in orbit around an unnamed gas giant
“What now, Commander?” Lyna asked me softly, barely audible. She was kneading my neck as I sat back at the head of the conference table in my office off the bridge of Isla Marin.
We had worked our way back from the edge of the galaxy and the mysterious forbidden planet. Omicron 5 was a large G class star at the fringe of Imperial space. From here we could go anywhere in the Empire in a couple of transitions. It had taken the better part of a year to claw our way back. I hadn’t been fully aware of how far out my fruitless search had taken us.
I leaned back into Lyna’s magic fingers and felt the tension flow out of my body. She was a great masseuse. The answer was, I had no earthly idea. There was nothing at home for me since Nana had passed. My whole life had been the Navy but now I was persona non-grata in the fleet since I had absconded with the ship the admiralty had been desperate to possess.
I had been studiously avoiding thinking about the situation I had walked away from on my homeworld. My brother’s wife had been pregnant as a result of an affair with a Kennedy. She was involved with drug smugglers and a terrible evil scheme to dispose of workers who were past their prime. I was convinced the terrible scandal had been a contributing factor in my grandmother’s death.
“Is it four o’clock yet?” Lyna had been on my case about drinking in the daytime. We kept the ship on a twenty-four-hour clock to impose a modicum of sanity onto our unchanging environment.
“It is 9:00 AM,” she reminded me.
“What is for breakfast?”
“Chip beef on toast with baked beans, the same thing you ask for every day. The same breakfast you finished less than an hour ago.” Lyna stopped massaging my neck and rolled my chair around to face me. She stood and studied me for a long moment. I wondered for the thousandth time if it were an affectation for my benefit or whether she was having an internal discussion with the rest of my android crew.
“You need to get a grip, Son,” a male voice on my right interrupted. When I glanced in that direction my old progenitor was seated at the table with a concerned look on his face. “When you walked away from your commission, your family and your responsibilities; you left quite a mess. Don’t you think it might be time to see if you could make an effort to clean at least some of it up.”
“It wasn’t my mess!” I objected strongly, feeling the heat rising in my face. “I did nothing wrong!”
The old king didn’t reply for a long moment, then he reached down and slipped the palm-sized silver cross from around his neck and laid it on the table.
“Where in scripture, does it say, it is permitted to sleep with your brother’s wife?”
I couldn’t maintain his accusing gaze. I looked down at the cross and realized the heat in my face was now from shame rather than anger. I had excused my behavior by shifting the blame to my sister-in-law and brother but knew, deep down, I had no excuse. Like David, I was the man.
In stationary orbit over the backside of Chios
Byzantium’s largest moon
I stood and looked at myself in the floor length mirror. I hadn’t worn my dress blues for ten years. It felt strange. I had debated on what to wear to confront the admiral. I decided dress blues with ribbons would be uniform of the day at the Admiralty this time of year.
We had spent two weeks in orbit above Chios, in a transporter, fully cloaked, monitoring the media emanating from the Capital planet. The multi-net was abuzz with the latest rumors and stories circling the royal family, the Senate, the Church and the various orders that made up the ruling hierarchy of the Empire.
It took some digging through the archival data, but I was able to ascertain the scandal surrounding the drug dealing and euthanasia of excess workers had been effectively hushed up. Within a year of my exit from human space, hundreds of arrests had been made, including over a dozen planetary governors.
The charges had been limited to malfeasance of office, the trials conducted in closed military tribunals, and the malefactors stripped of their offices. It made me almost ill to see the punishments meted out were strictly political. Those who were members of founding families got a slap on the wrist while the small fish were awarded harsh sentences, some even executed.
The oligarchy protected its own.
Emil had skated above the entire scandal. In fact, the Sinclair’s had prospered, gaining the entirety of the Kennedy estates after the dust settled. Emil still had no heir and his wife had disappeared shortly before all the indictments came down.
It took me a moment to process all of this and come to the realization that I would be the sole heir to the Sinclair fortune, estates, and full owner of Sinclair station. If Emil passed I would be one of the richest men in the human cosmos, and by far, the wealthiest man in the Sparta system.
…and I could not have cared less. It meant nothing to me. I could not bring myself to consider the reality of it. The Sinclair fortune was Emil’s. I couldn’t even conceive of trying to manage or control it. I was still a simple sailor. I wished Emil a long, productive life.
In my absence, I had effectively disappeared from the public consciousness. Shortly after I left on my quest the Navy had released a statement indicating that I had been dispatched on a super-secret mission to the far reaches of the Empire.
The sad reality was, officers out of favor, were often sent off on these “missions” to never be heard from again.
“You look good,” Lyna said as she waited in the doorway. It was the same thing she used to say when she helped me get ready for school. It caused me a moment of ennui and regret as I remembered the bright hopes and plans I once had as a little boy. I felt a terrible disappointment and an awful feeling I had let the little boy, I once was, down.
“Quit beating yourself up,” Lyna whispered as she wrapped her arms around me. Her reflection peeked at me over my left shoulder. I dropped my hands down and clasped hers where they joined in front of my waist. I didn’t know if she was reacting to my body language and her knowledge of my moods, having helped raise me, or if she was reading my surface thoughts through the interface tucked behind my right ear. “Half of your life, maybe more, is still ahead. The best is yet to come.”
It was amazing. Lyna always knew the exact thing to say to assuage my dark moods.
“Okay, let’s go beard the lion,” I relented with a smile.
“There is no we, this is one mission you have to do on your own.” She seemed most adamant on this point. Her smile had disappeared. I knew I could order her to accompany me, I did still have command authority, but my experience told me it was never a good idea to countermand Lyna’s will. It had never turned out well in the past when I had. “I’ll accompany you in the shuttle to the surface, but you need to see the admiral by yourself. My presence would only be a distraction.”
I was still wondering about that as the shuttle cleared the hangar bay and I watched the silver/blue moon drop away behind us. The blue and white globe of Byzantium grew from a soccer-ball size circle to fill the entire view above the control shelf in front of us. As we approached, the immense metal construction of the orbital factories dominated the foreground view. It circled the planet like a glittering steel bracelet. What had started as a few orbiting satellites had been joined and co-joined through the centuries to become a massive city in the sky. Two smaller moons had disappeared completely as the metals that made up their core were mined and processed to build the great orbiting metropolis.
The population of the mega-city far exceeded the planet it circled. At this point over seven generations of orbit-dwellers had lived and died within its metal confines, never having visited the surface of the planet below. Having been born and raised in the microgravity of space, their bodies could not tolerate the gravity of the surface. They were locked into the orbiting city with invisible chains.
Spacecraft of every size, from small tugs to great ore-barges, circled, entered and departed from ports spread across the entire ring. The entire complex resembled a great shiny beehive.
I had been inside the city on different occasions when the ship I was assigned to was undergoing service at the Navy station. The Navy’s facility was several miles long, free-floating with tenuous connections to the main hub. Over twenty major warships could be docked within the confines of her immense hangars.
The factories that built the Emperor’s warships were assembled adjacent to the Navy base and stretched for several miles in both directions away from it.
I remembered that on either side of the entrances to the ring leading from the Navy station looked like every community that had sprung up outside of military complexes since time began. There were bars, libido restoration parlors, jewelry shops, tailors, and entertainment establishments catering to the tastes of sailors of all stripes. Garish neon signs, hawkers and hookers filled the hallways trying to entice nautical prey into their webs.
Young ladies were brought up from the surface for short tours since the “skinnies” of the orbit world were not exactly desirable to the sailors. Since the off-duty sailors were libido suppressed, it took some seriously attractive ladies to tweak their interest, even after visits to the restoration parlors.
Nevertheless, some of these sailors could come on station with years of back pay in their pockets and nowhere else to spend it. As a result, the parade of ladies that populated the joints around the base could be stunningly beautiful. The girls could make more in a month entertaining sailors than they could in a year working a mundane surface job.
“Take us in close to the Navy yard,” I instructed Lyna silently, using my imbedded communicator, while simultaneously giving her directions to the part I wanted to see.
As we passed, four Navy tugs were maneuvering a scarred and battered cruiser into a repair berth. When we cleared the yard, I saw four more tugs bringing a sparkling new battle-wagon out of the final assembly dock of one of the factories adjacent to the base.
“Wheeoo,” I whistled appreciatively. It was one of the new Admiral Kristof class I had read about during my multinet research. She had smooth sleek lines and a hyper-black finish making her difficult to see against the dark of space. She was equipped with the latest cloaking devices and her entire armament was concealed beneath the ship’s black, armored skin. The composite armor was highly classified, but the article I read hinted it was comprised of multiple layers of metallic alloys, graphene and Sinclair crystal. In some areas, it was over two feet thick and proof against a single shot of any known human weapon.
The Kristofs made all other warships obsolete. I stood and gave her an approving salute as we passed. I envied the new captain of the beautiful craft.
Lyna looked at the warship and shook her head dismissively. Compared to Isla Marin the human battle cruiser was like a sailing ship of the line compared to a WWII Yamato class battleship.
I didn’t care. I would have accepted command of the lovely, wicked vessel in a heartbeat.
“You are retired, Captain, stand down,” Lyna’s stern words were tempered with an understanding smile. “Remember, you’re captain of a ship that defeated an entire enemy fleet.”
What could I say? When she was right, she was right.
As we left the ring, maneuvering around the various vessels coming and going, Lyna adjusted our speed to match the rotational rate of Byzantium. Where most human ships approached the planet from one of the oceans, using the upper atmosphere to brake for reentry, Lyna simply floated our shuttle down over the continent where the Capital city was located.
Byzantium was built on a plateau that averaged five thousand feet elevation. It was in a latitude a few degrees north of the equator giving it a climate the natives referred to as eternal spring. It was bordered by the planet’s largest ocean on one side, and a spectacular mountain range on the other.
The Sierra Madre range ran five hundred miles deep into the heart of the continent, and stretched over a thousand miles north and south, some peaks stretching up to forty thousand feet. Hundreds of square miles of mountain area were blanketed in eternal snow and glaciers. The crystal-clear melt provided water for the city in a gravel-bottomed river, so clear, it almost seemed artificial.
The founding fathers had chosen well, it was truly the most magnificent location for a city on the planet.
Lyna brought us in over the mountains, as I instructed. We skimmed barely above the tops of the forested hills once we crossed the tree line. A sea of green marched down and met the blue of the ocean. Over a hundred thousand square miles of manicured forest surrounded the Emperor’s Capital.
Lyna took us out to sea and then turned to approach the city across the beach. From our vantage point, the city looked like a human hand spread out with five valleys running off from a central plain. The middle finger was much longer than the rest, as it was the river valley of the Aliakmon. The other four valleys were home to smaller streams that fed the Aliakmon at various places across the plateau. The swollen river then wound slowly across the gently sloping plain to where it dropped off into a magnificent three-thousand-foot waterfall.
At the base of the falls, an artificial lake had been built to tame the raging waters. Centuries of erosion had created a channel over a mile deep at the base, giving lake Selene a deep blue clarity unseen anywhere else in human space.
Six large reservoirs had been built upstream from the city to control the flow of the mother river. Winter or summer, spring or fall, the level of the Aliakmon and the lake she fed varied not more than three inches. Around this pristine lake stood the beach homes of the aristocracy. The smallest estate was twenty acres, the largest just under a hundred. The homes were unobtrusive, designed and built into the landscape to compliment the environment. Hundreds of years of landscaping and grooming had turned the entire lakeshore into a manicured park.
The 160,000-acre lake had been created by building a dam four feet above high tide sea level, clear across what had been the tidal flat and mouth of the river. It had been a monumental task, built under an exacting schedule, built on dry land, as water was held back for three months to fill the reservoirs up-river.
The dam was built in an arch with a fifty-foot wide notch at it furthest point to allow boats access to the sea. A floating submerged gate kept a constant twelve feet of water over it for the boats to cross and determined the surface level of the lake.
The shoreline of the lake was over fifteen hundred miles. Two thousand homes were situated around its periphery. These properties were the possessions of the most powerful and most wealthy citizens of the Empire. The great majority had been handed down from generation to generation and been owned by the same family since they were built.
We floated above the great arched bridge that joined the two ends of the beach highway at the narrowest point of the dam. It was stark white against the blue of the lake, soaring up over the water on impossibly slim pillars. At the peak of its curving arc, it towered a hundred feet above sea level. It was a monument to the technology of its day when surface transportation was still the main form of transport. As we crossed it, not a single vehicle could be seen on its four lanes.
Today it was strictly a recreational road used by sports cars and tourist buses.
A hundred years ago the vacuum tunnels had been completed around the entire periphery of the lake. The tunnels provided small six-person cars that could whoosh their occupants from the center of the city out to their lake homes in minutes. In the wee hours, commercial pods brought supplies and commodities out to the estates, on order. The elaborate surface road system, behind the estates, sat mostly unused, except for trucks, occasionally moving heavy freight into and out of the homes. Once in a while, an adventurous young oligarch could be seen flying around the perimeter road, in a centuries-old sports car.
Back in the day, when the interstellar passenger liners were running, the estates below were used and enjoyed by their owners on a consistent basis. I knew that in this generation, dozens, if not hundreds, sat unoccupied, save for their maintenance staff, for decades. A few had not seen an owner in over a hundred years. It didn’t matter. If you were an oligarch, you kept your beach house on Byzantium. It was a necessary status marker.
Lyna lifted us higher as we approached Calisto falls. As many times as I had seen it, I was still filled with a sense of awe at its magnificence. The Aliakmon was deceptively quiet and serene as it flowed through the plateau. What was not apparent was the sheer volume of water that was moving between its banks. After the last tributary added its flow to the widening river, it was almost a mile wide. At an average depth of fifty feet and a with a flow rate of five miles an hour, roughly 38-acre-feet of water flowed over the edge of the falls every second.
That is a lot of water. I had no idea of what Niagara Falls was like on old earth, but the official statistic said Calisto falls exceeded Niagara’s volume fourteen times. The roar of the cascading water could be heard clearly five miles away, across the plateau leading to the city. Luckily for the estates around the lake, most of the cacophony was carried up and away by the natural air currents caused by the interaction of the falls, the lake, and the ocean.
A constant mist pervaded the area over the initial cascade, forming moving, dancing rainbows in the morning and evening sun. Much of the water’s velocity was spent as it cascaded down the granite face of the mountain, which formed a natural staircase of white foaming water nearly a mile wide.
The valley opened before us as we crossed the falls and the city spread out in all its magnificence. Tall spires reached for the sky, each set in hundred-plus acre parks. The city was like an iceberg with much more of its volume beneath the surface than above. As a result, the capital resembled a botanical garden more than a city.
The centerpiece of the city was the Imperial Palace. The five-hundred-acre complex was built on the highest point in the valley making its sparkling white marble towers and spires visible from any point in the sprawling city. Four eight-lane boulevards radiated out from the great arched gates piercing the thirty-foot stone wall surrounding the park-like setting of the Capitol. Maglev tracks ran down the medians of each of the broad highways.
There were three other impressive structures adjacent to the palace grounds. The most ornate and magnificent edifice in the city was the cathedral. It sat adjacent to the north highway leading out of the Capitol complex. It was a copy of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, only built a third larger. Its magnificent dome was constructed of Spartan crystal flooding the five-acre interior in subdued light attempting to mimic heaven itself.
To the west stood the more modest Greek columned headquarters building of the Order of Templars. The Admiralty building to the east was the oldest building in the Capital. It had once been the palace of the Emperor Augustus Temperas Flavian some four hundred years prior. It now stood alone in its own garden complex quiet and serene like a movie set from a historical film.
These four imposing marble monuments represented the disparate power structure of the Empire. The Senate was the legislative branch, the Emperor was the law enforcement and military head of the Empire. The Cathedral of Mems housed the Patriarch of the Imperial Orthodox Church that held sway over the spiritual life of the citizens of the Empire. The order of Templars was the military arm of the church, defender of the faith and bankers of the Empire.
The Admiralty housed the Navy. Since the coup that established the Navy as its own independent government organ, the Admiralty also was home to the Supreme Council. The Council was composed of five men; the Emperor’s attorney general, the Chief Knight of the Templars, the Patriarch, the sitting Fleet Admiral, and the President of the Senate. These five men were the final authority on what was, and what was not, constitutional and thus Imperial Law. The Council was presided over by the President of the Senate. Since the Senate also approved the appointment of the attorney general, the balance of power on the council was tilted somewhat in their favor.
The Senate wrote the laws, but the Supreme Council made the final determination on what became the law of the Empire and how the two hundred fifty billion souls within its bounds were governed.
One hundred years ago these streets and tracks would have been choked with traffic whisking administrators, military officers, priests and officials of all stripes, to and from the many offices in the city. Trucks and mag-lev freight cars would have been busily going about their business of bringing sustenance into the metropolis from the hinterlands. Four million people had inhabited the capital in those days.
There was barely half of that number today.
The staggering cost and immense difficulty of managing an Empire across galactic distances had finally imploded a little over a hundred years ago. The Imperium had been staggering and stumbling along for a hundred years prior, weighed down by the growing power and independence of the colonial planets, the insurmountable distances between worlds, and unforgiving time.
Events transpired on the fringe worlds, word of which would be transmitted back to the Imperium fairly quickly through a chain of communication satellites located near lens openings. It wasn’t instantaneous, by any means. The infinitesimally small packets of data that could be squeezed through a lens in the few microseconds of its opening, limited the communication to the equivalent of a telegram.
Even though the Emperor and his staff might be aware of events on the outlying worlds, their ability to respond was limited by the time constraint of lens travel. A fleet dispatched to deal with a problem wouldn’t arrive for fifty years in real time. What had been marginally possible with a handful of relatively nearby systems, became totally unmanageable as the Empire expanded.
The revolt of the admirals had been the straw that broke the camel’s back. The Imperial family was forced to face reality and grant the outlying systems a great deal of autonomy.
The original twenty colonies and fifteen of the earliest secondary worlds were all located in the local cluster within twelve light years of Byzantium. These thirty-five systems and fifty inhabited planets made up the core of the Empire. The core systems maintained a cultural and economic intercourse that held the fabric of the Empire together.
The original colonists had left earth with some quarter-million souls. These were the best and brightest of their generation, carefully picked for genetic traits ensuring the next generation would be as near perfect as human ingenuity was capable of accomplishing at the time. This population doubled every twenty-five years. As word of the success, wealth, freedom, and security of the colonies permeated back to earth, more and more refugees fled to the stars.
Nearly two hundred fifty billion people, of every race and religion, now populated the far-flung Empire. Well over half of that number lived within the bounds of the inner systems. The fusion economy produced enormous wealth. Even though the Senate carefully controlled the Emperor’s budget to never exceed ten percent of GDP, money flowed into the capital in an unending river.
“Where to now?” Lyna asked patiently. I had been watching one of the massive lighter than airships rising from a cluster of buildings that appeared to be a warehouse area. The airships came into the city at night delivering freight too heavy or too large for the mag-lev trains. The early morning sun cast a huge shadow across the buildings and streets below as the massive ship rose and turned toward the mountains. Its propulsors kicked in and the ship quickly shrank from view, moving impossibly fast for such a large vehicle. I knew he would be in a hurry to clear the city. The air-ships were not allowed over the capital after one hour from sunrise.
“The Admiralty,” I told her aloud as I fed her directions through our data-link. The Admiralty building was a six-story pentagon structure located at the north gate of the Capitol complex. It sat at the corner of the main access highway and the perimeter road running all the way around the grounds adjacent to the wall.
It was early so the air traffic into and out of the admiralty was light. Lyna was able to bring the shuttle into the landing pad closest to the fleet admiral’s office and extend the stairway right to the door. She rose as I did and adjusted my lapels, brushing off an imaginary bit of lint, just as if she was sending me off to kindergarten. She gave me a possessive smile, kissed me on my right cheek, and whispered, “go get’em, tiger, take no prisoners.”
It took an act of will to remember she was a machine.
I set my omni to broadcast the security codes that I had been issued when I last visited the building. I expected alarms to erupt when the ramp came down. I couldn’t imagine that the codes would still be valid.
My entrance onto the roof was met with complete silence. I was shocked. My codes still worked! Not only that, when the scanner checked my irises the door clicked open. I would have to have a word with the Fleet Admiral about his security protocols.
The maintenance stairs wound down in a spiral six floors to the basement. I took the first door that opened onto the top floor where the fleet admiral’s office was located. The narrow-unmarked door had been secured by a scanner lock as well, but it too clicked open, allowing me access to the elevator alcove on the top floor.
It was early morning, just after sunrise. There was little activity yet in the hallway leading to the fleet admiral’s office. I could smell coffee brewing somewhere in the office complex. It must have been near. The aroma was strong.
The admiral’s door was closed but the identical door to its right stood open. There were three or four people moving around desks and terminals in the large office behind it. No one saw me knock softly and let myself into the inner sanctum.
The admiral was already in. He looked up in surprise.
“Well, the prodigal son has returned. Have you squandered your inheritance on women and song?” Fleet Admiral Nathan Carlisle asked me with a welcoming grin. He got up from his desk and met me halfway with a big hug. He stepped back still gripping my shoulders and studied me for a long moment. “You haven’t changed a bit, come — tell me about your adventures. Did you meet the wizard?”
“I found what I had been seeking — in the end…” I had to stop. There was no way to explain in human language what I had discovered and what I had lost. If I went any further I would probably break down and cry. “…it was disappointing.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, Walter. What can I do for you? Are you looking for a job? If so, you are hired. Just tell me what you want to do.”
“I appreciate the offer, but I have my own plans. I’m looking for the young lady I left with you, Sophia. Do you have any idea where she is or how I could find her?”
A large smile played across the admiral’s face and I saw his throat muscles vibrate. I knew he was subvocalizing into a communicator. He held up his three fingers and pointed to the door. I waited. Three minutes later a soft knock was followed by the entry of an angel.
My little girl had grown up. Ten years had made a remarkable change in the gawky adolescent I had left with Commodore Carlisle.
She was wearing the uniform of a full Navy lieutenant. She had filled out in all the right places and her naturally curly strawberry blonde hair accented her clear blue eyes. She had a pixie-like face with a hint of freckles across her nose. When she saw me, she dropped the omni she was carrying. She knelt smoothly to retrieve it, never taking her eyes from my face. When she stood she spoke earnestly.
“I’ve been waiting; I knew you would come for me.”
“Your security sucks!” I told the admiral but I couldn’t take my eyes away from the young lady in front of me.
“Not so much,” the admiral replied. “I’ve been re-entering your codes every time we updated, as did Admiral Butner. We thought you might return and wanted you to know you were welcome to come home. We’ll kill the calf a bit later.”
“Hmm, well…” I replied, then added sincerely, “Thank you, Nathan, it means a lot to me.”
“Did anyone see you come in?” the admiral asked with a note of concern in his voice.
“I don’t think so. I came down the maintenance tunnel and didn’t run into anyone in the hall.”
“That is good. You’re a wanted man.”
“The Emperor is anxious to get his hands on that ship of yours. The dream of being able to travel between systems without paying the time penalty has the Imperium panting with lust.”
“You mean the Imperial scientists and engineers haven’t been able to crack the code? Good Lord man, it has been ten years…!”
“I don’t think we are any closer now than when you disappeared. The powers that be want that ship in the worse way. You will have to be very careful.”
“Having the ship won’t help them.”
“What do you mean?”
“The AI that controls the ship has no idea how to recreate the drives it uses. The Anastazi who built the ship were working on direct instructions from the Creator. They didn’t understand the workings either. The formulas and math I turned over to the physicists when I left are all I have and all that the ship can provide. That is why I told you it was up to them.”
“Hmm, they will never believe that, you know.”
“It is what it is. If Emil will let me, I’m going home and raise horses.”
“You don’t know about your brother?” the admiral asked with a note of concern in his voice.
“What about my brother?”
“I’m sorry, Walter, your brother committed suicide shortly after you left.”
The room seemed to suddenly tilt sideways and I threw out my left hand to steady myself against the back of one of the heavy lounge chairs in front of the admiral’s desk.
“…that is not possible,” I mumbled in denial. I could not imagine living in a world that did not have my brother in it. He had always been there and always would be, irascible and domineering, but solid as a rocky planet. “I checked the ‘net…”
“Your brother’s death was, and is, a closely guarded secret. Sinclair station is so important to the Imperial economy… Walt, why don’t you sit down for a moment,” the admiral suggested.
“Yes Sir,” Sophia whispered. “Sit here Sir.” I looked down to discover she was holding my hand and guiding me around the chair. I collapsed into the soft leather but the room would not stop spinning.
“What happened?” I asked when the room settled down.
“I’m not quite sure of the details, Walter,” the admiral told me reluctantly. “There was some hint of a scandal involving your brother’s wife, but the powers that be in Sparta kept things pretty well hushed up. In any case, your sister is in town this week, she should be the one to bring you up to speed.”
“Rosslyn is here?” I asked stupidly. It was like my mental processes were clogged with molasses. I couldn’t focus. The angst I was feeling from my guilt was overwhelming. The memory of my short tryst with Elaine was making me nauseous.
Admiral Carlisle motioned across his desk and tapped a couple of times with his forefinger.
“Rosslyn is at the Palace right now in a meeting with the Imperial staff.”
“Why would my sister…?”
“Walter, Rosslyn is an intelligence agent for the Emperor. She has been for a long time.”
“I’m so sorry Sir,” Sophia whispered. She had moved to stand next to me still holding my right hand in hers. I felt the feather light touch of her fingers gently massaging my neck. I glanced up and discovered her face was inches from my own. The look she was giving me was of complete adoration and concern. There was a hint of tears forming in her eyes.
“She has become so beautiful…” the thought was so strong I had to check to see if I had said it aloud, but a quick glance at the admiral’s non-plussed expression told me I had not. I looked back at Sophia. She bent and softly, gently, unashamedly kissed me full on the lips. When she pulled away she was smiling.
Admiral Carlisle had suddenly found something in his desktop display that seemed to be of utmost importance. When he did glance in our direction it was as if he had seen nothing out of the ordinary. When he spoke, that illusion was dissolved.
“I guess you will be taking my lieutenant with you,” he said resignedly.
I had left her once, reluctantly. I couldn’t do it again. I didn’t trust myself to speak so I nodded my agreement and struggled to my feet.
“Sinclair station… who…?”
“Your uncle, Zachary, I think, took over the station and is acting as your regent until you return.”
Uncle Zachary was my father’s youngest brother, he was a good man but he had never shown any interest in doing anything other than managing the estates. I knew he would be overwhelmed with the responsibilities of Sinclair station. I hoped Emil had trained his staff well.
“Okay, you two get out of here while you still can. There will be folks showing up any minute. The hallway to the elevator complex is empty. If Sophia can step out first and pull the door closed to the admin offices you should be able to exit unseen,” Nathan told us, evidently scanning security feeds being displayed on his desktop.
I shook his hand and stumbled toward the door feeling as if I had lost every semblance of control of my life and was being swept along on a wave of someone or something else’s making.
Sinclair Estate occupied by terrorist forces
It was a difficult shot. The Jihadi was at least four hundred yards away hidden in the undergrowth of a swale of ground at the edge of a canal. The business end of an RPG was visible sticking out of the tall grass and the dark shadow of what looked like his shoulder could be seen through a gap in the vegetation.
Marine Sergeant Liam McDowell stared at the shadow through the scope on his rifle and focused on the green reticle which would tell his standard issue rifle to select a 7.62mm round for the shot. A drop of sweat ran into his eye and blurred his view through the sighting device for a moment. The reticles all turned red which meant the scope had lost his focus for an instant. The technology that allowed the rifle to determine which of the three types of rounds in its voluminous magazine to select was great — until it wasn’t.
He blinked the salty water from his eye and reacquired the target. The computer-controlled sighting device responded to his light touch on the trigger that deactivated the safety. It blanked the other reticles leaving the remaining green focused on the dark patch just behind the clump of grass on the horizon. A soft chime in his earbud signaled the rifle had acquired the target, had computed the distance, wind speed, temperature, humidity and even the curvature of the planet beneath his feet. It had a firing solution.
The Jihadi was dead, he just wasn’t aware of the fact.
“We are in place, Mac,” the voice of his lieutenant whispered in his earbud. “We can’t move until that sentry is taken out.”
He didn’t really want to take the shot until he could get a better focus because he knew the rag heads were wearing armor. He would have preferred a head shot but the armor piercing 7mm slugs should be able to deal with the rudimentary armor the jihadis normally wore, so he exhaled half a breath, steadied up and gently squeezed the trigger. The two-stage trigger had set at one pound when the reticle turned green.
“Pffft! Pffft!” the suppressed rifle spat out a double tap, barely audible in the wide open area of the river valley where the action was taking place. There was little recoil as the rifle vented excess gasses and absorbed the shock in its mechanical movement.
The first tungsten cored slug impacted the soldier just below his left shoulder blade. It was slowed and deflected by the armor, so after it sliced through his left ventricle it was already tumbling as it passed out of his body and lodged sideways in the vests front side. The second slug was an explosive round. It followed the first through the hole it had created and detonated deep in the body cavity. The armored vest assured the entire effect of the explosion was dissipated within its protective shroud.
The holy warrior was dead before his legs gave way and he crashed to the bottom of the canal. The RPG he had been holding came rattling down behind him to rest crossways across his inert form lying face down in the flowing water at its bottom.
The shots had barely cleared the barrel when the Marine rolled over to his right and scrambled quickly to his prepared position. He rolled into a bathtub-sized hole and pulled the armored vest he had laid beside the hole over himself like a blanket. Seconds later the position from where he had fired exploded in a shower of fire, shrapnel and shattered earth.
“Good God, LT, where did the rag heads get that kind of technology?” He exclaimed as rocks, dirt, and shrapnel thudded into the armored blanket protecting him. As he had feared, this close to the raider’s main base they had deployed computer controlled fire suppression systems that brought automatic mortar fire onto the origination point of any incoming fire.
“You stirred up a shit storm, Mac. Look at this!”
McDowell rolled over and sub-vocalized the two-letter code that activated a 2D image from his ring omni. He shifted his finger slightly and let the image focus on the bottom of the vest. The view was of the Jihadi camp broadcast from his lieutenant’s helmet cam.
The lieutenant was peering over the edge of an irrigation canal one hundred yards from the perimeter wall of the five-acre compound. The entire facility had erupted in flame and fire as mortars, RPGs and machine guns were being fired in all directions from the wall and directly behind it.
“Migod, LT, there must be an entire company behind those walls. We are going to need air or artillery, we’ll be cut to pieces before we even get close to the wall,” McDowell exclaimed.
“Well, we are going to get neither,” the lieutenant informed him. “All our resources are committed at the Capital. We are on our own here.”
“LT, I thought they were going to send us a Willy.”
“Battalion said they were going to try to break one loose, but so far…”
“Lieutenant Purdy, this is Gunner Gill, I’m inbound with a Willy.” A strange voice broke into the company network. “I am descending out of ten thousand feet under a parasail. I’ll touch down seven miles south-southwest of your current position. It is as close as I can get with the sensors and fire control present at the Jihadi’s base. Can you send a skimmer to pick me up?”
“Mister Gill,” the lieutenant replied to the warrant officer. “If you have a Willy, I’ll come and carry you in on my back if necessary. Welcome to the party.”
“I can go get him, LT,” McDowell volunteered. “I have a skimmer fifty yards downslope from my current position.”
“Go!” the lieutenant shouted. “Make sure the skimmer is broadcasting its IFF. The Willy will be trigger happy out there with its handler exposed in the open.”
“Don’t worry, LT, I’ll be making lots of friendly noise. Those Willies are trigger happy all the time. I don’t want to end up as a puff of radioactive gas.” Marines had a healthy respect for the AI controlled weapon. Once a Willy showed up on a particular battlefield the issue was no longer in doubt, the question became when the enemy would be routed – not if.
Willies were a product of Sinclair Station. They had been invented and developed by the patriarch of the Clan Sinclair three generations ago. Their technology and capabilities were a closely guarded secret of the clan. Each Willy was assigned a handler. They became a team very reminiscent of those of ancient history when dogs were used to find hidden enemy snipers and buried explosives.
“Gunner, this is Sergeant McDowell I’ll be coming in from the northeast in a skimmer to pick you up, please inform your pet that I am no threat.”
“I read you, Mac, you’re clear to come on in,” the Navy warrant officer replied. His nickname indicated he was a gunners mate. This was not unusual since a lot of the controllers were from the ordnance branch of the Navy.
MacDowell scrambled down the slope to where his skimmer was parked in a grove of saplings. Since the planet had only recently been terraformed there were no old-growth trees. He slipped his rifle into the rack between the seats and clambered into the driver’s seat.
“Shit!” he exclaimed as the red blinking light on the skimmer’s rudimentary dash informed him he was perilously low on power. The skimmers were powered by a battery/capacitor storage system that stored several hundred kilowatts of power when it was fully charged, but they had been in the field for over a week and this one was almost depleted.
“Gunner, I think I can get to you, but I’ll need a recharge from your Willy if we are going anywhere else.”
“No problem, Mac I’ll send a drone to lead you in.”
MacDowell pointed the nose of his vehicle directly away from the estate they were assaulting to put some distance between them before he made his turn to head for where the Navy team was waiting. As he made his turn he became aware of a bouncing white light just ahead and slightly higher than the hood of his skimmer. He centered the yoke and put the drone on the middle of the hood to follow it to the warrant officer’s position.
He had been following the course of a medium sized river using the bank of the stream to shield him from observation by the enemy complex. The drone zipped up out of the cover and brought them out onto the open field. The walled complex was about three miles to MacDowell’s left. Seconds after they emerged from the river bank, white streaks could be seen arching up from the complex to curve down and explode a couple hundred yards away.
“Kawhoomp! Kawhoomp!” the mortar rounds shockwaves could be felt echoing off the skimmer and the heat from the explosions arrived in warm pulses, but MacDowell had estimated the range precisely. He was in little danger from the indirect fire from the complex.
With a sense of relief, MacDowell saw the drone was leading them even further away from the enemy position. Soon the white splotch of the warrant officer’s folded parasail appeared on the horizon and shortly after the gray sphere of the Willy and the kneeling form of his handler became visible as the skimmer streaked along the ground in their direction.
Now that the Willy is here, it is all over but the shouting, screaming and dying,” MacDowell thought to himself with great relief.
Sergeant McDowell thought the lady who came into the room where they were holding the prisoner was the scariest person he had ever met. He almost felt sorry for the Jihadi captive.
There was no doubt she was beautiful. The one-piece black jumpsuit she was wearing was made of a silk-like material that was bloused into black knee-high boots. Her coal black hair was braided up and wrapped tight on top of her head, enhancing her already tall appearance. She loomed over the captive who was handcuffed to a simple wooden chair in the center of the room.
“Is he the commander?” Her voice was emotionless, impersonal and cold. It sent a shiver down the sergeant’s spine.
“We think so Ma’am, we had a listening device trained on the compound. There were orders being relayed from the office where we captured him, but he hasn’t said a word since we nabbed him.”
The Jihadi had been staring at the floor since the agent entered the room. When the sergeant informed her of the prisoner’s status and behavior, the Jihadi looked up at the woman with contempt and hatred. Then he spat in her direction.
In one fluid motion, the lady drew a small pistol from its holster at her waist and shot the Jihadi through one knee.
“Bam!” the little .380 was loud in the enclosed room, making the sergeant’s ears ring.
“Aaagh!” the terrorist leader screamed as the leg with the shattered joint flailed about in agony. He was trying desperately to place his hands on the wounded limb, but they were restrained on either side by the handcuffs. His screaming subsided to a constant moan but when he looked back at the lady all the fight was gone out of him.
“Are you going to talk to me?” she asked in that icy voice.
The commander didn’t reply but nodded with gritted teeth against the pain.
“We have about seven minutes until you bleed out,” she informed him. “I have five questions. If I’m satisfied with the answers we will treat your wound. If I’m not, you will die where you sit. Am I clear?”
The Jihadi looked down at the growing blood stain around the shattered limb with obvious terror and nodded again.
“Where did you come from?”
The terrorist didn’t reply immediately; he seemed obsessed with staring at the growing blood pool around his left foot.
The lady took two steps to stand beside the bearded man and shoved the muzzle of the pistol between his legs.
“Not only are you going to die, but you’re going to meet your seventy virgins without any equipment. The next shot will take your dick off.”
“Persia! I came from Persia!” the terrorist leader shouted, clearly not desirous of going to raghead paradise minus his most treasured possession. His galactic standard was heavily accented but understandable.
“That is better,” she said icily and stepped back. “Now I want a little story. Who recruited you? How were you trained and selected to come out to wage Jihad against the Empire? Take your time, but remember; the clock is ticking.”
“I was a Quds officer, bodyguard to the High Priest. I was praying in the mosque when an angel appeared to me and told me I must lead the Jihad.”
Sergeant MacDowell prepared himself for more violence, but the lady seemed to accept the terrorist’s fantastic story at face value.
“What did the angel look like?”
The bearded man shook his head and looked at his interrogator as if trying to recall something that had slipped from his memory. He began to stutter.
“Bright light – glowing, white robes, uh…”
“Male or female?” the lady asked helpfully.
“Male, large and imposing, frightening…”
“…and no one else saw the angel, right?” the agent continued as if she had heard similar stories before.
“How did you…? ” the terrorist commander blurted, answering the question in the affirmative.
The agent ignored the Quds officer’s question, but reached into a pant pocket and came out with a white plastic zip-tie that she whipped around his leg above the wound and pulled it tight to staunch the bleeding. The pool at the captive’s feet had grown to an alarming size. Still bent over the captive she pulled a tube from her shirt pocket and discarded a cover from the needle protruding from one end. She slammed the needle into the man’s thigh above the wound squeezing its contents into his leg.
“That should take the edge off,” she said in a slightly warmer tone. She stepped back and watched as the man stopped shaking and seemed to relax a bit as the analgesic took hold. MacDowell looked at the lady in amazement. None of this interrogation made any sense to the Marine.
“Did anyone else in your organization know you had been schooled as an ex-pat?”
The man looked up at his interrogator with eyes wide in confusion. Behind his bloodshot eyes, his mind was working furiously. She somehow knew things about him no one else did. How this was possible, he had no clue. His confusion and unease were such he couldn’t answer verbally he just shook his head.
“Where?” the agent asked.
“Now comes the most important question of the day. I want you to think about this before you answer. Your life depends on whether you tell me the truth. Keep in mind; I most probably know the answer. So be very careful. Do you understand?”
“Yes, I understand,” the captive answered meekly. Some color had returned to his face since the bleeding had been stopped but he was obviously going into shock.
“Was the Persian government involved in any way in your recruitment and subsequent training and transportation out to the Empire?”
What little color that had returned to his face bled out once more. The terrorist commander looked at the agent in fear, unsure of what she knew and what she might think she knew that wasn’t correct. He was evidently in somewhat of a quandary.
“I don’t think so, but I can’t be sure. There was no evidence that the government was involved. I went to Ramadi per the angel’s instructions. I went to the address he gave me and met a civilian, Russian I think. They put me on a plane that same day with a hundred other recruits and sent us to somewhere in Africa for training. I saw nothing that would lead me to believe the government had anything to do with it…” He ran down still staring at the lady’s gun as if expecting her to shoot him again.
“You poor ignorant bastard,” the lady murmured beneath her breath and holstered her pistol. She turned away and took three steps toward the door. Then she stopped and regarded the prisoner again from across the room.
“What was the nationality of the instructors at the training camp?” she asked as if struck with another idea as she was leaving the room.
“I’m not sure, they were European; hard men, professional. I’m guessing they were South African or Rhodesian. They had an odd English accent.”
“…and they taught you galactic standard at the camp?”
Again, the man’s eyes started darting around as if he was caught in another quandary.
“Not exactly taught…”
“They took you to a place that looked like a clinic. They put some device on your head that made you pass out. When you awoke back in your quarters a couple days later you discovered you could speak and understand galactic,” the agent related his own story for him. “Is that about right?”
The man looked at her in dumb amazement and nodded his assent.
For the first time since she had started questioning the prisoner the agent turned to Sergeant MacDowell and looked at him steadily as if trying to make a decision. The sergeant spoke first.
“This is some crazy shit, Ma’am. I guess it is ‘burn before reading’ classified, right?”
“You’re right, Sergeant. None of this happened.”
“I wish he had not tried to escape, I would not have had to shoot him,” MacDowell replied, thinking fast. “Will he try to escape again?” He was gratified to see a hint of a smile from the dangerous agent.
“No Sergeant, patch him up and put him with the rest of the prisoners. He is harmless now.”