The Road to the Stars – Chapter Fourteen

“Venomous snake” are the first words which leap to mind when thinking of the Primus. “Egomaniac” and “paranoid bitch” are close in the running, too.

If you’re getting the idea I didn’t like Vasilia Newling, well, you’re half-right.

I hated what she did and what she made happen. She wrought untold misery across a swath of the Inner System for years.

That said, I never met her in person, nor did I even talk to her directly. I tried; Zeus knows I tried! I offered publicly, I offered privately, I sent messages to her government.

Nothing.

It’s one of the few regrets I have, that I was never able to talk with her. I still feel much of the bloodshed and pain of our conflict could have been avoided with a few meetings.

Don’t forget to enter to win an AUTOGRAPHED copy of Triumph’s Ashes! This is an Author’s Proof copy, one of the preliminary copies Adam receives to check for errors and proper typesetting and all that other felgercarb (don’t ask me, I just tell the stories, he has to write them down and do the fiddly bits). The contest runs until August 14, so don’t hesitate, enter today! Click the Rafflecopter button below. And you can also buy your own copy of the book if you’re tired of waiting for chapters by either clicking the BUY ME NOW button or any cover image.

Chapter Fourteen

“I. Want. Results. Not excuses. Results.”

The fact that the Primus wasn’t yelling was enough to chill even the most stoic of her Ministers.

“Primus, it takes time to penetrate any organization, even with the most lax security. None of the parts of the Harriman Trust could be said to have lax security, whether electronic, physical, or personal.”

“Does that mean you’ve failed, Minister Dent?”

“Not in the least, Primus! We have had successes. One of our agents is in place in the station they are building at L5; another is reporting to us from the reclamation project they are doing outside Houston; a third is instigating a criminal investigation into their operation.”

“What good will that last do? We don’t care if they’re inconvenienced by some bogus criminal charges.”

“It will distract them, and their security people, and distracted people make mistakes. Primus, we are making progress. It simply isn’t as easy, or as quick, as we hoped.”

“We’ve had some results,” said Minister Whitmore, always ready to capitalize on the perceived weakness of another.

“Oh?”

“Yes. We’ve placed spy satellites around their station, keeping it under observation at all times. Nothing can arrive, or leave, without us noticing.”

“So you can count the ships that fly in. What good is that?” scoffed Newling.

“We’ve also persuaded our colleagues at the SUN to maintain a tight net around their so-called ‘exclusion zone’; they have been tracking their starship as it goes about its errands, though none of the SUN ships have been able to pace it.”

“That’s good news,” admitted Newling.

“We are discontinuing it, however, as I believe that will lull them into a false sense of security, and rely only on the surveillance satellites that will remain in place.”

“Then I ask again, what good is that?”

“It allows us to track personnel and material transfer, for one thing. I won’t bore you with the details, Primus, but they have dramatically increased the number of shipments from Earth. They have also increased the frequency of flights from their station into the area surrounding it; we believe these to be training flights, as there are always two of their Wolf shuttles, and one flies a tighter course than the other.”

“Any conclusion you wish to draw from this?”

“I leave intelligence to my colleague at MinInt, Primus,” evaded Whitmore smoothly. “They have, of course, been provided with all the data we have gathered.”

“Hmpf. Dent? What do you think they are doing?”

“I concur with Minister Whitmore’s assessment that the Wolf flights are training exercises. As for conclusions, my staff is still analyzing the data, so any information I can present is preliminary, you understand.” He waited for the grudging nod of acknowledgement from the Primus; while it didn’t guarantee his safety, it did at least signal that the Primus was thinking instead of simply reacting. “That said, Primus, we tend to view the increased training flights with great trepidation. Increased training necessarily results in increased capabilities of the trainees, increased numbers of trained personnel, or both.”

He waited for a nod before continuing again.

“We have preliminary data that suggests they are producing more shuttles. More shuttles would, of course, require more personnel to operate. However, given the nature of their relationship toward the Union, we also believe that they intend to utilize these shuttles in patrolling the area over which they claim control.”

“Preposterous!” spat Whitmore. “What good would that do, even if it wasn’t simply a fantasy?”

“Minister, if they increase their patrols, they can interdict our probes, our satellites, even our ships.”

“They wouldn’t dare!”

“I rather think they would,” countered Dent. “They certainly haven’t shown any restraint in their reactions in the past.”

“If they threaten any of our ships, we shall destroy them!”

“We could possibly destroy their station. Oh, do stop sputtering, Davie; you sound ridiculous. That station is enormous, Minister; it isn’t an aircraft you can knock down with a twenty-kilo KEW. We have no idea yet how it is constructed, or if it is armored, or even what defenses it mounts. In addition, and I believe that Foreign Affairs will agree with me, if we were to destroy an inhabited station in retaliation for the destruction or intercept of an unmanned probe, we may well lose the support of the other Union members.”

“They need us more than we need them!” insisted Whitmore.

“That may well be true, Minister. But what you propose may well fracture the Union and open a war on multiple fronts, a war in which we may not prevail.”

“Mars and Titan have problems of their own,” opined Arthur, the Foreign Affairs Minister. “They would follow our lead. The Miner’s Guild, however, has always been more fractious and independent-minded. They still depend on trade for much of their food, but Earth would be happy to exchange food for metals.”

“Which we would then get, under the Amendment!”

If they traded them to countries bound by the Amendment, yes. For example, if they traded to the UE, or the United States, yes. But what if they trade to Republic of Texas, where HLC is based? Or perhaps to the California Confederacy? For all their problems, California exports more food than any two other countries on the planet. They would certainly trade with the Guild. And neither of these are a signatory, and are not bound by it.”

“Then we do what we must to take it.”

“Must everything be war, Davie? They have billions to our millions. And again, if we were attack an Earthside country for not complying with an agreement to which they are not a party, we would fracture our Union.” Arthur shook his head. “I’m afraid my cousin is right; we must find a method which will not alienate our allies.”

“Thank you,” replied Dent. “Primus, Ministers, allow us time to do our jobs. I will be reaching out to Minister Newling at MinTech for further aid in penetrating their electronic security, as well as Minister Pitt at MinSec for their, ah, expertise at covert operations.”

“Very well, Mr. Dent. You have your time. But I repeat: I want results, not words. Come to this table again with empty promises and pleas for more time, and your assistant will soon find themselves filling your shoes. Do I make myself clear?”

“Crystal clear, Primus.”

The Road to the Stars – Book 2 – Chapter 14

The Cassidy Chronicles – Chapter FOUR & FIVE

This is when the wheels started to come off.

I know what you’re thinking: didn’t they come off when Farrell tried to kill Cass? Or if not there, then when Derek freaked out and you two killed your stalkers? Or maybe on the road in New York?

Nope.

All of those were, I hate to say it, run-of-the-mill happenings for a courier slash assassin.

But OutLook was always the place I knew I could go for help, even if I rarely actually showed my face there. I knew they had my back, though, no matter what.

Until now.

Don’t forget to enter to win an AUTOGRAPHED copy of Triumph’s Ashes! This is an Author’s Proof copy, one of the preliminary copies Adam receives to check for errors and proper typesetting and all that other felgercarb (don’t ask me, I just tell the stories, he has to write them down and do the fiddly bits). The contest runs until August 14, so don’t hesitate, enter today! Click the Rafflecopter button below. And you can also buy your own copy of the book if you’re tired of waiting for chapters by either clicking the BUY ME NOW button or any cover image.

Chapter 4: Come into My Parlor…

Once the door closed, the mask came off.

‘You are one stupid bitch! I ought to have the two of you tossed back out onto the streets and let the local vermin take care of you!’

‘I got her here, didn’t I?’ retorted Kendra.

‘Barely. Got your ass jumped by a pack of crackers in the park, nearly got another agent killed. If what that pretty little physicist worked on wasn’t a game-changer, I wouldn’t think twice about canning your ass!’

Then her tone changed.

‘But, she is, so for now you’re still on the payroll.’

‘Whoop-te-do. Don’t do me no favors, Director.’

‘Don’t you worry, I won’t. Starting with, as of now, you’re off this mission.’

Kendra bounced out of her seat. ‘You can’t do that!’

‘Yes, I can. Director, remember?’

‘No, you can’t! I was never ON this mission, remember? She’s my wife, for gossake! Nobody knew about Aiyana’s breakthrough, nobody was assigned to protect her! The only reason I brought her here is because you asked me to!’

‘That’s it exactly, Agent Foster-Briggs. She’s your wife.’ The voice was cold again.

‘What do you mean by that?’ asked Kendra in a dangerous tone.

‘You’re too emotionally involved to be effective. End of discussion.’ Talbott turned to search for some papers on the desk, finding the correct one quickly. She handed it to Kendra.

‘What’s that?’ said Kendra, not reaching for the paper.

‘Your new assignment. Rather time-sensitive, I’m afraid; you’ll have to leave within forty-eight hours to make the rendezvous. Doesn’t give you much opportunity to prepare, but -’

‘I won’t do it.’ Kendra’s refusal was flat.

‘You don’t have a choice,’ responded Talbott.

‘I work for you; I’m not your slave. I can quit, and leave, any time I want.’

Talbott leaned back in her chair. ‘Go ahead.’

Kendra stood. ‘I should – I will!’

Talbott nodded. ‘The door is right behind you.’ Kendra turned, got as far as putting her hand on the door, before Talbott spoke again. ‘You walk out now, though, and you won’t ever see your wife again.’

She froze. ‘You’re bluffing.’

‘Am I? Where is she, do you know?’

‘I’ll find her if I have to tear the building apart.’

‘Impractical, that. Oh, you might take out eight, ten agents, but there’s over a hundred here right now. You wouldn’t stand a chance.’

Kendra’s hand fell away from the door.

‘It’s a simple assignment, really,’ purred Talbott. ‘And, once it’s complete, we can discuss the possibility of you leaving.’

‘Certainty, you mean. If I do this job, it’s the last one I’ll ever do for you,’ growled Kendra. ‘What about Cass?’

‘Aiyana? Oh, we’ll take care of her here. I’ll put Agent McAllister in charge of her comfort and care.’

‘We’re working with someone on the inside, trying to figure out who did this to her. She’ll need access to computers and the net.’

‘Naturally. It will be secure, I assure you, from any outside attacks or trackbacks.’

Kendra reached for the paper. ‘How long is this assignment?’

‘Oh, just a few days. A simple matter, really, a delivery and exchange. But it’s back into the San Fernando; you do still have your contacts, yes?’

‘You know I do.’

‘Splendid. Then let’s discuss the details…’

Chapter 5: Loose Lips Sink Ships

The quarters were a few levels below ground.

‘Nothing with a view?’ joked Cass, trying to make the best of it. After all, if she could be happy with the idea of living in a railroad tunnel, a few days in a basement couldn’t be too bad, right?

‘Oh, no views down here, Ms. Foster-Briggs, we’re a little ways under the building, not too far, did you know that it used to be a Mint and there are all sorts of secret tunnels leading all over the old city? Pretty cool, actually, and we haven’t even begun to map all of them yet which stinks because we’ve lost people down there before but we got them back.’

‘Okay, before we go any further, two things. One, you can call me Aiyana, or Cass, but not ‘Ms. Foster-Briggs.’ Got that?’

‘Yes, Ms. – Cass.’

Cass smiled at the younger woman’s correction but didn’t otherwise acknowledge it. ‘And second – breathe, once in a while!’

‘Ma’ – Cass?’

‘Forget it. Quarters, eh? Sounds grim.’

‘Oh, no, Miss – Cass, not grim at all, even the regular quarters are very nice, they don’t skimp at all, but these are the VIP suites, I’m sure you’ll be comfortable here, and if there’s anything I can do just let me know because I guess I am going to be your hostess and guide while you’re here.’

‘That’s nice, Mac – wait. What about Kendra?’

‘Oops. I don’t think I was supposed to tell you anything.’

‘You hadn’t – until then. What’s going on, Mac?’

Mac ignored the question. ‘This is your room, your ID can get you in, and then you can program the door to respond to your voice if you want. Let me show you.’ She took the card from Cass’s hand and passed in in front of a sensor.

A cool contralto voice said, ‘Welcome, Aiyana,’ as the door silently retracted into the wall.

‘Pretty neat, huh, Cass? The computer selects a voice appropriate for the person assigned to the room.’

‘Very, but I’m more interested in -’

Mac still ignored her. ‘Ooh, this is nice! Wow!’

Cass had to admit, it was a tastefully done and comfortable-looking room. A small couch, a table, a desk and chair with a full-service terminal were to the left of the entry; to the right was a compact kitchen and another doorway, closed at the moment. Dominating the far wall was a monitor that had to stretch eight feet.

‘Watch this!’ Mac walked over to the monitor’s control panel, touched a key. ‘Display – what do you want to see?’

Cass was struck by a sudden feeling of homesickness. But, she realized, where was home now? Certainly not Minnesota – that hadn’t been home for fifteen years. MIT was never home either, though she held many happy memories of her days studying there. Los Alamos? It had been a house, yes, but never a home, not until Kendra came back into her life. So now where?

Pushing the thoughts aside, she took two strides over to Mac and, surprising them both, lifted the smaller woman off the ground.

‘You listen to me, Mac, and then you answer me. Where is Kendra, and what do you mean you’ll be watching over me?’

‘The Director gave me my orders!’ squeaked Mac. ‘She said that Kendra had an assignment she had to complete and that it would be a few days and I should make sure you stayed out of trouble and maybe helped you find out what was going on because I’m a really good hacker all the instructors said so and can you put me down now please?!’

Cass dropped her with a thud. ‘An assignment? But we’re on our honeymoon!’

‘I know it doesn’t seem fair but a business is a business and I guess this needed Kendra’s expertise and there’s nothing we can do about it so can you maybe let me just be your friend while you’re here?’

Cass took pity on the suddenly vulnerable-looking agent. ‘I suppose so. Come on. Finish the tour.’

The Cassidy Chronicles – Book 2 – Chapter 4
The Cassidy Chronicles – Book 2 – Chapter 5

Pamela Evans Interview!

It’s a glorious Monday in August, and that means it’s time for another Monday Morning Author Interview.

Today we have a visit from a relative rarity, a non-fiction author, but one with a very timely message! Pamela Evans has written The Preschool Parent Primer, a guide for everyone who is involved in the massive production which is preschool: parents, caregivers, and teachers! But you don’t want to hear from me; you want to hear from her!

Pamela Evans is an award-winning educator, early childhood specialist, and school director. She works as a consultant for preschools and music programs for children, focusing on young families. New parents have a lot to navigate and preschool is just one of the many new challenges that face parents. This is why Pamela has written the resource guide, The Preschool Parent Primer, with advice and helpful links for parents. She is also the author of The Preschool Parent Blog and The Preschool Parent Book Review at IvyArtz.com Featuring brief useful posts for busy parents!

Q:  Where do you get your information or ideas for your books?

A:  For the Preschool Parent Primer my information came from decades of working with young children and their families, as a teacher and co-director of a school. I wrote a list of best practices and parent concerns that we used at the preschool every year for parent orientation. My co-teacher asked for a copy of that list and the book really came from that. Although it took a couple years before the book was fully formed.

I have worked for years as a storyteller and musician as well. For years I have been writing fiction works for children and I am finally getting those out too. Ideas for those books come straight from working with children.

Q:  What is your work schedule like when you’re writing?

A:  This is interesting, in that I thought once I left the school, I would be up early in the morning and write for 6 hours and be done each day. The reality is a bit different now that I’m a full-time writer. I usually write from 8am to 10am. Then I need to move. After decades of chasing children all day, I find it difficult to sit for long periods of time. After my first writing stint of the morning, I take a break every hour to stretch and exercise a bit (even if it’s just getting a household chore done – as long as I’m moving). I generally stop writing around 4pm. It is not unusual for me to write a bit more in the evening and on occasion I wake up in the middle of the night with an idea, so I get up and write.

Q:  What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

A:  I like to paint. I also play alto clarinet in a local band, which qualifies me as a real band geek. And I like to be outside learning about local plants and bird watching.

Q: What does your family think of your writing?

A:  My family is very supportive and helpful. It’s a house full of creatives and young adults. If I need help with an idea, a proofreader, someone to explain a current trend to me, or IT advice, they are here to help. I’m very fortunate in that respect.

Q:  Do you hear from your readers much? What kinds of things do they say?

A:  I do hear from my readers. Because I have taught so many children over the years, both in preschool and music lessons, people contacting me goes beyond emails. It is not uncommon for a parent to stop me downtown and tell me how a certain chapter in my book, or a blog post was helpful. That means a lot to me. I write to provide behavioral context and resources for parents, so it’s always wonderful to know it’s useful.

Q:  Do you like to create books for adults?

A:  Yes. My writing for adults is nonfiction and practical. I like sharing my expertise if it can be useful. Over the years I have also enjoyed doing presentations for parents and teachers. I especially enjoyed these times with adults while spending my days with young children!  Now I am enjoying a bit of a switch. Writing fiction for children.

Q:  What do you think makes a good story?

A:  My short answer is a good balance between adventure and details. I like to really feel that I’m there. I want to know what they’re eating. What does the town look like? What do the election posters in the school corridor look like? Little details really draw me in. I need at least a couple characters I can identify with, adventure and quick thinking, and lastly, I’m a traditionalist in some ways. I want a satisfying, mostly things are okay ending. I don’t mind a few lose ends that keep my mind working.

Q:  What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?

A:  My favorite literary adventure was meeting James Herriot. I was a huge fan of the “All Creatures Great and Small Books.” My mother gave me a copy of “James Herriot’s Yorkshire.” I was studying abroad in Oxford. On my spring break I had a Eurail pass. I use the book as a travel guide. I figured out that the one place in the book he didn’t describe as a place he had to travel to was Thirsk. I thought he must live there and I was correct. I can’t tell you how wonderful the people of Thirsk were to me – but long story short I got to spend an afternoon with my favorite veterinarian author and met some of his furry clients as well. I literally like to know the lay of the land of the stories I read. I will never forget my time in Yorkshire.

On the children’s book side, I got to visit the haunts of the fictional cat Pelle Svenlös (tailless) while in Uppsala Sweden. The town provides markers to help tourists find Pelle’s favorite spots. I hope to visit Sweden again once covid is past and this time get to Astrid Lindgren’s home in Vimerby.

Q:  What are common traps for aspiring writers?

A:  I think the biggest one is buying into too many classes and programs. To be a writer you need to write. Don’t get me wrong, it’s really helpful to take a couple quality classes and conferences can certainly inspire you as well as help you make contacts. Because it can be difficult to make ends meet as a writer so many writers (and even want-to-be writers) actually make their money selling courses. There’s a real glut on the market. It’s easy for aspiring writers to get caught up in the hype. A good critique group and just spending your time on writing will be the most beneficial.

Q:  Did you ever consider writing under a pseudonym?

A:  Yes, my children’s books will be under the name Anne Darelius. I actually picked this name when I was 8 years old. It’s a family name so it works for me as still being my name. That said I wouldn’t use a pen name, except my name comes with a couple problems. First of all, my name is very common. Many writers have my name. Secondly, and the one that really settled it for me, the most famous author with my name is a best-selling romance author. I don’t want my young child readers accidently drawn into that. No offense to the other Pam Evans intended!

Q:  Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want?

A:  This is a great question and for me the answer is to try to do both. It’s definitely not easy. As a reader I like some predictability and a satisfying ending…but I don’t want to be bored. Now writing for children really isn’t that different than for adults in that way. They need certain expectations met, but if you can weave in something new and unexpected – that makes a book exciting.

Q:  What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?

A:  Over a few years I have gathered a couple groups of author friends. Some are published, some are aspiring authors. They have proven to be invaluable. These are people you can run ideas and questions by. From co-working groups to critique groups to lunch with a friend who is a published author – you learn a lot from other authors. Frankly, this is how several authors I know got published. You need to meet people in the field.

Q:  What do you owe the real people upon whom you base your characters?

A:  I think this is important for the Preschool Parent Primer. I wrote about my decades of experience with young families. I use actual examples of situations that are common concerns for parents. That said, I never used a situation that was unique. In other words, every example I used of a learning moment, was a composite of several families and all the names were changed. It was necessary to use examples of certain behaviors that are common so the book would be useful, but I would never want to invade anyone’s privacy. I feel very strongly about that.

How can readers get in touch with you?

My preferred method is through my website, http://ivyartz.com/. But I’m also available on other social media sites.

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Author.Artist.Teacher.PamelaEvans

Great! Thanks for coming by; I’m sure that there are going to be many people who need this book!

Excerpt from Preschool Parent Primer:

Here’s the excerpt…

 From Chapter 5: What is Developmentally Appropriate?

Educators and parents alike discuss and praise the virtues of a preschool program being developmentally appropriate. It would be hard to find a preschool that wasn’t described by its promoters as developmentally appropriate. Even though some schools are clearly not what most educators would consider on target for 3- to 5-year-olds. How can you find the right level for your child? It’s all about listening to people in the school community and, if possible, visiting the school.

Open-ended projects are an essential element of a developmentally appropriate preschool. Projects should allow for different interpretations and skill levels. Professional teachers have training and experience to allow them to gauge development in many areas of learning, to include motor, language, social, and cognitive skills. They are familiar with learning patterns in children.

No two children develop all these skills at the same age. So, being developmentally appropriate is all about flexibility and observation. Look for open-ended toys. Lincoln Logs are fun, but they are designed to be put together in specific ways. In contrast, building block sets of various sizes can be made into anything your child imagines.

If you enter a preschool and see rows of bright, colorful projects that all look neat and alike, this is a red flag. It is a sign that the teachers did most of the work. Most schools do pre-cut or prepared projects occasionally, but if cookie cutter projects appear to be the norm at a school, it’s a sign that the program is not developmentally appropriate. 

Here are some reasons you might find these types of projects at a preschool:

         1. The teachers or administrators are in a competitive school environment. They believe more parents who are looking for a quality preschool will enroll their child if it looks like the children’s work is of a higher quality. These pre-cut projects are only thought of as higher quality by people who are unfamiliar with what quality preschool work looks like.

         2. The school may have inexperienced staff. They may put the physical appearance of the finished product over the importance of the process and allowing children to experiment. These teachers do not understand and appreciate what hands-on preschool learning looks like. They do not realize that creative exploration is how children will develop the skills the teachers are trying to encourage.

         3. It can be a sign that a teacher is too controlling and does not allow children to explore materials or follow their own creative instincts. There certainly are times when a teacher is hoping to focus on a specific task, but if all creative projects are micromanaged, they are no longer creative.

Sunday WildCard – The Kildaran, Chapter 50

Not a terribly long chapter this week, only ~6000 words. The merest trifle, right?

But I couldn’t post the next chapter as well; that one is another monster, and between them I’d probably crash the site.

Pitch time.

Have you heard of Kindle Vella? Seems Amazon thought I had a good thing going here, and they’ve decided to imitate it! Well, okay, maybe they’re not directly imitating me, but I was doing it first, even before they announced it!

Anyways.

Kindle Vella is a serial story platform. Authors put up ‘episodes’ of their stories – think of them as chapters – and you can read along with them, buying them with Amazon’s virtual currency, tokens. There’s no set schedule for releasing them, so some people post them all at once, some do multiple posts each week, some do once a week, some less often.

I post once a week.

My story, well, it’s really Kendra’s story; she’s the official author, after all. Here’s her description:

My name is Kendra Cassidy, retired Admiral, wife to Aiyana Cassidy, and I’m here to set the record straight. My biographer has done a good job, more or less, telling the stories of our life after we married. But there’s decades he missed, stories from our childhoods, which are dying to be told. These are my memories of Aiyana. I put up a new episode every Tuesday, and I may just slip in a special episode here or there, so click FOLLOW and stay up to date!

The first three episodes are free to read. And, to spur interest Amazon is giving away 200 tokens to anyone who asks for them.

So why not check it out? While you’re there, click on FOLLOW and give the episodes some thumb’s ups!

CHAPTER 50

Moscow

April 18

Mike was still goggling at the time when they hit on the ground at Vnukovo. Seventy-three minutes. They hadn’t even changed time zones, which led to his pleased realization that, whatever happened, he wouldn’t have to deal with jet lag.

As they taxied toward their parking spot, well away from any commercial terminals, Vanner was already on a phone with someone.

Who?

Russian, by the sound of it. Made sense.

Vanner motioned Mike to wait.

The plane stopped at their designated area and Mike could see the ground crew looking up, slack jawed. He smiled.

“I need the card,” Vanner mouthed, hand over the mouthpiece.

Wordlessly, Mike handed over the Titanium card. He heard the words “fifty thousand rubles” and “two hours” before Vanner started reading off numbers.

The call was soon over.

“What was that about? And you do know the Russians are the number one credit card thieves after Nigeria, right?” asked Mike after reclaiming the card. No point in leaving temptation with Vanner.

“Soundproofing. While we were in the air, I did some research, found a firm which does that kind of thing. They’ll come out to Vnukovo and do the job on site. Seems they have some extra tiles, supposed to go in the first-class section of the 747, they‘re willing to give up on the cheap. And I wouldn‘t worry about them stealing the card; I hacked into their system before calling. They try to access it for anything besides this little transaction, it all blows up on them. Plus, a Brit owns the company; Bridgewater vouched for him.”

“Just don’t let them tear the plane apart. We might be leaving in a hurry,” warned Mike. “If they’re on board when we boogie, they come with us.”

“I’ll brief ‘em when they board,” assured Vanner. “Might have to promise a bonus, then.”

“That’s capitalism. What else?”

“I think Watson’s already arranged for refueling, through a separate cover account. I don’t think we want Putin to know about our little surprise too soon, though I don‘t know what we can do about the crew. A security team might be a good idea.”

“Arrange it. You stay here, handle the bird with those two. Stay in touch.”

By now Mike was the last one on board.

“Good luck.”

Mike snorted. “Or something.”

*

“He’s here?!” bellowed Putin at the speakerphone. The vein in his forehead throbbed visibly.

“Yes, Minister. He and a team of Keldara, and some specialists, landed at Vnukovo a few minutes ago.”

“And in a fucking Backfire! Where did they get it?”

The spittle reached across the meeting room table.

“Apparently, the Georgians are being very cooperative,” was Chechnik’s bland reply. Privately, he admired Jenkins’ balls at flying a former Russian plane into Moscow, especially a bomber.

“Did nobody know they were coming? Why wasn’t I informed?”

The voice had turned to ice and he even appeared calmer. That meant trouble. The other experienced staff members quickly and quietly vanished, remembering places far away they needed to be.

Immediately, if not sooner.

“Minister, I was informed myself they arrived only moments ago. They were in the air less than an hour. It took us utterly by surprise,as nobody expected Umarov to provide such support to the Keldara. With the search going on, communications have been somewhat chaotic,” said Chechnik, carefully ignoring the first question. It was fortunate he’d chosen to call this report to the Prime Minister; if he’d been present, he doubted he’d survive the spittle.

“And we’re sure Jenkins is here?” persisted Putin.

“Yes, Minister. Along with members of his command team and a few Keldara warriors.”

“The warriors don’t matter,” said Putin, suddenly thoughtful. “Jenkins does. I want him followed, No! I want you with him at all times. Go and meet him.”

“But, Minister, someone has to coordinate the search!” Chechnik didn’t feel he ought to mention Jenkins had already imposed the condition, but to not protest wouldn’t be believable.

“No excuses, Chechnik! You have a deputy, yes? And he is capable of this? Or should I have him shot for incompetence as well?“ Chechnik didn’t see any point to replying. “You will take a tracking device and meet with the Kildar. I will know where the bastard is at all times, do you hear me?”

The Or else was unsaid; the throbbing vein added its own punctuation to the threat.

“Yes, Minister. May I ask why?” A homing device will piss Jenkins off. Maybe he ought to quietly warn him once out of earshot of Putin’s pet dogs

“No, you may not! Suffice it to say that I do not intend to let him interfere in Russian internal affairs again with impunity!” Putin allowed a horrible smile to cross his face. “I have special plans for that, that,  cowboy!”

Cowboy. That was rich. Putin was a rodeo clown, Jenkins, a skilled operator. But he allowed none of that to color his tone.

“Yes, Minister,” Chechnik answered to a dead line.

This didn’t sound promising.

*

Gereshk and his men easily evaded the patrolling squads. They were ordered to search buildings, not vehicles, so the battered lorry passing through the city streets raised no alarms, even though one Geiger counter screamed when it passed by. It knew a gamma source was nearby. The soldier holding it looked around quickly. All he saw were parked cars and one receding truck half a block away, so he hit it.

Twice.

The alarm died away. He assumed it was simply malfunctioning and chose not to say anything to his squad leader. They‘d already been chewed out for surging into a dentist’s office ready for a firefight. Even though Higher wouldn’t admit to it, they’d all heard of the other squad’s fate. To a man they’d resolved it wouldn’t happen to them, no comrade! This wasn’t a game or exercise any longer.

The patrols in the Komsomolsky District were all moving from the center of the city towards the periphery, so Gereshk ended up closer to his enemy’s heart than when he began. He passed three more foot squads and had even shadowed an army truck along an avenue for a while before he settled on a new location.

A small bakery off Khoromniy Tupik, with a ‘closed’ sign on the door, seemed to be the perfect safe house. For now. Unless the patrols began to double back, but no point in inviting Shai’tan‘s mischief.

The back door was only secured by a simple latch bar. A surreptitious knife raised it out of the way, the age-stiffened door was quickly forced, and the bomb brought in. Nobody noticed another truck making a routine delivery.

The room in the rear was a storage room. Fifty kilo bags of flour lined both concrete walls. Crockery, filled with starter culture, perched precariously above the sacks. The next room in was a prep kitchen. An ancient brick oven, still warm from its last use, stood in one corner, though no wood or coal was set up for the next day. So. Nobody was expecting to bake tomorrow. Or they were simply lazy; that was always a possibility. They’d find out soon enough.

Large dough mixers and industrial-sized ovens crowded the next  space, obviously the main baking area. The bomb was left in the back as the front was unsuitable. Not only was it lined with plate glass but also far too small. There was plenty of bread for the men, if a bit stale. Between that and the leavings in the walk-in, they could make a soup. That would settle the men down.

Gereshk felt more secure once the lorry was moved, parked a block away. The sturdy concrete walls would prevent any unwanted intrusions, and the relatively lightweight wooden roof was built to allow for adequate ventilation.

Wood, which stopped gamma radiation not at all.

*

The sedans the Russians had provided were roomy enough, if somewhat old. No matter, they would do.

Mike would have preferred old, heavy Army trucks.

He wanted the high vantage point, able to see beyond the car immediately ahead. He could use them to bulldoze through traffic if he had to. Since Padrek and his Team had been left behind, if he needed to force an entry, well, three to five tons of rolling steel made one hell of an door-opener.

Which is probably exactly why the Russians gave up the sedans.

Anisa and Grez already had their systems up and running, getting a continuous feed from The Cave and Stella.

“Anything, ladies?” asked Mike politely through the rear window.

“Some details about the firefight earlier.” answered Grez. “Looks like the Russians pretty well got slaughtered. They’ve recovered thirteen bodies, only two of which weren’t Russians.”

“Any ID yet? Even tentative?”

“No. They’ve cut back dramatically on their radio chatter, almost as if they knew we were here and wanted us dependent on them. Or someone’s just being a fucking asshole. One or the other. I do have an address, though,” she finished sweetly.

“Sounds like a place to start.” He stepped away. “Let’s move them out!”

Mike waved to the other four sedans. The Keldara drivers responded with single beeps on their horns.

The drivers provided with the cars were huddled together by the plane, hulked over by the patently unhappy Keldara warrior selected to guard them. They’d made the mistake of assuming they’d be allowed to follow their orders, doing the driving for the Keldara. Mike had quickly disabused them of the notion.

To prevent any unwanted distractions, he’d ordered all their cell phones and radios collected while Anisa and Grez swept the sedans for monitoring devices. It had only taken one would-be driver being hauled bodily from the wheel, turned upside-down, and shaken, before the other four produced their own devices post haste. That particular driver was now secured with rigger tape; Adams promised he wouldn’t go anywhere, and he might even keep his hair. Well, except for the one stripe.

He climbed into the limousine the Russians had provided, noting it was a Mercedes and the driver had been replaced by Jitka. He was followed closely by Arensky, Adams, and finally Kat.

“I didn’t like that plane,” announced Kat. “It’s too noisy!”

“Vanner’s working on it,” assured Mike. “But yeah, it’s not a 550. Tolegen, you’re our WMD expert. What do you know about this particular design?”

Settling back into the seat, Arensky began to recite.

“The RDS-46. A warhead, precisely, not a bomb. It was never designed to be dropped on a target by a plane, but rather delivered by an ICBM. The SS-6 Sapwood, it was called by the West, but it is properly the R-7 Semyorka.”

Even though he was impatient, Mike knew better than to interrupt an expert when in full lecture mode. Sometimes, you had to bite the bullet. Besides, he’d be able to take it out on some poor muj bastard soon enough, he felt. They’d find the bomb, he was sure of it.

The tougher part would be after: getting out of the city without getting dead. He tapped Jitka’s shoulder, and the impromptu caravan pulled out.

“Nominal yield is five megatons, achieved through the Teller-Ulam method where a small fission device is used to trigger a larger fusion explosion, which in turn triggers another fission reaction. Typically, a RDS-46 would have either an impact or altimeter trigger, depending on whether it was intended for a ground or air burst.”

Mike had to ask; this might be a useful loophole.

“It needs to be at an altitude to function?”

“Oh, no, not at all,” answered Arensky, not at all disturbed by the interruption. Intelligent questions, he could tolerate. After all, it allowed him to expound further.

“Those are simply the most common triggers, and either one can be simulated on the ground. For example, hitting the detonator with a large sledgehammer would activate an impact trigger quite nicely.”

Mike gulped as Arensky continued.

“Or, if you had the altimeter type, you could simply adjust the detonation setting. It works on air pressure, you see. Say you knew you were two hundred feet above sea level; you’d just manually set the trigger to detonate below two hundred feet and it would detonate almost immediately. Even if you don’t know your altitude, you can simply dial it down until you found the proper setting.“

“And how would you know the setting was right? Is there a tone or a light or something?“

This wasn’t a smart question, and Arensky’s irritation showed.

“No. It would explode. Once it was armed, of course. Either way would require a martyr, as well, so perhaps that’s not the method they would choose.”

“Or maybe exactly the method,” said Adams quietly. Mike nodded agreement.

“It would be quite simple to attach a timer, however, allowing for the perpetrator to escape. Radio or cellular triggers are also easy to assemble. If any of these men had experience with IEDs in Iraq, or Afghanistan, then they would likely be familiar with the set-up.”

“What kind of damage would a bomb like this do to Moscow?”

“Five megatons? Let me see…”

He pulled out a calculator that looked like it was a refugee from the seventies and started punching furiously. A minute later, he looked up.

“Assuming optimal yield, the fireball would be up to two kilometers across. Terrain, building density, those would alter the pattern, of course. Everything within that would be vaporized. Everyone closer than about five kilometers would almost certainly be exposed to a fatal dose of radiation, even if they survive the blast effects and the thermal bloom. The proteins in the nerves simply cook and stop working. Quick, at least. Probably the best, as you’d be dead before the blast hit you. Those protected from the radiation would almost certainly perish from the thermal bloom. Horrible way to go. Oh, certainly there would be some scattered survivors, Hiroshima showed us that, but they would be very rare exceptions.”

“Buildings would be severely damaged, if not destroyed, up to thirteen kilometers away. And the thermal bloom would cause third-degree burns or worse within twenty-five kilometers. It depends on how direct the exposure was at the moment of detonation. Once the fireball and pulse hit those closest, they‘d be past caring anyway. It is those unfortunates in the twelve to twenty-five-kilometer ring who would suffer the most. The burns would be painful, but not immediately fatal. The radiation, too, would eventually kill them, but not swiftly. And they would almost certainly be caught in the firestorm, which could easily double the casualty rate even among those who might have survived initially. In short, Kildar, I would estimate the thought of this device going off as a Very Bad Thing.”

Mike blanched. “Fuck me running. I knew nukes were bad, but this is one motherfucking big bastard.”

“We’d better not be around when this goes off,” said Adams. “At least we’re lucky one way.”

“Lucky?” scoffed Mike, incredulous.

“Yeah. An airburst would fuck up the city even more when it went off. At least when a ground burst goes off –”

“We’d better not let it go off,” retorted Mike. “How do you know so much?”

“I didn‘t sleep through all my briefings. Your thing is women, mine‘s nukes. I figured that I‘d better know all I could about them, cause sure as shit one fine day my Team would be sent off to try to get one back. Thought I got past that when I retired; guess I didn’t. But we have got to get this thing back, Mike. I can’t emphasize it enough.” With that, he leaned back and seemed to sleep immediately.

Mike knew better. Adams was simply getting his game face on, facing down his demons. He had them, just as Mike did. It didn’t help one of Mike’s was sitting next to him, wiggling her ass, trying to get comfortable in full kit. He so didn’t need her here now.

 “What can you do about disarming it?” he asked Arensky.

“Disarming? My dear Kildar, there is nothing I can do! Not once it’s armed, at least. Oh, I can dismantle the detonator assembly easily enough, but I haven’t the training to actually disarm it!”

“Fuck me twice. Chief?”

The eyes flicked open.

“You expect me to know how to pull the plug on a nuke? Keep dreaming. I studied them, yeah, but what they can do, not how to take one apart. All I know is don‘t cut the blue wire. The blue wire is a lie.” Adams laughed harshly.

“So where are we going?” asked Jitka over his shoulder. “We are approaching the center of Moscow, and I do not know these roads.”

Kat turned her tablet to face them.

“A warehouse in the Komsomolsky District of the North-Eastern Administrative Okrug. Ulitsa Panteleevskaya. Belongs to a company called Delfa, but there’s nothing current in their database.”

“The company legit?”

“Yes. I think the building was simply picked out at random. Jitka, straight here, next left to the overpass. Then I‘ll tell you what exit to take.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he replied, and turned his attention back to the road. Pedestrians beware!

“Grez said that some details were becoming available?”

Kat looked at the tablet. “Yes. It appears that a squad was doing a routine sweep, and almost literally stumbled across them.”

“Any survivors?”

“Only the one who ran.”

“He’ll need to be available to question.” Whatever Mike was going to say next was lost as his phone trilled. He glanced at the display and snarled. Checknik.

“What?” he snapped, answering. As pissed as he was at Chechnik for his past decisions, he was twice as pissed at Putin. After all, Prime Minister and Puppet Master were very much alike.

“You are in Moscow now?” Rhetorical, but he’d answer it.

“Yes, you know that.”

Time for word games, then. Pay attention.

“Yes, I did. I have been ordered to accompany you and give you every assistance you need.”

“Bullshit, Chechnik!”

“I swear, Kildar, the order to accompany you came directly from Prime Minister Putin himself!”

“And why should I trust the word of a lying prick about another lying prick?”

“Please, Kildar! I have my orders! I can explain more…later.” There was a just-perceptible hesitation between the words. “It would be more convenient for us both.”

Mike relented, remembering the conditions he‘d imposed on Chechnik.

“Well, if you’re with us, at least I’ll know you’re not screwing us over. Fine. Meet us, wait. Where was the warehouse, Kat?”

“42 Ulitsa Panteleevskaya.”

“You hear that, Colonel?” Let him wonder why he’d used his rank this time.

“I shall meet you there in twenty minutes,” came the reply.

“Make it an hour,” said Mike. “We want to look it over first.”

“Very well, Kildar. An hour then. I am sure I can find someone else to screw over, as you say, in that time. Perhaps a mother with small children.”

Mike hung up.

“You trust him?” asked Kat.

“Not a bit. But there’s a saying: keep your friends close, and your enemies closer. And I want Chechnik as close to us as possible. Once we find the nuke, he‘ll either keep us out of the line of fire or make a good meat shield.”

Katrina seemed satisfied with his answer.

*

The warehouse was surrounded by a company of soldiers from the 2nd Guards Motor Rifle Division, although it looked like they had been ordered not to enter the building. Someone had, though. Bloody heel marks showed where the bodies of some of their casualties had been dragged out.

Mike looked around for an officer, finally finding one with the three small silver stars of a senior lieutenant on his fatigues.

“Pardon me Senior Lieutenant…?” he asked in English, playing the part of the ignorant American.

“Chopiak. This is a crime scene; you will have to move along.”

“I think you are expecting us, Senior Lieutenant. Michael Jenkins, and the Tigers of the Mountains?”

A glimmer of recognition lit in Chopiak’s eyes.

“The American specialist, yes? I was briefed by Colonel Chechnik himself!”

“Yes.”

“Please, one minute. I get my Captain.” Switching to Russian, Chopiak yelled, “Pasha! Tell Captain Skipetroff the Ami and his lackeys are here!”

A private dashed off.

Mike could see the fury in Kat’s eyes. In Georgian, he said, “Calm down. It can be useful to not admit we understand them. It‘s a trick the Russians used to use to their advantage; let‘s turn it around on them.”

“Lackeys!” she spat in the same language.

“It does seem we’re not entirely welcome, doesn’t it? Funny, that. You can accidentally spike that asshole‘s foot when you walk by,if you like.”

Katrina smiled, sunshine on a rainy day. Apparently she approved.

An officer was approaching. Skipetroff, Mike guessed.

Gospodin Jenkins? Captain Alexi Skipetroff, 2nd Guards,” he began in better-than-average English. “I was only quickly telled of your arrival. My Senior Lieutenant, he was briefcased by Colonel Chechnik. I was making sure of problems looting. The troops, they wish to expand their pay, you understand?”

“Thank you, Captain. Yes, we’re here to examine the scene. Will there be any problems with that?”

“No problems from my men, but the building is very unwell uplit.”

Katrina tried not to giggle at the officer’s mistranslations as he tried to match English with the VIPs.

“You have some portable lights, perhaps?”

“None now, maybe some later. Difficulties dropping them here. The men, they are hunting overnighter. No food, no water, no rest. And now it is getting heavy with automobiles, making slow the trucks. Very badding fuck problem.”

Katrina was almost laughing now and turned away to cover her amusement with a cough. Skipetroff looked on disapprovingly.

“You bringing girl here is bad idea. Very much blood. Take care not to up-kuzma on the signs.”

“Of course not,” assured Mike, as the mangling continued. “She will not upchuck.”

“Good. Is a bad place for a pretty girl.”

Without another word, Skipetroff returned to his men, saying, “Milenki! Follow the bitch with a shovel; when she pukes, make her clean it up!”

With that note, the Keldara entered the warehouse.

Skipetroff wasn’t kidding. The entrance wall was liberally splattered with blood and bits of bodies, marking the impact of the Chechens’ rounds. Mike didn’t spare the luckless soldiers so much as a glance, passing through them to examine the other end.

“Vil, nobody gets in or out without my say-so.”

“Understood, Kildar.” A gesture, and Georgi Makanee and Nicolai Mahona positioned themselves at the door.

“Who has the Geiger?”

“I do, Kildar,” said Hadar. Their version was much smaller and considerably more advanced than the Russians’ issue.

“I want you up ahead. Sweep the area. We need to know if the bomb was here or if this is just Murphy fucking with us again. Dr. Arensky, please accompany Hadar and help interpret.” The two men moved forward.

“Anisa, did you bring your camera?”

“Of course, Kildar. You want pictures of the dead men uploaded and sent through our facial recognition programs?” she said tartly. The two muj bodies still lay where they fell, unlike the Russians, and better still, their faces were untouched. It looked as though one had been shot in the back and the front. Deliberate? Or just a friendly fire fuck-up? He looked more closely.

Ass and lower back. Yeah, that would make you jump right up, incoming fire be dammed. Sucked to be him.

“Yeah,” Mike said. “Ought to know better than to tell you your job.”

“Yes, you should,” she agreed, and began taking pictures. Definitely too much time in the Cave. The half-hour sleep she’d caught on the flight had only served to make her grumpier.

Just great.

Mike walked back to the Russian bodies. “Chief? What do you think?”

“Stupid fuckers never had a chance,” said Adams, shaking his head and looking up from his examinations. “Doesn’t look like they came in ready at all. No NODs, hell, two of the silly shits still had their 74s on ‘safe’,” he said disgustedly. Taking a flashlight, he pointed to the far walls.

“See those shot patterns? They were firing blind from a south-eastern facing door. The sun behind out-fucking-lined them, just like being on the range. Didn’t give their eyes a chance to adjust. Bunched up like a bunch of sheep instead of spreading out and seeking cover. NCO should’ve known better, maybe he did. His body’s gone, but you see the blood pattern? He was targeted, not just shot at. Means he was seen as a threat by someone over there and deliberately taken out.”

“The muj weren’t much better,” he continued, shining the light on the entrance wall. “At least they knew what they were aiming at. And then there are those last three, or first three, you could say.”

He pointed at the bodies closest to the door.

“See that? All shot in the back. Someone knew his tactics and sent a squad around to hit ‘em from the front door while they occupied them.”

“Perhaps someone who spent a couple years at MCTS, you’re thinking?”

“Could be,” admitted Adams. “Somebody knew his shit, at least.”

He rolled over a body.

“Pretty good grouping on this one, and three shots right through the target. Same blooding as from the NCO‘s missing body. Either this bunch has two leaders thinking, or one guy took ‘em both out.”

“Definitely better than your usual class of muj,” agreed Mike. “That means he was here, and the Russians spooked him.”

“I’d say he was trying to hunker down and let the sweep pass by, but something tipped them off,” Adams said, turning over another body. “And I think I found it.”

Below the cooling corpse of Lavrenti, who would never get another blow job from Drysi, was the Russian Geiger counter, still clicking quietly.

“Kildar!”

Hadar’s shout called them back across the warehouse. He was waving as Arensky examined the reading on the counter.

“What’ve we got, Doctor?”

“It was here, Kildar,” said Arensky. “And recently, too. Perhaps as little as two hours ago. The vestigial gamma decay regression function –”

“Was it damaged?” Mike asked hopefully, interrupting the technobabble; getting it from Vanner was bad enough. If the firefight had hit the bomb and disabled it, they had all the time they needed.

“Probably not. The readings are consistent with a sealed casing. No hot spots, no fragments, no spalling.”

“Damn! Okay, then why didn’t the satellites pick it up? Was it too well shielded or something?”

“Not quite,” answered Grez, walking up to the group.

“It was shielded, but not like you think. See the ceiling?” she asked, pointing up with her flashlight.

“Yeah? What about it?”

“I wondered the same thing, so went up and looked. The roof is covered with lead sheeting to make it waterproof. These old concrete roofs are prone to cracking, so are typically sealed with lead.”

“The gamma rays got stopped cold.”

“Were blocked by the roof, yes. Loki’s hand was at work here,” she said.

“The Trickster favors nobody. Only the finger of Skadi shall reveal the truth among the lies, though it will bring pain to those it illuminates.” Kat’s voice, dreamy and ethereal, cut through the darkness. The Keldara froze as one, and Anisa and Grez made complicated gestures.

“Not now, Kat,” muttered Mike. “Grez, Anisa, stay with her until she comes out of it.”

“What was that about?” asked Adams quietly as the men walked away, leaving Katrina with the two women.

“She has these visions, had one while we were in the States. Scared the piss out of me, Jack, and Stasia,” he said, memory returning of Kat’s warning. “She said Loki, the Trickster, would be coming for me, and I needed to be pure of heart when he did.”

“And you believe this shit?”

Mike shrugged. “Don’t know if I do, but she, they, sure as hell do. We have to deal with it. You know enough about the Keldara to know how Viking they really are in mind and spirit.”

With a mental shake, he continued.

“Okay. Keep ‘em working, get every scrap of information you can off the bodies. I’m going to talk to our helpful Captain Skipetroff, see if I can interview the one that got away.”

“Got it. Okay, Keldara! Stop gawking and get your asses back on task! Yevgenii, what the fuck do you think you’re doing with that stick? Didn‘t your mother raise you any better than that?”

Skipetroff was outside the door, stymied by Georgi and Nicolai, who were doing their best imitations of statues: immobile, impassive, and seemingly uncomprehending the vicious stream of curses the Guards captain was hurling at them. A stream which halted abruptly when Mike emerged.

“Jenkins, please move your men.”

“No. I need to talk to the survivor.”

“I am confirmed to be examination with you, not preparing to stand outside!” In Russian, he called to his men.

“No. Where’s the survivor? He’s supposed to be available for me.”

“You are guest here invited by yourself! If I am entering the building to want, then am I going!”

Skipetroff pulled out his sidearm.

In a lightning move Mike had the Yarygin Grach out of Skipetroff’s unresisting hands and pointed at the stunned Captain. The now-empty hand clutched the air in frustration.

Switching to fluent Russian, Mike gave up the game and let the man have both barrels.

 “Listen to me, you puffed-up, pompous, pathetic excuse for an officer! I am here at the direction of the President of the United States and the invitation of Prime Minister Putin himself! I am here to do a job, and unless you want to spend the rest of your career watching icicles grow in Vladivostok you will produce the man I need to speak with now! Do we have an understanding?” To emphasize his point, Mike cycled a round into the chamber.

Da, da!” said the Russian.

“Good,” answered Mike, lowering the Grach. “You go get him. I’ll wait here. And when you bring him back, you can have your little toy back,” he said, waving the pistol.

Five minutes later, Skipetroff returned with a very nervous private.

“Don’t worry,” said Mike in Russian. “I just need to ask a few questions. Captain, your gun.”

He handed the Grach back to Skipetroff, butt first.

Skipetroff raised the gun quickly, thumbed off the safety, and pulled the trigger. Much to his surprise, the barrel of the gun dropped to the ground, followed by the empty magazine and firing mechanism. The only parts left in his hand were the trigger, guard, and butt.

“Problem, Captain?” asked Mike innocently, dropping the main spring, bullets, and a few lock pins on the ground.

“Get lost.” To the openly-grinning soldier, he said, “What’s your name, son?”

“Grisha. Grisha Aleksandrovich Pumpianski, 2nd Guards Motor Rifle Division.”

“Grisha. What do you remember, Grisha?”

“Sergeant Feliks was leading the squad…”

In a very few minutes, the story was told, at least as much of it the lucky soldier knew. It was clear he had no idea what happened inside the building or what had been found.

A man-shaped shadow, thrown by the fading afternoon sun, fell across them.

“Chechnik!” said Mike without looking up. “What rock did you crawl from under?”

Grisha jumped to his feet and saluted. This was a Colonel from the Security division. They made families disappear.

“As you were,” said Chechnik. “Kildar.”

“Nicolai!” Mike called. “Over here!”

The Keldara trotted over.

“Search this prick.”

Grisha looked shocked, and started to react, but Chechnik held up a restraining hand.

“It’s quite all right.” He extended his arms.

Moments later, Nicolai handed Mike a cell phone. “That’s all, Kildar.”

“Smart, Chechnik,” said Mike unwillingly, pocketing the phone. “Mind if I hold on to this? No? Thanks.”

Adams finally emerged from the warehouse.

“We’re about done here, and where the fuck did he come from?”

“Putin’s whipping boy? He’s been sent out to make sure we don’t stick our noses where they don’t belong.”

“Can I shoot him?” asked Katrina, raising her M-4.

“No, Kat, not yet. We’re on his turf. It wouldn’t be good manners.”

“Quite amusing,” said Chechnik to Mike. “It’s not me I’d be worried about.”

“What? You thought she was kidding? Redhead, Colonel. Un-fucking-predictable. You best stay on her good side. Which means me, and my troops.”

*

The men and gear were quickly reloaded, and the tiny convoy pulled away.

“Where to?” asked Jitka. He was clearly enjoying driving the Mercedes instead of a truck. He’d never sat in a car so comfortable! With the armored glass and vehicular armor he felt safe, even here in the center of Moscow. The dark-tinted windows gave the limo a dangerous appearance, and the traffic faded out of his way. Cars like that were VIP, military, or Bratva, and they all meant men with guns.

“I don’t want to drive in circles, but I don’t know my way around Moscow like I used to,” admitted Mike.

“May I suggest?” said Chechnik, calmer than Mike expected.

“You can suggest,” said Mike.

“There is a park nearby, Buman gardens. It is central enough for you to move from quickly, large enough to conceal all the vehicles. And the traffic should subside in a half hour or so.”

“May as well. Chief, when we get there, get the troops fed. Water, coffee or tea only. No beer.” He didn’t have to see Jitka’s face to know he was scowling, however briefly. Beer was like blood to the Keldara but a situation like this he needed his men totally straight. They could double up after.

Chechnik faced forward and guided Jitka through the traffic. Once stopped, the discussion resumed around a table outside. Tea was steaming in cups before them. The people wandering through the gardens would make eavesdropping more difficult, if they could get past Vil‘s perimeter.

“What do we know?”

“The bomb’s here,” said Adams.

“It hasn’t been here long; the residual radiation was dissipating quickly,” added Arensky. “Not long enough to create a permanent footprint.”

“It was definitely Chechens,” said Anisa. “We have positive ID for both men, but neither were listed as known associates of any rebel group.”

“That means nothing,” Grez explained. “They could have been new recruits, or simply more cautious and discreet than most.”

“They’re being led by someone with experience,” continued Adams.

“And we know why the satellites didn’t pick up the bomb.”

“The roof. Chechnik, do you think you can get information from your assessor’s office, or whoever oversees building and development?”

“Perhaps. What are you thinking?”

“While we wait for another satellite pass, we should see what buildings use lead in their roofs. It might narrow down the search.”

“I will see what I can do. My phone, please?” Mike handed it over.

“Anisa, how long until we get another pass?”

“There’s one overhead now,” she answered. “We’ll have the data in just a few minutes.”

Her fingers were flying over the tablet’s surface.

“Need to allow time for the Russian filters to do their work.“

She looked at him as if asking to cut through the song-and-dance and simply steer the bird herself. He gave a minute shake of his head. Thank the gods she wasn’t one of the Mice; they’d have three or four birds parked in geosynchronous already. Wouldn’t that be a joy to explain?

“What are you doing? Instead of what you wanted,” he asked in Keldara.

“Seeing if there’s a back door into the Moscow City Planner’s mainframe,” she answered in Keldara.

Mike shook his head ruefully. “Tell me again why I’m bringing you into the twenty-first century?”

“To rule the world, of course,” said Grez easily.

Taylor’s Time

It’s a genuine pleasure to have you back here today!

And yet again our Resident Author, Taylor Anne Vigil, has crafted a wonderful piece of writing to share with you this week.

I admire her ability to write in different genres and styles, from her personal essays (like this one) to her activism (Raif Badawi) to her dramatizations (Innocent Eyes, Remissionem Quaeritis, Mother) to her more genre-based writing (Guardians). I hope you’re enjoying it too.

𝑭𝒊𝒏𝒅𝒊𝒏𝒈 𝑷𝒆𝒂𝒄𝒆

𝑵𝒐𝒗𝒆𝒎𝒃𝒆𝒓 5, 2020

𝑪𝒉𝒊𝒍𝒍𝒚 𝒂𝒖𝒕𝒖𝒎𝒏 𝒂𝒊𝒓 𝒄𝒂𝒓𝒆𝒔𝒔𝒆𝒔 𝒎𝒚 𝒄𝒉𝒆𝒆𝒌𝒔 𝒂𝒔 𝒔𝒐𝒐𝒏 𝒂𝒔 𝑰 𝒔𝒕𝒆𝒑 𝒐𝒖𝒕𝒔𝒊𝒅𝒆. 𝑰𝒕 𝒅𝒐𝒆𝒔𝒏’𝒕 𝒕𝒂𝒌𝒆 𝒍𝒐𝒏𝒈 𝒃𝒆𝒇𝒐𝒓𝒆 𝒎𝒚 𝒏𝒐𝒔𝒆 𝒓𝒆𝒈𝒊𝒔𝒕𝒆𝒓𝒔 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝒔𝒉𝒂𝒓𝒑 𝒔𝒄𝒆𝒏𝒕 𝒐𝒇 𝒔𝒎𝒐𝒌𝒆. 𝑰𝒕’𝒔 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝑺𝒊𝒍𝒗𝒆𝒓𝒂𝒅𝒐 𝒇𝒊𝒓𝒆. 

𝑰 𝒔𝒕𝒂𝒓𝒕 𝒘𝒂𝒍𝒌𝒊𝒏𝒈 𝒅𝒆𝒔𝒑𝒊𝒕𝒆 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝒏𝒆𝒘𝒔𝒄𝒂𝒔𝒕𝒆𝒓𝒔 𝒑𝒍𝒆𝒂 𝒇𝒐𝒓 𝒖𝒔 𝒕𝒐 𝒔𝒕𝒂𝒚 𝒊𝒏𝒔𝒊𝒅𝒆. 𝑨𝒔 𝒐𝒃𝒆𝒅𝒊𝒆𝒏𝒕 𝒂𝒔 𝑰 𝒂𝒎, 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝒕𝒉𝒓𝒆𝒂𝒕 𝒐𝒇 𝒍𝒐𝒘 𝒂𝒊𝒓 𝒒𝒖𝒂𝒍𝒊𝒕𝒚 𝒄𝒂𝒏’𝒕 𝒌𝒆𝒆𝒑 𝒎𝒆 𝒇𝒓𝒐𝒎 𝒆𝒏𝒋𝒐𝒚𝒊𝒏𝒈 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝒐𝒖𝒕𝒅𝒐𝒐𝒓𝒔. 

𝑰 𝒑𝒂𝒔𝒔 𝒃𝒚 𝒐𝒖𝒓 𝒏𝒆𝒊𝒈𝒉𝒃𝒐𝒓’𝒔 𝒉𝒐𝒖𝒔𝒆, 𝒌𝒏𝒐𝒘𝒊𝒏𝒈 𝑰 𝒘𝒊𝒍𝒍 𝒔𝒎𝒆𝒍𝒍 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝒄𝒓𝒊𝒔𝒑 𝒔𝒄𝒆𝒏𝒕 𝒐𝒇 𝒕𝒉𝒆𝒊𝒓 𝒇𝒓𝒖𝒊𝒕 𝒕𝒓𝒆𝒆. 𝑴𝒚 𝒆𝒚𝒆𝒔 𝒔𝒒𝒖𝒊𝒏𝒕 𝒉𝒂𝒓𝒅, 𝒃𝒖𝒕 𝑰’𝒎 𝒏𝒆𝒗𝒆𝒓 𝒂𝒃𝒍𝒆 𝒕𝒐 𝒊𝒅𝒆𝒏𝒕𝒊𝒇𝒚 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝒕𝒚𝒑𝒆 𝒐𝒇 𝒇𝒓𝒖𝒊𝒕 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝒕𝒓𝒆𝒆 𝒃𝒆𝒂𝒓𝒔 𝒅𝒖𝒆 𝒕𝒐 𝒎𝒚 𝒍𝒆𝒈𝒂𝒍 𝒃𝒍𝒊𝒏𝒅𝒏𝒆𝒔𝒔. 𝑺𝒕𝒊𝒍𝒍, 𝒎𝒚 𝒏𝒐𝒔𝒕𝒓𝒊𝒍𝒔 𝒇𝒍𝒂𝒓𝒆. 𝑻𝒉𝒆 𝒃𝒓𝒊𝒈𝒉𝒕𝒏𝒆𝒔𝒔 𝒕𝒉𝒆𝒊𝒓 𝒔𝒄𝒆𝒏𝒕 𝒃𝒓𝒊𝒏𝒈𝒔 𝒕𝒐 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝒄𝒍𝒐𝒖𝒅𝒚 𝒅𝒂𝒚 𝒃𝒓𝒊𝒏𝒈𝒔 𝒐𝒏 𝒂 𝒔𝒎𝒊𝒍𝒆. 𝑷𝒆𝒓𝒉𝒂𝒑𝒔 𝒊𝒕’𝒔 𝒂𝒏 𝒐𝒓𝒂𝒏𝒈𝒆 𝒕𝒓𝒆𝒆. 𝑴𝒂𝒚𝒃𝒆 𝒆𝒗𝒆𝒏 𝒂 𝒈𝒓𝒂𝒑𝒆𝒇𝒓𝒖𝒊𝒕 𝒕𝒓𝒆𝒆. 𝑰 𝒉𝒂𝒗𝒆 𝒏𝒐 𝒘𝒂𝒚 𝒐𝒇 𝒌𝒏𝒐𝒘𝒊𝒏𝒈. 

𝑴𝒚 𝒘𝒂𝒍𝒌 𝒄𝒐𝒏𝒕𝒊𝒏𝒖𝒆𝒔. 𝑻𝒉𝒆 𝒔𝒕𝒓𝒆𝒆𝒕 𝒊𝒔 𝒅𝒂𝒎𝒑 𝒘𝒊𝒕𝒉 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝒎𝒆𝒎𝒐𝒓𝒚 𝒐𝒇 𝒓𝒂𝒊𝒏. 𝑷𝒖𝒅𝒅𝒍𝒆𝒔 𝒉𝒂𝒗𝒆 𝒄𝒐𝒍𝒍𝒆𝒄𝒕𝒆𝒅 𝒊𝒏 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝒈𝒖𝒕𝒕𝒆𝒓𝒔, 𝒓𝒆𝒇𝒍𝒆𝒄𝒕𝒊𝒏𝒈 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝒊𝒎𝒂𝒈𝒆𝒔 𝒐𝒇 𝒂 𝒈𝒓𝒂𝒚 𝒔𝒌𝒚 𝒂𝒏𝒅 𝒂 𝒔𝒖𝒏, 𝒔𝒘𝒂𝒍𝒍𝒐𝒘𝒆𝒅 𝒃𝒚 𝒄𝒍𝒐𝒖𝒅𝒔. 

𝑻𝒉𝒆 𝒆𝒓𝒐𝒕𝒊𝒄 𝒔𝒄𝒆𝒏𝒕 𝒐𝒇 𝒓𝒐𝒔𝒆𝒔 𝒕𝒆𝒍𝒍𝒔 𝒎𝒆 𝒕𝒉𝒂𝒕 𝑰’𝒎 𝒏𝒆𝒂𝒓𝒍𝒚 𝒂𝒕 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝒆𝒏𝒅 𝒐𝒇 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝒃𝒍𝒐𝒄𝒌. 𝑾𝒉𝒆𝒓𝒆 𝑰 𝒍𝒊𝒗𝒆, 𝒓𝒐𝒔𝒆 𝒃𝒖𝒔𝒉𝒆𝒔 𝒂𝒓𝒆 𝒄𝒐𝒎𝒎𝒐𝒏, 𝒃𝒖𝒕 𝒏𝒐𝒕 𝒂𝒍𝒍 𝒐𝒇 𝒕𝒉𝒆𝒎 𝒔𝒎𝒆𝒍𝒍 𝒒𝒖𝒊𝒕𝒆 𝒍𝒊𝒌𝒆 𝒕𝒉𝒊𝒔 𝒐𝒏𝒆.

 𝑾𝒉𝒊𝒕𝒆 𝒇𝒍𝒐𝒘𝒆𝒓 𝒃𝒖𝒅𝒔 𝒈𝒓𝒆𝒆𝒕 𝒎𝒆 𝒂𝒔 𝑰 𝒂𝒑𝒑𝒓𝒐𝒂𝒄𝒉 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝒚𝒂𝒓𝒅. 𝑻𝒉𝒆 𝒘𝒐𝒐𝒅𝒄𝒉𝒊𝒑𝒔 𝒍𝒂𝒚𝒆𝒓𝒊𝒏𝒈 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝒈𝒓𝒐𝒖𝒏𝒅 𝒈𝒊𝒗𝒆 𝒐𝒇𝒇 𝒂 𝒔𝒄𝒆𝒏𝒕 𝑰 𝒄𝒂𝒏 𝒐𝒏𝒍𝒚 𝒅𝒆𝒔𝒄𝒓𝒊𝒃𝒆 𝒂𝒔 “𝑾𝒂𝒓𝒎”. 𝑻𝒉𝒆𝒊𝒓 𝒍𝒐𝒗𝒆𝒍𝒚 𝒔𝒉𝒂𝒅𝒆𝒔 𝒐𝒇 𝒓𝒆𝒅 𝒂𝒏𝒅 𝒃𝒓𝒐𝒘𝒏 𝒓𝒆𝒎𝒊𝒏𝒅 𝒎𝒆 𝒔𝒖𝒎𝒎𝒆𝒓 𝒊𝒔 𝒇𝒊𝒏𝒂𝒍𝒍𝒚 𝒐𝒗𝒆𝒓, 𝒂𝒏𝒅 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝒕𝒊𝒎𝒆 𝒐𝒇 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝒚𝒆𝒂𝒓 𝒘𝒉𝒊𝒄𝒉 𝒃𝒓𝒊𝒏𝒈𝒔 𝒃𝒂𝒄𝒌 𝒔𝒐𝒎𝒆 𝒐𝒇 𝒎𝒚 𝒉𝒂𝒑𝒑𝒊𝒆𝒔𝒕 𝒎𝒆𝒎𝒐𝒓𝒊𝒆𝒔,𝒊𝒔 𝒉𝒆𝒓𝒆 𝒕𝒐 𝒔𝒕𝒂𝒚. 

𝑰 𝒔𝒕𝒂𝒚 𝒘𝒉𝒆𝒓𝒆 𝑰 𝒂𝒎 𝒂𝒏𝒅 𝒄𝒍𝒐𝒔𝒆 𝒎𝒚 𝒆𝒚𝒆𝒔. 𝑻𝒉𝒆 𝒔𝒕𝒊𝒍𝒍𝒏𝒆𝒔𝒔 𝒐𝒇 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝒏𝒆𝒊𝒈𝒉𝒃𝒐𝒓𝒉𝒐𝒐𝒅 𝒊𝒔 𝒊𝒏𝒕𝒐𝒙𝒊𝒄𝒂𝒕𝒊𝒏𝒈 𝒂𝒏𝒅 𝑰 𝒇𝒆𝒆𝒍 𝒎𝒚 𝒘𝒐𝒓𝒓𝒊𝒆𝒔 𝒃𝒆𝒈𝒊𝒏 𝒕𝒐 𝒅𝒓𝒊𝒇𝒕 𝒂𝒘𝒂𝒚. 𝑰 𝒃𝒂𝒔𝒌 𝒊𝒏 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝒒𝒖𝒊𝒆𝒕, 𝒊𝒏 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝒕𝒊𝒏𝒚 𝒃𝒊𝒕 𝒐𝒇 𝒔𝒖𝒏 𝒕𝒉𝒂𝒕’𝒔 𝒃𝒂𝒓𝒆𝒍𝒚 𝒎𝒂𝒏𝒂𝒈𝒆𝒅 𝒕𝒐 𝒃𝒓𝒆𝒂𝒌 𝒕𝒉𝒓𝒐𝒖𝒈𝒉 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝒄𝒍𝒐𝒖𝒅𝒔. 𝑰’𝒎 𝒅𝒊𝒔𝒕𝒓𝒂𝒄𝒕𝒆𝒅 𝒘𝒉𝒆𝒏 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝒔𝒉𝒂𝒓𝒑 𝒔𝒄𝒆𝒏𝒕 𝒐𝒇 𝒔𝒎𝒐𝒌𝒆 𝒓𝒆𝒕𝒖𝒓𝒏𝒔. 𝑻𝒉𝒆 𝒇𝒊𝒓𝒆. 𝑰𝒕 𝒎𝒖𝒔𝒕 𝒃𝒆 𝒎𝒆𝒓𝒆 𝒎𝒊𝒍𝒆𝒔 𝒂𝒘𝒂𝒚 𝒇𝒓𝒐𝒎 𝒕𝒉𝒊𝒔 𝒘𝒐𝒏𝒅𝒆𝒓𝒇𝒖𝒍 𝒑𝒍𝒂𝒄𝒆. 

𝒀𝒐𝒖’𝒓𝒆 𝒑𝒓𝒐𝒃𝒂𝒃𝒍𝒚 𝒕𝒉𝒊𝒏𝒌𝒊𝒏𝒈 𝒕𝒉𝒊𝒔 𝒌𝒏𝒐𝒘𝒍𝒆𝒅𝒈𝒆 𝒘𝒐𝒖𝒍𝒅 𝒎𝒂𝒌𝒆 𝒎𝒆 𝒖𝒏𝒆𝒂𝒔𝒚, 𝒔𝒆𝒏𝒅 𝒎𝒆 𝒓𝒖𝒏𝒏𝒊𝒏𝒈 𝒃𝒂𝒄𝒌 𝒕𝒐 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝒔𝒂𝒇𝒆𝒕𝒚 𝒐𝒇 𝒎𝒚 𝒉𝒐𝒎𝒆. 𝑩𝒖𝒕 𝒊𝒕 𝒅𝒐𝒆𝒔𝒏’𝒕. 𝒀𝒐𝒖’𝒅 𝒕𝒉𝒊𝒏𝒌 𝒂 𝒈𝒊𝒓𝒍 𝒘𝒉𝒐 𝒅𝒓𝒆𝒂𝒎𝒔 𝒐𝒇 𝒂 𝒍𝒊𝒇𝒆 𝒊𝒏 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝒘𝒐𝒐𝒅𝒔 𝒘𝒐𝒖𝒍𝒅 𝒃𝒆 𝒅𝒆𝒗𝒂𝒔𝒕𝒂𝒕𝒆𝒅 𝒂𝒕 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝒕𝒉𝒐𝒖𝒈𝒉𝒕 𝒐𝒇 𝒃𝒖𝒓𝒏𝒊𝒏𝒈 𝒍𝒆𝒂𝒗𝒆𝒔 𝒂𝒏𝒅 𝒕𝒓𝒆𝒆𝒔. 𝑩𝒖𝒕 𝑰’𝒎 𝒏𝒐𝒕. 𝑰’𝒎 𝒔𝒕𝒓𝒂𝒏𝒈𝒆𝒍𝒚 𝒂𝒕 𝒑𝒆𝒂𝒄𝒆 𝒂𝒔 𝑰 𝒄𝒐𝒏𝒕𝒊𝒏𝒖𝒆 𝒕𝒐 𝒃𝒓𝒆𝒂𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝒊𝒏 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝒔𝒄𝒆𝒏𝒕 𝒐𝒇 𝒅𝒆𝒔𝒕𝒓𝒖𝒄𝒕𝒊𝒐𝒏. 𝑴𝒚 𝒎𝒊𝒏𝒅 𝒊𝒔 𝒇𝒂𝒓 𝒂𝒘𝒂𝒚. 𝑨𝒍𝒍 𝒐𝒇 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝒃𝒐𝒐𝒌𝒔 𝑰’𝒗𝒆 𝒃𝒖𝒓𝒊𝒆𝒅 𝒎𝒚𝒔𝒆𝒍𝒇 𝒊𝒏 𝒇𝒐𝒓 𝒎𝒐𝒏𝒕𝒉𝒔 𝒂𝒓𝒆 𝒄𝒐𝒎𝒊𝒏𝒈 𝒕𝒐 𝒍𝒊𝒇𝒆.

 𝑰 𝒂𝒎 𝑲𝒂𝒕𝒏𝒊𝒔𝒔 𝒔𝒉𝒂𝒓𝒊𝒏𝒈 𝒂 𝒃𝒓𝒆𝒂𝒌𝒇𝒂𝒔𝒕 𝒐𝒇 𝒃𝒓𝒆𝒂𝒅 𝒂𝒏𝒅 𝒈𝒐𝒂𝒕 𝒄𝒉𝒆𝒆𝒔𝒆 𝒘𝒊𝒕𝒉 𝑮𝒂𝒍𝒆 𝒊𝒏 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝒘𝒐𝒐𝒅𝒔.

 𝑰 𝒂𝒎 𝑮𝒓𝒂𝒄𝒆 𝒃𝒆𝒊𝒏𝒈 𝒉𝒆𝒍𝒅 𝒕𝒊𝒈𝒉𝒕𝒍𝒚 𝒂𝒈𝒂𝒊𝒏𝒔𝒕 𝑺𝒂𝒎 𝒊𝒏 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝒘𝒂𝒓𝒎 𝒈𝒍𝒐𝒘 𝒐𝒇 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝒄𝒂𝒏𝒅𝒚 𝒔𝒉𝒐𝒑. 

𝑰 𝒂𝒎 𝑳𝒆𝒊𝒔𝒆𝒍 𝒔𝒆𝒒𝒖𝒆𝒔𝒕𝒆𝒓𝒆𝒅 𝒊𝒏 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝒃𝒂𝒔𝒆𝒎𝒆𝒏𝒕 𝒘𝒊𝒕𝒉 𝑴𝒂𝒙 𝒂𝒏𝒅 𝒂 𝒑𝒊𝒍𝒆 𝒐𝒇 𝒃𝒐𝒐𝒌𝒔. 

𝑰 𝒂𝒎 𝒂𝒏𝒚𝒐𝒏𝒆 𝒃𝒖𝒕 𝒎𝒚𝒔𝒆𝒍𝒇. 𝑰 𝒂𝒎 𝒂𝒏𝒚𝒘𝒉𝒆𝒓𝒆 𝒃𝒖𝒕 𝒉𝒆𝒓𝒆. 

𝑴𝒚 𝒆𝒚𝒆𝒔 𝒇𝒍𝒖𝒕𝒕𝒆𝒓 𝒐𝒑𝒆𝒏. 𝑴𝒚 𝒔𝒕𝒆𝒑𝒔 𝒂𝒓𝒆 𝒍𝒐𝒏𝒈 𝒂𝒏𝒅 𝒍𝒊𝒈𝒉𝒕 𝒂𝒔 𝑰 𝒎𝒂𝒌𝒆 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝒓𝒆𝒕𝒖𝒓𝒏 𝒉𝒐𝒎𝒆. 𝑨 𝒇𝒆𝒆𝒍𝒊𝒏𝒈 𝒐𝒇 𝒃𝒍𝒊𝒔𝒔𝒇𝒖𝒍𝒏𝒆𝒔𝒔 𝒘𝒂𝒔𝒉𝒆𝒔 𝒕𝒉𝒓𝒐𝒖𝒈𝒉 𝒎𝒆.𝑻𝒉𝒊𝒔 𝒊𝒔 𝒊𝒕. 𝑻𝒉𝒊𝒔 𝒎𝒖𝒔𝒕 𝒃𝒆 𝒘𝒉𝒂𝒕 𝒊𝒕 𝒊𝒔 𝒍𝒊𝒌𝒆 𝒕𝒐 𝒂𝒍𝒍𝒐𝒘 𝒆𝒂𝒄𝒉 𝒂𝒏𝒅 𝒆𝒗𝒆𝒓𝒚 𝒐𝒏𝒆 𝒐𝒇 𝒚𝒐𝒖𝒓 𝒔𝒆𝒏𝒔𝒆𝒔 𝒕𝒂𝒌𝒆 𝒚𝒐𝒖 𝒐𝒗𝒆𝒓. 𝑻𝒉𝒊𝒔 𝒊𝒔 𝒊𝒕. 𝑰𝒕 𝒅𝒐𝒆𝒔𝒏’𝒕 𝒎𝒂𝒕𝒕𝒆𝒓 𝒘𝒉𝒆𝒓𝒆 𝑰 𝒈𝒐 𝒐𝒓 𝒘𝒉𝒆𝒓𝒆 𝑰 𝒍𝒊𝒗𝒆 𝒐𝒓 𝒆𝒗𝒆𝒏 𝒘𝒉𝒂𝒕 𝑰 𝒅𝒐 𝒘𝒊𝒕𝒉 𝒎𝒚 𝒕𝒊𝒎𝒆 𝒐𝒖𝒕𝒅𝒐𝒐𝒓𝒔. 𝑴𝒚 𝒃𝒐𝒐𝒌𝒔, 𝒎𝒚 𝒔𝒆𝒏𝒔𝒆𝒔, 𝒂𝒏𝒅 𝒎𝒚 𝒊𝒎𝒂𝒈𝒊𝒏𝒂𝒕𝒊𝒐𝒏 𝒂𝒓𝒆 𝒎𝒚 𝒉𝒂𝒑𝒑𝒚 𝒑𝒍𝒂𝒄𝒆 𝒂𝒏𝒅 𝒕𝒉𝒂𝒕 𝒊𝒔 𝒔𝒐𝒎𝒆𝒕𝒉𝒊𝒏𝒈 𝒏𝒐 𝒐𝒏𝒆 𝒄𝒂𝒏 𝒆𝒗𝒆𝒓 𝒕𝒂𝒌𝒆 𝒂𝒘𝒂𝒚 𝒇𝒓𝒐𝒎 𝒎𝒆.

A Quiet Revolution – Chapter FOURTEEN

A sign of things to come, even if we didn’t know it.

The Roosa was the first ship in the Artemis fleet to turn colors and come over to our side. They’d essentially been on our side for weeks, first serving as the impromptu escape vehicle for Nicole and Mikki, then transporting Envoy Lusardi from Ceres to Njord for negotiations.

It was just bad luck they got caught.

Okay, here’s where Adam gets me to blather on about things he finds important. Today he wants you to know about two things: the next volume of my story (my story, Adam, not yours!), and a contest to win an audiobook.

First the volume. Triumph’s Ashes releases in ebook on August 15, but if you don’t want to wait that long you can order the paperback right now. Just click the cover image right here and it’s all yours!

Second the contest. Adam’s running a Rafflecopter through the end of the month to win a copy of A Quiet Revolution (Volume 4). Just click HERE and you’ll be able to put in your entry!

Enough! Time for the chapter. If you’re tired of waiting for updates, click any image (or the button, or HERE) to order your copy today!

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

En Route to Habitat Njord

Charlemagne, tighten up your formation.”

“Sorry, Boss,” Motherlove commed back.

“Don’t apologize, just fix it,” said Flashdance. Alexander was one of eight Wolves participating in this little evolution, though she was in her usual supervisory role.

They were bringing the Missouri and her crew to Njord.

Six Wolves surrounded the battleship, captured in their tractor beams, and were moving at a sedate 100 KPS. They’d barely even cracked  20 g acceleration, which meant this moving job was going to take over two hours out of her day.

She wasn’t complaining, though. Her crews didn’t know it yet, but she’d been informed by the Admiral that she was about to get her dreaded promotion. She’d get a bump to full Commander, jumping a rank completely, and she was going to be the first Commander Attack Group, CAG, in Starfleet.

She didn’t mind the promotion as such, or even the additional responsibilities. What she did resent was, if things went according to plan, her days piloting a Wolf coming to an end. Not that she planned to allow it! She loved getting into the black, and as the first CAG she figured she’d get to write the book.

In any case, she wasn’t going to allow her last evolution as CO to go sideways, and that meant no screw-ups.

“Better, Charlemagne.”

She’d been tossed a bone, though. Alexander was going to remain her bird, and Menace her engineer, even though she wouldn’t have a squadron assignment. Menace, too, was being promoted, to the Engineer in Chief, EIC, another new position. She wasn’t sure if it was intended as penance for his inadvertent role in the Martel Incident, but suspected that it was. One of his goals was to train all the ENG’s and EM’s on what could, and could not, be done to squeeze performance out of their Wolves.

Hopalong was going to get the squadron command, and to him would fall the job of selecting a new XO. Most likely it would be Motherlove, Edenjoy, but that was his call, not hers.

Hannibal, I’m reading a fluctuation in tractor beam strength.”

“Roger, Menace, I’ve got it too,” answered Hannibal’s EM, Sandman. “Locking it down.”

“Disengage until you have it squared away,” Menace ordered.

“Disengaging.”

“Tow squad, we’re moving Hannibal off for mechanical issues. Hold the balance, I’m going to rotate Saladin into the number four slot.”

Menace got acknowledgements from the five Wolves still in position.

“We could do this part with one Wolf,” he muttered. “Now we’re underway and way over escape velocity, we could let the Missouri coast to Njord and let Hecate catch it.”

“We could,” said Shannon. “But we’re going to do this by the book.”

“Aye, L-T.”

She went back to her ruminations. The Admiral had told her she’d have full command over all the small craft elements, Wolves, Direwolves, and the various support staff on Njord. The small craft officers on Endeavour and Enterprise, Jadwinski and Burg, would command their bays and the squadrons attached when deployed. When docked, though, their squadrons would belong to her.

She was going to need a staff. She could tell already. Who, though? She’d prefer someone with experience in Starfleet small craft, but she didn’t want to pull anyone out of their slot; she didn’t have enough good, qualified fliers yet.

Alexander, report position.” This time it was Spurgeon’s voice which broke into her train of thought.

“Seventy two thousand klicks, closing at 100 KPS.”

“Got you,” he said. “Be aware, we are tracking a Gemini. It seems to be attempting an intercept course.”

“Roger, Njord, can we get an escort?”

“Already scrambled Red Squadron, Div One.”

Six fighters. Enough to give any tin can captain pause if they knew anything about the Direwolves.

“Thank you, Njord. We’ll keep an eye out.”

Gemini, she thought. Short legs, max accel 5g, one spinal laser, one missile tube, five Tycho missiles.

“Flashdance, I’ve got the Gemini on my scope,” Menace said.

“Distance?”

“Two hundred k-klicks, but she’s closing at six g.”

“Six?”

“They must be red-lining their drive,” Menace speculated. “Could it be one of those souped-up missile frigate bastard things?”

“No, that pulls 300 g. Njord, Flashdance. We’re reading six g accel on that Gemini, please confirm.”

“That’s affirmative,” said a different voice. She identified it as Courtney Colona, from CCIC. “There is a second Gemini, seems to be in pursuit of the first. Either that or they’re running late, but they’re managing to pull six point two g accel.”

“Any chance that they’re missiles?”

To Menace’s look, she said, “Hey, I don’t think so, but let’s get someone else to think about it.”

“Negative, Flashdance. We’ve got positive ID on the first, it’s the Roosa, and we think the second is the Worden.”

“Thank you, Njord.” She checked her scope, a repeater of Menace’s.

“Tug squad, listen up! Pay no attention to the frigates approaching from our five o’clock; Red Squadron’s going to keep them off our backs.”

A new voice broke into the comm channels, over regular radio frequencies instead of the Q-Net.

“Attention, any Federation vessel, this is the ANS Roosa, please respond!”

“Not our game,” said Flashdance, resisting the impulse to answer. She did keep the frequency open, though.

“ANS Roosa, this is the habitat Njord. State your intentions.”

Colonel Whitmore replied to the call, but she didn’t identify herself. It may have been awkward, what with everyone in the ANS believing her dead for over a year.

Njord, this is Captain Selene Gonzalez, we request asylum.”

Asylum? wondered Shannon.

Roosa, please repeat intentions.”

“Damn your eyes, Njord, we need your protection! We request asylum!”

Shannon’s jaw dropped. She knew the Roosa had been involved in the escape from Luna Chief Stone had somehow pulled off; she also knew about the Envoy from the Miner’s Guild, though that was far more closely held. She could only imagine the hasty discussions going on between the command group.

The Admiral would be in favor of protecting them, but she was soft-hearted and everyone knew it, including herself. She’d listen to Whitmore, and if she argued against it then there probably wasn’t much of a chance. Still, she knew the Admiral and how determined she could be.

“A hundred credits we grant asylum,” she said to Menace.

“No way! You’re on; it’ll be a pleasure to take your money.”

The pleas continued at irregular intervals, with no reply from Whitmore. Red Squadron’s icons appeared on the scope, moving steadily to intercept but leaving plenty of room for maneuvering.

“I have missile launch from the Worden!” yelled Menace.

“Target?”

“Calculating. The target’s the Roosa!”

Njord, we’ve got the Worden firing on the Roosa!” she called in.

“Copy, Flashdance, we see it.” Whitmore switched over to regular radio, but Shannon had left that channel open as well. It was better than ringside seats.

Roosa, asylum granted. Maintain course and speed; we will bring you in. Any deviation from designated heading will result in immediate adverse action, do you understand?”

“There goes another hundred,” muttered Menace.

“Shhh!”

“Understood, Njord, but we have three, no, four missiles closing on us!”

“We’ll handle it.” Whitmore’s voice was calm over the radio.

She’s not the one getting shot at, thought Shannon.

“Red Squadron, change of mission. Intercept missiles and destroy them. Attention ANS Worden, the ship you have fired upon has been granted asylum by the Federation and is under our protection. Break off your attack or face retaliation.”

“Fuck you, Federation, the Roosa is a ship of traitors and they will face Artemis justice!”

“Not very nice people,” commented Menace.

“Nope.”

“ANS Worden, say again, break off your attack or face retaliation.”

“They are ours!”

“ANS Worden, this is your last warning. Worden, do you read me? Worden? Fine,” Whitmore continued, then jumped to the Starfleet frequency.

“Red Squadron, missiles first, then persuade the frigate to go elsewhere. Nicely, if possible.”

“Understood, Colonel.” Shooting Star sounded in her element.

“Red Three, Red Four, Red Five, take out the missiles. Four missiles, three pilots, whoever gets the extra without shooting down a wingman gets a beer on me. Red Six, Seven, you’re with me. I’m on point.”

“Hurry, please!” Gonzalez said. “They’re almost in laser range!”

Roosa, this is Red Leader, we’ve got you covered. Stay on course and we’ll get you in the barn nice and cozy. Red Three, you’re in charge after the missiles are cleared. Coordinate with Roosa until we get back. Six, Seven, on me. Tally-ho!”

“Did she really say ‘tally-ho’?’ said Menace.

“That’s what I heard,” said Flashdance with a shake of her head.

Flashdance followed the entire action on her scope and with the comms, flying with only half her attention. She’d flown after some very late nights, after all. It was part of the ancient code of the pilot: Flying & Drinking and Drinking & Banging, going out and hanging your skin over the edge, going out into the black when every reasonable instinct told you ‘No!’, then getting up the next day and doing it again. Flashdance had proven herself, so had Double Dip, and now, listening to Shooting Star direct her division into as hairy a situation as Starfleet’s pilots had ever faced, she knew there was another entrant into the ranks of the righteous.

Worden, this is your last warning. Break off now.”

Her voice was cool and calm, as if she were ordering a drink at the O Club rather than confronting a ship that outmassed hers by who knew how many thousands of tons.

“Red Leader, missiles are neutralized,” reported Jimmy, Red Four. “You owe Beaver a beer. Do you need support?”

“Negative, Red Four, provide escort for Roosa. Red Six, Red Seven, cover me. I’m going to give these stupid bastards a knock upside the head.”

The Direwolf swooped in on the frigate and opened fire. At least, that’s what the run should have done, though there wasn’t any damage evident.

“She must have dialed back,” said Menace, who was watching just as avidly. “Getting a fractional power reading from those impacts.”

“You fired on us! This is an act of war!” The voice of the Worden’s captain was shrill.

“Get stuffed. Kill your drive, now, and prepare to be taken in tow.” If Shooting Star’s voice was cool before, now it was colder than a sunny day on Niflheim.

“Never!” The fifth missile carried by the Worden spat from the launch tube.

“Jimmy!”

“We’re all over it, Skipper.”

“Thank you. Worden, you just made a mistake.”

Now Gonzalez returned to the comms. “We’re under fire!”

“Oh, this is just not on,” said Ashlyn, unaware that her mic was open. “Starbuck, can we hit their spinal laser? Knock it out?”

“I’ll hit anything you want me to, sweetheart,” said the AI. “The laser? No problem, just don’t fly in front of it, okay?”

“Across the bow at an angle?”

“Suits me.”

Worden, cease fire!”

There wasn’t a reply from the frigate. Ashlyn’s Direwolf came about, paralleled the Worden, then suddenly accelerated across the frigate’s course. This time the impact of Ashlyn’s lasers was evident as molten globules of metal sprayed from the bow.

Worden, you’re out of missiles, your laser’s nonfunctional, and you can’t run. Surrender, cut your engines, and prepare to be towed. Or not; I can do this all day.”

Someone must have recognized the futility of trying to outfight and outfly a fighter which was not only more heavily armed but could literally fly rings around the Worden. The drive shut down.

Njord, Red Leader. We’re gonna need a pickup and a tow.”

“Roger, Red Leader, will dispatch elements of Wolf Squadron to retrieve your package.”

That brought Flashdance back to the mission she was supposed to be completing.

“Menace, how many Wolves do we really need for Missouri?”

“Three,” he answered instantly. “Six was the Admiral’s idea.”

“Redundancy,” she said in agreement. “Njord, Flashdance. We can dispatch three, no, four Wolves from our position to do the pickup.”

“That would simplify matters,” said Whitmore. “Do you need any help on this end?”

“I’m leaving Motherlove in command of the tow squad. If Hecate can be ready to use her bay tractors for an assist, I think she’ll be good.”

“Excellent, Flashdance. We’ll make arrangements. Out.”

Charlemagne.”

“Go, Flashdance.” Motherlove’s voice was full of barely suppressed excitement; she must have been monitoring the comms as well.

“I know you know what’s going on.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“You, Frederick, and Peter are finishing the job on the Missouri. Hannibal will fly escort since their tractor’s gone wonky. Coordinate approach with Spurgeon and Hecate, and don’t bend any birds.”

It was no coincidence that those included the three Wolves carrying the Missouri crew. She wanted to keep the civilians out of any fight.

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“You’ve got this, Edenjoy,” she said much less briskly. “It’s an easy run into the barn. Jammer can back you up if you need it.”

“Yes, Ma’am. Thank you.”

“Go finish the job. Saladin, Ataturk, Sun Tzu, you’re with me.”

The four Wolves headed to intercept the now-drifting Worden while the Red Squadron detachment ensured the Artemesians’ compliance.

“Shooting Star, Flashdance. Nice shooting. Here to pick up your trash.”

“Thanks, Flashdance. We’ll give you an escort in case they decide to get squirrely.”

“Appreciate it. Okay, Wolves. Saladin, you’re taking the bow. Ataturk, starboard. Sun Tzu, port. I want a tight lock on this fish. Close to within a klick and lock on with as much power as you can without tearing their hull apart.”

“That’s fifty percent power,” Menace added.

It took moments for the three Wolves to get into position and secure the Worden, Shannon positioning the Alexander above the Worden’s ventral side.

“Got good lock,” Spaceman reported from the Saladin. The other two soon echoed his report.

“Menace, I want you to keep a close watch on that tin can. I don’t want to kill the crew because we rip the guts out of the ship accidentally.”

“Nope, no unintentional ship-shredding on my watch,” said Menace.

“All ships, gently accelerate to fifty g. Five zero. Let’s take it slow.”

Coordinating acceleration between three Wolves, all tied to a single frigate, was the reason that Shannon had decided to observe instead of participate. It took careful balancing between the crews but they’d drilled on plenty of asteroids. The practice paid off again now; soon the convoy was on their way to Njord, and Shannon let her mind drift to plans.

“Diana, Menace. Can you check my readings?” That snapped her back.

“Certainly, Menace. What am I looking for?”

“I’m picking up power fluctuations within the Worden. I don’t think they’re being caused by the tractor beams, but we’ve never moved a ship with its own power source active.”

“Checking. No, your readings are correct, fluctuations are internal to Worden, no external source.”

“Good,” breathed Menace.

“Diana, can you identify the source?”

“Possibly. Analyzing. Fluctuations originate in main engineering, fusion reactor, magnetic containment bottle. Probable cause, damage caused by recent engagement.”

Realization crystalized in Shannon: the constant defiance, the attitude, the futile attacks, the sudden passivity.

“Or they’re planning to make their reactor go critical! Wolves, drop tractors, break off!”

She had already skewed her Wolf and brought the throttle up to full, clawing away from the Worden at two hundred gravities. She could see her crews imitating her actions, speeding away from the ticking bomb.

“They’ve lit off their drive,” Menace said. “Holy crap! I didn’t think they could manage it, but they’re pulling 7 g in that thing!”

“They’re on the edge of compensator failure,” Diana said.

“And they’re also staying on course for Njord.”

“Of course they are,” said Flashdance. “Shooting Star, take them out.”

“Concur,” said Whitmore. “Weapons free.”

“This time we finish it,” Ashlyn said. “Red Six, lead. Then Seven, and I’ll take tail.”

There was no warning; the three Direwolves, strung in a row, approached from astern, led by Captain Obvious, Digger, and finally Shooting Star.

As Captain Obvious began his run the effects of his shots were immediately apparent, starting at the engine and rolling forward. Gouges and scars appeared in the skin of the ship, venting atmosphere and other volatiles, and then he was past.

“Engines are still up,” Menace said. “Fluctuations growing worse.”

“They can’t simply drop the containment field; they need to overload the reactor first, otherwise it won’t an explosion,” Diana said.

Digger made her pass next. More metal glittered as it splattered away, molten droplets quickly freezing into irregular globules. More atmo and volatiles burst from the ship. Electrical discharges leapt as well, the shots penetrating deeper and rupturing power conduits, but still the Worden’s engines were functional.

“Changing the plan,” said Ashlyn.

Instead of walking her way up the ship’s hull to the bow she paralleled the frigate, pulling even with the bow, before pivoting her Direwolf to face the port side. Only then, her own engines cut and allowing the still-accelerating frigate to pull itself through her fire basket, did she engage. Her lasers dug into the side, penetrating the skin, and the slow overtake allowed for greater damage. Deep craters appeared and explosions started rocking the frigate before she’d reached the mid-point.

The engines finally quit.

The frigate stopped accelerating; the two ships seemed to hang in space. Shooting Star kept pumping her fire into a spot amidships, the slight wobbles of the unpowered ship causing the effective diameter of the damage to widen while driving deeper and deeper into the interior. Compartments were explosively vented to space, debris scattering far and wide. Then the lasers burst through the far side.

“I think they’re done,” she commed, pulling back from the frigate.

“I’m still getting power readings,” said Menace. “The bottle’s holding, I don’t think they’re trying to overload it, but it’s not going to last long. Maybe a minute, tops.”

Worden, if you can read me, abandon ship. Your magnetic bottle is failing.”

Flashdance didn’t think they could hear her, but she had to make the attempt. She’d never imagined a ship could take as much damage and still function at all.

“Looks like someone was listening,” Menace said. “I’ve got what looks like escape pods popping off.”

“Let them get clear, then get our birds on SAR. I want them far away from that flying bomb.”

“Roger that!”

Njord, Worden is disabled but still on course for the habitat.”

“We have it,” said Whitmore. “Get everyone clear and we’ll take it out with a missile.”

“We’re out of here, people,” Shannon commed. “Njord is targeting a missile; we don’t want to be around when that baby arrives.”

“SAR, Boss?” asked Cueball, from the Ataturk.

“What’s the separation?”

Menace checked. “The escape pods are almost two hundred klicks back.”

“Go ahead, Ata—”

The Worden vanished in an actinic glare of white light, fading quickly through yellow to orange and red.

“Cancel that missile, Njord,” said Shannon as the spots faded in her vision. “The reactor gave out. Initiating SAR.”

A Quiet Revolution – Book 2 – Chapter 14

The Measure of Humanity – Chapter THIRTEEN

Okay, who remembers Alyssa Jordan?

Anyone?

Come on, people, think!

She was the unlucky woman who was Kaine’s subordinate, way back in the day, and she took over for him after he met his totally justified end. Over the next few years she did her job and did it honestly and well. Which put her in a good position when Mikki decided to do her little recon to Luna.

Okay, here’s where Adam gets me to blather on about things he finds important. Today he wants you to know about two things: the next volume of my story (my story, Adam, not yours!), and a contest to win an audiobook.

First the volume. Triumph’s Ashes releases in ebook on August 15, but if you don’t want to wait that long you can order the paperback right now. Just click the cover image next to this box and it’s all yours!

Second the contest. Adam’s running a Rafflecopter through the end of the month to win a copy of A Quiet Revolution (Volume 4). Just click HERE and you’ll be able to put in your entry!

Enough! Time for the chapter. If you’re tired of waiting for updates, click any image (or the button, or HERE) to order your copy today!

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Capricorn Station, Low Earth Orbit

“I hate this,” Stone said, sotto voce. “Sneaking around and hiding.”

“We’re not hiding,” answered Tony. “We’re undercover. Though we won’t be for long if you don’t start playing the part.”

She took a pull at her beer and made a face. “Bleah. Worse than the horse piss you lot think passes for beer. You know, the best beer I ever had was in a pub in Zimbabwe when I was maybe seventeen.”

“What were you doing drinking beer in Zimbabwe when you were seventeen?”

“My da was on posting and there wasn’t anything to do, so I hung out down at the pub.”

“You could’ve gotten hurt.”

Stone grinned at that. “My da was part of the UNSEC and always out at the pointy end of the stick. My ma died when I was only two, so he had to bring me on his postings. But he taught me every dirty trick he knew before I was out of nappies. By the time he was sent to Zimbabwe I had three standing recruitment offers, put eight men in hospital for one thing or another, and had most of da’s soldiers drooling after me. I was safe as houses in that pub.”

She downed the rest of the beer. “But I’ll say this, you’d best do better than this crap if we’re going to be waiting here much longer.”

“We don’t have to be here; it’s just a fairly common place for transient passengers to wait for their ship.” He gestured around the relatively spacious lounge, which was about 2/3 full. “The Browne is the only ship departing soon, so I’ll wager that most of these people are going to be our shipmates.”

Stone didn’t have to try hard to resist turning around and looking; even though she was new to undercover work, she was an experienced operative in her own right and knew the value of looking natural. “D’ye see anyone you recognize?”

“One or two,” he acknowledged. “We’re not going in heavy like we did when we retrieved Davie.”

“I understood that we’d have six including us?”

He nodded. “Yes. Three more passengers and one who’s signed on as crew for this run.”

Stone frowned at that. “Just for the run? Is that usual?”

“It’s not unusual enough to cause notice, though not exactly common. She’s done it a couple times before; her cover is a college student who works a few runs when she wants a break.”

“And that works?” Stone asked incredulously.

“So far.” Tony spun around on his stool, looking at the ebb and flow of the people around them before returning to his drink.

“You look like you’re twenty when you do that,” said Stone.

“Thank you,” he answered cheekily, spinning again only to be stopped mid-spin by a hand on the back of the seat.

“Hey!” he protested.

“Knock it off.” Stone’s tone was low and urgent. “Is that one of yours?”

He followed her gaze across the lounge to a short, slim blonde, sitting alone and staring back at them.

“No,” he said, turning away. “I don’t recognize her.”

“I do. Six years ago.”

“What happened six years ago?”

“Deep black op inside one of the Harriman companies, HLC. She was the assistant to a real nasty actor we had to take out, and I don’t know if she followed in his footsteps.” She turned back to her empty beer. “Keep an eye on her; I have to call this in.”

Tony leaned back, the very image of relaxation. “On it.”

Stone tapped her ‘plant. Diana, I need information.

Of course, Master Chief. How can I help?

I’ve got a person who shouldn’t be here, she thought.

The fastest way for me to identify them is for you to look at them, Diana’s ‘voice’ said.

Can do. Stone allowed her gaze to rest briefly on the blonde before looking at one of the monitors on the far wall. Does that work?

Processing. Alyssa Jordan, Deputy Director for Security, HLC. On sabbatical since 20 October through the end of the year. Diana’s response was nearly instantaneous, which was unsurprising. She was connected to most of the major networks on- and off-planet.

Why is she here?

I cannot speculate to her motives, but she is booked on the Browne for a full System tour, departing tomorrow. There was a brief pause. You have a good memory for faces, Master Chief, but nothing that I have found suggests any nefarious purpose.

Sorry to bother you.

No bother, Master Chief. Good luck.

Stone sighed and returned to the bar, trying to catch the eye of the bartender. “Coincidence, apparently,” she said to Tony.

He frowned. “I don’t believe in coincidences in this business.”

“Neither do I,” Stone agreed. The bartender finally make his way to her spot. “Do you have any Belgian beer?”

“No, but I have a Scottish barley wine you might like.”

That caught Tony’s ear. “Barley wine?”

“I’ll take it,” Stone said to the barman, then addressed Tony. “It means it’s not weaker than a Loonie on Earth, is all.”

“So what about the blonde?”

“Her name is Alyssa Jordan, and she’s apparently on vacation. I don’t particularly believe that, but there’s nothing to say otherwise. Thanks,” she said as the barman brought her beer, a dark amber glass with a creamy head. She took a long, appreciative pull before returning to her conversation with Tony.

“I don’t know what we can do to keep track of her,” she said. “You’re stretched, and we’re not on a Federation ship. That means we don’t have the AI help we would otherwise. Harpo can hack the systems –”

I already have, the AI commed to both. Diana brought me up to speed. Anything Ms. Jordan does on the Browne, I’ll know.

“Thanks,” said Stone. “But that’s passive surveillance.”

“Then that’s what we have,” Tony replied. “It’s not ideal, but it’s better than I’ve had before.” He stood and stretched. “I’m going to mingle with our other passengers. Some of them are going to be part of the LTA group, so I may as well put on my tour guide hat.”

“Cheers,” she said. “I’ll wander about as well, turn over a few rocks.”

“That’s not –” Tony’s warning was too late; Stone was already up and making a beeline for Jordan, beer glass in her hand.

Diana, Harpo, listen in on this, Stone commed, getting wordless acknowledgements from both AI’s.

“Hi,” she said, dropping into the seat across from Jordan. “I’m Mikki.”

“Hi Mikki,” said the confused woman. “I’m Alyssa.” Her voice had a trace of a drawl, but nothing pronounced.

“Nice to meet you.” She set her beer down after taking a drink. “Why are you here? I’m going to Luna for a vacation.”

“So am I! Well, I’m going for more than that,” she said. Stone examined her. She was young, very young considering her position, with an open, cheerful face, brown eyes, and a slim body. Her hands especially drew Stone’s gaze, fine-boned and long-fingered. “I’m taking the Grand Tour. Luna’s just my first stop.”

“I’ve heard of that, but never had the time. Or the money,” admitted Stone in a rueful tone.

“Oh, I know! I’ve skipped my vacations the past three years to have enough time to do this!” Jordan’s voice was, it seemed to Stone, genuinely enthusiastic.

“What do you do? Must be a pretty decent place if they’re letting you take all this time off.”

“I’m the Security Director for the Heavy Lift Corporation.”

“You’re the ones who launch stuff into orbit, like supplies?”

“Right!” Jordan’s face split into a broad smile. “Not many people know about us; we’re not flashy like the passenger companies.”

“I’m a space geek,” Stone asserted. “I can’t get enough of it. I tried to sign up for this new Federation thing, but I haven’t heard back yet.”

“Oh, we work with them all the time. I’ll bet you didn’t know that Admiral Cassidy is one of the owners of HLC!” Jordan’s face fell as a thought crossed her mind. “Isn’t it awful?”

“Isn’t what awful?” asked Stone, thinking, Following her is almost as bad as talking with McAllister!

“The news about the Admiral. All of those lies, about her being a –” Jordan dropped her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “An Enhanced Human.”

“Oh. That. I don’t know; what do you think?”

“It’s complete crap!” exclaimed Jordan with surprising vehemence. “I’ve met her a few times, and her wife. She’s so totally, you know, real! I can’t imagine that she’s not human.”

“You’ve met her?”

“Yeah, really just a couple times. She doesn’t spend much time at HLC, but I actually got to know her wife, Aiyana, pretty well. She used to run the company before she joined her wife in the Federation.” Jordan got a wistful look in her eyes. “Can I tell you a secret?”

“Sure,” agreed Stone equably, surprised at how open the other woman was being.

Before Jordan said anything, a server stopped by the table. “Do you need another, Miss?” He gestured to the glass which, Stone noted, was nearly empty.

“Yes! And one for my new friend!”

“Certainly. Ma’am?”

“The Scottish barleywine. Your barman will know what you’re about.” Satisfied, the server headed off.

“What was I saying?”

“You were going to tell me some kind of secret.”

“Oh, yeah! Well,” and her voice dropped again. “This whole vacation thing? I want to see how I deal with space. If I do good, then I’m going to apply to the Federation. I think they could use me, and they certainly can check on my record easy enough!”

The conversation continued, through an additional round of drinks, with Jordan seeming to become more and more effusive with each drink; Stone, having learned to outdrink the rest of her SEAL team, didn’t even get so much as buzzed.

“Come on,” she said after Jordan had tried, and failed, to put her now-empty glass upright on the table for the third time. Stone put an arm around Jordan’s back and lifted the unresisting woman from her seat. “Let’s get you back to your cabin.”

“It’s early!” protested Jordan.

“And so’s boarding,” answered Stone, guiding her through the crowd. “Do you remember where you’re staying?”

“Course I do,” Jordan slurred. “I’m inna hotel.”

Stone sighed. This wasn’t going to be as easy as she hoped.

“Which one, Alyssa?”

“The big fancy one.”

“Bloody hell, that’s all of them!” Capricorn Station’s main tourist area catered almost exclusively to the wealthy, as even the cheapest trip to Luna was decidedly pricey. As such, all of the hotels tended to ostentation, aided by the reduced gravity. “Do you have your key?”

“No key,” answered Jordan. “Bio – biome – biometrics! I just have to give it my finger and it lets me in!” She demonstrated with her middle finger before collapsing, giggling.

Diana? A little help?

Alyssa Jordan is registered at the Hotel Europa, the AI provided almost immediately. Level five. She’s in room 10A.

Thanks. Shouldering her load again, Stone made her way out of the lounge and started the long trip upstation.

The Measure of Humanity – Book 2 – Chapter 13

The Road to the Stars – Chapters Twelve & Thirteen

Today brings a couple shortish chapters, which is why I was able to get it past our faithful watchdog. Everyone wave hi to Adam!

The first one is a peek into what was going on in Artemis – little did I know of their plans! And the second was one of the few sort of ‘crisis moments’ Cass and I had together.

See, usually we were, are, totally on the same page. Utterly and completely. But every now and again our paths would diverge and we’d need to touch base to ensure we got back on track. This was one of those times.

Okay, here’s where Adam gets me to blather on about things he finds
important. Today he wants you to know about two things: the next volume of my
story (my story, Adam, not yours!), and a contest to win an audiobook.

First the volume. Triumph’s Ashes releases in ebook on
August 15, but if you don’t want to wait that long you can order the paperback RIGHT NOW. Just click HERE and it’s all yours!

Second the contest. Adam’s running a Rafflecopter through the end of the month to win a copy of A Quiet Revolution (Volume 4). Just click HERE and you’ll be able to put in your entry!

Enough! Time for the chapter. If you’re tired of waiting for updates, click
any image (or the button, or HERE) to order your copy today!

Chapter Twelve

“We were successful in getting an agent aboard their station, Minister,” said Daryl Jones. He was the Director of Operations for the Artemis Ministry of Intelligence.

“Very good,” Minister Dent answered. “How?”

“We had him in place within their organization, HLC. They’ve been recruiting heavily from within; when the latest call for volunteers came out, it was an easy matter for him to alter his records enough to qualify him for a highly sensitive position.”

“Well done. I’ll leave the details to you.”

“Naturally, sir.”

“Have you made any other progress?”

“Minimal. The locations of their homes and workplaces are public record. Unfortunately, their internal security is excellent, and we have been unable to penetrate their systems yet. I’m working with my counterpart at MinTech, Deborah Arnett. She believes that we will need more direct access. Unfortunately, that will involve either transporting agents to Earth, or utilizing agents already in place.”

“That could be problematic,” said Dent.

“Indeed, sir. I am confident we will succeed, eventually.”

“Eventually might not be soon enough. Whatever it takes, Jones.”

“Yes, sir.”

“What about their station?”

Diana, sir. I persuaded Rilvan Balogun, at MinWar, to share the feed they’re receiving from their surveillance satellites positioned around the station. They aren’t designed for our specific needs, and the instruments are somewhat crude, but until we can get something of our own in place, it’s better than nothing.”

“And MinSec?”

“There haven’t been any further attempts to infiltrate the Ministry, sir. They have six agents within MinInt; we have them all identified and isolated. The projects they work are important, yes, and we are sure to provide them nothing but real information, but there’s nothing sensitive about their tasks. Calculating projected soybean crops and the like.”

Very good, Jones.” Dent thought for a moment; Jones waited patiently. “Prioritize the penetration of their personal security. The Primus is none too happy about Diana or their starship, but she has directed us to eliminate the women. If we have to, we can use a KEW on their home, but that only works if we know they’re present.”

“Yes, sir. I’ll see to it personally.”

“Good.” With that, the audience ended.

Chapter Thirteen

“It looks like a junkyard.”

“That’s what it’s supposed to look like.”

“At least they’re nearly done with the recovery.”

“Did you fire that CEO?”

“Oh, Marie? Yeah. Gave her a nice fat bonus for getting the job so well underway, then told her that we appreciated all her years of hard work, blah, blah, blah, and eased her out the door.” Cass smiled at the memory.

“Who did you promote?”

“Dogfish. Richard Percoco, I guess I should call him now that he’s in charge.”

“How did he take it?”

“He’s not thrilled about having to run the company; he appreciated the bump in pay, though. I told him to find two or three competent assistants and push the work off on them, so he can ‘lead from the front’, as it were, and keep diving.”

Cass and Ken were on their way back from Diana after another flight. This latest one was four days’ duration, and may have finally satisfied Dr. Roberts to certify her warp drive as being fully ready for mission use. Cass was perfectly happy to use the transporter, but Kendra insisted they use a Wolf to return so they could do an aerial survey of the recovery project.

Once the sealant problem was solved, it was a quick matter to raise and recover the wrecks. All of the frigates had been raised by the end of the first week; none of them would be suitable for conversion, but they would provide excellent cover for the real operation. After that, the pace had slowed as they became more selective in their salvage. The next ships raised had been the heavy and light cruisers, being the ships they had thought most likely to survive conversion in a usable state. Then the destroyers were raised; some of them were large enough to be useful, while the others would be good for decoys.

At this point, only the two aircraft carriers, the Ford class U.S.S. John F. Kennedy and U.S.S. Doris Miller, and the various auxiliary ships remained to be salvaged. While the two carriers were certainly large enough to handle the necessary conversions, they had the insurmountable problem that they were designed as aircraft carriers. By necessity, large sections of the superstructure were open to the air; this introduced an untenable weakness, making them unsuitable as any sort of spaceship. The auxiliary vessels, being oilers, hospital ships, and the like, were also deemed unsuitable.

But that would work just fine. Between the frigates, the carriers and auxiliaries, and the ships that they simply screwed up on, there would be plenty of work going on at all times to keep the Union’s attention.

“Ken?”

“Cass?” When Cass didn’t answer immediately, Kendra turned to her wife and repeated her prompt. “Cass?”

“Honey, I was wondering.” She fell silent again. Kendra just waited. When Cass finally spoke, she sounded hesitant, something Kendra didn’t hear from her often.

“Is this weird?”

“Is what weird?”

“All of this! My god, Kendra, six years ago we were just a couple in love, we weren’t even engaged! And everything happened with Derek and Amanda, and I nearly lost you! Then it all worked out, we ended up with this amazing opportunity, and then our girls, and – and –” She stopped, sniffling. Kendra rested a hand on her shoulder, which Cass covered with her own, but didn’t say anything.

Eventually, Cass pulled herself together. “And now look at us! I’m the science officer on a starship – a starship, Kendra! We just spent four days flying around the Solar System, charting it, testing sensors, and oh by the way doing it all at FTL! And you! You’re in charge of, of, of all this!” She waved her hand around, encompassing Diana and Enterprise, the Wolves, the planned expansions. “On top of all that, we’re both secret agents, trying to free, not a person, not a company, no, we’re trying to free the whole damn planet from the dead hand of the past! When do we get to be just us again? When do we go back to being ohana?”

Kendra was ready to reply until Cass brought out the last word. Ohana was very nearly sacred to her, the concept of family above all, and that gave her pause. Her brow furrowed as she gave Cass’s words the consideration they deserved, long minutes of silence, broken only by the sounds of their breathing.

Finally, she thought she was ready.

“I don’t think we can go back to being just us. Hold on,” she said, seeing Cass’s nascent protest. “Hear me out!”

Cass nodded slowly.

“Nothing is more important to me than ohana. That started as you and me, right? Now we have the girls, too. They have to be part of ‘just us’, don’t they? Absolutely,” she answered for Cass. “But what about Lisa? You risked your life to save her and her husband. Isn’t she part of our ohana?”

“Yes, of course.”

“And Cris? And Mac? They were with you, rescuing Lisa.”

“Yes.”

“How about Mikki? You know, the one the girls call Auntie Mikki? The only one who can control both of them at once? Get them into bed on time? Make them giggle and laugh and who the girls think is the best thing since kittens?”

“Yes.”

“Auntie Alley? How about Candice?”

“Yes, them too.”

“Honey, our little ohana isn’t so little anymore. There’s probably another dozen, maybe two dozen people who you or I could look at and say, ‘Yes. I consider them family.’ Don’t you think?”

“At least that,” agreed Cass.

“Now, think back. Way back. Years and years. Ohana means family, yes. But what else does it mean?”

“Nobody gets left behind.”

“Or forgotten. Honey, when Mya came to us last year and told us that the planet was in trouble, and we might be able to help, did we even hesitate?”

“No.”

“And why not? Don’t answer that, I’ll tell you: a dead Earth isn’t a place I want to leave for either Lisa or Mikki. We can give them the stars, Aiyana. You and me, babe.” Kendra turned to face Cass. “Honey, we have our ohana, we just didn’t know it. It’s all around us. Maybe we can miss seeing it sometimes, but only for the same reason a fish doesn’t see the ocean. It’s always there, surrounding us.”

Kendra pulled Cass into a hug.

“We’re not missing our ohana. We’re swimming in it. And, by Zeus, we are not leaving anyone behind!”

The Road to the Stars – Book 2 – Chapter 12
The Road to the Stars – Book 2 – Chapter 13

The Cassidy Chronicles – Chapter THREE

Oh, this chapter takes me back!

Well, to be fair, all the chapters take me back. They’re all in my past, after all. And no I won’t tell you how far in my past; spoilers!

Suffice it to say it’s been a while, and this chapter especially brings back memories.

See, it’s when we first met Mac.

You know Mac. I know you do. Amanda McAllister, the woman with no filter and no punctuation?

Don’t get me wrong; we all love Mac. She is one of our favorite people and we wouldn’t trade our experiences with her for anything!

But she was a bit hard to take at first. Simultaneously talking non-stop and painfully, cripplingly reticent to interrupt? Bad combination.

Okay, here’s where Adam gets me to blather on about things he finds important. Today he wants you to know about two things: the next volume of my story (my story, Adam, not yours!), and a contest to win an audiobook.

First the volume. Triumph’s Ashes releases in ebook on August 15, but if you don’t want to wait that long you can order the paperback RIGHT NOW. Just click the cover image right next to this box and it’s all yours!

Second the contest. Adam’s running a Rafflecopter through the end of the month to win a copy of A Quiet Revolution (Volume 4). Just click HERE and you’ll be able to put in your entry!

Enough! Time for the chapter. If you’re tired of waiting for updates, click any image (or the button, or HERE) to order your copy today!

Chapter 3: Please Have Your Papers Ready

The rescue party from OutLook was there in five minutes with a small APV to carry Joe. Kendra and Cass would have to walk, though they did have another agent accompanying them. She was a short, skinny brunette with an elfin grin.

‘I’m Amanda McAllister, but everyone calls me Mac,’ she introduced herself. ‘Director Talbott asked me to finish escorting you in.’ She talked quickly, with a hint of an eastern accent.

‘Hi, Mac,’ answered Kendra. Cass just nodded her hello; the adrenaline rush from the events of the past hour had worn off, leaving her feeling drained. ‘My silent partner here is Cass. I hope there aren’t any more nasty surprises.’

‘Oh, no, Ms. Foster-Briggs, no more surprises, at least I hope not, but that’s the thing about surprises, they’re surprising, aren’t they?’ Kendra tried to parse the sentence, failed, and decided just to nod. ‘You’ve been here before but Cass hasn’t, do you want me to do the whole tour guide thing or just get us there quick as we can?’

Taking a look at Cass, Kendra said, ‘I think a quick walk would be best. It’s been a long couple of days, and it’s getting on to dark. I remember, we don’t want to be out after dark.’

‘You got that right, boy, it’s not safe out here after dark, not alone at least, but there’s three of us and so we should be just peachy!’ And she led off.

Kendra allowed her a few meters before following. Pitching her voice low so only Cass could hear, she said, ‘Hon? You okay?’

‘Yeah, Ken. I’ll be fine. I just want to get this day over with, you know?’

‘I know. Have to check in on Joe tomorrow, see how he’s doing.’

‘What do you think will happen to him?’

‘Depends on what Director Talbott wants. He might be more useful in the field; in that case, she’ll get him fitted out. Mechanical or maybe a biological, depends on which he’ll take better. If not, she’ll find something in the office for him to do. Might be a little safer for him.’ She wasn’t quiet enough.

‘Are you talking about Joe, wasn’t that the most awful thing you’d ever seen, I can’t imagine being there when a damn big gator’s trying to rip off someone’s leg, he’s so lucky you kept your head and got it off of him, I’m sure he’ll tell you when you see him again!’

‘Do you ever stop to breathe?’ asked Kendra.

‘Oh yeah, I breathe all the time, see?’ And she demonstrated.

‘Tell me, Mac, are you usually out in the field?’

She exhaled, then said, ‘Not usually, I’m more of an IT specialist, you give me a system and I can hack it so clean they won’t even know I was there, why do you ask?’

‘Oh, no reason.’ Kendra let the conversation die and took Cass’s hand in hers.

In a very few minutes the river came into view.

‘We’re going down there?’ asked Cass.

‘We are,’ confirmed Kendra. ‘You won’t believe where the offices are located.’

‘I don’t believe it.’

Cass was looking at the nineteenth-century Greek Revival-style building at the end of the road. In stark contrast to the destruction they had seen along their walk, this brick building seemed to be pristine. A neat, tended lawn surrounded it, with people walking the grounds; huge stumps could be seen where trees had been removed. It seemed incongruous, in the wreckage of the city, to find a building that had such vitality. ‘What is this place?’

‘This is the headquarters of OutLook,’ answered Kendra with more than a touch of pride. ‘It used to be the old New Orleans Mint, then a museum. Now it’s ours.’

‘It’s amazing.’

‘We don’t want to keep Director Talbott waiting, she doesn’t like that, it makes her unhappy and then she makes us unhappy so why don’t we just get inside so I can bring you to her office?’ There was definite urgency in Mac’s tone, perhaps a touch of fear.

‘No, she doesn’t like to wait. Never did,’ Kendra agreed. ‘We can sight-see later.’ They walked toward the Ionic columns at the center of the building.

‘Shouldn’t there be more security?’ asked Cass. ‘It seems awfully open.’

‘There’s plenty of security, don’t you worry about that, it’s our job to keep you safe and we will, so you can just-’

‘Mac, enough!’ said Kendra. ‘The security’s there; we just don’t advertise. You’ll see what I mean.’ They made their way up the steps and entered the old building.

The difference was immediate. Three heavily-armed guards stood just inside the doors and directed them to three separate man-traps. Kendra just managed to say, ‘Real name!’ before the doors closed and locked behind them.

‘State your name,’ demanded a metallic voice.

‘Aiyana Cassidy Foster-Briggs,’ she answered.

There was a long pause as the machinery thought about this before stating, ‘Identification not found. Entry denied.’

‘What? No, wait, I’m supposed to be here, I was brought here by an agent!’

Nothing happened at first. Finally, the voice said, ‘Identity of responsible agent.’

‘Kendra Cassidy!’

Another pause. ‘That name does not match records of current agents.’

Realizing her mistake, Cass shouted, ‘Foster-Briggs! Kendra Foster-Briggs!’

‘Agent recognized.’

A longer pause. She was about to start screaming and banging on the walls when it spoke again.

‘Place your hand in the scanner for DNA confirmation,’ was the next directive. A slot opened in the far wall. She stepped forward a pace and inserted her hand with some trepidation. There was a sharp prick, then the voice said, ‘Processing. Wait.’

It wasn’t more than fifteen or sixteen seconds before the exit appeared, but it seemed much longer.

She stepped through and found the others waiting.

‘I forgot that you wouldn’t be in the system,’ said Kendra. ‘Hope you didn’t have too much trouble.’

‘Not much once I remembered your name.’

Kendra’s face was quizzical.

‘You haven’t updated it, remember?’

‘Oh, shit.’

‘Got that right. Forget it. What’s next?’

‘Right this way, Ms. Foster-Briggs, if you’ll follow me, we just have to get you a visitor’s pass, and do you have your pass Kendra or do you need a new one, we can always get them both at the same time, it’s not a big deal, but we ought to get moving.’ Mac led them along a corridor. There was no attempt at modernization; the ancient marble floors were scuffed, the brickwork rounded by untold numbers of hands. At the end of the hall, they boarded an elevator. Mac reached for the controls, but Kendra got there first. She pushed a button and they started to descend. ‘I know where we’re going,’ she said to Mac, who seemed about to question her.

After nearly a minute, Cass commented, ‘This is either the slowest elevator in the country, or we’ve gone much farther than I thought we could. How deep are we?’

‘Oh, I’m so sorry, that’s classified, strictly need-to-know, I know you’ll understand but I can’t tell you -’

‘Eight stories,’ interrupted Kendra. ‘At least, it’s eight stories to Talbott’s office, or it was. Did she move her office? Never mind, we have to go to Security first and get ID’s. That is where we’re going?’

‘After the IDs, we can go to Security, but we have to get the IDs first or Director Talbott will have me hunting for nutria for breakfast, and I don’t know if you’ve ever eaten a nutria but they’re not all that tasty, I don’t want to do that, so –‘

Kandra cut her off.

‘They still down in the Pit?’ asked Kendra, but before Mac could answer she turned to Cass. ‘There was always a problem, see, with explosions when things went wrong. You couldn’t see it, it’s around the back of the building, but they blew out an entire wing one time, just absolutely leveled it.’

‘So now it’s underground? Under your offices? That’s safer?’

‘You’ll understand when you see it.’

‘Agent? You wanted to go to Security first? That’s -’ Mac’s explanation was cut short as the elevator finally stopped. The doors opened, revealing a short corridor that seemed to bend to the right, but before she could take more than a few steps, Kendra put her arm in front of Cass and said, ‘Hold on. I never asked, never needed to, but are you at all claustrophobic?’

‘No.’

‘Agoraphobic?’

‘No. Kendra, what…?’

‘Just checking. Come on.’ She led off into the corridor, which soon changed from metal panels to rough-hewn rock.

Cass said, ‘I thought it would be cold. Aren’t caves supposed to be cold?’

‘Only near the surface. When you get deeper, it gets warmer.’

‘How much warmer? I mean, how deep are we?’

‘We’re about a kilometer underground, and the temperature down here is a balmy 35° Celsius year-round.’

Cass’s face went white. ‘A kilometer underground?’

‘It’s perfectly safe, the cavern’s only about two hundred meters up and twice that wide, plenty small enough to support the weight above it, but it was the only safe place we could put them, it’s a lava bubble we think, whatever it is it works for us to do our R&D, it’s just amazing when they have all the spotlights on! But, Kendra, we don‘t -’

Cass got paler and paler through the entire recitation.

‘Thanks a bunch, Mac,’ growled Kendra, interrupting her again, then pulled Cass to the side.

‘Sweetie? She’s right, it’s safe down here. You won’t even be able to tell once we get back inside.’

‘Inside? Inside what?’

Kendra had been gently herding her along the wall. Now the rock gave way again to sheet metal, and then another door with a guard.

‘ID, please,’ he said from behind a security barrier.

‘We’re here to get an ID; how can we give you one?’ asked Kendra, posing the logical question.

‘IDs are in the first sub-basement,’ he replied, suspicious.

‘Mac?’

‘I tried to tell you Kendra, I really did but you cut me off and that’s okay because I know you’re worried about your wife, I’d be worried too if I didn’t know what I was getting into down here but we really shouldn’t be down here, not yet, and I did try to tell you!’

Kendra dropped her face into her palms, then ran her hands through her hair. ‘Fine.’ Her tone indicated it was anything but. ‘Sorry for the intrusion.’ And quietly they eased back to the elevator.

‘I sure hope there aren’t any more surprises, Mac.’

‘No, ma’am.’ For once, the petite agent didn’t have much to say.

The ride up to the processing sub-level was silent. The procedure didn’t take much time, though, and they were soon headed up again to see the Director. On their way, Kendra turned to Mac. ‘If you see I’m about to pull another boner like that, stop me, will you please?’ She smiled to take the edge off her words.

‘Sure, Kendra – I mean, Agent.’

‘Kendra’s fine. Can’t stand on formality when I just showed myself as a complete jackass, can I?’

The third floor of the building was thoroughly modern. They were led down the hall, through an anteroom, to a final barrier, another biometric checkpoint, which swung open just as Kendra was about to initiate the procedure.

‘I knew you’d make it eventually!’ called a voice.

Kendra grinned. ‘I knew we would too,’ she said, striding across the carpet to stop in front of an old-fashioned wooden desk. From behind the desk, a figure stood up out of the darkness and came around into the light.

‘Welcome back, Kendra.’ She put out her hand.

‘Thank you, Director,’ she answered, taking the hand, then being pulled into a hug.

‘Dammit, Ken, when did you think I got formal?’

‘Maybe when you got your promotion? It’s been a while, after all.’

The director released Kendra and stood back, holding her at arm’s length. ‘Ha! The only reason they promoted me is I knew where they hung too many of their skeletons. You think I was going to change my MO just because they gave me a bigger office?’

She was tall, nearly as tall as Cass, but much more athletic despite her age, which Cass guessed at her mid-forties. That body was covered with a conservative suit, custom-made by the look, that suited her position. Shoulder-length blonde hair framed a face that was currently warm and inviting, but Cass could sense that the emotion would change in a shot if needed. Probably a useful trait, running a business like this, she thought.

‘Guess not.’

From the far corner an assistant stepped forward with a pair of chairs. ‘Oh, good, Keith. Right there, that’s fine.’ He set them in front of the desk as she settled back into her chair and raised the lights. ‘Sorry about the dramatics; I just couldn’t resist.’ The smile was on in full force.

Cass sank into her seat with a grateful sigh. Kendra stood a moment longer, unsure if the remaining chair was for her or Mac. Talbott, noting the confusion, cut through it.

‘Mac, if you wouldn’t mind waiting outside? Don’t go too far.’

‘Yes, ma’am.’ Mac escaped to the relative safety of the anteroom.

‘Kendra? Refreshment?’

‘Coffee would be good,’ admitted Kendra.

‘And Ms. Cassidy – I mean, Ms. Foster-Briggs?’ The correction was smooth but planned, Cass noticed, as if Director Talbott wanted her to be aware that she knew all about her.

‘That would be fine,’ agreed Cass, though she really just wanted a bed. That didn’t look like it would happen any time soon, however.

‘Keith, coffee service, please.’ The assistant headed out.

‘This is the inventor,’ said Talbott after the door closed. She scrutinized Cass for a long moment before speaking again. ‘Good job bringing her in, Kendra.’

‘Thank you, Amanda. It wasn’t easy -’

‘Yes, I’m sure you had quite the adventure,’ said Talbott, waving off any explanations. ‘I look forward to seeing your report. But for now – tell me your story.’

‘You just said you would wait for the report -’

‘Not that – your wedding! I never figured you to be the type to settle down, Ken; how did – Cass, you said? – manage to pull you in?’

The tale took fifteen minutes to tell. Keith delivered the coffee near the beginning, then faded into the background. Kendra was animated, relishing the opportunity to give her emotions free rein, and Cass was soon pulled in, adding details and expanding on stories. The subject turned to Kendra’s early days with OutLook, which Cass found fascinating even despite the frequent reminders from the Director: ‘That’s still classified.’ And, eventually, even a few stories from Talbott’s career came to light to much amusement.

‘He never did figure it out.’

Kendra was rolling with laughter, and even Cass was finding it hard to control the giggles.

‘Cheese in the ventilators in July!’ whooped Kendra before losing it again.

‘Not everything I do, or did, was lethal,’ answered Talbott with a smile. ‘Now, then, not to change the subject, but I do rather need to talk with Kendra. Keith, would you bring Agent McAllister back in?’

When Mac returned, Talbott said, ‘Would you please escort Aiyana to her quarters and answer any questions she might have? I’m afraid I have to detain Kendra for a while yet.’

‘Yes, ma’am.’ She waited for Aiyana to rise.

‘You won’t be long?’ said Cass.

‘I don’t think -’ began Kendra before being interrupted.

‘I won’t keep her terribly late; I know you’ve had a busy few days.’ With that obvious dismissal, Cass allowed herself to be led from the room.

The door snicked shut behind her.

The Cassidy Chronicles – Book 2 – Chapter 3

Sonia Discher Interview!

It’s another two-fer Monday!

Today we have an author who’s written an important book on a serious subject: coping with early-onset Alzheimer’s.

Sonia Discher, originally born in England, came to Canada with her parents at age 10. She met her husband, Steve, in grade seven and they started dating in high school. They married in 1980 and the majority of Steve’s career in the Canadian Armed Forces was spent working on helicopters.

Sonia spent her career working as a Project Control Coordinator at Canadian Nuclear Laboratories. Sonia and Steve were dedicated to each other and when Early Onset Alzheimer’s invaded their happy life, Sonia spent every minute looking for treatments and looking after the love of her life.

Here’s what she had to say when I talked with her.

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

Throughout my life I have hear “I should write a book”, you know when your kids do or say silly or cute things that it would be great to write it down. Most of the time a book is never written! When my husband got sick and it was difficult to get answers or direction on where to look for help and being told there was nothing that could be done, I kept saying that I should write a book to help others so that it would be easier for them. I kept a diary of sorts on things we did but my memory of challenges that came up and how I coped or found out how not to react were burned into my mind. After Steve passed away, I followed through with the idea of writing a book.

Where do you get your information or ideas for your books?

I started writing down a list of topics that I should cover in the book and then when I sat down at the computer, I’d start filling in my memories under each topic. This led to adding more topics and even today I still think of things I could have included. This is my only book so far, and the information and ideas were based on our experiences and what I did right and what I could have done differently to make our frustration less.

How do books get published?

I had no experience with writing and publishing a book so I contacted several publishing companies and decided on Tellwell who were wonderful. They walked me through each step and created my cover and interior design of the book. I found the whole experience exciting and very rewarding knowing I had accomplished my goal.

When did you write your first book and how old were you?

My one and only book so far was written 3 years after my husband passed away and I was 60 at the time when I decided to follow through with putting all the memories and data on paper.

What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

I like to camp during the summer and I winter in Arizona. I love to be around my family and friends. I consider myself very blessed to have such great support from them all. That’s one of the biggest things that got me through my grieving.

What does your family think of your writing?

I think my family are very proud that I went ahead with writing the book. Some had no idea that I was going to do it and were surprised when I announced that the book was being sent to the publisher.

What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your books?

Do you hear from your readers much? What kinds of things do they say?

I hear from my readers occasionally and their comments and reviews make me feel like I did the right thing in writing the book. When I hear that they got something out of the book that they could use, it makes me feel like I was supposed to write the book and gives me great satisfaction in knowing I did it for the right reasons.

As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?

For years I wanted to be a nurse until I realized that seeing someone else in pain really affected me and it was like I could feel their pain. If I could get over that I’d still like to be a nurse; but too late now. I turned to project management instead and was a Project Control Coordinator which I loved.

Does writing energize or exhaust you?

Writing the book actually energized me. When I would sit to write, my memories just kept flowing from my mind to the paper, and I found myself reliving everything over again, which was a kind of therapy for me. I would laugh and cry but always felt that telling our story was going to impact others in some positive way.

Did you ever consider writing under a pseudonym?

I have been thinking of writing under a pseudonym for my second book. I have a couple of ideas in mind but think it would be better if I don’t write under my own name. I’m thinking that people will be expecting something along the lines of my first book which was non-fiction. I’d like to try another book that combines fictitious names but some true-life experiences.

Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?

For now, I think each book will stand alone but I love the books that I have read that are series. It leaves you wanting to read the next one.

What did you do with your first advance?

I was so proud, I took a picture of the cheque, and just put it in the bank.

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As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal?

I have a couple of animals that I gravitate to but I think I’d have to go with an Elephant. They are strong and majestic when they walk, very dedicated to their herd and protective over their young. They show emotion which makes my heart break when I see pictures or movies showing that they have tears running down their face from being sad or hurt.

What do you owe the real people upon whom you base your characters?

The characters in my book were real people who were either family or friends. I owe everything to my family – my husband was the love of my life, my children and grandchild are my heart and life, my parents and in-laws always are there for me and I can count on them for advice and love. My friends who were there to support me through Steve’s illness and my grieving afterwards, helped me to find myself and realize my self-worth and that I could continue on, knowing that Steve will be watching over me and that I can be happy without feeling guilty. The caregivers that worked with Steve and helped with keeping his dignity throughout I owe all my gratitude. They made me feel like family and that what I wanted for him no matter how demanding, was out of love and they did their best to deliver every time.

What does literary success look like to you?

My publisher asked me how many of my books I wanted to sell to feel that it was a success. I originally told them that I didn’t have a number in mind. I only hope was that anyone who read my book would get something out of it that helped them. Since the book has been published however, and I’ve seen some of the comments and reviews I am receiving on it, I want it to keep selling and become more widely known so that it can keep helping more people. It gives me such satisfaction to know that it is out there and I did the right thing.

Thank you so much for sharing your story and your information; I think it’s important for people to know.