WILLIAM R. FORSTCHEN has a Ph.D.
Prometheusby William R. Forstchen
Justin Bell is a dreamer who is still reaching for the stars after two trials by fire. Unfortunately, the beckoning stars are becoming sinister. Contact has been made with extraterrestrials, and the visitors are not friendly. And this is the worst possible time for hostile visitors, with the Solar System on the verge of civil war. If Justin can deflect the coming… See more details below
Justin Bell is a dreamer who is still reaching for the stars after two trials by fire. Unfortunately, the beckoning stars are becoming sinister. Contact has been made with extraterrestrials, and the visitors are not friendly. And this is the worst possible time for hostile visitors, with the Solar System on the verge of civil war. If Justin can deflect the coming firestorm of war and solve the secret of the invading aliens, he will be enshrined in the history books. If he fails, there won't be anyone left to write any history books.
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By William R. Forstchen
Baen BooksCopyright © 1999 William R. Forstchen
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Chapter OneTO: JUSTIN WOOD BELL FROM: UNITED SPACE MILITARY COMMAND SUBJECT: REACTIVATION TO ACTIVE DUTY STATUS YOU ARE HEREBY ORDERED BY ADMIRAL WILLIAM MAHAN, COMMANDER USMC, TO PRESENT YOURSELF WITHIN TWENTY-FOUR HOURS OF RECEIPT OF THIS NOTIFICATION AT USMC UNITED STATES REGIONAL COMMAND HEADQUARTERS WASHINGTON DC FOR REACTIVATION INTO ACTIVE SERVICE WITH THE RANK OF CAPTAIN.
Justin Bell reached into his pocket and pulled out a lighter. He flicked it to life, then held it to the bottom edge of the printout and watched, expressionless, as the paper flared. He dropped it to the ground when the flames finally licked up around his fingertips.
Sitting down, he pulled a pipe out of his pocket, lit it and then picked up the triple scotch he had been nursing ever since the message had arrived more than an hour ago. With a single gulp Justin downed the drink and then sat in silence, watching as the order from the old service to which he had given so much of his life flickered and collapsed into charred dust.
He reached down to the ground by his chair, lifted the bottle and poured another triple, resolving to nurse this one through the sunset.
Funny, sunsets never really bothered him. Sunrises, however, were something different-memories of Matt and himself trapped in the ruined station on the asteroid Lucifer, waiting for the sun to come up and fry them. Strange, they both look the same though.
He tried not to think of his old friend, if he could still be called a friend.
"It may be for years and it may be forever..."
The song, "Katherine Mauvareen," still haunted him. He and so many of the old cadets from the Academy had suddenly made it popular when the Civil War between Earth and the United Colonies started. It harkened back to the old traditions of West Point on the eve of their Civil War and the legend of brother officers North and South who had sung the same song together before departing to their destinies-where more than one helped to kill the other.
Where was Matt now? Last report was Mars, at least the last time he checked three years ago. Justin knew he could find out easy enough, but what the hell for? That friendship ended at Bradbury Station. It was best to forget, forget all of it.
He sighed and looked back through the open door of his cabin to the small cramped study. An antique of a computer that looked like it belonged to the early 21st century rather than the '80s was half-buried beneath a mound of papers on a desk made out of a heavy oak door. Piles of books and holo memory cubes were scattered on the floor around it, along with half a dozen empty bottles. The illusion of writing a book about the history of Star Voyager Academy and its founder Thor Thorsson was just that, an illusion. But it gave him a purpose, a fantasy to hide in, to make believe that he was still doing something.
The illusion had kept him going for three years now, ever since he had resigned his commission after Bradbury. He sipped his drink.
The old argument of "only following orders" no longer provided a way to cover over the guilt. Article Twenty-three of the service code clearly stated there was a moral obligation to resist illegal or immoral orders. Should have invoked that, knew I should have, and made a stand but I didn't. I accepted their arguments that Bradbury would end the war and thus save lives rather than losing them.
He stared at the pattern of lights flickering from his heavy crystal glass, which caught the setting sun. So I balm my soul afterwards, resigning as if that would ease my conscience. Yet he knew there was more-it was simply that after the death of all too many comrades from the old days, on both sides of the fighting in that campaign, resignation of his commission was a blessing and an escape.
He looked at the ashes at his feet. What could they do-arrest me? That would be a joke. Medal of Honor winner arrested for refusing a recall to service. They got twenty-one years out of me, take someone else.
The phone on his desk beeped, and he blearily looked over at his only connection to the outside world. He let it ring until the computer finally clicked into the line and took the message. Gulping the rest of the drink down, Justin went into his office and hit the message delete button, not even bothering to read what it was, and then shut the system down so no more notes or officious demands could come through.
He spared a quick glance around the room. The walls were covered with too many memories, many of them class photos from the Academy. Ghosts, I've wallpapered my world with ghosts.
His gaze lingered for a moment on the holo image of his first command USS Francis Marion, flanked by USS Ethell-she that was a beauty of a ship, now bits and fragments orbiting Mars. And then there was the last ship, USS Gagarin, lost at Bradbury. Letters of commendation were clustered in dusty frames around his Medal of Honor citation; the more dead you harvested the more medals they hung on you.
He had never signed into the service for that task. Back then, before the Civil War, it was maintaining the peace, protecting civilians and saving lives that they were trained for. There was always the threat of the alien Tracs, but it had been over twenty-five years since they had last been seen.
The Civil War between Earth and the Colonies had changed everything. Granted, in the overall scheme of things the war had been relatively bloodless; far more had died in the settling of the Colonies than in their fight to free themselves from United Nations rule. Both sides respected the rules of engagement against attacking nonmilitary targets-at least most of the time-until Bradbury.
No, not much of a bloodbath for a system populated by ten billion souls. Except, of course, if you were in the USMC or the CFF, the Colonial Free Forces. All right for us to die while the civilians of both sides cheered. How many out of my graduating class? A third, half maybe. And how many by my own hands? He pushed that thought away as he took another sip.
Admiral Mahan managed to cover the real reason for Justin's resignation, trumping up a press release that Medal of Honor winner Captain Justin Bell had resigned due to injuries sustained in service. Justin had been willing to keep the myth alive and retreat to this hiding place in the North Carolina mountains. It would not have been popular at all to make a public announcement that the great war hero had told the commander and his government to go to hell.
He looked back at the ashes still scattered out on the front deck.
What the hell do they want now? Could it be that the new government is looking for an excuse to arrest me, when I refuse to return?
He pondered that thought for a moment. The coupist government had seized control of the United Nations in the wake of the war's end. The seizure had been a popular move, since they took power with the claim that the war could have been won if only the USMC had fought with a will for victory no matter what the cost. They were backed by the EDF, the Earth Defense Forces, which had been created during the war as nothing more than a rear-guard unit in case Colonial forces ever attempted a landing.
Justin snorted with disdain at the thought of the EDF. The possibility of a Colonial offensive to ground sites was in itself inane. They were fighting a protective action in their own systems and the defensive lines the USMC maintained out beyond lunar orbit were simply too strong. The real reason for the creation of the EDF by Lin Zhu, who had been head of ground defense in the old administration, was now obvious. He had created a military force loyal to him as a counter to the USMC. It was also a nationalistic move since the USMC was increasingly American, European, Japanese and Russian of late, while the EDF was more Asian and Southern Hemisphere in makeup.
That national separation bothered Justin. The dream of the USMC's creator, Thor Thorsson, was to make it a truly international force, but Zhu had managed to subvert that ideal by playing on old nationalistic lines. The USMC still existed, it still was responsible for transatmospheric defense of what was still Earth's out to lunar orbit, but it no longer had authority over controlling the peace back on Earth.
What the hell is going on? Why are they bothering me now? Justin wondered, fighting back the haze of alcohol for a moment.
Justin turned and went back to the doorway. The sun was drifting behind the Smokey Mountains and he went back out onto his front porch to watch. Shadows from a spur of the Black Mountains stretched out across the valley and blanketed the village below. On the faint breath of the westerly breeze a church bell chimed. Overhead the last birds of evening were winging in, coming to rest, weaving through the flaring orange, red and yellow leaves of autumn.
He sniffed the breeze. The sky to the west was crystal clear; the distant ridge of the Smokies fifty miles away stood out sharp, silhouetted by the shifting indigo and scarlet.
The air was cold, crisp, carrying with it the faint aroma of woodsmoke.
Better put a fire on tonight, he thought. Frost by morning. Good, maybe hike up the old toll road to Graybeard Mountain. Need it to clear the hangover I'm prepping up for now.
A breeze stirred through the trees, a scattering of leaves drifting down, rustling, like a curtain of fiery rain, the pile of ashes on the front deck swirling away with the wind. He poured another drink, starting it out as a single but deciding to make it a triple again.
Justin fought with a momentary temptation to turn his computer on, tap into the news service and see what might be up. The last time he had bothered to check in, the Titan Colony was rebelling against the United Colonies government over its decision to honor all pre-war debts to various corporate investors in Colonial development. It was a sound move on their part to insure the reestablishment of credit, but he could well imagine that more than one Colonial thought the whole thing was a denial of what they had fought for. Perhaps that was leading into some sort of crisis.
The hell with them! If they want someone to fly in another war, go find them, but I'll be damned if I'll serve again, Justin thought coldly.
He looked up. The sky was dark enough that the first beads of light appeared-the orbital solar power stations, catching the energy-rich light of space. He studied them for a moment. Funny, Alpha Three wasn't showing, nor was Alpha Four. Curious, were their panels turned edgewise?
Ah, the hell with that too, he thought glumly. If there's a problem it's not my worry... the world could do with a little less juice, make people think twice about wasting so much of it.
Justin slipped back into his cabin for a moment, stepping over the piles of books. He went into his bedroom and pulled a blanket off his unmade bed. Stopping in the kitchen he discovered a ready-to-eat meal in a cluttered cabinet, ignored the dirty dishes piled high in the sink, and went back out onto the front porch.
The stars still called... he knew he'd never really get that out of his blood and it was comforting on a cool autumn night like this to simply sleep outside.
He sat down in his lounge chair; the dinner of shrimp and noodles heated up once the lid was snapped open. Most everyone aboard a service ship had come to despise the ready-to-eats but they were so damn convenient, and besides food was nothing more at this point than a means of keeping himself going. Finishing the meal and still holding what was left of his drink he cranked the lounge chair back, turning it into a cot.
A chill wind slipped down from the mountains and he pulled the blanket up around his chest. Through the haze of drink he noticed that his arm and right leg throbbed slightly. Ever since Gagarin the wounds were a daily reminder. He closed his eyes for a moment. The piercing alarm still haunted him, the signal to abandon ship.
If only I had stayed, he thought almost wistfully. None of this would be here to bother me now. Or was it the other way around?
Sighing, he opened his eyes and watched as the stars slowly traced their graceful arcs across the heavens.
Damn, I still miss it, he thought, still miss the silent watches, the sea of stars to guide my ship.
Give me a ship...
How I miss it all, but I'll never go back... too many ghosts float out there.
It may be for years and it may be forever...
The drink slipped from his hand.
* * *
He awoke, the old dreams becoming, as they so often did, too painful to bear. Sirens...
Siren down in the valley, reminded him of battle alerts. The tone wavered, sounding as if it was coming from the old highway. Some damn fool most likely wrecked.
Dawn. Damn, how I hate dawn, always have.
Groaning, he sat up and rubbed his temples. Single malt will still give you a hangover if you drink enough of it, he thought ruefully.
It was cold, frost coating the leaves on the ground, the half-empty bottle of scotch by his recliner rimmed with an opaque sheet of silvery crystals.
They always said space was cold, unless your suit cooling winked off and you were out in the sun. Suspended between fire and ice and all so silent, deliciously silent.
The morning birds were astir, calling, fluttering through the trees overhead. I always did miss that, he thought, looking up at them. They reminded him of waking in the early light to do the farm chores when he was a boy in Indiana. Somebody on Gagarin had tried to pipe birdcalls in through the PA when the morning watch started; it had lasted only a couple of days before he had put a stop to the absurdity.
He watched the birds for a couple of minutes and finally, with a groaning sigh, Justin stood up and went back into his cabin. He hit the electric heater while going into the kitchen. Putting a cup of water into the microwave he pulled down the instant coffee and then threw several spoonfuls into the steamy cup of boiling water.
Damn dream, Mars on fire below, half a dozen nuclear warheads bursting above Bradbury, his ship on fire, the eject alarm screaming. Outside the siren still trilled.
"Stereo, Wagner, Gotterdammerung, final scene," he said quietly, and the sound system in his living room turned on.
It was Tanya Leonov who had cultivated his interest in classical music and introduced him to the one piece that, more than anything he had ever heard, epitomized the tragedy of a world being destroyed.
Wagner echoed through the cabin, the nightmare still lingering...
Excerpted from Prometheus by William R. Forstchen Copyright © 1999 by William R. Forstchen. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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