Commander Cassandra Kresnov has her hands full. She must lead an assault against the Federation world of Pyeongwha, where a terrible sociological phenomenon has unleashed hell against the civilian population. Then she faces the threat from a portion of League space known as New Torah, in which a ruthless regime of surviving corporations are building new synthetic soldiers but taking the technology in alarming directions.
On the Torahn world of Pantala, Sandy encounters betrayal, crisis, and conspiracy on a scale previously unimaginable. Most challenging of all, she also meets three young street kids who stir emotions in her she didn't think she was capable of. Can the Federation's most lethal killer afford unexpected sentiment? What will be the cost if she is forced to choose between them and her mission, not only to her cause, but to her soul?
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23 YEARS ON FIRE
A CASSANDRA KRESNOV NOVEL
By Joel Shepherd
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2013 Joel Shepherd
All rights reserved.
Ari tried to avoid Kobayashi Square; there were too many monitors. He walked from the rail station about the square perimeter instead, down Jin-Hai Street and across Pier, grateful the traffic monitors weren't set to bust a person for jaywalking.
It was cold in Anjula, several below freezing, but if he walked fast and kept his woolen hat down over his ears, he found it bearable. There was old snow on the curbs, tucked in the places the sweepers missed, or in sidewalk gardens where grass or shrubs tried to grow. All quite odd for a Tanushan, accustomed to that city's tropical location on planet Callay, and temperatures that rarely chilled even on winter nights. He was missing the warmth now, as the prospect of returning to it drew closer. Six months now he'd been without it, stuck here on the outer rim of Federation space, in this sprawling port city built foolishly too far south of the equator.
But in other ways, Anjula was not too different. The night streets buzzed with artificial colour, advertising hoardings, network displays, bars and theatres advertising their latest sin. People crowded the sidewalks, unbothered by the chill, some of the women even with light stockings and otherwise bare legs that Ari shivered just to look at. Here about Kobayashi Square, where transport networks clustered and VR simulation joints were famous, the crowds were sometimes huge. Tonight, they were just large—a Sunday, in the universal Federation week. In a few hours, the crowds would dwindle further. Monday was a work day and by midnight, Anjula's ten-million-strong buzz would have declined to a low murmur. Fewer people were better, for what was planned, however little sympathy he had for them.
It was the most surreal thing, to walk these streets of a huge city, on a world whose population now approached a neat three hundred million, and to know that he was about to bring it all crashing down. Well, not him alone, he'd have help. Quite a lot of help, in fact. But it had been his idea from the inception, several years planning, and lately six months of field work. And none of these people, out on their Sunday night entertainments, had any idea what was about to happen.
Sandy knew she'd hit atmosphere when the aeroshell ceased shaking. That was odd—typically reentry was a fiery affair at nearly thirty thousand kilometers per hour, but a covert insertion fired thrusters before atmospheric contact, slowing the pod to a near hover, then hit troposphere at just over five thousand, barely fast enough to make a jolt in whisper thin air. Otherwise, a series of coordinated fireballs over Anjula might have made the defences suspicious.
After two minutes of falling, she blew the shell off and took a look at where she was. The altimeter said sixty thousand meters, well high enough to see the curvature of Pyeongwha's horizon, if it hadn't been pitch black. She was descending somewhere in excess of Mach two, the air not thick enough to sustain a candle flame even if the howling gale wouldn't blow it out again. She flipped her helmet visuals to ultra-v and got some lovely colours—hot lights below, cities along a crescent-shaped coast. That was Narata, an island, perhaps a thousand kilometers end to end. Upon the far horizon, more lights—Abanda, the mainland continent. Anjula was on Narata, off the coast; a big port city, ideal for a world surfaced eighty percent by water. Its lights below were brightest, sprawling up the coast into fragmenting smaller dots: fishing towns, villages, seaside resorts. Too cold for bikinis now, though.
Spread-eagled, she looked up and around for her support. Helmet vision found them pretty fast, dark shapes falling against an even darker sky, the nearest just over a kilometer. Sandy did a slow spin and finished her count at fifty-two ... there were fifty-six in the drop, she imagined the other four were fine, helmet visuals weren't as reliable as her bare eyes, but at this altitude she had no other option. Reentry trajectories were notoriously unreliable, a few random atmospheric interactions and you could end up tens of kilometers from where you should be. But the shadow crew that had inserted them had got it down to something of an art, and in free fall you could always correct your descent once unshelled.
She did so now, leaning forward to create a glidepath. Spread across the night sky about her, armoured figures followed her lead.
At thirty thousand meters Anjula was filling her view, patchy with broken cloud. She called up maps and overlaid them, quickly getting a match. From there, navcomp told her what was what, and she'd been committing most of Anjula to memory for the last few weeks. She could laser com her teammates to talk to them without frequency pollution, but Anjula was said to be paranoid enough these days, and a network of low intensity lasers above the city might just be visible enough to the kind of telescope that paranoids might have down there. It was nearly impossible for them to spot the suits, though, armoured with Tanusha's latest stealth materials plus low-intensity opti-cam, not strong enough to turn a soldier invisible at close range, but black against a black sky? Even if a telescope did get very lucky and spot one of them, they were coming down so fast now they'd be grounded before anyone figured out what to do about it.
Ten thousand meters. The central parks were clear now, a chain of natural lakes left untouched by the encroaching sprawl of city. North, Taizhou hills. South, Xanh Harbour, and big docks for shipping, intricate shapes against the water. Not a planned pattern of hubs and spokes like Tanusha, but an organic, random mass. Ari said it was quite pretty.
She passed an airliner at five thousand meters and climbing, and counted several more below, circling toward one of the two major airports. Below that, even now at an hour after midnight, lots of city air traffic. Anjula was big enough that it never truly slept, just dozed.
At two thousand meters she got her first signal reception, a mass of short-range frequencies, strengthening as she fell. Bandwidth increased rapidly, and she sorted fast until her suit latched onto the agreed upon network—an ultra-band used primarily for uplink advertising, nearly unjammable. Trust the advertisers to pick that one while leaving the hospitals with low-band junk.
"Come on, Ari," she murmured, as the ground rushed up fast. "Be there." Suddenly, she found the encryption. Flash-zoomed on internal vision, saw a mass of codework and interlocking structural components that could only be Ari, with open gates just waiting for the right mate-up ...
She provided it, and with a flash she was in, and a broad network across the entire city of Anjula blew open before her like an unfurling flag. One thousand meters. She chose a building roof and aimed for it, as her teammates appeared in quick succession upon the new network—tacnet was propagating now, using the Anjula advertising frequency as its operating base, and so much faster than usual as it found Ari's little markers and built on them like some crazed climbing vine on a trellis.
At five hundred meters the thrusters kicked, which felt a little odd at these speeds, but she quickly found her balance and settled down toward the rooftop. She kicked harder a hundred meters up, decelerating from two hundred to fifty kph at impact, and jogged quickly to the edge for a view. The building was only fifteen stories, there wasn't a heck of a lot of super high-rise in Anjula, just masses and masses of middle-rise fading out to suburbs. She was two blocks from the southern-most central park, perhaps two Ks from downtown, and almost exactly where she wanted. Her eyes told her that she was all alone, and none of the sparse traffic on the road below had seen her descent. If it weren't for tacnet, she could have believed she were just a lonely soul on a lonely rooftop in a cold and unfamiliar city.
About the city, her soldiers were landing. Tacnet showed them down, reporting ready. Surely somewhere, someone would notice the small thruster flare and report something ... a note to a friend, a video recording, a query to an authority. Ari would be watching that, patched into all the local comnets, sifting traffic for telltale phrases or images. So far, nothing. Sandy looked, but even with her enhanced vision, she could see nothing across the jumble of rooftops.
Tacnet showed the last unit down, fifty-six plus her.
"This is Snowcat," she said. "First wave target and lock."
Ari and his local network of rebels had selected the first wave of targets. Pray he got them all right. Sandy activated the suit's launcher, allowed tacnet to allocate her its share of the targets, then waited for the final locks to come in. They did.
Three missiles leaped over her shoulder, then kicked away as primary thrusters activated. They zigzagged like crazed fireflies, weaving across the rooftops. Now she could see her team's presence in Anjula, tiny bright dots appearing across the skyline like illegal fireworks on Chinese New Year. They wove and dodged, headed for targets at a variety of ranges, never aiming at what their launcher was closest to, confusing the defences. Micro-munitions, a recent addition to Callay's production lines, barely bigger than a fist, but fast, accurate and nothing micro about the charge.
She could see the flashes before she heard the booms, casting shadows in the night. They multiplied, random flares, then the sound waves struck with familiar, hypnotic resonance. Boom, b-boom, b-b-b-BOOM, boom. For a moment, it was like being back on Sao Joaquin, watching the latest Federation counter attack roll through. But she was the Federation now, and this fight was to liberate a world, not take it.
BOOM! Something struck just up the road, a fireball rising and debris raining down. A com node, possibly, the fibre links were underground but wireless transmitters were on rooftops like this one, as were backup satellite links and first-redundancy laser com relays. They whittled Anjula's communications down, limiting options, reducing response times and creating confusion. Now the defence grids would be activating. Time to move.
She unshackled her rifle and jumped; thrusters kicked her into a low flight over the next buildings until a nice corner building loomed up with a rooftop garden. Toward the parks she could see huge fireballs rising, those would be defensive gun emplacements, secondary explosions as the ammunition cooked off. Further north, behind the tall towers of city centre, more big explosions. Parliament defences and government buildings. There would be collateral from those explosions and others, mostly civilian. It couldn't be helped.
Tacnet was slotting them in to secondary targeting now, armscomp found her one and she fired a missile as she landed, with no real interest in where it went. She ducked amidst garden trees and took a knee with a view.
Tacnet was incorporating the local network now, and she could hear/see/ feel the local traffic going crazy. Perhaps a million calls to emergency services, media networks abruptly going live, police, hospitals, fire departments ... and no doubt security services too, but those weren't on any accessible network. Or, not yet.
"Okay, I'm getting a CNS response, very active, all units standby."
That was Ari, tracking Central Network Security as it tried to lock its own tactical networks into place. There was no way of knowing exactly where they propagated from until they went active.
"I have police on the streets at A-35 by H-16," came another, as tacnet immediately located that grid reference and highlighted it. "Multiple vehicles, looks like a convoy."
"Don't hit it unless it's para," came Vanessa's reply. She was only coming online now, her tacnet functions took longer to propagate, leaving the first "fire" command to Sandy. But now, she was in charge. "Police just cause confusion."
If they're not equipped for this sort of fighting. Most weren't. They'd run the simulations many times, and Sandy concurred—they were actually more use alive. Emergency services, too. Sandy would have vetoed shooting at them, anyhow. Yet, happily, fire trucks blocking the roads served every purpose except the defence of Anjula.
"Airborne at C-9 and V-3. Unspecified security vehicle."
And so it went. Pyeongwha security would go red now, but they weren't equipped for this kind of assault; it would take them time to get assets in the right positions to be effective. In the meantime, Sandy had a facility building to reach. She couldn't head straight in because Ari thought the network defences were too advanced, and could be degraded through phase one of the assault. Give it a half hour, he insisted, and he'd have her a path inside.
Ari sat in Moon's residence and observed the chaos. Moon sat alongside, working multiple display screens and VR uplinks at once, Hideger beside him. Across Anjula, they had a network of perhaps a hundred—rebels, activists, hackers, local Anjulans and other Pyeongwhanians pissed at the system. They'd planned this for months, some of them years, and a few, decades. Now it was finally on.
Beyond the windows were flashes of light, and shockwaves that shook the glass. Power flickered and restored, and air traffic shrieked overhead as flight control sent vehicles low on emergency lanes to escape the field of fire. A pointless measure; civvie aircars were hardly the target.
Conversations clamoured in Ari's ears, network operators locked into their various infiltrations, attacking security barriers, police communications, primary information channels. Two minutes ago an old fashioned TV network had attempted to go live from a building top, only to lose uplink feed a moment later, from hacking or explosions. VTS, the government network, had crossed to live broadcast a minute later, only to receive a warhead through their studio window, then static. Who had authorised that strike, Ari didn't know. Things were happening too fast, target assignments flashing new onto tacnet by the second.
He let the team do their job. There would be plenty of time for recriminations later. He was after bigger fish.
"Okay, here they come," he declared, watching the network defences spiral out from hardpoints along the com grid. The major institutions knew they were under attack. They'd have a defence plan to seek out the infiltrators, erase their networks and if possible, discern a physical location so their SWAT teams could take them out. That could mean a warhead landing in his lap, or anyone's lap, at any time. "I'm running counter, let's see if this works."
His counter measures were packages inserted covertly into various supposedly high security com nodes. Those com nodes now relayed attacks from Anjula's security institutions, unaware they were feeding data on their composition straight back to Ari. Within seconds he had an array of network points highlighted for tacnet. A simple publish sent them through.
"Hello Jailbait, I'd like these dead, yesterday if possible."
Vanessa wouldn't bother replying, and didn't, but after a pause of a few seconds he saw a new cascade of orange and white flashes across the urban horizon, and a whole series of network lines abruptly died. Then the sound reached him, a thunder like stampeding elephants, shaking the windows and walls.
"Dude, those are some fireworks!" Moon announced, wide eyed, as fingers flew across his interface.
Some of those security networks had used servers that weren't in reinforced locations. Some were in office buildings, where micro-munitions could surgically remove single or multiple offices, and all hardware within. Network barriers that could be snuck past when no one was looking, but were impossible to simply tear down by hacking alone, now disappeared. It was cheating, of course—hackers were supposed to hack barriers, not simply destroy their mainframes. But he'd ceased to be a simple hacker a long time ago, and now played by different rules.
"Good work," he said. "I've got barriers down all over the place ... team, let's get inside before they transfer functions and reestablish."
Now it was a genuine fight. Sandy's target was beyond the CBD, by the northern edge of the most northerly park. She'd not wanted to land closer—confusion was a part of the assault plan, and that region was heavily guarded. But now, she had a trek ahead of her.
Excerpted from 23 YEARS ON FIRE by Joel Shepherd. Copyright © 2013 Joel Shepherd. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Sandy has matured in the five years since volume three of the Cassandra Kresnov chronicles. She is well-loved as well as still hated by some on Callay. Now for the first time she must venture outside what is now her home world, onto the galactic stage, with fascinating results. With this fourth volume Sandy’s story keeps growing and maturing, along with her. Plenty of action, of course, but a blossoming understanding of Sandy and her friends as well. Some of whom are some of the more than 50 high-designation GIs who’ve realized that the Federation is a better home for them than the League. We also get a better look the complex milieu in which she lives. This is science fiction that I keep looking for - about a future strange and terrible and wonderful all at the same time, yet so well-thought-out and realistic that it seems as if Shepherd’s worlds really are out there. Joel Shepherd is at the very top of the sci-fi writing world. I look forward eagerly to his every new book.
Joel Shepherd has the gift of combining political intrige, military operations, hi tec sci fi and just plain good story plot lines into a non stop reading. This stand alone story stands by itself on its own merits but is even better when combined with the story line of the previous novels. His characters are emersive and you want to learn more about them and their interactions between each other and how they react to the situations they find them selves in. I find the main character Cassandra an intriguing person and her development into the person that she has become and continues to evolve into as good as anything I have read from many others in over 50 years. I have read all the other novels in this series and am always anxious for the next. I highly recommend them to all.
Good read but should read the first 3 books first. Looking forward to the next one in Feb.
Another in the series. The first three were great. A worthwhile purchase and read even though I don't particularly like the large size book.