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
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
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
“Aye, ma’am,” Brandt acknowledged. “We’re
“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.
“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
“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
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
"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
Pirelli sat motionless for a moment, trying to make her mind work, trying to stay
"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."
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
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
“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
“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
“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
“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
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
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
“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
“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.”