the Glittering Thing

1 January, 2017 — US Foreign Command Support Facility, Diego Garcia, British Indian Ocean Territory

Even on the first day of a new year, even at 1:30 at night, it is still hot on Diego Garcia. Eighty degrees and eighty percent humidity, and the AC is set so warm to save power that it might as well not be there at all. And this is the good office building. The one for important people.

The man sitting at the desk leans forward to grab the little plastic nameplate and turn it around to face himself instead of the door. The nameplate says LTG Walker and has three little white stars after the name. The stars are there just in case any civilians ever find their way to Diego Garcia, and don’t know that LTG stands for lieutenant general. Or don’t know how many stars that means.

Not that it matters, anymore.

Once upon a time there were fewer than three hundred men in the world who could call themselves American generals, or admirals. Of those, fewer than a few dozen held a rank as exalted as lieutenant general. But of course, that was before the War: humanity’s first real nuclear exchange that so frightened the American people that they permitted, indeed demanded the creation of US Foreign Command, a military organization that now spans the globe. Foreign Command’s official purpose is to make the world safe for the United States, but as far as LTG Walker can tell the vast organization’s only real talent, lately, seems to be the creation of boatloads of brand new general officers.

Before the War, the US had, at one point, fewer than half a million men under arms. Now, seven tumultuous years after the end of the War, the US military claims a strength of two and a half million, while its bastard child Foreign Command boasts nearly three times that. And Foreign Command, unlike the US military proper, has no statutory constraints on how many flag officers it can create.

So it creates lots and lots.

The end result is that the FC now contains nearly four thousand generals. In spite of Walker’s three stars, there are now more than five hundred men who outrank him, either in the regular US or in the FC.

Walker grimaces and rotates the nameplate to face away from him again, being careful not to bump the bottle he has brought with him from the interminable and obligatory New Year’s party which he escaped a few minutes ago.

Once upon a time, even in the Air Force, traditionally the most junior of services, a lieutenant general would have commanded ten or twenty thousand men. He would have been in command of something magnificent, like the Fifth Air Force, and stationed in someplace wonderful, like Yokota, Japan. Which is forty miles from Tokyo.

In Tokyo, there are nightclubs. There are free drinks for American officers, even of the FC variety, especially if that officer is wearing stars on his shoulder.

In Tokyo, there are women.

Lieutenant General Walker, Caleb P., stares at the empty glass in front of him for a few seconds before understanding why he finds its sight displeasing to his eyes. He reaches for the bottle, manages to uncork it after a momentary struggle, and fills the glass up halfway. Filling the glass only halfway is moderation. It is his diet plan. If you fill it up all the way, then you are an alcoholic. And anyway, you can always fill it up halfway again later when it gets empty, in ten minutes or so. So this is also a kind of exercise program.

The smell of the scotch reminds the General that the three stars on his shoulder tabs at least mean he can still get the good stuff, even here in the Tropical Ass-End of Absolutely Nowhere.

Of course, it is exactly at the moment when he is putting the glass to his lips that the screen on his desk lights up.

Oh, fuck. Right. That’s why I came in here.

It’s that time of the week, and that time of the day, in whatever odd timezone that the American Lunar Polar Expedition sets its clocks by. Walker looks up at the screen and sees the face of Colonel Ian McKennen form on it, looking down at him from two hundred and fifty thousand miles away.

“Happy New Year, General,” McKennen says.

“And to you, Colonel. I trust you are well.” As Walker speaks, he surreptitiously moves his glass out of range of the camera.

“As well as can be expected,” McKennen says, after the usual long pause. It is the strangest thing to have a talk with someone and realize that the constant awkwardness is due to lightspeed delays in the signal.

“We had a bit of a party up here,” McKennen smiles. Which means: I see that you’ve been drinking. Don’t worry about it.

But Walker is not much in the mood for camaraderie from a distance of a quarter million miles, nor from a man who is commanding a program that Walker knows is most likely doomed. Even at his level, Walker is not privy to very much information concerning the esoteric financial currents that fund the worldwide empire that is US Foreign Command. But he does know enough to understand how good the odds are that the ALPE will see its budget reduced substantially next year, and eliminated altogether not long after. And if the Alpies go, what will become of their Earthbound commanding general?

“Is there any news on the Ares?” McKennen asks, pulling Walker out of his momentary reverie. The translation of this statement is: I know we’re in budgetary trouble. How immediate is it?

One becomes accustomed to using a language in which every word has an ulterior meaning, when one speaks on a line that is certainly being recorded by FC military police and their political masters.

Although, in fact, Walker suspects that no one is actually bothering anymore. The world is changing so quickly now, with pressure being applied by both the Chinese and Russians exactly when Foreign Command is finding itself so badly overextended around the world, that even the fifty billion a year lunar program now seems like a backwater.

“I am assured that the current Ares will be ready for launch within the week,” Walker replies. Translation: You’ll get this eighty ton care package, but I’m not so sure about the next one.

After the two and a half second pause, McKennen nods. This was mainly what he wanted to hear.

“Very well. And we expect to have Rail Five ready for test payloads within the week, General,” the man says, dropping back to normal progress reporting mode.

The launch rails on the moon are the long linear accelerators that send their 40-ton payloads into halo orbits around the L1 Lagrange Point, where the Alpies have already begun remote assembly of the first of many planned powersats. The cost of lifting the millions of tons of raw materials and equipment directly from the Earth would have been prohibitive even for Foreign Command resources, but with the Alpies mining the moon, creating their own powersat building blocks directly from lunar materials and shooting them up to L1 with their railguns, the project is possible.

Or that was the theory.

Walker makes the military lunar-expedition equivalent of small talk, asking about launch schedules and power storage issues. He long ago learned to do this by engaging about one percent of his brain. What he’s really doing is just looking at Colonel McKennen, the man’s lean face and gray eyes, and wondering what it must be like to live up there.

McKennen is talking to him from an office not unlike his own, Walker reflects. Except for the little detail of being buried under ten yards of lunar regolith. But if this man decides to go outside, he will not stroll out through a couple of squeaky doors into the warm night, the salt-smelling breeze, and the sound of waves breaking on the atoll. No, he will take an hour to get dressed. He will go through an elevator and an airlock big enough to carry a Lunar Soil Harvesting Crawler, and step out onto a world of brilliant sunlight and perfect black shadows, a world where there are mountain peaks from which the sun is eternally visible, and crater floors where it has never shone in ten million years.

Ian McKennen’s world is as different from Caleb Walker’s world as the land is different from the bottom of the sea.

But which of these two creatures will evolution favor, when the one down here on the ground controls the funding for the one up there in the night sky? What if, when life had first been emerging onto the land, a committee of coelacanths, in charge of the budget for the Dry Land Exploratory Expedition (hereafter referred to as DLEE) had decided to scrap the Land Program?

Why should we spend all that money on exploring the inhospitable environment of Land, where no living thing can exist in the near-vacuum of ‘air’, when we have better uses for those resources right down here in the Muck? Such as increased appropriations for the war with the Ichthyosaurs? Those bastards are eating our krill!

Of course, the coelacanths who did end up funding the DLEE—they never actually got paid back, did they? In fact, didn’t their distant descendants end up basically—eating them?

The two men talk on their narrow beams of light and radio waves for a few more minutes before McKennen terminates the call.

For a good two minutes after they’re done, Walker stares at the darkened screen. He can still remember a time, from his childhood, when any communication with Men on the Moon would have been simultaneously broadcast all around the Earth and attended by an army of newscasters headed by a quietly intense Walter Cronkite telling people And That’s the Way it Is.

Now nobody gives a damn except a lonely Lieutenant General and his last remaining friend.

Walker picks up that particular friend and pours himself another half-glass of three hundred dollar Scotch from it, then looks out the window at the silhouette of palm trees, tossing in the warm night wind that comes off the ocean.

And someone reflects a glint of sunlight into his eyes.

No, that can’t be right. It’s two o’clock in the morning.

Walker looks up at the office wall, and sees a brilliant little triangle—or something like a triangle—just floating in the middle of the air, maybe seven feet off the ground and a foot or so away from the wall. It’s a tiny thing, no bigger than a pencil eraser, just sitting there and glowing and—rotating. Or something.

As he stares at it, another similar object fades into view. Shortly after that two more show up, but they are even smaller. Or—are they farther away? No, they can’t be farther away, they would be beyond the wall.

He can’t quite decide if the pointy little things are actually rotating or if they are somehow kind of turning inside out or something as he watches. Yet they are always staying triangular, and always shining the most beautiful, soothing light.

The first flash of that light into his eyes was like a soundless voice that said Don’t be afraid. And Caleb Pickney Walker is not afraid. He just watches, entranced, as three more, and then five more, and then eight more of the tiny things fade into existence, gradually filling in the suggestion of a glittering sphere a couple feet across, floating in the humid tropical air of his office.

Some of the glittering points are definitely beyond the edge of his office wall now, but Walker can still see them just fine. He somehow does not find the impossibility of this fact disturbing.

The sphere fills in, more of the shining points appearing with each iteration, until it’s like a cloud of light, glinting and glittering in the air. Walker has the feeling that more points of light are appearing, and more and more, faster and faster, but they have now become too numerous and too small to see.

In any case, it doesn’t matter anymore because now the object has reached some kind of critical mass at which it is able to interact appropriately with the physics of this universe. It has gained the power of mobility, and now has sufficient cognitive capacity to map the data flows and processing nodes of a human mind.

The glittering thing moves through the air toward Lieutenant General Walker.

He has one moment, not of fear exactly, or not of fear primarily, but of an emotion more like that of a paratrooper about to jump from an airplane, or of a firefighter about to kick down a door.

Or of a bride about to lift her veil.

Then the glittering thing is inside of him, shrinking and expanding, rushing forward and receding into the myriad trillion pathways of his mind.

~

The inhabited man sits motionless at his desk for the better part of an hour. An one point a small amount of blood leaks from his nose, but that damage is soon repaired.

At last, the man’s hands move, and then his eyes.

He pulls the keyboard of his computer toward him, and begins to type sequences of commands and pass phrases that no human being should know. He accesses well-concealed interfaces which, themselves, have near human-scale intelligence, he answers their challenges easily, convincing them of his status and authority.

After a minute of this, the man has access to the Warrior-level network of this world, and he starts to type a simple message.

My name,” the message begins, “is Caleb Pickney Walker.”

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