Friday, September 19, 2008

Killswitch by Joel Shepherd

Chapter One

The day was turning out nothing like Sandy had planned. But she was getting used to that.

“What kind of sabotage?” She was seated in the command chair of a brand-spanking-new A-9 assault flyer. Past the pilot’s head, the bubble canopy afforded her a decent aerial view of gleaming, sunlit Tanusha. She listened to the reply over her headset with little surprise. “No, don’t bother Secretary Grey, I’ll have the President’s ear personally in a few minutes. Get me Captain Reichardt as soon as he’s available.”

She deactivated, and swivelled her command chair away from the bank of multiple screens to tap the pilot, Gabone, on the helmet.

“How are you finding the interface?” she asked him.

“It still makes me a little dizzy, Commander,” Gabone replied.

“Don’t push it, it takes a while to adjust, even for me.”

“I’ll be okay,” Gabone replied with confidence, casually flipping a few switches on the compact control panel, tipping them into a gentle starboard bank. “It’s worth anything to have this much firepower.”

Sandy gazed at the Presidential convoy, strung out before them in single file above the vast, sprawling cityscape of Tanusha. Gabone’s view, she knew, would be overlaid with target highlights and trajectory-­prediction graphics, time-accelerated in the pilot and weapon officers’ brains by the fancy interface with the flyer’s computer systems. About her, the A-9’s cramped, streamlined hull packed enough precision weaponry to take out the entire convoy in several seconds, had its crew chosen to. Just two years ago, such weaponry had been unheard of in Tanushan skies. But two years in Tanusha had been a long time indeed.

Sandy monitored her screens, her own mental interface scanning across vast swathes of metropolitan info-network with much greater ease than Gabone, or any other regular human, could ever experience. The patterns she saw across Tanusha were familiar—the Callayan Defence Force sweepers flying in wide and forward defensive patterns, as always the case when the President or another similarly ranked foreign dignitary moved. The usual security walls about the approaching Parliament grounds, and the distant Gordon Spaceport. Several security hotspots where ongoing operations warranted extra cover. One such caught her eye, emanating from a particularly high volume of traffic. A further brief scan showed her several ambulances had been called. Velan Mall, a major shopping and entertainment centre...she zoomed further into the schematic within her internal vision. Sim Craze, the establishment was called. A further scan of the local established tac-net registered a lot of civilian com traffic, lots of alarmed voices. Evidently something had perturbed the locals.

She restrained a faint smile, dialing into the tac-net with her command signature fully visible, hardly surprised that someone had ended up in an ambulance, considering who was in charge. Her query got a familiar reply.

“Hi, smartarse, I hope you’re happy.” Vanessa’s voice sounded a little strange, muffled. Sandy frowned.

“Are you eating? You sound like you’re talking with your mouth full.”

“That’s ’cause my nose is busted!”

“You got hit?”

“What, that surprises you? They’re goddamn Fleet marines, you blonde bimbo. They didn’t want to leave quietly and we’re not all indestructible like you, in case you hadn’t noticed . . .”

“Ricey, I’m sorry.” She injected a note of winsome apology into her voice...oh, the little subtleties she’d learned in her short life as a civilian. “I sent you because you’re the best, and I thought they might have better manners than trying to flatten a cute little button like you.”

“Yeah, well their squad sergeant was a cute little button herself, so chivalry was out of the question.”

“What’s the score?”

“She’ll be okay once they wire her jaw back into place. Two of the others will need a leg reconstruction and a new left elbow respectively, young Chanderpaul got a little overexcited. I think a week on training sims will calm him down.”

“Never fault enthusiasm.”

“It was six against four, I wasn’t in a sporting mood. With those numbers it wasn’t called for.”

“Well, okay, nice work, get back to Medical and get your nose fixed.”

“Gee, where would I be without your sage advice? Thank you for royally ruining my day.”

“Oh go on, you’ve been itching to pick a fight with some Fleet knuckleheads for weeks.”

“When I want a busted nose, I’ll ask for one.”

The connection went blank. Sandy sighed, and wondered for the ten thousandth time if she’d ever have the quiet, peaceful life she’d once dreamed of.

The assault flyer followed the Presidential convoy down over the grassy green Parliament grounds, Alpha Team security aircars fanning out ahead as the main cluster came in toward the huge, red-brown structure of domes and arches. Sandy had flown this approach route many times in the past two years, but still it gave her a shiver of deadly memories. If she strained her vision toward the Rear Wing, she knew she would see a memorial garden where a service carpark used to be, colourful native plants and flowers in profusion about the shattered wreck of an Alpha Team aircar, the names of seventy-two dead inscribed into one red-brown Parliament wall. Sandy’s uplinks locked into the Parliament tac-net, the entire regional airspace monitored and scanned by the millisecond, the full span clearly visible across her internal vision. The CDF assault flyer and the convoy vehicles broadcasted friendly frequencies clearly into that hair-triggered airspace, their electronic signature and careful human monitoring the only things preventing them from being instantly blasted from the sky by the weapon emplacements strategically located about the grounds.

Sandy began unhooking herself from the command connections and undoing the chair straps as the flyer came in behind the Alpha Team formation, the East Wing rooftop landing pads approaching ahead, small beside the looming central dome.

“I’m clear,” she told Gabone, securing her ops headset and removing her rifle from rack storage behind the chair. “Wait for me at holding point five, you’re too conspicuous up here.”

“Commander,” came the weapon officer’s voice from the front cockpit seat, “we have a large group of journalists by the platform. That’s not in accordance with . . .”

“I know, I saw them. Don’t get bored waiting, this isn’t a drill.”

The rear fuselage doors cracked open, bringing a rush of wind and light into the cramped flyer interior. Sandy one-armed the rifle and made her way along the aisle on past the empty trooper berths in the back. The rooftop pads appeared below as the doors flared fully outward, and she stepped out before touchdown, taking the impact comfortably with a half-spin, slowing from a run to a walk as Gabone poured on the power with a roar of fan blades. The flyer lifted away from the Parliament roof, banking to avoid the huge central dome above Parliament’s main chambers. Sandy walked in the dissipating rush of slipstream, rifle ready, aware that no few of the Alpha Team security were staring as she came.

There were six armoured black aircars down on the pads, gull doors open, and men in suits with weapons gathered strategically about. Beyond, in the cordoned section of the rooftop behind a series of leafy plant boxes, a cluster of perhaps twenty journalists were waiting—no cameras, Sandy saw, just voice recorders and other communication or computer gear, camera access, like most things, being highly restricted within Parliament grounds these days.

President Neiland, accompanied by several of her closest advisors amidst the immediate “body security,” was walking toward the waiting media with an evident announcement on her mind. Sandy shook her head in exasperation, and spun a slow three-sixty as she walked, visually scanning the broad grounds, across the multiple wings to the giant Corinthian pillars of the Senate, allowing her subconscious to soak up the detail and seek possible clues. Nothing registered, and she strode firmly between the aircars and suited security toward the gathering cluster on the pad’s edge. No one stopped her, and she put a hand on the President’s shoulder just as she was about to start speaking.

“Ms. President, security has red-zoned all outdoor spaces for now, we really should get you inside.”

“Just a moment, Sandy, this won’t take long...”

“No, Ms. President. Now.”

Neiland stared at her, anger flashing in steely blue eyes within a pale, handsome face. Her red hair was bound up with fashionable pins and a comb, Sandy noted. Evidently she’d been intending to make an impressive appearance before the media, lack of cameras or otherwise. But it took more to intimidate a combat GI than angry eyes and a fancy title. Neiland covered the anger fast, all too aware of the audience. And, supremely professional politician that she was, turned it quickly into an exasperated smile and roll-of-the-eyes at the journalists.

“Very tenacious, isn’t she?” The journalists smiled.

And one of them took the opportunity to ask, “Commander, what’s the alarm this time?”

“No comment,” Sandy told him. And increased the pressure on Neiland’s shoulder by a fraction. Neiland got the message in a hurry—often the case, when Sandy started squeezing.

“Look, we can continue this inside...if that’s okay with you, Commander?” She said it with a smile, but Sandy wasn’t fooled.

“Sure.”

The contingent began to move, Sandy falling into place behind the President, where Alpha Chief Mitchel was walking. She took the opportunity to throw him a very dirty look. Further along, Vice-Chief Tan noticed, and gave a nod of agreement to her, with evident exasperation of his own, even as Mitchel tried to ignore her.

“I don’t care who started squeezing your balls,” she said to Mitchel later in the hall outside the room Neiland’s advisors had requisitioned for the impromptu press briefing. Mitchel evidently wanted to be elsewhere, but Sandy had his back to the wall and wasn’t about to lose the advantage. When the second-in-command of the Callayan Defence Force gave a lecture, even the head of the President’s personal security was obliged to stand and take it...unless, of course, he was itching to get “promoted” to training and recruitment. Sandy kept her expression hard, her eyes unblinking, her stare as direct as she could make it. She knew Mitchel was no pushover, either as a man or as a security operative, but still he looked a little nervous. “Where her security is in question, you take orders from no one. Your own fucking procedures say that you must follow every red-zone precaution, no exceptions. Since when do you start getting picky?”

“It was a weak report, Commander,” Mitchel retorted, with all the stubbornness that his hard jaw and sharp eyes suggested he could muster. “It was one witness, some scant information, no corroboration...”

“You are not an Intelligence agent. We’ve got an entire division of specialists whose job it is to make those decisions. Your job is to do what you’re told, and to implement their recommendations. Do I make myself clear?”

“You,” Mitchel bit out in retort, “are not my superior.”

“No, I’m much worse. I’m the President’s senior security advisor. My next report, in that capacity, will be on the alarming spread of political influence upon the promotions and policies within Alpha Team and other specialist security agencies. You don’t bend the rules for anyone, not the Speaker, not the Majority Whip, not Ms. Red-haired God Almighty herself. Another breach, and I’ll see that you lose your job. It’s that simple.”

Vice-Chief Tan was standing nearby, well in earshot of Alpha-­standard hearing enhancements. Sandy refrained from giving him an acknowledgement—dividing Alpha Team by setting second-in-­command against the Chief would be very dangerous. She walked to a clear space of corridor instead and waited with weapon at cross-arms for the President’s media briefing to finish, completely annoyed at how politics interfered with everything in this environment. Especially those things where it least belonged.

One of the President’s key advisors, Sudasarno, intercepted her before she could devote full attention to her remote links.

“Sandy, what was the red-zone for?” Sandy barely raised an eyebrow at the nickname—she’d been in constant contact with the President and her personal staff for the last two years, and felt they’d earned the informality. Until the shit hit the electro-turbine, anyhow.

“Small matter of a missing rocket launcher,” Sandy replied with no small irony. “Self-guided, several kilometres range, just the kind of thing that might penetrate the defence grid and blow her and her little knot of favourite journalists into very small pieces.”

“From our own stockpile?” Sudasarno asked with a pained look.

“Production line, actually.”

“Shit . . .” The advisor’s Indonesian features were pained, necktie loosened, his dark hair uncharacteristically rumpled. “We only started making that stuff since we started the CDF...”

“Plenty of weapons got in through the smuggling routes before...so these are indigenous, big deal.”

“It doesn’t look good.”

“That’s your problem, not mine,” she told him patiently. “I’ve told everyone what we need to keep our stockpiles safe, somehow the recommendations keep getting blocked in parts.”

“We’re suddenly an arms producer, Sandy. Callay’s never done that before, just two years ago we weren’t even allowed to have armed forces independent from the Fleet. We’re not good at all this stuff yet. Who stole the launcher?”

Sandy shook her head. “My source doesn’t know.”

Sudasarno gave her a wary, knowing look. “Yeah, well tell your source he’d better have some leads soon, because the press are going to be asking why you dragged the President away from an interview like that.”

“Because certain political influences interfered with her supposedly politically invulnerable security.” She fixed Sudasarno with a mild, firm stare. Sudasarno sighed, and stared momentarily off into space, in profound frustration.

“It never gets any easier around here, does it?”

Sandy restrained a faint smile. “Shit, you’re telling me?”

Alpha Team were moving past them then, the door opening behind and Neiland emerging, flanked by several other advisors.

“Sandy,” said the President, “with me, if you please.”

Sandy fell in beside the elegant, long-legged President, pondering not for the first time the contrast in styles they made, herself shorter and broad shouldered in khaki-green CDF fatigues. The President’s heels clacked as they walked. Sandy’s boots barely squeaked.

“Damn it, Sandy,” the President said in a low voice, temper still plain in her voice, “never do that in front of the media. Do I make myself clear?”

“Ms. President, never put pressure on your Alpha Chief to break with protocol for your day-to-day convenience. Do I make myself clear?”

“Fuck it all,” the President muttered, “I knew there had to be a downside to making you Commander.” Sandy raised an eyebrow—the President’s swear words were usually limited to the tamer variety. If the f-word was in use, things were bad.

“There’s a rocket launcher missing,” Sudasarno explained from the President’s other side. Neiland sighed.

“Another one? I swear, Sandy, soon these crazies will be better armed than you are.”

“Unlikely. What was so important about that rooftop that it couldn’t wait a few minutes, anyway?”

“Sudie has evidence that some of my political opponents are misusing the building’s info-net.”

The lead Alphas turned a corner. The next hallway was wider with tiled patterns on the floor. Well-dressed Parliament staff made way as the Presidential procession passed by, a common enough sight in these corridors lately. Sandy frowned.

“Eavesdropping?” she asked, with a glance across at Sudasarno, who shrugged.

“Some information turned up in their possession that we don’t see any other way for them to have,” he explained. Them, of course, being the President’s political enemies. Who these days were too numerous and varied to count. Sandy thought about it for a moment.

“Ms. President, talk to me. I’m not your enemy. Coordinate with me in advance and we’ll clear a location and keep it private so no one has advance warning, terrorists or Progress Party alike.”

Neiland sighed, as if releasing stored tension. “Thank you, Sandy. I should have thought ahead, I’ve just...I’ve just been so damn busy. What else has been going on?”

“Another nine hospitalisations from fights with Fleet marines on leave from orbit...”

“Oh fuck,” said the President, wearily. Sandy nearly smiled.

“I wish they would just fuck,” she replied, “that’s usually the main pastime of grunts on leave. But the populace is giving them a hard time, apparently.”

“Damn it, we have a renegade mob of Fleet loyalists threatening to blockade our fucking stations, what do they expect?”

“We should have cancelled leave,” said Sudasarno.

“Would have caused another stink,” Sandy replied. “We’ve enough stinks with the Fleet already. The good news is that five of those hospitalisations are marines—one from a very angry kung fu blackbelt citizen, and the other four courtesy just now of Major Rice and some friends.”

“Why am I not surprised?” said Neiland. “Anything else?”

“Someone sabotaged the Mekong, took out the regulator controls for the thruster injection.”

Neiland actually stopped, and all Alpha Team stopped with her, plus Sandy, Sudasarno and the other advisors. The President stared at the CDF commander for a long moment.

“Seriously?” Sandy gave her a mock-reproachful tilt of the head. Neiland took a deep breath. “Damn. Captain Reichardt is not going to be happy.”

“There’s going to be a lot of captains leaning his way that will be unhappy.”

“That’s all we need,” muttered the President. “A fucking civil war between competing Fleet factions in orbit.”

“Ms. President, I’ve never heard you use such bad language so ­frequently.”

“Oh, stick it up your arse.”

The splendour of the Grand Congressional Hearings Chamber had not yet entirely worn off for Sandy. She sat in her usual place at the central bench, surveying the now-familiar line of faces that looked down on her from the two rows of grand benches opposite—the Union and Progress Party congressors. To her right, also as usual, sat Mahudmita Rafasan, in a typically elegant sari, scanning through various notes on her comp-slate at rapid speed. Audience members in their hundreds shuffled and murmured at the back of the chamber, the collective sound echoing off the chamber’s high, arching dome. Chandeliers gleamed within that vast mosque-style space and the dome’s tiled patterns and midlevel arches were marvellous to behold.

Chairman Khaled Hassan rang the little bell on the desk before him, and announced the proceedings open. Barely had he finished when Congressor Augustino, from the Union side of the benches, launched into action.

“Commander Kresnov, I believe your weapon is in contravention of the standing orders of this Chamber—section 142, I believe—stating that no weapons shall be allowed into the Chamber that are not in the possession of authorised security agents.”

Sandy leaned slightly forward to her desktop microphone, to make sure her voice carried upon the speakers throughout the Chamber. “I’m second-in-command of the Callayan Defence Force, Mr. Augustino. How much more authorised would you like me to get?”

There was a murmur of laughter through the audience behind, and noticeable smiles upon the faces of various Congressors. Sandy’s assault rifle, of course, lay upon the desk to her left hand—precisely where it belonged, in Sandy’s estimation. But Augustino, she knew, wasn’t the slightest bit interested in the Chamber’s standing orders. He had bigger fish to fry. Sandy-sized fish.

“Mr. Chairman,” said the conservative Congressor, “I’d like to register my complaint at this latest breach from the Commander. In her various appearances within this Chamber she has never failed to treat the Chamber standing orders with anything less than contempt. I think we can see another clear instance of this attitude here today.”

Khaled Hassan looked concerned, stroking his long white beard. And gave Sandy a patient look, inviting her to respond. Sandy smiled at him. She liked Hassan. Among politicians, it was a luxury she did not often allow herself to indulge in.

“Mr. Chairman, I’m a busy girl, I have a lot of official functions I’m trying to perform simultaneously. Foremost among them, I’m trying to get this novel experiment we call the Callayan Defence Force off the ground, in the face of some fairly stiff opposition from obvious sources. I also occasionally get out on official security duties, such as today, when I noticed the President’s arrival time would be approximately that of my own, and in light of some recent security alerts I decided to provide the usual CDF escort personally. Thus the weapon, as I am here in dual capacities. Don’t worry, the safety is on, and I am fairly well practised in its use.”

That got another laugh from behind. Typically, when confronted by politicians in such a setting making clearly inflammatory, opportunistic attacks before the global media, a person would be advised to remain calm, straight-faced and professional—and so allow the attacker’s unprofessionalism to backfire, in the eyes of those watching. Various political advisors and publicists, however, had decided that where she was concerned, too much professionalism was a bad thing.

They’d done polling, apparently. And had concluded that what scared people most about her, as a combat GI, was the image of a deadpan, unemotional, human-shaped killing machine. Smile, they’d told her. Be off-the-cuff. Keep it light, where ever possible. Oh, and try to do that while still reassuring the population that you’re perfectly well qualified to hold your present position. The two requests couldn’t have been more contradictory—she couldn’t be cheerful and caring while demonstrating her proficiency at managing the planet’s most lethal combat force. But, as in all impossible political situations, she tried...because of course, there was no other choice.

“Before we move on to procedural matters regarding the CDF, Commander,” began Congressor Selvadurai, another Union Party rep, “I’d like to get your response to the recent violent incidents between members of the Federation Fleet and the Tanushan public. Do you think that your inflammatory remarks regarding the nature of the Fleet presence about Callay at this moment have anything to do with the bad blood that evidently exists here?”

Sandy gazed at the Union rep, calm and unblinking. “Which inflammatory remarks would they be, Congressor Selvadurai?”

“You remarked that the Fleet presence about Callay was in fact a de facto blockade intending to intimidate Callay and other Federation worlds into granting concessions to Fleet hardliners.”

“I did say that it was a de facto blockade,” Sandy replied, “and in doing so, I was merely echoing remarks made by many others in this building and beyond, including my own President. If you check my exact words, you’ll find that I did not speculate as to the intent of the blockade. That is not my place.”

“But it is your place to provoke hostile feeling toward the Fleet within sections of the Callayan population by mischaracterising its actions in this manner?”

At Sandy’s elbow, Mahudmita Rafasan gave a snort of exasperation. Sandy spoke before things got ugly.

“Look, Congressor, we have a situation in orbit right now, I’m sure we’re all only too well aware of that. It is not my intention here today, nor at any other time, to make statements that may inflame the situation, or make things worse. But clearly the presence of leading elements of the Fifth Fleet at our various orbital facilities is unhelpful at best, and provocative at worst. The Fifth’s actions are not sanctioned by Federation law, nor by Fleet operating procedure under any circumstances that I am aware of...”

“Fleet Admiral Duong of the Fifth has stated many times, Commander,” interrupted Congressor Selvadurai, “that the present state of political flux on Callay places us in a precarious situation vis-à-vis our security. The leaders of approximately a quarter of the entire Federation are presently here, negotiating with our own President Neiland plus Earth’s senior representative in Secretary General Benale, to hammer out the new rules and workings of the Federation Grand Council now that it is just a year from being relocated permanently to our planet. We have indigenous and off-world extremist and other groups all focusing upon this world as the centre of their concerns. Our local security is improved but remains imperfect at best, and the degree of weaponry and sophisticated network technology available to these various sources of instability is truly alarming. Would you not say, Commander, that under these circumstances, Fleet Admiral Duong is perfectly correct to state that Callay’s security is in question, and in need of assistance?”

“Congressor, as second-in-command of the CDF, I’ve stated many times that we’ll take all the genuine help we can get. We’ve had many offers of assistance from friendly worlds who supported us in the referendum, who are staunch supporters of the relocation, and we truly welcome their contributions. We are strengthening our various security operations on the ground, Parliament and other dedicated security groups are vastly advanced on where they were two years ago, and the CDF gives us the extra punch we may need if faced with heavier weaponry than the police, the Callayan Security Agency or aligned security have the capability to handle. What we are not at risk from is an assault with warships from orbit. Or if we are, then I would suggest that (a) the Fleet should inform us immediately so we can make preparations, and (b) that they’d be an awful lot more effective defending us against that assault if they were to position themselves somewhere mid-system as is customary when defending against inbound attackers. They certainly won’t do any good snuggled up to our space stations with their noses clamped in dock.”

“Commander,” cut in Congressor Augustino, “we are at serious risk of being flooded by waves of militants, terrorists, foreign agents and sophisticated weaponry from around the Federation and beyond...” That’s right, Sandy thought, never miss a chance to raise the spectre of the League. “. . . and you don’t think it’s a good idea for our overworked station staff and customs to receive some help filtering all this inbound traffic?”

Sandy restrained an exasperated smile. “Sir, the Fleet are soldiers. Damn good ones, but soldiers nonetheless. They blow stuff up. Or they hold onto facilities to stop other people from blowing stuff up. They’re not customs officers, they’re not criminal investigators, they don’t have access to files on wanted persons, have limited experience in counter-smuggling, and wouldn’t know what the hell to do with any of this information if they received it. We have professionals up there in orbit right now, doing the jobs for which they are specifically equipped and trained, to the best of their considerable abilities.

“The one thing Callay is not yet particularly good at is security and the application of military or paramilitary force, although we are improving fast. The one thing we are remarkably good at is commerce. The customs requirements you are speaking of are a matter of bureaucratic commerce, Congressors—there have been plenty of restrictions on certain items of trade for a long time now, both for security, and commercial and legislative reasons. The commercial system has gotten pretty good at it, and now that the circumstances have changed to expand the number of prohibited items and persons, they’ve adapted marvellously. It’s a job for civilian workers in overalls or suits and ties. It’s not, and I’ll stress this, not a job for grunts with guns in armour. I’ve been a grunt myself, and by many measurements I still am. I recall that nothing irritated me more than being called upon to perform civilian tasks for which I and my people were neither equipped nor trained. Not only did I consider that unfair on us, I considered it unfair on the people we were attempting to serve.

“We didn’t ask for Fleet help, and we don’t need it. In fact, I’m having great difficulty getting a straight answer on exactly who did order the Fleet out here. And even more difficulty getting an answer on why there are also elements of the Third Fleet here as well, in the temporary command of Captain Reichardt of the warship Mekong, who are not participating in the activities of the Fifth, nor appear to be answerable to their leader in Admiral Duong. It’s obvious to all of us that the Fleet are not united on the question of the relocation. From my perspective in the CDF, such divisions only make the local security environment more precarious, not less. I personally would much prefer that they held their private disagreements well away from Callay, and let us all get on with our jobs.”

At Sandy’s side, Mahudmita Rafasan gave her a slightly bewildered, worried look. The look she’d given on various occasions before, when the newly appointed CDF Commander had overstepped the official line, and said things that weren’t polite. Well, screw it, she thought to herself, it was only one small faction that would be annoyed at her voicing such sentiments, anyhow. They happened to include the President...so that was a problem. But not rocking the boat was a part of any Presidential job description. There were many others, whom the President was presently resisting, who thought she should throw the book at Admiral Duong and his hardline captains. Federation law was on their side after all, whatever the increasingly isolated, alienated Earth majority thought about it...

“Commander Kresnov,” Congressor Augustino said angrily. “The great and honourable Federation Fleet is far too great an institution to be so easily divided, as you and various media scaremongers have been suggesting! It is only thanks to the heroic sacrifices made by the men and women of the Fleet that the war against the League was won, and all humanity saved from rampant techno-liberalism and political fragmentation and disintegration! I for one do not think that it is either right or fitting for a public figure in a position such as your own to be belittling that achievement, nor the honour and unity of the Fleet today!”

The only problem, Sandy continued her previous line of thought, was that the most outspokenly conservative wing of Callayan politics were all within the President’s own Union Party, like Augustino and Selvadurai. They were loud because they could afford to be. Praising the Fleet’s heroism was, she recalled Vanessa recently remarking, something of a motherhood statement—you praised it, and everyone nodded and applauded, and opponents could not possibly raise voices in protest because what politician could be against motherhood, and expect to win an election? The Fleet had until very recently been a sacred cow in Callayan politics. And she barely managed to restrain a smile at the memory of what her favourite media personality, Rami Rahim, had remarked just the other night on that subject—no longer a sacred cow, the Fleet was now more of a sacred goat. A mangy one with a limp, fleas and a bad case of flatulence. Any more incidents, and it might not be more than a sacred rat. Or one of those small winged insects that tried to bite beneath your collar at outdoor parties every summer...

“Congressors,” she said, in the calm and unhurried manner she assumed in the presence of people she didn’t respect, “since this part of my brief is to keep you all informed as to the ongoing security situation regarding the CDF, I think this could be a good time to overstep my bounds a little and relate to you the most recent news of all from orbit. Apparently the warship Mekong, commanded by Captain Reichardt of the Third Fleet, has been sabotaged.”

There was a deathly silence from the benches. Busy politicians simply weren’t in the loop for that kind of information...doubtless this was the first they’d heard. From the audience seats behind the ornately carved partition, there came a shifting and murmuring. Particularly from that part of the seating reserved for media.

“It happened at dock,” Sandy continued, “and was only reported to me half an hour ago. I have never been shipcrew, ships to me were just a means of transport when I was a grunt, so I don’t claim to be an expert on the matter, but from what I do know, such sabotage had to be carried out by someone with considerable expertise.”

“This was targeted sabotage?” asked Congressor Zhou, leaning forward on her bench with an expression of great concern. One of the Union Party right wing, and thus a staunch ally of Neiland’s. Sandy nodded. “Targeted to do what?”

“To disable the engines, possibly to force Mekong to conduct an extensive overhaul. It could have taken them out of action for weeks...although thankfully the problem was detected in the last systems check by Mekong’s engineers, preventing serious damage. Given the security of any warship at dock, during times of war or peace, it seems unlikely that the person responsible could have been anyone other than a member of the Fleet...particularly when you account for the expertise involved.

“My job in the CDF is to maintain Callay’s security. This task will become exceedingly difficult if we have warring Fleet factions docked to our stations in a state of political stand-off, without any clear idea of lines of command. I am particularly concerned about this, considering the present disorganisation in the Grand Council. There appears to be no effective civilian oversight at present to direct the Fleet in its actions. Fleet HQ is running the show entirely on its own, except that Fleet HQ appears to be divided.

“Furthermore, since the Grand Council began downsizing the Fleet following the conclusion of the war three years ago, we’ve seen clear evidence of a kind of political stacking going on within certain parts of the Fleet structure—particularly within the Fifth Fleet. As ships from other units have been mothballed, their crews are broken up and the most hardline, pro-Earth officers have been moved into the Fifth, filling gaps left by the departure of long-serving officers from other parts of the Federation who finally had a chance to go home. The Fleet has been warned of this development many times in the past, as has the Grand Council, but no action has been taken. And now we have Fifth Fleet marines on leave in Tanusha who seem more interested in picking fights with the local populace than they do with relaxing and having fun, as crews usually do during downtime.

“Ladies and gentlemen...I’m CDF. I have big guns and professional soldiers at my disposal. I can’t deal with civil disturbances. I can’t stop them blowing up into bigger political issues that inflame passions on all sides and only make the present state of negotiations far more precarious. These are political issues. Your issues. I can only sit here before you today, and ask that you recognise the increasing threat to Callayan security that these factors, in combination, create today.”

Ten minutes later, in response to an invitation, Sandy entered the waiting room to Senator Lautrec’s office. A man seated upon one of the stylish leather chairs, to the left of the Senator’s doors, caught her immediate attention. The man smiled as he saw her, and rose cordially to his feet, a hand extended in welcome, perfect white teeth flashing within a handsome African face.

“Commander.” His tone was deep, cultured, and very self-assured. Sandy stepped across and took the offered hand, eyeing Major Mustafa Ramoja up and down, warily. He looked good in his civvie suit. Although she’d often thought that attractive African men and women would look good in anything. No other race seemed to have that luxury. Not that Ramoja, a GI like herself, belonged to an actual race any more than she was the genuine, pale European she appeared to be. “Nice speech. How long until Krishnaswali chews your ear off for that one?”

“As soon as I step in his door,” Sandy replied, still warily. “They let you out of your cage. Why?”

Ramoja only smiled, well used to her casual provocations. “The Vice-Ambassador is inside. Senior Embassy staff are allowed to have GIs as bodyguards now. I appointed myself, naturally.”

“Naturally. I’m sure all your friends in the CSA were real thrilled to hear that.” Ramoja’s smile grew broader, and he nodded across the room. Sandy looked, and saw a man and a woman reading from comp-slates, trying to look inconspicuous. Groomed and clipped with athletic poise, and uplinked into some seriously encrypted network feeds, Sandy’s uplinks informed her, they weren’t about to fool anyone.

“I call them Number One, and Number Two,” Ramoja said smugly. “They vary, of course. Don’t worry, I shan’t hurt them. They’re very well behaved.” The two CSA agents could easily overhear, but remained expressionless.

Ramoja’s very existence had been a revelation to her, just two years before. A GI with a higher designation than her own. Until that moment, she had not been aware that there were such GIs in existence...although that assumption seemed fairly naive, in hindsight. He’d been commissioned by the League’s Internal Security Organisation, the ISO, based upon her own, somewhat controversial design, and the success it had attained. Well, before she’d proven a failure by defecting, anyway. Now, he was the ISO’s pointman on Callay, running out of the very heavily watched and defended League Embassy in downtown Tanusha. An enclave full of very capable League GIs, right in the heart of Tanusha, made no local officials happy. And in that particular piece of anti-GI xenophobia, Sandy was right there with them.

“Can I ask what business you have with Senator Lautrec?” Ramoja asked now, with a charming smile.

“You can,” said Sandy.

“More troubles with weapons procurement?”

“We’re having an affair,” Sandy said flatly.

“He’s one hundred and three.”

“Doesn’t look a day over seventy-five. The wrinkles grow on you.”

“That would be the only thing.”

“And what would the Vice-Ambassador’s visit be in aid of?” Sandy returned.

Ramoja made a vague gesture. “League Ambassadors are very popular these days. They get around.”

“So does herpes.”

“An amazingly resistant little virus.” Nothing, and no diversionary tactic, would ever leave Ramoja short of something to say. “Today’s strains would kill a pretechnology human rather quickly, I understand, so resistant they’ve become to everything we throw at them.”

Sandy made a face. “They have the galaxy’s most unstoppable delivery mechanism. STDs have always been the hardest bugs to kill. They spread so easily.”

Ramoja’s eyes flicked toward the office doors. “On top of centurian senators’ desks, one would believe.”

“The Afghan carpet, actually.” She shrugged. “It’s easier on his back.”

Ramoja smiled broadly. He’d been smiling quite a lot, lately, within the parameters of his usual clipped formality. As far as Sandy was aware, Tanusha was Ramoja’s first truly civilian posting. And it seemed to be working its spell on even him. There came voices from inside the Senator’s office, and the door handle turned—an aide emerging first, as the conversation wound up within. Sandy gave the major a bright smile.

“Well, it was entertaining as always,” she told him. “Until the next time.”

“Cassandra,” Ramoja intervened before she could move through the door. She looked at him, expectantly wary. “I have a request to make.”

“Yes?”

Ramoja looked slightly pained. Or perhaps bemused, it was often difficult to tell. “As a personal favour to me,” he said, “do you think you could please refrain from asking Rhian too many questions regarding Embassy scheduling and activities?”

And Sandy found that it was her turn to smile. “Okay. I’ll only ask her about the Embassy’s security posture then.”

“It was a very gracious act from Ambassador Yao and the authorities back on Ryssa to allow Rhian to live with you.” Very, very reasonably. As if the very thought of challenging such a reasonable assertion was unthinkable. “I do understand that the two of you have a very special relationship. I understand that her loyalties have become somewhat...conflicted. We do not begrudge her that. But please, do not make her situation any more difficult than it already is.”

“Rhian’s not having a difficult situation,” Sandy told him. To her side, several aides had emerged from the Senator’s doorway, and were awaiting the Vice-Ambassador. “She’s having a ball. I’ve never seen her so happy and lively. And her social development’s been amazing. I’m loving it, I’ve no intention of making her life difficult.”

Ramoja’s eyebrows were raised, and he rubbed at his clean-shaven jaw, thoughtfully. “She is becoming a remarkable young woman, I must admit. And we’re all very grateful for everything you’ve done with her, and very pleased that she’s been able to experience such personal growth. But she is under direct instruction to report if you ask her certain questions...”

“She’s told me so,” Sandy said frankly.

Ramoja nodded. “Then we’re understood. It would be a great pity if certain authorities, above my head, began to get nervous, and decided that the present arrangements should cease.” Now the Vice-Ambassador was emerging. Ramoja flashed her a truly dazzling smile. “It was a pleasure, Commander. Until next time.”

And he swept off, to clear a path for his important charge. Sandy waited at the doorway as the Vice-Ambassador and his aides left, the two CSA agents close behind, no doubt transmitting furiously to others in the hallway outside. No damn way Ramoja was only here as a bodyguard, Sandy reflected darkly. It was an excuse to talk to people. To move in the corridors of power. Ramoja, like herself, was no ordinary GI. Exactly what that meant, for her old friend Rhian Chu, she’d yet to properly decide.

And she walked into the office, and closed the door behind her. The grey-haired Senator Lautrec was standing behind his desk, his walls adorned with books and flags, awaiting her with a broad smile.

“Cassandra! Do come in, do come in. And how are you feeling today?”

Sandy exhaled a long breath she hadn’t realised she’d been holding. “Like I’ve just gone five rounds with a homicidal laser scalpel.”

Chapter Two

“He’s getting worse,” Vanessa muttered as they strode together beneath the covered walkway from the CSA HQ buildings to the flat rectangular sides of what had once been the SWAT Doghouse, and was now CDF headquarters. Further along loomed the cavernous new hangar bays, opening onto a vast courtyard crowded with military flyers. The space provided was, of course, far too small, but the CDF’s new facilities on the periphery of the city were not yet completed, and so they were stuck with hasty renovations and add-on wings, for now.

“We’d be screwed without him,” Sandy replied. General Krishnaswali had just finished chewing them out, with particular attention to Sandy’s Parliament appearance. He had not, he’d stated, been at all impressed with such advocatory positions. The role of the CDF, he’d insisted, was to serve, not to champion. He’d been particularly unimpressed with Sandy’s reminder that her role as CDF second-in-­command was in conjunction with her role as a special security advisor to the President herself. She’d also considered pointing out that in her cybernetic-memory stored English dictionary, “advocatory” was not a word. But she hadn’t reckoned it was the right time.

“He moves in bureaucratic and political circles that would drive either of us nuts,” she continued as they strolled. “He gets our funding, he gets the bureaucratic and legal tangles ironed out, and he organises the broad framework like a dream. I couldn’t do it.”

A gust of wind scattered leaves across the grassy lawn, tossing the lush trees and garden plants. Thunder boomed and rumbled, echoing off surrounding buildings. A flash of white light lit the gardens, reflecting in windows.

“Even in SWAT he seemed more interested in organising than soldiering,” Vanessa complained. Her nostrils stuffed full of cotton wool, her voice sounded somewhat nasal. “I wonder just how sharp the sharp end is ever going to get with him in charge.”

Sandy shrugged. “The requirements of the job depend on the environment. A large part of our environment here is political and bureaucratic. If we didn’t have someone in charge who knew how to do that, I doubt we could function at all.”

Another boom of thunder split the air. The warm wind smelled of approaching rain, above the sweet scent of flower blossoms. The first heavy drops of rain spattered from a thunderous sky onto the transparent shield of ped-cover above the path.

“But then because the second-in-command is almost entirely in charge of strategic and combat considerations,” Vanessa countered, “and her XO handles Personnel, it leaves the two of us with the most operational expertise having to answer to a technocrat who resents the fact that our real authority within the CDF is actually greater than his...only everyone’s too polite to say so.”

Sandy sighed, gazing out across the lawns as the rain really started to come down in a gathering rush. A frog hopped upon the grass, happily greeting the downpour.

“How the hell did us two idiots end up running an army?” she wondered aloud.

“We volunteered.” Arriving at the door, security systems recognised them and slid apart immediately.

“Yeah, that’d be right.”

Vanessa took another route through the corridors, headed for her next combat simulation drill in the training wing. Sandy headed straight for the maintenance bays. A brief uplink connection to her office schedules showed that she had the next two hours set aside for further work on the A-9 assault flyers, followed by the usual array of procedural reviews and strategy development sessions. Bureaucracy may have been Krishnaswali’s speciality, and personnel management was Vanessa’s obvious strength—her own was combat, pure and simple. New weapon systems, new unit organisation and coordination, a whole flock of new recruits, and someone had to put it all together and work out what it all did, in the event that something actually happened that required their services.

She entered the main maintenance hangar into the deafening racket of powerful engines, klaxons and maintenance equipment in a confined space, and took a moment to glance about and marvel at the progress that had been made over the last two years. All this used to be SWAT, attached to the Callayan Security Agency and vastly undermanned and underequipped to cope with the kinds of security threats currently facing Callay. Nine teams of fifteen “agents,” it had then been, with some upgraded civilian flyers and armour suits.

Now, her gaze moved over rows of sleek, dangerous shapes about the hangar—assault flyers of several models, sinister in dark matte finish, weapon pods underslung with gun muzzles protruding like the stingers of dangerous insects. The CDF’s airwing currently comprised four squadrons—troop-carrying slicks with assault-ship fire-support. Five hundred and twenty sharp-end soldiers—some from the old disbanded SWAT teams, the others recruited from police, public security, general volunteers and the occasional returning Fleet veteran. And they were still expanding, another two squadrons in the works and recruitment working overtime to find those rare candidates with sufficient physical and mental dexterity to handle the job—Vanessa’s department. Five thousand people all told, when the office workers, technicians, planners and others were counted. A nine-to-one combat-to-support ratio was somewhat greater than she would have liked, but civilian-oriented organisations did things differently than the hard-edged military precision she was accustomed to. And besides, it wasn’t her money to be worried about. So long as the sharp end was sufficiently sharp, it hardly mattered...and the CDF, she was increasingly proud to observe, were becoming very sharp indeed.

Captain Reichardt strode along the vast, echoing expanse of dock, eyeing the commotion that filled the upward-curling horizon. The scene was a confused jumble of loading flatbeds and personnel carriers amidst a small sea of people, many armed with placards, some merely with loud voices and bad language. About the berth entrance to the Amazon, armoured marines formed a protective cordon, weapons at the ready. Full battle dress, Reichardt saw, lips pressed to a thin, hard line as he strode. Duong was losing patience.

“Captain, what’s the plan?” First Lieutenant Nadaja strode at his shoulder, in standard “away dress” for on-duty personnel—light armour hidden beneath combat greens, rank and Mekong patches prominent, as was the heavy pistol upon her right hip. About and behind, five marines under Nadaja’s command were similarly dressed and armed. Reichardt could smell their tension as the echoing yells of the crowd grew louder. These were men and women who had seen combat against the League. High-powered weapons and armour, they knew how to handle. Unruly civilian mobs engaged in a peacetime protest was something else entirely.

“Neutrality,” Reichardt said loudly enough for them all to hear. “Remember, the Third Fleet remains neutral.” It didn’t sound right, even as the words left his lips. The Third being neutral implied that the Fifth was not. And the implications of a split between two integral parts of the Federation Fleet were frightening, to any true servant of the Federation. “We want confidence, not aggression. Aggression will provoke a hostile response. We are neutral mediators, you shall only strike to defend yourselves, no more.”

He could feel the unhappiness radiating from Nadaja as they walked. She’d requested full battle dress, like the Amazon marines. Only it hadn’t been the crowds that alarmed her. The situation between Third and Fifth Fleet representatives was becoming intolerable. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. In all the military stories Reichardt had devoured as a boy, the various units of armies were invariably united, bonded together in the service of a great and powerful state representing great and powerful ideals. There had been competition between various units, and occasionally rivalry, but never outright hostility.

The Fleet, however, had grown into a strange beast indeed, during three decades of war against the League. Individual ship captains were often separated from their commanders for months on end. Command decisions were usually made in isolation. Captains interpreted orders, and followed personal hunches and biases. Alone and isolated in hostile space, ship loyalties became fierce, and loyalties to one’s own captain above all others even fiercer.

Now, to make matters worse, the elements of the Fifth Fleet around Callay were ideologically extreme, due to some creative personnel distribution over the past few years. Internal divisions within the Grand Council and Fleet HQ had effectively rendered both institutions useless. At least during the war, captains had had the comfort of knowing that HQ did actually exist, however distantly removed. Now, with all command infrastructure gridlocked into a hopeless, ineffectual mess, where there should have been a single chain of command, there appeared only a yawning, empty void. No one, least of all a middle-seniority Third Fleet captain, had seen anything like it before—independent, strong-willed Fleet captains set free to deal with situations as they saw fit, while answerable to no immediately obvious higher authority. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. This was worse than alarming. This was frightening.

The mob appeared to draw down to eye-level as they approached, no longer suspended on the angle of the station rim’s upward slope. Dockworkers mostly—they looked more or less the same on every station Reichardt had ever visited, in worn, often grimy overalls or jumpsuits, and a taste for unruly hairstyles or personal adornments that contrasted sharply with familiar Fleet discipline. Along the station inner wall, less involved crowds had gathered at the fronts of stores, bars and hotels, watching the commotion with a mixture of enthusiasm, concern and worry. Fifty metres away Reichardt discerned a small delegation forming on the near side of the mob. They waited by a low, thick-wheeled dock runner, arms folded, watching the Mekong crew’s approach.

“Captain,” said a broad, Arabic-looking man in shoulderless overalls, extending his hand. Reichardt took it as he arrived, his marines standing back, surveying the chanting, placard-waving crowd. The Arabic man’s grip was powerful, his arms bulging with muscle. A small silver chain dangled from an earring, and curls hung at the back of his side-shaved scalp. His voice, when he spoke, was a deep Callayan-accented bass. “I’m Bhargouti, head machinist on station.”

“Are you in charge of this demonstration?” Reichardt asked, voice raised above the echoing shouts.

“No one’s really in charge, Captain,” replied Bhargouti, with no small measure of defiance. “It’s a spontaneous uprising.” “And what,” were the unspoken words that followed, “are you going to do about it, military man?”

“Okay then,” said Reichardt, allowing his natural Texan drawl to reenter his voice, and displace the military formality. “What seems to be the problem?”

“The workers of Nehru Station refuse to service any Fleet vessel at dock until our list of demands are met.” Behind Bhargouti, a large section of the crowd was now facing Reichardt’s way, cheering loudly as that statement was made.

“We demand an immediate withdrawal of military customs posts and ID checks!” Bhargouti continued, raising his voice for all to hear. Another cheer echoed off the overhead, workers clustering closer for a view of the new confrontation. Lieutenant Nadaja’s troops eyed the closing crowds with hard, wary stares. “We demand an immediate cessation of the intimidating presence and behaviour of Fleet marines and spacers on this station!” Another cheer. “And lastly, we demand that the Fleet immediately comply with the lawful commands of their democratic representatives in the Grand Council, and begin an immediate withdrawal of all Fleet vessels from station!”

A third cheer, raucously loud. Bhargouti looked around in satisfaction. Reichardt sized up the situation, gazing about with a level stare. When the noise died down somewhat, he spoke.

“I’m presently the senior captain of the Third Fleet in this system,” he told them. “Now personally, I have no problem with your demands. Unfortunately, it ain’t all up to me.”

“And just who is it up to, Captain?” asked Bhargouti shrewdly above several shouted interjections yelled from nearby, quickly shushed by others. “Isn’t your friend the Admiral taking orders any more? Or does he just make them up as he goes?”

“It’s a fucking coup!” someone yelled. “That’s what it is!” A chorus of supporting yells went up, echoing high and wide off the vast, cold metal walls of the station dock. Reichardt held up his hands, half-­concedingly...and was a little surprised when the crowd quietened.

“I’m not going to get into a political debate here, sir,” Reichardt told the burly dockworker. Despite his size, Bhargouti was clearly no muscle-head, his dark eyes gleaming with hard intelligence. “I’m a soldier. I take orders.”

“You’d be the only one!” some wit cut in, to laughter and applause. Reichardt accepted it calmly.

“The point here, sir,” Reichardt continued in much the same manner as he’d often heard his father discuss the price of cattle with neighbours back on the ranch near Amarillo, “is that you guys aren’t exactly playing by the rules here either. Your stationmaster assures me this demonstration isn’t authorised, and that you’ve all been instructed to return to work before this here station comes grinding to a halt. You’ve got ships backed up out there nose to tail waiting to get in, you’ve got no time for a protest strike now and you know it.”

“Hey listen,” Bhargouti said with firm resolve, playing to the crowd, “you worry about your employers, we’ll worry about ours. We’re not servicing Fifth Fleet ships, and that’s final.”

“Fine,” Reichardt said immediately. Bhargouti frowned. “Don’t service them. Frankly, I don’t give a pinch of sour owl crap. The only thing that’s concerning me right now is this.” He pointed to the line of armoured soldiers positioned about downramps and the central stairway, surveying the crowd with expressionless, visored stares. “Fleet protocol don’t allow the dock to be blockaded, sir, not in peacetime and not in war. Admiral Duong is obliged to clear this dock, one way or the other. Now first and foremost, I don’t want anyone hurt here, and I don’t want anything happening that leads to something else happening, and then before you know it, we’re all neck deep in cowshit, you got that?”

“Let ’em come!” someone shouted. “Let ’em try and move us, just come and try!” Some cheers went up, but the enthusiasm was by no means universal.

“Son,” said Reichardt, turning in the direction of that outburst, “don’t be a damn fool. You’ve made your point, you got the media their pretty pictures...” with a nod toward the small group of station media people, now manoeuvring for an angle on this new confrontation, but blocked by the surrounding wall of protesters, “. . . and staying here’s only going to cost jobs, money, and a bunch of broken skulls. Don’t service their damn ships if that makes you happy—they can do it themselves, they have the personnel if they have to. But let’s not start something nasty here that we’ll all regret later because we couldn’t put common sense ahead of emotion.”

“Five of our people were assaulted!” shouted a woman from Reichardt’s left, elbowing her way to the front. “Three are still hospitalised! We’re not the ones putting emotion ahead of common sense!”

“All the captains have spoken about that situation at length, I can assure you none of us are happy about it. But ma’am, when emotions run high like this, I can only suggest that dockworkers don’t hurl insults at marines in bars—marines aren’t known for walking away from fights, and they’re not known for losing them, either...”

“One of those in hospital is a fourteen-year-old boy!” the woman retorted hotly. “The doctor says he was kicked at least ten times once he was down. Now what the hell could he have said to a group of Fleet marines to have deserved that treatment?”

Reichardt stared at her for a long moment, as the crowd rumbled and muttered, darkly. Then he turned his stare upon Bhargouti, questioningly. Bhargouti nodded.

“Rahul Bharti,” he confirmed. “Green sector quartermasters’s son. Real smartarse, sure. But just a kid, being stupid.”

Reichardt felt a slow, burning anger building from somewhere deep in his gut. He didn’t bother to hide it. “I’ll find out who did it,” he said. And turned a hard-eyed stare upon the woman who had spoken. She seemed somewhat surprised at his reaction. And, perhaps, a little intimidated. “They’ll answer for it. I promise.”

There was a low, murmuring silence. Bhargouti just looked at him, arms folded across a broad chest, eyes full of consideration.

“We’ll talk about it,” Bhargouti said then. “Give us a few minutes.”

“Sure.” Reichardt clapped his hands. “That’d be fine...ladies and gentlemen, thank you for listening, y’all just take all the time you need. Excuse me, please.” He began moving through the crowd toward the cordon of soldiers, as senior dockworkers converged about Bhargouti. Third Fleet or not, he still received many dirty looks from the parting crowd as he passed. He did not, however, feel a need to glance around and check his blindspots. That was what Lieutenant Nadaja and her squad were for.

He arrived at the bottom of the ramp that led up to the massive, reinforced bulkhead between the FS Amazon and the station, the enormous mass of warship held suspended in one rotational gravity by several huge support gantries. At the top of the ramp, the main airlock was sealed shut, and further guarded by several more armoured marines.

“I’d like a word with Admiral Duong,” Reichardt said to the foremost sergeant on guard at the bottom of the ramp, who saluted. Reichardt returned it.

“The Admiral is indisposed, Captain,” said the sergeant, his voice muffled within the harsh, unwelcoming faceplate and breather. His eyes were barely visible behind the reinforced, graphically overlaid visor.

“We have civilian media at six o’clock, Sergeant,” Reichardt returned. “A prolonged disagreement at your dock between me and you will surely make headlines. Is it your duty to create divisive headlines on Callay?”

“No, Captain.”

“Please contact the Admiral.” The sergeant retreated several steps up the ramp, turning his armoured back to further muffle any conversation that followed. Reichardt folded his hands to the small of his back, and waited. Lieutenant Nadaja and her marines continued to scan up and down the enormous, busy, curved expanse of dock, looking for vehicles, piles of cargo cans, dockfront doors or windows—anything that might give vantage to a hidden observer. Local security had issued a sniper alert for the docks nearly twenty-four hours ago, and while they seemed to be doing a good job of containing the problem, no one was taking any chances. Or rather, Nadaja had curtly observed in private just twenty minutes ago, no one except her stupid, stubborn Captain Reichardt was taking any chances, ordering an away mission without full armour, and wouldn’t it just be her luck if some half-trained civvie terrorist managed to achieve what League marines, warships and GIs hadn’t managed in ten years of war...

The Amazon lieutenant turned and beckoned to Reichardt, who followed him up the ramp, Nadaja’s contingent behind. The heavy, double-sided airlock hummed open, revealing a harshly lit passage beyond. That passage in turn connected to a white, retractable passage with accordian walls and a narrow metal walkway along the middle. Breath frosted in minus twenty degrees celsius, the familiar chill pinching the cheeks, numbing the fingers. Then through the heavy, double-reinforced main hatch of the warship itself, and along narrow, familiar grey-metal passageways, ducking bulkheads and dodging saluting crew at regular intervals.

The Admiral’s quarters were just off the bridge. Reichardt waited alone, Nadaja and her marines waiting in the mustering hall near the main airlock, as was customary for the escorts of Fleet captains. The Amazon marine knocked, his armour rattling. Passing crew gave wary, distrustful looks. The door hummed open. The lieutenant saluted, and departed with a thumping of armoured footsteps.

The Admiral’s quarters were as sparse and cramped as any on board a warship. Admiral Duong rose from the chair at his narrow workdesk as Reichardt entered, plain and unadorned in a simple jumpsuit and jacket. They exchanged salutes. Reichardt’s was calm and measured. Duong’s, stiff and sharp. His angular, Asiatic features were drawn in an expression of hard displeasure.

“Captain. What brings you to my dock?”

“Sir,” said Reichardt, carefully, “I thought I could be of assistance.”

“I did not ask for your intervention, Captain.”

“I thought it prudent.” The look in Duong’s eyes might have reduced many other Fleet officers to nervous trembles. Reichardt felt only caution. And that too, he knew, was a reason he’d been chosen to play this most unwelcome of parts. “Have the protesters dispersed?”

“They are beginning to,” Duong replied coldly, in a tone that suggested he hardly thought it mattered. “Your infamous initiative reaches new heights, Captain. I wonder what you shall try next, beyond your authority?”

“I have all the authority you do, Admiral.”

“You are a captain,” snapped Duong. “In this room, on this ship, you should know your place.”

Reichardt held his tongue, lest he say some things he would doubtless come to regret. Besides, he was in no mood to start cursing Duong when the choicest of his curses were reserved for the spineless cowards back in HQ who hadn’t had the guts to assign anyone above the rank of captain for these duties. Everyone knew that Supreme Admiral Bertali and his little gang of pro-Earth hardliners were behind the Fifth Fleet’s move on Callay. Bertali’s gang were a minority among senior officers, but still the rest of HQ were running scared, and no line admiral worth his or her salt had volunteered for the job of keeping an eye on Duong. And so it had fallen to the Callayan System resident, Captain Reichardt, whose notorious involvement in certain incidents two years before had kept him locked in local orbit, answering charges and political attacks from all sides.

The normal course of action would have been for the captain to be stood down, and answer the allegations in person while removed from duty. Instead, Fleet HQ had simply made FS Mekong’s Callayan posting permanent. Thus he had become something of a celebrity over the last two years, and gained a great deal of access to various Callayan leaders, including those in charge of establishing the new, controversial Callayan Defence Force. And seeing that he’d become something of a local expert on what was euphemistically known as the “Callayan problem,” HQ had begun deferring to his expertise on the matter...not that they’d ever have dared to actually promote him in accordance with his new importance. Thus, when the Fifth had arrived in system a little over a month ago, it had fallen to the reliable Captain Reichardt to figure out how to deal with the problem. Damn right HQ trusted him. They trusted him so much that all responsibility for decisions made were his, not theirs. He took the brunt of Duong’s tempers. He would take the blame if Duong went too far. And he would be the most visible member of any opposition to the Supreme Admiral and his hardline cronies. The sheer cowardice took his breath away.

“Admiral,” Reichardt said, “are you aware of the case regarding a fourteen-year-old boy named Rahul Bharti?”

“The matter is being looked at. Is that the only reason you’re here?”

“This behaviour from Fifth Fleet personnel on station will not help your cause, Admiral...”

“Are you accusing me of direct responsibility?” Duong said angrily, his dark eyes flashing.

“What is an officer,” Reichardt said coolly, “if not the defining example of ‘direct responsibility’?”

Duong glared. “Captain, maybe you should take a look around. The current climate of Callay verges on sedition! This is not a world of strength and conviction, this is a world of decadence and privilege. While Earth was losing millions in the struggle, they danced and partied and got high on mind-bending stimulants...and now they want to control the Fleet? Where did they earn this right? And what on Earth could they have done to have earned the support of any Fleet officer? Particularly an Earth native like yourself, with a war record as esteemed as your own?”

“Democracy is democracy, Admiral,” said Reichardt. “The Federation has voted...and wouldn’t you know it, there’s three times more Feddie citizens now who don’t live on Earth than those who do. I’m a soldier of the Federation, I serve all Federation citizens, and quite frankly, Admiral, I don’t see what my place of birth has to do with anything.”

“You have no authority to obstruct me,” Duong retorted sharply.

“You have no authority to even be here,” Reichardt replied.

“My authority comes directly from Supreme Admiral Bertali, Captain Reichardt.”

“And his comes from the Grand Council, who haven’t said a word because they’re deadlocked and pathetic, as usual. Yours is the authority of default, Admiral. It doesn’t qualify.”

Fifth Fleet Admiral and Third Fleet Captain locked stares for ten straight seconds. Duong then took a deep breath, and turned to his workdesk. There were photographs clipped into magnetic holders upon the wall above the desk. Faces of Fleet officers, some smiling but mostly not.

“I was in the war from the beginning,” Duong said in a quiet, contemplative tone that did not quite disguise the steel beneath his words. “Thirty years and countless friends, it cost me. I remember what it was all for, Captain, even if others might have forgotten. The war was to save humanity from being warped by runaway technology into something unrecognisable. Now, people think that we have won, and that’s that. They forget that the price of peace is constant vigilance, even in peacetime.”

He swung back around to face Reichardt. “There is a GI, Captain, effectively running the Callayan Defence Force. An ex-League GI, from Dark Star itself. And would you believe it, she’s becoming popular.” He nearly spat out the word, as if it caused him pain. “As if it were a contest of celebrities. As if suddenly it does not matter what she is, and what she represents for the future of all humanity. This is the vector that the new Federation would take. As if the old ideals for which so many of us fought and died were all for nothing. Do you think they’re all for nothing, Captain? Or does the concept not bother your moderate, liberal soul?”

“I’ve met the GI in question, Admiral,” Reichardt replied calmly. “I find her to be a very decent person. The Federation I believe in is one where decent people are well done by. Whatever other baggage you choose to attach to it is your concern.”

“Decency is no test,” Duong said sombrely. “Most people are decent, whichever side they fight for. In our duties, Captain, we have caused the deaths of a great many decent League soldiers. It does not change the fact that the regime and ideologies that they served would have taken the human species in abominable directions. If the war taught me one lesson, it is that values must be fought for or surrendered. The defeat of the League does not make that adage any less true today.”

“And if we cease to be soldiers, Admiral?” said Reichardt. “If we cease to serve the oath that we swore to? What shall become of our precious Federation then?”

Duong looked him straight in the eye, with utter conviction. “A Federation that works actively against the interests of the motherworld,” he said firmly, “is not something that I would any longer wish to be a part of.”

“Maybe I should move out,” said Rhian, gazing inscrutably at her hand of cards. Anita sat opposite her at the living room coffee table, her own cards grasped between fingers adorned with rainbow-coloured nails, toying with the similarly colourful beads that sprouted from tufts of hair on an otherwise shorn scalp.

“Why?” asked Sandy with a frown, pausing midchew, her dinner plate on her lap. She sat upon one of the lounge chairs around the coffee table, in the centre of the main room of the house she called home. The floors were wood, the walls a stylish, rough-hewn red brick with mottled dark patches. To the front of the living room were broad windows opening onto a balcony, profuse foliage of the garden beyond, and all contained behind the high stone walls that typified the high-security suburb of Canas. Vanessa moved in the adjoining kitchen, mixing herself and Sandy drinks to go with their meal, which Anita had made for them the old-fashioned way—by hand, on the bare flame of the gas stove.

“I am a League GI,” Rhian said matter-of-factly. “Unlike you, I am still in the service of the League. I am living in your house.”

“It’s your house too,” Sandy objected.

“It’s the government’s house,” Rhian corrected her. “You and Vanessa are here because you are important government officers. I am here because you are here. An afterthought.”

“Chu, you’re not a damn afterthought! I mean Rhian.” Correcting herself with frustration—Chu hadn’t gone by her old surname for two years now, preferring her given name in her new, civilian surroundings. She sat comfortably now on the living room rug by the coffee table, dressed in stylish black pants and a black silk shirt. A lean arm hooked over one upraised knee, holding her cards. Her beautiful, Chinese features were well suited to the fashionably short cut of her black hair, her expression as cool and untroubled as ever, eyes fixed upon her cards.

GIs had that look about them, even without the benefit of super-enhanced vision displaying the lower body temperature, and the lack of a jugular pulse. Just the way they sat, and moved, shifted their gaze from one object of consideration to the next. Sandy knew she looked like that herself, to another person’s eyes. Anita shifted from time to time, moving her weight to prevent bad circulation, or muscle tiredness, or other aches and pains from developing. Rhian sat relatively motionless. Not like a statue. More like an effortlessly poised, presently dormant bundle of energy. Just waiting for a chance to explode.

Rhian’s arrival on Callay had been the single most wonderful development of the last two years. Sandy had thought she’d lost everything from those years in the service of the League, all her old friends and comrades from Dark Star. She’d not come to know or like them all, not by any means. But with Rhian Chu, she’d had nearly three years of connection and slowly developing friendship...and three years in Dark Star had felt like twenty in most other places. While the rest of her team had been murdered by their own commanders, during those final, desperate days of the losing war, a small group, unbeknownst to her, had survived.

When the smoke cleared, Rhian had wound up under the ISO’s wing. Once the ISO discovered her old commander had resurfaced, somewhat spectacularly, in the Callayan capital of Tanusha, they’d been only too quick to assign Rhian to the command of Major Ramoja, and reunite the old friends once more. Perhaps, Sandy reflected, they’d expected gratitude. Perhaps an opportunity to influence her opinions and actions, within her new role of authority on Callay. For her part, Sandy saw no reason to thank the murdering bastards who ruled over all matters of artificial humanity in the League for anything. They’d established a link between their own operative, in Rhian, and herself. It got them regular reports, and calmed the nerves of security operatives on all sides, who became very nervous in an information vacuum. That ought to be enough for them. She had her old friend Rhian back. That was certainly enough for her.

“Well, thank you for saying so,” Rhian said, with a faint smile. Selected two cards from her hand, and placed them face down upon the table. “But the fact remains that if you were not my friend, then I would not be here. And if the politicians who are so scared about League influence on Callay learned that I was sharing your house, there could be further trouble. Couldn’t there?”

As she resettled two new cards into her hand, and Anita unloaded two of her own, Anita met Sandy’s gaze with a brief, intrigued smile. Far less concerned with politics, Sandy knew, than fascinated with Rhian’s increasing self-confidence in her own powers of analysis where civilians were concerned. Her development, Sandy had to admit, had been remarkable. From a total novice in all civilian matters, in the space of two years Rhian had progressed to the point where local events no longer disturbed or puzzled her with the same regularity as before. Anita now teased Sandy, from time to time, that Rhian had now overtaken her ex-captain in some civilian matters—such as fashion sense. Looking at her friend’s stylish black outfit, Sandy could only agree. But then, in some regards, that was Rhian—utterly meticulous and precise with the small details, yet often missing the broader picture.

“It’s more my house than anyone else’s anyway,” Vanessa interjected, arriving back at her chair beside Sandy’s with a drink in each hand. Sandy took hers, and Vanessa took her seat. “Me being the only one of us who’s financially solvent and of reliable good character and long-term residence...”

“Oh, go on!” Anita protested good humouredly.

“It’s true!” Vanessa curled into her chair, no difficult feat for her small frame, in tracksuit and socks following her shower. The skin beneath her eyes bore the faintest shade of dark, but otherwise there was only the cotton wool to show for the recently broken nose. It kept her breathing through her mouth, and allowed the injected microbials to do their work unhindered. “It’s unheard of for anyone with less than five years’ residence on Callay to qualify for a house in Canas. I’m here ’cause they wouldn’t have let Sandy have it otherwise.”

“And for the joyful pleasure of my company,” Sandy remarked.

“Of course, baby.” Vanessa extended a sock-clad foot, and gave Sandy’s shoulder a reprimanding push. “And you,” she continued, turning her lively gaze upon Rhian, “are here so we can keep an eye on you. Under the auspices of our new liaison relationship with the League Embassy, of course. But the main reason no one’s leaked that information to Neiland’s opponents is because the only thing those same opponents are more scared of than Sandy being best buddies with her old League mates, is the League’s Embassy GIs running around without supervision.”

“You keep me on a very short leash,” Rhian said with a nod. “I’ll remember to say that if someone asks.” And raised Anita’s five prayer-tokens by another five.

Sandy finished the last mouthful of her meal, and gave Vanessa an eyebrow-raised glance. Vanessa’s return glance was highly amused. For the last two years, there had been an ongoing debate between them whether Rhian was an unintentional wit who said amusing things without meaning to, or was one of the best deadpan comics they’d ever seen. Not that she was ever genuinely hysterical. Just amusing. As always, with her old buddy Chu, everything was understated. But understated people everywhere, Sandy reckoned, were full of surprises.

Sandy sipped Vanessa’s drink. It tasted of at least five local fruits, and several liqueurs...Vanessa had been introduced to the world of mixed beverages by one of Anita’s friends a few months back, and now delighted in creating new concoctions. Rhian placed her hand of cards upon the table. Anita gave a “ha!” of delight, and laid down her own. Rhian raised both eyebrows.

“GIs aren’t invulnerable after all,” Vanessa remarked as Anita raked in the prayer tokens. Her pile was considerably larger than Rhian’s.

“In a game of random chance,” Rhian said mildly, “anyone can lose.”

“Oh, it’s not just random chance!” Anita scolded her. “You do a thing with your face every time you get a good or a bad hand.”

“I’m a GI,” said Rhian. “I don’t do anything with my face.”

“Yes, you do!” Anita sang playfully, handing the deck to Rhian for shuffling. Rhian gave Sandy a quizzical look, taking the cards to hand. They blurred between fingers with inhuman speed, as Vanessa and Anita watched in fascination. Sandy smiled.

“She’s trying to get into your head, Rhi,” she said. “She’s psyching you out.”

“How should I respond?” asked Rhian, in all honesty.

Sandy gave an exasperated shrug. “I don’t know! Figure it out.”

“You could stop doing that thing with your face, for one thing,” Vanessa said mischievously.

“Don’t listen to them,” said Sandy. “Come on, Rhian, concentrate. We can’t let any uppity organic humans start thinking they can actually beat us at anything. I mean, where would it end?”

“I don’t mind getting beaten at things that don’t matter,” Rhian replied mildly, dealing the cards with a series of rapid wrist-flicks. Anita’s cards skidded in perfect unison across the shiny coffee table, directly into her waiting hands.

“Have you spoken to Captain Reichardt yet?” Anita asked, fanning the cards in her hand.

“Might have,” said Sandy, taking another sip of her drink. Anita removed a card and took another. Raised her bet.

“I’m glad he seems like such a reasonable guy,” Anita continued. “I mean it can’t be easy, can it? Standing up to your own people. Standing up to Earth, even?”

“He’s American,” said Vanessa. “That’s different. Americans live on another planet entirely.”

The USA’s continued refusal to consider itself a part of any greater, global political entity known as Earth was the source of many old jokes. On Earth itself, such political isolationism was the subject of much ridicule. But for the many Federation worlds now opposed to the monolithic, conservative, xenophobic bloc that Earth was threatening to become, it provided a large opportunity. After all, the population of the USA had been one of the only significant voting blocs on Earth to actually vote in favour of the relocation. In the eyes of many Americans, the Grand Council had done enormous damage in centralising huge chunks of the planetary political system during the war, creating a morass of petty bureaucracy and unrepresentative officialdom. And US President Alvarez, alone of senior Earth leaders, had spoken out in favour of Callay’s new role as the centre of the Federation. Although everyone knew the Americans could never miss a chance to get right up the collective noses of the Chinese and Indians, and no one on Callay was fool enough to assume American support went any further than that.

“You guys are doing the security for Secretary General Benale, right?” Anita had much practice trying to weed out as much information as possible from her less-than-informative friends. “How suspicious do you think it is that the sabotage happens just after he arrives on Callay? I mean, he’s the closest thing Earth has to a global leader, even if the Americans don’t recognise EarthGov. He’s an old-Earth nationalist if ever there was one, he promises to come out here to try and calm things down, but no sooner does he arrive than someone sabotages the Mekong?”

“That’s a conspiracy theory,” said Vanessa. “Sandy doesn’t like conspiracy theories.”

“Ari calls them conspiracy facts,” Rhian countered.

“Ari would,” Sandy said shortly.

“You’re not still mad at Ari?” Anita said in half-teasing disbelief.

Vanessa frowned, looking from Anita to Sandy. “Mad at him for what?”

Sandy sighed. “Oh, he’s been babbling on about that damn tour Cognizant Systems is doing through the medical lobbies...”

“It’s not just Cognizant Systems!” Anita retorted indignantly. “It’s Renaldo Takawashi, Sandy. The man’s a genius that comes along maybe once in ten generations...”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Sandy muttered, “I read the press release.”

“Takawashi?” Vanessa made a face. “I read an Intel report on that...isn’t he responsible for GI intelligence?”

“He’s never been anything other than an independent researcher,” Anita insisted, “but with the war on, the League government roped him into much of the foundational development for advanced synthetic neurology.”

“Poor little man,” said Sandy sarcastically, “he’s been used and manipulated all along, never had anything to do with the League war machine really . . .”

“Sandy!” Anita looked genuinely indignant. “His work with neural regeneration using synthetic integration with organic tissue is just...it’s amazing. For the first time we might be able to regrow destroyed brain tissue, cure what was previously irreparable structural damage, cure V-hooked burnouts, maybe even reverse criminal insanity! Imagine if they could reform murderers or rapists by rerouting the defective circuitry and then regrowing it.”

“Wonderful, maybe they could cure subversive ideologies too,” Sandy retorted. “League supporters, far right weirdos? You’d run out of friends real fast, ’Nita.”

Anita was one of Ari’s old friends—as underground as they came, and proud of it. It was hardly the most suitable company for two of Callay’s seniormost civil servants...but then, Sandy’s own knowledge of security and monitoring systems ensured that her various political masters had very little idea of who she entertained at home, something for which she was very grateful. She did not always get along with Ari’s friends, with their progressive, League-sympathetic ideologies, and their love of all things hi-tech and subversive. Anita was different in that she was a business woman, despite appearances, and was at least relatively pragmatic in her approach to real world issues. She was also fun company, and was pleased to be Sandy’s friend because she liked Sandy, not because Sandy was “that awesome, android superbabe” or whatever stupid crap the wide-eyed techno underground liked to say about her these days. She got nearly as sick of the worshipful adulation from that crowd as she did of the hate mail. More so, sometimes. At least the hate mailers didn’t want anything from her (except perhaps death), and would never be disappointed that she’d failed to live up to their expectations.

“You’re overreacting again,” Anita scolded, “there’s no reason to believe that...”

“Hang on,” Vanessa interrupted. And turned a concerned frown on Sandy. “If this...Takawashi...is responsible for most of the League’s advances in synthetic neurology...”

“He’s not,” said Sandy. “He was the head of a damn big team. It’s a reputation mostly limited to the underground on Callay.” With a dark look at Anita. “Who, for some reason, seem to have developed a fascination with such things.”

Anita rolled her eyes. “It’s still true, and you know it.”

“But he’s still technically responsible for...” and Vanessa paused, knowing from experience the value of being a little wary, bringing up such matters around Sandy, “. . . well, for you. And Rhi. Right?”

Sandy shrugged. “Sure. Technically.”

“And that’s where Ari is now, meeting Takawashi?” Vanessa, on emotional issues, had somewhere along the line acquired the disconcerting ability to read her like a book.

Sandy sighed. “He got an invite. He always gets an invite.”

“And how is it,” Vanessa wanted to know, “that I’m not hearing about the head of the League’s advanced GI neurology research being in Callay all over the news networks?”

“Because the League generally says that everyone was involved in synthetic biology development. It’s their way of challenging Federation ideology—if you want access to League technology and trade, you’ve gotta do business with people connected to GI development.”

“Major Ramoja told me that the Callayan media have been saturated with those stories,” Rhian added. “You know—League trade delegations arriving that include scientists or industrialists who were involved with the League war machine. There were a lot of protests at first, but now people are getting tired of it, and the media don’t bother reporting it. He said.”

“Damn,” said Vanessa, looking thoughtful. Sipped on her drink, eyes momentarily distant. “I bet the Fleet noticed. Admiral Duong in particular.”

“No question,” said Sandy. “And I bet Cognizant Systems have some pretty senior arms to twist if they could get approval from the government right now, with everything else that’s going on.”

Chapter Three

Sandy awoke in her bed to find the house security network telling her that Ari was entering the side door. She uplinked to a camera, and a clear visual image of the lower corridor appeared upon her internal vision. It was definitely Ari, long black coat and all. Three in the morning—usual operating hours for Ari. She extended the uplinks further as she lay comfortably beneath the covers, and let the broad expanse of the Canas-network rush in upon her sleepy consciousness. Impenetrable multi­layer barriers, constant monitoring...everything looked secure. In the Presidential hacienda not too far from here, President Neiland would be sleeping...or working late, or meeting with various other Federation world leaders. Asking for support. Begging for it.

Ari’s footsteps ascended the stairs outside her door, then the door opened. Sandy bothered to open her eyes for the first time, and found his dark figure moving across the dimly lit room. Streetlight created a small patch upon the smooth floorboards. Brick walls and wooden bookshelves showed dimly in normal-vision. Pictures on shelves and the desk. Pictures of herself and Vanessa. Of Rhian, swimming with two of Vanessa’s nephews. Of herself and Ari, at the surprise party his underground friends had thrown downstairs, many laughing faces. And one Rhian had found in a search through a League database, of Mahud, in uniform, looking cool and handsome. Her gaze lingered upon that frame for a moment, vision zooming and brightening to make the features come clear.

“Parliament went well?” Ari asked her as he took off his clothes. Not bothering to ask if she was awake.

“Like you didn’t already know,” she replied, in a sleepy murmur.

“Well, you’re only number three on the news bulletins,” said Ari. “You didn’t cause another scandal and you saved that damn-fool President from getting herself blown up, so I’d say you had a pretty good day.”

“I’ll be the judge of that,” Sandy said with a faint smile. “And what do you mean another scandal?”

Ari shrugged. “Habitual phrasing. I apologise.”

“My very existence is one big scandal.”

“Stop feeling sorry for yourself,” said Ari, removing the last of his clothes and sliding under the covers. He moved immediately on top of her, a warm, welcome presence of bare skin and body weight.

“I’m not feeling sorry for myself, I’m just...” Ari silenced her with a kiss on the lips. Sandy returned it, passionately. And smiled at him as he pulled back enough to look her in the eyes, the tip of his nose barely brushing hers. His intelligent dark eyes were fixed upon her. His jaw, she noticed, was dark with stubble. She brushed at it with one hand, and found it unusually scratchy. So he’d been busy then. The Ari she knew was normally far more attentive to matters of personal grooming. “What did I do to deserve this treat?” she asked him.

“Being gorgeous, as usual. That’s all.” He kissed her again. They made love, lingeringly. Perhaps even more lingeringly than usual, Sandy managed to reckon, in the spare, fleeting moment of sanity that was all she could usually muster at such moments. There was an earnestness about Ari tonight that she found wonderful, and she was determined to enjoy it. She contented herself with letting him take charge for as long as possible, before finally the strain and tension became too much, and she had to lock her hands hard to the mattress, and brace her legs apart for fear of doing him damage. She alerted him, and he paused to let her roll over. They finished with him on her back, which was much safer, her face pressed gasping to the mattress as she unlocked her clenched fists one at a time, and hoped she hadn’t torn the sheets again. Ari nuzzled at her ear, affectionately.

“The back of your head is really a...a lovely view,” he offered in a low voice, with typical off-handed humour, “but your eyes are really much nicer...”

“We’ll buy a mirror,” Sandy offered, half-muffled against the ­mattress.

“Kinky, but inconvenient.”

“Forget it, Ari,” she told him, “I’m not going to risk it. This is the one moment I really do lose control. It’s dangerous, do you understand me?”

“I trust you.” He brushed hair away from her cheek, and kissed her there.

“Then you’re a fool. I don’t trust me, not then. You’re just a thrill-seeker.”

“I’m not a thrill-seeker, I’d just appreciate the pleasure of once being able to look my lover in the eyes when she comes.”

“It could be the last thing you’ll ever see.”

“Sure, but how romantic is that?”

He ran a hand along her shoulder, feeling the receding tension in the muscle, a gathering, tingling softness. It genuinely didn’t seem to bother him. Sleeping with a GI, one of her CDF comrades had less than charitably observed, was like sleeping with a hydraulic alloy press. A malfunctioning one, with a hair-trigger.

She rolled over, easing him off to one side. Ari surprised her by climbing straight back on, kissing her gently. But she was pleased, and more so when he entered her once more.

“Ari,” she managed to gasp in his ear, “what’s the matter?”

“What do you mean? You think because I happen to feel like making love to you that something’s the matter?”

“You normally fall asleep or go straight out again,” she replied, trying to think rationally. Something in her brain chemistry made that difficult, at such moments—although Vanessa professed that she was hardly a sim-tech scientist herself during sex. Ari’s body moved wonderfully against her, and she gasped, wrapping her legs reflexively about him.

“Not tonight,” he murmured, running a hand through her hair, then kissing down her neck. She tried to breathe evenly, thinking that it was probably nothing more than he was feeling horny...which suited her fine because so was she. But it had been so hectic lately, especially for someone in Ari’s line of work.

“Ari.” She took his head in both hands—gently, but in a way that gave him little choice but to pause, and look her in the eyes. She made her gaze as firm as possible. “You found something, didn’t you? Something concerning me?”

Ari sighed. Cocked his head on one side to gaze at her, with reluctant admiration for her deduction. “I didn’t want to tell you straight up,” he conceded.

“You wanted to soften me up first?” With affectionate humour. “Well, it worked.”

He kissed her again. Ari was a good kisser. Not a great kisser, perhaps, but what he lacked in sophisticated technique, he made up in honest appreciation. Then he rested his forehead against hers, and sighed.

“Sandy, someone’s trying to kill you.” She nearly laughed. Ari registered her mirthful restraint, and frowned. “Sandy, I’m serious, this is nothing to laugh about.”

“Ari, someone’s been trying to kill me from the moment I arrived on Callay.”

“This is different!” His eyes were very earnest, and somewhat frustrated at her evident lack of common sense. Her humour faded somewhat. She cocked her head on one side, and gave him a reluctant look, daring him to alarm her. Ari’s expression grew even more frustrated. “I don’t know who it is! It’s not that kind of information, it’s —”

“Hearsay.”

“No, it’s not hearsay...or, okay yes, maybe it is hearsay, but it’s damn good hearsay! Sandy, my source was very specific. The threat comes from inside the government, Sandy...” Sandy rolled her eyes with tired exasperation. “No, don’t...don’t do that thing with the eyes, you’re not listening to me.”

“Ari, how many times have you warned me that President Neiland wants to get rid of me?”

“I...I didn’t say that at all! I said that you’re fast becoming a political liability to her and she’ll come under tremendous pressure to get rid of you one way or the other.”

“It’s the same thing, Ari.” She took his face in her hands. “I appreciate the concern, seriously I do, but face facts—you just don’t like Neiland. She’s not going to get rid of me. She’s my friend.”

“Sandy.” He removed her hands with determination, and fixed her with a very firm stare. “If your beloved President has to choose between forging a new alliance to complete the relocation, or saving your neck, which do you think she’ll choose?”

Sandy gazed up at him defiantly. “What, you think my removal will be a precondition? Like the rest of the Federation doesn’t have important things to worry about?”

“You’re the public face, Sandy! It’s...damn, it’s never been about what you actually are, it’s always been about what you represent!” Searching her eyes for some small sign that she’d understood, and was going to take his concerns seriously. “Look, at least tell me you’ll be careful. All right?”

“I’m always careful.”

“Sandy...”

“Okay, okay.” She held up both hands in defeat, somewhat amused at his persistence. “I’ll be careful. I’ll be such a political cynic, I’ll make you proud.” And she rolled him over with an effortless twist, positioning herself comfortably on top. “You’re adorable when you’re ­worried about me,” she told him. And kissed him on the lips. He didn’t respond. Sandy sighed. “There’s more, isn’t there?”

“There’s a killswitch.”

Sandy frowned at him, not understanding. “A killswitch? What about a killswitch?”

Ari gazed up at her for a long moment. His expression was more than reluctant. As if this were something he’d seriously, seriously not wanted to have to tell her. Watching him, Sandy felt the first stirrings of genuine trepidation. Ari put both hands on her bare hips. Ran them over that pronounced curve to her waist, then up her sides and over her shoulders. The thumb of his right hand pressed firmly on the bone behind her left ear, fingers beneath her hair upon the very top of her upper vertebra, hard under the rear of her skull. Right where the insert implants were—small nodules of artificial resistance beneath his ­fingers. The fingers moved two centimetres to one side, and stopped.

“Right there,” said Ari, quietly. “Fused to the brainstem. Triggered by some kind of attack code. Killswitch.”

Sandy stared down at him, slowly growing cold all over. At first, she didn’t believe it. But the look in Ari’s eyes triggered doubts and suspicions of her own, long harboured but mostly ignored until now due to a lack of solid evidence. She didn’t always trust Ari’s political hunches, because she reckoned Ari’s own obvious political biases usually got in the way. But where technology was concerned, he was deadly objective, every time. Particularly when that technology concerned her, and how she functioned.

“Oh no,” she said, disbelievingly. Then, with a surging, profound frustration, “Oh no. How fucking dare they?”

“Sandy, come here.” Ari put both hands on her shoulders and tried to pull her into a comforting embrace. Sandy resisted effortlessly, arms braced hard upon the mattress either side of him.

“Who told you?” she demanded, fixing him with a stare that would have turned most straights to jelly. Ari looked pained, but for an entirely different reason.

“Reliable sources,” he said apologetically.

“It was someone at that fucking Cognizant Systems party, wasn’t it? Who? A League engineer? Someone who worked on the advanced GI projects?”

“I’m sorry, Sandy, I really can’t say. It’s not in your operational brief as CDF second-in-command. I was actually working there, you know, it’s not just a junket. I maintain sources and do research.” Ari looked very concerned. Well, she supposed that was understandable. Given that the affectionate, beautiful, naked woman on top of him had suddenly transformed into an angry, eyes-blazing, steely limbed monster on his lap, arms braced like a cat ready to pounce.

“Shit,” she said with that realisation, and sprang from the bed. She paced for a moment in the cool air, bare feet on the floorboards, hands on her hips and trying to get her head back into some kind of order. Ari sat upright in bed, pulling the bedcovers up to his waist, watching her with continuing concern. She pulled loose hair back from her face with both hands. “What else do you know about it?”

“Nothing,” said Ari. “I’ve been trying to find out. But I don’t know what codes you should watch for...I reckoned you’d know better than me anyhow.”

“I don’t suppose we can remove it?”

“No, it’s...it’s right in the spinal cord, Sandy. Inside the vertebrae. Maybe...maybe if some of the doctors took a look at it, they could find a way to neutralise it, or...or something, I don’t know. But you know how good League tech is, that’s why no one ever spotted it without knowing what to look for.”

“It’s not survivable?” Knowing better than to even ask. But she had to be sure.

“It’ll fry the whole brainstem, Sandy.” And then, somewhat cautiously, “You’ve never seen it used, then?”

“No.” She stood still upon the floor, gazing through the gap between curtains and wall, where the street lighting fell upon the balcony beyond. Green tree-fronds swayed in a gentle night breeze, glistening with recent rain. The night air was cool upon her bare skin. She folded her arms. “No, not with us little obedient goody-two-shoes. Oh shit!” As another thought struck her, and she clutched both hands to her head, squeezing her eyes shut. “Now I know why they did that...shit, shit, shit!”

“Did what?”

“Oh...just a Dark Star file I broke into while I was there, warning of precautionary measures in case a GI commander went crazy. Shots to the head, that kind of thing. But nothing for me. No procedure. I guess the solution was too obvious.” She looked sideways at Ari, sitting upright in bed. Watching her. “What about Rhian?”

“That’s what I wanted to suggest,” said Ari. “Get her in for a check-up. Because my contact wasn’t sure, Sandy. Very sure about you, but not the others. You were always the greatest risk, though. They knew that. And you did defect, so really, they were right to worry.”

“Oh, they were right about lots of things,” Sandy muttered. “I hate those fucking bastards. I might be a soldier, but I’m a person too. They had no fucking right.”

“Sandy.” Ari climbed from the bed and came to her in the dim light. Took her hands in both of his, and gazed earnestly into her eyes. “Are you hearing me now? Be careful, it’s not just physical threats I’m talking about. The network could get you too. Keep your barriers up.”

Sandy frowned at him in suspicion. “How long have you been running around after this?”

“A while,” said Ari. Sandy kept gazing at him, questioningly. Ari sighed in exasperation. “Sandy, don’t you get it? I care about you. I care about you a lot.”

“Once upon a time you thought I was a fascinating little project of yours,” Sandy said reproachfully. Not really knowing why she said it, even as she spoke. But she was angry. And alarmed, and looking for a secure foundation.

“Sure, maybe I did think that once,” Ari conceded with an off­handed shrug. “But I’m past that now. I mean seriously, you’re not the only one who’s grown up in the last two years. I like you. The rest of it just doesn’t matter to me.” And put a hand to her chin, tilting her gaze when she proved reluctant to meet his gaze. Raised his eyebrows at her, seeking her acknowledgement. Sandy sighed, and embraced him.

Sandy came downstairs at six thirty the next morning, a little late following her shower, and found that Jean-Pierre was dangling from the small chandelier above the open kitchen. Vanessa stood on the bench by the stove, her uniform unbuttoned in typical early morning disarray, and held her hands up to the chandelier, making appealing, chirping sounds. A big pair of round eyes peered anxiously over the rim, dexterous little feet clinging nimbly to the frame.

“Jean-Pierre! Come on, baby. Jump, Jean-Pierre, Mummy will catch you!” The bunbun turned back and forth with clever grips of its toes, seeking another option.

“How in the world did he get up there?” Sandy asked, straightening her shirt collar beneath the open jacket as she entered the kitchen and began arranging a meal of muesli and fruit around Vanessa’s feet.

“It’s what they do,” Vanessa complained. “They climb trees and sleep in the high branches. Jean-Pierre! Look, it’s not that far! I’ll catch you!”

“Why is all Callayan wildlife so irredeemably stupid?” Ari asked, coming fast down the stairs in a descending rhythm of black boots.

“He’s not stupid!” Vanessa protested. “He’s just a little daft.” And tried chirping at him again.

“He’ll poop on your head,” warned Anita from the lounge sofa, where she was jacked into her portable terminal, doubtless checking on her morning network scan. She’d slept in the guest room again—her job being what it was, she could pretty much work from anywhere. Sandy finished pouring muesli, and Ari anticipated her reach for the fruit bowl, grabbing a ripe majo off the top and tossing it hard at her. Sandy caught it with an effortless snap of the wrist, and began peeling it with a rapid motion of knife-blade against thumb.

“I mean seriously,” said Ari, preparing his own bowl with curious glances upward at the stranded bunbun, “we could at least have a few genus of flesh-ripping carnivores...maybe a poisonous flying reptile or fire breathing fish or something.”

“Yeah, that’d work,” said Sandy with amusement, chopping the fruit with eye-blurring flashes of steel.

“Instead we get...that.” Ari pointed disdainfully up at the chandelier. “Behold all you tiny humans, the pinnacle of the Callayan food chain. He is the bunbun, hear his mighty roar.” Jean-Pierre fixed him with a golden-eyed, reproachful stare within an adorably cute, furry brown face.

“There’s more worthwhile things in evolution than teeth and claws,” Vanessa retorted.

“I mean we can’t even eat them,” Ari continued, “they’re all fur and bones. I tell you, it’s just as well humans arrived on this planet when we did, the local wildlife certainly wasn’t going anywhere without us.”

“How do you know?” Sandy replied. “Bunbuns have opposable thumbs, maybe there’d be a great bunbun civilisation here in another ten million years if we’d left them alone.” Leaping to seat herself on the opposing bench, eating her muesli and watching as Jean-Pierre leaned precariously over the rim of the chandelier, nose twitching as he stretched toward Vanessa’s outstretched hands. Then the chandelier shifted and swung, and Jean-Pierre scrambled back to a safer perch.

Vanessa clasped exasperated hands to her hips. “Maybe we could tempt him down with some honey?” Glancing at Sandy with great earnestness, seeking her opinion. Sandy shrugged as she chewed, struggling to hide her amusement. It seemed a curious predicament for two of Callay’s most senior soldiers.

“I’ll get him down for you,” suggested Ari, reaching for the gun holster inside his jacket and withdrawing a black automatic pistol.

“Ari!” Sandy scolded. Over on the sofa, Anita fell over laughing. Vanessa glared. Ari shrugged offhandedly, and reholstered the pistol. Rhian came down the steps with a blur of rapid feet. Sandy did a fast double-take, as did Ari—Rhian wore tight denim jeans and a very fashionable cut-off shirt tied into a bow below the breastbone, leaving her tight stomach suggestively bare. She moved with a spring beyond her usual energy, positively cheerful with a broad smile for them all.

“Good morning!” And, with a glance up at Jean-Pierre’s predicament, “Major Rice, if you don’t mind me saying so, your animal appears to have a very small brain.”

“He keeps his mouth shut,” Vanessa retorted, “which is more than I can say for some.”

Rhian moved swiftly over, and sprang effortlessly off the ground. In mid-air one hand grasped the chandelier, the other pried Jean-Pierre expertly from his perch, then landed with a gentle thump, the startled bunbun now clinging to her arms in bewilderment.

“Ari, handpass!” She moved to play on, football style, faking the handpass then spinning away, going for a pretend bounce behind the dining table, followed by a drop kick...

“Give!” called Vanessa sternly, jumping down from the bench and striding over, hands outstretched. Rhian grinned and placed Jean-Pierre onto the dining table. The bunbun ran nimbly on furry legs across the table and leaped into Vanessa’s arms. Vanessa cuddled him and made cooing noises as Jean-Pierre tried to plaster her face with his little tongue.

“That animal’s so cute it’s sickening,” Ari observed around a mouthful of breakfast. “You know, Ricey, if you’d treated your men that well you wouldn’t be single.”

“Sandy,” Vanessa commanded, “silence the boyfriend.” Sandy extended a foot from her seat upon the bench, and pushed Ari in the shoulder. “Men like you are the reason four legs and a tail suddenly became attractive.” Ari clutched at his heart, dramatically.

“At least she didn’t say men like you are the reason she started sleeping with women,” Sandy offered.

“You haven’t started sleeping with women,” Ari retorted.

Sandy smiled. “Give it time.” With a playful glance at Vanessa above her next mouthful of breakfast. Vanessa grinned back, trying to keep Jean-Pierre’s searching tongue out of her ear.

Ari blinked. “Well I guess that won’t bother me too much, provided I can watch.”

“That’s a nice outfit, Rhi,” Anita called over from the sofa. “What’s the occasion?”

“I have a day off today,” said Rhian, beaming. “Major Ramoja has us all on duty rosters, and today’s my free day.”

“I haven’t had a full day off in weeks,” Vanessa sighed.

“I’m going to do some shopping,” Rhian continued, “then I’m going to Denpasar to see the big wildlife enclosure, then to Patna to see that Festival of the Sun they keep showing on the news, that looks really nice...then I’m going to a football game in Santiello in the evening.”

“You really like football, don’t you?” Anita asked, resting chin upon her hand, elbow upon the sofa arm, gazing with obvious fascination. “Sandy’s never gotten into sports, she says there’s not a sport invented that’s a technical challenge for a GI.”

“She’s right,” Rhian agreed. “I just like being at the game. Everyone’s so excited, and the crowd roars and waves banners, and the players all hug each other when they kick a goal. It’s fun.”

“I guess I just like my cultural events to mean something deeper,” Sandy reflected around a mouthful. “Physical performance might be a big deal to a straight, but I just can’t get excited about it. It’s too easy.”

“For you, maybe,” said Rhian. “You have to learn to empathise better with straights.”

And Sandy just stared at her, incredulously. Vanessa grinned, and Ari shook his head in smiling disbelief. Jean-Pierre struggled to be free of Vanessa’s arms, bounding to the ground and trotting toward the familiar scent of Anita, who lowered a hand for him to sniff.

“It’s strange,” Rhian continued, apparently unaware of the minor commotion she’d caused, “I checked a database on the history of football, but when you go back far enough, most of the references are to a different sport entirely—one with a round ball and the players don’t even use their hands.”

“Oh that’s soccer,” Anita said, highly amused as Jean-Pierre tried to grasp her fingers with his tight little hands, and lick them. “Football began in India, and they got so huge they spread the sport around the world and it took over from soccer a few hundred years ago as the biggest football code.”

Ari made a loud, quizz-show-buzzer noise to the negative. “Wrong,” he said. “Football began in Australia, it was called Australian football. It was inspired partly by Gaelic football from Ireland, and partly by a game the Australian Aborigines played. India borrowed it from them sometime in the twenty-first century.”

Rhian frowned. “I’ve never heard of Australia.”

“Big, empty, boring place with lots of stupid furry animals,” said Ari around another mouthful. “Lot like here.”

“Rhi,” said Sandy, fixing her friend with a solemn gaze. “Before you get going, could I ask you to do something for me?”

Ari also gazed at Rhian, the humour abruptly replaced by calculation. “Of course,” said Rhian. “What would you like me to do?”


Killswitch © Joel Shepherd

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