The Cassidy Chronicles Volume One – Chapter FOURTEEN

Hey there! Welcome back for another installment of When Our Lives Got Exciting!

In last week’s chapter we were in Vegas, right? Right. We were trying to kill time in one of the casinos until our capsule was called, and somehow Cass managed to win a nice pile of change. So much for keeping a low profile!

On the other hand, with all the publicity we got, it probably focused the opposition’s efforts on Vegas for an extra day or so, which was a good thing. Plus having folding money, off the grid, is never a bad thing!

Then, of course, it was my turn to explain more about our destination and why we were crossing the continent.

So, if you want to buy the book, click on any image, and stay tuned at the end to listen to the Audible version of this chapter!

Chapter 14: Handyman’s Special

            ‘We’re in the capsule. Explain.’ Cass’s tone showed clearly that she wouldn’t be put off by glib answers and doubletalk. Newlywed or no, there was only so far she could be pushed before pushing back. Kendra sighed. This would be so much easier if Cass weren’t so bright.

            ‘We need to lay low for a while, right? Figure out what’s going on, who’s behind it, and how to stop it. We need peace and quiet and lots and lots of access. So – we’re on our way to a little place I have.’

            ‘You have?’

            ‘Well, we, fine -’

            ‘No, I mean, look, if they’re looking for me, and they know you’re with me, you’re married to me for gossake! Won’t they lock in on any place that you, you know, own?’

            ‘Ah, I understand. You’re right, of course. Your apartment, my house, the studio, your lab – all almost certainly watched now. We go back to any of them, we’re done for.’

            ‘That’s what I thought. So why is this place different?’

            ‘Because I don’t own it.’

            ‘But you said that you have a place.’

‘I do.’

‘But you don’t own it.’

‘Right.’

‘I don’t get it.’

            ‘Well, I paid for it, but through a number of dummies and cutout corporations. Now it’s maintained with its own funding, managed by a little AI that only knows to invest and pay bills for upkeep.’

            ‘And we can get in?’

            ‘Yep. All I ever used it for were quiet weekends, a little retreat off in the woods and hills.’

            ‘So where is it?’

            ‘You might not like this.’

            ‘Try me.’

            ‘It’s in the People’s Republic.’

            ‘No, it was my mom who didn’t want me going there. I didn’t care one way or another. People are people, even if they did talk a bit funny.’

            ‘Good. We’re out in the western end, a little town called Florida.’

            ‘I thought we were going to Massachusetts?’

            ‘You’ll see.’

            The closest the capsule could get them was Albany, the capital of the Empire of New York, still part of the loose confederation that styled itself the United States. From there, a chartered transport brought them to the border in Williamstown. Exiting the United States was painless.

Entering the People’s Republic, not so much. Original forms in triplicate began their ordeal, followed by a detailed inventory of every possession they were bringing into the country, payment of import tariffs on each item, submission of an income tax form, conversion from universally accepted Dollars to People’s Republic Work/Goods Transfer Chits (at a ruinous exchange rate)… The tedium lasted three hours.

            ‘They ought to work for the CIA,’ commented Kendra as they finally passed through. ‘They could teach us a few tricks. I felt like confessing to everything – and I ain’t done nothing!’

            Cass just nodded; she was wrung out. ‘So, where’s this little place?’

            ‘Not far now. We just have to hire a taxi or something and we’ll be there in forty-five minutes. Tops. Then a soak in a hot tub, dinner, and bed. What do you think?’

            ‘Don’t let me fall asleep in the tub.’

            Hiring a taxi wasn’t that easy. They were few and far between, all running according to strict state guidelines regarding hours of operation, miles, rates, zoning, and endless other minutiae. In the end, it took four separate vehicles two hours to eventually bring them to a small collection of run-down buildings. ‘Are you sure you have the right place, lady?’ asked the cabbie, peering into the encroaching brush.

            ‘Quite sure. There’s a trail here we’re interested in hiking.’

            ‘Oh. Greens. Have a nice walk, then.’ Apparently he didn’t think too highly of ‘greens’, because, despite the darkness, he sped off quite readily.

            ‘That got rid of him,’ said Kendra.

            ‘I’m not sure I wanted him to go! This place gives me the creeps!’

            Kendra looked around. ‘Oh, the old museum. Yeah, but it keeps people away. Come on, it’s only a few hundred feet back into the woods.’

            Cass pointed at the massive second-growth forest. ‘In there?’

            ‘Yes, in there. Don’t worry, it’s perfectly safe as long as you’re with me.’ Confidently, Kendra set off. With no choice but follow or be left behind, Cass hurried to catch up.

            The path through the trees was nearly impossible to see as it plunged into the darkening forest. It was obvious that this particular trail had few, if any, regular visitors. Yet something odd was happening.

            Every few meters, as Kendra approached, a soft blue glow would illuminate the ground, then fade away seconds later. The glows were directed downward; they wasted no light on the trees behind and beside.

            ‘Am I seeing things?’ asked Cass after passing a few of the lights.

            ‘No,’ laughed Kendra. ‘They’re programmed to respond to my subdermal implant. It broadcasts on a very particular frequency. Come to think of it, I should get one for you so the house will recognize you and learn your habits too.’

            ‘The house, habits, what?’

            ‘We’re almost there,’ was the only explanation.

            And soon enough, they were.

            ‘It’s very, ah, rustic.’

            It was a mess. It looked like an old-fashioned chemical rocket that someone had squashed flat and then layered in brick. The second-growth continued around it, completely concealing it from any overhead eyes.

            ‘This is your retreat?’

            ‘Sort of. Come on it, you’ll love it!’

            Muttering, ‘Somehow, I doubt that,’ Cass nevertheless followed her wife up the rickety-looking stairs to a worn, but securely locked, door. Suddenly she felt Kendra’s arms under her knees and behind her shoulders, lifting her off the ground.

            ‘What the…?’

            ‘Traditional, carrying the bride across the threshold. Have to collect a kiss for the toll, though.’

            She paid willingly.

The Cassidy Chronicles, Volume 1, Book 1, Chapter 14

Rebecca Lange Interview!

IT’S ALMOST OFFICIALLY SPRING!

And today’s a special treat – not only do we have the interview with Matt Cox up, but we’re going to double down and interview Rebecca Lange too!

Rebecca is a mom of two boys (13 and 15 years old), has been married to her husband for over 16 years, and is currently living in Germany. She was actually born and raised in Germany but moved to the US after she met her husband in Scotland at a wedding. (That in itself is a super cool and crazy story.)

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

I have been writing stories for myself since I was a teenager. My first book, however, was written in 2012. I was 33 years old.

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

I love watching chick flicks, reading, listening to music, spending time with my family, and interacting with friends and relatives on social media.

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

I am always surprised and fascinated by how a little story idea can turn into an actual book. I love when something develops in my head and takes over my mind until it is ready to be written down.

How many books have you written? Which is your favourite?

I have written eight books so far, six novels (one is yet to be published), and a novella, which counts as two, since I wrote two versions – one in English and one in German. My favorite is usually the one I am writing at the time.

Do you have any suggestions to help me become a better writer? If so, what are they?

If I were to suggest anything, I would say stay true to yourself and your writing style. I know for myself, as tough as self-publishing is, I am grateful I have the freedom of keeping my books my own. I think it is essential that we write in a way we are comfortable with. Every author has their style, and to stand out and be unique, we need to write what is in our heart, not what we think others want us to write. We can’t copy the style from someone else. It just doesn’t work. We need to own our uniqueness.

I also think we must be persistent and stubborn if we want to pursue our goals and dreams. Even if we didn’t quite get what we wanted to achieve in the end, at least we can say we tried.

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

I do hear from readers, and so far, everyone I heard from liked my books and writing style. It sure feels good when someone tells you what a great writer you are and that they love your books. Throwing myself out there and publishing my book was hard because you don’t want negative feedback and have someone tell you that you are not good at what you do and love, but when people love your work, it makes one happy.

CLICK ON THE IMAGE TO PURCHASE!

Do you like to create books for adults?

I write for teenagers and adults but don’t add mature audience topics (like sex and cussing). I always address difficult subjects but don’t go into extensive details that would make the reader uncomfortable or make the rating go up. I found it relatively easy to create a good novel and avoid things that are not necessary or leave to the imagination.

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

I am not sure I had a wish of what I wanted to be when I grew up as a child, but my dream job was acting as a teenager. I always loved acting and still do. Acting and writing have been my biggest passion for a long time, and I took some acting classes a few years ago, did short films and many auditions, and loved it (well, the acting, not the auditions) J

What is the first book that made you cry?

I am not a crier while reading. The tears usually happen when I watch a movie and actors do a great job bringing something to life. However, I read a book last month from a fellow Indie author, where the ending caught me off guard, and it made me cry. It’s a scarce thing.

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Does writing energize or exhaust you?

It does both. I get super excited when I have a romantic scene or something funny on my mind and finally write it down. I love the feeling of butterflies when I write something romantic and can picture it. That being said, writing is extremely exhausting at times. Not just the writing, but the thinking that goes along with it. My mind becomes active to the point of not letting me rest, which makes some things a bit difficult, but I still love it.

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

I try to be as original as possible, but I write what I like reading. I do what I can to stay true to myself. I might explore a  new genre now and then, but I stick to my writing style. I enjoy books the most that have a little bit of everything, including humor and romance, and that’s what you will find in my books. Although I tackle tough and even dark topics, I don’t enjoy books that are just gloomy. Life is an up and down with challenging times and moments of fun, romance and happiness, and I try to bring that across in my books.

Thanks for coming by! Fans can connect with you by clicking a button below, and they can purchase your books by clicking on the title they want!

Matt Cox Interview!

Got your coffee? Good, because it’s time for another Monday Morning Author Interview!

Today we’re visited by Matt Cox. I recently had the opportunity to spend an hour chatting with him in a groupcast (the link is here: Hardcore: Truths of Writing { Raw and uncut/ Scourges } #12 – YouTube). He’s published over 100 books, including the Division Zero series, and I’m thrilled to have him here!

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

Far too late in the game, lol. I’ve been developing characters and stories since about age twelve or thirteen… for roleplaying games. While I did do some dabble type writing throughout the years, I didn’t do anything approaching serious until around the year 2000 when I wrote the initial draft of my first novel. I didn’t pursue it at all, so it sat idle. In 2012, I finally decided to take writing seriously. My first published book (Division Zero) got picked up by a small press in 2013. Eighteen years and over 80 books later, I revisited that first manuscript I wrote in 2000 and poured a ton of work into it.

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

Well, depends really on how deep in me the muse gets her hooks. It can vary from 12-14 hour benders at the computer on weekends writing plus every waking moment of a weekday not obligated to the day job to working in two-to-six hour sprints. Generally, I will write in the evening on a work day and throw most of my weekend time at a writing project if I’m in the midst of one.

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?

I like to start everything I write with a word that’s particular to the main character. The first word of anything I write is reflective of either the character’s inner nature, their current mood (as of the start of the story) or their situation in life. E.g. the first word of Division Zero is ‘adrift,’ and it’s how Kirsten feels when the story starts.

What does your family think of your writing?

I have no idea.

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

I do. Usually via facebook and sometimes in reviews. The comments that come up the most are shock that a male author writes female characters so realistically, comparisons of my writing to being ‘cinematic’ and feeling like someone is ‘reading a movie’ and of course, (with some series) the inevitable groaning at puns.

CLICK THE IMAGE TO PURCHASE PROPHET OF THE BADLANDS!

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

No idea. I’m one of those people who never quite figured out what they wanted to do. I still don’t know. Writing feels like the best fit, though. However, I’m still not sure I’ve grown up.

What is the first book that made you cry?

Fundamentals of Algebra.

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

While I have, on occasion, factored reader comments and asks into a story, I write the stories that come to me. I don’t really consider genre, intended audience, what’s trendy, or what I think will sell the most. If a story hits me, I write it.

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

I’m online friends with a whole bunch of indie authors, most of whom were affiliated with the same small press (now defunct) I got my start with. We all help each other out with various things like being a sounding board for ideas, beta-reading, editing, proofreading, formatting e-books and so on.

If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?

Start writing sooner. Don’t wait until you’re forty.

CLICK ON THE IMAGE TO PURCHASE DIVISION ZERO!

What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?

Getting a copy of Vellum. (and I suppose a MAC to run it on). When I got my rights back from the small press, I had 36 novels to reformat. Thanks to Vellum, I managed to get it all done in four days.

What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?

The Whirlwind in the Thorn Tree by S.A. Hunt.

What are you working on now?

The third short story in my Diary of a Teenage Fey series. After that, I’ll most likely be working on the next Vampire Innocent book.

What do you have coming soon?

The second book in my Prophet of the Badlands series, Prophet’s Mercy.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

I’d like to implore readers, especially readers of indie authors to leave reviews. Even if it’s only one sentence long, reviews help tremendously. To other writers out there: take feedback with a grain of salt. Don’t rush to change something the instant one person makes a suggestion. Everyone has opinions. If you hear the same thing from a number of people, consider it. If you hear it from everyone who reads your work, then it’s probably a good idea to follow the suggestion. Scrambling to change something the instant someone makes a suggestion for the first time leads to never-ending revisions. It’s impossible to make everyone happy.

Thanks for your time! Anything else you’d like to add?

Yes; I have a sort of ‘sample book’ – it’s first chapters from a bunch of my books, so if your readers would like to download it they can. It’s called A Thousand Lifetimes

That’s fantastic! Where should they go?

There’s a link they can go to…

Oh, hold on. Let me make a button for that.

Matt’s links are below; drop him a line on social media!

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/MatthewSCoxAuthor

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/author/mscox

Twitter:  https://twitter.com/mscox_fiction

Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/matthewcox10420/

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/7712730.Matthew_S_Cox

Instagram: DivisionZeroPress

Sunday WildCard – The Kildaran Chapters 22 & 23

I’ve probably spoiled you just a bit the past couple weeks, giving you triple chapters. It’s all based on chapter length, though. The longer the chapter, the less likely it is to be paired or tripled.

This week we have two fair length chapters; one, J and Cottontail doing what they do best; one, Mike letting business intrude on his little getaway.

When I was writing the second chapter I really channeled his disgust at spending any time in DC, mostly drawn from what John wrote in Choosers of the Slain and Unto the Breach. On the other hand, part of what I was doing was trying to pull Mike back from the uber-cynical place he was at the end of A Deeper Blue.

The mechanism I used for that is, of course, Katrina. She would be beyond thrilled to see everything, and I think Mike would be pulled into her enthusiasm. He’s also trying to give her a crash course in America, so he’s going to be trying to be positive if realistic in recognizing both the good and the flaws.

Next week you get one of the long chapters!

CHAPTER 22

Elista

April 7

The two Ladas were abandoned in Elista, keys in the ignition. It was a good-sized city and two more nondescript cars wouldn’t be noticed for days. That assumed they weren‘t stolen in the meantime which would further muddy the trail. Allah guarded his faithful.

Abdul Hakim took the package of tritium and shoved it into a backpack, where it was buried among textbooks and notebooks filled with real notes from the local university. He would make his way out of town alone first while the others would gradually follow in their own time.

The Russian agents following, who had managed not to lose them again, faced a difficult choice. There were only four agents on location at the moment, and the suspects had gone in six different directions upon abandoning the cars, four groups and two solo. They decided to split up, each agent following a group. The assumption was they would be teamed up to provide better protection of the tritium. The two solo suspects were allowed to disappear.

Murphy struck the Russians again.

==============================

J was suitably disguised as a Russian Muslim. He had typically worn clothes and shoes with broken heels. He and Cottontail had listened to all the Russians SpecOps’ transmissions, finally moving close enough to hear the conversation directly through a shotgun mike. The decision to follow groups left the two solos to them.

They picked their targets and separated. When he caught up to his, J discovered a recent recruit and not a particularly committed one. His first stop was a bar, where he dropped three glasses of vodka in quick succession. J bought the fourth, striking up a conversation.

            “You look like a man who really needs a drink,” he started, laying down his money.

“Bring him another, and the same for me,” he said to the bartender. When the drinks arrived, J passed his hand quickly over one as he handed it over.

“I am. Thanks for the drink, uh -”

“Isra’il. My friends call me Isha,” supplied J smoothly.

“Mika’il. Thanks.” He knocked back this drink as quickly as the other three.

It didn’t seem that he was going to offer any more, so J pressed a bit.

“I’ve had a day like you wouldn’t believe. Wake up this morning, late for work, the twice-damned supervisor docks me a half-day’s pay! Half a day! And I was only ten minutes late! Then the lousy computer eats the rest of the report I was typing up, and I said I’ve had it! What is that fat prick going to do, dock the rest of the day? Let him, and Allah curse his bones!”

“Allah defend you, Isha, it does sound like you’ve had a bad day.” Mika’il turned to look at him. “But mine’s worse.”

“Balls.”

“Prophet’s Beard, it’s the truth.” He looked around, lowered his voice. “I saw three people die today.”

“Balls, I say! Unless you’re a doctor, or police,” and J looked him up and down. “And I doubt you are.”

“No, I’m a student. I swear, I watched three people die – be killed, actually.”

Then he told J about the set-up, the surprise assault, the fire, all assisted by J’s little compound in his drink, of course.

“Where is this package now? It has to be pretty valuable.”

“Priceless for Allah’s tasks. I don’t know exactly where, but Abdul Hakim took it with him.”

“Alone? Isn‘t that taking a big risk?”

“For you, or me, maybe. But not for him. He planned it all.” Mika’il shivered. “Ice water in his blood. No, it’s safe with him.”

J relaxed. Cottontail was trailing him.

“One more drink, Mika’il, and I think it’s time you go home.”

He got another drink, added another little supplement, and watched it be downed.

“Come. Let’s get you home.”

J helped steer him out of the bar and down the road. A very few blocks on, he was barely on his feet, leaning heavily on J, complaining of blurred vision and a sudden headache.

“It’s only the drink,” laughed J. “Here, we’ll stop for a moment,” and he guided him into the half-sunken basement entry to a building. Mika’il collapsed into an almost-seated position, slumping forward, muttering. Quickly he quieted, then his breathing slowed, then stopped.

J left casually. One less loose end.

==============================

Katya didn’t know where her target was going, exactly. She guessed he was going to be headed out of the city, but she didn’t know how, or where, or even when, so she couldn’t wait ahead of him on his route and try to pick him up, or allow herself to be picked up. She didn’t think she would be able to follow him unobserved the whole route; she was good, and getting better, but he was actually displaying some tactical sense and clearing his tail periodically. That left brazen. She could do brazen.

Walking on the other side of the road, she watched him enter a small park. This might be her best shot. She hurried across the road and closed the gap swiftly.

“You!” she called angrily, waving. “Ai! You!”

He turned and looked, pointing at himself.

“Yes, you miserable dick! What the fuck do you think you’re doing, ignoring me?” she continued. “I’ve been following you for ten minutes, ever since I saw you! Why haven’t you called me? Or come over? Or – oh, shit!”

She stopped. She was only a few meters away. “You’re not Nicolai!”

“No,” he answered coldly. “I’m not.” And he prepared to walk away.

She hurried over, putting a hand on his arm, holding him gently.

“I’m so sorry! You look just like, from a distance, I didn’t mean -” She allowed her voice to trail off, dropping her eyes as he stared at her. “I beg your pardon. I meant no offence.”

“He must be a fool to leave you behind,” he said, appeased by her apparent modesty. “What’s your name?”

“Kamilah.”

“I am Abdul Hamid, and you are very beautiful. I would like to know you better, Kamilah.”

“I – I – I don’t know what to say. I’m so embarrassed,” she replied. “I’m not usually like this. He seemed so nice, so kind, and then he…!”

“I would walk you home,” he said, “and you can tell me of this Nicolai.”

“Oh! That’s not, I mean, you don’t have to!”

“You need someone to walk you home to keep you from chasing down every man on the street.” He took her arm in his firmly. “Now, lead.”

She hadn’t counted on this jerk wanting to walk her home, for fuck’s sake! Where was she going to take him? They’d rented a flat, and it was minimally furnished, but there’s no way anyone would believe she’d lived there for long. And what if J showed up? He could play Nicolai, she supposed, but she’d have to get hold of him somehow before then. Fuck! The black box was in the flat! They’d arrived ahead of their Keldara backups, so she couldn’t even call for support! Well, then, it was time to fake it.

“Yes,” is all she said, as she walked along the street.

==============================

She spun “Kamilah’s” story out of whole cloth, feigning reluctance and hesitation to keep him interested and inquisitive. By the time they reached the flat, he acted ready to kill the evil Nicolai who took advantage of the poor, naïve, innocent girl.

She stopped at the door to the block of flats.

“Thank you for walking me home,” she said, shyly.

“It was my duty to see you safely home,” he replied gravely. “But I worry that Nicolai will be waiting for you in your flat. I should come up with you.”

“No,” she protested, “It is not proper. I’ve learned that, if nothing else.” She pretended to have an inspiration and pulled out her mobile. “I know! I will call my brother; he lives nearby. He can check the flat for me.”

Before he could object, she had dialed J.

“Hello, Ivan? It’s Kamilah. I’m at the flat, but I’m worried about Nicolai being there. Could you come over? No, I don’t really think he’ll be there, but Abdul Hamid does. He’s my new friend. I’ll tell you all about him when you get here. See you shortly, then. Bye!” She hung up.

“He’ll be here in a couple minutes.” Time to hook this fish. “Perhaps we could meet later?”

“I would like that, if your brother does not object.”

“He won’t. Can I call you later? We’ll talk, figure out where to meet.” He gave her his mobile number, and she returned it with her sunniest smile.

“Thank you so much!” She giggled nervously. “You’re nothing like Nicolai.”

“I hope not.” He looked around. “I should wait until your brother arrives.”

Damn.

“Of course!” She leaned against the doorpost, hoping that J would interpret the play correctly.

J strode around the corner just a few moments later.

“Ivan!” she called.

“Kamilah! And this must be your friend,” he said, closing the distance and holding out his hand. “Thank you for watching over my little sister. I hope she wasn’t any trouble?” he said as he shook hands, clapping his left hand against Abdul Hamid’s shoulder.

“None at all,” he said, then suddenly his eyes rolled back in his head and he fell to the ground.

“What did you?” said Katya. “I just needed an excuse to ditch him outside. I couldn’t bring him up to the flat!”

“He has the tritium. He knows the next link in the chain,” answered J, taking his shoulders. “Now help me get him inside!”

Between them they got his unconscious body upstairs to the flat. Dumping him unceremoniously on the floor, Katya said, “Now what? When he wakes, he’ll wonder too much, have too many questions.”

“Heed no fear, O padawan.” J went to his supplies and rummaged briefly, coming out with a syringe and a bottle of brownish liquid.

“I had Dr. Arensky make this for me before we left. It’s based on the waste of the L. acidophilus bacteria, he said, but very, very effective. One dose and your friend here will tell us everything we need to know and remember none of it.”

“And what do we do with him afterward, O Master?” asked Katya sarcastically.

“That depends on what information he gives us,” answered J, and nothing more.

In very little time their prisoner was responsive and answering questions.

“You have the tritium?”

“I don’t know.”

“The package which was picked up today. Do you have it?”

“Yes. In my backpack.”

J picked up the pack and looked through.

“Is this it?” he asked, holding up a small, heavy parcel, wrapped in butcher‘s paper and tied with string.

“Yes.”

“Who is it for?”

“I don’t know.”

“Fuck!” interjected Katya.

“Quiet!” hissed J. “He is in a very suggestive state right now.”

Returning to a normal voice, he asked, “What are you to do with the tritium?”

“I am to bring it to a man in Utta, tomorrow.”

“Where are you meeting him?”

“A café, the Wandering Wolf.”

“When?”

“I am to be there by two. He will meet me between then and four.”

“Do you know him?”

“No.”

“Does he know you?”

“I don’t know.”

“How will you know him?”

“He will walk to my table and ask to borrow the salt and the adzhika. I am to give him the salt and say that I do not like adzhika.”

“And then what?”

“He will sit down. I am to pass him the package, and he will get up and leave. After I finish, I will leave as well and come home to wait.”

“Wait for what?”

“Further instructions.”

J stepped away, gesturing for Katya to follow. When he judged they were out of earshot, he spoke. “Amateurish. But we can use this.”

“How?”

“I become Abdul Hamid. Plus a few other little tricks.” He walked back to the uninterested courier. “Would you like to do the honors?”

Katya grinned wolfishly.

==============================

After moving the body, J examined the parcel more closely, taking the plain wrapper and string off carefully, revealing a heavy box of a gray, slightly lustrous metal.

“Is that the tritium?” asked Katya.

“No. If I had to guess, I’d say this is lead. Tritium is radioactive, you know.”

“Should we be this close then?”

“We should be safe, especially if this is lead.” He put the box down. “I don’t think I’ll open it to check, though.”

“What is your plan? What do you need me to do?”

“I’m going to make the meet tomorrow in Utta. You’re going to track us on this,” he said, pulling out what looked like a mobile phone.

“How?”

“Vanner gave me a number of these transmitters,” and he pulled out a plastic bag with a half-dozen small black discs scattered along the bottom seam. “They’re RFID homing bugs. The base unit can pick them us as long as we’re within a mile.”

“How will we conceal it? We can’t put it inside, can we?”

“No, the lead will block the signal. The tritium is mixed with uranium, making a compound called uranium tritide, and would destroy the bug in short order as well. I think we’ll try two, one on the inside of the wrapper, and one on the bottom of the box. Even when the wrap is thrown away, we might be able to track the other.”

“We need to stay close, then.”

J nodded. “How’s your driving?”

CHAPTER 23

Washington, DC

April 8

Mike awoke with Katrina in his arms again.

I really could get used to this.

After lingering for hours in the restaurant, they had come back to the suite. Stasia had left a note, claiming a headache. Mike smelled set-up but said nothing. They talked for a while longer then, joints protesting, Mike stood to get ready for bed. Without a word, without seeking permission, Katrina followed him to the bedroom, grabbed something out of a dresser drawer, and ducked into the bath. Curious, he opened the dresser. Her clothes? Yep. Her clothes. So where were his? Next drawer down, of course.

She emerged in a sheer black silk nightgown and climbed right into the bed. Amused, he did his ablutions and followed.

“Hitch over,” he said. “You’re on my side.” She slid over under the covers. Wondering how far she would take it, Mike lay up next to her, arm over her, hand cupped just below her exquisite breasts.

“Night,” he said.

“Goodnight,” she replied.

And that’s all. She snuggled into his arm and, within minutes, was sound asleep. He lay there, bemused, for a few minutes before allowing sleep to overtake him, as well.

===============================

“Off to the Archives today,” he announced over breakfast in the suite. “Then, where do you want to go?”

Stasia opted for the Natural History museum, while Katrina wanted to go out to the Udvar-Hazy Center, part of Air and Space. “I want to see the shuttle,” she said.

“So do I,” admitted Mike. “Stasia, would you mind if Jack sticks with you today?”

“I’d rather be with you, Michael. But Major Hughes seems competent enough.” She dimpled.

Ignoring it, he said, “That’s settled, then. Figure we’ll meet back here at 3.” He rose. “But first, the Archives.”

===============================

Fortunately it was another beautiful day and most of the other tourists were busy with the cherry blossoms and other outdoor displays. The National Archives seemed deserted, and they were able to linger over the documents for quite some time.

Mike resisted the urge to lecture.

Rather, he allowed the women to look where they would, examine and experience what he knew was the heart and soul of his country, no matter how misinterpreted that vision might be. He couldn’t accept the liberal weenies who had co-opted so much of the vision of men like Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe. It was ironic, he reflected, no matter how wrong-headed they were, no matter how he loathed the politically correct bullshit so many of them spewed, he was oath-bound to protect those very freedoms on their behalf. He wondered if he could ever return to the States permanently. Not without a political enema, he decided.

After a while Katrina came over and took his hand.

“These are important to you,” she asked.

“Yes,” he said simply, then relented.

“They’re what this country is all about. They’re about standing up for what you know is right, no matter what the cost. They’re about allowing the maximum freedom for the most people, with the fewest restrictions imposed, ever. They tell us what we can do, what we should so, and where our duty lies in protecting those rights.”

He paused.

“Nowhere else in the world can you go and be guaranteed, guaranteed, the right to speak your mind. To be guaranteed that you can practice your religion, no matter what it is. To know that your leaders are ultimately responsible to you, that they only govern by consent of the governed. These few pieces of paper make this the center of all the freedoms that man can hope to achieve.”

“I am glad you brought us here.”

“As am I,” added Stasia. “But I am ready to move on. It is much to absorb, all at once.”

“You’re right about that,” he said.

“Shall we?” And they headed for the exit.

Outside, they met up again with Hughes, who took charge of Stasia. Mike and Katrina strolled across the Mall, back to the main Air & Space Museum, and boarded a bus that would take them out to Dulles.

The Udvar-Hazy Center was the most recent addition to the sprawling Smithsonian and was the first located away from downtown DC. The forty-five-minute drive seemed to pass in seconds, both were so intrigued by what they hoped to find.

“When I was a kid I used to watch Star Trek on TV,” said Mike, as the bus entered the airport property.

“Star Trek?”

“Science fiction show from the 60’s, I caught the reruns in syndication. Kirk, Spock, McCoy.”

He saw the look.

“It’s easier to show you, I’ll get some DVDs. Anyway, the ship they were on was called the U.S.S. Enterprise, and when NASA was choosing names for their shuttles, that’s what they called the first one. Of course, they said it was to honor all the naval ships of that name, but we fans knew better. They cheated, though. This Enterprise never flew in space, doesn’t even have engines. It was basically a giant model version, used just for unpowered glide tests and shit like that. Still, it’s a shuttle. Wonder how close they’ll let us get?”

They got off the bus and followed the crowd into the gleaming building. Picking up a map along the way, Mike and Katrina walked along the hallway that announced, “To Boeing Aviation Hangar/James S. McDonnell Space Hangar.” Suddenly, a long, black shape appeared ahead of them.

“It can’t be,” said Mike, hurrying a little.

“What?” asked Katrina alongside.

“They can’t have a Blackbird here, they just can’t!”

“What black bird? A raven?”

“No no no!” exclaimed Mike, pulling up short at the end of the walkway. “That’s a Blackbird!”

Stretched out before them like a black dagger was the hundred-plus feet of an SR-71.

“That plane was the baddest, fastest, most radical plane ever produced for the Air Force! It could fly faster, farther, higher than anything else that breathed air. Nothing could catch it; not other jets, not missiles, hell, radar had a hard time finding it. Just look at it!” Mike had found the stairs leading down to its level and was walking, hypnotized, towards the plane.

“It still looks like it’s ready to go,” he said, wonderingly. “It looks like it wants to go,” he added.

“It looks evil,” said Katrina. “No, not evil. It looks like it has a purpose.”

“Sure does, honey. This bird used to fly anywhere we needed to look at. Anywhere, anytime. Go in, take pictures, come back. Before decent satellites and unmanned drones, it took one of these babies and a pilot with balls of steel to get the intel back home. No weapons at all on these. Just speed, pure and simple.” He stood there, drinking it in. Katrina looked as well, but then turned away.

“Michael? What is that one?” She pointed to their left at an old piston-engined bomber.

He consulted the map. “This says it’s the Enola Gay, the plane that, holy shit! That’s the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb!”

And they were off.

For two hours they explored the aviation hangar, discovering the history of aviation, one piece at a time. They found a Concorde, and a Super Constellation. They found the Gossamer Albatross and a Grumman Goose. They found a Mustang and a Thunderbolt and a Hurricane and a Black Widow. They found planes he had never heard of and autogyros they had never imagined. Finally, almost satiated, they exited past the tail of the Blackbird and entered the Space Hangar.

There was the shuttle in all her glory. Brilliant white above, jet black tiles below, the old orbiter took his breath away.

“Why does it look like that?”

“Like what?”

“The sides, and the bottom. Why are they not smooth, why do they look like my family’s hearth?”

“Oh, the tiles! Those are ceramic heat shields, used to keep the craft from burning up when it reenters the atmosphere.”

“Ceramic? Like plates?” Her tone was dubious.

“Well, sort of. Same kind of stuff, but much, much lighter.”

“Why not one big piece, then? Or a few big pieces? Instead of all these little tiles?”

“The tiles wear out eventually and have to be replaced. It’s easier to do it if they’re all fairly small.”

“This one never went to space, you said?”

“No.”

“Then how did they do, what did you say, ‘glide tests’?”

“If I remember right, they mounted this on the back of a big plane, maybe a 747, and took it up as high as they could, then released it. Like flying a paper plane, just a lot bigger,” he smiled.

“I want to see something that’s been to space, Michael. Let’s look!”

Away they went again. In pretty short order, they found two Mercury capsules and a Gemini capsule, and wondered at their size.

“Our bed is bigger than Big Joe!” laughed Katrina, pointing to a Mercury.

“Not quite, but pretty close. But men went into space in those things.” He peered at the marker. “Says that Big Joe was a test module, launched in 1959.”

“And the other? Freedom 7?”

“That’s actually Freedom 7 II. It would have been Alan Shepard’s second ride into space, but the mission was scrubbed.”

“Washed?”

He laughed. “No, cancelled.” They continued their tour of the space hangar for another hour, then returned to aviation.

“Anything you want to go back to?”

“Have you flown in any of these, Michael?”

He thought for a moment.

“Well, there’s the UH-1. They have the Iroquois here, but I’ve been in the Huey. There’s the Cessna and Piper Cub, too, but those don‘t really count. Umm, that might be it. Oh, wait, I did fly in a Tomcat once, back in the day. Why?”

“I want to take your picture in front of all the planes you’ve flown in,” she answered, pulling out a small camera.

He sighed. Women and pictures.

===============================

Eventually they made it back to the hotel, a few minutes before Stasia and Hughes arrived.

“How was Natural History?”

“I never imagined the variety of animals, and the gems! Katrina, you must see these stones, and the jewelry! Michael, can we go back there while you’re at your meeting? There are some things that Katrina shouldn’t miss!”

“Sure, if she’s willing.” The objection was purely pro forma, as he could see the excitement in Kat’s eyes.

“I would enjoy seeing them,” she answered. “Is there time?”

“I don’t know how long my meet will take. I’d hate to have you waiting outside the museum for me to come get you, though.”

“It is certainly close enough for us to walk, Michael.”

“What about your problem?”

“It is not so bad, when I’m with someone. Besides, this is the capital of the whole country; what could happen here?”

He rolled his eyes. “Jack, you don’t see or hear this. Kat, did you bring a piece?”

“Of course.”

“Carry it. If anyone gives you a hard time, pull out your passport. I’ve arranged for diplomatic immunity for you both, so they shouldn’t detain you. If they do, demand to call me, and we’ll get you out of trouble.”

“And what shall I say, when they ask why I am carrying a gun?”

“Simple. You’re her bodyguard.”

===============================

Mike and Major Hughes arrived at the Pentagon in plenty of time for the meeting.

“You lead,” said Mike. The Pentagon, with its seemingly endless concentric circles of corridors and offices, was one of the few buildings which could throw off his sense of direction. Checkpoints, of increasing thoroughness, were passed, and eventually they arrived at a conference room, deep in the most secure area.

“I’ll wait out here,” said Hughes, and opened the door for Mike.

Around the table were a half-dozen men, and one woman, all dressed in high Washington “my clothes cost more than yours do, so I’m more important” fashion. One man he recognized.

“Mr. Secretary!” he said, walking over. “I have to say, it’s good to see a familiar face.”

“Good to see you too, Mike,” answered the Secretary of Defense. “Quite a mess we’ve dumped in your lap this time.”

“Yeah, well, if it wasn’t tough, you wouldn’t need me,” he answered. “I have to admit, I was surprised when the new guy kept you on. Pleased, but surprised.”

“So was I,” admitted SecDef. “But he’s a good man, at heart, and he does admire an ability to get things done, no matter what side of the political aisle. We don’t always see eye-to-eye, but he knows when he doesn’t know something, and he’ll listen to what I have to say. Fortunately, he’s not trying to micromanage my Department. That, I couldn’t accept.”

Mike sat down. “We waiting for anyone else?”

“Besides Colonel Pierson? No. I understand that some more intel just came into his office, and he wanted to bring it to the meeting.” The door opened as he was speaking, and Pierson walked in, a bulky folder under his arm.

“Sorry I’m late, gentlemen, ma’am. Mike.” He looked around the table. “I think introductions might be in order.”

The lone woman started. “Patricia O’Connell, Assistant Director, NSA. This is my assistant, Jeffrey Moore,” she said. She was in her forties, Mike guessed, with a severe haircut and no makeup he could see. A real ball-buster, he thought. Got to her position by being orders of magnitude better than her competition and pushing aside anyone who wouldn’t give way gracefully. Her assistant was a young, bookish-looking man. An ivory-tower policy wonk, he speculated. No real-world experience but can get every scrap of data out of a source.

The next man was speaking.

“Agents Williams, Howard, and Rodgers, CIA. Rodgers and I have spent considerable time in Chechnya. Howard’s been in Moscow, working with the Russian Federation Ministry of Defence on the nuke-exchange program.” Two real agents, probably competent, and another bookworm, was his snap judgment.

“That just leaves me. George Watson, DIA-DJ.” By his relaxed air, Mike pegged him as another career agent who had moved up by being competent.

“DJ?” he asked.

“Defense Intelligence Operations Coordination Center. We try to put the big picture together.”

“Why not DI? Or DC?”

“DI is taken, Analysis. DC would be a little confusing, dontcha think? And DICC just leads to too many jokes.” He laughed a little, a genuine laugh. “Besides, it’s our job to make sense out of intelligence, not make sense ourselves.”

“And everyone knows the Secretary, of course,” said Pierson.

There were nods and murmurs around the table.

“Let’s get this rolling. I know we’re all on tight schedules.”

“Nope,” said Mike. “Not me. I have to be in Boston by 7pm tomorrow. That’s about it.”

“What’s in Boston?” asked one of the CIA guys; Williams, he thought.

“Red Sox versus Tampa Bay at Fenway. You know how long it’s been since I’ve been to a ballgame?”

Pierson smiled, then said, “Okay, back on topic. We’re here to give Mike any and all the assistance he needs to solve this problem for us, without having it blow up in our faces, literally.” He sat down. “Now. Mike, I have some intel from your operatives, J and Cottontail. They’ve intercepted a shipment of uranium tritide and are going to trace it back up the chain as far as they can.”

“So, the nukes aren’t ready to fire, or at least not all of them,” said Howard. “The tritide is needed to replace the triggers.”

“And that means that we have a little time, at least,” added Watson. “It wouldn’t do much good to threaten to use a nuke and then not have it work. I don’t think they’d go even if they had just enough, either. They want to have them all ready. At least,” he amended, “I’d want them all ready first, before I moved.”

“Why do you think that?” asked Rodgers. “The Chechens aren’t known for their planning, or patience.”

“We don’t think this is a Chechen operation.”

“Of course it’s a Chechen operation, who else would it be?”

“Sorry, I should be clearer. It hasn’t been planned by any Chechens, and it’s not just Chechnya that’s in play.”

Watson brought out a briefcase.

“According to what we’ve been able to assemble, the driving force behind the latest insurgency is Giku Inarov.” He gave the background quickly. “Lately, in the past six months, he’s been advised primarily by a man named Ibrahim. That’s all we know. Nobody has a photo, or bio, or, hell, even a last name.”

“What are you doing, then?” put in O’Connell.

“Waiting for you jokers to get the raw intel,” he snapped back. Obviously, this was an old disagreement, and Mike wasn’t going to put up with it.

“I don’t have time for this bullshit,” he said. “It doesn’t matter why we don’t have info on this guy. We need to get some and get it quick.”

He faced the CIA agents. “Do you have any contacts who are in with the insurgents?”

Williams and Rodgers shared a look before answering. “We do have one man inserted, but it would be almost impossible to get his information without extracting him. And if we manage to extract him, he’s done as a source.”

Pierson spoke up before Mike could erupt. “Doesn’t matter. This is the absolute priority of all our resources. We hold nothing back. Nothing!”

“Besides, if we succeed, there won’t be an insurgency for him to return to,” supplied Mike.

“That would be worth it,” said Williams. “We’ll try to get a message to him tonight and start working on an extraction plan.”

“What else do we have?” said Pierson.

===============================

The meeting dragged on for three hours. By the end, Mike had a headache and was reminded again why he hated DC. He stood up.

“I’ve heard enough. Mr. Secretary, always a pleasure. Bob, if you’re ever in Georgia -”

“Someday, Mike. Soon, if we can get this wrapped up.”

“George, I’ll get my intel guy in touch with you. You seem to be able to coordinate everything pretty well.”

“That’s my job,” he agreed.

“Williams, if you need any help on the ground, talk to George. We have some resources in the area who may be in a position to assist. Ms. O’Connell, I need constant access to Echelon.”

She looked as if she was going to object, so he continued.

“Don’t fuck with me, lady. Right now, you work for me.” With that, he walked out of the room.

“Jack, let’s get the hell out of here. I’ve had enough of DC.”

Memories of Aiyana Cassidy Part 6

Let’s pick up where I left off last week.

glasses girl portrait / sexy beautiful woman in glasses, business concept of a strict portrait. Clever girl with glasses. Vision Advertising

We spent all summer in that bike. Trike. Quad-rider. Whatever you want to call it.

Aiyana was the first one to drive it. Fair enough; after all, she did come up with the idea, and she did build it with only minimal help from me. And by minimal I mean that she did all the work and I maybe held things in place while she welded and hammered and wrenched – is that a thing?

Anyways, after a couple weeks of her doing all the driving, she let me drive. And boy oh boy, did I love it! Frankly, I blame her for my love of speed and cars and all that, the thrill-seeking, adrenaline-junkie stuff I’ve been dealing with ever since.

Right. The not-bikes.

We probably covered fifty klicks a day in that, which was enough to get us into town and around before heading back home. We had fun, wandering around the stores and doing some oh-so-adult shopping. At first the shopkeepers were pretty wary of us. After all, two little girls, unaccompanied? Who’d think we had any money?

Then I got the bright idea of asking my parents for money, and then things changed. Boy, did things change!

Like I said, this was middle-of-nowhere, Minnesota. It wasn’t a poor area, but there wasn’t tons of money, right? And a couple five-year-olds certainly wouldn’t have any money, or have the slightest idea how to spend it.

So this was probably June. I know it was early summer, because the crops were still growing, not even close to harvesting, and we were still taller than the corn. My dad gave me a twenty Daley note, and told us to have fun.

Wait, I hear you say. He just gave you money and freedom to go off and do things?

Well, yeah. Dad was older, and I was his ‘I never expected to foster a child’ daughter, so he was pretty relaxed about most of the things we did. Building a vehicle and driving all over the county? Piece of cake.

So we drove into town. I drove, actually, and Aiyana held onto the seat with white-knuckled hands. Did I mention I blame her for my addiction to speed? I had that thing full out, motors whining, and we’re pedaling like crazy because otherwise we’d drain the batteries too fast, all the way into town, and I only slowed down there because the local police had warned us not to go faster than any car we came across on the road.

We pull up in front of this little restaurant and head in, holding hands, and I say to the older woman – ha, older, she was probably twenty, but I was five! – “Can we have a table please?”

She humors me and brings us to a table.

“Do you need menus?”

I look at Cass, who nods.

“Yes, please.”

She brings us the full menus and, to her surprise, we both start reading them. Cass, I think I said, could read when she was, like, three, and I had started to read the year before to keep up with her. I could handle the menu, just about.

“I’d like a grilled cheese,” I said. “And a glass of milk.”

“Can I have a Caesar salad? And water.”

“Okay, enough playtime.”

Cass frowns at this.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, I don’t mind you pretending to read the menu, or playing at ordering, but I know you don’t have any money, and –”

“I do so!” I say, indignant, and pull out the bill. “See?”

Cass is even angrier. “I did not pretend!” she says, angry as only a child can be.

“Yes, you did,” insists the waitress.

“I’ll prove it!” says Cass. “Bring me a book!”

Smirking, the waitress goes off and comes back with a book from under the counter. Someone must have left it behind, because I don’t think that most hole-in-the-wall cafes have copies of Great Expectations just lying around.

“If you can read this, I’ll buy your lunch!” she says, and opens it at a random page.

Cass picks up the book and starts in.

“…while we talked, which divided his attention, and was the cause of his having made this lapse of a word. “Affianced,” he explained, still busy with the fruit. “Betrothed. Engaged. What’s-his-named. Any word of that sort.”

“How did you bear your disappointment?” I asked.

“Pooh!” said he, “I didn’t care much for it. She’s a Tartar.”

“Miss Havisham?”

“I don’t say no to that, but I meant Estella. That girl’s hard and haughty and capricious to the last degree, and has been brought up by Miss Havisham to wreak revenge on all the male sex.”

“What relation is she to Miss Havisham?”

“None,” said he. “Only adopted.”

“Why should she wreak revenge on all the male sex? What revenge?”

“Lord, Mr. Pip!” said he. “Don’t you know?””

She closed the book and looked up at the waitress, innocence personified. “Is that enough?”

“Uh, um, yes, that’s plenty, yes.”

“I’ll have a milkshake, too. Strawberry.”

“Me too!” I added. “Chocolate.”

We didn’t make a friend there, but we got our lunch and never had a problem at another shop in town. And Cass even insisted we tip her; told you she was a genius.

Well, I seem to have rambled on long enough for this time; next time, I’ll try to tell you about that border-crossing incident.

Kendra’s Special

Hey there! Adam was roaming around on Twitter and he came across these; he thought I would appreciate them.

He was right.

They are so totally me and Cass! The details might be a bit off; after all, there’s nothing in there about the Federation or our girls or anything like that. But the essence is absolutely right. She and I were always together, from babyhood until she went off to college. There’s a couple of those panels which really captured us, you know?

We didn’t do the Disney thing. But the bandaid in the rain? Yeah. Holding hands in school? Yeah. Helping move? Well, only once. But I have to save that story for some Saturday.

Anyhow, I love the images, and so wanted to share them with you. Since Aiyana won’t come back here/now and tell you herself.

He said I can post them here if I put in the following:

“Provided by Stephanie-Rose L. Sermon” – I guess he found them on her feed? Anyways, there it is!

A Quiet Revolution – Chapter TWELVE & THIRTEEN

Welcome to launch day!

Not quite the kind of launch day I’m used to, but hey, it’s what passes here in the 21st Century. As a special bonus, Adam decided you could have two chapters, so enjoy them!

A couple notes on the events of the chapter(s). First, I still believe we made the right decisions in the heat of the moment, and I would make them the same way again. Second, although I never told Flashdance, these events were the reason the Wolves were never deployed as the first-line defenders again. Capable ships? Absolutely! There’s a reason we still use them, or their grandchildren, two centuries on. But for all their versatility, that same ability is what made them less than ideal for defense.

I would give almost anything to have spared Flashdance the events, though. She’d gone through it once as crew and then again as a commander; that’s plenty enough.

In any case, on with the chapters! You can click on any image to purchase the book and have it delivered INSTANTLY to your Kindle!

CHAPTER TWELVE

Njord Space

“We’ve got multiple incoming targets,” announced Horst Pipher just before noon.

“Number? Course?” asked Whitmore.

“Working on it, Colonel.”

Kyran stepped in. “Spurgeon, scramble the reserve squadrons.”

“Right away, Commodore.” Glen Spurgeon wasn’t in the Command, Control, and Intelligence Center (CCIC), of course. He practically lived in the massive dome at the top of Njord, overseeing the mobile units, along with Hecate. But he was instantly on call, and Kyran could see the status lights on the Wolves and Direwolves changing as he spoke.They came to stand behind their primary threat analyst, next to Whitmore. Pipher was running through his analysis to her.

“They’re right at the edge of our detection threshold. Very small.”

“How small?”

“Perhaps a meter across. And they are not producing any active emissions signatures. No power generation. They’re coming in on a ballistic course. Very tricky.”

“Antimatter bombs?”

“Very probably. The readings we are getting are similar to those recorded by Endeavour on the bomber drone.”

“Oberon’s balls.”

“My analysis suggests a probability in excess of 95% that these are devices of a similar type,” added Diana. “Commodore, the Admiral is trying to reach you.”

“Put her through.”

“Connected, Commodore.”

“Admiral.”

“What’s going on, Kyran?”

“We’ve detected a number of incoming objects, count is unsure at this point. Diana and Horst believe them to be unpowered versions of the antimatter bombs that Endeavour encountered. We’re launching all MOVs and Direwolves to intercept.”

“How long?”

Kyran assumed she meant how long until the objects intercepted Njord, and looked to Pipher for the answer.

“They are approaching at a relative speed of 152 KPS; the closest is at nearly a million kilometers.” He did the calculations. “One hour, fifty minutes.”

“Nearly two hours, Admiral,” she reported. “Are you aboard Njord?”

“No; we’re aboard Enterprise. Let’s talk this through. Virtual conference in two minutes.”

“Aye, Admiral.” Kyran turned. “Whitmore, run the problem. Firm up that data. Colona, I want all of our defensive measures online.”

“Already warming,” said the defensive specialist.

“Flashdance, Double Dip,” Kyran said to the air, heading for their office off the CCIC.

“Yes, Commodore?” both replied.

“As soon as your squadrons are all in flight, get a course from Pipher and prepare for intercept. Don’t go max accel, we have time for a coordinated response.” After getting confirmation, they closed the channel. In a short moment they had reached their office and were speaking again.

“Diana, open it up.”

Kendra’s holographic avatar appeared, along with Alley and Cass. She’d obviously already gotten onto Enterprise’s bridge and was in Alley’s ready room. Diana appeared there as well in her usual ‘Gal Godot’ avatar.

“Commodore, one question before we start.”

“Of course, Admiral.”

“How close is Endeavour to return? It’s this week?”

“Yes, Admiral.”

“Can we shave off a day or two? Can she function as backup?”

Diana answered. “She could conceivably function as backup. All the external repairs are complete, and only minimal internal repairs are still underway.”

“Then Captain Stewart should be in on this too,” said Kendra, and Kyran nodded.

“I’ll get her in.”

The first thing Kiri said as her avatar took shape was, “I’ve been watching the situation. How can we help?”

“We’re trying to figure that out. Commodore, can you summarize?”

It only took Kyran a minute to bring them up to speed. “We’re now tracking twenty-three objects.”

“Options?” offered Kendra.

“This is going to sound insane,” said Cass. “But what if we try to capture them?”

“You’re right,” Kiri snapped. “It’s insane. A piece of one of those things crippled my ship!”

“Hold on! The Wolves have tractor beams and can easily keep pace with these slower bombs; they could latch on and bring them to a standstill.”

“And then we have a cluster of antimatter bombs sitting in space, waiting for someone to run into them,” said Kiri. “That’s not acceptable.”

“No, no, that’s not the whole plan. Hear me out.”

She waited until she regained everyone’s attention. “I’ve been playing with an idea so  we can use the teleport without a portal at the other end; the sensors on the starships are precise enough to get the quantum-level scan we need to do the teleportation. What if we retrieved the antimatter from the bomb casings? We have the technology, the capacity, to contain antimatter safely aboard the Enterprise.”

“Whoa. Stop right there. No way are you bringing uncontained antimatter aboard my ship, Commander!” snapped Alley.

“Not uncontained, Alley. And it’s only temporary!”

“No. Way. Not happening, Commander. That’s final.”

“Then plan B is to use Enterprise’s tractors to drag it back to Njord, and contain it here.”

“You want to bring kilos of antimatter aboard my station?” said Kyran, aghast. “Do I get a say in this?”

Cass waved them off. “We don’t need to store it in Njord if we can create a self-contained system. Keep it stored a thousand kilometers away with all sorts of warning signals. Diana? Can you create a holding tank for antimatter?” asked Cass.

“I can create a containment field that will be sufficient, yes.”

Kyran considered that. “That ought to be far enough, if it loses containment.”

“You are correct, Commodore,” said Diana. “The benefit to Commander Cassidy’s plan is enormous. Assuming each of these objects contains the same quantity of antimatter, and also assuming they are of similar dimension to the ones which Endeavour encountered, then we  would power the habitat and the fleet, even the expanded fleet, for approximately ten years with the antimatter captured.”

Kendra whistled. “Okay, so capture is an option. What else? I want everything on the table.”

“Could the Wolves redirect them?” asked Kiri. “Blowing them up is a really poor option.”

“Redirect them where?” said Kendra.

“I’d say dropping them into the sun would be a good idea,” said Kiri with feeling. She still didn’t appreciate the damage done to her Endeavour.

“I’m in favor of that,” agreed Alley. “What if one misses us and impacts Luna? It might get their attention.”

Kendra looked at her Flag Captain thoughtfully. “You know, Alley, that’s not a terrible idea.”

“Kendra!” Cass’s voice was shocked.

“No, no, nothing like what you’re thinking! Not Artemis City, or any of the other pressures. But what if it seems they were attacked by one of their allies?”

Kendra could see the thought jump from mind to mind.

“Find an isolated area and make a big boom. Maybe they’ll start thinking. Doubting. It’s got to be somewhere uninhabited. There’s got to be places like that, right? Diana?”

“Yes, Admiral. There are large areas in the northern hemisphere, as seen from Earth, which are not officially inhabited.”

“Officially?”

“Officially. Artemis does not maintain a strict census of its population outside the pressures. It is likely there are individuals, or small groups, scattered across much of the uninhabited areas. In addition, there is a statistical certainty the Artemis government maintains ‘black list’ operations and projects in these same areas. Exact locations, however, are unknown.”

“We can’t do anything about the individuals; the best we can do is aim somewhere that’s uninhabited, as far as anyone can know. Is there a place like that? Not so far away from a pressure that it won’t be seen, but far enough it won’t do damage?”

The answer was nearly instantaneous. “Ocean of Storms.”

“Any other ideas?” She caught every pair of eyes in turn. “No? Blow them up, capture them, or redirect them?”

“That is an eloquent summary of the options, Admiral.”

“Diana, your sarcasm is coming along nicely. Cass, we’re going to give your idea a try, with a tweak. Bring their velocity relative to Njord down to zero, rather than zero absolute velocity. They’ll keep their distance from Njord while we figure out what to do with them.”

There were general sounds of agreement between the commanders.

“All but one. I want Alexander and Flashdance working with Diana to set one on track for the Ocean of Storms. With any kind of luck, it might  sow a little distrust between that bitch and the rest of the Union, and we can exploit that.”

“A sound strategic move,” said Diana.

“Once the remaining ones are zeroed relative to Njord, Cass will have all the time she wants to play with her idea, and Diana the time to build the containment system.”

Again there was general agreement.

“Alley, I think Enterprise should be in position to back up our squadrons, but Endeavour can sit this one out. Thanks for the offer, Kiri.”

The meeting broke, and Kyran returned to their CCIC.

“We have confirmed trajectory and count, Commodore,” said Whitmore immediately.

“Defensive systems online,” added Colona. “Shields on standby.” The shields were the most energy-intensive, so were activated last to reduce demand on the habitat’s power grid.

“Spurgeon?”

“All craft launched,” answered the bay manager.

Njord to Squadron Leaders.”

Double Dip checked in first.

“Nymeria Actual. Squadron en route to coordinates in support role.” Two dozen of the lightning-quick and deadly Direwolf fighters, formed into four divisions, were under her command.

“Wolf Actual,” said Flashdance next. “Underway.”

The Wolfpack, as Wolf Squadron was usually called, had a dozen Wolf-class MOVs.

“Tiger Actual,” came the final check-in, from Wrangler. “We’re down a boat; the EM on Leonidas gave them a down-check for a faulty flux capacitor. Six Pack thinks he can replace it and make the mission.”

“Here’s the plan.” Kyran laid out the details quickly but thoroughly, answering the few questions.

“Go get ‘em,” they finished.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Njord Space

“Why do we get the fun jobs?” bitched Menace.

“Because we’re the best,” Flashdance answered right back.  “Range.”

“Two hundred k klicks.”

“Time to intercept?”

“Ten minutes minus.”

“Nymeria Actual, Wolf Actual.”

“Go ahead Flashdance,” said Double Dip. She was flying backup for Alexander, trailing the MOV by fifty klicks.

“Menace says we’re ten minutes minus. You want to go over this one more time?”

“Nope. What’s to go over? You close to five klicks from a bomb that could obliterate you in a heartbeat, and if anything goes wrong I get to tell your boyfriend that you died a hero.”

“Funny, Double Dip.”

“I thought so. Seriously, why aren’t we just blowing these stupid things up? It’s not like my squadron hasn’t been training for weeks or anything.”

“Ours not to reason why. Well, if we screw it up, then your squadron will get the chance to clean up the mess.”

“Yeah, I’d rather not. Who’s going to keep me from puking on the Admiral at my next promotion if you’re not around? And I really don’t want to be CAG yet.”

That got a grin from Flashdance, remembering the promotion ceremony. Was it just last year?

“Five minutes,” said Menace.

“Time to get our game faces on. Talk to you on the other side.”

“Throttling back,” replied Double Dip, opening the distance a bit further. She knew, up close and personal, what one of the antimatter bombs could do and had no desire to get anywhere near one again.

“Don’t be stupid.”

“That’s your job, Double Dip.” Shannon switched to the squadron channel.

“Wolf Squadron, prepare to engage. Match speed but do not, repeat, do not do anything until after our run. Either we’ll have pointers for you, or we’re going to be a bad example for you. Out.”

“Times like this I wish we mounted shields,” muttered Menace.

“Times like this I wish I’d listened to what my mother told me when I was young,” replied Flashdance.

“Oh? What did she tell you?”

“I don’t know; I didn’t listen.”

“Great. Two minutes. Warming up tractor beams. Closing speed two KPS and dropping.” The field of approaching bombs showed on the sensors like glitter scattered across construction paper. The distance between targets ranged from a low of eight klicks to a high of fifteen; there’d been some spread in their billion-plus kilometer journey.

“Target locked in. Putting it on the screens.”

Their target popped up on the screens built into their cockpit’s optical sapphire windows. From this distance it was little more than a glittering point. Only when they were ten kilometers distant did they began to resolve any detail.

Menace was bent over his instruments, calling off the information as Flashdance handled the final navigation. “Confirming composition. Neodymium, 1.2 meters across, 1.4 meters long. Slight rotation, less than two RPM.”

Njord, Nymeria Actual. Target is rotating around longitudinal axis. Will this make a difference?”

“Hold one,” Kyran answered immediately. “Diana?”

“Calculating. Negative. Rotation should increase stability on imparted trajectory but should not interfere with course modification.”

“Flashdance, Diana says you’re good to go.”

“That isn’t precisely what I said, Commodore.”

Kyran waved off the AI’s complaint.

“Thank you, Commodore.”

Flashdance inhaled deeply, held it. “Ready?”

“Fuck no. But hey, I always wanted to make it big. Let’s do this thing.”

“Call it, Eng.”

“Range, five point one klicks. Speed is matched at 152.4 KPS. Activating tractor beam.” He made a couple adjustments. “Power at two percent. We have a lock.”

The Wolf began to be pulled off-course by the target.

“Compensating for drift,” Flashdance said, applying gentle pressure to her controls. “Maintaining separation.”

“Increasing power. Ten percent. Fifteen. We’ve got it hooked.”

“Beginning course adjustment.”

Another breath. This was the trickiest part. If there was a mechanism to detect the change, then who knew what would happen next. A massive boom was the most likely scenario.

“Coming around.”

It was really a minor adjustment, she thought. Only a few degrees, a slight boost to the speed, and the shiny ball of instant death would speed past Njord to a rendezvous with the Ocean of Storms. She giggled.

“What?”

“Shiny ball of instant death,” she said around another giggle. “On new course. New speed 155.9 KPS.”

“And cutting tractor beam. How about you back us away from your shiny ball of death?”

She looked at the sensors.

“Instant death. Get it right, Menace. Proximity check. Clear.” It wouldn’t do to bump into another shiny ball. Or a Wolf.

“Clear,” he agreed.

“Applying delta-v.” Slowly at first, then more quickly, they put distance between themselves and the bomb.

“Ten klicks. Twenty. Thirty. Fifty. Out of blast radius and getting happier by the second,” said a relieved Menace.

Njord, package has been redirected. Alexander is clear.” She could vaguely hear cheering behind Kyran’s voice as they replied.

“We show good separation. Well done, Alexander.

“Thank you. Twenty-two to go.” They kept moving until they reached 200 klicks, then slowed to observe.

Subutai, Wrangler’s MOV, had been chosen as the lead for the next phase. He made his approach as gradually as Flashdance had, coming to a zero relative velocity six klicks from his target. Then the rest of both his Flying Tiger squadron, minus the Leonidas, and Wolf Squadron moved in on theirs. In a few minutes all twenty-two of the remaining bombs had an accompanying MOV station-keeping nearby.

“On my count,” Wrangler said. “Activate tractor beams, two percent power, and get a good lock. Three, two, one, activate.”

“Dammit!” came over the channel. Flashdance’s display ID’d the Martel.

“What’s wrong, Big Mac?” she commed.

“We’ve got lock, but the tractor’s not holding power level and we can’t disengage.”

“All units, break lock and back off!” she radioed instantly before returning to the troubled Tiger. “Okay, Big Mac. You’ve got this. What does Bantha Fodder say?”

McClymond’s EM spoke up. “I’ve got a power fluctuation in the main transfer bus,” he said. “It’s cycling up and down between one and three percent power.”

“Fodder, this is Menace. Did you try resetting the circuit?”

Flashdance stole a look at her display. The Wolf Squadron MOVs had fled, pulling the max accel their CMs felt comfortable with, and were now an expanding sphere forty klicks back from the Martel. The signals from the Flying Tigers, though, were clumped around the Martel.

“Wrangler, move your people!”

“Flashdance, I can’t exactly push them away. They want to help.”

“And if that bomb cooks off they’re all toast. Matt, if you can’t control your squadron…” She let the threat remain unspoken.

“I’ll get them to back off,” he said.

“A couple hundred klicks,” she said.

“Aye, Lieutenant.”

 “Wolf Squadron, I want you no closer than five hundred klicks.” After her squadron all acknowledged she checked on the Tigers. Some of the Tigers started to back off, but not all of them. She fumed for a moment before returning her attention to Menace and his efforts with Martel.

“…bypass B, then reset fourteen.”

“Bypass B, reset fourteen. No joy.”

Menace made sure his mic was off before he spoke.

“Something’s really fucked with that bird. Their tractor should have disengaged.” Opening the mic, he said, “You’ve got it cross-circuited somehow. It’s drawing power from another system.”

“Um. How?”

Menace shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. You’re going to have to do a hard pull on the avionics, shut them all down, and do a manual reboot.”

“Frak.”

Flashdance focused back on her sensors, trying to pull as much detail from their systems as she could. There was something going on with Martel’s target, but she couldn’t pin it down. When in doubt, ask.

Njord, Flashdance. Diana, I’m getting odd readings from one of the bombs.”

“Tapping your feed. Your readings are increases in gamma radiation.”

“Gamma radiation? Okay, I see that now. Why?”

“Gamma radiation is produced by – Flashdance, get them out of there.” Diana’s normally calm voice was suddenly urgent.

“No can do,” she answered. “Their tractor won’t disengage.”

“Analyzing telemetry. The relay at Delta 12 slash B is fused to the relay at Beta 12 slash C.” Diana broke into Martel’s comms. “Pull board 6 Sigma, Fodder!”

“Huh?” said the confused EM.

“Gamma spike!” yelped Flashdance as the world turned white. Her helmet opacified instantly; that and the optical sapphire saved her from blindness. Moving on automatic, she pivoted Alexander away and red-lined the drive, but even that could only add 2 KPS per second.

“Move, move, move!” she heard over her comms, not recognizing Double Dip’s voice.

“Wave front impact imminent,” she heard. Diana.

“Executing emergency shut-down!” shouted Menace, immediately throttling the fusion reaction and powering down every system except comms and life support.

“Six seconds. Five.”

“Crew secure!” shouted Flashdance, taking her hands from the controls and wrapping them about her helmeted head.

Then the hand of God reached out and shook them.

The inertial dampers didn’t fail, but they were stressed to the limits. Her Wolf tumbled uncontrollably and both Flashdance and Menace were pulled against their restraints. Alarms shrilled, and Menace was suddenly a blur of motion as he tried to respond to all the damage the computer was reporting.

“We’re through the worst of it,” Flashdance said, reading her sensors.

“Wolf Actual, Njord. Report!”

She didn’t have time for this. “Njord, hold on. We’ve got problems to deal with.”

“Nymeria Two, check in.”

“Shaken but not stirred,” came the familiar voice of Hopalong Ginsberg, her XO. “Still checking in on the rest of the squadron.”

“Keep me informed. Tiger Actual, report.”

“Flashdance, Wrangler. We got hammered. I’ve got eight birds down; I think two lost comms, but the other six, including Martel, are gone. No signals, nothing.”

That hit her hard. She and Wrangler were the only surviving Coxswains from the original Wolf Squadron; they’d been a tight-knit group, as were the new squadrons. She knew what the losses would feel like.

“Initiate SAR, Wrangler. They could have cascading failures. I know we’re not in great shape. Hopalong?”

“On it, Flashdance. Wrangler, give me last known coordinates for the missing shuttles, and I’ll get our Wolves looking for them as well. If anyone’s out there, we’ll find them.”

Confident in her second to do all he could, she turned to Menace.

“Where are we?”

“Well, that’s a good question,” he said. “Engines are still off-line, but the fusion reactor’s cycling back up. Once we have power, I can start getting the tumble under control.”

“Great. How can I help?”

The next few minutes were busy, as Menace put her to work as an extra pair of hands.

“Not bad, for a Cox,” he said as the lights came back on, the last system to be restored.

She ignored the jibe. “Wrangler, check in.”

Zhukov and Patton are in good shape, and we’re in pretty good condition as well. Al-Walid and Cyrus are deadlined, but the crews are alive. We got through to them on the suit comms. Hopalong is tracking three shuttles, but hasn’t picked up any signals. That might just be technical issues.”

Flashdance didn’t contradict him. She knew that he was grasping at straws, but until all hope was gone she’d let him grasp.

“Which ones?” she asked.

“No ID yet. Going to have to wait and see.”

“Okay. Out.” Now she had time, and she opened the channel back to Njord. “Wolf Actual.”

“What happened?” Kyran asked.

“Don’t know. Later. Is Enterprise still on standby?”

“Yes, do you want her?”

“She’s got the best sensors available, and we need them for SAR.”

“She’ll be there in a minute.” Kyran wasn’t exaggerating, and within that minute the starship had arrived on station.

“Flashdance, how can we assist?” Cass commed.

“I need a sweep for life signs. The damn bombs went off and knocked the hell out of Flying Tiger.”

“Scanning.” Phaedra Seabolt, the Enterprise’s science officer, turned to her sensors.

“Two signals, faint. ID coming up and Miners and Langhals, from the Hindenburg. They’re in vacuum, but the suits are holding.”

She sent the coordinates to Hopalong, who passed them to a pair of Wolves. “Five more in shuttles.” Again she transmitted coordinates.

“SAR continuing.”

Taylor’s Time

Welcome back!

Today our guest author, Taylor Anne Vigil, has a special treat!

She’s decided to give you a look at her current Work In Progress, The Last Guardian. She’s even given us some background, so dive in and enjoy!

“He is your friend, your partner, your defender, your dog. You are his life, his love, his leader. He will be yours, faithful and true, to the last beat of his heart. You owe it to him to be worthy of such devotion”. – Anonymous

Book Summary:

 The wolf, the alpha species, was the beginning of the Guardians. Wild and beautiful, these creatures captured the attention of humanity.

The partnership between man and Guardian solidified

after a wolf saved a human child from freezing to his death. But, greed took over the hearts of mankind and the wolves were soon enslaved, sent overseas to help the growing population of humans and forced to breed with other species of their kind, creating the lovable, protective Guardians that we know and love today.

Lab mix Guardian, Jack has always thought that his purpose was to love and protect his girl, Taylor, who he loves more than life itself. But, when a wolf attack breaks the foundation of their peaceful life in the woods, Jack is forced to confront the truth about his past and accept the possibility that his purpose as a Guardian may extend to all of humanity as well of others of his kind.

Chapter One:

Always

Taylor

My hands felt slippery against the tiles of the countertop. My fingers gripped the corner for better support. I couldn’t stop shaking. In my head, Jack lay pinned beneath a wolf that was as black as he was.

I reached over to flip on the little light that was nestled between the tea kettle and coffee maker.

My nails dug into the moist soil as I watched the wolf begin to tear Jack to shreds.

The moon shaped light was just bright enough to help me see what was directly in front of me; the tea leaves that Jack and I gathered from the garden, the faded tins of coffee beans and oatmeal, the crinkled bags of cane sugar and rice.

Jack was gasping, crying out as the wolf sank her teeth into his throat and muzzle.

“Keep it together,” I whispered to myself. “Keep it together!”

My stomach knotted and twisted, even as I went around lighting several scented candles with a match. The warm colors of the counters and walls of our tiny kitchen, combined with the scent of lavender, should’ve brought me comfort. But- all I could do was try to fight the nausea when I remembered the light in the woods. It came from Jack. I saw it happen. I watched it get brighter and brighter until it disappeared completely. I’d seen the wolf run off as quickly as she’d attacked. It didn’t seem possible that the light was what frightened her off. Light was harmless. Wasn’t it? Jack had pushed me out of the way, so maybe it was me she was after. I shivered. I clutched my arms around myself.

“We’re safe here,” I told myself, hoping that Jack wouldn’t hear. “Jack is healing. It’s over.”

Above me, I could hear the gentle tapping of rain drops on the skylight, our only source of bright light during the day.

I walked back to where I was earlier and braced my arms on the counter, praying that I could stay composed. I heard a low whimper, a soft, awful sound, come from the living room. Jack was in there, sitting curled up under a blanket. And, he needed me now.

I sucked in a breath and looked at the tin of coffee for the second time. Something hot would probably settle Jack’s churning stomach. And, mine too. So, I made myself busy, grinding up the beans and tea leaves by hand and waiting for them to brew on the stove.

I took the steaming mugs to the living room. I paused in the doorway. I closed my eyes and inhaled. The scent of smoke, of the sweet apple wood that burned in the fireplace, soothed me. Hearing the rain start to pour outside made the room seem even more warm and comfortable. As I opened my eyes, I thought about how truly lucky we were to have this quaint little cottage, with its redwood walls and old fashioned bookshelves and soft woven rugs.

Jack’s ears pricked as I approached, walking past our couch, which I now realized was full of black dog hair, and our coffee table that was cluttered with opened books and dried flowers.

Jack sat on his haunches, his tail still, his paws clutching the blanket around himself. I crouched beside him and kissed his wet nose. He took his mug of black tea, wrapping his chilled paws around it. I took a sip from my own cup. Warmth shot through my fingers and arms. Immediately, my stiff limbs and aching muscles began to relax. Even my fluttering heart slowed down a bit. But, thenJack turned his face to look at me and I saw the bandages on his face, and I remembered the gashes that hid behind them. Without saying anything, I set down my mug and retreated to the kitchen.

There were still some medicinal herbs on the countertop, courtesy of Zachary’s gathering skills. I crushed them into a bowl and filled what Jack affectionately called, “The First-Aid Kettle” with water. The mixture was still steaming when I brought it into the living room and set it down next to the fire.

Gently, I picked at Jack’s bandages, peeling them away with the gauze, but I couldn’t see the wounds clear enough to examine them properly. I grunted softly, wondering why my already poor vision was even poorer now that I needed it the most. After a few seconds, I laughed at myself, realizing that I still had my distance glasses on and that my reading ones were still on the edge of the coffee table. I exchanged them, my eyes just barely able to make out the fuzzy silhouettes and colors of the table and bookshelves in the seconds it took to do the job.

Jack, my gentle Guardian, looked tired and drained in the flickering firelight. I could see his wounds now, the way the blood had dried up and caked to his fur. 

“They’ll heal.” Jack whispered.

It was true. Though I’d nearly forgotten about the process because it didn’t happen often, Jack’s accelerated healing started almost immediately after he was hurt. Wounds like scrapes and cuts, a burn to his paw or an abrasion to his tail, would be healed before I even had the chance to treat it. But, it had been 15 minutes since we’d returned from the woods, 15 minutes since I’d applied pressure to the wounds before cutting the mud and burrs out of his fur.

I dipped an edge of the cloth into the warm water, held it in the air to cool, and then dabbed at the mangled flesh of Jack’s face. His paws gripped the blanket that was wrapped around his shoulders. A whimper, barely audible, whistled through his nostrils. His ears pulled back and his eyes closed briefly.

“Sorry, Jack.” I whimpered, fighting back my tears.

He was too gentle to be hurt like this. I couldn’t do this, yet. I needed to do this.

I swallowed and continued to tend to his wounds with just the barest brush of the cloth.

“They’ve never been this deep.”

Did I just say that? Had I really just transferred my suffering onto Jack’s already aching shoulders?

I lowered my hand and turned my face away. I couldn’t let him see me like this, couldn’t hurt him more than he already was. But, my actions were pointless. It was impossible to hide my emotions from Jack. He could smell my anxiety, sense my sadness.

“Tay, it’s ok.”

Jack cupped my chin in his paws and guided my gaze to meet his. In the flickering light of the fire, I saw that the gashes on his face began to close. It was fascinating, seeing every little fiber of flesh and tissue, shining with blood, reconnect and form several large grey patches in an instant.

“You’re not going to lose me, Taylor,” he whispered, ears tilted forward. “That’s a promise.”

I could tell by his use of my full first name that he meant it. He wiped at my tears. The bits of fur between the soft pads of his paws tickled my face and I couldn’t help but smile. The blanket he was wrapped in slid from his shoulders as he pressed the bridge of his nose against my forehead. His eyes, so gold they glowed in the light, held me in their gaze as we sat there, our faces fitting together like a jigsaw puzzle. His fur was soft and warm and upon seeing those eyes, I felt safe.

Jack blinked, leaned back and let his paws rest against my shoulders. As he did, I saw that his right jowl had risen slightly, forming the crooked half smile that I loved so much.

 “It’s you and me, Tay.”

I looked at him, eyes gleaming.

“Always?” I asked.

He pulled me close and took me into his arms. His paw ran over my hair, claws catching in the strands. I heard his tail swish back and forth across the rug as I leaned into his fur. I felt his heartbeat, soft and steady. Just like his voice.

“Always.” he answered.

Jack

My stomach clenched and unclenched. Taylor snuggled against me, sensing my tension, even in sleep. I licked her cheek and nibbled lightly on her shoulder. She smiled and giggled.

I pressed my nose to her head and inhaled, drinking in her scent. She smelled like the woods, like pine needles and wet earth, but also like the cottage, smokey and comforting.

I closed my eyes and sniffed her again. I wagged my tail at the knowledge that I’d saved her from the wolf and that, in doing so, I’d fulfilled my purpose as her Guardian. She snuggled closer to me. I licked her once more, before resting my head on her side. A sigh, long and heavy, escaped me.

“I love you, Tay.”

I hoped she heard me. I hoped she hadn’t heard me. It came so easily, these words, that I was momentarily puzzled as to why I didn’t say them to her as often as she said them to me. As a Guardian, I was able to do many of the things that humans could do. I knew how to walk on two legs, cook, drive, clean, and do whatever else that my girl needed from me. But, I was still a dog and expressed my affection as such, preferring to nuzzle, lick and sleep against my girl as opposed to using my words to let her know how much she meant to me. She was the center of my world and I was hers. She was far too gentle to be hurt like she was tonight.

Don’t let her be sad.

The Measure of Humanity – Chapter THIRTEEN

This day was more fun than Adam makes it out to be.

Oh, he gets the important things right – the ceremony, the friendship between Shannon and Daniela, the meeting of LJ and Alley, the mock dogfight between the Wolf and Direwolf – but there was so much going on which was left out!

For example, he didn’t mention it was an open bar. Frankly, I find that inexcusable. One should ALWAYS mention the open bar! And the Houston-style hospitality: barbeque as far as the eye could see. Well, maybe not quite that far, but if there was anything a visitor wanted they couldn’t get I didn’t hear about it.

It was a party.

Plus, as nervous as Double Dip was, the grin on her face when she strapped into her Direwolf could have been used to power a starship.

Right. One more time, there’s a contest going on and you can enter by clicking the button below. You can also buy the book by clicking on any image, and the audio file is at the end of the chapter. Enjoy!

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

HLC HQ, Houston, Republic of Texas

“Ready?”

“Would it be disrespectful to say, ‘Hell, no, ma’am, I’m about to puke my guts up’?”

Flashdance suppressed a grin.

“Probably,” she said instead. “But since I’ve known you longer than just about anyone else here, I’ll let it slide. Just don’t actually puke on the Admiral.”

“Oh, God,” groaned Daniela Garcia. By virtue of being the first person to be able to fly the new Direwolf space fighter, and fly it well, she’d been granted both a promotion and command of the squadron-to-be.

“Come on, Double Dip,” Fowler continued, checking over her dress uniform. “The Admiral’s not bad, even up close and personal.”

“How up close and personal?” Garcia was trying to imitate her friend and soon-to-be peer, hoping that the routine would help calm her. So far, not so much.

“She’s going to shake your hand and pin on your rank tab,” answered Fowler. “Don’t lock your knees together; you’ll pass out.”

“You’re not actually trying to tell me to relax, are you?”

“No, not relax, just maybe not think so much about what’s going on. Concentrate on the flight afterward?”

“Good idea. You know, I almost miss flying a Wolf. Almost.” Garcia had been part of the crew of the DaVinci, a Wolf assigned to the Enterprise, with her identical sisters, Briana and Justina. Unlike her sisters, she had been fully trained as both a coxswain and an engineer, the only such hybrid in the burgeoning fleet. As such, she had seemed the perfect candidate for lead test pilot on the new Direwolves. It turned out, she was, and she’d been intimately involved the past several months in the test flights, pushing the envelope on the entirely-new class of ship.

“But the Direwolf is so much hotter!”

“Hotter isn’t always better, Flashdance,” said Daniela.

“That’s not what you used to say.”

“That was before I strapped myself into a ship that could pull 500 g and only slap me with six.”

“Five hundred g? Holy Mother. How long does it take you to get to Njord, flat-out?”

“Well, I can get there in not quite seven minutes, but I’ll flash by at almost 2000 KPS.” She grinned. “On the other hand, it’d be a sight to see.”

Shannon finished fiddling with her uniform and turned to Daniela. “Hold on. Let me get that.”

As Shannon reached for the recalcitrant collar, Daniela muttered, “I don’t know why they even have collars on these things.”

“It’s the Admiral,” explained Shannon, patting it into place. “She’s some sort of history buff, and she pretty much designed the uniforms.”

“Oh, so I have her to blame when I look silly?”

“Yep. You can tell her that yourself in about five minutes. Come on.”

It may have been a formal ceremony, but at least there wasn’t a crowd. That was a small mercy, reflected Daniela. Her family was there, plus a few people from both the squadron and the Enterprise, but it was a remarkably small gathering.

“Honored guests,” started Kendra, then stopped. “Oh, no, I’m not going through with that felgercarb. Daniela, Shannon, come here.”

They walked to the podium, surprised as anyone else.

“Admiral?” asked Shannon.

“Change of plans. Lieutenant Fowler, will you assist me in the administration of the oath of office?”

“Aye-aye, Admiral.” Shannon turned, standing next to Kendra and facing Daniela. She stage-whispered, “Do what I do.”

“Raise your right hand,” directed Kendra, and Daniela did so, echoing Shannon. “Repeat after me. I, Daniela Garcia, do solemnly swear.”

“I, Daniela Garcia, do solemnly swear…”

“To support and defend the Terran Federation against all enemies…”

“Foreign and domestic; to bear true faith and allegiance to the same…”

“I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion…”

“And I will well and faithfully discharge the duties…”

“Of the office on which I am about to enter.”

“You may lower your hand. Congratulations, Lieutenant Garcia.” Kendra turned to face the audience, Shannon nudging Daniela to do the same. “Honored guests, I present Lieutenant Daniela Garcia, commanding officer of the Nymeria Squadron of Direwolves.”

As applause rippled around the assembled officers and crew, Shannon said, “Nymeria?”

Daniela shrugged. “Surprise to me, too.”

When the applause died away, Kendra said, “Ladies. I know this is a bit impromptu, but would you be willing to give us a demonstration of what a Direwolf can do?”

Daniela looked at Shannon. “It would be best if there’s a Wolf for comparison,” she said.

“Oh, thank you very much. You get the flashy fighter and I get to look like I’m driving the bus.”

“No, that’s not –“

Shannon laughed. “I’m teasing you. Of course. Let’s go suit up.”

Twenty minutes later, after a quick break for refreshments, the various attendees gathered outside.

“You planned this,” whispered Cass, nodding at the huge display behind them.

“Maybe,” said Kendra. “There’s been so much nothing going on, so much routine. Patrol, patrol, patrol. Monitor Luna. Training. There’s only so much of that they can take. I thought it would be important to show them some progress, something new and different.”

“Uh-huh,” said Cass. “When did Alley tell you to set this up?”

“Last week,” Kendra admitted.

“You’ve got a good head on her shoulders. Okay, so what’s the plan?”

“Plan? We don’t need no stinkin’ plan.” To Cass’s reaction, Kendra hurriedly added, “Shannon’s not going to let Double Dip do anything stupid. Besides, you think they weren’t in on this? They knew about the demonstration, just not the ditching of the speech. Zeus’ lyre, I hate speeches. I was happy to lose that.”

A similar conversation was occurring between Shannon and Daniela at that moment.

“Just like flying in a regular formation, Double Dip,” Shannon commed from the Alexander. “Plenty of space and keep the comms open.”

“How are they going to see us?” replied Daniela, putting her helmet on. She was wearing her skinsuit, which had an integral helmet, but the Direwolves had more robust acceleration than the Wolves. That had forced not only the addition of a flight suit but also a modified helmet to be added to the gear, one which enclosed the head and neck to provide the necessary support against the g-forces.

“That’s the Admiral’s problem. Ready?” She spoke to both Menace and Daniela, and her engineer nodded.

“Going through systems checks.” Daniela keyed the ship’s AI to life. “Boomer, how are we looking?”

A deep bass voice replied. “Reactor at power. Fuel at 94 percent. Do you anticipate needing the lasers?”

The Direwolves were equipped with a pair of 700 kW lasers, which drew their power from a capacitor. The capacitor, in turn, was charged from the reactor when the engines didn’t demand all the output. By not charging the capacitor, a Direwolf could extend its flight time considerably.

“No, Boomer. Simulation only. Current charge?”

“The capacitor is at 20 percent charge, Lieutenant. Congratulations on your promotion.” Boomer was the integral Epsilon-class AI, and the nuances of human interaction were something that he occasionally struggled with; that led to odd touches of humanity during otherwise routine moments.

“Thank you? HLC tower, Nymeria Actual, requesting clearance to take off.”

“Nymeria Actual, you are clear for launch at your discretion.”

“HLC tower, roger, out. Alexander, Nymeria Actual.”

“Oh, that sounds so ridiculous,” said Menace. “Go ahead, Double Dip.”

“Cleared for launch.” She triggered her implant to comm to Shannon. You might want to get Menace to take this seriously; I’ll bet the brass has our comms tapped.

“Ouch!” she heard over the radio. “Dammit, Flashdance, what was that for?” Then the channel closed.

Nothing a quick slap upside his head can’t fix, answered Shannon. Go ahead; we’ll follow your lead.

With a deep inhale, Daniela flipped the last switches to bring her bird to life. Most of the systems were fly-by-wire or virtual, but the most critical systems had an additional physical layer to ensure intent. Behind her, she could feel, more than hear, the engines come to life. She reached her hands out, one to the throttle, one to the joystick, placed her feet on the pedals, and connected to the ship with her ‘plant.

Flying a Direwolf was more art than science, a matter of training your body to echo what your mind was commanding the ship to do. While her hands and feet moved physical controls, they were merely confirming what her mind had already communicated to the AI. If she thought, Bring engines to fifty percent, the AI started to comply even as her hand moved the throttle. It was the system that they’d eventually settled upon after weeks of simulators and trials. Direct brain-to-AI control was necessary for the Direwolf’s role as a space fighter, but they’d learned that unfocused thoughts could, and did, cause unintended flight aspect changes. Human reaction time, though, was too slow for the capabilities the Direwolf possessed. Hence the two-layer system: the pilot thought the command, the AI began to execute, and the physical action confirmed the command.

“Nymeria Actual. Going wheels up.” Daniela wondered idly how that phrase clung to existence; her Direwolf landed on skids, not wheels, but she was already throttling up and aiming for the sky.

Seconds later, the Alexander followed her off the ground, falling into loose formation two hundred meters back and fifty meters above and to the right. They were barely crawling along, spiraling up over HLC’s campus at five gravities, putting the Direwolf through a planned series of rolls and maneuvers to show its agility.

“Ready for the next trick?”

“Ready when you are, Flashdance,” Daniela radioed back. With no more warning, she pushed the engines up to full military power, rocketing from five g to four hundred in a heartbeat, rolling vertical, and disappearing from view in seconds.

“Holy frak,” said Kendra, watching with the rest of the spectators. “Where did she go?”

The tech in charge of the display made an adjustment and the scale changed. “Current speed is 73 KPS, Admiral. Acceleration is dropping, she’s holding at 75 KPS and is coming around.”

“Where’s Alexander?”

“Looks like she’s taking a reciprocal course. Mock dogfight,” said Alley, who had come to stand next to them.

“She’s going to eat their lunch!” exclaimed Cass.

“That would be the point, yes.”

The display showed the two icons moving closer now, the Wolf cruising along at 30 KPS and still accelerating, the Direwolf holding onto 75 KPS, but rolling erratically around the base course.

“Is that intentional?” asked Cass.

“I hope so,” said Alley.

“She’s slewing around her course to make herself a more difficult target,” the tech answered. Suddenly she realized she’d spoken again and clapped a hand over her mouth.

“Thank you,” said Kendra, looking up to the slightly taller woman. “How do you know so much, um…I’m sorry, I know I’ve seen you before, but I’ve forgotten your name.”

“LJ Burg,” she said, removing her hand. “I’ve been working on the Direwolf project since the beginning.”

“What are you doing running the dog-and-pony here?”

LJ shrugged. “Seemed to be the right place. Besides, I get to see the show, and the rest of my team is back in the office. Speaking of which, you don’t want to miss this.” She gestured to the monitor and said, “It’s going to happen fast.”

The range between the two was dropping rapidly, and now a computerized voice started speaking.

“Target locked, firing, target destroyed. Reset. Target locked, firing, target destroyed. Reset. Target locked, target evading, lock broken, target locked, firing, target destroyed. Reset…” The recitation continued until the two icons passed each other and started to separate.

“Your pilot is treating the Wolf as multiple targets,” explained LJ. “Her lasers aren’t really firing, just simulating it.”

“And she’s still outside the range of the Wolf,” murmured Alley appreciatively.

“Yes, ma’am,” said LJ, with a hint of shyness. “Her lasers have an effective range of ten thousand kilometers.”

Cass tried to rescue LJ. “LJ, I think I remember you. You used to work on carrier design? Two, three years ago? Didn’t you come up with the new variable modular cargo system?”

“Yes, Ms. Cassidy, that was me, and my team of course.”

“What have you been doing on this project?”

“We were tasked with modularizing the systems for rapid replacement and ensuring cross-compatibility.”

“Jargon makes my head ache,” said Kendra.

Cass turned to Kendra. “It means that LJ and her team examined the systems, engineered them for ease of exchange, and checked that they worked.”

“See? That, I get.”

“Kendra, if LJ was part of the team on the Direwolf, then you got the right team for the job.” LJ shifted uncomfortably, but Cass ignored it. “In fact, I think we’re going to need her on Njord.”

“Why? Not that I’m arguing, but if she’s doing so much good down here won’t taking her away slow progress?”

“LJ? Where does your team stand?”

“We’re just about finished, actually. We get new assignments Monday.”

“See? Perfect timing.”

Kendra was silent as the two ships did another simulated attack. She noted that the Wolf did manage to get off one shot, which missed the wildly maneuvering Direwolf. When the separation started to open again, she faced LJ.

“Actually, I think that we need her on Endeavour.”

“Admiral?” said LJ.

“Huh?” said Cass.

“Why not Enterprise?” asked Alley.

Kendra answered Cass first. “Not Njord. We’re planning on having a full support crew there, plus they have Hecate in support. No, what we need is a systems expert where we don’t have much personnel flexibility.”

“You’re not getting any Direwolves,” Kendra said to Alley. “Your shuttlebay was designed for Wolves and Wolves alone.”

She grimaced. “It’s one of the things we got wrong. It might not be a major thing, but we, no, I, never anticipated needing to have anything other than shuttles. Hell, the Wolves are a compromise design, with the particle emitters added as an afterthought, not a fighter. Now, the shuttlebay on Endeavour can handle Wolves, yes, but it’s not a dedicated bay. So no, she can’t be on your crew.”

Kendra looked at LJ just in time to see a curious mix of…what? Hope? Disappointment? It flashed past before Kendra could decide. “What do you think, LJ?”

“I, uh, well,” she stumbled.

“Let the woman work,” said Cass. “Ask her again after the demonstration’s over. It’s not over, is it?”

“No,” said Kendra. “I don’t think so.”

LJ confirmed, “No, they’re going to do one more pass, which should be starting any second now.”

The final pass was just as impressive as the first two. Daniela, in her Direwolf, could almost literally fly rings around the Alexander. She even continued the exercise after the fly-by, reversing her own course and chasing after Shannon’s Wolf. She hung back a few hundred kilometers, matching the larger and slower craft move-for-move. Finally, after several minutes, the two ships stopped the game of cat and mouse and headed for the ground.

The Alexander landed first, a few hundred meters away from the gathered spectators. The Direwolf came flashing over the group, swooped around in an arc, speed dropping off, and settled gently to the ground less than a hundred meters away. The engines could be heard powering down, a high whine that quickly fell off to nothing as the cockpit opened. A hatch in the side of the cockpit folded outward and down, revealing a set of stairs, which Daniela dropped gracefully down.

Hurry up, Flashdance! Everyone’s waiting for us!

Waiting for you, you mean. Almost done with checks. Why don’t you do a walkaround and look busy?

She did just that, making a show of inspecting the surfaces and vents built into her bird, until Shannon and Menace finally caught up with her. Together they walked over to the waiting VIPs, came to attention, and saluted Kendra smartly.

Kendra braced to attention and returned the salute, saying, “Very impressive flying, all of you.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” they more-or-less chorused.

“Double Dip, are you ready for this?”

“Admiral?”

“Running a squadron, training them up to your standards.”

“Ma’am, I’m ready to do whatever you and the Captain need me to do.”

“Shannon? Can you get her to relax?”

“No bullshit, Daniela. She wants a straight answer.”

Daniela looked from Kendra to her friend and back before answering again. “Ma’am, I meant what I said. I don’t know how well I’ll do, but I’m game to give it my best.”

“That’s a better answer,” Kendra said. “Okay. If you need anything, anything at all, comm me.”

“She means it,” affirmed Shannon. “She’s been there for me plenty of times this year.”

“Yes –“

“Don’t call me ‘ma’am’ again, Double Dip. Not after that sort of flying!”

“- Admiral,” finished Daniela with a smile and only the slightest hesitation.

“Marginally acceptable. Okay, go do what you need to do to put your birds away, then you’re off-duty the rest of the day. Go celebrate.” They quickly headed off, and Kendra had to call out, “Shannon!”

“Admiral?” she said, pausing.

“When you get wherever you’re going, have them contact me. I’ll pick up your tab.” Kendra saw a huge grin split Shannon’s face before she hustled to catch up with the other two.

“I might just regret that,” she muttered, then focused on LJ. “So what do you think? I need you on the Endeavour. You and maybe two more members of the engineering team.”

“I don’t know,” LJ temporized, thinking furiously. “It’s not that I’m not interested, but I didn’t expect, I mean, what about my cats? And won’t my supervisor need to sign off? It’s a lot to take in!”

Cass said, “Don’t worry about your supervisor. I think we have the juice to smooth that over.”

“Cats?”

“I can’t see why not,” said Alley. “We’re allowing dependents aboard, but never said they couldn’t have four legs.”

“Would I have to join, what did you call it, Starfleet?” asked LJ, taking a brief look at Alley, who looked back, crooking an eyebrow.

Kendra shook her head. “No. You could, of course, but you don’t have to join if you don’t want to. You’d be part of the Federation, but you already are by working for HLC, so I don’t think anything would have to change.”

LJ stood, silent, thinking, for a long minute. Finally, she nodded. “If you think I’ll do more good on the ship, then I guess I ought to be there.” She straightened and brought a hand up to her short-cropped dark hair in a reasonable approximation of a salute.

Alley laughed. “If Kendra says you don’t have to join Starfleet, you don’t have to salute. Relax.” When she did, Alley nodded.

“Admiral, I’ll stay with LJ for a bit, pick her brains about who she thinks should accompany her, then bring her to Njord.”

“Good enough. Cass, let’s go see how big a fire we can light under Kim. I want as many Direwolves as we can get our hands on, now.”

A Quiet Revolution Playlist – Song 30

This is it! I hope you’ve enjoyed this musical journey behind the book. Even if you didn’t want to know why the songs went with the chapter, if you found a new song you like I’m happy.

This final song ought to be fairly obvious. The entire book has been dealing with revolutions, of one sort or another:

  1. Cass and her teleport, having to develop single-portal teleportation because, well, it was needed.
  2. 40 Eridani, finding life outside the Solar System.
  3. The UE coordinating the removal of all laws against Enhanced Humans from the books.
  4. Oh yeah, a revolution on Luna.

What other song could I end a book called A Quiet Revolution with?

Revolution, by The Beatles.

As my thank-you, at the bottom of the page is a link so you can download the ENTIRE PLAYLIST. It’s a single file, crafted as if it were a mixtape, so you can enjoy all 2 hours of the playlist whenever you want in the order they appear.

Now, let the Revolution COMMENCE! LAUNCH DAY IS TOMORROW!

REVOLUTION