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Excerpt for False Flag by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

FALSE FLAG

Jonathan Moeller

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Description




The galaxy is at war, but wars are won and lost in the shadows.

When a terrorist bombing strikes the world of Calaskar, Jack March must work with another operative to track down the perpetrators.

Because if he can't find the enemy, he might be their next target...


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False Flag

Copyright 2018 by Jonathan Moeller.

Smashwords Edition.

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

Gunrunner Font used by license from Daniel Zadorozny.

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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Author's Note




This short story takes place shortly before the events depicted in SILENT ORDER: IMAGE HAND.

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False Flag




Adelaide Taren hung from the metal bar, sweat pouring down her face and soaking into her tank top.

“Nine,” she rasped, forcing her arms and shoulders through another pull-up. “Ten. Eleven.” Her arms felt like they were on fire, but she made them contract again. “Twelve.” She dropped down with more force than she would have liked, her breath coming hard and fast, her heart hammering in her chest.

Thirteen? Could she manage thirteen?

No, she decided not to push it, not with the tenseness in her shoulders and the muscles of her upper arms. Given that she needed to concentrate for most of the rest of the day, a pulled shoulder muscle would be an irritating distraction. A girl had to know her limitations.

Taren dropped to the floor with a grunt, her shoes rasping against the thick rubber mat. She had converted the basement of her house into a gym, with free weights, kettlebells, a pull-up bar, a treadmill, and other useful machines. A mirror covered one wall to check her form (weightlifting injuries were never fun), though she didn’t like to look at herself while she exercised. Right now, her reflection was red-faced and drenched in sweat, her chest rising and falling with her breath, her gray eyes bloodshot with lack of sleep, her black hair bound back in a ponytail to keep it out of her eyes, though it had wound up getting plastered to her neck.

Odd. Taren didn’t look like a university professor or an archaeologist, but that was what she was. Nor did she look like a Beta Operative of the Silent Order.

Taren grinned at the thought.

That was the entire point, after all.

She wrapped up her workout with a quick five kilometer run on her treadmill, then headed upstairs to shower. It was still 06:00 in the morning. Sleep did not come easily to Taren, even when she had been a child, so she had long ago adapted to insomnia by remaining busy. She liked remaining busy. It kept her from brooding, from lapsing into the depression that she had suffered after the loss of her husband and unborn child.

That had been over fifteen years ago, but some losses never quite faded.

Taren showered and got dressed for the day in suitable business attire – black pencil skirt, white blouse, form-fitting black jacket. Once she was dressed and had her makeup finished and was satisfied with her appearance, she still had an hour and a half to kill, so she took her laptop to the loft and worked on her current books. One was non-fiction, discussing the early history of the Kingdom of Calaskar. The second was fictional, written under a pen name, and Taren hadn’t told anyone about those, even though more and more of her income came from them. She hadn’t even told her family.

Maybe she would tell Jack about them.

Or maybe she should tell her family about Jack.

Taren pushed that thought out of her head. Her family didn’t know about her connection to the Silent Order, which meant they didn’t know about Jack March. For their own safety, she shouldn’t mention it. And, if she was honest with herself, she didn’t know how to tell her family. She didn’t know what her mother and her siblings would think of Jack. Taren had been single for so long that she didn’t know how to raise the topic.

Later. She could worry about it later.

Taren shoved the thought out of her head and kept writing.

She wrote until nine in the morning and then left to make her 10:00 appointment with the Royal Calaskaran Media Service.

The Media Service had its headquarters in downtown Calaskar City in one of the Ministry of Information’s buildings. Like most of the Kingdom of Calaskar’s government buildings, it was large, imposing, and vaguely Gothic looking, with a lot of pointed arches, tall, narrow windows, soaring pillars, and lofty corridors. Taren made her way through the vast, church-like lobby, checked in at the front desk, and then took the elevator to the eleventh floor. She read her notes on her tablet as she did so. Taren made most of her documentary videos through her own production company, but those videos had been popular enough that sometimes the Ministry of Information hired her to narrate documentaries about the history of Calaskar. One of those documentaries was finished, and she just had to finish recording the voiceover tracks, a tedious but necessary job that would take up most of the afternoon.

Taren exited the elevator and walked down a tall hallway, glancing at the video screens on the walls as she did. There was a breaking news report on the screens, discussing a terrorist bombing last night in Syarex City. Twenty-seven were dead and another hundred injured, and almost certainly the bombing had been the work of Machinist sympathizers.

The Final Consciousness, Censor had told her once, knew that Calaskaran society was highly religious, and so couched their subversion attempts in religious terms. Join the Final Consciousness, the claims went, and you would live forever. Mankind would merge with machines, and all humanity would become God and go on to conquer the cosmos, immortal and unified. Taren knew better. The scar across her abdomen had shown her better. The hours she had spent buried alive in her car, covered in the blood of her murdered husband and child, had taught her better.

She paused for a moment in the hallway to calm down, taking deep breaths. When narrating these documentaries, she needed a clear voice, calm yet compelling, not one in which old anger leaked up like water through a damaged dam. Maybe that was why she and Jack understood each other so well – he hated the Final Consciousness as much as she did. More, even.

Taren took one more deep breath, put a smile on her face, and kept walking.

She stepped into the outer office of the audio wing of the Media Service. It was a large room with a row of plush chairs, and a middle-aged woman sat behind a desk. Taren identified herself, and the receptionist led her through a hallway and into a recording studio. Four massive computer terminals sat along the walls, and a gray door led into a small recording booth, its walls lined with black sound-blocking material. A stout middle-aged man with thinning brown hair sat at one of the computers, muttering to himself while two younger men hovered behind him, taking notes on their tablets.

“Listen, you two,” said the middle-aged man. “Make sure that the files get copied to the storage array, and that it syncs properly during every session. Do you know what a pain in the ass it is to have to re-record everything? We…”

“Mr. Warner?” said the receptionist. “Dr. Taren is here.”

Samuel Warner blinked a few times, turned, and stood up.

“Sam,” said Taren with a smile. “How have you been?”

“Adelaide,” said Sam, grinning back. They shook hands. “Good to see you. You’re looking well.”

“And you,” said Taren, though that was a lie. He had gained at least fifteen pounds since she had been here a few months ago, and there were dark circles beneath his bloodshot eyes. His nose and cheeks had begun to take a reddish tint, which was a common side effect of excessive drinking. He was also no longer wearing his wedding ring.

Though given all the tragedies that had befallen Sam Warner, Taren could hardly blame him for drinking. He had served in the Royal Navy until he had gotten a medical discharge after suffering severe wounds in a skirmish with the pantherax. His first wife had died in a traffic accident, and his second wife had treated him horribly. Taren hoped the absence of the ring meant that he had finally divorced the harridan and moved on.

She also hoped that the absence of the ring didn’t mean that he planned to ask her to dinner. That would just be awkward.

But she had always admired Sam’s professionalism. He was, without question, the best sound editor in the entire Media Service, and he had forgotten more about the science and technology of sound than she would ever know. If he had developed a drinking problem, he was stone cold sober while at work.

“No, I don’t,” he said with a grin. “I’d say we’ve got about three hours’ worth of recording to do. You up for it?”

“Always,” said Taren. “You make me sound good, Sam.”

“Bah,” said Sam. “You’ve got a good voice. I can only improve it so much. Well, if you’re ready, let’s get to it.”

They spent the next two hours recording. Taren installed herself in the recording booth with a tablet Sam handed her, positioned the microphone, donned the headphones (thankfully she had remembered not to wear earrings), and read off the script for the voiceover tracks. She had done this often enough that she knew the drill and only had to re-record a few tracks when Sam and his minions weren’t satisfied. After two hours, they took a break, with Sam and his assistants going to get coffee. Taren wanted coffee, but it wasn’t great on the voice during a recording session, so she settled for a strong cup of tea as she sat in the lounge and browsed her personal tablet. There were no messages of any urgency, and all the news alerts were still related to the Syarex City bombing. Machinist terror bombings had become common enough over the last twenty years, Taren noted sourly, that they were not shocking any longer, and quickly faded from the headlines.

Taren hoped the Ministry of Security tracked down the perpetrators and sent them to rot in a penal colony for the rest of their lives. Or maybe they would escape and receive their reward from the Machinists, becoming part of the Final Consciousness. Perhaps a penal colony would be merciful compared to that fate. Taren had heard the haunted note in Jack’s voice on the rare times he had spoken of his time as an Iron Hand, similar to the other former Machinist drones she had met. She had seen the scars that covered his body, scars that he hated for anyone to see.

Once again, she pushed the anger out of her mind. She couldn’t sound angry when recording the voiceover tracks. Taren started to reach for the tablet’s power switch, intending to drink the rest of her tea in silence, but a new notification flickered across the screen. It was a recorded video message, delivered over the tachyon entanglement network that connected the core worlds of the Kingdom of Calaskar in interstellar communication.

Taren’s heart lifted.

It was from Jack!

She dug an earpiece out of her bag, put it in her right ear, and unlocked the tablet.

Jack March’s hard-featured face appeared on the screen. He looked grim, but then he almost always did. He had blue eyes and close-cropped blond hair that tended to rise in spikes when he got sweaty. He was more handsome than he realized, probably because he hated to look at his reflection.

“Adelaide,” he said, his voice deep and quiet. “The business trip went better than expected.” That was the euphemism they used when discussing his travels for the Silent Order. “Nothing complicated. Things even went well.” He almost smiled at that. “Which hardly ever happens. I’ll be back on Calaskar sooner than I thought. I should arrive at the Calaskar City spaceport on the 19th.” That was tomorrow. There must have been a lag sending the message through the entanglement network. “I’m looking forward to seeing you again.” He paused, obviously trying to decide what to say, and then said exactly the right thing. “I love you, Adelaide. See you soon.”

The message ended.

Taren grinned at the tablet, suddenly in a better mood than she had been in days. Jack was coming back and sooner than expected. She had meetings on the 20th that she couldn’t reschedule, but Jack was always good at occupying himself, and the 21st and the 22nd were clear. She could spend both days with him. Maybe even longer, depending on what Censor needed Jack to do next.

In good spirits, she finished her tea and went back to Sam’s recording studio.

Sam blinked at her. “You seem cheery.”

“The sun is shining, I just had a good cup of tea, and I love recording voiceover tracks,” said Taren.

Sam snorted. “No, you don’t, but you’re too professional to complain.” He looked at her, his shrewd eyes narrowing, and she saw him figure it out. “Ah. Well, I remember what that felt like.”

“What felt like what?” said one of his assistants.

Sam rolled his eyes. “A really good cup of tea. Back at it, gentlemen.”

The rest of the recording session went well, and they finished in an hour and a half. Taren thanked Sam and his assistants, said goodbye to his receptionist, and headed out. She was always watchful while in public, thanks to her time in the Silent Order, but it was hard to focus on anything but the fact that Jack was coming home sooner than expected. Funny how the time she spent with him seemed to go too quickly, and the hours before he arrived slowed to a crawl.

She really was in love, wasn’t she? It wasn’t anything she had ever thought she would experience again, not after what had happened to Duncan, but Taren enjoyed the feeling as she walked back to the Ministry of Information’s parking ramp.

The good mood lasted right until she climbed into her car.

Her phone started buzzing, and Adelaide drew it out.

Censor was calling her.

She took a deep breath, accepted the call, and lifted the phone to her ear.

“Hello, Censor,” she said.

“Good evening, Dr. Taren,” said Censor, his voice dry and scholarly. He sounded like an elderly university professor, not the head of a covert black ops organization dedicated to the defense of the Kingdom of Calaskar. “A delicate situation has arisen, and your skills are needed.”

“I’m listening,” said Taren, glancing around the parking ramp. No one was close enough to overhear, and the car itself would block any ranged microphones.


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