Read an Excerpt
One: Envoys to the Stars
The ship was a silver giant: a long, sleek cylinder with four massive engines arrayed at the stern and docking pods for as many as six shuttles at a time jutting from various spots along the otherwise sleek hull. Rows of bright portholes allowed passengers and crew to gape at the vastness of space in all directions. Three Plexiglas domed observation pods—very high-tech cocktail lounges, each offering the occupants an unprecedented view through a full 180-degree sweep—sprouted from the hull near the bow. The entire vessel spanned a length equal to two football fields. Her name was Pangaea, and she was the first internationally commissioned spaceship built by humans—and the largest spacefaring vessel ever to call Earth her home. Her captain, and much of his staff, was a United States Navy officer, and the rest of the command group included members of the Chinese, British, Russian, French, and Indian navies, though the vessel herself flew the flag of no country.
She was crewed by some forty men and women, with another fifty staff aboard to tend to the needs of the passengers. Although she could be configured to haul cargo, there was little of that on the current mission. Instead, she carried an official embassy party of some 100 dignitaries. Those luminaries had been boarding over the last three days, rocketing upward from planet Earth aboard a succession of shuttles while the Pangaea orbited the globe and her crew finalized the preparations for an interstellar jump.
Unlike the two United States Navy frigates (space) that made up her escort, Pangaea was unarmed. Her mission, symbolized by the United Nations emblem emblazoned on her hull, was peaceful. In the main, she would be used to carry cargo and passengers from one star system to another, jumping through the interstellar void with the aid of the faster-than-light technology that had been brought to Earth by the Shamani some five years earlier. Now, however, with one test jump behind her, the Pangaea was ready to embark on a mission that held great promise—and unknown but very real danger—for all the humans of planet Earth.
On this particular voyage she would carry very important passengers indeed. From the point of view of USN Lieutenant Thomas (Stonewall) Jackson, his fellow travelers belonged in an orbit worlds, if not galaxies, above the circles in which he usually dwelled. Merely in making the journey from his “cabin”—actually a tube barely long enough to allow him to roll over in his sleep—to the mess hall, he had encountered a four-star general, the ambassador from China, the Secretary General of the United Nations, and lastly the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) himself, Admiral Brian “Ball-Breaker” Ballard.
“So you’re Jackson?” the admiral queried casually, taking his time looking the lieutenant up and down. The two officers stood on the deck just outside one of Pangaea’s elegantly appointed lounges. For the moment, they were alone.
“Yes, sir,” Jackson replied. “U.S. Navy SEALS, sir.”
“I know you’re the SEAL—excuse me, SEALS,” the admiral retorted with more than a touch of sarcasm. “I suppose you think that extra ‘S’ on the term stands for ‘Special Privileges’?”
Jackson stood at attention but made no reply. The admiral knew as well as anyone that the SEALS classification was an elite status, indicating a SEAL who was qualified not only for Sea, Air, and Land operations but for Space as well. He was proud of his Team and it was galling to listen to the admiral’s unpleasant tone, but there was nothing to be gained by arguing. He wondered where this was going and tried to suppress a longing for the safe and secure, if claustrophobic, confines of his sleeping tube.
Ballard nodded at the ribbon signifying the Silver Star that emblazoned the decorations on the breast of Jackson’s dress uniform. Jackson was justifiably proud of his decoration, the third highest given for valor in the United States military. Originally, he had been nominated for the Navy Cross for his actions in leading his contingent of SEALS in action against a hostile enemy force consisting of an entire planet of aliens who had wanted to kill or capture the SEALS. But politics had reduced the award received by Jackson to the Silver Star, with the SEALS he had brought home all receiving a Bronze Star for their part in the action. There had been some in the military command structure as well as politicians who had felt that Jackson and his men deserved courts-martial rather than decorations for their actions, the least of which had been the unauthorized release of nuclear weapons. Right now Jackson had a pretty good idea of just where the CNO might have stood on that issue.
“I know about your little escapade back in ’50. You probably think you’re some kind of Buck Rogers space cowboy, don’t you?”
“Sir, no sir, I do not,” Jackson replied stiffly.
“Well, I want you to remember that on this mission, sailor! This is a diplomatic embassy, with nothing less than the future of your country—of your whole goddamn planet!—at stake.”
“Yes, sir. I understand, Admiral.”
“Make sure you do!” The statement was like a broadside from an Iowa-class battleship of a hundred years earlier. “Because what I mean by that is that you and your men are along on this embassy not because you have a mission but merely as a precaution. Powers that dwell on a much higher plane than myself”—Jackson was surprised to realize that there could be such powers!—“deemed it appropriate that we have a small military component to our ambassadorial team. But you are not to advertise your presence in any way!
“What I wanted to accompany this mission was a traditional detachment of marine embassy guards. They have the special training to deal with this kind of diplomatic environment. Instead, I had you and your Team thrust on me sup- posedly because you and the rest of your SEALS are the only troops around who have direct extraterrestrial combat experience—which is not something a diplomatic mission is supposed to require in its military contingent! You special operations types seem to give your loyalties to the Spe- cial Operations Command rather than your original service branches. That is not a fault I can place on the marines, who remember that they’re a part of the navy. But it seems that the Shamani think a great deal of you and your men, so I was overruled by the UN, the president, and the chief of staff in my recommendation for a marine contingent. And that is not a position I care to be put in, understand, Lieutenant?”
“Yes, sir. I think I understand, sir,” Jackson said tightly. He was more than a little offended by the admiral’s words. It was a studied insult for the naval officer to voice a preference for marines to Navy SEALs or SEALS, no matter what the mission. But Jackson was not going to say anything more no matter what the provocation.
“Do you? That means you are not to be seen, not to be heard! I don’t want to hear so much as a single question among these diplomats as to who you are or why you are here!”
“Yes, sir.” Jackson stood at rigid attention, unsure of what else he could say, not that there weren’t a few old-sailor phrases he wanted to utter. His temper was surging dangerously, but he forced himself to draw a slow, calming breath. Don’t do anything stupid, Stonewall, he reminded himself.
“That being the case, what in the name of hell are you doing on this ship, right out where you’ll practically fall over those same diplomats and ambassadors?” the admiral demanded, his voice dropping in volume if not in menace. “Following orders, sir,” Jackson replied. “My Team is aboard the Pegasus, and I thought I’d be traveling there, too, until I got word back on SATSTAR1 to board Pangaea. Sir, I request permission to transfer to the frigate at the earliest opportunity.”
In truth, Jackson didn’t know why he had been directed to travel aboard the civilian ship. The orders had come directly from the Special Operations Command at Tampa, Florida, and he had known better than to argue. But neither was he going to throw anyone at SOCOM under Ball-Breaker’s bus. In any event, Ballard didn’t seem interested in following up on where the orders had come from. He clearly wanted to get this lowly SEALS officer out of his sight.
“Dammit, man, we’re going to jump in six hours, and we’re accelerating under full power. You won’t be able to transfer till we come out in the Centauri system. Until then, you stay out of sight! Do you read me?”
“Loud and clear, Admiral!”
“Then what are you waiting for? Dismissed!” Ballard snapped.
Jackson came to a crisp, Naval Academy–style stance of attention, knowing that the admiral would continue with his dressing-down if Jackson snapped up a salute while they were in the corridors of the ship. The SEALS officer then turned on his heel and marched back toward his cabin. He was relieved to get away from the fire-breathing admiral until he reached the hatch to his quarters and remembered exactly how unappealing they were.
He stepped from the corridor into the dressing area, which was a closet-size alcove where two adults possibly could stand at the same time if they were prepared to be very close to each other. A total of nine small hatches in stacks of three faced into the central compartment. Each of the hatches was one passenger’s sleeping compartment, a flat-bottomed cylinder a little more than two and a half meters long and one meter in diameter. It was comfortable enough for sleeping and was equipped with variable lighting, a keyboard, and a vidscreen so that the occupant could read, work, or watch while lying on his back. But that was about it.
Jackson was contemplating with little enthusiasm the prospect of sliding into his cocoon and riding out the journey in seclusion, when he was startled by a buzz from the outer corridor: Someone was at the hatch.
“Please,” Jackson muttered as his shoulders slumped at the thought of a battle he knew he couldn’t win, “don’t let it be Ball-Breaker again.”
He pushed a button to open the hatch and was pleasantly surprised to see Doctor Irina Sulati, the petite, attractive physician he had first met on Mars more than a year earlier. She smiled, her white teeth dazzling against her chocolate skin and ink-black hair.
“Stonewall Jackson!” she declared with a laugh, grinning as she looked up and down his dress tunic. “I thought that was you—and I must say, you clean up very well!”
“Irina!” Jackson replied, giving her a hug and an affectionate kiss. “Fancy meeting you here!” He blushed, suddenly uncomfortable, and looked around at the tight confines of the dressing alcove. “I’d invite you in, but as you can see, I’d have to leave just to make room for you.”
From the Paperback edition.