Have a chapter on me

Screen shot 2013-09-14 at 9.48.30 PMRather than a writing journal today, I thought I’d share a chapter from a novel I’ve been working on.  Well, re-working on.  I’ve changed it up based on feedback from one of my critique groups, and some comments on twitter and facebook.  This is from my long gestating space opera, which is still untitled – though many in the critique group have offered up some possible titles.

I have five pov characters.  It took me a while to land on those five, and my reasons are simple – there’s a lot of story to tell here, and it takes place all over the galaxy.  Can’t really tell it with less than five.  I’ve written around 60,000 words so far, but have approached this book from a non-linear writing style.  This has made it difficult to structure chapters for people to read and critique.  Originally, I tried the whole ‘multi-pov per chapter’ thing, but people didn’t respond well.  Critique partners said things like, they didn’t know who to care about.  That’s an issue, obviously.  So – yeah – restructuring.

The first chapter has everyone in it.  It has to.  This is where I set things up, introduce the reader to the characters.  As such, it’s long – around 11,000 words.  I tell you that up front, good reader, so you know what you’re getting yourself into.

If you are willing, I’d love for you to read it and let me know what you think.  If not, that’s okay, too.  Either way, here we go…


Earth: November 11, 2258, 2345 hours

“Incoming call, Admiralty, Priority: Urgent.”

Gabe Carter, Commander Naval Intelligence, groaned.

The message repeated.  Staring at the clock on his nightstand, he fumbled around until his hand landed on the base of the lamp to click it on.  Yellow light flooded the room.  He blinked and tried to rub the sleep from his eyes.  Pushing back the covers reminded him that he hadn’t turned the heat on the night before as the cool air rushed in to chill bare skin.  With a sigh, he swung his legs over the edge of the bed and stood up.

“Accept call, bedroom,” he said to the pleasant enough female voice.  “And turn the heat on.  Normal temp.”  The panel on the wall beside his bed flared to life, displaying the logo of the United States Defense Force complete with American Eagle, flag, laurel wreath and star pattern.  Two heartbeats later, it was replaced by the image of an older woman in a dark robe, her silver and blonde hair falling down around her shoulders.

Carter had never seen Fleet Admiral Vaicci quite so unkempt before.  The woman was normally a paragon of military protocol and decorum.  Her hair had always been impeccable, her uniforms spotless – to see her in this way somehow lent a vulnerability to her that made him wholly uncomfortable.  It was silly of course.  No one could sleep in their uniform with their hair perfectly set, but somehow, thinking that she always did made it easier in his mind.  He didn’t know why.

“Commander,” she greeted him.  If she were uncomfortable with his standing there in a t-shirt and his tighty-whities, she didn’t show it.  “Sorry to wake you.  I know you’re coming off a forty-eight hour debrief on the El Salvador business.”

“No problem, Admiral,” he said, stifling a yawn.

“I need you on Mars.”

Carter let out a long, slow breath.  He couldn’t help himself.  He hated space travel, always had.

“I know your feelings on the subject,” she smiled wryly.  “I wouldn’t ask if it weren’t important.”

“Of course, Admiral,” he nodded.  “I apologize for my hesitation.”

“Are you familiar with the Arizona?”

“Raelyn Foust’s ship?  I am.”  Older than Carter, Captain Foust had been a friend for decades, one of the few who stood by him after Venezuela.  He liked the woman immensely.

“That’s the one.  They’re scheduled to start a six week Mars patrol tomorrow morning, oh-nine-hundred.  I am moving their departure up to oh-three-hundred and you will be going with them.”

Carter glanced back at the clock on his nightstand – twenty-three-forty-five.  That didn’t leave a lot of time to get into orbit.

“Take a private tube to the airbase,” the Admiral said into his thoughts.  “Expense it.  I want you wheels up asap.”

“Aye, sir,” he replied, his mind already going through a checklist of things he’ll need; encrypted computer padd, extra uniforms, civvies if he needs to go off base and blend in.  He had a bag packed – really, he hadn’t unpacked, so that was sort of convenient.

“You haven’t asked why,” the Admiral said.

Carter looked her in the eye.  “I figured you’d tell me what you wanted me to know, Admiral.”  He was used to going places on little information and very short notice.  Such was the life of the naval intelligence officer.

“Good answer,” she smiled.  “I don’t want to say over this channel.”

Carter stared at her.  That was something.  According to the little logo in the corner of the screen, the closed link, they were using the military net, supposedly the most secure trunk of the Westernet, and nearly impossible to track, trace or tap.  “I see,” he said after a minute.

“You’ll be fully briefed upon arrival.  Contacts and what specifics I can provide will be on your padd by the time you reach the Arizona.  Don’t dally, Commander.”

“Understood,” he said as the panel went dark again.  Sliding the closet door open, he pulled his duffel out and began going through the contents to see if there were anything he needed to add.  A rattle followed by a hum indicated that the heat was on.  “Heat, timer,” he said aloud.  “Two hours, then shut down.”  With a shake of his head, he wondered – what the hell is going on up on Mars?

# # #

Two hours and forty-five minutes later, having taken a private, priority tube to March Air Base where a Lear Shuttle waited fueled and ready for him, Commander Gabriel Carter stared out from the bridge of the U.S.S. Arizona at the small, blue planet in the distance.  The Arizona had been waiting in high Earth orbit for his shuttle to arrive.  No sooner had they touched down than the carrier fired her engines and shot off past the moon to find the massive, I.D.E.A. Corp. maintained jump gate.  The gate was really two long, wide platforms with a narrow trench between them where ships like the Arizona slid in and waited for transport.  Once, as a boy, he’d had the opportunity to pass through the Panama Canal.  Jump gates always reminded him of that experience, of the ridiculous claustrophobia he felt at being penned in on either side of the locks.  In this case, the gate walls swallowed up space itself.  If you looked left or right, you got a sense of just how small you were compared to these massive man-made monstrosities.  Whenever he had to travel, he preferred staring straight ahead through the end of the trench where you could still see space and the Earth.

He knew it was a silly thing, but part of why he hated space travel so much.  Who else could say, when faced with the great expanse of the universe, that they felt closed in and claustrophobic?

People below him were speaking back and forth in short, clipped sentences.  In a way, he found it comforting.  They were the ones in charge of this ship, making sure everything was running correctly, that they were in the right place, and didn’t accidentally crash into the gate wall.  That was a scary thought.  Terrorists had taken out the original Earth jump gate that way, commandeering one of the large expeditionary ships the I.D.E.A. Corporation uses to explore distant star systems, then ramming it right into one of the platforms while it was charging up and preparing to do whatever it did that got you from one point in the universe to another.  The explosion had been spectacular, and the radiation had rendered hundreds of miles of lunar landscape unsafe for humans to this day.  To keep something similar from happening again, the new gate was stationed further out and away from moon and Earth alike.

“Any thoughts on why I had to wake up early for this little jump to Mars?”

Carter turned, smiling at the womman who’d come up beside him.  Raelyn Foust was of average height with skinny shoulders and thinning black hair pinned up and tight.  She wore the light tan uniform the Navy tended to prefer, the pins on her collars showing her rank and status as a captain of the space fleet.  There were dark circles under her gray eyes and a tightness there Gabe did not recall of his friend.  Granted, they hadn’t seen each other in over a year, but they’d stayed in touch through messages here and there.  He thought of the mission to Mars the Arizona was about to undertake, and decided that there was plenty there to cause stress.  Ever since the treaty talks with the Chinese had broken down, tensions were high throughout the fleet.  Everyone was expecting a confrontation sooner rather than later, and no one was looking forward to how a fight between American and Chinese forces might play out.

“Even if I knew, I’m not sure I’d be able to tell you, Rae.”

Foust snorted.  “Intelligence rat.”

“Fleet popinjay.”

Both laughed briefly at the barbs, but Foust sobered quickly and lowered her voice.  “Has to be damned important to get you on a ship to Mars in the middle of the night.”

Carter couldn’t argue with that logic.  He’d been thinking about it nonstop since the admiral’s call.  He still didn’t have any particulars beyond where he was supposed to go and who he was supposed to meet.  That information did lend itself to speculation, none of which he was prepared to share with the captain of the Arizona, no matter how long they’d been friends.  The Mars colony was officially split into multiple domes; the Civilian Dome, called Marineris City officially, and Ray’s Joint unofficially, in honor of Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles.  Splitting off from the Civilian Dome via tubes were the Civilian Port handling all the non-military traffic in and out of Mars, the I.D.E.A. Corporation’s Research Dome, the original Chinese Consulate Dome, and the U.S.D.F. Base.  There was an underground section beneath the Military Dome where most of the intelligence about Chinese fleet movements were compiled and analyzed.  His orders were taking him to that area, and he could assume it was to look at something fleet didn’t want to transmit back to Earth.

Ominous, that.

“I agree, Rae,” he said aloud.  “But I don’t know what it is. I swear.”

Foust nodded unconvincingly and Carter knew what she was thinking – it was classified and he couldn’t talk about it.  That was the problem with being in intelligence, everyone thought you were always lying to them.  Had strained more than one friendship since his move to the division a decade ago.  Not that he had many friends left to begin with.

The first flash of lightning made him cringe, causing Foust to chuckle.

“I hate this part,” Carter admitted.  He did.  They’d obviously received their clearance and the gate had begun to cycle up.  The effect was a series of ever increasing arcs and flashes of electricity dancing along the walls of the gate.  Faster than most people were prepared for, those same arcs would reach out to the hull of the ship, passing through it, through the crew – through him, unseen, thank God.  If he actually saw a giant lightning bolt crossing the deck towards him, he would run the other way.

Without looking, he knew that the thin little antenna that stuck out from the edges of the gate walls were even now beginning to pulse and glow.  Up one side, down the other, back and forth, over and over.  The light grew in intensity, so much so that Foust ordered shades to descend, halving the sun exploding to life around them.  Shading his eyes, Carter waited for the moment when his stomach felt like it was being yanked out of his body, down some tube or pipe as if the universe had just flushed him.  He didn’t have to wait long.

Different people had different reactions, though the majority reacted no worse than if they’d just been tossed around by a roller-coaster ride.  He knew a senator on the arms services committee who threw up every single time without fail.  Carter’s ex-fiancee immediately got a headache whenever she jumped, one that wouldn’t go away for days sometimes.  For Carter, it was a brief moment of vertigo.  The universe spun around him, forcing him to grip the rail before him to keep from pitching over.

A chime sounded throughout the ship, followed quickly by a monotone voice declaring, “Jump successful.  Clocks adjusted ten minutes for jump displacement.  Welcome to the Mars Protectorate.”

Carter checked the time as it flashed across his peripheral vision, fed by the implant located behind his cornea.  Nodding to himself, he took several breaths before standing upright and pulling his uniform jacket down and straight again.  The other thing he hated about space travel was the loss of time.  Ten minutes of his life evaporated.  To his mind, the trip had been instantaneous, but the computer knew better.  According to her, ten minutes were just gone and they were supposed to move on with their lives as if nothing bad had happened.  He often wondered why no one else ever seemed to be bothered by that.  If he lost ten minutes every time he jumped, and sometimes he lost more, sometimes less, but for the sake of argument, if he lost just ten minutes – that’s an hour every six jumps.  The average Defense Force member makes something like three hundred jumps in their lifetime.  That’s fifty hours – a whole weekend of their life.  Lost.

That bothered him.

“Prepare a shuttle for the Commander,” ordered Foust.  “And an escort wing.”

Carter turned and smiled at his friend, letting the darker thoughts fade away.  “I don’t know that the escort is necessary.”

“Intel suggests it is,” Foust winked at him.  “You should know that.”

“Fine, fine,” Carter gave up.  Foust stuck her hand out and Carter grabbed it easily.  “Thanks for the ride, Rae,” he said.

“No problem.  We were heading in the same direction.  Not this early, but hey – you can owe me for the loss of sleep.”

“Shuttle’s prepped, sir,” called someone below them that he couldn’t see.

“Be careful,” Foust said, squeezing his shoulder.  “Mars is a dangerous place these days.  But I shouldn’t have to tell you that.”

Carter smiled crookedly.  Three bombs in six months and no idea how they were getting in, civil unrest and the lack of a new treaty looming over everyone’s head.  All of which was driving fleet insane.  “No, you don’t have to tell me that.  I don’t think I’ll be here long, though.  Thanks again.”

After a brief chat about poker that resulted in his reluctant acceptance to be included in the next game via vid chat, he made his exit and followed a young ensign down to the shuttle bay as quickly as possible.  Without the ensign he was sure he would’ve gotten lost more than once.  He didn’t spend much time on these ships except for the occasional off-world mission, so it was easy for him to get turned around.  The part of him that didn’t hate space travel completely, the very small part of him, still felt that space travel as a whole was strange; the hum of the engines reverberating through the hull, coming up through his feet, the taste of the air, not quite fresh, not quite stale.  Plus the artificial gravity.  He tried not to think about that or what might happen if it suddenly stopped working.  In zero grav training, he’d earned the nickname ‘pukey’.

The shuttle, different from the one that brought him up from Earth, shook and rocked as it lifted off from the deck and shot out the side of the carrier.  Carter stared out the port side, watching the engine flare as one of the escort ships fell into formation slightly beside and behind them.  Somehow, the closed in space of the shuttle was more comforting than being in the carrier.  He shook his head, again wondering if anyone else would feel the same way and if he’d ever get comfortable in space.

“We have a one hour flight to Marineris Station, sir,” said a yeoman.  Young, male and wearing a pristine white uniform, Carter was impressed the man managed it given the hour.  For his part, his interrupted sleep had him sure he must look like shit warmed over.  “Would you care for something to eat or drink?”

Carter shook his head.  “I think I’ll catch a little shut-eye.  Wake me in fifty?”  Just the thought of sleep instantly made him feel tired.  Yesterday had been a long day and had spilled right over into today, which didn’t look like it was going to end any time soon.  He yawned.

“Of course,” the yeoman smiled.  Walking over to a closet, he pulled out a pillow and a blanket and offered them up.  Carter took them and settled in for the flight.  His eyes closed and darkness followed.

# # #

Earth: November 12, 2258, 0630 hours

“We have been traveling to other star systems for decades now and no one in this room can point to the sky and say where, exactly, those star systems are,” said the speaker on the left.  He pounded his fist on the podium to emphasize the last four words.  The speaker on the right was already shaking his head.

“That is just a flat out lie and you know it.  Many of the star systems visited by the I.D.E.A. Corporation are well traveled by the general population-”

“You have got to be kidding me,” interrupted the first speaker, Professor Schmidt, throwing his hands in the air.

“Can I please finish?” asked the second speaker, looking to the audience for help and sympathy.

“Sure!  Tell us about how I.D.E.A. isn’t keeping secrets from the American People, the very people whose tax dollars amounted to more than forty-five percent of the corporations’ operational budget since 2132.  Explain to them why they can’t know, exactly, where their tax dollars are taking I.D.E.A. employees and ships every year.”

“Can I please finish?” asked the second speaker stubbornly.  “Can we agree to each speak in turn and not over each other?  Can we not be civilized?”

“Fine, fine – spread your company line propaganda.  Be my guest!” the first speaker spat.  He stepped back from his podium, arms crossed, face a thundercloud.

Ameli felt the man in bed beside her stirring.  “Pause,” she commanded.  The wall froze with a crystal clear image of the speaker on the right.  Turning, she stared at the same man, currently sharing her bed.  His sandy-brown hair looking much more disheveled today.  Chin was still strong, no matter he was sleeping or not.  Same with the nose.  The covers ended mid-stomach, flat and toned like his chest and arms.  One hairy leg stuck out, somehow having managed to escape the sheets.  That miscreant leg always got out to lounge in the cool air of the room.  Sure he was still asleep, she said, “Resume.”

“Many of the star systems where we have established Extrasolar TTS Gates are on the approved travel list, which means that the civilian population is allowed to travel to and from these systems without restriction.” Professor Schmidt snorted but otherwise didn’t interrupt.  “We have space stations and way points in all of these systems specifically to handle such traffic.  In fact, there is a booming tourist industry supported by these stations and the influx of travelers.  As for colonization, we have planetary settlements and opportunities for the more adventurous of us looking to tame this widening final frontier.  Is it our standard operating guidelines to classify new destinations and discoveries until such time as they can be deemed safe?  Yes.  And I will not apologize for having the safety and well being of American Citizens as the fundamental core of our operating guidelines.”

There was a good deal of applause at this point.  Ameli smiled.  Given her position at I.D.E.A. Corp, she enjoyed these debates more than the average person, especially when Professor Schmidt was made to look bad.  The man bothered her with his endless conspiracy theories.  She hoped to be something other than a Gateship Captain one day, maybe move to PR, but not if it meant having to deal with crackpots like him.

“‘Many of the star systems’,” Professor Schmidt said in a rather snide tone.  “Why are any of the systems kept secret at all?  What makes these places so dangerous that the American people cannot know about them?”

“The criteria for judging whether or not a system is safe-”

“Isn’t it true,” the Professor interrupted him, “That it’s not I.D.E.A. Corp classifying these systems as ‘unsafe’ at all, but rather the military doing so in order to operate secret bases?”

“That is absurd.”

“So you deny that the military is operating secret bases without civilian oversight?  How many gates does the military operate off the books?”

“You’re insane.  Certifiable.”

“Am I?  What about this so-called Chinese threat?  Isn’t it true that the I.D.E.A. Corporation and the Military are spreading lies and propaganda in an effort to scare the American public into believing some cock and bull story that the Chinese are out to kill us?  All so the Military can justify huge expenditures on defense budgets that mean trillions in contracts back to the I.D.E.A. Corporation!”

“I.D.E.A. works with the Chinese government, and other world governments, to provide neutral access to the TTS network.  The Universe doesn’t belong to America, sir.  We don’t believe that, and whether you accept it or not, neither does the American government.”

“Now who is being absurd?  Why would American tax dollars go to sharing space with their so-called enemy?”

“Damned fine point, don’t you think?” asked the man in bed beside her.

Ameli jumped at he spoke.  “Pause,” she said.  Then, “I thought you were asleep.”

Blue eyes opened to regard her.  “I was.  But who can sleep with that jackass spewing his bile?  What’d I miss?” he asked.

“Not much – usual rhetoric.  Professor Schmidt is building to something, I can tell.”  The professor had wild hair, wore a tweed suit with a sweater vest; very retro.  According to her favorite Westernet vcast, the twentieth century was in.  Personally, she didn’t see it.

“I was there, remember?” he asked.

“Oh, I do.  But I had to miss the whole thing.  Did Schmidt mention that the pyramids were launching pads for alien spacecraft yet?”

He snorted.  “He has never said that.”

Leaning in, she gave him a quick kiss.  “Give him time.  Can you stay for breakfast?”

“Probably.  My assistant wasn’t supposed to schedule anything before eleven.”

“Well then, Mister Camren, I’d best start cooking.”  She felt his eyes on her as she slid out of bed and walked, naked, through the room to where her robe hung behind the door.

“You know I hate this part,” he said.

“Which part?”

“Where you put clothes on.”

Looking over her shoulder, she smiled.  “It’s just a robe.”  He stretched and she considered it cheating on his part.

The timer on the coffee pot ensured there was fresh brew.  A third of a cup in, breakfast was ready and Ken walked, naked, into the kitchen to pour himself a cup.

With a yawn he asked, “Is that bacon?”

“Turkey bacon,” she corrected.  “You know I can’t afford pork.”

“I’m just happy to see bacon,” he said.  “Can’t have it at home.”  A crisp piece was quickly snatched off the plate and consumed.  Vigorously.  “News,” he said to the wall panel.

“…Headlines on the hour, I’m Madelyn Shore.  Civil unrest in California, Arizona and Texas, with tens of thousands of people demanding answers from the President on the economy, and on the security of our nation.  With numerous attacks on American soil in the past six months, many are calling into question the ability of this President to protect our borders.”

“Mute,” Ameli ordered.


“No buts,” she said.  A firm slap on his rear, “Except for this one.  Now eat.”

Ken walked around the kitchen island and took a seat on one of the high stools.  A few bites in, he said, “This is good.  Where did you learn to cook?”

“My mother,” she said.  “She runs a diner in Bakersfield.  I always helped, after school or over the summer.”

“Well, I owe her.”

Changing the subject, she asked, “What’s on your agenda today?”

“Oh,” he sighed.  “Usual stuff.  Meetings, mostly.  Acquisitions thinks they’ve figured out the next star system we should target for exploration.  Probe shows high levels of iron in an asteroid belt three times the size of our own.  Given how much iron they’re using to build ships these days, we’re looking at a massive cash crop, easily harvested.”

“I’d like in on that,” she admitted.  “My next mission has a point-zero-zero-zero-six-five percent cut but we’re looking at mostly ice, a few heavy metals.  Enough to make it a worthwhile trip, but not enough to get me out of I.D.E.A. housing.”  With a wave of her hand, she posed next to the white refrigerator, “Complete with standard appliances, faux-wood cabinets, and a lovely, low-end linoleum floor.”

Ken swirled the coffee in his cup, eyes watching her closely.  “I could help with that, you know.  Make a call and you could be twenty floors up by Friday.”

She sighed.  As much as she enjoyed their time together, that wasn’t what this was about.  “I’m not sleeping with you to get ahead.”

“And I won’t push you to take my help,” he said after a swallow of coffee.

Ameli walked around to take his hand in hers.  “Please don’t be hurt.  You know I want to do this on my own.”

“What are we?” he asked.  “To each other, I mean?  I am in a position to help you, but I can’t.  You won’t let me.”

“What would your wife think about your helping me?” she asked.

It was his turn to sigh.  “You know we have an open relationship.  She has a girlfriend, for god-sake!  She only married me for my name.  Monica wants to be President.  I want to be head of Extrasolar Acquisitions.”

“And you don’t think she might see us as a barrier to her becoming President?”  Ameli worried about this often.  The Monica Camren she knew, through the news and Ken’s own stories about her, was a calculating, vindictive woman driven to get what she wanted.  She had no illusions that, if the woman saw her as a threat, Monica would come after her with all guns blazing.

Ken freed his hand, sliding it under her robe, across the top of her thigh and around to her back.  He pulled her close, his nose to her chin.  “She and I have an understanding.  We don’t bother with each other’s personal lives.  She has my name, a child, can present herself as a stable, family-oriented candidate who cares about American values.  That old bullshit.  She is on the fast track to getting the party nomination.  All I have to do is make appearances along the campaign trail.  You have nothing to fear from her.  Or from me.  Let me do this.”

Ameli leaned in, wrapping her arms around him as he did the same to her.  Staring out the window of her apartment, she saw the greater Los Angeles area spread out before her, mind wondering how much better that view would be twenty floors higher.  The easy way was to agree, let him make the call.  A crew would probably show up that very day to help her start packing, an appointment would be made for her to view available spaces above.  Would she like a western exposure or eastern?  Maybe even a balcony.  All she had to do was say yes.

A flash of light in the distance caught her eye.  The windows had already dimmed, and she stared.  A few seconds later and the building shook, forcing her and Ken apart.

“What the hell?” he asked.

Ameli was already at the window.  “A bomb,” she said softly.  “Another bomb.”  Her decision would have to wait.

# # #

Earth: November 12, 2258, 0930 hours

“Governor Camren, you are on in five, four, three,” the young man with the clipboard held up two fingers, then vanished, replaced by a busty brunette in a business suit.

Tragedy in California.  Terrorists have struck in the heart of Anaheim, killing thousands, injuring another two thousand and leaving tens of thousands more at risk of radiation poisoning.  Authorities are scrambling to evacuate the area with little or no help from FEMA.  Has this President failed in his lack of response?  Monica Camren, Governor of California, joins us today.  Governor, thank you for taking the time to be here this morning.  I know you’ve been coordinating the rescue and clean-up efforts.”

Monica Camren smiled for the cameras.  “Thank you, Maddie, for helping to shine a light on the plight of the people of California.”  Her smile melted away.  “As you know, this is the second terrorist strike in California this year.  We have tried to shore up our border defense, but have been blocked at each turn by the President’s open immigration policies.  I have had to call out California’s National Guard because FEMA isn’t returning our calls.  The people of California deserve an explanation.”

Madelyn Shore’s face took on a look of concern.  “But the Federal government is facing record deficits.  Many say that there simply is no money for FEMA to respond with, no way to pay their workers or purchase supplies.”

“With all due respect, Maddie, there was plenty of money when New York was hit, and Chicago.”  Governor Camren shook her head.  “It is only here, in California, that we are expected to fend for ourselves.  This is a terrible tragedy, but it illustrates what I have been saying for months – this President does not have the security and safety of the American people as a priority.  He has completely lost his way.  That terrorists could strike not once, not twice, but four times on American soil in the past seven months is unacceptable.  This administration is corrupt and grossly unprepared for the very real threat that Chinese and Mars extremists pose to this country.”

“Governor Camren, you have been very vocal in your opposition of this administration’s policies.  Do you believe that FEMA’s lack of response is somehow in retaliation for your outspoken views?”

“My position has been unwavering,” the governor replied.  “I believe in this country and its people, who should not have to live with the fear of death looming over their heads every day.  Our government should be able to protect us, and when we are in need, they should be here regardless of politics, to help.

“That they aren’t is… I don’t think there is a word for it.  Evil comes to mind.”

“Strong words, Governor,” Madelyn Shore said.

“These are perilous times, Maddie.  When enemies are at the gates clamoring to get in, and where is the President?”

Shore looked away, then back.  “According to reports I’ve seen, he is at Camp David.”

“Of course he is.”

“Governor, there is a lot of speculation that you have formed an exploratory committee.  Would you like to take a moment to confirm those rumors here today?”

Smiling, Governor Camren shook her head.  “Maddie, I have to focus on the people of California right now.  They deserve my whole and undivided attention.”

“That’s not a denial,” the brunette said.

“California needs me, Maddie.  I have to take care of the people here,” she repeated.

“All right, I won’t press.  We’ve been talking with Governor Monica Camren, working tirelessly to…” the image of the brunette faded, replaced by the young man with the clipboard.

“You’re clear, ma’am,” he said, then vanished as the link was severed.  Leaning back in her limo, Governor Camren allowed herself a predatory smile.

“Champagne?” asked the young man sitting across and to her right.  Taking the fluted glass in her hand, she clinked it against his glass, taking a quick sip.  Her son, Styphen, smiled.  When she looked at him these days, she saw more and more of her dead husband in him, mostly in the dark eyes and complexion, but there was also something about his smile, his mannerisms, that just reminded her of Augustus Cruz; a swagger in the walk, a wink here and there, and an appetite for younger women that could be dangerous if left unchecked.  He definitely took after his father.  Luckily, his intelligence came from her family, as did his work ethic, born of farming in the stagnant garlic fields of Gilroy.  Yes, Styphen understood that work came first, and when you did play, you did it carefully and quietly.

The man sitting to her left, showed no emotion at all.  He never did.  Preferring to be called Mister Scratch, an obvious nom de plume, the Chinese man probably wouldn’t even join them with a glass of champagne, were he sitting in the limo with them, and not at some undisclosed facility.  A quick glance above him showed a pale green light glowing in the ceiling, confirming that their conversation was secured and not being recorded.

“You don’t approve, do you, Mister Scratch?” she asked, taking another sip.  She enjoyed the way the bubbles danced across her lips and tongue.

“I have no opinion,” the Chinese man said.  She made eye contact briefly, but had to look away.  If there were ever a person who could be said to have dead eyes, it was Mister Scratch.  She found it difficult to spend any amount of time staring into those small, dull orbs.  Oddly, her son had no such issues.  “You may celebrate every victory if you wish.  I choose to wait for the final victory.”

“Speaking of which,” Styphen said.  Staring at his padd, he smiled broadly.  “The President’s approval rating has just crashed to a record low of seventeen percent.  They have a lame-duck on their hands.”

“What about my numbers?” Monica asked.

“You, dear mother, are now sitting at an unprecedented high of eighty-four percent approval.”

“Setting a second bomb off in Anaheim was a stroke of genius.  Thank you, Mister Scratch,” she said, holding her glass up in a toast to the man.  He nodded slightly in response, the most she would get from him.  With a shrug, she took another sip.

Styphen continued, “We’re set to have some photos leaked later today, gruesome images, really, of people suffering from burns and radiation poisoning.  There is one of a little girl holding a burnt doll that should be especially poignant.”  Mister Scratch looked over at him, something resembling respect flashing across his face for just a moment.  Monica had to remind herself that, though they are currently allies, Mister Scratch still sees them as products of a corrupted Western society, and not as equals or, even better, as anyone he should worry about.  Which he should.  She would keep her word, arrange for Mars to become the protectorate of the Chinese government, saving her own country billions in tax dollars better spent at home, but she would not have them think her, or her son, weak.

“And what of the grass roots groups we discussed?” she asked.

“Already in play and moving forward,” Styphen replied.  “They’ve been leaked video of Chinese colonists on Mars being subjected to various horrifying experimentation at the hands of I.D.E.A. Corporation scientists.  They will distribute these everywhere, stirring up anti-Mars and anti-I.D.E.A. sentiment among the University set.  You can come out deploring such activities, suggest that maybe we should pull out of Mars altogether, and give it over to the Chinese as some kind of reparation for the treatment of their colonists.”

“Such activities do not take place on Mars,” Mister Scratch offered.  “If they did, we would take the planet back by force.”

“Of course the videos are faked,” she said, swirling the champagne in her glass.  “But everything has been filtered and scrubbed and degraded to the point that they look very authentic, as if smuggled out of Mars by Americans who care and just want the story to get out back home.  No one will be able to trace their true origins, and once something is out there on the Westernet, it’s nearly impossible to get it removed.  Plus, it will be in the hearts and minds of everyone who watches these videos, and no amount of decrying them or calls that they’re fake, will be heard.  Emotions are easy to incite and manipulate, Mister Scratch.  Don’t you worry, you’ll have your victory celebration when this is all over, and I’m sitting in the White House.”

“Yes, well,” he said, as taken aback as she’d ever seen him before.  “I have other things to attend to.”

“Of course,” she said, nodding in his direction.  “I don’t think we’ll need another push, but if we do, I’ll let you know where and when I want a bomb to go off.”

“Of course,” he said, then vanished.

“I don’t like him,” Styphen admitted.

“Oh, Sty,” she purred.  “You don’t have to like him.  He’s an end to a means.  Nothing more.”

“You say that now, but if it ever got out-”

She cut him off.  “It won’t.”

“But if-”

“It won’t,” she said, firmer now.  Locking her eyes on her sons, he shrank back into his leather chair.  “No one will ever find out.  I’ve been doing this a very long time, Sty.  I know what I’m doing.”

“Yes, mother.”  He paused.  “I may have a photo opportunity for you.”

“Oh?  What kind?”

“Eloise was on the tube.  She’s dead.”

“Eloise?” she asked.  “Who is that?”

“The maid, mother,” Sty said, rolling his eyes.  “Specifically, your maid.  From your house?”

“Oh.  How is that a photo opportunity for me?”

“Her daughter is a decorated soldier,” he explained.  “Wouldn’t hurt to show another side of the story, make another connection for you and tug those heartstrings.  Your beloved employee is discovered to be part of the death toll, so you reach out to the grieving family.  If your numbers don’t go up five points I’ll eat my shoe.”

She considered this.  With a little extra work, it was an excellent idea.  “Make it happen,” she ordered.  “And get me a photo of, what was her name – Eloise?”  Sipping her champagne, she tried to remember what this maid looked like.

# # #

Earth: November 12, 2258, 1500 hours

“Gunny?  Got a wave coming in.  Looks like from L.A., priority for you, comm center.”

Gunnery Sergeant Ramirez looked up from what passed for a meal these days, to find Corporal Banks standing before her looking sheepish.  All the little boys, as she liked to think of them, were uncomfortable around her these days.  Hell, even the men were keeping their distance.  Funny what taking out an evil war-monger with your bare hands can do for your reputation.  It wasn’t like she’d planned it.  These things just happen sometimes.  She’d been moving through the building, following the scouts as they made their way through the narrow corridors of what used to be an office complex.  The place was shot full of holes, whole sections teetering on the edge of utter collapse.  If they’d been in America and not Venezuela, someone would’ve condemned it by now, or torn it down.  But here, people were still using such structures as outposts and bases for the civil war.

She didn’t have time to consider any of this then, though.  Intel suggested a hundred bad guys in residence, plus Franz Enrique Souez, leader of the Peoples Liberation Front and instigator of this entire, messy war, was sighted on the premises.  He was Numero Uno on everyone’s hit list.  A chance to take him out could not be wasted.  So the Gunny and her team were pushing deeper in, going room by room, taking out whoever they found while searching for Souez.

That’s when the floor fell out from underneath her.

The fall was rough and she landed wrong, all the air rushing out of her lungs and a pain shooting up her left arm.  Pushing herself out of the rubble, she came face to face with another person trying to do the same; Souez.  Her rifle was a dozen feet away because the cheap-ass clasp on the shoulder strap broke, but it wouldn’t have done her any good if she’d had it in her hands.  Souez launched himself at her as soon as their eyes met.  What happened next depends on who you asked.  For Gunny Ramirez, it was all struggling to keep his hands away from her throat, the smell of his fetid breath in her face, the sting of her own sweat in her eyes, on her lips, mixing with the drywall dust and dirt to form a sticky paste on her uniform and skin.

All she knew was that it was kill or be killed.  She chose the former.

The boys stuck on the third floor were trying to figure out how to get to her back on the first.  Souez had snuck in via a secret entrance after they’d already cleared the first and second floors, and had been probably planning to ambush them from behind.  Regardless, her team was stuck above while she fought below.  They said it was like watching something out of Bollywood, that she was all fists and kicks, going wild and intense, battling the rebel leader in epic fashion.  Knives appeared in each of their hands.  He managed to drive his knife into her elbow, she slashed hers right across his throat, causing him to fall back.

Then she stabbed him in the heart, pulled the knife free, slipped behind him and finished slitting his throat.

Her squad cheered.

Souez exploded when his heart stopped beating.  Locals called it la maldición de la muerte, the death curse.  Nasty explosive implanted in the chest that turned rib bones into shrapnel.  Only the most devout hostiles had them because the pain of putting a bomb in your chest and wiring it to your heart was the worst kind of crazy.  Until that moment, she, and everyone else in country on this little mission, thought it was only a rumor.  Who would be crazy enough to let them do something like that?  She learned who the hard way.

She lost her left arm.  The corpsman said the muscle fell off the bone like shredded pork.  His words.  Had to have it replaced with a bionic.  That made her a cyborg now.

Honestly, she didn’t remember any of it.  For her, there was falling, intense rolling around, fetid breath in her face, Souez dead before her, a bright flash followed by intense, white hot pain, and then nothing until she woke up in the infirmary.

The whole thing made her an object of worship and awe on the base, but she wondered if any of them would be so afraid of her if they knew about the nightmares that had come every night since.  In those, Souez doesn’t die.  His hands clasp her throat, and there is nothing she can do to stop him.  His breath on her face, body pressed against hers, spit flying as he curses her, damns her soul to hell.  Slowly, he chokes the breath from her…she wakes in a sweat every night, tears streaming from her face.

No one knew about that, and if she had her way, no one would.

“Codes?” she asked, holding out her human hand.  The Corporal stared for a minute before shaking his head loose and waving the codes over to her implant.  Pushing her chair back, she stood and walked out of the mess, never looking back or making eye contact with the gawkers.  Fame had its uses, and its drawbacks.  At least no one had tried to get into her pants for a year.

Dust blew through the camp.  She hated the dust.  Damned stuff got into everything.  She couldn’t remember a time when she didn’t have the shit in her shoes, inside her socks, up her nose, and down her shirt.  Making her way down the dirt road that cut through the center of the camp, she found the comm center looking relatively nondescript and empty at the moment.  Knocking once and waiting a heartbeat, she entered.

A young woman with jet-black hair nodded as she stepped up to the desk.

“I have a wave?  Gunnery Sergeant Ramirez.”  She passed her hand over the sensor, the monitor before the woman lit up and she nodded.

“You can take it in number three.”

“Thank you.”

The room was small, five by five with smooth walls and curved corners.  A partial table, white as the rest of the room, disappeared into the far wall, a metal folding-chair arranged before it.  The thick door sealed behind her with a hiss.  A hum grew and the walls shimmered, resolving into the image of an aging Major seated at a large desk where the table used to be.  Behind him, the blinds were closed, eliminating any chance of her seeing where he was located.  He finished signing some paperwork before looking up.

“Sergeant Ramirez.”

“Major,” she replied, snapping to attention.

“At ease.”  He took a deep breath.  “Have a seat, Gunny.”  She sat before the desk.  “It is with regret that I must inform you of the death of your mother, Eloise Ramierz, at eleven-hundred hours yesterday.  She is listed as a passenger in a tube that was destroyed in a terrorist attack on Anaheim.  Remains have been located and identified.  I am sorry for your loss.”

“My brother?” she asked.  Her body had gone cold.  Her mother was invincible, immortal.  How could such a thing happen?  Everything she had just eaten was threatening to come back up.  Ricky was fifteen, his whole life ahead of him.

“Your mother was traveling alone.  We have tried to locate your brother, but we think he’s gone off the grid.  Your aunt-”

“Belle,” she said.

“Yes, Belle, has been unable to contact him, nor has she seen him in days.  Given the circumstances, Gunny, we are authorizing emergency family leave.”

“Sir, I have three days left on my tour.”

He paused.  Turning slightly to the right, he tapped a few keys, eyes focused on the monitor before him.  “I apologize, Gunny.  I’m pushing a transfer order through to March Air Base along with the emergency leave.  Your last days will officially be there, but you won’t have to do much more than report, then go home.”

“Thank you, sir.  Any word on who…?”

“Usual groups have claimed responsibility, Gunny.  Free-Mars, Red Storm, even the Mexican Liberation Front.  It’ll be weeks before we sort it all out.”

“I see, thank you, sir.”

“Again, I am sorry for your loss.  Would you like a chaplain or priest to speak with?”

“No, thank you, sir.”

“Very well.”

The office vanished, replaced by the white walls of the small room.

Gunny Ramierz collapsed, sobbing.

# # #

Earth Colony: New Montana November 12, 2258, 0630 hours local

In a word, farming was boring.  At least for Uly; short for Ulysses Sean Starker, only son of Atticus and Deidre Starker.  In just one day, Uly would turn seventeen.  His parents were firmly in the ‘you’re going to be a farmer just like us’ camp, while he was firmly in the ‘oh God please get me the hell off this rock’ camp.  Rarely did the two camps see eye to eye, which made family dinners interesting, to say the least.

“You have to aerate the soil,” said his father while demonstrating his technique.  Atticus Starker was a tall, thin man with too-tanned skin and thinning brown hair currently matted down with sweat.  His eyes were gray and sharp; he could see Uly goofing off or not doing his chores around corners and through walls.  Currently, Atticus wore a simple set of blue-jean overalls, a thin undershirt and his normal workboots, all of it covered in a thin layer of dust, dirt and grime, though the boots certainly had the lion share of each, with more than a little mud thrown in for good measure.

“We have machines that do this,” Uly said.  His father looked up from where he was working with his hand tools, leaning back on his knees to frown at his son.  “We also have machines that measure the moisture in the ground, the maturity of the crop, the ratio of bees to pollenizer – all done by machines and all managed by your padd.”  Uly threw this last bit out because he knew damn well the padd was sitting back at the house in practically brand new condition despite being over twelve years old.  His father preferred a more ‘hands on’ approach to farming, and suffered the trappings of modern ingenuity and technology only because the military insisted on it.

“You have to get dirty sometimes, Uly,” Atticus said.  “You have to dig your own hands into the soil, feel it under your fingernails, get a sense of it.  One day, all of this is going to be your responsibility, and you are going to need to know it all as well as I do.  There’s not a spot on this farm that’s a mystery to me, because I take the time and make the effort.  You need to do the same.  Now, get down here and-”

“I’m enlisting tomorrow,” Uly interrupted him.

His father looked suddenly very tired.  “We’ve discussed this before, and no, you are not.  You’re a farmer.  Now, grab your trowel from the truck and-”

“I’m not asking you for permission,” Uly interrupted him again.  “I’m telling you what’s going to happen tomorrow.  I’m going to wake up, get cleaned up, head into town and sign the papers.  I’m enlisting, dad.  Tomorrow.”

“You are a damned fool,” his father said.  He threw his tools down for emphasis.  “You never can get it through that thick damned head of yours,” he added, rising.  Atticus was not an imposing man, but standing nose to nose with him, Uly found himself fidgeting.  He himself was bulkier; built like the football player he’d become.  Where Atticus had lean but well hardened arms, Uly had more defined muscles and more heft to him.  His football coach wanted him for linebacker, but Uly preferred wide receiver because he was strong and quick.  His eyes were the same gray as his father’s, but his hair was darker, favoring his mother, and his skin, though tanned, was not as leathery as either of his parents.

“We’re safe here,” his father said, thumping his finger on Uly’s forehead to emphasize each word.  “No wars, no terrorists, no politics, decent pay and plenty of work that needs doing.”

“If you’re a farmer,” Uly said.

“Son, you are a farmer, you just don’t know it yet.”

“I’m not a farmer, and we’re safe because there are people out there protecting us.”

“No, we’re safe because no one knows we exist,” Atticus sighed.  He brushed by Uly and made his way to the truck.  A little rougher than he needed to be, he pulled the water cooler from its place in the back, and held it above his head to take a drink.  When he was done, he leaned back against the truck and stared at his son.

“Your mother and I had to make some difficult decisions before you were ever even conceived.  We could’ve stayed home, lived our lives the way we always had, worked to pay off our debts and taxes, but we never could’ve afforded to have a child – not the way we were going and with the money we were qualified to make.  There’s all sorts of rules and laws and milestones you have to meet to become a parent back home.  The population is strictly controlled, plus there’s the National Debt, each person owes a share in it and you have to pay your share back to get anywhere.  I won’t lie to you, despite all of that, it was the easier way.  We had a bit of family around, life wasn’t terrible, but we just didn’t see a future that we wanted in it.  So, when the chance came up to move here, we took it.  ‘Wipe away your debt’ said the recruiter, and all we had to do was sign the Official Secrets Act.  Our families don’t know where we live, and we can’t have any contact with them, but we were willing to give all of that up to come here and have a new beginning, a new world to call our own.

“There were no prohibitions on having children, no prophylactic implants here.  We were encouraged to have as many kids as we could or wanted without any taxation or fees!  You don’t understand that freedom because you have lived here all your life, son.  If your mother hadn’t had complications… that’s neither here nor there.  Believe me, this is paradise compared to back home.  And you wouldn’t even be here if we hadn’t chosen to be farmers.”

It was the most his father had ever said on the subject in one sitting, but it had little impact on Uly.  He was frustrated that his parents either didn’t see how miserable he was, or they outright chose to ignore it.  Either way, he was done.

“I leave at six thirty tomorrow morning,” he said as he turned and walked away.  He could feel his father’s eyes on him with every step; he never looked back.

# # #

Ruby was snuggled into the crook of Uly’s arm, her brown skin warm against him.  They were wrapped in his sleeping bag arranged on soft grass.  They were as far from everyone as they were allowed to go.  The military had strict ‘out of bounds’ rules and fences around the colony, even after thirty years.  Still, they were far enough away for it to feel like forever.  Uly stared up at the sky, deep in thought.  When she pinched his chest and yanked out a hair, he yelped.

“I’m getting the feeling you’re not here with me anymore,” she said with a wicked grin.  Her dark eyes were full of amusement, her slim face still a bit flushed from their last…embrace.  “I think I deserve your full attention, sir,” she said.

“You have it,” he smiled.  “I swear!” he added when he saw the menacing look cross her face.  She leaned in and rested her head against his chest.  Her fingers twirled and untwirled his chest hair.

“You’re thinking about Atticus again,” she said, not really asking a question.

“And tomorrow,” he admitted.  “But I’m here now.  Promise.”

“I really have no idea what I’m going to do when you’re gone,” she said softly.  She wouldn’t turn seventeen for another six months and even then, wasn’t sure what she wanted to do yet.

“Don’t wait for me,” he said, and got a hard slap on the chest for it.  Honestly, he wasn’t sure what he was going to do without seeing her everyday.  Still, he knew in his heart that he had to go.

“I heard they’re talking about lowering the age limit again, making it sixteen now instead of seventeen when you can enlist.”  Uly whistled.  That would not sit well with Atticus.  He’d fought hard ten years ago to keep the limit at eighteen, only to lose at the polls when the referendum passed with a startling majority.  Atticus being Atticus, he’d suggested around many a family dinner, that the military had somehow fixed the vote.  “A volunteer army needs volunteers,” he said.  “And they’ll get them however they can.”

“Are you going to enlist then?” he asked.  He knew what she would say.

“I don’t know,” she sighed.  He didn’t think she would leave the colony.  The farmer was too strong inside of her.  She was more like his parents than either of them liked to admit, and yet, he loved her.  He would marry her if she’d have him, but was afraid to ask unless he knew how she’d answer.  “Momma says it would be good for me, but daddy says he doesn’t want me to go.”  What do you want?, he almost asked, but he knew that down that road was a fight he didn’t want to have tonight.

“Ruebella?  Get your ass home this minute!  If you’re out past curfew again I will make sure you never sit right again!  Do you hear me, girl?”

The voice was Ruby’s mother and Uly found himself chuckling.  Ruby started to extricate herself from the sleeping bag, digging through the pile of clothing that was half-hers half-his, until she came up with her wrist wave.  Absently rubbing his palm, he remembered when he first got an implant, something Ruby’s parents hadn’t yet agreed to.  The implants were voluntary at this point, but Atticus expected they would be mandatory sooner, rather than later.  Some parents chose to wait until their children were old enough to decide for themselves.  Uly jumped at the chance, but Ruby was content with the removable wrist version for now.  If she joined the military, that would change.

“We’re on our way back now, momma,” she said.  With a little too much force, she turned it completely off.  Uly found himself with a wonderful view of her standing in the moonlight, naked, shadows and light falling just right to accentuate her curves.  Her dark hair shimmered, falling in rings across her shoulders and down her back.  When she noticed him noticing her, she smiled.  “I’m going to be late again, aren’t I?” she asked.

He threw back the sleeping bag to show her the effect she was having on him.

“God, I hope so,” he said.

She laughed as she dove back in.

# # #

Mars Protectorate: November 12, 2258, 0730 hours local

Twenty-seven levels beneath the Martian landscape, the lift came to a halt and the doors dinged open.  Carter stepped out and followed the young woman in the red and black camos down a decently lit corridor past nondescript doors labeled with numbers that meant nothing to him.  Rumor had it there were at least sixty levels, maybe more, beneath the Martian surface, but he had no evidence to confirm that rumor.  A bank of lifts on the main floor provided access to the lower areas, but there was always someone like the young woman escorting him waiting inside to escort him to his destination.  They had a physical key that fit into a lock on the wall.  No buttons, no lights, just that key.  The operator would stand there and the lift doors would close and you were moving.

The military loved their secrets, and this installation was a well kept secret.

The woman led him past three intersections before turning right and stopping halfway down this new corridor at a double door with no handles or knobs.  She held her hand up, and the door slid back to reveal a large room filled with solid monitors and stations, a throw-back to days past, but only one person that he could see inside.  An older woman in loose fitting red and black camos with short red hair, a wide nose and large eyes waved him in before calling out to his escort for some fresh coffee.  Recognizing the Master Chief, Carter stepped forward, crossed the ten or so feet separating them and then followed her down a quick set of stairs to the only active workstation in sight.

“Chief,” he said.  Master Chief Ashota had worked Mars for nearly fifteen years now, filtering through endless streams of data like a virtuoso, only with data, not music.  Normally she had a team of dozens of analysts swarming around her.  That the place was empty made Carter’s stomach go cold.

“Commander,” she said without a smile.  She wasn’t a smiling type, never had been.  Come to think of it, he couldn’t recall a single time that he’d ever seen the woman smile.  Probably why her first husband left her with nothing but his last name.  Waving her hand above the console, she began entering in a long stream of characters.  By hand.  Carter blinked at that.  Since when had a wave not been good enough for access to a computer?  “I prefer the old school ways, Commander,” she said without a trace of amusement in her voice.  “Keeps people honest.”

“Of course, Master Chief,” he replied, not really seeing it but thinking it better to agree than argue the point.

While she typed away, the young woman returned with a fresh pot of coffee snuggled on a tray amidst cups, cream, sugar and, bless her, donuts.  Carter thanked her profusely but she just stared.

“Problem, Abbie?” the Chief asked without looking up.

Blinking, the younger woman shook her head.

“Dismissed then.”

Carter watched her go, then poured himself a cup of coffee, adding copious amounts of cream and sugar.  One or two sips before he broke a donut in half and dunked it.  The second half disappeared as quickly as the first.  He realized the Chief was watching him.

“Hungry?” she asked.

“You’ve no idea,” he admitted.  “Getting through the checkpoints was a pain in the ass.  I should have eaten before landing.”  Devouring the remnants of his second donut, he grabbed a chair and sat before the console.

The Chief pulled up several files.  “Sorry about Abbie.”

“You get used to it after a while,” he admitted.

The Chief snorted.  “I’ve seen the data.  You were set up.  Venezuela was a trap.  Anyone tells you different is lying.”  Then softer, “You saved thirty people.  That’s important to remember.”

“Unfortunately, no one does.  Remember that part, I mean.”  Carter couldn’t help but yawn.  He didn’t want to talk about Venezuela.  Another drink of coffee washed down the donut.  Changing the subject, he asked, “What am I looking at here?”  The Chief tossed a file to the screen in front of him.  He wasn’t used to these old monitors, so he leaned in for a closer look at what appeared to be a video file.  He linked his personal HUD to the monitor, waved it to start, then leaned back.  The image on the screen flickered to life, first showing the U.S.D.F. logo, then switching to a massive ship, much larger than anything anyone was supposed to have built or been able to build.  He whistled through his teeth.

“The U.S.S. Barry, on routine patrol on the outer edge of the Martian Green Zone, came across an unknown contact,” Master Chief Ashota said.  “On silent running, they started a track on the target and took up a parallel course, trying to get as much data as possible.”

Carter squinted at the blurry image.

“Try this,” said the Master Chief.  A few passes across the console and the image changed to one much clearer and obviously enhanced.  Carter whistled again.  The sharper image showed something longer, wider and taller than it should be.  There was something on the hull he couldn’t quite make out.  His mind was already running through the possibilities; Chinese, Japanese, European Union.  Maybe even something the I.D.E.A. Corporation had cooked up when nobody was looking.  He was starting to understand why fleet had refused to transmit these images, rousing him to fly up here in the middle of the night.

“Can you enhance this area?” he asked, drawing circles on the screen with his finger.

“Aye,” replied the Chief.  Several images appeared on the screen, each one showing different versions run through filters to reveal details of the ships design.  She tossed each of the images to a screen of its own for ease of viewing.  Obviously, the Chief had already done an analysis.  His eyes immediately went to the image on the monitor before him.

“What are these?” he asked, tracing the rows along the hull with his finger.

“We believe they are gun ports, sir.”

Carter shook his head.  “That’s not possible.  There are…” he tried to count, letting the sentence trail off.

“Over four dozen, yes sir.  On both the port and starboard.  Plus these,” the image zoomed in, revealing several larger ports.  “Rocket or missile ports.  Given the groupings of four and the spacing between them, I’m leaning towards rockets.  We also see what can only be missile ports along the spine of the ship in this shot,” the image was replaced by one at a slight angle, revealing rows of large missile hatch covers.  “Probably nukes.  Not all of them, but you never know.”

“What the hell is this?” Carter whispered to himself.

“There’s more,” said the Master Chief.  The image changed again, a close up on the hull.  “Recognize it?”

Carter stared at the emblem on the screen.  “Chinese.”

“Once the ship was identified as being Chinese, the Barry ordered them off.  They were a hundred miles inside the Green Zone in violation of the Treaty.”  Mars used to be neutral territory.  Twenty years ago, the American Protectorate felt it was necessary to push China out.  Too many conflicts, too many fights and bombs going off as tempers flared between factions.  A treaty came later.  That treaty was now being renegotiated and the Chinese government felt that, while the negotiations were ongoing, the old treaty was null and void and they could do whatever the hell they wanted.

“They wanted us to see them,” Carter mused.  But why?  They build a new ship, obviously a battleship, and then they make sure to be seen?  It didn’t make sense.  Except as an intimidation factor and that ship sure as hell fit the bill.  Worse, why hadn’t anyone, anywhere reported this ship as it left port?  Why hadn’t anyone reported the damned thing being built in the first place?  The Chinese had two shipyards off-world and both were under covert surveillance; if this ship had come from either, there should’ve been a report and it should’ve crossed his desk.  It didn’t.  That was not good.

“That’s my take, sir,” said the Master Chief.

“Okay, I’ll need copies of everything including interviews with the crew of the Barry.”

“There’s more,” the Chief said.

“More?” he said, leaning back to look at her.  “Jesus Christ, Chief, isn’t this enough?”

“Enough to haul your ass out here in the middle of the night?  Not likely.”  Curious, he turned back to the console.  The image on the screen changed to a side by side of the Chinese vessel and an American carrier.  The carrier, the single largest ship in the U.S.D.F. fleet, was dwarfed, the Chinese vessel at least four times the size.  American carriers were little cities floating in space.  The Chinese ship was four times the size – what did that make them?  A state?  A country?

“My god,” Carter breathed.  The image changed to a video.  The Chinese ship was moving off, lights along the superstructure flashing.  The flashing moved up and down the hull, growing in intensity.  Carter clutched at his chair, realization hitting him like a ten ton rock in the head.  He leaned back from the display as flashes of light popped and swirled until the ship vanished in one bright flash of light.

He said, “That isn’t possible!”

“Yes, sir, I know.  But there it is.  The Chinese have built a jump capable ship.  They don’t need gates anymore.  They can show up anywhere they want, any time they want and there isn’t a God-damned thing we can do about it.”

Commander Carter felt the universe spinning beneath his boots.

Everything had just changed.

1 Comment

  • Doc Bob Posted September 16, 2013 7:05 pm

    This piece is truly great, ending with the typical soul-grabbing cliffhanger. If you do a search for the following sentence, there’s a minor punctuation error: “Several images appeared on the screen, each one showing different versions run through filters to reveal details of the ships design. ” This should be corrected to say “…of the ship’s design.” Typical Doc Bob quibble.
    Thanks for sharing!
    Doc Bob

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