Read an Excerpt
1 Days of Ash
One of the most difficult things I’ve had to explain to the generations that came after us is the Days of Ash—unquestionably the worst moments of the war. Not in terms of death and suffering. No, those opportunistic twins were birthed in due time, and sadly what the human race would come to inflict on itself can still, to this day, scarcely be believed or forgiven. But as horrible as the war itself was, despite all the slaughter and misery that came after, those first few weeks were easily the most difficult. For during the Days of Ash, there dawned on the Outer Alliance a terrifying realization: With a raging storm moving swiftly over the horizon, our ship was rudderless.
The War, Volume IV: The Bloody Climax
University of Ceres Press
Days of Ash: Day Four
Fleet Admiral J. D. Black, commander of the Outer Alliance Navy, unofficial leader of the Astral Awakening and hated adversary of the United Human Federation, barged into Justin Cord’s office, gave a perfunctory salute and let loose with a hail of pent-up fury.
“You son of a bitch.” She seethed, lips curled back into a half-scarred face feared equally by enemy and ally alike. “It isn’t enough I’ve had to lead your damned excuse for a navy to more victories than anyone had a right to expect?” J.D. held up her hand, not bothering to wait for an answer. “Or,” she added as short, measured bursts of air escaped through her flared nostrils, “that I took a fleet of mine haulers and pleasure yachts and turned it into a feared and effective military force? Defeated enemies who outnumber us in every single battle not once but time and time again?” J.D. shook her head in disgust at the lack of response. The tempest she felt burning within leapt from her dark, penetrating eyes as if daggers flung from an assassin. “Do you have any idea,” she hissed, “how volatile the religious situation has become? How easy it would be for me to let them all slip right back into their violent and monolithic past?” She paused, waiting, but again there was nothing. “I haven’t let that happen, Justin … I won’t let that happen. But is that good enough for you, Mr. One Free Man? Obviously not—otherwise you wouldn’t have done this. Why,” she pleaded, “did you even have to? Don’t you see, Justin? I was never meant to be here. I’m just a corporate lawyer, for God’s sake. This supposed gift I have … leading spacers into battle. Dumb luck … dumb…” The words languished in her mouth like the last few drops of a stream succumbing to a winter’s frost. “But, guess what?” she rejoined. “Lightning doesn’t strike twice. I’ve found the thing I’m good at,” she scoffed, “but does that even matter to you? Did it ever matter to you?” She let out a deep breath, shook her head wearily, then let it drop between her shoulders. “They need me to lead them, Justin. They need me to lead them all. What am I supposed to do now?” she pleaded, slumping backwards into the closest available seat. A moment later, J.D. lifted her head and with eyes as deep and vacant as space, stared across at the untouched desk and empty chair of the assassinated President, waiting for an answer she knew would never come.
Seventy-two hours earlier
Admiral Black’s command shuttle approached the landing bay of the AWS Dolphin. Omad’s ship, noted J.D. as she stared out a port window, had been none the worse for its wear. Recently restocked at Altamont and updated at the Gedretar Shipyards in Ceres, the Dolphin was thankfully spaceworthy. It will need to be, she thought, returning to her work. The admiral’s normally taciturn qualities had become positively glacial. She’d recently been caught off guard, and it was eating her alive. Worse, her stupidity might very well have cost everyone the war. The lines in her maimed brow, normally pronounced in a sort of twisted arc when roused, seemed frozen in place, as if sculpted by some macabre surgical procedure.
The Belt had been cracked, and Christina—her darling, tenacious Christina—was trapped at Altamont. The enemy’s siege would succeed and the critical fortress would fall, in weeks at the earliest, a month at the latest. The Alliance had lost more than thirty ships and hundreds of thousands of miners. One more month, thought J.D., teeth clenched, hand slowly working its way over the now familiar distorted grooves and ridges of her pockmarked face. One more month. That’s all I needed. In another month, they would have had the Via, a high-acceleration spaceway, to Altamont. Then she could have crushed Trang or, at the very least, broken through the siege long enough for all to evacuate. But Trang had either gotten lucky or outsmarted her. She’d wished it were the former but in her gut she suspected the latter, which galled her even more. And now they were really in it.
Still, all the recent losses could at least be framed within the context of military snafus. Even Christina, whom she’d loved as a friend and military wunderkind, held more value to her as a defensive tactician than as a close confidante. J.D. could force herself to be objective about any and all of it … all of them. That objectivity was what made her so good at what she did. She moved on. Found weaknesses where none were thought to exist. Exploited opportunities at every instance. Cold was good. Dead was good. And she’d almost stayed in that invulnerable space between the two but for the one person who’d somehow managed to find and then crawl into the small hole she’d inadvertently left uncovered. Fawa Sulnat Hamdi may have been the birthmother of the Astral Awakening but to J.D. the woman was also the only mother she’d ever really known. And the fact that she was gone now—murdered—was killing her. Because Fawa’s only “daughter,” the supposed greatest admiral in human history, had failed to see it coming.
Her first impulse had been to hunt down and destroy every UHF squadron in the region. It might not have been the most rational thing to do, but it sure would have felt good. Plus it could have been done with impunity, as Trang was still in the midst of his murderous rampage on the far side of the Belt, some 933 million kilometers away.
But then the other shoe dropped: Justin Cord, leader of the free worlds and hope to untold billions still languishing under the yoke of the incorporated movement, had been assassinated near the moon of Nerid. His body had been eviscerated by ravenous nanite attackers and left as a pile of dust orbiting that now ignominious rock. Both the timing and nature of the attacks carried with them the imprimatur of Hektor Sambianco. No doubts about that. The UHF’s President had once again shown why those foolish enough to underestimate him paid a high price indeed.
J.D. shortly came to realize one other salient fact: Hektor had murdered the old Chairman. Until now she’d always discounted the rumors, preferring to believe the old man died at the hands of an action wing terrorist or quite possibly the result of Justin Cord’s machinations. She’d never completely bought into Justin’s too-good-to-be-true persona. Who the hell is that good, anyways? She rubbed the folds of her forehead as an involuntarily twitch moved her upper lip. He was.
Janet Delgado Black would have her revenge, but not just yet. She’d be patient, lick her wounds. And because she knew that the Alliance would not be broken, that they’d fight even if all they had left were the rocks grasped in the palms of their bloodied hands, she’d have time. She swore then and there that whatever it took, she’d hunt down those who’d destroyed her life. They’d pay for their unholy act of terror, and she’d bear witness.
Her shuttle swept into the bay, was grabbed by the Dolphin’s override system, and soon came to a slow, measured stop on the landing pad. J.D. didn’t bother getting up from the desk she’d spent the last few hours brooding behind. Captain Marilynn Nitelowsen would do the formal greetings if there were any to be done. J.D. had grown impatient with formality, as much as it seemed to soothe the fighting class. She heard Marilynn walk down the gangway toward the hatch. The familiar hiss of air transference was immediately trumped by the garrulous sound of a man barking orders. A few seconds later, Marilynn entered the stateroom and gave her boss a knowing grin. A second after that, Admiral Omad Hassan strode in without bothering to salute.
“What in the name of Damsah is going on, Janet?” he barked.
“The fleet,” she replied, placing both hands atop the knee of her crossed legs, “has been ordered back to Ceres.” She indicated to Marilynn that she and Omad be left alone. The captain made a quick exit, closing the hatch behind her.
Omad’s eyes could not hide the panoply of emotions he was feeling. “But we have to make the bastards pay!” he blurted. “Alhambra cannot go unavenged!”
“And it will, friend,” she said, motioning him to take a seat. “Just not now.”
The admiral refused the gesture, preferring to work himself up into a state.
“We can’t,” cut in J.D. “because we’re needed at Ceres.”
A tense silence filled the air.
“However,” she reassured, “we are going to make some of those bastards pay.”
Omad grunted his reluctant acceptance and deigned to sit down, eyebrow raised in anticipation.
“You’re to take fifteen of our fastest ships,” she ordered, “and hunt down whatever’s left of the squadron that destroyed Alhambra.”
Omad’s mouth formed a cruel grin. “Done.” He sprang up from the seat and headed toward the door.
“Omad,” called J.D. The unusual disquiet in her voice stopped the admiral cold. “There’s more.” She gestured to the chair and this time Omad didn’t argue.
“What is it?”
Omad took a deep breath. “How bad?” he asked.
J.D. called up a holo-tank display on her desk. The image rendered a perfect three-dimensional slice of a large section of the asteroid belt. “Trang’s here,” she said, pointing to an area in the middle of the Belt, roughly eleven million kilometers from Altamont. “I give him two, maybe three days at most until he gets within siege range. Once he’s set up, nothing gets in or out.”
“No resistance, eh?” asked Omad without conviction. Both he and J.D. knew that Trang had forever changed the calculus of the war. The persistant admiral had started out taking one rock at a time, crag by pitiful crag. Now he’d apparently changed his tactics. He was creating a path of destruction hundreds of thousands of kilometers wide. If rocks offered too much resistance, he simply went around them. If he could take them out, he would do so without remorse. In fact few, if any, prisoners were being taken into custody, such was the path Trang had already left in his bloody wake. Which wasn’t to say that his fleet hadn’t taken a beating. They’d lost hundreds of ships and tens of thousands of lives in their admiral’s desperate gamble to cut the Belt in half. The difference was that Trang had the bodies and ships to lose—the Alliance didn’t.
“Anyhow, with our main fleet here,” J.D. pointed to another spot within the display, “we can’t get to them in time.”
“Let me guess,” offered Omad. “Christina refused to leave.”
Omad smiled thinly. “Would you?”
“No,” admitted J.D., “but that may be why we lose the war. I need her almost as much as I need Altamont.” She switched off the display, leaving an empty space between the two battle-hardened friends. Standing behind her desk, she stared coolly at Omad, almost blaming him with her tight-jawed glare. “Now there’s nothing any of us can do.”
“That’s bullshit!” snapped Omad, getting up from the chair. “I can get forty ships there in two weeks.”
J.D. met his determined stance with her own, “Which means that in two weeks I’d lose both my best admirals instead of just one.” She then backed away from the desk and stiffened her shoulders. “I can’t allow that.”
“We don’t have to fight them for control of the 180, J.D.,” insisted Omad, palms open, “just open up an escape route.”
“You don’t think I’ve worked out every conceivable scenario in my head, Omad? Explored every cockamamy scheme?”
Omad stood mute, brooding.
“If I thought any one of those plans had a chance,” exclaimed J.D., “I’d have led it myself. But you and I both know that Trang’ll see you coming a week before you get there. And when you do, you’ll be outnumbered ten to one by an admiral who’s proved himself a worthy adversary—even for the likes of you.”
Omad, she saw, was no longer arguing.
“What does Justin say?”
J.D. didn’t answer, seemingly struck dumb by the question.
“Well?” asked Omad, worry now evident in his normally gruff tone.
“I…” J.D. struggled with the words, breaking eye contact momentarily with Omad. She then forced herself back into his fixed gaze. She saw not her subordinate officer but the late President’s best friend standing helplessly across from her. “Justin is dead,” she said, exhaling deeply. “I’m sorry.”
Omad’s mouth hung open, slack jawed. He moved slowly backwards and fell into the seat, blindly clawing at the arms of the chair for support. He stared blankly into J.D.’s eyes, which somehow managed to convey both comfort and promise but absolutely no mercy.
* * *
Most of the newer settlements found in the community of belief had one habitable asteroid, and in rare circumstance, two. The ancient Jewish community of Aish Ha Torah, by virtue of its longevity, had five—all of which had been engineered into two-mile-long cylindrical amalgams of rock and fused metals. Aish, as it was commonly referred to among the Belters, was one of the oldest colonies in the community of belief and, in the span of over two hundred years, had grown in both size and industry. Its asteroids, rich in vital resources and carved out to create other facilities, soon began feeding the hungry maw of the Core Planets.
When the war broke out, Aish had been quick to side with Justin Cord not out of expedience but rather because the Unincorporated Man’s dreams of personal responsibility and freedom perfectly aligned with theirs. In its present iteration, Aish owned a large orbit of several hundred thousand kilometers in volume, and its asteroids produced everything from homeopathic remedies grown in tropical rain forests to large manufacturing facilities that supplied the nuts, bolts, and widgets that pieced together a good deal of the Alliance’s fleet.
Of the five asteroids, M’Araht Leubitz, named for the famous rabbi who’d first settled it, was the oldest and therefore most developed. The name M’araht meant “cave” in Hebrew, and the original designers of the asteroid’s interior had purposely created an environment that harkened back to Judaism’s ancient past. It was also a not-so-subtle reminder of what his people had fled: the radioactive waste of the Middle East and the death grip of atheism that unlimited prosperity and unfettered opportunity ushered in once the Alaskans had remade the world in Tim Damsah’s image. And now, aided by nanotechnology, fueled by portable fusion, and gifted with greatly expanded life spans, the Jews of Aish Ha Torah, like their ancient Israelite cousins, were once again living in caves.
Sitting quietly on the ground with his back up against a wall near the entrance of one such cave sat a young man. He was five feet nine inches, about average for Belters, and appeared to be in his late twenties, though the hardened lines around his deep-set blue eyes seemed a testament to more. His jet-black hair was a cascade of loose curls that fell evenly onto his broad shoulders. He had a medium-length beard that his dirt-smudged, callous hand kept pulling downward in slow, rhythmic strokes. Though graphite stains on his hands and coveralls announced his trade as a mechanic, the swelling crowd gathered at the base of the path leading to his cave announced his position as a savior.
The truth was that like most clergymen, Gedalia Wildman had been a rabbi-slash. Which in his case meant rabbi/propulsion specialist. With around forty thousand practicing Jews, there were only so many full-time rabbis needed, and only the most intelligent and charismatic could support their learning without the necessity of added income. Such was not the fate of Gedalia Wildman. No one would argue that he wasn’t a skilled Talmudist or that like those who’d studied the ancient analysis of the Bible’s words and meanings, he couldn’t extrapolate with the best of them. Likewise, they couldn’t argue that he wasn’t generous of spirit. But what they could argue, and brook no disagreement from the man himself, was that Rabbi Wildman was not pulpit material. The fact that so large a crowd was now gathering around his cave could mean only one thing, thought the rabbi. Something must have gone horribly wrong. He put both hands on the ground as if to reassure himself that the asteroid was still stable. It was. No underlying or abnormal vibrations, he thought. Well, at least there’s that.
“Rabbi,” said the group’s apparent spokesman too reverentially for Gedalia’s liking.
“Since when am I ‘Rabbi’ to you, Mordechai?” asked Gedalia, getting himself up and dusting off his trousers. Gedalia looked over the shoulder of his friend and was met with a crowd of forlorn faces.
Gedalia’s longtime friend responded with stricken eyes. Moments later, Gedalia found out why. Alhambra, the greatest center of learning for all the communities of belief, was gone. The UHF had destroyed it utterly—no chance of survivors. Gedalia stood, looking toward but through the gathering crowd. Though he had no idea what he was going to do, he knew what must be done. He checked his DijAssist to see in which direction Jerusalem lay, then turned around to face it. The crowd mimicked his movements.
“Yisgadal, v’yisgadash…” he began. It was the prayer for the dead.
* * *
A few minutes later, Gedalia headed for the yeshiva, an institution that for most of his life held answers to mysteries both within his universe and without. The crowd, he noticed, followed silently behind but held itself back when he approached the ancient school’s grand entrance—a large cave mouth ten meters tall. He entered. Everything was as he’d last remembered. The old leather-bound texts filling up row after row of shelves carved neatly into the rock, the phylactery cases nestled in small bored-out coves, the haphazard piles of prayer books jutting out and precariously balanced at the edges of the already too full shelves. And of course, the tables of learning: small rectangular slabs that could accommodate at most four bodies. It was to these tables that students of every level would come to argue over mundane passages of the Bible and attempt to glean meanings from the nuance of every word. Everything, noted Gedalia, was where it should be. Everything except those who’d bequeathed it with life. He’d entered looking for answers but instead found … ghosts. And it was then that he gave way to his grief. For an hour, he let the misery wash over him and to a certain extent cleanse him. In another realization of how his world had changed, he understood that his entire community was now dependent on him. Waiting for the answers, hope, guidance, and reassurance he was not at all sure he could give.
Gedalia Wildman had walked into the yeshiva as a rabbi/propulsion specialist, but after he emerged, he was to forever be known as the Rabbi.
* * *
Under the soft, dim glow of his command module and with the knowledge that no one would really notice, Admiral Omad Hassan took the opportunity to do something rather uncharacteristic—he prayed. It certainly wasn’t out of belief. He was too old and too acerbic to entertain notions of higher spiritual planes and all such nonsense, but he’d also been around the block enough times to know there was no sense in counting things out that might take offense at not being counted. Plus it seemed to work well for his boss. And the deception he’d planned would have rightfully been labeled foolhardy. So much so that under normal circumstances, even he wouldn’t have ordered anyone to do it. He recalled how the admiral had made it all sound so perfectly sensible.
And now his flotilla moved with abandon through a Cerean sector exquisitely mapped and cleared. There would be no ships lost to asteroid detritus or errant space junk. Though even that wouldn’t have stopped him. Omad was now a man possessed, with a crew caught in his spell. All aboard knew what Justin Cord had meant to the Alliance, but they especially knew what Justin Cord had meant to their commanding officer. Omad had dug up the Unincorporated Man and by so doing had set in motion the revolution now sweeping through the system and beyond. But that wasn’t what pushed him on, what made him stretch the limits of both ship and crew in his mad dash across the Belt. Justin Cord had been Omad’s friend—his one true friend. And now the bastards who’d played a part in his death would pay.
Omad’s face was placid. His eyes darted along the command panel, watching for any signs of trouble. Nothing. And he knew with certainty there wouldn’t be, at least not until the trap was set. His orders had been explicit: exact revenge on the murderers of the righteous. But first he’d have to intercept them. The problem was they’d soon be finding shelter behind the orbital batteries of Mars, and that was a gauntlet even Omad had no desire to challenge. J.D.’s shellacking at the second Battle of the Martian Gates had taught them all a lesson no one was eager to repeat. He’d have to dissuade the UHF marauders from entering Mars’s orbit without the benefit of actually being there, and he’d have to do it with just one ship.
AWS Otter – One day from Mars orbit
Captain Suchitra Kumari Gorakhpur entered the command sphere and stood silently. As with all new warships from frigates on up, the command sphere, which had replaced the traditional bridge, was located within the bowels of the ship and fortified by nanorealigned hull plating. The enemy could blow up almost any part of the Otter, and the command sphere would continue to function, continue to bark orders and lead even if crippled. But now, mused Suchitra, staring at her resigned crew, there are no other vessels to lead—just us. The sphere’s amphitheater-like design meant that all eyes were on her. She tilted her head slightly in acknowledgment. Then, in slow, measured steps, circumnavigated the room and took a seat in the command chair directly opposite the entryway. The chair’s placement afforded her a view of the surroundings. She sat slightly forward, elbows leaning on the console, fingers locked. She looked over to her number two.
“Situate us if you would, Commander Grayson.”
A perfect three-dimensional image of the Otter appeared, floating serenely by itself in the command sphere’s holo-tank. Moments later, it was facing a flotilla of fifty UHF warships. Though Suchitra’s outward expression was one of reserved calm, it concealed the terror she was actually feeling within. It was now only a matter of time. She wasn’t afraid to die and, along with her crew, had served the Alliance bravely in any number of battles, but this was different. She was about to face a powerful enemy. Worse, she’d be seriously outgunned, alone, and have no chance of escape.
UHFS Damsah III
Commodore Theodore Guise was finally beginning to relax. His was the lead battle cruiser of a large flotilla that had succeeded mightily on its first-ever mission. He’d refused to think about what rewards might be in store until he and his crew were well clear of the Alliance space. Now, one day out of Mars, he allowed himself that luxury. His stock would certainly rise, no question about that. The question was by how much. And maybe, if he were really lucky, he’d get promoted to Fleet Command. That would mean a plush assignment on Mars, nicer sleeping quarters … better pay. And best of all, he’d never have to spend another day on one of these Damsah-forsaken ships. Granted, taking out a bunch of religious loonies on a defenseless rock wouldn’t go down as one of the great battles of the war, but then again, he didn’t really care. He was alive, more thanks to his white-collar position on the board of Nanorin than for any particular skill he had as an officer.
There were just too many ships and not enough experienced bodies to man them. So the navy went looking for its officer corps in the hallowed conference rooms of the top corporations—Nanorin being one of them. And that’s where they’d found Theodore. When he was tapped, he went along happily. After all, not only was it his patriotic duty to serve, but doing so would greatly increase his marketing network as well. That he’d been called into action before his and his crew’s training was completed didn’t really bother him—at least not once the nature of the assignment had been explained. Whatever worries he did have were mitigated by the fact that the Alliance’s most feared admirals were, at various places along the Belt, well engaged. And so thoughts of promotion and afternoon dalliances with pretty secretaries once again filled his head.
“Sir!” shouted his second in command, a young up-and-comer he’d pulled from the ranks of his own corporation. “Unidentified ship detected.”
Theodore’s eyes narrowed as he checked his own panel. Out here? he groused.
Before he could say anything, the first lieutenant jumped in.
“It’s an Alliance vessel, sir. Classification: frigate. Transponder identifies it as—” The lieutenant paused and then looked up. His eyes were wide and now gazing with pensive fear. “—the AWS Otter.”
A chill swept through the command sphere as the frigate’s information flashed across every display. The Otter was part of Admiral Hassan’s flotilla. That was enough information for Theodore to decide it was time to punt.
“Get me the admiral.”
“Right away, sir,” snapped the first lieutenant.
Admiral Mummius’s face appeared on Theodore’s holodisplay. She seemed bored. However, once Theodore had explained the particulars, the woman’s tired eyes popped open like a vigilant hound’s.
“What’s its speed and heading?”
Theodore motioned for the first lieutenant to answer.
“Not moving, sir. And it’s directly in our path.”
The right side of the admiral’s face flinched.
“That’s just it, sir,” said the first lieutenant, bulged eyes revealing his consternation. “It’s cold, sir. Rail guns offline, missile ports closed.”
“So then what the devil is it doing out there?”
“Apparently nothing, sir.”
“Go to full visual, Lieutenant,” commanded Theodore. The tank was filled with the image of the UHF’s fleet moving in straight line directly toward the AWS Otter.
“Do they know we’re here?” asked the admiral, a scowl now permanently embedded on her face.
“Yes, sir,” chimed the first lieutenant, deftly manipulating the display board. “In fact, they’re scanning us right now.”
The admiral’s head jerked back slightly. “And sending the info … where, exactly?”
The first lieutenant once again let his fingers fly over the board. A moment later he looked up, confused. “Nowhere, sir.”
The admiral had heard enough. “Order the fleet to a full stop.”
“Are you sure about that, sir?” asked Theodore, visions of posh offices and corporate whores disappearing quickly into the void. “We can blow right past her, sir. We’re almost home.”
The admiral’s cold, pale gray eyes bored a hole straight into Theodore. “Are you willing to bet that that’s the only ship out there that coincidentally just happens to be directly in our path?” she asked. “That Hassan or Black don’t have something planned? Tell you what, Commander. You can take your ship and do whatever the hell you like with it. I’m sure your crew would appreciate that.”
Theodore looked around the command sphere. The crew stared back blankly. He had his answer. He then eyed the first lieutenant. “Order a full stop,” he said stiffly.
“Aye, aye, sir. Fleet to full stop.”
The crew watched as the ships in the holo-tank came to a complete halt. Their task force of fifty floated silently in the air, facing the one tiny frigate. The visual was strangely mesmerizing in its utter imbalance, and for a brief moment, the crew remained entranced.
“Give me a full scan, Lieutenant,” ordered the admiral.
“Did that, sir. There are some small anomalies and background radiation but well within standard parameters.”
“Nothing’s standard with these people, Lieutenant,” groused the admiral. “It’s a trap.”
“What sort of trap?” asked Theodore, realizing the inanity of the question before he could retract it.
“If I knew that, then it wouldn’t be a trap, would it?” snapped the admiral, glaring at her subordinate officer with unbridled disdain. “But I do know this. I’m not sticking around to find out. Plot a course for Earth.”
“But … but, what about the defense of Mars?” asked Theodore, desperately searching for one last shot at salvation.
The admiral’s lips drew back into a doglike snarl. “Fuck Mars, Theo. Between the orbats and the other five flotillas, they’ve got plenty of firepower. Plus they’re not the ones who just blew the Alliance’s religious council into dust and now have the entire Belt howling for their blood.”
“Yes, sir,” sputtered Theodore meekly. “Earth it is.”
Shouts of joy and relief rang through every corridor, nook, and cranny of the Otter as the crew of one hundred watched the UHF fleet head back out into deeper space.
“Yeah, Grayson,” crooned Suchitra, a smile forming at the corners of her mouth.
“Looks like I owe you twenty credits.”
“Yes, Grayson,” sniggered the captain, finally exhaling. “It looks like you do.”
“Admiral,” said First Officer Yuri Yologovsky, “we have a message from the Otter.”
“I’m guessing,” chortled Omad, “that our fearless brethren of the UHF have turned tail and run.”
The first officer cracked a grin. “Apparently it’s not only the Blessed One who can read the minds of the enemy.”
“Don’t grant me any special powers just yet, Yuri. We may have thrown ’em off course, but we’ll still have to catch ’em. And, in their territory.”
“You forgot the ‘outnumbered three to one’ part,” chided the first officer.
“Since when has that ever stopped us?”
“Since never, sir. Inform the Rock Throwers?”
Omad’s eyes were a cauldron of fury. “Absolutely.”
The Rock Throwers had grown out of the Fleet Corps of Engineers which had grown from the techs and engineers of the various ships at the beginning of the war. The Rock Throwers had been instrumental in moving the Martian shipyard to Jupiter, devising many of the cover elements for Admiral Black’s biggest victories, including the formation and shape of the asteroids for the Battle of the Needle’s Eye. It was Omad who’d given them their current nom de guerre, which not coincidentally had derived from his use of asteroid swarms to hide his hit-and-run tactics. Once Omad realized he could actually create swarms to order, the Field Corps of Engineers got themselves a new name. And with the admiral’s liberal use of it, the name stuck.
Omad checked his display. The rocks, all equipped with positional thrusters, were being moved from their various orbits and would in short order become four separate streams heading into UHF space. It was all he needed.
Executive Office, Mars
Hektor Sambianco put down the intelligence report. His office was as secure as money and paranoia could make it, and the only other person who knew what was in its collected contents was now sitting opposite him.
“Really?” he asked, doubt evident in his tone.
“To be accurate,” adjusted his Minister of Security, Tricia Pakagopolis, “all we could determine is that he is, in fact, missing. But the Alliance is conducting a massive search.”
“Yes,” he averred, still cautious, “I imagine they would be.”
“Mr. President, it’s the nature of this business that certainties are almost always lies. But I’d bet my dividend on the fact that Justin Cord is dead. There was nothing left of the facility that he was last seen entering. It therefore stands to reason that there’d be nothing left of him.”
Hektor’s eyes flittered across the report. “How strangely appropriate. You realize, Tricia,” he said, shifting his gaze to his Minister, “that that’s the way he murdered the Chairman.” It was a lie Hektor had repeated so often, he was almost starting to believe it himself. “And,” he pushed further, “you’re sure we had nothing to do with it? No rogue units, no leftover booby traps at the Nerid station—” He put down the single and only sheet of paper that contained the report. “—no nothing?”
“Mr. President, it’s as masterful a public assassination on a prime target as I’ve ever seen. I’d love to take credit, even if it meant my head on a platter.”
Hektor shot her a look.
“Without your authorization, that is.”
Hektor almost nodded in agreement, but simply gestured for her to continue.
“That being said, the answer remains no. It most definitely wasn’t us. The only logical explanation is that it was an inside job. And there are only two people we deem that capable.” Tricia waited a moment before giving up the names, knowing her boss’s penchant for intrigue.
“All right,” guessed Hektor, “I’ll say one of ’em has to be Janet Delgado.”
“One for one, boss,” confirmed Tricia approvingly.
“And if I had to bet my dividend on it—” Hektor’s mouth twisted up slightly. “—Mosh McKenzie.” He folded his arms triumphantly.
“One for two. Sorry, sir.”
Hektor’s grin disappeared instantly. He both hated and loved surprises. Hated them because they’d been the cause of so much disruption in his life, loved them because he couldn’t stand being bored.
“Our analysis of Mr. McKenzie,” Tricia pointed out, “does not make him a likely instigator. His political and economic influence has waned of late. His main power base had been his connection with Justin Cord. With Justin gone, we’re not even sure he’ll last the year.”
“Olmstead, sir,” announced Tricia.
“Again, Tricia? Please. We’ve been over this. I worked with the guy—trust me, he’s really not that capable.”
“With all due respect, sir, your prejudice concerning Kirk Olmstead is seriously outdated.”
“With all due respect,” Hektor sneered, “Olmstead is an arrogant and predictable fool. I refuse to believe a man I was able to manipulate so easily could’ve pulled off something of this magnitude.”
“You’re special, sir.”
Tricia, noted Hektor, had managed to deliver that last line without the slightest hint of irony or humor.
“I don’t know what happened to him in that place,” she explained, “but it wasn’t to our advantage. And as I’ve stated before, our lack of viable intel in the Belt is a direct result of his ruthless efficiency and paranoia.”
“Perhaps,” added Hektor, “plus the fact that we spent so many years basically ignoring the place.”
Tricia bowed slightly. “Yes, sir. That too. But you’ll have to trust me when I tell you, if Olmstead wanted Cord dead, he could’ve found a way.”
Hektor held up his hands in mock surrender. “All right, then. So is he our man?”
Tricia offered up an impish smile. “No. Of the two, it makes more sense for Delgado to have arranged it.”
“Janet, huh? At least that I can believe.”
“From what we can gather, Kirk doesn’t have the power base to take control or improve his position. So though we believe he was eminently capable of the assassination, our assessment is that it wouldn’t have been in his best interest.”
“And Janet’s motive?”
“The simplest one, of course: power.”
Hektor paused to consider the implication. “You know,” he said caustically, “I’d almost grown used to thinking of Janet as the heroic combat admiral. I’d actually forgotten just how ruthless she could be. With the Alliance in turmoil, they’d naturally turn to her.”
“Exactly, Mr. President,” agreed Tricia. “And when you think about it, she either (a) now gets to prosecute the war without the obstruction of Mr. The Means Are The Ends constantly tying her left arm behind her back, or (b) can negotiate an end to the war on terms she’d find more acceptable.”
“And,” added Hektor, “we know that she and Cord weren’t exactly the best of friends.”
“Yes,” agreed Tricia, “we took that into consideration as well, but it wasn’t a deciding factor in our assessment.”
“But it rounds it out quite nicely, don’t you think?”
Tricia remained silent, but nodded.
“The bitch,” murmured Hektor, cracking a wide, admiring smile. “She must’ve known I’d give her almost anything to end this war sooner rather than later.”
“Of course,” added Tricia, “that works only if Trang doesn’t beat her first.”
“Yes. It does,” he replied, “but she’s a cocky SOB with a stellar résumé in kicking our butts.” Then, seconds later added, “Probably why we worked so well together.”
Tricia nodded solemnly.
Jealousy? wondered Hektor.
“So, can he?”
“I’m sorry, what?” asked Tricia.
“Can Trang win? I hate to be less than rah-rah about it, but in the confines of this office, the truth will out.” Even Hektor had to admit Janet had become something of a mythical figure.
Tricia nodded. “He just might. In which case, Delgado’s gambit fails. Which leaves us with one outstanding issue.”
“Ah,” mused Hektor with a one-sided grin, “how best to exploit the assassination?”
“Since I’m gonna be blamed for this anyways…”
“Yes, sir. Let’s make it work for us.”
“Indeed.” Hektor’s face was a mask of determined resolve. “Deny everything, of course, but leave just enough evidence for our press and their intelligence service to find. It shouldn’t be conclusive, just…”
“… suspicious,” Tricia finished helpfully.
“Exactly.” Hektor seemed satisfied. He pulled a matchbox from an inner pocket, set a match aflame, and touched it to the end of the report, dropping the paper at the last second into a large ashtray already filled with the stubs of half-chewed cigars. He watched the paper burn to ash, then casually picked up his DijAssist and scanned Tricia’s other reports.
“And how,” he asked, stopping at one that caught his eye, “are we planning to exploit the opportunities that the capture of the Belt and half the Alliance population will allow us?”
And with that, Justin Cord ceased being a consideration for Hektor Sambianco and became a simple memory.
Tragedy and triumph for the Alliance has been reported today. On this the eighth day since the murder of our President, the fabled fortress of Altamont was put under siege by the forces of the UHF under the personal command of Admiral Samuel Trang. This siege completes the cracking of the asteroid belt that began four and half years ago with the Battle of Eros. It is not known how long Altamont can hold out without supply or reinforcements. It is also not known whether Trang will use a long attritional siege or attempt to storm the position. Admiral Christina Sadma has refused all offers of surrender. Her last clear communication with the Alliance stated that she will not allow Altamont to fall to the enemy under any circumstance.
In the triumph department, the massacre at Alhambra was avenged today with the complete destruction of the flotilla that committed that war crime. Admiral Omad Hassan, in a daring raid, pursued the enemy into their own space and overtook them. It’s still unclear why the enemy did not seek protection behind the orbats of Mars, but our good fortune was their bad luck. Even though Admiral Hassan’s fifteen ships were outnumbered three to one, he still emerged victorious.
“It was like watching a battle from the first year of the war,” said assault miner Eric M. Holke, a field-promoted sergeant who helped capture the flagship. Although we cannot report on the losses suffered by the Alliance, we’re given to understand that they were surprisingly light. As it now stands, thirty-one of the enemy ships were destroyed or self-destructed, with nineteen having been captured. Whether they can be returned to Alliance space from so far in UHF territory remains to be seen. Rumor has it that none of the enemy was taken alive, all having chosen to die rather than be captured and face trial for their crimes. This, however, cannot be confirmed, as some may have been suspended and stored. In an editorial aside, it is this reporter’s fervent wish that Admiral Hassan kicked open the air locks and spaced all of the bastards.
Alliance Daily News
Triangle Office, Ceres
Janet Delgado Black sat for some time, staring into the empty seat. Even unoccupied, the room, the seat, something in the Triangle Office allowed her to attain a measure of clarity and introspection. Sitting now in the quiet, in the dark, she opened her heart, giving quarter to unspoken heresy: She never really liked Justin Cord. The man had been too damned righteous. More than once, she’d wished she could smack the holier-than-thou attitude right off his face. And yet she wanted him back, needed him sitting behind his now undisturbed desk, telling her and the rest of the Alliance what to do. Agree with him, argue with him, worship or hate him. In the end, J. D. Black, along with everyone else in the Outer Alliance, had done what came naturally—she followed him.
And now he was gone, and the whole mess had somehow ended up in her lap. Technically, she was a fleet admiral who reported to a grand admiral—a superior officer in every sense of the word. Joshua Sinclair was her direct boss and the Defense Secretary and a Cabinet Minister, all of which gave him greater authority. But none of that meant crap.
J.D.’s recent orders to return to Ceres had been the proof of that. She’d been on her way to find and destroy the bastards who’d murdered her friends at the asteroid community of Alhambra when the mission was unexpectedly called back. Turns out it would have been impossible for her to execute. Not militarily, but rather politically. Janet hated thinking that way, but it was true. Aside from Sinclair’s direct order, she’d also received numerous back-channel communiqués from every major political and economic leader in the Alliance. Normally, she would’ve paid them scant attention, much less read them. After all, Sinclair’s order had been, with admittedly some objection on J.D.’s part, good enough. But J.D.’s trusted adjunct, Marilynn Nitelowsen, had impressed upon her boss the need for political savvy—if only for a short while, during the crisis—and responding to the communiqués had been a start. Janet didn’t know why she’d bothered. After all, they pretty much asked the same thing: When are you getting back to Ceres, and can you get here sooner? The government had been in a panic, which unchecked, had spread outward at an alarming rate. And now it was believed that only J. D. Black, hero of the Alliance, warrior goddess of victory, and reassuring voice in the heat of battle, could somehow manage to right the listing ship. She wanted to gag.
It was agreed that she’d send her number two, Omad Hassan, to deal with the murderers. It took J.D. a few days to get back to Ceres, and things, she soon found, had indeed gone to hell in a handbasket. The asteroid belt had cracked at the 180, its midpoint, and she couldn’t do a thing about it. Her precious Christina Sadma, an invaluable military asset, trusted friend, and an admiral generally loathed by the United Human Federation, was trapped at the asteroid fortress of Altamont. Worst of all, the Alliance’s leader and moral center, Justin Cord, was dead. J.D.’s initial assessment upon return was that there was little, if anything, she could do about it—especially as a glorified hand-waving benchwarmer on Ceres. And yet she couldn’t deny the palpable effect she had when appearing in public. Whether in front of a street urchin or before a powerful congressional committee, the effect, she noted, was always the same—the panic and fear would dissipate almost immediately. She was glad to offer them the respite, even if the power therein scared the hell out of her.
J.D. heard the door open behind her. Even though she trusted her guards implicitly, she turned around to see who’d entered. After all, she thought, Justin had trusted his guards too. The intruders, she mused, turned out to be a threat, just not to her physical safety.
“Good morning, Mr. Secretary, Congresswoman,” said J.D., getting up from her chair.
Eleanor McKenzie extended her hand. “That’s Congresswoman-Elect.” Eleanor was wearing a formal gray two-and-a-half-piece suit garnished with flecks of color, and a non-distinct matching blouse: standard government fare. Though Eleanor was well past a century, only the depth of her eyes and reserved half smile bespoke a true age greater than the forty years she was currently presenting. She had also cut her once long, amber blond hair into a short crop. But other than that, noted J.D., it was still the same woman with the same mellifluous voice and strikingly firm handshake.
“I don’t get sworn in till this afternoon,” pointed out Eleanor, acknowledging J.D.’s equally firm grip with a slight bow.
“We were hoping you’d attend,” urged Mosh, too peremptorily for Janet’s liking. Mosh, she noticed, hadn’t changed much at all: still bald, still presenting in his late forties, and still ornery. As a former board member of GCI, the largest corporation in history, and now the current Treasury Secretary, Eleanor’s husband was a powerful figure in the Alliance and, therefore, used to getting his way. There was no love lost between him and J.D.; they were adversaries before Justin arrived and turned everyone’s world upside down. But as the adage went, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” and Hektor Sambianco, President of the UHF and bane of the Alliance, had made a lot of enemies.
“The people,” argued Mosh, “should see that our government’s still functioning.”
“Oh, is it, now?” J.D. asked, eyebrow cocked.
“—and,” pressed Mosh, refusing to take the bait, “you and I both know that your presence will certainly help.”
“So,” J.D. scoffed, “you need my blessing.” She shook her head in disbelief.
“Yes, Janet,” replied Mosh—being one of the few who’d known her long enough to address her on a first-name basis. “That is exactly what we need.”
“Where does it stop, Mosh?” blared J.D. “Am I to christen every ship, cut the ribbon at every porta-potty?”
“Don’t get smart with me, Janet. You and I—”
Eleanor placed a firm hand on her husband’s shoulder, shooting him a cease and desist glance. She then set her gaze on J.D. “I would want you to be there regardless, dear, but whether you like it or not, Mosh is correct. Your presence will help with my new and more experienced colleagues, and frankly I could use all the help I can get.”
J.D.’s upper lip twitched. She finally nodded her head more in defeat than in acceptance. Something about Eleanor reminded her of Fawa Hamdi, the woman who’d sheltered her when she’d first arrived in the Belt and the same woman who’d helped her find faith in God. Both Eleanor and Fawa had a mothering or perhaps even a smothering quality, mused J.D., that made resistance almost futile.
J.D. inclined her head. “Of course I’ll come.”
Eleanor smiled approvingly. “Thank you, dear.”
“Speaking of swearing-in ceremonies…” began Mosh.
Eleanor’s even gaze returned. “This is neither the time nor place, dear.”
J.D. remained silent, preferring the matter be closed without her intercession, and with Eleanor as an ally, she was quite confident it would be.
“The President,” said Mosh, choosing to ignore the forces aligned against him, “is dead, and in case either of you missed it, we do not have a successor. So this is most definitely the time. As for the place—” Mosh did a quick and purposeful scan of the Triangle Office. “—we will not find one better. I actually thought you came here because you were ready to accept what must be done.”
J.D. brought up her hand to rub the scarred half of her forehead. “I came here,” she said, voice raised in anger, “to … to say good-bye.” She glanced over her shoulder at the desk, then back to Mosh and Eleanor.
“I keep expecting him to be here. I know he’s gone. I’ve read the reports and talked with the commanding officers leading the search. The overall probability is he perished with the rest of the Nerid station. But every time that door opens”—her eyes focused on the space behind Mosh and Eleanor—“I expect him to be here. I expect to hear his always sarcastic, ‘J.D., so glad you could make the time to talk with your commander in chief.’”
Mosh and Eleanor let out a laugh tinged with sadness.
J.D. once again looked over at the chair. “I’m not supposed to be here.”
“You’re the only one who’s supposed to be here … the only one who can be here,” insisted Mosh.
Desperation and agitation crossed her face like leaves tossed to and fro by the wind. “What about Sinclair?” she blurted.
“Saturnian,” thwarted Mosh, “and therefore not acceptable to the Jovians. Plus the rest of the Alliance doesn’t really know him well enough to trust him—not in a time like this.”
Mosh shook his head. “Besides being Jovian which makes the Erisians and Saturnians nervous, the rest of the Alliance knows about him all too well.”
J.D.’s lips parted wide enough to reveal her clenched teeth. “I can’t believe I’m suggesting this, but … what about you?”
Mosh was taken aback. It was clear he hadn’t bothered to add himself to his own list.
“She must be desperate, dear,” joked Eleanor.
Mosh smiled thinly at his wife then turned towards J.D. “I’d like to think I’m President material, Janet. Damsah knows I’ve been in the thick of it longer than most.” Mosh, they both knew, wasn’t only referring to his current job, but also to his previous one on the board of GCI.
“You’re also from Earth,” added J.D., a glimmer of hope discernible in her voice, “like Justin and me, so all the provincial crap you’re talking about goes away.”
“Yes, Janet, all well and true. But for the fact that I’m the effective head of the Shareholder faction, you might’ve had a leg to stand on. A faction,” explained Mosh, “that is now in the minority and as such would be completely unacceptable to the NoShares.”
J.D.’s shoulders dropped slightly and her body deflated as she absorbed the truth of Mosh’s words. She also realized that Eleanor hadn’t stopped him—a tacit approval of his line of reasoning.
“But enough of what we already know,” asserted Mosh. “The Alliance doesn’t have the time for you to accept the inevitable. The Cabinet has been granted a writ of executive authority for two weeks. The only reason that compromise was acceptable to the Congress was because I made it known that you were going to be present at all the Cabinet meetings.”
“But I can’t possibly—”
“I know that, Janet,” agreed Mosh, interrupting. “Hell, they even know that. But under the guise of your needing time to acquaint yourself with the issues, everyone’s quiet—for now. But at the end of that time, Congress will choose a new President, and it will be you. There’s simply no one else. You must assume this office, Janet. It’s either that or we sue for peace right now.”
J.D. glared at Mosh but there was little if any fire left in her eyes. “I can’t win from behind this desk,” she insisted, “You know that and I know that.”
Mosh nodded, resigned.
“And now you want me to sit here, hold hands … maintain coalitions?”
“And have this face,” chided J.D., pointing at her mangled features, “kissing babies?”
“Yes, Janet. That’s exactly what we want.” Mosh looked over to his wife for support.
Despite both Mosh’s and J.D.’s furtive glances to the Congresswoman-Elect, Eleanor remained stubbornly silent, offering help to neither.
“What about Trang?” proffered J.D., referring to the UHF’s greatest and most disruptive admiral. “Have you given any thought to that? He’ll be here as soon as he’s done with the 180. And when he comes, it’ll be to finish this war.”
Mosh nodded, shifting uncomfortably in place.
Sensing a rope, J.D. grabbed for it. “I know I can beat him, Mosh. Do we have anyone else who can?”
“No,” he admitted grudgingly.
“Well, then,” she demanded, thumb pointing over the back of her shoulder towards Justin’s desk, “how do you propose I do it from there?”
Mosh buried his hands in his pockets, frowning. “I don’t have that answer. But you and I also know that we can’t win this war unless you’re behind that desk.”
The standoff was interrupted by the sound of door chimes—a relic Justin had insisted on for all his rooms. For all three present, it was yet another painful reminder of their leader’s absence. It took a moment for J.D. to realize that both Mosh and Eleanor were waiting quietly. Whether on purpose or by unconscious design, they were already forcing J.D. to exercise authority where she felt none should exist. Irritably, she leaned over the desk and stared into the holodisplay. Her annoyance was tempered by whom the display showed to be waiting on the other side of the door—her personal chaplain, Brother Sampson. His dress uniform made her realize that she’d lost track of the time.
She opened up the communications panel. “Already?” she asked softly.
Mosh and Eleanor both noticed the change in her demeanor.
Brother Sampson nodded. “Yes, Admiral. Lieutenant Nitelowsen has your dress uniform waiting for you in a secure room near the landing bay.”
“I’ll be right out.”
The brother bowed slightly.
While her present company bided their time, J. D. Black allowed a quick sigh and closed off the display. Then, with an effort of will, she straightened her posture, left the Triangle Office, and walked into her future.
Copyright © 2011 by Dani Kollin and Eytan Kollin