If interstellar travel were feasible, and the corporations beat the government to the stars . . .

His name is Charlie. He is a mopper. He is extremely good at what he does. What he does is to systematically exterminate aliens.

He glides across the field and into the woods, his vehicle a class III skimmer, a Gravitor Hunter. It can carom off thousands of trees and rocks without damage. Even so, it manages to miss them all even at fifty klicks. The important thing is that fifty klicks is far faster than the native aliens can run.

Charlie comes across a small group of them. He fires up his laser and burns a fatal hole in each one. He totes up his tally: He is up to 87,481 aliens on the four planets which he's worked. He is the best mopper Arqdex Corporation has (and, by the way, Gravitor is a subsidiary of Arqdex).

Mother and father are almost unknown concepts to him. He has been raised by the Arqdex Corporation in a sheltered creche. He has been taught human chauvinism from birth, taught to hate aliens one and all as potential usurpers of manifest human destiny. There is no question in his mind but that killing aliens whether males, females, other genders, children, or small infants -- is right and justified and fun. It is the work that fulfills him. And he has been exhaustively trained in methods and techniques of killing, though laser weaponry is his usual and preferred.

So Charlie operates completely outside of any system of law except that which was established by Arqdex Corporation. Arqdex operates based only on what will maximize their profits. This fulfills an ancient tradition of corporate activity. Earth government has tried to control Arqdex, but without any success. Arqdex beat them all to the stars, and in the stars it does whatever it wants.

Arqdex is the largest corporation in the history of the known universe. It does everything and is into everything. In fact, Arqdex is larger than all the governments and corporations of Earth of the late twentieth century put together. It completely owns and controls eleven Earth-like planets, on seven of which the alien sentients have of late been exterminated, and owns and controls another fifty-three non- Earth-type planets: barren rocks (similar to Mars and Mercury), gas giants (similar to Saturn and Jupiter), densely shrouded hellholes (similar to Venus), and so forth. In fact, it has complete control over eleven solar systems, not to mention effective control over some seventy or so suns. In space, Arqdex reigns supreme.

Oh, there are three competitors. TamaronCorp has three solar systems under its belt; EngCo has two, and the space program of the governments of planet Earth also has two, one of which includes one Earth- type planet. On that planet live one of two intelligent alien races that have been suffered to live, by order of Earth; the other race is on one of the EngCo planets. The first, on the Earth-owned planet, was at a technological level comparable to 1840 Earth; the second, on the EngCo-owned planet, was comparable to 1200 Earth. Needless to say, the second, the 1200, was disrupted far more than the first, the 1840, by the alien spacefarers from Earth. The Earthlings' arrival shattered the natives' cosmological view on the more primitive planet, a view which had already been pretty much shattered from within for the more advanced species.

There were once, on the other hand, intelligent races on six Arqdex planets. There were . . . once.

Today, Charlie is in the last phase of mopping up Nissar's planet. There are only an estimated thousand of the aliens left alive, and he is anxious to complete the job, he and seven other moppers. Under ideal circumstances, this could be a scant day's work, but these aliens are the best of the best so far at hiding and evasion, so the work is slow and painful. The moppers are under strict orders not to leave any survivors to cause future problems.

These are the most human-like aliens Charlie has seen, but that doesn't bother him. Their greenish skin, long fingers, and large noses look alien enough. Anyway, if Arqdex told him to go out and murder humans, he would do so without a qualm. Actually, he has done so without a qualm. A whole settlement of some two hundred squatters. They were warned, after all. Given an entire day to leave, and they were still packing when Charlie and one of his fellow moppers came through and removed them, or at least removed their lives. They had been foolish enough to pool their entire fortunes in order to outfit a bare- bones ship to get them as far as a planet where they'd been told they could homestead. Charlie could appreciate the humor of it.

Now on Nissar, it is slow going, the most difficult mopping Charlie has ever done. These ones hide well, exceedingly well. They somehow seemed to have figured out that their heat signatures can give them away, so they are taking precautionary steps to shield or disguise their body heat. No aliens have ever before done that.

Normally, once Arqdex reached a point where they believed that all the aliens were dead, all but two of the moppers would go off-planet, leaving just a brace of these human weapons in case they were wrong. This last pair would stick around another year or so, living like royalty in the company compound, exempt from all work except investigating alien sightings and effectively exempt from local laws. More than once, a mopper decided to take a local human girl for his own sadistic pleasure, leaving a mangled body, but so what? Moppers are untouchable; a little left-over violence is quite understandable. And, after all, it wasn't like there is any shortage of human settlers. Good moppers, however, are a select group. They are difficult to replace.

Charlie is homing in, more by instinct than anything else, on a very secure hiding place in a remote mountain valley in dense forest. He notices, from the corner of his eye (plus the auditory input from the proximity sensor), that another mopper is closing in. Up jumps an alien. Just as the other mopper fires his laser, the alien produces a shiny sort of mirror or shield, seemingly from nowhere, and deflects the laser beam back, quickly angling it, with lightning reflex, to hit the skimmer. The other skimmer explodes. The alien then swings the shield toward Charlie, who is about to fire, so ready to fire that he does in fact fire for a fraction of a second, the beam being reflected but not yet focused back to Charlie, and he lets his finger off the trigger just a millisecond before the alien's mirror would have zeroed in on his own skimmer.

Charlie banks sharply away and gains altitude to see if the alien has any other surprises. He is astonished to find that he is shaky and sweating. Nothing like this has ever happened before. It has always been just a routine matter of stomping on the ants. Never before have they stomped back. He hears a flat crack and notices a slight flare of fire, and realizes that he is being shot at by some primitive weapon. He throws the skimmer into a hard, off-center spiral, diving down behind a rock ridge that hides him from the alien's view, then shoots up again quickly some forty meters to the side, and before the alien can swing his shield around to the new and unexpected direction, Charlie slices him in half. Another alien panics and starts running and Charlie downs him (or maybe her) too, and carefully circles the area with his instruments. 87,483 for Charlie. At last satisfied that there are no more at that site, and seeing that the other skimmer is a blackened ruin with no hope of survival, he returns back to base to report for the day. It is the first time he's seen another mopper killed by aliens. Naturally, he's seen one killed by another mopper sometime in the past.

Arqdex Corporation had started back in the mid-twentieth century as just another retail corporation. It had grown and grown and extended its reach more and more until it was the largest corporation in the history of the world, then continued to grow and grow until it commanded far more resources than any government on Earth. Then it started expanding into space, using its own new proprietary technology, reaching out faster and farther than anyone else could, concealing its scientific advances until it could no longer keep them under wraps and others had stumbled onto them reverse engineered from stolen items, spied, or just developed something wholly independently. By the time anyone else could start for the stars with the same ferocity, Arqdex had an incredible head start and continued to maintain it by sheer force of momentum, plus new technological research, plus a ruthlessness that would have been admired by the Mongols of a millennium past, or the Nazis of two centuries past.

Mopping is only the last phase of clearance. The first phase is urban canvassing. The modern descendants of neutron bombs are dropped into cities to kill every living being within a radius of some kilometers. That takes, perhaps, the first day. The second and third day are village sanitation. Smaller neutron bombs are dropped into larger villages. However, the bombs are heavy and so their use is restricted by the carrying capacity of the space ships bringing them to the planet, which means leaving many beings alive in smaller villages and in the countryside. The third phase is automated mopping. Drone skimmers systematically start going through the smaller villages, killing everything that has a heat signature. These involve Gravitor Hydras, large skimmers, one to a village, which shed several dozen Gravitor Seekers, skimmers about the size of a large dog. Actually, this is begun simultaneously with the neutron bombs.

Mopping is the fourth phase, when the Gravitor Hunters are sent out with their human pilots to seek out the remaining aliens, all of whom by this time have emptied out of towns and villages and are hiding in the countryside. Arqdex feels that it is in their interest to keep the ecosystems reasonably intact for the time being, hence the human pilots, able to readily distinguish between sentient aliens and wild alien beasts. The human hunters also can reason out or intuit where to find the aliens in hiding.

Charlie checks into Central Station. He is met by a worried-looking Williams.

"Are you all right, Charlie?" Williams asks.

Charlie is surprised at the unusual question. "I'm fine," he says, and believes it.

"What can you tell us about this?" Williams says.

"Somehow, the aliens have learned how to reflect laser beams, and got the other mopper before he could react."

"The other mopper was Gordon, Charlie."

Charlie feels a faint discomfort at this information. They had grown up together.

"Well, Charlie, we need you to immediately go to the debriefing office and make a full report."

"Okay," Charlie says, and does so. He's used to following orders from certain people, and Williams is the foremost of those people.

"So, Williams," says Mr. Bligh, "Tell me about what happened."

"Someone has gotten to the natives. That's the only possible explanation. They aren't advanced enough to have come up with those reflectors on their own. As long as they have them, lasers are questionable. For the meanwhile, we'll need to retrofit the Hunters with either projectile guns or flamethrowers."

"Why flamethrowers?"

"Because they require less aiming than guns, so in a difficult-to-control situation, they may have an advantage."

"But they provide a slower response than guns, don't they? As well as needing to carry a heavy fuel load."

"The really good thing is that as long as there's combustible material, you don't even have to get very close to them. Burn them out. They run out in a panic, and you can pick them off at will."

Mr. Bligh sighs. "Very well," he says. "Do it. Quickly. Before we lose our bonus on this project."

"And the provocateurs?"

"If there are any. I'll look into that."

Seven people are meeting in secret. They are loud and raucous, making no effort to conceal themselves, but they're so effectively hidden by the vastness of interstellar space that only an almost infinitely unlikely coincidence could ever reveal their presence, drifting in freefall. Two small groups of these people have recently rendezvoused, and they're discussing their future plans.

"I wish we could have gotten to Nissar's Planet sooner," says Audrey, a beautiful but oh-so-earnest young woman, her stubbornly-maintained long hair floating around her head.

"We did what we could," says Harley, heavy-browed and hairy but just as earnest. "We were able to save some of these ones, after all."

"All of twenty-seven," Audrey moans. "And if Arqdex finds their little colony on Earth, there will be big trouble. After all, they'll know about them after our publicity campaign."

"This time we'll get in earlier and deeper," Harley says. "This time we'll stop the bastards."

"And you're sure," says Ellen, another earnest woman but a bit more middle-aged, and with short hair more appropriate to freefall, "that Bailey 2 will be their next target?"

"Absolutely," Audrey says. "We've got about six months before they start extermination there. We have a copy of the transmission approving it."

"So how do we defend the natives when Arqdex knows about the laser reflectors?" Jimmie asks.

"Oh, they won't know that the Baileyans have the reflectors, too." Harley turns up his earnestness even more. "So that'll be a part. We also have a thousand lasers on their way to Bailey 2, and Arqdex sure doesn't know about those. More to the point, we've got to stop those neutron bombs. We have seven surface-based near-space missiles that will be delivered, too, and they'll be set to launch on remote from our sensor outpost. They only have five ships currently available to deliver their neutron bombs, and if we can knock all those out, then they're hurt and they're scared and it'll take them several more months to get more ships on-line and ready to go. Which stalls the entire extermination operation."

"More like stung and mad, not hurt and scared," Audrey adds. "And it's unlikely that all seven missiles will function perfectly. But we'll have time to plan for city evacuation before the next supply of ships shows up, if at least several of the missiles work. There are almost two billion natives on the planet. If we can save half of those by getting them out of the cities, think of the nightmare that Arqdex will face. There's no way that their moppers can casually go out and murder a full billion of natives hiding and equipped with a thousand lasers and twenty thousand reflectors. This will give them pause to think."

"But it's still just a delaying tactic," Khan says, with dark, intense eyes in a narrow, high-cheekboned face. "We need to get deeper into Arqdex. We need to get to the moppers, and their superiors, and their superiors."

"That," says Audrey, "Is still going to take a lot of thinking and planning. And we need to try to even get to their central power structure. Maybe even Flato himself."

Hilton Flato is the head of Arqdex. A several-generations-removed scion of the company's founder, he styles himself as the grand despot of the human universe, and has the power and wealth to carry it through.

Like other such historical autarchs, such as the Caesars, Aztec kings or various Asian emperors, he regards himself as part God, and regards God as part Hilton Flato. Human sacrifice is to him a just due befitting his exaltation, and the wealth of the Universe is his rightful treasury.

Philosophically, Flato admires the great sadistic despots of history. He has intensively studied Genghis, Nero, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, and everyone else who practiced the ultimate coercions that can be applied to the human race. He runs Arqdex Corporation as an Āber-Machiavellian model, pitting executive against executive in virtual death race. Anything less than rapacious avidity is seen as slobbering weakness (yes, he has read about ancient Enron!), and such individuals meet their fates in creatively unpleasant ways. The corporation simply makes sure that these events happen off-planet, outside the sphere of influence of Earth government. Executives are understandably apprehensive about taking off-planet vacations.

So Arqdex breeds for the antithesis of ethics and empathy, vies for the contraposition to compassion and community. Literally. Arqdex not only has its creche for moppers, but also for soldiers for its private army. Flato has dreams of taking over the Earth. Not yet, not yet; he is not strong enough yet. Another three decades, and he expects to have capacity. Another three decades of developing his corporate planets, another three decades of growing and training his personal army. He has the time, with his wealth that can buy the secret longevity treatments. For now his power is absolute within his sphere and he lives accordingly. He even has a special assistant to brush his teeth and to clean him after bowel movements and after sex. Of course, the life span of such a special assistance is, at best, a year, since Flato is a temperamental man.

Flato is not an attractive man, but that matters not a whit. He can have any woman he wants or boy or underage girl or whomever or whatever his tastes currently run to. He has tried it all, though like the sultan in Arabian nights, he has disposed of many of his sex toys. After all, it would not do to suffer a six- year-old boy to live when that boy has certain tales to tell. Of course, many of his paramours do not even survive the sex act itself.

And whatever Flato knows, he knows one thing above all else: might makes right. Power is its own authority. Only the strong deserve to survive. He and Charlie are the flip sides of the same monster.

The renegade spaceship lands on Butler 2, quietly, surreptitiously at night, because Arqdex has not yet set up the full protective screen around the planet. Given another six months, and no landing or takeoff will be possible without Arqdex's knowledge. The renegades' penetration of Nissar's planet was via conventional commercial transport, on which they posed as speculators. The mirrors were smuggled in within large containers of kitchen goods, which the local industry was not yet sufficiently geared-up to make. That certainly would not work again. Arqdex is skilled at avoiding repetition of their tactical errors.

Khan is the main pilot, and Ian, slender, pale and freckled, is his skilled backup. Ellen and Harley also are trained as pilots. Ellen and Jimmie -- he of the black curls and close-bitten fingernails -- are linguists; Audrey is a cultural anthropologist, and Harley and Jofe, as dark as anyone in the African interior can be, are weapons experts.

All seven know they are risking their lives. They are not only risking their lives if the natives turn out to be hostile or not understanding what this is all about, they are risking no, make that forfeiting their lives if discovered by Arqdex. Jimmie has told the others tales about the savage tortures of captives by some ancient Native Americans, and Khan has related tales of Genghis' glee in torturing, but Jofe has told them tales, much worse tales, about the savage tortures of captives by the Arqdex Corporation. Jofe should know. He is the only person ever known to have escaped from Arqdex's prisons.

It all comes down to this: the seven are idealistic and committed. They are not afraid to risk all to do what they believe Is Right. In this, they are much like Charlie and Flato: they all believe that They Are Right. They all base their beliefs on what is, within its own systemic limits, sound logic. The difference is that Charlie's and Flato's beliefs come entirely out of Self, while the seven's beliefs come out of shared experience and compassion. For Flato, he himself is the only one to consider, and in this he is far more evil than Charlie. Charlie does the killing, killing on a monstrous scale. He is the one who commits the act and pulls the trigger. But he and the others do it all for Flato, because of Flato. Charlie at least is serving a group; Flato only serves himself and he is the ultimate source of, the reason for, the cause of all the killing.

The beings on this planet are at about a 1930s level of development. They have considerable technological capacity, but are not yet skilled in the greater aerospace realm and do not yet have nuclear weaponry. The seven have chosen a landing place near a smallish community where they believe there is a university of sorts. The hope is that beings with higher intelligence and education will be more receptive to their message of danger.

On Nissar's planet, they had the advantage that survivors already understood the danger. These human rebels had also faced the problem there that they were already seen as the enemy, resembling as they did the moppers, but were able to dispel that fear.

This planet now has the problem of utter ignorance. These are beings who have no idea, no clue, that alien danger lies in orbit, gathering for invasion and holocaust.

And what kinds of beings are these? More or less mammalian. Furry. Descended from more carnivore-like ancestors, but well-domesticated. If anything, they are probably more civilized than humans, Earthlings, at the same stage. The seven humans have to learn the alien language, and that's where both Jimmie and Ellen come in as linguists. They have a library of recorded broadcasts, and are hard at work decoding their language. Arqdex doesn't bother with this sort of thing. Arqdex doesn't care about culture; it's just something to wipe out along with its owners.

So they have to resolve this problem: They could not entirely learn the language and culture in isolation, in remote orbit. Could you, as an alien, learn enough about Earth culture and language from listening to Amos & Andy broadcasts? Especially when you have to select that one language out of dozens being actively broadcast? They have to land and try to remain hidden for a time while observing.

They maneuver their ship, which can land directly on planets, into a cliff-face towering high above the town. This is one of the reasons this community was chosen: the towering cliffs. The spaceship fits barely into a cleft in the cliff face, and various devices are turned on to screen it from view. They then begin observation via telescope, radio, and other telemetry.

They soon prove the atmosphere is safe for them, although a little higher in both carbon dioxide and oxygen than they're used to. There is adequate radiation sheltering from the planet's magnetic field. They will be able to safely venture outside without special equipment.

With their sophisticated optical equipment, they can clearly watch beings in the town. They can watch them when visible on the streets using full-spectrum sight equipment, and they can watch them when in or behind buildings using more sophisticated infrared and other equipment.

They have, they know, about one month to learn enough to communicate with these beings, and to then teach them and arm them before death comes from the sky. One thing they're counting on for credibility is this: themselves. The simple and obvious fact of humans in front of the aliens, in turn alien to these aliens, should be sufficient to convince the beings that there is danger.

After a long space journey, it's a burden to these humans to continue being cooped up with the same people in the same small space for another month. The social dynamics are difficult, and it's a challenge to refrain from conflict. Their commitment to their cause in addition to the need to study and learn intensively see them through this period.

And they soon learn that the alien beings at least this nation call themselves the Bogonar. They have an agglutinative language that uses a syllabic written alphabet really not so different from many Earth cultures. They have religion, but it does not rule their culture. They are committed to science and economic development, really remarkably like the humans of the time, but with a touch more humanity to be found in this alien race (yes, the irony is intended). The seven become progressively more convinced, through studying this culture, that they are completely worth the risk of their lives to save.

They choose a dark night for first contact. Harley, Khan, Jofe and Audrey slip into town riding in a Gravitor Nebula, sliding just above rooftops away from the glare of streetlights and settle into a vacant lot. No landing in the town square for their efforts; all they need would be major publicity that might alert Arqdex.

They emerge from the skimmer in a vacant lot and step out to the side of a sidewalk. A lone alien is walking down the street.

"Ig'gik lor," Audrey says by way of apology, "Yummava detra," by way of greeting.

The alien regards them, astonished. Harley is ready to spring into action at any sign of a panic or scream. The alien seems to sense this and remains in control. "Yummarev detraka," she replies. There is enough sexual dimorphism that the humans can tell the difference.

And Audrey haltingly talks to the alien, explains as best she can that they are what they obviously appear to be, space aliens, and that the visit must be kept fairly secret. Secret, that is, except for notifying many other natives, but secret in the sense that it is not broadcast on any medium that Arqdex might casually be monitoring.

Monitoring? Arqdex has never cared to even learn the languages of the people that it kills. But then, it has never before experienced significant opposition, much less opposition that appears to be trained by others from Earth. The Nissar's Planet experience has been a learning experience in knowing one's enemy, especially when the enemy is of your own species.

Audrey and Khan are slowly making themselves understood with the Bogonat, and she bids the humans to enter a chamber less than a block away, where she phones a few others. Her contacts are surprised by the late-night phone call, and generally seem reluctant to come. But the Bogonat, whose name is Thrit, tells them, "Please. It's urgent. In fact, it's an emergency, but I cannot tell you more until you come here. Have I ever misrepresented myself to you before in any way?"

She persuades them. The humans stay hidden in the next room until they all arrive.

They are grumbling about the late hour; more than one is wiping sleepy eyes. Thrit says to them, "Do you know what the Stories of Other Things is?"

One answers, "What? Yes, it's a magazine of fantastic stories. What does that have to do with this?"

"The magazine has stories about strange beings from other planets. Have any of you ever read any of them?"

The others are looking at her and at each other uneasily. This is not going in a comfortable direction.

"There are other people from other planets," she says. "There are four of them here, now, in the next room. What they have to say is of complete importance to us and to the future of the planet."

One of the others looks at her with obvious amusement. Two of them are regarding her as if she is completely insane. The other is just sitting there with a noncommittal look. How like humans they are.

Thrit opens the door and Audrey, Khan, Jofe and Harley come in to gasps of surprise.

"We are from a planet called Earth," Khan says in his halting Bogonum. "We have come here because you are in danger."

But it takes a few minutes to convince the Bogonar that they are bona fide aliens. They demonstrate that they really are relatively hairless, that their noses and ears are real, that there is no fakery. The Bogonar are obviously becoming quite unsettled but endeavoring to maintain a sense of calm.

And if they are not convinced by the presence of four hairless humans, they certainly are convinced by the disgustingly graphic holos of the Nissar massacre, holos that cost three human lives.

Thrit certainly would not seem to be the person to organize the Bogonif uprising. She is a teacher of linguistics to small children. The others include Draga, a police officer; Horblu, the mayor; Borgo, a teacher of engineering at the local college; and Pyef, a member of the town council.

The humans manage to impress on the group the reasons for their method of contact. They convince them of the importance of avoiding broadcasts the Bogonar do, after all, have radio until the time of the actual Arqdex attack.

What is most difficult for the Bogonar to accept is that there are beings of any race, of any species, of any planet, who would willingly exterminate others in cold blood. Certainly, the Bogonar have nations and have had wars. But they never took the delight in slaughter of either other Bogonar or of other animals that humans have taken.

But there is little planning or networking that can be done tonight. Which is a conundrum, because everyone knows that sleep will be impossible for the rest of the night. What the humans do is to cram everyone in the skimmer and take them to the ship.

The Bogonar are suitably impressed by the ship and everything on it. It turns out that Borgo is a fan of their version of science fiction and, of course, he avidly examines everything he can lay his eyes upon.

Khan pulls out a laser rifle and shows it to them. He has it locked off so that it cannot fire.

"This is a weapon that works by light," he tells them. "I think with the time that you have left that you can probably manufacture these. We can supply some of them but not enough. Most of it you can easily make with your existing technology, and we can teach you how to do the rest. Well, anyway, Harley and Jofe here can teach you; they're our weapons experts."

"Ellen has calculated our calendars," Audrey says, "By our calendar, it is six months and three days until Arqdex attacks. That's thirty-four weeks for you. But they will probably attack sooner, as soon as they can, now that they know that we helped the natives on Nissar's planet."

"So we'll be able to supply you with a thousand of these laser rifles," Jofe says. "They're already on their way here. With that shipment are five um, the English word is missiles', but you don't have a word because you don't have them. The best I can do. . . They are like ships, but they do not carry people. They are ships that are like exploding bullets. Each one is about as big as this ship, but they're shaped differently." He pulls up a picture on the computer. "Here. These have to be hidden, one around each of your biggest cities. When Arqdex comes to attack, they're fired off and they will destroy some of Arqdex's ships. If we're lucky, they'll destroy their five biggest warships. If we can do that, we can buy a lot of time."

Charlie is enjoying himself with the new flamethrowers and projectile guns. It provides variety to his experience. He also is appreciating the novelty of working with a partner, an unprecedented procedure. He finds that it enables new strategies and thus his horizons are in a sense expanded, if you can call garnering a greater repertoire of murder expanding one's horizons. Now 88,261 for Charlie. If there really is a Hell, Charlie will be one of the special damned, but Hell is an idea that has never been made known to him. He certainly will not think it up on his own, for that requires empathy and a conscience.

As far as Charlie is concerned, he's glad that the aliens have caused problems. He was getting bored with this planet, and the unexpected events have rescued him from that boredom. He is now able to effectively entertain himself until time to ship onto the next planet.

"I like those exploding bullets," he tells Williams. "You know one of these spoogers is dead when you slice it in half with a laser. Sometimes with the regular bullets it's hard to tell. With the exploding bullets, there's no doubt! Kablooey !"

Williams smiles a grim smile. His totals are again tallying upwards faster, and that's good for his comfort level. And all the moppers are quite well, as well as any mass murderers can be. Williams is no more immune to Arqdex politics than most employees. He know he is disposable while the moppers are not. It might seem that he would be a more difficult candidate for termination, being away on remote planets, surrounded by trained killers under his control, and no stranger to technique himself, but Arqdex has its little ways, no matter how skilled a candidate might be in all those things that make him hard to assassinate.

"Seeing any more mirrors?" Williams asks.

"Yeah, occasionally. They're mostly gone. Of course, it's getting harder to find spoogers at all."

"Well, you keep at it, Charlie. You'll get the job done, I know."

Flato eyes the latest reports from Nissar's planet with as close to satisfaction as he extends to anything that anyone else does. He does not ever need to give anyone else a sense of approval or encouragement. Lack of criticism and lack of sanctions are enough, along with the occasional promotion or raise, and that is his style. Of course, the flip side is punishment, a wide variety of creative punishment, or call it horror, and it creates an aversion to failure that in and of itself is usually enough to create success.

Flato is exercising slightly more restraint than usual these days, because of the threat represented by the rebels. He is keeping a more watchful eye on people and events around him. He knows that one of the mistakes that despots make is venting their emotions during times of crisis. Venting one's emotions is fine during normal times when lackeys can be tortured and killed at whim, but times like these require the most careful restraint to ensure every opportunity to learn the necessary details of the situation.

And he spends plenty of time thinking. He is more than prepared to believe that, if there are people opposing him in the field, they may try to get to him directly. His layers of security are the best the human race has ever seen; it is inconceivable that anyone could inappropriately penetrate them. But Flato also knows that the human mind is ingenious and that almost anything can happen -- and believes that he knows that anyone, and that term is used literally, anyone can be corrupted. So Flato knows he can never be perfectly safe. That knowledge keeps him on the edge, which is a place that he ironically enjoys being.

The rebel humans drop the Bogonar back in town a few hours before dawn to give them time to arrange affairs and to let their families know they're okay. They agree to meet again an hour after dawn at a spot just outside town, from where they will go to the regional capital. They will go by the Bogonif version of automobile, or, rather, automobile and van.

Only Ian and Audrey stay with the ship. The rest all go to the regional capital, along with holo projectors and assorted weaponry. They want to represent the diversity of the human race as best they can, but also must leave a competent crew behind with the ship. The group traveling includes male and female, young and old, European, Asian, and African.

They meet with first with the regional equivalent of a secretary of state; they could not so far arrange a meeting with the regional governor based on their need for secrecy. Three of the Bogonar go to the secretary's office while the rest stay in the van in a park area. It is the three Bogonar's job to persuade the secretary to come to them to meet with them. They carry with them a holo projector. This represents both astounding alien technology and horrifying graphic evidence that both aliens and alien genocide exist.

It takes almost three hours, Earth time, but the secretary finally arrives, as much due to the influence of Horblu, the mayor, as to the holos. Obviously, the secretary is not yet convinced, and is suspicious. She warily approaches the van and Ellen emerges. The secretary, whose name is Flarm, starts, taken aback. Seeing a holo, however magical, and seeing an alien in the flesh are experiences of different orders entirely.

Flarm seems in mild shock, yet handles herself well and takes little time to apprize the situation well enough to leave to arrange a meeting with the governor. It is only an hour and a half until they find themselves entering the bowels of the regional capitol in the van. The humans bundle themselves in the Bogonif version of concealing clothing, so the guards have no idea that they are escorting aliens up to a meeting room. The weapons are still out in the car so that they will not be an issue with security. But they have the holo projector, simply stuffed in the Bogonif version of a briefcase.

The meeting with the governor goes as well as can be expected. Skepticism, then shock, then disbelief, then the struggle to impose the rational will over the continuing shock and disbelief. Again, how much like humans. But the Bogonar have a great facility in imposing the rational will in order to do what needs to be done.

The governor's name is Hraamti. He is from a different region, so has a different accent, and is more difficult to converse with. The Bogonar from the village are acting partly as interpreters between Hraamti and the humans.

Harley explains the situation in detail, translated through Ellen and partly through Flarm, and the plan for fighting back. "We also have a thousand lasers [weapons that work by light] on their way to Bailey 2, and Arqdex sure doesn't know about those. More to the point, we've got to stop those neutron [invisible particles that kill] bombs [assemblages that destroy themselves and much around them]. We have seven surface-based [going from the ground] near-space [high sky] missiles [sky ships that destroy things] that will be delivered, too, and they'll be set to launch on remote from our sensor outpost. They only have five ships currently to deliver their neutron bombs, and if we can knock all those out, then they're hurt and they're scared and it'll take them several more months to get more ships on-line and ready to go. Which stalls the entire extermination operation."

Hraamti visibly shudders at the term "extermination". But he replies, "So it is now to the next level. To our national leader. But then it becomes more difficult. I can get his ear. But getting the ear of the fifty- eight nations of our planet is a monumental problem."

"We understand," Ellen says. "Earth has 162 nations, and once had more. And everyone never agreed on anything, and would not have agreed even in the light of a catastrophe such as this. Our suggestion is to bring about a dozen of the friendliest and most reasonable into your confidence, and notify the rest that an urgent situation must be expected. But deal only with national leaders, stress the need for discretion, and urge them to mobilize their forces and their citizenry as if planning for war against each other. When Arqdex is close to arriving, all need for pretense can be dropped and information can be widespread. The missile destruction of the warships will be spectacular and seen by many people around the planet, and if warned in advance that this will happen, then you will help to convince them. It would help if you had television [here she just uses the English word] so that the people could see us, but there isn't time to develop it. It's like radio, but transmits pictures as well as sound."

"So," Hraamti says slowly, deliberately, "We must keep communications off the airwaves and out of the papers until the time approaches so that we don't warn your fellow humans of our knowledge so that we may take them by surprise."

"Please!" Ian cries out, still hesitant in the strange tongue. "They are NOT our FELLOW humans! We are not like them!"

"I understand," Hraamti murmurs. He runs his hand over his face. "We too have our criminals. They are not like the rest of us, although they are in ways, too. But we have never allowed them rule."

Ellen breaths out, softly. "These people horrify us. We are risking our lives over and over again to oppose them."

"Yes, and that I understand, too," Hraamti says, with a more gentle look. "But your lives are at risk because of what you do. Our lives are forfeit because we have not done anything. You know your enemy and have at least some recourse against him. We are, according to you, helpless against the enemy without your help."

Ellen sighs. She translates for the others and adds, "It's true, of course. . ."

Flato sits at the head of the table. Instant holographic communications are useful in exigency, but he feels that they are not suitable for the display of his power and majesty. He wants his subordinates to wait on him in person. They, in turn, each are immensely powerful, more so than any known despots of the human world when the human species was still bound to their home planet. At this table are the most powerful people in the known universe. Only missing is Alexander Stropov, bound to duty in the field operations and simply too far away to attend in person.

"Henry?" Flato asks. He looks penetratingly at the first person on his right-hand side, a man whose face somewhat resembles a monstrous but pinched gemstone with its hard angles.

"We have found some suspects, or at least found who some suspects are," Henry Sadar says. "We have three people in mind. There is Jofe Hammurai, who was in our custody at one time and escaped. We know he is actively working against us. He is the only person who has ever escaped us, might I add, and that was before I gained tenure over those operations. He is a danger to us as long as he is alive."

"I know about Jofe," Flato says. "I will never forget about Jofe. Your predecessor was a little careless." He emphasizes the was' in an odd and sinister way. "That is precisely why he was your predecessor."

"Second, there is Harley Jennings. He is ex-military, trained in covert operations, a weapons expert, and lost from public view three years ago. Earth's military forces would like to know where he is, too."

"So," Flato says, "One that we lost and one that they lost."

"Right. And then there is Ellen Shatak, a former University professor who has disappeared. It seems that she has had email correspondence with both Jofe and Harley."

"Ah, the careless email correspondent," Flato notes. "There is always a careless email correspondent. What about her other correspondents?"

"We have found one more, a Manuel Ramirez. He dropped out of view four years ago, and was once an operative for the CIA. Or I should say that we have discovered his identity, but have not been able to find him. But no more than those four. We have combed all communications that we can find to and from these three but so far have been unable to find any further leads."

"Do you think that four people could mount a successful resistance to our efforts? Do you think that any four people could mount any resistance to our efforts?"

"It's possible, but not successful, and not for long. But considering there are eight billion people on Earth, and considering that at least one billion of them actively consider us the enemy, I feel certain that there are more."

"It does not matter who considers us to be an enemy, it only matters whom we consider to be an enemy." Flato inhales, a long, loud breath. " So why have you not found more, brought me more? Have you scrutinized all recent applicants to Arqdex and its subsidiaries? I can almost guarantee you that they will try to infiltrate as employees. We must allow this to happen, but we must know it when it happens."

"We're working overtime . . ."

Williams stops Charlie on his way in from the hunt. He's up to 88,379, and the pickings are mighty slim. He's disappointed that the kills are fewer, but also enjoys the greater challenge.

"Come into my office, Charlie. I want to talk to you privately."

People through history have felt internal qualms at such words from their boss, but Charlie feels no such feelings. He's calm and cool inside. After all, he can do no wrong.

And it's not about Charlie that Williams wants to speak. "Charlie, we may need to detach you from this planet for a special detail. I don't have much information yet, and I don't know when it might be, but I need you to be ready to go on a moment's notice."

"So I keep my bags packed."


"Can't you tell me anything?"

"Just that it might be a special assignment back to the Earth system."

Charlie grins. He can see himself in cloak-and-dagger work. And he always wanted to see Earth. He savors the thought. The concept that other humans might fight back a little more effectively does not even cross his mind.

The rebels have finally gained an audience with the Bogonif president. It's the same pattern, disbelief, shock, anger, concern, doubts -- but he conceals it well.

Let's consider this. Suppose you are, say, Herbert Hoover (though, say, with more the intellect and mindset of Woodrow Wilson, but Hoover temporally represents the technological state of the planet), sitting in the White House. You unexpectedly have a meeting with beings who look vaguely human and obviously are intelligent, but you know they're not people. Oh, you wonder at first if they might not be heavily-made-up people, but you can observe them closely, and they're not. They project, in the middle of the air, moving pictures of atrocities, moving pictures that make the movies of the time look like cave art. In fact, you feel like you're in the middle of the action. And the pictures depict yet more different aliens, and the weapons shown are like nothing you have ever imagined. Not only that, but the aliens are also wearing clothing that you know would be impossible for your own technology to produce, and have electronic devices that are far beyond anything your science fiction has ever dreamed up. Yes, it will take you months, maybe even years, to fully internalize the understanding that these are intelligent aliens, especially since you've never before had any evidence that other intelligent life has existed in the universe, but you can intellectually accept it immediately. After all, you have no choice.

And you do what needs to be done. You send for the ambassadors of three other nations, people that you hope can be trusted from nations that you trust. You arrange a meeting in secret in a secret place, a place where the aliens can bring their spaceship and demonstrate their weapons. And, of course, you arrange these demonstrations as much for your own emotional benefit as for the benefit of those as yet uninitiated in the matter.

There is, of course, a holdout, there always is sooner or later. The ambassador from Bengrat refuses to become a believer, in the face of overwhelming evidence. He insists that it is all a fake. It is later explained to the humans that he is suspected of being a member of a particular religion that wishes to consume the entire planet. He was chosen to be part of this meeting because of the power and strategic importance of his nation, and because the head of the nation seems a rational, careful person. But the ambassador is for now his gatekeeper and represents a force that is in itself a threat to the well-being of the planet.

In spite of such roadblocks, the plan must go forward.

"It's time to go," Williams tells Charlie. "We need you to go to Earth."

Charlie brightens. "I've never been to Earth. I'm going to kill someone there?"

"We're tracking down saboteurs there. The Corporation thinks that they know who several of them are. But, Charlie . . ." Williams hesitates.


"Discretion, Charlie. Discretion is important. Meaning it's crucial that you keep a low profile. Working in secret. You can't let anyone know what you're doing. You won't have the protection on Earth that you have here."

"Protection? Why would I need protection? I can just kill anyone who gets in my way."

"Not on Earth, Charlie. Earth is a different game, altogether. On Earth, there are plenty of people who can do things to you. We'll have to go over this, Charlie. In detail."

Charlie feels a bit of dismay. This is not going right. But he is confident in his ability to adapt. He will learn what he needs to learn, and will act accordingly. And he's eager to get to Earth. But he has one question.

"Why me? Don't you have plenty of operatives on Earth that could do this?"

"Ah," Williams responds. "It's complicated. It has something to do with international law. It is more difficult to act legally against a crime when the perpetrator is an interplanetary visitor, such as you if you get caught. Myself, Charlie, I have confidence in you. I don't think you'll ever get caught."

So Williams coaches Charlie, and Charlie goes to Earth.

Bligh is reporting to Sadar. There are only three degrees of separation between Charlie and Flato, and they are Williams, Bligh, and Sadar. Sadar is head of security, Bligh is head of planetary operations on Nissar's Planet, and Williams is the director of moppers.

"So there is no doubt that the saboteurs are already on Bailey 2," Bligh says.

"So you think that they already know that Bailey 2 is our next project?" Sadar asks.

"That knowledge is too widespread within the organization to be kept secret, but even without that knowledge, it would be easy to deduce. Limited as we still are by spacial travel constraints, it is the only next logical choice."

"Do you think they could already be there?"

"I would be surprised if they were not."

"I will order an immediate and complete screen around the planet." Sadar is quietly seething. This will negatively impact his budget. After all, in the Āber-corporate culture, the bottom line is not just everything, it's the only thing.

But he will look good if he catches the saboteurs. Bligh should have caught them, of course, but there will be time to deal with that issue when the job is finished on Nissar's Planet, which will soon be. It could be to Sadar's professional advantage. And to Bligh's dismay.

Charlie actually misses a target. He's only at 88,385, so he wants more. But for the first time in his life, he is letting the act of daydreaming interfere with his efficiency and effectiveness. Charlie is a man of simple tastes, even if basely depraved. He never wants for more than he gets, except for one thing. He has dreamed of going to Earth. And he is dreaming of it now.

But he wakes up and circles back in time to wing the native before it completely ducks down in a rock crevice, searing through its shoulder. The injury slows the native enough that Charlie can correct his aim and chalk up number 88,386.

This is the serious and difficult hunting now. The law of diminishing returns definitely applies to this task. As the natives become few, they are harder to find. It is no mistake that the survivors remain, because they are the best at eluding the moppers. The longer they survive, the better they become at surviving. On the last planet, it took two years to wipe the last sentient being off the face of the map.

So Charlie sets back to work with a grim determination. Where there is one native, there often is more, and he will find any that remain in this area.

Arqdex Corporation speeds new ships and new satellites to Bailey 2 to set up a complete cordon around the planet. Fortunately for the freedom fighters, the ship with the missiles was well on its way before the corporation reacted to block off the planet. The seven humans know their time is indeed limited because of this factor. They are not načve enough to think that they could work with impunity here.

The plan is for two of them to return to Earth as soon as possible with a shipload of natives, using the ship that is ferrying the missiles to Bailey 2. It is a larger ship than the seven arrived in, and can ferry perhaps twenty of the Bogonar in addition to two humans, if they tolerate a bit of crowding. This will leave five on the planet to assist with defense. It is their hope that they can remain concealed, then, until enough humans are on-planet that they have a chance of blending in.

It will be Audrey and Jofe returning. They will meet Manuel and John in Earth's solar system, and together they will work on getting the Bogonar on-planet.

The ship arrives with the missiles and laser weapons, and it takes only a day to get the missiles and lasers delivered to their target locations and to get loaded with humans and Bogonar and Bogonif provisions. The ship departs from the planet in a direction away from Earth and away from Nissar's Planet, thus safely escaping detection by Arqdex Corporation. This extra day's journey in the wrong direction will cost time, but it is time well-spent since it is that which guarantees survival.

The five remaining humans train the Bogonar in using the weapons and lasers well, to be frank, they are training Bogonar and Traansifi and G'ringka, these being the national identities that have been chosen to be the presumed targets of the corporation. The Bengrath have been dropped as cooperators because of the problems with their ambassador and religious zealotry.

Charlie is now boarding the ship bound for Earth. He has earnestly promised Williams that he will behave himself on the way, but Charlie is far too self-centered to be sincere in any promise. Williams, knowing this, has requested three trained operatives as part of the crew of the ship without Charlie's knowledge.

Charlie has been on plenty of interstellar ships before, hopping from planet to planet in his job, but it has always been in the company of Williams and the other moppers. He would not dare attack Williams for two reasons: Williams has a psychological position of authority over Charlie that has been drilled into him from early childhood, and Charlie knows that Williams is one of the most skilled martial arts practitioners in the known universe.

Charlie is a skilled and exceptionally vicious street fighter, but he is weak in his martial arts skills. The lightning-fast reflexes that serve him so well in piloting and weapons use don't translate as well to serious hand-to-hand combat. Charlie relies more on surprise, the force of his blows, and his anything-goes approach to win his fights.

Charlie expects to enjoy this flight. He settles into his seat and offhandedly orders the female flight attendant to bring him a drink.

He quickly drinks that drink and orders another. He is watching a movie, but becomes bored with it, and with the third drink begins becoming restless. The flight attendant, who is one of Arqdex's operatives, recognizes this, and brings him his fourth drink with something a little extra in it. Charlie pleasantly drops off to sleep and looks angelic in his slumbers.

The Arqdex fleet arrives in orbit. The humans, with their remote sensing equipment, are able to immediately relay this information to the Bogonif government.

And they can listen in on the corporate communications. This is a trump card. Even though Arqdex is communicating in a complex code for security purposes something they've never done before in these operations, working as they were with arrogant impunity the rebels are able to translate the code. It seems that one of the rebels whose identity Arqdex has never discovered was one of the corporation's communications experts. It is Khan. Arqdex presumes him to be dead, which is another story which will not be told here, but it well serves the intent of the rebels.

So the five know exactly when Arqdex is going to do what. The Bogonif government then disseminates this information as needed to the other actors in the drama.

The Bengrath ambassador is not without his resources, however, and he is able to discover much of the information that is to be had. He plans to use it for his own purposes.

"Are you sure this will work, Flar Huumel?" asks his confidential assistant, Deg'uve.

Huumel glares at him. Deg'uve flinches in the knowledge that he has blurted out an improper question. But Huumel answers him nonetheless. His pride is at stake.

"All people are susceptible to the profit motive, and these aliens are no exception," he icily tells his assistant. "And in the process we can serve our religion. The knowledge that we can offer the aliens can assure that only the faithful will survive, and all the infidels will perish. True, many faithful may die accidentally as well, but the Great One Who Must Not Be Named will know his own martyrs. There is no greater glory than to die for the Great One."

Deg'uve stiffens himself, showing his determination and manliness. "I will be glad to serve and to accompany you, Flar Huumel."

Audrey and Jofe make their rendezvous with Manuel and John in the asteroid belt. It is too dangerous to try to meet in Earth orbit. However, it is necessary to have a reference point in the vastness of space in order to ensure their finding each other, but all the obvious ones are also too hazardous. Only the asteroids offer such a wealth of possibilities as to offer a probability of safety.

They split their alien cargo between the two vessels to assure a greater chance of successfully getting them to Earth. They leave the asteroid at different times, going in different directions to avoid detection. Audrey and Jofe continue with half their cargo, feeling a sense of relief and accomplishment at making it this far as they near Earth.

As Audrey and Jofe travel, they are blissfully unaware that an Arqdex ship is blasting Manuel and John's ship out of existence. Arqdex has been watching Manuel, and allowed him to leave Earth in order to keep an eye on his actions. They unfortunately lost track of the ship, due to John's precautionary evasive maneuvers, so the rebels' rendezvous with the others was made safely.

It was one of those ten-million-to-one chances that the Arqdex ship rediscovered them halfway back to the orbit of Mars. Manuel and John were running in radio silence, only the radiation of their engines giving them away, but that is enough for another ship within a hundred thousand kilometers to detect them. Arqdex is lucky this time. Only the ten aliens on the other ship are left alive.

Sadar is grinning as he gives Flato the news. "Two down. It turns out that one of the others was named John Josephson, and he was one of our former employees. A lower-level administrator who left for a position with EngCo."

"I assume he's no longer with them," Flato says, grinning at his little joke. "It's good to see another traitor reduced to free atoms."

"We also suspect that there were aliens on board ship. The biological signature after the detonation was far too much for just two people, but it did not appear human."

Flato sighs. "So you think they were planning to parade yet more poor little aliens in front of the Earth people?"

"Probably. The question is whether these were from Nissar's Planet or from Bailey 2 or elsewhere. My guess is that they would have been from Bailey 2. They already paraded the poor little Nissar aliens."

"It would seem that they would want fresh meat."

Charlie has been kept sedated for much of the journey to Earth. He is allowed to fully awaken only when they are docking in orbit, and he is then surrounded by security personnel. He does not dare to try to fight them. He knows when he is outnumbered and outmatched. He is escorted off the starship and onto the shuttle, and drops to Earth.

On Earth, he exits into the terminal but makes his way outside, in the front of the building, as soon as possible so that he can breathe the Earth air. It reeks of pollutants, but it is still something special. And it occurs to him that there are billions of people here on Earth, and a few dead might not be missed too badly. Or even a few dozen dead.

Audrey and Jofe are in a ship that can land directly on Earth. It was not built to be an Earth shuttle, but does have the capacity to land and take off again. That is, since it is not a Gravitor product, it can take off again only if it is attached to a very large and prohibitively external rocket, or is taken to pieces and hauled piecemeal up the skylift. This does not worry the pair of rebels, since they do not plan to use it to take off again. It is important now only to get the aliens and themselves to Earth safely, and they cannot do that if they dock at the orbital station. They will never get past security, which is seeded with Arqdex operatives.

While Earth is surrounded by a dense net of diverse surveillance equipment, it is precisely that complexity that works to their advantage. They know how to fool the systems sufficiently to allow them to pass without raising an alarm. This is not possible on an Arqdex world because all the surveillance there is one system, completely coordinated within, but on Earth there are many different systems. This makes their landing possible.

Audrey's next step is to try to infiltrate Arqdex. This is possible only because they are sure that she is completely unknown to them. Jofe is in charge of taking the aliens to a safe location and ensuring that certain computer programs are properly implemented.

Henry Sadar meets with Flato. He has new information.

"We have a new job applicant, one Audrey Warren, that we strongly suspect of being one of the rebels. We've been unable to positively link her, yet, but we're pretty sure."

"Indeed, Henry. Why do you think so?"

"We've been unable to verify her whereabouts for the past three years. Her job application shows jobs for the last three years for a small firm that supposedly went out of business after the owner died, and we've been unable to verify any of it. As a younger woman she's still quite young she was involved in various leftist groups, including one defending alien rights. We also picked up traces of unusual nervousness in the job interview."

"Anything else?"

"She's quite beautiful. We've told her we're considering her." Henry presses a couple of symbols on his PID (personal interface device) and her picture appears on the screen.

"Nice," Flato says. "Considering her for what?"

"For administrative support services."

"Ah, a nice vague one that could put her almost anywhere. Hire her."

"And watch her."

"Yes, Henry, I've got a feeling that she could be just what we need to find the others. Put her in a position in this building." Flato has another thought now, a thought that has the potential to become an obsession. A beautiful rebel, intense sadistic sex, and a slow death by torture. He tries to control his breathing so that Henry cannot see his excitement at the thought.

Arqdex Corporation has established a compound on Bailey 2. They have used their neutron bombs on some of the cities where the inhabitants refused to believe the warnings the natives have broadcast planet-wide, but for the most part, the bombs have been useless. Most of the cities were emptied in time. But their presence is assured, and their compound is highly secure.

Huumel has decided that it's time to carry through his plan. He and his assistant are even now approaching the area of the compound, and are now about three kilometers away. They have chosen a place in an open, flat, grassy area that they have observed is a common route for the skimmers leaving and returning to the compound.

"Now, Deg'uve," Huumel says.

They carefully unroll a large banner upon which is written these words in English (English being the lingua franca of the Earth, of course, simply because it was the language of the corporations that have subsumed control of Earth governments):




Huumel has planned this carefully. He believes that the information that he can offer to the humans is critical, and can greatly assist their efforts. He has made sure that final delivery of the information will positively necessitate Huumel leaving the humans after contact and going, alone, to a particular place. This is to protect him from torture and death at the hands of the humans. Deg'uve is disposable. Huumel's plan is well thought out.

Huumel has extracted the phraseology from the human rebels, under the ostensible guise of preparing a trap for corporation employees. The humans do not trust Huumel, but do not even dream of the depth of his treachery.

The two hold up the banner as a mopper's skimmer approaches. The mopper is Jason. The banner is clearly visible to him, written in large bold letters, and the mopper can easily read it. He languidly reaches for his laser control and neatly cuts Huumel in half, and Deg'uve begins running. Jason tails him, then cuts through his legs with the laser. He then circles around and slices both of them into smaller bits. Then he lowers the skimmer to press onto their remains, each in turn, and rotates it a few times until the body parts are almost unrecognizable. Gravitor Corporation would be pleased at this display of their product's capabilities, and the mopper is proud of his proficiency. Jason almost makes Charlie look like a humanitarian.

"Information," Jason sneers to himself. "What could their information possibly matter? They'll all be dead soon anyway."

Audrey gets a job in the housekeeping department at Arqdex. This is at Flato's insistence. He wants her in the most demeaning job possible, so she receives the more unpleasant assignments. She does not like the job, but doggedly persists.

After a few months, Flato decides it is time for the humiliation. And his special sexual enjoyment.

He meets with Henry. "So this drug will, in fact, make her completely pliant to me, totally under my control, unable to resist?"

"Right, Hilton. But she will be completely, excruciatingly aware of everything that is going on. She will be fully conscious of what is happening to her."

"And how will you get this drug to her?"

"We'll just grab her, inject her, and hold her until it takes effect. Then order her into your apartment."


"Me and my special assistant."

"You mean Joe."

"Yes, Joe."

"Great, then. It's settled. Tomorrow night about ten."

And Audrey finds herself seized the next night, and injected as she struggles.

"This will make you completely obedient," Henry hisses in her ear. "You will be aware of everything that is going on, but you will be unable to resist. You are now going to Hilton Flato's bed."

Audrey stops struggling. She does not feel any drug taking effect, though the injection stung, but she is nothing if not bright, bright enough to seize the situation. She is heading precisely in the direction she wishes. Perhaps she is exceptionally resistant to this drug. Henry, in the meantime, is fully prepared to inject her again, with the real drug, if she doesn't take the hint. He finds that she rises to the occasion.

She allows them to strip her and dress her in a sexy negligee. They put her in a housecoat and lead her to Flato's suite. He is awaiting her, expectantly, salivating.

So Audrey gains entrance to Flato's inner sanctum, and they are alone. And she feels no effects from drugs. She is puzzled that she feels nothing, but continues to pretend that she is under the influence. Flato starts mildly sadistically, and Audrey continues to play along. Until he confidently turns his back.

Audrey finds it an easy thing to strangle Flato with a convenient power cord. In this day and age, there are no data cords, since all is wireless, but it's still most practical to have wires for power supply. Flato is not expecting the attack, and this continues to surprise Audrey. Why is this so easy?

Henry Sadar watches the scene unfolding by private monitor, receiving feed from hidden cameras in Flato's suite. He smiles to himself, grimly but in satisfaction. All is going as well as he could wish. He is married to Flato's first cousin. Flato has no will, and as his closest heir, she will inherit all. With Henry's holdings, they will have majority control of the corporation and will be unstoppable with Henry as head.

Audrey, in the meantime in Flato's suite, throws her negligee in the trash, scrubs off her makeup, puts her hair up, retrieves her hidden housekeeping uniform, and puts it on with the accompanying cap. She retrieves the simple cleaning supplies she has left in the bathroom, supplies suitable for emergency stain removal, and quietly exits the apartment.

The guard outside is different from the one that was there when she entered, since it is just after shift change, and the previous guard had only mentioned that there was a woman in there, but not why. He is a little surprised that it is a cleaning woman, but does not question her. She passes through the corridors and doorways and guard stations of the building, almost invisible in her housekeeping clothes and clutching the simple cleaning supplies. She changes into her street clothes in the locker room, and exits the building past the final security guard, who recognizes her and raises his eyebrows.

"I hate having to work a double shift," she grouses, and he nods in understanding.

"People who call in sick a lot don't last long here," he says in sympathy.

She nods and exits. She finds her car and drives away. It is not a Gravitor Zesta or Gravitor Fling, but a plain ordinary ground car, such as any member of the housekeeping staff might drive. Astonishingly, she makes a clean getaway. She will not be back.

Manuel is dead, but he finished a very important set of computer programs before he left to rendezvous in the asteroid belt. This set of computer programs is resident on a very secret computer, and it has already begun sending out small packages of code that hide themselves in other communications, code blocks that will secretly assemble themselves in other computers around the globe. Jofe is doing the one remaining job, recording the remaining Bogonar that he has managed to smuggle to Earth, to patch into the computer. This footage will complete the documentary about Arqdex's activities. The virus-like code sets now being sent out will create a program that will play the documentary. Once it is all transmitted, then the documentary itself will be similarly transmitted in small chunks that will then be assembled in the terminal computers.

The fight on Bailey 2 has become a protracted guerilla campaign, with Arqdex making only the slowest progress over the months. The rebel humans and natives have been carefully surveyed the compound for a way in, and there is no way in without help from the inside. It is tight.

"There's only one way to do this," says Harley. "We have to hijack one of their skimmers so that we can get inside."

"And how do we do that?" Khan asks.

"It won't be easy. We'll have to consider that from every angle."

"We'll have to force one down somehow, without significantly damaging it," Khan says.

"I'm sure there's a way."

"A strong enough artificial gravity field could do it."

"If we had that kind of equipment."

"If we can use some kind of bait to force them to approach closely, we could just do this mechanically."

"Mechanically?" Harley asks.

"Yes. A net or cables or some such. But then we have to find a way to force it open."

"That's no problem, Khan. I've got the way to do that. Simple external command. I've got codes that will work for that."

"If they haven't anticipated that."

"I'm sure they haven't. They would never consider that we could hijack a skimmer."

"Still, Harley, we should have a backup plan for getting inside."

Harley grinned. "What you don't know, pardner, is that there's a pretty simple way to pry one of those doors open. They're not made to be highly secure. I don't want to do it because it can break the latching mechanism, and it can leave obvious external damage. I think the codes will work."

They use two of the Bogonat as bait, in front of a cave. As the mopper approaches in his skimmer, the two Bogonat dive into the cave, and the mopper maneuvers his craft in close and begins sweeping the cave with his laser. Immediately several fullerite cables are thrown over the skimmer. Simultaneously, Harley is punching up the codes on his portable and the door pops open. Within seconds, the mopper is dead and the skimmer is commandeered.

That evening, the skimmer approaches the compound at the normal time to return for the night. It zooms inside, banks steeply and unexpectedly, and reverses to kill the guards in the tower. It hits two adjacent towers before the guards know what's hitting them. The other towers are too far away to put up an effective opposition as the skimmer lases a breach in the perimeter. A horde of Bogonat, accompanied by the humans, pour in and take over the base. Within scant minutes, most of the Arqdex personnel are dead, and the few left alive are taken prisoner for interrogation.

The Bogonat and the humans are secure in their knowledge that they absolutely control the base. But they do not know about everything because not everything is communicated by Arqdex via electromagnetic communications media. Certain plans and information of Arqdex are sent only by human word-of-mouth. These are often only communicated on a need-to-know basis, and they involve the presumption that human beings are entirely disposable in serving the corporate goals.

So the rebels are ignorant of the silent death speeding towards them in the form of a neutron bomb, accelerating towards the base at the speed of gravitational attraction.

Audrey unlocks her apartment door and steps inside. Charlie is there waiting for her. He grabs her from behind and reaches for her neck to snap it. Audrey is too adept for him and nimbly twists out of his grasp. Charlie is not accustomed to victims skilled at avoiding attack, and so has never honed his skills accordingly. Audrey has, however, practiced in long hours of competition with others. While she is only sixty percent of Charlie's weight, her skill defeats him. Charlie is deadly with any weapon, including his hands, but this business of the capable defender is new to him. He is rendered unconscious.

Audrey straps him to a chair with expertise and thoroughness. There is no man in the known universe that could escape her bonds. She surveys him speculatively. He is muscular and fit, and not bad-looking in a rugged kind of way. And he is very dangerous. Audrey feels a certain private thrill at this.

She fishes in the couch cushions for a PID, but it's not her usual one. It's one that is unregistered and untraceable. She leaves the apartment, walks two blocks away, and calls Jofe.

She tells him about Charlie, and he promises to be right over. He has already delivered the aliens to the SPSA, the Society for the Protection of Space Aliens, and so he is available to help her.

Audrey returns to the apartment. She sits and waits patiently for Charlie to awaken.

Which Charlie eventually does. He glares at Audrey in sheer hate. And not a little lust.

The process begun by Manuel is in the process of culminating. The program, something like a virus, has now infected and bloomed in over two billion computers around the globe, and the presentation has been downloaded to each and every one of these computers. The virus is now about to play the presentation, starting in a few hours, which will take three hours to complete. The operators of these computers will find it impossible to turn them off because the virus has taken over the internal backup power supply, although a few of the real antiques still rely wholly on the power cord. There is no way to abort the program. The computer systems will not be released until the program plays all the way through. People will see this presentation. And they will see the Bogonar that have been brought to Earth.

Jofe and Audrey are proceeding according to plan. They have long ago, with the others, planned an indoctrination program should any of the Arqdex employees drop into their laps which Charlie has done.

They begin by showing Charlie the presentation, agonizing minute by agonizing minute. He laughs in pleasure at the most agonizing scenes, thoroughly enjoying the horror that it portrays. They stop it after only twenty minutes.

"This guy is far worse than I ever could have imagined," Audrey says.

"He's not one of their regular employees, you know," Jofe says. "Anyone they would have sent to murder you would be one of their special people."

"I'm a mopper," Charlie proclaims proudly. "I'm their best. And if you don't release me, they'll track me here and kill you both."

"Audrey, we should scan him for tracking devices," Jofe says. "Then remove anything and move him to another location."


"Ah, I think you know where. Somewhere deep."

"I get you," she says.

"You'll never get away with this, you fuckers!" Charlie screams. They gag him.

Jofe scans him and finds three trackable devices. He removes the PID from Charlie's pocket, the tracking device from the skin of his shoulder, and the ring with the other tracking device. He throws them all out onto the street.

They bundle Charlie out of the apartment and down the elevator, down to Jofe's car. They drive him away to the deep hideout.

"Sir," begins the underling to Henry, "there is some program about Arqdex Corporation that is being forcibly played on at least millions of computers. It is "

Henry has his hand up in a stop signal as he interrupts. "I know, I know. We could not act on this in time. But it really isn't important. As long as we provide jobs and goods to our Earth customers, they will keep coming back. Off-Earth customers have no choice, since we're the only game in town. We are really at no risk. Nobody can do anything to us for off-planet operations, anyway."

Henry still has difficulty sleeping this night. It's not the consequences of Arqdex's actions that bothers him, not at all. It's just that he's taking on great new responsibilities. He's not entirely sure that he can measure up to his own expectations of greatness. He is determined, however, to try. And to ruthlessly suppress any questioning or opposition that may arise.

Henry is pleased with himself that he allowed Audrey to leave. Now the rebels can be publically blamed for a heinous act, which would have been more difficult had they handled her in-house. He is confident in the belief that she is already dead, anyway, and that Charlie has been instructed to make it look like an inside job, as if the rebels killed one of their own to keep her from talking. He smiles to himself in excitement.

Henry finally gets a few good hours of sleep towards morning.

He is not yet quite the total monster that Flato was, but the absolute power that he is assuming will soon complete the job.

Audrey, Jofe and Charlie are now in the underground hideout. Where it is and what it is are unimportant. It is only important that it is obscure and secure.

Charlie is strapped to his chair and Jofe starts systematically torturing him as Charlie is forced to watch continuing footage of atrocities. Jofe is well-acquainted with Arqdex's torture methods, having been subjected to them. He is the only one of their victims marked for death by torture that has ever escaped, and the lessons were not lost on him.

That does not mean that he is comfortable with what he is doing. He has been at work only twenty minutes when he feels his gorge rising and is forced to run to the bathroom to empty his stomach into the toilet. Audrey is acutely uncomfortable with the process, even more than Jofe, but her stomach is considerably stronger, and she stays near Charlie.

Every time a brutality is committed in the video, Jofe does something to induce excruciating pain to Charlie. And, indeed, some of the footage is of Charlie himself killing aliens. He has no idea how they obtained the footage, and he is stunned to see it.

The natives of Bailey 2 are progressively losing the war. Without the human help, they are at a distinct disadvantage. They are fighting back with everything at their disposal, but they are continually forced to retreat. They are not giving up, only strategically ceding ground.

Arqdex is settling in for a long and difficult struggle. It will be months before they can bring in more neutron bombs, but they're all but useless now, since the cities have long since emptied and the remaining natives are living in the countryside. Since Arqdex has succeeded in killing about half of the planet's population, and since the planet was still largely sparsely populated, it is feasible for the remaining beings to live off the land. Perhaps not well, but adequately.

So Williams estimates that it will take years to clear this planet. But it will be done. Of course, he does not know about the twenty Bogonar who have been smuggled off-planet, ten of which are still alive. He wouldn't care. They can't do anything. No more can be smuggled away since Arqdex now has an extremely tight cordon around the planet.

Audrey and Jofe have been at work with Charlie now for a week, during which time he has been severely sleep-deprived. He is softly moaning and raving now, begging them to stop, crying out in anguish every time he sees another atrocity on the screen, asking for mercy, swearing that he will never again hurt another being of any kind. And he tells them everything he knows. He tells them all he possibly can. The unfortunate fact of the matter, though, is that he can tell them little that they don't already know. After all, he is only a mopper, and moppers are hardly in the loop on important information. Their job is only to kill, and not to make the larger plans. Still, he has given them useful information on techniques and names and equipment, and they carefully file it away in their minds. And there is one key piece of information that they do not recognize as important, that Charlie does not recognize as important. This bit of information has the potential to bring down the entire Arqdex enterprise. It will only be recognized upon exhaustive analysis, but for now it is just another data byte that they store in their brains. They do not dare to write it down at this juncture, or to try to send it to anyone else.

At the end of this week, they have agreed that there is no more purpose to torturing Charlie. Jofe decides to leave to get some fresh food, since the cupboard is almost bare.

Audrey has been feeling more and more compassion for Charlie, and now she can finally clean him up and nurse him back to health. She is confident that he will not attack her or even try to. She feels sure that he has been changed by this process. They have broken him down to his elemental forms, and she feels that it is her responsibility to begin rebuilding him.

After Jofe leaves, she releases Charlie, weak and sick, and she cleans him up and puts him to bed, where he sleeps like a baby. She is completely unaware that Jofe has been identified on the street seven blocks away and is being hauled away for torture to the death.

Audrey is devastated that Jofe has not returned. She realizes what has happened. Jofe has always been as reliable as the morning, and only capture could keep him from returning. It has been three days. She knows she must write him off and is grieving.

Charlie is beginning to show signs of new consciousness. He is like a baby now. He asks her to forgive him for all that he has done and swears that he will be different from now on. He sometimes cries out in anguish for all that has passed. He needs her comfort.

There is something about Charlie's innocent state, something about this dangerous monster reduced to childlike dependency, that opens up something in Audrey amidst the grief and stress. She needs relief from the black reality that is descending upon her. She lies on the bed with Charlie and they take each other in their arms. Charlie whispers, "I need you," and that is all that it takes. Reality is banned from the chamber, to be replaced by the glow of passion.

On Bailey 2, the natives have proven ingenious. They are even forcing down various of the Gravitor craft and taking them over. The humans have coached them in how to do this. But the death toll continues apace. Their numbers are steadily dwindling. They are doomed.

Audrey awakes and smiles at the sleeping form next to her. She basks in the glow of success as she leans up on her elbow, looking at him. Charlie wakes, rolls over and smiles at her. She is so beautiful, and he is warmly aware of it. He reaches up to her, stroking her hair with both hands, then lowers his hands to her neck and places his thumbs on her carotid arteries and strangles her as he pins her down to him, savoring her silent stare at him as her life ebbs away. He has chosen strangulation to assure the look of recognition, the shock of realization, as he stares into her dying eyes. He is simply too strong for her to fight back. She is able to do no more in response than a few feeble scratches. He has exercised his strong suit, taking her by surprise with his great strength. And all the information from Charlie has died with her, as it died with Jofe the day before.

Charlie cheerfully dresses after his shower and takes one last look at the corpse on the bed, with a tender smile. He liked her, but there is nothing better than the satisfaction he derives from his job. Whistling, he exits the door, heading back to Arqdex, once again at work.

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This story was posted on 31 October, 2020.