Excerpt for Silent Order: Axiom Hand by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

SILENT ORDER: AXIOM HAND

Jonathan Moeller

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Description




The galaxy is at war, and a death at the wrong time and the wrong place can destroy an empire.

When several junior officers are murdered, Jack March is sent to track down the culprit. The trail leads him to a decaying world and a brutal war between two crime syndicates.

But one of the crime syndicates has a secret ally that could slaughter billions.

Starting with Jack March...










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Silent Order: Axiom Hand

Copyright 2017 by Jonathan Moeller.

Smashwords Edition.

Cover image copyright © cemagraphics | istockphoto.com & © Algol | Dreamstime.com - Spaceship With Blue Engine Glow Photo.

Gunrunner Font used by license from Daniel Zadorozny.

Ebook edition published October 2017.


All Rights Reserved.

This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination, or, if real, used fictitiously. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the express written permission of the author or publisher, except where permitted by law.

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Chapter 1: Crawler




Jack March ran through the alley, weapon gripped in both hands.

The gun was a Calaskaran Royal Armaments .45 caliber pistol with a twenty-two round magazine jutting from the base of the grip. March would have preferred a plasma pistol, but only security forces could use plasma-based hand weaponry on Constantinople II. Everyone else could make do with traditional chemical-propellant kinetic firearms. Men could kill each other with kinetic firearms, but one man with a plasma pistol could do far more damage.

Granted, it hadn’t done the local security forces much good.

Their plasma weapons had proven ineffective against whatever had been killing the Royal Calaskaran Navy officers taking their shore leave on the planet. The first few murders had been chalked up to muggings and personal disputes. After the fifth officer had been killed, the Royal Navy had suspected that a Machinist cell had set up on Constantinople II. So, the Silent Order had gotten involved, and March had been dispatched to track down the murderers.

He had expected to find a cell of Machinist collaborators, one that used attractive women as honey traps to lure unsuspecting Royal Navy officers to their deaths. He had encountered and shut down such operations before.

March had not, however, expected to find a cybernetic horror, a mixture of machine parts and twisted flesh.

The creature had cut the throat of a young ensign and then fled out the back of the resort as the patrons screamed, and March had pursued.

He had never seen a creature like that before, and he knew every class of cyborg that the Machinists had inflicted upon the galaxy in their quest to replace mankind with their Final Consciousness.

Whatever the thing was, it was something new.

Behind him, he heard the shouts of alarm, along with the panicked screams of the club’s waitresses, most of whom had likely never seen a man killed before. The Cruising Cruiser, as the club was called, catered to junior officers of the Royal Calaskaran Navy, men who were old enough to know better than to get into trouble on shore leave but young enough to do it anyway. As spaceport bars went, it was one of the fancier ones that March had seen, with a cavernous, air-conditioned restaurant and a broad terrace overlooking the ocean on the nights when the local humidity permitted outdoor recreation. Now the terrace had become a scene of chaos as the club’s bouncers and the various junior officers who had just seen their comrade murdered attempted to assert their authority.

None that had stopped March as he had gone in pursuit of the creature.

The thing had moved with such speed that it was possible that none of the Naval officers or the patrons had noticed the creature leap over the rail of the terrace and land in the alley. March had tracked a man named Philip Reimer to the Cruising Cruiser, expecting that Reimer would turn out to be the head of a local Machinist cell, or maybe an Iron Hand sent to make trouble for the Kingdom of Calaskar.

He had not expected Reimer to turn into something that looked like a giant cybernetic spider, kill an ensign of the Royal Navy, and then flee into the alley.

But whatever was going on, it was going to end tonight.

The alley came to an end, and March stepped into a parking lot filled with rental cars, idling autocabs waiting along the curb for customers. It was 23:00 local time, but three of Constantinople II’s five moons were in the sky, and March had no trouble seeing. On the other side of the parking lot was a strip mall with retail businesses that catered to tourists. The largest of them was a big box store that sold sporting equipment for Constantinople II’s vast oceans and beaches – kayaks and canoes and scuba gear and the like.

A trail of blood droplets led towards the big box store, and if that were not obvious enough, one of the glass doors had been smashed.

Reimer had gone that way.

March ran across the parking lot and slowed as he came to the smashed doors. Undoubtedly the store had security cameras, and March didn’t wish to be recorded. Nevertheless, the Cruising Cruiser had cameras, and they had already seen him in motion. For that matter, it was possible the sporting goods store had overnight workers stocking freight, and the creature that Reimer had become would not hesitate to kill.

March strode through the broken door, gun in both hands.

The store beyond was dim and humid, the air conditioning shut off for the night. On March’s left was a customer service counter, the cash registers to his right. In front of him stood a cardboard cutout of a smiling man and a smiling woman, both of them dressed in the store’s brand of athletic clothing. A smashed android lay on the floor a few meters ahead, its silver chest and head caved in by vicious blows. A second android walked towards March, a silver humanoid figure with white-glowing eyes.

“Good evening, respected sir,” said the android in a pleasant female voice. “Unfortunately, the store is closed for the evening. Please return at 08:00 local time, when our knowledgeable sales staff will be delighted to assist you with your purchase.”

The computer pseudointelligence controlling the android couldn’t be that bright. Else it would have contacted local law enforcement when Reimer smashed through the doors and wrecked the other greeter android. Perhaps March could make use of that.

“Another customer came here right before me,” said March. “Where is he?”

The android paused. “The only other customer in the store is currently in Women’s Athletic Footwear.”

“Great,” said March. “Where’s that?”

“Aisles nineteen through thirty-seven,” said the android.

“Are there any employees in the store?” said March, orienting himself by the numbered signs hanging from the ceiling. Women’s Athletic Footwear would be on the other side of the building.

“None at present, sir,” said the android. “Please return at 08:00 local time, when our knowledgeable sales…”

“Thanks,” said March, and he jogged forward, leaving the greeter android to stare after him in bewilderment.

He headed down one of the store’s central aisles, past displays of surfboards and scuba equipment and hiking boots. Once he drew too near to an endcap, and a holographic display flared to life, playing an annoying jingle and showing an attractive woman in a swimsuit extolling the virtues of a specific brand of sunscreen. (A modest swimsuit, though, since this was a Calaskaran world.) March cursed under his breath and hurried on until the annoying hologram shut down. He didn’t know how sensitive Reimer’s hearing had become in his altered form, and he wanted to take the creature unawares.

He came to aisles nineteen through thirty-seven, which contained a bewildering array of women’s athletic shoes for every conceivable sport and activity. March heard a crashing, clanking noise from one of the aisles and he slowed down, the pistol held out before him. A smell filled his nostrils, a ghastly mixture of blood and diseased flesh and the familiar metallic tang of fresh-implanted nanotech-based cybernetics.

The thing that had been Philip Reimer, the thing that had killed seven junior Calaskaran naval officers in the last two months and an eighth just now in the Cruising Cruiser, was not far ahead.

March slowed, his shoes making no silence against the carpeted floor of the footwear aisles. He passed an endcap laden with women’s running shoes in bright shades of orange and purple and pink and yellow, took a deep breath to steady his hand of flesh and hand of metal, and peered around the corner.

Reimer crouched at the end of the aisle, rummaging through the shoe boxes on the shelves and muttering to himself.

At least, it was the nightmare that had once been Reimer.

His body was still human shaped, more or less. But he was naked, and his skin had taken the grayish pallor of a man whose blood had been replaced with nanobots. Indeed, March saw the black veins threading their way through his flesh like corruption through the flesh of a corpse. At the base of his skull was the familiar gray metal plate of a Machinist hive implant, his link to the rest of the Final Consciousness, though right now he would only be able to communicate with the local mind group. To judge from the loose way the skin hung from his stomach and chest and thighs, Reimer had once been much heavier, even morbidly obese. That was hardly the most noticeable thing about him.

The four giant metal legs jutting from the side of his torso drew the eye.

The additional legs were thin, almost spindly, yet bore Reimer’s weight with ease. The legs were a dull gray color, the same color as March’s own cybernetic left arm. That wasn’t surprising, given that the same technology underlay both. And if those legs were like March’s arm, they would possess strength many times that of a normal man.

That would explain how Reimer had ripped off the head of that poor ensign.

“Blue,” muttered Reimer, picking up a running shoe and throwing it aside. “Yellow. Orange. It doesn’t make sense. The sugar is white. White! Why did it turn orange? Why?” He shrieked in frustration. “It doesn’t make sense!”

March swung around the corner, pointed his pistol at Reimer’s head, and squeezed the trigger twice. He did it fast, so fast that Reimer shouldn’t have been able to respond or recover in time.

But Reimer was just as fast as March.

He twisted with a snarl, and one of his metal spider legs moved in a blur. The shots that would have penetrated Reimer’s skull instead hit the metal limb. The alloy the Machinists used for their cybernetics resisted the bullets with ease, and March’s shots ricocheted off the leg to slam into the racks of sneakers.

Reimer surged forward. Three of his metal legs propelled his forward motion. The fourth was still raised in guard, and it snapped back and then forward with enough force to crush bone. March was already moving, shifting his pistol to his right hand and raising his left arm in guard. Reimer was likely a more advanced version of the biological and cybernetic science that had transformed March into an Iron Hand, but the composition of the metal had not changed, and his left arm was just as strong as Reimer’s spider leg.

The leg clanged against his arm with terrific force. The shock of the impact shot down March’s arm and into his chest and shoulder, but his cybernetic arm was strong enough to absorb the impact. A brief flicker of surprise went over Reimer’s slack face, but before he could recover, March’s right hand snapped back up.

He squeezed the pistol’s trigger three times, and all three shots slammed into Reimer’s forehead at point-blank range. Reimer’s head snapped back, and both his limbs of flesh and his legs of metal went into a wild, thrashing dance as his nervous system began to shut down. March jumped back as both of Reimer’s right legs hit a shelf of shoes with enough force to send it toppling over.

Then the limbs went still, but Reimer did not fall. All four metal legs braced themselves against the carpet, and Reimer turned himself toward March. His face was limp, trickles of the black slime that had replaced his blood dripping down his jaw, and his biological arms and legs hung loose, but the metal limbs kept moving one at a time, like a spider preparing to pounce upon its prey.

“Shit,” March muttered.

He had seen this before. Three bullets through the brain had killed Reimer, and his biological systems had shut down. But the cybernetics were still functioning, and the machine components that had been added to his brain still kept working. Machinist infiltrator drones operated on the same principle, the nanotech converting a corpse into a cybernetic warrior for the Final Consciousness.

Except this creature that had once been a living man would be far stronger and far more dangerous than a common infiltrator drone.

March took two quick steps back and fired a round into Reimer’s chest. As he expected, it did nothing. Reimer’s corpse twitched, but the metal legs kept moving forward. How was the creature seeing him? It didn’t seem to be using Reimer’s eyes, and in any event, the physical destruction of Reimer’s brain ought to have severed the connection to his optic nerves…

The creature lunged at him, and March had no more time for speculation.

He retreated, body held sideways, left arm out before him. The creature braced itself on three legs, the fourth lashing at March like a whip. March ducked and dodged, blocking a few of the blows on his left arm. The metal leg landed with enough force that it split open the sleeve of his jacket and his shirt, revealing the dull gray metal of his cybernetic arm beneath it. He retreated to the main aisle, and the creature pursued him.

Several times March tried to attack. The only way to stop the creature would be to remove its hive implant. With his left hand, March could rip the hive implant from Reimer’s skull with a single motion, shutting down the cybernetics driving the dead man’s flesh. Unfortunately, the creature seemed aware of its weakness, and its metal legs wove a defensive web around it. March dared not draw close enough to attack, not when a single hit from the legs would crack his skull.

Still he retreated, and the creature followed.

Heat. That was it. The cybernetics embedded in the dead man’s body must have included infrared sensors for detecting heat. March’s body heat would stand out against the temperature of the store. He risked a glance around, seeking for anything he could use. Athletic footwear? Useless. Boating supplies? No. Camping equipment…

March ran for the aisles offering camping equipment. The creature pursued him, metal legs digging against the linoleum tiles of the main aisle. March sprinted past the aisles holding camping supplies, scanning the signs for what he needed…

There. Cooking supplies. More than that, vintage cooking supplies, for camping enthusiasts who wanted to prepare their meals the way that campers had in ancient days on primeval Earth, with campfires and metal grills.

Or by using flammable hydrocarbons such as propane.

At the end of an aisle waited a display of green propane tanks festooned with hazard warnings. March raced past it to a safe distance, whirled, brought up his pistol, and started shooting. Nothing happened when he shot the first tank, and nothing when he shot the second tank.

The third tank exploded with a harsh fireball, igniting the propane from the first two tanks and engulfing the display in flames. A shrill alarm rang out, and the sprinkler systems over the camping aisles came to life, spraying water upon the fire.

But for a moment, the propane fire blazed hot, and the thing that had been Reimer whirled to face the new source of heat, identifying it as a threat.

March sprinted forward as fast as he could. Reimer started to turn, but by then it was too late. March twisted around Reimer’s legs and leaped upon the dead man’s back. His weight drove Reimer towards the floor, but the metal legs flexed, catching their balance. March’s left hand plunged towards Reimer’s skull, and his metal fingers grasped the hive implant and pulled.

One of Reimer’s legs struck March’s side. Pain exploded through his chest, and the force of the impact knocked him from the creature and sent him skidding across the wet floor. March slammed into an endcap of camp chairs and caught his balance, scrambling back to his feet as he tried to ignore the pain in his chest.

There was something cold and heavy and wet in his left hand.

It was the hive implant of a Machinist drone, bloody and glistening.

March looked up just in time to see Reimer collapse to the floor. His metal legs twitched once and then went motionless.

Philip Reimer was dead. Again.

March wondered just what the hell had happened to him.

Right now, he had more immediate problems. Such as getting out of sight before he got arrested for breaking into a sporting goods store, for instance, or making sure Reimer’s corpse didn’t fall into the hands of the local authorities. As far as March knew, the local authorities on Constantinople II were no more corrupt than the local authorities anywhere else in the Kingdom of Calaskar, but someone had gotten Reimer to the planet.

Likely there were Machinist sympathizers someplace.

He stuffed the bloody hive implant into his jacket pocket. Maybe the Silent Order’s scientists or the researchers at the Ministry of Defense could get something out of it. He grabbed a heavy camping jacket from a nearby display and wrapped it around the remnants of Reimer’s head to soak up the black slime. With his right hand, March fished his phone out of his pocket and made a call, lifting it to his ear.

With his left hand, he grabbed one of Reimer’s metal legs and started dragging.

Much as he hated what had been done to him, March had to admit that his cybernetic augmentations came in handy from time to time. Dragging Reimer with his left arm was much easier than it would have been with his arm of flesh.

His phone clicked as someone picked up on the third ring. “March? That you?”

“Whitefish? Yeah, it’s March.” March headed towards the front doors of the store as fast as he could. “I’m at the sporting goods store behind the Cruising Cruiser. Get here with the van as fast as you can. Reimer’s our perp, and he’s dead.”

There was silence on the line for about three seconds, and then the man swore. “Reimer? Damn me, but that’s a surprise. That skinny little sad sack? I thought he was an informant or a collaborator for the Machinists. I didn’t think he had it in him to kill naval officers with his bare hands. I mean, those young fellows in the Navy can handle themselves in a fight, even when they’re drunk.”

“Reimer had some upgrades,” said March.

There was silence. March passed the cash registers, still dragging Reimer’s corpse.

“Well. Shit,” said Whitefish at last.

“That’s what I thought,” said March. “Also, I showed up on camera both at the Cruising Cruiser and the sporting goods store. Better get the video erased.”

“Yeah, I’ll get my boys on it,” said Whitefish. “I’m too old for this nonsense.”

“You said that the last time I was here.”

“And I’m even older now,” said Whitefish with a sigh. “Meet me out front. I’ll be there in about two minutes.”

“Thanks.” March ended the call and stuffed the phone back into his pocket. The greeter android paced back and forth before the customer service counter, the indecision of its pseudointelligence clear.

“Honored sir,” said the android. “I must inform you that it is against store policy to allow any form of shoplifting, and shoplifters will be prosecuted to the fullest extent permitted by local and Kingdom law.”

“Good policy,” said March.

The android stared at him as he dragged Reimer over the shattered door.

As March walked into the parking lot, a battered blue van came to a stop a few meters away, its engine giving off a tired whine. One of Whitefish’s local contractors drove the van, a grim-faced former mercenary, and a second man sat in the passenger’s seat, a fully automatic rifle with a hundred round magazine resting in his arms.

The van’s back doors opened, and Whitefish leaned out.

“Goddamn it,” said Whitefish. “What the hell is that thing?”

The head of the local Silent Order branch was leaving late middle age and seemed to get fatter every time March saw him. He wore a loose shirt covered with tropical designs and a pair of ragged cargo pants. Nevertheless, there was still a great deal of muscle under all that fat, and there was nothing lax about the way he held his pistol pointed at Reimer’s corpse.

“Reimer,” said March. “What’s left of him. Told you he had some upgrades.”

“God.” Whitefish switched on his gun’s safety, stuffed it into a pocket, and jumped down from the van. “Things always seem to get wild when you turn up, Jack. Take his other side.”

March nodded and took Reimer’s right side, while Whitefish took his left. Together they heaved the corpse into the back of the van. Whitefish climbed in, March followed suit, and they pulled the doors shut behind them.

“Back to the club,” said Whitefish. The driver grunted and got the van rolling. “What next?”

“The cleanup,” said March. “Reimer killed eight officers. We’ll need to have something to tell the local authorities. The Silent Order can deal with the Navy, but we’ll have to handle things on the ground.”

Whitefish sighed. “You’re going to work me to my grave, Jack March.”

But he lifted his phone and started making some calls.




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It took four days before March could leave the planet of Constantinople II with Philip Reimer’s corpse secured in the Tiger’s cargo hold.

Getting rid of the security video proved the easiest part of the cleanup. Whitefish owned several beachside clubs and was chummy with the owners and managers of the competing establishments. A judicious bribe convinced the Cruising Cruiser’s manager to hand over his security footage. The servers of the sporting goods store were not terribly secure, and one of Whitefish’s employees hacked in and erased the video files.

Dealing with the local authorities proved trickier. Constantinople II was technically a colony under the jurisdiction of the government and Grand Duke of Constantinople IV, the most populated planet in the Constantinople solar system. That meant a tangle of different legal authorities could claim jurisdiction for the murders. Constantinople II had an elected sheriff, who then appointed deputies and constables. The colonial governor could also take a hand in capital crimes, and for that matter, so could the Barons and the one Earl who had estates on the planet. Since all eight of the victims had been naval officers, the Calaskaran Royal Navy could also claim precedence in the investigation.

The Silent Order didn’t like that.

As the name implied, the Silent Order preferred to remain unnoticed and unseen. Whitefish had to make several calls to Censor, the mysterious head of the Silent Order and possibly one of the most well-informed men in the Kingdom of Calaskar or anywhere else. In the end, the Navy issued a statement that the eight murdered officers had been killed by a Machinist terrorist, a terrorist that the Navy had killed. All details about the killing were declared classified for the safety of the Kingdom of Calaskar.

March spent the four days of the cleanup in an enforced vacation at Whitefish’s main club, a sprawling casino and nightclub called the Blue Wave. The Blue Wave offered a stupendous array of alcoholic beverages, games, musical performance, and even a discreet (and heavily licensed) brothel tucked away out of sight. March was never at ease while at leisure, so he spent the time alternating between exercising in the Blue Wave’s excellent (and infrequently used) gym and driving back to the spaceport to do maintenance and upgrades on the Tiger.

“You should relax more, Jack,” said Whitefish one night.

They sat at a booth in the corner in the Blue Wave’s vast dining room. Whitefish held court a few nights a week, handling business that required a personal touch and receiving visits from his informants. He wore a garish blue suit, and a truly ridiculous quantity of food covered the table in front of him, along with several bottles of expensive alcohol. A cigar smoldered in his right hand. March had declined the food and the alcohol, but he had taken one of the cigars. He didn’t smoke on a regular basis, but there were times when it suited a mood, and this was one of them.

“I am relaxing,” said March.

Whitefish snorted. “You spent the last four days doing deadlifts in my gym and recalibrating your ship’s ion thrusters. Very relaxing.”

“No, I didn’t,” said March. “I spent the last four days doing deadlifts in your gym and overhauling the Tiger’s fusion drive. Completely different.”

“You didn’t even visit the brothel,” said Whitefish.

“As much as I would enjoy an android that has been used by a thousand men before me,” said March, “I have to decline. This cigar is excellent, though.”

“Isn’t it?” said Whitefish, pleased. The man was a very good host. It was just as well he had cigars – he would have kept offering various luxuries to March until he felt his duty as host was satisfied. “I get them from the Stromboli Consortium. The best tobacco in the galaxy, in the opinion of myself and many other renowned authorities, comes from a little colony on the other side of the Gloom Nebula. Cost an arm and a leg, but worth it.” He blew out a cloud of smoke, and suddenly changed his mind to business. “You should be able to leave tomorrow.”

March nodded. “Got things cleared up?”

“Mostly,” said Whitefish. “Censor fixed things with the local authorities, and the Navy is taking credit for killing Reimer. Censor sounded pretty pleased with you. Well, as much as the old ghost is ever pleased with anything. He must relax even less than you, Jack.” He leaned closer. “I sent him a DNA scan from Reimer’s carcass, yeah?” March nodded. “Don’t know what he’ll learn from it. Machinist DNA is always screwed to hell and back, no offense. But that DNA scan got Censor all excited. Tomorrow you’re supposed to proceed to Constantinople Station, but on the way, you’ll meet a Navy shuttle and hand over Reimer’s corpse. After that Censor will contact you for a new job once you get to the station.”

March grunted. “Suppose I had better have a second cigar, then.”

“Smart man.”

The next day everything was arranged, and March left Constantinople II’s spaceport aboard the Tiger. His ship was a Mercator Foundry Yards Class 9 light freighter, heavily modified, upgraded, and armed. It was the kind of ship commonly called a blockade runner, a favorite of smugglers, independent operators, and privateers, which was just as well since March presented a public face to the world as a privateer. Technically March was a privateer since he held letters of marque from the Kingdom of Calaskar and he regularly ran cargoes to pay his bills. And he was actually carrying cargo for the Kingdom of Calaskar itself.

Granted, that cargo was Philip Reimer’s corpse secured in a metal box in the hold, but still.

March sat in the flight cabin at the pilot’s station, screens and holographic displays showing the status of the ship and the surrounding space. One screen showed data about Constantinople II. Its surface was over ninety percent ocean, with a single small continent and a few small islands, which explained why the planet’s main industries were tourism and a sideline in algae protein farming.

After a few hours, March was five hundred thousand kilometers from the planet, and he docked with the waiting Royal Navy troop transport. Four grim-faced Royal Marines in blue power armor took Reimer’s impromptu coffin without a word, and then the transport undocked and vanished into hyperspace.

Once the transport departed, March started his own hyperspace calculation. It was a short jump, and the calculation only took a few minutes, but he nonetheless performed all the preflight checks on the dark matter reactor, the hyperdrive itself, and the dark energy resonator. If either the dark matter reactor or the hyperdrive failed, at best the Tiger would fail to enter hyperspace. At worst, the ship would blow up.

And if the dark energy resonator failed while traversing hyperspace, that would be worse. Without a functioning resonator, any ship in hyperspace would attract macrobes, dark energy-based lifeforms that could possess and mutate humans. March thought the remaining cybernetics and nanotech in his body, to say nothing of his damaged DNA, would render him immune to macrobe possession, but he didn’t want to test it.

So, he performed all the checks, and once the systems showed green, March activated the hyperdrive and took the Tiger into hyperspace.

The jump took seven minutes, and once the Tiger exited the terminus of its hyperspace tunnel, March found himself past the orbit of the Constantinople system’s first gas giant and its moons.

Constantinople Station floated in the void a quarter of a million kilometers ahead.

The station was huge, seven enormous habitat rings built within a central cylinder. Nearly a million people lived and worked on the station, and thousands of ships stopped there every month. Constantinople IV was one of the seven main worlds of the Kingdom of Calaskar, and one of the first colonies founded by the Calaskaran Crown in the Kingdom’s expansion after the civil war with the Renarchists. The station was centuries old and a hub for interstellar commerce, both within the systems of the Kingdom and with its neighbors. Of course, no major interstellar power permitted foreign spacecraft to approach its inhabited worlds, and Constantinople IV’s ground defenses and the firepower of the Royal Calaskaran Navy let the Kingdom enforce its will in that decision. All interstellar commerce headed for Constantinople IV docked at Constantinople Station, and Calaskaran shuttles carried the goods to the worlds, moons, and stations of the system.

“Incoming transmission, Captain March,” said a female voice over the flight cabin’s speakers. The voice had a cool upper-class Calaskaran accent. “Constantinople Station control is hailing the Tiger.”

“Thank you, Vigil,” said March. The pseudointelligence that controlled many of the Tiger’s systems was far more powerful and sophisticated than the simple pseudointelligence that managed the greeter androids in the sporting goods store. Nevertheless, Vigil was still not a true artificial intelligence and possessed no sapience. Every human experiment with artificial intelligence had ended in disaster, with the AI inevitably descending into homicidal madness. Alien experiments with artificial intelligence had only garnered a little more success.

March had found that out the hard way.

He answered the call and stated his business and transmitted his ID information to the earnest young ensign of the Royal Calaskaran Navy working in traffic control. March supposed the traffic controller officer was just like the young men who had been murdered on Constantinople II. After a few moments, the ensign assigned the Tiger to docking bay 9954 on Ring Six, and March guided to the Tiger to the appropriate spot.

Once he had docked, he set the ship’s systems to standby and directed Vigil to begin diagnostics. After that, he spent some money to purchase supplies and reactor fuel from the station’s vendors. It cost more than he would have liked, especially since he had been forced to leave Constantinople II without a paying cargo, but March had enough financial reserves to weather the cost for now.

Once that was completed, he left the ship and walked through the concourses of Constantinople Station.

The station was old, and it was built in the classic High Calaskaran style, with lots of gleaming metal, the walls themselves adorned with massive screens showing videos about the history of the Kingdom or enormous murals commissioned from the Kingdom’s most prominent artists. Most of the murals showed scenes from the history of Calaskar. One showed the first King leading the colonists from the self-immolation of the Fifth Terran Empire and landing on Calaskar. March was reasonably sure that the first King of Calaskar had not been that muscular or broad-shouldered, but one had to account for artistic license. Others showed victorious Lord Admirals of the Navy’s past, and still another showed the first colonists landing on Constantinople IV. More murals showed religious themes from the Royal Calaskaran Church – Joshua leading the Israelites to the Promised Land (Joshua looked a lot like the first King of Calaskar), or Christ feeding the masses or driving the moneylenders from the temple.

March gazed at the murals as he walked past them. He was cynical enough to see the propaganda value of such artwork, how the murals had been designed to reinforce the message that Calaskar was one nation beneath its King. They praised Calaskar’s history and culture, reminding the people of the lineage and heritage of their traditions.

Yet he had to admit they were beautiful.

And the Final Consciousness produced no art. The Machinists created nothing but blood and death and conquest, leaving ruined worlds filled with labor camps and graveyards in their wake. March supposed that summed up his feelings for his adopted nation. The Kingdom of Calaskar was not without its flaws…but it was far, far better than the inhuman tyranny of the Final Consciousness and the endless cruelty of the Machinists.

A walk of about two kilometers brought March to his favorite restaurant on Constantinople Station. The different restaurants and taverns on the station catered to different groups of people. High-ranking Naval officers and visiting nobles went to their own clubs, and lower-ranking officers did the same. Enlisted men visited taverns where officers only rarely appeared. Freighter crewers and independent starship captains went to their own bars, and March followed suit. He came to a restaurant on the upper level of one of the station’s commercial concourses, five levels of shops and restaurants and equipment workshops spreading away below him. The far wall of the concourse had been painted with an enormous mural showing the history of Calaskar, with Kings and Lord Admirals striding through the centuries while God watched from above. It was a famous mural, and March saw small clusters of tourists standing at the railings of the balconies, taking pictures with the huge painting in the background.

He ignored the mural and took a booth at the restaurant, where he ordered his preferred breakfast meal from a waitress in a tight T-shirt and skirt. A few moments later he ate his breakfast of vat-grown eggs and bacon, accompanied by large quantities of black coffee. March supposed he was close enough to Constantinople IV that he could have ordered real bacon and eggs for merely twice the cost of their vat-grown counterparts, but he had always had a taste for artificially grown meat.

The habits of a lifetime, he supposed.

And much to his surprise, Censor did not call until March had finished his meal and was on his third cup of coffee.

He looked at the display on his phone.

The call had arrived at the Tiger, and Vigil had routed it to March’s phone. The display indicated that the call had arrived with the highest known level of quantum encryption, and its source was unknown. Censor was likely calling from Constantinople IV, though technically he could have been calling from any one of the seven worlds in the Kingdom of Calaskar that possessed tachyon-entanglement relay based communications.

Though given how expensive tachyon relays were to build, likely the head of the Silent Order was calling from Constantinople IV. But that was not important.

March accepted the call and lifted the phone to his ear. “Hello?”

“Hello, Captain March,” came Censor’s dry voice. “You did quite well on Constantinople II. Whitefish spoke most highly of your efforts against Philip Reimer.”

“Thank you, sir,” said March, glancing around the restaurant. Most of the breakfast crowd had died away, and there was no one close enough to overhear him. Given the number of calls that went on in a spaceport, most of the booths in the restaurants had excellent sound dampening anyway.

“However,” said Censor, “the reward for work well done is more work, as the ancient proverb goes. The examination of Reimer’s corpse revealed some mysteries.”

“So soon?” said March. “There couldn’t have been time to examine him properly yet.”

“There wasn’t,” said Censor, “and the scientists are still continuing their work. However, it appears that Mr. Reimer was a new type of Machinist cyborg drone linked to the Final Consciousness. A preliminary analysis shows DNA alterations and cybernetic enhancements that we’ve never seen before.”

“That’s disturbing, sir,” said March, “but not unexpected. The Machinists incorporate new technology into their designs whenever they can steal it.”

“Agreed,” said Censor, “but there are three unexpected and disturbing elements to Reimer. First, it appears that he regularly transformed between a human appearance and the more spider-like form that you fought.”

March frowned. “Then he was a new kind of infiltrator drone? One able to disguise itself and then transform at will?”

“Yes,” said Censor. “That is why Reimer went for so long without getting captured on Constantinople II. Additionally, it seems that Reimer himself had no memory of his transformations or when they happened.”

March’s frown deepened. “Then he was a Machinist drone without even realizing it. Almost like the Wraith devices.”

“That is correct,” said Censor again. “Which leads to the second disturbing element. Several of Reimer’s implants appeared to be in a quantum state, changing configuration based upon their circumstances. Much like the quantum inducers you brought back from Monastery Station.”

March said nothing for a moment.

That was not good.

He had already seen the havoc the Machinists could wreak with a Wraith device and the quantum inducers at their heart. If they had found more technology of the Great Elder Ones and figured out how to use it…

“What was the third disturbing element?” said March at last.

“Whitefish tracked down Reimer’s passport,” said Censor, “and we cross-checked the DNA record with our analysis. The Machinist implants did considerable damage to his genetic structure, but the match is unmistakable. Philip Reimer was a Citizen of the world of Rustaril.”

March let out a long breath. “That is a problem, sir.”

“It is. Rustaril has played at neutrality between the Kingdom of Calaskar and the Final Consciousness for decades. Nevertheless, the natural sympathy of Renarchist politics lends itself to the philosophy of the Machinists.” Censor paused. “If the Rustari are preparing to ally with the Machinists, that would be a grave blow against the Kingdom.”

“It may not be as dire as that, sir,” said March. “Rustaril is…well, it is not a rising power. The last time I was there, it seemed like a civilization entering its final decline.”

“The inevitable consequence of Renarchist policies, I am afraid,” said Censor. “Rustaril will not have improved since your last visit.”

“My point is that the government of Rustaril might not be able to control its own planet any longer,” said March. “If not for the orbital railguns, Rustaril would have fallen to invaders centuries ago. If the Machinists have decided to take Rustaril for themselves, they might have seeded these new drones there.”

“We simply do not have enough information,” said Censor. “Which is why, Captain March, as soon as we finish this conversation you are heading to Rustaril.”

A sinking feeling went through March. He hadn’t enjoyed his first visit to Rustaril, and he doubted he would enjoy the second.

“Am I the right man for this assignment, sir?” said March. “I think I would stand out rather noticeably on Rustaril.”

“Like a sore thumb, to quote the ancient cliché,” said Censor, his voice drier than normal. “Fortunately, we have some advantages. Reimer’s passport says he comes from Rykov City on Rustaril. Rykov City is the chief spaceport on Rustaril, and most of the commercial traffic to and from the planet is routed through there. Additionally, the Silent Order branch chief is one of our more effective Sigma Operatives, and has maintained a strong organization in Rykov City.”

“I don’t think I’ve met him, sir,” said March.

“In this case, her,” said Censor. “The branch chief in Rykov City is a woman named Jacqueline Tolox. As you already know, the native-born population on Rustaril is divided into two social classes – the Citizens and the Administrators. Tolox’s father was framed for crimes he didn’t commit and driven out of his position as an Administrator and committed suicide. Tolox came to us for help, and has been an effective member of our Order ever since.”

“As you say, sir,” said March, though he would form his own opinion of Tolox once he met her.

“Your mission, Captain March,” said Censor, “is to proceed to Rustaril and contact Ms. Tolox in Rykov City. From there, you are to investigate Philip Reimer and discover how he went from an apparently unremarkable Citizen of Rustaril to the Machinist cyborg you fought on Constantinople II. All the necessary data is being downloaded to your ship as we speak. Do you have any questions?”

“If I discover what happened to Reimer,” said March, “how far should I proceed in stopping it?”

“You are an Alpha Operative of the Silent Order,” said Censor. “That would not have happened if we did not have faith in your judgment. Nevertheless, proceed with caution. The Kingdom maintains a policy of neutrality with the Renarchist Republic of Rustaril, a policy that is at least officially answered in turn. Under no circumstances should Rustaril be driven any closer to the Machinists.”

“I understand, sir,” said March. That meant he had to keep whatever he did quiet.

“Good,” said Censor. “I have already sent word to Tolox, and the message should arrive a day or so ahead of you. God go with you, Captain March. Given the nature of our foes, I need not remind you that we must have an answer to the riddle of Philip Reimer.”

“I will find it, sir,” said March.

“I am certain that you shall,” said Censor, and the call ended.

March put away his phone, finished his coffee, and paid his bill.

He had a lot of work to do.

***


Chapter 2: Sundered Cousins




March’s first task was to find a legitimate reason to visit Rustaril as a cover story for his mission.

Fortunately, this was not hard.

Rustaril’s government called itself the Renarchist Republic, and believed itself the embodied of the Renarchist ideal, that modern technology could, at last, achieve the dream of a collectivist society where all were equal, none were inferior, and Rustaril’s own factories and farms (under the benevolent and expert guidance of Rustaril’s government) could provide everything that the population needed.

That was the theory.

In practice, Rustaril imported tremendous quantities of food and other goods. A vast river of cargo flowed constantly towards Rustaril, paid for by the Renarchist Republic’s lucrative protein algae farms on the moons of their solar system’s only gas giant. March had no trouble filling the Tiger’s hold with paying cargo.

Even if he failed his mission, he could at least turn a profit on this trip, though March had no intention of failing his mission.

It took the rest of the day to load the cargo onto the Tiger, and the next morning, March received his clearance to depart from Constantinople Station.

He sat in the pilot’s acceleration chair in the flight cabin as Vigil calculated out the course to Rustaril. In theory, it was possible to open a hyperspace tunnel that would take the Tiger from Constantinople to Rustaril with a single jump. In practice, that was suicidal. Rustaril was thousands of light years away, and if Vigil made a single error, or if March made a mistake, the tiniest flaw in his vector would cause the Tiger to miss Rustaril by thousands of light years. March might find himself stranded somewhere in interstellar space and reckless captains who tried to cut costs by jumping directly to their destination systems sooner or later disappeared without a trace.

No, the wiser course was to leapfrog from solar system to solar system, like a man stepping from stone to stone to cross a stream. (Albeit in three dimensions with the stones separated by unfathomable distances.) March grimaced as Vigil finished her calculations for the hyperjump. It would take seventy-nine hyperjumps to get from Constantinople to Rustaril. Coupled with sublight transit time between the jump points, it would take about five and a half days.

Though perhaps he ought not to complain. Thousands of years ago, the idea of traveling such a vast distance in less than a week would have seemed unimaginable. Now it was commonplace. March supposed that if he tallied up the distances he had traveled in his adult life, it would have taken hundreds of thousands of years to travel at the speed of light.

Once the Tiger entered its first hyperjump, March put aside all such musings and turned his attention to the information Censor had sent about the late Philip Reimer.

The more he knew about the man, the better chance March had of discovering what had happened to him.

March read through the files in the flight cabin as he navigated, in the engine room as he did maintenance, and in the gym as he lifted weights. Some of the files held background information, history he already knew. The world of Rustaril had been founded by exiled Calaskaran dissidents. Centuries ago, a man named Paul Renarch had created a new political philosophy on Calaskar. Renarch argued that the collectivist philosophies of primeval Earth, communism and socialism and all the others, had all failed because humanity had not yet possessed the necessary technological prowess to create a truly classless society. But with modern technology, it was time to cast aside the obsolete structures of the past, abolish the Church and all other religions, abolish the monarchy, abolish private property and money, and use modern science to create the ancient dream of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”

Renarch and his followers tried to win victories in Calaskar’s Congress, but after that failed, they had turned instead to terrorism, triggering Calaskar’s first and largest civil war. After three years of bloody fighting, Renarch was dead and his followers beaten. Throughout the tens of thousands of years of recorded human history, such ideological civil wars almost always resulted in the mass slaughter of the vanquished. Instead, the King had allowed the Renarchists to leave. Their colony ships fled Calaskar, seeking a new world to remake in the Renarchist image.

The Renarchist Republic of Rustaril had been the result.

Once, the Republic had been filled with expansionary zeal, seeking to expand and export the truth of Renarchist philosophy to all human worlds. After a crushing military defeat at the hands of the Ninevehk and two more from the Calaskaran Royal Navy, the Rustari had remained in their home system, focusing on selling algae protein from their ocean farms to sustain their Renarchist utopia. The Rustari military had fallen into disrepair, and they had not seriously threatened anyone for decades.

March tended towards cynicism about all forms of political philosophy, but he had to admit to a special contempt for the Renarchists. Their philosophy reminded him of a weaker, far feebler version of the vision of the Machinists and the Final Consciousness. The Machinists, too, wished to sweep aside the past and forge all of mankind into a single unified state. They were simply better at it.

He skimmed through the background data and turned his attention to the files Censor had found on Philip Reimer.

There was precious little. Reimer had been a full Citizen of Rustaril, which meant the government had provided him a guaranteed income for life. He had been a software developer, the job assigned to him by the government, and he had saved up enough to take up tourism. Of course, Reimer could have quit his job at any time and lived off his guaranteed basic income from the Republic, but evidently, he had possessed enough ambition to keep him at work.

Beyond that, there was little enough information about Reimer. Hopefully, March could learn more from Jacqueline Tolox.

Censor had also included a file about Tolox. Her mother and father had both been Administrators in the Republic but had been framed for the crimes of their supervisors, and her parents had killed themselves in shame. Tolox had reverted to Citizen status, and had both joined the Silent Order and had somehow become one of the richest citizens in Rykov City. Given the labyrinthine laws and regulations that governed commerce on Rustaril, that was an impressive feat. The image attached to the file showed a gaunt-faced woman with a shock of blond hair and hard blue eyes, frown lines deep around her mouth and eyes. The file noted both her intense work ethic and her extreme ruthlessness, remarkable even for a Sigma Operative of the Silent Order.

Hopefully, she would prove useful to March’s mission.

March passed the trip with his usual combination of maintenance, training, and exercise.

On the sixth day, the Tiger exited its hyperspace tunnel and arrived at the Rustaril star system.

March sat in the flight cabin, watching the displays as the Tiger’s sensors updated with information. He kept the ship’s weapons powered down, though he was ready to activate them at a moment’s notice. The solar system had nine planets, and his sensors detected thousands of active ships moving through the system, most of them freighters. The Renarchist Republic’s wealth came from the moons orbiting the first gas giant, Rustaril VII. The moons were covered in oceans, and the Republic made vast profits harvesting crop after crop of protein algae from the waters.

The second planet was Rustaril itself, home to the Renarchist Republic and the Rustari nation itself. March watched as the sensor data scrolled across his displays. Rustaril had nine continents, six of them in habitable zones. The planet’s population was eleven and a half billion people, heavily concentrated in urban areas, unlike Calaskar, which awarded small farms to veterans on completing a tour of duty with the Royal Calaskaran Navy, Army, or Marines. Rustaril’s military had gone into decline, but twelve huge battlestations, each one a metal cylinder twelve kilometers long, orbited the planet. Each battlestation had a railgun capable of firing a massive tungsten slug at a significant percentage of the speed of light. They were not as deadly as the railguns that the Custodian had maintained near Monastery Station, but they were nonetheless powerful weapons and the reason that Rustaril had not fallen to invaders.

March steered the Tiger towards Rustaril Station, which looked like a smaller, slightly more dilapidated version of Constantinople Station. Hundreds of ships moved around the station, and a steady stream of passenger and cargo shuttles departed and docked. One of March’s displays started flashing.

“Incoming transmission from Rustaril Station,” announced Vigil.

“Put it on,” said March.

One of the screens flickered and lit up with a young man’s face. Like most of the Administrators, he looked emaciated, almost underfed, his lips tight with disapproval. A uniformity of appearance was prized among the bureaucrats of the Republic, and March had noted that the Administrators preferred an androgynous appearance – the male Administrators never grew beards, and the female Administrators usually cut their hair short and disdained makeup.

“Calaskaran vessel,” said the Administrator with a sneer. “You have entered the territory of the Renarchist Republic of Rustaril. State your identity and business.”

March had expected some official harassment. Rustaril and Calaskar had not gone to war for a long time, but the neutrality was not a friendly one.

“Captain Jack March of the freighter Tiger,” he said. “I am carrying cargoes to be delivered to Rykov City. Now transmitting identity documents and cargo manifests.”

The Administrator’s sneer intensified. “Do you intend to drop off the cargoes at Rustaril Station for transfer to the surface, or will you be accompanying your cargoes to Rykov City?”

“I’m afraid my contract requires me to oversee delivery,” said March. It wasn’t a lie. He had made sure to take cargoes that required it.

The Administrator let out an aggravated sigh. “Fine. You had best make sure you follow all Rustari laws on Rustaril, Captain March. You Calaskarans are nothing but trouble. We Rustari have an evolved and enlightened society, free of the prejudices and irrational superstitions of the past that plague Calaskar.”

“I assure you that I intend to follow the law scrupulously,” said March.

Which he supposed was mostly true. If he did need to break Rustari law, he certainly didn’t intend to get caught.

“No proselytizing for your Royal Church,” continued the Administrator, “and any criticism of the Renarchist Republic or Renarchist thought is regressive speech, and might bring you to the attention of the Securitate. Additionally, you will not be allowed to bring any weapons to the surface of the planet. Is that understood?”

“Perfectly,” said March. Tolox would be able to help him with that.

“Good.” The Administrator glared at something off-camera for a moment, his hands moving through a holographic interface. “You’re cleared to dock at Bay 13, Ring 2. Your ship will be unloaded at once, and an autocab will take you to the cargo shuttle.”

“Acknowledged,” said March, and the transmission cut off.

He grimaced and rubbed his jaw with his right hand.

Likely the truculent Administrator was one of the more pleasant people he would encounter on Rustaril.

March steered the Tiger towards the docking bay.

He suspected this next part might take a while




###




It had taken only an hour to get the ship loaded at Constantinople Station, but it took the better part of a three and a half days to get the Tiger’s cargo loaded onto the shuttle to the surface.

The first thing March saw when he disembarked was a video from the Information Section of the Renarchist Republic playing on the wall over and over. It explained that thanks to the triumph of modern robotics and Renarchist ideology, mankind had been liberated from the drudgery of common labor, and the unloading systems aboard Rustaril Station were fully automated. Visitors were invited to marvel at the miracle of Rustari technology, and to consider taking the wisdom of Renarchist ideology back to their respective home worlds.

The unloading drones broke down five times over those three and a half days, and every time March had to wait two or three hours for technicians to arrive from station control to cudgel the ancient unloading drones back into life. March had expected to waste an enormous quantity of valuable time on Rustaril Station, and he passed the time as he did in hyperspace, exercising and performing maintenance on the Tiger’s systems. He made sure to explicitly refuse permission for the station’s technicians to do any work whatsoever on the Tiger while he was on Rustaril. Given the level of incompetence and sloth endemic on Rustaril Station, likely some idiot would try to refuel the ship and wind up causing an explosion.

At last, the cargo shuttle was loaded, and March walked through the gloomy corridors of the station to the shuttle’s docking bay, carrying a backpack with a computer and spare clothing. The atmosphere was tense, with long lines standing at each docking bay, and angry freighter crewers shouting at flustered station officials and technicians. None of the station personnel, March noted, were Rustari Citizens or Administrators, but were instead outworlders hired from various mercenary companies. Which didn’t surprise him, since he couldn’t see the Citizens agreeing to work on a space station, and he suspected that the Rustari Administrators became Administrators specifically to avoid doing any real work.

He boarded the passenger deck of the shuttle and took his place amongst several dozen irritated freighter captains and crewers. Fortunately, no one was in the mood to talk. March seated himself and checked the emergency breath mask he had packed. Given the generally low quality of maintenance aboard Rustaril Station, he didn’t want to take a chance with the shuttle losing life support.

Fortunately, after the delay getting the cargo unloaded, the flight from the station to Rustaril and Rykov City’s spaceport proved simple. Three hours and some atmospheric turbulence later, the shuttle landed at Rykov City, and March and the other passengers disembarked.

The concourse outside the shuttle was worn down, the carpet faded. Half the lights in the ceiling were out. Enormous screens covered the walls, each one showing heroic scenes of Rustari Citizens building mighty industries or constructing starships or planting vast fields. The contrast with the shabby-looking spaceport and a half-dozen gaunt Administrators in their gray government uniforms was noticeable. A scarecrow-like Administrator approached March, a thick tablet computer cradled in his left arm, a stylus in his right hand, and a sour expression on his face. March spent twenty minutes answering questions and having his identification documents examined, but since his reason for visiting Rustaril was completely legitimate, the Administrator let him pass, though warning him yet again to follow all local laws and not to proselytize in the name of the Royal Calaskaran Church or any other religion.


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