated teacher and his disdain for her 'wasted leadership potential' – ah, if only he knew – then reminded herself that, after all, she had been in the game longer than anyone else hereabouts, had consequently had her street skills honed by only too frequent brushes with the Law.

So, yeah, she knew what she was doing, or, at least, she had been pretty confident before the Sa'arm complicated things. Now, well, things had got complicated and that necessitated responding in ways that would have previously been unthinkable. Even if group niceties also had to be observed – in this case, listening to Johann explaining his ideas all over again, while the rest interjected with their various objections, suggestions and particular takes on the concept and the philosophy of the action. She cut them short, feeling a slight twinge of guilt about how easy that was to do.

"I think there's something a little more pressing, to be honest," she said, as soon as she reasonably could. "CAP testing, to be precise."

She got a number of blank looks, the beginning of a predictably hostile reaction from others – this was a group that regarded such basics as driving licenses and public transport tickets as just so many infringements on their individual liberty, after all. However, things needed to be made clear and she hoped to be able to do it without having to rerun all of the ancient, much rehearsed arguments. She went on, rapidly enough to forestall immediate objections.

"Thing is, those CAP cards aren't quite compulsory, yet, but not having one – or a bus ticket, driving license, whatever, I know, is going to increasingly become a source of suspicion and, consequently, hassle. Or worse. So I think we need to get ourselves collectively and, of course, individually, tested. As soon as possible, by preference."

Uproar. Predictable, all too predictable uproar, but uproar nonetheless. She managed to carry on before they could get too far into the rehashing of old debates, before, in fact, the whole thing could degenerate into the pointless shouting at each other stage.

"A CAP score," she said, asserting herself over the rising tumult, "is just a number. We know that its gender biased and that it probably – thank you, Jas – heterosexist, too. It's also based on a set of values – such as aggression, authority and hierarchical sexuality that are literally anathema to all of us. Equally – I know what you're going to say, Tiff – it appears to be based on some unbelievably archaic and – yes, Tiff, Just Plain Wrong – assumptions about the relationship between genotype and phenotype, or between Nature and Nurture, to put it another way.

"But so what? Knowing these things as we so obviously do, why should our possession of these numbers make any difference to us? Being a master, being a slave is, all other things being equal, an attitude of mind, isn't it? Are we going to want to dominate and control – or to pimp and to prostitute – each other? Just because of a figure assigned to us by some anonymous piece of alien technology?"

She paused, noticing with satisfaction that she seemed to have nonplussed them all. Well, aside from Johann, but she swiftly headed him off, continuing,

"Look. We all have lots of numbers, National Insurance numbers and Health Service numbers just being the most obvious, if you don't count your 'unregistered' – but still trackable – mobile phone. A CAP is just another irrelevancy, just another number. Having one will save a lot of shit, and thus might even help us work towards a fairer society in the future, but it won't make any other difference. So we need to get them, OK?"

And she sat back, listening to them grumble but knowing that she'd won the day, that she'd been sufficiently decisive and determined that people would comply, go along and get themselves tested.

It was possibly a shame that she had no idea how wrong she had been about pretty much everything else.

A couple of days later, Rajata was still in a slight state of shock. In fact, she was curled up on her sofa, not really listening to whatever the hell was on the radio, and only occasionally sneaking glimpses at her CAP card, her score. 8.7.

Which was just a number, of course, even as she ran through the arguments yet again. Still, it was a pretty bloody high number and it was a 'ticket to the stars'. Rumour had it that things were pretty bloody chaotic out there – there was a lot of military-industrial shit, obviously, but socially ... hell, politically, there had to be more to play for out there, didn't there?

She really wanted to talk about this with someone but her Straight World friends would just not have understood what she was going on about and the Group ... well, the group was in lockdown. Whether this was an exhibition of collective paranoia – perhaps a guilt reaction to obtaining the hated cards – or a genuinely appropriate response to increased official attention, she couldn't tell. But, she'd defined the rules, for gods sake, knew that only their Ultimate Emergency procedures would convince anyone that it was her who was breaking security and contacting them ... and that would initiate a one-time only dispersal, never to willingly coalesce.

And so she sat on the sofa, listened, despite herself for footsteps in the communal stairwell, imagined helicopters, wondered what the Confed drones she'd heard about looked and sounded like...

All of which, she knew, was a recipe for complete breakdown, gibbering into the arms of a nice paramedic en route to the Bin ... if she didn't just starve to death first. Neither of which were particularly attractive options and anyway, didn't Guevara – no libertarian, he – emphasise the importance of taking the fight to the enemy, ensuring that He didn't get to choose the ground?

Cursing herself for the fool she suddenly knew she'd been, she threw off the blanket, pulled on a pair of sensible trainers and a fleece and – before second thoughts could intrude – set off out into the Real World.

Last thing she did, before she let herself out of the flat, was make sure she had that CAP card in the hip pocket of her jeans.

Outside, the paranoia returned. She'd been living round Archway for years – maybe too long, an unhelpful voice put in – and she knew these streets. Maybe more to the point, she knew how varied, how unpredictable, said streets could be. And looking at it like that, there was nothing obviously untoward going on. A few taller than average men around, for sure – Mugabe's destruction of Zimbabwe had left a lot of very tall Shona guys seeking some sort of living hereabouts, no telling what tidal flows they came and went on – but no-one was obviously paying her any attention. Except that maybe that guy in the red ski-jacket had been behind her for a while, that the grey ... ski jacket ... over there was too obviously not looking at her ... and the green, yup, ski jacket up ahead appeared to have just winked at her.

Rajata realised that paranoia – paranoia with a capital P, the sort that comes with full board and free drugs thrown in – was becoming all too real, so she did what she knew she had to do. She went into a café and bought a coffee. Fished some papers out of her bag, too – she was due back at her Straight World job soon enough, after all – and sat there, conspicuously at ease with the world.

Green ski jacket was the first to appear, got a coffee, too, sat down at a table in the opposite corner. Didn't look at Rajata, but did spill the sugar he spooned into the cup, came near to missing with the milk. Rajata, a puritan to her atheistic bones, recoiled slightly at the idea of adding sugar and/or milk to decent coffee but then a more worrying thought occurred. Perhaps the guy was uptight about something – maybe his cat had just been run over or whatever – but he looked calm enough. So what if his clumsiness was the result of something deeper than mental distraction – or even some sort of neurological problem. What, in fact, if he was having genuine proprioception problems ... as if, for instance, his body shape had recently been a different size or shape? Such as quite a lot larger, perhaps? She knew the Confed 'upsized' their goons, so presumably they could downsize them, too?

She took a deep, calming breath, wondering whether that was one of those genuine flashes of insight that she'd found so useful in the past or whether she really was finally losing it. For appearances sake, though, she made a few conspicuous notes in the margins of her papers and wasn't remotely surprised when grey ski-jacket came in, tripping slightly on the doormat, and sat down in a second corner, making a triangle with Rajata and Green SJ. Also obviously not a local – he appeared to be expecting table service, here? – and, yep, not practised in his movements when he finally got the hint and clumped over to the counter to get a can of coke.

Rajata allowed herself a sigh of relief, knowing, now, that this wasn't just her problem, and then, decisively, got on with stuff. Which is to say, she left her papers where they were, shoved her bag onto the seat next to her and took herself off to the toilet. A toilet that, she knew well, was generally filthy, rarely provided with tissues or towels of any description and which, conveniently, had an openable window giving access – or egress – to a narrow, hardly overlooked alleyway. Not that this was too surprising, given that Rajata had freed those window bolts herself, even provided a couple of easily over-lookable beer crates as a step immediately below.

And so, out she went, lithely dropping down onto the gritty tarmac below her, pausing for a couple of seconds to check for anything amiss and then, reassured, got herself out of her landing crouch, and strolled confidently down the alley into the street behind the café she'd just left. Which was OK as far as it went, she thought, estimating how long she had before her 'toilet break' would begin to arouse suspicion, aware that her current demeanour had to be perfectly natural, normal and completely inconspicuous. Which she was good at, so...

She turned first left, then crossed the road, passed through one of the bigger local stores, just another airhead girl out shopping, and was just beginning to feel a little more relaxed, possibly even a little pleased with herself when she walked straight into Red Ski Jacket, standing, unconcerned, just beside the entrance to the tube station she was just about to enter.

And when he made no move to intercept her, just looked her in the eye and smiled, she really began to freak out...

Rajata knew better than to go home, but also began to have a rather more sanguine view of her alternatives than she'd previously imagined. The theory of affinity groups was fine, she thought - everyone has contacts and acquaintances who none of their other friends knew much about, making them very hard to identify and monitor, but ... well, now she was on her own, and a quick review of her options suggested nothing particularly promising. So she went to a cash machine, withdrew the maximum allowed and then contemplated her options, carefully losing her debit card as she entered a different tube station.

Whatever happened, being somewhere else was something of a high priority.

Sonja, an old college friend now living and working out in the East End, seemed to be about the best option, and Rajata duly appeared on her doorstep a fair while later. In the interim, she'd swapped from tube to tube and bus to bus and taken a variety of random walks, kilometres of them. As far as she could tell, she hadn't been followed, though given earlier events the thought was not entirely reassuring, but now she was knackered. When Sonja finally answered the door – it was late, she realised – she more or less collapsed through it. And Sonja, without raising a metaphorical eyebrow, did what Rajata had trusted her to do – she gave her some food, she made up a bed ... and she didn't ask a single question.

Next morning, she found a pot of coffee beside the bed, and her clothes freshly laundered on the chair beside it. She smiled to herself – Sonja had always been a helpful soul – and set about draining the coffee, wondering whether her host had left for work already and whether or not she should extend her stay. It was tempting – she was fairly sure that this was about as safe as she was going to get, even if she wasn't quite sure what it was she had to be scared of. OK, so she appeared to have attracted some official attention – whatever the exact nature of that officialdom – but they seemed to have adopted a light touch, so far at least, in that it would surely have been possible for them to bundle her into the back of the proverbial van without much of a problem ... And just as easy, probably, to have kept her under surveillance that she would never have spotted. So someone, somewhere, was playing games. She shrugged, knowing that she simply didn't have the data to answer all the myriad questions that that thought threw up ... and went downstairs to find some breakfast.

Which was, in fact, waiting for her on the table, rye toast and Sonja's home-made jams, more coffee and, soon enough, Sonja herself, looking slightly damp from her shower.

"You're up," she said, smiling, "and, no, I haven't taken the day off for your benefit – I was due to be working from home today and, anyway, I remember all those lectures you gave us at college about safe houses, the importance of not changing any observable routine when they're in 'active use' ... and, I assume, that that is why you're here? I mean, I assume that you're still engaged in The Struggle – more directly than me, these days, anyhow – and that that might be somehow connected to your pitching up on my doorstep, unannounced, at near midnight?"

"Could well be," Rajata began to reply, evasively, and then realised that she didn't want to dissemble any more ... and that here she had someone she could genuinely talk to.

So she continued, "No. It is. Well, that is, I think it is – I seem to have been attracting quite a lot of attention, recently – well, yesterday, to be honest – and ... oh, hell, I'm not even sure who's doing the watching or even whether its just my imagination, but ... well, maybe I panicked ... but...".

"Ah, Rajata Mehta's famous Prickly Palms," said Sonja, smiling some more. "Got us out of a few scrapes back in the day, I remember, so probably worth paying attention to. Any particular reasons why you should be being targeted now, though? I mean, you've been playing the game for a while, presumably you can't have been completely invisible to the powers that be all this time? Or have you and your latest acolytes been upping the ante at all?"

"Well, no ... not really – I mean, we've got a lot more organised recently and some of the agitprop stuff has made a bit of a splash but ... well, no – what with the planet about to be invaded by homicidal aliens and all that, I don't think that what we've been doing to date would put us top of anyone's security agenda."

"Well, maybe that's it," said Sonja calmly, and, seeing the look of confusion on her friend's face, carried on quickly,

"Thing is, Raj, I did wash your stuff last night, which means that I found the CAP card in your jeans. It's a pretty high number, kid, maybe high enough to attract attention all by itself? I mean, I know the official line is all about Volunteers and stuff but ... well, there's a war on, remember, and rules..."

Rajata gulped, recognising how plausible the suggestion might be – and how that very card might be a problem in itself. Not that she'd ever heard any rumours about CAP cards carrying any sort of tracking device, but ... oh, bloody hell. If it was the Confed who had been stalking her, who were quite suddenly interested in her, she might have compromised herself, the rest of the group and, finally, her friend ... all because of a stupid oversight on her part. She fought down the urge to panic and forced herself to think – and talk – rationally and carefully.

"OK, so ... assume that the number in itself is high enough – rare enough – to be of interest. Equally, acknowledge that, as you say, the published rules are not necessarily the ones applicable on the ground, that they may choose to simply grab people without consent. The problem with either is that I can see no reason why they'd want me – whatever the damn score – given that I'm not about to join anyone's army and I am most fucking certainly not about to become a slave owner or a pimp.

"And," she continued, more weakly, "if they wanted to just ... conscript me, surely I'd have been somewhere in space by now, sitting on one of their transports with the option to co-operate or ... what ... take a one-way trip through a convenient air lock?"

Sonja was looking thoughtful but didn't seem to have an immediate response to hand. Instead, she moved towards the kettle, began preparing a fresh pot of coffee while they both pondered the situation and its implications. Clearly, Rajata realised, she'd need to get rid of that bloody card – so much for its security benefits she thought, bitterly – and then get herself somewhere safer ... and safer for Sonja, too.

Something of her despondency must have shown in her expression because Sonja came up behind her and gave her a hug, not speaking but pulling her in close. She was just relaxing into the embrace when the doorbell rang and, muttering something about it being a bit early for the post, Sonja went off to answer it. Rajata thought, briefly, about running, leaving by the back door and legging it down the garden but realised it would probably be futile.

Just how futile became apparent when Sonja came back into the room with a quizzical expression ... and the bag Raj had left in the café the day before.

"Some guy just handed me this, said it was for you, then turned and walked off without a word. Gave me this note, too," she finished, handing Rajata a folded piece of A4, then sitting heavily on a chair opposite.

Despite herself, Rajata wanted to laugh out loud but she took the note and, giggling slightly hysterically, opened it up and read.

"Well, well," she said, eventually, "it's from the Confed, of course. Well, some dickhead signing himself Decurion Wallace – bloody silly titles boys think up for themselves – from the Confederacy Civil Service, whatever the hell that is. He says he'd like to meet with me at my convenience ... to discuss something of 'mutual benefit'."

Then she paused, all trace of mirth gone from her expression and looked at her friend pleadingly, asking whatever the fuck she was supposed to do about this?

"I don't think there's a lot of choice," Sonja responded, firmly. "We have to go and see the man..."

And then, as Raja realised the significance of that we, she began to cry ... and accepted another enfolding hug from her friend...

They finally arranged to meet at a café in central London, public enough to make simple kidnap at least inconvenient, small enough not to be a likely venue for a convenient Extraction, and with a lot of entrances and, more to the point, exits. Rajata wasn't sure what to expect, but she was strangely grateful that Sonja had come with her – even as the rational part of her mind told her that that was wrong, that she was putting her friend in unnecessary danger. Or maybe even that was just her denial of the fact that simply by going to Sonja's home in the first place – when the Confederacy had so obviously, in retrospect, been tracking her – had dropped her right in the centre of things, regardless.

She sighed, wondering what had happened to her self-confidence, her decisiveness, wondering – with a twinge of guilt – how the rest of the group were getting on, whether they were getting similar attention and how they were dealing with it if they were. She cursed the rules she herself had suggested to – no, imposed on – them, berated herself for not putting in some more flexible channels of emergency communication. Oh, well, too late for that now, she thought, accepting the extremely large coffee that Sonja placed before her.

They were early, of course – to get a feel for the place, they'd argued, rationally, aware that the actual reason was that both of them wanted to get this over with, to find out whatever was in store for them – or for Rajata, at least. And so they waited, coffees almost untouched, hardly speaking, both scanning the room for interested observers, for the arrival of this ridiculously named Decurion – they'd giggled at the idea of the man turning up in full Roman armour, back at the house; now the situation didn't seem half so amusing.

Bang on time, a couple of very large men – each a couple of metres tall, at least – entered the café, each taking up what could only be a guard position at tables near the bigger entrances to the place. Rajata looked at both of them coolly, wondering who or what they were guarding, and, preoccupied, found herself surprised by the sudden arrival of a couple of people at their table. More specifically, a couple of women, both quite small, even by earth standards, and both dressed casually and, she had to admit to herself, attractively. They both looked like nice middle class liberal thirty somethings out for a bit of shopping, maybe a spot of lunch. Bloody obviously, they were nothing of the sort.

"Ms Mehta," said the shorter haired of the two, offering her a hand and not bothering to add anything as specious as 'I presume' to her greeting. And then turning to Sonja, adding, "And Dr Richardson, too – this is a most pleasant surprise." She paused, waiting for a reaction that she didn't seem likely to get anytime soon – Sonja hadn't even reacted to the use of her doctorate, and that was just a knee jerk thing, for her – before continuing, "I'm Decurion Wallace of the Confederacy Civil Service, and this is my colleague Commander Langton, Confederacy Naval Intelligence." She nodded towards the black woman beside her, hair in a long braid down her back, before continuing, "Or Cynthia and Dianna, as we prefer – or Cy and Di, as we generally get."

Rajata was aware that she was probably looking quite foolish, could see that Sonja was also completely thrown, mouth agape like a startled guppy. Whatever they'd been expecting it sure as hell wasn't this. She made an effort to get it together, to look both women in the eye as she responded, equitably enough, "Well, clearly no point in us introducing ourselves, but ... do sit down. Oh, you already have. Would you care to invite your gorillas to join us? Or maybe one of them would be kind enough to get the drinks in? I'm sure you guys are on expenses and all that?"

The strange Decurion only smiled slightly, even as she signalled to one of the 'guards' to do exactly what Raja had just suggested.

"Actually, they're here because earth command doesn't like visiting officers out on their own and so we get to be escorted. I don't think it's for our protection – although I do know quite a lot about you, Ms Mehta, and have due respect for your ... umm ... physical abilities – or even particularly for yours. Actually, I think the nosey buggers just want to know what we're up to."

Which was Sonja's cue – always the rational one, Sonja – to ask, with almost sarcastic politeness, "Which I guess means that my friend and I finally have something in common with the Glorious Heroes Set Above Us. I mean, we'd quite like to know what you're up to, too."

Possibly significantly, neither of their interlocutors replied to that until coffees had been placed on the table and the big guy – Marine, probably, Raja speculated – had retreated out of earshot.

"We're here to make you an offer, Ms Mehta – now that you so conveniently have a CAP score we can do that, though to be honest we've been tempted to do so even before you got one. You see, Dianna here has been working on dissident groups, Earthside, keeping a weather eye on the underground, so to speak, and you – and your group – have given her much to think about. And what she's told me has given me some ideas, ideas which I have duly, and in appropriate military fashion, shared with my planetary governor and which she has suggested that I take forward as best I can."

She paused, taking a sip from her coffee, as Rajata and Sonja exchanged a look. Neither was much clearer about what was going on, but both were frankly wrong footed by the apparent casualness of the approach. Nonetheless, Raja thought it was probably best to make her position clear.

"Useful information," she said, non-committally, "in that it's always nice for an 'underground' group to know just how deeply it's been penetrated. However, if you've been paying attention to me and my activities, you should know that I have no intention of fighting in anyone's army and, as far as becoming a slave owner goes, or a breeding machine or, god help us all, both ... well, 'I'd rather chew my own leg off' doesn't begin to cover my feelings on the matter. So, if it's really true that you only take volunteers, then I'm not sure that this conversation has much point. But thanks for the coffee, anyway."

Strangely, Raja thought, Sonja looked a little disappointed when she said that, although the comment could hardly have been a surprise. Neither Cy nor Di batted an eyelid.

"Perhaps you might like to hear the offer first, though? We don't even need a decision today and, by the way, you can say no, but if only for politeness's sake, you might as well listen to what we have to say?"

Raja nodded, aware of Sonja's oddly longing expression, and the curious Decurion continued in her amicably reasonable fashion.

"You may be aware that things out in the colonies have been a bit chaotic, to date, and that while a lot of effort – and even some thought – has been devoted to the military side of things such as fighting the war, rather less attention has been given to organising what I expect you would call 'society'. And, before you point it out, yes, that has involved stupid mistakes and, certainly at first, a number of avoidable tragedies. Frankly, some despicably inhumane situations were allowed to develop, probably due to a simplistic – or maybe opportunistic – interpretation of the Confederacy's Sponsor / Volunteer structure."

She paused, took another sip of coffee, continued with a sudden passion.

"But it doesn't have to be that way! OK, we're a bit stuck with what you generally describe as a caste system – that's pretty much imposed by our alien allies, for what doubtless seem good reasons to them – but we can work round that to produce a society where people are allowed to develop as individuals and which respects and values all its members. Which is to say, if one of the givens is that some people have, de facto and de jure, more rights, then we can at least ensure that those same people take on their fair – which is to say, greater – share of responsibilities, too. God's sake, Rajata, you know better than anyone that one of the problems on earth has always been that the balance between rights and responsibilities has tended to be precisely the other way round... ?"

Raja, wincing slightly at the casual use of her given name, nodded almost despite herself.

"Still not clear what this means for me, though," she replied, "I mean, the whole purpose of your colonies is still to breed as much cannon fodder as possible, isn't it? And any society founded on the need to support and prosecute an on-going war of attrition is going to be a pretty ugly place. At least here on earth we get a chance to change things – have changed things pretty significantly in the past, by, say, abolishing slavery, just to take a random example..."

"Touché," Dianna replied, entering the conversation for the first time. "But you also know that what Wilberforce and co abolished was not slavery – it was the slave trade. Which meant that as far as my family was concerned, back then, they didn't get to be free, they just got to be bred. But, interestingly, they also got a very marginally increased status, owing to the fact that they were that much harder to replace – and thus worth a dollar or two more. If you look into some slave owners' practice you can argue that actually indentured labourers were treated worse than the slaves themselves – on the basis that the slaves cost more!"

Hardly pausing for breath, she continued, "Of course, too, slavery was no more abolished than alcohol was during Prohibition in the States – by some figures there are actually more slaves and trafficked people in the world today than there were at the height of the Atlantic slave trade. But ... well, that's not the point, really, and we're not here to debate history, much as I'd like to. How this matters to the Confederacy – yes, even to the military aspects thereof – is that we do need to vastly increase our population numbers, it's just the nature of the war that's been forced upon us. And we need to ensure that as high a proportion of those individuals as possible are equipped to contribute to the maximum extent to what is simply a struggle for survival. Which is something that no society on earth has ever achieved ... maximising the potential of all its children – though some have clearly come closer than others – and that means we have to think of entirely new ways of doing things."

"Which is kind of where you and yours come in," continued Cynthia, cutting in smoothly. "Not only do you have a long acquaintance with politics in theory and practice – however wild and woolly some of the theories you endorse – but you are also a functional team, used to working together and you – and I mean you in particular, here – are at heart a thorough going pragmatist, whilst simultaneously being a creative problem solver and a pretty hard arsed so and so, to boot. All of which means that I, on behalf of my planetary governor, would like to offer you a job:

"Designing your own bloody utopia."

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