The science fiction of Rick Partlow



Author of the Duty, Honor, Planet and Birthright series of science fiction novels.
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Monday, April 15, 2013

Northwest Passage Prologue and First Chapter


By Rick Partlow















Deke spat the spent butt of his cigar into the damp grass and ground it under his heel.  Squinting against the glare of the dawn, he took a deep breath of the humid morning air.  The tangy aroma of the thick jungle to the west mingled with a hint of the far-off ocean, but neither his inborn olfactory senses nor the cybernetic chemscanners implanted in his head could detect the slightest hint of pollution, the barest vestiges of human industrial civilization.  This was the only slice of the planet that could honestly be called habitable for unprotected humans, and it was a vanishingly slim slice at that.  If the whole world had been this hospitable, the place would have been packed with colonists.

The only proof man had ever set foot on this world was his own ship, its delta-winged bulk pressing into the soft earth of the valley floor, steam still hissing off its cooling metal surfaces.  A converted missile cutter from the last war, the ship still retained its two-tone camouflage scheme---sky-grey on its belly, olive drab on the upper hull---interrupted only by the hand-scrawled red of the ship's name:  Dutchman. 

For all he could see, his ship could be the first human landing on this world...and, considering his cargo, he should have been grateful for the isolation.  But there was something about this that he just didn't like.  He pulled his sidearm, checking its load, knowing he was being a paranoid but not caring.  His contact had five minutes before the No-Later-Than time, and if the man didn't make it by then, he was out of here---not a minute later.

The ship's sensors whispered a warning to his implanted wetware and his eyes snapped to the horizon and the flyer coming in low, just above the treeline.  He'd been expecting it, but he had the ship's weapons systems target it anyway, even as he sent the recognition signal.

Signal received and identified, the ship's computer told him.

So, it was them.  He left the weapons armed and kept his gun in his hand as he watched the boxy ducted-fan hovercraft descend in a tightening spiral to touch down only twenty meters away.  The whine of the hopper's belly fans hadn't quite died when the aircraft's side hatch popped open and a man emerged.  Tall and gangly, he had the look of someone born and raised on Mars or one of the other low-gravity colony worlds, with an elongated, horsey face and jet-black hair.

Deke had never met him, but a file had been supplied by the middleman in this deal, and he took the moment to review the pertinent facts.  His name was Kane Xiang, or so the file would have had him believe, and he ran an iridium mine on Sipapu, a squatter colony on the fringes of the Pirate Worlds---those lawless, nearly worthless systems on the inner edge of the Cluster that rejected Commonwealth rule.

Officially, colonization was forbidden in the systems directly bordering Pirate Space.  But with the Cluster’s more accessible colonies being quickly gobbled up in the Expansion that had followed the Second Interstellar War, many dissatisfied adventurers and restless entrepreneurs were venturing to the proscribed systems to try their hand at mining or agriculture.

Only one problem with that:  since the colonies weren't recognized by the Commonwealth government, they received no protection from the Patrol or the Rangers---and the pirate cabals knew it.  This left the squatters with the choice of either hiring mercenaries for their defense or doing the job themselves.

Xiang's people had chosen the latter alternative, and that was where Deke came in.  The hold of his ship was packed with a pair of military proton cannons suitable for mounting on any spacecraft, along with the sensor package and Artificial Intelligence programs to run it.  All of which was stolen, all of which was illegal for civilians to possess, and all of which was illegal to sell to an unenfranchised colony.

All of which didn't mean shit to Deke.

"You're Conner," the man accused, striding down the ramp and approaching Deke.  A quick scan showed Deke he wasn't armed and wasn't packing any obvious physical augmentation.

"And you're Xiang," Deke returned, shoving his sidearm into its holster.  "Hope you've got loading equipment in there," he went on, nodding at the hopper, "'cause you folks aren't paying me enough to haul this shit out on my back."  

"No problem," Xiang shrugged.  He fished in his pants pocket and came up with a crystal dataspike, tossing it to Deke.  "Go ahead and check that out while I go grab the powerlift."

Deke frowned at him as he disappeared back into the hold of the aircraft.  He'd been dealing with the squatter colonies for over a year now, and he hadn't yet met one of the raggedy-assed paranoids that didn't want to go over the cargo with an electron microscope before they forked over the money.  Yet a quick scan of the spike with his neurolink showed that it indeed held the two hundred K in Corporate scrip that was the agreed-upon price for the weapons.

He tucked the spike into a pouch on his gunbelt, shaking his head.  There was no sign of any trouble, and he couldn't start shooting his customers just because he had a bad feeling---business might start to decline.  So he just waited and watched as the hopper's cargo door fell open with a metallic groan. 

Xiang clomped out of the aircraft's cargo hold wearing the faded yellow bulk of an old industrial exoskeleton, its aging servos whining in protest as he brought it over the uneven ground between the two vehicles.  Deke chuckled softly as the man approached him.

"That thing looks like it's older than I am," he commented.

"We don't get much in the way of equipment out here."  Xiang smiled apologetically through the exoskeleton's safety cage, struggling with the machine's controls.  "This old girl's held together with spit and good wishes."

"Aren't we all?"  Deke mused.  "Follow me."

The ramp to the cargo bay yawned open from the ship's belly, revealing the insulated hold and the half-dozen durasteel containers which contained the components of the proton accelerators.

"You want to inspect the goods?"  Captain Conner asked the colonist, leading him up into the bay.  "You choose the box and I'll pop it open for you."

"I'll check it out back in the hopper," Xiang told him.  "I've got a diagnostic scanner in the hold."

Deke frowned.  There it was again, that faint odor of something rotten.  It wasn't so much that Xiang wasn't inspecting the cargo on his ship---God knows, there were all types out here, and maybe he wasn't the shrewdest businessman.  No, it was the fact that a group of half-assed squatters who couldn't even afford a first-class powerloader had a full diagnostic scanner in the hold of his hopper---a device which cost nearly as much as one of the bootleg proton cannons.

It still wasn't enough to make him push the panic button, but it was damned strange.  He shook the feeling off.  If anything happened, he'd deal with it.  He hadn't survived in this business this long without living through a handful of attempted double-crosses:  he was confident that there was nothing this Xiang could throw at him that he couldn't handle.  One hole card he'd enjoyed for a long time was that while he usually knew who he was dealing with, the opposition never knew who they were dealing with.

Deke stepped out of the way as Xiang hauled the first of the containers forward, the oversized footpads of the exoskeleton scraping against the surface of the ramp with a sound that set the pilot's teeth on edge.  He had barely made it out of the hold when something crackled and popped in the machine's hip and the exoskeleton froze up with a grinding squeal.

"Shit!"  Xiang spat, slamming a fist against the padded armrest.  "This Goddamned thing's primary motivator’s shorted out again."

"Let me take a look at it," Deke sighed, holstering his sidearm.  He stepped around to the rear of the machine, popped the access hatch into the guts of the electric motor, and was rewarded immediately by a cloud of white smoke and the unmistakable stench of burning insulation.  "Goddamn, this thing is an antique," he muttered, using the thermal optics implanted behind his corneas to trace the short.  "Here's your trouble," he announced, feeling on his gunbelt for the all-purpose tool he kept in a pouch there.  "Just be a second..."

The words were barely out of his mouth when the motor blew up in his face and the world was suddenly several different shades of black...

*     *     *

Deke swam through a sea of darkness, clawing his way back to consciousness with but one thought:  this was impossible, Impossible, IMPOSSIBLE, GODDAMN IMPOSSIBLE!!!

The Glory Boys, the elite team of augmented commandos he'd fought with during the war, were not physically capable of losing consciousness except by death or voluntary sleep.  Sonic stunners and microwave disruptors could cause them pain and confusion, various chemicals or electric shock devices could short-circuit their organic nervous system, but nothing short of actual physical force could disrupt the heavily-shielded superconductive fibers that connected their implant computers to their byomer muscle augments.  Their auxiliary organs could supply them with a few minutes of extra oxygen, and their computer-to-brain neurolink could prevent them from blacking out due to shock unless they permitted it to stop the pain of an injury.  And the only way to disconnect the neurolink was to rip it out of his skull.

So why, for the first time in two decades, was his headcomp silent?

He opened his eyes.

"You're shitting me!"  he blurted.

"Hi, Deke," Kara McIntire said, smiling broadly.

Deke tried closing his eyes and opening them again, but the lean, attractive face, the piercing green eyes and the spiky, short-cut hair just wouldn't go away.  He looked around, saw that he was lying in a military-style bunk in a small, sterile, white-walled room with no windows and a single door.  He wasn't restrained and he was still dressed in his own clothes, though a quick patdown revealed to him that all the hidden weapons had been cleaned out, right down to the monowire garotte wrapped in a special lining of his jacket sleeve.  He tried to extend the talons mounted on the bones of his forearms, but received not a whisper of response from his headcomp.

God damn it.

"Where am I?"  he asked her, sitting up.  "And no offense, but what the hell are you doing here?"

"You're on the Patrol cutter Kraken," she confirmed his worst fears.  "And I'm here to give you a way out."

"Since when do you work for the Patrol?"  he wanted to know.  Of course, what he really wanted to know was what the hell was happening with his augmentation, but something in him prevented him from coming out and asking.

"Oh, I don't," she assured him.  "I work for General Murdock now."

"Oh, shit," he mumbled.

General Antonin Murdock had been the CO of Deke's commando team during the war.  His most recent run-in with the man had involved an apocalyptic confrontation with the monopolistic might of the Corporate Council, the result of which was the collapse of the Council and the sweeping under the rug of a shitload of advanced alien technology.  The man had more power than ever now, and the last thing Deke had wanted was to become involved with him again.

"Cheer up, Deke," she urged.  "Cooperate and you get everything back---including a guarantee that you'll never have to worry about the Patrol again."

"And if I don't?" he wondered.  "Off to a reformery?"

"Not my call," she admitted, frowning in discomfort.  "But unlikely, considering how much you know."

"So I'll be 'disappeared,' huh?"  He grinned lopsidedly.  "Murdok never was much of a sentimentalist.  Well, at least I know where I stand."  He regarded her carefully.  "What if I said I'd downloaded my memory of what happened on Petra onto several dataspikes being held by friends in the Worlds?  And that if I fail to contact them for a certain period of time, those recordings will be hacked into a Commonwealth Instel Newsnet broadcast for all to see?"

"Well then," she replied with brutal honesty, "I'm fairly certain your memories would be ripped out by a psycheprobe and those friends would be hunted down and killed within a week."

"Just curious." Deke said, spreading his hands innocently.  He sighed heavily, settling back on the cot with his head on his hands.  "All right, what does that old bastard want from me?"

Chapter One



I was on my last lap around the property line when it hit me like a fusion blast and I found myself lying on my belly in a ditch at the side of the path, plunged into a nightmare vision of green sky and hellish red trees.

It took me a moment to realize what had happened, and when I did I couldn't quite believe it.  I had gone into combat mode.  My implant computer had jacked my system with double-doses of adrenaline, powered up my auxiliary sensors and muscle augments and activated my thermal vision lens implants without so much as a by-your-leave, and sent me involuntarily into a dive behind the nearest cover.

Nothing like that had happened to me for over four years, since the business with the Corporate Council, and I’d been close to certain that it would never happen again---yet here I was, lying in a ditch.  And I could immediately see why: cutting across the field on a direct bead toward me was the biggest fucking thing I’d ever seen moving on two legs.

It was human, genetically at least, but that was where the resemblances between us ended.  Canaan was a high-g world---1.68 gravities---and it tended to produce compact, heavily-muscled types like myself, but this fellow made me look like an anemic Martian.  Only a couple centimeters taller than me, he was very nearly as wide as he was tall, with scaly, armored skin and eyes set deep in boney orbital ridges.  My headcomp told me what he was before I asked: a Titan, genetically engineered over a century ago to live and work on Morrigan, a 2.5g world with a high level of heavy metals and radioactives and a decidedly lethal ecosystem.

Back when useful worlds were hard to come by and the only way to reach them was through the jumpgates we’d inherited from the Predecessors, it made sense to engineer colonists for a less-than-ideal planet.  Now, with the Transition Drive opening up hundreds more systems and dozens of habitable worlds, the Titans had outlived their usefulness as heavy-g miners and workers---but they still made great assassins.

A quick scan of the thing told me it wasn’t carrying any weapons, but then it didn’t need to---it was a weapon.  Whoever sent it must have decided it was easier to use brute force rather than try to smuggle weapons through the quarantine at the spaceport.

The Titan looked like something out of a nightmare on thermal/IR, and I wondered why my headcomp had bothered---until I cut off the filters and the thing disappeared completely.  I went back to the enhanced view and he was back, and this time I noticed the glowing star of an isotope power pack at his waist, connected to fiber-optic threads that ran all over his body: a camo field.  Tools of the trade.  My trade, once upon a time.

Well, there was no use hiding in a ditch---if I could see him, he sure as hell could see me.

I stood, stepped back onto the path, resisting the temptation to dust myself off.  Titans spoke an odd dialect rooted in some old Earth language called Russian, and I searched my headcomp for the proper pronunciation.

“You looking for me, asshole?”  I asked him in his own language.

I saw him pause in his broad stride, a look of consternation passing across his inhuman face.  Then he smiled and the camo field disappeared.  I deactivated my optical filters and he was transformed from a red-and-orange thermal collage into the ruddy-skinned Goliath I knew him to be.

“It is good,” he said slowly, in a guttural English, “to encounter so worthy an opponent.  Killing you will be an honor.”

“Pleasure’s all mine.”

Then, without another word, I was in motion.  Nearly twenty meters separated us, but I covered the ground in three bounding steps thanks to the byomer strands that augmented my natural muscles, and with the last step I was airborne, my left heel sailing toward his head.

He wasn’t there, of course.  He obviously had jacked reflexes, probably some kind of skeletal reinforcement and a body that was used to half-again the gravity here on Canaan.  He easily sidestepped my kick and tried to come at me from behind, but I spun on the ball of my left foot and spun into a jump back kick that caught him high in the chest.

The Titan stumbled backwards, surprise in his eyes at the force of my blow, but regained his footing and managed to duck my follow up kick.  He tried to move in and grapple with me, but I jumped out of his grasp and braced myself to meet his charge.  He had plenty of bulk to throw at me, but with that bulk came shitloads of momentum...momentum I could use against him.  I spun away from his charge, spun into a heel kick that caught him behind the knee.  I could hear the ligaments pop in the joint and I knew instantly that he lacked the byomer webbing that reinforced my own joints.

I tried to press my advantage, jumping at him as he stumbled away, but he came inside my guard with speed that belied his bulk and caught me with a backhand across the face.  There was no pain, really---my headcomp had shut off my pain receptors---just an odd tingling as I felt myself flying three meters back and plowing shoulder-first into the dirt.

Had I been a normal, unaugmented human, the fight would have ended right there with my neck nicely it was, my brain felt like it had been run over by an autoharvester, and I was blinded by a stunning revelation: I had popped the ligaments in his knee.  He could still fight, but could he run? 

I knew I could.

I took off at a dead sprint, taking full advantage of my augments, churning up dirt as I hit a speed close to fifty klicks an hour.  The Titan limped after me with a ridiculous hopping gait that would nevertheless have put a championship sprinter of a century ago to shame, but I was easily outdistancing him...

Then I saw the groundcar approaching.  It was over a klick away, but I knew it was Rachel from the heat signature.  I skidded to a halt, turned back to face the Titan...if I kept running, Rachel would be on top of us in seconds, and I didn’t want to think about what that thing would do to her if he caught her unawares. 

I ran at him and faked a flying kick, then flipped up and bounced off his shoulder as he swung at me, landing behind him as he tried to turn.  He would have nailed me if he could have turned at his normal speed, but the knee ligament damage slowed him down enough for me to slam an elbow strike into his kidneys, putting my entire weight into the blow.  The Titan staggered forward with the blow, still half-turned and off-balance, and I used the opportunity to jump into a heel kick that took him in the back of the neck.

The kick was centimeters too low to break his neck, but I felt his clavicle snap under my heel before I touched down, spinning to face him.  He was reeling with the two blows and I was concentrating so heavily on him that neither of us noticed Rachel’s groundcar until it plowed into the Titan doing better than eighty kilometers an hour.  The Titan flew a good twenty meters before he hit the ground rolling and flopping like a landed fish, while Rachel’s car spun out in a spray of dirt, the gyros whining as they fought to keep the vehicle from rolling.

I desperately wanted to check on Rachel, but I knew that if the Titan wasn’t out of commission he was still a deadly threat, so I ran over to him, scanning him carefully as I approached.  He was, amazingly enough, still alive, despite have a compound fracture of the hip and right leg and several shattered ribs.  He tried to rise on his one good arm but I kicked it out from under him and he collapsed onto his back, wheezing with effort.

“Give it up,” I told him.  “We’ll get you to a medical center...”

“And psych-probe me?”  He shook his head, gasping for breath.  “I think not.”

He must have overdosed himself with adrenaline, because in one instant he had flipped upright, balanced precariously on his good leg as he swung his one functioning arm at me.  I ducked it easily, hopping back out of his reach.  I risked a glance back at the groundcar and saw Rachel struggling to free herself from her safety harness.  I had no more time to waste playing with this asshole. 

With a thought the paired, twenty-centimeter plastalloy talons anchored to the bones of each of my forearms extended through the synthskin flaps on my wrists.  The Titan came at me with a burst of chemically-induced energy, but I batted aside his attack and swung through his guard.  A spray of bright, arterial blood painted the soil red and the Titan’s body teetered for a moment, headless, before crashing to the ground.

I shuddered as a breath went out of me, nearly lost my footing.  I hadn’t killed anyone in four years, and I had been hoping it would be a long time before I had to do it again. 

“Cal,” I heard Rachel call, turned and saw her climbing out of the wreck of the groundcar, running toward me.  A trickle of blood ran from her nose, but she seemed otherwise uninjured from the crash as I took her in my arms, pressing her to me in relief.  “Oh God, Cal, I was so worried...”

“How did you know?”  I asked her, confused.

“They called,” she told me, wiping absently at the blood on her lip.  “They tried to call you, but that...thing was jamming you.”

“Who?” I shook my head. “Who called you?”

“Kara McIntire,” Rachel told me, the news exploding in my head like a fusion bomb.  “She says she’s insystem and on her way to the spaceport, with an old friend.”

“What old friend?” I asked numbly.

“She didn’t say,” Rachel shook her head. “She just told me to warn you that she had heard an assassin had been sent after you and that she would meet us at the farm as soon as she could.”

“We’d better get back there,” I said, already starting to feel paranoid and vulnerable standing out in the open.  “Is the car drivable?”

“I’m not sure” she said, staring back at it, “but I put in a call to Jason on the way, he should...”

I heard the sound of the hopper first, naturally...with the amount of money and time Commonwealth Intelligence sunk into me during the war, there was precious little on my body that wasn’t augmented.  My head snapped around and Rachel broke off in mid-sentence to stare at the black dot on the horizon as it grew into the shape of a small, ducted-fan hovercraft heading our way.

I pushed Rachel behind me, worried it could be allies of the dead assassin trying to finish the job, but as it approached closer I could see the Canaan Constabulary markings on its side and I began to relax.  But as we waited for it to land, I again started wondering what Kara would be doing here.  I hadn’t seen her in years, not since the business with the Corporate Council...and to be honest, I had been glad not to have her around.  Kara and I had become involved sexually while we fought the Council and I still carried quite a bit of guilt around with me for cheating on Rachel.  Now she was back, and while I was worried what my feelings for her might be, I was also worried about the why of it.  If she was back, it meant that General Murdock was finally calling in that favor I owed him...

A high-pitched whine filled the air and a cloud of dust and debris surrounded us as the hopper came to a gentle landing less than thirty meters from us and the side doors swung up.  Out of the pilot’s seat emerged Jason Chen, whose tall, lanky frame marked him as an Offworlder: he had been my best friend since his family had moved to Canaan back before the war and had been my second in command since I had taken the job as planetary Constable upon our return home.

“Are you okay, Cal?”  He asked worriedly as he walked up to us, pulse pistol hanging loosely in his left hand. 

“Yeah, we’re good...the Titan over there isn’t doing so hot, though,” I nodded toward the beheaded assassin.

“Whoever hired him obviously did not brief him well,” said the other occupant of the hopper as he squeezed out of the passenger door.  “Otherwise he would not have attacked alone.”

Trint walked up to Rachel and gently tilted her head back to look at her bloody nose.  Twenty years ago, the sight of a Tahni warrior that close to Rachel would have sent me into a killing rage.  Five years ago, the knowledge that the warrior was not just a Tahni—there were more and more of them in Commonwealth space since the end of the war—but one of the very few artificially-engineered Imperial Guard cyborgs that had survived the end of the war would have spurred me into a relentless attack.

But Trint and I had saved each others’ lives during the fight with the Corporate Council, and more importantly the cyborg had saved Rachel’s life.  After it was over, I promised General Murdock that I would be available to help him out if needed, in exchange for being allowed to take the cyborg home with us.  After four years, I still found Trint a bit hard to fathom, but I had come to trust the Tahni as I did my own family.

“No serious damage,” Trint concluded after examining Rachel’s eyes.  “No sign of concussion.”

“We’ve got to get to the spaceport,” I announced.  “Rachel says that Kara McIntire is inbound there.”

“Already took care of it,” Jase shook his head.  “I sent Pete over there to pick her up in the other hopper.  They’ll meet us at your place.”

“Good.  Trint,” I turned to the cyborg, “do me a favor and see if you can get the groundcar patched up enough to drive it back to the house.  Once we’re clear of whatever jammer the Titan has on him, we’ll call the office and send a recovery team out to take care of the body.  If you wouldn’t mind, stay here till they get here to make sure no one screws with him.”

“It is not a problem, Cal,” he nodded.  It had taken three months to get him to stop calling me “Captain Mitchell.”

“Then let’s get going.”


As we rode the hopper back to our house, Rachel leaning tiredly against me, I thought about the last time I had seen Kara McIntire.  She had come to me in a downtown chopshop—black market bionics lab—in a building that had long since been torn down in a section of Harristown that no longer existed, brought to me by a cyborg bionics tech named Cutter because she had no one left to turn to for help. 

She was a DSI operative posing as a Corporate mineral scout and she had stumbled upon a treasure trove of Predecessor technology; as a reward, her Corporate Council bosses were attempting to have her assassinated to conceal the find.  Even her superior in the DSI was in on the Corporate plot to use the Predecessor tech to take over the Commonwealth government, so she had no one to run to but her old friend Cutter, and he knew nowhere to turn for help but me.

The Corporate Council came after her, and my family was caught in the middle.  Rachel was taken and I thought she was the time I learned different, Kara and I had fallen into an intense, stress-induced relationship.  Eventually, we beat the Corporates and freed Rachel and I had never told her about Kara and me...I didn’t see the point.  I was sure I would never see Kara again.

I should have learned not to be that sure of anything.


We reached the house first, circling in a broad spiral to make sure the area was clear.  Beyond the clear cut area around it, the broad, crimson leaves of the local foliage shone brightly, taking in the sun while they could.  Canaan had a rotational period of 124 Earth-days, which meant that in the 62-day long Night, the temperature differential led to hurricane force winds and huge storms.  That hadn’t been the case for a space of ten years right after the War with the Tahni, during the time the Corporate Council mining division was digging iridium out of the mountains.  They’d put reflectors in orbit to obviate the Night, nearly killing off the local flora and fauna. 

But when I’d been given free rein by General Murdock to rid our world of Council control, I’d destroyed the reflectors with proton cannons.  The mines were still there, but only recently had they started to produce again---there had been a significant readjustment period after the death of Corporate Council Chairman Andre Damiani and the removal of their exemptions from anti-monopoly laws.  The Commonwealth president who’d taken over after Greg Jameson lost the election wasn’t favorably disposed to allow the Council’s continued existence and they’d been forced to break into component corporations. 

I wasn’t sure if that was going to reform the way they did business, but at least they’d be forced to look over their shoulders a bit more.  I certainly thought they knew better than to fuck with me again…but someone had paid that Titan to come after me.

Finally we came in low over the house---it had been rebuilt after the Corporate Security Force had destroyed it four years ago and now it looked more fortified, both against humans and the weather.  I felt a lurch in my stomach as I saw it, a feeling of shifting reality like it was the last time I would ever see it, and I grabbed Rachel’s hand and squeezed it for reassurance.

I could see a Constabulary hopper on the ground already and three of our cops patrolling around the perimeter, which made me feel better about the possibility of more assassins waiting for us on the ground.  Still, I was pretty keyed up and paranoid by the time the hopper touched down, and when the door opened, I had clenched in my hand a pulse pistol I’d borrowed from Pete.

The front door opened to my code and Rachel and I went inside while Jason went to coordinate with the patrols outside.  The house should have been familiar, homey…the holos of my family and Rachel’s, the hand-made furniture…but instead it looked suddenly alien to me.  I sank onto the couch and Rachel sat next to me, leaning against my shoulder.

“I thought all this was over with, Cal,” she murmured. 

“So did I, honey,” I shook my head.  “Let’s wait and hear what Captain McIntyre has to say.”

“Last time she showed up here,” Rachel pointed out, “our house was blown up with me in it.”  She unconsciously rubbed at her right arm…it had been severed in the explosion and she’d had a new one grown and implanted.  “You wound up on the run from the law, I was held hostage by that Corporate Council guy Damiani and we all nearly died.”

“Well, when you put it that way,” I shrugged, “maybe I should shoot her before she gets in the house.”

“Give me the damned gun,” Rachel said dully.  I winced.  As if this wasn’t going to be awkward enough…

I was about to attempt to say something placating when I heard the hopper coming in.  Pete, I transmitted via my neurolink, is that you?  My headcomp translated the thoughts into a synthesized version of my voice before sending them on to Pete.

It’s us, big brother, came Pete’s reply, converted in the opposite direction.  We’ll be touching down in a minute.

“Pete’s here,” I told Rachel, rising from the couch.

She was silent as we went out to meet them.  My little brother Pete was first out of the aircraft, a bit taller and thinner than me, his hair longer and shaggier, but otherwise the family resemblance was strong.  It always felt strange to me to see him in his Constabulary uniform…in my mind, he was still a kid, I guess, even though he was over thirty now.  Still hadn’t settled down though…

After him was a tall, athletic woman with spiky brown hair and striking green eyes; she wore no uniform though I knew she could have.  She was officially a major in Fleet Intelligence now---which was why she’d been able to get the heavy Gauss pistol hanging from a gunbelt at her waist through customs at the spaceport---but instead of Fleet blues, she wore a black leather jacket and loose grey utility pants.    

“Hi Kara,” I nodded, trying to act less awkward than I felt.

“Cal,” she smiled grimly, “Mrs. Mitchell.”

“Major McIntyre,” Rachel nodded politely.

Then the final passenger of the hopper stepped out and I blinked in surprise.  Tall and slim, with swept-back brown hair and a face that could have been custom sculpted but wasn’t, he was dressed in a green jacket inlaid with ever-changing holographic symbols that I assumed was the latest fashion somewhere. His mouth was set in a wry grin.

“Howdy farmboy,” he said taking my hand in a firm grip.  “Fancy meeting you here.”

“Deke,” I shook my head, still in shock.  “It’s good to see you but…I can’t imagine it’s good news that you’re here.”

Deke Conner had been my partner in the Glory Boys commando unit during the war and I had gone to him for help during the situation five years ago with the Corporate Council.  The last time I had seen him, he was heading back to Earth to try to set things right with his estranged parents…I hadn’t heard anything else since.

“I think we can all agree that the news is not good, Cal,” he said soberly.  “Colonel Murdock is missing,” Kara said, “and someone’s trying to kill us.”

“’Us’ being?”  Pete asked.

“All of us,” she said, “who were involved in the whole business with the Corporate Council four years ago.  Pete told me you got the one the hitter they sent after you, but that just ups the stakes.  Once they find out he failed, they’ll come in heavy.”

“Who’s ‘they?’” I wanted to know.  “Who exactly is doing this?”

Deke and Kara looked at each other, Deke scowling.  “We still don’t know,” he admitted.  “And frankly, that scares the shit out of me.”

“We can tell you one thing for sure, though,” Kara said grimly.  “You need to get out of here as soon as possible, Cal…you and your whole family.  You can’t stay on Canaan or you’re all dead.”
6:16 am est

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Making Progress!
I am about 75 pages into writing The First Duty now.
Expect to see a lot more of Drew Franks and Tanya Manning in this book.
10:31 am est

Monday, February 11, 2013

A sneak preview of Duty, Honor, Planet 3: The First Duty



            Caroline Pirelli squeezed her eyes shut against flashes of color she shouldn't be able to see, shaking her head to clear it from the existential debris of a transition through one of the jumpgates.  The side-effects of the wormhole passage were short-lived but maddening:  she could taste sounds and feel the texture of spacetime and a dozen other things that were utterly impossible, yet happened every time a human mind was subject to the other-ness of the gates.

            She opened her eyes and saw reality settling in around her as viewscreens and holographic projections flickered back to life and the men and women of her bridge crew went back to work.  The front bulkhead of the bridge was cloaked in a holographic projection that combined the ship's external cameras, her lidar and radar systems and the gravimetic scanners along with computer simulation to show a very lifelike 360 degree picture of the Eysselink field generators that kept the wormhole open at the expense of a minute but steady trickle of antimatter.  In the distance, barely discernible as the works of man, were massive particle accelerators powered by kilometers-wide solar collectors, producing the antimatter needed to maintain the Eysselink effect.

            The local primary burned a fierce blue-white in the distance, while the lone habitable wasn’t visible at all from where they’d entered the system, though the computer very graciously provided a glowing green halo around the distant point of light.  The only planet visible with the naked camera lens was a smallish gas giant that glowed a dull white off their portside, its captured-asteroid moons tracing their orbits across its sullen face.

            "Good transition, Captain," the Helm officer announced, his hands manipulating the holographic icons projected at his station.  "We're getting a solid position read from the Kali beacon..."

            He was suddenly interrupted, first by the insistent and urgent tone of an alarm that accompanied a glowing red halo on the Tactical display, and then by the equally urgent voice of the Communications officer.

            "Captain Pirelli," the young Lieutenant blurted, twisting around at his station to look back at her, "I'm getting a distress signal from the oil tanker Yodohashi---she’s about thirty thousand kilometers out, heading this way from the B jumpgate and she’s under attack by a lone raider.”

            “Put it through, Lt. Baker,” she instructed him, trying to remain calm. 

            “Tactical,” Pirelli went on, “bring us to battle stations, arm all weapons systems.”

            “Battle stations aye, Captain,” Lt. Commander Millankovic confirmed.

            “I have Captain Mori, ma’am,” Baker announced.

            A hologram coalesced over the left arm of her command chair, showing her the head and shoulders of a slender Japanese man, his head shaved but for a close-cropped Mohawk, intricate tattoos that swirled mesmerizingly on the scalp to either side marking him as someone raised in the mining communities in the Solar asteroid belt..

            “This is Captain Pirelli of the Colonial Patrol cutter Triton,” she told him.  “What’s your situation?”

            “Captain,” he began quickly, his accent confirming her observation about his Belter origins, “we picked up a shadow just after we transited the B gate.  He’s been accelerating at three g’s and he just sent us a pre-recorded voice-only message demanding we cut power and prepare to accept boarders.” 

Mori grinned ruefully.  “We have a grand total of four crew on board and our most potent weapon is a sawed-off shotgun.  We’re pretty deep inside this rust-bucket,” Pirelli snuck a quick glance at the Tactical display and saw that the tanker was a huge ship with massive oil containers surrounding and shielding the bridge, “but if he frags our engines, we’re pretty much helpless to keep him off us.”  He shook his head.  “We saw you coming through the A gate and we were wondering if you weren’t busy…”

Pirelli nodded curtly.  “Show me the sensor feed from your ship,” she told the man.

His image was replaced by the bulbous, misshapen lines of a class of ship she knew far too well.  It had started out life as one of the general purpose transports that were so ubiquitous in the Republic and were just as ubiquitously pirated.  It had been extensively modified, as they usually were:  jury-rigged armor plating was welded over every external surface and most heavily over the extra fuel tanks that ringed the engine bell and the weapons pods that flanked the cargo hold.  Another pair of large protuberances were mounted above the fuel tanks; Pirelli couldn’t identify their purpose, but she thought they might be more weapons or possibly sensors.

Even as she watched, one of the pods mounted by the ship’s cargo hold spat out a missile, shunting it free of the ship via a jet of inert coldgas before the weapon’s solid-fuel rocket ignited and it blurred into motion.  Pirelli felt a cold hollow in the pit of her stomach as the Yodohashi’s computer showed a simulation of the tanker and tracked the missile’s trajectory towards it. 

“Oh shit!”  She could hear Mori’s exclamation over the connection as the missile grew closer to his ship.  “That’s not heading for the engines…”

“They’re hitting the cargo,” Pirelli declared flatly, frowning in consternation.  It made no sense, but it had been happening over and over.  “Tactical, launch an interceptor.”

“Interceptor is loaded on the launch rack,” Millankovic told her as his fingers traced a line through the holographic display from the computer avatar for their patrol cutter to the glowing red of the raider.  “Bogie is targeted.”  He grabbed a phantom control in the display, the haptic feedback giving it substance, and yanked.  “One interceptor is away.”

On the screen she could see the missile jetting away from the Triton behind a flare of solid-fueled fission fire, slicing through the kilometers at 20 gravities.  “Helm, intercept course, two gravities acceleration,” Pirelli ordered. 

            “Two gravities aye, ma’am,” Lt. Commander Burckhardt acknowledged.  On the Tactical simulation, she could see the drive pods that encircled the aft of the wedge shaped starship glowing blue with Cherenkov radiation as the Eysselink field surrounded them.

Alarms sounded both on the external speakers and the crew’s ear buds and then a suffocating weight pressed down on Pirelli’s chest as the Eysselink drive contracted the fabric of spacetime in front of the ship and expanded it behind them in what her old physics professors at the Fleet Academy had described as a “boat propeller effect.”

They’d also explained to her that, although the drive was reactionless and should have been free of the inertia of conventional acceleration, it built up a charge in the gravito-inertial spectrum in another dimension that expressed itself in ours as an analog to the acceleration forces of a conventional engine.  She’d never quite understood that part…and at times like these, she truly didn’t appreciate it.

“Time till we’re in range for the lasers?”  She forced the question out past gritted teeth.  The only good thing you could say about two g’s was that it wasn’t as bad as three g’s.

“Less than ten minutes, Captain,” Millankovic replied, his voice infuriatingly casual.  “Assuming the bogie keeps up her present acceleration.”

She filed that bit of information away carefully.  She didn’t want to use Gauss guns against the raider this close to the shipping lanes between gates:  those projectiles just kept going mindlessly if they didn’t hit their target, and she didn’t need to be killing some innocent freighter crew with a stray shot.  She could just destroy the raider with missiles, but…

“If the interceptor takes out her engines,” Pirelli told her Tactical officer, “use the lasers to disable her weapons pods.  We need to take them alive.”

“Their missile is about to hit,” Millankovic told her, nodding at the Tactical screen.

The raider weapon closed swiftly with the cargo vessel, ignoring the massive fusion drives that propelled the craft and the fuel tanks that fed them deuterium and instead heading for the three hundred meter long cylinders that held the ship’s payload---millions of metric tons of crude oil pumped from the abundant fields of Inferno, heading to Earth’s orbital chemical plants to serve as raw material for polymer fabricators and a hundred other crucial functions in the interstellar economy.

“Why are they bothering?”  Millankovic wondered aloud.  “So what if they blow a hole in the tanks?  The oil will still be out there and the tanker crew can probably get most if it back…”

Then the missile struck and the portside tank was swallowed in a huge, sun-bright sphere of pure white hell.

“Blood of the Prophet!”  Millankovic swore, rocking back in shock, his long face paling.  “They nuked it!”

“Jesus,” Pirelli hissed under her breath as the explosion reached the tanker’s fuel storage pods and the chain reaction expanded to include all the deuterium they held…

The whole viewscreen went white and she thought for a quick, irrational moment that the blast had damaged the Triton, even though she knew that was impossible.  But then the whiteness shrank and she could see that the massive fusion blast had simply filled the projection’s field of view for a moment before it compensated.  The tanker Yodohashi was gone, most of it converted very violently to energy, what was left spinning away with the random trajectories imparted by the blast.

Pirelli’s stomach twisted…Mori and the rest of his crew were dead, just like that.  “Tactical,” she rasped, trying to clear her throat.  “Time to impact for our interceptor?”

“Bogie has cut his acceleration to one gravity,” Millankovic told her.  “He’s changing course…I think he’s making a run for the C gate.”  He traced a pattern in his control hologram.  “Adjusted estimated intercept by our missile is five minutes.”

“Helm, keep on him,” Pirelli told Burckhardt.  “Cut him off from that gate.”  She turned to the Communications officer.  “Send the gate an emergency override signal, shut it down, just in case the missile doesn’t get him.”

“Sending override,” Baker confirmed.  “It’ll take a couple minutes to get a response from the gate AI at this distance.”

“Why the hell would they do that?”  Miilankovic muttered, half to himself, as he watched the progress of their interceptor missile on his display.  “That didn’t make any sense at all.  They had to have seen us coming before they launched.  They should have just run…”

“And why would they waste a multi-megaton fusion warhead on a damned oil tanker?”  Burckhardt piped up.  “Something like that has gotta’ cost a fortune on the black market.”

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Pirelli interrupted firmly, “I fully intend to pose those questions to the only ones around who can answer them.  So let’s concentrate on disabling their ship and making sure we bring each and every one of them to justice, shall we?”

A chorus of abashed “Aye, ma’am” and “Aye Captain” answered and the bridge crew went back to their tasks.

“Our interceptor is thirty seconds out,” Millankovic said, watching the display carefully.  The missile was simulated realistically there, a wedge-shaped tungsten warhead with 200 kilos of hyperexplosives behind it, streaking ever closer to the fleeing raider.

Pirelli tapped a code into her ‘link and heard the tone that indicated an answer.  “Security,” she heard a female voice on the line.  “Lt. Brandt here, ma’am.”

“Lieutenant,” she said, “once we secure from high-g acceleration, get your Marines ready for a boarding action.  My intent is to disable the raider and take its crew prisoner.”

“Aye, ma’am,” Brandt acknowledged.  “We’re prepped already.”

“Ten seconds to impact,” Millankovic droned.  He sounded professional, but Pirelli thought she could see anticipation in the set of his eyes.  Well, she was pretty set on payback herself.  She fought back a feral grin as she waited for the announcement that the raider’s engines had been taken out.  And then…  “What the hell?”

Pirelli was about to admonish the Tactical officer for his outburst, but then she saw what he had seen:  the protuberances on the raider ship that she had assumed were extra weapons pods were glowing blue, and then the ship abruptly disappeared from the optical cameras.

“Oh for God’s sake,” she bit off, fury filling her.  When the image of the ship returned, simulated by the computer using the Triton’s gravimetic sensors, it was surrounded by a blue halo that she knew all too well was the computer’s way of indicating that the raider ship was surrounded by an Eysselink field.  The Triton’s interceptor slammed into the field and was ripped apart by the tidal forces of rippling spacetime.

“How did Goddamned pirates get ahold of Eysselink drive field generators?”  Burckhardt exclaimed, unable to keep silent.  “And antimatter?”

“Later,” Pirelli snapped, her mind racing. 

The Triton wasn’t a Fleet cruiser:  she wasn’t equipped with gravimetic projectors that could take out drive fields.  No one thought she or the other Patrol cutters would need them, dealing with pirates and smugglers and putting down uprisings on the new colonies.  Her sensor projectors could be modified to do the same thing, but that would take hours of work.

Fortunately, there was one other way to take out a drive field.

“Helm,” Pirelli said, “set collision course.  In one minute initiate a three gravity burn.”  There was a subdued groan from someone on the bridge, but she ignored it.  “Engineering,” she called over her ‘link,

“Engineering here, ma’am,” the answer came over her ear bud. 

“We’re going to be attempting a field intersect,” she told Commander D’Antonio, the ship’s Chief Engineer.  “Prepare the backup power trunk because the primary one will fail.  I need power up immediately after we hit.”

“Aye, ma’am,” D’Antonio’s reply was hesitant. 

Pirelli understood why.  No one on the ship except her had attempted touching drive fields with another ship.  The resultant power surge would bring down both ship’s drive fields and the gravito-inertial feedback could cause some serious damage…to people as well as the ship.

The alarm sounded again and Pirelli tried to tense her core muscles, but it still felt as if an elephant were sitting on her chest.  Breathing came with great difficulty and speaking was torture.  They were burning a lot of antimatter and a cutter the size of the Triton couldn’t carry as much as the big Fleet cruisers---but the raider ship couldn’t carry even that much.

“C gate is deactivated,” Baker, the Commo Officer told her, gasping the words out.

Pirelli didn’t respond, but she knew closing the gate wouldn’t matter now.  The raider had its own Eysselink field generator and could use it to expand the wormhole without the aid of the station’s hardware.

“Bogie is at two g’s,” Millankovic grunted the words out.  “Field intersect estimated in three minutes, thirty seconds.”

“Ship that size would have limited fuel,” Burckhardt said.  Pirelli was impressed with how clearly he was able to speak with the added g-pressure.  “Won't be able to accelerate any faster.  We'll overtake them."

"They should surrender," Baker muttered, barely audible.  "They have to know they can't get away..."

As if the occupants of the raider ship had heard the man's words, the blue halo of the Eysselink drive field around their ship vanished and the image of the raider vessel was rushing up to meet them at breakneck speed...

"Full reverse thrust!"  Pirelli was yelling, but it was far too late.  One instant the raider ship was there, and the next it was nonexistent, shredded by contact with the Triton's drive field.  "Cease acceleration," Pirelli countered her previous order before a stunned Burckhardt could carry it out.  "Drive to station keeping."

The pressure lifted from her chest and zero gravity replaced it; she had to force bile back into her throat as the sudden release nearly caused her to throw up.  Over on the other side of the bridge, she could see the junior Engineering officer heaving silently into a spacesick bag.  Under other circumstances, she might have felt sympathy, but at the moment, all she could feel was impotent rage.  Only the burden of command prevented her from launching into a fusillade of profanity.

"They dropped their field intentionally," Lt. Millankovic said, shaking his head in disbelief.  "They committed suicide rather than face capture."  He waved a hand at the empty space around them.  "We've got nothing."

Pirelli sat motionless for a moment, trying to make her mind work, trying to stay calm.

"Baker, grab the feed from the gates and the long range sensors on Kali and around Vishnu," she instructed slowly and deliberately.  "Find out which gate that raider came through and when.  We are going to track this thing back as far as we can, and then we're going to report what we have to Fleet Intelligence."  She snorted a soft, humorless laugh.  "I hope General McKay can figure this out, because it beats the hell out of me."


Chapter One


Shannon Stark saw Jason McKay’s face cloud over as he watched the recording of Captain Pirelli’s message again.  Normally, he wore a Boy Scout look of resolute sincerity, sometimes edging into sarcastic humor with a crooked grin; but the fierce scowl he wore at the moment transformed his boyish face into something much less pleasant.

“It’s not going to get any less infuriating no matter how many times you play it,” she told him, pitching her voice low so the flitter’s pilot wouldn’t hear their conversation from the cockpit. 

“It’s the Protectorate,” he declared, tossing the tablet down on the seat beside him.  “It’s gotta be.”

“You know, around the Capitol they’re starting to call you Captain Ahab,” she told him, a teasing grin glinting in her green eyes.  “They say that every raider attack in the last four years sends you chasing after Antonov like he’s the great, white, Russian whale.”

“Maybe,” he acknowledged grudgingly, “but raider ships with antimatter and Eysselink drives?”  He waved a hand at the tablet.  “There aren’t too many other explanations for that.”  He chuckled.  “Besides, wouldn’t that be ‘General Ahab?’”

“We have antimatter production plants in every settled system,” she reminded him, “for the gate devices and to refuel our ships.  It wouldn’t be too difficult for someone to grease the right palm and siphon some of it off here and there.”

“Maybe,” he admitted, shrugging.  “But why would they nuke an oil tanker and then suicide unless they had something to hide?  That’s not something your run-of-the-mill hijackers would do.”

“I’m on your side, babe,” she reminded him, putting a hand on his arm.  “But that’s what he is going to say.”

“Yeah, he is,” McKay sighed, leaning back in the seat, closing his eyes for a moment.  “If you’d told me nine years ago that I would be missing the good old days of the O’Keefe administration…”

“Have you heard from him?”  Shannon asked.

McKay shook his head.  “Not for weeks.  He’s not very interested in being in the public eye.  He spends most of his time with Natalia…which is why he resigned the Presidency in the first place, I suppose.”

“That and the economic collapse that followed the Protectorate attack,” Shannon reminded him.

“It still pisses me off,” McKay said, the fierce scowl returning, “that President Jameson gets to reap the benefits of us finding the way to open the wormhole gates on a mission that President O’Keefe ordered.”

“It opened up cheap and easy access to a hundred habitable worlds and millions of moons and asteroids that are easier and cheaper to mine than the ones in the Solar System,” Shannon pointed out.  “It saved the economy and started an expansion of the Republic that will last decades.  Someone was going to take credit for it, and President O’Keefe had already resigned.”

“He should have stuck it out,” McKay insisted.  “He could have weathered the storm.”

“It wasn’t our call, Jason,” Shannon said, squeezing his hand. 

“Two minutes out, sir, ma’am,” the pilot called back to them.

Shannon glanced around and saw that their aircraft was descending towards the Capitol landing pad, the conjoined skyscrapers of the mega-city rising around them in a claustrophobic embrace.  “Remember what this meeting is about, Jason,” she whispered, punching him lightly on the arm for emphasis.  “It’s not another gripe-fest about how we haven’t invaded Novaye Rodina yet.  If you bring up the raider problem, do it tactfully.”

“Yes, mother,” he muttered.  “God, I remember when I didn’t need a handler with a muzzle sitting next to me when I talked to the President…”

“Jason,” she said with a laugh that still made something inside him go all warm and tingly after ten years, “you’re not even forty.  You are not old enough to be starting a sentence with “I remember when’ yet.”

“This job is making me feel old,” he grumbled as the flitter touched down lightly on the concrete pad.

A government groundcar met them at the edge of the pad, automated as most were in the city, and took them on the short ride to the Executive Offices, past the towering cathedrals of the first unified world government, rising above them like the pyramids of old.  They were silent for the ride, knowing how easy it was to bug such vehicles and knowing also how cut-throat the politics had become in this city. 

Shannon used the time to review the files they’d been sent to prepare for the meeting, eyes scanning her tablet wordlessly.  She’d heard that the bleeding edge tech types were forgoing handheld devices for contact lenses or even corneal implants that shot the data directly into the optic nerve, but she was a bit too old-fashioned for something that drastic---not to mention that the consequences of a malfunction in a tactical situation would be unfortunate.

The ride was mercifully short and soon they were descending into a restricted-access tunnel that led them past multiple guard stations, some automated and some crewed, but all covered by redundant scanners and both lethal and nonlethal weapons emplacements.  All of them passed them through without a halt, and they cruised slowly through parking lots of automated vehicles, watching government employees, corporate lobbyists and military aides swarming through the area like worker ants.

They left them all behind as the road became narrower and the guard stations more prominent until there was no one else in sight in the dimly-lit tunnels and the only stop left was a single, unmarked elevator with a single parking space next to it.  Their car stopped neatly in the space and Jason and Shannon shared a look as they stepped out and walked up to the elevator station. 

Things had definitely changed in the last few years, Shannon thought as Jason palmed the access panel beside the elevator.  The door opened to admit them, then closed behind them with a firm finality.  She knew they were undergoing biometric scans as the car began moving.  One identifying feature out of place and the elevator car would be flooded with gas, followed by a disabling stun field, and they would be deposited in a deep, dark security cell.

Shannon could see in Jason’s eyes that he wanted very badly to break out another “I remember when” comment and was barely restraining himself.  If the car was arguably bugged, the elevator was one hundred percent sure to be monitored; and while Jason’s position was secure, it didn’t pay to make enemies carelessly.  Of course, she’d had to drum that idea into his head through repeated lectures, but it had finally taken hold; Jason was stubborn but not stupid.

The lift moved very quickly, taking them not just up but diagonally through the office building, coming to an abrupt halt that had made them stumble the first time they’d ridden it.  Experience allowed them to brace for the sudden stop, and then the door slid aside and they stepped out into a sterile, unadorned hallway.  At the end of the narrow corridor was a bare metal door and a lone guardian stood there in a generic dark suit, his professional eye looking them both over as they approached.

“Good morning General McKay, Colonel Stark,” he said genially.

“Agent Proctor,” McKay said in return. He smiled.  Is it morning?  We just came down from Fleet Headquarters…it’s hard to keep the time zones straight from up there.”

“Hope you had a pleasant flight,” the Presidential Security agent offered as he touched a button on the ear bud of his ‘link.  “Alpha three confirm,” he muttered to his contact on the other side of the door.  A slight hesitation and then he nodded.  “You can go right in, sir, ma’am.”

The door opened and Shannon and Jason walked from the antiseptic halls of secrecy into the well-appointed and ornately adorned private offices of the most powerful man in human space, the President of the Republic.  It was true of anyone who had held the office, but it was a particularly apt description of Greg Jameson, Shannon decided as she watched the man rise from his desk to greet them.

“Thanks for coming,” he said, his voice a modulated baritone that could have been booming if he hadn’t kept it under tight control.

“Mr. President,” McKay returned, shaking his hand.

Everything about the man exuded the sense of power and control.  His imposing height and broad-shouldered athlete’s build were intimidating to most people, and his practiced and welcoming handshake gave the unmistakable impression that he could break every one of your fingers if he weren’t such a reasonable person.

The other man in the office gave none of those impressions.  He was of average height and build, but there was something about him that made him seem both smaller and yet also simultaneously overinflated.  He’d risen from his seat at their approach, but he didn’t offer a hand

“I believe you know Director Ayrock,” President Jameson said by way of introduction.

“Director,” Shannon said with a nod, since she knew McKay wasn’t about to offer the man a greeting.

And unfortunately, they did know Ayrock, all too well.

“If you would have a seat,” President Jameson motioned towards a pair of chairs positioned across from Ayrock’s in front of the antique mahogany desk that Jameson had moved there from the museum that had been the American White House.

“I would like to go on record,” Ayrock said, his doughy white face going red in the cheeks, “that I oppose the idea of involving military assets in what is properly the jurisdiction of the Criminal Investigative Service.  We are perfectly capable of handling this on our own, if we were…”

“Phillip,” Jameson interrupted the man, his voice as final as the grave, “if your department were capable of handling this on your own, I wouldn’t be listening to daily complaints from the Southern States Governors’ Committee and the Pan-Asian Development Bureau that we aren’t doing enough about the hundreds of innocent civilians who’ve been killed in these terrorist attacks.  So you can consider your objection noted and overruled, and now we will move on.”

CIS Director Ayrock settled back into his chair, rebellion in his eyes but his mouth obediently shut. 

“So,” President Jameson continued, “we’re here about the recent attacks in the East and Southblocs.”  He touched a control projected above the surface of his desk and a holographic display flickered to life above it, showing footage of the smoldering wreckage of high-speed trains, apartment buildings and auditoriums, with charred bodies being carried away by emergency workers.  “I assume you’ve read the files.”

“Yes, sir,” McKay confirmed.  “Four attacks over the last six months:  Montevideo, Tegucigalpa, Pyongyang and Phuket.  Over a thousand civilian fatalities and nearly one hundred million dollars’ worth of property damage, all told.”

“We could almost have read the whole file off the newsnets,” Shannon interjected, “for as much as any government agency knows about the connection between the strikes.”  She shrugged.  “If there is any, other than temporal proximity.”

 “The strikes were all carried out by locals,” McKay pointed out, steepling his fingers together as he considered the images in the file projection.  “They all had long histories of involvement with local terrorist organizations and they all suicided in the commission of the attacks.  All the attacks were committed in the old neighborhoods of regions where modernization lags behind the more developed areas by a hundred years, including security measures.”  He gestured at the images of carnage.  “It could simply be that the others got the idea for striking soft targets from the first attack and followed it up in their own backyard.  It’s happened before.”

“The heads of the national and local governments in South and Central America and populated Asia think there’s a connection,” President Jameson said, “which means we are going to put the full resources of Fleet Intelligence and the First Special Operations Command into this operation until we can prove there isn’t.”

“Yes, sir,” McKay replied dutifully.  Shannon knew what he was thinking though:  that if it had been Daniel O’Keefe, he would have argued the point further, with some hope that his arguments would be seriously considered.

“Sir,” Shannon began slowly, “can I be frank here?”

“Colonel Stark,” Jameson smiled thinly, “I have never known reticence to be among your faults.”

“Sir,” she went on, “it would take months, if not years, to put an agent in place among the political malcontents of even one of those groups, and there’s no guarantee that we’d pick one that actually had any knowledge of the connection.”

“Are you saying you can’t do it?”  Ayrock asked challengingly, resentment in his dark eyes.

“What I’m saying,” Shannon clarified, still looking at the President, “is that we can’t do any better than the RIS…if we treat this as a criminal investigation, as they are legally bound to do.”

“It’s the ‘CIS’ now,” Ayrock corrected her pedantically, “and we are bound by the Republic constitution and the laws of the various nations in which we operate.”

“You want to treat this as a military operation, not a civil one,” Jameson assumed, “with all the latitude that allows you.  And that’s exactly why you’re here.”  He put his palm on a section of the file projection and a red light began blinking, indicating he was being recorded into the file. 

“I am officially authorizing General McKay to use military protocols to pursue the terrorists involved in these attacks.  He and his agents are to be given every consideration and cooperation by any Republic, national or local law enforcement official and any complaints should be addressed directly to the office of the President.”  He extended his hand again and shut off the recording, then shot Shannon Stark a look, his eyebrow cocked upward.  “Does that satisfy your concerns, Colonel Stark?”

“Yes, sir,” she said.  It didn’t, not entirely, but the stern look on Jameson’s face could have been carved there by some Classical era sculptor trying to reflect Zeus in one of his vengeful moods and Shannon knew better than to take the discussion any further.

“We’ll get the job done, Mr. President,” McKay assured him. 

“I know you will, Jason,” Jameson said, grinning confidently.  “And Director Ayrock will be assigning an agent to liaise with you to make sure that you have complete access to the resources of Republic law enforcement.”

“That’s wonderful, sir,” McKay said with a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes.  “I look forward to working in concert with the CIS.”

Oh Jason, Shannon thought, fighting down a chuckle, the years have made you such a good liar.

“Then let’s get to work, ladies and gentlemen,” Jameson stood, bringing the others to their feet.  The CIS Director shook the President’s hand and left through the office’s public door, but when McKay approached the President, he paused and held up his tablet, with Captain Pirelli’s report on it.

“Sir, I don’t know if you’ve had the opportunity to read the latest report from the frontier,” he said.  “We just got it in from Captain Pirelli on a patrol near Kali.  A raider ship destroyed a corporate oil tanker with a multi-megaton nuke…and then it tried to escape using an Eysselink drive.”

“The raiders have Eysselink drives now?”  Jameson’s eyebrows shot up in surprise.  “And antimatter?”

“Yes, sir,” McKay confirmed grimly.  “And it gets even weirder.  When it became clear that they couldn’t outrun Captain Pirelli’s patrol ship, they allowed themselves to be destroyed rather than be captured.”

“What do you think this means, Jason?”  Jameson asked him.  There was something in his tone that indicated that he already knew what McKay thought it meant and didn’t like it.

“Sir,” McKay began, then took a breath and blurted it out, making Shannon wince with anticipation of the President’s reaction, “I think it’s the Protectorate.  Either they’re the ones doing the raiding or they’re supplying the raiders with weapons, drives and antimatter.”  He held up a hand to forestall the expected protest as Jameson’s mouth began to form it.  “There could be other explanations where raiders could get the drives, weapons and antimatter, although they stretch credulity, but I can think of no other reason why they’d simply destroy the oil tanker rather than holding it for ransom or pirating its cargo to sell themselves.  And I certainly can’t think of any other reason why they’d allow themselves to be killed rather than captured except to protect a secret worth more than their lives.”

“Well, that’s a disturbing thought,” Jameson admitted, shaking his head, leaning thoughtfully against his desk---not so much for support, Shannon thought, but to touch it as a talisman for comfort.  “I’m not certain what we can do, though, given the huge areas of space and dozens of systems involved and our limited number of military ships.”

A look flashed across Jason’s face that no one else would have noted, but Shannon knew exactly what it meant:  it was him repressing the urge to curse.  She knew what he wanted to say:  “What we need to do is get off our asses and invade Novaye Rodina before Antonov gets his shit together and hits us again!” 

“Sir, I’d like to send a few more probes into the Novaye Rodina system,” McKay suggested instead, his tone as calm and businesslike as if he’d never even felt the urge to blow up at the President of the Republic.  “Automated probes sent from the closest system we have a friendly gate into.  They could launch observation drones then report back.  It could give us a sense of the traffic in and out of the system.”

Jameson paced across the office, absently rubbing his right thumb and finger across his lips, his eyes narrowing in thought.  Shannon knew Jameson a bit better than Jason did, so she recognized this for what it was:  not actual deliberation but a show to make the person asking feel relieved when he gave them less than what they wanted.

“Here’s what I can authorize, Jason,” Jameson finally said, turning back to the two officers.  “We have two automated probeships available right now.”  Shannon knew that the President had those corneal implants; she guessed that he’d called the data up onto them while they’d been speaking.  “We’ll send one of them to the Novaye Rodina system and set up an observation point far enough out to remain undetected, then we’ll have it launch drones towards the inner system, as you wanted.  If that can show proof of a connection between the Raiders and what’s left of the Protectorate, we’ll draw up a plan to deal with it.”

“Thank you, Mr. President,” Shannon said, offering a hand.  Jameson shook it and then nodded to McKay, and then the two Intelligence officers left the office the way they’d come.

It was a long and silent journey back through the halls and down the elevator back to the car, and more silence on the ride back to the landing pad, and the whole way Shannon could feel Jason smoldering beside her.  Finally, when their pilot had sealed the doors of the flitter and raised the ducted-fan helicopter off the pad, Jason let out a subdued but heartfelt curse.

“It has been four fucking years almost since the Protectorate destroyed the Lunar base and came pretty close to destroying that whole fucking city,” he bit off quietly but bitterly, waving demonstratively back at the receding grandeur of Capital City.  “Four years since we lost the Sheridan and the Decatur, our newest cruisers, winning that battle.  Four years since Admiral Patel sacrificed his life to save this whole damned planet.  And we are still sitting on our asses, pretending they’re not a threat anymore.”

“Greg Jameson won that special election because he found and killed Antonov before he could get on that shuttle and get away,” Shannon reminded him.  “As far as the public is concerned, they are not a threat anymore, and it’s hardly in President Jameson’s best interest to remind everyone that they still could be.  Nor is he likely to entertain the idea that Antonov had and has a bunch of duplicates of himself running around as backups, created with an alien copying machine.”

Jason grunted in frustration.  That had been the very first issue about which he and the President had butted heads.  There was no proof, as far as Greg Jameson was concerned, that Antonov or anyone else had been duplicated.  Kevin Fourcade and the late Vice President Xavier Dominguez had been kidnapped and brainwashed, and that was it.  The Protectorate crewman who had called himself Konstantin Mironov and who had claimed to be one of Antonov’s duplicates was simply a brainwashed mole.  No further discussion.

“Who do you want to assign to the terrorism investigation?”  Shannon asked, trying to get his mind off of Antonov.

“Franks,” Jason decided immediately.  “He’s smart and he’s shown a lot of ability over the last few years, but he can’t go undercover because of the exposure from getting the Medal of Valor, so this will be right up his alley.”  He shrugged.  “Also, this is going to require him to get his hands dirty, and I’d like to see if he can handle that end of things.”

“Hopefully he can handle dealing with Ayrock’s liaison,” Shannon said.

“Fuck Ayrock,” Jason muttered.  “He’s just trying to cover his ass.  If he…”

He was interrupted by a strident warning tone that came over his and Shannon’s ‘link simultaneously.  Their eyes went wide:  there was only one reason for that tone.

“Go for McKay,” Jason said, touching his ‘link to answer the emergency call.

“Sir,” it was Captain Franks’ voice on the line.  He wasn’t their personal aid anymore and hadn’t been for nearly three years, but they both still counted on him as a go-to officer, even more so since he’d demonstrated what a capable operative he was.  “There’s been another terrorist attack.”

“Shit,” Shannon hissed, hearing the transmission over her own ‘link’s ear bud as Franks broadcasted to them both simultaneously.  “How bad?”

“It’s a disaster, ma’am,” he told her, his voice wavering with barely contained emotion.  “Initial reports are probably three thousand dead, all civilians, a lot of them children.  They hit a block of low-income apartments with what had to be a hundred kilos of hyperexplosives.”

“Aw Jesus,” Jason moaned, running a hand through his short, brown hair.  “Where was it this time?  Eastbloc?  The African Confederation?”

There was a pause, like Franks almost couldn’t bring himself to say it.  “No, sir,” he finally replied.  “It was Houston.”


9:14 pm est

2013.04.01 | 2013.03.01 | 2013.02.01

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Rick Partlow is the author of three science fiction novels and a short story collection, all available on Amazon for Kindle or as trade paperbacks.
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