Within hours we were summoned to return to base by the swiftest possible vector, and to hell with the fuel budget. Normally, we would be expected to use minimum energy transfers, unless there was some dire emergency.
"Typical," harrumphed the Skipper, "I sense politics at play. Interesting times ahead."
The Captain had been around the Solar System for long enough to be able to make a judgement. He clearly expected some momentous outcome, but he refused to be drawn on exactly what he meant.
We made good time back to near Earth orbit: the propulsion reactors running at 90-plus per cent output and flinging a vast amount of ionised propellant - which started out as just water - firstly at the asteroid belt and later at planet Earth itself.
We docked at the designated bay and scrambled out of our acceleration suits, feeling the various tubes and feeds removing themselves. It was something of a relief to be able to move around again normally. The Skipper and I were met at the airlock door by the Squadron Commander himself, offering his congratulations in one breath and explained that we would have to answer some detailed questions with the next.
The next few weeks were a blur. Separately at first, and then together, the Captain and I were subjected to an extensive debrief, continually surrounded by a volatile mixture of Top Brass and intelligence specialists of all kinds. They insisted on calling up the minutest details from the records - basically, repeating the analysis we have already performed - and asking obscure, oblique or just plain difficult-to-answer questions. It was all very stressful after months in an acceleration couch and the company of just one other person.
This period of debriefing might well have been a holding pattern, intended to keep the Skipper and I fully occupied - and out of the public eye - until a suitable event could be manufactured. Our official return - aligned with our expected arrival if we had followed a more normal course - was greeted with what turned out to be an elaborate ceremony carefully staged for the eyes, and the cameras, of the world. We were, it seemed destined to be Heroes, even though I knew, in my heart of hearts, that it was just luck which had led the Skipper and me to stumble upon the Last Asteroid.
Over the next few months, both the Skipper and I were decorated and interviewed and promoted relentlessly. Our faces appeared alongside politicians and media personalities, on stages and studios and screens, all over the world. We were asked for our opinions on all kinds of topics, and curiously we were always able to give a cogent, insightful and often witty response, having been carefully briefed by the officers who had been, it was apparent from the start, set up as official minders.
The event of destroying the Last Asteroid was declared as the official end of the war. The focus was now on rebuilding a shattered world economy which had for so long remained on a war footing. For decades, new warships were being built in Earth orbit and existing craft were continually being refitted and upgraded; all this had taken a vast proportion of the global economic product, resulting in hardships for almost everybody on the planet, together with a degree of resentment and even, in a couple of cases, outright rebellion had broken out.
Now, it was announced: It Would Be Different. Finally there would be peace, and all would be well for everybody. After a period of hard work for everybody, too, of course. There would be a Peace Initiative dedicated to using the resources of the world - and the now-subdued Asteroids - for the welfare of all. The Skipper and I were to be part of the programme to make it all happen.
We continued to travel the world, making speeches, accepting interviews, opening schools and hospitals, pressing the flesh with dignitaries and volunteers. Always with the ever-present cameras trained in our direction, and with the official minders equally present. I had never realised there was so much variety on our own planet, although I hardly got an opportunity to see as much as I would have liked of any one particular place.
We also received a great many messages and mails from well-wishers and partisans of every flavour, and official policy instructed me to respond to each and every one individually, whether they were banal, or offensive, or patronising, or paranoid. Of course I did rapidly build up a useful library of responses, phrases, images and clips, all of which could be swiftly assembled into a suitable answer by the rather good professional editing suite the forces had put at my disposal.
But there was one most unusual message, one which stood out from the dross. It was a text-only communication - just words on the screen - which nevertheless conspired to make me grow cold in its implications.
It read: "You think you are responsible for a great victory, even if it is entirely a chance occurrence. But you are wrong. You are just a just a small cog in a much greater machine, an element of an Expansionist plan which is still to entirely unfold. Events approach which will forever change humanity's future. Watch the skies!"
It was signed Sandra Lim, the name of the dead woman who had communicated the details of the Expansionists ships and habitats all those years ago.
The strangest part of the message was a link to a public encyclopaedia, an article describing the composition of the icy bodies in the Kuiper Belt and their potential use: carbon and nitrogen and oxygen; the elements needed for the manufacture of modern super-strong materials based on carbon nanotubes, with plenty of the raw materials required for both the support of life and the provision of reaction mass for propulsion units. Of course I reported the message immediately to the minders who were never more than a few paces away, day or night. Later I would learn that the sender could not be traced but was in any case thought to be an automated system almost certainly triggered by the public coverage surrounding the Last Asteroid.
Even so, I should not have been surprised when, a few weeks later, several of the larger objects in the Kuiper Belt suddenly started to accelerate. Within hours of one another, a handful of these distant objects lit up with jets of incandescent plasma, huge rocket engines hurtling each iceball forward at an acceleration which none of our ships could sustain, even with inertia nullification and military-grade acceleration couches.
They were all heading, as far was we could tell, straight out of the Solar System in the directions of some of the closer stars thought to have planetary systems and, presumably, asteroids, there for the Expansionists to make a home amongst the stars.
If you have enjoyed this story, then why not take a look at the others in this collection? An eclectic mixture of science fiction and mystery/ghost stories under the title ...Then a Miracle Occurs.
You may also enjoy my earlier collection of fifteen interlinked short stories under the title Four Square Less One. Can you work out the hidden connections between all of the stories?
I am now working on a new series of Private Eye fantasy novels. The first is called Findo Gask - Goblin Detective, featuring the eponymous Private Eye, Findo Gask himself.