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Dana turned away from the latest question as the lights came up in the compartment and was surprised to see Tyler Vernon standing by the bay doors.

“Shhh...” she said, holding up her hand and pointing to the rear. “I think you want to see this instead.”

She and the chaperones got the kids pointed in more or less the right direction after a moment.

“Hi, kids,” Mr. Vernon said. “My name’s Tyler Vernon. Let me just welcome you to the Troy. I’m sure other people have but... Anyway, this thing is pretty cool, huh?”

There was a polite murmur of agreement. Some of the kids were dumbstruck while others clearly weren’t sure who Vernon was. Or didn’t believe that the richest man in the system was talking to them.

“Come on over closer so I don’t have to shout,” Vernon said, waving for them to approach. “I was the guy who okayed you kids coming up here. There’s a bunch of reasons for that. I don’t know if you know how you were chosen but it was on a bunch of matrixes. When they pitched this idea to have a naming contest for Station Three I wasn’t too keen. Bottom-line is I name the stations.”

“Why?” Donny asked. Of course. “I mean, why you?”

“I came up with the idea,” Tyler said, grinning. “Maybe cause I’m short so I think big. I came up with the idea a long time before anybody thinks, long time before you kids were born. Before that Coxswain there or these officers were born. I was thinking about these when I built my first mirror, when I realized I could build my own mirror on maple syrup money. You think that counts for something?”

“Sure...” Donny said, nodding.

“Most of my life is history at this point,” Tyler said, walking over to the sapphire through the cluster of children. “And when I say history, I mean the kind that kids like you study already and will be studying as long as humanity holds onto life. The Maple Syrup War is just history to you kids. I lived it, every damned day.”

He paused and placed his hand on the sapphire, staring out at the main bay as if he’d forgotten the children behind him.

“The Maple Syrup war, the Horvath attacks, the Johannsen’s viruses... That’s all history to you kids and so it should be. You’re looking at the future. This is the future you kids are going to inherit and grow. Two million kids suggested names. About half that actually wrote essays. Half were more or less illegible so we’re down to five hundred thousand. There was room for thirty. The top thirty name choices, including the actual choice, were picked out. Then a group of people went over the essays looking for the best ones. You thirty were out of about three hundred thousand kids. I won’t say they were the best on any historical or artistic scale,” Vernon said, turning back around. “But they were pretty good. I read the last thousand. What I was looking for was something the rest weren’t. I used to be a cartoonist. That’s a lot of writing believe it or not. I was looking for...heart? I was looking for passion. I was looking for kids who weren’t doing the well-written essay as an exercise but really wanted to go into space.”

He looked around at them and you could have heard a bacteria drop in the room.

“I wanted to see the kids who were going to inherit this in heart and soul and mind,” Vernon said, gesturing out into the main bay. “At least that had a chance. We’re not going to be at war forever. I hope that her generation,” he said, gesturing at Dana with his chin, “will make it safe for you kids to grow up without fearing missiles from the sky. And if they manage it, you should be eternally grateful. That will make it possible for us to really get started on space.

“There are two terraformable worlds we’ve found so far. There are more systems beyond that we can’t even explore with the war going on. Space isn’t just the final frontier, it’s a frontier that keeps on expanding. I’m old. I mean, I know you think thirty is old. That your moms are old,” he said, smiling at the chaperones to defray the potential insult.

“That’s how kids think. But I’m old, kids. I may not live to see the end of this war. You will. You’re the torch bearers. You’re the people who are going to grow up and carry us to the stars. That was what I was looking for. The kids who were going to carry that torch. Not just the best argument for Islawanda.”

“Did Islawanda win?” one of the kids asked. Dana had noticed he had an accent. She realized he was probably a South African.

“Nope,” Vernon said. “Not this round. But the other reason I wanted you here was to be the first to learn the name of the new battlestation. What was the historical significance of the battle of Thermopylae?”

A dozen hands went up and Vernon smiled.

“You,” he said, pointing to one of the girls.

“Darn,” Donny said.

“Thermopylae was one of the three critical battles in the history of the wars between Greece and Persia,” the girl said as if quoting. “Despite being a defeat, it slowed the armies of Xerxes long enough for the Greeks to come to a union so that they had sufficient forces to defeat the Persians at Palatia. The heroic action of the Spartans at Thermopylae encouraged the Athenians, especially, to enter into a binding alliance with their traditional enemy, Sparta.”

“But what did the wars between Greece and Persia mean?” Vernon asked.

“Ooo! Ooo!” Donny shouted, waving his hand.

“I’ll get to you, chap,” Vernon said, pointing to the South African kid.

“The Greeks were fighting for freedom,” the child answered. “The Persians were slaves.”

“The Greeks kept plenty of slaves,” Vernon said. “But that is the essential point. At Salamis, another of those critical battles,” he said, nodding at the girl who had answered earlier, “the Greeks painted their ships with names like ‘Citizen,’ ‘Freedom,’ ‘Democracy.’ Even the Spartans, despite a rigid lifestyle that subsumed their identity to the state, were freer than any Persian. The Greeks, for all their problems and weaknesses, were the cornerstone of the concept of freedom and liberty which infuses Western culture. There are many reasons that the West was so successful and even now leads the Alliance to defend the solar system.

“But a great reason lay in those battles. Those battles shaped the concepts that lead to these that we now engage upon. There was no reason to fight the Horvath, you understand that? There was no economic reason for the maple syrup war. I was going to get paid for my maple syrup one way or another. And by fighting we placed the whole world in jeopardy. Which, believe me, did not make us very popular people at the time. The only reason that I fought, the only reason that many many other people fought, including my late friend Jason Hasselbauer, was because we believed in the cause of freedom. Does that give you a hint?”

“Changsha’s out, then?” an Asian child said.

“I hadn’t even heard of Changsha until I read the essays,” Vernon said. “And I read so many, Paris just recently had to remind me what it was.”

“Alamo,” a girl piped up.

“Tough one,” Tyler said. “Frankly...sorry, I didn’t think it was important enough.”

“It was the most important battle in creating the Republic of Texas!” the girl argued. “It’s...It’s...It’s the Alamo!”

“Stealing land from its rightful owners,” one of the children said. “Tenoxchitlan!”

“We’re talking about freedom and democracy and you’re arguing for the defeat of a heart-ripping-out theocracy?”

“By a Christian theocracy that was just as barbaric?”

“Whoa!” Vernon said, raising his hands. “And another reason to avoid certain choices. Iwo Jima?”

“Here!” a Japanese girl said, bouncing up and down.

“A famous victory,” Donny said, dismissively.

“The defense of Mount Suribachi is one of the most hard held defenses of all time!” the girl argued.

“Hiding in caves,” Donny said. “Very heroic. Try charging through black sand that sucks you down to your waist!”

“Again,” Vernon said, raising his hands and chuckling. “One that is a potential source of argument.”


“Which one?” a girl in a headscarf asked. “In defense of Palestine? Holding off the Crusaders?”

“You probably won’t like the choice,” Vernon said, grinning. “But I’m really glad you kids know your history. Maybe you can avoid repeating it.”

“You went for Istanbul,” the girl said, pouting. “Sorry, Constantinople.”

“Nope,” Vernon said. “But getting closer. Sorry, just my opinion, but the advance of Islam can be looked at as the same advance as was fought by the Spartans at Thermopylae. The imposition of control of thought from the East if you will. Islam brought with it that essential mindset that all men are slaves to a higher power. The Persians it was Xerxes and Darius as god-kings. Islam simply substituted Allah and kept the same thought-process. Again, you may not agree, but it’s my battlestation. Okay, that’s the final clue. Any takers.” He looked at Donny. “Come on, kid. You had all the answers.”

“Vienna?” Donny answered. “Uh...Tyre? Uh...Lepanto!”

“Thought seriously about Lepanto,” Vernon said, nodding. “But I just couldn’t come up with a good symbol. Another clue.”

He looked around at the group and after a moment a girl who had mostly been reading a book reader raised her hand.

“Go,” Vernon said.


“The Knights of Malta were a religious order which had been formed as the defenders of Jerusalem during the Crusades,” Vernon said. “When Jerusalem was lost they relocated to Rhodes. There they were attacked, again, by the Ottomans. They put up such a strong defense that the Ottoman caliph allowed them to withdraw. They relocated to Malta and used it to harass Muslim shipping and keep the Muslims from establishing full control over the Mediterranean.

“In fifteen sixty-five the knights, which numbered between seven hundred and a thousand according to which count you use and men-at-arms numbering about eight thousand, were attacked by thirty-six thousand blooded Ottoman troops. Every time the Western forces had been attacked by the Muslims in the previous two centuries they eventually lost. It was assumed that Malta would be lost as well. I’ll let you read up on the defense. It was wily, bloody and hard-held as anything in history. But in the end, they won. And by winning they blunted the Ottoman advance in the Mediterranean and set up the conditions that led to the victory at...” he nodded at Donny, “Lepanto. Venice could have never become the power it eventually became without the victory at Malta. And what is the difference between Malta and, say, Thermopylae?”

He looked around at the group then pointed to the girl with the book reader.

“Come on, I know you know it.”

“It was a victory for the West,” the girl answered. “Troy and Thermopylae were defeats.”

“I had no clue if Troy and Thermopylae would work when I created them,” Vernon said. “If the Rangora had sent through AVs before we had Therm or more AVs on the last would have been a near run thing. The best I was honestly hoping for was such an epic defeat that...well, that humans would be as hard to govern by force as they ever are. That in time we might rise to freedom again.”

He hung his head for a moment then raised it to look the children in the eye.

“But no more. With all the power we’re producing from SAPL, with the missiles we’re building up, with the laser power of Troy on its own, let them come. Let them send their Assault Vectors. Let them send their own battle globes. We will crush them all. With three such citadels, humanity cannot be defeated. We may be harried. We may be hurt. But We. Shall. Not. Fail. We shall stand shoulder to shoulder as the Knights of Malta stood. And no force in the galaxy will take our freedom. Paris?”

“Viewscreen coming up, sir,” the AI said.

The lights in the main bay dimmed and a projection on the sapphire showed what looked very much like a ball bearing against the starry firmament.

“Usually we wait on this sort of thing,” Vernon said. “But since you’re here. Paris, could you please make sure we’re ready?”

“We’ve been ready, sir,” the AI said with some reproach.

“Very well,” Tyler said. “Kids, I’m going to count to three. Then you know what to say. One...two...THREE!”

“MALTA!” the group chorused.

SAPL could cut through the entire kilometer and a half wall of a battlestation in less than a minute. Before the last echo rang, a Maltese cross five kilometers wide had been carved on the side of the battlestation.

“This is the turning point,” Vernon said. “And when you are my age you can say to your children: I was there when Malta came online and Earth was finally safe. This is your future. Malta affords you a destiny, liberty, freedom, just as the battle after which it is named. That is the gift this generation, by its sacrifices, gives to yours. Use it wisely.”

* * *

“Permission to speak, sir?” Dana said.

Mister Vernon had set the sapphire wall to touch screen and the kids were now happily playing with dozens of views ranging from SAPL mirrors to views of the ongoing projects in the Wolf System.

“I’m not an admiral, Coxswain,” Vernon said, grinning. “And it took me a bit but you’re nearly as famous as I am. You’re Comet Parker, right? Haven’t we met...”

“Briefly, sir,” Dana said, wincing. “Once.”

“Go ahead and ask your question, Coxswain,” Vernon said, clearly picking up on her discomfort with the nickname.

“That was...some speech,” Dana said. “Do you always talk to children that way?”

“You’d be surprised,” Vernon said. “I tried to never talk down to my kids when they were growing up. Treat them as adult as you can and they learn to be treated like adults. It kind of pisses them off when teachers and such don’t, but kids adjust remarkably well. And this was a very bright group by definition.”

“It was rather...strong,” one of the chaperones said.

A group had slowly formed around Vernon which Dana found to be no surprise. She’d picked up that at least two of the chaperones were divorced. And even though neither one, in her opinion, had any chance in hell of pinning down the tycoon, the chance to hobnob with the richest human in the galaxy wasn’t one to turn down.

“As I said, it’s an unusual group,” Vernon said, smiling slightly. “I take it one of them is yours?”

“Shirley,” the woman said. “The girl who answered the question about Thermopylae.”

“And knew the rote answer out of the textbook but not the real significance,” Tyler said. “But I liked what she said about the future of space in her essay. I remember it. She’s probably got a good career in the sciences. Precise and didactic. I hope her ambition isn’t to write fiction, though.”

“No,” the woman said. “She wants to be a...she calls it an orbital miner.”

“Which doesn’t have a thing to do with getting your hands dirty,” Vernon said. “I’ve had all these kids tagged in our personnel database. If they want a job, or an internship for that matter, when they get a bit older they’ll get some preferential treatment.”

“My son’s Donny,” another woman said. “The one who was practically hopping up and down.”

“I feel for you,” Vernon said, grinning. “I can tell a ‘why, why, why’ a mile away.”

“That’s...Donny,” the lady said. “And I don’t agree that it was too strong. But I was visiting my grandparents in upstate New York when the City was hit.”

“I grew up in LA,” Dana said. “Til I was three, that is.”

“Ladies, I’d like to introduce the famous Comet Parker,” Vernon said, quickly. “I don’t think you probably knew your shuttle pilot had been carefully chosen and not just picked out of a hat. Parker is one of the best shuttle pilots in the Navy.”

“I’m sorry, I hadn’t realized that,” the lady who’d first spoken up said. She smiled slightly and nodded her head clearly unsure what Vernon was referring to.

“Parker?” Donny’s mom said. “You were the one that saved that shuttle full of civilians?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Dana replied.

“Was that entry as hard as it looked?” the lady asked.

“I don’t really remember, ma’am,” Dana said, shrugging. “I just have flashes of bad things headed my way. My brain sort of refused to record most of it. Having watched the replay, my professional opinion is that I must have been insane.”

“Desperate, surely,” Vernon said, chuckling. “Let’s see: Attempt the impossible and probably die or assuredly die. Binary solution set, there.”

“I suppose some would have gone for a nice clean impact on the surface,” Donny’s mom said.

“I had three pregnant women and fifty-two other cargo, ma’am,” Dana said, softly.

“It was insane, ma’am,” Thermal said. “And I say that as the guy in the forward seat. Also, as Mister Vernon said, a binary solution set. We were going to die. I’m personally glad she went for it.”

“Mister Vernon,” Paris said over the intercom. “You have another appointment.”

“Which is sort of my life,” Tyler said. “Ladies, you have a remarkable set of offspring. I hope to see them going out to conquer the universe. We need more kids just like this and you should be proud. While you’re on the station, feel free to stop by the mall and get in some shopping. It helps defray the costs,” he added with a grin. “And with that I have to go.”

“Damn,” said the snarky lady as he hurried out. “I was hoping to talk to him more.”

“I think that’s why the AI called him away,” Donny’s mom said, smiling thinly.

“I think this is as much time as he’s spent with...” Thermal stopped with his mouth open, not sure how to go on.

“Normal people?” Dana said. “What my boss is trying to say while he has his foot in his mouth is that Mister Vernon spends most of his time alone. And when he meets with people it’s people like, oh, the President. If Mr. Vernon has the time. I’ve never seen him talking with people before and he lives here.”

“That’s...” Donny’s mom said. “I was about to say that’s sort of sad. But I think it’s...sort of unhealthy.”

“Howard Hughes is much mentioned, ma’am,” Dana said. “But he seems to be pretty functional. I will say that main bay golf is a new one, though.”

“That is kind of bizarre,” Thermal said.

“I dunno,” Dana said. “I haven’t held a club in a long time. I think I may find out what sort of permissions you have to get.”

“A lot,” Paris said. “I don’t think I’d field golf balls for even you, Comet.”

“Be that way, then,” Dana said, sticking out her tongue at the overhead. “Seriously, Paris. Within reason. What’s his status?”

“That is highly personal,” Paris said. “But there is a certain pattern to these things. When persons attain a certain degree of power and control it tends to consume them. Power is not, as is sometimes bandied, corrupting but it is absolutely consuming. All of their energy becomes sublimated to their endeavors. However, if they are not essentially unbalanced, and Tyler Vernon is anything but unbalanced, at a certain point they look around and realize they are past the consuming part of their endeavors. At that point they often reacquaint themselves Certainly become more sociable. Based upon some recent actions, such as this meeting with your lady’s children, he may be entering into that phase. Which, too, can be taken to extremes. The movie industry is somewhat reduced or the next phase could be anticipated to be dating starlets.”

“Why do men always go for women with looks over brains?” the snarky lady asked.

“I doubt you would care for the full lecture,” Paris said. “Suffice it to say that it is a functional reproductive strategy for economically high value males just as acquiring a economically high value mate is a functional strategy for certain females. The reverse is also true although rather less documented.”

“I’m not sure I...quite got that...” the lady said.

“I have an emergency in bay four,” Paris said. “I must take my leave.”

“Emergency?” the lady said, looking around. “Is it safe?”

“Very,” Dana said, trying not to sigh.

“Ladies,” the PAO lieutenant said. “We’re already behind on schedule. We’ll be having a bite in the food court then some shopping and general visiting time then the ride back.”

“LT, we need to go service the shuttle,” Thermal said.

Sure you do,” the lieutenant said, soto voce. “But who am I to stand in the way of somebody with a real job.”


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