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Under Strange Suns
cover art © Brad Fraunfelter

 

 

In the tradition of Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter of Mars, Under Strange Suns brings the sword-and-planet novel to the twenty-first century. War is a constant, and marooned on a distant world, former Special Forces soldier Aidan Carson learns there is nothing new Under Strange Suns.

 

 

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Under Strange Suns

science fiction

Ken Lizzi

 

 

 

Prologue

This was going to change the world.

The realization was stunning, almost blinding. Doctor Brennan Yuschenkov stared vacantly at his vanity wall. He did not register the BS from Stanford, or the Master's and PhD from M.I.T. The award certificates and the grip-and-grin photographs of his smiling mug matching the formulaic toothy expression of whatever politician or astronaut or CEO he was posing with were so much static. He didn't realize it, but the grin now stretching his leonine features out-classed every framed example he was failing to notice.

When he snapped out of his fugue he finger-stabbed a speed dial button on his desktop telephone. "Azziz, got a minute? If not, make one. Bring your notebook, this is big."

Yuschenkov rose from his chair, surprised at how stiff his body was. He paced his office, waiting for his graduate assistant, Mehmet Azziz, to reach the faculty offices. Yuschenkov had to share this, and immediately. He could feel a creeping fear that he'd forget a piece of the puzzle. Or that he was wrong about some aspect. And who better to ask than Azziz, the man with the best grasp of particle physics on campus? Next to his own, of course. Yuschenkov muttered to himself, gesticulating, pausing on occasion to allow the Cheshire Cat grin to reoccupy his face as the beauty of the idea reasserted itself over the fear.

"Doctor Yuschenkov?" Azziz said, having stood unnoticed in Yuschenkov's office for several seconds.

"Azziz, didn't hear you there. Damn, you're a sneaky one." Yuschenkov wrapped his research assistant in a bear hug, his face pressed against the narrow chest of Azziz's lanky frame, the young man's beard bushing atop the physicist's head. They broke apart, Azziz stepping back with evident discomfort. "Sit, sit." He dropped back into his desk chair while Azziz took one of the guest chairs.

"I won't say it turned out to be surprisingly simple, because it's not," Yuschenkov said. "It's complex, very complex, as you'd expect. But I think it will be surprisingly inexpensive. And that...well, that is going to make a difference."

"Yes, sir," Azziz said. "If you don't mind my asking, Doctor Yuschenkov, what is very complex, surprisingly inexpensive, and going to make a difference?"

"What? Oh, of course. FTL, Azziz. FTL. Faster. Than. Light. A propulsion system. A spaceship drive. FT-fucking-L."

"Sir? Is this another prank? It took me a week to get my car disassembled and out of my apartment last time."

"No joke, Azziz. I've cracked it. Now take down some notes. I don't want to lose this. See, we weren't considering quantum entanglement as it pertains to gravitons..."

Azziz wrote as Doctor Yuschenkov spilled out the pieces of his theory in a disjointed, haphazard fashion: the controlled entanglement of gravitons, the directed acceleration of one half of the pair, the attraction/feedback reaction shifting phase to the tachyonic at just faster than light, the pulsing incremental increases beyond. Theoretical upper limits. Imaginary mass. Relativistic effects. The impressive size of the quantum-field bubble the drive was likely to generate. Azziz took it all down, assembling the jumbled pieces into a coherent picture as he did so, his handwriting growing sketchier as increasing comprehension burgeoned into excitement.

Later, notebook pages scattered across Yuschenkov's desk, the whiteboard opposite the vanity wall inked near black with scrawled calculations, the two men slumped again in their respective chairs.

"This will change everything," Azziz said.

"Bet your ass it will. How things will change, that's the question. I mean, this would be big even if building a drive was so monstrously expensive and difficult that it would require the combined gross national product of half the First World. But it's going to be cheap. Relatively. Corporation level cheap, and not only multi-nationals. Think about that."

"Yes, sir. The prospect raises any number of possibilities."

Azziz's words held a positive ring, but a frown briefly marred Azziz's forehead. He considered Azziz, wondering if this was the man to assist in the birth of this brave new wonder. The man was acquiescent to a fault. Always "yes sir" and "glad to help sir." He wasn't precisely obsequious, not an ass-kisser, but nonetheless quick to comply. Very much the opposite of Yuschenkov's demeanor back during his own sentence as a graduate assistant - "Hotheaded" he discarded as hyperbole, but "willful" perhaps captured it. Funny, so much of his work was solitary. Lonely contemplation. The "eureka" moment a completely individual achievement. Yet to proceed beyond that was going to require interaction with others, each step of development creating a widening circle of involvement. So if he wanted his work to expand beyond the confines of his own skull he'd have to start making allowances for individual differences.

The FTL was important, more so than he could comprehend at the moment. Shouldn't he ensure a smooth working relationship with his assistant? Still, the nagging doubt lingered. Would he jeopardize the theoretical and developmental work by yoking himself to such a diametrically opposite personality? On the other hand, maybe that is precisely what he needed to do. Yin and yang and all that.

"What sort of possibilities hit you first, Azziz?" he asked, reclining his chair and interlocking his fingers behind his head.

"Well, broadly: mining, exploration. Colonization."

"Colonization? That assumes exploration locates a habitable rock. Can you imagine that? 'Homestead Planet X, new headquarters of the Nabisco Corporation.'"

"Yes, sir, though I presume state actors would be preeminent. Perhaps easing population pressure might ease geopolitical tensions?"

"What, convince North Korea to emigrate en masse, settle Planet North Korea? Or a moon. People always seem to ignore the habitable possibilities of satellites. The twin Marxist-Maoist Moons of Mu Cephei?"

"Planet Kim, Worker's Paradise, Antares Local 501."

Yuschenkov laughed. Azziz essaying a joke was so unexpected that the surprise elicited laughter even though the joke hardly deserved it. "Well, why not. I think the drive is going to be cheap enough for even a starving gangster regime to slap together a ship. And the Norks do have basic heavy lift capabilities. Even if they didn't, the rest of the world would probably be happy to chip in, buy 'em a one-way ticket. But I don't know. Geopolitical tension, as you put it, is chronic. You can't just alleviate a symptom. Reduce the population by half, the remainder are still going to be at each other's throats."

Azziz didn't reply. Yuschenkov eyed him, momentarily considering letting the subject drop, but tact as a virtue adhered only lightly to him. "And what about your - what's the polite way to phrase it now - co-religionists? The misconstruers of the Religion of Peace as the doctrine is properly understood by wiser heads such as yours. Will they be founding New Mecca, facing east five times a day - toward Betelgeuse?"

Azziz flushed, seeming to shrink within his buttoned-up Oxford shirt and ill-fitting blue blazer. "Did you miss the sensitivity seminar again this year, Doctor Yuschenkov?" He cleared his throat. "I cannot speak for every member of a vast, scattered, and divided community, sir. Still, I would hazard a guess that those more violently zealous in their beliefs would be unlikely to leave."

"Sorry, Azziz. Wrong of me to put you on the spot like that. I don't always weigh my words before I let them drop. Right. Shall we pick this up in the morning, or shall we start sketching in how to mount the drive to a spaceship?"

"I'll order some pizza, sir. No pepperoni, sorry."

* * *

"It's astonishing. How can it be cheaper and easier to construct a revolutionary FTL drive from scratch than it is to build a spaceship using proven technology and existing components?" Yuschenkov didn't bother hiding his disgust, even allowing a trace of bitterness to season his words.

His office looked largely the same, though the vanity wall had gathered a few more photographs during the year that had elapsed since his discovery. Azziz sat in the same chair, looking uncomfortable even though he was not the target of Yuschenkov's ire. Next to Azziz, in the second guest chair, lounged a trim, middle-aged figure in a smart suit. Fredrick Lincoln, the Thomas Coutts University treasurer, was smooth, oozing competence, and always ready with an answer. A computer tablet on his lap held several open files which he viewed frequently during the conversation.

"I understand your frustration, Doctor Yuschenkov, and I and the Board of Regents share it. Constructing this test vessel and proving your theory will be the gaudiest, largest feather in Thomas Coutts' cap. But reality is reality." Lincoln consulted one of his files. "And the FTL is not, as you suggest, an insignificant expense. The amount of rare-earth minerals required alone is staggeringly expensive."

"Why? Hardly that rare. I consulted with the geology department and they assured me the minerals are relatively plentiful."

"Plentiful in the ground, maybe. But scarce in usable, for-sale, quantities. The Chinese imposed an embargo on export of rare-earth minerals to the U.S. two years ago. And domestic supplies are locked down. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to get twenty federal agencies and fifteen state and local agencies to sign off on any mining venture? And even when that miracle occurs there's still five years of litigation with every environmental organization in the book. If you'd just agree to cut the Feds in..."

"No. True, we're proceeding slowly now, but let the government take control - and make no mistake, you let that camel's nose under the tent, that's what'll happen - and we'll have a working ship about a day before they shovel dirt over my grave. You're a miracle worker, Lincoln. I've got faith in you. There must be some stockpiles of the stuff already scooped out. I don't need much of it. I'll need a fair amount of scandium and at least a kilo of yttrium. I'm not trying to corner the market. While you're at it, a bit more palladium would actually be welcome while we're still in the testing phase."

"Oh?"

"Yes. It's not critical, but on rare occasions - say once every twenty to one hundred test runs - there is a wave surge in the graviton splitter that renders the drive inoperable. Azziz discovered that a bath in a weak solution of palladium and acid resets the splitter. Just one of those anomalous lab results. Anyway, we require more than just the raw materials for fabricating our own FTL drive mount and linkage. What about the airframe - or spaceframe, I guess. What about existing components? Can we get that off the shelf? Russian hardware? Private industry?"

"We're looking at acquiring obsolete equipment. If we want new, our supplier is going to want to be our 'partner' and demand we share the technology. I realize you aren't quite ready to relinquish control yet. So far the university is backing you, but the pressure from Washington is increasing. Say the word and we can partner with NASA."

"Not until we have enough momentum to steamroller a bureaucracy. Stick with the obsolete hardware. At least we know it works. Do we have any leads?"

Lincoln consulted his tablet. "We have a line on a mothballed Dragon capsule. Perhaps you would like to inspect it with me, help me with an idea of its condition and value." When Yuschenkov nodded, Lincoln continued, "I've also put out a request for bids for launch vehicles. The Russians and three private, heavy-lift companies have indicated interest. So it's not all bad news. But - and I hate to harp on this - I don't know how long I'll be able to stonewall the government. The rumors are growing that we're sitting on something very big, hence the pressure. Our patent lawyers are filing applications as piecemeal as possible, but eventually someone is going to put this all together and then..."

"Look, I'm not trying to hide anything. This is very big, yes, and I want to share it. But, and I repeat, not until we're past the point where a dozen agencies and meddling congressional subcommittees can strangle this baby in the cradle."

"Be careful what you want to share, Professor. The University fully intends to capitalize on its half of the patent licensing."

Yuschenkov laughed. "Of course. By the time the patents expire, Thomas Coutts will have an endowment to rival Harvard. But more immediately, nice work tracking down hardware, Lincoln. Keep me informed. And get an extra ticket for Azziz; he's more current on aerospace than I am. Been brushing up during thesis writing breaks. Slacker."

* * *

New Mexico's Spaceport America hadn't hosted such a crowd in years. Spaceport authorities had opened shuttered warehouses and hangers to accommodate the assembled journalists, politicians, celebrities, and the just plain curious.

A young girl holding her mother's hand stood in an advantageous location with assorted VIPs. She had an unobstructed view to a gantry supporting a Falcon Heavy rocket, atop which perched a gumdrop-shaped capsule. It was quite some distance away but using her pink binoculars, adorned with her favorite cartoon space pony, she could just make out a bulky-suited figure crossing a catwalk from gantry to capsule.

"Is that Uncle Brennan?" she asked her mother.

"Yes, Brooklynn, that's my impetuous brother. Can't leave the test flight to a test pilot." Brooklynn's mother, Colleen Vance, emitted a resigned sigh.

"What is 'impetuous?'" Brooklynn asked.

"It is another word for 'impulsive.' It means he sometimes acts before he considers all the consequences."

"Oh. Hey, look, Mom. There is Azziz." She pointed with her free hand toward the left end of the VIP gallery where Azziz stood in the company of several men who Brooklynn thought looked a lot like Azziz: bearded, skin a few shades darker than hers, which she knew would have started to redden by now if her mother hadn't liberally slathered her with sunscreen. She waved, then nudged her mother until she started waving as well, the motion sufficient to draw Azziz's attention. He waved back, but it seemed hesitant and it seemed to bring disapproval from his friends. She saw some of them gesturing and white teeth gleaming through their beards as they spoke. Azziz dropped his hand.

"Should we go say hello?"

"No, Brooklynn. I think Azziz has a lot on his mind today, and it doesn't look as if his guests would approve of us visiting."

A countdown broadcast from loudspeakers mounted throughout the spaceport terminated further conversation. Fire burst from beneath the rocket, curling and breaking like a heavy sea hitting a rocky shore. The rocket seemed to gather itself, then lifted sedately into the sky. Brooklynn felt her mother's hand squeezing hers almost painfully.

The countdown voice broke out from the loudspeakers again. "And we have liftoff of the Eureka for the first test of the Yuschenkov Graviton Faster-than-Light Drive."

After the rocket disappeared from sight, Brooklynn followed her mother into a VIP lounge where television monitors displayed telemetry and a computer simulation of what was happening aboard the FTL test flight. Brooklynn sipped a cup of a mango and orange juice blend as the capsule separated from the last stage of the rocket. A quiet, uninflected voice provided one side of a conversation and occasional commentary, describing the checklist Uncle Brennan and his co-pilot, a Colonel Memphis Brown Jr., were running through prior to testing the drive. By this point, the calm voice was abbreviating the title of the Yuschenkov Graviton FTL drive as the "Y-Drive."

Brooklynn was sucking on ice cubes and her mother was on a second glass of chardonnay when the capsule's attitude adjusters fired, pointing the nose of the Eureka at a spot a couple hundred miles east of the moon.

"Roger, Eureka," the quiet voice announced, "you are a go to engage the Y-Drive." The voice added, "Good luck."

The telemetry spasmed and the computer simulation froze. The voice said, "Y-Drive engaged, single pulse. Y-Drive bubble intact. Eureka beyond the light cone. Reacquiring." There was a pause, then, as the numbers and charts on the telemetry screens resumed accustomed patterns, "Eureka reacquired, reverse thrusters engaged." The computer simulation showed a curving edge of the moon, and beyond it a flaring, receding dot.

"Where are they going?" Brooklynn asked.

"Nowhere, sweetheart. They are trying to slow down. I don't really understand it, but Uncle Brennan told me that once the - the Y-Drive was disengaged the Eureka would drop to below light speed. But it would have a lot of momentum, it would keep going in a straight line very fast, so they have to put on the brakes."

"Can't he just turn around and use the Y-Drive again?"

"I don't know. Maybe he wouldn't be able to stop before hitting the Earth. Or maybe it can be done, sort of canceling out the momentum. You'll have to ask him. Besides, this is the test flight. He's only supposed to turn on the Y-Drive once."

"Eureka, telemetry indicates an attitude shift. Please check angle of yaw," the quiet voice spoke. Brooklynn looked at the screens again, noticing the numbers on one of the charts steadily increasing. She watched for several seconds before the voice spoke again. "Negative Eureka, you are not cleared to engage the Y-Drive. Ground control is aware that braking maneuvers and the return trip will consume some time, but ground control would like to emphasize that it does not care if you are bored."

Brooklynn's mother sighed. "Ground control is wasting his breath," she said just before the telemetry spasmed again.

* * *

When Brooklynn saw Uncle Brennan trot down the ladder from the Eureka, she broke into a run. She heard her mother call her name and begin to sprint after her, but with her mother in high heels, Brooklynn felt comfortable outracing her.

People in uniform, firemen, people in white lab coats, people in business suits with cameras, all joined in the race. She couldn't keep up and got caught up in the crowd. But then she heard her Uncle's voice say, "One side, make a hole. Pioneer coming through." And there he was, dropping to his knees in front of her, arms open to embrace her.

"You did it, Uncle Brennan," she said into his chest.

"Damn right, I did, little Brooklyn."

* * *

"Damn it, Azziz, I know Alpha Centauri is the closest. But it hardly makes a difference for the first interstellar test. If something goes wrong, it really doesn't matter if we're going five light-years away or fifty. We're hosed either way. We can't stop at the nearest service station for repairs. It's either going to work, or it isn't."

Doctor Yuschenkov's ebullient glow had ebbed over the year that had elapsed since his historic test flight. He wanted to push on, stretch the envelope, move from a walk to a run. But success, instead of opening the path, seemed to have erected barriers. More scientists, more engineers, more organizations accreted to the program and each successive test became less of a stride than a baby step of decreasing length. To Yuschenkov, every advance was frustratingly glacial. Even the impending - at long last - flight to Alpha Centauri, the first manned interstellar voyage, seemed paltry and unimaginative, not the bold leap it should have been.

"But there is a planet, sir. And it's hardly larger than Earth." Azziz said. He looked harried, as well he should, nearing the appointed time to submit his doctoral thesis and yet still spending the lion's share of his working hours on the Y-Drive project.

"Not in the habitable zone, Azziz. It's a rock. No, they're all so goddamned cautious. No progress is unattended by risk. And I'm the one taking it. Well, I and the rest of the crew. Sure you don't want to come along? I can swing it for you. I've still got a little pull on this project. We're talking making history here. You can get another chance to argue your thesis. The first trip to another star, well that's unique."

"No, sir. I'll keep my feet on this planet, thank you." Azziz patted the grass next to the concrete bench where the two of them were sitting in the quad, eating sandwiches in the creeping afternoon shade cast by the towering brick edifice of the library.

"It is a nice planet, Azziz, I'll give you that. I do intend on coming back, you know." It was a nice planet, and Thomas Coutts a nice campus. Across from the two men the gables and chimneys rose and fell along the roofline of the administration building. Students crossed between the classical facade of the music hall to the left and the Victorian plinths fronting the natural history exhibition to the right, while others sat on the lawn in the center; eating, studying, chatting up, sleeping. "The thing is, I want to get off this rock immediately every time I hear 'we still need to test the cosmic ray warning sensors' or 'we need to determine acceptable redundancy of shielding within the redoubt' or 'we haven't determined optimal nutritional requirements to compensate for bone loss.' Something out there might kill me, but if we wait until we've perfected every precaution, I'll already be dead by the time we launch."

* * *

Doctor Yuschenkov was, however, very much alive on the bright, clear desert morning in early March when he craned back, looking up the gantry at the capsule that was to deliver him to Eureka II, waiting in orbit for him and the rest of the crew.

Brooklynn Vance gazed up at him. Her uncle appeared heroic, framed against the rocket, staring up at the heavens. Her mother was there, as were Azziz and the Eureka II crew, but at that moment only Uncle Brennan existed.

He brought his regard earthward, down to her, and she thought she saw the entire universe shining for a moment in his eyes. He squatted to eye-level, which was only a couple of pencil marks on the kitchen wall taller than last time he had gone into space. "Big day, right Brooklynn? Wish I could bring back a present for you, but I don't think I'm going to find a mall out there."

"I can come help you look. I wouldn't take up much room." Her voice held the same teasing tone his did, but there was an earnest appeal in her widened eyes and lifted brow.

"You'll be up there soon. We're going to open the stars for business. You might open the first toy store on another planet. Or a moon; people always forget the satellites. Someday a traveler like me might buy a teddy bear from you for his niece in your shop on the moon of a gas giant 50 light-years from Earth."

She giggled at his sing-song vision even while he hugged her. Then she watched him hug her mom, shake hands with Azziz, and walk away with the rest of the crew to a building at the base of the gantry.

She watched the launch again from the VIP section, though it wasn't as full this time; the real action wouldn't happen until after the capsule dropped off its passengers at the Eureka II. But it was still exciting to watch the rocket lift itself skyward on its tail of fire.

She watched television in the hotel the next day, lying on the bed next to her mother and eating pizza from the box. A camera mounted on the capsule that had delivered the Eureka II crew was beaming Earthward the image of the first starship as it squirted attitude jets, adjusting itself to point in the direction of Alpha Centauri. The starship looked like a flattened tube of girders with a blockish engine cluster at one end and a slowly spinning ring at the other. A voice was explaining the mission while scrolling text along the bottom of the screen provided essentially the same information.

"Doctor Yuschenkov and the other three crew members of the Eureka II - Colonel Brown, Doctor Abrams, and Doctor Chandra - have completed the final checks for initiating humanity's historic first interstellar voyage. Ground Control reports that attitude corrections are complete and final countdown is underway for initiating the Y-Drive, as Doctor Yuschenkov's Graviton Drive has come to be called. Plans call for a four-week outward trip to what some have begun calling Planet Best Bet, orbiting Alpha Centauri. The crew will remain in orbit for a month of study, then will return to Earth, arrival scheduled for approximately three months from today."

Another voice replaced the first, sounding distant. It was counting down. When it reached zero Brooklynn saw the central portion of the engine cluster strobe red. The Eureka II disappeared and the blackness where it had been appeared to ripple momentarily, then subside.

* * *

Three months later Brooklynn was again eating pizza with her mother and watching television, this time at home. Reporters in various locations consumed airtime, repeating variations of the same basic message: "We expect them anytime."

"Don't get anxious, Brooklynn," her mother said for the third, or maybe fourth, time. "They aren't coming on a train. There is no timetable. Today is just the earliest they are expected. Remember, Uncle Brennan is in charge. He might have decided to stay a day or two longer to look around."

Brooklynn spent the rest of the day flipping through the news channels, waiting. Her mother let her stay up an extra half-hour before putting her to bed.

It took Brooklynn a week before her excitement turned to worry. And it took three months for her mother to sit her down and say, "I'm sorry, baby. I don't think he's coming back."

 

 

 

Chapter 1

Doctor Mehmet Azziz sat erect in his office chair, still trim and lanky despite the gray in his beard. Across the desk from him sat his research assistant, Constantine Pappas. Azziz could not help but see the parallels to a day over twenty years past when he'd sat facing Doctor Yuschenkov and heard for the first time about the Y-Drive. It was the same office, but he wondered if Doctor Yuschenkov would recognize it. The bones were the same, as the University had been without funds for new construction for over a decade, and irregularities in the floor and scuffs on the door demonstrated that maintenance funds had dried up as well.

The windfall from Y-Drive patent licensing had never occurred, Thomas Coutts University having relinquished all intellectual property rights claims after Yuschenkov's disappearance in a doomed attempt to distance itself from the cloud that had formed about the name Yusechenkov. But despite the fears the failure of the Eureka II had engendered, the promise of the Y-Drive remained too great for others not to risk pursuing the technology. In the long run, the University would have been better off weathering the public acrimony and hanging onto the patents.

Electronic facades transformed the office into something that would leave Doctor Yuschenkov awed. Gone was the heavy wooden desk. In its place were assembled glass panels holding staggering computing power. It was desk, filing system, research library, blackboard, workshop, classroom lectern, conference room. The perfect tool for a paperless academia, an academia in which a physical appearance by a lecturer in a real auditorium in front of actual live students was a rarity. Gone was the vanity wall. The walls themselves were floor to ceiling display screens. One meter-square section he'd set to a looping slide-show of the development of the Y-Drive, the Eureka II, and images of himself and Doctor Yuschenkov.

He clamped down a sigh, internalized it. He forced himself to focus on his assistant. So young. Haggard, eyes black-rimmed from sleep deprivation. And still eager. So like he'd once been himself.

"But those are museum pieces, Doctor Azziz," Pappas was saying. "I don't think I will be able to requisition them."

"My authorization will clear it, Pappas. And I think only the graviton splitter and the photon impeller array are actually in a museum." He did allow himself a sigh then. "Hard to believe it's been twenty years."

"More like twenty-one," said Pappas.

"And yet, despite all the refinements, improvements, and embellishments, these relics still aren't obsolete. Doctor Yuschenkov's basic design remains the platform for every spaceship out there."

"I was born before the Y-Drive, but not long before, so I have no memories of that time. For me, we've always had FTL capabilities. But, yeah, I get it. It's amazing. I got a message from my grandfather last week. He told me Greece just launched its third pair of ships. Greece hasn't been fully sovereign for - what, six years? - and even it has a spaceforce."

"As cheap and ubiquitous as Doctor Yuschenkov predicted," Azziz said. "It is something. Economies are stagnating, little wars are endemic, yet every minor corporation has trading pairs of spaceships and every Third World country has pairs of research vessels or at minimum a pair of armed spaceships for prestige. We're colonizing, exploring. Seemingly vibrant."

"Seemingly vibrant? Doctor Azziz, isn't that, I don't know, actual vibrancy?"

"Maybe. Maybe I'm just getting old and pessimistic, but it reminds me of an ant hill sending out colonies before the queen dies and the original hill expires. A lingering demise, directionless ants meandering, performing random, meaningless tasks, dying one by one until the hill is nothing but an abandoned shell full of desiccating corpses."

"Jeez, sir. I think you need to get out. I mean, you are getting out, but, like, on a vacation."

"Sorry, Pappas. I got carried away again. You are right. DC will be no holiday. I promise, after DC, I will take an extended vacation." And in truth, he wished he could. He wished this promise represented more than misdirection or appeasement.

"Going to search for Dr. Yushenkov?" Pappas snorted, then looked stricken.

Azziz allowed himself a wry smile. "Join the ranks of crackpots and academics on sabbatical pursuing harebrained theories? Since the U.S. gave up sending search pairs - what, ten years ago? - none of the searchers are remotely serious. Trust me, they all come to me hoping I'll bless their pet theories. Spiraling patterns centered on Alpha Centauri. Algorithms tied to gamma ray burst detections during the month of the Eureka II-launch. Truly bizarre notions of gravity well fluctuations. After the obvious searches were completed, the whole thing became hopeless. How does one search an entire galaxy? No, not for me."

"No, sir. Of course not. Sorry."

"It's all right, Pappas. Now, let's go over the list again. If the Space Safety Committee wants to rehash the disappearance of the Eureka II once more, then I want it to be for the last time." And it would be the last time, Azziz thought with bitter humor. "We'll go through the hardware minutely, so let's make sure we can re-create the prototype Y-Drive down to the last bolt."

"Right. What about...?"

"Hang on, Pappas. Before I forget -" Azziz reached down to retrieve a banker's box at his feet. "I've one more task for you. I'd like you to ship this box for me Thursday. The address is already affixed."

"Thursday? But don't you want me with you at the Committee review?"

"No, Pappas. Believe me, a grilling before a congressional sub-committee is not a reward. I need you here. Someone needs to start grading papers, and you're nominated." Sticking Pappas with the task was the very least Azziz could do for him, and he took some consolation from it.

* * *

The room at the Watergate Hotel was technologically current, if not precisely cutting edge. The wall facing the bed was a full display entertainment unit. The bed itself boasted twelve different adjustments, activated by either voice command or the suite's portable control pad. Vibration sensitive insulation reconfigured itself automatically to absorb outside noise of whatever frequency. White noise generators awaited activation to thwart eavesdroppers, providing guests with the assurance of conversational privacy.

Nonetheless, Doctor Mehmet Azziz programmed his phone to route through seven different satellites before he placed the call. Upon connection he tapped in a code which initiated encryption security that harnessed his phone to that of the man on the other side of the conversation, simultaneously jumping frequencies every four seconds according to a random sequence. It was as near hermetic as any call could be in these days of code-cracking quantum computers and omni-prevalent surveillance.

"Brother," said the voice on the telephone. "God be praised, the day is at hand." What the voice sounded like in reality Azziz could not know, but the voice that met his ear was cultured, well-modulated with a trace of a Southwestern English accent.

"God be praised, Elder Brother," Azziz answered, his words flat, toneless.

"Do not sound disheartened, Brother. This is a day to rejoice, the culmination of years of patience and planning. You will perform a tremendous task and your reward shall be everlasting."

"Rewards are of no consequence if the thing done is unworthy."

"Unworthy? Brother, now is no time for second thoughts, for concern over personal safety." The voice was reproving, though gentle.

"I do not hesitate out of fear any more than I rush to my reward. I hesitate over consideration of the enormity of my action; I question the morality motivating the action."

"Brother, let such burdens fall from you. It is not for you to decide upon the righteousness of your act. It has already been deemed holy. Your conscience is clear. Your act is worthy. Do not trouble yourself over motivations. Your act is righteous whether driven by the purity of the cause or the promise of reward. Or the well-being of those you love."

Azziz inhaled sharply. "They are well?"

"Of course. We keep very careful watch over three particular homes in Ankara. We know when the most distant cousin experiences the least trace of ague, when your eldest sister feels a twinge of arthritis while at her sewing. They are all looked after, around-the-clock. And, God-willing, they will continue to be well. They shall, as we discussed, be even better off following your noble act."

"Then God's will be done through me, Elder Brother."

"And you will never be forgotten. Now, we have been on this call long enough. God be with you, Brother."

* * *

A chauffeur met Azziz in the hotel lobby and helped him wheel out the collection of cases and boxes to the waiting car, a boxy all-electric model in black. The chauffeur rapped on the side panels and the passenger side window before opening the door for Azziz. "Bulletproof," he said. "Safe." He assisted Azziz into the back seat before loading the cases in the trunk.

Most of the cars on the short trip to Capitol Hill were gasoline burners, most at least a decade old. They appeared for the most part lovingly cared for, clean and running well. To Azziz it brought to mind old tales about Havana, the Chevys and Fords of the nineteen-fifties rolling along rutted Cuban roads, engines maintained with craftsmen's dedication. He spotted a few electric cars, new, gleaming. He assumed they were carrying politicians or lobbyists. Few people could afford the price of electric vehicles. But the government had declared a winner and showed no sign of willingness to second guess itself. So, since electric was the only legal option for new automobiles, despite plentiful supplies of hydrogen provided by the Lunar Colonies, most people retained their old cars, even with gasoline running - according to the sign at the last station he'd seen - $17.39 per gallon. Azziz recalled the public reaction to the sticker shock, anger at the price of the vehicles once subsidies and tax incentives were phased out. The expected reduction in battery costs never materialized. The Chinese limited sales of neodymium to the US, and environmental groups stifled domestic production. Lobbyists had seen to it that the language of the electric vehicle mandate effectively banned lithium ion powered options; some company or other had not been willing to play ball and had been frozen out in retribution.

The Mall drifted by, close yet seeming otherworldly on the far side of the bulletproof glass. He saw few tourists, and the lawn about Washington Monument was free of protesters. Azziz recalled the last time he had been to the Washington Monument. That picnic with Fatima. If only he could relive that afternoon. He had felt something real with Fatima, a chance for marriage, children. But that was a dream. A wife, a son - they would only be more leverage to keep him moving on the path chosen for him.

He saw few cars now, only electrics and a few military vehicles. The environs had been declared pedestrian-only a dozen years prior. Only the pass displayed by the chauffeur at a checkpoint had allowed them passage.

A congressional aide took over from the chauffeur at Capitol Hill, helping Azziz wheel his cargo into the United States Capitol building. They passed several checkpoints, Azziz's cases garnering scrutiny at each one. He was sure that without the congressional aide flashing a badge and invoking a ranking sub-committee member's name, he'd have gotten no further than the front door.

The aide briefed him on what to expect and on protocol as they made their way through the corridors to the designated hearing room. The room itself was underwhelming: a box containing lights, tables, cameras, microphones. He knew there were forty members on the subcommittee, but didn't bother to perform a head count to see if all were in attendance. He listened to the subcommittee chairman stretch a thirty-second introduction into five minutes.

"And so, ladies and gentlemen, I call Doctor Mehmet Azziz to present his conclusions regarding the disappearance of the Eureka II and its crew."

Azziz sat at the witness table, cases piled up beside him. He rattled through his rote introductory remarks, reminding the legislators that he had assisted Doctor Yuschenkov in the development of the Y-Drive and that - in the absence of Doctor Yuschenkov - he was the foremost expert on the original model.

"I realize the physics is esoteric. In the interest of keeping you all awake, I will keep the eye-glazing geek-speak to a minimum and demonstrate my conclusions in as visual and hands-on a manner as possible." He stood and lifted the case nearest him to the tabletop. Unlatching the top, he removed from the padded interior a pair of rings joined by several lengths of tubing and wires. "It would not be strictly accurate to state that the Y-Drive has one fundamental component. But if one were to advance a contender, the graviton splitter would not be a bad option."

He set aside the case, retrieved a second and took out a cylindrical cone of titanium. "The graviton impeller, or pulse generator, is another good candidate." Stacking the second case atop the first, he grabbed a third, then a fourth, removing components and assembling them on the table, all while keeping up a steady patter practiced over twenty years of explaining the Y-Drive to laymen. But while he was speaking his mind was dwelling on his family, that collection of individuals he'd not seen for so many years yet were still so dear to him.

The Y-Drive began to take shape on the table before him, occupying most of the surface. He sensed a certain disquiet in the chamber, papers rustling, the shifting of forty congressional rumps picked up by sensitive microphones. The chairman broke into Azziz's spiel, clearing his throat and ensuring that the cameras were focused on him before saying, "We've all seen the dog and pony show, Doctor Azziz. With respect for the Committee's time, would you mind getting to your theory regarding Doctor Yuschenkov's disappearance?"

"Yes, sir. I wish to prepare the ground, so it doesn't appear that I am merely speculating."

"How 'bout I do a little layman speculating? Was there a fundamental flaw in the early design? Something we should be concerned might have carried on to the current Y-Drive models? Or was it what the scientific consensus has assumed these last couple of decades: a surge in the graviton splitter rendering inoperative all the drive components within the Y-Drive bubble." The congressman sounded pleased with himself.

"Scientific consensus may be on the right track, Congressman." Azziz smiled, playing along. Meanwhile he clicked a circuit board in place.

"So are your fellow scientists correct or not? Is that the reason we lost about one in fifty ships during the initial space push? "

"Correct or not, mandating that FTL ships operate in pairs, each carrying a backup Y-Drive, was an admirably practical solution."

"Practical, maybe. Expensive, definitely. My colleagues would love to hear you say there was another reason. My constituents would love to hear you say there was another reason. Eliminating the redundancy would cut operational costs in half." The chairman paused. He'd set the table for the public, explaining the issue in a condescending fashion to the foremost expert on the subject precisely to set up the next moment. He leaned forward. "Doctor Azziz, was it something else? Not a mechanical defect after all? Of course, I don't yield to scurrilous rumors, but some others, perhaps in this august body itself, suggest Doctor Yuschenkov deliberately included a flaw in his design, and withheld the fix. Perhaps you can help clear up this...slander. Do you have some insights into Doctor Yuschenkov's mindset? Was - as some claim - the disappearance of the Eureka II deliberate?"

Azziz looked up from his work, scanning the faces of the committee. In his hand he clutched a lead that would slot into the power supply in the open case directly in front of him. "Deliberate? A conscious choice? An exercise of free will? Is that what you are asking? It would be comforting, wouldn't it? If Doctor Yuschenkov had simply decided not to return, it might suggest that our actions are truly our own, not dictated by externalities. Not ordained by God."

The disquiet grew, adding a susurrus of whispering. Azziz noted an armed policeman at one of the back doors straightening, beginning to take an interest. "I know I'd like to think I was in full command of my fate, making my own decisions, and not compelled to act in a certain fashion."

"Doctor Azziz," the chairman said, "what are you talking about? Why, exactly, have you assembled the Y-Drive? How does this explain..?"

Azziz interrupted him, seeing the policeman dropping one hand to the weapon at his hip and beginning to saunter in his direction. "But ultimately it is all in God's hands. I am sorry." He watched the policeman approaching, dedicated, insightful. A good man he was sure, as conceivably were many others in this room, and he mourned them all. He thought of Brennan Yuschenkov, wondering how he had met his end. Had he time to ponder the oncoming abyss? Another good man, Yuschenkov, though rash, coarse, probably irredeemable.

He was almost glad his mentor was not here to witness this day. This day, or one near enough to it, so long in coming.

All those years learning, studying, positioning himself, all to reach this point, this moment. This horrible moment. And yet he did not hesitate, his resolve did not waver. Did he not owe an obligation to his family? Did he not owe his allegiance to God? "God," he whispered, "is great."

He socketed the lead into the power supply, trying to hold the image of his mother in his mind. The graviton splitter whined to life. The Y-Drive pulsed once, redly.

 

 

Chapter 2

A chime declared coffee's availability, as if the smell hadn't provided her advance notice. The apartment's automatics cycled through their routines. Sensing damp clothes, the dryer kicked on the touch-up tumble. The refrigerator displayed the pending 'use by' dates on the dairy products. Routine, normal, as befit a state-of-the-art condominium unit boasting all the latest appliances, all finishes high-end and tasteful. Though somehow the space left an impression of cold austerity, as if it belonged to someone seldom at home, serving as little more than waystation and storage locker. Perhaps that very coldness made the routine functioning seem an exercise in artifice, as if the El Paso apartment ran through its quotidian functions to mock its tenant.

Brooklynn Vance slumped on the couch facing the wall panel television, sound off, the screen showing images of the spot that had until yesterday been Washington, DC. Brooklynn was no longer watching, having been for hours absorbing the pictures of the perfectly hemispherical crater slowly filling up with water. She was drained. Tears had ceased near midnight. An outburst of screaming ended around dawn. Aching grief gave way to numbing exhaustion as the sleepless night began to catch up with her. The shock had worn off. The anger ebbed, though it lay not too far beneath the emotionally hammered-flat surface.

Now she was staring at the box on the coffee table before her. It had required multiple rings of the doorbell before she had noticed the drone delivering the package on her doorstep. Brooklynn had struggled with the incongruity that such things as package delivery still occurred in the world, a world in which the U.S. capitol could disappear in a single deadly instant. She couldn't grasp the notion. It made no sense. But drones did not care, any more than the pre-programmed coffee maker.

The box remained unopened. Brooklynn could not tear her eyes from the name on the return address: M. Azziz. Fucking Mehmet Azziz. Azziz, a man she had considered a friend. And the same man she had seen throughout the night over and over and over again talking to the committee - then making them all disappear.

The box tormented her. That name, Azziz, printed in proximity to hers across the tape-sealed surface. Some part of her suggested that if she opened the box, DC would magically reappear. Slide the letter opener along the taped-over join and this would all prove to be a bad dream, an elaborate hoax concocted over a lifetime of repressed humor. Please let that be true, she thought.

How could he have perpetrated this monstrous, murderous atrocity? Committed this massive obscenity? Azziz had never shown evidence of fanaticism. After Uncle Brennan's disappearance, Mehmet Azziz had stepped in. Not precisely filling the void, but nonetheless there.

The man she had known was reserved, even kind. Brooklynn's gaze slipped up from the box to the framed certificates above her office niche in the corner between the television wall and the kitchen door. When her thoughts drifted to her professional achievements she almost always looked at the sheepskins and licenses as if for confirmation, an affirmation of her hard work and recognition of her accomplishments and value. Her BS degree from the University of Houston, where she had studied astrophysics with an emphasis on astronavigation. Mehmet Azziz had sat in the front row during commencement. Varnished oak framed her commercial space pilot's license. Azziz had written a letter of recommendation to get her into the program. The same man who had murdered tens of thousands had gone out of his way to boost her career.

No, no balancing the equities. The man was a monster. A dozen acts of kindness do not counterbalance a vast evil.

So did she want to open the box? What would a monster send her? Should she open it? Maybe she should call the FBI? Was there even still a functioning federal government to sanction the Federal Bureau of Investigation? Or did that matter? She wasn't certain how the FBI was structured.

Nor was she entirely up to speed on the hierarchy and organization of the Federal Government, though she'd been getting a crash course from the television. The harried, frightened-looking talking heads she'd heard through the night seemed uncertain, offering contradictory opinions. Some, pale and haggard despite studio makeup, suggested the United States no longer existed, that power now devolved to the individual states. Others advocated for imposition of martial law; lots of shaky video feed of uniformed soldiers scrambling aboard vehicles hinted this was a likely prospect. Still others ran down the list of presidential succession, updating the search for surviving senators, congressmen, or secretaries of the President's cabinet. An update developed over the hours, indicating the Secretary of State was alive, and next in line to assume the Presidency. Details remained unclear. Some reported she was en route from a summit in South Africa. Other reports suggested she'd already landed in Philadelphia, declaring it the new capital of the Republic. Still others denied she'd ever left Johannesburg.

Everyone - from haggard, stumble-tongue anchors to bleary-eyed, pale guests - appeared stunned, sharing a national sense of disbelief, bewilderment, and shaking fury. Unsurprisingly, no firm consensus had emerged by the time Brooklynn had muted the volume, eyes no longer registering the scroll of information at the bottom of the screen, seeing but not absorbing the news of riots, looting, re-direction of the fleets, the responses of foreign governments - promises of solidarity and aid, gloating claims that the chickens had finally come home to roost, confusion, military mobilizations. All the players stumbling into position to fill a power vacuum, still uncertain if there was a power vacuum.

But assuming the FBI remained active, would she somehow be implicating herself, opening herself up to lynch mobs as a suspected accomplice? Not worth the risk. For now she would keep it to herself. The FBI would probably come knocking on her door eventually, once agents had tracked down everyone Azziz had spoken to over the last few weeks and discovered he had sent a package. No reason to rush that prospect. Brooklynn concluded that the fact the FBI hadn't yet arrived on her doorstep was evidence of the extent of the chaos sown by the destruction of DC.

Part of her wanted to throw the box away, shove it into a furnace with a broom handle so as not to touch it. The thought of physical contact with something Azziz's fingers had touched revolted her.

What it came down to at last was simple curiosity. She couldn't not open the box. She slit open the tape, lifted the flaps. Saw the stacks of documents.

Brooklynn began to read.

The coffee pot was empty by the time she finished. She was staring again, this time not blankly. Fucking Azziz. That a monster could still give her this. It made no sense. She hated him not one whit less, but she couldn't deny a sense of gratitude for this...gift. Of course, he could have given this to her at any time over the past decades. So fuck him. Fuck him and move on, give her mind full rein to deal with the surge of plans, overlapping and confused. But plans nonetheless, with a definite goal.

She would need a spaceship. That would require money. Brooklynn had some savings, assuming the banks remained operating. She could sell the apartment. Still nowhere near enough, not in the same country as enough.

For the first time she wished she could have tapped into the income stream from Uncle Brennan's Y-Drive patents. But that had never tempted her. It had all been tied up in the courts anyhow, and shown promise to stay that way for years. Disappearance in space, it seemed, had no legal precedent. No court could be persuaded to declare Brennan Yuschenkov dead. His income went into escrow, accumulating interest, though with regular withdrawals to pay the lawyers. And that had been fine with Brooklynn. Capitalizing on her uncle's fame, infamy, or money did not sit well with her. Anonymity was a prize she and her mother had worked hard to achieve. Brooklynn had determined to succeed or fail on her own merits and she had stuck to that commitment, keeping her connection to Brennan Yuschenkov to herself whenever possible.

She would need to keep working, berth onboard whatever spaceship hired her on, save the expense of lodgings. But even with her rating, wages wouldn't begin to come close. She would need investors, which would require some sort of business proposal. More details. The complications piled up. Maybe she could hit up mom for a loan. Her mother had never given up her claim to her brother's patent income. Perhaps a probate court had finally come around, though Brooklynn wasn't sanguine about the prospect.

And of course she would need a crew. Birthing another complication: There was no way she would be able to afford a pair of ships, not with the investors her utter lack of a track record would attract. That, sure as Mehmet Azziz was roasting in Hell, would affect the makeup of the crew. Given the roughly one in fifty odds of Y-Drive failure, Brooklynn would have to find people crazy enough, desperate enough, damaged enough to take the risk of becoming adrift in deep space, on an endless one-way trip.

Crazy, desperate, damaged. Okay. But above all, the crew would need to be people she could trust.

 

 

Chapter 3

Staff Sergeant Aidan Carson adjusted the fit of his parachute harness and wondered why the prospect of a fiery atmospheric re-entry followed by a nighttime HALO jump into hostilities left him feeling unmoved. Should have had his blood pumping, the adrenaline flowing like Niagara Falls. Instead he sat calmly in the passenger bay as the rest of the five-man team saw to last minute equipment checks.

The shuttle detached from the dedicated Special Forces orbital platform. Maneuvering thrusters spurted, orienting the craft earthward. Another jet and the craft began its descent.

Master Sergeant Antoine Summers drifted by, taking advantage of the last few minutes of weightlessness to inspect the team. Clutching a hanging strap he paused by Staff Sergeant Bryce Sinclair, seated next to Aidan, and he tightened the chinstrap on Sinclair's aerodynamic helmet. The smart camouflage paint impregnating the Kevlar/polycarbonate sandwich of the helmet showed as dim ochre with red and orange highlights, mimicking the conditions inside the cramped bay; muted tactical lighting and LED status indicators provided limited illumination for the team.

"Slipstream'll rip your fucking head off if you keep it so loose, John Wayne," Summers told Sinclair. Then, continuing on to Aidan he said, "You in the game, Carson?"

"Don't worry about me, Summers. I'm in all four quarters." And he meant it. He didn't display or even feel any of the symptoms of short-timer's disease. He was focused and knew the other four on the team could rely on him just as he relied on them. He didn't feel detached, just...emotionally disengaged. He was there, in the moment, ready to do his part as a member of this woefully short-handed team. But the rage fueling the last two years of firefights - interspersed with periods of training for more firefights - had dwindled, flickered out.

"Coms check," came Captain Merit's voice through his implant.

"Summers, check."

"Massey, check," came the voice of Sergeant First Class Bill Massey, team medic, called Hearse by rest of the team.

"Sinclair, check," said Sinclair, the communications sergeant and designated Mule operator.

"Carson, check," Aidan said.

"Okay, listen up," Merit said as the shuttle began lurching and shaking. "We'll be over the drop point in ten mikes. Nothing fancy about this one, just another jackal den to clear out, an al-Shabaab offshoot according to intel. Should be minimal collateral damage to worry about."

Which could mean anything, Aidan thought. Intelligence estimates were notoriously unreliable. If the brass had been one-hundred percent certain that no civilians were in the vicinity they'd have just hammered the area with cruise missiles. But the Pentagon had grown leery of massive, non-surgical retaliation ever since the firestorm in Ankara in the days immediately after DC. DC: that's how everyone now referred to that horrible day over two years ago, the incident and the place forever conflated. The response had gradually evolved to pinpoint "retributive actions" conducted with troop strength judged just sufficient for the operation. And with operations on a global scale, that troop strength was spread thin. At least the poor bastards trying to orchestrate America's response to the abrupt destruction of the United States' capitol had orbiting military staging posts that could drop Aidan and his heavily armed and angry friends to any point on the planet within thirty minutes.

"Made a decision yet, Carson?" Summers asked. He'd buckled in, preparatory to re-entry.

"Hell, Carson's going to re-up," Sinclair said. "What the hell else is he going to do?"

Hearse said, "Why don't you break out the lucky twenty-sider and roll for it, Carson?"

Carson grinned. The die was zipped into a utility pocket on his combat harness, next to a multi-tool and a palm-sized signaling mirror.

"No more serious decisions based on die rolls, Hearse," Aidan said. "Not after Daytona Beach. I think that redhead gave me crabs."

Hearse said, "The blond was clean. Should have rolled under ten. Tell you what though, when my enlistment's up I'm going to find a beach to sit on - not Daytona - drink beer, and watch it all collapse around me."

"Save me a spot," said Summers. "I'll bring ice."

"Right," said Sinclair. "Come on, you're a lifer and so is Carson. Ain't you?"

"Hate to disappoint you, Sinclair, but I haven't quite made up my mind," Aidan said, before the craft began shaking, putting an end to further conversation.

The buffeting eased once the shuttle had passed through the upper atmosphere. When Captain Merit announced "one minute," Aidan and the rest of the team stood to face the rear hatch, bunched together in a space not much larger than a freight elevator, all the more cramped with the roughly one hundred pounds of parachute and gear strapped to their bodies. The light above the hatch turned green and the door dropped open to reveal a rectangle of night sky, the howl of the wind reaching through the lowered ear pieces of Aidan's helmet, but not loud enough to mask the "go, go, go" command received through his implant. The oxygen-rich air mixture whipped out of the bay. The transparent visor of his helmet slid down, blocking the worst of the gale battering his face, and the tiny bottle of oxygen clipped to his parachute harness began a thin feed through a flex-hose into his helmet, the soft waft past his cheek feeling almost like a caress. He shuffled after Sinclair, then hurled himself in turn into the void.

He'd torqued the straps attaching the squad automatic rifle to his chest so tightly they were digging into him, but nonetheless the SAW threatened to rise up and clobber him in the chin as he plunged into the violent stratosphere. The thermal pumps in his battle dress uniform kicked into life, counteracting the frigid conditions engulfing him. The display in his visor lit up, detailing altitude, wind speed, rate of descent, temperature, and Aidan's location in relation to the rest of the team. Other than those fluctuating symbols, he was dropping into a featureless black abyss.

"Headcount," Merit said through the implant, the free fallers still close enough for the limited range of the communications devices implanted in each man's jaw. The operation anticipated them maintaining that proximity, but each man carried radios for greater distances and could of course link the implants to their personal wrist mounted datapads for globe spanning (but only poorly encrypted) communication. Sergeant Sinclair was burdened with the secure coms, just as SFC Massey was toting medical supplies, and Aidan the SAW.

Guided by the display in his visor, and occasional, unnecessary instructions from Captain Merit, Aidan dove earthward, headfirst. On command, at 2,500 feet, he flattened out, slowing his fall, then opened his chute. A few lights - very few lights - interrupted the darkness below. Another nearly unpopulated backwater, another hidey-hole for the dirtbags. This particular hidey-hole was somewhere in central Africa, so he'd get to add wild animals to his list of things to watch out for on this op. Aidan drifted down, adjusting the lines to direct his descent, steering toward the destination blinking on the map overlay in his visor.

The visor informed him of his impending rendezvous with the ground, and he caught just a dim view of a less dark mass rushing up at him. Then Aidan hit with a five-point landing that would have gotten him at least a grudging "go" from his instructors at Fort Benning. He checked himself for broken bones, then collected his chute. He thumbed the stud on his helmet that retracted the ear flaps, taking in the night sounds. He retrieved his night vision goggles and strapped them on over his helmet. The darkness took on shape: a dim greenish landscape appeared before him, computer modeling enhancing the imagery and displaying a virtual depth across the inside of his visor. The map overlay led him to the rest of the team, scattered over no more than two kilometers.

Aidan called up a picture of his mother and father as he walked, slipped it to the upper right hand corner of the visor. He glanced at it periodically for a minute, then dismissed it before linking up with the team. Nothing. The image didn't change anything.

The team had come down within the planned drop zone, ten klicks from the target. "Listen up," Captain Merit was saying as Aidan joined the gathered team. "The target is Farouq ibn Farouq, the terrorist so nice they named him twice." A portrait briefly occupied the upper left quadrant of Aidan's visor, showing him the visage he'd already memorized the previous day: a bearded, aquiline face, skin the color of toasted almonds. "He's head of operations for the local Western Civilization Fan Club. Nothing fancy here: we go in, kill him, snap a picture, get bio-samples, grab any readily available intel, then scoot. Questions?"

"How many hostiles?" Aidan asked. "Any noncombatants?" They'd been over the operation on the station, but Captain Merit had been receiving updates until they'd actually leapt from the shuttle.

"Last intelligence estimate: twenty fighters plus about fifty women and children. So, we're a scalpel, not a hammer. Got it?"

Four variations of "yes, sir" answered him. They spread out, roughly ten-meters separating one man from another, and moved, so many dots on Aidan's visor. Six dots, to be precise: five widely separated, the sixth, the Mule trotting along like a dog behind the dot representing Sinclair, the Mule's electric engine a faint background whine, audible only to one listening for it.

It was a ghostly landscape, this eerie scrub land, portrayed in shades of green, and oddly flat, despite the computer's best efforts to provide a level of three-dimensionality. Tall grasses scraped against Aidan's boots and slapped against his legs. He moved cautiously, alert for the ankle-breaking holes of animal dens or loose rock turning underfoot. He half expected to see the reflective, saucer-size eyes of large predators gazing hungrily at him.

He crouched when the map indicated he was about a kilometer from the encampment. He heard the barest rustle as Summers slipped away to reconnoiter the target, the labeled dot representing him on Aidan's visor inching away.

Aidan sipped some water, listening to the insects and the unfamiliar noises of the African night. He stared about him, looking for anything that appeared out of place - other than himself. By the time Summers returned and conferred with Merit, half an hour had elapsed. Aidan found he'd been enjoying the nocturnal symphony.

"Game time, ladies," Merit said. "Here's the layout." A plan of the encampment appeared on Aidan's visor. "We're going to split the party."

"Fucking geeks," Summers said.

"Stow it, Summers. One guard here, at the south entrance. Hearse, you take him down quiet. Carson, Sinclair you enter. Carson break left, Sinclair right. Secure here and here. The rest of us will breach this structure here, Farouq should be there. Rally point right here."

Each man unslung the rucksack from his back and piled it on the Mule, then waited a moment for Sinclair to instruct the robot to stay. Then they moved, Hearse about a hundred meters in advance, threading the suppressor to the barrel of his .45 caliber pistol.

"Down," came the whisper through Aidan's implant. He crouched. Looking ahead he saw a wavering point of light - artificially bright through his night vision - and he could just make out the figure of a man, limned with a thick outline by the computer's biometrics programming. He heard a noise like a muted exhalation. The outlined figure collapsed, disappearing in the grass and the spot flicked off. Aidan stood and raced Sinclair to the gate, an open space in a waist high mud-brick wall.

Aidan split left as he passed beneath the lintel of thin, twisty logs that marked the gateway. He had only the sketchiest impression of the compound or village the wall encircled. In his enhanced night vision view he saw a collection of squat, irregular, slab-sided structures, roofed with thatching or sheets of corrugated metal. He saw no watch towers or block houses. Nothing lending the place a military aspect. Farouq was blending in, then. Going to ground and relying on the human shield school of thought - using his enemy's disinclination to kill women and children.

He could hear the boots of the entry team behind him as he reached his assigned post, the mud-brick corner of a house where the curve of the compound wall still allowed him a view of the south gate if he turned his head. He knelt, putting his back to the corner, hefting the SAW to his shoulder. He watched the three dots form a triangle outside the outline of the largest structure shown on his map of the village. Setting up for a breach, just like training in the kill-house scenarios they'd all drilled over and over at Camp Rowe. Then he minimized the map, not wanting the imagery to distract him.

A dog began barking somewhere deeper in the compound. A sharp report seemed to answer. Apparently Farouq's front door was locked. Aidan heard shouting, a burst of gunfire - the ubiquitous AK-47 - then silence. Momentarily.

To his right he heard doors opening, followed immediately by yelling. He double-checked that the fire selector was switched to auto. The slap of sandaled feet announced his first visitor. His visor silhouetted the advancing figure, distinctive geometry of the Kalashnikov rifle held at port arms, bare chested, wearing only baggy trousers and cheap flip-flops, a bolo knife tucked through the cord holding up the pants. The man clearly hadn't noticed Aidan, nearing Aidan's position without slowing, so Aidan raised the barrel of the SAW as the man passed within two feet of him and depressed the trigger. Four rounds caught the man in the side, tearing open his rib cage and sending his corpse sprawling, Kalashnikov launching from dead fingers to land yards away.

The chattering of the SAW so near reverberated in his head, muting the sounds of the conflict in the encampment. He thought he heard firing from Sinclair's position. Then a furious exchange of gunfire from within Farouq's house. He couldn't see the house from his position, but he spared a glance in that direction, his night-vision catching gunfire as jagged white flares that provided strobes of illumination to walls and hard-packed mud streets. Well, he had his fire sector. If the Captain needed him, he'd call. He returned his attention where it belonged.

Yells, exhortations to God he'd heard too many times, announced his next visitors. Shit, thought Aidan, twenty fighters my ass; fucking intel can't count. There might have been twenty in just this group, filling the space between the village wall and the nearest houses. They came on like a wave, flooding toward him, rifles, naked blades, and at least a couple of RPG launchers bobbing up and down in the mass of humanity. His visor kept up, the individual components of the human wave were picked out and given a sense of depth.

Right. Aidan wished he'd gone prone and set up the bipod. He tucked the buttstock tight to his shoulder and opened up. The wave came on, sections collapsing, breaking apart. Still it came on, bright flashes and loud reports telling him the firefight wasn't one-sided. Rounds embedded into the mud bricks behind him, others skipping off of the hard-packed earth around him. He kept the trigger depressed, sweeping across the front of attackers, his shoulder absorbing the jack-hammer recoil. Spent brass and the disintegrating links from the belt littered the street about him.

Shit! They kept coming. How many did he have to kill before they stopped coming? There, one kneeling with an RPG. Traverse left. More rounds hammering from the SAW. Got him. But, oh fuck, another one. Traverse right. God, he was getting so tired of this. But, keep firing, he thought wearily. They keep coming so keep knocking them down.

And then the firing ceased. Click. 200-hundred round plastic magazine empty already. Still one man coming at him, brandishing a goddamned scimitar. Or was it a tulwar? Aidan wasn't clear on the difference. He also wasn't clear on why military procurement insisted on clinging to fifty-year old weapons platforms. Why wasn't he carrying something with electronically ignited, caseless rounds, something with a greater magazine capacity? Something that wasn't strapped so tightly to his chest and was a bit more practical in a close quarters fight?

Aidan didn't have time to load another magazine of linked ammunition or even slap a thirty-round M-16 magazine in the well. The strap configuration on his rifle was optimized for weapon retention, security, and ease in bringing it to a firing position. It wasn't optimized for hand to hand combat. The weapon wasn't really built for bayonet lunges or delivering a butt-stroke to the head. Wasn't a bayonet lug on the short SAW anyway and its collapsible butt-stock wouldn't deliver much of a wallop.

But there was the bolo knife in the belt of the first man he'd killed. He released his grip on the SAW, let it dangle, and lunged for the long knife. Seemed so far away from him.

He imagined the scimitar arcing down at him, burying deep in his neck. Not hard enough to take his head off but hard enough the bastard couldn't tug it easily free, had to yank it out. Take a couple more whacks, and he'd feel each one before the dull blade severed his spinal cord.

And then Aidan's gloved fingers reached the handle of the bolo; he snatched it free from the cord belt, raising himself to one knee to catch the descending sword stroke.

The blades clanged, Aidan twisted his wrist and the scimitar slid away to his right, throwing the swordsman off balance. Aidan used the split-second respite to push himself to his feet, swivel side-on in a fencer's stance. It felt a trifle unnatural; his training was in the Italian school, sword and parrying dagger. But he'd cross-trained, acting as Captain Merit's sparring partner in enough classical fencing bouts in the VR Salle that he pulled off the maneuver as fluidly as practical given all the gear strapped to him. His reaction seemed to take his attacker aback and Aidan had a chance to get a decent look at him, his greenish tinted face thin, mostly beardless. Oh Christ, he thought, not much more than fifteen years old. Another goddamn kid.

And then the kid was moving again, starting a looping backhand, going for Aidan's neck. Aidan lunged, plunging the bolo knife into the kid's abdomen as the scimitar whooshed overhead.

The kid screamed, dropping the sword and backing away. The thick blade of the bolo slid out of the gaping hole, a brighter shade of green beginning to spread from the wound.

Aidan let the knife drop. He detached the spent magazine and grabbed another 200-round magazine.

"Fallback to the rally point," came Merit's voice. Aidan took another glance down the street, saw nothing but the kid, now on his knees, still screaming, a pile of bodies behind him, some still writhing, pleas to God interspersed with groans and wails. A momentary glance, but the image imprinted itself vividly, indelibly. Then Aidan tore himself away and pelted back down the street, making for the south gate.

He saw Hearse, a burden slung over his shoulder. Two dots overlapped on his visor. Shit, that was Summers in a fireman's carry. Behind came Captain Merit, walking backwards, M4 panning left to right, triggering three-round bursts every few seconds. Sinclair sprinted toward them. They all met at the gate.

Aidan and Sinclair took over rear guard from the Captain, who eased Summers from Massey's shoulder.

"Hang on, Summers," Merit said. Turning his back, he grabbed the Master Sergeant beneath the knees and hoisted while Hearse lifted him by the armpits.

"I'll hang on so long as you and Massey do," Summers answered. Aidan noted he didn't refer to the medic as 'Hearse' this time.

They returned to the rally point at a trot without seeing any further pursuit, Merit explaining that they'd taken out Farouq easily enough, took his mug shots, fingerprints and hair sample. Merit had snatched a datapad and was looking for a computer or any storage devices when the bodyguards arrived. More bodyguards than there should have been. Summers had taken two below his vest, but stayed on his feet, helping clear the room before they scampered.

"Shit, sir, it's just a flesh wound," Summers said. "Well, okay, two. Two, deep, very painful flesh wounds."

"That's right, Summers," Merit said. "Let's get you to the Mule and head to the rendezvous. You can show us the scars over beer. Or better yet, considering where you got shot, let's just stick to drinking the beer."

It was a thirty mile hump to the exfiltration site, where an Army Special Air chopper would be waiting to fly them out to an aircraft carrier. From there, another helicopter would deliver them to Diego Garcia. And then Aidan would go back to what was left of the States and get his discharge papers. He had had his fill. There was something else out there for him. He didn't know what it was but he was damned sure going to look. He didn't know what the others would do. Probably more of the same; killing the seemingly inexhaustible supply of people filled with seemingly bottomless wells of hate.

Except for Master Sergeant Summers. He'd never squeeze another trigger or drink another beer. He died before they reached the Mule.

 

 

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Author Bio

Ken Lizzi is an attorney living in Portland, Oregon, USA, with his lovely wife Isa, his newborn daughter Victoria, and an ever-growing collection of books and home-brewing equipment.

TTB titles: Reunion
Under Strange Suns

Author web site.

 

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Under Strange Suns Copyright 2015. Ken Lizzi. All rights reserved by the author. Please do not copy without permission.

 

To order this book:
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List Price: $6.50 USD

Format: Trade Paperback
    Available December 2015!
List Price: $19.95 USD

 

  Author News

Under Strange Suns is a finalist in the Science Fiction category for the Foreword Reviews 2015 INDIEFAB Book of the Year Award.

 

  Reviews

"Ken Lizzi's new novel [Under Strange Suns] blasts off in an action-packed flight to worlds far away, in a cross between John Carter and Star Trek, with just a dab of Starship Trooper tossed in. And it's swords and guns and aliens, oh, my ... What's not to like?"
~ Steve Perry, New York Times Bestselling Author
 




 


 

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