From Chapter One of Beyond the Question

(A free, downloadable excerpt)

At Luzon it was 8:23 a.m. in solar-Earth day clock time where and when a half-dozen aircraft of vertical-take-off-and-landing (VTOL) capability descended upon the tarmac behind the three-story mansion of Anton Ligachev, a man of fifty-some-odd "years" of continuous existence upon the planet and whose present rule with that of other surviving Grand Directors now proved tenuous.

A half-dozen armed men disgorged from each VTOL, fanning out to reconnoiter the sensible space available to them.

Within five minutes, a seventh craft descended. Ibrahim Nir, Chief of Security for the GD himself, cautiously exited with two personal bodyguards.

Carrying an automatic machine pistol and walkie-talkie, Nir hesitated, looking to his advance troops to assure all was well. One had secured the observation deck of the main building and now waved his confirmation that the high ground was clear.

"We'll wait," a still-cautious Nir instructed the two by his side.

Approaching alone from the back door of the informal ground-level party room, Montgomery Nelson, Ligachev's Chief of Staff, waved his greetings with his free hand, the other clasping another walkie-talkie.

"They were here but they're gone now," Nelson stated breathlessly.

"Just need to be sure," Nir explained. "Who was here?"

"Zokuhito's people, of course, but how'd it go on your end?"

Nir ignored the question "How many, and why'd they leave-- did they mention their boss?"

Suddenly indignant, Nelson backed away. "I believe I'm number one in the GD's absence, Mr. Nir. I believe you're still to report to me."

Nir smirked. "Let's get it straight, Nelson...."

He gestured toward the nearest supine "corpse" of a three-meter-long android. It lay on its back, limbs akimbo, belly and head bared, electronics gutted. "You're not the acting GD, anymore, and this... this shows the reach of your present authority!"

He glanced smugly at his own guards, the chagrined Nelson explaining, "I had no choice, no help... thanks... thanks to you."

Nir smiled at Nelson, his tone moderating. "No, I did my job."

He turned to his men. "Mr. Nelson and I will speak," he said, and the guards moved away.

The gaunt Nir smiled, his wispy eyebrows lifting off the sunken orbs which were his eyes, his teeth bared. "So, how did it go for you?" he asked more pleasantly.

The resentful chief of staff explained. "I mean I had no choice, no chance of a choice! You had all the men... hung me out to dry. There must've been a thousand Zokuhito men here!"

"Splendid!" Nir exulted, inexplicably pounding Nelson on the back.

"How can you say 'splendid,'" asked the now-suspicious chief of staff, backing away and squinting through heavy eyebrows.

"I mean splendid," Nir mocked, closing the spatial gap.

Nelson uneasily now held his ground. "You had this planned, didn't you? I was the sacrificial lamb."

"Planned, yeah, but with no real danger to you. We'd never abandon a team player, you know."

"I was a team player," Nelson replied, his anger mounting.

"And you're still alive," the security chief reminded.

Nelson now held hope of getting back into the loop. "So... so tell me about it."

"We didn't tell you as part of the plan," Nir answered without answering at all.

Screw you, too, Nir.... Rub it in, you bastard! Nelson was livid. "Did you have to lie to me, too? I'm not stupid. You said you'd keep Zokuhito... Cabot... Lodge... off my back. Now it seems you... you'd planned the opposite, working with them behind it, even knowing their henchmen would run rampant here!"

Nir shrugged, and Nelson physically tensed, mustering the will to attack his tormentor, but Nir raised his gun, pointing its barrel upward.

When Nelson prudently relaxed, Nir said, "We couldn't tell you. Had to protect the operation first.... You ought to be thankful."

"Then you can tell me now--tell me the whole truth...."

Nir leaned in confidentially. "They took out your communications, didn't they?"

"Yesterday, and gutted the androids as you can see...."

Nir smirked. "Then you really don't know...."

"Damn it! Know what, you sonafabitch!"

"Don't know about the Americas...."

For Nelson this was astounding. "What about them?"

"We secured them."

"Secured the Americas.... So that's why you left me in the lurch!"

"Security, Monty, security. You can't compromise what you don't know. Everyone's more credible under duress when they disclose what they think they know...." Nir smiled knowingly. "You did tell the Zokuhito commander we'd respond in kind, didn't you?"

He winked. "You probably even pointed out that your own trade value to them was greatest alive and unharmed?"

Nelson looked away nervously. "You assured me this wouldn't happen to begin with...."

"Doesn't matter," Nir dismissed. "We all covered our own asses, but it's the end that counts, that of our own advantaged truce. Anyway, I thought you'd heard about it, though the GD's meeting with Marcello and Rivas even now, and that's under wraps...."

"Jesus!"

"No, Hay-soos, Rivas pronounces it, Hay-soos," Nir joked.

Nelson backed away. This wasn't funny. "So what about this truce? Come to think about it, except for here, there's been no war yet... especially not with the pleasure twins...."

Nir grew serious, leaning in on him. "War's continuous, Nelson, a truce the so-called 'peace' between hostilities...."

The security man laying a hand on his shoulder, the defensive chief of staff again drew back. "So?"

Nir leaned in again. "Anyway, the pleasure-twin thing with Marcello and Rivas isn't the main truce, but they do just happen to control the largest single bloc of street people in the islands, Resistance most critically included."

"So even you don't really know what's going on," a now-gloating Nelson guessed.

Nir frowned. "Not completely, but at least my VTOLs now are on line here."

Nelson pursued his initiative. "So, this truce-- main truce-- with the Zokuhito group... we're still a step behind if we didn't also take out their home-island hardware, too.... Did we?"

Nir threw his arms into the air. "Such a technocrat!"

He leaned in again, reclaiming the initiative. "Don't get me wrong, Monty, we need technocrats within the truces, but never negotiations.... As it is, we used our troops more productively than Zokuhito... could've secured more borders than just the Americas' with more of them...."

He frowned. "I'm no economist, but resources do sustain armies..."

Now hopeful, he smiled. "...but it also first takes armies to control those same resources...."

Nelson's head bobbed as he focused on a few of the cannibalized androids. "And these..." he mused aloud.

Nir shrugged. "Militarily useless, can't even get out of their own way. It's the OMNI's robotic harvesters as resources which are more key..." He smiled hopefully. "... and we now control the American ones. Meantime, Scholl's troops are the wildcard as we move back to truly productive human employment."

A more confident Nelson now moved closer to Nir. "Where by your enhanced military presence we'd eventually control all those resources... right, Ib?"

The new fully-fledged military commander smiled. "Now you're catching on...."

The nominal chief of staff returned the smile. "So that's also why the GD's taken this Lasher fellow-- this economist-- out of mothballs...."

Nir frowned and holstered his weapon. "It's a new game, Monty... and we're ahead...."

Touchy about this new guy, huh, Ib? Good.... Nelson again affected an ingratiating smile. "And as to these main negotiations...."

Nir grew animated. "Think of it, Montgomery! While we deployed to the Americas, they
chased a red herring here and also stayed home to defend against attacks we never made! Apart from Scholl, only the Zokuhito group even had the forces to stop us, but we outfoxed them..."

He grew even more excited. "...and now it's in their interest to settle for the remaining continents."

"Then you actually expect they'll honor such terms?" the chief of staff furthered.

"Can you see another rational option for them, my technocratic friend?"

Damn him anyway! Still, control yourself.... "Not at present... but...."

Nir's facial muscles tightened. "But what?"

No, drop it... don't bring up the obvious, get the whole picture first.... "What's in it, say, for the pleasure twins?" Nelson inquired.

"That's simple, access to the Continental market, of course."

"The American market, you mean...."

"Yes, with others to come if they play along from the start."

Nelson fought not to show his skepticism. "And the Continentals who outnumber all of us twelve to one. How can anyone control them? Your... your quarantine can't be all that complete."

Nir fidgeted. "Most swallowed the original OMNI bullshit, mostly hiding from us like we were aliens or treating us like gods."

"They don't resist?"

Nir regarded Nelson suspiciously. "Hell no."

"Then where's the difficulty?"

"I didn't say there was a difficulty. Did I say there was?"

Nelson shrugged conciliatingly. "Not in so many words."

Nir frowned, his already-thin lips vanishing. "The real difficulty is they don't really show any willingness to produce, either."

"Huh?"

"Damn it, man, they just don't produce! They can't even see a relation between their jobs and the... the androids' deliveries on this... this new OMNI's so-called 'first-come, first-served basis' even when Islandic free-lancers and a Continental few do let them through. We're looking at mass starvation or-- if they ever do get the balls-- domestic violence, and we do lack the forces to change that."

So much for finesse.... Nelson was dumbfounded. "You're no bleeding-heart humanist-- and I'm not either.... Why should we care? Let them kill each other. We're none the loser. Our people-- Islandic people-- even the street people did the real producing all along. With management adjustments, we'll be okay. Let's just protect our own turf, for Chrissakes!"

"You just don't see it," Nir ulteriorly understated.

Nelson was encouraged. "Face it, Ibrahim, using the OMNI/AI to give them makework once did keep them in their place, but that's all gone now! Who needs them?"

He nodded conclusively, adding, "Now-- our people... we give them a little incentive and they'll respond to really produce as they always have!"

Nir took a half-step back to appear hesitant and uncertain. "I'm no economist, Monty, and you're not either. You might be right-- if..."

"Of course, I'm right," a gloating Nelson interrupted at Nelson's baiting pause. "If we're to have a truce, why don't we all just agree to keep them where they are... let them die?"

Nir repeated himself as if patient. "You might be right if..."

He suddenly glared. "... you knew what the hell you were talking about!"

He took a half-step forward. "I was there!"

Nelson literally now was back on his heels. "I know one thing, I know I don't know what the hell you're getting at," he replied.

Nir poked a finger into the other man's chest, that man now taking a half-step backward. "You didn't hear me say that many of them never would break out in appreciable numbers, did you?"

Nelson was flustered. "I just figured...."

Nir pressed his advantage. "So figure this! We just don't have the manpower now to stop them. In but four short days, a few even enjoy turning the tables on the androids-- enjoy boarding supply ships to Islandia, especially when some Islanders find it useful to enlist their aid."

The "technocrat" rubbed his receding chin. "Islandics even... even do help them?"

Nir withdrew his finger, his demeanor becoming confidential-- even fraternal. "That's right, the Resistance networking them while Marcello and Rivas play it cute on who really calls the shots."

An abashed Nelson looked away, eyeing the nearest "eviscerated" and "debrained" android, as Nir placed a hand on his shoulder. "Bottom line, Monty?"

He looked back at Nir.

"Just remember, the OMNI's shipping lanes still do move in both directions."

"And we can't control at all the points along the way..." Nelson reluctantly concluded.

Nir placed a hand on the man's other shoulder. "You're learning, Monty.... There's no real choice in the matter... no isolation from the Continental masses anymore."

Nelson drew away from the offending hand. "Aren't you overplaying this a tad, Ibrahim?"

"I suppose you'd like to offer your security expertise..." Nir scoffed, pointing his fingers again into the other's chest to push him back another half-step and enjoying his sense of command over the other man as never before. "Is that it, Montgomery, you'd like my job?"

Nelson looked away. "Of course not."

He looked back as Nir dropped his hand and smiled to explain, "We're trying to work all this out with the pleasure twins, but we've an edge with the Continentals either way it goes."

Damn this being out of the loop, anyway.... "What edge?"

"Though the OMNI no longer deals with aliens, we credibly still must have them. In the Americas at least.... We'll play to that, play it by ear."

Nelson scratched his visible scalp through his shortly cropped, sparse, red hair. "What the hell are you talking about, Ib?"

Nir's lips imploded while he considered to accept his need to play it straight. "The shit's hit, Monty, and we're to be the liberators, not the aliens. This so-called 'Collective Intelligence' of the OMNI had them believing we''d be the aliens. So... so we've used the OMNI itself to make the whole thing unclear... the OMNI itself the alien... maybe...."

Nelson's flaccid arms and hands tightening, his face turned nearly as red as his hair. "Maybe! You've lost it, Nir... lost it! What's happened to you, anyway? You're over your head."

Seeing Nir's hand move holsterward, he unclenched his fists and shrugged.

Nir waved his hand and his guards relaxed. "Right now, we're in a holding action, Monty, and... and even if we're all in over our heads, we've set our course.... Are you with us... up to it?"

A resigned Nelson nodded. "So how does Bush's-- he's still tight with the Zokuhito people, you know-- and Scholl's joint command of the old global defense forces shake out now?"

Nir shrugged. "Don't know yet. Hopefully, the GD's already getting a better handle on it." He forced a smile. "Meantime, we'll monitor the VTOLs for reports and wait for the GD's return, Monty."

A still-disgruntled chief of staff barely nodded.