FACTION ELIMINATED

The following is based on the game Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri ©1998 Firaxis Games. The story takes place on Chiron, the lone habitable planet orbiting Alpha Centauri's primary star, some time after the splintering of the colony ship Unity.

CHAPTER ONE

The unmarked black needlejet, flanked by a pair of identical escorts, screeched in low over the central research facility of the University faction. The lead jet banked as it flew above the largely unadorned towers of the famed Human Genome Research Center, one of many tall structures in the city. The AAA guns of the perimeter defense systems tracked the needlejet flawlessly, but the computer-controlled barrels remained quiet. The lead jet was transmitting one of University's highest-level diplomatic codes. The research assistants manning the sensor decks watched their screens intently, their fingers near the manual overrides. All the codes checked out, and the visiting jets- whoever they were- did not deviate from the accepted flight corridor.

The jets switched to V/STOL mode, and came to rest on the Academy pad, where a small contingent from the University Protocol Office was already waiting. Even before the aircraft powered down, the passenger compartment hatches came down, and from each visiting jet emerged a squad of silent, black-clad warrior-monks. One squad fanned out to either side of the pad area, while the third formed up at attention before the ramp of the lead jet. The local delegation came forward.

The commander of the University garrison saluted the leader of the honor guard, while the visiting ambassador looked up at the little spherical vidcam that hovered nearby. "The Chairman of the Human Hive, Sheng-ji Yang," he announced into the camera.

At last, a slim figure came down from the craft.

"Welcome, Chairman Yang," the Protocol Officer said. "University welcomes you, and Academician Zakharov has been eagerly awaiting your arrival."

The Chairman scowled at the offending camera but said nothing as the University team led them inside.

The half-darkened conference room was empty, except for the two faction leaders and their most-trusted assistants. Protocol allowed as many as three apiece, but Yang had ignored these and had brought only one- his protégé and consort, Wangmu. She was a silent, monklike woman in black robes.

Academician Zarkhov, now aware of his ally's austere predilections, also brought only one assistant- his Dean of Research Sciences, Doctor Valen Filoh. Filoh was perhaps the most intelligent person on Planet, save only Zarkhov himself. And though he looked much older than Zarkhov, Filoh was in reality quite a bit younger. He'd been one of the first children born on Chiron in the early days. Filoh had been instrumental in the Human Genome work- the first secret project completed by the University- and had certainly benefited physically (as well as financially) from his own experiments. The Dean had also proven not only his own intelligence but also his loyalty by giving most of the credit for the genome project to Zakharov. Hopefully, any sore feelings on the part of his rivals had long been forgotten. Some of Filoh's associates had been quite instrumental in that early research, but, sadly, few enough were still mentally viable. None of that mattered, though, because the subsequent generation was even more intellectually talented- thanks to the likes of Dr. Filoh, and Zakharov's other loyal Emeritii.

Both Wangmu and Filoh had been thoroughly screened and cleared.

"Welcome to Central Research," Zakharov said, indicating a seat for the Chairman. The huge conference table was old, but exquisitely polished. On it was an expensive crystal chalice, containing the finest vodka on Chiron. The Academician, never much on formalities, poured two glasses.

"I noticed you recorded my arrival," the Chairman said, taking a seat but declining a drink. "Your secrets have a way of getting out."

The Academician was not particularly phased by his visitor's brusque manner. "Not to worry. We have developed a new Hunter-Seeker Algorithm. I'll have to show it to you sometime. It's already netted me a Morgan operative."

"Morgan," Yang sputtered. His host knew perfectly well how he felt about the CEO of Morgan Industries. "I've come to discuss strategy, Zakharov, Something I never like to do over commlink, encrypted or no."

Zakharov nodded, and, tapping the surface of the table, called up the latest map of Chiron's surface, showing in general terms the territories of the seven major factions- The University, The Hive, Morgan Industries and it's ally the Peacekeepers, plus the Believers, the Spartans and the Gaians.

Yang looked down at the map. "The Believers are spreading across the southern continent, I see. For the most part, unhindered." Yang did not mention that he'd recently learned a tiny fraction of his drones had been discovered there, as refugees. "There's an ocean between us and them, with nothing in it but fungus and some semi-mythical pirates."

"As much as I despise Miriam and her fanatics," Zakharov said, "we have little to fear from her any time soon."

"I'm sure she'd say much the same about you," the Chairman said.

Zakharov wondered. His ally was cagey. Had the Chairman been talking to the Believers behind his back?

"No," Yang said. "The real threat is somewhat closer to hand. The vile, degenerate weaklings of Morgan Industries have been spreading across our own central continent, a plague worse than any mind worm boil. Their broadcasts always seem to find new ways past my censors, and we're constantly being annoyed by their inane propaganda."

"And you want my help, to attack them?" Zakharov asked.

"No, I have something more…limited in scope to propose to you," Yang answered.

Zakharov nodded. Warfare bored him at times, and it took so much attention away from the really critical research. "You know we at University have always been eager to aid you, Chairman, since the first landings on Chiron. What conquest did you have in mind?"

"My bases are reaching their population limits," Yang said, "and I need to expand. We have detected valuable mineral resources there, and the highlands would also prove useful, easier to defend when the Morgan-Peacekeeper alliance decides to turn on us militarily."

"Ah, I see," Zakharov said. Santiago.

Chairman Yang nodded. "Unfortunately, Lieutenant Santiago and her puny faction happens to occupy that section of the continent at the moment, between us and our true enemy."

Your true enemy, Zakharov thought. Mine is that misguided whore on the southern continent. He knew Santiago had once been Yang's subordinate- on the Unity, as well as back on Earth. But Santiago had unexpectedly betrayed her superior officers in the last days before landfall. Yang wasn't the sort to let that go. The Academician scowled. He, too, had been betrayed by one of his subordinates on Unity- the one-time xenobiologist, Lt. Commander Deirdre Skye. Zakharov looked at Yang. The serene Chairman was staring back at him. Had the Hive learned telepathy? Impossible. Everything the Hive scientists knew had always come, at least indirectly, from Zakharov's own research. At least, he hoped that was still true.

"Perhaps we can put our treaty to the test," the Chairman said. "We both get a buffer zone with the Peacekeepers. I get Santiago and her minerals, and you get your old underling, and her databanks. I'm sure there should be something there of interest to you. Skye was, after all, a scientist like yourself."

"Not like myself," Zakharov snapped, but Yang only nodded, like he'd been expecting just such an outburst. "Nothing like myself."

"Still," Yang said, "I daresay the Gaian's research into Centauri ecology would be of interest to one such as yourself."

"Purely academic," Zakharov said.

"Of course." The Chairman's eyes glittered. Purely academic.

"As much as I'd like to help you, old friend," Zharkov continued, "I'm not sure how much help I can really be to you in this endeavor. I have few bases, mostly here along the coast, and I certainly don't have the armies you'd need. Our maps indicate Santiago has…" The Academician closed his eyes, briefly, consulting the mental database in his hyper-organized cortex, calling up the latest map. "She has at least nine bases." He tapped the table, and exactly nine white squares appeared in Spartan territory. Zakharov shook his head dubiously. "Perhaps I could help you conquer the Spartans, but then I'd have nothing left to use against the Gaians."

"Manpower I am quite willing to provide," the Chairman said. He hated wasting good workers by turning them into soldiers, but Yang had decided the realignment of drones would be necessary long before visiting Research Central. His cloning vats were now operating at full capacity, and had been for some time. He was able to generate the required resources- enough to conquer the Spartans, he was sure, as well as hold the land against any reprisals from the Peacekeepers. He would even, perhaps, loan a battlegroup or two to help Zakharov in his own efforts to subjugate the Gaians, once the Spartans were pacified. And, his most classified projections had determined the Human Hive could execute the plan with ninety-eight percent certainty and still maintain a sizeable reserve for homeland defense- should an unforeseen enemy suddenly decide to strike.

Yang knew full well, or thought he did, the extent of University's defenses- pitifully weak by Hive standards, especially since Zakharov's faction built everything above ground. The University faction was such a small threat to him that as long as their alliance continued to be mutually beneficial, neither he nor Zakharov need worry about treachery for quite a few cycles yet.

"I don't need manpower," Chairman Yang continued. "But I would like my men to have the most advanced equipment available."

Predictably, Zakharov was not about to hand over his most advanced technology. The exchanges between Hive and University in the past had never been even- Zakharov always kept the best for himself. Chairman Yang was never quite sure what new tricks his ally might have in his labs, to defend his bases. The Hive's Politburo had run all the possible Spartan and Gaian scenarios, and the biggest remaining unknown was his neighbor and ally, Zakharov. Seeing a few of the University's best troops in action would be very interesting.

"I have a better idea, Chairman," Zakharov said. "I will field a limited number of my new Chaos Shock Troops and place them under your direct control. These new units will be best employed weakening up the Spartan bunkers so that your men can go in and make the final assault."

"That will be satisfactory." Chairman Yang smiled. "If all goes according to plan, New Liberty will fall to our forces in twenty-one months."

Zhakarov glanced at Dr. Filoh, who consulted the quaint, old-fashioned-looking LCD clipboard he always carried for sentimental reasons, rather than the more modern implants. "Actually, Chairman," Filoh said, "our estimates are twenty point five."

Yang smiled again. "I stand corrected," he said graciously. But inside, the Chairman felt a flash of anger. How had they known? I must remember not to underestimate Zakharov, or how much he knows, Yang thought to himself.

Academician Zakharov leaned forward, setting down his empty glass. "A two-front war would be unwise for both of us," he said, as if it had just occurred to him. Perhaps there was a double meaning to his words. "So," Zakharov said, "I am willing as you propose to tackle the Gaians second- only after we have defeated the Spartans."

Zakharov leaned back in his chair. "There are multiple inflection points in the projection space, as I'm sure your own planners have told you. Plus, to attack the Gaians will require a shipborne force- a thing which neither of us has. While developing naval prototypes will take away some of my engineers from other more critical tasks, I will nevertheless put some thought to it, as soon as the campaign against the Spartans is underway."

"As will I, Academician," Yang agreed. "It would be only prudent. We will want to surprise the Gaians almost immediately, once the Spartans have been dealt with."

"That should wake them up in U.N. Headquarters, if nothing else."

"Precisely. It will send them a message, but it will be too late. Unlike Santiago, Deirdre is a pacifist. She is likely to call on the other factions for military aid, and we don't want to give Morgan or Lal the chance to go on a war footing before we're ready."

"However unlikely," Zakharov said, leaning forward again. "The more I think about it, the less likely I think that scenario becomes. The Gaians have been notoriously reclusive lately, and I just can't see Deirdre Skye asking Morgan for help. She hates him more than she hates you or I."

"Let us hope that is the case," Yang said. "Still, before she realizes it, she will be in your hands, to face the penalty for her disloyalty on the Unity."

Over a century had passed since the calamitous last days of the Unity, when so much had gone wrong, and complete tragedy had been so narrowly averted. But, thanks to the longevity supplements and clinical treatments, most of the key players in that debacle were still alive. Many nights, Yang had secretly dreamt of getting revenge on the treacherous Lieutenant Corazon Santiago. Soon, he would get what he wanted most. The leader of the rebel Spartans would make a superb contribution to the clone vats of the Human Hive.

With an imperceptible flick of an eyelid, Academician Zakharov was able to call up an archived image, projected onto the translucent green inner surface of his dataspecs. A picture of Deirdre Skye from long ago, with dark hair, wearing a crisp, new pale blue science officer uniform. Still as stunningly attractive and intelligent in her own way as she had been on those fateful last days. She had betrayed him. He had been the Chief Science Officer, and she had been the head botanist and xenobiologist on his staff. But her insane, romantic ideas about Chiron had overcome her reason. If only she had remained loyal, she might be the Dean, instead of Dr. Filoh.

Yang was right about one thing, Zakharov thought. Deirdre's research into Centauri Ecology DID fascinate him. It was one area his own scientist put little effort towards. Who knew what University might learn, once her xenobiological data was incorporated into his network nodes? Soon, her Gaian faction would be wiped out. She'd be brought back to the Center, publicly stripped of her former rank- and of everything else. Zakharov's pulse quickened. The scientist couldn't decide what part of Lieutenant Commander Deirdre Skye would be more enjoyable- her body, or her mind. Perhaps if his newest research came to fruition, he wouldn't have to make that choice- he could have both.