“Jack Munroe’s anti-predator crusade is stopped cold by an ultimatum from the Arbitors of the Great Dark. Either stop contacting juvenile star systems with his message of liberty and freedom, or humanity will be cut off from the universe with an Isolation Globe that nothing can penetrate! The Arbitors resemble Tyrannosaurus rex dinosaurs. But these dinos have giant spaceships, a shield that blocks all energy weapons and they view Humans as upstarts who must either play by their Rules, or be blocked from ever again exploring the stars. With the help of his physicist buddy Archibald and the battle skills of Maureen, the deadliest grandma in space, Jack sets out to use Dark Energy as a covert weapon to kill both the Isolation Globe and the weapons shield of the Arbitors. Doing that demands wild Tech and the American Can-Do spirit that is the heart of Asteroid Belt society. But will the final showdown lead to victory over the dinos, or leave humanity Isolated from the stars?”
“Jack!” called Max from the Uhuru.
He looked up at the slim, shapely body of his lifemate, Nikola Rádsetoula, as she rode his erection cowgirl-style, lifting her hips up, then slowly lowering them to his groin. She had hold of his shoulders, bracing herself, as they both groaned in ecstasy. Jack held a breast in each hand, relishing the feel of her fullness. It was long past midnight and this was their first night alone in a week. While four months had passed since their return from the last interstellar trip, their time together had been limited by the frantic nature of their jobs as they worked at stabilizing Earth while building up their Belter fleets for protection from the Hunters of the Great Dark. This was their special time, in the torus habitat inside the Dock Cavern of Mathilde asteroid. He was not about to interrupt their love-making.
“Captain Jack!” yelled Max loudly over the habroom’s comlink speaker. “We’ve got a neutrino comlink call from our Melagun allies. Our buddy Benaxis insists on talking with you!”
“Max should be in bed with Blodwen,” Nikola said softly as she arched her back and sighed deeply. “I thought that was why they set up housekeeping in his roomsuite on the Uhuru.”
Jack shifted his hands to caress Nikola’s smooth back even as he thrust upward with a deep yearning, aching for release. “He did. Was. I mean Blodwen is likely asleep. Which left Max free to fiddle with new control algorithms for the Alcubierre drive module in the Pilot Cabin. Once an engineer—”
“Always an engineer,” Nikola said, her tone musical and sounding bemused. She lowered herself down until her breasts pressed against his chest. Her legs gripped his hips. “You should answer him. We can finish this later.” With a sigh she lifted off and laid next to him on their water bed.
Jack groaned with unresolved arousal. He had so wanted them to reach orgasm together. As they had shortly after their return. That wondrous time had left his Czech partner pregnant. Her happiness at the Commitment Ring he had given her on their return had been exceeded only by the news that she would become a mother. And that they would have a family in the traditional manner, a family beyond his crewmates on the Uhuru and his fleet allies in the two Belter fleets and the Mars fleet. That joy had shown brightly in her pale blue eyes. While she had resumed her work as Chief Astronomer for Mathilde with a new Big Eye reflector scope built by mechbots, Nikola’s devotion to him and to their future family had made long-time friends comment on her happy glow. That glow had led to their evening loveplay. Which was now being displaced by duty. He pulled the green silk sheet up over the two of them and spoke to the ceiling comlink node.
“Max! It’s three in the morning! Can’t this call wait until Nikola and I are up?”
The wallscreen next to the slidedoor entry to their bedroom illuminated. Filling it was the middle-aged face of his Polish buddy. The man’s grey eyes swept over the two of them. He grave Jack a quirky grin. “You guys remind me of the times Blodwen and I spend hiding away in a corner of the ship.” His stocky, broad-shouldered friend turned sober serious. “Benaxis says he has to talk with you now. Not later. Says a Hunter of the Great Dark has come calling on Tau Ceti. With a message for you and all humans.”
Crap. Jack rubbed weariness from his eyes, pushed back his unruly locks, sat up and fixed on the man from Lodz. “Guess that six-legged hippo wouldn’t use the neutrino comlink we left them unless it was really important. And the arrival of a Hunter is just why we created the Freedom Alliance. Though I wish we had had a year before the first crisis arose for us and our Alien allies. Put through his call.”
Max, who sat bare-chested in his Drive Engineer seat in the Uhuru’s Pilot Cabin, gave him a thumbs-up sign. “Putting him through. I’ll monitor the signal until it closes from his end. Then we can decide what to do about this new crisis.”
Jack nodded agreement. As if they did not have enough crises in Sol system already. Their Chinese allies on Mars had grumbled at receiving just eight of the 18 grav-pull ship drives they had salvaged in their last star trip to recruit ‘juvenile’ and ‘subject people’ Aliens to join their Freedom Alliance. The Brazilians on the Moon had groused at getting only three grav-pull drives. Which had left just seven grav-pulls for Jack to hand out to new Belter ship captains who had arrived at Mathilde wanting to join his and Gareth’s two fleets. As yet there were no Belter-made grav-pull space drives despite Archibald’s efforts to create enough WIMP particle Dark Matter for insertion into their newly built grav-pull frameworks. And if jealous human allies were not enough trouble, Earth’s devolution into competing nation-states had left nine billion humans unsettled, argumentative and hungry for foodstuffs that did not arrive as quickly as under the Unity. And armed conflict had returned to Earth as the central states of the old America now fought the ground forces of the East and West coast socialist elites. His grandpa Ephraim’s home state of Tennessee, along with Texas, were leading hover-tanks and mechanized infantry into battle against the remnants of the Unity armed forces that had been based in the North American Cooperative. Everyone on Earth wanted the Asteroid Belt, and Jack Munroe in person, to solve their problems. Well, fuck them! He had a family to support, two wild sisters to manage as they connived with Nikola to drive Mathilde’s Citizen Council crazy, and nineteen year-old Denise to watch over even as the young woman romanced a series of unattached young men.
“Here’s the live signal.”
Max’s image disappeared to be replaced by that of Benaxis, captain of the Polar Ice spaceship in distant Tau Ceti system. The member of the Melagun species fixed two large brown eyes on Jack even as the Alien’s neck collar of tentacle hands flared out in a body sign of intense worry. The red, yellow and black stripes that ran the length of the hippo-like Alien were dim in the low light that was normal to the Melagun world of Home. Benaxis stood on the Command Bridge of his ship, free of hold-down straps. Which told him the Polar Ice now had a working grav-pull drive with its secondary benefit of creating artificial gravity in whatever ship it was placed. Benaxis opened his wide mouth and spoke.
“Captain Jack, five hours ago this ship responded to a hailing call from the Predator Alert satellite you left on the edge of the Outer Rock Fields,” said his first friend among the Melagun as other hippos moved in the background. “When we arrived we saw this ship holding station near the satellite.” Jack’s wallscreen split into two images, one of Benaxis and a second image of black space in which floated a ship that resembled two pyramids joined at their bases, leaving pointed apexes at the north and south poles. The yellow-hulled ship had blinking lights on its north and south halves, along with a line of portholes in the northern section. “Upon our arrival, before we could signal the ship occupants, we received the following transmission in colloquial Melagun infrasound.”
The hippo’s image was quickly replaced by a new image.
“Shit!” muttered Nikola as she sat up beside him. “That’s a fucking scary Alien!”
Filling the screen was a bipedal creature with the teeth of a great white shark, the tail of a stingray, the flaring neck hood of a black mamba snake and the body shape of a T-rex dinosaur. Red and yellow bands suggestive of a coral snake pattern covered its hide. A pair of small arms sprouted from its upper chest. It fixed two dark red eyes on them. The giant mouth opened.
“Melagun people, your system is claimed by a Hunter of the Great Dark species known as Humans,” the creature said in a harsh snarl, its Melagun speech converted to English by Denise’s SETI translation algorithm. “I am here because of a claim of violation of the Rules of Engagement that govern all predators who travel across the Great Dark. That claim was made by a Boolean amphibian as its species lost control of the Bizzdaw system. Competition for Hunt territories is not my concern. The claim of a Rules violation is. It seems your Humans contacted you before your species reached your outer planet, and they failed to offer you a Challenge to Combat. Yet your system is claimed as part of the Human Hunt territory.” The Alien paused, a long red tongue licking out against its jagged white teeth as it caught its breath. The Alien stood in a circular room filled with glittering wall panels, Control pedestals, and yellow-glowing ceiling panels. Behind it were two other dinosaurs who used their black taloned hands to manipulate pedestals in the rear of the room. “Contact your Human rulers. Tell them to come here immediately to answer this Rules violation claim. And tell them the Human with the name sigil Jack Munroe must appear before me. Its name sigil has been reported to me by the Rizen, Yiplak, Gyklang, Krisot and Hackmot Hunters of the Great Dark. While their loss of Hunt territories to your Humans is normal, this contacting of juvenile species such as you Melagun is not normal. I require a response. This demand is given to you by MakMakGor of the Arbitors. Advise me of the Human response.”
“Shit!” Jack muttered under his breath.
“Yeah,” grunted Nikola as she reached over and gripped his left hand, squeezing it tightly.
The Arbitor’s image disappeared. The image of Benaxis reappeared.
“Captain Jack, these Arbitors occupy a single ship,” the red-robed Melagun said. “Should we attack it on behalf of the Alliance?”
“No!” Jack yelled, then licked his lips. They had gone dry during the long speech-talk of the T-rex Alien. Who was an Arbitor. Or belonged to the Arbitor species. A species which Nikola had been unable to find on the Nasen holo map of Hunt stars. “Signal back that we humans will arrive in seven days. Earth days that is.”
Benaxis blinked slowly. “But it takes just three Earth days for you to reach Tau Ceti using the Alcubierre stardrive. Which we have now installed on three ships of the Melagun Protection Force, along with three grav-pull drives built by Atarksis of the Yellow Robes.” The Melagun ship captain paused as another hippo lumbered up to him and offered a black plate that functioned like a datapad. He glanced down at the plate, then looked to Jack. “My Defender says the Arbitor ship is armed with four laser nodes at its equator, plus two neutral particle beam emitters at the north and south apex nodes. This ship could be dangerous. What do I tell the Arbitor if it insists you arrive here sooner?”
Plans and schemes and worries swirled in Jack’s mind as he recalled how close to Sol system lay the Tau Ceti system. “Advise the Arbitor we will arrive in seven days due to a delay caused by Human mating rituals. Surely it will understand how sex can cause delays. Assuming it mates with its own females.”
Benaxis hooted low in a tone Jack knew indicated dry humor. “It must. Otherwise it would not be a Hunter of the Great Dark interested in spreading colonies to other star systems. It will be done.”
“Good.” What else to say? “Benaxis, tell your Chief Guide on Home that other ships may arrive before we do. I will ask our Freedom Alliance allies to each send a ship to your system. So the Alliance itself will be represented. While the ChikHo and Bizzdaw people are too distant to arrive in seven days, you may see ships arrive from our Nuuthot, Mikmang, BooMak and Niktoren allies.”
The hippo’s six tentacle hands curved forward in the sign of agreement. “Understood,” it bugled in low infrasound tone. “We will welcome any Alliance ship that arrives. They can refuel and seek food and rest at our orbital Refuge above Home. Meanwhile, the Polar Ice and two other ships will practice space combat maneuvers. Using our grav-pull drives. In case we must fight this Arbitor ship.”
“Good decision,” Jack said, waving at his friend who still amazed him at its ease of movement in a three gee gravity field. “Thank you for this message. My fleet and other ships will arrive within seven days. Call me if any problem develops.”
“It will be done,” Benaxis said in a low rumble. “Departing.”
The Melagun’s image disappeared, to be replaced by Max’s frown.
“This Arbitor demand sounds like trouble, good Jack.” His friend’s grey eyes squinted in thought. “Uh, what do we do in the four days before we leave for Tau Ceti?”
Jack let go of Nikola’s hand and reached out to pull her closer. “We two have personal matters to attend to. The mating rituals I mentioned, you know. “ Max gave him a wry grin, then nodded at Nikola. Who sat beside him with nothing covering her from the waist up, thanks to the silk sheet falling away when she had reacted to the appearance of the Arbitor. “Put out a Come-Back call to Admiral Hideyoshi. I think his Bismarck is returning from a patrol run to Titan. And to Gareth. I think the Dragon is in orbit above Earth, monitoring the land battles in the North American Cooperative. Tell them both to get here ASAP! We need to hold a fleet battle conference. Uh, what’s the status of the other ships in our Belter fleet? How many are close by?”
Max looked down at the Drive panel that he pulled over from his seat’s armrest. He tapped on it to draw up NavTrack data. “The Wolverine, Badger and Orca are here in the Dock Cavern, not far from the Uhuru. The Caiman is in orbit above the Moon. Júlia’s visiting her cousin at Copernicus Crater. The Mongoose and the Leopard are both orbiting above India. Aashman and Kasun are down-planet visiting relatives.”
“Vibe them for me,” Jack said as Nikola lay back and pulled the sheet up to her chin.
“Tell them all to get back here damn quick. I want to hold that battle conference by this evening, in the Admiral’s Mess of the Bismarck. Meanwhile, maybe you can vibe my sisters, grandma Maureen, Archibald, Denise and Blodwen to return to the ship. Are you fully fueled? Is the new Higgs Disruptor module operational? Are the thermonukes on board?”
Max gave him a wry grin and sat back in his cushioned seat. “I’ll vibe them. And the ship has been fueled and ready for combat since we got back here from that trip out to Sedna. Setting up the Contact Base there for visits by Alliance allies was a simple job. Which is why Blodwen is sleeping and I’m here at my Drive station. Trying to figure out some way to increase our Alcubierre drive speed beyond the four light years per day allowed by its current design. Makes it hard to plan any long trips across the Orion Arm when you go that slow.”
Jack gave his genius engineer a mock salute. “Max, you and Archibald did wonders in reverse-engineering that first Alcubierre drive pedestal from the Rizen ship hulk. And in refitting salvaged gravity-pull drives to our fleet ships. Plus, you are loved by your dear Blodwen. Be happy!”
His buddy shrugged heavily muscled shoulders. “You’re right. She’s a blessing to me that I thought would never happen again, after the loss of Monique.” The only other survivor of the original Uhuru comet survey ship looked away from Jack and fixed on the fusion Drive Module that had lowered from the ceiling above him. “Still, I don’t like limits. The grav-pull drive’s limit of eighty percent of lightspeed within a star system bugs me. The Alcubierre stardrive’s speed limit of four light years per day frustrates me.” He sighed and looked back to Jack. “I’ll make the Come-Back and vibe calls. See you two whenever you show up.”
Jack waved goodbye.
An elbow poked him in his left side.
“Jack, there is no Arbitor species listed among the 113 Hunters of the Great Dark in the Nasen star holo,” Nikola said, her tone distracted. “Maybe you could give Hilok of the Nasen a neutrino call. Ask him what he and his daughter know about these Arbitors.”
“That’s a good idea,” he said, lying back down. He tapped the metal wall above their headboard, causing a soft yellow light to illuminate their water bed and its rumpled sheets. He grinned at her. “But, mother-to-be, don’t we have a ritual to finish?”
She giggled, pushed brown bangs away from her eyes, and gave him her Woman Superior look.
“We do. In exactly the way I decide. You ready?”
A silly question, as she quickly discovered by laying her hand atop his groin. “You ready?” he asked.
Musical giggles preceeded their return to tender love play.