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PROLOGUE

The night before the Tellus Ad Astra left Earth Clarkeorbital, her commander, Lord Commander Grayson St. Clair, had gotten into a shouting match with CybDirector Veber. The exchange hadn't exactly been career-enhancing...but, then again, St. Clair didn't feel like he had all that much to lose. The Ad Astra command was more punishment than plum. The United Earth Directorate was trying to get him out of the way, after all.

"My Lord," Veber said, almost sneering. "You are missing the import of this expedition. Through this diplomatic exchange, Earth and Humankind will be accepted as full equals within Galactic circles!"

"Bullshit."

"Lord Commander!"

"Bullshit!" St. Clair repeated, more forcefully this time. "We will be, at best, very, very junior partners. They want our help in a war, and they don't want to get their hands dirty. Nothing more."

They were at a party—a diplomatic reception, actually, taking place in the spingravity section of the Clarkeorbital UE Naval Base. Some hundreds of political and diplomatic dignitaries were present, along with a handful of Medusae delegates representing the Galactic Coadunation.

"Accept reality, Lord Commander," Veber said. "Things have changed. First Contact with the Coadunation has utterly and fundamentally transformed the course of Humankind's existence!"

"Yes, it has, my lord. And we haven't had a damned thing to say about that change, have we? I think I liked it better when we still had the paradox."

The enigmatic veil of the Fermi Paradox had been pierced at last, late in 2088, when the new lunar radio telescope array first detected radio frequency leakage from a highly advanced machine intelligence located at HD 95086, some ninety light years from Earth. Direct contact had come in 2124, when the United Earth Survey Ship Oberth encountered the Coadunation fleet investigating Sirius, eight and a half light years from Earth. The Galaxy, it turned out, was far larger, far more complicated, and far more populated than humans ever had believed possible.

The Great Silence of the Fermi Paradox was now, at last, understood: the Orion Spur was a backwater wilderness, little explored, seldom visited, and ignored or overlooked by the repeated waves of interstellar colonization sweeping out from the Hub. Too, the Galaxy's communication nets used technologies far more efficient than radio. Masers beamed data across interstellar distances point to point, making eavesdropping impossible unless you happened to be precisely on the line of sight between two inhabited systems. Hell, until the Coadunation had shown humans the trick, Earth's technologies had not been able to detect tightly focused neutrino channels at all, and those carried the bulk of data transmissions for the galactic civilizations.

"Damn it, man," Veber said. "Are you afraid of the Coadunation?"

"Any sane man would be," St. Clair replied. "Humans fear what they don't understand...and we don't understand them at all."

"Primitivistic thinking!"

"Sure. And compared to them we're primitives. You know...I'm still convinced that all of our airs—our lauded Imperium, the anachronistic titles and rank and 'my lord' nonsense—it's all just smoke and mirrors."

"What do you mean?"

"Humankind was doing okay on its own up until 2088. Then we learned we weren't alone. Worse, it hit home for us that anyone Out There was going to be more advanced than we were—a lot more advanced. After all, we just became a technic species a few centuries ago. They've been out there building interstellar empires for millennia."

Veber shrugged. "So what? We're a part of all that now. Look at what the Coadunation has already taught us, in just twenty-three years of direct contact!"

"With respect, my lord, I have a feeling that we're not going to like it when the bill comes due."

"I don't think I like your attitude, Lord Commander."

St. Clair shrugged. "You don't have to, my lord. Tomorrow, Tellus Ad Astra leaves for the Galactic Hub. And I'll be out of your way. ..."
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