Subway to the Stars

Book Two of the Subway Trilogy

Hostile aliens have launched an attack on Earth and its solar system, using the new portal system of travel as their entry point. That first attack was driven off, but now the “Bugs” are using pirate (unauthorized) portals for the same purpose. Suddenly humanity’s solar system is faced with a Bug invasion already spreading over Earth and also to Mars.

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Solar Subway Systems invented a way to stretch a wormhole between two points, allowing near-instantaneous travel not only between any two locations on Earth, but also between the planets and satellites of the solar system. SSS VP of engineering Charles (Scotty) Hays and Chief Scientist Robert (Bobby) Taylor, along with field service genius Carol (Kaley) Sellers, have built SSS into a major, multi-billion-dollar corporation.

Unfortunately, the SSS portal system allowed a relentlessly hostile alien race to “dial in” to the portal system and launch an invasion. The attack was driven off, but the “Bugs” are still doing their best to forge an entry back to Earth. The invaders are now taking over pirate (unauthorized) portals built to take advantage of the solar-system-wide portal network, and have managed to sneak into hidden locations on Earth.

Suddenly humanity’s solar system is faced with a Bug invasion already spreading over Earth and also to Mars. Again called into service by the US Intersolar Command, Scotty, Bobby, and Kaley must pull off miracles to stop this new invasion of Earth.

Chapter 1 Bad News

We had not had a good evening. Kaley, aka Ms. Carol Sellers, had confessed her undying love for me some months ago, and declared she had every intention of marrying me. However, in the intervening months, my beloved had been pressured from pillar to post, always on the move, shuttling between the Jovian and Saturnian moons, Mars, Earth’s moon, and even various Earth-based Subway portals, performing her main job, which was to serve as the world’s greatest field technical expert for Subway Solar Systems.

I had been forced into an almost equally rigorous schedule, mainly trying to manage supplier relations as I attempted to get our many, mostly loyal, vendors to dramatically increase their production rates. Intersolar Command (“IC”), the US military unit which controlled military operations on off-world sites, was hounding us for every higher production, as they continued to increase the number of off-world portals as insurance against our still-possibly-active enemy, the Bugs.

No, I don’t know the source of their new name, which sounds like a highly denigrating term, possibly even species-prejudiced, but after all, they sort of resembled oversized grub worms, and they did have a goal of eliminating all humans. After their possibly-accidental-but-probably-purposeful dial-in only last year to the lone Titan portal, plunging us into several months of war, the name had crept into the military, and then the civilian, lexicon. We thought we had eliminated the Bugs’ presence in our solar system, but we were still getting phantom dial-ins to various portals, and the IC brain trust felt certain our new enemies were trying hard to forge a new portal to our solar system. As their home planet probably existed something between thousands and billions of lightyears from Earth—nobody knew for sure—that was more than likely their only possible pathway back into our solar system.

Entering our joint office—well, it’s two offices connected by a double-wide door which is always open—I heard no clickety-click of Bobby pounding on his keyboard. Surprised, I cast about the area and found him leaning back on the small sofa in my office which sat against the back wall. His eyes were closed but one of his hands, scratching his nose, indicated that he was hard at work, grinding on some problem of interest.

Kaley and I were not holding hands. We weren’t at war by any means, but there was a bit of frost in the air, relations-wise but not weather-wise, as on this bright March Thursday, the temp had started out in the sixties and might reach the low eighties. Such is the weather in Dallas in early spring—I had seen twenties in March, and I had seen nineties as well. March is a fickle month in Texas.

I had been pushing again, urging Kaley to set a date for our wedding. Unfortunately, Kaley moved slowly, at least when it came to romance. Yes, she didn’t mind fooling around a bit, and she’d spent a couple of nights at my house recently. Despite the fact that she loved me, she was dragging her feet. I had not yet been able to pinpoint the reasons for her gun-shy behavior.

Hearing steps, Bobby sat up, shook his head, and focused on us. “You’re late.” He seemed to sniff the air. “Also, you’ve been arguing. What gives?”

Kaley shot a guilty glance at me, saying, “What are you talking about? We are not late.”

“Yes, you are, by at least ten minutes. You’re usually prompt. And you come in holding hands, and give each other such sweet, little ‘I love you’ looks that I almost have to hurl. But not today. Kaley’s mad and you, my old friend Scotty, are a little steamed also.”

“You’re right,” I told him as Kaley whirled on me. I didn’t let her say anything. “No use trying to fool Bobby,” I told her. “He knows what he knows.”

Her eyes widened, but she stayed quiet. Probably because she knew if she said anything, she might regret it later. She turned back to Bobby. “Okay, Dr. Genius, sir, we’ve been arguing. You know the subject, I’m sure. You want to be our marriage counselor?”

Bobby, yawned, stretched his chocolate brown arms nearly to the ceiling, and lifted his towering, six-foot, nine-inch frame off the sofa. Bobby is a genius, gold-plated and certified, with an IQ that might be off the charts, except he won’t take intelligence tests. He’s one of the three driving forces behind Solar Subway Systems, which we refer to as “Triple-S” or “S-Cubed.” I’m the second, making up for my lack of intelligence, at least compared to Bobby, with lots of drive and a good feel for the business of making and selling wormhole generators. Kaley is the third, not only my sweetie-pie but also the best field engineer/system debugger in the known universe.

“He wants to get married ASAP, but you’re still having trouble believing he’s  in love with an old lady like you, so you’re cautious—and scared,” Bobby summarized.

“Now wait a minute—I’m no longer a teenager, but I—”

Bobby cut her off. “You worry about being so much older than Scotty, and although his affection leans more toward worship than love, you cannot believe it, and you’re too scared to take the plunge. Boy, if I ever found a guy that would love me ten percent as much as Scotty loves you, I’d have him at the altar in ten minutes.”

Bobby had uttered the one hundred percent truth, but my true love was beginning to look more than just irritated. I stepped in to deflect her anger. “It’s okay, Bobby. I push too hard, and Kaley likes to think things over. You know as well as I do, we love each other, but it’s been hard since the Bugs invaded. We’re just now beginning to get back to normal.”

Bobby hugged Kaley. With his arms around her, squeezing her pretty hard, she practically disappeared, and she is by no means a small person, standing about five-nine. “Sorry, love,” he told her. “I just want you both to be happy.”

Kaley squeezed back, leaning up to kiss his bowed cheek. “Yeah, I know it, you big doofus. It’s just, after a lot of together time with Scotty, I feel a bit smothered, even though Scotty isn’t a possessive guy. We’ll work it out.”

I started to second that, even though I was beginning to wonder if Kaley was too scared to take the leap. I was saved by the bell—my desk phone rang, and I peeled off across my office to answer it.

“Hays.”

“Scotty? Kinsey McKissack.”

Admiral—now vice admiral—Kinsey McKissack was one of the top ten officers in the United States Intersolar Command. Maybe the top five. The third star had been added to his epaulets because he now directed the USIC, the combination of US Army, Navy, and Air Force units that controlled our military presence across the solar system. IC, headquartered in Fort Worth, sat across the runway from Lockheed, the manufacturer that made the SF-77 space fighter, used by almost every country on Earth. IC included not only major installations on Mercury, Mars, and the moon, but also on the Jovian satellites Ganymede and Io, and Saturn moons Rhea and Titan, the base IC had re-established since the first invasion of the Bugs.

Our business with IC consisted of providing an increasing number of portal units, which allowed temporary wormholes to be created between bases on the various celestial bodies (and between many locations on Earth), allowing instantaneous travel between any two portals. Thinking back, I couldn’t recall speaking to McKissack since we had been able to rid ourselves of the Bugs a few months ago.

“Good to talk to you, Admiral,” I told him. “Hope you aren’t having any problems with Triple-S products.”

He harrumphed. “It’s Kinsey, Scotty—and no, we don’t have any problems, at least with S-Cubed. But we do have a problem. Could you and your team”—by which he meant me, Bobby, and Kaley—“come over here for a quick meeting?”

Anything for our best customer. “You get one of your portals to dial us up and we can be there ASAP,” I told him.

He barked one of his frequent, sharp laughs. “We’re dialing now.”

So, it must be important. “See you in ten,” I told him and disconnected.

Turning to my office-mates, I said, “That was McKissack. He needs us in his office five minutes ago.”

That got me a couple of wide-eyed glances, but Bobby stood automatically. “Our best customer needs us, all he has to do is say so.”

Kaley glanced toward me. “Do I need my travel bag?” She and I kept small cases in our offices for emergency trips to the outworld portal sites.

“It sounded urgent, but I think it’s a local meeting, at least right now.”

She nodded, causing her old-fashioned but very sexy, at least to me, bubble-do to bob back and forth. She grabbed one of my hands and one of Bobby’s, and began to skip out, dragging us along, and singing “We’re off to see the wizard.” Bobby rolled his eyes but we submitted to the dragging.

Our lab portal had established connection with the IC base when we arrived, while Corey, one of our newer techs, stood by. He was slender, rather tall, and had hair so blond it verged on white, with a high tenor voice that told us, “A naval officer poked his head through and said some admiral or other was waiting for you.”

Kaley laughed and said, “We make even the important people wait.” He goggled, not sure if she were kidding or not, and frankly, neither was I. I refused to skip through the portal—Kaley had done it before—and shortly we stood outside McKissack’s office. His aide, a rather short and serious naval lieutenant, who had brought us from the portal room and furnished our badges, directed us to McKissack’s inner sanctum.

He came around his desk to shake hands, a gesture which indicated his regard for us as a unit. We had been able, perhaps with more luck than we deserved, to extricate IC (and the world) from a couple of dire situations. I hoped this summons didn’t indicate another such problem. My hope was quickly dashed.

We took the three chairs before his desk as he resumed his seat. McKissack, tall, graying, and ramrod-straight, was a fair, measured, logical-thinking hard ass. He believed in straight-from-the-shoulder communication which came across as stern. I had no doubt within the inner workings of the military, he could be as Machiavellian as the next flag officer, but person to person, he was tough but fair. I liked him a lot.

“I ordered coffee,” he said, “This is off the record, and classified. I don’t have a lot of info, but I wanted to discuss the situation with the three of you to get ideas. How much do you know about the Shadow Network?”

I turned to stare at Bobby and Kaley, who stared back, Kaley vacant-eyed and Bobby with slitted lids.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Kaley said.

I’d heard the term, but as it was one of those concepts like the “dark web,” or the “underground railroad,” I had to admit I knew very little.

Bobby, on the other hand, knew quite a bit. I could tell by his expression. Never assume what a genius knows because he will always surprise you. There is absolutely nothing in the known universe that Bobby cannot become an expert on after thirty minutes of research.

He addressed Kaley. “The Shadow Network is a mythical entity. Some people think it doesn’t exist. It’s hardly talked about because few people know much about it. If it exists, it’s a pirate portal network, probably started in Russia as a way to avoid having to pay for Triple-S services. There may be connections to China, the southeast Asian countries, one or more mid-eastern countries, and perhaps a bootleg group in Japan.

“These pirates—assuming that ‘they’ really exist—have apparently stolen plans for our portals and controllers and begun to build rogue portals that connect to some of the national networks of those countries. It was a way to create part of their portal networks at cut rates.”

McKissack’s expression had turned bemused, but he should have known better, as I said. Bobby didn’t necessarily know everything, but he knew most things. The admiral repeated my thoughts. “Should have known you’d heard about it. You’re right. Up to now, we couldn’t even be sure such a portal network existed, but now we know.”

“How so?” I asked.

He surveyed us. “Two days ago, one of our surveillance satellites picked up a Bug fighter buzzing over northeastern Siberia. Positive identification. So, where the hell did it come from?”

“Ah,” Bobby said, sitting back. Kaley’s eyes narrowed in sync with mine and I knew we were catching up.

“The thing is,” Bobby continued, “the corners of the world in which the Shadow Network exists are sort of like the wild west a couple hundred years ago. No regulation, no rules, equipment cobbled together with bailing wire and chewing gum. Such portals can barely operate anyway, I would expect, let alone do what our network does to protect itself from Bug dial-ins. So, even though it’s a piece of crap, it could get taken over and give the Bugs a new door to our solar system. Worst of all, for God’s sake, it’s right here in our own backyard.”

“Mmm.” McKissack cleared his throat, looked us over again, and said. “Quick on the uptake as usual. Yeah, you nailed it. The Bugs are keeping a low profile—the fighter was spotted at night, more than likely because they don’t know about our wide satellite surveillance, or don’t know how effective it is. Nail on the head, Dr. Taylor. It’s appears to be a small beachhead, with a few of the enemy at present, but they’re right in our backyard, as you said. We’ve contacted the Russians, but so far, no response. We have to move fast or we could be overrun quickly. I don’t have to remind you how fast the Bugs can move.”

“Not sure what we can do,” I said. My mind was racing. Given that the Bugs had a base in Asia plus their speed in pushing an invasion, they could already be spreading out.

“On the military front, nothing,” McKissack said. “I know you’re always working on new portal technology. If you have any cooked up, we could use it now. We’re trying to get more info. We’re repositioning a number of satellites over Asia, searching for any traces of activity. Russia and China aren’t happy about it, but because they know they might be in deep ca-ca, there’s been no formal protest.  They—or at least Russia—allowed the pirate sites to multiply, knowing it saved them a bunch of rubles.”

“Their pirate portals have limited utility,” Bobby observed. “They can connect to each other, and maybe a few portals in our network in those specific countries. Thing is, they would be forced to choose the rare times when no portal connect is scheduled for a few seconds.  They  still have to receive our sync signals and schedule around legitimate portal connections.”

McKissack nodded. “True. However, they appear to be operating between the cracks of our formal system. Our problem is, with no control, or a lot less control over their portal network, and without the ironclad security systems we have, the Russians haven’t  been able to nip this problem in the bud. I think they’re scared shitless and hoping we can help clean up their mess. Our sources seem sure countries like Russia that allowed the rogue portals either shut them down or are in the process of doing so but it’s too late to stop the bugs from gaining a foothold.”

I exchanged glances with my colleagues. “We need to think about this,” I told McKissack. “I know you’ll continue to monitor satellite surveillance to track any Bug movements you detect. We’ll analyze this new threat and get back to you as soon as we have some answers.”

I assumed I appeared as dour as McKissack and my colleagues. We stood, shook hands, and went back to headquarters.

Chapter 2 Just Thinkin’

Back in my office, Bobby and Kaley commandeered the sofa near the window, while I sat in the somewhat worn but incredibly comfortable chair at my desk. Bobby leaned back, eyes closed, doing what I referred to as “grinding.” That is, he was working hard on a problem, presumably concerning the Russian rogue portal, but I wasn’t sure. The answer seemed simple to me—that is, the Russian government had to find the rogue portal (or portals) and destroy them, preferably ASAP.

But Bobby was really concentrating, meaning something about the issue had either caught his attention or had led to some other important concern. Either way, he had a major problem in his mental hands and he was giving it his full attention.

Kaley didn’t say anything, but her eyes were fixed on me. That meant she had something else she wanted to discuss, out of the range of Bobby, either because she didn’t want him to hear or she didn’t want to disturb his grinding.

I stood. “I need coffee.”

She came off the sofa in a flash. “Me too. Bobby?”

He didn’t bother to open his eyes. “Black. Big. Hurry.”

Our break room has a couple of Keurig units with various pods, as well as a commercial brewer that will make anything from espressos to lattes to extra strong coffees in carafes. I set the maker to do a full carafe of my favorite brand, loaded the beans, and initiated the grind/brew/fill cycle. Then I gave my true love the eye back.

“What gives?”

She made a sort of embarrassed shrug, but her voice came across clear and strong. “I do not want you, under any circumstances, going to Russia with IC forces to check out those pirate portals. Promise me.”

I pooh-poohed her concern. “No problem. There isn’t the chance of a snowball in hell the Russian leaders would ask for IC help. Ask for military help from another nation—admit you can’t handle it yourself? No way.”

“Okay, I’ll accept that. Then I ask that you not go to any other country at IC’s request to help hunt for Bug portals. Promise me.”

I turned to check the brew process, then shifted back to her. “Hell, Kaley, you know I can’t promise that! God knows how fast the Bugs could spread if they could make a beachhead here on Earth—and it looks like they have. What if they got a start in Japan? Or Australia? Or maybe in south or central America? Then what? You, Bobby, and I are the ‘Big Three’ in terms of field representation for Triple-S. Like it or not, our portals are the source of the problem. Period.

“They’re  a great boon to humanity, a way to make travel on Earth and throughout the solar system as easy as walking to the corner drugstore. But despite their advantages, humankind wouldn’t have the Bugs as a problem if we hadn’t invented the portals. With this newest problem, I wouldn’t be surprised to see calls to cut off all portal travel—maybe ban portals completely. If we are to have a prayer of keeping a portal business going, all of us—you, Bobby, me, the rest of our employees—are going to have to do the bidding of IC to ensure we can reap the bonuses of portal travel without the problems.”

Quite a speech for me. I ducked my head to the brewer, saw it was nearly full, snagged our cups, and prepared to pour.

As we walked back to the office, me with two cups, her with one, I remarked, “I’d listen to your requests more carefully if they were from my wife and not my reluctant girlfriend.”

“Reluctant? I haven’t been reluctant to be your girlfriend!”

“You’ve been reluctant to get married.”

She didn’t say anything for a moment. Just before we got to the office, she said, “That’s a pretty low blow.”

Bobby was still grinding, but he opened his eyes and sat up when he heard our footsteps. I handed over his cup, crossing to my chair, as Kaley sat beside him. I already regretted my nasty remark. It wasn’t true—I’d listen carefully to anything Kaley said, one hundred percent of the time. I’d said it to turn the screws, dredging up our earlier argument, to get in the last word.

Kaley sat beside Bobby, drinking coffee and blinking. Not a good sign—she was either about to cry, not likely in Kaley’s case, or cloud up and rain over us both, and it would be my fault.

Bobby had been too busy grinding to notice Kaley’s unease. Now he said, “I’ve been thinkin’.”

Kaley swallowed and said out of the side of her mouth, “What a surprise.”

That stopped him. Wide eyed, he gave her a more detailed survey. “What’s eating you? Some of our customers acting in their usual unpredictable way?”

Kaley continued to blink, so I stepped in before her cup (of resentment) ranneth over. “My fault. We argued and I was rather nasty.”

Bobby refocused on me, a thorough inspection. “You? You’re never nasty, well, not often.”

I glanced at Kaley—still blinking—and back to Bobby. “You ever heard that old ballad, ‘You Only Hurt the One You Love’?”

“No.”

Of course not—it was hit from the 1940’s, from a black singing group, the Mills Brothers, but it wouldn’t have been anything that a teenager of either race would have heard twenty years ago. “Forget it, obscure reference. I said something nasty to the woman I love, continuing an earlier argument.”

I turned to Kaley. “Please forgive me—my remark was nasty and stupid and beside the point. It’s not like we aren’t together a lot every week. I’m just anxious to get married, and you’re not, and we are about as married as we can be without being married, so please forget I said it and I promise not to bring it up for at least a week. And by the way, I love you.”

She blinked twice more, came over, and kissed me. She held on and I did too. “Just when I think you’re a total jackass, you haul off and surprise me and say something really sweet,” she said softly.

Bobby took a couple of large coffee sips, set his cup on the small table on his side of the sofa, and said, “Glad that’s cleared up. Now, back to my point.”

Arms still around me, she said, “Which is?”

“The more I think about it, the more convinced I am we can use a single portal to create a wormhole.”

Kaley and I sat, her beside Bobby, me in my comfy chair.

“Wait,” Kaley said. “Haven’t we always known we can create a wormhole with a single portal? Isn’t it what Ray, Wendy, and Grant did about twenty years ago when they discovered the wormhole effect?”

Bobby nodded. He had donned his patient, forbearing expression—that is, the facial map that said he would be happy to explain the obvious facts to us mere mortals, to whom they were not obvious. Just about any fact is obvious to him with a little thought. For the rest of us, a slow, detailed explanation is all that will help, and when that happens, I’m glad Bobby is a friend. Because, if he isn’t your friend, and you ask a lot of stupid questions, he can be more than a bit snarky.

“Sure, sure,” he conceded. “The thing Scotty and I have always come back to is when you connect two portals in the normal way, you always know the originating point and the destination, because it’s the location of the two portals that are involved. In the case of a single portal, we know where the originating portal is, but where will the destination be?

“That was always the sticking point, but even though it will require some exploration and testing of such a portal maker, I think we can fix the destination portal location problem.  It will require careful experimentation and tedious calibration, but with hard work, I believe we can make a single portal system that will open a wormhole to a desired destination. Within limits, of course. You won’t be able to get the location down to the last millimeter, but maybe within, say, a few kilometers.”

We stared at him. He loved to say new, outrageous things to prove he had licked a former technical barrier.

“Qualify ‘within a few kilometers’,” I told him. “Right now, portal-to-portal, we can go from exact spot to exact spot. Opening a portal in an approximate location might not only be dangerous to travelers but to whoever happens to be in the path of the wormhole.”

He nodded. “I concede that, but for exploring the known universe, especially since we have yet to come up with faster-than-light travel, it might be the only way to go.  It could be an easy method to explore new worlds. Think about it. You open a wormhole to a new, unexplored planet with room for the human race to expand, you send through a portal team in the same way our enemies, the Bugs have done, build a portal, and then you have easy access to the new world.”

His idea was intriguing, although I still wasn’t sure how easy it would be to direct a wormhole’s far end to a desired destination with no portal but the originating end. If Bobby thought thus-and-so was possible, it more than likely was.

As I chewed over his summary, Kaley said, “Well, it sounds cool if you can make it work. We’ll have to be careful so we don’t accidentally dial in the Bugs’ world. That could be a big problem all over—”

My desk phone ringing interrupted her. The display announced Admiral McKissack. Again.

I answered. “What’s the word, Kinsey?”

He grunted. “It’s not good. One of the areas in Russia near a pirate portal site has gone dark. Russian military is sending in troops prepared to shoot first and ask questions later.  It’s a smaller town near the Siberian border. I fear that the inhabitants are either dead, or soon will be due to the shitstorm that’s  about to rain down on their heads.”

Just great. The operators of the illegal portal had not only brought the wrath of the Bugs down on those in the city, they’d guaranteed the Russian response would be large and lethal.  Innocent bystanders were about to pay the price for Russia’s lax control of their portal network.

“Any help we can provide?”

“Not really. The portal authority is about to kill the whole system as the Russians confront the threat and do their best to wipe out the Bugs’ suspected installation and a helluva lot of the surrounding population. It’s a friggin’ mess. I expect a substantial part of Russian leadership will get booted out of the Kremlin because of this gaffe.”

“When do you expect word of the result?”

“In hours. Some of our military leadership have been exchanging info. The other side is being fairly cooperative, as they realize they’ve created this disaster. I expect we’ll need your help in the future, so that is why I’m keeping you in the loop.”

He hung up, and I turned to the rest of our SSS leadership. “The Russians have identified the location of a possible Bug base, and they’re going after it. I pity the Russian citizens who live nearby. Kinsey will keep us posted.”

We stared at each other, faces wide with shock and concern. I suspect their thoughts mirrored mine: Will these Goddam Bug problems ever go away?

Chapter 3 Enemy Dial-Ins

A weird rest of the day.

We had coffee, discussed the single-portal possibilities, had more coffee, and went out for a late lunch. Returning, Margie, our admin, had left a message from Admiral McKissack. Settling in our office, Bobby and Kaley again on the sofa and me reclining at about forty-five degrees in my chair, I returned the call.

I was told to hold and McKissack got on in about two minutes.

“Sorry to have to call again. I hope it’s not a bother.”

“Kinsey,” I replied, “no call from our biggest customer is ever a bother. You have some news?”

His voice was neither bouncy nor upbeat. “Not good, I’m afraid. The Russian military discovered the Bug base and attacked. The Bugs had accumulated a solid thirty or so fighters—well camouflaged, I might add—and the Bugs did not go quietly. They had a small portal and were in the process of building one the size that they erected on Titan last year. Russia sent in hundreds of soldiers with guns blazing, air support, and even tanks. Obliterated the whole Goddamn site, killed all the Bugs. There were something like four or five hundred civilian deaths.

“Apparently the Russian military killed a fair number of those civilians, but the Bugs had already polished off half or more of the total population. There was substantial collateral damage, a lot of the dead were due to the Bug takeover of the rogue portal site.

“That’s what little good news we have, and it’s a mixed bag. Here’s the bad news: Two more Russian sites have gone dark.  A pirate site in southeast Asia is not responding. It sounds as though we have any number of Bug breakthroughs at the pirated portal sites. The bastards are getting what they deserve, but Earth is going to suffer as well.”

Bobby spoke up. “Admiral, you need double or triple your current number of surveillance satellites to search for traces of Bug encroachment.”

“You don’t have to tell me. A military contingent of SF-Seventy-Sevens is launching with over two hundred small scanning satellites to cover the harder-to-inspect, more remote areas. You suspect the Bugs are spreading out, searching for obscure places to build additional portals.” A statement, not a question.

“Yes, sir. They aren’t going to build one in Times Square or Central Park. They’ll try the Siberian plains, the outback in Australia, the African or South American jungles. We need top surveillance. Can you send me the feeds of those satellites, directly to S-Cubed headquarters?”

McKissack harrumphed. “Bobby, those feeds are extremely sensitive. Hell, I’m not supposed to see some of them without permission.”

“I need them all. I hope I don’t have to spout that old saw about permission and forgiveness.”

McKissack paused and then gave Bobby a hearty har-har. “What the hell can you do with hundreds of feeds? You’re smart and fast, but I’m not sure you’re that fast.”

“I’ve got video analysis software I developed, and it’s really fast. Just forward me the feeds.”

McKissack countered. “What about sending us the software? We got lots of computers and computer geeks that can use it.”

Bobby was getting antsy with all the delays.

“Kinsey,” I chimed in, “just send us the feeds. Bobby’s software is like alpha-test modules. He’s coded them, and they’re lightyears beyond anything you have, but it’s only been wrung out to the extent Bobby needed to get it operational. It’s rough around the edges and requires the dexterity of a concert violinist to keep it running. We send it to your guys, they might screw up your whole operating system trying to install it.

“Our new computer system can handle a couple hundred data feeds running at a hundred megabits per second. The quickest way to spot new colonies is to give Bobby what he needs and stay the hell out of his way. That’s what I do.”

“As I uncover anything, I will vector it directly to you—or whoever you designate,” Bobby added. “It’s faster this way.”

McKissack digested our statements. “All right. The data is encrypted, so you’ll need decoders and keys for each channel.”

“No problem,” Bobby assured him. “Just transmit the keys to my office computer. We’re cleared to receive encrypted messages. I’ll get started.”

He paused as though he were about to break the connection, then added, “One more thing, Admiral. Could you have your world-wide surveillance services forward any odd or unusual observed occurrence across the globe for the next few days?”

McKissack paused, then asked, “What sort of occurrences?”

“Just… oddities,” Bobby said. “Odd sounds. Odd lights. UFO reports. Especially reports of military or civilian pilots on unusual observations. Any report that doesn’t have a readily-explainable answer to an observed phenomenon.”

More silence. “You’re assuming a possible odd report could be a possible Bug presence.”

Bobby nodded, though McKissack wouldn’t see it.. “Absolutely. Have your team on the lookout as well. That’s how we’ll uncover Bug activity and Bug presence.”

Bobby and McKissack batted a few comments and questions back and forth, then McKissack rang off. Bobby laid his head back on the sofa as I commented, “You’re afraid there are multiple Bug groups already spreading across the world?”

He grimaced. “I am scared. Terrified, actually. We not only killed off the Titan Bug base last year, we hit them in their home system. Of course, we’ll never know for sure which of their bases we hit, or how much total damage we did, but I’m willing to bet we dealt them a heavy blow. Not fatal, but a dangerous.

“Think about it. We transferred an active nuclear device directly to one of their major home bases. It probably damaged not only the military base, but any civilian population center nearby. What if we knocked off not only the largest military base but also a city of several million Bugs? And by the way, I think that’s likely.

“In that case, they are full bore to get their revenge, and are pulling out all the stops. Revenge can be a major motivator, right?”

I thought he nailed it. “Yeah. The only good that can come of this is we get the pirate portals knocked off the air.”

He shook his head, eyes still closed. “Yeah, but for how long? If we manage to solve the problem, I’ll bet before too many months, we’ll have to contend with illegals again.”

Kaley leaned back beside him, also closing her eyes. She muttered, “We’d better change our field service agreements. If a customer has a problem, if it’s due to a shadow network portal the customer knowingly allows to use their part of our network, there ought to be severe penalties, including having their network shut down.”

“I’ll vote for that,” Bobby said.

“Probably be hard to prove,” I reminded them. “The governments involved can always say they had no idea the pirates were piggy-backing on their network. Sure, you’d bet they had to know, but if they maintain they’re innocent, what can we do?”

“Cut them out of the network.,” Bobby said. “Any portal can identify a dial-in portal. If it’s from, say Lower Slobbovia, and the country has a known pirate association, simply cut the connection. We can isolate the Shadow Network, if we want to.”

“But we may force them to develop their own portal technology and install a full portal network,” I told him. “Pretty soon we have a big competitor, and you know many of the Asian countries don’t honor out-of-country patents. There’s a million ways to avoid doing business with us if they want to.”

“Most of Europe, the Americas, and Australia have interlocking patent laws,” Kaley said. “The ultimate blockade for us might be to appeal to those countries to lock out non-complying portals. They might do it.”

“Not a chance.” I said before glancing at Bobby. “Am I right? It would inconvenience their travel too much.”

He pondered a moment, then said, “It’s beside the point anyway. The problem is no longer the Shadow Network. The problem is the Bugs.”

Bobby’s phone buzzed, an intercom call from our admin, Margie. Since she thinks Kaley is her real boss, it must be an urgent message to Bobby, and since he currently sat on my sofa, I buzzed her back on my phone. After a moment, she picked up.

“He’s in my office,” I told her. “What?”

“A high-speed link containing a bunch of video just showed up on one of our terabit digital lines. About a minute later, IC called to say it’s what Bobby requested.”

“He’ll be thrilled,” I said. “What internal channel?”

“Seven. There was a message from an Admiral McKissack that asked Bobby to call back when he solved the problem.”

That was McKissack attempting a bit of humor, which I appreciated. “I’ll relay that to our resident genius.” I hung up and turned to Bobby. “Incoming data on Seven—I think it’s a combination of all the data lines multiplexed together.”

He was up in a second, headed for his workstation. I joined Kaley on the couch and kissed her.

“That was nice,” she said sleepily. “If we were home, I might seduce you.”

“We can go home.”

“Of course, we can’t, you big silly. Bobby’s going to need our help.”

“No chance. He may want us to stay and cheer him on but need us, he doesn’t. Besides, even in times of stress, I reserve the right to make salacious suggestions, even if I know they won’t go anywhere.”

So we sat and held hands, as Bobby began his analysis. Demonstrating that nothing much bothered us anymore, due to all the crises we had faced over the last year, both of us dozed off. We were awakened by Bobby’s cry of triumph. “Got you, you sumbitches!”

Shaking my head, I managed to stand up, Kaley beat me up, so I followed her into his office and stood behind his computer screen. What greeted our eyes was a smudged, black-gray pastiche of early Andy Warhol art, looking ever so much like a pair of dirty slippers sitting on clouds. Except—in the upper left-hand corner, a faint triangle of gray had been outlined by a bright dotted line—Bobby’s detector outlining a discovery.

A Bug fighter. No doubt.

I breathed out a sigh, “You found one. Where?”

“The inner jungles of Brazil, say a hundred miles from Manaus. East of where the Rio Negro flows into the Amazon. That’s an area of wicked jungle. There are small tribes and clans of people in those forests, even though its near Manaus, which has something like a couple million population. The Bugs, who don’t give a shit about any other intelligent life, could wipe out the local population and hide a portal site easily. I mean, imagine a rainforest with an area half the size of the whole damn USA—it would be the proverbial needle in a haystack.”

I stared. Oh, I knew the Amazon rainforest was one of the wonders of the world, but his metaphor drove home the problem of finding such a hidden installation. “At least we know where you spotted the Bug fighter.”

“It’s still only a clue to the location of the Bug beachhead. I mean, yeah, it’s better than having no idea at all, but that fighter could be a hundred kilometers from its home base. And you can bet the Bugs only come out at night—ha, ha, that’s almost funny. But true.”

My mind was reeling. Bobby had missed—no, not really missed, as he probably realized it—just not stated the scariest point. The new Bug location was in an area roughly half the circumference of the Earth distant from the Bug site the Russians had obliterated. Another thought struck me, so ironic I almost laughed: It appeared the Earth was infested with Bugs.

“We gotta call McKissack. No doubt his guys are working on those video feeds as well, but they may have missed your catch. That was a pretty subtle form to identify as a Bug fighter.”

I didn’t wait, simply crossed to my phone and dialed McKissack’s number, prepared to cringe at his reaction.

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