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A CASSANDRA KRESNOV NOVEL
By Joel Shepherd
Prometheus Books Copyright © 2014 Joel Shepherd
All rights reserved.
Vanessa saw stars, then bright colours, felt hands under her arms, dragging her. Cold, and sweat, and a struggle for breath, voices yelling and nearby gunfire. Her boots were skidding, dragged along the floor. Then a massive shock, and the whole station seemed to lurch. Reverberations on tacnet—she still had tacnet, it didn't need her conscious to run. Someone forced a mask over her face, tightened the strap, then a flood of cool oxygen.
Into an airlock then, emergency overrides holding both doors open, armoured bodies rushing them through. Then a cramped space, shielded lights, she felt herself picked up and dumped into an acceleration sling, straps pulled tight about her on automatic as other bodies found their slings, someone's tac-sergeant yelling to move move move!
Thrust hit them harder than seemed reasonable, slamming the slings down and out, absorbing the G that built and built, her vision darkening ... and then stopped, and she was floating the other way, then rebounding as the sling's auto-tension sorted itself out. More voices, questions, someone wanting the ship feed but receiving a negative. Marines didn't get ship feed, they buckled up and just presumed they were never more than a second from being plastered into some bulkhead by sudden manoeuvers. Marines who got ship feed sometimes got cocky and thought they could see a clear window in which to unbuckle, only to discover that a three-meter drop at ten Gs was the equivalent of falling off a thirty-meter building at one G—and they broke just as many bones.
"Ricey?" She could hear someone asking. Rhian, she thought. "Ricey, you okay?"
"Her vitals are stable," came Cai's voice.
"I'm okay," she murmured. She couldn't recall what had happened. One minute they'd been evacuating Antibe Station bridge with assistance from Mekong's marines, and the next everything had gone wrong.
"Fast approach!" the sergeant was shouting again. "Two minutes! Could manoeuver any time!"
If some fool on station was dumb enough to fire on them. Who would be dumb enough, with Mekong parked barely three clicks off their stern? But someone on station had fired on them. Were they suicidal or what?
There was no manoeuvering, just a two-minute wait, then a more sensible deceleration. A crash of grapples, then secondary arms, as Mekong grabbed the limpet in a tight embrace. More movement, and she was unstrapped, then hauled floating to the disembark. Vanessa protested she was okay but was ignored. Disembark whined open, air equalising with a painful inner ear pop, and then they were floating up the passage that separated Mekong's habitation cylinder from its engines.
Into the central spine, and Vanessa shrugged away her assistance; she really was feeling a little better, her vision clearer, no longer so dizzy. Rhian—because it was Rhian, she could only now see—made her grip more gentle but did not remove the hand.
Central spine was rotating, and now they took a service elevator to the outer rim, and gravity kicked in.
"We fire on station?" one of the marines was asking.
"Fucking felt like it," said another.
"Any idea why they shot at us?" asked one more.
"Guess they don't like us," said Ari, typically deadpan.
"Fucking dumbass Torahns. They'll be lucky Captain doesn't blow them away."
Vanessa wanted the bridge, but Rhian dragged her to medical instead, down narrow, dog-legged corridors past Mekong marines and crew, then into a narrow side corridor to a medical room, where she was loaded into a chair while a med came and peered in her eyes and asked questions.
"Dunno," Vanessa answered. "Maybe they gassed the corridor when we got out."
They'd been cooped up in Antibe Station's bridge for about fifty hours. Antibe Station had stopped trying to cut their way in when Mekong had arrived, but they hadn't been very friendly either. Mekong hadn't asked for their safe release; Mekong had demanded, and Antibe Station had said yes, pleased enough just to be rid of them but also left with no choice when a Federation carrier parked nearby leveled full firepower at them.
The med looked questioningly at Rhian, who shook her head. No gas. The med attached various sensors and hooked them up to various things that beeped, while Vanessa took deep breaths and tried to stop her heart from racing. That was an unpleasant sensation. The only time she'd experienced something similar was in her previous life, as an office worker straight out of uni. She'd been to the doctor, who told her it was likely a panic attack ... ridiculous, because she didn't get panic attacks. The doctor had smiled and said that's what they all said.
She didn't think this was a panic attack, though. All that had stopped once she'd joined the CSA, many years ago. She might have had panic attacks as an office worker, but in the CSA, despite all the hard work, stress, and danger, nothing close—most nights she'd slept like a log.
A marine stuck his head in the door and informed all present that their berthing assignment had been issued.
"Wow," said Ari. "I've never had a berthing assignment before. Is it fun?"
"It's overrated," said Rhian. "You go check it out."
"You go," Ari told Cai.
"Berthing assignments don't excite me," said Cai, leaning on the straps of the med-room take-hold.
"I'm under orders to escort someone to see the berthing assignment," the marine said impatiently.
"I'll go," said Vanessa hopefully.
"You stay," said the medico firmly.
"I'll stow it," Rhian muttered, heading for the door and the marine's escort. She was the logical choice as the most experienced spacer present. Vanessa had the feeling the nostalgia of space travel had long since worn off for her. Rhian had family back on Callay and would rather be back there than anywhere.
A few minutes later, Captain Reichardt himself ducked his lanky frame under the low doorway to medical. He wore a spacer's jumpsuit and a leather jacket with patches denoting his ship, and Third Fleet, of which Mekong was part. Anyone not familiar with Fleet might not immediately recognise him as a Captain; spacers were a sparse and practical lot, hats and ostentatious insignia could catch on things, or become a variable-G hazard. But everyone who served on Mekong sure as hell knew.
"What happened?" he asked her, a mild Texan drawl.
"Attack of the vapours," said Vanessa. "Delicate constitution."
He nearly smiled. "My toughest marine sergeant says you CSA SWATs are the only grunts she knows crazier than Fleet Marines. I was shocked, 'cause I didn't think her capable of compliments."
Vanessa shrugged. "Had some help." With a glance at Cai.
Reichardt followed her gaze. "Good to meet you in person," he said to Cai, extending a hand.
Cai leaned and took it. "Likewise."
They'd met in cyberspace, though. Cai's friends had destroyed a League warship that had been trying to nuke Droze at the time. Cai's friends had then jumped, though no one thought they'd gone far. Everyone was now pretending Reichardt had done it, though Mekong had been somewhat out of position for that to be true. Likely someone would discover the truth of it eventually, but for now, better for Mekong to take the fall than have everyone know the truth.
"Excuse my bluntness," said Reichardt, "but what are you?"
"A GI," said Cai.
"I'm the Captain of a Federation Fleet carrier," said Reichardt. "I'm currently at the center of the biggest blow-up in Federation-League relations since the war. Billions of lives hang on what we do here. Excuse me if I require more information."
Cai seemed to think about it for a moment. "I'm a GI made by the Talee. Don't ask for a designation, Talee don't use them, and any number I gave you would be meaningless."
"Why did they make you?"
"A number of reasons, most of which I'm not at liberty to discuss with you. But mostly, for recon."
Reichardt frowned. "To spy on humanity?"
Cai shrugged. "You call it spy. I call it recon. Talee won't interact with humans directly, as you've noticed. But this puts them at the disadvantage caused by a lack of information. I'm an answer to that, among other things."
"What other things?"
"Like I said, can't discuss it."
"Great," said Reichardt. "Just great. Your buddies just blew a League warship to bits over Droze, but you're not allowed to talk about it. You tell them that they can't both violently intrude into human affairs, and then maintain a safe distance, both at the same time."
"I have," said Cai, with a very faint smile. "Many times."
"And what do they say?"
"Can't talk about it."
"Why not?" asked Ari, from somewhere behind Vanessa's head. "Why the secrecy? Talee are more advanced than humanity, that's pretty obvious. What's to fear from interacting?"
"Many things," said Cai. "Again, I can't discuss it. But understand that they don't do this from some unthought impulse, something reactionary and unreasoning. They reason very well, I think. And they have reached a series of well-thought conclusions, conclusions that encompass my purpose here. But I can't discuss those conclusions. There is too much at stake to risk the gain of some false impression. False impressions between species of differing psychological makeup could be very dangerous."
"So you're like a translator," said Reichardt, leaning one hand against the doorframe. Spacers rarely stood unsecured. "Someone who can understand both psychologies. A go between."
Cai thought about it for a moment. Then nodded. "Perhaps."
"But your brain is structurally human?"
"I'm a GI. GIs can be modified."
"To see things both ways," Ari finished, nodding in wide-eyed comprehension. Cai said nothing.
"So let me tell you how things stand," said Reichardt. "Right now we're tucked in close to station, so Pantala's anti-ship missiles can't frag us. They've got some super hightech stuff down there, at these ranges if we break away from station, the only way we'll survive is if we jump clear. So for now, the station is our shield.
"The reason we can't jump away is because of our mutual friend Commander Kresnov, currently occupying Chancelry Corporation HQ down on Droze. We're her firesupport—without us threatening her enemies from orbit, she's dead. We're clear so far?"
"I was here from the beginning," Cai said calmly. "I know all this."
"Between species of differing psychological makeup," Reichardt said with an edge of sarcasm, "misunderstandings can be dangerous. Are we understanding each other?"
"Good. As things stand, both I and Commander Kresnov have committed a technical act of war against the League. And Commander Rice here too. Pantala space and New Torahn space in general is still technically League territory, and we've violated it. League warships will be arriving here as soon as word gets back to them, and likewise Federation warships shall be arriving on the back of the message I sent. We can only hope that they don't come in shooting, or it'll look like the Battle of Sirus Junction all over again.
"My excuse, and Commander Kresnov's, is what she uncovered in Chancelry HQ on Droze. Something that not even you're aware of, I don't think. But I can assure you it's big, and definitely within the Federation's security interests. I've no guarantee the Grand Council will see things that way, but I can hope, otherwise its all of our necks on the block.
"So, my question to you is this. What are your friends going to be doing, during the time between when all these ships start arriving, and now?"
"Watching," said Cai.
"Do you need to talk to them?" Reichardt pressed. "Because if you do, I can coordinate those communications. On the other hand, if you're thinking about using those fancy network capabilities I'm told you have to gain covert access of my ship's coms to talk to the Talee in private, I promise I'll blow you out an airlock. This is my ship, and you ask permission first. Are we clear?"
"Very clear," Cai affirmed. "I don't need to talk to them. They are aware."
Reichardt frowned. "Of what, exactly?"
"Of many things."
Reichardt scratched his head. "This is going to be like having a fucking leprechaun aboard, isn't it? Talking in fucking riddles."
"I could wear a little green hat if you like?" Cai offered.
"What's a leprechaun?" Vanessa wondered.
"Strange little people whose purpose in life is to piss off starship Captains."
"But that's me," said Vanessa.
"Tell me about it," said Reichardt. "What's wrong with her, Doc?"
"Couldn't say," said the medico, watching various screens. "Give me a few hours."
"You've got ten minutes," Vanessa said drily.
"Watch her," said the Captain, pointing a warning finger at Vanessa, backing out the door. "She's my unlucky charm."
"Hey!" Vanessa retorted. "You're still alive, why so negative?" Mekong's Captain was gentleman enough to give her a dry smile as he left.
Naturally the emergency alarm sounded the first time Sandy let Kiril come with her to see the weapons bay.
"Kiet, what's going on?" she asked as tacnet emergency lit all channels. Something in the parameters she'd laid out had been breached. About the bay, captured weapons systems were firing up, engines whining, running lights flashing. Much of this they were planning to run automated if they had to; they didn't have the manpower otherwise.
There was no reply from Kiet. Sandy led Kiril to the center of the bay's wide ferrocrete floor, the safest place when automated systems were activating, and ran a full tacnet scan. It showed central Droze, the corporate zones, five primary districts arrayed around a central, neutral hub. About that hub, Droze city sprawled away into the night, but that was not a main concern. She was in occupied Chancelry Zone, and the four other corporate zones were all unfriendly. In the past, before the united Torahn government had been formed, they'd shot at each other. Now they prepared to do so again.
Immediately she saw it highlighted—something had crashed in Central Zone. But the weather was bad, and the only view was a com tower camera on maximum magnification, which showed only the remains of a rotor nacelle amidst residential rooftops and a few trees. And now came a mass of new highlights, activity around the encircling corporate zones, tanks and AMAPS moving, spikes in registered com traffic, weapons bay doors sliding open. She snapped quickly into the secure matrix, where Kiet and a few of his network specialists had been probing corporate nets on systems Sandy and Cai from orbit had helped design ... and ran straight into a blank wall. She was locked out of her own system? What the hell?
"Kiet!" she snapped. "Either respond or I'll presume you incapacitated and have you removed from command!"
Tacnet declared that Kiet was in D-2, eighth floor. So was Rishi. Sandy began breaking into defensive barriers, unlocking complex systems she knew far better than Kiet did, and certainly better than Rishi ...
"Sandy, what's going on?" Kiril asked. He wore his favourite 3D glasses, linked to slate and booster they gave him a good overlaid display of his surroundings—not as fast as uplinks, nor as detailed, but pretty cool for a six-year-old. Across the bay an AMLORA was firing up properly, a howl of engines, a giant six-legged bug now straightening, then walking with huge, thumping steps toward the main elevator. "Sandy, look, the AMLORA's moving!"
On the Armoured Mobile LOng RAnge system's back was a huge launcher and enough missiles to level city blocks. The legs would let it operate in places wheels couldn't go—not fast, but better for concealment and camouflage. Here in Chancelry they'd captured six. The other corporations between them had about fifty. If it came to an artillery contest, most of Chancelry's rounds would not survive the opposing missile defences, and would then be destroyed by counter battery fire, along with most of the Chancelry complex.
Sandy smashed a couple of final defensive barriers, hard enough to give tacnet a wobble ... visual portions crashed, then rebooted from 3D static, confused and struggling.
"Sandy!" Kiet shouted at her. "Leave it alone, I have it under control!"
"Are you deploying?" She could see it now, portions of tacnet the barriers had hidden. GIs, Kiet's troops, moving fast toward the crash site. And sideways, toward the Dhamsel Corporation border.
Excerpted from OPERATION SHIELD by Joel Shepherd. Copyright © 2014 Joel Shepherd. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
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