The Freedom Express – Chapter Two

Jess watched the extinct comet as the ship settled into place beside it. It wasn’t much to look at. The surface was dark enough to make it difficult to see, even from only a kilometer away. It filled an arc of sky 53 degrees across, so the lack of stars in that area was a lot more noticeable.

Maybe once the lifters got into place, their lights would make it more visible. Probably not, but you never knew.

Which was as good a reminder as she was going to get that she needed to head for the docking area or her ride would leave without her.

Well, okay, they probably wouldn’t. She was the executive officer, after all. They’d give her crap, though. Good-natured crap, but crap nonetheless. So, it was time to get a move on.

Harry and she had decided to send three lifters for the trip. One would make a series of close passes, using radar and lasers to map the surface. The second would watch the third land for samples and maintain an overwatch.

That was the military term Colonel McCarthy had used. He was on that second lifter to familiarize himself with flying it. Based on what Harry had described to her of his skills in a jet, he’d probably make a kickass small craft pilot.

By chance, the pilot of her lifter was someone Jess knew. She’d met Brenda Alvarez on the unfortunate day that Nathan Bennett had tried to blow up Liberty Station. The woman’s co-pilot had died while Jess tried in vain to save him.

Those terrible events had been less than a week ago, but the other woman seemed to be recovering. At least she put on a good face.

“Hey, Jess,” she said from the pilot’s cubby. “You remember this rock is just a bitty little thing. Don’t get all excited and jump right off it.”

While she didn’t know how much gravity the comet had, the engineers had warned her that she could indeed jump right off the damned thing. Everyone exiting the lifter would have beacons and thrusters on their suits, just in case. They’d also stay linked by ropes as much as possible.

Jess was zero-G certified and more than capable of leading any part of this mission. She’d do her damnedest to avoid any embarrassing blunders, though.

“Don’t worry about me,” she told the woman as she pulled herself up to the co-pilot’s couch. She waved at the team of geologists that were already strapped into the passenger compartment. “What’s the basic plan?”

“We let the comet rotate under us and get a good look before we go down. If we see something interesting, we call back to the ship and let Harry know. Then we approach slowly and explore. If we don’t see anything unusual, we pick a likely spot and go down for samples. What are you expecting to find? Other than aliens.”

Harry had told the entire crew what the stakes were on this mission. Everyone knew about the high technology humans they’d discovered in Guatemala. They had the ship’s communications array locked down so word of any finds didn’t spread.

That hadn’t stopped the new services on Earth from guessing what Liberty Station was doing. They were all over the map, too. They focused on Mars for the most part, but some of the guesses were remarkably close.

The tabloids were the most amusing. Of course aliens were high on their list of favored topics. Based on what they were speculating, you’d think Edgar Rice Burroughs was right about what was on the Red Planet. Sorry, Barsoom.

Of course, these days everyone knew that Mars was an uninhabitable, frozen wasteland with only a trace of atmosphere. At least she said everyone knew it. That didn’t stop the rags from publishing their drivel.

When she complained to Harry, he only laughed and told her to look up the Flat Earth Society. Point made.

No one back on Earth knew that they’d stopped at an extinct comet yet. Someone would figure it out before long. There were undoubtedly a lot of smart people watching them.

Based on some of the radio messages they’d received since their departure, not everyone was happy to see them on their way, either. The US had been first up, instructing them to turn their butts around and hustle back to orbit.

China and India had been right behind the US, warning Liberty Station away from Mars. None of the three nations had made any direct threats, but it was obvious none of them was happy with the new player in the space race. Which was kind of amusing, since the US had nothing to do with space anymore.

Harry had decided to leave all communications to his father. A bit of a cop out, in her opinion, but it certainly made their lives easier.

Once the various players figured out where they were, she knew the speculation would turn to asteroid mining. And they’d be right, as far as that went. The ship had three mining setups, but they wouldn’t use any of them here.

The comet was on the fast track back out of the inner system. They only had a few days before they needed to start slowing down for Mars orbit.

If they had been able to mine something like this comet, the payoff would have been volatiles and organics. Water was an example of the former and carbon the latter. The scientists and engineers working for Humanity Unlimited—of which she and Harry were partners with his father—had developed several promising processes to extract those kinds of things. They could then create oxygen and fuel. Eventually, many other things.

They’d chosen to come here not for the mining potential, but because the comet had shown up in a map left by one of the space traveling humans. That meant it might have something much more important than recoverable resources. Maybe the remains of a pre-existing mining complex or even a base of some kind.

It was hard not to feel optimistic. In space, the relics would still be virtually as they had been a thousand years ago.

Brenda turned to the team in the passenger compartment. “Helmets on, boys and girls. We just received permission to launch. Who wants to go on a field trip?”

Everyone said “me!” and then laughed.

Jess locked her helmet down and made sure her straps were tight. This was going to be one hell of a fun trip. She just knew it.

* * * * *

Clayton Rogers waited in his new office for his second official delegation of the day. As offices went, it was a bit small for his taste. And a bit plain, but time had been short. His moving company would soon see his old office packed and moved.

Assuming the warplanes circling the island let them in.

The view of the island from his office window was less than inspiring. It had once been home to massive strip mines and the scars still showed. On the land and on the people.

There weren’t many of them on the island, numerically speaking. Only about 10,000. The country’s GDP was less than 40 million dollars American. That was a far cry from what each man and woman had earned back when outside corporations were stripping their island of its resources.

The natives were mostly dark, of Micronesian stock. An astounding number of them were obese and almost half of the population had diabetes. That was one of the things he intended to see fixed.

With today’s medical technology, there was no excuse for it. There were treatments that were more effective than insulin. They just cost money.

Something he didn’t have as much of as he’d once had, but this he could afford. The cost to convince a majority of the major families to sell their sovereignty to him wasn’t that much, really. Not compared to the amount he’d already spent.

Those few billion dollars had gained him not only an island to build a new spaceport that he alone controlled, but also the protection of being a nation unto himself. Being the CEO of the largest global multination corporation had carried a lot of weight. Diplomatic immunity only added to it. Especially when the second most powerful nation on Earth was pissed at you.

The door to his office opened and his assistant stuck his head in. “Secretary Queen is here to see you, Mister President.”

“Send him in.”

Clayton turned away from the work he kept seeing out the window behind his desk and faced the trouble walking in his door. He’d seen Queen before at some government function. His people had a thick dossier on him, so Clayton had a good idea of what the man would do under certain stimuli.

He saw the welcome party at the airport had managed to wave a red cape in the man’s face. Queen stormed into the office with steam almost literally rising from his ears. Good. Angry men made mistakes. Misjudged people. Missed things.

Queen came in alone, glaring at Clayton. “Mister President.”

The slight emphasis he put on Clayton’s new title told him that he didn’t think very much of it. That was fine. Neither did Clayton. It was a means to an end.

“Mister Secretary,” Clayton said serenely. “Might I offer you some refreshment?”

“I’d rather get this over with.”

Clayton made a shooing gesture, sent his man back out of the office, and sat down behind his desk. “Then let’s get to it.”

A petty man would have put an uncomfortable chair in front of the desk to make a point of how unwelcome the other man was. Not Clayton. He put a luxurious and most comfortable seat there. The impression he wanted to send wasn’t so overt.

He watched Queen sit. The man was somewhat surprised by the comfort of the chair when he’d expected something completely different. The people at the airport had made him unwelcome, but the seat sent the opposite message. Putting him even further off his game.

That didn’t keep Queen quiet for long. “Let me start off by saying you have a lot of gall. You’ve been dodging me for almost a week. Five long days where I’ve only gotten more pissed off. That wasn’t wise.”

Clayton shrugged. “I had a number of pressing matters that had to be dealt with, Mister Secretary. Some of which impacted our meeting.”

The younger man’s face soured. “So I heard. Do you really believe China can protect you if the United States decides to make an example of you?”

He let that hang in the air for a moment. The threats had come even sooner than Clayton had expected.

“Speaking bluntly, yes. The United States isn’t the military power it used to be. Your navy is half the size it used to be. You’ve cut the Army in half and virtually eliminated the Marines. Your technological edge is a fond memory.

“Your allies are either fighting for their lives against Islamic extremists or circling the two of you to see what parts they can tear off if you start fighting. No, you don’t dare challenge China directly.”

He held up a finger before Queen could speak. “And before you trot out that threat of using force to unseat me, I think you’d best be warned that I have potent weapons on this island that would make that most unwise.”

“Ha!” Queen laughed. “China might be a threat, but you’re not. I don’t care what kind of high tech weapons you have waiting, we can take you.”

“If you chose to, yes, I’m sure you could. Unfortunately for you, my weapons are words and images. You see, I invited the press to come along with the UN delegation. Even as we speak, they’re getting a tour of the island and seeing the damage that’s been done here. And getting the complete rundown on how I’m going to help these poor people.”


Clayton smiled. “Public relations, man. Surely you’ve heard of it. Not only am I compensating every person on this island generously for the sale of a worthless rock, but also each is gaining a new career, should they want it, and the best health care money can buy. Some have chosen to relocate to other places, true, but most of the people have decided to stay.

“The reporters are getting the story now on how their lives are being improved. Told by the very people themselves. They’re quite happy with the arrangements, I assure you. Is that the image the United States wants to send the world? Of them crushing these people under their military heels?”

Queen sat back and gave Clayton a long look. “What kind of game are you playing?”

“The kind where I get to keep my marbles. Let’s cut to the chase, Mister Secretary. You don’t give a rat’s ass about these people. We’re both men of influence looking to protect what’s ours, so I understand how you feel. People are a means to an end, much like money or power. What are you actually looking to change in this situation and why?”

The other man seemed to consider him for a while before he responded. “Very well. Your spaceship is of grave concern to my government and me. Leaving aside the fact that we authorized no such construction in orbit, my experts tell me that to move that quickly you’d need to have a substantially more powerful reactor than was allowed to be transported from this world. You’ve used nuclear power for that ship’s propulsion.”

“I see,” Clayton said. “Let’s address that concern first then, shall we? Yes. Liberty Station has a true nuclear reactor. Not a large one, but not that piss ant little thing the UN approved. So what? Space is brimming with deadly radiation. Where do you think the fuel for the reactor came from in the first place?”

“There are rules for a reason, Mister Rogers. If everyone were allowed to do as they pleased, it would be anarchy. There’s an international treaty prohibiting nuclear power in space and shipping weapons of the same nature there. What’s to say you haven’t violated the latter rule if you scoff at the first?”

That nuclear power treaty was a fairly recent one, only ratified a decade ago. There’d already been a treaty about the weapons, but not reactors. It made the rules on weapons even clearer, though.

The major world players didn’t want to expand their destructive arsenal into space. Something Clayton actually agreed with, though he was sure that they would ignore it soon enough. If they hadn’t already. So, perhaps it was more accurate to say that they didn’t want to see their enemies with weapons of mass destruction in space.

“I’d offer you my word, but that seems unlikely to satisfy you,” Clayton said. “And I’d thank you to use my title, Mister Secretary. Let’s mind our Ps and Qs.”

“I’m not here to be lectured by the likes of you, Mister Rogers. I really couldn’t care less about your tender sensibilities. I suggest you listen up. If you don’t want your commercial empire seized, you’ll pay close attention. Turn your ship around and bring it home. The UN will send up an inspection team and remove the illegal reactor. The fines will be heavy, I’m sure, but better than the alternative.”

“And if I refuse?”

“Then I carry out my promise to impound everything you own outside this island.”

“Go ahead. Make the call. Get it rolling. I’ll wait.”

The other man blinked in surprise. “Excuse me? Have you lost your mind?”

Clayton smiled. “It might seem like it, but no. First, let’s address that little reactor. I shipped it into space. Guilty as charged. One problem. I’m not a signatory to that treaty. I was a private citizen at the time. And Nauro never signed it either, so I’m still in the clear on that.”

Queen surged to his feet. “Don’t you even try to play those kind of games with me, Rogers. Mexico is a signatory and your spaceport is in their territory.”

“They had no idea what I intended. In any case, if you wanted to go after someone, shouldn’t it be them? No, Mister Secretary, I don’t think you’ll be able to tag me with that. Especially since I asked the UN Secretary General about the legalities of that treaty. The UN, it seems, concurs with my opinion.”

“The UN is a building full of blowhards that couldn’t tie their own shoes without taking a bribe. Is that what you did? Bribe them?”

Clayton leaned back in his seat. It creaked in a way that satisfied him. “Bribery is such a harsh word. I prefer to think of it as a fee. A substantial one, I grant you, but just the price of doing business.”

“Don’t think the opinion of those corrupt bastards means one thing to me or the United States of America,” Queen snarled. “You either comply with my instructions or you won’t have a pot to piss in.”

Clayton stood slowly. “That brings to mind the other work I’ve been doing over the last week. Perhaps you’re curious why the Chinese are so friendly with me. They were initially quite angry about this entire situation. Now they recognized my government here and are coming to protect us from the ‘imperialist dogs’ of the US Navy. Quite the change, isn’t it?”

That derailed Queen’s train of thought. “You bribed them, too? They can’t stop us from seizing everything you or your companies own. Rainforest has a lot of operations in the United States. That’s going to hurt.”

“True enough,” Clayton admitted. “Only it won’t be me you’re hurting. I sold everything to the Chinese. Other than my now flush bank accounts—which are in China, by the way—everything I own now sits on this twenty-one square kilometer island. Except for Liberty Station, of course. And she’s outside your jurisdiction, too. Space is just the same as international waters, I believe.”

That confession flummoxed the man. Queen stood there with his mouth working, but no words came out.

“Now, Mister Secretary, I suggest that we take some time for you to collect your thoughts and consult with your country. I believe that’s the correct phrase, isn’t it? We don’t have to be enemies, but I’m not your whipping boy.

“I wasn’t joking about the Chinese sending a naval task force. Nauro signed a defense pact with them a few days ago. And we’re a lot closer to China than to the US. I think it would be in all our interests to take a deep breath and step back from the edge of the cliff.”

Queen took a long, deep breath, just as Clayton had advised. “I see. This does change the complexity of the situation somewhat.”

“It does. Rather than get angry, perhaps you’d allow my chef to prepare us something interesting. The people here have some amazing dishes. We can eat and I’ll tell you about what Liberty Station is up to and how it could be beneficial to the US. I’ll give you a clue. Asteroid mining.”

That part was true enough, Clayton knew, but those sorts of things made the best red herrings. Queen would have his mind on all the complexities of asteroid mining and the incredible wealth in space. So much so, that he wouldn’t see the real mission the ship was carrying out.

Clayton allowed himself a smile. Diplomacy wasn’t just for nations. And the biggest players weren’t used to operating at their highest potential. This Queen was a bully and a piker. By the time he realized there was anything more to the situation, it would be far, far too late for him to do anything about it.

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