Lightning cracked down into the energy collectors on either side of the skyway, turning night into momentary day and lighting the under sides of the thick clouds, as raindrops bombed the city and anyone unlucky enough to be out from under cover.  Vehicles shot by on all sides as Elsie piloted the skycar through the heavy rain and another series of lightning bolts illuminated the sixty-floor skyscrapers of downtown New Washington City.  They weren’t very tall compared to buildings seen on Terra, after all land was still cheap and plentiful on Pryde Rock, but they were taller than almost anything seen on the Terran colony.  In fact, only the planetary capital of New Ragstad had similar buildings.

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Jack asked from the back seat behind Elsie and Ben shifted to look at him with a smile.

“I’ve known this guy for some time.  He’s got contacts everywhere and I’d rate his ability to hear about things as better than Inter Planetary Intelligence.  If anyone has the information we need, he will.”

“Do you trust him?”

“As much as I trust you,” Ben smiled back mischievously and Jack frowned at him.

“You aren’t a very good judge of character I see,” Jack muttered and leaned back into his seat.  “You shouldn’t trust people you don’t know.”

“I know who you are now,” Ben smiled.  “That’s all that matters to me.”

“Your funeral,” Jack muttered softly as Elsie pulled the skycar onto an approved exit and flew it down to street level, the fans keeping it in the air dropping in power to let the gravity-plating take over.  The exit was rarely used as only the richest of the rich lived in this neighborhood of New Washington City, and the skycar dropped down to mere centimeters above the actual cobblestone street as rain splashed in every direction.  One of the oldest neighborhoods on Pryde Rock, it had been designed to look like an ancient pre-space city from New England where the Terran colonists of this part of Pryde Rock had come from.

“So why don’t you drive?” Jack asked curiously and Ben smiled back innocently.

“You know me and rules.  We just don’t get along.”

“You lost your license,” Jack muttered after a long pause.

“I like to fly fast.  The cops didn’t,” Ben responded happily as Elsie drove by a church.

The old stone church rose up five stories to the steeple, the tallest building in the neighborhood, as Elsie swung the car around a corner and continued down the street.  A quick left turn brought the skycar to her destination and she drove it up the driveway and under the canopy.  She shut down the power and the skycar gracefully lowered itself onto the cobblestones as the outer skin absorbed the last of the water that had covered it.

The doors opened and all four people in the skycar stepped out as a butler who looked like he would have been at home in the British Commonwealth left the house to greet them.  “Master Charles is waiting for you in the receiving room,” he noted in a clipped but formal tone of voice.  “If you will follow me?” he asked and turned to walk back into the house.  They followed him closely as he wound his way through the massive hallways of the mansion that bespoke money and age.  More so than even Pryde Steading.  It wasn’t just extravagance though.  It was actually tempered by very good taste, a trait most people thought was lost on the rich.

Jack, both hands stuffed in his pockets as he ambled down the halls, whistled softly at the many rare and beautiful pieces of artwork and the ancient suits of armor that could have been from old Britain flanking the walls.  It was a most impressive sight.  Finally they stopped outside a door and the butler opened it enough to stick his head in.  “Master Charles,” the butler said crisply, “your guests are here.”

“Thank you, Richard,” a deep male voice responded.  “Allow them in, please.”

“Of course, Master Charles,” the butler responded and opened the door wide, motioning for them to walk in.  It was a small room only sparsely decorated, though still managing to make itself feel and look grand, with a single man in a British-style suit seated in a beautiful red-upholstered chair at the other end.  He nodded to his guests and Jack and he shared a quick sense of recognition as the butler turned and left, shutting the door behind him.

“Welcome to my humble abode,” Charles said with a smile, causing Ben to chuckle despite wondering what was going on between Jack and Charles.  “So who are your companions?” he asked and Ben’s chuckle turned into a smile.

“Like I really need to tell you,” he noted with a wink and then turned to his companions.  “This is Jack, an…acquaintance of mine I have done much business with.”

“Yes,” Charles smiled and nodded towards Jack dressed in his ever-present rumpled and faded black suit with a feeling of someone wondering about an old acquaintance.  They knew each other somehow.  “I am aware of your business.  You recently captured someone who stole something of great value to me a while back.  Thank you.”

“How did they choose what to steal?” Jack asked nonchalantly as he looked around the room and Charles laughed out loud, tipping his head in acknowledgement of Jack’s quick wit.

“Probably flipped a coin,” Charles answered and then looked questioningly at Elsie in her ever-present simple black outfit.

“I’m Elsie,” she noted as he stood up and walked towards her.  He reached out, grasped her hand gently, and brought it up to his mouth to kiss the back of it in a gentlemanly fashion.

“And I’m honored,” he responded gallantly and let go of her hand.  Elsie smiled at him and turned to catch Ben’s intent stare.  “And who is this vision of beauty?” Charles continued as he turned to look at Vanessa in her white outfit, pulling Ben out of his thoughts and back to the present.

“If you don’t know already, I’ll be highly disappointed,” Vanessa responded slyly.

“Humor me, please,” he asked with a roguish smile.

“Vanessa,” she responded in a polite voice and brought her hand up so he could grasp it easily.  He smiled as she gave him the perfect angle to hold it and then kissed it.

“You have experience with this,” he whispered and she shook her head.

“I’m proficient in numerous forms of interpersonal communications,” she responded with another sly smile.

“I’ll bet,” Charles whispered with a matching smile before turning and walking back to his chair.  He sat down, glanced at Jack, shifted to look at Ben, and took a deep breath before speaking.

“So what do you want, Ben?  It’s been a while since we’ve talked.”

“I couldn’t be here just to go over old times?” Ben asked and Charles shook his head with a chuckle.

“Not with these vagrants with you,” he responded and Vanessa and Jack chuckled.  Elsie crossed her arms, tapping her foot at the remark, and Ben put a calming hand on her shoulder.

“You take all the fun out of this,” he noted with a wink and a smile.  “Anyways, the government asked me to track down some funny business with the Corporations.  I was wondering if you could help us out with some information.”

“One of the eight Corporations huh?” Charles asked as he relaxed back in his chair.

“There are only seven Corporations,” Ben corrected.  “Vilian Corp was destroyed.”

“It was shattered,” Charles responded as the door opened and a woman in a black maid’s uniform that looked as suitably British as everything else walked in with a tray of drinks.  She expertly swung the tray around to each of the people in the room for them to grab a glass while Charles continued to speak.  “But parts of it still survive.  Dorothy came from Vilian Corporation for instance,” he said with a nod in her direction.

“Doctor Trestler’s design,” Elsie quipped and looked Dorothy in the eye.  “How many of you are left?”

“Five,” the maid answered simply and then looked from Elsie to Vanessa and back to Elsie.  “You are like me.”

“Yes we are.  Trestler was a good programmer.  I’m sorry for your loss.”

“As are we,” Dorothy noted as Vanessa picked up the last drink and then she left.

“You trust her,” Jack whispered after the door closed and Charles smiled.

“The Dorothy series was always very trustworthy.  And loyal.  Too loyal for Vilian Corp’s wishes.  If they agreed to follow you, they would not betray you.  Many died rather than betray members of Vilian Corp that the board decided should be eliminated.  In fact, I wouldn’t be alive if she hadn’t done the same thing.  So yes, I trust her.”

“You were targeted by Vilian?” Jack asked, his sense going dark, and Charles nodded simply.

“There were trying to track someone down,” he answered and Ben felt a spike of emotions from Jack.

“Really?  Any idea who?” he asked and Charles stared at him for a few seconds before shrugging.

“Some guy named Clive Vander,” he said and shrugged again.  This time Jack’s emotions didn’t so much as twitch, and then they did as he laughed and relaxed as Charles continued.  “Dorothy nearly died protecting me from them before I got tired and sent them off on a wild goose chase,” he said with an evil smile and Jack chuckled back.  “I trust her with my life.  Literally.  But back to the subject.  Parts of Vilian Corp do still survive, amalgamated with other Corporations.  Some learned from the betrayal that brought down Vilian, others have not.”

“Betrayal?” Ben asked quickly.  “I didn’t know anything about a betrayal.”

“You thought it was a simple turf fight between factions,” Jack whispered and Ben swung his head around to look at him.  It felt as if Jack knew more but he couldn’t lock anything down.  Then Charles grabbed his attention again.

“The Shang have been trying to duplicate old Albion and Peloran genetic research for thousands of years.  They haven’t succeeded yet.  Vilian Corp was working with them to try to export data from Pryde Rock that could get them closer to it, until one of their enforcers found out.  He and his people were the best Vilian had.  They’d fought for years in the underground wars between the Corporations and were very good at what they did.  They betrayed Vilian and destroyed it for that.”

“I never knew,” Ben whispered softly.  “Who were they?”

“Names that no longer exist,” Charles said simply.  “They all died, and I won’t see their names destroyed now.  They may have been criminals, but they were one hundred percent loyal to Pryde Rock.”

“I see.”  Ben turned to look at his companions and pulled on the front of his suit jacket to straighten it out.  It was turning into one of the standard ways he handled stress and Ben reflected that he would have to fight it.  There was nothing good about letting people know when you were nervous or stressed.  “So what’s the eighth Corporation?”

“Psion Incorporated,” Charles whispered and waved his hand to brush away Ben’s objection.  ”I know it isn’t technically big enough to be put on an equal footing with the other Corporations, but I think it will be soon.”

“I’m glad you’re so optimistic,” Ben noted with a wink.

“Well, it is partially wishful thinking.  You don’t think I’ve made this much money by letting it sit in a savings account do you?”  He added and Ben shook his head helplessly.  If there was thing he knew about Charles it was that he always had is hands in more pies than most people had fingers.

“So can you tell me anything about what is going on now that I don’t know already?”

“Oh, I can tell you a fair bit.  I’m gathering you don’t have access to the actual Intelligence files compiled before they asked you to get involved?” Charles asked and Ben shook his head.  “That’s what I thought.  They are rather interesting.  Wrong but interesting.  They are looking in the wrong place, and are missing some important information that could give them an edge.  More is going on here then you or they have ever imagined,” Charles whispered and all four of his visitors shifted and stared at him intently.

“Excuse me?” Ben finally asked after a long pause and Charles shrugged.

“I’ve had my suspicions for some time, but last week I finally obtained information I needed to prove them.  History as we know it is…well…rather incomplete at the very least.  Many things are left out, perhaps even lied about,” he added simply and Ben blinked in confusion.

“Tell me,” Ben whispered slowly.

“Everybody knows that thousands of years ago civilizations arose on Terra, some of which look like cultures we’ve seen out here.  The Aztec, Chinese, Russian, Celtic, Egyptian and dozens of other cultures.  Most put that up to coincidence, or possibly some alien race transporting humans out here in the distance past.  It is what the Pelorans say happened to them at least.  Which we found out when we made first contact with them in 3117, after we went through three Interstellar Wars that nearly destroyed us.  And they helped us during the Fourth Interstellar War, their Great War, even though they didn’t have to.  We’ve always assumed that they only recently found the Adsul warp point terminus before making contact with us, though if you look at their exact words they have never said that.

“The truth is they’ve known about it a lot longer than that,” Charles finished harshly.

“Are you sure?” Ben asked doubtfully and Charles nodded.

“Very certain.  I’ve found evidence saying they’ve known about Adsul terminus since at least the early 2200s.”

“The First Interstellar War,” Ben whispered and Charles nodded again.

“And I think they knew about it for a lot longer than that.”

“Why?” Ben asked and Charles shrugged.

“Old Peloran legends say they were taken from their home by the Albion.  They are humans just like us, meaning they had to come from Terra.  Assuming the theory of evolution is correct of course and nobody just engineered us like has happened to so many other races out here.”

“Of course,” Ben said with a chuckle.

“Anyways, my point is that these Albion or the Ennead we’ve heard about that they fought had to have known a fairly fast route to get here.  And much smarter people than me think that both the Albion and the Ennead may have been some kind of influencers on the old Celtic and Egyptian cultures.  And never forget that the Aesirans have admitted to once visiting Terra.  Their ships are faster than anybody else’s and they didn’t need the terminus.  Of course, if you look at history and legends, the Norse gods weren’t much on the idea of telling people what to do and how to live their lives either.  Probably one of the reasons we’ve never gone after them.  But have you ever noticed the similarities between the Shang and the Chinese too?  We don’t have any information on whether the Shang came here too, and if they did it would have been before the Albion became powerful.  And we don’t have any information going back that far.  The Pelorans don’t have it and the Aesirans never cared to get it so we are flying blind there.  But based on what we do have, they could have been taken away from Terra by the Albion or maybe the Ennead before they destroyed each other, or they could have been powerful back before the Albion rose up.  But whatever the exact history is, the Albion and whoever else was out there had to have known about the warp point at Adsul to bother even coming to Terra,” Charles said and leaned back in exasperation as Ben nodded in understanding.

“After the big war between the Albion and the Ennead, nobody seemed to come here anymore.  We were too insignificant to worry about and the war hurt everybody.  Rebuilding was their top concern, not a primitive planet thousands of light-years away.  But some records I recently found suggest that the Shang may have placed an automated observation station on Pluto just in case things on Terra changed and we became a threat,” he said and then relaxed back into his chair again.

“Remember that the big Albion-Ennead war erupted around two hundred years before the birth of Christ.  That is when we assume that any influence they had on Terra ceased to exist and the general time shifts in cultures reflect that to a fairly decent degree.  The old civilizations with analogues out here in Europe and Africa met the sword of Rome, and the power of the Ennead and Albion-analogue cultures failed.  And then Rome collapsed.  There is no real evidence that the Roman Empire was supported by anything and what little is there is even more nebulous than anything we’ve found out here.  My people are ninety nine percent certain that Rome was all good old Terran-centric.  Remember, the Empire only played lip service to the old gods for a good part of its history.  Then Christianity arose out of nowhere and brushed the old gods aside completely, even taking over the Roman Empire as it weakened.  That does not suggest a culture being influenced from the outside.”

“You don’t think the Christian God was some Ennead or Albion civilization playing with us?” Jack asked and Charles shook his head slowly.

“If it is, we haven’t seen the one that would do it.”

“What about the Serraphym?” Jack asked and Charles winced.

“Based on what I’ve learned, they were engineered by the Albion before they and the Ennead destroyed each other over that Osiri incident.  Now, technically they would have been around at the time and could have at least accounted for the sightings of angels back in the time of Christ, but what evidence we have suggests that the Albion engineered them in response to earlier accounts of sightings on Terra.  Perhaps they wanted to use them to increase their hold on Terra by having them appear and tell people things.  But remember that the Albion and the Ennead destroyed each other two hundred years before the time of Christ.  Now consider that when the Pelorans made first contact with the Serraphym over three thousand light-years from Terra five hundred years after the time of Christ, the Serraphym did not have hyperdrive capabilities.  They were still using old style reaction drives back then, taking decades to coast between star systems.  The Pelorans really don’t see how they could have had any contact with Terra so early,” he noted with a shrug.

“Most interesting,” Ben whispered.  “But what about somebody else doing something?  Maybe having a few of these Serraphym on tap to play their parts?”

“It is a possibility that my people have put forward.  But they can’t explain the reports of earlier sightings of Angels from before the Albion engineered the Serraphym,” Charles noted with another shrug.  “We’re missing something, and the more we dig down the more I wonder if the Pelorans are too,” he added and Ben’s eyebrows rose in surprise.  The Pelorans were information-gathering maniacs.  Everywhere they went they traded anything of value to learn about the locals.  If they didn’t know something it had to have been hidden awfully well.

“What about the Russians?” Jack asked, pulling Ben from his thoughts, and Charles cocked his head in interest, inviting Jack to continue.  “The Roder seem to be rather similar in some ways to Russians in culture.”

“That is correct,” Charles answered with a shrug.  “But the Russians were started by Norse people that decided to leave the Scandinavian Peninsula long after we assume that ‘alien’ influences ceased.  Oh, there is a possibility somebody else like the Roder did it, but its just as possible that the Roder came from an Aesiran group that broke through the gravitic storms and couldn’t get back in.  Or left on purpose.  There are enough similarities and cultural progression studies that suggest the Russian culture was an adaptation of the existing Norse cultures, rather than a fully new one, that we are hesitant to suggest that they are ‘alien’ influenced,” he noted with a shrug.  “But it is possible.

“Anyways,” Charles continued, “when the Roman Empire collapsed, it shattered into the European nations that no longer had any wish at all to play lip service to the ancient gods that may have been the Albion and the Ennead, or possibly others that we’ve never heard about.  America rose up and rebelled, and then expanded in power until it tipped the balance during World War One and harnessed the power of the atom to win World War Two.

“And that’s when things changed,” Charles noted intensely, leaning forward in his chair.

“That observation station,” Jack muttered and Charles nodded.

“Exactly.  If the reports are true and it really was there, it would have picked up three atomic blasts and told the Shang.  Reports of people being abducted and of ‘flying saucers’ began to ramp up after that and Pelorans think it may have been the Shang abducting people to see what we were capable of.  What we knew.  I think the Pelorans must have been watching us, because soon after a technological boom began that was, frankly, without precedence.

“The Pelorans theorize that the Shang began helping the remnants of the old Chinese Empire, giving it bits and pieces of technology it needed to rebuild without anybody knowing.  We figure the Shang, having a similar culture to the Chinese, wanted to help them out.  It was with Shang help that we think they defeated Japan in 2051, and they nearly got Australia in a package deal, but dumb luck on the part of the Western Alliance nations stopped them.  The Pelorans are certain that the Roder helped what is now the Russian Federation and I’d be willing to bet the Pelorans propped up the powers of Europe and America.  They’ve never said so, but if they thought the Shang and the Roder were playing tin gods here I think they would have helped someone.  And face it.  The Celts were gone.  And back in the Twentieth Century the Americans and the Europeans were the only other major power bloc.”

“So where does the Illuminati fit in?” Jack muttered disbelievingly and Charles sighed, cocking his head at Jack like one would to an old friend.

“You think that’s a joke,” he finally returned.  “One of these days I’ll have to show you what I’ve found out about them.”  Then he shrugged and got back on track.  “But the point is that the Pelorans believe the Shang were doing what they’ve always done best.  Building up their position and setting someone else up to look guilty when things hit the fan.  The face off at Jupiter Station in 2207 between the Russian and American naval fleets may not have been an accident.  It may have been a Shang operative on the Russian flagship that fired first.  And from then on, every time it looked like the war was simmering down, the Pelorans think they would ignite them again.”

“That war lasted until 2423” Jack asked whispered and Charles nodded.

“The war between the Pelorans and the Roder started in 2412.  And we know the Shang hit the Arnam at the same time.  The war was devastating, but the Pelorans were very powerful.  Too much for the Roder and the Shang, especially with Arnami support.  The Pelorans laid their suspicions about Roder and Shang involvement in Terra on the table with the two after beating them back and told them it would not be allowed.  They sent their fleets out and promised to stop any Roder or Shang actions.  They think they did a fairly decent job of it too, but they also think that at least the Shang managed to get something through the blockades they set up.  The Shang have always been better at that kind of thing than the Pelorans after all.  And has it really missed your notice that the Second, Third, and Fourth Interstellar Wars were all started by civilizations with something in common with the Shang?” he asked intently and Ben gasped as it clicked.

“Oh my God,” he whispered and Charles nodded.

“I don’t think the Shang wanted us powerful enough to support the Pelorans whenever they decided to hit them again.  I think that’s why we’ve had so many wars that were so destructive.”

“Makes sense,” Jack noted with a shrug and everybody turned to look at him in surprise.  “What?” he asked with another shrug.  “If I wanted to destroy an enemy, I’d sure make sure he was fighting someone other than me.  Especially if I didn’t want to get my hands dirty.”

“You look more like a hands on kind of guy,” Charles noted and Jack shrugged.

“I was.  Then I lost one,” he noted, flexing his right hand as he scowled down at it.  “And almost lost the other,” he added as he flexed his left one.  “It tends to change your perspective on things,” he finished as Ben looked at him carefully.  He was remembering something.  Two somethings.  Things that hurt him.  And not just his body.  Things that had left something behind in his mind.

“You seem to take my contracts easily enough,” Ben whispered and Jack shrugged back.

“I like a little excitement from time to time,” he responded.  “And besides, its not like most of them are any big problem,” he added with a wink and turned back to Charles.  “So what about the Fourth War?” he asked and Charles smiled like one of the wolves on his bookshelves.

“The Shang were ready, but they wanted us out of the way first, so they started it here in 3302.  They waited a decade, allowing the Pelorans to become involved, before manufacturing an incident between the Roder and the Pelorans.  And then they smashed the Arnam out of the equation.  After that, it should have been easy sailing for them.  The Pelorans weren’t as powerful by then as they had been a millennium before and the Roder had them tied up.  If the Shang could have turned and rolled them up…well…”  Charles trailed off and shrugged as his audience nodded in understanding.

“But then the Aesirans stepped in on Pelora’s side,” Ben finally added.

“More accurately on Pryde Rock’s side,” Charles corrected.  “They spanked us silly but we didn’t give up.  You and your cousin fought until the end,” he noted with a nod towards Ben.  “To the Aesirans, that proved we had enough balls to be worthy of an alliance with them, so they defended us when the Shang tried to punish us for protecting the remnants of the Arnam.”

“And protecting the Arnam brought Pelora over to our side,” Ben whispered.

“Exactly.  Pelora and Asgard still don’t like each other, but they like us.  Beyond that, Pelora is not powerful enough to hold out alone against both the Roder and the Shang if they ever make a concerted push.  And the Aesirans don’t need Pelora to survive.  The Asgard Sector is far enough out on the fringes of the civilized sectors, surrounded by gravitic storms, that nobody will waste the time to hit them.  It would take too long to find ways through the storms in normal space, the Aesirans have the known routes through guarded ten ways from Sunday, and any attack would leave them too wide open to attack from closer powers.  The thing is that both the Shang and the Roder need Pelora out of the way.  Pelora has been the check on their power ever since the Albion and the Ennead destroyed each other and they want it gone.”

“But they can’t do that until they take Asgard out of the picture?” Ben asked and Charles nodded.

“The best way to do that is to discredit Pryde Rock.  A Shang operative survived the fall of Vilian Corporation and is working to generate the opportunity he needs to do just that.  An Aesiran diplomat is scheduled to come here in April from Asgard.  I’ve picked up information that suggests the Shang want him neutralized.  And they want it to look like we did it.”

“Where’s the operative?” Jack asked, his body looking as casual as ever but Ben felt suppressed tension under the act.

“Barlon Industries,” Charles responded with a nod and a sense that he understood Jack’s false calm and pulled a data crystal out of his pocket.  He tossed it into the air, letting the facets of its construction reflect a rainbow of colors throughout the room, before catching it with one swift swipe of his hand.  “I don’t know who it is, but I’ve traced him that far.  This is all the information I have.  Use it wisely.”  Then he tossed it into the air again on an arc towards Ben.

The Engineer caught it expertly and smiled before speaking.  “Thanks.”  Then he saluted Charles with the data crystal.  “Your history lesson was a real mind bender.  ‘Most interesting’ as my cousin would say.  There is a lot of ‘maybes’ and ‘we thinks’ in there but it is a very intriguing story.  Could you send me a report with that information?”

“I’d have to leave my sources out of it,” Charles noted and Ben nodded sadly.

“Of course.  I’ll forward it to my cousin and we can all decide what to do about it after that.  But for now, see yah later.”  And with that he turned to leave the room.  The others nodded and followed him.  As Jack ambled out of the room, he paused for a moment and nodded towards Charles again.  Charles raised his glass in a toast as the door began to shut.

“Go get ‘em, Clive,” he whispered barely loud enough for Jack to pick up and Jack nodded again before turning to follow Ben and the AIs out as the door clicked shut.