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

SILENT ORDER: IMAGE HAND

Jonathan Moeller

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Description




The galaxy is at war, and the ancient relics of dead races can unleash catastrophe.

When Jack March finds the crew of a space station killed by mysterious radiation, he soon finds himself on the trail of a deadly superweapon.

And unless he finds the weapon, he will be its next victim...

***


Silent Order: Image Hand

Copyright 2018 by Jonathan Moeller.

Smashwords Edition.

Cover image copyright © Fernando Rodrigues | Dreamstime.com & © Anetlanda | Dreamstime.com & NeoStock RF License : STANDARD | Print & Web | Unlimited Digital Impressions, up to 250,000 Prints neostock-s014-danny-cyberpunk-detective-114 - Original file (3160x5163 pixels)

Ebook edition published June 2018.


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: Ghost Station




Jack March stared at the image of the space station.

On the surface, there was absolutely nothing wrong with Outer Vanguard Station. The station had a cylindrical central core about a kilometer in length, ringed with solar panels and bristling with antennas and sensor arrays on either end. It was a common enough design, and the Kingdom of Calaskar used this design of station as both a communications relay, a scanning installation, and as a resupply point for courier ships. Because of the station’s minimal armament of point-defense lasers, the design was used in systems firmly under the control of the Royal Calaskaran Navy.

The Vanguard system was one such place. Outer Vanguard Station sat in deep space beyond the orbit of the system’s final gas giant, its sensors sweeping space for any dangers and providing a convenient stopping point for courier ships heading out of the system.

Yet March’s instincts screamed that something was wrong.

To all appearances, nothing was amiss. The station’s running lights were on, and its automatic transponder broadcast its identification. The Tiger’s sensors reported that the station’s fusion reactor functioned normally, all systems were online, and there was no sign of battle damage or malfunction. Nor were there any traces of anomalous radiation or meteorite damage.

Everything appeared normal, and Outer Vanguard Station ought to have a crew complement of fifty men.

The Tiger’s sensors detected no life signs aboard the station.

And no one answered March’s requests for communication.

“This is Captain Jack March of the licensed Calaskaran privateer vessel Tiger,” said March again, watching the sensors. “Calling Outer Vanguard Station control. Requesting status update and docking permission, please.”

He sent the transmission and waited.

No one answered.

March’s frown deepened. He could think of any number of reasons the crew would abandon the station – radiation leaks, structural damage, air contamination. There were a billion things that could go wrong in deep space, yet nearly all of those things left signs, and as far as the Tiger’s sensors could tell, there was nothing wrong with the station. For that matter, it looked as if the docking bay held the station’s full collection of shuttles, and none of the escape pods had been launched. If there had been a disaster, the crew would have either launched the shuttles or used the escape pods.

Unless they had all been killed first.

Then again, anything that would kill the crew would have damaged the station.

March checked the sensors again. He was now only ten thousand kilometers from the station, close enough for the Tiger’s scans to show great detail. Yet Outer Vanguard Station still registered as empty of life, but otherwise perfectly functional.

March shook his head and cut the Tiger’s fusion drive, bringing the ship closer with ion thrusters. Once more he sent his greeting to the station, and once more he was answered with silence.

He had no choice but to dock with the station and investigate. Best to take precautions.

“Vigil,” said March. “Keep a continuous scan going, all sensors at maximum power and range. Notify me if we detect any dark energy radiation within ten million kilometers, any weapons emissions, any battle debris, and any life signs other than my own.”

“Acknowledged, Captain March,” replied the cool female voice of the ship’s computer pseudointelligence. “Scanning underway.”

March picked one of the large cargo airlocks near the station’s docking bay. As the Tiger crossed the final kilometers, he rotated the ship, aligning the rear cargo airlock with the station’s airlock. A few moments later he eased the ship into place. A faint clang went through the hull as the Tiger’s docking clamps locked onto the station’s hull. March cast an eye over the sensor displays, but there was no response from the station.

“Right,” said March. He locked the pilot’s console and stood up. “Vigil, maintain the previous scanning parameters. Notify me immediately if anything is detected.”

“Acknowledged.”

March stepped into the dorsal corridor, locked the flight cabin door, and opened the door to the ship’s armory. He equipped himself with his usual kit for boarding a hostile ship. Electronic goggles with low light enhancement went over his eyes and a breath mask on his nose and mouth, the straps digging hard into the back of his head. He slid an earpiece with microphone and camera attachments over his left ear, and synced the earpiece, the mask, and the goggles to his phone, letting them communicate with the Tiger. For weapons, he took a pair of plasma pistols, a plasma assault rifle, several grenades, and spare power packs for his guns. Knives went into the hidden sheaths in the sleeves of his coat. Once he had his equipment and weapons, March did a communications check, making sure he could talk to Vigil.

Then he headed down the dorsal corridor, descended the ladder into the cargo hold, and headed for the stern airlock.

Shipping containers of rare ores filled the Tiger’s hold. It was a cover for his last assignment, a mission to the Antioch system. It also paid quite well and would cover the cost of his trip to the Antioch system and back with an ample profit left over. At the rear of the hold was the cargo ramp, which would open to unload the ship. In the middle of the closed ramp was the airlock March used for docking with space stations and other starships.

He opened the outer door, closed it behind him, and then cycled the inner door.

A wave of disorientation went through March as he shifted from the Tiger’s gravitics to the station’s. The outer door of one of the station’s airlocks stood before him, a sheet of solid metal with a small window in the center. March opened the access panel next to the airlock and examined the controls. The airlock wasn’t locked down. Whatever had happened, it had happened so swiftly that the station’s automated defenses hadn’t activated.

He opened the airlock’s outer door, waited for it to close behind him, opened the inner door, and stepped into a corridor. It looked unremarkable, with a metal grillwork floor and ceiling, polished metal walls, and lights every few meters. Nothing seemed amiss. March waited as his mask scanned the air, and then a message in his goggles’ HUD informed him that it had detected no contaminants or pathogens in the air.

Best to start with the docking control office, March decided. The station wasn’t on alert status, which meant that the computer consoles would not be locked down. From there, he could access several key systems, and perhaps even the log files. That might give him an idea of what had happened here.

March was familiar with the layout of this design of space station, and he started down the corridor, his eyes sweeping the walls and floor for any threat, his ears straining to detect any sounds. He saw no enemies. Nothing but the faint hum of the air handlers came to his ears or the occasional clink of his boots against the deck. At last, he came to the door to the docking control office, which would have a view of the hangar deck.

He hit the door control and brought up his plasma rifle, ready for any surprises. The door hissed open, and March found himself looking into the docking office. Through a window on the other side of the room, he saw the hangar deck. There were four computer consoles against the walls, and at two of them…

March’s finger tightened against the rifle’s trigger, but he remained motionless.

Dead men sat at two of the consoles.

March looked at them, at the ceiling, and then the floor. His mask reported no sign of contaminants or toxins, and he examined at the dead men.

He had seen death in nearly every form and shape, but he could not figure out how they had been killed.

March’s first thought was that they had been burned alive, but that didn’t make sense. The two dead men looked charred and blackened, but their jumpsuits were intact. For that matter, there was no trace of any damage to the docking control office. March took a step into the room and looked at the floor and the ceiling, but saw no smoke damage. Any fire that could have burned two grown men to a blackened crisp would have done a great deal of smoke damage and triggered the emergency fire suppression system.

Had a directed energy weapon done this? March could think of any number of weapons that inflicted burns, from a common maser to more exotic devices, but a weapon like that would have destroyed the men’s jumpsuits. For that matter, a directed energy weapon capable of burning a man to death would have damaged the station itself.

March tapped the twisted, charred hand of a dead man with the end of his plasma rifle. It made a faint crunching noise, and one of the fingers crumbled into dust.

Burned…and mummified?

March had never heard of a weapon that could do that.

He tapped his earpiece to activate its built-in camera and started recording. March made sure to get a good look at both of the dead men, recording the names on the ID cards hanging from lanyards around their crumbling necks. Once that unpleasant task was done, March stood at one of the computer consoles and scrolled through the available menus. The station’s computer hadn’t been locked down, and there were no notification flags or alerts. Neither did he see anything unusual in the lists of scheduled arrivals and departures.

There were limits to the information that March could gather here. He needed to visit the operations center. In one of his pockets, he carried a thumb drive loaded with targeted malware that would breach the station computer’s firewalls and copy the log files and security recordings. March needed access to the operations center to use the drive.

He left the docking office and set off for the operations center at the other end of the station

What followed was one of the most unsettling walks of his life.

The station was perfectly functional, but it had become a tomb.

March passed twenty more corpses on his way to the operations center, all them in the same condition as the dead men sitting at their stations in the docking office. Outer Vanguard Station wasn’t a military installation, but a civilian station operated under the authority of Calaskar’s Ministry of Colonies. The men had all been employees of one of the companies the Ministry contracted to run the space stations.

And now every single one of them had been reduced to twisted black husks.

March couldn’t make sense of it. Weapons that could have done that should also have inflicted massive damage to the station…

He pushed the speculations out of his mind and focused on remaining vigilant.

Five minutes and twelve more corpses later, he came to the station’s operations center. It was a large round room, the walls lined with computer consoles and several more workstations dotted the main floor. A large hologram floated overhead, a master display of the station and its systems. Everything showed green, though there were an increasing number of unanswered automated status queries from the life support and water recycling system.

Nine dead men sat at the computer consoles. All of them had been killed in the same way as the other corpses on the station. March plugged his thumb drive into the engineering console and then made a circuit of the room, making sure to record the ID cards of each of the dead men. By the time he had finished, the malware on the thumb drive was downloading the station’s logs and had unlocked the console, and March began accessing logs and video recordings.

He checked the list of automated queries from the various life support systems. The last one of those queries had been answered about twelve hours ago, which would put the time the crew had been killed between twelve and nine hours ago, depending on the station’s maintenance schedule.

March brought up the security footage from the operations center, set it to twelve hours ago, and fast forwarded through it. It did not take long to find what he sought. Nine hours and forty-five minutes ago, the men in the operations center began screaming in agony. They went rigid, their bodies melting into twisted black husks, and their life signs vanished from the station’s internal sensors.

It only took them about twenty seconds to die. At least it had been quick. He scrolled through the other recordings of the station’s critical areas, and every single crewer had died at the same time.

But March could find no trace of what had killed them.

It made no sense. There were no anomalous energy readings, no radiation surges, no signs of intruders, no equipment malfunctions. Something had turned the men to blackened, charred husks, and it had done so without leaving any trace of itself on the station’s sensors and without triggering the internal alarms.

March frowned and keyed for the external sensor logs, searching for anything anomalous that had happened in the three hours before the death of the station crew.

Nothing significant showed up, but he did see something strange.

A half-hour before the crew had died, a small starship had dropped out of hyperspace about a million kilometers from the station. Outer Vanguard Station had done a sensor focus on the ship, and it was a mid-sized luxury yacht, a shiny, chrome-colored craft that usually ferried around wealthy men and their entourages. Starships like that were common, but for some reason this ship hadn’t been running its identity transponder, which was illegal in Calaskaran space. Faking an identity transponder was easy enough, and March had done it dozens of times.

But it was rare for a ship to fly with the identity transponder switched entirely off.

March scrolled through the logs. The station had hailed the yacht and received no response. The yacht maintained its relative position to the station for thirty minutes, and then without warning, had vanished into hyperspace.

Two minutes later, the station’s crew died.

March looked through the sensor data, checking for any sign of weapons usage from the yacht. There was none. The yacht’s power signature and radiation profile had remained unchanged during those thirty minutes, save for the usual dark energy radiation spike before it retreated into hyperspace. If not for the dead crew, March would have assumed the yacht was carrying a corporate executive or a government official conducting business off the books, and they had stopped at Outer Vanguard Station long enough to update their hyperspace calculations.

Yet the station’s crew was still dead.

Perhaps the yacht had nothing to do with it. Maybe the station’s crew had perished in some unknown stellar phenomenon. Space was huge, and in the thousand centuries since mankind had discovered the hyperdrive and left primeval Earth, they had explored only the tiniest fraction of the galaxy. There were wonders and horrors that no human eye had ever seen.

Perhaps one of those horrors had killed the station.

March didn’t know what to make of it.

And, truth be told, he didn’t have to solve the mystery. All he needed to do was to collect as much data as possible and turn it over to the Royal Calaskaran Navy. They would chew it over and figure out what had happened.

March spent another two hours recording video and downloading the log files, then he returned to the Tiger and resumed his course back to Calaskar. At Alexandria Station, he handed over his data and reported the disaster at Outer Vanguard Station, and spent a day getting interviewed by military investigators. In the end, they thanked him for his report, paid him a small bounty for the information (the Royal Navy preferred the carrot to the stick for ensuring patriotism in its privateers, though they had no trouble reaching for the stick when necessary), and March left.

He went about his business, and he soon put Outer Vanguard Station out of his mind. It had been a horrible thing, yes, but he had seen a lot of horrible things in his life, and he had gotten used to moving on.




###




Two months after the grim discovery at Outer Vanguard Station, March went grocery shopping with his girlfriend.

He had just completed an assignment from Censor, and March did what he now always did between assignments – he returned to Calaskar to visit Dr. Adelaide Taren. Adelaide was a professor of archaeology at the Royal University of Calaskar, moderately famous from her books and videos about the extinct alien races that had once inhabited the interstellar region around Calaskar. She was also a Beta Operative of the Silent Order, exposing Machinist agents in publishing and academic circles, and she hated the Final Consciousness almost as much as March did.

Maybe even more. The Machinists had turned March into an Iron Hand. They had killed Adelaide’s husband and unborn child.

But March was in an unaccustomed good mood, and hatred was the farthest thing from his mind. As far as he could tell, Adelaide was in a good mood as well. She was driving her car as he sat in the passenger seat, the sound system playing a rural Calaskaran song that had a man singing fondly about his farm, his dog, and his girlfriend (in that order). The song had a lot of guitars and drums, and Adelaide sang along as she drove, sometimes drumming her fingers against the steering wheel in time to the beat. March didn’t mind. It drowned out the hum of the car’s electric engine.

As Adelaide drove, March looked out the window and watched the suburb of Keldrex roll by. It was one of the suburbs of Calaskar City itself, the governmental and administrative center of Calaskar, and Adelaide had lived here for years.

It was so different than the place where March had grown up that he sometimes could not process it.

Calaskar had its rich and poor, of course, with a class divide as wide as a solar system, and some lived in mansions while many more lived in small houses and apartments. Yet nowhere on the planet was the horrid, crushing poverty that had marked the Machinist labor camps on Calixtus. No one starved to death here, or died of malnutrition, or of diseases that could be cured with modern medical technology. The Ministry of Security and the Ministry of Information kept a watchful eye on the population, especially after the spike of Machinist-related terror incidents over the last twenty years, but there wasn’t anything like the pervasive surveillance of a dictatorship like Oradrea or the religious police of a Kezredite sultanate. Speaking of religion, the Calaskarans were devoted to the Royal Church in a way that a world like Mercator would find quaint and a world like Oradrea would find baffling. Criticizing the King in public was illegal, which hardly mattered since anyone criticizing the King in public would get beaten to a pulp and dumped on the steps of the nearest constabulary station. (Criticizing the Prime Minister and his or her government, however, seemed to be a national pastime.)

March supposed that summed up the society of his adoptive homeworld. Formal, strict, conformist, parochial and self-satisfied, yes – but no one went hungry, there weren’t the crippling social problems of a government like the Renarchist Republic, and neither was there the iron brutality of a dictator like President Paul Murdan of Oradrea.

And Calaskar had resisted the Final Consciousness for two centuries, longer than any other human government had done. That mattered to March more than anything else, which was why he was an Alpha Operative of the Silent Order.

This was his adoptive home, but he would always be an outsider here. Perhaps not a pariah, but always an outsider. But that was all right. March would always be an outsider no matter where he went, and an outsider could sometimes defend a place in a way that a native could not.

He looked at Adelaide as she sang, the reddish light of Calaskar’s sun glinting off her sunglasses.

Even though Adelaide was a native of Calaskar, she was also an outsider, because Calaskaran society encouraged motherhood. Every church had its Mothers’ Association. Stores offered discounts for mothers based on the number of children they had. The Queen gave a monthly Address To Mothers. A Calaskaran man could only vote after he had completed his mandatory six-year term of military service, and a Calaskaran woman could only vote after having two or more children.

Adelaide would never have children, not after the injuries she had sustained the Machinist bombing that had killed her husband and unborn child. Still, she had carved out her own niche, the professor and the writer and the popular historian. And she was a Beta Operative of the Silent Order, exposing and ruining Machinist collaborators.

Because if the Final Consciousness was not stopped, it would enslave and ruin Calaskar as it had enslaved and ruined Calixtus and countless other worlds.

The song ended, and Adelaide looked at him.

“What are you thinking?” she said with a smile. “I can hear you thinking, you know.”

Sometimes it seemed like she could. Certainly, she had a knack for guessing when his mood was starting to darken.

“Societies,” said March.

“Now that’s a depressing topic,” said Adelaide. “People are fine on our own, but put us together and we do some nasty things.”

“There’s a concise history of humanity,” said March.

Adelaide laughed. “It can be the title of my next book.” She glanced at him again, and then looked back at the road. “Seriously, are you okay? If something is bothering you, you can talk to me about it.”

“No, nothing is bothering me,” said March. “If anything, I was thinking about how proud I was of you.”

Her smile was incredulous. “Really, now.”

“How you’ve made your own life despite adversity,” said March.

She laughed. “Jack March. You really know what to say to a girl.”

They pulled into the parking lot of the grocery store and got out of the car. March blinked in the reddish light of Calaskar’s sun, and Adelaide pushed her sunglasses onto her forehead. One of the many unwritten rules of Calaskaran society was that it was unacceptable to go out in public while looking slovenly, so Adelaide was wearing a short-sleeved blue dress with a black belt, her sandals a concession to comfort. March was wearing black trousers, a white shirt, a black jacket, and a black vest.

He refused to wear a tie unless absolutely necessary since it gave any attackers an obvious handle on his neck. Fortunately, the coat was loose enough that he had no trouble concealing a kinetic firearm in a shoulder holster, and Adelaide had a similar weapon in her purse.

That was another unwritten rule of Calaskaran society. Everyone went armed, a trend that had only increased with the frequency of Machinist terror attacks. And unlike other aspects of Calaskaran society, March was perfectly at ease with that. He hated to go anywhere unarmed.

Though his cybernetic left arm meant that he always had a deadly weapon with him.

They walked through the grocery store’s automatic doors, and the blast of the air conditioning was a welcome change from the heat of the Calaskaran summer. Rows of shopping carts stood on one side, and aisles ran the length of the store. Holographic signs near the doors proclaimed that the store was proud to use food grown and produced only on Calaskar itself (though a small asterisk indicated that some food items were prepared on facilities orbiting Calaskar). A blue plastic courtesy android shuffled forward.

“Good morning, honored sir, honored madam,” said the android said in a polite female voice. “Welcome to the North Corner Grocery Emporium. May I relate today’s specials and sales?”

“Sure,” said Adelaide. March waited as the android recited the store’s sales for the day. Calaskarans loved courtesy androids, though March found them tedious. Still, given how Calaskaran society emphasized courtesy in general, he supposed there were less efficient ways to go about it. The android finished listing the sales. Adelaide thanked it, and she plucked up a basket as March followed her into the store.

“You’d get better prices at the warehouse center,” said March.

“True, but I buy all my emergency supplies at the warehouse center,” said Adelaide, taking a jar of sauce from the shelf and putting it in her basket. “Those are all stocked up. Besides, a friend of my father owns this place, and…”

She fell silent as they turned the corner.

A heavyset man pushing a cart walked towards them, scowling at a list on his phone. He was wearing a suit that looked just slightly rumpled, and he had the thick fingers of a man who did a lot of work with his hands. March’s eyes noted the traces of grease under the fingernails, the calluses and the thick knuckles of the hands, the well-worn wedding ring, the ruddiness of face that meant he probably should lose some weight.

March had never seen this man before, but he recognized him at once.

Adelaide paused, glanced at March, took a deep breath, and then smiled. “William?”

William Renton, Adelaide’s eldest brother, looked up from his phone and smiled. “Adie?”

“I didn’t know you were in Keldrex today,” said Adelaide, and she gave him a hug.

“Well, Julie wants some of the local wine,” said William. Julie was his wife, March knew. “None of the stores out in Vanderine have it, so I made a quick trip to the big city. Had to stock up on some stuff for the shop anyway. I didn’t expect to see you here. I thought you were still on Calaskar Station shooting that documentary or whatever.”

“That wrapped up two days ago,” said Adelaide.

“Well, that’s good to hear,” said William in the tone of a man who wasn’t quite sure that Adelaide’s job qualified as actual work, but didn’t want to start a fight. He glanced at March. “I don’t think I’ve met your friend.”

“Jack March,” said March, holding out his right hand. William shook it and tried to bear down on the fingers. He was strong, but March was stronger, and he squeezed right back. “Good to meet you.”

“Likewise,” said William. “You’re a friend of Adie’s from the University?”

March shook his head. “I’m a privateer captain.”

Adelaide took another deep breath. “And…we’ve been seeing each other for a while now, William.”

William’s eyebrows climbed halfway up to his receding hairline.

Ah. Adelaide had four brothers, one sister, a small army of nieces and nephews, and her mother was still alive, but March had not yet met any of them. It was only logical that she hadn’t yet told any of them about March.

“Seeing each other?” said William. “As in…”

“Yes,” said Adelaide.

William blinked a few times. “How on earth did you meet a privateer captain?”

“You remember that trip I took out to Xenostas about a year and a half ago?” said Adelaide.

“Oh, yeah,” said William. “That video you made about those old alien ruins. The kids had to watch it in school.”

Adelaide nodded. “We had some problems on the way back that didn’t make it into the video. Jack helped us out, and, well…we hit it off.”

An accurate enough summary, though it overlooked quite a lot.

“Adie, that’s been almost eighteen months,” said William. “Weren’t you going to tell us?”

Adelaide blinked at her brother, and March saw something that he had never seen before.

Adelaide Taren, Professor of the Royal University of Calaskar and Beta Operative of the Silent Order, didn’t know what to say next. She liked to talk, could talk for hours on end without stopping, and he had never seen her uncertain of how to answer a question, even questions to which she actually didn't know the answer.

“She didn’t tell anyone, Mr. Renton,” said March, “because I only make it to Calaskar for one week out of every two or three. No sense in telling anyone if it didn’t work out.”

Adelaide gave him a look of mingled gratitude and embarrassment.

“You do a lot of interstellar shipping, then?” said William.

“Mostly contracts for the government,” said March. Which, again, was technically true. “It keeps me busy.” He sorted through the information he had memorized about Adelaide’s family. “Probably not as busy as running the only autocab and tractor repair business in Vanderine, though.”

William laughed. “There’s God’s own truth, Mr. March. Trust me, if the privateering business ever dries up, go into engine repair. You’ll never run out of work.”

“And I suppose the duties of a Civil Defense Warden keep you busy as well,” said March.

William’s smile turned puzzled. “How did you know that? You’re not a spy, are you?”

He was, but there wasn’t any need for William to know that. In fact, it would be safer for William and his family not to know.

“You’re wearing the lapel pin of a Civil Defense Warden,” said March. “Hard to miss.”

William blinked, glanced down at the red pin on the lapel of his coat, and laughed. “So I am. I had forgotten.” He glanced at March’s gloved left hand, and March could tell that the older man was itching to ask about it. But for once the Calaskaran emphasis on courtesy worked to March’s advantage. “Will you be on Calaskar for long?”

“Another three or four days. I should have another cargo contract ready by then,” said March. Or Censor would have chosen March’s next assignment. “If you’re in Civil Defense, you know how slowly the government moves.”

“Ha! Yeah, I do,” said William. “Whenever we do repair work for the government, it takes a stack of paperwork as tall as…well, tall as you to get paid on time.” He paused. “Why don’t you and Adelaide come over for dinner sometime? Julie…ah, that’s my wife…she makes a mean roast.”

“That sounds pleasant,” said March. He glanced at Adelaide. “If Adelaide doesn’t object.”

“Of course,” said Adelaide. He was surprised at how flustered she looked. Hardly anything affected her poise, but her brother apparently was one of those things.

“But it’ll have to be the next time you’re on the planet,” said William. “I’m supervising the shop the next four nights. Big order of tractors to repair, and I need to make sure it’s done right.”

“Well,” said March, and he shook hands with William again. “I’ll look forward to it.”

William hugged Adelaide goodbye and went to pay for his groceries. March followed Adelaide through the store as she filled up her basket in silence, and they paid for the food. A few moments later they climbed back into the car.

March waited as Adelaide fiddled with her keys.

“Okay,” she said. “Okay. You’re probably wondering why I’m acting strange.”

“It had crossed my mind,” said March.

She took a deep breath and looked at him. “I haven’t told anyone about you. About us, I mean. Not anyone in my family, and none of my friends at the university. A few of them have figured out that I’m seeing someone. My mother has, definitely. But I haven’t told anyone about you.”

March nodded. “Okay.”

Adelaide frowned. “And…you’re not upset?”

“No.” March paused. “Should I be?”

“Then you don’t think that I’m embarrassed or ashamed or something?”

March took a moment to parse that sentence. “No. Do you think that?”

Adelaide let out a breath. “God, no. Jack, I love you. But…we’re in a dangerous business. The Final Consciousness loves to target the families of their enemies. My sister Sydney just had her first baby. I’ve got five siblings, and they all have children, and the Final Consciousness could go after any of them. The Machinists want you dead more than they want me dead, and if some clever Machinist operative figures out that we’re together…”

March nodded. He had seen the Machinists employ such tactics many, many times.

“And…it’s been fifteen years since my husband died,” said Adelaide. “No. Sixteen. Almost seventeen now. I’ve been single that entire time. Officially single, anyway. So…I don’t know how to stop doing that. How to walk up to my family and tell them that I’ve been seeing you.”

“Suppose the cat is out of the bag now,” said March. “William seems like a gossip.”

“I’m afraid he is,” said Adelaide. “The entire family is going to know by lunchtime tomorrow.” She sighed again. “I’m sorry, Jack. I don’t think I handled that well.”

March shrugged. “It’s all right. I imagine it would be difficult to tell your family that you’ve been seeing a privateer who used to be an Iron Hand.”

“None of them know I’m in the Silent Order,” said Adelaide. “My mother suspects I do some work for the Ministry of Defense, but that’s it. They think Duncan’s death was an accident, and they don’t know the truth. I’m afraid I’m the eccentric one of the family.” She smiled. “You handled meeting my brother well, though.”

“I already know all about your siblings,” said March.

Adelaide blinked. “You do? It…” She blinked several more times. “You didn’t look up the Order records on them, did you?”

“No, that would have been inappropriate,” said March. “But obviously your family is important to you. You have pictures of them everywhere in your house. Based on the pictures, you have five siblings and ten nephews and nieces. Eleven, now that Sydney had her baby. You told me that your father ran an autocab repair shop in Vanderine, so I looked up Renton Engine Repair on the planetary network. The staff biography page had William’s information, and I looked up his social media profile. From that, it was easy to put names and faces to the rest of your family. William shares far too much personal information on social media. It is obvious he’s never had any classified materials training.”

Adelaide stared at him without expression. March wondered if he had made a mistake or broken one of the unwritten rules of Calaskaran society.

“You researched and profiled my family,” she said.

“I did,” said March, not looking away. “Like I said, they’re obviously important to you, and I knew I would meet them eventually. I wanted to make a good first impression, and so I found out as much as I could while using legal information channels.” He paused. “I’m sorry if that stepped over a boundary.”

To his surprise, Adelaide laughed and then beat her forehead gently against the steering wheel.

“Are you all right?” said March.

“Yes,” said Adelaide. “Surprised, but I shouldn’t be. You always do everything systematically, Jack. Like this. You knew you would meet my family someday. I was kicking the can down the road, and you were getting ready for it.”

“It’s best to be prepared for as many contingencies as possible,” said March. He had learned that the hard way on multiple occasions.

“You know what? I’m overreacting,” said Adelaide with a smile. She started the car, and the motor whirred to life, the dashboard lighting up. “I’ve had an unconventional life. A Calaskaran woman my age is usually married with two or three children by now, but not me. So why should my family be surprised if I have an unconventional boyfriend?”

“I certainly see no reason why not,” said March.

“And we should enjoy our day together,” said Adelaide.

“I see no reason why we shouldn’t do that, either,” said March.




###




Later that night March lay in Adelaide’s bed, staring at the darkened ceiling and listening to her gentle breathing next to him.

They had spent the day in Calaskar City proper, and Adelaide had shown the various sights to him – the Royal Palace, the cathedrals, the offices of the various ministries, the monuments and memorials from Calaskar’s two thousand years of history. Then they had come back to her house to watch a movie.

Instead, they had started kissing and ended up in bed together.

There was an old joke in the Royal Calaskaran Navy, how after a shore leave the wives of the enlisted men needed to buy new mattresses because the old ones had gotten worn out from overuse. That seemed to apply to March’s relationship with Adelaide. More often than not, that was the first thing they did when he arrived on Calaskar, possibly because Adelaide knew she might lose him on one of his missions, that he might be killed and would never return.

Maybe she had it backward, March mused. Maybe he would lose her.

The harsh fact was that she had a life on Calaskar, and he didn’t fit very well into that life. Adelaide hated the Final Consciousness enough that she didn’t mind his duty, didn’t mind that he left for weeks at a time carrying out the work of the Silent Order. Yet it was a strain on her. And until this morning, he hadn’t realized how much of a strain it had been on her not to talk about him with her family. She already concealed her work as a Beta Operative from them.

How long could she conceal him from them? That her family was important to her was as obvious as the sun in the sky.

More to the point, how long could March keep doing this?

He gazed at her sleeping face, her features more relaxed than they ever were while she was awake.

Nearly twelve years now he had been an Alpha Operative for the Silent Order, and while that wasn’t the record, it was getting close. Most Alpha Operatives tended to get killed in the first three years of their service. Those who survived usually moved to different jobs after five or six years, or carved out specialized niches for themselves the way that John November had done. March had stayed as an Alpha Operative for so long because he was good at it. He wanted to inflict as much damage and pain on the Final Consciousness as possible.

That had been the entirety of his life, and all that he ever did or thought about.

He looked at Adelaide, at the black hair pooled around her head on the pillow.

Now there was someone else in his life.

Maybe it was time to think about switching to another job.

Not that the Silent Order would have any shortage of work for him to do. Once you were in the Silent Order, you were in the Order for life, and the Order would always have jobs for you. Even if March sold the Tiger tomorrow, moved into Adelaide’s house the day after that, and never left Calaskar again, the Order still would have work for him. Given the constant Machinist efforts at subversion on Calaskar, there was an equally constant need for counterintelligence operatives. If March asked Censor for permission to step back from the role of an Alpha Operative tomorrow, most likely Censor would set him up with an official job in the Ministry of Defense or the Ministry of Security, and then send him quiet tasks that needed to be done every few weeks. March had seen the same thing play out with other Alpha Operatives before.

Was that what he wanted to do?

He didn’t know.

March’s life had never included anything like his relationship with Adelaide. Not in the labor camps of Calixtus, not in his time as an Iron Hand, and not during his years as an Alpha Operative. Some of it was that March had never actually thought he would live this long, that he would have met a violent death years ago.

But could he stop? Was there room for something in his life other than an endless war against the Final Consciousness? A foe that he would never defeat on his own and that would likely not be defeated in his lifetime?

March didn’t know.

But as he looked at Adelaide’s sleeping face, he thought that the time to stop might be soon.

A flicker of light on the nightstand caught his eye.

He turned his head and saw that his phone’s screen had lit up.

Censor, the head of the Silent Order, had just sent him a message.

March stood in silence, the carpet soft beneath his bare feet. He picked up his phone, and since he wasn’t wearing anything, he grabbed a pair of shorts from where he had left them on the floor. March crossed the room and slipped into the upstairs hallway, pleased that he had managed to do so without waking Adelaide.

He pulled on the shorts and walked down the hallway, the photographs of Adelaide’s family watching him from behind glass. Adelaide’s loft had a table, several shelves holding paper books, and numerous comfortable chairs. March dropped into one of the chairs and looked at the message on his phone.

Censor wanted him to call immediately.

March took a deep breath, hit the call button, and lifted the phone to his ear.

“Hello, Captain March,” came the dry voice of the head of the Silent Order.

“Sir,” said March

“I am aware it is four in the morning at your present location,” said Censor, “but it seems you have stumbled into a potentially serious situation. Do you remember your recent visit to Outer Vanguard Station?”

It was a reflection of how many terrible things March had seen that it took him a second to recall the space station filled with withered corpses.

“I do, sir,” said March. “They’ve figured out how those men were killed?”

“We have a theory, a potentially disturbing one,” said Censor. “At first, we thought the crew of Outer Vanguard Station had been killed by an unknown form of radiation that overwhelmed the station’s shielding.”

“But the station’s radiation shielding was still intact, sir,” said March.

“You see the problem with that theory,” said Censor. “The investigations made little headway, and we were going to chalk the deaths up to unknown causes and leave it at that. However, additional information has recently come to light, some of it only just yesterday.”

“What information is that, sir?” said March.

“Deaths like this have happened before.”

“I see,” said March.

“The first case was three months ago in an uninhabited system on the edges of the Falcon Republic’s territory,” said Censor. “The crew of a freighter was found in the same state as the men of Outer Vanguard Station, with their ship completely intact. The second case was six weeks ago, with the crew of a comet ice harvesting ship in the Raetia system. The final incident happened three days ago on the planet of Raetia itself, in Northgate City. The employees of a small accounting firm were found dead, their corpses in exactly the same condition as those aboard the station, the freighter, and the ice harvester.”

March frowned. “An unknown form of cosmic radiation might have caused the deaths on the station and those two ships…but it shouldn’t have affected a habitable planet like Raetia. Or if it did, the death toll would have been in the billions.” His frown deepened as he thought it over. “And you wouldn’t be calling me unless a common link had been found between those deaths.”

“Correct, Captain March,” said Censor. “Have you ever heard of a man named Roger Slovell?”

March blinked. He hadn’t expected that. “The video producer?”

“What do you know of him?” said Censor.

March dug into his memory. “He…was a film producer here on Calaskar. Made dramas, that kind of thing. He was always pushing up against the boundaries of what the Ministry of Information censors would allow, and he wanted to include more explicitly sexual content in his videos. Slovell claimed that Calaskaran culture and society stifled artistic freedom, that he was a champion of free speech.” March snorted. “Then it turned out that he had been systematically drugging, molesting, and assaulting his actresses for years, some of whom were underage. The Ministry of Security arrested most of his production company, but Slovell got off-planet before they caught him. He took asylum with the Falcon Republic since the Falcons wanted to annoy the Calaskaran government. Since then Slovell has alternated between presenting himself as a martyr for artistic integrity and producing anti-Calaskaran propaganda.”

“Correct,” said Censor. “He has also become a Machinist agent, and regularly produces pro-Machinist propaganda films, probably because of his personal vendetta against Calaskar. We would like to take him into custody, but he’s under the personal protection of the Falcon Republic.”

“What does someone like Slovell have to do with these deaths?” said March.

“Do you recall the yacht that showed up in Outer Vanguard Station’s sensor logs moments before the deaths?” said Censor.

March had to think back. “Yes, sir.”

“As it happens, the same yacht showed up on the sensor records of both the freighter and the ice harvester,” said Censors. “In both cases, the yacht wasn’t broadcasting its transponder ID, but analysis of the visual records and radiation profile of the yacht prove that it was the same starship.”

“And the yacht is owned by Roger Slovell,” said March.

“Precisely,” said Censor. “As for the accounting firm on Raetia, they were conducting an audit of some of Slovell’s companies.”

“How does a yacht with minimal weaponry kill the crew of a space station?” said March.

“We know how it was done,” said Censor, “but we do not know how Slovell accomplished it, or why. Basically, the crews of the station and those two starships were killed by a focused burst of dark energy radiation.”

March blinked. That didn’t make any sense.

“But the sensors didn’t detect any dark energy radiation,” said March.

“That is because they were not configured to do so,” said Censor. “You see, there is something of a popular misconception about dark energy radiation. Do you recall the battle at Vesper’s World?”

“Yes,” said March. Vividly, in fact.

“And you remember that your ship was unable to detect the dark energy radiation signatures of the Wasp starships until Dr. Taren reconfigured the sensors?”

“That’s right,” said March, remembering.

“The Wasps’ hyperdrive technology employs a different band of dark energy radiation than ours,” said Censor. “Nearly all known human and alien hyperdrives employ what the physicists call alpha-band dark energy radiation, but apparently there are several hundred different bands of dark energy radiation. Most of them are incredibly rare, and nearly all of them are incapable of existing in this universe. Our researchers believe that the men aboard Outer Vanguard Station, those two starships, and that accounting office on Raetia were killed by triple-theta band dark energy radiation. Triple-theta dark energy radiation instantly kills any organic material it touches and causes that desiccation effect you observed.”

March frowned. “I thought anything below gamma-band dark energy radiation couldn’t exist in this universe.”

“That is what the scientists say,” said Censor. “Nevertheless, those men are still dead…and a thorough analysis of the station’s sensor logs turned up trace amounts of triple-theta dark energy radiation. You can see why we are concerned, Captain March. A Machinist sympathizer is connected to a string of mysterious deaths involving dark energy radiation…and thanks to your previous missions, we now know that the hive mind of the Final Consciousness is derived from the technology of the Great Elder Ones, a race that regularly used dark energy at a level we cannot replicate or even comprehend.”

March’s frown deepened. “You think this could be the Pulse weapon we’ve been hearing about for the last few years, sir?”

“We do not know,” said Censor. “Which brings us to your mission, Captain March. You will escort one of the Order’s experts in dark energy radiation to Raetia, the capital world of the Falcon Republic. Once you reach Raetia, you will go to Northgate City and investigate Slovell’s activities and uncover his link to these deaths. Locate the means used to kill the men of Outer Vanguard Station, and if it is within your power, shut it down or capture it.”

March let out a long breath. “Getting to Raetia will be tricky. The Falcon Republic doesn’t permit Calaskaran privateers within their space. I will have to leave the Tiger at Alexandria Station and take a starliner the rest of the way.”

“Yes,” said Censor. “We have appropriate documentation and cover identities prepared for you and the dark energy expert.”

March grimaced. He didn’t like that. Starliners were well and good, but there was a degree of safety and freedom of action in bringing his own ship. But there was no way around it. The Falcon Republic permitted starliners and normal freighter traffic in their space, but there was no way they would allow a Calaskaran privateering ship into their territory, and certainly not anywhere near their capital planet. For that matter, the Falcon Republic had the firepower to back up its wishes.

Another thought occurred to him.

“The dark energy expert,” said March. “Who is he?”

“You’ve worked with her before,” said Censor. “Dr. Cassandra Yerzhov, formerly of the University of Oradrea, now part of the Royal University of Calaskar, a Beta Operative of our order, and one of the chief members of the Exorcism Project.”

March let out a long breath. He knew Dr. Yerzhov quite well. Escaping from mortal danger multiple times was an excellent way to get to know who someone really was.

“I don’t think Dr. Yerzhov is a good choice for this mission, sir,” said March.

“May I ask why not?”

“I have the highest respect for her,” said March, “but she’s not a field operative. She doesn’t have the training or the skills for this kind of mission. Raetia is an extremely dangerous place for the unprepared. For that matter, as part of the Exorcism Project, she knows a tremendous amount of highly sensitive classified information. If she’s captured, it could be disastrous.”

“I agree,” said Censor. “Which is why we are sending you with her to keep her safe, Captain March. The unfortunate truth is that we do not have many dark energy experts we can trust with an operation of this delicacy. And if the Machinists are indeed working on a weapon employing dark energy radiation, we must know more as soon as possible. Dr. Yerzhov will accompany you to Raetia with the newest version of her Eclipse detection device.”

“I thought the Eclipse was designed as a quantum entanglement detector,” said March.

“Dr. Yerzhov and the other researchers at the Exorcism Project have considerably improved the device’s capabilities,” said Censor. “Dark energy radiation detection, as you know, is difficult within a planetary gravity well. The Eclipse shall help overcome that difficulty. Dr. Yerzhov will await you at the Tilehouse Bar on Alexandria Station in two days. She will have your necessary documents and tickets, and from there you will take a berth on a starliner to Raetia. Return when you have a better knowledge of Slovell’s activities, but do not remain on Raetia for more than three weeks.”

“Who is the head of the Silent Order branch in Raetia?” said March. “I will need to coordinate.”

“Her name is Elizabeth Winter,” said Censor, “and she is a lawyer specializing in intellectual property law.” March grimaced at that. “She is also the Sigma Operative in charge of our branch in Northgate City on Raetia, and the one who brought the murder of the accounting firm to our attention.”

“I’m surprised Falcon Intelligence hasn’t shut her down,” said March.

“Falcon Intelligence knows all about her,” said Censor. “We have an…arrangement with the intelligence sections of the Falcon military. In certain areas, we let each other go about our business quietly, and in others, we cooperate. Preventing Machinist subversion and propaganda is an area of mutual concern. The Falcon military holds the Final Consciousness in disdain for a variety of reasons, but the regular population of Raetia is quite sympathetic to Machinist propaganda. Slovell’s activities have put him under the eye of Falcon Intelligence before.”

“So one faction of the Falcon government thinks it’s useful to employ Slovell as a weapon against the Kingdom of Calaskar,” said March, “and another thinks that he might be a problem and wants him gone?”

“An admirable summary of the situation,” said Censor. “Do you have any questions?”

March had several. This assignment sounded like it was going to be a complicated one, and the complicated ones were always bad.

“Should Slovell be killed?” said March.

There was a pause.

“Only if necessary,” said Censor, “only if irrefutable proof of his guilt is found, and only if it can be done in a way that cannot be traced back to us. Having a Calaskaran agent assassinate someone under the protection of the Falcon Republic might cause another war.”

“Yes, sir,” said March. “I’ll get it done.”

“Good, Captain March,” said Censor. “I look forward to hearing your report in another three weeks.”

The call ended.

March gazed at his phone for a moment, then sighed and set it on the arm of the chair.

He knew in his bones that this assignment was going to be a bad one.

For one, he wouldn’t have access to the Tiger, which would impose all kinds of limitations. For another, while Cassandra Yerzhov was a genius in her field, she wasn’t a field operative, and March did not think Censor should have sent her on this mission. Especially given how dangerous a place like Raetia was for the unprepared. For that matter, Roger Slovell would be a celebrity on Raetia. Getting close to him would be difficult.

March sighed and rubbed his face with his right hand, the metal fingers of his left drumming on the arm of the chair.

He thought of the withered corpses on Outer Vanguard Station.

Was this at last a clue to the Pulse?

Ever since that ill-fated mission to Rustbelt Station to rescue Roanna Vindex, March had heard rumors of the Pulse. The Machinist agent Simon Lorre had been convinced the Pulse would destroy Calaskar, and Mr. Odin had hinted on Burnchain Station that the fall of Calaskar would come soon.

March had to know. He had to find out.

But as he looked around Adelaide’s loft, he realized how much he didn’t want to go.

He heard a soft footstep in the hallway and turned his head. Adelaide came into sight, wearing one of his shirts, as she often did. He didn’t mind. The shirt hung to the middle of her thighs, offering an excellent view of her slim legs. Her black hair was still tousled from sleep and the lovemaking that had proceeded it, and she gazed down at him.

“I’m sorry if I woke you,” said March.

“That was Censor, wasn’t it?” said Adelaide. “You only use that tone of voice when you talk to him.”

“Yeah,” said March. “Mission. I’m going to be gone a month, maybe longer.” He looked up at her. “I’m sorry.”

Adelaide sighed, then stepped closer to the chair, climbed over the arm, and settled herself on his lap. Her arms coiled around his neck, and she rested her head against his chest for a moment.

“Will you hurt them?” she said.

“Yes,” said March. “If I can.”

His eyes strayed to her right thigh, to the old scar there, left from the day her husband and unborn child had been murdered.

“Good,” she murmured. She lifted her face and gazed at him. “I don’t want you to go…but don’t feel guilty on my account. I want you to hurt them, Jack. I want you to stop them from ripping apart other people like the way they ripped us apart.”

She understood, and she understood in a way that no other woman ever would. Professor Adelaide Taren was a minor public figure on Calaskar. She had written dozens of books and appeared in dozens of documentaries about the history of Calaskar and the long-extinct alien races that had once inhabited this region of the galaxy, and she was rich, successful, and respected (even if her colleagues at the University didn’t like her all that much). But she had wanted to be Mrs. Adelaide Taren, wife of Duncan Taren and the mother of his children, to go quietly about her life as all her siblings did.

The Machinists had taken that from her and forced her to become someone else. Just as they had taken March’s left arm and forced him to become an Iron Hand.

“This mission,” said March.

Adelaide nodded, waiting. The skin of her legs felt very warm against his.

“You know I can’t talk about it,” said March. “But I don’t like it. Feels like it’s going to be a mess. Too many things can go wrong.”

“You’ll win,” said Adelaide. “You’ll win and come back to me. That’s what you do.”

“Yes,” said March.

If he could.

“When do you have to leave?” said Adelaide.

“Soon,” said March. “I should probably book a seat on the next shuttle to Calaskar Station.”

“Okay.” Adelaide shifted position, straddling him, and then pulled off the shirt and dropped it to the floor. She wasn’t wearing anything else. “I’ll drive you to the spaceport.”

March raised an eyebrow. “Dressed like that?”

She grinned at him. “After we say goodbye first. Properly.”

***


Chapter 2: Scientific Impossibilities




Two days later March walked through one of the main commercial concourses on Alexandria Station, his luggage rolling behind him.

After docking the Tiger at one of Alexandria Station’s outer landing platforms and paying the fee to leave the ship stored there for a month, March had changed out of his customary jumpsuit to clothes more suitable for travel aboard a civilian starliner – boots, trousers, a white shirt, a vest, and black Calaskaran coat. He probably should have worn a tie, but wearing such an easy handle around his neck made his combat instincts scream in protest. The usual black glove and bracer concealed the dull gray metal of his cybernetic left arm. After he had changed clothes, he had packed garments suitable for visiting Raetia into an automated wheel suitcase and set off for the Tilehouse, the suitcase synced to his phone and rolling after him.


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