Book: Keep the Faith
Keep the Faith
Echoes of War Book 5
CSV Lion of Judah Blueprints
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Also Available from Daniel Gibbs
Free Daniel Gibbs Books
Keep the Faith by Daniel Gibbs
Copyright © 2019 by Daniel Gibbs
Visit Daniel Gibb’s website at www.danielgibbsauthor.net
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Additional Illustrations by Joel Steudler—www.joelsteudler.com
Editing by Beth at BZhercules.com
3D Art by Benoit Leonard
This book is a work of fiction, the characters, incidents and dialogues are products of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
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Echoes of War
Book 1 - Fight the Good Fight
Book 2 - Strong and Courageous
Book 3 - So Fight I
Book 4 - Gates of Hell
Book 5 - Keep the Faith
Book 6 - Run the Gauntlet
Breach of Faith
(With Gary T. Stevens)
Book 1 - Breach of Peace
CSV Lion of Judah
New Rostov - League Border Planet
October 17th, 2462
Another week, another battle. This time, though, we’re on the League’s home turf.
Colonel David Cohen couldn’t help but smile at his thought. It was coming up on two and a half years since he’d been assigned as the commanding officer of the CSV Lion of Judah. While he adjusted himself in the CO’s chair on the bridge, a voice interrupted his thoughts.
“Conn, TAO. Aspect change, multiple inbound wormholes, League of Sol signature,” First Lieutenant Ruth Goldberg said as the ship rocked from repeated weapon impacts. She was the ship’s tactical action officer, responsible for fighting the ship in combat, on the orders of the CO.
“TAO, firing point procedures, Hunter missiles, Master Seventy-two,” David said, his voice calm and collected. “Make tubes one through twenty ready in all respects.” He glanced to his right, checking on his Saurian XO—Lieutenant Colonel Talgat Aibek—who was hunkered down, strapped into the chair’s harness. Bathed in blue light while the ship ran at condition one, the scales atop Aibek’s head took on an even more colorful hue.
“Aye aye, sir. Tubes one through twenty ready in all respects, firing solution locked.”
“TAO, match bearings, shoot, tubes one through twenty.”
“Conn, TAO. Hunter missiles are running hot, straight and normal sir,” Ruth replied as the Lion shuddered from the firing of the large anti-ship weapons that integrated limited artificial intelligence for superior point defense avoidance.
David stared at the tactical plot on the monitor above the CO’s chair, watching as the missiles raced toward their target—a League of Sol planetary defense station. They were in orbit of New Rostov, a League border planet in the Orion arm of the Milky Way. The fusion warheads impacted against the shields of the station, causing fireballs to erupt across their surface. After eleven hits, the energy screen failed, and the rest detonated against the armored hull of the installation.
“I would love to see the look on the face of the League officer commanding the defense effort,” Aibek said, displaying a toothy grin as only a Saurian could.
David couldn’t help but snicker. “You mean, you’d love to see him pee his pants when five hundred CDF and RSN ships dropped out of wormholes, directly on top of his base?”
“Conn, TAO. New contacts, designated Master Eighty-seven through One Hundred Twenty-three. Three Alexander class battleships, with Rand class cruiser and Cobra class destroyer escorts.”
“Typical League battlegroup formation,” David said toward Aibek.
“Conn, communications. I’ve got a vidlink for you from General Becker,” First Lieutenant Robert Taylor, the communications officer, interjected to the conversation. He’d been with the ship from the beginning and was an accomplished martial artist who specialized in exotic decryption ciphers.
Becker was the Coalition Defense Force flag officer leading the invasion of League space; he flew his flag from the CSV Audacious, the largest and most powerful fleet carrier in the CDF’s inventory.
“Communications, route it to my monitor.”
“Aye aye, sir.”
A moment later, the face of Wilhelm Becker appeared above David’s head on the monitor that hung from the ceiling. “Guten nachmittag, Colonel Cohen. My compliments to your timing, as always.”
David smiled. “Well, my father always told me that being early was being on time.”
“Ja, ja. Good advice. I see the League is jumping in reinforcements. Will there be a problem pushing through to Rostov? Our timetable for dropping the Marines hasn’t changed.”
“Don’t worry, General. The Leaguers haven’t sent enough ships to challenge the invasion effectively. We’ll be there, and with time to spare.”
“Excellent, Herr Colonel. Godspeed, Becker out.”
“More confident than usual, sir?” Aibek asked.
David flashed a grin. “Since when has my mouth written checks it can’t cash?”
Ruth snickered and glanced back. “Remind me again what a check is, sir? Since you’re from the before time.”
“You’ll be over the hill soon enough, Lieutenant,” David said with a bit of a smirk. “Navigation, take us into a tighter orbit and prepare for assault pod insertion.”
“Aye aye, sir,” First Lieutenant Shelly Hammond replied; she was the Lion’s first watch navigation officer and helmsman.
Ruth, meanwhile, had turned back to her console. “Conn, TAO. League ships are withdrawing under sub-light power.”
I wish we could run them down, but Becker’s orders are quite clear. David stared forward. “TAO, anything left within our weapons range?”
“Very well, steady as she goes. Communications, give the ten-minute warning to Colonel Demood.”
“Aye aye, sir,” Taylor said.
“Ten minutes to drop,” Taylor’s cheerful voice said through the commlink inside of Lieutenant Colonel Calvin Demood’s helmet.
“Acknowledged, Lieutenant,” Calvin replied, glancing around the shuttle he and his command element had embarked upon. I’d much rather be riding down there in an assault pod myself, but those Terran Coalition Marine Corps bean counters won’t let a MEU commander take that mode of transport. MEU stood for Marine Expeditionary Unit.
“I wonder if New Rostov looks any newer than the last League planet we invaded?” Reuben Menahem, the Master Gunnery Sergeant for Calvin’s MEU, said with a smirk.
“Something tells me that none of those League planets look any different until we get well into their empire.”
“I wonder why they stand for how they’re treated?” Menahem commented. Like Calvin, he wore a suit of TCMC power armor. Unlike him, Menahem had the flag of the state of New Israel under the banner of the Terran Coalition on his right shoulder.
“Probably don’t know any better, Master Guns. I mean, think about it, they live their entire life brainwashed to slave away for the state as does everyone around them.”
“Yeah, but I’d like to think I’d resist.”
“You might until they shoot your family.”
“Good point, Colonel.”
Calvin glanced over at him, a hard look on his face. “One of the reasons I enjoy putting those damn political commissars of theirs down. Rank and file Leaguers are bad enough. Political officers are the lowest scum of the universe.”
Calvin caught the hesitation in Reuben’s eyes before he looked away. He set his jaw, memories of the past flashing briefly through his mind. Reuben probably wonders if I’m going to go off the reservation again. He’s got a right to wonder. Calvin had been attending therapy sessions privately with Doctor Ellison for over a year now and was still working through many issues associated with mental trauma from a lifetime of service to the TCMC. They’d made progress together, but he still had to wrestle with his demons.
“Miss the drop pods?” Calvin asked.
“Can’t say I do, sir. The high G impact and stress on the bones adds up over time.”
Calvin flashed a smirk. “Maybe I’m just nuts, but I long to feel the thrill again of hurtling toward a planet at twenty times the speed of sound in a tiny pod with seven of my closest friends.”
“With respect, sir, that’s not a ‘maybe’ on the nuts part.”
Several Marines within earshot laughed out loud at the two men.
Calvin quirked his mouth into a grin. “No arguments here, Master Guns.”
For the next few minutes, not much was said as the final checks were run prior to departure. Calvin found his mind wandering back to the last vidlink he’d had with his wife. Her mood, while outwardly happy, made him concerned for her overall wellbeing. The stress of wondering if I’m coming home must be unbearable at times, especially after twenty years of it.
“We’re ready to dust off, Colonel,” the pilot of the shuttle said through the commlink.
“No objections here, Warrant. Take us out.”
“Aye aye, sir!”
The shuttle jostled and weaved as it departed the protective moorings of the Lion’s hangar bay. As it quickly accelerated, the G-forces pressed all the power-armored Marines back into their seats.
“Hoorah,” Calvin said, laughing at the same time. “Now this is more like it. Leaguers to kill, civilians to liberate, and some candies to spread around if we’re lucky!”
“Do you take anything seriously, Colonel?” Menahem asked, a grin visible through his helmet.
“God, bullets hitting my armor, and my wife.”
“Can’t argue with that list.”
“Hoorah,” Calvin intoned, the Marine response to everything.
Through his command link, Calvin watched as the shuttle tipped nose down toward the surface. While the other Marines didn’t have the same interface in their helmets, he could see the sensor reports and cameras outside the craft. Something about the way the atmospheric friction turned to red-hot heat against their protective shield was fascinating. Almost like reaching out and touching a star—except we’re riding it!
Menahem prayed quietly in Hebrew, while the rest of the Marines all had their own rituals before combat. Some took out prayer beads, and others told jokes. A few sat quietly—Calvin was in that group. All united in the brother and sisterhood of war. Someday, I’m gonna quit doing this crap and go home.
New Rostov - League Border Planet
October 17th, 2462
“Commissar,” Gregory Ivanov began, his gaunt and weathered face a testament to the difficulty of life on the God-forsaken planet on which they lived. “The planetary defense system is destroyed, our orbiting fleets destroyed or retreated… please, we can’t continue to resist.”
The man crossed his arms in front of him and stared Ivanov down. “The will of the Social and Public Safety Committee, as well as Chairman Pallis, is that we fight to the last man, woman, and even child if necessary.”
Ivanov couldn’t keep the look of disgust off his face. He was the closest thing New Rostov had to a leader. Chairman of the local labor committee, it was his duty to see to the welfare of his people. I can’t even get us a working radiation screen, much less the actual necessities of life. “Surely the chairman would understand. Our garrison is barely a hundred strong.”
“I’ve given orders to open the emergency weapons cache. Everyone is being armed as we speak.”
The two men stood close to each other, inside of what amounted to the command and control operations center for their settlement and mining systems. Others were present, mostly government workers, along with a couple of sentries. Ivanov shook his head. “The Terrans will kill us all. We can’t hope to hold out against their power-armored Marines.”
“Then it is the will of the state that we die,” Vasyl Sobol, the political officer, stated.
Ivanov had actively disliked the man since he’d arrived six months ago. The prior commissar at least listened and seemed to want to help the workers. He winced. That’s why they got rid of him, you fool. “I’m not going to let you send my men, their families, or my family out to die.”
“They’re not your men,” Sobol stated, his voice suddenly quiet. “They’re tools of the state. You are a tool of the state, as is your family. I, too, am but a tool of the state.”
The small, dingy room became silent as the few others standing about stared openly at Ivanov and Sobol.
“The entire point of our socialism is for the state to take care of us, Commissar. If the League won’t protect us, then we’ve no choice but to surrender.”
Sobol’s lips curled into a grin that was sinister, but given the circumstances, almost comical. “If you try, I’ll kill you, but not before I kill your wife and children as you watch, powerless to stop me.”
One of the other workers' committee members, Fedor Markov, spoke up. He was a close, personal friend of Ivanov. “Commissar Sobol, Gregory is right. We lack the tools to fight the Coalition Defense Force. Please, can’t you get the Navy to send more ships?”
“We must make do with what the state has allocated to us, comrade. We will fight to the last man and woman,” Sobol stated. “I will give my own life to the state, just as I demand the same of you.”
Ivanov stared, mentally running down different arguments to try. Well, at least he’s not a hypocritical zealot. Maybe I can work with that.
A panicked voice from across the room interrupted them. “Chairman Ivanov! I just received a transmission from the army support base. Terran Coalition Marines in power-armor have landed and forced their way past our defenses.”
Ivanov turned to stare fiercely at the political officer. “See reason! Heavy suits? We don’t have the means to defeat one of them, much less an army.”
“We fight to the death!”
“I won’t send my family to die,” Markov said, his eyes flashing defiance. “Kill me, I don’t care. Better to die by the hand of a socialist than one of those accursed capitalist dogs.”
Time seemed to slow down as Sobol suddenly held a standard-issue League sidearm in his hand, aiming at the man’s center mass.
Ivanov’s eyes opened wide as saucers. He could almost picture Markov pitching backward, shot by the commissar. Not on my watch. He grabbed the nearest heavy object—a heavy titanium hammer—and swung it at the back of Sobol’s skull. Metal met flesh with a sickening sound, blood spraying out of the wound.
The gun fell out of his hand, and the officer pitched headfirst into the floor.
Silence reigned, men and women glanced at one another, and expressions of gratitude morphed into fear and terror.
“I had no choice,” Ivanov said, his voice low. “Him or us.”
“Chairman, what will we do?” a woman toward the back said. “The Terrans will kill us all!”
“No, not if we surrender. If nothing else, they’ll need us to work these mines. The conditions will be worse, but we’ll survive until the League Navy can rescue us.”
“Who cares who we slave for, as long as we get fed,” Markov stated, his hands shaking. “One more night I can spend with my daughters and my wife is one day I didn’t think I’d get.”
“Get on the transmitter, send a broadband transmission that we surrender, and ask for a truce to discuss terms,” Ivanov said, drawing himself up to his full height. “Tell them that the chairman of the worker's committee speaks for the entire planet.”
“Yes, comrade, it shall be done.”
Now I have to convince these Terrans not to slaughter us all as an example. In the name of Lenin, this day keeps getting worse.
“This place is a shit hole,” Calvin said as he climbed over a pile of debris from the brief engagement they’d had with League forces.
“A more colorful way of putting it, sir. But yeah,” Menahem replied, ever-present at his side.
“You’re the only Marine I’ve ever met that doesn’t cuss.”
“Heard that a few times, sir.”
Calvin snickered. “You got a point, Master Guns. I still can’t get over it. I mean, come on, in the crucible of combat, there are two truisms. One, no one in a fox hole is an atheist. Two, the inner desire to let loose with foul language is nurtured by bad guys shooting at you.”
“Perhaps, but swearing is a sin against God.”
“One of the Mitzvot, right?”
Menahem stopped and stared at him. “Since when do you know what Mitzvot are?”
Calvin shrugged in his power armor, the large gauntlets flapping together. “Well, my CO’s an Orthodox Jew, so is my senior enlisted man. Starts rubbing off after a while. Don’t worry, I’m not converting.”
Menahem laughed loudly. “I’m not sure you could find a rabbi that would convert you, Colonel.”
“Yes… I know I’m a bit rough around the edges.”
Menahem checked the number of rounds left in his battle rifle. “All of us are imperfect before God. As long as you’re getting better, that’s what counts.”
“I try, Master Guns. Long road.”
“It’s a very long road for all of us.”
“So what’s this Leaguer want?” Calvin asked.
“Your guess is as good as mine. We’ve got snipers ringing the area, just in case they try something.”
Calvin snorted. “After how fast those troops they had surrendered? We’re dealing with rear echelon soldiers, Master Guns.”
“Who can still be deadly, sir.”
Little else was said as they walked into what had to be a central plaza, if one could call it that, for the planet’s capital. With less than fifty thousand inhabitants, there just wasn’t a lot of infrastructure. Calvin grunted. I’ve seen little towns back on New Washington with more buildings and in far better repair.
A lone figure emerged from one of the buildings, dressed in threadbare clothing.
“I’ve got a clean shot,” a voice belonging to one of the snipers echoed in Calvin’s helmet commlink.
“Hold fire unless and until I give the word,” Calvin barked. He motioned the figure closer and walked forward himself. He appraised the figure from afar. I doubt they’d employ suicide bombers, but who knows with Leaguers.
Once they’d closed to within five meters, the man who’d been walking toward him stopped and held his hands up. “We wish surrender,” he said in broken English.
“Do you speak for all?” Calvin asked.
“Da, yes. I chairman of workers’ committee. Gregory Ivanov.”
“Colonel Calvin Demood, Terran Coalition Marine Corps.”
“Good meet you, Colonel.”
“You too, Ivanov. What’s the workers' committee?”
“We, how you say, represent worker in League.”
Calvin adjusted his footing, staring at the gauntness of Ivanov’s face. “When’s the last time you had a good meal?”
“Food scarce. League low on resources because of war. We make do.”
If these poor bastards only knew. “What do y’all do here?”
“Mine minerals for war. Make metal. No fight.”
“Look, Ivanov… I’m just a Marine. Pretty black and white guy. If your people will lay down their weapons, we’ll treat you with respect. But… some BS starts with a resistance movement, I won’t stand for the men and women under my command getting shot at by un-uniformed partisans. Are we clear?”
“Don’t understand. What is resistance? Partisan?”
“Let me boil it down like this. You fight us, you don’t like what happens next.”
Ivanov’s face blanched as recognition lit up in his eyes. “We will not fight. Know what happens when state is resisted.”
“Okay, buddy. I want you to pass the word to surrender every last gun, explosive, or other weapons in your settlement. Marines will be searching each house. Order your people not to interfere.”
“My commanding officer will be coming down later today to finalize discussions with you. Is there an area we can land transport ships?”
“Transport?” Ivanov asked, his tone one that belied his poor understanding of the language.
“Yeah, smaller ships that carry people and stuff.”
“Oh, yes. Outside of city, about three kilometers from here. Large field. Where cargo ships come to pick up metal.”
Calvin stuck out his hand. “We have a deal, then.”
Ivanov stared at the hand before taking it and shaking it gingerly. “Deal, yes.”
Calvin turned and motioned Menahem forward. “Master Guns, house to house search, secure all weapons. This gentleman is going to ensure the cooperation of the local population. Once that’s done, get Colonel Cohen and the rest of the circus down here.”
“Aye aye, sir.”
Menahem patted Ivanov down for weapons; finding none, he escorted the Leaguer away, leaving Calvin alone with his thoughts, staring at the utterly depressing row of buildings that passed for a city.
Twelve hours later, David stepped off a shuttle on to the surface of New Rostov. As he took in the scenery around him, he found himself shocked. I’ve seen pictures of Earth. It’s billed as a socialist utopia where no one goes without, and everyone is free to pursue their dreams. I guess when you have hundreds of worlds providing materials and labor, it’s possible for a few planets to have the easy life.
A small army of Marines were assembled, both an honor guard and active protection detail, just in case the inhabitants decided he was worth assassinating.
Calvin walked up and brought his hand up in a salute. While the tough old Marine was still wearing power armor, his helmet was absent.
He thinks the threat has passed. David returned the salute. “Colonel Demood… another fine operation by the Terran Coalition’s misguided children.”
“Ah, you got jokes today, Colonel,” Calvin replied as he snickered. “They only had three hundred actual soldiers on this ball of rock, and those lacked any fighting spirit.”
As he spoke, the deafening roar of spacecraft engines filled the air; an old CDF assault lander dropped out of the sky and landed in the same field. Glancing at it, David recognized the emblem of the Jewish Galactic Service, a charitable organization with a charter to help under-developed planets. Since the invasion of the League had begun in earnest, charity organizations from around the Terran Coalition had joined in relief efforts to the civilians left behind on former enemy-held planets.
“So you guys going to convert them after handing out some food and blankets?” Calvin cracked.
David couldn’t help but roll his eyes. “Haven’t you learned yet that Jews don’t seek converts?”
“I’ve heard that a few times. Still like busting your chops about it, sir.”
“You’re confusing us with the other guys again,” David said, pointing at other landed ships that sported the logos of the Allahu Akbar Relief Society, along with the Samaritans’ Purse and Salvation Army. As they kept on, he spotted another vessel marked with the logo of a secular humanist group. Nice to see that despite the vitriol in the political campaigning season at home, all our citizens remember what counts.
“Nah. No confusion here,” Calvin replied, his face completely straight and free of the trademark Marine smirk.
“Sitrep?” David asked.
“No resistance once the worker's committee guy ordered everyone to lay down their arms. We did find a dead political officer in their government building. They’re not talking, but it's pretty obvious someone offed him.”
“Part of me says good for them, saving us the trouble of a trial. I’ll try to push it out of my mind.”
Calvin snorted. “My views on Leaguers have—evolved—if you will. The political officers and the top Leaguers that treat their citizens like garbage… Nah, shoot ‘em all, let God sort it out.”
David slapped Calvin across the shoulders. “I’m not going to argue that one with you. I do however, want to meet the guy who surrendered the planet.”
“Figured you would, sir. Follow me. Marines, protection formation!”
Taking in the sights over a hike across a couple of kilometers to the center of what consisted of civilization on New Rostov, David found himself disgusted. The poorest of the poor live better than this on New Israel. What kind of animals treat their own citizens like waste to be recycled?
“Pretty bad, huh?” Calvin said during a quiet portion of the walk.
“You speak any Russian, sir?”
David shook his head. “No, can’t say I do. Hebrew, English, a little Spanish.”
“This Ivanov guy, he’s a bit light in his English.”
“Don’t use big words then?”
“Well, you do like them, sir.”
David laughed. “Thanks for the info there, Colonel.”
“Anytime, sir,” Calvin said, laughing himself.
They passed by several run-down buildings that had missing pieces of roof, but were brightly festooned with propaganda posters. They extolled the citizens to work harder, mine more ore, and help defeat the capitalist dogs of the Terran coalition. It's almost like some sick joke. The conditions they accuse us of forcing on the working class are the same ones they enforce at the point of a gun. David’s face blanched, and he wore a frown as they walked on.
Calvin gestured toward a building that had extra Marines around it. It also had the only fully intact roof on the block. “In here, sir.”
After he’d walked inside, it took David’s eyes a few moments to adjust from the blinding sunlight to the dimly lit interior. There were a couple of Marines present, along with a motley group of men and women, numbering at least ten. They all had on poorly fitting clothing, and at first glance, were sickly and malnourished.
One of the men stood up and took a step forward. “I am Gregory Ivanov. Chairman of Workers Committee,” he said, his accent thick. A woman also stood next to him.
“Chairman,” David said, deciding the best course of action would be to show the man respect. “I’m Colonel David Cohen, commanding officer, CSV Lion of Judah. Colonel Demood informed me that you were the one who agreed to surrender. I want to talk to you for a few minutes and see how we can help.”
Ivanov’s eyebrows went up, and he cocked his head to one side. “You wish us mine ore, yes?”
“No, Mr. Chairman. We’re not here to make you mine ore for us.”
“I not understand.”
The woman interrupted them. “Allow me, Colonel. I am Natalie Ivanov. My husband is of Russian descent, while I am not.” Her accent was far softer and harder to place.
“Of course, ma’am. Could you explain to your husband that we’ll never force him or anyone else on this planet to mine ore or perform any type of work for the Terran Coalition.”
She nodded, leaned into Ivanov’s ear, and whispered in rapid-fire Russian.
“Then vhat do you vant?” Ivanov replied, his w’s sounding like a v.
“We want to help,” David began. “Our private charities—what we call non-government organizations or NGOs—are ferrying food, medical supplies, and essential need items down from space as we speak. At the same time, military police units from the Coalition Defense Force will arrive within the next twenty-four hours to take over law-keeping duties.”
“What rules do you want us to follow?”
“Right now, I’d like you to order your citizens to remain indoors during the nighttime hours; we’ll establish a curfew and around-the-clock military patrols. Martial law will be enforced, and I need everyone to understand that Marines aren’t the police. This means if they’re attacked, they’ll use deadly force. We don’t want that.”
Ivanov looked to his wife, who again whispered into his ear.
“I see, Colonel. It will be so. No trouble from us. What you want in return?”
David shrugged. “Nothing at this time. We want to help, first and foremost.”
“League says Terran Coalition is capitalist pig empire who wants to enslave all humans.”
“To be honest, we say they’re a communist empire that wants to enslave us,” David said, cracking a smile. “I would challenge you that perhaps the things you’ve believed aren’t exactly accurate.”
Ivanov pointed to the Star of David patch on David’s shoulder. “That is same symbol on side some boxes of food. What is it?”
“It’s the religious symbol for Jews. The Star of David.”
“What is Jew?”
Calvin let out a belly laugh. “Oh no, here we go, boys and girls. Colonel’s going to preach a sermon!”
“That’s a rather loaded question,” David said, quirking his nose. “Judaism is a religious belief system, in a single, omnipotent being we call God. We worship Him in everything we do.”
“What is God?” Ivanov asked in utter bewilderment.
“The being that created the universe and everything in it.”
“But everything in universe created by random chance. Humans come from lower life form… apes.”
“Some believe we evolved from apes, yes. There’s nearly universal agreement that God created the universe through the big bang, though.”
“I don’t understand. Are Jews like Christians?”
“You know what a Christian is?”
“Evil reactionaries who fight against state,” Ivanov said. “At least, that’s what we’re told.”
“We’re similar in that we’re both religions, and we both believe in God. What we hold to be true is different, though.”
Ivanov’s eyes lit up. “Yes, now I understand. Jews are religion. League says all religions wish to die as martyrs and kill as many committed citizens as possible.”
“I hope you’ll judge us by our actions, not the words you’ve heard.”
“Why would you help us?” Natalie interjected. “We are your enemy.”
“Love those who hate you,” Calvin began.
David whipped his head around, shocked more than anything to hear a verse from the Bible coming out of the lips of the tough Marine.
“Do good to those that hate you,” Calvin continued. “Love your enemies and do good to them, hoping for nothing in return. That’s my religion… I’m a Christian.”
“I don’t understand,” she finally said.
David cleared his throat. “We don’t believe that innocent civilians should be punished because they happened to be born under the banner of the League of Sol. We come here as liberators, not conquerors. If you work with us, our government and NGOs will rebuild your planet, heal your people, ensure there’s enough food.”
“We can’t possibly repay you except through mines,” Ivanov said. “But you say no ore. What you want, then?”
“At some point, I’m sure those mines will be worked, Mr. Chairman. But not in the way they were. Safely, using only adult laborers, who are paid properly for their work and can choose how to spend that pay and ensure their families have enough.”
“You pay us to work? Capitalism.”
David cracked a smile. “Exactly, Ivanov. Capitalism.”
“We in Terran Coalition now. Must do as Terrans do.”
“No… that’s not how we do things. We believe in the right of all for self-determination.”
“Self…determination?” Ivanov asked, a look of confusion crossing his face.
David struggled to explain the concept. “It means you get to decide what you want to do in life. We don’t make the choice for you. Eventually, your world will be able to choose what it wants. You could stay with the Terran Coalition, become independent, or rejoin the League once the war is over. Your call, not ours.”
Natalie leaned in close and whispered into Ivanov’s ear yet again.
“Ah, I understand now. Thank you, Colonel. You will have our cooperation.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” David replied. “A civilian from the Terran Coalition Agency for Intergalactic Development will be on-site soon to start coordinating all relief operations. Let me know if you have any issues, and I promise I’ll do my best to help.”
“Da,” Ivanov said.
“Good. Godspeed, Mr. Chairman.” He turned to go, Calvin following him out of the building and back into the blinding sunlight.
“How close did the science types say we are to the star in this system?” Calvin asked.
“About twenty-five percent closer than Canaan. Long term exposure would cause radiation issues in time.”
“Yeah, easily stopped by a planetary shield grid.”
David snorted, glancing at the older Marine. “I don’t see one in evidence, do you?”
“Nope. But hey, it’s a worker’s utopia.”
Glancing around as his eyes again adjusted, David took another look at the buildings. He’d seen the work that the Terran Coalition Agency for Intergalactic Development had done on previously liberated worlds. Give it six months. These people will never want to go back. That’s called winning the peace.
“Colonel Cohen?” a voice from behind David asked in a hesitant voice.
David turned to see a male human in civilian clothes and ballistic armor. He was on the short side, portly with thinning hair. “Yes?”
“Douglas Leavitt, at your service.”
There was something about the man that David found off-putting, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. “What can I do for you?”
“I represent the Consortium for Progress. We’ve been assigned to provide logistical and engineering support for construction projects on New Rostov,” Leavitt said while flashing a one-hundred-watt smile.
Aha. Independent contractors the CDF’s brought in to help with rebuilding efforts. Used helicar salesmen, most of them. “That doesn’t tell me what I can do for you, Mr. Leavitt.”
The smile never faded. “We, of course, want to work hand in hand with the CDF and our Royal Saurian Navy allies. If there’s anything I can do for you, anything at all…”
That’s where I remember the name from. David narrowed his eyes. “Let’s get something straight. You have one job here. Help the people of this planet recover from decades of abuse and mistreat by their League of Sol masters. Are we clear on that?”
“I don’t understand, Colonel.”
“Allow me to help you understand. I saw the report of what your so-called Consortium pulled last month, shaking down disaffected League citizens to make more profit and up your bottom line.”
“That was a rogue—”
“Sure it was, and I’m the pope,” David said, cutting Leavitt off. “I don’t care for contractors. I care even less for contractors performing jobs that are inherently military or government in nature. One of the few contractors I respect was just transferred back to Canaan. Now I’m left dealing with your sorry lot.”
“I must protest—”
“Stow it,” David barked. “Now listen to me and listen good. If I catch you or any of your employees shaking down people here, charging for services, or accepting bribes to get to the top of the line, I’ll see to it you do hard time in a penal colony. Are we clear, mister?”
“Again, I must—”
“Are we clear?” David said, slowly enunciating each word to make his point. “The proper response is ‘Crystal, sir’.”
Leavitt’s face turned bright red, and the smile finally disappeared. “Crystal, sir.”
“Good. Dismissed.” When Leavitt made no move to walk away, David continued, “That means leave, Mister Leavitt. Now.”
After the man beat a hasty retreat, Calvin glanced at David. “A bit harsh for you, sir.”
David grunted. “I find those who prey on the weak to be the lowest of the low. They disgust me. Especially when my taxes are used to fund them.”
“Still wound a little tight?”
“I suppose so. Aren’t you? Combat every few days, or less if the League sends a fleet to mix it up? Add on to it the unpleasantness a few months back.” The thing we can’t discuss, or deal with, courtesy of General Erhart.
Calvin nodded. “Yeah, I think we’re all a bit stressed, sir. Still, if you need to talk…”
“I’ll come see you,” David said and flashed a smile. “Still talking to Doctor Ellison?”
“I am,” Calvin replied, his voice growing quiet.
“Nothing to be ashamed of.”
“Not sure I believe that, sir. I come from the school of dealing with your crap and move on.”
“I tried that. Didn’t work out so well. Every once in a while, I try it again.”
“What’s that old saw about the definition of insanity being to do the same thing over and over again?”
“And expecting different results,” David finished, laughing as he did.
“Well, I’d better be getting you back to your shuttle and let you fleet boys do your thing while we make preparations for the garrison force to arrive.”
“Sounds like a plan, Demood. Lead the way.”
Main Governmental Complex
November 1st, 2462
“Sorry I’m late, ladies and gentlemen,” President Justin Spencer said as he walked through the door to a meeting room within the Canaan governmental complex. Flanked by his ever-present bodyguards, he made his way to the head of the table.
Everyone else stood immediately. All eyes focused intently on him.
“Please, be seated,” Spencer continued, dropping into a chair and staring down the table. “Not too often I’m informed the Coalition Bureau of Investigation’s drug enforcement division has an emergency. You’ve got my attention.”
The makeup of the room struck Spencer as odd; civilian members of law enforcement and in-uniform military officers rarely shared the same space. The Terran Coalition took great pains to keep law enforcement and military actions separate.
“Mr. President, thank you for joining us, sir. The information we’re about to share with you is classified at the highest level. We quite frankly aren’t sure if any electronic means of communication were secure enough,” a woman said from halfway down the table.
Spencer took note of her brightly colored purple hijab. It reminded him of his campaign chairwoman from the last election cycle. “As I said, you’ve got my attention, Miss?”
“Rajiya Qadir, sir. Deputy assistant director, counterintelligence division, CBI.”
Spencer frowned briefly. What’s counterintelligence doing involved in a drug case?
Qadir continued. “For some time, sir, we’ve been tracking a new drug that has spread across the Terran Coalition. It’s called Orbita—”
“Orbita?” Spencer interrupted.
“Because it supposedly makes you so high, you feel like you’re in orbit, sir.”
Spencer couldn’t help but snicker. “Okay, drug dealers generate bad puns too. You wouldn’t have called me down here for something minor, so please continue.” Many of those around the table laughed softly at Spencer’s crack, but he observed concern on many faces.
“In six months, it’s gone from one corner of our space to another. CBI has had little success rolling up dealer networks. We’ve been playing whack-a-mole. Take one group down, and another pops up in its place.”
“Unless I’m mistaken, Director Qadir, that’s how most drug syndicates function, correct?”
“Yes, Mr. President. However, CBI has had enormous success in eradiating most distribution networks since the outbreak of the war. With so many CDF ships in space, drug running is too risky for most humans to engage in. Not to mention, our collective religious beliefs don’t leave much room for recreational use of narcotics. Add the tight border restrictions we have into the mix, and aliens aren’t getting drugs in either.”
“I’m aware of some religions that would disagree, but we’ll let that slide,” Spencer said with a smile.
“To make a long story short, sir, we finally got a break. Three days ago, we captured a League of Sol intelligence asset during a raid on a warehouse CBI suspected of being a clearinghouse for Orbita.”
And this explains why CDF and CBI are working together. “It’s all starting to make sense. Do you think the League is connected to drug dealers? That’s something of a stretch.”
“Not connected, sir. We think the League invented the drug and is overseeing the distribution of it throughout the Terran Coalition. There are indications it’s being pushed toward the Saurian Empire as well.”
Spencer stared at Qadir like she’d grown a second head.
“Director Qadir, why would the League of Sol engage in petty criminal activity? Even if they were distributing this stuff on a wide scale, it’s still no better than organized crime. The League’s a lot of things. The mafia, it’s not.”
A white-haired man further down the table from Qadir leaned forward. He was Gideon Yoram, director of the CBI. Spencer had appointed him the prior year. They’d served together many years prior in the CDF. “Justin, I thought it was nuts too. Hear her out.”
Spencer let his head rest on the chair. “Okay. Continue, Director.”
“Thank you, sir,” Qadir said. “It’s not just a random street drug, sir. We put our best biochemists on it, and the substance is nothing short of remarkable. Orbita is more addictive than anything we’ve ever seen, sir. The best anti-withdrawal medication and opioid receptor blockers have little to no effect on it. After one use, most humans are addicted. After two uses, ninety percent of all humans are fully addicted. The withdrawal is so bad, it causes death in twenty-five percent of cases.”
Spencer’s jaw dropped open. “Why is this the first I’m hearing about it?”
“We weren’t sure this thing was more than street level narcotics until two months ago,” Yoram interjected. “Then the weird stuff started happening. Every time we busted someone important, they ended up dead. Or the family of the perp disappeared. Or a random computer system crash wiped out vital information we’d gathered. Rajiya has been sure from the beginning this thing was a League of Sol attempt to destabilize us. It took me a while, but I’ve come around to her point of view. We assembled a team of CDF intelligence operatives, CBI special agents and support staff, and started compartmentalizing our movements.”
“Which eliminated whatever leak you had and set up the bust a few days ago?” Spencer asked.
“Exactly, sir. Now we need to act before they cover their tracks.”
“Whatever you need, you’ve got it.”
“I’m not sure you’ll say that once you hear what the team has in mind, sir,” Qadir said, flashing a smile toward him.
“Nothing surprises me these days, Director,” Spencer replied. One more problem. I swear, after nearly eight years on this job, I’m ready for retirement.
David had just settled into the first watch—the one he always tried to stand himself—on the bridge of the Lion of Judah. Several days had passed since New Rostov had surrendered, and relief efforts continued. All those tens of thousands of people worked like slaves in mines that weren’t fit for the worst war criminals in the galaxy. The League continues to find new ways to disgust me.
Taylor interrupted his thoughts. “Conn, communications. Flash traffic for you, sir. General MacIntosh.”
“Put him through to my monitor, Lieutenant.”
“Sir, the message is tagged for your eyes only.”
David glanced back. “Well, in that case, put it through to my day cabin. XO, you have the conn.”
Aibek grunted from his seat, directly next to David. “This is the XO. I have the conn.”
“Don’t get too used to it, XO,” Master Chief Rebecca Tinetariro, the ever-present senior enlisted soldier on the Lion stated. “Colonel doesn’t like giving up his chair.”
As he walked off the bridge, David smirked at Tinetariro as he went by. “Nothing quite feels as good as that big chair, Master Chief.”
It was only a few steps to his day cabin, a small space directly off the bridge that was an office with a small rack. Designed for use during a running engagement or a similar high-stress situation, it allowed him to get a few minutes of shut-eye without being ten minutes’ walk away from his station.
David sat down at his desk, pausing briefly to adjust the placement of one of his knickknacks; an inert hand grenade bolted down to a piece of wood. It had a small plaque on it that read “Complaint Department, Please Take a Number.” The pin of the grenade had a little “1” attached to it. A gift from a Master Chief many years prior, it was one of his prized possessions.
A few minutes later, MacIntosh’s unsmiling face appeared on David’s tablet.
“Good evening, Colonel Cohen.”
“General,” David replied, flashing a smile. “What can I do for you, sir?”
“First, any updates on the Rostov situation?”
“Not really, sir. It was all in my report yesterday. The civilian relief NGOs continue to work, getting food and medicine to anyone who needs it, which is the entire planet,” David said.
“Good. I’m recalling the Lion of Judah to Canaan, for new orders.”
David’s mouth dropped open and nearly rebounded off his desk. “Sir?”
“I have a problem that requires your ship and unique skills.”
“Have we performed inadequately at the front, sir?”
MacIntosh shook his head. “It’s not about you, the Lion, or her crew’s performance. I need a ship that has a Marine Expeditionary Unit on it, a flight deck, and some big guns. I could send a fleet, or I could send the one ship that inspires awe, and let’s face it, fear in those who face it in battle.”
Well, he’s right about that. “Can you explain the mission, sir?”
“Negative, Colonel. You’ll be briefed once you return to Canaan. We’re going to cover this as saying the ship is receiving some engineering upgrades. The mission is classified at the TS/SCI level. Your senior officers and yes, you too, will perform some photo opportunities around Canaan. Kiss babies, visit schools, that sort of thing. Your true purpose is to be considered top secret, code word compartmentalized. Are we clear?”
“Excellent, Colonel. I look forward to seeing you in the flesh. I want the Lion back in orbit of Canaan within four days. MacIntosh out.”
David leaned back in his chair, pondering the general’s orders. What in the name of all that’s holy could be so pressing as to pull the strongest, most powerful ship in the CDF fleet back to Canaan, and away from the sharp tip of the spear? As he stood up, he shook his head. The ways and methods of the joints chief of staff never cease to amaze me. Well, regardless, it’ll be nice to be home for a few days. I haven’t seen Canaan in over three months. He forced down anger building up within him and went back to his day.
David’s alarm buzzed the following morning at 0430 CMT—Coalition Mean Time—obnoxiously loud. He almost hit his head as he jerked awake from a deep sleep. Wiping his eyes, he got out of bed and pulled on a set of workout clothes, along with a pair of sneakers. Pausing before heading to the officers’ gym, he put his hands over his eyes and began to pray in Hebrew.
“Hear O’Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. Blessed is the name of His glorious kingdom forever and ever. I shall love the Lord my God with all my heart, with all my soul, and with all my might. Lord, bless my actions this day that I may glorify Your name and be Your instrument in everything that I do.”
The morning prayer—known as the Shema—completed, David began his day. He had called for a staff briefing at 0630 and walked into the conference room on deck with ten minutes to spare. He’d already exercised, completed his grooming, and eaten breakfast. Feeling energized, he sat down at the head of the table and smoothed out his khaki uniform top. It was the uniform of the day as opposed to the blue jumpsuits, since they were heading back to port.
Aibek was the first one through the hatch. “Good morning, Colonel. You always manage to arrive before the rest of us.”
“I’m sure I’ve said it before… my dad was always drilling the mantra ‘if you’re on time, you’re late. If you’re early, you’re on time’ into me.”
“Once or twice,” the large Saurian replied with a teeth-baring grin as he took his place next to David.
Over the next few minutes, more members of the senior staff—Ruth, Taylor, Hammond, Tinetariro, Amir, and Calvin—arrived and sat down. David found himself lost within his thoughts, staring at the holoprojecter and not paying attention to the small talk going on around him. What possible emergency could there be worth pulling the Lion off the front lines? He ran dozens of scenarios through his head. None of them good, and none made sense either.
The voice of Doctor Hayworth pulled him back into the conversation. “Good morning, Colonel Cohen. Or Shabbat Shalom as you say.”
“Only on Shabbat, Doctor,” David said, glancing up and grinning. “It's not Shabbat. If it were, I’d be in the shul.”
“Praying to the invisible man in the sky, yes, I know.”
“See, you had to take a perfectly good greeting and mess it up,” Calvin interjected. “Come on, Doc, quit while you’re ahead. We were all impressed you didn’t deliver a barb with the greeting.”
Hayworth smirked in reply and sat down toward the end of the table.
Major Elizabeth Merriweather, the overall CDF special projects director for the anti-matter reactor program, was the next in. “Sorry I’m late, sir,” she said, addressing David.
“Two minutes till, Major. You’re fine.”
She plopped into a chair next to Hayworth.
Going on two years commanding this ship, and I still don’t understand why they get along so well. David had thought for a while that maybe they were lovers. That theory had been laid to rest long ago. It seemed as if the temperamental doctor was her mentor, and she, in turn, tried to keep his behavior from being too over the top.
David glanced up to see Major Arthur Hanson, the Lion’s chief engineer, and Doctor Tural, the chief medical officer, walk through the hatch. Tural secured it behind him. And now we can begin.
He cleared his throat. “Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for joining me at such an early hour this morning. I asked you all here to relay new orders from General MacIntosh.”
“We quitting this planet-hopping nonsense and heading straight to Earth, sir?” Calvin said, a wicked grin on display.
“Negative, Colonel. The Lion of Judah is heading back to Canaan for a new assignment.”
“What?” Aibek said, nearly roaring the word. “The fight is here! Why would they pull us back? It is dishonorable.”
“I don’t know. It’s top-secret, special compartmentalized information. Those of us that need to know will be briefed before whatever it is we’re supposed to be doing. Command is going to cover our movements by having us engage in some public relations activities.”
Groans broke out across the room.
“I’ll schedule a guest lecture or two,” Hayworth said, smiling.
“That makes you happy?” Ruth asked in disbelief.
“Teaching young minds is an activity I enjoy, Lieutenant.”
Ruth smirked. “I got the distinct impression you didn’t care for young minds, Doctor.”
“After a few years being off the lecture circuit and stationed in deep space, it’s amazing what grows on you.”
“Back to business,” David said. “Where are we at on New Rostov?”
Calvin leaned forward. “Very quiet, sir. A couple of diehard anti-Terran terrorists staged an attack last night but didn’t cause any casualties. I’m ready to declare the planet pacified.”
“Interesting euphemism, Colonel,” Tural said. “By Allah, each of these so-called ‘outer worlds’ we invade is worse than the last.”
“The inhabitants work a series of mines, Colonel Cohen. Those mines contain high levels of radiation and radon gas. They lack proper projective equipment and have strict quotas. The ore is used to create fuel for League military vessels.”
“Leaguers say Earth is a paradise, and their core planets aren’t too far from it.”
“I cannot say, sir. What I can say is this place resembles hell, more than anything. I’d like to 3D print as many medical supplies as we can to send down, along with a team of doctors.”
“Isn’t Doctors without Planets onsite?”
“Yes… but they suffer from the same problems as the rest of the NGOs. Never enough funds.”
David thought back to the fury it had raised within some quarters of the Terran Coalition that relief organizations were soliciting donations to help League citizens. The state of our political discourse has grown quite shrill. Maybe I pay attention to it more now. “The saddest thing to me is looking into another person’s eyes and seeing a complete lack of hope. A void expression where they don’t care anymore.”
“Sounds like most on Rostov,” Tural said. “Missionaries are arriving soon, I understand from talking to the Imam heading up efforts for the Allu Akbar Relief Society.”
I’m not entirely sure what I think about that. Must be the Jew in me. We don’t recruit. “At least they’re providing some help. Hanson, how do you feel about a quick seventeen jumps back to Canaan?”
Hanson made a face, wrinkling his nose. “You know my thoughts on back to back Lawrence drive jumps, sir. How long do we have to complete the transit?”
“I want to be home in seventy-two hours. That should give you enough time to have a two- to three-hour stand-down between each. Acceptable?”
“Of course, sir.”
“Excellent. Prepare to withdraw our Marines as soon as it’s practical, Colonel Demood. I want us underway by 1800.”
“Aye aye, sir,” Calvin answered.
“Anything else before we adjourn?” David asked the room.
“One thing, sir,” Colonel Hassan Amir, the Lion’s CAG—Carrier Air Group, Commander—said. “Replacement pilots? I’m down nineteen.”
The ever-present reminder of the cost of war. How easy it is to forget. “I’ll put up another request up the chain to CDFPER, Amir.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“If there’s nothing more… dismissed.” David stood as he finished speaking.
The rest of the team sprang out of their chairs and exited the room, heading off, he was sure, to handle their respective duties. I wonder how Kenneth Lowe and his merry band are doing. I should drop him a fleetlink and see what they’re up. I can’t believe this, but I miss those contractors.
After a moment, David walked out of the conference room and made his way to his day cabin. Mountains of digital paperwork awaited.
Angela Dinman found herself staring like a child at the massive shuttles touching down, quickly disgorging their human cargo and flying back into the sky. She had used her press pass to get into the area of the base where orbiting crews came back to Canaan—known as Fleet Landing. There were hundreds of civilians present; almost exclusively family members, it seemed to her. Pregnant wives, proud husbands, entire multi-generational families were holding signs up to welcome home loved ones.
Since I’m not his wife yet, I had to sneak in. Yet? Whoa, careful, Angie. Yet? You’re the one that never wanted to get married. As she scolded herself mentally, the shuttle she’d been waiting for touched down. A sea of CDF personnel in crisp white uniforms spilled out, and it didn’t take her long to see David. With him being a little over two meters tall, he stuck out in a crowd.
Angie held up a small poster made of a thin, lightweight material that was programmable with different images. She’d made a simple drawing that said “Welcome Home, David” on it. It had the desired effect; he saw it and quickly walked over, a huge grin plastered on his face.
The two of them embraced, though she didn’t kiss him. So many religious rules he has to follow. By extension, so do I. “Hey, stranger. Home a bit early, aren’t you?”
“Yeah. Something like that,” David said, the grin not fading in the slightest. “Glad I am, though. If for no other reason than to see you.”
“Aww. Here for more than a couple of days?”
“I don’t know. I can’t talk about it.”
“You realize, as a reporter, I’m good at ferreting out secrets.”
“Oh, I don’t doubt your abilities. You’re welcome to test them out over dinner tonight.”
Angie laughed. “Sounds like a plan to me. What are your plans for the rest of the afternoon?”
“Well, I was thinking about getting a helicar back to my apartment, handling some errands, and checking in on my mother.”
“Want a lift in mine instead?”
David grinned again. “You mean GNN’s helicar?”
“It’s mine,” Angie insisted.
“No, it’s theirs. You get to use it. And I love the idea that it’s being used to ferry around the military. It’s the least GNN can do.”
Angie rolled her eyes at him. “You’re incorrigible. You realize that, right?”
“Guilty as charged.”
“Let’s go before I change my mind.”
She felt a tinge of excitement as he took her hand into his, and they walked off together.
David had turned in early after dinner with Angie the night before. Rising at 0430, he did his usual morning routine. First, he recited the Shema, then exercise, shower, and finally, a hearty breakfast. Walking into the Canaan main governmental complex, he pondered the rote nature of his existence. I do the same thing every single morning. One of these days, I need to change it up and do something different. The thought brought a grin to his face as he walked through a full-body scanner before confirming his retinal print for access.
Aibek, Doctor Tural, Calvin, and Taylor were close behind him through the scanners.
“I do not understand the importance humans place on controlling who comes and goes,” Aibek said.
David grinned. “For one, not every human is armed at all times.”
“That does not make sense to me either. How do you know you will be able to defend yourselves?”
“Typically, we don’t worry about random attacks in public,” Tural said as he completed his scan. “Most Terran Coalition planets are safe.”
Aibek raised a scale over his eye. “One never knows when an enemy will strike.”
“That’s why the Marines exist,” Calvin interjected. “Hoorah!”
“Colonel, you are a walking, talking recruiting poster,” Taylor called out from within the scanning booth. “Seriously, you should take that act on the road. You’re like Captain Terra or something.”
“Captain Terra?” David asked, both eyebrows raised. “What’s that?”
David smirked. “Right. Nerd patrol. Let’s go, gents. I’m not interested in being late.”
“I wonder if Kenneth works in this building. He said he was back on Canaan a while ago,” Calvin said, glancing around.
Observing a holographic projector that gave instructions for walking to different sections of the building, David did a double-take. “Did I hear right, the great enemy of nerds everywhere, Colonel Demood, has a spare thought for a defense contractor?”
“Hey now, he was okay… for a slimy defense contractor anyways.”
“Yeah, he was,” David said with a sigh. “Kind of miss him. I feel like more stuff breaks without his team around. Okay, I think I know where we’re going.”
David set off down a corridor, the rest of them following close behind. After fifteen minutes of navigating countless hallways, a few cubicle farms, and tightly packed offices, they found the executive conference rooms. What immediately struck him as odd was the presence of numerous plainclothes protection agents, easily identifiable due to the earpieces and specialized weapons they carried. Must be some big-time brass in attendance for this briefing.
After being checked—again—by the security detail, they walked into an expansive room with a mahogany conference table and a couple of dozen chairs. David stiffened and brought himself to attention as soon as he saw President Spencer seated next to MacIntosh and a few civilians he didn’t recognize.
“At ease, Colonel Cohen,” Spencer said, standing and extending his arm out.
David quickly closed the distance and shook the president’s hand warmly. “Good to see you, sir.”
“Likewise. Andrew tells me the Lion of Judah has been cutting through League-held planets like a hot knife through butter.”
“Just doing our job, sir. The Lion has an incredible team of talented officers, enlisted personnel, and a few civilians to keep it running in top shape.”
“Keep up the good work in that case, Colonel.”
David flashed a smile as Spencer moved off, taking the cue to sit down. He noted the seat next to MacIntosh was empty. I suppose it’s somewhat presumptuous to sit next to a four-star, but… stranger in a strange land and all that.
“Moving up in the world or something, Colonel?” MacIntosh whispered as David pulled the chair out next to him.
“No, sir. Just wanted to be next to a friendly face.”
MacIntosh snickered. “Cute. Sorry to pull you back from the front lines. This is worth our time, I assure you.”
“Is there anything you don’t know about, sir?”
“Besides what the pearly gates look like, no,” MacIntosh replied as a broad grin spread across his face.
David remained quiet as the room filled up, taking the measure of those who entered. A mix of civilians in business attire, CDF officers, some of which were clearly from intelligence, judging by the ribbons and insignia on their uniforms. Don’t typically see so many civilians at military briefing sessions. That’s mighty odd. I wonder what they’re up to?
Toward the end of the stream of people, a familiar face strode into the room—Colonel Robert Sinclair, the CDF intelligence officer responsible for analysis and prediction on the CSV Oxford. As he flashed a smile toward David, Sinclair took a seat across the table.
“Good to see you, Cohen.”
“Likewise, Sinclair. Still doing God’s work?”
“Always. In God we trust; all others we monitor.”
David chuckled, as did several others within earshot. I’ll always be amused by that motto.
Spencer appeared, walking back through the door with a bodyguard, and immediately, everyone sprang to their feet. “Please be seated, ladies and gentlemen,” he said as he sat in his chair. Once the room had settled down, he continued. “Thank you all for coming on short notice, some from very far away. We have a situation to deal with. Before we begin, I want to impress upon everyone that I will not tolerate agency politics, interdepartmental competition, or any impediments to eradicating the threat you’re about to be briefed on. Are we clear?”
“Crystal, sir,” MacIntosh said.
“Yes, sir,” a white-haired man directly across from MacIntosh stated.
David recognized the face but couldn’t quite place it.
“Good. Then let’s get started.”
The white-haired man leaned forward and glanced up and down the table. “Thank you, Mr. President. Some of you are aware of our subject matter today, but for those who are not, I’ll give you a brief overview. Some time ago, a new and highly addictive narcotic named Orbita was introduced to the Terran Coalition. It’s been spreading across our space, and recent revelations have brought the issue into sharp relief.”
That’s Gideon Yoram. Director of the Coalition Bureau of Investigation, David realized with a start. “Orbita?”
“Colonel, every joke that can be made has already been made,” Yoram said, his voice testy. “Moving on. Deputy Assistant Director Rajiya Qadir with our counterintelligence division will take it from here.”
Qadir stood up. “Lights, please.”
David shifted his gaze to her, his curiosity piqued. The lights dimmed, and a holoprojected image filled the front of the room.
“As Director Yoram said, we’ve been tracking this for some time. A few days ago, we broke open the case with the capture of a League intelligence officer.”
Leaguers pushing drugs? That’s new.
“After sustained questioning, we persuaded him to reveal a few pieces of information.”
“Is that a nice way of saying you used enhanced interrogation techniques or truth serums on the captured operative?” David asked.
“I’m sorry, you are?”
“Colonel David Cohen.”
“Ah. We didn’t torture him, Colonel,” Qadir replied, her eyes flashing. “Enhanced techniques, as you put it, are authorized under the League of Sol Special War Powers Act of 2553.”
“Not debating the legality, nor am I getting into the morality of what you did to this guy,” David said tightly. “However, information obtained using those methods is less reliable in my experience.”
Qadir stopped and turned toward David fully. “Not in mine.” She rotated back toward the front of the room. “Now, the information we’ve received so far has been verified by SIGINT from the Oxford.”
SIGNIT… Signals intelligence. Spooks and acronyms. Almost as bad as the military with naming stuff.
“The reason we’ve been unable to roll up the distribution network for this drug is because it’s backed by the League of Sol. They have intelligence officers involved throughout the operation and are directing its movement. We also believe the League invented, and perhaps manufactures the substance as well.”
“Seems out of character for the League,” Sinclair interjected. “I’m missing the why.”
“I believe they’re attempting to destabilize us from within,” Qadir replied. “This drug is being targeted specifically at our teenage and young adult population. A detailed medical study suggests that it will kill anyone who takes it regularly within a year.”
“A year?” David asked, incredulously.
“Yes. Have you ever heard a criminal organization that kills off its user base?”
“It does seem a bit counter-intuitive,” MacIntosh said. “That’s one reason why we believe the intel is legitimate.”
Qadir shifted the holoprojection to a map of the local star cluster. “There’s a very narrow window of time to capture the next rung up the ladder. Anyone recognize this system?”
The view zoomed in a small orange star, with one planet in the goldilocks zone—just barely.
“Gilead?” David asked.
Qadir flashed what could have been considered a smile at him. “Correct, Colonel. Somewhat ironic considering the planet’s reputation. But it makes sense. Neutral world, close to Terran Coalition space. Limited laws on narcotics and recreational drug use, libertarian governmental structure. Add in an unsophisticated national police force hamstrung by limitations on surveillance, and you have a hotbed of organized crime.”
There’s a reason the place is known as a planet to have a good time on for shore leave. What’s the line… what you do on Gilead remains on Gilead? Something like that.
“That’s why you’re here, Colonel,” Spencer said, causing everyone to look in his direction. “After extensive debate, we think the Lion of Judah is uniquely suited to investigate covertly.”
David leaned forward and glanced around MacIntosh. “Sir, the Lion is about the least covert asset in the Coalition Defense Force.”
“Perhaps. It also has everything we need for a successful mission. I believe Andrew has already told you that the combination of battleship, planetary assault capability, and fast mover space assets is just what the doctor ordered. Officially, you’re making a port call and flying the flag. Unofficially, you will meet with a top government official on Gilead, Brandon Nelson. Between him and a few intelligence assets, you will find the manufacturing center for this drug, capture or kill those involved, and get us the next rung up in the conspiracy.”
“Mr. President, I realize this mission is of vital importance. I must respectfully counter by saying that the Lion’s place is at the front. We have civilian agencies for dealing with law enforcement matters.”
MacIntosh turned to David, a look on his face that had a clear meaning: Shut up now.
“I respect your opinion, Colonel,” Spencer replied. “General Becker was most vocal. I overruled him. Simply put, I believe successfully suppressing this drug before it can take root is of vital importance. I want the best people in this nation on it. So you and your ship are up.”
I’d better quit while I’m ahead. “Yes, sir.”
“Good. Director Qadir is going with you as a liaison with CBI. I want you underway by 0800 CMT tomorrow morning. Clear?”
“Good hunting, and Godspeed, Colonel. Meeting adjourned, everyone.”
David sprang to his feet along with the rest of the room. After his bodyguards whisked him away, everyone else cleared out quickly.
MacIntosh cleared his throat. “Going to have your hands full on this one, Colonel.”
“I sense that too, sir.”
“The mixing military and law enforcement functions isn’t something I like to see. I’ll allow it’s warranted by the League’s involvement here.”
David frowned. “As long as it doesn’t creep forward to using the military on Terran Coalition planets to go after criminals.”
“Give Spencer a bit more credit than that.”
“It’s not him I worry about. What if the next president doesn’t share Spencer’s sense of honor? All we have to do to erode our freedoms is open the door.”
“What’s the best way you and I can prevent that from happening, Colonel?”
“Ensure this mission is a success, capture the League operatives and their cartel lackeys, and put Orbita into the ground for good.”
MacIntosh snickered. “More bad puns.”
“The only type of pun is a bad pun, sir,” David said with a grin. “What do you know about Director Qadir?”
“Talked to her a few times about this. Determined, tough, intelligent. Don’t get on her bad side.”
“Got it, sir.”
“You have a few press appearances tomorrow as cover.”
David closed his eyes and suppressed the desire to groan. “Holo opportunities?”
“Visiting an elementary school’s career day.”
“Could be worse,” David replied dryly. “Sooner I get that done, the sooner I can get on mission. I won’t let you down, sir.”
MacIntosh put his hand on David’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze. “I know you won’t. Never have. Good luck out there, son.”
“Thank you, sir.”
After taking his leave of MacIntosh, David made his way out of the conference room to find Calvin, Taylor, Aibek, and Doctor Tural waiting for him.
“Now the Leaguers are pushing pills?” Calvin said, not even bothering with hello. “Another reason to put ‘em down with extreme prejudice.”
David shrugged. “We’ve got plenty of reasons to defeat the League. They’ve moved on to asymmetric warfare.”
“I’ve requested the medical files on this ‘Orbita’ substance,” Tural interjected. “I will make my own study of it. Perhaps Allah will guide my hands to add something toward a cure.”
“Good idea, Doctor,” David said. “I’ve got a photo-op to handle before I return to the Lion. I’ll get everyone’s PR assignments for tomorrow out of the way, then we can go do our real jobs.”
The primary school had prepared for David’s arrival like he was visiting royalty. The display made him feel uneasy, which translated into nervousness as he walked through the front doors, escorted by the principal and all manner of reporters. I could do without the media campaign. My job is to drive ships and fight the League. Teaching 5th graders, not so much.
“Thank you so much for coming down today, Colonel,” the principal, a short, balding man that appeared to be middle-aged, said. “It’s a real treat for our children to meet an honest-to-God, bona fide hero.”
David couldn’t keep the grimace off his face. “I prefer to not think of myself as a hero, Mr. McCaughey.”
“Of course, Colonel Cohen,” he said, appearing chastised.
“What’s on the agenda today?”
McCaughey gestured down the main hallway of the school. “Mrs. Rice’s class is expecting you first as we kick off our career week. We have you in four other classrooms before noon. Then, if you’re willing, there will be a lunch reception to honor the Lion of Judah.”
“What grade is her class?” David asked.
David flashed a smile. “Lead the way.” RUMINT was right on the money, as usual.
Floating holocameras captured the scene as David strode down the hall in his khaki uniform, every last ribbon, insignia, and badge worn, along with an array of medals. I still hate dressing up, even after all these years. The principal opened a door marked “5th Grade Homeroom – Mrs. Rice” and held it for him.
“Good morning, Colonel Cohen!” a woman inside the classroom announced, a soft smile evident on her lips.
“Mrs. Rice, I presume?”
“Guilty as charged, sir. Elaine Rice, fifth-grade teacher for twenty-three years now.”
David smiled. “Wow, that’s a long time to teach. More years than I’ve been in the service. Thank you for having me.”
“We all have our callings in life,” she said, smiling. “This is my class.” She gestured toward fifteen youngsters, seated at small desks with integrated holoprojectors. Each student had a tablet lying out, and they all stared at him. Their eyes were as big as saucers, while some of them excitedly whispered and pointed. They came in all shapes and sizes; a young boy wore a yarmulke—a Jewish religious head covering—while one of the girls had an Islamic style headscarf draped over her hair.
I’ve seen that look before. The one someone gives me when they think I’m larger than life. “Good morning, class.”
“Good morning, Colonel Cohen!” the students belted out.
“We’re just getting started for the day,” Rice explained. “Would you care to lead us in the morning prayer?”
“I’d be honored to,” David said.
“Class, did you know that Colonel Cohen once studied to be a rabbi?”
David glanced at her and grinned. “Still do, ma’am. One day, after the war is over.”
“My mother says the war will never end,” a girl with pigtails in the front row said.
“Oh? Why does she say that?”
“Because the big corporations and the military want to profit off our suffering.”
It was a challenge for David to check the dirty look that wanted to invade his face. She’s not even eleven. Clearly just parroting her parents, but still. Why would someone think that? “I would respectfully disagree, young lady. The League is worse than any evil I’ve ever seen. Without the Coalition Defense Force to protect us, they’d overrun our planets. I don’t think you or anyone else would like to see that.”
A boy to her side turned and faced her. “Yeah, well my dad says you’re an idiot for believing that.”
Rice rapped her ruler on the teacher's table. “Class! Is this how we show respect to our elders?”
“No, Mrs. Rice!” the students said unevenly with sidelong looks between them.
“Seems like we do need this prayer,” David said dryly. “Shall we, children?”
The group of kids nodded, all smiles. Seeing them brought back memories from his own childhood of attending school and hanging out with his friends. David, though, had gone to a private Hebrew academy specifically for Orthodox Jews, and not the public education system run by the Terran Coalition and its member worlds.
David bowed his head, closed his eyes, and began to pray, choosing English over Hebrew so all the children could understand him. “Lord, we thank You today for the day that You have made. Remember us today, bless us and bless our attempts to gain understanding of the universe that You created. Bless these children as they learn and grow. Help us to remember the Lord is the Maker of heaven and earth. He is our Guardian, and in the Lord we will trust. Protect our soldiers and Marines in harm’s way, and if it is Your will, guide them safely home. Amen.”
Rice beamed and stood at the front of the class. “Children, please stand for the pledge of allegiance. Colonel, would you mind?”
“Not at all.” David turned toward the flag of the Terran Coalition; it rested on a standing flag pole in the back of the room. He braced to attention and brought his hand up to his brow in salute. “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the Terran Coalition and to the republic for which it stands. Many nations, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” His hand snapped down to the side of his body, an action he had executed tens of thousands of times throughout his career. He smiled as chills spread across the back of his neck, and his soul stirred. There’s something about those words. The ideals that they represent will always be worth fighting for.
The class had recited the pledge along with him. Turning back to the class, he saw a sea of smiling faces.
“Thank you so much, Colonel Cohen,” Rice said.
“Pleasure’s all mine, ma’am. Thank you for having me.”
One of the children in the back raised her hand.
David pointed and smiled. “Yes?”
“Do the Leaguers run as soon as they see the Lion of Judah coming?”
“They do once we start shooting at them, little lady,” David said, his tone indicating his amusement. He began to turn to go, then decided against it, pivoting back toward the class. “Children, there’s something important I believe you should know. Perhaps your parents have said something like this to you. My own father instilled it in me. There are things worth fighting for. Our beliefs, freedoms, way of life, our families, and planets. They’re important. All of us a little bit different. Some are Jews like me, some Christian, some Muslim, Sikh, and all manner of other religions, including none at all. We believe different things, but we unite around one flag and a common set of ideals. As you grow up and decide what you want to be when you grow up, consider a life of service to the Terran Coalition through the Coalition Defense Force. A more noble brother and sisterhood you won’t find, and you’ll never have the problem of wondering if your life makes a difference in this galaxy.”
That was probably close to what someone of differing political opinion would consider propaganda. Screw them. I’m proud of my service, and the men and women I serve with. They asked me here for career day, and that’s what I’ll talk about.
“Thank you, Colonel,” Rice said, smiling.
One fan, at least. “I think I’m on to the next classroom, ma’am. Study hard today, children!”
SSI Space Drydock Alpha Six
In Orbit of Churchill
November 2nd, 2462
The last six months have been quite kind to me, Kenneth Lowe considered as he flipped through a project schedule. The contract to provide installation support to the Lion of Judah had completed its run, and the CDF had elected to shift to only military personnel providing engineering expertise. Fun while it lasted, but that’s not my world. Cost, schedule, and performance are. About time for me to settle down and stop playing soldier.
The door to his office swung open, and in came Harold Billings, one of his team leads he’d nicknamed “Master Chief” many years before.
“Hey, boss,” Billings said. “Not bothering you, am I?”
“Not at all, Harold. Have a seat.”
“I completed my rounds. We’re still behind schedule.”
Kenneth groaned and laid his head back on the chair he was seated in. “Not what I wanted to hear, Master Chief.”
“It’s the reactor guys. They’re slow as molasses.”
“Probably getting time and materials by the hour. No reason to, you know, get the work done before the war ends.”
Kenneth’s latest project was retrofitting two hundred and fifty mothballed frigates, destroyers, and cruisers that dated back to the first battle of Canaan, and in some cases to the Saurian-Terran Coalition war. We’ve been winning, but the League’s extracting its pound of flesh. Still, I’d rather have winners’ problems.
“I don’t know, sir,” Billings said as he snickered. “But they’re taking enough time to build entirely new ships.”
“If it weren’t so difficult to build things in zero-G, we’d probably be focused solely on new shipbuilding. It is, though. Hence we get the fun task of making cutting-edge technology work on a platform built forty years ago.”
“Forty years if we’re lucky. There’re a few Galahad class destroyers in the mix… those date back sixty-plus years.”
“Yeah, and for every generation of technologies boasts about making things forward and backward compatible—”
“It never is, because nerds over-engineer everything,” Billings cut in and finished.
“Hey, don’t crack on nerds. I know for a fact you show up to the game nights our drafting team sponsors.”
Billings grinned broadly. “Might even bring some miniatures. But I’ll never tell, boss.”
“Have you seen Joshua this morning?”
“Nah, not yet anyway.”
“I need to track him down to review a monthly report. Why did I get out of doing real work to push paper?”
“Supposedly, we get promoted to our highest level of incompetence, sir.”
Kenneth rolled his eyes. “I miss our time on the Lion of Judah.”
“Me too, boss. Real special, getting to be out there with the fleet. Do you think we could get reassigned?”
“I thought your wife was adamantly opposed to fieldwork.”
“Not an issue anymore. She filed for divorce a couple of weeks ago.”
Kenneth’s jaw nearly hit the top of his desk. “You didn’t say anything.”
“Been trying to deal with it in my own way.”
“I’m sorry, Harold.”
“Long time in coming. I’ve just got to keep going for the sake of my kids.”
“Your sons still doing well in college?”
“That they are. Both are saying they’ll go to OCS and outrank their old man.”
“No officer outranks the Master Chief,” Kenneth replied with a chuckle.
“A sentiment I can get behind,” Billings said, pulling his small tablet device free and setting it down on the desk. “Got some time to review cost and schedule on refit line item six?”
“Absolutely. Show me what you’ve got.” A ghant chart flashed onto the screen, and Kenneth began to read it. Another day, another report. Maybe I should try going on a date. That’d require me to ask a woman out. A hobby maybe? Something besides work. I’ll get on it after my shift. Yeah, right.
The Lion of Judah glided out of its artificial wormhole above the planet Gilead, a good thousand lightyears away from Canaan. As the dazzling display of colors dissipated behind it, the mighty warship pressed on. On the bridge, David occupied the CO’s chair, strapped into the combat harness, just in case.
“Conn, TAO,” Ruth began. “LIDAR sensor array online, no hostile contacts.”
David felt a twinge a fear during the few seconds between emergence from the wormhole, getting a reading on what was around them in space. Some things never change. “Navigation, put us into high orbit over the planet.”
“Aye aye, sir,” Hammond said.
“Communications, alert Gilead control of our arrival.”
“Aye aye, sir,” Taylor replied. “I just received a text-only transmission for your eyes only, sir.”
“Send it to my tablet, Lieutenant.”
“Aye aye, sir.”
David glanced around the bridge; only a couple of them knew what was really going on. The cover story for the ship at large was they were performing a port call, which had led to grumbling from the enlisted personnel who wanted to be out taking the fight to the League. Can’t blame them for the sentiment. “I’ll be in my day cabin. Senior staff briefing in two hours. XO, you have the conn.”
“This is Colonel Aibek, I have the conn.”
Arthur Hanson trudged out of his quarters, having gone and changed into a more presentable uniform. Eight hours on duty in the engineering spaces typically left him in need of a bath and new clothes—today was no exception. Even a two-minute space shower feels good after crawling around inside tubes, getting hot and sweaty. Making his way to the gravlift, and on up to deck one, he walked into the conference room with a few minutes to spare, finding David, Aibek, Tural, Ruth, Hammond, Calvin, and Amir already present. Another man he hadn’t seen in a while, Captain Rajneesh Singh—the commander of the Lion’s embarked special operations unit—was also in the room.
“Afternoon, everyone,” Hanson said.
“Have a seat, Major,” David replied. “We’re only waiting for a couple more.”
As the officers made idle chitchat, a striking woman walked through the hatch, wearing civilian attire and a bright purple hijab. He didn’t recognize her and automatically assumed she was with the Coalition Intelligence Service.
“Director Qadir, greetings,” David said as he gestured to one of the empty chairs. “Please, take a seat. We’re just waiting for the Master Chief.”
They didn’t wait long. Tinetariro strode in a few seconds later. She was never late to anything. “Master Chief Tinetariro reports as ordered, sir.”
“At ease, Master Chief. Have a seat.”
Right behind her was Doctor Benjamin Hayworth, the civilian consultant who’d designed the Lion’s anti-matter reactor system. “Greetings.”
Hanson could feel David’s confusion, followed by annoyance. Colonel’s never been good at the poker face.
“I don’t recall inviting you to this briefing, Doctor.”
“As the smartest scientific mind on this ship, I thought you could benefit from my intellect in dealing with your drug problem.”
David barely avoided rolling his eyes. “I’m not going to ask how you found out. Sit.”
Hayworth flashed a dazzling smile. “Of course, Colonel,” he said in a tone that was close to mocking.
“Now we’re all here… allow me to introduce Deputy Assistant Director, Rajiya Qadir. She’s with the counterintelligence division of the CBI.”
Qadir scanned the room, her lips unmoving.
She’s not CIS, then. “Do we have another mole?” Hanson blurted out.
“No, Major. At least, not that we’re aware of. Director Qadir is here to investigate League of Sol drug smuggling activities.”
“Drug smuggling? By Leaguers?” Ruth asked incredulously.
“The infidels are attempting to destabilize the Terran Coalition from within,” Qadir interjected. “Thank you for the introduction, Colonel.”
“The Lion of Judah will be covertly investigating the situation under cover of a port visit. The crew will be granted limited liberty, as would be customary.”
Tinetariro’s face blanched and contorted. “Sir, I would strongly recommend we keep a very tight leash on the enlisted personnel. Gilead has a… reputation.”
David couldn’t help but grin from ear to ear. “I’ve well aware of its reputation, Master Chief. Pass the word to the crew, anyone caught by Gilead shore patrol and returned to the Lion will face two days of confinement in the brig. Serious cases will be confined for three days, on a bread and water diet.”
“Does that apply to Marines too?” Calvin asked.
“You bet your commission it does, Colonel.”
“Okay. I may restrict the MEU to the ship, then. Marines plus a planet rife with alcohol, gambling, and attractive ladies might be a bad combination.”
“You don’t say,” Ruth said with a snicker.
“Now,” David said, steering the conversation yet again. “There is the matter of our landing party. Director Qadir and I have a meeting this afternoon with members of Gilead’s security services and government. Usually, when I’m gone, Colonel Aibek is in charge. But not this time.”
Aibek glanced around the room, his scales flushing. “Sauria has reported instances of this ‘Orbita’ substance appearing on our streets, despite the obvious dishonor it brings to those who would use it.”
“Orbita?” Hammond asked. “Seriously?”
“Supposedly, it makes you feel like you’re in orbit,” David replied with a noticeable eye roll. “I think they need a better marketing team.”
“So who’s in charge then, skipper?” Hanson asked. Please don’t say me.
David flashed a grin. “Well, it just so happens I decided it was your turn in the big chair, Major.”
Oh, crap. “Uh, thanks… I think, sir.”
“What’s the matter, Hanson? It’s a milk run,” Calvin said with a snort.
Hanson felt his face redden at the jibe. “Looking forward to it, sir.”
“Good,” David said. “Now… Doctor Tural, have you made any progress with reviewing the research to date on the drug?”
“It’s a fascinating substance, Colonel. I studied the CBI files at length and hoped we could obtain samples during this mission to study. The drug appears to heighten the senses and give the user access to higher levels of brainpower, if you will. If you took this drug, you would sense euphoria and extreme intelligence. In a word, it’s a marvel. The downsides include paranoia, brain damage, and in time, the entire central nervous system of the human body collapses from its side effects.”
“Disgusting. The Leaguers have outdone themselves this time.”
Aibek glanced at David. “I completely agree, sir.”
“Has anyone considered that if we could reverse engineer the substance and remove the side effects, it could be a net positive for mankind?” Hayworth asked, focusing the entire room on him.
“That’s a joke, right, doc?” Hanson asked.
Hayworth let the use of the diminutive pass. “No, I see validity in further research.”
“I don’t,” David said with finality. “We don’t artificially enhance our bodies. That’s a bedrock Terran Coalition principle. It’s a road to perdition.”
“Whatever,” Hayworth replied.
David glanced at Hayworth, then back around the room. “Okay. You all know I detest long meetings, so let’s get back to our duties. I’ll see those of you joining me with Director Qadir at 1300 hours in the VIP shuttle bay. Dismissed, except for Hanson.”
Those assembled stood and filed out, leaving Hanson and David alone. “What can I do for you, sir?”
“I was surprised by your lack of enthusiasm for the big chair. Something going on?”
“No, sir… I just, well, I haven’t thought of myself as command material. I mean, I have to take a space shower before I come to your meetings because of how dirty my uniform gets down in the engineering spaces.”
David cracked a grin. “You’ve been doing engineering for a long time, Arthur. I think it’s time to broaden your horizons. If you don’t like it, fine, but at least try the CO’s chair on for size. I’ve noted you’re a good leader from what I’ve heard from the engineering team. Even Hayworth is a fan.”
“I appreciate it… but I’m a wrench monkey and a nerd. Command was never in my career path.”
“Being an officer in the CDF wasn’t in mine either,” David said dryly.
“Just promise me you’ll consider it?”
“Good. Carry on, Major. Don’t scratch the paint. I hate it when that happens.”
Hanson felt himself turn red again, despite the apparent joke. “Aye aye, sir.” Taking his leave and walking toward the gravlift, many thoughts went through his mind. I don’t want command because I don’t want to be responsible for who lives and who dies. I’ve seen what it does to the colonel. Not something I have a desire for.
Coalition Intelligence Service Office
Terran Coalition Embassy - Gilead
November 3rd, 2462
Another day, another report, another operation. So was Miranda Eldred’s thought process as she logged in to her slate at her desk within the dark confines of the CIS annex. Her team was composed entirely of covered operatives with inventive titles such as cultural exchange officer and inter-species assistance agent, but what they did was an open secret. She was one of the few non-covered operatives present on Gilead. In CIS parlance, this meant if she were captured, she’d be disavowed.
“Ma’am?” a young analyst asked hesitantly as he stuck his head into her office.
“Drone feeds show the Lion of Judah’s contingent landed and being picked up by a government helicar convoy.”
“Cohen and Qadir?”
“Yes, ma’am, along with a few other low-ranking officers from the ship.”
“Good. Keep me informed.”
The analyst disappeared back into the room that lay beyond her office, a labyrinth of cubes and workstations.
She’d been working the Orbita case for months, slowly building up information and recruiting sources, only to see them killed within days or weeks after turning. Gilead has more leaks than a broken tub. Her train of thought was broken by a continuous beeping. She quickly engaged her office door lock and blacked out the windows using a secure code for Top-Secret, special compartmentalized information and code word she knew no one else in the annex had access to. Using her index finger to unlock the third drawer down on her desk, the source of the noise—a small black commlink—vibrated and clanked around. She picked it up and placed it against her ear.
“This is Z,” a garbled female voice on the other end said.
“We’re not supposed to talk for another three days.”
“I can’t take this anymore. He’s going to find out, then he’ll kill my family and me.”
Eldred forced herself to stay calm and project that calmness across the line. “Listen to me, I won’t let him do that. No one knows but me. You’re not in our systems, anywhere. Not on this planet, not back on Canaan.”
“Feldt knows everything!” The woman was on the verge of hysterics.
“Z, what’s going on? Why are you panicked?”
“He’s all freaked out about some ship from the Coalition Defense Force being here. Your flagship. He believes there’s a traitor in our ranks.”
Damnit. “Where are you now?”
“The main production facility.”
“Okay. If they start a lie detection sweep, call me. I’ll come to get you.”
“But you said I had to provide the information before you’d get me out.”
“I still want the information, Z.”
“All I have right now is the location and launch point of the next freighter with Orbita on it. I also have its IFF code, and I’m going to tag it as you instructed.”
“It’s a good start,” Eldred said, trying for a soothing tone.
“Is it enough?”
“I need at a minimum the name of the next level down from Feldt.”
There was a long pause on the line. “I’ll try.”
“Good. Now we can’t talk long.”
“What you told me when we met. That God puts us in a bad situation so we can help others and follow his plan… do you believe it?”
Eldred was silent, thinking back to when she recruited the woman and used her Catholic faith as one of the keys to the lock that governed her soul. “Yes, I do.”
“Just keep up your end of the bargain.”
“I will, Z. I promise.”
The line cut off, leaving Eldred alone. She let the commlink drop from her ear and placed it back in the drawer before locking it away. I’m breaking ten different regulations. The biggest one? Personal involvement with a source. She’d been an intelligence officer for over ten years. It wasn’t a business for the meek or for those without strong stomachs. But a promise is a promise. Especially one that I invoke God’s name in. If He’s up there, it’s the one thing that would damn me to hell.
Humans and aliens, all are flawed and fallible. Loyalty is nothing but a myth. Such was Edward Feldt’s mantra. An imposing man who, while short in stature at only one point eight meters, had the face of a killer. He ruled with an absolute iron fist; it was said anyone who dared to challenge him would not only see themselves killed but also their entire families. The door to his office swung open, and one of his lieutenants brought in the recruit he’d been expecting.
“Jacob Aquino?” Feldt asked mildly.
“Yes, sir,” the new arrival replied. He had beads of sweat spreading across his forehead—even though the temperature in the office was quite comfortable, even cold.
“Do you know who I am?”
“You are el jefe, Señor Feldt.”
“El Jefe.” Feldt smirked. “I like that. You have proven yourself over the last few months, Jacob. You see, I handpick every member of my organization.”
Feldt stood up from the desk and walked around to the other side. He took Aquino’s right hand in both of his. “It is good you have progressed this far with us. I offer many benefits—good pay for honest work, loyalty to anyone who works for me. In return, I demand only one thing: that you place my needs above your own. Do you understand?”
“I’m not sure you do,” Feldt said as he snapped his fingers. “What happens to those who disobey my orders?”
“It is said you kill them, sir.”
“Depending on how bad the offense is, you kill members of their family too.”
“I’ll kill your entire family if you cross me, Jacob,” Feldt said without a trace of emotion or mirth, his face a mask of complete calm. “My word is like that of God, if such a creature existed. For you? I am now your God. You will do what I tell you, when I tell, how I tell you. Not that you’re worth my time to order around, the word of those above you in my organization is the same as my own.”
“Yes, sir. I understand. I will not fail you.”
He smiled thinly. This idiot doesn’t realize he will eventually fail me, because everyone does. Only a select few have managed not to over the last ten years. Feldt had been a criminal since his teenage years; he treated crime like a business. It paid off. First, he was a low-level dealer, then he killed his boss and took over his territory, and before too long, he controlled a significant stake of the illicit drug trade. Politicians, police, judges, attorneys; all were on his payroll.
“Many have said this, Jacob. Many, so many have failed to live up to their end of the deal. What is a man like me to do? I have tried for years to develop a system to ensure it’s easy for those who work for me to follow the rules. So will begin your first test. Have a seat,” Feldt said as he gestured to one of the chairs in front of the large, ornate desk.
Aquino did as he was told and gently sat himself down, taking care not to grate the chair on the hardwood flooring.
A point in his favor; he respects my office. “Direct your attention to the monitor over there.”
The large monitor attached to the wall, which was at least a meter and a half wide, snapped on. There were numerous separate video feeds, each of a different person.
Aquino’s jaw dropped, and a look of horror crossed over his face.
“Ah, you recognize these people?”
“They are my family and closest friends.”
“That’s right, Jacob. I need you to understand how important following my orders is. I need you to understand how important loyalty is.”
“I do… I do, señor.”
Feldt laughed. “Perhaps. I want you to pick one of these people.”
Feldt shrugged. “For me to make an example out of.”
Aquino blanched, his body visibly shaking.
Fear… such a disgusting emotion. “If you do not choose, I will kill you… and everyone on these screens.” Feldt’s voice was calm, cool, and collected. It was the same voice he used to order his toast and coffee each morning.
“Señor, please. Please, I have been loyal. I will always be loyal to you.”
Aquino glanced from feed to feed, back at Feldt, then at the door.
Working through his options, trying to determine if he can run. Classic fight or flight response.
A choice apparently made, Aquino took a step forward and pointed to a grainy video of an older woman. “Her.”
“Why?” Feldt asked.
“Because she has lived a long, happy life.”
“Interesting,” Feldt replied. “I’m fascinated by how each prospective candidate to join my organization comes to different conclusions on who to pick. Yours shows… pragmatism. I like that. Benoit, see that Jacob comes in with more rank than a normal recruit.”
“Of course, sir.”
Feldt turned around and pressed a button on the screen of the tablet lying on his desk. A moment later, the feed showed the woman collapse, clutching her chest as she fell. “Chemically induced heart attack. Instantly fatal, with a minimum of pain. I am not unmerciful, you see.”
Tears began to trickle down Aquino’s face, and he was mute.
“Let this be a lesson. Should you ever cross me, I will kill them all in the most painful methods I can devise. Allow me to assure you I have a dark and deviant mind, Jacob. I enjoy seeing how far a human—or alien. I don’t discriminate—can be pushed before they break with reality.” He smiled coldly as he finished his little monologue. “Now… Benoit here will take you to get in-processed. All my employees are fitted with nanotech tracking, and there is a full suite of advanced armor, weapons, and other tools of the trade at your disposal.”
“Yes, sir,” Aquino replied as he turned slowly and walked out the door, his movements more like an automaton’s than a man’s.
“Ever notice how human government buildings, at least from western civilization countries, look remarkably similar?” David remarked as he strode side by side down a hallway with Aibek.
“Saurian buildings are nothing like human buildings.”
“That makes sense… you’re an entirely different race of beings than us.”
Behind them, Qadir, Taylor, and Tural were following closely.
To the front, a guide escorted them through hallway after hallway. Without warning, the guide stopped. “We have arrived,” he said, gesturing to an open door and the conference room that lay beyond it.
“Thank you,” David replied politely and stepped through.
“Colonel Cohen, I presume?” a tall, thin man said. He wore a smart-looking business suit.
That suit looks like it costs more than I make in a month. “In the flesh.”
“Brandon Nelson, Gilead Internal Security Bureau. I’m in charge of our overall drug trafficking interdiction efforts.”
“Pleasure to meet you. Allow me to introduce Director Rajiya Qadir, Coalition Bureau of Investigation.”
Qadir passed by David and made eye contact with Nelson. “I’m acquainted with Mr. Nelson, Colonel.”
“I didn’t realize,” David replied. “My senior officers… Lieutenant Colonel Aibek, the Lion of Judah’s XO, Doctor Tural, our CMO, and Lieutenant Taylor, communications and cybersecurity expert.”
Nelson gestured to the empty chairs on one side of the table. “Thank you all for coming.”
David dropped into a seat, taking note of the gaggle of mostly civilians, with a stray uniform among them, sitting behind the main group of Gilead officials, in chairs that lined the walls. “Half my crew is on liberty, enjoying your planet’s hospitality.”
“Oh, I’m sure they are,” another man, this one wearing the uniform of the Gilead Security Forces, said as his voice dripped condescension. He wore two stars on his shoulders.
“I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you Gilead has a reputation, Mister?”
“General Wright. We’re not here to be lectured by the Terran Coalition on our lack of suitable morals, Colonel.”
Oh yes, I’m aware he outranks me. David flashed a smile that he hoped wasn’t too insincere. “And I’m not here to lecture you, General. Director Qadir and I want to assist Gilead in dealing with the Orbita problem.”
“Orbita is under control, here. The Terran Coalition needs to stop the demand for the drug.”
Qadir laughed out loud. “Do you take us for fools? The only reason Orbita hasn’t swept this planet is that it’s the main distribution hub. I wouldn’t be surprised if half your security forces weren’t on the payroll of whatever cartel is behind this scourge.”
Wright’s face immediately turned blood red. “How dare you insult the men and women under my command…”
Before Qadir could register a retort, David intervened. “Harsh rhetoric won’t solve anything here, Director.”
She glared at him but didn’t speak.
“Now… General, Mr. Nelson, I take it the two of you speak for the planetary government?”
“We do, Colonel,” Nelson interjected. “I, too, wish to avoid any overheated talk. We acknowledge Orbita is an issue for both of our governments.”
“How do we stop it, is the question?” David asked.
“Gilead doesn’t deal with drug interdiction very often,” Wright said, his tone still hostile. “Because we learned a long time ago to legalize and regulate activities that consenting adults want to engage in.”
Qadir leaned forward, a harsh look on her face. “We’ve developed a source of intelligence that leads the CBI to believe Gilead is not only a major source of Orbita, but much of it is made here. At least, what’s not made in the League of Sol.”
“The League of Sol?” Nelson parroted, his eyes nearly popping out of his skull. “Are you joking me?”
“Not at all, sir. We have conclusive evidence the League is behind the development and manufacture of the drug,” David stated. “We can’t get too far into sources and methods, but suffice it to say SIGINT is involved.”
“What do you want from us? I remind you we’re independent of the Terran Coalition for a reason,” Wright said.
David fixed his gaze on Wright. “Limited operational authority to run an op against the cartel’s leadership.”
The two Gileadean men exchanged glances. It was Nelson who spoke. “We’d have to review any plans first, of course.”
“Those bastards killed half of one of my best special forces teams last month. I wouldn’t mind seeing some payback,” Wright interjected. “We’ve had zero success infiltrating them.”
“Because the cartel you’re going up against has bribed and threatened dozens across your government and military,” Qadir said, her tone one of annoyance. “This is what happens when a people lack strong moral foundations.”
“Director,” David whispered toward her. “Enough. We need their help.” Turning toward the Gileadeans, he continued, his voice at full volume. “We have our differences. They shouldn’t stand in the way of putting some nasty people out of business.”
“Agreed,” Nelson announced.
Taylor poured himself a drink of water from the pitcher at his end of the table, taking a sip before he interjected a statement. “If I may, sirs… if we could get set up on your planetary comms network, I believe I can isolate the cartel’s communication traffic. Help us zero in on operations.”
“We have our own technical experts.”
David glanced at Wright. “General, we’re not saying your experts aren’t doing a good job, but we have additional technology. Superior technology can often aid even the best people.”
“I’m sure our government would be happy for any technical expertise the Coalition Defense Force can provide,” Nelson said, apparently trying to smooth things over. “Wouldn’t we, General?”
Wright stared straight ahead. “Yes, sir.”
Ah, the military gets tired of civilians on every planet. “Glad to help,” David said, again flashing a smile.
“Is it just me, or is it a bit hot in here?” Taylor asked.
David turned to see him with beads of sweat across his forehead and a pale face. “Lieutenant, are you okay?”
As Taylor collapsed, face-first onto the conference table, David and Tural sprang from their seats.
“Get a medical team in here,” David barked.
While pandemonium broke out, Tural knelt beside the unconscious form of Taylor, running a medical scanner over his body. “Heart rate at one hundred forty beats per minute, blood pressure off the chart, and high body temperature. Extreme levels of dopamine levels in the brain. I’d say he’s reacting to something in the environment.”
Qadir’s voice cut in. “Those are the same symptoms as exposure to Orbita.”
As Wright opened his mouth, presumably to scoff at her, one of the aides behind him collapsed. “What in the—?”
Tural quickly crossed the room and performed a scan. “Same results, sir.”
“Maybe they decided to try some out…”
“Really, Nelson?” Wright interjected. “That’s not even plausible.”
David swept the room with his eyes, trying to determine a source. After a few moments of staring, something clicked. There’s a fallen water glass next to the aide! “The water. Doctor, scan the water pitcher.”
A few seconds later, Tural looked up from the scanner. “There’s a high concentration of Orbita in this pitcher. It could be fatal to anyone drinking more than an ounce or two. We need to get these people to a hospital ASAP, sir.”
“I don’t care what you do with your man, but Lieutenant Taylor is going back to the Lion of Judah,” David announced in the firm voice of command that brooked no argument.
“Of course, Colonel,” Nelson replied. “Let me assure you we had nothing to do with this unfortunate incident.”
It was David’s turn to get angry. “Seriously? We don’t know what happened here, except I know my officers didn’t bring the water in. Someone in your organization laced the water. I expect you to find out who, I won’t take no for an answer, and don’t you dare try to play the blame game with me. Do I make myself clear, Mr. Nelson?”
It wasn’t lost on David that Wright remained silent. I wonder if it’s because he tacitly supports us, or if something else is at work here? His momentary contemplation was broken by the arrival of several EMT teams, who immediately went to work, moving both casualties onto anti-grav stretchers.
“Doctor, please accompany Taylor back to the ship. The rest of us will remain here,” David began, with a glance toward the Gileadeans. “And sort this mess out.”
“He will receive the finest care that can be provided between my hands and Allah.”
David cracked a small smile. “Thanks, Doctor. Godspeed.”
As Tural and one set of EMTs marched out, the aide was placed on the other stretcher, and he too was removed from the room. Most of the junior and mid-level personnel had left, leaving the principals.
“Unless there’s an objection, I’ll leave my XO here to assist with the investigation as a representative of the Terran Coalition. Director Qadir and I are going to check in with our embassy,” David announced.
“No objection here, Colonel,” Nelson quickly replied. “We’ll give Colonel Aibek full access to our investigation.”
“Excellent. I look forward to us working together.”
While the senior officers were meeting with Gilead security, many others of the Lion’s crew ended up leaving the shuttle port and entering downtown of the capital city of Pratu. To Ruth’s surprise, Hayworth tagged along with her and Merriweather. The three made an odd grouping as they walked down busy streets converted solely to pedestrian use, in civilian clothes.
“It’s so modern,” Merriweather said, staring in wonder at the skyscraping towers that rose for over a hundred stories all around them.
“Supposedly the highest concentration of five-star hotels anywhere in our local galactic arm,” Ruth replied.
“Yeah. Shocked me too.”
Hayworth harrumphed. “I’d like to go to a planet where there were buildings like this dedicated to science.”
Both women laughed at the same time.
“Let me know when you find it, Doctor, so I can put it on my ‘Do Not Visit’ planet list,” Ruth said.
“Anyone else hungry?” Merriweather asked.
“Famished, my dear. Why don’t we duck into the lobby of one of these hotels and grab something?”
“Let’s do it,” Ruth said as she flashed a grin at Hayworth.
The trio made their way through the lobby of a massive hotel, taking in the sight of an indoor arboretum that stretched twenty floors high. I can’t believe how many credits it must have cost to put this together, and for what? The ostentatiousness of the display offended Ruth on a base level. I saw people begging in the streets. How could they not take care of them first? The restaurant on the first level was beyond packed. They went to a bar next door instead, which advertised it had the best hamburgers on Gilead.
“What exactly is a gastropub?” Merriweather asked.
Ruth shrugged. “Fancy word for a bar? Beats me.”
They settled into a high-top table, and a waiter came over.
“What can I get for you?” he asked.
“Water for me,” Ruth answered.
Merriweather smiled at him. “Iced tea, if you have it.”
“Of course, miss. And for the gentleman?”
“Earl Gray tea, served hot, of course,” Hayworth replied, his voice curt.
“How English of you, Doctor,” Ruth commented, her eyes darting around the room, taking in the sights. It didn’t take long for her to realize that compared to everyone else, they were different. Very different. Most of the people appeared half-drunk or worse, and many couples were making out.
“We’re known for our alcohol,” the waiter said archly.
“I don’t think any of us drink alcohol, actually,” Merriweather said with her dazzling smile.
Hayworth erupted. “I’m an atheist, you blithering idiot. Now go get my tea.”
The waiter turned on his heel and walked away, leaving Ruth to laugh out loud.
“What’s so funny, Lieutenant?”
“Oh, nothing, Doctor… you do realize he’s going to spit in our drinks, right?”
Hayworth’s entire face twitched. “No one would dare spit in my drink.”
“Because you’re the great Doctor Hayworth who invented anti-matter reactors? They don’t know you here. This is the pleasure planet,” Ruth replied.
“Well, they should.”
Merriweather spread her hands out in front of her and attempted to change the subject. “So, got any big plans for liberty? I was hoping to do a hover-ATV tour. There’s a volcano on the southern continent that’s something like twenty-three miles high. I’d like to see it before we leave.”
“I’m just enjoying not being in uniform or workout clothes,” Ruth deadpanned.
The loud voice of a drunk newcomer interrupted the conversation. “Why aren’t you drinking, friends? I’ll get a round for you ladies.” It belonged to a young human male, his appearance generally unkempt with a tuft of hair jutting out of his forehead.
“We’re fine, thanks,” Ruth said in her trademark no-nonsense tone.
“I agree you’re fine, but you look incomplete without a drink.”
Ruth smiled broadly. “If that’s your idea of a pickup line, I’d recommend you go back to your table, because it sucks.”
“Watch your mouth. My father owns half the strip.”
“I know how to kill a man in several dozen ways. Go away.”
“Okay, hey, let’s just all calm down here,” Merriweather said. “We’re good. Have a nice night.”
As the youngster moved off, the two women exchanged glances. “Major, I had everything under control,” Ruth announced.
“We don’t need to get into a bar brawl on our first night at liberty.”
“I’m not so sure we’ll have a choice in the matter,” Hayworth interjected.
Ruth glanced behind her to see a group of now three young men approaching.
“I brought some friends back to entertain you ladies,” the same one said. “I thought you could use a lesson in Gilead hospitality.”
Ruth slid off her chair and faced him. She was several centimeters shorter than him. “Got something to say?”
Hayworth was suddenly at her side. “Young man, leave them alone before I am forced to box your ears.”
Ruth couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Hayworth, speaking up for her? Something’s gone screwy here.
“What are you, old man, her father?”
“You could say that.”
“Get out of my way, or I’ll leave you limping with a cane.”
Ruth’s face took on a bored expression. “You want to fight? Fight. Otherwise, get out of my face.”
“What are you doing?” Merriweather whispered from behind her; she, too, had stood.
“Fine, stupid b—”
Ruth lashed out with the portion of her hand that ran from the wrist to the end of her little finger; a classic karate chop. Catching him dead in his throat, he collapsed backward, unable to breathe and gasping for air.
The two men with him, who also appeared to be either teenagers or in their early twenties, rushed forward and attempted to attack her, throwing classic roundhouse punches.
Ruth ducked, and one of the punches landed on Hayworth’s face, leading to a loud yelp from the scientist. She raised her hands in a traditional fighting position and extended her right arm out, motioning the men forward. “If you’ve got the balls, take me on.”
The one nearest to her took the bait and stepped closer, trying to throw a punch.
Stepping to the side, Ruth delivered a series of blows that culminated with a vicious elbow hit to his chest, followed by a stunning blow to the back of the head.
The third took one look at the collapsed body of his friend on the ground, turned, and ran.
Merriweather and Hayworth stared at Ruth, their mouths agape.
“What?” Ruth asked, smirking. “They had it coming.”
“We have a bigger problem,” Hayworth announced, pointing.
Ruth whirled around to see a phalanx of police officers approaching. “Great. We’re going to get sent back to the ship and end up on bread and water diet for three days.”
“Speak for yourself. Military rules don’t apply to me.”
“For what it’s worth, Doctor, thanks for standing up for me.”
Hayworth inclined his head. “You’re welcome.”
“We’re going quietly, right?” Merriweather asked.
“For now,” Ruth replied, showing her hands to the onrushing cops and forcing herself not to dispatch them as efficiently as she’d taken care of the last group.
It had taken seemingly forever for the automated helicar to arrive, but now David and Qadir were sitting in silence in its rear compartment, zooming over the streets of Pratu. The signature downtown hotel district lay off in the distance, its gleaming skyscrapers clawing for the heavens.
David was lost in his thoughts, mostly worry over Taylor. He forced himself back on mission. “What’d you make of our incident, Director?” Someone has to break the ice because we need to be on the same page to get results.
“Another example of Gilead’s corrupt government.”
David turned, taking in the scowl on her face. “You think the government ordered the water spiked with Orbita?”
“I think it’s just as likely as any scenario.”
“You don’t seem to care for these folks.”
Qadir smirked. “What gave it away, Colonel?”
David, in turn, laughed. “Well, you nearly bit Nelson’s head off, body language… need I go on?”
“I suppose I wear my emotions on my sleeve at times,” Qadir said, a small smile gracing her lips. “My boss tells me every year I need to work on it to move further up in the CBI.”
“Funny, General MacIntosh says the same to me at times.”
“What do you think of the situation, then, Colonel?”
“Most likely? Someone, somewhere in the building is the payroll of a cartel. The cartel wanted to send a message. That’s it feels like to me. Message received… which will make taking them down all the more satisfying.”
“I like how you think.”
David laid his head back on the seat, glancing out the window of the helicar again, to see the buildings whiz by, along with thousands of other vehicles in the main Pratu traffic pattern. “Nothing wrong with the way you’re looking at it, Director. Just, you may find you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”
“I have a name—Rajiya.”
“CDF for twenty years… last name or rank has been drilled into me, Qa—Rajiya,” David said with a sheepish grin after he almost said her last name. “David Cohen.”
“That wasn’t too hard, was it?” she asked.
He smirked. “I suppose not.”
“When we arrive at the embassy, we need to synch up with the CBI liaison officer and see if he’s gained any intel.”
“Makes sense to me. What about CIS?”
Qadir quirked her nose. “I avoid CIS like the plague. They skirt the law in too many ways for my tastes.”
David thought back to his friend, Colonel Robert Sinclair, who ran the CDF intelligence analysis unit on the CSV Oxford. “We mostly deal with the military intelligence side, not the civilians.”
“I see. The guys with the motto of ‘In God We Trust, All Others We Monitor’?”
“Yup,” David replied as he laughed. “Sinclair has it on a banner hanging above the operations center floor on the Oxford. I love it.”
“I don’t understand how any civilized society could allow the use of mind-altering chemicals openly, as this planet does.”
“Gilead wasn’t always like this. It was originally founded as a resort, which catered to families. At least according to the databank entry I read on the way here.” Out of the corner of his eye, David saw Qadir rolling her eyes.
“I was handed cards with pictures of half-naked men on them as we walked out of the spaceport.”
David couldn’t stop himself from snorting. “Yeah… they tried the ones with half-naked women on me. Just keep walking and refuse to make eye contact.”
“You are not offended, as a devout Jew?”
Ah, the filter through which we see morality. Our respective religions. David was silent momentarily, glancing back out the window to see the hotels fading into the background as they headed out of the city. “Am I personally offended? Yes. It’s not my planet, though. It’s theirs. I’d never live here, but I must respect their laws and customs.”
“Even if they’re an affront to Allah?”
“Trust me, I know where you’re coming from, Rajiya. I studied to be an Orthodox rabbi. I probably would’ve ended up as a Haredi rabbi, in the middle of nowhere on New Israel.”
“But you’re not. You command the mightiest warship in the Terran Coalition.”
“I fight on the sabbath too.”
Qadir turned her head and stared at him. “From the sound of your voice, I would say it doesn’t please you.”
David shrugged. “There’s a few men and women I know who can kill the enemy and never have it catch up. I envy them at times. Me? I’m haunted by the actions I must take. Most who know me, understand this aspect of my personality. I guess you could say I’ve mellowed out a bit. There was a time in my life when I felt I was superior, that I understood the law, obeyed it, and it in effect, justified my existence. I’m sure the rabbi I used to study under would say I’ve grown up, just a little.”
“I still have some of that righteous fire,” Qadir said with a grin.
“Oh, don’t worry. I do too. I look at it like this: I don’t have to go to Gilead. I’d never come here, to be frank, unless ordered. The Terran Coalition has a wide range of rules on its respective planets. That’s the beauty of our system.”
“On Arabia Prime, these fools would find themselves without a hand for sixty days for selling destructive drugs.”
“And in New America, they send you to rehabilitation. My homeworld? Hard labor. See what I mean? Different rules on each planet, with a common set of rights and obligations of our citizens.”
“I like you, David,” Qadir said after she was silent for a moment. She turned and smiled warmly. “Yours is a refreshing outlook. Perhaps a bit too rosy for me, but welcome all the same.”
Before he could respond, the helicar pitched downward, indicating it was coming in for a landing. As the Terran Coalition embassy loomed ahead of them, the computer voice of the vehicle sounded. “Please identify yourself for the Terran Coalition Marine Corps security sentry.”
“Colonel David Cohen, Coalition Defense Force.”
“Identity confirmed. Thank you for riding Gilead Transport,” the computer voice replied.
A few seconds later, there was a soft thud as the helicar landed and the passenger doors automatically opened, sunlight spilling into the compartment and making David squint from the brightness of the light. He climbed out of the vehicle to see several Marines standing around. They all came to rigid attention and saluted him at the same time as he put on his cover. The moment his cover was secure, he brought his hand to his brow and returned the salutes crisply.
“As you were,” David said, taking in the scene around him. “Colonel Cohen, CSV Lion of Judah. Director Qadir, CBI counterintelligence. We need to meet with—”
“Miranda Eldred. Coalition Intelligence Service. Please, come with me.” A tall human female with striking features approached them. She had flaming red hair and numerous freckles across her face.
Qadir made her way around the helicar and appeared at David’s side. “I do not take orders from CIS.” Her tone was unmistakable in its annoyance.
“You’re here to deal with Orbita, are you not?” Eldred asked.
Qadir stared at the newcomer, her face a scowl. “No, we’re here to address the cost of tea imports from this planet.”
David couldn’t help himself; he let out a snicker. She’s almost as acerbic as Hayworth.
“I have an asset in play with direct information. Want to know more? Follow me to the SCIF.”
Military acronyms. Sensitive compartmented information facility, a fancy way of saying enclosed room with no windows and limited access. David cleared his throat. “I’d love to hear what you’ve dug up, Agent Eldred.”
Eldred nodded once then set off at a brisk walk.
Taking note of a perturbed look from Qadir, David fell in behind the CIS agent, marching across the courtyard of the embassy and through many corridors and office spaces. They finally arrived at a large set of security doors; a classic “man trap.”
“This is Miranda Eldred. Verify voiceprint ID.”
Moments later, a disembodied computer voice replied, “Voiceprint ID confirmed. You may enter.”
She held the door open for them as David and Qadir strode in. “Sign in at the desk, Colonel, with your digital fingerprint. You too, Director.”
“How do you know who I am?” Qadir asked, her tone direct and forceful.
“Well, I am CIS,” Eldred replied with a wicked grin on her face.
David was barely able to suppress a smile at their banter. I’ve got a feeling these two could land verbal body blows all day. “So, what’s the intel?”
The room was empty, but even then, Eldred seemed troubled. She turned on an artificial noise generator, which would impede audio surveillance, and engaged a jamming system before turning back toward the two of them. “I’ve been looking into one of the drug cartels on this planet for some time now, because we busted a League operative attempting to make contact with them. The Gileadeans refused to allow us to rendition the operative back to CIS facilities near Canaan, so I’ve quietly kept going.”
“I still have a hard time believing the League’s working with common criminal and thugs,” David said in a pointed tone.
“Believe it, Colonel. The organization I’ve been trying to get into is so secretive, it doesn’t have a name. It took me two dead operatives to determine the identity of the man at the top. An Edward Feldt.”
“I’m not aware of any individual by that name coming up in connection to Orbita,” Qadir interjected.
“By design. Feldt is insulated from most investigations, lives off the grid, and pays off half of Gilead. He also uses his immense wealth to help the poor who live around his compounds. He’s seen as a benefactor against a corrupt government.”
“A drug dealer with a conscience?” David asked, his mouth curled up in a smirk.
“Hardly,” Eldred replied with a snort. “This guy is a sociopath, Colonel. He represents the worst humanity has to offer. You cross him, and he kills your entire family. All the man cares about is power.”
“So why don’t we call in an orbital neutron cannon strike from the Lion of Judah and take him out?”
Qadir glanced at David, one eyebrow raised.
“Gilead won’t allow us. Trust me, I’ve tried,” Eldred continued. “You know the deal. We have to abide by the rules of the host planet. They tread a fine line, trying to claim neutrality while at the same time, trading with us and availing themselves of CDF protection. We’re hamstrung by their rules.”
“Okay, then, what’s next? Director Qadir and I have a broad mandate to stop Orbita. If he’s the focal point for its sale and distribution, our job is to stop him by any means necessary.”
Eldred turned and walked over to a console, manipulating it and turning on a holoprojector in the far end of the SCIF. A series of images rotated through the display, including a large cluster of warehouses in the middle of a desert, and ship large enough to be a destroyer. “This is his main center of operations, about two hundred kilometers south of here. We’re talking about someone who bought an old merchant ship and turned it into a private warship. I realized I wasn’t getting anywhere because there’s a leak somewhere inside of Gilead security, or perhaps even CIS officers stationed on the planet.”
More traitors? David’s face scrunched up, and he furrowed his brow in anger. “I have little patience for traitors of any type.”
“Especially ones motivated by money,” Qadir interjected. “They’re disgusting.”
“I’m running an operative off the books. I don’t know her name. She’s referred to as “Z.” She approached us, and I happened to catch her before she spoke to any other case officers. Claims to be high enough up the food chain to have actionable intelligence we can use to bring him down.”
David exchanged a double-take with Qadir. “Ballsy, Eldred. I like it.”
Eldred shrugged. “I want Feldt off the board, and we all want Orbita stopped.”
“Do you have anything we can use now?”
Eldred broke into a wide grin. “How about the ship name, launch point, and a covert transponder attached to a ship carrying several thousand kilograms of Orbita, leaving Gilead tomorrow?”
“Yeah, that’ll do,” David said. “We’ll board, capture, and interrogate the prisoners. Get the next rung up the ladder, so to speak.”
“Got it in one, Colonel. Except for one thing. They’ll be challenging to break. Knowing your family is dead if you talk is one heck of a powerful motivator not to.”
“We could run identity checks against everyone as soon as we can capture the ship, then start rounding up their families,” Qadir interjected.
David nodded thoughtfully. This could work. “I’ll start coordinating with the Lion, and we can use this room as a command post if you’re agreeable?”
“Works for me, Colonel,” Eldred said as she removed a small device from the terminal and held it out toward him. “You’ll want to review this to position your ship properly.”
David took the storage unit. “Thank you.”
“No, Colonel. Thank you. We’ve finally got a chance at cracking this wide open and seeing the good guys win for a change.”
“Hey, boss!” Harold Billings called out, waving toward Kenneth. “Watch out. There’s a live wire on the feed coming out of that power relay.”
Kenneth was performing a tour of one of the mothballed ships they were working on. It’s vital to get out of my cubbyhole of an office and see some real work being done. Sparks shot out of the panel he was next to, causing him to jump back. “Lovely, Master Chief!”
“Shut it off!” Billings shouted toward a tech at a nearby computer terminal.
“Sorry, sirs, it’s secure,” the tech reported as the sparks died down and stopped.
“Won’t look good on my next performance review to have ‘killed my program manager’ on the deficits line,” Billings said, causing a streak of laughter to ripple through those in earshot, including Kenneth.
He flashed a grin. “No worries, Master Chief. Got a minute?”
“Of course, sir.”
Kenneth gestured down an empty passageway, and the older man fell in beside him. Once they were more than a few steps away, and out of range of prying ears, he spoke. “How’s it going over here?”
“The reactor upgrades are slow enough on their own, but the new power distribution system installations are worse. Half the work has to be redone, and blown conduits have put two of my guys in the doc shack so far.”
Lovely. Suppressing a desire to groan, Kenneth furrowed his brow and grumbled, “First things first… our guys okay?”
“Yeah, they’re fine. Just got singed a bit. They were cleared and are back on the job,” Billings said, his tone quiet yet aggressive.
“Let me guess, Casey’s crews aren’t doing their jobs?”
“How’d you know?”
“You’re not the first to complain. I’ve observed it firsthand too.”
Billings stopped walking and faced Kenneth. “Look, boss, this is above my pay grade, but these guys are a waste of space. Half of them don’t show up to work until 1100 hours and are gone by 1500. Forget the C team—they’re the F team.”
Kenneth snickered. “Gotta love that.”
“Can you do anything about it?”
“Maybe,” Kenneth replied. “I’m going to gather more information and poke around Casey’s organization. Might have some talks with team leads, see if one of the more honest ones will tell me what’s going on. I can’t believe the level of sloppiness we’re seeing occurs on its own, without tacit approval.”
“I’m happy I don’t have to deal with the stuff you do, boss.”
“So what else is going on? How’s the team holding up?” Kenneth asked, eager to get away from the soul-sucking problems that seemingly confronted them at every turn. I want to come in one day and have everything go reasonably right. Then again, that might get boring.
Billing’s face clouded over. “I’ve had some discipline issues lately.”
“Yeah. A few people have been getting into it with each other over politics.”
Kenneth’s jaw dropped. “Politics?”
“I’ve never seen my friends more animated about a presidential campaign.”
“Guess I haven’t noticed. I’ve been wound up with work. I mean, what are they arguing about? Fuentes’ platform doesn’t make much sense to me.”
“That’s the thing. It appeals to many. Especially the peace part. Can’t say I don’t consider it. We’ve expelled the League from ‘our’ side of the galaxy. What’s wrong with trying to cut a deal?”
“First and second battle of Canaan for starters,” Kenneth shot back as his face turned red. “There’s no negotiating with those communists. They’ll keep coming until one side finishes the job… I say better dead than red.”
“Tell that to the two-hundred-thousand-plus dead soldiers and Marines from just the last year.”
“Should they die in vain?” Kenneth said, his voice suddenly quiet. “Because if we don’t finish the job, they died for nothing.”
“I don’t see it like that, boss.”
“We can always agree to disagree.”
“Yeah. I guess. Seems like everyone is on edge about it,” Billings replied as he took a step back and crossed his arms.
“Probably because Fuentes is burning down the Terran Coalition with his insane rhetoric.”
“You know most of the young guys support him?”
Kenneth’s jaw dropped open. “Surely you’re joking?”
“Nope, and don’t call me Shirley.”
Both men busted out laughing at the lame joke.
“That one never gets old, Master Chief.”
“Seriously though, boss. I’ve never seen it like this. People are yelling at each other, cursing over politics. Maybe it’s just me, but I never recall being this on edge about an election.”
Kenneth shook his head in agreement. “Not just politics. I’ve even overheard religious debates break out, leading to screaming and shouting matches about who’s going to hell.”
There’s a reason Mom said not to discuss religion and politics in polite company. “Keep trying to push these reactor guys along for me, okay? And see if your friend will send me those stand down orders you were talking about.”
“All over it, boss.”
Kenneth slapped the older man on the shoulder and flashed a grin. “If this crap was easy, anyone could do it, right?”
“Something like that, sir.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Kenneth said as he turned on his heel and walked away. His mind flashed with anger as he considered the waste of funds and time, delaying reinforcements to the men and women in harm’s way, thousands of lightyears away.
The roar of an arriving shuttle filled the VIP shuttle bay of the Lion of Judah. Hanson had it diverted once he learned who was onboard. I’d like to understand how Lieutenant Goldberg and Major Merriweather got into a bar brawl. As the shuttle came to a rest, its engines cut off, and the side hatch swung open.
Hanson stepped forward, first in line, with a couple of security personnel in tow.
Ruth stuck her head out first and gingerly walked out. “Uh, hi, Major.”
“Please tell me this is a joke.”
Merriweather came next.
“No joke, Major. A few teenagers made lewd comments, and one thing led to another…” Ruth smirked as she spoke. “Don’t worry, I didn’t cause any lasting damage, except to their pride.”
Hanson’s eyes widened. “What about you, Major? The report said you were involved.”
“I… well, I was mostly a bystander, though I support the lieutenant’s actions entirely.”
At that moment, Hayworth exited the craft.
Hanson lost all measure of composure and openly stared at the old scientist. “Doctor?”
“You’re going to have to explain this to me. They arrested you too?”
“Some pompous jerk insulted my friends.”
Ruth and Merriweather both leaned forward at the same time and stared at Hayworth. “Thanks, Doctor,” Ruth said.
“Arrogant jerk had it coming. You just beat me to it, Lieutenant.”
I can’t put the ship’s tactical officer and our best engineers on food and water diet for three days. “Ugh, guys. You’re putting me in a bad spot here.”
“I recall the colonel’s orders about crew picked up by the local police,” Ruth replied, her smile turning up in wattage until it overpowered the room. “But surely he didn’t mean for self-defense?”
“We both know he’s not one for favoritism,” Hanson said as he frowned.
“I don’t think anyone’s interested in going back to Gilead, are we?” Ruth asked as she gestured to Merriweather and Hayworth, who both vehemently shook their heads. “It’s settled, then. Just let us off with a ban on further interaction with the locals.”
“I don’t think so, Lieutenant. I’m going to confine both you and the major to quarters, except for while on duty and to eat at the mess. Doctor Hayworth is exempt because he’s a civilian. No notices will be put in your personnel jacket.” As Hanson spoke, his voice gained confidence.
“Oh, it’s not like I have anything to do besides my duties and eating anyways,” Ruth said. “Permission to be dismissed, sir?”
“You’re all dismissed. Lieutenant Goldberg, the first watch commences in five hours. Be sure that you’re there.” Hanson’s head dipped a bit, and he bit down on his lip. “I have some bad news. Lieutenant Taylor suffered exposure to Orbita.”
“What?” Ruth asked, her voice rising in volume and pitch.
“I don’t have all the details, except that it was in the water. He’s resting in the doc shack.”
“I’d like to visit Taylor,” Ruth said, her jaw set and arms crossed.
“You may visit him for thirty minutes a day.”
Ruth’s face clouded over. “Aye aye, sir,” she replied before stomping off.
Merriweather too walked off, leaving Hanson and Hayworth together.
“Good to see you showing some spine, my boy,” Hayworth said with a genuine smile. “Is it a side effect of sitting in the CO’s chair?”
Hanson smiled uncomfortably. “I don’t know, Doctor. Colonel Cohen has challenged me to try the leadership track. I never saw myself as anything more than a wrench monkey, but if he thinks I’ve got what it takes, I’ll at least give it a shot.”
“Leadership isn’t about making popular decisions. I would tell you that if everyone likes what you do, you’re doing it wrong.”
“Aren’t we past you calling me doc?” Hayworth fumed, though with a smile.
“Sorry, old habits. It’s a term of endearment, I promise.”
“Sure, sure. Oh, what am I to do? An entire ship full of people to annoy and no Eliza to keep me in line.”
Hanson laughed. “Have fun with that.”
“Oh, I plan to,” Hayworth said, an evil-looking grin plastered across his face.
Several hundred kilometers away, the woman known as “Z” to the Coalition Intelligence Service stirred from her bed. The room she lived in was several meters down the hall from Feldt. The space was well-kept and had every luxury she could want. A gilded cage where I’m kept in splendor amidst the suffering around me. She thought back to the day her parents had sent her on to what they’d been promised was a high-paying job in the Terran Coalition. She’d ended up as a prostitute and eventually a drug addict on Gilead. Scooped into Feldt’s employ four years ago, he’d taken a liking to her. My deal with Satan himself.
Standing up from the bed, she reflected on her task today: placing a tracking device on a freighter the Terrans wanted to capture. If they catch me, I will be killed in the worst possible way imaginable. Worse, he’ll kill my parents. She made the sign of the cross in front of a small shrine to the Virgin Mary and went to shower. Even water was a luxury out here in the harsh desert. Most did only the minimal amount to sustain life, but Feldt had unlimited amounts for his compound.
“I am Carmina Ramirez, and I am not a slave.” The words fell out of her mouth. They were a mantra she’d repeated every day for six months.
A short time later, she dressed for the day, her hair done up and makeup applied—just the way Feldt prescribed. To defy him in anything, even as small as what color shoes to wear, resulted in death. Her first duty was to join him for breakfast at seven A.M. Gathering herself, she knocked on the door of his suite.
The door swung open to reveal his butler. “Come in, my lady,” the white-haired gentleman said. He had a practiced British accent. One of Feldt’s quirks was he wanted a British butler.
“Thank you,” she replied with a hint of a smile. Walking through the apartment, she did what she’d done countless times before, and forced herself to act naturally.
“Good morning, my sweet.”
Feldt’s voice made her blood run cold, more so than usual. She turned toward him and smiled. “How did you sleep, my dear?” Their relationship consisted of him thinking she was somehow grateful for what he’d “done” for her.
“Very well. The bed is so soft.”
“You said that yesterday.”
Ramirez smiled. “I know, but a soft, comfortable bed is such a luxury here.”
“Perhaps I will join you in it tonight. I have some business to attend to today that should turn out quite well.”
He always wants to celebrate with me. The thought made her shiver involuntarily.
“Are you cold?”
“No, just a passing feeling. I’m fine.”
Nothing else was said as they walked to the fine dining room, taking their respective seats at the head and foot of a long table, with place settings for twelve. Like everything else Feldt owned, it was ostentatious to the point of being absurd. An antique, eight hundred years old, it had come from Earth during the exodus. At least, according to his boasts. Why he’d wasted the million credits he claimed he had on it was beyond her.
Breakfast was two poached eggs with an English muffin. She ate quietly, speaking only when spoken to.
“Something is on your mind,” Feldt said out of the blue.
Ramirez nearly choked on the bit of food in her mouth. “Why do you say that, my love?”
He smiled coldly, his eyes dull and lifeless. “Because you aren’t your normal happy-go-lucky self. What’s bothering you?”
Her pulse quickened. Does he suspect? “You know I have concern for the women with children in the village.”
“So you’ve said.”
“They need more water,” she said in what she hoped was a plaintive tone. “The summer has been so hot, one child has already died.”
Feldt shrugged, a callous look on his face. “They decided to become indebted to me. They must now work off their debt.”
“But how can a woman, worried for her children, work as hard as she can in the fields?”
“You’re saying I’d get higher productivity if the children had more water?”
Ramirez summoned a smile. “Exactly, dear.” The word of endearment nearly strangled her as it came out of her mouth. “If it were possible, perhaps an air-conditioned room for them to play in during the day?”
“If I ever put you in charge of my business, you’d bankrupt me in a day,” Feldt replied, his mouth returning to a cold smile. “I will do as you’ve asked. Do be prepared to reward me later.”
The way he said it brought a wave of revulsion throughout her body that was hard to ignore. Still, she forced a smile to her face. “I look forward to it.”
Feldt stood and kissed her on the top of her head as he went by. “Have a good day.”
After he was gone, she sat there for several minutes, hands shaking so hard, she couldn’t finish her meal. After calming herself, she stood and made her way out of the suite. A brief stop to retrieve her purse later, she went downstairs to the underground garage and took her car—an electric model without flight capability—and drove to the landing field and hangars that made up Feldt’s private spaceport.
The buildings were squat, ugly, and in places unfinished. While Feldt spends absurd amounts of credits on his personal residence, things outside his daily view don’t get the same treatment. She parked the vehicle in a lot and got out. The drive had taken a good hour, and she’d worn high heeled shoes, which hurt. Standing in the sun, she stretched her legs a minute before setting off toward the hangar she’d found out earlier from one of the servants housed the freighter due to depart later in the afternoon.
As she strode up to the hangar bay, one of the male workers called out, “Halt! Who goes there?”
She turned and smiled as brightly as she could. “I’m Carmina Ramirez.”
The mere mention of her name was enough to inspire fear. It was well understood that to insult one of Feldt’s concubines was to invite death. “I am so sorry, ma’am. What can I do for you today?” His tone melted to one of abject fear, as if he’d walked over his own grave.
Usually, I would go out of my way to make them feel better, but not today. Ramirez drew her eyebrows together and kept her lips tight. “I’m here to retrieve a shipment of food for a surprise party. It’s being held in this hangar. Stay out of my way or Mr. Feldt will hear of your insolence.”
The man didn’t reply. He scurried away as fast as his legs would carry him. Fear spread like a wave from him as he rushed over to a foreman and presumably told him what had occurred.
Ramirez turned on her heel and walked across the hangar. Her shoes made a clacking noise on the concrete surface, while she was sure every man in the building was staring at her. But they’re not looking for the right thing. The thought brought fear to the surface, as well as pride. A pride she was finally able to feel, moments away from placing the device CIS had dead-dropped to her some months before.
There was, in fact, a special shipment of food in the building. She’d made sure of it and allowed herself a moment of relief when the bright teal shipping container it was in came into her line of sight. She spent a few minutes pulling out the satchel of dried fruit from off-world, and pure flour from Canaan—a costly delicacy. The mundane task completed, she strode around the back of the freighter parked in the hangar. Out of eyesight for a moment is all I need.
Thankfully, the loading crews were fully occupied, and no one was behind the freighter. She had the small device in her hand, so thin once it adhered to the ship’s hull, it couldn’t be detected except by a quantum scanner. A moment later, it was on the hull, and she was heading away from it. Her heart pounded in her chest, seeming as if it would explode from within. And then, she was out of the building and back at the car, driving down the dusty road toward Feldt’s compound.
Then, and only then, did the fear catch up with her. As her hands started shaking uncontrollably, she pulled off to the side of the road and wept. Soon I will be free if the Terran Coalition keeps its word. Praying in Latin, she eventually calmed down and wiped the tears away before driving on.
“We’ve got a signal,” Eldred said as a dot appeared on the tablet she had on the table.
David turned and glanced up from the document he was reviewing. “Are we sure it’s legit?”
“No way to know until it starts moving, Colonel.”
They were deep within the bowels of the Terran Coalition embassy, in a wing reserved for use by CIS only. It was the nerve center of the intelligence gathering and clandestine operations on Gilead.
It shouldn’t bother me, but we do claim to respect the neutrality of border planets. The thought bothered David as he pondered the corners they kept cutting in order to win. Then again, I suppose Gilead isn’t neutral with League agents running amok. He pushed the thoughts away and focused on the task at hand.
A new voice interrupted them. “Agent Eldred, I was just informed we’re expecting a live signal shortly. It would appear your asset came through.”
It belonged to a man with dark brown hair and a light skin tone. Coupled with an ever-so-slight accent, David pegged the newcomer to be from one of the Arabian planets.
Eldred stood quickly. “Sir, I didn’t realize you were following this. Please allow me to introduce Colonel David Cohen—”
The man cut her off with a wave of his hand. “Commander of the CSV Lion of Judah. The pride of the fleet. I am Abdul Rahman al-Lahim, chief of station for CIS on Gilead.”
David stood and extended his hand. “A pleasure. I seem to recall a Major al-Lahim from a report I read. Any relation?”
“One and the same,” al-Lahim replied as he shook the outstretched hand warmly. “I transferred from active duty CDF Intelligence to the civilian-led CIS to become the head of our Gilead detachment.” He gestured to an open chair. “May I?”
“Of course, sir,” Eldred said as beads of sweat became apparent on her face.
After they’d all sat once more, David glanced between the two intelligence agents. She has some anxiety. Eldred mentioned she’d been off the reservation with this one. The holoprojector in the back of the room was displaying a view of Gilead’s local star system, with an overlay of active sensor contacts.
“Any word from the asset?” al-Lahim asked.
Eldred swallowed hard. “Not as of yet, sir. We know she got the device months ago from a dead drop, and we have a signal from it now, as promised. The ship, if that’s what our transmitter is attached to, isn’t moving.”
“Give it time.”
A bit more serene than I’ve come to expect from the intel types. David pushed back from the table and smiled. “You’ve been after these guys for months. What're a few more minutes among friends?”
Al-Lahim cleared his throat and turned toward David. “Colonel, Agent Eldred has been so close after Edward Feldt, I’d almost have thought of him as her version of Captain Ahab. Still, I admire and respect the persistence. There are few individuals in our local star cluster worse than him, truly a despicable human being. Allah’s punishment for him will be most unpleasant.”
Further comment was cut off by Eldred. “We’ve got movement consistent with a spacecraft taxiing and taking off.” The relief in her voice was palpable.
All eyes turned toward the holoprojector, and the icon representing what they hoped was the freighter.
“The Lion of Judah will pick it up shortly, if it’s the ship we’re looking for,” David said.
Eldred stood and paced up and down in front of the holoprojector. “I’m looking forward to some clarity on Feldt’s organization. And what the League’s involvement is.”
Something tells me this man won’t be easy to defeat. Call it a gut feeling. “Amen.”
On any ship, including military vessels in space, boredom was an accepted fact of life. Even in war, there were long periods where nothing happened, and one stared at a readout that barely changed. Hanson stared out the transparent alloy windows at the front of the bridge. Especially when we’re in orbit of a neutral planet without so much as a decent defense network. He smirked at his last thought, taking in the bridge around him. Ruth sat at her usual spot at Tactical, while the XO’s chair was empty.
Hanson turned in the CO’s chair, glancing back toward Tinetariro. “Master Chief, how many of our crew has been brought back by shore patrol so far?”
“More than I’d care to admit, Major,” Tinetariro replied in her posh British accent. “Don’t worry. I’ve already assigned extra work details to the lightest offenders, and placed the rest in the brig.”
The smile on her face sent half a shiver down Hanson’s spine. Glad he was an officer, he turned back toward the ”windows” at the front of the bridge, staring into the blackness of space, with Gilead below them. Another day, another shift. Day two of being in command.
“Conn, TAO,” Ruth said, interrupting the quiet of the bridge. “Contact Sierra Two hundred Seventy-six is emitting a low EM band IFF pulse, and its signature is consistent with an Anderson type freighter.”
The bridge came alive almost instantly. Everyone sat up straighter in their seats, and Hanson’s pulse began to race. “TAO, authenticate the pulse with the pattern provided by Colonel Cohen.”
“Confirmed, sir. Same pattern.”
“TAO, re-designate Sierra Two hundred Seventy-six to Master One.”
“Aye aye, sir. Contact now designated Master One.”
Hanson glanced toward Lieutenant Bell, the second shift communications officer who had taken Taylor’s place on the bridge. “Communications, hail Master One. Order them to cease maneuvering and prepare to be boarded.”
“Aye aye, sir,” Bell replied.
On the tactical plot, Hanson watched as the small freighter did the opposite of what they’d instructed it to do—it accelerated—quickly. As the range started to open up, options ran through his mind.
“Navigation, intercept course, Master One. Flank speed.”
Hammond barely moved in her seat. “Aye aye, sir.”
Immediately, the deck plates of the massive warship started to vibrate with a different hum. There she purrs. Hanson knew the Lion inside and out. He pressed the button on the CO’s chair to link into 1MC, the universal intercom system. “Attention all hands, this is Major Hanson. Man your battle stations. I say again, man your battle stations. This is not a drill. Set condition one throughout the ship.”
As soon as he finished speaking, the lights on the bridge turned a deep blue hue. I’m not sure the last time I was up here during a drill, or an actual battle, for that matter. Everything looks different like this. Regardless, Hanson wasn’t worried. A freighter vs the Lion isn’t enough to earn a combat pin, much less be concerned over.
“Condition one set throughout the ship, sir.”
“TAO, raise shields, charge the weapons capacitor.”
“Aye aye, sir,” Ruth replied. “Shields up, energy weapon capacitor charged.”
“TAO, firing point procedures, Master One. Target them with neutron beams, disabling shots only.”
“Firing solutions set, sir.”
“Shoot, neutron beams.”
Blue lances of energy shot out of the Lion of Judah toward a point far enough away that Hanson could barely make out the impacts on the freighters’ protective screens. They flashed an angry blue, then collapsed. Explosions broke out across the aft of the ship, and from the tactical plot, he saw its forward velocity begin to fall as all forward thrust ceased, and the gravity of Gilead started to pull it back, towards the planet.
“Conn, TAO. Master One has been disabled.”
“Good job, everyone,” Hanson said, all smiles. “Communications, let's see if they’d like to talk now. Send our surrender demand one more time.”
“Everything aft of the fourth hold is gone, boss.”
The plaintive wail of the man’s voice told Geno Petrov all he needed to know. They weren’t getting out of here under their own power. How’d the blasted Coalition Defense Force know who we are? “What about the escape pods?”
“They’re intact,” his second mate replied.
“Get the crew moving to them. I’ll rig the self-destruct.”
“You got it, boss.”
The small man scurried off the bridge, leaving Petrov alone in the shambles of what, only a few minutes prior, was his pride and joy. He’d worked his way up the ladder of Feldt’s organization for years after being drummed out of Gilead’s customs patrol. I’d better get this over with. He picked up a small communication device. It was a unique tool that allowed direct, two-way contact with the cartel boss at any time. He pressed the button to activate it and waited.
A few seconds passed, and Feldt’s voice emanated from the speaker. “What is it, Petrov?”
“The CDF disabled the ship, sir. They’re sending boarding parties and have demanded we surrender.”
There was a pregnant pause before Feldt spoke. “Do you have the means to escape?”
“The pods are intact, sir. I’m planning to set the self-destruct and abandon ship.”
“What ship attacked you?”
“The Lion of Judah.”
There was a string of oaths in three different languages from Feldt. “Damn those do-gooding religious fanatics. Have any of the pods launched yet?”
“Self-destruct the ship now, then.”
Petrov’s heart skipped a beat. What? How could he ask that? “But, Mister Feldt, we can still escape. Please, I have a family.”
“Yes, you do. So does the rest of your crew,” Feldt said, his voice like ice. “Do I need to remind you what I do to those who disobey my orders? Remember back to your initiation, Petrov. I won’t hesitate to kill everyone close to you, and the rest of your crew. I can’t risk any of you being caught by the Terran Coalition.”
Seconds ticked by as Petrov sat mute, his mind caught like a trapped animal trying to process a no-win situation.
“You have fifteen seconds to comply,” Feldt intoned. “Do not test me. You should know better.”
I can’t… I must… what have I done? Petrov’s life flashed by his eyes as he reached for a small button, protected by a cover. He inserted his key into the lock and lifted the cover, his hand shaking as he hesitated.
“Hey, boss, you ready to go? Those Terran Marines are almost here!” his second mate called through the ship’s intercom system.
“I’m sorry,” Petrov said quietly, his voice full of sadness. He pressed the button with a second to spare of Feldt’s deadline. The roar of an explosion filled his ears, and flames shot through the enclosed space. There were a few seconds of pain so horrific, he almost went mad, before it all faded away. As his consciousness faded away, he pondered if he’d spend the rest of eternity in flames for what he’d done throughout his life.
“Conn, TAO! Master One destroyed, sir!”
Hanson glanced down from the tactical display where he’d been watching the VBSS team’s progress toward the freighter. “By what?”
“Internal explosion, sir,” Ruth replied as she peered at her screens. “It appears they executed an intentional self-destruct, sir.”
“Communications, get the Marines headed back to the Lion. Get SAR in space, check for survivors,” Hanson said.
“Highly unlikely anyone survived that, sir,” Ruth said as she glanced back toward him.
“We have a duty to try, Lieutenant.”
Hanson sat back in the CO’s chair, staring forward. What kind of criminal blows themselves up to avoid capture, rather than try and escape? Even if they were scum, that’s a horrible way to go. He felt a few seconds of pity before focusing on what was next for the mission. Nothing more for us to do but wait. He returned to his previous boredom—standing watch for the next four hours.
A few hours later, David found himself in a conference room within the Terran Coalition embassy on Gilead, listening to a loud debate between Eldred, Nelson, and General Wright. Qadir sat to his right, a scowl on her face. I know how she feels. We’re being fed bullcrap and everyone at this table knows it.
“The government of Gilead must register extreme displeasure with the destruction of a ship in orbit of our planet, Colonel,” Nelson said, his face red.
My, he plays the part well. “We didn’t blow it up.”
“You fired on it!”
“We had information the freighter was a front for drug traffickers. When our Marines attempted to board the vessel, it self-destructed.”
“Just how did you happen to get this information, Colonel?” General Wright asked.
“I’m afraid that’s classified,” Eldred interjected before anyone else could speak. “The Terran Coalition doesn’t discuss sources and methods with any non-Canaan-Alliance signatory state.”
“We only extended limited authorization for the CDF to operate in our territory, Colonel,” Nelson said.
David sat back in the chair. I can’t tell them the truth “The truth is, we intercepted a communication that led us to target the freighter.” He smiled thinly at the room. “Everyone knows CIS has outstanding technical surveillance abilities.”
An aide slipped into the conference room and handed a folder to Nelson, whispering in his ear.
The suit-clad bureaucrat nodded and pored through the document. As he did, his eyes popped wide open. “Well, Colonel, looks like you guys had your intel right for once.”
Wright glanced at Nelson. “The freighter was carrying Orbita?”
“It had a load of Orbita large enough to kill a hundred million people. And Edward Feldt was on board, according to our DNA scans.”
“What?” Eldred thundered.
Nelson looked between her and David. “Yes. You’ve been trying to get him for some time, haven’t you, agent?”
“If you think I’m going to believe that Feldt would put himself on a freighter carrying product, you’re nuts. It’s obviously a plant, a fake. Something. No way. He’s too smart.”
“DNA tests don’t lie,” Nelson replied, his arms crossed in front of him.
“We’d like to review the data and rerun the tests,” David interjected. “While I trust your people and processes, we’ll need to verify it. This doesn’t change anything. There’s an organization out there to shut down.”
Wright snorted. “You’re not up on Edward Feldt, are you, Colonel? He is the organization, as you put it. Without him, they fold in a month.”
“I find it difficult to believe.”
Qadir, who had been atypically silent, picked this moment to make her presence known. “I agree with the assessments of my colleagues. CBI will not be satisfied without independent corroboration.”
“No harm in sharing our findings and the DNA samples, Nelson,” Wright said. “If you happen to obtain any further signals intercepts, I’d appreciate a heads up. We’ve been trying to crack Feldt’s organization for years.”
Nelson raised his eyebrows and pursed his lips together. “The general is right,” he finally ground out. “We’re happy for any help you can offer.”
“Good,” David said. “I think we’re done here for now, then.”
It didn’t take much encouragement for the Gileadean delegation to spring out of their seats. “Thank you, Colonel. We’ll be in touch,” Nelson said as a goodbye, hurrying out the door without further small talk. The rest followed him in short order, leaving David, Qadir, and Eldred alone.
Eldred stood and shut the door before securing the lock and pulling a small device out of her pants pocket and activating it. “White noise generator,” she explained, dropping it on the table. “Thoughts?”
David glanced at Qadir. “I’m not prepared to go that far, but if this Feldt guy is half as smart as he appears… yeah, no way he was on the freighter. It’s clear to me, though, he has complete control of his followers. That’s scary, and frankly, cult-like. Not even the Leaguers are quite as committed. When they’re beaten, most of the time, they give up.”
“I need both of you to help me,” Eldred said without further preamble as she glanced between David and Qadir. “Come with me into the no-go zone outside of the city first thing in the morning.
“CIS asking CBI for help? Oh, this must be desperation speaking.”
David couldn’t help but chuckle. “I’m with Director Qadir on this one. CIS has a small legion of spooks here. Why us?”
“Because I can’t trust anyone. Good move, by the way, telling them it was signals intercepts. You also have to realize it won’t hold up. We need to make contact with ‘Z’ and get her out of there, along with whatever information she’s got on Feldt and his band of butchers.”
“Where exactly do you want us to go?” Qadir asked.
“The desert outside of the capital. It goes on for hundreds of kilometers in every direction. Some sections are inhabited, and they’re no-go zones for the government. It’s where Feldt thrives. He’s built entire towns out there, supplies water and food. In return, he forces the people to toil in his factories, producing drugs and other contraband.”
Qadir twisted her head and made a face. “This man disgusts me. May Allah strike him down.”
“We’re Allah’s instrument for striking said man down,” David said quietly. “I’d feel more comfortable bringing in a team of tier-one operators with us.”
Eldred shook her head vehemently. “Absolutely not, Colonel. One beat-up aircar with a man and two women inside? That’ll pass just long enough for us to get in. Two or three helicars filled with military-age men and we’d have an all-out war on our hands. This mission calls for stealth.”
“At an absolute minimum, I want full kits and a special ops team on standby as QRF.”
“QRF?” Qadir asked.
“Quick reaction force. They save our hides if this goes south.”
“You’ve got a deal, Colonel,” Eldred said as she smiled from ear to ear. “I knew CIS could count on its CDF brethren.”
Yeah, here goes nothing. David let out a belly laugh. “Don’t go getting too cocky, agent. This still has a lot of ways it can go sideways.”
“Agreed,” Qadir interjected. “It is almost time for mid-day prayers. When do we leave?”
“Tomorrow morning, first light. It’s too dangerous to go now. We wouldn’t get to his compound until after dark and traveling out there in the dark is a death sentence from all the roving gangs.”
“Great. You’d think they could put this on the tourist advertisements?” David said, his voice full of mirth.
Qadir chuckled politely. “Should we go back to the Lion of Judah?”
“No need,” Eldred quickly interjected. “I’ve arranged for guest spaces for both of you here.”
David stood up. “Good. I’ve got plenty of paperwork to get done. The bane of my existence.”
To muted laughs from the two women, he walked out of the conference room.
For the second time in an hour, Edward Feldt hurled a glass across the room while simultaneously letting out a guttural roar. Made of an unbreakable polymer designed for space flight, it didn’t shatter, but it did make a loud noise as it clattered to the floor. He fell back into his plush office chair and stared at his computerized command center.
“Boss, you okay?” the voice of one of his most trusted lieutenants, Benoit, called from just outside.
“I’m fine,” he ground out. “Come in.”
The door swung open, and in Benoit strode. “Boss, it’s just one ship.”
“Just one ship?” Feldt asked. “I have a traitor in my midst!” The second sentence was delivered at a high, loud pitch. “To hell with the ship! I want the traitor found and tortured until I know exactly what they’ve done.”
“I’ve questioned my people, boss. Nothing.”
Feldt glanced up, rage coursing through him like a raging river. If anyone but Benoit had said that to me, I’d kill them. “What about the security scanners and cameras in the bay?”
“Been over them twenty times, boss. We didn’t see anything on the ship or attached to its hull while it was in the hangar. It’s possible Gilead authorities have been watching us.”
“We’d know,” Feldt replied smugly. “My payoffs ensure that. When you have half the government on your payroll, things leak out. Like the Lion of Judah being here. So no one seems to know anything?”
Time for harsh measures. “Inform everyone in the organization they have twenty-four hours to come forward. If I don’t know the identity of the rat by then, I’ll kill one member of their families.”
Benoit’s face blanched. “All of us, sir?”
Feldt met his ashen expression with harsh indifference. “Everyone. Let it be motivation.”
“Got it, boss.”
They’re all so whipped. “Good. Now get out of here and spread the word.”
“Yes, boss,” Benoit replied before he turned and left, closing the door behind him.
Alone, Feldt began to process his thoughts. While the leak in his organization was terrible enough, the Terran Coalition being present and apparently being approved to engage military action in Gileadean space was a disturbing new development. Perhaps I need some external assistance. He let out a giggle at the bad pun before punching up an encrypted vidlink to a League of Sol External Security drop account.
It took nearly thirty minutes for a picture laced with static to appear. “Authorize,” a disembodied voice said, the sound coming out of the speaker on his tablet.
“Feldt. Alpha, kilo, tango, six, eight, one. My voice is my authentication.”
“What do you want?”
“The Terran Coalition has arrived. They’re hunting for my organization. Because I’m moving your product.”
“Are you no longer capable of distributing our product?”
“I require… assistance.”
“No one requires something from the League. The League decides what it will do on behalf of humanity, Mr. Feldt.”
Feldt leaned back in his chair and laughed. “You’re using me to push a recreational drug that kills its users. Don’t lecture me on what you’re doing for humanity. I don’t care. I want my money and the Lion of Judah off my planet. Send help, or I’ll cut a deal with them.”
“No one threatens the League of Sol.”
Feldt’s eyes focused on the camera built into his tablet, projecting complete confidence and cold resolve. “I don’t make threats. Only promises. Do something, or else.”
“We’ll be in touch,” the voice replied, and the connection cut.
The thin veneer of self-control almost cracked again as he picked up the tablet, and his hand went to hurl it. Stopping at the last moment, he set the device down and focused his breathing. This is no good. I must remain calm. Calm and collected at all times. Feldt’s mouth curled up into a menacing grin. “The League will do what I demand because I’ve got them over a barrel. When I’m done, I’ll do what no one else could. Defeat the Terran Coalition do-gooders and the Lion of Judah.” He leaned back in the chair and laughed. Then I’ll control Gilead for good.
Ruth strode through a passageway, nearly running into another crewman, she was so lost in her thoughts. She walked quickly, not wanting to test Hanson’s order that she only got thirty minutes with Taylor. After she rounded a corner, the medical bay was directly ahead. Pausing outside of it, she pulled her uniform shirt down and closed her eyes. I wish I had been there for him, rather than getting myself into a fight.
Pushing through the hatch, Ruth found herself in the middle of the busy medical bay as nurses and doctors tended to patients. She walked over to a blue smocked nurse. “Excuse me, but where is Lieutenant Taylor?”
“Bed sixteen,” she replied, pointing down toward a private room.
Ruth made her way down the rows of beds, pausing outside the room whose door was open. A voice behind her caused an involuntary jump.
“Lieutenant Goldberg?” Tural asked.
Ruth whirled around. “Uh, yes, Doctor,” she stammered.
“How’s he doing?”
“Lieutenant Taylor? He’s in a coma.”
Ruth’s jaw dropped open in shock. “I thought it was… I thought he was okay,” she said, fighting to keep her emotions in check and portray the stoic military professional.
Tural reached up and put his hand on her shoulder. “By Allah, he had enough of that infernal drug he should’ve died. Taylor is a strong warrior. He’s resting, and I have every confidence he will recover fully.”
“Then why is he in a coma?”
“Because the drug shut down half of his central nervous system. To put it in layman’s terms, his body is restarting itself.”
“Can he understand us? Hear us?”
Tural shook his head. “Most coma patients hear and see everything around them. I would act as if he could, Lieutenant. I’m sure he’d welcome the company.”
“Thank you, Doctor. May I sit with him for thirty minutes?”
“I’m sure he’d appreciate it, but why that specific period?”
Ruth blushed. “I, uh, got into a bar fight. I’ve been restricted to quarters by Major Hanson.”
“In that case, you’d better get to it, but I won’t tell on you if you’re just a few minutes over,” Tural replied with a wink.
Flashing a smile in return, Ruth walked into the room and sat down next to the bed. She took his hand in hers, and after a glance back to ensure they were alone, she squeezed it. “Robert, if you can hear me, I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you. Hang in there and keep fighting.”
Tears streamed down her face as she stared at Taylor’s nearly lifeless body. A medical scanning band attached to his wrist and connected wirelessly to a monitor for his vitals. Strong and steady, they showed he was stable. A multitude of thoughts ran through her head. Things she hadn’t said now seemed out of reach and regret surged to the surface. All the times I wanted to let him in, but I didn’t. She sat quietly, holding his hand until the timer she’d set on her commlink went off. Time to head back to my quarters. No, not yet.
Ruth stood and bowed her head. “Heal us, Adonai, and we shall be healed. Save us, and we shall be saved. For You are our glory. Send complete healing of every illness to Robert. For You, O God, are the faithful, merciful Physician. Praised are You, Adonai, who heals the sick of Your people, Israel.” After finishing the traditional Jewish prayer, she knelt at the bed and again took Taylor’s hand in hers. “God, I’m still struggling with this idea of a conversation with You… but here goes. Please help this man. He is decent and honorable, one of Your servants. Save him from the effects of this drug and allow him to wake up whole. In the name of Your Son, I pray, amen.”
Robert Taylor opened his eyes to find himself in the middle of blinding white light. As far as he could see, there was nothing but pure light. Where am I? His last memory was pitching forward into the conference table on Gilead. I don’t think I’m on Gilead anymore.
“Robert?” a voice called out.
Taylor whirled around, searching for its source. The musical lilt to the voice was so familiar, yet so distant. A hand touched his arm. His eyes moved to track the source of the touch, and he froze at the sight of a tall, thin woman in peak physical shape, with blonde hair and piercing green eyes.
“Good to see you remember what I look like.”
It was hard to fully make her out in the whiteness of the void, but the distinct facial features, hair, and bright smile of his dead wife were there. I’m losing it. He closed his eyes and reopened them. She was still there. “Rachel?”
“You had it right the first time,” she replied. The smile on her face was warm and full.
Taylor scrunched his brow together. “Where are we?”
“Beyond… in between. Somewhere other than your natural existence.”
The light suddenly faded, and the entire scene before him changed in the blink of an eye. He found himself standing next to her in a wooded glen, overlooking a lake with a small wood cabin visible in the distance. It feels so real. He realized that it smelled like the outdoors. It can’t be real. Then it dawned on him—everything was a little off. Like the view through a piece of smoked glass. Still, it was tranquil and beautiful.
“Care to walk with me?” Rachel asked.
He took her hand in his, marveling at how it looked exactly like his wife’s hand. He caressed her long fingers and brought it up to his lips and kissed her wrist. “I’ve missed you.” Where am I? Is any of it real?
Rachel grinned before she leaned in and kissed him on the lips. “Perhaps this is reality, husband. Maybe it’s all in your mind. But you’re going to be here for a while.”
She shrugged and slipped her hand into his, leading him down a path toward the cabin. “Listen.”
He stopped moving and kept as quiet as possible. There was a distant sound, almost like a voice. “Is someone talking?”
“In your normal reality, people are trying to help you. Doctors, nurses. But you’re far from them now.”
“I’m sorry,” Taylor said.
“I let you down,” he replied, beginning to cry. At first, just a tear, then full-on sobs. “I should’ve joined the Marines and been with you. Maybe you wouldn’t have been killed.”
She cupped her hands around his cheeks. “Do you think they’d have let us serve together?”
“Maybe. I don’t know.”
“Pretty sure the answer’s no. You weren’t the reason for my death, Robert.”
“I’ve condemned myself for it for years.”
He felt her arms wrap around him. The landscape around them changed, like a holoprojector changing scene. One second, the forest was there, the next, they were standing in a church, but not just any church. It was a small chapel, festooned with flowers, garlands, and decorated for a wedding. Our wedding.
“Do you remember this day?”
“Happiest day of my life,” Taylor said, turning toward her with tears in his eyes. “You were so beautiful. I mean, you were always beautiful, but it was extra special.”
Rachel giggled and reached her hand out to tweak his nose. “Still digging yourself in and out of holes. It was the happiest day of my life too. Why don’t you think about me like this?”
Taylor turned away, staring at the pews of the church. The memory came alive in his mind, with throngs of guests, his parents and friends lined up in neat rows. “I was so scared standing up there, waiting for you. I thought you would come to your senses and run out the back.”
Her hand tugged his face around into her line of sight. “Never, Robert Taylor. I loved you then, I love you now. Someday, I’ll see you again and still love you.”
“If I’m where you say I am, it might be sooner rather than later.”
“Do you want to die?”
“I don’t know.”
“Sounds like something you should figure out. Maybe we can do that together, here.”
Just like that, they were back at the forest. Though this time, they were directly in front of the cabin. “You’re probably a figment of my imagination. A manifestation of my subconscious shielding me from the pain without,” Taylor said as he turned his head toward her.
“Maybe. Maybe not. Does it matter, if it feels real?”
“I suppose not.”
Rachel took his hand and beckoned to the cabin. “It’s not going to freshen itself up. Come on, soldier. We’ve got work to do.”
A grin spread across Taylor’s face as she tugged him up the steps to the log house; indeed, it seemed to need some work done to it. Debris was piled up against the side of it, as if someone had dumped a load of branches and tree limbs, while dust was evident on the windows. This could be fun. He allowed himself to accept the vision as reality and followed her.
Aibek squared his shoulders and walked through an open doorway inside the Gileadean security HQ. While there to support David’s efforts, he had also been tasked directly by the Saurian leader—Chief Minister Obi—to gather information on Orbita and its possible effects on their physiology.
Seeing how the drug ravages humans exposed to it has scared Chief Minister Obe. He couldn’t figure out why someone would use a substance such as this in the first place. Then again, there are many things about humans I cannot fathom.
“Greetings, Colonel,” Nelson announced as he stood up from the table.
Another conference room. Humans, always with the incessant talking. Aibek scowled and stood, pointedly staring at the politician. “What information do you have for us?”
“I was expecting Colonel Cohen this morning.”
Aibek opened his mouth, displaying teeth and making a slight hissing sound as he spoke, an indication from a Saurian that they were angry. “He is otherwise occupied. You will be dealing with me. Answer the question I posed.”
Nelson sat in one of the chairs. “We have no updates.”
“Did you complete your DNA scans of the wreckage?”
“Have you analyzed the comms traffic between the ship and Gilead?”
“We’re working on it, Colonel Aibek.”
Aibek leaned forward and again showed his teeth. “If you were a Saurian under my command, I would have you whipped for such incompetence.”
Beads of sweat broke out on Nelson’s brow. “I apologize for our lack of progress.”
“Do not patronize me,” Aibek replied as he held up his hand. “Of all the traits humanity possess, it is the one I detest the most. I want answers. Truthful answers, on behalf of the Terran Coalition and the Saurian Empire.”
Nelson crossed his arms in front of his chest. “I’ll do my best.”
“Do you believe Feldt is dead?”
Aibek sat down at the table, directly across from the human. He stared intently at him. “The first truth you have spoken today.”
“Colonel, you must understand, the Gileadean government is tired of this problem. We want it to go away. We are a planet that specializes in—”
“Debauchery,” Aibek interjected, cutting Nelson off. “I’ve experienced it firsthand. Your planet seemingly thrives on it.”
Fire lit up behind Nelson’s eyes as he stood, propelling the chair he’d been in backward. “We came here on colony ships with nothing, Colonel. We turned a desert into a resort and used what skills we had to thrive. I do not care for the holier-than-thou Terran Coalition types coming to my world and telling us how to run our affairs.”
“Do I look like a human to you?” Aibek asked, his tone snarky in the extreme. “I speak as a Saurian. This vain importance you assign to leisure, it is not honorable. Not to mention putting harmful chemicals into your body to make yourself feel better. I find this entire world to be repugnant and a violation of everything the Prophet teaches.”
“I’m glad we’ve got that out of the way,” Nelson thundered. “I don’t give a damn what you think about Gilead, me, or how we do things, Colonel. Do I make myself clear?”
“Perfectly. Let me be equally clear. Gilead will make itself an enemy of the Saurian empire if you do not provide us with the information I seek.”
“I’ll give you anything I can, Colonel Aibek,” Nelson replied, his voice tight and loud.
“Does Orbita affect Saurians?”
“We don’t know. Do you want to test it?”
Aibek snorted. “Mock me at your own peril, human.” This man offends me to my very core.
“The truth about Feldt being on the freighter.”
“He probably wasn’t on it, even if the DNA results say he was. Happy?”
With a flourish, Aibek stood and gave a toothy smile. “See, was that not easy?”
“We do seek to provide pleasure for our guests. If you’ll excuse me, matters of state beckon.”
“When will I receive another update?”
“I’ll have a liaison officer brief you in an hour.” Nelson turned on his heel and stalked out before Aibek could respond.
I believe that is what Colonel Cohen refers to as being dismissed. The thought of smashing through the office building until he found someone who’d answer his questions came to mind, but he squashed it. Diplomacy. How humans put up with this is beyond me.
League Navy Headquarters
November 4th, 2462
Admiral Pierre Seville paused outside of his office in the expansive League Navy HQ building in Geneva, Switzerland. Sometimes I miss the simplicity of going out each morning and tending my potatoes and leeks. The memories of eight years spent on an agricultural colony, supposedly in retirement, but in reality, a punishment for the disastrous first battle of Canaan, were never far from the forefront of his thoughts. It was quiet in the reception area. Too quiet. Pushing the large ten-foot-tall door open, he found Dmitry Borisov, the Director of the League’s External Security Service, sitting in one of the chairs directly in front of his desk.
“Director, such a pleasant surprise.” Seville’s voice dripped acid.
Borisov stood and faced him with a cold smile. “It has been some time since I’ve seen you, Admiral.”
“Has it? The time flies as the Terran Coalition invades border world after border world.”
“Trouble with Pallis?”
“He’s looking for a scapegoat.”
“I noticed in the last committee meeting,” Borisov commented.
Seville slid into the ornate chair behind his desk and smiled thinly. “Funny how External Security is always insulated from such concerns.”
“I find it important to have information at my disposal to avoid such misunderstandings.”
I’ll bet you do. A dirt file on every member of the Committee. “What can I do for you, Director?”
“The wonder drug with extensive side effects that turned you into a narcotic?”
“Yes… we have a problem.”
I don’t have all day, little man. “Well, out with it, Director. I have defeats to lead our fleet into.”
Borisov leaned his head back and laughed. “Really, Admiral. Your mood is awful. You should be careful your mouth doesn’t get you into a situation it can’t get out of. Especially with a man who has much, ah, information.” He paused for a moment until Seville’s face blanched. “Now that I have your attention, let’s get down to business. Edward Feldt has been identified by the Terran Coalition’s internal security apparatus. They’ve sent the Lion of Judah to Gilead, with a cockamamie story about shore leave and a port visit.”
“I fail to see why this is my problem,” Seville said, his tone one of amusement. Let the weasel sweat a bit.
“Because our necks are tied together,” Borisov stated as he snapped his head down, focusing a piercing gaze at Seville's eyes. “Or do you not remember the terms of our agreement?”
Damn this man. I hate him almost as much as I hate the Cohens. One of Seville’s best skills was knowing when to cave. He’d made a career out of it. Now was one of those times. He softened his expression and tried to project what he hoped was an authentic smile. “Of course I do, Director. I’m unsure what the Navy can do to help you.” It took all of the self-control he had remaining to not add “push drugs” onto the end of his sentence.
“The EMP beam weapon the Navy’s been experimenting with, what is its status?”
“Unsuitable for League ships at large. Too finicky, and overtaxes our destroyers and cruisers power grids. We’re focused on implementing the improved plasma cannons fleetwide instead.”
Borisov nodded thoughtfully, his hand moving to stroke his chin. “Do you have any prototypes in good working order?”
“I’m sure we do. Why?”
“Send a couple to Mr. Feldt.”
Seville’s face turned red. “You want to send some of our newest technology to a drug dealer? Have you lost your ever-loving mind, Dimitry?”
“Not in the slightest,” Borisov replied as a nasty grin spread across his face. “Feldt has a destroyer-sized ship with an overcharged set of fusion reactors. I bet the Lion of Judah and her crew will flush him from his area of control on Gilead and he’ll flee into space.”
“A destroyer stands no chance against the Terran Coalition’s biggest battleship.”
“Perhaps. Perhaps not. Perhaps the point is solely to cause as long and destructive of a battle in Gilead’s skies as possible.”
Seville found himself once again impressed with the skulking spymaster. His attempts to manipulate the state of affairs and play all sides against each other is something to behold. Ah… the great game. “And sow discord between the neutral planets and the Terran Coalition?”
“You’re not as dense as you come across, Admiral,” Borisov said, his wide grin exposing a gleaming white set of teeth. “With any luck, an errant missile or magnet-cannon round will hit neutral shipping and cause an intergalactic incident.”
“Excellent.” Seville let the insult pass; engaging in petty tit for tat was beneath his status as an officer of the League. “If you’ll excuse me, Director. I have a staff briefing in fifteen minutes I need to prepare for.”
Borisov stood, his glowering form towering over the desk Seville sat behind. “Of course, Admiral.” He turned to leave, then paused. “One item of note. One Captain Yurchenko, you know him, yes?”
“He’s my chief of staff.”
The color drained from Seville’s face.
Borisov continued. “He was arrested last night on charges of treason, for writing a report suggesting peace with the Terrans is the best outcome we can hope for. Such anti-social agitprop will not be tolerated, you understand.”
Shock set it in as Seville processed what was said. Yurchenko was one of the most committed officers I’ve ever known. He’d never say such things. No, this is Borisov’s way of reminding me of who’s in charge. He forced his face to a neutral expression. “I see, Director. A shame, as he was a good officer.”
“Yes, it should be a reminder to us all how quick it is to fall from grace.”
Message received. Someday, I’ll kill you for it. Seville stared into his eyes, refusing to break eye contact. “Indeed, no one is above the committee in the League.”
“I must be going, Admiral,” Borisov suddenly said as he stood. “Be ready to make the weapon transfer when I direct it and ensure those who entrust with the task do so quietly.”
“Of course,” Seville replied, watching the Russian leave and close the door behind him. Leaning back into his chair, he pondered for a moment doing something to help his former chief of staff, before dismissing it as an unnecessary risk.
While Aibek was assigned to diplomatic duty with the Gileadeans, David was back at the Terran Coalition embassy, getting ready to move out. He’d gotten up at 0430 hours, normal “O-dark-thirty,” and exercised with a hike around the compound, falling in with a group of Marines. He suspected the sergeant running the PT had kicked the pace up a tad to see if he’d fall out, but fitness training was one of his few passions outside of the job of commanding the Lion of Judah.
After a small breakfast, David wandered down to the SCIF where CIS had its offices, looking for Eldred. Instead, he found Qadir waiting outside the security door, her bright purple hijab standing out in the otherwise drab corridor.
“Good morning, Director,” David said, a smile on his face.
Qadir turned and grinned. “Salaam alaikum, Colonel.”
“Good night’s sleep?”
“As much as can be had on this infidel planet.”
Unable to suppress a laugh, David shook his head. “Still don’t care for Gilead, eh?”
“I’m something of a conservative, Colonel Cohen. I feel this kind of decadence is disturbing. I also can’t get the disgusting images out of my mind from those cards they shoved in our hands on the way out of the spaceport.”
He shrugged. “So you’ve said. It’s their planet. I don’t care for it either, but I don’t live here.”
“I believe immoral living attracts people like Edward Feldt. I would think as an Orthodox Jew, you would be more disturbed by what we’ve seen so far on Gilead.”
I’ve got enough problems to deal with back in the Terran Coalition than worry about a neutral planet. “It boils down to it being none of our business because they’re not in the Coalition. The reason we care is they’re exporting Orbita. Aside from that, Gilead can do whatever it wants.”
The debate was cut short by the security hatch swinging open, and Eldred walking out. A far cry from the conservative attire from the day before, she now resembled a Gileadean native, with short jeans and a crop top, along with a pair of sunglasses. Met with abject stares from David and Qadir, she laughed. “We’re going undercover, you two. Gotta look the part.”
David glanced down at his civilian attire: a navy-blue shirt and light-colored pants. “What’s wrong with what I’m wearing?”
“Don’t take this the wrong way, Colonel, but you looked like you just walked off a military base. You won’t fool anyone. I’ve got a change of clothes for both of you. I like to be prepared,” Eldred said as she held up a small black bag. “If you two will follow me.”
Qadir appeared a bit uncomfortable and fell in beside David as they trooped through the facility. It wasn’t long before they stopped directly in front of another set of security doors. Eldred punched a code into the security panel, and it scanned her palm. A moment later, they swung open, revealing an armory.
“Whoa. That’s some serious hardware,” David commented as he walked into the room and examined the rows of rifles, sidearms, and heavy weapons.
“This is also the TCMC’s armory for the embassy,” she explained. “There’s some basic ballistic body armor over there. Feldt’s goons don’t use energy weapons for the most part. They like to inflict damage and pain.”
Qadir walked over to the rack of armor and pulled a vest off. “Wouldn’t power armor be more prudent for this mission?”
“There’s none here. Gilead won’t allow type three armor on their soil.”
“Technically, this is our soil,” David pointed out, referencing the concept that an embassy is sovereign territory. “But I suppose since we’re always trying to play nice with the neutrals, we let it go.”
Eldred flashed a grin. “Exactly, Colonel.”
David retrieved an armored vest for himself, along with a battle rifle with integrated optics, twelve magazines of ammunition and a sidearm. While he busied himself collecting gear, the others did as well.
Between a medical kit, ammunition, communications equipment, and explosives, when Eldred was done, she had a small arsenal in the black duffle bag she carried.
Qadir snorted as she wrapped up her weapons selection. “We have enough here to wage a small war.”
“Let’s get something straight. Feldt fancies himself as a ruler over the wastes. He has enough gunmen to be considered a significant security risk, in that the police won’t even go out there. Only the Gileadean National Guard will, and half of them are paid off. We’re walking into a lawless area with only ourselves to count on.”
Pausing as he adjusted the sight of the battle rifle he’d selected for himself, David grunted. “How many gunmen are we talking about here?”
“He has at least four or five hundred security troops, if you can call them that. They’re untrained by military standards, but we know they can fight. Feldt’s used them to decimate his competitors.”
David dropped the last few items into the duffle and glanced between Eldred and Qadir. “We need some help.”
“There is no help, Colonel. Gilead’s military is too corrupt.”
“Ah, you forget the Lion of Judah is in orbit.”
“Your Marine unit?”
“There are three thousand Marines on the Lion, yes. But I was thinking a bit more surgical in our approach. We also have tier-one operators on board. I could get a team down here to assist.”
“It might be prudent to wait on such an action until we see what we’re up against,” Qadir’s voice cut in. “Far be it from me to be the voice of caution, but wouldn’t we risk an intergalactic incident by introducing troops without authorization?”
She’s got a good point there. We’re cursed if we do and cursed if we don’t. “Director Qadir is right. I’ll put them on standby as previously planned.” David engaged his commlink. “Cohen to Lion of Judah.”
A few moments later, the ship’s second watch communications officer, Second Lieutenant Bell’s voice filled his ear. “I read you loud and clear, Colonel.”
“Patch me in to Major Hanson.”
Again, it only took a second for Hanson’s voice to echo through the commlink. “Good morning, sir.”
“Same to you, Major. How’s my ship?”
“Everything is going well, sir. We performed a full search and rescue pass on Master One’s previous location. No survivors, though we expected that. Little was found in the debris.”
“I’m about to depart the embassy with Director Qadir and CIS. We’re going to go looking for a lead. I need you to have a tier-one team on standby. Get with Captain Rajneesh and ensure he’s standing by.”
“What about your previous orders not to deploy assets unless otherwise authorized, sir?”
“Keep them warm, Major. I’ll let you know when and if to deploy. Understood?”
“Aye aye, sir.”
“Cohen out.” David returned the communication device to his pocket and briefly closed his eyes. I hope I don’t regret this. Going out with little backup seems unwise, but I’ll defer to Eldred’s judgment. If she says she can get us in, I have to believe her.
“Let’s head up topside,” Eldred began, interrupting his thoughts. “I’ve got some transportation waiting for us.”
Little was said by the three of them as they moved through the embassy. The place was like a maze, with interlocking corridors, cube farms, banks of offices, and large open areas. It reminded David of the main space station over Canaan, at least a smaller version of it. They passed through a warehouse area and ended up beside one of the sorriest, beat up, and dented vehicles he’d ever seen.
“Ah, here we go,” Eldred said, her tone cheery.
“This is a joke, right?” Qadir asked. “Twenty-one eighty-five called and wants its electric jalopy back.”
After their laughter died down, David stroked his chin. “Does it run?”
Eldred crossed her arms in front of her chest. “It runs. Might look like a piece of junk, but under the hood, everything is great. We can’t drive into the desert in an expensive ride. The key part of this mission is subtly acting the part. Our cover is we’re tourists looking for a fix. We heard about Orbita and want to try it. That’s the only reason people go out to Feldt country.”
“Ride?” Qadir questioned as she peered in the window.
“Gilead’s helicar network only extends to the edges of its capital, and with much of the planet undeveloped and without infrastructure, they use old school, non-autonomous vehicles here. There’s a whole culture around it. Something about tricking out your ride with gizmos and gadgets.”
David rolled his eyes. “Let’s get this show on the road.” He dropped the duffle bag next to the trunk. “Care to do the honors?”
She touched a button and the latch disengaged, causing the trunk door to open. “I’ll make sure the long-range batteries are topped off while you two change.” Eldred pointed toward a pair of bathrooms. “There’s clothes for both of you in there.”
This is going to be interesting. Quite interesting. David stalked off to the men’s restroom, curious to see what the agent had up her sleeve.
After returning from the rural spaceport, Carmina Ramirez had gone to the market then back to her apartment. Visiting the outdoors always drained her. I get to see the abject poverty and misery the rest of Feldt’s serfs live in. A glance around living room confirmed the luxury she had. It was one of the reasons she’d sought out Coalition Intelligence six months prior. The next morning, the day went by slowly. There were few things to do inside of her gilded cage. One of her few hobbies was painting. She had a landscape painting of the desert and the mountains beyond in progress and spent the better part of four hours working on it.
A knock at the door interrupted her with a start. The specter of being found out was never far from her mind, but after the events of the previous day, they were firmly in the forefront of her thoughts. She set her brush down on the paint board she held and put it down on the nearest counter. The knock came again, its sound shaking the apartment. As her heart pounded in her chest, she walked to it and undid the latch. As she swung the door open, there stood one of Feldt’s top lieutenants—a man she knew as Benoit.
“Good morning, Ms. Ramirez,” he said with exaggerated formality.
She almost jumped out of her skin. There was something about how he spoke. He knows. Forcing the fear down, she smiled. “Good morning, Benoit. What can I do for you today?”
“May I come in? I have a few questions for you.”
“There was a security breach. Boss challenged me to find out who did it. You know how he is.”
Ramirez stepped back from the entryway and gestured inside. “Of course. I’ll do what I can.” She did her best to keep an inscrutable expression on her face while gripping her hands tightly in a fist, to avoid them trembling in plain sight.
Leading the way to her living room, she sat down and smoothed her skirt out as she did. Its bright floral pattern was in stark contrast to her mood, which was anything but cheery. “Please, have a seat.”
Benoit sat, staring at her with piercing eyes. “How are you?”
“I’m fine. I’ve spent the morning working on a painting for Edward.”
His mouth curled up into a grin. “Ah, I’m sure he’ll like it. Tell me, have you heard of our problem?”
“I’m afraid not. He doesn’t keep me informed of such matters. I attend to other needs, as I’m sure you know.”
Benoit stood and started pacing around the small living room. “Oh, I do. You’re quite untouchable because of it.” He stopped and paused near her. “We lost a freighter yesterday to the blasted Terran Coalition. The mightiest warship they have, the Lion of Judah, is here. At Gilead.”
She glanced up, and her eyes met his. “I wonder why.”
“Because they’re looking for us… for him. They didn’t get lucky—there was a leak. Someone tipped them off.”
“That’s horrible. Who would do such a thing after all he’s done for us?” She frowned and bit her lip. I know he suspects.
Benoit’s face appeared an inch from hers. “I know you did it.”
Ramirez turned to her side as the foul stench of his breath washed over her. “That’s a lie!” she practically shouted. Her hands shook, and her mind started to freak out. How do I get away from him? I don’t have any weapons. How do I get out of this?
“I tracked down every person who’d been in the same hangar as the ship. Oh, you had a great cover story. The special meal bit was quite inventive. But you stand out, Carmina. With your fancy dresses, shoes, and hairdo, you’re very memorable. Several men recall you walked around the vessel and out of sight. That got me wondering, so I pulled the security holocamera files. Not the ones you can see; the hidden ones you didn’t realize were there.”
Her face went white as he continued.
“It took me hours, and I had to run the files through a quantum computer for image enhancement. Want to guess what I found? I saw you put something on the hull. Probably a tracker of some sort. It’s enough to keep Feldt from killing a member of my family, and a member of everyone’s family.”
“What do you mean?” Ramirez asked, her mouth wide open in dismay.
“Don’t you recall your initiation? He keeps tabs on our friends and family. If we disobey, they die. The way he encouraged us to find out who did this? Threatening to kill someone close to us. All of us.”
It took her a moment to realize what Benoit had said, and for her mind to process it. He’s a monster. Ramirez had always known Feldt was insane, but there was a method to his madness. At least typically. “I didn’t know he would go so far.”
“Why not? He openly admits he’s a sociopath. Did you think you could get out of this without paying the price?”
“I have no family or friends. My parents are dead. I thought he’d kill me and only me. Or maybe the Terrans would keep their word.”
Benoit backhanded her with enough force to cause her to cry out in pain and blood to drip out of her nose. “No one gets away from Feldt. We’re sentenced to work for the devil the rest of our lives. You’d better pray he decides to kill you quickly. The amount of pain he’s capable of delivering is beyond comprehension. I’ve seen him amputate someone’s legs and force them to crawl across a minefield until they hit a mine.”
“Kill me,” she said, looking up into his eyes. “Please. Kill me. Say I struggled, and it was an accident.”
“I would if I could. But he’d call it a failure and use his infernal system to murder someone I care about.”
Ramirez closed her eyes, thinking back to the day she decided to do something about the terror she saw delivered by Feldt, the day she asked God to help her defeat him. Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Let it come quickly to me. “I will not resist you, for the sake of everyone else who lives under this monster.”
He stood, hand resting on a sidearm on his hip. “If you move, I’ll injure you enough to subdue but not kill,” Benoit began. “Now stand up and walk out in front of me.”
The vehicle bounded over another sand dune, briefly catching air before landing with a bone-jarring thud on the unpaved road. Road isn’t the right word for this dirt path we’re driving on. David kept glancing from side to side, front and back to maintain complete three-hundred-sixty-degree situational awareness. I can’t believe CIS refit some electric car so old it could have come with the Exodus.
“I believe you enjoy jumping this contraption, Eldred,” Qadir yelled from the backseat.
“Yeeeeeeeehaw!” Eldred shouted.
David shook his head. “I didn’t realize we were aiming for a demolition derby here.” Gazing out at the endless desert, he continued, “This place reminds me of Arabia Prime.”
Eldred whipped them around a hole in the dirt. “Without the giant replica of Mecca.”
“Do not use the name of our most holy place in conjunction with this cesspool,” Qadir said icily.
David glanced into the backseat. “I don’t think she was comparing the two’s religious population. Are we there yet?”
Both women laughed at the lame joke.
“They let five-year-olds command starships now?” Eldred said as she snickered.
“Something like that.” In the distance, light reflected off a piece of glass or alloy—something reflective. It immediately got David’s attention, and he focused in on it. “Company?”
Eldred turned her head to look in the same direction as David. “Feldt’s people have checkpoints throughout the desert to pick up interlopers, government patrols, or other gangs looking to rob them. Those aforementioned gangs also have random people out here trying to hijack Feldt’s shipments.”
David slid his hand into his pants pocket, feeling the sidearm within and confirming the safety was off. “Serious opposition?”
“Nah. Half strung out, but they have comms devices. We don’t go loud if at all possible.”
Nodding silently, David resumed his vigil. After another ten minutes, the reflection had come into focus: a small shanty, recently built by the looks of it, stood by itself in the desert, near a tall dune. Even a kilometer away, he saw several military-aged males milling about.
“This thing wasn’t here the last time I came this way,” Eldred said.
David didn’t take his eyes off the structure and potential enemies. “You come out here often?”
“Enough to know when things are different.”
I think they’ve noticed us. He narrowed his eyes and squinted to see better. The men had unslung their rifles, which looked at this distance to be civilian models to David and were walking toward the “road.” “Qadir, take off your hijab and hide it. Now.”
“Director,” David began as he turned to face the backseat, “I don’t think many devout people come out here, so humor me.”
She nodded her agreement and pulled the garment off her head before stuffing it under the seat.
Eldred cleared her throat. “Stay frosty, guys. This could go south in a hurry, but remember, we go loud, our cover is blown. Got it?”
“Loud and clear,” David replied as he glanced at Eldred. He returned his gaze to the windshield to see one of the men now standing in the middle of the path, waving his hands wildly.
Eldred slowed the vehicle down, and the cloud of dust kicked up by the tires caught up with them, sending a wave of it through the air. The three men—that they could see—surrounded the car. The one previously standing in the road walked up to the driver’s side window, which she lowered.
He leaned into the car. “License and registration, please, miss?” After delivering the line, he laughed loudly.
David could smell the booze on his breath immediately. To play along, he laughed together with the gunman, as did Eldred and Qadir.
Eldred shrugged. “Don’t have them with me, officer… not much use for such things out here.”
The man turned serious in an instant. “Where are a fine group of people such as yourselves going in the wastes?”
“We have a few stops to make to replenish our supplies,” Eldred said, flashing a smile. “You know it’s hard to obtain some things in the city these days.”
“I’m afraid you’ll have to turn around.”
“Orders of Mr. Feldt. No one in or out today. Come back next week, and I’ll hook you up, little lady.”
David was starting to formulate a reply in his mind when the crack of a gunshot startled him as it came out of nowhere. It took him a moment to realize the man who’d be questioning them was falling backward with a bullet wound evident in the center of his forehead. What the heck? A second later, the smell of propellent reached his nose and he twisted around to see Qadir holding a pistol, its barrel still smoking.
The two remaining gunmen raised their rifles, and their fingers went for the triggers.
More shots rang out from behind David, jolting him into action. He reached down and drew the sidearm in his pocket as a burst slammed into the door, directly under the window. The practiced motions of muscle memory broke through the adrenaline coursing through his body and he leveled the pistol, sighting down on the nearest enemy’s center mass. Three shots later and the man flopped to the ground, blood stains spreading across his chest.
“Shit!” Eldred screamed as more bullets impacted the windshield of the vehicle, causing cracks to spider across it and severely limiting visibility. The safety glass didn’t shatter, but more shots continued to impact it.
We’re dead if we stay in this thing. David flung his door open and rolled out. The gunman remaining shifted his focus and fired another burst that went wide. These idiots must be high. The click of a dry magazine was music to his ears. He leaned out from cover to see the man trying to reload his rifle quickly. The lack of training was apparent as he fumbled with the weapon and lost control of the new magazine.
“Drop it!” Eldred shouted. She, too, was out of the car and aiming at the man with her pistol.
With a crazed expression on his face, the man continued to try to jam the magazine into the rifle. Spit flew out of his mouth, and he uttered a loud series of curses as it wouldn’t engage. Finally, he tossed the weapon aside, pulled a long-bladed knife off his belt, and charged.
David didn’t hesitate. He squeezed the trigger repeatedly on his sidearm and felled the enemy with a series of shots to his center mass. As the man dropped, clutching his chest, he turned to Qadir, who had also exited the vehicle. “What was that? You could’ve gotten us all killed!”
“I assessed he was about to take hostile action and decided the element of surprise was our only ally,” Qadir shot back, her voice tight and loud. “We had no choice but to eliminate them.”
Eldred’s face was blood red as she walked around to face the other woman, her eyes flashing anger. “They would’ve let us through. I’ve been an intelligence agent my entire career. You sit behind a desk. I should’ve never asked you to come. Now we’re screwed!”
“Hey!” David shouted. “Enough. What’s done is done. Focus on the mission. We need to determine if they contacted their version of an HQ and figure out how to move forward.” For a moment, he thought Eldred and Qadir would come to blows based on their body language, forcing him to intervene, but both backed off after his statement.
“Yeah, let's check them all for comms gear, then the shanty. If we’re super—”
Eldred didn’t finish her statement as a burst of gunfire shattered the calm.
Punishing himself mentally, he turned as fast as he could, pistol at the ready to see a fourth man with the same type of civilian long rifle aiming at them from twenty meters away. It mentally registered that the shots were directed at Qadir a split second before she screamed in pain.
“I’m hit!” Qadir yelled out as she fired her weapon without proper aim. A dark red stain was visible on her upper right shoulder.
David forced himself to concentrate on the threat and not on assisting his fallen comrade. He sighted down the iron sights of the pistol and squeezed the trigger twice. One shot went wide, but the second hit the enemy’s forehead. The man collapsed in a heap. “Eldred! Secure the hostile. I’ve got Qadir.” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Eldred take off at a brisk run while he covered the distance to the fallen woman and knelt at her side.
“Sorry, Colonel,” Qadir rasped out, in obvious pain. “I should’ve had perimeter security.”
“No, it’s on me. I’m military. Both of you are civilians.” The wound looked severe, with blood staining much of her upper shirt. David peeled it back to see a clean entry and exit wound that was actively bleeding. “Okay, the good news is the bullet’s out. The bad news is you’re losing blood. Let me get the med-kit out of that poor excuse for a car.”
“I may be a civilian, but I pride myself on being able to handle a weapon, Colonel.”
David popped open the trunk of the car and quickly located the combat med-kit, emblazoned with the logo for CDF Medical. Returning to Qadir, he snapped the plastic box open and fished out an auto-injector with standard healing gel. It was a compound designed to be used on wounds for battlefield treatment. After applying a significant amount of the substance, he cleaned up the wound area and applied bandages.
“Not bad for a fleet officer.”
“Twenty plus years in service, you learn a bit of everything in war,” he replied with a smile.
“Don’t mention it.”
They were interrupted by the return of Eldred, who walked up with her pistol held at her side. “Last one’s dead. Nice shot from twenty meters, Cohen.”
Shrugging as he finished off the bandage job, David glanced up at her. “I don’t consider taking a human life to be something the adjective ‘nice’ belongs with.”
“Yeah. I’m not sure I count these guys as human beings.”
The comment drew a sharp stare from David. “No matter what they’ve done, they’re still human. This business of labeling enemies as sub-human so it’s easy to hate them goes against everything I believe. I take no joy in killing.”
“To each their own, Colonel. How’s the Director?”
“She’ll be fine. Sore for a few days and combat ineffective until the gel sets in and promotes cellular repair.”
Qadir forced herself up off the ground, grunting in pain as she did. “I am fine.”
“You’re not fine,” David snapped, glancing about the area to maintain situational awareness. “Let’s get you inside, off your feet, and check out the shack.”
Eldred nodded and took point. She opened the front door. It didn’t contain a latch or locking mechanism visible from the exterior.
His pistol leading the way, David edged inside the small building, sweeping it side to side. The main room was quite sparse. There were two wooden chairs and a few cargo containers. A countertop built into the wall in what might be a kitchen rounded out the room, with a single interior door. “Clear right!” he shouted and shifted aim to his left. Once he heard Eldred’s footsteps behind him, he advanced and flung the flimsy door open to find it empty too. “Clear left!”
“I guess they didn’t have money left for furniture after blowing it all on Orbita,” Qadir said.
David turned to find her staggering inside, clutching at the shoulder wound before sitting. “Be careful not to aggravate the injury, Director.”
She replied with a roll of her eyes, prompting David to holster his sidearm and shift his focus to Eldred. “I don’t see any obvious communication setup in here.”
“Neither do I. But let’s make a rigorous search.”
They worked opposite sides of the room. David took the kitchen area and found nothing but several drawers of freeze-dried food packets, a few meals-ready-to-eat so old they could’ve been in the Saurian-Terran Coalition War, and various eating utensils. He moved on to a chest that contained men’s clothing, most of it smelly and stained. I don’t think they intended this to be a long-term assignment, but the fact they put up a building suggests Feldt is trying to increase security.
“Hey, check this out, Colonel,” Eldred called from across the room.
David turned and briskly closed the distance to find her peering at a printed piece of paper. Odd, who uses paper anymore? Glancing down, he realized it was a map. It looked to be topographical, with detailed notes on elevations and the locations of various buildings marked clearly. It was centered around a small town. “Is this the local area, you think?”
Eldred nodded. “I believe so. But more importantly, see all the Xs?”
He looked again and saw her point. There were small Xs marked on every path or road leading in and out of the town at various intervals. “Checkpoints.”
“Bingo. With this, it doesn’t matter if the alarm was raised—we know where they’ll be and can avoid them.”
A broad grin broke out across David’s face. “Now we’re cooking with gas. We’ll need that map. See if there’s anything else of value.” He turned to face Qadir. “Director, I don’t think it’s wise for you to press on with us. I’m going to signal the Lion of Judah and have a tier-one team sent down, along with medivac.”
Eldred cut in before Qadir could respond. “You’re bringing in more troops?”
David nodded. “They’re on alert. We’ll need the backup.”
“As much as I would prefer to go with you, Colonel… I understand. I am a liability in this state. Allow me to apologize to both of you for my rash actions.”
No sense in beating her up further. “No apology needed. After all, you did get shot. ” David grinned as he reached into his pocket and pulled out a handcomm, which he put to his lips. “Cohen to Lion of Judah.”
There was no response.
“Cohen to Lion, come in.”
The three of them exchanged glances, while Eldred pulled her comm out and tried it. “Eldred to CIS agent on duty.”
“Okay, that’s a problem. Both of them aren’t out,” David said, a look of worry coming over his face.
Qadir, too, tried and failed. “Same here, Colonel.”
“The only explanation is Feldt has a wide band communication blocker set up to protect his territory,” Eldred interjected.
“Okay, we need a new plan. Did you see any other transportation here?” David asked.
“There’s a 4X4 all-terrain vehicle out back. I assume it’s used by the goons we killed.”
David turned and stared at Qadir. “Director, can you drive the car we used to get out here, in your condition?”
“I think so,” she replied, touching her shoulder. “Painful, but I’ve given birth naturally, without medication. This is nothing compared to that pain.”
Eldred and David shared a glance before he nodded. “I don’t like it, but it’s our best play. Agent, get the 4X4 brought around to the trunk. We’ll transfer as much gear as we can carry, but especially our battle rifles and ammo.”
“Yes, sir,” Eldred said with a jaunty grin as she walked out the front door, leaving David and Qadir alone.
Qadir stood and faced him. “I’ll get help. Whatever it takes.”
“I hate asking you to go alone.”
“I’m sure it’s far less dangerous than continuing on, Colonel.”
David locked eyes with her. “Take care of yourself, don’t pull any crazy stunts, and go with God.”
She let out a laugh. “I cannot promise anything, except to try and walk with Allah.”
Gesturing toward the door, David shook his head with a grin. “Let’s go, Director. We both have kilometers to travel. Many of them.”
The door to Kenneth Lowe’s office swung open without a knock or warning. He glanced up to the face of Stephen Casey looming in the doorway. There were few people he would ascribe the word “hate” to. Casey was one of them. His pallid skin, and short, gaunt frame made the man appear frail, but he was anything but.
“Mister Lowe, so good to see you.” Casey’s voice dripped with sugary sweet sarcasm.
Kenneth’s face contorted in anger. He loathes me about as much as I hate him. “What can I do for you?”
“I understand you’ve been interfering with the work of my division.”
It took him a moment to realize Casey wasn’t sitting down. Probably thinks he can intimidate me by standing over my desk. “News to me. I wasn’t aware your division worked.”
“You smug little piece of—”
“Shit? I think that’s the word you’re looking for,” Kenneth replied as his mouth curled up into a grin. “The small army of people you’ve got assigned to the reactor work isn’t doing their job. It’s holding my guys up because we can’t install the new shield generators and weapons emplacements without power.”
“It’s none of your concern,” Casey snapped.
“Like hell, it’s not my concern. You’ve got hundreds of people working on a cost-plus basis, going at half speed or less.”
“And we’re still getting paid, aren’t we? Oh, that’s right, we get paid the entire cost plus our guaranteed profit. I fail to see the problem.”
Kenneth stood up, flinging his chair behind him. “I put in four years defending the Terran Coalition in the CDF. I work this job to provide quality services to the men and women who put their lives on the line for all of us. Not to milk the system for every credit I can get out of it.”
Casey stared at him, having to look up due to Kenneth’s extreme height of over two meters. He spoke like a used helicar salesman. “Spare me ‘the noble man only working to help his fellow soldiers’ talk. You’re a capitalist, just like me. I don’t see you turning down the mountain of credits you get paid for all those contracts won.”
“There’s nothing wrong with earning a profit through hard work, dedication, and good service. That’s not what you’re talking about. What you describe is a crime.”
Casey laughed, a piercing sound, not unlike the noise made by a hyena. “What are you going to do about it?”
“For starters, inform Ms. Lee and provide her with proof your people are breaking the CAR.”
“No one cares about Coalition Acquisition Regulations. There’s a war on, and the rules are bent constantly. You, for all your idealism, have no idea how to play the game, Kenny.”
Kenneth grimaced. He detested that nickname. I ought to punch this smug SOB in the face. “I don’t play the game. I do my job, take care of my people, and deliver what I say I will, on time and under budget. Whatever it takes, I’ll find a way to stop you.”
“Others have tried. They failed. So will you.”
“I don’t think so. Get the reactors finished so my team can do their jobs. Otherwise, I’ll blow the whistle all the way to the top. And if that doesn’t work, I’ll go to some of my friends in the CDF. They’ll handle it from afar.”
“Ah, yes. The esteemed Colonel Cohen. Such a good friend. Bailed you out of many a jam, hasn’t he? Guess what, Kenny boy? He’s just a colonel. I’m friends with more four-star generals than women you’ve slept with. You’re really small fry, you know that?”
Kenneth balled his fists up and bit down on his lip. “Get the hell out of my office.”
“Or what, you’ll punch me?”
“If you know what’s good for you, you won’t stay to find out.”
With a final sneer, Casey turned on his heel and stomped out of the room.
Kenneth fell back into his chair, staring at the open door, then down at his hands. I can’t keep working for these people. I hate this place. I hate Casey. I know Lee is in on it too. They’re a bunch of crooks. “Why do I stay?” he asked out loud, even though no one was there. Because I can’t leave my people in their hands. It’s my duty to take care of them. He stared at the monitor on his desk, linked to his tablet. I really should do some work.
Another face appeared in the open door, Joshua Carter. Kenneth’s long-time deputy and overall right-hand man, they’d worked together for many years. His brown hair, with specks of gray in it, was slicked back—a classic surfer’s hairstyle. “Hey, boss. Got a minute?”
Kenneth grinned. “For you? I’ve got two.”
Joshua walked in and shut the door behind him. “Was Casey in here?”
“Because he was cursing your name as he walked down the hallway.”
Unable to suppress a snicker, Kenneth leaned back in his chair and allowed it to turn into an all-out laugh. When he regained control over himself, he pushed his head forward. “We had words.”
Joshua sat down, staring intently at him. “You do realize he’s got a lot of political pull?”
“I don’t care.”
“I think we all know that by now.”
“He’s a crook. His cronies are all crooks too. He’s got an entire division stuffed with people who make a sport out of ripping off the CDF.”
“No more so than most contractors.”
Kenneth furrowed his brow together. “Please tell me you don’t believe that.”
Joshua shrugged. “I’ve seen more of it than I’d care to admit.”
“Not on my watch.”
“Boss, has it occurred to you that we’re cogs in the wheel? What you or I do in the end doesn’t matter.”
Kenneth stood up, pushing the chair back. He paced up and down his small office. “I can’t accept that line of thinking. If I do, what’s the point of anything? If we’re all slimy contractors, and no one cares…” His voice trailed off as he shook his head. “No. I don’t accept it. We’re better than that.”
“Then what do you plan to do about it, boss?”
Kenneth stopped, turned on his heel, and stared at his friend. “I’ll find a way to beat Casey. I’m not sure how yet, but I will find it.”
“Don’t you know one of the government QA inspectors?” Joshua asked, his face morphing into a grin.
“You mean the one I dated for a year?”
“Um, you remember I left her, right? Didn’t exactly end well.”
Joshua laughed. “Yeah, but you’re bossanova.”
With an eye roll, Kenneth grimaced. “That nickname is as bad as Kenny.”
“Need some help, then?”
“Nah. I’ll gather up the evidence and see if I can get a truce declared.”
“You do that, sir.”
Hanson glanced up from the engineering readiness report he was reviewing to see Ruth and Hammond at their respective stations. He’d been on the bridge for several hours, sitting the first watch. After David’s call, the time had been monotonous at best. At least there’s always something to do on the reactor, or to the ship. The XO’s seat was unoccupied. With Ruth being next in watch officer seniority, he didn’t want to pull her from tactical if there was a real emergency.
“TAO, anything new on sensors?”
“Conn, TAO. Negative, sir.” Ruth replied, her tone seeming to border on annoyed.
“This waiting, I’m not used to it.”
Ruth cranked her head around briefly. “I’ve heard the colonel say acceptance of long periods of boredom is required for our jobs.”
“Not in engineering. Time flies, because nothing ever works right all the time,” he said with a grin. “I don’t know what to do with all this time.”
“Don’t you have oodles of paperwork to do?”
Hanson stared at her, an eyebrow raised. “Such as?”
“The CO’s admin screen, which you should have access to now, has a queue of required documents to review. All those NJPs you pushed through, transfer requests, new crew assignments, so on and so forth. Who do you think does all that? Colonel Cohen and Aibek.”
“Hm. Thanks, Lieutenant.” He grimaced inwardly.
“You’re welcome, sir.”
As Ruth turned back around, Hanson used the chair’s integrated tablet to navigate to the screen she was talking about and found it full of hundreds of requests. Yikes, looks like it built up yesterday and today. I’d better start working on these. An hour passed without him noticing, and he only got through a few dozen items. It dawned on him that the noise from the bridge was interfering with his concentration.
“Lieutenant Goldberg, I’m going to go to the colonel’s office and work through more of these forms. Please call your relief and take the conn.”
“Aye aye, sir.” Ruth stood and strode over. “This is Lieutenant Goldberg. I have the conn.”
On those words, Hanson rose and walked off the bridge. David can’t get back here fast enough. I’m not cut out for this kind of duty.
Even though the 4X4’s engine was pegged, it barely made a sound. If he’d been any less disciplined, David would’ve been screaming at the top of his lungs as the ground rushed up at them. Eldred continued to drive like a woman possessed. They’d been whipping around and over sand dunes at eighty kilometers per hour. It seemed like a miracle from God they hadn’t crashed by now and broken their necks.
“You have prior experience at this,” he said through the safety helmet he wore, which muffled his voice.
“Guilty as charged, Colonel. I love things that go fast.” The 4X4 slid to a stop, just before cresting a towering dune. Eldred took her helmet off and shook out her hair. It was dripping wet with sweat. She took a water bottle off the side of the vehicle and took a swig before passing it back to David. “Have some. We have to stay hydrated.”
Sighing, he took the outstretched bottle and drank deeply. “Thanks. The heat is nuts out here. This place reminds me of a barely habitable planet I once served on. Mining colony.”
She replaced the bottle and walked up to the lip of the dune, then without warning, dropped in her tracks. “Oh, snap.”
David looked over at her. “Problems?” he asked softly.
“Enemy recon patrol. They’re on ATVs. We’ll have to hold up here for a bit.”
He retrieved a portable scanner and crawled to her. David didn’t want to give their position away due to his height. “Six tangos, two ATVs. We could take them from up here, you know.”
“Same problem as before, comms.”
Silence reigned for a few minutes before David felt the boredom set in, watching the scanner. “So what’s your deal, Agent Eldred? Every CIS spook I’ve worked with has been pretty detached. You, though—this feels like it’s personal to you.”
“Nothing personal, Colonel. I want a bad man off the street, that’s all.”
“You can feed that line to your superiors, but out here, I deserve honesty.” David made eye contact with her and stared.
She glanced away, closed her eyes, and shook her head. “I think the CDF gets off easy sometimes, mentally.”
“Excuse me?” If she had any idea.
“I mean no disrespect, David. I make my living in the gray. I do things I know are morally wrong for an individual, yet vital to the good of our nation.”
Bile rose inside of him as he considered her words. They touched a chord of anger that nearly uncorked right then and there. “I have far more insight into those gray situations than you give me credit for, Miranda. I put my best friend into the ground. I’ve disobeyed orders, I’ve killed God only knows how many people, and lost hundreds under my command. I look down at my hands, and I see blood. No matter how much I wash, it never comes off.”
“But the CDF goes off into battle with God at their side. I’ve seen interviews with you, talking about the need to defeat the League and the justice and nobility of our cause.”
Ah yes, the happy warrior. “I’ve never said God’s on our side. I don’t think it’s our right to proclaim such a thing. God detests killing. The commandment against murder and its punishment are enough to prove that truth,” David replied, glancing down at the soft, powdery sand. “I constantly guard my heart to avoid enjoying killing the enemy. After all they’ve done, all the horrific war crimes I’ve seen committed by the League of Sol, there’s a part of me that wants to give in to hating them. The day I do is the day I die as a Jew and a decent human. Do I want to see the League defeated? Of course I do. I’ll fight with everything I have to achieve the goal too. But I yearn for the day when I no longer need to get up and do my job—because make no mistake, my job is to kill as many of them as I can before they kill us.”
Eldred was silent for some time. At some point, a single tear fell out of her eye onto the sand. “Forgive me, Colonel. I had no idea. I thought—I assumed, it was easier to process for you, because of the justness of your actions.”
“You know what they say about assumptions.” He cracked a smile after he finished delivering the line. A glance at the scanner confirmed the 4X4s were moving out of range, toward the east. Then there are the things I can’t talk about, like the incident with CIS a few months back. The things that make me question if we deserve to win. “These gray situations you mention… any of them happen on Gilead?”
“A few. You could say my job as a non-cover intelligence officer has been to be a consummate liar. I convince people to betray what they believe in, most of the time. I entrap and seduce them. Whatever it takes to turn them. I’ve done some horrible things. I have to live with them.”
“You still haven’t told me why this mission is so important.”
“For once, I can help someone who deserves it. This woman, Z. I don’t even know her name, but I know she’s brave and doing what she is for the right reasons. Tell me, does your faith help you?”
“My faith is a part of everything I do. I try to live it, imperfectly, but I still try. I trust God grants me grace and forgiveness. What about you?”
“Call me a lapsed Catholic. I’m afraid God has turned His back on me.”
David stared into her eyes. “Why?”
“I’ve done horrible things. The worst part about it is I felt a piece of me die every time I condemned someone to die. I want to even the scales out. If I save her, maybe I can. For God, for myself.”
I hate this war and what it's done to all of us. “I was under the impression Christianity taught that good works aren’t how you get to heaven, but faith.”
Eldred grinned, her face finally brightening. “Forgive me, but a Jew quoting Christian principles to me is something new.”
“Well…” David replied with a grin of his own and a simultaneous shrug. “We’re taught to question everything. I liked to read as a child, what can I say? There’s a line from the Christian Bible that’s always resonated with me. God is faithful and just to forgive us of our sins. I hold on to that when the memories of those lost under my command roar into my mind. When I remember the horrible things I’ve done.”
She glanced up at the sky. “I’m sorry, Colonel. I would’ve thought you had everything together, from your public persona. As you said, don’t make assumptions. Still, even the holocommerical they had you in for CDF recruiting. You looked the part.”
“I do what I must,” David said, his mind thinking back. “The spot was based on Ecclesiastes. A time to love, a time to hate, a time for war, and a time for peace.”
“A time for heroes… your time is now,” Eldred finished. “Let me guess, you don’t consider yourself a hero either?”
David shook his head. “No. The heroes are the men and women going home in flag-draped coffins. I want no part in the glory of war, because its cost is far too hard to bear.” He paused for a moment, then stared at her again, straight in the eyes. “I need to know your head is in this before we go on.”
“What do you mean?”
“Point blank. Do you have a death wish?”
Eldred became very still and quiet. “No, I don’t. Too many people would be far too happy if I died. Like every boss I’ve ever had at CIS.”
It was his turn to laugh. “Yeah. Okay. But we’re both coming home. Are we clear?”
She nodded. “Yes. I’ll hold you to it.”
“Scanner shows clean driving ahead. Let’s get moving. Too much sun exposure is going to be dangerous after a while.”
As the two of them climbed back onto the 4X4, David found his mind wandering and hoping they weren’t headed into a trap that neither would escape from.
A harsh light bathed the room Ramirez found herself in. After Benoit forced her out of the apartment, it hadn’t taken long to end up in one of the organization’s “questioning” chambers. A cold room in the sub-basement beneath the tallest building in the zone, there were many of them. For now, she was alone. Chained to a chair, from her vantage point, she saw implements of torture spread throughout the confined space. They ranged from rusty knives to devices she couldn’t even fathom what they did in practice.
The only entrance or exit—a heavy metal door—creaked open. Two finely suited men with broad, bulky shoulders strode in. She immediately recognized them as Feldt’s elite bodyguards. A moment later, Feldt followed. He said nothing as he circled the chair she was chained to. He finally sat in front of her on a stool. “Well, this is a shock.”
Ramirez closed her eyes. God, give me strength.
“That won’t make me disappear, Carmina,” he said. His voice almost sounded sad.
She opened her eyes and glanced at him. “If it were that simple, I would’ve done it long ago.”
“How did this happen? We had something special. I was sure you loved me.”
He thinks he’s been wronged. She wasn’t quite sure how to respond. “You thought I loved you? After what you did to everyone around you, including me? You killed one of my friends to make a point during my so-called initiation!” Her voice rose in volume. “You’re a sick, depraved man with a heart so hard, it feels nothing!” she spat.
A nasty little grin broke out across his face. “You weren’t saying that last week.”
The urge to vomit roared through her, thinking back to the last time they’d been together intimately. “I did what I had to survive.”
“People—all of you—don’t get it,” Feldt began. He started to pace around the confines of the room. “We live in a tough, unforgiving universe. I should know. I was born to a prostitute on the streets of Galt. I watched the powerful abuse my mother until the day she died. You know what? I vowed I’d never let them do it to me. I got powerful enough to attract the wrong kind of attention on Galt. That led me here, to Gilead.”
She’d heard the self-righteous spiel from him dozens of times. He views himself as a savior. Maybe it helps him sleep at night. She tried to keep a smirk off her face.
“Where I helped the oppressed. Yes, I demand loyalty. Is it not a small price to pay for the freedom I guarantee? I’ve got the League kissing up to me, the Terran Coalition trying to kill me, and the Gileadean government too afraid to even send a patrol into our territory.” He tilted his head back and laughed loudly. “Before too long, I’ll have enough money to buy a planet or ten. I saved you, Carmina. And you repay me by bringing the Terran Coalition to kill me.”
Ramirez raised her head and stared at him. “You’re a monster. You deal in human misery, selling substances that destroy the mind, body, and soul. You profit off death and destruction. I hate you. I vowed to destroy you, even if it cost me my life. So I have. The Terrans will stop you. They stand for justice, God, and freedom. They’ll be enough to see you off.” The words fell out of her mouth in a flood, leaving her shocked at the end that she had the guts to say them.
Feldt stopped his pacing, and his hand began to shake with rage. He uttered a guttural roar, reared back his right hand, and slapped her across the face.
The pain shot through her like a lightning bolt, and she screamed. Blood dripped out of her nose down onto her shirt. “That’s rich. Beat up an unarmed, tied-up woman. Do you feel strong now, Edward? Do you feel powerful? You’re nothing!” What’s wrong with me? Where is this coming from? The resolve of steel came from within, and while she couldn’t place it, its comfort was welcome. Hail Mary, full of grace.
The look on his face was one of pure fury. His mouth opened and Feldt snarled like a rabid animal, spit flying out of it as he yelled out again, this time punching the wall next to her head and breaking the cheap substance covering it. He withdrew his fist, and it was covered in blood. “Nice try, Carmina. You won’t get away that easy. You betrayed me, and I’ll have an example made out of you before you die. Make no mistake—you will die. Not before I destroy everyone you love and force you to watch.”
She raised her head as blood continued to drip out of her nose. “No, you won’t. I made sure they all disappeared into the Terran Coalition. There were only a few anyway. You can kill me, but you can’t harm the rest of my family.”
The room became hushed as Feldt towered over her, staring down. “We’ll see. For now, you’re going to know pain like you’ve never experienced it before, but not from me. I have a professional who used to be in the League’s employ to handle that aspect. He’ll be along shortly.” He pronounced each word in an exaggerated manner.
“The day Thou gave us, Lord, is ended,” Ramirez said quietly. “The darkness falls at Thy command. To Thee our morning praise be directed, Thy praise shall help us to rest.”
“Your God can’t save you now, even if He did exist. There is no God. Only what we can see and feel. I am the master of what you see, what you feel and how you die. I am your god, Carmina. Don’t forget it as you wish for death,” Feldt snarled, then with a final backhand to her face, he turned and walked out of the room.
Alone, bleeding, and scared, she continued to whisper the words to the hymn. “Over each planet and people, the dawn leads on to another day. The voice of prayer to You is never silent, nor does the sound of praise fade away.”
David tossed a glance over his shoulder to the large dune the 4X4 they’d been riding on was left behind. After only a kilometer, his feet were aching, thanks to the combination of ill-fitting boots from the embassy’s stock and scorching sand. Yeah, fleet life is soft compared to the Marines. Calvin’s got a point when he ribs us about it. Suppressing a smirk, he worked his legs through the soft sand to keep up with Eldred. “Okay, what’s the plan here, besides getting ridiculously high levels of UV radiation exposure?”
“We need information,” she replied, as if that explained everything.
“Sure. Like where your contact is and why security is so tight.”
Eldred stopped and glanced back at him. “Still not responding. I have to assume she’s been found out.”
“Isn’t that premature?”
“When you’ve been in intelligence as long as I have, Colonel, let’s say one develops a sixth sense about these things,” she replied, her tone somber. “We’re not far from the town Feldt’s built out here, if you could call it that. More like a bunch of dilapidated buildings grouped together, while he gives away food and drugs to the people that ‘work’ for him.”
David furrowed his brow together and frowned in disgust. “Men like him undermine my confidence in humanity. We’d better press on. It’s not getting any cooler out here, and I feel like I’ve lost ten pounds of water through sweat.”
“It’s a dry heat.”
With a small chuckle, he resumed plodding through the dune, churning his legs in a manner reminiscent of a paddleboat. They climbed to the crest of the small hill of sand and found several dilapidated buildings below them. David dropped to his belly immediately, as did Eldred. “Not many people out.”
“It’s the heat of the day. They typically stay inside until this planet’s sun starts to set.”
“You must come here a lot.”
“How do you think the dead drops went down? I didn’t trust anyone else to do it.”
“Ah,” he replied, understanding in an instant the lengths she was willing to go, and how personal it was. “So again, what’s the plan?”
“Patience, Colonel,” she said as she pulled a scanning device off her waist. “Let’s do some snooping.” Silence reigned for several minutes. “Each of those houses down there has people in them, but the one to the right only has one, a military-aged male and no one else.”
A lightbulb went off in David’s mind. “We’re paying him a visit?”
“Feldt loves to brag when he catches an informant, and he can’t miss taking a victory lap to rail against the Terran Coalition. He hates us religious do-gooders, as he puts it. If nothing else, we can get the lay of the land.”
“Okay. We’re just going to rush down there and bust into this guy’s house?”
“Got a better idea, Colonel?” Eldred replied with a dazzling grin.
Taking a moment to consider where they were, without backup, the idea of flying by the seat of his pants was utterly foreign to David. He shook his head with a sigh. The military is about processes, procedures, and plans. We don’t jump headfirst unless there’s no other resort. I suppose intelligence is different. He finally forced a smile. “Aside from calling in ISR drones, a commando team, and Marines—no.”
“Then let’s roll.” She stood, checked her battle rifle one last time, and charged down the dune at an all-out run.
David jumped up and followed, ensuring the safety was off on his weapon and a bullet was in the firing chamber. The lessons of his first combat had never been lost throughout the years. He came to a halt next to what appeared to be the back door to the residence, if the shipping container could be called that. Eldred had already taken up position on the other side. “No lock,” he whispered.
With a nod, she turned the door handle and slowly eased it open, then crept inside.
He entered close behind her, rifle first pointed at the ground when she was directly in front of him, then immediately at the left side of the room to cover any possible threats. “I’ve got left side,” he whispered toward her. Eldred nodded in return and moved off.
Taking care to make no noise, David gingerly stepped over a pile of trash and took in the interior of the house. It looked as desolate as the outside, with boxes used for furniture, while waste and food were spread everywhere. These people have lost all hope. They don’t care anymore. A verse from Proverbs entered his mind. Where there is no vision, the people perish. A closed door blocked his path, which also had no lock. He turned the handle and pushed it in. Before him lay a bed with a man splayed out on it, sound asleep. His right hand reached down and found the sidearm on his leg and drew it, while at the same time he let his rifle drop into its one-point sling. He crossed the room and put the barrel of the pistol to the man’s forehead while covering his mouth with his free hand. “Good afternoon, sunshine.”
The man awoke with a start, taking a second or two to realize what was happening. He tried to get away and made a muffled noise, which quickly stopped when David pressed the pistol into his forehead.
“Colonel?” Eldred’s voice whispered behind him.
“I found us someone to talk to,” David replied. “Now, I’m going to take my hand away from your mouth. If you make a sound, I’ll shoot. Are we clear?”
The man tried to nod, but only managed to move his head up and down an inch or so.
Eldred appeared at David’s side as he stepped back, covering the detainee with his weapon. “I can tell by your garb you work security for Feldt.”
“Uh, yeah,” he whispered, voice hoarse. “How’d you get in here? Who are you?”
“We’re the ones asking questions,” David said with a smirk on his face. “Let’s start with your name.”
“Uh,” he said between chatters of his teeth. “George, George Perkins.”
David smiled broadly. “See? That wasn’t too hard, Mr. Perkins. You’re in security?”
Perkin’s eyes darted between the two of them. “I can’t answer any questions. Feldt will kill my friends and family, then me.”
“The things you describe are in the future,” Eldred said, her voice cold as ice. “I will kill you now if you don’t answer my questions.”
The CDF’s rules of war and protocols for treatment of prisoners jumped into David’s mind. Summary or mock executions are outlawed by the Canaan Convention on human rights. As David opened his mouth to protest, she elbowed him in the ribs. The expression on her face was clear: I’ve got this.
Meanwhile, Perkins continued to shake with fear, his teeth chattering uncontrollably. “I c-c-ca-can’t tell you.”
“Listen to me very carefully, George. You will tell me what I want to know. Or I’ll cause you pain the likes of which you’re not capable of understanding. Do I make myself clear?” Eldred said, her mouth an inch away from the man’s face. “There’s nothing you can do to make this stop. You haven’t had control of your life for a long time now, and today, you’ve lost all vestige of control. Now, you’re a security guard, are you not?”
Perkins’ head moved up and down.
“Good. Why is everything on lockdown?”
“One of Mr. Feldt’s freighters got blown up. He wants the traitors found and killed. W-w-we-we were told if we didn’t find whoever did it in twenty-four hours, he’d kill a member of everyone’s family.”
“You seem to live alone. How’s this guy going to kill someone close to you if they’re not here?” David asked.
“He’s got a machine. I’ve seen it. He can kill anyone he wants, at any time. It was my mother when I joined. He always kills someone when you join, to emphasize his control,” Perkins replied, as he began to weep.
David found himself overcome by disgust for the creature in front of him. Weak and spineless; this is the end of human depravity when we refuse to stand up for what’s right and give in to evil.
“Did he find the traitor?”
Perkins glanced toward Eldred and nodded his head again. “Yeah. It was his woman. Someone figured it out just before the deadline. We heard it was his right-hand man, Benoit.”
“She could still be alive,” David whispered into her ear.
Eldred pressed the barrel of her pistol into Perkins’ ear. “Where is she being held?”
“I don’t know!”
Her finger moved from the trigger-guard to the trigger itself. “Wrong answer, George. Last chance.”
He made a whimpering sound, which caused David to glance down. Liquid spread out from his pants, making a yellow pool in the bed. Then again, I wonder what I would have done in his circumstance. I’d like to believe I would’ve chosen better. “I suggest you listen to the lady. She’s running this show.”
“The guys were saying she’s being held in solitary after they finished working her over.”
“It’s hard to describe.”
Eldred thrust a tablet in his face. “Draw me a map.”
As Perkins furiously worked the device, David leaned in and whispered to Eldred, “What are we going to do with this guy?”
“A nice double-tap to the back of the head works for me.”
“No. No extrajudicial killings,” David replied, his jaw set.
“Why not? He’s not worth the risk of him getting free and warning the rest of them.”
“So murdering him is acceptable?”
“It’s no worse than anything that he’s done.”
This is how we lose. When we become like the enemy we fight. “You told me you were tired of living in the gray. You can’t have it both ways, Eldred. Killing a captured enemy is murder. Period. If you go through with it, you can finish this op without me, because I’m out.”
“What?” she replied, her voice sharp.
“You heard me, agent.”
“What if he tips them off?”
“Then we fight our way out of it.”
“There are hundreds of them, Colonel,” Eldred hissed.
Right and wrong. Those words meant something to David, and really to any Jew, especially an Orthodox practitioner. The moment we give in to our basest instincts is when we become unworthy of God’s grace toward us. “We will adhere to the Coalition Defense Force regulations on the treatment of enemy prisoners of war. This isn’t up for debate.”
Perkins held up the tablet. “I’m done. You two going to kill me now?”
The lack of fight and defeat in his eyes made an impression on David. “You knew we were discussing it?”
“It’s what Feldt would do.”
David glanced at Eldred. “We’re better than Feldt. Zip-tie his hands and feet together, gag him, and we’ll stuff him into a closet.”
“Do you think you can stop him?” Perkins asked.
“We’ll stop him or die trying,” David said quietly, staring at the man as he did. “Why?”
“Someone should. I didn’t know what this was going to be when I joined. I thought it was just a better life and a steady paycheck. I wish I could go back and do it over again.”
Eldred pulled several pairs of zip-tie cuffs out of her tactical vest and began to manhandle him. “Yeah. Tell that to all the people you’ve helped him kill.”
Perkins was silent as she finished her task. Once done, they shoved him into a small closet and shut the door.
David cleared his throat. “It’s important not to become our enemy. I’ve seen too many times what happens when a good person crosses the line.”
“I know you’re right,” Eldred admitted. “Still, I hate them. What they’ve done. Feldt and his butchers are disgusting.”
“Then beat them not only with superior firepower but better ideals. Now, let's go find this prison and save your source. Deal?”
Watching her move through the house, David felt compassion for Eldred. She was a fine warrior and an excellent covert operative. It was evident to him that many years of standing in the gap had damaged her psyche. Perhaps when all this is said and done, if we’re still alive, I can help somehow.
The desert rolled by kilometer after kilometer. Qadir had trouble at times, making out the road in front of her through the smashed windshield of the electric vehicle she drove. Allah, guide my path. Help me in my duty. Her shoulder smarted with pain. The drugs David applied had worn off thirty minutes prior. Every couple of minutes, she picked up the handcomm device and tried to raise anyone she could from the Terran Coalition.
“This is Director Qadir, Coalition Bureau of Investigation, to any Terran Coalition vessel or transmitting station. Come in, this is an emergency.” Focusing on the device instead of the road, when there was no answer, she glanced up to see several men standing in the road as she rounded a bend.
They waved wildly at her. The intent of their gestures was clear: pull over.
All three of them carried military-style rifles, not unlike those the last group of hostiles had. She glanced at the passenger seat and the sidearm lying on it. I’m down to two magazines, thirty bullets. As she tried to decide what to do, foot not leaving the accelerator, they raised their weapons in unison.
Bullets smashed into the already damaged polymer. A few cut through and perforated the seat next to her. Qadir wrenched the steering wheel to the left, desperately trying to avoid being shot again. The men’s shots went wide. She snatched the sidearm from the seat and pulled the trigger repeatedly, firing as she flashed by them.
More shots hit the back window of the car, causing Qadir to duck reflexively and almost drive off the path once more. She quickly regained control and attempted to speed up, leaving a dust cloud in her wake. Her breathing heavy, adrenaline coursed through her body as the near-death experience passed. Today marks the only day in my career I’ve fired a weapon in anger. The realization shocked her, but the task at hand was paramount. By some miracle, the rear-view mirror was intact. Through it, she saw a 4X4 emerge from the dust storm carrying two gunmen.
Fighting down outright fear, Qadir gunned her vehicle and tried to gain as much speed as she could. The old car, though, was on its last legs. It would barely go above seventy kilometers per hour.
The 4X4 kept pouring on the juice, gaining on its prey rapidly. Another fusillade of rounds pierced the rear window, shattering it in multiple locations before it crumpled in on itself and collapsed.
She ejected the magazine from the sidearm, using her knees to keep the steering wheel straight. Three rounds. Not enough. She picked the last remaining fully loaded mag off the passenger seat and rammed it into the pistol. Glancing to her left side, she saw the 4X4 entering her field of vision.
Time seemed to slow down as the vehicle came alongside, the passenger leaning up with his rifle raised to deliver the kill shot.
At the last possible second, Qadir raised the pistol using her right hand and squeezed the trigger repeatedly. The man holding the rifle took two rounds to his chest and flopped off the 4X4. As he did, she jerked the steering wheel and sideswiped the other vehicle. The effect was instantaneous—it caromed off the dirt road and repeatedly tumbled, sending the driver flying. She drove on, hands shaking on the steering wheel.
A few kilometers later, she slowed to a stop and shifted the car into park. Staring down at her shaking hands, Qadir tried to calm herself, first with thoughts, then with prayer, begging Allah to help her. When she opened her eyes, her shaking had stopped. I must go on.
“This is Director Qadir to Lion of Judah. Come in.”
There was no response to her hail. After a moment, she put the car back into gear and drove on—back toward civilization.
“Of all the places we could end up,” David whispered as he kept his head down. “You pick the most ramshackle, God-forsaken pile of dirt this side of Earth.”
Eldred snorted. “I thought you CDF types loved harsh conditions, engaging the enemy?”
“You’ve got us confused with the Terran Coalition’s misguided children.” At her look of bewilderment, he continued. “Nickname for the Terran Coalition Marine Corps. Inside joke.”
“Ah. Got it.”
David poked his head just slightly above the half-height wall they crouched behind, taking in the scene beyond. The building indicated by the guard was nothing more than a poorly constructed pre-fab, its plasticrete walls decaying under the intense heat of the Gileadean star. No one else was in sight, and in the hottest part of the day, he hoped it would stay that way. Otherwise, we’re screwed. “How do you want to play this?”
“We could shoot him before he knew what hit him.”
“And spray blood all over the wall?”
“Point taken, Colonel. How about this? I’ll walk up and ask for directions, then dispatch him quietly.”
David’s eyes got wider. “You’re just going to walk up there?”
Eldred winked. “I’m a woman, an attractive one at that. Trust me.”
He drew his sidearm and quickly attached the suppressor as she stripped off her combat armor, loosened her shirt, and let her long red hair down. “If there’s any indication it's going south, I’ll waste him,” David said.
“Of that, I have no doubt, Colonel. I appreciate your concern, but I’ve got this.”
With that, Eldred sprang up and slowly made her way across, swaying her hips and butt in a dramatic and over-the-top fashion. Just as she’d predicted, the guard immediately took notice. She sashayed over to him and began a conversation.
Unable to hear them, David stared intently, his pistol at the ready. Come on, Eldred, don’t take all day. One slip up will get who knows how many gunmen coming after us.
The moment the guard’s head turned, she struck with a stun device pressed to his neck. There was a short crack, then nothing as he collapsed.
David grabbed her gear as he jumped up and ran across the dusty road, coming to a stop as Eldred pulled the unfortunate guard’s access card. “How long will he be out?” he asked.
“He’s quite dead, Colonel. I don’t leave loose ends.”
“Remind me not to play poker with you. Ever.”
Eldred gave him a wicked grin, then turned and used the card on a nearby scanner.
The door swung open. David picked up the body in a fireman’s carry, flinging the man’s torso over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. Sidearm at the ready, he advanced into the dingy building, which was even hotter than the exterior. I guess Feldt doesn’t believe in A/C for his prison.
Eldred slid her armor back on and brought her battle rifle into position. “Hopefully, there’s not too many of these jokers.”
David dropped the body against a wall, out of easy sight, behind a heap of trash. The stench of human waste, coupled with death, was thick in the air. He sneered. This place is hell itself. He holstered his sidearm and went back to the battle rifle that he dropped into its one-point sling. “I don’t suppose you have any idea where we’re going?”
“I’d guess there’s a solitary confinement area.”
“It’s not like a real jail, with helpful signs.”
“Cute, Colonel. You’re a real smart ass, you know that?”
David smiled widely. “At least you’re not calling me dumb.”
Eldred rolled her eyes. “Who’s got point?”
“Normally, I’d say ladies first, but in this case, I’ve got it. We’ll start from the south end and work our way across.”
Hanson glanced around David’s day-cabin office, then went back to the paperwork he had to complete before the end of watch. I feel like an imposter here. Like I don’t belong. The colonel or the XO needs to get back so I can go back where I belong, the reactor core. The thoughts didn’t go away as he looked through personnel transfer requests and non-judicial punishment forms.
The voice of Lieutenant Bell, the Lion’s second-shift communications officer, broke through the mental reverie. “Major Hanson, I’ve got an urgent communication from Gilead. It’s Director Qadir, sir. She says it’s an emergency.”
“Put her through, Lieutenant.”
A few moments later, Qadir’s unsmiling face appeared on the tablet attached to the desk. “Major, I need that commando team the colonel had on standby sent down here ASAP.”
Hanson’s eyes went wide. “Where’s the colonel?” he blurted out.
“He and Eldred continued on without me. I was told to get help. There’s a communication damping field around Feldt’s area of control. Now get that team down here.”
“I’m not authorized to send a QRF force into Gilead territory, Director.”
Qadir’s face went red with anger. “What?” she practically screamed.
“I don’t have the authority to send military forces into Gilead.” What do I do? Dear God, this is why I didn’t want the big chair.
Qadir spoke slowly, enunciating each word. “Who does?”
“Colonel Cohen, or someone of equal rank.”
“Are you telling me that we’re not going to help?”
“I’m telling you I have to get permission to help.”
“Do you get it, Major? Colonel and Agent Eldred can’t take on hundreds of enemies by themselves. They need our help!”
No one left behind. “I’ll be in touch, Director.”
“Major, if you don’t find a way to help them, I’ll make your life a living hell.”
“Colonel Cohen is my commanding officer and friend. I want nothing more than to help him, but I can’t start another war in the process!”
“Stop talking about it and get the commandos down here,” Qadir said, her voice direct, firm, and angry.
“I’ll be in touch.”
The screen went black, and for a split second, Hanson put his head in his hands, overcome by indecision. What would the colonel do in these situations? He asks the XO for advice. I don’t have one of those… wait. He reached over and hit the intercom to the bridge. “Lieutenant Bell, have Lieutenant Goldberg report to the CO’s day cabin, ASAP.”
“Aye aye, sir.”
Sitting back in David’s chair, Hanson felt like a minuscule version of the person who had earned it, an interloper. He jolted back up when the hatch chime buzzed.
The hatch swung open, and Ruth strode in. “Lieutenant Ruth Goldberg reports as ordered, sir.”
“Close the hatch and sit down. I need some help.”
Ruth did as she was ordered, shutting the hatch and plopping into one of the chairs directly to the front of the desk. “What can I do for you, sir?”
“I think the colonel’s in trouble.”
“Considering we can’t reach him, I’d concur, sir. What would you like us to do?”
Hanson leaned his head back and closed his eyes. “That CBI Director just contacted me and said he’s out of comms range, along with that CIS agent—Eldred. Qadir was sent to get help.”
“With respect, sir, what are you waiting for? Send in the QRF. Master Chief MacDonald and his team are standing by.”
“It’s not that simple. We don’t have authorization.”
“Are you shitting me?” Ruth snapped. “Since when has not having authorization ever stopped Colonel Cohen?”
“I’m not him.”
Ruth’s eyes flashed anger, and her lip quivered. “If you can’t make a difficult decision, Major, relieve yourself, and I’ll do it for you.”
Is that what I wanted her to do? So I don’t have to make the hard call? “I…”
“Arthur, come on. I’ve known you for a long time now. You have to know what the right thing to do is here.”
“I do… I just…”
“What if I make the wrong choice? What if it starts a war with Gilead, or gets those men killed along with the colonel. How do I live with it? I’d much rather work on my engines and do my job.”
Ruth chuckled in a bitter tone. “It doesn’t work like that, Major. You’ve got the bars on your shoulder, now get your rear end in gear, get out there, and send help. If it’d make you feel better, ask MacDonald to volunteer and tell him you can’t send more troops without starting a war. I promise you, his team will jump at the chance.”
Hanson stared down at the desk, overcome with shame.
“Arthur, look at me,” Ruth said, her voice much softer.
He glanced up to find her sadly smiling.
“Colonel Cohen saw something in you. He put you in charge of the ship while he and Colonel Aibek are gone because he thought it was time for you to step up. Prove him right. He’s always been there for us, we’re there for him. I get it, having someone tell you what to do, and being great at a specific job is easy. It’s less responsibility and fewer decisions that could leave your friends dead. But it’s not about the easiest road or how little chance we can take. If I’ve learned anything in the last ten years, it’s that sometimes we have to make a best guess and see where the chips fall. If you can’t do it, tell me, and I’ll do it for you. I won’t look down on you, and we’ll still be friends.”
Hanson’s brow furrowed as he frowned. “Thank you, Ruth.” Somewhere, deep inside, amid the doubt and self-questioning, another voice sounded in his soul. What would the colonel do? Just emulate him as best as you can, and this will all be fine. “I have a request.”
“What’s that?” Ruth asked.
“I’d like you to serve as my acting XO.”
Ruth broke into a large grin. “Gladly, sir. But I’m currently on tactical.”
“Call your relief.”
“Aye aye, sir.”
“Let’s get on with it,” Hanson said as he sprang up from the chair, a pep in his step that wasn’t there half an hour ago.
David glanced down the barrel of his battle rifle as he rounded yet another corridor inside of Feldt’s house of horrors. This guy makes the League look like an ideal governmental system with exceptionally fair prison systems. Another hallway of alloy-reinforced doors greeted him, while Eldred took up the rear.
“Clear,” David said, his voice quiet. He peered in the window of the first door and saw a male near death.
Eldred took the other side of the hallway and systematically worked her way down. Toward the end of the section, she called out excitedly, “There’s a woman in here, Colonel!”
“First woman we’ve seen. Maybe it’s our lucky day.”
He quickly walked down to her, and tried the handle. “It’s locked.” Rearing back, he tried kicking the door, only to be rewarded by a metallic clang. He nearly fell in the process.
Eldred snickered. “I brought detcord, Colonel.”
With a smirk, David stepped back and gestured to the door. “By all means.”
Thirty seconds later, she’d expertly attached the breach strip to the outline of the doorframe and stepped back. “Fire in the hole!” The explosive material burned brightly, cutting through the locks and hinges, leaving the red-hot outline of where it had done its magic. Eldred delivered a kick of her own, and the door fell inward, crashing to the floor with a loud thud.
David was greeted by a sight that overwhelmed him with disgust. The woman inside the cell looked as if she’d been beaten for days. Her face was black and blue, and he figured she was already dead. He rushed in, basic combat medical training taking over. He felt for a pulse, and to his surprise, found one. “She’s alive.”
Eldred pulled out a small first aid kit and started scanning the woman. “Severe internal injuries. She’s got active bleeds. There’s no way she’ll survive this, Colonel.”
David balled his fist in anger. “I refuse to believe we’ve come all this way to be too late.”
“I can wake her.”
“You said she’s dying.”
“Yes, but I can wake her up, and we could try to get some answers. Her death wouldn’t be in vain.”
“I’m no doctor, but I’m pretty sure if you wake her, there’s no hope.”
Eldred’s eyes met his. “There’s no hope either way.”
“God help us. Do it.”
Without another word, Eldred pulled an autoinjector out and pressed it against the woman’s neck.
It did the trick. A few seconds later, she came to, wildly clawing the air with her hands and moaning loudly.
“Hey! Calm down,” David said, grabbing one of her hands and taking it in his. “My name is David. We’re here to help.” A string of words came from the woman in a language he didn’t speak.
To his surprise, Eldred fluently interjected and spoke to her. The moaning calmed, and the woman looked between the two of them. “She’s speaking an offshoot of Spanish, Colonel.”
“Is this your contact?”
“I don’t know.”
“Find out,” David replied.
Eldred again spoke in the strange tongue, and the young woman nodded.
“Yes, I speak English,” she said weakly. “How do I know you are who you say you are?”
“Do I look like one of Feldt’s goons?” David asked. “We’re here to help.”
“Do not take me for a fool,” she said softly. “I know I’m dying. I had only hoped my jailers would allow me last rites.”
“Look, I’m Colonel David Cohen. This is Agent Eldred, Coalition Intelligence Service. She has a contact here, and I want to bring down Feldt. If you’re her contact, tell us what your codename is, and where the info you have on him is.”
The woman glanced from one of them to the other, then focused on Eldred. “Z. I am the one you call Z. My name is Carmina Ramirez. I’ve been here for six years. My parents thought they were sending me to a better life in the Terran Coalition… but the man who they paid instead brought me here.”
Human trafficking. The most disgusting of all things the criminal underworld engages in. David felt rage build within him. The desire to punch the wall with all his might returned.
“You’re right,” Eldred said softly as she knelt next to the other woman. “There’s nothing we can do for you. Maybe if there was a level one trauma team right here, but with the amount of time it would take to get help…” Her voice trailed off. “I won’t lie to you. You’re dying, You told me the reason you were doing this was to atone for your sins. You can still do it.”
“A final act of contrition?”
“I was smart once I got here. I realized some of the men were less brutal than others. I made them my friends in exchange for inhuman acts.” Tears began to roll down Ramirez's face. “Feldt noticed me. He made me become his.”
“I can’t imagine,” David said, his voice quiet. “You used that, didn’t you? To get information?”
Ramirez’ eyes met his, and she nodded. “I realized a year ago, I must do something to make up for all this death and despair. This is my final act of contrition. You will find several data discs in the air vent behind my bed, in my apartment. It’s in the main building, ninth floor. Number six.”
“Feldt lives on the top floor, yes?” Eldred asked.
Even in her weakened state, Ramirez was able to let out a bitter laugh. “Outstanding intelligence you CIS people have.”
“In God we trust, all others we monitor.”
David’s ears perked as a distant sound grabbed his attention. The clanking of feet and shouts of men became louder and more insistent. He looked over to Eldred. “We’ve got company.”
“Please don’t leave me. Say the final prayers with me so I don’t die alone,” Ramirez pleaded.
“I’ll buy you as much time as I can,” David said as he stood. He checked the magazine in his combat rifle and ensured it was seated correctly. “Not sure how long that is, so when I come back, be prepared to go.”
“How are we going to get out?” Eldred asked.
David bit his lip. “You’ve got more explosives, right?”
“We’ll blow a hole in the wall and exfil that way. They won’t see it coming.”
“Thank you, Colonel,” Eldred said, her gaze fixed down on the dying woman.
“Miss Ramirez, I wish we’d gotten here earlier,” David began. “I want you to know I admire your courage and bravery. Doing the right thing in the face of certain death is nothing to be ashamed of.”
“I am only ashamed that I sinned before God by not doing something sooner.”
True faith is present in this woman. Could I have shown the same courage, placed in her circumstance? “I can’t speak for God, but it’s a Jewish maxim that if you save the life of one person, you save the entire universe.” As the rapping of boots smacking the hard floor surface got closer, David turned to go. “Godspeed.” Without waiting for a reply, he darted out of the room, rifle at the ready. It only took him about fifty meters to encounter the enemy—a group of heavily armed men in civilian clothing.
Gunfire erupted as the cartel gunmen fired off at full auto. Bullets filled the corridor as David stepped back into cover. At least these idiots aren’t trained soldiers. I’d be in a hot mess if they were. He leaned out and opened up with tight three-round bursts, quickly felling several enemies. For every one he killed, three more came up. Using a grenade to cover his retreat, he fell back to a more defensive position and waited for them to charge.
The sharp report of sustained weapons fire echoed throughout the building. Eldred was still knelt next to Ramirez, trying to squeeze every ounce of intelligence out. The sounds of combat came closer, and she realized it would soon be time to go. “When Colonel Cohen gets back, we’ll try to carry you out.” The lie sounded lame, even before she said it.
“If you move me, half my guts will spill out.”
Eldred glanced down at the floor. “I’m so sorry. I was sure we could save you.” Immediately, her mind responded, Liar. You knew you couldn’t before you started.
“Is there any way you can administer last rites?”
“I’m not a priest.”
“But you told me you were a practicing Catholic. Surely you have a Host?”
Eldred’s lip curled up, and she fought to avoid showing emotion. You lied to her. To get information. Like you lie to everyone. “Carmina, I haven’t been to confession in years, taken communion or set foot in a church. I make my living as a liar.” Tears began to stream down her cheeks. “I lied to you. Orbita is ravaging the Terran Coalition, and I did whatever it took to stop it.”
“Satan is the father of lies,” Ramirez replied, sadness in her eyes. She reached her hand out tentatively.
Eldred took the hand in hers and openly wept. “I saw a church. I could go try to find the priest.”
“Now you’re just being silly. Do you remember your catechism?”
In spite of everything going on around her, Eldred laughed softly. “I spent a dozen years learning it. It’s ingrained into me.”
“Then pray the Viaticum with me… don’t leave me here to die alone.”
“It won’t count. I don’t have a Eucharistic, and I’m not a priest.”
“It’s all I have.”
Eldred stared down at her tear-laden eyes, and condemnation swept her soul. “I’ll do my best.”
“If memory serves, we begin with an Act of Contrition.”
Ramirez nodded and struggled to raise her head, folding her hands in front of her. “I confess to almighty God and to you, my sister, that I have sinned through my own fault, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do. I have done many unspeakable things in the service of an evil man. Please, Lord, forgive me. I ask the blessed Mary, ever virgin, all the angels and saints, and you, my sister, to pray for me in the Lord our God. May almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and bring us to everlasting life. Amen.”
“The Lord’s Prayer?”
“Yes. I’m having trouble breathing. Could you say it for me?”
Eldred grasped her hand and nodded. “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name,” she began. The words of the prayer were etched into her mind and spirit, said so many times throughout her life. “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in heaven.”
“Give us this day,” Ramirez rasped, “our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” Her voice trailed off, failing.
“For Thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever and ever. Amen,” Eldred finished. I am such a hypocrite, sitting here and praying with her. The knowledge that she’d caused the woman’s death was overwhelming. Guilt, shame, and doubt flashed through her mind as the tears continued to flow.
Ramirez grasped her hand a little bit tighter and struggled to speak. She motioned to come closer and whispered into Eldred’s ear, “I forgive you.”
The sounds of battle had grown louder but were punctuated by a loud burst of gunfire followed by the telltale explosion of a grenade. David crashed through the door, coughing. His face was bloodied and a fresh bruise spread across his left arm.
“Colonel,” Eldred said as she glanced up. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. You should see the other guy. Well, guys,” David replied. He stared at her for a moment before continuing. “Time to go. These idiots fight like retail rent-a-cops, but there’s a lot of them. We need to get out of here. How’s she doing?”
“She’s about to pass. I need to say a final prayer with her, Colonel.”
“It’s not your fault,” David said suddenly, as if he could hear her thoughts.
“Yes, it is. If not for me, she’d still be alive. I’ve done some horrible things, Colonel. Things I’m not proud of… and I know in my heart that God condemns me for them.”
David pointed his battle rifle toward the opening where the door used to be in the cell. “Tell you what, what do you say we do our best to stay alive, and I’ll personally make sure you get to a church to confess your sins?”
There was something about the way he said it, something that touched the depth of her soul. Eldred looked up and smiled. “The charges are in my bag. Place them on the wall while I finish, okay?”
“You got it, agent.”
While he worked, Eldred turned her attention back to Ramirez, whose breathing had become shallower and labored. She appeared to be on the verge of losing consciousness again. “I have to go soon.”
“I know,” Ramirez whispered.
“Let me pray once more with you.” Without waiting for an answer, she continued, “Lord, we commend to You the soul of Carmina Ramirez and beg of You, Lord Jesus Christ, Redeemer of the galaxy, that You would admit her to the number of the blessed and redeemed in Christ. May the Virgin Mary intercede for her, so when she is freed from the prison of her body, she will be admitted into the kingdom of heaven.” Eldred made the sign of the cross and rested her hands on the woman’s arm. It took her a moment to realize she’d stopped breathing.
“Charge set!” David called out, interrupting her thoughts and forcing her back to the mission. Both took cover behind the footer of the bed, while he held up the detonation controller. “Fire in the hole!”
Eldred put her hands over her ears and closed her eyes.
A moment later, the colossal roar of the explosives went off. The pressure wave swept out, nearly knocking the wind out of both of them. As soon as it subsided, David jumped to his feet, grabbed her by the arm, and made for the exit. They emerged into the harsh desert sunlight, with sand and dunes visible for as far as the eye could see.
Standing to the side, Eldred scanned the horizon while David fiddled with something. “What are you doing, Colonel?”
“Just a little surprise for our friends. Now let’s go!”
Not needing further encouragement, she fell in behind David as he took off across the sandy landscape. They had barely made fifty meters when an explosion went off. Whirling around, she saw smoke pouring out of the hole they’d blown in the prison’s wall.
“Oh, heck,” David grunted. “Not going to buy us much time after all. Come on. Double quick!”
Turning back, she ran as fast as her legs would carry her through the sand. How are we going to get out of this? There’s a small army after us!
Gordan MacDonald checked the compound sight on his battle rifle one more time. One can never inspect the tools of their trade enough.. As if confirming the axiom, he discovered the alignment was off by a millimeter and adjusted it. Assigned to QRF duty, Alpha team was composed of six tier-one special operators from Space Special Warfare Command. Together for years, they formed a tightly cohesive and integrated team. He let the rifle drop into its sling on his special forces issue power armor and looked to his right, where Senior Chief Dennis Harrell was performing a similar duty with a modified breaching shotgun. “Locked and loaded?”
“Always ready, always there, Master Chief,” Harrell replied with a grin. “Pity we don’t have any Leaguers to shoot around here.”
A voice interrupted the conversation, coming through MacDonald’s suit-integrated commlink. “Master Chief MacDonald, this is Major Hanson. Can you hear me?”
“Lima Charlie, Major.”
Harrell guffawed while saying soto voce, “What’s the cake eater want?”
“I’ve got a pickle of a situation here, Master Chief. Colonel Cohen and a civilian CIS agent are out of contact behind enemy lines.”
“Sounds like a job for tier-one. Got coordinates?”
“Roughly. There’s still a lot of ground to cover. I can’t provide air support without directly breaking our neutrality agreement with Gilead. You’ll be on your own.”
“Are you asking if we’ll volunteer, Major?”
There was a pregnant pause on the line. “I am, Master Chief.”
“I owe the colonel my life, as does everyone on this team. We’re in. Transmit whatever intel you’ve got down to Senior Chief Harrell, and we’ll be thrusters up in five mikes.”
“Thank you, Master Chief.”
“Just make sure you’ve got some beer, booze, and officer country food ready when we’re back,” MacDonald finished, right as he cut off the commlink. “Okay, boys, we’re on the clock. Let’s go kick some drug dealer ass. Now mount up!”
Each of the four remaining members of the team grabbed a case of gear, along with their weapons, and made a beeline for the shuttle. The commando team had staged in the VIP hangar bay, which was far smaller and easier to launch out of in case of an emergency. It’s also got better facilities and a nice lounge. MacDonald smirked as he waited for the flurry of activity to subside.
“Ready?” Harrell asked as he trotted up. “I’ve got the intel and best location the civilian who called it in could provide.”
“What’s with all the civilians on this op?”
“Beats me, Master Chief.”
“Time’s a-wasting. Let’s go.”
MacDonald strode forward through the lowered ramp of the assault shuttle, walking through the passenger and cargo area that held his team.
The rich baritone voice of Chief Ibrahim Ahmad rang out. “I, for one, look forward to ridding the galaxy of this scourge. I find criminals of all types to be detestable, but those who profit off the misery of others by dealing in drugs? They are an affront before God himself.” He hailed from the Kingdom of Persia and wore a Christian symbol under the country flag on his uniform.
“There are times when I have misgivings about those we kill,” Chief Carlos Mata said. “But not this time. I’m with Ahmad. We should kill all of them and do Gilead a favor.”
“How’d I ever make it onto this team?” Esmail Rostami asked, his voice playful. He was a Petty Officer first class, and the second to newest member of Alpha team.
“Because no other team would take you, and I felt bad about it,” MacDonald joked on his way through, causing a wave of coarse laughter throughout the shuttle.
“Why am I here, then?” the voice of the newcomer to the team, a tall, imposing Saurian male with purple scales, asked.
“Command wanted to integrate the best of Sauria’s special operations forces into ours. You made the cut.”
“You sound disappointed, Master Chief,” the Saurian replied, his tongue twitching.
“Not at all, Warmaster Kucuk. I’m glad we got a good operator to replace Meissner. Just miss the kid, that’s all.”
“Oh look, the Master Chief’s getting soft!”
“Stow that shit, Mata. Now all of you get locked in; we’re lifting off in two mikes.” With that said, MacDonald crossed into the cockpit area and grunted toward the warrant officer who served as the pilot. “Pre-flight complete?”
The young woman glanced back and nodded in his direction. “Yes, Master Chief. Boss has given us the okay to launch; just waiting on the spacewalkers to strap in.”
They’re all so young these days. Or is it I’m getting old? “Roger, Warrant.” MacDonald strapped into the jump seat and ensured he was properly secure.
“Master Chief, we’re ready back here,” Harrell’s voice called through the shuttle’s comm system. “Let’s go save Colonel Cohen and cap some douchebag drug dealers.”
MacDonald let out a snicker. “You heard the man, Warrant.”
“Commencing liftoff,” the pilot replied, and the shuttle gracefully took off from the flight deck. Hovering at a few meters off the surface, it zoomed forward as thrust was applied. The Lion of Judah quickly gave way to open space, and Gilead filled the field of view outside of the cockpit.
As the craft began to enter the planet’s atmosphere, turbulence caused MacDonald and the pilot to shake in their harnesses. The effect grew more pronounced the further in they went. “What’s the plan, Warrant?”
“Sit back and enjoy the ride, Master Chief,” the young woman said, tossing a grin over her shoulder with a quick backward glance.
Great, another smart-alec. Colonel Demood’s right, this ship is overrun with ‘em.
Flying through the air at speeds approaching twenty times the speed of sound, the shuttle was a speeding bullet. Friction from the fast transit turned the shields red, causing a roar to course through the cabin that made speaking impossible. After thirty seconds of the same, they began to level out.
Just in time. MacDonald’s stomach heaved, sending a wave of nausea through him. Maybe I’m getting a touch old for this. The sky beyond the metallic alloy windows turned blue, and the ground rushed up at them. “Hey, uh, Warrant, are you flying us into the ground on purpose?”
“Gilead’s sensor systems are primitive enough we can evade passive sensors by skimming the deck.”
“Skimming the deck?”
“Watch and learn, Master Chief.”
The ground seemed to fly up to meet them, leaving MacDonald uneasy at best. He resolved not to eat within three hours of a combat drop, for next time.
David crawled up a tall sand dune, the powdery soil giving way repeatedly. This is like being stuck in a bog. Except the sand gets into everything. Mounting the top of it, he reached an arm down to help Eldred and pulled her up. His chest heaved as he breathed heavily. Note to self: work out more. Below them, the desert stretched endlessly in all directions. He could make out specks in the distance—the enemy relentlessly pursuing them, intent on ending their lives.
“Pity I didn’t pack a sniper rifle,” Eldred said.
“Yeah, until it ran out of bullets. This Feldt guy seems to have a virtually unlimited number of thugs willing to kill for him.”
“What’s sad is that people here view him as a decent guy trying to help the poor make a living. They won’t help the police or the military put an end to him.”
“That’s what Gilead gets for mass corruption at all levels of government,” David grunted as he spoke. “Organized crime is a cancer, and when your entire economy is built around gambling, the cancer eventually takes over.”
Eldred smirked. “Hey, I don’t mind betting on the slots now and then.”
“I would assume you know when you stop.”
“Yeah, I go into a casino with a hundred credits to play, and when I’m done, I’m done.”
David sighed. “All things in moderation.” Despite his calm exterior, he was anxious. “Eldred, I’d be lying to you if I said this looked good.”
“I wasn’t born yesterday, Colonel. There’s two of us and a hundred of them. I get it. Unless Qadir gets help back here…”
“Yeah.” David closed his eyes. “Didn’t expect it to end like this. It seems wrong, somehow.”
Eldred glanced at him, a questioning look in her eyes. “Why?”
“I always thought if I were going to die, it would be on the bridge of my ship, locked in battle against the League. Not on some backwater planet against drug dealers.”
“Are you saying they’re not worthy of killing the great Colonel Cohen?”
David laughed. “Sounds stupid when you put it like that.”
“Glad to be of service.”
He unslung his battle rifle and checked the magazine one more time. Turning the fire selector to single shot, David glanced down the scope and ensured it was clean. “These optics only have two times magnification. We’ll have to let them get close before we can engage.”
“Any grand plans?”
David shook his head. “Not really. Keep shooting them until they shoot us or get tired of their losses and pull back. If they do, we’ll break contact and keep going further into the desert.”
“If it comes down to it, I’m not willing to be taken alive,” Eldred said quietly, her brow scrunched together. “You can make your own choice on that, but… we know what he does to prisoners.”
David forced some bravado into his voice. “We’re not done yet, and these guys aren’t going to know what hit them.”
“I’ll hold you to that, Colonel,” she replied, breaking into a grin.
The next few minutes passed without speaking. The specks grew in number and in size, until David was able to make them out easily. The same civilian clothed gunmen they’d engaged previously, wearing inadequate body armor and carrying rifles without scopes or integrated optics. More than enough firepower to keep cowering civilians in line, but suicide against equal numbers of even moderately trained troops. He sighted down, trying to line up a shot on the closest enemy. While he wasn’t a ground pounder, he’d been in enough direct combat to know when to pull the trigger. “You take right of twelve o’clock. I’ll handle left.”
David didn’t move his head an inch. “They’re almost in range. Open fire when I do.”
Eldred didn’t respond, but he could hear her breathing slow.
His finger moved onto the trigger, and he squeezed. A single shot rang out, and David was rewarded with a fallen enemy. The bullet went straight through the unlucky man’s eye socket.
Then all hell broke loose.
The entire formation—if it could be called that—opened fire, many of them on full automatic. Bullets filled the air and smacked the sand all around them. Ninety-nine percent of the shots were so wide, they didn’t land anywhere near, but a few were uncomfortably close.
Scanning the onrushing group, David tried to select those who appeared to know what they were doing. Another shot, another kill. As his scope moved from person to person, a Psalm entered his mind. Blessed be the Lord my God, who teaches my hands for war, and my fingers to fight.
“There’s too many of them,” Eldred said between shots. “They’re coming faster than I can take them out.” As if to underline her statement, sand blew into their faces from a burst of bullets.
He is my fortress, my high tower, my deliverer and my shield, in Him do I trust.
Shaking the sand off, David switched to three-round burst mode and aimed for center mass. After dropping four enemies, his rifle clicked dry. He dropped the magazine out and slapped a new one in. He subdues the people under me. “Forget headshots, Eldred. Aim center mass, just like me.”
She acknowledged him with a grunt. They both continued to fire on the mass of onrushing humanity intent on killing them. Several times, they almost broke the enemy advance, but some kind of force seemed to motivate the men, beyond simple duty or fear of failure. They swept onward, like a wind.
David’s rifle clicked dry once more. Man is like a breath, his days are as a shadow that passes by. “Reload and go full auto.”
“Are you sure?”
“It's our only chance,” David said as he slid the next magazine into the receiver of his battle rifle. Part the heavens, O Lord my God, touch the mountains, and they shall smoke. Lifting his head again, he was shocked at the sight of a dozen enemies, less than ten meters away. He raised the rifle and held down the trigger, sending fifty bullets flying down the dune. Men pitched over like bowling pins, blood sprayed from direct hits, and the cries of the wounded were overwhelming.
Eldred joined in, sending the fury from her rifle into the mix. Dozens of gunmen were killed outright, while the rest finally dropped into the sand and paused their advance.
Bring forth Your lightning and scatter them, O Lord; shoot out Your arrows and destroy them. Dropping behind the lip of the sand berm, David glanced at her. “I’m out of rifle rounds.”
“Same. Mags for your pistol?”
Shaking her head, Eldred laughed bitterly. “Well, that’s a few more of these assholes anyway.”
A roar in the distance caught the attention of both of them. It sounded mechanical, with a distinct pattern David had never heard before. He stuck his head gingerly over the berm to see two squat vehicles racing toward them. They had improvised armor plating attached to the sides and top, while a large crew-serviced weapon was mounted on the back of each. They came complete with a standing gunner. At the sight of movement, every enemy still alive opened up, along with the big guns. He quickly dropped back down into the sand. “Okay, things just went from bad to screwed.”
“Non-standard tactical vehicles. The bread and butter of warlords, drug dealers, and bad guys the galaxy over.”
“Hah,” Eldred replied, somehow keeping up good spirits. “Technicals, eh?”
“Yup,” David said as he reached down and drew his sidearm. “Shouldn’t take them too long to gather some courage and try again.”
His words might have well been a prophecy. Moments later, two gunmen bounded over the top of the berm, only to be cut down by a trio of shots from Eldred. “Pull back!” she shouted.
Sliding down the berm, David fired again as another enemy climbed over the top and the man fell backward. It would’ve been nice if he’d pitched forward and I could’ve grabbed his weapon. Between the two of them, they dispatched several more cartel soldiers before his pistol clicked dry. Dropping the magazine out, he slid another in with the practiced motion of a professional. “Last mag.” God, we need Your help, right now.
Eldred glanced at him. “I’m scared.”
“No.” Her voice trailed off. “Of where I’m going after I die. I realized as Carmina passed, I don’t know where I’m going.”
David pursed his lips together. “We’ve all done horrible things in the service of our country.”
“I haven’t been to confession in years. Or taken communion. For that matter, I haven’t set foot in a church since I couldn’t tell you when.”
“Do you still believe?”
David offered a small smile. “Then God is there for you. Period.”
“I hope so,” Eldred said, turning toward him and smiling ruefully. “It’s been an honor.”
“Same here. See you on the other side?” David asked as he tried to make peace with the inevitable death to follow.
Eldred didn’t get the opportunity to respond.
David’s headset suddenly came to life. “This is Alpha leader calling any friendly forces. Alpha leader calling any friendly forces.”
It took him a moment to reply. He was so overcome by shock, the words wouldn’t come out. “Master Chief MacDonald, this is Colonel David Cohen. I read you five by five. We are under heavy fire and are nearly Winchester. I say again, we are under heavy fire and are Winchester. Danger close!”
“Roger that, Colonel. I’ve got a fix on your position and have a special ops heavy shuttle ready to put some hurt down. Got any colored smoke?”
Eldred held up a grenade marked with a bright purple stripe.
“Affirmative, Master Chief. Marking our location with purple smoke now!”
She pulled the pin and tossed the grenade. It landed nearby and immediately started belching clouds of thick purple haze. Right then, another gunman climbed the lip. She fired twice, felling him.
“Master Chief, if you’re coming, now’s the time.”
“Fifteen seconds, Colonel!”
Time seemed to stop as the seconds ticked by. David kept his pistol raised and at the ready. Along with Eldred, they fired again and again, bodies dropping from precise center mass shots. Reach down from on high; rescue me and deliver me from my enemies, from those who speak falsehood and deceive the just. The familiar whomp-whomp-whomp of CDF tactical rockets firing sounded across the sky. Seconds later, explosions rang out, the sound of which was like music to his ears. Set me free and rescue me, O Lord. Balls of fire were visible, rising into the sky above the berm, while the shuttle swooped low and flew a couple of meters off the ground over him and Eldred.
As they stood transfixed in shock, the power-armored troopers of Alpha team jumped off the shuttle and landed right side up, on the run, in the sand. Battle rifles blazed, a grenade launcher fired, and in less than thirty seconds, it was over.
“We’re clear, sir,” MacDonald said through the commlink.
Blessed are the people, whose God is the Lord. David made his way to the top of the berm and surveyed the landscape below him. Both “technicals” were burning, while dozens, if not hundreds of bodies littered the desert floor. A few gunmen had thrown down their arms and ran as fast as their legs would carry them back toward the small town. “I’m in your debt, MacDonald.”
One of the power-armored troopers walked over and put his hand on David’s shoulder. “No one left behind. Not even the cake eaters and spies.”
David laughed as MacDonald popped open his helmet visor. “Master Chief… for this one, you and your team get a VIP meal in the wardroom.”
“And who do I owe my thanks?” Eldred said as she climbed over the berm.
“Master Chief Gordan MacDonald… Miss?”
“Miranda Eldred. Coalition Intelligence Service.”
MacDonald snorted. “Spooks. Director Qadir sends her best. Now, let’s get you two mounted up and head back to the barn.”
“Well, heck, you guys just got here,” David said, a lopsided grin on his face. “I figured you’d want to stay awhile and say hi to some of our friends back at Feldt’s little compound.”
Another power-armored soldier marched up and raised his helmet, revealing the face of Harrell. “I personally wouldn’t mind wishing a very warm tier-one welcome to the rest of these guys, Master Chief.”
While shaking his head, MacDonald snickered. “Well, seeing as you’re the ranking officer, Colonel, we’ll do whatever you want.”
David glanced at Eldred. “Let’s finish this and allow Ramirez’s sacrifice to mean something.”
“Master Chief, I assume you brought high-powered tier-one comms equipment?”
“And a nerd to run it. Rostami! Get over here!”
Hanson pulled down his uniform top, an absent-minded reaction to stress. Gazing across the bridge of the Lion of Judah, he fought to keep his concern in check. The last they’d heard from the commando team, they were proceeding into enemy-held territory. It must get easier at some point. Otherwise, the colonel couldn’t do it day in and day out.
Lieutenant Bell, the backup communications officer, interrupted his thoughts. “Conn, communications. I’ve got a direct feed from Alpha team, sir.”
“Put it on the CO’s viewer,” Hanson said, automatically glancing up.
David’s face appeared on the screen, covered in sand, smeared with blood, but still smiling.
Oh, thank God. “Colonel! Are you okay, sir?”
“I’m fine. We all are. Feldt’s thugs, not so much. Are you keeping my ship in one piece, Major?”
Hanson blushed. “Yes, sir. No paint scratched.”
“Good. I know the idea was to bring me home, but I’ve decided we’re not done here.”
“Alpha team, Agent Eldred, and I are going to press on and attack Feldt directly. We’ll never get a better chance. I want the Lion standing by to engage his ship, in case he gets away. We believe he has a destroyer class vessel.”
“Disable or destroy, sir?”
David flashed a thin smile. “Disable. This monster needs to answer for his crimes in front of the Terran Coalition court of justice.”
“Aye aye, sir. I’m sure his ship will be no match for us.”
“Watch the overconfidence, Hanson. Never underestimate an opponent, regardless of who it is.”
“Get Colonel Demood ready for VBSS, along with some of his Marines.”
“Aye aye, sir.”
“Same to you, Major.”
The feed cut off, leaving Hanson staring forward. He glanced to his side to see Ruth, perched in the XO’s chair, a wolfish grin plastered across her face. “Looking forward to the engagement?”
Ruth smiled coldly. “I have a special dislike for criminals who prey on others.”
The small team had swept above the sands of the desert on their heavy assault shuttle right up until they hit the outskirts of the little settlement. Too small to be called anything like a city, it more resembled a frontier town on an outer edge mining planet. Or something from the Old West back on Earth, if there were horses instead of solar-powered mini-carts everywhere. David smirked at the thought as he glanced around. The commandos had provided special-operations power armor and advanced battle rifles to both David and Eldred, enabling them to keep up.
After dismounting, MacDonald had point, cautiously going down the deserted streets toward the central operations building. It was easy to identify because it was the nicest building of the ramshackle bunch. “So did we waste his entire cadre of soldiers?” he said through the commlink. There was enough emphasis on the last word to get across the old commando’s clear distaste.
“I doubt it, Master Chief,” Eldred interjected. “Sure, we took out a lot of his manpower, but I’d expect at least that many more.”
David grunted. “It’s like peeling an onion.”
“More like shooting an onion,” MacDonald replied with a grunt.
As the banter continued, there was movement ahead of them. Men and women in civilian clothing ran across the street. One of the benefits to the special-ops armor was enhancements to the helmet optics. The fluttering of a cloth covering an open window pulled David’s attention to it. He held up his fist, sending the signal to stop to the team. “Possible sniper, third-story window, two from the center going left.”
MacDonald’s rough voice filled the commlink. “Acknowledged.” The report of a rifle firing sounded, and a bullet pinged off the tough power armor the commando wore. “Mata! Light that asshole up!”
The armor-suited form of Alpha team’s sniper stood, holding an automatic grenade launcher. Two fragmentation grenades went flying through the open window, exploding violently. They were followed by a single incendiary grenade that set fire to the entire room. Orange flames roared out of the open window, and in the space of thirty seconds, started to spread.
“Well, he’s going to be extra crispy,” Rostami said with a snicker.
“I like these guys already, Colonel,” Eldred commented cheerfully.
MacDonald grunted. “We don’t do civilians on ops very often.”
“Well, we did allow an Amish girl to help us last year,” Rostami replied.
David laughed. “That’s about as civilian as you can get, gentlemen.” These guys have an entirely different lens to look through war. I think they enjoy it. I respect them like nothing else, but I’ll never enjoy it. The pain of seeing those who die under my command will forever be too much.
For another fifty meters, they proceeded without incident. Then, without warning, gunmen sprang up from what seemed like every window, door, even a sewer grate, spraying the area in front of them with bullets. MacDonald took numerous rounds to his armor before he was able to make it to cover in the doorway of a shop. The rest of the team scattered as best as they could and started gamely returning the enemy fire.
“I think this is what they call an ambush,” David grunted into his comm as he picked out a target and put three rounds into an unlucky gunman’s center mass.
“No shit, sir,” Harrell commented. He too, took out an enemy with sustained gunfire from his squad automatic weapon.
A trio of enemies ran into the street, one hefting a long tube. He put it to his shoulder and fired. A rocket roared out, flying in a straight line. It slammed into the second story of a building where two of the commandos had taken refuge in its doorway. Flaming debris rained down, along with the smoke.
“Crap, they’ve got unguided rockets. On me, spacewalkers!” MacDonald yelled as he broke cover and sprayed the men with bullets. Two of the other commandos joined in, quickly felling the trio. The maneuver, while effective, wasn’t without its cost. There were still dozens of active enemies firing on them, and even the best Terran Coalition technology had its limits.
Rostami fell forward before Harrell pulled him back to cover. “Mata, get over here. Rostami took a round to the chest. Not sure if it got through his armor, but he’s got a breach here.”
“On it, Senior Chief,” Carlos Mata, who doubled as the team’s medic, called into the suit integrated commlink.
David cued up a private line to MacDonald. “At the risk of being completely obvious, we need to punch through this mob, Master Chief.”
“Got any bright ideas, Colonel?”
“Your shuttle got any tactical rockets left?”
“Yeah, but this area has a lot of civilians in it, sir.”
Incoming fire rained down on David and the rest of the team. Most of them couldn’t lean out of whatever cover they’d been able to attain to return fire gamely. His brain went through the options as quickly as possible. The general CDF rules of engagement flashed through his mind. Whenever possible, use maximum care to avoid civilian casualties. Do not fire into civilian areas or buildings that house civilians unless the enemy force is using them to attack friendly units. For a second, he froze. These were the decisions he hated the most, where doing what he considered morally right would result in the death of the men and women under his command. My own death wouldn’t matter, but I won’t risk their lives. “Understood. I’ll authorize the use of rockets on buildings we’re taking fire from, only. Mark your targets and play the music.”
“Aye aye, sir.”
Eldred sprayed battle rifle downrange, then ducked next to David to reload. “You sure about that?”
“We have to capture Feldt. The Terran Coalition’s future rests on stopping Orbita. So, God help me, I’ll do whatever it takes, including blow up a building that might have someone’s mother in it,” he replied. What am I becoming? He closed his eyes for a moment. I’ve done this before. I do what must be done and beg God to forgive me afterward.
“Here it comes. Engage concussive wave protocol!” MacDonald’s voice thundered across the commlink.
David figured he’d said that more for the non-tier-one members’ benefit than his men and triggered the sound-deadening system of his helmet. A series of massive explosions rocked the street. Fire, smoke, and a blast wave swept over their position, nearly hurling him to the ground, even in the power-armored suit. It took a few seconds for the smoke to clear and the helmet’s integrated optics to come back online. When it did, he took in the scene before him. It was nothing less than the complete destruction of what had been a built-up street and a series of buildings a minute before.
“Charge! Surge forward, team!” MacDonald shouted as the soldiers of Alpha team rushed out of cover and into the maelstrom on the street. A few defenders were still alive and firing their weapons. The commandos cut them down quickly and efficiently, without hesitation. An eerie silence broke out, interrupted only by the crackling of flames.
Eldred and David stood, walking in the middle of the street with the rest of the team. “You guys blew this place apart.”
MacDonald grunted. “When it absolutely, positively has to be destroyed, call the spacewalkers.”
“If you ain’t space walking, you ain’t shit!” Harrell said through the commlink.
A faint cry attracted David’s attention. He tracked its source into a building that burned brightly and stuck his helmeted head inside. A prone figure was visible a few meters in, and he crossed the distance quickly, finding a woman moaning on the floor. The area was filled with smoke, and while there were no visible flames on the ground floor, it was only a matter of time. He scooped her up and carried her outside. “Master Chief, get your medic over here!”
Mata stepped forward and kneeled next to the casualty as David placed her on the ground. “Human female, mid-fifties. Smoke inhalation and enough shrapnel in her leg to require surgery,” he said as he ran a medical scanner over her unconscious body.
“We don’t have time for this, sir,” MacDonald grumbled through the commlink.
“According to the rules of war, yes we do, Master Chief,” David replied after ensuring they were on a private channel. “Have your medic treat her leg as best we can and call for casualty evac and another squad of Marines.”
“With respect, sir, she’s our enemy. Any delay will give Feldt time to escape. We need to move.”
“We just mowed down a hundred plus hostiles, taking no losses except for banged-up armor. I don’t know if she’s a combatant or a civilian. Regardless, treat her.”
“Aye aye, sir,” MacDonald grated out.
While Mata worked on the woman, David observed. The specialized medical gear the tier-one operators carried quickly stabilized her, and he went to work on the pieces of metal lodged in her leg. After several minutes, he applied a gel substance all over her leg and lightly covered it in bandages. “That’s as good as I can do, Colonel. Would you like me to stay with her until the evac shuttle arrives?”
David pondered the question. Someone should stay, but we can’t afford to split up. The harsh reality of war and the lack of a neat, moral solution to every problem he encountered stared him directly in the face as he glanced between Mata and the woman. “No, Chief. We can’t afford to split up now. Give her an infrared strobe and fall in.” He walked away to the head of the team where MacDonald stood, utilizing a scanning device on the street beyond. The “tower” Feldt lived in was nearby. Its spire jutted above the poorly constructed buildings that surrounded them.
“I remember telling your TAO that combat is different on the ground, sir. It's not quite as clean and antiseptic as a space battle.”
“There’s nothing antiseptic about destroying an enemy ship with six hundred souls onboard without them even having the chance to get in an escape pod, Master Chief,” David stated, staring directly at the older man.
“Too bad for them. They shouldn’t be wearing the League uniform.”
“Master Chief, there are times I wish I could be as detached as you are… and not give a crap.”
MacDonald flashed a grin through his helmet. “There’s a but in there somewhere.”
“It’s who I am. We just killed several hundred people in the last hour. They didn’t have a chance. Most of their weapons aren’t capable of penetrating our armor. There’s a point it begins to feel like murder.”
“With respect, sir,” MacDonald replied as he turned toward David with a harsh look on his face. “Those people made their choices. They engaged in morally reprehensible acts and sided with the League. Their actions and those of the organization they’re in are responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. I’m going to sleep like a baby knowing they’re dead and gone, without the ability to continue harming others.”
David held his tongue, even though his first thought was to argue with the older man. He’s not wrong. I however, can’t get myself in that mindset without something going horribly wrong with my brain. He decided to change the subject. “Is your comms guy okay?”
“Yeah. Bruised ribs. We get those a lot.”
“Get a commlink set up to the Lion of Judah. I need to brief Major Hanson before we blow Feldt’s front door open.”
“Roger that, sir.”
The murmur of voices as enlisted personnel exchanged information and monitored the systems of the ship was like a safety blanket for Hanson as he sat in the CO’s chair. Ruth kept glancing at him but said nothing. He closed his eyes and counted to ten. When he opened them again, she was staring. “Yes, Lieutenant?”
“You look keyed up, sir. It's making everyone nervous. You need to project that you’re calm and in control. Even when you’re not,” Ruth said, her voice almost a whisper.
“It’s the empty mental space,” he whispered back.
“Count sheep, then.”
Hanson did a double-take in her direction at the suggestion before laughing softly. “Nice.”
Lieutenant Bell’s voice interrupted their banter. “Conn, communications. I’ve got Alpha Team’s transponder. Colonel Cohen would like to talk to you, sir.”
“By all means,” Hanson replied with a glance toward the comms officer. “Put him on.”
David’s face appeared on the viewer above the CO’s chair. “Major, any changes?”
“No, sir. No sign of hostile activity, nor any reaction from Gilead to our landing.”
“Good to hear. We’re getting ready to assault Feldt’s stronghold. Given the ambush we just encountered and the layout of this place, I doubt we’ll catch him with his pants down. Be ready to engage his ship the moment you sight it, Major. If Gilead control warns you off, ignore them.”
Hanson fought to keep the worry and emotion off his face. “Yes, sir. I understand. Oh, sir, we’ve got a casualty evacuation shuttle, along with more Marines headed down. Do you want us to sweep the entire area?”
“Yes. Offer assistance to anyone we can, then bring them back to the Lion for processing. We’ll sort out who’s a combatant from the innocents later.”
“Aye aye, sir.”
As Hanson sat back in his chair, Ruth’s voice interrupted his thoughts. “I think it’s about to get real.”
“Yeah. A bit different from the engineering spaces. It’s real down there too, but it’s different.” She said nothing else, leaving him to his thoughts as he stared out the transparent alloy window that offered a spectacular view of the planet below as they maintain orbit. God, help me to do this right.
The building at the center of the town and the tower that sprang from it was deceptively tranquil. It rose ten stories into the sky, which wasn’t much compared to the sights David had seen across the galaxy, but it was still impressive here. It was apparent to him that whoever had designed it hoped to evoke the modern styles of Galt and the rim with harsh lines and much transparent alloy used in its construction. A pair of uniformed gunmen stood guard out front, while the team was stacked on top of MacDonald, staring at a feed from a stealth drone.
“He’s got to have more than two shooters,” Harrell commented.
“I count fifteen plus heat signatures in the lobby,” Rostami interjected. “We’ve thinned the herd quite a bit.”
Eldred crossed her arms in front of her. “The ones left are his private guard. The worst of the worst. They’ll fight the hardest.”
MacDonald turned toward her and grunted. “Thank you for the expert analysis, agent.”
“What’s the plan, Master Chief?” David asked as he suppressed a chuckle from Eldred’s noticeable eye roll.
“You put it pretty succinctly earlier, Colonel. Aside from the wannabe heroes with rocket launchers, these goons lack the firepower to stop us. I’m thinking the time for finesse is over. We hit hard and fast, punch through, then up to the penthouse.”
“One problem with that, boys,” Eldred said as she stuck her helmet between the two men. “It’s not enough to grab Feldt. We need the info Ramirez died for to collect. Collapsing a group like this requires us to cut all the heads off the snake. Follow?”
David exhaled loudly as he ran through the tactical scenarios briefly. “We’ll split into two elements. Eldred and I will get the info, while Alpha Team bags the HVT. Clear?”
“Sure you don’t want one of my guys with you, sir?”
“Negative,” David replied. “Whatever’s left of Feldt’s forces will be defending him. The man is too much of a coward to do otherwise. We’ll encounter minimal resistance,” he said, as if by speaking the situation, he was willing it into existence.
MacDonald shut down the tablet they were watching the drone feed on and put it away. “You’re the boss, sir. Alpha team, form on me. Colonel, I suggest you and Ms. Eldred step back. We’ll clear the street and breach.”
As David took up a defensive position with the CIS agent at his side, he watched as the commandos lined up in perfect order and precision. Impressive—even more so than the Marines that move like a human wave.
“Okay, spacewalkers, this is One. Two and Four, do you have shots lined up on the tangos in plain view?” MacDonald asked over the commlink.
“Affirmative, One. We’re dialed in,” Harrell replied.
Thanks to the integrated flash and sound suppressors in the commando’s sniper rifles, the only sound audible was the click of the triggers pulling back and striking the firing pin of the weapon. A moment later, both enemies dropped in their tracks. The only evidence of the attack, besides the bodies themselves, were bright red bloodstains on the wall. Led by MacDonald, the commandos raced silently across the square in front of the tower and fitted its front door with explosive strips. They stepped to the side, and without warning, blew it apart. Smoke poured out of the opening while the team rushed in. The sound of battle rifle fire, muted as it was through superior CDF technology, filled the square. And then it was quiet.
“Colonel, we’ve got the lobby cleared. Come on in and join the party,” MacDonald said through the commlink.
David exchanged a glance with Eldred. “You good?”
He offered her a nod. “Then let’s go.”
She stood, covering the square with her battle rifle, while David did the same. The two of them moved across the area at double-quick, almost an all-out run. The scene inside the lobby was one of carnage and chaos. Fallen enemies were everywhere. Blood stained the walls, and blast damage from grenades was evident. “Nice work,” Eldred said to no one in particular.
“Ready to press on, Master Chief?” David asked.
“Absolutely. We found the stairs. I prefer those over gravlifts.”
“Very well. Let’s move.”
Harrell slapped David’s shoulder as he walked by. “Look at this. another fleet officer from the Lion of Judah that’s not afraid to mix it up on the ground. Must be a record for one ship.”
Letting the remark pass, David checked the ammo on his battle rifle as the commandos stacked up on the doorway leading to the stairs. Rostami opened it, and Harrell tossed in a concussion grenade. Three seconds later, it went off, and they charged in.
“Go, go, go!” MacDonald ordered through the commlink, and the team moved as if they were all mentally connected through the opening.
It’s like watching water flow. David waited until the group disappeared, and moved in with Eldred. Surprisingly, there were no hostiles in the stairwell. Perhaps Feldt isn’t as smart of a tactician as he’d like to think. Then again, it’s possible his troops are dead.
At the ninth floor, Eldred cleared her throat. “Ramirez’s quarters were one floor down from the penthouse, so this is our stop.”
David nodded and cued his commlink. “Master Chief, we’re peeling off to look for the data disc. Good luck and Godspeed.”
“Back at you, Colonel,” MacDonald’s rough voice replied. “I’ll let you know when we’ve got Feldt secured.”
Not bothering to reply, David cracked the door open while Eldred covered it with her rifle. She tossed a concussion grenade in, then charged. He quickly followed her, taking the opposite side of the corridor. There was no one present. “Where’d they all go, you think?” he asked.
“Rats off a sinking ship?”
“Maybe. Do you know which one of these is her apartment?”
Eldred touched his shoulder. “I just transferred the location to your HUD. It’s less than twenty meters away. She had a corner apartment. I guess it was a perk of being Feldt’s mistress.”
“I can’t imagine it being remotely bearable, no matter how nice the perks, as you put it.” It didn’t take them long to cover the distance, even going slowly to ensure there were no surprise ambushes. The door to the apartment was open. It appeared to David as if none of them had locks. Why would they? With a megalomaniac running the place, it was just one more piece of control for him.
Again, Eldred tossed a concussion grenade into the apartment as per standard breach procedure. It exploded with a bang, and they charged in, sweeping through the rooms. “Clear!” she yelled.
“Clear!” David shouted as he finished checking out the living area. Small mementos of Ramirez’s life dotted the space, with electronic picture frames on loop showing her in happier times. Many had a man in them he assumed was Feldt. Also present were reminders of her Catholic faith. A set of rosary beads and a crucifix lay on the tiny coffee table in front of the couch. He walked to the bedroom, looking for Eldred. “Find anything?”
“Yeah,” she replied and held up a small container, far smaller than a human hand. “One type-eight encrypted data disc. We won’t know what’s on it until I get back to CIS HQ, but this is what she died for.”
The way in which Eldred said “what she died for” caused David to pause for a moment, deep in thought. All of us in the end owe God a death. At least this woman died for something noble. “Good work.”
She shook her head as she dropped the disc into a carrying container built into the power armor. “No, it would’ve been good work if I’d kept my word.” She turned and walked out of the room.
Simultaneously, MacDonald threw open the entryway to the tenth floor of the tower, and Harrell tossed flashbangs in. Twin explosions went off, and the team charged. They emerged into a foyer guarded by three gunmen in ballistic body armor, clutching civilian versions of a battle rifle. The enemies might as well have been carrying water pistols. Before they could raise their weapons, all three were dead, courtesy of three-round-bursts from the commandos.
“Tangos down!” Rostami called out.
MacDonald’s gruff voice filled the commlink. “Fan out, clear all rooms. Do not kill the HVT.”
Before anyone else could respond, more gunfire cut across the foyer, forcing them to take cover. Bullets smashed into artwork, sculptures, and vases lining the walkway, shattering them into hundreds of pieces.
“Hope they’ve got insurance on that stuff,” Harrell commented as he stood and returned fire from his squad automatic weapon on full auto. Sustained counter-fire forced him back. “I think they’ve got some auto-turrets or something, boss.”
“Okay, gentlemen, let’s go to work. On three, toss fragmentation and EMP grenades forward, then we advance. Clear?” MacDonald asked.
“Hoorah, Master Chief,” Mata replied, while the rest offered similar confirmation.
“One… two… three!” In unison, they each threw a grenade. MacDonald’s was of the fragmentation variety, and he tried to time it so it would land behind the two shooters nearest to him. A moment later, there were four explosions and a massive concussive wave that would’ve knocked any unarmored human out of the fight. Coupled with electronics frying EMP blasts, the auto-turrets were rendered inert. Not wasting a second, the team jumped up and surged ahead, cutting down the few remaining enemies and coming to the end of the hallway. It opened up to a large, two-story room to the left, and what appeared to be sleeping quarters to the right. “Harrell, clear the right. Rostami, Mata, and I have the left. Double time!”
“On it, boss!” Harrell said, as Ahmad and Kucuk, who he still thought of as “the new guy,” turned off, rifles at the ready.
MacDonald was left with Rostami and Mata, cautiously entering what could only be described as a monument to Edward Feldt—a room filled with shadowboxes dedicated to each significant achievement in his life. MacDonald took a moment to examine one. It told the story of Feldt killing a rival drug lord and absorbing his empire. “This is one sick puppy.”
“Clear!” Rostami called out. “I’ve got a hot tub over here. Everything’s empty, but it looks like they left in a hurry.”
“Boss, you’d better come here,” Harrell’s voice cut in through the commlink.
“On my way,” MacDonald replied. He quickly strode through the penthouse, to the location of the rest of the team as designated by his HUD. A most peculiar sight greeted him—a small opening into an interior wall. Harrell and Ahmad stood next to it. “What’cha got?”
“Escape chute. Straight down to the bottom.”
“Son of a—”
“Yeah, same reaction, boss. Not sure how long of a head start they’ve got, but we can’t fit down that thing without stripping our armor off.”
“The flyboys will have to deal with this guy. Let’s collect all the intel we can. This place will be loaded with SIGINT.”
“You got it, boss,” Harrell replied and started tossing the bedroom.
“Rostami, let the Lion of Judah know they’re going to have company soon.”
“On it, Master Chief. I found a computer system out here that appears important. His personal tablet is here, too. I’ll let you know when I get in.” the youngster answered.
The faux luxury of the suite wasn’t lost on MacDonald. Everyone else lives in third-world planet style poverty, and this jerk feasts. Too bad we didn’t get to put him down. He walked through the penthouse slowly, taking in some of the art on the walls and bizarre posters calling workers to unite behind Feldt. What’s the shrink call it? God complex. He cued his commlink to contact David.
“Cohen here. What can I do for you, Master Chief?”
“Got what you need, sir?”
“Affirmative. Did you bag our HVT?”
“Negative, sir. He had an escape hatch. Our ride is aware.”
“Understood. Collect all intel and let me know when you're ready to wrap it up. Cohen out.”
MacDonald changed the commlink frequency to the channel for his entire team. “Okay boys, wrap up the search. I want to be off this piece of shit planet in fifteen mikes.”
The Lion of Judah’s bridge was a beehive of activity; still running at normal operations, the bridge crew moved with infectious energy as it was clear they were about to engage an enemy vessel. Hanson glanced at Ruth, who sat serenely in the XO’s chair as if she didn’t have a worry in the universe. “One destroyer shouldn’t be too big a deal, huh?”
Ruth grinned. “Not for this ship.”
“I think it’s time for condition one.”
“Your call, sir.”
She’s right. It is my call, and I need to be more decisive. He recalled how David was always cool as a cucumber during battle. Hanson set his jaw and stared straight ahead as he hit the button for 1MC. “This is Major Hanson. General quarters! General quarters! All hands, man your battle stations. This is not a drill. I say again, man your battle stations. This is not a drill. Set condition one throughout the ship!”
The bridge lighting softened to a deep blue hue, its regular tone for a combat evolution. Second Lieutenant Victoria Kelsey, the second watch tactical action officer, spoke up. “Conn, TAO. Condition one set throughout the ship, sir.”
“TAO, raise shields, charge energy weapons capacitor to maximum. Maintain continuous LIDAR scan of the surface area Alpha team and the colonel broadcasted out of.”
“Aye aye, sir.”
“Navigation, what is our current orbit height?”
“Five hundred eighteen kilometers, sir,” Hammond quickly replied.
“Navigation, put us into geosynchronous orbit over our friendlies’ position.”
“Aye aye, sir.”
For the next few minutes, the Lion maneuvered in space, increasing its range to the planet to nearly ten thousand kilometers before a stable orbit was achieved.
Ruth leaned over. “What are you thinking, sir?”
“Get between them and the Lawrence limit, disable the ship as soon as it clears the atmosphere,” Hanson said as he flashed a smile. “Nothing too fancy.”
“Got it, sir.”
Seconds stretched into minutes as Hanson split his attention between the forward view out of the transparent alloy windows on the bridge and the CO’s screen directly above his head. Maybe they’re not coming.
“Conn, TAO. New contact, designed Sierra Sixty-three, coming up directly from Gilead.”
Hanson routed the sensor report to the CO’s monitor and peered at it. Wildly overcharged engine. It’s coming out of the atmosphere like a bat out of hell. That’s no ordinary freighter, and it’s big enough to be something along the lines of a destroyer. “TAO, re-designate Sierra Sixty-three to Master One.”
“Conn, TAO. Sierra Sixty-three is now designated Master One.”
“TAO, conduct a deep scan of Master One. ETA ‘til it clears the atmosphere?”
“Less than thirty seconds, sir,” Kelsey replied.
Glancing at the sensor screen, the icon representing the enemy ship dutifully tracked into the blackness of space and promptly disappeared. “TAO, where’s our target?” Hanson asked, his voice betraying stress and concern as he leaned forward, furrowing his brow.
“Conn, TAO, Master One is fading in and out of sensor lock, sir. Best guess, stealth coating across the entirety of the ship’s hull.”
It was Ruth that sprang into action. “Sir, our scientific sensors are far more accurate than the tactical sensors. Recommend cross-referencing the data to provide for a constant plot.”
“Do it, Lieutenant,” Hanson replied before he changed focus. “Communications, signal Master One. Order them to stand down and make ready to be boarded. Actually, use Feldt’s name in the transmission. Let’s see if we can rattle ‘em.”
“Aye aye, sir.”
Ruth leaned in and whispered, “You’re getting the hang of this.”
Hanson tilted his head and saw her smile. “Thanks.”
“No response from Master One, sir,” Bell interjected.
Of course it wouldn’t be that easy. “How are those modifications coming, TAO?”
Kelsey tapped away at the controls as she spoke. “Almost done, sir… there we go. I’ve got a seventy percent targeting solution on Master One. That’s the best we’re going to get.”
“TAO, firing point procedures, neutron beams. Put a shot across Master One’s bow.”
“Aye aye, sir. Firing solution set.”
“Match bearings, shoot, neutron beams.”
Two bright blue lances of light erupted from the Lion of Judah, cutting across the still unseen vessel’s path, leaving momentary streaks in space before they cut off.
That’s enough to get anyone’s attention, unless they’re stupid or dead. Hanson stared at the tactical plot above his head.
“Conn, TAO. Aspect change, Master One. She’s turned directly for us, and I’m detecting an energy build-up along the vessel’s bow.”
“TAO, firing point procedures, neutron beams on Master One. Aim to disable.”
“Aye aye, sir. Firing solution set.”
“Match bearings, shoot, neutron beams.”
Again, blue beams shot out from the Lion, zooming across the deep black of space as Hanson stared intently at the tactical plot. The ship they were firing on was so far away, it couldn’t be seen through alloy windows at the front of the bridge. Multiple impacts from a directed energy weapon fired by the enemy vessel impacted their port shields, causing a precipitous drain in power across all affected quadrants.
“TAO, analyze that weapon signature. What are they shooting at us?”
“I’m not sure of the composition of the beam, sir, but it’s rapidly destabilizing our shield generators. The beam has EMP characteristics.”
“What about our shots?” Hanson asked.
“Most missed, sir. Master One has multiple fusion drives. Its acceleration profile is off the chart.”
“We could launch fighters,” Ruth suggested.
“Not enough time. We only have a squadron on ready five. They’re not armed for anti-ship combat either. TAO, firing point procedures, forward VRLS. Make tubes,” Hanson glanced down to confirm which ones had Hunter missiles in them. “Fifty through fifty-two ready in all respects and open outer doors.”
“Conn, TAO. Tubes fifty through fifty-two ready in all respects. Outer doors are open.”
“TAO, firing point procedures, target Master One with two Hunter missiles, and neutron beams.”
“Aye aye, sir.”
“Match bearings, shoot, tubes fifty and fifty-one, neutron beams, Master One.”
As the ship rumbled from the two missile launches, Feldt’s ship pummeled the Lion with more directed energy fire. Impact after impact on the port side shield caused it to dip into dangerously low territory—less than ten percent effective charge remaining. A final hit collapsed their defensive screens, which was followed by a brace of missiles from the enemy. They slammed into the outer armor and rocked the crew in their harnesses.
“We’re venting atmosphere on deck twenty, section eighteen,” Ruth called out. “Damage control teams are in route, and I’ve sealed off the areas around.”
“Damnit,” Hanson said under his breath. He watched on the tactical display above the CO’s chair as the two Hunter missiles tracked their target. Dodging point defense fire, they moved deftly through the battlespace, until one icon blinked out followed rapidly by the next. Through the transparent alloy windows at the front of the bridge, he saw a dazzling array of purple-colored energy weapon fire.
“TAO, status of Master One?”
“We only landed a grazing hit with our neutron beams, and they took out both Hunters with point defense. Between the reduction in targeting scanner effectiveness and their fusion drives, they’re just too fast. Master One will reach the Lawrence limit in four minutes.”
Ruth leaned in and spoke quietly so no one could hear. “We need to change the rules here. We’re playing his game, not ours.”
“Got any ideas, Lieutenant? From where I’m sitting, I should’ve had multiple squadrons of fighters, armed with anti-ship loadouts on ready five. Colonel Cohen was right. I was overconfident.”
“No time for second-guessing now, Major,” Ruth barked in a whisper. “Work the problem.”
Her calm, confident voice was a buoy for Hanson to latch on to. She’s right. Just work the problem. Neutron beams can’t lock on, mag-cannons probably won’t hit, and they somehow splashed two Hunters. “Lieutenant, how many missiles do you think it would take to overwhelm the enemy’s PD systems?”
“We could launch twenty Starbolts, backed by ten Hunters,” Kelsey interjected into the conversation. “That ship wouldn’t survive.”
“The entire point of this operation is to capture them, not reduce the ship and its crew to their constituent atoms. Best guess, either one of you?”
Ruth exchanged a glance with Kelsey, who turned around in her seat, apparently unwilling to offer an estimate. “I’d send two volleys of four Hunters, sir. His shields can absorb maybe one hit. The TAO can detonate the others once the shield is down; close enough to scramble his sensors and drive, but not destroy the ship outright.”
“We screw it up, and that ship gets wiped off the face of the universe.”
Ruth shrugged and smirked. “It’s my best guess, sir.”
“Okay,” Hanson replied with a grin of his own. “Here’s to hoping it works. TAO, firing point procedures, forward VRLS. Make tubes fifty-three through sixty ready in all respects and open outer doors.”
“Conn, TAO. Tubes fifty-three through sixty ready in all respects, outer doors are open, sir,” Kelsey announced.
“TAO, firing point procedures, forward neutron beams, and magnetic cannons, Master One.”
“Firing solutions set, sir.”
“We can’t hope to hit them with mag-cannon fire,” Ruth said, her tone questioning.
“No, but maybe everything coming in at once will confuse whoever’s flying over there. I’ve got to believe drug dealers don’t engage in run and gun space fights on a daily basis.”
Ruth snickered. “Valid point, Major.”
“TAO, match bearings, shoot, all weapons,” Hanson said as he directed his gaze toward Kelsey.
The Lion of Judah rocked as the brace of missiles thundered out of their tubes, and the forward magnetic cannons spoke as one. All of their shots missed, but it did seem to have one effect on Feldt’s ship: instead of pressing their advantage on the port shields, the enemy vessel increased its forward speed and blew past the Lion.
“Conn, TAO. Aspect change, Master One. She’s rapidly accelerating away from us, sir.”
“ETA to Hunter intercept?”
“Thirty seconds at max burn, sir.”
Hanson’s eyes went back to the tactical plot. Hunters were the absolute best anti-ship missile the Terran Coalition had. Come on, come on! The dots representing them gained on Feldt’s vessel, two were shot down from the first volley, but one entered terminal homing mode and slammed into its shields, a multi-megaton fusion explosion shining through space like a small star. The second warhead connected as well, completely draining their shields.
“TAO, stand by to detonate remaining warheads,” Hanson barked, his eyes split between the tactical plot, and a sidelong glance at Kelsey’s hands, resting above a button on the screen of her console. The dots for the Hunters closed within five kilometers, and he ticked off two seconds. “Detonate!”
Her finger pressed down, and another small sun erupted in space. If not for the anti-glare technology built into the alloy windows, the bridge crew would’ve been blinded. Seconds ticked off as the everyone seemingly held their breath. “Conn, TAO. Master One disabled. She’s no longer maneuvering, sir!”
Hanson clenched his fist and made a small downward pump motion as he flashed a fierce grin at Ruth, who returned it. “Nice shooting, TAO. Now, firing point procedures, neutron beams, Master One. I want his engines reduced to rubble.”
“Aye aye, sir. Firing solutions set.”
“Match bearings, shoot, neutron beams.”
“Master One isn’t going anywhere, sir,” Ruth said, her face holding back a smirk. “Her thruster mounts are detached in space.”
“Communications,” Hanson began with a glance toward Bell. “Get me Colonel Demood.”
“We’ve got the green light, ladies and gentlemen,” Calvin said into the open intercom of his command shuttle. Slightly larger, and with more command and control capabilities than a normal TCMC assault shuttle, it was always first in the fight, as he relished leading from the front. “VBSS shuttles two and three, follow us out.” He clicked off the intercom with a flippant flick of his finger.
“Colonel Demood, this is Director Qadir. Can you hear me?”
He grunted. What the heck does she want? “Go ahead, Director.”
“It’s imperative you take prisoners on this mission. Above all, Edward Feldt must survive.”
Calvin’s face blanched, his displeasure showing. “I’ve little interest putting my Marines’ lives at stake to capture drug dealers, ma’am. If someone wants to surrender, all power to them. Otherwise, I’m putting these idiots down.”
“Colonel, all of this is for nothing if we don’t get the leaders. Especially Feldt. Without them, we can’t roll up the next rung and expose the League.”
For the simple days when bullets and grenades solved all my problems. “Fine, Director. We’ll do our best to bring as many back for questioning as possible.”
“Thank you, Colonel,” Qadir replied, her tone curt.
The line cut off, leaving Calvin alone in his thoughts once again. “Take us out, Warrant.”
“Space doors are open,” the pilot said as the shuttle pitched up and lifted off the deck plates. It swung around, showing the blackness of space beyond, with a few stars sprinkled about. Quickly gathering steam, they accelerated off the Lion of Judah and into the void.
“Crank up our ECM. Got a feeling our friends out there aren’t out of tricks yet.”
“Leave the flying to me, Colonel. I got this,” the pilot replied, her tone a bit cocky.
Pilots. They’re all smartasses. Calvin shook his head.
Another voice cut into the conversation via the shuttle’s commlink. “Demood, this is Amir. Can you hear me?”
“Five by five, Colonel,” Calvin called out.
“Reaper flight is taking point on your wing. We’re armed with anti-point defense missiles, just in case. Major Hanson sends his regards.”
Calvin grunted. Who would’ve thought the little nerd from engineering would end up being who the colonel chose to run the ship? Heh. “Roger that, Amir. Try to keep up.”
A snicker of laughter drifted through the open link. “I’ll do that, Demood.”
Most of the flight was uneventful, and relatively speaking, short. Less than ten minutes later, they entered the engagement envelope of standard point defense weaponry if it was still active on Feldt’s ship.
“Scan for active energy emissions, Warrant,” Calvin ordered, staring down at his console.
“Already done, Colonel,” the young woman replied as she glanced at him. “This isn’t my first rodeo.”
An alarm started to sound from the central console. “Targeting scanner lock on,” the pilot announced, pulling hard on her flight-stick.
Calvin wasted no time in punching up the commlink to Amir’s fighter. “Hey, Amir. How about you and some of your hotshot buddies take care of this problem for us? We’re lit up like a Christmas tree.”
“We’re already on it, Colonel. Sit tight.”
For some reason, Amir’s deep baritone reassured Calvin. Because in warfare, you're never alone. Never without the overwatch and protection of our brothers and sisters in arms. Through the integrated fleet link tactical system, he watched as the nimble space superiority fighters opened up on any weapons system Feldt’s ship brought online. Quickly and decisively, the enemy vessel was rendered unable to fight, in many ways like an animal with no teeth.
Amir’s voice again filled the cockpit. “The way is clear, my friend. Walk with Allah.”
“Thanks, buddy. I owe you one. Godspeed.”
“Colonel, any preference on a docking port?” the pilot asked.
“Yeah, near as you can get to the bridge.”
“Hang on, sir. This may be a bit bumpy.”
Oh, joy. She’s going to try to make me toss my lunch.
“All weapons systems have been destroyed except for our main mason emitter, sir,” a panicked crewman reported, tossing a glance back toward his employer, Edward Feldt.
Feldt leaned forward in his seat, a chair built up on a platform on the ship that until now had been the most powerful non-military vessel in Gilead space. “Engine status?”
The thin mask of self-control Feldt portrayed fell entirely by the wayside as he slammed his fists into the armrests of his chair and roared, “Fix it! Fix it now, or I’ll kill every member of your families. Your friends, all of them will die if I do!”
The man who occupied the navigation station stood and turned around, his tanned face ashen. “Mr. Feldt, I can’t do anything. The Lion of Judah sliced our engine exhaust manifolds off the back of the ship.”
Feldt reached down and pulled up a small electronic tablet, tapping at the screen. “Your wife just died.”
“Please, Mr. Feldt!” the man screamed, tears instantly streaming down his face. “I can’t make it work!”
Another tap at the screen. “Your daughter.”
“Your son. Fix it. Now.”
Feldt hit the button marked “terminate all.” He paused. “Your entire family and all friends I’ve identified are dead. You can die now.” With a theatrical flourish, he pressed it once more.
Staring at the screen, then at the man, Feldt’s eyes went wide. For more than twenty years, he’d ruled through absolute fear and control. He was smart enough to know any crack in his armor would invite exploitation at the hands of his enemies and challenge for control among those who worked for him. If his system no longer functioned… he wasn’t in control. He pressed a button to terminate another member of his bridge crew—again, nothing happened.
The men and women who had for so long toiled and suffered stood from their respective stations. While long beaten down, there was something different in their eyes.
Hope. They have hope they can finally get revenge on me. Feldt drew his sidearm and fired it twice, striking the navigator in the chest. “Who's next? Get this ship back online!”
“He can’t kill us all,” a voice from behind the chair said, the first verbalization of defiance. It belonged to Jacob Aquino, one of the newest recruits. “If we rush him together, we can take him.”
“Then what?” another voice interjected.
Feldt whirled around and shot someone in the head. “Resume your stations!”
Aquino made eye contact. “We’ll turn him over to the boarding teams from the Terran Coalition and survive another day.”
As Feldt adjusted the aim of his pistol to shoot down the voice that dared to speak against him, several men collided with his backside and knocked the gun out of his hand. A wild melee ensued, with a mass of human flesh punching, kicking, and flailing about on the deck. Though he was a trained and robust combatant, with at least six sets of hands he could identify attacking him, there was no chance to emerge victorious. Finally pulled to his feet, bloodied and bruised, he was left snarling at those who minutes before had been his slaves in all aspects of the word.
“We should kill him,” someone said. “He murdered my mother when I joined his organization.”
“No. We turn him over to the Terrans. In exchange for amnesty,” Aquino interjected, his voice loud and insistent.
“The Terrans will kill us all. We should get to the shuttle bay, escape to Gilead, and force him to give up his bank accounts to us.”
“You fool, the Lion of Judah has fighters, Marines, and weaponry that’ll erase us before we get five hundred meters away. The only way out is to deliver Feldt to them.”
“I’ll kill you all! Those who remain loyal to me will never allow you to get away!” Feldt screamed, losing more control over himself with every syllable. One of the men behind him—he couldn’t tell who—hit him in the head with the butt of a pistol, and everything went black.
Aibek paced through the hallways of the Gileadean government complex. He’d been shifted from one conference room to the next, given little to no information, and treated in an unsatisfactory manner. If only I were not wearing the uniform of the Terran Coalition, I would teach these ingrates the meaning of a Saurian warrior. But he was, and honor demanded he adhere to the oath sworn to the CDF, and its customs, duties, and rules. Reaching his objective, he steeled himself and pushed the door open to reveal yet another conference room containing a small multitude of humans, including General Wright and Minister Nelson.
“Ah, thank you for joining us again, Colonel Aibek,” Nelson said as soon as he’d entered the room.
“Following the last six hours of hospitality by your government, I have little interest in continued games. What do you want, Minster?”
“Down to business it is,” Nelson continued. “Please have a seat.”
Aibek glowered in his direction. “I’ll stand.”
“We were wondering if you could shed some light on the space battle fought between the Lion of Judah, and an unidentified ship above our planet.”
“I’m not aware of such a battle, Minister. I’ve been sitting down here, trying to gain information for my government.”
“You’re the executive officer of that ship, Colonel,” Wright barked. “Don’t play coy with me. Politicians might buy it, but I’m a military man. Where’s Cohen?”
“Colonel Cohen doesn’t clear his movements with me. I believe he’s back at the Terran Coalition embassy, indisposed in the SCIF.”
Wright crossed his arms in front of him and stared at Aibek with eyes that bored into him. “Oh, that’s quite convenient. I was under the impression Saurians placed honor above all else and weren’t in the business of lying.”
It is not lying to deceive an enemy, which this fool clearly doesn’t understand. “I have not lied to you, General. I would suggest you proceed very cautiously. The last human to accuse me of such was jettisoned out an airlock.”
The two Gileadeans exchanged glances with each other, while the others in the back row of chairs appeared uncomfortable. Wright turned and stared at Aibek. “I’m not that last human.”
He has a spine. Aibek opened his mouth in a toothy grin, the kind he knew sent shivers down other humans. “No, you are not.”
“Gentlemen, please,” Nelson began. “There’s no need for us to threaten each other. The government of Gilead merely wants to know what’s going on in its space. We invited you here to help us.”
“There’s also the matter of the stealth shuttle we detected heading into our atmosphere,” Wright interjected matter-of-factly. “Unless I miss my mark, it contained a special operations team. I wonder… Colonel Cohen is out of contact.”
In truth, Aibek had been briefed via a covert commlink and knew exactly what was going on. “You will have to take that up with the embassy.” I can stonewall as well as them.
“Alright. Have it your way,” Nelson said as he stood up. “We’ll get to the bottom of this.”
“I am sure quite we will, Minister,” Aibek replied again with a big toothy smile. The humans stormed out of the room, leaving the big Saurian alone to ponder. I do wish I was with David. It feels dishonorable to not be a part of the fight.
The airlock hatch opened up, and a Marine to Calvin’s left tossed a couple of pulse grenades through the opening. Three seconds later, they exploded with enough concussive force to render any non-armored human momentarily stunned. He charged through into Feldt’s ship to find a single figure writhing around on the deck. A shot from his battle rifle with a stun round later and all movement ceased. “Cuff ‘em and tag ‘em. We’ll clean up later.”
As a Marine moved to carry out his order, Calvin pointed his weapon down the passageway. Surprisingly clean for a criminal-owned ship. Maybe he’s a neat freak. The thought prompted a snicker.
“Let me take point, sir,” a younger corporal named Lewis said.
I know he’s right. Ugh. Ranking up and getting old. For the days when all I had to do was kick down doors and shoot Leaguers. “Okay, Lewis. Don’t screw this up.”
“I won’t, sir.”
Calvin hung back as the youngster—they were all so young now—took the lead. A couple of short skirmishes netted another two stunned gunmen, but nothing in the way of determined opposition presented itself until they encountered a large security hatch in one of the bulkheads. “It’s locked down tight, sir.”
“I need explosives up here. Got to take out a door,” Calvin said into his commlink.
It didn’t take long to line a detcord strip, coupled with blast putty, against the hinges on the hatch around the locking mechanism and seals. The boarding team backed up to a safe distance.
Calvin held up the detonator control; he enjoyed being the one to trigger it. “Fire in the hole!”
There was a flash of orange flame, combined with a blast wave and billowing smoke from the site of the detonation. The clanging sound of metal hitting metal echoed throughout the passageway. When the smoke cleared, the hatch was no longer visible.
Then the ship’s defenders let loose.
Massed energy weapon fire crisscrossed the area directly in front of Calvin and the VBSS team. One unlucky Marine was caught in three beams at once, his armor pierced and broken. He collapsed.
“Cover! Cover! Lay down covering fire now!” Calvin roared as he brought his battle rifle and fired blindly into what lay beyond the opening. After two three-round bursts, he switched to full auto and emptied the magazine. Other members of the team did the same, backed by a Marine who carried the squad automatic weapon—an upgraded machine gun with uranium depleted bullets for armor-piercing—until the incoming fire slackened. He bounded forward, grabbed his fallen teammate, and dragged him back, out of the fight. “Corpsman! I need a corpsman over here, now!” Glancing down at the melted power armor, he popped the helmet off, revealing the severely wounded man within. Blood trickled out of his mouth.
“This sucks, Colonel,” the young man rasped. “Getting killed by some piece of shit drug dealer?”
Calvin stared into his eyes. “Stow that talk, Marine. Don’t you dare die on me, that’s an order.”
A corpsman came up behind and put his hand on Calvin’s shoulder. He kneeled and began to check vitals while running a handheld medical scanner over the fallen man.
“How’s it look?” Calvin whispered under his breath.
The corpsman shook his head as he bit his lip.
Calvin had been a Marine for a long time. He knew what the look meant. Not going home alive.
“I can’t feel my legs, Colonel.”
“You hang on, son. Help’s on the way.”
The young man reached up and grabbed Calvin’s arm. “I’m scared, sir.” His breathing became more labored as his vitals slipped.
Each death means something. Something about his words cut through the armor around Calvin’s heart. He glanced down to see a Christian emblem below that of the United States on the shoulder of his fallen Marine’s power armor. “Would you like to pray?”
“Are you a chaplain too, sir?” the youngster asked with something approaching a grin, even in light of the dire circumstances.
Calvin’s voice broke as he replied, “Nah. Just a Marine. What’s your name, son?”
“Andy,” he said, voice weak and soft.
“Okay, Andy. Here goes. Lord, I ask you to look after the soul of this man. He served his duty with honor, putting his life on the life for his fellow Marines and those who we protect. Please take him into Your everlasting life and wash away his sins.” Not a particularly good prayer.
It was then Calvin realized Andy’s breathing had stopped.
“I’m sorry, sir. He’s gone.”
Calvin glanced up and made eye contact with the corpsman. “You did what you could.” With a grim face, he stood as the rage within him built. Seizing the battle rifle hanging off its one-point sling, he dropped the magazine filled with stun rounds out, replacing it with live ammunition. He did the same for his sidearm. Fire shone in his eyes as he turned toward the opening. “We’re done screwing with these bastards. Live ammo Marines, follow me!”
While the rest of the VBSS exchanged glances at the sudden change in orders, Calvin strode forward like a man possessed. He pulled two fragmentation grenades off his belt, removed the pins, and tossed them through the opening. Two muffled explosions later, and with no thought to his personal safety, he charged through the opening, rifle at the ready. The first man to stand in his way was cut down with a short burst, his body shoved out of the way like a sack of potatoes.
The rest of the team came flying through where the hatch had stood, adding their fire to the cacophony of combat. Numerous cartel gunmen were cut down before the final few threw down their weapons.
During the combat, Calvin ran out of ammunition in his battle rifle and switched to his pistol. He found himself face to face with one of the final enemies left standing—directly to his front.
The man quivered as he stared down the barrel of the pistol.
Calvin’s finger rested on the trigger. His mind raced as he considered squeezing it and sending a final round into the man’s head. They killed my Marine. None of them deserve to live. Another side of his mind replied, It’s not my choice! He surrendered. I have to let the system run its course. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw other gunmen, lined up with their hands high, the rest of the team holding them at gunpoint as well. If I kill this man, I tell everyone under me it’s acceptable to murder a prisoner. I know it’s not. I am a better man than that. The pistol lowered slowly. “Cuff ‘em all. Then get them the hell out of my sight.”
“Aye aye, sir!” one of the enlisted Marines shouted in reply, and the rest moved to comply.
While Calvin pondered if he’d made the right call through waves of anger, a voice seemingly came from nowhere. It took him a moment to realize it was coming through the ship’s intercom. “Attention, Terran Coalition soldiers. Can you hear me?”
“We’re not soldiers, you idiot,” he replied. “We’re Marines.”
“My apologies,” the voice continued. “I’m not clear on your customs.”
“What the hell do you want?” Calvin snapped.
“I’d like to propose a deal.”
“Is that a fact? How about this… throw down your weapons and I’ll promise you the rest of your miserable lives will be spent performing hard labor.”
“My fellows and I have little interest living out our days on a prison asteroid, mining lithium for your war effort.”
“Don’t have much else to offer you.”
“Well, I have something for you. Edward Feldt.”
Calvin licked his lips and stopped moving. “Okay. You got my attention, Mister?”
“Okay, Jacob. I want proof you have Feldt. Then we can talk turkey.”
“We’re in the next compartment. I had to wait until you took most of the loyalists.”
Calvin exchanged a glance with another Marine. “Cold bastard, aren’t you?”
“We do what we must to survive, Mister?”
“Demood. Colonel Calvin Demood.”
A hatch at the far end of the passageway clanged open, leading the Marines to raise their rifles and aim down the corridor.
“Hold your fire!” Aquino called out as he and another man pushed a struggling human male forward, who was cursing and screaming at the top of his lungs.
“I’m going to kill you all! You can’t stop me!”
Aquino punched him in the face, temporarily stopping the rantings. “May I present Edward Feldt, Colonel Demood?”
Calvin took a step forward as he lowered his pistol. “Well, I’ll be damned. The spooks are going to be happy to get their hands on him. Before we send him on to Lambert’s Lament.”
“What about our deal?”
“I don’t recall a deal,” Calvin said as he suppressed a smirk.
Aquino bunched his eyebrows together and stared straight ahead. “You think we’re all monsters.”
“As a matter of fact, I do. I think anyone who involves themselves with a murderer pushing drugs across the galaxy deserves what’s coming to them.”
“It’s not that simple, Colonel. This man… he makes us believe he cares about the common man. Has us do odd jobs for him. Oh, they have illegalities in those little jobs. But nothing major. Then we get brought on board. He make us choose one person from our close family and friends.” Aquino stopped and began to weep. “Then he kills them.”
Maybe I should waste Feldt instead. No, I’m not the judge, jury, and executioner. “That’s sick.”
“It’s about control,” Feldt interjected, raising his head and spitting out blood. “You’re all so pathetic. Your Terran Coalition values, your belief in an invisible man in the sky. There is no God, no heaven or hell. Only the lives we create for ourselves matter.”
Calvin narrowed his eyes. “Every once in a while, I meet a Leaguer who I realize is a decent man. Hell, I might even kick back a beer with ‘em. You? I would thoroughly enjoy shooting you dead. Where you’re going, though? It’ll be worse than death.”
One of the men in the passageway that lay beyond the hatch they’d gathered at screamed out, “You should have at least let us take our revenge! You didn’t have the right to turn him over, Aquino!”
Shifting his stance to peer beyond Feldt and his two minders, Calvin grunted. “How many people you got back there?”
“Three dozen, give or take. The rest was fanatically loyal to our dear leader and you handled them.”
All these guys are messed up. I can see it in his eyes. “Tell you what. My guys and I, we’re going to haul these prisoners back to the shuttle and come back. It’ll take oh, ten minutes. If Mister Feldt here were to trip and say, fall on his face… I wouldn’t have a problem with that outcome. You get my drift?”
“I think I do, Colonel.”
“Just remember, no Feldt, no deal. You all end up in a microgravity prison for the rest of your lives. Clear?”
The criminal broke into a cold grin. “Quite clear, señor.”
“Good. It’s settled, then. See you in ten minutes.” Calvin turned on his heel and walked away with the rest of the boarding team, pushing the prisoners out in front. The sound of a fist hitting flesh, followed by a muted yelp from Feldt filled his ears. I probably shouldn’t let them do it. Ah hell, once he gets a lawyer, we’ll never get anything out of him. Another side of his brain complained it was improper to allow the man to be beaten, but he shoved it down. I better hope the colonel doesn’t find out about this.
As the Alpha team assault shuttle soared above Gilead en route to the Terran Coalition embassy, David heard the voice of MacDonald in his headset. “Colonel, you might want to come up here.”
The rest of the commandos were resting or talking quietly to each other after the op. They seemed to have a combat ritual all their own.
“I’ll be there in a minute,” he groused as he pulled the straps back that kept him locked in place in the cargo bay, stretching his aching legs. Angie would tell me I’m getting too old for this. She’s probably right. David suppressed a grin and made his way to the cockpit of the shuttle; it was occupied solely by the pilot and MacDonald.
“Take the jump seat, Colonel. I’ve got the Lion of Judah on comms. They wanted to talk to you.”
With a bit of a flourish, David pulled the spare seat down and slid into it before staring directly ahead, into the holocamera. “Major Hanson, can you hear me?”
“Loud and clear, sir. Glad to see you’re doing good.”
“Not sure I’d say good, but I’m alive.”
“She’s in one piece too. She remained on-site with a bunch of Gilead federal police types that arrived out of nowhere. Now on to important matters, namely, did you get Feldt? And is the paint on my ship scratched?” David finished his last question with a slight lilt to his voice and a broad grin.
“We got him, sir. His ship gave us fits, but in the end, it wasn’t a match for the Lion. Colonel Demood is hauling Feldt back now. I understand he’s a bit banged up, but he’ll live.”
David chuckled. “Make sure he doesn’t accidentally trip on his way into our brig. Any casualties?”
“One Marine KIA, sir.”
The news immediately sobered David’s expression. Another letter to write to a grieving family. “Understood. Regain orbit and I’ll be back in another day or so. A few loose ends to tie off with Gilead’s government.”
“What about Lieutenant Taylor?”
“Still in a coma, last I checked. Doctor Tural will alert us if there’s any change.”
God, please look over him. “Thanks, Major. I’ll be back in touch soon. Godspeed.”
“Godspeed, sir. Hanson out.”
David sat back in the mesh jump seat, putting his hands at his side and closing his eyes. Always another battle to fight and a foe to confront.
MacDonald’s voice interrupted his mental reverie. “You did well down there for a cake eater, sir.”
Letting out a laugh, David opened his eyes. “I’ll take that as a compliment, Master Chief.”
“As it was meant. Got any plans once we get to our destination?”
“Oh, we have a few last things to accomplish before dusting off tomorrow. I’d like Alpha team to stick around with us. Any issues?”
“As long as you get us some nice bachelor officers’ quarters accommodations, we’ll do just about anything. Oh, and some decent grub.”
“Done, Master Chief.”
“One tier-one operator team, at your service, sir.”
“I’ll even toss in the round of beer.”
MacDonald roared with laughter. “You’ve found the way to our hearts, Colonel!”
The shuttle flew on.
This will be among the smartest things I’ve done in a while, or the dumbest. Kenneth paused outside the office door. A small, nondescript sign next to it was marked “Korra Wallace, SUPSPACE QA Director.” There’s a reason why I’ve never fished off the company pier. They’d dated for six months, when he ultimately broke it off. The aftermath left them both in a strange place. He’d avoided her side of the shipyard with an almost religious-like focus. Forcing himself to knock on the door, he waited.
“Come in!” Korra yelled from behind the closed door.
Kenneth turned the handle and pushed it open to find her sitting at her desk. Similar to his own, all offices on the base were virtually identical and lacking in character.
A short woman in her mid-thirties, Korra glanced up at him with a visible double-take. She pushed a wisp of brown hair out of her greenish-brown eyes, and they flashed anger. “What do you want?”
“I need to talk to you,” Kenneth replied as he held up the two tablets he was carrying and walked into the room, closing the door behind him.
“There’s nothing to say. I thought I’d made it clear the last time we saw each other to stay away from me.”
“Korra, I’m not here to discuss our personal situation—”
“We don’t have a personal situation,” she snapped, her eyes flashing as her face turned red. “You saw to that with your obsessive work habits and inability to even stop for an hour to spend time with me. All you care about is work!”
Kenneth glanced at the floor. I know she’s right. “I don’t want to argue.”
“I deserved more from you.”
Raising his head, he looked into her eyes. “Look, you want to beat up on me? Fine. I suck at relationships. I’m focused on work. It’s my contribution to the war, one I feel I have to make because I wasn’t at the sharp tip of the spear. Do I overdo it? You bet. Am I sorry about how things ended? Yes. I can’t change it, and I didn’t want to come in here, but you’re the only person I can think of to ask for help.”
“Oh, so I’m your last resort?”
“Get out,” she spat.
Kenneth turned around and stuck his hand out to open the door before he stopped. “Korra…”
He set his jaw and turned around. “Damnit, Korra, do your job. I have a QA complaint. Set aside your dislike for me and listen.”
“It’s always about the job to you.”
“Right now, yes, it is. The ships we’re working on are needed for the war effort. Guilty as charged. It’s the biggest thing in my life and my sole focus.”
“Fine,” she said finally, grating the word out. “What do you have?”
“I’ve discovered my company is slow-walking the reactor refit work on the mothball fleet.”
Korra’s eyes narrowed, and she stared at him. “That’s a pretty serious accusation. Can you prove it?”
“Since when do I say things I can’t back up?” Kenneth replied, his ego creeping out a hair.
“You don’t want an honest answer to that question,” she replied, a bit of a smirk spreading across her face. “I assume you have documentation?”
“I work for the government. So, of course. In triplicate. I also have emails where a senior vice president in the company ordered project leads to slow the work down, indicating since it’s a cost-plus contract, we should make the cost as high as possible.”
“Contractors do things like this all the time.”
“If the fleet doesn’t get these ships, the invasion could stall.”
She made a halfhearted reach for the tablet. “Always a crusade with you, Kenneth.”
Right again. Maybe that’s why I quit dating her. “An idle mind is the devil’s workshop. I need something to do, after all.”
“Don’t you have something else in life besides work?”
Kenneth paused for a moment, thinking the question through. “No, not really.”
“Doesn’t it bother you on some level?”
“I never stop long enough to think about it.”
“Sounds like a lonely life, Kenneth.”
He shrugged. “Maybe, but it’s my life. I’ve dedicated it to service to my country through whatever means I have at my disposal.”
Silence reigned as she turned the tablet on and stared at it. To say Kenneth was uncomfortable would be the understatement of all understatements. Forcing his brain to stay on point—deal with Casey and his attempts to defraud the government—he avoided the question of why he was so focused on work to the detriment of everything else.
“You’ve got something here,” Korra finally said as she glanced up from the screen. “But are you sure you want me to go after SSI? It’ll get messy.”
“Just keep my name out of it,” Kenneth replied. “Casey will suspect I turned them in, but if he can’t prove it, they won’t fire me. Too many whistleblower protections.”
Letting the tablet drop onto her desk, Korra stared at him, an incredulous look on her face. “You’re going to stay?”
“Someone has to look out for my people.”
“It’s a job, Kenneth! You’re not in the military. No one’s getting shot or blown up. If it’s not a good fit, they can find a new position elsewhere. If someone wants to change companies, it takes five minutes to find something.”
“I need to look out for them. I promised I would when I asked them to come work for me. In return for tireless effort, I have their backs.”
“As long as you persist in thinking like this,” Korra said, her tone one of exasperation, “you’ll never have a life.”
Kenneth closed his eyes. “I’ve kind of accepted it.”
“Wow. That’s sad.”
He stood up abruptly. “Will you do something about it?”
“Yeah, Kenneth. I’ll do something about it.”
“Thank you,” he mumbled before turning around and walking out. Although he heard her voice call behind him, he kept on walking. Best to keep one foot in front of the other and not slow down. If I start thinking about this, it’ll send me into a deep depression. Can’t have that, not right now.
Taylor found himself within the same dream-like state, staring out across a lake. The woods were vibrantly green, while the sound of birds chirping filled the air. Everything had a sheen to it, like the view through a piece of foggy glass. A dock lay before him with a simple wooden dinghy tied up to it.
The voice of Rachel, his wife, broke the stillness of nature. “It’s time, Robert.”
He turned his head back to see her standing there in a simple white dress, her brown hair billowing in the wind. “Time for what?”
“To choose,” she said as she came up behind and reached her arms around him. They barely came together on his belly. “Life or death.”
“If I die, I’d get to see you again.”
“You’re seeing me now.”
“You know what I mean. All the time.”
“Heaven isn’t like that, Robert,” she said, her voice rueful. “It’s a wonderous place, but our spirits aren’t the same as a body. It’s different. I can’t explain it to you. It’s something a person has to experience for themselves.”
“Do you remember when we used to sneak off and row across this lake?”
Rachel giggled, her soft laughter rippling through the scene that lay before him. “Happiest days of my life.”
Taylor turned and hugged her as tightly as he could. “I’ve missed you so badly. I blamed myself for your death. I thought I should’ve been there. If I had joined the Marines instead of chickening out…”
“What if you had? What if you were a Marine just like your father? Maybe I wouldn’t have died if we’d been on the same mission together. Or both of us would’ve perished. There’s a possibility you’re not considering, though.”
“It’s possible what happened was God’s will. Even if it’s hard to see, understand, or accept.”
“Now I wonder if all this is happening inside my own head.”
“Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t,” she replied, again giggling. “Does it matter if you perceive this to be real?”
“I’d like to know for certain there’s something more after we die.”
“Science hasn’t been able to answer that question with thousands of years of trying. It’s unlikely to do so now. You, of course, already know this.”
Taylor grinned and kissed her. “I suppose we’re going to be rowing across the lake.”
“It does seem obvious, doesn’t it?” Rachel said. “A few more minutes together.”
“You said I had to decide.”
“The north shore leads back to the physical world. The south leads to heaven.”
He nodded as he bit his lip. What do I want? Do I even know? Taking a few steps, he maneuvered into the dinghy then reached up to help Rachel in. Once she was settled in, he loosened the knots and untied the tiny boat.
“You’re still trying to decide,” she commented as she pushed her hair off her face from where it had blown in the wind.
“Part of me thinks my shipmates need me.”
“Does Ruth need you?”
Taylor turned blood red. He couldn’t turn away. There was nowhere to go. “It’s not like that…”
“Robert, I’m dead. It’s okay to move on. I want you to be happy and not cling to the past as you do.”
“I loved you so much, Rachel. I still do. I would’ve gladly given my life for yours. If I could go back in time, I’d give it today.”
She reached out and took his hands into hers. “I know. I would’ve died for you too. But what’s done is done. You’re alive. Start living! Or give up on it and return to God.”
As he picked up one of the oars and slotted it into the divot on the right, he glanced up at her. “It feels wrong somehow, like I’m forgetting you, forgetting us.”
“It’s not wrong to continue living. You’re not cheating on me.”
Oh, but it feels like I am.
“Do you like her?”
“Who do you think, silly? The woman sitting next to your hospital bed right now, praying for you.”
“I guess I do.”
Taylor again turned blood red. “Yes… yes, I do.”
“Now that wasn’t so hard to admit, was it?”
Rachel reached out and squeezed his hands. “Maybe she needs you as much as you need her.”
He slotted the other oar in and began to row across the still water. The lake was as smooth as a sheet of glass, with little wind. The birds still chirped away, just like he remembered. It was always so peaceful here. “I don’t know, Rache. It would be so much easier to be done with the pain.”
“Since when have you been about easy? Mister-I-want-to-be-a-cryptologist.”
Taylor laughed, thinking back to when he’d told his father he wasn’t joining the Terran Coalition Marine Corps. “Valid point.”
“I think you know what you want. If you’re looking for my permission, you’ve got it.”
Biting down on his lip as he furrowed his brow, Taylor smiled sadly. “I’ll never forget you.”
“I know you won’t, dear. I’ll never forget you either.”
And then she was gone. There was no blinding light, no flash; she disappeared in the space of a moment. Taylor was left rowing across the lake. He found purpose and began to row harder toward the north shore. The closer he got, the easier it became to hear Ruth’s voice speaking to him.
As Ruth’s watch standing shift ended without further incident, the Lion of Judah had returned to orbit around Gilead. Feldt’s ship’s IFF had changed to “captured” and was in tow. Another eight hours down. Back to my quarters for one more day of bread and water. Joy. She cranked her head around toward the CO’s chair, still occupied by Hanson. “Major, my relief has arrived. May I visit the infirmary before returning to quarters?”
Hanson glanced up from whatever he was looking at on his tablet. “Of course, Lieutenant.” His eyes went back down to the computing device, but a moment later, he looked back at her. “Lieutenant, excellent job today.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“I don’t see any reason to mention your actions on Gilead further. Consider yourself off restriction at 0430 hours tomorrow.”
Good ole O Dark Thirty. “Understood, sir.”
Ruth stood and nodded to Kelsey, the second watch tactical officer that waited in the back of the bridge. Without another word, she made her way to the gravlift, and from there to the medical bay. Taylor was in the same room as he’d been the previous evening, no noise except the quiet pulsing of the scanner and lifesigns reader.
Taking a seat next to the bed, she interlaced her fingers in his. “I still don’t know if this does any good, if you can hear me or it even matters… but if you can, please keep fighting. We all need you, Robert. I need you too,” she whispered, keeping her voice exceptionally low so no one would hear the personal nature of her remarks.
The lifesigns monitor started to beep, drawing her attention. It seemed to show, to her untrained eye, an increase in heart rate and respiration. Ruth reached down and pressed the emergency button to summon the nurse.
Only a few moments later, a blue-smocked man stuck his head in the door. “Everything okay?”
“I’m not sure,” Ruth began. “His heart rate seems to be elevated.”
“Hmm. My chart says Lieutenant Taylor is in a coma. Let me get Doctor Bhatt.”
The nurse disappeared, and she found herself staring at the monitor, still clutching his hand. Please God, please let him wake up.
Taylor’s hand jerked, surprising Ruth so much, she jumped back in alarm with a small squeal.
“Lieutenant? Everything okay in here?” Bhatt said as he walked in. A middle-aged man with little hair, he wore a standard-issue CDF uniform with a white lab coat over it.
“I’m pretty sure Taylor’s hand moved.”
“Let me check.” Bhatt pulled out a small penlight, pulled Taylor’s eyelids back, and shined it in. “Aha. Nurse, get me an autoinjector, please, and two CCs of cortical stimulant.”
“What’s going on?” Ruth demanded, her tone one of alarm.
“Nothing to worry about. He’s having some fine motor responses to external stimuli. Doctor Tural developed an off-label drug concoction based on the medical data he received from CIS. I believe it’s working, and Mister Taylor is coming out of his coma. If so, the stimulant will fully revive him.”
Less than thirty seconds later, the nurse returned and passed a metallic autoinjector to Bhatt. “Pre-loaded with the cortical stimulant, Doctor.”
“Thank you,” Bhatt said as he leaned over Taylor and pressed the device against his neck.
Almost instantly, Taylor began to stir. His eyes fluttered open, and he slowly moved his head to take in the room.
“Lieutenant, can you hear me?” Bhatt asked, leaning over and performing the light test again. “Lieutenant?”
Taylor’s voice was a hoarse whisper. “Water… please, water.”
Ruth jumped up and raced to the sink in the far end of the room to fetch a cup and some water. “May I?” At Bhatt’s nod, she leaned over and helped Taylor take a sip.
“Thanks,” he said with a weak smile. “Throat’s dry.”
Bhatt flashed a grin. “If that’s all you’ve got, we’re doing quite well, Lieutenant Taylor. I’m going to get the charge nurse and have some blood drawn for labs. If those check out, and you’re feeling up to it, we’ll get you some food afterward. Okay?”
Taylor closed his eyes and half nodded. “Sure, Doctor.”
Ruth collapsed back into the chair, smiling giddily as the medical professionals left. “I was so worried about you.”
“You collapsed during the talks with the Gileadean government. Someone put Orbita into your water.”
“That’d explain the visions,” Taylor said, his voice trailing off as a frown appeared on his face.
“What do you mean?”
“You know my wife was a Marine, right?”
“Yeah. You told me once.”
Taylor stuck his left hand out of the bed’s covers, holding it up for her to see the wedding band still on his finger. “I never let go. I’ve been punishing myself for years.”
“I know,” Ruth said softly as she put her hands around his. “I do the same stuff.”
“While I was out, she came to me. At least, I thought she did. Maybe it was just the drugs. She wanted me to forgive myself and move on.”
“Maybe it was your subconscious, or maybe it was something from the in-between.”
Taylor closed his eyes again, and a tear slid down his cheek. “I thought I was going to die.”
“I did too,” Ruth replied, her voice close to breaking. “I can’t lose you too.”
“I heard you talking to me.”
Taylor grinned. “It’s what drew me back.”
Ruth stared down at him for what seemed like ages, but in reality was only a few seconds. Then something came over her. A feeling she couldn’t explain, a sense the likes of which she’d never experienced before. She leaned over and kissed him on the lips. Her mind registered it as being shocked. She jerked back, a look of horror on her face. “I’m so sorry.” She sprang up and moved to run.
Taylor tried to reach for her, but his arm didn’t move as fast as mind instructed it. “Wait. Please. Wait.”
She turned around, tears pouring down her face. “I had no right… I’m sorry. It just happened.”
“I’ve felt the same way for a long time.”
He closed his eyes. “Yes, Ruth. I didn’t know how to deal with it, and the guilt I felt for feeling like I was cheating on Rachel—my wife.” He reached over and tugged the ring off his finger. “Now it’s time for me to move on. I don’t know what that looks like for us, but I’d like to figure it out. Together.”
Run. Run away. You’ll only hurt yourself and him. You can’t love anyone. You’re broken. Fighting down everything within her that said no, Ruth sat back down and took his hands into hers. “I’m all kinds of messed up.”
“It’s okay. I am too.”
Taylor smiled. “If you’ll have me.”
“We have to tell the colonel.”
“But we’re not in each other’s chain of command, so that won’t be a problem.”
“I suppose not,” Ruth said, wiping a stray strand of hair out of her eyes and using her uniform sleeve to dry her tears. “Right now, let’s just focus on getting you better and out of this stupid medical ward.”
The grave voice of Doctor Bhatt interrupted them. “Who’s calling my doc shack stupid?”
“Uh, sorry, sir,” Ruth said, a silly grin breaking out across her face.
“Visiting hours are over. Your friend here needs a good night’s rest. You can visit him in the morning.”
Ruth stood and smiled. “I’ll see you soon,” she said toward Taylor before scooting past Bhatt and out the door. As she made her way back toward her cabin, part of her was incredibly happy she’d finally let her feelings out. The other part was terrified she’d cause even more pain and suffering to someone she cared about. Someone I love. A shiver went through her as she realized that for the first time since her parents died in front of her, the emotion of love was present within her once more.
“Colonel David Cohen in the flesh,” Robert Sinclair, the Oxford’s intelligence chief, said with a chuckle. “You’ve got nine lives or something. Leaguers can’t kill you, drug dealers can’t kill you. Heck, crazed fascists back on that neutral planet the nuns liberated couldn’t kill you.”
David chuckled politely as he leaned back in his chair. Along with Aibek, they were in a classified communication space for a discussion with Sinclair, far away, they hoped, from prying ears. “I try not to make light of incidents I survive. Too many don’t… and I’m not interested in tempting God.”
“I always forget how devout you are. Well, I think it’s bloody hysterical how you’ve turned into the unkillable hero.”
“Still not a hero,” David said quietly. What part of it don’t they understand? The real heroes go home in a pine box.
Perhaps sensing his discomfort, Sinclair moved on. “So what can CDF Intelligence do for you today?”
“We were wondering,” David began with a glance toward Aibek, “if you’d come across any interesting intercepts from Gilead. The identity of the plant inside their government remains a mystery.”
“You think there’s only one? This Feldt guy had dozens of paid off civil servants. Hell, based on what Tamir pulled up, it looks like a good ten percent of the federal police force is on the take in some way.”
David closed his eyes. The idea is so utterly foreign to me. Don’t these people believe in themselves, in their own planet? “Needle in a haystack, as it were?”
Sinclair snickered. “Yeah, Colonel. That’s a rather anachronistic way of looking at it, sure.”
“Got anything to help us narrow down the suspect list?”
“Only this. I’d put money on Feldt’s real top people being civilians. It looked to us like the top tier military, and police commanders are clean. Or at least, by Gileadean standards.”
Aibek flicked his tongue, a sign of annoyance, David had learned over the years. “This dishonor offends me. Were I on Sauria, I would challenge all of these criminals to blood combat.”
“That’s the thing, XO. We’re not on Sauria, or Canaan, or even in the Terran Coalition. Our way of doing things doesn’t apply here.”
Aibek lifted a scale over his right eye. “Humanity once saw fit to intervene in the Saurian Empire. You forced us to take stock of how far our own dishonor reached and remove the stain. What is so different about this place?”
He’s got a point there. “What happened at the end of the war between our people came out of the surrender of the Saurian emperor. It was different. Had the Terran Coalition and the Saurian Empire continued to engage in war after war, it would’ve destroyed both of our peoples.”
“Why not adopt the Saurian methods, then?” Aibek replied, a wicked grin plastered across his face.
“Because wantonly imposing our will on other species, especially after deciding them to be inferior, isn’t acceptable. It’s morally wrong.”
Sinclair interrupted as a chuckle. “I think the point your XO is trying to make is that we’ve decided right and wrong before. The real reason we aren’t doing it here is politics. Gilead isn’t a real threat to the Terran Coalition. It’s not like they can invade us with slot machines and virtual reality brothels. They’re not worth the effort.”
David’s face twisted, his cheeks turned red, and his brow furrowed to the point his eyebrows almost touched. “Tell that to the people Feldt enslaved. The people he murdered, the millions living in misery and poverty because of a corrupt government more interested in lining its pockets than the rule of law.” It ought to matter. We should care.
“Perhaps,” Aibek began, his voice uncharacteristically soft, “when the League has been defeated, we can right the small wrongs inhabiting our region of the galaxy.”
For a few moments, David had nothing to say. His mind was focused inward. Why does this affect me so? This isn’t my fight. Gilead needs to find its own way, and I’ve got a mission. Somewhere deep within him, it was if his soul spoke back. Because evil requires resistance, and those of us called to fight the good fight must oppose it, regardless of where, who, what or when. “The galaxy needs someone to right the wrongs and oppose the darkness. It may as well be the Canaan Alliance.”
“I’d settle for being left alone,” Sinclair said in his clipped British accent. “Let everyone else sort it out.”
“Sauria did that for almost thirty human years,” Aibek said, his comment catching David off-guard. “We stood by and did nothing. I believe I see the merit in what Colonel Cohen says.”
“Oh well, enough debates for today,” David replied with a forced grin. “Any other thoughts on our leak on Gilead?”
“I’ve got bollocks. Sorry, old chap.”
Aibek flicked his tongue again. “My time alongside the Gileadeans was less than fruitful. They told me little of substance.”
After all this, we ride off into the stars? “It doesn’t sit well with me to move on, the job undone.”
“Perhaps it is the best we can hope for, sir.”
David glanced over at his Saurian XO. “I don’t like that answer. Especially not after what happened to Taylor. Well, if we have nothing else… I suppose that’ll do it.”
“One thing,” Sinclair said, interrupting them. “You might like to know we’ll be delivering a huge file to our friends over in the CBI. Qadir or whatever her name is ought to have some fun rounding up the suspects we’ve identified.”
“I’ll take it,” David replied, breaking into a grin once more. “As long as we get something positive out of this mess.”
“That’s the spirit, Colonel. Sinclair out.”
The connection dropped, leaving Aibek and David alone. “What would you like to do now, sir?”
“Let’s give the Gileadeans a day or two to clean up the mess and have a final meeting with them.”
“I would like to get back to fighting the League. Invading their planets is most satisfying. The taste of fear in their fleet and soldiers brings me joy.”
David narrowed his eyes. “Thank God you’re on our side.”
Aibek laughed in the toothy, Saurian way. The way that made one shiver down to their bones.
Two standard Gileadean days later, David walked into the largest conference room in the Terran Coalition embassy, flanked by Aibek and Eldred. Abdul al-Lahim, the CIS chief of station, was also present. He stood from his seat as they walked in.
“Welcome back, Colonel Cohen.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Al-Lahim sat back down and pointed to the row of empty chairs around the ornate mahogany wood conference table. “Please, be seated. We have a few minutes until our friends from Gilead arrive.”
As he pulled out a chair to sit in, next to the already arrived Director Qadir, David’s eyes roamed around the room. So much less spartan than a military installation. Then again, they’re here to impress the locals. We’re not. “Thank you. Good to see you again, Director.”
“Likewise, Colonel. Allah walked with you.”
“He did.” After everyone else was seated, David continued, “Our trip to the so-called pleasure planet had a bit more action to it than I’d expected.”
“Gilead is pretty on the outside, but rotten to the core,” Eldred stated, drawing looks from Aibek and al-Lahim. “It’s not even that pretty once you get outside of the capital, which is the sole megapolis on the planet.”
“What of the intelligence recovered from Feldt’s ship?” David asked.
“Still analyzing it, Colonel,” al-Lahim interjected smoothly before Eldred could open her mouth. “Suffice it to say, we’ve got the next leg up in the operation, and the distribution of Orbita into the Terran Coalition will be disrupted for at least a couple of months.”
“I have been instructed to tell you,” Aibek began, staring intently at al-Lahim, “that the Saurian Empire requires more information about the manufacture and makeup of this drug. We intend to put our best scientific minds on finding a way to neutralize it inside of the human and Saurian body.”
Brandon Nelson strode in, interrupting their conversation, accompanied by General Wright. Nelson’s suit was as finely tailored and pressed as ever. I wonder how many of those things he has? I’ve got two suits, and neither cost me more than two hundred credits. I recognize the brand as being five thousand plus credits per jacket. David stood and nodded toward the men respectfully. “Gentlemen, welcome. General.”
“Colonel,” was Wright’s clipped reply.
While Nelson made a show out of shaking hands with everyone in the room, including Aibek, Wright pointedly ignored any attempt at hospitality.
“We find ourselves in the Terran Coalition’s debt,” Nelson said as he slid into his seat, his face oozing a one-hundred-watt smile. “A place I never expected to be. Tell me, Colonel, what will that debt cost? I assume you want our help against the League of Sol.”
David broke into a grin. “I wasn’t aware Gilead maintained a fleet.”
“There are other ways we could contribute.”
“Damnit, Brandon,” Wright interjected. “We need to talk about the Coalition Defense Force, and more specifically, the Lion of Judah violating our sovereignty.”
Uncomfortable silence broke out at the table, coupled with worried glances exchanged between both sides.
“You gave us clearance to go after Feldt’s organization,” David said firmly.
“Within reason! You started a space battle in our skies. Did anyone give thought to what would happen if a magnetic cannon round went off target and hit a civilian ship?”
David crossed his arms in front of him. “I’m certain Major Hanson took those considerations into mind during his engagement.”
“Oh, I’m sure,” Wright replied, his voice dripping sarcasm.
“Funny, you gave me reason to believe you’d be happy with us taking Feldt down.”
“Of course I’m happy with it. I am, however, a patriot.”
Nelson cleared his throat and leaned forward, raising a hand as he spoke. “Gentlemen, gentlemen. Please. The Gilead government’s official position is that while we regret the violation of our neutrality by hostile parties, the ends were justified by the means in this instance. We welcome the assistance of our friends in the Terran Coalition.”
“We’re glad to hear this, Brandon,” al-Lahim said. “How can we help to strengthen the bonds between our governments and work more closely together to stamp out the last embers of the Orbita plague?”
“Agents from our Ministry of Justice and criminal investigative division have been rounding up members of the gang behind all of our respective miseries. We’d even be happy to extradite some of them to the Terran Coalition if you’d like.”
David watched the facial expressions of everyone in the room. Wright’s distaste was so telegraphed, it was almost as if the man had a brightly lit sign above his head. Thinking back to his last conversation with Sinclair, he pondered, I wonder if Wright is so adamant because he has something to hide. It’d be so easy to get on the take here. Still, the intercepts suggested a civilian link.
“The CBI would love to put those responsible for pain and suffering on trial,” Qadir said from her seat next to him. “I’m confident the top-tier pushers would end up at Lambert’s Lament.”
“What exactly is Lambert’s Lament?”
“It’s a military prison complex on a mineral-rich asteroid in the Tyrrhennia system’s Oort cloud,” David explained. “Well, that’s how it started anyway. It’s grown to have a civilian complex, and a POW wing for hardened Leaguers who defy incarceration elsewhere by attempting escape. We send the worst of the worst there to live out their sentences, which are typically for life. You can sit in a cell for twenty-nine hours a day, only leaving for a brief exercise period and shower, or volunteer to mine precious ores.”
Nelson openly stared, his mouth slightly agape. “Volunteer?”
“Most inmates would rather perform hard labor than lose their minds.”
“With respect, Colonel, that seems… barbaric.”
David shrugged. “One doesn’t end up on Lambert’s Lament by stealing a candy bar, Mister Nelson. And there’s an appeals process before they ship you out. I’m satisfied that nearly one hundred percent of the people imprisoned there deserve it.”
“I’d rather be executed,” Wright said darkly, interjecting himself into the conversation.
“We reserve execution for murder with ‘special circumstances’ and child molestation.”
There was silence in the room as David’s pronouncement caused a ripple of murmurs.
The silence was broken by Nelson. “Well, once they’re off Gilead, it’s not our problem anymore. I meant to ask, how is your man?”
“Lieutenant Taylor is fine. It took him a few days, but he recovered with no ill effects. Did you figure out who the mole was that poisoned the meeting?” David asked, his gaze flicking between Nelson and Wright.
Nelson’s mouth curled into a smile. “Glad to hear it, Colonel. We were concerned.”
Then, it suddenly clicked together in David’s mind. “Mister Nelson, I’m curious. How did you ensure that Feldt’s people weren’t spooked by your investigation?”
“Oh, I have my own set of trusted agents and prosecutors, Colonel. Not everyone on Gilead is on the take.”
“Funny you should mention that,” David replied, waiting until the eyes of both Nelson and Wright were on him. “Taylor found some very interesting things in his analysis of intelligence intercepts made over the last few days.” Nothing to lose on a bluff, except some pissed-off civilians.
“Intelligence intercepts?” Wright asked.
“Are you familiar with the motto of CDF Intelligence? The military branch of CIS?” When no one answered, David continued. “In God we trust… all others we monitor. They have the capability to listen in to any conversation on our side of the galactic arm.” If I’m going to bluff this guy, fake intel is the only way to go.
Nelson’s face shifted to a snarl. “The Terran Coalition monitored Gileadean government communications, Colonel? Is that what you’re saying?”
“Anyone not a citizen of the Terran Coalition is fair game to CIS, so yes. Fascinating information to be gleaned, for sure. Like the identity of a certain politician who’s been on the take for years, while proclaiming his chops at cleaning up crime.”
Wright looked on with renewed interest. “What are you suggesting, Colonel?”
David crossed his arms and stared at Nelson with contempt. “Minister Nelson has been playing us all for dopes since this charade began. He was Feldt’s top man in the government. The investigation his people have been running the last forty-eight hours? They either sacrificed low-level operatives or fingered innocents. I’d wager those who did most of the work are the ones we should be arresting.” For a brief second, he thought he might have been wrong.
Then Nelson’s face turned blood red. “I don’t know what you think your intercepts prove, Colonel. I was part of an undercover operation to reduce criminal influence over our legislature. Besides, illegally obtained wiretaps from a foreign surveillance operation aren’t admissible in Gilead courts.”
Wright threw his chair back, standing angrily. “I was briefed on every operation on this planet against Feldt,” he thundered. “You’ve never been a part of any of them. You sorry sack of shit, you were selling out my men and women from the beginning!”
“I don’t have to sit here and listen to this nonsense,” Nelson said as he too stood. “Feel free to turn your reports over to the Gilead prosecution service, for the circular file.”
Meanwhile, Wright was downright apocalyptic. His fists were balled up, and he appeared to be moments away from assaulting the politician. “Do you have any idea how many good people were killed by that monster?”
“Oh, come off it, General. You can’t possibly believe that one government official not looking the other way from time to time would have made a difference, can you? We love easy money. Our planet is a cesspool. You know it, so do I. If you’re going to live in hell, might as well be the king.”
David broke into a grin. “General Wright, I may be able to offer you a solution to this problem.”
“Hand me a sidearm and leave. Problem solved.”
“Not quite what I had in mind.” Better not let him and Demood get in the same room. They might bond in the wrong way.
“Spit it out then, Colonel.”
Al-Lahim and Eldred stared in fascination, their jaws dropped open at the spectacle.
“We’re in the Terran Coalition embassy,” David began. “Which is the sovereign territory of our country. Where our laws apply.”
Looks of understanding swept across the room. “You’re far shrewder than I originally gave you credit for,” Wright said.
David shrugged. “Allow us to arrest Minster Nelson and put him on trial in the Terran Coalition. With any luck, he’ll spend the rest of his life on Lambert’s Lament.”
Nelson shrank back from them, beads of sweat rolling off his forehead. “You can’t do this. You have no right to arrest me for anything. Damn you, Wright, I was at your daughter’s wedding! I helped you get promoted. You owe me!”
“I swore an oath to defend the people of Gilead against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” Wright said, his voice quiet and reflective. “Entitled politicians who trade votes for money fit my definition of an enemy. I can’t stop you, but I can let them handle it for me.” He turned to Nelson and smiled coldly. “I hope as you mine ore or go insane in a dark room that you remember the faces of the men and women you’ve helped murder. If we’re fortunate, one of Feldt’s people will kill you for ratting him out.”
Fear looked different on every person. With Nelson, it presented itself as his knees shaking so hard, they made a knocking noise, coupled with the color draining from his face, leaving it ashen. “You can’t do this.”
“Ah, but there you’re wrong. I most certainly can,” Wright replied. “I’ll take my leave now. Get him out of here, because I can only delay informing my superiors of a government official’s arrest so long.”
David made his way around the table and extended his arm. “Thank you, General. I hope this brave act ushers in some soul searching on Gilead, and perhaps causes a wave of investigations.”
“I hope,” Wright replied as he gripped David’s hand firmly. “How is it you CDF types put it when you say goodbye? Godspeed?”
“Godspeed is an old exhortation for a traveler to have a good journey.”
“In that case, I wish you Godspeed, Colonel. Good luck out there.”
“Thank you, sir.” David watched as he made his way out of the room, leaving them with Nelson, who had meanwhile curled up in the ball against the wall. “Eldred, get this sorry sack of crap out of my sight.”
Eldred stood and flashed a wicked grin. “Gladly, Colonel.”
“How did you know, sir?” Aibek asked as Nelson was led out of the room, leaving Qadir, al-Lahim, and the Lion’s officers alone.
“I bluffed. Taylor is just now back on his feet. He hasn’t been near a computer console in days.”
Qadir’s eyes went wide. “You bluffed?”
David broke into grin. “It all made sense. Feldt seemed to be one step ahead, and Nelson made a big display over the last couple of days of being tough on crime. I looked into his record before this. He wanted to decriminalize all but the most serious drug offenses. Our ability to listen in to communications is legendary, so I went with it.”
“Remind me not to play poker with you, Colonel,” al-Lahim said quietly. “I fear this incident will be the cause for serious diplomatic issues with Gilead. I am a simple spy, but soft power is frequently preferable to hard power. It will be more difficult here.”
David sighed and closed his eyes. The man isn’t wrong. However, sometimes right and wrong means more than policy. At least to me. The thought of another tongue-lashing from MacIntosh was distinctly unpleasant. “Perhaps. Right and wrong matter more to me.”
“I wish at times I had the luxury of thinking as you do, Colonel.”
And there’s the rub. The military can afford to be black and white. Those who have to exist in the grey, they lose track of morality. Which is why Eldred has a thousand-meter stare. “You could always transfer to CDF Intelligence,” David said with a grin. “I have some friends over there.”
“I am certain you do. If nothing else, watching this week as your officers performed their duties, I’ve been impressed by how the Lion of Judah gets things done. But my place is here. I was born a spy, and a spy is what I’ll always be.”
David reached out his arm toward al-Lahim. “Then be the best spy you can. Godspeed.”
From the moment Korra had messaged him on fleetlink asking that he ensure Casey was present in a QA debriefing the next day, Kenneth had hummed a happy tune. Sure she’d found what she needed to nail the man to the wall, he’d eagerly counted down the minutes. At some point, my desire to thwart Casey is going to turn into an obsession. I’d do well to avoid it. He arrived at the conference room thirty minutes ahead of the meeting’s start, sitting at the table toward the back, while Billings and Carter took seats along the wall.
Korra strode through the open door like a force of nature. Her brown hair was pulled back, and she was wearing a sharp business suit.
For a moment, Kenneth had to suppress his jaw from dropping open. Why did I break up with her again? Oh yeah… we didn’t get along.
She flashed a smile at him as she sat down at the table. “Good afternoon, Mr. Lowe.”
“Miss Wallace,” was all Kenneth could manage.
There was silence in the room while others filed in. At a minute or so until the top of the hour, when the meeting was to start, Stephen Casey walked in with a group of people. Kenneth recognized them as his team leads and program managers.
“We could have done this over vidlink and saved a lot of shuttle fuel,” Casey remarked as he sat down, a dour expression on his face.
“I’m sure you’ll bill it all back to the government somehow,” Korra replied.
She hasn’t missed a beat with the snappy comebacks. “Well, for those of us that do real work, it was just a short walk.”
Casey’s head snapped around, and his eyes seemed to bore into Kenneth’s face. “We didn’t ask you.”
Kenneth smiled broadly in return. Now who’s cool, calm, and collected? Arrogant ass.
“Is that everyone?” Korra asked.
“Margaret Lee will be joining us,” Kenneth interjected, drawing another dirty look from Casey.
Billings leaned forward and whispered into his ear, “Boss, you want a pugil stick or something? Put you and Casey in a cage with one and let you beat the crap out of him?”
Kenneth laughed as Billings sat back in his chair. The people sitting close to one another made small talk, while the group waited for Lee. Finally, she walked in hurriedly and took a seat next to Casey. “I apologize, Miss Wallace. My shuttle was late.”
“Not a problem,” Korra replied, her tone all business. “Let’s get started, shall we?”
“I don’t see why we’re here,” Casey interjected, casting a glowering look at Kenneth, Carter, and Billings. “Contractors fall behind on schedules all the time.”
“Yes, they do, Mister Casey. But your team hasn’t made a good-faith effort to complete the work on time or within budget. In fact, you’ve directed them otherwise.”
Korra held up her tablet. “I have it all right here, in black and white,” she said with a dazzling smile.
Kenneth watched in amazement as, for once, Casey had no comeback. The color drained from his face.
“I’m sure there’s a misunderstanding,” Lee said, her face betraying shock.
Korra’s mouth was tight, and her eyebrows furrowed together. “No. It’s quite clear. SSI engaged in a systematic effort to defraud the Coalition Defense Force, in violation of regulations, the law… and basic human decency. In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a war on for our survival. We need those ships in the fight.”
“You sold us out!” Casey exploded, shouting at Kenneth. “You doctored those files! Just to get me!”
“Shut up, Stephen.”
Kenneth’s head twisted around like it was on a swivel, as did Korra’s and everyone else in the room, to see Margaret Lee staring at Casey, her face red.
“Miss Wallace, what would you like us to do?” Lee asked.
“After consultations with the program executive office, we’ve decided the best course of action is to allow SSI to fix these issues. At your cost, of course. Not the government’s. With the fallout from the implosion of Kalling Industries and the scandal surrounding them, it’s not in the CDF’s best interest to expose this publicly.”
“I completely understand. You will have the full cooperation of SSI in this matter,” Lee continued, her expression contrite and her tone of voice soft.
“Thank you,” Korra replied. “Mister Casey will be removed from this program immediately as well. Non-negotiable.”
Casey reared up in his seat, almost coming out of it as he snarled.
Lee held up her hand, and he stopped immediately.
Ah, so that’s who butters his bread. Kenneth sat mute and expressionless as possible.
“Until I’m satisfied progress is back on track, we’ll do a weekly briefing, coupled with walkthroughs of ships being retrofitted,” Korra said toward Lee, the dazzling smile back. “Do you have any questions or objections?”
“I think we’re done, then.”
Damn, she’s good. Kenneth kept his face neutral as Casey and his cronies stood up and stormed out, leaving Lee to be diplomatic and shake hands with the government officials. He continued to the back of the group as the conference room cleared out, leaving him and Korra alone. Once the door slid shut, he smiled at her. “Thanks.”
“I was just doing my job, Kenneth.”
“Will you take me back?” he blurted out, mouth overrunning his mind’s ability to think.
She laughed softly. “Is that because I’m wearing a dress and boots, or because I kicked your nemesis off the project or some combination of both?”
“Uh, all of the above?”
Korra reached out and took his large hands in hers. “You’re not a bad guy; we’re not right for each other. Mostly because you’re obsessed with work, and I want something more. I want children, a family, the white picket fence, and all that. You can’t give it to me, and I won’t ask you to stop doing your passion. But we can bury the hatchet and be friends if you’d like.”
“I’d like that very much,” Kenneth replied, realizing his face had turned blood red.
“Well, I’d best be going. We don’t want people talking.”
He gave her hand a final squeeze. “No, of course not. Thanks again.”
Korra smiled and turned to go.
Kenneth closed his eyes and thought about the choices he’d made so far. Why do I seem to self-sabotage most of my relationships, while I fixate on work? I suppose one of these days I should try to answer that. But for now… back to work. As he walked into the hallway and made his way through the maze of corridors and back toward his office, a gaggle of people in front of a holoprojector blocked his way. “What’s going on?” he asked toward the back of the crowd.
“Canaan News Network is reporting the winner in the election!”
Oh, that was today. I voted early.
“Hey, turn it up!” someone yelled.
The volume rose mid-sentence. “Live now to our studio with this announcement… President-Elect Fuentes will be making his victory speech within the next three hours. I repeat, Canaan News Network projects that Edwardo Fuentes has won the Presidency of the Terran Coalition.”
Whiskey, tango, foxtrot. The socialist won? Kenneth’s eyes bugged out of his head as he processed the headline. “Okay, the world’s gone mad.”
There was a knock on the window of Eldred’s office. Buried deep in writing a report, she missed it the first time. The second knock, louder and more insistent, got her attention. She glanced up to see the smiling face of David Cohen through the blinds. I wonder what he wants. “Come in, Colonel!” she yelled, loud enough to be heard through the closed door.
David twisted the handle and pushed the door in. “Good afternoon. I hope I’m not disturbing you?”
“Paperwork, you know? I hate doing paperwork.”
He grinned. “So do I. The military has five thousand forms, all due in triplicate. It’s one of the never-ending paradoxes of the universe. May I have a few minutes of your time?”
He closed the door behind him and took a seat in one of the chairs directly in front of her desk. “Your performance on Gilead was exemplary. I wanted you to know that.”
“Thank you,” she said while her gaze was pointed downward. Depression still plagued her. I got a brave woman killed.
“It’s also not lost on me that you were deeply affected by Ms. Ramirez’s death.”
Eldred pursed her lips together and forced herself to maintain a neutral expression “Cost of doing business.”
“A business I think you’re not entirely interested in.”
“What are you getting at, Colonel?” Her voice took on a tone of rigid formality.
“The crisis of conscience you’re dealing with. I believe I have a solution.”
Her voice came out as a whisper. “What might that be?”
“Transfer to the military arm of intelligence.”
David nodded and broke out into a smile. “Why not?”
“I’m a filthy civilian,” she said with a laugh. “I’ve been out of uniform for over twenty years. I spent my career here. Even if I did transfer, I’m going to be a what, sergeant at best?” As she spoke the words, her mind wandered. Even being a grunt might be worthwhile if I was contributing to the war effort and no longer doing things that tore me upside.
“Are you familiar with the CSV Oxford?” David asked, his mouth curling up into a grin. “I can see from your expression that you are.”
“Everyone in CIS knows about the near-mythical Oxford and Colonel Sinclair. He’s a legend.”
He folded his hands in front of him and stared at her. “I had a conversation with Sinclair about you. Mentioned your knack for fieldwork. I understand he’s going to be adding some capabilities to his team shortly.”
Is he saying what I think he’s saying? “Are you—"
“Yes. There’s a spot open for you, if you want it. Before you say anything, know that Sinclair runs a tight ship. He’ll bend the rules like any good intelligence officer, but he’s a decent and moral man. If you want to go back to operations that are more black and white—the Oxford is the place to be.”
She looked away, focusing on a point out on the operations floor. He’s offering me a way out. Eldred wasn’t sure if she even deserved it. “I’m not sure, Colonel. Major al-Lahim relies on my sources here. I’d be leaving him in a spot.”
“He’s fine with it.”
Her gaze immediately snapped back to his face. “You spoke with my boss?”
“Yes,” David replied with a small smile. “I outrank him.”
I’m not sure I like this cowboy fleet officer going behind me. Then again, I wouldn’t have done it myself. She crossed her arms in front of her and stared at him. “I appreciate the concern, Colonel, but—”
“Don’t dismiss it out of hand, Agent Eldred.” He spoke quietly, but in a tone that immediately struck her as forceful. “If you ignore your feelings and the conflict within you, it’ll get out of hand. You’ll be less effective and put yourself in harm's way, at the same time putting others in harm's way. Better to make adjustments now.”
“I don’t know if they’d want someone with my record.”
David broke into a broad grin. “I doubt anyone in intelligence as long as Sinclair has done it without any collateral damage. You’ll be fine.”
She harrumphed. “So I’m just as bad as the rest of them, in other words?”
He sighed and leaned forward. “We’ve all got things in our past in this job that we’re not proud of. We’ve discussed this a few times in the last couple of days. I saw a good person trying to do what’s right. You expressed to me that you were tired of this life, so I tried to help. I apologize if I’ve offended you.”
As he stood up and turned to leave, a voice in Eldred’s mind thundered, Don’t let him go! This might be your last chance! “Colonel, please wait.”
David stopped and faced her. “Yes?”
“You’re right. I do want out, but I never saw a way to get out and still do what I felt was my duty to the Terran Coalition.”
“I suspect you’ll be able to do both with Sinclair and his team.”
She broke into a smile of her own. “Okay. How do I sign up?”
“Leave it to me. I’ll make the final connections. Get your gear together and be onboard before the Lion departs.”
“That’s it?” It can’t be so simple.
“Yes,” David replied as he flashed a grin and walked out the door.
Left to her thoughts, Eldred sat quietly, pondering where her life would take her now before she started to collate and file her remaining reports. I’d better finish up and go see al-Lahim. He’s going to be shocked.
The shuttle ride back to the Lion of Judah was uneventful, and David mostly kept to himself. With the pilot focused on flying the ship and landing successfully, his mind was free to wander. Aibek and the commando team, led by Master Chief MacDonald, sat in the rear compartment.
Did we help these people? The question bothered him on so many levels. Gilead, once the pretty wrapping was peeled back, was akin to a failed state. It dawned on him that it might take integration into the Terran Coalition to sufficiently bring the planet back from the swamp it occupied. Not my call; things like this get left up to the politicians. Our job is to execute orders.
As the craft slid to a stop in the VIP shuttle bay, David thanked the warrant officer who flew it and made his way to the nearest gravlift. He briefly considered going straight to the bridge but realized it was high time to check in with General MacIntosh. Hanson can enjoy his moment in the sun a few minutes longer. He chuckled at the thought and walked out of the lift toward his day cabin, an office, and small bunk all in one right off the bridge. The lights came on automatically, and he dropped into the comfortable chair behind his desk.
A few minutes later, after setting up the vidlink, MacIntosh appeared on the screen of his tablet. “Good morning, at least out your way, Colonel.”
“Afternoon in your neck of space, I think, sir.”
“Coming up on dinner time,” MacIntosh replied with a slight smile. “I’ve read over both your and the official CIS report from the Gilead caper. Remarkably similar. Almost too similar.”
David sighed. “There was a desire on the part the Gilead’s CIS station chief not to highlight Agent Eldred’s—”
MacIntosh cut him off in mid-sentence. “Rogue operation?”
“I think I’d characterize it as an informal investigation, sir.”
That prompted a laugh out of the older general. “Of course you would, Colonel. Another case of all’s well that ends well?”
“Honestly, sir? I’m disappointed in how it ended. Despite unmasking Feldt’s operatives within the Gileadean government, from the outside looking in, I don’t think there’s much hope for the planet to turn itself around without outside help. To say it’s corrupt is an understatement.”
“The CDF isn’t the galaxies’ policeman, Colonel. I think I’ve told you that before.”
David’s brow bunched together, and he narrowed his eyes. “Yes, sir.”
“Still, I appreciate how you try. It’s a good trait.”
“Has there been any blowback from Gilead?”
“Oh, you mean for a commando team staging an assault on their soil without authorization? One minor detail?”
David felt his face turn a bit red, and a sheepish grin appeared on his face. “That would be the one, sir.”
“Surprisingly, no. Probably because whoever’s left in the underworld power structure is happy to have Feldt gone. It’s one of the problems with dealing with organized crime. If you take out the top guy, the little fish start fighting until one takes over.”
“What you’re saying, then, is we’ll have to deal with this again?”
“CBI and CIS will, Colonel. The military’s job is to fight the League, not engage in quasi-law enforcement actions. I, for one, can’t stand when the lines get blurred.”
“With respect, sir, putting down bad guys is putting down bad guys. Feldt and his crew are worse than the League, if you ask me.”
“And connected into League intelligence, which is the only reason I allowed this op. Now, I’m sure you're anxious for new orders?”
“Quite, sir,” David replied as he pursed his lips together. “I think we’re ready to put Gilead behind us.”
“Good. Then head back to Canaan. We’ll integrate the Lion into the next battlegroup heading back to League space. We’ll be looking at invading our first mid-level League world shortly.”
“One planet at a time, eh, sir?”
“Yes, it’s being called the planet-hopping campaign by the joint chiefs planning board.”
David cracked a grin. “I look forward to finally ending this war.”
“As do we all, Colonel. See you in a day or so. Godspeed, son.”
“Godspeed, sir,” David replied as the screen went dark. He set the tablet aside and glanced around the room. The rhythm of battle, while sustaining, leads to a period where, when I come off the high of combat, I’m forced to confront the never-ending nature of the war. Pushing the thoughts down, he stood up and made sure his uniform sweater and khaki pants were straight before walking out, toward the bridge.
The two Marine sentries on watch outside of the hatch to the command center raised their hands to their brows in salute.
David returned the salutes crisply and pulled his cover on—the specialized Lion of Judah ballcap—as he walked through the hatch onto the bridge. The space hummed with activity, with a couple of dozen crewmen and officers strapped into their stations.
“Colonel on the bridge!” Master Chief Tinetariro barked.
Those not strapped in sprang to their seats and saluted David, which he returned with the practiced and nearly automatic motion of his hand coming up to his brow. “As you were.”
Returning to the bridge and seeing those under his command again was a welcome sight for David. When all else fails, retreating to the customs and courtesies of the CDF delays the depression, at least for a time. He made his way to the front of the space, where the CO and XO chairs sat, side by side.
Hanson was seated in the CO’s chair and grinned at him as he walked up.
“Major Hanson, I have the conn.”
“Aye aye, sir. Colonel Cohen has the conn,” Hanson replied as he stood.
David slid into the CO’s chair and immediately felt back at home. Where I belong. “Status?”
“All systems normal, sir. All crew accounted for. We had a few disciplinary incidents from shore leave but nothing major. I handled them all with non-judicial punishments.”
Ruth turned around from her station. “If I may, sirs… Major Hanson makes a fine command duty officer.”
“Wow, high praise there, Major,” David said with a grin.
The deep voice of Aibek interrupted them. “Did Hanson pay you fifty credits ahead of time, Lieutenant?”
Ruth rolled her eyes. “No, sir. But, great use of a human punch line.”
Everyone broke out laughing, and David felt some of the tension in his body release. “Take your stations, everyone. It’s high time we get back to Canaan.”
“And get back to the war!” Ruth exclaimed.
I wish I shared her enthusiasm. Or do I?
“I’ll be in engineering, sir.”
David flashed a grin at Hanson. “Dismissed, Major. And good job.”
“Thank you, sir!”
As Hanson walked off the bridge and through the hatch leading to the command corridor on deck one, David glanced up at his viewer, which showed the status of the ship. Everything read normal, just as he’d been told. He closed his eyes for a moment, forcing himself to keep going. My people don’t need to see my frustrations and concerns. I’ve got to stay strong, for them. When he opened his eyes, he noticed Aibek had slid into the XO’s chair beside him.
“Navigation, break orbit and head toward the Lawrence limit.”
“Aye aye, sir.”
The deck plates vibrated ever so slightly as the massive warship eased its way out of the gravitational tug of the planet below. Gilead’s blue skies faded away, and they moved toward open space.
“Navigation, plot jumps back to Canaan, engage the first jump into the system.”
“Aye aye, sir,” Hammond replied, her voice bright and cheery. “One moment, sir.”
Aibek leaned over. “We left it better than we found it.”
“I hope so. I remember a sign in a shop my mother and I used to go to when I was little. It said ‘nice to look at, nice to hold, but if you drop it, we say sold.’”
“I do not understand,” Aibek said, the scales over his eyes raised quizzically.
“It was a nice way of saying if you dropped something and broke it in the store, you had to pay for it. Basic human expression, you break it, you own it.”
“Ah, I see. You think since we broke Gilead’s power structure, we should own it?”
“I think the Terran Coalition needs to step up, especially when this war is over, and take care of its backyard.”
David glanced at Aibek. “Why?”
“What if a planet you wanted to take care of didn’t want help?”
“I guess we’d cross that bridge when we got to it.”
The conversation was interrupted by the arrival of another person on the bridge. The noise level going up caused David to turn in his seat, to see Taylor slowly making his way toward his station.
“Sir, permission to man my post?” Taylor asked.
David broke into a wide grin. “Permission granted, Lieutenant. Welcome back.” He put his hands together and started clapping, which spread instantly throughout the bridge. In short order, Taylor received a standing ovation, which in turn caused him to blush mightily.
As Taylor took his seat, David turned back to the front of the ship, gazing out the transparent alloy windows into the deep black of space for a moment before closing his eyes. Perhaps we left Gilead better than we found it.
“Conn, Navigation. Lawrence drive plotted, and course to Canaan computed, sir.”
David opened his eyes and glanced toward Hammond. “Very well. Navigation, engage Lawrence drive.”
“Aye aye, sir.”
The lights on the bridge dimmed as they always did, and the ship began to generate the wormhole that would carry it through the stars, back to their home.
After the engineering space cleared out following the second watch, Hanson found himself double-checking the status of every system and its backup with religious-like fervor. While he trusted his engineering team to a fault, after being gone from his domain for several days, there was a part of him that wanted to ensure it was still perfect. Just like I left it.
“Major?” the soft voice of Elizabeth Merriweather called out from behind him.
Hanson whirled around to see her standing a few paces away. “Uh, hi, Major. Didn’t see you there.”
“Oh, I was doing my nightly rounds. Doctor Hayworth likes me to collect readings on the anti-matter reactors pressure levels daily.”
“Ah, I see. I’ve been away for a bit. I had to make sure everything is still just so.”
Merriweather flashed a small smile at him. “I’m sure the team you’ve trained did just fine.”
“They did,” Hanson allowed with a grin of his own.
“How’d you like the big chair?”
The grin disappeared from Hanson’s face and he pursed his lips together. “Honestly? A bit scary. The decisions you make it in… are for keeps. I’m not sure how the colonel does what he does daily. Holding the life of all those people in your hands. You must get the choice right every time. The bad guys only have to get it right once.”
“I heard you did well.”
Merriweather grinned again. “Women talk.”
Always a bit aloof, Hanson turned bright red at the mention of women talking about him—in any capacity—behind his back. “Uh, well,” he stammered. “Good to hear. How are your readings going?” Smooth move there, Arthur.
“All normal, like they are every other night. The doctor is quite particular about it, so I don’t farm them out.”
“I hope you’re not upset with me for confining you to quarters.”
She peered at him for a moment. “Why would I be? The colonel gave strict orders about behaving on shore leave. You followed them. Chain of command.”
“Ah.” Hanson glanced across the engineering space and the massive reactor in the center of it. “What’s next for you, after the Lion?”
“Looking to get rid of me?” Merriweather asked with a giggle.
“No, I just… I mean, we’re all coming up on our tour dates. Unless the colonel can pull some massive rabbit out of his hat, most of us will go to another duty station soon.”
Merriweather’s face assumed a pensive look. “I don’t know. I like it here, you know? I’ve made a lot of friends. For once, I feel like I belong. I assume Doctor Hayworth will want me to come with him to his next project.”
Hanson turned up his nose. “As much as I respect his intelligence, I can’t see working for him year after year.”
“Haven’t you noticed yet, he doesn’t act like he does with the rest of you toward me?”
“We all realized that years ago. No one’s been able to figure out why.”
“I’m the daughter he never had,” Merriweather replied. “My father died early in the war. I never knew him. So Hayworth’s filled that gap for me too.”
Hanson made eye contact with her. “I’m sorry, Major.”
“After all this time, call me Elizabeth, for crying out loud,” she replied in a playful tone.
“Ah, yeah… Elizabeth.”
“Thank you.” Merriweather arched her neck back and stretched. “I, for one, hope we continue to serve together on the Lion of Judah. I love this ship.”
“It’s a marvel of science, and being a part of a group of people who make an impact is, well, it’s amazing.”
“True, that. What’s doc want to do next?”
Merriweather rolled her eyes. “Why does everyone insist on calling him doc? He’s made it crystal clear he detests the nickname.”
“Probably because he’s made it so clear. You remember the first rule of boot camp? Don’t ever let it show when they get to you. That maxim applies across the board in the CDF.”
“He’s a civilian,” she said as she crossed her arms across her chest.
“I don’t make the rules, I just live under them.”
“Come on, you guys get amusement out of poking fun at him.”
“Yeah, sure. He lords over us how smart is he. It gets old.”
“I guess,” Merriweather replied and pushed a strand of hair out of her face. “Still, even if he’s acerbic, all of you could do better.”
Hanson forced a smile. “Okay, I’ll try to do better, as you put it.”
There was silence between the two of them as engineers and enlisted personnel scurried about the space, attending to their duties. Three levels up from the main reactor assembly, those below looked quite small. “Have you been following the election?” Merriweather asked.
“Some. I voted last week. Haven’t paid much attention to it since. You know, with everything going on.”
“I put in for Fuentes.”
Hanson’s eyebrows shot up, and he turned to stare at her. “Fuentes?” he asked, his tone one of disbelief.
“You don’t approve?”
“I can’t stand him. Someone who’s never served, wanting to throw away all we’ve fought for? Forget him.”
Merriweather’s face clouded over, and she pursed her lips together. “A just peace isn’t ‘throwing it all away.’ I’m sick of the daily loss of life. We beat the League back and degraded them… what’s the point now, except revenge?”
“How about the hundred billion human beings enslaved under the League’s totalitarian model?”
“You think we should spend Terran Coalition blood to free them?”
“It’s the right thing to do,” Hanson replied, his voice rising.
“We’re wasting another generation in a war without end! It’s destroying our infrastructure and setting us back decades.” Merriweather too became more intense in tone and volume.
“Only cowards run from the League. The CDF never will!”
“Are you calling me a coward, Major?” Merriweather shouted, causing everyone within earshot to stare in their direction.
What the hell are we doing here? “I’m sorry,” Hanson mumbled. “I… it just came out.” He glanced at her, a sheepish look on his face. “Perhaps this is why Colonel Cohen doesn’t allow political discussion in the wardroom?”
“That’s well and good, but do you seriously think I’m a coward for wanting peace?”
“No, but I do think peace with the League is misguided. I apologize for expressing it poorly.”
“Yeah. Sure. Apology accepted. See you later, Major,” she said, her voice cold and distant.
Hanson was left speechless as she walked away. What the heck is wrong with us lately? Simple discussions dissolve into profanity-laced shouting matches. He shook his head. That one was all me. The crewmen had quit staring, but he still felt shame for the outburst. As he forced himself back to the task of reviewing the Lion’s engineering status, his face stayed red for some time.
David strode into the wardroom, which after dinner was more of a hangout for the senior officers. He found Aibek and Ruth staring at holoprojector filled with the sights and sounds of Canaan News Network’s talking head lineup. Ugh, I hate the news lately. Ensuring a smile stayed on his face, he spoke to the room at large. “What’s going on tonight?”
“Uh, only election night?” Ruth said with a quirked expression.
“Ah, yes. I’ve been trying to avoid it.”
“I thought humans believed democracy was the greatest thing ever invented,” Aibek interjected with a chortle.
David pulled out a chair and sat down. “Some humans. This human is happy when the spectacle is over and we get back to work.”
Music and a loud announcer from the holoprojector cut off any attempt at a response from the rest of them. “We now go to Fuentes’ campaign headquarters for the president-elect’s victory speech.”
Victory speech? It took David a few seconds to compute what that meant. The Peace Union won? Impossible. His jaw dropped and his eyes went wide. The election had been touch and go based on opinion polls for months, but he never thought an avowed socialist would win. He blinked and half expected to see a different result when they opened. I guess not. What the heck is the Terran Coalition coming to?
“Thank you!” Fuentes, a short man with a receding hairline, said as he gestured for the crowd to quiet down. “Thank you again. This isn’t my victory; this is your victory. The peace-loving people of the Terran Coalition!” The crowd again went wild, cheering and screaming at the top of their lungs. “We started this campaign to bring an end to a dark and necessary chapter in our republic. The League of Sol has been defeated, but our government hasn’t figured it out. We continue to spend trillions of credits on endless war, and I’m delighted sanity has finally returned to our nation. But, today isn’t a day to dance on the graves, as it were, of our opponents. We need to build a consensus around what a just peace looks like. I believe in the next six months, we can do just that. I call on the League of Sol to attend a joint peace conference the week after I’m inaugurated, and together, Chairman Palis, working with our advisors, can finally achieve a treaty to end this war.”
Ruth brought her hand down on the tablet that controlled the projector and cut off the feed before tossing the unlucky piece of technology across the room. The crash it made as it slammed into the wall startled them all.
David’s eyes quickly darted over, resting on her. “Lieutenant?”
“Sorry, sir. Couldn’t take any more of that… crap,” she said, her face contorting.
“We have the League beaten down, like a wounded animal. Surely this man you elected can see now is the time to press on,” Aibek stated, a slight hiss to his words.
“I don’t think so, XO. He wants a treaty, not a victory.”
“We should come out publicly against him,” Ruth blurted out. “The weight of our voices, as the officers of the Lion of Judah, would have validity.”
David closed his eyes, suddenly quite despondent with the recent actions the Lion had been involved in, the discovery of traitors in their midst, and other dark events weighing him down.
“Sir?” Ruth’s insistent voice pressed.
“That’s not in the cards, and you know it. As officers of the Coalition Defense Force, we’re not permitted to engage in political activity,” David replied as he opened his eyes and stared at her. “The Terran Coalition is bigger than one man. We’ll survive Fuentes and his bad ideas.”
“If his ideas are so wrong, why did he win?” Aibek asked.
David forced himself to smile. “Because a majority of people thought they were right and voted for him.”
Aibek raised a scale over one of his eyes. “Humans are so different. What about challenging this man to blood combat?”
“We can’t do that either, XO.”
Ruth snorted and stood from her chair. She paced up and down. “We have to do something.”
“I don’t know what. Anything. Come on, Colonel. You don’t see all the pain, suffering, and loss we’ve been through will be for nothing? That man will give it all up to the League! That’s all the Peace Union is about!” Ruth’s voice rose to a shout. “It can’t be for nothing.”
David stood and walked over to her, cutting off the increasingly outraged venting with an embrace. “It’s okay, Ruth.” Taking a step back, he continued, “Look, a lot of people in the CDF, and I’m sure, all over the Terran Coalition are having the same reaction you are. He’s not my choice, and I voted Liberal as I always do. But, as I said, we’re bigger than any one man. I also believe, and perhaps this is quaint, but it’s what I feel… God raises up our leaders. How Fuentes is part of His plan, I don’t know. What I do know, is I will faithfully execute my duties as an officer in the Coalition Defense Force, so help me God.”
After a few moments, Ruth glanced up and nodded. “Yes, sir. Me too.”
“It says here that your senate remains in the hands of this Liberal party you mentioned,” Aibek interjected, the words coming out of his mouth in a way that made them seem distasteful.
“There you go. Fuentes has to get any treaty through the Coalition Senate. It serves as a check and balance on his power.”
Ruth remained silent, staring past him with no real focus to her eyes.
“It’s been a long week, people. How about we go down to the mess, get some food, and forget about the war and politics for a bit?” David said as he gestured toward the hatch.
“Nearly raw steak sounds good,” Aibek hissed, a toothy grin spreading across his face.
Ruth finally seemed to snap out of it. “I’m in. Anything but listening to the stupid holonews channels.”
“Good, let’s go,” David said and didn’t wait for an answer. As he tromped out of the room, he couldn’t get rid of the nagging thought in his mind that life was about to get incredibly more complicated. At least President Spencer has another three months in office. Enough time to keep putting the hurt on the League.
Failure. Such was an emotion the Justin Spencer rarely felt. Yet I have failed. Fuentes’ victory is a repudiation of the last eight years of my life and of everything I believe in. He gripped a snifter filled with a brownish-burgundy liquid—brandy—and lifted it to his lips. A sip later, another voice interrupted.
“You can’t blame yourself, sir,” MacIntosh said. The old general had come down in person after the election result was clear. “There’s precedent for these sorts of things. Churchill, for instance.”
Spencer laughed. “Stop comparing me to old Winston. He was more of a leader than I’ll ever be.”
“We’ll have to agree to disagree on that, sir,” Dunleavy, the secretary of defense, interjected. “I’ve been fighting the League for thirty years in some capacity, give or take. You’ve made it possible for us to win.”
“I don’t deserve that kind of praise,” Spencer said quietly. “I’ve done the best I could with the tools God gave me.” He took another sip of the brandy and sighed softly. “Time to make a holocall.”
MacIntosh snorted. “Make him call you.”
“No. I won’t act like a petulant child. As much as it might make us all feel better.”
Spencer took out a small computing device and punched in a number.
A few moments later, an image of Eduardo Fuentes appeared on it. “Mister President, I wasn’t expecting your call so soon. Vice President Muraro got in touch with my team a few minutes ago but hasn’t conceded quite yet.”
“We’ll make up some ground in the outlying and more conservative planets,” Spencer said with a grin. “But not enough to win. I’d rather speak now than stay up until two AM on false hope.”
“Of course, señor. I respect your decision.”
“Allow me to congratulate you on your victory, Eduardo. Well met, and I wish you all success as the next president of the Terran Coalition.”
“Thank you, Mr. President. I thank you for the good wishes, and also allow me to congratulate you on a hard-fought campaign. Even though you weren’t on the ballot, I know you were fighting as hard as possible to ensure Vice President Muraro’s success.”
Ylenia Muraro’s pinky finger would’ve made a better president than you will. “Is there anything I can do for you to make the transition easier?” Spencer asked, forcing himself to keep up the mask of civility and command he was projecting.
“I don’t suppose you’d be willing to cease military activity along the border and pull back our forces?”
“No,” Spencer said flatly, and his smile disappeared mid-word. “There’s only one president at a time. I will notify you of major military operations, but until the inauguration, I will continue to press the war.”
“It may surprise you to know I’m glad for your position.”
Spencer couldn’t help but notice MacIntosh and Dunleavy staring at the device in shock. Okay, that’s a curveball. “Color me quite surprised.”
“I’m not a fool. The League is an evil that required our dedication to defeating it. If you keep up the pressure for the next few months, all the better position for me to get them into a peace treaty we can live with.”
“I’d take this opportunity to remind you millions of soldiers have paid the ultimate price to get the League to where it’s at now, on the brink of defeat. Pressing on and liberating Earth remains the best way to ensure we’ll never have to deal with them again.”
“We… disagree, Mr. President. Respectfully.”
Spencer held up a hand. “I will always state my opinion to you directly.”
“May I suggest you take some time to try and heal our wounds? This campaign has been brutal. Unlike any I’ve seen in the last twenty years. Those on your side and my side of the aisle have been brutal. We need to show unity.”
“I’ll take that sentiment under advisement,” Fuentes replied, his tone neutral at best.
Fuentes shook his head. “My transition team will reach out tomorrow. I wish you goodnight and Godspeed, Justin.”
“Godspeed to you too, Eduardo.”
The screen blinked off, leaving the three of them alone once more.
“What a load of bullcrap,” MacIntosh barked, his face red. “He wants us to keep up the pressure, that little weasel piece of—”
“Language, General!” Spencer said. “This is the people’s house. Treat it with the respect it deserves.”
MacIntosh looked away. “I apologize, sir. My emotions are running a bit high.”
“As are mine.”
“This could end up being positive,” Dunleavy stated. All eyes turned to him before he continued. “The League might not expect us to pour it on. Perhaps Fuentes can get a better deal if we set him up for success. Give him easily defendable supply lines, reinforce Freedom station, above all, get the new ship classes on their shakedown cruises. We must do everything possible to give him a winning hand.”
Spencer nodded. “That’s the spirit.” It’ll kill me inside to cooperate with that man after what he’s said about the Coalition Defense Force the last year during the campaign. He reflected on it for a moment. I suppose it was more what his running mate had to say, rather than him. But still, calling everyone who wears the uniform a baby killer and a thug is disgusting.
MacIntosh stood abruptly and balled his fists. “I am angry. I want to put my fist through something.” His face was blood red, and veins were showing.
“Andrew, calm down,” Spencer said, his tone soft. “It’s the will of the people. You’ve been a soldier for a long time. The office has a way to make you grow into it. I’m certain our new president will be a good one.”
“Sir, I’ve known you too long to believe you’d buy that line of bullcrap from anyone, including yourself.”
Spencer shrugged. “Fake it until you believe it. Because it’ll be up to both of you to make this man see sense and not throw our gains away.”
“Yes, sir,” MacIntosh ground out before turning away to stare out of a window.
I know how he feels. “At the end of the day, all we can do is our best and hope it was enough. I have no regrets. We did all we could, I know that within my heart. Now let’s try to put this out of our minds, because tomorrow is another day.”
“Andrew and I had better be going, sir. So you can get some sleep,” Dunleavy announced, standing as well.
“Thank you, gentlemen.”
As the goodbyes were said and the men left, Spencer was left alone, both physically and in his soul. Staring out into the night sky, he pondered. God… did I do something wrong? Did I let vanity and fame get into my head and corrupt the work? Are you punishing us? He prayed until the wee hours of the morning before finally lying down to sleep.
Pausing for a moment to take his tallit gadol, or prayer shawl, out of its simple embroidered cloth bag, David closed his eyes. He stood outside of the hatch to the synagogue onboard the Lion of Judah and felt a pang in his heart, and he pressed it open to enter. Why is it becoming harder and harder for me to worship as I know I should? Walking into the small space, he made his way to a pew and sat down. The late hour guaranteed few others were present.
He placed his right hand over his eyes. “Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Ehad.” Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. As he opened his eyes, he realized Rabbi Kravitz had appeared and was standing next to him.
“Yes, He is, Colonel. Late night?”
David nodded and stretched his neck. “Very late, Rabbi. How are you?”
“I’m well,” the older man said and sat down next to him. “I must express concern at your lack of attendance to shul lately.”
“I was just thinking about that myself.”
Closing his eyes yet again, David felt overwhelmed and uncomfortable. “This constant war, Rabbi. I hate it. It seems as if it’ll never end. I killed dozens of men a few days ago, some of them as I recited a psalm in my mind as I shot them.”
“Because I thought I was going to die, and…” His voice trailed off before he turned and focused on Kravitz. “I wanted a connection with God before I did.”
Kravitz put his hand on David’s shoulder. “We should all try to have a connection with HaShem, my son.”
“I don’t understand why He allows this to continue. The suffering, the killing… as bad as the League is, the man we stopped—Feldt—he makes most Leaguers look decent.”
“We must trust there is a plan, David.”
“Without any insight into what it is? How does that make logical sense?”
Kravitz was silent for a moment. “I see your faith is troubled.”
“Greatly, Rabbi. I don’t focus on it. Instead, I keep forcing myself forward. One step at a time, one battle at a time, one mission at a time. Whenever I stop to think about any of it, I’m faced with an overwhelming sense of dread and depression.”
“And Angie, what does she think about your condition?”
David turned and stared at him. “She doesn’t know.”
“You’re in a relationship, are you not?”
“I can’t tell her any of this, Rabbi.”
He bit down on his lower lip as thoughts of indecision flooded his brain. Because she’d leave me if she had any idea how messed up inside I am.
“No one is perfect, David. It’s an impossible standard you set for yourself. God doesn’t expect it of you, and the people in your life most certainly don’t.”
“You’ve read the law, right?” David replied, a faint smile coming over his face. “Why is it there, if God doesn’t expect us to be perfect?”
“It’s an ideal to aspire to.”
“Yeah, I leave a lot to be desired in my practice as a Jew.”
“I understand more than most how the person in charge must be resolute, focused, committed, and above all, show they’ve got it together.”
David sighed and let his head drop. “I don’t feel like I have it together, Rabbi. I’m one crisis away from imploding.”
Kravitz harrumphed. “Unlikely. You’ve underestimated yourself from the moment we met. What are the core values of the Coalition Defense Force?”
“Honor, Duty, Courage, Commitment… Faith.”
“I’ve never met a soldier who exemplifies them as well as you.”
David glanced up and made eye contact with the rabbi. “Thank you.”
“You could try letting others in, like your Angie. I’d wager if you told her how you felt, she’d be there for you.”
“I’ve tried letting people in before, Rabbi. I’m not good at it. I go through phases where I do, and then I don’t. You know, I’m great at fighting battles and running a warship. Interpersonal relationships, I suck at.”
“Ah, at least you recognize the problem. There’s hope for you yet,” Kravitz said as he added his rich laughter to the end of the sentence.
“What, you’re a counselor now too?”
“Rabbi, counselor, damage control officer, a sympathetic ear, and an expert on Judaism.”
David allowed himself to snicker. Talking to the old rabbi did help, if only for a few hours. “Thanks.”
“Go talk to your girlfriend. The Torah says God sends us out two by two. It’s not right for a man to be alone.”
“I don’t want to burden her.”
“Just try it.”
What’s the worst that could happen? If he’s wrong, I’d know quickly. Angie isn’t one to sugarcoat her feelings on anything. “Okay,” David finally said, giving in.
“Good. Now, I expect you to come to shul this Saturday, if we’re not off fighting something somewhere else. You need to cleanse your soul, David. It’s essential for us Jews.”
He busted out in a grin in return. “What about the gentiles?”
Kravitz laughed. “They need even more cleansing than we do!”
David slapped the older man on the back and stood up. “Thanks, Rabbi.”
“I’ll see you on Saturday.” With a final nod, David made his way out of the synagogue and, as he did, took his prayer shawl off, returning it to the bag his mother had given him for it. Slowly walking through the passageways of the Lion, he struggled to make sense of the conflicting mass of feelings and emotions within him. Arriving back at his quarters, deep in the “officers’ country” area of the ship, he stripped off the navy-blue sweater he wore over his khaki uniform and changed into a pair of athletic shorts.
His tablet device sat on the desk in his quarters, along with a picture of him and Angie in a rotating electronic frame. He picked the tablet up and checked the time back on Canaan—1830 hours. Early enough for her to still be up and not engrossed in dinner yet, hopefully. After checking his communication credit status and making a purchase in fleetlink to top it off, he generated a vidlink call.
It took a few minutes for her smiling face to appear, by which time he’d migrated into bed. “Hey, stranger.”
“Straw, not hay,” David replied with a grin.
“It wasn’t funny the first time, dear.”
He laughed. “I keep hoping you’ll think it’s amusing, at some point.”
“Kind of like the joke about there being a Cohen with two N’s, who isn’t as dashing as you?”
Angie rolled her eyes, the movement translating across the vidlink and thousands of light-years nearly instantaneously. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine… why do you ask?”
“Because you never call me during the week. Never enough comms credits, remember?”
David bit down on his lip, and his face morphed into a frown. “I was talking to Rabbi Kravitz.”
“He’s not telling you we shouldn’t be together because of our lack of a shared religion, is he?”
“No, he’d never say anything like that to me.”
“I worry about it.”
“We were talking about God’s plan and some problems I’ve been having.”
David’s eyebrows shot up. “You know what?”
“That you're having a rough time lately. You might not realize it, but there are little cues you give off when you're troubled. I’m good at spotting them now.”
Allowing his jaw to drop open, he was speechless. I’ve tried to protect her all this time, but it appears I failed. “I didn’t want to bother you.”
“Bother me? David, we’re in this together. I’m here for you, just like you’re here for me. I get it, you’re the big, tough soldier that fears nothing and no one. You can still open up, you know?”
He reached out and touched his hand to the screen, longing for the feeling of her fingers on his. “I wish we could be together right now.” It’s at times like these I miss her so much.
“Don’t you have months of leave?”
“I do,” he said, his tone sheepish.
“Let’s do something together, then.”
“A week to recharge, shut out the universe, and just be together?”
David closed his eyes, dreamily thinking about how nice it would be to not fight for a while. To not see another human being die in front of him. How can I ask her to cope with my problems?
“Hey, you there?”
Jolted out of his thoughts, he focused his eyes on her face. “Yeah… sorry. Mind’s all over the place.”
“Let’s take some time for us. Is that so selfish?”
“No,” David replied as his lips formed a smile. “I just… well. It all catches up.”
“I want to be there for you. Please, David, let me in.”
“I don’t want you to see me as weak.”
“Because I’m supposed to be the protector, the soldier. I fear nothing.”
Angie’s face clouded over, and through the grainy image, a frown appeared. “What are you afraid of?”
“What I’m becoming, what I’ve become,” David replied, choking back tears. “Dear, I kill so many people… I have to. It’s war. I don’t have a choice, but I can’t set it aside. I’ve tried to get help, I try to talk about it, but the nightmares never stop, and when I close my eyes, all I see are the faces of those who I’ve killed or that I failed to save. It eats at me every day. Awful things happened over the last few months that I can’t talk about because they’re so highly classified, but it’s shaken me to my core.” Tears freely rolled down both cheeks.
“Oh, baby, I’m so sorry,” Angie said as she too began to cry.
“It’s not your fault.”
“No, but I wish I could be there for you.”
“You are,” he said quietly. “Some days, it’s all I have.”
“Why don’t you take some time off? Maybe a few months?”
David glanced up and made eye contact with her. “I can’t. I’ve got a duty to the Terran Coalition. A week I can manage during a layover, more than that, no.”
“There’s tens of millions of soldiers fighting the war, David.”
“Duty, courage, honor, commitment, faith.”
Angie frowned and held her hands together. “I’ve seen the recruiting posters.”
“Those words mean something to me, hon. They drive my life. It’s all I know, and what I must do. I never expected to be a career soldier, much less an officer or in command of this incredible ship. But I am.” Even as he spoke the words, David’s mind rebelled against him. Anyone could do the job. You’re nothing special. Your vanity and pride get those around you killed. He shoved the thoughts as far down into his soul as he could.
“Then don’t lose yourself in them, okay? Promise me… one week.”
The beep-beep-beep of his device indicated his communication credits had run out.
“I know that sound. Time to go?” Angie said, her voice filled with sadness.
“Unfortunately, yes. I should be heading back to Canaan in the next few days. I’ll let you know as soon we break orbit.”
“I love you, David.”
“I love you too.”
Angie kissed her fingers and pressed them against the lens of the camera on the other end as the screen went dark. He sat the table down on his nightstand and stared up at the overhead of his cabin. God, please let this end. Somehow, I don’t know how much more I can give. Eventually, he fell asleep, and unlike the last few weeks, he dreamed about walking on a beach with Angie and a small group of children… their children.
League Navy Headquarters
November 8th, 2462
“I grow tired of the Lion of Judah interfering with the best-laid plans,” Dmitry Borisov, the Director of the League’s External Security Service, stated. A large bear of a man, he had apparent Slavic features and a Russian tinge to his accent.
“And now you know how I feel, Director,” Admiral Pierre Seville replied as he sat down in one of the ornate antique chairs positioned in front of Borisov’s desk. The office smelled of old books and was decorated with antiques from throughout Earth’s history. Some man of the people he is. “Then again, I was never sold on using a drug dealer and common criminal as an agent of the League.”
Borisov broke into a nasty grin, the kind that would send shivers of terror down lesser men. “He was not an agent as you put it, Admiral. He was a useful idiot. A man willing to sell out his own people to make a profit. Ah, the decadence of capitalism. We’re lucky they’re not all united by ideology, like us.”
You still don’t get it, after all these years. The Terrans ARE united, by their superstitions. Seville let the remark pass. “What of your other efforts?”
“They progress in due time. I would ask you the same about our military fortunes?”
“The CDF and their Saurian lackeys press us sorely. Border planets continue to fall at an alarming rate, and what’s worse, the populations of those worlds aren’t actively resisting once our military forces fail.”
“To be expected. Our government has neglected the border planets for so long, the Terrans, with their promises of aid and help, sound good.”
Seville glanced around worriedly. Open dissent against the League’s government always scared him, because one never knew who was watching. “I’m sure that’s part of it. With the recent change in leadership though, I expect we’ll get a breather. A much-needed one, I might add. Our losses are so high, we can’t readily replace them without pulling from the home fleet.”
“Yes, I’ve noted that in your reports. Chairman Pallis doesn’t wish to supply them, does he?”
“No,” Seville replied with a snicker. “How’d you know?”
“Really, Pierre… give me more credit. I know what he has for breakfast, the old fool.”
Seville leaned forward. “We need to get something new from our friends. The mines were nice, but the Terrans have adapted to them. They weren’t the knockout weapon we were hoping for. What we desperately need is our own version of the anti-matter reactor. Once they bring the next generation of ships online with it, they’ll outclass us at every turn. We’ll face heavy cruisers with more firepower than our advanced battleships.”
“You need to have more faith, Admiral,” Borisov stated as he leaned back in his chair. “Why don’t you make us some drinks? There’s good vodka over on the side table.”
Seville stood and took the few steps to a small stand containing a tray with several crystal goblets and a bottle of clear alcohol. Someday, I’ll shove your precious vodka down your throat and kill you with the bottle. He poured a generous splash into two of the glasses and returned to the desk.
Borisov took one of the offered glasses and had a long sip. “Aaaah. Nothing beats Russian drinks. Now, stay calm, Admiral. I have everything under control.”
Seville made eye contact with him and held it. “It’s not your sailors dying by the thousands while those morons on the Social and Public Safety Committee refuse to consolidate our forces and instead insist on piecemeal defensive strategies that do not work.”
“Do you propose moving against Pallis now?”
No! I must stay away from his trap. He’s recording everything to use against me anyway. “I would never presume to act against the government of the League, Director.” Seville forced a smile. Try and entrap me with that, you Russian piece of crap.
“Then there is nothing we can do, except carry out their orders.”
Seville could’ve sworn Borisov winked at him as he replied, “What else do you need from me, Director?”
“Nothing, Admiral. Do your duty to the League, hold the Terrans at bay, and eventually, we will triumph.” After a moment of silence, he continued, “Feldt did have one thing right, though.”
“His rigid focus on ensuring loyalty and complete devotion. Remarkable, wouldn’t you say?”
“The man was an unbridled psychopath,” Seville stated, his distaste evident in his tone. He narrowed his eyes and stared at the big Russian. I bet you run your organization in a similar manner.
“Oh, of course he was. But he had vision, Admiral. Something we lack these days.”
Seville stared into the cold, dark, lifeless eyes of Director Borisov. “What vision do you suggest we adopt?”
“Uniting the entire galaxy under the flag of humanity, under the League. Once we finish off the Terran Coalition, then we pacify the rest of the Sagittarius arm. And when that’s accomplished, turn our focus inward, toward the core of the galaxy. More ships, more planets creating armies and technology. Humanity will rule for a thousand generations! That is the vision I suggest, Admiral.”
He’s nothing if not ambitious. Right now, I’d settle for driving the accursed Terrans out of the Orion arm and away from our empire. “An expansive plan, Director.”
“You undoubtedly think it’s insane.”
“Not the word I would use,” Seville replied, keeping his expression as neutral as possible.
“All in good time. I must bid you good day… a classified briefing is coming up shortly.”
Of course. Get me out of your office and rub it in my face that I’m not privy to everything going on—typical spymaster. “Thank you for the update, Director. Good luck with your briefing.”
As Seville rose and walked out the door, Borisov called after him. “Admiral, I don’t believe in luck. I make my own.”
November 8th, 2462
The sun was setting as Gregory Ivanov pulled to his home in a self-driving aircar. Not quite the same thing as the fully automated helicars found on the Terran Coalition’s core worlds, it used hover technology to fly over paved surfaces and specially marked tracks. Still, the idea he’d have one—such things were previously reserved for the party elite on Earth or another so-called “Gaia” world—was so far beyond his wildest dreams, it was difficult to put into perspective.
His old modular home had been replaced—by a charity called Habitat Makers—and was now something he suspected most citizens in the Terran Coalition would look down on, but to his family, it was like a mansion. Ivanov got out and made his way up the sidewalk. A moment later, he was inside to find his wife singing a Christian hymn. “Natalie, I’m home!” he shouted in Russian.
The singing stopped, and a moment later, she stuck her head out of the doorway to the kitchen. “How was your day? Come help me. Dinner is almost ready.”
He gave her a quick kiss and a smile before going to the drawer the silverware was kept in and picking out place settings. “Do we need knives?”
“Yes, we have meat again.”
Meat. Three times a week. What are we coming to? They were lucky to get it once a month when the League was in charge. “Oh?” he asked her with a twinkle in his eye. “How’d you manage that?”
“I made friends with the wife of the butcher that opened up. They get something called corn-fed Iowa beef from New Washington, all the way back in the Terran Coalition.”
To view the Terrans with anything other than contempt was a path that had taken him a long time. Something strange happened along the way, though. He’d realized they were better than the League. “Amazing,” he replied as he set the table. “I had my interview today.”
“How’d it go?”
“They said I was in the top running for the supervisor position. I’m sure as a former League party boss, there’s a few points against me.”
Natalie came up behind him and started massaging his shoulders. “Husband, you sell yourself short. The aid workers took note of how you’ve tried to help these past weeks.”
Gregory leaned back and glanced up at her. “Perhaps. But I’m sure it counts against me in some way. I would have never expected the things they’ve done to happen so quickly, or for our lives to change as they have.”
She was silent until she’d set the plates down and took a seat next to him. “Shall we pray?”
There was another one of those changes. The two of them had been good atheists their entire life. Then missionaries from the Russian Orthodox Church had arrived. Many had converted, especially among the ethnic Russians that had been on New Rostov for decades. Natalie was one of them. “I haven’t yet decided if I have faith as you, dear. Why don’t you do it instead?”
She took his hands in hers and bowed her head. “Father, we thank you for the food we are about to receive. Please bless it to us and protect us from evil. In Jesus’ name, we pray, amen.”
It wasn’t lost on Gregory that six months ago, if she’d uttered those words anywhere on the planet, the secret police would have arrived and arrested her within minutes. He still wasn’t sure about the changes made by the Terrans, but he had to admit life was better. “My team finished up the last power relay safety system for the new planetary shield today.”
“What do they have you working on next?”
“A series of planetary reactors for clean power generation,” he replied with a snort. “Can you imagine? Free, unlimited fusion power.”
She took a bite of potato from her plate. “Don’t sound too disappointed, husband.”
Gregory cracked a smile and dug into his meat. “I’m not. I realize things are easier now. But when will the payment come due? The Terrans aren’t going to shower us in free things forever. I’m smart enough to realize they want to win our hearts and minds over to their way of thinking.”
“All our lives, the League has preached human solidarity and how we must all work together. What did that mean for us? Barely eking out a life on this planet, struck down by sickness, toiling in mines to send everything to humanity. Where is the solidarity in that?”
Her words weren’t without their effect. Gregory had questioned the same things at times, though never out loud. Natalie pressed on without allowing him to interject.
“Now, the Terrans, held up as the enemy of humanity, with their greedy capitalistic and individualist ways. They arrive and do all the things the League promised but never accomplished.”
She has a point. “I saw Earth once. It was beautiful. I always wondered why we couldn’t have that here, with all the promises the League made of socialism for all.”
“Yes, change the subject when you don’t want to hear the truth.”
Gregory rolled his eyes. “Again, we have something they want. At some point, they’ll get it and move on. Then we’ll be at the mercy of the corporations that want our ore.”
A beeping sound interrupted the conversation and their meal. Natalie reached over and checked her tablet. As she took in the contents of the screen, her jaw dropped open. “The Peace Union won the Presidency and the lower house.”
“Lower house?” Gregory hadn’t paid much attention to efforts to educate the population on how the Terran Coalition’s political system worked.
“Yes, one of the two legislative bodies that are co-equal to the executive and judicial branches of the Terran Coalition’s government.”
“You sound like you recited that line from a textbook, wife,” he replied with a chuckle. “Taking your lessons a bit seriously?”
She glowered at him. “The Peace Union advocates for a cease-fire with the League and the retreat of the Terrans. That means everything we’ve worked for here could be lost. I’m not going to back to living under the rule of the League!” Her eyes flashed defiance. “I’ve seen what life can be like with freedom. Real freedom, to think and believe as I want. It might not matter to you, but it does to me.”
“I’m not convinced the Terrans offer freedom. With the League, I knew who my master was, and how to exploit the situation to take care of us. Who knows who’s in charge now. It changes too often for my tastes,” Gregory said with a snort. “Still, you’re right. Our lot is better now. For that reason alone, I hope this new government doesn’t abandon us.” Unspoken was his fear that if the CDF left, when the League returned, they’d kill everyone who cooperated, which was most of the people on New Rostov. Topics of discussion veered away from politics as they continued to eat, but a pit of fear remained in his belly. One that wouldn’t go away.
Walking through the passageways of the Lion of Judah, Eldred pondered to herself that it was a good thing the ship was so big. It was large enough to have multiple chapels, one entirely dedicated to Christianity, another to Islam, a third to Judaism, and a fourth used by the other religions, which included secular humanists. The Christian place of worship housed all subsets of the faith, including Catholicism. She’d made an appointment hours earlier with the ship’s resident Roman Catholic priest, Father Mwangi, to attend confession. The first time in fifteen years I’ve set foot inside of a church.
As she crossed the threshold and cleared the hatch, she started to feel as if she didn’t belong. The voice of doubt and despair began to fill her mind. When she forced them down, everything became a blur in which she finally found herself seated in the confessional booth, the door closed, and the screen open, through which she could barely make out Mwangi. After making the Sign of the Cross, she began, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. My last confession was fifteen years ago.”
It took a moment for the response to come. “A very long time, child. I greet you in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.”
“Father, I’ve done horrific things. So many horrific things. I’ve killed people through my actions, and by my inaction, some of which were innocents. I have lied repeatedly to those around me and to myself. I’ve broken every commandment there is.” Eldred started to cry, tears streaming down her face. “I stopped going to confession because I felt I was making a mockery out of it, by not being able to stop my sins.”
“Killing an enemy in war is not murder, my child. God has made this clear through his word and divine inspiration to the Pope on many an occasion.”
Eldred stared at the screen as her tears continued to fall. “I may be wearing the uniform of the Coalition Defense Force now, Father, but not too long ago, I was in a three-letter agency. It wasn’t always clean, you understand. Sometimes, I had to do things outside of the lines. Out of bounds of the law.”
“If it bothers your conscience so much, child, why not confess your crimes to the proper authorities and accept judgment?”
“I received medals and awards for my actions, Father.” The tears had stopped now, replaced by a blank expression and a dull, lifeless voice. “My superiors praised what I did as quick thinking under pressure.”
The priest paused for a moment as if he was considering what she said. “Do you have a specific sin to confess? One that weighs on you the most?”
“Recently, on Gilead, I used an honorable woman to bring down an evil man. I lied to her repeatedly. I told her I’d get her out if she’d provide me the information we needed. I knew I couldn’t do it, but I told her enough times she believed me. She died because of me. Not only that, but she didn’t even get last rites. Because of me.” As Eldred spoke, the guilt welled up inside of her. Dark thoughts along the lines of ending her life filtered through her mind. “It’s all catching up, Father. I’ve tried to ignore what I’ve done over the years, bury it inside of myself, and say nothing matters except victory over the League.”
“What of your faith? Do you still believe?”
“I guess. I don’t know. Yes. But I don’t see how God could ever forgive me. I don’t deserve it.”
“None of us deserve anything from God,” Mwangi said as he leaned closer to the screen, the rich timbre of his voice filling the confessional. “Yet He sent His only son to save us. His word says He is faithful and just to forgive us of our sins if we will only ask and believe.”
Eldred started crying again, cries of anguish coming out of her. “Colonel Cohen told me the same thing.”
“Out of the mouths of two witnesses comes the truth,” he said with a trace of mirth to his voice. “Allow me to give you a different perspective. I see many come through these doors. Many are hurt and broken, just as you. What we all have in common is a realization our behavior is sinful in the eyes of God. As long as we can confess, we’re not too far gone. I know the pain you feel right now, because I served too.”
“What do I do, Father?”
“Have you done anything to change your circumstance?”
“Yes… I put in for a transfer to military intelligence. I have no illusions that I’ll be doing distasteful things, but I feel at least the CDF exists in the light. There are rules to follow and consequences when one doesn’t.”
“Then you’ve taken the first step toward what Jesus charged us to do—go and sin no more.”
Why is it so hard to accept? “Thank you, Father.” After a moment, she retreated into Catholic ritual. “This is all I can remember. I am sorry for these and all my sins.”
“Before I give you a penance, can you tell me what your next posting is?”
“CSV Oxford, intelligence analysis and field work.”
“Then I assign you as penance that you will to the best of your ability, by doing things that are morally right, advance our cause. Go to mass at least weekly, and ensure you take the Eucharist.”
“Thank you, Father. But I feel as if there should be something more for what I’ve done.”
“Child, our God and His son are beings of mercy. You’ve punished yourself enough. Embrace Christ instead.”
Eldred dried her tears, fighting to keep her composure. “My God, I am sorry for my sins with all my heart. In choosing to do wrong and failing to do good, I have sinned against You, who I should love above all things. I firmly intend, with your help, to do penance, to win no more, and to avoid whatever leads me to sin. Our Savior Jesus Christ suffered and died for us. In His name, My God, have mercy.”
As Mwangi spoke the liturgical form of Absolution, the only thing she heard through the Latin speech was “Ego te absolve,” which meant “I absolve you.” Clinging to the belief that her numerous mortal sins were now forgiven, Eldred closed her eyes and made the sign of the cross as the prayer ended. “Amen.”
“Child, I commend you for this difficult step. I wish I could continue to minister to you as your journey progresses.”
“Thank you, Father. Thank you for not judging me.”
The old priest smiled wide enough that she could see it through the screen. “Judgment is God’s job, not mine. I bless you in the name of the Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ. May you prosper and live in peace.”
She pressed down the uniform sweater she wore, the standard CDF black for space crews, and stood. “Amen, Father. I wish the same for you.” As she walked out of the small wooden booth to the empty chapel, her soul felt refreshed. Something dark was lifted off of it, and for the first time in months, she genuinely smiled as hope spread about her body.
Echoes of War: Book 6 – Run the Gauntlet: David Cohen and the Lion of Judah undertake a risky mission behind enemy lines - can he overcome the League one more time, or is his number finally up?
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Echoes of War
Book 1 - Fight the Good Fight
Book 2 - Strong and Courageous
Book 3 - So Fight I
Book 4 - Gates of Hell
Book 5 - Keep the Faith
Book 6 - Run the Gauntlet
Breach of Faith
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Dave – thank you for all the guidance and mentorship as I continue to write the Echoes of War series.
There are many people (too many to name) that have offered encouragement, support, and help on this novel—you know who you are. Thanks.
As I have with my previous works, I continue to thank God for giving me the ability to write and bring this story to life. I hope everyone enjoys reading it, as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it.