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The Legacy

of Salvador Guthrie

A Space Odyssey




By Ben Patterson

Copyright 2014 Ben Patterson


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ISBN: 978-1-37016-599-5

Prologue

I’m a killer. I don't remember every face of every victim, but I remember this: that look in the eyes of someone facing their end, the mixture of fear, resentment, resignation. It was my job, just my job. I stole lives. Now they—the men, the women and, God help me, the children—steal my sleep, my peace of mind, my soul. I am a haunted man. This government asked too much of its soldiers. It asked too much of its citizens. It asks too much of me. Now, I'm asking for something.

. . . To get my soul back.


Kicking fate in the teeth, Capt. Stanley Travis goes off the grid, slips quietly off world, and makes a run for it. This story begins before Raven’s birth, before the battles of Saigus or Los Dabaron. Indeed, before any of it. This is Raven’s heritage; a time of war and killing, a time of human suffering on a galactic scale. This is the story of Raven’s father, the beginning of hope.

Chapter One

On April twenty-first, 2215, the ten-thousandth Peacekeeper space craft rolled off the line of the Eavesdown Space Docks in Janesville, (Mars Colony), a sky-blue, lightly-armed Cougar police cruiser. There was a big ceremony, speeches; the Lt. Governor even showed up.

Three days later, another ship rolled off that same line. No one gave two craps about her . . .

. . . but

they should have; because this 2215 Gazelle Space Freighter would turn out to be the most important vessel no the most important object in pretty much the whole universe.

She was first owned by Sal Guthrie—a moneyed alcoholic with two ex-wives and three blocked arteries. He had hoped to make amends for a life of self-indulgence. On any month without an R in it, he’d fly to the planets on the outer rim delivering Bibles to the poor, “Gettin’ folks right for judgment day.” That’s what he said.

After Sal Guthrie died, she—the Gazelle—ended up at Rainbow New and Used Spacecraft in Laurence where a young scientist bought her on impulse, that is, after a little advice from a friend.

Thirty-eight years later, that celebrated Cougar police cruiser, however—that same one, as near as Stanley Porter Travis could tell—wound up in his private hangar. No one else knew of its historic significance, so he got his dream ship for a song. Little of its blue still shown past large patches of gray primer, but nonetheless, optimistic Stan remained undeterred. For the last three years, he’d been pulling parts and replacing them with more modern gear. His plan for it, and for himself, was to have it change the direction of his life forever. At the time, he believed it was this ship that would impact his life course the most. But he was wrong. I guess that’s where this story begins.

***

And here is where it ends.

Captain Stanley Travis, ‘Swift’ to his men, had made a decision. He like being a pilot. He like every aspect of space travel.

He hated killing.

In fact, he’d rather be a ground-bound mechanic than to ever have pull a trigger again. To him, it felt better to have a wrench in his hand than a gun. Having grease, grime, and sweat coat his skin beat the snot out of drowning in the blood of innocent citizens.

Soon, he would resign his commission and go solo and, truth be told, work the other side of the law. If one day he got caught and killed, so be it. Presently, life, living, had next to no appeal, not that he wanted to die, he just saw no reason to fight the inevitable. He supposed, though, that there was an off chance things would improve. To that end, he had purchased a ship, an old Cougar D190 Interceptor. The onetime police cruiser had history, style, versatility, and a good, reliable temperament. Chock full of hidden nooks and crannies, it’d do nicely as a smuggler. The work on it was near done and it’d be time to get on with his life. The military, while not all peaches and cream, had it plusses. It gave him the opportunity to make a name for himself as a crack pilot. It also gave him the means to buy this old ship and the parts to get it flying again.

Somehow, word got around of his leaving the service, and of his piloting skills. Always in the market for such men, representatives of Bricklyn Ironworks came to offer him a deal of which Swift agreed to. One catch: he could tell no one.

On his twenty-seventh birthday, Troy Younger, his longtime friend and soon to be replacement, found him fiddling with his spacecraft, getting it ready. So focused was Swift that his birthday would’ve slipped by if not for Troy.

Troy ran a hand along one wing’s leading edge. “It’s looking good, Swift,” he said, glancing up at his captain.

Sitting atop a wing, Swift had a cover off to admire the two new Cyrus Thurmite engines. The Bricklyn Ironworks prototypes were remarkably small.

“One more week,” Troy added, “then what? Are you going to wind up in my crosshairs?”

Swift slid the cover back into place and locked it down. With a sigh, he gave his friend a careful, measured look. “I’ve found work, actually. Legal work.”

“Yeah?”

“Test pilot for a major corporation. They found me, really.” He slid off the wing to land on the ground with a muffled thump.

“And who might they be?”

“Sorry. Can’t say. Sworn to secrecy, you understand.”

“So, Swift, you think I won’t arrest you if our paths cross out there?” Troy wasn’t smiling.

Command Central had registered Stan’s call sign as, ‘Swift,’ early on. His skills as a pilot were in a league all their own.

Restraining a grin, Stan shrugged. “I imagine, Troy, my friend, you’ll do what you must if, of course, you can catch me. That isn’t going to be easy, though.”

“No?”

Stan leaned closer to whisper, “I’ve replaced the Cougar’s two Diclan engines with better.”

“Oh?” Troy chuckled. “Some serious muscle, no doubt.”

Unless Swift missed his guess, the four Slip-band Cyrus Thurmites’ combined drive would beat anything going. Bricklyn’s modifications made his Cougar a ship to contend with—or so he believed. Anyway, his job was to put the prototypes through their paces. If their were glitches to find, they’d show up when he abused them. If Troy thought he knew what the ship was capable of before, he’d now have to rethink it. The recent discovered Slip-band energy, or Zero point energy as some called it, a free-for-the-taking fuel, came to the Confederacy as only a promise. Bricklyn Ironworks’s R&D had developed Cyrus Thurmites engines to exploit the unusual energy source. Testing was still ongoing. It’d be months, maybe years before such engines were placed in a military ship.

“Bricklyn Ironworks is working on some pretty impressive stuff,” Troy said, fishing for answers. As cops went, Troy was one of the better, but his tricks would work on Swift.

“Are they?” Swift grinned. “Know anyone there? Could you get me a job with them?”

“I wish,” Troy said. “I was just thinking, if you combined their latest proto-engines with the Cougar’s many smuggler’s holds . . .‍”

“You wanna fish, find a lake. I will tell you nothing.” The years Swift had spent in law enforcement gave him the knowledge he needed to enter the life he now longed for. Troy knew that. He knew him. Though the well-to-do openly frowned on smuggling, privately they bought anything they could get their hands on from such men. There was big money to be made in that line of work, and Troy knew to Stan, smuggling represented freedom. The guy could dress the way he wanted, arm himself as he chose, and work as often or as little as he saw fit. It also afforded Swift some distance from all the indiscriminate killing of an Enforcer –‍slash‍– peacekeeper –‍slash‍– government sanctioned killer. Still, with one week remaining on his tour of duty, both Swift and Troy knew the military still had time to ruin Swift’s plans, and if he wasn’t careful, his life.

Chapter Two

(Two days later)

The oldest were grown men, twenty-six and twenty-seven-years old. One was twenty-four. Most were younger, eighteen or so.

As he watched from the second story window of his office, Captain Stanley (Swift) Travis tossed a baseball straight up a few inches and caught it without looking. Below, men grunted and strained and cursed as they drilled in hand-to-hand martial arts. The tarmac below was alive to the thumps of well-delivered fists and feet to chests or cheeks, punctuated all too often by the drill sergeants’ shouts whenever a punch or kick failed to connect. Missing the mark would cost a crack on the back with a bamboo rod. Capt. Travis still bore the scars of his own training. Few soldiers didn’t. Colonel Ketchum strode among the new recruits, face reddening beneath his graying whiskers, muttering at them one and all. Travis has never seen the old training commander look more fierce. “You there, look alive,” he said to one. “On your toes,” to another. “No. No. No.”

His sergeants stayed to the perimeter, for the most part, darting in now and again to deliver a crack to a deserving back and scream obscenities into the offending man’s face.

Travis snatched his ball midair and looked back at his lieutenant who sat on the couch. “These men don’t seem to learn as quickly or fight as well as we did.”

With an arm stretched out across the couch’s back, and a calf resting across a knee, Lt. Troy Younger reclined. Command had registered him in the lists as ‘Ice,’ a flight handle that suited him to a tee. In a few days, this squad would be his. Swift did his best to make leading the job look easy. Troy knew it was not. Aspects of the job had taken their toll on Swift. Now it was Troy’s turn in the barrel.

Following a sharp rap on the door, a soldier stepped into the office and handed Swift a thumb-sized Digi-pod. “Your orders, sir.” With that, the young man glanced at Lt. Younger, dipped his head in salute, and left quickly. Troy had, with an icy look, a knack for making his subordinates uneasy.

Before reluctantly touching the small device to his left forearm, Captain Travis glanced at his first officer. The info in the pod transferred to his implanted nanites, micro-machines implanted just under his skin, a requirement for every soldier. At rest, they looked like whatever pattern the user programmed into them, innocuous swirls, a loved one’s face or whatnot. Activated, they became an interactive touch screen illuminated to paint text and images across one’s forearm.

The tat-pattern changed to text; orders from Command Central appeared. Studying the message, he scrolled down with a flick of a finger. If what he read was correct, these instructions were distressingly unacceptable. Every day, they sent increasingly worse orders. He feared Command had lost its collective mind. Now this.

In a hot instant, he flung his baseball across the room. It glanced off a wall and brought the bookshelf down with a crash.

Lt. Troy Younger stared at him for a moment with an unyielding face before glancing at the fallen shelves and the books scattered across the floor. “Wow. Really?”

Swift released a sharp Hmph!

“I take it, Cap, they’re bad?”

Swift glared at Troy. “Blasted straight! I can’t believe they’re asking us to do this.”

“Asking, sir.” With raised eyebrows, Troy cocked his head. “Are they giving us the option to decline?”

Swift stepped to his desk, stiffened his arm, and sent everything careening to the floor. If he could have lifted the huge oak desk, he would have thrown it through the window. Appalled at his own uncharacteristic display of anger, Swift stopped. Get a hold of yourself, man, he chided himself. What’s gotten into you? Where did this dangerous stupidity come from?

Troy slid to the couch’s edge to rest his elbow on his knees. “I take it, that’s a ‘no’.”

“Command has gone insane.”

“Look, Swift, if I‍—‍” But the look in Swift’s eyes was enough to clamp Troy’s mouth shut. “Okay. Fine,” he said. “I’ll just let you deal with it.” Retreating from saying more, he stood, took the Digi-pod from his commander, touched it to his own arm, and read it to himself. “Good gods.” He whispered in disbelief. “Ah, hell no.” Very little got a rise out of Troy.

“Really?” Swift said, turning angry eyes to his longtime friend. “What could it actually be saying then?” Turning away, he pulled his helmet from his locker. Small hand-painted hash marks, each representing a “Trog,” covered one side. Each kill had started out as a source of pride, but now the hashes served as a constant reminder. He considered it for a moment, then flung it at Troy who caught it with one hand, and without looking.

Swift pointed at the helmet. “Once done, Troy, some things can never be undone. If we do what Command orders, there’ll be no going back. They’ll own us forever.”

Troy pondered the numerous hash marks for a moment. “Maybe HQ knows something we don’t. It’s a mission. I say we do it and trust our higher-ups. Besides, one or one hundred, what difference does it make?”

Swift considered his senior Lieutenant. He had managed to get his longtime best friend, Troy Younger, as his second in command, but was now wondering why.

“And if I don’t do this? If I refuse? What then?”

Younger sighed as he set Swift’s helmet on the desk, then turned away to peer out the window at the men below, perhaps, or perhaps at the Dart-class fighters at the bays far end. Perhaps he looked at nothing at all before turning his attention back to his captain. “Swift, please don’t put me in that position.”

“I need to know where your loyalties lie, Troy.”

Troy’s face masked all emotion right then. “Nuts to that, Swift.”

“What are you going to do, Troy, if I turn away from this insanity?”

“Sir, we’ve been friends forever, but if I’m pressed, I’ll do what I must.”

“Career man, huh?”

Troy turned an uncompromising face to Swift. “I never hid that from you.”

Capt. Travis glared at him. “That means what, exactly?”

“If we start to question our orders now, there’ll be no end to it. We’ll have to revisit everything we’ve ever done. But I think you know that.”

While in their teens, Stan had taken Troy under his wing to help him get past a rough parental divorce and an abusive father. Troy was a year younger, so Stan got his friend into the academy by vouching for him. For the last five years, they had flown together as a team. But in spite of their history, they seldom saw eye to eye anymore. The fact was, because of their friendship, Stan had turned a blind eye to what Troy had, over time, become. Truth be told, there were real reasons to hate the man.

The aristocracy thinks he’s the ideal soldier. They can think what they want, but I know better. If that is my best friend, thought Swift, what does that say about me?

His mind panned back through the days and weeks in search of the trigger that changed his mood . . . his outlook. Oh, yes, that new kid.

Carl Ogier—fresh and full of promise, an exceptional pilot, sharp and always ready—had joined them just a month ago. Even from the first day, Swift noticed that no matter how hard he tried, the kid could never meet his gaze. It was as though something about Capt. Travis acutely disturbed Carl, as though the kid perceived something in his captain’s soul that was . . .

Swift couldn’t put his finger on it, but it certainly bothered him.

He dropped his head to consider the mess at his feet. To be honest, long before Carl joined the squad, Swift’s growing anger started to take on a life of its own. The kid’s boyish face—or the troubled look in his eyes—seemed to bring to the surface what Swift had, up until then, had kept buried.

Swift’s mind jogged back to the time he first joined a fighter squad like this one. Just as Carl seemed now, back then Swift had high ideals; thoughts of changing the Confederacy toward the better, toward a proletariat living without the threat of Trogs mucking about. But the more Trogs Swift killed, the more prolific the buggers became. There seemed no end to this enemy.

Problem was, Trogs knew how to blend into the population at large, making them near impossible to ferret out. Only eyes on the ground provided a sure way to discover who was who. This was exasperatingly difficult, though. Many once loyal citizens who had discovered Trogs wound up, themselves, contaminated and turned.

This next mission, tomorrow’s mission, was designed to alleviate the Trog problem, or at least show them that the Confederacy was serious about their defeat.

Still . . . that unknown something gnawed at the pit of Swift’s stomach. One way or another tomorrow would change everything.

“All right, Troy. Gather the men. I’ll be down shortly.”

Chapter Three

Carl Ogier wondered what this day would bring to him and his fellow pilots. Would Wolverine Squad see more of the same, just more killing? He had thought killing from a discrete distance would be somehow easier, less heart-wrenching. However, he had learned that whether up close and personal, or from the quiet confines of his Dart’s cockpit, it made little difference. Killing was killing.

Suited up, he shut his locker and tucked his helmet under an arm. Captain Travis had marked his kills by painting hash marks on his helmet. A few of the pilots kept score like him. The rest in other ways. Swift’s XO, Ice, tattooed his kills spiral-fashion around his own neck. Call sign ‘Ice; that was Lieutenant Troy Younger-a cold, calculating, killer.

Three hundred plus, Ice had bragged.

Sick.

The very idea, whether traditional or not, repulsed Carl. He had started to paint small hash marks on his helmet, two in all, then scrubbed them off a few days later.

Fighting a mix of acceptance and irritation, Carl sighed before turning to his boss, avoiding his eyes.

Captain Travis’s manner and voice were always calm and self-assured—leaderly—but Carl hated looking into eyes that veiled all emotion. If vampires existed, he imagined they’d have eyes like Travis’s. The man never called Ice by his call sign, though; only Troy or Lt. Younger.

“Geared up and ready?” Travis said, then turned away and headed for the situation room without waiting for a response.

“Yeah, sure,” Carl muttered, knowing full well Cap couldn’t hear him, nor would the old man care even if the words registered. Carl glanced at Billy, the ‘other’ new pilot.

Billy Taft shrugged and shook his head. “That old guy should retire or take a desk job. What’s he now, twenty-five?”

“Twenty-seven,” Carl answered softly.

Hmph! Kind of old for a Dart pilot, don’t you think? Shouldn’t a man that old be lumping cargo from place to place?”

Considering Travis’s replacement would be Lt. Younger, his XO, Carl shuddered.

Lt. Troy Younger nearly burst at the seams with a toothy grin. “Great day ahead of us, boys, but tomorrow will be even better. More Trogs will meet a just end. Yehah!” He headed out behind Cap.

It was clear to Carl that Ice was once again in his element. Murder came so easily for the man that it set Carl’s teeth on edge.

“Freaky,” Billy Taft muttered, referring to Ice as he brushed past Carl.

“Yeah,” Carl answered, following him and the older pilots into the situation room.

Capt. Travis stood at the head of the room in front of a large computer screen waiting for his pilots to find their seats. Troy stood to one side.

“Get the animals fed?” Cap asked Troy, just as he had each and every morning.

“Yes, sir. Wolverines are ready, Cap.”

The only chair open sat in the middle of the room, just in front of Lt. DuMass, Troy Younger’s wingman. His handle, DA. Contrary to what he was told, did not stand for District Attorney, as in ‘The Prosecutor.’

DA’s saving grace? He was an exceptional pilot, and that was enough to keep him around. Paired with Ice, the two were formidable.

Carl grudgingly took the chair. Any moment now Jessup DuMass would resort to his typical childish behavior. Carl waited for it; as expected, a wadded piece of paper smacked his head from behind, and Jessup chortled like a schoolgirl.

Carl turned to the man behind him. “You’d think that a man with as much gun under his belt as you have would act like an adult.”

DuMass snapped a closed fist at Carl’s face but stopped short of connecting.

Carl didn’t flinch. “Well, apparently not,” Carl added. He quickly wiped the annoyed frown off his face and turned back to focus on his captain.

Cap coded his arm com, then slapped a palm to the screen. The info in his nanites transferred to the big screen.

Everyone read it in silence. Carl heard whispers behind him.

Captain Travis dragged a finger across the screen to pull a digital star map to its center and expanded it for all to see. With Parandi, the Confederation’s capital planet, at its center, the map showed most of the surrounding star systems. Its nearest neighbor, Atheron, sat just four light years from it. And that is where Wolverine Squad was based. Cap tapped the map with a knuckle.

“That’s right. Our target will be overhead soon. The cruise liner will be nearing Atheron, boys, and that’s when we’ll hit it. We’ve just received intel that suggests the ship, Emperor’s Princess, is infested with Trogs. Key Trog leaders, actually. We can’t allow the ship to make landfall; not here, not anywhere.”

Carl reared back. Had he heard right? “Intel ‘suggests,’ Cap? Does this mean no one’s certain?”

Cap’s eyes, as cold as ever, focused on Carl. “The Consul has ordered the ship’s immediate destruction before its passengers contaminate Atheron. Is there a problem, Ensign?”

“Capt. Travis, what about the innocents there? Are they doomed to die alongside the guilty?”

“Would you like to sit this one out, Ensign? No one will fault you‍—‍”

“Well, I will fault him, sir,” Troy snapped. “If he has issues with the Consul’s orders, Cap, demote him. We fly Dart Interceptors; if he wants a surgical strike, he can hoof door-to-door looking for Trogs under beds and in basements. I don’t need anyone on my flight team hesitating in the midst of battle.”

“That’s enough!” Cap glared at Troy. “I don’t fault the man.” In locking horns with his First-in-Command over this issue Cap was moving toward setting himself up for an overthrow. If Troy Younger was an ambitious man, and he was, he now had the means to usurp Cap and take his command. But Capt. Travis didn’t show the slightest hint that he would back down.

Troy Younger hesitated, looking first at Carl and then at Cap, before restating his position more carefully. “Sir. With all due respect, we can’t allow our men to ‘opt out’ whenever the mood strikes them. These orders come from the Consul himself. Consul Dais says kill, we kill.”

Travis’s eyes, once cold, turned hot with anger. “We’re talking about downing a cruise liner, Troy, killing citizens loyal to the Confederacy. And for what; a mere rumor?”

Troy’s eyes darted around the room. “Trogs, Captain. We’re talking about a threat to our society like no other.”

“Really?” Cap looked at the map once more. “Have you witnessed firsthand the threat you say we face? Have you seen any real evidence of the damage done by Trogs?”

The room went absolutely silent. Carl and everyone else knew that the lieutenant was Cap’s close friend and protégé. A disagreement between them? In public? Unheard of.

Troy stepped closer and leaned toward Cap so as not to be overheard, but in the silence, everyone heard Troy’s low growling tone anyway.

“Captain Travis, you’re talking treason. Calling into question the danger we face only stokes rebellion.” He leaned closer to whisper, “We must take a firm stand, sir.”

Carl considered Cap. What Travis had said a moment ago was indeed treasonous, but his expression spoke of something more, something new, the least of which was rebellion. There was life in old Thorn-bushel’s eyes, the likes of which Carl had never before seen. It was as if Cap had caught hold of a thought he’d only now considered.

“Troy, we’re only human. Sometimes we’re distracted. Other times we overthink things. We’re flawed. We make mistakes. Do you think those in command are any different? You gotta brush that crap off. To move forward, you have to put the past behind you. This is a new day.”

Carl just had to stick around to find out what that might be. “Cap, I’m in. Sorry I led you to believe otherwise. Just wanted to make the stakes clear, sir.”

Cap’s gaze narrowed once again on Carl, considering him for a long moment before turning back to Troy. “Carl flies my wing. Reassign Tuttle.”

Oh, man, thought Carl. Flying as Cap’s wingman meant that on the way up to the space station, Mission Control, Carl was going to get a private butt chewing by Cap, and everyone in the room knew it.

Another wad of paper hit Carl in the head, and he heard Lieutenant DuMass’ chair squeak as he leaned closer to Carl.

“Now you’ve done it, runt. Cap’s goin’ ta burn you a new one.”

After the briefing, Carl followed the others as Capt. Travis led his men out into the hall toward the flight bay. DuMass waited to one side and when Carl passed by, DuMass tripped him, sending Carl crashing into Billy Taft and on to the floor. DuMass laughed.

With a hand from Billy, Carl climbed to his feet, then dusted himself off.

DuMass stepped up. “You should have stayed down, punk.” DuMass shot a fist up, Carl blocked it and returned fire with a blinding blow.

DuMass now lay sprawled on the floor. Sitting up, he shook his head to ward off the daze, then glared at Carl.

Saying nothing, Capt. Travis pushed his way back through the crowd to the disturbance, glanced at the man on the floor, at Carl’s bloodied knuckles, and then considered Carl’s face. But to see any emotion in Travis’s eyes was still impossible. “‘Bout time you defended yourself, pilot.”

“Sir,” DuMass said, raising himself to sit on the floor, “he struck a superior officer.”

“Now who are you superior to, sitting on the floor, Dumb Ass?”

DuMass scrambled to his feet. “You should‍—‍”

Travis backhanded DuMass hard, sending him back to the floor. “Here’s a lesson for you, Dumb Ass. When talking to me, never start a sentence with ‘You should.’ I’ll decide what I should or should not do. Am I understood?”

DuMass sat up. “It looks like I’ll need to file charges against both of you.”

Troy Younger’s face soured. “Don’t be absurd, idiot. Push it any further and you’ll find yourself hoofin’ door to door to find Trogs.”

Travis turned back to lead his men to the launch bay leaving DuMass scrambling to catch up.

They mounted their fighters to fly up to Henderson, Atheron’s main military orbiter. The heavily armed space station was erected to defend Atheron against all comers and now acted as the perfect transfer station for Mission Central.

***

With Carlton Ogier at his wing, Cap led his posse up in tight formation.

Carl tabbed the autopilot, keyed in Cap’s Dart-wing code, and settled back in his seat to let his bird stay where it should all on its own. Carl’s hand was beginning to throb. Once they reached Henderson Space Station in geosynchronous orbit over Atheron, he’d have it looked at. But for now, the orbiter was still some distance away.

Cap’s voice crackled in Carl’s headset. “What was going on back there, Ensign? At first, it sounded as if killing innocents bothered you. Care to explain yourself?”

“Yes, sir. If you please, can we keep this just between you and me?”

“On my honor, my ears only, Ensign.”

Carl coded instruction into his arm computer, which switched from the ship’s com unit to his internal com system, then he initiated his throat mic. “I have my orders, sir, and I will obey them, but to be honest it doesn’t sit well with me. I don’t think killing should come as easily to a man as Ice or DA would lead us to believe.”

There was a long moment of silence. Usually quick and decisive, this was totally unlike the actions Carl had come to expect from his leader.

In the silence, one issue nagged at the back of his mind, prodding Carl to push for an answer, even though his question might be over the top.

“Cap, you seem as troubled about the Princess as I do. May I ask why that is, sir?”

Unlike the speakers in his helmet, the micro-speaker embedded in Carl’s ear canal was crisp and clear when Cap finally spoke, though he offered only a hint of what was on his mind. “Hard to say, Carl. Truth be told, I was pleased to hear you question our orders. Someone had to.”

Carl tilted his head back to stare out at the stars. Henderson was still nothing more than a dot in the distance. “Do you see Trogs as a true threat, Captain, or is there something else?”

“My handle is ‘Swift’, Carl. Out here, that’s what I go by.”

“Yes, sir, umm, Swift, sir.”

Oddly, Captain Travis let slip a nervous chuckle—not really nervous; more like impatient. “Do you know much about Providence, kid?” Cap carefully guarded his words.

“Rumors and hearsay, sir.”

“Swift!”

“Yes, mmm, Swift, sir.” Carl glanced at his captain’s ship.

The man in the cockpit shook his head. “Go on. You were saying?”

“It’s said . . . mmm, Swift, Prov territory has been on a war footing with the Confederacy for more than a hundred years. It’s loaded with Trogs, they say. Why do you ask?”

“You say that for more than a hundred years they’ve held the Confederation at bay? Kind of begs the question, don’t you think?”

Carl glanced to his left. Cap looked at him, but, even with the distance that separated them, Carl could tell real life now filled the old man’s eyes.

“I don’t understand where you’re going with this, Cap. I mean, Swift. What’s Providence got to do with anything?”

“Chock full of Trogs, Carl. Chock full of inferiors, isn’t it?”

“Yeah?”

“Inferiors?”

Then it dawned on him. How could an inferior, any inferior, hold a superior at bay, especially for a hundred years? “Oh, I think I take your meaning, Swift. Trogs defy the Confederacy as if they were an equal.”

“You’ve got it. Intel seems a bit lacking when it comes to explaining that, but they won’t give me more to go on.”

“Swift, sir, ever think about crossing the border to see for yourself how they live . . . and how they die?”

Another bit of protracted silence filled his headset. Then a thought popped into his head. Sly old Swift had gotten him to lower his guard and speak his mind—speak treason. Had he been set up from the start, an elaborate ruse to get him to question the Confederacy? Carl’s anxious fingers strummed rapidly on his armrest.

Just ahead he saw Henderson Space Station growing larger as they neared. Once aboard, there would be no escape, none that he would care for, at any rate. Carl got a mental picture of being shoved into an airlock and yanked into the vacuum of space as the outer doors opened. “Accidents” like that happened all too often to be less than suspect. He took a deep breath, but even that was shaky.

“The truth?” Swift said at long last. “Yes, I have thought about crossing over, just to see. Problem is, what if I like it better than here?”

Now that was revealing! Before saying more, Carl tried to quietly release his held breath but could hear it loud and clear in his own ears. Swift had climbed way out on a limb in trusting him. Although the desire to cross the border was Swift’s personal secret, he would know soon enough whether Carl could be trusted with it. Treason was an ugly word, but if thinking for oneself, opposite established norms, was treasonous, then both Capt. Travis and Ensign Ogier were indeed traitors to their country.

“Swift, sir?”

“Yeah, Carl?”

“I’ve got no desire to kill our own citizens. But I’ve got no out . . . no solution.”

“Tomorrow morning folks will die, Carl. It’s just that simple.”

“So it’s them or me, huh, Swift?”

“Them, for sure, Carl. Do you want to join them?”

“No, not really.”

“You’re flying my wing, so if you don’t pull the trigger, DA will take you out. You can count on that.”

Carl didn’t know what to say. What was there to say? Cap was right. Tomorrow morning, bright and early, folks were going to die. But did he have to join them? DA would be eager to get a little payback, and now Carl was lined up in his crosshairs. The only possible way out of this mess—and live—was to kill all seven of his fellow Wolverines. Carl balked at that solution, so-called. He was a good pilot, better than most . . . but was he that good? He didn’t think so. The descriptive word for what he was thinking was “Turncoat,” a traitor to everything he stood for; everything he held dear. The very reason he joined the academy, to begin with, was to protect friends and family. Now his own government had forced his back against a wall.

He shook his head in disgust, and then looked up to find Swift staring at him.

“The question is simple, Carl. With whom do your true loyalties lie? With the Confederation proletariat, or with the gentry?”

With the people, or with the aristocracy? Carl’s roots were well founded in the people, the commoners. But he had sworn allegiance to the gentry.

“The question may be simple, Swift, but the answer . . . well . . . not as much.”

Swift’s tone changed from grim to grave. “Now you see what I struggle with daily.”

“Off the record, Swift?”

“Just between you and me, Carl.”

“Looks like I’m going to take a bullet on this one, sir. Our motto speaks my heart.”

Swift looked at Carl in utter dismay. The Wolverine Squad’s motto was Die with Honor. Two years back, Swift himself had chosen the motto to show the spirit of his first and newly commissioned squad. That, and he was hoping to get the new Wolverine attack craft. Command had awarded them to someone else, though. Rumor said merit lost out to nepotism. Oh, well.

“Are you really willing to let Troglodyte leaders make landfall, Carl? The contamination would spread exponentially. Is there honor in letting that happen?”

Carl didn’t have an answer.

“I’ll let you in on one more secret, Carl.”

“Sir?”

“There’s going to be a clash of titans. Providence seems weaker than ever, and Command has its eyes on a major assault. And from what I hear, they mean ‘soon’.” Swift closed the com, and they entered the station.

Chapter Four

A mission. This is just another mission, Swift told himself to calm growing doubts, but it didn’t work. He couldn’t square the downing of a luxury liner on the mere suspicion that Trogs might be aboard her.

Had he retired a week ago, he thought, or even a day ago, this headache would’ve belonged to someone else . . . if it existed at all.

He released a long held breath. This was his responsibility and, like it or not, it was his place to make a good showing. That, or die.

With his men lined up behind him, Swift started down the metal catwalk that crossed the spines of the Darts, all of his men displaying a stiff military bearing, but all the pomp and ceremony in the world couldn’t mask what he and his Wolverines, were about to do.

As the march continued, each man stopped at his own ship. When, last of all, Swift stopped at his, every man turned in unison toward the nose of his own Dart and walked toward his cockpit. Once there, each man turned to face his ship with a singular snap.

“Wolverines,” Swift shouted. “Mount up!”

With that, each man climbed down into his craft.

In unison every canopy slid into place, the bay lights went dark, and the huge launch door slid down, out of the way of the eight Dart fighters, to reveal the sun cresting Atheron. Between the planet and the military orbiter sat the Emperor’s Princess. To date, Henderson had been the very thing cruise ships looked for. Far away from marauders and pirates, it represented safety.

Swift studied the liner for a moment longer.

Sitting black against the dark backdrop of Atheron, the floating hotel was defined only by the light of her portholes, like strings of tiny pearls lining each of her fifty-two decks. Hulking and yet elegant, the sheer size of the vessel was spectacular.

She moved slowly as if to enjoy the sunrise, completely unaware of what awaited her.

Opening his torpedo tubes, Swift took a deep breath. “Look alive, marines. Show’s on. Slow and steady as you go.” He jetted out of the bay with Carl at his wing.

Glancing back and to his right, toward Carl, Swift got a glimpse of his past. Looking to his left, he saw Troy, an image of a future that sickened him. He felt his face drain of color.

“Are you okay, Cap,” Carl asked, still on Swift’s personal secure line. “You don’t look‍—‍”

“We needn’t drag this out, men,” Swift said over the ship’s com, ignoring Carl’s question. “Let’s wrap this up before breakfast.”

With sweaty palms, he rested a gloved hand on the controls, nosed around toward the cruise liner, and targeted the Princess’ engines. A bright red circle illuminated just north of his hand. He hesitated.

Taking a deep breath, he touched the red circle. Seen only by its flame, a torpedo jetted from his ship’s belly and slowly arched to follow its target. The distant, tiny fire of the projectile briefly snuffed out when it connected with the Princess.

Then at the contact point explosions billowed and grew with fire. The fuel and flame, ripping the luxury liner’s engines apart, violently found its way into the oxygen rich environment of the Princess’ interior, and burst from the portholes. Swift released his breath. He knew the fire that followed the corridors through the ship would instantly char anyone in its path.

Maydays came from the liner’s bridge as the crew tried to grasp what was happening.

Swift nosed his ship toward the conning tower and released two more torpedoes, bringing the calls for help to an abrupt end.

Now that Swift had fulfilled his obligations, he could move to the sidelines to sit out the rest of this crap. As his wingman, Carl needn’t do any more than wait with him off to one side. The other pilots peeled away to target the escape pod chambers. Pods that managed to eject from the cruiser before the Darts reached their targets were shot down before they got far.

Seeing one unattended to, Swift hit his boosters, turned, and zeroing in on the escaping pod. This isn’t a military operation, he thought. It’s cold, callous slaughter. He followed it down, but finding himself unable to squeeze the trigger, pulled up and away from the pod just in time to see the Princess, now unable to maneuver, kiss Atheron’s atmosphere, tumbled once, then fall toward the planet as if sucked into a hole, burning as she went down.

While the smaller debris disintegrated in the atmosphere, several Darts followed this, the largest section, all the way to the ground. The fact was, per their orders, they had attached energy tow lines to the liner to slow its descent; it would have burned up completely had they not. Down through thickening air, through the clouds, and straight toward the ground until the Princess hit a farmer’s field just south of Seychelles. Despite its slowed fall, the Princess buried itself halfway into the tilled soil, a massive clump of twisted metal and ceramic alloy. In all, from first assault to this, only a mere fifteen minutes had passed.

Chapter Five

A plume of smoke trailing from space to here was all that marked a once majestic ship’s closing moments and final destination.

Swift’s chest tightened. Consul Dais had his kill.

Trogs, thought Swift, even Trog leaders, were they really so dangerous as to warrant this?

Swift’s gut soured and lurched.

Suddenly a hardened decision flared in his mind. Enough! He was done. Retired or not, his Cougar would fly, and very soon.

As the Dart pilots landed nearby and got out to confirm the results of their handiwork, Swift followed in reluctance. He must have stood there stunned for ten minutes before glancing back over his shoulder.

Townsfolk were already starting to gather. Like him, they were shocked to immobility, they stared in silence.

Numb and moving on autopilot, Swift turned to the crowd. He wanted to say “Move along, nothing to see here,” the standard military tripe said after each killing, but when he opened his mouth, nothing came out. Three thousand twenty-three . . . dead, never knowing that their government’s sole reason for targeting them was based on a rumor, nothing more.

Nothing to see here? thought Swift. Someone should credit Consul Dais with what was due him. The decision to down the greatest civilian ship ever constructed was his alone, and he should get his lumps in the next election.

Moving in barely bridled anger, Swift spoke loudly. “Ladies and gentlemen, the dead carcass of the Emperor’s Princess’ is given to you by Consul Dais.”

An abrupt corporate gasp faded into whispers intermingled with weeping.

“Any complaints should be directed to Consul Dais, himself.” There! He’d said it, fully aware that his words had just strained his friendship with Troy to the breaking point, greatly disadvantaging himself.

Now he needed to vanish, and quickly. Before he could make a subtle escape though, he had to “feed the animals,” as he liked to say; get his men settled into a filling—hopefully relaxing—meal. Like himself, Swift knew that his men had skipped breakfast, a usual occurrence for an early morning mission like this. He counted on them being hungry. And so, Swift reminded himself, disadvantage brings to light the more clever captain.

His men had congregated near the crash site. Joined them there, he scanned the crowd. Ah, yes, just what he needed. Nearby he spotted a heavyset man dressed in a local diner’s obligatory fry cook’s uniform, a formerly white, grease stained t-shirt and matching apron.

Swift stepped forward, wrapped a friendly, but intimidating, arm around the man and turned him toward the village.

“That’s kind of you, sir,” Swift said in a jovial tone loud enough for his men to hear. “Your offer to buy breakfast for me and my men is much appreciated. Lead on.”

Without a word, the nervous man hesitated only for a moment before turning to lead them to a nearby tavern, the Bush and Quail.

As Swift and his men approached, patrons inside who were standing at the window staring in disbelief, moved away to resume their seats.

Even before they entered Swift recognized the fragrance of bacon, eggs, pancakes and . . . what? He inhaled deeply and smiled . . . toasted breakfast muffins, Troy’s favorite. Good deal.

The door jingled as they entered. The place abuzz, suddenly fell silent at the sight of the pilots.

Stepping into the room, Swift stopped to look around. A waitress stood at the breakfast bar thumbing through the several orders she’d taken. Paper. Novel. Retro. Stupid. But she, well now, she was stunning. The pony tail might have been simple, but it was nearly as thick as her thigh, all curling and rivers of silky umber and beige and chestnut that spilled to the middle of her back. It was the kind of hair that made a man itch to unfasten and set free. She was slim but curvy with perfect hips and breasts.

His men brushed by him to find a table. As they blew past that waitress, DuMass grabbed her rear.

A roundhouse open-handed slap sent DuMass reeling. He stumbled back into an older couple’s table. Shaking off the woman’s numbing blow, he righted himself and stepped in with a clenched fist.

Swift was suddenly there catching dumass's arm mid-swing. It surprised the LT that Cap was strong enough to stop him, especially with as much weight, want, and rage DuMass had put behind it.

“Walk away, dumass,” Swift growled, shoving the LT’s arm away.

“Sir, she struck a‍—‍”

“I saw, idiot. I was standing right here.”

“But‍—‍”

“Find a seat.”

DuMass checked his growing anger. At present, if any man could chew nails and spit bullets right then and there, it was him.

Swift turned to the young woman. And her eyes. Good God. They were huge and abundantly lashed, pools of hickory and dark cinnamon that seized the fire and fury of a thousand untold stories. Though he kept his face stern, he had to laugh internally at himself, at his own musings, at the trap of them that he had fallen into. If he were to keep up appearances, though, she needed to be scolded, but the best he could manage was, “Gotta death wish?”

She lifted her chin. When it came to soldiers, she may have had an ugly attitude, but Swift found that easy to overlook. Perhaps it was because she was so disarmingly unaware of her prettiness.

Her words were barely bridled raw emotion that mirrored the passion in her eyes. “That Mike got what he had coming to him.”

“Maybe so, but you just can’t haul off and hit a soldier.”

“I needed to get my point across. I doubt he’ll touch me like that again.”

“He may have meant it as a little Hey cutie, love pat, a compliment of a sort. He’s just stupid around women.”

“Got that right. Mikes usually are.” She had a way of saying “Mike” that annoyed Swift though. It was like someone putting down G.I.Joe. Didn’t she know Joes and Mikes were the good guys?

Swift tried not to scowl. “When it’s men like him protecting you‍—‍”

“You mean from Trogs? Oh. Right.”

Before Swift could respond, she spun and headed away.

Swift scoffed and rolled his eyes. Right up to that point, being called ‘Mike’ as in Military Mike, was considered a good thing. This little waitress, however, had a way of adding inflections that made it an insult. It was like calling someone ‘Joe,’as in G.I.Joe of days gone by, in like manner. Like the G.I.Joe war hero, Military Mike was a CGI child’s cartoon which depicted a certain team of brave soldiers. To a boy of eight, they were almost superhuman. Their enemy, Trogs, of course, were portrayed as loathsome, mordant creatures wearing human skin. According to the cartoon, a Trog could, by simply touching someone’s forehead, inject controlling tendrils into that person’s skull to make them instantly compliant. Military Mike and his team of Enforcers, naturally, were immune. They were heroes to most, saving the day every Saturday at seven.

Swift had seen a real Trog autopsied once. The cadaver displayed nothing inhuman inside or out. To Swift, and those with him, that made the Trog infiltration of human society even more insidious and problematic. It would be so much easier if actual Trogs had the dark sunken eyes of their cartoon counterparts. Colonel Mike Hatchet, or Military Mike as he was called, had a tough job. As a boy, Swift and Troy loved the show, the characters, and the awesome job they did. The two boys had all the action figures, the plastic helmets, knives, guns, and camo-gear. Troy loved calling out, “It’s Hatchet time!” This was the very reason he and Troy joined the service, to begin with. Swift liked Hatchet’s second-in-command better, though, Captain Spencer Swift, and so adopted his name as his own call sign.


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